Caroline Alone Ch. 04byMortonGrange©
Thank you to those who have taken the time to read my story and especially to those who have commented. I hope you think it was worthwhile. Writing is a strange experience, a compulsion which makes for hard work and leads to unexpected results.
I've done my best to get this post finished as quickly as I can and have beaten my weekly schedule. But writing is a slow business for me, so don't expect any new stories for some while. And despite some commentators who think me verbose (fair enough) I think this was a novel-length plot which I have skimped. Must try harder.
Now for the last part of Caroline Alone. It was Alfred Hitchcock whose advice on scripting was: "Torture the woman"...
Copyright MortonGrange 2013
The children were excited as they packed clothes for a week and chatted and sang songs in the car all the way out of the city. Caroline knew they were happy because they were on their way to see their father, but she was in good spirits too. It seemed like a holiday for all of them and she'd not had a chance to enjoy being with her children for a long time. It was foolish, but she was eager to see Jack's new home and hopeful he'd be more relaxed on his own territory. If they could at least be friends she'd chip away at his bitter shell and with a wholehearted effort she'd find a way to reconnect. They'd always enjoyed one another's company, so why not again?
The traffic was bad; they took some wrong turns; the motorway was shut by an accident and it was raining. By the time they found somewhere to park at the University, the children were bad-tempered and hungry and she was exhausted.
"We need a place to sit down where we can eat when Jack comes," she suggested to her children, who were racing about now they were out of the car and eager to show her the campus.
"That's where Daddy works," said Amy, standing in the piazza and pointing proudly at the concrete and glass Humanities building.
"Let's go to the Refectory," said Ben. "Dad says they do good burgers with six types of relish and the chips aren't bad. We've not had a chance to try the burgers yet."
He led the way to the cafeteria, which was noisy with staff and students grabbing a quick lunch, greeting friends and stopping to do business between the serving counters. They eventually found a table and Caroline sent Jack a text to let him know where to find them. She hoped he wouldn't be long because they were hungry, the children kicking one another irritably under the table and looking round at the endless procession of people in the hope of seeing Jack.
"There's Hazel," said Ben suddenly straightening in his chair. He called out. "Hello Hazel. I bet you're having the soup not the burgers."
She was talking to a woman with a braid in her hair but looked up and smiled, glancing cautiously at Caroline as she came across.
"Hello Ben. Hello Amy. I hope you're having a good day out. A few more years and you can come to my lecture. Not the place to try and get some peace," she added as an overture to Caroline.
"Hazel's Dad's girlfriend," said Ben to his mother by way of explanation.
"Actually I'm not," said Hazel. To make it sound less like a put-down to Ben, she added, "But I remember we had a great picnic by the river when I brought my soup and you taught me to play football."
"You do make sure Daddy's not lonely," said Amy.
Nobody knew how to reply to this and Caroline eventually said, "I ought to introduce myself. I'm Jack's wife and these are my children. Do you work with him here?"
"Not as such. We're more like competitors. In the same faculty but with incompatible educational and pedagogic ambitions. He's with the fuddy-duddies bellowing for more of the exclusive male curriculum where they recount the triumphs of great men."
Caroline brightened up. "You're not friends then? Jack does take his subject very seriously."
"Jack didn't tell me he was married and I didn't pry. I hope Ben and Amy think of me as a friend. We've had fun together."
"Please sit down. This is a difficult conversation but I'm worried about Jack and don't know what's going on. If there's been a misunderstanding then I expect it's my fault. I wouldn't want you to feel badly about Jack."
Hazel didn't look happy, but pulled up a chair from another table and sat down a little to one side, facing Caroline.
"What about the grub?" asked Ben hopefully.
"In just a moment," said Caroline and began to tell Hazel the story of how Jack had given up his job in a bank to pick up his studies and how she admired and supported his commitment despite the financial hardship and the travelling. Hazel looked grim, clutching her bag to her chest and the children sat in silence watching the two women.
Caroline was explaining how strong-willed and inflexible Jack could be when he finally arrived and stood beside the table, uncertain what to do.
"Daddy!" Amy jumped to her feet and flung her arms round his waist. He bent and kissed her, then ruffled Ben's hair.
"I want to hear how the football went and did you play in goal?"
"Six nil, six nil. We walloped them and my teacher said I kept a clean sheet."
The women stared and Caroline half rose to join in the kissing. Jack crossed to the other side of the table and sat in the chair between his children.
"Jack, it's good to see you," she said brightly, but saw that he was watching Hazel. "Hazel and I were getting to know one another. It must be so exciting working among all these smart people."
"I hope you had a good journey down. It can be busy mid-morning on the motorway," he replied. There was silence and he looked at each person in turn. Abruptly he stood up. "I seem to have killed the conversation. Much better if I leave you women to gossip. You kids coming with me?"
"But I was promised a burger," protested Ben.
"I'm going with my Daddy," said Amy and grabbed his hand as he walked away.
"Maybe I can have a burger another time," said Ben and hurried after them.
"Well that was pointed," said Hazel and let out a sigh. "Tell me Caroline, why did Jack come to Brighton? Are you separated – I mean estranged?"
"Is that what Jack said? It's not quite like that. Shall we get a coffee?"
The sun has come out and Jack takes the children to the sea front and they eat beefburgers and chips from a kiosk in the open with a wary eye on the circling seagulls. The meal is not great, but fills everyone up and there are no complaints. He's upset by the encounter in the Refectory and knows his children are put out, that their day is failing to meet expectations because they like having their parents together with them.
Jack texts Caroline to say where they are and after eating they walk along the promenade. Ben spots a crazy golf course where the ball is knocked over miniature bridges and through tunnels and into the mouths of painted monsters. He's intrigued and insists they have a game. Jack concedes and they collect balls and putters and wait for a go at the first hole. Ben takes the competition seriously, planning his shots but mostly over-hitting them. Jack has to help Amy by reaching his arms over her shoulders and holding the putter with her. They have great fun after some early mishaps, giving Ben a serious challenge, but he wins on the last hole. Hot and thirsty, they look round for ice creams and discover Caroline seated on a bench watching them.
"You looked so happy. I needed a rest and watched you play," she explains. "Jack, I'm sorry about what happened just now. It was an accident and I didn't mean to put you out. I'd not prepared myself to meet Hazel and I was embarrassed too."
"No problem. Not your fault. We had a good time without you. I'm just going to get the children ice creams. They'd like to go on the beach."
They sit down on the pebbles at the top of the beach and the children take off shoes and socks before running down to the sea. Caroline is seated beside Jack on her folded jacket and screens her eyes from the sun so that she can watch her children splashing in the waves.
"You've given up on us haven't you," she says. "I suppose you want a divorce and I'm so sorry for the children. It's obvious that Hazel's after you."
Jack thinks carefully before replying. "Divorce may be a good idea."
"I explained to Hazel about Damien and made clear I mean to keep hold of you. I think she found it difficult to understand my point of view. If you ask me she takes your side. But I shan't let you go. I'll fight her to the bitter end."
"She doesn't need to know about our sordid life."
"I want to be sure there's no misunderstanding. I shan't allow you to escape."
"Is that realistic? You're right, we're finished. I'm glad you worked it out eventually. We were done the moment you took your little detour from married life. I'll want a divorce, but for now it's not a priority. Much more important to get the children settled. I'm trying to think straight, do the right thing for them, and I think they'd be better off staying with me in the week next term. There are good schools here and cheap after school facilities on campus. In any case my work is more flexible than yours."
"You want to take them from me."
"This is about them, not you. Think about what's best for them."
"Leaving me alone."
"You have Damien. Go chase him. For once think of someone other than yourself."
"Don't mock me. Please Jack, I want you to think again. My affair with Damien had to happen. I'd have been a coward to turn away from his offer of love. It was my destiny and it hasn't worked out well, but don't punish me for trying. Now we can go back to how things were. I've learned my lesson."
"Me too. I don't want to live with a woman who betrays me when it suits her. I'll not do it, even for the children. They deserve something better."
"I never betrayed you..."
"Even now you've not given up on Damien, you're simply hedging your bets. You're still thinking about yourself before the children and you never stopped to think what your actions meant for others. What you did was carelessness or stupidity – it doesn't matter which. If I'm married I have to respect my wife. You're good company, sexy – all the things that interested me from the beginning – but I don't respect you now. It's not about blame – maybe you really can't help yourself. It's just that I know you're bad to be with; you can only bring me more misery if I stay with you. You should walk round with a red flag warning people to stay clear for their own safety."
She's crying and when the children rush back she gets up and runs up the steps onto the promenade so they won't see her tears. The children don't notice; they're enjoying the beach and want Jack to come and look at the dead jellyfish they've found. He goes with them to look.
Caroline drives home when they get back to the campus, not waiting to inspect Jack's flat.
The next morning Jack cooks a big breakfast of bacon and eggs for Ben and Amy and while they eat they talk about what to do with the day. He's bothered because he wants his children to have a good time, but he must also work on notes for a Monday progress meeting with his professor about his research. They're seated at the table finishing breakfast when the doorbell rings and Jack is astonished to find Hazel on his doorstep. She smiles and takes her hand from behind her back to present him with a single red rose.
"Isn't this what a man does to show his lover he's contrite? Jack, it's a token of how I feel about you and I'm sorry."
Jack takes the rose, uncertain what to do. "You don't believe in presents."
"Nor do I make a habit of admitting mistakes, or of presenting men with roses, but that's why I'm here. Can I come in? Please tell me everything's alright and we can start again."
"I'm surprised but of course you can come in. And I bet it's the children you want to see."
"Jack! I'm sorry. I made a big mistake. Now relax and let me put it right. I'm not going to hurt you."
She takes his hand and kisses him before coming into the kitchen and saying hello to the children. Ben's very pleased to see her and lets her kiss him.
"I saw you kiss Dad. You are Dad's girlfriend. I knew all along."
"You can't know that unless you've been told," said Jack confused and wary. "Otherwise it's like teasing a boy in your class by saying you saw him kissing a girl when you know they'd hate you to say that."
"But we saw you in bed together," says Amy. "So Hazel must be your girlfriend."
"That was a mistake."
"Letting you children see us was a mistake, but not being together," says Hazel. "My body was the intelligent part of me. My mind's not to be trusted. My mind's a whore, my body's a saint. Amy, you have a wonderful father. Jack was there when I needed him, but I pushed him away when he came to me for comfort. I shan't forgive myself."
"Of course my daddy's wonderful," says Amy judiciously. "He's good at reading stories and knows what every word means."
"I'm not a total baby," says Jack. "I met you for a drink the other day, not for comfort. And you stuck to your principles, which is good. It's just that your principles don't add up. Sit down and have some breakfast."
"It's bacon and eggs," says Amy. "There's nothing for you to eat except the tomatoes."
"Fried in the bacon fat," warns Jack. "We weren't expecting a vegan to breakfast and I like my children to have a square meal."
"I only want coffee. But can we sit down first?"
Jack sits down and she perches on his lap, puts her arms round his neck and kisses him provocatively.
"Yuck," says Ben.
"We ought to go away. They don't want us here," says Amy.
"No!" protest both adults.
"I'll behave myself," says Hazel, "But I had to show your dad how I feel about him. Sometimes I'm an idiot and I was one this week. I only hope Jack can forgive me."
"Dad's okay when I do something bad," says Ben. "He always forgives me. But don't stand near when he's cross. It's grim when he shouts."
"See what I mean?"
Jack feels a long way behind the game as Hazel takes over the discussion of what to do for the day and fits into the family as if there's been no interruption. He can't make sense of what she's doing but doesn't want to put her off. Is everything suddenly alright? It can't be so and he's still angry with her for rejecting him. But he's pleased she's there and can't take his eyes off her.
"Changed your mind when you saw I'm friends with the Vice Chancellor?"
She looks at him, checking to see whether or not he's serious.
"In your dreams. I'm the permanent lecturer here with doctoral students, you're the student with a few temporary hours teaching first year undergraduates. I'm not impressed with whoever you know, especially when it involves sucking up to the boss. But dressed up in your suit – what a knockout."
They spar agreeably and both start to relax. Jack imagines taking Hazel to bed and sees with amazement how contented his children have suddenly become. Is it because they have some instinct for recognising goodness?
It's agreed they will make the trip to Wittering, abandoned the day Hazel's dad died. Jack can work on the beach while she helps look after the children. It's as if getting dumped by Hazel was only a dream. They collect food for a picnic and when they're ready they drive to Hazel's house to pick up more things – a wind break and a rug to sit on. The sun's shining and it's set for a warm day.
The beach is sandy and not at all busy and they settle down, Jack with his laptop and the children with buckets and spades. With help from Hazel they start making sandcastles. Jack shuts everything out, even Hazel's slim body in its fetching bikini, and for an hour concentrates on work. Then they eat the picnic and he plays badminton in turn with everyone, including Hazel, who's mocked even by Amy she's so bad. Then he works again, but with his eye on the children. Hazel sunbathes, eyes closed. Then the children are busy defending their sandcastle against the incoming tide and Jack and Hazel kiss and it is like a dream.
"Jack, you're a married man with children but I'm a novice. I've worked hard all my life and never really had time for love. This is all a surprise to me and I'm having to learn how to deal with it. I was confused when I said those things about you. You were right; it was your principles being tested with Damien, not mine. I have no right to judge you and I let my feelings for you affect my judgement. I've never felt this for anyone before and I was protecting myself, telling myself I shouldn't trust my feelings.
"Then your wife told me what she'd done to you and all I could think about was the pain you must have been through – how it must be torture. And it made me feel bad to think of your pain and how I'd made it worse. Believe me, it didn't take me long to work out who was behaving badly. I can see how you are with your children – even how patient you are with Caroline, despite everything she's done to you. You think about others first and only then about yourself. I should have understood my feelings for you, but couldn't admit them. Nor could I just apologise. I was afraid of you, afraid of what you'd say, afraid of you rejecting me, afraid of doing the wrong thing.
"I've had boyfriends before, of course, but they've never amounted to anything. They confirmed everything I thought I knew about relationships – mad, masochistic, dangerous and ending in unhappiness all round. With you I'm out of my depth and I was responding with my fatuous ideas about how to behave – to show I could stand up for myself and won't take nonsense from anyone. I wasn't listening and was blind to what was happening in front of me. I'm a fool.
"Look Jack, let's stop messing about. I came back only because I love you. It's a bloody awkward feeling because it keeps putting me in the wrong. And maybe I failed to admit to myself that I loved you. Can't you see, it's hard for me to say this to you, but I need to know how you feel. If this is embarrassing you and you wish you'd never met me, then say so. I don't like muddle. I want to know where I stand."
Jack listens in stunned silence to this declaration of love and has to collect his thoughts quickly. "That rose you gave me. I'm as sentimental as a nine year old girl like Amy. I'll press it in my copy of Das Kapital, so no one will find it and I'll have it for evermore." Jack kisses her and wipes the tears off her cheeks with his finger.
"You're a clever woman. You know I love you, but you also know I'm confused. I can't believe my luck meeting you, but I'm worried that somehow at least part of what happened with Caroline is my fault and I'm not a suitable person to love you. And I'm terrified – with good reason – that this is just a dream and you're going to vanish as suddenly as you came. I'm still married to Caroline, which seems like a big obstacle, I'm worried about the children, I'm worried about my job and my research, I'm worried I'm going to crack under the weight of all this mess. It doesn't seem like the right time to be falling in love.
"But then I don't have any say in it. I'm more experienced than you and I trust my feelings and I know I love you. I couldn't be happier. I want to pull you tightly against me and never let you go."
He carries out his threat and they kiss and caress one another until they look up guiltily to check that the children are alright. The sandcastle's submerged, the water's at their feet. The children have moved to another fortification and are furiously digging sand to strengthen the walls against the flood. The sun has never shone so brightly, the sea never looked so beautiful, the golden beach so peaceful.
There was no reason for caution because Caroline was alone, but it still felt wrong to call Damien on the home phone. She'd decided to suggest meeting in London. Anything was better than spending the weekend on her own.