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Authors: Charity Norman

Tags: #Fiction, #Family Life

The New Woman (5 page)

BOOK: The New Woman
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‘Do you mean you’re gay?’ I asked suddenly. ‘Is that what this is all about—you want to sleep with men? You’ve never really wanted me at all?’

‘No. I’m not gay. That would be so much easier.’

I laughed, because it was absurd. ‘
Easier?

‘Less complicated.’

‘So . . . what does it mean? I don’t understand what this means. Are you leaving me?’

My question was still hanging above our heads when the phone rang. It seemed irrelevant. Through the mist, I heard Simon’s voice on the answering machine. Poor Simon. He sounded cheerful. He thought his world was still whole.

‘Hi, Dad. Hi, Mum. Um . . . I expect you’re still asleep, sorry if I’ve woken you up. Dad, just wondered if you caught
the interview on Radio Four just now, about mediation across cultures? Pretty interesting, thought you might . . . er, anyway. You can always listen to it online. Hilarious, what they say about non-verbal communication with Norwegians. Um, Carmela sends her love. She’s fine—tired, obviously, but blooming. We’ll see you both tomorrow, if we’re still coming for lunch? I thought I’d check that’s still on, but I’ll assume it is unless I hear from you. Hang on . . . Nico wants to say hello.’

A pause. Whispers. Heavy breathing. Then the careful tones of a four-year-old who’s been allowed the adult privilege of talking into the telephone.

‘Hello, Grandpa . . . Hello. Hello? . . . He’s not there, Dad.’ There were more whispers before our darling grandson spoke again. This time he used his formal message-leaving voice. ‘Hello, Grandpa and Granny. It’s fish for breakfast. I have a new baby bruvver or sister coming. When are we going to make the wooden plane? Bye.’

I pictured Nico crashing down the receiver before racing back to his fish-for-breakfast. Then there was silence in our kitchen. Water gushed against the glass.

‘Are you going to leave me?’ I asked again.

‘I think that’s up to you. All I know is that I have to change. I can’t go on pretending to be something I’m not.’

Then I remembered something I’d read once, in a magazine at the hairdresser’s, about a woman who found her husband’s stash of women’s clothes. It turned out he wore them often, as soon as her back was turned.
It was the worst day of my life
, she said. I read it with prurient interest while they did my foils. The husband had announced that he wanted to be female. There was a picture of two women, and one of them looked downright odd.

‘You’re married,’ I said now, with an obstinacy born of terror. ‘You have children and grandchildren. You are
Luke Livingstone
, for heaven’s sake! Luke Livingstone—who is very male indeed, I can assure you, and I damn well ought to know because you’ve
shared my bed for three decades, and we’ve had three children in that time.’

‘I’ve tried to be.’

‘No . . .’ I was desperately trying to think, trying to make him see how insane this was. ‘You are my friend, my lover, my husband. I would have known.’

‘I hoped you did know, in some way.’

Memories were imps, their grinning faces forcing cracks in my denial: Luke dressing for a tarts and vicars party, wearing my shortest skirt and putting on make-up with surprising skill. He was the life and soul of the party that day, flamboyant and loud, as though the costume freed him from his usual reticence.
Nice legs!
people yelled across the room, as he danced with our hostess.
You’d make a hell of a babe, Luke.

‘We’re so happy,’ I said. ‘Aren’t we? Why tell me this now?’

‘Because I’ve come to the end of my road, Eilish. The very end. I can’t go on. I was facing a choice last night: to end my life, or to accept what I’ve always really been. I am so sorry.’

The nail pierced my back, holding me upright. If I’d been less stunned I might have asked him what he thought would happen next; I might have asked about practicalities—what exactly had he chosen? But such questions were far, far beyond me.

‘Tell me,’ I said, ‘when I was walking up the aisle, and you turned around and smiled at me . . . I’ve never forgotten that, Luke . . . when our children were born, when we lost Charlotte, when we talked about retirement, made all those plans for our future—’ He began to speak, but I held up a hand. ‘No. Let me ask. I have to ask. All those times we’ve made love and fallen asleep in one another’s arms, and woken up together, and talked and worried and argued and kissed and laughed at ridiculous things . . . day after day, year after year . . . all our lives, when I thought we were happy together, when I thought you desired and valued me . . . all these years you’ve been lying about something so utterly fundamental?’

He shook his head. I thought I heard him say again that he was sorry.

‘I don’t believe it,’ I whispered. ‘You’ve been lying about everything you think, everything you feel, everything that you are?’

He didn’t respond. He didn’t need to. I could see the answer for myself.

The chair clattered as I stood up. Casino leaped off Luke’s lap. ‘I don’t understand this. You are Luke.
You are Luke
. Luke Livingstone. That’s who you are. I’ve given you my whole life.’ My voice was rising. ‘You are Luke, you hear me?’

Tripping over Casino, I fled up the staircase. Our bedroom has always been my refuge, but now there was nowhere to hide. The nightmare had come with me. I lay across the bed, pressing my face into the pillow that still smelled of Luke. My Luke. The real Luke, not the madman downstairs. My heart wasn’t quite broken yet, because I didn’t quite believe. How could I believe something so utterly impossible?

I turned over and felt my slip slide up my thigh. Honey-coloured silk. I’d thought it endearing that Luke had chosen it, and brought it home gift-wrapped in the shop’s tissue paper and ribbons.
Dear God, dear God, what if he’d enjoyed being in there?

Those grinning imps were slipping in through the cracks, bearing more insidious memories from down the years.
Didn’t you know?
they giggled.
Or didn’t you want to know?
My favourite high-heeled shoes, and that clinging woollen dress, all suddenly stretched and too big for me; the day I thought there were traces of lipstick on Luke’s mouth but brushed the thought away because it was terrifying; those times when I felt my man was hiding some secret darkness from me, but I was too afraid to ask.

The world was upside down. There was nothing for me to hold onto. I was going to be flung off, into the lonely reaches of outer space.

Five

Simon

Dammit. He should have kept his eye on the breakfast instead of phoning Dad. Smoke was billowing out of the grill, which called for action before the fire alarm went off and woke Carmela. He opened the back door, pelted outside and scraped the burned edges of crumbed fish into the compost. There. Good as new.

Nico was sitting on a stool, running a toy Jeep up and down the kitchen bench. ‘Did you burn my fish?’ he asked, as Simon produced it with a flourish.

‘I chargrilled it, just to add a little flavour. One for you, sir, and one for me.’

Nico looked at his plate with dark wide-open eyes. There was no doubt about that child’s paternity. People often commented on how much he took after both Simon and Luke: compact, with a smile that made strangers coo over him. Shame about the pudding-basin haircut, though; it made him look like a girl. Simon had complained to Carmela, but she just laughed. ‘He’ll be a bloody macho pain in the arse soon enough,’ she said, ‘and then he can have a six-pack and an American military flat-top, but can’t he be pretty now, since he’s only four years old?’ Simon had shrugged, and given up.

‘And one for Mummy?’ Nico asked now.

‘She prefers yoghurt.’

‘Yum.’ Nico picked up a bottle of ketchup and squeezed it with both hands. Nothing came out. He squeezed harder, his tongue sticking out, until a jet of red shot onto his pyjama top. ‘Oops.’

Simon laughed. ‘Your pyjamas were hungry,’ he said.

Nico stuck his finger into the largest blob and licked it. ‘Is Granny your mummy?’ he asked.

‘She is indeed.’

‘And she’s Aunt Kate’s mummy too?’

‘Well done.’

‘Mummy calls her Eyelash.’

Simon kept his face straight. Nico was very alert to being patronised or laughed at; that was something else they had in common. ‘So she does. That’s your granny’s name. Eilish, actually. A bit like Eyelash.’

‘And what’s Grandpa’s name?’

‘Grandpa is called Luke. Shall I cut up your fish for you?’ Simon made the mistake of leaning across to help, commandeering the child-sized knife and fork.

‘Grr!’ roared Nico. ‘I can do it!’

‘Okay, okay. Keep your hair on.’

It was painful to watch the slow mangling of that fish. How did Carmela cope with this kind of thing, day after day? Nico smashed it to a pulp with his fork before stirring in liberal dollops of ketchup. It didn’t even look like food anymore. Simon had heard some of Carmela’s friends—including the two house husbands she hung out with—complaining that they had put on weight because they couldn’t resist eating their children’s leftovers. Simon found this incomprehensible. He would have to be starving—literally, crawling across the desert with vultures circling overhead—before he popped one of those mushed-up, masticated, ketchup-smothered delights into his own mouth.

Coffee was a
much
better idea. He made himself a perfect cup with the new espresso machine, revelling in its rich and bitter
scents as crema settled in a white film across the top of the black. Simon took coffee-making extremely seriously. Holding the cup in one hand, he slid onto a stool and pulled the newspaper closer. Ah, this was the life. He didn’t ask for much—family, work, a decent cup of coffee, and enough time in the summer for cricket. A bat had been put into his hands as soon as he could walk, and his first memory was of him and his dad playing with it on the lawn of his grandparents’ farmhouse.

He leafed through the paper. War, sanctions, a row over import tariffs. The test match at Lord’s. Nico was chattering, but to Simon it was just background noise. He carried on reading, murmuring
mmm
and
wow
at what he hoped were the right places.

‘Bruvver or sister?’ Nico was asking. ‘Dad! Bruvver or sister?’

‘Mm?’

‘What will our baby be?’

The Aussies were two hundred and five for nine at close of play.

Human, I hope.’

Nico kicked his feet against the bench, sounding like a herd of buffalo. ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy! Boy or girl?’

‘I don’t know. It’s going to be a surprise, like when you open a present on your birthday. We’ll be very, very happy when the baby arrives, whether it’s a boy, a girl, a rabbit, or even a woolly mammoth like you.’ Simon reached to tickle his son in that very ticklish spot between his ear and neck. Nico squirmed and giggled, then climbed onto Simon’s knee.

Hope it’s a girl, thought Simon, picturing a toddling delight in a white dress. Mind you, Kate had never been a toddling delight of any kind. He was six when she arrived, and his one abiding memory was of the power of her lungs. His sister started the way she meant to go on. Opinionated. Strident. She was a burn-the-bra merchant, half a century too late. If she’d been born in 1900 she would have ended up under the king’s horse.

‘Whatcha reading?’ asked Nico.

‘I’m not reading anything, because there’s a great big ketchuppy head in the way.’

‘Haven’t got a big head.’

Simon gave up on the paper. ‘How about a bit of cricket in the garden? Hang on, I’ll just wipe that face of yours . . . Where’s your bat? Got it? Okay, you can show me how it’s done.’

Nico didn’t show him how it was done. In fact, he missed every ball, as usual. Simon had a nagging fear that his son was pathologically uncoordinated. He’d been anxious enough about this to mention it to Luke the previous weekend, when he and Eilish came for Sunday lunch.

‘Was I this hopeless?’ he’d asked, as Nico stood picking his nose and watching the ball roll gently by. ‘He’ll never be a cricketer.’

Luke had laughed, which was good to hear. He’d seemed subdued that day. ‘The little chap is only four, Simon. Four! He can’t even write his own name yet. I don’t imagine Ian Botham was knocking ’em to the boundaries either at that age.’

‘But
look
at him! He’s not even interested.’

They both looked. Nico had discarded his bat and was trying to touch his ear with his tongue.

Simon felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. ‘Do yourself a favour,’ Luke said seriously. ‘Take this one off your worry list.’

‘Grandad Livingstone will be spinning in his grave.’

‘It doesn’t matter. Truly. Please remember that. These things
do not matter
. You must let Nico be his own person.’

As they walked back to the house, Luke mentioned that he’d brought his collection of Biggles books. He was having a tidy-up, he said, and wanted Nico to have them. Simon was touched. His dad had read Biggles to him when he was a schoolboy—read every night for half an hour, no matter how late he’d come in from work. It had taken years, but they’d got through every single one.

Today’s cricket game was proving as disastrous as every other
. Look, Dad, a plane! Look, Dad, I can do roly-polies!
When Nico started decapitating hollyhocks with his bat, Simon gave up.

‘Let’s take Mummy a cup of tea,’ he suggested, glancing hopefully at his watch. ‘She must have had enough sleep by now.’

He felt virtuous as he rinsed the pot. His pregnant wife had been getting some rest and he was an exemplary father. He handed Nico the biscuit tin to carry, and together they went up the stairs and burst through the bedroom door. The room had been decorated by Carmela as only she could have done, in deep blue and burned orange. She blinked sleepily, her hair a dark fan on the pillow.

‘Tea,’ announced Simon.

‘And biccies,’ added Nico, dumping the tin onto her feet. He ripped off the lid and found a chocolate finger.

Carmela yawned. ‘You are New Men,’ she said. Simon caught a distinct edge of sarcasm in her voice. ‘What time is it? Only eight? Hmm, not the longest lie-in in the history of the world.’

BOOK: The New Woman
13.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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