My books of the year

I have been meaning to do this for days and I guess it’s now or never. Having read a lot of fairly dreary lists of books of the year I would like to share my own hopefully not so dreary list….

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben McIntyreimgres
Utterly brilliant read, a bit like a thriller in fact, totally unputdownable, extremely well written and researched, made me want to d0 nothing but read about spies for months.

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

imagesOne of the funniest books you are ever likely to read, it follows the downfall and eventual redemption of the unlikely hero Paul Pennyfeather. It was Waugh’s first novel but contains some of the most memorable characters in literature such as the public school man Grimes who is irresistible, irrepressible and appalling all at the same time. Worth reading just for the prep-school scenes, which are laugh-out loud funny and scarily close to the truth….

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
imgres-1This is such a clever book. It manages to combine tragedy and comedy perfectly, as well as telling a really moving and compelling story. One of the few contemporary novels I read this year and really enjoyed. If you haven’t read it then do so immediately.

 

 

 

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
images-1One of those books I first read as a teenager and reread this year. I’m so glad I did. It is hysterically funny. Some of the one-liners are reminiscent of Dorothy Parker in their brilliance such as the following: “There are some things (like first love and one’s first reviews) at which a woman in her middle years does not care to look too closely.” Hear, hear!

imgres-2Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
And talking of brilliant one-liners…in fact read anything by Nancy. She is the female equivalent of Waugh, just as sharp, perceptive, snobbish and entertaining. I devoured all her books this year and will probably read them again next year. Unforgettable touches such as the “Hons” club her heroine belongs to. A lightness of touch coupled with incisive perception. Just perfect.

Finally the book of the year NOT to read….

How to be both by Ali Smith
Incomprehensible, pretentious drivel. Parts of it are nicely written but rather like Alice laments a book without pictures, I can’t see the point of a book with no plot. I wanted to know how to be neither by the end. In fact I couldn’t even bear to get to the end.

The runaway parents’ club

There are several stages of parenting, and you tend to share them with your girlfriends. The excitement of the first pregnancy scan, the birth, followed by the toddler stage, comparing first steps and first words, the funny things they say, the adorable things they do. Then comes the (mainly) harmless pre-pubescent stage and finally the bit we all dread that bridges childhood and adulthood. Yep, the teenage years.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but as the mother of a couple of girls who were nicknamed the ferals by a close friend back in 2008, I predicted it wouldn’t be easy.
It is not, but as with the other parenting stages, I am not alone. A lot of my friends are going through similar (and worse) things than I am. One friend had her car stolen, driven all over the county and dumped in a field, filthy and rather predictably out of petrol. Another left her daughter staying with friends while she went abroad for a few days. When she got back the daughter had hosted an enormous party, trashed the house (including a broken floor, I mean how the hell do you do that?!), drunk everything that even resembled alcohol and even managed to damage the next door neighbour’s place.
As I lay in bed last night fuming over the injustices linked to being the parent of a teenager and wondering if I could run away from home, I had an idea.
As my heroine Nora Ephron was fond of saying: “Everything is copy.” There was a film in 1996 starring Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler called The First Wives Club. imgres
It tells the story of three friends whose husbands have all left them for younger women. The first wives plot their revenge with hilarious consequences. How about a similar film about three friends whose teenagers have ritually abused them, trashed their homes, flunked out of school, stolen from them (I could go on) plotting how to finally get control of their offspring?
I imagine something like a kidnap where the three teenagers are whisked off to some awful boot-camp in Wales by the mothers all wearing cat-woman type disguises, armed with whips and Taser guns.
Here the adolescents are subjected to the kind of things they subject their parents to on a daily basis, as well as some rigorous exercise, hideous arithmetic and French verbs thrown in for good measure, possibly even the odd (fake of course) life-threatening situation. When they eventually “escape” (also part of the mothers’ plot) and get home they are so grateful to be there they are utter lambs.
And at any sign of dissent the mothers have only to drop the word ‘Wales’ into the conversation to trigger terrible flashbacks…

Happy Birthday dear Biologico

24598_101777316529563_3127801_nToday is my father’s birthday. Or at least it would have been, but he died in January 2014.
I didn’t really know him until I was a teenager. My mother and he split up when I was two. She and I moved to Sweden then England and we had no contact with him until we went back to Italy over ten years later. When he first met me after all that time, he was disappointed. I didn’t speak Italian, I had no idea who Dante was, and my hero was John Travolta. “I see you have inherited my looks and your mother’s brains, a most unfortunate way for things to have turned out,” was one of the first things he said to me. It seemed too late to call him ‘daddy’ so he became ‘biologico’ for obvious reasons.
He was not the most patient man, and this was before the days when children had any say in their upbringing whatsoever. Our first few years together were spent battling . Him battling to make me more intelligent, me battling to remain in the mediocrity I felt comfortable with. I am now struggling with a similar situation, trying to stop my own teenage daughter from being as stupid as I was.
At the time of course I was sure he was wrong, that how one spoke was irrelevant, that learning Dante was utterly ridiculous and that there was no real reason to read books or stop smoking. But now on his birthday I look back on all his efforts as a kind of gift. I never did learn the Divine Comedy off by heart (as he did) but I am glad that he at least opened my eyes to a world above John Travolta, smoking cigarettes and ghastly pop music.
I guess that is all you can do with children, show them what’s out there, and hope they pick up on it. Even if it takes several years for the message to get through. Sometimes it probably doesn’t even get through.1008974_655292077863679_1983957060_o
As Dorothy Parker put it so well while on a quiz show trying to use the word horticulture in a sentence: “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.”
I wish he were here today of course, I would phone him up and wish him Happy Birthday, he would immediately be able to tell if something was bothering me and give me some advice on how to deal with it, then he would say “grazie per la chiamata”, hang up and get back to his writing.
The best way to remember him will be to spend the day writing. He was a firm believer in working every day, and not letting too much nonsense get in the way. Of course sometimes as far as he was concerned I was the nonsense, he did constantly remind me of how stupid I was, which at the time felt kind of harsh, but looking back on it now seems fair.
Happy Birthday dear Biologico, and thank you.

We’ll always have Paris

People go to Paris to be happy. They go to drink champagne, to eat delicious food, to sit in cafés discussing philosophy, to shop for matching underwear and to make love.
Paris is not a city you go to if you’re on a diet, metaphorically or literally. It is a city of excess, of abundance, beauty and glamour.
I’m sure that’s why the terrorists picked Paris on Friday night. There is no city on earth that is more symbolic of everything they hate. As the writer Alan Furst once said: “Paris is the beating heart of Western civilisation. It’s where it all began.”
On Friday night, a gang of murderous thugs tried to end it. They turned a fun evening out for hundreds of people into their worst nightmare. They targetted young people, people who had just started out in life, men and women who had everything to look forward to, who should have had years and years to live, not minutes, or seconds. A concert was turned into something resembling Dante’s lower circles of hell.
The stories and images to come out of the Bataclan theatre and other parts of central Paris where the terrorists rampaged will stay with us forever. Who will ever forget the man whose wife was murdered promising the terrorists that every day their 17-month old son will “insult you with his happiness and his freedom”? Or the hero who threw himself in front of a woman in a restaurant to save her from the terrorist’s bullets? Or even the BBC newsreader who broke down in tears? Something we have all done, some of us several times a day, since it happened.imgres
I don’t understand what those murderers think they are going to achieve by killing and maiming people. I’m not even sure they do. But picking on Paris was a mistake. Paris is everyone’s favourite city. Most people who have visited Paris have happy memories. Those who haven’t yet been dream of going and walking over one of her bridges, or exploring her museums. Paris is beautiful, elegant and, as we have seen, vulnerable. She is a bit like a stunning woman, whom no one wants to see violated.
It was wonderful to see the whole world light up monuments in the tricolor as a tribute to Paris, and of course the Eiffel Tower itself, standing tall, like a giant ‘doigt d’honneur’ or middle finger saying an enormous f*** you to the terrorists.
Vive la France.

St Trinians for grown-ups?

Has anyone else found that the more choice we have on TV the less there is to watch?
Last night I scrolled through the channels. At the last episode it really was too late for me to get into The Great British Bake Off. I love The Simpsons but just wasn’t in the mood. Channel 4 news annoyed me, again. And England are out of the Rugby World Cup, so no point in watching that.
I wished then that I had done something about an idea I had a couple of years ago for what I think would be a brilliant reality TV show. Something to rival The Great British Bake Off, only less fattening. The plan is this: you pick a suitably snooty girls’ boarding school, Benenden for example, or maybe even Heathfield Ascot. You take say three or four of the girls, possibly from Lower Sixth or maybe from various age groups, and you replace them, for a period of two weeks, with their mothers.bfi-00m-mjh
Obviously you need to pick the mothers wisely. You need women who will create good TV. It’s no good having someone who doesn’t say anything intelligent, stupid or outrageous. But my experience of these boarding school mothers is that they have plenty of chatter. The mothers would live at school, wear the uniform, attend lessons, play lacrosse and eat the ghastly boarding school food. In short they would live their daughters’ lives for a couple of weeks.trinians_682x400_405423a
We viewers would monitor their progress. How they were doing conjugating their French verbs for example, or being told by matron when to get up, sharing a bathroom with ten other girls who are all trying to steal their La Prairie face cream, attending chapel on a compulsory basis. It might be a good idea if one of them was an ‘old girl’ so she could compare life then and now. “Well, in my day we didn’t have heating, we had a hot water bottle, but only in Upper Sixth.” You can imagine the sort of thing.
There would obviously have to be some kind of competitive element in order to make it more interesting. Maybe the mother who wins the most votes from the viewing public gets a term’s free schooling for her daughter?
At around £11,000 this would definitely be worth embarrassing yourself on national TV for. I think it would make great viewing, and if someone wants to make the show they can count me in as one of the mothers. Bea will be grateful for the time off and I would even be willing to subject myself to chapel for two weeks. It can’t be more boring than television.

Why we will always love Jonny

As we prepare for the rugby world cup without the world’s greatest living Englishman, I thought I would bring back some fond memories of the 2007 tournament. I covered it for the Sunday Times from deep in the heart of French rugby-playing territory. Here is a piece about Jonny Wilkinson, whom I will always consider one of our greatest ever sporting heroes. I am so happy Leo watched him kick that drop goal in 2003. OK so he was only four months old, but he swears he remembers it…

This time last week I had a terrible hangover. I woke up at 6am wondering why my head was throbbing. Then I remembered.
“We won,” I said to my husband.
“I want to read the French papers,” he replied.
“I want to marry Jonny Wilkinson,” I said.
“I do too,” he said.
That’s the thing about Jonny. Everyone adores him. My husband doesn’t even mind me having a crush on him. He is Jonny. He is the greatest living Englishman.
Never mind his girlfriend and his mum cheering him on, the rest of the nation is behind him too. And most of the female population would like to be on top of him.
I have noticed a change in my friends over the past few weeks. These are professional women of a certain age. But they are acting like teenagers. A freelance writer and mother in her 40s who shall remain nameless, spends most of her days sending me links to gay sporting websites where, once you get past the more obscene items, there are pictures of Jonny without his shirt on.
What does she love about him so much? “It’s the facial expression, although the bottom is lovely, it’s that come hither look and we’ll have some fun that I adore,” she says. “He is so incredibly private and low-key and this gives him an air of mystery and thus obviously more sex appeal. The exact opposite of those talent-less celebrity seekers, Jordan and Posh types.”
A doctor friend of mine has five children, so plenty of choice for screensavers there. What picture does she have on her computer? Jonny taking a penalty kick. Why I asked her? “Don’t ask stupid questions,” was her response.Marry me
But it’s not only sad middle-aged women like me who adore him. A friend of mine’s fourteen-year-old daughter loves him, as does her grandmother. Jonny’s appeal is cross-generational and universal.
Although I wouldn’t mind taking him home myself, he is the kind of boy I would be delighted if one of my daughter’s came home with. He would be a model son-in-law, polite and helpful around the house. He’s a nice boy with good manners and sense of fair play. When he wins he is as gracious as he is when he loses. When he lies on the ground it is not because he thinks he can convince the ref to give him a penalty but because someone has tried to take him out.
Some say he’s boring, that he’s too obsessed. “How do I meet him?” panted one friend during the England/France game. “By disguising yourself as a rugby ball,” responded another. People say he’s a rugby-playing anorak and deeply dull due to his focus and single-mindedness. I don’t agree. I love that ambition and determination. It makes him even more attractive. This is a man who wants to be the best in the world at kicking a ball over a post. Trivial? Dull? Maybe to some, but not to me and most of the female population of England.
In fact to us he is a super-hero. Jonny comes in at the last minute and scores the drop-goal to win the World Cup. Jonny tackles men four times his size and stops them dead in their tracks. But unlike most super-heroes he doesn’t wear his tights outside his trousers or a cape. Instead he wears an English rose and looks divine. And he takes the pressure so well. “Poor lad,” said a lady I met from Yorkshire recently. “He’s got the whole world on his shoulders.”Jonny
He is as brave as a super-hero. What must it feel like to walk onto a rugby pitch and know that the opposing team has only one strategy: Get Jonny. Obviously this is a strategy the female population of England can relate to, even if it is a tad unsporting.
It is true to say that he wouldn’t be such a hero if he wasn’t so, well, pretty. And pretty is not a word you would normally use to describe rugby players. But he is not poofy. He is no Percy Montgomery, constantly flicking his locks around, he is no Ginola, posing in L’Oreal advertisements. With Jonny you get a no-nonsense lad who looks like a model. What’s not to like? He is not using rugby to get his own TV show. That doesn’t interest him. He’s unlikely to have his own range of foul-smelling fragrance. Jonny has no sarongs, no celebrity girlfriends, no stupid hairstyles, no tattoos. He’s just a proper bloke with drive, ambition and determination to win for himself, his team and his country. That and a cute butt, obviously.

 

The Ballad of Fifth-Form Square

“We know not whether laws be right
Or whether laws be wrong
All we know who lie in gaol
Is that the walls are strong
And each day is like a year
A year whose days are long.”

This is an excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Goal, which I was reminded of the other day when I had a call from Bea’s school to say she was being ‘internally suspended’.
“That sounds dreadful,” I said. I imagined Bea being hung by her arms from the beams in chapel by a bungee rope. Actually being internally suspended entails being taken to a room in fifth-form square (where the fifth form live) and left there, alone, for two days. You are let out only for meals. Sadly for Bea her sentence coincided with the hottest day of the year.
Meanwhile Olivia, having finished her GCSEs was camping on the Norfolk coast. While Bea was in bed staring at the ceiling for the 705th time that minute, Olivia was enjoying the view. “It’s so beautiful,” she wrote to me in a text message. “We are looking at the stars.”
Which of course brings me to another Oscar Wilde quote. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
In Bea’s defence, that is probably what she was trying to do when she was caught committing her crime of climbing onto the school roof. Incidentally my mother-in-law, who was here when the call came through, admitted that she was an appalling roof climber at school and constantly in trouble. “But I gave it all up by the age of 12,” she added. Very wise.
At the end of this term the girls, for the first time ever, are going to be in separate schools. Olivia will leave boarding school to do her A Levels at a day school in Oxford. We have rented a place I have affectionately named “the little house” and during term time this is where you will find us. It is little, but it’s charming, and now stuffed full of furniture from Peter Jones and crockery from Emma Bridgewater. It is also a five-minute walk from M&S, so frankly it can be as little as it likes. Olivia will be studying French, Spanish, English Literature and Religious Studies. We have the first three sorted; a French neighbour to the left, a Spanish one to the right and I can help with the English Lit. We have yet to find an expert in RS but this being Oxford I’m sure it won’t be difficult.
But Bea’s internal suspension did get me thinking about how best to punish Olivia if she misbehaves. There isn’t much room to suspend her in the little house. I suppose I could ground her, but then again no one seems to go out any more anyway, they just talk to people online. Punishing the children for bad behaviour is something I have never been very good at, and I was extremely relieved to leave it to the professionals at boarding school. I’m not sure I’d be capable of incarcerating Bea in a room for more than five minutes. When we lived in Abu Dhabi I was always threatening to take away their phones or stop their pocket money but I never did. I blame my mother, she was far too nice to me. But I suppose if the worst comes to the worst and Olivia behaves truly appallingly, Reading jail is not far away…

Wife-swap? No thanks, just the house…

This morning I was woken up by John Humphrys. Happily he was not in my bed, but on something called a Sonos system, which sprang into life at 6.30am. No sooner had I got over the shock of that when there was a loud thudding sound from a speaker downstairs. ‘Who starts a disco at 6.35am?’ I wondered. I had, was the answer, or rather another Sonos speaker had sprung into life, greeting the rainy Oxford morning with some rather lively music to work out to.
Yesterday’s awakening could not have been more different. I was woken up by birdsong. It was probably just as loud as John Humphrys, and as impossible to turn off. (Although this morning I did eventually find something under the bed with a mute button that seemed to do the trick.)BobCarolTedAlice
Nowadays people no longer swap wives; they swap houses. We are onto our second house swap here in Oxfordshire. The first was with some friends who own a beautiful place deep in the Oxfordshire countryside. It was your classic rural idyll, an Aga, creaky floors, fresh milk delivered from the local dairy, tennis court (courtesy of generous neighbours) and village pubs. Yesterday we moved into a stunning, newly renovated house in town. It was designed by a Scandinavian architect, so I feel completely at home. The kitchen come living area is incredible. A large island (heaven) and steps down to a dining and sitting area, with glass doors for walls that open up onto the garden. Rupert says he feels like he’s on a golf-tee.
The house is beautifully decorated, reminiscent of a luxury boutique hotel, but with the added bonus of no other irritating guests. And all this fabulous technology (the induction hob is a lesson in physics all on its own) must be doing wonders for our neural pathways.
When we moved in yesterday it did occur to me that while not quite as intimate as wife swapping, there is an element of the very personal involved in a house swap. You are often letting complete strangers, with whom you’ve only had email correspondence, into your home. They could leave knowing more about you and your personal habits than a lot of your friends do. Our house swappers will certainly leave knowing more about our cat than most people do. It’s a very clever concept though, based on a mutual desire to travel and of course trust. You look after mine, and I’ll look after yours.
I guess that is the only downside. Because you are a guest, you are constantly fretting about breaking anything in a way that you never are at home, or would be in a hotel. There is also the stress that they may show up at your house and hate it. Although I can’t imagine anyone hating Sainte Cecile, although our bathrooms are really rather shabby in comparison to the elegant ones here.
I am very much looking forward to our month here. I will work of course (back to Abu Dhabi on Sunday) but when I am not I will be nipping down the road to M&S for food and getting to know Summertown, where I will be living once Olivia starts school here in September.
And now that I have managed to silence Mr. Humphrys I am going to enjoy the view from my bedroom window over the St John’s college cricket pitch, slowly unpack my clothes and decide which wide-screen TV to watch the test match on. Assuming I can work them that is…

A very French village affair

News reaches me that Swedes recycle 99 per cent of their rubbish. Never one to be outdone by my compatriots, I am recycling this column first published in the Sunday Times. You will be pleased to hear that since this exciting episode things have calmed down and the bakery is now run by another family. The bread has improved as well…

Our location three kilometres away from the nearest village normally insulates us from local gossip. But news reaches me of a tale so gripping that I feel I cannot ignore it. Besides, it says a lot about life in rural France.
The story is centred on the most important building in the community – no, not the bank, nor the bar not even the post office. It’s the bakery. It is not my favourite bread shop – the range is a bit limited – but occasionally I have glimpsed the baker in the backroom, rather a muscular, handsome chap covered in flour. His wife sold the baguettes and croissants. A bohemian figure with long highlighted hair and a penchant for grungy outfits, we were quite friendly, partly because she shares a name with one of my daughters.
However, last weekend, when I went to get a loaf, I was served by a rather pretty youngster with long blonde hair. Where, I asked a friend, is the baker’s wife?
“You mean you don’t know? The whole village has been talking about it.” She steered me towards the local bar, and over a cup of coffee, outlined the sorry tale.

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It turns out that a couple of years ago a Parisian moved into the village with her husband. She became best friends with the baker’s wife. They spent many happy hours together in the shop talking about fashion, food and other French obsessions. But as Coco Chanel was fond of observing: “My friends, there are no friends.”

For when the baker’s wife went to visit her ailing mother, the baker took the opportunity of getting close to the Parisian woman. He may not be the first baker to be caught with his hands in the wrong bag of flour, but when his wife discovered what had been happening in her absence, she took it badly. She repacked her bags and left; nobody knows where she went.

The Parisian thought this might leave her free to move in with the handsome baker, but he apparently rejected this kind offer. This was the cue for her husband to get involved. He went down to the bakery with his shotgun and loosed a couple of rounds into the windows. Whether he was aiming at the baker, we don’t know, but it does seem a bit of an odd reaction to take it out on an innocent building.

What we do know is that the baker has got rid of two women who were beginning to show their age and apart from the damage to his windows, has come out of the whole saga unscathed. Moreover he now has a younger woman handling his baguettes.
“As long as she doesn’t end up with a bun in the oven, he’s had a result,” says my friend. What interests me is the reaction of the rest of the village. They are delighted to have something to talk about. It’s the biggest thing since Le Pen defeated Jospin in 2002. (Zidane’s World Cup head butt pales in comparison.)

There are now regular pilgrimages to gawp at the gun-shot wounded windows; much more interesting than the normal evening pastime of going to the bus stop in your slippers, carrying a deck chair and sitting there watching the traffic go by.
“You’ll notice the police haven’t been involved,” one village senior told me. “That’s the French noblesse oblige. If a man has been cuckolded then he is perfectly entitled to take a few pot shots at your window.”

There’s not much sympathy for the wronged wife. “She was always very grumpy,” says another villager. “She would look at me and say ‘what do you want?’ when I came into the bakery. ‘Some bread,’ I felt like responding, ‘isn’t that bleeding obvious?’”
Many locals think the baker might now spend more time on his bread, thus improving its quality, although the foodies in the village still make the journey into the local town for their banette moissons and apple tarts.

The Parisian and the cuckolded husband are said to be still living together in domestic disharmony. Apparently they have taken a floor of the house each, and eat at different times. God knows where they get their bread from.

What is also interesting here though is the French attitude to infidelity. No one has condemned the baker as a cheat and a cad. Everyone thinks he’s a jolly good bloke. When I asked another villager if he wasn’t shocked by the goings-on at the bakery he looked amazed.“Shocked?” He said. “This sort of thing has been going on since before time began.”

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I remember a friend of mine telling me the story of a woman who lived outside Toulouse whose husband had an affair with the local postmistress. Instead of turfing her husband out she asked a friend if she could borrow her house.
“What for?” said the friend.
“I need to seduce my husband,” was the wronged wife’s response.
She got dressed up in some sexy underwear, invited her husband round and performed a striptease routine. I can’t imagine an Englishwoman reacting in the same way. She might borrow a friend’s house to murder him in so as not to get any blood on her own carpets, but certainly not to show him her latest matching underwear.
De Gaulle once said that it is impossible to rule a country with over 350 types of cheese. Maybe it is the sheer variety of everything: bread, wine, strange vowel sounds and so on, that make fidelity more difficult for the French.

Strangely enough they seem more able to resist culinary delights than temptations of the flesh. I remember an extremely chic and slim Parisian once telling me about her little trysts, always carried out with maximum discretion in smart hotels around town.
“What else can’t you resist?” I asked her. “Croissants for example?”
She looked horrified. “I haven’t had a croissant in over twelve years.”

I should think the baker’s wife has gone off them as well.

Marvellous May

This is a short story I wrote for a Harper’s Bazaar competition last year. Rather irritatingly I didn’t win so here it is, published for the first time…

Marvellous May

My husband is hated by almost every woman in the county. They hate him for a variety of reasons, but all of them linked to sex.
Some hate him because he had sex with them a few times, and then stopped. Others hate him because he is trying to have sex with them. And then there are those who loathe him because he hasn’t tried to have sex with them. Yet. They are affronted not to be asked to the party. They can’t join in the banter with the other ladies about Julian’s wandering hands and voracious sexual appetite.
Not that I am ever included in this banter of course. They all try to hide his behaviour from me. “Oh poor May,” they sigh. “She’s so marvellous the way she puts up with him.”
They’re right. I am marvellous. I have been married to Julian for 25 years. We have had two children together. They are grown up now. Sadly he still isn’t.
But today is the last day I will have to deal with it. I have picked today because it’s his favourite day of the whole year. It’s the hunt, which he leads, and loves almost as much as illicit sex. Hunting combines everything Julian most enjoys. The tight clothes, the dashing steeds, the thrill of the chase. And our cocktail party is the perfect culmination to a perfect day. Or it is if he manages to extend the mounting to at least one or two of our hapless guests.shutterstock_157838480
He will succeed of course, because if all else fails there are the old favourites: Kim and Susan. Susan and Kim. Who came first I wonder? They used to be best friends until Julian started having an affair with them both at the same time. And now they hate each other more than most of the other women in the county hate Julian. I can’t really understand it, and of course the reason for their falling out has been “hidden” from me and blamed on an argument about a chestnut mare they both wanted to buy. This morning they are both at the stables, mucking out. I walk past on my way to discuss the antis with the police accompanied by my best friend Alice.
“Morning Julian,” shouts Alice when we see him striding towards us, immaculate in his hunting kit. Even I find him quite handsome in his hunting pink. He is a good-looking man, despite being 50, with a full head of grey hair and a good body, which he is too vain to lose. ‘The Silver Fox’ some of the less bitter women call him. “I see you’ve got your minions doing your dirty work for you!”
Susan sticks her nose out of one the stables. In fact her nose is so enormous it’s the first thing one sees a very long time before the rest of her appears. I often wonder how he manages to kiss her without knocking himself out.
“I am NOT one of his minions,” she spits. Poor Susan, even if she hates my husband, she can’t bear for Kim to get on his good side again, and back into his britches. It’s like an addiction for the pair of them. They just can’t keep away. She is about to continue protesting when she spots me and slinks back into the stable, taking her nose with her.
Alice is the only person who dares to talk about my husband’s serial shagging openly. She treats it like a big joke. Julian is terrified of her. He constantly tries to seduce her too of course. If there’s a horse in the stable Julian hasn’t yet ridden, he has to give it a go. She tells him if she’s ever that desperate she’ll let him know. Which has only heightened his desire. He’d love to sleep with Alice; she would be the ultimate conquest. She’s attractive, and more enticingly, a lesbian. Julian views an attractive lesbian like the contemporary equivalent of an invitation to a duel. It’s a matter of honour.
“She just hasn’t met the right man,” he’ll say to me, preening himself in front of the mirror.
“I’m sure you’re right, darling,” I respond, much in the same way I used to agree with Will, our eldest son, when he told me he was going to become an astronaut. He’s an insurance salesman now. A lovely boy, but certainly never bright enough to become an astronaut. He went on to Oxford Brookes, a ‘fake’ university as Julian calls it. I prefer the word ‘new’. My youngest, Louise, is cleverer. “Takes after you,” Alice says. She is now in her third year at Edinburgh.
Whatever happens after today I have got them to this stage, they are adults, they are in charge of their lives, I think I can justifiably say that I have done my duty. Of course Julian would say he has done his duty by paying for it all. Alice always calls sex a terribly destructive force, but I think money is worse. Julian has used money throughout a lot of our lives to justify behaving badly and keeping me in my place. As an investment banker he earns a fortune, in fact I don’t remember a time when we were broke like most young couples are. We just never seemed to be missing anything. So at 26 I gave up my badly paid job in publishing to become Marvellous May; the textbook stay at home wife and mother.
I have myself to blame though in many ways. “You’ve created a monster,” Alice tells me. I suppose I was always a bit scared of him, always slightly grateful that he married me. He was so glamorous and outgoing. I was fine looking, but not one of the stars of the set like he was. Even if I had the title and the upbringing, while he went to a grammar school, which left him with a sense of inferiority he has spent most of the rest of his life trying to hide. He applied for Eton but didn’t get in. And his parents said it was either Eton or state school. They weren’t prepared to sell the house for anything less. I don’t think he ever forgave Eton.
When we got married I let him get away with not changing nappies, I allowed him to do nothing around the home while I ran everything, and then a few years later I let him sleep with whomever he wanted to and all because I felt I couldn’t grumble. One of the reasons I felt I couldn’t grumble was that we had everything. Holidays, cars, houses, fine wines, nice clothes. I have a credit card with a limit of 30,000 quid. I can buy myself a horse if I want to. But of course that sort of large purchase would be down to Julian. Like my Range Rover. I know when they bring out a new one because it’s on my drive before the paint has dried.
“Another guilt car?” Alice will ask when she sees it. I suppose it is. But what that bastard of a husband of mine has worked out is that the guilt works both ways.
Since Will and Louise left home I have found it more and more difficult to justify doing nothing with my life. What have I contributed to the world except for two middle-class children? I suppose I have kept a lot of Range Rover factory workers in blue overalls over the years. But I could have done more. Marvellous May doesn’t feel so marvellous about herself.
“It’s not too late,” Alice says. Maybe she’s right. But it’s almost as if I can’t even think about it myself. Like so much of my life, it’s hidden behind the façade of my Queen Anne house. The proportions are perfect. An arched doorway with a tall white-framed window either side. On the next floor, three windows, aligned with the door and the two below. The top floor roof has three small attic windows. On each corner of the roof sits a chimney. If you move just one element the effect is ruined.
And the new Range Rovers complete the picture parked on the wide gravel driveway.
The hunters have returned, exhilarated and high from the day’s events. They managed to trick both the antis and the weather, sheltering from a hailstorm in the woods and avoiding hedges where the antis had hidden barbed wire in order to cause maximum damage to the priceless horses.
The cocktail party has begun. Here we are, gathered in our beautiful drawing room. There are two roaring fires, one at either end of the room giving out enough heat to further redden the already ruddy cheeks of the hunters. There is a comforting hum of guests enjoying themselves, relaxing and sipping champagne, safe, rich and happy. The lights are just low enough to hide the wrinkles creeping up on us all. The young are all in the kitchen daring each other to drink hideous concoctions and planning the night ahead at some party or other where they can behave like their parents used to.
Would all of us behave like Julian if we could get away with it? Isn’t it more fun doing what you want than what you’re expected to? But then that’s growing up I suppose. I don’t really blame Julian. I don’t hate him for his adultery. I used to. He hurt me very badly the first few times but that was back at a time when I cared. Luckily some defense mechanism kicked in about ten years ago and I stopped hurting, and stopped caring really. I think I fell out of love with him. He can still affect me, for sure. And if he really turns on the charm, or makes me laugh I can remember a time when all I wanted was him. I wonder if there ever was a time when all he wanted was me? I think there was, maybe very early on, before Will was born. It’s almost like my love for Julian mellowed with each child. As if they took a slice of the love I used to have for him. He didn’t help himself, of course, by sleeping with every woman within a twenty-mile radius. But maybe he wasn’t solely to blame? Was I in part responsible for him starting to stray? And did it then just become an unbreakable habit?
I’ll never know now. I watch my guests mingling, having fun, looking forward to the gossip or scandal that surely must result from this evening. There is usually something to talk about in the weeks to come. Four years ago a German prince ended up naked in the fountain despite the fact that it was almost freezing outside. Makes you wonder how they ever lost the war in Russia. Last year we had a group of antis crash the party. Julian got his gun and scared off most of them. A couple of the girls stayed on, young, pretty things, clearly rather taken with the comfortable scene indoors and happy to drink champagne rather than running off into the cold wet woods with their activist boyfriends. Julian ended up sleeping with one or both of them I’m sure. A couple of years before that the guests performed a topless can-can at 4am. I was in bed by then, but Alice told me all about it. I wasn’t that sorry to miss it. I think at my age my days of topless dancing are probably over. My husband, seemingly, is still in his prime.
It’s interesting isn’t it, that men only get more attractive as they get older? The George Clooney effect. Yet another one of life’s little jokes at the expense of women, like periods and childbirth. I sound bitter. I’m not. No, really. I’ve been very lucky. And I don’t begrudge George Clooney a thing. I’d even be thrilled to discuss the whole issue with him, topless, if he asked me. But it does sometimes seem a tad unfair that my husband just seems to get more attractive, while I become increasingly invisible.
Just after midnight I am going to sneak away. No one will notice, one of the advantages of being invisible. Julian will follow soon after, and make his exit as nonchalant as possible. He is always careful; I think he enjoys the subterfuge almost as much as the actual sex. I am convinced it wouldn’t be as much fun if he weren’t deceiving me, which is why he has stayed with me so long. I’m sure a little part of him still enjoys his revenge on the upper classes. I watch him prepare the ground, flitting from person to person carrying a bottle of champagne so it won’t seem odd when he walks out of the room. No one, with the possible exception of Susan and Kim, will think to follow him. They will just assume he’s gone to get another bottle, ever the attentive host. Only I know where he’s really going.
I have been planning this moment for months. I’m not sure what the decisive moment was. I think it might have been when Alice pointed out that he is going to be unbearable when he is too old and ugly to seduce women any more. “There is nothing more irritating than a man with nothing to do,” my mother used to complain when my father had retired. I think that made me realise that I’d just had enough, that I was not really living, just partly living. And that after all these years it was in my power to get my revenge on him. His little Don Juan gig would soon come to an end with no wife at home to berate him. Where’s the fun in behaving badly when there’s no one to hide from or to tell you off?
Now the moment is here it’s almost like watching myself in a film. I have rehearsed each move over and over in my mind. I walk out of my drawing room for the last time. On my way to the planned rendezvous I double check that Alice has loaded up the car. Everything is there. Most of it has been packed for weeks, hidden under our bed. I have been planning every detail of my new life down to what to wear to lunch with my old colleague who is now CEO of the publishing company I used to work for.
Alice is waiting for me by the stables. She smiles when she sees me.
“Ready?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, approaching her.
She puts her arms around my waist and kisses me. It’s a surprising sensation, being kissed by a woman. Not because it’s a woman per se, but the kiss is so gentle compared with a man’s kiss. There is no roughness as her tongue moves into my mouth, no force, just a softness that I have never experienced with Julian.
After about 30 seconds we hear his voice.
“Well, hellooooo ladies! Don’t let me interrupt you!” He is thrilled at the prospect of a threesome in the hay, until I turn around and face him. His delight turns to panic, then confusion, then fury. I can almost see his brain computing the scene, trying to make sense of it. He’s too stunned to speak. His wife, the ever-patient Marvellous May kissing the woman he has come to the stables to seduce. The woman whose text this morning excited him even more than the prospect of the hunt.
Alice hands me a white envelope.
“Julian,” I say passing it on to him. “In this envelope is a letter from my lawyer stating the terms of our divorce. I’m not going to be greedy, I know you earned all the money, and I won’t take your precious house and horses from you. I will however move into our London home. And you will pay me alimony of 10,000 pounds a month, which will cover the children and my costs.”
Julian takes the envelope. The money will hurt, especially giving it away without retaining control of me. Handing it over with no guilty secret to atone for. I can see the blustering is about to begin. I need to be brief.
“I have just sent an email to the children, asking them to come for lunch with me next week so I can talk to them. Please don’t try to turn them against me. It won’t work anyway, but if you try to I will tell them what I’m sure they already know, that you have slept with almost all my friends.”
“How dare you May? I won’t stand for this,” he shouts. Time to get out of there.
Alice nods and we start walking towards the Range Rover.
“Get back here this instance,” he yells after us.
I almost turn back I’m so used to doing what he tells me to.
Alice takes my hand and keeps me moving forward. “He doesn’t have any power over you,” she says gently. “You are the one that gives him the power. If you ignore him he can’t do a thing.”
I’m shaking when we get to the car so Alice says she will drive us to London.
“He knows the game is up,” says Alice, reassuring me as she starts the engine.
Julian hasn’t followed us, which surprises me. I half expect him to run in front of the car, apoplectic with rage. I’m still terrified he will ruin everything. I can’t wait for my new life to begin.
The wheels crunch over the gravel. I look back at the façade of my house lit by the full moon. The perfect proportions fade into the night as we drive away.