Karen walked about for some time trying to make sense of this mess she’d found herself in. Later she vaguely remembered riding on the bus and wandering in Fareham. The shops were all closed - the streets quiet. When she eventually stopped outside the familiar terraced house near the church she wondered how she’d got there. The ache in her womb made her finally stop for breath. She stood with one hand on the gate-latch as the church clock struck. She could see the clock from where she stood - a quarter to nine. The evening was still warm as shadows were moving into the grey of dusk. She knew she had to turn back and face whatever the future held.
Before she could move away, the small window of the cottage filled with light, causing Karen to hesitate. Grace was reaching up to draw the curtains. Their eyes met. Karen felt ridiculous and wanted to run away, but the front door was already opening, casting a welcoming beam in the evening light.
‘Is that you, Karen?’ Grace called to her.
‘I was just passing,’ Karen stuttered.
‘Are you alright?’ Grace asked as she came down the steps towards Karen.
‘Yes, I’m fine.’ Karen laughed nervously.
‘Won’t you come in for a while?’ Grace stopped at the bottom of the steps.
‘No. No. Sorry.’ Karen hesitated.
‘I could do with some company,’ said Grace. She paused. ‘Could I just talk to you for a while about this morning?’
‘I can’t stop long.’
‘Come in then - the kettle’s just boiled.’ Grace held open the front door and Karen entered the front room. ‘Do sit down. I’ll only be a moment.’
Karen sat obediently. The older woman bustled into the kitchen as she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror above the fireplace. Her face was red and swollen where Peter had hit her - her eyes were deep pools of pain. She wiped her hand across her mouth and tried to calm her breathing.
Grace was back in the room - full of the sympathy Karen didn’t want. The last thing she wanted was to lose her self-control. She swallowed down the feelings and felt them stick in her throat.
‘You wanted to talk about Evelyn?’ she asked.
‘We can talk about you first,’ Grace said, as she poured the tea. ‘If you want to, that is.’
‘No. I’m fine.’ Karen took the cup from Grace.
‘Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, you don’t look fine.’
‘You’re pregnant, aren’t you?’ Grace asked.
That was enough to allow the tears free rein again. ‘How did you know that?’
‘Just a lucky guess,’ Grace smiled. ‘Now, do you want to tell me all about it?’
Karen said nothing. She sipped at her tea.
‘I might be able to help,’ Grace reached out and touched Karen’s hand. ‘You never know.’
Karen tried to calm her emotions. ‘I really shouldn’t be here. This is wrong, talking to you like this.’ She paused again. ‘But I don’t suppose I can do any more harm than I’ve already done. You’re right, I am pregnant. But it’s not my husband’s baby.’
‘Oh dear,’ Grace said quietly.
‘It was just a mistake,’ Karen put her tea-cup on the table. ‘I don’t know how I got into such a situation. There’s no excuse, I know.’
‘Things weren’t good at home. I’d started working at the hospital, and my husband didn’t approve,’ Karen explained. ‘Sometimes the work is hard and you need to be able to talk about it at the end of the day. John was just there at the right time I suppose. He seemed to understand.’ She laughed. ‘But I was deluding myself with him. It was only a fling for him. When I told him I was pregnant he didn’t want to know. He even suggested I pretend it’s my husband’s.’
‘And that’s out of the question?’ Grace asked.
‘Of course!’ Karen was shocked. ‘And anyway, I’ve already told Peter it’s not his.’
‘I didn’t mean to shock you,’ Grace said. ‘But it happens. All the time.’
‘I expect it does,’ said Karen. ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but I just don’t think I could have lived with that lie for the rest of my life. Peter wants children so much and the thought of him bringing up someone else’s child without knowing, well, I just couldn’t do that to him.’
‘So what will you do?’ Grace asked.
‘I don’t know - I want to have this baby, that’s all I know.’ Suddenly Karen felt exhausted. ‘I must get back home.’ She stood up. She faced Grace and smiled wearily. ‘Thank you for listening, and for the tea.’
‘Are you sure you’re alright?’ Grace looked worried.
‘I feel much better,’ Karen assured her. ‘I must get home.’ She was at the door, fumbling with the latch. She turned. ‘I’m so sorry to burden you with this,’ she said, pulling open the door and was outside before Grace could delay her any further.
She was standing at the bus stop before she remembered that Grace had wanted to talk to her about Evelyn.
Karen was numb by the time she reached home.
Peter was waiting. She felt no fear as she turned the key in the door and parted the ominous curtain of silence hanging heavily in the hallway.
He stood up as she entered the sitting room, his face a page which Karen could no longer read.
‘Where have you been?’ There was no anger in his voice.
‘I just walked about.’ She made her way to the sofa and sat down with a sigh.
‘You’d better get to bed,’ Peter ordered.
‘In a minute.’
‘Now.’ He paused. ‘Please.’
Karen stood up and went upstairs. She had no energy to argue with him any more. As she lay in bed, she tried to sleep. But the numbness was melting into anxiety once more. She lay awake, waiting.
It was much later when Peter joined her in the bed. She lay still, pretending to breathe in the shallow breath of sleep.
‘I know you’re awake,’ he said.
Karen said nothing.
‘You can’t fool me,’ he went on. ‘Anyway, you won’t get away with this behaviour any more. From tomorrow things will be different.’
Fear shot through Karen. She pushed it away again and lay still, trying to calm her mind until she heard the soft sound of his sleeping lips. Finally she was able to relax, but it was before dawn that she too, slept.