Wednesday 17 April 2024

On the Wrong Track by Jane Spirit, coffee from a fancy machine

 How many times did Kate have to tell Mark that she’d ended up on the wrong track in life? That was the way she had put it to him in any case, although to her it felt as if she had careered off some mountain trail on a speeding motorbike before plunging onto the rocks below and bursting into flames. These days Kate had no certainty that she would ever be able to rise, phoenixlike, from the glowing, metallic scraps of her failed dreams.

Kate had never wanted so very much either – only a small though well-designed flat to call her own and an interesting job doing something creative, or in the media. The icing on her cake would have been a little bit of recognition for her talents. Only after that would she have dared to aspire to placing a cherry on the top. A stable kind of relationship formed a soft-focus background to this in her mind’s eye, against which the resulting children she envisaged were sharply silhouetted. They unfolded in her imagination like a chain of paper dolls: three identical little girls, their dresses and matching diminutive shoes ready to be coloured in with pink and pastel blue crayons. Kate would then raise these triplets in a wonderfully haphazard, multitasking way and each would become uniquely brilliant.

In the meantime, Kate had grudgingly come to accept her lot. At times she had even settled into a kind of bleary-eyed contentment when others congratulated her on affording the nice enough flat to come home to from an ‘interesting’ job that kept her busy helping other successful, creative women. Kate advised these clients on the best way to arrange their finances so that they could stage their event weddings or choose the furniture and décor they desired for their family homes. Kate’s expertise would make it possible for them to dress their children in candy-striped cotton and to find the time to scrape back their babies’ blond hair into cute ponytails, despite their constant artistic commissions. The ribbons in their toddlers’ hair would match their mother’s own casual polka dot blue trainers. Oh, and there would be a kind partner too, she reminded herself, a constant steadying presence who seemed anxious to commit themselves to her and to her ambitions. To be fair to Mark, she reflected, he was certainly a steadying influence. His was always the voice of reason. Having children, from his perspective, was always a question of affordability, a potential outlay to be considered at some more distant point in time when their own financial arrangements had borne the necessary fruit to sustain a comfortable if mundane future.

On that morning, Kate realised as soon she stepped into the designer Mariana Pendula’s’ penthouse apartment, that her own life had not gone off-piste through some momentary carelessness or bad luck that could be corrected. No. Her true life had been stolen from her and was now being paraded in front of her eyes to torment her. The woman who had greeted her on the intercom and who now buzzed her into the white carpeted hallway even looked a little like her, although her wavey auburn hair was casually scraped back whilst Kate’s recent sharp cut had been styled to frame her paler face. Kate was wearing a well-tailored charcoal trouser suit with a cerise blouse to add the obligatory splash of colour. Her client’s faded jeans and baby pink cotton shirt seemed effortlessly elegant as she held out her hand to shake Kate’s. When Kate moved to return the handshake, she caught a glimpse of the woman’s blue polka dot designer slip-ons. Somehow, Kate still managed to maintain the warm and engaging smile she had rehearsed earlier in her bathroom mirror as a means of getting into character for work. Recently Kate had found that her smile sometimes uncoiled itself a little as she practised and, if unchecked, would form itself into the rictus grimace of a cartoon rattle snake. The woman had offered her a coffee from her fancy machine and invited her to take a seat in the small office off the main reception room. From there Kate could view the full extent of the open plan living room and its offset couches as well as the distant prospect of the kitchen area with its massive, marble island and far-flung extendable dining table. Seated tentatively with her coffee, Kate found that she was not even surprised when three small girls came bounding into the room in a flurry of pinkness, pursued presumably by their nanny. Their blond hair, as Kate would have expected, had been caught up in blue-checked ribbons. Each was quickly tamed by a casual embrace and gentle words from their mother, then handed back to the nanny and calm restored; the interruption being just a part of their mother’s no doubt wonderfully haphazard multitasking day.

When Kate got back to her office at lunchtime, she reached into her capacious work handbag to extract the morning’s signed documents and discovered that she must have left them behind. She had no choice but to retrace her steps, wasting valuable work time. Much worse, she would have to appear particularly obsequious, apologising to the woman who had somehow purloined her life, for the inconvenience of buzzing her up to the apartment and steering her again to the little office to pick up the papers that she had left neatly stacked, face downwards.

When she left the penthouse apartment for the final time, Kate could think only of how close she had been to breaking down. She hurried, head down, through the streets, remembering the way that, when the woman had left her alone again for a few moments, she had found herself opening her handbag to finger the pretty little gold lighter she always carried there to remind her of her grandmother. It would have been so very easy to fumble with the ready primed keepsake and then tilt its tiny flame down towards the paper stack. She would not have let anyone suffer as a result of course, but still, just for a moment, it had occurred to her how much it might have cleared her head to watch the other woman’s perfect life begin to crinkle a little at the edges, suddenly vulnerable as it caught light.

Then Mariana had returned, and Kate had realised that she need do no more than smile and leave. The other woman’s casual composure had gone, and Kate could see from her eyes that she had been crying. Mariana had closed the door behind her, but as they had spoken their goodbyes the sound of a man’s voice shouting and small children screaming in tantrum had still penetrated the small room. As Kate made her way out, the crash of glassware against exposed brick had been unmistakeable, though neither woman spoke of it. Kate had been surprised by the mixture of shame and relief, but also by the extraordinary calm she had felt as she descended in the elevator towards the street and back to her ordinary life. That other perfect life, the one with the fabulous apartment, the creative job, and the triplets in pink, had not been stolen from her after all. It just hadn’t ever existed, except, it seemed, in her mind.

Kate made her way home. She could not bring herself to look at the completed papers from Mariana or to explain to Mark how her unhappiness had brought her close to taking desperate measures. Mark could not understand why she handed in her notice the next day when she had just been assigned the first of what might have turned out to be many prestigious clients. She told him simply that all she cared about was finding a meaningful way to fill her days and to be happy with him. She no longer aspired to a different life. How many times would she have to tell him that? She could only hope that he might one day come to believe her.

About the author

Jane Spirit lives in Suffolk UK and has been inspired to try writing fiction by going along to her local creative writing class. 

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