After the Fire


It was after the fire that a word, submission, came to Deidre and stayed stuck.

Their home would not be habitable for months. Routines were disrupted and Deidre, unlike her husband and elder daughter, was not entirely sorry.

Enforced change shifted things and brought her this new word…but did wonder what she really knew of submitting?
She had not been powerless in her twenty-three year marriage to a man who tightened under the usual, acquired notions of responsibility and protection.

Trying to keep too much under control, his playfulness shrivelled.

Or had she slipped into playing with her two girls and sidelined Richard?

While growing up he must have imbibed what was expected of a man and she, without recognising it, had been learning to accommodate.

For their marriage to work maybe considerable accommodation was required.

There were no arguments with Richard over tasks divided by tradition. She didn’t question taking care of housework and laundry rather than mowing the lawn, until her two daughters were growing into new ideas.

Her nearly adult second child, Marianne, accused Deidre of lacking courage to challenge.

But Deidre believed she hadn’t held back if something was obvious, only given that her basic mode was to maintain equilibrium and not risk a potential marital earthquake, there was little focus on issues to dispute.

She probably failed to recognise how she might be flattening herself.

Plenty of good moments remained vivid, shards of sharp details, but for a coherent picture of her married life Deidre settled on submission.

For her the shift began – not when she re-met Sam, as her family believed – but with that fire two years before.

For Marianne the fire seemed exciting as the insurance money from burnt clothes and her ruined music system delighted.

At sixteen she was impatient for change and quick to criticise her years in their home.

While her older sister, Norma, who had just left for teachers college, became disconcertingly upset. She had taken for granted home would stay solid behind her and instead it was filled with that horrible smell, which would never wash out of her childhood bear and other treasures. Everything she had carefully stored now stank of fire.

It seemed Norma had accepted her father’s view that it was his task to keep order and safety, and for both of them the fire meant failure.

It proved to be an electrical fault behind the fridge but Richard’s immediate response on arriving beside Deidre was to shout blame at her.

It was her kitchen after all.

No one had been in the house at the time and firemen kept them outside.

Those men were now the ones in control and rendering Richard useless.

It was one of them, not Deidre, who firmly told Richard it was far too soon to know the cause.

Fire investigators were due and meanwhile perhaps Richard could go with the neighbour for a cup of tea.

Deidre stood outside their home and, as if outside her marriage, found a question.

“Who was he, this man Richard?”
That burned house had become life with him, where she’d been busy with the girls and work and running the home well enough.

It had taken a few years to get a deposit and then their own place seemed to absorb them.

From the pavement Deidre saw the shattered glass and blackened window frames.

When Richard turned to blame she wasn’t upset, it was as if she stepped out of the shared living for new thoughts to fly in.

“It’s finished. I can’t rebuild with Richard,” seemed to come etched in blood and, even if she pushed it down, it was not gone.

Though they carried on, inevitability disappeared from her marriage.

They had to find another flat while the home they had worked hard to provide was stripped.

Carefully chosen curtains, bedding, clothes and sofa all had to go.

There had to be change and Deidre embraced it.

However, given the temporary place gave Marianne a complicated school journey, sympathetic friends let her stay often, and when she did re-join her parents she was mostly finding fault.

Deidre and Richard, now forty-five and fifty, sat alone over many meals.

Richard decided Deidre was just shaken by the fire but would soon return to her old self.

She’d been content before it as far as he knew, although she had been saying she’d left it too late for a big career, having spent those years part-time around her daughters.

Now she said she must find work at least half as satisfying as motherhood and seemed readily irritated.

His job was to continue providing for his family, not to start flapping as Deidre was doing.

Her dissatisfaction dug into him as if it could be his fault.
Did she assume he felt well satisfied with his position in the company? He’d worked because it had to be done.

What if he’d held notions of fulfilling himself while they were producing two daughters?
How would they have paid the rent and saved for the deposit?

He choked back an urge to shake Deidre for disturbing him. But really it was frustrating. What was the point of thinking those things she started throwing out at the dinner table on evenings when there was just the two of them.

Then she crowned it several nights with tears in bed over barely being needed as a mother and how that was a marker of much else being over – from early love to starting out in marriage and making a nest for babies.

What was ended for them was beginning for the next generation.

He tried to insist this was morbid and they should focus on the positive, but somehow he felt blamed or, at least, a disappointment to Deidre.

And something else was shifting.

Deidre took no notice of his effort to close down uncomfortable conversation as she would have done once.

She added that perhaps she hadn’t really believed in decline before, ageing happened to others, her future had not included deterioration and now it did. She and Richard should get fitter and she had better pay attention to a pension.

That was his domain, he knew what his company would provide and had never thought about Deidre’s pension as separate. She was just his wife.

They were eventually back in the house and although something had shifted, Deidre believed she tried.

They didn’t argue, they just rarely came up against each other.

Richard had moments of annoyance that Deidre still had not replaced curtains. He liked curtains pulled and she didn’t and now she simply put off choosing any.

He tried to make it only an insurance issue but they both sensed it was also about power shifting.

She was making less effort to please him.

It was not that they never had sex but there was a difference there too.

She had not always or easily had orgasms before but being wanted was sufficient to leave her curling close beside him.

These days she was likely to move to her side of the bed and feel out of sorts.

There was no challenge, nothing explicit, yet both recognised the change.

She was, however, extremely helpful with her in-laws, taking meals and arranging appointments.

She shared the trial of Richard’s increasingly agitated and anxious mother and this new family concern wove them in place.

Re-meeting her first love, Sam, happened when she went with Marianne to Edinburgh University’s open day.

Deidre saw him on the street and he, aware of her gaze, turned and realised.


Sam, she found, now lived in Edinburgh.

He invited Deidre and of course Marianne as well for dinner but, as there was some student evening event, it was settled that just Sam and Deidre would meet up at a new wine bar.

Deidre immediately bought a face cream as well as a small hair brush, having realised she’d come without them.

Sam had looked smart and she felt drab.

On the way back to the hotel with Marianne, Deidre looked in the window of each clothes shop she passed, just resisting an extravagant purchase.

Her love for Sam had never been fully severed, since Deidre remained open to the flow of much she had lived through.

Content of that time with Sam had shrunk, its pulse grown slow, yet it had never vanished.

The future might not seem real to Deidre but a lot of her past stayed palpable.

Deidre hadn’t expected Sam to be very interested in her. But he was surprisingly curious about how had she found being a mother and whether she was eager to make up for lost time now her second child was leaving home?

His wife had become restless as their twin sons left – convinced she had sacrificed herself, she grew resentful.

It was the only mention either of them made to having spouses.

Talk rolled easily and Deidre found herself able to say much she found difficult to articulate with Richard.

There were new thoughts, too, which had been nearly ready to shape.

Sam asked good questions, as did she, and exchange, unimpeded, flowed until Deidre noticed the place had emptied to leave them as the last two.

It was then a jolt to see it was 1am and what about her daughter?

Sam walked with her and offered to wait down in the street for ten minutes in case Marianne was not already there.

It was only as she slid into her cold bed in the dark that Deidre registered she had not asked for Sam’s details or whether he wished to be in contact again.

Marianne was indignant in the morning but Deidre was trying to keep some hold on a long dream – of a girl in a dark cellar with menstrual blood flowing from her mute, reduced body. There was no way to leave and little chance of being found, though walkers came through the woods near the secluded cottage. Had so much already been slowly leaked out that she could not yell for help?

Down at reception, Sam’s card was in an envelope for her and Marianne was again angry, though unable to articulate what was so disturbing about her mother meeting an old friend.

Marianne had, over previous months, expressed some contempt over a weight of duty her parents offered, unlike the energy from the newly together adults of the household where she often stayed.

Now it seemed that her mother being flat, presumably sexless, was not so much of a problem to Marianne but any hint of a reversal was unforgivable.

Deidre and Sam had not exchanged even a kiss, but their evening left her animated.

She commented to her daughter on flowers they passed and called out in delight when the sky turned vibrant.

Marianne could only say, “Mother!” in her most exasperated tone, leaving Deidre to wonder how such ordinary pleasures had become blunted and why it hadn’t bothered her more.

Maybe it wasn’t Sam she wanted as much as feeling more alive.

It felt sad that way back when she and Sam could have stayed together, their young enthusiasm had been too filled with air bubbles of their own hopes to see each other well.

Now Deidre wished to know better this man her boy-love had become.

Why could she not conjure the same curiosity for Richard?

It wasn’t that she assumed he was already known, it was more to do with having given enough, having submitted to marriage as they had done, sharing a home and responsibility for children.


If Sam thought of her, how would she know?

If Sam’s organs had begun swishing with some blood machine, she would not see.

Would he find ducks in formation flying overhead a sign? – ducks close above her and heading towards the new.

Had Sam also been opened to symbols of enclosures crumbling?

Deidre knew herself less held within marriage or family – they no longer settled matters.

Oddly, the impact of re-meeting Sam left her reminded of once feeling different with Richard.

There were now unexpected moments of turning to him with small desire sparking.

Had the two of them dulled themselves and let interest in each other shrivel.

Curiosity about Sam tumbled through Deidre and, with her old love for him revived, the way things had ended between them no longer made any sense – except that they’d been young and not careful of all the wonders.

They’d certainly had vigour and passion on their side yet there was still so much of loving for them to learn.

After this first big love crashed through each of them, there was soon an appetite for more, at least in Sam.

There seemed little reason to restrict themselves, given how sure they were of their centrality to one another – or so he said.

An open sexual relationship would be fine because, of course, they would keep a strong base and tell each other everything.

Sam didn’t want to be closed in after they had found such excitement, besides other young men wanting Deidre enlivened him.

For Deidre, the fierceness of jealousy came as a shock.

But since she couldn’t quite own it, travelling became her escape.

When, all these years later, Sam finally sent a text that he hadn’t stopped thinking of her and could they meet again, Deidre’s body was as alive as it had ever been.

They began to speak on the phone.

Deidre sat with her sister, out on Janice’s patio.

A couple of pigeons kept returning.

Though shooed away, time after time, they came back.

Janice admired such persistence. She could keep on and on hoping to get her artwork noticed but an impatient Deidre said pigeons were just too dumb to register how unwanted they were.

“Surely being able to judge correctly matters,” she added.

“They’re pigeons, what do you expect?”

Deidre knew it was her own turmoil over Sam she felt unable to judge.

She hadn’t considered herself thoughtless – rather there had been some pride in having good emotional antennae and Richard admired this in his wife.

She used to sense some atmosphere but, since the fire, kept noticing how much she once failed to think about.

Rarely before had Deidre asked questions which might undermine the place she and Richard had made for themselves, and nothing had been sufficiently uncomfortable to disrupt, until they watched their home on fire.

Then it was obvious that she and Richard had given less and less attention to whatever was going on between them once busy with children and work.

Sitting with Janice, Deidre was overcome with a need to speak of Sam.

Janice knew him from years before and Deidre’s longing to say his name aloud to someone had to be satisfied.

That urge wiped out caution.

If asked, Deidre would have acknowledged her older sister was not exactly reliable. Janice could be mean.

But sitting outside, in weak sunshine, craving to mention Sam was too strong.

She intended to say casually how she and Marianne passed him in the street but, in her state, Deidre simply burst out with the muddle she was in.

What if Sam had been her great love and she had let it go, because she wasn’t up to it in her early twenties?

Or was this a mid-life drama with unleashed longing for sexual excitement?

Doubts had been stirred and Deidre could not be sure of how to assess them.

Janice had no such misgivings and, as usual, threw out strong opinions.

If you didn’t keep Sam once, why would you want him now?

You just sound adolescent again. Ridiculous at your age!

And you have too much time on your hands with the girls going.

I don’t know why Richard agreed to you reducing back to part-time work.

Fair enough, restoring the house and sorting insurance took a lot of effort, but now you clearly fill your time with this self-important, probably fantasy great love.

You don’t know how lucky you are to have Richard’s reliability.

Of course, no marriage stays at the pitch it began with!

Besides family depends on stability – it’s not about you fancying some old flame – maintaining a family supports the next generation and the one after.

Your girls don’t appear to need it while they are getting away but as soon as they settle into having children, family will matter.

They might be shaking you off to try out being on their own but that’s no excuse for you to get giddy – it’s their turn for that.

This is just selfish – you, you, you – the pretty Deidre still needing to be the one who is desirable.

“You didn’t see it as just the way it should be when Mark was going off to Hong Kong.”

Mark was Janice’s only son and she’d been distraught at his leaving and also her husband had had several affairs which Janice tried hard not to notice, for she could bury resentments deep rather than risk jealousy driving him further away.

It was a few weeks later that Deidre had a favour to ask Janice.

“I know you think it’s stupid to risk my marriage.

And I’m not about to walk off into the sunset with Sam, but lusty phone calls aren’t right.

I need to meet Sam.

Next time you go up to your in-laws please let me come with you.

Sam will drive down.

That way I don’t have to lie to Richard, he knows your mother-in-law is fond of me too.

I can’t find a way to tell him yet of this phone contact with Sam, not until things are a bit clearer.

Please Janice.”

Deidre would never know details of her sister’s conversation with Richard.

Far from apologetic, Janice was indignant.

How did you not realise what this would mean to Richard? You should have been cautious.

You know him.

Why did you not consider his pride?
For heaven’s sake, he hasn’t a lot to be proud about yet can’t take any slight to what he calls his dignity.

Deidre could not just blame her sister, who claimed that Richard must have been uneasy if he queried why she’d invited Deidre to go with her to York.

Janice said that, of course, she could not lie or even fudge the issue.

“It was only to cover for me until I knew my own mind.

Besides, whatever you and Richard now assume you know, Sam and I talked most of the night. I needed that.”

Deidre had long recognised an uncomfortable undercurrent with her sister, but believing that, like everyone else, she could only be herself, Deidre had not seen how Janice might hanker to want whatever her kid sister had.

When the two of them fought, after Janice revealed to Richard far more than Deidre felt was necessary, it was a shock to learn how much Janice disliked her as a child and for decades resented that Deidre had better looks and more money.

Had Janice kept envy out of sight? But maybe it was her who had preferred to minimise any half-sensed ill will?

It had seemed safer to believe her big sister ultimately had her back and, of course, would be there if really needed, rather than suspect Janice might not be at all sorry to watch her fall.

Richard was outraged that Deidre had been so disloyal and, whatever she said, might just as well have had sex with Sam, as she did long ago.

Deidre had refrained from leaping into bed, though she and Sam re-found the pulse of passion they once shared.

Sam obviously wanted her but she began to realise he sought only a lover.

His settled marriage could deal with that and he had already had one affair with a work colleague.

He and his wife shared a home but were not sexual partners, or very rarely, and his wife had no wish to know what that might mean for Sam.

The two of them had separate rooms and, these days, she worked long hours and often travelled. Her career was the focus.

Even so, Sam, once pushed, put down, as if in stone, that he could not leave the mother of his sons.

It was too late for him to do that, he eventually told Deidre.

She faced Richard’s distress, which looked likely to end her own marriage.

She couldn’t stop what she felt, yet believed an affair with Sam, almost certainly, could never be sufficient.