While his back was turned to her she had a cold premonition of rejection, of the humiliation of being left for a young woman, of being left behind, useless and alone.
Holding her gaze he said, ‘You know I love you.’ ‘But you’d like someone younger.’ ‘I’d like a sex life.’ Her cue to make warm promises, draw him back to her, apologise for being busy or tired or unavailable. But she looked away and said nothing. She was not going to dedicate herself under pressure to revive a sensual life she had at that moment no taste for. Especially when she suspected the affair had already begun. He had not troubled himself to deny it, and she was not going to ask again. It was not only pride. She still dreaded his reply.
Let him go, a voice, her own voice, said in her thoughts. And immediately, the same old fear gripped her. She couldn’t, she did not intend to, manage the rest of her life alone. Two close friends her age, long deprived by divorce of their husbands, still hated to enter a crowded room unaccompanied. And beyond mere social gloss was the love she knew she felt for him. She didn’t feel it now.
Restless husband in one last throw, brave wife maintaining her dignity, younger woman remote and blameless.
This morning, waking with a cold part of a bed to her left – a form of amputation – she felt the first conventional ache of abandonment.
She went slowly along Theobald’s Road, still holding off the moment of her return, wondering again whether it was not love she had lost so much as a modern form of respectability, whether it was not contempt and ostracism she feared, as in the novels of Flaubert and Tolstoy, but pity. To be the object of general pity was also a form of social death. The nineteenth century was closer than most women thought. To be caught out enacting her part in a cliché showed poor taste rather than a moral lapse.
Yes, her childlessness was a fugue in itself, a flight – this was the habitual theme she was trying now to resist – a flight from her proper destiny. Her failure to become a woman, as her mother understood the term. How she arrived at her state was a slow-patterned counterpoint played out with Jack over two decades, dissonances appearing then retreating, always reintroduced by her in moments of alarm, even horror, as the fertile years slipped by until they were gone, and she was almost too busy to notice.
A story best told at speed. After finals, more exams, then the call to the Bar, pupillage, a lucky invitation to prestigious chambers, some early success defending hopeless cases – how sensible it had seemed, to delay a child until her early thirties. And when those years came, they brought complex worthwhile cases, more success. Jack was also hesitant, arguing for holding back another year or two. Mid thirties then, when he was teaching in Pittsburgh and she worked a fourteen-hour day, drifting deeper into family law as the idea of her own family receded, despite the visits of nephews and nieces. In the following years, the first rumours that she might be elected precociously to the bench and required to be on circuit. But the call didn’t come, not yet. And in her forties, there sprang up anxieties about elderly gravids and autism. Soon after, more young visitors to Gray’s Inn Square, noisy demanding great-nephews, great-nieces, reminded her how hard it would be to squeeze an infant into her kind of life. Then rueful thoughts of adoption, some tentative enquiries – and throughout the accelerating years that followed, occasional agonies of doubt, firm late-night decisions concerning surrogate mothers undone in the early-morning rush to work. And when at last, at nine thirty one morning at the Royal Courts of Justice, she was sworn in by the Lord Chief Justice and took her oath of allegiance and her Judicial Oath before two hundred of her bewigged colleagues, and she stood proudly before them in her robes, the subject of a witty speech, she knew the game was up, she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ.
She felt unpleasantly light-headed, emptied out, all meaning gone. The blasphemous notion came to her that it didn’t much matter either way whether the boy lived or died. Everything would be much the same. Profound sorrow, bitter regret perhaps, fond memories, then life would plunge on and all three would mean less and less as those who loved him aged and died, until they meant nothing at all.
Adam came looking for her and she offered nothing in religion’s place, no protection, even though the Act was clear, her paramount consideration was his welfare. How many pages in how many judgments had she devoted to that term? Welfare, well-being, was social. No child is an island. She thought her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.
My review of The Children Act
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska