Chapter 1 (partly)
Neat little houses with gabled roofs and flower-filled gardens. Further out, rolling green hills and fields against the backdrop of an impossibly blue sky. The contrast to the glittering high-rises and crowded streets that had been her view for so long couldn’t be bigger. She hung some hand-washed clothes over the railing of the balcony that her small apartment in the guesthouse was blessed with. When she caught herself whistling, she nearly dropped the last top onto her foot.
My God, when was the last time she had actually whistled? Or felt happy and carefree enough to whistle? She honestly couldn’t remember, though she would bet her newly washed clothes that it must have been in the blissfully ignorant first weeks after the wedding. Now, roughly 17 months and at least twice as many bruises later, things had changed so much that whistling seemed a sacrilege, something the Cathy of a past life might have done, but not her. Living with an abusive husband had a certain dulling effect on spontaneous displays of happiness like whistling.
With a sigh, she walked back inside. More than seven days had passed since that fateful night when she had left her home and her husband. More than seven days since Mark had slapped her cheek so hard that her head spun for minutes, since he had kissed her forcefully until her lips were sore and finally passed out drunk on the couch before anything more dreadful could happen. More than seven days since she had packed part of her belongings and resolved to start life over again, without a husband who didn’t love her and whom she had grown to fear and avoid, if not hate. During that span of a week, she had taken a train and a long-distance bus to put several hundred miles between Mark and her, between her old life and her timid budding dreams.
On the second day, she had stumbled upon this charming village almost in the middle of nowhere that was full of kind but all too inquisitive people, old-fashioned buildings and sun-filled lanes with hardly a car in sight, and had decided that this would be the ideal place to open a new chapter in her life. The first days of terror—Would he find her? Would somebody guess? Was she doing something wrong? How would she cope alone?—had made it impossible to leave the room and to think a clear thought. Yesterday, however, some sort of haze had lifted. She had decided that there was absolutely nothing to prevent her from settling down right here. All those generous amounts of money that Mark had been transferring to her account month after month meant that she was in no hurry to find a job and could stay in this holiday apartment to plan the details of her future.
She had to do something, keep herself occupied, and refrain from remembering and doubting and feeling guilty. But what was there to do? There was nobody she would want to call and talk to, her so-called friends having abandoned her shortly after her marriage because they had thought her foolish or because she had never answered their calls. She had blocked Mark’s number on her mobile phone and hadn’t dared to check her email account for fear of having a message from him. See, there was something that would keep her occupied for a while: Face her fears head-on and get over them.
When she fired up her laptop and checked her inbox, there were two messages waiting for her. One was clearly spam. The other one came from an all too familiar email address. It had no subject line and no signature and was only one sentence long.
I am filing for divorce.
Gulping, Cathy realized she was gripping her mouse much too tightly. She let go of it and instead brought both her hands to her forehead, pressing her fingers into her throbbing temples. Well, if that didn’t take things forward considerably. She let out a shaky breath and was amazed to find that she wasn’t crying. Fine, he’d get what he wanted from her, for the last time in his life. Because she wanted it too, that final cutting of bonds that would set her free and prove to her and him once and for all that she was better off without a husband who knew how to make her suffer, but not how to make her feel loved or even acknowledged.
She clicked away at the keyboard in determination. There was much to keep her occupied now, what with having to find a lawyer and informing herself about divorce procedures.
A knock at the door interrupted her concentration. She blinked and looked around, feeling disoriented as though she had surfaced from a long diving trip in the murky waters of a jungle lake.
“Ms. Nolan? Ms. Nolan, are you in there? I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’ve brought you something.”
That must be Mrs. Grindle, the kind old lady who ran the guesthouse and had bestowed many a warm smile on Cathy right since the day she had booked in.
She got up and hastily opened the door.
“Mrs. Grindle, I’m sorry for letting you wait at the door for so long. Please, do come in.”
The stout, short, white-haired landlady beamed at her.
“I was wondering whether you had fallen asleep,” she said, stepping into the room while balancing a full tray on her hands.
Cathy smiled an embarrassed smile and closed the door.
“Oh no. I was…I had…I guess I was lost in my thoughts,” she answered, not willing to let a cloud overshadow all the sunshine this lovable old woman had brought with her.
Mrs. Grindle bustled busily into the kitchen.
“No dark thoughts, I hope?”
“Actually, I’m not so sure about that,” she surprised herself by replying.
The old lady put the tray down on the kitchen counter carefully and patted her on the arm like one would maybe pat a dog on his head.
“Even better then that I have decided to disturb your privacy. You haven’t had your lunch yet, I hope?”
She shook her head, intimidated by all that kindness and directness.
Mrs. Grindle all but glowed with satisfaction and lifted off the lids of the various bowls on the tray.
“I thought you might like a bite or two of home-made food, so I’ve brought you a share of my lunch. Typical village food, nothing sophisticated enough for a posh townswoman like you, Miss Nolan, but much healthier than your normal choice of meal, I’d say.”
One after the other, delicious smells rose into the kitchen air, making her stomach rumble audibly.
“This looks absolutely delightful, Mrs. Grindle! But why did you go to so much trouble?”
“Nonsense, my child, it was no trouble at all. You had better eat it while it’s still hot. Oh, and do call me Aunt Grindle, everyone here does and I feel so high and mighty being called Mrs.”
Cathy couldn’t remember the last time somebody had been so kind to her. Sure, once people had got to know that she was the famous real estate manager Mark Nolan’s wife, they had all but fallen over themselves to gain her favor, but nobody had ever been genuine like this formidable lady with her flowered frock and probably self-knit cardigan.
“Then please call me Cathy,” she said. “I’d rather not be Ms. Nolan.”
“Perfect. Now, you’d better eat up and get some fat on those slim limbs of yours, dear. Make sure you eat the dessert too.”
Before she knew it, she had asked Mrs. Grindle to stay and her new-found Aunt was chattering away happily while Cathy lustily devoured her lunch with more appetite than during the past 17 months taken together.
* * *
Today really was one of her better days.
She had gone out for some afternoon shopping. Automatically, she returned the smile that the cashier gave her when she reached the counter with her full basket.
“Found all you need?” the unpretentious middle-aged lady behind the counter asked her.
“Yes, thanks,” Cathy replied.
Things were so different here. All throughout high school, college and marriage, she must have lived on another planet. A few hundred miles of travelling had apparently brought her into another world. She could already feel herself loosening up. Remembering less and living more. She still dreamt of her husband every night, waking up screaming from an all too vivid nightmare, but during daytime she managed to keep him out of her thoughts. There was never a fond memory or longing or regret, only self-induced guilt and fear of the future. However, hope was starting to grow inside her, a timid, light green shoot reaching a slim arm out of the soil and into the sunlight. Maybe this wasn’t so difficult after all.
The tinkling of a bell announced another customer entering the shop. Both of them turned to look.
(To be continued tomorrow!)
Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 3 here.