Read A Crowded Marriage Online
Authors: Catherine Alliott
“You said it would be habitable,” I breathed. “If I'd known it was going to be like this I'd have come down last week and sorted it out!”
The fact was I'd meant to, I really had, but packing up in London had taken every spare moment of my time and actually, every ounce of emotion.
“Cold Comfort Farm,” I seethed, opening one filthy cupboard after another and slamming doors shut. “Look at the dirt. Look at it!” I was behaving rather badly now, but even as I stormed around, I knew my anger was misdirected. I couldn't really give a monkey's about the size of the rooms or the dustâwhich, let's face it, in a place this size wouldn't take long to shift. What was depressing me, what was
depressing me, was that it was glaringly apparent that there was nowhere to paint. Three bedrooms. I'd been promised three bedrooms! Could Rufus possibly sleep on a sofa bed downstairs, I wondered feverishly? Or could I paint downstairs and we just wouldn't have a sitting room? No, of course not, Imogen, don't be so selfish. No, I thought going through to the sitting room, chewing my thumbnail, no, I'd just have to put my career on hold. Golly, plenty of women did, didn't they, I thought miserably. And anywayâI went to the window and rubbed the filthy pane with a fingertipâit wasn't as if I had much of a career to hold in the first place, was it?
“Let's go and find Eleanor,” said Alex, rubbing his hands together decisively as if that would solve everything. As if a few more rooms and luxury en suite bathrooms would miraculously appear.
“I think perhaps you're right,” he added cleverly as he ducked under the door frame on the way out. “We should have gone to find her in the first place. Shouldn't have arrived unannounced.”
I nodded wordlessly, not trusting myself to speak, following him out to the car. And of course, he'd be in London most of the time, I thought as we waded back through the long grass, while Rufus and I were down here. He wouldn't be back before dark, and then at the weekends he'd no doubt find any excuse to be up at the big house, fishing for trout with Piers, flirting in the kitchen with Eleanor, whilst muggins here set traps for the mice and got to grips with the rising damp. And actually, that was where he'd seen himself all along, I thought with a sudden flash of realisation. Not in Shepherd's Cottage at all. Oh, he'd imagined he might
here occasionally, partake of the odd breakfast, but most of the time he'd be up there, helping Piers select cigars from the walnut humidor, or fine wines from the cellar, or in the pale yellow drawing room, helpfully pouring pre-lunch gin and tonics for the corporate shooting parties, leaning against the marble mantel, looking gorgeous, being terribly charming, glass in handâ¦an asset to any house party. Eleanor would introduce him as her oldest friend and everyone would purr and coo and say how lucky she was to have him close by, and the men would find him affable and amusing and the women privately admire his good looks and there'd be much laughter and bonhomie, and then the phone would go and Eleanor would carefully put her hand over the mouthpiece.
“Alex, darling,” she'd make a face, “it's Imogen. She wants to know if you're coming back for lunch.”
Alex would sigh and roll his eyes andâ¦oooh! My blood came to such a rolling boil as I slammed the car door shut I thought my head might pop off. I should never have agreed to this,
“Where's Rufus?” said Alex as he got in beside me.
We glanced around as, at that moment, a shriek went up.
We got out as one and dashed back, our tempers forgotten. Together we raced round the side of the house to find Rufus, by the back door, surrounded by a huge posse of aggressive-looking chickens. There must have been at least forty of them. He gazed at us, wide-eyed.
“Every time I move, they move with me!” he shrieked.
“Right,” I breathed, heart pounding. “Don't panic. What we'll do isâ
In another moment they'd left Rufus and rushed to surround me, attaching themselves firmly to my legs, pushing and clucking menacingly. I clutched a drainpipe and nearly fainted with fear.
Rufus ran to his father and hid behind him.
“Move slowly,” commanded my husband from behind the safety of the dustbin lid he'd commandeered as a shield. “Don't make any sudden movements!”
I half shut my eyes and gingerly took a step, but they swarmed with me, cackling horribly.
“H-e-lp!” I whimpered, feeling like Tippi Hedren in
“Wait there,” cried Alex. “We'll get the car.” Still brandishing the dustbin lid, they raced off, whilst I, petrified, stood rooted to the spot, glancing down at the sea of feathers, beaks and beady eyes that surrounded me. Oh dear God, there were hundreds of them,
, and actuallyâI gazed in terrorâthese weren't chickens at all! Chickens were brown and smooth and comforting, but these were strange fluffy creatures with furry heads and very sharp, curved beaks. Were they wild, I wondered? Had I stumbled across some rare and prehistoric breed? Some hawk with spiky hair? The last of the Mohawkans?
Moments later the car roared round the side of the cottage and through the open yard gate, screeching to a halt in a cloud of dust and chicken shit. The door flew open like something out of
“Come on!” yelled Alex in seventies cop mode. “Run for it!”
“Run, Mummy!” urged Rufus.
I shut my eyes, summoned up every ounce of courageâand legged it, half expecting to hear brittle bones and webbed feet snapping beneath my kitten heels, but beyond caring. The birds ran with me, stretching out their necks and running with wide-apart legs under their feathered skirts, like fat ladies running for a bus. But I was faster. I threw myself in the car, heart pounding, and slammed the door shut, wondering if I'd decapitated anything. Alex performed a dizzy-making handbrake turn and we flew off.
We didn't speak for a few moments.
“This isn't going to work,” I finally gasped when I'd checked for headless chickens. “This isn't going to work at all!”
Alex patted my knee. “Nonsense,” he soothed, “it'll be fine. It'll all work out, you'll see. Come on, we'll go up to the house the back way.”
The back way? I swung round, confused as we went past the cottage and plunged further down the track. His local knowledge was clearly more intimate than mine, which only added to my irritation.
“How come you know this way?” I snapped, still trying to get my breath. “I thought you hadn't been to the cottage before?”
“Oh, I remember now, we came down here when I was shooting with Piers in the autumn. The second drive was down this way. It's where I shot that partridge. You couldn't come, remember?”
Oh, yes, that weekend. The shooting party. The one I'd dreaded, but had been absolutely determined to go to, come hell or high water, but not, as it turned out, a high temperature. Rufus had got chicken pox the day before, so after weeks of quizzing Kate on shooting etiquette and raiding her country wardrobe and spending a small fortune on a hat in Lock's, which she'd convinced me would be an investment, I'd fallen at the last hurdle and had to watch Alex drive off on his own, a vision in Lovat green. Well, there'd be plenty more of those weekends, I thought grimly as we drew up at Stockley's back door. Plenty more opportunities to wear the bloody hat. I say “back door,” but most people would be overjoyed to have it at the front: it was large, black and heavy with lots of brass knobs on, and ranged about it were Wellington boots in all colours and sizes, evidence of generations of Latimers traipsing through.
“Hi there!” sang out Alex, pushing on through, and of course he was right. Good friends shouldn't go to the front, ringing bells and making the dogs bark and giving their friends the added nuisance of walking ten minutes from the west wing, only to find the door's warped through lack of use and yelling, “Go round the back!” to the pesky visitors, but nevertheless, I envied him his confidence. I followed him down the flagstoned back passage and the dogs came wagging and pushing their noses into my crutch, but other than that, there were precious few signs of life.
“He-lloo!” yodelled Alex again, sticking his head round the kitchen door. It was the sort of kitchen I'd dreamed about in my shallower moments. Huge, high-ceilinged and baronial, with the ubiquitous Aga at one end and an open fireplace at the other, over which a stag's head presided, complete with a cigarette stuck in its mouth in a we-may-be-grand-but-gosh-we-can-laugh-at-ourselves sort of way. In front of the fire stood two high-backed armchairs, for all the world like his and hers thrones, and in a corner, a faded squashy sofa where the dogs hopped back to now to curl up and resume their slumber. Along one wall was an ancient oak dresser dripping with willow-pattern plates, and by the French windows, a long oak refectory table adorned with artfully arranged terracotta pots. Kate would have passed out with jealousy. Having recently seen my new kitchen, I wanted to torch it.
“No one about,” commented Alex needlessly. “Tell you what, I'll head down to the front hall and you check out the playroom.”
The playroom was about three rooms further back on the left; past the butler's pantry and the gun room, deep in the bowels of the intimate family side. I opened my mouth to protest that I'd quite like to stick together and not be discovered snooping round Eleanor's house on my own, but Rufus, at the mention of a playroom, had already zoomed off, tail up, sniffing for toys. I sighed and made to follow him, as Alex turned and walked, quite quickly as I recall, in the opposite direction, towards the green baize door and the more formal side of the house. Before he reached the door, however, we heard shouts coming from that direction, but from upstairs. Voices raised in anger. I turned back in surprise, as Alex's step quickened and he disappeared. I made to follow him, clipclopping down the flagstones in my heels, pushing through the baize door, from where I was afforded a view of the main front hall, dark, echoing and oak panelled with a sweeping Jacobean staircase. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I was just in time to see Eleanor run lightly down the stairs, barefoot in jeans and a white T-shirt, her face stained with tears, and fly into Alex's arms as he stood at the bottom.
“Oh, Alex darling,” she cried in a choked little voice, “thank God you've come. Thank God!”
Don't ask me what possessed me to give them a moment. To stand there in the gloom where I knew they couldn't see me, and watch as his arms encircled her waist and his fair head bent over her dark one. I think the answer is that I just froze. Alex thought I'd gone after Rufus to the playroom; Eleanor didn't know I was there. They perceived themselves to be entirely and exquisitely alone. As she lifted her face to his, though, I felt scared. Lost my bottle. I didn't want to know what came next. I turned and exited quietly back via the green baize door, then barged back through it again, noisily, giving a loud, enigmatic cough. The two of them sprang apart like deflecting magnets.
“Imogen!” Eleanor regarded me in horror, wiping her wet face with the back of her hand. “OhâI thoughtâ¦” She glanced up at Alex in confusion. “I thought you'd come alone.”
This struck me as a remarkably obtuse thing to say. What, alone already? Just like that? Without giving it a couple of months, say, to rent us asunder?
“Why?” I didn't recognise my voice. It was harsh, rasping.
“Well, you're not due till tomorrow so I assumed Alex had just popped down to look at the cottage, get the lie of the land.” She'd recovered her composure now and was gazing at me wide-eyed. “But noâno, that's fine. If you've both come to look, that's marvellous. It's just I haven't had a chance to get in there yet, and it's filthy, I'm afraid, soâ”
“Tomorrow?” Alex interrupted, surprised. “That's when you expected us?”
“Yes, the twenty-fifth.”
“That's rightâSunday. Look, it's in my diary.” I rummaged in my bag, still smarting, but determined she wouldn't get the better of me on this one. I drew it out. “Here, Sunday, to Stockley.” I pointed to where I'd written.
is the twenty-fifth,” said Alex, peering over my shoulder as it simultaneously dawned on me. I flushed to my roots.
“Oh, darling, you idiot!” Alex laughed. It was said affectionately, but he was clearly annoyed.
“Well, never mind,” Eleanor said quickly. “It doesn't matter at all. It's lovely that you're here. I'm afraid the cottage is uninhabitable tonight, though, I've got Vera and her girls going in tomorrow to scrub it from top to bottom. Don't go and look at it yet. I'll die!”
“We've already seen it,” laughed Alex.
!” she shrieked, and both hands flew to cover her mouth. “How
. You must think I'm dreadful!”
“Not at all,” I muttered, still horrified that I could have cocked up so comprehensively. We were a day early. Shit. How could I have got it so wrong?
“But actually, that's perfect,” Eleanor was saying. “You can stay here tonight, in much more comfort, and then tomorrow you can have more of a say in which furniture you want. There's some terrible old stuff in there at the moment, but Piers's mother has a barnful of pieces she doesn't want from when she moved to the Dower House: lots of nice sofas and chairs you can take your pick from. Oh, Piers, look who's here. Isn't it marvellous?”
Piers, in a flat cap, Viyella shirt and corduroy trousers, and with his head slightly bowed in the manner of a very tall man constantly anticipating a low doorway, came through from the back passage, holding two bottles of wine in each hand. I was surprised. Somehow I'd assumed he'd been upstairs with Eleanor, involved in that shouting match, having some sort of domestic with his wife. Who had she been shouting at, then? One of the children? Would they make her cry? I glanced quickly upstairs.
“Marvellous,” agreed Piers, coming forward with impeccable manners, sweeping off his cap and stooping to kiss me and pump Alex's hand. “I saw your car outside, actually, and assumed as much.”
“I'm so sorry,” I faltered, still pink. “I don't know how I managed to get the dates so wrong. Hopeless of meâ¦” Even as I was stammering my apologies I noticed Piers clocking Eleanor's tear-stained face and then saw Alex seeing him notice. One way or another a lot of thought processes were going on here with not much to do with the fact that we were a day early.
“I'll get Vera to lay another couple of places at dinner then, shall I?” Piers went on lightly. “I was just off to decant the port.”
“Ohâyes, of course.” Eleanor looked flustered suddenly. “I'm so sorry, we're going to submit you to a ghastly black-tie dinner tonight.” She grimaced. “That's your penance, I'm afraid. But actually, it's perfect. You can meet all our neighbours in one fell swoopâor all
neighbours, should I say!”
“Oh Godâyou're having a party. No, we couldn't possiblyâ”
“Of course you can. It couldn't matter less,” Piers boomed. “The more the merrier, in fact.”
“Particularly with the motley crew we've got coming this evening,” Eleanor said with feeling. “It's a bit of a duty party, and some of them definitely need diluting. It'll give you some idea of what you're getting yourselves into. You might wish you'd never come!”
“ButâI haven't got anything to wear,” I stammered. “I left a case of evening clothes with my neighbour. I was going to pick them up later. Why don't Alex and I just go to the pub?” I said desperately. “We could maybe leave Rufus here with Theo andâ”
“Nonsense, I won't hear of it,” said Piers. “I've got a spare dinner jacket Alex can wear and I'm sure Eleanor can find you something to fit, can't you, darling?”
“To fit” was an unfortunate phrase, and I could feel everyone wondering how the fuller-figured Imogen, without the assistance of a crowbar and a jar of Swarfega, would ever fit into one of Eleanor's teeny-weeny dresses, but Eleanor was all fluttery hands and assurances.
“Of course I can. In factâI have the very thing. Come with me, Imogen.”
She seized my hand and, in a moment, was bounding up the stairs with me in tow.
“Oh, but I'd better check on Rufus, I haven't seen him sinceâ”
“He's in the playroom,” Piers informed me, striding under the staircase towards the dining room. “I saw him as I came through, happy as a sand boy with Theo's train set. You girls go and play. Alex, come and help me decant this port, would you? It's a Fonseca '66, rather a good one, I think. My father laid it down aeons ago and I'm slightly concerned that if we don't drink it soon it'll be vinegarâ¦”
And so it was, that moments later, whilst my husband spookily acted out the decanting-wine-with-Piers scene I'd so recently envisaged, I found myself in Eleanor's enormous chintzy bedroom being squeezed, like a very pale fat sausage, into a red velvet dress the size of a napkin.
“It's not actually velvet, you see, it's velour, so it stretches,” Eleanor assured me, panting with the exertion of doing up the side zip as I held my arm aloft. Embarrassingly, my pits needed a shave and I wasn't convinced they were terribly fragrant after loading the car and the journey. “It's one size, and it really does fit anyone. My sister wore it last Christmas, and she's the size of a house.”
“There!” She stood back in triumph as I regarded myself in the long mirror.
My hands instantly went to cover my cleavage. The dress was very low cut, so low you could practically see my tummy button, and as I spilled voluptuously over the top, my hips splayed out even more voluptuously at the bottom. My hand scrambled in horror for the zip.
“Oh, no, I couldn't possibly wear this.”
“Nonsense, it's perfect. Honestly, Imogen, you look terrific. You should wear dresses like this more often, and look, I've got these amazing bra cups that you just slip in and attach with glue so you don't have any straps.”
She was producing a couple of black triangles but I'd already scrambled out.
“No, no, honestly.”
“Or you can just put Sellotape over your nipples so they don't stand out like organ stops. I've done that before.”
“Um, maybe some trousersâ¦”
“Wellâ¦” she crossed doubtfully to her wardrobe. “These Joseph ones are Lycra, so maybeâ¦” I snatched them gratefully but of course it was wildly optimistic: I could hardly get them over my thighs. I did manageâstupidly, and just to prove a pointâto do the top button up, but not the zip, and then turned and pretended to view my bottom in the mirror.
“Mmm, not sure,” I gasped, for gasp was all I could do. Then of course I couldn't get the wretched things off.
Eleanor kindly turned away and pretended to tidy her drawers as I struggled, finally flopping back on her four-poster bed to peel them off with sweaty palms. She kept up a constant chatter to hide my blushes, but as she rooted around yet again in her wardrobe and I sat on the side of her bed in my undies, I wondered, wretchedly, what on earth I was doing here? Scrambling into her clothes, which were too small for me; borrowing her cottage, which was too small for her. Who was the fool?
“The red,” she said decisively, whipping out the velour number again. “With these fantastic M&S grippy pants that hold all your bits in. Hang on, they're around somewhereâ¦” She was rummaging again.
I haveâ¦the pants!
” I squeaked with feeling. Christ, I wasn't going to borrow those too!
She sensed the defiance in my voice and turned quickly. “Look, I'm sorry you've been landed with this wretched party,” she said anxiously, “and I'm sorry you saw the cottage in such a dreadful state, but I just know everything's going to be fine. You'll love it here, really you will. I'll make sure of it.”
Her eyes were wide and appealing, and actually this should have been my moment. My moment to say, yes, OK, I'm sure I will love it, but tell me, why were you crying just now, Eleanor? And why did you fall on my husband's neck and gaze adoringly into his eyes, and why do I always get the feeling you're after him, and why should I believe you're not when you wrecked his marriage to Tilly, pretended to be her friend, and then stole him from her? But I didn't. Perhaps because I didn't want to know the answers, and perhaps because I knew that by my coming down here and accepting her hospitality, she held all the cards and I held none.
Six months, I told myself grimly as I stalked off to the sumptuous spare room she'd directed me to, clutching the red dress and a pair of high heels; six months was precisely how long our house was let for and that was precisely how long we'd stay. No longer. This was a short sabbatical to refresh our finances; a couple of terms out of school for Rufus, and then we'd be on our way; back in time for him to start the new school year back at prep school in September, and back to our old house too. And I'd tell Alex as much tonight, I resolved as I padded through the thickly carpeted bedroom to the bathroom. I turned on the taps and seized the bottle of Jo Malone placed considerately by the side of the bath. Sloshed a dollop in. Yes, I'd tell him just as soon as we had a moment together; before supper.
Well, naturally that moment didn't arise, because while I was having a bath, Alex was in one of the many other bathrooms this huge house boasted, having a shower, and evidently changing there too, because when he finally popped his head round the bathroom door saying he was going downstairs and did I want him to wait for me, he was in his dinner jacket. I had my toothbrush in my mouth and a mouthful of froth, and by the time I'd rinsed, swallowed and yelled, “Yes I bloody do!” he'd gone.
By the time I'd put on my make-up and settled a highly over-excited Rufus into Theo's room amidst much giggling and talk of farting, and then summoned all my courage for the descent down the vast sweeping staircase, it was getting late. The red dress, ably assisted by my very own grippy knickers and the two bra cupsâa feat of engineering that relied worryingly on something called body-glueâactually didn't look too bad. I caught a glimpse of myself in the long mirror halfway down the stairs. Rather obvious, of course, a voluptuous blonde in a skimpy red dress, but as long as I ate precisely nothing, I decided, and didn't turn round too quickly and knock anyone out with my jiggling bosoms, I'd be fine. I wobbled downstairs, breathing in hard.
Quite a few guests had arrived and gathered in the beautiful yellow drawing room with the ornate plaster ceiling, and Piers was buzzing around being the perfect host, getting drinks. They were mostly middle-aged, these neighboursâand by neighbours I knew we were talking people who lived in the same county and not next doorâthe women formidable, statuesque, with well-upholstered bosoms and lots of powder and jewellery, and the husbands, mainly ruddy-faced with paunches and dandruffy shoulders. They were standing in little clutches, braying loudly and shrieking with laughter, obviously terribly familiar with one another. One much younger man, with flashy dark looks and black curls that hung over his collar, was standing apart on his own, sipping a whisky. His head was cocked contemplatively as he regarded the spines of the books in the shelves. His head didn't move, but his eyes tracked right to look at me as I came in; they roved up and down as he mentally undressed me, which, since I was only wearing a napkin, didn't take long. When he'd finished he straightened up and his face lit up as if to sayâooh, good, a trollop. I flushed hotly and ignored his grin.
My eyes darted instead toâah, yes, there they were. By the fireplace. Eleanor was leaning on one end of the ornate Adam mantel in a simple black sheath dress and pearls, whilst Alex propped up the other, supremely elegant in a borrowed dinner jacket, which, he being tall and slim like Piers, fitted like a glove. He was flicking back his fair hair as he laughed at something Eleanor said, and he looked so at home, so absolutely as if he belonged here, it almost took my breath away.
I fumbled in my bag for an uncharacteristic cigarette. Would Piers even notice if Alex moved
here, I wondered? If he sat with them at breakfast, strolled round the garden with them admiring the roses as a threesome, crawled into bed with them at night? The smoke hit my lungs and I suppressed a cough. It occurred to me that there might even be some grand plan going on. Perhaps the Latimer marriage was cold and loveless? Perhaps he beat her? Perhaps Piers had affairs. Maybe he was glad to have another man around; maybe it took the heat off him, or maybe, I thought wildly, he was secretly gay? Maybe he'd fathered his children and now wanted to be let off the leash? My mind whirled with possibilities and what with the very tight pants and the cigarette, I felt quite faint. It took me a moment to realise Piers was at my elbow, offering me a glass of champagne.