it was raining when he came back. joan had been counting the days, secretly. she didn’t want anyone to know how happy she was. the secret was warm inside her, and also a mystery. she had never remarried, and maybe this was why. maybe her destiny had been to save him, all along? tossed out when he was no use to Her anymore.
on the day he was due, she had woken up early. she’d made coffee and porridge in her tiny beige kitchen, cupboards stuffed with the treasures of a long life of hoarding. a tea set from her mother, on display but unused for probably 20 years. not dusty though. she kept a clean house. a dinner service that they’d gotten as a wedding present four decades ago. it was a soft creamy colour with gold trim. she’d thrown one of the plates at him, just before he left, so now she could only serve a dinner for 3; not that it mattered, because no-one came for dinner these days. champagne flutes, whiskey tumblers, martini glasses. yes, they’d thrown fabulous parties, but that was a long time ago. before his stroke, before her heart attack. before he’d left her for a Younger Woman and before Loneliness had set in.
after the warm, but watery porridge (a government pension doesn’t afford any luxuries), joan set about getting the flat in order. she tuned the radio to her favourite classical station, and hummed along as she busied herself. she set her easel to one side and piled her half finished paintings against the wall, and out of the way. she bathed and washed her hair and set it just right. it was time.
at the train station a little while later, she waited. any moment now. and then there he was. it had been 30 years. but felt like yesterday. of course he had aged. he was bent with the pain of a failed life, almost toothless and grey. not just his hair, but his skin. 30 years with that woman, 30 years of waiting for him to come back. and here he was, in front of her. the father of her children, the keeper of her heart. back in her arms and kissing her hello.
they made tea and swapped memories. he’d bought some things in his suitcase, trinkets that meant nothing to anyone but him. and he shared the stories of them with her. she hung his clothes alongside hers in the cupboard and pointed out all the pictures hanging on the wall next to her bed. children getting married, children on holiday, children’s children laughing and swimming and growing up.
-all of this has happened? my, how they have grown.
she poured him a glass of wine and they sipped all afternoon and late into the night.
– i’m sorry he said, i am so sorry. and she drank in his words with the wine and felt the warmth of his company ease the aches in her heart.
-none of that matters my darling, the only thing that matters is that you’re home again.
in the morning she woke up as usual, at 5am. it was still dark and she lay there for a moment, sighing into her pillow. another day of what to do. alone. and then she remembered, not today. today she would make two cups of tea at breakfast. two cups of soup at dinner. joy.
she lay for a minute, letting the happiness wash over her. and then she switched the light on, next to her bed and slid out from under the covers. it was just two steps and she was at the couch, ready to rouse him from where he’d slept and welcome him yet again. such joy.
but the couch was empty. disappointment.
-phil? she whispered his name.
not in the kitchen, not in the bathroom. such disappointment.
she sat for a minute, confused. and then tut tutted to herself, her memory wasn’t what it had been. it was today that he was coming, yes, maybe it was today, then.
maybe it was today that he was coming home.