“And then what happened?” Maggie tops up our glasses with Rioja. “Did he tell you all about his bigamist father and you said, ‘That’s fine, sweetheart’ and everything was tickety-boo between you again?”
Maggie’s summary isn’t incorrect, but it goes further than that.
“Something like that. He’s trying very hard, and…” I shrug.
“You mean,” Maggie says, “that the balance has shifted and you’ve got the upper hand for once?”
I consider this. I did the midnight feed last night, but this morning Oliver got up early to make breakfast for Jack and help him get dressed while I slept. I only woke up when Oliver brought a cup of tea and the twins to me in bed.
Does that mean I have the ‘upper hand’?
“No,” I say. “I mean that the balance, for once, is exactly right.”
* * *
Take this evening, for example. Tonight I’m at Maggie’s house, on my own, sans children, who are tucked up in bed while Oliver holds the fort and figures out the intricacies of mixing formula milk. This wouldn’t have happened a week ago, when the balance of power was tipped in his favour, when Oliver considered himself wronged, and behaved accordingly badly.
But all that has changed now.
The evening after he had been to see Maggie, he told me about his father. He helped put the children to bed, and insisted on tidying up after dinner. “You go and put your feet up, Libs,” he said, and brought me, instead of an olive branch, a dish of ice cream. When he finally joined me, I was lounging on the sofa, taking up all the cushion space, and holding up a magazine in front of my face. After removing a few of Jack’s toys from a nearby armchair, Oliver also sat down.
I turned a page. “Mmm-hmm.”
Ungracious? Yes, maybe. It takes more than a bit of washing up and Ben & Jerry’s to get round me these days.
“We should talk,” he said, then stopped. From behind my magazine, I saw him glance sideways at me. I said nothing, and continued flicking through the pages of Good Housekeeping. I was damned if I was going to make this easy for him.
He sat forward in his seat, elbows on his knees, hands dangling, his eyes fixed on a spot on the floor.
“He had three wives, you know. Mum was the third.”
A few seconds went by, then I said, “Yes. I do know, now. No thanks to you.”
His head drooped even lower. “I’m doing my best here, Libs. It’s very hard for me to talk about this. Don’t make it more difficult for me than it already is.”
I slapped the magazine down on my lap. “And don’t you lay that guilt trip rubbish on me! You’ve had ten years to tell me about your family history, but no, I had to watch our wedding outtakes video to find out why you were being such a shit about my little experiment with genealogy. So don’t preach at me about making things difficult.”
Oliver got up and walked out of the room. I think I was supposed to follow him at this point, and beg forgiveness. A very short time ago, I would have done — but not any longer. Instead, I picked up my magazine again and read an article about extreme bathroom makeovers; a pointless article when you live in rented accommodation. After about fifteen minutes, Oliver returned to the room.
“Shall we start again?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“If you like.”
“Could you put the magazine down?”
I elaborately laid it on the side table, folded my arms, and raised my eyebrows at him. “Happy?”
He didn’t rise to my bait. It was a bit disappointing. “Mum was his third concurrent wife,” he said in a rush. “They’d been married for six years. The others had been married to him for nine and eleven years. None of them suspected a thing, despite the fact that they all lived within twenty-five miles of one another.” He paused. “If it hadn’t been for that pile-up on the M1, they might still be happily married today, for all I know.”
He flexed his fingers, then cracked his knuckles — a sure sign that Oliver’s under stress.
“Tell me.” I tried to make my tone offhand, but from the grateful expression on Oliver’s face, I must have injected more affection than intended.
“Mum saw the report on the local news about a big pile-up on the M1 at Luton,” he began, sounding hesitant. “Lots of pictures of cars crumpled up and skewed sideways in the road, ambulances and fire engines and police everywhere. The reporter said that four people had already been confirmed dead. Mum didn’t think much about it because Dad said he was working in the Lake District that week. Then, apparently — I don’t remember it, but she tells me this is what happened — I shouted that I could see Daddy’s car on the television.”
“And was it his car?” I asked.
“It shouldn’t have been. Dad had called Mum only an hour before from Carlisle — or at least, that’s where he said he was — so as far as she was concerned, there was no way he could have driven 300 miles in one hour. But yes. It was his car. The cameraman zoomed in on this bashed in blue Cortina, and Mum could make out the numbers on the licence plate.”
I was quiet again, but not in order to punish Oliver. I was visualising the scene in Sandra’s house, the turmoil in her mind as she wondered if her husband had survived the wreckage…
“Then what happened?”
Oliver squeezed his eyes shut. “She drove to the hospital that the news reports mentioned. Kicked up a fuss at reception, screaming that she’d just seen her husband’s car on TV in the pile up and she demanded to know where he was. The woman at the desk asked her what her husband’s name was, and when Mum told her, the woman got all confused and told her there must be some mistake because the family of that person had already been notified.”
Poor Sandra. I didn’t like her — never had — but no one deserved that.
“And if you think it couldn’t get any worse, the final wife turned up at the hospital twenty minutes later, having also seen the news and the picture of the car, and the same thing happened all over again. I can’t really remember what happened after that. Probably just as well, really. I only remember a lot of days that Mum either cried or threw things out of the window or into the street. Everything belonging to Dad, everything he had ever given me or Mum, it all disappeared from the house. I never saw him again.”
I thought of the toy tiger and the birthday card, the two hidden items that had sparked this whole mess between Oliver and me. I asked how they had escaped the evacuation.
“They turned up in the post a couple of days after my sixth birthday, a few months later, addressed to me. The postman rang the doorbell, and because it was Saturday and Mum was still in bed, I answered the door and got the parcel myself. I never told Mum I’d received them. By that time, I’d already lost my favourite teddy bear and lots of toys, just because Dad had bought them for me.”
My pity for Sandra evaporated as I thought of a little boy, not much older than Jack, trying to comprehend why all his beloved toys were being thrown in the dustbin.
I sat up and stretched my hand out to stroke Oliver’s arm.
“Poor you,” I said. “That’s awful. Really terrible.”
Oliver absently put his hand on top of mine.
“I found out, much later, that he must have sent that parcel just before he went to prison.”
“Bigamy’s an prison offence. He was in for a few months, I believe.”
Sorry as I felt for Oliver, I still had to have my say.
“But why didn’t you tell me? Have you any idea how much you’ve hurt me by not trusting me like that?”
He rubbed his eyes, and squeezed my hand tighter.
“It’s got nothing to do with trust. It was all down to a promise I made to my mother, not to tell anyone. She was humiliated beyond belief — I see that now — and I didn’t want to break that promise by telling every girl I met.”
“But I wasn’t ‘every girl’!” I said. “I was your wife!”
“Not at first, you weren’t. And by the time I felt it was OK to tell you without also betraying Mum, we’d known each other for a long time, and by then — well, I felt it was too late. You’d always ask me why I hadn’t said anything before.”
Hmm. It sounded good, but I wasn’t completely convinced by this argument. Oliver’s doe-eyed love for his mother was so great that I couldn’t see him ever breaking that promise unless he was forced, like this fiasco had forced him. For the sake of familial peace and marital harmony, though, I was prepared to go along with his white lies — this time, anyway.
“Anything else you’d like to tell me?” I asked. “Anything other skeletons in the cupboard I should know about before I start on our family tree again?”
Oliver shook his head. “None that I know of. You might find something, but I promise you, it will be as much a surprise to me as to you.”
* * *
“And that was it?” Maggie asks.
“Not quite. I got up and went to the mall for three hours. Left him to sort out the twins, who apparently woke up the minute I closed the garage door and wouldn’t entertain the idea of going back to bed until ten minutes before I came back. When I got home, all three of them were asleep on the sofa with a Wiggles DVD still playing.”
I smiled at the memory. Oliver had been dying to complain and play the martyred father, but he didn’t dare.
“And that’s not even the best of it,” I said. “His mother emailed him yesterday, asking when she could come over to see her ‘new precious angels’, as she calls the twins.”
Maggie gasped. “Oh no! She’s not coming over again, is she? You’ve only just recovered from her last visit.”
“Damned right she’s not coming over again. We are going over to England instead. Do you realise I haven’t been home since we moved here, this time last year? We can’t go back to our old house, because the old witch is living in it, and I can’t face the idea of seeing the mess she’s made of it, so we’re renting a house in the Cotswolds for two weeks in September. If she wants to see her ‘new precious angels’”— I pretended to stick two fingers down my throat — “she can stay in the Travelodge down the road.”
Maggie clapped her hands. “Bravo, Libby!”
“Yes,” I said. “I think this qualifies as the first gold for Team LP.”
* * *
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