How could I complain about my life? He gave me three beautiful children and a roof over my head for the last twenty-four years. Where would I be without him? Who would I be without him?
We were sitting silently at the dining table. As usual I could feel nothing but passive tension between us; an invisible concrete wall. I gazed at his familiar forehead as he held the newspaper. I recalled how it was once smooth and evenly toned, but over the years deep lines had furrowed their way in. One beneath the other they symbolised the passage of time, as well as the declining years of our marriage.
I had so many doubts. But why was I so unsure? I just couldn’t put my finger on ‘us’. It was always so difficult to believe him when he said he would be staying late at the office. Was he really working on some unfinished project? Or tenderly loving another woman in her bed? Had I proof of an affair? Not really, there was none, other than my jangling nerves and constant insecurities. And then there were the times when I knew that I was loved and my mind would be soothed and calmed. The slight brush of his hand on my shoulder, or the warmth of a gentle kiss on my cheek before he left each morning for work. It was there, even if it was fleeting.
So I did it right here in front of him, I plucked up the courage and I blurted it out.
‘Carl do you love me?’
There was a pause and a shuffle of paper, but he did not avert his gaze.
‘Yes,’ came the reply.
The starkness of it made me flinch, and I felt moisture pool inside my eyes.
‘Do you really?’ I pressed again.
He sighed, then the concrete finally crumbled between us. He lowered his paper and stared at me with an intensity that almost made me want to kiss him.
‘What is this about Janet? What’s wrong with you today?’ he frowned, and I felt my throat tighten with annoyance.
Why was it always about me? My problem! My insecurities! My fault! I very nearly deflected then, sliding back into my own shell, but instead I rose above the voices in my head.
‘I’m fine. Really. It’s you.’ I paused for a second, allowing time for my next words to sting him.
‘I have to know the truth Carl.’
The statement didn’t appear to shock him. He flinched slightly and lowered his eyes, unable to meet the boldness of my gaze. Perhaps he was wondering how he could turn it all into my problem again.
Pushing his paper aside he stood up and walked across the room to the drinks cabinet. The familiar paunch of his stomach rested on top of it as he leaned over to pour whisky into a glass with an unsteady hand.
In truth, I was not quite ready for the next moment in what would probably become the last chapter of our lives together. It was that dreaded single moment when everything up to now would shatter into one incomprehensible unfinished jigsaw puzzle.
‘Her name is Caroline,’ he blurted out just before gulping down half of the liquid and staring blankly into space.
I stared at him incredulously.
This stranger who stood a few inches away was not the person I had shared a bed with for almost half of his existence. It was not the same man who always winked at me lovingly before chasing our three small children up the stairs and into their beds all those years ago. At the flick of a switch he was not the same man who had sat at my bedside tenderly dabbing at my forehead, as I lay sick and dying with pneumonia. It was not my husband who pledged to God that he would love me for better or for worse. Upon this realisation, something deep inside me snapped and I realised it was my conscience screaming ‘I told you all along.’ I shut the voice down quickly before it consumed me. I needed to be strong. I needed not to be needy. I had to be what a million other emotionally battered wives across the country would be in this very same position.
And then the nausea hit me and I felt pity for this vile middle-aged man. I had to get away from him before I lost control of my senses. I was already walking away when I heard his childlike plea.
‘I’m so sorry Janet. She took over my life, you have no idea!’
He threw the words at me, as though he expected me to understand. As if he required some sympathy. But nothing less than rage flooded my body as I snarled at him.
‘How long Carl, how bloody long has this gone on?’
He sat back onto the leather couch, spilling the rest of his drink down the crisp white shirt I had ironed perfectly for him the night before.
‘Nine years,’ he croaked clinging to an empty glass. ‘Nine bloody years and I can’t get away from her. She won’t let me go Janet, you don’t understand.’
‘What? What are you saying?
I shook with the desire to strangle him. What sort of life had he been leading without me? How many minutes, seconds, and years had I spent lying in my cold bed, whilst he had been secretly warming hers?
‘I will never forgive you.’ I hissed.
‘Please it’s not what you think?’ he cried after me. I knew then that we would soon have to go our separate ways. I couldn’t even cope being in the same room with this monster, let alone in the same house.
I heard him through the wall that night. His sobs reminded me of a wounded animal. Some of the time I wept silently; other times I laughed at him. What a poor pathetic man. I defied sleep in search of answers but none came. Nothing would help me escape the sudden abandonment I felt. I needed to know who she was, what she looked like, her favourite colour, food, dress. And yet, I wanted to know nothing about her at all.
The following morning I waited for him to leave. I caught a glimpse of him trudging across the driveway, still wearing the same whisky-stained shirt. I decided I would gather his belongings and move them into the garage, and then he would probably go to her that evening. Beyond that I couldn’t even contemplate. I walked into his study. A place I had never bothered to enter much before. It was his sanctuary. The harsh smell of his spicy cologne hit me. I felt the saturated essence of him inside the room, and anger twisted my stomach once again. I slumped over his desk and wept, but I knew I had come in here not to weep, but for another purpose.
For an hour I found nothing. I searched high and low in every dusty drawer and cupboard.. Then I reached high up into a crevice at the very back of the wall-to-wall filing cabinet. It was a simple black box really. Nothing to be alarmed about at first, but instinct told me that secrets were usually kept in the darkest of corners.
It was only about the size of a shoe box and I deliberately opened it slowly; extending the calm before the storm. I expected some kind of a letter, an email or some correspondence tightly bound by those tacky perfumed ribbons you see in films. Instead I felt the smooth gloss of a photograph. I reached in and grabbed a whole bundle, and held them up to the light. As I stared at her my brain froze. Shock rooted me to the ground. In every single photograph was a ‘woman’ called Caroline!
Caroline wearing a black negligee with red hearts on the front. I knew it well. It was the one Carl had bought for me on our silver wedding anniversary. I also recognised the ear-rings, they were a beautiful pair of sapphires that my eldest daughter had given to me on my fortieth birthday. I even recognised the hairy paunch of her stomach. It rested quite unattractively on her stockinged thigh as she leaned over her desk in a playful fashion, teasing the camera. The soft blonde curls of her fake wig cascaded over her stubbly legs.
There was the familiar wink too in one of the close ups, that almost sent me reeling as I noted how perfectly she had applied the glittery eyeshadow to set off the various blue tones in her eyes. The same eyes that had looked into mine for decades.
All in front of the backdrop of Carl’s night time office. For nine years the window blinds had been tightly closed to the rest of the world, and the wool cleverly pulled over my eyes.
So it was here Carl became Caroline. My husband the mistress, and I the fool.
A tear fell from my cheek and landed on Caroline’s provocative expression; stunned with the realisation that everything I had wanted to know about this woman I already knew, and yet I wished never to discover her existence at all.