Nell stared at the book on the table on Tom’s side of the double bed and, for the first time, understood the phrase ‘winded in the solar plexus’.
The object that had triggered this response was, on the surface, perfectly innocuous. It was a volume of the selected poems of Thomas Hardy. Poetry? In twenty years of marriage, Nell had never, ever seen Tom so much as glance at the verses in his birthday cards. But there it was inserted between Asset Markets and Asset Banking Magazine. (Tom was keen on the word ‘assets’.)
With a strange feeling, Nell reached out and picked it up and the page fell open. She read. ‘Woman much missed, how you call to me…’
‘Woman…’ She started when she realised that she had spoken out aloud in the empty room, the bedroom she considered a crucible in a successful marriage. It was a large, pleasant room, in need of a paint, and she had grown to dislike the curtains made from material that had been bargain in the sales. It had been the sort of bargain that was far too expensive to replace.
In a gesture, that she realised was becoming habitual, Nell slipped a finger between the waistband of her jeans and her flesh. Definitely, the roll of flesh that had taken up residence was there – not helped the previous evening by one of Hattie’s excellent suppers. She patted her hips. Full, and she liked to think, confident hips but not bone- hard and slender as they used to be – but then it did not do to be too thin, both she and Hattie had concluded, and they almost believed it.
She fingered the Thomas Hardy. Who did Tom miss? And, more important, why? Why did she not know who this person was? She and Tom were so close and so frank with each other. Surely, Nell would know, she would sense, if Tom was thinking about someone else. True, both of them were very busy people. Tom had problems at work and Nell had recently been promoted which involved an extra work load. Then the children had both enjoyed separate crises over exams and she had been busy calming nerves, cooking special meals and conducting late- night pep talks. Nevertheless, Nell was convinced she would sense at once if the line of communication between herself and Tom had broken down.
At that point, pieces of a mental jigsaw began to assemble in Nell’s mind. On a couple of occasions Tom had been unexpectedly late home. Two weeks ago, he had bought himself a new sweater. It now lay discarded on the back of the chair. Pale blue. Whenever Tom bought himself a piece of clothing, which was approximately every ten years or so, he always, always stuck to dark green and black.
Nell had always hated jigsaws. She averted her gaze from the jumper and bent down to pick up her lip pencil which had fallen out of her handbag and encountered a glob of dust at the edge of the carpet and ignored it. You slob, she thought half heartedly.
The sleeve of Tom’s jacket was jammed in the wardrobe door and she got up to close it. Then she hesitated and, propelled by a vague uneasiness found herself doing something she never normally would have done. She searched Tom’s jacket pockets.
Bits of fluff balled under her fingernails, and clung to a piece of paper, a receipt, she extracted between her fingers. Boltons ran the printed word at the top. Underneath was itemized two starters, two main courses, plus a couple of bottles of wine and brandy. The final bill was staggering.
As with the bedroom curtains, Nell’s dressing table had also been a bargain and, like all her bargains, possessed shortfalls. It was clumsy piece of furniture, but cheap and commodious. In its original state it had been an unappealing dark brown yet, somehow, between the births of Henry and Emily she had found time to repaint it in white but it had never quite gelled. She sat down at it and looked into the mirror.
Men like Tom only read poetry and purchased light blue sweaters and went out for expensive meals when they were having affairs. Didn’t they?
She peered at her face. Once upon a time, her face had been interesting, as well as pretty, but now Nell feared that she had lost both… well… assets. Domesticity and happiness had worn away the sharper edges and dulled the light in her eye. Crowsfeet roosted around her eyes, and her hair had fallen back in tone by two shades. She looked nice, comfortable, unstartling and unthreatening. A fist curled up in Nell’s chest, aimed and punched straight at her heart.
For a good deal of the night, Nell lay awake. Tom slept beside her, seemingly tranquil and… innocent? What was he dreaming of, Nell wondered. And whom did he accompany down the avenues of his dreams? In the dark bedroom, an image assembled itself before Nell’s aching eyes of blonde with long legs, a penchant for light blue sweaters, who read poetry and drank a whole bottle of wine at dinner. Nell discovered that her mouth had clenched over her teeth, and heart was beating so hard that it pulsed in her ear like a war cry.
The following morning, she joined the gym in the basement of her office. ‘Good God’, exclaimed Hattie when Nell informed her of this and suggested a game of tennis at the weekend. ‘You hate exercise and it’s no use playing tennis with you because you don’t care if you win or not.’
‘I’ve changed,’ said Nell, grimly. ‘I really, really have.’
Three weeks later, Nell had lost an inch from her waistband and hips. Every muscle she could think of, and some she could not, screeched. Her bones felt rusty, in a state of shock. Conscious that she had passed a milestone, Nell bought not on, but two, pairs of jersey exercise trousers and skinny tops in grey and pink. She also made an appointment with a hairdresser.
‘Blonde?’ Brian was astonished. ‘Did you say blonde, Mrs Cadel?’
She watched carefully as Brian fussed over her hair, changing the unremarkable into something that attracted attention with its subtle colour and shiny perfection.
‘My,’ said Tom when he arrived home. He dropped a kiss onto Nell’s cheek. ‘The hair is fantastic.’ He changed tactics and aimed a second kiss at Nell’s lips. ‘You…look… nice…’ He spaced out the words with a flattering emphasis. At his familiar touch, Nell stiffened but whether it was from outrage or triumph she was not quite sure.
Now… an even slimmer Nell decided a couple of weeks later and liberated her credit card from the hiding place which it rarely left. Now… is the moment to strike. At lunchtime, she left work and took a taxi into the centre of town.
That evening, a slim, blonde, perfumed, expertly made- up Nell in a pair of Armani trousers and soft cashmere prepared to welcome home her husband.
‘You smell lovely,’ he said, as he ate the insalate tricolour at the dining room table which had been carefully laid with the best glasses and pretty candles. ‘This is good too.’ He tapped his fork on the edge of the plate. ‘A nice change from macaroni cheese.’ Nell’s lips parted in what she hoped was a smile. Tom put down his fork, and leaned over towards Nell. ‘You seem to have a new lease of life, Nell. It’s… it’s lovely.’
He sounded sincere and deeply affectionate. ‘Yes, I think I have.’ Nell was reflective. ‘I plan to do all sorts of things. I need to branch out a bit more. Maybe, I’ll change my job. Go away a bit.’
Suddenly, Tom’s expression changed, and Nell had to stop herself from laughing because she knew precisely the suspicion that had hit him. After all, she knew him better than anyone else on earth. She also knew what it was like to be hit by a suspicion. ‘Do you?’ Tom seemed puzzled. ‘Has anything happened to make you feel this way?’
The touch of panic in his voice informed Nell that she has passed a second milestone, and she felt ashamed at his discomfiture. Then she considered the past few weeks, Tom’s sweater, the dinner receipt and the blue sweater, and her own feelings of blackness and fear. She drank some wine, and regarded Tom over the rim of her glass and went in for the kill. ‘I always think what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,’ she said, and put down the glass.
‘What on earth do you mean?’ Tom stared into the angry, accusing skilfully mascara- ed eyes of his wife. He was no fool, and it took only a few seconds. His eyes narrowed as they did when he was angry. ‘You can’t… mean. Nell…’
Nell produced the bill from Bolton ’s out of her pocket. Then she picked up the volume of Hardy poems and opened it. ‘Which woman do you miss,’ she asked in a shaking voice. ‘Is she blonde? Does she like blue sweaters but surely, Tom, she can’t drink a whole bottle of wine at one sitting?’
Tom looked at the bill, looked at the book and then directed a look at his wife so full of astonishment that she flinched. With a flash that resembled an electric current, Nell realised that she had made a colossal mistake. The aerobics, the hair, the brooding, the hurt, the anger and dissatisfaction – the battle she had waged had been all for nothing.
‘Nell,’ he said, and there was a new note in Tom’s voice. ‘The bill is for the dinner when I took our new junior partner out to give him a pep talk. The poem was to help me with the crossword and the sweater…? The sweater just took my fancy. Not sure that I like it all that much.’
So, thought Nell, there was no need to do, or to feel, anything except what had been done and felt before. They would continue the way they always had. Safe, loving, mellowed into each other – the happily married couple whom friends held up as an example.
Nell held Tom’s gaze with her own. His was angry and held just a shade of contempt. It was if he regarded her in a totally different manner. Nell poured herself another glass of wine and drank a mouthful. She was conscious of an enormous disappointment.Back To Short Stories