The World Made Yonder Pt. 03

It was early on Thursday morning. Joey had set his phone alarm for six a.m. but he awoke a few seconds before it went off. He tapped SNOOZE out of habit, but realised that he was already wide awake, so he hurled aside the duvet and sprang out of bed. No yawning, no scratching. He was on his feet, ready for action.

Joey switched on the main light. He would not usually do that out of consideration for his wife, but last night—for the first time ever—he had banished her to the spare room. Ha! See how she likes it for a change! Joey got dressed and made the bed, straightening out the duvet as the snoozed alarm went off. He put the phone into his jacket pocket and checked his computer bag. Yes, the paternity test envelope was still in there, ready to be posted. He zipped the bag closed, switched off the light and carefully opened the door, his shoes in one hand.

His goal was to get out of the house before Stephen woke up. Stephen, the six-year-old who still called Joey 'Daddy', was an early riser who was allowed to watch cartoons downstairs while the grown-ups showered and got dressed. But after yesterday's events, Joey seriously doubted Stephen would wake up wanting to watch cartoons and he wanted to be gone when that happened. He was determined to tell the boy the truth, whether Celia liked it or not, but he wanted to get the test results first. There was still a slim chance Joey was Stephen's biological father and he wanted to be absolutely sure of the facts before he said anything.

All was quiet on the landing. Joey slipped across and went quickly down the stairs, bag over one shoulder, shoes in the other hand. Once in the hallway, he put on his shoes and took his red windbreaker from the coatrack. Without pausing to put it on, he took his car key from the keys bowl and exited the house, closing the front door with a quiet, firm click.

His timing was perfect. Almost before the sound of his footsteps faded, a wailing cry rose up from Stephen's bedroom. It increased in volume, becoming a howl. The door to the spare room was ripped open and Celia in T-shirt and knickers ran out. A glance at Joey's open bedroom door told its own story, then she was rushing into Stephen's bedroom and gathering him into her arms.

'Oh, baby! Oh, darling!' she said as she held the boy.

'I want my daddy! I want my daddy!' cried Stephen.

* * * * *

Joey drove to a motorway service station where a McDonald's fast-food restaurant was already open. When Stephen was a toddler, Joey and Celia used to come here fairly regularly. It had one of those play areas filled with plastic balls which kept Stephen amused long enough for the grown-ups to have a decent, uninterrupted conversation. They certainly didn't come for the food. But as Joey now sat at a table by the window and took a bite of his Egg McMuffin, its very manufacturedness somehow made him feel comforted. No, not just comforted.

He felt happy.

Joey pondered his muffin. Why was he happy? His marriage was ending. His son wasn't his son. Over the last few days, his family life had unravelled. He should be in tiny little pieces. And yet he wasn't. It all felt like a massive sigh of relief.

As Joey sat and ate his McBreakfast, he began to realise that he was looking forward to not being a husband. It felt good to leave the house at dawn without first telling his wife—without 'letting her know so she doesn't have to worry'. Shit, even when he cheated on her, he sent her a text to let her know he wouldn't be home. (Okay, Lorna suggested it, but he would have done it anyway.) It was what you did when you were married.

Joey watched cars come and go as the morning grew increasingly lighter. He liked sitting here, in this overlit restaurant, eating cheap food with a view of the car park. Celia would hate it, he thought. Joey looked around the McDonald's and took note of all the things Celia would hate: the wipe-clean tables, the glossy 'McFood' posters, the proliferation of badly-dressed customers. Even the red of the trays. 'I know it's their logo colour,' she had once said. 'But it's so ugly.'

Joey realised that Celia was a walking opinion generator. Everything she saw or even glanced at had the potential to irritate her. And, as he reflected on nearly eight years of marriage, he began to see how Celia's irritation governed his life. Their choice of home, their choice of furniture, the way the furniture was arranged, the way the house was decorated, the pictures on the walls ... every single thing was selected by her. The one thing he had bought was a Lord of the Rings calendar which had hung on their kitchen-dining room wall for exactly three days before she replaced it with one 'less irritating'.

Celia's opinions determined the food they ate, the supermarkets they shopped at, the brands they bought, the cafés they lunched at, where they would sit in the cafés they lunched at—she even had things to say about the menu designs. But what was really the icing on the cake was that Celia claimed not to be opinionated!

'I just like nice things!' she said. 'What's wrong with that?'

'Because you insist that what you think is "nice" is the universal definition!'

'No, I don't! I'm totally open to new ideas! You just want me to agree with you!'

The tricky thing was, she was partly right. Joey did want her to agree with him, despite claiming he didn't. He had this image of Husband & Wife in which the wife was a true partner—a woman who stood by her man no matter what. Okay, he knew this was a Romantic Fantasy. Joey didn't actually know any couples—even on TV—who had that kind of relationship. Women were always special and their husbands were always lucky to have them. But it still hurt to realise how much he longed for it, and how utterly different the reality was.

The bottom line was that being a husband sucked. It was a crap job. Ten times more stressful than being a father and a hundred times less rewarding. Joey realised that he had married Celia (a) because he was in love with her, and (b) because he had bought into his own Romantic Fantasy. But he never had an ambition to be a husband, certainly not in the way women dream about being brides.

Oh, and (c) because he wanted to be a father.

Joey sipped his McDonald's coffee in its cardboard cup and stared out of the window. Yes, he had wanted to be a father. Stephen was a great kid and being his daddy made all the husband-shit worth it. It was the one aspect of the Romantic Fantasy where the reality was actually better than the dream.

And now it was shattered.

* * * * *

Celia picked up the crying boy and carried him into the spare room, which was now her room. It made no difference to his crying, but she wanted to lie next to him and his own bed was too small. As she held him and brushed sweaty hair from his forehead, the boy wailed incoherently, a wailing punctuated by bouts of coughing.

It seemed to go on forever.

Celia looked down and saw two thick sausages of snot coming out of the boy's tiny nostrils. She reached for a tissue—there was a box on her bedside table—and held it before Stephen's nose.

'Blow,' she ordered.

The boy halted his crying to blow his nose. Celia collected the slime and folded it into the tissue. Stephen's chest heaved, a sign that he was about to continue his wailing. Celia quickly put a clean part of the tissue back over his nose.

'Again,' she said.

Stephen blew again. There was another wet snort and Celia wiped up another deposit. She looked at it and gasped.

'Oh, my God! There's blood!'

Stephen's head snapped up. Celia saw worried blue eyes and red cheeks on a pale face. She showed him the tissue.

'Sorry, just kidding,' she said, moving the snotty tissue towards him.

'Urgh! Mummy, no!'

Celia withdrew the tissue and folded it up. Stephen stared at it, his expression puzzled as if thinking, 'What was I doing again?' Celia put the balled-up tissue onto the bedside table and pulled out a fresh one from the box.

'Can I ask you a question?' she said, wiping his face.

Stephen looked at her, his little chest going up and down. She took the tissue away, looked at him and said:

'What are you really scared of?'

Stephen's gaze wandered around the room. Celia smiled. She loved her son's thinking face.

'I'm afraid of you and Daddy getting divorced,' he said.

'Why?

'Because when Mummies and Daddies get divorced, the Daddy goes away and the children don't see him anymore. Or not as much.'

'I see.'

Celia contemplated the stained tissue. She could feel her son's body heat against her chest, especially his head. It was like a miniature furnace.

'Listen, son,' she said. 'There are times when little children cry for silly reasons, like getting the wrong flavour ice cream or having to go to bed. But what you've just said is a very good reason. So if you still need to cry, you just go ahead.'

Stephen looked at her. Daddy told him it was okay to cry, but Mummy was always upset by it. Okay, she said it was okay to cry too, but she only said it after Daddy said it. Stephen tried to think of a time when Daddy copied something Mummy said.

Celia spoke, breaking into his thoughts.

'I have an idea,' she said. 'Let's get dressed and have some breakfast. I'll call the school and tell them you're not well...' She put her hand on his hot forehead '...which is not far from wrong. And I'll stay home too. We'll have a day together, just you and me. And if you have any questions about me and Daddy, I will do my best to answer them. How about that?'

She watched as Stephen's thinking face took over again. Then he looked at her directly.

'Can we have pancakes?' he said.

* * * * *

The Regency building which rented office space to small businesses opened at seven in the morning. When Joey arrived, it had been open for half an hour. He said hi to the security guard at the reception desk and bounded up the restored antique staircase two steps at a time. Joey had posted the paternity test and he now felt as light as air. For now, the matter was out of his hands—no decisions to make until the results came in. It was like a holiday.

Joey undid the three security locks on the office door and opened it, setting off a beeping noise. He went to the keypad in the electrics cupboard and tapped in the code, disarming the burglar alarm. He threw some switches and the LED lights snapped on, then he closed the cupboard and headed to the small kitchen next to the conference room. He switched on the espresso machine and was refilling it with coffee beans from a large foil pack when he heard someone open and close the main door. A few moments later, he saw Lorna standing in the kitchen doorway. She wore a long black coat with a burgundy scarf and her face was slightly pink from the cold.

'Morning, boss.'

'Hello, Lorna.'

The two of them looked at each other. Then they were moving fast, Joey throwing aside the foil pack, Lorna dropping her bag on the floor. They met and were kissing, their arms around each other, their heads turning so their tongues could go deeper. There was a height difference and Lorna was on tiptoe, her neck stretching as her mouth ravaged Joey's face. Her hands let go as he pulled her coat off over her shoulders, so that it joined her scarf on the floor. Then her hands were back, grabbing the man's hair and pulling his head down so she could devour him. Joey's hands went to her skirt, pulling it up, right over her buttocks. He grabbed them, squeezed them, then tried to take hold of her panties.

'Stop, stop, stop!'

Lorna pulled away and was holding Joey's head by the hair. Her formidable bosom was heaving as she forced herself to stillness. Joey was frozen, his fingers hooked into the fabric of her underwear. He slowly removed his hands and gently returned her skirt to its former position. Lorna let go his hair and took hold of the lapels of his jacket.

'Joey, it's not that I don't want to.'

'Lorna ... I understand.'

'No, I don't think you do.'

Lorna looked up at the man, her eyes wide and anguished. Joey noticed that her pink lipstick was now smeared across her mouth.

'Joey, I am dying to have sex with you,' she said. 'Every cell in my body is screaming for it. But I can't. Not here.'

'Lorna—'

'No, shut up and listen.'

Lorna tightened her grip on his lapels.

'Ever since the night before last,' she said, 'I've been in a state of suspense. Was it a one night stand? Does Joey want to have sex with me again?'

'Lorna...'

'Joey! Just listen! I'm trying to tell you that I understand!'

Joey frowned, puzzled. Lorna let go his lapels and took a step away from him. She looked down at her coat and scarf on the floor, but decided not to pick them up.

'Joey, you recently found out that you're probably not your son's biological father. Now, I'm not a man, but I can imagine that it must be pretty fucking devastating. So when you called me from your car that night, you were not—shall we say—your usual self?'

Joey laughed softly.

'Understatement of the year,' he said.

'Exactly!' said Lorna. 'In fact, I've read plenty of stories about guys going psycho over shit like this. So your decision to fuck your admittedly hot account manager is a pretty healthy response, given the circumstances.'

They exchanged a smile. Lorna put her hand on his arm.

'And if that's all it was, I understand,' she said. 'You needed it, I had a great time ... and no harm done. But I won't lie to you, Joey. I want to do it again. And again ... and again ... and again.'

Lorna bent down to pick up her coat and scarf. She draped them over her arm and regarded her boss.

'I know you're married,' she said. 'I know you have unfinished business with Celia, to say nothing of what you're going to do about your son. And I don't care. I want you anyway. But no quick shags. If I'm going to be mistress to a married man, I want hours' long sex. Fair enough?'

Joey looked at the woman as though she were the most marvellous thing he'd ever seen. Lorna smiled, stepped up to him and gave him a kiss—a soft, undramatic kiss on the lips. A kiss which somehow promised more than all the furious smooching which had gone before.

'Let me know what you decide,' whispered Lorna, and she walked out of the room.

* * * * *

Celia and Stephen sat together at the corner of the dining table and ate pancakes. They were more like French crêpes than American-style pancakes—thin and dusted with sugar, with a line of fresh lemon juice, to be rolled up and eaten with fingers. Celia had put a jar of blackcurrant jam on the table, but the lemon juice was turning out to be a hit with her son. He looked cute in his checked shirt and miniature jeans, and seemed back to his normal, cheery self. Celia felt about ready to take some questions.

'So, Stephen,' she said. 'Is there anything you want to ask me?'

Stephen pondered the question.

'Are you and Daddy in a fight?'

'Yes, darling, I'm afraid we are.'

'Why?'

Celia took a deep breath.

'Because I broke a promise to your father. A very important promise. And he is very upset about it.'

'What promise?'

'I...' Celia frowned. 'Actually, I'm not ready to tell you that part. I will at some point, but not right now.'

'Why not?'

'Because...'

Celia faltered. Why not indeed? And the answer came to her.

'Because I'm afraid,' she said. 'I'm afraid that if I tell you, you'll stop loving me.'

'But you're my mummy!'

'I know, darling.'

'But how can I stop loving you?'

'Well ... what I did is pretty bad.'

'But can't you say sorry to Daddy? I mean, you say that if I say sorry for something, it will be all right.'

The boy's voice was cracking. Celia put her hand over his little wrist and hand.

'Yes, but Stephen, you're a child. When you do something bad, we forgive you because you're too young to understand. But it's not the same for grown-ups. When a grown-up does something bad, they can't say, "Oh, I didn't know it was bad."

'This thing that I did, Stephen ... I knew it was bad. I knew I shouldn't do it because I promised your father I wouldn't, but I went ahead and did it anyway. And not only that ... I kept it secret. I kept it secret for years and years. But your father found out and now he's really angry with me. He's angry that I broke my promise and that I pretended I didn't and that I lied to him all those years, and I'm so sorry, my son ... my darling boy, I'm so sorry...'

Both Celia and Stephen were in tears. She was holding his little hands and he was staring back, tears streaming down his face, his head shaking.

'But you can say sorry to Daddy!' he insisted. 'You can say sorry to him and everything will be all right!'

'I can't. It doesn't work like that.'

'It can!'

'No, baby, it can't.'

'But why not? Why not, Mummy?'

'Because...' Celia took a heaving breath '...because Daddy isn't your daddy...'

* * * * *

When Joey's phone rang, he was sitting with one bum cheek on an employee's desk, looking at her monitor screen. He, Lorna and Kayla—one of the company designers—were due to make a client presentation the following week, and they were gathered at Kayla's work station to look at her concept sketches. What was meant to be a five-minute check had turned into an impromptu project meeting, so Joey took out his ringing phone, declined the call and slipped it back into his inside pocket. He pointed to something on the screen and asked Kayla a question.

The phone rang again.

This time, the discussion stopped dead. Lorna looked up at Joey from her chair, her eyes wide with concern. Kayla, a woman of twenty-eight with light brown skin, short black hair and trendy, red-framed glasses, frowned and folded her arms.

'Sorry about this,' said Joey, reaching for his phone. 'It's my wife. Let me just tell her I'll call her back.'

Joey accepted the call and put the phone to his ear, but before he could say a word, he heard screaming. It was not set to speakerphone, but the sound was loud enough for the two women to hear. Joey was instantly off the desk and on his feet.

'Joey!' cried Celia's voice. 'I told him! I told him and he's freaking out!'

'I'll be right there,' said Joey instantly.

'Oh, Joey! Than—'

Joey cut her off. His jaw was clenched, his nostrils flared. With exaggerated calm, he put his phone back into his jacket pocket.

'I'm afraid I have to go,' he said.

'Of course,' said Lorna.

'Can I just ask one thing?' said Kayla quickly.

Lorna looked daggers at her. But that was nothing compared to the thunderous glare she got from Joey. Fortunately, Kayla was busy with her mouse and the screen.

'I want to refine these sketches,' she said. 'And I've come up with two styles which—'

'No,' said Joey. 'The sketches are fine. Leave them as they are.'

'But ... they're very rough. Won't the client find that unprofessional?'

'Not at all.'

'But if I could just show you—'

'Kayla, we're in the Concept Phase. Our job next week is to present our concept to the client and find out what they like and what they don't. Once we resolve all the issues, then we move onto the Design Phase. But for now, we use the sketches. Okay?'

Kayla's mouth tightened, but she nodded. Behind her back, Lorna rolled her eyes. Joey took care not to react and walked quickly away. Lorna watched him go, his top half visible above the heads of the other workers. Kayla stared at the monitor.

'He didn't even look at them,' she said.

'He had to go,' said Lorna. 'Besides, he gave his reasons.'

'And you agree with them? No, don't answer that question. Of course you do.'

'What's that supposed to mean?'

Kayla looked sideways at Lorna. She leaned closer and lowered her voice.

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