Authors: Lucy Diamond
Tags: #Fiction, #General
‘You’re well shot of the cheating pig.’ Katie, trying to be supportive. But it was all right for Katie, wasn’t it? She was super-confident and super-independent. She’d never bought into the ’til-death-do-us-part line in the first place – well, if you discounted that moment of matrimonial madness with Neil whatever-his-name-was.
‘Plenty more fish in the sea!’ And that tactless, completely unhelpful reminder had been from her mum. Fish – ha. Who wanted a fish? And why hadn’t anyone thought to warn Alice about the sharks?
Alice got to her feet. She would
think about Jake anyway. The whole point about this wretched new start was that she was moving on from those miserable, exhausting months at her parents’ house, where she’d stayed in the aftermath of the split. There she’d slept in her old bedroom, with the Eighties’ grey-and-red zigzaggy wallpaper still miraculously intact, tossing and turning under her old Snoopy duvet on that single bed until her belly had been like a distended, vein-riddled space hopper.
Even then, she’d held out hope, through the last waddling days of pregnancy and right through the agonizing blur of labour. She kept expecting he’d stride into the delivery suite, clutching flowers, chocolates, helium balloons, soft velvety teddy bears. ‘I’m her husband,’ he’d announce to the midwives in his rich actor’s voice, his eyes moist with emotion. ‘I’m the father.’
But no. No such announcements. No plush teddies or balloons. It seemed as though being husband
father was too much for Jake to take on board. He hadn’t shown. Not through the messy screams of the birth (and all that blood! Alice was quite glad he hadn’t witnessed the full-blown gore of it. He’d never have wanted sex with her again). Not through the sweet moment of triumph when the midwife had placed Alice’s warm wet baby into her arms and said, ‘It’s a girl!’ And not for all those days and weeks after the birth, when Alice and her daughter had clung together, overwhelmed and bewildered, like sole survivors on a shipwreck.
She’d called him with the news, obviously. Well, tried to, anyway. She had left the news on his voicemail because he never took her calls. She’d sent him a card too, and some photos of her beautiful girl (
beautiful girl), face like a fuzzy peach, eyes tight shut, dreamy milky smile playing around her lips. Alice knew – absolutely knew – that once Jake saw just how gorgeous, how utterly enchanting their daughter was, he’d be back.
She’d waited until the last possible day to register Iris’s birth because she’d hoped Jake would sweep in at the final hour – his greatest romantic lead role yet – so that they could discuss baby names together. She felt unqualified to bestow a name on their daughter without his help. What if she chose a name and he didn’t like it?
‘Then it’s his hard cheese, isn’t it?’ her mum had sniffed. ‘He’s had more than enough chances. How about Sophie?’
It had plunged Alice into despair, the naming business. It seemed such a huge responsibility to choose a name for another person. What if she got it wrong? ‘Jake used to have a golden retriever called Sophie when he was growing up,’ Alice had replied dolefully. ‘I can’t call her that.’
‘Hmmph, and I bet he treated that dog a damn sight better than he’s treating his own daughter,’ her mum had muttered. ‘How about Rosie, then? That’s pretty.’
pretty, admittedly, but what if she went on to be a lawyer, a politician, an engineer? Was Rosie substantial enough a name? Besides, ‘Rosie’ always made her think of the Websters’ daughter in
and Alice found herself saying it ‘Rurzeh’ as Sally Webster did, to rhyme with ‘jersey’.
The name Iris had come to her at the last. Yes, okay, if she was honest, it was partly because Jake had given her a bunch of irises on their first date. (Alice could still remember the way they’d dripped down her skirt through the soggy paper at the bottom of the bouquet. She’d pretended not to notice at the time.) It was partly the Jake connection, even though she doubted he’d get the link, doubted he even remembered where they’d
on their first date (a sweet little pub just round the corner from the National Theatre).
Flowers aside, there was also something wild and free and romantic about the name Iris. That was what Alice wanted for her daughter. Maybe not so much the wildness (she was already dreading the teenage years – Iris had a ferocious enough temper on her at the age of eight months). Freedom – that was what she hoped Iris would have. Freedom and romance. Two of life’s most wonderful experiences. Until everything went pear-shaped, obviously.
The only thing she’d had from Jake since the split had been a cheque for a lot of money which his manager had forwarded. Jake had sold the Chelsea flat and had given her half the profit. Which was very handy and meant Alice wouldn’t have to work for a while, but all the same . . . There wasn’t even a note from him, just a Post-it from his rotten manager explaining the sale. Big deal.
The last Alice knew of him – via a paragraph in
magazine – was that he was in LA auditioning for something with Orlando Bloom. No doubt her devoted husband would be knobbing every starlet he could get his hands on.
She sighed, ruffling the downy hairs on the back of her daughter’s head. Iris reached out a pink fist and grabbed Alice’s ponytail in return. Tug, tug.
Get over it, Alice. Move on. New start, remember?
She got to her feet. ‘Let’s look round our new start,’ she murmured to Iris, who let go of her hair and began to make sucking motions on Alice’s shoulder, nuzzling the fabric of her T-shirt to one side, in order to get a gummy suction seal on her bare skin. Alice kissed her daughter’s head. It was nice, she reminded herself, having someone else crave her body, her bare skin, even if it wasn’t her husband.
So this was the living room. Why did it look so titchy today, this gloomy little square of space? Cosy, the letting agent had called it, when he’d showed her the cottage the other week. Sweet, Alice had thought to herself back then, gazing around. The windows had been flung open, and there had been fresh white roses in an earthenware jug on the mantelpiece, scenting the room. The person who’d rented it before Alice had had colourful pictures on the walls, photos of grandchildren (she guessed) and bright drapes of material across the sofa. It had felt like a safe place. A place where good things happened.
‘Of course, it’ll be let fully furnished,’ the letting agent had assured her with yet another smarmy smile. And Alice had gazed around at the small oak bookcase stuffed with paperbacks, the rich red rug in front of the fireplace, and the grandchildren beaming out from the photos with their brushed hair and spotless school uniforms, and said, ‘I’ll take it.’
Since then, Alice had stupidly remembered the cheerful accessories of her predecessor whenever she’d thought about moving in. She’d remembered the feel of the place, rather than what lay beneath the cushions and photos and roses.
Now the room seemed bare, with its rough-plastered walls, tiny window and manky greying net curtain blocking out the light with its dirt. There was a telly that looked as if it had been salvaged from the ark – she doubted she’d be able to get E4 on
and dust on the old stone mantelpiece.
The front door, which she’d left open, cast a slant of sunlight over the grubby carpet. The rug had gone, too, of course.
So, suicide-inducing living room aside, what other delights were in store for her here? She hardly dared look now. She’d probably discover there was no running water, or no electricity or something. Why hadn’t she been more thorough about checking over her new home? Why had she been won over by someone’s photos and flowers? What a sucker the letting agent must have thought her.
Into the tiny kitchen she went. It was clean, at least; she could see the faint smears of Flash or something similar on the hob where some well-meaning person had wiped around the gas rings. The bright blue teapot she’d seen on the previous visit had gone, along with the cluster of mugs. No checked tea towel lay drying on the radiator now. The dripping tap competed with a ticking clock as to who could mark time better.
Who lives in a house like this?
Loyd Grossman said in Alice’s head.
Let’s consider the evidence. It’s shabby and small. It’s dingy and dusty. Of course! It’s single-mum loser Alice and fatherless Iris!
Upstairs wasn’t a whole lot cheerier. One titchy bathroom with pink tiles and a smell of mould. (Why hadn’t she noticed those pink tiles? Too busy looking at all the nice toiletries lined up on the shelves probably.) Two dinky bedrooms with ceilings that sloped so sharply Alice considered checking out bargain crash helmets on eBay. She sat on the bed in one of the rooms, the bare mattress prickling her legs, and joggled Iris on her knee, wishing that she’d taken her parents up on their offer to help her move in.
Right now, she wanted her mum to make her a cup of tea and produce a Tupperware box of butterfly cakes from her bag.
Right now, she wanted her dad to be checking the boiler wasn’t about to blow up, and that there was a nice solid lock on the front door.
She wasn’t going to cry. She was
going to cry. She was thirty-five, for heaven’s sake, it wasn’t like she’d never been away from home. It was just that after nine months in the safety of her parents’ house, where the washing and ironing were always done, the fridge was always full, and the hot water was always piping, this felt like a serious crash back down to earth.
She’d been existing in some kind of safety chamber all the time she’d been staying there. A bubble of creature comforts – clean bedding, cups of tea every half an hour, the crossword to tackle with her dad every evening once Iris was asleep. A bubble where she was protected from all the horrors of the real world.
Alice Johnson has left the bubble
, a deep Hollywood voice said in her mind, and she sighed. She just had to get used to normal life again, that was all. She was taking her first wobbling steps alone, after Mum and Dad had helped her along for so many months. She couldn’t help wondering what they would be doing, now that she and Iris had finally moved out. When you spent a lot of time with people, you got to know their rhythms, you tuned into their daily routines. So let’s see, Saturday afternoon. Mum would probably be out in the garden, watering her tomatoes or picking peapods to shell for tea. Dad would be listening to the cricket on the radio while he—
Alice froze. The front door had creaked downstairs. Was that the wind, or had someone just pushed their way past it?
She glanced out of the window. She could see fields and woodland – her brain dimly registered what an amazing view it was – but the trees were dead still. Not even a breeze to ruffle their shaggy green heads.
Her heart thumped as she heard footsteps. Someone was in the house. Someone was coming upstairs.
Now she wished more than ever that her parents were there. Her mum, with her scary line in questions and hard stares. Her dad, with a spanner snatched up from his toolkit.
‘Hello?’ A male voice floated up the stairs. ‘Anybody in?’
She got to her feet, clutching Iris, her hands feeling clammy. ‘Who’s that?’ she called as loudly as she could, trying to sound confident, as if strange men inviting themselves into her house was an everyday occurrence. Well – you know.
‘Gah!’ Iris pronounced, her fingers yanking at Alice’s top and pushing a fold of it into her mouth.
A man appeared in the doorway. ‘Ahh – there you are,’ he said, ducking his head. He looked rather discomfited to see Alice’s bare shoulder and bra strap where Iris was rearranging her T-shirt, and stepped back, whacking himself on the sloped ceiling.
Alice felt her heart slow. If he
a burglar, he was a pretty inept one. She bit her lip, trying not to smile. It was rude to laugh at someone when they’d just crocked themselves, wasn’t it? ‘You want to watch that ceiling,’ she told the man. ‘It creeps up on you, you know.’
He was rubbing his head, smiling back at her. He was quite nice-looking for a burglar, she thought, with his untidy dark hair and open, friendly features. Tall, too – he looked like a giant, hunched over in the small bedroom, reminiscent of Alice in the White Rabbit’s house. Suddenly she felt conscious of the fact that they were both standing here near the bed, two adults in a confined space. He was blocking the doorway, the only exit other than the small square window. She glanced back at it, just in case she needed to escape.
‘I’m Dom,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘Your new neighbour. Well, sort of. I’m down the road anyway. Maud – the old lady who used to live here – she told me there was someone moving in today, so I thought I’d say hello.’
Very friendly. Suspiciously friendly? Alice had become wary of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Particularly male wolves. She gave a polite smile and shook his hand. ‘Hello. I’m Alice,’ she said. She withdrew her hand quickly and returned it to the safety of Iris’s warm body. It had been odd to see her fingers wrapped in another man’s again. His palm felt rough and his skin was brown, unlike Jake’s pristine white never-done-the-washing-up hands. He was probably a farmhand or something, this Dom. She had a sudden image of him stripped to the waist, throwing hay bales onto a trailer, and felt her cheeks surge with colour.
‘Well, nice to meet you,’ she said briskly, hoping the room was gloomy enough for him not to have noticed her blush. ‘I’d better start unpacking.’
Hint taken, he nodded and ducked carefully as he went out of the room. ‘If there’s anything you need, or anything I can help with . . .’ he began saying.
Alice followed him down the stairs. ‘I’m fine, thanks,’ she interrupted.
He didn’t seem to have heard. ‘Shelves putting up, or a cot fitting together for the baby, or . . .’
‘I can put up my own shelves, thanks,’ Alice told him. She didn’t mean to sound so curt, especially as it was a complete lie, but now she wanted him out. Friendly as he was, he felt like an intruder. She wanted to close the front door again and seal herself into the new house as quickly as she could. Just her and Iris, safe and locked in, where no one could get to them.