It wasn't as if Ben had ever, really, been away from home. His school days had melted comfortably into his college days and then into irregular, haphazard days of assistant to a self-employed photographer who specialised in portraits. All through these years Ben had come home, more nights than not, to sleep in the bedroom across the landing from his parents' bedroom, which had been allotted to him when he was two. His bedroom had been by turns pale yellow, purple, papered with aeroplanes, and almost black. The detritus of his life, from Thomas the Tank Engine to trailing computer cables, had spilled out of his room and across the landing, symbols of his changing taste, his changing world. The thought of the order - no, not order, the absence of chaos - that might follow his departure for Walthamstow brought Edie close to panic. It was like - like having an artery shut off, a light extinguished. It was far, far worse than when Matt had gone. Or Rosa. It was far, far worse than she expected.
She began to pile mugs and bowls without method on Ben's table. He had done homework at that table, made models, hacked with blades at the edges. She sat down by it, on the chair with the broken cane seat, filled in by a gaudy Indian cushion embroidered with mirrors. She looked at the mess on the table. Ben was her youngest, her last. When the others went, she had felt a pang, but there had always been Ben, there had always been the untidy, demanding, gratifying, living proof that she was doing what she was meant to do, that she was doing something no one else could do. And, if Ben wasn't there to confirm her proper perception of herself in that way, what was she going to do about the future? What was she going to do about herself?
'It's awful,' her sister Vivien had said on the telephone. 'It's just awful. You spend all these years and years developing this great supporting muscle for your children and then they just whip round, don't they, and hack it through.' She'd paused, and then she'd said, in a cooler tone, 'Actually, it's not so bad for you because you've always got the theatre.'
'I haven't,' Edie said, 'I -'
'Well, I know you aren't working at this precise moment. But you always could be, couldn't you? You're always going for auditions and things.'
'That,' Edie said, her voice rising, 'has nothing to do with Ben going, nothing to do with motherhood.'
There was another pause and then Vivien said, in the slightly victim voice Edie had known since their childhoods, 'Eliot's gone too, Edie. And he's my only child. He's all I've got.' .
Eliot had gone to Australia. He had found a job on a local radio station in Cairns, and within six months had a flat and a girlfriend there. Ben had gone five stops up the Victoria line to Walthamstow.
'Ok,' Edie said to Vivien, conceding.
'I do know -'
'Lovely,' Vivien said, 'for Russell.'
'Having you back -'
Edie felt a flash of temper. Eliot's father, Max, had drifted in and out of his wife and son's life in a way that made sure that the only thing about him that was predictable was his unreliability. Vivien might be able to trump her over the pain caused by distances, but she wasn't going to trump her over the pain caused by husbands.
'Enough,' Edie said, and put the telephone down.
'Enough,' she said to herself now, her elbows on Ben's table. She twisted round. Against the wall, Ben's bed stood exactly as he had left it, the duvet slewed towards the floor, the pillow dented, a magazine here, a pair of underpants there. It was tempting, she thought, holding hard to the chairback as an anchor, to spring up and fling herself down on Ben's bed and push her face into his pillow and breathe and breathe. It was very tempting.
Downstairs the front door crashed again. She heard Russell's feet on the tiles of the hall, heard him say something companionable to the cat.
Excerpted from Second Homeymoon, © 2006, Joanna Trollope. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Press. All rights reserved.
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