There are two Writers Island prompts this week –
Second chance and perspective.
Can I just say that if anyone is contemplating doing this, you should. It is really good fun and the others writers are very supportive. Why not give it a go?
Here is my story –
A SECOND CHANCE
I should be happy tonight, it’s Friday evening and Tom’s already home. Part of me wants to believe my ranting, his mother’s nagging, his father’s laying down the law has given him a fresh perspective on how damaging his recent behaviour has been.
Second chances. His father gave one of his long-winded speeches on the subject, evangelical, ecclesiastical, making my collection of crystal ornaments jump in their cabinets as he paced. I listened, wearing my mother’s skin, just sitting there taking it, saying nothing. ‘Let him do what he wants,’ I imagined myself shouting. ‘He doesn’t believe in second chances. You’re wasting your breath.’
I saw Tom’s face in the mirror – full length glass with bevelled edges – as it must have been when he was reprimanded as a child, holding every word in his eyes to dissect later and feed his malcontent, lips gray with loathing.
‘There will be no unfaithfulness in this family, no hint of scandal. We are prominent members of society. We do not get divorced. I have no qualms about taking desperate measures if you persist with this fanciful notion. Desperate measures.’ His father slammed a curled fist into his palm like a drummer in a marching band, emphasizing every point. Everyone in the room knew desperate measures was a euphemism for being disinherited. I wasn’t surprised he’d raised the possibility; he is a man fond of brute force.
Tom has brought me roses – pink ones. They are wilting in the heat, some of them browning at the edges. He hands them to me with that little curl he has to his lip, sarcastic, lascivious, the look a child has when he’s forced to make an apology he doesn’t believe in. I am prone to misconstruing glances but decide to ignore the malaise bubbling in my stomach.
Tom has a tart, slightly acrid smell to him like he has been drinking all day, yet he appears sober. He is even being pleasant, saying: ‘Whatever you’ve got in the oven smells great. I am really hungry. I am looking forward to this.’
He clears away the recipes I am cataloguing on the dining table, tenderly, as if he can see their worth. I bite back my warning to be careful, it has taken three days to collate them. But he is as responsible as a father getting to know his infant child, keeping the paper creaseless and ordered, placing the recipes gently on the shelf by the bay window. I am calm, as the evening light falls upon the recipes told to me by my grandmother, my mother, various friends cooking through the years, a pilgrimage of taste, aroma, and colour. Tom begins to lay the table, his shoulders drooping slightly as they do when he is tired, his tie bunched unevenly under his collar, and I am moved like I used to be. Even when he pulls out my Wedgewood dinner service without asking, the one my grandmother gave me with the blue and yellow cornflowers, and I pray there will be no cracks as each plate touches the table, I bite my tongue, full of a sudden resolve that tonight there will be no harsh words between us. It is a last supper of sorts.
Unwittingly, I have prepared his favourite meal, roast chicken with garlic and lemon thyme stuffed under the skin – it is not normally a meal I would prepare just for myself. I congratulate the impulse that drove me to roast chicken on such a warm night – a haze stands on the lawn, dappled with shadow, flinging heat up to the purple clouds – making the muslin curtains in the kitchen sag. Who could eat on such a day ? Tom’s appetite has always been hearty, especially for the things he likes, I hear the cutlery clattering with anticipation ( the old Staffordshire set I found in the Southern Highlands, with “To Mary, with love” engraved on the handle of every knife.) He is pushing the boat out tonight, picking flowers in the garden, whistling, it is one of my mother’s expressions, to push the boat out, quaint and slightly irritating (like people who say “Pardon my French”); I am veering between disbelief and relief that we might succeed in clinging to civility.
Tom’s phone rings. He moves outside with the haste of a man acting undercover, grappling in his pockets for cigarettes. He laughs, his tone light, framed like a Gainsborough painting under the old maple, roses, poppies and irises curling around his feet, vivid as if lit from below. I gasp, the pain tangible, seeing him as I did when we first met, his eyes bright with life, face redolent, pleased with his efforts, and I feel, like a whisper from the past, without any hint of emptiness – what everyone else in love must feel, that little magic spark.
An arsenal of nuts from the conifers lands on the patio roof, the legacy of some travelling cockatoos. The nuts split and crack on the ground, steaming. They are hollow inside, dehydrated by drought. Tom swears, shaking his fist at the birds who have already been swallowed safely by the sky.
The dinner is ready. The chicken is succulent and golden, I have steamed some asparagus and baby carrots, with lemon butter, and potatoes gratin. Tom strides in, carrying a handful of poppies torn from the earth, their stems split, dumped in the old plastic pot I keep my garden tools in, which he places in the centre of the table, spotting the linen napkins, the cracked plastic glaring at me like a voice of dissent.
Tom’s table manners seemed to have eluded him as he shovels forkful after forkful into his mouth. ‘This is great!’ he exclaims, his voice cracking on the exclamation point, chin shiny with butter, battering my precious plates with his fervour, my chicken in tatters. ‘More asparagus, please. More potatoes. Don’t forget the butter. They’re not as good without the butter.’ Head hanging, like a boat listing in a storm, I feed him the food he loves.
The night comes in like a live thing, pushing the heat to the edges of the garden. The light in the house turns sallow, even the prints on the wall fade. What had the room been like minutes before ? Tom laying the table had been a bright, shining thing, full of good cheer like a song at Christmas. I was so full of hope I almost mentioned it to him, the change I saw, but I knew he would have scoffed at any idea of atonement. So I drink my wine, and say nothing, watching my husband eat, regretting my earlier impulse not to lace his wine with rat poison. Eventually he pushes his plate away, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand: ‘That was delicious,’ he says, running his finger along the rim of his plate and smearing his lips with what he has gathered. The effect is gaudy, like cheap lip gloss. I watch him, I am halfway to being seriously drunk; and better for it, an anchor in a choppy harbour. ‘A second chance,’ he says, getting to his feet, ungainly as the clowns who wear those ridiculously long shoes. ‘For what? It’s monstrous, like a death sentence.’
‘Not for me,’ my voice sounds far away as if I am looking down on myself. ‘I am taking this second chance. For me. Without you.’ Tom is shell-shocked, he had not regarded me as courageous until now. His eyes have shrunk, he is smaller than he was minutes ago. He opens his mouth as if to blame me. It is his first line of defence, I almost feel nostalgic that I can gauge his reponses so well, feeling the bite of the words even before he has spoken, but he gets to his feet and walks out, into the dark. The front door closes like the final note in a sonata, like someone has written ‘The End’ in wax across the wooden floors.
The light in the garden has dissolved. A flock of magpies trill, that terrible, deflating night call they have that leaves you clutching at your chest with loneliness. The silence of early night creeps across the room, a sense of expectation glimmers at the edges – the fruit bats have not yet begun to forage. The wine gurgles deafeningly as I pour it into my glass. I drink, thirsty as a runner at midday, raising a toast to the orange flash of possibility that fills my heart as the time pips on the microwave in the cluttered kitchen.