No silver lining
"How do you carry on, Paula?"
Amy watched the back of her friend as she stood in front of the kitchen unit, pouring the contents of a boiling kettle into two cups. The steam appeared to be rising out of the curls of her dark hair.
"It’s embarrassing," she said. "For you. And for him. Face it. You don’t love him any more. You’ve just….grown apart."
As soon as it was out of her mouth she regretted it. A stale, mouldy cliché, perfect for a wet Wednesday morning.
"Where did you get that shit? Take A Break?"
"Sorry. I can’t find the words. Tell me what I should say."
"You got a First in Linguistics. You tell me."
Paula turned and passed Amy a cup. "Every dumb song in the world is stuck in my head, Ames," she said. "They’re the clever ones, those writers who come up with all this poisonous I-love-you-you-don’t-love-me crap. They squat silently in your mind until one day…."
She trailed off, turning her back again.
"Paula…..don’t." Amy laid a hand on her friend’s shoulder as it started to shake. "Maybe it’ll pass. Is there a way around it? A compromise?"
"Like…oh I don’t know. Maybe don’t leave him. Tell him you just want more freedom. To be you."
"Christ, Amy, who am I, Tammy Wynette? Does anyone know? Because I don’t - I can’t remember."
Paula took a sip of her tea then pulled her lips tight together, like the two halves of a muffin. Amy hugged the shoulder even tighter.
"You’re still you. Twenty years I’ve known you. You never change."
"You’re right. Good old me. Everyone’s mate. ‘Welcome, Walk Right Over’ stamped on my back.
"Come on, Pauls.."
"You know, I believed all that stuff we talked about back then. How we would be equal. How they would do the washing, the ironing, cleaning, cooking, bum wiping, while we strode out into the world like warrior queens. I really believed it would happen to me. Was I being thick, or was everyone else bullshitting? Which was it, Amy?"
"I don’t know."
"How come you didn’t buy it? Why didn’t you tell me it was all such crap?"
"We were just pleased for you. We all liked him. He seemed so…."
"Charming? Never trust a ponytail on a man. Pizza waiters have them. Says it all."
"We just didn’t see beyond him."
"No. No-one ever does. People like Phil have some kind of internal self-polishing system. The minute there’s a fingermark on the veneer- sssssssssssshhhhhhhhh." She mimicked the pressing of a spray can. "And it’s all wiped clean."
"Have you talked?"
"He’s talked, I’ve listened. If I leave I’m responsible for his violent death and the ruination of our children’s lives. It’ll tear his mother to pieces. His verminous brother will never speak to me again. I will wither away like some old tree struck by lightning. It’s a verbal suicide note, basically."
"Yeah, and that’s why we’re beyond words. And no, the sex isn’t too hot either, just in case you were going to ask."
"What’s been the worst moment?"
"Aside from plotting murder and infanticide? Hard to say….maybe it’s the urge – no, the desire – to just step out the door, and slam it on everything. And I mean everything."
"Not the kids?"
"Why not? He says he’d die for them. So let him do all the fucking school runs and shitty plays and boring sports days for ever and ever. I’ve had it. They don’t want a mother like me, anyway. A queen bitch."
Amy scrabbled for a tissue in her bag as her friend’s tears flowed. Paula blew her nose.
"It’s not any of that. Not really. The worst part, the really low point was today when he asked me to…oh, I can’t say it for shame. That’s why I rang you. I knew then it was over."
"What? What was it?"
"It sounds like stupid stuff. And it is. But, you know, I just thought, ‘what have we come to?’ Sixteen years and he asks me for…. Christ, it’s not a big thing, I know."
"What is it? What the fuck has he done to you?"
Paula laughed. "You wouldn’t believe it if I told you. Something he wanted me to get for him, for his birthday. I just said, ‘No way. Over my dead body. If you want….those,’ I said, ‘get them yourself. The thought of even asking for them makes me gag."
"Jesus, Pauls. What are you talking about? Is he kinky or something?"
"If only. I’ll tell you, but you have to promise not…"
She paused. On the drive, a car door slammed. The two women looked at one another.
"Shit, he’s back."
"Pauls, I gotta go.."
"Hang on a sec. Please."
"Don’t be. He likes you. Maybe he fancies you, I dunno."
"Sorry. That was low. But I’d palm him off on anyone. Even my best mate. Shameless, aren’t I?"
"Jesus. What’s got into you?"
"Not him, that’s for sure. Not for months. I’d shag the first bloke who asked me, I swear."
The door opened. Phil was thin and grey-faced. He dropped his keys into his jacket pocket, hesitating as he saw the two women staring, his mouth hanging open slightly
"Hey Phil. How’s it going?"
"Good, good. Yeah. Nice to see you."
"Amy was just going." Paula shifted awkwardly as she tried to point her friend towards the open front door.
"Why are you rushing her, Paula? Stay a minute, Amy, I’ve something to show you."
"I’ve been shopping, Amy." He wasn’t expecting an audience, and was pleased to find he had one. He smiled a smile that belonged to someone else.
"I never go shopping, but I wanted something and Paula just couldn’t bring herself to buy them. Could you, Pauls? Now I don’t know why. I like them but Paula seems to think they’re some kind of bizarre metaphor for me turning into a boring old man. Don’t you, Paula?"
"Phil leave it."
"No, no." He was warming up now, finding the right voice for the role.
"Amy wants to see my present to myself. The one that makes Paula feel - what did she say? – like she wants to honk. Honk! Like a fussing old goose."
Silence. He had overplayed his hand. Like a conjuror he reached into a white carrier bag and pulled out a box, placing it on the pine table in the middle of the room.
"I’ve gotta go, Phil. Really. It’s best if…."
"Open it, Amy." The face no longer grey, but white with anger. Obediently, she removed the cardboard lid and looked inside.
"What do you think?"
"Clever girl. Carpet slippers, Amy. Common or garden. ShoeZone, ten ninety-nine. Rubber sole, blue polyester uppers, complete with monogrammed crown in gold thread, fleece insole. Slippers. Nice, old-fashioned, comfortable slippers. No more, no less. Harmless, eh?"
Amy stared at Paula. Twenty years of intimate friendship passed between them at a glance. How strange that it is never the big events that bring people to their knees, but a kind of randomly evil combination of all the little jabs, the indignities borne, the minor irritations that prick day in, day out. The first sign of an avalanche is a small flurry of loose, sliding snow.
"I think it’s time to go, Paula," she said.