His Hidden Wife – Wendy Clarke

The child is lying a few hundred yards from the cliff path, beneath the braced legs of the electricity pylon, her hair spread out, Medusa-like on the long damp grass. The grey school skirt she put on that morning is soiled with mud, and there’s a gaping rip in her grey woollen tights. Over by the scraggly hawthorn bush, one black patent shoe lies upside down, while the other clings stubbornly to her small foot. The sea mist, that has yet to clear, swallows everything in its path, leeching the colour from the land. It’s strangely comforting, this lack of clarity. This blurring of reality. It heightens the other senses: the taste of salt on her lips, the roll and break of the waves far below her. Either side of the girl, as if protecting her, the metal ribcage of the pylon rears skywards, like a giant puppet, its arms held up by the power lines that join it to the next one… and the next. On and on across the rolling Dorset hills. She doesn’t move – just watches the last of the mist lick at the skeletal frame of the tower. But it isn’t long before the sun penetrates through, bringing the world back into sharp relief. As its rays catch the wires above her head, turning them into silver spiders’ webs, the girl smiles. The sun feels nice and warm on her face, and she can smell the seaweedy tang of the air. Hear the waves breaking rhythmically onto the stones, the sea calling to her. She doesn’t know why she’s lying here, her mist-damp fringe clinging to her forehead, but she doesn’t care.

She’s at peace. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Or is there? Someone is calling her name. Maya. Maya! It’s her father, worry raising the pitch of his voice. She wants to answer, but she doesn’t. She can’t because then he’ll know what she knows and will be sad. For what she feels deep inside her chest – in the heart that’s pumping against the damp fabric of her white school blouse, despite the calmness she feels – is the certainty that only comes when a loving bond is severed. The bond between mother and child. Her mother is dead.

ONE TERESA The door closes with a satisfying click, and after a few seconds, Teresa hears Louise on reception call out goodbye. A deeper voice replies, then there’s the sound of the outside door slamming, and through the partly closed blinds Teresa sees her last client stride down the path to where his car is waiting in the street. When she hears the engine start, she closes her eyes and massages the area of soft skin between them with her thumb and index finger, relishing the silence. Even though today has been a relatively quiet day, this last client has been particularly difficult. She’s been treating him for anxiety-related OCD brought on by his wife’s cancer diagnosis, and his progress has been slow. Even getting him to enter her consulting room had been a challenge, and she’s shattered, her only thought to get home and run herself a long hot bath. But that will have to wait. She has obligations, and her own needs are a long way down the list. Shifting herself on the chair to get more comfortable, she focuses on her breathing, concentrating on the sensation of her breath. In through the nose.

Out through the mouth. In. Out. Every now and again, the sash windows of the therapy room give a small rattle. It’s getting windy outside, and it’s forecast to rain later. A part of her wishes she hadn’t told her mum she’d visit this evening. After the day she’s just had, the thought of driving the fifty minutes to her house and the same again on the way back, isn’t something she relishes, especially when the time in between is filled with worry and frustration. But she knows she has to. Her mind has left her breathing now, wandering to places she doesn’t want it to go, but she doesn’t let it worry her. She knows that it’s natural for your attention to stray when you’re trying to clear your mind.

The important thing is not to obsess over where your thoughts have taken you. Gently, she pulls her wandering mind back from her mother and focuses again on her breathing. Visualising the air moving through her nose, filling her lungs, the rise and fall of her chest. Thoughts of her mother slip away. She’s in the here and now. Aware only of her breathing. In out. In out. The sharp rap on the door makes Teresa jump, and she opens her eyes, turning her head to the door just as it’s opening. For a second, she thinks it might be her client returning to check, for the third time, that their consultation will stay confidential, but it’s not, it’s Stephen.

He frowns as their eyes lock, noticing her surprise. ‘Sorry, were you busy?’ Just hearing Stephen’s calm voice makes her relax. ‘No, I was just trying to wind down a bit before I go home.’ Stephen comes in and takes the seat across from Teresa. He rests his feet on the low coffee table between them, and Teresa feels the warmth of his smile. How is it that, however hard her day has been, he always manages to make her feel that she’s not alone? ‘I find a large glass of wine works for me,’ he says with a chuckle. But Teresa can see the tiredness written in the bags under his eyes. He looks just like she feels. ‘Busy day too, huh?’ ‘Not particularly,’ he replies. ‘One cancelled this afternoon, which, to be honest, was a relief.

I haven’t been sleeping well. Don’t know what it is. Perhaps I’m feeling anxious.’ She looks at him, taking in his soft check shirt and cords, the beard that is a tad too long and the unruly greying hair. Despite the difference in their ages, they’ve been good friends as well as colleagues for many years, and Teresa knows him so well. Her own serious, exacting temperament has been a foil to his more laid-back one. They’ve worked well together, treating people at his Wellbeing Clinic for the last three years. ‘You’re looking tired, Stephen. Things all right at home? Is Maya okay?’ She watches as he slides out the pen that’s clipped to the pocket of his shirt, clicking the nib in and out distractedly. ‘Yes, she’s fine,’ he says.

‘That’s good. Working at the care home must take it out of her.’ ‘It’s good for her. She likes the routine.’ He looks as though he’s going to say something else but doesn’t, and Teresa wonders if he’s being honest with her. She’s only met Stephen’s daughter a few times, but she’d made an instant impression on her with her fair curly hair and gentle demeanour. She’d liked her, and she wonders whether it might be because she’s so much like Stephen. ‘Any boyfriends on the scene?’ Stephen frowns, and Teresa wonders if she’s been too nosy. After all, it’s none of her business. ‘No,’ he replies eventually.

‘Nothing like that.’ Teresa studies him, waiting to see if he’ll open up more, but he doesn’t. In all the years she’s known him, he’s preferred to keep his private life to himself. Maybe that’s why she’s never been invited to their clifftop house. Once, out of curiosity, and wanting a change of scene, she’d parked the car in the village where Stephen and Maya live and walked along the beach from the Heritage Centre to where the cliff folds in on itself before sweeping back towards the sea as if in greeting. That day, as she’d climbed the barnacled rocks below the bluff, she’d been hoping to reach the small bay on the other side. But she hadn’t checked the tides. The waves were already hitting the rocks below her in a spray of foam and, in the little cove beyond, the stones and coarse shingle glistened with every lick and retreat of the sea’s white tongue. Teresa hadn’t gone any further, it would have been foolish to do so. Instead, she’d turned back, stopping for a cup of tea at the little café next to the Heritage Centre.

But not before she’d seen the house standing high on the coastal path, its gabled windows and large conservatory looking out onto the sea. Then her eyes had strayed to the rocks at the cliff’s base and what interest she’d had in the house had quickly waned. For the one thing Stephen has never discussed since she started working at the clinic is the wife who had been swept away by the sea at the bottom of that very same cliff twelve years earlier. There’d been an inquest and accidental death had been the conclusion, but rumour had it that it had been suicide. Whatever it was, the result had been the same. A young child left without her mother. She shakes her head. Crewl Point was where it had happened. Cruel more like. ‘Penny for them?’ ‘Oh, it’s nothing that interesting,’ she lies.

Stephen raises his eyebrows at her, and immediately Teresa feels guilty. She looks away. The last thing she wants is for him to know that she read all about him in the paper all those years ago, that she’s spent hours wondering what happened: how a happily married couple could fall apart like that. How a mother could abandon her child. Trying to make sense of it all. Trying to work out why Stephen hadn’t reached out to her after it had happened. Why he never talks about it. Sometimes, he’ll take a day off work, blaming it on a migraine, but she wonders if it’s because looking after that big house and bringing up Maya single-handed for the last twelve years has taken its toll. Several times, since she started working at the clinic, she’s found herself on the verge of asking him about it, but each time she’s stopped. If Stephen had wanted to talk he would, and she has to remind herself that time is the greatest healer.

He’ll reach out in his own good time and, when he’s ready, she’ll be there for him, like he is for her. And who is she to judge anyway? Her clients might see a well-adjusted professional when they come to her with their problems, but they’re not to know that behind the proficient demeanour she’s just as human as they are. One who’s worried sick about a mother who lives alone, fifty minutes away, and who’s becoming more forgetful by the day. One who finds it increasingly hard to face the thought of going home to her husband. Stephen’s not the only one who’s good at keeping up appearances. Today, though, he looks nervous, distracted, as though his thoughts are not on anything in this room and certainly not on her. ‘Want a quick coffee before we leave?’ she asks him. The thought of him leaving makes her heart sink. He looks at his watch. ‘No, I’d better make a move.

’ ‘Yes, of course.’ She tries to think of something that might make him stay a little longer, wonders if saying something about Gary would be enough, but already he’s standing, slipping the pen back into his pocket. Preparing to leave before he’s said anything to her of any note. She’s used to it, but there’s something different about him today. She cocks her head to one side trying to work out what it is. Despite the distractedness, there’s a lightness to his actions. An extra warmth to his voice. ‘Going somewhere nice after work?’ It’s a guess, but there must be something that’s brought on this new mood of his. He shakes his head, and the smile that had been hovering on his lips slips a little. ‘No, just home.

I promised Maya we’d eat together tonight as her shifts don’t always make it possible.’ ‘That’s nice.’ She knows Stephen and his daughter are close, and it must be a comfort to them both. On a couple of occasions when Maya was still at school, he’d brought her along to the clinic and Maya had sat in reception with Louise, helping her with the appointments. The first time it had been an Inset day, but the other occasion had been for work experience. At regular intervals, Stephen had come downstairs to check on his daughter, which Teresa had found sweet. And when she’d come out to consult Louise on something and had found Maya chatting to one of the clients, her calm and easy manner had made it less of a surprise when she’d confided in her that she was considering a career in medicine. That had never happened though, and now she wonders why. ‘Who’s cooking?’ He laughs, his good mood returning. ‘Oh, Maya, of course.

’ He raises his hands and waggles his fingers. ‘You know as well as I do that these hands are good for writing up notes and that’s about it.’ Teresa tuts. ‘You’re such a dinosaur, Stephen. It’s the twenty-first century you know. How did you manage after—’ She stops, reddening. ‘After what?’ He’s looking at her, but she can’t meet his eyes. Instead, to cover her embarrassment, she takes a stem of alstroemeria that’s started to wilt from the vase on the coffee table, and drops it into the wastepaper bin. ‘Nothing. It doesn’t matter.

Look, it’s time I went home myself or Gary will think I’ve forgotten I’m married. I just need to check on tomorrow’s client list.’ She gets up and busies herself at the computer, trying to regain her composure. How could she be so insensitive? She feels Stephen’s eyes still on her, but when he speaks again, his voice is cordial. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow then.’ This time, she forces herself to look at him. ‘Yes. I hope you get a better night’s sleep.’ He stands with his hands in the pockets of his baggy cords. ‘That will depend.

’ She raises her eyebrows. ‘On what?’ He sighs, a shadow passing across his face. ‘On what happens tonight.’

.

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