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Authors: Leah McLaren

A Better Man

BOOK: A Better Man
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A BETTER MAN

A Novel

Leah McLaren

Dedication

For Rob

Epigraph

How can I know who I am until I see what I do?

How can I know what I value until I see where I walk?

—K
ARL
W
EICK

Table of Contents

Dedication

Epigraph

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Advance Praise for
A Better Man

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

CHAPTER 1

Nick Wakefield is a happily married man. That is the official story.

But even at this moment—a mild, unremarkable mid-week dawn in late September (a “school day,” as Maya would call it)—he is clinging to the enviable outward qualities of his life as if to bits of driftwood in a flash flood. It is, by any standard, a good life. A life of privilege and endless opportunities for pleasure. And yet it is also a life that has made him miserable. Slumped over the cool stone kitchen island in a pilled cashmere bathrobe (the perfect Christmas gift for “the dad who has everything”), Nick performs the early morning accounting he’s been labouring at each day upon waking for a couple of years now. A keeping up of appearances in his own head. Not a show of gratitude, exactly, but a listing off of the things that, if he could connect himself to the glittering hologram of his own success, he might well be grateful for. These are the things he is sure other people would like to take from him, if they ever got the chance. Topping the slate is this house, the one he’s sitting in now—a bombproof Edwardian boulder on a city street that his slick, post-adolescent realtor once
described as the “filet of the neighbourhood” (a description Nick secretly relishes but would never have the bad taste to repeat out loud). Then there’s the lake house, a cube of glass and steel perched on a slab of pink granite two and a half hours north of the city. The view was chosen for its resemblance to a Group of Seven painting—rocks rising out of choppy waters, a couple of craggy, wind-battered pines emerging miraculously from cracks in the stone. He thinks of the place now and is filled not with pleasure but with the intense desire to buy the uninhabited island opposite.
Always own your view,
his late father—a workaholic, alcoholic dental surgeon—liked to say. It’s the single piece of wisdom he retained from the man, and he cleaves to it.

In and around these shelters—these properties that he
owns,
and that no one (not even the bank, since the Duracell job came through) has the power to take away from him—there is all manner of precious things. There are the cars, the boats, the collection of Danish teak mid-century modern furniture, the books and gadgets and photographs, and a few “pieces” by local “sculptors” he long since stopped pretending to understand or care about. There are his bikes, all six of them—two super-lightweight, carbon-framed French road racers in contrasting primary colours; a puffy-wheeled, shock-fitted mountain bike for a month-long race across Mongolia that he had to cancel at the last minute; a half-constructed, custom-built fixed-gear; and two bog-standard commuter bikes from his teens he hangs on to with the idea that he might one day revert to being the sort of modest fellow who cycles to work instead of sliding a luxury sedan into a private parking spot two feet from his office door.

There is more: The collection of copper cooking pots hanging above his head. The specially commissioned, modernist stone birdbath twisting into view like a lost Henry Moore. The empty coffee cup in his hand—white bone china and soothingly logo-free. Although he works in advertising—perhaps because of it—he has imposed a strict “no swag or overtly branded items” rule in the house.

A collection of objects—all of them expensive, solid and, most importantly,
desirable—parade
past his mind’s eye. As they do, he feels the old anxiety, that familiar hunted gut clench that wakes him before light most mornings now—eyes springing open, stomach lifting as,
whoosh,
the elevator drops—rising up before it recedes to the background, where it will stay all day like a threat.

Nick pours himself another cup of ethical sludge from the French press and glances at the oven clock: 7:00 a.m. on the dot. Right on cue, the pre-programmed kitchen radio warbles to life, a smug-voiced host analyzing the international misery of the day (“the Voices” is how he thinks of them, having never understood his wife’s obsession with public radio, some nerdy hangover of her academic childhood). The Voices are followed almost immediately by the sound of Maya’s bare feet moving across the bedroom floor to the master bathroom for her morning ablutions. She will dress in something stretchy and body-contoured—selected from her vast collection of expensive, sweat-wicking exercise togs—before giving the twins their breakfast and supplemental breastfeed (for the “natural antibodies”), dropping them at preschool and hitting the gym.

Nick will go to work and stay there as long as possible, as he has taken to doing for the past several months, ever since Maya
settled the twins into a comfortable bedtime routine. It’s not that he is avoiding his family, exactly—just that his presence seems to disrupt some precarious balance it’s taken his wife sleepless months to perfect. Maya did her best not to let on, but he could sense her bristling at his occasional (now infrequent to non-existent) attempts at New Man domesticity—an awkwardly loaded dishwasher here, a scalding bath there—and now he has given up. There was a time when they had dinner together most nights, gently unwinding the day’s events over a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine, but this ritual has long since passed, surrendered to the necessary (no,
enviable
) chaos of buttered macaroni, bath toys and slobbered-on picture books—a chaos he copes with by keeping himself as scarce as possible.

“Daddy?”

A small, sticky hand tugs at his robe, causing it to fall open and exposing his genitals to a gust of cold air.

“Sweetheart, it’s rude to yank.” He says this with more impatience than he’d intended.

Isla pops a thumb in her rosebud mouth and, with her finger, loops a swirl of red-gold hair around her ear. Her eyes—a clear, glittering blue, unlike his own murky hazel ones—crawl across his face. What are they looking for? Nick reaches down and scoops his daughter onto his lap, but his vague hope that she might zone out quietly while he finishes reading the basketball box scores evaporates as Isla, snuffling with her first cold of the season, squirms around to look at him. It’s not that she wants down; it’s that she wants his full attention.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, sweetheart.”

“Foster sleeps with Garbage Truck and I sleep with Mermaid.”

“Is that so?”

“Yup.” She nods, mouth twisting. A square crust of snot has formed beneath her upturned nose like a fluorescent yellow toothbrush mustache. “Garbage Truck is blue and Mermaid’s pink, with green scales for swimming and long hair. Foster’s a boy like you, Daddy, and I’m a girl. Like Mermaid. And Mommy.”

Nick nods and strokes the whole of his daughter’s head, a clumsy palm sweeping over a fragile corn-silk dome. Isla grins, suddenly pleased with herself. Then she sneezes—not once but twice, three times—spraying him with microbial bacteria. Nick winces, and resists pushing her off his lap.

“Girls are nice and boys are yucky. Except for Foster, ‘cause he’s my twin,” she says.

“No, sweetheart—” Nick begins.

But Isla’s on a role. “Yes, Daddy. Boys are yucky.”

“Why’s that?”

“They like killing games and ‘splosions. And they don’t know how to love people.”

Nick struggles not to react. “Where’d you hear that, baby?”

“Foster tries to make me play with his stupid killing soldiers, but I hate them.”

“Not that bit, darling—the second part.”

Isla shrugs, pops her thumb back in her mouth, hops off her father’s lap and eyes him with something more innocent than suspicion and less affectionate than warmth. Nick wants to press further, but Foster is suddenly upon them, an agent of pure destruction. (Is there no object, Nick can’t help wondering, his son doesn’t yearn to pick up and hurl to the ground? No system
of organization he doesn’t long to smash?) Cupboards fly open; pots are banged with wooden spoons; a brand new salad spinner spontaneously combusts, bits of plastic flying in every direction.

“Daddy, Daddy, check it!” Foster’s voice rings through the din. He’s a tall boy for his age, physically bolder and markedly less chatty than his sister. As the fey, French-braided ladies in his Montessori preschool often gently point out, Foster is “a bit of a handful.” He puts a pot on his head like a space helmet, bangs it with a spatula and laughs, delighted by this self-abuse. Noticing his bareheaded sister, he picks up a glass salad bowl and, before Nick can stop him, overturns it on top of her, causing the thing to slip to the floor and shatter, whacking Isla’s forehead in the process. She is the first to erupt in a squall of hot tears, followed by her brother in a reciprocal howl. (Nick never ceases to be amazed by the way the twins can switch from adversity to unity, hostility to empathy, at a moment’s notice.) And of course, it’s at precisely this moment, with Nick standing helpless in the shrieking chaos, that Maya chooses to enter the kitchen.

Even now he registers that she’s beautiful. Tall, thin-wristed and pale-lashed—she used to joke that without mascara she had no eyes, and she still never emerges from the bathroom without a slick of it. From the beginning, Nick preferred her without—there was a time he felt possessive of her naked eyes, with their translucent, underwater lids. Now he avoids them.

“Foster, apologize to your sister,” Maya says, herding the twins out of range of the mess. Without glancing at Nick, who’s still standing uselessly by the sidelines, she squats down in her leggings like a rice-paddy worker and scoops the shards of the shattered bowl into the dustpan that has somehow magically
appeared in her hand. Isla allows herself to be kissed better, first by her mother, then by her brother. Appeased, she moves toward Nick to complete the circle of comfort. The combination of virus and crying jag has left her face covered in a film of fresh mucus. Nick pulls back on his barstool and grabs a hemp-cloth hanky from a drawer, then attempts to persuade Isla to blow her nose by wrapping the cloth clumsily around her face.

“Blow out, sweetheart,” he says hopelessly. The harder he tries, the more she snorts and snuffles, snot plugging all her orifices. Her face is red and scrunched, working itself up to a howl. He can hear the wet congestion in her head as she gulps for breath, and finally—in abject defeat—he allows himself to look at his wife, who has been watching the scene unfold. Maya doesn’t look back. She crouches down, takes her daughter’s face in her hands, places her mouth over Isla’s tiny nose and proceeds to suck out the contents of her daughter’s sinuses before spitting it out into the sink.

Nick looks back at the paper. This habit of his wife’s—like the extended breastfeeding and the “family bed,” which he has long since vacated for the guest room—is part of her firmly held philosophy of child-centred parenting. Since leaving her partner-track position as a divorce lawyer at one of the city’s biggest firms, Maya has funnelled all her intellectual and physical energy into moulding and nurturing the twins, making sure they “attached” properly—though to what, exactly, Nick’s never been entirely sure. On the few occasions he’d questioned her methods, there’d been an onslaught of disconcerting counter-arguments involving terms like “socio-emotional development” and “hopelessly outdated paternalism.” Now Nick’s passive resistance is simply assumed.

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