Her Greatest Mistake – Sarah Simpson

Desperate to escape the seat belt, slicing through my neck. Vulnerability restrains me, despite my being choked by murderous primeval thoughts. Shuddering with each acceleration, gripping tighter with each perilous twist. An outlook flaunting only shades of black, unrelenting rain, mercilessly pummelling its prey. * What befitting, magnificent conditions for the occasion. Such power on the outside, yet so calm within. The erratic driving easing my pain, liberating my soul. Laughter rolls upward from my gut, as I see the ef ect it has on her. Teach the bitch a lesson. For what she has done to me. I of ered her a chance. Wretchedness rises and burns. I press my foot harder to the accelerator. To control. While she looks on.

My wife the traitor. * Sodden falling leaves and earthly debris obscure the glass, only a subtle cloaking for what lies ahead. I hold my breath, swelling my lungs, soaking up the acrid stench of burning rubber, blistering metal. Sweaty hands slithering on cold leather. I try to plead, please, please, but a chalky dryness strangles each word. My gut retches with the taste of fear. I hear the windscreen wipers at full assault. Reciting my fate, over and over. Shallow, rapid panting thrusts my heart at its cage, pushing against the flimsiness of my incongruent T-shirt. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

To you, to them, it isn’t this way. I’m slipping, sliding into a helpless state. Any reasoning defeated by futility. Truth battered to the floor by lies. A cognitive crossfire feeds my mind, pilfering control, shutting down intelligence. Deep into my limbic system I plunge. Always the prisoner. Into the dark, I fall. I realise now, someone is going to die. Chapter One One week after my story… I open an eye at a time, my head being heavy, stuffed with cotton wool.

Bleached, dense fluff smothers any intelligence, any rationale and all of my problem-solving capabilities. I’ve been here before, so many times, this feeling of being unique but not in a good way. These special feelings, mingling with my past confining me to loneliness. We’ve needed to become friends, get used to each other, a sad but expedient relationship. Maybe we can never be separated; our way of being is all too entwined. Even so, an extra convincing tiredness joins us today and I can’t be bothered to fight it. I’m bone-weary from all the belligerence, game-playing and secrecy. Dog-tired of being isolated by the never-ending lies and imprudent perceptions. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. But then, from the outside in, it isn’t this way.

I drag myself up and float across the wooden floors with a need to be close to something, finding myself in Jack’s empty room. Apparently lured to the mobile sitting on his window sill, sneering without a conscience. I pick it up. I still don’t know for sure who was in my home the other day; the day they left something dangling in the air. I’ve kind of accepted this, what a peculiar response. Or is it? I understand it should be, but it doesn’t change the fact; it now feels ordinary. This is in part what has muted me; my world was and is my normal, but to others, if they knew of it, it would be weird and twisted. Being a prisoner of this world for so long, I’m quite the institutionalised. Perhaps I can never live a normal life; for normal now appears alien. Whatever normal is.

So, I play at life as I’m unable to live it. I gently place Jack’s deadly mobile on his chest of drawers and peel back the undisturbed duvet protecting his bed. I climb in, and curl up, wrapping the duvet tightly around me, inhaling his vulnerable scent. If someone was in our home, could this mean there is more to come? That we’ve come full circle? Is someone now looking for the new truth? Or is this still about the same old lies, same old unanswered questions? Or is it just me and it’s all just cotton wool? Isn’t it strange when everything you think you know evaporates? When truths have been held hostage by seeping lies. Then, the moment you realise, it’s never been about what you know, but what you don’t know. The world you perceive isn’t really the world itself, but simply your story of the world, in a twinkling of fragile time. I let my eyelids fall heavy. Some time ago, people used to refer to us as a broken home. Why? They got it so wrong. It was broken before, not afterwards.

When we lived in a broken marriage; broken vows, a relationship drip-fed by abuse. But our home after we’d escaped wasn’t broken. It was new, fragile, other-worldly even as we trod uncertain steps, but not broken. You were broken, you always were. I was a fool not to notice the fine stitching at first, holding your independent components together. It was too late by the time I did. Part human, part robot, that’s you. Smooth-talking hunter. I feel no comfort in believing I’m not alone with my story. Someone else out there gets cotton wool too, sees the truth as I do.

Where context is everything. Hindsight is futile. I squeeze my eyelids tightly to push away the glimpses of that night, suffocated by vulnerability, the acrid stench of burning rubber. I’m holding my breath again. Sometimes, I’m too afraid to breathe; at times I’ve wished I’d stop. I can still feel my hands sweating, sliding on cold leather. I have solitary moments when I ache to scream, to be heard, but my words jar and still – a chalky dryness strangles me. The tang of bile repulses me. It’s been a while but I can still taste the sourness of fear. I think I always will.

I think we both will. Our past being the backbone of all we know. Sedentary remains, rotting flesh hidden under floorboards but too pungent to ignore. I watched you that night, how calm you were. Your uncertainty forcing your foot harder to the pedal proffered you some mislaid control, didn’t it? I mean, knowing the effect it was having on me. Your steady upturned lips, fighting back your laughter. Inwardly flying high. Though it was never just about that night, more about the lives you stole. It didn’t happen overnight, but by stealth. Day by day.

Year on year. I tug at the duvet to cover my asphyxiated mind. It wasn’t meant to be this way; I’d intended we’d be free by now. But at the very last minute you stole that too, didn’t you? Now, I fear it’s all too late; for me it is anyway. Three years ago, I thought I could finally change things. I was wrong. Chapter Two Cornwall 2016 A little over three years ago we escaped to Cornwall. We simply packed our belongings, discarding the contaminated, and closed the weighted door firmly behind us. I bequeathed our dirty possessions to appreciative good causes. Soiled by life; lies and debauchery.

It was all far too easy to do. Sometimes, the most difficult deeds are also the easiest to embrace. We both yearned for new beginnings. To cast away from the dark waters that nearly consumed us. Jack was just ten, but had witnessed and heard things to choke his conscience for the rest of his life. Like a polluted smog. My son Jack; how unfair he was born into this. He’s fourteen now; it’s been almost ten years since he was in your grip. The white-collar psychopath, clever, manipulating and sinister. My ex-husband.

Jack’s father. You embezzled years from us both. You took me in, chewed me up and tried to swallow the mangled remains. Until I hit you where it hurt the most, and you spat me out. Before vanishing. So many years, looking over our shoulders, waiting, wondering. You didn’t return. Are you dead? I truly hope so. And so does Jack; he told me so. I hope you died a slow and painful death.

I suspect I’m not the only one who lives in hope. It wasn’t always this way. I only want to look after you, you told me. I believed you, believed you loved me. Chosen and special. Only now, I understand there was always something not quite right about you. Initially, I found you to be sweet and protective. Unaware it, I, was all part of your game, mistaking your rule for care, your lies for truths. I was nothing more than a tool; you needed a wife. In actuality, you were not capable of loving anyone but yourself.

Eventually, Jack became your tool too, to keep me even further under your jurisdiction. Imprisoning me for further years. Deluded, I stood. By the time I opened my eyes, it was too late. We followed the conventional path of dating, to marriage. The trodden path of Hansel and Gretel, with no obvious way back. You laid the way, I stupidly followed. Though the birds didn’t eat the crumb trail; I cleared it myself. Blinded by the charm, flattered by the engineered care and hoodwinked by my virtue. You’re mine now, you’d tell me softly, and I will take care of everything.

You have everything, you’re so lucky, friends would say from their observation point. Friends, whom I later betrayed; let go of. Because I was nothing more than a prisoner in a figurative cell, with no key. I couldn’t accept visitors; I was too ashamed, too lost. The worst I have to live with is knowing it was me who locked myself in. Now, it makes me shiver, my skin crawl. How could I have been so pathetically stupid? I truly hate hindsight. We were married in less than a year. Fraudulent vows disguised by context. The perfect couple, weren’t we? Two professionals in their twenties, everything ahead of us.

Wasted dreams and fruitless hopes fell at the mercy of power. Greed. Ego. It only took a year to tread the path to my cell. Then, soon after, the arrival of Jack opened my heart but firmly locked the door. Trapped. If you could only learn to behave yourself, Eve, you wouldn’t need to be punished, you’d kindly advise me. You know, you only have yourself to blame, if only you would do as you’re told. Be less pig-headed. Argumentative.

I still wonder – how can an apparently intelligent person find herself as ensnared as I did? This still bites at my scars. But things aren’t always what they seem: we don’t always tell the truth; we don’t always see the truth. Even when we’re honest, the truth deceives. Easier to lie. Often to ourselves, but especially to others. Everything turned black; this was the last time we saw you. That night in the car, etched into my mind. Not the only scar but one of the deepest. The screeching brakes, the cracking of my skull, then you were gone. I can’t remember anything after the impact; until the bright fluorescent lights, only subdued by the high-pitched bleeping.

The harsh smell of disinfectant. Fear smacked me across the face and woke me: where is Jack? To this day, I’m not sure how much Jack has buried away in his subconscious I don’t think he realises either. Time will tell. Time isn’t always a healer; it can be an incubator too. You disappeared after this. Though you made one final visit to our house. Sometime between the disinfectant and us returning, or at least someone did. The house was ransacked. I knew what the perpetrator was looking for. They never would have found it; it was submerged deep in the dirt.

A little like me: deep in the dirt. I didn’t call the police; it was too soon. Why would I hand over my most valuable weapon? You were not the only one with something to hide. For some years after, Jack and I tried hard to rebuild, but our existence in Warwickshire was soiled. It was no longer the happy place I grew up in, deep in family traditions and teenage escapades. Home-made picnics under the sweeping willows gracing the river Avon. Yearly thespian visits to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Then, frivolous, drunken nights queuing outside the nightclub on the river, having sampled alcoholic pleasures from a pub on the riverbank. All became smothered memories. Instead, palpitations would grab me, simply driving familiar lanes, or strolling through the town.

Needlessly pumping adrenaline. As if you were still with me. Maybe you were? Watching and waiting. Either way, we were unable to escape the superficial grasps you left behind. We needed a fresh start, but could that ever really be? When lies and dark secrets churned like pea soup. I continued to lie, hoping to convince me and Jack everything would be okay. Deep down I knew it wasn’t over. Psychopaths never give in, never forget. In your eyes, I owe you, don’t I? If you were still alive, you would find us. Barefaced.

Unashamed. Bastard. Chapter Three Before I observed you getting ready most mornings; the 06.00 rise through to the 07.10 departure paralleled a military operation. Hindsight nags me: how did I not see the signs? Everything planned, nothing happened in your world. When I think back, even simple bathroom procedures exposed fanatical behaviours. Me, an expert on the human mind? You stood, a white fluffy towel wrapped around your waist. Steam filling the air. ‘What the…?’ You interrogated your aftershave balm.

‘Bloody cleaner, for Christ’s sake, why do I have to be landed with the thickest cleaner? Leave my goddam things where they belong, woman. Have you ever wondered why she’s just a sodding cleaner? Jesus, how hard can it possibly be?’ You always hate the cleaners, I thought. In your eyes, she meddled with your day, challenged your authority. Your eyes met mine through the mirror. ‘Are you listening to me, Eve?’ ‘Of course,’ I told you. ‘I was just…’ wondering if Jack was awake, I was going to say. ‘If I wanted my shaving balm there, I would have bloody put it there, wouldn’t I? How many times before she gets it?’ You caressed the lavish ointment into smooth skin. ‘You’d think even she has the intelligence to work it out. How am I supposed to get ready when my stuff is all over? Simple-minded idiot.’ You grabbed at my face wash and launched it from your perfect shelf into my basket on the floor.

‘That’s not even mine. Eve, perhaps if you were not so bloody chaotic with your things, she might have got it right.’ Past tense, the cleaner was in trouble. I liked my chaotic basket. I wanted a home, not a clinic. I wanted a husband, not a computer. Your personal vindictiveness towards others made me blush. But then, you didn’t often reveal it in person; you were far too shrewd. Everything occurred behind the scenes. Meddling cleaners came and went.

So did the gardeners, window cleaners and anyone else who interfered. Frequently replaced, discarded as easily as a once-used dish cloth. ‘Having strangers in the house… It’s not right. I don’t trust any of them. Perhaps, if you were at home a little more often, we—’ ‘I work too, Gregg!’ ‘Hmm. So you say.’ ‘I think you’re being a little harsh, to be honest, if—’ ‘For pity’s sake, why do you always have to try and understand people? Drives me insane.’ You moved towards your dressing area, running frustrated hands through your hair. ‘Get shot of her before I return this evening.’ ‘But she hasn’t really done anything wrong.

And she really needs the money. You need to give her a chance; it’s only been a couple of weeks! I’m sure—’ ‘Wrong. I’m not required to do anything. I’m not required to give anyone a chance. She should have thought about needing the money a little more, shouldn’t she? Not my problem. Call a different agency, then get rid. Stop making excuses. I sometimes wonder whose side you’re on. Jesus. Stupid woman!’ Me or her? I wondered.

What must it be like to be so without conscience, never giving a second thought of repercussions for people? How much lighter and freer must you feel? Freedom or isolation? But then I’d learned: you could never feel isolated, could you? Not with so much ego filling the void. You never lost sleep over such issues, as I would. But then, as you often bragged, ‘Sleep is for the weak. I can survive on a few hours if necessary!’ To be fair, you often did. Were you part robot? A cog for a brain, a casket for a heart? You were senior partner material in a respected firm of solicitors. You worked ridiculously long hours, demanding the obligatory networking and entertaining at extortionate costs to the clients. There were other things too, though I wasn’t supposed to know about those. And I didn’t initially, leaving my conscience so much lighter then too. But as time bellyached on, I heard things I shouldn’t have. Clumsy speak of clandestine meetings.

I heard murmurs; I wished I hadn’t. These changed us for good. I say us, but there never really was an us, was there? ‘Eve? Where are you this morning? You look vacant.’ I bit my tongue. ‘I’m listening.’ How you relished being the centre of attention, exhibiting a burly confidence, fine-tuned into mists of abundant charm. But to me you were becoming a monster, banqueting on compliments and far-reaching praise. This was your fuel, was it not? In so many ways I saw a walking contradiction, a complete enigma, but in others, a straight and concrete operator. You led without followers being aware. A consistent crowd of disciples and hangers-on.

Callous motives lay behind those eyes. Nobody else seemed to notice. You removed your trousers from the overused press. ‘You think too much,’ you said. I ignored you. ‘Did you sort things with Andy yesterday?’ I asked. You fished out your belt from the wardrobe. ‘Huh. Of course. I just told him – we’re working late tonight.

’ Flashing a smile at yourself in the full-length mirror. ‘He wasn’t amused – “I can’t, I’ve family matters, Gregg.” So I replied, “Okay, fine. But you really should have mentioned your lack of commitment before.” “But, Gregg, I’ve worked late for the last two months. It’s my daughter’s birthday,” ’ you mimicked your colleague as you fastened your tie, still smiling. ‘I told him, “As long as we’re both reading from the same sheet, realise where your priorities lie. Of course, join your family. Please do, pass on my very best wishes.”’ You smirked, reaching for your jacket.

‘Sometimes, I can’t resist pulling rank. He’ll learn.’ I bit hard on my lower lip. I wondered at your ability to interchange or amputate your emotions. In the next breath you would send flowers to a senior partner’s wife. A thoughtful anniversary gift. You’d wine and dine and charm your disciples. Deliver compassion, empathy and concerned expressions. Learn of their weaknesses and plot their demise. I take little solace in knowing you deluded even the most astute.

Ruthless, spellbinding. You, the sculptor. You didn’t fall at the feet of empathy. You picked it up and stored it. A human emotional jukebox. Selecting and demonstrating appropriate emotions to achieve the required outcome. ‘Don’t worry, he’ll learn. Or lose his job, whichever comes first,’ you said. Bile threatened my throat. How many people had fallen at your feet? How well you were camouflaged in your professional suit.

‘Don’t wait up.’ You smirked over your shoulder. ‘Oh, and say hi to Jack from his daddy. Tell him I’m going to make us rich.’ You smiled. ‘Very rich.’ A sixth sense forewarned me there was still far worse to come. Chapter Four Cornwall 2016 The dashboard clock ticks to 08.02 on a typical autumnal Cornish morning. A low sun hangs between turning leaves.

A morning warranting a mindful appreciation. But I’m switching in and out of autopilot as my world attempts to submerge my floating body. I see the beautiful horizon; I don’t feel it. My mind is a stew of rapid bubbling thoughts and images, desperately trying to push back each mutinous ingredient. Just because I’m a psychologist, people assume I’m so together; if only they knew the half of it. Had some appreciation of my inner turmoil. I’ve even noticed recently, I’ve been afraid of time alone. Too much interfering noise, thumping at my rationale. Ever since the phone call. Not so much a phone call as a silence.

A drawn-out silence, with someone listening intently at the other end. The number was withheld but I understood the message. I ended the call – my instincts told me to – gathering a small amount of feigned control. I see my knuckles pale, so I reduce the grip on the steering wheel. Shaking off the shiver running down my spine. Nothing too strange about receiving withheld calls, wrong numbers. But this wasn’t one of those; this was a message. Glancing at the dashboard clock, I see I’ve seven minutes before you call again. You’ve called every day since that first call, at 08.10 sharp.

There’s something else pushing the adrenaline button, a horrible nagging feeling. Jack missed his school bus this morning, so I was chasing him around the house like a sergeant major, his ability to interpret the notion of moving quickly being non-existent. I’ve been rerunning through the events since, over and over, but I can’t quite remember. I waved the Geography book in front of Jack’s face, having spent the previous ten minutes hunting for it. ‘For God’s sake, Jack! Why didn’t you look for this last night instead of messing about on that stupid game? We’re going to be late. I’m going to be late for clinic. Again!’ He was sitting on the sofa, squashing the back down on his shoes, rather than undo them, to slide his feet in easily. ‘Because… I didn’t think about it last night, did I?’ He rolled his eyes. ‘Exactly! You didn’t think about it!’ ‘Yeah. Exactly, how could I have looked for it, then, if I didn’t even think about it?’ ‘Again, this conversation is going nowhere.

This attitude of “only think about it when I have to” has to change. Jack. Are you even listening to me?’ He frowned. ‘What?’ ‘Just hurry up. I’ll see you in the car.’ I reached for my mobile and keys, then opened the front door. ‘One day it would be nice to leave the house without my blood pressure reaching for the sky.’ ‘Yeah, sure, Mum. Sounds cool.’ He continued lifting cushions and throwing them back down again.

‘Before you go, have you seen my—?’ ‘No, I haven’t.’ So, I was running late, in such a fluster. For the life of me, I can’t remember – did I lock the kitchen door? Did Jack do it? I’d let our cat, Humphrey, out before we left, but did I lock the door after him? I keep trying to retrace my steps in my mind. But all I come back with is brick walls and fuzz. With a twisted stomach, I continue to wind my way home to St Agnes, my home village, postcard pretty. It’s 08.09. Until the phone calls, we’d almost managed to stuff our heavy baggage deep down in the dark limbic system. Now, stress hormones are gradually creeping back through the back door. My sleep cycle has bowed to their intrusion.

Hence why I keep forgetting things, doubting myself. I’m anxious but haven’t the time to be. Is Jack aware? My little absorbent sponge, soaking up my emotions, internalising them as his? I jump at the trill of my mobile, breaking hard, I squeeze my car into the bramble and stop. I snatch at the device, to answer your call. I don’t speak. Each intake of air hurts; something is crushing my chest. I hold the phone at a distance on loudspeaker, not wishing to be close to you, in any way. Silence. I see you smirk, loving your perceived power. You don’t see it, do you? Despite my fear, I will not bow down to you again.

I’ve too much to lose. At 08.11, I hang-up. Why do I play your games? Because it’s the only way I will ever be rid of you. However much it pains me, playing your game is the only way. Sometimes, I scare myself, no longer recognising who I’ve needed to become. It revolts me to think I’ve needed to behave anything like you, in order to survive. I head back off, being roughly only five minutes from home, switching on the radio. Anything to shroud the images of you. The curse of the imagination, I tell my clients, re-establishing old neural pathways.

The greater the imagination, the greater the fear. How often I see people’s lives destroyed by this and worrying, the perverse comfort blanket. Somewhere along the twisted life line it’s believed worrying keeps us safe. Always on-guard, balanced on the lookout post, with a gunshot startle response. Last night it meant I slept with my car keys and mobile laid ready in position on my bedside table. Just in case. From my objective position in clinic I ask anxious clients, ‘What evidence do you have for this worry? Actual facts, not subjective reasoning?’ Mostly, they have none, but my worries are fed from past battered memory templates. Preparing me for fight or flight. With the smell of impending danger. A whiff of insanity.

A scent of you. I do have the evidence. We relocated to Cornwall to escape. But even then, how do you ever escape something implanted in your mind? I turn off the radio, or the Pied Piper of emotions, as I prefer to call it. Each track to be vetted as a potential co-conspirator, sneakily partnering up with emotions in a microsecond. Does perspective change with music? Or does music change perspective? Then there are the shadows too, the feeling of being watched, opaque dark shapes playing with my eyes. Not long before that first phone call, they seemed to appear. When I leave work, when I’m at home, something in the air, something dark, lingering. Biding time. I can’t go to the police; experience tells me I’d be wasting my time. Not long after our divorce proceedings began, you were there, waiting, and watching. I know you were; I could feel you. Following us home from the park, waiting for me to leave for work, just outside the window – whilst I read Jack his bedtime story. You were there. No crime without evidence though. Just a feeling of being watched. That’s it? they said. How stupid would they make me feel again? Miss Sands, what exactly do we have to go on? they’d say. Other than an empty phone call, and what else was it you mentioned? Oh, yes, shadows in the dark? History repeating. I was married to a psychopath. Years of hell. Near-death experiences. The things I thieved, how about those? It’s 2016. There’s been no contact for ten years. That’s a very long time ago. We’ll need something more concrete to implicate your… ex-husband? they’d demand. Something else: there’s been a definite shift in Jack’s carefree demeanor; I’m sure he senses you too, your presence. Hunted, wounded animals, aren’t we? Or, even worse than sensing your proximity, maybe Jack knows something he hasn’t wanted to share with me? He’s really only a child but even so he tries to protect me, from you, from the memories. He’s been a little secretive with his mobile, now I think of it. But he’s just being a teenager, normal. Isn’t he? I will not go back to my cell of old but how can I deny I remain locked in your world? Too many lies; too many secrets. The world we created together. Both of us declaring to be the casualty. But now I hold the key to freedom, there doesn’t appear to be a door, never mind a keyhole. You have the door; I have the key. Waiting and watching. You’re getting closer again, aren’t you?

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