Simon was eating his pizza, on his own, in front of the History channel. Jill came and stood in the doorway.
“Not bloody Nazis again.”
Simon kept watching. She slumped down onto the sofa and began flicking through the television guide, just to make sure she wasn’t missing anything. Not that it would make any difference if she was. He had the remote in his hand, and he didn’t let go of it easily.
“I don’t know why you have to watch that stuff. So depressing.”
The adverts came on, and he switched the sound off. Jill sometimes thought that the only conversation she ever managed to get was in three minute bursts during a commercial break. She didn’t even manage that if they were watching BBC.
“I hope you’re not going to leave a mess.”
He held up his plate and pointed to it.
“Doesn’t usually stop you.”
The chances of Simon leaving any of kind of mess in the front room were almost nil, as they both knew. Simon was an electrical engineer, whose main enemy in life was dust. His world revolved around piles of carefully stacked papers and electrical components, cleaning sprays you would not be able to find in even the largest supermarkets, special anti static cleaning cloths, and plastic wallets and folders.
He looked at his pizza suspiciously.
“This pizza tastes weird.”
“You should get back in time for your tea shouldn’t you?”
“Where did it come from?”
“The same place they always come from.”
Jill wondered when it was that they had stopped really talking to each other. It hadn’t always been like this, of course it hadn’t, but she couldn’t remember when things had changed. There had been no warning. The silence had crept up on them, an incoming tide of indifference which had swept slowly over their marriage without leaving a single mark in the sand, and she didn’t know how to go back.
Simon was still looking at his pizza.
“What have you done to it?”
“Nothing. I did the same thing I always do. You just weren’t here to eat it.”
He was good at complaining, Jill thought sourly. Considering how many things he found to moan about these days he must have had the patience of a saint when they first got together. Back then he would have just got on with eating it without saying anything. Mind you, back then she probably wouldn’t have been feeding him supermarket pizza. She watched him as he flicked the sound back on, willing him to say something, anything, that might make her feel better. Had he even noticed that she was miserable? She doubted it. Anyway it was time to get moving.
“I’m going to work.”
He hadn’t even looked at her and he knew she hated working in the chip shop. Jill shook her head at him.
Simon hadn’t really been listening or watching. He only realised that Jill had left when he heard the door bang. He was thinking about work, running a code sequence over and over in his mind, trying to work out where the error in it was. He supposed she would be fed up with him now. She should understand that sometimes, when it looked as if he was doing nothing at all, he was working. If she interrupted him, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, she would break his train of thought and he would have to work his way through the code sequence all over again. He had tried to explain it to her, but even after all this time together she didn’t seem able to take it in. It didn’t seem much to ask. When he had first met Jill she had been good fun, a real laugh. She had been the one who had come on to him, teasing him out of his loneliness, calling him a geek, and asking him silly questions that she knew the answer to. Just winding him up really, flirting. He had admired her red hair and her long legs, and she had worn short skirts for him. She wouldn’t do that now. He had relied on her to lift his mood and keep him going. When he couldn’t be bothered she would pester him until she got him out of the house, and he would always be glad that he had made the effort. She used to be good at making things happen, but not these days. She had changed, stopped trying, or maybe he had just made her work too hard, and she had finally wondered whether it was worth bothering any more. Perhaps it was just middle age, but he missed that spark from her, drawing him out of himself, and towards her. Too often these days it seemed easier for both of them not to make the effort. They moved around the house like separate pinballs, ricocheting off each other into their own separate worlds. No wonder he had looked elsewhere. People often wondered how it was that Simon and Jill stayed together. The truth was that if Simon ever stopped looking at his circuit boards for long enough to notice that his marriage had died, or Jill got the slightest hint of what he was still up to with Fiona Marsh in her small flat on Fentiman Drive, they probably wouldn’t be.
There were times when Simon thought about not seeing Fiona any more. He had wanted her to start with, really wanted her, and she hadn’t exactly made it difficult for him, but when his wife had almost found out what was going on he’d had to promise that there was nothing in it. In fact he had even told her she was getting too paranoid, imagining things, and since then it didn’t seem OK any more. He had started to feel bad. The thing was it had finished really. Of course it had. It had finished when Fiona had asked him to move in with her. He had smiled and mumbled something non-commital, he couldn’t remember what. Fiona had looked a bit hacked off for a while but she’d seemed to accept it. The last thing he wanted was another wife. He had just wanted somebody to escape to once in a while when Jill wasn’t listening to him, somebody who wasn’t going to give him any hassle. Maybe it was time to ring Fiona up and put things straight. Jill was out of the way at work. He picked up the phone. Fifteen minutes later he was on the beach with the dog. Fiona wasn’t keen on dogs, but she’d have to put up with him. If anyone saw him with Fiona he could always talk his way out of it, say he was just down on the beach with the dog. And nobody was going to start trying to do a remake of From Here To Eternity with Angus snapping round their heels. He saw her coming from miles away. Nobody else would wear patent leather sandals with spiked heels on the beach. He stood still with his hands in his pockets and watched as she came closer, unbuttoning her denim jacket to show her cerise halter neck. God, did she have to be that obvious. She was grinning as she came up next to him.
She was putting her head towards him. Simon winced.
“Stop it Fi, not here.”
She frowned and looked up at him through strands of bleached blonde hair.
“Don’t know why you wanted to drag me all the way down here. There are more comfortable places.”
Simon knew there were. Far more comfortable places. Places he wouldn’t have been able to trust himself in. Fiona knew exactly which buttons to press.
“I wanted to talk. In private.”
“Did you have to bring the dog?”
“Well, I’m here.”
“Let’s walk along towards the valley.”
This news was something Simon was going to have to work up to. After ten minutes of listening to Fiona prattling on about celebrities he had never heard of, the people who worked on her department at Debenhams, and whether she should have her roots done or wait another couple of weeks, he finally came out with it.
“Fi, I think it might be better if we cooled things down a bit.”
Damn, that wasn’t quite how he had meant to put it. It should have sounded more final. Fiona stood still, frowning, her painted toes sinking into the soft sand.
“What? What do you mean cool things down?”
He turned to face her. He knew that look.
“I mean not see each other any more.”
Fiona looked sulky.
“What’s brought this on?”
Simon looked helplessly around to find a stick to throw for Angus, who was careering around in large circles at his feet.
“Well, it’s just……..look Fi, I am married and there’s Carly to think of, and…….”
“That never bothered you before. I’ve got a daughter too you know.”
Simon shot her an angry look. How the hell did she know what bothered him? Except in bed.
“Well it does now, I mean, I’m sorry.”
“What about me? I’ve got family too.”
Simon wanted to tell her to stop pouting.
“I know you have, but it’s not the same. I mean, you’re not with anybody are you?”
He realised straight away that this was not the right thing to say.
“I thought I was with you.”
Fiona began to fiddle with her hair, looking up at him through her eyeliner.
“Don’t you like me any more?”
“Of course I do. You know that. I’m sorry. I should never have started this.”
“I thought we had a future together.”
Fiona’s face began to collapse. Simon’s heart sank. Please don’t let her start to cry. She was trying to touch him now, grabbing his arm.
“You said we were going to move in together.”
“No. You said that.”
Simon was not a violent man, but at that moment he felt like slapping her. She was making things up. He never had said that. Not once. He had been particularly careful not to.
“Look, you can believe what you want. The fact is I think we should stop seeing each other. For good. I’m sorry if you’re hurt Fi, but it’s not the first time is it? You knew what you were getting into.”
“What do you mean by that? Are you saying I’m some kind of slapper?”
No, he wasn’t. He could have done, he thought grimly, but he wasn’t.
“Of course not. Look, I don’t know what I’m saying OK? I just don’t think this is working any more.”
Fiona slipped her hand inside the back pocket of his jeans.
“It was working fine last Wednesday night. Remember?”
Simon moved away quickly.
“Stop it Fi. I’m serious.”
“You should never have said some of the things you said, if you didn’t mean it.”
She was looking older by the second as her make up started to disintegrate. Simon looked at her sadly. She did need her roots doing.
“Maybe I said those things because I knew it was what you wanted to hear.”
Angus had found a stick now, and he was frantically trying to wrap it round Fiona’s legs. She flapped her arms at him, trying to protect her embroidered jeans from the mud.
“Get this blasted dog away from me.”
Simon grabbed the end of the stick and pulled it away to one side, with Angus still hanging off the end of it. Fiona was already beginning to walk away. Simon groaned.
“Look, are you going to be OK?”
She turned and looked at him scornfully, trying to find one last shred of dignity.
“As if you care. Arsehole.”
He watched her go for a few moments and then turned to follow Angus down the beach. When he looked back at her, a few minutes later, she was a small blue shape at the bottom of the slipway. He wondered if he was an arsehole. Well if he was, and he supposed that decent blokes- the kind he used to think he was- didn’t go running after the likes of Fiona, he could think of a few words to describe her. He wasn’t the first. Not by a long long way, and she knew exactly what she was doing. She could switch the poor little woman act on and off like a tap. He’d seen her do it on the phone when she was talking to one of the older men friends she would get cash from when she was skint. She had her job, but that never seemed to be enough. She always needed money and there was always someone to give it to her. If he hadn’t been another to add to the list he’d have called them stupid. He had no idea how she persuaded them, and he didn’t ask. How she persuaded him, on the other hand, was very obvious, and it had nothing to do with brains or personality. It was a lot more basic than that, He only had to think of her now, laid in bed with her head flung back, to be reminded of it.
He stopped and looked straight out to sea, taking in the straight line of the horizon. Surely he had to be stronger than this? She was a cheap little tramp. He had told her that they were not going to see each other any more and he was going to stick to that. He had been pushing his luck keeping something like that going in a small town for long enough. He sent Angus hurtling into the sea after a stick and turned back. It was time to go home.
Jill went upstairs, as she often did when Simon was out, to the attic bedroom where he worked. It was the one part of the house that was always clean, tidy and organised, and she liked to look at it. It had to be looking without touching, of course. He didn’t really allow her to go up there, and if she moved so much as a pencil he would know about it. All the surfaces were covered with piles, neat orderly rows of papers and objects, graduated by size. Most of the papers were also covered in neat orderly rows of figures and letters, which made no sense at all to her, written in a small neat pencil script. His cleaning equipment was arranged in the far corner. There was a small hand vacuum, which she would sometimes wake up to hear in the middle of the night, and a line of soft brushes next to a carefully laundered and folded duster. She had seen him using these. Sometimes he would bring one of his cameras or a piece of a computer downstairs to the kitchen table and spend an hour in an almost trance like state running the brush over surfaces which already looked perfectly spotless. In an ideal world Simon would have liked life to run like one of the software programs he worked with. Neither Jill nor Carly could manage that, and Jill’s marriage had evolved into what she thought of as a kind of truce. She had realised that her husband lived in a world she was never going to really understand, and she had stopped expecting something exciting, or even different to happen. Simon liked familiarity. She knew that. He liked to know where he, and everything else around him, stood. Before the truce there had been rows, shouting and slamming of doors, but not now. She had found a way of coping. If anyone had told her that her marriage was unhappy it would have been hard for her to believe it. Carly was another matter. She didn’t need anybody to tell her about that one, but knowing that her daughter hated her didn’t help her know what to do about it. Hate was a strong word, of course, but she thought that it was probably about right. Of course everybody’s teenage daughter hated them, that was what people were always telling her, but they were talking rubbish. They just didn’t know Carly well enough. The fact that sometimes she hated Carly was something Jill would never admit, even to herself.
She picked up the small card that Simon kept on his desk, carefully noticing exactly where it had been put. It was a tiny valentine with a cross stitch heart on the front that she had sent years ago. They didn’t bother with things like that now. She had sent it three weeks after they had met. Simon had been sitting opposite her on the Hull train and he had told her that she needn’t get off the train at Seamer because she would have too long a wait. A long cup of coffee at Scarborough station had ended in an offer to “sort her computer out” for her. He had turned up a week later with a neat box of tools and spent the whole afternoon taking it apart and putting it back together again complete with a new hard drive. After that he had just never really seemed to go away, although it was several months before he moved in and almost three years before they got married. Jill had stopped thinking about whether she loved Simon or not a long time ago. He had just always seemed to be there. Simon himself had never used the word love, and eventually she had decided to stop using it too. It just made her notice that he never said it in return. Judging from the way she saw people behaving it didn’t mean much anyway. Or at least it meant different things to different people, which came to the same thing. In the early days, when she was insecure, the nearest thing to a declaration of love she’d got out of him was a quiet “I’m not going anywhere.” Anyway she had stayed with him, hadn’t she, after that business with the Marsh woman? Not everybody would have chosen to believe him when he said there was nothing in it. That must be a kind of love, surely?
Fiona was cursing quietly to herself as she went, head down, through the town centre. The same damn crap all over again. This time she had thought it was going to be all right. Simon wasn’t like some of the low life’s she had been out with. This time it was going to work. His daughter was old enough now, and that marriage had been dead and buried for long enough. The wife had been round once, shouting the odds, but nothing had come of it. Fiona had sent her away, told her she was imagining things. Simon must have said the same thing. Fiona wasn’t bothered. She was going to get out of her flat and have a proper life, with somebody who would look after her. That was what mattered. Anyway she should have taken better care of him shouldn’t she? She wondered what had put him off. He’d been keen enough to start with, couldn’t keep his hands off her, only had to get through the door and the sparks would be flying. His wife wasn’t giving him that was she? Not in a million years. She fumbled for a tissue and rubbed it across her face, looking at the damage in the shop window. Shit, she looked rough. This was no way to be carrying on when you were nearly thirty five. She deserved better. She was going to have to sort her life out. Big time.
As soon as she got back to her flat she did what she always did at times like this. She ran herself a deep bath, dropped in some scented bath foam, lit some candles, and lay there in the heat, eyes closed, listening to Westlife. Why did nothing ever work out for her? Why did she have to come running every time some bloke showed a bit of interest? They were only after one thing, and however good she was at providing it, they never stayed. Fat chance. Where was her confidence when she needed it? One day, she told herself, breathing deeply and putting her chin under the water. One day. She’d brought up a baby on her own hadn’t she? If she could do that she could do anything. Daniel, Suzanne’s useless father, had run faster than any of them when she told him she was pregnant. She breathed deeply, arranging the bubbles in delicate mountains around her. There had been nothing from him since, no money, no word, nothing. Not that she had pushed it. She had needed to rely on benefits while Suzanne was tiny, and it would have meant losing them. She had expected better, expected the happy ending that came with babies, but as her mother never tired of telling her it was no use complaining. She had known what she was doing when she stopped taking the pill. She had known that Daniel was trying to find a way out, but she had been sure that a baby was going to make the difference. Surely he wouldn’t walk away from that. He had to stay. Except that when she told him he’d looked at her as if she was a piece of dirt and called her a manipulating cow. He hadn’t stayed. Fiona had been left with a demanding baby, a long suffering mother who only gave help grudgingly, a father she didn’t like to think about, and what seemed like an endless stream of men who were quite prepared to take what she was offering but moved on fast when she tried to make demands. Much as she loved Suzanne, it had been bloody relentless, but she had stuck it out. That was one thing, at least, that she could be proud of. This time it was going to be different. She was going to make sure that she got her own way. By the time she was pulling a towel round herself she knew what she was going to do. Simon was going to come crawling back. He had to. For once Fiona was going to win.
It was about a week after Simon had told Fiona that he didn’t want to see her any more that he started getting the text messages. To start with he ignored them, but the longer he did that the worse they got. She knew what to say, even in a short text, to put ideas into his head, and it didn’t matter whether he wanted them to be there or not. After a while he began to feel his stomach tighten when he saw her name flash up on his phone, and he began to imagine himself back in her flat on Fentiman drive. Finally, one night when he was working late, the phone flashed and the message made it quite clear what would happen if he went over. He put his head in his hands. He still had a key. He was shaking as he slipped downstairs and let himself out, making sure that the latch stayed quiet. He shouldn’t be doing this, but she had asked for it, hadn’t she?When he got to her she was ready for him. Afterwards he lay back on the bed, breathless, and closed his eyes. She had known he would come running of course. That was the galling thing. She had known that eventually he would come crawling back. As soon as she had seen him standing in the bedroom doorway there had been a look in her eyes that had told him that. What in Gods name was he playing at? He had nothing to say to the woman. He looked at her, sprawled under a single sheet. Even with her eyes shut she looked like the cat that got the cream.
“Fi?” She opened her eyes and gave him a wide, satisfied smile.
The words he had been going to say, some lie about her deserving better than this, froze on his lips as his eyes followed the curve of her back, remembering how she had moved under his fingers. She was lovely.
“You’re very beautiful Fi.”
She smiled happily.
“Getting fat. Fat and old.”
“Stop fishing for compliments.”
He slid his hand behind her neck and pulled her towards him. She responded eagerly, too eagerly, too needy. This was going to have to stop. He pulled away.
“Listen, I have to go- I have to get back.”
She lay back on the bed and held out an arm towards him.
Simon closed his eyes. He could feel how easy it would be to slip back down under the sheet again. He stroked her shoulder.
“I can’t, you know that. I’ll, I’ll see you. OK?”
If he didn’t leave now, he might not leave at all.
Simon gathered his clothes together and began to pull them on. The sooner he got out the better.
“I’ll give you a call.”
Fiona nodded sceptically.
“Soon, all right? Don’t go on.”
Her mouth settled itself into a sulky pout.
“Yeah, right. Soon. When it suits you.”
He fastened up his shoelaces, grim faced.
She smiled and slid the sheet away from her breasts.
“That was amazing tonight. The best ever.”
“You were wonderful,” Simon replied automatically. He had to say something.
He grabbed his keys and headed for the door. Fiona might be pleased with herself, but he was feeling distinctly grubby.
Instead of going home, and sliding straight into the bed next to Jill, something he didn’t feel able to do yet, he turned left and walked down towards the promenade. He needed space before he had to be that close to her. She wouldn’t question him. She was used to him going out for walks late at night, when he was thinking about work and needed some air. If you had to lie, keep it as close to the truth as you can, he told himself.
It was a stunning night, with a full moon lighting up the clouds, and spreading a line of pale glitter across the sea. He watched the stream of light from the lighthouse flipping round, miles away at Flamborough, and the marker buoy winking steadily at the end of the point. There was hardly any sound, just the rhythm of the waves hitting the beach in the darkness.
What a bloody mess. He tried to think seriously about leaving Jill, and starting a life with Fiona. It wasn’t going to happen, was it? There was nothing there. He had nothing to say to the woman. Where would they go? Would she be able to leave his stuff alone and shut up for long enough to let him work? He didn’t think so. How had he got himself into this? He could remember watching her as she hung around backstage instead of going home when she had finished doing the make up, and he could definitely remember the first time he had touched her. He had had to edge past her at the side of the stage, and she had run her hand along his arm and made eye contact. The next time she went past he had slid his hand around her back, without really thinking about it, and she had melted into him in the dark. Nobody had seen them, thank God, but the damage was done. By the time she broke away from him he knew what he wanted. The first frantic fumble in a hastily locked storeroom behind the stage a few days later had been the real beginning. There had been no going back after that.
He wondered how Jill would take it if he left her? The thought made him stand still and take a deep breath as he looked out to sea. How would she take it? It was hard to imagine her being heartbroken. He wasn’t sure what to think about that. OK, so if things did get rough that was maybe a good thing. It would make it easier, but at the same time, surely she should be heartbroken? He should know that their marriage mattered to her, and he didn’t. Not any more. Perhaps that was why he kept going back to Fiona. She was needy, and that fed his ego. He wondered how quickly the novelty of that would wear off. Pretty damn fast. The sex wouldn’t stay the same either. He had really fancied Jill once hadn’t he?
Head down, and hands in pockets he trudged up Gilson hill, away from the seafront, and slipped back in through the front door at home. Jill shifted as he edged his way into bed.
He stroked her back.
“Fine. Just been walking, thinking about work. Go back to sleep.”
She made a contented grunt and turned over. He lay flat on his back staring at the ceiling. At least nobody knew. He would sort it all out tomorrow. He didn’t have to think about it now.
Fiona was still glowing when she walked in to work the following morning. Simon was going to take care of her. She was going to have money. She was going to get out of her flat. There would be somebody next to her when she woke up in the morning, and somebody across the dinner table at night who wasn’t a constant worry the way Suzanne was. Simon would look after her. He would be there for her when she needed him and he would take her to nice places. Everything was going to be all right. She would have no need to run after some man who didn’t give a damn about her any more. Simon had come back. He was hers. She had realised that as soon as she saw him watching her backstage, almost six months ago, but it had still been a surprise how quickly he had gone for it. She had known he was married, and she had expected it to take longer. In the la la land which she lived in for most of the time everything was fine again. She pottered around her department at Debenhams arranging her wedding list, and wondering what Gail’s face would look like when she asked her to be a bridesmaid. Gail worked on kitchenware and she was always going on about her engagement and flashing her ring. Well this would really show her. Fiona was going to have the works. After all, she had waited long enough. A huge dress, carriage to the church, live music at the reception, the lot. Just like Jordan. She went to find her.
“Hi. You all right?”
“Got your wedding list sorted out yet?”
Before Gail had the chance to launch into an explanation Fiona carried on.
“Might be getting married myself soon.”
Gail looked at her doubtfully. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard this. She wondered who it was this time.
“Very good. Where did you find this one then?”
“Oh, just around. Lovely man. He wants me to go away for the weekend with him. Think he might propose then. See you later.”
Fiona swanned off back to her own department, well pleased with herself, leaving Gail shaking her head behind her back. None of it was true, but Gail didn’t know that did she?
It was all fantasy. Fiona knew that. Of course Simon had turned up. He was bound to, after her texts. That didn’t prove anything. She had spent enough time with him to know exactly what to put in them, and she had found out that most men were easy to predict. The obvious stuff seemed to work every time. So when she had seen him standing in the bedroom doorway it hadn’t been a surprise. He still had a key and there had to be a reason why he hadn’t given it back. She could only think of one.
At the same time she realised that she couldn’t take it for granted that he would keep on coming back, so it had been a real buzz when she found out that he was ready to keep seeing her. She clung on to the few times when they did something normal together, times when he allowed himself to be seen out with her and even touched her in public. All right, it was only once and he had drawn back pretty swiftly, but that must mean something mustn’t it? She still fancied him too, usually she would have been getting hacked off by now. It was just that as time went on it got harder. Each time he left it was more painful to accept that he was going home, especially if she knew that he was leaving her in bed to go straight back to his wife. That really hurt. Fiona was beginning to hate his wife. She hated the things he would let slip about a normal life that she had no part of, a life where you visited family, went out for walks and meals together, woke up together. She had never woken up with Simon once. He would ring to break an arrangement right at the last minute, and she just had to accept it, or he would turn up out of the blue and expect her to make space for him.
Carly was sitting in the bus shelter in the rain again. She had just finished another long moan about lads, and Matthew Perriman in particular. Her friend Suzanne was trying to help but since she was prettier than Carly, and she still had a boyfriend called Jack, she wasn’t getting very far. Carly could tell that Suzanne wasn’t really listening, she had heard the same moan before and her patience was wearing thin.
“He’s not worth it. Simon Cooknell fancies you anyway.”
“I hate Simon Cooknell.”
“He’s all right.”
“He smells of fish.”
“He does not.”
“You’ve not sat near him. I have.”
“Do you fancy some chips?”
They slouched along to the chip shop, pushing each other and giggling. Carly walked into the shop with her chin up, ready to stare her mother down. Her mother had seen her coming.
“Now Carly. What can I get you?”
“Dunno. Chips I suppose. Two lots.”
“What’s got into you then?”
Carly waited for the plastic trays to be filled with chips and held out the money, staring silently. Her mother watched her go back out to Suzanne, shaking her head. Carly didn’t hear the slightly pathetic shout as the door clicked shut.
“Don’t be too late in.”
Pete looked up.
“Was that your daughter Val?
Val nodded, slightly red in the face and quickly began to deal with the next customer. He watched her thoughtfully.
Outside, Carly held out the chips to Suzanne.
“I forgot my mother would be working. We should have gone to Wally Whalers.”
“She’s all right your mum.”
“She bloody isn’t. You don’t live with her.”
“Look, at least she’s not like mine. God she is so embarrassing. She went out in one of my skirts last weekend. I was like, you cannot do that.”
There wasn’t a lot Carly could say. Suzanne’s mother really was an embarrassment. She had bleached blonde hair, wore tops that showed her stomach and high heels she couldn’t walk in, spent a fortune on pointless manicures, and insisted that they call her Fiona. Not what you really wanted from a mother. Suzanne had told Carly before how she would borrow her clothes, even though they only just fitted her, and sometimes if Carly was round Suzanne’s, and they were going to play a CD, Suzanne would have to fetch it from downstairs because her mum had had it.
“That is pretty sad, wearing your stuff,” Carly admitted.
“I think she’s after another bloke as well,” Suzanne said gloomily. Carly groaned.
“No! She’s not bringing him home and stuff is she?”
“Not yet. Not while I’m there anyway.”
They ate the chips huddled in one of the park shelters. It was getting chilly, and they soon finished them, throwing the scraps down for the seagulls.
“Those were crap.”
Suzanne began to hunt in her bag for her phone.
“I’d better text Jack.”
Carly rolled her eyes and sighed. Any time that she was out with Suzanne she ended up being forced to watch her texting Jack. Just because she could. Then if Jack replied she would be forced to look at the message- usually something sick making- and put up with the sight of Suzanne’s fat face being smug. Well not today. She wasn’t going to give her the chance. Carly was fed up. The shelter smelled of wee, there were no lads about, and she was well hacked off with Suzanne. She hurled the polystyrene tray into the bin and dug her hands into her pockets.
“Right I’m off then. See you.”
Suzanne nodded and fiddled with her mobile without looking up. She was texting Jack, and Carly knew it.
“Call for you tomorrow?”
Suzanne nodded again, staring at the blue light of her phone screen.
“If you like. Take care.”
Carly shrugged and walked off across the darkening grass.
When Carly felt like this she usually went to see Breezer, and that was what she did now. He was up at the top of the field, but when she shouted for him and clapped her hands he came down, ambling slowly, tearing at the grass, taking his time.
He lifted his nose end to see what she had. Carly stroked the dark line on his back and pulled gently at the bristly hairs on his mane. He snuffled damply, and nudged her wrist.
“I haven’t got any,” Carly told him. He was after carrots. She generally begged some that were starting to go soft from one of the fruit and veg shops, but not today.
“You’re a monster you are.”
She pulled some of the good grass from over the fence where he couldn’t reach it and held it out on the flat of her hand. He took it gently, using his lips to get as much as he could.
As she watched him eat, Carly thought that she could easily go on one of the daytime talk shows her mother liked. She began making up the strap lines they could run along the bottom of the screen while she was being interviewed, and telling them to Breezer.
CARLY- HER FAVOURITE PERSON IS A BEACH DONKEY.
That was true as well. She didn’t even care that she got loads of stick at school about it. Stuff them. Simon Cooknell had once called her donkey face in front of his mates and she had told him the donkeys had a bloody sight more sense than he had. It had shut him up.
CARLY- UNWANTED CHILD OF A GEEK AND A SELFISH COW.
That would make them switch up the volume and listen all right. She could imagine her mother sitting there backstage, crying and shaking her head, while she, Carly, told them of her years of torment. Well, not torment to be honest- but indifference definitely. As for her dad his contribution would have to be a two minute phone link. They’d never get him to leave his circuit diagrams for longer than that. Carly wasn’t exactly sure what her dad did, but she knew that it took a hell of a long time, and you couldn’t try to talk to him while he was doing it or you got some serious grief.
CARLY- DUMPED BY A SPOTTY NOBODY WHO THINKS HE’S BRAD PITT.
Matthew Perriman. What had she been thinking about? What was she still thinking about? He had been hanging around in the farthest park shelter with Jenna Maxwell for weeks now. He wasn’t exactly breaking his heart was he? He didn’t even have the guts to dump her face to face. Bastard. Bastard was a good word. Carly said it loudly several times as she wobbled Breezer’s left ear.
“You know what Breezer? If donkeys lived as long as humans I’d swap places with you. I would, honestly.”
He looked at her, chewing calmly. She wondered if donkeys ever dumped each other. Probably not. She could imagine some horses she had seen dumping each other- highly strung thoroughbreds or something like that maybe- but not donkeys. Donkeys were good at putting up with stuff. She had seen donkeys abroad, on television, carrying huge loads on their backs through five lanes of traffic and never once giving up, never once saying sod this for a lark, I’ve had enough. If you were going to be with someone, learning to put up with stuff was more important than anything else. She had seen enough of her mum and dad as she grew up to know that. God, they could be foul to each other. Carly had watched them carefully, and decided several years before that she wasn’t going to put up with anything like that, ever. She was going to run a wildlife reserve on an island somewhere, where nobody was ever allowed to come. There would be a few cows, chickens, and pigs, and donkeys. A small herd of donkeys who would be able to roam anywhere they wanted to find the best grass, and never have to carry anything on their backs ever. She would have her supplies, the ones she couldn’t grow herself, dropped by helicopter once a month, and she would have a gun. Just in case.
Carly watched Breezer’s nostrils rising and falling. It was a bloody shame she wasn’t on that island now.
“Will you come with me Breezer?”
He turned slowly round and wandered back across the field.
Fiona thought about Simon a lot, even now, when she was tired out after work, looking for something quick to take home for tea in Marks and Spencer’s. She stood, staring at the ham and smoked fish, not sure whether to get some, just in case he came round. There had been smoked salmon and Parma ham from Mark’s and Spencer in the fridge last time he had come round, but he had said that there would be a pizza waiting for him at home. She had cried afterwards, and ate the whole lot sitting up on her own in bed. If he had been living with her she wouldn’t have been giving him pizza. She could look after him better than that. That woman didn’t deserve him. She bought more food- this time he would eat it. Simon had sent her a text, earlier in the day, to tell her to expect him at eight o’clock. She rushed home and spent over an hour getting ready for him. She had a long bath, and spent ages on her hair and make up, giving herself dark smoky eyes and full lips. This was important. This was going to be the one time that made the difference. She chose some patterned tights, high heels, and a tiny black skirt. That was easy enough, showed off her legs nicely. She wondered whether Suzanne’s lacy top would be in her wardrobe. Suzanne was out so she couldn’t complain. It was. She slipped it over her head, smoothing it down over her waist with some satisfaction. She didn’t look half bad. Dead sexy. He was going to be well impressed. So when she got the text to say that he couldn’t make it after all, without even a sorry away hidden in there, she was genuinely upset.
When Suzanne came into the front room she was snuffling, tissues in hand, curled up in an easy chair. She looked up at her daughter tearfully.
It started badly.
“That’s my top. I was going to wear that tonight.”
“I’m sorry sweetheart, I’m not thinking properly. I’ll wash it for you.”
Suzanne groaned and flopped down onto the settee. Being called sweetheart was a very bad sign.
“Oh God, what is it this time?”
Fiona dabbed her eyes.
“Nothing for you to worry about. It’s OK, I’ll be fine.”
Suzanne pushed her hair back and settled into the easy chair. At this stage it was hard to know what was coming. It might be something she could dismiss in two seconds as her mother being a drama queen again, or it might be something a lot worse.
“What’s happened mum?”
Suzanne waited. She had been here before. She knew she would be told, as soon as her mother felt she had got enough mileage out of making her wait. She was making a show of pulling herself together now.
“Bloody men. I hope you don’t make the same mistakes I have. They’re all the same.”
Suzanne had been letting her boyfriend Jack go further than she was really happy with for a few weeks now. He had probably told all his friends that they were already having sex, and most of her own friends were assuming the same thing. She knew all about men.
“You don’t say. Which man is it this time?”
Fiona breathed deeply.
“He’s married, been married for a long time. I shouldn’t have believed him. Shouldn’t have let him come round here and just………….you know what I’m like.”
Yes, Suzanne thought bitterly, she knew what her mother was like.
“Mum, I don’t know why you keep wasting your time on pond life. You can do better- you know you can.”
Fiona pushed her hair back and fiddled with an earring nervously.
“I thought he was different.”
“You always think they’re different.”
Suzanne looked at her mother, sitting there at 35 like an overgrown teenager, in a borrowed top, and tried to dredge up the patience to hear her whine about men all over again. It wasn’t easy. The worst time had been the fiasco with the garage mechanic after she’d taken the car in for a service. That had been a complete nightmare.
Fiona sat up.
“Well, he’s messing me about again isn’t he? He tells me he wants to see me, then backs out at the last minute. Just does as he likes. I’m fed up of being promised stuff that’s never going to happen. I need somebody to be there for me.”
Yep, Suzanne had heard all these cliches before. That was pretty much what she’d said about the garage mechanic. As her mother’s voice droned on, she stared into space and let it all wash over her, just as she had when she had been too young to understand. These days, just sometimes, she was beginning to think that her mother wasn’t very bright. Finally she cut in.
“Just ditch him then. Don’t keep going on at me about it.”
Fiona sighed dramatically.
“I want to be more than just a cheap lay.”
Suddenly Suzanne lost her patience. She didn’t want to be here listening to this all over again. The woman was her mother, hadn’t she got friends she could talk to?
“It’s a bit late to be worrying about that isn’t it?”
Before Fiona knew what she was doing she was out of the chair and her hand had flashed across Suzanne’s face.
“Watch your mouth. I’m your mother, don’t forget.”
“Then try acting like one.”
Fiona was genuinely angry now.
“Get out. And tell your friend Carly her dad’s a worthless piece of shit.”
Suzanne stared. Suddenly her face wasn’t stinging any more. She turned and ran out of the room, leaving Fiona shouting after her.
As soon as she saw Suzanne, lit up in the flashing lights of the amusement arcade, Carly could see that there was something very wrong. She was standing in front of the quiz machine. If you just glanced she looked like she was playing, but when you watched carefully you could see that she wasn’t. She wasn’t doing anything at all. Carly walked over to her and waved a hand in front of her face, grinning.
“Hello! Earth calling Suzanne?”
Suzanne looked round.
“Sod off Carly.”
“I mean it.”
Suzanne began to walk away. Carly followed her, frowning.
“Hang on. Are you going to tell me what I’ve done?”
“It’s what your fucking fathers done. Dirty little creep.”
Carly’s mouth dropped open.
“You heard. Now get out of my face.”
Suzanne turned suddenly and ran, pushing her way through the crowd. After a few seconds startled silence Carly legged it after her, shouting. She had no idea what was going on but she was going to find out. When she got outside there was no sign of her. She ran up and down the landing looking desperately for Suzanne’s purple jacket. She stood still breathing heavily, hands on her knees. Where would she have gone? She couldn’t let this wait.
It was no good standing there and shouting. People were looking at her. Shit. Carly walked down the slipway onto the beach, just to get away from the noise and the people, repeating what Suzanne had said over and over in her head. “Dirty little creep.” What was that all about? It was something that mattered, that was obvious. She had never heard Suzanne use words as bad as that before- she was always slagging Carly off for swearing. Something was going on here, and if she didn’t find out soon her head was going to explode. “Dirty little creep?” Suzanne had hardly ever met her dad.
It took several minutes before Carly saw her, curled into a heap at the bottom of the sea wall.
She went over slowly.
Suzanne didn’t even look up.
“I told you to sod off.”
Carly flung herself down next to Suzanne.
“Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“You don’t know?”
“Of course I don’t bloody know. That’s why I’m asking. What’s going on?”
Suzanne’s face began to crumple. Carly reached out a hand.
“He’s been having……doing…….with my mother.”
There was a long silence.
“You mean having sex?”
Suzanne nodded miserably.
Carly felt her stomach lurch.
“I mean, when has this been happening?”
“It’s been happening for months.”
“Months? How do you know?”
Suzanne laughed bitterly.
“Oh, she told me so. She always tells me. Every bloody time. Every new low life she finds to hang around I have to hear about it. Way too much information.”
Carly’s thoughts were racing.
“Low life? You can shut your face right now. My dad’s not like that. He wouldn’t. Honestly Suzanne, he wouldn’t.”
“In your dreams. When it comes to my mum most of them would, trust me.”
Carly tried to think.
“She told you? When was this?”
Suzanne sat up, pulling her jacket round her and sniffing.
“Yesterday. She said he’s been messing her about, leading her on. I tried to shut her up but she went on and on and on. She said she was fed up of him just using her and she wanted to be something more than just a cheap lay. I told her it was a bit late to be worrying about that, and she slapped me across the face.”
“She hit you?”
Suzanne nodded silently.
Suddenly Carly felt her stomach lurch.
“Has my mum found out?”
“God, I hope not.”
“Well if she doesn’t know now, she’s going to, isn’t she?”
There was a long silence. The seafront lights were beginning to show up as the light faded. It was getting cold. Suzanne shivered.
“Are you going to tell her?”
“Shit, no. You must be joking.”
“What about your dad?”
“What about him?”
“Will you talk to him?”
Carly couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“Oh come on Suzanne, get real. As if I’m going to walk in and say something. What like? Hello dad, my best friend just told me you’re screwing her mother. Would you like to explain yourself? I don’t think so. Are you stupid or what?”
“No. I suppose you can’t do that, not really.”
Carly got up and began to brush herself down.
“Come on. It’s cold.”
“What are you going to do then?”
“I don’t know. Try to eat my tea without punching him I suppose. Keep out of his sight. Try to look normal. See what happens. God, what a mess.”
Suzanne got up.
“Look, it’s not your fault. I’m sorry I gave you a hard time.”
Carly looked at her hard.
“It’s not my dad’s fault either. Or not only his fault. There are two of them.”
“I know. She’s been letting him come round if I’m away as well. I mean, how chav is that? Look, I’ll speak to you soon, OK?”
They walked off in separate directions.
Jill was sitting at the kitchen table, turning over the pages of the free paper. Simon had no idea what to say to her, he didn’t even know where to start, so he stood and waited. She didn’t even want to look at him.
“Are you OK?”
It was a stupid question, he realised that, but it was the only one he could think of, and he genuinely wanted to know the answer.
“So you do know then?”
“I know a lot of things.”
“About Fiona, I mean.”
Jill was concentrating very hard on an advert for double glazing to stop herself crying. Simon just thought she was being awkward, giving him a hard time as she had every right to. She still didn’t look at him when she answered.
“Oh, that. Yes. I know about that, thank you.”
As watched her sitting at the kitchen table. A few hours ago everything had been all right. All he had to do was hold on and wait and everything would be all right again.
“How did you find out?”
For the first time Jill looked him in the face.
“I had a text message from your daughter. I think she must have known for a while.”
That was the last thing Simon had expected.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”
“You knew what you were doing. It was always going to come out.”
“It didn’t mean anything.”
“You’re not the only one with a say in whether it means anything.”
Jill stood up. Simon began to panic as he realised she was leaving. He had to keep her there, try to get her to talk while he still had the chance. She stared at him coldly, and he flinched.
“I’m going upstairs to put a few clothes and things in a bag. I need some time to think. I can’t take all this in just now, and I’m not going to try. Anyway, you will have your own stuff to sort out. With Fiona no doubt.”
Simon looked at her helplessly.
“Jill, you can’t just go, we need to talk.”
Jill shook her head.
“You’ve left it a bit late for that now- years too late.”
“What are you going to do?”
“That’s up to me, isn’t it? You don’t need to know. I’ll give you a ring when I’m ready. Tell Carly I’ll be in touch on her mobile.”
Simon watched her go upstairs, feeling as if he was seeing his life slipping away from him. He wanted to follow her, but he didn’t know what he would say when he got there so he just stood, frozen to the spot, until she came back down carrying a small holdall.
“Just tell me where you’re going at least.”
She walked straight out of the door without stopping or looking back. He couldn’t see that she was crying, and she didn’t want him to.
Fiona was waiting for Simon to come back. She didn’t know when he would come, but she knew he would. All the same, when he did turn up, angry and breathless, she wasn’t ready for him. It was Wednesday afternoon, her afternoon off, and she was on the settee watching a DVD of the first series of Desperate Housewives. He let himself in without knocking and barged in angrily, pushing her away when she came towards him.
“You happy now?”
Fiona played dumb, hoping she was going to get away with it. She hated confrontation.
“What? What’s happened?”
“Jill knows. She found out from Carly. And there’s only one way Carly could have found out.”
Simon stared at Fiona, willing her to speak, waiting to take out all his frustration on her as soon as she tried to say something. She just stared back at him blankly. This wasn’t what she had wanted.
“You just couldn’t keep your stupid little mouth shut, could you? Your own daughter for Christ’s sake. Have a bit of decency.”
He was looking at her with outright disgust, and Fiona was frightened. Frantically she searched for something to say that might calm him down.
“Kids will talk. I can’t help that.”
“So you don’t tell them.”
“I didn’t tell her.”
Simon’s face told Fiona that he didn’t believe the lie. She reddened and bit her lip. Well she wasn’t going to let him shove all the blame onto her. It was as much his fault. He had been keen enough.
“You’re a fine one to talk to me about decency. You were very quick to come round here and take advantage of what was on offer. Well I’m not just a quick shag. I’m worth more than that.”
“You knew I was married.”
Fiona looked at him pityingly. She hadn’t decided anything, or not on her own at any rate. If he didn’t want trouble he should have stayed away.
“Your marriage was dead as soon as you started coming round here. Nobody forced you. You couldn’t keep your hands off me.”
Simon was terrified he was going to hit her. He breathed deeply and unclenched his fists.
“Don’t flatter yourself. You were an easy lay. That’s all. Do you think I’d have bothered if you hadn’t been? You’re not worth chasing after.”
Fiona’s face went white. This wasn’t how she liked to think of herself. She was a free spirit, a bohemian, a flypaper to catch men. She was irresistible.
Simon laughed. That had hit home.
“Truth hurts doesn’t it? It’s about time you grew up. It’s a bit sad to be carrying on like this at your age don’t you think? Find one of the old gits who will still bother to run after you and settle down with one of them. There are plenty around.”
“They’d treat me better than you.”
“Oh would they? You’re a sad bitch.”
Fiona settled herself back down on the settee, trying to look relaxed and in control. Simon caught his breath as her thin silk skirt slipped up her leg. She noticed, as she always did, when she had that effect on men, and smiled. This wasn’t over yet.
“So she’s kicked you out then?”
Simon looked down, suddenly deflated.
“That is none of your business.”
Fiona grinned with satisfaction. So she had walked out. Good. And where had he come? Straight here, just as she had thought he would. When he had finished kicking off at her she still might have a chance.
“Do you know where she’s gone?”
She got up from the settee and moved towards him smoothing her skirt down, and tossing her hair back. He was watching her. She looked straight into his eyes and held out a hand.
Silently she walked towards her and into his arms. She was in charge. He could say what he liked, but he still wanted her. For a few seconds.
It was only afterwards, when she ran towards the slamming of the front door, that she realised he had left his key to the flat on the hall table. She tried to tell herself that he had forgotten it, but she knew that this time he wasn’t coming back.