(This episode is told from Oliver’s point of view.)
The phone buzzes in my hand, and I look down at the telephone number on the screen.
“I have to take this one,” I say to her. Even to my own ears, I sound apologetic. “It’s someone from work.”
As I get up from the sofa and head to the kitchen to take the phone call, she pouts and says, “You don’t have to lie to me. I know it’s her on the phone. Libby.”
* * *
Libby’s voice is echoey. She must be in the study which is empty at the moment, ready for its transformation next week into habitable living space. I love our new house — more than I thought I ever would — but it is an almighty money pit.
I pull the kitchen door shut so that our conversation won’t be heard. Or, more to the point, so that Libby won’t hear the other voice.
“I’m here, love.”
“Oh good. I thought the line was breaking up for a minute there. Are you all settled into your hotel?”
“As settled as you can be in a hotel room. It’s no fun, being on the road.”
“No fun for me, either,” she says. Poor Libs. I’m not at home much, these days. “What do you say we go away for a couple of days when you’re back? One of those indoor water resorts, maybe, where we can pretend it’s summer? I’m so fed up of the snow.”
Actually, it sounds hideous. The last thing I want to do after a fortnight on the road is to go away again to another hotel, even if it’s with Libs and the kids. Today, I had a six-hour flight from Boston to Heathrow, checked into an airport hotel for the next two weeks, and immediately got back in the car for an hour and drove here. Not that Libs knows about the last hour of that journey, of course; as far as she’s concerned, I’m still holed up in an anonymous room at the Heathrow Radisson.
A clattering of glasses behind me from the cosy living room, and the faint pop of a cork being ejected from a wine bottle. I know she’s been saving a special bottle of Rioja for my visit – it’s one from the year I turned 21. I cup the speaker part of the phone with my hand in case Libby can hear the sounds as well.
“Libs, can I phone you back in a couple of hours? I’m expecting a call from work — everyone’s still in the office where you are, obviously — and then I’ll need to get a few jobs done before they all go home.”
Libby agrees cheerfully and without question; if I felt like a turd before, I feel like King Turd now.
A few whispered niceties and exchanged promises of commitment, and I click the screen to finish the call.
Back in the living room, I pick up the glass of ’97 Rioja from the coffee table.
“Cheers.” I smile at her, but she’s already spoiling for a fight.
“You could have left that phone call,” she says, pouting again. Christ, this woman has a lower lip like a soup plate. “You didn’t have to answer it. We were having such a lovely time together.”
I briefly close my eyes.
“Don’t be silly,” I say. “Libby called to make sure I’d arrived safely. She’d be worried if I didn’t answer.”
Not to mention suspicious.
A sniff, a sharp tilt of the head to point her nose at the ceiling. We are past the pouting phase of the sulk now, and she’s going to make me suffer. I should be used to this by now and therefore able to ignore her, but I can’t. I seem to have stereotyped myself into the role of Peacekeeper.
“Come on,” I say, annoyed to hear a hint of pleading in my voice. “Come on. Let’s not spoil it. We don’t have that much time together.”
“And whose fault is that?” She fold her arms and stands in front of the fireplace.
“It’s no one’s fault!” I say. “It’s just how it is! I can’t change things. You’re here, and I’m over there, in Woodhaven.”
“You could change things. If you really wanted, you could change things.”
This is getting to be such hard work. I came over for a pleasant evening, to drink some wine, to have something to eat, to make up for the dreadful argument we had last time I saw her, but here we are, arguing again already.
“I couldn’t change things,” I say. “Not yet. I’m under contract to stay there for a few more years, as well you know.”
And frankly, it’s easier for me to see her in England while Libby is safely in Woodhaven. Keep the two of them apart. Libby would be none too pleased if she knew where I was today.
There’s a silence, and she stares down into her wine glass.
She seems to be getting over her tantrum — until she speaks again.
“You could always leave her. I have no idea why you married her in the first place.”
* * *
It’s so difficult, juggling a life with two women: Libby and her. I don’t know how other men manage, although plenty do, I suppose.
But I can’t let her last comment pass me by. Even though there are things I have to sort out with her after our last meeting – things that Libby won’t ever know about — I can’t let her get away with that last remark.
I stand up and rummage in my jeans pocket for the car keys.
“Right, that’s it. I’m off. I’ll come back when you’re in a nicer mood. Give me a ring at the hotel when you feel like being more rational.”
I head out of the living room to the front door, the one I painted white, years ago; the one that still has a gouge in it where Jack rammed it with his little wooden tricycle, the one through which, for a laugh, I carried Libby, hours after our wedding.
I’ve almost shut the door behind me, when her words run through my mind again — “You could always leave her” — and suddenly, I’ve had enough of being nice and being reasonable and trying to please everyone. Grow a pair, Oliver, for Chrissakes. Just this once.
I open the front door again. She’s sobbing in the living room, but I’m not taking any notice.
“And when I come back,” I shout; the sobs ebb a little, because she’s probably waiting for me to apologize and say it’s somehow my fault that she’s being a vindictive, possessive cow, “that spare bedroom had better be empty of all wildlife and reptiles, like you told me and Libs it would be, three months ago. Do you hear me?”
The sobs stop completely. I wait a second, nod to myself, and softly pull the door shut behind me.
Yes. My mother heard me, all right.
© 2014 Kate Allison