In the lull between my husband’s condemnations, I reminded our daughters that each Sunday is a Christmas. This way of thinking is Karen’s idea. She does Fridays and Saturdays in the shop with me.
She said when sorting citrus, ‘When life serves you lemons–’ and I held up my hand and asked, ‘Is there a cliché for grapefruit?’
Karen couldn’t think of one.
Later I said, ‘He says,’ and she knew who I meant, ‘people should avoid clichés like the plague,’ which made us laugh as we priced up mushy peas, and she told me to stop else she’d wee herself.
‘Qui, qui,’ I said. ‘Ça alor!’
‘We don’t sell gas cannisters, love,’ she said, and we were off again.
What Karen meant was even rotten Sundays are worth a smile, just like Christmas. Even if the family is falling out, it’s our job to build it up.
‘We’re the French resistance,’ she said, marking-down baguettes, because people in villages are sniffy about foreign food from the Co-Op.
‘We’re the Maquis,’ I said.
‘Fancy,’ Karen replied, and held up a bag of cashews. ‘Should I take anything off the nuts?’
Well, that was it. Talk about cry.
It’s funny how lunch on Sundays starts later than on any other day, again except for Christmas, so it must have been about 2.30 when summoned to the feast that the girls exchanged sardonic sleepy greetings on the landing. I imagined each of them taking a deep breath. My husband stood belly forthright in my apron on the bottom rung of the stairs as per, yodelling our daughters from their bedrooms. He cannot bear to wait, though he expects patience every day, so he raised his voice after a few seconds.
‘Aren’t you coming? Food’s cold!’
The girls passed his inspection by the front door – ‘What time did you get to bed?’ –and he herded our untamed teenagers toward the kitchen-diner. In they traipsed like Trappists, eyes on their phones, those little oblong windows promising escape, until they discovered in the middle of a fixed grin, serving the veg that he will eat around, sitting at the table, alone, waiting on her life to start when they appear, half way down a tall glass, smiling bright and beautiful, as per, not the wonder woman of my glory days, not the mysterious person I suspect I still might be, but merely mum, impersonating a wrung-dry wife. I’d even put on a dress. Hair up, eyes down.
He often says I should make more of an effort, only for his man in crumpled shorts and shame-stained shirt, to ask, when I do, ‘What on earth are you wearing, Deborah?’ like my dad. Karen and I bought the dress at M&S last week, one each.
‘Think he’ll like it?’ Karen asked, gazing at the both of us in the fitting room mirror.
‘I’m not wearing it for him.’
‘You think he’ll know that?’
She lost her husband a couple of years ago. Very tragic circumstances. She’s had some smashing holidays since. He’s living with a woman half his age in Basingstoke. At the age of fifty-four he now wants babies. Sometimes Karen gets upset, but not so much these days.
Wrap your expectations for lunch in Christmas sparkle, I reminded the girls. Hereabouts Sundays are a time to try on for size good will to all men, even if it means hard graft for the rest of us.
Today we felt his ragged edge though we performed well our bonhomie. We’d made no mention of undecorated ceilings, the shabby paintwork scarred by years of shoe-scuffed insults. Not a word about the unfixed split laminate floor where he’d stamped one Boxing Day. Not the paper peeling in the hall. Not the bank account. Because good will. Because he’ll get round to it. Just let him finish this chapter. ‘Stop pressing me. The book’s the thing at hand.’
Sunday is a day of rest, he said, though not for the wicked. His laugh reminded me of urban foxes raiding wheelie bins at night. He told us, pouring gravy, that every week of work in his shed feels like a year. Come Sunday he deserves some R&R. By four I’m up for another G&T.
This afternoon he lectured us about characters we didn’t much care for. Nor, he suggested, understood. Which I suppose is us being us, too thick to appreciate the convoluted plots that he keeps losing. I recognised him for what he is not who he was. It turns out my husband has become a visitor to our family’s celebration. The uninvited guest of honour, that’s him.
Sunday is his day to make amends, by giving us a hand, he said. He is generous like that. He actually said that, too.
And though he may not have mentioned it out loud, his martyred harrumph spoke volumes. About the toll his writing takes, his exhaustion, his commitment to himself. He’s putting food on our table thanks to his pension, he says. Samantha, our youngest – she is funny – says he’s like a L’Oréal advert, crammed with preening men believing they are worth it. Karen said L’Oréal brings her out in rash.
Last Thursday, after one of his short stories was rejected, when he felt obliged to order a Chinese to cheer himself up – ‘Spare rib?’ I asked him – a funny thing happened. After he performed what Sophia, our eldest, called the Miracle of the Clearing Away of Our Trays, though actually he dumped them in the kitchen for the fairies to clean, his largesse gave him a chance to announce himself a new man.
He said it with a straight face. Well, we couldn’t believe it.
When Sophia, who is the boldest, and has a beautiful jade tattoo he doesn’t know about, when she mentioned none too subtly that we had only ever had sight of an old man, he said she needed glasses.
She’s funny, too. I like to think they get it from me.
Karen said a husband going to Basingstoke must be like Boxing Day, when you don’t have to make an effort but get to enjoy the leftovers.
Once upon a time, before him, I heard daughters come to resemble their mothers. I thought this was about the worst thing imaginable in 1973 – the pill having finally turned-up in Norfolk, my friends being busy burning their second-best bras, I was ready to not turn into mum – but nowadays I see how she had to endure even fewer choices. She did not have it all, not like the papers claimed. I was determined not to be like her, a stay at home, an empty space. I had decided to catch the bus to Edinburgh University to read politics – I would have been the first in the family to go – but he appeared in his Ford Capri at my sixth-form disco. Older by far and even then, full of words. Not content with turning back his car’s milometer, he did the same to me by quoting Lorca. He managed to unwind all my ambitions. I thought, for a few minutes, in the Capri, with his Brut aftershave making me gag, condensation of windows, that he seemed to be the exception, that he might turn out to be one that kept his promise.
He turned my head, my mum said, when it seemed straight enough to her, and wisely pointing north.
How on earth did I think of mum as empty? Youth is beautiful but it can be cruel to those that love you. But mum, just her putting up with dad, tolerating fried bread toasties every Saturday afternoon in front of Grandstand, it must have been unbearable.
I couldn’t wait to escape in a Capri’s faux-leather back seat. He said he would drive me to Edinburgh.
‘Are you sure, Debs?’ mum kept asking me, even at the registry office, fussing my hair.
‘I hear Edinburgh’s still nice,’ she mentioned at the reception, eating tinned lobster soup from Iceland. When he gave his speech, my mum whispered in my ear that from the sound of things, he’d married a pair of breasts with lovely legs. I said, ‘It’s only fun,’ and my mum, well, she looked at me, I mean really looked, and I felt sick as she held my hand. I felt her shake. ‘He’s not funny at all, love,’ said mum.
She mouthed the word Edinburgh and cried as he drove me off, tin cans rattling behind, sixty in a forty zone, and I saw her grow small in his wing mirror.
But I no more heard what she meant than I saw her as a woman in her own right; you know, someone with dreams, someone like the person I wanted to become. I ought to have lent her my lighter to dispose of her second-best underwired. Because what if my daughters think the same about me? I’d feel awful.
I can’t wait for the turn of the century, despite what the television news says about this Millennium Bug, because there’s always hope that a change for the better will come with every Christmas. The year 2000, well, it’s like all your holidays rolled into one. I expect. And I hope it comes true. That in the new century daughters do not have to resemble their mothers. Though there are worse people to mimic, when you think about it.
Today at lunch he explained for the umpteenth time how for thirty-one years he worked his fingers to the bone on our behalf. Such long hours – I won’t say he worked hard – and all to bring home the bacon. For us, he said. Though toward the end of his career we had been converted by Linda McCartney.
‘Thirty-one years, man and boy.’
‘Boy and boy,’ whispered Samantha.
‘Twenty-five years girl and wife,’ Sophia said, nodding toward me.
You can imagine. All evening he sulked. Banged about.
It’s the aftershock, I’m sure. Of our bringing him down after his literary success. You see on Friday at a writing group in a library threatened with closure, he read aloud his first ever poem. ‘Iambic Indications,’ I believe he called it, unfathomably, which sounds to me like a disease caught from a river in Indonesia.
He ordered an Indian that didn’t agree with him – I saw the evidence with my own eyes – ate too much to celebrate the group’s enjoyment of his ditty. Which is the wrong word, he informed me, sour as grapefruit. He said how I had the poetic sensibility of a fish. I said, ‘Some fish are very pretty, and they move together to confuse predators.’
Much like me and the girls.
It didn’t help that I said, exasperated, ‘It’s not the Booker, love,’ and he blessed the house with his silence until Saturday evening. I did regret it. Calling him ‘love’ like that. Gave him ideas. Came to our bedroom silently with trousers in come-hither unhip mode. As if a fuck was an apology I owed him.
We used to make love, but then he’d have to polished the Capri seats. Karen says that’s what happens, that the poems run out the same time as the petrol, leaving you on the hard shoulder of the motorway on your way to Edinburgh. Miles from anywhere. No recovery, she says. But we used to make love. Now he’s the sort of lover that reminds me of Sophia’s new Apple Watch. It having no moving parts. But a fancy face that shows you the weather in Singapore. And that makes you wistful for warmer climes.
He retired early, ‘exceptionally so,’ he says. Though we all know it was a nervous breakdown lined by a silver bugger-off pay cheque. He meant to top up his occupational pension through writing novels, of all things. He’d read a few, you see, when in his teens. Thought it easy pickings for a man of his knowledge. Up at eight every morning with his Nespresso and off into the silence of his writing room. Which in Norfolk we call a shed.
‘Eight! And already hard at it!’ he crows as he closes the patio doors, locking me inside.
Well, by then I’m usually long back from taking out the dog, and I’ve already tidied around, done the downstairs toilet, changed the bins, fed the goldfish, cleared up cat shit in the garden, made the girls’ breakfasts and done their packed lunches, and enjoyed a slice of wholemeal and two cups of instant.
Not that I like instant, what with it not being coffee, and barely instant save for the regret of drinking it. But he says I have to mind his pension pennies. The good coffee is reserved, he says. To get his neurons working.
‘You’d no more have a painter forgo his brushes,’ he told Sophia when she said he wasn’t being fair.
I hear him snoring in his shed most mornings by half eleven. I’ve bought myself a Moka pot for one, and a stash of Lavazza, hid at the back of the fridge. I get a discount, you see. Sophia said over an espresso that it is true then, that not only are oranges not the only fruit, Mellowbirds is not the only coffee.
He tells us that when it comes to writing novels and nurturing a successful career, one has to donate to accumulate. This is why he pays £5 a time to submit his short stories. Anyway, he’s had the one story published twice. It quite went to his head. He now claims he is like Joyce. (Sophia has studied Joyce for her A levels, says he’s nothing much, when all along I thought Joyce was a woman.) He says that a sentence can take him a whole day ‘to sculpt’. I am stupid, he says, for asking him about his writing.
I know I am not.
He called me an idiot when I asked how long short novels take. Samantha told me writing a novel is as long as a piece of string, and her father had tied himself in knots.
She’s very funny. And she’s not stupid either.
On Sundays he displays his credentials in the kitchen by tossing into the oven his favourite roast, leaving us the veg. Then he expects a standing ovation when he carves the meat for himself. Fair’s fair, he says, having eaten his fill, and our roast potatoes, as he wobbles irresistibly to the sofa, saying, ‘I cooked, so you wash,’ taking the wine bottle with him, as if it were a friend he’s known for all of ten minutes.
‘When he’s finished in the kitchen,’ Sophia says, ‘I’m reminded of Afghanistan. He’s used every natural resource and buggered-off back to Blighty.’
‘You’re my help for heroes,’ I tell her.
Today he announced we might need to sell. The sound of custard dripping from suspended spoons was quite audible even down the lane, I’m sure. He carried on slurping, mind. I thought writers had to be self-aware, but what do I know? We didn’t need to ask what he meant; we knew he was implying selling the house, which in his mouth is always prefixed by the word detached. Which just about describes most marriages, Karen says, but then, she has to cope with solicitor’s letters from Basingstoke.
As I tidied away the dishes – Sunday and Christmas being much the same as any other day – it struck me our lives were not that different from Tenko, and he is Major Yamauchi, the internment camp commander. He said I was unsupportive, though it feels I’ve done nothing but hold his tent aloft these last two years. It doesn’t bring in much but my money from the shop keeps us in socks if not in clover. And there’s always overtime. And Karen keeps me going.
He said I only care for little things, and that I should ignore the price I pay for his ambition.
‘Trust me,’ he said. As if he still drives a Capri.
You have to smile on Sundays, I told the girls today. It’s a special day, like Christmas.
‘A naïve anticipation that leaves you disappointed?’ Sophia wondered.
Make an effort, I advised. You can’t but help but smile at the silliness of Sundays, what with him gifting us his presence.
The girls each gave me a high five, and I felt young.
You buy his beef while his present to us is the dishes, Sophia added. Samantha mentioned she’d noticed rat poison is on offer in the shop, wondered aloud about staff discounts.
God, how we laughed, and we seriously admired one another while he snored on the sofa. We spend Sundays carving a little meal for ourselves from the joint of him.
‘Maybe he’ll find an agent,’ Samantha said, shaking her head, ‘and move to Basingstoke.’
‘Nous pouvons espérer,’ I said. ‘Is that right? We can hope?’
Sophia said I was getting the hang of her A level French.
‘Très bien,’ Samantha giggled. ‘Joyeux Noël!’
She said wives lives matter, and as Sophia spoke about cultural appropriation with her sister, I couldn’t help but smile, watching them, loving them, and wondering at the new century, and I thought that if any of our family would be the first to go to university, it will be my daughters. They’re funny, and despite what he says, the girls are not stupid. I’m putting aside a little bit of my wages to help them buy them their own cars.
It doesn’t worry me in the slightest, the prospect of being alone with him. He’ll be in the shed or at some writing group, not bothering anyone but himself. That’s why Karen said I could do a lot worse than encourage his ambitions. The girls agreed.
I must remember not to call him love.