The Gilberts were eating pasta with their three children in the kitchen-diner of their newly built red-brick house in West London the evening I met them for the first time. They asked me to join them but I said I had already eaten. Sarah Gilbert made me a coffee, using freshly ground beans, and I sat with them while they ate. She was tall and thin, with long dark hair, and would have been very beautiful if her lips had been fuller and her nose a little shorter. Her husband, Harry, was losing his hair and looked like he ate pasta too often but it was the face of someone you’d be happy to find yourself sitting next to at a wedding.
‘I’m a manager with an airline so I’m out of the country a lot and it isn’t fair to expect Harry to do the cleaning as well as everything else when I’m away.’ She looked at her husband who smiled at her.
I liked that they felt they had to justify having a cleaner; they didn’t take their privilege for granted.
‘I work from home so I’m here when the kids get back from school,’ he said.
‘Is there any chance you could come twice a week? It would stop things mounting up,’ she said. ‘These monsters do create quite a mess.’
The monsters smiled proudly at me.
‘Yes, I think I could manage that; one of my clients is leaving the country in two weeks.’
‘I might occasionally have to go out for an hour and leave you alone with the kids; they’ll be doing their homework,’ said Harry.
‘That’s fine. You can give me a mobile number in case there’s a problem.’
‘That would be great.’
‘Gerry, could you try to eat your spaghetti without decorating the room with it? Twist a few strands around your fork like I showed you.’ Gerry looked about eight years old.
‘You’ll never keep a girlfriend if you cover her in spaghetti when you go on a date,’ said Nick, who was around six years older than his brother.
‘Nick is going steady,’ said his mother, raising her eyebrows. ‘He has dates in McDonald’s.’
‘Maybe Gerry will have a boyfriend,’ said Florence, his sister. She was the eldest.
Gerry looked as if he was going to cry.
‘It would be lovely if you had a boyfriend, Gerry,’ said his mother. ‘Girlfriend, boyfriend; it won’t matter to us.’
‘Gerry might be a girl when he grows up. We have three boys transitioning in our school,’ said Nick.
Gerry looked confused. ‘What’s transitioning?’
‘Nothing you need to know about yet, darling,’ said his mother. She turned to the other two. ‘For God’s sake, stop teasing him.’
‘Ms Chapman said it’s important we have open and frank discussions about sexuality and gender. It’s good for our mental health,’ said Nick.
‘And your father and I agree with Ms Chapman but do we have to have this discussion when we have a guest?’ She turned to me and said: ‘They’re putting on this performance for you.’
‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘I’m enjoying it.’
She smiled at her husband to let him know that she would trust me with their children.
I looked forward to my days at the Gilberts; I liked the noise and the energy of family life. Gerry followed me around the house, telling me about his video games. I think he missed his mother, and he wasn’t allowed to interrupt his father when he was working. Nick would ask me to put mousse on his hair and help him style it before he went on dates. And Florence played me tracks from her favourite group and showed me photos of the band members.
The children were at school one morning when Harry Gilbert came into a bathroom I was cleaning and asked if I’d like a coffee. I had woken late that morning and rushed out without breakfast so I accepted his offer. When he came back with two cups, he said: ‘Have a break. Join me in the kitchen.’
I must have looked dubious: I’d had experience of neglected husbands.
‘I haven’t had a conversation with an adult for four days and I’m beginning to talk like, you know, a teenager. And it ain’t cool, man.’
I laughed and said: ‘It would be good to have a break.’
We sat opposite each other at the ceramic kitchen table and he passed me a packet of shortbread.
‘The coffee is good,’ I said.
‘Life is too short for cheap wine and bad coffee. You’re great with the kids; they really like you, especially Gerry. He’d go home with you if he could.’
‘He’s a lovely boy. They’re all great.’
‘Thank you. Do you have children of your own?’
I wasn’t expecting the question and tears started spilling down my face.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to…’
‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘I had a miscarriage – a very late one.’
‘That’s terrible, really awful. I know how frightened we were of miscarrying when Sarah was pregnant.’
‘My husband killed himself a few months earlier; he died the night I was going to tell him I was pregnant. He was an anaesthetist so he knew how to do it efficiently.’
‘I don’t know what to say. It’s so… sad.’
‘I didn’t know there was anything wrong. I thought we were happy.’ I looked out the kitchen window at newly planted trees and shrubs.
‘Was he depressed?’
‘He didn’t seem to be. We both loved our jobs; he was working at the best hospital in the country and I was lecturing at the university. We had a busy social life. Nobody could believe it. I kept looking for answers, secrets he kept from me, but there weren’t any. Maybe for some people, this life isn’t enough.’
‘It’s no reason to kill yourself.’
‘He must have thought it was.’
‘I shouldn’t have brought it up by my clumsy attempt at small talk. I’m sorry.’
‘You didn’t bring it up; it’s always there. I feel like he killed our child as well as himself – that’s what I can’t forgive.’
‘Do you think he would have lived if he’d known you were pregnant?’
‘Probably. But staying alive for the sake of other people isn’t much of a life.’
‘I look at other couples and I wonder how they do it, how they succeed where we failed.’
‘There’s a lot of luck involved. If you’re very lucky, you meet someone and everything about them feels right. You don’t have to work at it. Just seeing them walk across a room is a pleasure. And you’ll do anything to keep them. As long as they’re in your life, living is… joyful. And you don’t worry about the meaning of life, or that you and everyone you love is going to die.’
‘We didn’t have that. We were good together, or I thought we were, but we didn’t have what you have.’
‘I don’t think many people do. I’ve never met anyone else I could love the way I love Sarah. I couldn’t imagine having another relationship if we split up. I remember reading a poem once that said if you think you’ve loved more than once, you’ve never loved. And I think it’s true, or it is true for me.’
‘It takes courage to love like that.’
‘It takes courage to live without it.’
‘I suppose it does. I thought of killing myself after I lost the baby; I thought about it a lot.’
We talked for a long time before I went back to cleaning the bathroom. I felt closer to Harry Gilbert that afternoon than I’d ever felt to another human being.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Our conversation was like a trapped bird flying around inside my head. The next morning, I texted to say I wouldn’t be coming back. I lied about having to return to my country to nurse a sick relative. I couldn’t bear to see my story mirrored in his eyes, and to see what we never had. I knew he’d understand.
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