He’d known she was going to find it hard. That she’d feel his absence like an illness, pottering around the house unable to remember what she was meant to be doing, what her purpose was. There was no one to baby any more. Not that Marcus had needed babying for an awfully long time, always protesting that she was embarrassing him, that he didn’t need a lift or
a packed lunch.
He loved it really, though. He brought his mates round to sample her cooking. She spent her afternoons baking cakes just in case. Not any more. Now she’d become one of those saddos who longed for their son to come home for the weekend because he needed his washing done. Her friend Sarah – whose only daughter had left on the same day, she to Leicester, Marcus to Newcastle – said she should view her newly empty nest as an opportunity. She had done her duty. Brought up a son who still spoke to her and who had passed enough exams to get into uni. What more could any parent ask? Now it was her time. She’d earned it. She could be Karen again, not just Mum. But that was the thing. Mum was who she was. Who she’d been for the past 18 years. She didn’t want to be anyone else.
‘You can do anything you want to do,’ Sarah said. They were sitting in her kitchen drinking tea. Karen would swear Sarah already looked five years younger than she had a week ago. Karen shrugged. ‘There isn’t anything.’
Sarah stirred sugar in noisily. She was one of those people. Everything she did was big and confident. Karen’s imprint on the world was much more hesitant. Smaller. ‘Remember when we used to talk about going travelling?’
Karen laughed. She and Sarah had met when they were pregnant. Two single mums-to-be in their thirties. Sarah had been through a messy divorce and was planning on juggling her career in publishing with motherhood, daycare and her ex-husband. Karen had opted to have Marcus on her own because she’d always been desperate for a baby, but the time – or the man – had never been right. So when she found out she was pregnant after a short relationship went south, she’d thrown herself full-time into the role of mother with an enthusiasm she’d never mustered for her work in accounts.
They were polar opposites but they’d hit it off. They used to have long conversations over coffee – or occasionally wine – about what they would do once their little ones grew up and flew the nest. Karen had never been anywhere. Well, except for package holidays where you were met at the airport by English reps and you barely even saw any of the locals unless they were serving you English food in an English-themed café. When she’d left school she’d started work and that had been it. She always said she wished she’d had a gap year, but she never really knew if she meant it or not.
‘That was a long time ago.’
‘So? What’s stopping you now? Let’s go somewhere. Let’s have a gap year. Well, gap month at least. A year might be pushing it.’
‘I can’t just…’ Karen said. She couldn’t work out if Sarah was being serious or not. She decided not. It was too ridiculous a suggestion. ‘Sure. I’ll just drop everything and off we go.’
‘Why not? Where was it you always said you wanted to go? Morocco?’ It was. But that person seemed like someone else. A lifetime ago. Marcus’s lifetime. For a brief second she wondered if it was possible. If she could be that woman again. No. Marcus might have left home but he still needed her.
She shook her head. ‘I can’t just go away. What if Marcus wants to come home?’
‘Then he can come another time,’ Sarah said. ‘Or go to the launderette,’ she added, giving Karen a wry look. Despite her mood Karen laughed.
Sarah reached a hand over the table and put it on hers. ‘You’re still his mum. He’s just going to need you in a different way.’
‘I can’t,’ she said. ‘It’s just not who I am any more.’
Later she’d tried to resist the urge to call her son, just for a catch up. She was so used to hearing the details of his day in all their mundane glory. She told herself she mustn’t. Not yet. She didn’t want to cramp his style. She’d wait. Let him call first.
She waited four whole days. She cleaned the house and baked cakes just in case. In the end she started to panic that something must be wrong. She’d never gone this long without speaking to him in his whole short life. He answered on the third ring.
‘Mum!’ he said breezily. ‘What’s up?’ He was fine. He was having a great time. She had nothing to tell him. She’d done nothing since he left except work, clean, bake, sleep.
‘Marcus,’ she said as he was about to rush off. He was meeting up with his new mates. ‘What would you think if I went away for a while with Sarah? Travelling. To Morocco maybe?’
‘Whoa,’ he said. ‘Really?’
‘I mean, not if you think you might…’ she started to say, but he interrupted her.
‘That’s so cool.’
‘What if you need to come home?’
‘Then I will. I’ve got my key. Tell me everything. When are you thinking of going?’
‘Aren’t you in a hurry?’ she said.
‘No way,’ he laughed. ‘I want all the deets. How about Tangier? I could ask my mate Si about it, he just went…’
When she put the phone down they’d been talking for almost an hour. Probably the longest conversation they’d had in years. Karen felt like a different person. She felt like Karen. She pictured herself walking through a spice market, the hot sun beating down. She picked up her phone to call Sarah.
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