"Sorry to bother you this late," Ellie said when Alec opened the door, thrusting a piece of paper at him. "Just wanted to give you this. Our new address. No landline yet, but I've still got my mobile."
"That's great!" Alec said. He glanced at his room, then back at her, gesturing behind him. "Want to come in?"
"No, thanks. I've still got to feed the kids. Just wanted to give you that. You'll keep in touch, right? Come round once we're settled in, if you can. And let us know when you've finally found a place."
"Of course," Alec said. It was a lie. Probably. "It's--congratulations."
"Thanks," Ellie said. They stared at each other, uncertain. Then Ellie said, "Right, well, I'd better get back."
"Of course," Alec said again. "Let me know if you want help with the move."
"I think we'll be fine. Thanks, though." She hovered for a moment. "Goodnight, then."
"Night," Alec replied, and watched her disappear down the hall before he closed his door.
The move had been the easy part. There was so much that needed doing: searching for another house, another job, a town far enough away that she wouldn't run into anyone she knew by chance, but close enough to drive Tom to see his friends on weekends. All the paperwork involved, and the packing and unpacking in between taking care of the children and getting Tom ready to start at his new school. For two months, she was busy enough she almost didn't have to think about the empty forms on the coffee table at all.
But Tom was in school now -- his third day back -- Fred was sleeping, the house was as settled-in as it would be for a while yet, and she didn't start work for another two weeks. She hadn't figured out what she was going to do about Fred while she was working, but there was time. For the first time in weeks, Ellie found herself without anything urgent to attend to, and in the absence of immediate purpose she the oppressive atmosphere of the house squeeze all around her.
It was a good house. That wasn't the problem. The house itself was cosy, full of light. It was just new, and unfamiliar after years with Joe in Broadchurch, and, worst of all, it was so crushingly empty. The double bed in the bedroom mocked her with its absurd size, the kitchen and living room with their tidiness. There were no dishes in the sink, no half-empty bottle of wine on the counter, no men's shoes lying by the sofa. The place was immaculate and eerily quiet. Tomblike. She had been cleaning the moment anything moved out of place -- nothing better to do, after all -- and now had no remaining chores. She could watch telly, she supposed. Or read a book. Unless she locked herself in her room, both options seated her across from the blank divorce papers she wasn't ready to think about.
She should fill them out. She should. She didn't have to file them, not right away, maybe never if she didn't want to, but it was ridiculous to keep pretending they'd take care of themselves if she ignored them long enough.
Or she could read that book. Putting them off another day wasn't going to hurt anything, either. and it was certainly easier. With a small sigh -- one part disapproval and two parts relief at her own cowardice -- she decided that was it: reading it was.
Two months, one week
She was still avoiding the papers a week later, when she was startled by a knock at the door.
"I was heading up to see my daughter this afternoon," Alec said by way of greeting. "Thought I'd stop by, see how you were getting on. Unless you're busy."
Ellie hadn't been so relieved to see a familiar face in a long time. "No, come in! I was just about to fix some lunch, if you'd like some?"
"Actually, I brought food." He stepped inside and held up a takeaway bag. "Enough for two. I wasn't sure you'd be in, but I'm a terrible cook, so I figured the leftovers would come in handy."
"I'll just get us something to drink, then. Any preference?" She waved him into the living room and made her way into the kitchen, calling out, "Tea? Coffee?"
"Tea is fine," he replied absently. "Plates wouldn't go amiss, either."
"Tea it is."
When she returned, he was standing by the sofa, thumbing through the divorce papers, the bag of takeaway abandoned beside them. Her stomach flipped. She ignored it, clearing her throat to announce her approach. "Your tea." He jerked away from the papers guiltily and accepted the cup with a nod of thanks, hanging back awkwardly as she set the plates down to dole out equal portions of everything. Ellie briefly weighed whether to confront the issue or let the sudden discomfort dissipate by ignoring it. She didn't really want to talk about it, but Alec was probably the only person who would understand her reluctance. She found herself speaking without making a conscious decision.
"Everyone expects me to divorce him," she said. "Or that it's already done, probably. But I can't decide whether I should or not. I haven't even started the paperwork. I'm not sure I can." Alec says nothing, just accept the plate she proffers, watching her as they both sit down, so she continues. "I can't even decide if I want to. We were together for thirteen years. I was happy. Divorce feels like I'm throwing that away, even if I'm so angry I sometimes wish he were dead." She paused. "I keep finding myself worrying that he'd feel abandoned. How much that would hurt, even if be brought it on himself."
"You don't have to decide right away."
"It would be better for Tom, though, wouldn't it? For me, too. It has to look suspicious if the former detective doesn't divorce the murderer she was investigating."
"There are no right or wrong answers, Ellie," Alec said. The use of her name made her flinch. She regretted it immediately. "Miller," he corrected. "It's your decision. But if you're worried about your son, you could always try asking him."
"I don't want Tom to hate Joe. He's always been a good parent. He gave up his job to take care of Fred so I could go back to work."
"You can help Tom remember what his father was like and you can offer to let him visit, but ultimately Tom's opinion is his own to make."
Ellie sighed. "I know that." She could feel Alec studying her but kept her gaze resolutely directed toward her food. They ate the rest of their meal in silence.
As he got ready to leave, Alec cleared his throat. "You mentioned Joe looked after Fred while you worked," he said. "Have you figured out what you'll do when you go back to work?"
"No," Ellie admitted. "There's a daycare near Tom's school, but he's a little young to be starting there still. I was thinking I might have to leave him with my parents for a year or so, or see if they'd be willing to move nearby."
"Well," Alec hedged, "I'm newly retired and have nothing to do all day but look at flats. If you'd like a free babysitter." At Ellie's obvious stupefaction, he added, "That is, if you'd be comfortable letting me look after your son."
"Better you than a stranger," Ellie said honestly. "But I can't--"
"Great!" Alec interrupted. "I'll stop by in a day or two and we'll work out the details. You'll give me a ring, let me know a good time to show up?"
"I -- suppose so," Ellie managed. "Any time during the day works, really. I don't have anything important until I start work next week."
"I'll bring lunch again tomorrow, then," he promised.
"Wait, before you go," Ellie called, halting Alec's progress toward the door. She rifled through her pockets and pulled out several twenty-pound notes.
"I'm not taking your money," Alec insisted. It was a monthly routine by now; the amount offered had stopped growing around the three-month mark, but while Ellie's attempts to pay him had dwindled in frequency, they had also fitted themselves to a rigid pattern and showed no signs of stopping any time soon. Ellie found the whole thing quite frustrating.
Sighing, Ellie peeled two notes off the stack and held them out, but Alec waved them away. "At least for this double shift," Ellie said. "I know you didn't plan to be here for seventeen hours."
"It's fine, Miller," Alec said. Ellie frowned at him. He added, "I wouldn't say no to dinner tomorrow, though. If you were interested."
"Dinner?" Ellie asked, suddenly feeling the conversation had got onto unfamiliar ground.
"After the meal I made him tonight, I think Tom's earned it."
Oh. She thought he'd meant -- "I thought for a moment you were asking me on a date," she said with a shaky laugh.
"That too. If you're interested."
Oh. "Oh." Was she? "No. Maybe." He waited patiently. She thought about the divorce papers, completed but un-filed, lying at the bottom of her sock drawer with a ring she hadn't looked at, much less worn, in nearly a year. She though about Alec, their easy camaraderie and how much she enjoyed coming home and seeing him reading to Fred. "I still haven't filed for divorce," she told him. "I don't know if I'm going to. I don't want to hurt Tom, either. But a date or two sounds nice. Is eight tomorrow okay?"
"Eight tomorrow is fantastic," Alec said, instantaneously moving from grave to ebullient. "I'll see you in the morning, Ellie." He'd only called her that twice. It still gave her a jolt, but this time it was one of excitement, not fear.
"In the morning," she agreed. He flashed her a wide smile before climbing into the car, and her own answering smile felt like stepping out into the sun.