She thought about him now, sitting on the train passing through the increasingly bleak and time-haunted landscape on his journey to the alien North. He was a Southern man, used to oceans and warmer climes. She pictured him smiling, satisfied, anticipating. He loved an adventure. And it was that wild, adventuring heart that she loved in him, the restless pulse that drove her swashbuckling hero on and sometimes took him away from her. She had learned to let him go. There was always more for him to see, questions to get answers to, experiences to be had. He was chasing purpose, running hard from the mundane horror of a life like so many other lives that, in the final analysis, would count for nothing. That was not to be his life. His world was a stage and he was being watched.
“Do you know what you’re like?” She told him once.
He had smiled indulgently, stroking her hair. “What am I like?”
a high speed train. Every day, you have a different destination -
figuratively speaking, obviously. I mean, some days it’s a work day,
some a tidy-up day, others a - well, you know. Wherever it is, you’re
going there fast. I have to read that destination - it’s always written
somewhere - and jump on board. If I don’t read it in time, or if I try
to get you to go somewhere else, I miss the train.”
His face fell. “Oh, dear. That makes me sound really selfish.”
selfish. Just needing to get to your destination. To achieve what you
need to achieve. It’s my choice whether or not I board the train.”
glad you do.” He said, gazing at her with fierce, focused tenderness.
He pulled her into a close, solid embrace, breathing his warmth into her
neck. She sighed.
The first time she saw him, walking across the
school playground holding his little girl’s hand on her first day at
school, the only thing she had really noticed - with a certain relief -
was that he was a man. She was surrounded by school gate mums,
permanently set in their cliques from playgroup onward, insecure,
gossiping, moaning mums. Their husbands were useless, their kids ran
them ragged, the weather was crap and they had to go to bloody Tesco,
again. Then followed a conversation about why some of them preferred
Morrisons, or even Aldi. Out of sheer loneliness, she sometimes joined
in. Not that they ever let her be part of the club; she didn’t have a
husband to moan about. She didn’t have anyone.
Then he appeared.
His daughter was transferring from another school half way through the
term. She was the new girl and her dad was the new boy. The other mums
eyed him with amused suspicion as he said a friendly hello, casting
glances at his patchwork hippy trousers and then returning to their
whispering groups. He seemed undeterred.
And there he was every
morning, strolling in, crumpled tee-shirt half untucked, oblivious smile
on his face. The other mums continued to ignore him, closing ranks,
suspicious of this full-blooded, sanguine personality. So she dredged up
courage as a fellow outsider and struck up a
couldn’t remember what she said. Probably something dumb. After years of
being stuck inside four walls with the ‘Teletubbies’, she didn’t have
much to say for herself. She found herself looking into a rounded,
gentle, almost bland face, apple cheeks like a happy child, a full smile
lifting his tender mouth. Just a nice guy.
But then she looked up
and into his eyes. They were a curious sludgy brown - like the colour
her daughter made when she mixed all her paints together - but so full
of a dancing light, a vibrant intelligence, that she couldn’t draw her
gaze away. She glimpsed a different kind of life, like the sun through
swaying branches. Even his computer geek glasses twinkled at her. He
laughed readily, an endearing chuckle. He didn’t feel the need to
discuss the virtues of different supermarkets. And as he walked away,
strolling in the sun that seemed to shine especially on him and chatting
on his phone, her first thought was: There’s a man without a care in
Her second thought was far more shocking: I think I’m in love with him.
Her first thought was wrong.
slowly, as the years slipped past, both their girls growing, she saw
just how wrong. He was not the man she thought she had seen, strolling
through life without a care in the world. Just as she was not the
self-possessed woman she appeared to be, single mother always in
control. So, they let each other in, found each other out.
outside the school gate until long after the other parents had gone
home, lead to coffees at his house. Then lunch, days out, evenings out
(when babysitters could be found), declarations and the tentative first
kiss. The impossible joy of discovering that he loved her as she loved
him. By the time their daughters were in their final year at junior
school, they were a couple. The other mums looked vaguely disapproving
and ignored them both.
For the first time in her life, she
discovered what it was to be in a truly symbiotic relationship. She had
been used to being the one who did all the giving, but in him she found
someone who gave as much back.They flowed into each other’s empty
places, borrowed one another’s strength. Each of their naked selves were
safe in the other’s adoring gaze.
He let her see that he was a
man in constant conflict, pulled one way by that adventurous spirit -
the need to be more than what he was - and relentlessly the other way by
his many, many doubts. There were days when he collapsed under the
weight of his guilt-blighted obligations, dragged into inertia and
ultimately back under the duvet by his inner mantra of failure. His I.T
work piled up as he lay in bed or zoned out on with a computer game, his
client’s messages ignored. His mum’s calls weren’t returned. Then he
would open the door to her with a relieved smile.
occasions she sat with him as he forced himself back in front of his
computer. She massaged his tense shoulders, kissed his neck, made him
cups of tea. With the reassurance of her touch, he could face the terror
of those obligations. He could make the phone calls, untangle the
coding knots, meet the deadlines; begin to see himself again as the
brilliant, gifted man he was. She lent him her vision of himself.
he let her be weak. He gave her permission to stop pretending, to drop
the official party line: I’m fine, it’s all good, no worries… Everything
she had pushed down for so long, kept tightly packaged and under
control, began to seep out. All the disappointments and failures of the
years, the angry protest against circumstances she had been powerless to
prevent and that had left her here, a single mum on benefits at
thirty-one; all the emotions that terrified her, found a safe outlet in
his embrace. And he made her feel beautiful again - a woman, not just a
She remembered the interesting, fun, spontaneous person she
used to be, lost for so long in the shadows of regret and duty. She
realized now, as he drew out this forgotten self, that she had been
bored almost to death.
Where she had been flatlining, he
restarted her heart. He e.c.t-ed her fatally dulled brain and pulsed his
love through her constricted veins. Her vision, narrowed by years of
isolating motherhood, sleepless nights, baby-sick and C.Beebies, was
forced wide, made panoramic by his adventurous, questioning mind; the
many conversational topics of his supple intellect. He talked to her
about the nature of dark matter, provoked her to question or defend
long-held, unquestioned habits and beliefs and listened attentively to
her responses. They discussed God and death, science and politics, love,
ethics and their favourite Monty Python sketches. (He was a die-hard
‘Holy Grail’ man, where she held that ‘The Spanish Inquisition’ couldn’t
be bettered.) They lustfully explored the depths of one another’s very
different minds, never quite getting enough. He spoke to her as an
equal, an adult. He made her laugh, as she hadn’t laughed for years.
when she saw him with his little girl, patiently calming her many
anxieties and holding her close when she cried, her heart twisted with
“Well done for trying, Sweetie.” He would whisper
into her frustration, as she failed again to get to the top bar of the
climbing frame. “You’re a brave girl.” Then he would cuddle her until
“Can I try again, Daddy?”
And when she succeeded,
laughing with pleasure as she clung on to the top bar, he stood up from
the bench and shouted: “Yay! Well done, darling!” And she gazed at her
Daddy as if she was in the presence of a god.
She made a mental promise to be more patient with her little girl.
course, they had their moments; days when their bad moods coincided,
misunderstandings clogged up the air between them and the man/woman
divide seemed unbreachable. Those days when they felt the huge distance
between Mars and Venus. But every wound they inflicted on one another,
they also healed. They talked, until all their words had run out. Then
they continued their understanding with touch, the slow worship of
kisses, the soporific delight of skin on skin, limbs entwined, drifting
together into sleep. Tenderness, like a dreamy opiate, pulsed through
their shared bloodstream.
He was her cure for the every day with
all its frustrations, its perversity, its disappointments and boredom.
And she was his. Companions on the uneven path of what they were pleased
to call single parent life.
Not that he was some paragon of
shining human perfection. But he was warm and real in his flaws and
those aggravating, puzzling habits, the strange ways his mind worked;
all the things that made up the whole man she loved. And she knew he had
plenty to forgive in her over-sensitivity, her high maintenance moods
and insecurities. But, amazed, she saw that something in her constant
and adoring company flowed into his damaged self-esteem, reminding him
who he really was and how large was the world around him. Sometimes she
would be talking to him and realize that he was no longer with her. A
dreamy, distant look had come into her eyes as he gazed at what she
couldn’t see. He was looking into a future that might not have room for
her. As his confidence in her love grew, he went to places in his dreams
she couldn’t follow - missing that high speed train - and she knew she
had to let him go there. It was the whole man
she loved and she must let him be that whole man.
One who needed her less.
when the interview for his ideal job came up in Scarborough, she was
ready to be glad for him. Almost. She pictured him again, sitting on the
train through the changing landscape. She thought about his restless
heart, thrilling to new adventures and allowed herself a smile. After
all, he would be coming back. This time.
The copyright of this post belongs to Alison Stickings 12.5.14.