West London, 2012.
Emma smiles, her fat lips opening over sharp white teeth as she consumes her breakfast. Four thick bacon rashers, two fried eggs, two Lincolnshire sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes. Especially the tomatoes.
‘Tomatoes are essential’, she comments. ‘They help to dissolve the grease.’
Adrian frowns across the dining room table.
‘Do you think you should eat all that, darling? Don’t forget we’re going to my reunion lunch at Le Chateau today.’
‘Are the Wah-Wahs going?’ She drops a couple of sugar lumps in her coffee, and agitates the teaspoon with a plump hand. A thick fringe of glossy brown hair falls across her left eye.
‘I don’t know who you mean,’ lies Adrian.
‘You know, Vivienne what’s-her-name and that plonker she married. Gerald something.’ She leans back in her chair, hands folded across her full stomach, satisfied with herself.
‘Gerald Standling’s a very successful man,’ said Adrian. ‘Of all the people in my year, he’s been the highest flier. He’s the CEO of a big company, drives a Maser, fantastic house in Surrey…’ Adrian and Emma have an expensive, but not fantastic, house in Ealing.
‘He’s such an idiot though. I can’t stand listening to him droning on. Wah-wah-wah. And she’s not much better. Who else is going?’
The next ten minutes is spent dissecting the guest list. A hypocrite, a fraud, a loony leftie, a fascist, a pervert, an ar-
‘Oh Emma,’ says Adrian, ‘you are an absolute bitch.’
He says it almost with admiration, but, draining her coffee cup, she abruptly leaves the table, slams her plate into the dishwasher, and stomps upstairs to squeeze herself into something suitable.
Emma still has that set look about the corners of her mouth when Adrian pulls up in Beaconsfield Services. He’s driving there, she’s driving back, so that he can have a drink.
‘I hope you’re going to cheer up a bit,’ he says in the coffee bar. ‘It’s costing a lot of money, I don’t want you spoiling it by sulking all day.’
Her smile lasts about half a second. ‘Look, Adrian, I didn’t really want to go. I’ve got better things to do than make polite conversation to a lot of people I don’t like, just so they can feel good about themselves because they’re more successful than us.’ She sticks a plastic fork into a muffin, sucks latte from a cardboard cup.
‘Feel good about themselves?’
‘Yes, you know. Have you met so-and-so? She’s such-and-such at the BBC. I thought your son got into Oxford, oh, he didn’t? Right. Did you get that dress on Sloane Street? Oh, Westfield, really? You’ve lost weight, haven’t you?’ Emma glares at him through narrowed eyes. She’s dreading it, Adrian thinks, having to admit that she’s overweight. Fat.
‘I’m sure there’ll a good mix of people there,’ he says, choosing to reassure. She catches him looking at the bulge in her midriff. Last year’s dress doesn’t fit as well as it used to. The buttons across the bosom strain, and he can see a little of the breast flesh through the opening. He moves his eyes away, guilty as charged. It wouldn’t be so bad if only – he lets the thought go.
Le Chateau is an old stone building in softly verdant countryside and herbaceous borders, approached between two stone pillars and along a sunny avenue of lime trees. He is aware of Emma taking stock of the car park; mercifully the helipad is unoccupied. He parks the VW and they walk slowly back towards the restaurant entrance, she tucks her hand around his forearm, crumpling the sleeve of his beige summer suit. She walks stiffly, in her tight black dress, her high-heeled patent shoes making a hard, hollow noise on the tarmac.
‘You look fine,’ he says, registering her sharply constrained flesh, her creamy skin, the long eyelashes, the soft full mouth slicked with scarlet lipstick. He disentangles his arm, just to be able to put his hand, caressingly, on the small of her back, to feel her moving under the black silk. He means it, but she frowns.
‘Stop it. Oh God, look, it’s the Wah-Wahs.’
Adrian tries hard not to look at the gorgeous, sapphire-blue metallic convertible. Its roof hums shut over Vivienne’s bright hair as Gerald Standling parks. He has spotted them, and as he gets out of his car, he lifts a blazered arm into the air, twiddling the hand in greeting.
‘Aadrian! Emmmaa! Lovely to see-ee you!’ Gerald puts in extra letters for emphasis, but his generosity goes no further. The handshake is warm, but the eyes are cold. Vivienne, tanned, leggy in sheer yellow, with long auburn curls, flows around the car to join them. The darkness of her French designer sunglasses is balanced by the brilliance of her smile. She and Emma pretend to kiss, and the men follow behind them along the path.
So, Adrian walks in the trail of Vivienne’s perfume, in memories of a scented night in Cambridge. He takes in the curtain of glossy hair, the roundness of her small heels, in their Italian leather sandals, the unchanged slender curves of her body. Has she really had two children? He watches Emma’s shoulders tense as, within a couple of hundred yards, she has explained to Vivienne that she and Adrian drove from Ealing, her dress is not from Sloane Street, and Jonathan didn’t get the grades for university. Without waiting for Vivienne’s next question, she asks if Gerald is busy.
‘Ooh,’ purrs Vivienne. ‘So exciting. He’s going into politics.’
‘Oh?’ says Emma, turning round, and catching Gerald’s eye. ‘Politics?’
‘Yaaa, anti-Europe campaign, acctually,’ says Gerald. ‘Only lobbying, of course.’
Amidst the crowd of arrivals in the restaurant foyer, Emma and Adrian exchange glances for a split second, and he sees her eyes widen, as if thinking, ‘Please don’t make me sit opposite him.’ He looks away, pretending not to notice, finding someone she doesn’t know, and introducing her. But as they all file around the long table, finding their place cards, that is exactly where Emma ends up. Adrian, beside her, is facing Vivienne. On his other side, a lady doctor and a director of finance are already embroiled in an argument about healthcare funding.
Lithuanian waiters in white cropped jackets hover, thin and pale-faced with cropped blond hair. ‘Sir’, ‘Madam’, ‘Please’, and the contents of the menu are their only words of English. The table is set with hothouse flowers, Irish linen and Bohemian crystal. By the end of the meal, Gerald has consumed five exquisite plates of food, carefully arranged pieces of this and that, patterned with sauces and garnish. In amongst it were Kalamata olives, truffles from Perigord, Dutch asparagus, Belgian chocolate.
He has bored everyone about Vivienne’s SLK, about the golf course in Albufeira, the yacht in Gouvia, and the villa in Marbella. He has droned on about how information technology is the answer to crossing international boundaries and how the global marketplace will revolutionise everything. He has driven Emma to take refuge in food and drink, comparing notes on the foie gras de canard landais, the navarin printanier d’homard a l’estragon, pigeon de Bresse, and ile flottante aux pralines, washed down with champagne and then red Burgundy, and then with a whole bottle of Tokay. And then he starts on Europe.
Gerald is someone who becomes louder in restaurants, and every time he says ‘Wah-Wah’, Emma drains her glass.
‘Are you sure you ought to, darling?’ says Adrian, more than once, thinking of the bill. ‘Remember you’re driving.’ Emma turns her head slowly to glare at him. She too is getting louder, vaguer. Gerald’s face is going red and his expression is getting meaner.
Adrian reflects that Vivienne’s eyes really are violet, like wet purple slate. He’s never known anyone else with violet eyes, he is certain of it. Definitely not with auburn hair. It clashes, in an exciting sort of way, and she knows it. She smiles at him with parted lips, as he tells her of all the strange and futile paths he has followed since they graduated. Heavy with diamonds, her long fingers, with peach polished nails, curl around her cutlery as she spears something on her plate that is like a tiny sculpture of food. He feels the silver prongs sliding into his soul.
When they leave, Adrian has to drive home, as Emma is beyond hopelessly drunk. Hoping the coffee is working, he pulls her arm across his shoulders, helping her walk saggingly to the car, a waiter following them with her handbag. She slumps in the front with her cheek pressed against the glass, her mouth sagging open, snoring. Adrian pulls her seat belt round her and clips it in. He has had a couple of drinks himself, hadn’t planned on driving, decides not to take the motorway. Setting the sat nav for home, and ignoring its directions for the first half an hour, seems best.
Driving on twisting roads, listening to just the satnav and Emma snoring makes him feel sleepy, and he pulls over in a Chiltern village to see if he can get a coffee in a petrol station. When he comes back to the car he finds that Emma has woken, opened the car door and vomited on the grass verge. She is panting, apologising.
‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry, Adrian, I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s OK. Here.’ He gives her his handkerchief and she blows her nose, hard, still apologising.
‘I can’t remember anything that happened. What did I say? I’m so sorry, darling.’ Her speech is still slurred.
‘Well. You probably shouldn’t have asked Gerald about the Select Committee inquiry into his public sector software contracts.’
‘Oh, God. Sorry, Adrian. I’m so sorry.’ Emma is hunched over in her seat, elbows on knees, head in hands.
‘It all mushroomed a bit after that, turned into something of a slanging match.’
‘I suppose Vivienne was laughing at me.’ Her fingers knot themselves in her hair, pulling tight.
‘No,’ he says, ‘I think she’d gone to the Ladies at that point. By the time she came back you’d calmed down a bit. It’s OK, Emma, you’d both had a bit too much to drink, I’m sure it’ll soon be forgotten.’
He doesn’t want to analyse it, finishes his coffee and drives on in silence, leafy lanes suddenly leading into dual carriageway and airport-blighted conurbation, as they return to West London.
Later, they’re undressing for bed. Emma, pale and washed out, tumbles in, burying her head in the pillow. Adrian is emptying out his trouser pockets by the dressing table. From one pocket come coins, a peppermint in a twist of white cellophane, car keys, going onto a rosewood tray. And there, in the other pocket, is a business card. ‘Gerald Standling, Information Technology Consulting,’ on one side, with his company logo. On the reverse, Vivienne has scrawled in biro her mobile number, and the words ‘3pm Monday. XXX.’
Adrian glances into the dressing table mirror. Emma’s not looking. His torso stripped, he draws his stomach taut, and studies his reflection. He tells himself it’s OK, that Gerald’s a plonker anyway, and slides the card underneath the tray, saving it for later.
West London, 2013.
The wine has been pressure-filtered through oak shavings to create the same effect, Vivienne reads from the label, as a three-year maturation in barrels.
Adrian sips, sitting beside her on the sofa.
‘Good,’ he says, ‘although maybe there are some things that need time.’ Looking out of the flat, at the treetops of Goldstone Avenue, he brings his hand across from the back of the sofa to stroke across her thin shoulders, and over her long auburn hair.
‘2011,’ says Vivenne, still looking at the wine label. ‘How things have changed since then! I can’t believe we’ve been living here for over a year.’ She shrugs away his hand as she leans forward to put the bottle on the coffee table and pick up her glass.
‘Are you OK?’ he asks. She is silent for a while, still sitting forward, staring out at the trees. The first leaves of the year are showing bright green along the branches.
‘I miss Jacob and Freya,’ she says. ‘Gerald isn’t even spending time with them. Even his girlfriend doesn’t look after them. He’s got a nanny.’
‘Well he’d have to have a nanny, I can’t imagine Nadine being maternal,’ says Adrian. ‘She’s only just older than Jacob, isn’t she?’
‘Gerald’s such a bastard,’ says Vivienne.
‘If only the two of you went to court you could get something sorted out for the kids.’ Adrian leans back on the sofa, legs outstretched, ankles crossed, sipping at his wine glass.
‘The reason he won’t divorce me is that he doesn’t want the courts going through his accounts,’ she says. ‘The business is half in my name.’ She turns to look at Adrian, an eyebrow raised in emphasis.
‘I know,’ says Adrian. ‘The whole thing’s been awful. And claiming that I’d hit Freya, that you were mentally unstable, getting the social workers involved, that was just the pits.’
‘It was when Jacob said he didn’t want to live with us any more,’ said Vivienne. ‘That was the worst.’
‘Well, what do you expect, flat in Acton versus mansion in Gerrards Cross, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, but I’m his mum! I know I’ve been ill, but…’ Putting her glass down, she turns to Adrian and buries her face in his shoulder.
‘Sweetheart,’ he says, putting his arm around her, ‘He’s just a teenager, he probably doesn’t really know what he wants. You’ll get him back. It’s just a matter of time.’
The summer brings a little warmth to Goldstone Avenue, and a few ice-cream wrappers blow along the sunny, dusty street.
‘Hey Dad, hey Viv.’ Jonathan throws his bag down in the hallway, and embraces Adrian briefly before heading to the kitchen.
‘You’re late,’ says Adrian. ‘We were expecting you for lunch.’
‘Yeah, well I was late into Glasgow, and I missed my flight,’ says Jonathan, giving the biscuit tin a shake. ‘Have you got any biscuits, then?’
Vivienne indicates the cupboard and Jonathan starts to rummage.
‘Why didn’t you ring?’ asks Adrian. ‘We tried to phone you and you weren’t answering.’
‘Oh, my phone’s run out of battery.’
Adrian knows there’s no point in saying that he doesn’t know why he pays for Jonathan’s phone contract.
‘How was Shetland?’ he asks.
‘Yeah, Mum’s good,’ says Jonathan from the depths of the cupboard. ‘She’s working in a shop, selling Fair Isle jumpers.’ He emerges with a packet of chocolate digestives.
‘What’s the croft like?’ asks Vivienne.
‘Bit cold,’ says Jonathan. ‘But OK, not bad really. Mum’s gonna have solar panels and grow her own food, all that eco thing. Pigs and chickens. It’s great at the moment, never gets dark. Dunno what it’ll be like in the winter.’
‘I don’t suppose she washed your stuff, did she?’ Vivienne glances back at the holdall.
‘No actually, er…’
‘Well, you know where the washing machine is,’ says Adrian firmly. Jonathan is giving off a musty smell.
‘I’ll probably do it at Sarah’s,’ he says, through biscuits. ‘I’m staying at her flat tonight.’
‘Lucky Sarah,’ says Adrian.
‘Her brother’s selling his bike,’ says Jonathan. ‘A Sawakaki. I reckon I could get work despatch riding, or something…’ His voice trails off.
‘I suppose you want some more money, then.’ Adrian’s mouth starts to turn down at the corners.
‘Dad, I’ll get something. You’ll see. This time next year, it’ll all be different.’
The summer draws to an end, and a few dusty blackberries ripen amongst the convulvulus on the wire fence beside the Tube.
When Adrian gets back from work, the TV is blaring in the flat, and Vivienne is asleep in front of Channel 4 News. She has opened her post, and put it back into its envelopes, which lie on the kitchen worktop. One is franked with an NHS logo and looks like an appointment. The other looks as though it is from her solicitor.
Flicking through his junk mail as the kettle boils, Adrian makes a couple of mugs of tea and takes them through into the lounge. Vivienne wakes as he sits beside her on the sofa.
‘Thanks for the tea,’ she smiles. ‘How was your day?’
‘Fine,’ he says. ‘What was in your letters?’
‘Oh, the usual. Gerald has started some court proceedings about the children, and the solicitor says it’s best if I go. They’ve asked a whole lot of questions, I’ll have to write to them.’
‘What sort of questions?’
‘Oh about my health mostly, can I prove I’m mentally stable, and fit enough to look after the children. It’s ridiculous really, Gerald’s just out to get me.’
‘What’s the letter from the hospital?’
‘It’s just a date for another scan. It’s the same day as the Court, I’ll have to ring them and change it.’
Adrian protests that it’s important, that she isn’t well, surely they can change the Court date? But she shakes her head.
‘I don’t want them to think I’m ill. It could all be a false alarm anyway. I really haven’t got the time.’
The last golden leaves have fallen from the plane trees in Goldstone Avenue, and Adrian is alone in the flat when the entryphone buzzes.
‘Hey Dad, it’s Jonathan. Can I come up?’
‘Sure.’ Adrian presses the button, and fills up the biscuit tin. Jonathan, in leathers, with his bike helmet over his arm, comes through the door.
‘Hey Dad,’ says Jonathan, with a brief hug. Adrian puts the kettle on.
‘How’s work?’ he asks. The hi-vis label on the back of the helmet says Cross City Couriers, and the phone number.
‘Yeah, it’s good. It’s long hours, but the money’s OK, hey – it’s a job.’ Jonathan looks around, sticks his head into the silent sitting room.’Where’s Viv?’
‘She’s in Charing Cross Hospital. They’ve started the chemotherapy, she’s not taking it too well. So, how are you, then?’ Adrian changes the subject, trying to figure why Jonathan has come to see him. His son looks well, his normally hollow cheeks have filled out a little, presumably Sarah is feeding him.
Jonathan looks down at his feet. Adrian watches Jonathan as he takes a deep breath, then looks up, grinning, his eyes suddenly luminous.
‘You know a few months ago, when I said things were gonna be different, Dad. This time next year, I said, didn’t I? Well, Sarah’s pregnant. You’re gonna be a granddad.’
It’s nearly Christmas, and Jacob and Freya have finally come to stay in the flat. Gerald knows he can afford to be magnanimous now. Adrian will sleep on the sofa, Jacob will have the spare room and Freya snuggles up in her mother’s bed.
Freya is comfort eating; bowls of ice cream disappear one by one. Her sturdy ten- year-old blondness contrasts with Vivienne’s thinness. She takes after her father. Jacob is red-haired and pale, and has his mother’s slate-violet eyes.
Vivienne lies propped up on pillows, her skin greenish gold with jaundice. Her auburn hair is a fine down, just starting to regrow after they stopped her treatment. There was nothing more they could do, they said.
‘Help me with my insulin,’ she asks Adrian, and he fiddles with the kit, the injector pen. She directs him, but as if she can’t really see properly what he is doing. He checks her blood, drawing a tiny ruby from her fingertip and reading it with the glucometer.
‘12.6,’ he says.
‘I need two units then,’ she says, and tells him how to set the dose. She draws her yellow nightie up and he injects it into her thigh. There is hardly any flesh there, and he can see the outline of her thighbone.
‘Why’s Mummy so thin?’ asks Freya, who has been watching. ‘Why are you doing that?’
‘Freya,’ says Jacob, in a warning tone. Adrian pulls the nightie over Vivienne’s legs and covers her with the duvet.
‘Mummy’s liver has gone a bit lumpy, darling, and something called the pancreas which helps Mummy to eat sugar is very poorly,’ Vivienne explains. She has slipped down on her pillows, and Adrian offers her his shoulder to lift her up the bed. He puts his lips to her downy, auburn head. Her perfume evokes a memory, of a phone number slipped across a table at an expensive lunch. And then he remembers an ancient college in Cambridge, and two lovers lying on a lawn, beside the Cam on a June afternoon.
‘Daddy keeps saying it’s only a matter of time,’ says Freya. ‘That’s what he says to Mummy Nadine.’
‘Stop it, Freya, stop it!’ Suddenly Jacob kneels by the bed and buries his face in his mother’s covers, his arm across her legs, his sobs stifled by the duvet. Her thin fingers stroke his red hair.
In Goldstone Avenue, the dusk comes early, and the fog freezes on the black branches.
© M Wallis 2020