The foreign stamp puzzled her, but then she recognised the writing and backed away, left the letter lying in a sea of manila envelopes on the doormat. Darren scooped them up, his jaw tightening as he riffled through the final demands. Then his expression lightened.
‘One for you, love. From…’ he squinted, held the letter at a distance, ‘…Morocco, of all places.’
Juliet looked up at him. At forty-two he shouldn’t be so grey, have so many worry lines. ‘It’s from my mother,’ she said dismissively.
‘Aren’t you going to open it?’
‘No, it won’t be good news. Lord, the breakfast’s burning…’ She dashed into the kitchen and snatched the pan of bacon off the heat, her eyes smarting in the haze of blue smoke. At least it masked the smell of unreliable plumbing. After taking slices of bread from the open packet she forked the charred rashers on to them, then poured two mugs of tea.
He sat at the table in his boxers and vest, tattoos descending like sleeves from his shoulders. Upending the HP bottle over the sandwich he thumped the bottom. ‘Come on, love, see what she has to say.’
She sank into the chair opposite. The damp patch on the wall behind him had grown since yesterday. It looked like a map of Africa. She licked dry lips. ‘I don’t want to.’
The kitchen clock ticked loudly, announcing the arrival of each new minute. Darren put down the sandwich, took her hand, stroked her fingers.
She straightened her shoulders. ‘You do it.’
He ripped the letter open, and with a low whistle pulled out a cheque. ‘Now that makes a pleasant change.’ He passed it to her and she stared at it blankly.
‘Three hundred pounds. Whatever for?’
He fumbled in the envelope and retrieved a sheet of paper. ‘Here. Can’t read it without my glasses.’ He picked up his sandwich.
Her mother’s scrawl, as ever, resembled a lie detector printout. She frowned as she tried to decipher it. ‘She wants me to visit her in Morocco… the money’s for the fare… she’s sent a cheque to Portia as well…’
‘I thought she was teaching in Turkey?’
‘So did I.’ She smoothed the paper. ‘Says she has a surprise for us.’
He stopped chewing and raised an eyebrow. ‘Wonder what sort of surprise?’
‘God knows.’ She chewed a nail. ‘I don’t know—could we both go do you think?’
‘I can’t, love.’ He glanced up at the clock, bolted the last of his breakfast, then pushed back his chair with a clatter. ‘Need to work all the hours I can get.’
She nodded, looking around the kitchen at the lino worn to a dark smudge near the sink, at the sheets of the Leicester Mercury taped over a broken window pane. ‘I wish I could help you more, find another job.’
‘Not yet. Maybe when you’re a bit better.’
She stood up. ‘I’ll tell her we can’t go.’
‘No.’ He put his hands on her shoulders, turned her to face him. ‘You go, have a bit of a break. This last couple of years have been shite.’
‘I don’t want—’
‘Yes. You wouldn’t be on your own if Portia goes too.’
‘Portia? I’ve not seen her for years. We’ve nothing in common.’
He rubbed his chin. ‘You’d think you’d be closer, being twins…I want you to go, love. Please.’
She knew she would agree. She was like a piece of jigsaw, always ready to fit her life in, with, and around others.
‘All right then,’ she said reluctantly, ‘but I’ll get the cheapest flight—what’s left of the money can pay a bit more off the gas bill.’
‘Good girl.’ He dropped a kiss on her forehead, then ran upstairs, whistling, to get into his work clothes.
Her throat ached with unshed tears as he watched him. Such a good man, always putting her first. Why then, didn’t she love him anymore?