When Nathan’s flight was cancelled (the whole Eastern seaboard was about to be buried in snow), Jean persuaded him to make an earlier plane to Charlotte out of T.F. Green. At least that got them out of the cold front. From there they could fly to Dallas, it put them in the ballpark, and even though they were landing too late to catch the shuttle to Austin, she offered to pick them up – which meant six hours in the car for her, there and back. His kids would be exhausted, his wife wanted to stay in Boston anyway, but Jean bullied her brother into it because Henrik was coming after Christmas, and she wanted Nathan to meet him.
It’s a boring drive to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, you just take I-35 the whole way. The radio was broken in her parents’ Volvo, and the tape player had swallowed its last cassette. All you could listen to was whatever was on that tape, an early Billy Bragg, which belonged to her brother in grad school: Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, not his best. But Jean put it on anyway and knew the words well enough to sing along. In her jet-lagged state, it helped her to stay awake. Something about the tinny guitar, the cheap acoustics, reminded her of Nathan’s old room at Holywell Manor, Balliol’s graduate student housing, just opposite the law faculty. Jean had visited him there during her final year at Yale, over spring break. His English accent was terrible, but he liked to sing along: whoops, there goes another year, whoops, there goes another pint of beer – and the world it opened up to her again, of his goofiness and happy ambition, before the success kicked in, almost brought tears to her eyes.
When she was young, eight or nine years old, starting to read for herself, to want to follow adult conversation, Nathan was her point of access: a high-school kid, dark-skinned and wild-haired, with an unshaved mustache, too clever for his teachers and quick enough to pick fights with his parents, too. He could always see the principles at stake in any situation, no matter how small or petty they seemed, and could push you into positions you didn’t know you occupied, until you found yourself defending stuff you didn’t want to defend. So you gave in or gave up and let it go. She used to practise copying his handwriting, one of those facts about the depth of her child-devotion she only mentioned to him fifteen years later. ‘Huh,’ he said; he didn’t know what to say. Sometimes she wondered whether she had failed Susan somehow, by not directing more of her imitation-flattery toward her big sister, and whether this failure involved a more general kind of failure, to grow into a normal woman – to go through not just the rites of passage, but the ordinary feelings you’re supposed to have, about boys and sex and motherhood. So that now she was stuck at the age of thirty-two trying to make up for lost ground.
Her other brother Paul once said to her, when she first told him about Henrik, ‘There’s plenty of time to make your own life with someone.’ As if she were trying to steal someone else’s. She got mad at him, but it’s not always easy to tell, especially in the heat of the moment, if you’re pissed off because someone’s right about you or because they’re wrong. And she knew that what she was doing, the reason she was thinking these thoughts through, was to prepare herself for a long conversation with Nathan. Sometimes it’s easier to talk late at night, in the dark, when you’re both staring at something else, like the road in front of you. Of course, for the first part, his kids would be awake, his wife would probably sit between them in the back. But then they’d fall asleep (after ten hours in transit, it was even later East Coast time), and the noise of the road was loud enough to make it hard to hear in the back. The Volvo was an old car – there was no sound protection. Even the background warmth of sleeping kids contributes to the sense of intimacy. Well, it doesn’t matter. You never have the conversations you want to anyway; almost never. Something always comes up, other people get in the way. But still she prepared herself, she wanted to get her story straight, even in her own head.
When Henrik was first diagnosed, she thought, that’s it. Her initial reaction was selfish: that’s it for me, he’ll go back to his wife. When shit like this happens, people don’t walk out on fifteen-year marriages. One morning he woke up with an ache in his – ‘balls area’, this is how he put it. The truth is, he had felt something before, a sort of numbness, like you get when someone kicks a football into your . . . between your . . . legs. But when you’re forty-seven, forty-eight, a lot of things hurt, especially when you get up in the morning. And if you pay attention to everything that hurts . . . But he was also coming down with a cold, something was going around the kids’ school, everybody back after the long summer holiday, the temperature had dropped, leaves were falling, real life had begun again.
He called Jean to tell her that he wasn’t coming in – an easy call to make, because she worked at the company and needed to know. In other words, one of those conversations he didn’t have to conceal or disguise. Monica was almost out the door, dragging the kids to school. Emil and Freya still needed to be walked (Sasha had left earlier for her cello lesson), and he had come down in his dressing gown to make himself coffee and wave them off, before going back up to bed. For some reason it gave him pleasure to be able to speak openly to Jean in front of his wife. Later, around eleven o’clock, he called again, just to pass the time; he was feeling sorry for himself. ‘I think I found something on my . . . I think I felt something . . . on one of my testicles. It hurts a little, too.’
‘Have you talked to somebody about this? Does Monica know?’
‘It’s fine, I’m sure it’s . . . I’m just lying here and feeling bored and sorry for myself.’
‘Go see someone,’ Jean said. ‘Go see someone today.’
‘I don’t feel well, remember. That’s why I’m in bed.’
‘I don’t care,’ Jean said.
He knew she would react this way. Like many practical and competent people, she treated complaints as problems to be solved, but she also had a nervous tendency, she took everything seriously and had a habit of thinking in terms of worst-case scenarios. Maybe this is what he wanted from her, and he was using her anxieties as a kind of test, to see if he should be worried or not.
‘I’ll do it,’ he said. ‘I’ll go see someone, but not today. This is nothing new.’ He meant, the feeling of numbness or the slight ache. ‘I can go tomorrow, when I don’t feel like shit. I can go next week.’
Ten minutes later Jean called back to say she had booked him an appointment with his GP – for three o’clock. (She had worked as his assistant for several years; it felt natural for her to take charge in this way.) So he went.
Among the various things she blamed herself for, Jean sometimes added this to the list: that she had somehow made the cancer happen to him, either because it was a kind of accretion of his guilt, something his kidneys couldn’t process or whatever . . . or because she had made him go to the doctor and it was only because the doctor had found something that it was actually there. He had to wait three weeks to see a specialist at the clinic in UCL and then another week for the results. In other words, almost a month of keeping the lid on her anxieties, which is more or less what it felt like. She was conscious of a kind of rattle in her manner, an almost audible low-level and constant need to release internal pressure. They were carefully polite to each other, both at work and afterward, in their moments of manufactured alone-time – sharing a taxi, for example, to a screening at Soho House. Jean couldn’t tell if he was distancing himself from her, for understandable reasons, in preparation for the necessary break, or just hunkering down, or if in fact she herself was pushing him away. Selflessly or selfishly, who knows.
Still waiting for results, Monica rented a cottage in Somerset for half-term and he drove down with her and the kids one Saturday morning. Jean’s envy felt like a kind of poison, which makes you unrecognizable to yourself. One night he called her from his cell phone – their first contact in almost a week. The cottage had no reception so he had to walk about ten minutes along a B-road to the nearest pub, where there was free Wi-Fi. (‘I told Monica I wanted to check my email.’) It was about six o’clock, the sun was setting, he would have to walk back in the dark. Already the pub was filling up, she couldn’t hear him clearly, background noise of people and music, the signal quality was poor, so he stepped outside and she could feel the change in atmosphere like a shift in weather – he was standing outside in the mild evening cold.
The clinic had called, while they were having lunch at Coleridge Cottage, in Nether Stowey. What he had was a stage 3 embryonal carcinoma. It had spread to his lungs, and maybe elsewhere – he needed more tests. The good news was . . . it was . . . he wasn’t very good at the terminology, yet – seminomatous, which is typical of . . . older patients. He laughed. Most of the time it’s very treatable. Jean was still in the office, about to go out for the evening – she was meeting a few girlfriends at the Curzon on Shaftesbury Avenue, and took her cell phone into the bathroom, so she could listen in peace and talk to him without being overheard. Or break down if she wanted to. He said, ‘It’s what Lance Armstrong had. But not as bad.’
‘Okay,’ she told him, as clearly as she could. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I’ve been thinking about it all day. I can’t live like this and make them care for me.’ No, thought Jean, you can’t, and knew what was coming next. But then he said, ‘I think we should move in together. I want to tell her.’
‘That’s a terrible thing to do to somebody,’ Jean said.
Even in the bathroom she kept her voice low. The floor was tiled (a strand of wet toilet paper lay by the loo) and everything echoed. There was a smell of running drains and disinfectant. She leaned against the door, with her back against it.
‘I think it’s better in the long run. It is already terrible, what we’re doing. But I have to . . . I have to live a life I want to live. I want to live it with you.’
‘What about the kids?’
‘We need to get an apartment together. They can’t come and visit you – in that room. You are not saying anything now. I don’t know if this is something you want.’
‘Yes,’ Jean said. ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to. I love you.’
‘Okay, good. Me, too. Okay,’ he said. ‘I should go back now – it’s dinner time. I’ll see you Monday. We can work everything out.’
When the phone went dead in her ear, she didn’t move for a moment. It was like lying in bed and thinking, I should get up. The pressure of conflicting feelings . . . a kind of stand-off . . . but she also thought, if my life has an emotional center, a moment on which all the different forces converge, it’s this, and I’m going through it now. But maybe this is just a kind of self-importance, which means you haven’t digested or thought through what’s actually going on. Not yet anyway. When she came out of the bathroom, she sat down at her computer again and typed ‘Lance Armstrong’s cancer’ into Google and followed the various threads until it was time for her to meet her friends at the cinema, about a fifteen-minute walk away – across New Oxford Street, busy with buses, the lights coming on and people going home – into Soho.
For the next few days, until he came back, apart from everything else that she was worried about (and she spent much of her spare time online, looking up his diagnosis, coming to grips with the various terms, trying to understand the treatment options, and following the science and evidence-based research behind recent developments), she also worried that he would change his mind. Maybe it was just the heat of the moment. He was stuck in Somerset with the kids. But his explanation when he saw her again sounded perfectly reasonable.
‘I knew as soon as I heard from the clinic that I had to tell Monica. I mean, about us. You can’t ask someone to care for you on this basis.’
They were having lunch at one of these bibimbap places you find on the backstreets by the British Museum, among the second-hand bookshops and expensive ceramic stores, the tartan outlets. Hot-sauce bottles sticky on the plastic table; a strangely provincial air of quiet and neglect. The staff seemed to live downstairs, where the kitchens were – there was only one other group of customers, four men, sitting in the back by the restroom door. Henrik and Jean had at least a little natural light, such as it was – falling between tall gray buildings.
‘I expect there will be . . . a certain amount of drama . . . in the next year,’ he said. ‘Even if it is mostly very boring. And I won’t ask her to feel whatever she will feel about that . . . we have not had such feelings for each other in many years . . . without telling her about you. And as soon as I tell her, our marriage will be over. I don’t expect anything else.’
But even then, as she lay in bed that night, too excited to sleep (not happy exactly but deeply agitated, and debating whether she should call someone – Paul, Nathan, Susie, Liesel? anyone but her father), she remembered what he had said and wondered if it left room for doubt. As if it were still up to Monica in the end. But she never found out if that’s what he meant, because it didn’t matter: Henrik was right. Monica kicked him out. And for a week he stayed either on the sofa bed in the office (which they sometimes offered to ‘friends’ in the business, other directors and producers, visiting London) or at her room in Brondesbury, while she looked for an apartment. For years she had lived, more or less, in student squalor – either in Oxford, in a shared house on Marlborough Road, near the Head of the River pub; or lodging in various rooms in north-west London. Her landladies were mostly divorced mothers whose children had become adults and moved out. But now she was looking for her own first grown-up flat – and they needed three bedrooms, so that Henrik’s kids could stay on weekends, once all that was sorted out.
The fact is, she was having fun, and she felt guilty about that, too. And not just fun – she knew that whatever else she was doing, she was living more importantly than she had been living before. Spending more money, living on a grander scale, with bigger things at stake. They looked around Kensal Green Station, because the rents were still borderline affordable and they could catch the Overground train to Euston and walk from there into Bloomsbury. It was like shopping for an imaginary life, which you then pay for, and live. Here’s where I’ll sit and have my coffee, here’s what I’ll look out on from my bed. A city life – with a commuter train to catch each morning, and a home with somebody to come back to at the end of the day.
And that’s more or less what happened; they moved in together. The walk between residential streets to their apartment, the top half of a bay-windowed Victorian on Buchanan Gardens, wasn’t always totally scare-free; but she got used to that, and most of the time she walked home with Henrik. As the year wore on his kids began to stay over, and their Saturdays were taken up with homework and trips to swimming pools. Something else she felt guilty about, nervous, clumsily on edge, but also secretly . . . not secretly . . . but with her deeper emotions very near the surface, ready to do their duty, the work that you have them for. Emotions like love and fear, expressed among other things by trying to remember your seventh-grade math.
She had to figure out what they liked to eat, and to learn how to cook it so that they didn’t complain. Like every other second wife – part of what you realize is how many there are around. It’s like buying a car, you begin to spot them everywhere: at the Tesco Express, and on the bus, and outside the school gate, picking up the kids with a purse full of crisps and chocolate. Even this was part of being alive, and belonging to a demographic, or whatever you want to call it – one of the types.
Not that she was quite yet a second wife. Also, you never stop forgetting, these aren’t my kids. Part of the guilt is that you sometimes think, this isn’t my problem, and then on Sunday night, after you hand them over, it isn’t any more.
The first time she saw Monica after the . . . they didn’t have a word for it, the announcement, after Henrik had told his wife what was going on, Jean was sitting in a Zipcar van outside their house in Acton. (When he first moved out, all he took with him was a duffel bag full of clothes and shoes, and a backpack with his laptop and a couple of books.) Henrik had an office in the house, with an exercise bike and a bench press – his response to middle age, as he put it, was low-key but traditional. Anyway, Monica wanted them gone. She needed the room for a lodger, a friend of hers, who could also help with the kids. ‘I don’t care what you do with them,’ she said. ‘Just get rid of them.’
‘This is expensive equipment. I have nowhere . . . at least not yet,’ he began to say.
‘Get them out! Get them out! Get them out!’
Jean heard about it all later. And now she sat in the van, in the driver’s seat, not quite daring to go in. You’re a coward, she told herself. You’re a bad human being. But still she didn’t move.