Stephen first noticed her one October evening as he was driving home from work. The re-laying of sewers along the Swansea road had been a constant feature of his journey for months. That day, the temporary traffic lights had moved again, and he was stuck in his car waiting for light to go green, looking around in the gathering gloom of dusk. It had got to the stage where people were turning lights on in the houses, but hadn't yet started to close their curtains. Stephen looked to the far side of the road, and saw a small neat cottage; one of the downstairs rooms was lit, and he could make out, with intrusive clarity, a woman setting cutlery on the table. Two candles were already burning in elegant simple candlesticks. On the wall behind the table there were small framed pictures and blue-and-white plates. He was enchanted, as much by the room as the figure; he had once thought that he would occupy such a house, everything just so.
The light changed to green, and he arrived home shortly afterwards. That night, Stephen was short with his wife, who was rushing around preparing a meal now that she had come back from work, and he shouted at the kids, quarreling on the sofa while Neighbours flickered on, ignored.
Stephen had always enjoyed commuting; he valued the solitude and order of the self-contained world, such a contrast to the chaos and demands of home and the tedious misery of work. But he found over the succeeding week that he was looking forward to the view through the window as the highlight of his day; he came to know the cottage well. He though of the woman as ‘Laura Ashley’; she had long dark hair, with a headband and pearl earrings. She radiated self-possession; it was a joy to watch her concentrating on setting the table as though it were the most important thing, perhaps the only thing, in her mind; this habitual seriousness masked her beauty. He also saw her daughter, smart in her school uniform, helping her mother, or sometimes playing the recorder. This model of contentment pierced Stephen to the heart, and he found himself wondering how he had ended up with his life, his family, his job.
There had been a time when he had assumed that this would be his lot. Until finishing his law degree, he had expected to end up a wealthy and sleek solicitor dealing with businessmen; but somehow he had gone down a different path, and was now working for a local practice specialising in deserving (i.e. poor) divorces, conveyancing and small legacies. Now he had become entrapped in a whirl of lack of time, lack of money, lack of peace. Correspondingly, his mood deteriorated as autumn passed, and he found himself losing patience with his wife and children, a symptom of his dissatisfaction. He was no longer troubled by a daily advertisement of another life: as the days shortened, all the houses had their curtains closed as he drive home, but each journey past the cottage disturbed his mood and ruined his day.
In the week before Christmas, he had a shock. He was just shutting the door of his office at the end of the day when he saw ‘Laura’ coming out of his partner’s office, across the hall. She was muffled by scarf and hat, but he recognised her quickly enough. She walked off down the hall; Stephen glanced into Cassie’s room through the still-open door, and saw her tidying her desk. She looked up and smiled slightly. “Still here?”
Stephen went in. “Just putting off the awful hour - you know what my place is like.”
Cassie looked more serious. “Did you see that last client - the woman?”
“Yes- what was she here for?”
“The usual: a divorce. Her husband's a workaholic and an obsessive; when he gets home in the evening, he does a sort of inspection of the house, her, the girl; if anything is out of place he flies into a rage, throwing furniture about and shouting. The last straw had been last night: she spilled some wine on the tablecloth, and he had beaten her up.”
Stephen paused in shock, then nodded slowly. He said, almost to himself, “I wondered why she had covered her face so well”.
Cassie shook her head “God, imagine living like that! We’re well out of it”.
The drive home seemed less gloomy than usual; Stephen as he pulled up outside the house. The kid's bedroom lights were on, and he could make out their shouts and laughter above the music from their rooms as he walked up to the door. He greeted his wife with a hug, discarding his longing for an ordered existence.