By Mark Burrow
It was a Friday night. I stood in the kitchen, thinking about a drink. I had been off booze for six weeks. Quitting was not easy. I had wanted to go for drinks earlier with colleagues after work.
'Come out,' they said, 'join us for a couple.' They waved their arms, beckoning me, calling out like mermaids luring sailors to their doom. 'It’s only a couple of drinks. Come on.'
I'd resisted and returned home.
I turned to Serena, my wife, and said that we should take a drive at the weekend and go shopping. “I think I need a new suit.”
“I want some new trousers and a top for work too,” she said, making herself a plate of cheese and crackers.
“Let’s do it,” I said. “We’ll go tomorrow.”
My wife returned upstairs to the main bedroom where she spent the majority of her time.
I let a tap run and filled a tall glass with water. I felt the temperature of the glass cool. I took a swig and opened the fridge, breaking off a piece of camembert and stuffing it into my mouth. I went upstairs to the spare room where I slept by myself, hearing the TV in the other bedroom, and placed my glass on the bedside table.
In the bathroom, I brushed my teeth. The toothpaste mixed with the cheese I had eaten. I urinated. Flushed. Thought about saying goodnight to Serena and then went straight into my room. I pulled the curtains, undressed and climbed into the single bed. I lay there, taking out from the side drawer a framed photograph of us on our wedding day. It was usually on the mantelpiece in the lounge. Serena hadn’t noticed it was missing. We held hands, laughing, walking through a field of high grass in the sunshine.
It was sentimental and comical in a way the wedding photographer never intended.
We left before 9:30, which was early for us.
“Are you sure you want to drive?” she said. “I’m happy to.”
“What’s the matter, do you not like my driving?”
“I’m not saying that.”
“I’ll drive,” I said, getting into the car. She got into the passenger seat as I turned on the engine and tapped the post code into the sat nav.
“I’m hungry,” I said, “shall we stop off and get some food?”
“I told you to have some breakfast.”
I waited for her to answer my question. I repeated myself: “Shall we stop and get some food?”
“We shouldn’t keep wasting money.”
“Right,” I replied, selecting the destination on the sat nav and locking in my seat belt.
“What?” she said.
I checked my mirrors and pulled out onto the road. “Nothing.”
“We can go for food if you’re hungry it’s just that I did ask if you wanted breakfast.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “You’re right. We should stop wasting money and I can eat when we get there.”
“No, let’s stop on the way for food. You know what you’re like when you’re hungry.”
I waited for a gap in the traffic and turned left. “Why don’t you put some music on?”
“What do you fancy?” she replied.
“I don’t mind. You choose.”
“But what would you like to listen to? Tell me.”
I concentrated on the road, not looking at her. “Anything,” I said, “you know me, I’m easy.”
She sighed and we left the radio on the same station, playing music that neither of us liked.
(I pictured veering off the motorway into a tree at 70 mph. Veering and careering. Exactly on 70mph. Cruise controlling into a fixed object. Metal and bone twisted out of shape beyond all recognition. Blue lights flashing. Professional life savers standing at the roadside, debating how to cut crushed bodies free. Passengers and drivers creeping by in slow traffic, daring to sneak a glance at the smoking wreckage).
We parked. It was raining and she opened an umbrella that was only large enough for one person. I pulled up the collars of my coat with the holes in the pockets. We walked across the car park, down the steps and onto the tarmac path that led to the shops and stores.
“Where did you want to look?” she said.
“Why don’t we look for your stuff first?”
“But we’re here for your suit.”
The sky was the colour of concrete. A group of Chinese-looking tourists walked by, heading for a designer store. I saw a couple in their twenties, holding hands. They wore sunglasses in the rain.
“Let’s look at suits,” said Serena, walking to a store she knew I liked.
We headed to the suit section. “Do you know what kind you want?” she said.
“You always go for dark blue. What about grey?”
I shook my head. I felt her disappointment like it was a physical assault. We were coming to the end of the marriage. We both knew it. The final months felt like a checklist of unhappiness we had to complete before saying it was over.
- No sex – tick
- Stop pretending to like friends or in-laws – tick
- Be resentful of spending money on one another – tick
And so on.
In the meantime, we continued with the pretence. I held up a suit for her to review. We discussed sizes. Hating every second of what we were doing.
“What about this?” I said.
“Sure. Try it on,” she replied.
I found a jacket that was my size, slipped it on and stood in front of a mirror
“The sleeves are a good length,” she said.
The trousers that came with the jacket were too small for my waist. I went to find another pair that were my size.
“I don’t think you can mix sizes here,” Serena told me.
“It’ll be fine,” I replied.
She rolled her eyes.
She called over an assistant.
“How can I help?” said the girl, who looked about 12.
“My husband is rather tall,” she said, gesturing towards me in an up and down motion.
“He is,” she said.
The three of us smiled.
“We can have trouble getting the right sizes for him. We’ve found a pair of trousers and a jacket which fit perfectly, but they’re not part of the same set.”
The assistant’s smile vanished. “Oh, I’m sorry, you can’t do that here.”
“Why not?” I said.
“We sell at a discount and so you have to take what’s on the hangers. You can mix in our regular stores, but obviously they’re more expensive.”
“I can’t take this size jacket and this size trousers?” I asked.
Serena and the girl said in unison, “No.”
The girl added, “I’m really sorry about that.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said, handing the items back to the assistant. “Come on,” I said to Serena, walking out of the store.
“Hang on,” said Serena, “there might be other suits here you can fit into.”
I went outside and stood under the awning. Rain was streaming off the sides. Shoppers scattered for shelter in shops and coffee bars and restaurants.
“You didn’t have to be so rude,” said Serena.
Part of me felt bad for talking to the assistant like I did and storming off in a sulk and another part of me couldn’t care less. It was a stupid rule.
Not that I was overly bothered by the suit. I had the same thought on repeat in my mind: ‘When do we agree to split up?’
Still, we went through the motions.
“Let’s get some food,” I said.
“I want a coffee at least,” I said.
“… Don’t interrupt me like that.”
“Okay, I’m sorry for being rude. Can we please get a coffee? I promise to pull my head in.”
She nodded and we walked out into the rain towards a fake Alpine-style restaurant. It had the smallest queue.
A waitress with an East European accent and a tattooed neck led us to a table. I ordered an Americano and a cheese toastie. Serena went for toast, jam and a cup of peppermint tea. The waitress took our menus and Serena automatically checked her phone. I checked mine. It was better than trying to figure out how to unlock a conversation between us.
I looked at the new messages I had not received from anyone via various apps. I checked a sports website and started reading about motor racing, which I detested. Serena was smiling at something. She had hundreds of social media friends and yet constantly complained of feeling lonely and isolated.
A waitress set our drinks and food down. “Do you need anything else?” she asked.
“No, that’ll be fine,” I replied.
She headed off to another table.
“Who’s been in touch?” I said to Serena, cutting my toastie in half.
“Nobody,” she said.
“I thought you were laughing.”
“It was stupid… Nothing.”
I poured milk into my Americano and stirred with a spoon. “It’s been ages since we’ve been out,” I said.
She spread butter and blueberry jam onto her toast.
I sipped my Americano.
Serena said: “Are you going to be working late again next week?”
“I don’t think so. It’s been calmer lately.”
She took a bite of the toast and chewed. I ate my toastie, pinching a string of cheese which was dangling loose. I lifted it up and into my mouth.
“You were home late Thursday,” she said.
I swallowed another mouthful of the toastie, wiping my fingers on a serviette. “That was partly because the trains were running late,” I said, reaching for the coffee.
“Were they?” she said.
“Yep,” I replied, wondering why I was lying. I found myself bending the facts and lying to Serena on a regular basis. “Plus,” I went on, “some of the people at work went for drinks and I joined them for an hour.”
She stopped eating and looked at me. It wasn’t even a look. That’s too soft. She jolted and then stared at me, unmoving, like an animal does the second it senses danger.
“What?” I said over the rim of my coffee cup.
“You went drinking after work?”
“I only had a mineral water and left.”
“You never told me.”
“I didn’t think I needed to,” I said. “The trains were delayed and people were going for drinks so I thought it was better to hang out with them rather than sit in the office, twiddling my thumbs.”
“I told you how I feel about you spending time with those horrible people.”
“I only drank a mineral water. It was boring as they all got drunk quickly and started repeating themselves and shouting. I left after one and came back to you. What’s the problem here?”
“You don’t get it, do you?” she said, pursing her lips.
I sipped the coffee, looking out the window. I couldn’t bear the sight of her and was pretty sure the feeling was mutual. I might have asked her why she was upset about me not asking her permission or telling her about going for a mineral water with colleagues after work, but it was pointless.
“Let’s go home,” I said.
She went to stand up.
“We need to settle the bill and I want to finish my coffee.”
She exhaled and returned to her phone.
I drank the coffee slowly, trying to decide if this falling out was different to the rest.
Was my mineral water confession the final straw?
(Walking through the high grass, holding hands as the photographer took pictures, I remember this sense of unreality, like I was having an out of body experience. I kept thinking I was watching a person, a man who resembled me, getting married. I had this feeling of being absent. Both there and not there at the one and the same time).
The waitress came over. I knew she picked up on our fake smiles and funeral energy.
“Yes, it was great,” I said of the coffee and toasted bread.
Serena and I walked to the car without speaking. I understood why she was angry with me. She could probably tell I was lying about the trains. She could spot my lies a mile off. Maybe, sitting there in the fake alpine restaurant, she realised I was as untrustworthy when sober as I was when drunk.
When drinking, I would say I was not going out after work, and then go out for a couple – believing it myself – and roll home at one in the morning. Or, I’d say I’d be home at 8 and come home at 11. Or, I’d promise to cook a “nice dinner” and do no such thing.
And there I was, lying and deceiving again.
We drove home in silence, the radio off. She went to her room for the evening and I went to the shops to buy wine and pizza. Her only words to me, when she came downstairs at about 8:30, were: “You’re drinking.”
I turned on the floor and raised a wine glass to her. “I most certainly am,” I said, “and it feels glorious.”
I turned back to the TV. I felt her standing in the doorway, watching me. My thoughts made no sense. I alternated between wanting to apologise to her and wanting to shout at her. Both with equal amounts of sincerity.
When I did turn my head, she had gone into the kitchen. I refilled my glass with wine and half watched a documentary about Julius Caesar.
The next day, we agreed to a divorce.
She had already made plans to leave and was out of the house in under a month.