A bit of fun but with a hint of hard earned truth in it. Take heed.
Jane and I didn’t do dinner parties. That is, we didn’t ever lay them on, so we very seldom got invited to anyone else’s, at least that was the case until my old friend Nigel turned forty.
The invitation arrived six weeks before the date of the party, an attached note maintaining that ‘people get so booked up these days’. Do they? We certainly didn’t. We used to write non-existent appointments all over our hall calendar – ‘Dinner at Don and Evelyn’s’, ‘Drinks at the Smith’s’, ‘Dennis and Molly, here’ – so as to avoid any unwanted sympathy from those few visitors we did enjoy. No-one ever asked who Don and Evelyn or Dennis and Molly were.
So, not being exactly accustomed to parties, Jane – my lovely little wife of twelve bright summers – immediately developed a complex about the bloody thing. And, as you might reasonably guess, the sole focus of her anxiety was what she was going to wear.
All right, so blokes have it easy in this area. Parties tend to fall into one of three categories; formal, which requires a trip to Moss Bros and a spectacular hire charge; semi-formal which involves nothing more than a toss up between the blue or the grey lounge suit with perhaps a passing concern about the tie; or casual, the most awkward to pull off though by far the least critical.
Women are, however, faced with a totally different set of dilemmas, each of which requires a posh frock, and for some indefinable reason, a new posh frock.
And that means shopping.
Now for the average bloke, shopping means going into town, parking, finding what you need – or something that will do instead – and getting home as fast as possible. Alternatively, and far more appealing these days, is a quick visit to Amazon, a few clicks and Robert’s your Mother’s brother, so to speak.
For the ladies, shopping – note the same word – means something totally different. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, ‘shopping is serious, clothes shopping doubly so’.
God knows how many different combinations of frocks, dresses, skirts, blouses, shoes or whatever it is that pack the rails and shelves of thousands of stores throughout the Home Counties at any moment in time. But not one single item suited Jane. It seemed to me as if she tried them all, some more than once.
Four weeks rocketed by, reflected in the ever more haunted look that greeted me each evening as I got home. Until, on the evening of D-day minus fourteen, I walked in to find the spare bedroom door tightly closed on the irritatingly intermittent whir of the sewing machine.
Jane laboured for six days and, on the seventh, sat me down after a passable lasagne (my favourite meal), with a chilled Budvar (my favourite wet) and told me to relax and enjoy the snooker on TV (my favourite pastime).
I had a pretty good idea what was coming, but I played by the rules, sat back, stretched and yawned contentedly, inwardly gritting my teeth for what I hoped wouldn’t be too much of a shock.
I was utterly unprepared for what posed and twirled in front of me ten minutes later.
I married Jane partly because she was – and still is, in many ways – beautiful. She’s got an elfin face, gorgeous green eyes, masses of auburn hair and a figure to choke on. But I could hardly recognise the horrendous object that strutted around our living room that November evening.
Six days of eyesight wrecking needlework had produced something out of every fashion designer’s worst nightmare – an ill fitting, frumpish, bottle green crushed velvet trouser suit that clashed violently with her hair, her eyes, the wallpaper, passing buses, everything.
She smiled and tipped her head on one side in a passing imitation of a corpse on a gallows.
“Well… what do you think?”
Having both of us suffered badly with previous partners, Jane and I had laid down a short set of ground rules about our relationshipright right from the start.
These ranged from ridiculous, though some would say crucial, promises to replace the cap on the toothpaste, to keep underwear separate, to share the washing up and other household chores – right through to sublime declarations of everlasting fidelity, understanding and honesty.
It was the honesty that proved the stopper that day. A dodgy noun at the best of times. In a relationship, true honesty is close to impossible.
Applied in its most basic sense – not telling outright lies, not stealing or committing fraud – honesty’s not so difficult.
It’s when things get a bit more subtle that the difficulties set in. Total honesty means you’ve got to own up to having had a heavy lunch when that specially romantic dinner is placed in front of you one evening; to admit that you loath the tie she bought you for Valentine’s Day (and the sweater her mother bought you for Christmas); to confess to wanting to shag Michelle Pfeifer senseless. Most of which might lead to tears, whereas not one, under normal circumstances, could be described as marriage threatening.
But this was different. My Jane had just spent fifty or sixty hours and a whole heap of money turning herself into something even Stephen King would have been afraid of, and she was waiting for me to tell her what I thought about it. Serious shit risk.
As quickly as I could, I reviewed my options; I could either hedge, lie, or tell the truth. Hedging wouldn’t work because my opinion was important to her and she wanted an answer. Lying was doomed as soon as another female (and therefore trustworthy) friend slipped her the nod, and the truth was dead in the water from the start – I knew my wife, or at least I thought I did.
“You don’t like it, do you.”
I knew I’d left it too long. I tried reassurance.
“Yes, of course I do.”
Whoops. Her face began to set like cement.
“Well… I like the style. I’m just not quite sure about the colour. Maybe it’s the light.”
Compromise. Ten per cent truth, ninety per cent lies. The style stank, the light was perfect.
“You hate it, don’t you?”
Her eyes glittered against the pallor of a blood drained face.
I tried again.
“Of course I don’t hate it, sweetheart. It’s just that I’m not sure about the colour, that’s all.”
Her next five words smacked into my forehead like well aimed rifle bullets.
“Right. I’ll dye it black.”
With that, all hell broke loose.
I stayed where I was, the half-empty beer on the table at my side, the TV tuned to the snooker with the sound turned off while World War III raged in the kitchen. I could hear cupboard doors slamming, water running and, every now and then, a muffled shriek of rage or frustration.
There were three ways I could have reacted: Positively – get up, walk into the battle zone and save the world. Passively – sit tight, pretend nothing’s wrong and hope that things settle down before bed-time, or negatively – bugger off to the pub for some sensible company and a skinful of tranquilliser.
Had to be the first didn’t it? Never let the sun go down on an argument. OK, we’ve all been there. We’ve all tried it and it doesn’t bloody work. All you do is deepen the hole you’re already in.
The passive option is almost as huge a mistake as the first. Just when you think you’ve got away with it, the door flies open and you are mown down with, ‘You don’t love me any more!’, ‘You lazy, indolent bastard!’, or ‘That’s bloody typical of you, stuck in front of that TV, day in, day out. I might as well be dead and buried for all you care!’
The welcome in the Blacksmith’s Arms was as warm as it was unremarkable.
“The usual, Dave.” “Fancy a game of darts, mate?”
No ‘Where have you been?’ ‘What sort of time do you call this?’ or ‘You’re not going anywhere dressed like that.’ Just a calm, friendly acceptance that, on a particular evening, at a particular time, you just happened to pop down to the pub. Simple.
Five pints and some great darts later, Mike, the landlord, ushered our happy band of brothers out into the velvet night. After a brief detour to water the vicar’s privet, we went our separate ways, each stumbling off to his own particular welcome, or otherwise.
The house was in complete darkness, thank God. Not even a glimmer from the bedroom window.
I let myself in as quietly as only years of practice can achieve, and headed for the kitchen to make myself a coffee. It appeared that things had not gone well. The washing machine door hung open, the floor was awash, a sodden grey green mess was stuffed in the sink and an empty sherry bottle stood, mute but damming, on the draining board.
That was the point when I started to feel a bit of a bastard. Let’s face it, I’d had a few beers, a bit of a laugh with the lads, while the lady I loved more than life itself had been to hell and back
There was only one thing to do. Go and tell her I was sorry.
In hindsight this may appear a bit of a mistake. At the time, it seemed a brilliant idea.
After all, my little Jane was probably lying awake in the darkness, waiting to apologise for the mess in the kitchen and for her earlier behaviour, and I was well prepared to forgive and forget.
I didn’t even know you could lock our bedroom door.
I knocked. There was no answer.
Maybe I should have let a sleeping wife lie and settled for the spare room. Surely no-one but a completely insensitive moron would have kept on knocking.
By the time the door was flung open, I had resorted to shouting.
I have never seen anyone so angry. I didn’t know the veins in your neck could swell that much without bursting. And I’ve never been called so many disgusting things by anybody, ever. I remember feeling tiny bits of spit on my face as Jane pushed me hard up against the banister rail at the top of the stairs. I really thought for a minute she was going to push me over.
It was her tears that sobered me up.
Normal tears weren’t like that. These were constant, flooding, unaccompanied by sobs. They flowed like lava down her cheeks and hung in silver threads from her nose and chin. And all the time she was screaming at me – things I never want to hear again, things I am only just beginning to come to terms with. Stuff about years of endurance and neglect, about love turned to loathing, about being held down, trapped, imprisoned in a marriage that had long since become a sick joke.
And I saw truth in her eyes.
I didn’t get to Nigel’s party, but I heard that Jane went with a friend, a male friend. Apparently she wore a short, crushed velvet dress that was described as a sort of greenish black, but stunning.
Funny thing is, my Jane could look great in anything.
© David Hermelin 2017