The lover, the husband and the wife
Ava counted the two halves of the month in her mind, rocking them together like a cradle as Josh slid out of her. There was only a remote chance of conceiving according to the App. Rain drummed on balcony of their Shoreditch apartment and branches tapped the window where squawking birds sheltered. It glazed a gap in the indigo curtains and shadows liquefied walls. The kind of weather, thought Ava, which will see the kitchen leak. A hangover leached behind her eyes.
Josh turned on his back and burped. His breath fumed of cider and curry. In the flat below, the newborn mewled and cranked up to howl. Josh groaned and put the duvet over his head. A waft of vinegary sweat. Ava couldn’t imagine them having a baby, crawling with small, sticky hands over cream carpets and white sofas. Josh had even vetoed shoes in their flat, supplying visitors with shapeless, grey felt mules that never fitted anyone, flapping off feet like unwanted flippers. His mobile rang. Josh’s hand padded on the floor and located it. He pulled the duvet off his face and up floated a smiling screenshot of Sadie between them. Long platinum hair, grey eyes and perfect teeth.
‘Hi,’ said Josh in the false, bright way he used for those he wanted to make an impression on. He cleared his throat and listened with his full attention.
‘Gym time, Josh,’ murmured Ava, ‘your new boss summons.’ The pouring rain, howling baby, chattering birds and tapping branches obscured Sadie’s words.
‘OK,’ said Josh matter-of-factly and over-loudly, like he was at a meeting. He placed the phone on the bedside table, sat up and did his usual alternating arm and neck stretches.
‘Doesn’t Sadie ever play squash with Ben? We haven’t seen them for ages, not since...’
Josh cut in, ‘Ben’s rubbish at squash. Sadie told me she was supposed to go on holiday next week but doesn’t want to until she’s settled with this new job. Ben’s putting pressure on her.’
‘Poor Sadie,’ Ava let slip and wished she could swallow the words back as the atmosphere changed and charged.
‘Yep,’ he said, in a way that terminated the conversation. Rain splattered from the broken guttering and gushed down the side wall where it would settle in a thick pool of mud and become imprinted with rats’ claws. The baby stopped howling. Ava imagined him cradled on his mother’s breast, sucking with sweet, gulping noises. She wanted that even as she’d seen his dark-haired mum limp with exhaustion walking the baby out. Before birth, she’d been hipster-sleek with glossy, auburn bob and bright red lipstick. Motherhood had turned her pale and bloated with lank hair and pronounced frown lines.
Josh pushed the duvet off. ‘Reeks,’ he said and sniffed his hands.
‘I swear if I didn’t sort it you’d wait until it was like the bloody Turin Shroud.’ A cold silence. ‘Sorry,’ added Ava. It seemed every time she opened her mouth that word tripped out. Josh sat on the edge of the bed, sighed, scratched his groin and rubbed his cheeks. Tomorrow, thought Ava, he’d leave for work while she would be frugal with redundancy money and send off multiple job applications. She closed her eyes.
‘Right,’ said Josh, getting up, peeking out of a curtain, ‘it’s a bloody washout. Back about one-ish. You want anything?’ He didn’t wait for an answer as he walked the six steps into the bathroom.
‘No,’ said Ava. Josh peed for what seemed like minutes. He showered and hummed something she didn’t recognise. When he washed his teeth he retched as the brush went back in his throat. ‘Actually there is; loo roll. Otherwise it’s The Times for up-market arses, Mail for middle-class bums or Sun and Standard for bottom-feeders.’
‘Fine,’ snapped Josh coming back in and getting dressed in jog pants and a top with the collar turned up, ‘good job you won’t have to sully your ass with the press anymore. What are you going to do?’ He sat on the bed to tie on bright white trainers.
‘Wash the sheets and plan the next decade.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with PR,’ his tone turned ugly, ‘Christ, it makes a damn sight more money than journalism and it’s not exactly nose against the grindstone is it?’ Josh set his mouth in a thin line and went into the kitchen. Even the way he turned on the water sounded angry. Sensible Josh, thought Ava, proved right to ditch the union and tough out waves of redundancies. He’d warned her about ‘dead wood’ and going forward’. Josh and Sadie fast forwarded to promotion. Ava was made redundant. Rain softened, drizzling in zigzags down the window.
‘Hell, when did you get that desperate to order ‘The Lady’?’ shouted Josh coming back and aiming the magazine at the bed but it glanced off Ava’s head. ‘Sorry! Look, do you fancy lunch later? I’ll see if Sadie and Ben want to come?’ He grabbed his phone and leather holdall, wielding his squash racket with a flourish.
‘God knows how you play squash with an aim like that,’ said Ava trying light and cheerful. ‘It’d be good to see them.’ She felt unsettled around Shoreditch. Everyone was post-university and now with tiny infants wrapped in complicated straps to chests. They appeared achingly cool with high-flying ambitions dressed in vintage clothes. Josh left and the silence in his wake felt drained of tension.
Pale sunshine slipped across the laminate floor. She picked up the magazine. It was for Fiona Rivington. The next-door neighbour with delusions of urban grandeur. She had so many extensions their property was now a semi-detached mansion. Ava remembered the invite in a month ago after Fiona had put in a planning application for a conservatory. The invite was to iron out potential objections with a charm-offensive of coffee and biscuits. Her 1930s house was scented with Febreeze and meat dinners Ava smelt served on Sundays at 1pm on-the-dot. The fifty-something was an apparition of beige from hair to flat gold shoes. Ava had asked for black coffee but was served it frothy with milk, in bone china cups and saucers, placed on Constable coasters depicting hay fields. She offered a matching plate of double-chocolate chip biscuits on a doily-covered plate, then briefly explained their ‘tiny’ conservatory plans as crumbs fell into her substantial, tanned cleavage. Ava nodded in neutral and once Fiona was satisfied that Ava was no threat she launched into a forensic questioning into her background. Ava skimmed right over her cramped terraced-house and scrimped upbringing near windswept Blackpool after her father left (and then died). Bored, Fiona had shown her out and not been seen since.
Ava flicked through the magazine rammed with adverts for easy-lift chairs, cruises, safe floral fashion, farmhouse cooking, show-jumping and guidelines on ‘How to be a Good Guest’ - staying three days, or as ‘long as it takes fish to go off’. She stopped at the appointments’ pages and trailed a bitten finger nail down columns of rich people advertising for nannies to royalty in the Arab Emirates, nurses in New York, and housekeepers worldwide to care for the gilt-edged aged and babies. One advert stood out, only because it was in Yorkshire and the least appealing. It was put in by a daughter looking for someone to care for her elderly mother. Ava smiled because the old woman was described as feisty, drink dependent and unpleasant but the wages offered were better than she’d been paid. Her mobile rang, flashing up Ben’s grinning face as he held a pint of beer in one hand and Sadie shoulder with the other.
‘Hi Ben, they’re at the gym’, she said putting the magazine down.
‘They’re not. I’ve looked,’ said Ben tersely.
‘Well they must be on their way, Josh’s only just left.’
‘I’ll be with you in ten minutes.’ He put the phone down.
Ava quickly showered and dried, catching sight of her body in the full-length mirror. Short dark hair, almond-shaped brown eyes and way too much padding from belly to thighs. I’m the shape of a bloody bee, she muttered, rubbing in jasmine-scented skin cream that promised a sun-kissed, gradual tan. Then it was a blast of lemon deodorant, most of which promptly fell on the floor. She squeezed into much too-skinny black jeans, pulled on a loose cream top, dabbed on under-eye concealer, mascara and blusher. Ava cleared the narrow kitchen of last night’s curry boxes and at one minute to Ben o’ clock, the kettle boiled and the mugs were filled. She crammed the last of the rubbish in the swing bin that was too full to swing and watched out the window licking her yellow-stained fingers.
Ben’s black Golf raced down the road and slid to a halt and parked with one wheel on the kerb. He hauled himself out in a ragged pair of jogging pants and washed-out blue T-shirt. The fury on his face as he stormed up the path turned Ava’s stomach as did the way he pressed their door bell - like an alarm.
‘They’ve not been to the gym,’ he snapped as she opened the door, ‘I checked.’ His thinning hair stuck up at odd angles. He looked peculiar and then Ava realised why, he’d been crying, his eyes were red, teary, his cheeks blotchy and nose runny. He wiped it on his sleeve. This must be the kind of pressure Sadie faced from him, thought Ava. She put a hand on his arm. He brushed it off and past her, into the kitchen as if they might be there. Ava’s skin prickled. Surely he couldn’t be jealous of Josh with Sadie? Ben looked out of the window and spread his hands on the table. He tried to speak but his chin wobbled. Ava watched, unsure what to do. She didn’t really know the first about Ben apart from his love of rugby and beer and dexterity with other peoples’ money. She had never seen him upset, aside from when England lost.
‘Sadie’s fucking someone,’ he said staring at her, really taking in her reaction.
'Who?' her heart thumped. Ava felt the floor falling away from under her. She sat down. From out of his pocket Ben yanked a crumpled, pink card with a white teddy bear on the front. It had bright blue eyes and wide, toothless smile with ‘I Love You’ on the heart-shaped tummy. Ben slid it across the table. She thought it was the sort of crap card you’d panic-buy from a garage for a five-year-old or someone you didn’t like. Ben flicked it open and stabbed his finger at the messy, familiar handwriting Ava recognised from work.
‘I love you on the stairs,’ Sadie wrote, ‘and in the car, in the woods, the shower, on the table and floor – everywhere.’ Scores of hand-drawn red hearts and kisses covered white spaces in between. Ava’s stomach contracted. She thought she might be sick. Ben dug in his other pocket, pulled out a package and slapped it down. It was a pregnancy test kit.
‘Positive,’ he said, ‘and not mine because we haven’t fucked for months. Did you know that?’
‘No,’ lied Ava. Sadie had told her when she’d been drunk and asked how often she and Josh had sex. Ava was the one who wanted a baby. Sadie always said nothing would come between work and fitness.
‘Sadie was late for the gym this morning because her car had a flat tyre,’ said Ben, his temper rising, ‘so she took mine. I went to change the wheel and these were tucked under the spare.’ Ben wiped a hand across his mouth. Ava wanted to stop her ears and lie down in a dark room.
‘I’ll ring Josh,’ she said, pressing his number on her mobile only to hear his breezy voicemail. She cut him off and texted: ‘Ben’s here, Sadie’s pregnant - it’s not his.’
Ben pressed his eyes with the heels of his hands. Ava gave him paper towels. Outside a child whined, ‘I don’t want to walk, it’s too cold, daddy,’ and was answered, ‘Well you shouldn’t have hit your sister.’ The whingeing distanced and rain fell. Ben drummed the table and Ava rubbed a stained circle of red wine. Neither drank their tea. At the sound of Josh’s clapped-out Citroen Ava stood at the window with up Ben by her side. He breathed like was running, his eyes empty and focussed. Sadie was with him. Josh got out first and opened the passenger door. He’s never done that for me, was Ava first thought and a flood of anger rose. Sadie eased out. Her hair was smoothed into an elegant chignon and face preternaturally pale, as if drained of blood. Her left hand fluttered across her lower belly. Ben charged out yelling. Josh dropped the loo rolls.