It’s the way he says her name that first alerts me. I’m buttering toast for the children when he says ‘Caroline…’ I don’t hear the rest, just the way his mouth caresses Caroline. It’s hard to explain, but something tells me she’s more than a colleague. Perhaps it’s the way his tongue rolls languorously over the ‘r’, ending with a contented sigh on the ‘ine’. I run the knife slowly along the butter as I look up and see her in his eyes. I know, I know, I haven’t a clue who this woman is and it’s stupid of me to jump to conclusions. I need more evidence than the sound of his bloody voice. But then again I know. I just know. I’ve known for some time; she’s been with us – with me – for a while. As yet undiagnosed, experience tells me these symptoms can’t be ignored. I can’t leave them to fester and bloom like cancer in my marriage. Picking up a fresh knife, I open the jar of marmalade and dig into the viscous amber stickiness. Caroline. ‘Is she new?’ I ask.
‘What?’ He feigns vagueness. ‘Oh, Caroline Harker?’ There it is again, the roll of the ‘r’, the sigh of the ‘ine’. ‘Err… no… she started in surgical before me.’ ‘Where’s she from?’ I’m now cracking an egg on the side of the bowl, trying not to imagine it’s her head. ‘Edinburgh. Very talented, only thirty-two…’ I’m overcome by a sharp wave of nausea and move away from the eggs, opaque and sickly yellow. Pulling my bathrobe around me to ward off the chill, I quickly jam the lid back on the marmalade jar, like something might escape. But it might already be too late. Wobbly and disorientated, I spritz the kitchen counter, covering any lingering odour with the zing of fresh lemons. I move around briskly now, wiping all the surfaces.
I don’t stop at one, I can’t – I must clean them all. ‘I was thinking Elephant’s Breath…?’ He looks up from his phone, puzzled, an undertow of irritation on his face. ‘The paint shade for the sitting room… it’s a sort of grey?’ I explain. He nods, absently. I’m talking about wall colours to remove Caroline from the kitchen, my kitchen, where my children are about to eat breakfast. I wipe harder at the kitchen surfaces, wishing it was as easy to wipe her away. I throw the cloth into the sink with unnecessary force and turn back to the task in hand. Breakfast. Slicing the home-made wholemeal I baked at three this morning, I whip the raw eggs vigorously and pour freshly squeezed orange juice into three glasses. That’s better.
The twins are yelling and thundering around upstairs and I glance at Simon, who rolls his eyes. ‘Do they ever do anything quietly without trying to kill each other?’ ‘That would be boring.’ I laugh, pulled out of my abyss as Sophie wafts in, a faraway look in her seventeen-year-old eyes. I look at her and am filled with maternal love. I fell for her when I fell for Simon. He’d lost his wife, Sophie her mother. She was only seven and so lost and bewildered. I’ll never forget the first time we met and she looked up at me and asked ‘are you going to be my mummy now?’ And in that moment I melted and knew I could love this child like my own. She needed me and I like to think that once I was in her life I made the world okay for her again. I can never replace her mother, but we’re close – it’s just been difficult since I had the boys to give her the time and attention she needs.
I feel guilty about that. She adores her half-brothers, but they fill our lives with their boisterousness and noisy demands and I worry Sophie may feel a little pushed out sometimes. I try and snatch half an hour here and there with her, a bit of shopping, some lunch, and we laugh together like we used to, but it’s rare, and recently she seems to have withdrawn again. I presume it’s the sudden move here, or perhaps it’s got nothing to do with home life and she’s fallen in love? Don’t do it Sophie. Don’t fall, you’ll never get up again. ‘Can you shout the boys for me, darling?’ I smile at her, using this as a chance to look into her face, to try and gauge the level of teenage hormones and happiness. ‘Alfieeee, Charlieeee,’ she yells loudly, virtually standing next to me. I cover my ears playfully. ‘I could have done that,’ I say. ‘What I meant was go to the bottom of the stairs and call them.
’ I’m now lifting a pile of wobbly golden eggs onto plates and putting them neatly down at each place. I smile indulgently at her through the steam. ‘Sophie, do you have to yell like that? You’re seventeen not bloody seven. Grow up!’ The sudden sharpness in Simon’s voice cuts through the warm, buttered-toast air. He doesn’t mean to be harsh, she just gave him a start. He’s trying to concentrate and lashed out a little, something he rarely does with the children, which is why we’re so surprised. I glance at Sophie and she seems to shrink before me. I look over to see if he’s realised the effect his words have had on her, but he’s still on his phone, already in work mode. In his absence, I’ll put the plaster on her hurt feelings. ‘Your eggs, Your Majesty,’ I say, rolling one arm in an elaborately subservient manner while putting the plate in front of her.
But it’s too late, she’s now sulkily slumping into a chair, her gossamer wings crumpled. If only he realised how much she loves him, how she so desperately wants his approval. Sophie’s always been a daddy’s girl, and I know he adores her, and would do anything for her, but her teenage insecurities overwhelm her sometimes and his insensitivity can sting. I ache for her but don’t have time to try and bring her round now. It’s already 8.15 and the twins are thundering down the stairs. They ‘land’ in the kitchen, arguing about who can do the loudest belch, and this is accompanied by vigorous and revolting demonstrations. ‘Boys please, that’s not nice,’ I say wearily, but they continue to make disgusting noises from their mouths and there are serious threats that this may extend to their bottoms. I look at Simon who smiles indulgently at them but gives me a disapproving look like it’s me who’s suggesting a bloody burping competition. I wait for him to either reprimand them or join them in their pursuit of the loudest belch, but instead he grabs his coffee, takes it through to the orangery and settles with his phone.
My identical six-year-olds both have thick dark hair like their dad and are completely wild. Charlie, at four minutes older, is the leader of the two, usually starts the fights and is obsessed with everything vile. What Alfie doesn’t dare to do, Charlie will push him to it. They are now trying to smash their breakfast plates on each other’s heads, which apparently is a new and innovative technique to test who has the strongest skull. ‘It’s a MEDICAL EXPERIMENT,’ Charlie shouts in my face when I protest. I speak quietly, hoping he’ll match me, and gently suggest this isn’t the time or the place for medical experiments and they must eat their eggs or they’ll be late for school. Not surprisingly, this mention of school causes a quiet rebellion and Charlie gives one final whack to his brother’s head in the name of neurological medicine. ‘That’s ENOUGH!’ I shout, as Alfie clutches his head and starts screaming. ‘Charlieeee just killed me.’ ‘No he hasn’t killed you, but carry on like this and someone will – me!’ I attempt to console Alfie while reprimanding Charlie as Sophie turns the radio on to drown out the noise, which really doesn’t help.
I wonder how on earth Simon can concentrate on his damned phone with this cacophony going on through the open door into the orangery. But my husband has this amazing ability to shut everything – and everyone –out, like many men, if what I hear at the school gate is anything to go by. Mind you, in Simon’s case, it’s probably a good thing, given how important his work is. He’s often on call, always checking his texts and emails 24/7 in case of any emergencies. As he says, being a surgeon isn’t a job, it’s a state of mind; it has to be, because so many people are relying on him. Someone in Simon’s position can’t just switch off and, consequently, he doesn’t always have the time or energy for the minutiae of family life. But that’s where I come in. I’m needed here in our life of crayoned pictures on the fridge, grazed knees, childish squabbles, rushed kisses in the morning and all the laughter, tears and chaos in between. I wouldn’t have it any other way, although my friend Jen thinks I’m mad. She’s married to a wealthy man and has Juanita, her nanny, who drives like a drunk, screams at the kids and has various boyfriends over for the night.
But Jen loves her, says she gave her back her life and she can do as she likes because she’s worth her weight in gold. Jen would be lost without her, but I enjoy looking after the children. Jen isn’t into kids, despite the fact she has three, but thanks to Juanita, she has lots of what she calls ‘me time’. She’s learning to dance, taking Italian lessons and is busy with all kinds of charities, but I’m not like her. I don’t need ‘me time’, I just want to be with my kids, like a proper mum. I once considered retraining, going back to art college and brushing up on new techniques, but, as Simon said, why? We don’t need the money, he has a good salary, his mother died a couple of years ago leaving him a fortune, and besides, who’d look after the children? At seventeen, Sophie’s pretty self-sufficient, but she needs me there as much as the boys do – just in a different way. It’s good for her to have someone to talk to, especially since we moved and she had to say goodbye to her friends, but there are times I really have to stretch myself. My days are filled with cleaning the house, cooking, ferrying the boys around and preventing them from harming themselves, or anyone else within a five-mile radius. Simon might be considered a little old-fashioned by some people, but he appreciates the traditional roles. When we met, he was a struggling junior surgeon and widower with a young daughter, his wife had died the previous year and life was hard for him, so I know how much he appreciates everything I do.
He doesn’t value me any less because he goes out to work while I stay at home and nurture our family, keep our home clean and welcoming. ‘We’re a team, Marianne,’ he always says. ‘Your job is no less important than mine. Without you I couldn’t earn a living and give you all the things you want.’ To everyone else, he’s Dr S. Wilson, the dashing and brilliant cardiac surgeon, but to me he’s just Simon, my husband and father to the children. He’s also one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known – I don’t even understand his job title, which includes a specialty in mitral valve repair, transcatheter aortic valve implantation and atrial fibrillation surgery (I learned that by heart to impress him, I just hope he never tests me on it!). I understand how stressful his work is and sometimes he brings that stress home, especially at the moment as he’s hoping for a promotion to Senior Consultant Surgeon. He’s working incredibly hard – we barely see him some days – but as he says, it will be worth it if he gets the post, and I have faith he will. My concern is that he’s so driven, he puts huge demands on himself and bottles up his stress.
Thing is, he can’t really share it with me because I don’t understand the intricacies and skills of heart surgery – who does? Caroline does. ‘Darling, I can’t even begin to explain to you what happened today because you wouldn’t understand,’ he said the other evening when I asked if he was okay. ‘People’s lives are in my hands… I’m permanently on high alert. I don’t get coffee breaks and days off like some halfwit bean counter.’ I think he was referring to Peter, Jen’s husband, who’s big in banking. Jen had invited us to their place in Cornwall for the weekend, but Simon couldn’t get the time off and the kids and I were disappointed, which made him cross. He hated saying no to us and was angry with himself; Simon hated letting his kids down. I should have just accepted this, but I pushed things, as usual, and pointed out that we’d been excited about spending the last weekend of summer in Cornwall with the Moretons. I made him feel terrible and we argued quite vigorously that night, but later, when the kids were in bed, I joined him on the sofa and it was soon forgotten. Even now, after being together for ten years, I still can’t be cross with him for long, and one look into those eyes is all I need to remind myself that he’s everything I ever wanted.
And I’m so lucky. I’ve always loved Simon, from the minute I saw him, and though we’ve had our problems I was just beginning to feel like we were back on an even keel when we moved here. But now there’s the spectre of Caroline, a ‘talented’ thirty-something he spends his days with. I can’t for a moment let him think I’m going down that road again though. So I will keep my unwelcome thoughts to myself, and try not to imagine them together in theatre, masked up, their eyes meeting over an open chest, flirting over a defibrillator. I feel the blood rising in my neck as I imagine her passing him his scalpel, long eyelashes batting, their gloved hands ‘accidentally’ touching. I hear his commanding, sexy voice instructing the team while working on a complex quadruple bypass, causing every woman present to go weak at the knees – I do, just thinking about it. Jealousy fills my stomach and chest until I’m so packed with it I want to vomit at this imagined tableau imprinted now on my brain. I feel faint and far away watching Alfie take his revenge on Charlie with a teaspoon to the ear. I do nothing.
As the boys scream and shout and hurt, I take a scouring brush and clean the sink, pushing away my stupid nightmare fantasies of Simon with another woman and turn my attention to the good stuff. I stop scrubbing for a moment and glimpse the children now eating their breakfast; seeing them always makes me feel better. Okay, so the boys are pushing their food inelegantly into their mouths while slurping down orange juice, but I feel that familiar rush. I feel the same watching Sophie nibble delicately on a small corner of toast, her big, blue eyes gazing ahead, probably dreaming of her prince, or whoever she’s got a crush on in Year 13 this week. Then there’s my gorgeous husband – who may or may not be contemplating an affair while sitting in our beautiful orangery, looking gorgeous, his thick, dark fringe over one eye as he drinks his coffee and gazes into his phone. It’s all so Instagrammable – I want to capture it, to photograph them here in our beautiful home. #MyHome #MyLoves. The hidden message to any Carolines out there who think they might have a chance, the clue is in the pronoun – my, mine – NO ONE else’s. We’ve only been here since early spring, but I love this house, the beautiful big garden, the high-end German kitchen we put in as soon as we moved here. Simon says every woman should have a fabulous kitchen, and this was his gift to me, and it’s perfect, except right now it feels like my perfect canvas has been stained.
I watch the way the early morning sunshine slants through the huge windows, waiting for the calm to wash over me, but nothing’s happening – it’s Caroline’s fault. I usually love the way the sun plays on ‘Borrowed Light’, turning Farrow and Ball’s wonderful paint shade into the dreamiest cloudy grey on my wall. But this morning I’m not achieving ‘calm’, however deeply I look, and there’s only so long a person can stare at a wall in a busy family kitchen before one of the kids asks, ‘Has Mum gone funny again?’ Having learnt about Caroline’s existence today, I’m on edge. Damn you, Caroline, with your youth and talent and close working proximity to my husband. It’s positively primal the way my hairs stand on end when I so much as think of Simon with anyone else. Not that I do. Not a lot anyway. Earlier this year when I thought Simon was having an affair with Julia, the kids’ piano teacher, I completely resisted saying anything. I wanted to prove to myself that I could stay sane, and besides, it wasn’t worth all the drama that would inevitably follow. Oh, and I had absolutely no proof, which wouldn’t actually have helped if I’d wanted to confront him.
And, as time passed, I eventually stopped believing it. I showed myself that I can control my irrational fears, I can keep a lid on those feelings that fill my tummy and chest until I can barely breathe and make me ill. My therapist at the time asked me if Simon is a man who puts his wife’s needs and happiness before his own. I said, of course, I mean, look at my life – I have the beautiful home, I don’t have to work for a living and my husband gives me everything my heart desires. And I asked myself, could a man who buys his wife flowers as often as Simon does really cheat on her? He shows his love in so many ways, but my regular bouquet from Simon is proof that even in his busy schedule of saving lives and running an operating theatre, he stops to think of me. The bouquet arrives once a fortnight, on a Tuesday, it’s always white, seasonal, beautiful, expensive and a constant reminder that Simon loves me. And only me. We’ve had a couple of rocky years, but things started to settle down once we’d moved to this new house last February. I’ve definitely calmed down after ten years of marriage. In the early days, when I was younger, passionate and more visceral, I was terrible.
I was even more jealous than I am now and would face my ridiculous suspicions head on, regardless of the consequences. It caused so much trouble between us that Simon eventually threatened to leave, said I was making it hard for him to love me. So I promised I’d change and we went to couples counselling, but I couldn’t even deal with that in a mature, lucid fashion. ‘You can’t keep doing this, Marianne,’ he’d said, after I’d verbally attacked him in front of the counsellor, accusing him of all sorts. ‘And you can’t sleep around,’ I’d snapped back, a little woozy from the medication I was taking. I saw the look pass between him and the therapist, and in my drugged-up state I knew what it meant. They were both silently acknowledging the fact that this was all in my head. He was a caring man, who wanted the best for his wife, who gently stroked her hair, even while she raged, and wouldn’t dream of cheating, despite the fact she constantly accused him and embarrassed him in public on a regular basis. The look confirmed I was unhinged, crazy and deluded. It took several weeks in hospital and a lot of therapy (not to mention patience from Simon) for me to accept that I was wrong and my anxiety levels had caused me to imagine things that never happened.
And only then, when everyone was sure I wasn’t a danger to myself or others, was I released. ‘Eat slowly,’ I murmur to the boys. ‘Don’t gulp…’ I distract myself by cleaning the shelves inside the fridge, hoping the gulping noises behind me aren’t a prelude to another belch-fest. I notice out of the corner of my eye that Sophie’s eaten barely anything and is now gazing into her phone. I push Caroline aside to allow the increasingly familiar and unwelcome thoughts to reboot: Is Sophie eating enough? Is she anorexic? She’s certainly become more insular than ever since we moved here. Oh God, I have to stop. Simon says she’s perfectly healthy and if she wants to cut down on food there’s nothing wrong with that. ‘I’ve checked her BMI, she’s fine,’ he said when I brought it up. ‘She probably just doesn’t want to get fat or it’ll ruin her tennis.’ I’m sure he’s right, and I know he was trying to stop me from worrying.
And, as he pointed out, he has so many real issues to deal with in his everyday life that me whingeing about one of the kids not eating their greens is just irritating. But Sophie looks thinner to me and I can’t help but worry. I’ve seen photos of her mum, Simon’s first wife, who was also very thin, so perhaps it’s a genetic thing? In contrast, I have a tendency to gain weight if I’m not careful and Simon’s always so supportive when I diet, talking me through calories and what my BMI should be. He certainly keeps me on my toes, but he doesn’t like it when I mention his tummy, which sometimes protrudes over his trousers if he hasn’t had chance to play tennis recently. Anyway, I suppose as long as Sophie’s healthy, it’s okay, and she might be skinny but she exercises, which is good. Simon takes her to tennis with him as they are both members of the lovely club on the outskirts of town, says she has a strong backhand. It costs an arm and a leg to join the tennis club, but it’s beautiful, with amazing outdoor courts and a lovely clubhouse with a bar. Simon keeps saying we should go one evening, but we haven’t had chance yet as I’m too busy with the boys. We really must synchronise our diaries better though. I’d love to see Sophie play tennis, perhaps even enjoy a G&T in the clubhouse afterwards.
Thinking about this makes me feel better. Like my therapist said, it’s good to focus on positive things, stuff to look forward to. ‘I think you’ve forgotten something,’ I call as Sophie now runs to the door, rucksack on her back, heading off for the day. ‘Sophie?’ I say a little louder, and she turns in the doorway, the sun spinning her hair a million shades of caramel. She’s tall like her dad, statuesque really – and I see a glimpse of the woman she’ll become. I take a snapshot in my head, remembering the motherless little girl I’d fallen for and here she is now, almost a grown-up. I remember being Sophie’s age. I catch my breath, and wish I was seventeen again… ‘What?’ she says impatiently. I blow her a kiss. ‘Bye.
’ Sophie says, softening and, rolling her eyes. She puckers her mouth, blowing a kiss back at me into the air before sticking her tongue out affectionately at her brothers. I catch the kiss and smile as she retreats through the door to be engulfed by her day. Simon wanders back into the kitchen. ‘I’ll do the school run,’ he says, handing me his dirty mug, compensating for this with a kiss on the forehead. My heart sinks. I like taking the boys to school; it’s one of the few things that is truly structured in my day. Besides, I had plans this morning. ‘Thanks, but I think I may have mentioned I’m going for coffee with Jen.’ I smile, folding a tea towel neatly, patting it and looking back at him.
‘Jen?’ He raises his eyebrow slightly, and my heart sinks. ‘Yes.’ ‘But why? It’s such an odd friendship. She’s so not your type.’ ‘She’s nice,’ I say, not sure what he means. ‘What’s my type anyway?’ I giggle to indicate this isn’t meant in a confrontational way. ‘Well, she’s just different to you.’ ‘She’s more fun, you mean?’ I try not to sound hurt. ‘No. Just different… very different.
’ I wish he could see what I see in Jen, but he doesn’t like her, never has. I think he finds her a little threatening, ever since she pounced on him at the school’s summer barn dance. Him and about five other attractive dads, I might add. That’s just her style. ‘The plan is to meet in the playground when we drop the children off…’ I say, hoping this will be enough to secure me a pass. I’ve been looking forward to catching up with my new friend; I still feel bad about letting her down on the weekend in Cornwall. I know it will take time to build our friendship, but the Cornwall thing didn’t help, and we’re always cut short by the school bell or an injured or angry child. A coffee and a chat away from all the distractions would be the equivalent of about a week in playground catch-ups. Jen’s son Oliver plays rugby with the boys, which is how we met really – she’s fun and popular and as we’ve only been in the area a few months I’m both flattered and grateful for her friendliness towards me. ‘I pass the school to get to the hospital; I’ll drop the boys off,’ Simon is saying.
He clearly thinks she’s a bad influence and will lead me astray. Chance would be a fine thing. Apart from anything, there simply isn’t much you can do between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. ‘But I wanted to see Jen…’ I start half-heartedly, knowing it’s pointless to argue with him. Pick your fights. ‘But what about those paint colours for the living room? You need to decide on those as soon as possible,’ he says, like it’s a career choice. ‘I know, but Jen’s expecting me to…’ ‘I’m sorry, Marianne, but let’s face it, Jen’s a mess with her brassy blonde hair and tight dresses, and she’s so loud.
I can’t imagine why you’d want to spend time with someone like that. Let me save you – I’ll see her when I do the drop-off, and explain that you’re busy…’ He walks towards me, slips both hands around my waist, his hips pushing against mine gently. He hasn’t shown this kind of interest for a while, and I’m flushed with relief and pleasure. Perhaps he isn’t contemplating an affair with this mystery Caroline girl after all? ‘Darling,’ he murmurs into my hair, ‘I can’t believe you’d rather sit in some dusty old coffee shop with loudmouth Jen than be here, in this beautiful house.’ He gently pulls away, turns me around to face him. ‘I wish I was as lucky as you and didn’t have to leave here every morning…’ He strokes my hair, lifting a strand and pushing it softly behind my ear. ‘What I’d give to be here with you, just pottering about, cooking and gardening… I can’t remember the last time I had the chance to just be.’ I look into his eyes, feeling guilty now. I think back to our first house together, the two of us excitedly choosing a new sofa and curtains, and know he’d love to stay here and go through paint swatches to help make our home even lovelier for our family. But the ungrateful bitch that I am, I’d rather sit drinking coffee and gossiping.
He’s only thinking of me – he’s worried going for coffee with someone excitable like Jen will stress me out. And he’s probably right, I should stay here where it’s safe. Where I’m safe. ‘And besides, darling, I don’t mean to nag, but have you seen the state of this place? Didn’t you say you wanted to give it a good clean once the kids were back at school?’ He smiles and I feel bad. The whole house is pretty untidy after a summer of children and their friends: scuffed paintwork, toys everywhere and impromptu snacks and fruit juice now ingrained in the carpet. I suddenly feel all itchy and can’t wait for him to leave so I can start scrubbing, erasing all the stains of summer. The sofa’s wrecked. The living room carpet looks like a Jackson Pollock with splashes of blackcurrant and various unidentifiable marks whose origins I daren’t begin to imagine. I don’t know what I was thinking. Simon’s right, how could I sit in a coffee shop listening to Jen moaning about her husband and gossiping about the other mothers when I could be here clearing up and making the house nice? ‘Not to mention that I’m looking forward to a good dinner this evening.
’ Simon’s now winking at me, suggesting a romantic meal together. Shit, I hadn’t expected him to want a romantic dinner on the first day back at school; there’s so much to think about already. What the hell can I make tonight that will keep him in this loving mood? There’s no excuse. I have all day and I’m sure he’s bored of the Jamie Oliver recipes I’ve thrown into a pot while refereeing wrestling matches and summer pirate invasions. No, it’s about time I gave something back and made my husband feel loved and appreciated. Tonight will be our opportunity to regroup, spend some time together and try and get back to where we were, once upon a time. I’m now going through recipes in my head, one worry replacing another and another and another, like shuffling cards. I know a recipe isn’t exactly ‘a worry’, but it’s the way my mind works, and it’s torture as Simon’s a bit of a perfectionist, and he seems so affectionate. I want the mood to continue. I think back to the early days when we first met.
I vowed to myself that I’d be the perfect wife and mother to him and his little girl. I soon developed a close bond with Sophie – a grieving child who was fragile and vulnerable – and, along with Simon, provided the love and support she needed at a terrible time. In return, they both gave me such joy and Simon the love and security I’d longed for all my life. We all saved each other in a way. I took great delight in caring for Sophie, cooking nice dinners, keeping the house spotless. I took a sensual delight in ironing Simon’s shirts, the faded scent of aftershave in the fabric re-awoken by the warmth of the iron, filling me with the thrill of him. I totally gave myself to this perfect little family who needed me as much as I needed them. Simon always appreciated what I did, but then life came along like a huge tidal wave, bringing all kinds of trouble, and these days I sometimes find it hard enough to do beans on toast, let alone provide a three-course gourmet meal for Simon. Unfortunately, I raised the bar all those years ago and he came to expect a warm kitchen, a calm wife and a cake cooling on the rack when he came home from work. On good days, I can still give the impression that I’m on top of things and might just make nomination for Wife and Mother of the Year.
I may even have discovered a reawakening in the fragrant ironing of his thick, cotton shirts, if he hadn’t said ‘Caroline’ the way he did. I hand him his flask of coffee and sandwiches – French Brie on rye with my own homemade onion marmalade. ‘So can we say you want me to tell that woman that you have far more important things to do than make inane small talk with her?’ he says gently, still talking about my now-cancelled coffee with Jen while taking the brown paper bag from my hand. ‘Yes… but don’t put it quite like that.’ I smile, concerned he’ll offend her. ‘Of course I won’t. I’ll be perfectly charming.’ He smiles. ‘And you can be sitting here in your beautiful kitchen face deep in shades of Farrow and Ball.’ I smile back.
Simon can still make me smile when he wants to. ‘If your interior decoration is as good as I think it’s going to be, we could even think about doing Christmas drinks this year?’ He raises his eyebrows, dangling this before me like a glittering bauble. I grasp it. We don’t entertain; he doesn’t really like it. ‘Oh, Simon, I’d love that,’ I say. I want to make new friends, open our beautiful home and bring in the neighbours. Most of all I want to prove to Simon that I can still be what he wants me to be and he doesn’t need anyone else. Despite Christmas being almost four months away, my head’s already filled with gleaming trays of canapés and fairy lights adorning every crevice. I see myself welcoming our guests in cocktail-length red velvet, standing by my handsome husband. I can hear them all now: ‘The Wilsons, you know, the surgeon and his lovely wife.
’ I see them too, those women who steal glances, flirt with him and slip their phone numbers into his pocket when I’m not there. I know they wonder what he sees in me and amuse each other with stories about how I snared him, what tricks I pull to keep him, but they don’t know. Christmas drinks would show them all. ‘Oh so that’s what he sees in her? She’s a fabulous hostess, everything’s just perfect and that red dress shows her curves. Her quiche and soft furnishings are to die for. Have you tasted her crab puffs? Oh, now I get it, she is the woman behind the man. He’s gorgeous and successful and brilliant – yet nothing without her. Do you know she even chose the paint colours for the sitting room… why would he go anywhere else?’ I glow at the prospect; already I’m writing the guest list in my head as I help gather the boys and their belongings together.