Authors: Vivienne Kelly
But the worst came later. Although we had made love, we had never actually spent a night together. We had never, literally, slept together. I had envisaged a period of lying in each other's arms, whispering, murmuring, touching, sharing secrets, exchanging our sleepy, contented impressions of the wedding, me falling asleep on Steve's wide warm chest, within his strong embrace. But after Steve had penetrated me and obtained his staccato climactic peak, he patted my stomach benignly, muttered something bleary, and hunched himself over, falling asleep within a minute.
I lay there, disconcerted and trying not to feel deserted. It had been a big day, of course; and when he had got his speech over and done with he'd knocked back a few wines, and I was sure there was every excuse for fatigue; but I had expected something a little more conversational, a little more â¦ well, attentive. Courteous. Some demonstration of consideration, of husbandly care.
And then, just as I started to succumb to the warmth and the wine and the tiredness, and drift into sleep myself, a great sound exhaled itself into the room. I jumped in fright.
It was a bubbling, cascading, raw sound: a sound of turgid, rumbling rhythms and insistent plosive beats, a gaseous, volcanic, assertive, cavernous noise. It terrified me. There was something subterranean about it, yet we were on the twentieth floor of a city hotel. It rolled and roiled around the room: it echoed into the corners and bounced aggressively off the walls and the ceiling. I sat upright and stared around the bedroom in consternation and fear: Steve was snoring.
I slept very little that night. I shook his shoulder, but he only grunted. I lay next to him, gazing into the dark, absorbing the blubbering, grunting tide as it rose and fell, rhythmically, without cessation, without interruption. I suppose I dropped off at around five or six in the morning, and small wonder if I was hazy at breakfast.
We had it delivered to the room: all part of the Lovebird Special Steve had paid for. A smart, diminutive waiter with a bald head and a long, black apron set up the table with a damask cloth and lots of really quite good silver. I had taken some toast and was helping myself to marmalade when Steve leant over the table and clasped my hand, immobilising it just as I was about to tip the spoon onto the side of my plate.
âI can't believe how lucky I am,' he whispered.
âUm,' I said, watching the marmalade drip onto the white damask. âHoney, just let me â'
âI can't believe you chose me. I can't believe you said yes. You're my darling, my sweetheart, my lovely one. I'm the proudest man in the world, Isabel.'
Don't misunderstand me: it's pleasant to be adored. I'm no different from anybody: I can take a lot of adoration. But I'd had maybe two hours of sleep and I wasn't at my best and I didn't want to drip marmalade on the crisp white tablecloth. I tried to keep the twang out of my voice, but it was hard.
âSteve, love, just let go of my hand, would you.'
He looked absurdly stricken. He dropped my wrist as if it had burnt him. He goggled, slightly.
âYou don't regret it?' he asked, tense, desperate. âYou don't regret marrying me?'
âNo, of course not. I haven't had much sleep, that's all.'
âYou do look tired,' he said, fondly. I had seen myself in the mirror earlier that morning and I could attest to this. It was an understatement and I should have been more grateful than I was. âMaybe you were wound up, nervous? It was a big day, wasn't it, lovely? I was tired; I bet you were, too.'
âWell, yes, I was tired. But I couldn't sleep. I couldn't sleep at all.'
âWere you worried?' he asked, taking my hand again and pawing it.
âSteve, are you aware that you snore?'
âWell, yes, of course. All men snore, lovely. Women get used to it.'
I didn't like being called lovely all the time. I was starting to hope he wasn't going to make a habit of it. And all men didn't snore: I was sure of that.
âWell, isn't there anything you can do about it?'
âI don't know. A mask, or a clothes peg, or an operation, something. There must be something you can do. Steve, I can't sleep through that noise. I can't sleep. I haven't slept. I won't sleep. What can you do?' I could hear my voice, thin and high and rising to hysteria.
He looked concerned, but not enough. âLovely, all men snore. You talk to my mum. My dad snores. All men snore. Didn't you realise that?'
I didn't see that it followed, quite like that. But he was right. Not about all men snoring (Max didn't), but about getting used to it. I got used to it. I did learn to sleep through it â for the most part, anyway. Steve was so convinced that it was his bounden right to snore that he managed to convince me, not through argument but simply by smiling fondly and ignoring anything I said to the contrary.
âIt's so sad, Gandie,' says Sophie, eventually, closing the album and solemnly regarding it lying in her lap.
I am a little nonplussed. Sad? She's been twittering on about how lovely it all is. Bridesmaids, and cake, and champagne, and all the associated fairy floss: I'm quite disconcerted by the rosy glow with which she surrounds it all. And suddenly we're sad?
âSad that you're not still together, I mean,' she explains.
Well, I don't know. It seems to me an extremely good thing that we're not still together. Wasn't seventeen years of snoring enough?
And then again, I think, perhaps it's not fair to brush off seventeen years of marriage so abruptly, so flintily. It wasn't all bad. There were good times, especially at the start. Sex improved. Well, a bit, anyway. It's too easy, after a divorce, to slam into the ex: I've heard otherwise apparently nice women say the most appalling things about their exes, whipping themselves up into frenzies of hatred.
It's such a temptation, to make out it was always bad, that none of it was your fault, that you were always trapped somewhere you didn't want to be. Something in me always wants, meanly, to play devil's advocate.
I want to say,
but you didn't think that at the time, did you? I saw you, giggling and holding hands. I was at your wedding. I saw how it was between you, then. So don't pretend, now.
No, it wasn't all bad, though sometimes it suits me to pretend it was. I remember happy times. The wedding night was a disaster, but at least it had the advantage of making what followed seem a distinct improvement. For at least a year or two we travelled a mostly enjoyable learning curve, discovering curiously and, on the whole, happily how to live together.
I look back on the early photographs. We're picnicking; we're at the beach; we're at the playground or blowing out birthday candles or having a barbecue or fooling around in the backyard. Some of it was good. I was a sweeter, richer, funnier person then. I could be charming, and perhaps even loveable: my soul had more cushiony places, fewer prickles and spikes. Steve adored me, anyway, and I enjoyed being adored.
And I was fond of him, I admit, in the way that one becomes fond of a large and good-tempered dog â maybe a St Bernard, now that I think of it. If I hadn't fallen in love with Max, I probably would have finished up in the same crematorium niche as Steve, and not often thought of myself as desperately unhappy on the way through life. It's just that once you've discovered paradise you don't want to stay married to a St Bernard.
I don't know how to explain any of this to Sophie. Still, I suppose it's good that she will talk to me with this kind of frankness, this utterly translucent degree of openness. I try to be even-handed, as a grandmother, of course I do; but it's hard, sometimes. It doesn't always work, trying to spread yourself evenly.
And it makes a difference that Sophie is a girl, that she will be a woman, like me. It's much harder to talk to a small boy: he doesn't want to be like his grandmother when he grows up. Nor should he, of course: I'm not suggesting that Liam has to make a role model of me in order to communicate with me. But it's different, with women: we have common ground on which to pitch our tent and chat. I've explained this to Kate, to make sure she doesn't think I always favour Sophie.
Thinking about these things puts me in mind of Liam's fourth birthday. I remember it well. If Liam was turning four, Sophie must have been nine.
I was careful to turn up on time and with a good present: Kate had started to hint to me once or twice, in that tentative oblique way she has, that I appeared at times to be in danger of neglecting Liam. What she means, of course, is that I indulge Sophie. I'm aware that it's a danger, but, as I say, I
aware of the dangers of partiality, and take care not to be trapped by it.
Liam was a pudgy dumpling of a child: he did a lot of sitting and smiling â radiantly, I grant you, but not very intelligently. He's very like his mother used to be. He is a sweet-natured child, I suppose, but has none of his sister's swift, dark charm, nor her quick, astute glance. He is all Kate: the sandy curls, the pink cheeks, the blue eyes, the slightly glassy stare.
Insipid. It has to be said. Sweet but insipid.
We divide comically into the dark and the fair, Steve and me and our offspring. We used to joke about it: he would refer to my genes as the devil's side of the family, and to his as the angels'. He is stocky and fair and blonde: so are Kate and Liam. I am slight and olive-skinned and dark, and so is Dominic. And Sophie, of course.
The luckless Gavin is a kind of pale fudgey brown, and long and gangling: his genes don't appear to be particularly insistent.
So I was careful, as I say. On time, a big present. I felt in my bones it was going to be a bad day when Gavin opened the door with a glass of beer in his hand, a cardboard pirate hat on his head, and a silly grin on his face.
âMillie!' he guffaws. âMy favourite mother-in-law.'
It puts my teeth on edge. But I see Kate and Liam hovering in the background, so I kneel and stretch out my arms to the child.
âCome to Gandie, sweet,' I cry. âCome give Gandie a hug.'
But he clings to Kate's leg. She nudges him gently forward. âGive Gandie a hug, Liam. Gandie's come for your birthday party.'
âLook!' I call, holding up the brightly wrapped present, covered all over with balloons and Sesame Street characters. Inside there is a toy fire station with lots of fire engines and hoses and so forth. I don't know what boys like, really; but this seems to fit the bill. âSomething for a little boy! Something for a little boy who's turning four!'
But Liam is not persuadable. I get up, feeling a bit of a fool, dusting my knees down and straightening my skirt.
âSorry, Mum. He's very shy, sometimes.'
âI'm his grandmother,' I say, perfectly reasonably. âWhat is there to be shy about?'
âWell, Mum, just because you're his grandmother it doesn't make you less â¦ er â¦'
âWell, daunting, I suppose.'
âIt might indeed make you more so,' says Dominic, glinting darkly from a corner of the room.
I catch a supercilious expression â quickly veiled â from his girlfriend of the time. Dominic was never without a girlfriend, even as a teenager; and by now he would have been in his mid-twenties. What was her name? Bec. I never liked her.
Steve is in the background, as usual, looking at the floor, as usual. The face of the hapless Gavin is over Steve's shoulder, bobbing away in the kitchen, looking worried. ZoÃ« has on her disapproving expression and is bringing out a tray of something to eat; and ZoÃ«'s awful husband, Henry, is sitting next to Dominic and staring at the ceiling.
Hey, hey, the gang's all here.
Dominic and I glare at each other. I pick up the present from the floor and deposit it on the table. Liam starts to cry. I pick up the present from the table and hand it to Liam. He runs away, sobbing.
âYou need to tone it down a bit, Isabel,' says Dominic, evilly. âThe poor child's confused: he's not used to such human warmth from you. It's like being exposed to a blast furnace when you've always had a two-bar radiator.'
Dominic has missed his vocation. He's a lawyer. He should be writing one of those dreadful bitchy gossip columns in a women's magazine.
I glance around, half waiting for someone to remonstrate. A light reprimand would have been acceptable. Just for someone to say:
Oh, come on, Dominic
. But nobody says anything.
From these not very auspicious beginnings you would say the day has to improve. This is not the case. We sit around and manufacture noises of the kind we imagine a non-dysfunctional family might generate under similar circumstances. I sip tea and think longingly of a stiff brandy and a cigarette. The brandy I can manage later on, when I blessedly return home; but I haven't smoked for years and seldom miss it, these days.
A chocolate birthday cake is produced, iced in Kate's habitual lopsided inexpert manner. The song is sung. Liam tries to blow out his four candles but succeeds only in showering spit over the bedaubed icing.
Sophie, always such a good big sister, helps him with the candles and then with taking around plates of crumbly slices. I pick at mine, leaving the icing. Liam eventually plucks up enough courage to open my present and it transpires that the identical object is already in his possession.