The sex was perfunctory. Lisa was all nervous tension, her head crowded with ideas, innovations, plans and strategies; fit to explode, she needed to open the safety valve. Dispensing with the niceties, she grabbed my vaguely resuscitating penis like a relay baton before I’d properly undone my flies, and rammed it home as soon as it sprang free. She was done and dusted in a couple of minutes and just about had sufficient patience to let me finish up. She was asleep seconds later, like a…like a man. I lay there with her sweaty head on my chest, her left leg wrapped around my thighs, her breathing deep, contented. My thudding, troubled heart, beating so close to her ear would never stir her. I’d somehow managed to rekindle a small fire, but mine had been a soft, straining erection that only just held its own. All men understand the occasional necessity of heading off imminent orgasm with a mental image of licking some stinking bloke’s rancid armpit or eating a maggot and snot sandwich but tonight I’d been on the other side of that fence, battling to overcome the disappointment I knew Lisa felt and had tried so hard to hide, as I related the miserable tale of my abortive interview with Wide Phil. The conversation in the car home had then turned to my continuing lack of success in securing a job or even an interview and, inevitably, my growing defeatism and disillusionment. She didn’t want to hear all that, though, did she? Not today. Not any day. Yes she did her best to proffer support and encouragement, but it was a bit like finding out you’ve passed an exam whilst standing next to your best friend who’s fucked it up. You want to dance down the street punching the air, but instead have to suppress that instinct and offer commiserations without sounding smug. So while none of my tribulations had quite doused her fire, the sex, which earlier had had all the makings of an impromptu expression of joy, ended up feeling like a consolation prize, the cuddly toy rather than the washing machine. A proper pity-fuck.
The following morning, we were back to our usual mute selves, steering politely around each other in expansive detours. If anything, the atmosphere had taken a distinct turn for the worse. The stark reality of our vastly differing fortunes had, I think, hit home in the post-coital light of day and Lisa clearly wasn’t handling it. I felt I’d dipped another notch in her estimation and was now slipping, spluttering for air, below the water line. Lisa left earlier than usual while I walked the kids to the bus, came home and fell asleep on the sofa. Another long, empty day lay ahead and I had to get some rest in to face it.
At midday, I was woken by the telephone. It was Chaz, sounding way too chirpy. Didn’t he know what time it was? ‘Anything?’ he said, our habitual greeting down the years.
’Nothing,’ came my stock reply, except this time I meant it.
’Keep at it, mate. Something will come up.’
’Yeah, course it will,’ I mumbled, studying a line of grime beneath a fingernail.
’So how about you and Lisa this Sunday? I’m gonna stop asking you in a year or five. Then you’ll be sorry.’
I’d managed to fend him off for the last few weeks but knew I’d have to yield eventually. ‘I’ll ask the boss. She’s super-busy, though. I’ll probably need to make an appointment.’
’Yeah, well, these high flyers…’
’Tell me about it.’
For want of anything else to do, I called Lisa who, of course, was too busy to come to the phone. She eventually returned my call a couple of hours later. Is four a couple? ‘Oh God,’ she snapped, ‘bloody Louise.’
’I know, but I can’t keep putting him off. I’m beginning to feel a bit guilty.’
A female voice trilled in the background. Lisa covered the phone and entered into a lengthy conversation with whoever the hell it was. ‘Sorry. What?’
’I was saying we’ve got to set something up...’
Her mobile rang and she was gone again, lost in cheery discourse with someone about something incredibly arty and amusing. ‘Sorry. It’s gone mad here. What were we saying?’ she said, her voice flat, officious, the tone she reserved for telephone conversations with me.
’Let’s talk about it later.’
’No, no, no. Sorry. Chaz and Louise. You want to make a date with them.’
’No, not particularly,’ I snipped, ‘I’m just saying it’s getting a bit embarrassing...look, shall I just tell him we’re busy until 2037? He’ll get the message eventually.’
’No! That’s just rude. You know I like Chaz. Just have to tolerate that Antipodean shrew for an evening. I’ll get pissed first, or something.’
’Why don’t we all see a film together? Then it’s just hi, eat your Maltesers, bye.’
’Not fair on Chaz. He likes to talk.’
’Well what shall I say?’
Lisa emitted a weary sigh. ‘Say we’ll go. We can always concoct a lie to get out of there if it’s going pear-shaped.’
I smiled. ‘Nice. I can see why they’ve made you the boss...’
I have an aversion to dinner parties. There’s always a bit of competitive tension lurking beneath the surface. Who’s doing well, who’s about to go tits-up; whose marriage is solid, who’s sleeping around; whose kids are genii and whose delinquents. You start out with good intentions, of course, plenty of false bonhomie, superficial chatter, forced laughter, but you know it’s going to turn at some point, usually when some cretin says something like, ‘We could do with another Maggie Thatcher to run this bloody country,’ or ‘I’ve got nothing against blacks but…’ It’s downhill from there. The shit spills out and you’re confronted with smug, smiling monsters who only look human.
I’d been dreading this one more than most but, fortunately, Chaz’s other invitees, a surgeon and his third, scandalously younger wife, had cried off at the last minute thus significantly reducing the odds of a truly appalling evening. But we were still left to negotiate a difficult few hours with Chaz and Louise. We’d known these people as a couple for years, but only Chaz and I shared any chemistry. Everything else was frozen tundra. Lisa’s failsafe was in place, provided Bea remembered to call us at 9.30 citing a mystery illness. She’d been prissily reluctant to collude in this subterfuge - faking sickness in children was somehow tempting fate - but Lisa offered her an extra fiver and money talks.
Louise was a no-nonsense, no-frills kind of cook. She bucked the trend; in my experience, dinner party hosts labour under the wretched misapprehension that ownership of the Gordon Ramsay cookbook automatically confers culinary expertise, when microwaving a Cup-a-Soup is beyond their normal capabilities. But there was nothing Gordon Ramsay about Louise’s presentation or ambition. Her plates were artless; no interesting sauces, no sprigs of green stuff, no attempt at decoration and, if her food gave the appearance of grim edibility, its terrifying secret was revealed as soon as it hit the palate. Perhaps this was part of her plot to poison Lisa and I was collateral damage. What the hell did she add to the lamb chops to make them so bitter (battery acid?), or to the vegetables that made them so slimy (Pledge?). But we knew what to expect and had more or less mastered the art of swallowing without chewing to minimise the horror. No wonder Chaz had never filled out, the poor bastard.
Lisa and Louise seemed to be maintaining an uneasy truce. The occasional cringe or jaw-clench as one said something perceived to be offensive would have been visible only to the initiated. Meanwhile Chaz and I breezed through our usual diet of trivia - football, people we used to know, Flake v Ripple - checking on our wives from time to time to ensure their eyes were still in their sockets rather than under the other’s fingernails.
Chaz and Louise’s massive modern mansion was host to a self-indulgent medley of chintz - brocaded reproduction sofas, mini-chandeliers, brass door furniture, Regency wallpaper, dark tables with curved legs and carved feet. Dizzying in its garishness, it was a veritable assault on the senses. Lisa, the doyenne of all things stylish, blamed Louise for this crude mockery of taste, but I knew Chaz was at least partly responsible. His parents specialised in tacky mock-grandeur and Chaz always talked about emulating their style when he made it big. Only a few years old but feeling like a 1970s throwback, the house was one of six within a gated development in central Richmond. Chaz had made it big and kept his tragic promise.
Conspicuously lacking, though, was the sound of children wreaking havoc through all this bogus splendour. It could have done with a few chips and rips though only a wrecking ball could properly redeem it. They’d been trying for years and eventually given up when Chaz was found to have a non-existent sperm count. ‘You’d think being bald, I’d at least have the compensation of decent ejaculate,’ he once said rather too loudly in a West End Tapas bar. Louise affected a so-what approach - she could take kids or leave them - but I suspect it was only to make Chaz feel better about his perceived inadequacy.
My battle with Louise’s dessert, a solid block of bitter-chocolate-flavoured cement, commenced around 9.35. Bea was late. I was going to break a tooth in a minute. Although there had been no flashpoints between Lisa and Louise, why risk it? We could leave now, no questions asked. I couldn’t push this hardened turd around the plate any longer. We’d primed ourselves for an early exit and were now awaiting liberation. Lisa’s left leg jolted in furious spasm under the table, her eyes urgent, pleading. Things could erupt at any minute if her irritation found verbal expression.
Louise went into the kitchen to make the coffee. The rest of us sat back, no longer under scrutiny, to allow the gruesome, leaden slop to start sowing its devilish seeds of near-fatal indigestion. Oh for that phone to ring. Fuck’s sake, Bea! Louise returned with a loaded tray and started doling out cups of her legendarily turgid coffee and the grizzly biscuits she’d baked with her own dead hand. Time to take decisive action. I excused myself and headed for the downstairs toilet. Inside, I fumbled for the lock, but the key was missing. No matter; no time to lose. I dialled Lisa on my mobile and heard it trilling in her handbag in the dining room. My name would appear on her screen and I prayed she’d act unsurprised. ‘Hello.’
’I can’t eat any more of that shit...’
’Kattie? Oh. What’s the matter with her?’
Thank God! She was immediately onside, probably affecting a look of grave concern, accompanied, perhaps, by a fretful hand to the brow.
’She’s put an axe through her head,’ I said.
’She wants mummy to come home right now and pull it out.’
’Yes, of course, Bea. We’ll leave right away.’
Lisa hung up, but I continued. ‘And that way, you won’t have to eat those hockey pucks or drink that sewage, so I might actually have saved your life…’
Which was when the toilet door opened.
’Hi.’ I said through a lame smile.
’If you wanted to go, why didn’t you just go?’ said Chaz, horribly wounded.
’Sorry mate. Really. It’s just…Lisa wanted to get away because she’s got an early start tomorrow, like six o’clock, or something and…’
’Yeah. She’s working on a new exhibition or something…’
’Really,’ he said in an even, disbelieving tone.
’So we didn’t want to offend you, and everything…so…’ And everything? Jesus Christ. I can lie with the best of them, but not to Chaz. And he knew it.
’Ok, Mike. Don’t worry. It’s been nice.’ He made no effort to hide his disappointment in me. Why should he?
Chaz helped Lisa into her coat as she carried on with the pretence, unaware that I’d been rumbled. I could only assume Chaz was going to mention all this to Louise later, so I don’t know why one of us didn’t come clean. I guess, having committed to the fiction so wholeheartedly, he wanted to preserve Lisa’s dignity. He mightn’t have spared me if I’d been on my own.
’Which one’s not well? Kattie?’ he said, affecting solicitousness. Or was it sarcasm?
’Err, Millie…no, yes, Katia,’ said Lisa, unusually flustered, trapped in the lie. ’They’ve both been ill in fact. Temperatures, wheezing, coughing, the usual. They catch stuff from each other like wild fire. Colds, flu, lice...’ Shut up. Please shut up. ‘...Kattie’s just got herself into a bit of a state, That’s all. Feeling sorry for herself, little love. She’ll be fine in the morning.’ If only she’d quit while she was marginally ahead. ‘Kids, you know what they’re like.’
’Not really,’ said Louise bitterly. Thank God we were standing
by an open door, coats on, with our car five yards away. If only I could have started the engine remotely for an even swifter getaway.
’Well done again on the new job,’ said Chaz, sidestepping the rising tension. He kissed Lisa on the cheek. ‘At least one of you’s bringing home the bacon. You’re making it too easy for this slob.’
’Cheers mate,’ I said, but I wasn’t offended. Chaz and I had been trading insults forever. ‘Isn’t it time for your annual hair wash,’ I riposted, patting his barren pate. ‘That one lonely little fella on top looks a bit grubby.’
’Go on, fuck off home,’ he said, and we both laughed a mirthless laugh.
’He knows our game,’ I said as we sped away. ‘Chaz. He caught me in the toilet on the phone to you.’
Lisa took a deep breath - this could go either way - then laughed her beautiful head off. ‘He caught you! Jesus! And there was me prattling on about Millie’s temperature - or was it Katia’s? - and he said nothing. What a sweet man.’
’He’s a lot of things. Sweet?’
’He didn’t want to embarrass me. Bless.’
’Yeah.’ I echoed, ‘bless.’
It went quiet for a moment ‘So? Enjoy it?’
’Not the word I’d use. She’s so bloody contrary sometimes.’ Lisa chuckled. ‘Credit to her, though. She held that sickly grin all night. She’ll have a big Aussie face-ache in the morning.’
’It’s only you. She’s a kitten with everyone else.’
‘’Cos everyone else avoids her.’
My mobile trilled. It was Bea in a panic. The idiot had fallen asleep watching Holby City, which I suppose was a viable and wholly understandable excuse. I told her not to worry, that we were on our way, and hung up.
’By the way,’ I said, ’I thought no-one was supposed to know
about your new job.’
’That’s right. No-one knows.’
’What you talking about?’
’He congratulated you on the new job.’
’Did he? Oh, yeah, right. I did say something to him. In the kitchen. Yeah. He asked me about work and I think I said I was in line for CD or something. No big deal. Who’s Chaz going to tell?’
’Yeah,’ I muttered, having drifted off halfway through Lisa’s explanation. I was already thinking about tomorrow - Monday - and the chasm that lay before me.
I didn’t like Mondays. Actually, every day was a bastard.