The fact was, she was knocking on a bit and she knew it.
It was all very well Sam telling her she was beautiful without makeup but she knew she wasn’t and it didn’t help that she’d been crying, so her eyes were puffy, and her hair frizzier than normal. She’d thrown it into a hasty ponytail that morning to dash the kids to school, hungover to fuck after meeting her work colleagues for drinks on the eve of her 33rd birthday, and now it had come undone.
They were all younger, of course, her colleagues – and paid more – lots of them. But then, none of them had taken a five-year career hiatus to raise two oft-unruly kids, start a failed business or made a career about-turn as 30 came and went. She had no one to blame but herself in that respect.
Oh, and her husband Jon. She blamed him alright. It was his fault they were in this mess in the first place, what with losing his job – no, not in the financial crisis like she told everyone, but for fudging the numbers on a deal that had run away with him, and getting found out before he’d had a chance to pull it around. A lot of people were at it before the financial crisis happened, but Jon got caught, and with it, their comfortable, perfect life together started to come unstuck.
He’d been head of his desk, and earning good money back then. Enough for Juliet not to work and have a quietly knackering five years of yummy mummy inertia while she worked out what else to do with her life. Well, she found out quick enough, that’s for sure, when there’s was no more money coming in. Writing car insurance copy for peanuts- once you took the childcare into consideration, that’s what. Because, despite all her credentials and her promising start in journalism, she hadn’t actually got much published. She’d had two kids instead. So she was back at square one, career-wise, and her younger, more successful colleagues sure made her know about it.
Oh well, she’d drank through it, the night before. Shot after shot, before ending up in some bar with some bloke she barely knew who’d thankfully left her unmolested and put her in a cab. She’d been woken up by her son, yelling for a lost sock, and had gathered herself enough to get the kids to school. Thank god she’d booked the day off. It was her birthday, after all.
Blearily, still good-humouredly tipsy, she texted her mum friend Kate to see if she had time for a catch-up and a coffee before she was met Sam for their special outing to Winter Wonderland. Special because, on any other day, she’d be cycling into Soho for a day of anonymous graft walled in by a raft of ill feeling. At least today, she’d have some company.
She gingerly sipped on orange scented water at the £3-a-cupcake bakery across the way from school, waiting for Kate to show, a fellow reprobate, and no stranger to falling into a cab at god knows o’clock having drunk her five a day in vodka cocktails. A single mum, Kate took her fun where she could, and knew how to let her hair down. She wouldn’t think twice about the state of Juliet this morning, washed out, makeup free and with the fortified breath of the recently hungover. Always good value at a party, she was coming to Juliet’s evening do on Saturday night. But before she could even think about her party, Juliet had to sober up enough to enjoy her day out with Sam.
“Y’alright, lady?”, she mouthed at me through the window, bursting out laughing at my sorry shaking head and bleary-eyed expression.
“D’ya have a good time then?”
“It was very civilised, the first bit”, she grimaced. “I had my nails did,” she said, looking down at my now chipped fingertips, “and then I met Jon at the day spa in Bethnal Green.”
“He took the day off work then?”
He’d been in and out of broking jobs ever since his ignominious departure from the glimmering towers of Canary Wharf, and like their marriage, things had been patchy since; the both of them coping with the fallout with desperate economising interspersed with reckless behaviour, all the while their kids raised merry hell in uproarious ignorance on their exhausted time off. It was hardly surprising things were now hanging by a barely amicable thread.
Juliet nodded. “He took me to some poncy members’ club in Soho, and we ate steak sandwiches and drank G&Ts. It was good – to actually spend time with each other that isn’t all about laundry and DIY and bedtime stories. And then we somehow ended up outside my work’s local…. and well, as you can see, it got a bit messy.”
There was no ending up about it. She rarely went out drinking with her colleagues, many of whom spent every waking moment outside office hours (which could go on well until midnight in any case) at the pub down the road. Showing her face there, especially with Jon, might help scorch the rumours that were flying around about her since that glamping trip where the Prince William-alike from account management managed to have his way with her under canvass when she was tired and emotional, and in no fit state to be seduced. It was a gymslip error of judgement, but she’d been cooped up with the kids for five years previously, and it was the first bit of male attention she’d had since before she was pregnant. It was her fault that she’d got so drunk in the first place.
The fact was, the company where she worked was incestuous as hell and drank like it was Fresher’s fortnight. By comparison, she must have seemed dry and uptight most of the time compared to the bright young, responsibility free things who staffed the agency – and she still clearly couldn’t hold her booze like she had in the old days. The rest of them weren’t to know her marriage was in pieces. Jon had taken it calmly, on the chin, when she’d confessed all on the Sunday night, shamefaced and broken, but no doubt fortified by his own indiscretions on drunken business trips away from home. Juliet didn’t ask too many questions anymore. They were, after all, grown-ups. She knew silly things happened when you were drunk and desperate, in those brief moments when you could, to reclaim some semblance of freedom.
In fact at one point last night, Jon had his arm around her old conquest and they were doing shots together, so what that would do to the company rumour mill, who knew? Like a moth to a flame, she’d led him there to prove a point, but he’d left early to relieve the babysitter and left her there to find her own way home, thinking he was being nice. She’d got home, but only by the skin of her teeth. These thoughts flickered across her mind as she supped tea while Kate clattered on about how tired she was, how her daughter Lola had failed to go to bed again, how they’d argued over homework, or her ex had let her down. Juliet wasn’t really listening. She poured another cup from the vintagey mismatched pot and checked her phone. Nothing.
It was half ten already, and she’d texted Sam twice, and left a message – but so far, no response.They’d planned a little jolly. Sam would head to hers after she’d dropped the kids off, make her breakfast and they’d go to Winter Wonderland and drink hot toddies, and maybe go for a burger – Sam’s favourite cuisine. Juliet liked these stolen moments, where she could be momentarily responsibility free and youthful, after nearly a decade where every free moment was spent doing things for her children, or nose to the grindstone at work. It was a relief, and she’d looked forward to it – hangover notwithstanding. Why had she got so drunk last night? Perhaps it was a reaction to Sam’s snarky text as she sat having her nails done the day before.
They’d been taking things out on each other a bit recently. Sam had been away a lot – a weekend in Paris; a week in Sri Lanka. It was bearable but tensions were mounting. In fact, Sam had already said he felt they should just to be friends – not because he didn’t love her – he said, he did. He just couldn’t cope with the situation, and perhaps it would be better all round? In any case, that and her pervasive feeling of being undermined in the office had helped ease that tequila down her throat. And right about now, it was beginning to repeat on her in a terrifying way.
Getting on the bus back across the park where the chichi giftshops, deli and cafes of the village gave way to tower blocks and greasy spoons that demarked Hackney from Tower Hamlets, she started to wonder whether Sam had…he couldn’t have…ditched her for the day? He could be pretty mercurial, Sam, and had a filthy temper. She remembered the day he’d come all the way to Hackney from town because she’d intimated to him on Facebook chat she fancied a quickie – she’d been working from home and had momentarily had nothing to do but fantasise. Sam had arrived horny, and when he couldn’t find Juliet at the duplex in the centre of the village where she lived before her and Jon moved up the road to cash in on the value of their flat. And when Sam called to say he was at their local, Juliet hadn’t answered, he was pissed off.
That afternoon, though she’d gone with Jon for an appointment with her son’s specialist – he was diagnosed autistic. It had been sobering, sitting there faced with a panel of doctors, answering question after question about Raffy’s babyhood that only the two of them could answer. It felt reassuring, sitting there, squeezing each other’s hand, that whatever happened, Juliet could no longer blame herself entirely for the way Raffy was – which, to be honest, wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been – a combination of Raffy growing up and Juliet letting go of her expectations – he’d now settled down and was performing well above them, now they’d been reset somewhat.
When finally she called back, leaving Jon to pick the kids up from school so she could meet Sam at the pub, shell-shocked and drained after a two-hour grilling in which Raffy had thrown a defiant fit at his own, rolled up in a ball in the corner, flatly refusing to tell the child psychologist how he felt about anything, he’d been silent and moody. Realising he’d misinterpreted her message and come on a false promise, he turned heel without a word, ignoring her pleas for him to stay, and cycling back past him as he flounced – yes, flounced is the only word for it, up the road towards the tube, he’d ignored her shouts, only stopping to demand his dog back at the door of her house, right in front of Jon and the kids. Later, the doorbell rang, and when Jon opened it, he’d found a battered sausage from the chippie up the road, and a message scrawled, “I thought you liked pork.”
She should have chucked him then. It hadn’t been anyone’s best moment, but then, Juliet probably would have done the same at that age – prone as she was high-flown romantic gestures and hissy fits round her period. The trouble with being 27 is you think the whole world revolves around you. The world looked very different the wrong side of 30 – especially when you were a mother of two whose career was in the doldrums and her marriage was little better.
She wondered what she might have done to annoy him this time, hangover starting to ring in her ears. Oh shit, yes, she’d written about the dog in her blog – the fact that he had a spot on his eyebrow. Sam hadn’t liked that – people might identify him, he said, vaingloriously. This was another thing that annoyed her about Sam. The fact that he felt important enough to worry about protecting his identity. I mean, even if people did find out, why on earth would they care, and if they did, why did that bother him so much? She took his insecurities personally, to mean that he didn’t want anyone to know he was seeing her, but like so many things that might have once bothered Juliet, she just let it wash over her. She was passed caring about a whole load of stuff.
He’d sent her an FB message the day before, as she was having her nails done at the cheap and cheerful place in the village. Only a fiver a pop, and the girl would help you unlock your bike after so as not to smudge the polish. It was a rare treat, to have attractive hands, given she had two kids, a dog and a cleaning habit. But, then, she was off for a steam with Jon at the day spa in Bethnal Green, followed by that posh lunch in Soho – and the reason she’d got so bloody hungover – too close to her workplace and she’s been drawn like a moth to their local afterwards, where the big boss, on learning it was her birthday bought her a bottle of coffee tequila that she’d doled out liberally in the hope some of her colleagues might learn to like her.But even by the end of the night, Jennie, who sat opposite her, who joined the company at the same time, ten years younger, but who kept insisting they were “on the same level” despite the fact Juliet had masters, a first and years spent working unpaid at a fashion mag, still wouldn’t speak to her, laughing raucously with the rest of the bunch from the social media team, from whom Juliet had long since been frozen out.
Looking down at her phone, she caught sight of a new message from Sam. Have a nice day, it said, with an x. Her blood boiled. The little shit. How dare he do this to her on her day off? They were rare enough, especially those spent without the kids in tow. She knew he was taking Huxley, their Frenchie, to the vet that morning – completely unnecessarily, she thought – all he had was a spot on his eyebrow. But Sam was a bit precious when it came to illness. She remembered grimly the suspected brain tumour he’d suffered over the summer after a bout of shingles, which had turned out, after an expensive CAT scan with a private hospital, to be post viral migraines. But he’d said he’d pay for it – the vet’s bill. Huxley – still only a pup – wasn’t insured yet, so she’d shrugged and said no more about it.
She called him. No answer. She called again, still no answer. Unease mounting, she wrote back to his message; if you’re doing what I think you’re doing, I think you’re horrible, and I will never ever speak to you again. The bus trundled on. At her stop, away from the gentrified village and off the arterial road leading to the A12, where Tower Hamlets meets Canary Wharf, and the chippie on the corner didn’t also offer a full-service menu of fruits de mer, she got off, and wandered shell shocked to her front door.
He was waiting for her when she arrived, dog and gift in hand, a bland smirk on his face that delighted in her confusion. “Why on earth did you think I wouldn’t show up?” he said, knowing full well why she had. She crumbled a bit, in relief as well as mild disgust – at herself, for being so paranoid and at him for being so slippery. He wandered proprietarily into her living room and thrust his gift at her. A flimsy blouse with leopard print on it. And a pair of socks with dogs on. She didn’t know what to think. Her hangover was making her regretful of the whole damn mess, but at the same time, had reduced her to base needs – an omelette to quell the nausea and a quick orgasm to relieve her anxiety. She cajoled him into bed, hating herself for her insistence, but, after all, this, he owed her something, and frankly she’d settle for a quick fuck.
It was the last time they would have sex, and she knew it, even as they did it, in the spare room with its double headboard knocking, the quiet little death enveloping her guilt and eclipsing the queasy feeling in her stomach for less than a few seconds. But then, there is nothing so very profound about sex anyway. It’s just what people do when they’re not shopping, or posturing in suits or telling off toddlers. So why must people get so upset by it? But she was upset. By the pointlessness of it all. Still, he told her she looked beautiful, even through her wretched tears.
Her told her again, under the bleak, bright lights, that she looked better without makeup while they supped expensive mulled cyder and she pretended for an hour she was young again and nothing mattered – but that felt pointless too. It was all just a distraction, but from what, she wasn’t sure. Reality, she supposed. But if this wasn’t real, then surely nothing else was either. Like the ticking over of the years, it was only another day. Another day where her own father hadn’t called. And, like the hangover after a night on the lash, each passing year made it hurt that little bit more.