I Know Your Secret – Ruth Heald

The fire started on the duvet. A candle on a neatly made bed, scorching a black hole in the white cotton cover, burning through the synthetic fibres beneath. The hole grew as the flames spread, fanning out towards the rest of the room. She watched the fire reach out for the red dress that hung on the cupboard door, consuming it in one angry burst, before attacking the wood behind it. The flames licked the walls, scraps of wallpaper crinkling, blackening and then disappearing entirely. She couldn’t believe how easy it was to destroy, how quickly the flames devoured everything they touched. Elation overcame her, an intense rush. This was it. What she needed. The release was blissful. She didn’t know how long she’d been standing there. She could feel her skin heating up, her blood running hot through her veins, her eyes stinging. She must leave. The smoke was everywhere, in her hair, in her lungs. But a part of her wanted to stay, to let the flames consume her too.

She smiled as she turned to go, to walk out of the door, before the door frame itself was caught up in the inferno. Out of the bedroom and into the living room then quickly out into the corridor before the flames followed. She could hear the sound of the smoke alarm above the roar of the flames. It started to dawn on her what she had done. She needed to leave now, before others appeared, asked her what she was doing here. Realised that she started the fire. Running towards the stairs, she thought she heard something else. Screaming. The sound was desperate. Hardly human.

Suddenly she felt sick, her feeling of power gone in an instant. It must be something else, something caught in the flames, emitting the sound as it burned. It couldn’t be a person. As she entered the stairwell, she thought she saw the shadow of someone coming out of the lift. Had they seen her? She panicked then, finally thinking of the consequences of what she’d done. Then she ran down the stairs, careering down two at a time and then out of the building, into the street. The cold air burnt her lungs and she stopped and looked up, her breathing ragged. In the orange glow from the window on the second floor a shadow stumbled. There was someone inside the flat. ONE BETH ‘I can’t do this anymore, Beth.

’ I lift my soapy hands out of the washing-up bowl and stare at Richard in disbelief, a cup in one hand. ‘What?’ Richard shifts his weight from one foot to the other. ‘I’m sorry. I just can’t keep going like this.’ I feel my jaw clench as my grip tightens on the cup. I know our relationship is in trouble, but I hadn’t thought it would come to this. ‘But we said we’d work to fix things between us. We said we wouldn’t just throw it all away over nothing.’ Since his affair with a woman he met in a bar, we’ve been trying to rebuild our relationship, trying to return to the way we used to be. I’ve been working so hard to keep everything together.

How can he so callously tear it apart? ‘Beth—’ ‘Keep your voice down,’ I hiss, aware of Charlie watching cartoons in the living room. He’s the reason we’re still together. He’s the reason I’ve been holding onto hope, clinging to the fading embers of our love. If it wasn’t for our son, Richard would have been out the door as soon as I found out he’d cheated. ‘I’m leaving tonight,’ he says. He indicates the dining table and I see a suitcase parked behind one of the chairs. He must have brought it down while I was clearing up in the kitchen. It’s our best one, the one we bought for our honeymoon. The biggest one. ‘You’ve packed? Without telling me?’ Blood pounds in my head, and I lose my grip on the cup.

It falls out of my hand to the floor and shatters. We both stare at its broken remains, but neither of us moves to clear it up. ‘Look, I don’t want an argument,’ Richard says. ‘You don’t want an argument?’ My voice quivers. ‘We can talk another time. When you’ve calmed down. We’re not going to resolve this now and like you say, we shouldn’t argue when Charlie might overhear.’ I think of Charlie in the other room, oblivious to how his life’s about to be turned upside down. Heat rises in my body and I dig my fingernails into my palm. ‘How could you do this to him?’ Richard won’t meet my eyes.

‘Our relationship’s over. We both need to face that.’ His voice shakes, and for a moment I think he might have some compassion. I long for him to take me in his arms and say that everything will be OK. Instead he turns away from me, grabs the handle of the suitcase and strides out of the kitchen. But I’m not ready for this conversation to be over. ‘Are you going to her?’ I call after him, the words muffled by emotion. ‘Is that why you’re leaving? To be with her?’ He doesn’t answer. My pulse quickens as I follow him to the front door. I hear the closing bars of the theme tune from Charlie’s favourite show coming from the other room and put my hand on the wall to steady myself.

‘Are you going to her?’ I repeat. My jaw clenches and my eyes burn from holding back my tears. ‘Of course not,’ he says impatiently. ‘I don’t believe you.’ ‘I’m not going to her. I’m not seeing her anymore. I’ve told you so many times.’ I’m not sure what to think. If I hadn’t seen the photos of them together, then I’d never have found out about his affair. How can I believe him now? ‘Where are you going then?’ ‘I’ve rented a flat not far from here.

Don’t worry, it will be easy for Charlie to visit.’ ‘You’ve planned it all out.’ I think of him flat-hunting on his own, speaking to estate agents as a single man looking for a small flat, a bachelor pad. While I was frantically thinking of ways to save our relationship. I grip the banister of the staircase for support. No matter what Richard says, it was his affair that was the beginning of the end of us. ‘I can’t believe it’s come to this. She’s managed to split us up.’ ‘No, Beth, it’s not her. It’s you.

I can’t live with you, can’t live with your insecurity. We would have had a future if you’d just listened, just believed me when I said the affair was over.’ I feel like I’ve been punched. A wave of exhaustion washes over me. He’s managed to turn everything around and blame it on me. ‘Aren’t you going to at least stay for Charlie’s dinner?’ I ask, desperate to keep him here a bit longer. Richard, Charlie and I always have dinner together, no matter what. It’s been mostly a silent meal since I found out about his affair, the air thick with things we can’t say in front of our son. I thought if we just pretended things were normal, repeated our daily routine, then eventually we’d get back to where we were. ‘I think it’s best if we have a clean break.

’ I feel the burn of shame that, even after I’ve accepted the affair, I’m still not enough for him. ‘I’ll go now,’ he says. I glance over at the clock on the wall. I have clients coming tonight. New clients. And now I’ll need to do everything alone: feed Charlie, bath him, put him to bed. All before they arrive, expecting to find a calm and collected therapist. Richard reaches down to pick up the suitcase. ‘I want to get this all unpacked tonight.’ Then he opens our front door and steps into the suburban street, and out of my life.

I put Charlie’s fish fingers and chips in front of him and his eyes light up. ‘My favourite,’ he says happily, as he starts cutting his food up. My heart tugs. At four years old, he’s so easily pleased. I sit down beside him and tuck into mine. The fish is flavourless and I smother it in ketchup and then watch my son do the same. He’s the spit of Richard with his dark curly hair and long eyelashes. He’s only four, but he looks older, his long legs dangling under the table. ‘Dad says I shouldn’t have lots of ketchup,’ he says as he squeezes the bottle. ‘Well, Dad’s not here.

’ Charlie looks up at me, and for a moment I think he’s going to ask where his father is. My stomach swirls in anticipation, but instead he squeezes the bottle once more and the fish fingers nearly disappear under a sea of sauce. The house is silent, and I can hear the sound of the streets outside through our double glazing. The traffic rumbles down the main road a few streets away and highpitched laughter rises and then falls as a group of schoolchildren pass by the house, most likely on their way to the park. I’ve always felt secure here, comforted by the constant noise of the London suburb, knowing that there is always someone around. Charlie wolfs down his food as I push mine around the plate. How am I going to tell him his father’s left us, that he lives somewhere else now? How can I say it in a way that will cause the least amount of damage? I remember when my own parents divorced, how convinced I’d been that it was my fault. I don’t want him to feel the same way. ‘How was school?’ I ask, trying to keep things normal. I usually ask him on the way home, but I’ve been so distracted by the tension between me and Richard that I forgot today.

‘It was OK.’ ‘Just OK?’ His eyes are downcast. I reach across the table and touch his arm. He moves it away. A part of me wishes I hadn’t said anything, that I could have just enjoyed his simple pleasure at being given fish fingers. He’s silent now, and I can see him swinging his legs back and forth under the table. I wonder if he’s anxious because Richard isn’t here, or if something happened at school. He had some trouble with a few of the other kids at the beginning of term, but I thought that had been sorted out. I look at my watch. Forty-five minutes until my new clients arrive.

I need to hurry up. I rush through Charlie’s bath, all the time wishing Richard was here to help. Even though there’s not much time, I let Charlie play with his green boat and squirt me with his toy octopus. As I rub soap over my son’s little body, I realise that this is the first day of the rest of my life. My evenings are going to be like this every day from now on. I won’t have anyone to help. I won’t get a break. And once Charlie’s gone to bed, I’ll face the evening alone, with just the television for company. I wrap my son in his towel and hold him tightly, breathing in his scent and the fragrant smell of his bath wash. ‘I love you,’ I say.

‘I love you too, Mummy.’ I wipe a tear on the back of his towel before he sees. In his bedroom, I read him his favourite story about a dinosaur who’s afraid of the dark and then kiss him goodnight. He wraps his little arms around my neck and kisses me on the cheek. ‘Don’t be sad, Mummy,’ he says. ‘Things will be better in the morning.’ He’s repeating the words I said to him over and over again when he was crying because he wasn’t fitting in at school. I thought I’d managed to keep my sadness hidden, but my kind little boy can sense it. I see the tiny frown on his brow, the perceptive eyes. And I can’t stand the fact that my four-year-old feels the need to comfort me, when I’m the one who should be keeping him safe.

‘I’m not sad,’ I insist as I kiss him once more. Then I quickly turn off the light and escape to the landing, where I allow my tears to fall. It’s ten minutes before I manage to stop crying and go to the room at the front of the house where I conduct my counselling. I need to calm down before my clients arrive. Danielle and Peter. A couple visiting me for marriage counselling. If I didn’t feel so full of despair, I’d laugh at the irony. Instead I go through my usual routine to centre myself before they arrive. I light the candle on the coffee table and close my eyes. The calming scent of lavender fills the room, cleansing the air.

I need to empty my head. I’m full of anger at Richard, that he could leave me like this, leave our son. How can I provide marriage counselling when my own relationship has just imploded? But it’s too late to cancel. I think of my little boy alone in his room. He didn’t seem himself tonight, and I know he’s worried about me. What if he wakes up and needs me? Richard would normally be at home to check on him. But if it’s just me in the house, then who will go to him if he calls out? I’ll have to leave the door ajar. A wave of nerves threatens to overwhelm me, all my anxieties bubbling up inside me. I think of the couple coming to see me. I always feel nervous when I meet new clients.

Before I open the door to them, I have no idea who they are. They could be anyone. I open my notebook to the page where I’d jotted down some thoughts after my phone call with Danielle. Danielle Brown. Her husband’s called Peter Brown. I pick up my phone and type their names into Google. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help myself. There’s a huge list of Peter Browns on Facebook. The same for Danielle. I add London to the search term, but the list doesn’t shorten much.

It’s pages long. I’m scrolling through the Peter Browns when the doorbell rings, making me jump. After peeking into Charlie’s room to check he’s asleep, I rush down the stairs before the bell rings again. ‘Hello,’ I say, forcing a smile as I open the door. I wrap my arms around me against the cold blast of air that comes in from outside. ‘You must be…’ I hear my voice falter, as I stare at Danielle in surprise.

.

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