Fiction: The Ex by Jane Fallon
It was the jacket that did it. Chosen for practicality not style. Weatherproof with a hood in case it rained. A colour so nondescript she didn’t even know what to call it. Beige? Taupe? Sludge?
In all her wildest dreams she never would have imagined he would own this jacket, let alone wear it.
She hadn’t even recognised him. He had planted himself right in front of her in the baking aisle of the supermarket and opened his arms wide.
“Karen?” he’d said, the intonation giving away that he wasn’t quite sure if it really was her. “Karen Phillips?”
She’d looked at him expectantly. Drawn a blank.
“Tom,” he’d said. “It’s Tom. Tommy.”
The name still had the power to stop her in her tracks. It had been 20, no, more like 22 years since she’d seen him last.
Tommy Williams was a name of legend in her small family. Her husband, Jim, knew all about the teenage romance that had left her devastated when her boyfriend with the film star looks and personality to match had announced his intention to accept a scholarship to go to college in the United States.
And, before she could even take in this bombshell, had left without ever looking back.
She – along with all her friends – had always assumed they would head off into the future together. But once he’d got to his new life, it seemed he’d forgotten her.
Jim – who had come along four boyfriends and several years later, and who had swept her off her feet by making her laugh – loved to tease her mercilessly about the “love of her life”.
“Tommy could have pushed that in with one finger,” he’d said when he had spent half an hour trying to hammer a particularly stubborn nail into the wall.
“He could have blown on it and it would have gone in,” their 10-year-old, Harry, had laughed.
Harry had added the punchline, “At the same time!”
And just last week, Harry had piped up out of nowhere, “Tommy could be Prime Minister if he bothered, Dad, couldn’t he? He’s so popular and good at everything.”
Jim had cracked up. “And handsome. Let’s not forget handsome.”
And Karen had laughed along, as she always did. She loved the way Jim could reduce their son to helpless giggles. She loved Jim.
But the truth was she had always wondered what had happened to Tommy. Soon after he left for college, his parents moved to another town and her last link to him had gone. She’d spent years waiting for him to pop up as a movie star or an entrepreneur.
She was sure he must have found himself a glittering career. She’d dated, but only half-heartedly, until Jim had come along and she’d fallen for his kindness, his steadiness, his sense of humour.
It was just that, recently, she’d started thinking he was a bit, well, unexciting.
His lack of ambition had started to grate on her. He had a reasonably well-paid but unglamorous job in an office, doing something she didn’t understand with logistics. He always said that he liked that the rigid hours meant he could be home in time to help Harry with his homework every evening.
He had settled comfortably into middle age, seemingly unbothered by his growing paunch and thinning hair. He’d chosen his car because it could fit Harry’s bike in the back. He cooked dinner every other night, because he didn’t think it was fair for her to do it every day when they both worked as hard as each other.
He was a good man, but he just wasn’t the man she’d expected to spend her life with.
Every now and then she looked for Tommy on Facebook, but with a name like Thomas Williams there were simply too many to choose from. His college had been in California and there were over a 150 men with the name in that area alone.
He could be anywhere. She pictured him in a fabulous house by the ocean, tanned and fit, probably with a beautiful wife and two equally beautiful children, though she didn’t like to think about them. Two Labradors? He probably had an American accent by now.
Yet the man standing in front of her in the baking aisle talked in a voice that sounded like hers. Halfway between London and the West Country.
“It’s been, what? 20-odd years,” he said, smiling.
Karen recovered her composure. “Are you just home visiting?” She noticed a paunch underneath the jacket. His once thick hair looked sparse. There was even the hint of a comb over. She tried to remember a time he had ever made her laugh till her sides hurt.
“I live near here,” Tommy said. And then, as if he realised what she meant, he added, “Oh, you mean from America? No, that didn’t work out. Wasn’t for me. I came home after a year. Just moved back to the old neighbourhood a few months ago.”
“Right,” she said, unsure what else to say.
“I thought about ringing you,” Tommy said. “But I was living up near my mum and dad. Found myself a job in IT… How about you?”
She told him about her work.
“Married?” he said. “Kids?”
Karen felt a rush of love as she thought about Jim. Funny, serious, steady, loveable Jim. And Harry.
“Yes. And yes.”
“We should have a drink. I’d love to meet your husband.”
“Definitely,” she said, not really meaning it.
Karen watched as he walked away. A very ordinary man.
She turned back to her shopping. Decided to buy pizzas and ice cream as a treat. Jim and Harry loved pizzas and ice cream.