The Other Woman
Heat gets into everything: liquid oil on discarded takeaway boxes; the stones on the beach burn; the garden is yellow and my mind almost baked. I can’t see our future, just one hot afternoon on Shoebury beach: the risk of being spotted another aspect of the heat. Standing barefoot on the dead grass above the sand searching for shade. Wind turbines in the distance, wheels hazy and still. Holding my breath as Sebastian replaces a hat on my head and allows his hand to rest lightly at the nape of my neck. Ronan asleep, hair plastered to his cheek; sweat shining under his eyes; mouth hanging open, dribble suspended; fat legs slippery and motionless. The emptiness of sky and expanse of sand part of the surreal wonder. The crowds’ iceboxes, burnt red flesh, soft chocolate bars, coloured melting lollies, tents, rolls of fat, cheese rolls, bottles, sunglasses, kites, surfboards, wet sandy feet, nets dripping silt, filth, litter and noise - muted – almost an irrelevance.
We stayed to watch the sun set as the water rose. We were hungry, Ronan at my breast cried for real food. I needed to pee so badly; there was hot pressure in my bladder and sharp pain every time Ronan pushed his bare toes into me. Sebastian held my hand behind the bench. I wasn’t thinking of anything, only feeling the dirty sunset, my full bladder and Sebastian’s cool fingers touching mine.
Driving home to mum's empty house, with Ronan asleep in the back of his boiling car, Sebastian switched off the radio. Neither of us spoke. I asked if he was hungry, but the words were awkward in my mouth and too loud. Sebastian only nodded. I remember checking in my mind what I had in the fridge to feed Ronan – yoghurt (still in date), grapes and slightly hard sliced cheese. I must have drifted off. Sebastian woke me after parking on my street: stroking my head, as if I were a child.
In the morning, waking to feed the baby with Sebastian sprawled in my bed: pale skin stretched over prominent ribs, grey chest hairs, quietly snoring.
Ronan goose-stepping up and down the hall in just a nappy leaning on our hands, laughing and changing direction, for him to step is a glorious thing - where you end up unimportant. In a patch of sunlight or up one stair; kick dust motes; dominate entirely with ancient energy.
Wearing mum’s old dresses, trying to hide the ugly veins on my shins – allowing my heavy, blue, breasts to be exposed. Feeling lightheaded, but not hungry; eating hot food prepared by Sebastian – boiled pasta and salty sauce out of one of my mother’s recipe books. Shopping in Tesco aware of eyes watching.
After Ronan had his bottle on Saturday evening and drifted off to sleep, sweaty in my arms, I laid him down in the cot with no blankets. He slept, eyes half closed, sometimes whining a little, sometimes laughing, his arms stretched above his head, fingers slightly bent, knees tucked up, like they would have been in the womb.
Sebastian and I on the sofa watching the news. Images of raging wildfires devouring Greece. He turned away and seemed angry when I asked him what the matter was; winced, but returned his eyes to the screen – little bike frames in the dust, cars made of ash and smouldering remains. An interview with a young man who had run to the sea with his baby, leaving his wife stuck in a car. Sebastian switched it off: said he couldn’t bear to think about climate change, it made him feel helpless – unable to imagine a future for his children. I didn’t ask any more about it. He offered to make me another gin and tonic. In bed afterwards he didn’t undress me or whisper in the dark, nor did he fall asleep. I laid my head on his shoulder.
On Sunday there was warm rain. I wore my old jeans and one of Sebastian’s bright checked shirts – my tops were all stained and sticky with sun cream, breastmilk and coffee. It’s easy to breastfeed in a man’s shirt. We listened to records and drank black coffee, while Sebastian built towers for Ronan to knock down – The Watersons, Led Zeppelin, Richard and Linda Thompson, Sandy Denny and an old Jean Redpath album that makes me cry sometimes if I’m on my own - An her tender heart, it brak in three
There were knickers dripping out on the line; I left them there to dry another day.
Monday, was dry again; there was a cool breeze. I suggested we walk up to Old Leigh and beyond to the Nature Reserve. I am beginning to lose my fear of being seen. The identity of Ronan’s biological father was revealed to all the teachers at the end of last term anyway, just before the break – by osmosis: we each told one or two people and allowed the secret to soak in. When I suggested the walk, Sebastian said he wasn’t sure; went into the kitchen to make some coffee. I stayed on the floor with Ronan – holding him by the hands and letting go – watching him balance on his own feet, beaming at me, suspended for a few seconds, before collapsing on to his full nappy. When Sebastian returned he was asking about whether I wanted him to do a big shop for us in the car – and pick up nappies. I told him I could do my own shopping. We both played with the baby – I was waiting for him to answer. In the end I said:
‘So you don’t want to walk up to Old Leigh.’ I was leading Ronan by the arm, out to the hall away from him.
‘Maybe not today Maud.’
‘I have been thinking I should get a few things done at my house maybe while I have the time. While they're away.’
‘Make it looked lived in you mean.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Or you are just ashamed.’
‘Where did that come from?’
‘Go home then. I might take Ronan there myself.’
‘Maud our relationship is public now.’
‘What is our relationship exactly, other than casual sex and an accidental baby?’
‘Look, I’m going to go home for a bit. Maybe we should talk about it when you have calmed down. You seem upset. It’s probably not good for Ronan.’
‘I am calm. You’re the one who’s angry.’
Sebastian telling me to be calm! When I have been so stuck, because of him. Him, who was free to wander off and leave me the minute he felt like it, accusing me of anger, of upsetting my child. I sat Ronan down carefully and walked over to the sofa where Sebastian was with his hot coffee. He turned his head slightly away from me and shrank as I came closer, as if he was scared I might hit him. He took a sip of coffee and placed the cup precisely, in the middle of the coaster on the coffee table, which is covered in cup rings anyway – still not looking at me. I didn’t want to raise my voice. I was only planning to say something cutting, but no sound would come out. On impulse, I lifted my bare foot while he wasn’t looking and kicked him hard in the leg. He turned – shocked, but not in pain – and his expression turned to one of quiet mockery. I grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him; jabbed my knee into the stomach. I wanted to hurt him: to scratch his face and chest. I took his shirt between my hands, by the buttonholes, and tore at the material. I tore it until there was a huge rip at the front; pulled most of it off him, and tore it up, throwing little shreds of material at him. I couldn’t look at him, in case he was laughing. I left him there, wearing rags and khaki shorts; turned and picked up Ronan, who was crying; took him upstairs and ran a bath - shouted down the stairs, ‘Just leave.’
I haven’t heard from him since then; not the ideal way to prove Sebastian is in the wrong.
Hannah Glickstein has written for the Camden New Journal, Catholic Herald, Huffington Post and Spectator Schools and was shortlisted for the Fish Poetry Prize in 2016. Her first novel ‘Eyeball Computer’ was published with Leveller’s Press in 2019. Hannah’s short stories have been published by Scribble and Stroud Short Stories. She writes a blog, and is responsible for two children, a cat, a few long suffering vegetables and a husband.