This is the first chapter of a novel I started last year. It’s called The Love of Your Life, and it’s 3/4 complete. I abandoned it because it went off at a bit of a tangent towards the end, but I still have high hopes for this story. Would love to know what people think of the opening – and I really appreciate your time in reading it.
On her fifty-fifth birthday Lydia packed a case and left her husband. It happened to be the day after they celebrated their silver wedding anniversary, so Lydia felt honour-bound to stay until after the party. This, she reasoned, would cause the minimum disruption. It wasn’t a sudden impulse; more that she had made this decision some time ago and was only just now carrying it out.
She chose the medium-sized suitcase from the set of three last used on a trip to Portugal. The suitcases nestled snugly inside each other; she had to unzip the largest one first and then put the smaller attaché case back inside on its own. It made her sad, separating one of the suitcases from its siblings. When she shoved the others back under the bed, the sound of the attaché case rattling around on its own touched her deeply.
What use was that attaché case, in fact? Too small for holidays, too big for overnight visits. Martin called it ‘carry-on’ luggage. It wasn’t until after their honeymoon that Lydia understood what the term carry-on actually meant. She’d assumed it was a reference to the Carry On films, and had never been able to take packing seriously since. Even now, doing the most serious packing of her life, Lydia felt a little light-hearted. She tipped the contents of her underwear drawer into the case in its entirety, making no effort to pair-up bras and knickers. She threw in her alarm clock from a distance of at least ten feet, watching as it landed silently and disappeared into a froth of satin and silk. She couldn’t help but smile.
Laid alongside the suitcase were two industrial-sized black bin bags. Lydia planned to erase herself from this house completely. Anything she didn’t take with her she would either throw or give away. She had given this a lot of thought and it seemed the kindest course of action. Also, the most efficient. How would it help Martin to see bits of her lying around the place for months after she’d gone? And it would only prolong her leaving – how easily she could imagine those late night phone calls after a glass or two of whisky: You need to come get your cookery books, Lydia, and what about your winter jumpers? Dress shoes, old letters, reference books, that china sheep your mother gave you. Half the CD collection, the anorak that lives under the stairs. There would always be something, if you let yourself get pulled back by things. She planned to walk out with one suitcase only and never set foot in this house again.
So the packing proceeded, efficiently, ruthlessly, every item considered for a moment before being given its designation: suitcase, charity shop, or dustbin. Before long Lydia had to traipse to the kitchen for more bin bags. The charity pile was growing faster than the others, while her suitcase was no more than a quarter full. The problem was this: What exactly should she take with her to her new life? Just what would Andre expect from her? To fit in with his day-to-day life, as if all the years spent with other people had never happened? Or to come to him a foreigner, with her own interests and occupations, the way of arranging even the smallest task already embedded in habit, ruts dug so deeply there was no ladder tall enough to climb out of them.
But maybe none of that mattered a jot. She imagined herself trudging out the door of this house, worn down, dragging her suitcase behind her, an lady old before her time, invisible, forgotten. But then, as she walked along the pavement past the late-blossoming apple trees and heavy, drooping magnolias, something strange began to happen. A light started to glow inside her; it transformed her skin, her face, even her hair. By the time she reached the bus stop she looked at least five years younger. Maybe ten. While on the bus, an otherwise tedious trip through flat, featureless countryside, Lydia’s amazing transformation continued. The light became a cleansing stream, washing her from head to toe, clearing away years of frustration and shame.
Why, by the time she emerged she was an entirely different person. She stepped off the bus and turned her face to the sun. She was the Lydia of thirty years ago – or possibly an even better version. And there was Andre, just as she had left him, just where she had left him, waiting for her. His arms were outstretched, supplicating, ready to take her with him this time, never to let her go.
It was a nice picture. She would in fact be driving as there was no direct bus to Chester on a Friday and besides, she had this suitcase to carry and all…
And Andre wouldn’t actually be waiting for her, at the bus station or anywhere else. The fact was, he didn’t know she was coming. Not as such. Not in so many words.
But there was no time to worry about that now. Martin would be home by six and Lydia absolutely couldn’t risk still being here when he returned. Three o’clock was her own personal deadline and it was already two. She hadn’t even had lunch yet, although eating was, for once, the last thing on her mind. Her stomach rumbled companionably and she welcomed the distraction. In the kitchen, however, her progress was halted by the sight of so many more signs of herself. How could she possibly remove everything that might remind Martin of her? She began to feel annoyed with Martin, as though he himself had set her this challenge.
‘Well,’ she said to her ancient, dusty spice rack, ‘he’ll just have to get rid of you himself if he doesn’t like seeing you there.’ And to her cupcake apron: ‘I won’t be needing you anymore where I’m going!’ (She didn’t plan to cook or bake in Andre’s kitchen. They would eat out every night, or else grab a take-out dinner on the way back from the theatre or the cinema.) Still, she left the apron hanging on its hook, not having the heart to throw it away, and she wondered, not for the first time, which would be more distressing for Martin: to have everything of hers gone in one fell swoop, or to keep being reminded of her absence by, say, noticing her apron one day and imagining her wearing it and baking his favourite upside-down-spiced-pear-pudding.
Oh, enough of Martin and his feelings. ‘Enough!’ she said out loud and flounced out of the kitchen. As if he’d ever even noticed her apron. (Or her, for that matter.) It had been years since she’d baked exclusively for him. When they were first married she had spent entire days preparing cakes and pastries for him to try. ‘Here,’ she’d say, presenting a Victoria sandwich to him on a silver cake-base. ‘Taste this. See if you can guess the secret ingredient.’ And Martin would smile while he ate, kissing her with icing sugar lips. Lydia always tasted her own creations through Martin’s kisses, it seemed.
‘The secret ingredient is… mmm, now let me see…’ Martin, would say, taking another slice and curling her into the crook of his arm. And then, ‘It’s Love!’ he would announce, and they’d laugh together, smug and satisfied with themselves and with each other.
Ah well. It did no good to dwell on the past. She, more than anyone, should know this. Lydia returned briskly to her packing. Shoes. Right then: She’d take the black boots with her – perfect for walking, but also handy for gardening or shopping – but not the brown ones, or the navy loafers. Too dull. Too old-Lydia. Into the rubbish bag they went, not even fit for another person’s feet. Five more pairs followed these, until a pair of stylish red court shoes finally made it into her suitcase. Oh yes, this was more like it. These were right for the new Lydia, walking arm-in-arm with Andre on their way to eat at a snazzy new restaurant Lydia had heard about at her art class.
Art class? Where did that come from? Well, why not? Her drawings had been highly praised at school. It wasn’t her fault if marriage, followed by motherhood, followed by not-much-of-anything had gotten in the way of developing her talents. Martin wasn’t the type to encourage her, but Andre would be different. Lydia was sure of this.
After shoes came handbags (only one survived, the catch-all black leather tote with plaited leather handles), then coats (none made the grade – it was nearly summer, after all), followed by woollens, jewellery, hats and belts. Her winter wardrobe filled an entire charity bag. She planned to buy new when the need arose.
But things weren’t going as smoothly as she’d planned. She would just be getting into the swing of it when some object or other would hit her in the face with a memory. The silver compact on her dresser, for example. Shaped like a butterfly, each wing opening to reveal a tiny mirror. It was true that Martin had bought this on their fifth anniversary, but why did she have to remember that day in so much detail right now? It wasn’t helpful. It wasn’t seemly. She was leaving the man, walking out, moving on. So how could the memory of his hand on hers, his hopeful expression, reduce her so? It was Andre she needed to think about. Andre, who was waiting for her right now. Well not exactly waiting, but…
Lydia finished the rest of the packing in ten minutes flat, then simply carried a bin bag around the house filling it with anything that caught her eye. She trailed from room to room, dragging the thing behind her like an over-sized slug, getting sticky with effort as the bag grew heavier. Finally, it was done. She stepped back and wiped a hand across her brow and down one cheek. When the bags were loaded into the car, and the rubbish hauled out the back door, she set to work on herself. It would not do to arrive at Andre’s looking like this. Her face, her hair – her entire self – needed a repair job first. Just in case the lit-from-within thing didn’t actually happen on the way there.
But when Lydia opened the bathroom cabinet she found it practically empty. Well, of course – she’d packed her cosmetics along with everything else. She had to make do with splashing her face and fluffing up her short grey-blonde hair with her fingers. Walking back through the house was disconcerting; she already felt like an imposter. This wasn’t her home anymore. Why, not one thing of hers remained. In eradicating herself she had, at last, become a success.
She glanced at the clock on the mantle. Half past five! Time to go. Martin would be leaving work right now, closing his office door, getting into his car. Listening to the radio and looking forward to getting home and saying hello to his wife, asking about her day. Lydia swallowed. She had a sudden urge to run out to the car, grab all the bags and put everything back the way it was before she started this. She could be sitting in her usual chair when Martin put his key in the lock, drinking tea, gazing at a magazine, and he would never know a thing about it.
Grouped around the clock like sentries, covering every inch of dusty mantle, were dozens of cards. Happy Silver Wedding Anniversary, they said in jaunty fonts with exclamation marks. Cartoon bottles of champagne, bursting with bubbles; fireworks; cutesy teddy bears holding hands; impossible sunsets in blue and red. Twenty Five Years. And there, in her mind, was Andre, smiling and waving, beckoning her on. What choice, really, did she have? Martin had had twenty five years of her. It was Andre’s turn now.