Chapter One of The Husband Whisperer
(Long-listed for the Blue Pencil Agency First Novel Award 2022)
The behaviour modification techniques outlined in the following book are not based on scientific evidence or clinical research. Attempting to implement any of these techniques may result in serious adverse medical and/or psychological outcomes. (But it might be fun.)
If it wasn’t for the photograph, I would never have gone to the marriage therapist. I didn’t want to be told that my happiness was not Richard’s responsibility and chastised for not making enough ‘me time’, thanks all the same. And besides, what if the therapist psychoanalysed away my resentment? How was I supposed to get out of bed in the morning let alone fill all that new ‘me time’ if I didn’t have my quiet seething to look forward to? And she would no doubt make me practice Better Communication Techniques and might even, dear god, force me to keep a gratitude journal. But now… well, now even I could see the time had come to seek professional help.
That’s how I came to be standing outside a redbrick Georgian building near Trinity College, my finger hovering over a button next to the typed words, “Ms. S. Rossi”. The bottom floor of the building housed a foraged food restaurant that was buzzing with man-bunned and sleeve-tattooed clientele. I was bringing down the tone, dithering here in my school-run rain mac. What I really wanted was to turn around and head home but maybe, just maybe, I’d get lucky and the therapist would prescribe something lovely like lithium that I could sprinkle on my morning coffee. I pressed the button and heard the door click open.
I climbed four flights to the top of the building and gave the receptionist my name. She asked me to wait. There was a sofa but no magazines. I sat there trying to look like I had a rich inner life to occupy me. Ten, then fifteen, minutes ticked by, and finally she said Ms. Rossi would see me.
The therapist stood from her mid-century architectural chair as I came in. She was alone. I had assumed a previous session had over-run, but no. She didn’t apologise for keeping me waiting, just shook my hand and gestured to a seat opposite her. The room was built into the rafters, airy and bare, the walls and floorboards painted white. The only decoration in the room was a hand-drawn sketch of a ballerina’s costume, hanging behind Ms. Rossi.
Her short dark hair was slicked back in a 1980s supermodel kind of way, and she was wearing an expensive-looking white shirt with the collar turned up. She had beautiful nails, shaped to a soft point like almonds. They made a small pleasing sound as she tapped them on the table next to her.
She looked like someone who might live in a brownstone in New York; married, but her husband would live on the other side of Central Park; they had decided not to live together to keep their relationship fresh. It would be a very Woody Allen-ish existence. Except for the marrying-your-own-daughter part. She would have high thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, and never cook except when she hosted dinner parties. She would share a bottle of champagne every night with friends who dropped by with take-out, and the rule would be that they weren’t allowed to talk about work – only culture, travel, problems with the electoral system, whether cheek-fillers could ever be a feminist choice, and existentialism. She most likely had no children. No, actually, one. A grown son who called her by her first name and came to her for advice on ethical dilemmas at work. You could just tell she was a woman who would never, ever empty the junk from her car into a Lidl bag and then put that bag into the attic to be sorted out at an unspecified later date.
“So, Eliza, how did you hear about me?”
Her voice had a low gravelly tone with a strong Italian overlay. She would be excellent at doing voiceovers for evil characters in children’s fairy tales, or life assurance ads for the over-50s.
“A friend gave me your business card.”
This wasn’t strictly true; Mother Hen was more of a frenemy. It had all come about at the Honey Café, which was one of those coffee shops with cutesy mismatched teacups, babyccinos for children and inspirational quotes on pegboards saying things like, “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.” To an outsider, by which I mean to a man, I’m sure it seemed like a pretty nice set-up. But beneath the Spotify light jazz playlist running on a loop and the unending chatter, there was always at least one person wondering if she was about to start screaming. In fairness, it was usually me.
The Honey Café’s sole attraction for me was its location: directly across the road from Alexis Junior School. It frustrated Richard that I insisted on schlepping theatre paperwork and my laptop to the coffee shop every day when he had spent so much kitting out the home office. He knew I felt I had to keep watch over Freya when she was in the schoolyard. That was another point on which we clashed. Regularly.
On that particular day, the Chickadee moms were reigning supreme at the long table by the cake counter. It was, I couldn’t help but overhear, ‘Kangoo Monday’. They had come straight from the gym for post-workout spirulina smoothies, high on their audaciousness in trying something as “crazy” as Kangoo, which involved bouncing around for an hour on, no lie, elliptical anti-gravity boots. Mother Hen – her real name was Gina – was giving advice to a lesser Chickadee who confessed that she had dream-cheated on her husband and was wondering if she should feel guilty. Mother Hen had taken to giving a lot of advice since the success of her first “DITL of a SAHM” vlog. (Translation: Day In the Life of a Stay-At Home Mother). It had been a hit locally, mainly because everyone wanted to see what her kitchen looked like.
The Chickadees paused their chatter to coo over the Junior and Senior Infants streaming out into the schoolyard for Little Break, skipping and twirling, their cries carrying in gusts. There was a yellow line down the middle that was supposed to separate the classes but they all ignored it, buzzing about to find their friends. Everywhere you looked there was constant movement – except for one little lone figure with the hood of their purple coat pulled up against the wind that always seemed to cut right across that yard. Freya. She walked in slow circles for a while, not lifting her head when other children bumped into her, just moving aside and continuing her circuit.
The two teachers on yard duty didn’t notice at first. After a few more loops of the yard, Freya came to a stop, and just stood there, the wind lifting the sides of her coat and her hair. The only still figure, while all the others tagged each other and shrieked and hugged. Little shits. Would one of them not ask her to play?
She was now sitting down on the gravel, all by herself. Her teacher Mr. Lee came over and bent down beside her, asked her something. She shook her head, and he let her be. That was the worst of it: Freya never complained. When she came home, I’d ask her how school was. Fine, she’d smile. And yard time? Fine. If I hadn’t been watching, I’d have believed her.
Between the chatter from the Chickadee table and worrying about Freya, it was even harder to concentrate than usual, and so I abandoned Richard’s tax return form and instead began working my way through our post and bills.
I ripped open an envelope with my name handwritten on the front. There was no stamp on it, so it was most likely from the local church asking for dues or from our neighbour Mrs. Overend complaining about our bins again. But there was no letter inside, just a photograph. I pulled it out and saw a grainy black and white shot of what looked like a hotel. And walking up the entrance steps of that hotel was Richard and a woman, his face turned to smile at her, his hand sliding round her waist. The problem was: the woman wasn’t me.
If I’d had to predict my reaction to the possibility that Richard had caught the feels for someone else, I’d have pictured myself lounging in a silk dressing gown, long cigarette holder in one hand, martini in the other, amusing the pool boy with jaded quips about love being an illusion, that kind of thing.
But goddammit if this photo didn’t give me a shock. The same sickening shock I used to get if I made a mistake during a concert, a jolt that would flare into a jangling of my entire nervous system, taking me out of the moment and lasting for the rest of the performance, making me horribly aware that things had gone off course.
And now it seemed that things had gone off course with Richard. Far more than I had thought. And, even more surprising, it seemed I still cared.
I examined the photo more closely and in the top left-hand corner found a date stamp showing that it had been taken a month earlier. I rifled through my diary: I had brought Freya on the train to the Cork Jazz Festival that weekend to give Richard time to write.
The trip had been a disaster, as I should have known it would be. Freya had grown increasingly overstimulated and fretful and, in a crescendo of unhappiness, had vomited on the hotel bed. Richard had said he had holed himself up in his beloved home office for the whole weekend, ordered takeout and made progress with the script.
I had said it out loud without realising. The Chickadees turned their heads as one, like a pack of meerkats, their eyes wide and thrilled.
Soon their chatter picked up again, but I knew they had filed away the incident for future reference. They had an intricate web of unwritten rules and I had just broken the most important one: never show what you’re really feeling (unless what you’re feeling is sunshine and rainbows). Certain minor infractions of the rules would be tolerated but, in general, behaviour should be upbeat and conversations kept on-message: your children’s love of Gaelic football/their siblings/their teacher; the efficacy of Kegel weights on pelvic floor muscles; whether Centre Parcs was worth the money; unverified spottings of rapists in the neighborhood; how to remove Shellac nails yourself if you couldn’t get to the salon.
So I was pretty certain my unfortunate Tourette-like outburst had pushed me into “OMG, here she comes, don’t make eye contact” territory. But as the others filed out, Mother Hen paused by my table and said, “Mind if I have a word?” and sat down without waiting for my response.
“Listen, it’s none of my business and I don’t want to step over the line.” Translation: I’m absolutely going to step over the line. “And I know we don’t really know each other, but is everything ok?” She tilted her head in a sympathetic pose. “Earlier, you seemed a bit… stressed out.”
I could feel the advice coming.
“Trouble at home, am I right?” she said. “I have a sense for these things.”
She wasn’t looking at the photo, but had her eagle eyes spotted it earlier? Maybe as she slipped behind me on her way to the ladies?
“Yes,” I said, putting the photo into my bag. “That’s it. Trouble at home. With the plumbing. The pipes are all backed up. It’s a nightmare. And the Dyno Rod guy just cancelled—”
She touched a cool hand to mine to stop me. “Trust me, I know what it’s like,” she said. “We’ve all been through bad patches.”
Were we still talking about the plumbing?
“Here,” she said, sliding a business card across the table, discreetly covering the writing and lowering her voice conspiratorially. “She’s meant to be ah-mazing.” Then she tipped her finger to the side of her nose and was gone. The card read:
Ms. Salvadora Rossi
18b Lincoln Place, Dublin 2
I tossed the card into my bag, but throughout the day I found myself taking it out, looking at it and running my fingers over the gold lettering. I searched online for Salvadora Rossi but found nothing. And that night, in a moment of weakness, by which I mean after three glasses of wine, I sent an email to the address on the card. Maybe this marriage adviser could help me to decide on the best course of action. Richard, I knew from experience, was hot-headed if he felt the slightest hint of criticism being directed towards him. It would only put him on the defensive. I needed to get things straight in my own mind first if I was ever going to get to the bottom of this.
And now here I was, being silently scrutinised by Ms. Rossi. She folded her hands and asked why I had come to see her.
When I hesitated, she said, “Let’s try this. Why don’t you tell me what you think the biggest problem in your marriage is?”
Well, Ms. Rossi, the biggest problem in my marriage is my husband. And I don’t know if his behaviour is the result of social conditioning, millennia of hunter-gatherer genes in his DNA, his emotionally distant father, excessively high testosterone, or actual clinical Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but let’s just say it’s starting to grate. Oh, and to top it all off, I think he’s having an affair. “We don’t communicate well?”
She gave no indication as to whether this was the right answer or not.
I tried again. “And I suppose I’m not very good at asking for what I need. Like time to myself?”
That was always, always the answer to any marriage dilemma in those psychology columns in newspapers. But no. Nothing from the therapist. Not even a blink.
Then I remembered an article I’d read on Oprah.com. “And maybe I don’t show him that I care anymore? Because I’m too wrapped up in our daughter?” In actual fact, I didn’t show that I cared anymore because the way he chewed was so irritating it gave me a stress headache. But you couldn’t say a thing like that to a person like Ms. Rossi.
She drummed the table again with those elegant nails. I was annoying her. I didn’t blame her; I was annoying myself. But what did she want? I babbled on, hoping for some clue as to what answer would please her.
“You see, Richard’s under a lot of stress at work. We moved over from the UK for this huge new job, and it’s been a bit of an adjustment for all of us, and I suppose I’m not always there for him emotionally…” Puke. Did I actually just say ‘emotionally’ out loud? I was boring her rigid. I had to think of something to make us interesting. “Of course, he did have a very tough childhood. His mother died when he was just a boy and his father was—”
She gave an irritated shake of her head and held up a palm. “Stop. Just stop now. Listen to me, Eliza. I don’t give a shit about your husband’s childhood.”
She spoke with force and feeling.
“I don’t give a shit about his childhood either,” I heard myself say. And then I laughed, and so did she, and then we were laughing together. For the first time all day I felt my hysterical lump* relax. I hadn’t laughed so much since they gassed me while I was having Freya.
(*Globus Hystericus – the feeling of having a lump in the throat when in fact there is nothing there, caused by stress)
She flipped open a slim folder on her lap and took out a page. “The Irish Times,” she said, waving the page. She began to read from the article:
‘Finally, Blind Alley Theatre has secured someone with the talent, drive and charisma to drag the beloved old theatre into the 21st century and revive its flagging fortunes. The award-winning playwright Richard Sheridan has been commissioned to write and produce a new satirical play that will open in the autumn.
The success of his debut play six years ago was unprecedented, running for a year at London’s Drury Lane, and it marked him as one of the most exciting playwrights of his generation. A dazzling stint as manager at Drury Lane cemented his status as the rising star of English theatre.
Luckily for Blind Alley and Irish audiences, the Dublin-born literary tour de force is coming home. He is following in the considerable footsteps of his father Thomas, the highly acclaimed actor who often trod the boards of Blind Alley in his heyday. It would be an understatement to say that expectations are running high, with the theatre world waiting to see if Richard can work his magic in his hometown.”
I hadn’t mentioned I was Richard’s wife in the email I sent to make the appointment, but I suppose a quick google of my name was all it would have taken for him to pop up.
“What I’m trying to say to you is that I already know your husband,” Ms. Rossi said. “He works every hour there is, am I right? When he’s home, he’s not really home. He thinks only of himself and his career, yes? He has low self-esteem and so he seeks approval from the world, and inevitably, desirable young women.”
She stopped and gazed at me. I didn’t say anything.
“Perhaps that part hasn’t happened yet,” she said. “But this story is predictable. This story has been told a thousand times before. And it does not interest me.”
She took more newspaper printouts from the folder and began to read some headlines: “Fourteen-year-old piano prodigy plays the Royal Albert Hall”, “Seventeen-year-old Bath Academy musician wins international competition”, “Local pianist signs contract with Warner Classics”, “Award-winning pianist Eliza Sheridan abruptly cancels European tour.” She paused and looked at me over the top of her glasses. “That was seven years ago. And not a word written about you since,” she said. “I want to know what happened to you, Eliza.”