The Replacement Wife (part one - Rebecca - III.)
By Juliet OC
III. Flynn was like a fever, one that would not break. My day could come crashing around my ears if he wasn’t in the office or appeared disinterested when we did talk. Everything he said I dissected for what he’d really meant. Sometimes I was convinced he would to take things further if he could, but at other times I scoffed at my ego – why would he want me?
The news had got around the office as news always does. Maggie took it upon herself to ask after his wife, hovering over him like she were his counsellor and not a fat, waste of space. He told Maggie his wife was still working, but dropping to part time hours and that they were trying some treatments to preserve her mobility. Maggie said he was close to tears whenever he spoke of Madeleine so I decided not to raise it unless he did. I saw my role as distracting him from his worries and making him laugh.
The day to day work of a struggling FE college continued unabated – and there were whispers of summer redundancies in support services. As I was the one and only exams officer, I was pretty sure my position was safe, despite the reduction in January exams, but I was prepared for additional responsibilities to make up the shortfall. Sara was less sure about her position in HR, but she wasn’t really arsed. She and Rob were proper serious and Sara reckoned she’d be engaged by the summer. A lady of leisure was her unashamed life ambition.
In April I went on a date. Mainly to prove to myself this thing with Flynn was not a thing. Stuart, who’d I’d meet at my cousin Karen’s engagement party, seemed less man of mystery and more man of nothingness without the haze of Jager-bombs. He was thirty-one and three years younger than Flynn. He had a son of around four, whose forehead jutted out. Stuart referred to him as ‘little man’. I managed three dates before I told him it wasn’t him it was me. He didn’t take it well and bombarded me with texts. Karen messaged me on FB to say he was heartbroken.
In mid-May we had a few days of glorious weather. Poor Eric’s eyes came out on stalks when I wore a white dress, which went see-through in full sunlight. It didn’t pass Flynn by either. Although his reaction was to remark how unfair it was men couldn’t wear dresses in hot weather.
“Fill your boots,” I said. “You can borrow something from my wardrobe.”
He laughed and told me about the time he’d dressed up as Frankfurter from the Rocky Horror Show. “Suspenders are such a faff,” he said, and then looked at me. “But definitely worth it.”
“Worth it for whom?” I said, staring at the picture of the sea, imagining Flynn and I sailing over the horizon.
“The man, of course,” he said, smiling at me in that way, which made me feel special.
“So as long as the man is happy that’s all right then? I never took you for a chauvinist?” I faced him with my hands on hips.
He held up his hands. “You’ve caught me red-handed.”
“Feminism is overrated anyhow,” I agreed. “Men and women are good at different things. I need a man who is a man and I certainly don’t want to be fighting over the mirror with him.”
“That reminds me, Maggie mentioned you went on a few dates recently, how’d it go? Was he man’s man or wash out?”
I grimaced. “Maggie is such a gossip. But for your information he was a wash out.”
Flynn looked over my shoulder. “Tell me more later. The big boss is here.”
I turned to see Brian the Chief Executive striding towards us.
“There really is nothing to tell,” I said, turning to go.
“But I love hearing about your life. It takes my mind off things.”
Flynn was out of the office on Tuesday and Wednesday. The rumour was he fighting for some funding the Education and Skills agency had clawed back from us in an attempt to avoid the redundancies everyone knew were looming.
On the Thursday afternoon I was immersed in late exam entries that couldn’t wait until the morning to be processed. The curriculum staff had left it to the last minute, again. The deadline to avoid late fees was midnight. Flynn had made it clear that we needed to work together and I knew he would not be pleased if I clocked off and blamed the curriculum staff. There’s no them and us had become one of his mantras. It didn’t stop me complaining about it though to anyone who would listen, which had got back to Flynn, no doubt via Maggie, prompting and email from Flynn suggesting I put together a presentation to train the staff. Bloomin’ Maggie - now I had extra work to do and I had a pathological fear of standing up in front of people.
I didn’t realise how late it was until Agnus, the long haired cleaner, appeared out of the lift dragging the hoover behind him like a reluctant dog. The whole floor was empty except for Flynn, who was at his desk. Sunlight flooded through the open windows and I caught the smell of hot tarmac and a hint of mown grass.
I completed the final entry and made a show of stretching and clearing my desk before logging off. As I’d hoped Flynn came out of his office and wandered nonchalantly towards me. His tie was loosened off and his hair mussed up from where he ran his hands through it constantly.
He recalled our previous interrupted conversation from Monday so I continued to tell him about Stuart, exaggerating the son’s objectionable traits and Stuart’s wetness.
“OK, so we’ve gathered you like a man’s man, whatever one of those is, but what are the specifics? I bet you’ve got a tick list?”
“Every girl’s got a tick list.” I said and pressed my hand against my neck and chest, hoping the prickly heat rash stayed at bay. Flynn was my tick list, but I couldn’t very well describe him.
“So item number one?” Flynn said, folding his arms and tilting his head to one side.
“Has to be older.”
His eyebrow lifted.
“It’s Mr Hallet’s fault.”
“Mr Hallet? Is that what he made you call him?” Flynn’s eyes widened in pretend shock.
“No it wasn’t like that. He was my primary school teacher and my first crush. When he spoke a little bit of spittle would stretch between his top and bottom lip. It used to make my tummy go all funny – I could watch it all day. In the summer he would take our class outside and read to us in the shade of a huge tree – Oak, I think. None of the other teachers did that. I’ll never forget Danny the Champion of the world – I can still picture drunken pheasants falling out of trees and plump hand stitched raisins. Not that it encouraged a life long love of reading.”
“I’ve never read Dahl.” Flynn said. “But that reminds me what did you make of Corelli?”
I was hoping he wouldn’t ask about the book. I pictured it under a pile of dirty clothes on the floor of my bedsit. “I can’t get Nicholas Cage out of my head and the Mussolini stuff went on a bit. I’ve not finished it yet, what with dating an all, I’ve not had the time.”
His brow creased and then smoothed. “Maybe we should have started with something a little less heavy.”
“Are you patronising me?” I said, feeling stupid.
“No. I didn’t mean anything by it. His writing is just not for everyone. It can be a bit dense.” His smile disarmed me. “Tell me more about this teacher of yours. What did he look like?”
I swung my chair around to face him properly and give him the full-on leg fest, wishing I hadn’t kicked off my shoes earlier.
“He had thick dark hair and when he read to us he wore John Lennon glasses and his front teeth slanted backwards a little.” I stopped and then thought what the heck, no-one was about, “-just like yours do. Oh and he broke my arm.”
Flynn ran his tongue over his top teeth and I swear something altered in his gaze. A recognition of what we had both been denying.
“He broke your arm?”
“Yup and it made me love him more.”
“What are you trying to tell me… that you like it rough, Rebecca?”
“No. It wasn’t like that. We were on a week-long field trip at some farm. He was doing aeroplanes, you know, where you lie on the person’s feet and they hold your hands and zoom you around. He zoomed me a little too hard and I flew over the top of him and landed on my wrist. He took me to hospital. They couldn’t get hold of Mum and Dad, no surprise there. So he stayed with me while I had the plaster put on and then he took me for an ice-cream. I was devastated when Mum arrived in our neighbour’s car to collect me. I made her take me back the next day. He was the first to write on my cast.”
“So he’s the reason you go for older men.”
“Yes and the fact that experience makes someone more interesting.”
“I must be utterly fascinating then,” he said.
“You have no idea,” I replied, coyly. “You don’t have a brother by any chance?”
He smiled and shook his head. “I’m an only child I’m afraid.”
“Only child. I see. Used to getting your own way then?” This was full on flirting, and Flynn was clearly enjoying it as much as me. Thank goodness Maggie was long gone.
“Always,” he said, and those blue eyes of his looked right inside me. “What about you? Any brothers or sisters?”
“A brother,” I said, quickly - remembering the conversation with Mum last night. Darren had been arrested again for smoking weed in the town centre. Apparently he’d been accusing shoppers of working for the Illuminati and generally acting like a ‘crazy’. The police were fed up with him and passed him back to the psychiatric team, but they’d just upped his medication and sent him on his way.
“Older or younger?” His leg was inches from mine.
“Five years younger.”
“And what does he do? Or is he still at University?”
The preposterousness of my brother at university made me laugh. “No. He didn’t go to university. We are very different. In fact, I am very different from my whole family. I used to believe I’d been adopted until Mum showed me my birth certificate.”
“Maybe you were swapped accidently in the maternity ward,” he said, mirroring the very thought I’d had after my parentage had been verified.
“That’s what I cling to,” I said, smiling up at him, but my eyes had filled with stupid tears.
He noticed immediately. “Hey you. Sorry. I didn’t realise it was a sensitive topic.”
I shook my head annoyed at myself. “No. It isn’t. Not really. It’s just my brother, he’s not been well.”
“There’s you offering me a listening ear and I never thought to do the same for you. What a self-centred bastard I have become.” His expression changed in an instant. The sparkle in his eyes extinguished. “Friggin’ cancer – it poisons everything.”
My heart swelled to bursting. Without thinking I stood up and hugged him. He stiffened momentarily and then hugged me back, his arms closing around my waist. He was a few inches taller and my head rested against his chest where I could hear his heart beating steadily.
“You smell beautiful,” he whispered, and pressed his lips against my forehead before releasing me. “How about we go for a drink and you can tell me about it?”
I looked up through my lashes. “Oughtn’t you to be getting home?”
He checked his watch. “It’s gone seven. She’ll be in bed.”
Over a drink in the pub I told him about my brother’s slide into psychosis. We were sat side by side with our thighs touching. When I had finished, not that there was much to tell, he told me more about Madeleine. How when they’d married he hadn’t realised the cancer she had in her early twenties might come back. How she had the operation less than a year after they married. How it left her with no facial nerve on the right side. How three years later, January just gone, they found tumours throughout her body so extensive a cure was not possible. How he felt cheated. How hard it was to keep going. How sometimes he wished he’d never married her.
I reassured him his feelings were normal. Not that I knew anyone who had died of cancer except Dad’s brother, Phil, but he lived in Glasgow and I’d only met him a few times. Flynn said he’d never told anyone this before; how sometimes he wished she would hurry up and die so he could start life again.
“It’s not having anything to look forward to that is the hardest,” he said, finishing his pint of Guinness and looking over at the bar. “You don’t realise until it has gone, but we live so much of our lives in the future.”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that before,” I said. “But you’re right, without a future to look forward to it must be difficult to get up each day.”
“And that’s my dilemma,” he said, and looked at me again. His gaze was probing, like he was searching for an answer in my face. “I love Madeleine, I really do, but when we got married we had our whole future ahead of us, and now…”
“And now your future is waiting for her to die,” I said, tentatively, but I wanted him to see I understood. I couldn’t imagine what he must be going through. The pain of watching the person you love die.
“I knew you got me,” he said. “I could sense something between us. A connection.”
I placed my hand over his and squeezed it. “Of course I get you,” I said. “And I am always here for you to talk to.”
His thumb brushed the side of my hand. “Do you believe in fate?”
“I believe in karma,” I said, as a tingle of pleasure ran up my arm.
“So what’s Madeleine done to deserve cancer then?” He sounded disappointed. I wanted to kick myself. What a stupid thing to say.
“Nothing. I didn’t mean that. I just meant…” I didn’t know what I meant.
“It’s OK,” he said, his voice softening as he moved his hand from under mine and picked up his pint. “All I meant was - everything in the universe is connected. What seems like coincidence isn’t at all.”
“So we were meant to become friends,” I said, hoping I had got it right. I didn’t want him to think I was stupid or insensitive.
“Exactly,” he said, at smiled at me.
“Do you believe in God then?”
“No. Not the one in church. But I do believe there is more to this world than we can comprehend. Other dimensions that we can’t access. Planes of being that are not grounded in matter. That’s why I’m fascinated with quantum physics.”
“Physics? I hated that at school.”
“Ah, but quantum physics is different. At the quantum level matter pops in and out of existence randomly – but where does it go when it is not here?”
“I’m not sure I even know what quantum physics is.”
He sat back in his seat, the glass clutched in his hand. “It’s about what the universe and everything in it is made of.” He glanced at his iPhone. “It’s getting late. There is too much to explain now, but I’ll find you a book to read. I’ve got tons.”
“As long as it’s the dummies guide.”
“Don’t put yourself down. You’re very bright. I could tell as soon as we met.”
“I’d like that,” I said. And I meant it. Anything that interested Flynn interested me. The more I got to know him the more layers I uncovered. He reminded me of my brother Darren – always looking beyond or behind reality. Except, unlike Darren, it hadn’t sent him mad.
We left the pub. It was still light. The clouds were pink like candyfloss. He thanked me for listening and joked I’d got the job as his ‘counsellor’. He walked me to the tube and insisted I text him when I got home. He keyed my mobile number into his iphone. A text came through as the train pulled up.
#Thanks for listening. You are very special.#
“See you tomorrow,” I said, as the doors slid open.
“Sure thing,” he replied, and lightly grasped my shoulders kissing each of my cheeks.
On the way home I trembled every time I recalled his lips against my skin and the feel of his body pressed against mine. Once in my bedsit I sent him a text. I agonised over whether to put a kiss or not. In the end, despite Sara’s encouragement, I decided not. Nothing had changed. He was still married and I was still the silly girl with a crush on her boss.III.