It’s the eve before Christmas Eve … I suppose it could be called Christmas Eve Eve. Or the day of reckoning, or Doomsday. Simply put, it’s the day Dick is coming ‘home’ – his flight was delayed, otherwise he’d have arrived a couple of hours ago. It had irked me that he still called my home his home. Okay, so he doesn’t know that I’ve kicked him out yet. I didn’t think it was fair to drop the bombshell that our marriage is over, over the phone. Yes, I’m a charitable soul. Or a mug. Yes, he doesn’t deserve me being so considerate. He doesn’t deserve me full stop.
If he knew me at all, he’d know that our marriage was over the very moment he decided it was okay to pay persons unknown for sex. Yes, ‘persons’ unknown. You see, after I’d spilled my guts in the office the other day, Sax took me out for lunch. (I hadn’t realised he was supposed to meet his friends and had blown them off to comfort me until the following day when he insisted I join them all for lunch and Hugh let slip.) During our solo lunch, I’d told Sax everything – not that there was much left to say after my outburst in the office. He’d wagged his finger when I kept referring to Dick’s indiscretions as ‘women’. Then he’d made a good point: how do I know Dick was paying women to service his needs? Maybe he was secretly bisexual. Or even gay.
I’d been tempted to do some more digging into the fancy agency he’d been using. I’d made the assumption that it only provided women when I’d read that it provided escorts, companions and more. It was the word ‘more’ that had set off the alarms in my head. I’d pictured female prostitutes and, when I’d finally plucked up the courage to call the agency to either put my mind at rest or end my marriage, I’d asked whether it was possible to book a woman for ‘more’ and I’d been reassured that it was possible to book a woman, or indeed women (that had raised my eyebrows) – to meet up for ‘more’ practically anywhere in the world. I was left in no doubt that there was practically nothing they wouldn’t do, for the right sum. Yes, the only barrier it seems, is how much the client is prepared to pay. If the client is willing to pay travelling expenses and ‘additional’ expenses for however many women are desired to do ‘whatever’ it is that’s desired (the more element), then the sky’s the limit.
Judging from Dick’s credit card statement, it wasn’t the sky that was the limit … it was his credit card’s actual limit. That was how I found out … their message left on the answer machine, urging him to call to agree to raise his limit, since he’d reached the current one. His platinum AmEx has a £5,000 limit. Per month. Oh but he’s away from home, you say. He’s incurring costs, hotels, food, et cetera, right? Wrong! They go on his company credit card. Not his personal one. He’d been in Dubai at the time. Instead of obeying local laws, he’d dared to risk life and limb, paying to ship in his desired amount of women, for his desired amount of ‘more’. That should have told me how confident and daring he’d become … practically conclusively proving that he’d been doing this for some time. Yet I’d still felt the need to plough through his statements. Every single one of them that I could lay my hands on. That happened to be three years’ worth. He only kept the last three years, shredding the older ones.
He’d give everything else to me to shred. But not his personal statements. Never his personal AmEx statements. I’d assumed that it was because I’d find out how much his frequent gifts cost, not to mention those for birthdays and Christmas, so I’d never questioned it. I’d never gone looking. They were easy enough to find. And, get this, he was only caught out because he’d insisted upon having a spending limit in place for security reasons, in case his card was stolen while he was travelling. I remembered that when I was looking through them. Platinum AmEx cards don’t have a pre-set spending limit. What a pity (for him) that he’d been so concerned with his financial risks instead of being concerned about the risk to his marriage.
I’d booked today off work. I’m wishing now that I hadn’t. I’m rattling around this large house. Our house. My home. I’ve even found it within me to put up some Christmas decorations after I’d realised that all the neighbours had tasteful twinkling trees in their windows and my home was shrouded in darkness when I returned from work each evening. Yeah, it suited my mood. But they’re a nosy bunch. There was some informal yet never broken rule that we’d all put up similar elegant and tasteful decorations so that the Close was coordinated in its classy Christmassy cloak. I’d been tempted to wilfully disobey but, to be honest, I wasn’t sure I could withstand the scrutiny it would evoke. The only thing the wives of the Close liked more than the year round tasteful coordination of their premises is gossip. The juicier and closer to home, the better.
I refuse to give them fodder for their juicers: I refuse to be an orange that’s torn to pieces in search of as much juice as can be squeezed from my bones. So I complied and coordinated. Cowardly concealment.
Although I guess as fast as I concealed my insecurities, I was revealing them. Otherwise, why bother to erect a smokescreen?
I tell myself that I should be walking tall, head held high. I’m the victim in a marriage that was meant for two but spent with more. I shouldn’t mind people knowing what a rat Dick really is. I should be spinning security blankets from their compassion and empathy and shrouding myself in their warmth.
But I don’t.
Because I know what people are like. Once the initial gossip spreads like wildfire engulfing every ear in its path, what’s left?
Scorched and scarred barrenness.
Ordinary people don’t stop to tend to the scene of such carnage, they avoid it like the plague.
The devastation is me. And I deserve the right to contain the devastation within me so that it doesn’t rage out of control, from lips to inner ears. The scorching, scarring and charring has occurred inside my chest. The barrenness and desolation is my marriage.
I fondle an ornament on the tree. It’s an angel, given to us on our first Christmas as a married couple. Why’s it on the tree, you ask. Because it was the final gift from my grandmother before she passed away that year – a week before Christmas. She’d loved Christmas, belying her years to become a child upon the first sight of glitter or tinsel. Christmas was an event … the event of the year in her eyes. So, every year since, I’d done my best to maintain the traditions she’d begun, throwing my heart and soul into the festive season. But not this year.
However, when I’d come across the ornament, I’d burst into tears when I’d passed it over. Then, when I’d stood back, not so much to admire the tree, but to ensure that it would pass muster against the unspoken standards of the Close’s Christmas Committee, I’d felt hollow. All evening, the tree had mocked me until I’d reached the point where I was convinced the CCC would know I was faking it. Despite the amount of wine I’d consumed (or perhaps because of it) I’d found myself scooting back up the rickety ladder to retrieve my grandmother’s gift. I decided I’d rather feel something than nothing. Sadness than emptiness.
My grandmother used to say that feeling something – good or bad – was healthy. It meant you were alive. It meant you had a life to be lived. Everyone says life’s too short. Hers certainly was. She was only in her sixties but every one of those sixty-four years had been lived. Really lived. She made up for her unspectacular longevity by cramming in more than most centenarians manage by the time she reached her sixty-four years. Sixty-four … a little less than double the age I am now. And the life I’ve been living for so many years suddenly feels like a sham. A waste. What would she have to say about that, I wonder.
I lift the ornament off the tree and a bittersweet smile tugs at the corners of my mouth when I admire the love-struck couple so wrapped up in themselves they don’t even appear to notice the snow’s falling thick and fast around them. I thought I had that. Maybe once I did have it. Maybe I took it for granted. Maybe I did something wrong to force Dick to tread the path less travelled in the world of happily ever afters.
The clunk of a car door closing heavily brings me out of my pensive melancholy. I square my shoulders, rehang the ornament and smooth my dress over my thighs.
What would Grandma do?
I close my eyes and inhale slowly, urging the strength and wisdom she’d shown to come to the fore. I exhale, feeling somewhat calmer and stronger. It may be purely psychological but I don’t care. When I open my eyes, Dick is standing in front of me.
He frowns, as if noticing something is different about me then seems to shake it off and opens his mouth. “Tomorrow, dinner with the Mandevilles? Unfortunately, Eugenie was rushed into hospital yesterday but this dinner is important. I’ve emailed everyone to inform them of the change of venue. I knew you wouldn’t mind so–”
“Hello, Richard,” I say, my voice sounding unlike me. “You’ve been gone for a couple of weeks and this is how you greet your faithful wife?”
He frowns, looking completely thrown. “You do mind? What is it? Do we not have what you need? Couldn’t you serve up our Christmas dinner?” He smiles animatedly. “That would be befittingly festive. Your parents wouldn’t mind, would they? Not if you explained.”
I’m suddenly in the middle of a snowball fight, being pelted … instead of snowballs slamming into me, it’s realisations. They leave me just as cold.
Firstly, I’d forgotten that my parents were due to spend Christmas Day with us. Bollocks.
Secondly, this is typical. Okay, so perhaps dropping an impromptu dinner on me at short notice is typical but never before on Christmas Eve, happily robbing us of a family Christmas meal … that’s a first. Him returning and treating me like his secretary, that’s typical.
I know, without a doubt, that once I agree to his demands, he’ll relax and then we’ll morph into our roles of husband and wife. He’ll become a little affectionate, telling me he missed me. Then, he’ll lock himself inside his office, catching up on correspondence for a couple of hours. Then he’ll emerge, expecting to be fed. Then he’ll yawn and head to bed. To sleep.
But I’m not going to. I tip my head to one side and attempt to figure out what he’s going to care more about – his thwarted business dinner or his marriage ending. If I were a gambler, I’d say the odds are stacked firmly in the dinner’s favour. You see, Dick’s so successful at negotiating contracts worth millions … billions even … because he’s a master at negotiating. He’d be confident he could talk his way out of what he’d surely call a misunderstanding on my part. In terms of priority, the dinner would come first because it requires preparation to go off without a hitch, and that means starting work on it right now. That’s probably what he felt about our marriage … without realising that it’s not only the ceremony that needs preparation and consideration. That it’s a lifelong commitment that always needs work to go off without a hitch.
Now ours is about to go off like cream, left to fend for itself on a sunny windowsill. Coagulating. Curdling.
And like cream, we too will separate in sourness.
I feel my lips moving but my ears can’t distinguish the words over the whooshing of the adrenalized blood as it’s pumped double time to my brain, which is on auto-pilot, having rehearsed this moment for days.
I stare blindly until I see realisation dawn on his face. He frowns and withdraws into himself. I can almost hear his brain whirring. He’s not had the luxury of a rehearsal. He hasn’t been able to plan this to go off without a hitch. He’s attempting to find the best way of negotiating his way out of this.
I calmly tell him that there’s no way out of this. That I don’t need his admission of guilt to know that he’s broken our marriage vows. I tell him that he’s not staying here tonight and, when he attempts to protest, I calmly inform him of the reservation I made in his name at the nearby golf club’s hotel. A reservation for a room for ten nights. Made on his platinum AmEx card once I’d cleared the balance for him out of our joint account after he’d breached his self-imposed limit because of those not so secret purchases to the ‘escort agency’.
He goes an odd colour but then seems to get a second wind, evidenced by the red patches appearing high on his cheekbones, as he churns forward all the reasons for needing secretarial services or a companion for gala dinners etc. He calls them legitimate business expenses.
I walk to the front door and open it, knowing that he won’t make a scene in front of our neighbours. I smile sweetly as he nears, then point at his luggage, lying where he dropped it, just inside the front door before delivering the coup de grâce.“Legitimate business expenses would be charged to your legitimate business credit card. You’ve always prided yourself with how fastidious you are with your expenses and financial matters. Don’t attempt to insult my intelligence. However, do expect to hear from my solicitor. Let me know where you’re staying in the longer term and I’ll have your belongings delivered.”
He stands there, glaring at me. I can almost hear his thoughts: this is his house too, he pays the mortgage too, I can’t afford it on my salary, why should he leave … and so on. I know, those thoughts occur to me in my moments of doubt and indecision. But no more. It’s time to start living my life. So when he opens his mouth to protest, I call a cheery greeting and lift my hand as if waving to a neighbour who isn’t there, but Dick can’t see that. He looks as though he’s going to combust before he lets out a long breath and stomps over to his luggage, grabbing both cases.
I do nothing except hold the door open, until he draws level. He looks as though there’s something he wants to say. Lots of things he wants to say. But my eyes lock onto his and my glare is unflinching, even when I say, “Merry Christmas, Dick.”
I close the door quickly, almost slamming it as soon as he clears the threshold. Then I slump down the cool, solid wood, crumpling into a heap on the floor. Exhausted is an understatement. But underneath it all is a sense of achievement. I blink back tears as I wonder whether my old Grandma would be proud of me. Whether she’d approve. I’d like to think she would.
The ringtone of my phone blares into the solitude. I reach inside my pocket for it, to turn it off so I can sit here and lick my wounds for a little longer. I hesitate when I see Sax’s name but the call cuts off before I can decide whether or not to answer. Then I see I have a load of text messages. All from Sax.
Apparently, if I don’t agree to a night out with him and his friends, they’re going to come and get me. I glance at the time. Shit, they’ll be here in less than half an hour unless I can contact him. I hit the dial button but, before it can connect us, I cancel it. What’s the point? Sax knew I was having ‘the confrontation’ with Dick today. If he answered and I told him I didn’t feel like going out, he’d turn up here anyway. He’s threatened it since I told him. He says there’s no point in being sad all alone when I can be sad with friends. Something about the way he’d said it made me realise he’s known sadness. True sadness. But the moment for me to sensitively probe had passed before I could formulate words so I’d left it. My brain processes the fact that Sax knows about sadness and he says it’s better to not be alone.
I pick myself up off the doormat and smile. I’m not a doormat. Not these days. I’m Bella and it’s time to live my life, not Dick’s. I race upstairs and get ready in record time, although I’m gripped with nerves and doubts that I look like an old maid compared with Sax and Co which results in two hasty changes of clothes. It’s about to result in a third when I hear the heavy tone of the doorbell echoing up the wide staircase. I grab a clutch, throwing in my purse, mobile phone and lipstick and, when the doorbell sounds again, I head down the stairs.
I thought it would be Sax on my doorstep and that there’d be a taxi waiting, but there are two waiting to pull out of the drive. Sax and Co burst into the worst rendition of Silent Night that I’ve ever heard, giving me serious concerns that my neighbours might call Environmental Health to complain that their night is anything but silent. I usher them inside. They’re a crowd of giggles, bottles and Christmas greetings as they tumble inside.
“Sax said you probably wouldn’t agree to come out for our Christmas party so we’re bringing the party to you,” Phoebe says as the group conga past me and wind their way into the lounge.
“Partaaaaaaaay,” cries Hugh, bringing up the rear of the impromptu conga.
When they’re past, I see that Sax has waited. I shake my head at him as I push the front door closed.
“How’d it go?” he asks, his face the image of concern.
I reach out and take the bottle of Pinot Grigio from his grasp, twisting off the cap, I give him a smile. “It could have been worse,” I say, tipping up the bottle and taking a greedy slug.
“That’s my girl,” he says, pulling me into his side. “Now where’s the music? You can’t have a party without music?”
I shake my head yet again. “What will my neighbours think?”
Sax grins, “That they wish they were invited?”
I grin up at him. Yeah – who cares what they think?
I’m Bella Duvall. I’m thirty-four and I’m having a party for the first time since Uni.
I’m living. Not existing. I raise the bottle in the air and say, “Here’s to living life to the full, Grandma,” before taking another slug.
Sax looks confused for just a second, then he grabs the bottle, saying, “I’ll drink to that.” And he does.
We all do. Until gone midnight and the booze supply runs dry.
It’s Christmas Eve, I realise.
I wonder down to Dick’s wine cellar and select a few bottles that I’m too pissed to pronounce but I know they’re expensive. I stagger back into the lounge that now resembles a bomb site. Over the thumping bass that’s pouring out of the Bose speakers, I hold up the bottles, yelling, “Merry Christmas, everybody,” with an uncanny resemblance to Noddy Holder that wasn’t intended. That’ll be a nod to my time living in the East Midlands.
There’s a loud cheer, before I’m relieved of the bottles by an elated Hugh who attempts to kiss me. I step back. Or at least I thought I did. I find myself backed up against Sax’s chest with his arms snaking around me. Hugh looks shamefaced and heads off to uncork the wine.
I stay where I am. And not just because my feet aren’t to be trusted. Because it feels good.
“I like this,” I tell Sax, looking up at him over my shoulder. “You’re so lovely. And sexy.”
He smiles down at me. Again I see that sadness flick over his face, but before I can ask him what makes him so sad, he releases me and announces that he should help Hugh with the wine. Hands grasp me and pull me into onto the makeshift dancefloor aka my dining room and I find myself doing the Macarena like a five-year-old. And loving every second of it. I think Grandma would be proud.