Somehow, I manage to get away from that hideous coffee morning. As I drive, I automatically answer Jack’s questions about the finer details of Ironman’s personal habits — “I have no idea how he goes to the bathroom. No, I can’t imagine Ironman wearing Pampers. Yes, I suppose he might go rusty if he’s not careful.” — but I’m not really paying attention.
Anita’s words keep looping around in my head.
“Jeffrey Connor’s gone back to Shelley,” she’d said. Shelley, his first wife, whom he’d left for Melissa Harvey. Jeffrey and Shelley Connor had been Melissa’s tenants — just as Oliver and I are now.
I cringe every time I replay my innocent reply:
“Why? What happened to him and Melissa?”
And Anita’s embarrassed answer: “We all assumed you would know about that.”
Her meaning was unmistakable: We assumed you knew because you are involved in this situation. Or, rather, not me, but Oliver.
It was as if someone had smacked me over the head with a large stick. Everything made sense: the sudden silence as I entered Anita’s house, as if they had been talking about me; Charlie’s protectiveness, as she loudly emphasised my “post-natal depression” as the excuse for my four-month absence from Posse society.
It wasn’t post-natal depression, not in the conventional sense. It was my inability to face anyone because of the issues Oliver and I were having about his father’s marital history.
Now, though, I wish I’d been brave enough to venture onto the coffee morning rounds. Without me there to set the story straight, rumours had flourished like unattended dandelions. In my absence, everyone had gossiped behind my back, assuming I wasn’t showing my face in public because Melissa Harvey Connor was having it away with yet another tenant of hers: Oliver.
How ridiculous. Right? I mean — when would Oliver see Melissa?
Yet here’s the thing: while I can keep telling myself that it’s all conjecture and careless whispers amongst silly women with too much time and not enough brain cells, and I don’t believe a word of it, at the back of my head a little voice of paranoia insists that rumours have to come from somewhere. As my Dad would say: “There’s no smoke without fire, Libby.”
What to do now? I wonder.
Do I ignore the smoke? Douse the embers? Or — fan the flames?
If the topic comes up, I decide, I will probe.
* * *
“How was your day?” Oliver asks over dinner. “Did you go to Charlie’s leaving do?”
I pause. “Yep,” I say, trying to keep my voice light and casual, and instead hearing it come out high-pitched and tense.
“Everything all right?” Oliver shoots me a look which I interpret as concerned.
Concerned for whom? Me? Or him?
“Fine,” I say, hoping my voice sounds more natural.
“OK,” he says. Oliver tends to take things at face value. If I say I’m fine, then I must be.
“I hear Jeffrey’s gone back to England.” I cut into a piece of chicken on my plate, and glance up quickly to watch Oliver’s expression, which is a study in nonchalance.
“Yeah. He decided our landlady wasn’t a good enough trade-in for his first wife. Gone back with his tail between his legs.”
“It took him this long to work that out? Everyone else could have told him Melissa’s a complete bitch.”
Oliver raises his eyebrows. “She’s not that bad. A bit overbearing, maybe. Jeffrey didn’t handle her right. You’ve got to be firm with her.”
I choke, cough, and run into the kitchen where I splutter out a wad of half-chewed chicken.
“And you’d know about this, I suppose,” I say, when I return to the table.
“Well, yes. Of course I would.” He looks around the table for ketchup. Honestly, it drives me nuts how Oliver insists on drowning everything with ketchup. If I took him to Alain Ducasse, he’d be asking for ketchup to go with the foie gras. “Seeing as she’s been working at the company for — what? Three months now.”
I lean back in my chair, aware that my jaw is dropping open unattractively.
“She works at your place? Why? She’s a realtor. You never told me.”
Oliver shrugs. “Housing market has tanked around here, and Jeffrey got her this admin job. I suppose she joined when we…when you and I weren’t talking much to each other.”
And whose fault was that? I want to scream, but instead I count to ten, very slowly, because I need to know more.
Suddenly the Posse’s whispers don’t seem so careless any more.
“Do you see much of her at work?” I ask in that same fake-casual voice.
“She works for me. Technically, I’m her boss.”
“And there is no connection between that and the fact that Jeffrey has decided to return to his first wife.”
He hesitates, just a fraction of a second too long, and my internal bullshit radar switches to high alert.
“Now you’re just being silly,” he says, sticking out his chin.
We finish our meal.
There is silence in the room, marred only for me by my internal radar’s sirens and red flashing strobe lights.
* * *
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