The Replacement Wife (part two - Madeleine - I.)
By Juliet OC
The waiting room was half full of the decaying and desperate and that was just the relatives. Splashes of May sunshine spilled onto the floor and chairs from the high oblong windows. I chose the middle chair in a set of three avoiding eye contact with the lady opposite. She had that look about her. This trip to oncology outpatients was probably the first contact she’d had with another human being all week. All she would talk about would be her treatments and the side effects, like a leech she would sap the lifeblood from me. I would never succumb like so many of the pitiful souls in here. I had a job, a husband, a life. The cancer would have to wait its turn.
Spilling half the contents of my bag onto my lap in search of my Kindle I suddenly pictured it on the bench in the hall. Buggeration. I shoved the stuff back in my bag and snatched a magazine from the low table between us. Her stare burned into my forehead. I brought my hair forward to cover more of my face and then smoothed out the cover of the magazine. It was wrinkled and soft and there was a ridge of something stuck near the date. I rubbed my fingers on my leg and hoped it was glue not snot.
A nurse bustled out of the six bedded bay opposite where the treatments were administered. She held a clipboard in front of her. The woman’s wig, opposite, was askew. Did she not realise how ridiculous she looked? The nurse called a name and a woman with a few wispy strands got up and shuffled after her. She was on heavy duty chemo by the look of her.
I would’ve worn a headscarf or nothing at all if I’d had chemo. I’d yet seen a wig that didn’t look like a wig. My cancer didn’t respond to chemotherapy. It was too slow growing; a blessing and curse as it turned out. I corrected myself. Not my cancer, but the cancer; although that wasn’t strictly true either because cancer is no alien invader, rather a home grown terrorist impossible to predict and impossible to repatriate.
I examined the ends of my hair. Some were split. It would need to be trimmed. Flynn had no idea how much I spent on my hair – a plus side of keeping separate bank accounts. Not that he could say anything with his vinyl collection. It was silly now so much more was at stake, but if anything my appearance mattered more. Dying young and beautiful had romanticism about it worthy of a novel. No one would write a literary masterpiece about a woman with a scooped out face and rearranged features, even if she was only thirty-five and had been beautiful once.
Looks did matter. Beautiful people always had friends. Grace said it was called ‘the halo effect’. People associated positive traits with good-looking people. Of course fiction writers had identified this trope hundreds of years before psychology even existed, but Grace only read ‘useful’ books.
The magazine was full of the usual superficial rubbish mainly focusing on weight – who’d lost it and who’d gained it. The rise of chick-lit, for which I held Helen Fielding totally responsible, was to blame. Atwood was a lone voice. One my students found both alien and bitter. Feminists are fat lesbians who hate men, one particularly stupid girl pronounced in class last week when I introduced them to the Handmaid’s Tale. Usually I would’ve retaliated with an elegant put-down just on the right side of sarcastic, but painkillers made my brain foggy, and since dropping to part time I cared less. Fifteen years trying to influence the next generation had failed. The most popular aspiration amongst the year eleven girls in my class was to marry a footballer.
I peered up through my long, layered fringe, cut to hang heaviest of the right side of my face. The woman’s eyes were closed, but her face was taut and strained. Her fists were clenched around the edges of the chair. Her knuckles white. She was in obvious pain. I should have smiled at her. Let her talk to me. What a hard bitch I had become? I cleared my throat hoping she would open her eyes so I could make amends, but she didn’t.
My right buttock had turned numb. I uncrossed my legs. As usual my appointment time had long passed and I fretted about the fresh salmon in the boot of the car. Although May had been a wash out up until now, today the sun had decided to make a glorious appearance. I should have gone to the fishmongers after the appointment, but it was item number one on my list for the day. My counsellor, Marion, thought my list making was a symptom of my need to gain control of what was uncontrollable. She urged me not to write one. I laughed at her. Without my lists all would be lost, but not like she supposed.
Twice in recent weeks I’d accused Flynn of being insensitive after he’d come home late from work. Only for him to shake his head and suggest maybe I was taking too many painkillers because he’d told me about the governor’s meal and IT conference on more than one occasion. I had absolutely no recollection of either. I did point out if he wrote it on the calendar in the kitchen then it wouldn’t be an issue. ‘I always forget,’ he said, which made us both laugh, something that has been in short supply since January.
Forty minutes after my appointed time I was ushered into the bay and hooked up to the IV machine for my weekly calcium infusion, which was supposed to fill the holes in my bones and stop the advance, although Mr Walters, my consultant, admitted it was experimental.
A little girl in red trousers came in holding the hand of a willowy man. She walked on her tip toes as if she would float into the sky like a helium balloon if he let go. I wanted to make eye contact with her – a silent ‘well done’ for being here - but her gaze was locked on his face. Her devotion was as visible as the devastation wrought to my face, which turned out to have been a complete waste of NHS resources. The cancer had already escaped the confines of my parotid gland and set up residence in my liver long before.
Seeing the little girl reawakened the hurt inflicted by Flynn’s insensitivity at the weekend. Although in hindsight I may have been too quick to take offence? Maybe what he’d meant was if we’d had a baby then a part of me would carry on living. We had both been drunk; the wedding reminding us of all that had happened since ours and making us both irritable. I’d thought he was blaming me for not being able to give him a baby, even though I was sure he was the infertile one. His low sperm count and Lisa’s reaction to it had been one of the reasons his first marriage failed, or so I’d always thought. But on Saturday night, bleary eyed and belligerent, he was adamant that it was a rumour Lisa had spread to punish him for running off with me. We’d never got as far as discussing children, let alone trying for them, before the cancer make its unwelcome return after ten years of nothing, not even a twinge, barely a year into our marriage.
Whatever the truth, with a three to five year prognosis, children were out of the question. I wish I hadn’t overreacted and flounced off in tears making myself sick on rum, but neither of us had mentioned it since. It wasn’t as if he was angry at me, rather he was angry at the cancer for snatching away our future. A future in which we planned to do lots of travelling and even live and work abroad for a couple of years or so, if we found somewhere worth staying. A future we had not talked about since January. Since the MRI scan; the tumours twinkling like fairy lights strung throughout my body from chest to thigh.
Life is for living, not waiting to die. It was all in the perspective, so Marion said. I may have limited time, years instead of decades, but at least it was years and at least I remained relatively well and pain free. As long as I took my pain medications regularly and didn’t wait until it got out of control. You still have a future, she told me. You can still make plans. You can still travel. She encouraged me to do some research on working abroad and asked me which country I wanted to go to first. India, I said without hesitation.
The bag above my head was still a third full. I could bring up the subject tonight over dinner and see how Flynn felt about it. It would be something positive to plan for and look forward to. There was Grace’s proposition to put to him too. Flynn and I had been holding our breath since January - it was time to exhale.
Once home I set about making the pastry for the salmon en croute, a favourite of Flynn’s. Spring sunshine flooded through the back door and I had a sense that everything was as it should be for the first time since January. The pastry was a perfect consistency, smooth and stretchy, the colour of buttercups.
The sun had disappeared behind the flats on the main road by the time I woke from a nap. I put the dinner in the oven and went upstairs to shower. Stood in front of the steamy mirror I brushed my hair and pulled it back from my face to moisturise the stretched, taut skin, criss-crossed with white scars. Make-up applied, I changed into a white cotton dress teaming it with a jade green cardigan. It was the first time I had worn a summer dress this year. I admired myself in the mirror in our bedroom. The dress ended mid-thigh, showing of my long legs. Flynn had a thing about legs. It was what he always noticed first about a woman.
It had just gone six. The house was filled with the smells of dinner. I laid the table in the dining room and opened the red wine to let it breathe, and to try a glass. By seven-thirty I expected to hear his key in the lock at any second. I lit the candle on the table and chose a playlist on the iPod, inserting a few jazz tracks of Flynn’s that didn’t give me a headache. Flynn said my music tastes were unchallenging and if the songs were books they would be formulaic genre fiction like chick-lit.
The en croute needed another fifteen minutes. I put the spinach in a colander and placed it over a saucepan of water. It could be switched on as soon as he came in. The torta, in the fridge, had set. Perfect. I carried the red wine to the dining table.
Killing time, the lounge got a quick hoover and the cocktail cabinet a dust with a disposable glass wipe – a wonderful invention. Cushions plumped, rugs straightened, I turned my attention to the hall and neatened up the shoes and coats. A strong smell of Flynn came off his winter coat. I pressed my face into it.
At ten to eight, I turned off the oven. It would stay warm for a good thirty minutes. He wasn’t usually this late. Maybe the train had been delayed? An internet search confirmed all the trains from London were running on time. Had I forgotten again? No. I was sure I’d asked him this morning if he had anything on, or had I? I fished my phone out of my bag.
#You on your way? Dinner almost ready xx#
There was a smell of snuffed out candles and the sound of scuffling. I sat up groggy and disorientated before realising I was in the lounge.
“Flynn is that you?” My voice croaked and my ribs were sore. It was ten-thirty. I hugged my knees.
He poked his head around the door. “You still up?”
Alcohol and cold air wafted over me. His chin was dark with stubble.
“Where were you?”
I’m sorry darling,” he said, crossing the room and sitting down next to me. I pressed my cold body against him. “It was Eric’s birthday and I went for a couple of pints. My phone was on silent. I didn’t get your message until I was on the train and then I assumed you would be in bed.”
“Hey,” he said, stroking my head. “I’m home now. I should have phoned you. I’m sorry.”
“I made dinner for you. It will be ruined. I thought maybe you’d told me you were going to be late and I’d forgotten again. I thought the cancer had reached my brain.”
He lifted my face and rubbed the tears from my cheeks with his thumb. “I’m sorry, baby. Truly. But it is only dinner… and as for your brain…” He tapped the side of my head gently. “I don’t think the cancer will make much difference to be honest. You were mad as a fish when I married you and…”
I shoved him with my shoulder. “You git.”
“That’s better,” he said, and kissed my lips.
I tasted beer and breathed in his end of day scent.
“So what is for dinner?”
“It was Salmon en croute.”
Flynn’s phone beeped from the hall.
“I have no idea.” He kissed the top of my head. “I nearly forgot. How was the calcium thingy today?”
“It was fine. Waited ages as usual. I thought Mum might ring to find out how it went, but nothing.”
“Your mother,” he murmured, shaking his head.
“It’s lucky I’ve got you then,” I said, sitting up and running my hands through my hair. “I must look a state?”
“You look beautiful.”
“Liar. Do you want dinner now?”
He wrinkled his nose. “Not sure I am in the mood for salmon, but I’d love some toast and Marmite.”
My mouth watered for melted butter on toast. “Me too,” I agreed.
“Come on.” He stood up and tugged on my hand. “We’ll make it together.”
Flynn cut the bread and went into the hall while he waited for the toast.
“Who was it?” I said, getting the Marmite and butter from the pantry. It was the pantry that sold this house to me. As soon as I opened the door onto this small stone room with shelves from floor to ceiling, perfect for keeping butter soft enough to spread, I knew. We both agreed it was real butter or nothing. Just like our relationship. It had to be real and authentic. Spreadable butter was a metaphor for our previous lives.
He put his phone on the side table by his keys. “The exams officer, Rebecca. I asked her to text me when she got home. She insists on riding the tubes alone.”
I smiled at him automatically covering my mouth with my hand. He always looked out for his staff, which is why he was so good at his job. “How old is she?”
“Mid-twenties,” he said, and kissed my forehead as he passed me to flip up the toast.
“Blonde,” he said, winking at me.
“I don’t remember meeting a pretty blonde in her twenties when I came in to your office.”
“I try not to remember that day at all,” he said, as the toast popped up. “Do you just want butter? Or jam as well.”
“Just jam,” I said.
“You mean just butter,” Flynn replied.
“Yes,” I said, recalling how I’d somehow managed to hold it together at his office; my news nestling like a tarantula in a bunch of bananas at the supermarket. I’d even chatted to his new boss Brian, although I have no recollection of what we talked about. On the tube Flynn was excited about some news coming out of CERN. I didn’t share his enthusiasm for all things quantum, but his excitement carried us both through to Convent Garden. The only input required from me was an occasional, ‘really’.
In the restaurant Flynn sniped at me for wasting food. I started to cry. He came round the table to hug me and I told him I was going to die. We left the restaurant with the rest of our meals untouched. We hadn’t the words that night and I was glad of the distraction of bustling, never sleeping London. We walked all the way to Kings Cross. On the train, Flynn couldn’t bring himself to touch me or even look at me, and when we got home he stayed downstairs all night. In the morning I’d half expected him to be gone, but found him sat on the lounge floor surrounded by his records.
“Cataloguing,” he said, and made a space for me to sit beside him.
“Will we be all right?” I had asked him.
“In time,” he replied. And I remember thinking - time is what I don’t have.
I got out the blackberry jam.
“You said you didn’t want jam?” Flynn said, as I began to spread my toast.
“Yes,” he said quietly.
“Sorry my mind was elsewhere.”
“As it often is,” he murmured.
“You can talk,” I retorted. “Sometimes when you are in the office I swear you enter another dimension – when I have to come and get you for dinner and you say ‘why didn’t you just call me’, I have, at least ten times.”
I carried the plates into the lounge. Flynn followed with the tea. He switched the television on and we settled down on the settee. As soon as I had eaten I was dead on my feet. It was nearly 11:30pm. Newsnight was on, which bored me silly.
“I’m going up, you coming?”
“After this,” he said, without looking at me.
We hadn’t had sex in so long. I missed the closeness it brought. Our kisses had become perfunctory rather than passionate. Without that side of our relationship what were we to each other? I leant forward and pressed my lips against his forehead. “I love you so much.”
“Me too, night,” he mumbled.
I reached the doorway. “Night, my darling.” He was slumped back on the settee. “Oh I meant to say.” I paused, hovering on the threshold. He didn’t respond. “Flynn?”
“Uh huh?” he glanced at me with a blank expression.
“Grace rang this morning. She wants to know if we want to go to Spain with them in August. They’ve booked a huge villa and the family they were going with have pulled out. I said I’d talk to you.”
“Yeah. Sounds good. But I need to be back for main enrolment.” He returned his attention to the TV.
“I know that.” And I need to be back for A-level results. It’s the first week in August.”
“Can we decide for definite tomorrow, I’m too knackered to think right now.”
“Come up to bed then,” I said, and twiddled my hair, leaning against the edge of the door.
“I just want to watch this,” he said. “But I’ll be up soon.”
“I really could do with a hug.”
“Just let me watch this. I’ll be up soon. Promise.”
“I need to ring Grace first thing otherwise she says she’ll try someone else.”
“Yes then. We’ll go. OK?” He smiled up at me, but it was strained.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“For what?” His brow wrinkled. His eyes flicked from me and back to the screen as the audience erupted into booing.
“For ruining things.”
“I have. I’ve ruined everything.”
He smiled again and waved his hand towards me. “Don’t be silly. You’re just tired. Go on up to bed with you. I’ll be up soon.”
My breath caught in my throat as I realised how much I loved him. “I can’t wait for Spain. Sunshine, good food, and nothing to do all day, but read books and…” I hesitated, “make love.”
“Go to bed,” he said, trying and failing to keep the exasperation out of his voice.
Tears came again. Did he see me as burden now? I retreated upstairs and cried until my pillow was soaking wet. Things had to change. We had to make love.