He’s late, again. Like every other night. Liz grips the top of the armchair as she feels her stocking snag on a splintered corner of parquet flooring. Steadying herself, she resumes her circuit of the front room – back and forth, back and forth – every footstep in time with the cheerless ticking of the grandfather clock.
“Where is he?” she whispers, pausing to gaze through the bay window and across the darkening garden. The gate is open and pinned against the low brick wall, ready for him to turn in and park outside the front door.
She rolls back her cardigan sleeve and checks the time on her watch. It’s way after six o’clock, almost seven. He should be home by now. It’s not like they live far from his office.
… tick, step…
… tick, step…
Perching on the arm of the chair, she watches a double decker bus shudder to a stop in the street outside, its windows twinkling in the gloom. Her eyes follow the passengers as they spill out onto the pavement and scatter into the darkness.
Everyone seems to be in a rush to get home. Everyone except you…
It’s been like this for weeks now. She’s lost count of the times she’s waited in the shadows until she’s seen his car headlights flash across the driveway. Then she’s hurried into the kitchen and wrenched open a book, pretending not to notice how late he is.
It’s just she thought… no, she hoped, he’d be back early. Especially tonight. But perhaps he’s forgotten it’s their wedding anniversary. Or maybe he doesn’t consider thirty years together something worth celebrating.
Liz trudges through to the kitchen and blinks as she flicks on the overhead fluorescent lights. After blowing out the candles in the center of the table, she switches off the oven. There’s no point in even attempting to rescue the stew now. The steak will be dry and leathery. All that effort for nothing.
She squeezes her eyes shut. She won’t cry. She won’t. In all the years they’ve been together, she’s never had cause to doubt him, but now?
…. Now, he’s never here. Always at work or the gym. And even when he is home, he’s closeted away in his office working on ‘something important’.
In a moment of desperation, she’d googled ‘how to tell if your partner is cheating?’. She’d nodded her head in agreement as she’d scanned the article, but by the time she’d finished reading, she’d felt quite sick.
Liz collapses into one of the dining table chairs and stares at her silent phone. Shaking her head, she wonders what she’s done wrong to cause her husband’s chilly disinterest. The only time she sees him animated these days is when he’s talking about his personal trainer Tania and how she puts him through his paces at the gym. She’s even caught him sucking in his stomach and flexing his arm muscles in the bedroom mirror. It would almost be amusing if it wasn’t happening to her.
Oh, where are you?
Liz snatches up her phone. She’s going to do it. She’s going to ring Sally his PA. The call connects after one ring, giving her no time to change her mind.
“Sally hi. It’s Liz, Toms’ wife….” She hesitates and coughs to cover the lengthening pause.
“Mrs. Bailey? Is everything okay? I mean, I know it’s…”
“No, everything’s fine. I was just wondering if you’d heard anything from Tom. He’s late back from the conference in Plymouth and…”
“Plymouth? Tom isn’t in…”
“He isn’t? … but I thought…. Listen, never mind, Sally, my mistake. I probably misunderstood what Tom told me. Thanks so much."
She ends the call before the other woman has chance to reply, flinging the handset down. The phone spirals across the table, stopping just short of the edge. She leaves it there, dangling.
Why can’t you just ring me for a change and let me know where you are?
Liz jumps as the front doorbell rings, and she rushes through to the hallway.
“Why don’t you use your key?” she said, as she unlocks the door and swings it open. “Oh, I thought you were Tom.”
“Hi Liz,” said Isobel, shuffling from foot to foot and clutching a large brown package. “I think the postman put this through the wrong letterbox.”
She hands over the envelope and Liz stares at the typed label on the front. It’s addressed to her, but she never gets any post. It’s always for Tom.
“I meant to say,” said Isobel, pausing and biting her lip. “How sorry we were and that we’re only next door if you need anything. Anything at all…”
Liz looks up at her neighbor and nods. What were they sorry about?
“Well, I’ll be off. I’ve got to pick Sophie up from swimming in half an hour. But please remember what I said. We’re just next door.”
The younger woman strides away from the doorstep but pauses when she reaches the pavement. She turns and raises her hand, giving a brief wave before stepping into her own driveway and unlocking the car.
Liz closes the front door but peers through the spy hole and watches her neighbor reverse into the street and disappear towards the town center.
Maybe you’ll drive by one another as you’re headed home, Tom?
Liz looks down to check her watch and is surprised to find herself clutching the envelope. She’d forgotten she was even holding it.
She leans up against the hallway wall as she rips open the package. A couple of brochures for Peru tumble to the floor and there’s also a handwritten note tucked inside. As she reads the words, Liz sinks to the floor and howls.
“Mum? Mum are you there?”
Liz startles at the sound of her daughter’s voice and the creak of the backdoor. Tom should have greased that hinge. It makes such a dreadful racket.
“Mum, why are you sitting down there? And where’s Aunt Jane?”
Liz stares up at her daughter as she hooks the strap of her handbag over the newel post and throws her coat over the top. Emily drops to the floor next to her and runs her hand through her hair.
Her eyes are so like yours.
“Mum. You promised me you wouldn’t be on your own, not today. I thought Aunt Jane was coming round?”
“She got called into work. They’re short staffed again and…”
Emily slaps her hand down on the carpet: “But she promised! She promised she wouldn’t leave you today…. Dad’s funeral was only last week.”
“I’m fine, Emily. Really, I am.”
“Mum, you’re not fine, you’re…” she breaks off, burying her face in her hands, her body shaking. “You won’t even acknowledge Dad’s dead. You just pace the house, waiting for him to come home from work, waiting to hear his his key turning in the lock but he’s not coming back mum. He’s gone!”
Liz takes hold of her daughter’s hand, stroking it with her thumb: “I’m sorry Emily. I’m so sorry. I feel like I’ve been so disconnected from everything. I’ve spent weeks worrying about your dad, about us. He’s been so distant and far away. I honestly thought he was going to leave me. But then I opened this, and it feels like your dad’s finally home. Look.”
She passes the letter to her daughter and closes her eyes, smiling to herself as the tears trickle down her cheeks.
“My darling Liz. Happy Anniversary! It’s taken me ages to arrange this, but I think thirty years together is something to celebrate. I know you’ve always wanted to trek the Inca Trail, so I’ve booked two tickets for us fly to Peru in August. Hopefully all these hours at the gym will mean I’m fit enough to keep up with you! Here’s to us! All my love, Tom.”
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