It’s their highly responsive MHV! Aurelia said, adopting that high-flown tone of hers.
They were discussing the intelligence of birds. Aurelia had edged the conversation in that direction, maybe as a way of proving, if proof was needed, how very clever she was. Her PhD had been on avian cognition: Thinking Psittacinae-fashion. She had spent two years in close communication with a rather bright parrot, for a while student and ‘guinea pig’ becoming almost inseparable. Well, until Aurelia’s dissertation was complete. She dumped the poor bugger when she met me! her husband, Frazer, had joked on more than one occasion, before going on to do his Who’s a pretty girl then? party-piece parrot impersonation. But then, beneath those sleek Sloane Street clothes, that expensive salon-blonded hair, that purring cut-glass accent, there had always been a cutthroat masculinity about Aurie.
Their what? Andrew questioned.
Medio-rostral hyper striatum ventrale! (Said as if any fool with half a brain would know that.)
Well, torture me with a turkey baster for not knowing. Can’t birds just have brains like you and me?
Forgive me, Andrew, Aurelia said, a hand drawing back her lustrous hair to expose the forehead within which all that grey matter resided, but my brain and your brain are two quite different kettles of fish.
Ah! Andrew said, topping up his wine glass, Explains those wretched seagulls dive-bombing me in Whitstable last summer then, left forefinger tapping his temple, Must’ve completely emptied my rusty old kettle.
There was a ripple of amused laughter around the table, though not, Helen noted, as she slid the sautéed courgettes into a dish, from Aurie herself. Aurelia had always taken herself far too seriously. But then, to get where she was in the competitive world of neurosurgery – a world dominated by preening men who took themselves very seriously indeed – she’d had to.
If as you say, Frazer, Duncan said while transferring the penultimate duck breast from pan to plate, parrots can only count to six, how come they can say Pieces of eight?
Duncan had suggested it: A little dinner party come le weekend? Ça va? A rare weekday morning, husband and wife together at the breakfast table, neither in a rush. Christen the kitchen!
After a decade of aimless discussion, the dining room wall had at last been demolished, creating, according to Duncan, an extremely convivial space. I’ll call a few (Please don’t say it, Helen had silently pleaded) chums, shall I? And then, Howsabout my signature dish for mains? Don’t worry. I’ll take charge of the duck!
Duncan was the sort of man who took charge of things. Helen, it transpired, had become the sort of woman who did the vegetables, the sort, her husband informed their assembled guests over an aperitif of champagne on the postage-stamp patio of their pocket-sized Georgian terrace, who rustled up a very yummy pud.
Public school boys had chums. Little boys brought up on Janet and John Readers had chums. And Duncan, though he would have liked to have been the former – and had worked hard to give the impression he had been – was neither of these.
Right then! he’d said, I’ll give the usual suspects a buzz.
And although a closet fan of Gabriel Byrne, Helen wished that film had never been made, the number of times Duncan, and a whole lineup of men like Duncan, had hijacked the title. And buzz? Whoever said buzz these days? Beekeepers, maybe? Except, if bees were on the decline, then beekeepers would surely follow – not to mention the manufacturers of their peculiar garb. Unless of course, seeing a gap in the market, with a slight revamp, they were made available to far-right racist groups. Now they were most likely on the up.
Don’t forget the ducks! Duncan shouted as he flew downstairs that Friday morning. After all, a man who led an über-busy life as a cardiothoracic surgeon (a job offering up a steady supply of subordinated handmaidens) could not be expected to take charge of the shopping as well as the ducks – his live-in handmaiden thus deployed to wade through a Waitrose awash with frustrated Friday evening shoppers to source the dead, denuded birds.
And had not the ducks in question already been made oven-ready, Helen imagined, prior to quacking their last quack, the once feathered trio might, at first sight of Duncan in masterful Master Chef mode, have plucked out their own feathers, performed their own ritual mastectomies, flipping the tender breasts into the pan to lie, breastlessly, down to die before Mr D J Threvithick BS FRCS (Eng). Duncan sometimes had that effect on people: a way of subordinating them just by being Duncan. Sometimes, Helen had thought – sometimes fondly, sometimes not – Duncan has that effect on me.
Whole ducks, Helen! had been Duncan’s parting shot before slamming the front door.
It had become a habit: this surfeit of duck. One begun by the Senior House Officer out to impress the young Art Therapist who would become his wife. Impress her not only with his cooking skills, but also with the surgical precision of his dissecting skills – not to mention, back in those single days, his shopping skills. Duncan wielding the knife that afternoon with ever-greater expertise, while commanding his wife check all the ingredients for his special-recipe marinade were available to him. Helen, searching the larder cupboard for runny honey, wishing her husband would sometimes ‘take charge’ of the ravioli or the risotto, or could occasionally ‘rustle up’ some sub-Eton-mess of a pud, resenting the gender-specific pigeonholing her husband’s carnivorous nature had forced upon her.
Cormorants can count to eight, Frazer responded, ducking the parrot question. Some fishermen… China, I think it was – isn’t it always China – allegedly offered up every eighth fish as a reward and, do you know—
Bollocks! Andrew interjected, Don’t believe a word of it. Not a single digit. Bloody birds were just hanging around for the damn fish. Who says they were counting?
But what about crows? Duncan stepped in: I imagine a crow, should it need to, could count way beyond eight. Crows, jackdaws, all the corvids, are as bright as their gimlet eyes. And they’ve pretty meaty forebrains, I believe. Isn’t that so, Aurie?
Reckon, given the chance, they could run the whole damn country. At least get the economy moving.
Then, Frazer said, slathering a roll with a similar volume of butter, at last we’d have something to crow about.
Hurry up with those potatoes, darling! Duncan commanded, his knife incisively lacerating the final duck breast, I’ve just finished slicing Andrew’s breast.
Ooh-er, Frazer’s large, square hands protectively clamping his pink-shirted chest, That’s the trouble with you surgeons: you don’t know when to stop.
Listen you lot, I may be a tad porky, but I do not have boobs! Well, not on a par with yours, Aurie.
Reaching for the vegetable dish, Aurelia raised a disdainful eyebrow.
Watch it, Andrew! Frazer instructed, Not your territory. Thought you would’ve learned by now.
Just comparing and contrasting. No offence, Aurie.
Leaning back in her chair, the fingers of her left hand checking the whereabouts of her plunging neckline, Aurelia remained silent.
Jesus, Andrew! Helen put the dish of creamed potato down on the table before sitting down herself, You’ve got through half that bottle already. I hope you’re not driving home?
Dunno. Thought I might boot old Dunc out and stay with you, Hel.
It was happening again. That was the trouble with chums. Chums sometimes took advantage. Chums had a habit of pushing the boundaries of friendship.
How could she, Hel? You wouldn’t kick a gorgeous fella like me out, would you? I mean, that woman . . . you know how I love that woman. Love her to bits. Tell her that next time you see her, eh. To bloody bits.
Please, Andrew, Helen said, filling his empty water glass with water, Do try to hold off until dessert or we’ll all be in tears, and you will definitely be cabbing it home.
Last time he had drained their whiskey bottle dry in the night. Last time he had puked all over the stair carpet as they were hauling him upstairs. Last time Helen’s bare feet had experienced an overly intimate encounter with her husband’s oldest chum’s urine, a large quantity of which was puddled about the bathroom floor.
Remember last time? said more sharply than she’d intended. Andrew’s vacant, bloated face gazed blankly back at her across the table. Well, you may have forgotten, but I most certainly have not.
His puffy eyes brightening, he said, Do remember you reminding me of it a couple of weeks later, though.
Just remembered, Aurelia said, brightening herself, I was once quite close to a Jack Dawe. Briefly. Way back when. At med school.
Two-timing the parrot, were you? Andrew chipped in.
A morsel of duck hovering near his mouth, Duncan said, Didn’t realise your wife was such a bird fancier, Frazer.
Nice body, Aurelia continued, So-so brain. Made it through, somehow. Couldn’t count for toffee though. Three months into his proper job, the idiot left a clamp in a patient.
Just the one? Andrew’s familiar boozy-woozy smile spreading across his face.
Apprehensively eyeing his loaded fork, Farid wondered why so many middle-class Brits and, come to that, almost all the carnivorous French, were so fond of undercooked meat. A love of bloody juices apparently adding a soupçon of sophistication. You see! he said, Now a cormorant would not have made that mistake.
Everyone smiled. Including Helen.
Helen has such a lovely smile, he thought, admiring the glossy redness of her hair as it brushed the plum-coloured silk covering her shoulders.
Is this duck sushi, Duncan? Helen asked her husband. Thought you’d seen enough blood for one week.
Big ops? Frazer asked.
Knackering! Three of the buggers. Then turning to his wife: And I assure you, my sweet, this duck is perfectly cooked.
Just right, Andrew, between glugs of wine, professed of the meat he’d yet to taste. Something to get your teeth into.
Finally doing just that.
Watching him masticating the undercooked flesh, Helen pictured Andrew collapsed on a flattened box, legs splayed, cardboard soaked in urine, spidery rivulets of pee meandering across the pavement. Still chewing, he was already topping up the half-drained wine glass, his glass of water left untouched.
Shouldn’t you hold off a bit on that, Andy? Aurelia suggested.
Give me one good reason why.
I’ll give you three: Jules, Franci and George.
His big, empty eyes welling, Andrew put down the glass.
Helen flashed Aurelia a piercing glance. OK. It was a good answer. It was the right answer to give. But Helen did not want Andrew sobbing at her dinner table again. Did not want his salty tears on her shoulder again, his winey drool on her new silk shirt. Did not want to mop his urine, wipe up his puke ever again. Did not care for, or about, a man who would do one stupid arsehole thing and then, when he was found out, proceed to do an even more stupid arsehole thing, while still expecting his friends to feel sorry for him.
As she reached across for the water jug, Helen’s eyes met Farid’s. How kind they are, she thought. How feminine. His lashes are twice the length of mine. And then, It must be strange to wake up beside such a beautiful man.
Turning to Andrew, Farid said, You know, there is life beyond alcohol, Andrew.
Beyond? Frazer questioned. Since, Fari, you’ve never jumped on that particular wagon in order to get off it again, how the hell would you know?
True. But I have lived for forty-three years, thirty of them knowingly without the stuff, and twenty of them in this country – with all the alcoholic temptations implicit in that fact – without feeling I’m missing out on anything.
But you are, Fari, old man, Duncan insisted, You decidedly are.
But he’s not, Duncan, Helen felt forced to say, He decidedly is not. And you know it. Booze is a trap. A prop. Dinner-party drinking around a table like this? Winos on a street corner? What’s the difference? It’s all addiction. It’s all weakness.
Hey there, folks! Can we change the subject, please? I was just beginning to enjoy myself.
No you weren’t, Andrew. You bloody weren’t!
And overcome with anger, Helen whisked the glass en route to Andrew’s mouth from his hand, Shiraz splashing over his plate to mix with the pinky-red juices of the duck.
You’re just burying yourself. Drowning yourself in the damn stuff. It’s so, so fucking stupid! And standing up, her chair almost toppling as she did so, Helen grabbed the three bottles on the table, rushed over to the newly installed Butler’s sink, the assembled diners, including Farid, watching in stunned silence as what remained of the rather expensive wine was poured down the drain.
Returning to the table, she raised her topped-up water glass in the air.
There were several seconds of silence, then, raising his glass of elderflower, Farid said, Cheers! Here’s to Helen!
That was quite a performance you gave us last night, Duncan got around to saying on Sunday morning, Not like you at all.
They were clearing up the kitchen. Or rather, Helen was clearing up the kitchen. Duncan, who had suggested they had better get up and tackle the bloody mess down there, was sitting at a table awash with unwashed glasses and stained coffee cups, the sports section of the newspaper in one hand, the mug he had just filled with coffee in the other. As if I was a paid helper, Helen thought as she loaded the dishwasher. Was Her-Wot-Does. Was his skivvy. Was not the other half of this relationship, the other name on the deeds of this fine Georgian three-up, two-down box of a house, this money-pot of a property which, she had recently found herself calculating, for some reason, if split down the middle could purchase two very decent flats in perfectly decent parts of London. Not this part, you understand, but still . . . a change was as good as a rest.
The rest of my life. The words wandering in and out of her head. I will be forty-five come November. The rest of my life?
Suddenly irritated by the back of her husband’s neck, she said, Could you pour me one of those, please? A small ridge of fat had collected there. Duncan had become a little fleshier of late. Bulk was how he’d described it – apparently with some pride. Too much duck, Helen thought.
Duncan had not spoken of her ‘performance’ until now. Frosty in the bathroom, he had managed a perfunctory peck on the cheek before putting out the light, and a cold Good Morning on waking. Although immediately after that performance of hers, pulling a substandard bottle of red from the wine rack, he had managed to crack a joke at Helen’s expense. Not that anyone, other than Helen or Farid (should they have sampled it), would have noticed the wine’s inferior quality. Even Aurelia, the designated driver – she who regularly operated on battered brains, on lives shattered by the idiocy of drink-driving – felt the need to accept another ‘teensy-weensy glass’.
Helen, Duncan declared, had spoiled the evening. Had ruined his mood. All their moods. Had, in his opinion, made a molehill into a mountain: thus demeaning her recognition of the pile of trouble Andrew was in. Perhaps they were all in? All except for Farid. Farid who had neither drink problem nor spouse problem – or child problem, Helen supposed.
It was often that way round: often Helen who made too much of something. Helen who took life too seriously. Lighten up, Hel! Duncan would say, unconcerned as to why she might be feeling heavy.
For heaven’s sake, Duncan. It happened, OK? I couldn’t stop myself. You and Frazer are his oldest friends. Aren’t friends supposed to support each other? To care about each other? Surely friendship’s about challenging actions, not simply accepting them. Friends don’t just stand by and watch their best chum crash his entire life. A friend’s got to be more than the good guy with deep pockets who buys the next round of drinks!
Quite a performance, Duncan repeated, looking vaguely in her direction, but not looking her in the eye – and not really listening.
He was pretending to read the sports section. Folding the newspaper so aggressively it made sharp crackling sounds as she spoke. Then, tossing it on top of the mess on the table, he stood up. Helen did not turn around, but continued emptying the dishwasher, filling it from the dirty pile on the worktop.
Goddammit, Helen! There are places and times for challenging my friends…
So they were his friends now, were they? Was that the way it would go? This sofa’s mine. That chair’s yours.
… and a civilised meal on a Saturday evening is not one of them. As if Andy hasn’t got enough on his plate. What good did it do? Putting him in the spotlight like that.
Pressing the start button, she turned to look at him: Christ almighty, Duncan. Hasn’t Andrew been putting himself there for quite long enough?
He was standing by their newly installed French doors, looking out into the garden. His back to her, he exuded resistance. Looked solid, impenetrable, but, at the same time, weak.
I could mend this, she thought, mend you. Could bridge this widening fissure simply by walking up behind you and wrapping my arms around your broadening girth. I could take responsibility for spoiling your evening. Could say, There, there. Promise I won’t do it again. We’re OK now, aren’t we, Duncan? He would like that. Would like to feel her close, yet below him – beneath him – his overly paternal hand stroking the hair of his submissive little wife, tamed once more.
He was still standing there, sipping his coffee, staring out.
Taking in the clipped box ‘clouds’, the ubiquitous ivy, the darkness of the jasmine foliage, no longer lightened by its starry mass of flowers, Helen wished she had not given in to Duncan’s desire for professional garden designers. How empty it looked. How colourless. How sterile. Not a garden for children. Just as well. How could it have worked? Her eyes drawn to the back of her husband’s neck, she felt tears welling.
At twenty-five, his body spooned into hers, it had been the first thing she saw on waking: his soft, sandy hair, longer then, curling into his neck, tickling her nose as she willed him to wake, to make love to her.
For heaven’s sake, Duncan, breaking the poisonous silence, Don’t you want to save Andrew’s life?
There you go again! Over-dramatising. A few drinks, for fuck’s sake!
A few months’ drinks. A bender that’s lasted precisely… she paused, counting the weeks, the months, Nineteen months! Christ knows how he holds down his job. And you’re prepared to let him continue in this way?
Putting his coffee mug down on the draining board, Duncan turned to look back at his wife. Helen searched for the kindness in her husband’s face, the love she wanted to see there, hoping it might osmotically draw out her own, but saw only Farid’s soft-eyed gaze. Pathetic. Juvenile. Grow up, Helen.
Andy’ll pull himself together, given time, Duncan was saying, still waiting for her to go to him.
Come on. Do you really think that? Can’t men mother their friends as well as be their best Budweiser buddies? Can’t men grow up!
He looked a tad hurt by that. She did not want to hurt him. But what else could she do?
In fact, on the contrary, you seem happy being his supplier. Because that doesn’t deprive you of anything, does it. Because your preferred tipple comes in bottles with chateaus on the labels, you can all be chums together. Which must be all right, since posh people live in chateaus. Posh people spend a fortune soaking those they love in expensive booze. It’s low-life scumbags who use dirty syringes and bits of foil, and get high in back alleys, or purchase their preferred tipple from a hardware store who are the problem, not a six-pack of classy consultants sipping claret from crystal glassware!
Did she love him or hate him? It had become as woolly, as uncertain as that.
She could see he’d had enough. He’d never liked her raising her voice. It was not what nice women did. Nice men? Well, that was a different matter. Nice men had to stand up for themselves. Nice men should stand up for their chums, for their women, too – if they were nice. Nice men should stand a round of drinks.
The fingers of his left hand combing angrily through his sandy-brown hair, Duncan said, Of course, when it comes right down to it, your performance was really for Farid’s benefit. A way of currying favour, you could say.
She hated his use of that word. Hated the way his lip curled when he said it. Hated the whiff of racism attached to it. At that moment, hated Duncan.
Yes. You were putting yourself in the spotlight. You were playing to an audience of one.
I was what?
Your number one fan.
She was so angry, she thought she might hit him. There were a few seconds of silence. Then the telephone rang.
Helen agreed to meet Jules in Cream Teaz. Countless Sunday afternoons had been whiled away there: first, the two of them, the midwife and the art therapist, then, coupled up with their high-profile specialist partners, came the romantic foursome, then five come Georgiana, and six come Francine. Will it soon be we two again? Helen wondered, watching Jules ordering cakes at the counter. Maybe Duncan and Andy see us as safe bets, she’d suggested to Jules, on a similarly grey Sunday twenty years before, As good, supportive wife material. They know we’re not quite in their league.
Franci at a sleepover, and George sleeping in with Maxxi, Jules was free all afternoon.
Don’t you mind? Helen asked her, I mean, George is barely fifteen.
Fifteen and a half now! Well, y’know, better the devil, and all that.
And is Maxxi a bit of a devil?
Far from it! Picture the cutest choirboy, put him on the rack, stretch him to six foot one, add a smattering of pimples, dress him in black, and there you have it! Not the greatest catch, in my opinion – not that I’ve said as such. More than my life’s worth. Still, Jules sighed as she topped up their teacups, George dotes on her Maxxi.
Sorted! Bed ’n’ breakfast ’n’ pill. All part of the parental service.
Jules was amazing. A natural mother. No. It would never have worked.
Y’know, Jules was saying, I’ve even found myself wondering what it’d be like to start over myself.
Jules professed to having turned a corner, to have seen the future and found herself intrigued, not frightened by it.
But sex? she went on, Sex with a stranger? Exposing this! hands searching for her waistline. Then, fingers returning to break off another piece of cake, Perhaps I should stick to the book club for company and slices of lemon drizzle for comfort. Wiping the crumbs from her lips, she said, How is he?
Not bad, Helen said, not wanting to dampen her friend’s spirits. Then, picturing Andrew staggering to Farid’s car, Well, not so good, actually. It’ll take time, Jules. Anyway, I’m to tell you, he still loves you.
Lemony fingers scraping back her straw-coloured hair, Jules sighed: Trouble is, he’s a helluva lot of work. The girls… well, at least they behave more or less like adults. And they’ve been so supportive, so sensible through this. I need a grown-up for a partner, not a stressed-out boy-dad in need of a mum. I can’t, Hel, I won’t allow him back the way he is. Andy’s gotta do the work. And do it fast! Then, maybe… looking down at her plate, Oh, I don’t know. She crumbled off another mouthful, So! How’s the lovely Farid, these days? I do miss him dropping by. Such a sweet guy. He and Annie still going strong?
What a lie. When Duncan told her there were to be six, not seven, diners on Saturday night she’d felt a rush of pleasure, had not been in the least bit afraid – or was she?
Gosh! Annie doesn’t know when she’s well off.
Actually, I think it was Farid who did the dumping.
Why? They looked so good together: the Beautiful People.
Farid Manduri! he’d announced.
Not Doctor Manduri, but Farid Manduri. And then, when he’d called the department to ask how his patient was progressing, simply, It’s Farid from Haematology, as if he were some lowly technician.
Eight years ago, Helen thought. My chum then. Mine.
They kept bumping into each other at lunchtimes. That third time (by then, their patients overlapping, Farid had also met Duncan) he had talked of his childhood in Pakistan, of visits to his cousins in the once beautiful, still beautiful, Swat valley. Helen had pointed out the bitter irony of its name, imagining it crammed with children, swotting for their exams. Boys and girls! And Farid had spoken of benevolent rulers who had developed a network of libraries and educational institutions there. Maybe, he’d said, hoping for just that. And then, My favourite cousin’s daughter was shot while walking to her school. They missed Salma’s brain – one assumes they were aiming at that. Scary things, where I come from, women’s brains.
She knew then. Just knew.
But they got her in the neck. Miraculously, the bullets – there was more than one – missed her spine. She has a voice, of sorts. But will never sing as she used to.
Tears brimming, he had produced a tissue from his pocket. I’m so sorry to have upset you, he’d said, holding it out to her.
What pampered lives we lead, Helen finally managed to say. What selfish, pampered lives.
Nonsense! We are born where we are born. If, as I believe, we have but one life, better to be comfortable and content in it than miserable. Do not feel guilty for your good life, Helen. And do not let my sad stories ruin your good life.
But my life is already ruined, she’d thought.
Returning home, she found Duncan in their newly painted kitchen-diner salting the duck legs: confit of duck was, understandably, his second signature dish. He did not look up, but did say Hello, You, in a friendly tone. Hello, she replied, a hand brushing his shoulder as she squeezed past him to open the window – did men need less oxygen than women?
I’ll just go up and put on something sloppy.
How’s dear old Jules? he asked, sprinkling the rest of the salt, pressing down the lid of the container and shaking it as he turned to her.
Very good, actually. Best I’ve seen in a long while.
She won’t want him back then?
Probably not. Maybe. Who knows?
He slipped the salted duck into the fridge and pulled out a carton of eggs.
By the way, Farid called an hour or so ago.
Said to say thanks for your contributions to the delicious meal. Turns out Andy stayed with him last night. Well, Fari insisted he stay. Says he hadn’t the heart to leave him at the flat in that state.
Helen said Farid had almost too much heart. Duncan agreed.
Did Andrew puke on Fari’s carpet? Piss on Fari’s bathroom floor?
Duncan said he didn’t think so. Or if he had, Farid had been courteous enough not to mention it.
But Andrew did cry on his shoulder. Last night and this morning. In a terrible state, apparently. Rock bottom. So rock bottom that, thanks to Fari’s gentle, persuasive tongue, Andy’s agreed to go to AA. Even checked online. Found his nearest group. What’s more, his teetotal mentor has volunteered to get him there on Thursday evening. So, my Princess, your wish has come true!
Wasn’t it your wish too?
I guess. Yep. Course it was.
She was right, he said. But then, she was almost always right. Which could be particularly annoying, particularly for a man.
Putting the carton of eggs on the table, he slipped an arm around her waist. She felt his hand stroking her hair in that paternal way.
Howsabout I whip up a cheese soufflé omelette for a light supper?
He hadn’t done one of those for months and months.
That, a spot of salad, and a glass of apple juice should do us, eh?
Lovely, and releasing herself from his grasp, she walked into the hall.
Frazer had once told them how Aurie’s grieving ‘guinea pig’ had mourned the loss of his mistress. Poor bugger called her name every morning for weeks, he’d said: Aurie! Aurie! Aurie! reprising his parrot impersonation. For fuck’s sake, Frazer, Aurelia had snapped. Then, more softly, The poor bugger’s name, as you well know, was Ton-ton. Dear Ton-ton, repeated in barely a whisper. Helen thought there had been a glint of moisture in Aurelia’s faraway gaze back then.
Would I be like Ton-ton? Helen asked herself. Would I mourn my loss?
Omelette in fifteen! Duncan called up to her.
Great! she called back, pulling on her comfy velour loungers.
She could hear him down there, whistling while he worked: a clear, melodious tune, if a tad high-pitched for a man, and a little too wavering for the sort of man Duncan was, the sort who took charge of things.
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