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Authors: Pippa Wright

Tags: #Fiction, #General

The Foster Husband

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To Pin and Alaine,

with love and submarines.

‘Sometimes I wish we could rub out all of our mistakes and start fresh, from the beginning,’ I said.

‘And sometimes I think there isn’t anything to us but our mistakes.’

The Paris Wife
by Paula McLain (Virago, 2011)

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I know she’s told you everything. I don’t expect you to forgive me – I’m not even sure I can forgive myself.

I’m not excusing what I did, but maybe something had to happen so we could stop making each other so unhappy. I suppose this was it.

I’m sorry.

1

Only an idiot would come to Lyme Regis to escape the past.

Lyme Regis
is
the past; it’s saturated with it. Here, more than anywhere else I know, it is impossible to escape the heavy weight of time gone by. I don’t mean the fact that
I’m constantly bumping into people I went to school with, or friends of my parents, though there is that. It’s not just personal history. I mean that you can’t turn a corner
without coming across some Jane Austen Society re-enactment of Louisa Musgrove falling off the Cobb into the arms of Captain Wentworth, or a troop of backpack-toting schoolchildren heading off to
East Beach, fossil-hammers enthusiastically, if inexpertly, in hand.

Of course nowhere is truly free from the past, but I wonder if anywhere else is so insistent on reminding you of it. Lyme presents the centuries gone by like a carpet seller laying out his wares
in front of you, one on top of the other. Jurassic Period, madam? No? Cretaceous perhaps? Or does madam prefer later? Regency? Late Victorian? Mid-Seventies Postmodern? Layer upon layer of
fossilized history, compacted over millennia, helpless creatures trapped in it, forever frozen in a moment not of their own choosing.

I am that idiot. I am that helpless creature. But it wasn’t like I had an awful lot of choice.

At least I’ve ended up here in the autumn, just as the town is winding down from the summer months. At this time of year it is perfectly possible to walk the length of Broad Street without
becoming trapped in the middle of one of the innumerable walking tours (half of which are run by my parents), and I haven’t yet seen a single coach negotiating the tricky bend in the road
down by the museum. But the shops are still putting out hopeful signs advertising cream teas and other essential tourist purchases: fudge, Cath Kidston oven gloves and trilobite paperweights. Like
there is a great call for paperweights these days. Still, I’ve managed to walk all the way along the Cobb this morning, the wind whipping my hair, wondering if I look a bit tragic and
intriguing in the manner of the French Lieutenant’s Woman, without having my moody reverie spoiled by hundreds of daytrippers. Although, to be honest, it’s hard to retain an air of
heartbroken mystery when you’re accompanied, as I am, by an excitable puppy capering on the end of her lead and trying to fling herself off the sea wall in fruitless pursuit of seagulls.

And yet I am heartbroken; I don’t have to act at all. It’s why I’m here. Even if I’d thought I could escape the past, I should have known I wouldn’t be able to. Not
in Lyme Regis; not anywhere. You can’t run away from yourself.

When she has exhausted herself sufficiently, I drag Minnie away from the seagulls to the Town Mill Bakery to share a warm, buttery croissant while the waitresses pretend not to notice. There is
a sign that says dogs aren’t allowed, but we all pretend not to notice that, since it’s the tail end of the season and there’s no one else in here to complain, except for two
older women sat on the trestle table behind me.

Just as Minnie licks the last crumbs from my fingers, I hear the women nearby adopt the telltale hissing whisper that indicates the imparting of gossip. Naturally, I lean backwards a little to
earwig. Well, wouldn’t you? I love an overheard conversation, and somehow it’s all the more fascinating for being about complete strangers. I’ve passed many a slow afternoon
listening in to the dramas of other people in Belsize Park cafes; it makes me feel better about my own. I catch the word ‘divorcée’ and listen a bit harder. Such an evocative
word. It makes me think of Elizabeth Taylor, violet-eyed and be-turbanned, drying her post-Richard Burton tears with a handkerchief trimmed with diamonds.

I’m helped by the fact they’re both hard of hearing enough not to realize how loudly they’re speaking.

‘Apparently,’ the woman furthest away from me hisses, her voice penetrating through the empty cafe, ‘her husband was – you know – playing away.’

I’ve hit paydirt.


Nooo
.’ Her companion sounds scandalized. ‘But she’s so lovely, both of those girls are gorgeous, take after their mother, of course. And he always looked such a
fine young man. Why would he do such a thing?’

‘Well, you know what it’s like in that
London
,’ says the imparter of the gossip. Her voice sounds suddenly constricted and, though I can’t see her, I can imagine
that she has pursed her lips.

Interesting, I wonder who they could be talking about? I’ve so thoroughly shaken the provincial dirt of Lyme off my shoes since I moved to London myself that I haven’t got any idea
who else might have headed there in my wake.

‘And in that world, too,’ says the companion. ‘All celebrities and parties and,’ her voice drops lower as if she hardly dares speak the words, ‘
drugs
, I
shouldn’t wonder.’

‘You can be sure of it,’ says the gossiper with authority. I am even more intrigued. This sounds like someone I might know. Not that I’m a drug addict or a celebrity –
far from it – but my working life was sometimes nothing
but
celebrities and parties and drugs. That’s the music business for you.

‘Well, she just walked out of the marriage, I hear. Gave up everything and came down to Barbara’s old bungalow with nothing but a suitcase and the dog.’

I look at Minnie under the table.

‘I thought they sold that place when she died?’

‘Tried to, of course, but no offers. It’s a dreadful time to be selling somewhere. The credit crunch, you know. I suppose she’s grateful for that now, or where else would she
have gone?’

‘Terrible’, says the companion, ‘to be left with nothing.’

I can feel the croissant stuck somewhere in the middle of my chest, a hard unmoving lump, as if my insides have stopped working all of a sudden. I look at Minnie again.
You’re not
nothing
, I think.
We’re not nothing
. Don’t listen to them. I try to swallow but my throat has turned to stone.

‘Desperately sad,’ agrees her friend. ‘Sandy and David say she’s devastated. Apparently he’s been ringing their house all times of the day, but she won’t
answer his calls.’

Of course I can’t answer his calls. I haven’t spoken to him since the note – what is there left to say? Whatever he has to say to me, I don’t want to hear it. How is
talking about it going to make any of it better? It’s finished. The only way I can keep myself together is to keep the shutters down completely. Impenetrable, closed off. If I let him in,
even a little, I know we’ll just go back to where we were. And I couldn’t bear it. Not again.

‘Hardly surprising she won’t speak to him,’ says the companion, tutting. ‘No one should have to tolerate that sort of behaviour. It’s disgusting. Does nobody take
marriage seriously any more?’

I think I might be sick. I need to get out of here. I turn on the wooden bench, preparing to swing my legs over.

There is a sharp ‘Shh,’ when they see me move.

As I stand up the two women duck their heads, retracting into their coats like tortoises, as if I might suddenly grab a baguette from the nearby bread counter and swing at them with it out of
rage. But I won’t. I’m not angry; just stunned. I thought I’d get away from everything hidden here in Dorset, away from my real life in London, but apparently not. Anyway, it
serves me right for listening in to their conversation. Wasn’t I intrigued and fascinated myself, until I realized they were talking about me?

Besides, I
am
devastated. It
is
desperately sad. But they don’t know the whole story. They’re wrong about everything. I didn’t leave with nothing. What I left
behind was nothing. That was the whole problem.

2

It turns out to be pretty easy to end a marriage, once you’ve got to the point where you know there’s no going back. I read and re-read the note on the kitchen
table until I realized I had it by heart, learned like a poem for school; I expected I would be able to recite it perfectly even in ten years’ time. I turned off my phone and left it on top
of my laptop, shut tight like a clam, so that Matt would know there was no way to contact me. I put my wedding ring on top of them both. And then I left.

In the months before I walked out, I’d found myself constantly fantasizing about splitting up. I obsessed over it with all the passionate intensity that I had once poured into planning our
wedding. Just as I’d thought, not even two years ago, that the choice of wedding flowers was a huge signifier of who we were and what our marriage would be (glamorous, exotic, expensive,
flown in from far away), so I felt that the manner of leaving the marriage would be some enormous statement that summed up everything that had gone wrong between us. I imagined tempestuous
fighting, rows over who owned what, outrageous demands. Matt and I had always excelled at arguing, after all. I’d expected that it would be me who’d throw him out – it was his
unreasonable behaviour that got us here after all – while I barricaded myself into the house, throwing his stuff out onto the pavement. I harboured dark thoughts of cutting up his suits,
burning his stupid cricket memorabilia, clearing out our joint savings. I’d seen enough movies to know how it was meant to go. With the help of a brilliant lawyer (I hadn’t worked out
quite how I’d pay for that, seeing as I hadn’t worked for nearly a year, but surely it was a mere technicality?) I’d sue Matt for every last penny. Hadn’t I given up
everything for him? He owed me. And if he wouldn’t pay emotionally, I’d bankrupt him financially instead.

What I’m trying to say is that, in my furious imaginings, I thought the arguments leading up to the end of a marriage would get bigger and more dramatic until they culminated in the
mega-row that would end it all. What I hadn’t expected was that they’d get smaller and smaller. As if neither of us was willing to waste energy that we might need, instead, for our
escape.

By the time I left all I felt was a complete blankness. I knew it was going to hurt later, but at that moment what I felt reading the note was more like a grateful recognition – so here
you are, at last, my way out. It was a safety net, unexpectedly appearing to someone trapped in a burning house. And, like someone leaping from the flames, it didn’t occur to me to take
anything with me; it was all too tainted by then. The bitter rancour of the last few months had seeped into everything.

I took a few clothes, though. There was making a point, and then there was being arrested for public nudity. People were going to be talking about me enough without my being done for indecent
exposure. By then I didn’t much care about what I wore; my work clothes had hung, untouched, in my wardrobe for months, and there they stayed.

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