It was almost time to leave the playground.
Neither had exchanged anything other than functional phrases since the row at the crazy golf: ‘You got a quid for the meter?’ ‘Pass the wipes.’ ‘Watch his finger in the door!’
It occurred to Greg, as it often did in these situations, that he couldn’t really remember what he was supposed to be angry with his wife about. He had adopted an attitude of anger, perhaps, as a pre-emptive defence against the obviously rather more substantial sense of grievance which Paula was currently nursing, and which she would duly be able to articulate so effectively.
Greg nursed his own portfolio of grievances, of course, ready to be wheeled out when the occasion demanded. But there were tatty, half-forgotten things – like the patronising way she had told him not to bother doing the online grocery shop any more as she’d only have to go through it all afterwards and undo all his choices (‘seven kinds of crisps?!’). Or the time she didn’t even notice he’d tidied the kids’ sock drawers. Or the time she didn’t thank him for topping up the screenwash.
But he kept his powder dry because (a) he genuinely wanted to let go of all this crap and (b) he suspected she had stockpiled her own collection of far more pointed and deadly grievances about him, and the thought of this underground arsenal of righteous resentment scared him.
And so it would be Greg who would begin the process of truth and reconciliation, and Paula who would duly sign off on each of the necessary steps of confession and contrition. There were – admittedly rare – instances in which Greg might have plausibly held out for the moral high ground, but in practice this almost never happened. Whatever the ins and outs of any specific wrangle, he believed secretly but utterly in his wife’s essential moral and emotional superiority, and ultimately only one thing mattered: Was she planning on leaving him? If still not, then ultimately any penance or apology was a small price to pay.
All in all, it was a familiar process, and he was suddenly anxious to start sooner rather later. It was Sunday night after all, and pushing teatime without resolution did not bode well for any détente conjugale later on. Otherwise they might actually have to watch Modus or Borgen or The Bridge or whatever the latest Nordic whodunnit was.
‘I don’t mean to ignore what you’re saying. I’m just knackered.’
‘You’re always knackered. That’s your excuse for everything.’
‘Well I am.’
‘What about — ’
‘ — I know. And you are too. I know. More than me no doubt. But I do care about what’s happening to you, how your job’s going and everything, you know I do.’
He felt his phone vibrate urgently. He wanted to tell her that he was purposely ignoring it, but was not sure she’d be impressed.
Paula said: ‘I just feel that work takes all the best bits of you — and we’re just left with the dregs.’
‘Come on, that’s not fair.’
His phone vibrated again.
‘Yesterday, when you went to call your mum, you dialled 9 for an outside line!’
‘Well, that’s just force of habit.’
‘Exactly. And yet you can’t even stand the place half the time, to hear you go on about it.’
‘I just find the kids so difficult at the moment. You’re so much better at it than me.’
This line was a gambit, an attempt to assess the progress of rapprochement. In the event, his optimism proved premature. (He should have remembered his wife’s pet hate of broadsheet columns by middle-class dads going on about how hard it was to look after small children, while their wives silently got on with keeping the whole show on the road, just as they had always done.)
‘You only see them when they’re at their most fractious because you don’t get home in time to actually be with them?’ It sounded like a question, but he had no answer.
‘ — ’
And so the conversation proceeded, two steps forward and one step back, until Paula invited Greg to consider the fate of Mr Leslie at number 54, who in fact lived now not at number 54 but in the camper van parked opposite number 54 because his wife had got so sick of him letting her down all the time.
‘But he’s an alcoholic and a gambling addict!’
‘I saw you give the kids scratchcards yesterday.’
It was the chink he had so desperately wished for, and great spiky shafts of winter sun began to blaze through it.
‘I topped up the screenwash this morning. And I built that garden bench.’
‘Only because the mice had started living in the packaging! That was a present for my 40th — three years ago!’
‘Don’t tell me you’re 40!’ he essayed with cheeky chivalry. ‘You don’t look a day over fabulous!’
And so they powered through the phases of their domestic peace process. Paula itemised the specifics of Greg’s crapness, and he both acknowledged these and asked for various additional offences to be taken into consideration. She smiled at last, and he in turn secured an assurance that the phrase ‘I’ve got nothing to look forward to’ had been less an existential statement of marital despair on her part, and more a catastrophising expression born of her deep frustration with his weekend shortcomings. Shortcomings which – as he had already stated and was happy to reiterate for the record – he fully acknowledged and gladly pledged to improve on in the coming days. But – in a rhetorical move he was trialling for the very first time – he asked not to be judged by his mere words in this matter, but by his future actions.
At some point they had ended up with an arm around each other.
Ella now sidled over from the monkey bars. ‘Look everyone!’ she cried out to the playground at large. ‘Take a picture of mummy and daddy cuddling!’ Jon looked up from the roundabout he was pushing – why do they never actually want to ride on the thing? – and giggled. Other parents looked away.
‘You being affectionate to me is so unusual Ella wants to capture the moment,’ said Paula. ‘And everyone else is thinking it must be a rare break from the violence.’
Ella taunted: ‘Mummy and daddy sitting in a treeee! K.I.S.S.I.N.G!’
Over by the toddler swings, a woman in a wheelchair sat taut and silent as her little boy implored her to push him higher, faster.
‘Look, we’re the lucky ones,’ said Paula. ‘We’ve got the children. We’ve got each other. We’ve got our health. We’ve got a nice house. Decent jobs. We’re rich in the ways that count.’
‘I know this. I do.’
‘Well you’ve got a funny way of showing it.’
Over the road, on the other side of the busy junction, Greg made out an ominous scene. One car had stopped abruptly in front of another in the middle of the road, its hazard lights flashing savagely. The man in the first car was walking round the back of it and taking photos with his phone, shaking his head pointedly and muttering vengefully in the direction of the car behind him. In that car sat another, older man, inert and guilty-looking, arms locked on the steering wheel. The rest of the traffic threaded its respectful way around the incident.
Greg shivered with silent relief at his own near-miss.
Dan’s competition shortlists include Flash500, Sunderland University/Waterstones, Wimbledon BookFest, Fish and Retreat West. His work has appeared in Cabinet of Heed, Spelk, Ginger Collect, and The Fiction Pool. He wrote for Dead Ringers (BBC Radio 4) and has also made two appearances in Christopher Fielden’s To Hull and Back comic-writing anthology (2015, 2016). His agent is Ger Nichol, and both his first novel #unforgivable and a collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, are currently under consideration. You can find him on Twitter here.