Lucas sat opposite his wife of twenty years, Penny, at the kitchen table. His eyes drifted to the calendar on the wall. Below the snow-capped mountain scene on the calendar, the days of the month were listed: December. Christmas loomed large. Lucas hated Christmas.
Penny crunched her cornflakes. After swallowing a mouthful, she cleared her throat and said, as if restraining a snarl, ‘This year you’re spending Christmas at home, right?’
‘I’m sorry, honey.’
‘It’s been three years since you spent Christmas at home. Three years.’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘I swear I’m going to have a word with your boss.’
‘I have to work—’
‘No. No, you don’t. Ask for time off.’ Penny’s searing look dared him to refuse.
‘I’ve been saying it to you all year: save your annual leave for Christmas—’
‘It doesn’t work like that—’
‘Maybe you don’t want to spend Christmas with us, is that it?’ Her eyes glistened, as if she might cry.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said Lucas, while focusing on his empty cereal bowl; avoiding her gaze. ‘Do you think I want to work on Christmas Day? The rest of the staff are away, so I have to cover.’
‘Can’t they just close for Christmas like everyone else?’
‘We have important clients who expect us to be available.’
Penny looked down at the table. ‘You’re missing the best years of our children’s lives, do you know that?’
‘I’ll be home on the twenty-eighth.’
‘Why don’t you get another job? You don’t like working there anyway; you’re always complaining about the long hours.’
‘It’s not that easy. Do you know how lucky we are that I even have a job in a recession?’
Lucas felt like he was repeating a script; it didn’t mean anything. The lies were built on top of other lies. He didn’t even have a job.
That evening, Lucas sat at a table in an expensive restaurant, but not with Penny. With Elayna. Spending time alone with twenty-something Elayna was invigorating and refreshing. She didn’t nag, just wanted to have fun. He’d met her at a time in his life when he needed an escape, as if stuck in a hole unable to fathom a way out. He knew it probably wasn’t the most sensible thing to do, to start another affair, but he got carried away by her youthfulness.
At forty-five, and feeling slightly old, it boosted his ego to know that this young girl wanted to date him. She’d already said that she loved him: so innocent; yet to discover that love was an elusive fallacy, a playground for fools—a path leading only to disappointment or infinite loneliness, and that’s if you’re one of the lucky ones.
His mind drifted briefly to the past, as it regularly did, and the familiar sense of despair returned: a flashback to the end of his relationship with Olivia; unruly blonde locks tumbled over her face, her cheeks flushed. Lucas had been twenty-one; a mere child compared to the man who had stolen her from him. ‘I’m sorry,’ she’d mouthed, as if her voice did not wish to conspire in the deception. She’d scrabbled for the bedsheets to hide her nakedness. The man beside her in their bed had simply smiled apologetically. Lucas had often wondered whether he would so easily have cheated on Olivia. He knew the answer but it hurt too much to face it. He’d loved Olivia from the moment they met, when he sat next to her on the first day of secondary school. He’d lost himself in her sea-blue eyes for an eternal moment. Love at first sight was a phrase he’d heard a few times, and one he associated with their meeting.
Lucas shook the memories away.
‘So, when can I meet your family?’ asked Elayna, forcing Lucas’s mind back to the present.
Lucas thought of Penny and the children. They were his family—well, the first thing that he thought of when anyone mentioned “family”—yet he knew the truth was far more complicated.
Elayna obviously meant she wanted to meet his parents when she said “family”.
‘It’s still early days, Elayna,’ he said, taking hold of her hand from across the table in the dimly-lit restaurant.
‘But we’ve been dating for months. I want to meet your parents so that they can show me embarrassing photos of you as a child and tell me about all the crazy stuff you used to get up to.’ She followed that with a giggle.
Lucas felt nostalgic for simpler times. These days there were far too many responsibilities to juggle. He brushed off Elayna’s request with, ‘That’s precisely why I don’t want you to meet them.’
‘Oh, come on, let’s spend Christmas at your parents’, or even mine.’ Her broad smile once again reminded him of how complicated his life had become, and the mention of Christmas brought to mind Penny’s morning rant.
‘I’ve told you, darling, I’m working through the Christmas period.’
‘That’s so unfair. How about New Year?’
‘Um... yes, maybe New Year. Why don’t we fly out to Paris? Would you like that?’
‘Oh, wow! I’d love that!’
Lucas made a mental note to book a flight. He counted the days on his fingers under the table. I’ll have to lie to Penny about having to work over New Year as well. If he spent a couple of days with Penny and the children—28th and 29th—he should be able to fly out to Paris for three days and be back before anyone noticed.
Penny was washing the dishes when Lucas returned home later that evening.
‘Where have you been?’
‘Working late. Sorry, love.’ He kissed her on the cheek.
‘The kids are asleep. You hardly see them. Josh will be starting university next year, and Lucy is nearly sixteen. You’re like a stranger to them.’
‘You act as if I never see them. I see them most evenings. And let’s face it, they’re teenagers; it’s hard to have a conversation with either of them without saying something that annoys them. All those hormones flying around.’
‘That just shows that you don’t know your children, Lucas. Lucy and Josh are both decent kids, thank God. You need to spend more time with them.’
‘I’ll try,’ he mumbled.
Penny glanced at him: ‘Listen, I’ve been thinking about what we were talking about this morning. Why don’t we go to my parents’ for New Year? They’re getting old, and they’d love to see the kids. We could drive up there and stay with them for a few days.’
Lucas bowed his head as he remembered Elayna’s excitement about travelling to Paris. ‘Sorry, Penny. Didn’t I tell you I’m working that week? I thought I said. I’m home on the twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth, though. We’ll have loads of quality time together then.’
Penny spun around, wet washing-up gloves leaving trails of bubbles on the floor: ‘How can we call ourselves a family if we live separate lives?’
‘You’re getting everything out of proportion, darling. Christmas and New Year... it’s commercial exploitation. Hard-working people like us being forced to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need. We’re together enough throughout the year, aren’t we? Stop concentrating on one week in December... It’s one week in a whole year.’
‘You just don’t get it, do you? Families are supposed to be together at Christmas. It’s traditional. And, how can you say we spend enough time with each other when you travel abroad for work most weekends? Not to mention those evenings when you have to do extra shifts. Lucas, I mean it: you need to quit that job.’
‘But the children will be off to university soon. There are fees to be paid. Not to mention all the latest gadgets that they’re constantly asking for. How can we afford all that if I don’t work?’
‘I’m not saying don’t work, all I’m saying is get a job that doesn’t demand so much of your time.’
‘Huh! A job like that wouldn’t pay much.’
Penny shook her head and carried on washing the dishes in silence.
Lucas sat in his parked car for a few minutes feeling quite exhausted. Penny’s words had played on his mind all night. His conscience awakened to the harsh realisation that he hardly knew his two older children. He felt awkward when alone in a room with either of them, unsure what to say.
He’d almost called Josh “Peter” the week before. Peter was his younger son. He remembered back to his relatively uncomplicated life, when Josh and Lucy were toddlers; he’d been a loving father and faithful husband in those days. His life had changed dramatically. The man he’d become bore no resemblance to his former self.
A recollection emerged; something Olivia had once said. They’d talked about having children together. ‘You’d be such a great dad’. He yearned to reach back in time, salvage the future that he’d imagined when he’d seen her face; the happy future idealised by the naïve perception of youth. All too soon, the memory was eclipsed, just like his former dreams: the image transformed into a black and white hazy picture of that night when Lucas returned home from university earlier than expected, to find Olivia in bed with the stranger; a man who’d haunted Lucas’s mind ever since—a man without a name, without a personality, without anything but a face and a wry smile. He’d never come into contact with him again, but their liaison with Olivia was a common bond that linked them eternally. Lucas used to hate that man but could now only feel indifference, ruefully acknowledging that they were probably more alike than they were different.
He got out of his car and headed up the pathway at just after 7 a.m. Penny thought he’d gone to work.
As he walked in through the front door of Loulla’s house, she greeted him dressed only in a slinky black négligée. He admired her slim figure.
They embraced, and shared a kiss.
‘I’ve missed you,’ she whispered.
‘Me too,’ he replied.
‘I’ve got half an hour before I have to get ready for work. Let’s not waste it.’ She took his hand and led him upstairs to the bedroom.
Lucas lay in bed staring at the ceiling after Loulla left for work; soon he’d have to leave. He found the early mornings torturous, and it became increasingly difficult to keep track of where he should be each day.
He thought back to yesterday afternoon when he’d been at the park with Peter, his three-year-old, and his youngest child, one-year-old Julie. Their mother, Sally, worked full time. She loved her job, so it’d suited her when he’d offered to take care of the children during the day. He would go to Loulla’s house first thing most mornings, and then when she left for work he’d go to Sally’s.
Evenings were trickier: at first he used to have a meal with Sally when she got home from work, but one day she queried how he made it through the week with no sleep. As far as she knew, he looked after the children by day and then worked at night (like Loulla, Sally thought he worked a night shift at the local bakery).
‘I take a nap in the afternoon when the children do,’ he’d lied.
‘That’s not enough sleep! You’ll keel over from exhaustion.’
After that, she used to insist he go upstairs to get some rest when she got home from work. That made it impossible for him to leave the house until she’d gone to sleep.
Eventually, he came up with a story about how the bakery provided beds for staff, and he told her he’d prefer to sleep there for a couple of hours before his shift, to avoid being awoken by the children crying. Somehow she went along with the story. After that, he found time to meet with his other women in the evenings when Sally returned home from work.
Yesterday, he’d taken the toddlers to the park and met a pretty, young, single mother, Debbie. He’d seen her at the park before but they’d never talked to each other. After he introduced himself to her as a single parent, she’d suggested, while fluttering her eyelashes, that they meet for dinner one evening. The attraction was mutual and he contemplated taking her up on the offer of a date, but wondered how he could fit her in.
Most evenings he spent with Penny and the children, except the odd evening when he saw Elayna or Loulla. Weekends were mainly spent with Sally and the younger kids; he told Penny he had to fly abroad for work. He’d somehow managed to lie to Sally too by saying he had to care for his sick father some weekends, so he’d be able to spend some time with Penny. Now and then he really did fly abroad for a weekend, to visit Delphine, his lover in Paris. It was no coincidence that he’d suggested New Year in Paris to Elayna; he planned to sneak out and see Delphine at some stage too.
Merely thinking about his schedule often brought on a headache.
On more than one occasion he’d been questioned by one or other of the women about his whereabouts on such and such a day. Fabricating a reasonable excuse always proved difficult. Penny left him speechless one evening by asking, ‘Do you have a secret family hidden away somewhere?’. Somehow he’d kept his composure. She’d brushed over her question, as if it were merely a flippant comment said in frustration; she didn’t appear to actually suspect anything. It unnerved him, just the same.
Sally also said a similar thing recently: ‘I swear, with you being away so often, I sometimes think you’re having an affair.’ She’d laughed it off, but Lucas was left feeling vulnerable.
He frequently felt overwhelmed, sure that it wasn’t possible to keep the separate pieces of his life from colliding. His fear of being found out remained ever-present, along with a paranoia akin to the feeling of being tracked or hunted.
It all started as a bit of fun, a mechanism for coping with a loveless marriage. He thought it would help to eliminate the pain from the past if he constantly experienced that rush from a new love affair, but in actuality he suffered dismally at every turn and only succeeded in feeding his demons.
Occasionally, he tried to convince himself that the reason for his lifestyle—the infidelities—might be because, since losing Olivia, he’d been searching for true love in all the women he encountered, to recapture that evasive feeling. He hadn’t found it again. It struck him as selfish, though, to try to justify his actions; his method of attempting to banish his heartache entailed cheating on numerous innocent women, as if eternally vengeful and determined to get even despite the blamelessness of his victims. His actions might have been a way of getting back at Olivia, but she was oblivious; it was like screaming into a void. If one of the women in his life discovered the dishonesty, there would be a domino effect, with waves of treachery flowing forward from the original one, transferring the pain to future generations.
‘I went to your office today. You weren’t there,’ said Penny, hands on hips, accusing, when Lucas walked in through the door at 7 p.m. that evening.
‘Um...’ Heat rose in his cheeks. ‘You must have missed me. Was it lunchtime? Or I might have popped out for a coffee.’
‘They’d never even heard of you.’
‘W-what were you doing there?’ He hoped she’d stop talking.
‘I wanted to have a chat with your boss about your ridiculous working hours.’
‘I’m not a child. Do you know how embarrassing it would’ve been if—’
‘You should’ve asked for time off; I was only trying to do what you should have done.’
‘I don’t work there anymore, okay?’
‘What? When did you leave?’
‘I haven’t worked there for ages. I didn’t tell you because I was looking for another job. I didn’t want you to worry.’
‘So you’re unemployed?’
‘No, I’m working for a company in the city. They’re busy. I can’t ask for a holiday when I only started working there last month. I don’t want to lose the job. It was hard to find.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I said. I didn’t want you to worry.’
‘Always thinking of others.’ She softened. ‘That’s why I love you so much.’
Lucas breathed a sigh of relief.
‘It must have been so hard for you to keep it a secret.’
‘You have no idea,’ he said.
In the end, Lucas spent Christmas with Sally and the children. Luckily for him, Sally arranged to take Peter and Julie to her parents’ house for the New Year period when he’d told her he had to work.
The New Year trip to Paris with Elayna exceeded his expectations. Paris was a gloriously romantic city: whether due to the ambience or just because it had always been portrayed as such in literature and in the movies, he couldn’t be sure. The romance in the air around them, and Elayna’s effervescent charm, brought out the inner vitality within his soul. He’d even found time to spend a passionate night with Delphine, slipping out of the hotel room for a few hours while Elayna slept.
Being away from London meant he saw things more clearly. The endless hiding, lying, cheating, and deceiving, fostered a state of perpetual anxiety. He saw that now. He contemplated staying in Paris. Having only two women in his life would be easier to manage.
He knew he would miss the others, though. Somehow he’d got used to the chaotic routine and mostly thrived on it. Like any addiction, it would be hard to give up.
Lucas and Elayna shared a pleasant flight back to London. He told her he’d have to leave her at Heathrow Airport so that he could go straight to work.
They stood outside the arrivals building and shared a lingering kiss before Elayna stepped into a taxi.
It took him a moment, after she’d departed, to work out where he should be going from there. Should he be headed home to Penny, or to Sally?
Just then, his mobile rang and he saw Penny’s name on the display.
‘Hi Lucas, how are you?’
An odd question, he thought. They’d been married for so many years; they never asked each other how are you? It sounded more like something a stranger or acquaintance would ask. Perhaps it was her tone—the way she’d asked it—that caused the unease. ‘Um... I’m okay.’
‘Meet me inside the Terminal building. I’m in the Costa coffee shop.’
‘I didn’t know you were working abroad. I found your boarding pass in the bin and realised you must’ve accidentally printed two and thrown one away.’
‘Y-yes... I forgot about that. Sorry, yes, I was working abroad. A last-minute thing.’
But if she’s seen my boarding pass, wouldn’t she have seen Elayna’s? I’m sure I threw them both in there.
Trepidatiously, he walked back into the airport building, mulling over the options available to him: I’ll say Elayna’s my secretary.
He felt foolish for throwing the boarding passes into the bin at home. Recently—as his life became more perplexing—he’d found himself cutting corners. Suitcase in tow, he strolled towards the coffee shop. He stopped at the doors as if paralysed. This can’t be happening; I must be dreaming.
Lucas blinked in a vain attempt to eliminate reality, prove it was just a dream. On opening his eyes, however, he was faced with the unimaginable again. He began to feel quite queasy. The chatter in the terminal around him sounded suddenly louder to his ears as panic took hold. Beads of sweat formed on his brow. He wondered if he might be suffering from delirium: seated around a table in the shop were Penny, Sally, and Loulla.
Too late to run
He walked slowly towards the table as a man to his death at the gallows.
‘So, how long has this been going on?’ asked Sally.
Lucas gulped. ‘I’m sorry.’
All three women laughed.
‘Sorry?’ said Penny. ‘You will be.’
‘How... How did you...?’ he gawped as the words escaped his mouth.
‘We’ve known for a while,’ said Sally. ‘You thought you were so clever, didn’t you? You left far too many clues. Mainly text messages and phone calls. You should’ve been more careful. You left your phone lying around.’
‘And the boarding pass was the final straw,’ said Penny.
‘D-does Elayna know?’ He thought back over the holiday in Paris; she’d given no indication that she might be aware of his duplicity, but everything was fuzzy in his recollection. He felt light-headed.
‘She didn’t, but she does now. I’ve just phoned her,’ said Sally.
‘You did what?’ he blurted.
‘You should be ashamed of yourself,’ snapped Loulla.
Dejected, he slumped down into the empty chair at the table. ‘I am... I am. I don’t know what to say.’
‘Just go!’ said Penny.
The abruptness of her command startled him.
‘We’ve all decided that we don’t want anything more to do with you,’ said Sally.
‘But the children—’
‘They’re better off without you,’ sneered Penny.
‘Yes,’ agreed Sally. ‘What kind of a role model are you?’
‘Where will I go?’
‘Who cares?’ snorted Loulla.
‘Goodbye, Lucas,’ said Penny.
All eyes were on him, willing him to stand up and leave.
He eventually rose from the chair and dragged his suitcase away from the table. As he walked away, he looked over his shoulder in disbelief; the three women sat chatting over coffee, like old friends, as if he didn’t exist.
He tried to recall how it had all started. Undoubtedly, the seed was planted by Olivia’s unfaithfulness, but ultimately the lottery win offered him the chance to do something about the monotonous path his life had taken since. In an attempt to forget Olivia, he’d plunged into a new relationship, with Penny, and ended up married, almost without really knowing how.
After winning the jackpot on the lottery, he’d bought the house that he now lived in with Penny, pretending that the money came from his salary, lying about having a lucrative career. He’d splashed out on exotic holidays for her and the children, and lavish gifts for them. Then he’d met Loulla.
The thrill of having an affair went to his head. He liked the idea of being a James Bond type character, dating many women simultaneously. His wealth offered the freedom to turn his dreams into reality. For the first time in a long time, he woke up each morning without feeling the dread of humiliation that followed Olivia’s betrayal, without thinking of what he’d lost.
He’d met Sally next. He hadn’t intended them to have children together but it all spiralled out of control.
Starting from the enviable position of having too much time on his hands, he’d ended up with too many obligations.
Although the constant demands were hard to handle, a large black hole now opened up, occupying the space where his life had once been. He struggled to ignore the persistent dark thoughts telling him he might never see his children again. I’ll go and see a solicitor. I must have some rights...
As he made his way to the Underground, he noticed a man lying outside a coffee shop in a sleeping bag. In the past, he’d wondered how people ended up like that, ashamed of himself at times for being so accustomed to ignoring their plight, often not even noticing them. This man’s fate and his own now seemed infinitely more relatable. I’m homeless: the notion caused his heart to skip a beat. He couldn’t go to the house he’d shared with Penny, not for the foreseeable future. Catching his breath, he reassured himself that there was a reasonable amount of money left from the lottery win, so he could stay at a hotel until he worked out what to do next. The money wouldn’t last forever, though.
Anxiety took hold and he began to worry about the money running out. His frazzled brain raced ahead into the future and he pictured an old man, who looked a bit too familiar, his mirror image, sleeping on a park bench. He tried to focus on other things but his thoughts wandered to Olivia—they invariably did when anything in his life went wrong, as if an eternal circular pathway perpetually led back to her. Did she marry the man, the man with the face that frequently appeared in wishy-washy black and white flashbacks in Lucas’s mind? Were they still living together, happily, while his own life fell to pieces?
As that thought mocked him, it was thankfully eclipsed by a more positive one: he remembered Debbie, the single mother he’d met at the park. The idea of her reached out to him like a beacon. I’ll go to the park tomorrow... Maybe she’ll be there. I’ll have to think of a reason why I haven’t got the kids with me... Hmm... I’ll take her up on her offer of a date. We’ll visit Paris together—it was great seeing Delphine again...