Laura washed her hands and stared into the mirror of her parent’s bathroom. Her face was tense and sleep-deprived. The smell of Imperial Leather soap suddenly transported her back fifteen years, to the seventies, her teenage years. As a teenager she had spent a lot of time observing her reflection in this mirror, wondering if she was pretty enough. A white hair in her fringe snapped her back to the present. She plucked it out and examined the skin around her eyes. Crow’s feet, or the beginnings of them, at least. She pulled up her t-shirt and examined her stomach. Puckered and soft, like a deflated balloon. Since having Colm she had definitely aged.
Leaving the bathroom, she padded into the spare room where her son was having a nap. His clenched fists were thrown above his head. His mouth sucked on an invisible nipple. She couldn’t resist pressing her lips against his marshmallow cheek to inhale his warm, biscuit scent. She spent several minutes with her mouth buried in him. At least she had Colm.
Colm made up for everything.
After a while she pulled herself away and went downstairs. Outside the living room, she stopped. The door was ajar and she could hear her mother, Marian, talking to someone. Geraldine from up the road. Laura let out a stifled sigh. Geraldine had always been one for gossip and Marian always obliged her.
‘I’ve never really known what Laura sees in him but he must have some sort of attraction,’ Marian was saying. ‘When he’s in a good mood he can be quite charming, I suppose. But most of the time he drives Laura to distraction. I just feel so sorry…’
Marian obviously thought she was still upstairs feeding Colm. Laura remained outside the door. She knew she should go in but she’d always been an eavesdropper. Like a serene, secretive cat you are. The line from Patrick’s old poem was so embedded in her that she wondered if part of her character had been formed by his romantic idea. He’d been the first to compare her to a cat although she had always been good at slipping around unobtrusively.
‘He is quite dishy. He’s got that intense, brooding look about him.’ Geraldine’s voice was loud even when she was trying to be discreet. ‘I remember Laura pining over him in Provence. When was that? Two years ago? Three? I can’t quite remember. They split up for a bit back then, didn’t they? Do you remember?’
‘Of course I remember. Three years ago. I wish they’d never got back together.’
‘Was this photo last Christmas?’
Laura heard the clunk of the picture frame being set back down. She knew the pictures above the mantelpiece off by heart. Patrick stood above the fire in photographic form three times over:
—kissing her outside a church—he in a suit, she in white, confetti raining down;
—with his arm around her, while she held newborn Colm;
—in front of a turkey surrounded by the extended family, the only person without a paper crown.
She thought of his dark wavy hair, his sleepy green eyes and the smile that could melt any woman’s heart except his mother in law’s, and now, more recently, hers.
‘No, that’s from the Christmas before last,’ said Marian. ‘Last Christmas is best forgotten.’
‘Have you seen him recently?’
‘Easter. He’s been quite contrite since then. He sent me a bunch of flowers after the Christmas incident—at Laura’s behest, no doubt—and wrote a note “begging for forgiveness”.’
Laura was stung by the venom in her mother’s voice. Nothing she was saying was a surprise but, still, it was shocking to hear how much she disliked Patrick. She probably always had.
‘He’s such a drama queen. Laura thinks he’s depressed. Not sure what he’s got to be depressed about—lovely wife, lovely baby, good job. He’s lucky to have got where he has, given his background. What more does he want? Personally, I think he’s utterly self-indulgent.’ She lowered her voice and Laura strained to hear. ‘I probably shouldn’t be telling you this but he’s been having therapy…’
‘Really?’ Laura could picture Geraldine’s avid face.
‘Yes, Laura thought it was a good idea to begin with…she thought he needed professional help…the therapist is some woman round the corner from them in Crouch End. She found her in the Yellow Pages…but you’re never going to believe what happened the other week…’
Laura wondered whether to open the door. If she did, they’d know she’d been listening. It would be embarrassing. She slipped back upstairs. She knew all too well what had happened the other week and she couldn’t bear to hear her mother’s take on it.
In the spare bedroom the fury about Margaret surged back. Her features become clenched, her mouth twisted with words she hadn’t yet said. Yet again, she imagined what Patrick had told Margaret and the assumptions Margaret had made. Patrick was a born storyteller. He knew how to use words; he had that Irish gift of the gab. Women liked it. She’d liked it once upon a time. Between them they’d woven a lie about how difficult his marriage was, how she didn’t understand him, how it was all her fault for being so uptight. Ironic that it was she who had suggested Patrick have therapy. He’d obviously used his eyes on Margaret, his smile. She’d obviously responded the way all women responded to him. The bitch.
This fury was a new experience; Laura had always been cool and calm. Patrick was the one with the uncontrolled emotions. Now, she was shocked by the violence of her own anger. She lay on the bed and curled an arm around Colm. The gentle rise and fall of his breath made her feel calmer. She recalled Provence three years before. If she hadn’t tipped that first domino in Provence, she wouldn’t be feeling like this now.
* * *
It was four o’clock in the afternoon in the garden of a villa just outside Rousillon but in Laura’s head it was midnight in Room 292 of the Coventry Novotel. She was preparing to go to bed but someone had just knocked on the door.
‘Who is it?’ she called out, vaguely alarmed.
‘Laura, it’s me.’
She opened the door. It was Patrick. The Irish guy from her team. Northern Irish. His accent was soft with a rough edge, which she kind of liked. They were both new to the company and they’d been sent to Coventry with various others for a team-building week. She’d caught him gazing at her several times and he’d engaged her with chat whenever he could. She wasn’t very good at engaging back but he didn’t seem to mind. He told her about himself; he was from somewhere in the countryside outside Belfast; his father was a scrap dealer, his mother a nurse, he had six siblings. They were poor, he’d scrabbled his way out. There were hints of suffering, of harshness, but he made her laugh. She liked the swift, tough way he lit his roll-ups with a Zippo and how he threw his money on the table and didn’t bother to count the change when it came to restaurant bills. He was nothing like the men she had met before.
Now here he was outside her room on their last night. This sort of thing had never happened to her before. She wished she was wearing something more alluring than her flannel nightgown. He smiled. His features were sullen in repose but his smile…his smile was something else.
‘Can I come in?’
It was a statement more than a question but she didn’t mind.
‘…incredibly good deal…area’s up and coming…Geraldine’s not sure but I’m very excited…’ Gavin’s voice pierced through Laura’s daydream. Coventry, Room 292 and Patrick’s smile faded into the blue sky above the turquoise pool. The pool around which their soft pink bodies were strewn: Laura, her parents and their friends from up the road, Geraldine and Gavin. Everyone was going to Provence these days. Well, everyone like Geraldine and Gavin. Laura had been invited on holiday with them, to cheer her up. She felt like the spinster daughter who might never break away. She frowned into the pool. The threads of light squiggling through the water were like florid handwriting. She closed her eyes and Patrick returned. ‘God, you’re beautiful,’ he said, cradling her face in his hands. ‘I’ve not been able to take my eyes off you all week.’
‘…a lot of potential…excellent location…needs a lot of work doing to it but…’ Gavin’s plummy tones kept drowning out Patrick’s soft voice. Laura glared at Gavin but he was flat on his back, blethering obliviously, eyes closed behind his sunglasses. She rose from her sun lounger.
‘I feel really hot. I’m going inside,’ she said to no one in particular.
Marian glanced up from her crossword. ‘Perhaps you could make everyone a nice cup of tea, darling?’
‘I will in a bit, mum. Just need to do something.’
In her bedroom, she found a postcard. On the front was a picture of the local chateau. On the back she wrote, Dear Patrick, Provence is nice but not as nice as Room 292 of the Coventry Novotel, Lx. Drafts of this message, scrawled on unused pages of her Filofax, lay scrunched around her bed. She shredded each one and threw them in the bin, before slipping the card between the pages of Girls in Their Married Bliss. Reading this made her feel closer to Patrick even though it was set in the Republic rather than the north.
Tea would have to wait. She sneaked out of the front of the villa so no one would notice her go and headed to the tabac, where she bought a ‘timbre pour l’Angleterre’ and then, on second thoughts, an envelope. She put the card inside it. After all, what would Jackie, his new girlfriend, do if she read her message? ‘Who the hell is L?’ ‘No one, just my ex-girlfriend…’ ‘What were you doing in the Coventry Novotel?’ ‘Training week when we first started. Powerpoint presentations and all that. Long time ago.’ The unromantic truth. But a seed would be planted in his mind. Laura’s heart pattered at her brazenness, at her cruelty to Jackie. All was fair in love and war though, and he had been hers first.
She couldn’t imagine Patrick cradling Jackie’s face. For a start, Jackie jumped around too much; Laura had noted her from afar at the Christmas party. She worked in HR, had reddish hair in a Princess Di bouffant and wore electric blue skirt suits and plastic jewellery. Laura suspected she described herself as ‘bubbly’ or ‘a bit mad’. It hadn’t taken Patrick long to meet someone new.
‘Slinking silently through my dreams,’ was the next line of his poem.
‘A man who wrote me poetry like that, I’d marry,’ her friend Suzie had said.
‘Would you?’ Silently, secretively, Laura had folded the poem and hidden it away.
She couldn’t imagine Patrick writing poetry to Jackie. Or if he did, she couldn’t imagine Jackie appreciating it.
As the yellow postbox flapped shut, panic lurched through her. She had tipped the first domino. The others would follow. She took the road out of the village, along the chateau wall. She couldn’t face going back to the villa immediately.
‘You’re so English,’ he had said on their first date, as they sat, legs entwined beneath the pub table, hands entwined above between her small glass of dry white and his pint of Guinness. ‘An English rose.’
He had thrown her Englishness back at her when she ended it three months later out of fear at his turbulence: the English were uptight, they were fake, they hid their true thoughts.
‘It’s your parents, isn’t it? Your parents don’t approve of me. The English have always hated the Irish—they hear your voice and think you’re gonna kneecap ‘em.’
His accent had rolled in a heartbeat from mist to violence. He was right. Although he had a veneer of sophistication from grammar school and university, his background unnerved her parents. Often it unnerved her. In private, he sympathised with the Republicans. His Uncle Colm had been in the IRA; he’d been shot dead by the RUC at a checkpoint on the border. He’d driven through it without stopping as he had guns in the boot of his car. Laura had been shocked by every aspect of this story although Patrick had told it in a matter-of-fact way. ‘People over here don’t seem to realise there’s a civil war going on back there.’ He talked dismissively of Prods, even though she pointed out she was Protestant—well, Church of England, at least. She warned him to be discreet in front of her father, a former army major, who’d fought during World War II.
‘I’ll try. For your sake.’
Before meeting Patrick, she had believed she liked the Irish. She definitely liked the southern Irish. She liked WB Yeats, Edna O’Brien and James Joyce. She liked U2. She liked Bob Geldof. She even quite liked Terry Wogan. Northerners were more problematic, and she was beginning to realise the Irish were different from the English. She sensed her parents didn’t approve of them; apart from their troublesome politics, deep down they thought them maudlin, feckless, shiftless…just generally less.
She tried the iron latch of the door in the chateau wall. It sighed opened. The grounds were empty. The lawns unfurled down to a stone bassin filled with green water. Around it were cypresses, their long shadows restful in the metallic heat. Laura sat, barefoot and bikinied, on the water’s edge. Pond skaters skidded around her feet, goldfish glinted like lost coins. Dragonflies mated in the air, double-headed, eight-winged, pressing their neon blue bodies against each other. The peace was absolute, deepened by the rasp of the rooks at the top of the cypresses and the tumble of the fountain that fed the bassin. Time slowed, perhaps stopped.
‘Can I come in?’ His eyes were green pools.
She let him in and slowly he peeled her nightgown off.
Despite the stillness, the place just above her stomach—her heart, she supposed—was rolling as if on a rough sea. She lowered herself into the water and swam in Patrick’s eyes.
At the evening meal, back at the villa, she eyed her parents and their friends with irritation.
‘This is absolutely delicious, Marian.’
‘Thank you, Gavin.’
‘Could you pass me the butter, please, Geraldine…’
‘May I have the salt, please…’
The passing of this and that, the pleasing and thanking…Patrick was right: if she didn’t watch out she would be suffocated by middle-class English manners.
* * *
Back in London, they were as shy as if they had only just met. As if Room 292, the three months of swimming in each other’s loveliness had never happened. They were no longer on the same team but the day after getting back from Provence, he’d left a note on her desk while she was at lunch telling her to meet him at a pub in Soho.
‘Oh, you know…’ Patrick smiled from beneath his long, jagged lashes. ‘Thank God you put that postcard in an envelope.’
Their old love was bubbling up, like the beads of gas in her gin and tonic. By the end of the evening, their table was sprinkled with a nervous confetti of beer mats.
* * *
Confetti wafted down and caught in the curls of his hair and the lace of Laura’s dress. They weren’t married in the church her parents wanted but eventually Marian and George accepted that Patrick’s beliefs—or perhaps just his will—were stronger than their daughter’s. In either case, they were relieved he was ‘doing the right thing’ by her. He had a good job, he appeared devoted and, despite his dubious background, he seemed to be a young man with prospects. They supposed she could have done worse.
The wedding went as well as could be expected. Patrick’s family had nothing in common with Laura’s but they managed to get through the day without major upset, although Patrick seemed tense and drank too much during the reception. It was a relief to get to the end of the evening and be alone in the bedroom of his flat. Laura had moved out of her family home. This was where they were going to commence married life. She lifted off her tiara. Stray flakes of confetti fluttered to the floor.
‘Well, Mrs O’Brien?’
‘Mr O’Brien.’ She sank down on the bed. The stain where he had spilt tea the day before was still there. ‘You didn’t change the sheets?’
‘Er…no.’ Only Patrick could make ‘no’ sound so defiant. He bent over to unlace his shoes.
Laura turned her back and sighed. Surely on their wedding night they should have clean sheets?
‘Oh god, Laura, I didn’t have time. Laura. Anyway, it didn’t seem worth it, seeing as we’re going on honeymoon tomorrow. I suppose you wanted me to scatter the bed with rose petals or something…’
Laura didn’t reply. Still with her back to him, she began unravelling her hair. As she removed her earrings, his hand crept around her waist.
‘Come here, darling.’ He pulled her onto the bed. ‘I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you.’ He fixed her with his green eyes. He still knew how to make her drown in them.
* * *
Snowflakes drifted past the window as Colm floated to the surface of the blood marbled water with his eyes closed and his hands folded across his chest like a mediaeval saint. Laura wanted to call him Gabriel but Patrick was insistent on Colm. ‘In memory of my uncle. He was a lovely man.’ Laura couldn’t believe he was lovely – he was a member of a terrorist organisation, after all – but when she found out Colm meant dove in Irish, she supposed it was almost as angelic as Gabriel and eventually agreed to the name so long as Patrick never told her parents anything about his uncle.
Colm was so perfect. She spent hours wondering at him. She wanted him to stay a baby forever, for his skin to remain untainted and marzipan soft. In a picture taken just after his birth, her face was infused with his freshness. She looked with her lowered gaze, as Patrick said, ‘just like Our Lady’.
* * *
Patrick was suspiciously well behaved at the start of Christmas day, sipping a small sherry, professing joy at the jumper Marian had knitted, proudly passing Colm around Laura’s extended family.
The decline set in as George started sharpening the carving knife. The turkey had taken so long to roast that Patrick had downed two more sherries and three glasses of wine. As food was served he became more voluble, his gestures more abandoned, his fingers tense, raking through his ‘Byronic curls’ (as Marian had once sniffily referred to them; she thought men with hair beyond collar length looked louche). His accent, as it did whenever he was drunk or agitated, had a machine gun edge, which was unfortunate, as conversation had stepped into the territory of Anglo-Irish relations. Specifically, George had started talking about the bomb warning he’d been caught up in at Waterloo a couple of months before and then moved onto the bomb in Warrington which had killed two children earlier that year. Laura was on the edge of her seat. She wondered if her father was deliberately goading Patrick. He’d also had too much to drink and his usual patrician façade seemed to have fallen.
‘The IRA issued a warning. The police didn’t act on it in time,’ said Patrick.
‘Oh, and that makes it alright, does it?’ said George. ‘Two innocent children were killed. More than fifty people were injured. But it’s alright because they issued “a warning”. Terrorist scum.’
‘They don’t view themselves as terrorists.’
‘Well they are.’
‘They believe they’re conducting a legitimate war against English oppression.’
Laura shook her head and pursed her mouth in a desperate signal to Patrick to shut up but he ignored her.
‘Balls,’ said George. ‘I’ve been to war. Don’t you talk to me about war. In war there are proper rules of engagement. The IRA are terrorists. Criminals. Killing children and unarmed civilians. English oppression, my arse…’ He sawed through the turkey breast and threw a piece of meat onto Patrick’s plate.
‘George! Watch your language. Perhaps we should talk about something else. This isn’t a very Christmassy conversation.’ Marian was hovering behind him with a serving dish. ‘Would anyone like any more roast potatoes…there’s masses left.’
‘Why should we talk about something else?’ said Patrick. His voice was dangerously low, but everyone heard. ‘Clearly George wants to talk about this.’
‘Patrick…’ Laura tried to lay her hand on his across the table but he flicked it away. Her body was knotted with the fear that he was going to mention Uncle Colm.
‘Shut up, Laura. I want to talk about this too.’
‘I don’t think anybody else does,’ said Marian.
George had downed tools and was now swigging from his wine, his pale eyes fixed on Patrick.
‘They did two minutes ago,’ said Patrick.
‘It’s not appropriate at this juncture,’ said Marian.
‘“Not appropriate”.’ Patrick snorted. His jaw was set and it was hard to imagine his mouth was capable of smiling so beautifully. ‘Typical. English mealy-mouthed blandness. Only allowed to talk about the fucking weather…’
‘Fucking’ caused a collective wince. Laura dived under the table to pick up a spoon that Colm had dropped from his high-chair. Everyone else studied their plates. Everyone except Patrick, Marian and George.
‘I’ll thank you not to speak to my wife like that.’
‘Oh look, Mr Soldier to the rescue.’
George stood up. So did Patrick. Then Marian. The argument was dragged into the hall. Laura handed Colm his spoon and refused to meet anyone else’s eye. She sensed they were unsure whether to stop or continue eating. Colm threw his bowl on the floor and began to wail, drowning out much of Patrick’s fury, but snippets leaked through.
‘No wonder your daughter’s the way she is… uptight…frigid…repressed…middle class English regime…oppressive bullshit…lies…always disapproved of me…’
Laura edged into the hall, holding Colm on her hip. Patrick and her father were grappling with each other; they almost looked as if they were locked in an embrace. Her mother was trying to pull her father away. Tears were running down her cheeks. Patrick’s face was as red and snarled as Colm’s. Suddenly her father took a backwards swing and punched him in the face. ‘Get out of my house, you Paddy bastard.’ Patrick cradled his face in his hands. Blood was dripping from his nose onto the hall carpet. With her one free hand, Laura opened the front door and pulled Patrick through it.
‘Come on. Let’s go.’ She didn’t look back at her parents.
‘Happy fucking Christmas,’ shouted Patrick as the door slammed shut behind them.
* * *
Although the Christmas incident was not forgotten, a truce had been called between Patrick and Laura’s parents. At Laura’s insistence, Patrick had sent her mother a bunch of white roses with an apology note. Her mother had invited them around for Easter Sunday lunch. On entering their house, her father had stiffly shaken Patrick’s hand and said, ‘Shall we let bygones be bygones, old chap?’
‘Aye, sure, why not,’ said Patrick, with a neutral look on his face.
They had managed to get through the meal talking of inconsequential, uncontroversial things. English things.
In mid-May, a letter arrived; its expensive lined envelope and looping, self-consciously artistic handwriting was out of the usual run of mail.
‘Who’s that from?’ Laura asked.
Patrick flipped to the back of the two sheets of paper. ‘Margaret.’
‘Margaret, your therapist?’
He frowned as he read. By the end his chin was retracted. ‘Jesus Christ.’
‘She says she can’t see me anymore.’
‘She’s in love with me.’
Since January he had been seeing Margaret once a week to talk about his problems. It had become clear that he had problems. Margaret was such a laced-up, flat shoes name that Laura had assumed the same of its owner. She knew Margaret was older than him, ten years older, he reckoned; a quasi-mother figure. What the—
‘—let me read it.’
‘No!’ He clutched the letter to his chest.
‘What the hell is she playing at? You haven’t—?’
‘—of course I haven’t.’ He stormed out.
Laura knew he wouldn’t throw the letter away. He was sentimental like that, more sentimental than her; kept every concert ticket, every letter—to his chagrin there were few from her: ‘I wish you’d expressed yourself more when we were courting’—every postcard, including, of course, the one from Provence. Laura had never snooped through his things before but now she had no qualms. She would wait until he’d hidden it and then she would find it.
She didn’t have to bother because that night he confessed its entire contents. He confessed everything eventually.
Apparently he had memorised the letter. Phrases would return to Laura for years: ‘…increasingly enthralled by you’, ‘a young god in the process of being reborn’, ‘an arch-seducer’. This last he repeated with relish, although it made Laura think of a pantomime villain with a twirling moustache and a bloodcurdling laugh.
She imagined them knee-to-knee in a candlelit, incense-scented boudoir—Margaret now a lipstick-slicked minx—both hypnotised by the web of tragedy Patrick had spun around himself. He knew how to use ‘what the good Lord had given him’, but to use it on his therapist? Couldn’t he have controlled himself? If Margaret’s letter hadn’t been so ludicrous—a ‘young god’, for Christ’s sake—Laura would have cried. Instead, it was Patrick who wept. Margaret had let him down. She had betrayed his trust. He was very vulnerable and she, in her position of power, had preyed on him. By the time he had worked himself into a thoroughly vanquished state, Laura had come round to his way of thinking. They made love through a haze of tears and the tears made it all the more tender.
Next day, after collecting Colm from nursery, she saw, from halfway down their road, Patrick remonstrating at the window of a VW Beetle parked near their house. He straightened up as she approached. She knew, glancing at the figure inside, that this woman with the mess of hennaed hair, kohl-smeared eyes, jangling earrings, this was Margaret. The crystal swinging from the rear-view mirror was the final confirming cliché. Laura held her head high over Colm’s pushchair and let herself into the house without a backward glance. Before long Patrick was sloping into the kitchen, hair falling over his face.
‘I told her to go.’
Laura stood filling a pan of water, her back to him. Colm was in his high-chair, brumming a toy car around the food tray. She glanced up at the window, looked out at the mellow May evening.
She didn’t answer. She placed the pan on the stove and turned on the gas.
‘Fuck sake, Laura. You gonna talk to me or what? I didn’t say she could come round. She was there when I got home. I told her she’s totally out of order.’
Laura closed her eyes. She wished Patrick would just leave the room, leave her alone with Colm. She didn’t have the energy or the will to argue right now and anyway silence was more of a punishment to him. If anyone knew how to use the weapon of icy, mute English condemnation, it was her, the serene, secretive cat.
‘Jesus.’ Patrick stormed out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind him. Laura breathed out and put her arms around Colm, who had begun to cry. As he nestled into her breasts, he quickly quietened down. She heard the front door slam and felt herself relax a little. For a short time at least they could enjoy some peace. And even if Patrick eventually went for ever, there was Colm.
Colm would always be enough.