Jennifer stared at Brad defiantly. “It’s not your baby! That’s why I’m walking away from you forever!”
He gazed at her in bewilderment, wondering how the mouth that said she loved him only a few short weeks ago could now be framing words as devastating as this. Then, before his mind could register what his body was doing, Brad’s hand punched the wall behind Jennifer’s head.
No! That bit just didn’t work. Sure, Brad was annoyed, but hitting the wall? Probably better that than hitting Jennifer, he thought; but it still seemed awkward, clumsy. The problem was, he was nothing like Brad himself – look at how patient he was the other week, for example, when Stass had told him she’d backed into another car at the supermarket. If anything, she was the one who got annoyed, not him.
His mind wandered now to one of their recent evenings together.
“You’re late – again.” Her words were flat, emotionless.
“Something came up.” He knew it was a clichéd excuse, but they’d been snowed under at work recently. He’d had to stay until seven just to get on top of it all.
He tried to kiss her by way of apology, but she turned her head away deliberately. In the awkward silence that ensued, she picked up her bag, fumbled for her car keys and started moving towards the door.
“Where are you going?” he asked in surprise.
“Out.” A brief hesitation; then, “Don’t wait up.”
At the time, he hadn’t realised that their marriage was in trouble.
Brad slumped over the table, his hand clutching an empty wine bottle. The overflowing ashtray and discarded beer cans bore testament to his mental anguish. “How could you?” he whispered. The harsh light of the single bulb overhead lingered on his designer stubble, his bloodshot eyes, his haunted expression. “How could you do that to me? To us?”
No, it still wasn’t working. As a film script, maybe, but not as a novel. Why was it that endings were so hard? And was this really where he wanted things to end – with Brad a lonely alcoholic, crying into his cups because Jen had cheated on him?
A sudden memory tugged at his heart – he thought he’d stifled it, throwing all his energy into this book he’d been working on for years; but was that just an excuse? he wondered now. Was he writing about an unhappy marriage because art was imitating life?
Not a drunken, depressing scene, then; but what? And then it all came back to him – how he’d come home earlier than usual a few weeks ago and spotted an unfamiliar car on the driveway. Wondering whose it was, he’d entered as normal and found a strange man in the kitchen. The tall, blond guy could have been a film star with his rugged good looks and impressive physique, but when Stass appeared moments later, she’d introduced him as Jerry, a builder who was apparently giving them a quotation for a loft extension. At the time, he’d barely registered that her hair was slightly damp, as if she’d just showered, or that Jerry was wearing shoes but no socks. It was only later, when he found a gold cuff link on the bedroom floor, that he started to feel uneasy.
An awkward silence filled the hotel room. The ice bucket and champagne glasses should have signified romance, just as the discarded clothing on the floor would have left the chambermaid in no doubt as to what had been going on. Nevertheless, you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. In the king-sized bed, Jennifer’s naked shoulder could be seen peeping out from beneath the crumpled white sheet. Tears rolled down her cheeks, past the purple swelling that surrounded her eye. Meanwhile, the man – her lover – was dressing silently, savagely pulling on his trousers, grabbing his jacket.
“Don’t make a scene,” he snarled as he turned towards the door. “You always knew this wasn’t anything serious.”
“It’s your baby.” The words escaped in a whisper.
“Get rid of it.”
The door closed behind him, preventing him from looking once more at Jennifer’s tearstained face.
He always felt uncomfortable writing scenes like this – he just couldn’t imagine treating a woman in that way. But the plan had always been to get Brad and Jennifer back together, and so the love rival had to go – how else could he give his readers the happy ending they deserved?
Yes, he’d always believed in a happy ending; at least, until recently.
Once he’d found the cuff link, he’d experienced a sick feeling in his throat, an ache in his gut. He waited until she was out at her yoga class – if she was at her yoga class: he no longer knew whether he could believe what she said – and searched the bedroom properly. His feeling of nausea intensified when he found the wisp of lace so insubstantial it hardly deserved to be called a thong; but that was nothing compared to the shock of discovering her contraceptive pills. She’d made him have a vasectomy two and a half years ago. For a long time, he sat in silence, staring at the packet, torturing himself with visions of where she might actually be at that moment.
Jennifer sat on the park bench, shivering with cold, pulling an insubstantial-looking coat more tightly around herself and the now prominent baby bump. Leaves slowly detached from the trees and fluttered to the ground as she closed her eyes, unable to forget the memories of her and Brad walking hand in hand together, then laughing as he pushed her on a swing, followed by a hazy afternoon spent lying on the grass, kissing.
“I’m sorry, Brad,” she mumbled dejectedly. “I know I don’t deserve to have you back after what I’ve done to you, but I miss you so much.”
In the silence of the park, there was no answer.
Jennifer’s hand reached out and rested on her bump.
“He would have been a good daddy for you, but I messed it all up.”
Sunlight fell on her face, highlighting the sorrow in her perfectly made up eyes, emphasising the golden glints in her hair. Overcome with grief at the thought of how she’d cheated on the perfect man and sent him away, she remained unaware of Brad, walking through the park in slow motion, towards the bench where she sat.
He mulled that last scene over in his mind: was it too clichéd? He was finding it hard to think straight at the moment: there was too much else going on.
Last night, Jerry’s car had been pulling away from the house when he arrived. The guy had actually waved to him. Stass was at the front door, looking somewhat dishevelled and muttering something about Jerry dropping off his quote. She’d turned away from him just a fraction too quickly, almost as if she couldn’t meet his eyes.
Brad reached Jennifer. He stared intently at the woman he loved. “You know it’s only ever been you, Babe.”
Tears rolling down her cheeks, she looked up at him, holding his gaze. “I know.” She paused meaningfully. “I love you too. I just lost my way for a while, that’s all.”
Time was suddenly moving in slow motion as he went down on one knee, in the midst of all the autumn leaves, and produced a small box. “So, will you marry me?”
“My heart never kissed anyone else,” she breathed as he slipped the ring onto her finger.
In the background, the sound of Grieg’s ‘Morning’ swelled to a joyful crescendo on someone’s radio. It couldn’t have been more perfect if he’d planned it! Brad thought ecstatically as he masterfully took Jennifer’s face in his hands and began to kiss her passionately.
There were probably too many adverbs in that last bit, but he found it hard to care anymore. There were other, more pressing things to think about. How could he create a happy ending for these two fictional characters when his own life was falling apart?
He still felt sick when he remembered it. He’d gone upstairs, ostensibly to take a shower before dinner. The faint smell of an aftershave not his own lingered in the bedroom; and when he turned back the duvet, the sheet was still slightly warm.
Gazing now at the manuscript before him, he wrote two words: ‘The End’.