(TW domestic violence)
The Dunhill she’d lit sat in the dip of the ashtray. She got through a pack a day but barely took three puffs of each, liking the ritual and the smell as they burned though not really the act of smoking itself. Tonight, though Esther had craved it, the cigarette turned her stomach, as she sat at the table, the smell of the fish curry they’d had for dinner still hanging heavy in the warm evening air.
She became aware of the sound of her children bickering in the next room and restrained the urge to storm in, pick up the record player – the cause of so much of their squabbling – and drop it out of the open window. Just as she was about to call out to them, she heard Abe fling open the door, so that the handle crashed into the wall behind it, swear at the children and fling out again back to their bedroom where, she knew, he’d have a glass of whiskey in hand, not his first, as he studied the racing pages in The Statesman. She thought about that patch on the wall, the paint bruised so many times by the handle, and remembered the spot on the sitting room wall, next to the awkwardly posed family photograph, where her own glass had smashed, ending their last argument. Without thinking, she also raised her fingers to the equivalent bruise on the side of her head, the bump covered by her elegantly waved hair.
Esther and Abe had married in 1946. He had not been her first choice. In fact, marriage had not been her choice as such. She was bright, sharp, a sharpness which disappointment had made caustic in her. She had been in love with Ellis Cohen – a teenager’s love – dreaming about his deep brown eyes and his smile that reminded her of Clark Gable. They would have married if his mother had not thought her, Esther, below his touch. But Esther didn’t pine for life with Ellis Cohen; she pined for life itself, for something more than this city, this home, this husband, these children.
Her marriage hadn’t been entirely without love but she and Abe had married too quickly, Esther still smarting from her parting with Ellis Cohen and the worldly pragmatism of his mother. Abe had been beautiful, athletic, spending his earnings from his first ‘proper’ job on snappy clothes and a jet set lifestyle and on wooing her. And she had been wooed. She loved her children but it was a detached kind of love. She wanted the best for them but doubted that she had the ability to provide it, wondering whether God had denied her the maternal instinct her (ironically childless) sister seemed to have in spades. The girl was 14 now; when she was younger, her wilfulness had brought out the fire in Esther, but now that she was older, she had developed an eagerness for her mother’s approval which somehow, Esther found equally infuriating. Isaac, her boy, was a darling, doted on by all except for his sister, who was jealous of his popularity and contemptuous of his enjoyment of it, but he was 12 now and beyond enjoying his mother’s cuddles and kisses.
Maybe it was her school days that had made her like this, forcing her to harden in self-protection. Like many other Jewish girls in India at the time, she had been educated at a convent boarding school, hers in Darjeeling. She had hated being away from home, cloistered up with other girls, most of whom seemed insipid and charmless. She was clever and quick to learn and with the right sort of encouragement, might have gone on to do well but what was the point? There was no professional life for girls in her position. It’s not that her dreams were squashed early: they were not even allowed to form. Marriage and children were her only options, and as soon as possible, so that she could gain some kind of independence from the cloying grip of her grandparents. So instead of working hard, she larked around, the bane of the nun’s lives, setting up a hair salon at the back of the classroom, blackmailing them about their secret crushes, and once scaring some other poor girl into a night in the San, as Esther and her friend, walked the dormitory, her friend’s head under her arm in the dark, as the ‘headless nun’ of school legend.
Esther half smiled at the memory and pulled out another cigarette, lighting it from the stub of the last.
For months her life had been quietly, privately leading to this point. It started, she supposed, when she and Abe had met the couple in the apartment downstairs for drinks, a gesture to welcome them to the building. It had been a strange, awkward evening. The couple, Dinah and Silas, were not complete strangers to them. The awkwardness of the evening was partly due to the fact that Silas was Ellis’s brother and he and Esther had met occasionally during her courtship with the younger Cohen. She had never really given Silas a thought; he lacked that Clark Gable charm and besides, he was married already and at age 28, seemed impossibly old. But on this evening they were meeting on different terms. There was still no charm as such, and he had nothing like Abe’s physical attractiveness, but there was something else. Silas was a doctor, and while Esther was undoubtedly impressed by his professional status, what impressed her more was the way in which he spoke to her not as a housewife and mother, or even as an attractive woman, but as an equal, someone whose opinions counted. However, the open hostility between he and Dinah on this evening had made them uncomfortable to be around and Esther and Abe had made their excuses early. As they’d left, she and Silas had shaken hands and something in the pressure of his fingers had made her look into his eyes; though she was no romantic, she felt that at that moment, everything had changed. She knew it wasn’t love, that it was only just the stirrings of attraction. Perhaps it was hindsight which made that moment seem significant but as she had walked back up the stairs behind Abe that night, she had felt her pale cheeks flush with secret desire.
Over the next few weeks, Esther had searched for excuses which might bring her into Silas’s path. Though embarrassed by what felt like a childish crush, she found reasons to go out to the market at the same time she knew he would be leaving for work and the two of them would talk, she, hardly aware of what she was saying and wondering afterwards whether he could possibly feel the same about her, a housewife on the verge of middle age.
Dinah moved back to her mother’s, the marriage over, and Silas invited Esther round during the day, when Abe was at work and the children at school. Though she might have been expected to wonder at such an invitation, she didn’t even hesitate and they barely spoke before melting into each other.
Yes, Esther thought, she loved him and God knows, even her bones ached for him when they were apart. He made her feel attractive again, worthwhile, seen, as her family had never seen her. On their occasional days together, she hated to leave his bed and climb back up the stairs ready to greet the children home from school and prepare dinner for Abe’s return from work. She knew they’d got complacent, taken risks, and there were whispers about them around the building.
‘Come away with me to England,’ he’d said. ‘Marry me!’
Esther wanted Silas but she didn’t want another husband. On the other hand, she couldn’t stay with Abe and the thought of returning to her mother, as Dinah had, was intolerable: one of them would undoubtedly have killed the other within a month. Silas would love her, talk to her about his work – why hadn’t it been possible for her to study medicine? – and they had both been clear that further children would not be part of this arrangement.
The children. In the aftermath of Abe’s outburst, she could hear them playing cards with each other. Though her heart lurched as she stood up, it didn’t miss a beat as she opened the cutlery drawer and reached to the back for the money that she’d borrowed from her cousin, Farha, then opened the larder, and picked up the suitcase she’d packed earlier. She stubbed out her cigarette, an act of finality, reapplied her lipstick, put on her hat and coat, and without calling goodbye, she opened the door into the future.