The Ex Boyfriend – Rona Halsall

Becca twisted the chocolate wrapper and tied it into a neat knot. Then another and another. Her eyes glanced at the double doors which led into the A & E department before checking the clock on the wall again. Almost forty minutes since her husband, Dean, had arrived and she’d been asked to wait outside. Their three-year-old daughter, Mia, was having tests, and the medical team had insisted that Becca stay in the waiting room to calm down, her agitation making her daughter more anxious than was necessary. To be fair, she had been screechy and loud when she thought she was being fobbed off again – but sometimes that sort of behaviour was needed for people to actually listen and take you seriously. The waiting room was mercifully quiet, only a trickle of people coming in and going out. She watched them, her nurse’s eye trying to gauge what their problem might be, as a way of distracting herself from what was happening to her daughter. Were they taking the blood tests she had requested so many times now? Doing toxicology to see if they could identify what was causing these acute bouts of illness? Her leg bounced up and down, her whole body twitching with the not knowing. Okay, she understood why they’d chosen Dean to go with Mia instead of her. He was calm, always calm, and she was so thankful he’d finally arrived at the hospital. But Becca was Mia’s mum, the one who looked after her most of the time, and she felt she should be there, making sure they were checking the right things, telling them the whole story. Dean hadn’t been there half the time Mia had been ill – he’d been working away, as was the norm these days. She stood and did a tour of the walls, reading the posters, willing her heart to beat at a more sensible rate. What if it was something serious, some underlying condition that hadn’t occurred to her? She’d never forgive herself if it turned out to be an obvious disease.

Something a district nurse should be aware of. ‘Becca.’ She turned at her name and saw Dean walking towards her, Mia holding his hand. His face was grim. ‘They want to have a chat with you.’ He nodded his head towards a doctor and nurse, who stood by the door of a little meeting room that opened off the waiting area. ‘Is everything okay? Do they know what’s wrong with her?’ A third person came bustling through the double doors. A woman with a stethoscope round her neck, but not in the white coat used by the A & E doctors. A consultant, Becca thought, her heart leaping up and down now, hands clammy. Dean sat down and pulled Mia on to his knee.

The three people were standing by the open door of the room, obviously waiting for her. ‘Aren’t you coming in?’ Becca asked him. He shook his head, an odd expression on his face that she couldn’t quite interpret. ‘It’s just you they want to talk to.’ Mia snuggled into his chest, clearly exhausted. Three of them? Oh God, no, this is serious. She took a deep breath and steeled herself for bad news. I’m a nurse. I’ve heard bad news before. I can handle this.

Giving them a tight smile, she walked into the room and sat in the chair they indicated. Waited while they introduced themselves, not really hearing anything as her pulse whooshed in her ears. Silence. ‘Have you found out what’s wrong with my daughter?’ They glanced at each other and the woman with the stethoscope nodded. ‘Yes, we think we have.’ Becca waited. ‘We think someone has been deliberately poisoning her.’ Becca swallowed. Her skin prickled as she took in the stern faces, three pairs of eyes fixed on her. Do they think it’s me? 1 TWO AND A HALF WEEKS EARLIER Connor.

Becca’s mind woke her up with his name, as if she’d just said it out loud. Maybe I did? Her heart gave a little skip of panic, eyes staring into the darkness, while she listened. Dean’s steady breathing, slow and regular, the slight rumble of a snore, filled her ears. The sound of a sleeping person. Even if I did say it, he didn’t hear. She breathed out, slow and quiet, worried that her rush of relief would be so loud it might wake her husband. The digital clock, which sat on the bedside table next to her, clicked over to 3.08 a.m. She turned away from the time, eyes closed as she snuggled against Dean’s back, but her mind was being treacherous, filling with images of Connor as she remembered him from ten years ago, just before she’d left.

Surfer hair, bleached blond, hanging past his shoulders, that glorious wide smile, dark blue eyes and a wonky nose, bent slightly to the right after he’d been hit in the face by his surfboard several years earlier. Connor. There it was again, his name in her head, right where it shouldn’t be. Her eyes flicked open, not wanting to see his face in her mind but still wanting to revel in the warmth of the memory of him. Why now? she wondered, her nose full of the scent of her sleeping husband, her body clasped against his. Not that he’d notice, said a voice in her head, tinged with resentment. Her hand slipped from Dean’s waist and she turned on to her back, gazing at the ceiling, the flower-shaped light shade just visible in the darkness. She listened to the rhythm of Dean’s breathing, noted his blissful lack of awareness and envied him his peace of mind. He could always sleep, was never awake at three in the morning, whereas this time of night was very familiar to her – a particular moment in time that her body seemed to want her to experience on a daily basis. Quietly, she slipped out of bed and pulled on her dressing gown before padding to the door.

Not a conscious decision, but something she did out of habit. I won’t get back to sleep if I don’t have a wander, she told herself, a slave to her routines, which had started to multiply at an alarming rate. She walked down the hallway and peeked into the next bedroom, smiling at the tangle of bedclothes on the floor, the little girl on the bed with her arms and legs flung wide, like a starfish. Mia. Strawberry-blonde curls formed a halo round her dainty face, freckles dotting her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. Mini-me, Becca thought, having looked identical at the age of three. Now her own curls had straightened into shoulderlength waves, her hair darkened to brown, and her hazel eyes were permanently clouded with a whole swarm of worries that wouldn’t let her sleep. Connor. It was disconcerting, the way his name called to her, snapping her out of the present and taking her to the past. She’d lived in such a different world then, when he’d been part of her life, on a different continent, a different hemisphere.

When she’d first met him, she’d been a carefree twenty-eight-year-old. Six months into her planned year-long sabbatical in Australia, she’d felt renewed and healed and invigorated, her head filled with such plans for the future. It felt surreal thinking about it now, as if it had happened in a parallel universe, and she wondered how she’d got here, to this place in her life where she felt like she was a chameleon, colouring herself to fit in, her true self unseen by the people she shared her life with. She found herself in the kitchen, filling the kettle with water, no recollection of coming down the stairs. It was strange how her mind blanked like that, almost like sleepwalking. So tired, she thought, rubbing her hands over her face, wiping at eyes sticky with sleep. That was the irony: she was catatonic with weariness, but the moment she lay down, her mind went hyperactive, whirring through the day, the future, the past. Fixating on things she’d done that she wished she hadn’t, and things she hadn’t that she wished she had. All the should haves and could haves and what ifs banging together into a riot of voices shouting and crying and whispering in her head. Phew, it was noisy in there, and the only way to quieten everything down was to get up, have a cup of tea, do a bit of meditation and then go back to bed.

Sometimes it worked. Recently, not so much. It’s Connor’s fault. She nodded to herself as she made her tea, still unfamiliar with her surroundings, the newness of the house they’d moved into only three months ago, everything sparkling and working properly, smelling of fresh paint and new carpets. Connor was the grain of sand in her shoe, his reappearance in her life something she had to address whether she wanted to or not. She drifted through to the lounge and pulled a large cushion on to the floor, the pattern the right way up, edges flush against the front of the settee. When she was satisfied that it was properly aligned, she got herself settled like she’d been taught by her yoga teacher, legs crossed, back straight, supported against the settee, her mug of tea on the coffee table to her left, out of her line of sight so it wouldn’t distract her. She gazed at the fake fireplace in front of her, the screen projecting flickering flames, and let her focus blur and her thoughts wander. It had started a week ago. He’d popped up on her Twitter feed, a new follower.

Connor Cywinski. She’d stared at the name, her heart skipping as she studied his avatar: a surfboard. The only thing written on his profile was ‘surf’s up…’ and she knew immediately it was him. Not the usual random Twitter follower. This was Connor, her ex. Who’d bewitched her with his happy-go-lucky philosophy, his inability to worry about things he had no control over, his belief in ‘tomorrow is another day’ and handing his problems to the universe to sort out. This was the Connor she had loved. The Connor she had wronged. And here he was liking her cute cat pictures and her little witticisms about life and the funny things her daughter Mia had said and done. Yesterday, though, she’d followed him back and he’d gone one step further, sending her a direct message.

G’day! How you doing? That was it. Short and to the point, but a question so big she had no way of answering without writing an essay. How was she doing? To be honest, she really wasn’t sure. She’d replied: Fine. Just one word, typed and sent before she could think to stop herself. To ask the question, Is it wise to respond? And now she was itching to see if she’d had a reply, or whether she’d sounded too terse and non-committal. Dismissive. Whether she’d let him go again. Because he couldn’t go, not now. There were things she needed to say, things he needed to know.

Then, maybe, a bundle of her worries, neatly tied with regrets, could be packed away for good. Was it possible that the piece of her conscience which burnt with shame at the thought of him could be soothed into silence? She sighed, reached for her tea and took a big sip before carefully replacing it and refocusing on the flames, bringing her mind back to the meditation. The idea was to let her head empty itself of random thoughts of its own accord, like taking the plug out of the sink and watching the water drain away. Just watch but don’t engage, she reminded herself, something she’d been taught but not yet mastered to any degree. Shall I look? Check if he’s replied? Suddenly she was on her feet and walking to the kitchen and her handbag, where she’d left her phone. She’d taken to keeping it out of sight this last week – a way to stop herself from compulsively checking to see if he’d posted anything or left a comment. Her hand closed round the familiar cold oblong and she pulled it out, switched it on, her pulse speeding up a little as she waited for it to wake up. She flicked through to her Twitter app. A message! She stared at the little envelope icon for a moment before she opened it up. Great to hook up with you again.

Want to chat? She read the message a couple of times, could detect no hidden agenda, but then Connor wasn’t that type of guy. He was all for ‘call a spade a friggin’ spade, mate’, no messing about with flowery language or diplomatic niceties. It was something she’d loved about him. Loved. There was that word again, and with it came such a swirl of emotion that for a moment she was battling a hurricane. She steadied herself against the kitchen table while she took a deep breath and weathered the rush of longing, remembered the sound of his voice, the soft touch of his lips against hers. She swallowed and studied the screen, rereading the words. Do I want to chat? Wow, talk about a loaded question. She wondered what he thought they might chat about. Her husband? Her child? The life she’d built without him? She flicked back to her profile, checking what he already knew: Rebecca Thornton @beccanurse7 District nurse in Llandudno, North Wales.

Happily married to Dean, mother of Mia (3). Loves mountains and beaches. Talks a lot. He knew her situation. No need to hide anything. But how does he feel about it? A knot of guilt tightened in her stomach. She read his reply again and knew that she shouldn’t chat, knew that she couldn’t allow the past to invade her present, whatever unresolved feelings there might be. He was her ex and she was a married woman now. Her fingers ignored her and flew over the screen, her conscience dictating the words that she’d been wanting to say for so long. I’m so sorry I didn’t come back.

I know at the airport I said I would. Honestly, I meant to, but after Mum’s funeral, Dad was a mess and I couldn’t leave him. Life changed. Different priorities. It was rushed, as apologies went, and only told half the truth, but at least she’d had a chance to say sorry now, and that felt better. Even if he didn’t reply, he’d see her words, know that her choices had been limited by a tragic situation. She read her message on the screen, a lump of dissatisfaction sitting in her chest, hard and heavy. There was more she could have done at the time, more she could have said, but she’d been torn in two with grief, her emotions in tatters, and she couldn’t explain her behaviour, not even to herself. There was no rational line of logic that could sensibly explain how she’d come to be with Dean instead of Connor. Apart from the thousands of miles between them, of course, which made talking about things that mattered just a little bit too hard.

And the fact that she didn’t hear a peep from him after she’d returned to the UK. In Australia, they’d been on a break from each other for a few weeks before she’d suddenly had to leave, her life ambitions seemingly incompatible with his. She’d grown tired of the constant travelling and wanted to settle somewhere, while he wasn’t ready for that. But he was her best friend and they’d still chatted regularly. When she’d told him her mum had died, he’d insisted on driving her to the airport – he was that sort of guy. He was off on a road trip a couple of days later, and they’d left it that he would contact her when he was back – she’d assured him she would have returned to Australia by then. On the day of her mum’s funeral, the day when she’d really needed him to be there for her, he hadn’t answered her message. That had hurt and suddenly all the negatives about him ate up the positives, until the only things left were the things she didn’t like. But really, did that add up to the answer? Was it that simple? She looked at her message. It wasn’t enough, there was something more she needed to say, so she tapped out the question she really wanted him to answer.

I hope you can forgive me? If he said yes, would that make her feel lighter, or would it wrap another chain of doubt around her neck? The past ten years had been emotional. First her mum dying, and her dad struggling to cope with the grief. Then, less than a year later, she and Dean had married. Four years ago, her dad had had a heart attack and needed more support, especially when he’d had to take early retirement and hadn’t known what to do with himself. And then, three and a half years ago, after several miscarriages, Mia had been born. But Dean’s business had suddenly taken off just when Becca had gone back to work, and life had been hectic ever since. Every time she thought they’d reached a settled phase, something else would happen. The most recent upheaval was buying this house next to the golf course on the edge of Llandudno. It was more stressful than she could have imagined because it was a new build and Dean had wanted changes to the specification, so it fitted their needs perfectly. ‘If it’s going to be our forever home, we’ve got to get it right,’ he’d said more than once.

Becca would be the first to admit that she and change were not good friends. It took her a while to adjust to new ideas, and after the troubles of her past, her therapist had advised her not to take on too much change at once, to let one thing become part of her routine before introducing anything else that was new. Life had other ideas of course, pulling her this way and that, thrusting decisions and situations in her path at a speed she found overwhelming at times. Too much change at once gave her a mental paralysis, a state of mind where she was incapable of knowing what it was she actually wanted. Unable to voice an opinion, she just let events happen. And that was how she’d ended up here, married to Dean with a three-year-old child, instead of in Australia with Connor and – who knew – possibly a different child. She couldn’t pretend she hadn’t thought about it a hundred times. Probably a lot more, if she was honest. Especially on those days when Dean wasn’t there and she was alone, trying to entertain a hyperactive Mia. Lonely.

Yes, that was the truth of it. She often felt lonely. Dean’s business was like a third person in their marriage, regularly taking him away for weekends and sometimes weeks at a time. In recent years, he’d specialised in running corporate events based on golf – his passion – using iconic courses all over the world. Companies would run team-building activities, strategy workshops or sales events in the mornings, followed by a round of golf in the afternoon or evening. Work and play. It was a win-win formula. He’d spotted a gap in the market and he’d been so right. Now he had so much work, he’d taken on a partner, an ex-professional golfer who had the industry contacts he needed; together, they were dynamite. It didn’t help that his partner was lithe and attractive and called Alice.

Becca didn’t like Alice. Or was it that she didn’t like Alice being Dean’s business partner? The fact that Dean and Alice spent so much time together was the problem, and she found her insufferable, all puffed up and full of her own importance. She had a tendency to ignore Becca because, really, what did they have in common? Alice was focused, driven, her life all about golf, to the exclusion of almost everything else. There was no overt animosity, just a tendency to avoid each other if at all possible, a strategy they all seemed happy with. Becca sighed. Hand on heart, she couldn’t say she was happy. Stressed: that was her overriding state of mind, a hamster on a wheel, running to keep up with everything life was throwing at her. It wasn’t how she’d envisaged her life with Dean. Did I make a mistake? she wondered now, looking at her message to Connor. Did I pick the wrong man?

.

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