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As Brummie Mummy considers elopement, her husband’s mysterious relationship with a work colleague moves into sharper focus.

Dearest Ian
My recent visit to your home and our excursion to a local eating house were filled with delight. What a happy chance that we should also encounter two of my neighbours! It is a matter of no small regret to me that our evening concluded when it did. However the next meeting of our literary circle – at which we are to discuss Mr Haddon’s thrilling novel - is less than a sennight hence.
And now I must approach a matter of some delicacy. I cannot lightly pass over the invitation offered when we last met. If I understood you aright, you were proposing something akin to an elopement. Prudence and Morality dictate that I should have given you a prompt reply in the firmest negative.
And yet…

Yet what?

It’s of no consequence. This letter won’t be sent. It will never even be written. This is just make believe. If present-day Birmingham gets too much, I retreat to a Jane Austen dream world.

When not attending balls, her heroines occupy themselves writing letters. These are addressed to their sisters, and to female friends. But not to men outside the family circle. That would be improper. A lady will sit at home and wait for her suitor to call.

Maybe life hasn’t changed so much. I am doing a fair bit of waiting. When the post drops onto the mat, I’m rushing to see what’s arrived.

Although that isn’t to do with Ian – it’s about my future. At the start of the week I got an acknowledgement that I’d applied for a Return to Teaching course. My details were being passed to the nearest training provider. So now I’m expecting the region’s newest university – the one that provides ‘a learning environment for tomorrow’ – to get in touch.

Meanwhile I’m supposed to be busy with a letter. A real one. Only it’s strange being sat at the kitchen table with a sheet of paper. I’m no longer used to having a pen in my hand.

I am writing to my stepson. Like so much of what I do, the action seems pointless.

Hi Dougal!

Starting with Dear feels unnatural. As a seven-year old Dougal had been affectionate enough, climbing on my knee to be hugged. But that stopped a long time back.

Dalilah can be chatty still, even affectionate. My stepson fends me off. I have wondered if, somehow, he blames me for his mother going to Somerset to become a New Age therapist. Awful Wedded Husband thinks that’s rubbish – an example of my urge to make everything complicated. Dougal is fine.
Of course you say Dear in business letters, to people you don’t even know. And we definitely are in business with Dougal – of a one-sided kind. We cough up the rent for his student accommodation plus an allowance. In the holidays we provide a variety of services.

I take a new piece of paper. Start again.

Dear Dougal

As he left for work my husband asked, ‘Are you busy?’

Since the night of Poll’s party, when I saw Ian, we have been careful with each other. AWH lets me know about small changes to his schedule. I refrain from asking direct questions about Stevie. I am keen to know why his colleague is so much on his mind. But I shall find out by other means.

I made a non-committal reply. My husband went on.

‘Dougal called. There’s some book he left and wants us to send. The Outrider...?’
‘I know the one,’ I told him. ‘I’ll see to it.’

A well-used copy of Camus’s The Outsider lies on the table.

Here's the novel. Do you need it for an essay? Or just want to have it with you? As you might guess, I am still very taken up with my reading group.

Apart from Harry Potter, The Outsider is the only book Dougal reads. I believe this work is why my stepson opted to study philosophy. If Albert Camus hadn’t been dead for half a century I should like a word with him.

Initially I was glad to see Dougal appreciating a masterpiece of world literature. Even if some grown-ups might be made anxious by his choice. The tale of a young man who’s unmoved the death of his mother and goes on to commit a pointless murder.

It’s my belief that reading turns us into finer people. Fiction exists to break down the barriers between us. But Dougal just grunted when I’d asked him if he thought The Stranger would be a better title. I persevered, asking why he enjoyed the novel so much. My stepson stated it was ‘a really cool book’. And that was the end of it.

I need a change of subject. Another paragraph.

It does seem ages since Christmas and our party – though of course it’s still getting dark so early. It was lovely to be all together wasn’t it?

This seems like I reckon Dougal’s younger than Gemma, and not very bright. But really it doesn’t matter what I say. I might even ask if he’s remembering to brush his teeth.

Dougal will regard my letter as he regards me. Weird. And boring. He will take what he wants – the book – from its padded bag. If he does trouble to read this page, he’ll chuck it down to be buried under a pile of rubbish.
So why do I bother?

Because when I went to university my mother wrote to me every single week. Her letters never varied. Two sides of information about shops, her health, the weather, the garden. Interspersed with questions I didn’t answer.

It would be great to hear back from you. Dad and me don’t know much about what you’re up to. How’s the course going? And your social life?

In my student years I was baffled by the prose of Parisian intellectuals. My essays were weighed in the balance and found wanting. I yawned my through nights with friends made incoherent by cannabis. I dozed through late cinema screenings. I wept when love affairs didn’t go according to plan.

But always, letters from my mother reassured me. I had been right to go to college. My life was richer, profounder, more authentic than hers.

Thinking of old affairs reminds me. I should switch on my phone.

Odd to realise that once upon a time mobiles didn’t exist. You cycled round to see people. Notes got pushed under doors, stuck in pigeonholes.

No envelope on the little screen. Morning break will have come and gone. Will Ian text at lunchtime? Or when he’s got a free period?

My phone’s such an innocent-looking thing. But I watch it the way you’d watch an animal. Any minute it may start throbbing ecstatically.

Though I can’t think why I’m after another text. The exchanges are hardly satisfactory.

On Tuesday Ian said, Have you thought about going away?

I’m still thinking.
Yesterday his message was, Want to meet?
The weekend?
Can’t. I’m busy. Sorry.
Then silence today.
This isn’t enough.
No, I am being stupid. Ian is not going to sit in the staffroom inscribing proof of his undying passion on a couple of pages torn from some kid’s exercise book. I’d be taken aback if he did. Scared. In any case the guy has a job to do. Marking. Lessons to prepare.

We give each other what we can.

And despite the small chance of any return I should be giving towards my stepson.

It must be exciting to have moved away – to try things that are completely new. Though I do know it won’t be exciting all the time! It’s just possible I’ll be going to university myself, later this year. Only to do a short course.

I gaze at the last couple of lines. Have I said too much? After all I’ve not yet discussed this project with my husband. But Dougal’s indifference means it’s safe to confide in him. And I will talk to AWH soon.
High time I finished this one off.

Not much has happened here. Gemma is growing tall. Give her a few years and she might overtake you! Dad’s busier than ever. (That’s why it’s me sending you this.)

Surely this is sufficient. Despite the fact my Mum would have written three times as much.

Let us know when we can look forward to seeing you.

Then I scrawl a hurried Love and my signature.
I’m almost out of the door, on my way to the post office, when the phone rings.
Not my mobile. The more serious tone of the landline.
The woman at the other end greets me politely.
‘Jeanette!’ I say. ‘How are things?’
It’s my husband’s PA. To inform me an afternoon meeting has been rescheduled. AWH may have said he’d back around six, but now it is looking more like seven.
‘Oh.’ I say. ‘Right.’

My husband’s attentiveness is getting out of hand.

But Jeanette is a pleasant person who has done as she was asked.
So I say at least the weekend’s approaching. We’ll be off to visit my mother.
Jeanette thinks she will do some serious clothes shopping. For the Winter Dinner.
The Winter Dinner is a curious event. Rather than throwing one more Christmas party to clash with everybody else’s, AWH’s firm has its annual bash at least month later. Usually it’s in a hotel with some kind of entertainment thrown in. This event is one of the few opportunities I have to socialise with my husband’s colleagues. I tend to come home feeling glad it’s just once a year.
‘You’re ahead of the game.’ I say.

As Jeanette’s telling me she hates leaving it till the last minute, I glance at the calendar on the wall. Nothing’s been marked there. Suddenly I’m suspicious.
‘Can you do me a favour?’
‘I left my diary somewhere. You couldn’t just remind me of the date...’
The dinner, I learn, will take place a week on Saturday.
Agreeing it will be great to catch up, we say goodbye.

It is very odd that AWH hasn’t mentioned the Winter Dinner to me. Even though there are times when he gets so bogged down in detail, that he forgets the really important stuff.

Although sometimes I have found the evening a drag, this year is going to be different.

Stevie is bound to be there. It will be an opportunity to observe her. With my husband. To find out what is – or isn’t - going on.



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