“So, Mr and Mrs Jenkins, let’s talk about why you’re here.” The counsellor’s voice is calm and soothing, but Lily’s mind is already made up.
“I’ve told my husband I’m leaving him – I want a divorce. But he’s not listening to me. He keeps saying I’m confused and that I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“Okay, first things first.” The counsellor looks from one spouse to the other. By now she’s used to the way the reconciliation process works: there’s always one partner who wants to separate and one who can’t understand what’s gone wrong. It’s her job to open a dialogue between them and help them to listen to each other; to help them remember why they fell in love in the first place. “Lily, you’ve said you want to end your marriage – is there a specific reason why you want to do this?”
Mark tries to catch Lily’s eye. Ignoring him, she turns to the counsellor. “He takes me for granted.”
“And how does that make you feel, Mark, when Lily says that?” the counsellor asks.
Mark adopts an injured expression. “How can you say that? I’m always telling people how wonderful you are.”
“Yes,” she flashes back, “you keep telling me that when you roll home from the pub at 11 o’clock on a Friday evening, after I’ve gone to bed. ‘But I was telling everyone else how wonderful you are’,” she mimics, rolling her eyes. “If you really thought I was so wonderful, you’d be spending time with me, not other people.”
Mark turns to the counsellor. “See what I have to put up with? She’s so clingy!”
“Lily,” the counsellor begins, ignoring Mark’s comment, “does Mark ever ask you to join him in the pub on a Friday?”
Lily is silent; Mark looks triumphant.
Eventually, Lily speaks. “Yes,” she admits in a small voice, “but I can’t go. I’ve got the children to see to – we’ve got two boys who’re five and eight. And besides, they’re all his friends: I wouldn’t know anyone there.”
“So is it fair to say your husband doesn’t really want to be out enjoying himself without you?” the counsellor probes.
A tear rolls down Lily’s cheek. “Even when he’s around,” she says haltingly, “we’re not really together. He’s always doing his own thing without me.”
“That’s not true!” Mark interrupts. “What about last December when I took you to London?”
“You promised me a shopping trip and a meal for my birthday.” Lily’s tone is sharp. “You waited until we were halfway there before you said you had tickets for a band you liked and I knew nothing about – and then you made me listen to a CD of their songs for the rest of the journey, even though you knew it wasn’t my kind of music, and you said I had to learn the songs before we got to the concert.” She takes a deep breath. “And my birthday meal turned into a hot dog at the concert venue and a cup of watery hot chocolate.”
“So now you’re annoyed because I tried to share one of my interests with you?”
Mark shoots the counsellor a look that suggests he’s bewildered by Lily’s pettiness.
“No!” she protests. “I’m upset because we only ever do what you want to do. You drag me along to hear your favourite bands; we only see action films at the cinema because you don’t think any other kind of film warrants being seen on a big screen; and we only ever go on holiday to places where you can spend all day every day diving while I sit in our room with nothing to do.”
“You can’t really be making a fuss about something as ridiculous as that!” Mark sounds shocked. “I’ve spent a fortune taking you to exotic places!” He appeals to the counsellor. “Last year, we went to the Maldives, and the year before that, we went to Phuket. We’ve stayed in some of the best hotels money can buy.”
“And you’ve still left me alone every day so you can go off with all your diving buddies,” Lily says softly. “I’ve just been stuck in our room, reading. And I can do that at home.”
“So you’re saying I should just go on holiday without you?” He’s getting aggressive now.
“I probably wouldn’t notice much difference if you did!” Lily replies spiritedly.
The counsellor decides to intervene. “Uh, it’s good that the two of you have begun to air what’s on your minds, but I’m sensing a deeper problem here.”
“Lily’s exaggerating,” Mark says straight away. “I’ve given her a lovely home – a five bedroomed house with an acre of garden and more rooms than she knows what to do with, but she won’t stop complaining. I’m working my arse off here to give her a good life but she’s still not happy. She’s been funny ever since she had the kids – I think she might be suffering from post-natal depression or whatever they call it because she’s moody all the time and she cries about nothing.”
“Have you seen a doctor about any of this?” the counsellor asks Lily.
Lily shakes her head.
“Is there a reason why not?” The gentle concern in the counsellor’s voice makes Lily want to weep.
“I don’t cry about nothing,” she says in a tight voice. “You know why I’ve been crying recently, Mark.”
“I thought we agreed not to mention your paranoia.” Even the counsellor is shocked by the casual brutality of his tone, but Mark turns towards her, appealing for understanding. “Lily overheard an innocent phone call a few weeks ago,” he explains, “and thought I was having an affair. Since then, she’s been obsessed with finding evidence that doesn’t exist. I caught her snooping around my emails the other day – what kind of a marriage is it when my own wife doesn’t trust me?”
He’s got just the right amount of honest indignation in his voice, but there’s something about his body language that isn’t quite right.
“What did you overhear, Lily?”
She can still remember the sick feeling in the back of her throat. The baby monitor had been set up with one half of it in Mark’s study where he was working from home and the other half with her in the kitchen – so he could let her know when he wanted something to eat. He’d come in and switched it off earlier, claiming that the noise of her baking was too distracting; but once her brownies were in the oven, she’d switched it back on, some sixth sense telling her that something was amiss.
At first, she’d thought nothing of the conversation: it was just idle chit chat, nothing more. But then she’d heard him say, quite distinctly, ‘I love you too’ – and those four simple words had twisted a knife of despair into her heart so that she thought she would pass out from the pain. ‘I love you too.’
Somehow, she’d managed to walk to his study and push open the door. He’d put his phone down quickly when he saw her, but he didn’t know what she’d heard.
“Who were you talking to?” Her voice had a studied casualness that belied her pain.
“Just a client.”
She let the lie pass for the time being; it was only later, as they lay in bed that night, that she told him about the baby monitor.
“You were spying on me!” He sounded incredulous.
“No.” Why was she feeling so uncomfortable when she’d done nothing wrong? “I just overheard.”
“Well, you heard wrong. The client said he loved our new software package and I said, ‘I love it too’.”
She feels silly now repeating this conversation to the counsellor, but she has other evidence too and Mark doesn’t know about that.
“I nearly believed him,” she says, making Mark splutter at the injustice, “but then I found an email from a woman he knows – well, we both know her, but she’s Mark’s friend, not mine – telling him how much she missed him and sending him a thousand kisses.” She pauses. “I mean she’d typed a thousand ‘x’s on the page and that’s not something you’d do unless you were pretty sure the other person had feelings for you too.”
“She’s delusional!” Mark declares, thumping the table with his fist. “Not Lily – Steph: the woman who was emailing me. She developed a crush on me and it was flattering at first, but then she started sending me messages, acting as if there was something going on between us. I begged her to stop because I knew how much it would upset Lily.”
He tries to take Lily’s hand, but she shies away from him, nausea bubbling inside her as she remembers the afternoon in the park just a day ago.
She’d invited Steph and her daughter round to the house. She knew instinctively what was going on, but she also knew that Mark would never admit the truth. Mark was working from home again – it seemed he was always working from home these days – so she’d suggested that she and Steph take the children to the park where they could make as much noise as they wanted.
Somehow, the conversation had crept around to Mark. ‘He worships you,’ Steph had told her, sounding wistful.
‘Really?’ Lily had replied. ‘Because he seems to spend far more time talking to you than he does to me.’ Before Steph could change the subject, Lily pressed on ruthlessly, ‘I know you’re having an affair with him. He admitted it yesterday.’ Maybe not in words, but his demeanour, his behaviour had told her everything.
Even then, a part of her had hoped that Steph would deny it; but instead, the younger woman nodded. ‘He always said you’d find out – and that it would be over when you did.’
For an endless moment, Lily felt as if the world had stopped turning. She was aware of her children moving in slow motion through the various ladders and ropes that made up the assault course, and of Steph continuing to push her daughter on the swing as if her confession hadn’t just destroyed Lily’s marriage.
After a while, time started moving forward again and Lily realised that Steph was speaking, relieved to be able to confess the secret she’d kept for so long. She should have hated this woman who’d treated her so callously, but all she felt was sadness: sadness that they had both wasted so much of their lives on someone who wasn’t worth it.
When it was finally time for them to go, she’d hugged Steph, feeling genuinely sorry that Mark had treated her so badly by acting – just for a short time – as if she was important.
Back in the present, she faces Mark squarely. “Steph told me everything yesterday. You’ve been sleeping with her for the last eighteen months.”
“She’s making it up!” he protests, but Lily shakes her head.
“I’ve got screen shots of some of the texts you sent her – texts that prove it wasn’t one-sided. Texts that prove you were giving her all the attention you weren’t giving me.”
Years later, when someone will ask her why she thought Steph had been willingly to settle for half a relationship, Lily will answer without thinking, ‘Because she thought half a relationship was better than no relationship at all.’ But she is not Steph; and she knows that having no relationship is better than living with a cheat and a liar, with a selfish narcissist who, even now, is protesting his innocence and claiming that he’s been set up.
“She’s crazy!” he says now. “She’s let some stupid bitch convince her I’ve been unfaithful and she’s throwing away eleven years of marriage!”
Perhaps, if he hadn’t cheated, she would have waited longer before making her move. If she hadn’t caught him out, then maybe, just maybe, she would have put up with the way things were until her boys were older. As it is, she’s glad she finally knows the truth. She’s spent too long half-believing his lies, convincing herself that maybe he’s right and she is a little bit crazy after all.
Even now, she can see he’s still fooling himself: he’s convinced he’s done nothing wrong; that she and Steph and all those other women that he’s flirted with or slept with without getting caught are malicious females, trying to destroy his life.
“Don’t you think,” he begins tentatively, “that you should see someone – maybe get some anti-depressants or something else that’ll sort out your mind?”
“I don’t think your wife is the one who needs help, Mr Jenkins.” The counsellor has never disliked a man quite as much as she does Lily’s husband. Turning to Lily, she adds, “I think you’ve been very unhappy for a long time, and I can quite understand why. I can see a reconciliation’s out of the question.”
“Typical woman!” Mark explodes. “I might have known you’d take her side!” He shakes his head despairingly. “I’ve done everything I can to make you happy. I just don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”