One in Three – Tess Stimson

His blood is all over both of us. Arterial blood, bright with oxygen. My shirt is drenched in it. It’s in my mouth, in my nostrils; I breathe it in, I taste it. Salty and metallic, as if I’ve licked a rusty metal railing. I rock back on my heels and push the hair out of my eyes. Our mortal struggle has left us both panting, gasping for breath. Ten feet away from me, she manoeuvres herself into a half-seated position, her left arm hanging uselessly at her side. The knife lies in a glistening ruby pool between us. I don’t take my eyes off her for a single second. Her gaze slides towards the blade, and then back to me. My phone is out of reach, in my bag by the door. There’s no use calling for an ambulance, anyway. He’s dead. No one can lose that much blood and survive.

There are shouts outside. Running feet. The Beach House is set away from the main hotel, but sound carries across water. Someone heard the screaming. Help is coming. I see her realise it too. Cradling her dislocated arm, she turns quickly towards the open terrace door, weighing up her chances. It’s only one floor up, there’s soft sand below, but the tide is coming in, cutting off the causeway, and she’s in no condition to scramble up the treacherous cliff steps. She’s running out of time, anyway; the voices are right outside the door. She looks at me, and gives a small shrug, win some, lose some, then leans back against the edge of the sofa, and closes her eyes.

The hubbub outside intensifies. The door shudders, and then splinters. Two men spill into the room, a press of white faces behind them. I see the shock in their eyes as the gory scene registers. One of them turns and shuts the door, but not before a mobile phone flashes in the crowd. Now perhaps everyone will finally believe me. Everyone in the family receives a formal invitation to my mother’s party. Thick vellum, Edwardian script, raised lettering, the works. Bella puts ours in pride of place on the kitchen mantelpiece, propped against the clay dog she made Andrew for Father’s Day the year she turned five. He took the dog into work and showed it off to everyone, convinced she was some kind of artistic prodigy.

He didn’t take it with him seven years later when he left. The embossed script follows me around the kitchen like the eyes of the Mona Lisa. I ignore it as I empty the dishwasher, opening cabinets and closing drawers with practised rhythm, finding comfort in the precise alignment of mugs, the orderly nesting of bowls, the military conformity of knives and forks and spoons in their segregated compartments. Everything in its place. Everything but me. Bagpuss winds his way around my ankles, impatient for his breakfast. I tip some dry kibble into his bowl, all he can keep down these days, and scratch him affectionately behind the ears. ‘Here you go, Bags. Don’t eat it too fast.’ The cat bends arthritically to his food, as old and saggy as his pink-and-white-striped namesake.

I refill his water bowl, make myself a cup of tea and go outside. The air smells clean after last night’s much-needed rain, but already it promises to be another warm day, unusually muggy for June. Curling up in the wicker beehive chair, which hangs from the apple tree, I tuck one foot under my bottom, and push the ground with the other. I used to hate mornings before Bella and Tolly were born, but these days I treasure this precious half-hour of peace before the world wakes up. I lean back and close my eyes. It is the only time that’s truly my own. The invitation has unsettled me more than I care to admit. My mother has sent one to Andrew and Caz, too, even though I begged her not to; now I will have to face them on my home turf, in the heart of my family. Somehow I weathered their wedding day four years ago, energetically scouring out my kitchen cabinets as I imagined them taking their vows, scrubbing the bathroom floor as I pictured them cutting the cake, forcing the blunt lawnmower through six inches of grass as I envisioned them stepping onto the dance floor for their first dance as a married couple. Since then, I’ve learned the hard way to accept their presence together at school plays and sports days; I’ve built up a tough shell to protect myself.

But this is different. Maybe it’s because it’s my parents’ golden wedding anniversary, a milestone I dreamed of reaching with Andrew. Perhaps it’s because Mum was the last holdout against Caz; the invitation finally brings her in from the cold. Or maybe I just need to get more sleep. I was up till two this morning marking my media students’ end-of-term exams. I’d have finished more quickly if I’d let the misspellings and bad grammar go, but even though I may have fallen from the lofty heights of a weekly Fleet Street column, I still have standards. The sun breaches the horizon, a golden band of light falling across my face. Andrew was right, I think, as I open my eyes and gaze across the rolling downs. Despite my initial doubts, I have come to love it here. I can still see him standing on the low stone garden wall the day we first viewed the house nearly seventeen years ago, his arms spread wide, a joyous expression on his face as he animatedly painted a picture of our life here.

Somewhere for our new baby daughter to grow up safe and happy, with the wind in her hair and grass between her toes. I was so reluctant to leave London back then; not because of my column at the Daily Post, which I could have written from anywhere, but because the city made me feel alive, plugged in, as if the world was at my fingertips. I hated the thought of giving it all up to live in a crumbling money pit in the middle of nowhere. But Andrew had wanted it so much, and in those days I would have given him anything he asked. It’d never occurred to me then I’d end up living here without him. My phone buzzes in my dressing-gown pocket, making me jump. I pull it out and swipe right, and my sister-in-law’s face appears on the screen. ‘Going to bed or getting up?’ I ask, climbing out of the beehive chair and letting myself back into the kitchen. ‘Just finished a double shift at the hospital,’ Min says. ‘Got home a few minutes ago.

’ She looks as fresh as if she’s just come back from a fortnight in Hawaii. At forty-seven, she’s only four years older than me, but judging from the tiny FaceTime inset, I could pass for her mother. My mousy hair urgently needs some highlights, and my muddy blue eyes are shadowed. ‘Quiet night?’ I ask, propping my phone on the kitchen counter. ‘Huge pile-up on the M23. Gruesome,’ Min says, with relish. Her image bobs and dips as she takes her phone into her study. She puts it down, and then brandishes an envelope at the screen. ‘Guess what I found on my doormat?’ I love Min. She’s funny, and smart, and she makes my brother Luke very happy.

But she has no boundaries, and I already know where this is going. ‘Before you ask, yes, Andrew and Caz are invited,’ I say, tossing another teabag into my empty mug. ‘Mum wants the whole family together for her big day. And you know how much she adores Kit.’ ‘Well, Kit I understand, but why did Celia invite her?’ ‘Because Andrew wouldn’t come without her.’ Min looks indignant. ‘That woman should have the good manners to make herself scarce,’ she says. ‘Frankly, I can’t believe Andrew’s got the balls to come himself.’ ‘You can say her name, you know. She’s not Voldemort.

’ ‘Lou, why are you putting yourself through this? You don’t have to play the martyr. You could put your foot down and say no to Celia.’ I don’t rise to the bait. No one ever says no to my mother, including Min. It’s not that I don’t appreciate Min’s loyalty. I’d never have survived the brutal months after Andrew left if it wasn’t for her, not with a traumatised twelve-year-old and a newborn to look after. The youngest of Min’s four boys was still in nappies at the time, but she was there whenever I needed her. She took Bella to school on the mornings I simply couldn’t get out of bed, made sure I ate, and helped me cope with the heart-wrenching admin of divorce: finding a decent lawyer, boxing up Andrew’s stuff, going back to work. She listened patiently as I sobbed into my wineglass, trying to make sense of what had happened. And when it had looked as if I’d drown in my own despair, Min had delivered the precise dose of tough love I needed to start living again.

What she’s found harder to accept is my need to finally put the past behind me and forgive Andrew. Her enduring hostility towards him is almost as exhausting as my mother’s serene refusal to accept he’s never coming back. Andrew broke my heart, but it’s been four years. If I don’t let the bitterness go, I’ll be consumed by it. He’s still Bella and Tolly’s father, and they love him. Whatever Min thinks, I’m neither a martyr nor a pushover. I’ve learned to tolerate Caz’s toxic presence in my life, because what other choice is there? The woman is married to my children’s father. Her son is their half-brother. In its own twisted way, whether I like it or not, that makes her family. ‘Please, Min, let it go,’ I say tiredly.

‘It’s one weekend of my life. I think we can all get through it without killing each other.’ ‘We’ve got nearly seven weeks,’ Min says, changing tack with dizzying speed. ‘I’ve got this great diet – you’ll love it. Paleo meets Weight Watchers, you’ll drop a stone without even noticing. I’d lend you something of mine to wear, but you’re too tall—’ I hear small footsteps upstairs, and close the kitchen door so I’m not overheard. ‘Min, I’m not trying to compete with Caz. That ship has sailed. She’s twenty-nine and looks like a supermodel, whereas my boobs are in a race to my navel, and even my earlobes have wrinkles. I could diet my arse off and I’d still never have her cheekbones.

’ I sigh. ‘I appreciate the pep talk, but even if I could afford a celebrity makeover, what’s the point? How would breaking up Kit’s family help anyone now?’ ‘It would put your family back together.’ ‘No. It wouldn’t.’ Min’s scowl fills the screen. ‘You’re too nice.’ I eye the invitation on the mantelpiece. Andrew and I had a deal. A deal that didn’t involve accepting invitations to my parents’ golden wedding celebrations, or coming anywhere near the rest of my family, for that matter. A deal he’s broken, even though I told him there’d be consequences.

‘Actually, Min,’ I say, turning the invitation face down. ‘I’m not that nice.’

.

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