Peace at last. Katharine sat down with a cup of tea in hand and sorted through the mail. The children were playing dodgeball in the backyard: squeals of laughter; an unwelcome thud as a ball hit the glass doors; frequent shouts of victory or – more likely – of outrage. Still, Katharine might have been lucky. She might have just had enough time to enjoy the tea while it was hot. Tossing the junk and laying the bills and bank statements on Julian’s place at the table, Katharine came to the letter she had just collected from the Post Office. It was their Marriage Certificate. Katharine and Julian had recently celebrated twelve years of marriage but only ever had the decorative certificate to acknowledge their communion. Recently however, applying for the children’s Spanish passports, the Consulate insisted on the official version. Katharine glanced at the document, ready to put it aside until later, when she noticed something odd.
Katharine Camila Martín. Conjugal Status. Never Validly Married.
Shaking her head, she skimmed down to her husband’s name.
Julian Ryan Farrell. Conjugal Status. Never Validly Married.
Julian’s part made sense. He had never been married before they met. Yet Katharine had, and this was the Marriage Certificate that was meant to document their details at the time she and Julian entered into marriage.
Katharine moved to the study and sat down at the computer, double-clicking on the website for the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages.
If you have not been previously married or your marriage was annulled your conjugal status is ‘Never validly married’.
If you have been previously married and divorced your conjugal status is ‘Divorced’.
Clearly, her conjugal status should have been ‘Divorced’. And yet …‘Never validly married.’ What was happening here?
Katharine scanned the webpage again, honing in on the word ‘annulled’. Annulment was something Catholics asked for. Richard was Catholic. That was one of the few things her mother had liked about him.
Katharine would never forget the sight of her mother that day in the church as she walked up the aisle on her father’s arm. Once tall and athletic, her mother’s shrunken form was huddled into the wheelchair that day as tears streamed down her cheeks. The thin tubes of the nasal cannula which looped over her ears formed an exaggerated smile on her face. This was matched only by her actual expression of joy.
Katharine turned back to the computer screen wondering if Richard had somehow managed to have their marriage annulled. Katharine sat back in the chair, reeling, as thoughts continued to flood into her mind. Richard was a lawyer. Could he really have done this without her knowledge? Katharine heard herself breathing, each intake rapid and deep, as her head began to pulse. How could he still affect her like this?
Then Katharine heard glass shatter. Running towards the rear of the house, she saw one of the stained glass windows in the kitchen had been struck full force in its centre. Splinters of coloured glass held fast to their leaden surrounds, while a few jewelled shards lay hapless on the floor. The glass doors in the adjacent living area burst open then slammed shut as the children pushed past each other in the race to reach their mother.
‘Nicolas did it,’ Amelia accused. Older and more agile, she usually succeeded in getting there first.
‘No, Mum, I didn’t! It was her fault.’ Nicolas was already crying.
Katharine’s legs still felt weak. She forced her breathing to slow down and steadied her voice.
‘That window was precious. It was part of the original house. I’ve told you so many times …’ She looked from the broken window to the children and back again, clenching her hands to stop the tingling. ‘Amelia, do your piano. Nicolas, go to the shower. Now.’ As the children continued to protest their innocence, tears spilled over her eyes. ‘Vamonos!’ she cried. ‘Go, now! And keep away from that glass.’
Later that evening, once the children were asleep, Katharine showed her husband the Marriage Certificate.
Julian shrugged, smiling as he turned back to the broken window, which he had been carefully taping up. ‘It’s better than the opposite.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It looks like they’ve botched the paperwork and lost record of your first marriage, but … they could have just lost the records for your divorce and then I’d be married to a bigamist.’ Julian laughed. ‘Actually, maybe that would be kind of sexy. Come here, Catarina,’ he cooed.
Katharine allowed him to kiss her neck but her thoughts were elsewhere.
‘It is strange,’ Katharine’s oldest friend, Penelope, conceded in the café the next morning, ‘but I don’t understand why you’re so upset. Richard was a controlling bastard from the very beginning. I only wish I’d known at the time what he was doing to you.’ She put her hand on Katharine’s arm. ‘Anyway, Kat,’ she added, ‘you made a lucky escape. Now you’re free of him for good. Even on paper.’
Katharine smiled but inwardly grimaced as she recalled how Richard had belittled her best friend for years, privately referring to her as ‘Penny the pig’ and her husband as ‘Farmer John’.
‘Exactly,’ said her friend, Susan. ‘Thank God you didn’t have children together. You should just forget it ever happened.’
But it did happen, Katharine thought. However painful it may have been, she did not want this history, her history, simply erased from record.
Withdrawing from the rest of the conversation, Katharine reflected on Susan’s comment about children. Just months after they had started dating, back in first-year university, Richard had made her promise she would never teach their children Spanish. ‘You’d be able to turn them against me, Kitty Kat,’ he had protested, stroking her cheek. His demand seemed absurd now, but at the time all she could think about was that Richard had just declared his intention to spend the rest of his life with her.
An hour later, kissing her friends goodbye in the car park, Katharine found a parking ticket under her windscreen wiper. Julian was going to enjoy this. Since they had been together he’d managed to get some kind of ticket at least once a year, while this would be her first. Not her first ticket ever though – that had occurred many years earlier, not long after she and Richard were married. Driving down a hill, on her way to work, she had been pulled up for speeding. By the time she had reached the office Katharine was racked with anxiety.
‘I don’t know what I’m going to tell my husband,’ she had said to a colleague, anticipating Richard’s fury.
Lynne had looked at her, puzzled. ‘Just tell him you must have been driving a little too fast. It’s not like you meant to do it.’
The older woman’s straightforward response had made Katharine stop, forcing her to contemplate a question she had been evading: why was it that at work she felt confident and intelligent while at home she felt helpless and stupid? Later, she came to realise that that was all part of Richard’s way.
He was on a graduate salary when he was with Katharine, while Katharine’s career was continuing uninterrupted and even advancing. That was unacceptable to him. He needed a way to face it every day. He used to laugh at Katharine whenever she achieved a rise in pay or received a bonus. That was his way. ‘You don’t think you’re really worth that, do you?’ he would challenge. ‘You wouldn’t get that in the real world. Working for a marketing agency is nothing like a career in the law.’
Thinking of it now, Katharine could not comprehend why she had let him speak to her like that, or how she had simply pushed her conflicted feelings down and out of sight.
Back home, avoiding the study, where the Marriage Certificate lay on the desk, Katharine busied herself with housework before the promise of sunshine drew her outside. She raked the fallen leaves then turned her attention to weeding the well-tended garden beds. As she breathed in the fresh, earthy smell, waiting for the usual sense of calm to follow, she remembered the unmarked seed packet that Nicolas had brought home from school. Taking her gloves and gardening tools, Katharine cleared a small area where the tomatoes had been in the summer and planted the seeds.
The next day, unable to distract herself any longer, Katharine picked up the certificate and sat down at the computer. Making her way through multiple layers of bureaucracy, through websites and automated telephone response systems, she finally reached an actual person.
‘That is a bit unusual,’ said the young woman. ‘And you say you have the original Marriage Certificate for your first marriage and the Decree Nisi issued by the Family Law Court?’
‘That’s right,’ Katharine said. ‘My ex-husband was a lawyer and he handled all the paperwork. Could he have forged documents, or had the marriage annulled without my knowledge?’
‘I don’t think so. I can’t see how. But if you would like the records to be amended we will have to investigate the enquiry formally. It takes eight to twelve weeks and you will need to surrender all your documentation. If you’re ready to proceed, I can direct you to the right form.’
Katharine posted the thick envelope that afternoon.
As the weeks passed and autumn merged into winter Katharine waited for an official response to her enquiry. Outside, the few remaining leaves continued to change colour, deepening in hue and intensity before letting go. In the end, all that remained of their former splendour were the dull, brittle skeletons that lay unswept on the ground. Watching this change of seasons, Katharine too imagined letting go and setting herself adrift.
Amelia was the first to notice her absence. ‘Are you sad, Mum?’ her daughter asked one evening as Katharine kissed her goodnight. ‘Are you missing your Mamá?’ She wrapped her slender arms around Katharine’s neck, pulling her down to the bed. ‘I wish I could have met Abuela.’
‘I wish you could have met her too, Mija. She would have loved you very much. You and Nicolas, and your father too.’
Her daughter’s tenderness brought back memories of her mother’s death; two years after she and Richard were married. Despite years of illness, the end when it came had been mercifully swift, leaving Katharine bereft and shocked. After weeks of intense grieving, Richard had demanded she stop crying. ‘It’s not normal,’ he had accused. ‘Where is your loyalty? This is your family now.’
Stunned by Richard’s callous accusation Katharine had gone to visit her father the following day. Sitting together at the round kitchen table, they had pored over old family photos; images of her mother yielding smiles and tears in equal measure.
‘Do you remember,’ her father had asked, ‘how stubborn you were as a child?’
‘Really?’ Katharine’s tone had been skeptical.
‘Of course,’ her father had insisted. ‘You were so stubborn. ‘Tan terco!’ your mother would complain, although she was no different. I remember one time, sitting here. You must have been about seven. Your mother had cooked your favourite dinner – omelette with potatoes – but you refused to eat it. And no matter what I said, no matter what punishment I threatened, you would not even taste it.’
‘Oh, Papá, I’m sorry,’ she had laughed. ‘I can’t even imagine it now.’
‘Do you know that in the end,’ he had continued, ‘I was holding onto your earlobe, twisting it, trying to make you give in? I think it hurt me more than it hurt you. But no, you would not be beaten. Tan terco!’
Later that same evening, in that liminal moment before sleep, Katharine had tried to reclaim this memory of herself as a child. She had found herself recalling the last time she visited her parents before her mother’s admission to the hospice. Her mother had asked Katharine to pick up milk on the way, but Richard had refused. ‘Why should we get the milk? She can send your father,’ he had sneered. ‘And we’re not staying long. One hour max.’
Thus, after being there for an hour, Katharine had dutifully stood up with grave apologies.
‘You have to go already? You just got here.’ Her father had been crestfallen.
‘Yes, Katharine,’ Richard had chimed in, ‘why do we have to go so soon?’
It wasn’t right, she had suddenly thought, lying there in bed. It was normal to bring milk. It was normal to grieve your mother’s death. It was Richard who was not normal. Having finally opened her eyes to all she had been denying, Katharine had scarcely been able to close them that night. Conscious of Richard’s presence beside her she had slept fitfully, disturbed by an insistent voice that asked, over and over, ‘where is that girl now?’ – but in the morning, her mind was surprisingly clear. She dropped Richard off in the city, as always, but instead of driving on to her own workplace she returned home. Filling her car with clothes and other belongings, weeping uncontrollably all the while, she drove to her father’s house, finally revealing what she had kept hidden from her family and herself all this time. From that day, she never saw or spoke to her first husband again.
One cold, grey afternoon, just before it was time to get the children from school, Katharine picked up the watering can and saw that the seeds had germinated. Instead of flowers or even vegetables, as Katharine expected to see, the emerging plants looked like weeds, all khaki-coloured stems and ugly ridged leaves. Katharine eyed them suspiciously and continued on her way to the car.
Finally the day came when a letter arrived from the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Katharine tore open the envelope, unfolding the typewritten letter. They acknowledged the validity of her first marriage. They acknowledged the validity of her divorce. They claimed that, either, she had not provided details of her first marriage to the celebrant when she had married Julian or the celebrant had failed to pass on this information. Irrespective her second marriage was legal and they had therefore corrected their records as requested and were issuing a new Marriage Certificate.
Katharine showed her husband the response letter that evening.
‘Have you been waiting all this time to find out?’ Julian asked, incredulous. ‘Did you try to hide your shady past from the celebrant?’ he teased. Then, noticing her expression, he became serious. ‘Sweetheart, it was just a mistake. Don’t take it to heart.’
She looked away.
‘You do accept the explanation, don’t you?’
‘I’m not sure,’ she muttered.
‘What else could it be? Whatever happened, it’s not important now.’
Katharine met his eyes, trying to draw strength from his confidence.
Later that week Katharine’s father returned home from his annual three-month holiday in Spain. Driving from the airport, she told him of the Marriage Certificate and apparent clerical error.
‘I wouldn’t put it past Richard to have fiddled the paperwork somehow,’ her father agreed. ‘Julian is right, though. It doesn’t matter now. That jerk may have been able to control you once, but it was a long time ago. You’re not the same person you were then.’
She turned to her father. ‘Do you really think so? Have I changed?’
‘Absolutamente,’ her father affirmed, chuckling. ‘Now you’re back to being that stubborn little girl I always knew. I only hope you give in to Julian every now and then. It’s not good for a man’s self esteem to always be beaten by a woman. I should know!’
That night, watching television together, Katharine asked her husband whether he liked Penelope.
‘Sure,’ Julian nodded. ‘She’s your best friend. Why wouldn’t I?’
‘And what do you think of me speaking Spanish with the kids?’
‘It’s good. The kids are lucky.’ He paused the remote control. ‘Why?’
‘No reason,’ she mumbled.
‘Anyway, how was your Dad’s trip?’ he asked, turning back to the television. ‘We should get him over here for dinner.’
The following morning, after contemplating the kitchen window for some time, Katharine went to the computer to search for leadlight repairers. Much to her relief the man on the phone said the window could most definitely be repaired.
‘I wasn’t sure anything could be done,’ she said.
‘Oh no, love, that’s the beauty of stained glass. It might look fragile but it’s stronger than you’d think,’ he reassured her. ‘Your window has plenty of life in it yet. I’ll see you on Monday.’
That weekend marked the beginning of spring. After weeks of waking early, Katharine had finally managed to sleep in. She woke feeling refreshed and content to a quiet house. Julian must have taken the kids somewhere. Leaving the bedroom after a long and luxurious shower Katharine heard the children outside. Her son’s excited face appeared at the back door.
‘We’ve bought some flower seeds, Mum. Strawberries too. Come help us plant them. Come on Mum, please,’ Nicolas coaxed.
Katharine went outside, taking in the blue skies and radiant warmth of the sun.
‘Have a nice sleep?’ Julian beamed at her. ‘Look,’ he pointed, ‘I’ve ripped out all those weedy looking plants already. And the kids have started preparing the garden bed. We just thought you’d enjoy helping with the planting.’
Grasping the trowel from her husband’s outstretched arm, Katharine crouched down in the newly turned soil with the children beside her. ‘I’d love to,’ she said. ‘Lets get started.’