Well Sometimes I Go Out, By Myself, And I Look Across The Water.
And I Think Of All The Things, Of What You’re Doing, And in my head I Paint A Picture.
The Zutons, Valerie, from “Tired of Hanging Around” 2006
24th December, 2009. Hampstead Heath, London. A Georgian townhouse. Nondescript in a street full of Georgian townhouses, all immaculately kept. Christmas lights from Heals twinkling expensively from tall, expensive windows. Hushed. Organic turkeys pre-ordered months ago from an organic farm somewhere in Wiltshire, perhaps. The silence broken occasionally by the sound of a black cab pulling up, the rustle of thick, plush carrier bags from Liberty, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Harrods… “Keep the change,” uttered with a smile and followed by, “Merry Christmas.” For weeks it had been like this. No different to last year.
Valerie St.Claire watched from a first floor window. It had been snowing earlier but now it was just wet. Grim. The word she was looking for. She sighed and turned away.
25th December, 2009. Christmas Day. It started as usual. 7:30AM she woke up and showered. Mark was still asleep. He snored neatly in a precisely timed, not too loud way. Everything about her husband of fifteen years was neat. Neat haircut, hair greying slightly at the temples, neat work suits tailored by Timothy Everest – a new one every year. Neat handmade Berlutti shoes. Yes, neat...
Adrian, their thirteen year old son was still in bed. He’d been up until 4AM on his Wii. Valerie didn’t mind this. She had a few hours to herself. Radio 4. Tea. Muesli. Peace and quiet.
12:30PM. In the kitchen. The turkey had been in for two hours. She was following Delia’s way this year after watching her Christmas special on the telly. Not that she needed to. Valerie was an exceptional cook. Mark and Adrian were downstairs in The Boys Room. A den of sorts in the basement fully kitted out with boys toys – 60inch flat screen TV, Wii for two, battered sofa, table football, Mark’s collection of vintage model cars… They were watching Top Gear on repeat. Loudly. The sound of revved up engines and Jeremy Clarkson sped its way up the stairs. Valerie shut the kitchen door. Peace… and quiet.
Valerie felt nothing. She wondered when she emotionally flatlined, when she stopped being a trophy wife and became a shadow in her own home. Being a trophy wife meant that in some way she still mattered at least. She held up her hand towards the window and watched the light bounce off her wedding ring. Neatly cut sapphire set in a neat silver band. Bulgari. She reached into the cupboard beneath the sink and rummaged for her secret stash of cigarettes. That was the one place Mark and Adrian would never go. She stepped out onto the decking that overlooked the back garden and lit one up. It was cold but she somehow liked the way the coldness felt against her skin. She blew smoke rings towards the sky. Amy Winehouse’s voice drifted from the portable radio, Bush, above the sink:
Oh Wont You Come On Over, Stop Making A Fool Out Of Me, Oh Why Don’t You Come On Over, Valerie…
In a way they were lucky. Mark hadn’t been affected by the credit crunch, quite the opposite, actually. Financial lawyers were being kept very busy… Tim and Phil, the gay couple from next door, often asked her why she didn’t go back to work. She truthfully didn’t know the answer to that. She had been a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. That was where she met Mark, at a charity ball. He was sat at the table next to her and couldn’t keep his eyes off her all night. He’d asked her to dance and when he put his arm around her waist she knew that very moment that this was the man she was going to marry. It had felt right. He’d won the bid for a romantic stay for two in St. Barts. They’d gone together. That was sixteen years ago, a lifetime. When Adrian was born she never thought it was possible to feel so happy, so complete. Somewhere along the line things changed. She supposed it all started when Adrian got sick. Leukemia. Mark’s side of the family. Valerie reasoned that Mark had felt in some way responsible. He’d laughed at her when she suggested counselling. So many nights spent holding vigil, holding on to hope, waiting for a miracle… In the end their prayers were answered. Valerie quit work to look after their son but their marriage never recovered. Something died. Mark started staying increasingly late at the office, working more and more weekends, spending a lot of time when he was home either locked up in his study or down in The Boys Room. For a while she often wished that Mark was having an affair but she knew deep down that he wasn’t. As terrible as it sounds an affair would have at least given her something to react to rather than this nothingness.
A shadow in her own home. Adrian had changed too. She didn’t recognise her son anymore. To have come so close to death so young… At some point her son began resenting her. It wasn’t just teenage angst. That she could handle. This was something else. Something dark, furtive and disconcerting. A shadow...
Valerie put out her cigarette, ran it under the tap just in case and put it in the bin, making sure that it was hidden under a layer of rubbish. What happened next was something she couldn’t explain. She turned the knob on the oven to maximum as the turkey sizzled away happily in its juices and nearly two packets of butter. The Delia Way… She then opened the door of the fridge and retrieved the two bottles of champagne, three white wines and Adrian’s bottle of diet coke she’d put in earlier. She uncorked the champagne and wine and unscrewed the lid of the diet coke. Hiss… Carefully, slowly she poured the contents of each bottle down the sink and placed the empty bottles back in the fridge, labels facing up, perfectly lined. Neat.
The potatoes! She grabbed the roasting tin, laden with Desirées pre-boiled and pre-bashed with semolina, from the specially commissioned work surface, placed it on the top shelf in the oven and turned on the grill. She liked the way the sudden blast of heat felt against her skin.The turkey would soon start to blacken…
Quietly, she walked upstairs to their bedroom. In sickness and in health… She reached for her coat, Michael Kors, black cashmere. Coat belted, black calf skin boots on, Valerie grabbed her passport from her dresser and slid it into a pocket. Quietly, she walked downstairs, left her house keys, wedding ring and mobile phone on the marble topped table by the front door in a neat line. She had her purse – Bottega Veneta, last year’s Christmas present – with her credit cards and a hundred pounds in twenties in it. More than enough. Quietly she let herself out without looking back, gently shut the door and walked down the street. She hailed a cab when she got round the corner. “St. Pancras, please. The Eurostar terminal.”
* * *
Postscript. Yes, I know, our heroine would have known that it was impossible to travel on the Eurostar due to the disrupted train service this Christmas. However, for the sake of narrative let’s suspend belief. I like the idea of personal redemption and a metaphorical up yours being marred by franco-anglais incompetence. Life can be so cruel…