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Mary Alexander

Mary Alexander has a background in journalism and has also written four non fiction books on health. She has also ghosted the memoir of a middle class escort girl, 'Call Me Elizabeth' which spent weeks as a Sunday Times bestseller. She has a Masters in Creative writing, and lives in Oxford. She has three kids and a dog. Website: maryalexander.co.uk
Mary Alexander

Mary Alexander

Mary Alexander has a background in journalism and has also written four non fiction books on health. She has also ghosted the memoir of a middle class escort girl, 'Call Me Elizabeth' which spent weeks as a Sunday Times bestseller. She has a Masters in Creative writing, and lives in Oxford. She has three kids and a dog. Website: maryalexander.co.uk

Eliza wiped her hands on her apron and paused to consider what still needed to be done. The table was set, the glasses were polished, the candles put out, the flowers arranged. The carrots needed chopping, the potatoes needed peeling, but the goose had been in the oven for an hour and a half and was well on its way.

That was alright then. It was all going to be alright. Christmas Eve was a time for families to come together, and it was marvellous that they all got on so well. After all, many families with their complicated situation just didn’t. Not many people had two wives – first and current, as John liked to put it – sitting round the same table at the same time, but every year, they managed it.
Taking flour from the cupboard and mixing it with a little water and yeast, Eliza began to knead on the breadboard. Actually, they more than just managed.  She got on well with Clare, who was an extremely interesting woman, if quite a lot older than her, with her work as a psychotherapist to disadvantaged youths. She was one of the leading voices on raising teenagers, had written several books on the subject, and had recently started a weekly column in The Times instructing everyone how to bring up their kids. While on paper it might seem like they might not have much in common – Eliza didn’t have any kids, and was the first to admit she’d failed all her O levels and couldn’t write anything more demanding than a cheque – they always found something to talk about. Eliza was kneading the bread quite violently now, which was necessary in order to activate the yeast. She was just wondering what they would talk about tonight – she always found it helpful to have a couple of conversational gambits up her sleeve –  when the doorbell rang.

Eliza shaped the dough quickly into an oval, and covering it with a clean tea towel, leaving it on the breadboard to rise. She wiped her hands roughly on her apron, and went to answer the door. It was too early for it to be Clare – not quite six, when she had quite clearly said 7.30pm. Perhaps it was carol singers, although come to think of it there was absolutely no sound of singing. She flung the door open. Clare stood on the step, a vision in a dark fur coat.

“Clare,” Eliza said. So it was Clare, after all, extremely early and all done up like Joan Collins.

“Hello, Eliza,” said Clare, looking her up and down.

She’s still wearing her apron, Clare thought. There’s a lump of butter in her hair. And she’s going grey at last. Clare smiled. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman who steals another man’s husband on the only grounds that she has youth on her side, will one day be stalked and caught by Age. Ha!

“Come in,” Eliza said, stepping back to allow Clare and Edward, her teenage son, over the threshold.  Edward loomed behind his mother, bulky and awkward.

Clare stepped into the hall, her hall once, the same wallpaper she had chosen many years ago, but much faded since her time. Eliza had bags under her eyes and her T shirt revealed her fat arms. Every woman’s nightmare.

“You look well, dear,” Clare said. Thank god she had been spared fat arms.

Eliza touched her hair. “I haven’t quite got ready yet,” she said, trailing after Clare into the kitchen.

Clare flung her coat onto the counter, and sat down in an old leather armchair, crossing one slim leg over the other. She saw carrots waiting to be chopped and potatoes that needed peeling, but she was a guest and she was buggered if she was going to help. She was exhausted after a long day’s work, and could kill for a drink, which was why she’d come straight here, even if she was a little over an hour early. It hadn’t seemed appropriate to go to a bar with Edward and order a large chardonnay, not with him recently suspended from school for drinking behind the bike sheds when he should have been in prep.

Eliza wouldn’t mind her being early.

 

“Anything cold to drink in the fridge?” she said, getting up again and crossing to the stainless steel American fridge, which also dated from her era. Edward was still standing about awkwardly as if his body was not his own, quite like a teenage Frankenstein. Why didn’t he sit down?

Ah ha. White wine. Clare reached for the bottle.

“Fancy a glass?” she said, turning to Eliza.

“Why not?” said Eliza. She rarely drank, but it was Christmas Eve and she didn’t want to appear unwelcoming.

Eliza chopped the carrots and peeled the potatoes, while Clare paced around the kitchen island, telling her about her latest job development.

“Number Ten has asked me to help them form a think tank to develop a new policy for dealing with the youth of today.”

Chop, chop, chop, went Eliza’s knife.

“Quite out of the blue, David rang, and said, ‘Clare, I know you are the leading expert in the nation, quite possibly even the Western world on today’s youth. I really have to put my hands up and say, I may be the PM, but I need your help.’”

Chop, chop, chop.

“Ouch.” Eliza sucked the blood spurting from her finger. She wound a piece of kitchen roll around the small cut, put the carrots into a saucepan, and the potatoes in the oven to roast.

“If you’ll excuse me for five minutes, I’ll just whizz up and change. Make yourself at home,” Eliza said.

She’d wanted the words back before she’d finished saying them, but of course they were out into the ether and it was too late. What was it John always said to her? Engage brain, then open mouth? More to the point, where was John? What a night to be late.

Clare raised an eyebrow. The gaffe had clearly not passed her by.

“I will,” she said, her tone awash with sarcasm. “I think I can find my way around.”

Eliza hurried upstairs, cheeks flushed from cooking and embarrassment. She put on a bath, and wondered what she should wear. She took out her favourite little black dress. It looked old and dated rather than sexy and fresh but it would have to do, so she rummaged for her best burgundy coloured fishnet cashmere tights, and extracted her black high heeled shoes. Fuck me shoes, John had once called them, at the beginning of their relationship. Now she thought of it, they hadn’t done that for a while. She got into the bath and washed. She’d love to sit back and soak, but it was impossible to relax with Clare downstairs. She hoped she wouldn’t try and help with the cooking. That had never been her strong point, apparently. In her early days with John, when John had still technically been married to Clare, he had always been starving.

“Never any food in the fridge at home,” he’d told her at one of their clandestine meetings. Quite how Edward had grown so tall was a mystery.

They’d met when she’d been sent to temp for him. She wasn’t a very good temp – her typing had been inaccurate and her shorthand non-existent, but John had quickly realised she had other skills as well as her sublime cooking.

Out of the bath, she dried off, smeared herself with body oil that promised to lift and tone, and began to wriggle into her clothes: black thong, black push up bra, then the dress, over her head, a little tight round the bust – inexplicably it seemed she had put on weight recently, or perhaps the dress had shrunk at the dry cleaners – but she yanked it down and smoothed the cloth around her hips. At least it was short. It showed off her legs, definitely the best part of her.

Moisturiser on her face, eye cream, foundation to cover the redness, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick; a spray of perfume, a quick brush of the hair – oh please, don’t say that’s a lump of butter? – and she was done. She looked at herself from several angles in the mirror, and started to feel a little festive spirit rise. Not too bad, not too bad at all. After all, she was nearly forty.

She walked carefully back downstairs and into the kitchen.

“Right!” she said. “Let the party begin!”

Clare was pacing round the kitchen island, wine glass in hand. Edward had finally sat down.

“Very pretty” Clare said to Eliza in a flat tone.

Eliza flashed her a winning beam and checked the goose. She refilled Clare’s glass and her own, and put peanuts, crisps, and a platter of smoked salmon on brown bread onto the island top.

“So tell me, Clare, how are things with you?” she asked, perching on a bar stool, taking a few large, fast gulps of her wine. It was the season of good will, after all. “Other than work, I mean? Love life?”

“Oh, I don’t really have time for that, Eliza. My career seems to take everything from me. There really aren’t enough hours in the day.”

“And, of course, you have Edward to think of,” Eliza said.

Edward was sitting, sullenly silent in the armchair, holding a tumbler of something. His eyes were shut and Eliza wondered if he was asleep. She felt glad she had never succumbed to a maternal urge. Every other weekend spent with Edward for the past seven years might have had something to do with that. He had yet to enter an easy stage.

“Well I always manage somehow. Us mothers just do,” Clare said. “We juggle. Although given Edward is a male, I do think spending a little more time with his father would be good for him.”

Eliza sat up a little straighter. God forbid. She and John hardly found any time for themselves as it was.

“Yes,” she sighed. “It’s a shame John’s so busy at the hospital. He regularly works a sixty hour week. It’s been worse than usual, lately. Still. They have their weekends. John always keeps those clear.”

Clare stood up and reached for the bottle of wine. Surprisingly, it was already empty, so she crossed to the fridge to fetch another.

Returning with a newly opened bottle, once again she sloshed their glasses full. Neither woman acknowledged that Edward was knocking back a large tumbler of something that didn’t look like water. Nor did they hear the front door slam.

“The thing is, Eliza. Research shows that adolescent boys need male role models. It really is time for John to step up to the plate.”

“What plate’s that? Hello darling. Hello Clare.”

Eliza felt like doing a little celebration dance. John, her John, was home. The wine had gone to her head, and she swayed as she stood up to kiss him.

“Started the party without me, have you?” he asked.

“Darling” said Eliza “You’re late.”

“Hello, John,” said Clare with her hallmark raised eyebrow, instantly recognising the guilty look on her ex husband’s face. So that’s the way the wind blows, she thought. Hmm, how did the saying go? You lose them how you find them? Live by the sword, die by the sword. Clare took a slug of wine and grinned at her ex husband for the first time in seven years, revealing her rapidly receding gums.

 

Dr John Darnley, Bsc, Msc, MB, BCH, specialist consultant in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, smiled back. No one could deny he had good taste in women, he thought, as he looked at his ex and current wives. Two fine specimens. Of course Eliza was the younger, but Clare was well preserved and, in truth, slimmer, even though by now she had very probably reached the menopause. However, neither matched in attractiveness the girl currently on his mind, his delightful PA, Sarah; but no one needed to know that, at least not yet. He’d just had his Christmas present from Sarah, which was why he was late home. This had involved bending her over his highly polished walnut consulting desk, lifting her skirt, pulling down her flimsy knickers, fingering her wetness, and then taking her from behind. He had enjoyed the way her face had been pressed against the desk surface, the way she had moaned repeatedly:

“Oh yes, John, yes please”.

At just twenty-nine, her buttock cheeks were so deliciously springy that he had felt compelled to slap and squeeze them until they were pink, and her arms, splayed out across the desk in helpless submission, were slim and firm as a girl’s. Eliza’s, he noticed now, had got rather fat and flabby. Afterwards, she had rolled onto her back and, legs splayed over all his paperwork, kissed him slowly, deeply, giggling: “I won’t be able to sit down to supper tonight without wincing.”

 

At the recent memory, he felt his cock stir in his dark flannel trousers, and he pulled his tweed jacket closed to disguise this.

“Edward, my boy! Happy Christmas.”  John shook hands with his son, who was seated in his favourite armchair and didn’t get up to greet him. His eyes were glazed. Been drinking again, John thought. Christ, he might as well give up on the boy. He knew he’d had to deal with the divorce, but it had been amicable, as far as these things ever could be, and really, drinking like this at fourteen, bunking off school, it wasn’t on. He’d done his best as a father. Religiously devoted every other weekend. Built train sets. Taken him to see Arsenal play. And look at the result. John felt an acute sense of disappointment. Still, it was Christmas Eve and not the time to make a scene. He’d tackle it with Clare in the New Year. Boarding school was most probably the answer.
Eliza was pressing a glass of champagne into his hand. Her face was flushed and she smelt of alcohol. He noticed her stomach bulging through the tight satin of her dress, and couldn’t help recalling Sarah’s taut flat belly, which led down to that small important place between her legs. It wasn’t just sex between them. It was a meeting of minds. She had a degree in communications from somewhere in East London. She wanted children. John wondered suddenly if he wasn’t too old to have another crack at it. He glanced again at Edward. Perhaps things would turn out better next time.

“Now that you’re here, darling, the party can really begin,” Eliza said, leaning against him. John patted her on the cheek fondly, as he would a sister, before clearing his throat.

“A toast,” he said. “To families, in all their shifting shapes and forms.”

Everyone clinked and drank and John imagined next year, seeing Sarah here too, perhaps with a bulging belly containing their first child together. He wondered whether he could afford another divorce, or whether living in sin was the more economic way forward. His own father had always maintained that the cost of a new wife was simply a new marital bed, but sadly the English legal system didn’t seem to agree with him these days.

Eliza and Clare pulled a cracker, and squabbled noisily over who had won the contents. Eliza put on a purple paper crown, and Clare unravelled the joke.

“Listen to this! What did the turkey say to the stuffing?”

Edward stirred himself from his armchair: “Come up and see me sometime?” he guessed.

“How did you know?” Clare grumbled. “Did you hear that, John?”

“Yes. As dreadful as they always are. Who writes these things? More wine? Happy Christmas, everyone,” John said, refilling glasses. “Happy Christmas.”

 

END

 

Mary Alexander asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

 

 

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