Read Who Are You? Online

Authors: Elizabeth Forbes

Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Post Traumatic Stress, #Combat stress

Who Are You? (6 page)

BOOK: Who Are You?
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‘Or I could just stop kissing you?’

‘Only whores don’t like being kissed.’

‘You’re my whore … Maid in the drawing room, chef in the kitchen …’

‘And you’re an idiot prick.’ She’d slapped him lightly and then straddled him, lifted up the long T-shirty thing that she always pulled over herself before going down to make tea, and he was ready for her in a heartbeat. That was the way it used to be after a tour; they fucked like bunnies for the first few days, all loved up, almost tiptoeing around each other in order to be nice, and then all the tension of the separation would start to fizz out of the pent- up bottle. She would start moaning about all the problems she’d had to deal with by herself, things she said she didn’t want to tell him on the phone, all the boring stuff, the little domestic dramas that seemed so important to her but so inconsequential to him: Ben’s illnesses, bills, arguments over parking. Ben’s teachers, his friends, her social life. And Alex would listen and try to be sympathetic, apologetic, supportive … all the things he thought he should be, but without really feeling or meaning any of it. It didn’t take much for him to start thinking things like ‘And what do you think I didn’t tell you on the phone? What did I do to try and stop you worrying?’ Don’t talk about it. Bury it. Leave it behind. There is there, and there is here. Two worlds, two men. One woman. Sometimes he would almost feel as if he’d left his body; as if he was watching this other Alex going through the motions of feeling, while the other one watched from above, detached, uninvolved. Bored, even. The only time he had felt normal was when he was out with the lads, where there was the unspoken acknowledgement that they
each other, they understood who they were. They had respect for what they’d been through, understanding about the stuff they didn’t talk about, because they didn’t need to talk about it. They used the beer and the banter to swill it all away like shit into a sewer. But that’s all gone now, and he feels very alone.

Juliet’s already poured herself a glass of wine by the time Alex gets downstairs. She’s put her hair up loosely, so that lots of stray bits escape; she looks sexy, messy, recently fucked. Not by him, though. Although he could have her right now. Pull that dress up, tip her over the cold granite worktop, slip her pants aside and slam right into her, get her where he wants her, begging for him, under his control if only while she’s getting his cock inside her. He feels his erection growing but doesn’t want to give her the satisfaction of noticing it, so he gets his remaining whisky out of the fridge and stands at the opposite side of the island, which is waist level. She sips on her glass, stares at him, but doesn’t speak. So he just looks back. He thinks they’re like a pair of flamenco dancers, enacting a sort of phony war, eyeing each other up, waiting for one of them to make a move, show a weakness. Who’s gonna blink first? Actually, he’s in no hurry to talk. The whole shower and change thing has calmed him down. He’s mad at Juliet for saying what she said in Ben’s hearing. But he’s also slightly amused, though he might not tell her that. In the meantime only a few seconds have passed and so they’re still eyeing each other up. Her hand rests on her throat, possibly defensively, as if she senses the hormonally charged threat in the air. Her neck is bare of jewellery as usual. That’s Juliet’s thing. Always understated, but nevertheless startling. She wears her make-up well. He doesn’t think it has changed much since he first met her. She’s barely changed – and he’d notice. When you’re with someone every day, the glacially slow changes of the ageing process are barely discernible. But when you’ve been away for a few months, you notice these things more. Admittedly she sometimes looks tired, but even that seems to suit her. It makes her look a bit wasted, a bit fascinating. She uses lots of black around her eyes, a thin line across her top lids, and a further line inside her lower lids. She has ice-blue eyes. How do you describe ice-blue? Like the blue that you get in the Arctic, the blue trapped inside icebergs. A clear, translucent blue with shards of white if you looked
closely. Alex knows this, because he has seen icebergs. Juliet’s eyes are an anathema, because they reveal nothing, but tell you a lot. They tell you that when she’s looking at you it’s as though she can see right into you and read your mind. But infuriatingly they reveal nothing about her. Like ice they absorb but do not reflect. Men, Alex knows, find her both interesting and a little bit intimidating.

‘So do you wanna know about the little shit, or not?’

Alex nods once. ‘But I don’t like Ben hearing that sort of language.’

‘Don’t be so hypocritical. He hears you often enough. I said do you want to know, or not?’


‘He told Ben that his daddy had said that Ben’s mummy is a bitch and that Ben’s daddy has done bad things.’

Alex laughs. A hollow sort of laugh. He downs the last of the whisky. ‘And why are you a bitch?’

‘Because I screwed my heel into his foot when he
stuck his hand up my skirt and …’ she stopped to laugh, ‘ … and I said in a
loud voice “Marcus WILL YOU TAKE YOUR FUCKING HAND AWAY FROM MY FANNY” and he tried to make out that I was only joking. Freak. Anyway, Rupert pushed Ben over during the nativity play which upset the manger, and baby Jesus landed on his head causing tears and pandemonium, obviously … And he also poured powder paint into the sandpit and blamed it on Ben. Ben said he was frightened of him. That he didn’t want to be Rupert’s friend. He was upset in case he did it again. So I spoke to the teacher about it.’


‘The teacher said that she thought it was, God … six of one and half a dozen of the other. You know, all mealy-mouthed. Like she’s got any idea what went on.’

‘It could be …’

‘What, like Ben’s called Rupert’s father a bad man? And his mummy a bitch? Yeah … reckon you could be right there.’

‘Not Ben’s style is it?’

‘Well not unless he’s changed dramatically into some completely different child in the last week. I don’t think so … Anyway, who cares if people think you’re a bad man? You
, but I object to being called a bitch.’


‘Seriously, Alex. We can’t allow this bullying. And don’t start telling me it’s bloody well character-building, because it isn’t. You of all people should know that.’ The doorbell rings, announcing the arrival of the babysitter. Juliet throws on her dark mink jacket.

‘The Hunts are going to be there tonight.’

‘So we could have some fun, then.’

Juliet doesn’t answer, but just shrugs, and lets in Louise, the sitter. She gives her the low-down on Ben, what’s in the fridge, checks she’s got mobile numbers, landline numbers of where they’re going – actually it’s only across the road – and then says sweetly to Alex: ‘Come on, honey. Let’s go and see the nice people at the lovely party.’



They walk up the road together, but apart. Juliet is huddled into her jacket with her head down, and Alex has been thinking. He is becoming angry. His son is not the kind of kid who’s going to be intimidated by other people. And he is also very angry that any man could think he could help himself to what is his. ‘Did he really … Marcus … stick his hand up your skirt?’

‘Yeah. It’s what men do … pissed men. But they don’t do it a second time … not unless I ask them to. Anyway, Marcus gropes everyone, not just me. And don’t forget what Caroline was like at that dinner – I thought she was going to have you for pudding. And you fucking well encouraged her. Though God knows why.’

Alex grabs her collar. Pulls her towards him and clamps his mouth onto hers.

When he releases her she says: ‘God, Alex, you’ll have ruined my bloody lip gloss – and it’s all over
mouth, you twit.’ Alex wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. It’s sticky and smells of toffee. He grabs Juliet’s hand and hangs on to it. Her stiletto heels with their metal tips clip-clip-clip on the paving stones, and then change timbre as they step onto the tarmac to cross the road, and he can hear the South Circular humming away in the background. The curtains at number 94 are open and a gaggle of people can be seen laughing and mouthing to each other, soundproofed by the double glazing.

‘Look at the
of that fuck-off wreath,’ Juliet says. ‘Must have cost a fortune.’

‘Ostentatious – and a waste of money. Only gets chucked away. Like bloody Christmas trees. They’ll be a hundred quid soon, and they’re in the house for what – two weeks?’

‘You’re so parsimonious. If you feel that strongly why don’t we have an artificial one?’

They have the same discussion every Christmas.

‘You know I’d never have an artificial tree in the house.’

They push the door open and immediately they can hear the tinny sound of a Christmas compilation providing background festive moodery. ‘
Do they know it’s Christmas time …
’ An ear worm has been spinning the same track in his head all day; he just can’t get away from the bloody thing. He sees that there is a man in a white jacket standing by a white table-clothed trestle table, pouring steaming red liquid into glasses, and his heart sinks even further. It was meant to be drunk when you were outside, frozen and numb-cheeked in some ski resort or other, when your taste buds were so bloody frozen that anything would taste good. Not for some chichi little drinks party in park-side East Sheen, with a thermostat that’s probably set at around 25 degrees Celsius. There’s a grainy film of something floating on the surface that hasn’t quite dissolved, and the smell of cloves which reminds Alex of fillings and drills. What he could really use is a Scotch.

‘Your favourite,’ Juliet grins at him, and Alex thinks it might be the first time this evening he’s seen a proper smile. Probably because she’s amused by his misery.

‘And yours.’

‘I don’t hate it as much as you. It’s seasonal, festive – mulled wine, mince pies and sausage rolls’. She lowers her voice: ‘Perhaps they’ll have Twiglets and cheese balls … oh and nibbles like cheese and pineapple and prawn vol-au-vents.’ Alex is almost in awe of how many hated words Juliet can cram into one sentence.

He follows Juliet towards the room where all the guests are gathered. A wall of noise hits them as they step through the doorway. It’s a familiar noise, a sort of phwar phwar phwarrring … interspersed with a few hohohos and hahahahahas, and a few eeeehuws and high pitched REALLYS and OH NOS and ABSOLUTELYS. It’s the tribal gathering sound of the professional southern middle-classes, where you’d struggle to find a regional accent, any residue of which would have been scrubbed from your tongue like a nasty dose of thrush, so that you could all be part of the same team. Being here meant you’d arrived. You’d made it. This was
. All one big club. There is something scarily similar about all the women – and the men, come to that. Perhaps it’s because they frequent the same hairdresser – he or she of the moment, or they shop for their clothes in packs and cheer each other on to buy the same sorts of styles. Their nail varnish is even the same colour, the big chunky gold jewellery with a preference for turquoise, or thick swags of pearls. They have chains and hearts and keys from Tiffany’s and jangly bracelets on slim, tanned wrists that were probably found in markets in Marrakesh or some other exotic location. Alex notices these things. Sometimes he just wishes his mind would flash up a computer-style warning saying: STOP – OUT OF MEMORY. The women are, mostly, pretty hot- looking. They put a lot of money and effort into keeping time at bay. Looking around the room there is a lot of black. A lot of that blonde-y, browny, streaky sort of hair, and teeth that have been whitened and straightened. There’s no room for imperfection any more, which results in a universal blandness. They’ve all got great tits; tits are the new black. He knows this because Juliet got herself a brand new pair and started a trend. He hadn’t been happy about it, but she’d insisted and now … well … actually he wasn’t unhappy about them any more. Like his beard, she’d done it as a surprise for his homecoming. More interesting to play with than a tattoo. And it was true, they did stay upright when she was flat on her back, unlike the previous fried eggs he’d got so used to. There is something niggling him though, and he isn’t sure yet what it is. That feeling of detachment is hovering around him. He is not a part of this – doesn’t want to be, never expected to be – and feels a growing sense of suffocation as he glances around the room at the familiar faces of their ‘friends’. These friends who know nothing about him, nothing about Juliet. It seems so fucking petty and pointless, but they’ve all got to play the game.

Juliet has melted into the fray and Alex knows what is expected of him. He must wear his social face; his approachable ‘aren’t I glad to be here’ face.

‘What are you smiling at?’ Caroline Hunt is standing in front of him. A few too many whiskies and you had to watch your tongue around that one. Alex isn’t smiling, his mouth just seems to lift and stretch at the corners when he’s scowling. People often assume he’s thinking the opposite of what he’s thinking. It comes in useful. ‘Oh, nothing. Just made myself laugh, that’s all. Bad joke.’ The lie trips off his tongue.

‘Want to share?’

‘It wouldn’t be funny. The moment’s passed. Nice dress.’

‘Thanks. Good of you to notice. Marcus hasn’t. Still, maybe that’s a blessing. Saves having to go through one of those boring Is it new … How much … kind of conversations.’

‘I bet he notices. He’s just not saying. Keeping you on your toes.’

‘Marcus? Come off it. He wouldn’t have the imagination.’

‘Then he’s a very silly man. Should appreciate more what he’s got.’

At this point Alex would expect a woman’s eyebrows to lift, but Caroline’s don’t. She’s got that tell-tale polished, stretched, cling-filmed kind of look that says Botox and fillers. Alex has forbidden Juliet to ever consider it. How could their husbands ever know what their wives were thinking – plotting, even – if they couldn’t see their faces move, the truth within rather than the lies outside.

BOOK: Who Are You?
7.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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