‘The Things You Do For Love’ is set in the present day, but a key element of the story is about Flora looking back over her life, and especially her marriage - and glimpses of the past appear throughout the novel, in flashback scenes which reach back over the last 40 years.
This chapter, set in 1998, highlights the tensions in Flora's marriage, and the worries she has about her family, at a time when her career as a surgeon is at full tilt. One of the things I like about it is that it reveals Flora's uncertainty about her judgement (is Henry a monster, or is she exaggerating wildly?) and shows her reluctance to brush aside her concerns, but it also demonstrates the way the complicated balance of her life relies on her accepting, and living with, the status quo.
It also shows Flora, at the beginning, in a rare flight of fancy and metaphor, which gives an extra little glint to her personality. This passage is only 1000 words, but the final draft of the novel was so long that tough decisions had to be made about cutting it, and this chapter didn't add anything new and different enough to justify keeping it. But I'm very glad to have a chance to give it an airing now.
Looking out of her bedroom window, Flora sees something large and white flailing about on the lawn below. As she watches, it heaves and flaps, billows and droops. It takes only a second or two for her realise that it’s someone hanging washing – the new au pair, presumably, struggling with a set of white sheets – but Flora is amused by the illusion that it might be a giant bird with a damaged wing, or someone fighting an angel to the death. A flight of fancy, she thinks. It feels like something that belongs in a more leisured existence than hers, the opportunity to see metaphors in life.
The girl (Lena, is that her name? – she has only been with them a week, and in that time Flora has hardly been here) is making heavy weather of the sheets. Even Flora, who’s no expert in the art of hanging washing, can see that. It’s almost as though she’s trying to tangle herself up in them, or at least doesn’t have the will to master them. Flora begins to feel impatient, waiting for the fabric to be pitched over the line and pegged in place.
When at last she emerges from beneath the canopy of white, Flora can see that she’s crying. Poor thing, Flora thinks. She must be homesick, or perhaps discouraged by the burden of housework. And then it strikes Flora that it’s Saturday, which is supposed to be the au pair’s day off, and she wonders why she’s doing the laundry now – unless they are her own sheets, perhaps. Flora turns away from the window. She must make a point of talking to the girl today. Maybe she could offer her a lift into Oxford later. She’s from Zurich; she must find it rather isolated out here.
Henry has been up for some time: Flora vaguely recalls him rolling out of bed at what seemed a very early hour. Flora got back from a conference late last night, so she was grateful for the opportunity to sleep in. She wonders where her daughters are – Lou, who’s beginning to acquire teenage habits, might still be asleep, and Kitty is probably watching television, unless Henry has taken her out somewhere. She wanted to go swimming this weekend, but that’s not one of Henry’s things. He’s never liked water, and much to her disgust Kitty isn’t old enough yet to go in on her own.
Flora smiles to herself as she comes down the stairs, thinking about her younger daughter. Kitty is very different from Lou at five. She’s more winning, more fey perhaps, though equally stubborn. It’s rather touching to see how Lou’s guardianship of her sister has survived the transition into adolescence. Flora comes upon them from time to time curled up in Lou’s bed, listening to music or writing something together on the laptop computer Lou got for Christmas, and Kitty has taken to wearing Lou’s cast-off T shirts as nightdresses.
There’s no sign of anyone downstairs at first, but when Flora opens the door to the playroom there are her daughters, watching something banal and noisy on the television, with mugs of hot chocolate.
‘Hello,’ she says. ‘How is everyone? Where’s Daddy?’
‘He’s gone out,’ says Lou. ‘He’ll be back soon.’
Flora hesitates in the doorway, as though a password is required to enter the room, then she comes forward to stroke Kitty’s tousled head. On the screen, teenage girls are screaming with excitement.
‘Have you seen Lena this morning?’ Flora asks.
‘She isn’t feeling very well,’ Lou says. ‘She was looking for some paracetamol.’
Flora’s hand stops, and then deliberately, calmly, she goes on stroking.
A terrible thought is taking shape in her mind, more terrible because it is not inconceivable: or perhaps because she can conceive it, which is not quite the same thing. There are other explanations for tearful sheet washing and painkillers, of course. Perhaps the girl has a period. But the fact that she can stand beside her daughters and wonder whether their father might have seduced the au pair under their roof makes her feel, just at that moment, that the life they have together is unsustainable. The fact that she has no idea where Henry would draw the line of decency.
‘Maybe she’s a bit homesick,’ she says.
Lou glances up at her mother: her expression is unfathomable. Flora sits down on the sofa next to the girls. It wouldn’t be the first time an au pair has lasted less than a fortnight, Flora thinks, and a chill runs through her.
‘Sometimes people find it harder than they think to be away from home,’ she says.
Just then they hear a car pulling into the drive, and a moment later Henry bursts into the room, his hands full of shopping bags.
‘Ah!’ he says, beaming. ‘You’re up! You were so sound asleep earlier we thought we were going to have time to get breakfast ready before you appeared, didn’t we, girls? The full works, we thought: kippers, black pudding . . .’
‘What’s the occasion?’ says Flora. In her mind’s eye the wet sheets flap and flail: someone fighting an angel to the death, she thinks again.
If Henry notices the edge to her voice he shows no sign of it.
‘You’ll be away for Mother’s Day,’ he says. ‘You’ll be in Frankfurt next weekend. We thought we’d seize the chance. Who’s my pancake chef this morning?’
‘Me!’ says Kitty, but she doesn’t move immediately. She looks at her father and then at her mother, as though aware that there’s something in the air; something she might play to her advantage. ‘Can we go swimming today?’ she asks.
Flora’s eyes meet Henry’s, and she reads in them nothing more nor less than usual. But then she wouldn’t. There’s never any attempt to dissemble; there never has been. That’s the worst of it, Flora thinks sometimes. There’s never any guilt or shiftiness to detect; no way of knowing whether her suspicions are more outrageous than his behaviour. But surely… Surely not at home; not with his children in the house. How could she possibly believe that of him? And she’s had no cause to believe anything of this sort since November, since that awful night. Perhaps the tide has turned.
She smiles at Kitty.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Of course we can. We’ll all go, after breakfast.’