Chapter One

I

After the front door has slammed, I do all the usual things. I take it steady. I make the bed, load the dishwasher, wipe the kitchen surfaces, pat some life into the sofa cushions, tidy the mess from Pete and Harry’s football-watching the night before – the cans of beer and pizza boxes – and run the hoover along the passageway to suck up any stray mud-crumbs.

It is only when I pile Suki’s bowl with extra food – her tea as well as breakfast – that I realise there is a wobble inside me, ready to reduce me to a jelly if I let it. I am not a risk-taker – life – Pete – has not allowed for that – and yet here I am.

I breathe as much air into my lungs as I can and exhale slowly. Suki appears, threading her black tail between my shins, mewing. I bend down to touch her and she headbutts my hand, hungry for love, as always. Her head is hard as a coconut and her whiskers prickly.

‘You’ll be fine, you’ll see,’ I whisper, glad she’s just a cat and can’t hear the catch in my throat.

Upstairs, I set my phone to Jack’s last message and place it beside the suitcase as I pack. I love the shortness of the list, the simplicity, the certainty.

Passport. Phone. Money. Some clothes. Yourself. We can do this. I love you. Until tomorrow.

Before leaving the house, I check the street like a spy from behind the sitting-room curtains. If Mrs Dawkins is taking Alfie, her doddery Frenchie, out, or chatty Dave across the way is on his front step having a fag, then I’ll have to be ready. I have thought of this, of course – between us, Jack and I have done our best to think of everything, which is why it’s taken so long to get to this moment. If the station wasn’t so close, I’d splash out on a taxi, but money will be tight for a while and the drama of baggage-loading into a strange car, all that revving and motion outside the house, would draw attention in itself – crazy, after all the months of taking so much care.

Better to slip out and brave the gauntlet of the street. Better to have ready my prepared story about visiting Rob and Jo, my brother and his wife, and their motley crew of children and animals in the wilds of Kent. There’s their new baby still to meet, five-month-old little Marcus, and, of course, it’s always lovely to see the twins. All morning, I have been practising in my head what I’ll say if someone asks, the tone I’ll use – jolly and affectionate. Twenty years of marriage to Pete has taught me that at least – how to put on a show, how to say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done. By the time the truth comes out, I’ll be gone.

If it weren’t for the suitcase, it would be a doddle. But a suitcase invites questions, even from strangers, and despite having learnt to lie, it still takes nerve and grit and all the things I do not naturally possess. That this terrible necessity of double-living, thirteen months of it, is about to end is one of the things that has been keeping me going. I am free to make my own choices. My life is my life. Jack has opened me up to such daring thinking. We are all just tumbleweed otherwise, he said once, getting blown nowhere, for nothing.

I chose the suitcase from the dusty heap in the loft for its large size; not used for years and with wonky wheels, I know it won’t be missed. Only after I have finally left the house, passport and phone treble-checked, the note for Pete propped on the mantelpiece, the one for Harry half under his pillow so Pete can’t get to it first, the front door double-locked, do I discover that the pull-out handle on the suitcase no longer extends properly either. But I am already in the street, sweating inside my overcoat, and it is too late to go back. The coast, mercifully, remains clear.

I set off at a brisk pace in the direction of the high street, the case making a horrible rumpus over the paving stones behind me, shouting for all the attention I am trying my best to avoid.

I’m off to Rob and Jo’s, I chant inside my head, matching the words to the pace of my walk, to meet my new baby nephew; dum-dum-de-dum-de-dumdum. My brain butts in with an image of Harry twenty years ago, snug in the spotty blue baby carrier, a bag of stale crusts for the pigeons dangling from my fingers; days when I still believed becoming a mum would solve everything.

A man in paint-spattered overalls jumps out of a parked white van, making me start. ‘Morning.’

‘Morning.’

‘Going somewhere nice, I hope.’

Behind him, a kid on a bike, bare knees purple-blue in the mid-March chill, does a wheelie, throwing a glance sideways to check for an audience before whizzing off.

‘Yes, thanks.’

I cast a side-look at Annie Smith’s front window as I hurry on, grateful to see it empty. I think about her leg ulcer and the carer-rota that keeps changing and have to shove them to the back of my mind. Just as I do Harry, aged just twenty and his father’s son these days, but still my boy, and Suki, bless her, found by me in a soggy box under a lamp post a decade before, her black velvet coat sodden and mouldy grey. That selfishness takes courage has been a new discovery.

The bloody suitcase fights me like a sumo, threatening to unbalance us both during its thunderous progress in my wake. But I turn the corner and suddenly there’s the postbox on the high street, a red beacon, something to aim for. I slide my resignation letter with its bold, brief outline of the reasons behind my decision into the slot, pausing just long enough to hear the quiet thwack as it lands. I do not let myself think of Camille opening it. There is no going back now. All the big stuff is done.

Jack’s voice slides into my head. Precision planning, my darling Fran, and we shall prevail. He’s got such a voice; low, sonorous, with delicious huskiness on the bottom notes. The moment I heard it, just over a year ago in the auction house, I thought, here is a man who never flaps, who never hurries, who’s easy in his own skin. Here is a voice that I could listen to all day. Sometimes, I’ve teased him about his untapped talent as a voice-over artist, all the money he could earn promoting washing powder and describing four different bits of a cooked rabbit on a plate for a TV cooking competition. He could make a bomb, I’ve joked, more of a bomb than he’s clearly managed from his painting, that’s for sure; though I never say that bit. I adore what I have been able to see of Jack’s work – he’s always reticent about showing me stuff, but it’s obvious how brilliant he is. Five dashes of a pencil and he can capture anything; and his paintings, translucent seascapes, burning green countryside scenes, willowy people, are dazzling. But earning money as an artist is hard graft, and he is understandably sensitive about that, given Helena’s family millions and how little he and I are going to have to live on.

I’ve tried to worry about money too, but I can’t. For a start, there’s my ten grand from Mum, still safe with Santander and in my name, despite Pete’s best efforts. And then, between us, Jack and I have vowed to find work, no matter how menial, until some of the new portraits he’s been working on – the Rogues Gallery, he calls it – find buyers. A friend of his called Brian is going to look after all of it while we are away, hopefully finding some takers among his rich banker contacts.

Jack already speaks some Spanish, which will give him a head-start, and I’m going to have lessons when we get there. I’d have had a stab with evening classes, but Pete’s never easy with things that take me out of the house after working hours. Winning the battle to join Camille’s book club for school staff took weeks of pleading and holding my nerve. It’s a long time since he really flipped, but the threat is always there, always to be navigated. Even so, each monthly book gathering never fails to cause a rumpus. Abandoning me, are you? Aren’t I interesting enough any more?

Best of all, Spain means Jack will have the paradise he says he has always dreamed of for his painting: the electric southern sunshine, the big blue skies, the old Moorish towns, the hillside groves of oranges, lemons, olives – in close moments during our few, treasured chances to be properly together, he has talked to me in raptures about such things, his voice a whisper of passion, his strong arms holding me close while his big hands cup my head and his long slim artist fingers comb my hair. Just to recall such times makes my skin tingle. But the far bigger joy is to have found someone whose happiness and self-fulfilment I yearn for even more than my own, with the added luxury of knowing that Jack wants the same for me. Love, in other words, of the sort I had stopped believing in.

With Pete, just using the words ‘happiness’ and ‘fulfilment’ is like pulling a trigger. ‘Sorry I haven’t been as successful in life as Madam would have liked. It hasn’t all been the proverbial rose-bed for me either, in case you haven’t noticed. Have you noticed, Fran? Do you pay any attention to me – ever?’ It can go either way then, but the old list of life blows will come out during the course of it: the knee injury that wrecked his youthful sporting hopes, the two business partners who somehow both turned out to be backstabbers, the hateful sports-shop management job that was supposed to be a stopgap, Harry dropping out of uni… and somehow, every time, by that last item, I’m the one to blame for it all.

I can feel the old fear and anger rising and I don’t want it, not today of all days. My arms and shoulders are starting to throb. Who would have thought a half a mile could feel so long? I divert myself by picturing ‘Casa Maria’, the gem of a guesthouse that Jack found for us online, with its warm terracotta floor tiles and fresh white cotton curtains fringing the bedroom windows, all centred round a courtyard of cobblestone and hanging baskets, fireworks of colour erupting against soft sandy stone walls. Jack says it’s in the same part of Madrid as where his favourite painter, Sorolla, used to live, and that the artist’s house is open to the public. Paying the place a visit, seeing all the family beach scenes Jack has shown me on his laptop – gauzy summer heat, shimmering over blue and gold bands of sea, sand and sky, blowy dresses and parasols, bare-legged kids larking about in sparkling shallows – is high on our to-do list. As is moving from the guesthouse into our own home just as soon as we are able; having our own courtyard maybe, our own hanging baskets of flaming palettes.

Suddenly the first rocket of real, hot excitement is shooting up through my innards, one of those electric shocks of rip-your-clothes-off lust and loving certainty which has kept Jack and I going this past year and which we both like to joke will wear off soon, though there’s been no sign yet. The idea of just having a room to ourselves makes us both giddy. A basin. A shower. A bed. The chance to breathe the same air, all day, all night. No goodbyes. No secrecy. No heartache.

The need to cross the high street brings me back to earth. The case takes two hands and all my strength, grappling with it over the uneven kerb, round the pothole that has been there forever, and up onto the other side, my overstuffed handbag and carry-on toppling unhelpfully off my shoulders throughout. I grit my teeth as I struggle, reminding myself again of how hard Jack and I have worked to reach this day; the patience it has taken, the good sense, the attention to detail. We are like two parachutists, we agreed last time we talked, every conceivable safety check carried out, every preparation made, poised in the open door of a plane and ready to jump.

When my mobile pings in my pocket, I stop so suddenly that a man and a glossy spaniel bouncing on its lead almost trip over me as they swerve past. I fumble for my phone with shaking hands. Jack and I, needing to concentrate on our separate exit strategies, not wanting any extra risks, have agreed on no communications until the airport, except in the case of an emergency. Dark scenarios are already scudding across my imagination, including Pete, needing something particular – as is his wont – a document from a filing cabinet, or a receipt, or one of his moans about all the crap at work. If I don’t reply to the message, he’ll call. Then he’ll hear the traffic and ask where I am. And if I opt not to answer, he’ll try again, and again, and again, Pete not being one to give up, on anything, not even when he should; least of all then, in fact.

Seeing it’s from Mel, I let out a groan of relief.

Good Luck! You are the bravest. Remember: LOVE CONQUERS ALL. Can’t wait to come and visit! MX

 

And you’re the best friend EVER

I type back hastily, my fingers like spaghetti.

Mel is my rock, a friend since our sixth-form days and with enough issues of her own for Pete not to judge her a threat. She is the only one who knows, about Jack, as well as everything else, which is why she has been such a support in all the madness. It is in her flat that Jack and I have been able to meet, to be close, to plot our escape.

I add a kiss and a fingers-crossed emoji before pressing send, then set off with such a fresh burst of energy that I trip over my own feet and almost go sprawling. I shout a string of expletives, earning a glare from a wan young man at a bus stop jigging a newborn in a papoose. I offer him a sheepish smile, noting that he’s in that early crazy protective phase of parenthood. No ugliness allowed. No suffering. No disappointment. Just like me, once upon a time.

I walk on more slowly, trying to shut out thoughts of all the things that can still go wrong: cancelled trains, terrorist attacks, a meteor hitting South London, or the wheels literally falling off my stupid case. I’d have to ask strangers for help then, big time. In fact, I’d probably just hail a cab for the entire journey, blow the cost.

Standing before the train departures board a few minutes later, the illuminated ‘on time’ notifications glittering at me like miracles, something inside me starts to relax. I catch a glimpse of myself in the glass of an advertising hoarding as I head for the platform. I see a petite forty-two-year-old woman with a pale face, light green eyes and long brown hair. I see a woman in her prime, with a train and a plane to catch.

In the last months of her illness, Mum liked to talk to me and Rob about the importance of having a sense of purpose in life, not wasting any time, her voice wistful from the battles with depression which had kicked in back when our father died and never quite let go. My life-loving, super-smart elder brother hardly needed telling, but I was the one with fewer excuses, the one who has never exactly blazed a trail – marrying at just twenty-one, muddling and fudging through low-key primary-school teaching jobs, bottling in all the secret mess of things with Pete.

I stay by the hoarding so I can keep looking at the reflection. I think you might root for me today, Mum, I tell her. I think you would understand and be proud.

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