IT WAS ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK THAT finally did it. Anna was standing in her red Cystitis Awareness Week T-shirt that she wore in bed, rubber gloves and Day-Glo-pink nylon slippers, trying to wash up and at the same time fry sausages and eggs for Amy and her two friends who had slept over, when "Release Me" came on the radio.
She knew she had finally scored a personal worst in sexual fantasy, but it was a measure of her frustration when, for a few minutes, she imagined being carted off to some tropical island by Engelbert. She even refused to snap out of her reverie when her rational brain reminded her that sad old medallion-man crooners were much more time-share in Tossa del Mar than beach house in Barbados. But it didn't matter. Dan hadn't made love to her last nighteven on electrical appliance night.
Usually when he'd had some good news from some specialist or other, Dan was all over Anna. He would cuddle up to her on the sofa, hold her, hug her and flick her bangs with his fingers. This would be followed by the sorry-I've-been-such-a-bastard-to-you-I-promise-finally-and-forever-that-my-obsession-with-my-health-is-over-and-wouldn't-it-be-great-if-we-put-the-kids-in-kennels-and-got-away-for-a-few-day speech.
Anna would usually respond with her shit-Dan-we've-been-here-a-million-times-before-and-I-can't-live-like-this-any-more-unless-you-see-a-shrink speech. Dan would then assure her that he would definitely get help if she ever found him imagining symptoms again.
Anna always caved in and by ten o'clock they would be in bed, Dan promising her the orgasm of her life. By 10:45 Dan would start whispering in her ear that he was getting carpal tunnel syndrome in his middle finger and could she hurry up. But Anna found it almost impossible to come when she was still so angry. So she held her breath, thrashed her head about a bit, let out a long sigh and said, "Thank you; that was lovely." She then let Dan have his turn. Two minutes later they would both be asleep.
Last night had been the same, up to the children-in-kennels bit, which he'd got to while they were watching Newsnight. Some impenetrable European Monetary Union item came on, and Anna got up to make herself a cup of tea. While she was waiting for the kettle to boil, she thought she'd unpack the John Lewis bag, which was still on the kitchen table.
Inside were two boxes, one containing the blender (that made four they now owned), while the other was from a medical supplier in Wigmore Street.
Anna ripped into the bubble wrap with some kitchen scissors and pulled out a square, wallet-sized plastic device. It had a tiny screen at the top, and a round opening at the side. The only instructions were in Spanish or Norwegian, but from what Anna could make out from the diagrams, this was some kind of newfangled home blood pressure machine. You put your index finger into the anuslike hole, which automatically tightened round it. The electronic sphygmomanometer then gave you a digital readout of your blood pressure.
A few months ago she would have gone screaming into the living room, ranting and raving at Dan as if he were an alcoholic and she had just found three bottles of whiskey hidden in the toilet tank. But last night she had been so bloody worn out with it all, so tired of the pleading and begging, that she simply put the sphygmomanometer back in its box, finished making her mug of tea, yelled goodnight to Dan from halfway up the stairs and climbed into bed.
When Dan came up twenty minutes later she was still sipping her tea and reading. He gave her another hug and told her he loved her, but there was no mention of orgasms. Anna put her book on the bedside table and turned out her light. Dan had his back to her and was pretending to be asleep, but she could sense that under the duvet he was feeling his pulse.
As she gave the sausages another turn, Anna decides she had no choice. If she didn't find some fun soon, not to mention some decent sex, she would shrivel up and die. She tore off her rubber gloves, threw down her spatula and dialed Alison O'Farrell's home number.
"Alison, it's Anna. Sorry to ring so early on a Saturday morning, but I just thought I'd let you know, I'll definitely do the Rachel Stern piece."
What she didn't tell Alison was that the stories would be genuine, but instead of belonging to three interviewees, they would all be hers.
Anna Shapiro, thirty-seven-year-old mother of two in desperate need of a tummy tuck, breast lift and open-pore surgery, was about to spend the next eight weeks committing adulteryjust for fun.
Brenda Sweet, single mum from Peckham turned millionaire fashion designer, dunked a bit of buttery croissant into her coffee, and watched as globules of fat started to appear on the surface.
"But what I don't understand is why you can't make do with solo sex for the time being? I mean, Dan's bound to recover the use of 'is pecker eventually."
"First, because "eventually' might mean forty years from now when he's got cataracts and incontinence pads, and second, because when I get up to heaven with all the other Jewish mothers, St. Peter, or whoever my people's equivalent is, will read out that summary of what everybody did with their lives. There will be Naomi Fishman who planted a thousand trees in Israel, Melanie Greenberg who, despite being blind and having no arms or legs, stuffed fifteen million chicken necks and won prizes for her chopped liver sculpture, then there will be me, Anna Shapirowho wanked. OK, so I do it when I'm desperate, but believe me, adultery is much more respectable."
Brenda said she took the point and topped up their coffee cups, which were round and metallic, like sputum bowls with handles. Apparently they'd cost nearly twenty quid each from some Japanese shop in Covent Garden, but because Brenda was her best friend, Anna made allowances for her interesting taste in crockery.
Brenda's kitchen, on the other hand, went well beyond interesting into the outer suburbs of downright peculiar.
It was situated, stylistically speaking, somewhere between morgue and sluice room. The cupboard doors were brushed aluminum, the stainless-steel sink was conical, its metal U-bend exposed, and the floor was covered in those industrial nonslip concrete tiles which usually surround public swimming pools. The only object which bordered on the ornamental was a six-foot-by-four-foot grainy black-and-white photograph, which took up most of the space on the wall at the far end. It was of some poor terrified bastard strapped in the electric chair minutes before his execution.
"Fuck me, Bren," Dan, who could be witty in a sardonic way when he momentarily forgot he was dying, had said the first time they were invited to dinner in the new kitchen. "You certainly do a great line in concentration camp chic. S'pose the Mengeles are just outside parking the car. Hope they've remembered to bring a bottle."
To give Brenda her due, she laughed, but she was obviously a bit put out, because she called Dan "a bleedin' Philistine," whose idea of style didn't extend beyond a matching bread-bin and mug-tree set.
Brenda was very good at putting people in their place. Anna saw her do it the day they met and became friends. It was at the antenatal clinic, ten years ago, when she was expecting Josh and Brenda was expecting Alfie.
The hospital made all the women sit in the waiting room in their maternity dresses, but minus their knickers and pantyhose. These they kept on their laps in wire supermarket baskets. Humiliating as this was, none of them challenged the ruling. These were National Health Service patients, who treated doctors like feudal lords, and in place of a forelock to tug, practically curtsied at the end of their examinations before walking out of the consulting room backwards. The tatty notice on the wall, written in green felt tip, explained that it speeded things up if the doctors had instant access to patients' nether regions.
Anna, however, did make some small effort to assert herself. Along with her wire basket, she always took a copy of Ulysses into the consulting room and placed it purposefully on the doctor's desk, like a poker player revealing his hand. This was her way of ensuring that whichever supercilious, patronizing git of an obstetrician she was about to see spoke to her in words of more than two syllablesand didn't refer to her as Mum.
A few weeks before Josh was due, Anna was sitting in the waiting room, wire basket on lap, working her way through a bag of Everton mints, when Brenda walked in, eight months pregnant and a size ten, wearing suede heels and a black Lycra minidress under a biker's jacket. Even her tidy, pert bump looked like a casually calculated fashion statement. Anna took one look at her and was just descending into one of those "Omigod, I look like someone turned the liposuction machine to blow" moments of self-hatred, when Brenda started bellowing at the middle-aged woman on the appointments desk.
"Look 'ere, you daft mare, if you think I'm sitting for two hours with a draft up my jacksy on the off chance some doctor'll decide a poke around my privates is in order, you can bloomin' well think again."
"I'm sorry, it's hospital policy."
"I don't care if it's the soddin' Common Agricultural Policy. It's bloody degrading and I'm not doing it."
With that, Brenda turned on her four-inch stilettos, saw there was an empty seat next to Anna and started to make her way towards it. Anna couldn't help thinking that had this been New York, the whole waiting room would have started whooping, applauding, waving their urine samples in support and queuing up to high-five Brenda. But this being Dulwich, everybody kept their heads buried behind their Good Housekeepings, and the only sound was of embarrassed buttock shuffling.
As Brenda neared her, Anna had the same feelingwithout the sex partshe'd had the night she met Dan at Beany Levine's party, of stumbling across a like-minded soul. She knew she was on the point of making a friend.
Brenda was about to plonk herself down onto the empty seat and Anna was about to whisper, "Well done; not many people would have taken on that menopausal old bag" and "Where do you think she gets her tank tops?" when Brenda looked down and murmured:
"Oh fuck. It's curtains for me Manolo Blahniks."
She was standing in a small puddle of broken waters.
Brenda looked at Anna. "Christ, what do I do now? After that performance, I suppose the old bag'll have me down for a triple enema and a shave with a blunt razor."
Anna laughed. "Don't worry, you scared the control pants off her. I'll see if I can find one of the midwives."
A calm, motherly midwife called Iris found Brenda a wheelchair and took her up to the labor ward. As Brenda hadn't started having contractions yet, she said Anna could stay to keep her company. "Just until we locate your other half."
Brenda said she would rather the hospital contacted her mum.
It turned out that Brenda's other half, Elvis, had done a bunk three weeks ago and was living in Leytonstone with an assistant supervisor from Do It All. Brenda had just moved back to Peckham to be near her mum and dad, and this had been her first appointment at the hospital.
Apparently Elvis, who was a clerk with the Inland Revenue, went off with Dawn who did it all because he felt jealous and threatened when Brenda gave up hairdressing and started making a success of designing and making clothes.
She'd studied fashion design at art school years before, but had never had the confidence to set up in business on her own. After art school, she'd just drifted into hairdressing. From the start, posh clients at the salon in Sloane Street began admiring what she wore and asked her where she bought her clothes. When Brenda said she designed and made them herselfeven the Lycra bodies and skirtsshe began getting dozens of orders.
The first time she broke the five-hundred-pounds-a-week barrier, Elvis took off.
BRENDA AND ANNA HAD BEEN ON THE LABOR WARD ABOUT an hour when Brenda's mum arrived, all hot flush and eau de cologne. Anna said a quick hello and decided she should leave them to it.
The next day Brenda phoned to say that Alfie had arrived safely with Elvis's ears, but she thought she could learn to love him, and that apart from tits as hard as Contiboard and what felt like a net of satsumas hanging out of her bum, she was fine.
After Josh was born, Anna and Brenda saw each other a couple of times a week. They would sit on the floor in Brenda's living room drinking wine, even though they knew that as breast-feeding mothers they shouldn't because it would get the babies drunk, and would try to work out why they were the only women they knew who thought the joy of watching their babies crawl, walk and talk didn't begin to compare with getting a new head of highlights.
Anna said if Josh didn't stop screaming all day she was going to lock him in his room and he could only come out when he turned twenty-five or did something interesting, like get a record in theTop Ten.