My computer is winking at me knowingly as I sit down at my desk. I touch the keyboard and a photo of Paul appears on my screen. It’s the one I took of him in Rome on our honeymoon, eyes full of love across a table in the Campo de’ Fiori. I try to smile back at him, but as I lean in I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the screen and stop. I hate seeing myself without warning. Don’t recognize myself, sometimes. You think you know what you look like and there is this stranger looking at you. It can frighten me.
But today, I study the stranger’s face. The brown hair half pulled up on top of the head in a frantic work bun, naked skin, shadows and lines creeping towards the eyes like subsidence cracks.
Christ, you look awful, I tell the woman on the screen. The movement of her mouth mesmerizes me and I make her speak some more.
Come on, Emma, get some work done, she says. I smile palely at her and she smiles back.
This is mad behaviour, she tells me in my own voice and I stop.
Thank God Paul can’t see me now, I think.
When Paul gets home tonight, he’s tired and a bit grumpy after a day of ‘bone-headed’ undergraduates and another row with his head of department over the timetable.
Maybe it’s an age thing, but it seems to really shake Paul to be challenged at work these days. I think he must be starting to doubt himself, see threats to his position everywhere. University departments are like prides of lions, really. Lots of males preening and screwing around and hanging on to their superiority by their dewclaws. I say all the right things and make him a gin and tonic.
When I move his briefcase off the sofa, I see he’s brought home a copy of the Evening Standard. He must’ve picked it up on the Tube.
I sit and read it while he showers away the cares of the day, and it’s then I see the paragraph about the baby.
‘BABY’S BODY FOUND,’ it says. Just a few lines about how a baby’s skeleton has been discovered on a building site in Woolwich and police are investigating. I keep reading it over and over. I can’t take it in properly, as if it’s in a foreign language.
But I know what it says and terror is coiling round me. Squeezing the air out of my lungs. Making it hard to breathe.
I am still sitting here when Paul comes down, all damp and pink and shouting that something is burning.
The pork chops are black. Incinerated. I throw them in the bin and open the window to let out the smoke. I fetch a frozen pizza out of the freezer and put it in the microwave while Paul sits quietly at the table.
‘We ought to get a smoke alarm,’ he says, instead of shouting at me for almost setting the house on fire. ‘Easy to forget things when you’re reading.’ He is such a lovely man. I don’t deserve him.
Standing in front of the microwave, watching the pizza revolve and bubble, I wonder for the millionth time if he’ll leave me. He should have done years ago. I would if I’d been in his place, having to deal with my stuff, my worries, on a daily basis. But he shows no sign of packing his bags. Instead he hovers over me like an anxious parent protecting me from harm. He talks me down when I get in a state, invents reasons to be cheerful, holds me close to calm me when I cry, and tells me I am a brilliant, funny, wonderful woman.
It is the illness making you like this, he says. This isn’t you.
Except it is. He doesn’t know me really. I’ve made sure of that. And he respects my privacy when I shy from any mention of my past. ‘You don’t have to tell me,’ he says. ‘I love you just the way you are.’
St Paul – I call him that when he’s pretending I’m not a burden to him, but he usually shushes me.
Well, not a saint, then. But who is? Anyway, his sins are my sins. What do old couples say? What’s yours is mine. But my sins . . . well, they’re my own.
‘Why aren’t you eating, Em?’ he says when I put his plate on the table.
‘I had a late lunch, busy with work. I’m not hungry now – I’ll have something later,’ I lie. I know I would choke if I put anything in my mouth.
I give my brightest smile – the one I use for photos. ‘I’m fine, Paul. Now eat up.’
On my side of the table, I nurse a glass of wine and pretend to listen to his account of the day. His voice rises and falls, pauses while he chews the disgusting meal I’ve served, and resumes.
I nod periodically but I hear nothing. I wonder if Jude has seen the article.