While travelling it can be hard to keep myself amused. I have a chronically low boredom threshold and have never enjoyed reading. While my friends had their noses in books, I started to write short stories to stop myself from disturbing them with inane chat.
This is a story I wrote by torchlight on an overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani.
I hear the front door click and wait for Annabel to walk in. I hear the clunk of her school bag hitting the wall and turn the sound down on the TV so I’m ready for the arguments to start.
She blames me. I know she does and she’s too young for me to even blame her for not hiding it better.
Enough time has passed that I should have been greeted by her sulky expression by now, but not so much as a grumpy “I’m home” has been hurled from the hall.
The handrail creaks on the stairs and is followed by the sound of her bedroom door being closed quietly on the latch.
So, I guess it’s happened. We’ve moved on from the fights and in to the silence. I always think silence is worse; so much more sinister in its unspoken nothingness. She can’t even bear to be in the same room.
The hard part about being an adult is that you have to take the lead even when you don’t want to, even when you don’t think you should have to. Even when you haven’t a clue how you’re supposed to go about it.
My heart is racing as I approach the stairs. I’m walking as quietly as I can, as if there’s a chance – if I’m slow enough – something might save me before I actually get there.
It doesn’t. I knock. No answer.
I contemplate turning around and leaving as inoffensively as I arrived but I can’t. It’s almost 6pm and I need to get tea on, she’s been at school all day and she needs me whether she wants me or not.
I take a deep breath and slowly open the door to see her looking at a photograph of her dad smiling and waving with her perched on top of his shoulders.
I want to be strong, to have a calm and rational conversation but the sight of the carefree, happy image in the photo brings tears to my eyes.
I swallow them back and sit down on the side of her bed. My weight causes her teddy bear to tumble from the edge of the pillow and on to the floor.
We both look at him lying there helplessly but nobody moves.
As soon as I offer the words I want to take them back. They sound insincere and I it’s hard to apologise with meaning when you know shouldn’t be apologising because you’ve done the best thing for the family and you’re really not sorry at all.
“You don’t understand, Annabel. You’re too young to know about what can happen in a marriage and that sometimes two people are better when they are not together any more.”
“I’m old enough to know that you’re selfish and you don’t care about me!” She spits the words with so much venom that I notice I’m trembling. I feel the tears threatening to spill out and drown us both in this stuffy little room.
“It’s a nice photo,” I say, trying a change of tack. “Your dad and I both love you so much and we always will. That will never change. I’m sure we will always love each other too – it just can’t be in the way that it used to be.”
I’m losing her, I see her eyes wander off to look at teddy on the floor. His arms are outstretched in a permanent half-hug gesture but his eyes are black and dead.
“You got rid of Daddy because you’re dating someone else. I’m old enough to know about that because it’s what everyone is saying at school.” She pulls the photo away from my hand and turns away on the bed so I can’t see her face.
Tears make her tiny shoulders shake in her little maroon school sweatshirt. There’s a hole in the back where the blue shirt shows through. I’ve been meaning to mend it for weeks.
The tiny dash of royal blue hits me like a bolt in the stomach. I told her father I wanted a divorce and that I’d never really loved him. I told him to get out of our house and never come back. I denied her the chance to say goodbye, but the thing that really makes me feel like a bad mother is that I let my little girl go to school in a ripped jumper. I was too busy to spend five minutes to stitch it up.
The sniffs have subsided and the room falls silent again.
“One day you will understand, I promise.” Even as I say it, I think it’s a lie but what else can I say?
The only way she could ever understand is if I tell her the truth but I love her too much to do that.
She turns back to face me, little blue eyes now a vivid turquoise. The whites have turned red and her cheeks are streaked with tears. The photo is nestled in her lap. I look into his eyes and, for the first time in a long time, see the man I married. Annabel is around five in the picture. We took a weekend trip to the Lake District and spent the days having picnics and running through the fields. She was so small that we could just see the top of her hair as she danced through the sunflowers. Daniel lifted her up on to his shoulders so they could run through the fields together and she could finally see the view.
“If you loved me you wouldn’t have asked Daddy to leave us.” The sentence is so matter-of-fact that it brings me back with a jolt.
“Annabel. I have loved you every day of your life and I will love you beyond the very last moments of mine.”
The pout is steadfast and she looks unconvinced.
“You have to believe me that I did this for both of us. I can’t explain it to you now but I’m asking you to trust me. There is nothing in the world that means more to me than you do. There is no other man. No one will ever replace your father and he will always love you, as I do.”
She starts to cry again but this time she edges a touch closer and I think maybe I have finally got through to her. She looks so helpless and afraid.
I give her a second to make the move on her own but she doesn’t. I try my best to smile and pull her close to me. I’m holding her as tightly as I can. Her hair smells of the Hello Kitty shampoo I bought her for her birthday and finally she starts to hug me back.
I wrap her up in my arms and pull her, sobbing, on to my lap. She lets go of the photograph which lands softly on the carpet next to teddy.
She’s squeezing me so tightly that pain shoots through my back. Her tiny hands clinging on to my arms that lay bruised and battered beneath my shirt.
The pain is hard to take but I know it’s the last time. I ease her off my lap in the fear that she may see me crumpled in the discomfort of Daniel’s final punches.
“Come on. You must be starving, let’s go downstairs and I’ll get something nice on for tea.”
I get up and leave the room without looking at her in case the tears begin again and I lose control and start to tell her the truth.
I walk over to the door to see her retrieving teddy from the floor with a kiss. She catches me looking and manages a smile.
“Mummy?”…“I still love you.”
My heart is breaking but I know we’ve turned a corner. The past is behind us and all we need is each other. It’s all we’ve ever needed.
“I love you too Annabel, I always will.”
“Now, bring that jumper downstairs when you come. There’s a hole I’ve been meaning to mend.”