Kate turned, as she often turned these days, to the page with the lonely hearts. As the small, local train rattled northwards, rocking her from side to side, her hazel eyes raked the long columns of personal ads with practised ease. She skipped the 'bisexual or bi-curious professionals', the 'absolutely sensational gay guys', the 'sincere gentlemen in their 50s' and the 'lonely Christian bachelors'. Instead her gaze lighted on the 'attractive 30-something' men, the 'charming sporty' males, and the 'considerate cultivated chaps with GSOH, seeking an LTR'. Her pulse quickened at the 'honest, reliable and caring' professional man who offered 'fidelity, affection and fun'. Fidelity, affection and fun, thought Kate ruefully, aware that the train had stopped. Fidelity, affection and fun. Her heart lifted in her chest before a pang of guilt dragged it down again as the doors were opened and then banged shut. She glanced out of the scratched and smeary window as the platform began to blur. The tall, feathery birches which lined the railway banks had the dark, dusty look of late summer; the grass was cracked and dry, and the mauve willowherb was releasing its silvery down into the air. Through the open window Kate could already sniff the autumn. Time was passing. Another year almost gone. So much change. So much change. And yet so little.
She thought of Robert and wondered whether he'd be happy to see her. He'd driven up the day before - alone. 'I hope you don't mind', she'd said, awkwardly, as she laid the table in his small but smartly furnished terraced house. 'But I really don't feel I can change the rota so early in the new job, and I can't expect anyone else to work on bank holiday, so I...' 'OK. OK,' he'd interrupted. 'I get the picture. But get a cab from the station, will you? I'm going fishing with Dad.'
Kate glanced idly at the engagement announcements before folding the paper neatly - something Robert had taught her early on - then she opened the magazine. A long article entitled 'Divorce - Is it Hereditary?' produced a familiar stab of fear. She decided not to read it. She looked at her horoscope instead, and was momentarily lifted by its promise of 'a happy ending to one particular chapter.'
'Hello Kate!' Robert's stepmother, Maggie, opened the door of their large detached house and ushered her inside as the wheels of the taxi crunched down the long gravel drive. 'I'm sorry I couldn't fetch you,' she added. 'I'm cooking for an army.'
'I'll help you,' said Kate, as she removed her jacket. Kate liked Maggie. She always made her feel welcome. Like one of the family. Though, of course, she still wasn't, a fact which now lay like an undetonated bomb between her and Robert. Once, not long before, during one of their 'secret' lunches in town, Kate had tearfully broached the subject with Maggie. After all, Maggie was an expert. She had seen them all come and go. There was Polly who was in PR, then Rebecca who designed bags, and Lola whose father was an actor, and Camilla who wasn't pretty enough, but who shared his passion for fly-fishing. Then there was Barbie, who was rich, and Louisa who smoked too much and then, before Kate, there was Jade, who was only 23, but who had apparently broken his heart.
'Give him more time,' Maggie had advised Kate then. 'Men can't stand having pressure put on them - it always backfires.'
'More time!' Kate exclaimed softly, conscious of a painful constriction in her throat. 'I've been with him two years. I'm nearly 35. How much time does he need?'
'Well, I'm afraid the men in the Buckleigh family just won't be pushed into anything,' said Maggie. And then she added, with sudden feeling, 'I should know.'
Maggie liked Kate more than any of Robert's previous girlfriends. Kate knew this because Maggie had told her so, over a year before. 'We've been telling him to find someone bright for years,' she'd said, as they sat, hulling strawberries by the Aga. And Kate had blushed, and felt a sudden rush of happy, grateful optimism. Maggie was her ally. Maggie would help. Robert just needed a little prodding, that was all. Kate enjoyed her lunches with Maggie. They sat in Fortnum's and chatted about London and what was on, and new books, and films and fashion. And then, right at the end, Robert. And Maggie would ask her how it was going. And usually Kate would say, 'Oh fine, fine. It's going fine'. But that day, Maggie could see that Kate was close to tears, and she knew it wasn't fine at all.
For some reason, Kate never told Robert about these occasional meetings with his stepmother. She was scared that he'd disapprove. And so she felt like a conspirator as she sat and gossiped with Maggie as though they were sisters, which, in fact, they could well have been. 'Meet Maggie, she's my third wife - and my last!' Robert's father, Ted, was fond of exclaiming at parties with a great shouting laugh. At this, Maggie would roll her eyes and smile, and Robert would do the same, and Kate would smile politely too, and try to join in the joke without presuming too much familiarity. As for Robert's own mother, he scarcely mentioned her. She lived alone in Scotland, and rarely ventured south. Kate had met her once, and thought her sad, and old, though she was only 65. And Ted's second wife, Rosemary, had moved back to Iowa, where she had eventually remarried. But her son, Nigel, remained in London, where, like Robert, he worked in the City.
'Nigel, Christine and the kids will be here at six,' said Maggie, as Kate put her things in the guest room. 'Hopefully Ted and Robert will be back by then.' She laughed. 'Let's just hope they caught something!'
Kate had met Nigel and Christine many times. In fact she'd met everyone by now - every single member of his extended, fragmented family. At first, it had all seemed fun, though she'd found it hard to keep track of all the stepbrothers and ex-stepmothers and half-siblings and former in-laws who peopled Robert's life.
'Who's Peter?' she'd asked, when she'd been seeing Robert for a couple of months.
'My aunt Elizabeth's third husband,' he'd replied, without lifting his eyes from the TV.
'And what about Patricia? Who's she?'
'My Uncle Phillip's second wife. What is this, 'Twenty Questions'?'
'No, no,' she'd replied, 'I'm just trying to get it straight, that's all. So I don't make any embarrassing mistakes.' My family must seem so boring, she'd thought. Just Mummy and Dad, Sally and me. That was it. And Tilly of course. Couldn't leave Tilly out. Kate put her bag down on the bed she always shared with Robert when they spent the weekend in Hertfordshire. She'd been shy about this at first, but it seemed quite normal. All Robert's previous girlfriends had slept there, too. She knew this because Robert had taken them all home - even the ones he wasn't serious about, which, to Kate, seemed rather unfair. They must have thought he was keen. But the fact was that he liked going home to fish with his father, or play golf, and he liked his girlfriend to be there, too. And this is where he always slept. With whoever he was with at the time.
Kate unpacked her bag - it was Louis Vuitton. She didn't like it. She didn't like the pattern or the caramel colour, or the conspicuousness of it, or the fact that one saw so many cheap imitations. It was too easy to reproduce. But Robert had given it to her, so of course she had to use it. 'It's time you had a really decent weekend bag,' he'd said, almost crossly, and he'd thrown her old one away. She had secretly retrieved it from his dustbin the following morning. 'I'll decide,' she had said to herself. 'I'll decide.' Though she would never have dared say that to him.
In the kitchen, Maggie was snipping the whiskery ends off green beans. 'What can I do?' said Kate. Half an hour later, she had set the table in the conservatory dining room, and lightly scrubbed three pounds of tiny new potatoes. She went to pick mint and coriander in the large, field-fringed garden. The rambling, claret-coloured 'Danse du Feu' had really come on since the previous year, she noticed. She plunged her nose into its velvety depths, breathing in its heady scent as greedily as labouring women inhale air. Suddenly, she heard wheels in the drive, the deep throaty click of car doors, then voices, and the squealing of small children. Through the french window she could see Nigel and Christine, and Maggie was tightly hugging Jack, aged three, whilst simultaneously being kissed by the twins. She must mind, thought Kate. She must. Though of course, she had never asked. But surely any woman would mind, wouldn't she, if she'd been expressly forbidden by her husband to have children? Once Kate had shyly mentioned this to Robert.
'Dad already had Nigel and me,' he said. 'I suppose he didn't want the responsibility of more kids at his age. After all, he was 55 when he married Maggie.' And she was 34 thought Kate, and now she was 41, and it was almost too late. She stepped inside as the ormolu clock on the mantelpiece struck the half hour.
'Hello Kate,' said Christine warmly. 'Congratulations! Robert says you've been promoted.' Kate blushed, happy to think that Robert had wanted to tell his sister-in-law this. 'They've made me news editor,' she said. 'It's a lot more work, but well... yes,' she laughed shyly. 'It's great.'
'You're so lucky having a good career,' said Christine admiringly, as the children hurtled, shrieking, into the garden. 'Radio must be so interesting,' she added.
'Oh yes, it is,' said Kate. 'But the editing is very time-consuming and...' She was cut off by a piercing scream. Jack had fallen, and was bawling, his tiny fists stuffed into his eyes as he stumbled back, blindly, towards Christine. In a flash she had scooped him up.
'Poor darling. Shush. Don't cry. It wasn't that bad. Come on now. Would you like Maggie and Kate to kiss it better?' Jack nodded between teary little gasps. Maggie obliged, and then Kate kissed him too, feeling flattered and included, while Christine rolled her eyes and laughed. 'Children are lovely, Kate. But they're such hard work. You'll know if it ever happens to you...' She pulled up short. 'I mean WHEN it happens to you.' She had corrected herself, but too late, for a blush the colour of sunburn had spread from her throat to her face. What does she know, thought Kate. What does she know that I don't?
'Well actually... I do hope...to...' Kate stopped herself in time. No confidences of that kind. Christine would only tell Nigel, and then it would get back to Robert, and he'd only feel under renewed pressure, and that would never do. She wanted him to commit himself willingly. In his own time. But it's my time too, she thought with sudden, bitter ferocity. It's my time too. And it was a family joke that Nigel and Christine had met and married within six months. How they all laughed about that. And no one found it funnier than Robert.
When, two hours later, he and his father returned, laying six sightless brown trout on the kitchen table, Kate was upstairs helping put the children to bed. Jack was already asleep, lying on his back in his cot, his chubby arms framing his blond head, his sweetly curving lips parted, like an opening bud. The twins were sitting up, on their pillows, on either side of Kate, peering at the pictures of Rat and Mole. Kate was aware of footsteps on the stairs.
'Meanwhile Toad, gay and irresponsible was... Oh, hello darling.' She smiled at Robert, as he waved at the twins, who beamed back. 'Did you catch anything?' Kate asked. He nodded again, and gave her a tight little smile. 'Look Rob, why don't you read them the next chapter,' Kate began, but he was already on his way out.
'I need a drink,' she heard him say, as she picked up the book again.
'The miles were eaten up under him as he sped he knew not whither, fulfilling his instincts, living his hour, reckless of what might come to him.'
'What does reckless mean?' enquired Emily.
'Not thinking carefully,' said Kate. 'Being a bit silly.'
An hour later, the candles were alight on the dining room table and there was the gentle clatter of silver cutlery on china. Here I am, thought Kate. Here I am. Again. She looked across at Robert, at his hooded eyes, and the deep curving lines etched on either side of his mouth, like brackets. I have looked at that face, almost every day, for two and a half years, she thought. I know its contours and lines and shading as though it were a map I had carefully studied. Suddenly he caught her eye, smiled quickly, almost guiltily, she thought, then looked away. And later, when they were in bed, and she turned to him, he didn't respond. He seemed preoccupied, as he so often did these days. 'Anything the matter?' she whispered breezily, but with the familiar dread. So when he said, 'Look Kate. I think we ought to talk. About us,' she felt absolutely no surprise. None at all. And the next morning she discreetly retrieved her newspaper from the bin, tore out the page she had read on the train, and tucked it, neatly folded, into her bag.
Published in 'You' Magazine, the Mail on Sunday, 1998