Song In The Wrong Key

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Chapter 6

Bea joined us when Millie and Katia were four and five respectively, and I would contend that she’s made a pretty decent job of caring for them. Yes, she’s a bit of a bumptious squirt who isn’t over-burdened with intellect and, yes, she can be rather prim and socially awkward. And, I’ll grant you, she’s not a middle-aged man’s fantasy - frankly anyone stumbling across Bea in a fantasy has taken a catastrophically wrong turn. I mean, you’ve got a clear run at it in your fantasies, haven’t you? and while unwelcome images can sometimes appear unbidden, bumping into that little goblin has got to be fatal to the whole enterprise. But the kids were fond of her and she always turned up (and left) on time. No major complaints. Solid, stolid, always there. So I didn’t expect her to pop her officious little head around my study door while the overcooked pasta shells were flying downstairs, to formally tender her resignation in writing. I pleaded with her, trying hard not to sound pathetic, but she’d made up her mind. Why? You want to know why? Me. She felt ‘inhibited and undermined’ when I was around. Inhibited from doing what? Grilling fish fingers and wiping the table? Getting the girls into their pyjamas? Reading them stories while they listened to Eminem through their headphones? I’d never got in her way. I was rarely even downstairs when she and the kids were clattering about in their post-school frenzy. But apparently I’d been getting involved in issues she’d have preferred to handle without interference. Example: she plonked the girls in front of a puerile cartoon one afternoon and I, apparently, suggested they watch something a bit more challenging like Countdown. Not a capital offence. And it was the only incident she could cite in her defence. I promised I’d step back and give her free rein, but her mind was made up. She agreed to see out her two week notice period - was that in writing somewhere? - to give us time to find a new nanny to whom she would happily pass on her accumulated wisdom, guile and expertise. Alternatively, she suggested with customary pomposity, it would give me the time to adjust my own work schedule so I could do the job myself. Anyone else referring to my ‘work schedule’ would have done so with a degree of irony. Not Bea. Irony was not represented amongst the many colour of her personality.

Lisa sneaked in as Bea was leaving. Bea squeezed out a tight smile, said nothing and scuttled off. Lisa appeared upbeat, another fulfilling workday at the gallery under her belt, but she could tell from my face that I had had no ordinary lousy, unproductive, pointless day at home and quickly adjusted her mood to match mine. I led her into the lounge and conveyed the news about Bea, foolishly leaving nothing out, not even that my criminal meddling in her unique child-minding operation had been at the root of her discontent. As Lisa’s face tensed, her succulent lips thinning like spaghetti, I started waffling, thinking out loud, alleging that Bea had ulterior motives. But Bea didn’t do ulterior motives - I knew it was stupid as soon as I said it - and Lisa offered up a stern, bang-to-rights smirk. I’d fucked up again, hadn’t I? We could hear Millie and Katia at each other’s throats in the kitchen and more food was about to fly. In a rare show of restraint, Lisa merely huffed and shot me that arch look of hers, the ‘oh, what a surprise’ one, and marched out with a self-righteous gait to sort them out. It was all down to her yet again, wasn’t it? I couldn’t be trusted with the simplest of tasks.

Lisa had cautioned me about the impossibility of finding a decent nanny to replace Bea. But she was wrong. We couldn’t even find a crap nanny. We registered with several agencies and even took to scouring newsagents’ windows, but all to no avail. The more we interviewed, the more Bea acquired God-like status in contrast. Some had no people or communication skills, the rest weren’t that capable. As far as I could tell, none of them liked children. I could see where this was heading. That Lisa didn’t actually say ‘you’ve got nothing else to do’ was but a minor detail. It hung in the air ever more heavily the longer this hopeless process went on and the decision was taken wordlessly.

The truth is, the kids didn’t want me to look after them. Bea was easy to handle, malleable, easily manipulated, undemanding. But I was Dad, and dads like me aren’t any of those things. This was a new regime, austere, strict, educational. I insisted they do their homework as soon as they got in; if they didn’t have homework, they had to read a book until dinner was ready; I made them eat semi-healthy food (grilled chicken fillets with low fat oven chips qualifies); I only let them watch Newsround instead of lame cartoons, to open their minds to what was going on in the world; and when Newsround was over, they had to bathe, get into their pyjamas and read again. It wasn’t intended to be an intellectual hothouse, but I was in charge now and certain standards had to be met. Finally I had a bit of focus. Instead of sitting around surfing the internet and playing my guitar all day, perhaps dropping in on Lucinda at muffs.net if she wasn’t too busy, I had to get them ready in the morning and down tools - ahem - at 3 to go and pick them up ahead of the evening schedule. I’d occasionally stop even sooner and nip round to Sainsburys to buy them their dinner. It took planning, organisation, attention to detail; nice to be employing some of the skills I’d acquired back when I was a man with a life.

It wasn’t too long before the kids started hating me.

Just because I now had something to do, didn’t mean I was happy or fulfilled. Not even after my duties expanded beyond child-minding to encompass full-on house-husbandry. Lisa was right - what else did I have to do? Looking after the house and the kids is not a woman’s role nor a man’s. It’s simply a role. Never mind all that ironic tits-talk. Yes, ironic. I’m PC to my boots, thank you. But it wasn’t for me. I started yearning for the endless, mindless hours in front of the computer, the fruitless conversations with slack-jawed, disinterested recruitment agents and human resources managers, the pleasant, post-masturbatory naps. Most of all, I missed my guitar. Serious strumming and singing time was being ceded to dusting the blinds and sorting out the recycling bin. With so little time to myself now, I actually used the moments between chores to focus on my search for a new job, rather than pissing the whole day away following links to their inevitable conclusion or singing Lionel Ritchie standards. The need to find something to escape the misery was becoming increasingly urgent, so leisure time was at a premium.

I rustled up a couple of interviews for wildly inappropriate jobs which naturally came to nothing, but at least made me feel like I wasn’t a complete pariah. I’d allowed my technical skills to stagnate so I started researching courses to bring me up to speed. Against my essentially un-gregarious nature, I even began networking at the squash club before and after my weekly games with Chaz. It all counted, didn’t it? You never knew who might be interested. If nothing else, I felt like I was in the game.

Yet the more I tried, the less I achieved. Being out there and testing the water only highlighted the paucity of options available. My rising enthusiasm was being met by ever-higher hurdles for me to jump. At home, the strain was getting to all of us. Millie and Katia started avoided me lest I suggested they start exploring Kafka. Lisa was coming home later and later, consumed by her new role, her interest in my plight decreasing reciprocally. Conversation between us descended to the basic functional courtesies, sufficient to see us through to the end of the evening without a row. Lisa took to showering, nibbling some food and going to bed, citing fatigue, leaving me to clear up and veg out in front of the TV. At weekends, when she wasn’t working, Lisa arranged outings with the kids to which I was invited but not particularly welcome. Katia and Millie had had enough of me by Friday and just wanted some fun time with Mum.

I wanted to try and find a way beyond this stodgy impasse, but didn’t sense much willingness on Lisa’s part to discuss anything. Whenever I raised the subject of finding a job, she threw in a few words of encouragement, a condescending tip or two, but not much else. Our relationship was trailing in a very poor third to her career and the kids. In that order. This wasn’t living, simply existing. Why didn’t she want to talk any more? She couldn’t have been content with the way things were.

How do you rekindle the easy familiarity which was once second nature? Our marriage had become polite, practical, all warmth having hissed out between the cracks like tired air through a London Underground grille. Where once I’d have sworn at her jocularly or given her a playful shove, now I was choosing my words carefully and genuflecting every time she accorded me even the mildest hint of affection. Pitiful. We were existing along parallel planes. If we didn’t talk it out it would fester towards its inevitable conclusion and I for one wasn’t prepared to let that happen.

Time for a plan. It wasn’t that inspired, to be honest, but I had to start somewhere. A Saturday night film, then a bite at Chez Malcolm (I know), a local eaterie where we’d shared many a pleasant evening in the past. Lisa hadn’t been overly keen on my proposal but, to her credit, forced a taut smile and agreed. But even with relative goodwill abounding, it was hard to inject warmth into the sturdy igloo which was now our emotional home. We held hands like nervous first-daters as we walked round to the cinema - had hers always been so cold? - and later discussed the film with a reasonable level of animation. As usual, we agreed on just about everything, but there was a kind of nodding courtesy in the air which stood in for spousal intimacy. We got along, no more. At dinner we chatted about the kids, people we knew, sport (she humoured me), anything benign, but ever-longer silences punctuated the conversation as we sought to avoid the hotter issues of the day. Then, after she returned from her second visit to the toilet, everything went mute and we couldn’t find a way back. It fell to me to utterly dismantle what was left of the evening.

’Lisa. Love. Listen,’ I alliterated, taking her chilly hand. ‘I don’t think I can go on with things the way they are.’

’What’s that mean? Us?’

’No.’ But I did. Instead, I bottled it and went off on one. ‘No. This. The whole...me being at home...’

’You can’t get a job…’

’I’m trying! What do you think I do all day?’

’I really don’t know.’

’I’m looking after the bloody house, aren’t I? I actually know what all the dishwasher settings do; I can iron skirts to within an inch of their lives; I’ve started making my own pizza base. And when I’m not doing all that, I’m on the phone and scouring the internet and traipsing into town to meet 21 year old recruitment consultants who have to stifle their adolescent fucking sniggers behind their hands when I walk in. There’s nothing for me. What do you want me to do?’

I don’t want you to do anything.’

’Well That’s bloody great. Thanks. Very constructive.’

’I mean, it’s not about what I want. What do you want?’

A job? Bea? Anything. Not this.

Lisa shifted her chair closer to mine and rested her hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t get all agitated, ok? but I’m going to say this. You have to get out of the house or you’ll go insane. We both know that. So...we’ll just have to find someone to look after the kids, ok? and you...maybe you’ve got to think about something away from IT.’

’A new career at forty-two? Give me a break...ow!’ I’d just bitten into a lump of gristle and the upper molar responsible for the electric jolt was now throbbing. It had been aching for a while but I’d convinced myself it was a sore gum. Pain isn’t always the body’s way of telling you something’s wrong...was the erroneous, self-defeating maxim I lived by, particularly in the dental department.

’You all right?’ said Lisa as I extricated the diamond-hard slug from my mouth.

’Tooth. It’s been a bit touchy.’

’Get it seen to. Don’t mess about. Gary will probably fit you in tomorrow if you call him first thing.’

’I will,’ I lied. ‘Definitely.’ And again.

Chez Malcolm had seduced us when it opened for business, our first three or four meals there distinguished by good food and excellent service. And the thing about a favourite restaurant, particularly a local one, is that you’re much more forgiving when it turns to shit. The last couple of visits had been dire, the new management having engaged a chef whose capabilities didn’t stretch to a mushroom omelette, much less any of the items on the worryingly lengthy menu. Lugubrious, tardy service, a dubious wine list and new wooden chairs with no cushions only exacerbated the misery. And this place was supposed to relight our fire? What was I thinking? And now gristle.

’Sorry. Go on. You were saying…’ I said, the throbbing finally beginning to subside.

’Can’t remember.’

’You were talking about a career away from IT.’

’Was I? Yeah. Sorry. No, not necessarily a career. Just something that earns you some money and gives you back some pride. I mean look at you. You’re pathetic at the moment.’

’Well thank you.’

’I just mean in the way you’ve allowed it to beat you down.’

’So go on, genius, what am I going to do?’

’Well - and look, don’t take this the wrong way - but, you’ve got your licence back, so you could take up Chaz’s offer to drive for his firm, or maybe go mini-cabbing…’

’Are you out of your fucking mind? Me? Is that my path to redemption, then? A fucking mini-cab? Shit.’ Lisa’s perfect face looked perfectly shocked. ‘And can you really see me chauffeuring Chaz around for a living? He’s smug enough.’ I was lashing out a bit, confusing rich with smug.

Lisa shifted back in her uncomfortable chair to avoid the spittle. ‘Jesus, Mike. I’m not saying for a living. Just for now, to get you up and running again. It won’t stop you looking for something better or training up in something new. You could do evening classes or…I dunno…something.’

’What are you going to tell your fart-arse chums at the gallery, eh? Oh, Mike? Yah, he’s working in, like, executive transport? Er, no, not luxury private jets exactly. No not yachts either. Actually, more like late night, vomit-filled mini-cabs.’

’Stop it.’

’You stop it,’ I retorted, a child now.

’Ok, fine, be a househusband the rest of your life.’

The image of me in an apron for the next fifteen years was grim enough, but it was the thought of being alone in the house, hairline gone, eyes wrinkled, stomach hanging over my belt, waiting for the dreaded moment when Lisa walked in from work, another brilliant day in her stellar career under her belt, and completely forgot who I was and why I was there. I could no longer bear the silence. I was being cut adrift from life itself and, increasingly, Lisa. The longer this professional hiatus continued, the harder it would be to build the bridge back to sanity and self-respect. But driving a cab was not a means to an end, it was the bitter end. What would constitute career progression? A bigger car? Leopard skin seat covers? A new air freshener? Forty-two (definitely mentioned that before), a single area of expertise that nobody wanted and a single former employer who didn’t think much of me. Not promising as CVs go. Maybe all I was good for was donning a paper hat and working in a burger bar, or manning a call centre in India or even, God help me, driving a cab? I wasn’t listening to Lisa, though, was I? The nature of the job mattered less than getting back in the game. There had to be something out there for me, a first step, and I needed to find it. That or die.

On the way home, Lisa stopped and took my hand and I felt a lump begin to lodge in my throat. She was slipping away, even as she stood, apparently steadfast, in my corner. She looked into my moistening eyes and stroked my hair. ‘I do love you,’ she said.

’Why?’

She didn’t reply.

I’m not a social animal. That is, I’m not anti-social, I don’t actively repel people - not intentionally, anyway - I’m just not very good in rooms full of people I don’t know and/or like. We’re talking most rooms. I don’t possess the internal mechanisms that generate and respond to small talk. I’m not overly interested in strangers’ lives - why invest time in people you’ll never see again? - and always end up talking about myself because it’s easier. And probably very dull. I’m shy and slightly awkward and at most parties I go one of two ways: I either sulk in the corner sparrow-sipping a single glass of wine all night or say ‘fuck it,’ get horribly drunk and start being obnoxious. Occasionally this will spill over into making a full-blown arse of myself. Lisa, of course, was purpose-designed for gatherings. Even if gregariousness was not already a professional requirement, her natural empathy, megawatt smile, touchy-feely body language and apparent fascination with whatever drivel is being thrown at her make her a social star. She knows exactly how to flatter, to amuse, to gently provoke; the same words coming from my mouth would simply sound sarcastic.

Like a recalcitrant horse refusing to enter its stall, I railed against Lisa’s pleas to accompany her to the party being thrown to celebrate her accession to God Almighty. The new Creative Director was ready to re-launch the gallery in her sparkling image. But my stubborn protests were for show. I knew I’d have to go.

In a few short days, Lisa had transformed the interior from a stark maroon cell into a dazzling, halogen-lit, geometrically flawless white space, re-branded Marc Rouillard as a fiercely hip contemporary art gallery and drawn up a whole new A-list. The man behind the woman behind all this magnificence couldn’t stay at home watching Dr Who in his pants, could he? What kind of message would that send out? She was not only brilliant at her job, but had also created domestic perfection - doting husband, kids, the works. She had it all. She only wanted me to put in an appearance for a couple of hours, dress smartly, do my best to be civil and disappear after the gushing speeches which were integral to these affairs. No-one would notice or care by then. She’d get a cab home later. It was a reasonable deal except for the having to go in the first place bit.

Lisa spent the morning at the gallery, came home for a shower and a ten minute power nap and set off again at three leaving me to entertain the kids for a few hours. We took a stroll round to the pottery café where they spent nearly two minutes slopping paint onto a couple of plates, for which privilege I shelled out twenty-six quid.

At around seven fifteen, the new babysitter, Sophie, arrived and I familiarised her with the finer points of sitting on a sofa watching TV for £9 an hour. Sophie was sixteen going on twenty-four. In her tight pedal pusher jeans and clingy t-shirt - which must have belonged to her four year old sister given that it ended just below her ample bosom, leaving a gaping expanse of pierced flesh below - she looked startlingly mature. She’d only have to tolerate the kids for half an hour and then make sure they were in bed by eight, duties she acknowledged with a grunt.

A stab of pain in my jaw reminded me to take the antibiotics the dentist had prescribed for me the previous day. The pain had risen to epic a couple of nights earlier and only an overdose of Ibuprofen had got me through till morning. Even then I dithered, but finally conceded that visiting the dentist was going to be less painful than anything my tooth was throwing at me. It was, as I’d suspected, a putative abscess for which he’d put me on metronidazole and amoxicillin in an effort to quell the infection. I needed root canal treatment in the long run but the pills would delay that particular joy for a while longer. My face had yet to develop any tell-tale Quasimodo lumps, so I’d at least look fairly normal as I cowered in the corner of the gallery nursing my drink. I downed the pills with half an eye on the gormless Sophie who lay draped across the sofa watching Celebrity Bloopers, then trudged upstairs to change into my suit. I realised I was feeling a little buzzy about Sophie and her tight t-shirt. It was wrong, I know, you don’t have to tell me, but I had to wait a moment before zipping up my trousers, which would have been absurdly tight without the tumescence in my pants. I hadn’t worn the black Hugo Boss - my only concession to half-decent tailoring - in a year or more, and it had clearly shrunk in the meantime. My best white shirt was snug around the collar and the buttons battled to hang onto their holes around the midriff. All that nibbling on junk - the half pack of biscuits with my tea, the peanuts, the marshmallows (fat-free, sugar-laden) - was taking its toll and not even my vigorous dusting technique could keep the chubbiness at bay. In truth, I’d become increasingly slovenly over recent weeks, leaving some of the chores for another day or just plain leaving them. Playing squash with Chaz once a week was never going to offset such a mammoth onslaught of calories. I slipped the jacket on and felt it strain around the chest and shoulders. I’d spent so long in elasticated outerwear, I’d kind of lost track of fitted garments. I rifled through my other suits for a looser alternative but everything screamed ‘Oxfam-ready.’

I tip-toed downstairs mindful of the straining zips and buttons and popped my head around the door to the kitchen where the kids were munching on chocolate biscuits whilst watching America’s Next Top Model; things had been slipping on both nutritional and cultural fronts. They didn’t look up as I gave them the usual lecture about behaving themselves with the babysitter. I waddled through to the back lounge to let Sophie know I was leaving and found her lying on the sofa chatting in a strange, ersatz Jamaican patois on her mobile phone. She looked up as I waved. All I could see were her outstanding breasts and firm, pubescent body. She waved back at the fat old lech gone to seed.

I parked up nearly half a mile from the gallery - it was as close as I could get - and walked the rest of the way. It was cold but I was, nevertheless, overheating in my snug attire. Sweat slalomed down my forehead, snaked between my buttocks, soaked into the abrasive cotton/Polyester mix material under my armpits, the perspiration of an unfit, overweight man about to confront his worst social nightmare.

I arrived feeling dishevelled, damp, in need of a shower. From across the street, I gazed through the floor-to-ceiling plate glass frontage, brilliantly illuminated by Lisa’s state-of-the-art lighting rig. Inside, the gallery was swarming with fashionistas, mega-famous actors and celebrities, arty men with long, swept back hair wearing achingly trendy glasses and classy women poured into slinky designer dresses. My woeful inadequacy drove me back into a doorway to consider my options. Lisa wanted me there but I wanted to turn and run. Would she really notice if I didn’t turn up? Stupid question. Maybe I could get away with catching her eye from the window, thus registering my presence. She was at the very epicentre of the social maelstrom, distracted by admirers and sycophants. I could leave in minutes, duty done, and later complain that she didn’t have time for me, her own husband. The moral high ground! Ha! Would that work? No, idiot. This was Lisa. She missed nothing. So what if she didn’t particularly want to talk to me and was too embarrassed to introduce the lustreless, unemployed IT nobody to anyone of note? That wouldn’t get me off the hook. My presence was required for show, the supportive, loyal husband of the perfect woman. Despite my groaning seams, Lisa evidently considered me sufficiently presentable to point at from a distance, my job spec merely requiring me to throw out a responsive wave and smile at whichever wanker was by her side. The wanker would then observe social etiquette by waving back, before never looking at me again.

I was still outside, but short of getting back in the car and driving into a wall at high speed - which, even then, might not excuse me unless a doctor formally declared me dead - I was out of options. I emerged from my hidey-hole and walked funereally across the road. I was met at the door by a handsome middle-aged woman in a sharp, tailored suit holding a clipboard. I mumbled my name. Very quietly. She scanned the list. It wasn’t on there. Really? Oh dear. She was most apologetic. ‘Well don’t worry,’ I said, ‘I’ll just, you know, go. Lists are there for a reason.’

’You can let him in Angelina,’ said Lisa, standing behind her.

I smiled. ‘Hey.’

Lisa planted a showy kiss on my cheek, then whispered, ‘The fuck were you doing hiding over the road?’

Told you. Misses nothing. ‘Just composing myself. Like taking a penalty in a shoot-out, you need to...’

’You’re sweating. Ugh.’

’Well spotted you. Can’t park around here, can you? I’ve walked miles.’

’Miles,’ she said, taking a step back, eyebrows arched, disbelieving the silly boy.

’Half a mile, whatever. It’s a long way in these shoes.’

Lisa looked me up and down to check that I passed muster. ‘Come in and get yourself a drink, then. I’ve got to do the rounds. Catch up with you in a bit.’

’Dahling, That’s wonderful. Can’t wait. Toodle-oo.’ My sarcasm cut her to the quick. Or would have if she’d still been standing there.

I squeezed through several tight bunches of arty guests chatting artily in a variety of exotic, arty accents, until I reached an opulent looking bar at the back. Sweating profusely, I asked the barman, a tall young man with a shaven head, for a glass of white wine. He looked amused and started describing the several expensive vintages on offer but I cut him short and pointed randomly at the nearest bottle. I took my glass and slunk behind a large sculpture of a phallus doing a handstand on a blancmange. I think. The wine was dry, super-dry, turning my tongue to sandpaper. Behind me, a group of wankers was engaged in high-brow repartee, culminating in a joke, the set-up of which I found impenetrable, much less the tag. Something to do with Matisse? They exchanged wry anecdotes and bitchy inside info, slinging barbs and witticisms of such erudition, they might as well have been in Swahili. Nobody looked at me and I was happy to leave it at that. I’d shown my face, notched up some Brownie points, job done.

Half an hour and three glasses of wine later, I was beginning to feel a little queasy. Maybe this was special wine, too rich and expensive for my Plebeian digestive system. My vision was becoming a little blurry, though I couldn’t mistake the ephemeral beauty of Lisa as she shimmered past a gaggle of neighing arty-farts just in front of me. She anointed them with a witty word or two in passing, their faces suggesting they’d been touched by an angel. I’d never felt less attached to Lisa than I did at that moment. Who the hell was this woman? She sidled up to me beaming a magnificent smile, a smile for everyone else’s benefit, not mine. ‘You ok?’ she said, knowing I wasn’t.

’Ish.’

’Want to meet some people?’

’Nope. I’m fine. Really.’

’Ok.’

She didn’t push that very hard. Probably only had the bar staff in mind anyway. I became aware of a tall, handsome and very familiar looking man approaching us. A halo of iridescent light glowed around his form, or was that the drink getting to me? His improbably green eyes locked onto Lisa’s and she conferred upon him her broadest, toothiest smile. ‘The dazzling Ms Cheynie,’ he smarmed, swilling his dark chocolate voice around his palate before wrapping it smoothly around Lisa’s maiden name. He took her hand, leaned down from somewhere near the ceiling and kissed her cheek. His lips were a bit too damn close to hers for my liking. It was then that I realised that Don Ellwood, actor, auteur and all-round smarty-pants, had granted us an audience. Us? I was invisible.

’Don! You old dog, you made it!’

Don raised a coy, beneficent eyebrow.

Please don’t introduce me. I’m begging you. Let me just slip away.

’Oh. Sorry. Don, this is my husband...Michael?’ Wasn’t she sure? It was a polite introduction, no fanfare and only because I was standing there.

Don’s eyes examined me with lazy disinterest. Ahh, the husband. She could do better than that, surely. A clerical error on her part, no doubt. ‘Hi,’ I said. ‘Call me Mike.’

He had no intention of calling me anything. ‘Nice to meet you,’

he said with rapier disingenuousness, his eyes already straying towards Lisa’s cleavage. He’d covered the whole husband thing. They launched into animated conversation, all winks and esoteric asides, his fingertips occasionally stroking her upper arm for emphasis. They leaned into each other, laughing, glorying in their cosy chemistry. She made no attempt to move out of range. I’m standing here! I’m right fucking here! The husband! As yet another private witticism flew above my spinning head, Don delivered an unctuous wink which said: ‘I think it’s time for me to take her off your hands old son.’ I wasn’t sure whether it was this nauseating display that was making me feel ever more giddy, but as Don swayed in front of me, I delivered a shitload of projectile vomit all over his dandy waistcoat and bespoke silk shirt. There’d been no obvious warning it was on its way. Don stood there and took it, too shocked to take evasive action. Lisa jumped back, gasping out a muted, horrified scream. The room fell silent. I vomited again, this time on the floor, retching uncontrollably until it was all out. As I spat and coughed, a ring of disgust formed, at a safe distance, around me. People were checking their expensive shoes for splashes, tut-tutting, oh-Godding. The next few seconds were a blur as Lisa grabbed my arm and wrenched me through the appalled throng which parted like the Red Sea to allow us access to the front door. She shoved me into the street and would have been happy to abandon me right there or, better, shove me under a bus to put us all out of our misery. Her first thought, I’m sure, was to run back inside to salvage the situation, but a niggling vestige of spousal duty appeared to hold her back. Or was it was just for show? We did have quite an audience out there. She tugged me around the corner, out of sight, and unleashed the rage which, hitherto, had been kept in check. ‘What the fuck?’ she blurted. ‘You fucking….what the fuck was that?’

I was still wobbly, knees kitten-weak, the bile rising, readying

itself again. ‘Shit. Ugh. Dunno. I feel awful.’

’Are you bloody pissed? Fuck. How much have you had?’

’Two...three glasses,’ I said. ‘That’s all.’

’Jesus Christ! You’ve made me look like a complete….’

’Oh…no…wait. Wait! It’s the pills.’

’What?’

’For my tooth. Antibiotics. You’re not supposed to drink alcohol…oh shit!’

’And you did. You absolute fucking idiot.’

A wave of nausea threatened then passed. ‘I forgot. Sorry.’

’Sorry. Is that it?’

’What else can I say?’

’I’ve got to go back in there.’

’Sorry.’

’I can’t look anyone in the eye.’

’Tell them…tell them…I’ve got cancer, tell them it’s the chemo…’

’Fuck it.’

’Tell them I’m dying.’

’I wish you would,’ she spat, marching away.

I stood there for a moment, trembling as the wind inveigled my aching, enfeebled joints, then set off on rubber legs back towards the car. I staggered past the gallery like a vagrant who’d mislaid his trolley, and saw Lisa inside floating from group to group, a desperate smile painted on her lovely face. A few of the guests spotted me and congregated by the window. I couldn’t bear to disappoint them and chucked up another load on the pavement.

I took a cab home, the only thing I did right all night.

I lay in bed in the dark waiting for the front door to open. The house finally shook at around 3am. I listened out for Lisa’s footsteps on the stairs, my heart beating noisily inside my aching rib cage, but the only sound I heard was her opening the study door, then closing it. There was a struggle as she battled to open the sofabed, grunting, swearing under her breath until it was done. She walked out onto the landing to gather up some sheets and pillows from the airing cupboard, returned to the study and slammed the door shut.

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