Lost and Found
by Jack Kendle
There was a voice-message on my mobile. It was from Hannah:
'Jack, for God's sake, it's six-thirty! I asked you to be quick! I have taken the kids to my mother's; you'll have to pick them up from there. I won't be back until late, so you see to the dinner. Don't forget to pack Tommy's schoolbag for tomorrow and he's got gym class as well, so get his sports gear together. Don't know when I'll be back.'
Typical! Start with an accusation, like everything was my fault and deliberately done to annoy her - then the orders. She sounded really pissed off. Tough! She couldn't expect me to be at her beck and call twenty-four-seven. My appointment with Anna Johnston had not been my idea; it was part of my job as an educator. What had followed however, was different. So what? Dammit, I had been a couple or so hours away from Hannah's heel. For Chrissake, I needed to slip the leash now and again.
So, making a detour, I drove round to mother-in-law's to collect Tommy and Emma.
Hannah had inherited her ambition and drive from her father, who after building up a business - and a small fortune - had the uncharacteristic decency to die from a massive heart attack, leaving a widow and daughter who were as unlike as chalk is to cheese. Rosie came into her own after the death of her domineering husband. Comfortably off, she didn't need to work, but when Gordon died, she enrolled in the local adult-education programme and within only a couple of years had a degree in child psychology. She now worked part-time as a counsellor. She was a kind woman, amply proportioned, whose gentleness and compassion seemed to be like an aura around her. I was very fond of my mother-in-law, contrary to most hen-pecked husbands. Hannah was certainly not of the same mould. They say, when you consider proposing marriage, 'look at the future mother-in-law, because that's what your wife will look like in twenty years.' That wasn't the case with Hannah. She had her father's looks and character. I wondered what Freud would have made of it, my marrying a domineering woman. He would undoubtedly have found something screwed-up in my relationship with a mother figure or some such crap. Or was it crap? I mused along the subject as I drove into the suburbs. Perhaps, deep down I did want to be dominated? Maybe I am such a stereotyped wimp, the closet paedophile, too frightened to come out, too frightened to face it and make a clean break. Too worried about mundane things like mortgages and stuff to just be myself and divorce my bitch from hell. But it always came back to the kids, my sweet, beautiful kids. How could I even think of hurting them, of leaving them? Of only perhaps seeing them at pre-arranged times, which undoubtedly would suit Hannah and not me. It was Tommy and Emma who were the glue that held Hannah and me together. I loved them desperately and I just couldn't bear to see them have to suffer over their parents' screw-ups. So, I did nothing. The marriage limped along, the irritations more frequent, more voiced. I did not visit Rosie as often as I should have. Sure, the kids' birthdays, Christmas and perhaps the odd weekend visit, but more often than not, it was Hannah who, understandably enough, visited her mother more often than I. Whenever I visited, I got the uncomfortable feeling that Rosie knew more about me than she let on. Whatever it was, she never was anything but kind to me. I think she reminded me of my own mother - and it worried me a bit.
I arrived at the house. The kids were in the garden, playing with the ancient golden-retriever, Honey, whom the kids had known almost since birth. The old good-natured dog was indulgently letting Tom and Em make a big fuss of her. The children waved at me as I walked up the path to the house.
"Gran's making 'spag-bog!'" they chorused, their favourite spaghetti with lots of meat sauce. I smelt the pungent aroma of fresh basil, garlic and tomatoes as I walked in. Rosie's spaghetti was indeed the best I ever tasted. I went into the kitchen. She greeted me with an enveloping, generous embrace. "Good to see you, Jack," she said. "I thought I'd relieve you of the chore of dinner, I bet you would have just taken the kids to a McDonald's or something and I don't want my grandchildren to eat more of that junk than they absolutely should!" Her eyes were twinkling good-humouredly. I smiled, somewhat guiltily, that's exactly what I had planned to do!
"Help yourself to a glass of wine."
I went and poured myself a glass of Chianti and topped up her drink. "Cheers" we said. She looked at me over the rim of the glass. "Everything okay, Jack?" she asked, "you look a little tired."
"Fine," I lied. "Just like you say, bit tired."
"Well, you'll let me know if I can help."
"Sure, Rosie, but don't worry. Looking after Tom and Em like now, is a great help - not to mention cooking us dinner. Thanks."
She stopped stirring the steaming spaghetti sauce, turned the heat down and covering it, she came and sat by me at the kitchen table.
"Jack, I know it's not my place, and tell me if it's none of my business, but is everything okay between you and Hannah? She seemed very agitated when she dropped the kids off. She seemed to be cross with you. Anything the matter?"
"No problem, Rosie. No, everything's fine." Lie number two. "She seems to have suddenly a lot on her plate at the office," I added, thinking involuntarily of all the messages from this Ben character. "I had a meeting this afternoon, which went on longer than I expected. I suppose that's what was bugging her."
"Well, I know how Hannah can get, and between you and me, even I sometimes think she over-reacts and takes it out on the person nearest to her. I know she's my daughter, and I should be loyal, but she's too much like her father for her own good. I just wish she would sometimes lighten up a bit. Don't ever tell her I said this," she added. That's what I liked about Rosie. She wasn't like your typical mother-in-law whose daughter could do no wrong and always finding fault with her son-in-law. She was fair, non-judgmental and if she saw injustice she would defend what she believed to be right, despite family. Rosie was probably a very good counsellor and would have made a very good judge, had she turned her mind to it. She patted my hand, "if you ever need a vent for your feelings, Jack, you can always talk to me. You can tell me anything. I want you to know that, Jack." She gave me a surprisingly penetrating look, something I hadn't often seen from her. It was over before I could fully register it. It was the look I occasionally saw in her, which made me think she was a very perceptive woman. She added, in a lighter tone, "It's my job after all." Laughing, she went over to put the pasta into some boiling water. "Give me exactly five minutes," she said to me. I don't want this to be sludge!" How Rosie's pasta could ever be described as 'sludge' was beyond me. It was always exactly right, al dente.
I went to the window and called the children to come in and wash their hands and then went about setting the table as Rosie busied herself at the stove. Being here was always so informal, at least since Gordon died. The atmosphere in the house lightened considerably after Rosie was left alone. She became active in all sorts of committees and 'causes'. She had a full life now and I think, deep down, she didn't miss her late husband that much at all. They had only had Hannah and I think their married life was more of a convenience for him, someone to look after the nice house, entertain the clients, be a witty companion for dinner parties but otherwise generally stay in the background. It was he who, though undoubtedly disappointed in having a daughter rather than a son, pushed Hannah into being a version of him. He wanted her to be successful in her career. In that he succeeded. Hannah was successful, but even success didn't seem to make her content. She was always trying for more. I think she hated the fact that she was a woman in what was a predominantly male-orientated business. It made her more ambitious, more ruthless. Having to prove that she was not only equal to, but better than men. I'm not sure how Hannah was rated in the popularity stakes at her work. I think she was admired, but they put up with her. She had no real close friends. She had got almost as high as she could get on the promotional ladder. I wondered what she would do, when she realised there was no further she could go. I didn't want to go down that road.
"Five minutes," I said to Rosie, who, with her perfect sense of timing had pre-empted me and was already draining the spaghetti.
The kids came in, Honey padding behind them and we sat down to yet another meal of the best pasta outside Italy.
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