The Crash: Chapter Five
If you've just dropped in now, you might want to flip back to chapters one, two, three and four. Otherwise, if you're already up to speed with the drama in the office, read on to get a glimpse into Jason's home life...
Terri frowned as her mobile bleeped. That'd be Jason, then. Late again. She didn't bother checking the message until after she'd ladled casserole onto two plates and set them on the table. She and Jessica would be eating alone again.
Sure enough, once the table was set and a loud shout had summoned Jessica to the table, she flicked open her message folder and saw that Jason had just texted that he was leaving the office. At six thirty. The time he'd claimed he'd be arriving home. For the third time in a week. Should she start ringing him at four thirty to remind him? But it'd only elicit a faithfully intended but completely meaningless promise that he'd be leaving, 'In a moment.' A moment which became an hour or two or three. She knew time was meaningless to him when he was working. It always had been, and at first she'd accepted it with amused tolerance because of his 'business genius.' After all, it had paid first for the small semi in the suburbs, then for the bigger, detached house in the country, Jessica's private school, Jason's Audi, Terri's neat little Mercedes convertible and, the most recent addition to the collection, Jess's even tinier Fiat. Only, sometimes, as she looked around the huge kitchen, with its stylishly warm terracotta flagstones, the rosy glow of the 'living flame' gas fire and the cork board stuffed with photos of shiny, glamorous charity dos, golf tournaments, sunny holidays and ski trips, all taken with people Jason loved to loathe but refused to avoid, she wished herself back in the poky, flaking kitchen at Parson Cross, where there had been a whole lot of tension, but also some real warmth instead of this textbook imitation.
"How was school?" she asked Jess in an effort to distract herself from Jason's latest thoughtlessness.
"Oh, you know," Jess shrugged, and took a large mouthful of the steaming casserole. "Ouch. It's hot." She made puffing noises to try and cool it, causing Terri to start laughing, which enraged the teenager still further.
"I could have been burned. I could sue."
For some reason, Terri found this even funnier. Jess stared at her, and then, as the mouthful of hot food cooled and became chewable, she too began to smile. Soon they were both laughing.
"No Dad," Jess asked when they eventually calmed down enough to return to their food.
"No. He's just left."
"Damn. I won't see him."
"Why? Where are you off to tonight?"
"Meeting Chloe and we're going to see Bethany in a dance show at the Drama Studio."
Somehow, strangely, despite Jason and Terri having no aspirations at all in that direction, Jess had surprised everyone by being hugely enthusiastic about, and talented in, theatre and dance.
"OK. Drive carefully, won't you?"
Jess rolled her eyes. "I always drive carefully. It's Dad you should be worrying about."
'I am,' Terri thought, but didn't say. "Dad's old enough to take care of himself," she said instead.
"That's charming. Is everything OK at Dad's work?"
"Whatever makes you ask that?"
Terri reached for some extra vegetables and avoided looking her daughter in the eye.
"He keeps working late, and when he's here, he's not here, if you know what I mean."
Once again, Terri fought laughter.
"That sounded very paradoxical."
"I suppose. You know what I mean though. His mind's somewhere else."
"I think they're just busy," Terri said vaguely, but Jess's concern shook her. The truth was, her mind had been somewhere else too. And somewhen else. Back in Parson Cross, in the early days of their marriage - two youngsters and a baby crammed into a small, ugly brick block of a house, constantly falling over pushchairs and piles of papers... and happy. Had she been too preoccupied with the changes in Jason's behaviour and their lives together to notice the reason they'd happened? Maybe he wasn't just an angry, selfish idiot. Maybe he was an angry, selfish, scared idiot. Terri wasn't sure whether that was better or worse.
"If you say so," Jess said, without any great conviction. "Do you think I should change for tonight?" She'd come in from school and immediately thrown on pale jeans and a comfortable, fluffy peach sweater. To Terri's mind, she looked beautiful, but then, to Terri's proud, motherly eyes, she looked beautiful whatever she wore. But if she said as much, she knew Jess would go straight back into teenage eye-rolling mode, so instead she asked what seemed a sensible question, "Do you think Chloe will be dressed up?"
"Oh Mum," Jess said, with a smirk that was only one step off the eye-rolling reaction, "Chloe's Chloe."
Which seemed to be as much explanation as Terri was deemed to require, since Jess followed it up by getting up and announcing, "I think I'll just straighten my hair and put some mascara on."
"Take your plate out while you're going, please," Terri requested. Jess did so, with a grudging sigh.
Occasionally Terri wondered if they'd spoiled her. But you wanted your kids to have the best of everything, didn't you? Especially when you hadn't had the best of anything, yourself. She knew she and Jason had overcompensated in some ways for their own struggling pasts, but surely that was human nature, and harmless enough. Jess had grown up into a pretty, popular girl, and if she did even less than the small measure of housework that was expected of her, well, there were worse crimes than that for a teenager.
Terri looked up at the picture of her stunning, smiling daughter in her official prom dress in pride of place at the centre of the cork board, and smiled. It seemed they had got something right. She looked so lovely, with her dark eyes widened with black liner, her long hair tumbling over her smooth, pale shoulders, her trim figure laced into a rich burgundy dress which had set Jason back more than Terri’s first wage check, and her long legs teetering in ridiculous burgundy satin heels.
What was the matter with Terri tonight? Having laughed uproariously most of the way through dinner, she was now becoming teary just looking at the picture of her daughter’s prom night – even though she’d spent most of the day battling irritation with both Jess and her father.
Jess was right, she thought now. There was something more than normally distant and dark about Jason at the moment. It was as if he had a demon sitting on his shoulder, whispering in his ear. When you spoke to him, he answered, but it was in an absent-mindedly impatient way, as if something far more important was happening just over there, and he was reluctant to drag his attention away from it to answer your foolish, mundane query. She’d taken it as just the typical male tendency to overrate the importance of one’s own interests as against the trivial sphere of child-rearing and domesticity, but now that Jess had said it, she saw that it was more than that. Jason looked tortured. How could she not have seen it?
The trouble was, it had been so long since she and Jason had a real conversation, it was hard to imagine how she could start finding out what was happening in his world.
The routine, 'How was your day?' invariably elicited an equally routine, 'Fine. Tough, but it's always tough at the top, right?' And more than that, she couldn't recall having got since... well, probably back in Parsons Cross.
Maybe she could have tried harder, but Jason didn't exactly make it easy for her to get close, find out what he was up to, or show any sympathy or concern. And was it really worth the effort of trying to find out what was wrong, when he so hated to show any sign of weakness?
She was still pondering this, her hands up to their wrists in suds and the dishes still suspiciously unwashed (the more suspicious since for the last five years every dinnertime had been followed by the dishwasher rinse cycle), when Jess came down and called, "I'm off."
"Have fun, darling," she replied, relieved that Jess didn't come through to see her standing absent-mindedly at the sink, with the scourer held motionless to a dirty pot in a way that suggested she'd temporarily forgotten how to wash up.
The truth was, it wasn't just how to wash up that she seemed to have forgotten. It was how to live in Jason's world.
Or perhaps she'd never known. It occurred to her now that they'd always had their spheres: he the business, she the home. And as long as Jess was small, and needed her, she'd never minded being excluded from his world. But now that their daughter was a beautiful, and perceptive, young woman, who no longer needed her attention, she didn't know where to turn.
It was with new eyes that she looked at Jason when he finally slouched in at nearly eight o'clock, looking, as Jess had said, somewhat downtrodden. She'd taken it for tiredness after a busy day in the office and a long commute, but was there something more, a flicker in his eyes as he answered her routine enquiry that she could almost have taken for fear?
Whatever it was, it emboldened her to press on with an unusual second question.
"Anything much happen at the office today?" she asked, as she ladled the remains of the casserole onto the plate which had been warming in the oven for the past hour.
"Not much. My P.A. and my Engineering Manager both quit, and I got a phone call five minutes before I was due to leave, from one of our biggest customers, who wants to cancel his order, and I had to spend an hour on the phone with him even to convince him to meet me and tell me why, but apart from that..." He gave a weary shrug. "The usual unusual."
She looked at him curiously. Two key members of staff had quit and one of his biggest customers was threatening to take away his business, and this was usual? Perhaps Jess was right. There seemed to be a lot she didn't know about Jason’s company.
She took a long look at Jason’s face as he ate. When had those lines appeared around his eyes? And was it just her now over-active imagination, or had the streaks of grey at the temples become more pronounced overnight?
"Is there still some of that red?" he asked, putting an end to further conversation.
"Of course," Terri answered, taking the wine from the counter and two crystal glasses down from the cupboard. She poured two, set one on the table in front of him, and took a deep gulp from the other.
"Cheers," he said ironically, lifted his glass and downed it in one mouthful, then held it out for a top-up.
She poured, and held her still half-full glass to his.
"Cheers," she responded, clinking the glasses together. A superstitious streak Terri hadn't admitted in a long time sent a shiver down her spine. The ring of crystal had a sad, hollow sound, and the light from the chrome spotlights gleamed off the wine as if off a shimmering pool of blood.