‘This is fun,’ Mads says. She sounds surprised, which is fair. I didn’t exactly oversell our outing. Though it would have been hard to oversell a Friday afternoon girls’ football match. The timing is shit, because all the kids are exhausted by the end of the school week, but this club is a massive deal to Stella, and the kid has gumption. I have to hand it to her. She never complains about going to kick a ball around on cold, dark Fridays instead of hurrying home to the comfort of the den.
Sometimes Ruth and Nancy do the football honours, but Nancy’s nursing a cold so I’d rather she stay at home. Besides, work was quiet today, and my girlfriend was game for coming along to watch, so we ditched the office early and drove Stella out to Acton, where the seven-aside league happens.
It’s been a spectacular November day, and, beyond the pitches’ floodlights, the light is fading from a perfectly clear sky. The air is alive with boys and girls squealing, the coaches’ whistles, and their odd comedic bark of check your shoelaces! which I’m pretty sure never happens at Stamford Bridge. I have a coffee in hand, Mads is happily slurping a Bailey’s-laced version, and life is good.
It’s really fucking good.
After her meltdown and my declaration earlier this week, I’ve barely let her out of my sight. Somehow, I need to convey my utter love for, and adoration of, and trust in her without freaking her out so much she runs for the hills. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take, because allowing her to think for even a second that she’s not the most perfect partner for me in every way is not an option.
Which is why, once we’re done here, Mads and Stel and I will drive home where we’ll enjoy Friday night chilli and nachos courtesy of Ruth.
And then we will have The Sleepover, and I’m not sure who’s more excited: me, Mads, or the girls.
Just imagining having Mads in my bed makes my dick twitch, which is not appropriate at a kids’ football league, so I put those thoughts firmly out of my head and squeeze hard with the arm I’ve draped around her shoulders as I attempt to focus on Stel’s defence game, which has seriously improved this term. She’s not as shy, as polite as she was. She’s begun to see every second the opposition has the ball as a huge personal affront, and every attempt on goal as fucking rude. The goalie hasn’t made a single save yet. Stel hasn’t let the ball get anywhere near her.
I kiss Maddy’s temple as I clock another dad watching us in my peripheral vision. Fuck’s sake. I’ve lost track of the number of parents who’ve approached us on the most tenuous basis over the past twenty minutes. I haven’t missed the looks of curiosity or outright hostility the mums, particularly the divorced ones, have given Mads, nor the stark expressions of desire and jealousy on the dad’s faces, married or not.
You know what? I’ll take them all. They certainly beat pity, which is the only look I’ve seen from anyone since Claire passed.
Nor can I blame them. Maddy’s a fucking knockout, even at a kids’ football practice, and even in a pompom-topped beanie, huge Moncler duvet-like coat and wellies. There’s no denying her natural beauty. Her luminosity. My heart swells every time I look down at her. Every time I find myself able to brush my lips over her temple.
This astonishing woman, whom I’ll readily admit to having underestimated, even distrusted, when I first met her, has taken me as I am. Has shone her light on me. It’s equally trite and truthful to say she’s brought me back to life.
I suspect I never really distrusted her. More likely is that I distrusted myself. The overwhelming carnality of my reactions to her. No good can possibly come from this, I told myself.
I’m delighted to report I couldn’t have been more fucking wrong.
I raise my gaze to the sky. There’s the faintest trace of cerulean blue in the west. This time last year, the onset of winter made my depression even worse. The last of that precious light being wrung from our days had me wondering how the hell I’d put one foot in front of another as Christmas loomed.
This year, I have a light far brighter. One that sustains me, and gives me hope, and allows me to thrive.
The final whistle blows. Stel’s girls have won their match two-nil. Mads and I clap along with the rest of the parents as the kids stream off the pitches.
Fucking hell, Claire, I ask the sky silently as we wait. Did you see this coming? Because I didn’t. I did not see myself with this beautiful young woman. I barely saw myself having the strength to parent after we lost you. I had no fucking clue how half a man would do a job meant for the two of us.
Claire’s been quieter recently. Her presence feels softer. More distant. She makes me so happy, darling, I tell her. I have no idea how it’ll all pan out. Whether we’ll be enough for her. But it feels like she’s come into our lives at exactly the right time, and I want her to stay. I really fucking want her to stay so badly.
Do you like her? Or would you be like the other mums here? Judging me for taking up with someone her age? Forecasting our breakup before we’ve even given this thing a proper go? Would you think I was a sad, lonely man running after a beautiful, flighty creature instead of focusing on our kids?
Or would you give us the benefit of the doubt? Would you be generous enough to believe in us?
My eyes are stinging. I think you would, darling. I really fucking think you would.
Stella interrupts our musings by throwing her skinny little body straight at me. I let go of Mads and wrap my arms tightly around her.
‘You were so amazing!’ Mads is shouting. ‘Oh my God! You were like a brick wall! The goalie could have taken a nap!’
Stel is alive and golden and thrilled, her head tilted back, her still-too-large front teeth white as she laughs in delight. ‘Really? Seriously, did you guys think I was good?’
‘Good?’ I manage. ‘You were epic. Take off your bib and I’ll give you a shoulder ride back to the clubhouse.’
‘I want to walk with the girls,’ she says. She flashes us another brilliant smile as she tugs off her blue bib and runs to find her teammates. The coaches are efficiently chivvying them all to put the balls and bibs into the huge duffel bags on the ground before we all stroll the couple of hundred metres back to the clubhouse. I’m suddenly impatient to get my girls safely through the Friday evening traffic and back to the house.
Mads is beaming and saying something about what a great job Stel did out there. She seems so genuinely enthusiastic. ‘I love how aggressive she was!’ she says. ‘She’s like a pit-bull—I had no idea! She’s so strong, and I adore it.’
I laugh, as much at that accurate analogy as at the sudden rush of happiness I feel. Mads is content. She genuinely cares about my girls. This could work.
This could really be something.
I glance up at the now-dark sky.
See, darling? I beseech the sky silently. I think this will be good for us. I just wish you could tell us we have your blessing. I need your blessing so badly.
And then it starts.
The kids are walking in a snake punctuated by duffel-bag-toting coaches.
And out of nowhere in the evening air comes the sound of children singing.
In perfect harmony.
The song they’re singing?
I Want it That Way.
It fills the cold air like a heavenly chorus, and I jerk my head around to confirm that I am not losing the plot and that this is really happening.
This celestial-sounding, but utterly earthly, children’s choir has just spontaneously broken into song.
Claire’s favourite song.
Emotion hits me like a fucking freight train, and I squeeze Maddy’s hand too tight. I’m fighting not to clutch my stomach and bend in two, because Jesus Christ.
If I’m right, my late wife has just commandeered an entire children’s choir to give her husband and his new girlfriend her blessing.
Maddy squeezes my hand back. I glance at her. Her entire face is lit up. Although she can’t possibly be aware of the celestial string-pulling this must have taken, she’s as enchanted as I am.
‘How adorable is that?’ she murmurs. ‘They literally sound like angels.’
I smile at her with a heart so full it aches.
Thank you, darling, I tell my wife silently. And you are extraordinary.
‘Exactly like angels,’ I tell my girlfriend aloud.
Something’s niggling at the depths of my consciousness.
When we’ve driven a jubilant Stella home, singing The Backstreet Boys most of the way, it might be said, I leave my happy womenfolk in the kitchen for a moment, murmuring something about needing to check my emails.
Instead, I go up to my room and take a large box down from the top of the wardrobe.
My and Claire’s memory box.
Most of her stuff is in one of the spare rooms. Eventually, I found the strength to get rid of the bulk of her regular stuff: socks, toothbrushes, leggings. That kind of thing. Her more special clothes, in particular her dresses, are in moth-proof garment bags for the girls. We also have boxes and boxes of many of her personal items, from books to jewellery to her laptop. I couldn’t bear to part with any of those.
But this box is for us. We kept it going throughout our relationship. While our photos are all in the Cloud and scattered around the house in frames, this box holds everything from postcards we sent each other on rare solo trips to the Order of Service and menu cards from our wedding. It also contains a letter Claire wrote me while she was still strong enough to put pen to paper.
We had so little time, you see. So little time to make peace with what was happening. To prepare ourselves.
To say goodbye.
Claire made a few farewell videos, but they’re fucking hard to watch. We prefer to remember her in the carefree footage we amassed when we were totally oblivious to what lay ahead. When she was well and full of life.
Her letters, though, are something we’ll always treasure. There’s little trace of her illness between the lines.
Only her love for us.
The girls each have beautiful letters in each of their memory boxes, letters filled with the overwhelming love my wife had for her daughters. Filled with her own memories of their past and her hopes for their futures.
Mine’s a little different. It’s more frank. While the girls’ letters are a pep talk, mine is a stark portrayal of Claire’s own pain and guilt and terror over her passing.
Over leaving us to fend for ourselves.
She didn’t hold back. I wouldn’t have wanted her to. But it’s made it a difficult letter to revisit, and I realise I haven’t actually read it for a few months. Six or seven, maybe? The pain in every word is visceral.
The ending, though.
The ending is lighter, from what I recall. Jokey, even.
In fact, I’m pretty sure she joked about the unthinkable—my finding another love.
I unfold the thick cream paper and leaf through to the final page as I stare in disbelief at her oft-read, but newly significant, words.
Sometimes, you don’t understand what’s been written in the stars until those same stars have served their prophecy up to you.
At some point, my darling, when you’re ready, I’ll send you a new love, she wrote. She’ll be amazing. Nothing like me—obviously—because I’m a one-off. In fact, I’m going to find someone so different from me that she’ll make your head spin. But I have a feeling she’ll still leave unfinished cups of tea everywhere and sing the whole fucking time and drive you up the wall.
Because I’m mean like that. You didn’t think I’d leave you in peace, did you?
Although she will be seriously stunning—just like me :).
Because I’m not that mean. And you’re welcome.
Yours forever. In this life and the next.