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Authors: Raffaella Barker

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BOOK: A Perfect Life
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‘Here, Nick darling, I know you won't touch alcohol, so we made this for you,' she says, licking her lips and flashing her eyes at him.

Raspberry lips in her tanned face, a white linen shirt loosely buttoned so there is a glimpse of coffee-coloured lace underneath. Mmm. Mistress clothes. The linen outfit, which includes shorts, reminds him of an animal nurse in
, a TV programme he used to watch as a child. Even better, a mistress in a nurse's uniform. Very sexy.

There is a splash, and Coral and Joanna, the Gildoffs' daughter, dive like synchronised swimmers into the pool, followed by Heath, the son, who does a flashy somersault and lands flat on his back.

‘Christ, that must have hurt.' Nick holds out his glass to Jeannie for a refill and looks round to see if Jem is next in. Jem, though, is lurking behind Angel, staring at the ground, hands pushed deep into the pockets of his shorts. Angel whispers something to him and he shakes his head. She rolls her eyes. Nick
feels a stab of disappointment for himself as well as for Jem.

‘Coral is so pretty these days, isn't she? She's a most exotic-looking creature.' Jeannie waves her sunglasses towards the girls, now chatting and dripping on the edge of the pool. Coral's bikini is silver and green, her black hair drips iridescent, drops of water cling to her black eyelashes and she looks like a dragonfly or a paradisiacal bird, her limbs so long and slim, her hands fluttering as she explains something to Joanna. Nick wonders if the comment is barbed. He wonders how many of the people they know speculate over Coral's paternity, and why it has gone so far without him and Angel deciding something about it. Even Jem doesn't know, unless Coral has told him. Exhaustion washes over Nick, a grey sensation, and he can't see the point of anyone knowing, or the point of anyone not knowing. This is the kind of thing that erodes the joy in life, and right now he could do with a lot more joy. In fact, it was probably their unconscious desire to keep their family joyful that stopped him and Angel ever deciding on a moment, or a day to come out about Coral. Life has a way of smudging and blurring the need for confession, confusing memory and myth until there is no truth, just a story it is easier not to tell. Nick finds it better by far to think about Jeannie's flesh, a little reptilian, perhaps, because she has spent too much time in the sun, but eager. Jeannie has always been available for urgent, secret sex; it turns her on to do it standing up and somewhere where she could be caught. Nick has
cautiously enjoyed this over the years, though he has no desire to be caught with her. He remembers her bush, red like her hair. Were they both natural or dyed?

‘I like your underwear, Jeannie,' he says. That is a safe bet, as she is practically flaunting it now. She has put down the jug and is standing close to him, one leg forward, hands on hips and her elbows well back so her tits thrust forward. She is up for something, most definitely.

‘Good,' she says and walks away, smiling. Nick follows her, his curiosity roused.

Nick knows it is the first of August from the moment he wakes up the next morning. The day his father died. Thirty years ago, and it is maddening to Nick that it is the first thing he thinks of on the morning of this day, every year. It always has been. He gets up and leaves the room without waking Angel. It's a thrill to walk downstairs and outside naked. He and Angel have had sex twice recently. He knew he was pushing it last night, but he got his own way, more focused in his determination than he might usually have been because of the great shag they had last week. This time was nothing like as good, but at least it happened. Angel doesn't often give him blow jobs and he is never sure if she likes oral sex either. Funny not to know that about your own wife. Anyway, fuck it; he got laid, even though it was as a direct result of being turned on by Jeannie. Sex with an uninterested spouse
might be a hollow victory, but at least it is an affirmation that he is alive. As is sobriety. Nick is standing outside the kitchen, feeling a little foolish now with nothing on. There is a rumble of thunder coming from the coast, and lightning licks across the sky. A pair of shorts belonging to Jem is in a crumpled heap beside a huge super soaker gun in the yard. Nick puts them on. It is a shame Jem didn't join in the water fight at the Gildoffs' last night. OK, so he and Coral, Peter and Joanna were in the two teams, but Joanna was doing it to impress Jem. There was no doubt about it, from the lingering looks she cast his way when they were sitting on the edge of the pool eating the kebabs Peter had made. Nick felt he might have looked foolish joining in the children's game, but fuck it, Peter did too. Angel was always complaining that he didn't get involved enough, and frankly, he felt so randy he needed to get in the water to cool down. Angel was subdued all evening. She said she had a headache, but it must have gone or he never would have got her to have sex with him. God, Peter Gildoff must have a headache this morning; he must have put away half a bottle of whisky last night. Nick shudders, standing in the kitchen doorway in the gently malevolent pre-storm morning. Whisky would never be his weapon against himself.

‘A man can say he is truly successful when the Scotch he drinks is older than the woman he is sleeping with.' This was Nick's father's dictum. A difficult one for his teenage son to respect, and bewildering too, as the years passed and Nick's father's hairline
receded, his stature diminished and his girlfriends got steadily more nubile.

A man can say he is truly a loser when his son is older than the woman he is sleeping with – Nick was waiting for it to get to that stage, looking forward to toasting his dad with a superbly barbed speech on some God-awful family celebration, but he never got the chance. Silas Stone died with much less of a flourish than he lived, in pain, alone in hospital, visited regularly by his ex-wife Naomi and less often by his only child, his sixteen-year-old son Nick. Nick was appalled when his mother first began visiting Silas.

‘Why are you doing that? He doesn't deserve to be visited by you. He's nothing to do with you, Mum.' Naomi smiled her sepulchral smile, and Nick realised that to her Silas had stopped being the focus of her heartbreak and become her favourite thing – a duty.

Nick's anger was directed at his mother. He saw her feeding Silas's insatiable need for women; he did not recognise that she was feeding her own yearning to be needed. Nick was isolated and confused; his mother had cared only for him since Silas left ten years before, and now she was returning to the man whose absence Nick had experienced in her crying into her pillow night after night. Nick could not understand how she could forgive him. He didn't realise that forgiveness becomes a compulsion, no longer a choice, in the face of death. Or it can. Nick's resentment of his father was something he kept locked in himself. He felt he had no choice but to be Naomi's companion; he was a reluctant Mummy's boy, he was
afraid of her need of him, but if he did not stay close to her, she would be alone. He could not imagine his mother alone.

It was ironic then, that once Silas died, Nick's fury redoubled and the heat of it took him across the Atlantic and on to west coast America. Three years in San Francisco were enough to cool him right down to the chilled-out dope smoker he became, and enough time for Naomi to become fully involved in piety. Nick found it too irritating to deal with. Or that was how he presented it. In fact, he was too smashed to deal with anything at that time, and the months, then the years rolled by and in no time at all he was twenty-one, Silas had been dead five years, and, no surprise here, Nick had a big problem with drink just like his dad. But not whisky. Anything but whisky.


A week has passed since the Gildoffs' barbecue, and the thunderstorms and humidity have intensified, creating lassitude. Worn out by infantile bickering and lack of domestic routine as the holidays spool on and on, Angel is glad to be in London, even though it is mainly to sign some papers at the bank. Not even the dullness of her appointment can diminish her gratitude for a day and a night off. A romantic treat was how Coral saw it.

‘You and Nick can go out to dinner and have some fun,' she said, wandering into Angel's bedroom as she packed.

‘Oh yes,' said Angel, and guiltily put in some nice underwear. Coral sat on the bed, flipping through the clothes spread next to her.

‘If I get married I am keeping my own bedroom,' she said dreamily, then focused again on her mother. ‘You know, I was thinking we should all go on holiday again like we did when we were younger. I found these. I wanted to show you them.'

They were photographs of a family holiday in Spain, taken with a child's blurry camera. Most of the pictures showed Nick and Angel laughing, holding hands, leaning together smiling to pose. Angel glanced at Coral, now lying flat on the bed looking at the ceiling.

‘This seems like a long time ago,' she said lightly.

Coral glared at her. ‘Yes, but it should be every year,' she said and marched out of the room.

The night is restless and suffocating, so walking in the streets is an effort for the body, and thinking or speaking an effort for the mind. It is frustrating. Angel's hair flops hot like a scarf against her neck and she takes off her jacket and swings it on her finger. Coming to London to be with Nick is a stolen moment, a touching affirmation of the importance of their marriage. Well, that is how the children see it, and Angel's friend Jenny, when she mentioned the trip on the telephone yesterday.

‘Good,' said Jenny. ‘You need to do that from time to time to remember why you like one another.'

Angel is uncomfortably aware of finding it an ordeal already. Nick has a room he uses in his friend James's house, and although James is never there, the smell of the house, musty, not quite masculine but like unclean hair, is alienating.

Angel is unrelaxed when she is there; she feels out of place and unsure, and she wishes she had wanted to suggest a hotel. But when the idea flashed into her head, she dismissed it urgently; unable to face the expectation of sex, and feeling a hotel would throw a
lot of unwanted pressure on to what was actually just a quick business trip to London.

Nick takes her out to dinner along the road from the house. It might have been nice to go somewhere special, but impetus drains away while Angel has a bath, scrubbing neurotically with a scourer at the stilton-crackled enamel surface, and Nick is on the phone calling Los Angeles. The success of the New York trade fair has galvanised the whole of Fourply towards the American market, and Nick is the figurehead. Listening to him setting up meetings with buyers from Tuscon, Huston and San Diego, Angel feels very homespun as she takes her mobile phone into the bath and calls home. Trying to luxuriate in the oily and lukewarm depths she gets through to Gosha whom she always avoids talking to as far as possible in person.

‘How are the children?'

‘Oh yes.'

‘Are they in bed?'

‘Oh yes.'

Angel thanks God she is not standing in front of Gosha, as she might have to strangle her.

‘Is Jem there?'

‘Oh yes.'

‘Well, can I speak to him then?'

‘Oh yes.'

The pleasant myth that has run through their marriage was that Nick was the main wage earner and Angel a fluffy housewife. Now it is true, and it works as a
stereotype, particularly in London, where Angel has nothing to do except focus on Nick. He has been in town all week, mainly in Great Titchfield Street seeing suppliers, as well as talking to accountants and generally making himself busy. And unreachable. His phone was off every time Angel rang it, and she planned to bring this up over dinner. When they finally sit down, the need to confront him drains out of her. Is it worth it? She hadn't had anything important to say to him anyway. They order and begin trying to talk, but the conversation is desultory.

‘I saw that article about Elastex in the paper today,' offers Nick with the main course, scratching a patch of dry skin on his arm. ‘Their shares are up.'

‘Great.' Angel stabs a cherry tomato and forks it into her mouth, hoping it will block the stream of frustration rising in her throat and beginning to course through her. How can he be so – so NOTHING? How can he not have a life? How can he still have eczema?

How can he not have anything to say to her that a man should say to a woman, not even, ‘Your hair looks nice'? Angel tries to feed him that line by telling him she had it cut that afternoon. For her this is a sensual experience, and her fingers return every few moments to comb through the silky coolness of its length.

Nick looks past her at the waitress standing by the bar and his eyes dart up and down her body. Angel follows his gaze with her own eyes and sees a ballet dancer's poise in the slender back and waist, high
buttocks and long legs of the waitress. Her hair is tied in a long ponytail, and her shoulders are brown beneath a scoop-necked top. She is about nineteen, Coral's age. Angel looks back at Nick and the pupils of his eyes are deep black wells of desire, a tiny ring of blue around them. He is still watching the waitress. Angel eats another tomato and examines in herself the feeling of lonely realisation. Nick would like to sleep with this girl. Right now he is lost in the fantasy of having sèx with her and Angel's presence is forgotten. It surprises Angel that this hurts her so much. After all, she stopped wanting to sleep with him long ago, and now only does it to fuel her own occasional fantasy or because she knows she ought to. But human feelings are not always rational, or containable. Angel feels sick and drinks some water, and imagines Coral who is afraid of nothing, making a joke out of it.

‘She's sexy,' she says, finally deciding that to ignore Nick's behaviour is cowardly.

‘Mmm, I guess so, if you like the Eastern European model,' says Nick, reverting his gaze to Angel with a blinking, wide-open-eyed stare that she mistrusts far more than any amount of refusing to meet her eyes.

BOOK: A Perfect Life
3.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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