It was invisible to all but her. To everyone else, brought out by the first real sunshine of the year, it was just a playground. Monkey bars, swings, a zip-wire. Kids. Bored, gossiping mums. One or two dads, awkwardly focused on their phones.
But to Becky, this was a place bathed in memory, saturated with hope and shadowed with devastation, longing fulfilled and denied. His presence or his absence.
The bench on which she now sat painfully perched had been witness to their many, many conversations, year after year, paying scant attention to their children as they played and squabbled, sweltering in the sun’s afternoon shimmer or shivering as the sky clouded over. It kept their secret. Year after year, in love with him - and, sometimes she thought, he with her - he another woman’s husband, she another man’s wife. Until the love that pulsed between them spilled over into words.
“I love you, Richard.” She had said, head down, ashamed of her declaration. “I know I shouldn’t. I mustn’t. But I do.”
He said nothing, just nodded. Right on cue, his daughter rushed up with a cut knee, blood oozing through her tights, sobbing:
“Carry me home, Daddy!”
And then he was gone. Again.
She had sat cursing her own stupidity and his daughter’s ill-timed propensity to injure herself. She could hear the little girl’s howls even now, growing fainter as they disappeared up the path towards home. They sounded to her like her own inner screams.
Clearly, life was on a crusade against her.
And then there was nothing for it but to call to her daughter that it was time to go home themselves. Home. Another of life’s four-letter-words. But this one tore into her heart as no obscenity ever could. It was the place where she didn’t belong, anymore.
Over the weekend, with no chance of seeing Richard, she was left to the freefall of her thoughts. Her husband and daughter ignored her as usual, happy in each other’s company. Her foolish words tormented her, followed her around from waking to sleeping. They turned the sunny days of the weekend into bright darkness. She longed for and dreaded Monday.
After school she took her usual place on the bench, trying not to look out for him. She must act as normal - whatever that was. Should she apologise? Try and take it back? Or just run away now, before he appeared?
But he didn’t. She sat on the purgatorial bench until everyone else had gone and her daughter was complaining that she was cold and wanted to go home.
On Tuesday it was raining so hard that she just bolted with her daughter back to the car. Wednesday was the same. Becky cursed the temperamental british weather, the gathering loneliness, the powerlessness of being a wife and mother; the terminal boredom of obligation and unending tasks and sodding daytime television. She cursed Tesco, queues of traffic on the school run, the conversations about drying washing and missing school uniforms she was forced to have with other terminally bored mums, in Richard’s absence. Most of all, she cursed her own stupidity. Why had she said the most dangerous words in the universe? With slow horror, she realized that those words had lost her his precious friendship.
Now it was Thursday. She had spent the morning cleaning, fighting the undertow of despair and the desire to down the bottle of bleach she was holding. But only after she had used it to clean the loo; chores first, suicide second.
This was the kind of self-deprecating half-joke she would have made to Richard and he would have laughed, understanding how she really felt. And then he would have told her something illuminating about the scientific properties of bleach. Except that she couldn’t tell him, now.
The sun had come out again by school kick-out time so now, here she was, back in the memory-drenched playground and wishing she was dead. Or disappeared. Or someone completely different, with a less cringey life. Her daughter was jumping up and down triumphantly on the top of the climbing frame, waving. She waved back automatically, shielding her eyes against the sun. The shadow of a bird in low flight passed over her; she looked up, hearing its funereal cry. She shivered.
Closing her eyes, she lifted her face to the glow of the damasked light.
Her daughter. She moaned softly to herself and slowly opened her eyes. Standing in front of her, his untidy, sandy hair glinting in the sun, was Richard. He was smiling at her. She looked up into his soft, acorn eyes and found kindness. Relief flooded every cell, rising in her throat, bringing tears to her eyes.
He sat down beside her. She breathed in his warm, familiar smell.
“You know I love you too, don’t you.” He said quietly, staring at his hands. Her breath caught in her throat. A flush of warmth ran through her body, trembling to her fingertips.
“You love me?” She said, with astonishing calmness.
“For years.” He turned to her on the bench, reaching for her hand, his eyes filled with a strange light. Tenderness... and something else - fear? “But I have to be honest with you.” He said. His fingers tightened on hers. “I will never leave my wife. Never. You could only ever be my…” He looked down, his skin flushing. “My mistress.”
“Yes, I know. But I -”
“No. I don’t think you do know.” He looked back up, meeting her gaze. “Never seeing me at weekends. Snatched half hours to meet up, me always having to leave to go home to my wife. We’d never have holidays together. Or Christmas. Lying all the time. Could you deal with that, Becky?”
She didn’t reply.
“Because that’s all I could offer you.” He smiled at her sadly, his thumb stroking against the pulse of her wrist. “And I respect you too much for that. I love you too much.”
It was the words she had so longed to hear. Those dangerous words.
“Funny.” She said bitterly. “I thought hearing you say you love me would mean the beginning of something, not the end.”
His mouth twisted in pain. “It’s not that I’m not tempted. Believe me, I am. Sitting here with you now…” He looked away again, staring across at the playing, screaming children. She heard him breathing deeply. “But I’m just a symptom, Becky. It isn’t me you need. No - listen. What you need is to find your place again with your husband and your daughter.”
“They don’t want me. I don’t belong there.”
Richard sighed, pressing her hand firmly. “I know you feel shut out of your own home. I know how unhappy you’ve been. But it is your home and you do belong there.”
She swallowed. “So, what are you saying, Richard? No more playground meetings?”
He said nothing for a while. But slowly, he withdrew his hand. “I think that’s best.”
“God, Richard, no! Can’t we just -”
“Like I said. I love you too much.”
He leaned towards her, so close that she heard the catch of his breath. His lips were soft and moist against her cheek. “Find your real life, Becky.” He whispered. Then he got up and walked away.
Becky stared after him, stunned. No. Come back…
The invisible was all around her, cloying, suffocating memory. Echos of laughter. The light of love, reaching her through the years like the glow of a long dead star.
She put her head in her hands and began to sob.
“What’s the matter, Mummy?” A tiny, soft hand grasping her hand. “Mummy?”
But Becky couldn’t look up.
“I’ve got something for you, Mummy.” Her daughter started to tug at her sleeve. “Please look, Mummy.”
She took a deep breath, taking hold of herself. “O.K, darling.”
The little girl was holding out a flower, red as a fresh spill of blood, red as her pounding heart.
“I picked it for you.”
Find your real life, Becky.
And in the end, it seemed, the true mystery of the world was in the visible, not the invisible. In a flower, not an imaginary love affair.
“It’s a peony.” Becky smiled. “Thank you, darling.” Her arms encircled her daughter, drawing her close. “Let’s go home.”
The copyright of this post belongs to Alison Stickings