The Replacement Wife (part one - Rebecca - II.)
By Juliet OC
II. Never have I been so desperate to return to work. The Christmas holidays were a wash out as predicted. My brother, Darren, was clearly stoned the whole time and banging on about how the council were watching him using invisible CCTV cameras. Dad spent most of the day in the pub and Mum went straight back to bed after dinner. I barely saw Sara and my other friends were all in relationships, or worse married. One even announced she was pregnant and I had to pretend to be delighted. So much for the ‘sex in the city’ lifestyle I had envisaged on finishing university and moving as far in to the centre as I could afford and as faraway from my grubby past as possible.
It was only the thought of seeing Flynn that stopped me topping myself or becoming a hopeless alcoholic. He’d told me that Madeleine and he were going to Sardinia for Christmas. Apparently they never spent it in the UK. One year they went to Jamaica and stayed in the same resort as Rod Stewart. Not that I was hankering after pensioner Rod, but it just sounded so glamorous. She was living the life I’d always wanted. It was so not fair. Why were the best ones always taken?
I spent most of my days spying at him from behind my computer screen. Like a sad stalker, I could describe his mannerisms in ridiculous detail; how he always ran his hands through his hair when he was thinking and when he was on the phone how he drummed the fingers of his left hand on the desk.
When we did talk, which I made sure occurred at least once every day, he didn’t mention his wife much and I found myself increasingly curious to know what she was like. One thing I did find out was that she was his second wife. This revelation depressed me for days because it meant it was unlikely he was in a loveless marriage and about to get divorced. I knew I would have to find my happy-ever-after elsewhere, but I couldn’t stop obsessing.
“Or you could have an affair,” Sara said, in Nico’s on our regular Friday night drinks.
“Says you!” I wagged my finger at her. “Have you forgotten how it ended with Craig? His wife turned up at reception, remember, and called you a… what was it?”
“The sex was incredible though.” She grinned at me.
“Sara!” I slapped her hand. “Anyway I am not sure I could go for a man who cheated on his wife.”
“Not even if they were only together for the sake of the children?”
“Flynn doesn’t have children.”
“Well something like that then. A marriage of convenience say?”
“We don’t live in the nineteenth century. You loon. And anyway I could never respect a man that could do that to the woman he says he loves.”
“And has he said he loves her?”
“Madeleine? I guess. He doesn’t talk about her much.”
“Exactly. If he was in love with her he would talk about her all the time. The fact he doesn’t is a major green light.”
“Do you really think so?”
“I know so,” she said, nodding. Her eyebrows disappearing under her newly cut fringe, which I had yet to get used to, but Rob apparently, loved.
“I don’t know Sar. We’re just friends.”
“Who fancy each other,” she butted in.
“No. I have a mahoosive crush on him…” I paused, remembering the double take he’d given me this morning. I was wearing a tartan skirt that ended mid-thigh and showed off my long legs, elongated with black tights and black heels. “But that doesn’t mean anything. After all I am hot.”
“Not as hot as me girlfriend,” Sara retorted predictably, prompting the persistent thought which had been popping up far too frequently since my twenty-fifth birthday that if this was all there was, I wasn’t sure it was enough.
“Believe me Sar, unless his wife is about to drop down dead then it’s going nowhere. This is his second marriage. You would hope he got it right second time round. Anyway, you’re supposed to be distracting me not making it worse. Tell me about Rob’s uni friend. Carter, isn’t it? My type?”
Sat at Flynn’s desk the following Friday afternoon, I could see the whole of the floor through the half-glass walls. I gulped as I realised my desk was in full view. Had he seen me staring dreamily in his direction? He’d removed the blinds his predecessor had kept permanently closed on his first day, prompting Maggie to remark in the kitchen on more than one occasion that she found it unnerving.
“Like he doesn’t trust us.”
“He’s not like that,” I said, jumping to his defence. “He just wants everyone to feel part of the team and for us not treat him as different.”
She blinked at me through her round glasses. “You’re not sweet on him, are you?”
“Don’t be silly,” I said, turning to face the wall. “He’s married.”
“And very happily from what I can gather,” she said, pointedly.
Since I’d been in his office, she’d walked past the door at least three times. Her interest in him and me was a bit creepy, but there was nothing to hide. Flynn had never given me any real indication he was interested. I was just glad to be in his orbit and hoped he saw us as friends. Sara said I should invite him for Friday drinks, but he was one of the Senior Management Team and none of them came over to Nico’s. But then again he wasn’t like the rest of the stuffy suits on SMT and the fact he could have got Eric to show me the new exams software, but chose to do it himself had to mean something. Maybe I would mention Nico’s? What harm would it do?
I completed the steps he’d shown me for the motor vehicle department. After Malcolm retired last summer and I was made up to Exams officer, I’d never been taken seriously until now. Flynn had really listened to me when I’d explained in our first proper meeting just after New Year that I didn’t have a way of tracking which staff had inputted the data, and no easy way of verifying whether the entries were complete for a particular qualification.
“You learn fast,” he said, setting off a shiver down my spine.
“Thank you.” I leant back in the chair and rubbed my neck, swivelling it around so I could see his face.
He was leaning against the windowsill without a tie, as always; a small rebellion against corporate culture. Rebels always attracted me.
“Oh, I nearly forgot, I’ve got that book for you,” he said.
“Oh goody. I told Sara what you said about the film being Disneyfied rubbish – she said you must have a heart of stone if you didn’t cry at the end.”
“No. I just have taste. Believe me the ending is so much more poignant in the novel. I am surprised Louis De Berniere let them get away with it, but then I bet he was offered shed loads of money.”
“Is it a good time to tell you I am a mahoosive rom-com fan?”
“Please. Tell me you’re joking.”
“The old ones are the best. You’ve got mail. When Harry met Sally.”
“Oh yes. I lurrvve that one.”
“I am more a Tarantino fan,” he said, a bemused smile on his lips.
My nose scrunched up. “Far too violent for me.”
“You should start with something like True Romance. The violence is supposed to be over the top, cartoon like, slapstick. He’s a genius.”
“Does your wife like them?”
“Madeleine?” His brow furrowed. “Yes. Pulp Fiction is her favourite. Although she is even worse than me about films - but then being an English teacher she is bound to be a literary snob.”
“An English teacher, wow. She must be very clever.”
“I guess,” he said. “She had a privileged childhood. You know the kind of thing - dinner at seven around the dining table with decanted wine and napkins - not tea at five in front of the telly like me.”
“I was lucky if I got tea,” I said, the back of my neck prickling as it always did remembering my childhood.
“We’ll have to trade stories sometime. I knew we had a lot of common as soon as we met.”
I shook my head biting on my lower lip. “My story’s not worth telling, believe me.”
“I’ll be the judge of that. I think there’s a lot going on beneath your serene exterior, Rebecca.”
Serene! I had never been described in that way before.
“Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t,” I said, which had sounded mysterious in my head, but just sounded vague and flaky out loud? Luckily Flynn’s iPhone vibrated on the desk by my hand before I could make it worse. It was Madeleine. Could she sense a threat to her marriage, like when your ears burn when someone is talking about you?
“Do you want me to leave?” I said, as he leant over to pick it up, his arm rubbing against my shoulder. He shook his head and turned towards the window to answer.
“Hi my darling. No. I hadn’t forgotten. Where are you?”
His childhood sounded similar to mine, but the difference was he’d moved up whereas I was stuck drowning in student debt and living in a bedsit over a Chinese restaurant.
“I’ll meet you at the entrance, but I won’t be able to leave straight away. It’s enrolment and I’m duty manager.” He turned and raised an eyebrow at me. “Whatever works for you. What news? OK. I’ll wait. Is it good news? Maddie? Madeleine?” He looked at the phone and shook his head. “Tunnel.” He slipped the phone into his trouser pocket.
“And there I was about to invite you over to Nico’s for Friday drinks, but it looks like you’ve got plans - although your wife would be welcome too.”
“We’ve got a restaurant booked. A new fish place in Covent Garden, else I would. But that sounds like a plan for the future.”
“What? To take over the world… or just to come for drinks?”
He picked up on my reference to his favourite cartoon. “Maybe both, Pinky. Maybe both.” But then his face darkened.
“Everything all right?” I realised for the first time that he didn’t have a photo of his wife anywhere in his office.
He rubbed the side of his jaw. His forehead settled into the lines that were always visible even when he smiled. “Yes. I think so. She said she had some news, but I lost her. I’m sure it’s nothing. Anyway, where were we?”
“All done,” I said, nodding at the computer screen. “It’s really easy to use. Exactly what I needed. Thank you.”
“You need to thank Eric.”
“Yes, but if you hadn’t listened to me then Eric would never have developed it.”
He nodded, but his attention was elsewhere. Whatever the news Madeleine had to tell him, it had clearly unsettled him. I stood up and smoothed the creases from my pencil skirt.
“Are you working late as well?” he said, as he strode across the office and grabbed his jacket from the back of the door pulling a paperback out of the inside pocket.
“No. It’s not my turn. I did the August enrolment. Sara will keep you company.”
“You two are always giggling over something.”
“She’s so outrageous that’s why.”
“She’s certainly good value,” he said, seeming to recover himself. It crossed my mind that his wife’s news might be that she was pregnant. “The other day I convinced her the government had banned scarves because of the flu risk.”
I put the dark thought from my mind. “I know. She told me. She still believes it you know. Didn’t matter what I said. I gave up in the end. She thinks you know everything.”
“Yeah right.” I put my hand on my hip. Could I bear to coo over baby photos on his iPhone. Damnation. I so hoped I was wrong and the news was she’d been shagging the tennis coach and was leaving him. Not that she really had a tennis coach. Or maybe she did?
He pulled a serious face, unaware of my treacherous thoughts. “And tomorrow Pinky, I’m gonna take over the world.”
I nodded towards the paperback in his hand. “Is that the book?”
“Yes. Sorry it’s a bit battered. It’s been across Europe and back.”
He handed it to me. The cover was soft and smooth like cloth. “I’ll let you know what I think.”
Maggie waved at me through the glass, a smirk on her face. “I’d better let you get on - and I have date with a large glass of white wine.”
“Not red?” he said, pulling on his jacket.
“Red gives me a headache.”
“You’re not drinking the right sort.”
“Your shirt collar… it’s caught up.” I reached out and tucked it under the edge of the lapel. His hand came up and his fingers brushed mine. A tingle ran up my arm and into my chest. “You’ll have to educate me,” I murmured, my heart fluttering.
“You’re on,” he agreed.
I stepped away from him. “You have a good weekend, Flynn.”
“And you,” he said. “Any plans?”
“Drinks in Nico’s tonight and then I’m meeting up with some friends of Sara’s on Saturday. No doubt it will get messy.”
“I can’t remember the last time I got messy,” he said, sounding wistful.
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Hangovers definitely get worse the older you get.”
“That’s true.” He studied me intently. “You remind me a little of Maddie,” he said, and then added almost to himself, “from before.”
“Before what?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No nothing. You’ll get to meet her at some point.”
“I’d like that,” I said, even more curious to know what she was like now.
Monday morning arrived far too quickly. The tube was hot and stuffy despite the arctic blast above ground. Still hungover from Saturday night (not that Carter turned out to be anything special) I considered calling in sick. But Sara’s announcement on Friday, after she’d finished up at the college, had plagued my thoughts ever since. It would explain why there was no photo of her on his desk and what he had meant by ‘before’ when he’d said I looked like Madeleine.
Flynn didn’t arrive until gone ten, which was not like him. He went straight into his office and was on the phone every time I looked up. Sara and I had lunch in the canteen. It was cheaper than Nico’s and we were both broke. When I returned, the first floor was empty except for Flynn. He was at his desk with his head pressed into his hands, like he’d just received terrible news. Something was clearly wrong. I plonked my handbag on my chair and marched towards his office tapping on the half open door.
“Yes. Come in.” The cheerful note in his voice was forced.
I pushed on the door. “You all right, boss?” The sun was low and it cut a slice across the room. The grey carpet tiles took on a luminous hue like they weren’t solid, and if I stepped on one I would fall through the building.
Flynn rubbed his hands over his forehead and through his hair. He smiled, but the corner of his eyes didn’t lift. “Sure I am.”
I twisted my arms behind my back. “If you don’t mind me saying, you look terrible.”
“I know,” he agreed, his shoulders slumped.
I approached his desk passing the brown leather settee and two firmer, upright chairs, arranged around a smoked glass coffee table. He’d also hung two pictures. A man playing a sax, but instead of a smoky club he was surrounded in blue sky. He looked joyful, I’d said, when I’d first seen it. Flynn had agreed and thought ‘joyful’ was exactly the right word. The other picture was of the sea. It was in a thick square white frame. The horizon drew your eye so you were always looking beyond the frothing waves, as if you would find a better, shinier life on the other side.
A prickly flush started on my chest. Flynn’s eyes were glassy like he was stopping himself from crying.
“You look like you need a break. Have you had lunch?”
“Why? Are you offering to take me?” He leant forward and placed his hands on his desk. His wedding band was thick and shiny.
“Oh, I can’t. I’ve only just got back.” The flush raced to my cheeks.
He leant back in his chair. “You must get lunch offers all the time.”
“Too many to count,” I said, and sat down taking his mild flirt as an invitation he wanted to talk.
Up close, there were dark circles under his eyes and a cut near his jaw from a hurried shave, or maybe a shaky one.
“Did you catch Dexter’s Laboratory on Saturday? It was a good one. Dee-Dee was…”
“Had other things going on,” he interrupted.
“Exciting other things?”
He shook his head. “No. Not exciting.” He paused. A single tear rolled down his cheek.
“Oh god. I’m sorry. I’ve put my foot in it, haven’t I?” I wanted to reach out and touch him.
“No. It’s not you. I had some bad news this weekend.” The skin around his mouth sagged.
“Why are you here? Go home. We’ll manage without you.”
“Home’s the last place I want to be.”
The words came out before I’d even considered them. “Has something happened to your wife? Sara was just telling me she saw her on Friday. Said how lovely she was. Said she’d been ill - cancer or something.”
A second tear fell and splashed on the desk. “She’s dying.”
I leant forward and grasped his hand without even thinking about it. His anguish was palpable like breath on a cold day. “I am so, so sorry. Is there nothing they can do?” The line felt familiar, although not one I had ever uttered before.
He shook his head and tears splashed onto our clasped hands.
“Your poor wife. What are you doing here? You should be at home with her.”
He snatched his hand from mine. His eyes narrowed. “She doesn’t want me there. She wants things to be normal.” His voice broke. “Normal. What the fuck does that mean?”
I wasn’t very good at this. “I’m just so sorry,” I bleated.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he murmured. “I don’t want it to be like this. I want it to be how it was. Like it was before.” He wiped his eyes with the heel of his hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you, Rebecca. You just caught me at a low moment. I’ll be OK. We need to adjust. Get used to it… and we will, like we did after the operation.”
“The one she had to her face?”
He eyed me. “How did you know about that?”
“I told you, Sara met her on Friday.” And she’d talked about nothing else but his wife’s disfigured face. Apparently they hadn’t been married very long when she had it done. On one side she looked perfectly normal, which made it even more shocking.
“Yes.” He clenched his fist against the desk. “That was the whole point of the operation. To get rid of it for good. All that for nothing.” His voice sounded bitter. “She used to be beautiful.”
“I’m sure she still is,” I said, but the words sounded empty.
I heard noises behind me. Some of the others had returned from lunch. Damn.
Flynn straightened in the seat and rubbed at his eyes again. “I’m sorry. How unprofessional. You don’t want to know about my problems.”
“But we’re friends. You can tell me anything.”
He smiled a watery smile. “Yes. Thank you.”
I wanted to ask him how long does she have, but I knew now was not the right time.
“Anytime,” I said, standing up. The scent of his aftershave lingered in the back of my throat. “And I mean it. If you need to talk. I’m here.”
“Yes. Really. Thank you.”
I began to back away. “I mean it. Anytime.”
“Your boyfriend’s a lucky guy.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.”
His eyes widened and his right eyebrow rose. Boom, boom, boom! – went my heart and my knees weakened, something I was sure only ever happened in romance novels.
“I have no idea how I walked across his office without collapsing.” I told Sara at the bar in Nico’s after work. Even though it was a Monday this news couldn’t wait, and it also required gin.
“So what did you do to cause a turnaround from heartbroken to horny in less than ten seconds? Girl - you must be good.” She held her drink in mid-air.
My stomach flipped over as I imagined him kissing me, hard and passionately, before coming back down to reality. “He was emotional as you said. Maybe he was confusing one emotion with another.”
“Horniness for grief?”
I suppressed a giggle and shrugged, rolling my eyes. “I admit they are very different, but it doesn’t matter if he does anyway. This changes everything. His wife is probably going to die soon. How could I make a play for him at a time like this? Not that I was planning on seducing him.”
“Yeah right… Maggie’s told me how much you flirt with him. And you talk about him all the time. But hey, silver lining and all, at least he’ll be free again soon.”
I stared at Sara, trying to keep my mouth from smiling. “I can’t believe you just said that.” And we both dissolved into spluttering giggles.
After we’d got ourselves in check and scolded ourselves for our poor taste, we moved onto other gossip. I forced myself to concentrate on what Sara was saying about Eric.
“So I think, Melody, the new girl on reception, she’d be ideal for him. She looks
really shy and…”
I sighed audibly. “Do we have to talk about Eric, and anyway he’s got a crush on me. Melody doesn’t stand a chance.”
“You need to stop leading him on, my girl,” she said, sounding motherly, although nothing like my mother.
“He encourages me.”
“Seems you have another admirer now.”
My stomach did that lurch again. “Stop it. I told you. He was emotional. And he only raised an eyebrow.” The bar was cosy and the lighting gave off an orange glow. I didn’t relish the journey home or my empty bedsit. “Anyway, what would you think of a man that cheated on his sick wife?”
“I think it would depend on whether the relationship was good before,” Sara said. “Too many variables to say for sure what is right and wrong in a situation like this.”
I smiled into my drink. Maybe their marriage wasn’t as good as he made out. Maybe he only stayed with her because she got ill. As Sara said, there were too many variables to say, one way or another, what might happen next.