Tap, tap, tap. My pace quickens as it always does when I get to the end of the lane and turn the corner into Heath Street, this winding, terraced street tucked away in front of Hampstead Heath. Trees rustle in the late-autumn breeze. My mood is a muddle of feelings: joy at returning home; sadness at the reminder that Nancy is no longer waiting for me upstairs. Only a year ago I’d turn this corner to see her pale face at the window, watching out for me. Regardless of what the will said, she wanted me to stay here, she told me so, her birdlike hand squeezing mine, surprisingly strong. I steady myself at the gatepost and look at the dove-white front of my house and the sash windows reflecting the autumn sunlight. Arriving home is the best part of any trip away. The door gives its familiar creak and I breathe a sigh of relief as I press my back against its cold wood, my heart pulsing in time with the kitchen clock, the only sound in the still room. I’m home. Light fills the hall and I pause for a moment to reorientate myself. Sun trickles through the stained-glass windows surrounding the front door, catching the warm red of the rich carpet which covers the hall and sweeps up the spiral staircase. I mouth ‘hello’ to the painting of Nancy which hangs in the hallway in a gilded wooden frame, as I always do, and slip off my coat. I was right to come back early. The strain of being away for the past couple of days evaporates and I relish the knowledge that Chris will be at work for a good few hours yet, giving me much-needed time to settle.
I pick up the post from the mat and drop it onto the large wooden table, the centrepiece of the old-fashioned country-style kitchen, which has pots and pans hanging above the kitchen sink, before running around the house and opening the windows, letting fresh air blow away the closed-up atmosphere. The flowers I always have on the kitchen table in Nancy’s favourite vase are no longer fresh. Again I feel a pang of guilt, but I’ve only been gone two days and the spa weekend was a treat from Chris, so I couldn’t say no, could I? I’d smiled and hugged him, but really, I’m happiest in this house. Our house. It still feels unreal that I finally have somewhere to call home. Chris didn’t reply to any of my messages yesterday and I’ve heard nothing from him today. He must be busy. Once he gets engrossed in his woodwork he forgets everything and time gets lost. I push away thoughts of how strange his mood has been lately, his reluctance to talk. ‘It’s work,’ is his constant refrain.
He’s forever telling me how he can never take the success of his business for granted. I pause outside Nancy’s room – the nursery, I correct myself. Yet Nancy lived and died in that room and I can’t just forget she was ever there. Time, apparently, is what I need, but I don’t want to wish my life away. I unpack my bag, impressed by how tidy Chris has been in my absence. His boxers are neatly folded under the duvet and the cushions are plumped up on the bed. Downstairs the laundry room door is closed and a smell of lavender mingles with the warm air of the tiny room as I open it up. The enclosed space needs air. The kitchen is still: no signs of use. Milk festers in the fridge; I wrinkle my nose at the smell and stick the kettle on, which brings life into the room.
Chris hasn’t left one of his funny little notes for me today; he doesn’t know I’ve kept every one of them. My favourite lives in my purse: Look in the fridge. That note referred to a bottle of champagne nestling in the fridge door; there was another note on the bottle: To celebrate meeting you. My phone stays silent in my pocket. I wonder if he’s spent any time at home at all aside from sleeping. Knowing Chris, he’ll have eaten out, spent all day in his office and come home late into the night. He doesn’t like being alone. He told me that when he was a bachelor he’d often spend the evening at his office, until the inky darkness outside alerted him to the time and sent him home in search of sleep. The kitchen is warm, so I open the back door to let in some fresh air. A sheet hangs on the washing line and I frown; Chris never does any washing, but it explains the smell of lavender in the laundry room.
The sheet is almost dry and I smile to myself: Chris must be trying to impress me. Apart from the small rectangular area directly outside the house where I’ve managed to squeeze in a table and two chairs, the garden is a wilderness of weeds. The wind ripples through the unkempt greenery and I curse Chris as I do every time I step out here, wishing he’d let me do something about it. Apart from anything else, it’s so embarrassing. What must the neighbours think? I hear a miaow and follow the sound; Lady sits in front of the shed, looking out to the heath, eyes fixed ahead, tail flicking up towards the cloudy sky. I follow her gaze and see a magpie staring back with its beady eyes. It opens its beak and lets out a rattling screech before flying away over the heath. I’ll never tire of the view, glimpses of the pond amid an army of trees, their leaves protecting the trails across the heath beneath them, but Lady is winding between my legs, mewing for food. Chris doesn’t pay attention to her like I do; I’ll never replace Nancy in Lady’s affection, but I try. I text Chris to let him know I’ve got food for this evening and then unpack my shopping.
I keep an eye on my phone but the screen stays blank. He hasn’t been in touch the whole time I’ve been away. A slither of worry enters my mind. What if something’s happened to him? I reassure myself I’m being stupid as I take a box of Earl Grey teabags from the cupboard. I haven’t had any calls from the emergency services. But what if he’s fallen in his office, how would anybody know? A green light glows on the kettle and I pour water into a china mug with a leaf design – it’s from the first range I sold in my shop. I poke the teabag with a spoon and imagine Nancy’s reaction. She always understood why I react the way I do. She would have told me to ‘get on as normal’, so I take my cup of tea to the table and open the post. That’s a normal thing to do.
Pizza leaflets go on the recycling pile and I put aside a credit card bill for Chris. The last letter in the stack piques my interest as there’s no stamp. Swirly handwriting in black, a woman’s I’d guess, and my heart stops at the thought it might be her. But it won’t be, it’s been at least a year since she told me she didn’t want me in her life. It looks like an invitation. A wedding would be nice. It’s a medium-sized envelope and only lightly sealed. Addressed to 46 Heath Street, but no name. I hesitate for a second before carefully prising it open, pulling out a sheet – I recognise the luxury cream writing paper I stock in my shop. I stiffen when I read the handwritten message.
Neat block capitals. YOUR HUSBAND IS HAVING AN AFFAIR. I stare, incredulous. My hands tremble, the paper slides to the floor. I lash out, the mug shattering, hot liquid splattering my feet. Thoughts crash against one another, but overriding them all is disbelief. It isn’t true, Chris and I are solid, he works too much but we’re good together, everybody says so . Chris is mine and we have made a home together. At the thought of the house I jump to my feet, knocking the stool to the floor with a clatter. Has she been here, in my precious space, the home I’ve so lovingly put together? He wouldn’t, would he? In our bed with its pure white bed linen, scarlet cushions lovingly placed just so? I’m sure Chris has a good explanation.
Is this why he’s been silent, because he’s been with her? Doubts creep in, nights working late, that old cliché. Has he been with her, was I wrong to be so trusting? Up until an hour ago I would have trusted him with my life. A flash of white catches my eye as the sheet billows in the wind. I fall to my knees and pick up the piece of paper. Drops of tea have blurred the words and I wipe it on my sleeve, crying now. My heart is pounding and my head feels light. I concentrate on my breathing, in and out, deep, calming breaths. But how can I feel calm with this fear inside me? That old sick feeling which used to be as familiar to me as breathing is back. One sentence, that’s all it took. I want to rush upstairs to Nancy, to let it all out, her warm words giving me the comfort her ailing body never could.
Grief merges with the fear and tears choke out of me once again and I give up trying to breathe myself calm and let it all out. Nancy was a great believer in letting go. If only she knew. After God knows how long my tears are spent and I’m calm. Chris will have an explanation, he’ll be furious; he’s been set up. But no matter what stories I tell myself, my gut tells me it’s true. Where is Chris? We have to talk. As if by telepathy my phone plays its tune and Chris’s name flashes on the screen: my husband, my Chris. He says he’ll be home in an hour. His credit card bill lies on the table.
I rip the envelope open, not allowing myself a moment to change my mind. There are four pages filled with transactions. He’s maxed this card out – it’s a huge amount and I wonder what other secrets there are to discover about this man I thought I knew. Restaurants, drinks, more drinks, Selfridges. Heat rises in my body and I think I might explode when I see he’s been using the designer florist from the village. I can’t remember the last time he bought me flowers. I knew he had this card, but why hasn’t he been paying it off? He’s normally so sensible with money; he doesn’t have fancy tastes. I leave the credit card bill on the table. Let him see it. I run upstairs and get changed, sinking into the rocking chair placed strategically at the end of the bed, and gaze out at Hampstead Heath.
The view over the pond never fails to move me and I see how the leaves on the sturdy, ancient trees are losing their green, signifying the season change. I breathe deeply and rock in the chair until my pulse stops racing. I listen to the natural rhythm of the house, the familiar creaks which lull me to sleep each night, until I am ready to face him. TWO ELLA I’m up in the bedroom when Chris gets home. By the time his key turns in the lock everything appears normal and I’m feeling more in control. There has to be some explanation for this – I can’t believe my husband would do this to me. I’ve opened a bottle of wine and the soft tones of a saxophone are playing on the radio. The note is back in the envelope, which is sitting on the table next to a flickering scented candle. The radiator gurgles warmth into the room but despite a thick jumper, my body feels like ice. I hear his keys jangle as he hangs them up in the hall; his shoes clatter as he takes them off and he whistles, puts the kettle on.
Such familiar movements now accentuated with a different meaning. Is he thinking about her? He can’t know what she’s done, surely not. That jaunty whistle would be cruel if he did, and Chris isn’t cruel. That much I know. ‘Ella?’ he calls in his deep voice, one of the first things I noticed about him. A confident voice. Will he be confident when he’s seen the note? How will he feel about her, once he knows how careless she’s been? He’ll hate her once he sees it. It’s a trap, it must be, he’ll be innocent of this, he will. I run my hands through my hair and give myself a quick appraisal in the mirror before I go downstairs, not wanting to face the moment when everything in my life could change. I pause mid-staircase to look at him, wishing this wasn’t happening.
Standing there in his old chinos with a checked shirt accentuating his broad swimmer’s shoulders and tortoiseshell glasses sliding down his slightly prominent nose, he’s my Chris, unchanged from the man I first fell in love with. He’s scrolling through his phone, hasn’t noticed the white square of the envelope on the table, hasn’t recognised the writing. Does he even know her handwriting? I don’t want her to be real. I watch him, twisting my hair in the way I know annoys him, but what he thinks doesn’t matter. Not today. He senses me watching him, looks up, a quizzical look, before crossing the small gap between us and aiming a kiss at my lips, but I turn and his frown deepens. To think that only a few hours ago I’d thought I was pregnant, cutting my afternoon short to drive back and surprise him, until the familiar dull ache in my stomach dashed my hopes for yet another month. I look into his eyes, wanting answers. ‘You’re being weird,’ he says and I push him, pick up the card and thrust it into his hands. His light tan fades to a sickly beige in front of me.
He shuffles from one foot to the other, a man caught in headlights, staring at the card. I wait for him to look at me, but he won’t. It’s begun. His eyes shift, flicker around, and I notice him spotting his open credit card bill on the table. ‘Why have you been going through my post?’ ‘It wasn’t sealed. And I’m glad I did.’ I stick out my chin, faking bravado. ‘I can explain,’ he says, pulling at his recently acquired beard. I want him to be right but the sickening twist in my gut and the way his eyes avoid mine suggest the note is the truth. I pick up the bill, wave it at him.
‘I didn’t want to believe it, but all these drinks, meals out.’ My voice shakes. ‘You said we needed to tighten our belts after we took on the new mortgage, but this…’ I slap my hand against the page and drop the sheet of paper onto the table. ‘Is it true? Have you been spending money we don’t have on her?’ A sob bursts out with the last word. His hands grip the kitchen counter as if to keep himself upright. ‘I never meant for you to find out like this. I’ve hated deceiving you. I’ve been wanting to tell you for a while, but this note, she shouldn’t have…’ He pushes his glasses up his nose. His hand is trembling too. So it’s true.
Bile rises in my throat hearing him say ‘she’. He’s acknowledging her for the first time, and he’s not denying it. The world I’ve carefully crafted is collapsing like a house of cards. ‘Who is she?’ ‘Nobody you know.’ ‘You can’t know her well yourself if she’s being so careless, or deliberate. I bet you didn’t know she was going to do this, did you? How well do you even know her?’ I stumble over the words as I speak, my heart racing with shock. He’s chewing the inside of his mouth, turning the card over in his hands. ‘She isn’t like that, she wouldn’t have done this, but—’ But you can’t deny the evidence. ‘Who is she?’ ‘You don’t know her, I promise you don’t. I couldn’t do that to you.
’ ‘I’m so glad you have good morals.’ His face twists in discomfort. He hates sarcasm. ‘Has she been here, in our bed?’ My voice cracks on the last word. He pushes his glasses to the top of his nose again and for the first time the gesture irritates me. ‘We didn’t mean to hurt you.’ So that’s a yes. The ‘we’ stings like a wasp. ‘How long has it been going on for?’ ‘Six months.’ I feel as if he’s thumped me in the chest.
It’s too long, but it’s not that long and hope flutters in my chest. It’s swiftly followed by shock, making my whole body tremor. He can’t mean what he’s saying; she’s pushing him into doing something he doesn’t want to do. ‘Did you know she was going to send the letter?’ I clench my hands together, willing him to say no. He shakes his head. Hope flickers again. Married men never leave their wives, everyone knows that. ‘Is she married?’ It hurts to hear the answers to these questions but I want to keep him talking, force him to see he’s made a terrible mistake. He nods. ‘I am sorry to hurt you like this, it’s the last thing I wanted.
’ He looks distraught and I can’t help the familiar ache at seeing the man I love in distress. ‘Can’t you see she’s trying to trap you, to force the issue out into the open?’ He sighs and collapses onto a chair, rubbing his eyes, adjusting his glasses. ‘Who is she?’ I have to know. ‘I met her through work, she’s married, it’s a mess. I knew she liked me and I resisted for ages, but what with Mum dying and you being so distraught, I needed comfort you couldn’t give me.’ He sees the agonised expression on my face, holds his hands up. ‘I know, I know, it was the shittiest thing to do, but you kept pushing me away when I tried to comfort you. I didn’t want you worrying about me on top of everything else.’ This is Chris, my Chris, and I can see how much this is hurting him. Again my feelings for him surface.
I kneel down beside him. ‘We can get through this, I know we can. Let me…’ ‘No.’ He jumps to his feet as if he’s scared of letting me in. He still has feelings for me. ‘I’m so sorry, Ella, but I can’t fight this, we’ve fallen for each other hard. We want to be together.’ ‘But…’ I can’t express the agony that’s tearing me apart; Chris’s last words are like poison darts. With one conversation he’s destroying everything, our marriage, our life together, the nursery upstairs, our home. My legs weaken at the thought of losing him, of losing this life, our future family, and I drop onto the sofa.
Hope surfaces when I see the flicker of compassion crossing his face. He still cares about me despite these false words he’s coming out with. I know he does. She’s making him do this, and I have to stop her. ‘You must have noticed something’s up. I’ve hated lying to you.’ But I hadn’t noticed. My grief for Nancy wrapped me up in its cloak and I was oblivious to what was going on around me. I lost myself for a while. But I’m better now, he knows that.
‘Chris, stop and think about this. We’re happy, aren’t we, our life here, our home? I know Nancy dying has gutted us and things haven’t been the same since she passed away, but grief is natural. You can talk to me about anything. Or I thought you could.’ I bite into my lip to stop myself from crying. ‘I’ve made up my mind. This isn’t easy, don’t think for a minute it is. I’m so sorry – you’re the last person I want to hurt. But it isn’t working any more, Ella.’ ‘How can you say that? I didn’t even realise we had a problem.
You’ve been out working a lot so we haven’t been spending as much time together. Well, obviously you weren’t really working.’ My voice almost breaks. ‘But this house, our home, it’s my home, the only home I’ve ever known. You know that.’ ‘It’s too much pressure on me, can’t you see that? I can’t be everything to you. It was OK while Mum was around, you spent so much time with her. But now she’s gone—’ ‘So Nancy died and you started seeing someone else, like that would make it better? That doesn’t make sense.’