The Stranger in Our Bed – Samantha Lee Howe

I woke early. My husband, Tom, was still sleeping. It was 5.30 a.m. and I usually slept through until Tom’s alarm went off at 7.30. I listened to the sounds of our home. There was nothing unusual, yet something had woken me. My mind was fully alert, like a light switch had been turned on. I lay on my side, watching Tom’s handsome face. He looked so young when he slept. It was hard to imagine him as the CEO of the conglomerate that was Carlisle Corp. We’d met at university, ten years earlier. We’d both been studying law at Oxford.

Tom was focusing on corporate law, already preparing for the day when he would take over the family business. I’d been studying corporate law too and I had ambitions for the future, but unlike Tom I’d had to work in a bar to help fund my education, and relied heavily on my student loans and any bursaries I could apply for. I turned over and trying not to disturb Tom I got out of bed. But as I took my first step an overwhelming bout of nausea came over me. No longer trying to be quiet I ran into the bathroom, and vomited into the toilet bowl. When the sickness subsided, I brushed my teeth and looked at the yellow pallor of my skin in the mirror. I felt terrible. Perhaps I had come down with some bug? ‘Char?’ said Tom from the bedroom. ‘Are you all right?’ I couldn’t believe my luck when he asked me out for the first time. For a while I didn’t trust we could have a relationship, we were too different.

But when we finished our education, Tom asked me to marry him, and the future I’d planned for myself changed. Soon after our wedding, Tom’s father, Conrad Carlisle, succumbed to the cancer that had been eating away at him for years. Tom hadn’t expected me to work after that. ‘I need your support, Char,’ he’d said. ‘I’m going to be working long hours at first. If you take a job too, then we’ll never see each other. Besides, you don’t need to work. I’ll give you everything you need.’ It was an odd notion after all of my motivations and hard work, but the whirlwind of our life soon took away any thought of finding my own place in a law firm. I became a housewife instead.

‘Char?’ Tom called again. A crushing sense of gratitude warmed by stomach. Had the upset from the previous night affected me so much that it had made me sick? Tom sounded like his usual caring self. I was relieved to hear that love and warmth back in his voice. The argument had been so ridiculous. So … unnecessary. ‘I’m fine. Maybe got a bug,’ I said. ‘Bug my arse,’ Tom said, coming into the bathroom. ‘What?’ I was immediately on the defensive.

‘When was your period?’ he smiled. ‘Period? No … just because I was sick doesn’t mean …’ ‘Reckon we did the job on our anniversary trip …’ he said. ‘I’d hoped at least! But looks like we did.’ ‘Well it’s probably too early to know. That was only …’ It was then I realized that more than a month had passed, and my period was late. By about two weeks. ‘I’ll ring Mother. She’ll be so happy!’ Tom said. ‘Darling, can’t we wait a bit? Just to be sure,’ I said. ‘Don’t be silly! We don’t have to keep this a secret from Mother.

’ *** Isadora Carlisle arrived an hour later with a small pharmacy package, which she passed to me. ‘Tom called on his way to work. Let’s see if he’s right, shall we?’ Isadora said. ‘You need to hold it under the flow of your pee.’ As usual she was treating me as though I didn’t have the intelligence to read instructions for myself. I went into the bathroom, closing the door behind me, then unpacked the pregnancy test and read the instructions. ‘I’m sure it’s way too early to tell,’ I said. ‘No. These days they can tell even if you’re just a few days along,’ Isadora said from the hallway. ‘So useful!’ She was right, of course; the test said it could work up to six days before your period was even due.

After peeing on the wand, I stared at the indicator. The test said one blue line meant ‘no’, two blue lines was ‘yes’. ‘Let me in,’ said Isadora. I opened the bathroom door and held out the test. ‘It says …’ ‘Pregnant!’ Isadora grew very quiet and thoughtful. She didn’t throw her arms around me, or start to congratulate me, she merely smiled. A kind of satisfied expression. As though she was just getting the answer she had expected all along. ‘That’s very good then,’ she said. I half-smiled, but then my mood plummeted.

Was I really ready for motherhood? The thought was terrifying. ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Isadora said. ‘You see, Charlotte dear, you remind me a lot of myself at your age.’ I sat down on the edge of the bed and stared back at her with the blankest expression I could muster. There was nothing similar about us at all. She was happy about the prospect of a future grandchild and I was a mixture of unexplainable emotions. Perhaps this self-doubt, the fear, the slight tingle of excitement was perfectly normal, I didn’t know, but they were also accompanied by a consuming loss of control. And something else at the back of my mind, a name I had told myself to forget: Ewan Daniels. ‘This will settle things permanently for you both,’ Isadora said. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘It’s just … it’s a final commitment.

Having a baby …’ ‘Isadora, we are committed. We’re married.’ ‘Oh, yes. I know. But you know what I mean … you’ll be a family now. Not just a couple. This is grown-up. This is, well, it’s the future CEO of Carlisle Corp you have in there. Isn’t it?’ And then she peered at me intently as though she expected me to say otherwise. I was confused by this silent enquiry.

‘I hadn’t thought of it that way …’ ‘Well, I’ll get on to finding you the best doctor and private midwife service. And of course the best hospital.’ ‘That’s usually decided by your local GP,’ I said. ‘Not for people like us, dear. We have to have the best.’ And then it really sank in. I was growing tired of not being listened to. The only trouble was, I couldn’t blame Isadora or Tom for any of it. I had caused this by not standing up for myself when it was too easy to just accept another person’s decision. Like the bedding I’d bought months ago that had caused such a row the night before.

I couldn’t make any sense of Tom’s angry outburst. It was so over the top and out of character. Tom was usually so calm. I asked Isadora to leave me, explaining that I didn’t feel too well. She was sympathetic, but still took it upon herself to call Tom and confirm his suspicions. I couldn’t hear everything he said to her on her mobile phone, but I heard the pleasure and excitement in his voice. ‘We’re so happy,’ Isadora said before leaving. ‘Rest up, Charlotte dear. The morning sickness won’t last long. I’ll get you booked in with a private doctor as soon as possible.

’ ‘Thanks,’ I said. She let herself out and I went back to bed and lay, eyes open, staring at the ceiling. They would control every decision that needed to be made as they always had. *** By the afternoon, the initial sickness abated and I got up, dressed and went out. I was sick of being predictable. I thought I ought to at least start to put things into place that I wanted to happen. This child might be a Carlisle but it was also my child and I would have a say. I don’t know what came over me. I found a note on the kitchen notice board from Tom, reminding me to return the purple satin bedding that he’d disliked so much. At least that would give me something to do.

I folded the bed linen neatly, squeezing them back into the original packaging. There was no need to search out the receipt, my account would show the purchase, and so I placed all of the items into a large canvas bag. I didn’t feel like travelling on the tube with all of these things just in case the sickness returned, so I took a cab to Harrods. ‘Morning Mrs Carlisle,’ the store doorman said. ‘Let me get someone to help you with that …’ A few moments later two shop assistants arrived and took the bag from me. ‘I’m afraid I have to return this,’ I told the first assistant, a different girl to the one who had originally served me. ‘My husband … doesn’t like it.’ She processed the refund without protest. I was a good customer in the store, and so was my mother-in-law. As I waited for the refund receipt, I felt the hairs prickle on the back of my neck.

I turned around with a feeling of déjà vu. A tall man stood behind me, so close I could reach out and touch him. It was Ewan Daniels. A shiver of something like excitement ran along my spine, as if I had been waiting for him to appear. ‘Charlotte,’ he said, as though my presence there surprised him. ‘I thought I might never see you again …’ That was the third time I’d met Ewan by accident; it appeared it was becoming a habit. Chapter Two We went for coffee in a local café. Ewan looked well, but I was sure I didn’t look very good at all. I hadn’t bothered with make-up or made the usual effort I made whenever I went shopping – just in case I bumped into one of the other wives, or Isadora’s friends. ‘I’ve often thought of you since our meal out,’ Ewan said.

I smiled but didn’t admit that I had thought about him too. More often than I should have. He was not as handsome as Tom, but Ewan had a boyish charm that was attractive. There was something very unassuming and modest about the man. His colouring was the opposite of Tom’s; Ewan had sandy blond hair and blue eyes, and Tom was dark-haired with brown eyes. They couldn’t have been more different in looks and personality. But I found myself liking Ewan, far more than a married woman should like another man. For that reason, I still held a residual guilt about our previous meeting. ‘How are you doing?’ Ewan asked. ‘Was the rest of your trip successful?’ Successful, for a holiday, was an odd thing to say but I caught his meaning.

‘Yes. We had fun,’ I said. ‘The northern lights were lovely.’ Ewan nodded. ‘And your husband enjoyed it too?’ ‘I think so. Tom … finds it difficult to switch off sometimes. From work I mean. But yes, he enjoyed the trip.’ Ewan smiled. ‘That’s good then.

’ I sipped my coffee to hide a moment of awkwardness at discussing Tom with Ewan. ‘I’m glad I was able to keep you company before he arrived that day,’ Ewan said. At his words I had a flash of memory about our previous meetings. Ewan had been in Harrods the day I found the purple satin bedding. We’d struck up a conversation and he’d bought the same bedding. A few days later I found myself in his company in Reykjavik. I’d let him take me to dinner because Tom had been delayed by a problem at work and had yet to join me in Iceland. I’d thought it quite a coincidence meeting the man again, but he had been kind, and his behaviour offered friendship and nothing more and so I’d agreed. I took a sip of coffee now with a shaking hand. As I caught his eye I found myself talking, my words falling out in a rush.

At that moment I understood just how much I needed a friend. ‘It was very nice of you,’ I said. ‘I was quite … lonely.’ I burst into tears then. I couldn’t believe I had admitted to a virtual stranger that I felt this way. It was unfathomable and embarrassing. Ewan, far from being surprised or shocked, took my hand and held it. He handed me a linen handkerchief from his pocket, and I mopped up the flow of tears with a sigh of utter exhaustion. ‘Would you like to talk about it?’ he asked when I finally fell quiet. ‘It’s silly.

Probably hormones. You see, I just found out that I’m pregnant.’ ‘And this is a surprise?’ ‘It shouldn’t be. We were, sort of, trying. But I didn’t think it would happen so soon. I mean, it seems to take other people months.’ ‘That’s usually the way when you aren’t ready,’ Ewan said. For the first time I began to wonder about Ewan’s age. He appeared to be only a few years my senior, yet spoke so wisely, more than his thirty-something years might suggest. He was right, of course, I didn’t feel ready to be a mother.

And, despite my protestations that this was probably just hormones, I was often lonely. I had everything I could possibly want, and yet I lacked something. As we sat and talked, I felt happier than I had done in years. He talked to me as if I was his equal, someone whose opinions were important. A feeling I didn’t always have in my marriage. The afternoon passed by too quickly and I realized that I needed time to get home to make dinner for Tom. He would possibly want to celebrate with champagne – though I couldn’t have any now – and some form of romantic, robust dinner. ‘I have to go,’ I said to Ewan, ‘but thank you for being so kind.’ ‘Take my number,’ he said. ‘That way, if you need a friend to talk to who isn’t judgemental, you’ll have one.

’ I was about to refuse, but his warm smile – and his genuine compassion – made me pause. I found myself pulling my mobile out of my handbag. There was something so appealing about his offer of unconditional friendship and the way he looked at me, with an honest and open expression, which made me consider he probably was the only one in the world I could talk to. The guilt came again. I shouldn’t think this about anyone other than Tom. What was wrong with me? ‘Okay, what’s the number?’ I sent him a text so that he could store my number as well. ‘I really have to go …’ ‘Goodbye for now, Charlotte,’ he said. He stood as I did, and then gave me a hug and a soft kiss on the cheek. I was a little shy about the contact, but thanked him again to cover any awkwardness, then I left the coffee shop and hurried out into the busy London streets. It was rush hour and therefore the worst time of day to find a taxi or to travel quickly by tube.

Even so, I hurried towards the nearest tube station just as it started to rain. A real summer downpour. I didn’t have an umbrella with me, and my hair was soaked in seconds. The water dripped down into my eyes. I faltered a little as I joined a large group of tourists waiting for the traffic lights to change. Thoughts of Ewan leaning closer and kissing me, the warmth of his smile, all brought a shiver to my spine. The pavement was too crowded, and most of the people, as is always the case in London city centre, appeared to be in a massive hurry. As soon as the lights changed the crowd surged forwards. The first wave of people rushed across the road. I don’t know what happened.

One minute I was about to step off the pavement the next I was being jostled. I lost my footing, stumbled, and time seemed to slow down. I saw a bird fly overhead, a pigeon wheeling in the sky as though it were about to dive in a suicidal swoop towards the ground. Horns blared. I heard a female voice cry out. And then – a hand pressed into my back. As though someone had reached out to stop me, or perhaps also lost their footing, and then I fell forwards, unable to stop myself – right into the bus lane.

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