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The Silent Wife

By:Kerry Fisher

turquoise fleck to bring out the weave of the subtly striped chair. Shabby chic wardrobes with ceramic handles that looked like they’d been handmade in Tuscany. And storage for everything. Even the trays had a special slot in the kitchen, rather than shoved down the side of the fridge to slice at your ankles if you banged the door shut too forcefully.

The lack of clutter in Nico’s house made it look as though no one really lived there. The complete opposite to Mum’s with the overflow paraphernalia of Sam’s bike in the hallway, the houseplants that grew like triffids in the hothouse of the lounge and Sam’s hamster taking up more space than all of us put together with increasingly complicated tubes and runs. Whatever situation presented itself – a present to wrap, a fuse to replace, a sunflower to stake – I was quite sure Nico’s response would involve the words, ‘in that drawer’. Whereas I’d always favoured the lucky dip approach of burrowing under the sink like a dog digging out a rabbit hole. I could only assume Caitlin had operated a ruthless policy of chucking out one thing every time something new came in through the door.

I’d been desperate to move out of Mum’s flat. Sam and I had been sharing a sofa bed in her lounge for the last three years since I couldn’t afford the rent on my own place any longer. With its fairy lights, patchwork cushions and rainbow-coloured throws, it was like sleeping in a Moroccan Kasbah. Now though, the reality I’d lusted after – not tripping over a football boot when I got up in the night, finding a radiator key within five seconds, having the perfect-sized jug for gravy – just made me feel I was a guest in someone else’s home, as though I needed to pass through with minimum disturbance, leaving no trace of my stay.

I started to think it might be better for all of us to move somewhere where the memories of Caitlin would be the ones Nico chose to take with him. Not the ones that crept out unbidden; ghostly images lurking around every corner, squeezing in between us on the uncomfortable French sofas. Some days I’d imagine Caitlin’s long, elegant fingers closing round the same door handles as me. Or her opening the bedroom curtains, glancing back to see Nico’s dark eyelashes fanning out on the pillow, his lips still twitching with sleep. I’d deliberately reach really high or low so that my fingers wouldn’t curl around the thick fabric where hers had been. I could run up some new curtains in no time. Probably should. But it wasn’t quite like walking into the house that an ex-wife had vacated after an acrimonious divorce and thinking, ‘Right, we’ll get rid of her manky old crap,’ hiring a skip and flinging in the mismatched plates, followed by her old slow cooker and half-used toiletries. Everything I binned was another little part of her mother Francesca would never get back. Another bit of accepting her dad had moved on, to someone with a different taste in curtains. In crockery. In life.

Nico and I had touched lightly on the idea of moving but had decided not to broach the subject until things settled down with Francesca. I couldn’t see it happening for the foreseeable future when even the smallest changes led to a right old ding-dong. Just that morning Francesca had done a dramatic sniff of her school jumper and said, ‘This jumper smells funny. What did you wash it in?’

And I’d felt awkward because I was experimenting with having some principles now I wasn’t so broke and had swapped the usual washing powder for some eco-friendly stuff. I left out the ‘splashing out on my morals’ part and went for a mumble about the impact of detergent on the Natterjack toad. The furious response amounted to an amalgamation of ‘Mum always used Persil and I couldn’t give a shit about toads, newts and especially you,’ as though she was hopeful I might accidentally swallow some Spirits of Salt before too long.

‘You’re quiet,’ Nico said, as we all sat down to dinner that evening. He put his hand out to cover mine. ‘Are you okay?’

I snatched my hand away. It was the weirdest thing – when Francesca was around, I couldn’t touch Nico at all despite my whole body tentacling towards him for reassurance.

Francesca sat there, her eyes watchful, her pupils little pods of hate. It was all I could do to stop myself bursting into noisy tears and shouting, ‘Never better. What could possibly be wrong? Your daughter hates me. It’s going bloody brilliantly.’ It wasn’t quite the mealtime scenario I’d conjured up when I told Sam marrying Nico meant we’d be part of a bigger family.

Right on cue, Francesca tossed her long dark hair back and pushed her plate away. ‘I don’t like spaghetti carbonara.’

Nico shook his head. ‘That’s not true. You used to eat it all the time.’ The ‘when your mum was alive’ hung in the air like words written in sparklers in the night sky.

‘I don’t like Maggie’s carbonara, then.’

I tried to ease the moment, praying Sam wouldn’t take the opportunity to showcase his own fussy eating. ‘Next time I cook pasta, perhaps you can help me and we’ll see if we can make something you like a bit better.’

Francesca looked at me as though I’d suggested we ran up a quick spaceman’s costume and launched ourselves off to Mars. With perfect timing, Sam sneezed at the same time as having a mouthful of water, splattering half-chewed spaghetti onto Francesca’s plate. She slammed her chair back and stormed upstairs. There was a five-second delay before the door banging off its hinges made Caitlin’s line-up of pastel jugs rattle on the sideboard.

‘Sam! If you know you’re going to sneeze you need to put your hand in front of your face and turn away from the table.’

But Sam killed himself with the naughty laughter beloved of ten-year-old boys. Little particles of bacon, mushroom chunks and strands of spaghetti all competed to remain within the boundaries of his mouth.

‘For God’s sake. Close your mouth. That’s disgusting.’ My tone was harsher than norma