Authors: Pauline Wiles
I was balanced on an eight-foot ladder with a
mouth full of curtain hooks when I realised that my husband was
The individual pieces of the picture suddenly came together,
making terrifying sense. I blinked hard, then stared at my
knuckles, which were now white from gripping the ladder. But the
image wouldn’t subside. The picture I saw was James with
I was hanging curtains in my client Rebecca’s bedroom, and
the project was almost complete. This was great, as she’d
been excited to give the room a whole new look after she’d
recently come to the end of a long relationship.
‘I’m ready to move on. Grace, I want a totally fresh
look,’ she’d told me when we met to discuss how I could
help her. ‘Something luxurious, maybe a little sensual. I
don’t plan on being single forever.’
I was still new in the design business and it was a huge deal
for me not only to land a new client, but also one who had money to
spend and some kind of clue what she wanted. My first few months
had been a real struggle and I was starting to question my talents.
Other business owners had stressed the importance of tapping my
personal network to get things rolling, so James had spread the
word around his office. Apparently, he had done a good job of
promoting my abilities to Rebecca, his company’s marketing
manager. She had been great to work for and seemed appreciative of
my suggestions. The only slight issue was that in the last few
weeks she had been anxious to speed things up and get the bedroom
Eager to please, I had been beavering away and attempting to
charm my suppliers into hurrying. After getting the curtains up, I
planned to hit the shops for accessories, and then the room would
be ready for whatever action she had in mind.
My work had been interrupted by a knock on the front door of
Rebecca’s condo. I’d opened it to find a bubbly young
woman, who presented me with a pair of pink stilettos.
‘Oh!’ she said. ‘I was hoping Becca would be
home. Can you let her know Kerry returned these?’
‘I think she’s at work,’ I said, taking the
shoes. ‘I’m her bedroom designer.’
‘Ooh, you mean the love nest? Can I see it?’
‘Er, it’s not finished yet,’ I replied.
‘I expect she’d rather show you herself.’
Kerry shrugged. ‘Okay. I’ll catch up with
her.’ She turned and was a few steps down the hall before she
added, ‘And tell her I want to hear all about Vegas and this
James guy. He sounds delish!’
My mind was still on the curtains. I’d shut the door and
put the cute shoes down, before returning to the bedroom.
Climbing back up the ladder, I thought, No wonder Rebecca wants
to hurry this room. She’s met some man in Las Vegas and needs
her bedroom back. I was stretching to try to hook the edge of the
curtain to the last ring on the pole when the dark feeling began to
slither over me.
Did the ladder wobble? Had one of San Francisco’s famous
earthquakes nudged it? Or was the lurch, the sway, the feeling of
my stomach dropping to the new wool rug, due to something else? I
checked the new tear-drop chandelier hanging above the bed. As a
British transplant to the Bay Area, I had spent the first couple of
years diving under our dining table at the slightest tremor. But by
now I had learned that if the light fixtures weren’t swaying,
the seismic jolt was all in my head. The glass drops of
Rebecca’s chandelier stared back at me steadily, not even
winking, let alone dancing.
I had the presence of mind not to swallow my curtain hooks as I
took a huge gulp and slid down the ladder. I slumped onto the new
and naked mattress as I thought about my husband’s recent
conference trip to Las Vegas and how edgy he had been since. I
remembered our paths crossing briefly in the kitchen, the first
morning after his return.
‘How was it?’ I’d asked, digging through the
drawer for my favourite cereal spoon.
‘Okay, I guess.’ He reached for the tea bags.
James seemed dispirited and I thought perhaps the industry
analysts had given his company, a mobile security start-up, a tough
‘Are you home this evening?’ he wanted to know.
‘Probably,’ I called over my shoulder. I was already
heading to my computer to check whether anyone had emailed for
decor advice. Even at that hour, my mind was firmly on my fragile
But that day I’d been called by a potential customer to
discuss her family room and, as was typical, she could only meet me
in the evening. I was hard at work researching inspiration pictures
when James came home, and within minutes I headed out to my
appointment. After more than an hour of fruitless discussion on the
merits of contemporary versus rustic style, I drove the forty
minutes home across the Dumbarton Bridge to find my husband was
With an uncomfortable feeling, I also recalled the previous
evening, when he’d come home from work early and asked to
talk to me, but I’d been flying out of the door to my
women’s networking group. This had been the pattern of life
recently: we seemed to pass each other fleetingly, our schedules
never lining up for longer than it took to brew a pot of tea.
And now I had learned that Rebecca had hooked up with someone
called James in Las Vegas. My James had been acting oddly since he
had returned from there. Keep calm, I told myself, it’s
But it wasn’t fine. The third and ugly part of the truth
was literally staring me in the face. Rebecca’s favourite
colour was purple and despite some reservations on my part, she had
been adamant about using a strong shade of aubergine. We’d
finally agreed on a sophisticated tan for three walls, painting the
dramatic colour as an accent behind her bed. And although James
usually showed precious little interest in any of my decorating
ideas, we had been talking about Rebecca’s project just
before his trip, when we’d been in the kitchen long enough to
empty the dishwasher together.
‘How is your client list coming along?’ he’d
asked, shaking leftover water from a wine glass.
‘Slowly,’ I’d replied. ‘Rebecca’s
bedroom is nearly finished but I don’t have anyone lined up
He didn’t say anything but had stretched over my head to
put some plates away.
Happy to talk about my work, I’d let my brain run on.
‘I hope it all comes together okay. That accent colour was
such a bold choice.’
He’d pulled a slight face. ‘Yeah, purple always
reminds me of something my grandad would have had.’
I had dropped the topic, as I’d learned during our years
together that James based most of his interior design dislikes on
the vivid avocado and orange combinations in his
grandfather’s house. He thought any room featuring retro
patterns or an accent wall was hideous.
Now, I leaped off the mattress as though it had bitten me on the
behind. I was convinced I hadn’t mentioned purple, aubergine
or any other arty description for the colour behind the bed.
He knows what colour this room is. He’s been
I was out of the house and into the car before I knew it. Days
later, it occurred to me I should have stuffed Rebecca’s
hollow curtain poles with frozen shrimp. Of course, the clever
moves always elude me at the time.
By the time I arrived at the Palo Alto office
where James and his team were trying to create the next Silicon
Valley success story, all dignity had abandoned me. I think my
tears were already beginning as I lurched through the front desk
area, empty because the company was too small to have a
receptionist. In my haste, I then collided with the
table, which appears to be a required toy at
every start-up with venture capital funding.
I spotted my husband – cropped, dark brown hair, shirt
half untucked as usual – hunched over his keyboard, at the
end of an untidy row of T-shirt clad computer coders. This gaggle
looked barely old enough to have gained admission to Stanford
University, let alone already graduated.
James looked up and noticed me. Surprise crossed his face, but
was replaced with something I assumed was guilt. I could see how
deep the lines in the middle of his forehead were getting these
days, and how weary he looked.
‘Purple,’ was all I managed to utter at first.
Terrific. Millions of wives over the centuries have faced this
situation and all I could say was
‘Grace –’ He stood and took my arm, trying to
get me to sit.
I wrenched myself free. ‘How did you know her bedroom is
purple? How did you know?’
‘Listen.’ He shook his head. ‘It’s not
what you think’.
may not have been eloquent, but at
least it was original. I saw red – as well as crimson,
magenta and every shade in between.
‘How could you?’ I hissed. ‘I know
what’s going on. And all the time, I’ve been decorating
that sodding room!’
‘Please,’ he glanced sideways at the line of coders.
Fingers had frozen over keyboards. Curious youthful faces were
turned towards us: James was a popular boss.
‘You knew her bedroom is purple because you’ve been
sleeping with her, haven’t you? You’ve been sleeping
with my client!’
‘No, look, it wasn’t like that.’
‘No, you look. Look at this purple and tell me
you’ve never seen it before.’ I pulled the paint sample
from my purse and unscrewed the lid. Dark and liquidly sinister, I
waved it dangerously close to his computer.
‘Okay, okay, I’m sorry. Please – calm down and
let me tell you.’ By now his dark brown eyes were wide with
The whole office had fallen silent, but I saw that not everyone
was watching us. Instead, some of them had turned to the far side
of the room, as Rebecca stood and began heading our way. I realised
most of them knew she had a part in this drama. And what about
Rebecca? Was she half expecting this to happen? There I was, a
total mess inside and out, and she appeared to be perfectly
She came closer and I caught the eye contact between her and
James. He had now turned paler than I’d ever seen, including
the time he got food poisoning in Turkey and couldn’t stand
for three days. As she walked behind the desks of her co-workers,
most of them didn’t seem to know whether to freeze or
‘Look,’ she said, ‘let’s not do this
here.’ Not a blonde hair was out of place.
‘Where would you rather
?’ I snapped
back, but my voice was quivering. ‘Your bedroom? With my
James reached for me again, but seemed to change his mind and
let his hand drop. ‘I know you’re furious right now,
but it was just one stupid mistake in Vegas,’ he said
‘I don’t believe you! You’ve been in her
bedroom!’ I was looking wildly from one to the other, sick
with the thought of them wrapped around each other.