So that was that. No option, really. I hadn’t thought Chaz would take it so badly and hoped he’d let me hang around until I found something else, but it had been a personal affront. I returned to my micro-cubicle, collected my few possessions and flounced out. If being demeaned by a twenty-eight year old tosspot with the personality of a sofa was a blow to the ego, at least I had the compensation of having embarrassed Chaz in front of his peers. Yep, my best friend, I’m talking about. These last few days, he’d revealed himself to be someone I hardly knew. It wasn’t just that pear-shaped lunch that changed a perception gleaned over thirty-five years. What about that little wretch blanking me as I performed my final gig so he could spend the evening with his tongue down my wife’s ear? And his apparent largesse in helping me secure the job at Glaziers was merely the action of a despotic puppeteer flexing his muscles to belittle me and impress Lisa. Little man finally getting one over the guy who always got the girl.
Lisa scorned the suggestion that something was going on between her and Chaz with a venom more poisonous than any she’d ever sunk into me before. How dare I? They were friends and potential commercial partners, no more. That must be how she knew about my walk-out before I had the chance to tell her myself, the news having been delivered over the ‘business’ hotline between wife and ex-best friend. Who rang whom? And what business did Chaz have mentioning it to her? We argued briefly and fiercely before Lisa stomped up the stairs and locked herself in the bathroom, though not before delivering a volley of abuse from the landing so profane, even Millie was taken aback.
Methinks she did protest too much. Ludicrous as it might seem to any right-thinking person, I couldn’t help but be convinced that my beautiful, intelligent and highly desirable wife was, indeed, engaged in some sort of relationship with a bald midget with a face like Munsch’s Scream on a particularly stressful day. The evidence was inescapably credible. Him: fabulously wealthy and about to grace Lisa’s beloved gallery with major financial patronage; respected, serious, top of his profession; indisputably canoodling with her at the gig; married to a harridan; knew Lisa was sick of me. Her: sick of me; easily seduced by anyone of status, especially if he was prepared to invest in the real love of her life. And, there was something else, something that had been nagging at me for a while: he knew about Lisa’s new job when she’d told me it was a secret. Oh, God. How hadn’t I seen it?
But how could she? I mean, fancy him, sleep with him? Seriously. Ok, it’s superficial in the extreme to focus on the man’s physical inadequacies (I used to tell him he was small but strong, slim but sinewy - he could forget all that consolatory bullshit now), but come on. With him? Even with all those fringe benefits. In fact, how could anyone, even Louise, desperate spinster though she undoubtedly was when he swept her off her feet (as if he could lift her - ha!). Look, I have nothing against small people - I used to be one myself - but here was a man in whom his maker had lost interest or simply run out of components. I’m not a man’s man, never have been, but I’m man enough to assess another’s looks objectively and without a hint of homoeroticism. If you’re good looking, I’ll say so. Brad Pitt? Beautiful. See? But Chaz was seriously unattractive. Imagining any man in bed with Lisa would make me vomit. But Chaz? That was going to take my intestines with it.
We both knew it was time for me to leave. It was just a question of the mechanics. Our marriage had reached rock bottom and carried on plummeting through the crust towards the fiery inner core. I was home all day again with nothing to do and even less to hope for and I was doing nobody any good. If they’d been blithely oblivious before, the kids couldn’t help but notice the heightened tension, the frequent periods of non-communication, the frosty courtesies just sufficient to get us through another day. Millie’s swearing was out of control and her behaviour, at school and at home, was a cause for concern. Meanwhile, Katia had withdrawn into herself. An independent and insular child at the best of times, it didn’t take much for her to become fully self-absorbed once her parents could no longer be trusted to act like adults and take proper care of her.
The one thing about which we remained civilised was my impending departure and its attendant terms and conditions. We had to be practical, sensible, non-contentious. The joint account would be maintained; I would redouble my efforts to find another job; I’d look after the kids most weekends and see them as often as possible during the week; we were not going to file for divorce any time soon, if at all. This was a cooling off period, a chance for us to reflect on what we wanted to do with the next thirty years of our lives. Nothing rash, nothing irreversible.
The girls reacted to the announcement much as expected. Millie dissolved into tears and sobbed inconsolably throughout several conciliatory visits to her room. She was eventually persuaded that it was all going to be fine and that Daddy would be around lots, and would drop everything, even the football on TV, and come straight over whenever she wanted him to. Katia was stoical, reasoning that, however sad, it might be better for everyone if I left given how bad things had been recently. An eight year old with the maturity and insight Lisa and I so demonstrably lacked. Later, as I tried to get comfortable on the sofabed in the study, I heard her sobbing in her room. I went in and sat on her bed. ‘Don’t cry, lovely. We’ll be fine,’ I said, stroking her damp forehead.
’Yeah,’ she said, wiping a lump of snot from her nose with her pyjama sleeve, ’but how am I going to get to my skating lesson
now if you’re not here?’
Ever the pragmatist.
’I’ll still take you, Kattie. And I’ll see you every Saturday and we’ll spend lots of time together.’
’Really? Every Saturday?’
’Course. I’ll always be your Dad, won’t I?’
’Yeah. I suppose so.’
I searched the internet and spoke to various letting agents who, unsurprisingly (and I hesitate to stereotype here), were as vacuous and unhelpful as most of the recruitment agents on whom I’d wasted so many man-hours. I was just another bloke looking for digs, another boring client, another data entry. It was proving surprisingly difficult to find a suitable two bed flat in a decent location close to home at the right rent. Lisa was effectively paying for everything now, so I was on a budget. Most of the reasonably priced flats around Chiswick were dumps, more suited to impecunious students prepared to share a toilet with fourteen others and steal cheese from the fridge. Been there, done that. At nineteen, sleeping on a spring-free sofa in a dingy Uxbridge basement, surviving on baked beans, eggs and Rowntrees Fruit Pastilles was a bit of a lark. It seemed a less attractive proposition now having got used to my comfortable four-bedder in Chiswick. I needed somewhere the kids could come and stay without catching fungal diseases from the walls or dying from hypothermia. If staying with Dad was a hateful experience, we’d grow even further apart.
Eventually, I found a tiny, utilitarian apartment in a dismal, pre-Brutalist 30’s-built block overlooking the Hanger Lane Gyratory System. Do you know it? It’s quite the beauty spot. From my living room window, I could see the roundabout with its gloomy, post-war tube station at its centre with two of the world’s busiest, slowest arterial roads converging like viscous slime around it, roads clogged with traffic from morning till night, then through the night and into the next morning; its legacy, a pall of choking carbon dioxide so pungent, so dense, you wouldn’t be able to see a health warning at three yards much less be saved by it. Welcome to global warming’s epicentre, its spiritual home. Dotted around the roundabout beneath the grubby flats, as moribund a selection of shops and restaurants as you could hope to find anywhere in the western world. I couldn’t imagine anyone - other than the locals whose lungs and senses were beyond redemption - bothering to stop off and spend money in one of them. Better to drive 30 miles up the M40 in the wrong direction and find a service station.
My flat, with its rusting metal window frames and drab magnolia woodchip walls, was perched above the April Moon Chinese restaurant. The smell of Soy sauce and cheap cooked meat was organically ingrained into the plaster, but the place was basically clean, practical and not far from home. And, if the call ever came, I could commute to and from a central London office in minutes.
I moved out one Thursday morning while the kids were at school. I don’t know how to say goodbye at the best of times and walking out of the door as my children waved me off would have left me in a wretched heap. I piled as much of my rubbish into our Honda Civic as was legal and set off, my throat swollen shut as I fought back the tears. I eventually drew up outside April Moon and sat in the car for a moment staring up at the soulless red brick building that was to become my new home. It was then that I lost all control. I cried, wailed and railed at the ineffable sadness of it all. The end of an era. I was no longer Dad, no longer a husband. I now had a new, indeterminate status, at best, a guest in my own home. And as for me and Lisa, who was I kidding?
It was over.
My first visitor was - and I was as surprised as anyone - my good old mate Chaz. He’d heard about my leaving, funnily enough, and couldn’t rush round fast enough to give me a bit of company on what was going to be my first difficult night alone. Wasn’t that what friends were for? Actually, they were for not shagging your wife. I didn’t want to let him in, of course, as much because of his perceived culpability in all of this as my shame at being reduced to living in a place one step up from a cardboard box under the Hammersmith flyover. But I relented, grudgingly, after he pleaded with me not to let thirty-odd years of friendship go by the wayside. At least I should hear what he had to say for himself. He entered my joyless abode and perched himself on the plastic crate I’d stolen from Katia’s room having first emptied out a plethora of deformed, abandoned dolls and arranged them on her shelves. I leaned against a wobbly old MFI table not designed for the purpose. We studied each other like two men who’d just been introduced after a lifetime on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. After a few seconds of cringing awkwardness, he launched into an apology for his behaviour, his lack of sympathy, empathy and understanding, his failure to do the right thing by me. He should have listened when I told him how unhappy I was at Glaziers rather than taken it as a personal and professional slight. It sounded rehearsed but undoubtedly heartfelt. And then he moved on to the far touchier subject of Lisa, admitting they’d become closer because of Glaziers’s sponsorship of the gallery, but insisting nothing was going on between them; the very thought made him sick. Sick? He was too ugly and she too beautiful for him to have the gall to even fantasise about it. But, again, he sounded genuine. I had to believe him, needed to.
So what could I say? Maybe I should have sought forgiveness for being so ungrateful, so impatient, so puerile, but I wasn’t in the mood. I was too raw, full to the brim with self-pity, and didn’t want him there whatever the truth. Marooned in my emotional fug, I could see no crossable bridge, no reconciliation. I thanked him for coming, but in a formal, distant voice I hardly recognised and, for the first time, shook his hand as he left, thinking I might never see him again.
The flat was partly furnished with an ancient job-lot of creaking, softening pine which qualified principally as rotting timber. I figured it was just a case of re-arranging this pile of crap until it felt like home. If only. But this was the present and the future. Maybe it was all there was and would ever be. An unemployed, unemployable man, separated from the woman he’d loved for twenty years, estranged from his children who meant everything, living in a fume-filled hovel. Perhaps the first night alone was not the best one on which to make that judgement, but as I lay sobbing in my tiny, curtain-less bedroom, a fierce orange light blazing into the tragic little space as traffic thundered by outside, I had never felt more bereft. Sleep was elusive - how would I ever sleep again? - so I got up and padded across the raspy, bare carpet into the frigid lounge and slumped onto the sofa, a bad idea as the wood-to-cushion ratio was massively in favour of the former. My tailbone cracked against the rear cross-strut and I let out a furious ‘Fuck!’ followed by a minute of agony-appropriate invective as I tried to walk it off. I hobbled to the sink, filled the kettle (the rusty old spare one from our garage) and flicked it on. In the corner of the room, bathed in scummy light, stood my guitar case looking abandoned and unloved. It needed me. I shuffled over, picked it up and unlocked it, the latches cracking open with a reassuring snap. The guitar’s deep red wooden body radiated warmth like my only true friend. I took it out and sat on a tubular steel stool with retractable steps, a convenient platform on which to rest my foot and cradle the curve of the guitar on my thigh. I tuned up and started strumming. It sounded so good, so pure, so like home. I settled on a four chord riff, started humming and, within minutes, composed my first new song in fifteen years. Enthusiasm mounting, just like it did when this was all I really cared about, I jumped off the stool and rustled through a box for a pad and pen. Lyrics, never my strong point, came to me unbidden. I was crashing through the artistic dyke, my head flooding with inspiration. Let’s face it, I had a whole world of misery and self-pity to pour into that song - a double album’s worth - and the catharsis was energising, at least for as long as I was composing.
An hour later, exhausted, I lay the guitar down for the night feeling no better about my overall predicament, but vindicated in my belief that, if nothing else, music has the power to release you from emotional turmoil, however temporarily. I curled up on the knobbly sofa and covered myself with my dressing gown. Somewhere in the back of my mind, as I drifted into scratchy unconsciousness, I knew I’d regret dozing off on a piece of furniture which, in another age, would have been an instrument of torture, but maybe I deserved to be punished before I could even contemplate redemption.