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Brummie Mummy faces the ordeal of her husband's works 'do'. But at least it means she can weigh up his relationship with the mysterious Stevie.

AWH and I are punctual types. And this evening we’ve outdone ourselves. We’re both ready for the Winter Dinner an hour early. I find my husband in the kitchen pacing round the work station, like a well-dressed sentry. His lips move but no words come out.

‘What are you doing?’


I say it’s late for a career change. The army will not accept him.

‘No, no,’ says AWH, without breaking stride. ‘It’s my speech. I’m dreading it.’

I stand in his path. He swerves about me.

‘It’ll be fine, ‘I tell him. ‘You always worry. And it’s always fine.’

‘Yes but this year...’ He stops.

I say, ‘You’re crooked,’

And reach to adjust his bow-tie

‘Thanks’ he says. ‘I don’t know how I’d cope without you.’

AWH used to say that a lot.

As he puts his arms round me, the phone rings.

‘You get it,’ I say.

AWH grimaces as Maggie’s voice penetrates our home. His ex-wife favours an obscure form of therapy which is guaranteed to bring inner peace. But whenever she calls us it’s because she needs to sound off. Loudly and at length. I make a face back, then leave them to it.

I sit by the computer, wondering if technology helps. Mostly it just distracts us.

AWH had been on the verge of a real conversation. Though perhaps I shouldn’t blame phones. It’s ex-partners who are the problem.

Still, it’s a chance for me to do some last minute revision. I key in the company’s web address and go straight to the staff page.

As Customer Services Director, Stevie Marshall is responsible for our Software Development, Technical and Application Support Teams. These are essential for the implementation of our many highly successful client projects. A very experienced designer and developer, Stevie has been with our company over a decade. Stevie enables us to provide real business benefit to our clients! Her expertise lies in designing and developing applications that take advantage of state of the art technologies.

Stevie’s picture is on the site too. With a sharp hairstyle and red lipstick, she looks tough but approachable.

There’s a faint click as AWH replaces the receiver. More trouble is brewing. But I’ll be told soon enough.

I must be utterly brainless. Reading’s meant to be what I’m best at. But I’ve been staring at the same paragraph for ten minutes.

The phone has rung again and I have ignored it.

In the old days, before the company even had a website, I used to help out – unpaid - by drafting copy for publicity. Now they pay thousands of pounds to a specialist firm. Whose stuff doesn’t makes sense to me.

Perhaps if I understood business-speak and IT jargon, my husband would talk to me about his problem with Stevie. I’d be supporting him. Instead of wondering whether to run off with another man. While half-listening to a conversation down the hall.

‘Darling, I do understand.’

At least this time the caller is letting AWH speak.

‘But there’s not much I can do when your mother’s upset...’

Sound like my stepdaughter.

‘If he’s not getting back to Mum, it isn’t likely he’ll talk to me.’

Yes, it’s her.

AWH says that even if Dougal’s in difficulty he might want to sort things out himself, or talk to someone who’ll keep it private. So if her brother does ring her for a chat, she doesn’t have to pass it on.

Dalilah is not to worry. Is she looking forward to her holiday with Jas?

My own daughter has come in. I minimise the page.

‘I like your dress,' Gemma says.

This is getting hard to believe. Two pieces of appreciation in one day.

‘You could do more with your face though.’

I say there’s no point in me wearing mascara I’ll forget, rub my eyes and end up looking at a panda.

‘Still… you could let me sort out your hair.’

As there’s time, I agree to let her use the tongs on me.

Gemma is in high spirits. Already this evening, we have fed her a microwaved Chinese banquet for one. And informed her that the long wait for a DVD containing the first episodes of Friends is at an end. As soon as she’s got the house to herself, she’ll sit down to watch this.

Because my daughter has flatly refused a babysitter. So what if it’s against the law? All her friends get left alone. All the time. For hours and hours.

In the end we gave in. AWH and I haven’t been out together for months. All our old babysitters have left town. And isn’t it daft paying some teenager, just a few years older than Gemma, twenty-five quid to watch our telly? The Dinner’s at the Botanical Gardens just a few miles away. We shall leave our phones on. Take it in turns to ring her.

‘Do you want it crimped?’ my little girl is asking. ‘Or a loose curl?’

‘You decide.’

She frowns. I’m not showing enough commitment.

So I say. ‘Loose would be good.’

She combs my hair in sections, before moving in with the tongs. Gemma is painstaking. Her hands surprisingly gentle. It feels good to be still. The apprehension that’s been nagging at me all day can dissolve. .

And it is such a relief to feel the right sort of emotion. A love that’s allowed.

I want to seize hold of her, prolong the moment. Except if I did, I would end up with a lock of frizzled hair.

As Gemma is inspecting her work – she judges that I look loads better than normal - AWH calls from downstairs. Where are we? It’s time to go.

Our daughter promises us not to answer the door as it’ll only be people wanting us to change our electricity supplier. No, she won’t fall down stairs, and concuss herself. Now, please can we just leave?

I take a glance at the three of us, framed by the mirror.

AWH and I are a mature couple. Sleek and glossy. The kind you might see in an advertisement for pension plans.

Gemma’s a small Cinderella waving her parents off to the ball.

The Dinner is going as well as can be expected.

When I first met AWH, he was setting up the company and the parties were great. The business was a handful of people. Everybody knew each other and it was just a question of booking a table in a decent pub. Even when we graduated to restaurants, I still knew most of the team. But then the Winter Dinner had to move to places with big function rooms. And now, although the company has not expanded in recent years, most of the staff are strangers.

I’m not the only one who finds these occasions daunting. People take refuge in dark corners, and have to be coaxed into mingling. That’s why there are cocktails, canapés and name cards. Gaps in the talk must be filled with piped music. Tables are decorated with pink heart-shaped balloons.

My husband is starting at the shiny hearts and I hide a grin. AWH will be panicking. I would be prepared to bet, he hadn’t realised that it’ll be Valentine’s Day tomorrow. His slipping up doesn’t bother me. I’ve got him a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape even better than the one I tipped into the Christmas mulled wine. If that doesn’t give me an advantage, what will?

But AWH nudges me.

He whispers, ‘You’re thinking I’ve forgotten, aren’t you..?’

And I have made another miscalculation. I’d meant to engineer it so I was talking with Stevie at the reception. Then we’d all sit together for the meal. As I ate my way through several courses. I could observe her with my husband. The true state of affairs would be made clear.

Except Stevie didn’t show up till late and I hadn’t reckoned with the seating plan.

The management team are scattered round the room. Her table is nowhere near ours.

Colleagues who are easy with each other at work can be tongue-tied when it comes to peoples’ partners. And it doesn’t help if you’re the one who is married to the boss. Everyone is worried they’ll say the wrong thing. And the fact that I’m happier in small groups means I appear aloof unless I make an effort.

But I do try. Over melon, chicken chasseur and lemon tart, I talk to those on my right. I discuss the difficulties facing Villa’s manager with the second leg of the UEFA Cup coming up. I condole with a woman whose estate agent wants her to ‘neutralise’ her home, for a quick sale. And I have a long conversations about a soap I’ve only watched twice. At intervals I look at Stevie, but never manage to catch her eye.

My husband’s doing a similar job with the people on his left. It’s only as coffee and mints are served – and the hour of the speech approaches – that he falls silent.
I ask, ‘What was going on? Those phone calls…’

AWH reports that his previous wife was in a tizzy. Like us she’s had no replies from Dougal. Unlike us, she has contacted the University. The Philosophy Department advised her to ring the Dean’s Office. The Dean’s Office said she could talk to them, if she wanted. But they weren’t going to tell her anything.
‘I told her we’d sent him a book, but that didn’t help. She put the phone down, then rang Dalilah and yelled at her. Which is how I got the second call.’

‘But Dalilah’s miles away. What can she do?’

AWH doesn’t respond. At few feet away Derek, the most nerdish member of the Management Team, has got up and is making ineffectual calls for quiet. It is time…

Ian says he loves me. Ian wants us to take off together.

And tonight my husband’s doing everything to make it hard for me to go. Formal clothes flatter him. He’s looking almost handsome in his black trousers, white shirt and dinner jacket.

I had been telling myself he didn’t care. That Ian really misses Jacob, but my husband isn’t bothered about his son.

Yet AWH is a good enough father . He rang Gemma as soon as we got here. He put his own nerves on one side to calm his older daughter. And while Jacob is a child, Dougal’s a young man who’s too idle to lift one finger and text thanks. There is no comparison.

He’s a father who is winding up a successful speech. It contained a few jokes I didn’t understand, but nearly everyone else did. There was a lot of nudging and guffawing.

You could even say it was inspiring. AWH spoke of the fine performance the company continued to deliver, its strong market position. In the current climate this was a huge achievement. How had we managed this? Well, everybody had played a part. This wasn’t just individual effort. It was the culture of the firm, its high levels of communication and trust… There was a danger that annual events like this could become routine. And yet seeing everyone here is not routine. Because we much to celebrate.

The applause is mainly gratitude because he didn’t go on too long. But in faces I recognise – the ones from the old days – I can detect genuine warmth. In his own way AWH is a popular man.

I look to see if Stevie’s clapping, but a waiter who’s clearing cups is in the way.

But a few minutes later she comes over to our table.

‘Hi’ I say, leaning towards her. ‘It’s been ages!’

‘Hasn’t it?’ says Stevie, then turns to AWH.

Even in gold sandals and a little black dress, the woman looks like she means business.

‘I thought I should say hello.’

My husband picks up his name card and asks, ‘Are you enjoying this evening?’

The card gets turned inside out, then right way round. Stevie’s answer will be important.

‘… Yes ’ she says. ‘All things considered.’

They exchange pleasantries about the speech. I notice her eyes are brown. How could I have forgotten this?

Stevie is beginning to move away.

‘I’ll catch up with you later,’ says AWH.

The name card is in shreds


My husband looks for the nearest bottle. It’s almost dead but he shakes the last drops into his glass.

The Disc Jockey starts playing a set of cheesy records designed to lure people on the dance floor. Someone’s boyfriend is telling me - in remorseless detail - about their holiday in Morocco.

It is a relief when AWH taps me on the shoulder.

‘Shall we?’ he asks

‘Shall we what?’

He gestures at the dance floor

‘Now? With you?’

He says it will encourage the others.

It would be unfair to call AWH a bad dancer. But as a young man he was influenced by Saturday Night Fever. A person whose taste runs to flamboyant moves might reckon he had style. But I’d say these moves only look right when made by a fit bloke with a natty waistcoat and a medallion. As it is, young people are frequently amazed when they see my husband in action.

But I’d insisted on coming to the Winter Dinner.

‘Okay’ I tell him. ‘Let’s go for it.’

It simply doesn’t work to shuffle round a discreet distance away. That only draws more attention to his behaviour. So I stay close as safety permits, and gyrate determinedly to a couple of tunes from the 70s. Then I say I’ve got to cool down.
Jeanette is in the bar, and looks glad to see me. So I buy her a drink even though she’s quite far gone already.

When sober, my husband’s PA is quiet and self-contained. But with a large gin and tonic in her hand the woman is unstoppable. I mean to pump her for information. But it’s nearly impossible to direct the flow of talk.

Her saga is a sad tale of bad-tempered clients, selfish programmers, and agencies that send her a stream of incompetent children.

I make empathic noises. It must be tough.

But Jeanette can cope with all of that. She expects it. No. It’s this latest situation doing her head in. I can imagine, can’t I? She’s used to knowing what’s happening, while playing dumb. But when the problem is right at the top of an organisation….

‘Can you tell me.’ I interrupt. ‘How you’d sum up this… situation?’

Her eyes widen. She looks round. Nobody’s nearby, but all the same.

Jeanette isn’t sure what she had implied. But she had been speaking generally. It didn’t mean a thing. And, if I’ll excuse her, she’d promised to have a dance with Neesha and some of girls…

A little knowledge is scary. The woman’s rattled me. Perhaps I’ve spent the evening in a fool’s paradise. Perhaps it wasn’t shyness that stopped people talking to me. It was embarrassment. Pity even…

No, I am giving in to panic. Whatever Jeanette was on about, it is not public knowledge.

I need to keep my wits about me. I’ll go outside, take a stroll.

The bar leads off into a set of beautiful Victorian greenhouses. Tinted lamps have been put in at floor level. At night they throw beams of colour onto the wrought iron and glass overhead.

I stop to check on the cacti. I’ve always liked their impenetrable skin, the way they survive – even flourish – in hard places. And their rare, brilliant flowers.

Then I clutch my fringed shawl more tightly, and step into the dark. It’s funny. There have been so many night-time walks in these last months.

During the day the gardens seem so tame, with their tea cups and weed- free flower beds. They are planted with memories. Dougal swings across monkey bars in the playground. Dalilah comes roly-polying down the slope. Gemma crawls off during a picnic and helps herself to a lump of sugar from somebody else’s tray.

But tonight the aviaries are prisons. The parrots squawk out a warning as I pass.
Gusts of wind in the trees tell me I shouldn’t be here. I’ll just do one circuit of the main lawn. Though it’s not long enough to decide.

Whenever I’m with Ian that feels right.

When I’m not with him, there is all this history. It is a kind of cement. It sticks me to my family, stops me from breaking away.

I head back to the glasshouses. There’s an ornamental fountain where the children used to throw money and make a wish. I shall chuck in a coin and ask for something to happen. An occurrence large and clear as a wrecking ball, that shows me which way to go.

I am next to a palm tree in the subtropical house, hunting in my bag for a penny, when I hear AWH and Stevie. They’ve walked in from the orangery and are deep in conversation.

I step back, so I’m hidden by some creeper and the fronds of a giant fern. The material of my dress whispers. My shoes squeak if I don’t stand absolutely still. But the tape of jungle sounds is still playing. The calls of non-existent creature help to mask any noise I make.

‘I’m staggered, ‘ Stevie is saying. ‘You can’t imagine I would discuss it now.’

‘Don’t get me wrong, ‘ AWH sounds anxious. ‘This is off the record. I just thought you might want to give an … interim report.’

‘But we agreed,’ says Stevie. ‘To have time out.’

It could be my husband sighing. Or a tropical breeze.

‘We did. And I understand the decision’s a tough one. It’s just this - affects other people.’

Stevie takes a step in my direction. I catch my breath. But she comes no further.

‘ Things have to be kept formal. For everyone’s sake.’

‘This whole evening...’ says AWH. ‘It’s a farce.’

Stevie laughs. ‘Don’t be so dramatic! We’re all having a splendid time.’

My husband is sorry. It’s just that he just wants to help.

‘We’ve got a meeting in the diary. But until then….’


‘Do me - No. Do all of us a favour. Back off.’

Someone turns on a high heel. After a moment this is followed by a slow, retreating tread.

My hand is clutching at my purse. Of course, I’d been looking for a coin. I take out my phone instead.

Contacts. GHI. I for Ian. But he can wait. It’s H for Home I want.

It rings several times before Gemma answers.

‘Hello angel,’ I say. ‘Are you okay? Did I get you out of bed?’

Gemma says no she’s isn’t in bed. Yes she’s alright. The Friends DVD is brilliant.

Can we watch it together, when I come back from the dinner?

I say it’s a good idea, only I’m tired.

Gemma reckons the pilot episode will be best. This is the one where Ross gets really upset.

‘Why’s that darling?’

I have no intention of watching anything more tonight, but it’s politic to show interest.

‘Because his marriage is over. You see Carol – that’s Ross’s wife – realises she is a lesbian.’

I tell my daughter that’s wonderful. Or sad. Possibly both. Anyway Daddy and I will be home soon.

I go and find AWH. He’s with a group of men in the bar, laughing at some anecdote.

I put a hand on his sleeve.

‘Darling’ I say. ‘Sorry to spoil your fun. But we can’t stay. Our daughter needs us.’

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