Fiction

Story: Dinner and Divorce

By Eva Marloes

Morning at the Roberts’. The radio is chucking out news. Two slices of bread jump out of the toaster. Susan fills the kettle with water, puts the toasts on a plate, grabs the butter and a jar of jam, and dumps everything on the kitchen table just before her sixteen-year-old son, Jamie, gets into the kitchen in his pyjamas’ bottoms and bouncing a basketball.
‘Please put that thing away,’ Susan tells him.
‘I have practice today.’
‘Good,so there’s no need to go around with that in the house.’ Jamie rests the ball under his arm. It falls down as he turns around to his father who asks him, ‘Ready for the match?’
Susan looks with a mixture of annoyance and resignation at the ball on the floor. She gets up to make more toasts. Her daughter joins the family breakfast pleading for her red top.
Susan presses the lever of the toaster down with force. She turns and spots her other daughter, Tanya, who has sneaked in unnoticed, drinking from a carton of juice. ‘Oi!’ Susan complains. Jamie grabs a toast and declares that he has a match in two weeks. He needs proteins. ‘That’s carb, you muppet!’ Says Charlotte. Jamie replies pulling his tongue to his sister. Susan is still looking at Tanya drinking the juice from the carton. Tanya tells her, ‘I’m drinking it all,’ as a form of justification for the breach of the rule. ‘Where’s protein?’ asks Jamie, whose nutritional certainties have been
severely undermined by the exchange with his sister. Charlotte, in equal measure magnanimous and patronising, replies ‘Eggs and meat.’ This opened new possibilities that Jamie had not thought of before. ‘Can I have eggs and bacon mum?’ Jamie asks his mum. ‘Go ahead and make some. I’ll have them too. Thanks very much.’ Tanya and Charlotte laugh. Jamie doesn’t quite get why his request should be brushed aside, especially as he has a very good reason to want eggs and bacon. Everything has passed by Scott since he has sat down to have his coffee and read the paper. Susan does a quick count of the punters at her table, maybe she could get rid of one or two. Tanya could go back to Uni and maybe Charlotte could go on holiday. She’ll happily pay for it although her daughter is proud. Her only respite is work. Then she remembers she needs to meet up with Anne.
Ann smiles, closes her eyes, and soaks in the sun that comes from the open window of the conservatory. Time to go. She doesn’t want to make Susan wait, mind you, Susan will be late, rushed, carrying bags, and panting. At the café, Ann sits quietly by the window. ‘I’m so sorry, am I late?’ asks Susan who comes to the table unseen by Ann.
‘Of course not’ replies Ann.
‘It’s hectic at home. Tanya is back from Uni and Charlotte is miserable.’
Feigning sympathy, Ann says ‘Must be hard. How’s her job-hunting going?’
‘It’s a hunt! How are you? Feels like ages since we’ve met.’ Ann is pleased to say that she’s booked her holiday, all she would like to talk about. Feeling a tinge of envious disappointment Susan asks, ‘Where to?’
‘You know, Italy! I’m doing the cookery and language course.’ She had told her a million times surely. How could she forget? Susan jokes ‘Oh yes, of course. If we’re still in Europe by then.’
Ann ignores the remark about Brexit and says ‘I can’t wait.’ ‘What about Rob?’ asks Susan.
‘He’ll be coming for a long weekend. He’s very busy with work.’ ‘You’ll have some time for yourself.’ Ann finds no relief in being away from her husband. Sure, they don’t need to be together all the time and, from time to time, she goes up to London for a few days with her sister, but holiday is about family. Ann says with a little fastidiousness, ‘I was hoping he could take a week off so that we could do it together, just to do something new but he’s not interested in learning a language and certainly not in cooking,’ then adds, ‘You look a bit tired. Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t mean that, just a bit…’ ‘I’m bloody exhausted,’ replies Susan thinking that Ann finally got off her cloud and has noticed her. ‘It seems like everybody depends on me. They can barely make themselves a cup of tea without me. That’s family life for you. When you think you got peace and quiet, it all comes down crushing on you.’ She didn’t mean that. She didn’t mean to criticise Ann’s life. Family life is still family life, even without children, although she couldn’t quite fathom what that would look like. She envied the peace, but it sounded boring and lonesome.
It’s dinner time. Susan is cooking in the kitchen, Tanya comes in, takes a couple of slices of bread, opens the fridge and gets some ham. Susan looks at her in disapproval. ‘Where the mayo?’ asks Tanya. ‘Fend for yourself, child,’ replies Susan, who’s annoyed that her efforts in the kitchen can be disregarded so easily. Jamie comes in aiming straight for the fridge, takes ham and cheese, and sticks both into his mouth, no need for the pretence of a sandwich. Susan reproaches them,‘Can’t you wait for dinner?’ Tanya shows the courtesy of acknowledging her and replies, ‘Sorry mum, gotta go out with Chris.’ Not too unhappy to have one of her kids out of the way, Susan doesn’t object, but shakes her head at Jamie gulping down fruit-juice. He leaves the glass on the table, at least he drank from a glass. Susan watches Charlotte coming into the kitchen and opening the fridge with a disinterested air. ‘What’s wrong with this family?’ Asks Susan loud to nobody in particular. ‘Uhm?’ mumbles Charlotte as she takes out a yoghurt.
‘Is that dinner?’
‘Yeah. Bye.’
Rude, bloody rude, the lot of them. I guess It’s my fault. Scott comes in and opens the fridge. Moved by a need to break the chain of family members being lured to the fridge and to neglect all civility, Susan announces, ‘I’m going to campaign for Remain.’ The announcement is met with a slight nod from Scott. She tries a different tack and reminds her husband that they have a dinner engagement with the Matthews in a month’s time. ‘Those arseholes?’ complains Scott. Susan tilts her head to one side in disapproval, opens the fridge, and makes herself a sandwich.
It’s her first day campaigning for Remain in the EU referendum. It’s her first campaign ever. She feels small, ignorant, and alone. Confronted by a woman who has proclaimed her Britishness and its redemptive salvation like the preacher of a bygone era, Susan is left shaken. She gets home in a confused state. Scott calls from the kitchen. What’s he doing in the kitchen? Dinner. He’s making dinner. How? Why? What has possessed him? ‘Saw you campaigning today,’ Scott says. Susan reddens in her face and lowers her eyes. ‘I liked what you said about the country, about our future, and, you know, working with our neighbours.’ Susan lifts her eyes surprised, blushes slightly and says, ‘I don’t think it convinced anybody,’ then quickly changes the subject, ‘Aren’t you watching the football with the guys?’
‘Nah, it’s turned all nationalist to be honest. It ruins it for me. It should be about the game.’ Then Scott puts on the fake accent of a gentleman’s gentleman and announces, ‘Dinner is served.’
‘Fish fingers, peas, and chips?’
‘Yes,’ answers Scott proudly. Susan smiles and calls the kids to the table. Tanya sits down and says mournfully, ‘I feel 12.’
‘Shh! Say ‘Thank you’ to dad.’
‘We never thank you when you cook … everyday,’ says Charlotte. ‘And we should,’ says Scott. Jamie can’t believe his luck, finally some unhealthy food.
Ann walks down the pavement, past the library and the school, crosses the park, and then walks some more. No reason in particular, just an uncomfortable feeling with no name, no label. She tries to unravel her emotions tied into a knot. Maybe it’s the Italian exam next week; all that grammar. That’s silly. She’s not some 15-year-old going to school. It’s Sonya, what Sonya said after the class. She’s freaking out because of the referendum. She’s been in the country for decades, but can’t vote. Why didn’t she become a British citizen? No need. Why do people get another citizenship? Would have I applied for Italian citizenship had I been living in Italy for as long as Sonya has lived in the UK? What for? Why go through all the trouble and expense to do it? Sonya will be just fine. Brexit doesn’t stand a chance. She’s right though. People have been attacked, just for speaking their own language, in Britain today. ‘Vermin.’ She said people talk of Europeans as if they were vermin. Like Germany in the Thirties. That’s ridiculous. That’s because she’s German. It can’t happen again and not here. She said that. British people always think they’re more liberal than they are. That’s offensive. The tabloids are bad, but that’s just sensationalism to sell papers. Most people don’t believe that. Most people buy those papers, she said. Theresa May’s ‘go home’ vans. Sleep-walking into ugly nationalism. She’s wrong. There’s racism, true, but she’s wrong. What if things turn bad? They can’t.
‘Who would have thought that we’d be together again?’ Susan wonders, ‘I had forgotten I could be wanted. I thought sex was for other people, at least the fun one. It only took a kiss at the end of a tiring day, after giving out to strangers leaflets on the EU. All that came before, the boredom, the incomprehension, the distance, the betrayal, had gone. Together again, older, fatter, and disenchanted, but happy to take each other for what we are.’ ‘Where are my meds?’ asks Scott rummaging through the drawer.
‘Where you left them.’
‘You put them away, I need them.’
‘You do!’ Susan smiles and Scott sticks his tongue out jokingly at her, then in triumph proclaims, ‘Found them! Now I’m ready to confront the Tory dragons!’ It’s dinner at the Matthews.
Ann adjusts her hair one more time. She looks into the mirror searching for approval. ‘Ready?’ asks Robert. ‘Yes,’ she replies softly, and adds, ‘Why do I always find the Matthews so stressful? Every time is like some State Dinner.’ She doesn’t know what it is, she just can’t relax with that crowd. It’s really nice to go. She likes dressing up and every time, for the first twenty minutes, half an hour, she feels ‘proper’ with the right connections, in her earned place. As the half hour passes, she gets uncomfortable and out of place. Sometimes only Susan and Scott make it bearable. ‘There’s something about Cowbridge, the village of millionaires; living outside of Cardiff; it’s like they don’t want to mix. I like Cardiff. It’s true Penylan is posh, but I’m just a short walk away from the noise, the colour, the difference. Cowbridge is very white. I’m very white, but not so white, not white like the Matthews or even Rob.’ Ann surprises herself at the thought of Rob so ‘white’ and she ‘not so white.’ It’s the sort of thing you would hear in America, not in Britain. She’s not mixed or anything, just doesn’t belong. Her variety of British white is not included in the label British white.
Arrived. Parked. Now the greetings and the smiles. So beautiful, so tasteful, so calculated. How are you? How was Australia, Japan, Greece? Is Cathy off to Cambridge? Stanford. I see. Wonderful. Everything is just wonderful. Dinner. Ivory table cloth, brass cutlery, crystal glasses. The light refracts into a little rainbow on the elaborate ridges of the glass. Michelle enters carrying the main dish. What a show, why not let the waitress do it?
‘Confit de Canard. Voilà,’ says Michelle presenting the dish she had nothing to do making. Some clapping. ‘Oo-la-la,’ says jokingly her husband Harry. ‘Oh, wonderful,’ says Jane in her usual affected tone, perfected over many years to the point of spontaneity. The waitress serves the guests, while a waiter comes in from the kitchen bringing more dishes. ‘You’re spoiling us, Michelle,’ says Susan. ‘Good, cos I’m starving,’ adds Scott interrupting the compliments. The guests eat. Harry swells with pride at every bite. He’s earned it, he thinks. He’s made all this: the big house, the clothes, the furniture, and the food. He’s got it all and did it all by himself. Peter plunges his knife into the back of the canard with hungry envy. ‘Just wait and see what I can do,’ Peter’s eyes say while he smiles at his wife Jane. Spoiling for a fight, Peter asks, ‘Who’s seen the match?’ Scott doesn’t let him wait for a riposte and replies, ‘I saw the English smashing the place as ever. It’s always the English.’ Peter hits back, ‘The Welsh can do no harm, of course,’ to which Scott responds affably with ‘Too busy singing like angels.’ It’s the European Cup. The English and Russian fans have clashed on the streets of Marseille and the Welsh have sung the national anthem in a pub. The guests laugh at Scott’s humour, Peter included, in a high-pitch laugh craving approval. ‘It wasn’t unprovoked,’ retorts Peter still seeking a victory. Tom comes in aid of Peter, so easily beaten by Scott’s humour, ‘Oh that Russian lot are just animals. Horrendous.’ Scott points to his plate and tells Susan, ‘I’m not cooking this!’ ending any hope Peter had to get a bit of a banter going. Harry takes his cue, ‘Since when you’ve been cooking?’
‘Since Susan has been campaigning for the referendum.’ Scott passes the napkin over his lips and lifts his glass to Susan. ‘Which side?’ asks Harry. Scott grunts a surprised and rhetorical ‘Eh???’ Susan, wishing for the topic to go away, says, ‘Remain.’ Jane pitches in with a friendly tone and a touch of condescension in the latter part of the sentence, ‘I thought I saw you on Queen Street last Sunday. Do you do it every Sunday?’
‘Yes, and Saturdays. I did some phone canvassing too. You should come and help out,’ replies Susan making mince-meat of Jane’s condescension. Jane giggles.
‘Don’t think so,’ adds Peter smelling blood. Scott winks at Susan and takes the ball from Peter, ‘Oh, we’re enjoying ourselves.’
‘How so?’ asks Peter. Scott enjoys the chance of sticking it to Peter, perched on the edge of his seat.
‘Well, if you wanna know, it has spiced up our sex life.’ Susan kicks him from under the table, Scott adds, ‘and I make some mean omelettes.’ Everybody laughs leaving Peter starved of his fight. Sarah, who nobody had noticed until that point, makes herself known with, ‘You two! What are you like!’
‘The EU might turn out to have some use after all,’ says Harry, ‘An unexpected aphrodisiac!’
‘It’s those stars. Can’t get enough of them. I’m getting Susan EU-branded lingerie,’ teases Scott while Susan changes colour, rolls her eyes, and shakes her head. It’s painful enough to be here, does he really need to make a show every time? Yet, she’s happy. She doesn’t feel any tinge of envy for Harry’s money, Michelle’s things, Jane’s slender figure, blond hair and blue eyes. She’s having the time of her life.
Michelle teases Susan on the EU-branded lingerie, ‘Do they sell it at Ann Summers?’ ‘Whip and all,’ Scott quips back. They all laugh, amused, surprised, a little incredulous, and perfectly envious. Harry resumes, ‘Remain will win no doubt, with or without your erotic exploits.’
‘The country is not completely nuts,’ Scott replies, looking at Susan, ‘but we’re not taking any chances.’
‘For the country. That’s what I always say,’ jokes Susan.
After some due laughter, Harry comments, ‘Nothing ‘nuts’ about Brexit.’ He pauses and motions his hand as if to pre-empt reactions, and continues, ‘I know, I know. The received wisdom is that the EU is the biggest market in the world, it allows us to export not just to Europe but across the world and all that, so why rock the boat?’
‘Why not rock the boat?’ interjects Jane with the most fake blush in years.
‘Exactly,’ says Peter, finally getting his chance at a battle, ‘We are Great Britain. We have a magnificent history. We can be brave for once instead of playing second fiddle to the Americans.’
‘What’s the EU got to do with the Americans?’ asks Ann falling into the conversation as if shaken from a tree. Harry patronises her explaining, ‘What we mean is that in the EU you have to play by somebody else’s rules. You can’t set the course and compete with the big boys.’
Sarah’s husband Tom, the other hidden guest, interjects, ‘True. It’s the ‘can’t do attitude’ that is keeping us back. The EU has helped. I won’t deny it for a second, but we can rely on ourselves.’
‘And we should,’ adds Sarah.
‘What are you on about?’ bursts Scott, ‘We are on the map because of the EU.’ Unable to make a joke out of this talk, points at Susan with his knife while clutching his fork in a fist, and adds, ‘Tell them Susan.’ Harry jokes, ‘What is this, an exam or are you phoning in a friend?’
‘She’s the one reading The Economist. Damning verdict, I tell you.’ Harry resumes his statesmanlike tone, ‘No doubt. It’s the safe option. The boring option.’
‘It’s the sane option, not the asylum option.’
Michelle adds her own brand of condescension wrapped in motherly approval, ‘Oh, let the boys indulge in their romantic fantasies of Britain conquering the world.’ Sarah joins the motherhood adding, ‘No doubt the morning after it’ll all be back to normal.’ Susan, mother of three doesn’t play ball, ‘If too many indulge in these fantasies, the morning after will be the mother of all hangovers.’ Tom puts her into her place saying, ‘The world is not gonna end, no matter what Cameron says. It’ll be just fine. I’m not even saying we should leave, just that it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We will negotiate trade with the EU, as sensible grown up nations, and the US, and the rest.’
‘That needs experts and time,’ Susan’s voice is slightly shaking, ‘We rely on the EU to negotiate all our trade deals. They have the knowledge and expertise. You can’t replace hundreds of trade deals overnight anyway.’
‘The UK has the best civil service in the world,’ Tom retorts, ‘We were a global trading nation well before the EU was born.’ Scott whispers to Ann, who is sitting next to him, ‘Is trade the word for colonial plunder?’ Ann whispers back, ‘As a civil servant, if we’re the best in the world, the world is fucked.’ Harry notices the whispers and asks, ‘What do you say?’
‘I think we should remember why the EU was born,’ replies Ann, ‘It’s not all just trade. It’s peace and culture.’
‘Oh please, Ann, not the peace thing again,’ complains Peter, ‘That was always NATO.’
‘Exactly,’ adds Tom who couldn’t think of anything else to add.
‘Yeah, I wanna see what happens when Trump is President and he gets in a mess,’ says Scott trying to cool colonial enthusiasms. Harry laughs and says, ‘Trump is not getting elected. Now whose fantasies are running wild? It’ll all be boring Hillary,’ he sighs, ‘the world is rather dull.’ Dessert is served.
The following morning Ann and Susan sit in the sun at a café. ‘I’m a bit, well I was a little…’ Ann turns to Susan as if looking for help, ‘shocked last night.’
‘Oh the Brexiteer Army? I had my suspicions before.’
‘Did you?’
‘They’re a bunch of twats, Ann. Excuse my French.’
‘I just … I don’t know, but I feel like I’ve just woken up. Or maybe not. I feel like I’m living some nightmare and I can’t wake up.’
‘It’ll be ok…. I hope it’ll be. Sometimes I really wonder. Honestly, I get into Tesco and see the papers and they’re all gung-ho about Brexit and always blaming immigrants for everything. So I don’t know really. At the stand the other day I got this woman saying, ‘I’m British. I’m British.’ So am I, I’m European too,’ Susan leans forward and adds, ‘and proud. …I joined the campaign in the spur of a moment. I’ve never done anything like this before. It seemed important this time. I didn’t even think Scott would like it.’
‘He liked it all right.’
‘Don’t you start, but yes, it’s also been good for our marriage. Not sure how it all happened. I think it was the Euro championship. He’s always hated all the nationalist crap. This time they were chanting Brexit. I guess that’s what did it. He joined me in the campaign. The rest followed. I think just doing things together has brought us closer. It has given us purpose …and a great time in bed.’ Susan raises her coffee cup laughing, ‘Cheers to Brussels!’
‘To Brussels!’
‘52%. It’s good to put a number to the portion of imbeciles in the country,’ says Ann as she stares at the news leaving her cup of tea go cold. Unimaginable and yet unsurprising. She felt it for weeks, she just couldn’t say it. It happened, like a landslide of debris and mud taking with it everything standing in its way. She should have known. The tabloids, the football nationalism, immigrant vermin, Tory austerity, tiredness of mediocrity when the very top do so well on so little talent, the waiting lists. Some people had enough, some people wanted to feel superior, others wanted to feel counted. They were counted, all 17,410,742 millions, the only ones who counted in the end. David Dimbleby on the BBC announcing with glee ‘We’re out.’ Out alone, aloof, away from our friends and neighbours, our family even. Ann never despised herself so much. It was her fault too. Always distant, she hid in her own privileged and beautiful world of art and culture with no space for the vulgarity of politics. What hurt her was the suspicion and hatred of foreigners, or, at best, indifference. Some people will go home, big deal. Good riddance. Why aren’t you packing your bags? She heard it all and ignored it. We couldn’t be like that. We are not like the Germans. That unquestionable sense of superiority, that we couldn’t be racist, xenophobic, and nasty, made nationalism sound reasonable, nothing more than a game to play in a summer afternoon with no consequences. Her benevolent, liberal, and cultured mind suffered from the same delusions. The veil of composure, fair-mindedness, and faux self-deprecation was torn open, and the ugly spite, oppression, and exploitation, lay like the insides of a dead body on a surgeon’s table. The diseased organs of British society dripped black blood and festered with worms.
A mobile goes off in the living room. Must be Robert’s. ‘Robert? It’s your phone.’ No reply. Ann picks up the phone. There are notifications on Twitter. Didn’t know Robert was on Twitter. He’s ’Englishman56’. She reads his tweets. ‘We voted out. Time for you to pack your bags.’ She falls down on the sofa, her mouth slightly open, her eyes hypnotised by the luminous screen. Line after line, only spite, arrogance, and hatred. How didn’t I see it? A xenophobe, a hateful little man. Was he always like that? Did he change? When? Was it when his business nearly folded twenty years ago? He did well after that. Was it not having children and hearing everybody else talking endlessly about theirs? Unable to move, she breathes slowly and deeply. Key turns in the lock, the door opens, Robert comes in. Not sure I want to see him right now. She turns in shame and disgust. ‘What’s for supper?’ asks Robert. Flambé pheasant laced with arsenic, no, she cannot muster any irony. She reads Robert’s tweets as if reciting a poem to an audience, ‘If you like Europe so much, you can go and live there. We voted out. Time for you to pack your bags. We can go back to being proud of our sceptred island…’ It sounds different read aloud. Robert wants it over. He interrupts her, ‘It’s just online stuff. It doesn’t mean anything.’ Ann with the unshakable composure of an old-fashioned school teacher and in the most spiteful clipped accent replies, ‘Does it not? Why did you write it then? It takes time to type every word you don’t mean and press send. You have written thousands of tweets.’
‘Oh, come on! It’s just banter.’
‘The definition of banter must have been changed. This is being a bully,’ Ann pauses and then looking past him adds, ‘I don’t know who you are.’
‘Oh, please! Spare me the melodrama. Look, I voted one way and you voted another. That’s all. No big deal.’ He sits in the armchair in front of her, looks around, then does his best to match her spite, ‘So what if I offended someone? Everyday I bite my tongue with customers who don’t know what they want. Everyday I try to make others happy: employees, suppliers, agents… you. You have a comfortable life, a nice house, holidays abroad. You got to retire early so that you could do what you like. I’m putting up with a lot of shit, Ann. …You don’t wanna hear about it. You want home to be peaceful and calm, so no talk about business, no politics, no ugly stuff, just your art, your languages, your literature. I’m the one in the real world. Yes, I got angry and I have been shit to some strangers on the internet, people I’ll never meet and never talk to again. I let some steam off.’
That sounds perfectly sensible, but she has evidence to the contrary in her hands. She asks, ‘you didn’t mean any of it?’ Robert begins with ‘no,’ then adds with emphasis, ‘I meant I’m proud of being British… Happy to do business with Europeans, but we’re British. We have more in common with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.’
‘You mean the white bits of the Commonwealth?’
‘Do you mix much with blacks and Asians? Take a look at the mirror, Ann.’ That reply left her shaken. Robert continues, ‘You’re making a big fuss over nothing. Just because you like some Italian cheese, you think you’re European? You just fancy yourself better than anyone around you.’ That much is true, I guess, but not like that. She stands up, ‘I’m European. Like it or not.’ Robert deflates her pomp with a quick, ‘You’re just a fake.’ Ann breathes out anger, ‘We’re not all little Englanders. You wanna leave, leave. Leave!’ She leaves the room.
Susan has been rushing around with the kids. Tanya is going on holiday to Greece, Charlotte is visiting a friend in Manchester; she can’t remember the third. She laughs. ‘You going on holiday?’ asks Ann. Susan tells her she’s going to Italy. She can’t wait. She’s looking forward to some time just with Scott and to hell with the pound! Ann breaks down and cries. She tries to regain some composure, passes her hands on her wet cheeks and says, ‘I’m sorry. I’m leaving Rob.’ A hot sensation runs through Susan’s body. Her happy holiday picture is torn by Ann’s drama, appeared out of nowhere. ‘I know you’ll think it’s crazy,’ says Ann, ‘it’s because of this damned referendum.’ The reason didn’t make sense to Susan. Rob must have voted Leave and Ann Remain, but what of it? Ann says ‘He’s been nasty to people on the internet.’ The further explanation didn’t make the whole thing one bit clearer or sensible, but drama is never sensible or there wouldn’t be any. ‘Really,’ continues Ann, ‘he’s nasty, backward, all about being British and better than anyone else. Fucking Little England.’
‘Rob?’ asks Susan in disbelief.
‘Yes, Rob. I checked his phone cos of a missed call and found lots of nasty tweets. He’s on Tweeter. I didn’t even know about it. He did it behind my back.’
Susan, still clinging to the hope of bringing some order to the disordered reality unfolding before her, says ‘But it’s impossible. Look, I know Rob has always had a national pride thing, but he’s not nasty.’ National pride. Ann is surprised. She never noticed it. Others did.
‘I don’t know him,’ says Ann, ‘he called me a fake! He’s always made fun of me for my love of Italy, of foreign food, but it was always an affectionate joke. So I thought.’
‘What are you faking?’ asks Susan in an effort to untie another of Ann’s knots.
‘I’m a middle-class fake cos I like foreign food, that’s what he said.’
‘You like pies too,’ says Susan giving up making any sense of it all. Ann smiles but can’t shake off her pain, ‘He’s a xenophobic arsehole. You should see his tweets.’
‘We’ve all been pricks online. You don’t know the person, you don’t see them, so it’s easy to just say whatever and be nasty cos you can.’
‘Why is it all right online?’ asks Ann in search of an ally. What does she need to say to convince her friend that Rob, so nice and caring, is really a monster?
‘It was a lie, just a lie,’ says Ann.
‘Not all was a lie,’ says Susan, ‘Maybe he needed to let off some steam, maybe he’s a little englander, I don’t know, but you’ve been together for 30 years. This is your life together you’re throwing away.’
‘He’s throwing it away. I’m not the nationalist xenophobic knob here,’ Ann pauses, ‘I am European. I’m not giving up my identity to save my marriage. I’m out.’
Susan lies in bed thinking of what Ann has told her. Nothing makes sense. Scott comes into the bedroom and plays bimbo shaking his towel to her. ‘Ann is getting a divorce. Rob voted Leave and he’s a nationalist prick.’ Scott holds his towel tight like a child who’s been found with his finger in the marmalade jar. ‘Seriously?’ he asks, ‘Yeah,’ says Susan. ‘Seriously?’ repeats Scott. ‘Yeah. What are you deaf?’ says Susan. Scott sits down on the edge of the bed. ‘She’s gonna leave him. I know she’s gonna leave him,’ she pauses and then resumes, ‘I thought it was over between us.’ ‘So did I,’ says Scott. ‘I honestly thought. I dunno, that we were strangers in the same house. I thought of leaving you,’ says Susan. ‘I know,’ replies Scott. ‘Why didn’t you say something?’ asks Susan. Scott turns to her and says, ‘cos I’m a coward. So many times … so many times I thought we needed to sit down and talk, but I kept on finding excuses and putting it off. It was never a good time.’
‘Did you think I didn’t know you had an affair?’
‘I knew. I liked her, but I think it was more because I wanted to feel free. No kids, no wife, no monthly bills. I wanted to feel young with a bright future in front of me rather than stuck in a rut. I don’t mean… I got it wrong.’
‘Sometimes I feel that way too.’
‘I never had sex with her. I know that doesn’t make it better. I hope it makes it better, a little bit… I don’t know… I’m sorry.’ Susan is somewhat relieved that he hadn’t been polluted, so to speak, by going with another. I guess his mind was, for a time. She asks, ‘Why didn’t you?’ Scott replies,
‘I couldn’t get it up.’ Susan laughs out loud. That’ll teach you to go around looking for a greener grass!
Robert is reading a newspaper in the kitchen. Ann comes in and tells him she’s getting a divorce. ‘Oh please, don’t be ridiculous,’ says Rob.
‘I won’t share my life with a fascist.’
‘Whaat??’
‘Nothing like anonymous tweets to show the real you.’
‘I’m a fascist because I want my country back?’
‘I don’t remember losing the country. Try under the carpet next time.’
‘How funny! You think you’re so superior, don’t you?’
‘Let me come down to your level then. You’re a little spineless twat, who can’t even say what he thinks out loud. You sided with fascists. You never complained about racist ‘go home vans’ from fucking Theresa May. Cos illegals are not like us, foreigners are not like us, right?’
‘It’s our country, we should decide who comes in…’
‘What has given you any right over this land? Did you buy it all? Why does it bother you that others come to live here? For a businessman you seem pretty thick at working out the economy. It’s not a cake. It’s not like if there’s more in the country, we get a smaller slice, we get more fucking cakes!’ Rob is piqued by the comment on his business knowledge but doesn’t pursue the lead, he says, ‘It’s not just the economy. It’s different people. They change the country, the culture, what about our culture?’
‘Do you think we’re the same we were three hundred years ago or even fifty years ago? Since when do you worry about culture? When was the last time you went to a Shakespeare’s play? I spare you the googling, half of them are about Italians!’ She pauses with sentences rushing through her brain, then resumes,‘That’s how it all begins, when do you think it might just be too much? When people get attacked? Do they need to be white for you to care? Cos some have already been beaten up and not just brown people, proper white people. Oh, I forgot. That can’t happen here. It’s the Europeans who are fascists. Mhm, not sure we got an empire by being decent, though. But that something to be proud of, right?’
‘Cut this crap, Ann.’
‘You really need to see boots and black shirts parading on a street to think fascism? Don’t come and cry to me when you get a boot lodged up your arse.’
It cleared the air like a summer thunderstorm. The water washed away the dust and dirt of their marriage. All in one go, everything was swallowed up by the sewage. It was reinvigorating. It was terrifying. Ann is in bed in the spare room. It’s cosy, new, foreign. She’s too tired to think. It’s done, no point in thinking about it any more. She plunges quickly into a dream. She walks a wasteland. The trees burnt, the road tarmac broken, far in the distance there are fires. Food is rotten on dry grass on one side of the road and on the other there are smashed shop-windows, boarded up houses, and empty office buildings. She keeps walking. It looks familiar but she can’t place where she is. She glimpses a man standing holding onto a statue. The statue is that of Aneurin Bevan, in Queen Street. The man is Robert. His naked chest is tattooed, behind him flies an England’s flag. As she comes closer, she hears him saying louder and louder, ‘Brexit. Brexit. Brexit.’ She turns to her left-hand side. She sees Susan and Scott in a bath tub having a bubble bath. Scott is holding a bottle of champagne and a glass, Susan has a glass of champagne in one hand and in the other a scone with cream and jam. ‘Don’t worry!’ says Scott. Susan adds, ‘We shall always have jam.’ Ann takes a few steps backward, she sees her figure in a mirror. She is naked but for an EU flag wrapped around her body. She feels something pulling the flag from her. It’s people chanting Brexit. They pull the flag while she tries to hold on to it tight.
She’s alone. Is there any point in talking to Susan? Susan who’s having such a great time with Scott. Bastards. I don’t mean it. It’s good, but the timing is not great. ‘I wanna wake up from this nightmare,’ says Ann to Susan after a protracted silence. ‘I know what you mean,’ says Susan pulling Ann into an unexpected reality. Ann utters an incredulous ‘do you?’ Susan didn’t want to talk about it. It wasn’t the shame or the hurt, but its banality. Betrayal is what everybody does. She told Ann that Scott had fallen for another woman. He got dumped cos he’s old and fat.You know what men are like. They need mummy to hold their hands. He never really left, they just weren’t together any more. Maybe Rob voted Leave to rock the boat, to shake the calm and predictability of his life. He probably thought Remain would win. He was just throwing his toy out of the pram. ‘Maybe, but I’m not his mother,’ says Ann.
‘You seemed like the perfect couple.’
‘I wanted it to be so and I guess he played along. I wanted a nice house, a rose garden, birds chirping, cupcakes, like some Disney shit. Everything was perfect because we kept at a distance.’
‘I’ve never bought into the Disney shit.’ They both laugh. Ann stops suddenly and tells Susan, like a child confessing to stealing sweets, ‘I called him a fascist.’ Susan laughs. Ann is relieved.
‘After 30 years of marriage is odd. Maybe we should have talked more, maybe I should have listened, but I think she made up her mind the moment she found out I voted Leave,’ Robert tells Peter, Harry, and Tom.
‘Big blow, I must say. But you’ll be fine. You’re a strong man,’ reassures him Harry.
Peter adds, ‘We’re here for you, Robert. Don’t hesitate to ask for anything.’ Robert is a little embarrassed to be in the spotlight but sincerely warmed by his friends’ words.
‘So here I am. Starting again,’ says Robert.
‘That’s the spirit!’ remarks Peter, ‘We’re all starting again.’ Robert doesn’t want to feel better, to have any kind of spirit, let alone being part of a collective ‘new start,’ as if anybody ever started anew. He doesn’t feel free. He feels lonely.
END.

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Categories: Fiction

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