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  • Pamela Belle

CHAPTER EIGHT

It was so unexpected, so devastating, that at first she couldn’t say anything. Language seemed to have left her, and abruptly, all the solid ground on which she had built the security of her marriage and her children evaporated into thin air, leaving her teetering on the edge of an abyss. In the end, she managed a desperate squawk. “What?

“I’ve met someone else.” His voice sounded stronger now, and more confident. “Someone in New York.”

“But you’ve only been there a couple of weeks!”

“No, I’ve known her for a while.”

“So ... “ Still disbelieving, Jenna said, “So ... how long?”

“For several months.”

“Who is she?”

Across the table, Saskia’s startled gaze met hers. Rick said, “She’s the daughter of one of the people I’ve been doing business with. Her name’s Madison Briggs.”

Madison? For God’s sake, Rick, how old is she?”

To her utter horror, he actually sounded rather pleased with himself. “Twenty-seven.”

Twenty-seven? But that’s half your age – not much older than the twins!” Torn between grief, rage and bewilderment, Jenna found herself also grappling with an insane desire to laugh. “For God’s sake, Rick, is this some sort of mid-life crisis?”

“No, of course not,” he said, now sounding both angry and defensive. “This is the real deal, Jen, she’s not like the others – “

He broke off abruptly, obviously realising what he’d said. A cold dead weight settled in Jenna’s gut, and her words came out low and furious. “What exactly do you mean by ‘not like the others?’ How many others, Rick? How many and when and how long? How long have you been cheating on me?”

“Jenna, calm down, let’s be reasonable about this – “

“How can I be reasonable? We’ve been married twenty-three years, and then you spring this on me out of the blue and expect me to be reasonable?” Her voice was shaking, and so were her knees. Blindly, she reached for the nearest chair and sat down. “How long have you been unfaithful, Rick, with all these others?”

“I don’t know. Five years, six – I can’t remember exactly.”

“And how many? How many of them, Rick?”

There was a pause, as if he was trying to enumerate a procession. Eventually, the answer came. “Three, before Madison.”

“And Madison is different? Well, I suppose she must be, if you’ve actually bothered to tell me about her.” Jenna didn’t much like the waspish sound of her voice, but realised that she didn’t care. She was entitled to be furious, to be bitchy, to rage and scream, because he had just confessed to the most humiliating betrayal she could imagine. “And why are you telling me this now, on the phone? You’ll be home next week, couldn’t you have waited till then and told me face to face?”

“I wanted to tell you now. I want a divorce, Jen. No ifs and no buts. I’ll make sure you’ll be OK – “

“And what about the kids?”

Saskia had moved across to her. Without saying anything, she knelt by Jenna and put her arm round her. The physical contact was enormously comforting, and she felt suddenly stronger and heartened. She no longer, it appeared, had a husband, but at least she had her friend to support her.

“Oh, the kids will be OK,” said Rick dismissively. “They’re adults, after all, they’ve got their own lives now.”

“You’re deluding yourself,” Jenna said. “They’ll be devastated, and you know it. Everything they – and I – thought was secure and solid and strong, just suddenly blown away and nothing left – how can they not be affected?” A thought occurred to her. “If you’ve been thinking about a divorce for months – did you wait until they were all out of the picture before you told me? So you wouldn’t have to face them?”

“Now you’re being unfair, Jen, come on, of course I didn’t.” But she knew him well enough to be able to detect the note of falseness in his voice. “And if you must know, I’m calling you from Madison’s apartment, and she’s here with me, by my side. And I want a divorce because I’m going to marry her. She’s three months pregnant.”

The pride in his voice suddenly sickened her, and she dropped the phone on the floor. Before she could protest, Saskia had snatched it up and was speaking vehemently into it. “What kind of shit are you, Rick Johnson? I’ve known some bastards in my time but you take every kind of biscuit, you wanker, destroying your marriage and your family for some greedy little tart – “ She paused, and held the phone away from her in surprise. “Oh. He’s rung off.”

“She may be a greedy little tart,” Jenna said, “but she’s a pregnant greedy little tart.”

What?”

“She’s three months pregnant. That’s why he wants to marry her.”

“Dear God, if I’d known that I’d have given him a real ear-bashing.”

“You mean you didn’t just now?”

“I was being restrained – for me.” Saskia got to her feet and put the phone on the table with a look of disgust, as if it might have contaminated her with some foul disease. “God, Jenna, what a vile thing to do.”

“I know. I – I can’t quite believe it. I can’t believe he’d be capable of it. And then to drop a bombshell like that on the phone – “

“Gutless as well as a wanker. I bet I know why he’s waited till now, though. He knew if he’d told you while the twins were still in the country, Joe would have lamped him.”

Despite her shock and horror, Jenna gave a wan smile. “I think he would. Joe’s always been a bit ‘act first, think later’.”

“Like his father?”

“I’d have said not – until five minutes ago. Now I’m not so sure.”

“Well, Rick certainly wasn’t thinking when he climbed into that girl’s knickers. What is it with men, that they just can’t keep their dicks to themselves?” Saskia shook her head. “So how old is she?”

“Twenty seven, he said. And he’s fifty four. Why on earth would a twenty-seven-year-old look at a man twice her age?”

“Oh, Jen, darling, you know why. He’s handsome, well off, a silver fox, he can be very charming and attentive when he chooses, I expect he swept her off her feet.”

“You make him sound like George Clooney. And I bet he doesn’t fart in bed.”

Saskia snorted. “Show me the man who doesn’t, Jenna Johnson, and I’ll show you a corpse. And even they give off noxious gases. OK, darling, this is your Doctor Sassy speaking now. First things first. I prescribe a very large glass of wine, strictly for medicinal purposes, you understand. Have you got a really good bottle that Rick has been saving for a special occasion?”

“In the rack, top left.”

Saskia investigated, and returned with a bottle of 2008 Burgundy. “This one? I’m impressed. Present from a grateful client, I assume?” As Jenna nodded, she briskly uncorked it and poured out two brimming glasses. “Here, get this down your neck, you need it. You’ve had a horrible shock, darling. Did you really not suspect a thing?”

“Not a thing.” Jenna picked up the glass. Her teeth rattled against the rim, and some of it spilt, so she put it back on the table. “Sorry. I just – I just can’t seem to stop shaking. We hadn’t been getting on too well recently, he seemed so tetchy about everything, but I thought it was pressure of work. I’d even wondered if the business was going down the pan.” Her voice cracked suddenly. “I’d bought some steak for a nice romantic meal when he came home – I was going to make his favourite chocolate tart with raspberries, and open that bottle.”

“And all the while, the rat was planning his escape. Dear God, if I ever clap eyes on him again I’ll chop his balls off and feed them to the geese on the lake.”

“I think geese are vegetarian.”

“Not the St. Albans geese, darling, they eat willies for breakfast and testicles for lunch.”

“Oh, Sass – I’m so glad you’re here, I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d had that call when I was on my own.”

“I know exactly what you’d have done, darling. You’d have shredded all his suits, poured his wine down the drain, and then phoned me.”

Despite herself, Jenna smiled. She picked up the glass again and managed a long sip. The wine was rich and mellow, and slid easily down. After a couple more gulps, she set it back on the table, noting with relief that her hand had stopped shaking, and said, “What am I going to do, Sass? How am I going to tell the children? I’d arranged to Skype the twins tomorrow morning – I can’t face it now, I really can’t.”

“Email them now and postpone it. Wait until Rick gets back, then you can call them together. I think it needs to be together.” She eyed Jenna. “You know Shelley, of course? Her parents split up when she was twenty two, and they seemed to think that because she and her brother were grown up, they’d take it in their stride. And of course they didn’t. Her mum had had an affair, her dad was a grumpy old sod at the best of times, and they spent the whole time blaming each other. Shelley and Nathan didn’t know who to believe, their parents kept confiding in them things they’d really much rather not have known, and in the end the whole family imploded and no-one was talking to anyone else, because Shelley ended up taking her mother’s part and Nathan sided with his dad. Don’t let that happen with you, please, Jen. Your kids are lovely, you’re lovely, and you none of you deserve this. Don’t let Rick’s selfishness and cowardice make it worse than it already is.”

The uncharacteristic note of deep sincerity in her voice caught Jenna off guard. Suddenly the tears came flooding, spilling over and pouring down her face. She buried her face in her hands, and howled.

Saskia hugged her, provided a copious supply of tissues, and refilled her wine glass. Outside, dark was falling, and the street lights had come on. Eventually they moved to the sitting room, and Saskia switched on the wall lights, dimmed them, and drew the curtains. “Are you OK? I mean, I know in the circumstances you can’t be, but - “

“No, I’m feeling a bit better now.” Jen looked at the glass, which seemed to have miraculously filled itself again. “You’re right, about the kids. I’m not going to slag him off to them. The plain facts are bad enough, there’s no way round it – he slept with a girl not much older than they are, and now they’re going to have a little half brother or sister to prove it. He can’t possibly justify any of it to them, and I’m sure he knows it. But I’m not sure I can defend him either, given what he’s done.”

“Exactly. You need to keep to the moral high ground, darling, and let him do his own wallowing in the mire of stupidity. And to be honest, if he can do that to you, and as she’s not the first – “

“He said there’d been three others.”

Three? Hell’s biscuits, he’s been a busy little adulterer, hasn’t he? Well, you’re better off without him, and that’s a fact. Get yourself a good lawyer, darling, and take him to the cleaners.”

“We’ll have to sell the house. And the Orford cottage. I suppose he’ll want to live in New York, and that won’t be cheap. But he said she’s the daughter of one of his clients, so probably she comes from a wealthy family.”

“Even more reason to screw every last penny out of him. What did he think? That you’d meekly agree to everything?” She put on a trembling, little girl voice. “’Of course you can have all our assets, Rick, I’m so grateful to have been your wife for a mere twenty three years, I’ll surrender all my rights and live on air’? He should know you better than that. You’ve never been any kind of doormat.”

“And I’m not going to start now.” Jenna took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders. “I’m going to try and keep my dignity, I’m not going to try and beg him to come back to me – that’s obviously a non-starter.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to demean yourself, darling.”

“And I want him to be ashamed of what he’s done. It’s horrible to say it, but I don’t think he is at the moment. I could hear it in his voice. He’s actually proud of pulling a girl half his age and getting her pregnant.”

“Then he’s taken leave of his senses. God, men can be such idiots! Well, you show him, Jen. Be dignified, leave your screaming and shouting for when you’re alone. Punch pillows or kick the cat.”

“That’d be cruel, and anyway we haven’t got a cat anymore.” She could have done with Sooty’s warm weight on her lap, reminding her that unstinting affection and comfort could be bought for the price of a few herring flavoured biscuits and a stroked back.

“You know what I mean. Don’t bad mouth him to the kids. Be as calm and rational as you can. Show them that you can cope with this.”

“I’m not sure if I can, but I’ll try.” She looked round at Saskia’s serious face. “But I’m scared. I’ve been married to Rick for almost half my life. I thought I was in it for the long haul. I wanted to mend things, make it work, build a life for us as a couple rather than as a family now the kids have left home. And instead I’ve been told completely out of the blue that it’s all been a lie and a sham for years. I haven’t got a job or any source of income of my own. I’ve got to start all over again, and it’s going to be really hard.”

“I know, darling, but that’s what friends are for. Been there, done that, got a drawer full of T-shirts. You can’t rely on Rick, obviously, and you shouldn’t rely on the kids, but you can rely on me. I’m here for you, Jen, and I always will be, whatever happens. You know that, don’t you? Any help you need, I’m on it.”

“Cross my heart and hope to die?” Jenna said, remembering her conversation with Rosie, in the sunlit days, only a week or so previously, when she had known nothing about Rick’s betrayal, or Madison Briggs.

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” Saskia said firmly, and with utter conviction.

*

Unsurprisingly, Jenna slept very little that night, despite two big glasses of Prosecco and another two of the Burgundy. Her thoughts would not keep quiet, but tumbled round in her head as she replayed, over and over again, the brief details of that phone call, the overwhelming shock of his betrayal, above all the knowledge that he didn’t seem to realise how deeply he had hurt her, and how much this was going to affect Rosie and the twins. She hadn’t thought, in all the years of their marriage, that he could be so thoughtless and uncaring, but perhaps it was an indication of how little she in fact knew him. Then her mind began to contemplate the future. Her marriage was over, no question, so what was she going to do?

She got up early, heavy-eyed and exhausted, and made herself a cup of tea. More than ever, she missed the presence of another being in the house, and vowed to herself that when all this was over, whatever happened, wherever she found herself, she would get a cat, or a dog. Meanwhile, there was a great deal to think about. Sitting up in bed, the radio on and the morning sun illuminating the trees in the back garden, she looked round at the room with fresh grief. Soon, another family would be living here, and she would be ... where? A little terraced house near Fishpool Street, perhaps, or temporarily lodging with Saskia in her quirky flat, in a converted factory just off the London Road. Neither had much appeal. Did she want to stay in St. Albans at all? True, she was near her mother – too near, probably – and near, too, to Saskia and her other friends. But something in her longed to take a wild chance, to make a completely fresh start, to leave behind everything she knew and strike out on her own. And an idea came to her, at once invigorating and terrifying.

The phone rang. As she’d hoped, it was Saskia. “Hello, darling, how are you? Still in bed, I hope, and not too hung over.”

“I am still in bed, yes, and I feel pretty grim, but I think that’s lack of sleep more than anything else.”

“It’s a nice day, fancy a walk by the lake and lunch at the Fighting Cocks? I hope you’ll say yes because I’ve already booked us a table.”

“Yes,” said Jenna obediently. Part of her, it was true, wanted to curl up under the duvet and hide, but another, much larger part, was suddenly longing to see Saskia and discuss her idea with her. And the Fighting Cocks, St. Albans’ oldest pub, always promised a cosy atmosphere and good food, although she wondered if she’d be able to eat any of it . “When for?”

“Half past twelve, darling. I’ll stroll by at eleven and we can walk down to the park together. Do you know of a dog we can borrow?”

Jenna thought of Sammy, and grinned. “Not here, unfortunately. We’ll just have to brave the geese without one. See you later, Sass. And ... thanks. Thanks for everything.”

“That, as they say, darling, is what friends are for. And I know you’d do the same for me – have done, in fact, several times over the years, though none of my love-rats have proved half as ratty or as devastating as yours. Anyway, let’s enjoy the last of the fine weather – it’s going to rain later, apparently.”

Unfortunately, by the time Saskia arrived on the doorstep, the early sun had vanished and there was a distinctly damp, autumnal feel to the air. Jenna had brought her winter coat out of the cupboard, and a soft raspberry-coloured hat and scarf, while Saskia, who didn’t share her aversion, carried a large umbrella decorated with black and white cow-spots. It was a brisk ten-minute walk to the lake, and by the time they got there, rain was beginning to fall and most of the Sunday morning strollers had vanished indoors. Even the ice-cream van had disappeared, and the pub wouldn’t open for half an hour. Saskia cast a contemptuous glance up at the sullen sky, and unfurled her umbrella. “I don’t mind getting a bit wet, darling, if you don’t.”

“I don’t. I’ve lived on the East coast, remember, nothing between you and the Urals there, and horizontal rain in the winter. You soft Home Counties lot don’t know what real weather is like.”

“I do, I’ve had several holidays in Cornwall.” Saskia glanced at her as they began to walk round the lake, keeping a wary eye on the notoriously aggressive geese congregated on the water some distance away. “Feeling better?”

“Not really. Angry, betrayed, hurt, devastated – all those things, and more. I still can’t believe he could do that. Not Rick. Not my husband. To behave as if twenty-three years together counted for nothing. And when I think about how it’ll affect the kids, I want to rip him limb from limb.”

“No, you’re definitely feeling better. What about practical things? Because you need to start thinking about those. And getting a solicitor. I know of one who’s brilliant on divorce, especially on getting a good deal for wronged wives. You might even get to keep the house.”

Jenna was silent for a moment, thinking. She said at last, “I’m not sure I want to keep the house.”

Saskia stopped, and stared at her. “Why ever not? Oh, I get it. Memories.”

“We’ve lived in that house, as a family, since Rosie was a toddler. We built the extension, we sorted the garden, we made it ours. Ours, Rick’s and mine. And I don’t think I can bear to carry on living in it now. As you say, too many memories. We were happy there, for most of the time, or I thought we were. I just don’t want to wake up every morning in the bed we shared, and sit in the living room we painted, opposite the shelves he put up, and constantly be reminded of him and what he did to us, every time I look around. I want a fresh start, a completely fresh start.” She took a deep breath. “I’ve thought about it half the night, and I think it’s the right move. I’m going to keep the cottage in Orford.”

“Keep the cottage? You mean you’re thinking about living in it?”

Jenna nodded. “I love it there. Rick only went there two or three times once we’d bought it, so it doesn’t hold the same memories. It wouldn’t take much to make it completely mine.”

“But you’d be leaving all your friends!”

“And you, Sass. Yes, I know. That’s why I’ve been thinking so hard about it. It’ll be a real wrench, from that point of view. But I’d only be a couple of hours up the A12, and you can come and visit as often as you like. We’d probably see more of each other than we do now. But it needn’t be permanent. If I find I can’t stand the howling gales and the horizontal rain, I can sell it and come back.”

“You’ll be lucky,” said Saskia darkly. “House prices here are so high, once you move away you won’t be able to afford to live here again. Anyway, surely that little cottage isn’t worth half what your house is?”

“It’s worth nearly the same actually.” Jenna flushed, thinking of her middle-class feelings of guilt about them being able to afford the exorbitant cost: first world problem with a vengeance. “Rick said it’d be a good investment.”

“Well, for once the bastard was right. I can see why you want to go there. It’s a bolt hole – you can lick your wounds and rebuild your life without constant reminders of the past. On the other hand, I know it’s lovely down there in June, but won’t it be a bit bleak in the winter?”

“I think I’d like bleak. It’d suit my current state of mind exactly. I’m not in the mood for warm sunshine and soft breezes. I want grey skies and driving rain and rough seas. I want to feel things, Sass, I’ve been stuck in my nice cosy comfortable rut for far too long, and it’s about time I climbed out of it. Rick’s phone call has tipped me out into the real world and although it’s been an awful shock, and I feel absolutely bloody furious with him, I think he’s been a complete arsehole, I’m also feeling something else.” She glanced at her friend. “In amongst all the other emotions, there’s a tiny little bit of ... of relief.”

They walked on in silence for a bit, while on the grey, rain-spotted surface of the lake, the armada of geese kept watchful pace. Saskia said at last, “That’s pretty telling, isn’t it? Had things really got that bad?”

“Yes and no. I mean, we weren’t screaming at each other or throwing plates. But he’d got really short tempered and negative, always finding fault or criticising. I was beginning to look forward to the times when he wasn’t around, because I didn’t have to watch every little thing I did in case he jumped down my throat. Or try and head off confrontation between him and the kids, especially Joe. But I didn’t see this coming, I really didn’t. I suppose, being away so much, he found it easy to be unfaithful.”

“A girl in every airport,” said Saskia. “It’s such a cliché.”

“The whole thing’s a cliché – the middle aged businessman, the fit young girls, and very little chance of being caught out. I bet he had the time of his life. But I don’t think he signed up for a baby, somehow.”

“Perhaps not. Perhaps he’ll come to regret it. Perhaps,” Saskia said, with an evil smile, “he’ll come running back to you in a year’s time, when he’s sick of the nappies and the sleepless nights and the lack of sex, and beg for forgiveness. Would you take him back?”

Jenna didn’t have to consider it. “No. Because I’m sure he’d do it again. And again and again. And now I know what he’s capable of, I’d be suspicious every time he went on a business trip, or even took a phone call. That would poison everything. It’s not worth it, Sass.”

“You mean, he’s not worth it. Do you still love him?”

For a while, the spatter of the rain on Saskia’s umbrella and the soft fall of their shoes through the rapidly growing puddles were the only sounds. Then Jenna sighed. “If you’d asked me that this time yesterday, I’d have said yes without a second thought. But now – gone. Vanished. Burned, cauterised, immolated.”

“Expunged, destroyed, razed, reduced to ashes. Twenty three years down the drain.”

“Don’t say that! Lots of them were good years. And whatever happens, the kids have made everything worthwhile. If I could go back in time to the moment when Rick asked me to marry him, and I knew then what I know now, I’d still have said yes. And perhaps it’s better this way, a sudden shock, all the bridges burned, no going back.” She managed a watery smile. “Gosh, we’re a walking thesaurus today, aren’t we? And a walking set of clichés.”

“Sometimes, darling, only a cliché will do – walking or not. So – as I said, let’s be practical. Your marriage is over. Painful to admit it, I know, but it is, isn’t it?”

The drops on Jenna’s face were mingling with her tears. She thought of the old song, I’ll Do My Crying In The Rain, and took a deep breath. “Yes. Yes, it is. No going back. It’s over for ever.”

“And when’s the bastard due back? Did you say Tuesday?”

“I think so. But he’s postponed his returns so often recently, I’m not sure.”

“And now we know the reason why. Well, I’d suggest you don’t collect him from the airport. You really shouldn’t be having a highly charged, furious and emotional conversation at seventy miles an hour on the M25. He’s a big boy, he can get the train and walk from the station.”

“He won’t like it.”

“Tough. But the most important thing, until he gets back, is to work out what you’re going to tell the kids, and how you’re going to do it. You obviously can’t get the twins back from Oz, so it’ll have to be on Skype, but can you persuade Rosie to come home for next weekend?”

“I suppose so. But she’ll know something’s up.”

“That can’t be helped. The manure is going to hit the automated cooling device pretty soon anyway. Best to get it over with. The two of you will have to tell them together, and try to be calm about it.”

“That won’t be easy, but I know I have to try. He’s not divorcing them, after all, he’s divorcing me.”

“And the other thing you need to do is to sort out your finances. How much the houses are worth, how much he earns, pensions, all that sort of thing. Boring but vital. And book an urgent appointment with that solicitor. I’ve got her number on me, I’ll give it to you when we get to the pub.”

By now, they had reached the bridge that separated the smaller lake at the further end. A jogger passed them, red-faced and breathing hard, his trainers squelching in the wet and his T-shirt plastered to a body that looked distinctly out of condition. “To my mind, darling,” Saskia observed once he was out of earshot, “the words ‘fun’ and ‘run’ should never occur in the same sentence, and he’s living proof of it.”

Jenna thought of the jogger on the river wall at Orford – it had only, she realised with a shock, been a week, not a lifetime, ago – and his encounter with water in the shape of Sammy’s shower. She said, “What really worries me, apart from how the kids will take it, is money. Oh, I know I’ll have a roof over my head, whether it’s the Orford cottage or somewhere else. But I’ll need to get a job, and I’ve no idea where to start. I’m not qualified to do anything except teach, and I don’t want to do that any more.”

“Not even tutoring?”

“I suppose I could go back to it if needs must – though I don’t know how much demand there’d be for it in Suffolk. I doubt parents are quite as pushy, out in the sticks. I want to do something with my life, I want to be more than just a wife and a mother, I want to be a person in my own right rather than as someone’s appendage. Does that sound self-pitying? Please tell me if it does, the last thing I want to be is a bitter, whingeing divorcee. Anyway, I’ve decided that the best way of getting my own back on Rick is to show him I can flourish without him.”

“You will, darling, you will. You’re showing it already. He’s probably expecting to return to a weeping, quivering jelly, not a self-assertive and independent woman who refuses to be trampled on. He’ll get the shock of his life.”

“I hope so.” They crossed the bridge and started to walk along the other side of the lake, back towards the pub. After a pause, Jenna went on. “I think the best way of dealing with him is to say what I want and insist on being fair. I don’t want to get into any kind of blame game or slanging match. He’s got us into this mess, so the least he can do is ensure that I’ll be OK. And he did say that, on the phone.”

“His idea of OK and yours, darling, might not match up. That’s what the solicitor’s for.”

“Just as long as it doesn’t get acrimonious. I don’t think I could take that, it’s going to be bad enough when the kids are told. Calm, dignified, but firm.” She glanced at Saskia. “I shall need to be strong. And I won’t learn how to be, unless I’m on my own for a bit. In Orford.”

“Hmm,” said her friend thoughtfully. “You mean, that if you stay here, we’ll all rally round and support you? Surely you’d want and need that support?”

“Yes, but I think I want independence more. Oh, Sass, don’t, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I need to learn to stand on my own two feet, and I’ve never really done that before, in my whole life. First I was with my mum, then Nanna May, then Mum again, then my friends at uni, and Jon, and almost as soon as I split with Jon, I started a relationship with Rick. I need to learn how to cope on my own, or I never will. And the very last thing I want is to end up like my mother, demanding and needy and interfering, annoying my kids and bingeing on emotional blackmail.” She essayed a smile of reassurance. “And you’ll only be a phone call away, or a couple of hours’ drive. If I find I’m going mad from boredom or fear or my failure to fix the plumbing, I’ll come and bang on your door.”

“OK,” said Saskia slowly. “I can see where you’re coming from. I still think it’s a bit risky.”

“But not that risky. I can sell the Orford house if it doesn’t work out, buy a little terrace somewhere like London Colney.”

“No, darling, not London Colney, that really would be one step beyond the pale,” said Saskia, with an exaggerated shudder.

“Well, at least it isn’t far to Sainsbury’s. And even if we sold both the houses, and split the proceeds, I still wouldn’t have nearly enough to buy anything in the city centre. So, given the choice between Orford and London Colney, it’s got to be Orford. Until I get it out of my system – if I ever do.”

The rain fell harder, and a flotilla of ducks kept hopeful pace with them, paddling alongside on the shallow waters of the River Ver, while on the right, on the broad lake, the geese had given up and were making for one of the islands. Eventually, Jenna added, “I’ll miss you.”

“Don’t say that. You’re the one who’s going to learn how to be strong, remember? You’ll have to manage somehow, darling, without me around to bully you. And I’m sure you will.”

Jenna wasn’t so certain. She had dreaded confiding this to Saskia, sorting out the tangled, rather nebulous reasons why she felt the need to flee everything in her old life, the life that had cradled her in a warm secure bubble of illusion that now, with the revelation of Rick’s catastrophic betrayal, had vanished with a final, contemptuous pop. It might seem a hasty decision. But she had spent almost the entire night, once she had recognised that crying was pointless, thinking everything through, and trying to visualise all the possible futures for herself on her own. And however mad her final, instinctive decision might seem to others – and she could imagine, only too clearly, her mother’s opinion on the matter – for her, it felt right. Without warning, her life had disintegrated, and she had to rebuild it without Rick, without Patricia, without Saskia, even, if it came to it, without the children, who now had their own, independent lives to lead.

“I know I will,” she said aloud, and her voice was as sure and certain as if she’d never had a single moment of doubt or fear.

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