My husband always liked to be the last one to check up on the children. He would also make sure the door was locked and the cooker switched off. All the while, I would lay in bed, so carefree I’d usually be asleep by the time he got back. My husband brought me coffee to bed and bought me flowers every first Sunday of the month. He washed the dishes and took the dog out in the morning, because he knew I like to sleep in. He seldom even raised his voice.
I was twenty-two. A mere child yet; there was something deceivingly mature about the age. A sense of self-knowledge, a road stretching behind you, past mistakes you were able to reflect on as a wiser, more mature person. I liked being confused and sad because everyone around me seemed to be. I didn’t understand the world I was living in, I didn’t even like it, yet the very thought of not being able to fit in meant death. I remembered the days when I thought I wanted to be a wife and a mother, and found that I was now having to force myself to want it. That I wished for something so badly, something that was vague, and fleeting and incredibly definite in but one respect: that it was impossible to achieve. You might say I had it coming, that I was actually looking for something like him to happen, a coming of age token of sorts. But now...now I think it was destiny.
The day was a fine day in May. You really could not ask for a better one. Harold woke up with his usual ease and took Barry out for a stroll. Barry, our Pekinese of the most wretched temper, was always at his best behavior around Harold. I think it was my husband’s soothing presence; his deep, calm voice, and his effortless assertiveness that had such a positive effect, even on the slightly psychotic Barry. They returned to find me already up, in the kitchen fixing breakfast. Naturally, I’d barely slept a wink all night, although Harold swore to have heard me snore. Barry charged at the rim of my pink robe straight from the door, yapping and gnawing the fluffy fabric. Harold followed, put his hands on my shoulders and gave me a kiss on the head. He glanced at the bacon sizzling in the pan with excitement. Special days are small acts of kindness.
‘You still have to eat your grapefruit,’ I said pointing a fork to the bowl waiting on the table.
‘I will, I will. Just nice to see an old friend.’
He patiently ate all of it making sour faces, but when I gave him the eggs and bacon, he didn’t seem so thrilled all of a sudden. As though the sole promise of this feast had been much sweeter. I sat down and tended to my tea. I wasn’t going to eat anything, as we had a brunch planned at Jamie’s. The bacon looked far too tempting though, so I had to avert my gaze by checking my planner.
‘All set, is it? There isn’t much you can do now I suppose.’
Harold meant well of course. But to a mother whose daughter was about to get married the words were rather hurtful. I asked, spitefully, if there was something wrong with the bacon. He said that it was perfect and offered me some. I said no and told him I ought to pack a few more things before I leave for Jamie’s.
The last time I saw him was in late May. We were sitting on the riverbank, our legs hanging in the air. His feet were only just bigger than mine. He was smoking and talking and I stared at my new shoes. He said he would never propose to a woman, as he would think it degrading for his partner to be handled like some sort of prize. Then he confidently assumed I must want the whole package, the fancy, dramatic engagement, white wedding, my Pappy having to give me away. He was playing with my fingers and took off a ring I always wore. A present from my mother. For a split-second, and I swear it was not longer than that, a foolish hope formed inside me.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Nothing like that. Especially not the engagement. But I would like to be asked. I think that I will undoubtedly love my husband more than he will ever love me, and I suppose I would want to have that one proof of his love.’
He laughed disapprovingly and tried to put his arm around me. I pulled myself away as he tried to hold me close. Immediately I was cold.
Chilled, not cold. I’d told them a thousand times that they were meant to take it out of the fridge at least fifteen minutes before serving, but as soon as I arrived Sarah gave me an ice cold glass. The buffet had been laid out majestically with fruit, pancakes, salads and cakes. All of the girls were happy to eat now, so that once they finally squeezed into their tight-fitted dresses, they would be happy to eat nothing at all at the reception. My Jamie looked more beautiful than ever. A photograph can, of course, never compare in instances like this one, but I very much doubt I looked nearly as beautiful as Jamie on our day. She was glowing, happy, exhilarated and yet surprisingly calm. She took a lot after Harold, and his patience and stability were also her greatest virtues. Naturally, there was also the little detail of marrying the right man.
‘Have the strawberry walnut salad, Mum! I had to fight all of these hungry goats off just to save you a spoonful.’
‘If you don’t like it I’ll happily clean your plate!’
They giggled and shouted and paced around the suite like poodles. Even Josie, my younger one was not her usual quiet self, but joined in the fun and the general merriment. Sarah, the maid of honor seemed to be in such high spirits, I began to wonder if having so much champagne would prove to be a mistake. But they were all darling girls, so kind and attentive, even an old bat like me didn’t feel left out. When I said I didn’t want any champagne, Sarah asked if I would prefer a nice pint and roared with laughter.
We got two pints of cider and took them back to the riverside. I never cared for cider much, except on particular days. And this warm, late afternoon sunset by the river, was one of them. He was talking, without stopping, about anything and everything. Chain smoking and drinking cider, laughing at his own jokes and answering his own questions. He never tried to embrace me again. It was only halfway through my own pint that I realized I’d barely said a word.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Nothing,’ I answered. ‘Why would you say that?’
‘I can literally hear you thinking. What are you thinking about?’
‘Nothing. Really. About what you’re saying.’
There was a pause there. A long pause in which even he didn’t say anything. I couldn’t bring myself to look him in the eyes and anticipate a kiss. Remember this pause.
‘Remember this day,’ Sarah said raising her glass. ‘Remember this moment, rather. When you are a free woman, surrounded by your friends and family… well its best part anyway. Remember it and treasure the memory in the long, boring, dreary days to come.’
Josie and the two other bridesmaids shouted ‘boo’ and threw a few nuts at Sarah. She laughed again and gave Jamie a big squeeze. Jamie was never one to get sentimental, but I could tell how excited she was. She had the very same look, at her first piano recital. She was terrified, only six years old, and when she sat at that grand piano she started to shake. Harold squeezed my hand all the way through. But she got to the end without a single mistake, got up and smiled at us. It’s so easy for a parent to feel proud, but there is nothing quite as seeing your child proud of themselves.
‘So Mrs. Peel… any last minute advice from a woman with such a great marital experience?’
Sarah was grinning, with her long, horse-like teeth, looking right into my eyes. She was never the brightest of girls, but she had impeccable timing I think. And a kind of sensitivity that most intelligent people lack. She saw right through people, without even realizing it. I lowered my eyes for a second, perhaps unable to look at that decisive young girl without blushing. When I looked up, I could see my baby looking at me with her big, hopeful eyes, exactly the way her father had always looked at me. When he said he loved me the first time and I didn’t say it back, when he proposed and when he asked if we were going to keep the baby.
‘The truth is,’ my voice weak and shaking, ‘That every marriage is different. And there really isn’t much I can say as this voice of experience you take me for. Love him, dear… until you no longer do.’
Silence. The first one that whole evening. He finally remembered to take a breath. I didn’t want to finish my drink, but somehow, words stopped flowing. And after I practically forced it down my throat, we finally looked at each other. For a moment. The truth is I was never sure who’d look away first. I am still notoriously unable to endure the glare of another person. And he, well, the truth is he never stopped peering at me. Yet I’m still not sure he ever looked at or through me.
He jumped to his feet and said he desperately needed cigarettes. I thought of the one he would smoke after, the one I took a drag from as well, the one that made our mouths taste exactly the same. I walked obediently, leaving my hand to hang awkwardly by his side and noticing he didn’t try to hold it. My heart sank the minute I said the words. Like pulling myself away from his embrace, after all this time I still don’t know why I did it. I said there’s a shop open by the train station.
‘So,’ he said this time definitely looking through me. ‘What do you want to do? Back to mine or…’
‘I guess I can go home. Since I’m at the station already.’
‘Sure. I have an early morning anyway.’
The very last scene of The Graduate. You need a new dream. And it’s terrifying and soul-destroying and my god may no one ever get what they truly want! Perhaps I thought that at the time. Thinking what might happen next, how I could feel. I don’t know, it’s hard to tell now. Maybe I was scared it felt too good to be true, a dream I had to wake up from eventually. And so I pinched myself a little too hard and woke up. It was the last time I saw him, and when he shouted ‘bye’ I didn’t even turn to look at him. Perhaps all I’d have seen would’ve been the emptiness of a broken dream. Before I realized, I was sitting, staring through the window of a moving train. I felt my eyes become damp. Unlike Dustin Hoffman in the back of that bloody bus, in the back of a train, I knew exactly what I wanted.
Harold squeezed my hand throughout the entire ceremony. It was past three when we caught a taxi home and it started to rain. He looked so sweet, watching the raindrops run down the glass, with that dreamy boyish look. There was no sweeter man than my Harold. No man on earth who’d ever love me so much. Exactly for what I am, no pretences. He held my hand again and I looked at his fingers, that weren’t exactly short, but average. And I looked at his thighs, that have thickened over the years and still remained average. I caressed his balding head and leaned on his shoulder.
When I was quite young, there was this Chekhov story I adored. A story about a love built, a love that grew out of companionship, the warmth between two human beings, a love that needn’t be the product of some wild, childish infatuation. An old woman kissing her husband’s bald head. A woman once in love. And a very long time ago, before I’d ever been twenty-two, I used to say - I want that. Nothing fancy, just someone’s bald head to kiss, a man who will love me for who I am. And, sure enough, I found my Harold.
And here I am now, at this very moment, writing the words in my head. I’m sitting beside my best friend, my head on his chest, listening to the gentle beat of his good heart. My darling companion, the father of my children, the most important person in my life. And again, my eyes feel damp, and a similar kind of fear haunts the inside of me. I realize, with terror, in the back of a car, exactly what I no longer want.