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Catsback

Go or Stay

She could go or she could stay, it was as simple as that. All she had to do was decide.

The house was quiet, with the baby asleep in his basket. She reached down and hooked the cover away from his face with her finger, then traced the line of a crease on his cheek. Today was a distant day, when nothing seemed to belong to her, not even the child. She watched the small rhythm of his breath for a moment longer then went to the kitchen drawer for paper and a pencil.

Column 1 – Go, column 2 – Stay.

She separated the two with a straight line, drawn freehand the length of the page. A good eye, her arts teacher had said. A flair. There was a portfolio somewhere, from her sixth form exhibition. Charcoal portraits of street sleepers, the series of acrylics in Umbria, the last holiday she took with her mum.

She hadn't seen pictures for a while; they were made by someone else, not the woman sitting here.

Go or stay.

She thought she heard a noise outside and went to the window in the front room, but there was no one at the door. And if anyone did arrive, it wouldn't be him. She checked her watch – 3 p.m. It would be a good twelve hours before he got home, if he came back at all. Strange clients who kept him out so late every night, but she'd given up asking. And given up sleeping in their bed. The cushions on the floor of the baby's room were comfortable enough, and sleeping there she no longer reached out to feel an empty pillow in the night.

On her way back to the kitchen she picked up the post that had waited on the mat since morning. Nothing from the bank today, for a change. Just one letter, addressed to him but she opened it anyway. He'd agreed to that during their last truce, the time he cried and asked for forgiveness and promised to get help. Or was that the time before?

She scanned the letter quickly, familiar with the format, just looking for the amount outstanding. Under £1,000, barely worth considering in the scheme of things. She smoothed the paper flat and added it to one of the piles stacked neatly at the end of the kitchen table. She'd found most of the letters one day when she'd raided his study, stuffed into a draw, unopened.

The men who'd arrived to repossess the Porsche, that's what'd done it. One tall, one short, both with shaven heads and suits and dead fish eyes. The neighbours had watched as the car was lifted onto a trailer and driven away, and the baby had started to cry and she'd phoned the office but he wasn't there, and she'd tried his mobile but it was off and she'd gone back inside and bolted the door and closed all the windows and sat in the back room, rocking the baby to sleep.

Where had they been this time last year, Thailand? They weren't even living together then; he'd turned up at her flat with the tickets and a new green silk dress that fitted her perfectly, of course. Their flight was the next morning – buy what you need when you get there, he'd said – and they were still drunk on the champagne he'd brought when the taxi came to collect them at 7 a.m.

What had she expected to find in his room? Letters from a lover, photographs? And if she had, would that have been better or worse? In the end it made no difference, it was betrayal whichever way you looked at it.

She shivered in a sudden breeze from the open back door, and rubbed at the goose bumps on her arm; she should put on a warmer top. Hormones still up the creek, and none of her clothes fitted. What had he paid for that green dress – a thousand, easy, from somewhere in New Bond Street – and now she wouldn't even be able to get it past her thighs.

Go or stay. She'd talked to someone at the clinic, the nearest thing to a friend. Tanya, a thin, dark girl from the Ukraine with a baby so hairy it could have lived in a tree. You must be lonely, yes, Tanya had said. No man, no good.

But she had a man, even if he rarely came home. She wasn't like Tanya, scrawny and single in a one-room apartment. No, she had a man with an important job, even if the car had gone and the house was going and all his money went up his nose and God knows where else. And he said he still loved her, even though she looked like a sow with greasy hair and smelt of sick all the time.

Count your blessings, don't be alone.

The baby made a warm, sleepy murmur from his basket, but before going to pick him up she took the empty sheet of paper, smoothed it flat and added it to the pile.

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