The Divorce – Victoria Jenkins

I meet them for the first time on a wet and dreary Thursday morning, a relentless downpour pelting the ground so loudly it almost drowns out the sound of my introduction. They are barely visible beneath the black umbrella he holds above them, her head dipped towards his chest to protect her from an onslaught of driving rain that has been tirelessly battering the street since the early hours. It seems ironic that in this moment, to anyone looking on from the street, this couple might appear so close, so together. Yet they wouldn’t be here if that were the case. ‘I’m Karen,’ I say, ushering them into the hallway, extending a hand first to Lydia Green and then to her husband, Josh. ‘Lovely to meet you both.’ Lydia’s hand is cold to the touch, her slim fingers icy against mine. She offers me a small smile as she steps aside and shrugs her rain-sodden jacket from her slender shoulders. She thanks me as I take it from her, and I recognise the east London accent that I detected during our phone conversation, its tones muted and restrained; the kind of lilt that suggests a person has made a conscious effort to lose any trace of their roots from their voice. When Josh reaches for my hand, his fingers linger on mine a moment too long. The men are usually more nervous than the women when they first arrive here, more anxious about what lies ahead, as though accepting their marriage needs help is an admission of failure on their part. For many, this anxiety manifests itself in handshakes that are too tight, ill-timed comments intended to fill uncomfortable lulls in conversation; sometimes just the silences, left to fester until someone finds a distraction. ‘What a beautiful house,’ Lydia says, casting her eyes up the staircase. I notice them flit along the montage of framed photographs that climbs the wall: an array of travel snaps taken on holidays over the years. Another row lines the hallway wall, and I wait as her attention runs along each in turn, absorbing the snapshot moments of my past.

‘Thank you. It was a shell when we moved in. It took years to renovate.’ As I watch her scan the place admiringly, I remember the surge of pride I used to feel swelling in my chest whenever someone came into my home and made a comment such as this. Decades ago, I walked along this street as a teenage girl, never once imagining that years later I might live here. I would have pinched myself had someone told me that this was where my future would lie, not believing that such a fate could await someone with my humble background. Yet nothing here looks as it once did. These material things for which Sean and I worked so hard seem insignificant now, yet I know I continue to cling to their sheen in the hope that they’ll detract from the reality that sits just behind them, waiting to rear its head and knock me sideways when I least expect it. ‘Can I hang that up for you?’ I reach past Lydia to take Josh’s jacket from him. He has stepped back and stands just behind his wife, his wet coat still on, moving from foot to foot as though warming himself up: from the cold outside or for what’s about to come, I can’t yet tell.

He is tall, but looks younger than his wife – he would pass for late twenties though I know he is much older – with a boyish youthfulness in the flush of his skin and his dark hair styled in a way that might be regarded as fashionable, short at the sides and long on top. He is dressed smartly, in pressed chinos and a white shirt that looks so crisp he might be wearing it for the first time. Beside him, Lydia is wearing a floral tea dress and a mauve cardigan, and her dark brown hair is pinned back into a bun. There is something demure and almost dated about her appearance. I wouldn’t have picked them out of a busy room as a couple, but this is nothing out of the ordinary: the most unlikely of couples are often the ones who survive the day-to-day challenges of married life, even when it might seem that the obstacles they face are too great for them to overcome. I wonder what this couple’s problems are, having requested my help in doing just that. Josh passes me his coat, thanking me with a smile. It is different to the one offered by his wife, more strained and less sincere; it is given and retracted so quickly that he seems almost resentful at being made to part with it. I wonder whether he is happy to be here. Occasionally, only one half of a couple really wants to attend these sessions, despite what the other might claim or hope for.

In those cases, my job becomes almost impossible. I have an eighty per cent success rate, which I take a lot of pride in. I have received thank-you presents from clients after blocks of sessions have come to an end: flowers, wine, handwritten letters thanking me for saving a relationship; in many cases, for keeping a family together. I save a token gesture from each gift – a card, a dried petal, a label removed from a bottle – and store them all in a box, and on days when I feel my life no longer serves a purpose, I return to it. It reminds me that I am still needed by someone. ‘Follow me through.’ I lead them down the hallway to the back of the house, bypassing the door to the kitchen and taking them through to my consultancy room. I have worked from home for almost two decades now; before that, I was in Islington, in a soulless office block in which troubled couples would pour out their problems to me while overlooking the web of traffic that crept through the streets below. I am happier seeing clients at the house, and I believe they are more relaxed here. I can offer them a more comfortable setting, and decent coffee that doesn’t taste like day-old dishwater.

‘Can I get either of you a drink before we start?’ I ask, pushing the door to the consultancy room open and ushering them through. Lydia enters first, taking a moment to assess her surroundings: the cream sofa that lines the far wall, the patterned chair in the corner, the sideboard, the bookcase stocked with an array of the literature I have accumulated over the years, the view through the window over the long rectangle of back garden. I have done what I can to keep this room as homely and comfortable as possible, in keeping with the rest of the house. I want my clients to feel at ease here. I want them to feel that within these four walls they can say the things they may feel unable to articulate elsewhere. Josh follows us into the room. ‘Tea? Coffee?’ ‘Not for me, thanks,’ he says. ‘Tea would be lovely,’ Lydia says, turning to me. ‘Just milk, please.’ ‘I’ll be a couple of minutes.

Make yourselves comfortable.’ I leave them in the room together and pull the door to behind me, making sure to leave it only slightly ajar. They will be able to hear me in the kitchen making tea if they choose to listen out for it: the clicking of the kettle’s switch; the soft thud of a closed cupboard door. Similarly, I will be able to hear them before they see me return with the drinks. Though it’s a slightly underhand method – something I’m sure would be considered unorthodox by some – it’s one I have employed for years now. It has enabled me to steal snippets of conversation that have in some cases offered me more insight than hours’ worth of sessions, and at times my eavesdropping has proved invaluable. It has allowed me to see who is here because they want to be and who has been brought here under duress, having finally yielded to the demands of what they perceive as a nagging partner. What I know of this couple is for now limited to the details I gained from Lydia in one of her emails. I know that she is thirty-four, her husband forty-one. I know that they have been together for fourteen years and have two children, a girl aged thirteen and a boy aged nine.

These few facts are enough to throw up a range of questions, ones I’m sure I’ll begin to find answers to once the two of them start to talk. Wondering just how quickly into their relationship Lydia became pregnant, I make a pot of tea and take three cups from the cupboard, just in case Josh changes his mind. I fill a small jug with milk and add sugar to the bowl. The tea set was a wedding present from one of Sean’s aunts, and until a few months ago it hadn’t been taken from its box in years. I had always saved it for ‘best’, whenever that might have proved to be. There is a saying about saving things for special occasions, about life itself being the special occasion, and I have lost enough now to understand just what that means. While I make the tea, I contemplate the same things that cross my mind during every introductory session I hold with my clients. What are my first impressions of them, individually and as a couple? Do I believe at this moment that I will be able to help them? Sometimes, just a few minutes are enough to know whether counselling will benefit a couple or not. When someone makes it clear they don’t want to be here – which happens surprisingly regularly – there is often no point in holding even the first session. There have been times when I have said as much.

For any marriage to survive, both partners need to be fully invested in making the relationship work. I am unsure of what to make of Josh. I saw the way he looked at me when I answered the door to them, the way his eyes silently scanned his surroundings before moving quickly on, passing over the house before resting on me briefly, staring at and through me then looking away, dismissing me as soon as he had acknowledged my presence. I saw the way he looked at his wife when I left the room to come to the kitchen, resentment all too evident in his steely, distant eyes. As I leave the kitchen with the tea tray in my hands, my attention is caught by the hallway wall and the line of photographs that runs along it. I stop, unsure for a moment whether my eyes are playing tricks on me. When I step closer, I realise I have made no mistake. Each of the photographs – eight of them in total – is hanging off centre, knocked at an angle that makes it lean to the left. As though someone has run a hand along the wall, hitting each frame in turn. I am sure that when Josh and Lydia arrived, the photographs were straight.

I am meticulous in the details of this house to the point at which I appreciate it may be considered by some obsessive behaviour, but spending so much of my time within these walls makes this place both my office and my home. If any of the photographs hadn’t been straight, I would have noticed earlier, and didn’t I not long ago watch Lydia study them admiringly? I would have noticed then if they were all at an angle. The tea tray is heavy in my hands, its weight putting pressure on my left wrist. I adjust the balance of it and head to the consultancy room, shaking myself from the suspicious, uneasy thoughts that are attempting to take root in my brain. I must have simply not noticed that the photographs needed straightening. If not, then either Lydia or Josh must have brushed past them as they walked down the hallway. It is easily done, after all. I wait a couple of feet outside the door of the consultancy room, listening for the sound of their voices. There is a rustle of cushions as one of them shifts on the sofa; a moment later, Josh exhales noisily. ‘This is madness.

’ ‘Please,’ Lydia says. ‘Not now.’ ‘We shouldn’t be here.’ His words are taut, their endings clipped. Lydia says nothing for a moment, but I hear another rustling noise, this time as though she is searching through her bag. I wait for Josh to say something more – to offer some further protestation at being brought here under apparent duress – but there is nothing. A moment later, I push open the door and place the tea tray on the coffee table that sits between the sofa and the chair. It is usual for my clients to sit on the sofa, whether next to each other or at opposite ends, but Lydia has taken my chair in the corner and Josh is standing at the window, his back turned to the room and to his wife. I appear to startle her as I enter the room; she drops her bag on the floor and gives me a nervous smile. She looks at her husband’s back and offers me a glance that seems to act as an apology, as though she already feels the need to excuse his apparent lack of interest.

‘There’s a spare cup for you here, Josh, if you change your mind.’ ‘Thanks.’ He sits on the sofa and I move to the other end, positioned now between them. I think for a moment about asking Lydia to swap with me, but there is an obvious atmosphere already making the room feel uncomfortable, and the sooner it is erased, the better for us all. I don’t want to embarrass her any more than her husband already appears to be doing. ‘Okay,’ I say, smoothing the front of my skirt as I settle in my seat. ‘As I said when we spoke on the phone, this first session gives me an opportunity to learn about you and your relationship and gives you both a chance to be honest about what makes you happy in the relationship and what you’d like to see change. I’d like each of you in your own time to tell me the story of you, as you see it – how you met and what you liked about the other person in those early days. Tell me the things you’re unhappy with now, the things that you’d like to see made different if you could. Which of you would like to start us off?’ Lydia looks to her husband, but Josh is staring at the carpet between his feet.

There is something about him that I just can’t isolate; not yet, anyway, though I’m confident it will come to me in time. He has been polite enough, thanking me when it has been necessary, but it has evidently been forced and taken an effort. ‘Lydia,’ I say. ‘How about you go first? Where did you two meet?’ Lydia glances at Josh again, as though seeking his approval to answer the question. He meets her eye briefly, then looks away, averting his attention to the window and the stretch of garden that lies beyond. Despite the grey gloom and the rain that continues to pummel the lawn relentlessly, it is obvious where much of my time is spent these days when I’m not working. Gardening has turned out to be a kind of therapy; one of the few things that allows me to switch off from my life – from what is left of it – for an hour or two. ‘Through a mutual friend,’ she says, looking back at me. ‘Someone we both used to work with.’ ‘What is it you do, Lydia?’ ‘I’m an administrator.

Of sorts. Was, rather. I mean, it’s all very boring. I quit work when I had the kids.’ It occurs to me that whatever type of administration it was, Lydia couldn’t have worked for very long. She would have been twenty-one when she gave birth to her daughter, so her career would have been short. I notice her use of the adverb ‘I’. When I had the kids, rather than when we had the kids. Perhaps I’m looking too deeply into things. It was a habit that used to irritate Sean about me, particularly during a disagreement.

You analyse every word, he would say, before quickly rephrasing whatever vocabulary I had jumped upon, as though in the hope that by changing the words he could change the intention. In my experience, people admit far more unwittingly than they ever might intentionally. Often, single words can say far more than whole sentences. I wonder about the children and how they might perceive their parents’ relationship, but I decide not to pursue that aspect of the marriage just yet. There will be plenty of time to discuss them during later sessions, and for now my priority is trying to find out as much as I can about these people – as individuals and as a couple. Not wanting to overload them with too many questions for the time being, I return the focus to how they met, giving Lydia a nod of encouragement to continue her version of events, as that is all anyone is able to give: a version. People rarely recount an event as it actually happened, and no two people will ever give the same version, making the truth of anything hard to come by. ‘You were telling me how you met,’ I prompt her. ‘It was at a party – this mutual friend I mentioned, it was her birthday. We got chatting at the bar.

’ She stops and looks at her hands in her lap, idly twisting her engagement ring between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand. It is an eye-catching piece of jewellery with a large stone that catches the light. I think of my own engagement ring, so lovingly selected and yet perhaps so unfashionable by today’s standards. I can recall the moment Sean proposed to me as though it was just this morning; as though the two and a half decades that have passed since that day have been imagined in the space between breakfast and now. I can still taste the pizza we shared, the lager he drank – lager that I stole in sips from his glass, regretting my attempts at sophistication by opting for the house red – the smell of the aftershave he wore and that lingered on my own clothing for the rest of that weekend in Florence. And that look on his face when he drew the ring box from his jacket pocket, placing it casually on the table between us before mimicking my look of surprise – I can picture it now as though he is still sitting opposite me. Whatever problems you think you have, I want to say to Josh and Lydia, just let them go. You are young and you’re together and you’re alive. Make the most of everything while everything is what you have. But of course, I can’t say these things.

I can’t tell them that sometimes life is just hard and that the same applies to everyone, regardless of status or age or wealth. That would be far too honest, and it is something that no one wants to hear. Most people want the reassurance of a solution, even in situations where the possibility of one might not exist. I look again at the ring. It is large and showy; it seems an unlikely choice for a woman who appears as reserved as Lydia, though it might be possible that it was presented to her as a surprise, in much the same way mine was. Maybe it reflects how Josh regards her, which may be very different to the way Lydia sees herself. I wonder if it once suited her, and whether the woman Josh proposed to was a different person to the woman who is sitting opposite him today. I look at her and widen my eyes, encouraging her once again to continue. ‘You were at the bar,’ I remind her, though it is my own mind that has wandered for a moment. ‘What did you talk about?’ ‘I don’t remember the details,’ she admits.

‘Well, if I’m honest, I wasn’t really looking for anything, not at that time, anyway. We talked a bit, about the party mostly, I think, and when I went home, I didn’t really expect to see him again.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘She probably couldn’t remember any of it.’ Josh speaks to the window, as though thinking aloud, his statement not really directed at either of us. The words are scathing and dismissive and I see the reaction they burn into Lydia’s face. She doesn’t meet my eye, too embarrassed by her husband’s shaming of her in front of someone who is still for now little more than a stranger. ‘I’d had a couple of drinks,’ she says, as though she feels the need to explain or defend herself. ‘A couple of bottles.’ She looks at me, her eyes pleading with mine as though willing me to ask her husband to stop what he is doing. Her face is flushed slightly, drawing colour into her pale cheeks.

She might be an attractive woman, but a tiredness pulls at her features and there are dark shadows beneath her eyes. I say nothing in response to Josh’s comment, though it obviously raises questions. I don’t want to give attention to behaviour that is unkind, so instead I move the focus back to Lydia. He will get a chance to give his version of their meeting. I wonder which of their accounts will be closest to the truth. Sometimes it’s easier to lie to yourself than it is to accept a truth that was always there but was never wanted. ‘You say you didn’t expect to see Josh again. Why was that?’ ‘I don’t know. You know how it is,’ she says, as though we’ve known each other for years, just two friends meeting up for a coffee and a chat. ‘Men like Josh and women like me …’ She trails into silence and looks down at her hands again, and I think I see one of the problems here.

Looking at Josh, my suspicions are perhaps confirmed. He eyes his wife with a sideways glare, his gaze concentrated on her face and his frustrations with her almost tangible in the air between the three of us. Lydia flattens her hair against the side of her head before picking at a thumbnail, in what appears to be a concentrated effort not to make eye contact with either Josh or me. Her anxiety is palpable, infusing the air around us. Is she always this self-deprecating? I wonder. Does he always respond to her self-criticism with such obvious impatience? ‘Women like you,’ I repeat. ‘What do you mean by that?’ I already know exactly what she is suggesting, but to get to the root of this relationship’s problems I need to hear her truths as Lydia sees them. There is evidently a confidence issue here, and I wonder whether it is historically embedded within her, or whether Josh has in some way contributed to her lack of self-belief. Josh has so far shown little more than hostility, but I realise it would be unfair of me to judge him on this first assessment alone. His response is natural, perhaps, in the way that so many people react to these initial sessions with reluctance and apathy, not quite sure of themselves, or in some cases, too sure.

I remind myself that until I know and see more of him and his relationship with his wife, I must remain neutral. Living with someone who is constantly negative, someone who berates themselves for everything in the way it already appears Lydia might do, may be as challenging as living with someone who believes they can do no wrong. And things are often very different behind closed doors. ‘I don’t know,’ she replies, repeating the phrase that acts as a prefix to much of what she says. ‘I just didn’t expect him to notice me.’ She presses her hair behind her ears, though none has fallen loose from where it is carefully pinned in place. ‘Men like Josh don’t look twice at women like me.’ Josh emits a noise, a snort that seems to make light of his wife’s feelings, and it does nothing to help the awkwardness that has fallen over the room. ‘And yet he obviously made the effort to contact you again after that first meeting,’ I say, suspecting there is little chance it was Lydia who pursued the relationship. She doesn’t seem to me the type of woman who would ask a man if he wanted to go for a drink, not if her response to his initial attention is anything to judge her character by.

‘Exactly,’ Josh adds, in a tone that is at once exasperated and edged with a smug gratitude. Lydia nods. ‘I was at work a few days later and suddenly there he was,’ she says, smiling at the memory. ‘He said he was just passing, but I knew that was a lie – he didn’t work or live anywhere near the place. He asked me out for a drink after work and I couldn’t find an excuse not to go.’ ‘Charming,’ Josh says, and when he speaks this time it is accompanied by the faintest hint of a smile. He is better-looking when he smiles, I notice: the harder edges of his face soften, and his eyes seem to warm from their grey coolness. His nose is crooked at the bridge; it appears to have been broken at some point. I wonder what happened to him: whether the injury was accidental or the result of something more. ‘You know what I mean.

’ In this moment – as in that moment at the front door earlier – no one would believe that this couple has any problems, or at the very least no problems that merit seeking the help of a marriage guidance counsellor. I wonder how their relationship looks to those outside their home yet still close enough to care about them – parents, siblings, friends. Couples in crisis often act out the marriage they wish they had when in the company of others, with many doing an effective job at convincing those who love them that everything is fine even when it isn’t. But performances like that are hard to maintain long-term. Eventually the truth escapes through the cracks and the reality of the situation warps the veneer that has been so carefully constructed. I am always a last resort. By the time they come to me for help, most couples have already discussed the very real possibility of divorce. ‘And what then?’ I ask. Lydia licks her lips nervously, knowing she is expected to say far more than she has so far offered. I lean forward and pour her a cup of tea; she adds milk and sips it carefully, all the while avoiding her husband’s eyes.

From where I am sitting, I watch them both, conscious not to make it too obvious that I am doing so. She is anxious and on edge, constantly fiddling with something: the hair that is pinned back so precisely, the rings that adorn her slender fingers, the deep blue hemline of her dress. He, meanwhile, continues to radiate a hostility that can be felt like the heat of a flame, his angular jaw set in defiance and his face stamped with a permanent expression of irritability. ‘We arranged a time and a place, and I popped home after work to get changed before meeting him at the pub. It was nice, you know …’ She trails off as embarrassment creeps up into her cheeks in a mottle of pink that sits upon the flush already settled there. ‘I’m sorry. I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s a bit weird talking about it all like this, especially to a stranger. Sorry, I don’t mean any offence by that. I don’t really know what to say.

’ ‘It’s okay,’ I reassure her. ‘Take your time. If it’s easier, try to imagine I’m not here. Don’t tell me about it – tell Josh.’

.

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