Part 1: 1
Our first point of contact was violent–hardly the normal opening for a life-changing love affair.
I’d been pushed off the top diving board in a swimming pool. And as I landed in the water, falling at least twenty feet through the chlorinated air, I smacked her in the mouth with the ring on my right hand. I remember the deadening thud of my flailing body as it collided with hers, the fear I might have seriously hurt someone; I remember feeling anger and embarrassment that I’d lost control of a situation involving my youngest daughter and a couple of teenage boys who’d been teasing her. I’d let myself become a victim and, by underestimating the danger signals I’d been getting, I’d made an innocent bystander a victim too.
The night before the accident, my wife and I had argued over money. She’d just discovered her bank balance was short a few hundred pounds and was angry that I hadn’t told her I’d been fiddling with my monthly payments.
“Did you think I just wouldn’t notice?”
She’d planted herself before me on the Moroccan rug, fully prepared for an all-out fight. I felt at a disadvantage, seated on the sofa with my Mac on my lap, and my Facebook open on a silly prank video.
“No, I meant to tell you, I just forgot. I’m sorry…”
This was pretty flimsy, I have to admit. And, honestly, I had meant to tell her that my monthly takings for my dental practice were seriously down and that she would be seeing a drop in her balance as a result, but I’d put it off for fear she’d automatically assume I was up to something dodgy; now I was looking stingy and shifty both at the same time.
“Is this your way of telling me I have to give up college… go and get a job?”
Part of me wanted to say, That might be nice… although the rest of me felt dismay that she could even ask me this. So I kept quiet and glanced away.
Do you have any idea how much I spend every time I go down to Sainsbury’s and fill up the car boot!”
I looked into her Franco Mauritian eyes, mesmerising with their shining anger and pride, and I wanted to tell her how beautiful they were, but I knew those days were past us somehow, those days of defusing misunderstandings by injecting sexual confusion into an argument. With her rich, curly dark hair now like an angry mane, her long, dark eyebrows primed like little curled swords drawn from their sheaths, it was clear I wasn’t going to be allowed to wriggle out of this one–she’d been saving it up.
“It’s not like I didn’t give you any money, I just had to reduce it a bit.”
“Three hundred pounds–that’s hardly a bit!”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve had fewer booking this month–and last month. I’ve had to pay General Dental Council fees, indemnity, waste disposal, equipment servicing and certification, these courses I’m on…”
“All in one month?”
“But you’ve always had these bills. I’m not asking you for a new pair of Jimmy Choo’s, I need this money to fill up the bloody fridge. And why are you getting fewer bookings? Do your patients not like you any more?” she asked, with a sneer, as if to add, They have my sympathy.
She continued to press for more details on my latest marketing plans, the whole damn business, while I continued to fudge. It got to the point when I feared I might explode and tear into the subtext, rooting out our fears that we were headed for a divorce and confessing to holding a little money back for when it finally happened.
Were we in denial, or desperately holding on? I couldn’t tell. I think it’s fair to say, Sylvia had always shown herself more committed than I to making our marriage work. Because she had more to lose, or because I was just less committed by nature? Possibly both.
Admittedly, we were more tired than usual that night, a little fractious on account of the comedown following drinks with our separate friends, but for the first time in a long time I was struggling to pull back from the brink. As the accusation in her eyes drilled into me, my blood began to fizz with a heady cocktail of latent guilt and bristling indifference and when she refused to let it go, following me into the kitchen as I went for a glass of water, hitting me with a fresh round of jabbing questions about my spending habits, my ‘air of secrecy’, as she called it, I grabbed my jacket and stormed out of the house–with a teenager’s kick to my stride.
The summer night air breathed life into the notion that I’d just set off on an adventure somewhere and, half way down the next street, I slowed my pace and seriously considered returning to the house to pack a suitcase. It made for a vivid scene in my head, but the thing is, I wasn’t thirty-three any more, I was forty-three in all but a few weeks; I was also a dad of two young girls, a dad who cared. I could just picture Sylvia rousing the children, and all but dragging them downstairs to witness see their selfish dad walking out on them, a picture to remember for all eternity, the only proof they’d ever need that I was a rotten tooth and best extracted from their lives… OK, I told myself, walk it down, once round the block, and then...
Then I surprised myself by hopping on a bus, the bus I take to get to the practice in North West Ealing.
Hopping off the bus I dived into an off-licence like a man on a mission. A bottle of light, silky Pinot Noir might just turn the evening around.
I punched in the digits to turn off the surgery’s alarm, flicked on some lights and went to the kitchenette to hunt for the corkscrew. I rinsed a glass, poured a small measure and took a sip. Raspberry, cherry, and something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on–but satisfying enough.
And that’s fifteen pounds less she’ll be seeing this month.
I kicked my shoes off and propped my feet up on the sofa, pointed the remote at the widescreen TV and told myself that I was doing the right thing by avoiding any further conflict. This would give us time to cool down, re-evaluate the situation. But after twenty minutes of listless flicking from channel to channel, and already queasy from the ejaculate of reality shows, I pressed the off button on the remote and sank into a vacuous and dismal silence.
The grainy light of the encroaching night hummed with sexual possibilities beyond my orbit. Car headlights rolled relentlessly over my sorry reflection in the front window and I thought I looked like a Kafkaesque figure waiting to be charged with some sort of crime that would never be fully explained to him. Here I was in my own surgery, yet more like a stranger who had broken in, seeking refuge.
I got to my feet, turned on the lamp and began flicking through the out-of-date magazines. I was searching for an answer to some ill-formed question in my head. It occurred to me I was due another course of tooth whitening. I quietly noted the irony that I spent my days telling my patients they could look forward to seeing their teeth transformed several shades lighter, while seldom bothering to do the same for my own.
I sipped my wine, put the cork in the bottle, then took it out again and poured another half glass, wanting to fuck myself up.
Looking around my reception it occurred to me: Sylvia was right: I should never have gone for a toothpaste ingredient as the theme for my waiting room. The minty green of the leather sofa, the pale creamy mint of the wallpaper, the green tint to the landscape photograph–they had all lost their freshness. I didn’t even like the taste of mint. So much for my stab at interior design.
I got behind the reception desk and turned on the computer. It made its usual cheerful song as if to an always-cheerful friend. Logging on to my bank account and scanning some recent statements, the figures added up to a prognosis that I was headed for another bad year, even though the economy was pretty buoyant, according to the newspapers. Again I berated myself for not doing more to market my practice. Was my lack of motivation due to a growing disaffection with my job, or a slow-drip mid-life crisis? My gut was telling me I should take some sort of radical action, like sell the practice, up-root and go travelling–with or without Sylvia–but my sense of loyalty demanded that I sit on my restlessness and muddle through.
I flipped back to the current balance and thought to print off the bank statement and show it to Sylvia as proof I wasn’t being mean and selfish, but I realised this would be foolish, I’d be setting a precedent and she might then not unreasonably assume she had a right to see my statements every month–before too long, she’d be telling me what I could have every month.
And then it hit me: here I was venting and deflecting, when really I should have stayed put and just spat it out, told her I wanted a divorce–even if I wasn’t sure, just say it, it had been on my tongue for months. Get it over and done with instead of embroiling us further in power games. How could I really hope for our intimate life to pick up again if I was so secretive about money?
I logged out of my online account and thought of browsing some porn, more for something to do than anything else, but I wasn’t in the mood somehow. The wine was better value tonight. I should lock up and return home. Pull £250 out of the wall and give it to Sylvia when I got in. Would it feel like I was asking for sex, all that cash passing hands? It never used to. The last time I’d given her cash she’d said pointedly, “Why can’t you just do an internet banking transfer?” and I realised that cash over a tenner now made her feel like a kept woman.
I poured a fourth glass hoping to find clarity as to which scene was the more realistic outcome–the forgiving Sylvia or the silent-treatment Sylvia?–and I realised I didn’t want either, I just wanted out. I knocked back the next half glass. On balance, it was probably best just to give her some space.
By now I was even admitting to the possibility that Sylvia was right about everything–that I was to blame. Or my libido was. Whatever. I was drunk now. More or less.
The bottle empty, I went to the pharmacy cupboard and carelessly tipped out a bunch of sedatives into my open palm. I gazed at them, swimming in thoughts of suicide. Us dentists, we’re a pretty suicidal lot, apparently. But I hate to be predictable, so I put all of them back but one and then went to lie in the chair. Where I must have nodded off.
I was woken by something small vibrating against my thigh. My mouth felt dry and sticky from the wine I’d guzzled and I was loath to sit up without the assistance of the chair lever. The light filtering through the open blind told me it was early. So it was probably my wife, Sylvia, who had texted.
I really didn’t want to read what she’d sent. Not yet, anyway.
So I just lay there for a while, gazing up at the crowd of happy-go-lucky cartoon characters on the poster pinned to the ceiling above my head. I amused myself imagining the horrified faces of some of my more conservative patients as they opened wide and got an eyeful of the same poster but with schoolboy graffiti all over it–tits and erect penises drawn in black marker pen defiling the innocent happy scene. Of course I would never do such a thing–all my female patients would abandon me in a heartbeat–but for some reason this little fantasy gave me the strength I needed to sit up and check my phone.
As I’d thought, the message was from Sylvia. We’d argued the night before over money. Why had I given her less than usual these past two months? If I was really going through such a lean period at the practice, perhaps she should check my books. You know how scatty you can be with money.
‘Give me a call please,’ read Sylvia’s text message.
I’ll go for a pee first, if that’s alright with you. Bossy cow.
I washed my hands and splashed some water over my face.
“Hi, it’s me,” I said, pitching to sound cheerful, even renewed by the hours spent away from home.
“And where did you go?” There was a hint of amusement and irony in her voice, as though she were fully prepared to find an account of how I’d ended up at a brothel totally hilarious. I hadn’t expected that, and was instantly reminded of why I still loved her: for her enduring capacity to forgive and move on.
“I’m at the practice. Um…” I drew breath, rubbing my muzzy head. “I thought I should, um–y’know–check over the accounts… Uh– ”
“You spent the whole night doing that?”
“No, I–I watched a bit of TV…um… You OK?”
“I hope you haven’t forgotten.”
“You’re taking the girls to the pool today.”
“I thought that was Friday–aren’t they meant to be in school?”
“No, don’t you remember? They have an audition for a TV commercial at 2 this afternoon.”
This is where men fall down so badly: it’s not so much we forget about the arrangements for the rest of the week following a bust up, we can’t even imagine any kind of future arrangements. Women, on the other hand, will always stay focused on their children’s appointments, regardless of the idiot father’s behaviour.
“You said you’d take them swimming in the morning,” she pressed. “Why do I-Can’t you–”
“It’s OK, yep, I remember now, I can do it. Um–”
She sighed down the phone–to blow away any germ of a lame excuse.
“What’s wrong with your voice anyway?”
I coughed, trying to clear my throat.
“I suppose you were out drinking again last night and that’s why you can’t remember.”
“Going over one’s accounts is very dull and fairly depressing. So yes, I had a couple of glasses of wine to help me get through it.”
“Well, that’s not very bright, is it, checking your accounts when you’re drunk? Your maths isn’t so good when you’re sober, is it.”
It improves when I’m drunk, I imagined saying wryly, but instead I merely inhaled, then exhaled–a new coping mechanism that had crept into my repertoire for dealing with my wife’s piques. I expected her to badger me further, but she’d fallen silent, either lying in wait or on the verge of hanging up in disgust.
“So are you coming?”
Yes, I was coming. I reminded her I had to be back at the practice around lunchtime to let in the engineer, who was due to come and fix the drill bit that had been playing up.
“Yes, I know. I don’t need you for the whole day.” She might easily have run on to point out that she could only count on me for one or two childcare tasks per week–but didn’t on this occasion.
It occurred to me that I might still be over the limit and unsafe to drive, but I didn’t dare air the possibility. Perhaps a black coffee would make all the difference.
I hung up. Went to the kitchen…
Fuck. We’re fresh out.