‘It was my heart alone which broke. I’m glad about that.’
‘Happiness is a competition.’
‘Listen, it was either me or her family. I’m glad they won.’
James raised his pint to his lips. ‘You sound very holy about this. Absolutely pious. A bit like Christ,’ he said and took a long sip. ‘Except for the part where you were fucking someone else’s wife.’
Matt sniffed. Hearing how he came across, all he could do was shrug before finishing his pint. ‘I’m glad it worked out like that.’
‘Three times you’ve said you’re “glad”.’
‘You lacking belief, aren’t you?’
‘I’ve got to go.’
‘Big day tomorrow?’
‘No,’ Matt stood and put on his jacket.
‘Don’t leave then. Have another.’
Matt wrapped his scarf around his neck. ‘I can’t.’
‘Let’s have a game of pool. Everything’s better after a game of pool.’
The green table was near the corner, free, with a spotlight above making the idea of any game more inviting. But Matt worried about what other observations James would make: ones which despite years of thinking, he hadn’t unearthed.
‘No. I’ve told my story. There’s nothing new for tonight.’
Matt walked out of the pub.
Matt often thought of Samantha. He remembered them breaking up over and over. He remembered falling back into hotel beds, over and over, with promises they would go forward together in life. They were the promises spoken in love and lust; concrete and soluble. The couple lamented the years spent apart the way magicians lament when their tricks are discovered. If they could hold onto the magic of each other, all while keeping an unsuspected audience in the dark, they once believed they had a chance.
As their relationship aged, just the sight of the other made them feel youthful. With such a feeling hope grew. When parting from an afternoon together, they felt old. Between time spent together and time spent apart, they shifted from grounded reality to dumb optimism.
He couldn’t say which he preferred.
Lying in bed, Matt listened to a playlist he’d made back then. He played it low, not wanting to disrupt the near silence of his suburbia. He wanted to be no different from anyone else on the street now he was of an age where if he didn’t make familial roots soon, they would be no shoots to witness.
He named the playlist: HOME. He’d created it for times with Samantha. It was a playlist made for a sketch rather than a sculpture, played in rented rooms.
He’d shaken Samantha off many times, and many times she had come back into his head, vividly and forcefully despite it being five years since they had separated. The cupola he had tried to hide in earlier while confessing to James was brittle; ice under the exposing sun of memory.
James, as inactive as a priest behind their confessional veil, only made Matt feel worse by his flippancy. Matt thought if he could tell someone it would break the echo chamber inside his head, where the rumbles from the past would lose their power to reverberate. James had been the first-person Matt had ever spoken to about Samantha. Speaking off-handedly, receiving nothing more than casual remarks did nothing to exorcise her.
With a cup of coffee, Matt decided he may as well play it all again.
‘Sorry, love. I’m pissing like a racehorse,’ Matt said to Natalie.
‘Hardly a surprise,’ she said while tapping his beer bottle with her nails, the sound rising above the talk from the two dozen people in yet another wide room hosting the party.
Matt was with Natalie at the time. They saw each other off and on. Sometimes she referred to him as her primary “dating partner”. Other times it was secondary. When it became tertiary, he ended it. The last Matt knew, Natalie was still living in Berkshire, like himself, but with a husband and two young children. He wondered if the husband was always her primary “dating partner”.
‘These aren’t my friends,’ Matt said, sipping his beer which Natalie had just tapped with her nails.
‘You like Herbie.’
He did like Herbie. For a start, Herbie was twenty years older than him which put him in a league of people Matt gravitated towards: older, wiser, something to say. With his tall frame and thick grey moustache, Herbie looked like a man who could ride into the sunset – a man from a different time. Matt was short and wore the clothes of a lecturer despite working as an electrician.
‘Where is he?’
Natalie laughed and pointed. ‘He’s getting drunk.’
Natalie was a lawyer. Her friends were lawyers.
‘Who’s beside him?’
‘His wife. Samantha.’
She was much shorter than her husband. ‘Let me guess, another lawyer?’
Natalie nudged him. ‘You used to be such a polite chap.’
‘That doesn’t sound like me.’
‘No. No, it doesn’t.’
Natalie held the side of his upper arm for a moment, a diplomatic touch before moving to talk with Herbie. Matt looked at her for a moment, not feeling ready to walk over.
The living room was full of furniture he couldn’t afford, reproductions of art he could name, but cared little for, and a drinks cabinet he wished was his.
After exploring it and pouring himself a scotch, he went to the large wheat coloured sofa and sat on an arm. He glanced behind and noted how frequently Herbie topped up his glass. The man laughed at something Natalie said, showing his red teeth. Matt turned away. In front of him was Samantha. So close to him, Matt felt tight. Her eyes were almonds he had yet to eat. She rested them on him.
Matt took a drink before speaking. ‘We’re the wives at this party.’
‘You know, something nice to look at when taking breaks from putting the world to rights.’
‘My. You sound like you were born in the fifties.’
‘I look good for my age.’
‘You look average for your age,’ Samantha said and smiled.
‘Never seen you at any of these before.’
‘I usually stay at home. Look after the children.’
‘Can’t afford a sitter?’
‘Children are a good excuse to stay away. I get bored easily.’
Samantha mirrored her husband and took a sip of her red wine. ‘I get hit on.’
Matt brought a hand up to his mouth in mock surprise. ‘Surely not in public?’
Samantha narrowed her eyes. ‘Oh yes. In public with suggestions of what to do in private.’
‘If you can’t trust a lawyer…’ He raised his glass. They clinked. ‘Man is a terrible beast.’
‘Samantha, how would someone go about arranging a date?’
‘Matt…does anyone date anymore?’
The hotel had a bar. Matt was there first. He had never done anything to break up a home before. As he ordered a whisky, he told himself he wasn’t about to start.
When she entered the bar, his conviction died.
In their hotel room, Samantha’s jeans and gilet laid across his trousers and shirt. She was wearing a black negligée. They had made love. She was in his arms.
‘You look like a farmer’s wife,’ he said. She punched him on the arm. He laughed. ‘I don’t mean from Suffolk, I meant…Italian. You look like Monica Bellucci…if I squint.’
Samantha punched him again, not so hard. ‘Is this your post-coital chat?’
‘Do I need to work on it?’
‘Yes. At the moment, you’re making me close my legs.’
‘Fair point,’ he said and scratched his chin where hairs were already growing back. ‘You’ve done this before?’
‘What gave it away?’
He touched her negligée. ‘This.’
She smiled. ‘And you haven’t?’
‘How long have you been married?’
‘Blimey, you really need to work on your talk.’
‘I’m a lapsed Catholic. The only things I now believe in are family and marriage.’
Samantha placed her hand over his groin. ‘Oh, I believe you.’
She took her hand away. ‘Twenty years. I was twenty, he was forty. Our eldest is nearly as old as our relationship. Our other daughter is twelve. And she’s old enough.’
Samantha took Matt’s hand. ‘For scars.’
‘No. Not those. She’s just seen enough.’ She examined his hand. ‘Look for the scars on any person and it’s either your parents or your marriage that have carved them. Or both. Usually both.’
‘You don’t believe that?’
‘I’m here aren’t I?’
The conversation led to their first disagreement, Matt feeling that he was a runner up in a competition he had not known about; how to get out of a floundering marriage. Their dissent didn’t last long. It was more for show, something done to assuage their temporary guilt.
They soon made love again, with more force and more passion; the kind of love-making that usually saves a relationship.
As she dressed, he felt jealous. He wanted her to stay even though she had to go back to the standard three-bedroom house, a forty-minute drive away.
‘I’m seeing you again, aren’t I?’
Samantha slipped into her gilet. ‘I hope so.’
Their meetings were complicated to organise and haphazard in their execution. All the planning did was remind Matt that his love for her was like light. When away, he chased the pinpoint it had become. When together, it blinded him. He couldn’t hold her tight enough nor become replete with her words, her voice, her smell. Everything had to crack open when they were together.
It was an impossible task.
To fill those moments apart, he asked her to send him pictures of what she was wearing, of what she wasn’t, of where she was, of what she could see, of what she was thinking. He listened to sound clips of her moaning and calling his name and then messages asking how he was and how his day was going – just as if she were his wife, in the type of marriage they had agreed, free to express, need to express, with only one another, that they would have if they could.
He wondered what she sent to her husband and whether she considered Herbie as anything other than the father of their children and the man who shared her bed.
To torture himself, he’d look at her WhatsApp profile photo to see them together: an electronic taunt that defied space and time.
He wondered if her husband was still sleeping with her. He doubted if she still loved him. Matt would think these thoughts while walking the streets of his neighbourhood; the veins on the body he had known for years and felt hemmed in by. Couples would pass him on his walks: the young with their children, the old with their dogs. They had purpose. In their purpose he was reminded he had none; their render of domesticity was impenetrable. It made him feel as if he were a child stuck in the late evening hours of a Sunday: a melancholic feeling descending which once was reserved for the fear of returning to the everyday subverted now that he desperately wanted the everyday with Samantha.
Amongst the families, he was reminded of the obstacles he had to traverse to create one.
Before breaking up for good, Samantha wouldn’t answer Matt’s calls. In her silence, she was refusing to see him. Apart from going to her house, a place he had only been to once for a party, he had tried everything else. He’d sent texts, emails, voicemails, tried her workplace’s email and phone too. He wanted, more than anything, to go to her home. Thinking of her daughters, he couldn’t bring himself to do that. They were children who didn’t ask for the shadow of his presence to cast itself over their mother’s heart.
Any scarification unto their beings would not be done with announcing who he was, who he had been, to their mother.
A month that felt like a year passed before he got an email from Samantha saying she couldn’t see him again. She wanted him to live well before ending on a theory she wished to present as fact: people were better off alone. He thought it was nonsense and messaged back saying so.
There was no reply.
Matt gave up and got on with his life.
A season passed before Samantha got in touch.
It was slow at first, vague and sporadic messages, but when he gave the merest hint of wanting to know why, the why of her leaving him and the why of her return, it became solid and deliberate.
Inevitably, they met up.
‘I was depressed, Matt. A serious depression. I mean, not wanting to get out of bed and do anything. Sleep was an effort and not sleeping was an effort.’
They’d stopped walking, a graveyard to the side of them. Her almonds, which he had eaten long ago stuck to him. The brightness of them was dulled. Matt looked away, no longer held by them, but lost as to how everything fell apart. He felt neither a partner nor spectator but someone in the midst of living and witnessing: a chimera of love and pain.
‘Is that so?’ He asked.
‘It’s the truth,’ she said.
He noticed how thin she’d become. He’d put on weight. She also looked as if she’d been crying before they met at the café in the local church; a place where no one would suspect their past.
‘I’ve never been so low. I looked at my daughters and I thought, “This is saving no one. No one is being saved by my heartbreaking.”’
Not knowing what to say, he reached out to touch her hand.
Samantha pulled away. ‘I can’t have you touch me. It hurts. You just…you know me too well. And that’s a knowledge I wish you didn’t have. It’s a knowledge which shows only weakness.’
‘Whose weakness? Yours for telling me your life, or mine for listening?’
As soon as the words left, Matt wished he’d never said them.
Samantha looked at the spire. ‘No one asks for someone new to love when they have a partner who no longer loves them. No one with a family seeks more complication. No one asks for their lover to go, their lover who was better than they could’ve expected, their lover who wants a home they couldn’t provide. And no one asks for a family, no matter how sad, to come to an end.’
‘Yes. I understand,’ Matt said, before waiting for Samantha to return her gaze to him. ‘But no one asks to love such a person.’
They stayed still for a moment, before walking again.
As they walked the back roads of their town, past nearby fields where the sounds of toddlers running around came to them, she reached for his hand. He quickly pocketed it and quickened his pace. She kept up with him.
Matt thought about the one beside him. She was someone he’d said things to which he’d never uttered to another, good and bad. Nearby was a small brook they once went to. Samantha had sat on a wall and had him lean into her as she stroked his hair while whispering into his ear that he was loved, that he was special.
She was his family then. He now resented her for that.
A few days after their meeting, he told her that he needed her. He believed it when he said it and believed it hours later when he came inside her.
That belief died when she left to go back to her family.
Whether Samantha would leave her family within a year or not, something she said she would do as he kissed her eyelids, filled with hope once more, no longer mattered. He couldn’t exist without her, for even an hour. Sanity, which before her silent season he was worrying about losing, meant he had to be alone. Alone without her, without anyone, but finding his reason with isolation.
He told her this over the phone the next day. Distracted by her youngest daughter, Samantha didn’t hear him right.
A week of silence was broken when she called him. He reminded her of what he’d said. It was then, with confirmation, he knew her heart broke.
The second coffee was as flavourless as the first. Almost three in the morning and sleep still eluded him. It was nothing to do with the caffeine. Matt paused the music playing from his laptop and flipped through his emails. He found Samantha’s most recent message to him.
It was from six months ago, wishing him a happy birthday. She wished him a happy birthday every year. He never responded. Each time there was only a bitter reply he could think of. Until now. He started to type:
You’re my home. I’ll never have another.