As Katie sat down to her chicken (with Scrappy waiting in vain in his usual place under the table), Ruth and Simon were also eating their dinner. The medium-rare pan-griddled steaks (accompanied by Rosemary-roasted baby new potatoes, roast vine tomatoes, mixed baby leaves and a creamy horseradish dressing Ruth had made), were delicious. With some good bread from the local Artisan bakery that she’d taken out of the freezer earlier and an excellent bottle of soft, chocolatey Australian Shiraz, Ruth knew she’d delivered another superb meal.
They’d chatted a little over a gin and tonic (after he’d spent a bit of time with the children before they’d gone to bed), and they were now sitting in the conservatory with a CD playing quietly in the background. As she looked at him chewing, Ruth felt strangely isolated from everything. He was her husband, her … husband … and she was his wife. But something just didn’t feel right. What, though? It was almost as if this somehow wasn’t really meant to be her life. But this was her life and it was fine. Wasn’t it?
She and Simon didn’t really seem to have much to talk about these days. They’d been married for twelve years now, and as he was nearly always away working, it seemed to Ruth as if they were beginning to lead increasingly separate lives. Maybe she ought to make a real effort tonight and offer to have sex with him? After all, it had been … how long? Well … quite a while. Long enough for even Ruth to feel guilty.
‘Are you enjoying it?’ she enquired lightly.
‘Mmm. Very nice. Delicious.’ He’d always had a good appetite, but Ruth was a particularly good cook and Simon had cleaned his plate at every meal she’d ever made.
‘I’ve got raspberries and cream and some lovely little biscuits to have afterwards,’ she enthused.
‘Right. Sounds nice.’
‘Do you … want to take them up to bed?’ she suggested hesitantly.
‘Shall we take them upstairs?’
‘What for? Oh, I see,’ he replied as the penny dropped. ‘No. No, thanks. Can’t we have it here? I fancy a coffee and a bit of telly actually.’
‘Yes, okay then,’ Ruth replied brightly (but not sure whether she felt relieved or offended as she got up to take their plates into the kitchen).
Simon drained his glass – thinking of Anne and Ollie – then looked at Ruth standing there with her back to him as she quickly assembled the dessert and put the kettle on for the cafetière. He noticed she’d put a bit of weight on. Not too much, but more than enough to notice.
‘Too much wine,‘ he thought, popping the last of his bread into his mouth.
At Fliss and Adam’s Dinner party, all appeared to be fine. Harvey and Eleanor hadn’t spoken a word to each other on the short journey across the Common. He’d made a couple of quick work calls and she’d sent a text message to one of her friends before they’d stepped from the taxi, taken deep breaths and – as they’d walked up the path – fixed their public faces on. And now; judging by the relaxed and seemingly effortless chitchat around the table (and seeing her talking and smiling affectionately at Harvey), you would never have guessed what Eleanor was really thinking inside.
Eleanor’s demeanour was that of model wife and perfect party guest, yet she was inwardly seething with her husband. Harvey was able to relax a little (due to being in company rather than having to spend an evening alone with his wife in the mood she was in), but nevertheless had a niggling frustration, knowing that he would actually rather be somewhere else completely and not here at this party at all.
Since he had started his relationship with Lisa, Harvey had really begun to look closely at his life. The thrill of the chase when closing deals had, over the years, given him a buzz which he had often found to be better than sex. Yet at forty-two now, he was becoming increasingly bored with it all, and had an ever-growing feeling that there must be More to Life than this. His future, as it stood, consisted of another few years as a ‘Premier League’ player, to be followed by a gradual easing-down into an extremely comfortable early retirement.
Men in Harvey’s position had to constantly deliver in order to meet the demanding needs of clients, Shareholders and the Board. Working at the highest level in The City (that most cut-throat of environments), could take its toll, and a couple of poor performances meant you soon became vulnerable prey to the younger guns underneath you who were always there waiting impatiently for you to stumble so that they could step up into your megabuck shoes.
He’d been like that himself (and had risen almost effortlessly to the top), but now it was all beginning to seem a bit dull. Harvey still enjoyed what he did, but his killer-instinct seemed to be slipping away, and he knew that without that fire in his belly, his was not a job he could remain in for very long.
Little thoughts of a different life had started to flicker across Harvey’s mind. He’d initially pushed them away but they kept on coming back, and he was finding them more and more difficult to ignore. He poured himself another glass from the bottle of red in front of him and took a moment to look at the other seven people around the table.
On a week night he wouldn’t normally have drunk so much, and as his head began to spin, the thought, I don’t want to do this any more, swam in and sat there squarely in front of his eyes. Harvey was a man who made huge decisions every day. He took a mouthful of wine and there-and-then made another one. The biggest one he’d ever made, and one which was going to rock his family’s world.
Simon had got into bed and picked up his book. He’d been reading the same one for ages but never seemed to get any further with it. ‘One more night and I’m giving up on it,’ he thought to himself.
Ruth came in from the en-suite. He noticed she’d got one of her few pretty nighties on. This was strange. She usually wore pyjamas of some sort to bed these days. She slipped into her side of the bed and picked up her book too, but after a couple of minutes put it back down on the bedside table and switched her light off. She lay on her back and looked up at the ceiling.
‘Are you okay?’ he enquired.
‘Oh yes … fine,’ she replied lightly.
‘Right. Night then,’ he said and leaned over to kiss her forehead before putting the book down and switching his light out. He turned onto his side with his back to her (hoping she wasn’t planning what he thought she was, and that she would just leave him alone to be able to go straight off to sleep).
Ruth wanted to go to sleep too. Sex was such a chore. It was so hard to summon-up the enthusiasm (and she could really do without it), but she felt somehow that she ought to try and make an effort tonight for some reason, so she turned to her left and half-heartedly began rubbing her husband’s bare back. He didn’t respond, so she tried a bit harder by leaning over to attempt to stroke his stomach – and then further down – but his arm suddenly barred her way.
‘Ruth: I’m tired. Sorry.’
‘Oh. Okay … sorry,’ she whispered as she withdrew her arm, quickly turned away, and shuffled back over to her own side of their large bed.
They both lay there … neither daring to move; each feeling both equally guilty and relieved at what had (or rather hadn’t) just happened between them, and as Ruth fell asleep she thought she should have probably been feeling hurt by Simon’s rejection. But she wasn’t. And she wasn’t sure why …