Longer Shorts For Christmas
The sound of snoring gives me the courage to crane my neck around my husband’s bedroom door. His sleep is fitful, the flesh of his forehead rutted, his troubles like a hand squashing his face. He hasn’t shaved for days, the unfamiliar stubble a manifestation of his present condition: depressed, despondent, desperate. I know what tortures his mind, but I have struck sympathy from my book of marital emotions. At one time, I would have leapt across the chasm that now lies between us, wrapped my arms around his body and absorbed his inner pain. Not any longer.
He shouldn’t be in bed at this of the day. By now he should be driving his sleek, top-of-the-range Mercedes to a palatial office in the heart of Dublin. But that’s no longer possible. His company car and the European Vice President’s office are now in the possession of someone else, someone more deserving. Why didn’t he see his denouement coming? For Christ’s sake, the signs were obvious.
The hall clock chimes eight as I step into the kitchen. Dead hours ahead of me claw at my patience. I intended to spend the day in town doing my Christmas shopping on O’Connell Street, afterwards drinking a warming cup of coffee in Starbucks, staring at the slate grey water of the Liffey. He quashed that plan and issued strict instructions that I’m not to go shopping without him; he doesn’t want me to make imprudent purchases. I can understand why he’s taking that stance, but I no longer give a damn about prudence. Prudence can go take a hike.
An empty whiskey bottle stands on the table, the indispensable succour of the self-pitying. At one time he wouldn’t touch whiskey, not him. In his celestial office he opined only those of a weak and addictive nature would swill such a gut-burning spirit. Now his words have turned on him, and that bottle confirms what I always suspected; inside the man I married lurked another, spineless, hopeless, set free by bitter alcohol.
Outside the sky is leaden; snow is on its way. If I am to stay in the house I might as well enjoy a good breakfast of bacon and eggs, an indulgence normally reserved for weekends. As I place the rashers under the grill, he shuffles barefoot into the kitchen, pyjama top unbuttoned, flesh stripped by worry. I imagine myself playing skiffle on those ribs, forcing him to listen to the rattling sound of his washboard bones. In the past, as his waistline expanded, I caught myself wanting to say that a little exercise wouldn’t come amiss to compensate for all his generously expensed lunches, but I hadn’t the guts to risk his temper, a temper that can flare as quickly as an incendiary. He drags out a chair from under the table and slumps onto it, caresses the bottle as if stroking the breast of a remembered lover. I ask if he wants bacon and eggs. He declines and says a cup of tea is all he wants. How about toast? I say. He slaps the palm of his hand down on the table and screams, Fuck woman, if I want toast I’ll ask for it! I chew my lip. Thank God I have an excuse to escape him this evening.
This is how he wants me, how he always wanted me, this fallen alpha male. He’d rather I stay at home and be Little Miss Domestic, just as I was before his mother told him it would do me good to return to work. Well, I’m sorry, that just isn’t going to happen. I don’t intend to turn back the clock, not when I’ve struggled so hard to get where I am.
He cannot cope with his reduced circumstances, this man who had everything handed to him on a plate: Willow Park, Blackrock College, University College, a reserved position in the company of which his father was a director, a career mapped out for him. Under the wing of his formidable father, his mentor and protector, he enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks until he became a vice president, sweeping aside more capable and talented people on the way. He wasn’t ruthless, not exactly, but he didn’t allow trampling on others to prick his conscience. Or maybe he simply didn’t grasp the concept of fairness; if he did he never showed it. Then his father had his fatal heart attack. He was left to fend for himself in the corporate jungle. Payback time. Disgruntled colleagues drew knives; it wasn’t long before he had more cuts than a barber’s shop. The final humiliation came when his masters asked him to account for the loss of a major customer. Bluster failed to see him through. They told him he should have paid more attention to his customer’s business needs than his entertainment; he needed to change or else. He stuck two invisible fingers in the air and carried on as it nothing had happened.
Bad strategy. Bad timing. Bad result.
‘Do I get that cup f tea, or what?’
His words snap me out of my thoughts. I tell him I was miles away. He grunts. He does a lot of grunting. It’s become a substitute for making the effort to converse.
‘Where’s the paper?’
He knows where it is. It’s where it always is. I tell him it’s in the porch. I know what’s coming.
‘In the porch? Jesus, can’t you even be bothered to fetch it?’
I brace myself. My fists clench of their own volition. There was a time when his tone would make me fold into myself, a bilious taste rising in my throat. I’ve learned to control that reaction, to stem the escape of tears. Now I’m strong enough to react in the way I want to. Setting his tea on the table in front of him, I lean back against the sink. The air between us is elastic, taut, tense. I’ve grown used to these painful silences. Before his humbling it was hard to find a pause in his conversation. I tell him I need to buy some Christmas presents. His dark, accusing eyes pin mine.
‘Don’t you spend enough money as it is?’
It’s an unfair remark, but I let it pass. Out of the curl of his lips comes the familiar mantra.
‘Then again, now you’re the one with the money, I suppose you think you have the right to spend what the hell you want.’
I tell him I have: I have the right.
He shouts, ‘You’re a heartless bitch, a frigid cow, you can’t carry on, look how much it’s hurting me!’
As I teeter on the edge of an irresistible black hole, I weigh my choices. Do I ignore him or launch into an argument? I’m not going to ignore him. Not when he behaves this badly. I pull the arrows from the quiver of his faults and shoot them at his heart: if he hadn’t been so selfish and cared more about the people he worked with, he might still have his job; he was so up himself that he never took the time to consider how his actions might affect other people, and the last, the one that snaps his temper: that, like his father, his bullying will inevitably end up in divorce. The veins on his neck stand out like purple ropes, his eyes grow wild like Conan the Barbarian. Spittle flecks the corners of his mouth. My muscles stiffen, expecting him to launch himself across the table. It wouldn’t be the first time. A week ago he almost throttled me when I made a chance remark about his moping around the house.
‘You leave my father out of this! How dare you badmouth a dead man, without whose help you wouldn’t be where you are today.’
This is precisely what I expect to hear. How predictable from a man who would never have climbed the first rung without his wonderful father. Mind you, there’s some truth in his words. His father gave me my job. Then when he heard how good I was at it, he did everything in his power to try to stop me progressing. Then the Grim Reaper came for him. With his father out of the way I rose on merit, broke through the glass ceiling and became the first woman in the company to reach a lofty height. Not without changing, mind you. I’ve had to grow a tough skin on the way.
He sits shivering, arms wrapped around his torso like he’s been caught naked in a blizzard. Then he’s crying like a baby.
‘How could you do this to me?’ he snuffles.
The bacon’s burning. I should stop now, but I can’t. This is the moment I have been waiting for, my catharsis. I say he took me for granted, never imagining for one second I would ever pose a threat, even after I received promotion after promotion from his father’s successor, a man not hobbled with antiquated, blind prejudices. I won’t ever let him treat me like a second-class citizen again, not ever. Without waiting for an excuse or a denial or a plea, I jangle the car key in front of his face, the key for the top-of-the-range Mercedes that is now mine. I will go shopping and on my own and spend as much as I like. He can go to hell. There’s a print of Clive Madgwick’s I’ve seen in a gallery that I fancy buying myself for Christmas. It would look good on the wall of his old office, my new office.
This evening my life could change. The new billionaire American president of my company has booked a table for two at a quiet restaurant outside the city, a place it’s said he likes to dine whenever he’s in Dublin. I’ve been there before, a place where the smell of food cooking fights with that of wax polish. It’s not to my taste, but I don’t care, I won’t be paying. I’ve never met the president, but I’ve read all I can about him: well-to-do parents rooted in New Hampshire; first class education at Cranmore and MIT; a meritricous rise through the ranks; a love of horse riding and power boat racing. There’s nothing in the press about any girlfriends, not a single column inch, and he’s not gay, he’s publicly denied such a suggestion. He believes in sexual equality, cites Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfey, Arianna Huffington and many others.
I plan to let my hair hang loose and wear an A-line dress, not the figure hugging black number I wear to attract admiring looks. Tonight, I won’t care about admiration, access is more important. Meritocracy may be fine, but I’m leaving nothing to chance.
My husband will get over it. He’ll have to. Without his father, without the mother who has turned her back on her bullying son, without me, he is nothing.
Nothing at all.