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War of the Wives
By Tamar Cohen
Harlequin Enterprises Limited Copyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All rights reserved.
Flora is perched on the kitchen table, her big blue eyes following me around the room. She has just finished a very long-winded story about a party she and Ryan went to where Ryan was the only person who refused to wear fancy dress. Ryan thinks fancy dress is "gay," apparently. Give me strength! I maintain a diplomatic silence. I've discovered that's the best way of dealing with the matter of my daughter's inappropriate boyfriend. If I were to voice an opinion—that he has all the charm of a dead haddock, for instance—she'll go back to giving me the sanitized PR version of Ryan—the Dear Leader version, as Simon calls it—like she did in the beginning when it became obvious what Simon and I thought of him. At least this way I get to hear the truth, even if the price is that I have to swallow my own tongue at times.
So I nod and murmur appreciatively and start wondering—oh, the guilt—how soon I'll be able to switch her off.
That's the problem with using Skype. You can never get away. There's some old friend or family member on the screen on your table, or the arm of the sofa, and you've had a lovely chat, but you're now running out of things to say, and because they can see everything that's going on, you can't invent a saucepan boiling over, or a ring at the door or any of the normal things that end a conversation. So there's an awkward pause while you come up with something else to say and try to stop yourself thinking about the million and one things you really ought to be getting on with.
The other problem with Skype is—and I know this makes me sound as if I come from the Jurassic era—that you can see the other person. The other day I was thinking about how Simon and I never use Skype, even though he's always away. Of course, that's partly to do with us both being so ridiculously busy, but really, I realized, it's more to do with the business of sitting there looking at each other. Even though we've been married all these years, it made us both uncomfortable the couple of times we tried it. It's so intimate. When we first got together, we used to spend hours sitting across from each other in cafés and pubs, playing with each other's feet under the table while we put the world to rights, but what couple who've been married nearly thirty years still gazes into each other's eyes when they talk? There's something unnatural about it. Awkward. I found myself focusing on the collar of his shirt or the wayward lock of hair he kept smoothing back with his hand.
I don't actually want to be able to see the people I'm talking to. It's distracting. While Flora launches into yet another long-winded story, I'm looking at her frizz of hair and thinking (yet again) how much better it would look if she had it cut. Nothing extreme. Just a little bit of shaping. And I'm looking at her desk in the architectural firm where she works as a PA and noticing, with a bit of a wince, that she has some kind of cuddly toy on there (no doubt bought by Ryan in a petrol station somewhere), and I'm looking at her clothes and wanting to cut through her story and shout "Color block!" or "Texture!" or "Layering!" or any of the stupid things overbearing mothers want to say to their grown-up daughters but don't dare. It's a kind of maternal Tourette's, I suppose.
Instead, I tell her I have to be getting to the gym. This isn't technically a lie. I do have a class. Flora doesn't need to know it doesn't actually start for another hour and a half. Then we have that awkward Skype goodbye moment where neither of us wants to be the first to click Disconnect. Silly, isn't it? It ought to be a straightforward technological act. Lean forward, press, gone. Yet it feels like an emotional rejection. At the gym, I try to concentrate.
"Into the half moon. And ho-old ..."
While my body obediently contorts itself as instructed by the new rather Germanic instructor of Hatha Yoga (Advanced Wednesdays), my mind keeps itself busy.
1. Book Pierre's for Book Club Christmas lunch (just let them try to tell me there aren't any tables left, in September!)
2. Research printers for Simon's study. Criminal, those ink cartridge prices.
3. Ring around for history tutor recommendations. Surely one of the other mothers must know someone, preferably someone who doesn't smell of weed like the last one.
Starting to ache now. I shoot a glance at the mirror that runs the length of the studio wall in front of me, surreptitiously comparing myself with the rest of the class. Body straight, arm stretched. Not bad, as long as you overlook the slight sheen on my forehead. So unforgiving, those overhead lights, even after two sessions of Botox and a discreet dermal filler (not that I'd ever admit those to anyone). But when you consider I probably have a good ten years on most of the women here, I think I'm doing okay. But I don't like to think in terms of age. So counterproductive. And so bloody depressing!
4. Call Lorenzo, and make sure he has the revised flight times. Oh, and get him to stack the firewood in the main living room. Not much use to us outside the back door. Not with Simon's back. Which reminds me.
5. Make appointment with chiropractor.
6. Email that friend of Hettie's about the Cricket Club fundraising quiz questions. No soap opera questions this time, please, God!
7. Send out Tweet about the Book Club lunch. Mustn't forget!
Ouch. I don't actually gasp out loud, but my arms are starting to feel the strain. Sadist, this instructor. Some of the other women have already collapsed in a heap on their mats. Stamina. That's the thing. You can have a twenty-five-year-old body, but if you have no stamina, you might as well give up.
"And straight into the upward-facing dog."
In my head I hear Josh's voice mutter, "You're an upward-facing dog," and I can't help smiling. Internally, obviously. Such a worry, that boy, even at seventeen, but he can still make me laugh. The other day I asked him to unload the dishwasher, and he muttered under his breath, "You're a dishwasher," and we both looked at each other crossly and then laughed like drains. Not funny in the slightest, now I think about it, but somehow it was at the time.
"Come on, ladies, stretch those necks, lengthen those backs."
The instructor has very muscly calves, I notice as I stretch and lengthen like crazy. (Even at fifty-one I retain a ridiculous compunction to please. I can criticize the instructor till the cows come home, but it doesn't stop me craving her approval. Go figure, as my friend Hettie would say.) She makes her rounds of the class, tucking in chins and pulling back shoulders. She could be a pretty girl if it wasn't for those calves, but I don't think men really like that kind of thing, do they? All that gristle. It's so important to know where to draw the line. I think so anyway. I know I'm probably not best qualified to know what men want, having been married for so long, but you don't have to be actively engaged in the business of men to appreciate what they do and don't like. It's like our villa in Tuscany—I'm not looking to sell it, but I still like to know what's happening in the Italian property market. It's a question of being prepared for every eventuality. I know there are some people who believe being prepared spoils things, takes away from the spontaneity of life. The same people who love surprise parties, probably. Personally, I can't think of anything worse. What if you had on a dress you'd always loathed, one of those "fat dresses," as Flora calls them, that you throw on those mornings when you wake up feeling the size of a house? (I don't actually have a fat dress myself, although I do have a couple of pairs of good quality leggings I reserve for that time of the month.) What if the person organizing the party forgot to invite the most important people or worse, invited people you couldn't stand?
After the exercise class, I get out my emergency repair kit. Little travel-size jars into which I've decanted some essential toiletries. There's something very therapeutic about the ritual of applying nice-smelling stuff on fresh cotton-wool pads. It feels useful. Practical. When I look at my reflection in the mirror of the Chelsea health club (not a cliché, whatever Simon may say—just convenient, and really not so very expensive when you work out how much use I get out of it. Not like Hettie, who jokes that when she was a member she used to pay two thousand a year for a sauna and a half leg wax), I make sure to do it piecemeal fashion. Hair, eyebrows, upper arms. Anatomical fragments. After forty-five, you don't really want to go looking at things as a whole. That's one thing I've learned. Now I'm fifty-one, I'm finding out about the places inside yourself where you can tuck doubts away like unopened bank letters. The trick is to break everything down into its constituent parts and work through them systematically. I like to look in the health-club mirror and focus on the positives—overall shape, level of fitness, a general sense of purpose—rather than the areas where I can't compete, like youthful complexion and cut-away shoulders.
In the changing room afterward a woman compliments me on my cardigan. It's a new powder-blue one I'm rather pleased with so I ought to feel gratified, but something about this woman bothers me. Her nails, when she puts out her hand to stroke the soft cashmere, are all broken with bits of ragged flesh around them, a bit like Josh's. What kind of person chews their own skin? I used to ask Josh as a boy. Are you a cannibal? The thing he never seemed to get is that people judge a lot about a person by the state of his or her nails. Of course, he used to argue that those were the very people whose opinion he least cared about, but he'd be surprised how important those kind of things can be. My own mother taught me early on that there are few challenges in life that can't be faced more easily, secure in the knowledge of the possession of well-manicured hands and matching underwear. "It's about self-esteem," I tried to tell Josh. "That boost that comes from knowing yourself to be ... in order." In order! I made him sound like a toilet! No wonder he looked at me as if I were bonkers.
"You always look immaculate," says the woman in the changing room. "It puts me to shame. I feel like a complete mess in comparison."
Oh, Lord. Clearly what I should do at this point is to disagree warmly or say something self-deprecating, but the truth is she does look a mess. She has on one of those flesh-colored thermal tops that make people look as though their upper half is encased in a surgical bandage, and a pair of faded black multipack-style knickers. I don't mean to be unkind, but obviously she has money or she wouldn't be here in the first place, so presumably she has a selection of clothes, and it seems bizarre that she must have chosen to wear that top, weighing up its relative merits this morning against some other less offensive item before deciding in its favor. So I say, "Nonsense, you look perfectly nice."
Which, as everyone knows, roughly translates to "Oh, dear God." The woman backs off sharpish after that, and I feel like giving myself a good slap. All the way home in my zippy little Fiat 500 with the red leather trim that usually cheers me up, I feel cross and out of sorts.
"Kindness costs nothing," I used to drum into my three children as they were growing up. Oh, hypocrisy, thy name is Selina Busfield!
On reflection, I should have made the cardigan situation into some kind of joke, only I'm so useless at jokes. Simon once told a dinner table of guests that I don't have a "talent for humor." I was in the kitchen preparing the dessert at the time, and he was holding court, rather drunkenly. He didn't know I could hear him. "Selina has many talents, but humor isn't one of them," he said.
I never told him I'd overheard. But it hurt. Those kind of throwaway remarks always do. What was that wartime slogan? Careless talk costs lives. Someone should remind Simon of that from time to time. Of how much can ride on a careless comment.
The journey home takes an age. The roads are already being dug up and repaired in preparation for the Olympics, even though it's still nearly two years away. Waste of money, if you ask me. All those new state-of-the-art stadiums. What will we do with them when it's over? Pay our gas bills with them? Prop up the euro with them? Use them to sort out the bogging mess the universities have got themselves into?
A couple strolls past as I am idling at a junction. They have their arms draped across each other's backs, hands plunged deep in each other's back pockets. They are laughing at something on a mobile phone, their faces tilted together, and I feel this sudden whoosh of longing. To be so included in someone else's world. As I watch the X of their arms against their backs recede into the distance, I suddenly feel like bursting into tears, which is most unlike me.
As I cross the river and approach the wide leafy avenues of Barnes, my bad humor persists, prompting me to notice all the irritating details I usually blot right out—the CCTV cameras sprouting like alien fruit from telegraph poles and lampposts, the custom-built, timber-clad huts that house the wheelie bins. (In Barnes, plastic is practically illegal. Christmas mornings are filled with the outraged wails of children who've been bought tasteful wooden toys instead of the garish colored ones they covet from the television ads.) Funny how, even after twenty-seven years in our home, I still navigate my way around these streets according to the properties we saw when we were house-hunting all those years ago. This road had that one that was deceptively spacious inside, but no garden to speak of; down there is that one that smelled like someone had died in it. Of course, there are the inevitable pangs of regrets also. Who could guess that street would become so desirable? If only I hadn't let Simon talk me out of taking on that structural work!
Excerpted from War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen. Copyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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