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Leaving for six months, with only a week's notice, seemed to me a tricky sort of thing to do to one's husband. But Nigel had waved aside my concerns, saying, "I know this is something you'd give your eye teeth for, Mandy. You should thank your lucky stars Doug Lattimore had a heart attack. I'll be perfectly fine on my own."
Maybe that was what worried me most. He would be all right on his own. In fact, I often thought he preferred being alone, and my going away for six months might just decide him to live without me permanently. I didn't dare voice that concern, because he would have dismissed it as he dismissed all attempts at a serious discussion of our marriage. "We've managed just fine for twenty-two years," he was given to saying. "Why rock the boat now?"
If Nigel didn't consider my going to America for a six month exchange "rocking the boat," it seemed to me a breathtaking example of at least swaying the canoe.
"Have your tickets?" Nigel asked as he pulled onto the M4.
I patted my purse. "Yes, and American currency for when I get there."
"Did Doug give you last minute instructions?"
"Naturally." My boss, Doug Lattimore, had insisted that I come by the hospital, where he was still recuperating, for his words of wisdom on how to behave in Wisconsin. He was not at all happy to see me take his place on the exchange.
Nigel grimaced. "He's an idiot."
That wasn't precisely true. Doug was actually the head of OB/GYN at our hospital and intelligent enough. The problem was thatthe American exchange ostensibly hinged on a set of pregnancy and childbirth studies with which I was far more knowledgeable than he. This because I'd had to do his contribution to the research for him several years previously. Unfortunately, we held opposite views on the usefulness and implementation of the ultimate findings.
"He said he'd faxed Dr. Hager in Madison with all the necessary information about me," I said. "That's how he put it--necessary. He didn't mention giving her a glowing account of my abilities."
"No, I guess not." Doug doesn't acknowledge my abilities, though he depends on them."There was just the hint of a threat that I'd better see things his way in America. He told me he didn't want me harassing Dr. Hager about ECPC data."
Nigel glanced over at me. "That's what the exchange is about, isn't it?"
"It's supposed to be." I sighed heavily. "For the next six months I just know he'll be trying to undermine my reputation at the hospital." When I was there, I had no difficulty standing up for myself. In fact, if anything, I was too blunt and straightforward in my approach to people and problems. More than once my tongue had gotten me in trouble.
"No one is going to listen to his grumbling," Nigel said absently.
That wasn't quite the point, but I let it go. After all, I'd recognized the possibility of Doug's treachery when I pressured him into letting me take his place. The whole American project had from its inception seemed more appropriate for me than for him. Not only the subject matter, but I liked Americans, felt a kinship with them, which Doug certainly didn't seem to. Doug had been prepared to abandon the exchange altogether after his heart attack. Fortunately, the American OB/GYN coming to England on the exchange hadn't been so sanguine about canceling his own plans.
Nigel frowned at the heavy traffic ahead. "We're running a little close, I'm afraid."
"Yes, I know. Just drop me off with my luggage. You don't have to come in."
"That might be best," Nigel agreed.
Disappointed, but resigned, I changed the subject. "Cass didn't think she'd be able to visit me in Wisconsin. She has definite plans for her holidays."
Our daughter, Cass, was away at university, studying physics. I think Nigel had wanted her to become a biochemist like him, and I know I'd wanted her to become a medical doctor. Cass had a mind of her own, however, and insisted that she knew precisely what she was doing. Probably she did, but she was ignoring an artistic streak a mile wide to pursue a scientific career.
Nigel grimaced. "The holiday camp. I really can't picture Cass catering to a bunch of tourists for the entire summer. She'd have done something different if the trip to Italy was still on."
We'd had a summer holiday planned--two weeks in the Florence area--for the three of us. It was impossible to tell if its cancellation was an irritant to Nigel. Cass had merely shrugged it off. "It would have interrupted the summer, anyhow," she'd said, indifferent. The chances of our vacationing together as a family seemed to have dwindled dramatically the older she became.
"I really regret having to call off the trip," I said. "But I thought Cass might grab the opportunity for a trip to the States."
Nigel gave a snort of disbelief. "To visit her mother? I think not. Now if she were offered a chance to tour the U.S. on her own ..."
He was right, of course. Cass preferred to associate with people her own age, both men and women. She preferred to study. She preferred to travel. She preferred to hike and ski and do yoga. Her parents made a rather weak showing in any competition for her attention.
Traffic remained heavy the entire trip to Heathrow, and I watched the minutes tick away on my watch with increasing alarm. Nigel, as always, remained calm. On either side of the highway the May morning sparkled with the newness of spring. Inside the car my tension mounted, but I held my tongue. There was absolutely no sense in blaming Nigel for getting us off to a late start. Better to part from him with a smile and what appeared to be a light heart.
As he negotiated the turnoff to the airport, he said casually, "Cass seems to think this is a separation of sorts for you and me."
Immediately alert, I could feel my pulse speed up. "What do you mean? She knows I'm simply taking Doug's place."
"She doesn't think you'd go away for six months unless you were considering leaving permanently." His eyes remained locked on the traffic.
"That's ridiculous," I said. Snapped, probably. "This is a career opportunity. When did she say that to you?"
"When she called last night before you got home."
"Well, it's nothing of the sort," I insisted.
Nigel glanced briefly across at me and returned his attention to the demanding pile of cars all attempting to be at the same place at the same time. "I suppose it is a kind of separation, Mandy. You may not say so, but it's something you've thought about, I know."
My scalp prickled. My stomach sank. My palms grew suddenly moist. Why was he bringing this up now when there were about two minutes before we pulled up to the British Air doors? What did it mean? "I'm just taking advantage of a serendipitous opportunity, Nigel," I protested.
As if he hadn't heard me, he said, "Consider it a separation, Mandy. Do what you have to. I'll understand."
What the hell was he talking about?
The Rover stopped with a jerk and Nigel hopped out of the car. Waving a porter over, he pulled the three large suitcases from the boot and set them on the curb. I watched numbly as the porter loaded them on his dolly.
Nigel moved to stand beside me. He was tall and thin; I was short and round. Dressed for work in a dark conservative suit, he nonetheless remained conspicuous amongst the hurrying business travelers around us. He was not someone who had mingled all his life with indistinguishable, bland, public-school types.
Nigel's features betrayed his origins. Despite his academic brilliance, he could trace his family through generations of seafaring men who had lived near the London docks. Nigel's face was imprinted with the rugged handsomeness of a nineteenth century sea captain.
Compared with his restrained presentation, my own clothing showed a taste for flamboyance. To travel I had chosen to grace my zaftig figure with a purple suit and fuchsia blouse, complemented by a vivid and flowing silk scarf. Nigel tucked the scarf under my suit jacket collar, saying, "We're late, Mandy. You must be a nervous wreck. You'd better run."
"But, Nigel ... "
"Have a good trip, and enjoy your time in America."
Frustrated, alarmed, I couldn't find a thing to say except, "All right, Nigel. I'll miss you."
He nodded and gave me a little push in the direction of the waiting porter. I wasn't going to let him off that easily. I stood on tiptoe to kiss him, a hearty, enthusiastic kiss which he returned with a familiar peck. But there was no time to continue our discussion, to sort things out. My plane would take off without me.
As I tucked my purse in tight to my body and started to trot off, Nigel smiled and waved. Before turning a corner to the check-in counter, I looked back. But Nigel was already gone.