Authors: Lucy Diamond
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Mark arrived with a couple of drinks at that moment – good, mine had long been emptied – and so I didn’t get the chance.
‘Dinner’s about ready,’ he said. ‘Would you like to come through?’
Call me sad or call me a plain old middle-class snob if you want, but I do get a voyeuristic thrill from snooping around other people’s homes. Vicarious living, Alex reckons. Nosiness, my mum says disapprovingly. She says she simply can’t understand why I get triumphant about seeing a few fat, well-thumbed Jilly Cooper novels stashed away at the top of a bookcase that’s otherwise stuffed with the likes of Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. ‘So what if they like Jilly Cooper?’ she asks, looking puzzled. ‘
like Jilly Cooper. What does that say about me?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with liking Jilly Cooper,’ I try to explain. ‘I like her too. It’s about the pseuds who think they’re above reading her, and who try to hide the fact by only putting their Booker nominees on display.’
I was hoping that I could spot the fatal flaw in Julia and Mark’s house. The Barbara Cartland in the Martin Amises, if you will, or the tacky Tiffany lampshade. Hey, anything plastic would do, at a pinch. This was completely unfair of me when my own home was about as grubby and fluffy as they came, with plastic toys avalanching out of every cupboard, but that wasn’t the point. My game, my rules.
We walked into the dining room, and damn it, there wasn’t a single fault visible. In fact, I had to double-check we hadn’t walked into the dining display area of Selfridges by mistake. The room was painted a warm plum, which might have ended up looking ghastly elsewhere. As it was, with wall lights softening up the colour, and flickering candles on every shelf of the walnut dresser, the room felt cosy and intimate. The table was laid with a spotless white linen tablecloth, silver cutlery and wine glasses that reflected the candlelight. We even had napkins, for God’s sake.
It was about as far removed from dinner
as possible. No one at the table was demanding chocolate biscuits and going ballistic with rage when told that they’d mysteriously vanished out of the cupboard. Nobody spat out their food or threw it, or splurged it over their own hair. Nobody had a tantrum about wanting to eat from a pink plate with a pink fork. Nobody . . . OK, enough. Leave it behind, I told myself.
Vive la différence!
Over plates of sweet chilli noodles wokked to plump perfection, the conversation quickly moved around from the hot gossip at Alex’s newspaper to the latest MP to get caught up in a sleaze scandal.
‘Did you see him on
last night?’ Chloe said, waving her fork animatedly. ‘He was so uncomfortable. You could almost smell the sweat coming off him, couldn’t you?’
. I hadn’t seen it for ages. Way past my usual bedtime. The only reason I ever watched it in the first place was for the Paxman factor.
‘He’ll brazen it out,’ Mark said. ‘He would have walked by now if he was going to.’
‘The implications are enormous,’ Julia put in. ‘If it gets to court, there’s going to be so much dirt that comes out of the woodwork. Let’s just hope we can get the exclusive on his diaries – he’s bound to try to cash in on this.’
‘Let’s hope we DON’T get his diaries,’ Alex argued. ‘I don’t want that toe-rag to make any more money out of this, let alone from our paper. Get him into court and bang him up with the arse-soapers, I say.’
‘Innocent until proven guilty, Alex,’ Matthew said through a mouthful of noodles. They sprouted out of his blubbery lips in a rather vile maggoty fashion. ‘Who’s to say it’s all true anyway? We know better than anyone how the hacks twist things to suit their own purposes.’
Alex snorted. ‘Of course it’s true! His political career has been totally built on lies and bribes and pay-offs.’ His eyes glittered. ‘He’s an out-and-out con-man, I can’t believe he’s been allowed to get away with it all this time.’
Alex could get very passionate about things like this. I envied him for it. The only thing I had the energy to get worked up about was people beating their children or neglecting them or abandoning them. And, every now and then for light relief, how I was never going to be able to afford a Lulu Guinness handbag. Meanwhile, the political arena was passing me by, like a car accelerating past on the motorway. There I was stuck in the slow lane, trapped between the crawler lorries of domesticity and small children, my brain already stuffed to bursting point with other crucial information, like the entire text of
and the best way to get Ribena stains out.
I sighed, remembering the political discussions Alex and I had had once upon a time. Him and his Marxist theories, me and my feminist outrage. We’d discuss things that were happening all over the world, not just one small corner of south London where his football socks had vanished and the council tax hadn’t been paid.
‘What do you think, Sadie?’ Chloe asked suddenly, and I jumped.
I hadn’t a clue who they were talking about. Not a clue. There was a moment’s silence while I put my head on one side and pretended to be considering the matter carefully. Really, I was thinking, Shit, shit, what shall I say? Quick! Something clever. Something meaningful. Something . . .
‘He’s good-looking, though, isn’t he?’ I blurted out randomly. ‘Bet he’s a bit of a sex-pot.’
Julia and Alex were staring at me as if I was mad. Mark spluttered with laughter.
‘Joke,’ I said quickly. ‘Ha ha. This is delicious, by the way. Is there some ginger in it?’
‘Yes,’ Mark said. ‘And lemongrass.’
‘Very nice,’ I said.
‘How old are your children, Sadie?’ Julia said as she refilled my glass. ‘Two boys, isn’t it?’
I looked across at her, wondering if that was her way of putting me in my place. Shut up, Mum, you don’t know what you’re on about. The adults are trying to
Look, sweetheart, I don’t give a toss about this MP, I felt like saying. I’m more concerned about whether my mother has been able to talk Molly into wearing her pyjamas rather than her bridesmaid’s dress for bed tonight. But since you asked . . .
‘Girl and a boy,’ I replied. The usual fierce rush of love came the instant I thought of them. ‘Molly’s nearly two and a half, and Nathan’s five months.’ And they’re both heart-achingly beautiful, I managed to stop myself from adding, voice shaking with pride. Blimey, one more glass of this wine and I’d be getting my baby photos out of my handbag and boring them all senseless.
‘Banging them out there, Sade,’ Matthew said with a broad wink. ‘Going for the hat-trick, are you, eh?’
‘Two of them is enough, thanks,’ said Alex.
‘We haven’t decided yet,’ I said simultaneously. ‘Oh.’ I looked across the table at him, feeling rattled. Alex seemed very assured on the subject of No More Children but I wasn’t. I hadn’t even considered not being pregnant again. Did he really mean that? I didn’t know if I could cope with not being able to feel those first wonderful flutters of life in my belly again. Even the blood and grunting of labour for one last time would be worth it if I could plant kisses on a seconds-old pulsing head again.
haven’t decided yet, anyway,’ I said, trying to make a joke of it. ‘So if anyone’s offering . . .’
My noodles suddenly felt squirmingly uncomfortable inside me. And the ginger seemed too hot, now that I thought about it.
Two of them is enough, thanks
– what did he mean by that?
I sighed and drank some more of my wine. I knew exactly what he meant by it, that was the problem. The way he’d been completely unable to comfort Nathan the other night had already flagged that one up. He wouldn’t even be able to get past the headlines of the paper, let alone reach the international news pages, if we had a third child.
‘Well, if you’re serious . . .’ Matthew smirked, patting my arm with a damp palm. He was half-drunk already, with a fleck of spittle on his top lip and a moustache of sweat sheening in the candlelight. ‘You go for it, Sade. I’m all for big families. Shame Chloe’s not so keen, but there you go.’
Ouch. The man was a walking, talking nightmare. Chloe glared at him and a terrible silence crashed down, with a tension that resonated like a vibrato.
‘I grew up in a big family,’ Mark said quickly. ‘They
great. Bloody hard work when you’re doing the parenting bit, though, I’m sure.’
I smiled at him gratefully and noticed that Julia was frowning. ‘Hard work and expensive and messy . . .’ she reeled off, through a tight little mouth. You could tell she’d trotted the words out before. ‘My sister has children, and honestly, the money she throws at their school fees, you would not believe it.’
I bit my lip. Don’t say it, Sadie. Don’t mention that most schools are free. Don’t get on your socialist high horse and inform her that, in your opinion, private education sucks. Even though I was sliding into drunkenness at an alarming rate, I still managed to cling to the fact that no, I really didn’t want to start an argument with Alex’s new boss. I didn’t. Did I?
Luckily, Mark stepped in again. ‘Alex, Julia was telling me that you work on the Review section of the paper,’ he said. ‘Do you get to do much reviewing as well as editing?’
If Matthew was the nightmare husband, Mark was starting to seem like the dream. He was easy-going and confident, and had a knack of saying the right thing at the right moment. He was what was known as A Good Bloke or, if you thought like Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennet, A Good Catch. Actually, I decided, staring at him until my eyes went out of focus, he was pretty tasty, too. Well, if you liked that rich, clean-cut sort of look, anyway. He was wasted on Julia.
Then, quite randomly, I found myself wondering what my life would have been like if I’d married
instead of meeting Alex. I bet he would have been up for a third child. He liked big families, didn’t he? He wouldn’t have spoken to me in that same dismissive tone as Alex.
I stopped myself guiltily before the idea developed any further. What the
was I thinking that for?
‘. . . although I started off working on the weekend magazine,’ Alex was saying as I snapped back to attention. ‘That’s where I met Sadie.’
Julia’s eyes swivelled across to me, pinning me to my chair, practically. ‘You worked on the paper, too, Sadie?’
Yes, once upon a time, Julia, I did. Straight out of university, in my one cheap suit from Topshop, with my non-existent typing skills and CV of lies and exaggerations, yes, I did work on your precious paper. Surprise! I have a brain, too!
‘Alex and I were assistants on the magazine,’ I said lightly. ‘Our eyes met across the filing cabinets—’
‘And two weeks later, she’d jacked in the job to go and work in book publishing,’ Alex joked. ‘Couldn’t stand me pestering her to come for a drink any longer. But I won her round in the end.’
‘How sweet,’ Julia said. ‘Goodness, your glass is almost empty, Chloe. Let me top you up.’
There was a moment of silence as we all watched Julia’s graceful wrist tilting the bottle over Chloe’s wine glass. A trace of lipstick was printed on the rim in an unhappy smile. Suddenly, I felt myself wishing we had gone to the George instead.
‘So,’ I said brightly. ‘What I want to know is, who do you prefer – Jeremy Paxman or Robbie Williams?’
There was frost on the ground as we crunched our way out to the taxi, after one last kiss-kiss and thank you.
‘I hope the kids are OK,’ I said, checking my mobile to see if there were any new messages. As soon as Julia’s front door had closed, so had the evening for me. Now it was time to go back to the real world, where my babies were hopefully both snoring peacefully, and my mum had had an easy night of it, watching
with her feet tucked up on the sofa. A doddle, she’d predicted comfortably. I couldn’t help but wince at that. How come I never found it a doddle, and they were my children?
‘Yeah,’ Alex said, opening the cab door for me. Unlike me, he hadn’t quite left the dinner table behind. ‘Those noodles were good, weren’t they? Who do you think did all the cooking? Julia or Mark?’
‘Mark,’ I said, without a second thought, remembering the warmth of his cheek as we’d kissed hello. A kitchen warmth, I guessed. ‘Although Julia might have overseen the process, of course. Given a bit of direction, maybe.’
The taxi pulled away and took us into the night. Alex laughed, his features lit up for a second as we went under a streetlight. ‘You didn’t like her, did you?’
‘Not really,’ I replied. ‘Too hard. And rude. She’s a man’s woman.’
‘So are you,’ Alex said, pulling me across the seat to him. He started nuzzling my neck and his stubble snagged my skin. ‘You’re
His hot, boozy breath was tickling me. ‘You might want to remind Matthew of that,’ I said, trying to wrest my chin away from him. ‘Matthew of the wandering eye and wandering foot.’
Alex jerked upright. ‘Wandering . . .? What, he was playing footsie with you?’
‘FTSE? No, that was Chloe. Get it?’ He was staring at me as if I was mad. ‘She’s a financial . . . oh, something. God knows.’
‘So was he or wasn’t he?’
‘What? Oh. Matthew. Footsie. Well, making a pathetic attempt to, yes,’ I said. I tried to decipher Alex’s expression as we went under another street lamp. Was he jealous or merely bemused?
I was too pissed to tell. Alex was pressing his mouth hard against my ear and saying something dirty.
I wasn’t listening, though. ‘Could you stop the car a second?’ I shouted urgently. ‘I think I’m going to be sick.’
That night when we got home and my mum had been taxied away, we had clumsy, half-hearted sex in front of the whisper of the gas fire. I wasn’t really in the mood – too knackered and conscious of the forthcoming hangover and night feeds and not wanting to wake the kids up – but it had been a while, and I felt like I owed it to Alex. I stared drunkenly into the fake coals wondering how many women around the world were thinking the same crap, cop-out, completely unsexy thing, and then found myself thinking of Mark’s face again, his bright blue eyes, rumpled dark hair, his pink smooth skin.