Elliott was now an hour late. She wondered what could be keeping him. She sat tensely in the armchair, waiting. She could have put on some music, or read the newspaper, still unopened since that morning. She could have put on the TV and watched the news. She could have busied herself with the million-and-one things there were to do around the flat. It was hard to decide at this moment what was worth doing. She had promised to make bunting for the Clifton twins’ birthday party that weekend. That would definitely have been a good use of this time. But she wondered if now she still needed to make the bunting, or if she would have the time.
Things were definitely going to change. She wasn’t sure what to do, so she sat and waited for Elliott.
She wondered why she wasn’t at least doing something to keep her mind occupied, to stop the minutes passing like hours. And the longer she wondered why she didn’t use this time to better effect, the more she felt unsure of how to, and the less all the little things she could be doing seemed worth doing. They had been planning a last holiday. She could have done some planning for that. She enjoyed researching hotels and holiday destinations almost more than actually being on holiday. But she felt paralysed. She needed to wait for Elliott so they could discuss the next move. She could not plan without him.
She glanced over at his mobile phone, which was on the kitchen counter, and frowned at it for the twentieth time that evening. Today of all days she thought, also for the twentieth time. She imagined hearing him opening the front door, and then seeing his face as he took off his coat and hung it up, greeting him, and finally breaking the news, and her stomach seemed to vacate her abdomen and climb into her throat. She looked down to her right at the cup of tea she had made herself after dinner, and realised without picking it up that it must now be cold. She sighed theatrically and drummed her fingers on the arms of the chair. She felt like she was in a film.
She had passed charge of the front desk over to Marilyn and gone into the small flat at the back of their little B&B around 5 o’clock to start the evening shift of home things to do, after a long day shift of work things to do. This usual routine had been even harder recently with her more limited mobility, and today it had been more interminable than she could have imagined. She had been waiting since lunchtime to tell Elliott, since she couldn’t call him. She had thought she would burst. Marilyn could tell something was going on but was too polite to ask.
Elliott had set out very early that morning and had woken her with a soft kiss on the cheek just as he was leaving. He was always so considerate, and managed not to wake her as he dressed in darkness. He had been used to leaving without waking her at all, but recently she had found that she was disconcerted to find him gone when she woke up. It was unsettling to open her eyes, not knowing what the time was, and look over and realise he had already been gone for some time. So she had asked him to wake her up, which he now always did as gently as possible. He was such a considerate, patient man. He was good-tempered and hard-working. In spite of the various hardships they had endured, he never complained or even appeared unhappy, yet she felt she had filled his life with complications.
She had always wanted to make his existence an easy, enjoyable one, and secretly reproached herself that it was not in her gift to allow him some respite. She herself was in need of respite too, but he bore his deprivation – of time as well as material – with such forbearance that it weighed on her all the more. They were by no means wretched. They had everything they needed, and in the grand scheme of things she knew that enough was plenty. But it was exhausting to always be scraping by, and as most people did she had always longed to be comfortable.
The phone rang and she jumped. She looked across at it, then she wondered why she had done that. It was a delaying tactic, she decided. She considered getting up to answer, but quickly working out it was probably one of only two or three possible people, she decided it wasn’t worth the effort involved in getting up. She waited for it to stop, and returned to waiting for Elliott.
She tried a new coping technique. She decided to try and enjoy this brief moment of quiet reflection, rather than feeling the need to fill the time to distract herself from her impatience. How rare this was, to sit and think, rather than to do. She made a conscious decision to try and clear her mind for as long as possible. The act of being immobile in the armchair should have facilitated focussing on not thinking, so she tried to relax into it. It would become quite chaotic once Elliott returned and she broke the news, so she decided to take advantage of this moment. She closed her eyes and exhaled dramatically. Then she realised she needed to pee.
As she hobbled to the bathroom she wondered if it had been Elliott calling, and cursed quietly. He had set out early that morning to go to an auction. They needed a bigger car and he had hoped to find a good deal, but he had had to travel all the way to Norfolk. She noticed as she sat on the toilet that she still had the little piece of pink paper in her left hand, now all scrunched up. Having stored it in the white box by the phone all day, she had retrieved it this evening and had been carrying it around. She uncrumpled it and looked at it again. She smoothed it out on her knee and read every word and number again slowly. Then she folded it carefully in half, and then again, and put it in the pocket of her blouse. She held her palm over it for a few seconds.
She could faintly hear Marilyn greeting some guests at the front desk as she made her way back to the armchair to resume her meditation. She could hear the washing machine whirring in the kitchen. She could hear the boys breathing quietly through the baby monitor, and she could hear the girls snoring softly through the other monitor. She looked around the room. She had half-heartedly tried to clear it of the day’s debris.
Sabrina had done her best to tidy up before she left, but looking after quadruplets made it almost impossible to do anything but watch them. It was quite a mess but suddenly she found it serene. The disorder was comforting, she realised. It was their mess. This was the room her children played in, sang in, where they watched TV and did the indecipherable drawings which adorned the kitchen walls. It was where the cats sprawled lazily across the rug in the afternoon sunlight. It was where they ate dinner together, crouching around the coffee table. It was too small for them all, no question, and they struggled every day to fit their lives into this little space.
For a small family it would have been rather generous accommodation. One main room, six meters by five. A generous kitchen, but packed to the rafters. Three decent bedrooms, housing eight beating hearts every night, including Clover and Woodstock. Nine if you counted poppy seed.
In spite of her constant lamenting about their lack of space, lack of money, lack of time, she realised, surveying the room in this warm silence, how content she was. Sitting here, in this rare moment of solitude, this golden hour of quiet after the children had settled down for the night, and being too large and tired to do much, she found she had a peaceful interlude in which to contemplate what she had, for a change.
This fresh perspective acted as a new lens onto her world. The dishes from dinner were still piled in the sink, and the next instalment of laundry would very soon have to be suspended about the flat haphazardly… but who cared? That was life. Now, with the endless possibilities of these new circumstances before her she began to consider her home and her life differently. She felt the quotidian frustration begin to give way to sentimentality.
She thought about what she could have now. More space. A bigger car – a brand new one. A garden! A nicer neighbourhood? But she loved their little corner of Aberystwyth. How could they close down their little hotel? They could expand, she supposed, but it wouldn’t be the same. She loved her job. She loved talking to the guests, and hearing about where they came from and why they were here. Some were visiting their children at university; some came all the way from Japan – she always wondered what they were doing there! – some just came from Cardiff; some were at the start of an alphabetical tour of the UK and some were on a romantic break from the kids. She would miss these daily encounters if they closed The Starfish. She would even miss the strange man who came by himself every couple of years for two weeks and hardly spoke a word.
She had played the lottery every week for a decade, and she had even foolishly pinned her hopes on winning when she had felt desperate. She had made detailed plans for their imagined wealth. She had mentally rearranged their lives, and provided for all their friends and family. But now she froze. As the reality of the upheaval this would mean started to sink in she began to doubt she wanted to be rich. She started to question if it could improve their lot as she had always assumed it would. Having previously assumed she would be an expert at managing wealth, she now felt that their lives were about to change so much that she didn’t even know how to begin to think about it. She tried to calm her mind down. It was racing in so many different directions that she couldn’t think anything through.
She took out the lottery ticket and unfolded it. She stared at it for a minute. She stared into space and tried to picture a new life, with money. With anything she wanted. She would want for nothing. She would want nothing. That didn’t sounds so fantastic. Did she want to have everything she wanted? She thought about Elliott. He could have everything he wanted, too. What did he want? She wasn’t sure.
He never expressed any dissatisfaction, or any particular longing. Maybe he was happy, and didn’t want anything because he didn’t really want for anything. He had seemed to enjoy scouring the internet for a good deal on a bigger car. Perhaps that was a better life, having to strive. Perhaps making do was more natural. Perhaps it was better to save up for a holiday in the Dales rather than have the extravagant extended break they could now have anywhere they wanted. Where would they go? Where did you go if there were no limitations? She felt sick. She didn’t want to plan an overhaul of her family’s lives. She wanted to make the bunting for Annie and Evie’s birthday party on Sunday.
The front door opened, and Elliott came in and hung up his coat at last.
She woke from her reverie and stood up slowly, scrunching the ticket up in her hand again.
“Hello sweetheart!” he said beaming at her; he looked at her wide-eyed and exhaled loudly to indicate a long and tiring day that was too boring to explain in detail.
“Darling! Where have you been? How was it? I’m so pleased you’re home!” she said.
Elliott raised his eyebrows slightly at this effusive greeting and smiled.
“The drive back was not so great, but never mind. I got the car! How are you feeling? How’s poppy seed?”
“She’s fine”, she said, smiling and patting her bump.
“Hmm, you look pensive,” he said questioningly. “What’s that in your hand, love?”
“Oh, I’ve just been sorting out the receipts in my handbag,” she said, tearing up the pink piece of paper and heading towards the kitchen. “Cup of tea?”