Caroline Alone Ch. 02byMortonGrange©
I suggest those of you who hated Part One take an early bath because this is more of the same. All I can ask those of you who hate what you read, but read it all the same and complain about it, is that you read carefully. We all spend our lives learning from our mistakes and my characters make lots. It's what makes us interesting and human. My point is to raise powerful emotions and it's for you to discover what to do with them. I suppose therefore I must accept that abuse is in the range of valid responses.
And to answer some of those who commented on my throw-away remark in my previous foreword about The Duel being a story of redemption: remember that in England assisting a terminally ill person to die is murder. I tried to make clear that Suzie didn't help Stan die because she believed in euthanasia but because in her own way she loved him. At the end, when he needed her most, she was there for him and risked everything to give him what he wanted, gaining nothing in return. I couldn't think of a greater sacrifice a person could make. In doing it she was attempting to atone for her errors and I thought her noble. But I accept that few read it that way, so it's down to me to do better next time. Maybe a male writer is always inclined to fall in love with his female lead in spite of her bad behaviour – or perhaps because of it. It was Flaubert who said of another famous adulteress: 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi.'
Now back to Caroline alone – and don't you just love her? Only kidding...
Copyright MortonGrange 2013
Caroline rose on the morning of her London trip disheartened by the complexities of her life. Jack was up early too and she was disconcerted by his calm and purposeful actions as he prepared breakfast, listened to the news on the radio, made lunch for the children and packed their sandwich boxes, roused then from bed and into their school clothes. This was all routine, but she wondered what was different and why she was uncomfortable.
"What's up Jack?" she asked eventually when she'd finished rushing about and was ready to leave.
"Busy day. Lot going on."
"Work? I'm sorry I can't get back tonight. Not fair you having to do the school run morning and night, but I'll make up next week."
"Not a problem."
"Jack, you must take more care of yourself. You work too hard and you never seem to relax. When I get back from this trip I'll make sure you get some fun."
"That's good of you, but really I'm fine. I have lots of fun with the children."
They looked at one another until Caroline picked up her overnight bag and briefcase and aimed a kiss at his lips, making contact with the corner of his mouth.
"Take care," she said with a twinge of alarm.
"You be careful," he responded. "And don't bother calling tonight. I may take the children out to eat and I shan't answer my phone while we're out."
"Don't stay out late."
He turned away. She knew something was wrong but had to go despite the anxiety lodged in the back of her mind. There was no time to worry about it now or she'd miss her train. She drove to the station struggling to make sense of what had happened. What did he mean: "Don't ring"? Of course she'd call and he could at least text to assure her the children were okay. It sounded more as if he didn't want to speak to her.
It was a relief to get onto the train and put the confusions of family behind her for a while at least.
Damien was waiting for her and as always he was wonderful, soothing her anxieties at once and bringing to the day the expectation of adventure. He was in high spirits, his lover wholly in his grasp for a while, and was fizzing with ideas for what she should do. They quickly agreed the itinerary: shopping in the morning; lunch; check in to the hotel; afternoon rest; evening performance of Anything Goes, the Cole Porter musical showing in a highly praised revival in the West End; dinner; bed. It was a dream day.
They stopped for lunch with the anticipation of an afternoon at the hotel making them ravenous. Damien found a chic oyster bar in Fitzrovia and wanted her to drink champagne. She'd have rather kept her head clear, but accepted a glass to drink with her smoked salmon and cream cheese in an artisan brown bread sandwich. They sat on tall stools at the bar, leaning together and kissing between mouthfuls.
"To many happy days like this," toasted Damien, clicking her glass with his.
Before she could reply his phone rang and he spoiled the moment by answering.
She sipped her wine and took a bite of her sandwich and watched the colour drain out of his face.
"What the fuck!" He was staring angrily ahead of him, phone pressed hard against his ear. "Are you sure? That can't be right. An email from me? But I'm not at work. I've not looked at my private emails this morning. This must be a mistake. I'll call you back."
Damien put down his phone and pulled out his iPad.
"What's the matter Dam? What's happened?"
He didn't answer at once but fiddled with his iPad. "Give me a moment. Something's come up."
She stared at him, food forgotten. This wasn't some ordinary work problem. He spent minutes tapping away, then picked up his phone and made a call.
"I can't see the message. There's nothing here in my email account. Are you sure this isn't some scam? Send me a copy."
He put down his phone, but before she could say anything, it rang again. This time he looked grim as he listened in silence and ended the call with a "Yes sir."
Now he had time to look at her and it felt as if he was angry with her.
"Someone's playing games and sent a message from my private email account this morning to everyone on my contact list. Apparently it says we're having an affair and claims we got together at your work."
"But how could they and how come it was sent from your email?" Caroline was lost in the implications of what Damien was telling her. "You mean..."
"... Some bastard has hacked my account, told everyone about you and made derogatory comments about your employers as if they are my professional views. That was my boss on the phone. The email's already been copied to your people and they're demanding to know what I've been up to. Shit! You know how some of them hated our recommendations and now they're demanding to know whether I was straight with them or whether I let you influence me unduly."
They stared at one another. Her mind softened by romance, Caroline was still struggling to absorb what had happened. It couldn't be serious. It must be a mistake that would soon be sorted out. So what if people at work knew about her and Dam? Did that matter? Of course it mattered, because of Jack. Every few moments there was the sound of a text message arriving on his phone. He glanced at these and his iPad and shook his head.
"Look Caroline, I have to go back."
"But you can't." Caroline was fighting tears of frustration and rising panic. "How can this affect us?"
"Come off it Caroline. Your crapulous husband must have done this. It's obvious when you think about it. You remember the lunch that went missing from my fridge?" He stopped and thought for a moment. "Yes that's it. The bastard's been in my house. This is some kind of sick revenge. He must have sent the message. Where is he now?"
"At work." Caroline paused and concentrated her thoughts. "But what do you mean Dam? Jack doesn't know about us. I'm sure about that. Only this morning..." Her voice tailed off as she remembered Jack's implacable calm as she got ready to leave. Why did she insist he knew nothing? The horror of her situation suddenly gripped her throat and she choked on a crumb of artisan bread.
Damien turned his iPad to face her. Full screen and with a startling depth of colour was her graduation portrait. What was he doing with that? She collapsed into tears.
The door closes on Caroline and it's time to act. Jack knows he's let fear and depression paralyse him for too long. All the same, he goes through his mental checklist, reminding himself of the business cliché that every problem is an opportunity. The children: he must protect them, but this lie of a family is not good for them. Caroline: there's no future for his marriage to an unfaithful and lying wife; he's not responsible for her and the good times they shared cannot hold the future hostage. Money, home and practical matters: there are happy families that live on virtually nothing; one way or another they will get by. Work: screw work. He knows what to do and has the energy to do it. Yes, he's waited too long, but now it's time to pull the house down and share out the pain.
He gets the children into the car and gives them letters for their teachers.
"It's to tell them I'm picking you up at lunchtime," he explains. "I have to see a man this afternoon and I can't be sure of getting back in time for the end of school. We'll go together and make it a holiday."
"Do you mean I don't have to go to my double French lesson this afternoon?" asks Ben.
"Correct. Just this once. I'll test you on your vocabulary list in the car."
"I'll shan't have singing with Miss Pritchett. She has scabs on her hands and sniffs," says Amy happily.
"We'll have dinner on the way home," adds Jack.
"Awesome," says Ben. "I'd like fish and chips with lots of vinegar and ketchup."
"You'll have to be good first, then I'll see what we can do."
The mood in the car lightens and they sing songs as they drive to school. Jack drops them off and once more takes the road to Dixborough, but this time without the pain and confusion of earlier visits.
He stops directly outside Damien's house, puts on his surgical gloves, rings the bells and after a pause takes his key out and lets himself in. He goes directly to the computer and switches on. Opening Damien's email he turns to the sent file and searches for a message he's previously seen. It's a round robin message of the most facile and excruciating kind sent by Damien at Christmas to about a hundred recipients, updating them with photos on his activities in the last year – successes at work, new house, holidays, surfing in Australia, sky diving in Arizona, skiing in the Tyrol. Then there are the rugby matches and leagues he's won, the tries he's scored and the man of the match awards received, and then the charity work and the local politics. By his own assessment he's a very worthy man.
Jack skim-reads the message to remind himself of its glib, self-congratulatory style, then cuts and pastes the list of recipients into a new message. It's clear from the names that family members are included, friends from work and acquaintances from his various past-times. He opens another email which contains a copy of a work email including a number of business contacts, including some from Caroline's work. Again he copies the email addresses into his new message. Shutting everything from his mind, he starts to write.
"Greetings to family, friends and work colleagues. I have hot news for you all. Open the attachment and raise a glass to my gorgeous new girlfriend Caroline. Isn't she a knockout? And what a great time we've been having (you bet she's never short of energy). Found the sleeping beauty on one of my consultancy missions to the outer edge of civilisation. God were her employers an unattractive, stupid and venal bunch of losers. I swatted them like bluebottles and darling Caroline's my prize. The only downside is she's married with two young children. But I'm working on it and I'll let you know when I've unstitched her from her deadbeat husband. Then we'll be visiting so you can meet her in the flesh – and what flesh!"
Jack takes out a memory stick and uploads a file as an attachment to the email. It's a portrait photograph of Caroline taken at her MBA graduation and she's smiling to camera, radiant and innocent on her day of triumph – a picture Jack has always admired.
He hits "send", deletes the saved copy of the message, removes his memory stick and turns off the machine. Twenty minutes after entering the house he's back in his car on the road out of Dixborough, determined he'll never visit the place again. On the way, he throws the copied door key out of the window. He's feeling better than he's done for days.
He goes home, showers and changes for his afternoon appointment, picks up a change of clothes, games consoles and books for Ben and Amy, eats lunch and goes to collect his children.
Eight hours later the three of them are seated in a Brighton seafront fish and chip shop eating dinner. Jack is tired and a little euphoric and slow in answering his children's persistent questions. The children have been hard at it all afternoon, loving their unexpected holiday from school and revived by the food and sea air. He's beginning to wilt under the strain of his day, knowing he still has to drive home. He turns on his phone when he goes to the toilet and there's a text from Caroline telling him she's at home and demanding to know where he is and to call at once. The email time bomb has detonated.
He switches off his phone and returns to his children. He's not ready to leave and encourages them to eat ice cream while he drinks coffee. Why not stay the night? There are hotels along the sea front and tomorrow will be soon enough to deal with Caroline.
He tells the children and of course they like the idea of staying the night. He'll drop them at school in the morning on the way home and they'll only be a little late.
"I want to go on the beach before we drive home tomorrow," says Ben.
"I don't have my toothbrush or my Panda and teddy bears," says Amy.
"Don't worry," says Jack. "Your cuddly toys are off on their holidays too and I can buy toothbrushes. We'll get up early and walk on the beach before breakfast."
He tries the first hotel and gets a room which can fit them all. It takes time to calm his overtired and excitable children, but he finally gets them bathed, into bed and asleep. He doesn't last much longer himself. Lying in bed, he sends a text to his wife: "Children and I having great day out at seaside. Back tomorrow."
When he switches off the light he reflects on his afternoon. He's been to visit Professor Pickering, the supervisor of his master's dissertation and the year's research he put into a PhD before family life shut him down. Jack had rung him in the week to ask if he could take up his PhD again and the Professor suggested he came down to discuss it. The children sat in silence with their books in the corner of the Professor's cluttered office and were ordered to behave. The interview went well because Jack had kept up his reading and work had given him new insights into his subject, which was economic history, and particularly industrial and maritime economics. They argued vigorously about the current debt crisis and nineteenth century state subsidies for the shipping industry, which Jack had been writing about when last a student. It was a relief to talk about matters that interested him and to forget his unfolding tragedy. He let himself go, until interrupted by Amy.
"Daddy, I can't understand a word you and that man are saying."
Jack and the Professor laughed and the interview at once descended into jokes and a discussion of the practical issues in becoming a student again. His idea had been to work on the doctorate part-time – perhaps persuade his employer to reduce his hours – and the Professor found him some maintenance and hardship bursaries that might be relevant. Now, lying in bed, Jack wonders whether he should resign altogether and study full-time. Let Caroline deal with the financial consequences and take a turn at providing for the family. It's an attractive thought and he falls asleep in a more positive frame of mind than circumstances might otherwise have allowed.
The children wake him by leaping onto his bed when the first daylight brightens the room. He dresses them for school so that they'll be ready when they get home, then they walk along the damp sand below high tide to the pier and back to the hotel for a big breakfast. Then he drives home and goes in to school with each child to explain why they're late.
"Your wife rang," says Amy's teacher disapprovingly. "She didn't think Amy would be in today."
"Crossed wires," says Jack. "She's on a business trip and rather out of the loop."
"We've been on holiday to the seaside," adds Amy unhelpfully. "With our daddy."
Jack suspects that awkward conversations like this will become the norm and he smiles at the teacher, trying to ooze good intentions.
He imagines Caroline will be at work, but he's still reluctant to go home. Instead he drives to work, writes a letter of resignation and emails it to his boss. He's just received his annual bonus and in his appraisal it was emphasised how vital he was to the success of a project assessing the financial liabilities in the acquisition of a small competitor. In its own way the email is likely to be as large a bombshell as yesterday's effort. He chats to a few colleagues, tells them what he's done and is suitably gratified by their horrified response.
He can't find any reason for further delay and drives home. Caroline's car is parked on the drive and he doesn't know whether to be pleased or not. Now is as good time as any to have their discussion. He goes indoors and she's furiously wiping kitchen surfaces. She turns and they stare at one another without speaking. If anything, she's more keyed up than he.
"Ben only missed his first lesson," he says calmly. "I explained to their teachers so they won't get into trouble for being a little late. I took them to Brighton."
She looks bewildered and nods, but still can't speak. Eventually she says "Coffee?"
He nods too and wanders into his study and turns on his computer. He sees a number of new emails, all along the lines of "Is it true that you and Caroline are splitting up?" The vibrations from his bombshell continue.
Caroline comes to his door. "Better drink the coffee in the sitting room."
He follows her and sits in an upright chair. She takes the corner of the settee and begins by making sure to keep eye contact. Her voice doesn't falter, but he notices that when she pauses her glance falls away and it takes time to collect her thoughts.
"I take it you know."
"And that you sent the email."
He makes no reply. He has no reason to admit anything.
"This is wrong and I don't like to feel bad. I see I can't deceive you Jack, the man I love. You mean the world to me and I shall love you till the day I die. I thought it best not to tell you but it was hard dealing with the fear that you might find out. Damien and I have talked about it every way and we would eventually have decided you must know. Anyway, you found out. Damien and I have been seeing one another. I love him – I love you too – and yes, we've been to bed, I have to tell you. Please don't take it to heart. I wanted to tell you before, but I was afraid of hurting you."
His wife stares at her hands. Brave and bold, she looks up, but can only meet Jack's stare for an instant. After a while, she continues gently.
"Damien's a good man and if you gave him the chance you'd like him. You'd find so much in common and he's good to me. He makes me a better person and you've benefitted from that. He likes simple fun – a meal, a film, walking in the park – we've spent a lot of time in the park. I've seen the daffodils and the blossom and the roses come and go. I know you think I'm scatty, but he listens to me and helps me get my thoughts straight. And he lets me pamper him and tells me I'm a star and a beauty and that you're such a lucky man. I come back to you on top of the world and I'm so happy. I've so much to give you. Life is so full. I thought you must have noticed."