Authors: Elizabeth Forbes
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Post Traumatic Stress, #Combat stress
‘My, aren’t you the charmer?’ She giggles in an unsubtle, coquettish way.
‘Just stating the facts. Your glass – it’s empty. Would you like me to get you …’
Caroline brings her head closer to Alex. ‘Between you and me, I’d much prefer a glass of wine, red or white … This stuff just reminds me of mouthwash, lukewarm mouthwash.’
This time Alex’s smile is genuine. ‘Not only do you look good, but you’re also a lady of taste.’
‘Mr Miller, you want to be careful with that smooth tongue of yours, might just get you into a slippery situation.’
‘Not sure that’s entirely complimentary. Slippery … Let’s see, pinstripes too wide, wrong aftershave, brown shoes in London? Or maybe you were thinking of something more intimate?’
Caroline looks confused. Alex sees her pupils dilate just a fraction, but enough to tell him all he needs to know. She laughs because, Alex believes, she’s embarrassed at what he thinks – he knows – she’s been thinking. ‘You’re mad. Do you think we could do a raid on the bar, surreptitiously?’ She’s trying to sound normal, to cover the fact that he’s really got to her.
‘Yep. After you.’ Caroline brushes past him and her hips scrape against his, and she gives him a sideways glance. Alex rests his hand lightly in the small of her back, uses his finger to put the slightest pressure on the sensitive mid-point of her sacro-iliac. They are back in the hallway, standing side by side in front of the bar table. ‘Hi, you’re doing a great job there, and that mulled wine was really good.’ The barman nods his thanks. ‘But any chance of a glass of wine for the lady?’
He’s got an Italian accent, probably brought in from the wine bar down the Upper Richmond Road. ‘Red or white?’ Alex turns to Caroline.
‘And red for me.’ Alex says.
Once they’ve got their glasses Caroline starts heading back to the main body of the party. But Alex catches her elbow, gently but firmly. ‘Hey,’ he says.
She turns back to him. Once again, this would be the eyebrow- lift moment. It’s a bit uncanny, this frozen facial expression thing. It makes Alex uncomfortable because it challenges his reading skills. ‘Just a second. There’s something I want to show you.’ Alex knows there’s a little study just before the kitchen. He opens the door and grins at Caroline. ‘In here.’
She should be frowning. But she can’t. Still, she takes the bait and walks into the dark room in front of him. Alex closes the door, takes the glass from her hand, sets both his own glass and hers down onto a desk. Then he pushes her up against the wall. He can feel the pace of her breathing quickening, her head going back, exposing her neck. He places one hand on her shoulder and stares into her eyes. There’s enough light coming from the glazed panel over the door just to be able to see a flicker of something there. No resistance, just an open invitation. He starts tracing a delicate line with his fingertip from her neck down to her cleavage. He clutches and kneads her right breast. Her eyes widen and her lips part. He thinks she’s expecting him to kiss her. Instead he speaks softly. ‘So what was it you said? I’m mad … and I’m also bad … and so I must be dangerous.’
‘That’s quite a seductive combination,’ she says.
Then he lets his hand drop down to her hip. He leaves it there long enough for her to feel the heat of it, and to imagine what’s going to happen next. Then he starts gathering up her dress. She’s got stockings on, hold-ups. Juliet would never wear hold-ups. He slips his fingers inside her flimsy silky knickers and then strokes her cunt with one finger. Mrs Hunt’s cunt. She really is slippery. Wet and slippery. He stops abruptly, removes his hand. Then he says, ‘Take them off’. She wriggles her knickers down over her hips, over her legs, and then steps out of them. He holds out his hand. ‘Give them to me’. She hands them to him. Then he says,
‘Pull your dress down.’
‘I don’t … I don’t understand.’ She shakes her head, but he just stares at her blankly. Then he lifts his mouth so that it gives the impression of a smile.
‘This isn’t the time … or the place … I just wanted to check you out, to see if you were willing.’
‘And now you’ve got your answer? What do you intend to do about it?’
‘I don’t know. I haven’t decided.’ Poor Caroline. If only she hadn’t Botoxed. She could be expressing all sorts of emotions right now. She straightens her dress.
‘I’m keeping them.’
‘I don’t understand. Alex … what the hell?’ He doesn’t answer, just picks up their glasses. Hands her the white, and keeps hold of the red. Her hand is trembling. Alex’s commands are rarely countermanded.
He takes hold of her other hand and leads her back to the party. He searches the room, finds the face he’s looking for, and keeps a firm hold on Caroline’s hand as he heads for him.
Marcus Hunt turns to him. ‘Alex, hi? How are you mate?’ Even though she has the face of a plastic doll Alex can almost scent the fear in Caroline.
‘I was looking for Juliet but found Caroline instead. You’ve got a hot little wife, Marcus … really quite the bad girl …’
‘Oh, stop it, Alex. Don’t listen to him, Marcus. He’s only trying to wind you up. We’ve been discussing school, actually. Haven’t we Alex? Hardly naughty …’
‘Was it school? I’d forgotten that. Yes I suppose it was about school, partly.’
‘There you are, too dull to remember …’ Caroline giggles and takes a long sip of her white wine. Alex notes that her hands are still shaking. ‘There’s Juliet, over there, Alex. Didn’t you say you were looking for her?’
Alex ignores her and puts his mouth close to Marcus’s ear. At the same time he removes Caroline’s scrunched up knickers from his pocket and gets hold of Marcus’s hand and plants them into it.
‘Just remember that if you ever try getting anywhere near my wife’s knickers again, you’ll have to deal with me, and I’m an old- fashioned sort of guy. Eye for an eye …’
‘I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.’ Marcus looks at the lacy black triangles of silk in his hand. Then he looks at his wife. His face is a picture of confusion. ‘Caroline?’
‘For God’s sake, Marcus, he’s just having a sick game with you. With both of us …’ she narrows her eyes at Alex and mouths ‘
’ Alex finds her comment vaguely amusing in the circumstances. He raises his glass to her, winks and says ‘Thank you.’ Then lowering his voice so that they both have to draw closer to hear him, he says: ‘If I hear from my child again that his mother has been called a bitch, and that his daddy has done bad things, then you will be one more bad thing on the list. Understand?’
Marcus is beginning to get the message. He is beginning to look afraid. Which is good. Alex is back in his comfort zone. Marcus seems to have lost the power of speech. But he manages to nod. ‘Sounds like you owe Ben and his classmates a new sandpit. And don’t worry, I don’t expect Rupert to apologize to Ben. It’s not his fault he’s got such shit parents.’
Alex leaves them to begin a marital ‘discussion’ which could run and run. He has no feelings of guilt because it is obviously a marriage already in its death throes. He just might have pushed it a few steps closer to its end. Besides, they were a dangerous pair, trying to assuage their own misery by playing with other people’s partners. They’d be no loss to the local married circuit. He’s actually done quite a service to everyone. Before returning to Juliet he nips into the downstairs loo to wash his hands. Back at the party just a few moments later he sees no sign of the Hunts, strangely enough.
Alex reckons they’ve been at the party now for about forty- five minutes. He checks his watch and is bang on. He can see Juliet at the far end of the knocked-through drawing room. She senses his eyes upon her and stares across the gap. She slow-blinks an acknowledgement without smiling and then turns back to Jonathan Roberts, their host. She’s obviously said something funny, because Jonathan is laughing. There’s a tiny nugget of jealousy but Alex squashes it almost before it has a name.
* * * * *
The front door closes behind them, cutting off the noise of the party and the cold December night makes Juliet shiver. Alex puts his arm around her shoulder and pulls her in close. The rhythm of her heels changes as she sidesteps into him. They’re both a little tipsy.
Alex puts his key in the lock and lets Juliet go in front of him. He pictures what is ahead of them. Juliet heading straight upstairs while he pays off the babysitter. A brief chat with her about how everything was, to which she’ll answer, fine. Really good, not a problem at all. She’ll be struggling under a pile of school books which she will have been studying diligently. He will watch Louise cross the road and walk the few yards down to her own home, and then she will turn and wave to say she’s got there safely. She’s a good kid, and has been babysitting for most of the couples in the street since she was fifteen.
Juliet doesn’t come downstairs until Louise is just about to leave. She is standing in the hallway with her school bag slung around her shoulders, clutching her mobile. She’s turning into a very pretty girl, Alex notices. She’s losing the puppy fat and her hair is blonde and thick, falling below her shoulders. She does that thing that girls do, pushing it back with her hand and then flicking her head to swish it.
‘His temperature’s up,’ Juliet says, unable to hide a note of something accusatory in her voice. ‘Did you check on him at all, Louise?’
‘Yes. Definitely, I always do. It was about nine – an hour ago, I guess. And he was sleeping soundly. He seemed fine.’
‘God!’ Juliet snaps and marches back up the stairs.
Alex shuts the front door behind them. ‘Sorry about that. She didn’t mean to snap at you, it’s just that she worries about Ben.’
‘I’m so sorry. Honestly, I thought he was OK. He looked so settled.’
‘He’ll be fine. Thanks for tonight, and have a good Christmas.’
‘Thanks, and you. Night, Mr Miller.’
Alex goes up the stairs two at a time. He enters Ben’s room and Juliet gestures him to stay quiet. She places the back of her hand on Ben’s brow and he stirs, but doesn’t wake.
‘He feels hot,’ she says. ‘I ought to give him some Calpol.’
‘Be a shame to wake him up,’ Alex walks over to his wife and stands beside her. ‘He’s sleeping peacefully.’ He places his arms around her waist and gently nuzzles the back of her neck. She shivers as his breath hits the sensitive skin.
‘Don’t,’ she murmurs, and she strokes the back of her neck as though she is brushing the feel of him away. Alex wants to make love to her. He wants to fuck all the mess out of his head.
‘Come downstairs. Let’s have a drink together. We can check him again in half an hour or so. I’m sure he’s fine, probably just over-excited about Santa coming to see him.’
Juliet looks from Alex back to Ben. She’s obviously reluctant to leave him. ‘I don’t know …’
‘Come on.’ Alex takes her arm and pulls her towards him. Juliet looks at her watch.
‘All right, but I’ll check him in half an hour, OK?’
She follows Alex downstairs and into the kitchen. He gets a couple of glasses from the cupboard and then takes a chilled bottle of white wine from the fridge. He pours a glass for Juliet and then disappears to get himself a whisky from the drinks tray in the dining room. When he returns to the kitchen Juliet is leaning against the sink, staring out into the semi-darkness of the garden. He walks over to her and kisses her bare shoulder. She shudders.
‘What? You looked beautiful tonight. Looked like you were having fun – not that I saw very much of you.’
‘Nor I you. But I saw you speaking to the Hunts. Alex, Caroline came over to me and she said something really weird. I honestly think there’s something wrong with that woman. She didn’t say hello or anything, she just said, “Your husband is dangerous and you should keep him under control,” and then she walked off. I mean, how bloody rude was that? So I followed her and I
spilled my mulled wine down her back. I know it was childish, but after all that stuff with Ben I just lost it. But then afterwards I wondered if maybe you’d said something?’
‘Christ, let’s not talk about them now. They’re not worth thinking about. Let’s go and sit down.’ He leads her by the hand into the sitting room. The curtains are drawn, the lamps are on and it feels good to be home, just the two of them, away from the braying crowd of people. All Alex wants to do right now is relax with his wife. Juliet puts her glass down on the coffee table and starts to plump the sofa cushions where Louise has squashed them out of shape. ‘Leave them. Come on, sit next to me.’
‘It looks messy.’
‘Juliet, for God’s sake, just sit down and relax.’ He can hear the frustration in his voice and he senses Juliet tensing up. She sits beside him and he places his arm around her. He strokes the nape of her neck and then starts to gently massage her shoulder. Her skin is silky soft and yielding beneath his fingers. She leans into him and then tucks her legs beneath her. ‘That’s better,’ he says. He kisses the top of her head. ‘It feels good to be home with you, babe.’
‘Does it? I’m glad. When you think back, all those Christmases when you were away. I used to dream of this … one day … and here we are. It’s a shame you missed the nativity. I can’t tell you how sweet it was. I nearly cried. But when baby Jesus fell out of his crib, it was terribly funny. I’ll show you the photos tomorrow once I’ve uploaded them.’
‘Well I don’t think we’ll have to worry about the Hunts anymore.’
‘So you did say something? Alex, you’d better tell me, especially after what she said to me. Why did she say that?’
‘You really want to know?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘I took Caroline into a dark room. I pretended I wanted her, and Christ she was an easy target. I got her to take her knickers off – and then I handed them to Marcus. It’s an Old Testament thing, an eye for an eye. That’s what you get for sticking your hand up
wife’s skirt. That’ll make him think twice in the future. That’s some kind of shit marriage they have.’
‘Hang on,’ Juliet says sharply, ‘you did what? You took her into a darkened room? You seduced her into taking her knickers off? You are having me on. You