This story was published in The New Writer Magazine in 2012.
He’s so close I can smell him. The tobacco on his breath and his sweat, like the first hiss when you pull the skin off an orange. Leaning forward, he points for the girls out of the train window. The Essex fields scud by, it’s late afternoon but still hot, must be around twenty Celsius, the yellow land like the hide of an old dog, panting and giving off steam.
Nancy, my five-year-old, kneels next to Max, trailing her arm around his neck, snaking his cheek with one finger. On his other side Lois, her younger sister, is kicking his thigh. Max lets her, each time faking a different kind of death. Electrocution, hanging, there is no end to his imagination. Lois is lost to us, hysterical with laughter, her mouth springing open, her tongue vibrating like a bird’s. When did I last make her laugh like that? I try to remember. Then I hear it. The voice I use.
‘Max. Max. Max. Sometimes she’s sick if she gets too charged up. Please, calm down girls.’
‘Right, come on, we’ve all got to be quiet. Mum’s the boss,’ he says, winking at them and pressing his fingers to his lips. There is a momentary lull but then he roars up into the air and the girls are all over him again.
Beside me on the seat, Jack is somehow sleeping through his friend’s racket. ‘Man’s nap,’ he’d slurred. Of course, a husband’s right to take time out. But he wakes up when Lois catches her fingers in the lock of the door. I hold out my arms but she staggers screaming beyond my reach, to Max, splaying the hand in outrage. Her fingers, so tempura-soft, make me worry I will slice the tops off with scissors. Max presses them to his mouth, kissing and eating at the same time.
‘Oh Lo-Lo, mwa, mwa, oh,’ he says. I know what he’s doing. I know exactly what he’s doing.
‘Hey who wants a hug?’ I cry.
‘Me, me!’ Both girls rush into my arms.
All day, Jack and I have exchanged looks. At first glances, but here now, it’s hard stares from me as Jack avoids my eye. Pull them away from him, separate them! I mouthed when Max’s back was turned. Still the display went on, always goes on, the grating sing-song voice, his dirty hands (nails packed with muck) stroking, patting, weaving the children over his arms, thighs, behind his back. This morning, I found him tied to the coffee table with skipping ropes. ‘Help, help,’ he groaned, as the girls squealed and I resisted the urge to stamp on his body sprawled there.
He told us a week. It is now almost a month and there always seems to be something wrong with the flats he’s viewing around North London. Jack’s not bothered, he’s at work all day at the architect’s firm - and then he’s got a pop up drink buddy at night. At first there was a little thrill to it all. Other mothers dropped round, arching their backs on chairs when Max came in to turn on the kettle. He knows how to look at a woman when she’s talking. The kind of hungry look you don’t get from your husband anymore. I see how he does it, how it’s just them and him and the room disappearing. And he’s helpful. Although he doesn’t shower as much as I’d like, Max tidies up toys, picks up sofa cushions and loads the dishwasher. He is muscular from his landscaping work, a man easy to watch even when opening a fridge door. But it’s wearing thin. Our secret family world has gone.
‘He can’t stay forever,’ I tell Jack, ‘When are you going to say something?’
‘I’ll do it at the weekend,’ he says.
After the girls’ eat, I run the bath. I am looking forward to their memories of the day; the forest walk, the best pub pudding, the train ride back. But they look up, their faces brightening, and I turn to see a form in the door frame. Max, with two wine glasses, sliding down to the floor and drawing his legs up. I should ask him to go but can’t seem to move my lips and now I’ve missed the moment so he stays; for the splashing of eyes, my tired shouts at the puddles of water, the girls standing up showing their stomachs, dyed pink from the belly button down.
Should I be pleased, the way he seeks me out? While I wash them, he talks. Every now and then I grunt, to show him I’m listening. There is a vague muttering about moving in with a friend, an older woman who seemed to have taken a shine to him, wanting a lodger. Where are all these friends? We never meet any.
Max says, ‘She’s lovely, but not my type.’ So what is your type? I think. Once I heard him say, Oh you know, I like girls with skinny boy bodies. Skinny boy bodies. I find myself briefly investigating the fly of Max’s trousers. ‘Can you check on Jack?’ I say. ‘You know what he’s like in the kitchen.’ Max grins and leaves, our little moment of intimacy completed for him.
The girls are waiting to come out, Lois shivering in the luke-warm water. Jack used to bath them, sometimes climbing in with them halfway through. Lingering in the doorway, watching his grey water suck round the girls, I would say, ‘I think you should get out now, it’s unhygienic …’ I would feel like some official, dirty clothes hanging off my arms. Quickly, I pull on the girls’ pyjamas, snagging their skin on the material.
‘Want daddy to come up here,’ Lois moans.
‘Daddy’s downstairs, making our food. He’ll come up for a kiss,’ I say.
‘Can Max come too? Please mummy,’ says Nancy.
‘No,’ I say, cross, hot. ‘No, Max is busy talking.’