The opening pages to Guilt:
We were in Cornerhouse, the gallery-come-cafe-come cinema that showed foreign and short run films, with the overpriced coffee and sulky waitresses in slinky black, full-fringed students with razor-edge cheekbones, charity shop clothes and high-end laptops, when I realised I had never really known my wife.
You were stood at the counter, ordering our espressos and warm milk, while I watched Lola. It was something I’d seen you do plenty of times before. Your hands on the counter-top, one knee bent, handbag slung over one shoulder, your red head turned to the window and Oxford Road. The slope of pavement outside, a splurge of harried passengers spilling from a recent train.
The barista returned with your change, startling you. And it was the smile, the sharp flush in your cheeks, the quick check with me after you’d done it. Guilt.
But it wasn’t about the barista and it hadn’t started there.
It was the news broadcast.
Lola was stood, unsteady, chubby-legged in her playpen, clutching the wooden frame. She was having a conversation with Cindy the cat. Cindy’s black coat was finally shiny. We’d taken her in as a starving stray a few months ago. I was attempting to brew some coffee in one of my Christmas presents. It was those vanilla coffee beans you’d picked up at the Christmas market.
‘Ah.’ I shook my thumb.
Something on the coffee machine had fallen off.
You looked at me, I hid the part behind my back. You chuckled, shook your head and went back to work.
I looked at Lola. My Dad liked to joke that we’d called our child a cat’s name and the cat a child’s name. He confused them on purpose, purely, I think, to effect that tight-lipped look of yours. His liking of teasing you was not something you’d ever understood. To you, my father was just a lager-guzzling, chain-smoking benefit-addict who had lost his cool with my brothers enough times to be irrelevant. Two out of three of my brothers didn’t speak to him any more, so why should I? But he was also the man who’d raised us when mum died. I hated myself when I sided with you, echoing your criticism. But I knew you just thought he should have been a better father. Yours was worse, apparently. But all I really knew about that was he’d tried to get back in touch, and you’d never responded.
‘La l-la-la la lay? Lay?’ Lola said.
Cindy, black feet neatly together, mewed. Her green eyes narrowed in the cold sun. She looked at me. I shrugged. Cindy turned her attention back to Lola.
I could watch my kid forever. Only thing more beautiful than you.
The radio was playing, sports show for me, but quietly enough so you could have the TV on as you took down the Christmas cards and wrapped the baubles we’d accumulated over the years in bubble wrap, placing them carefully in egg boxes.
We stopped what we were doing, the blue jewelled bauble from our first Christmas together half bubble-wrapped in your hands. We’d bought it on our first date, half each, at the Christmas market. It was handmade blown glass and used to have a strip of sequins and blue jewels around its belly. The strip was still there, but most of the sequins had plinked off by now. I occasionally found one in some random time and place. In the study in January, when work was crazy because everyone was leaving their returns until the last minute. In the shower in Summer after you’d been rummaging in the loft for something or other.
We’d pushed through the markets with our mugs of mulled wine. There was no polite first date, no behaving ourselves. You were doing a law conversion course with the OU, and I had just opened my own company with an outstanding staff of one. I was proud of myself and wanting someone to share it with. You didn’t so much as laugh but bray. You’d pointed at the blue bauble, we’d bought it and hung it on our first tree. It was never complicated, then.
We looked at each other, then at Lola.
‘Did she just -?’ you said.
‘Sin la la. Gee!’
We laughed. Turned back to our respective jobs. I secretly pulled up the instruction manual, not wanting to admit defeat.
Cindy leaped onto the cot’s post. She had a thing about sitting on anything narrow, a mini Guardian. And she had a thing about Lola’s warmth.
‘Hey Bum, could you -‘
‘Already there, Bob.’
Bum and Bob. We were Alex and Tabby to the outside world. Inside, I was Bum, apparently the favourite thing you liked about me. I don’t know why I called you Bob. It had some sort of evolution that had grown sketchy over the last three years.
The way you looked at me then, Cindy next to my chest, Lola patting the rail, grinning and giggling. It was the perfect bubble-wrapped moment. Our house at the top of a country hill. Not too many neighbours. The LandRover for the wet weather, the little sports car, my one real frivolity, our family knitted into that hillside. Just you and me and Lola and Cindy the cat. Our wellies and incessant cups of tea and coffee, my business and your para-legal work. We were comfortable. Cosy. Life wasn’t hard.
I rested my palm on Lola’s head and stroked. Her skull was warm on my skin. Hair softer than the cat’s fur. She smelled of milk and Sundays. Family. Through the thin whorls of her hair I could see patches of peach skin. Fresh and clean. Our baby.
Lola clapped and teetered backwards. I caught her by her arm. She didn’t cry. I reached my arms out.
But she shook her head and laughed. Like you, the laugh was pure, an undiluted bray of happiness.
I went back to the coffee machine, sneaked the radio up a little higher.
‘But surely Man U have themselves to blame for this one? I mean, come on, what were they playing at.’
‘Yeah, bullshit,’ I muttered. ‘Dunno what you’re talking about.’
‘Oh my God.’
I looked up, about to say Lola could never have heard me, but Tab was looking at the TV.
There was a face on the screen. A black and white photo-fit. Moustache. Skinny. Shrouded eyes.
You looked at me, and I knew then that something important had burst the bubble-wrap. We were going to be different.
‘Just thought I recognised them.’
‘Yeah well, I thought I recognised them. Come on, Bum.’
I couldn’t not laugh when she said that.
‘Let’s not get snappy,’ you said. ‘It’s the last few days of the holiday.’ You abandoned the baubles and wrapped yourself around me, front to my back.
I held your hands, my head leaning on yours.
My gaze took in the house. The kitchen, the coffee machine, still in various pieces, Lola in her playpen pointing at Cindy. Cindy’s eyes glued to the finger. This was the home we’d so meticulously built together because neither of us ever had a real one. Maybe we bound it a little too tightly. But it was about to become like that blue bauble, stripped of all its sequins, losing its glitter. The glass splintering from some tension within that I didn’t understand. I only had that sliver of a feeling to go off, that weirdness, easing through my bowels.
Everything was going to change.