Gemma sat next to the scorching fire. She wanted to burn her skin because she felt cold. She knew that her behaviour was extreme but she didn’t care. Her jeans started to smoulder. She finally gave in to her sensible side; she stood up and sat in a chair a little further from fire. She was completely hypnotised by the flames, they were far more interesting than the game show on the television. She watched the fire change into imaginary wizards and witches that reached forward one at a time as if to cast a spell. “Cast a spell or make a wish,” Gemma thought, to her, they were much the same. Recently her life had become purely about survival. She felt her own sense of mortality at times like this. The fire had become her religion because to the fire alone, she confessed. There was no-one else to hear her. Recently, she experienced a strong sense of foreboding. She considered her life had neither direction, nor purpose. It was merely a way of living. She threw her intentions into the fire hoping that in time someone would answer.
It was 9’oclock and Gemma surveyed the room for what she needed to do before her bedtime. The children’s school bags were strewn on the floor zipped because their homework wasn’t done. Her daughters had declared that “there wasn’t any reading to be done tonight” and in her tiredness she chose to believe them. They normally told the truth. They were good girls. She moved the bags to the table so that they wouldn’t be forgotten in the morning. The fire was now at a manageable heat which no longer spat or alarmed the cat. He walked closer and sprawled out on the small rug in front of the hearth. Brave cat, she thought as she acknowledged that her legs stung from sitting too close. Gemma didn’t want to abuse herself, in her heart she wished only for love. Abuse to her was a mild kind of pain, a feeling, which reminded her that she was still alive. The past two years things had been particularly difficult for her, learning to be independent and finding the confidence to bring up two children mainly on her own, had been challenging. She had met her husband Tony in her twenties and she was married to him for ten years. In the past, Gemma had relied on Tony to take care of the finances and bills. It wasn’t that she couldn’t do this herself, because she was great with figures, but Tony wanted to take full responsibility for the family finances. Gemma often found that she was unable to communicate with Tony, he had changed. He’d become very serious over the last few years and it felt as if they no longer had anything in common. She had tried continuously to engage him in conversation, but increasingly he withdrew into a world of his own. She wasn’t sure when, or how they lost each other, but she knew they had. The things which started as small niggles had very soon turned into larger issues. Gemma came to realise that they had grown apart. Essentially they had become two very different people who were walking in different directions and the gap between them was impossible to bridge!
Gemma felt so lonely in her marriage. She knew that living on her own might also cause her to feel lonely, but at least if she did this, she would be able to make her own decisions. It was up to her to take responsibility for her life, but the process sometimes felt hard and tedious. She realised that starting her life again from scratch, would be extremely challenging because she had very little family support or friends around her. She felt that she could rely on John, whom she felt was a blessing to her. But she also knew that many of her friends wouldn’t be able to understand why she chose to go and she was proved right. Still, at the time it felt as if it was the best decision she could make and somehow the only decision!
Gemma couldn’t wait to visit John on Saturday. John had two children roughly the same age as her girls. Gemma thought that she was in love with him but John never spoke of his true feelings. Deep down though, she was convinced that he did love her. It just wasn’t the right time for him to open up to her yet and she knew in her heart, that one day soon he would. She preferred to believe this. It was her truth because the other option made her heart ache and John was her ‘soul mate.’
John was always pleased to see Gemma when she turned up on his doorstep. He let her into the house and gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Sometimes they would talk for hours putting the world to rights at his large kitchen table. So much time was spent in his kitchen, having the most fabulous conversations. Over time the conversations grew and grew along with their friendship. Aromatic cooking smells of something which simmered on his hob often greeted her. Gemma felt a wave of excitement and anticipation. She thought that John was interesting and he knew how to engage her. He was also a better cook than she was! She loved a man who cooked because all she had to do was to chat and then wait. Sometimes he hadn’t made enough food for her to eat but often, like a truly good cook, he would improvise by adding a few more ingredients. Once he fed her as they sat in the same chair. “This is so delicious” he said as he spooned it into her mouth and she let him because it was fun. It was also very sensual and it made them laugh. It didn’t lead to sex but it was definitely a new experience for Gemma. Intimacy was a form of communication that she missed while taking the children on endless trips to school, listening to their reading or trying to remember how to do long division! She craved closeness rather than sex and if people didn’t understand this, it was their problem. Who had the right to judge her?
Gemma hated the word “divorce”. She thought it was a dirty word because it made her feel uncomfortable, almost unclean. When she said it, it stuck in her throat and almost caused her to choke. It reminded her of loose women, or a tart. She constantly thought of women on their own trying to find a place in a society; a Society which was often mean and cruel to divorcees. Gemma felt bleak. She was a woman whose emotions were slowly dying because she could no longer see a daffodil nodding its head to say spring is here! Spring felt so far away for Gemma. It only remained in her heart felt conversations with John which lifted her up and made her smile. John was a light in Gemma’s heart which continued to glow when her fire had turned to ashes.
Gemma looked in the mirror. She could not believe that she was only thirty two! She was still young and attractive by all accounts but she knew that she needed to smile more. She seldom smiled to strangers, keeping her smile for her children. Gemma’s hair was dark, wavy and her complexion was olive. She had a beautiful and delicate face. She inherited beautiful hazel eyes from her mother and father. People often referred to them as green but they were hazel and quite unusual. They seldom held a long gaze with her, sensing her sadness. When she was a child Gemma thought everything was simple. People were black and white and they weren’t afraid to look. Now they made assumptions and if something didn’t register with them, it didn’t exist! With divorce came yet more assumptions. She was frequently called Mrs which was also wrong. Gemma had changed her name a while back and she was now Ms, yet people still called her Mrs Hollesley. They would call her ‘Mrs’ at the Council Offices when she went to pay her council tax. She was tired of repeating; actually I’m Ms, in case she saw that familiar blank expression. She could never work in a place like that where she had no value. It was too “in a box” for her. If she could adapt to what was expected of her by their endless systems then, surely the staff could give her the courtesy of calling her Ms. How difficult could it be?
She thought once again of what her old friend Adrian had told her. Adrian was a spiritual man who had studied Buddhist meditation and he had been her teacher for several years. She occasionally phoned him for advice because he always made sense when so many other people didn’t! He had a way of listening to her which put her totally at ease. She had never experienced this before. He had acquired the patience of a saint. From what she understood of him, he had spent long periods of time in a spiritual retreat without talking to anyone. She marvelled at this, because it was something she felt that she would never be able to achieve. She knew that she didn’t have that amount of self discipline. Even though Gemma believed her old friend spoke very truthfully, she still couldn’t relate to his advice regarding relationships. According to Adrian she had to lower her expectations in order to be successful. But Gemma believed that lowering your expectations could only worsen her current situation. She could easily attract someone with false intentions, when she was looking for love. Not only would she have to cope with being with people not seeing her as she was, but in addition, she could easily become taken in. It felt as if Adrian’s advice, could only lead her into a downward spiral, which was a place she didn’t want to go.
Gemma ran her hands thoughtfully along her clothes rail. It was November and very windy, so she decided to wear a long thick jumper. It would hide her figure. It was not her intention to attract men because her heart already belonged to John. She thought that he was worthy of her affection, so she wanted to be loyal to him. She knew that later that day she’d be collecting wood for the fire, so why look smart? Gemma had a great figure. She was a size ten and in proportion, in the traditional sense. Her waist had thickened slightly since she’d had her children but not to the extent anyone would notice! Realistically though, there simply wasn’t enough time for Gemma to grow fat because the children kept her constantly on the go. There was the routine of housework, cooking, shopping and car trips plus she was searching for a job. She felt as if she was in an ongoing battle and there was never any let up. At times she was exhausted and craved an extra day in bed. It was always the same old routine, day in, day out, with hardly a break. Getting fit would have to wait. Things were made worse by her ex-husband Tony. He criticized her about the way she handled situations with the children. Although Tony didn’t have control over her friendships, he would still put his opinions forward when he got the chance. If she listened to him, she knew that she would feel inadequate as a parent so she chose to have as little communication with him as possible. She knew how much the children enjoyed seeing their father and she often felt guilty that she had left but there was absolutely no-way she was going to return to Tony however tough it got because she’d only been on her own for just over two years. Despite his criticism, Gemma knew that the girls were making steady progress. Lacey and Lilly had settled into their schools and had adjusted well to living in the cottage. The most important thing was they had adjusted to their new situation and they appeared happy.
When the children were dropped off at school the next day, at last Gemma found some peace. She walked across the wooden floor boards which creaked as if they had a life of their own. It was strange but when the children were in the house, Gemma didn’t hear anything. She sat on a dining chair and began to look at the newspaper. After she read it, she would save it for the fire. She glanced at the job page. Winter was not a good time for jobs especially as Christmas drew near. She had been told that people often held onto their jobs, not wanting to change at a hectic time of year. Plus they needed the money for Christmas presents! They would be on the move again in January. New Year would be a new start, it was always the same.
Today, Gemma hastily scanned the jobs page as there was much to do. She knew she had to catch up with the washing. How could two children go through so many clothes! Two more nights on her own and then it would be the weekend. She didn’t see her old friends now. Her old friends were also Tony’s friends and they rarely got in touch. She missed the social side of “being a couple” because there were no invitations to barbeques, meals or parties anymore. Everything had gone completely quiet on the social front. There was a chance that John might be without his children this weekend, so that they could spend time together but she had not heard from him. He was always so uptight when his children were around, hardly surprising really as they seemed to be quite a handful. They often ran up and down the stairs rather than walking. “Watch out, be careful”, he’d shout in an effort to slow them down. John’s daughter was an extremely pretty girl called Milly. She had straight blonde hair, which was shoulder length and the most beautiful big brown eyes you had ever seen. She also had her father’s enchanting smile. When she smiled, her face revealed two sweet little dimples which made her look like she was always laughing. John’s son Steven was quite the opposite, very serious. He also took things too much to heart. He didn’t like his father’s teasing because he was very sensitive. Steven was tall for his age but was quite skinny. Milly and Steven got on well most of the time but sometimes Milly would tease her brother. Unfortunately, she had learned how to tease from her father. Although she was the youngest, she was definitely the brightest and sometimes she chose to use her intelligence in the wrong sort of way. She enjoyed having a dig at her brother because it made her feel clever. As a result, the household was often disrupted and it didn’t allow much time for conversation between Gemma and John!
Saturday came and Gemma breathed a sigh of relief. Tony picked up Lacey and Lilly and he packed their bags into the car.
“Right, I will bring them back Sunday night about six,” Tony said in an abrupt manner. It was obvious to Gemma that he had held some resentment towards her. She didn’t want him back in her life. Nor did she imagine that he wanted her. It was a shame though that they couldn’t be friends. She hoped that in the future they would be able to talk. It would be better for the children to see their mum and dad communicating at least. It was her choice to leave and she knew there would always be a little resentment.
Gemma took her old Fiesta to see John. She was full of apprehension and her stomach turned over. He’d better be in she thought, as she tentatively rang the bell. She knew that John worked full time as well as looking after his children so she felt quite sorry for him. John was a self-employed product designer with only occasional visits to meet clients. He was extremely creative and Gemma thought that his work was fascinating, particularly his wooden furniture. She had been fortunate enough to see a lot of his work which he discussed with her.
“You’re going to be famous one day” she said to him, but John just laughed, shrugging his shoulders at her.
“I doubt it. You probably will” he jested.
Gemma rang the bell again because he was taking a while to answer. The house had three bedrooms, each a good size. It was Edwardian and could have been incredible but it needed to be restored. It was modernised to a certain extent, but Gemma often wondered what was hiding behind the wall paper. On wet days, there was always a slight smell of must. Gemma waited for John to come to the door, her hands were shaking and her heart began to race. Why did she feel like this every time she arrived at his door? The front window was slightly open and she could hear loud music coming from inside the house. Gemma knew that it was Mozart because her mother played it frequently to her as a child. John had suddenly become interested in classical music. She took a few deep breaths and sighed deeply as he she saw John’s outline through the glass.
“Hi, come on in” said John in a very casual tone. He stood aside politely so that she had plenty of room to enter. Gemma always felt John’s warn welcome and it really cheered her up. She longed to sit, chat and unwind to his cds because she loved his company.
“Where are the kids?” she asked, wishing that they were with their
Mother today! She knew that she really should be getting on with something herself. She could be painting or decorating, go shopping or see a friend instead of spending hours talking to him but somehow he seemed to draw her like a magnet. The more she tried to pull away the harder it became. She knew that she was emotionally attached to him and continually arriving on his doorstep was not really appropriate because he was entitled to his space. She just couldn’t help herself. She had to see him.
Mozart echoed through the kitchen of the Edwardian house. Gemma surveyed the sink stacked with dishes but John had turned a blind eye and was preparing the lunch. A fantastic aroma of basil and tomatoes filled the kitchen. He added some Worcester sauce, “no tomato dish should ever be without it”, he said, smiling at her. Gemma began telling John about her week. She thought it was a bit boring to describe her children’s’ school week to John because nothing much had happened but she couldn’t think of anything interesting to say. She waited a while for a response from him, but instead, he started to describe what had happened to him, at work, last week. He enthusiastically explained how his colleague, a very slender woman kept staying behind after work, to chat to him in his office.
“She’s got an amazing body. The figure of a twenty year old and she’s thirty five!” John told her.
“That’s because she hasn’t had any children.” thought Gemma trying to hide her disappointment. She was trying hard not to listen to him because he made her feel so awful. She wasn’t sure if it was jealously, it felt more like a mixture of anger and bewilderment!
“Why are men so in sensitive”, she said under bated breath. Surely a man who talked this way about a woman’s figure would realise how it would make another woman feel? Gemma knew that despite having two children, she still looked slim, but she wasn’t happy with the appearance of her body. Other people couldn’t see there was a problem, but it was more about how she felt about herself. Gemma contemplated for a while until John pulled her out of her thoughts.
“I’m having a party tonight. So I’ve got to get the place cleaned up this afternoon because I’m inviting about ten people. I don’t know if everyone will come but you’re invited. If you come, can you please bring something to drink?” He hastily pushed the vacuum cleaner into the cupboard and slammed the door. Gemma thought he sounded stressed.
Gemma wondered for a while whether to go. She knew that John had friends she had never met which he seemed to keep secret. She knew that they were friends from work, plus a few people who lived in the same area of the town as him. Gemma lived five miles away. She sometimes thought living slightly out of town kept her isolated. She didn’t even know if she would like his friends and she didn’t really want to share him with other people. John had become her special friend. In all honesty, she felt at times as though she had centred her whole life on him. The weeks went by well enough with the children and she gave all her love to them but she craved adult conversation and interaction and John provided this. He was both intelligent and articulate, with so many qualities that she admired. But most of all, John was a great father. Although she occasionally wondered if he did all the things properly that she associated with being a “mother”, such as cutting the children’s nails, or making sure that they had their hair brushed and cut. The most important thing that, Gemma observed was that John undoubtedly loved his children. If he didn’t love them so much, then he would go and work from an office but instead he had to compromise and work from home. It was hard work and sometimes Gemma could see that he had a really short fuse but who could blame him. She certainly wasn’t in a position to judge because at times she struggled as a parent herself, and she wasn’t even working in a regular job. She had a little cleaning job one morning a week. She wondered at times if it was worth it but at least it gave her something which she could call completely her own. She was constantly short of money so even a regular amount helped. She often pretended to herself that money wasn’t everything because it was easier than admitting that she missed some of the advantages that money gave.
Gemma knew that she didn’t want to share John with anyone but she decided that she would still turn up at the party. She might miss out an on an opportunity for them to become closer. She didn’t want to let John slip through her fingers into the arms of someone else! He often told her “You need to meet someone nice Gem!” If only he knew how this makes me feel, thought Gemma. She found it hard to accept that they were just friends. She knew deep down that they were never going to have a relationship but she enjoyed the fantasy of ‘one day we will be together.’ John told Gemma several months ago, exactly how he felt but Gemma felt confused because they often sat cuddled up on his sofa. At times, they were so intimate together that it was difficult for Gemma to believe John felt this way. They shared everything, or so she thought. But she did realise that she hadn’t met very few of his friends. Nor did they go out on dates. How could she be special to him because there were so many things that he hadn’t told her and places that he disappeared to on his own!
John talked about his children and the people at work. Gemma stayed for an hour or so, whilst he showed her some of his furniture designs. He still worked for himself, but a couple of months ago he managed to get a full time job designing the furnishings for a new bar which was opening up in North London. The Company had many entertainment venues across the UK so they would keep him busy for the next couple of years! He also advised on layout, lighting and health and safety. Gemma had been for a day out in London a few weeks ago, because John wanted to show her the new bar. There was a pre-launch party and the bar was due to open the next day. Gemma met him just outside Angel Tube station and they had a quick coffee and bite to eat. She was completely staggered by what he had achieved within such a short period of time. He was obviously very proud of his part in the project. She had found the furnishings fascinating, especially the design of the chairs which had been produced especially, and at great expense, to work in with a fifties theme. She knew that she had really put herself out to support John but she was also completely enthralled by his capabilities.
As Gemma listened to John talking today, she suddenly realised that she had very little to say to him about her own life. Before, when he was a stay at home Dad, they often talked about their children because they were in the same school years. Now it seemed whatever Gemma said was boring. John was obviously mixing with a lot more women and he preferred to talk about work. She gathered that his female colleague seemed to have some sort of crush on him which made her feel wretched inside. Gemma wanted to break away from their friendship but found that they had become so familiar with each other that it had become impossible. The problem was that he was her best friend and her only friend. He was the person she shared everything with and he knew it. She felt emotionally tortured. If she didn’t see him again, she knew she could feel lonely. Although she loved it at the cottage, she missed the girls whilst they were at school. She also missed going out and other adult company. She tried to remember what it was like going out socially with her ex husband. Had she enjoyed any of it? Was the life she was living now, any better? She’d always thought that the social life she had with Tony was sadly lacking. Most of her memories were about firm’s Christmas dinners or occasional outings. Neither of them had that many friends but the ones they did have, were parents of other children. With Tony being a solicitor, he also had many business connections. They were sometimes invited to Chamber of Commerce dinners etc. She wouldn’t really describe the couples that went along to these events as her friends! They had visited some nice places though, and in truth, Gemma enjoyed that. The main problem now, was that her money was so tight that although she had some freedom, it felt impossible to have a social life. One of her friends who had become the children’s’ mobile hairdresser had said to her “What we want is not just a life, but a lifestyle”. She often thought of these words and said to herself yes, she did want a life style! It had been a hard choice for her to leave Tony but one that she had to make. It was sometimes difficult for people to understand why she made this choice. Inside she felt a pain which was hard to express to others. She couldn’t describe how she felt as happiness. She felt it was more like a feeling of relief! Gemma often looked at herself in the mirror, at home and said yep, I’ve done it. I don’t believe it! Now I’m free to do what I like. Apart from the clocks which govern time. Time for breakfast, time for lunch, time to collect the children, time to do their homework with them. Time to put on the washing, paying attention to the electric metre, time to make sure they are in bed. Time for one hour’s rest or so and a chill out on her own in front of the television, then time for bed!