A week had passed since the party.
Karen was in the kitchen making coffee whilst Peter sat at the kitchen table, watching her over the morning paper.
'I thought we could do something later.' She took two mugs from the shelf. 'Maybe go to the cinema, or for a meal, or something?'
'Oh, you want to go out with me, do you?'
'Of course.' Karen felt the chill in the air between them.
'Why would you want to go out with me?' He turned the page and shifted in the chair.
'Oh, Peter. Please.' Karen looked down and noticed a hair in the sugar bowl. 'If this is about the party, I really wanted you to come with me.'
'You still went without me though - when you knew how I felt about it.'
'You go out with your friends all the time. I don't mind.' Karen retrieved the hair and watched it float to the floor. She poured hot water into the mugs.
'That's different,' he said. 'That's work. And my friends are normal.' The paper rustled in indignation.
Karen slammed the kettle down. 'What's that supposed to mean?'
'All those men doing nursing!' He cleared his throat. 'What are they? A load of poofs?' He crossed his legs and shook the paper.
'That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!' Karen spooned two sugars into his cup and stirred it furiously.
'And anyway,' he continued. 'You have to be a bit weird to work with mad people.' He folded the paper. 'I mean, look at you. I expect most of them are like you and don't know their own minds.'
Karen noticed the sugar she'd spilled on the work surface. 'Is that really what you think of me?'
'You'd be nothing without me.'
'That may have been true when we first got together.' Karen swept the sugar into the sink with her hand.
You're still pretty useless.' Peter said.
'You really think that?' She passed the coffee to Peter. The hot contents slopped over the edge and ran down the side of the mug.
'You haven't proved me wrong yet.' He took out his handkerchief, wiped the mug, placed it on the table in front of him before carefully folding the coffee-stained cloth and stuffing it back in his pocket. He picked up the mug and took a sip.
'Well maybe this is the time to tell you I've made a decision,' Karen blurted out without thinking. She took a deep breath. 'I'm going to apply to train as a nurse.'
Peter slammed the mug down on the table, coffee spilling over the rim again and forming a brown puddle on the table.
'Oh, please!' he sneered.
Karen took the dishcloth and dropped it onto the table in front of him. 'I’ve got the forms already. I was going to tell you later today.'
'Well, I think you've just proved to me how stupid you are.' He furiously wiped the table with the damp cloth. 'You are definitely not doing this. How long’s the training? Three years?' He paused for breath. 'You know we want to start a family, and now you want to do this. Well, it's a big NO. Understand?'
'It's really important to me. I want to be able to do the job well - to help people in the best way I can.'
'Oh, just listen to you.' Peter threw the dishcloth into the sink. His breath stank of coffee as he leaned over her. '“I want to help people.” You can't even help yourself, and you certainly do nothing for me.'
Karen took a step away from Peter. 'Maybe that's true, but I am going to do this.' She tried to sound calm. 'I'd like you to support me through this, but if you can't, I'm going to do it anyway.'
'What about babies?' Peter reached for her hand and took a step closer. 'When do you think you'll be ready for that then?'
'I need to do this first.' Karen looked past Peter at a crack on the wall behind the kettle. 'There’s plenty of time to start a family.'
He pushed her hand away. 'Don't hold your breath on me waiting for you to work through your selfish whims!'
'I don't think it's selfish to want a career,' Karen wiped her hand on the back of her dress.
'You sound pathetic.' Peter was halfway up the stairs. He paused and turned. 'I'm going out,' he announced.
'What about later? Do you want to go out this evening?' She felt the panic rising.
'I hardly think I want to sit opposite you when you're in this mood.' His hand gripped the bannister. 'You just spend some time thinking about what you want in your life and what's more important to you - our marriage or your work!'
'Are you asking me to chose between you and nursing?' Karen felt a throbbing in her left temple.
'Typical of you to twist what I'm saying,' he said. 'I think I'm being reasonable. We were happy before you took this job on. It's only since you started at that - crazy house - that things have been bad between us. You used to be a good wife. What's got into you?'
'I still am a good wife,' Karen was shaking. 'I still love you, and I'm always there for you.'
'Except when you're at work, or out with your work mates.'
'I only went out once.’
'And I'm nipping it in the bud before it's too late.' He was shouting now.
'What?' Karen asked.
'You heard.' Peter was leaning forward and had taken a step down the stairs. 'I don't want you having friends at that place. They're a bad influence on you. If you insist on working there I can't stop you. But you come straight home from work in future.'
'And what will you do if I do go out with my friends? You can't stop me from doing that either.' Karen turned back to the kitchen.
'I'll have to come and fetch you, won't I?' He took another step down the stairs and leaned over the bannister towards Karen's back. 'I don't think you want a scene in front of your friends, do you?'
Karen spun around to face him. 'You wouldn't dare!'
'Don't push me.’ His voice dropped. 'I'll do what I think is right.' He reached to bottom stair and moved towards Karen. 'You're my wife, and you’ll do what I tell you.' He paused, looking straight into her eyes. 'Or else...'
'You're threatening me,' Karen gasped.
'Just telling you how it is.' He turned and swept back up the stairs.
Karen was seething. She realised she'd probably said too much. When the front door slammed behind Peter a few minutes later relief washed over her briefly. Then tears of frustration began to course down her cheeks as she realised she could never win.
An hour later Karen was sitting in Margaret's kitchen drinking more coffee. Margaret, her only support as a mother-figure but also Peter's Mum. Karen wondered what had made her think that talking to Margaret would help but didn’t know anyone else she could confide in.
'How are you getting on at work, then?' Margaret asked. 'Is it hard working with all those mentally ill people?'
Karen looked around the room that still felt like home. 'Actually I love it,' she said. 'Sometimes it gets a bit difficult, but I think I'm learning how to deal with the hard bits.'
'What are the patients like?' Margaret drew her chair closer to the table.
'Some of them are hard work,' Karen smiled. 'But you can't help liking them. They have their own little ways. You have to be able to see the funny side of things.'
'What's wrong with them,' Margaret asked. 'I mean, why are they locked up?'
'All sorts of reasons,' Karen said. 'I'm still new to it, but I'm getting to know a couple of the ladies a bit more. One of them was looking at a Christmas card the other day that she'd been carrying around in her bag. It was from her daughter. All faded, like she'd had it for years. How do people end up in places like that?' She paused. 'What was going on in her life before? What happened to her so that she ended up there. I don't know.'
'That's sad,' Margaret said.
'In her notes it says that she was admitted with melancholia,' Karen continued. 'That's what they used to call depression. But lots of people have depression now and just get treated with tablets. Some don't even go into hospital. She just seems like a sad, lost, old woman to me.'
'How old is she?' Margaret took a cigarette from her packet.
'In her forties.'
'That's not old!' Margaret spluttered. 'I'm in my forties!'
'Sorry,' Karen laughed. 'It's just that she seems so old, that's all. Not like you at all.'
'Yeah, well, if I was locked up for years in there, I'd probably be like an old woman.' She lit the cigarette and took a long drag on it.
'I don't think of you as an old woman,' Karen smiled.
'I should hope not!' Margaret blew the smoke into the air away from Karen.
'There's another one that I keep thinking about. It's strange - she seems familiar to me and I feel a weird connection but every time I go near her she completely freaks out, screaming at me to go away. She's not like it with the other nurses. Just me.' Karen sipped her coffee.
'Maybe you remind her of someone.'
'I thought that.' Karen sighed. 'You know, I always wonder what happened to my real mum. I know you've been good to me, and I couldn't wish for a better mum than you, but it's always there, that wondering...'
'You don't think that she's...?' Margaret hesitated.
'I'm going to read her notes next time I'm on duty,' Karen said. 'I've just got this feeling.'
'Right.' Margaret paused. 'Just don't get your hopes up about finding your lost family. I don't want you getting hurt, that's all.' Margaret reached for her hand.
'I'm not getting my hopes up. It's just that there's something about her. I need to know.' She squeezed Margaret’s hand.
'Alright,' Margaret smiled. 'Are you staying for lunch?'
'If you don't mind.’
'I wouldn't ask you if I minded would I?' Margaret stood up. 'Another drink?'
'No thanks.' Karen took a sip of cold coffee.
'How are things with you and Peter?' Margaret reached into the cupboard for the coffee jar.
'I know he can be a bit prickly sometimes,' Margaret said. 'How is he taking your work now? Has he come round to it?'
'Not really,' Karen sighed. 'He doesn't like what I'm doing at all. It's difficult.'
'He does love you. You know that don't you?' Margaret poured hot water into her mug.
'Yes, I know. And I love him but I want to take this up as a career.' Karen felt the pulse in her temple beginning to throb again. 'I want to do my training. I’m happy at work and I could be happy at home but he just doesn't want me to do it.'
'Are you unhappy at home?' Margaret sat back down at the table.
'That's not what I meant.' Karen regretted saying so much. 'I am happy really. It's just that I want to train as a nurse. Don't you think it's the right thing to do?'
'Yes, of course,' Margaret assured her. 'If it's what your heart is telling you to do. But it will be difficult if Peter...'
'I know,' Karen interrupted. She paused. 'But I am going to do it.'
Margaret looked at Karen over the rim of her coffee mug. 'He wants you to start a family doesn't he?'
'I do too. Eventually - but not yet.'
'Well, I'm here for you if you need to talk,' Margaret said. 'Only...'
'What?' Karen's eyes flashed. 'You have to be loyal to Peter, don't you?'
'He is my son.' Margaret looked away.
'I know.' Karen's voice was hard. 'And you're not my real Mum.'
'I didn't mean that.' Margaret shifted in her chair, leaning towards Karen. 'I want to be a Mum for you. You know, when you two got married I was so pleased. It meant that you could be a real daughter to me.'
Karen stood up. 'But I'm not.' She moved to the sink and turned. 'Blood is thicker than water, they say.'
'I want to be there for you just as much as for Peter. But it's difficult being stuck in the middle.'
'I understand,' said Karen. 'You've been fantastic to me. I couldn't ask for more.'
'Give us a hug then.' Margaret stood up and opened her arms. Karen fell into her embrace and felt the safeness of Margaret's warmth. She brushed away the tear that had brimmed over her closed eyelid and took a deep breath in.
'Thanks, Margaret,' she whispered.