Back to Bristol Ch. 14


She didn't like that one much either. "I wish I could answer that as well. Some of it must be Susan's influence....."

"You can't blame Susan for all of it. You wrote me that dreadful letter. It was your signature on the bottom, not Susan's."

She frowned and sipped her drink. Then she wiped her eyes, "I don't blame Susan for all of it. And that letter was one of the inexplicable things in whatever Susan was playing at. Looking back, I can see some of the things that Susan did that did do damage, that manipulated me. She argued so heavily that I must give you time to decide for yourself if you wanted me back. And she was heavy on that you probably wouldn't. That you were too proud a man, you wouldn't take me back. I think that sort of talk probably pushed me more and more into depression."

I shook my head, "How could a mother do that?"

"But it was more than that. I remember at least twice when she physically stopped me coming to see you. When I got so upset, so desperate, that I was heading out of the door to see you, she physically held me back. 'You can't go and see him when you're like this. You'll do more harm than good. Come and have a cup of tea and calm down. Go and see him at the weekend, when you're calmer.' And, of course the moment passed. If only..."

"If only...." I echoed.

"But then, when I came to write that letter, she was helpful. I don't understand that, I talked to Ralph about it the other day. Because suddenly, one afternoon, I scrawled out a letter to you, begging you to take me back. It was lying on the table when Susan came round. She used to call in every day just to check up on me and see how everything was. I used to be so grateful for all the time she put in, now I wonder.... Anyway, she saw it and asked what it was and I let her read it. Well, she told me it was an emotional scrawl and that we could do better. She then sat down with me and helped compose a sensible, constructive letter, that wasn't all emotion, but it still said how sorry I was and wished you'd take me back..."

"If that's what you thought you said, then I suggest you launch a suit against your English teacher, because it drove a knife into my heart. Several knives."


"Well, for a start, as soon as I opened it, I saw it was typewritten. Where's the loving appeal in a typed letter?"

"That was Susan. She said it should be typed, and I let her. But it was the words that mattered. And they did tell you how I felt."

I sighed, "I wish I still had it. I threw it away. For a split second throwing it away helped. But I read it at least twice, and scanned some of the phrases a dozen times." I paused, and thought, "You don't think Susan corrupted it do you?"

"No. I'll swear it was all my own words. I checked it very carefully before I signed it and I put it in the envelope and put a stamp on it myself. Every word was from my heart, I promise."

I shrugged, "Then you have some very odd understanding of the English language. 'That special afternoon.' I remember that phrase to explain your tryst with Peter. And that you 'thought' you'd loved me. Even our past love was written off as a mistake...."

"Did I say that? I don't remember what adjective I used for that afternoon. And I know I had been saying that I thought I loved you, but I'm sure I just said that I loved you in the letter. You must have read it wrong. You admit that it upset you that it was typewritten, you probably had written it off before you ever read it."

I sipped my wine, "Maybe. I do have to admit that I was so hurt by all of this. I don't think I was so angry by the time of the letter, but I was still hurt. Maybe I didn't read it all correctly. But even then...."

"Ralph's been trying to explain to me how much I hurt you. I'm sorry. I think I was so wrapped up in my own horrors I didn't understand. And Susan was saying you'd be alright. That you were a man, they get over these things. Again, I guess she was steadily peeling me away from you. That's what makes the way she helped over the letter so odd, even if you didn't like that she wanted it typed up."

"Maybe it was her one act of redemption. So that, in her own mind, she could say she tried."

"Yes. That's what I decided. One act of doing the right thing to balance weeks of doing it wrong. I don't know if I can ever forgive her. I don't want to split with my own mother, but..."

"Give it time. See if she apologises, when she realises that she's been found out, and that Peter's on his way out. It's up to her to say sorry."

We both sat and drank the rest of our wine in silence for a couple of minutes. Then Molly asked, "Do you want the boys at the weekend? It's a Bank Holiday one again."

"Yes. It's because it was a late Easter, but we seem to be only doing a nine day fortnight recently. But, of course I want them one day. How about the Monday? I guess I should take them to Longleat, if that's where they want to go. It's as good a place as any for a day out."

"That sounds nice. They had a good day there last time, it was only me that didn't."

"Well, they'll have a good time. I do owe you a big thank you on how easy it has been to get back into their lives."

"I think making sure that your memory never died with them helped keep it alive for me. And, considering you were travelling or living abroad for over three years, you did all that could have been expected of you. I wasn't surprised that you never forgot a birthday or Christmas, or even the new school terms. But in some ways it hurt me, it reminded me what a good man I'd lost, that I'd pushed their father away. I owe them big time." And her eyes clouded again.

We stood up and I gave her a reassuring hug, "Don't worry. Children survive parents. Its just life to them."

We knew the evening was over, and I escorted her down to the front door, where I kissed her on the cheek and said goodbye.

After she'd driven off, I went back inside and poured myself a whisky. As I sipped it, I thought about how I still couldn't reconcile the intelligent Molly that I knew, that had been here in this flat until a few minutes ago, with the fucking stupid idiot that allowed her life to go so wrong.

For the next three days I hardly had a second to think of Molly and her or my future. Two days were in London, of which a whole twenty minutes was spent reporting to The Old Man. We talked about the possibility of developing the Marston Abbey site, and he insisted that we involve the PR people. Corporations selling off historic buildings, if it turns out to be against the wishes of the local population or some special interest group, can always turn into a PR nightmare. I did also mention that I was considering the future of the Exeter operation, and the possibility of selling them off, or allowing a management buy out, if that's what Stephen Hobbs can put together. That allowed him to finish the meeting with "Exodus 5:1".

As I left his office, I said to Pamela, "Can I borrow your Bible?" and through the open door, I heard The Old Man's voice, "Let my people go."

Pamela looked at me, and we both laughed. Then she rather surprisingly said, "I like Carole."

"So do I." I answered.

"The best of her type in the Group, I'd say."

I looked at her, and very clearly said, "And she's staying in Bristol."

Pamela smiled, "Just testing. Making sure you appreciate what you've got."

As I sat on the train on Friday evening, heading for Bristol, I thought I was becoming paranoid. I began to wonder what Pamela's message of appreciating what I've got was meant to mean. Was it possible that Carole had talked my problem through with Pamela, and this was Pamela's hidden advice? Common sense told me that that was a stupid idea, and even if it wasn't, the advice was wasted because I couldn't see how it applied to me.

By the time I got home on that Friday, I was tired, and feeling grimy from London and travelling. I ran myself a nice deep hot bath and was just about to get in it when Mum phoned. They were now in St Andrews, and Len was thinking of taking up Golf. I did tell her that my thinking was now focussed on trying to understand what happened to Molly that made her marry Peter. I told her about Susan's games, and that kept us talking for quite some time. And, although I made no real progress in my thinking, it was calming and relaxing just to talk all my thoughts through with Mum. She didn't contribute much to my thinking, but was a good listener, and that was possibly the best thing she could have done.

It was about eleven o'clock on Saturday morning that I got a call from Ralph. Could he come and see me? And it was about a quarter to twelve before he arrived.

I let him in, and asked, "Do you fancy a cup of coffee? I'm about to have one."

"Yes, thanks." And he followed me into the kitchen and watched me make a couple of mugs of instant coffee, with little more than small talk about the weather.

When I handed him a mug, he sat on a stool at the breakfast bar, whilst I just leant against the kitchen units opposite. "OK, what's this about, Ralph?"

"It's about that letter that Molly sent you." He paused, "Look Chris, I never knew there had been a letter until you told me that day in my shed. No one had told me about it. But then, Susan couldn't tell me because we weren't meant to be interfering, were we?" There was a sharp edge of bitterness in his voice.

"Even if you'd known it wouldn't have made much difference. You might have stopped her sending it I suppose, that might have saved me some heartache, but the result would have been the same."

"Well, anyway, I talked to Molly about it, or rather she talked to me about it when I asked how Tuesday night went. And it struck me as odd that you and Molly have such different views on it."

"I guess memory corrupts..."

Ralph ignored me, "So I asked Molly all about it. I don't know if she explained to you, but one afternoon, in desperation, she wrote you a long letter. Well, by chance Susan saw it, and read it, and told Molly it was an emotional scrawl and almost illegible, which was possibly true. Anyway, call me Mr Suspicious if you like, but as soon as Susan came into the picture I got worried."

"So did I. But Molly assured me she checked it and sealed it in the envelope herself. That's Susan-proof, on this occasion."

"Well, I wasn't surprised that Susan wanted to type it up. If you remember it was just after we got our first home computer. We've still got it, although I guess I really should buy a new one. I'd used computers at the office for years, of course, but it was all new to Susan. And she learnt, taught herself really, MS Word. And she was typing everything. She produced two beautiful ring binders of all her cake recipes at that time, each recipe in one of those plastic pockets so that they didn't get mucky as they were used. I think she typed everything then, it was her new toy. I suspect she even typed her shopping lists."

I smiled, and Ralph continued, "So, it was natural that Susan would want to type it up, especially if Molly's handwriting was a bit emotional, and they wanted to make changes. But, now this is the bit where I have an apology to make, I got nosey. So, I asked Molly if she had a copy and if I could read it, but she didn't. Anyway, last night I decided to check the computer. And there buried amongst the five years of letters to the bank and the gas company and the credit card companies, and letters about my pension, there was Letter-CB."

And Ralph produced three sheets of folded paper from his inside breast pocket.

"Now, please Chris, I know this may mean revisiting painful memories, but is this the letter you got from Molly?" and he handed me the three sheets.

I took one glance, their image was already burned into my memory. The first sheet with the address and date at the top. The second sheet with five paragraphs on it, and the third sheet with only one paragraph and Molly's sign off. I glanced at all three sheets briefly, and said, "Yes. This was it. For the life of me I don't see how Molly could have believed that this would solve anything."

"No, Chris. I'm sorry. I want you to read it properly, and tell me if you are certain it's a copy of the letter."

I looked at him, I didn't want to do this, but he just looked at me and waited. Eventually I read every hurtful, painful word. And I put it down on the work surface.

"Yes. That's the one. Are you going to tell me that Susan was clever enough to get those words past Molly, without Molly knowing? I know she was emotional and depressed, but that would make her plain stupid."

Ralph handed me a second set of three pages, "And this is the letter that Molly wrote."

I took it from him, and he added, "I've had Molly check it this morning, and she swears that's the letter she wrote, just like you swear the other one is the letter you received."

There was a pause while I read this new letter. It was basically in the same format as the first. There were now six paragraphs on the second page. But the third page was the same vanilla ending as the earlier version.

When I finished reading, I looked up at Ralph. I could feel tears pricking my eyes. What I had in my hand was a desperate plea from a desperate woman, seeking a chance to make amends, to be able to put our family back together at any cost.

"If I'd have received that, I'd have been knocking at her door half an hour after the postman had delivered it to me. I really would."

"I know. I know. And I'm so sorry that you didn't get it."

For a moment we just looked at each other. I'm not sure who was closer to tears.

In the end, Ralph asked, "What do you notice about the two letters?"

I held them in my two hands, "Her real plea for a second chance is all focused in one short paragraph on the second page, which was deleted in my version. Otherwise, in words they aren't that far apart. 'That special afternoon' that I got was 'that dreadful afternoon' that Molly wrote. The changes are small, but powerful."

I looked at the letters again, I noticed that 'I love you' had become 'I thought I'd loved you'.

I looked at Ralph. "I guess this was Susan's doing, but how?"

"Look at the third pages."

I did so, "They are both the same."

"Exactly. I've talked to Molly, I reckon that Susan took Molly her version, all typed up and neat, and Molly checked it and signed it. She then put it in an envelope that Susan had brought with her, already addressed, sealed it up and put a stamp on it. Then Susan volunteered, and Molly says this is what happened, that Susan would post it on the way home."

Light began to dawn, and I completed the story, "And all she had to do was open the original. Swap the two first pages with the horrid version, still with Molly's signature on the third page, pop it back in a new envelope with a new stamp, and it's all done."

Ralph nodded, "That's my guess. And the letters are so close in many ways that you and Molly could talk about them, with completely different views on the meaning, but never realise. Ninety percent of the words are identical. In fact, you and Molly have discussed them without realising."

I drank my coffee, while there was silence between us, then I said, "Bit of a risk, but she got away with it."

"What else could she do? With Molly determined that she was going to write to you."

Again there was a long pause. I looked at Ralph, "You once described my ex-wife as a stupid dumb cunt." Ralph smiled, and I asked, "Do you mind if I call your wife an evil selfish bitch?"

He smiled again, but grimly, "At the moment you could put it on her headstone as far as I'm concerned."

I drained my coffee, and asked, "How's Molly taken it?"

"What would you expect? Shell-shocked. Disgusted. At the moment, she says this is the last straw. She's saying that she doesn't want to see Susan ever again. She's disowned her. In fact she thought she might write her a letter to tell her that. At least she could see the funny side of that, she thought she might apologise if it was an emotional scrawl."

There was a long silence whilst I absorbed the story. Then I asked, "Do you fancy another coffee. I think I'm having one."

"No thanks."

I turned to switch the kettle on again, and make myself another mug of coffee. As I went to the fridge for the milk, I asked over my shoulder, "And what will you do?"

"I'm seeing her tomorrow for lunch, at a pub just outside Blandford Forum. I thought I might lay out both versions and just see what she says. If she hasn't got a very good explanation, or that she doesn't apologise and convince me that she is truly sorry, well, I reckon any solicitor or judge would see it as unreasonable behaviour, don't you?"

I recognised the phrase. I turned slowly, "Divorce? Are you sure? How long have you two been married?"

"Thirty seven years in September. But yes, divorce."

I finished making my coffee and looked at him.

Ralph looked out of the window for a few moments, before turning back towards me, "Over the last few weeks whilst I've forced her to stay down in Weymouth, I've been giving our marriage a lot of thought. What is it, beyond a comfortable habit? She has absolutely no interest in the garden. I have no interest in her cake circle, making cakes for any old charity that wants to hold a coffee morning or a bring and buy sale. We go out for a country pub lunch once or twice a week. We see each other over the dining table and talk about the day's headlines or Jamie and Ben. We watch television in the evenings, but don't really talk. She has no interest or willingness to travel, and yet some of my life's ambitions are to see some plants in their natural habitat. We sleep in the same bed, and occasionally have sex. But that's about it."

"But it was enough."

"Yes it was. But now I've got to face a woman everyday over that dining table who was a secretive, evil selfish bitch, to use your words. I don't think I want to do that."

"I'm sorry. I never envisaged this, and I never wanted that to happen to you and Susan. What does Molly say?"

"She doesn't. I haven't told her yet. I don't think I'll tell her until I've finally made up my mind, but Susan's got to do something pretty radical to drag me back from the inevitable."

For a while Ralph was asking my advice on what would happen with the financial settlement in any divorce. He knew he would have to split their current wealth fifty-fifty, and that would mean selling the house. What worried him was just how big a slice of his pension would Susan win.

When we'd talked about that for some time, I asked, "You don't fancy a pie and a pint do you? I've got a new local, and I haven't tried it yet. I assume we can get something for lunch there."

"I'd love to." Ralph cheerfully accepted.

Once we had ordered our lunch and got our pints, we found a table to sit at. Ralph sipped his pint and looked at me, "You know I think this is only about the third time you and I have actually gone to the pub together. Peter was always wanting to take me to the pub, I guess he knew I was the one who he had to win over."

"You're not a bad judge of character. Tell me about Peter. What's he like, or going to be like in the next few months?"

He shrugged, "He's very easy going, at least on the surface. Very clubbable."

I smiled, "Can I volunteer to do the clubbing?"

Ralph laughed, "You know what I mean. But somewhere I always got the vibe of an immature person below all the very well honed social skills."

"What do you mean? What makes you think that?"

"From what I've learnt over the years, I don't think Peter discovered women until quite late in life, not until he was well into his twenties. Before that, I think he was what I would call a swot, and Jamie would probably call a nerd or a geek. But once discovered, I think he set about making up for lost time. I think there were quite a few notches on his bed post before Molly came along..."

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