Accused of crimes he had not committed, found guilty all the same and sent to prison where he had spent six horrible but instructive years: now he was officially innocent after all and was arriving home on the 5.45, as if coming home at the end of a working day.
She reviewed the house. Knowing they would make him angry, she had thrown out all the papers accumulated during his time away; all the letters to and from lawyers, newspaper cuttings, and, particularly difficult, her tentative correspondence with victims and their families. She wondered if all their pain would start all over again, hoping it wouldn’t, but pretty sure it would. There was a new – and hopefully this time real – accused for them to focus on, but they must feel as if the whole mountain was there for climbing once more. Poor things.
She had cleaned the house from top to bottom and invested in new pillows for him, having thrown his old and sweat-smelly ones out when he was convicted and for the past six years she had really enjoyed having a double bed all to herself. She had stocked the cupboards, fridge and freezer up with a few of his favourite foods, but not a lot as he was always firm about excessive spending. She had removed from the bookcase the chick lit that he despised and which had been her pleasurable vice while he had been away. Ditto comfort movie DVDs: all gone to a new destination.
The garden was weed free, at least as weed free as she could make it – not that he would notice as it had always been her preserve anyway, but it made her feel happier to do it.
There was six years worth of the usual household paperwork, which she left in its folders. In the past he had always handled all the official stuff, but she had become accustomed to doing it: would this have pleased or displeased him? Probably the latter. She had watched a documentary recently on the box about women at the end of world war one – having gained access to independent adult lives while their men were in the trenches, they were back to the kitchen sink and woman-where’s-my-tea? When the men came home. She empathised, while with a rising sense of excitement knowing that she would continue with her women’s group meetings, her walking friends and the art group. He had no power to stop her anymore.
A welcome home party was not at the top of her list. Their neighbours hadn’t liked him anyway – never had, she discovered when he was sent down, they’d just put up with him for her sake. She had her own friends now, and they would probably rally round if she felt a party was necessary, but he had always been sensitive to other’s attitudes to him, and frankly it would have been a prickly and awkward occasion if she had to organise one.
But of course she didn’t. Couldn’t, in fact.
They had married much later than most: she had previously been in a good senior job in office management, from which she had retired early at his suggestion. The idea was that it would be nice for her to put her feet up after all those years of work; at least that was what he said. It became clear as their marriage wore on that he was in fact a man to whom control and management of his own space and time was all important, and she, new to marriage and all its nuances of relationship, was unwilling to rock the boat. By the time she had realised that her previously independent and highly capable self was being drowned in his ego, the patterns were set and escape seemed impossible, even frightening.
But then he had been arrested and imprisoned. She had had to come to terms with coping again on her own, and very soon found herself relishing once more the mental exercise and freedom of decision making. She joined a local women’s group, an art class, a walking group and for a short time the local history group, history being a great interest. But as there was little local history, she found this not very stimulating – more an excuse for a long term close knit and slightly excluding group to get together and have coffee. Chick lit and comfort DVDs were also, she discovered, good fun and enjoyable, though not to excess. Her real discovery had been her interest in history, and before she had time to think the idea to death she applied to and joined U3A. So here she was a woman of interests and a mind of her own.....
Five years ago she had been in the bank, standing waiting as one does for the queue ahead of her to work its way forward until it had all gone, and it was her turn. As she queued, her slightly unfocussed gaze had wandered about: looked at and dismissed the 24-hour news channel on huge screen - why? – and drifted across the customers and staff coming and going over the marble floored hall. Finally, it came to rest on another screen behind the tellers’ desks. In huge letters ‘FREEDOM’ it said, and went on to detail, albeit briefly, a new loan at amazingly low rates of interest that the bank was currently offering. An idea began to dawn.
Mentally she reviewed her savings: the chick lit and DVDs had been her sole indulgences with him inside. Her pension from her days at work, quite good in fact and which had kicked in three years previously, was all in a building society account. There was, perhaps, the bowl?.... She had lived mainly on her state pension and the small amount of income from some investments left by her father. She had never been a spender.
Phase one: in no time at all she was deep in discussion with an earnest young man at the bank about loans and what form security for such loans might take. Then on to the estate agents, the auctioneers and the mortgage company and within a year she was ensconced in her own home two villages away. With a smile, she had placed the chick lit and comfort DVDs as the first items on the living room shelves. There were more books and many CDs of her favourite composers. She enjoyed furnishing the house: the funds just weren’t there to be extravagant, but she soon found that charity shops did well for her, the older fashioned furniture they tended to sell being well in keeping with her cottage. Small definitely beautiful. She revelled in the feeling of a new start: it was a bit of a blow when his lawyers decided to have one last appeal and he was freed, but she could take such things in her stride now, and acquired a lawyer of her own to guide her through phase two, her planned divorce.
He wouldn’t be pleased. He wouldn’t be emotionally devastated either: it would be his ego that hurt the most, and she was well aware that this was a potentially dangerous field. Without doubt he had mixed over the last six years with people who would have provided him with interesting ideas, but she felt secure. Living in the centre of the village now, with people all around her who were friends as well as neighbours, and the company of a large dog who, although deeply soft, was touchingly defensive of her, she felt she had the protection she needed. So here she was.
She imagined his homecoming. He had his front door key – it was among his possessions when arrested and he’d hung onto it: presumably it had been taken away at the prison but they’d give it back to him now. So he would let himself in and wonder where she was: she could imagine his anger at her not being subserviently waiting at the door. And then he’d see the letter she’d left pinned on the outside of the inner porch door.
I’m not here anymore, having moved away and settled myself among friends. The house remains your property, and is ready for you. Among the post waiting for you there is probably a letter from my lawyer. I am going for a divorce on the grounds of desertion which my lawyer assures me I am entitled to do. I know you weren’t guilty, but all the same you have been away for six years, during which time you have not once written me a letter or agreed to a visit from me. This will qualify as desertion, so the divorce process should be uncomplicated.
I am not asking for any of your worldly goods and have removed from the house only those things which were mine to remove: Mother’s dressing table mirror, the Kenwood from the kitchen, the picture of Glastonbury Tor that was Father’s and the Chinese bowl that was left to me by my previous neighbour in her will. It turned out, despite your dismissive opinion, to be worth enough to go a good way towards a large deposit on my new home, leaving me with a small mortgage and repayments on a small bank loan that my work pension is covering happily.
Gerald this Freedom Day. For you, from prison and from our marriage, which I never had any evidence gave you any pleasure. For me it is also from our marriage, but perhaps even more so from the obliteration of my ‘self’: our marriage was grinding it away.
Please be happy in your freedoms, I certainly intend to be.