Meeting Damien by Maggie McGuinness

A bus drew up in the main street of a ski town in Colorado, and a leggy girl with chestnut curls bounded out of it. She hitched her daypack up on one shoulder and jumped over the piles of snow at the curb, then pushed open the door of the No Name Saloon. She stamped her boots on the grid in the doorway, and the barman gave her a wave.
Meeting Damien
Meeting Damien by Maggie McGuinness
“Hi, Paul.” She unzipped her ski jacket and shrugged out of it. “Good-day, mate,” he replied, trying hard to use what he thought was an Australian accent. “Am I sounding better today?” “Nope. But keep trying; you’ll sound just like Crocodile Dundee any day now.” “Good on ya, cobber,” he said with a grin. “Now, what can I get you?” “Well, it sure is cold out there, so I need warming up. I’ll have a Bundy and Coke, thanks.” “No can do. Sorry, mate!” He held up the empty Bundaberg rum bottle, turning it to and fro. “No Bundy? You can’t be serious! What have you done with it? I’m the only one who drinks that stuff around here!” “Not any more. There’s a Bundy-drinking stranger in town.” He nodded towards the far end of the bar. “I must have got the last of it. Sorry about that,” said a voice from the corner. “We can share, if you like.” His eyes were bluer than his blue jeans. His smile made her heart melt like the left-over snow on her boots. “Hello. I’m Andy,” he said. “I’m from Melbourne. You?” “Same! And I’m Clare. Nice to meet you.” They shared the drink. Taking turns to sip it, they brushed hands. He admired the way her smile lit up her face and made her dark eyes sparkle, and he liked it that he wasn’t sure if she was flirting with him or not. She loved the way the corner of his eyes crinkled when he laughed, and that he was both confident and shy at the same time. They talked for hours, entranced by each other’s faces. They found a cosy café for dinner and ate the food without tasting it. He gazed at the line of her neck and shoulder and realised he wanted to kiss the hollows where they joined. She looked at his long fingers and wondered how they would feel on her skin. Their boots crunched in the snow as they walked to her condominium arm in arm. It was snowing lightly. They stopped to tilt their heads skywards, catch the falling flakes on their tongues and kiss them away. As soon as they shut the door against the snowy world outside, they turned to each other. He kissed her lips, her neck, and her shoulders as he slid off her coat. She took his hand and led him to the bedroom without speaking. Later, with his arms encircling her as she rested her head on his chest and heard his pounding heart, she knew. He’s the one. The next morning, she looked out the window across white rooftops. Snow was dropping like a thick, white curtain and avalanche guns boomed in the distance. She was familiar with the sound but, even so, she felt a sudden pang of foreboding. Turning to him, she said, “We’ve broken the number one rule of dating.” “Which is?” “Don’t have sex on the first date. If you do, it will never be a relationship. It will only be about sex.” “Says who? The Pope?” “Not the Pope. Just everybody else.” “Oh well, that’s okay then. Because the Pope wouldn’t know about first-date etiquette, but everybody else in the entire world absolutely would, right?” “I’m serious! This is doomed to be just a fling. You don’t have sex on the first date if you really like the person.” “Oh, I see. You only have sex straight away if you don’t like them.” “That’s right.” “You’re insane. Come back to bed.” She returned to the warmth of his body, and he whispered into her neck, “This wasn’t a date anyway, so it doesn’t count. We’ve got the non-first-date exclusion clause, so we’ll be fine. You’ll see.” Perhaps Andy was right. They spent the next four years together, working and skiing around the world and then returning home to Australia. Andy became a ski instructor at Mount Hotham. Clare, a teacher, was offered a job in a school in the country town of Bairnsdale just a few hours away, and drove up the mountain to spend every weekend with him. In the summer, he was going to live with her in Bairnsdale and work as a trainer in one of the fitness centres. They saved for a house deposit and planned a wedding, arguing about whether it would be better to have two children or three. Life was good. Clare sometimes remembered the boom of the avalanche guns and her sudden pang of anxiety. Was their life together too good? All her girlfriends seemed to go through one drama after another with their partners, but Andy and Clare never argued. They were the golden couple, her friends said. The ones to aspire to. She shrugged off her irrational fears. Her parents’ terrible marriage had made her insecure and paranoid; that was all. Then one Friday night, when Clare arrived at their apartment on the mountain, Andy was anxious and distracted. He spilt the wine, burnt the steaks, and snapped at Clare when she laughed at his klutzy cooking and suggested they go out for pizza. “Oh god – I’m sorry.” He stood beside her at the kitchen bench, and drummed his fingertips on the edge of it. “There’s something I have to tell you.” “This sounds serious. Okay, hit me with it, Mr Grumpy,” she teased. The smile faded on her lips as she saw his strained expression. “I don’t know how to say this. I’ve been really stupid.” He bumped one fist into the palm of the other hand, over and over. “There was a girl in one of my ski classes. She was at the bar the other night and we got talking. I had too much to drink and I walked her home and … one thing led to another. I’m so sorry Clare. It was a massive, horrible mistake. I’d give anything to take it back, but I can’t.” “One thing led to what, exactly?” Her voice was tight with fear. “You know how it goes. Don’t make me spell it out. I feel ashamed enough.” “Oh, really? It led to that? You picked up some groupie who runs around after ski instructors and you fucked her? No! I don’t believe you.” He flinched at her words. It was a rare thing for his gentle, dignified girlfriend to swear or raise her voice. Clare had backed into the corner of the kitchen, with both hands clutching her wine glass. They shook violently and some of the liquid sloshed onto the floor with deep red splashes. “I wish it wasn’t true. I feel so sick about it.” “I see. And this about how you feel, is it? What about me? How do you think I feel? You’ve thrown everything away for some random slut … Well, I hope she was a good fuck. Was she worth it for you? Because she’s sure as hell wrecked everything for me. How could you?” She turned and threw her wine glass into the sink. The reverberation from the exploded glass seemed to hang in the air. “Clare …” He reached for her as she walked past. She shrugged away. “Don’t touch me. You make me sick!” “It won’t happen again.” “Just shut up, Andy – I don’t want to talk to you. I need some air. You might as well go out too if you want. Hey, maybe there’ll be more girls at Zirky’s wanting to get laid. Why stop at one?” She pulled on her boots, grabbed her coat and walked out, slamming the door, her feet pounding on the metal grid of the stairs. She walked through the foggy air until her brain was too numb to think any more. Coming home, she refused to speak to him, then slept on the couch and left early the next day, creeping out in the dark and leaving a terse note on the bench saying she was driving back to Bairnsdale. She’d think things over and talk to him on the weekend. His calls and messages were left unanswered. By Friday, Clare’s mind was made up; there was only one real option. This was not a new situation for her. She had grown up in the shadow of her father’s affairs and repeated remorse and her mother’s grief and humiliation. Infidelity was a deal-breaker. She would look at Andy’s stricken face and not weaken. Heading for the mountains, she drove through flat paddocks flecked with sheep and punctuated with dead river gums. The sun slipped beyond the purple hills and the air turned mauve with dusk. She could feel the chill through the car window despite the purr of the heater. She turned off the highway to the lonely stretch of road that would take her up the mountain. On one side was a steep drop to a rocky river, icy cold from the melted snow of its source. She knew the road so well; she could drive fast, music thumping through the speakers. One of their favourite songs came on; she had to skip to another track. She didn’t want memories of when they were so happy. Shit! Slow down! She wrenched the wheel to the left, going too fast into a sharp turn, braking hard. She couldn’t figure out why the car wasn’t responding, at first, then realised – she was in the gravel. The vehicle slewed sideways and she saw a white post flash past in the gloom as the car skidded over the edge with jolting, tumbling confusion and screeches of metal. Then silence. She opened her eyes and blinked. In the dim light she could see trees and a hint of sky. The car had landed right way up. She could move her arms and legs, but her feet felt strange. She wriggled her toes. They were icy cold – and wet. The car shifted beneath her, with a loud grinding noise. Was she dreaming? Her eyelids drooped shut; she felt numb with shock. Surely this would all just go away in a minute. Then someone was shouting – “Get out! Get out!” – and she blinked her eyes open with a start. A contorted face appeared at the window like a ghoul in a horror movie, making her jump with fright, but it was a young man. A frightened one. She could see his fists thumping at the window. “Get out – now! The car’s going in the river.” His panic was contagious. She unclipped her seatbelt but the door was stuck. The car moved with more shudders and slow, ear-splitting grinding. She forced her shoulder hard against the door and it swung open with a screech of metal. She fell out, then crawled over slippery rocks through the icy slush. Somehow, she ended up on the river bank, grasping handfuls of mud. He must have helped her climb the bank, because seconds later they were sitting on the edge, watching as the car was dragged into the current. It rolled over like a grotesque metal whale and lodged against a pile of rocks downstream with three remaining wheels poking up like rubber flippers. His outline was dim in the gloom. “Are you okay? You went too fast around the corner. Didn’t you hear me tell you to slow down?” “I had music up loud,” she said. No, wait. She did hear something. But the voice had been in her head. “Who are you?” She shivered. “I’m Damien. That’s my mum’s house up there.” She could see lights through the trees. “Can you walk? Mum will help you. You’ll be able to use her phone to call Andy.” “Yes, I can walk. How do you know about Andy? Do I know you?” Her head ached; she couldn’t think straight. “Come on,” he said, turning to walk towards the lights. She followed him and managed to stumble and crawl up the steep hill and across the deserted road. “Go and knock on the door.” He walked away into the gloom. “And fix it up with him. Life’s too short.” “But wait. How do you . . .?” He had gone. She was alone in the dark and a curtain of fatigue was about to fall and take her down with it. She had to get inside. She scrunched across the damp gravel and knocked on the door, shivering in the warm light that spilled out when it opened. “Damien sent me. I crashed the car.” The grey-haired woman stared at her for a moment. “Oh! You poor girl! Come in where it’s warm.” Clare was led to a couch in front of an open fire. “I’m Shirley, Damien’s mother. Are you hurt?” “Just a bit bruised, I think. The car’s in the river, but I’m okay, thanks to Damien.” Clare looked up at a framed photograph of a smiling dark-haired boy above the fireplace. “That’s a nice photo of him. I’m sure I’ve seen it before . . .” “Yes, it is.” The older woman bustled around with blankets, towels and a glass of water. “Here you are, dear. You need to strip all your wet clothes off and put on this dressing gown.” “He got me out of the car before it went into the river. He saved my life.” Shirley paused, and turned her face away from Clare. “That’s good. That’s very good. He does what he can. You get changed and I’ll put the kettle on.” She left the room. It was raining hard now and the wind swooshed through the trees. The fire flickered and danced. It was peaceful in the cosy cottage. Shirley returned with a phone and Clare left a message for Andy, describing what had happened and where she was. “Where’s Damien?” “He’s around. You might see him later. He comes and goes.” The two women sat in silence. Clare leaned her head against the soft cushions of the couch. She was so, so tired. Damien seemed to be a bit of an oddball – he must be a real loner. She was so lucky he’d been outside and had seen her car go over the edge. The firelight glowed and shimmered. “Tell me about Andy,” Shirley said into the silence. “Are you married?” “We were going to get married. But now . . . we’re not.” Clare wiped sudden tears away. “Sorry,” she whispered. “Don’t apologise to me for crying,” Shirley said. “I’ve cried more tears than you could ever imagine. Do you want to talk about it?” The story of love and betrayal was murmured into the quiet room. “I can’t forgive him. I lived through it with my parents. Infidelity ruined my mother’s life; she kept putting on a brave face and waiting for my father to change – he never did. When she died from breast cancer, I had to track him down at his latest girlfriend’s place to tell him she’d gone. Bastard! I’m not going to live like that.” Shirley patted her hand. “I’m so sorry to hear about all that, but you and Andy are not your parents, Clare. You have your own lives to build together, and the chance to see if you can create something special and unique. It sounds like you really love him. Are you sure you want to throw it all away for one mistake?” “I just don’t understand how he could betray me like that. I thought we were a team. I’ve never looked at another man, since the moment I saw him. He smiled at me that day and I knew he was the one. Well, I thought he was, until now. I gave him everything – I trusted him.” “Trust,” considered Shirley. “Maybe trust is just ignorance. You met your handsome prince and trusted he would make life smooth for you. Then you found out he’s just a human being, after all. A flawed one – as most of us are.” “He said it won’t happen again. But how can I believe him?” “You can’t. Not yet. But maybe he can prove it to you, with time – or maybe he can’t. But isn’t it worth finding out? Life is hard, Clare, but love is precious. You need to be strong for the long haul together. Don’t give up at the first hurdle.” “Yeah, well, he hasn’t even rung back,” Clare said. “Where is he when I need him? Out chatting up some other girl? Maybe he just doesn’t love me anymore and he’s too gutless to tell me.” Her words were still hanging in the room when there was a sharp knock on the door. Shirley rushed to open and it. A tall man with damp, tousled hair and shadows under anxious eyes was standing on the doorstep. “I’m looking for Clare. Is she here?” “Through there,” Shirley said, and he raced past her and dropped to his knees in front of the couch. “Thank god … are you alright?” He searched her face. “I couldn’t call. I left my phone behind – I just grabbed some things and bolted for the car. You said you were okay, but I’ve been so worried . . . Then I couldn’t find the house, but some young bloke out there sent me here.” He sat on the couch and pulled her to him, and she buried her face in the familiar comfort of his fleecy jacket. “I wrecked the car. I’m so sorry.” “Stuff the car. It doesn’t matter. I felt so scared and sick when I heard your message. When I thought about what could have happened …” Shirley left the room as they murmured to each other, heads close together, hands interlinked. “Let’s go home,” she heard Clare say. The two women hugged when they said goodbye. “I’m so grateful to you,” Clare said. “But where’s Damien? I need to thank him. I can’t believe what he did. He just appeared from nowhere and saved me.” “I’ll tell him when I see him next,” Shirley said. “Good luck to you both. Now remember what we talked about. Life is precious – think about what you have.” Clare’s knees were trembling with exhaustion by the time Andy helped her into the car and put a blanket over her. “I know this doesn’t change what I did.” He started the ignition. “I’m not taking anything for granted.” “Let’s talk tomorrow. Right now, I’m just grateful I’m still here.” “You and me both.” He touched her face lightly, then put the car in gear. They drove carefully around a sharp turn just a few kilometres up the hill. The headlights lit up a roadside shrine. A white cross was decorated with fresh flowers and a photograph of a smiling, dark-haired young man. “That cross has been there for years, but someone always puts fresh flowers there,” Andy said. “It’s so sad. He looks like a nice young guy. He reminds me of someone . . . I can’t think who, though.” Clare breathed in sharply. “That’s him!” “Who?” “It is him. No – that’s not possible! Unless . . . am I dreaming?” She pressed her forehead. “You’re probably in shock.” Andy glanced at her anxiously. “It can take a while to hit you. We’re going straight to the medical centre when we get up the mountain. You’ve made a mess of the car, but you’re okay – thank god, unlike that poor guy back there. What a waste of a life . . .” He shook his head. “I’m so confused, Andy. I can’t think straight.” “You don’t need to think about anything except that you’re safe and I’m looking after you.” He rubbed her thigh with his hand. “We’ll get you checked out and then you need a good night’s sleep. I’ll get the car collected tomorrow. Here, I brought something in case you needed sustenance.” He handed her a hip flask. “It’s Bundy and Coke. I know you still love the stuff.” “You probably need the sustenance, after all this drama. Where’s your flask?” “I only grabbed one.” “We can share, if you like.” The trees flickering past in the headlights were hypnotic. Her eyelids drooped shut. “Not a total waste,” Damien whispered, drifting into the wind. ### Thank you for reading my story. If you liked it, I’d really appreciate it if you wrote a quick review. To keep in touch with my latest news, follow me on Facebook or visit my website. I’d love to hear from you. Best regards, Maggie McGuinness ***NEWS FLASH*** My first full-length novel has been published. Planet Single is available at your favorite retailer now! Read on for a sneak peek . . . Connect with me: Facebook: Website and Blog: Smashwords author page: About the author: Maggie McGuinness lives in Melbourne, Australia, and has two teenage children and an Australian cattle dog called Missy. With the help of Smashwords, she’s hoping to live the dream (that is, spend less time editing other people’s writing and more time doing her own). Maggie is a Zumba fanatic, extreme gardener and chocolate connoisseur. She is also an online dating tragic, who has been on 97 first dates over the past 10 years or so. (That’s right, 97! Crazy, hey?) She has stalled a bit on the dating front these days, being too busy writing and editing stuff, but is still hoping to get to first date #100. Will she make it to a century? Stay tuned! Read Maggie’s Smashwords interview at: Planet Single – Sneak peek! About Planet Single Bad kissers, sexy sales reps, charismatic conmen and dashing detectives – welcome to life on Planet Single! Being single again makes Katerina feel like she’s on a different planet. If only she’d had time to gather a few essentials, like a guide book, some fancy lingerie and a much thicker skin. Things have certainly changed. Was looking for love always this complicated? Kat sets off on a quest to rediscover herself and her lost libido, which went missing some time ago. Setting off into the rocky landscape of her new life, she encounters other inhabitants of her crazy new world, including a succession of dodgy online dates, a handsome detective, a little old lady with a taste for vengeance, and a whole tribe of young and virile workmates (who knew stationery could be so sexy?) Okay. Perhaps that libido isn’t lost after all. This sparkling debut novel from Maggie McGuinness celebrates love, laughter, starting over – and how friendship can be the sweetest revenge. Here’s Chapter 1 for you to sample: Chapter 1 – Shot into orbit The night I landed on Planet Single, I had no idea I was about to blast off from the familiar married landscape and land in a strange, alternative reality. If I’d known, I could have packed a few essentials like some nicer undies, a dating guide book and a much thicker skin, but I didn’t have the chance. I was dumped – defenceless – into a strange new world that looked quite like the old one, but was so, so different. The night had started like many others. My two sons were in their bedrooms. Angus should have been asleep but was probably plugged into his iPod. Ben had homework but I could hear some stifled laughs. He was either on YouTube again or calculus was more amusing than I remembered. My husband, Neville, was watching a DVD – his favourite documentary on the mating ritual of Leopard slugs, which involves hanging upside-down with glow-in-the dark genitalia and an awful lot of mucus. For the slugs, that is, not Neville. That documentary fascinated him, which I found quite interesting, as he’d never been very inspired by the human type of ritual. Anyway, with all that slug-porn going on I knew he’d barely notice my absence, so I ditched the washing up and grabbed my coat to go for a walk. I often paced the streets at night and I didn’t mind bad weather – it gave me an excuse to wear my hooded raincoat. This became a cocoon I could hide in, lost in my own world, while raindrops splattered on the oilskin in a soothing rhythm. I liked the invisibility of walking when the slick, black streets were empty. I printed ‘Gone For A Walk’ in big letters on Neville’s Daily Schedule Whiteboard (he liked things to be capitalised), and shut the door softly behind me. It was beautifully cold outside, and I gulped the fresh, damp air like a drunk at a cocktail party and set off. While I walked, I used the muted backdrop of the night to watch a movie playing in my head – written by me, starring me. I often did this. I’d create another life for myself – full of passion and sexy adventures. I’d be an adventurer in an exotic location where I’d meet an exotic man. The sexual chemistry between us would flare up like one of the saucepans I had a bad habit of setting on fire, to my spouse’s annoyance. To go into my fantasy world, I only had to select a storyline in my head, like reaching for a book on a shelf. It made a nice break from Neville and his daily recitations of things I hadn’t done properly. I squelched through the door an hour later to find my husband in the kitchen. Strange! I thought he would have been cloistered in his study by now, crooning to one of his beloved spreadsheets, but there he was – sitting under the fluorescent light with two coffees on the table. I waited to be criticised over the greasy pans I’d abandoned in the sink, but he just sat there, with his thick, grey hair perfectly in place, like a giant pad of steel wool on top of his head. I noticed how grey and long his eyebrows were these days. Is it only men whose eyebrows sprout at a certain age? I wondered what my eyebrows looked like, as I hadn’t scrutinised them for a long time. I didn’t study myself in a mirror often, just a quick glance in the mornings as I tied back my curly hair and slapped cheap moisturiser on my face. I was lucky I had good skin – Neville had a fit if I spent much on toiletries. “Thanks for the coffee.” I slid into a chair while quickly trying to gauge my eyebrow length with my fingertips. Neville took his glasses off, blinked, and put them on again. “There’s something I have to tell you.” Oh, no. He’d probably devised a new compost roster. I imagined the boys rolling their eyes and saying, “Yes, Dad.” “Okay, go for it.” I tried to sound enthusiastic. He sniffed. This was odd – Neville hated it when people sniffed. “Well, Katherine . . .” He cleared his throat. “It’s not something I thought I’d ever have to say.” He fiddled with the crumbs on the table and lined them up a row, using the edge of the coaster to make sure they were straight. Also odd. He couldn’t stand it when people fidgeted. While he rounded up an errant crumb, my concentration began to wane. I was impatient to shower and go to bed, so I could lie in the dark and get back to the current storyline. It involved a gorgeous, sensitive hero, who hated slugs and had neat eyebrows. “Well, let me guess.” I stifled a yawn. “You’ve realised you want to be a woman? Oh, I know! You’re having an affair with a twenty-year-old lap dancer called Sharee!” I giggled at my own wit. The thought of sedate Neville hanging out at a strip joint was pretty funny. He started talking, but it took a while for the words to sink in. “Yes, an affair . . . Christine. Forty-five actually . . . canteen manager . . .” “Canteen manager?” I snapped back to reality. “Not the Christine? Corporal Christine at the boys’ school?” He nodded. I was gobsmacked. I knew the Corporal. She barked at me whenever I was dragged in to do canteen duty when I scorched the party pies and mangled the hot dogs. She was a stout woman, with a no-nonsense bosom, who organised the canteen with military precision and loved to reminisce about her glorious army days. “I didn’t mean this to happen, but I think Christine might be The One.” A strange, dreamy look appeared on his face, and the moment was so surreal I almost laughed. “But Neville, that’s so . . . interesting! It’s the least boring thing you’ve done in fifteen years!” I was babbling – dizzy with shock. I’d never thought Neville capable of passion or spontaneity. “You don’t have to hide behind sarcastic humour,” he said. “You’ve always had intimacy avoidance issues. Please focus on reality. And – I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you and turn our lives upside down. It just happened. On Dads’ Day in the canteen I stayed back to help reorganise the pantry and, well, I think Christine and I are soul mates.” What? This was so unlike Neville it jolted me out of my paralysis. “Soul mates? Fucking hell! That’s not fair!” “Please don’t swear, Katherine. And besides, life isn’t fair. You know that.” “Don’t you ‘life isn’t fair’ me! I’m not talking about life; I’m talking about us. We got married, remember? I wore a frock like a sequinned meringue, and you wore a brown suit and new shoes with ‘Help!’ written on the soles by your hilarious accountant mates. It’s not fair because the one interesting thing you’ve ever done in our marriage just squashed it. It’s not fair because I’m the one who was supposed to be unhappy – not you. How dare you turn out to be unhappier than me and then waltz off and get bloody . . . interesting!” My voice was getting higher and louder. I didn’t usually raise my voice and it felt strange – like I was trying to sing opera. “Shhh!” Neville whispered. “The boys will hear! But, what do you mean you were unhappy? You never told me.” “I did!” I whispered back. “You never listened! You always had your head pointed at the TV or the computer. When I said I was bored you told me to try cooking classes. I meant I was bored with you, Neville. I couldn’t fix that by learning deft tricks with couscous. I was the one who was bored and resentful, not you. I was the one who should have had an affair. How dare you be unfaithful before I was!” I was sounding a bit peculiar with my enraged whispering. And during my rant, without noticing, I’d grabbed the newspaper on the table, ripped it into confetti and flung handfuls in the air. Some of the pieces were still floating gently back to earth. I looked around the kitchen and spotted Neville’s masterpiece – the Household Duties Roster – on the fridge. I marched over and yanked it off the door, sending fridge magnets clattering in all directions. “And I’ve hated this bloody thing for years as well,” I hissed. “But did I run off with the milkman? Or even get a job? No! I did the stay-at-home mumsy-wife thing like you wanted, despite being so bored for so long I thought my brain might turn to mush and drip out my nose. And now I learn that you and the Corporal are floating each other’s anal-retentive boats and sailing down Soul Mate River. It’s not fucking fair!” It was an interesting sensation, letting anger boil over after all those years on slow simmer, even at a whisper level. I’d tried for so long to be the sort of wife Neville wanted. When we’d first got together I’d liked his approach to life – his lists, his planning, his restraint. I didn’t so much like his fussiness and zero tolerance for take-away food, but love could solve everything, couldn’t it? Now, standing there in the kitchen under the shuddering green-tinged light, I wanted to take my young self and slap her. I had learned love’s limits. Now I knew that whatever annoys you a little bit when your love is shiny and new annoys you ten times more with every year that passes, until your bubbling frustration threatens to make your skull explode and your brain fizz out like an ice-cream soda. It wasn’t all Neville’s fault; I really should come clean about that. I used to crave the orderly lifestyle he offered, but it gradually began to suffocate me, creeping up like ivy through a gum tree and strangling me with subtle force. I’d been in denial about this for years, but the real me wasn’t Neville’s sort of person at all. The real me liked being spontaneous, relaxed and not very organised and was usually running ten minutes late for everything – more like my mother than I wanted to admit. I’d tried hard for years to be different to her, and had married her complete opposite, but I’d made a bad decision. One of Mother’s favourite sayings, which I’d always liked, popped into my head. “It’s too late,” she cried, as she waved her wooden leg! It had always annoyed Neville. “Who is she?” he would grumble. “What wooden leg? Your mother’s quite demented, you know.” This, from a man with a phobia of constipation and a cupboard full of laxatives to prove it. They were both as mad as cut snakes, but at least Mother was more fun. Neville wasn’t a bad man. That was the problem – he was just on the reasonable side of intolerable. The fact that he’d done a PhD in Tedious Behaviour, majoring in Annoying Habits, wasn’t a reason to break up a family, so I’d stayed. I loved my sons, and being a mother, but as the boys grew older and the marriage staggered from one year to the next I felt like a sort of robot-mum. I’d been programmed to be the tidy wife who ran the house in an orderly fashion, but the core of me – the passion, the joy, the capacity to laugh till I cried – had gone. I think it was packed away in one of those plastic storage bags you suck the air out of with a vacuum cleaner. Neville was staring at me. I’d ripped the roster into pieces and thrown it in the air as well. I’d just learned that severe stress turned me into a human confetti machine. A few flakes landed on my nose and others wafted to the floor. “We don’t have milkmen these days,” he said, literal to the bloody end. “I suppose we’ll have to get a divorce.” “Yes. I’m truly sorry, Katherine. Please believe that.” “I’m not Katherine.” Neville had been amending my name for years. He reckoned his version was more sensible than the fanciful name my whacko mother had chosen. (His words, not mine.) As you might guess, Neville and Mother didn’t get along. In retaliation to Katherine, she always called him The Accountant, which was a bit unfair as he’d become a financial advisor now. I knew it was ridiculous that I’d let him change my name but, if you knew him, you’d understand. Once he got an idea in his head he was like a bull terrier attached to your ankle – he never let go. So, for many years I’d been Katherine, but now I was getting my name back. “My name’s Katerina,” I said, liking the way it felt on my tongue. “I understand you’re upset and I’m expecting a period of adjustment. We’ll talk some more tomorrow. Can I get you anything? A glass of port?” Incredible! Normally I’d be in trouble for drinking alcohol late at night. I’d sneak Bailey’s Irish Cream into a mug and pretend it was chocolate Quik. “No thank you, I need some time alone,” I hissed as I stalked past, with bits of paper on my shoulders like giant flakes of dandruff. “Of course. I’ll bunk in the spare room until we get things sorted out. Okay, Katherine?” I stared at him. “I mean . . . Katerina?” “Too fucking right,” I said, enjoying the fact that he hated me swearing. I went to our bedroom – my bedroom now – and sat on the bed, looking out at the rain dropping like shiny bullets in the light of the street lamp.


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