Back to Bristol Ch. 12


I found everybody in the sitting room. Five pairs of eyes turned to look at me as I came in. Some looked hurt, others were asking questions. I realised that Ben and Jamie both looked hurt. I went over to them and sat down on the floor with them, where they were playing Jenga with Ralph and Len.

I put my arms around both of them, "Mummy will be down in a minute."

Ben looked at me with very hurt but accusing eyes, "You were shouting at her, Daddy."

"Could you hear me? I'm sorry. Mummy said something that upset me, and it was only for a moment."

Jamie looked at me, slightly less hurt, "We couldn't hear what you were saying, but we heard your voice."

I smiled, I hoped I looked reassuring, "Well, don't worry. Mummy's OK, and she'll be down in a minute."

I looked around at the adults. Len seemed neutral, I couldn't work out what Ralph was thinking, but I got the impression I hadn't excused myself with Mum, she was looking at me with half closed eyes, staring intently.

I kissed both Ben and Jamie. "I'll take you to lunch on Sunday. You can think up what you'd like to do on Sunday afternoon, Jamie. Any special birthday treat you like. Now I'm going to go. I've already said goodbye to Mummy."

I stood up, I looked at Ralph, "Thanks for the hospitality, Ralph. I'll talk to you soon."

I looked round at Mum and Len, I went over and kissed Mum, very aware that she still hadn't said a word. "I doubt whether I'll see you again until after you get back from seeing Brian and your holiday in Scotland. So, do have a good time." I kissed her cheek again and headed for my car.

As I got to the front door, I realised that Mum was following me. Len was trailing behind her. I looked at her.

"Go on, out to your car. We can talk outside."

I went out and pulled my car door open, then I turned to Mum. "Don't say it Mum. Don't let's part on a row. Just give Brian my love, and Morag and the children of course, and I'll see you in a couple of weeks." And I kissed her on the cheek for the third time.

I was quite hopeful that she wasn't going to say anything, I was wrong.

"How could you? How could you shout at her? She's doing her best to hold it together. She's made a mess of her life, and now she's turned to the man she loves, the father of her children, and you shout at her and walk away. How could you?"

"I shouted at a woman who was unfaithful to me, who walked away from me, and who's been married to her lover for the last four years. And if you have a problem with that Mum, then you need your head examined."

We stared at each other in a sort of stand-off. I broke the spell to get into my car, and I closed the door and lowered the window. She was still watching me, intently, but I thought with a little doubt in her eyes. Len was still hovering just behind her. Then Ralph came out and looked at me.

Ralph said, "Before you go, Chris, I'd like a word." He looked at Mum.

It was Len who got the message. He took hold of Mum's arm, "Come on Dear. Let's go in and see the boys." And he led her indoors.

As she went through the front door, Ralph turned back to me, "I just wanted to say that I hadn't realised how hard this must be to you, Chris. I once said that I thought Molly was going to ask you to do the hardest thing you'll ever have to do. I thought that that was to try and forgive her. To try to build something new with her."

"I'm sorry, Ralph. I know that's what you want. It's what Mum wants. But...."

"But what I didn't think about is just how hard it must be for you to accept that any of that is even a possibility. I know that when we talked I never heard a word of criticism or recrimination against Molly. That gave me hope. I suppose its part of the reason I engineered all this. But, I didn't listen to everything. I've only just begun to realise you never said a word of anything but that it was all over. However much you had regrets, you never wished to change things. You very firmly accepted that she was gone, that she loved Peter more than you and that was that. I guess it's how you coped. It must be almost impossible to just change your thinking, to understand the options you have."

I looked at him, grateful for his understanding. But I could still feel my disappointment, hurt and anger with Mum coursing through me. "Don't tell me, Ralph. Tell them."

I put the car into reverse and slipped off his drive.

I went home to feeling pretty unsettled all that evening, and only managed a few hours of troubled sleep.

But on the Saturday I was feeling a little more cheerful, when in the middle of the morning my doorbell buzzed, and when I opened it, there stood Mum.

"Mum, I thought you were off to Newcastle to see Brian this morning."

"We are. Ralph is giving us a lift to the airport, and he and Len are downstairs. But I couldn't go without seeing you."

"Then you'd better come in."

We stood facing each other in the living room. She looked at me and just said, "Sorry."

I waited and she went on, "I'm sorry, Chris. Ralph talked last night about some of the conversations you and he had had in the last few weeks. I wasn't here when you and Molly broke up, I heard you on the phone when we talked, but I could never see your face or look into your eyes. I don't think I ever realised how hurt you were. I guess you still are."

I sighed, "Yes I was hurt. Suddenly, out of the blue, I'm told that I'm not wanted. That the life I'd given her wasn't good enough. I think part of my life ended then. Now I'm told it was all a mistake."

I looked at her, there were tears in her eyes, and she stepped up to me and hugged me.

"I know, Chris. I realise now. And I'm sorry. I thought that with a little nagging from an interfering mother, you could just pick up the pieces, and give Jamie and Ben their family back. It isn't that easy, I realise that now."

"Oh, Mum. I don't know what to do. I loved my life, my family back then. And of course I want Jamie and Ben to have a loving stable family around them. But I don't know that I can put it back together with Molly, I don't know that I even want to. If she screwed up, well that's her problem, and she can't expect me to put it right, not after five years of leaving me with all those hurts, doubts, insecurities. All those sleepless nights in miserable rented flats, drinking too much and picking up the wrong sort of girls. I can't just forget all that. It wouldn't work for me, and it certainly wouldn't give Jamie and Ben the family they deserve."

"Why not sit down and talk to her? At least try...."

"I just don't think there is any point. It seems cowardly and callous to just walk away, but maybe that would be for the best."

"I don't think you're a coward, and I certainly don't think you're callous. But I do think you're scared, and I don't know what I can do give you the strength...."

"It's not a matter of strength, Mum. What is the point of giving Molly hope, of giving Jamie and Ben hope, when it's never going to work? I just don't know how to try, I don't know if it's worth trying...."

"Do you still love her, even a little bit?"

"I don't even know the answer to that. I've trained myself for nearly five years not to think of her in that way. I just couldn't allow myself to do so. I had to move on, I had to build myself a new life, a different way of thinking. I've always known that I did love her, and that I loved the life we had. But memories of what we once had are no good for the future....I just don't know. And everyone seems to be waiting for me to announce some decision, and I have no idea what my decision is, or even what it's meant to be. I don't even know what is right anymore."

"Then do nothing until you do know. And the rest of us will just have to wait."

I looked at her, her eyes were softer and kinder than they'd been for the whole of this trip. Suddenly I was a little boy looking into my mummy's eyes. I kissed her on the forehead. "You ought to go. Len and Ralph are waiting...."

"Let them wait. We'll all wait. I'm not leaving here until I know you'll be alright."

I kissed her again and sighed, "Would you like a coffee? I could take Len and Ralph a mug each if I make some."

"No thank you. But I might like a glass of water. I'm not used to all this maternal emotion, I'm a bit out of practice." She said as she wiped her eyes on a little lace edged handkerchief.

When I came back from the kitchen with a glass of water she was sitting on the sofa. She looked up and took the glass, "I'm very proud of my sons. Of both you and Brian. Who would have thought that a widow of a railwayman could bring up a university lecturer, maybe a professor soon, and a businessman who is a managing director." She smiled, "But you are still my boys. And I hope you still remember some of the things I taught you. About always making sure you do the right thing?"

I sat down in a chair opposite her, "I hope so, Mum. I try to do the right thing most of the time."

"Well, promise me something. I'll wait, we'll all wait as long as you like. And don't worry about whether what you do is callous or kind, cowardly or brave. Just promise me that you'll be able to look me in the eye and say you did the right thing. Right for you and right for Jamie and Ben. And if it can be right for Molly, well that'd be a bonus."

I smiled, "Mum, that's exactly what I want to do. I just haven't the faintest idea what it is."

"Well if you want to talk about it, you've got me and Len and Ralph and I'm sure lots of others. You could come up to Newcastle and talk to Brian if you wanted to. And you could always talk to Molly, she isn't stupid, she'll understand."

We just sat and looked at each other in silence, until Mum said, "I must go....." and two minutes later she was gone.

I made myself a mug of coffee, and I felt relaxed and pleased. I knew that, given time, I would come to a good solution, and I felt that the pressure was off. Well, off from everybody except Molly. I knew she was willing me to try and build some relationship with her with every breath she took.

In the afternoon I traipsed the shops, looking for something to buy Jamie. Once upon a time, I used to be able to chat to Molly in the evening about the boys and what they might want as a present, and then she'd go and actually buy the present from both of us. Then there was my period of travelling and living abroad, when I could rely on Internet shopping. Now I have to do it all for myself.

Standing in a bookshop I had the idea of giving him some Harry Potter books, surely he's just about coming to the right age. But, I don't know if he has any already, or whether he's read any. I know that I have to phone Molly, but I'm scared of letting the conversation wander. Eventually I made the call, and I'm successful in keeping it purposeful and to the point. And the present problem is solved. Jamie's getting all the Harry Potter books, in hardback. But then I went and bought an Ipod for him, just in case the books didn't go down too well.

Back at my flat I gift wrapped the presents, and I felt good. I was relaxed about Molly, the right answer would come to me in time. And I felt good about Mum and the rest of them, they could just wait. I decided to go out for the evening and enjoy myself. I knew what I really wanted, and that was to get laid. Healthy, uncomplicated, straight sex, and plenty of it.

I first tried one of the bars near me and the University. The scenery was good, there were plenty of twenty year old girls around, some of them very attractive. There was one group of four sitting at a table in the pub and all making sideway glances at me as I sat at the bar. A couple of them gave me surreptitious smiles when I caught them watching me. I guess I stood a fair chance of picking one of them up, I was a decent looking guy, dressed quiet expensively, and with a nice car and a nice flat just up the road. I couple of years ago, pre-Helene, I wouldn't have hesitated. In fact I had several memories of doing just that. But now, the better behaved me felt it was wrong. It would be cradle snatching, and using them for my own selfish purposes.

What I wanted was a slightly more mature woman, but not too mature, who knew the rules of the game. That this was to be a healthy one night stand, with cheerful goodbyes in the morning. So, when I finished my beer I moved on.

I wondered where there was a nightspot for the single thirty somethings, there must be one in a city of this size; I just didn't know where it was. So, I thought of hailing a taxi, and relying on the driver to know, but I couldn't see a taxi. I walked down the road, and as I was approaching the Centre, I realised that I'd be passing the Marriott Royal Hotel very soon, and they were sure to have a taxi rank. But then I thought: a hotel! That's what I need, the perfect place to find a lonely business woman looking for company. And I was good at picking up women in hotel bars, I'd had plenty of practice in my bad years. But not the Royal, it's too classy, and I might become known there as MD of Franks. So, I walked on until I found what I was looking for, the non-descript good class business hotel. And eventually I found one. I couldn't tell you which chain, they all look the same, and sometimes the actual building changes from one chain to the next in some property shuffle without anyone noticing.

I sat at the bar and looked around. It wasn't particularly crowded, but I guess these hotels do there trade mid-week with business visitors. It's why they offer cheap weekends to private visitors, because they can't fill the rooms with full price company expensed clients. There were three couples scattered around the tables. And a large mixed group, I would guess some family reunion. There was one woman sitting by herself, but she was seriously intent on reading a whole load of business papers spread out in front of her. At a couple of tables there were businessmen drinking and talking seriously, and about four guys like me, drinking at the bar. And one very attractive girl, late twenties and dressed very attractively. She was sitting at a table by herself, and she seemed to be watching the room. Maybe she was waiting for someone, maybe she was a professional working the bar. I sipped my drink and watched her.

She was perfect. The clothes were expensive, but just slightly too sexy. The make up was perfection. The hair stylish and beautifully cut, and had a habit of falling across her face in a very attractive way. She was sipping a glass of mineral water or maybe a vodka and tonic. It had a slice of lemon, and was clear and bubbly.

She was definitely checking out the guys, including me. She seemed to like what she saw and gave me a half smile. I came to the conclusion she was a professional, not that it worried me. I'd paid for it before, and there was no reason why I couldn't pay for it again.

She checked her watch and then looked up at me. She smiled again and stood up and started walking towards me. She definitely was a professional. Amateur innocent girls don't approach another man when there date doesn't turn up on time. I half turned to await her arrival. Then this red faced man in his mid-forties suddenly cut between us. I heard him say, "Fiona? I'm sorry I'm a bit late. I had trouble getting away." And he sort of held her proffered hand, but leant in to kiss her on the cheek.

She looked at me, and the look said it all: Sorry, but business is business. I silently toasted her with my glass as he led her away. So close and yet so far.

I looked around the room, just to see if anyone else had seen that little drama unfold. No one seemed to. The lone business woman was steeped in reading her papers. Others just carried on drinking and talking. I recognised the collection of papers she was reading. There were the published accounts of some company. A set of brochures in the colours of the rainbow. Some computer print-outs that looked like spreadsheet prints, a file of correspondence and a very different document, in a different style and binding. My guess was that was the proposal or terms of reference or quote for an assignment. As I was looking at this collection I didn't notice she was looking at me. As I raised my sight, our eyes met.

"Looks like the briefing papers for a new assignment." I said with a smile.

She was older than me by a couple of years, maybe more if she'd looked after herself. Her face had a hardness to it, but she was attractive enough, just not my type.

She smiled back, "I start on Monday. Huddersfield, I'm driving up tomorrow."

"That's a bit cruel. Keeping you here for the weekend, and not letting you go home for some respite before you start. Would you like a drink, by the way?" Talking to her was easier than drinking alone.

"Thank you. A glass of dry white, please. My name's Angie."

I stood up and went over and shook her hand. "And I'm Chris." I turned back to the bar and got her the wine.

We got chatting, it turned out that she was a management consultant who had been on assignment in Bristol for the month. I asked why she hadn't gone home for the weekend, and it seemed that she was divorced with one grown up daughter away at university, so there was no one to go home for. As she said, "I've been here for four weeks, and I've worked the last two weekends, so I thought it would be nicer to see Bristol for a day and travel up north tomorrow, rather than make a fleeting visit to an empty flat in London."

I looked at some of her papers for the new assignment. The company name meant nothing to me, they were into agricultural land management. But I did notice that they had too much investment in plant on which they were getting an inadequate return. I think she was quite impressed by that.

We had another drink each, and then I asked her if she'd eaten. No she hadn't, and nor had I, so I invited her to go out for a meal, "Nothing heavy. A Chinese or Indian or something?"

"I saw a Thai restaurant down the road that looked nice." Was her acceptance.

As we ate we went on talking. She told me that her daughter was not the result of her marriage, but of a relationship when she was much younger. I looked at her, I think my original estimate was about right, late thirties.

She did wonder if the lack of children in the marriage had been part of its downfall. Apparently she'd been divorced a couple of years. She said she wasn't too surprised at the break up, it had been pretty rough for the last couple of years. And although the final straw had been discovering that he was having an affair, she thought that it was probably the result of a failed marriage rather than the cause of it.

I told her I had been divorced for four years, so I had some idea what she was going through.

She looked thoughtful for a moment, "It's odd. I'm not surprised we were divorced, but it still totally destroyed me. I was so angry, not at him, but at myself. I'd hung in there, hoping that things would get better, but he'd realised there was no future and had looked after himself. I was a fool."

"I think at some level we always blame ourselves. I know I did, although I didn't know what I'd done wrong. How were you in the months afterwards?"

She looked at me, weighing up her possible answers, "I made a total fool of myself. I didn't realise it at the time, but I became the easiest girl in the company. Oh, they had to buy me a dinner, or better still dinner and theatre, but they were onto a dead cert as to how the evening would end. All sorts, young, old, married or single. I just craved wanting to be wanted."

"I know the feeling. In my way I was much the same." I said, thinking back to my bad years.

She sipped her wine, thoughtfully, "Well, I slowly began to realise that I was the subject of company gossip, and not very flattering gossip at that. So, I changed my job, became a consultant and live my life on the move. It's shallow and unsatisfactory, but it'll do for the time being."

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