He’d left her sitting legs crossed at the dining table in her pink silk dressing gown, sipping a glass of orange juice, staring at his cold cup of coffee and wondering about the future of their marriage.
Leanne and Damien usually breakfasted together early, before the kids were up, because he had to leave for work by seven. It was an opportunity to spend time together. This morning had been no different, except he’d left earlier than usual, at her demand. They hadn’t argued, although now she wished they had. She’d been baiting him for an argument, she knew that, but instead he’d given her what she said she really wanted: the truth. He’d told his story, and now she understood him. Now she wished she hadn’t asked.
She’d gone upstairs to her bedroom, and was furiously applying her make-up. She told her self she was glad he was gone, glad she’d spoilt his happy mood
“Would you like some toast, love?” he’d asked. He even buttered it for her, and added her favourite, raspberry jam. He’d kissed her on the head as he placed the plate in front of her.
He was happy, so it seemed the right time to ask.
“Can we go on holiday by the sea this year?” she’d said.
He’d looked at her with his azure eyes, with his sad gentle eyes that were always bloodshot because he never slept well, and seeing the hurt, she knew she’d asked the wrong question. If she was honest with herself, she’d known it was the wrong question before she’d asked it. But living by the sea was her dream, and they had the money to do it. Damien had his own business. He could work from almost anywhere. But when she’d asked if they could move by the sea he’d snapped no, he liked the city. She decided then she’d at least try to live her dream for two weeks a year. She’d been pressing for them to holiday by the sea, instead of the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds made the other school mums jealous. But it didn’t have a beach.
Damien shook his head, not like he was saying no, but despairing, like he wanted to say “why did you have to ask again?”
She felt guilty for upsetting him, but she wouldn’t admit it. She folded her arms.
“Why not?” she asked.
“I’d prefer not to. Please don’t ask why.”
This was what she expected. He’d done this before, then started a story of a haunted cottage by the sea. It sounded like a bad dream to her, but he’d never finished the story. He’d mention the cottage, then he couldn’t go on.
She watched him stir his coffee in a swirling pattern, gripping the teaspoon too tight. She waited. Usually she’d nag him to tell her. But this time she waited. Her patience paid off.
“I shouldn’t have let her go,” he said.
Leanne tensed. Under the table, her foot was shaking. This was a new story. There was another woman. He’d never mentioned her before. He was holding his forehead in his hand, rubbing his temples, staring down at the table.
“You told me you were single,” she said. “You never said you were divorced. Is that why you don’t like holidays by the sea? They remind you of her?” Leanne was seething.
“Yes,” he said. “I mean, no. Yes, they remind me, yes, I was single when I met you.” He was nearly crying. “Will you listen Leanne? Will you let me finish?”
Leanne sat silent, her eyes glaring. It meant he could continue.
“She was called Hannah. When we were on holiday, we’d go swimming together in the sea everyday. It was our special thing. We both loved the sea. We’d go every year. We stayed in my favourite cottage, near the village where I grew up. Hannah liked me taking her there.
“One evening on our last holiday we were woken by the thunder. The rain was coming down in torrents. She wanted to go swimming in the storm.
“I said no, it was too late, I wanted to sleep. So she said she’d go on her own. I said no, she mustn’t.
“I should have insisted. I knew the legends, I’d learnt them as a child. There’s wisdom in the old legends. I told Hannah the legend: ‘On the day of the storm, one day a year, the sea spirits come to claim a human life. They come for a sacrifice.’ She laughed. She laughed, so I didn’t insist. Every day since I ask myself: Why didn’t I insist?”
Damien was crying now, but Leanne wouldn’t touch him. Her arms were still folded and she’d crossed her legs. He’d loved another woman. He still loved another woman.
He was too upset to stop. He needed to tell the story.
“She looked like a goddess as she stood on the beach, naked in the rain, her sodden hair blown wild by the violent winds. She looked fierce, ready for battle, ready to slaughter.
“When she dived into the waves, the winds roared with malevolent laughter, and I knew she was gone, I knew she’d never be back. But I didn’t believe my feelings. ‘Stop being so superstitious,’ I told myself.
“I watched at the window. I watched for an hour. Then I called the coastguard. They wouldn’t go out searching in the storm.
“She never returned. They searched for her body, but they never found it.”
“I was single when I met you Leanne. Widowed, single. Not divorced.”
Leanne was crying too now. Damien reached for her hand across the table, but she flinched and pulled away.
“Leanne?” he asked.
“Just go,” she said.
He reached for her hand again. “Leanne, please.”
He’d left his coffee and his toast and gone upstairs to kiss the kids goodbye before he left.
“Goodbye Leanne,” he said after he’d put on his coat. The car keys jangled in his hand. His eyes were still moist and puffy.
She didn’t reply. She didn’t know how to. She stared at her orange juice, waiting for him to go.
Eventually, he gave up waiting for her to speak. The front door clicked shut. She wasn’t sure if he’d be back. She wasn’t sure if she wanted him back.
She checked the clock. In five minutes the kids would be up. She gulped her orange juice, slammed the empty glass down on the table, and stomped upstairs to put on her make-up.