I found out the way everyone seems to find out these days: an electronic slip. Sometimes it’s a text or a voicemail message; in my case it was an email, the modern-day lipstick on the collar. It was an accident, really, I wasn’t snooping. I wasn’t supposed to go near Tom’s computer, because he was worried I would delete something important by mistake, or click on something I shouldn’t and let in a virus or a Trojan or something.
‘Technology’s not really your strong point, is it, Rach?’ he said after the time I managed to delete all the contacts in his email address book by mistake. So I wasn’t supposed to touch it. But I was actually doing a good thing, I was trying to make amends for being a bit miserable and difficult, I was planning a special fourth-anniversary getaway, a trip to remind us how we used to be. I wanted it to be a surprise, so I had to check his work schedule secretly, I had to look.
I wasn’t snooping, I wasn’t trying to catch him out or anything, I knew better than that. I didn’t want to be one of those awful suspicious wives who go through their husband’s pockets. Once, I answered his phone when he was in the shower and he got quite upset and accused me of not trusting him. I felt awful because he seemed so hurt.
I needed to look at his work schedule, and he’d left his laptop on, because he’d run out late for a meeting. It was the perfect opportunity, so I had a look at his calendar, noted down some dates. When I closed down the browser window with his calendar in it, there was his email account, logged in, laid bare. There was a message at the top from [email protected]
/* */. I clicked. XXXXX. That was it, just a line of Xs. I thought it was spam at first, until I realized that they were kisses.
It was a reply to a message he’d sent a few hours before, just after seven, when I was still slumbering in our bed.
I fell asleep last night thinking of you, I was dreaming about kissing your mouth, your breasts, the inside of your thighs. I woke this morning with my head full of you, desperate to touch you. Don’t expect me to be sane, I can’t be, not with you.
I read through his messages: there were dozens, hidden in a folder entitled ‘Admin’. I discovered that her name was Anna Boyd, and that my husband was in love with her. He told her so, often. He told her that he’d never felt like this before, that he couldn’t wait to be with her, that it wouldn’t be long until they could be together.
I don’t have words to describe what I felt that day, but now, sitting on the train, I am furious, nails digging into my palms, tears stinging my eyes. I feel a flash of intense anger. I feel as though something has been taken away from me. How could she? How could Jess do this? What is wrong with her? Look at the life they have, look how beautiful it is! I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts. Who was it said that following your heart is a good thing? It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all. Hatred floods me. If I saw that woman now, if I saw Jess, I would spit in her face. I would scratch her eyes out.
There’s been a problem on the line. The 17.56 fast train to Stoke has been cancelled, so its passengers have invaded my train and it’s standing room only in the carriage. I, fortunately, have a seat, but by the aisle, not next to the window, and there are bodies pressed against my shoulder, my knee, invading my space. I have an urge to push back, to get up and shove. The heat has been building all day, closing in on me, I feel as though I’m breathing through a mask. Every single window has been opened and yet, even while we’re moving, the carriage feels airless, a locked metal box. I cannot get enough oxygen into my lungs. I feel sick. I can’t stop replaying the scene in the coffee shop this morning, I can’t stop feeling as though I’m still there, I can’t stop seeing the looks on their faces.
I blame Jess. I was obsessing this morning about Jess and Jason, about what she’d done and how he would feel, about the confrontation they would have when he found out and when his world, like mine, was ripped apart. I was walking around in a daze, not concentrating on where I was going. Without thinking, I went into the coffee shop that everyone from Huntingdon Whiteley uses. I was through the door before I saw them, and by the time I did it was too late to turn back; they were looking at me, eyes widening for a fraction of a second before they remembered to fix smiles on their faces. Martin Miles with Sasha and Harriet, a triumvirate of awkwardness, beckoning, waving me over.
‘Rachel!’ Martin said, arms outstretched, pulling me into a hug. I wasn’t expecting it, my hands were caught between us, fumbling against his body. Sasha and Harriet smiled, they gave me tentative air kisses, trying not to get too close. ‘What are you doing here?’
For a long, long moment, I went blank. I looked at the floor, I could feel myself colouring and, realizing it was making it worse, I gave a false laugh and said, ‘Interview. Interview.’
‘Oh.’ Martin failed to hide his surprise, while Sasha and Harriet nodded and smiled. ‘Who’s that with?’
I couldn’t remember the name of a single public relations firm. Not one. I couldn’t think of a property company either, let alone one which might realistically be hiring. I just stood there, rubbing my lower lip with my forefinger, shaking my head, and eventually Martin said, ‘Top secret, is it? Some firms are weird like that, aren’t they? Don’t want you saying anything until the contracts are signed and it’s all official.’ It was bullshit and he knew it, he did it to save me and nobody bought it, but everyone pretended they did and nodded along. Harriet and Sasha were looking over my shoulder at the door, they were embarrassed for me, they wanted a way out.
‘I’d better go and order my coffee,’ I said. ‘Don’t want to be late.’
Martin put his hand on my forearm and said, ‘It’s great to see you, Rachel.’ His pity was almost palpable. I’d never realized, not until the last year or two of my life, how shaming it is to be pitied.
The plan had been to go to Holborn Library on Theobalds Road, but I couldn’t face it, so I went to Regent’s Park instead. I walked to the very far end, next to the zoo. I sat down in the shade beneath a sycamore tree, thinking of the unfilled hours ahead, replaying the conversation in the coffee shop, remembering the look on Martin’s face when he said goodbye to me.
I must have been there for less than half an hour when my mobile rang. It was Tom again, calling from the home phone. I tried to picture him, working at his laptop in our sunny kitchen, but the image was spoilt by encroachments from his new life. She would be there somewhere, in the background, making tea or feeding the little girl, her shadow falling over him. I let the call go to voicemail. I put the phone back into my bag and tried to ignore it. I didn’t want to hear any more, not today; today was already awful enough and it was not yet ten thirty in the morning. I held out for about three minutes before I retrieved the phone and dialled into voicemail. I braced myself for the agony of hearing his voice – that voice which used to speak to me with laughter and light and now is used only to admonish or console or pity – but it wasn’t him.