"Look, James. Can you see? There’s Mummy. There’s Daddy. And, look, there’s James.” I exaggerated, pointing at the smiling faces on the piece of thin glossy card in my hand; James sat promptly on my lap gawking down at it too. I couldn’t count how many times I’d sat down with him and shown him this particular photograph and told him time and time again exactly who was smiling back at us. It was the photograph Mum had taken on the three of us on his first birthday earlier this year and I guess the reason why I showed it to him so often was because a part of me wanted to make sure that, no matter where in the world he was, that I was him Mummy and that Ben was his Daddy and that we both loved him so very much.
“Dadda!” James answered, taking one of his podgy fingers and placing it over Ben’s face. I smiled weakly and kissed the top of his head gently, his tufty curls brushing against my chin.
“Yes,” I replied back quietly, glancing up at the clock on the mantelpiece, “that’s right… Dadda.” The joy of Christmas day had been disturbed by the nerves that had been building up in rapid flutters each time I gazed at the clock face and the ticking hands that seemed to be moving so much slower than any other day. Three o’ clock he’d said. It was ten past now. Though I knew that he would come, and that he’d never been brilliant at keeping to an arranged time, I wished that he would just turn up already so that I could put my nerves to rest and face him.
I’d told him that I loved him and I could honestly say that I felt I did… Iknewthat I did. I hadn’t known just how much I really loved him until he’d gone sour on the whole idea of us getting back together again and had backed away again. Why had I told him about the first time Marc and I kissed!? At the time I’d felt I had to – that I owed it to him. He’d been cheated on before in the past – by his ex, Amanda – and had gotten so mad about it that I had to tell him so that he could decide what he felt and how he wanted to deal with it. Unfortunately, for me, he’d decided to escape the situation and “think about things”, as he’d put it so bluntly.
James squirmed on my lap and was reaching out towards his building blocks on the floor. I lifted him off my lap and placed him on his feet, letting his run towards the centre of the room to play. The house was quiet. Mum had gone to her sister’s house, my Aunty Jane, and Theresa and Jerry weren’t spending Christmas with us this year. They’d decided to stay in Scotland and spend the holidays with their children – the children they had left – to try and create some stability. It was their first Christmas without their second-to-youngest son and they didn’t want to bring a downer to mine or Mum’s festivities. Much to Theresa’s displeasure, they’d also accepted my request to have James stay with us for the duration of the Christmas season. It had been wonderful having James wake up beside me in his cot and having him opening his presents with just Mum and I without having Theresa McFarlow watching over with her beady little eyes in a hawk-like manner.
I did feel sorry for them though. They’d lost two sons of their own and now they didn’t even have my little James with them. I knew that Theresa must have resented me for taking him away but, after all, he’smyson and not hers. Besides, if things panned the way I liked, I hoped to have James living with me permanently within the next couple months. By then I would be eighteen and James would be celebrating his second birthday. It was always agreed that I would consider taking full custody of him when he hit this age and I knew that I wouldn’t be changing my mind any time soon.
My body froze when my senses hit high alert as the sound of tires against the tarmac of the driveway filled my ears. For a moment, I’d forgotten how to breathe and, only when I began to feel slightly light headed, sucked in a haggard deep breath through my nose and exhaled quietly through my mouth, fresh and vicious nerves creeping across every inch of my skin and coating my stomach in a heavy, thick lining. The car door slammed shut and the rhythmic thud of his footsteps, as he approached the front door, were nothing compared to the uneven beats of my racing heart. When the shriek of the doorbell rang throughout the whole house, I felt as though my entire body was paralysed and was unsure whether I was even capable of standing up on my own two feet to answer the door. Contrary to this, I shot up – a little too quickly, causing blood to rush to my head – and headed to the front door before I could talk myself out of it. My vision was slightly blurred but as soon as I reached for the door handle, twisted, and pulled open the heavy wooden door I melted on the spot.
“Merry Christmas.” He murmured, avoiding eye contact and standing awkwardly on the doorstep, one hand in his jeans pocket, with a small stack of beautifully wrapped presents in shiny blue paper tucked under his arm, and his other hand nervously being run through the hair on the back of his head; he really could have done with a haircut, but that was nowhere near the top of either mine or his lists of important things to do. Whenever he did look me in the eye it was only brief and blank, only showing how uncomfortable he felt about the situation.
“Merry Christmas,” I replied, smiling weakly and briefly. The crisp, winter air kissed my cheeks and sent shivers through my skin; I wasn’t dressed appropriately to be stood hanging around in a doorway in the middle of one of the coldest winters to date, “was you going to come in?”
“I-err…” he began, his expression already telling me that he had no intention of staying, “I don’t think so. No, I’m not. I just came to drop of Jamie’s…James’present, is all.”
“You can call him Jamie, you know. I’ve learnt not to let it bother me so much,” I answered, smirking slightly but letting it go mere seconds after. Now wasn’t the time to be trying to be cute or funny, “he’ll be ever so disappointed you’re not going to see him on Christmas day, you know.”
“He probably doesn’t even realise that it’s Christmas day.” He answered.
“That’s beside the point, Ben.”
“I know, but let’s not make matters worse than they actually are, yeah? Of course I want to see him but I don’t want things to get more awkward than they already are, alright Case?” his words were wounding and stung slightly but he had a point. I sighed, reaching out to retrieve James’ presents from him, ready to close the door on him, when James came bounding in from the living room, wondering where I’d gone, and stuck his head around the doorframe. He peered up and looked up at Ben, his Daddy. A large grin spread across his face.
“Dadda!” he exclaimed, running towards him, arms outstretched and giggling away.
“Hey, matey!” Ben replied, a much more cheerful and happier tone added to his voice, picking him up and throwing him into the air. I noticed the gleam in his eye when he heard James say his name and the emotion that he must have felt when it hit his heart. If it wasn’t for me standing before him he might have even cried, like I had. I let my arm drop to my side as Ben held James in his arms and tickled his belly letting his infectious laugh fill the street, “Merry Christmas, James. Look what Daddy’s got for you.” He retrieved one of the presents from under his arm and flashed it in front of James’ eyes. He reached out for it and clung onto it tight.
“Come on let’s go back inside before you catch your death of cold, James.” I said. I regretted saying it as soon as it left my lips. I didn’t need further reminding that Marc wasn’t here anymore and that I should, possibly, still be grieving his loss. I smiled weakly at Ben and reached out for James. Ben sighed, wrapping his arms from around our son, handing him back over. James, however, didn’t like this and resisted.
“Now, now, James. Be good. Go back to Mummy.” Ben told him. I could hear the guilt and sadness in his voice that he had to leave. The prospect and possibility of not seeing him for days, weeks or months must have been so hard for him – I could only compare it to how I felt when James was in Scotland and I was at home in England – and I really felt sorry for Ben.
James began to wail in my arms and was squirming, trying to get back to Ben. I glanced back over to him with a pleading expression on my face.
“What’s five minutes?” I asked him, almost begging him. I’d not seen James this upset before and, to be honest, had no idea how I was ever going to be able to get him to calm down. Ben stood there trying to find a good enough excuse to decline but, at the same time, knew that he couldn’t bring himself to leave right away.
“Okay,” he answered, sounding somewhat defeated. He stepped over the threshold and shut the front door briskly behind him. I moved to the side to let him pass and shushed James down, “ten minutes tops.”
“The – err – clothes are from my parents. They said that a kid can never have too many clothes when they’re that age.” Ben commented as James clawed at the wrapping paper revealing a pair of infant sized jeans and a rugby shirt in the colours of the local team; that would have been John’s idea, “they might be a little big on him, though; we weren’t sure what size he’d be.”
“Not to worry, he can always grow into them.” I replied, smiling down at James beautifully jolly face. Ben and I had managed to calm him down and get him to stop crying by bribing him with chocolates from one of the many selection boxes Mum and I had been given from friends and family; of course, they were nut free chocolates, we definitely didn’t want to have another scare and trip to the hospital like on my last birthday. Along with the jeans and shirt from Ben’s parents, James had also been given a toy fire engine from his Daddy and was mesmerised by the flashing lights and bright colours. Personally, I didn’t think Ben had exactly chosen an age appropriate gift for him, particularly as there was 5+ age mark on the side of the packaging, but the idea and the thought was all that mattered, “Thank you.” I said, glancing up at Ben through my eyelashes, trying to make the situation as bearable as was physically possible.
“No problem,” he answered, not taking his eyes off James. He’d tried to keep the conversation between the two of as little as possible. He was uncomfortable and I knew that all he wanted to do was leave, even if it meant leaving his son after spending just a short time with him.
“Now that you’re here…” I began, but Ben cut in before I could finish.
“I didn’t come here to talk, Casey.” He told me flat out. He glanced up at me with a stern, yet hurt, look in his eyes. They lingered longer than he’d initially intended and he stood up quickly, removing James from his lap and sitting him next to me on the sofa. James’ lip began to tremble and Ben noticed. He knew that he couldn’t leave, not just for James but for his own sake, and I was the only thing stopping him from staying.
“Ben, please.” I uttered, tears brimming in my eyes.
“No!” he shouted. The abruptness shocked me, setting my frame rigid. James began to whimper and cowered in my side. Ben’s breathing was deep and heavy in an attempt to calm down. He was trying his hardest not to cry in front of me and his expression showed that he had never meant to shout; I had caused him to shout with my persistent begging and pestering. He continued, much quieter this time and much calmer, “I… I justcan’t, okay? I need time to… to just get my head around it all.”
“Please, let me explain.”
“Casey, please just be quiet for once will you?” he pleaded, swaying gradually from one foot to the other before seating himself back to his original place on the sofa beside James, who was still sniffling into my side. Ben looked longingly at him, regretting raising his voice and scaring him, before turning back and looking me in the face again, “Why?” he simply asked.
“Why what?” I murmured, slightly unsure of his question, but having a pretty good feeling all the same.
“Why did you kiss him?” he asked again, slightly sterner this time around. I closed my eyes and sighed, composing myself before returning my gaze at his painfully longing face.
“He kissed me, Ben. Not the other way around.”
“But you kissed him back?”
“Not at first.”
“Yes.”I answered. Our quick fire question and answer sessions in the past had never been as intense as the one we’d just performed then. We both paused briefly, giving us time to think and collect ourselves.
“And did you enjoy it?” he continued, an edge to his voice. I could hear his pleading thoughts lingering around every word as the hoped that I’d say the right answer.
“Not at first.” I confessed. Ben paused.
“But you did after?”
“Maybe a little.” I’d said the wrong answer. Ben’s head shot away quickly as he took in my words. He rested his forehead in the palm of his hand and sighed loudly before turning back to face me. Blank.
“When was it? When did it happen?”
“Just before you arrived in Scotland,” I answered truthfully, tear drops beginning to fall down my cheeks, “if it wasn’t for you arriving when you did things could have been a lot more complicated.”
“What do you mean?” he stated, teeth beginning to clench and fists beginning to tighten. I took in a deep breath and closed my eyes.
“We were on the bed and he was in the middle of unfastening my belt when you rang the doorbell.” I spat out. I winced and turned my head away slightly, fearing the worst that perhaps Ben might lose his temper and hit me but, surprisingly, nothing happened. I peered back over to Ben through my eyelashes and took in the astonished expression that had spread across his face. His mouth was hanging open a fraction and his eyes were wild. Wild with anger? They should have been. I couldn’t be sure, especially as his arching eyebrows gave the impression that he was slightly… upset? James climbed away from me and off the sofa, returning to his building blocks. I turned back to face Ben, tucking a strand of loose hair behind my ear and waiting for his response.
“What?” he murmured worriedly. He edged closer to me marginally, reaching over for my hand but changing his mind and placing it back on his lap. I stared down at my own hands, twiddling my thumbs, not wanting to read into the emotions that circled in his eyes. I didn’t understand them. They were nothing like I’d originally anticipated. I’d pictured him becoming hot headed and loathing me even more, “He wasattackingyou?”
“What?” I suddenly spat out turning back to face him, shocked at his conclusion, “no, no, of course not, Ben.”
“No? Then what was he doing to you? Takingadvantageof you? How old was he? Twenty-something?”
“Takingadvantageof me?” I was really shocked with all of this coming out of his mouth. Where was it coming from? “No, he was not taking advantage of me. It just…happened.”
“Yeah, like youhappenedto be the only other girl in the house besides yours and his mother?” Ben added.
“Oh, for goodness sake!” I moaned. I slammed my face into my palms briefly before looking back at Ben sternly, “Listen to me, Ben. Like I said, it just happened. Marc had been flirting with me at any given time he could, whether we were alone or in a room with our families. It had been going on for weeks andit just happened.I don’t knowwhyI let it happen, it just did. But all I can say is that I am so greatful for you arriving when you did because, otherwise, I could have done something completely and utterly stupid which I would have regretted for the rest of my life.
“Oh and, now that he’s not around anymore, I guess I can tell you. He blackmailed me, Ben, saying that he would let slip of my little mistake and tell you everything; he possibly might have added some parts in to make it sound more incriminating that it actually was. I didn’t know what to do. He wanted me to leave you but I wouldn’t; I refused. I was constantly on the edge of my seat after that and so scared for every time that the two of you were in a room together or you left a room and he soon followed some time behind you. Each time I got more and more scared that when you returned you would yell and shout at me andleaveme. He would find me when I was alone and kiss me and tell me that if I told you he’d tell you everything. I couldn’t refuse him, Ben, I couldn’t. I was soscaredbut I couldn’t make him stop because I couldn’t lose you!
“However, Marc was clever and was sneaky. He managed to find a way that even he knew would be an absolute definite reason for me to leaveyou.He read through the messages on your phone and found exactly what he was looking for. He planted that seed right near the surface, sent me the information that he wanted me to know – he probably got my number from your phone, I bet – and then waited for me to take the bait.” I inhaled quickly, regaining my breath and waited. I hadn’t shouted, but my tone had caused James to sniffle to himself and gaze worriedly at his parents. I regretted saying all that in front of him; even if he wouldn’t remember it in a couple years’ time. I returned my gaze back to my hands, not wanting to analyze Ben’s expression or see how hurt or angry he might have been. I wanted to cry again but I didn’t want to, at the same time. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ben leap to his feet. Before I could look up, I was on my own feet and being pulled into his strong arms. He held onto me, burrowing his face between my neck and my shoulder. I held onto him too and the tears broke out.
“I’m sorry, Ben. I’m really sorry.” I Mumbled into his chest, quivering in his arms.
“Shh,” he soothed, “It’s okay, you don’t need to cry.” His voiced cracked as he spoke; he was trying not to cry.
“But I am…” I continued, sobbing now.
“Shh… but please answer me this. Did you sleep with him? Ever?” he asked. I pulled away quickly, still in his arms, shaking my head vigorously.
“No, never. I couldn’t, Ben. I still loved you. I always did. I always–” My sentence remained unfinished as Ben kissed me hard and glued our lips together. I melted.
“Casey,” he stammered, breaking away and breathing deeply. He held me in his arms tightly and looked me straight in the eye: “marry me.”