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Extract from Karen Hamilton’s THE LAST WIFE

 

Prologue
Clients trust me because I blend in. It’s a natural skill – my gift, if you like. I focus my lens and capture stories, like the ones unfolding tonight: natural and guarded expressions, self-conscious poses, joyous smiles, reluctant ones from a teenage bridesmaid, swathed in silver and blood-red. The groom is an old
friend, yet I’ve only met his now-wife twice. She seems reserved, hard to get to know, but in their wedding album she’ll glow. The camera does lie. My role is to take these lies and spin them into the perfect story.

I take a glass of champagne from a passing server. I needn’t be totally on the ball during the latter half of the evening because by then, people naturally loosen up. I find that the purest details are revealed in the discreet pictures I snatch during the final hours, however innocuously an event starts. And besides, it seems this event is winding down.

The one downside of my job is the mixed bag of emotions evoked. I rarely take family photos any more, so normally I’m fine, but today, watching the wedding festivities, the longing for what I don’t have has crept up on me. People think that envy is a bad thing, but in my opinion, envy is a positive emotion. It has always been the best indicator for me to realize what’s wrong with my life. People say, ‘Follow your dreams,’ yet I’d say, ‘Follow what makes you sick with envy.’


It’s how I knew that I must stop deceiving myself and face up to how desperately I wanted to have a child. Delayed gratification is overrated.


I place my camera on a table as the tempo eases and sit down on a satin-draped chair. As I watch the bride sweep across the dance floor with her new husband, I think of Nina, and an overwhelming tide of grief floods through me. I picture her haunted expression when she elicited three final promises from me: two are easy to keep, one is not. Nonetheless, a vow is a vow. I will be creative and fulfil it. I have a bad – yet tempting – idea which occasionally beckons me towards a slippery slope.


I must do my best to avoid it because when Nina passed the baton to me, she thought I was someone she could trust. However, as my yearning grows, the crushing disappointment increases every month and the future I crave remains elusive. And she didn’t know that I’d do anything to get what I want. Anything.

 

Chapter One
Ben isn’t at home. I used to panic when that happened, assume that he was unconscious in a burning building, his oxygen tank depleted, his colleagues
unable to reach him. All this, despite his assurance that they have safety checks in place to keep an eye out for each other. He’s been stressed lately, blames it on work. He loves his job as a firefighter, but nearly lost one of his closest colleagues in a fire on the fourth floor of a block of flats recently when a load of wiring fell down and threatened to ensnare him.

No, the reality is that he is punishing me. He doesn’t have a shift today. I understand his hurt, but it’s hard to explain why I did what I did. For a start, I didn’t think that people actually sent out printed wedding invitations any more. If I’d known that the innocuous piece of silver card smothered in
horseshoes and church bells would be the ignition for the worst argument we’d ever had, I wouldn’t have opened it in his presence.

Marie Langham plus guest . . .

 

I don’t know what annoyed Ben more, the fact that he wasn’t deemed important enough to be named or that I said I was going alone.
‘I’m working,’ I tried to explain. ‘The invitation is obviously a kind formality, a politeness.’

 

‘All this is easily rectifiable,’ he said. ‘If you wanted me there, you wouldn’t have kept me in the dark. The date was blocked off as work months ago on our calendar.’

True. But I couldn’t admit it. He wouldn’t appreciate being called a distraction.

Now, I have to make it up to him because it’s the right time of the month. He hates what he refers to as enforced sex (too much pressure), and any obvious scene-setting like oyster and champagne dinners, new lingerie, an invitation to join me in the shower or even a simple suggestion that we
just shag, all the bog-standard methods annoy him. It’s hard to believe that other couples have this problem; it makes me feel inadequate.

One of our cats bursts through the flap and aims for her bowl. I observe her munching, oblivious to my return home, until this month’s strategy presents itself to me: nonchalance. A part of Ben’s stress is that he thinks I’m obsessed with having a baby. I told him to look up the true meaning of the
word: an unhealthy interest in something. It’s not an obsession to desire something perfectly normal. I unpack, then luxuriate in a steaming bath filled with bubbles. I’m a real sucker for the sales promises: relax and unwind and revitalize. I hear the muffled sound of a key in the lock. It’s Ben – who else would it be – yet I jump out and wrap a towel around me. He’s not alone. I hear the voices of our neighbours, Rob and Mike. He’s brought in reinforcements to maintain the barrier between us. There are two ways for me to play this and if you can’t beat them . . .

I dress in jeans and a T-shirt, twist my hair up and grip it with a hair clip, wipe mascara smudges from beneath my eyes and head downstairs.

 

‘You’re back,’ says Ben by way of a greeting. ‘The guys have come over for a curry.’

‘Sounds perfect,’ I say, kissing him before hugging our friends hello.

I feel smug at the wrong-footed expression on Ben’s face. He thought I’d be unable to hide my annoyance, that I’d pull him to one side and whisper, ‘It’s orange,’ (the colour my fertility app suggests is the perfect time) or suggest that I cook instead so I can ensure he eats as organically as possible.

‘Who’s up for margaritas?’ I say with an I’m game for a big night smile.

Ben’s demeanour visibly softens. Result. I’m forgiven. The whole evening is an effortless success. Indifference and good old-fashioned getting pissed works. Ben snores after drinking, but I lie still, resisting the urge to prod him. There’s no point in antagonizing him. It was actually my therapist who first planted the idea of playing it cool in my mind. Judy had implied (annoyingly, because I always want her to be on my side) that Ben’s feelings mattered, too.

Last week’s session began awkwardly as I struggled to find things to say, once again doubting the benefit of talking things through. Secrets develop out of necessity, and I’d already offloaded enough. Perhaps I’d simply run out of things to say or finally got bored of my own voice. But clearly not, because
there I was, sitting opposite her. Again.

 

Fighting the urge to leave, I studied the titles on the bookshelf behind her.

‘I hate silence.’

It was the best I could come up with until a thread of thought tugged. Relief. I grasped and ran with it: a list of all Ben’s good qualities and the positive aspects of our relationship.

I’m glad I persevered because I left the appointment buoyed up, full of hope. I imagine that if anyone ever found out that I was seeing someone they might assume it was because of Nina and her shock diagnosis the summer before last, but it was way before that. Not even Ben knows. I like keeping it to myself, a lost hour each week, tucked away on the other side of the New Forest.

Now that Nina has popped into my consciousness (and how can she not), I’ll lie awake for even longer and my irritation with Ben will escalate until I’m forced to silence him.

I get up, scrabble around for my clothes on the floor, put my underwear and T-shirt back on, drink the glass of water I had the foresight to place beside me, and go downstairs. Wine and cocktail glasses scatter surfaces of the living area through to our galley kitchen. It looks like the aftermath of
a party, not just four of us. I switch on the tap and down a pint of water. I diluted my cocktails, so I don’t feel too bad, but I want to flush out as many toxins as I can. It can’t do any harm to try.

This is a good opportunity to work as I’ve been so busy lately that I have a backlog. I clear a space at the dining table and open my laptop. I love editing. There’s something so indulgently omnipotent about the process because I get to choose what people retain as a memento of their special events. I try not to abuse their trust. I take my time, studying faces, expressions, colours, shadows, scanning for the unexpected to focus on. People think they can hide their feelings, but it’s impossible, in my opinion, to succeed at it one hundred per cent of the time.

It takes practice. The way I do it is that I imagine that I’m being constantly filmed, which isn’t difficult nowadays. It’s hard enough to avoid surveillance, let alone everyone with their phones at the ready. It’s hard to concentrate. Distracted, I look back on old events. I can’t help but zoom in on one person: Stuart. His pain is evident to me even when he’s smiling because I’m privy to his vulnerabilities given that I am the closest friend of his deceased wife. He is much better looking on film than in reality. The urge to reminisce overwhelmingly takes hold as I browse through more of my collection. I have hundreds of photos of his and Nina’s children because I find those harder to delete.

Friends sometimes email me random shots or post them on social media. As a rule, I don’t keep many of those because mine more than suffice; however, one has slipped in. It’s of me and Stuart, dancing at someone’s thirtieth three years ago. Clearly, I couldn’t have taken it, and although we look natural and relaxed, it’s not a great shot. I can’t think why I didn’t discard it. I never mix my files up; it’s disconcerting. I guess the stress of the past few years is bound to manifest in varying ways.

It’s gone two by the time I return to bed. I know when I next open my eyes that it’s morning because I never wake up late. I reach for Ben. My hand slides along the cool flatness of the sheet until I reach the edge of the bed. I sit up. He was seemingly out cold a few hours ago, plus he doesn’t have a shift today. He’s not in the bathroom or downstairs, and his bike is missing from the hall. Dread, the anxious kind when truth is forcing its horrible reality into your consciousness, forms. He knows from all the advice that it’s best if we try again this morning to maximize our chances.

I compose a message, then delete it. I can’t think of the right words until I decide to keep it simple and unpressurized.

I love you xxx.

I press send.

My phone rings, hope reignites; Ben isn’t avoiding me, perhaps he’s merely nipped out for croissants or milk. It’s not him.

‘Hi, Stuart,’ I say.

‘I hate to ask you but . . .’

He phrases it in the same way that Nina used to. Buried indignation rises, but I manage to suppress it because I already know that I’ll do whatever favour he’s going to ask me.

‘Yes?’

‘Someone tried to break in to the garage last night. There’s a locksmith available at nine thirty.’ I note that his Australian accent sounds slightly more pronounced on the phone. ‘Any chance you could wait in after taking the kids to school? I’m unprepared for a meeting I can’t cancel. I don’t want to leave the garage door broken because it makes the interconnecting entrance to the house less secure.’

‘Didn’t the security alarm go off?’

Nina insisted on having one installed earlier this year.

‘I haven’t got into the habit of setting it. It was something Nina usually did before we went to bed.’

 

Fresh sadness hits me, as does guilt at my initial irritation.

‘I’ll be around ASAP.’

I’m reminded of how much I enjoy being needed, although not taken for granted. There is a difference. Stuart and I have a clean slate. I must tread carefully, though, because by making myself so available to Nina and her family, it fuelled my discontent in the first place.