TW - death.
The front door swung open and Barbara cooed through it. Of course, I would help with the effing shopping. I wouldn’t mind at all if my lovely wife would ever buy own brand anything. But, in spite of prices creeping up, Barbara was still bringing home the Heinz, the Lurpak, the Kellogg’s. And way more than the two of us could ever eat in seven days. We were throwing out enough to feed the children we never had, on a weekly basis. But then, we, or should I say she, could afford it.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news, Darling?” She passed me a pack of kitchen roll, the expensive one with the ‘thirst pockets’.
“Always bad news first, my lovely wife, always bad news first.”
“Well, the bad news is that the Gable family are moving out.”
How could this be bad news? I hated them, and their precocious six-year-old, and their stupid, yappy dog.
“Oh, that’s a shame. You will miss playing tennis with Nancy.”
“Yes, I will.” She bustled through the hallway into the kitchen.
I trailed behind with armfuls of cleaning products we didn’t need.
“And the good news is that they’re holding a BBQ for all the neighbours on Saturday. I’ve accepted the invitation for both of us.”
For God’s sake! Why would I want to spend an afternoon making small talk with those idiots? Not just the Gables, the whole street of show-offs. Who’s got the newest car? Who’s been promoted? Whose little darlings have been in which boring play?
“That’ll be nice then. Are we taking anything?”
“Just potato salad. I got the good mayonnaise and some fresh chives and a nice new serving bowl.”
Of course you did. Is it covered in gold leaf? So far, she was still shopping at the local Sainsbury’s, so at least there was a relatively sensible cap on prices. But a Waitrose was threatening to open down the road and my wallet was already aching with the anticipation.
I arranged the brand-new cleaning supplies next to their identical, unused counterparts in the cupboard under the sink. I allowed a grimace onto my face while I had my back to her. She was faffing about in the fridge. No doubt stuffing it full of herb-marinated olives and artichoke hearts we would never eat.
That evening I sat with a crossword from the local paper while she watched Love Island. Eugh, the ultimate in human fakery. What is it with popularity contests on TV these days? Why do people feel the need to vote each other in and out, in and out, like a giant Hokey Cokey?
“Oh, they're bringing in new couples tonight. We’ll have to watch it live.”
“Yes, my lovely wife, that’s always the best bit.”
I waited ‘til she was engrossed in the "reality" of Casa Amor before I rolled my eyes and returned to three down. ‘Synonym – Miserable. Blank, O, Y, blank, E, blank, blank.’ No idea. Seven across. ‘Wedding celebrations. N, blank, P, blank, blank, blank, blank, blank.’ Nuptials. I remembered mine well. The over-the-top party, the £2000 sculpted swan cake, the dress with the handmade Italian lace, the three live bands, the four-week honeymoon touring Australasia.
Twenty years ago I thought it was great, all the spending and luxury. But at fifty-three I could see it for what it was, an obscene waste, an offensive misuse of privilege. I could see her for what she was, too. Fake nails, fake hair, fake smile, fake laugh. A faker in an endless popularity contest with the neighbours. It was like living in one of my most hated TV shows, only there was no editing to make people look good.
I snapped my attention back to the crossword before I had chance to show the sourness on my face. The S had given me the last letter of three down. NUPTIALS followed by JOYLESS. How apt.
The following morning, I was faced with another domestic challenge.
“Morning lovely wife, I’ll get the coffee.” I leaned over to the other side of the bed and kissed her cheek.
“Do you want the bad news first?” her voice was strained.
“I have a terrible migraine. I’m not going to be able to come to the dentist with you after all.”
Hoo-bloody-ray! Why she insisted on driving me to appointments I will never know. I’m a grown man, for God’s sake.
“But the good news is that my sister has a day off today and she can drive you. I’ve already sent her a text to ask. She’ll be here by ten.”
Gladys! Yuk. I could taste her overbearing lavender scent just from thinking her name. Being trapped in a car with that woman was like walking through the perfume section of a department store with your nostrils flared against your will. Not to mention the accompanying celebrity gossip. She knew everything about everyone and wasn’t afraid to share. It was as if she lived in Hollywood and these people were her actual friends, but she was fully intent on exposing their secrets whether they liked it or not.
I made coffee.
Apart from the real-life wedding of some couple on Coronation Street I couldn’t care less about, the conversation to and from the dentist covered little that could be considered reality. And the wedding was pushing it.
I made the most of Barbara’s migraine and didn’t invite Gladys in. But my plans for a quiet ham sandwich were ruined when I discovered that my lovely wife had made an almost full recovery and was in the kitchen constructing a Five Cup Salad. Some kind of stateside monstrosity which combines perfectly edible items to produce an over-sweetened bowl of lumpy mush. And, yes, marshmallows have their place, but it is not in any kind of salad. This, apparently, was lunch.
“Delicious!” I managed, between forkfuls of slop.
Saturday rolled around rather faster than I would have liked, and Barbara was soon dressing me for the Gable’s BBQ.
“It’s a beautiful, sunny day, Darling.” She said as she removed my jeans from my hand and folded them over her arm. “Shorts weather! I can’t imagine Patrick will boil himself to death in denim.”
I hated shorts. More accurately, I hated my legs. Pale and overly hairy with unnaturally knobbly knees. Even my own mother, a woman who loved me for more reasons than just popular convention, used to call them knots in string.
Barbara passed me the cut-off khakis that she’d bought for me from the GAP back when they still had a store nearby. She always said that she thought they would never go out of fashion. The truth was that she didn’t buy me clothes anymore since I refused to wear an itchy woollen suit she'd had custom made. She wasn’t offended by my refusal to wear it because of the time and money she had spent. It was more that she had bet Gladys that I’d show it off at our anniversary dinner. When I'd turned up in something off the rack from M&S, Barbara had been laughed out of the room.
As Barbara was no longer buying my clothes, and I saw no reason to replace garments until they were threadbare, I only owned one pair of shorts. And honestly, as soon as I could justify ditching them, I would.
We arrived at the Gable’s front door an hour later. Barbara clutching enough potato salad to feed not only our street but the two either side. It was presented in her brand-new cream and gold serving bowl, complete with matching lid.
“Oh, do come in, come in, how lovely to see you both.” Nancy Gable opened the door.
The trendy, geometric wallpaper of her hallway always made me slightly cross-eyed.
“What a beautiful dish! Is that Wedgwood?”
Wedgwood! Unless Sainsbury’s were branching out into a more exclusive corner of the market, perhaps Nancy wasn’t as with it as she imagined.
“Yes, well spotted,” Barbara said, forcing the dish into Nancy’s hands. “I sneaked over to Selfridge’s on Wednesday afternoon. I love their homewares.”
I swallowed, hard. If I didn’t know better, I’d have assumed that my wife was just keeping up appearances with this claim. But I could almost see the reflection of the cash register in her Gucci sunglasses, and it was ringing up well over £200. £200 for a fancy dish to take potato salad to a BBQ. The heat rose in my cheeks and a tear welled in one eye. I secretly wished Nancy would drop the damn thing.
We wandered through the kitchen and out onto the patio. Barney, the overzealous springer spaniel, sniffed my exposed calves. I resisted the temptation to kick him in his cold, wet nose.
Patrick Gable was standing over a pile of lit charcoal in an American style BBQ, big enough to feed the five thousand without miraculous bread and fishes. He was wearing jeans, full length, denim jeans. Bastard!
The afternoon progressed much as I’d expected and nothing like I’d hoped. The Gable’s garden was soon full of pomposity and pretence. Did anyone there actually care that Nancy and Patrick were moving away? I doubt it. River, their unpleasant offspring, was nowhere to be seen. Presumably he was being entertained by the Swedish au pair at another location. It allowed them to make out that he had some semblance of manners and wasn’t at all as spoiled as a week-old banana.
At least there was plenty of food. The over-laden kitchen table was stacked full of salads, green vegetables, bread rolls, condiments and desserts and Patrick kept the meat coming.
At around 3pm I lost track of my lovely wife in the suburbanite crowd. I decided to give myself a break from the self-importance and affectation of my neighbours, and wandered off to the bathroom.
Passing through the kitchen, I caught sight of Barbara, hunched over, and clutching at her throat. I rounded the table and tapped her on the shoulder, but she ignored me, instead, heaving for breath and banging her fist against her chest. My lovely wife was choking. I’m sure to this day that she didn’t realise I was even there.
I glanced out of the window into the garden. Everyone was distracted by Dale Henshaw from number 22, juggling with four mugs. (I later heard they were real Emma Bridgewater originals, and I still wasn’t impressed.) So, I pulled the blind down in case anyone looked, and made my way upstairs.
There was a bang on the lavatory door, shortly followed by sirens. The ambulance was too late, and by the time I had washed my hands and returned to the party, Barbara was dead. It turned out that she had been assassinated by her own potato salad (with chives).
I took full advantage of the obligatory sympathy that flooded towards me from the rest of the street. I didn’t have to cook for myself for several months. The life insurance money was very welcome too and, after I’d paid off the mortgage and a few other debts, I set up a generous, regular donation, in Barbara’s name, of course, to the local food bank.
I lived out the rest of my years in relative comfort. I could sleep at night knowing that someone else was able to feed their family as a result of my actions. Or lack thereof.
On the final night of my earthly existence, I became aware of a presence at the foot of my bed. The modest bungalow I had moved in to was well secured and the alarms had not been triggered, so I knew who it was. The crushing chest pain and inability to breathe were also useful clues.
A cloaked figure, with a scythe in one hand, was visible in the dim light.
Gesturing to me to stand and join them, they asked, “Would you like the good news or the bad news?”
“Bad news first please, always bad news first.”
“The bad news is, you're going to Hell.”
I wasn’t entirely surprised. Giving away money to help others would have been a more wholesome activity if that money hadn’t been quite so deviously obtained.
“And the good news?” I stood up, leaving my mortal frame behind me in the bed.
“The good news is, you will get to spend eternity with your lovely wife.”