Lydia stared across at the slumped form of her snoring husband, sprawled across a double seat in the empty third class compartment. Chins spilling over his collar, food stains blurring the patterns of his spotted tie, mouth half open with a driblet of spittle coursing down the left gutter he painted an ugly picture. Her eyes passed from the wispy balding head down to the swelling paunch and thickening thighs obliterating his trouser creases and her lips twitched with distaste. How on earth could he have let himself slide like that, more to the point how could she have allowed it? Indifference she supposed, plain lack of interest. She had ceased to care about Julian two years after their marriage. He had gone his way she had gone hers. They continued to share the same shell, but that was all. How quickly time passed. They had lived that way for eight years now, for they had been married ten today. Hence the obligatory celebration lunch in the city. Filled with boozy bonhomie Julian had insisted on the idea and in a weak moment of now much regretted emotional nostalgia she had agreed. And how she had paid for her rashness, the whole thing had been one endless excruciating unmitigated disaster.
It was her own fault; she had seen it coming from the very start so there was no excuse. Julian had insisted on making breakfast. ‘ No, no, just sit where you are my little dove, I shall take care of the cooking this morning. Never let it be said your you were allowed to sully those delicate hands on this your special day.’ Eyes already glassy, he beamed through the smoke of burning butter and singing eggs. Vodka? Lydia hazarded a guess, it was too early for the scotch or bourbon and anyway he hadn’t started chewing peppermints yet. Though at times it was hard to be sure, there were so many bottles stashed about the place, sometimes she found herself hoping he might trip over one and break his neck. She had given up looking for them long ago, told him to cut the shit, come out of the closet, drink in public. She didn’t give a dam any more. But he had gone all alky on her, innocent eyes wide with hurt, swearing he had no idea what she meant. ‘ Go tell it to the squirrels,’ she had snapped and flounced out of the room. She should have called the whole thing off right then, but somehow for some perverse reason she really wanted to celebrate her tenth wedding anniversary. If nothing else she deserved it for staying the course.
By ten thirty they were waiting in the hall for the station taxi and Julian seemed no worse for wear. Lydia was beginning to think everything might work out after all, when he declared he had to check an oil leek in the lawn mower. To describe Julian’s knowledge of mechanics as limited was an understatement. Even punching the right dishwasher button was beyond him, and the only time he noticed grass was when he fell flat on his face on the lawn, Lydia felt her momentary optimism evaporate. He wasn’t gone long, but long enough. By the time he re-emerged from the garden shed, Old Squirrel Nutkin’s complexion had assumed a fresh rosy tint and his legs found difficulty in navigating the taxi door. Even so, apart from calling the driver, ‘a very fine fellow,’ which fortunately amused the man, and smiling benignly at the countryside in general, the journey to the station was completed without incident. It was only when Julian unsteadily approached the ticket counter that Lydia felt the first stirrings of alarm. She had seen that jovial regal expression too often.
‘Good day, my good fellow, a good day indeed, though perhaps a trifle on the chilly side, don’t you think? What do you say to two tickets to Bangkok, eh? Warm the cockles for a while and all that.’ He beamed genially at the booking clerk.
‘Mr, if you need places like Bangkok for your kicks, you’re a sad, sad man,’ the booking clerk viewed Julian with distaste. ‘But I’m not here to judge sexual preference, just to sell tickets. Now, tell me where you want to go or get the hell out of my line.’
And that had set the tone for the rest of the day Lydia reflected. The one-hour journey had required three trips to the men’s room to empty his bladder, Julian’s euphemism for a quick nip from his hip flask, and by the time the train arrived at the city his complexion had turned to a bad case of sunburn. Sheer will power drove him to the restaurant table, where he sank gratefully into a chair, ordered a double dry martini, and ignoring the menu buried his nose in the wine list. Julian had never had much interest in food, so Lydia was touched when he ordered Whitebait followed by Tournedos Rossini from memory, insisting on real foie gras and none of that damned parfait stuff. They were the dishes she had chosen the very first time he had taken her out for dinner, and she assumed he would have forgotten such details long ago. Naturally the wine was superb, though Julian drank most of it. Halfway through the second bottle he excused himself again, this time for a legitimate trip to the men’s room. Lydia had a clear view of the passageway leading to the restaurant door and watched his return with hypnotic fascination as he cannoned like a hard hit billiard ball from wall to wall before being neatly intercepted by the headwaiter, who discreetly supported him to the waiting chair held thoughtfully out to catch him by a junior colleague. Lunch had finally ended with two strapping waiters almost carrying him out to the waiting taxi, the disgust in their eyes showing through their over tipped smiles. With the aid of a kindly porter Lydia had heaved him onto the train where he had collapsed in a dishevelled heap.
Observing the wreck of the man across the carriage she was filled with an unexpected sadness. The beginning had been so bright, so happy, so filled with promise. It was a second marriage for both of them, each having experienced the hurt, anger, emptiness and devastation of divorce. Neither had been in a hurry, taking time to sound out each other’s weaknesses and strengths. Treading with suspicious caution to ensure this was no rebound, no act of loneliness. Refusing to allow themselves to be swayed by mutually satisfying sex, determined to make certain this time everything was as right as it could possibly be before making a final commitment. And they had truly believed it was, Lydia shook her head.
Julian had been forty-three when they met, not that it showed. Over six feet three in his socks, lean, without an ounce of fat on an athletic frame he stood out as an example of health and vitality in any crowd. Handsome, well dressed with blue-black hair dusted a distinguished grey at the temples, he looked every inch the successful executive he was. They had been introduced at a book launch. She had been a senior editor with the publishing company, he the managing director of the company responsible for the book’s promotion. It was an instant mutual attraction and the moment they could politely take their leave he had taken her to dine on whitebait and tournedos Rossini. Two years later they married. Everything had gone so well, all hopes fulfilled, the only blot on the horizon being Julian’s infatuation with fishing. There had been times when she wondered if she played second fiddle to salmon, and on one occasion at the fishing lodge they frequented had felt certain that even at the moment of climax, in his mind Julian was into a fish rather than her. But it was only a momentary twinge; most husbands were prone to irritating hobbies. Then a year later their happiness was crowned by the news Lydia was pregnant. She was over forty by then, so although never giving up hope, motherhood came as a double blessing. Julian was delirious with joy, busy arranging the transformation of the spare room to nursery, putting his son’s name down for every worthwhile potential school he could think of, while at the same time planning the best ways to spoil a daughter.
Then in the twelfth week she miscarriaged and their world fell to pieces. Lydia retreated into a shell, a private womb of loss and mourning, closed to everyone including Julian. He had tried his best to reach her, devoting endless hours to thankless support, taking her to far flung places for exotic holidays, filling their stilted lunches and dinners with quiet patient monologues in place of conversation. She knew he was trying to help and for a while did her best to meet him halfway but there was nothing there anymore. It wasn’t only she had ceased to love him, it went deeper than that. The doctors had explained the miscarriage was due to chromosomal abnormalities associated with Down’s syndrome adding that in the circumstance it would be unwise to attempt a further pregnancy at her age. However irrational she blamed Julian for ruining her only chance of motherhood, and worse for indirectly killing her child. She found it increasingly hard to tolerate his presence and any attempt he made to touch her physically repulsive. She had insisted on separate bedrooms and though the passing years had brought a measure of amiability, their physical life together had remained that way ever since. She had embraced a new love, filling her life with endless committees devoted to local charities and good works.
Peering secretly through semi closed eyelashes; Julian viewed his wife with equal distaste. How could she have let herself go like that? When they first met she had been a sexy attractive woman with an inquiring mind and lilting infectious laugh. A beautiful woman whose overly possessive nature was more than compensated but a rich and fabulous personality making her one to savour and to love. God how he had loved her. But this dumpy dreary tweed clad figure bore no relation to the woman he remembered. From the sensible brogues to the rimless chained spectacles dangling round her neck, this woman seemed almost an impostor, some alien life form from hell that had taken the place of his wonderful Lydia, bringing a nightmare world of nagging torment along with her. She was even growing a moustache, to be fair not a full blown growth, even so those long black hairs sprouting at the corners of her mouth hadn’t grown there by accident. There had to be a considerable quantity of testosterone lurking somewhere in that matronly frame adding further fuel to his alien theory. Sometimes when he looked back over the past he wondered if memory was playing tricks. Could life have ever been that wonderful? Could anyone really have loved that much?
When Lydia had miscarried he had been devastated with grief, both for her and the their child, expecting to share his sorrow and draw strength from their love. But to his horror his shattered world became a place of nightmare. She struggled fiercely to free herself from any embrace, turning to glare at him eyes filled with naked hatred. A white-hot knife had pierced his heart and even now he moaned softly at the memory.
Time, he had told himself she needs time. And the doctors agreed. He had retreated into the background, leaving her undisturbed, taking over the household chores, shopping and cooking. But Lydia seemed unaware, spending her days staring blankly out of the window until he feared for her sanity. Try taking her somewhere new; take her out of herself the doctors suggested. So they had gone to a quiet little island in the Caribbean and when that failed moved on to a noisy one. In growing desperation he tried Miami followed by New York before finally admitting defeat and returning home. But he had neglected his work and there was a downturn in the economy. Julian knew they were in for a shock and would have to tighten their belts. But when it came he was rocked to the core. He had stayed away from the rat race a too long, taken his ear from the ground and the knives had gone in. The letter from the parent organisation was sympathetic but ruthless. He had been made redundant.
To avoid ruffling the waters they offered a golden handshake of a sort, aware he had no alternative but to accept. He had been too busy on the way up with no time to spare on unlikely issues like redundancy, so had never bothered to consider possible fall back positions. He went through the motions of looking for a job, knowing he hadn’t a chance in hell. He was forty-seven with a pack of hungry youngsters snapping at his heels. Another couple of years and he would have made it to the top and once there would have been safely secure. Free to choose from a veritable smorgasbord of boardrooms with the attached salaries and expenses such advisory positions commanded. But in his world a miss was as good as a mile and past achievements held no sway. He had struggled on for a year or so, picking up the odd freelance job, keeping up outward appearances, but his relationship with Lydia remained unchanged and his heart wasn’t in it. Slowly at first he began to drink. Alcohol soothed the pain, eased the hurt, dimmed his fear of the future. It was a warm and cosy haven free from dread and grief, a place where hope could be reborn in befuddled daydreams, sirens calling sweetly from the rocks of addiction. And when later they claimed him he was not unwilling. Lydia didn’t seem to care or notice, secure in her good works and dumpy clothes. Providing he stayed out of the way and caused minimum embarrassment she was content. At least his drinking ensured she never brought any of her equally boring dumpy pals home, which was some consolation.
The train tannoy announced their local station. Lydia rose from her seat, smoothed her crumpled skirt and leaned over to prod Julian in the chest with a bony finger.
‘Wakey-wakey, upsy-daisy,’ she cried loudly in an attempt to bring the slumbering form to consciousness.
‘For God’s sake woman, there’s no need to shout,’ his eyes glared with angry resentment. ‘I was only dozing and well aware of our arrival without being prodded about like a performing animal in a circus.’
‘Well, pardon me for trying! But after the way you behaved all day, how was I to know you had surfaced from your drunken stupor. And as for performing animals, only an elephant could put away the quantities of booze that disappeared down your gullet today. So if the cap fits, bloody well wear it.’ She put on her headscarf, jerking the knot sharply under her chin to emphasise the point.
Julian stood up and fastened his top trouser buttons, why did all his clothes seem to shrink nowadays? He allowed himself the luxury of a heavy sigh, but there was no point in arguing, Lydia always won. Anyway, she was right, of course, she usually was. Wiser to stay mum and hurry home, he could do with a good stiffener. The train eased to a halt and together they stepped on to the platform. The air was damp, heavy with a scent of rain. A single taxi waited at the rank, he waved his umbrella and headlights flashed acknowledgment. Looking up at the sky he searched for stars, but the falling dusk showed only dark scudding clouds
‘It will be good to be home,’ Julian said aloud, they always said that.
Lydia dragged her thoughts from the coming lunch in aid of the Pensioners Holiday Fund. Why did he always have to say the same thing, like a record stuck in a groove? Masking a sigh she swallowed her irritation.
‘Yes,’ she echoed, voice flat, devoid of interest. ‘It will be good to be home.’