OK. Let’s do this.
My finger hovers over the doorbell for a couple of seconds before I push the button. Inside, a torrent of barks from Anita’s dog, Champion, reminds me of the morning at this house, nearly a year ago, when the same dog diagnosed my pregnancy, literally sniffing it out.
Approaching footsteps in the hall, accompanied by the skittering of doggy claws on slippery wooden floorboards.
Anita opens the front door wide, and I catch a glimpse of the Coffee Morning Posse chattering in the kitchen, at the end of the corridor behind her. Everyone turns to see who’s arrived, and the chatter stops; as if someone flicked a volume switch to “Mute”.
“Libby,” Anita says, at first looking at me, then quickly averting her eyes. “We didn’t… expect you. Come in.”
She takes Jack’s hand and the twins’ changing bag, and leads the way to the back of the house. I follow, feeling like Scarlett O’Hara when Rhett forces her to go to Melanie’s party after she and Ashley are caught in a clandestine clinch. It’s clear from the silence and Anita’s awkwardness that I’ve been the subject of conversation.
Could they know about Oliver and his bigamist father? I wonder. No. That would be impossible. No one in Woodhaven knew about that except Maggie, and she would never say anything to anyone — least of all to the Posse.
I haven’t seen any of the Posse since early May, a couple of weeks after the twins’ birth, when Anita brought round a Tupperware-encased casserole for our freezer. Two days after the arrival of that Chicken a la King, Oliver’s half-sister Tania paid us her fateful surprise visit, and my life turned towards the sign marked “Hades on Earth”. Hanging out with the Expat Sisters over lattes, pretending everything was hunky dory chez Patrick, didn’t feature on my agenda after that.
Silly to assume my absence went unnoticed, though. I’ve turned down so many invitations to coffee, dinner, and pot luck lunches that the gossip machine must have been working overtime. “Bring all the children, and let’s have dinner!” the phone conversations would start, and my inner reaction would be Let’s not. Let me just hide. Outwardly, I would mumble an excuse, but since I’m no Meryl Streep, the other person surely knew I was fobbing them off. “Another time, then,” they would say.
Except that after a while, of course, there were no other times.
Naturally, it was Maggie who set me back on the path to social redemption.
“You can’t hide away forever,” she said to me at regular intervals over the last few weeks. “You need more company. You need people your own age.”
Eventually, after Oliver and I reached our tenuous truce, I felt my wounds had been sufficiently licked and the time was right to enter the outside world again. An email from Anita, sent to all the English Posse wives, offered the opportunity I needed.
Charlie and Lee are heading back to sunny Milton Keynes! the email said. We will be holding a farewell party for Charlie on August 23 at my house. Please RSVP…..etc etc etc
I didn’t RSVP, though. I didn’t trust myself to keep a promise to attend. Glancing round Anita’s kitchen now, meeting the curious stares and false smiles, I wish I hadn’t come.
“How they’ve grown!” Charlie appears at my side, gives me a hug, and bends down to take a better look at the twins. “They’re — what, about three months now?”
“Four months. Exactly.” I wish with all my heart that it was someone else’s farewell party. Anyone except Charlie. Caroline would be my top pick of people to dispatch back to Milton Keynes. I can see her on the other side of the family room, standing next to her awful brat who’d made Jack’s life a misery. She’s holding her own new baby, which is dressed in a black Harley Davidson onesie with fake leather boots and a kelly-green elasticated headband. Boy or girl? It’s still anyone’s guess.
“They’re beautiful,” she says. “And you look very well, too. Post-natal blues are such a curse — I hope you’re feeling a bit better now?”
Charlie speaks the last sentence in a slightly louder tone, as if to make sure the rest of the room hears clearly. She nods slightly at me, encouraging me to say something, to play along with her.
“Much better,” I say, wondering where this is leading.
“Good! I hear there are some wonderful drugs available for depression these days. I expect you know all about that, though.”
“Well, I’m not actually—”
“Come and sit down where it’s quieter.” Charlie interrupts me, then picks up George’s car seat and carries it through to Anita’s formal living room. I follow with Beth. As I sidle past the basement door, I hear Jack issuing orders about the rules of a made-up game involving Ironman and Captain America. Sad, I think. Has Lightning McQueen had his day in Jack’s world?
“I think you should know,” Charlie says, flopping down next to me on Anita’s leather sofa, “that there’ve been a lot of theories about your absence. Rumours spread very quickly around here, as you know, but as soon as anyone voiced an opinion, I simply stepped in and told them you’ve been suffering from PND. I figured that it probably wasn’t too far from the truth.”
I reflect on this. Yes — I’d been depressed following the twins’ birth, although the two events weren’t connected.
“That’s about right,” I say.
“And I presumed you’d rather have that circulating as general knowledge than the real reason.”
I nod, before remembering that no one could possibly know about Oliver and Tania.
“Wait — what ‘real reason’?” I ask, but Charlie is already getting up.
“They’re calling me,” she says. “Time to cut the cake.” And off she rushes, back to the kitchen.
By the time I’ve gathered up the two baby seats and lumbered with them towards the cake room, Anita is in full flow with an emotional goodbye-to-Charlie speech.
“The best thing about being here in Woodhaven,” she says, blinking hard, “is the lovely people you meet. The worst thing is when you have to say goodbye to them.” She sniffs. “I’m going to miss you so much, Charlie.”
You and me both, I think.
Julia passes a couple of large gift-wrapped boxes to Charlie.
“This is from all of us,” Julia says, and I feel guilty, because I haven’t contributed anything.
Charlie murmurs her slightly embarrassed thanks, and begins unwrapping them. There’s a big coffee-table book full of photos of Massachusetts; a lace tablecloth which I recognise as being from the craft store in Woodhaven; a pottery house — a miniature of the one on Main street that belongs to the Historic Society. Right at the bottom of the second box, there’s a map of Milton Keynes and a copy of the Highway Code. A joke, of course — Charlie doesn’t need either, but it’s a reminder that she’s been away from her home town for nearly five years, and she might need a refresher course in driving on the left.
“Give our love to Milton Keynes,” Julia says.
“And to Jeffrey and Shelley, of course,” pipes up Caroline from the back of the room. She looks over at me and smirks, but I don’t know why.
Everyone else in the room knows, though. The heavy silence descends again.
Jeffrey and Shelley? I think. I only know one Jeffrey, the one who is married to Melissa Harvey Connor.
“Does she mean Jeffrey Connor?” I whisper to Anita, who’s standing next to me.
Anita casts a glance around, as if searching for a door to take her into a parallel universe, far away from here. “That’s right,” she says.
“So — he’s in England now?” Oliver never mentioned it. “What about Melissa? Has she gone too?”
It’s so long since I’ve seen Melissa. The last time I saw her was the week of the early winter storm, when I caught her sniffing Oliver’s sweatshirt in our bedroom, and I got the locks changed the following week.
Anita stares at the floor. Perhaps she can see the door to the other universe. “He’s gone back to Shelley,” she says at last. “The wife he had when he first came out here, five years ago.”
“Goodness.” So much scandal for such a small town. “So what happened to him and Melissa?” I ask.
Anita’s very quiet, for a long time. “We all assumed you would know about that,” she says at last. “I’m sorry, Libby.”
Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #59 – Fanning the flames
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Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigit