Moving Pictures, part 1 of 3
Thursday 14th June 1990
Helen carefully laid out the finished food upon the two plates which she then placed on the middle shelf of the oven, feeling the heat prickling the skin on her face. Before closing the oven door, she stared at the food there. The spiced chicken, the blanched green beans, the lightly boiled sweetcorn cobs, the crisp baked potatoes and the cheese and garlic sauce. She had felt a moment of pride, well, satisfaction at a job well done when she had finished cooking the meal. For once everything had turned out the way she had planned, there had been no last-minute accidents, no over cooked food to vie with under cooked food and nothing had stuck to the pans. In frustration, she slammed the oven door. In half an hour's time the food would be dry and tasteless, the meal would be ruined.
Helen stood up and tucked a loose strand of hair back into the French plait, which she was wearing her corn blonde tresses in tonight. The kitchen window reflected back her image. It confirmed what she had been intending: her hair was worn in the style Paul always said was his favourite. Her white blouse was new, but her black cotton slacks were not, even though they were her best pair. It was the image she had been striving for – smart, but still welcoming. She had skipped her afternoon lecture today - she could copy up Stella’s notes later she’d reasoned - and left college shortly before lunch, collecting everything she need for tonight on her way home.
Helen dug her hands into the pockets of her pants and walked out of the kitchen and into the dimly-lit sitting room. The room was lit only by the two wall lights - she’d turned off the main light, intending to create a romantic feeling by having the room mainly lit by candles. She hadn't bothered to light the two white candles on the dining table yet, and now she was glad she hadn't. She didn’t want the candles burning away as she waited for him.
Paul had always been the one to be romantic, even after their marriage. He was the one who had given her small and often silly presents, taking pleasure in her delight. When she had tried to reciprocate, it had lacked the spontaneity of Paul's presents. She had always given hers in reply to one of Paul's gifts. The stream of gifts had dried up and finally stopped a long time ago now. Of late, their relationship had seemed to slow down and dry up too. More and more, the silences between them could fill a whole evening. Their sole topic of conversation now seemed to be what each of them had done that day. And then, it was often just a brief explanation. More and more, Paul had been working later, coming home late two or three nights a week. Paul had never previously spent so much extra time at work - he would always rush home to her. Now he seemed to spend so much time at work, only saying it was necessary to gain a promotion. But she missed him more and more the, more time he spent away from her. Was this promotion worth all this?
Helen turned away from the window. Even in daylight she couldn't have seen his car approaching the house. The house had a screen of fir trees hiding it from the road on which it sat. They had moved here over seven years ago, just two years after they married, and she was still working for the Builders Merchants as a secretary. They had viewed it excitedly together when it had been empty under the watchful eye of the little estate agent. They had walked from room to room, excitedly imagining what it would look like fully furnished.
Now the house was so quiet she could only hear the creaking the central heating always made. She slowly walked over to the room's stereo. Music was what she needed, or least some sort of noise. After a moment searching, she found a CD of soulful ballads and placed that on the CD tray. Moments later the room was filled with sad singing voices.
Paul was now two hours late. Once that would have been unusual without one of Paul's customary hurried phone call, giving his excuse. Now it was almost the norm. The idea of this meal had been Sarah’s, one of her new friends at college, and had been backed up by Craig, the pale young man in the bookshop, the week before. Though cooking was never her strong skill, Helen had quietly agreed with them and had planned this meal as a surprise for Paul. Except telling Paul about it had sabotaged her attempt at a romantic evening.
At first, she had denied even the presence of that hair. A single short, white blonde hair caught on the collar of Paul's dark suit. It wasn’t a long corn blonde hair like hers, and neither was it one of Paul's curly brown hairs. While loading the washing machine she had found Paul's black sweater with several of those hairs on the shoulder. Over the next week she found those hairs gracing two more pieces of Paul's clothing. She didn’t find any lipstick or make-up stains, no tell-tale whiffs of perfume, no unexplainable marks on his body, but there were those hairs. More and more she thought Paul was having an affair, but her only evidence were those hairs. How could she confront him with so little evidence? How could she confront him and not sound like a crazy woman?
Was Paul's affair the reason for the distance now between them, or did the distance lead to the affair? Over the past two weeks she had almost been driving herself crazy with those thoughts. But neither could she bring herself to ask Paul about it. What would she do if he was having an affair?
Once she had tried imaging her rival. Tall, shapely figured, carefully and strikingly dressed, settled in a well-paid job, and that head of short blonde sculpted hair. She always left the image there; its reality was too painful for her to consider.
Helen dropped down onto the sofa, dropped her head back on the cushions there and closed her eyes. She had not told anyone her fears - they always sounded so stupid to her - a handful of white hairs and she was sure he was having an affair - but she knew he was. Neither could she just abandon her marriage without a fight. Their relationship had been so good. It had been Paul who, two years ago, had been there for her when the Builder's Merchant had gone bankrupt, leaving her unemployed. He had encouraged her to return to college to pursue a degree. She hadn’t the chance to go onto university when she left school. She’d had to get a job at eighteen - her father demanded it. He had been there when she’d been making the adjustment to being a student, with all the new and different pressures she’d never experienced before. That was before that distance had opened up between them.
Ever since she lost her job, her mother had been nagging her about why she wasn't "starting a family". By the time her mother was her age, she’d already had two children. All she could say to her mother was that neither Paul nor she were ready for children, an excuse her mother never accepted. Now she was glad they had put it off.
Slowly, Helen lay down on her side on the sofa and curled her legs up under herself. The idea of just drifting off to sleep, allowing the thoughts to drain from her mind and be replaced by dreams was becoming more and more appealing. She closed her eyes. The idea behind tonight’s meal had been to show Paul what he was missing, to make him jealous of what he could lose. It had failed because of Paul himself. Without knowing it, he had sabotaged it all. She felt angry at it all, and her foolishness playing along with it all. She lay there a long moment just hoping for sleep.