It was now four o’clock and I’d stopped crying at last. Robert had gone up into the attic after lunch to start sorting stuff out, and had seemed relieved to go—anything to get away from the awful words, the hurt, the dreadful end of things. The doorbell rang. Gary and Virginia—I’d forgotten. I called upstairs. Robert came down, dusty and subdued, didn’t say anything about what had happened earlier, just greeted our friends and talked about the icy roads and snow tyres as if such things could possibly matter. Nothing mattered any more.
I made the tea and brought it into the living room.
Gary was standing by the window, staring out at the snow-covered apple tree, the only object of any interest in our garden. Virginia was picking at the skin down the side of her thumbnail. I remembered her doing that at school. She caught me looking and stopped, got up and went over to the window to join Gary. She’s an inch or two taller than him, slim and dark. They stood a little apart and looked as if they had nothing at all to do with each other, but then he whispered something I couldn’t hear and she laughed and took his arm.
I hated that. I wanted Robert to say something, to distract them from each other, but he didn’t. He was looking at them, at Virginia especially, as if he wanted to warn her, to save her.
I needed to tell Virginia what had happened. Didn’t know how to.
“Robert’s been sorting out the attic,” I said. “We’ve been talking about selling the house, and… you know, people will want to look.”
“Find anything scandalous?” said Gary, sitting back down. “Ropes? Handcuffs?”
“Must you!” said Virginia, but she was laughing. “You know what this is all about. I’ve been trying to persuade him to go and see that Fifty Shades film with me. He’s refusing.”
“I should think so,” said Robert.
“Why?” I said. “You haven’t even read the book. Bet none of us have.”
“I certainly haven’t,” said Virginia, “but the reviews say the film’s much better, which makes a change.”
“That might be true, but there’s a real problem with it. Don’t go,” said Robert.
“What, you’ve actually seen it?” said Gary. “Come on—what’s it like?”
“No I haven’t seen it, but from what I understand the film glamorises abuse. It does exactly the same as that wretched Twilight series that inspired it, but in a more—I hardly dare say ‘adult’ way—but that’s what it does. It’s dangerous.”
“How?” said Gary.
“It legitimises the kind of relationship where a woman thinks that an abusive man can be somehow ‘saved’ by being loved.”
“And can’t he?” said Virginia, looking at Gary rather than Robert.
“No,” said Robert. “It’s a pernicious myth, and deeply misogynistic at heart. You cannot change people, not fundamentally, and nor should you try, however much you love them. Loving is about acceptance, warts and all.”
“You sound like a fucking Valentine’s card,” said Gary, and he turned to me for the first time. “You got anything stronger, Annie?”
He pushed his barely touched cup of tea across the table towards me.
“I could open some wine. Red? White?”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” said Rob, looking at me.
“White for now,” said Gary, and he turned away, ignoring Rob. Dismissing me. Bastard. I got up to fetch the wine. Yes Gary, No Gary, Whatever you say, Gary. Stupid, stupid.
I went out to the kitchen and took a bottle of Chablis out of the fridge. The casserole was in the oven but it would be another couple of hours at least. I thought about our attic and imagined Gary doing a loft conversion for us and turning the place into some sort of a dungeon with ropes and duct tape—only I couldn’t fit Robert into that scenario at all, just Gary, and it would be him tied up, not me, and my God, I would hurt him.
They were still talking about whether the relationship in the book was actually dangerous. Robert was adamant it was. He didn’t have the figures at his fingertips, but he was saying we should think how many women get murdered by abusive husbands every day. Millions of copies of the books had been sold. A film takes far less effort; all those women who hadn’t managed to read their way through the book would sit through a film, especially if they were with their girlfriends, each desperately trying to appear cool, as if they were genuinely enjoying it.
“And what if they are?” said Gary, slurping down his wine and grinning.
“No, I don’t believe any normal woman would.”
Virginia and I both objected, neither of us wanting to be clumped in with his idea of what ‘normal’ women might be.
“There!” said Gary. “Outnumbered!”
Robert shook his head and ran his fingers over his hair—he has it cut very short and it feels velvety, like moleskin. My heart lurched. I couldn’t bear it; the memories.
We sat saying nothing, sipping the wine. Gary looked smug and Virginia was very close to him, stroking his arm. I felt bad for Robert. He was obviously right in what he was saying, but he was also wrong, totally wrong, and I didn’t know how to begin to explain that without getting tied up in knots. Christ! That’s not what I meant at all.
“It’s like that song,” I said, thinking aloud, and then I forgot which song, some Country and Western thing. I felt like an idiot. Jolene? No, not that one, something that sounded like it, but it had gone right out of my head.
“Walking in a Winter Wonderland?” said Gary, glancing at the snow outside and snorting with laughter. I felt even more foolish.
“No—Stand By Your Man,” said Virginia. She giggled, but it sounded forced.
“How’s the casserole coming along?” said Robert, turning the conversation in such an obvious way I cringed. He was being kind, but in that insidious, devastating way that was killing me.
“I’ll go and check.”
I gulped down some Chablis, and went to take the dish out of the oven. Hours to go yet. The meat looked raw and had tiny soft bits of fat on it. Robert was pale and long and used to cycle, but he hadn’t for ages now and he was going flabby, if someone so skinny could be said to possess flab.
I went back into the living room, wishing I’d started the casserole earlier, but I’d been in no fit state to do anything after lunch.
“Another bottle,” said Gary, shoving the empty one at me.
“Same again?” I said. He didn’t respond. He was whispering something in Virginia’s ear. He’d moved a lock of her hair out of the way to do so and was stroking her earlobe. She edged away from him slightly.
I walked out of the room again, slowly, hating myself, hating Robert, hating Gary, unable to hate Virginia. We’d shared so much at school, told each other everything, and oh God! I longed to be able to do that again. I needed it so much.
There was an opened bottle of Chilean Pinot Noir on the table which I’d thought we’d have with the meal—very strong. I poured myself a glass and drank it quickly. That was me for the night. Any more and I’d fall asleep or be sick. I put the glass down. What was up in the attic anyway? Robert was the only one who ever went up there.
The loft ladder creaked and bounced slightly as I went up. Nothing up here other than a deconstructed bicycle, a table with nothing on it, and rows of identical cardboard boxes. Nothing remotely interesting, nothing scandalous, nothing exciting; our marriage displayed in all its cardboard identikit glory. He’d had hours since lunch. I had no way of knowing what he’d hidden. I’d never known anything about his inner life, not really.
“Annie?” Robert called up the stairs. “What are you doing?”
“Analysing the source of our marital distress,” I called back down, rather too loud.
“Something’s burning in the kitchen. Doesn’t smell right,” he said.
Liar. Couldn’t be. I came down anyway.
He was standing at the bottom of the stairs. I waited for him to tell me to behave myself, to remind me that we had guests. If he did, I would kill him.
“You all right?” he said, gently, so gently—I couldn’t bear his gentleness.
“I want to go and see that film. I want to know if you’re right; I want to understand.”
“Us. Gary. Virginia. Everything.” Why your kindness is killing me.
He shook his head. “Come on,” he said, heading back to the living room.
“No, I have to check the kitchen. Something burning, remember?”
He left me to it. There was a slight acrid hint in the air, but when I opened the oven door it was just a bit of muck on one of the shelves burning off. The casserole was still raw.
I picked up the bottle of Pinot Noir and returned to the living room.
“Ah, good. Red! We can try that experiment,” said Gary.
“Gary!” said Virginia.
“What? If you won’t, I bet Annie will.” He leered at me.
“No she won’t,” said Robert quietly.
“I won’t what?”
Gary started to say something but Virginia walloped him and he whooped with laughter. I turned to Robert.
“Well?” I said.
He leaned forward and put his head in his hands. “Virginia was saying that Gary tasted… that kissing Gary…”
Virginia interrupted him. “I was simply saying that kissing him when he’s been drinking tea is yucky, beer’s only any good if I’ve been drinking it too, ditto curry. I don’t know how we got onto that.”
She was looking out of the window at the tree and frowning. It was just a tree, for Christ sake! Let’s all go outside and climb the bloody tree and leap from bough to bough and then me and Virginia can expose our backsides like monkeys, and Gary being the alpha male here, poor Robert won’t get a look in.
Poor sweet Robert, with his moleskin scalp and his slightly wobbly belly, his long sad dick hanging down between his legs.
Oh, bugger it. I needed another drink. I took a small sip. Had to pace myself. Gary was watching me. Waiting. He was ugly as a toad. I didn’t want to tie him up and whip him; I wanted wrap a reel of duct tape round and round him like a mummy, but much too tight, and then I wanted to stick a knife between his ribs and watch him bleed out, while his eyes begged me to save him.
He raised his eyebrows and looked away. I drank some more wine. Outside, the sun had gone and it was snowing, heavy flakes hurrying out of the sky. Virginia started singing that blasted Winter Wonderland song, but there was a catch in her voice, and she stopped. Me and Virginia, all those years ago, throwing snowballs at each other, gasping with laughter… We sat there in silence. One of us needed to put the lights on.
Robert stood up. He was going to do it; he was going to take us out of the gloom with his kindness, because that’s what Robert does.
“So, what’s all this about you moving house?” said Gary at last.
Virginia kicked his foot and he laughed. He shouldn’t have laughed.
I stood up, held my wine glass firmly by the stem and smashed the bowl against the mantelpiece. My hand was badly cut, the blood started welling up immediately. Robert leapt up and took hold of my wrist, whispered, “Annie… shhh…” I could smell his breath—red wine—and if he kissed me now, then perhaps—but he didn’t, and maybe this was a kindness. Knowing Robert it probably was.
I pulled away from him, clutching the cut so he couldn’t see it. He turned from me and looked out of the window. I thought he was going to say something about the snow, I thought he was going to advise Gary and Virginia to leave now before it got too bad, but he didn’t. He drew the curtains.
“You should probably clear that broken glass up, Annie,” he said.
Do this Annie, do that Annie, I’m so kind to you Annie, you must always do as I say Annie, else what sort of a person does that make you, Annie?
I went out into the hallway, pulled on a warm coat, and trudged out into the snow, and my hand was starting to throb—I knew it was going to get worse—but the great fat white flakes were beautiful.
Catherine Edmunds asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work