by Misha Herwin
Americano with cold milk
Isabel knelt down by the hearth and put another log on the fire. The wood smouldered, then caught, sending bright tongues of flame up the chimney. The wind roared and moaned, lashing the rain against the windows. Inside, curtains drawn the room was warm and snug.
“I’ve missed this,” Stuart sighed. Half sitting, half lying on the sofa he stretched his legs towards the fire.
I’ve missed you, Isabel thought, but she said nothing. It was too soon. The peace between them too fragile to risk putting any pressure on him. He’d said it himself when he’d turned up that evening. All he needed was the calm she could give him.
“Come on. Come and sit down,” Stuart patted the cushion beside him. “Like you used to.”
In the firelight his face looked younger, less drawn, only the glint of silver in his dark hair told how many years it was since they were first together.
Isabel drew in her breath. She sat down carefully, making sure she was close but not close enough. Stuart liked to keep his distance, until he was ready to let down his guard.
“It’s good to be back,” he said softly, pulling her towards him. A sob rose in Isabel’s throat. All these months without him had been the worst time in her life. The pain had been almost more than she could bear. If it hadn’t been for the girls she would have given up. They had been totally on her side; as appalled as she was that their father could walk out after thirty years of happy marriage.
In spite of all she could say, they had refused to have anything to do with him. It didn’t matter that they had their own homes and families it still mattered that Mum and Dad were still there, the same as always.
At Christmas they’d all come round. Nicky and Rob and their new baby, Anna and Damian and their brood. But Stuart hadn’t been there to open the wine and play with his grandchildren. They hadn’t talked about it. Not even Zack and Libby who at seven and four had been primed not to mention Granddad. And although she wanted to scream and shout and let out her rage just as the storm was raging around the house, she kept quiet and tried to pretend that everything was all right. That she was coping.
She’d managed it. Everyone said they’d had a good time and both girls had rung later to see how she was. She’d told them the usual that she was getting used to it, that she quite liked her own space, but it was all a lie. The truth was she’d do anything to have things back like they used to be. Before that terrible night, last May, when Stuart had told her that he wasn’t happy any more, that their marriage wasn’t working and he was leaving her for Pat, the woman he’d worked with since he’d set up his own business.
“She understands me. We’re a pair,” he’d said, kissing her softly, fondly even, before picking up his sports bag and walking out of their life.
And now, in the spring of the year, he was back. Isabel didn’t ask why. She knew that he’d tell her, she had only to wait as she had always done and it would all come pouring out.
“I never knew,” Stuart’s voice broke. “How important the family was to me.”
That’s because the girls won’t talk to you, Isabel thought. Because you still haven’t seen your newest grandson.
“You’re important to them too,” she said. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t be so angry, she thought and put her hand on his arm. His fingers closed around hers and gave them a squeeze.
“I’ve been thinking…” Stuart’s breath was in her hair, his kiss on her forehead. He moved away from her and poured himself another glass. He held the wine up to the firelight, swirled it round the goblet peering at it as if it held all the answers.
“What I’ve always appreciated about you,” his voice was a little slurred and she was suddenly aware that they both must have drunk more than she’d thought. “Was that you never held me back. You always let me get on with my own thing.”
It was true. From the very start she’d supported him. Listened to his plans for his business, worked to help him get started, then when it all took off, she ran the house looked after the kids, did everything she could to help him succeed. And it had been good, or so she thought. Of course there had been some difficult times recently with the recession but Pat had been a bolt from the blue.
Still it seemed that Stuart had finally seen sense. Come back to the one person who had always loved him, no matter what.
“If you love someone that’s what you do,” she said. “You let them be themselves.”
He put down his glass then and drew her into his arms.
In the morning, the storm had gone. The sky was a bright sharp blue and the spring sunlight poured into their bedroom. Half-awake Isabel stretched out her hand. “Stuart,” she murmured. There was no reply. The other side of the bed was empty. She listened for the sound of the shower. She went down to the kitchen hoping against hope he was brewing an early morning cup of coffee to surprise her. She pulled up the blind and saw that his car was gone from the drive.
He’s gone to work, she thought. He’s gone to the office, but it’s Sunday and our first day back together. She sank her teeth into her lips, clasped her arms around her waist waiting for the pain to strike.
Her phone bleeped. A message. He’d sent her message. With trembling fingers Gill pressed the keys.
Thank you for giving me my freedom.
So that was what last night had been all about. Gill sank down into a chair, trying to absorb the shock. Stuart didn’t want to come back. He wanted her permission to leave. Well he wasn’t going to get it. She was going over there now she would tell him. Tell both of them if she had to.
The patch of woodland between the house and the village had been hard hit by the storm. There were fallen branches and twigs scattered all over the path. She was half way along when a flash of white caught her eye. A clump of snowdrops, the flowers pure and white amid the leaf litter were growing between the roots of an old oak. A symbol of hope and new life in the storm ravaged wood. Suddenly her rage drained away. What was she doing? Stuart wasn’t a parcel to be fetched, or a toy to be argued over. Nor did he need to be told what to do. He was free to make up his own mind, just as she was. The trouble was neither of them were grown up or brave enough to do so and take the consequences.
Did she want Stuart back? For the first time since he’d left she asked herself the question. She stood stock still searching for the answer. A pale shaft of sun caught the snowdrops. They looked so frail but were strong enough to push through the cold ground and reach up to the light. It was hard but if they could do it, so could she.
Gill bent down and picked a white flower. Holding it in her fingers she carried it back to the house and her new life.
About the author
Misha Herwin lives in Staffordshire in a house with a dragon in the garden. She writes novels and short stories; some for adults, others for children. Much of her work is inspired by her fascination with the supernatural and the fluidity of time. She has two grown up children and an ever patient husband. When she is not writing she likes reading, gardening and baking. She also runs workshops.