It was 9.30, Saturday morning, the beginning of July, and it looked like it was going to be a blistering hot day again. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, just a long broken jet-stream trail.
I was on my way to work, travelling along the dual carriageway in my black Jaguar xj6. The air conditioning was on full and adjusted to blow straight in my face. I was destined for McDonald's; before I did anything else, I had to have something to eat.
My head was aching from the previous night: yes, I had a hangover, the mother of all hangovers. My mouth and throat were so sore from the amount of alcohol I’d drunk while playing a stupid game called Cardinal Puff-Puff.
After my failed first attempt, it was downhill all the way. Every time I didn’t say or do, the right thing in sequence, I had to drink a glass of red wine. In general, I felt like a carrier bag full of shit and I didn’t even become a Cardinal.
I drove around the red thin lane, clipping the kerb twice and stopped by the huge menu. I heard a faint Scottish voice say, “Welcome to McDonald's, can I take your order please?” It seemingly came from a small orange box on a pole.
Straining to see the board, I said, “Can I have a breakfast and a-”
I hadn’t said orange juice, when the box said, “Welcome to McDonald's, can I take your order please?” in a more abrupt manner. It was then I realised I hadn’t dropped the window and she hadn’t heard me. Feeling a bit stupid, and looking around to see if anyone was watching me, I opened the window and started again.
After I ordered, I was told to go round to the next window to collect and pay for the food. Almost automatically as I pulled up, the little glass door opened and a head popped out. “It won’t be ready for a couple of minutes. Can you drive over to the yellow boxes, park there and someone will bring your breakfast out to you,” she said, without drawing a breath. I counted the money out into her little hand and collected my orange drink, thanking the girl.
I was beginning to lose interest by now and, as you can imagine, I was not feeling too good, but as instructed, I drove to the designated area. Then, with my engine still running, I sat with my head thrown back on the headrest and my eyes closed, saying those immortal words to myself: “Never, ever again.”
I thought about the party. It was my 40th birthday and there were about eighty people enjoying themselves, drinking and dancing. It must have been a good night because the police came round twice. I vaguely recall someone in a uniform asking, “Can you turn the music down, please? Next door are complaining about the noise.” If I remember correctly, someone did turn it down and, when the police drove away, someone else turned it up again, even louder.
I sat quietly, reclined in my seat and almost falling asleep when I heard the rustle of a carrier bag to my right. “At last, food,” I thought. A different girl passed it through the window. “Sorry to keep you waiting, sir.” She was long and thin and had a complexion like a tomato pizza. I thanked her and drove off down the motorway towards work.
As I cruised along the inside lane carefully, I suddenly remembered my birthday present to myself. I had decided while I was sitting down to catch my breath after dancing with someone who I hadn’t seen before at a party - let alone mine - that, as life begins at 40, or so they say, I was going to have a one-time affair with some of my best friends’ wives - in secret of course - or at least try.
I am fortunate enough to have plenty of friends of all shapes and sizes. Some are rich, some are not so rich and some just get by. Most of them I’ve known for twenty years or more, some only about ten years. But I know them all very well ... or so I thought.
The girls I had in mind had all been married for more than ten years, so it was a pretty safe bet that they hadn’t got AIDS or anything like that.
Sometimes at parties, or when we went out somewhere and had all had vast amounts of alcohol, I’d kissed some of the girls and danced a bit closer than perhaps I should have. But no one slapped me that I can remember. In fact, I’ve said some things that I wished I hadn’t the day after. Last night was no exception. So while I was sitting down and looking around the room, I began to wonder, if pushed, how many would say yes to a secret romantic, expensive night out?
Some people would probably say I had a death wish, me, I just crave excitement now and again. I am 40, as I said before. I have been married for fourteen years. I must have missed the first seven-year itch. My wife’s name is Elizabeth. We have a son Michael, 7 years old, and I love them both dearly.
I’m six feet two, thick black hair, blue eyes, moustache, about thirteen stone, well built and hate shaving more than anything. I’ve got stubble for most of the week and only shave if I really have to, or if I’m going somewhere nice.
Like all other rampant red hot-blooded teenagers, I would always chat up an attractive girl in my younger years, perhaps in a bar or a club and ask them for a date. Sometimes they would turn me down, other times they would accept. I would arrange to meet one night for a drink or a meal, even a dance. As money was no object in those days, I didn’t save any of my wages. I lived with my parents, so I would blow the lot almost straight away.
The night would arrive, eventually. I would be both nervous and very excited as I got myself ready. Throwing Brut aftershave on by the bottle, wondering what she was going to wear for our first night out, what she would be like, then driving off in my Ford Anglia that I had spent half the week washing, polishing and vacuuming. Making sure the passenger seat fully reclined easily, checking the radio worked and that the romantic cassette was loaded and ready to come on when the time was just right. Worrying, whether the money I had would be enough. And then there was the butterfly feeling in my stomach: standing by the bar, alone, waiting, wondering if she had changed her mind; and then when she walked towards me smiling, and apologising for being late. Then the drinking, snogging, chatting about nothing, trying to work out whether or not I was going to get laid. That’s what I missed; I wanted that excitement or buzz, whatever it was called. I loved to go to a dance or a nightclub.
I met my wife Liz at a club called the Masons Bar. It was just outside the town where I lived, on a main street. It had a revolving circular dance floor that moved slowly in one direction and, as the night went on and everyone drank more and more, the disc jockey, as they were called in those days, would change the direction to see how many people would fall over. We’ve been going round and round together ever since.
Elizabeth is a very pretty woman, about five feet six, long black hair, big brown eyes and a will of her own. She has a good job, working long and hard hours, as a customs officer at the local airport.
We have a relationship where we hardly ever see each other. Liz gets up early while I’m asleep, and returns home in the afternoon, in time to collect Mick. I go to work after I have dropped Mick at school in the morning and when I get home late, Liz has gone to bed. We only speak to each other in the day on the phone, some weekends and when she is off. We are so busy trying to pay the bills and make a living; we seem to be drifting apart.
I have a country garage, not doing too well. I sell petrol, repair cars, offer a twenty-four-hour rescue service, a body shop, and sometimes I sell the odd car from there. In total there are six employees and, as you can imagine, wages day is a bit expensive. We have been there for seven years. Sometimes things are good and other times things are not so good. But that’s how it is in the car trade.
When I first took on the garage it was quite badly run down but I thought it had a lot of potential, and over the years I worked hard and it looks a lot smarter. We had the petrol pumps fitted, painted and cleaned everywhere and bought more up-to-date equipment. So, as you can see, I’m not scared of a good challenge.
A few weeks ago, I took Liz and Mick to a Greek island called Zakinthos, probably better known as Zante, with two of our friends. We had a great time over the two weeks: we met lots of nice Greek people and partied most nights. About six months previous to this holiday, for a joke, I put an advert in the local paper: ‘I want to learn Greek. Can anyone help me?’ I put my mobile phone number in as well and waited. Weeks went by and I hadn’t heard anything. Then, one day, I was driving to work and a lady phoned and said, “I have a book called ‘Greek Language And People’. I taught myself enough to get by when I go over there. There are two tapes and a book, it’s self-explanatory and quite easy.”
I took her name and address and, later that day, I made my way to her house. She showed me the book, we agreed on a price and then I left with the goods. While I was driving back to the garage, I put the first tape in my cassette player and listened. It was English first then Greek. I must admit, it sounded impossible to start with. I heard a few words I recognised from previous holidays. So then what I started to do was, when I got home at night and everyone had gone to bed, I got the book out and, with Mick’s personal tape player, secretly started listening. After a month, I could read it and understand a bit more. So I carried on. Sometimes I would be at it till three or four o’clock in the morning. I remember Liz coming down one morning to go to work. Luckily I heard the floorboards creak in the bedroom and managed to get everything under the settee and pretend to be asleep in the chair before she opened the door to the living room. I carried on reading, and learning, right up until we went on holiday. I never told anyone and by the time we arrived in Zante I could speak quite a bit. Luckily the first chapter was about food and drink and how to order it.
Anyway, on the first night we were there, we went for something to eat at one of Zante’s amazing tavernas. After we found a table and were sitting down outside, I pretended to go to the toilet but in fact I went to see the waiter, who, I later found out, was called Costas. I explained to him that I wanted to play a trick on my friends and family, so would order the meal and drinks in Greek as best as I could. I quickly told him about my secret lessons and asked him to pretend he was an old friend. As I made my way back to my seat, I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. I just couldn’t imagine what the looks on their faces were going to be like.
After about five minutes, he came over to our table with his notepad and tray, dropped them on the chair and, as I stood up, he threw his arms around my neck. “How are you?” he said first, then went into his own language. I didn’t have a clue what he was saying; I obviously hadn’t got that far in my book. I answered him with some Greek and I could see him cringe, because I’d said ‘with a bath’ or ‘without a bath’. This was in another chapter. But the rest of my party didn’t know what I’d said. Costas picked up his pad and tray, laughing and, in Greek, said, “Ti tha fate.” I knew what that meant.
I looked at Liz and she said, “What did he say?”
As I sat down, I explained, “He asked, ‘what do you want to eat?’”
I heard Andrew, one of the friends we were with, say, “How do you know?” with a look of disbelief on his face.
It was the moment I had been waiting for. I quickly looked up at Costas and said, “Ton katalogo parakalau,” (the menu please) to which he replied “Oriste” (here you are). So I asked, “Ti ehete?” (What do you have?). Then he started to reel off a long list of choices. I looked around at them all; you could have heard an olive bounce off the floor.
Four mouths dropped down to the table, then Costas said, “Ti tha parete.”
Not a word had been spoken so I carried on. “Ena bookali grasi, tria byras, k ena bookali portokalatha,” which means I ordered the drinks (a bottle of wine, three beers and a lemonade). Still nothing was said.
I thanked Costas and he said, “I will be back in a few moments to take your orders. Excuse me for just one moment.”
I looked at Denise, Andrew’s wife. She was the first to speak. “How, when, where did you learn?” She struggled for words.
Then Liz spoke. “Have you been here before without me?”
I started to laugh and Andrew said, “That’s brilliant, you’ve even mastered the twang.”
Mick was still looking up at me in disbelief. Then I told them the story. As you can imagine, they couldn’t believe how well I had done in such a short time. Anyway, we had a good night; in fact, a very good holiday. I fell in love with the island and the people; their way of life is so relaxed and so different to ours. I would like to live there one day. Who knows, if I got caught playing my game, I might have to. Some people on Zante said I looked a bit Greek. They called me the man of the mountains, whatever that meant.
The girls I had in mind for my proposed birthday present were all good-looking and I’m sure none of them had been unfaithful before.
For these dates, or affairs, whatever they turned out to be, I needed to work out where to go, how to get there and how to get out of the house. It would only be for one night. The whole evening would have to be the best night out they’d had for a very long time and something they would remember forever. I didn’t want it to be a quickie in the back of a car down some dark country lane in the middle of nowhere. I also needed some money; I had to have enough for the best of everything. It couldn’t come from my wages, nor could it come out of the housekeeping, definitely not out of the garage account, so I would have to get it from some other means. I must also get fit, I thought: I would start running again in the mornings.
On the following Saturday I was going to a barbecue and some of the girls would be there. It was at our friend’s house, the couple we went to Greece with, Andrew and Denise, who have no children because Andrew had a vasectomy some years ago.
It was Andrew’s 40th birthday and they were having it in their back garden. The house is a big old Victorian house and the patio, which was built last year, is wooden. It starts from the back of the house and overhangs the first part of the garden that drops down like an American boardwalk, with a small fence all the way round the edge. There are two sets of steps, one at each end, leading down to the grass, tables and chairs with coloured canopies dotted about the lawn. There is a small stream that runs across the bottom of the garden, beneath a rickety old wooden bridge that leads into a large wooded field and just before the bridge on the left stands a large wooden shed. From there, back to the house, there are lamps on all the trees: it’s very picturesque at night. Apparently they had recently had a big brick barbecue built that rises up out of the wooden patio - the same wooden patio that overlooks their private swimming pool. Quite impressive!
When I eventually arrived at the garage, I shuddered at the thought of being stopped by the police and breathalysed: I would definitely still be over the limit.
I ran up the stairs to my office, hiding the breakfast under my shirt. I heard someone shout, “Arrived, at last! It must have been a good one then.”
I entered the office, sat down and devoured my cold breakfast before anyone could come up and catch me.
I started to do some paperwork but as I was sitting there, looking at pages and pages of numbers, they seemed to start moving around the paper. After about five minutes, I started to feel sick, so I dropped that idea. I stared aimlessly out of the window, thinking about the girls I wanted to take out.
Eventually I pulled myself together and decided to go home and help Liz clean the house.
When I’d left in the morning, it looked like we had been burgled. The mess was in every room; even the garage floor was covered in food and drink. The ‘Happy 40th birthday’ banner, which was tied up across the front of the house, had fallen down at one end. I glanced out of the kitchen window into the back garden. There were cans strewn all over the lawn, clothes in the pool and up the tree.
I locked the garage and drove home. As I pulled up on the drive, there were three people untying the banner from the bedroom windows with the help of a long ladder. All the doors were open, with more people walking in and out with bin bags. As I got out of the car, I could hear the vacuum being pushed and pulled, backwards and forwards, the chinking of plates being washed and dried. I began to feel better. Some friends from the party had come back to help Liz and it was nearly all done. I couldn’t believe it. It was around four o’clock when everyone left and went home. We had a quiet night in by the telly, with a take-away Chinese meal, and were in bed for nine.
On the Sunday, I just messed about in the garden, pretending to be interested and nursing my bad head. We had lunch about two o’clock and I spent the rest of the day asleep on the settee.
During the next week, we were very quiet at the garage. There wasn’t much work about, but I did sit in my office one day for a while and make a list of all the girls that I knew and would like to take out on a date. I crossed off some of the girls that would definitely say no, the ones that hadn’t been married long enough and brought the list down to six possibles.