The Wife Before Me – Laura Elliot

ting. Tara holds Elena’s chilled hands and rubs them between her own. ‘Who’s the guy?’ She nods towards Nicholas, who is walking towards a silver Porsche. ‘My mother worked with him,’ Elena replies. ‘Is he coming back to the hotel?’ ‘Afraid not.’ ‘What a shame. He seemed pretty focused on you.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous. He was simply being polite.’ ‘Mmm…’ Tara smiles. ‘There’s polite and then there’s polite.’ ‘Oh, stop it. The only reason he’s here is because Mum’s boss couldn’t be bothered taking an early flight from New York.’ Elena sounds bitter. She suspects the real reason for Peter Harris’s absence has nothing to do with KHM Investments and everything to do with pleasure.

After twenty years of working as his personal assistant, there was little about his personal life that Isabelle hadn’t known. If she was still cognisant, she would probably throw her eyes upwards and say, ‘Typical! I wouldn’t have expected anything else from him.’ No more lying to his wife, Elena thought. No more made-up excuses that had caused Isabelle to threaten to leave the company on more than one occasion. ‘That’s an impressive car he’s driving.’ Tara cranes her neck to get a better view of Nicholas as he zaps the Porsche. ‘What’s his name?’ ‘Nicholas Madison.’ The syllables roll easily off Elena’s tongue. Once again, she feels a tug of memory and Killian, who had also been admiring the Porsche, turns to her, his eyebrows raised. ‘Nicholas Madison?’ he asks.

‘Yes. Do you know him?’ He glances across at Susie. ‘What do you think?’ Susie checks the window as Nicholas, his face in profile, settles behind the wheel. ‘Yes.’ She nods. ‘He worked in finance. It has to be him.’ Nicholas’s car is still stationary as he waits in the line of traffic leaving the cemetery. ‘His wife drowned,’ says Killian. ‘It was big news at the time.

’ ‘Oh, my God!’ Tara sounds as shocked as Elena feels. ‘How did that happen?’ ‘She was parked on Mason’s Pier,’ says Susie. ‘It’s an old pier close to where we live. No one uses it any longer and there’s a warning sign beside it. Her car slid into the sea. It’s a really dangerous stretch of water, deep enough even in low tide.’ ‘We were involved in the search for her body,’ Killian adds. ‘All the boats in the vicinity took part, but we had to call it off in the end.’ ‘Not that he ever gave up.’ Susie twists strands of brown hair around her index finger, a childhood habit she still displays when upset.

‘He was convinced he’d find her if the search would last for another day, then another. She escaped from her car but she couldn’t swim. No one discovered she was missing until the following day when a man walking his dog noticed the skid marks on the slipway.’ ‘Oh, my God.’ Elena gasps, her hand to her mouth. ‘I remember that time. I thought his name was familiar.’ No wonder she had found his gaze so compelling. He could hide his emotions in a polite exchange of words but he had been unable to control his eyes. In them, she had recognised the savagery of loss.

A yearning she had seen so often in Isabelle’s eyes when she heard a song that reminded her of her young husband, or came across old photographs, the two of them arm in arm, wide, happy smiles. ‘Isabelle phoned me and told me about his wife after it happened. I didn’t make the connection. No wonder he looks so sad.’ Nicholas, as if he knows he is being discussed, glances across at the limousine and sees them staring at him. Elena sinks back into the seat and turns to Tara, who is still holding her hand. ‘He knows we’re talking about him.’ ‘So what?’ Tara replies. ‘With his looks and his history, he must be used to it.’ Nicholas starts his car and indicates left for the city.

The limousine driver indicates right and soon reaches the hotel where the post-funeral reception has been organised. The afternoon passes in a blur. The atmosphere lightens when food and wine are served. The noise level rises. Old friends from Isabelle’s single days tell stories about her youthful exploits. Stories so outrageous that Elena wonders if these fifty-somethings, with their trim figures and highlighted hair, are attending the right funeral reception. All-night parties, clubbing on Leeson Street, rock concerts and discos in Ibiza – she finds it impossible to reconcile her mother’s contained personality with these vivid descriptions and realises that her perception of Isabelle was formed in the years following her father’s death. Isabelle’s friends remember Elena as a baby with a halo of Orphan Annie curls. Her hair is darker now, a deep chestnut, its unruly curls straightened this morning by Tara. They admire everything about Elena and are thrilled, they claim, to discover that she has become such an elegant, lovely young woman.

Overpowered by their perfumes and reminiscences, Elena thanks them and wonders what they really think of her. Can you believe it… the grieving daughter? Couldn’t be bothered coming home in time to look after her mother. No good pretending that she didn’t know the seriousness of cervical cancer. The word alone should have alerted her to pack her bags and do her duty. If such thoughts exist, she is not made aware of them. Rosemary Williams, a contract solicitor with KHM Investments, embraces her as she’s leaving. She was the only friend Isabelle made when she joined KHM and it was Rosemary who broke the news of the seriousness of her mother’s condition to Elena. They arrange a date to meet in Rosemary’s office for the reading of Isabelle’s will. Her departure signals a general move towards the exit. Air-kisses and handshakes are exchanged, promises made to keep in touch.

Exhaustion sets in when Elena’s friends depart the following day. That night she goes to bed and huddles under the duvet, convinced she’ll sleep around the clock. Hours later, she is still awake, her mind spinning from one grief-stricken memory to another. She cries for Isabelle, for Zac, for the tiny life they had created and which she carried so briefly. A life that will never have a name or a gender, fingers barely formed before sliding so painfully from her. A trilogy of grief. Elena can take her pick, unsure which one she mourns the most. TWO Rising every morning, after another fitful night’s sleep, is the most important decision Elena is able to make. In Isabelle’s bedroom, the wardrobe still bulges with her clothes. Her shoes remain stacked on racks.

Neighbours ring the doorbell and are ignored as Elena battles against an overwhelming tiredness. Dishes pile up on the draining board, dust gathers on the furniture. She orders pizzas in the evenings and forces herself to eat, washes them down with beer. Empty packaging and beer bottles litter the floor as guiltridden memories she never knew she had suppressed bubble up. ‘He was so young,’ Tara had said at the cemetery when she read the date of birth and death of Joseph Langdon. Elena realises she has never thought of her father as a young man. She never mourned him, not properly. At five years of age, what did she know of grief? Or anger at the drunk driver who drove through a set of red lights and killed him instantly? He was tall and boisterous, she now remembers. A loud laugh and a deep voice lulling her to sleep with bedtime stories; but his youthfulness had never featured in those memories. In time, as she had grown accustomed to the silence he left behind, she had resented the grief that shadowed Isabelle’s eyes and lined her face prematurely.

On Sunday afternoons while deep in her rebellious phase, Elena would grit her teeth against her mother’s silent reproach as she prepared to leave for the cemetery. Why didn’t mourning have a cut-off point, a stage that made further suffering impossible, she would wonder, headphones clasped to her ears, My Chemical Romance vocalising her angst. Now, they are together again, Isabelle and Joseph Langdon; just a layer of mud and stone separates their coffins – but this thought does nothing to dull her sorrow. Rosemary Williams rings to remind her that they have an appointment at KHM Investments, and she forces herself to shower and shampoo her hair. Isabelle’s last will and testament, handled by Rosemary as a favour to her friend, is a straightforward document and far removed from the intricate contracts she handles on a daily basis. But she shows no sign that this reading is of any less importance when she greets Elena at reception. They travel upwards in the elevator to the eighth floor and enter her glasswalled office. ‘Are you eating?’ she asks when Elena is seated in front of her. ‘Most of the time,’ Elena assures her. ‘I’m so busy sorting through Isabelle’s clothes and things…’ She clears her throat and wills herself not to cry.

‘This is a tough time, Elena, and it will get tougher before it gets better,’ Rosemary warns her. ‘Have you someone special in Australia—’ ‘No.’ Elena shakes her head, vehemently. ‘But, honestly, I’ll be okay.’ ‘You’re so like Isabelle. Stoic.’ Rosemary opens a folder and draws out documents that she lays on her desk. ‘It’s no harm to cry when you feel like it. I know you’re still in shock. I’m so sorry I had to break such sad news to you over the phone.

’ ‘Don’t apologise, Rosemary. What else could you do?’ A cruel hoax, Elena had believed when she answered her phone in the early hours of that morning and tried to understand what Rosemary was telling her. But it was no hoax, just the shattering discovery that her mother had been rushed to hospital after suffering a bad reaction to her chemotherapy. ‘What chemotherapy?’ Elena had demanded. ‘She never said anything to me about starting chemo.’ ‘Didn’t you know she’d been receiving treatment?’ Rosemary had been unable to hide her surprise. ‘She said you knew. I assumed that’s why you planned to come home?’ ‘Her test was clear, that’s what she told me.’ Elena reached across the bed to the empty space where Zac should have been lying. ‘How seriously ill is she?’ Rosemary hesitated and in that brief pause Elena realised that her mother had been deceiving her for months.

Small things that had puzzled her began to make sense. Isabelle’s forced heartiness when Elena asked how her smear test had gone. Her decision to take time off work that, she claimed, was due to burnout. Her excuses for not Skyping Elena, some vague problem with her broadband that never seemed to get sorted. Her evasive answers whenever Elena asked when she was coming to see her in Australia, dithering for weeks over which airline to use and the cost of the ticket. Her tears when Elena said she would fly home instead. Tears of relief, obviously, but Elena had been too preoccupied with her own problems to figure it out. And that final phone conversation when it was Elena, not Isabelle, who wept as she poured out her heartache and promised to rebook her flight as soon as it was possible to fly. ‘I couldn’t understand why you cancelled your flight,’ said Rosemary. ‘I wanted to contact you and explain how serious her illness was but Isabelle insisted I keep it a secret.

It’s important that you come home now. Hurry, Elena. She needs you by her side.’ She had booked her flight in the morning and was packing to leave for the airport when Rosemary rang her back. As soon as she spoke, Elena knew she would be too late to say goodbye to her mother. How could she not have guessed that something was wrong? Not read between the lines of Isabelle’s cheerful emails or linked into the mother-and-daughter bond that made words between them unnecessary? Now, when it is too late to make amends, Elena is dazed to discover how much money she has inherited. Brookside, Isabelle’s bungalow, which is mortgage-free, belongs to her, along with all her mother’s savings and the investments she made through KHM. Elena, at the age of twenty-five, has become a wealthy woman. She can return to Brisbane and buy a house on the beach. She can give up her boring job as a junior account executive and establish her own company.

A bodyboarding and surfing centre, boat tours on the Barrier Reef, a boutique specialising in exclusive beachwear. Her scattered thoughts fill her with exhaustion rather than elation. She stares down at the Liffey as the river flows between the renovated docklands. Dublin keeps changing. She has been away for only three years, yet she feels like a stranger in the city. The documents are signed and she is about to leave Rosemary’s office when the door opens. ‘I’m sorry, Rosemary. I didn’t realise you were busy.’ Elena identifies him instantly by his voice. That glance across the grave… even in the midst of her distress, she has been unable to forget it.

When she turns round Nicholas Madison is hesitating in the doorway. ‘It’s not important,’ he says. ‘I can come back―’ He stops when he recognises her. ‘Elena.’ He enters, his hand outstretched. ‘How are you?’ ‘I’m coping, thank you.’ It’s a glib response that he accepts with a smile. He must understand that polite platitudes are the only way to bat aside unanswerable questions. ‘I’m glad to hear it.’ He nods towards Rosemary.

‘Sorry for the interruption. When would it be a good time to call back?’ ‘I’ll be free to see you after four,’ Rosemary replies. ‘Leave the file with me and I’ll have a look at it before we meet.’ The room seems emptier when he closes the door behind him. It is as if a spark has been extinguished, which is ridiculous; but the high flare of colour on Rosemary’s cheeks suggests that even she seems affected by his departure. ‘I’ll ring you soon to arrange lunch,’ she says when their meeting ends. ‘You’ve a lot to absorb and decisions to make. I’ll help you any way I can. I don’t make friends easily and Isabelle was a special person in my life. I’ll never forget her support when my husband died.

I want to give that support back to you. You must ring me any time you feel like talking, do you understand?’ ‘Thank you.’ She will weep if she doesn’t escape Rosemary’s kindness. The solicitor, recognising her distress, walks briskly with her to the elevator and waits until Elena is inside before turning away. Nicholas Madison is standing by the reception desk talking to another man when Elena steps out of the elevator. She walks faster. It’s too soon after Zac to feel such confused and strong emotions about a man she hardly knows, yet she wills him to turn and notice her. The automatic glass doors open and she is about to step outside when he calls her name. ‘I apologise for intruding on your meeting with Rosemary,’ he says when he reaches her. ‘If I’d known you had an appointment with her today I’d have organised lunch.

I know that Peter Harris is anxious to see you and offer his condolences in person. Unfortunately, he’s abroad at the moment but―’ ‘No need to apologise. Our meeting was just coming to an end.’ She stands awkwardly before him, aware of his eyes, his intense scrutiny that makes her feel as if all his attention is focused on her only. ‘Lunch isn’t necessary.’ ‘Then coffee, perhaps?’ He checks his watch. Impeccable white cuffs, she notices, like everything else about him. His suit fits so perfectly it must be bespoke and his shirt has a pristine crispness that suggests it’s been professionally laundered. No mud on his brogues to mar their sheen. She has a sudden image of him on a lofty chair, a shoeshine boy at his feet.

Private school, university, a gap year travelling and a junior partnership shortly after he joined the company; these are the details Elena has gleaned from Rosemary, who referred to him as the Golden Boy of KHM Investments. Elena has no difficulty believing her. ‘I’m about to take a break,’ he says. ‘Would you care to join me? There’s an excellent café next door. It’ll be quiet at this time of the afternoon.’ ‘Thank you. That sounds good.’ She has already had coffee with Rosemary but the thought of returning to an empty bungalow holds little appeal. The glass doors close behind them with a quiet swish. ‘I’m sure it’s been a difficult week for you,’ he says when the coffee is served.

‘I managed to get through it okay.’ Why burden him with the truth, especially when he must be consumed by his own heartache, which she cannot even begin to comprehend? Two weeks, the search for his wife lasted, Susie had told her. Boats, big and small, plying the waters, helicopters flying overhead, walkers on the beaches and rocks keeping watch to see if her body had been washed in on the tide. Her mother had phoned to tell her about the tragedy. Elena had been fruit picking on a farm outside Brisbane at the time and had yet to meet Zac. That would make it about two years ago. KHM Investments had closed down as a mark of respect on the day of his wife’s funeral— no… it couldn’t have been a funeral. A memorial service, Elena remembers now. How awful it must be to mourn his wife yet hope that somehow, against all the odds, she would return to him. The sun, breaking free from clouds, shines a harsh light through the café window and emphasises his prominent cheekbones.

A nerve quivers in his right temple as if, in that instant, he knows what she is thinking. Should she sympathise with him? What should she say? It’s still a recent tragedy, yet not recent enough to offer some bland comment about a woman she had never known. Better not to make any reference to it and embarrass both of them. ‘Do you have any plans for the future?’ He interrupts her thoughts. ‘Will you stay here or return to Brisbane?’ ‘How do you know I live in Brisbane?’ ‘I spoke to Rosemary about you after your mother’s funeral.’

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