I look around at the building formerly known as my home, now flagged as a disaster zone. Bottles and soft furnishings are strewn all over the downstairs rooms, whereas clothes and bodies are strewn across the beds and floors upstairs. It’s a little after six in the morning and all I can think of is a) how unfortunate it would be if Dick decided to grow a pair and fight for our marriage by turning up now to attempt to talk me round, and b) how can I possibly be sober after drinking through the night, emptying Dick’s wine cellar – finishing the party off with his prized 40-year-old port when the wine ran dry. Is it really possible to drink yourself sober?
I’m thinking it must be since I’m not pissed but I’m not hungover. I’m at the sink, filling a mug with cold water since every single glass I own is strewn somewhere around the house. A handful of my neighbours are no doubt already up, awoken by kiddies bursting with excitement now that Father Christmas has wedged his flabby arse down the chimney in order to leave each resident a pile of presents, stuff yet another mince pie down his gullet and knock back yet another alcoholic beverage, making sure to take Rudolf’s treat back up the chimney.
However, my nearest neighbours have no children, not yet – by their own admission, they’re too busy clambering up their respective career ladders and enjoying being a couple with no responsibilities. They’re sporty. Adventurous. They travel the globe in search of exotic experiences, shying away from the usual touristy holidays in favour of once in a lifetime encounters that most of us only see on the Discovery or National Geographic TV channels. Last year it was swimming with giant turtles oh, and spending time on safari in the depths of Kenya with Samburu warriors as their personal guides.
I’d never felt jealous of them and their adventures. I was always eager to watch their videos and experience their adventures second hand, but not Dick. Oh no, he thought they were pretentious and conceited, bragging about their expensive holidays and rubbing everyone else’s noses in it. I’d always pull a face – we could easily afford those trips but Dick hadn’t the slightest inclination to explore. He’s never been the adventurous type. In fact, Dick’s idea of a holiday is a fortnight in New York … with business meetings lined up every other day. I kid you not.
But right now, they’re not wading through the Amazon rainforest or chasing storms in Texas. No, they’re in their garden, down by the river. They’ve stayed home this year in the hope of experiencing the first white Christmas since her childhood. He’d told me he was going to make sure she got one – I’d assumed he’d have given up once it became clear that a white Christmas in Chester wasn’t on the cards, sweeping her off to Austria’s Kaunertal Glacier where snow is guaranteed, bringing in the new year on the slopes, not forgetting the après-ski, of course.
But no, that would have been a kind gesture of a loving husband. Instead, he’s proven what a catch he is, as if she didn’t already know. Any man who can magic a white Christmas in the face of the warmest December on record, just to put a smile on his significant other’s face, is a keeper in my book. And he has so he is. She’s out there now, frolicking in the snow, her tartan scarf flying merrily behind her, illuminated by the subtle lighting that’s appeared overnight – her shrieks of joy just making it through my double glazing. My perfectly landscaped yet totally snowless garden that I adore suddenly looks drab in comparison, although the sun hasn’t yet risen so it’s bathed in darkness. Theirs looks like an elaborate film set: a snow machine is filling the air with glistening snowflakes, illuminated by a million warm white fairy lights.
Watching them is proof that I’m stone cold sober. Because there’s no way I could be pissed and feel the ache in my chest that I’m feeling right now.
My pre-dawn grey garden isn’t the only dull, drab and dreary thing around here. No, that would be my love life. The aforementioned ache in my chest crept up on me when I watched her run and jump into his waiting arms, the pair of them laughing: happiness personified. Like a knife, the ache twisted when he swung her around and around before taking her face in his hands and kissing her thoroughly, leaving both her and me in no doubt of the strength of his feelings for her. Their relationship is the stuff of dreams – a dream that’s coming true right before my very eyes, every bit as much as her dream of a white Christmas is.
I drop the mug into the sink, not caring if it breaks. I grip the edge of the ivory quartz worktop as realisations wash over me in waves.
Forget about Dick sticking Little Dick into ‘ladies of a certain profession’ for a second. Even without that wakeup call, we didn’t have that type of relationship. He’d never do anything like that for me.
Okay, so not many men would secretly arrange for a snow machine to be installed in their garden along with twinkling lights when their partner’s dream of a white Christmas wasn’t on the cards. But some thought and effort is justified in relation to special events, surely. I had a sneaking suspicion that for most of our marriage, Dick’s secretary had been responsible for choosing his gifts for me. Don’t ask me how but suddenly, I know that it’s more than a suspicion. Actually, yes I do know. I know because when his secretary stopped working for him, my gifts stopped arriving gift-wrapped and the hand-crafted cards bearing thoughtful messages ceased too.
In the last few years, I received obligatory gifts on my birthday, our anniversary and at Christmas but unless you count the box they were delivered in via mail order (usually with next day delivery and sometimes arriving after the event). But no cards, no personalised messages, no sentimentality or emotion demonstrated. Worse still, there was no consideration. The perfumes that arrived wasn’t my favourite or even ones I wore. The jewellery wasn’t what I choose myself … far from it. But I’d been so caught up in the moment to question it before now. I was raised to be thankful and gracious when receiving gifts, not to question the lack of thought or appropriateness.
Now, it’s difficult not to. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dick hadn’t even purchased my Christmas gift by the time he flew out of Dubai. His free time was spent with the ladies from the ‘agency’, judging from his credit card statement so he probably didn’t have time to shop. His gifts from me are stashed in the wardrobe in a spare room upstairs. I’d bought them for him weeks ago, after spending days and days agonising over what to buy the man who seemingly has everything. I’m not joking – I’d lain awake at night, desperately trying to come up with something creative, or useful … or indulgent that would show him how much I care.
Telling him what he meant to me had, over the years, seemed to make him uncomfortable so I’d reined myself in, dropping in a quick ‘I love you’ before he left the house and at the end of phone calls when he was overseas. He used to say ‘me too’. I can’t even remember the last time he actually said those three important words. Or when his actions had shown what his mouth couldn’t or wouldn’t say.
Our lives had morphed practically into one, in that my life revolved around him and his working life – that’s where his priorities lay. Take away the career man and what was left over for me? Less and less every year, that’s what. I gave more and more … I didn’t mean to, it just happened. To please him. To make his life easier.
Did I give more and more – or was it that he took more and more? He used to apologise when his work rode roughshod over our plans … over our lives. When did that stop? He used to promise to make it up to me. Presumably, he stopped bothering to make promises he never kept.
How could I have thought we had a happy union? How could I have accepted that he was perfect for me? That we were perfect together?
Dick was all about self. Selfish. Self-absorbed. Self-obsessed.
What of me? My self? My self-respect and self-esteem has taken a thorough bashing since I turned all Private Dick on Dick and Little Dick, I know that much. I’ve put a brave face on as best I can, resolving to put myself first, to grab a hold of my life and ride the hell out of it … yes, the irony that I’m surrounded by a scene with an uncanny resemblance to a zombie apocalypse, with carnage and comatose bodies everywhere while thinking of living my life to the full, doesn’t escape me.
I’m no martyr, and I don’t usually indulge in self-pity … I mean, what’s the point? It gets you nowhere and only brings you down but right now, being slapped in the face with everything that my neighbours have, has only served to show me not only what I don’t have, but what I’ve never had. Ever. Dick and I were together from Uni. My one and only adult relationship. He’s all I’ve known – relationship wise. Okay, so not sexually speaking, but you can hardly count the couple of inexperienced, unsatisfying exploits I’d had before Dick.
You watch films and read books where the sexual chemistry between a couple is off the charts and yeah, I’ve had that. Dick and I would spend all of our time together in bed at the start – no matter whether it was daylight or not, we’d be in bed when we weren’t in lectures. But was our sex life as sour as the rest of our marriage?
You see, I’ve watched films and read books where the leading lady is reduced to a boneless heap of sensation following a succession of mind-blowing orgasms. Do you know what I mean? Yes? Well, I don’t. For years, I’d assumed all that was Hollywood bullshit and fictional fantasy romance that nobody believed in. Not really. But then, following the worldwide sensation of a certain erotic trilogy of novels, I began to question whether it really existed.
I mean, every single magazine article I read a couple of years or so ago seemed to imply that women all over the country were spicing up their love lives … that men were responding by turning up the heat in the bedroom. I tried, honestly I did. I bought new lingerie – a baby doll that was barely there with nothing underneath. The only heat Dick turned up in response was the thermostatic radiator valve – he said I must be freezing. Then he’d tucked the duvet under his chin and turned over, snoring softly within seconds. I hadn’t bothered again – there didn’t seem any point.
Honestly, I didn’t think you had to have that. Especially if you had everything else. Love. Adoration. Respect. Trust. Monogamy. The whole two hearts beating as one crap. Okay, so it’s not crap for everyone. My neighbours are now having a light-hearted snowball fight and whenever a ball of frozen water hits its target, the victor gives the victim a kiss on the lips … and on it goes. A question forms in my mind … when they’re too cold to stay outdoors in their make believe white Christmas, will they tumble into bed and fuck like porn stars until they’re both completely satisfied?
I turn away from the window, unable to watch any longer – especially with the inappropriate images that are swirling inside my head now. I’ll not be able to look them in the eye again now. Not because I’m embarrassed … oh no, I’m not worried about them seeing me blush with guilt over my mental voyeurism. I’m concerned that they’ll see the green eyed monster lurking behind my grey irises.
Philosophy isn’t really my thing but, as I pour water into the nearest thing I have to a caffeine drip, my coffee machine, I begin to wonder whether dream relationships are on the cards for every one of us in our lifetime. In other words, is my true soul mate still out there? A man who puts my needs before his own … no, scrap that – I’m far too independent for that. A man who considers my feelings and my needs as much as he considers his own?
Maybe he won’t whip up a winter wonderland in my back garden on a whim, just to make one of my dreams come true. But he’ll be my equal. My best friend and my lover. My happiness will be a priority; my needs will be as important as his; our relationship will be built on equality and loyalty – that would be my dream come true. That’s not unrealistic, surely.
And, I can’t help wondering … is it too much to ask that he fucks like a stallion on steroids?
I’m on my third cup of coffee, trying desperately not to think of what my neighbours are doing now they’ve abandoned their winter wonderland and retreated indoors, when party revellers begin to stumble around, bleary eyed and hungover. Some dash off, having somewhere else they need to be on Christmas morning, others seem either unwilling or unable to make a move. Sax is one of them.
He comes sauntering into the kitchen, wearing only a pair of skinny jeans that are just about hanging onto his hips. “Morning,” he murmurs, dragging his hand through his hair. At least I think that’s what he did. My eyes had zoned onto the pronounced V of his abdominal region. A V that looked suspiciously like an arrow head … pointing down to–
Bella! Get a grip!
“M- Morning,” I stammer, forcing my eyes up to his only for them to bounce off and land on the floor at my feet.
“Been up long?” he asks, his voice morphing into a yawn that has him apologising.
“I’ve not been to bed,” I smile. “So you could say that.”
He leans closer. “That mascara hasn’t been on all night. Those lashes look too perfect.”
I laugh, suddenly feeling self-conscious under his scrutiny. “I don’t allow myself many luxuries but mascara is something I don’t skimp on. Thanks to John Lewis, I keep stocked up on Dior’s Iconic Overcurl. It’s phenomenal.”
His lips curl down, showing he’s trying to absorb my beauty tip when it must mean nothing to him. “Duly noted,” he says, nodding his head in apparent approval. I grin, appreciating his humour. “Now, tell me you have bacon, oh domesticated goddess,” he says, sinking onto a barstool at the island. “And coffee. I know you’ll have coffee.”
I laugh and proceed to slide a mug under the nozzle before hitting the Americano button. Oh yeah, I know how Sax likes his coffee. I’m not sure how he likes his bacon. But I’m hoping he likes his eggs scrambled.
“What’s that?” he says, as I turn, his mug in my fingers.
“Hmm?” I say, somewhat absentmindedly, distracted by thoughts of just how Saxon could scramble my eggs.
“Did you say something about scrambled eggs?”
I gasp, almost throwing scalding hot coffee over his groin. Thankfully, I manage to get the mug onto the quartz of the island with minimal sploshing.
Think, Bella, think! Yes, think then speak.
“I usually have smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast on Christmas morning,” I cry, flouncing over to the refrigerator and pulling out a pack of organic, free range eggs and a huge pack of Scottish smoked salmon. It’s no coincidence that it’s there. But it’s not my Christmas morning tradition. It’s Dick’s. God only knows how they found their way into my online shopping basket that the man in a van delivered yesterday. Some habits are hard to break, I guess. “But there’s plenty of bacon if you’d rather.”
“Oh, how very decadent,” he says with a grin, after knocking back half of his coffee. He must have no nerves in his mouth … that coffee was scalding hot. I have to leave mine for several minutes before I can even sip it. Does that mean that nipping of lips and tongue while kissing is ineffective? Well, I’ve only seen and read about such debauchery … but the thought of taking Sax’s lower lip between my teeth makes my innards tingle sharply, which makes me press my thighs together, which makes me blush … and I’m sure it’s not just my cheeks that have heated sharply.
“Are you okay?” he asks. “Do you need the loo? Go on, I’ll start scrambling the eggs while you’re relieving yourself.”
I thrust the eggs and salmon at him and scurry out of the room before I open my big mouth and ask him why I need to relieve myself if he’s willing to scramble my eggs. Entering my bedroom, I find Phoebe in my bed. Something jangles in the back of my head and I seem to recall that’s why I stayed up all night … all the beds were occupied by people passing out after a cocktail of alcohol. I relieve my bladder and decide to shower. It’s a relief to get out of the crumpled clothes I’ve been wearing for almost twenty-four hours. I manage the world’s fastest shower then pull on clean underwear before getting stuck with the age old question of what to wear.
Five minutes later and I’m downstairs wearing jeans and a cream cashmere sweater with my damp hair pulled into a bun on the back of my head. Even before I’ve entered the kitchen, I can smell something pretty amazing.
“Sit,” Sax demands, jerking his head toward the island. The second my bottom hits the barstool, a plate of creamy scrambled eggs and succulent smoked salmon is placed before me. The salt and pepper mills and a handful of cutlery appears before Sax seats himself next to me with a huge bacon and egg sandwich. I’d kill for that right now. Me and my stupid big mouth.
I push thoughts of Dick away as I shove his Christmas breakfast down my neck, concentrating instead on Sax eating that delicious bacon sandwich. I find my eyes drawn to his fingernails. I’ve noticed them before at work … they’re on my list of noticeables: eyes, shoes and fingernails. A man should have clean, trimmed fingernails but Sax’s make me want to hide mine. His are perfectly manicured and surely, nobody’s nails shine like that unless they’re coated with clear lacquer or they’re buffed to perfection.
I realise he’s watching me. I guess it’s obvious what I’m studying since I’ve unintentionally leaned in to get a closer look. I straighten quickly, shovelling another forkful of fishy/eggy mush into my mouth.
“What are your plans for today?” I ask.
Sax shrugs, then finishes his mouthful of bacon before replying. “I’m in Manchester this evening but nothing until then.”
“Oh. Are you visiting family in Manchester?”
“No. Thankfully, this evening is much less work than visiting my folks.”
I watch carefully for signs of sadness that I’ve seen pass over him before but there’s nothing.
“Ah, a girlfriend then?” I ask, knowing that I’m prying.
Sax laughs heartily, shaking his head. I don’t see why that’s so funny. My confused frown only makes him laugh more.
“No,” he manages, through his mirth. “One day, I’ll remind you of this conversation and you’ll see why I’m laughing.”
My brow furrows further. Nobody likes being the butt of jokes – especially when they don’t know what the joke is. And then it dawns on me and everything slots into place inside my head. “Ah,” I say.
He stops dead, pinning me with eyes that are brimming with an emotion or mix of emotions that I can’t name. It’s silent, his laughter dying a sudden death on his lips. His eyes are searching my face … but for what? I know mine are interrogating his in equal measure. The air is inexplicably heavy, each millisecond drawn out impossibly.
Suddenly, his well-shaped eyebrows bounce and he withdraws from me without either of us moving an inch. “Maybe you should come … if you don’t have plans, that is … it might answer a few of the questions you have about me.” From his tone, I know he’s silently imploring me to drop it for now, and to accept his invitation, although it’s clear he has reservations about showing or telling me something.
I open my mouth to tell him that I don’t have any such thing … but he intercepts. “Oh yes, you do, missy. Don’t worry, I’m not accusing you of being nosy … sooner or later, everyone who spends time with me has questions. I could list several questions you’ve thought of–” He breaks off when I open my mouth to protest, putting his hands up before continuing. “Don’t! I think you should come and see for yourself. Some questions are better answered without words.”
Half an hour later and he’s rounded up the remnants of his flock. They wish me a final Merry Christmas and lurch off down the path to the waiting taxi. Sax lingers inside the front door. “I’ll send my car for you at eight. Please be ready. And if you change your mind, no – don’t use that as an out, please don’t change your mind … but if you do, please let me know and I’ll reroute the car.”
My head’s whirling. “You’ll send your car? You have a car … and a driver?”
He grins but, as always, gives nothing away. “I do.”
I gasp, mostly for effect. “Saxon, is this your way of telling me you’re loaded?” Before he can reply, I gasp involuntarily. “Please tell me you’re not taking me to a posh, formal, family do. I mean, if you are, that’s fine but I need to know what to wear. How to behave …”
He shakes his head, a weary looking smile on his face. “Yes and no.” He puts a finger on my lips before I can demand that he elaborate. “Dress up. Think clubbing. Extreme clubbing. I suggest girly and extravagant. Demure or vamp it up. Whatever takes your fancy. I promise you you’ll not be overdressed … even if you’re practically naked. And I can assure you that even then you’d be quite safe.”
He laughs when I complete my gasping hat trick, leans in to peck me on the cheek and walks backward out of the door. “Eight, don’t be late,” he calls before the taxi door closes.
I stand there for several moments until the shrieks of my neighbour, presumably revelling in the snow once more, forces me to close the door. I suppose I should call my parents to wish them a Merry Christmas and inform them of the last minute change to Christmas lunch. I know it’s selfish but there’s no way I can be a domesticated goddess today. After staying up all night, there’s no way I can even contemplate tackling a turkey. I need sleep.
I decide to call them and break the news about Dick and I splitting. Not very festive, I know, but my parents would know instantly that something’s up, just from hearing my voice. I’ve never been a good liar and they know me far too well for me to attempt subterfuge now. I know my mum will insist upon coming over to check on me … but how to stop her?
Inspiration strikes. I take my mobile out into the garden where the laughter and shrieking has amplified – friends or family with children have arrived and a serious snowball fight is in full swing. Through the chaos, they’ll be less likely to know I’m lying when I pretend to be out with friends. If they can barely hear me, they’ll believe that I’m happy and that the end of my marriage is a good thing.
As I dial their number, I wonder whether they’ll be able to tell how gutted I am that the sexiest guy I know, the one I picture in steamy dreams that I’ve started to have, my new work colleague who makes me feel young and alive again, my new best friend and confidant … is totally and undoubtedly gay.