Little Whispers – K. L. Slater

When I’m stressed, worried or upset, I clean. Needless to say, with everything that’s been happening over the last few months, my house looks more immaculate than usual. Even though it feels like our lives are falling apart in other ways. I’ve been cleaning the kitchen for the last hour. Not just a cursory wiping-down of the worktops and mopping the floor; I mean proper grafting. Bottoming out the cupboards, disinfecting the shelves, sorting through the out-of-date jars and throwing half of them away before putting stuff back. I look at the clock again. Eleven thirty, four minutes later than when I last looked. Rowan will be in his last lesson before lunch, and my husband, Isaac, will probably just have taken his seat in the interview room at the smart glass-fronted offices he texted me a snap of earlier: the regional headquarters of Abacus, an innovative technology firm that reached the Sunday Times Hot New Company Top 100 list last year. A company that has very recently headhunted Isaac and wooed him for interview with a stunning remuneration package. I scrub harder at a stubborn rusty stain in the cupboard under the sink. I don’t know whether to hope Isaac gets the job or not, and it feels like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, I want life to get back on an even keel after dealing with Mum’s death just four months ago. The thought of Isaac getting a dynamic new job and us moving to a new house in another area, with everything that entails… Well, my heart sinks just thinking about it. Mum’s death changed me in ways I can’t even put into words.

I’ve only told my husband the bare bones of it so far, although I’ve promised to tell him everything in time, when I feel ready to go through the stuff she left. He’s offered to sit with me, look through it together, but although I’ve tried, I can’t bring myself to do it. I just… can’t. The mere thought of watching the horror settle over his face is all too much, even though he’s reassured me it will change nothing about his feelings for me. And that’s why another part of me longs for the fresh start Isaac says this new job might offer. ‘Relocation expenses fully paid, double my current salary, and even a mortgage subsidy for the first twelve months,’ he read from the emailed information pack. Plus on top of all that, it could gift us with a relationship boost we’re in desperate need of. It’s not that we’re constantly arguing or particularly want different things in life. In some ways that would be easier to bear, because at least it would indicate that there’s still some energy, some passion there. But the emotional rot is way more pervasive than that.

Over the past year, we’ve seemed to slowly fade away from each other. Nothing dramatic and measurable; it feels more like we’re drifting off in separate hot air balloons. As if we’re mere acquaintances now instead of the best friends and passionate lovers we used to be. At first, when we sensed things were going wrong, we made countless efforts to reconnect. We scheduled date nights when Rowan would stay over at Mum’s and spent quality time together without television or phones. Sometimes we’d just talk, making a conscious effort to look at each other rather than Isaac keeping one eye on his emails. Nowadays, we don’t bother with any of that. Without even discussing it, we seem to have somehow both decided it’s hopeless to even try any more. We’ve come to a dull acceptance that this is how it is between us. After maxing out three credit cards to the limit eighteen months ago, we took out a ten-year loan and paid them off.

The bank would only sanction the deal if we agreed to secure the debt on the house. So we did. The day we used the loan to pay off the cards, it felt so liberating to cut them into little pieces. Three little bits of plastic that had held so much power over us. Isaac gathered them up and threw them in the air. We laughed as the tiny, sharp chips showered down on us in the kitchen like celebratory confetti. But within months, the toll of the loan payment swiftly dampened down our optimism. When the head gasket blew on Isaac’s car, essential to him doing his job, he was forced to ask the bank for a replacement credit card to enable us to carry out the necessary repairs. I stopped suggesting modest improvements to our three-bed semi a long time ago. Ideas like refreshing the kitchen cupboards or finally getting rid of the peach bathroom suite in favour of a modern white one.

The family holiday abroad we’d hoped to take soon became just a pipe dream. A year ago, I gave up my job as a teaching assistant at Rowan’s primary school to become Mum’s carer and we’ve just about scraped by each month with barely a penny to spare. She lived in a little council flat just around the corner from us and, apart from some meagre savings she’d put by, Mum lived on her state pension. Cobbling together her funeral costs using her own little bit of money made me feel hollow inside. In our early years together, that flush of new love, a scarcity of available funds never seemed to matter. But ten years down the road, it’s pretty hard to get fired up about a rosy future when there are no holidays, no social life and hardly a week passing without another bill landing on the mat. It’s just life, I suppose. One that plenty of people will recognise. The shiny newness of each other is bound to wear off over time, isn’t it? It’s the same for most married couples, I think. I read about it often enough online and in magazines.

The only trouble is, we haven’t been married for twenty-plus years. We wed in Cyprus ten years ago and enjoyed a couple of years of early married life just the two of us, before having our much-wanted son, Rowan, who is now eight. Finally triumphing over the rusty mark, I stand up with slightly stiff knees and mop my brow with the back of my hand as I look around at the sparkling surfaces and smear-free cupboard doors. Yes, this effort would meet even Mum’s high standards, I think, and that’s saying something. While I was growing up, she always seemed to be scrubbing or ironing or cleaning the windows… it was as if she couldn’t keep still or rest at all. Now I realise she was probably terrified of giving herself any time to think. I throw the cloth in the sink, wash my hands and make a coffee. I’m sitting on a stool at the breakfast bar when my phone rings, making me jump. Isaac’s name flashes up on the screen and I snatch it up. ‘Hello?’ ‘Janey, I got it,’ he blurts out excitedly.

‘Bob, the CEO, offered me the job on the spot!’ TWO Later, when Rowan is in bed, Isaac shuffles closer to me on the sofa so I can see his laptop screen. ‘Look at this house. Bob put me on to it; he reckons it’ll attract a buyer almost immediately.’ The warmth of his body, so close to mine, should be the most natural thing in the world, but it feels a bit strange. We usually sit separately at night, going for the comfort of stretching out on our own sofas rather than snuggling up together like we used to do. ‘I thought the properties in a place like that were way out of our league,’ I remark, glancing at my husband’s bright, animated face. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him like this, upbeat and full of hope. My heart lightens a touch. He clicks on the main picture of the house, and I admit I’m surprised at the low asking price, even though it’s still way up on the steep side for us. It’s a modern four-bedroom detached with a square bay window on the ground floor and a smart red-brick front.

It’s set back from the road with a generous front garden and enough block paved area to park a car. The imposing glossy green door with a big shiny chrome knocker is fitting of the estate agent’s description of ‘this ultra-smart executive property’. He clicks on other photographs that show a substantial rear garden bordered with mature trees and shrubs. Rowan could actually play in a garden like that, rather than the postage stamp of mossy grass we have here in our shabby Victorian semi, overlooked by several of our neighbours. I have a flash-forward of me sitting on the neatly flagged patio at Buckingham Crescent, reading a book with a cool drink to hand, while Rowan practises his football skills on the grass with one of his new friends. Buckingham Crescent is one of the poshest streets in the whole of West Bridgford. The town sits on the River Trent, south of Nottingham, and is about a fifty-minute drive from our current house in Mansfield. I remember reading about the street’s status in our local newspaper and wondering how it must feel to live there. ‘I wonder why it’s so cheap,’ I murmur. ‘Well it’s not exactly cheap,’ Isaac laughs.

‘It’s what they call “keenly priced”. Bob says it was only added to Rightmove yesterday.’ He points out a shortlist on the right-hand side of the screen that gives details of similar houses sold in the area over the last twelve months. There are only two in Buckingham Crescent – people seem to stay put there – but one of them is the house we’re looking at right now. ‘The owners have only been there a year,’ he remarks. ‘They’ve put it on at nearly ten grand less than they bought it for, so maybe it’s a marriage break-up or something and they need a quick sale.’ He clicks lazily through the remaining photographs in the property’s gallery, and I take in the glossy black-and-white kitchen, the pristine family bathroom with its free-standing tub and separate rainforest shower, and the master bedroom complete with en suite and small dressing area. I can’t imagine living somewhere like that, even if we had money to spare from Isaac’s new salary. The thought of asking new friends around for drinks and nibbles at the weekend is part of a lifestyle I daren’t even dream about. Don’t get me wrong, we’re friendly with our neighbours here.

We’ll stop to pass the time of day on the school run and often bump into them at after-school football matches, but that’s about it. Once the front doors on our street close at the end of the day, people keep themselves to themselves. Folks around here don’t hold dinner parties or invite each other around for Pimm’s on the patio. It’s enough just trying to put a decent meal on the table for our kids each night without feeding everyone else. Yet I can’t help dreaming a little, either. Rowan’s such a bright, friendly boy, he’d easily make friends if we moved to a different town. The new postcode would mean we could enrol him at one of the small, OFSTED-ranked ‘outstanding’ schools, instead of the sprawling academy on the outskirts of Mansfield he currently attends. With its oversized classes and profusion of supply teachers due to a high rate of staff absence, Isaac and I both worry that Rowan isn’t getting the attention he deserves. I’m a qualified teaching assistant, so maybe I could even get a part-time position at one of the primary schools, now that my responsibility for looking after Mum is over. I’ve not really considered going back to work yet, but a highly rated school in a middle-class catchment area would be so much less stressful than my last job, which was at a failing primary school in an ex-mining village, a government targeted ‘area of deprivation’.

Despite the challenges, it’s a job I used to really love doing. It was more than just my work with the kids in class; I felt useful in other ways, too. If they had a problem, parents often felt they could approach me more easily than the class teacher because they saw me as one of their own. I miss the feeling that I’m helping to make a difference to people’s lives and helping shape their children’s future. There would also be a lot less physical strain than I had caring for Mum and it would help to take my mind off the obvious. Confusion twists and turns inside my body. I make a tremendous effort to push the thought of my mum’s pale, wasted face away. She’d looked blotchy with nerves before she died. Then her face cleared like a weight had been lifted at the exact moment I felt the burden of her secret passing to me. It felt as real as if she’d handed me a baton in a relay race.

I swear I felt the weight of the responsibility leaving Mum and becoming my own. That was her final legacy to me, imprisoning me for the rest of my life. I could never do that to my boy. Never. I swallow down the festering ball of fury in my throat, battling as ever the raw burn in my chest that feels just like a brand new hatred for a woman I’ve loved all my life. Since Mum died I’ve alternated between this fury and an aching grief so deep and bottomless, I feel as if I am drowning with each and every breath I take. In the days following her death, it felt as if I was slowly dying too. ‘I could ring the estate agent before they close to arrange a viewing for tomorrow, if you like?’ Isaac fixes me with a look that snaps me out of my stupor. This all feels like it’s moving a bit too fast. This morning, life was dragging along as normal; now, suddenly, Isaac has his fancy new job and everything is about to change.

I don’t know where the resistance I feel is coming from. I want to change our lives just as much as he does; in fact, I’ve hoped for little else recently. ‘OK, if you can get the time off.’ I don’t want to spoil his upbeat mood. ‘It’s only a viewing, isn’t it? We don’t have to make any decisions right away.’ ‘Of course, but with our moving expenses paid and a house like this going for a song, we don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth either.’ ‘No,’ I murmur, taking a breath to ease the sudden tightness in my chest. ‘I suppose we don’t.’

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