During the lecture, sitting in the dark and not listening but glad of the chance to say nothing and feel what she wanted to feel and look around, Helen saw Sadie or someone who looked like Sadie, seated behind them, two or three rows up. Probably just your mother-paranoia, she told herself; you think all teenage girls look like your son’s ex. This one wore green tights or leggings and one of those shapeless but fashionable muddy-brown fleeces or jackets that vaguely resemble fur. Michael hadn’t said she was coming to the Open Day, but maybe he didn’t know. Helen didn’t think they were in contact. After they broke up, Helen had tried to console him and they had a fight about that, and then at least two more fights over the weekend, before Jim said to her, ‘Just leave it alone, she dumped him, it’s over, be grateful,’ so Helen left it alone.
‘I don’t know why I can’t talk to him anymore,’ she said to Jim. ‘I don’t know why that’s not allowed. We used to be friends,’ and he said, ‘He’s a teenage boy, he doesn’t want to be friends with his mother.’
‘I tried to be friends with her, too, but I didn’t like what she was doing to him.’
He gave her a look, wide-eyed, and she said, ‘That’s not what I mean.’
But the truth was, Jim liked Sadie. Sadie used to flirt with him, she teased him about politics. Jim’s own father had worked for the RMT. He was basically a middle manager but started as a train guard and Jim liked to think of himself as working class. Even though he lived in Hampstead now and lectured in Media Studies at Queen Mary, he still presented himself as an outsider. It annoyed Helen, who went freelance after their son was born and spent most days at home or coming up with reasons to leave the flat.
‘Girls like Sadie,’ he began to say once, and Michael said, ‘What does that mean, girls like Sadie,’ and Jim said, ‘Girls who go skiing at half-term,’ and Michael said, ‘Everybody I know goes skiing at half-term,’ and Jim said, ‘That’s what I mean.’ But then he went on, ‘When I was your age, I once rang up a girl, her father was a lefty barrister and sent her to the local comp out of principle, and when she picked up the phone, in the background, I could hear Radio 3 playing . . . I imagined all the books on their shelves.’
‘Sadie always listens to Capital,’ Michael said.
The lecture was on stage-coach travel in the 19th century novel. You forget what it’s like after all these years to sit there and listen. Michael had the aisle seat, so he could kick out his legs, but he also kept his backpack on his lap and clasped his hands across it like a pillow. He wore dirty canvas All Star’s and dirty black jeans and a green parka with the fur-lined hood up, even inside. Helen had whispered to him, ‘Take your hood off,’ and he said, ‘What?’ and she said, ‘Take your hood off, it’s rude, you can’t even hear,’ and he said, ‘I can hear,’ and left it on. In her head, Jim’s voice reproached her: Stop. I can’t. I want to but I can’t.
Afterwards, in the Q&A, Michael sat up to ask a question about Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which was one of their A-level texts. He spoke clearly and well – he wanted to make a comparison with cars in the American novel. He was thinking particularly of the road trip in Lolita . . . and Helen thought, with mild relief, if I didn’t know him, if it was someone else’s son, I would be . . . suitably impressed. But his accent was hard to place, a sort of generic London. He doesn’t sound like me. He doesn’t sound like he used to sound a year ago.
She had to be careful about expressing enthusiasm. ‘I thought that was very interesting,’ she said. ‘I thought the professor was very interested in what you said . . . You should say something to her, you should introduce yourself,’ and Michael said, ‘Look, there’s Sadie,’ and detached himself to say hello, so that Helen had to follow.
‘You swot,’ Sadie said. She was there with her father, who wore clean blue jeans and a quilted jacket with the logo Axon Industries stitched into the breast pocket. Sadie had inherited his broad flat face but her hair was paler, or dyed blonde; her lips had a faint champagne-colour sheen and the make-up around her blue eyes gave them a startled appearance.
After that, they were all somehow thrown together. Sadie and Michael went off to a sample seminar, and Helen and Steve (that was his name) listened to a talk by the head of department on future employability. ‘Sadie can always have a job with me,’ Steve said. They stood around in the lobby with the other parents, drinking coffee from an urn, waiting for their children to emerge. Like the school gates all over again. ‘I suppose they’re not children anymore,’ Helen said. They were running out of things to talk about. ‘Where did you go to uni?’ he finally asked.
‘St. Hugh’s . . .’ She hesitated. ‘Oxford.’
‘Did you like it?’
‘Yes. How about you?’
‘Birmingham, and not much. I was ready for my life to start.’
Somehow these conversations kept playing around in her head – she was turning everything into a story for Jim. Sadie kept teasing Michael, about his clothes, for example. ‘The 80s are over,’ she said. About his shaving. She touched a patch of stubble on his cheek, next to a mole, as they walked through the kitchen area of one of the dorms. She turned on a microwave, too, with nothing inside; she had touchy-feely hands. When they broke up, Helen said to him, ‘It’s okay if you want to feel angry, that’s normal,’ and he said, ‘I don’t feel angry, I just feel sad.’ When he was a boy, years ago, when she still put him to bed, when she turned the lights out, to keep her there, to keep her from leaving, he would say, ‘Mummy, I’m sad,’ and she would say, ‘What are you sad about?’ and they would talk.
‘You can be sad and angry, you don’t have to choose,’ she told him.
‘I don’t have anything to be angry about, she hasn’t done anything wrong. I would break up with me, too.’
Then Helen gave way to one of her sudden rages, she couldn’t help herself. ‘Nobody will want to go out with you unless you show some self-respect. Sadie is nothing. The world is full of Sadies.’
And now she had to spend the day with Sadie’s father, making small talk. Steve bought her another coffee from the student canteen; at one point he mentioned his divorce. He said, ‘They haven’t got a clue what’s coming, they think it’s all roses,’ while the others waited in line. She thought he might be flirting with her.
By four o’clock, it was all over. They wandered together towards the car park, the low cloudy sunlight glittered over the cars. Sadie put her arm around her father, she put her head against his chest. ‘What do you think, Daddy?’ she said, in her little-girl voice. ‘Will I be happy here?’
‘You’ll be happy wherever you go. You’re my bundle of joy.’
‘Dad,’ she said, irony returning.
They were standing next to his car, a Jaguar XJ, in dark maroon. ‘Can we give you a lift back to London?’ Steve asked.
‘We’ve already got our tickets.’ Michael looked at her, astonished, and Helen went on, ‘I want to see what the journey is like, coming back.’
‘We already took the train here,’ Michael said.
‘I want to talk about it all.’
‘We can talk in the car.’
‘No, we can’t.’ She could feel it coming, the mask of her politeness was starting to slip, but Steve said, ‘Fair enough.’
It was a twenty-minute walk to the station, downhill, and they found a quiet route through neighbourhood streets – one of the students in orange vests pointed the way. But they didn’t talk, and Helen kept up the argument silently in her head. Is that why you wanted to come here. I thought you wanted . . . but she was tired of her own feelings, too, her opinions and regrets. Not everything is your fault, Jim liked to say to her, not everything is your problem. He is, she said, and he said, not for much longer. But she was clinging to him because when he was gone only Jim was left and she loved Michael more than Jim or used to . . . but there’s no point thinking like that.
At the station platform, they waited fifteen minutes in the cold; the train was late, and Michael spent the whole time on his phone, messaging friends. When it finally came, and they could sit down in the warm on the comfortable upholstered seats, he said, ‘I’m meeting Tony and some of the others in Camden. If you don’t mind.’
‘Your father said he was making cottage pie.’ Then she said, ‘I don’t mind.’
And the fields and the suburbs returned, the backs of houses, the allotments, though it was almost too dark to see them. Only the river gleamed under the bridge lights. ‘Why don’t you like her?’ Michael finally asked. They were pulling into Waterloo.
‘I don’t care about her one way or another. I care about you.’
But this wasn’t totally true, and she remembered one of the last times Sadie had come to the house. Weirdly warm October weather, they were studying for an exam. Outside Michael’s bedroom, the long flat roof of the apartment below stretched out, and if you climbed through the window, you could lie on the asphalt surface, which grew hot in the sun. It was a sort of unofficial balcony, and Michael had brought out blankets and pillows. Helen saw them from her bedroom, on the floor above; their voices carried, too. ‘Isn’t it sweet,’ Sadie said, ‘the way she’s started to dress like me?’
Michael laughed. ‘What do you mean?’ he said.
‘Haven’t you noticed?’ and Helen turned away.
At Camden Town, on the tube ride home, Michael gave her a hug. ‘I honestly didn’t know she would be there. We haven’t talked since Christmas.’
‘I’m not cross,’ Helen said and put her hand to his face. ‘I’m just sad. I don’t want you to go, that’s all.’
He seemed happier than he’d looked all day – he was seeing his friends. Happier than he’d looked in months, like he’d heard good news. ‘Maybe I won’t get in,’ he told her as the doors opened.
At Hampstead station, she rode the crowded lift, thinking of nothing. The high street was busy with Saturday shoppers returning home. It had started to rain, a cold misty shower that made the lights of the cars blur and run. You could hear it, too, white noise, and for a minute she stopped inside, waiting for the rain to ease.
Image © Shaylor