The desiccation was gradual, at first imperceptible. Newly married Annie was happy with her job as a shop manager and immensely proud that Mike was doing so well in the insurance agency. Everyone she met told her that he was destined for great things and she knew they were right, she glowed with pride.
As he climbed the career ladder Mike became harder, tougher in his dealings with others. Understandable she told herself, he couldn’t be emotional if he had to discipline someone and if people had to be let go then it was unfortunate but so be it. It was impossible to define just when he started to be disapproving of her, it couldn’t be right from the start though, could it? It hurt to believe that he had married her always intending to change her and make her into the sort of wife he needed for his lifestyle but more and more that seemed to be the case.
After the baby was born was when he suggested she give up her job rather than take maternity leave and then let Jack go to nursery. She thought that he was being thoughtful. She was still basking in the warmth of her new motherhood and blanked the problem but when, after six months, Mike began to insist that she give her notice it made her uncomfortable.
“It’s not as if your job is important after all, it’s only a tatty dress shop.” The breath truly left her it was a body blow, tears started to her eyes.
“Have you always thought that? I like my job, I like working and anyway everyone does it these days.”
“No you’re wrong the Managing Director’s wife doesn’t work, she stays at home does things where she meets the right people, entertains.”
In the end she gave in, she was lucky wasn’t she? Spending all the time with Jack and there was lots to do she could go to the play group and meet up with the other mums. Of course most of the other mums only did that for the few months of their leave and then off they went, back to their other lives.
“Jack is going to pre-school next term and so you’ll be able to give up that grotty little play group.”
“They asked me if I’d like to become a helper.”
“Well, you can knock that on the head, the wife of the Area Manager doesn’t work in a scruffy little church hall. Anyway once Jack is at school you’ll have more time to smarten yourself up. Get something done with your hair, see about having a manicure and go to the gym, loose some weight. You know you have got a bit chunky. At the last company away day I was sorry to see that you were the tubbiest there. Yummy mummy that’s what you should try to be.”
So it went on big things and little things. Pecking away, chiseling at her self respect, devouring her self esteem. She felt herself disappearing, no money of her own.
“Why do you need your own account you’re not earning any more and you know I’ll give you anything you want.”
No time away from the house.
“Why do you need to go out with the girls we have the company ball next week you should be concentrating on that if you really care about my career. It’s what pays the bills you know.
“That’s because you won’t let me get a job.”
“What can you do, come on we’ve been through this it’s just not worth the inconvenience so that you can stand behind a counter waiting on the sort of women you should be trying to impress. Give it up Annie your job is to support me, that’s what you should be concentrating on. Just have a look round we’ve got a lovely big house five bedrooms another new car and next year we can build on a conservatory, why isn’t it enough?”
And so slowly she vanished, a shade of Annie cleaned the house and a reminiscence of her self went through the motions of happy marriage, fulfilled motherhood. Jack was at school full time she dropped him in at half past eight and then went home to clean the house and shop. She went out for a walk or read a book and then picked up her precious son and her world came back to life again.
She was angry with herself, she should make a stand insist on more but in truth she was very, very afraid that if she rocked the boat too much Mike would leave her. She had no confidence in their relationship anymore and she had been so dependent now had spent so many years as an addition to his life that she couldn’t see a way forward on her own. Jack deserved two parents and a proper home and all the things that his daddy’s salary could buy. That was important wasn’t it. She would just try harder, loose some weight, become more interesting, more glamorous the sort of wife Mike should have now that he was a Director.
“Mummy, mummy can we go to the park, can we play with Sebastian, can we mummy?”
Annie glanced at the little group before them. Her heart sank. She was aware of this family of course she was. Sebastian had started school the same day as Jack, he was a cute little boy he wasn’t the problem. She hated to think like this but couldn’t help it “the problem” was Sebastian’s brother Michael. He was strapped into his wheelchair his head lolling, a little shiny thread of drool slipping from the corner of his mouth. His limbs jerked and flapped as his eyes flicked back and forth seemingly unfocused. She had nodded at his mum of course and smiled at them but up to now she had managed to avoid a conversation. She knew it shallow and unworthy but she just didn’t know how to look at this little scrap of damaged humanity, didn’t know what she could say to his mum – Julie she was called, without it sounding smarmy and simpering. The other woman spoke.
“We usually go to the playground on the way home, the boys love it.” With this she smiled down at her sons – both of her sons. Annie nodded and they headed away from the school, Jack and Sebastian running a little ahead and Julie pushing the wheelchair. “So, the boys are enjoying school I think.”
“Oh yes, Jack’s very happy and Sebastian always seems to be.”
The other woman turned to her, “It’s okay Annie, it is Annie isn’t it? I know it’s a bit hard for some people but let’s throw the elephant out of the room, well not the room but off the road eh.” She laughed. “Michael is brain damaged, it happened when he was about a month old, before that he was just like any other baby. But we are so lucky we could have lost him and here he is.”
Lucky, how could Julie call herself lucky her baby damaged and spoiled for the rest of his life, tears sprung to her eyes. She really would make an effort to be friendlier towards this little family.
The two little boys were running madly from the roundabout to the swings, from the swings to the slide giggling and shouting. The sun warmed the wooden bench and Julie and Annie sat together Michael gurning and jerking in his chair. Julie talked to him almost continually, “Look at your brother Michael, he’s nuts isn’t he? What a noise they’re making. Oh look at that dog it has a ball, do you see.” It was impossible for Annie to decide whether any of this actually penetrated the insulation of his physical shell.
Suddenly a high pitched scream split the air. “Sebastian.” Julie was already on her feet and had taken a few steps away from the bench. Sebastian was lying at the base of the slide, he had slipped backwards and landed with a crack on the rubber surround but he wasn’t moving. Julie glanced back at the chair.
“I have him.” Annie didn’t hesitate she laid her hand on the handle of the wheelchair, “Go” Julie flew across the playground.
Michael watched his mummy run across the playground, at first he didn’t seem to react and then his limbs jerked his face crumpled and he started to make frantic distressed noises. He banged his head back and forth, the chair jolted and rattled. Annie crouched now in front of the child and she laid her hand on his arm. It was taut, like an elastic band stretched too tightly the muscles locked and straining. “Hush Michael, hush now it’s alright.” She wasn’t getting through to him his mummy had run away he was distraught. She reached out “hush now, hush.” She stroked his cheek and his eyes flicked towards her. Yes he saw her, she stroked again his head jerked but the noises were less distressed. He wasn’t banging himself back and forth any more, she continued caressing his cheek. She had connected, that damaged shell held a human and he was deserving of all the things that any other human was. “It’s alright Michael. Look here comes mummy now and see Sebastian’s alright.”
He wasn’t though was he, blood was running down the back of his head and soaking his shirt. Julie was cradling him trying to calm his crying, Jack dragged behind them frightened and tearful.
“Come on lets go to the health centre.” As she spoke Annie let the brake off the wheelchair, grabbed hold of Jack with her spare hand and the group hurried up the road towards the surgery.
As soon as the receptionist saw the blood splattered little boy and his pale, shocked mum she ushered them into a treatment room and called the nurse. Julie glanced back as she left the others. Annie smiled at her laying her hand against Michael’s arm and she simply nodded to the other woman.
His head wound glued together and a big sticker declaring him a “brave soldier” on the front of his jumper Sebastian and Julie walked back across the waiting room towards them.
“Whew, all okay. He had a nasty cut but no concussion they think. I’ve called Steve, my hubby and he’s coming to pick us up. Thanks so much Annie.”
The two women hugged quickly and then made their way to the porch to wait for the people carrier that would take Julie, Michael and Sebastian home.
Several weeks later they sat in the living room, the television blinking in the gloom. “What’s the matter with you tonight?” Steve sounded cranky and tired.
“You’re not in a funk again are you? Honestly there’s always something to moan about with you.”
Annie looked at him, “I’m going back to college.”
“Don’t be daft, what are you going to study? Flower arranging, ironing.”
“No, nursing. I’ve been doing some research and I have enough GSCE’s and A levels to apply and then I want to specialise and work with damaged children. We’re talking about quite a few years of study and long hours but we’ll just have to manage.”
He looked at her bemused. “What’s brought all this on?”
“I am in debt.”
“Shit, what do you mean you’re in debt? What have you been doing, have you been online gambling, what?”
“No, I’m in debt to myself, and to you and to Jack. We are so lucky and we are comfortably off but that’s not what it’s all about. People and valuing life that is what it’s all about it seems to me.” She could feel her confidence growing now. Her strength was returning, her soul was being reignited. Right was on her side.
There were hours and hours of more talking wrangling and yes arguing but it was so important, she was strong, immovable.
Four years later and wearing a cap and gown that felt like fancy dress but a smile that felt like an affirmation Annie gazed at her son and her husband. They beamed back at her from the auditorium, Mike dashed a tear from his cheek and she knew she had won. The chance encounter with one small damaged person had changed her life, had shown her what was real, what was important and had rescued her from the grey wilderness of an existence based on possessions alone.