From the landing, Paul could just see through the mottled glass above the front door. The rain was settling in; the dogs would keep him awake again tonight.
When Deborah left, she took the sandwich toaster. It was deli-style, too industrial for an on-off switch. You just plugged it in, watched it heat up. She took the couch and the record player as well, but the sandwich toaster was what he’d most missed in the past few days.
He sat down on the landing to count back the hours. Her letter, then the demand to be out of the house the next day to give her time to vacate. The last time he’d seen her they had been happily married. One week ago, at this very moment, he had been happy. Paul was not quite forty. This marriage had lasted about as long as the last one. Being alone again was not what he had been expecting.
The first thing he felt like doing was calling Sarah, but there’s something immoral about crying to your mistress when your wife leaves. Instead he just stayed in, existing on the miso-soup sachets Deborah had left behind—those, and the Lindt egg he hadn’t had the chance to give her.
There were some things he had managed to take care of. He’d rung work and told them that Deborah had moved out and his output would be slow for a week or so, but he didn’t go into detail. There was the putting away of photos, the ten-kilometre runs in the rain, walking the dogs, the inevitable weight loss. It was hard when there were no children to keep you together. There were never going to be any—she’d been clear about that at the start, at least, and how happy he’d been to hear those words. But she had started to coo into prams, and he hadn’t. One was well and truly enough.
At least with Vic, they’d stayed friends because of Jamie. He called Vic, too, but she laughed and called him a jerk and hung up. She called straight back to lash out, not telling him anything new but just shouting because she was hurt for herself all over again. He made her promise not to tell Jamie yet. The kid’s had enough change to deal with.
He spoke to his parents and told them what had happened. They were upset and seemed to imply it was his fault. Which it was. He thought he could hardly be more alone, and then Easter passed without him saying one word to another human being, and he realised new depths. He called Canberra and spoke to his brother, who asked whether Sarah was worth losing Deborah over. Paul hadn’t answered, but the answer was no. Deborah was as good as a shithead like him could get—plus, he loved her.
Paul called Sarah’s home and left a message saying it was over. He didn’t call her mobile in case she picked up. She screamed into the answering machine and dumped a pile of her schnauzer’s turds on his doorstep along with a pile of black fabric that had once been items of his clothing. He watched from upstairs as she dumped her load then stalked back down the path. The dogs went berserk.
He didn’t have the energy this time to drink. He was waiting for it to pass. Another day. A haircut.
His psychiatrist, Leo—the community too small not to use first names—explained his cheating as a continuation of the pattern Paul had been fighting to break all his life. An adolescence he was incapable of escaping, one that threatened to crush him. Paul couldn’t believe he had to pay for that advice. Whatever it was, he had grown tired of it: of not fighting hard enough to protect what he loved; of giving in too easily. If you think of yourself as a runner—if you keep a notebook recording times and distances, if you replace your running shoes every six months— then at some point you have to run.
There’s the literal: marriage, the house. Then there’s the mental: fancy-free, his own man. Not quite a man’s man, but not far from it. If you could be a woman’s man and a man’s man at the same time, he’d be that.
No, the problem for Paul was that he was just his own man. Even having Jamie hadn’t changed that. He hadn’t blamed Vic for being pissed off back then. The thing about caring for people, the thing he’d realised when he and Vic were broke and at the end of their tether, counting silver out of their change jar for a long neck in that hot little flat ten years ago—the thing he’d realised back then was that it was a full-time job, not at all like the shift work he’d been used to. There was no downtime. No agreement that you deserved a break. It was completely unlegislated.
It was time to go back to the agency. At least Roger was there; they could make coffee together, stop early for a drink. At least it wasn’t summer, with all the life, all the flesh on the beach, the barbecues. It was easier being reclusive in the cold.
Being back in the office made him feel as though he had been foolish to stay away—recovery was easier surrounded by other people. Tim and Roger were in the kitchen when Paul needed a coffee.
‘I won’t ask, mate. Not going to ask. Just so you know. Doesn’t mean we’re not interested—you know, talk all you like. Just not going to stick my nose in.’ That was Roger reliably being Roger. He was a more sensitive artist than art director, when it came down to it.
‘I, however, am going to ask: you okay?’ Tim closed the newspaper and chucked it back on the table. ‘More to the point, you going to stay in that mansion of yours? Bit large for a single bloke.’ Tim waited for the kettle to switch off and filled the plunger to the brim. It was nice and dark.
‘Yeah, I think so.’ Paul started looking for his mug. A few days away and your mug could go anywhere. ‘I’m a bit attached to it now. It’s not all that big, Tim. Why, want to move in with me?’ Paul laughed. He’d found his mug. He sat down at the table. ‘I’m fine. It’s my own fault.’
Of course it was, but that didn’t really make it any easier.
Six months later he was sitting where the couch used to be. No-one ever saw him in trackpants these days—his cold-climate uniform was black jeans and black shirt—but he still wore them behind closed doors. He had negotiated to work from home on Fridays, ostensibly so he could get more done away from the chaos of the office, but really it was so he could stare blankly through his living–room windows onto the overgrown lawn and unweeded back yard where the dogs gnawed on old bones.
He was on a beanbag, drinking coffee, watching the rain when she called. At the back window, the dogs’ ears pricked up.
When he heard Deborah’s voice on the answering machine, he moved involuntarily, swiftly. He put his cup down and was standing. He made for the phone; he picked up.
‘Paul?’ Her voice was thick.
‘Deborah.’ Her name caught in his throat.
They had not spoken since she left.
‘Where are you? Shall I come over?’
She started to cry.
He had a very short space of time. He had to go about this correctly. He needed to know exactly the right place they could take off from, precisely the right angle to take. He breathed like a surgeon. There was a beat.
‘Yes,’ she eventually said.
‘Where are you?’
She was an eight-minute drive away.
He left everything as it was.
His runners were by the door. He laced them tight, separated the house key, and slid it down a sock.
The door banged behind him, and Paul, like he’d been shot from a gun, ran like he had never run before.