So to make Adam happy we’d bloody joined Gareth and Eileen’s bloody “group” and fell into bloody step in the bloody ranks of bloody Suburban dinner party people.
Marriage is about compromise.
There were our hosts, Us, Pauline and Trevor who both worked with Gareth, Katrina (Eileen’s Psychic) and her husband Freddy, Jamie and Paulette who owned the Country Club where Adam and Gareth played tennis and occasionally a ”wild card” couple who Eileen would gives clues to in a god awful guessing game, mysteriously, as though she had Brad and Angelina tucked away in a cupboard somewhere.
I hated it but somehow or other we’d always turn up, dutifully suited and booted and armed with wine and smiles of joy. Real smiles in Adams case, forced and very fake smiles in my case.
The fact that none of us liked each other didn’t really feature. Once you’re in, getting out was unthinkable.
We all sat around with The Arctic Monkeys on Gareth and Eileen’s, Linn music system and chatted about current affairs, illicit affairs and who should win X factor. Eileen commented very loudly every time the subject was raised “I never watch ’that rubbish’ but has everyone seen the new Attenborough programme. It’s breath taking?”
We discussed their book clubs; their holiday plans and whether moving or building an extension was the answer for them.
In reality they discussed it; I was my usual tongue-tied self in the face of small talk. As Eileen’s sat beside me, on more than one occasion, patting my hand, and saying “ I think you are so true to yourself Sarah my Darling, so real. You’re very brave, not caring about how you look”
I fumed, and mentally tattooed the word ‘Twat’ on her forehead.
Mainly the women talked about their children. The fact that we didn’t have any through choice and were therefore excluded from this conversation, didn’t pose a problem as far as they were all concerned. I’d tried to explain at the first gathering, but the idea of not wanting children was so offensive to earth mother Eileen that it led her to talk for an hour about breast feeding as a form of self comfort.
Eileen cleared the field on the topic of being a mother. As a businesswoman and proud procreator she assured us, with studied modesty, that she juggled both her fabulous chain of clothes shops and fabulous home in her inimitable fabulous way.
I sought solace in relating key “Eileen-isms” once a week to Kate whilst Adam was politically losing his tennis matches to Gareth. Her snort of derision on Eileen was very cathartic “If instructing the nanny and housekeeper and her assistant, can be considered juggling then, juggle she does Sarah, juggle she does”.
I had nothing against careers, mothers or rich people normally. All my friends in London worked and all of them had children. They were always knackered and mostly guilty that they were potentially neglecting one or all areas of their lives. Then there would be some tabloid crap about supposed research which would darkly suggest they were causing harm to their much loved children through sending them to nursery and they would torture themselves.
I remember when I was at the newspaper finding the Head of News sobbing in the toilets at work because she’d phoned the nursery and they’d excitedly told her that her daughter had taken her first steps. “I wasn’t there” she’d sobbed “I’m missing everything” Loving her job and loving her child were not mutually exclusive.
I’ve never yet met a working mother who didn’t love their child to distraction.
Yet every time Eileen opened her collagen enhanced lips (again cosmetic enhancements what ever floats you boat unless it’s Eileen in which case I want to sink that boat with a torpedo) I loathed every single word she said. I toyed with the idea of joining the Socialist Workers Party and hosting dinner at ours with my new comrades as guests of honour, laughing and pointing at Eileen and Gareth as fine examples of privileged “scum”.
Then I realised that as dinner parties were probably viewed as the ultimate bourgeois pursuit, the Socialist Workers Party wouldn’t come and it would be just the four of us with me trying to rant about Karl Marx, whilst the other three ignored me and discussed Gareth’s shares portfolio.
Although I disagreed with both Eileen and Gareth on almost every account from politics (right wing posing as centre left because we had a Labour Controlled Council and Eileen couldn’t risk it) to the internet (not just because of Eileen’s campaigning but another opportunity for a speech from Gareth about ‘feminazis’) I did envy the fact that Eileen had an opinion on everything and she wasn’t afraid to use it.
She at least had my grudging respect on that.
I had time to psychologically examine the situation whilst I was silently watching Adam morph from the man I loved into a spineless shadow of himself.
Frustrated by yet another conversation revolving around children, I once tried to start a conversation about feminism. The ensuing conversation looked promising until our host Gareth said “oh you mean bull-dykes” There followed a short, politically correct silence in which the group struggled to work out if this comment from Gareth was ‘ironic sexism’ or actual sexism-and if laughter in either case was acceptable.
You could literally see the group’s confusion crash from being thought humourless to being thought sexist, via concern as to whether Gareth might get annoyed.
In the unstable world of fake friendship a missed step could prove fatal. Just like a baby Impala straying too far from the herd on the Serengeti, straight into the path of a hunting lioness.
This silence was, swiftly and expediently broken by our own pride leader.
Eileen correctly reading the silent subtext showed us the truth and the light with her comment of “Oh Gareth you are such a Neanderthal at times Darling, but to be honest I just loathe political correctness don’t you?”
Relieved, everyone except me agreed noisily.
Most of it was tolerable to some degree, but there came a stage in the sheer familiarity of it all that I was pretty much able to second guess who would say what to whom, on any given subject.
There were also strictly observed rules which I became aware of when I’d once walked through to the kitchen carrying plates from the table and found Eileen upbraiding her sister in law Caroline, who was married to Gareth’s kind and quieter brother, Paul.
We hadn’t met them before this evening. They were the nights “wild card” couple and had been charming all night. Their genuine and funny stories of their own children and what growing up with Gareth had been like had, had me in tears of laughter. At one point Caroline’s battle with cancer had come up as natural part of conversation and in the midst of Caroline’s sentence Eileen had suddenly stood up and clapping her hands together had declared “Pudding I think” Non-plussed Caroline had stood up too and offered to help. Eileen had brushed past her wordlessly into the kitchen. So Caroline had quietly followed.
I waited a moment then gathered plates and followed too. I wasn’t sure what I would do or say but I knew Eileen would pounce. Eileen always pounced. Caroline was the baby Impala tonight.
As I walked into the kitchen she was serving Eton mess into bowls with her back to Caroline and in the clipped tones of a PE teacher berating a class of children, Eileen was instructing Caroline “Cancer is awful my darling I know, and you’re being very brave blah blah blah. But really, no one needs to hear about it in graphic detail. I was trying to save everyone from an explanation of your chemo side effects. I mean I’m family and I struggle with that as a topic my darling” I saw Caroline’s face register shock and then her eyes fill with tears. I half threw the plates on to the worktop. Caroline drew in her breath slowly and simply replied “Thank you Eileen” Then she walked out of the kitchen.
Eileen said, ”Oh kind of you to bring them out Darling, but do be careful with those as you put them down won’t you. You won’t recognise it but they’re quite valuable”.
I stared at her. She briefly looked up from her task. “Sorry Darling did you have something you wanted to say?” I had a lot that I wanted to say. But because it was me, because I wasn’t entirely sure that I would be able to stop and might inadvertently beat her to death with one of her slotted spoons. I said nothing.
I walked back to the dining room and took my place beside Adam, who was laughing far too loudly as Gareth droned on. Across the table from me, Paul was whispering to Caroline and carefully taking her tissue from her he gently dabbed her eyes and kissed the tip of her nose, making her smile. The love they had for one another was so apparent in that tiny gesture of comfort that I held my breath for a while. I knew that even if I’d dragged Adam away from Gareth’s every word and drawn his attention to the couple across the table, he wouldn’t have a clue what I meant. Not anymore the old Adam was gone and he had been body snatched by this man sitting beside me laughing too loudly at unfunny jokes told by an asshole.
I suddenly wondered in that moment if this new Adam would, love me, through the worst that life can bring, in the way that Paul was doing for Caroline. Whether we would ever unite in being one another’s comfort if the terror of life was before us. Facing it together and holding hands and walking on.
Worse than that, I knew that I wouldn’t want this Adam standing beside me.
It was, I suppose this moment of tenderness, of truth in the midst of so much superficiality that something imploded in my head. Unable to deal with the truth of my own life and the change in a man I’d loved for so long, I buried it and gave myself a distraction to focus on instead.
My mind began to wander, away from the tales of work rest and play and I started to drift.
As I nodded and smiled at the hilarity of the Gareth’s latest triumph over his work nemesis “Fuckface”, I noticed over his head a cobweb hanging down and trailing a little dust.
It was fleeting but it was there and I couldn’t take my eyes of it. This redundant web, which was now only useful to catch the dust of the lives, which passed below it. I drained my wine glass and tried to remember how many refills I’d had that night. I couldn’t and I really didn’t care.
Next time that it was their turn to host. There was no “wild card” couple. I sat in almost total silence willing the night to be over, especially when a couple of hours in Adam was being really enthusiastic over the idea of a group holiday. An evening of this once a fortnight was torture enough the notion of ten consecutive nights with all their children made me feel nauseous. So I tried to find something to focus on and there it was. The cobweb was still there and if anything a little longer, a little heavier with dust and it moved slightly, pushed by the slight breeze from Eileen’s theatrical hand gestures.
Now I came to notice it there was another cobweb in the corner of the ceiling. Or was it a crack in the plaster? No cobweb definitely a cobweb and another over the doorframe. Why hadn’t I noticed this before?
I excused myself from the table and made my way to the bathroom. I sat for a moment on the closed lid. I was vaguely aware of the dry sensation in my mouth and the familiar pounding of my heart. So again I wondered just how bad this place was in terms of cleanliness.
I stood up and faced the toilet. My worst fears were confirmed. As I lifted the lid of the toilet bowl the evidence was plain to see. It was slightly stained.
I ran a finger along the windowsill. It was barely perceptible but unmistakable. Staring back at me from my trembling fingertip was some dust.
My heart was pounding. I felt faint and a little sick. These people were feeding us. Feeding us God only knew what concoction of salmonella based food. No it was fine. It was fine I was just a little drunk or just over reacting. I steadied myself against the wall and took the pulse in my neck. Trying to remember how quickly salmonella forces the shut down of all organs. This panic attack was a tricky one. All the people I had come to like least in the world, including Adam, surrounded me. What had happened to us? I tried to remember my happy place but all I could see was dust and dirt and a sea of advancing cockroaches.
My heart was definitely beating far too fast It was it also skipping now. Oh God this was it. It was going to burst. My neck ached and there was a pain in my left arm I was dying I was definitely dying I couldn’t breath. I slid down the wall convinced that each desperate breath was my last. As rolled myself in a tight ball on the floor all I could see was Adam at my funeral heckling Adam during my Eulogy with shouts of ‘Bloody feminazi actually” and Adam and everyone else laughing hysterically…
Salvation came in the least Samaritan-esque form I’ve ever experienced There was a pounding on the bathroom door “Sarah….SARAH. What on earth are you DOING in there all this time?” Barked Eileen, through the door.
Then in a stage whisper “Is it Bulimia Darling? Is that why your skin is so bad?”
So I’d done this for Adam, compromised and been flexible and joined his group of fake friends and now he was gone. Remembering all this as I turned the light out and closed the door on all his stuff packed up and labeled and ordered, was awful and wishing it wasn’t so was pointless. As the result of a chain reaction of one tiny set of unforeseen circumstances, the whole thing was literally about to all, blow up in my face.