Authors: Marika Cobbold
To my daughter, Harriet,
who asked the questions
LIFE WAS GETTING TOUGH for Mother, otherwise known as Aphrodite, goddess of love. It was commonly thought that she was failing in her work and that love was being brought into disrepute. The inhabitants of Great Britain were of particular concern. The statistics were appalling, with one in three marriages ending in divorce and a growing number of children being brought up in single-parent families.
So Mother was freaking, blaming me, Eros, who quite frankly had enough to deal with, being just a kid and going through a difficult phase, not just because of the confusion over who my father was, but also because of the rumours going around that I didn't actually exist, being instead a phenomenon, an idea, not a person at all.
So what I'm saying is that if Rebecca Finch was
to make things worse she could not have picked a better time.
I WAS TRAVELLING ON the 17.43 Eurostar from Paris when it occurred to me that my mother's unshakeable belief in enduring love might be due to my father having had the good sense to die young. This revelation, like most revelations, only seemed sudden; in fact it had been long in coming, growing steadily, nurtured by a trickle of circumstances just below the level of consciousness.
I had been watching the woman across the aisle, surreptitiously, I hoped. Everyone had their own special interests, the things that captured their imagination and held it; Tim, my ex-husband, for example, was fascinated by boats, boats and barometers. For my mother it was memories and dreams of what might have been. Amongst my friends, Bridget could gaze for hours at the stalls of a food market whereas Matilda had never got over a childhood fascination with clouds. As for my partner, Dominic, he enjoyed Victorian and Edwardian watercolours and leggy blondes. For me it was people. If you tried to explain to me how telephones worked or how emails travelled wire-less from computer to computer I would listen politely but my heart would not be in it. But tell me about the beautiful woman next door and why she always stands waiting for the postman on a Wednesday and you have my full attention.
The woman across the aisle looked to be in her late thirties. She was blonde, a little plump. She was wearing a black gaberdine skirt-suit and flesh-coloured tights and her shoes were mid-heeled courts. She wore a fine gold chain with a small plain cross around her neck and an ornate silver band on her right ring-finger. Her hair was surprising, falling in silky waves down to her shoulders. She was engrossed by the novel she was reading; I could tell from her changing expressions and the way she turned the pages with fingers that could barely wait for the eyes to catch up.
The trip to Paris had been Dominic's idea, his surprise for me. I had found the folder in the fridge, on top of the carton of eggs. Dominic had been waiting for me to come down for breakfast and as I filled the kettle and got out my breakfast cup I could sense his impatience. When finally I had opened the fridge he had made a show of reading the paper but I knew he was watching me over the top of the pages. I picked up the folder, cold and damp from the fridge, and opened it. One ticket for Ms Rebecca Finch and one for Mr Dominic Townsend. I hadn't turned around straight away, needing a few seconds to change my expression from panic to pleasure. I didn't have time to go away. I didn't need a holiday: we had had one, three, no maybe it was four, no actually, six months earlier; anyway, not a very long ago. What I needed were days of uninterrupted solitude with no other demands on my time and energies than that of work. Facing the open fridge, inhaling the chill air that smelt of ambitious French cheeses, I attempted an expression of joyful surprise. I noticed the little heart pierced by an arrow, his sign to me, on the ticket folder and I felt a mean-spirited and ungrateful woman.
I spun round and widened my smile.
âWow,' I said. âWow wow wow, a trip to Paris. And we leave tomorrow. Goodness!'
He frowned up at me from his chair.
âI thought you'd be thrilled.'
âOh I am, I am.'
I rushed over to him and hugged his shoulders, resting my chin on his dark head. Dominic was at his best in Paris. I suddenly longed for the way we used to be: long Sunday lunches when we hardly ate a thing as we were too busy talking and listening, never letting go of the other's hand as we strolled, going to sleep in each other's arms and waking up smiling.
He took my hand, pulling it to his lips.
âI should hope you are. You are a very lucky woman. Anyway, do you know how long it's been since we were last in Paris? I've booked us into this little
Amanda was telling me about. I know you like that other place but it'll be good for you to get out of your comfort zone.'
And I really had enjoyed the trip, barely thinking about work but just walking, reading in cafÃ©s, and watching, of course. It had been three such very peaceful days. There had been no time to keep, no itinerary. If I wanted to sit and read for an hour over breakfast I could. If I wanted to slip into a cinema instead of going to a museum, I could do that too. As I rested my head against the seat-back, fast-forwarded through the landscape, I thought Dominic was right, a few days away was exactly what I had needed.
The trip had not begun so promisingly, however.
âHave you got the keys?' Dominic had asked as we were about to leave the house. âOh please don't give me that vague look.'
I had narrowed my eyes in an obvious attempt to concentrate.
âIn the dish?' I said.
âIf they had been in the dish I wouldn't have had to ask you for them.'
where are they
âThe keys?' I searched my mind for clues but all I saw was Dominic like a giant bottle filling up with ire. When had I last had the keys? When I had come home from somewhere, of course. And when had that been? My brow cleared and I smiled with relief. âThe day before yesterday!'
âWhat are you talking about?'
âThat's when I last went out so that's when I had the keys last.'
The bottle overflowed.
âI can't do this! You know I get stressed when I travel. Do you wind me up deliberately? And what do you mean you went out the day before yesterday? Haven't you been out since?'
âI was getting on so well with work I didn't want the disruption.'
âYou mean you haven't even been out for a walk around the block? That's disgusting.'
Then I remembered. I had packed the keys in my sponge bag last night so that I wouldn't forget them. I squatted down in the hallway and opened my suitcase, hauling out the white-and-blue-striped bag and lifting out the silver-heart key ring.
âThere they are.' I grinned at him. âI knew I hadn't lost them.'
âFor fuck's sake!' He had snatched them from me and put them in his pocket.
On the Eurostar platform he had given me one of his rueful smiles.
âI'm sorry I yelled at you.'
I had tried hard not to resent his apology but I didn't altogether succeed. When we first met I had found his facility for apologising endearing, generous even. For my ex-husband, the word
seemed to come equipped with two hooks, one for each side of his gullet, preventing it from going any further. Then again, he had been quite an easy-going man who generally did not have a lot to apologise for. For Dominic, I had come to realise, saying sorry was simply a matter of practice makes perfect.
It seemed now, though, that he really meant it. His face looked pinched and his eyes were darting from my face to the train carriage to his own feet and I knew, I should have known after five years with him, that he was genuinely upset at the thought that his surprise for me, this thoughtfully organised trip, looked set to be just another of our travelling slanging matches. And I was not blameless. Dominic craved order and control, no doubt as a result of the chaos of his childhood, and I, who knew this, what did I do to help? I mislaid things, like keys. I forgot things, left them behind. I didn't focus on what I was meant to be doing, with the result that my mind was constantly walking into lamp posts.
I thought all this and finally, standing there on the platform, I was able to smile back at him.
âI'm sorry I didn't remember where I put the keys,' I said.
âYou know how wound-up I get when I travel,' he said
again. His voice rose half an octave. âIt would just help if you could be a little more organised, that's all. Unlike you, I didn't sleep very well last night.' He managed to make a good night's sleep sound like an act of aggression.
âAnd lugging heavy cases down stairs and into the taxi and out again â¦ How anyone can need quite so much for a three-day break.'
I glanced around me, hoping no one was listening.
âYou offered to take the bags,' I said, speaking quietly, hoping he might do the same. âI was bringing down my own case and you actually insisted on taking it.'
to be helpful.'
âI know you were and I'm grateful â¦'
âI'm not asking you to be grateful but seeing that you seem intent on making a meal of this I am asking you to be a little more thoughtful of other people and not stuff your suitcase full to the brim â¦'
âThat's why I wanted to carry it myself,' I explained. âI know I've packed quite a lot â'
âQuite a lot?
âAnd I didn't want you to suffer for it.'
âSuffer for it. You do over-exaggerate.' Exaggerate will do, I thought as he went on. âNo one's
, as you put it. I am simply suggesting to you, in passing, that you might wish to be more considerate of other people.'
âI didn't think that â'
âYou don't think: that's your problem. If you had, you would have packed sensibly.'
âWe should board.' I made a quick move towards my case but he got there first. âNo, let me,' I said. â
.' It had been my turn to raise my voice.
âI told you it's not a problem.' He handed me his own lightweight duffel bag and grimaced as if in pain as he heaved my case on board.
He needed a cigarette. Making for the platform again, he felt his pockets.
âDamn, I've left the pack at home.' He turned round. âI'll have to buy some.'
âWe'll be leaving any minute,' I told him.
âDo you have to make a deal of
everything? I'm exhausted and not, I have to say, in a good mood. I
a cigarette.' He glanced at his watch. âThere's plenty of time.'
I watched him stride off.
The last night in Paris I had stood for almost an hour on the balcony of the
room; the air was warm and soft, rich with fumes and the smell of food from the restaurant below, where someone was playing the piano. On the pavement people passed, a parade of dressed-up dolls for my delectation, and all around me the night was blue.