I catch a glimpse of her, at least I think it’s her. Just something nudging at the corner of my eye as I run errands. I threw on gym clothes and trainers this morning, promising my slightly oily roots a shower after the school run, after I’ve picked up the kitchen, before lunch definitely, but here I am buying groceries mid-afternoon, no shower. It’s her hair that snags my attention. It looks expensive. It looks like time and money. Money and time, time and money. Two things I don’t have enough of. I remember that hair. I had that hair, once.
‘Do you smell flowers?’ I ask the kids, distracting them from homework, ask Dan, who taffy-pulls his head up from his phone. Blank faces. I’m the only one who catches a familiar whiff of ambered jasmine. My nose twitches on molecules of sherbet scent. She’s been here, bringing that perfumed past with her. I used to spray my wrists, my pulsing throat, with that exact mix. So long ago. In the time before time. Before kids. Before marriage, or maybe overlapping those early, loved-up years. What I want to know now is how she got in.
The days I’m not working from home are the worst. Dan showers, drinks a solitary coffee, takes the early train before the kids wake up. I wrangle, and wrangle – school uniforms, brushing teeth, breakfasts and packed lunches – promising my hair I’ll wash it tonight; tonight I won’t be too wiped by my day. I power, head down, through the commute, to my desk. She’s everywhere, just beyond my peripheral vision. At the water cooler, taking time for a lunch break, fixing her perfect makeup. I drag my attention back to my work and try to clamp down time, stop it from speeding past too quickly. I never have enough to spend it on a whim. I don’t have time to look for her. I don’t want to see her.
Wednesdays I have to get home early to take the kids to their swimming lessons. I sit in the chlorine-scented humid fug poolside, answering emails on my phone, one eye on the pool, on the bobbing heads, identical in their swim hats. ‘Yes, darling, I saw you, you were great,’ I’ll be able to say later. Almost truthfully. Is that her, swiping her membership card at the desk? Changing from one sleek suit to another, her taut body diving into the adult pool? I don’t have the resources to look. The steaming heat of the pool makes my clothes too close, too tight. I want to fling them off and dive in myself, like I used to, after work, so many years ago. But I have emails, and small humans to cheer on, so that’s what I do.
Dan says we don’t have fun any more. What I hear is that I’m no fun any more, though he denies this interpretation. I wrangle the kids, go to work, wrangle homework and dinner, then doze through an hour of Netflix or Prime, willing myself off the sofa to go take that shower. Fun is time I don’t have. But he talks about getting out for the night, just the two of us, get my parents over to watch the kids, or a sitter. I hear her bell-like laugh, clear and sweet, like the tinkle of champagne bubbles in a glass, and I say ‘sure’ and ‘let’s do it’ and ‘book it’, like I have the energy for this.
The regular sitter isn’t available. Somehow, she’s grown up and gone to college since we last called, so my parents are coming over for the night. We found the spare room, under the layers of laundry, and old toys, last winter’s clothes waiting to be put away, and cleaned it out, vacuuming and changing sheets. I ran to the shops for mom’s favourite wine and dad’s favourite beers. I thought I saw her walking past me, to the pretty little beauty salon I must try, as I loaded the car with groceries to make a nice dinner for my parents, and to have a good brunch for before they head home again tomorrow. I thought I saw her, but my new glasses slipped down my sweaty nose, so I can’t be sure.
We make our dinner reservation, just. I’ve already made dinner, while the kids whooped and shrieked around the house, delighted with visitors. I had my shower. It’s good my hair is short now. It’s almost dry. There was a moment, sitting on the edge of the bed when I thought of just lying back, and closing my eyes. But now I’m here, a glass of wine in my hand and I definitely see her reflected in the deep plate glass windows here. She’s at my table, and she looks so young, and fun. She’s the kind of woman who’ll end the night dancing in a club, mascara still perfect. Pretty. Happy. Like it’s twenty years ago. I think Dan sees her too. And then I slide my glasses on again and she’s gone. It’s just me, and Dan. I slip my glasses off again and raise my glass to her. ‘Who are you toasting?’ Dan asks, turning round to scan the busy restaurant. ‘Just us,’ I say, ‘just us. And the future.’
Biography: Fiona McKay lives beside the sea in Dublin, Ireland with her husband and daughter. Writes with Writers’HQ. Words in various places, including: Reflex Fiction, Janus Literary, Scrawl Place, The Birdseed, Twin Pies, Bath Flash, Lumiere Review, Lost Balloon. Supported by Arts Council Ireland Agility Award. Tweets about writing at @fionaemckayryan