Read A Crowded Marriage Online

Authors: Catherine Alliott

A Crowded Marriage (5 page)

BOOK: A Crowded Marriage
5.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

I'd swallowed hard. Had it been going on a while?

No, not very long, and it didn't happen often, because they hated themselves so terribly afterwards.

“And will she leave Piers for you? Is that what's going to happen?” I asked, half of me hating him for loving her and not me, and half of me ridiculously thrilled to be sitting here beside him on his sofa, listening to his confidences, our hands almost touching, hearing such intimate secrets. I was so close I could have reached a hand inside his jacket and felt his heart beating.

“No,” he said in despair, looking down at his hands. Those hands I knew so well, had scrutinised so minutely. “No, that won't happen. She's too devoted to her children, her family. She won't break up the home. She won't leave Piers.”

“But, you and Tilly…?”

“I can't go back to Tilly now.” He raised anguished eyes to me. “I don't love her, Imogen. Not properly, and how could anything be the same after this?”

“Would she have you?” I ventured.

“I think…she would. Yes, she would. But…” He shook his head. Gazed bleakly into space. “It's no good. I can't pretend to patch something up if there's nothing there any more. Can't live a lie.”

“Not even for the girls?”

He shook his head sadly. “Not even for the girls.”

He got up and walked to the window, his hands in his trouser pockets, his back to me; broad shoulders hunched in his pale blue shirt as he looked out at the cold grey morning. Which was where he was, of course: out in the cold. Out in a hotel in Bayswater, without Tilly and his children, and without Eleanor, who was distraught, according to Alex; torn between him and Piers, in turmoil; but had sensibly, in Alex's opinion—and how he wished he could emulate her—gone back to her family. And Piers had been none the wiser. He'd been oblivious to what was going on, away on business a lot, tied up in his work.

“But what will you do?” I'd asked.

“Me?” Alex turned back from the window. “Oh, I'll be fine. I've said I'll let Tilly stay on in the house for as long as she wants. I'll find a flat somewhere. Putney, maybe, near the Common. I've always liked it round there.”

And he did. He took out a mortgage on a tiny groundfloor flat in Putney, and in time, Eleanor and her family moved out of London to the big house in Buckinghamshire—Piers's widowed mother evidently deciding this was the moment to get round inheritance tax and move into the Dower House, enabling Eleanor, Piers and their children to move into Stockley and breathe new life into it. She was a shrewd old bird, by all accounts, and I secretly wondered if she knew the lie of the land and was putting a sensible distance between her daughter-in-law and Alex. Getting her out of London. (Sensible was a word that cropped up a lot in those days, as if the two families had just been sorting out furniture and chattels, not broken hearts.)

So Eleanor had a project, something to focus on, to get her teeth into. Stockley needed completely revamping, Alex would tell me on the odd occasion we had a drink together after work, it hadn't been touched since the seventies, and the wiring was a deathtrap. Eleanor had quite a job on her hands, he said; just what she needed. “Drink up, Imogen. If we're quick we'll get another one in.”

And I did drink up, and ate up too, when Alex and I shared the odd wine-bar supper together. Well, he was lonely—only that gloomy little flat to go back to, and rather less money to spend with his wealthy friends now that he was supporting two households—and he seemed to enjoy my company. Positively sought me out at the end of the day.

Time passed, and eventually, of course, the inevitable happened. It was one of those evenings when we'd had a quick supper after work, and then I'd gone back to advise him on the décor of his flat in Putney, which, I'd assured him, didn't have to be all white and minimalist just because it was a bachelor pad. A nice bank of book shelves across that blank wall in the sitting room, for example, wouldn't go amiss—books always warmed a room up—and in the bedroom, why, that huge expanse of magnolia just cried out for a set of Beardsley prints. Here, I demonstrated, with a sweep of my hand; over the bed…

Did I think about getting pregnant? Did I deliberately not mention the fact that I wasn't on the pill, or neglect to ask him to use a condom? No. Not deliberately, but then, it was the last thing on my mind. The only thing on my mind, right then, was that finally,
, this heavenly man was here in my arms, all mine, where, after all the to-ing and fro-ing, he rightly belonged. I was ecstatic. Incredibly, indescribably, heart-soaringly ecstatic. And so was he. If a little surprised. It felt so natural, so right, he told me afterwards with wide astonished eyes as we lay there, naked together in bed. He'd been so blind, he hadn't seen what was so manifestly right in front of him all along, and was amazed that I had.

“You knew?” He propped himself up on one elbow in the dark, the better to look down at me. “You knew this might happen one day?”

“I've loved you pretty much from the word go.” I admitted in an extremely uncool manner. But why not, I reasoned. Better to frighten him off now, if frightened he was going to be, than have it all come out later on. No more games, no more pretending: this was me; upfront, honest. Take it or leave it.

And he took it. He was flabbergasted, staggered, but also, I think, incredibly touched and flattered, and rather humbled that I'd kept it so quiet, never let him see I was besotted, never got pissed at an office party and propositioned him.

“So you never knew?” I asked him, lying there in the dark, looking up at his face, stroking the crook of his arm. “Never suspected?”

“Had no idea,” he admitted. “And why would I? I mean, it occurred to me often to wonder why you were working for me, this beautiful girl with her flowing blond hair, who everyone assures me paints like a dream and speaks fluent Italian. And of course I loved having you sitting outside my office—what man wouldn't? A pearl amongst all those Southend secretaries who pour into Ludgate Circus every day, all those Sharons, and there I was, with this stunning, talented, highly educated girl; but it never occurred to me that…well, I'm fifteen years older than you, and you're so…” He hesitated. “I always thought I was out of your league.”

“And I thought I was out of yours.”

We'd gazed at each other in the darkness. The realisation of what could have been, had I known more about his personal life, known that the physical side of his marriage was over years ago, and had he known about my feelings for him, crept up on us. We exchanged bemused smiles.

“And Eleanor?” I asked hesitantly.

He sighed, stroked my hair. “Eleanor was there at the time. She filled a gap. I'll always be very fond of her, but…well, we're just friends. Always will be.”

I smiled into the handsome open face beside me as he lay back on the pillow, and conveniently forgot how he'd said, almost in tears in his office, not so long ago, how much he loved her. How, if he couldn't have her, he didn't want Tilly either. I stretched out my hand and stroked his cheek. He took hold of my finger and kissed the tip of it.

“Stay with me, Imogen?” he said softly.

And I did. I moved into his flat and brought all my ramshackle worldly goods with me: a vanload of paintings and books and folksy cushions and a terrible exploding wicker chair. But when I discovered I was pregnant, I moved out again.

I'd done the test with shaking hands, sitting there on the side of the bath, watching in horror as the thin blue line appeared. I did it again in disbelief, but it came back even stronger than ever. I packed my bags and hastened them down the path to the car. I'd taken the day off work, pleading sickness, so I left Alex a note on the table saying that he was right, the age gap
too great, too insurmountable, and that I was going back to Italy, to Florence, to paint.

Instead I went to Clapham, where my friends welcomed me back with wonderment, but with open arms. At ten o'clock that evening, however, he appeared on the doorstep, eyes hollow and dark, arms hanging limply at his sides. Clarissa and Philippe, covered in paint, melted into their bedrooms.

“What's going on?” he whispered brokenly, raising his arms and letting them fall. “What are you doing to me?”

I'd gazed at him, and had almost managed to go through with it. Then I said: “I'm pregnant.”

He didn't flinch for a second. “And your point is?”

“M-my point is,” I stammered, “that I'm going to keep it. But I don't want to trap you. Don't want you to feel that you have to in any way be with us, or help bring the child up, or—” Whatever other selfless, magnanimous utterances were going to gush from my lips were halted, however, as he crossed the room, took me in his arms, and stopped my mouth with his kisses.

“Marry me,” he whispered urgently, his eyes scanning my face. “Marry me, Imo, and have the baby and let's be together for ever.”

I'd like to tell you I gave it some thought, took time to consider, weighed it up a bit, but who am I trying to kid? My heart didn't even miss a beat; in fact it fairly somersaulted.

“Yes,” I whispered, equally urgently back as his eyes shone into mine. “Yes, let's do that.”

And so my happiness was complete. Mum, Dad, and even Hannah came round to the fact once they'd realised it was a
fait accompli
, and Alex and I moved from the tiny flat in Brunswick Gardens—stretching our finances to the limit now that half went to his other family—to the semi round the corner in Hastoe Avenue, where we live now. I had a heavenly time doing it up, getting a friend in architectural salvage to knock the sitting-room wall down, splashing lots of creamy paint about and stencilling boldly, and positively breezed through my pregnancy.

One Monday morning, when I'd returned from visiting my mother in France, Alex took me up to the attic. Gone was the dusty, cavernous loft space filled with piles of suitcases and cobwebby old furniture, and instead, I found myself walking into an empty white room, floorboards painted pale grey, exposed beams likewise, with a sheet shrouding what appeared be a cross in the middle of it.

“My God, what's this?”

I stared around in wonder, marvelling at the steep sloping ceiling, the pine table set just so under the window; under the north light.

“It's a studio,” Alex told me. He whipped the sheet off the cross with a flourish like a magician, and revealed my easel, a blank canvas already screwed into it. His eyes burned into mine, full of love.

“Paint,” he urged me. “Paint.”

And I did. All through my pregnancy: great splashes of colour, huge billowing skies, windswept cornfields with poppies—joyful, instinctive paintings, which seemed to flow out of me, sitting on a stool in the final months when standing became too much for me. I'd never been so happy.

And then, one day, about two weeks before I was due, I was strolling around Peter Jones, looking at the changing mats, wondering which Moses basket to get, fingering the tiny soft vests and wondering if it would be tempting fate to get a few of those now, when I walked from the baby department into the lift—and straight into Tilly.

We were both shocked to see each other. But the door had slid shut, and there we were, the two of us, alone. She looked at my huge stomach, my Moses basket, then up at my eyes. If she knew, which she probably did, it was still, clearly, a terrible shock. I was appalled. Couldn't speak. And all credit to her that she did. She licked her lips and managed a faint smile.


“Tilly!” I gasped.

I felt my face burn, felt my whole body flush, and desperately looked away: at the buttons of the lift, at the floor. We travelled down to the ground in silence. As I got out and made to hurry away, eyes down, she put a hand on my arm.

“Good luck. You'll need it.”

I looked up, startled, and saw, not bitterness in her eyes, but pity, almost. I was about to hasten away, when I turned back, defiantly.

“What d'you mean?”

She seemed about to shrug and move on, but then gave an odd little smile.

“In all my married life, Imogen, only one person made me want to behave like a victim. Only one person made me want to reach for the kohl pencil, outline my eyes in black, raise them theatrically to camera and whisper, ‘There are three of us in this marriage.' I think you know who I mean. So good luck. As I say, you'll need it.”

And then she went on her way; weaving through the shelves of china and glass, skirting the spiral staircase, and out of the main doors into the square.

Chapter Five

“Eleanor.” I forced a smile and made my way out through the French windows to the garden. “How lovely, but what on earth—”

“I came up for lunch with a girlfriend and called Alex just on the off chance.” She came towards me, smiling broadly and holding out both hands, taking mine in hers. “I have to practically drive past your front door to get back to Stockley and I thought, oh God, let's give it a go, they might just be in—and here you both are! Wasn't that lucky?”

“Terribly,” I agreed, as her proffered cheek brushed mine. “But, Alex,” I turned, fuming inwardly, my voice unsteady, “you were supposed to be at the match. Rufus was playing and you said—”

“My fault entirely.” Eleanor held up her palms to stem my flow. “Alex said he was going to watch Rufus and had just literally popped back here to get changed and I promised faithfully to be with him in ten minutes so we could go together—I was dying to see my godson in action—but bloody traffic! I was half an hour getting out of the Brompton Road!”

“Sorry, darling,” Alex looked sheepish. “You know I really wanted to come, but poor Els got held up and I hung on and hung on, and of course by the time she got here it was too late. How did he do?”


Alex passed me a glass of champagne. I was so angry I nearly knocked it back in one.

“Did he?” He brightened. “Good lad. What, really in the thick of it?”

“Oh, totally.”

I took another gulp and regarded Eleanor, standing before me. She was wearing a soft suede jacket and pale yellow Capri trousers with a crisp white shirt. Her brown curls were discreetly highlighted these days and swept back from her face, tucked behind her ears, showing off her fine cheekbones and startling, slanting hazel eyes. The passage of time had been kind to Eleanor; she was still very beautiful. In fact, if anything I decided, she was better-looking now than when I'd first met her. More polished, more expensive, but then, I thought uncharitably, it was easy to look good when you didn't have to lift a finger. I shouldn't think Eleanor had made her bed for years, let alone drawn a curtain.

“Well, good for Rufus,” she was saying in her husky voice. “I didn't think he was the sporty type!”

“Oh, he's pretty much an all-rounder,” I lied.

“Just like my Theo. Piers and I were only saying the other night what an infuriating child he is. It doesn't matter if it's the classroom or the playing field—he can't seem to put a foot wrong!”

From what I remembered of her youngest, I rather agreed. He
an infuriating child, horribly competitive and out to win at any cost. He'd given Rufus a nasty Chinese burn when he'd beaten him at chess the last time we'd stayed at Stockley.

“I went to watch him play at Ludgrove last week, and he got four tries!”

“Four!” Alex spluttered with wide, overimpressed eyes. Pillock. I wanted to hit him. He turned back to me. “Did Rufus get any?”

“Yes, he got five.”

“Five!” He looked astonished, as well he might.

“More champagne, Eleanor?” I reached for the bottle and calmly filled her glass. “Although,” I went on, “what on earth we're doing standing in a chilly garden on a Wednesday afternoon drinking champagne, Lord only knows!”

I laughed gaily, and as I topped up Alex's glass, I noticed he'd managed to change out of his suit and was in cords and a jumper. Had he changed while she was here, I wondered feverishly? And were they so familiar with each other that she'd followed him into the bedroom and perched on the edge of the bed, chatting as he stripped down to his boxers? Oh, stop it, Imogen, you're absurd.

I put the bottle down on the bench. He was looking particularly handsome today too, I thought, as he swept his hair off his brow. The worry that recently pretty much constantly etched his face had been replaced with a flushed glow, which could be the drink, or could be the company, I thought wretchedly.

“I'll tell you why we're drinking this,” he began portentously, raising his glass and looking remarkably pleased with himself. “It's all rather marvellous, actually.”

Oh God, it always was, wasn't it, when she was around? Suddenly his entire vocabulary changed and everything was frightfully marvellous or terrifically jolly, and I felt like a drag and a bore beside her eternal upper-class optimism. I tried not to look mutinous as he turned to her, a slight smile playing on his lips.

“Shall I tell her, or will you?”

As they stood smiling at one another, eyes shining, for one surreal moment I thought it could have been a betrothed couple, about to tell the happy news to some ageing parent. I caught my breath as she touched his sleeve with her fingertips.


He turned to me, and I just managed, heroically, to stop myself from throwing my drink at him.

“Eleanor's offered us a cottage.”

“A cottage?” I was momentarily nonplussed.

“Yes, at Stockley. She's got one vacant at the moment, and she says we can use it. Isn't that wonderful?”

“Well, it's…terribly kind…” My mind was whirring. A cottage. At Stockley. Jesus. “You mean…” I stalled for time, “for the summer? For a holiday?”

“Oh, no, not just for the summer, for as long as you like. And to be honest, you'd be doing me a favour by taking it,” Eleanor was saying. “The place is empty and has been for some time, so it needs quite a bit of work. Alex said he wouldn't mind doing that—nothing structural, only decorating—but I'd much rather have it inhabited than be constantly worried about the gypsies getting hold of it. They're a
mare round us at the moment. Ruthie Greyshot had them in one of her barns and they claimed they were sitting tenants. She couldn't get them out!”

“Yes, but,” I licked my lips, “couldn't you let it out to tenants? Properly? I don't know if Alex has misled you, but we couldn't possibly afford to—”

“Oh, no, I don't want any money for it. If I let it out properly I'd have to do it up, and I can't be fagged with that. No, I promise you, you'd be doing me a favour just by occupying it.”

“Isn't that marvellous?” said Alex. “A place in the country, where Rufus can run wild and play in the woods and dam streams, and you can grow vegetables and paint—just like you've always wanted!”

It was true, I had always wanted it, and if it had been anywhere else I'd have leaped at it. Fallen on my knees in gratitude.

“Where exactly is it?” My voice was tight, ungracious, awful. Eleanor looked anxious now, sensing perhaps that I felt boxed in.

“It's on the edge of the home farm, a tiny little detached cottage called Shepherd's Cottage. And years ago that's exactly what it was: the shepherd's place. But a row of terraced cottages were built later for the farm hands. I promise you it's minute, Imogen, absolutely tiny, nothing flashy at all. I think we've even still got a few animals down there. Piers will probably task you off to keep an eye on them. That's how much you'd be doing us a favour.”

“No trouble at all,” gushed my husband.

I straightened my shoulders and cranked up a smile. “How lovely, Eleanor, and of course we'll think about it. We'll discuss it later, won't we, darling?”

“Oh, but what is there to dis—”

“Yes, of course,” broke in Eleanor hastily. “You'll need to talk about it. But the offer's there if you want it. So!” she said with some finality as if that was that for the moment. “I was just admiring your garden, Imogen. What a triumph!”

I clenched my teeth. “Yes, well, I'm afraid my mother's a bit of a loose cannon these days. She gets carried away.”

“Oh, but I think it's terrific,” she enthused, bending down to finger a rose. “
realistic, and just think, you never have to water it or dead-head it or anything!”


“I really think it's a must for Stockley,” she mused. “Just one little patch, next to the knot garden—terribly amusing and frightfully disconcerting. Imagine all the old dears' faces when we're open for the public: “Oh, look, a
Maximus pergalitor
, Mabel—oh heavens, it's plastic!”

Alex threw back his head and roared.

“Can't you just see their faces?” she appealed to him. “With any luck they'll be so appalled we'll be inundated with letters of complaint from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, and then we'll be boycotted and Piers will never make me open the gardens again!”

They enjoyed this hugely and laughed gustily. Why couldn't I join in? Why did I always force myself to adopt this sour position, like some lemon-sucking killjoy, someone I didn't recognise, didn't like? I knew Eleanor always hoped she could jolly me out of it, but somehow, the laughter got stuck in my throat.

“Oh, and here she is!” she cried, glancing through the house as the front door opened. “The creator, the designer—the
! How marvellous!”

My mother came down the hall with Rufus beside her.

“Daddy!” Rufus ran through the kitchen and jumped into Alex's arms.

“Hello, rugby boy!”

“Daddy, I was in the team and you were supposed to come and watch!”

“I know, and I'm sorry, but you obviously didn't need me, Rufus. Five tries!”

Rufus drew back in his arms, perplexed. “What?”

“Bath time now, darling,” I broke in hurriedly, prising him from his father's arms. “Quickly, say hello to Eleanor, and then straight upstairs. I can see you need a good soak after that match. Look at your knees! Come on, chop chop.”

“But I had a shower,” he was saying as I seized his hand and hastened him away, giving Eleanor only a millisecond to ruffle his hair and congratulate him.

“Mummy, after the match, I had a—”

“Come along, darling!”

We were up those stairs with a bath running in moments.

have a shower, Mummy,” he said as I kicked the bathroom door shut behind us.

“I know, Rufus, but humour me and have a bath too.”

Something in my voice made him catch my eye. He looked alarmed, but didn't question my logic as he began to peel his clothes off. The tiny bathroom window overlooked the garden, and above the running taps, I could hear Eleanor greeting my mother like a long-lost buddy. She must have met her all of three times, but Mum, of course, loved it.

“Celia, this is inspired!” Eleanor was enthusing gustily. “I was just saying to Imogen that I'd like one at Stockley. Really razz up the tourists!”

Mum puffed delightedly on her ciggie and bent down beside Eleanor to show off the faux foliage, whilst Alex looked on indulgently, putting in his amused contribution occasionally. I bet he wouldn't have done that if I'd shown him, I thought savagely, turning off the taps with some force. I bet he'd say, “Don't be absurd, Imogen. This garden's ridiculous. Your mother's a perfect menace!” But because Eleanor admired it—oh, no, all at once it was delightful.

“Mummy, why did you tell Daddy I scored five tries?”

Rufus was standing before me in the bath, naked and ankle-deep in water, trusting brown eyes on me. Faintly fearful ones, too. It was on the tip of my tongue to come clean and say, “Because I wanted to out-try that poisonous Theo Latimer who scored four last week,” but knowing he'd feel crushed and inadequate, instead I said brightly, “Because you so nearly did, darling. You were so close to the line and really instrumental in setting them up. And, after all, your team did score five, and you're part of that team, aren't you?”

He considered this for a moment. Then his eyes brightened. “Yes. Yes, I suppose so. It was a team effort, wasn't it?”

“Of course it was, darling,” I scrubbed his already clean knees vigorously. “Of course it was. A team effort.”


When I came down, Mum and Eleanor had gone. Mum had shouted a cheery toodle-oo up the stairs and I'd cheerio'd back, but Eleanor had obviously passed her good-byes through Alex. He was in the kitchen, putting the champagne glasses in the sink and throwing the bottle in the bin. It was chilly now, with the French windows still ajar; the sun had disappeared behind the clouds.

“Eleanor's gone?” I said casually, throwing Rufus's pristine rugby kit quickly into the washing machine as I passed and pulling my cardigan around me as I hastened to shut the French doors.

“She had to dash off. Wanted to miss the traffic.”


“But she sent tons of love.”

I smiled as I reached up to turn the mortise key. He was repeating exactly what she would have said in her husky voice. “Tons of love to Imogen.”

“We must think about her offer,” I said lightly as I breezed around the kitchen, plucking some dead flowers from a jar and tossing them in the bin, turning on a lamp as I passed and flicking on the radio. “It's very kind of her, but I can't quite see what's in it for her!” Except to have my husband on her doorstep morning, noon and night, I thought feverishly, chucking yesterday's newspaper into the recycling pile.

“Well, in return, we do the place up. That's the idea. And it's more than kind, actually,” he said in a strained voice. “It's a life-saver.”

I glanced round from tipping powder in the drawer of the washing machine. “What d'you mean?”

“I've…actually had quite a lot of time to think about this, Imo. She rang me a week ago and offered it.”

I turned around to face him properly; put the powder down.

was what I hated.
much. I gripped the top of the washing machine behind me. The secret collaboration, the two of them whispering away together, without Piers and me involved. Ooh! I turned back and slammed the powder drawer shut.

“Right,” I said lightly, bending down and busily setting the dial. “Why didn't you say?”

BOOK: A Crowded Marriage
5.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Snapshot by Craig Robertson
Elizabeth's Wolf by Leigh, Lora
Wild Rendezvous by Victoria Blisse
Ampersand Papers by Michael Innes
Hangman's Root by Susan Wittig Albert
Away from Home by Rona Jaffe
Lives of the Saints by Nino Ricci
Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi, Murtha Baca, Luigi Ballerini