Every year, the brothers put themselves and their wives through this ordeal. In the past, there had been big family Christmases with various relatives squeezed round the dining table eating an obscenely large meal, afterwards playing silly games and then staying over, people sleeping on blow up beds in the living room or on the sofa. Now, the parents and aunts and uncles were dead, and the brothers’ children were grown up and left home. Neither of their wives demonstrated an inclination to welcome the other into their home for the festive period, and so they limited themselves to this rather awkward meal out, in the fallow period between Christmas and New Year.
They always chose a venue midway between their two homes, and on this occasion they sat in a pub in central Lancaster. The waiting staff were lack lustre, tired after the hectic round of serving office parties, and people meeting up for their traditional Christmas get together. The large tree in the corner looked past its best, there were dark gaps where several of the fairy light bulbs appeared to have ‘gone’, and the baubles and tinsel were faintly dusty. The crackers laid on their place settings were crumpled, clearly the last of the seasonal catering box. The quartet scanned the laminated menus, which the waitress handed them. Brightly coloured, childlike representations of holly leaves and berries were scattered amongst the scrolling text. It appeared that the festive menu was still being served.
David was the first to choose. ‘I’ll have the traditional turkey dinner, please.’ He always did, he’d been known to eat as many as twelve Christmas lunches in the weeks before and after 25th December. He was a successful financial advisor, running his own company in the City. Five years ago, he and his wife Sarah had re-located to the Lake District from a commuting town in Essex. The move had been her idea: they both loved the area’s scenery, and she had dreams of setting up her own small business. It was unclear exactly what this enterprise would be. In truth, she had become tired of her early morning trips to the gym, lunches with the ‘girls’ and organising David’s home life, in order that he could continue to earn their inflated income. Once they settled into their vast remote farm house, she enthusiastically embarked upon ensuring that it was renovated to the highest quality specifications, and furnished expensively and tastefully. She had bought two puppies, joined an on-line course on dog training, and strolled across the neighbouring fields in wellingtons, with the two now fully grown dogs beside her.
For a woman of nearly sixty, she looked good, having kept her well-proportioned figure, and fine head of thick, dark hair. Although, since moving to the rural area, she had become lax regarding her personal grooming. When living in London, she had regularly visited a beauty salon for manicures, waxing etc. There seemed no point now, as there were no other glamourous housewives to compete with, no social life to mention, and things between her and David were ‘distant’. When she had first obtained the sheep dog pups, they had cried and howled all night. Believing that they were suffering from separation anxiety (she had read about this on the internet), she had bought them into bed with her. David had immediately moved into one of the spare bedrooms, saying.
‘There’s no way I’m sharing my bed with those two.’ He had never returned. He spent one week in four at his office in London. The remainder of the time, he was either secreted in his study working, or lolling in the sitting room on their voluminous settee, remote in hand, flicking through the channels watching sport. For her part, she was bored with country life. Once the work on the house had been completed, she had turned her attentions to the garden, but had resorted to calling in a landscaping company when the inclement Lake District weather had thwarted her grandiose ambitions. She was highly intelligent having been educated to Masters Level, and artistically talented, able to draw and paint proficiently, but she bored easily. She would enthusiastically launch herself into a new project, but after a few months her interest would wane, and she would move on to something else. Her boredom and unhappiness showed in her face, at rest her expression was sour.
Pat chose next. Again, his choice was predictable, being the ‘festive curry’, described as an ‘aromatic mix of spices in a creamy sauce’, in plain language, turkey curry. He was the eldest of the two brothers and was sixty four years old. He had never been an attractive man, although tall, he was paunchy and flabby. He lacked any form of dress sense, whatever he wore, he managed to look scruffy. Socially inept, people meeting him often speculated whether he had Asperger’s. He was a corporate tax consultant, highly intelligent and intense, but chaotic and untidy in presentation and work. His attitude to money was equally haphazard, randomly spending on whatever took his eye. It was usually CDs and books, but once he had impulsively purchased a motorbike.
Beside him, sat his wife of over forty years, Alex. Between them they had raised three children. She had revelled in pregnancy and the resulting babies, producing their three offspring in quick succession. She would have liked to have more, but Pat had vetoed this. Initially, he had taken to wearing sheepskin underpants, having read that overheated testicles inhibited sperm reduction. Then, realising that this was probably an unreliable form of contraception, without consulting Alex he had a vasectomy.
She was tiny, possessing birdlike qualities, nervous and never still. Originally ginger, but now completely grey, she wore her hair short resembling a World War Two German helmet. She matched her husband in lack of social graces. She had publicly breastfed her children until they were about to start school, and although a devoted mother, she had no concept of fun. She filled her childrens’ every waking moment with opportunities to learn. Thus, a country walk would be used to lecture them about nature, playing with Lego morphed into a monologue on building construction, and television was banned in their house. When her own children became less dependent, she became a childminder, and continued with her energetic dedication to education with these charges. In the last year, she had obtained a long haired dachshund, Doxie, who had become her surrogate baby. Where ever she went, Doxie went. She was sitting there now on Alex’s lap, her head resting on the dining table.
Her tightness with money was legendary. On one occasion, when visiting her in-laws, she was observed rifling through their magazine rack, and then cutting coupons from the periodicals’ pages. She was averse to buying anything, which she could make. She made all of her childrens’ clothes, causing them the indignity of attending school in hand knitted sweaters and homemade trousers. She mistakenly believed that she was a good cook, regularly producing leaden bread and indigestible stews.
She was deeply religious, attending church every Sunday, and forming part of their bell ringing team. When she spoke, her phrases were rapid, giving her intonation a lecturing, staccato feel. She lacked any concept of compromise; things were done her way or not at all. She was painfully aware that she was a social misfit, but had no inclination or awareness of how she could change this. All of this disguised a genuine, kind heart. One Christmas, she had learnt of a child whose parents had been unable to provide a stocking for him. At short notice, she had quickly run one up from scraps in her material bag, and filled it with items purchased for her own children.
They had met when they were renting separate rooms in a large house in London. They were both lonely and young with high sex drives. Pat had been unsuccessful in luring any girl into his bed. He had tried, God he had tried, but he was over keen, and his chat up lines regarding the Times crossword although intended to impress, had the opposite effect. Alex’s religious principles prohibited her from casual sex. They had met in the house’s communal kitchen, started chatting, and the rest as they say is history. The marriage had not been without its difficulties. Throughout the years, they had had a course of relationship counselling, and had descended on Pat’s elderly parents with tales of woe on a few occasions. More recently, they had visited David and Sarah, and unburdened themselves.
This most recent crisis had erupted when Pat had taken a younger, female colleague under his wing. She had shared her relationship troubles with him, and had been struggling to grasp certain aspects of their work. On several occasions, he had asked her back to his home to explain the fine details of a project. Alex had provided a meal in the form of one of her unappetising concoctions, during which Pat and his colleague had quaffed vast quantities of wine, resulting in her staying the night. From this, he had formed an attachment, leading him to tell Alex that he no longer loved her. When he had confessed his feelings to the young woman, she had been aghast, as no such thing had ever crossed her mind. This had led him to retracting his statement to Alex, and a difficult period had ensued.
David was shocked and angry when his brother confessed to him. He had immediately realised that you could not tell your wife that you had fallen out of love with her, change your mind, and then expect her to carry on as if nothing had happened. He suggested that the two of them go to the local pub for a drink to discuss this, leaving their two wives alone. Whilst not fond of Alex, regarding her as an ‘oddball’, Sarah sensed that the couple’s marital troubles might provide her with a new project. Becoming Alex’s saviour might gain her sister-in-law’s gratitude and perhaps some admiration from David. As soon as the men left, she asked.
‘So where does this leave you?’
‘I don’t know. He’s my husband, we’ve made promises to each other.’ Alex was tearful, and needed prompting to say more.
‘But what if he decides that he wants out?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, you could end up losing the house, and having no income.’
‘I hadn’t thought of that.’ Doxie, as usual was on her lap, and she distractedly fondled the small dog’s velvety ear. Sarah moved in for the kill.
‘Does the childminding make enough for you to live on?’
‘I expect so.’
‘And rent a house?’
‘I shouldn’t think so.’
Sarah saw an opportunity to help Alex and further one of her own ambitions. She described to Alex the dog training video, which she had watched some years earlier. She expanded.
‘We’ve both got dogs, and we both love them. We could do that.’ Alex didn’t quite get her drift, but Sarah went on.
‘We could set up our own small business, making videos of dog training classes. It could go viral, and give us a good income.’ Now Alex was interested. The two women discussed the idea in detail, and by the time the brothers returned two hours later, Alex had a list of things to look into to further their scheme. When the men returned there was an awkward atmosphere between them all, the women knew that the men had been discussing Pat’s near affair, and the men assumed that the women had been doing likewise. Pat hovered not sitting, shuffling his feet, hands in his pockets.
‘Would you like a tea or a coffee?’ Sarah half- heartedly offered.
‘No, best be getting back. It’ll take us the best part of two hours.’
In the car, Alex silently stared out of the window, seatbelt across Doxie on her lap. She was deep in thought, considering what had passed between her and Sarah. Would Sarah tell David, she just didn’t know. Pat put on a classical CD, it was Holst’s the Planets. He was thinking about some of the things that his younger brother had said to him. David had called him ‘an insensitive bastard’ and asked if he had thought how much it would cost him if Alex demanded a divorce. He had told him ‘you can’t expect things to be the same as when you first get married, but you have a duty to Alex. She’s the mother of your three children for God’s sake.’ Pat got the impression that David was angry with him, but he wasn’t sure why.
When David and Sarah were alone, he told her that Pat had described Alex as being ‘as interesting as watching paint dry’, and that sex with her was ‘like poking a plank of wood.’ He asked Sarah how she had got on with Alex, and she evasively answered.
‘Well you know Alex, she’s never been good at taking advice.’
This had all happened three months ago, and they had not seen each other since. Pat and Alex continued much as they always had: Pat going to work, riding his motorbike and reading the Times, Alex attending church, ringing bells and making things. In Pat’s absence, she worked on her and Sarah’s project. She researched such things as accreditation, public indemnity insurance and how to build a webpage. She dutifully shared all the results with Sarah via email, who would reply with a ‘that’s interesting.’ Or ‘thanks for looking at that.’
Now, they sat around the table, the men with their beer, Sarah fastidiously sipping her white wine, and Alex with untouched tonic water.
‘How was your Christmas?’ David asked.
‘Pretty good, saw all the kids. How about yours?’ It was Sarah who answered.
‘Oh we had a marvellous time. We asked some friends from further up the valley for lunch, and she said that I’d cooked the best Christmas dinner she’d ever had. It was good, wasn’t it darling?’ David obliging confirmed this. The three continued to talk. The men spoke about the current state of the stock market, and Sarah was able to give them a reason for this. She’d been reading up on it on the internet. She went on to tell them about the business she was setting up with her friend from ‘further up the valley’. Alex sat silent and excluded from the conversation as it ebbed and flowed around her. It was as if Sarah had no recollection of their discussion about setting up a business together. She was incensed to hear her talking about some of the things that she had investigated, mooting them as her own work. As for Pat, he seemed oblivious to her presence. He treated her as a useless appendage, dragged around as part of his body, but not adding anything to its functioning.
Alex felt embarrassed and humiliated: first there was her husband’s betrayal, and now Sarah had double crossed her. She stood, gently ushering Doxie to the floor, retrieving her car keys from her bag as she did so.
‘Where are you off to?’
‘I’m not ready to come yet.’
‘You’re not coming.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’re not coming back. As from now the three of you are dead to me.’ With that she walked briskly out of the pub to her car, but not before Doxie had given Pat a sharp nip on his calf.