I Still Love You
"They hate me," she stated.
It was about the last thing that Charlie had expected her to say in answer to his polite enquiry about how her kids were doing. It stumped him. He avoided eye contact and let his gaze settle on a seascape hanging off the far wall of her kitchen.
"So how are you?" she continued, as though her previous sentence had been a perfectly normal thing to say. Charlie watched her pick up her mug of coffee and take a sip. A big yellow smiley face grinned at him inappropriately from its side.
"Me? Iím fineÖ What do you mean they hate you?"
Duffy sighed and replaced her mug slowly and deliberately in the centre of the coaster.
"I can see it, when they look at me; they hate me." It was so obvious to her, surely it would be obvious to Charlie too. After all, heíd seen them when heíd come in, the cold look in their eyes, the way they avoided her. Mind you, she hadnít noticed it herself at first. It had been a gradual realisation as time went on, as each milestone without Andrew passed by.
"Duffy, theyíre children, they donít hate anyone. Especially not their motherÖ"
She didnít answer, he wouldnít understand. She stared deep into the brown liquid in front of her. In it, she could just about make out the reflection of a tired, miserable, old woman. She didnít want to see that, she didnít want to be reminded of what a failure she was. She picked up the discarded teaspoon and disturbed the coffeeís surface. The image rippled then disappeared as she continued to stir.
"Duffy? Talk to me, please?" He reached across the kitchen table and clasped her free hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. When she looked up from the coffee, he could see the tears in her eyes. She fought with herself not to let them fall, her vision becoming increasingly blurred.
"I never thought Andrew was a very good father, you know. He was always more concerned with work or with his girlfriend." She spat the last word and swiped away a stray tear.
"Duffy, donítÖ" he floundered. 'Donít what' he didnít know. Donít upset yourself? Donít rake up the past? Donít speak ill of the dead? None of them were exactly what he meant. It just hurt him to see her like that.
"No Charlie, I was always having a go at him, thinking he didnít care about the kidsÖ I just didnít see it."
"That he was their favourite." Another few tears fell, but it was only a half-hearted movement that brushed them away.
"Oh, now come on, thatís not true." In a sudden violent movement she stood up and turned away from Charlie, leaning on the edge of the sink for support and letting her hair hide her face.
"Of course itís true!" she snapped back, "Everyone has a favourite parent, one they enjoy spending time with more, one they run to when something goes wrong."
"I donít think itís as simple as that, DuffyÖ"
She whirled round to face him again, her face flushed and her cheeks glistening with now unconcealed tears, "I do!"
"No buts, Charlie. Itís true. I always thought it would be me, you see, I thought that because Iím the one who looks after them everyday, Iím the one whoís always here for them no matter whatÖ But I can see the resentment in their eyes, Charlie, they wish that Iíd died and Andrew had lived!"
Charlie instinctively tried to get closer to her, to hold her and comfort her but with every step he took, she backed away.
"They donít feel like that, Duffy. Youíre getting yourself worked up over nothing."
"Nothing! Andrew was crap at responsibility and practicalities but he was fun. Thatís all that kids care about, isnít it? He took them swimming, I took them to the dentist. He feeds them sweets; I feed them vegetables. He lets them stay up all night playing computer games and Iím the one who has to drag them out of bed in the morning for school.
"When they do something wrong itís left to me to discipline them, when they do something right heíll stroll through the door with some extravagant gift. Heís their hero, heís their idol, Iím just the miserable cow who makes them brush their teeth and tidy their rooms."
Cascades of warm salty water flowed down her face, and she sniffed and gulped in a futile attempt to regain her composure. She gazed at the floor by Charlieís feet, unwilling to meet his eye and see the pity he had for a useless mother like her. One hand held her fringe off her forehead; the other balled into a fist of pent up frustration.
Charlie walked quickly toward her, gently grabbing her shoulders when she tried once again to move away, and pulling her close to him instead. Her resistance was brief, and she sank against his chest, clinging on to him as though sheíd crumple to the floor if she didnít.
He didnít know the words to comfort her, so stayed quiet except for the occasional, soft "Hush now, kid" and stroked her back. He could see that she was imagining things, projecting her own feelings of inadequacy as a single parent onto her children.
It was so stupid, he thought, because she appeared to be doing just fine. If anything, everything that sheíd just said proved what a good mother she was. She cared for them, looked after them rather than taking the easy option of buying their affections like Andrew seemed to have done. When he looked at her children they didnít show any signs of hating her, quite the opposite in fact. They loved her, probably more now than ever.
Heíd always been amazed by her strength, her ability to cope under the worst of circumstances. Sure, sheíd cry, and scream and argue but that was part of the process. The part of the process he himself always had such trouble with. He hoped with all his heart that this outburst was just a part of her grieving.
Eventually the sobs that shook her whole body diminished to a slight tremble. He could feel a damp patch on his chest where her tears had soaked through his thin shirt, but still she held tightly on to him. He tried to angle his head in such a way so that he could see her face, and carefully untangled her hair.
"Listen to me, Duffy, yeah? The boys donít hate you, they donít. Understand?"
She didnít give any indication that sheíd heard him, let alone understood. Instead she sniffed again and straightened ever so slightly.
"Why did he have to die? Why did he have to leave us like this? Just when things where actually starting to go well?" She pulled away a bit more so that she could stare at him pleadingly for answers. He just wished he had some.
"I donít know. I really donít."
"I canít do this on my own. I canít bring up three children by myself. It was hard enough when it was just me and Peter, but nowÖ I canít cope."
Charlie felt his heart go out to her. If there were any way that he could have set things right for her he would have done it without hesitation, but standing in the middle of her kitchen he knew that this was the real world, and there wasnít some magic potion that could stop her from hurting. He would just have to be there for her whenever she needed him and hope that that would be enough.
"You donít have to cope on your own you know. Iím here, so is your Mum, and your kids have a whole hospital full of honourary uncles and aunties. Youíre not alone. I canít promise you a lot of things, but I can promise you that."
She wasnít sure if she believed him, but she wanted to, and for the time being, that would be enough.
The kitchen door opened to reveal Peter standing behind it, and Charlie could feel Duffy tense up in his arms at the sight of her son.
"He doesnít hate you," he whispered before letting go of her, and allowing her to step a respectable distance away from him.
Peter strolled forward, an empty beaker in his hand.
"Just wanted some more juice," he announced before noticing the state his mother was in.
"OK darling, but no more tonight, itís full of sugar." Charlie smiled; even when she was upset she was still fully in mother mode, thinking of her sonís health.
"Mum?" Peter said, noticing the tear streaks on her face and abandoning his plastic beaker. "Whatís wrong?"
"You miss Dad?" he asked, ignoring the obvious lie.
She felt the tears stinging in her eyes again, and could only manage one word in response: "Yes."
"Me too, Jake does aní all."
"I know." She glanced sideways at Charlie as if to say Ďsee?í, before a fresh batch of tears escaped her control.
"Mum, donít cry." Peter ran to her and she knelt on the floor so that he could rest his head on her shoulder, "I still love you."
She managed a tiny smile at the sound of his words and pulled him closer. "I love you too, sweetheart," she whispered, and although she still cried, they were tears of happiness.