After the Fire

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

Their home was no longer habitable, at least not for months. The usual and the routine were disrupted and Deidre, unlike her husband and elder daughter, was not entirely sorry.

Enforced change shifted a lot of things and brought her this new word.

But what did she really know of submitting?
It was not true that she had been powerless in her twenty-three year marriage to a man who steadily tightened under those acquired notions of responsibility and protection.

Once he was 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 the marriage to work maybe considerable accommodation was required.

Submission was probably to assumptions she had breathed in, until she  just behaved as women should.

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 failed to recognise how far she was flattening herself.

When the word submission occurred to her it gave a shape around whatever there had been between Richard and herself.

Good moments remained vivid, shards of sharp details, but for a coherent picture she 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 grew quick to criticise her years in their home.

While her older sister, Norma, who had just left for teachers college, was disconcertingly distraught. 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 fireman 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 investigations were due and meanwhile perhaps Richard 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 and new thoughts flew 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.

Yes, for a couple of years she had been saying she’d probably left it too late for have a big career, having spent years of part-time work around her daughters.

What was new was agitation for something different, not just fitting round the family and a need for income.

She wanted to find work that might be half as satisfying as motherhood.

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, then 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 once she would have.

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

Routines continued once they were eventually back in the house.

Although something of expectation had shifted, Deidre believed she tried.

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

Richard had moments of irritation 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.

Now 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.

Her own father was far away in the Scottish Highlands and had his son nearby.

Deidre spoke to her father each week but it was with Richard’s parents she began taking meals and arranging appointments.

She shared the trial of Richard’s by now very anxious mother and these new family concerns wove the two of 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 having blood slowly sucked 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, undramatically sucked 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 that her parents felt sexless – security and the weight of duty being what they offered, unlike the newly together adults of the household where she often stayed.

Now it seemed that her mother being flat, lacking desire, 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.

It probably wasn’t Sam she wanted as much as feeling more alive, but their exchange continued in emails.

It felt sad that back when they could have been 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 she had done. The complexities of sharing a home and responsibility for children had probably swallowed them both.