Life: what is it all about?
I’d left for the party minimally drunk and maximally desolate. Eva and I had argued earlier. “Laurie,” she’d said truculently, “why don’t you want to go? Who stays in on New Year’s Eve? Jenny and Pete are our oldest friends. But maybe you have your own reasons?”
I’d tried to make an evening together on our sofa sound appealing to her, tried and failed. All that we ever did on the sofa these days was fight or sleep and slink off to bed. Often separate beds at that. I snore and she sleeps lightly, a crass combination. Tonight my promise of champagne and truffles did nothing to convince her to stay at home. She probably sensed my desperation.
The taxi arrived late and we left for Jen and Pete’s. To be fair Eva looked amazing: her clingy black dress, expensive and simply cut was the stuff of dreams. I felt stirred by her for the first time in months. For my own part I looked like the underdog in a bad sitcom, unshaven and crumpled as I was. It killed me to go to Jenny’s like this, a shadow of the lover she’d known. Strategically I’d felt that it was best to bring her up short, to feel that she’d had a close shave. Otherwise the fire might reignite yet again.
Pete answered the door. A scatty man, good looking by birthright, privately educated and winningly deferent to everyone: apparently determined to shed the mantle of entitlement that comes with inherited wealth.
“Eva, Laurie, great you’re here!” Pete hugged us both. “Let the party begin!” He led us into a room full of members of our own tribe. Drink sends the mind on infernal pathways and New Year’s Eve and booze are inextricably intertwined in our circles.
Eva saw a friend from her department at the university and disappeared into the crowd. Pete led me towards the kitchen gesturing before an array of bottles, asking me to name my poison.
“Yes, Merlot, thanks.”
“Anything cold, dry and white, the usual. How are things?”
“Jenny’s good, but I’ve been asked to work away in the Paris bureau for a stint. Good for my prospects but bad timing. We’ve been drifting a bit lately and with the baby coming I want to be there for her.”
“Baby? Shit I’m astounded, some news, congratulations.” Initially Pete failed to notice my discomfort.
“Surely Eva mentioned it to you, she was one of the first to know?”
“No, I must have missed that. When’s it due?” I was conscious that Pete was looking at me oddly now. He’d logged that Eva had failed to tell me the big news.
“Jenny says her expected date is in June, but they may have got that wrong. I was away for a month in the autumn.”
I felt the blood surging chaotically around my brain. My temples were pounding. That night in September was the last time and the most intense. Afterwards Jenny and I had agreed to desist. The children of sixties reprobates, we’d agreed not to repeat the pattern with all the inevitable hurt that came with the territory. We remembered our fractured childhoods only too well. I pulled myself around, trying to act natural.
“Well done Pete mate, we’ll raise a glass tonight? Although I guess that Jen’s on juice?”
“Normally, but tonight’s New Year, one glass of bubbly will do her no harm! So glad you’re here Laurie.”
The party was a great success, bright people in their bright lives. Auld Lang Sine was never sung more tunefully or with greater sincerity. Then the others left and the unravelling began.
Eva, Pete and I sat close to the multi fuel stove, tired yet glowing as we basked in its heat. Then Jen pushed the door open.
“Life is short, too short to live a lie.” She proclaimed this loudly forcing the words out before they retreated into a more judicious silence. Then she stopped, and looked around, taking stock. Her eyes met mine, rapidly she glanced away.
“Pete, Eva, Laurie, I must be honest, let’s talk.”
My heart stalled. “Jen,” I faltered, “is this the really right time?”
“Too right Laurie, it’s now or never.” Maybe she was drunk; but she was only one glass in. I reached for Eva’s hand. “Eva, maybe we should go now? New Year’s Eve is a weird time.”
“Jen’s my best friend, if she needs to talk I’m listening. You go home if you want to.”
My world stood still: Pete put his arm around my shoulder. “Please stay. It might help to clear the air?” he urged. I had no choice: tonight everything would spill out.
“Pete,” Jenny ventured still standing, “I’ve let you down. I’ve tried to tell you, but it’s so hard. This is how it is, one night last September a young man knocked on the door. He asked for food. His friends, travellers, had been routed by the police that morning, moved on with no warning. Their supplies had been in a bivi tent and the store was trashed. Here’s the thing, I let him in and fed him. We became friends: me and Rory that is. To cut to the chase, it’s his child I’m carrying. I did not mean for it to happen. I am so sorry, but crazily I’m thrilled as well. I really don’t get myself any more.”
Pete went white with shock. For survival sarcasm rose in his throat, he spat out his words. “So, my savvy high achieving little wife has been captivated by a young gypsy lad, and don’t tell me, he has a white stallion, with wings? I suppose you want to ride off into the sunset with him? Or perhaps not? Perhaps he doesn’t even know that you exist now that he’s had his dinner and got his end away. Is that it?”
For my own part I was stunned into silence. I felt unreasonably angry, and belittled. If Jen was to bail out of her marriage, why not do it for me? I was besotted with her as she well knew. All this destruction for a fling? At least our relationship had been real, if reckless. She needn’t think that I’d hang around and rescue her if Pete threw her out. Then it occurred to me that this might be a cover story, though not very original, definitely not worthy of her.
Slowly I looked up at the others. Eva had thrown her arms around Jenny as she murmured, “Well done my love, well done.”
‘Well done’, what was the woman on about? She wouldn’t be saying that if she knew the full story. Jenny pulled away from Eva’s embrace. She sat down, her back taut and her face rigid. She’d separated herself quietly and effectively from everyone else. For someone who’d just launched a grenade she was unnaturally still.
Pete’s head fell forward onto his chest, he muttered, “Jenny what a mess; is your way of balancing the books?”
Eva started beside me; she made a whimpering sound, then she pleaded. “No Pete, please no. Laurie can’t handle that.”
What couldn’t I handle? I reached for the Cognac and poured a glass, downing it in one. The world had gone mad.
Jenny remained silent and aloof, forensically examining our antics as if we were apes in a zoo. Jenny as zoologist; superior bitch.
“Right,” I asserted, “I seem to be the only one who doesn’t know the far end of this. Is it too much to ask for clarification?”
Eva moved across to Pete and touched his hair, her voice shook.
“Laurie, Jenny knows that I fucked Pete last Easter. She was away teaching, you’d been pissed off with me for weeks and I came to Pete for advice. I was so unhappy. I knew how things were with you and Jenny, it’s been on and off for years with the pair of you. Pete was so gentle and understood. Later I had an abortion, a last-ditch attempt to salvage our marriage. It hasn’t worked evidently.”
Jenny stood up again, for the first time I saw her newly rounded belly in profile. She abandoned her detachment and colour rose in her cheeks. She exclaimed, “Well we’ve all raided the sweet shop now haven’t we? Arrogant twats, we thought that we were thoughtful and caring. That we’d evolved beyond needing rules, just like our parents before us. This has to stop and I will take the first steps tonight. I’m tired of being a selfish cow, consuming everything that I can lay my hands on, whenever it suits me. I sicken myself. If I can turn myself around Rory might want me and I can try again.”
I’d had enough now. I would have my say. My voice was hoarse and thick.
“Jenny for fuck’s sake stop sounding like something out of bloody DH Lawrence; you and your sick ‘noble savage’ notions. And Eva, what gives you the right to play the poor injured wife, you’ve always had own way. My reward? Your head fucking ice treatment! It’s me who should be pissed off. Do you wonder that I went to Jen? Pete you’ve been messed about for sure, but you were happy to do the lordly thing when Eva was stressed? Your God-given right no doubt? You’ve always felt a cut above the rest of us. Your sham humility never cut it with me. Am I the only one here who’s anything near normal?”
Eva hit back.
“Is it ‘normal’ to make out I was going mad every time I asked about you and Jen? Butter wouldn’t sodding well melt in your mouth! So I rejected you: too right I did. First you played away, whenever Jen’d let you, and then you had the brass neck to lie about it. Not your best seduction technique where I’m concerned! You’re an arrogant prick, and now it’s over, I don’t want you, not now, not ever. Jen may be on a sentimental roll, but she’s more honest than you’ve ever been, at least she’s trying to get it right. You were always jealous of Pete and at last you can feel justified. And yes he’s a better screw than you ever were, even at the start.”
Our voices became louder and more strident as we each tried to establish that we were right. We cut across each other like cross starlings scrabbling over worms. Suddenly I was weary to the death and I dropped out of the cacophony. No-one noticed as far as I could tell.
At length Pete stood up and turned towards the kitchen, at the same moment a dozy four-year old Jack, pushed his head around the door. His auburn hair stood up on end and his eyes were sticky with sleep.
“Why is everybody shouting? You’ve woken me up. Daddy, mummy can we all get into your bed? Teddy Edward as well?”
Jack caught hold of Pete’s hand and Jenny’s.
“Goodnight Auntie Eva, Uncle Laurie: you can both sleep in my room tonight.”
My eyes pricked with tears of shame and exhaustion. Vividly I remembered winter nights many years ago when I’d heard my parents fighting, and the same acidic fear burnt in my gut today. There are no easy answers, but we have to do better, find other ways to live. If not, what is the point?