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…
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.
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.