The café wasn’t smart. They served only filter coffee, and the milk came in a tiny metal jug with a sticky handle. Esther could not mistake Gerard’s wife when she arrived: her bobbed, honey and caramel hair; her gold heart pendant worn outside a dark grey polonecked jumper. She had groomed herself to meet her husband’s girlfriend. As soon as Esther saw her she caught herself wondering whether Gerard had picked out the pendant for his wife, laid it on the passenger seat as he drove home from work to his wife’s birthday dinner. He had given Esther a pendant too, a silver chain with a rose quartz drop. Rose quartz, he had pointed out, was the stone of love, if you believed in that kind of thing.
Esther stood up, knocking the table with her thigh so that milk splashed out of the jug.
‘You must be Maria,’ she said.
Maria pleated her mouth quickly, once, as if she were printing lipstick from her top lip onto her bottom lip, and sat down.
‘I wanted to meet you,’ she said. Esther nodded. Maria could lay claim to all honesty and openness, while anything she, Esther, would ever say again would be coloured by her deceit. Gerard had known Maria through all the days which had etched the soft crow’s feet into her face. Her grey eyes were the eyes that had held Gerard’s for over twelve years, her hands the ones that Gerard’s body knew.
‘I wanted to see you face to face,’ Maria said, ‘I wanted to—acknowledge— that you’re living with my husband.’
Esther placed her palms on the table. It was cool and greasy. An imperfect leg meant it rocked under the pressure of her hands.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, looking at the backs of her naked fingers.
Maria held the edge of the table to steady it. ‘I had a dream,’ she said. ‘A couple of nights ago. I had a dream that I murdered you.’
Esther held her breath for some seconds, then eased it out between her teeth. ‘I’m sorry.’
Maria nodded. ‘I’m sure you are.’ She stood up and let go of the table, so that it rocked again under Esther’s hands. ‘I just wanted to meet you.’ She slid a thumb under the strap of the brown leather bag that hung from her shoulder, and left. Esther poured the rest of the milk into the drop of coffee left in her cup and drank it. It tasted disgusting. Gerard couldn’t have bought it for her: she wouldn’t still be wearing a heart-shaped pendant he had given her. She must hate him.
Gerard always went to sleep first. Sex made him sleepy, and he had to get up early for work, so it was hard to make much of an argument for keeping him awake. He was a big man, six four and sturdily built, there was no missing him in the bed. Esther loved that. She loved, too, that he had been so ready to come and live with her, that he had littered her coffee-and-cream bedroom with such black, male things as his shining brogues, that he crowded her wardrobe with his huge overcoat.
‘He’s like a dog marking his territory,’ Esther’s sister remarked, kicking a pair of socks under the bed, but it showed Esther that he wasn’t ashamed of their relationship, that he was happy to mingle their possessions. She had to change the bedclothes more often now, because he sweated at night and the sheets quickly felt limp, but she didn’t mind. It was outweighed by the pleasure of his scent in her nostrils when she woke each day, the solidity of his body when she bumped against it in the dark. She pushed her face against his arm and he lifted it and wrapped it around her; she felt as small as one of his children, compared to him.
She wondered how the murder in the dream had been committed, whether Maria had witnessed or experienced it, the slitting of the throat or the beating to a pulp, or whether she just knew, as you did in dreams, that it had happened. Esther pulled her cheek away from Gerard’s dampish chest. She wouldn’t tell him about meeting Maria. Nothing of consequence had been said.
At Hallowe’en Gerard’s children, Saoirse and Finian, came to dinner after trick-or-treating on Maria’s road. Gerard had told Esther that Maria had chosen their names, nine and eleven years ago. Esther made an effort with dinner, and threw a handful of bat-shaped confetti over the tablecloth before they sat down. The supermarket had been full of chocolate pumpkins and ghosts, and spray cans of cobwebs, but Esther had thought the children might be too old for all that, and she had read that it was better to pitch up, rather than down, where children were concerned. Gerard brought the children into the flat with their faces still painted, hauling full trick-or-treat bags. Someone had put a thick plastic cup into Saoirse’s bag, a goblet coloured to look like metal, with rivets and slash marks on it. Gerard said she could use it during dinner, so Esther decanted cranberry juice into it from a glass.
‘I’m drinking blood,’ Saoirse said, sipping from the goblet and holding Esther’s eyes over its rim. Saoirse’s eyes were grey, though Gerard’s were blue. Esther smiled at her, because she couldn’t yet reprimand the children, and didn’t know if Saoirse was allowed to be gory or not. Gerard, still tense from seeing Maria at the handover, was drinking beer from the bottle.
‘Mmm,’ Saoirse said. ‘I love blood.’ She picked up a sticky chicken leg from her plate and gnawed at it with her luminous plastic fangs, but they fell out; Gerard wiped them on a pumpkin-print paper napkin and said she could have them back when dinner was over.
‘Was this a happy chicken?’ Finian asked Esther, waving his drumstick. Esther looked at Gerard.
‘Maria buys only organic chickens,’ he said. ‘Chickens which have had happy lives.’
‘Until they get their heads chopped off,’ Saoirse pointed out. ‘They’re not happy then.’
‘Well, sorry, but it’s not organic,’ Esther said. She made sure to sound cheerful. ‘I think it probably had a happy life, though. I’m sure it spent its life…’ She couldn’t think of how to describe the chicken having a happy life without sounding like a toddlers’ television presenter. ‘I’m sure it had a happy life.’
Finian dropped his drumstick and reached into his Hallowe’en bag. ‘I think I’ll just have some popcorn, thanks.’
Esther loved Gerard, and the children were part of him. It was straightforward: there was no question of not liking them. She had spoiled their home and taken their father, and if they wanted to drink her blood she would just have to open a vein and let them.
After dinner they drove to Dun Laoghaire and walked part of the way up the pier. Fireworks exploded on the other side of the bay, drowning the gentle clacking of the spinnakers, and Gerard took Esther’s hand. When the children raced ahead to the bandstand he held her back.
‘I love you,’ he said. ‘This will work.’ He kissed her; because it was a cold night, his nose was running, but she didn’t wipe her face in case his feelings were hurt.
Esther sold her flat, and they bought a house near enough to the pier that they could walk to it the next Hallowe’en. The children spent Hallowe’en night with Maria, but they stayed one night a week with Esther and Gerard from then on, usually a Friday night so that Maria could go out after work. Esther and Gerard did the Saturday morning ferrying to football and birthday parties and swimming lessons, and Esther started to think of them as a family. She didn’t make the weekend plans with Maria: it was always Gerard who rang, or who answered the phone when Maria’s number was displayed, and it seemed like an appropriately respectful arrangement. Esther didn’t see Maria, so she didn’t know whether she still wore the heart pendant which Gerard might or might not have bought for her, which he might have bought because he loved her, or might have bought because he felt guilty for not loving her. He did buy her a Christmas present: Esther knew this because on Christmas Eve he told her he was calling over to his old house, Maria’s house, to drop it in, and to say merry Christmas to the children, whose presents were already wrapped and hidden in the house.
Esther kissed him before he left. He wore the large overcoat but carried no bag. The present for Maria had to be either so small (jewellery, perfume, a cheque?) that he could carry it in a pocket, or so large (a laptop, a painting, garden furniture?) that it was handier to have left it in the boot of the car. Esther lit the fire and put on the television and the tree lights. She drank port, as it was Christmas Eve, and thought that she might have made arrangements to go out if she had known Gerard was not going to be here.
‘Have you been drinking?’ she asked, when he came in and kissed her awake in her armchair. ‘You were driving.’
‘A couple of hot whiskeys, that’s all,’ he said.
‘But you were driving.’
‘I was just being festive. Saw the kids doing their stockings, getting into bed. We had a few drinks once they were settled.’
‘Was it a few, or a couple, then, which was it? Why did Maria give you drink?’ Is she dreaming about killing you, now? The port was heavy on her head and she remembered last Christmas, their first together, when Gerard hadn’t seen Saoirse and Finian for the three days and she had watched how it had crippled him. She tried to pull herself together. I shouldn’t have had all that port myself, she thought, because she was starting to keep track of her cycle, and cutting down on the drink, and having daydreams. Sometimes her daydreams tailed off when there was birth, and blood, in them, and she thought about Maria, and how the children must have rushed out of her in a river of blood and tangled cords, and how Gerard had watched her open her legs and give him his children. Being a mother gave Maria the edge. As if she needed it.
Esther was pregnant when she started bleeding in bed one morning. They knew because she had taken two tests, special ones which worked right from the day she should have had her period, and they had given her a positive, each time. Gerard rolled over to her when she cried out from the shock of seeing blood on her fingers.
‘Is it spotting?’ he asked, gruff from sleep, and she had a couple of seconds of clarity to think that only a man who had already had two children with someone else would know the possibility of such a thing, and the appropriate term.
‘No,’ she said, because she could tell that her womb was letting the baby go, and then she cried the word over and over, no, no, no, like an order. She sat up to see bright blood spreading on the sheet, a surprisingly small amount for such a tearing loss, and she moved her fingertips over the wet red patch as if it were a message in Braille, feeling for a tiny lump or clot or anything that might have been a living baby just a minute before, but there was nothing.
No more babies caught inside her long enough to grow, and it wasn’t even a year later than Gerard broke it to Esther that he had met someone else. ‘No,’ she said, as if in disbelief, but she did believe him. He went out, later, while she sat on the end of the bed they had shared, and plucked hairs one by one from her head and discarded them, watching them float to the floor.
Once Gerard was gone for good, she swept the last of his beard hairs from the bathroom basin, examining them on the pad of her index finger before flushing them away under the tap, and took down the new three hundred thread count sheets she’d been hoarding at the top of the airing cupboard. They would feel clean and fresh on the king-size bed for days if it held only her, but what was the point of luxury sheets for one?
Gerard called to the house, looking for things. He collected his clothes, and packed the CDs he had paid for into a box. Esther let him take what he wanted. She couldn’t remember who had paid for what: she had not taken note. It had not occurred to her that one day things would belong to one or the other of them rather than both. He left his new address and landline number on a sheet of paper stuck to the fridge with a magnet shaped like a foaming bottle of beer.
The emptiness of the house without Gerard and the children was overpowering. Esther stayed at work late and saw every film in the cinema, to avoid being in the house alone. She burst into tears passing the hole Gerard had drilled in the wrong place when he was putting up the shelves in the hall, touching his handwritten labels on the plum jam she had made months before, pulling out of the too-small letterbox the envelopes addressed to him and to them. On Saturday mornings she lay in the empty bed and listened to the mothers on the road shouting caution to rollerblading children and whistling up dogs; she took sleeping pills to push herself through to the end of the weekend until she could distract herself at work. Eventually, she chose a card in the local shop, a botanical drawing of a geranium, and wrote to Gerard’s new girlfriend.
They met in a restaurant on the seafront, arriving awkwardly at the same time, acknowledging one another and fussing over who would go first through the door, as if it mattered. The girlfriend looked about Esther’s age, perhaps ten years younger than Gerard, and pretty. Seeing her in the flesh, being this close to her flushed cheeks and her strong, clean-looking teeth, was worse than Esther had expected.
‘So. You’re sleeping with Gerard.’
The girlfriend’s breath, when she sighed across the table, was not offensive. It smelt almost as if it had been perfumed.
‘I had to see you,’ said Esther. ‘Face to face. Otherwise I’d have bumped into you somewhere, maybe the two of you together, you and Gerard.’
The girlfriend nodded. There were tears on her cheeks, just a couple, and the quality of their wet paths showed Esther that her fresh complexion was natural.
Esther leaned closer to her and watched the tears gather and spill as she spoke. ‘I had a dream, you know. I dreamed that I murdered you.’
She had had no such dream, but she had to marshal what weaponry she could.