"Don't worry" I said as we got into my car, "She'll be OK."
We sat there with me looking round, and her quietly sitting and staring out of the windscreen. I had no hope of reversing out of my space for several minutes; the small car park was a chaos of cars and anxious proud parents and nervous college kids and computers and suitcases and kettles and posters and toasters and, very occasionally, a few books.
"I thought her room rather nice, or it will be once she has made it her own. And that little bathroom was a lot better than I ever had at college." I said, watching my wife sitting next to me and still looking anxious.
She turned her head and looked at me and gave me a half smile, but still managed to look anxious "Oh, I know." She sighed, "Penny will be OK once she's settled in. She'll make friends; she was already chatting happily to that slightly Asian looking girl in the kitchen area." She sighed again.
We sat in the silence of our own thoughts for a couple of minutes; then I looked around. The chances of being able to reverse out and get to the exit seemed to be improving.
I glanced across at her; she was looking sad and tense.
"Cheer up. Look at how Tom settled into army life. Two years ago he was a nervous 18 year old, now he is a confidant young man, not that we ever see him these days, he's far too busy enjoying himself to want to come back to see his Mum and Dad." I said cheerfully, and then added as an afterthought "Unless he is looking for something, like a non-repayable loan!"
"Yes, I know. We're empty nesters now. Just you and me and the rest of our lives." She responded.
"I think I'll set the satnav. That road is one-way, and I don't know my way out of town to get back on the ring road and on our route home. I can turn it off once we get to the motorway."
"Back to Carlton Close." She said as a matter of fact. "We've lived there 14 years now. I only know that because Penny was four and Tom six when we moved in"
"It's a nice house. I like it, I always have. And I think it's a great house to bring up kids in, a great family house. I stopped and looked at the tree-house the other day. It wouldn't take much to repair and restore it. Both our two loved it." I put the car into reverse and started inching backwards.
"Penny certainly loved it, and has been loved in it." For the first time I heard a certain lightness in her voice.
"What do you know that I don't?" I asked.
"Only that I don't think I was meant to see, but in June on the shortest night I saw her taking some candles and a blanket and some wine up to the tree house. I think Jonathon got lucky that night, probably for the first time. Penny is a romantic like you, she would have chosen something special for her first time." She laughed as she spoke, probably enjoying my emotional shock.
Every father of a daughter knows that there is going to be a first time with some lucky guy. And if they love and know their daughter then they can probably guess who the lucky guy is. I just wasn't so sure I needed to know the time and place.
I recovered and covered myself with "The shortest night? I guess there is a joke in there somewhere and probably at Jonathon's expense. Do you think those two will still be together this time next year?"
"I wouldn't have thought so. She's here, he's up at Durham, and there are too many boys here and too many girls there. Just too many distractions to worry about someone 300 miles away."
"Yes. You're probably right" I said as I turned right in accordance with my satnav's instructions. "Pity, I rather liked him."
After that we fell into silence for some time, and I was settled to cruising on the motorway when I began to find the silence a bit oppressive. So I broke the silence "I see that Bob and Alice have finally sold No 12. When did that happen?"
She sat up more alert and I suspect grateful for something neutral to talk about. "About a week ago it was finally agreed. I think the new people had made a low offer and there has been weeks of negotiation."
"So Bob and Alice are off to a happy retirement in Devon, well it's taken long enough, it must have been on the market for nearly a year. What did they eventually get for it? Do you know? I guess ours is worth about the same, maybe a bit more, we have a bigger garden."
"Alice wouldn't tell me the actual figure. She did say it was over £400,000, but I guess it was only just over."
"£400,000? Not bad in these troubled times."
Again we fell into a slightly tense silence for a couple of minutes, only this time it was her who broke it.
"Did you see that that Julie Dawson at the end house, No 1, has put her house up for sale; a board went up on Friday. She's only lived there for a couple of years." She said.
"Yes, I saw the board when I drove in on Friday night. It's only three bedrooms, but I guess she'll get what she paid for it."
"Maybe. I wonder why she ever bought it; she isn't a Carlton Close sort of person. And she's hardly done a thing to improve the place. Alice and I were talking about it on Friday after the board went up, we think all she's had done is the outside has been painted exactly the same colour as it was when she bought it..."
"Maybe she liked the colour." I interjected in Julie's defence.
She ignored me and just continued " ... and that mysterious gate on the side fence as it goes down Cheviot Road that she had put in about a year ago now. What is the point in that? It really annoys Alice that none of us can see who comes and goes using that gate. You certainly can't see it from our house; it's around the corner and out of sight. But why would she want a gate direct onto her back patio, she's already got the side entrance on the front, down the side of the garage?"
I did not answer; I felt there was more to come. My lack of response obviously annoyed her
"You must have noticed the new gate. You pass it every night with the dog. And on your way back, even after you've dropped into the King's Head. Yes, I know your secret..."
My heart missed a beat, and I waited for her to continue.
"You tell me that you are walking the dog, but I can smell the alcohol on your breath when you get back. And that's on the few occasions I've stayed up for you to come home. You get back so late."
I smiled to myself, "Well sometimes I get wrapped up in everything, the conversation, the interaction and the coming and going, and yes I admit it, sometimes I have had a glass or two of wine."
"I knew it. You go down to the King's Head. Why lie about it?"
"I don't lie. I do take Bobby for a walk, just not as far as you may have thought. I think I've been lucky that one of your gossiping cronies hasn't spotted me and told you before this. You all seem to decide everything, irrespective of the facts. Like your decisions about poor Julie."
"Well we won't miss her. She never really fitted in. And her lifestyle! We don't need that in the Close."
"What about her lifestyle? What has she done to upset you? Or the rest of the Close's coven?"
"Well, for a start, no one knows what she does or where she gets her money from. She obviously isn't short of money, that BMW is brand new. So that raises questions for a start..."
"She owns Oak Tree People, the job agency in town. You know the one; they have those smart offices next door to the bank. They do permanent and temporary placements for management executives, from middle managers right up to quite senior people. It's quite a successful business."
"How do you know that?"
"Oh, days and weeks of complex research and investigation. Actually, I asked her when John Weaver introduced me to her at the Weaver's summer party over a year ago, probably nearer 15 months ago. I find that actually talking to people tells you a lot more about them than just gossiping about them with your cronies."
"Well, she is still a lesbian, and both Alice and Pam Weaver think she's pregnant. One of those militant lesbians I guess, the sort that insist they are entitled to IVF irrespective of their lifestyle. Typical!"
"How do you come to that conclusion? I'm pretty sure she would have got pregnant in a more traditional way. Why do you think she's a lesbian?"
"Well you never see any man visiting. The only regular visitor you ever see is a dark haired girl, maybe a few years younger than her who arrives sometimes. And they greet each other with big hugs and kisses, quite brazenly for all to see, on the front porch. It's very distasteful. Sometimes her parents visit, I feel so sorry for them, they look a lovely couple and they have to greet their lesbian daughter and her girlfriend. And now she's pregnant! Poor parents ... But I guess they may like being grandparents, but I bet they wish it was some other way."
"Why do you think she's pregnant anyway, has she told you?"
"No, she never speaks to me. But I see her, you don't. In the morning you take the damn dog out for his morning walk and you always turn right at the end of the Close, towards the Common. Not long after you she runs out in her running gear. I'll give her her due, she's got great legs, but she looks like a teenager, with her hair in a pony tail and her little firm perky tits. Don't tell me you haven't noticed, she must pass you as you walk the dog, she always seems to be heading for the Common as well."
"Oh Yes! I've seen her. You didn't mention her butt; she's got a great butt."
"Trust you to notice that! But you say she is a serious business woman, and yet she's jogging around looking like some sexy twenty year old."
"You still haven't explained why you think she's pregnant?"
"Well, apparently Pam Weaver saw her coming out of the Health Centre in Trenton Road last Tuesday afternoon, and on Tuesday afternoons they only do pre-natal appointments and pre-natal classes. If she is pregnant she is not very far gone. I've kept my eye open for the last few mornings, and last Thursday she came out after you've left for work. She was all in lycra and with a back pack. It was obviously one of her mornings to cycle in, and not use her car. I've seen her do that before, about once a week I would guess. Anyway, the lycra outfit usually shows off her annoyingly flat stomach and pert boobs. But on Thursday both Alice and I will swear that her boobs were looking a little bigger and there was a slight rounding of the tummy. It's not very noticeable yet, but we are convinced. Maybe 3 months at most, but it might be our imagination. What is she? 33 or 34? So maybe it's just maturity setting in, there's always hope."
"Well, let me make a suggestion. Maybe the girlfriend is her younger sister, and that they are close. So they greet each other quite normally, but yes, lovingly. And maybe her parents are pleased to visit and see both their daughters for a happy family visit. And maybe they are delighted if she is pregnant, and maybe happy with the father. You never know."
"Maybe, but I don't know how you would know anymore than me and Alice. Well she's welcome to be pregnant. Been there done that. It's just us two now, we are empty nesters."
I thought about being a father in my mid-forties, and I liked the idea, "Oooh, I could go on having a second family, I'd be really excited about it. I loved the years of the kids growing up. I could do that again very happily. I'm only 44; I've still got it in me. A chance to get it right this time, not that we did so badly last time. We can be proud of Tom and Penny. But bringing up kids in a house like ours, with the garden we've got, that would be good."
"Well, you can forget that. But it does remind me, I would like to get rid of the twin beds and get back to a double bed. It's been three years now, it's time to complete putting things right, back to the way they are meant to be."
"Sorry, no can do." I sighed.
She was indignant. "Why not?"
I grimaced, and then sighed "Three years ago, when I agreed to cancel the divorce and come back I laid down a series of conditions if you remember. One of them was we would have twin beds and no sleeping together until I wanted it different."
"It's been three years; surely we can put it all behind us now?"
I paused, trying to work out if she was annoyed with me, in a patronizing way of a mother to a silly boy who was putting up silly arguments. Or was she embarrassed and wanted to sweep any discussion of her affair with George Sidleton under the carpet. Or was she apologetic that the affair still troubled me. I came to no conclusion.
"No we can't. What have you done to help me move forward and forgive you and want you, except wait for my 'hissy fit' just to be over with the passage of time? I believe that was how you explained it to Alice."
"How do you know that?" She asked very indignantly.
"What? That you called all my pain, hurt, anger and humiliation a hissy fit? Bob told me. He owes me more than a few favours remember. He wouldn't lie to me."
"Oh! He had no right to tell you. I said it in confidence to Alice. But I am sorry if my choice of words upset you. I wanted to give you time to get over things, and you've had three years now, so you've had time."
"You can talk in confidence to Alice, but Bob can't talk in confidence to me? He owes me big time; remember it was me that found him a very good job for his last few working years when he was made redundant at 58. Without me your friend Alice would have had to sell up and move out of the Close years ago."
"Anyway, I still think it is time we put our marriage back on the road completely after all this time" She did sound a little contrite, but still with vestiges of being indignant.
I sighed again "When I agreed to drop the divorce and come back, I was still very hurt and very angry. It was a pretty close run thing between a civilised divorce, or move back and at least give you a chance to explain yourself and rebuild something, or to simply murder you. But I think beneath all that emotion, if I was honest, the one thing I wanted, more than anything else in the world, was for you to at least try to put our marriage back together. I loved you so much; part of coming back was that I couldn't imagine my life without you and Tom and Penny. If you had shown any real regret, sorrow and repentance at what you had done with George Sidleton then I think I would have met you half way, but you never did. All I wanted was for you to show me that you wanted me as your lover; that you cared and were really sorry at how you had hurt me. I think it was a year before I knew, before I accepted, that you were never going to make any effort. Then all I could do was to honour the agreement we had made and I just tried to get along and make life bearable until Penny left home."
Now indignation returned in full measure "What do you mean that I never made any effort? I did say I was sorry, it was a dreadful mistake. I don't know why I did it; it was just one of those things that happens sometimes. Least said, soonest mended. There was nothing to be gained by going over and over it all; we just needed to get back to normal as soon as possible."
I paused and thought how I was going to make some pretty harsh points while still keeping it to a calm discussion. "What's your favourite meal?"
"You know that, that recipe I have for chicken and lentil cacciatore" She said "Quickly followed by several other things I make. Why?"
"You make it wonderfully; you really are a very good cook. Now tell me, how often do we have it?"
"Thank you. I try not to give it to you too often. I guess about once every couple of months."
"So in the three years since I agreed to come back, we've you've probably made it about 18 times say."
"Yes, I guess."
"What is my favourite meal?"
"Lasagne. And before you accuse me of anything, we've had that probably as many times as we've had my cacciatore."
"Yes we have. I agree. But how many times have you actually bothered to make me lasagne and not just heat up a supermarket one. You are a wonderful cook, but how many times since you were George's slut have you bothered to cook your husband his favourite meal?"
"How dare you call me a slut! I am still your wife, and I deserve better. I am sorry if my affair still causes you some mean and nasty thoughts, but please don't call me names, it's childish. But to answer your question seems superfluous; you obviously know I never did. Shop bought lasagne is something easy to put on when I've had a busy day. But I always bought good ones, and you always ate it up, you didn't need me to go to all that fuss and bother of making them."
"To be honest calling you a slut wasn't my original thought; Susan Sidleton called you that, or more accurately a miserable cheating bitch slut."
"She can talk, she clings on to that man never allowing him any freedom, nor giving him a fair divorce. But what were you doing talking to her?"
"Oh, you know, two wronged people licking our wounds. We started getting together pretty soon after you and George were found out. And I still see her occasionally for lunch; the last time was a couple of months ago. I met her new boyfriend. He's very nice, Steven Binchcombe, he owns that big Mercedes dealership out on the Oxford Road. I guess she will be Susan Binchcombe soon."
"How will she? She always refused to divorce poor George. Don't tell me she let him have his divorce at last."
I smiled, "Yes, in some ways I guess she did refuse to divorce poor George. She loved him and hung on in there through all his previous affairs, if not forgiving him at least living with them. But you were the final straw. You obviously haven't talked to poor George lately"
"He phoned me not long after you found out about him and me. He called me all the names under the sun and slammed the phone down on me. So maybe that was her finding out. I haven't heard from him or spoken to him since, promise, he is completely out of my life, our lives."
"No, it wasn't the discovery and the break-up that upset him, that happened on the same night that I confronted you. And anyway, Susan found out about you two before me, she was the one to tell me. No, my guess is that your phone call probably was either him finding out that their house was in fact not owned by her, when he would have had some claim on its value, but owned by a trust set up by her father years ago. Or it might have been when Susan's uncle and majority owner of the company fired him."
"George owned the company; he had a big shareholding he told me. And he told me that he owned their house. It was her who clung to him and made him so unhappy."
"Not so. Her father's brother owned 70% of the stock, but he was retired and he allowed George to be CEO. And Susan's trust fund owned the other 30%. She divorced him and he got half of their joint wealth, which was very, very little. Susan thinks, but is not sure, that he lives in a flatshare somewhere up in Newcastle these days. She still lives in the house. She has taken up a directorship in the company and works well with the new CEO. And she's bought herself a very nice Mercedes which is how she met Steven. She told me quite a lot about her life with George. Not in the immediate drama of being betrayed, initially we were just commiserating with each other and supporting each other through the horror and pain of it all. It was probably a year later that both of us seemed to go through a phase of needing to analyse and understand what had gone wrong in our lives; that was when she talked about what sort of man George really was. But we are past all of that now, and just good friends."
"But he told me ... What did she say, what did she tell you?"
I smiled; I was going to enjoy this bit "She and George were never really sexually compatible. She admitted that she probably has a lower sex drive than him, she was happy with 2 or 3 times a week, George wanted it every night. I don't think that was too much of a problem though, she loved him and she was happy to never refuse him. No, the problem was that she found him to be just an animal in bed. She liked fun sex and passionate hard sex sometimes, but she also wanted loving, romantic sex as well, but she never got that from George. She said she did wonder if he somehow got a subliminal message from her about her not just wanting what he was doing, but for whatever reason he started using prostitutes. That upset her, but she felt guilty that she was not meeting his needs, so she turned a blind eye, although she told me that it hurt her like Hell."
I paused and glanced sideways; she was staring at me aghast, but listening intently.