This afternoon, Tanya buzzed me up to her Crouch End apartment, which was on the first floor of an apartment block that looked like a giant fifties style toaster. Due to the fact that Crouch End is nowhere near a tube, and therefore highly inconvenient to live in, she’d managed to buy her apartment on the cheap, and had since spent a great deal of money furnishing it with fashionable yet dreadful objects.
As she opened the door to her apartment, she handed me a glass of red wine. She’d squished her ample curves into a shiny green dress, and looked like an about to explode balloon animal.
“I can’t wait to hear about your date with Mr Haemorrhoid,” she said, leading me across the grubby looking hall carpet. “And don’t spare me any of the juicy details.”
I followed, sipping at the wine and trying to ignore my neck, which was sore from a hard day’s rubbernecking. I had a sinking feeling that telling her that I’d gawped at his blind a dozen times today was hardly the kind of juicy detail she had in mind.
“You know, your hall carpet could really use a steam clean,” I said, desperately trying to change the subject.
“Sod my carpet,” she said, pulling me into her living room, which had a metallic theme. There were overpriced ‘pictures’ on the wall, made up of sheets of metal with bullet holes shot through them, as well as lots of standing lamps which had been fashioned from twisted metal. “You promised you’d ask him out.”
“And he said he was busy. Said he had to work late,” I said, sitting down beside her on the rock hard sofa.
She leaned forward and drummed her fingernails on her bright orange phone, which sat on the coffee table beside a bottle of wine.
“Right. That’s it.” She grabbed the receiver and started to dial.
“Who are you calling?”
“Who do you think?”
Panic fluttered up inside me. “You can’t. You wouldn’t. In any case, you don’t have his number.”
“Oh yes I do. I looked it up in Yellow Pages earlier, because I had a feeling I’d be needing it tonight.”
I stared at her, frozen to my seat.
“Oh hello, is that Mr Hem … I mean, Mr O’Riordan … It is? … No, you don’t know me, but you do know a friend of mine.”
Was I just going to sit here, letting Tanya humiliate the crap out of me?
I most certainly was not.
Jumping up, I pulled the phone plug from the socket.
“What did you do that for?” she said, banging down the receiver. “Well, well, well, your Mr Haemorrhoid does have a rather sexy voice, it’s just a pity I was so rudely interrupted.”
“Can we stop calling him that,” I snapped.
“Well, Mr Haemorrhoid is hardly a name with romantic associations, now is it? It sounds more like the name of some crazy cartoon character, some grinning haemorrhoid running about on legs. Maybe calling him that is what’s jinxing this whole project.”
Tanya picked up the bottle of wine and poured herself a glass. “Maybe calling him Mr Haemorrhoid isn’t the problem. Maybe you’re just a really bad flirt. I’m beginning to wonder if you actually want to have an affair. Just say if you don’t. I’ve tried to be a good friend, patiently encouraging you, but I’ve just about had all I can take.”
I looked at her, flabbergasted. “Of course I do. So what if I’m not the sexual predator you are? So what if I haven’t tried to stuff my tongue down his throat? What am I even doing, running after some guy who patently isn’t interested? This was all your idea, remember? You’re the one who pushed me into this.” That wasn’t strictly true. Wasn’t true at all, in fact, but I felt like I had to take my frustration out on someone. “How about I forget all about him?”
I waited for her to say, No! Are you mad? But instead she just narrowed her eyes and said, “Fine.”
We glared at each other.
“What am I sitting on?” I said, jumping up and peeling a sticky wand from my skirt.
“My Very Berry lip gloss!” She yanked it out of my hand. “Thanks. I’ve been looking for that all week.”
It was at moments like this that I wondered how a self proclaimed slob and one of the cleanest people within the M25 ever became best friends.
We first met, five years ago, at the Bobbi Brown makeup counter in Selfridges. Ivy was six months old and whining in her stroller, and I was just reaching out for the Red Riot tester lipstick, when an unkempt blonde intercepted me and grabbed it for herself. I watched, horrified, as she smeared it on her lips, before handing it back to me.
Did she have any idea what kind of danger using a tester directly on your lips could cause? Cold sores were only the start. Not to mention glandular fever. One simply couldn’t risk it, I thought, as I tried it out on the back of my hand.
“No, no,” said the blonde, grabbing the lipstick. “No point testing it there, because the skin tone is totally different to that on your face. I mean, you wouldn’t test a vibrator on the back of your hand, so why a lipstick?”
At that time I was a vibrator virgin. It was a few years before Alistair, in an attempt to rev up our sex life, came home from work one day, wearing a stupid grin and clutching a bag of electronic sex toys. Once we’d got into bed and he’d assembled his plastic friends on the pillow, I couldn’t help but notice one small omission: he’d forgotten to buy batteries. And while he was busy transferring batteries from Ivy’s talking toys to his sex toys, I drifted off. Subsequent attempts at electronically induced orgasms weren’t much less sleep inducing.
Anyway, there I was, wondering exactly where one did test a vibrator, when the blonde clamped my chin in her hand. As the germy lipstick touched my lips, I tried to worm my way out of her grasp, but she was surprisingly strong.
“Do you mind?” I said, finally wrenching my face away. While I scrabbled about in my handbag, looking for an antibacterial wipe to wipe the germs off with, the blonde screeched, “You little brat! Let go!”
Whipping round, I found her having a tug of war with Ivy, who had the hem of Tanya’s red wrap-around skirt in her fat little fists.
“I am so sorry about this,” I gushed, while I attempted to prize open Ivy’s hands.
Everyone was looking at me. I was sure they all thought I was a bad mother. Well, they were spot on. I was a bad mother. My daughter had accosted a stranger in a store. My face burned with shame.
“Come on now, Ivy. Let go,” I said firmly, just as Ivy gave a sharp yank. I watched, horrified, as the skirt unravelled, leaving the woman staring down at her landing strip of blonde pubic hair, which was covered by a translucent thong. Unable to take in the full horror of what had just happened, I found myself gawping at her crotch.
“I’m so sorry about this,” I said, jerking my head up to catch a bemused expression in her eyes. “I’ll get the skirt dry cleaned, of course.”
“Well, thanks for the offer, but I don’t think they’d let me on the bus wearing just these knickers, do you?”
“Um, I suppose not,” I said, picking the skirt up off the floor, where Ivy had tossed it.
Two teenage boys wolf-whistled as they went past, and she flashed them a grin.
“But you can buy me a BLT at the coffee shop. I’m famished. I’m Tanya Putschnik by the way.”
I shook her hand, trying not to look down at her voluptuous thighs, which she seemed in no great hurry to cover up. There was way too much untoned flesh on display for me to handle. I’m not a Rubenesque woman, far from it, and Tanya, who revelled in her roundness, her womanliness, and didn’t give a hoot about the wolf whistles she was attracting, well, to be honest, I found her absolutely terrifying. But since my Dad, Bill, had brought me up to mind my manners, I gave a tense little smile and said, “Scarlett Staines. And I’d love to buy you a BLT. It’s the least I can do.”
So she put on her skirt and off we went to the coffee shop.
When she’d finished stirring two packets of sugar into her hot chocolate, Tanya told me about her last boyfriend.
“Graham was absolutely perfect, for a while,” she said, taking a huge bite from her BLT. “But then he went off sex, which was really weird because he’d always been such an animal in bed. Eventually he confessed he’d got chlamidya. Said he’d caught it from a toilet seat, would you believe?” She darted out her tongue to catch some ketchup that was dribbling down her chin.
“Poor guy. Personally, I avoid public toilets if I can, but if I must use them, I hover. He’s all right now, I hope?”
She rolled her eyes skywards. “What are you like? A toilet seat, indeed. I soon wrung it out of him. He’d had a shag on top of some coats at a party, hadn’t he?”
“Good God,” I said, appalled.
“Obviously, after that, he had to go. He’d broken one of the most basic rules of any relationship.”
“You mean, by being unfaithful?”
She looked at me like I was crazy. “No, I mean, the one about, if you’re going to sleep around, use a condom.”
She screamed with laughter, and before I knew what was happening, I was guffawing away too.
Since giving birth to Ivy, I’d entered a twilight world of sleepless nights and incessant wailing (mostly mine). With a jolt, I realized this was my first bit of fun I’d had in months.
“Listen to me rattling on,” she said. “What about you? What with the sprog and all, I bet you don’t get out much.”
“Hey, you know what? We should go out one evening. When was the last time you had a good night out on the tiles?”
“Pretty often actually.”
“You do surprise me.”
“Except for the going out bit. On Saturday nights you can usually find me on my knees, cleaning the kitchen tiles or the bathroom tiles, or ….”
“I get the picture. You need help. Urgent help.”
After that, I occasionally accompanied her out for drinks at trendy watering holes, but I’d never go on with her to a party or club, however much she begged. Before midnight I’d always slink home, drawn back by an overwhelming impulse to vacuum my carpets, to give my cutlery one last loving rub before bed.
Tanya mocked this behaviour, but learned to tolerate it. As for me, I loved the fact that you always knew where you were with her. She had no time for children, and didn’t try and disguise the fact. On the few times she’d seen Ivy, she’d showered her with lipsticks and nail varnishes, before pointedly ignoring her, which of course, made Ivy think she was deeply cool and a person to be worshipped.
“Here, have some of these,” she was saying now, rooting in her handbag and thrusting a cluster of candy bars, wrapped in pink foil, into my hands. “I’ve got tons.”
“Are you crazy?” I said. “You know I don’t touch candy.”
“No need to have a breakdown. They’re the new lip glosses from Blissout.”
“Oh, well, then thanks, you’re an angel,” I said, stuffing the lip glosses into my Marc Jacobs bag. Even though she’s a beauty PR and gets freebies all the time, free makeup still gives me a childish kick.
Although a beauty PR sounds glamorous, it actually isn’t. It’s mainly trying to get your clients’ makeup into fashion magazines as test products or getting them featured in fashion shoots and listed in the credits, as in ‘the model is wearing Blissout lip gloss in Sugercane.’ But now she’s set her sights on higher things. At a drinks party where she imbibed one too many cocktails, she made a rash boast to her hip
“So,” I said. “How’s it going in the great hunt for Sachiko Fiorelli?”
“It’s almost a done deal.”
“Oh yeah. Yesterday I left a very charming message on her booker’s assistant’s assistant’s voice-mail.”
“What did he say when he rang you back?” I asked, leaning forward expectantly.
“Well, he hasn’t actually called yet, but I know he will.”
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”
“No need,” she said airily.
I loved Tanya’s childish optimism, but I had a feeling she was never going to get within air kissing distance of Sachiko.
“So, how’s it working out with Constanza?”
“Oh fine, fine. Ivy played up for the first few days, but Constanza kind of ignores her, doesn’t raise her voice like I do, and actually, yes, despite the fact that her taste in makeup leaves a lot to be desired, I think this might just work out.” I refilled my wine glass. “You know Alistair fancies her?”
“Really? And how’d you figure that one out?”
“He admitted it, would you believe? Well, what he actually said was that he didn’t think she was vulgar, which amounts to the same thing.”
“You think? Aren’t you being a bit suspicious? I mean, just because you’ve got your mind in the gutter these days, doesn’t mean Alistair does too.”
“I know exactly where his mind is. Fixated on Constanza’s tits.”
“How’d you work that one out?”
“I know it sounds ridiculous, but honestly, you should have seen them yesterday. I was coming into the kitchen, when I found them staring at each other like bison in heat. Well, he was, anyway. She has this long fringe that hangs in her eyes, so you can’t always tell what she’s looking at, but they were standing close together, and she was fiddling with a crucifix around her neck. He was absolutely mesmerized by her breasts, which were swelling out of a low cut top. And they were whispering about something. They didn’t notice me at all. And then, I couldn’t believe it.”
“Well, she picked up the crucifix and popped it in her mouth.”
Tanya raised her eyebrows.
“I couldn’t face seeing any more, so I stomped over. Alistair smiled and said something about how he was just informing her about Catholic churches in the area. I don’t know. What do you think? Am I overreacting? Maybe he really was just trying to make her feel welcome.”
Tanya took a sip of wine and rolled it around her mouth. “You really want my opinion?”
“Well, if it were me, I’d nip this whole thing in the bud, fire her before you find out that her oral fixation extends to more fleshy things.”
I looked at her blankly.
“You know, hard fleshy things that are full of seeds.”
“Exactly. I’m worried that Constanza’s going to eat you out of cucumbers.”
“Oh.” I blushed, as I finally got her drift. “Well, that’s a chore I really wouldn’t mind her taking over. Maybe I should put it in her employment contract?”
“You don’t really mean that, do you? I mean, look, I’ve got the morals of an alley cat, but even I wouldn’t want my husband having an affair right under my nose, and neither would you.”
“I suppose not.”
“You’re just going through the ten-year itch. Once you finally kick this thing into gear with Connor, you’ll be a much happier girl.”
“Shouldn’t that be the seven-year itch?”
“I don’t know, I read in some women’s mag that it’s actually much more likely to happen around the ten year mark.”
“That’s crap, like so much of the stuff they put in those glossies. Promise me you’ll never take one of those articles about ‘Fifteen Ways to Spice up your Sex Life’ seriously.”
“Why’d you say that?”
“Because you can’t force your sex life to be exciting and spontaneous. Look, I’ve done all the role-playing and surprising your husband when he comes home from work wearing just an apron, and let me tell you, it just felt like I was in a bedroom farce.”
“Poor you. Can’t say I know what you mean though. Once sex gets stale I just jump ship. But I always reckoned that you could train a man to be a good lover, sort of like obedience training for dogs?”
I shook my head. “Think about it. Even if I try really hard and learn, say, Spanish, everyone will know from my accent that I’m actually English, and Spanish speakers will allow me my little grammatical idiosyncrasies and smile indulgently, or just walk away because they can’t understand me. That’s like it is with Alistair now. He does his best. He tries, he really tries, to stimulate me to ecstasy, but it just feels like he’s speaking a foreign language. Badly.”
“Hmm. This is all very confusing.”
“It isn’t really. Either you have a natural flair for languages or you don’t.”
“You think Connor might have a natural flair?”
“I’m pretty damn sure he speaks fluent German, Spanish and Arabic. Metaphorically speaking, of course.”
She shrugged. “Since you’re obviously never going to find out, I think you just have to face the fact that sex is a bore for you married people. It’s the price you pay for having a bloody gorgeous house and holidays in exotic locations.”
“You’re probably right. Anyway, look at the time, I’ve got to go home and cook for Alistair.”
“No, I said I’d cook him dinner at eight-thirty.”
“It’s our anniversary. He usually expects a slap up meal. And since I left a message with his PA and on his voice-mail earlier on, it looks like I’m going to have to follow through.”
“Sounds very romantic.”
“Might be actually, anniversaries usually get Alistair all misty eyed. Who knows, maybe a little candlelight might even get this marriage back on track?”
I left Tanya laughing uproariously at this suggestion.
Once I’d purchased steaks and an array of hugely fattening ingredients from Sainsbury’s, and had everything laid out before me in the kitchen, the prospect of actually cooking left me feeling utterly exhausted. The only way to get through this, I figured, was to pretend I was cooking for Connor. Luckily, the strategy worked. Soon I was energized, frenziedly slicing up potatoes and dousing them with garlic, white wine and cream, when Ivy came in, sniffed the air and said, “Mummy, what are you doing?”
“Cooking, of course.” Her confusion was understandable. Although the kitchen had all the accoutrements of the gourmet, the sparkling copper pans hanging from the ceiling, and the ropes of garlic and strings of chillies, the truth was that I hardly ever cooked. Since Alistair was rarely home for dinner, I usually just rustled up something for myself and Ivy from the freezer.
Bending down, I kissed the top of her head and told her to hurry up to bed.
And then, when everything was in the oven and I was happily ensconced in a fantasy in which Connor was smothering me in whipped cream, the phone rang.
“Hello mein Liebling.” My mother. Nearly forty-five years of living in the English speaking world and she still sounded like she’d arrived from
I balanced the phone under my chin while I separated eggs for the béarnaise sauce. “Hello Mum, how nice to hear from you,” I said, thanking God once again that she lived four thousand miles away and could no longer pop in unannounced, as she’d had a habit of doing while she still lived in
“I’m fine Mum, really I am,” I said, pulling the potatoes au gratin out of the oven and sprinkling Parmesan on top. I reached for the bottle of Pouilly on the kitchen counter and glugged it straight from the bottle.
“I have sent you a parcel with knackwurst and some jars of sauerkraut. When you were a girl, oh how you loved my sauerkraut.”
“Great,” I said. What I was really thinking was that I wished I had the guts to tell her how much I’d always loathed sauerkraut. “I’ll look out for the parcel. I can’t talk now, Alistair’s dinner is burning in the oven.”
Actually the dinner looked absolutely perfect, but it was nearly eight-thirty and I still had to get changed.
I set the dining room table with candles and long stemmed arum lilies, and dressed myself in a dusky rose Christian Lacroix top with spaghetti straps and a frothy girly skirt. As I sat at the table, drinking wine, I began to feel deeply sensual and wanton. What with all my fantasizing about Connor, I was relaxed and erotically charged. If Alistair and I made love tonight, I was certain it would be a turning point in our marriage.
But by half past nine, both the meal and the prospect of an evening of sexual abandon were ruined. I looked up from where I was scraping the burnt dinner into the bin, to see Constanza shimmy into the kitchen in a hot pink dress and glittery heels.
“You cook for Alistair? He no come home?” she said, fiddling with her crucifix.
“Men!” I said inanely, forcing a smile. “Off out somewhere?”
“I go to the night club.”
When I’d interviewed her, despite the fact she’d worn a trashy outfit, she’d been subdued and unlike the other candidates, had made no demands. The other girls had reeled off a long list of requests, from what make of car they wanted me to supply, to whether they could repaint their room red, to whether it was okay to keep pet rats. After those disasters, Constanza only had to say, “I no drive. I no want to paint room,” and she was in. She’d seemed so refreshingly simple.
Constanza put the crucifix in her mouth for a moment and bit on it, like she wanted to say something else, but didn’t dare. Easing the glistening object out from between her lips, she gave me an enigmatic smile, before turning on her heel. As I watched her bottom wobbling about in its tight sheath of pink, I began to wonder whether she was really as uncomplicated as I had first thought. Could she possibly be plotting to sleep with Alistair? Like, maybe, even tonight? Tanya had suggested getting rid of her, but if I fired her now, according to her contract, I’d have to pay her six months wages. In any case, what evidence did I have?
And what about Alistair? Was he capable of screwing the nanny? I realized I hadn’t a clue, because I no longer had any idea what went on in his head. Had I ever?
I tried to remember the last time we’d talked, laughed, relaxed in each other’s company, but I couldn’t. Instead, my memory leapt back seven years, to happier times, when we’d rented a big apartment in Primrose Hill, which had brimmed with laughter and parties and people. And Alistair had been at the centre of it all, dispensing drinks with a smile. Handsome, quietly charming Alistair.
But it hadn’t been enough for me, had it? I’d pushed for the house in Islington, filled with fancy antiques. He’d taken a more senior management consultancy job to pay for it all, with longer hours. Soon the laughter and guests had dwindled away, until the present, when spending time together had become a very rare occurrence indeed.
Now Alistair was a stranger.
A stranger who slept in my bed and made love to me and paid money into our joint account.
I’m starting to get anxious…do you think Alistair is capable of screwing the nanny?
Also, does anyone else sometimes feel like their husband has become a stranger to them? It’s a scary feeling isn’t it. I just wonder if it will pass.