Charles slept so heavily that by the time the December dawn broke, he seemed unable to open his eyes. He rolled them around his head but gum clamped the lids together. He tried to sit up without disturbing his wife in the other bed. Not that Irene ever stirred a false eyelash before ten o’clock. Between dawn and ten, Charles seized paradise: the house quiet, the kitchen organised, the gardeners raking. No machines buzzed before Irene called for tea.
On the dot of ten, Charles abandoned newspapers and coffee, lit his Havana cigar and slid into the Daimler. Robert, his chauffeur and confidante for twenty years, sped him to the City and his empire, his circles of admiration and respect.
The system worked. Charles and Irene met alone three times a week over dinner, when they managed desultory talk. Otherwise they went their separate ways. They slept like strangers in the same bedroom only because the minute they did not, there’d be talk in the village and wildfire beyond. Grayshott grew fat on gossip.
Sitting up, Charles unsealed his eyes, remembering the floating white tulle, Olivia inside it, drifting down his staircase: a ravishing young bride. Had it been only yesterday? Was this the morning he’d been dreading? His Olivia flown the nest, her eyes radiant, her swan’s neck arched in anticipation, both hands clutching Joshua’s arm as if she were a newly rescued bird?
Slumping back on his pillows, anger returned to heat Charles’s blood. If he had had a knife, as Joshua stood at the altar, Charles would have dug it between the young man’s shoulder blades, gloating as the boy crumpled and died.
Charles sat up, flung on his gown, made for the door, shut it soundlessly behind him. The corridor seemed to expect him. He raced along it, and turned up a flight of stairs. The attic-room door stared back at him: solid, closed. He clutched the handle. It warmed beneath his grasp. But Charles froze. He could not stomach the emptiness of Olivia’s room. Not yet. He ran his hand over the door, caressing it, his face so close to the wood he smelled its lavender polish. He pressed his forehead against it, willing his limbs to move, arguing with the voice in his head that told him not to go in: not now, not ever again.
He merely wished to check that all shone neat and tidy, should Olivia by any miraculous chance return, unexpectedly, from her Tobago honeymoon.
Charles grasped the handle. The door opened. He stepped over the threshold.
He closed the door, his heart thudding into his ears.
He was being ridiculous. Millions of men fathered daughters who grew up and left them. What had he expected? That Olivia would stay by his side until he snuffed it?
The curtains folded the room in darkness. Charles moved to the window, tugged at the heavy velvet. A wood-pigeon stirred beneath the eaves, and squawked into the sky. Charles jumped. Opening a pane, he gulped at the air, his stomach heaving.
He turned to look: the bed rigid beneath its cover, the cushions meticulous, the dressing-table gleaming, the wall-spanning wardrobes closed. The girl not sleeping, as he’d watched her a thousand times; the hair not sleek, black as a raven’s wing; the breath not even; the clothes not strewn.
Nothing to pick up, nothing to hold to his cheek. Nothing to tidy away.
Charles walked to the centre of the room and looked down at the bed. He picked up the cushions and hurled them to the floor. He stripped the eiderdown away from the pillows, flicked the duvet aside and climbed in. He lay rigid, arms by his side, staring at the ceiling.
When Olivia had been tiny, he could snuggle with her in the car, on the beach, down by the lake. Even up here, in the room Charles had ordered the moment Irene had said, her eyes hostile, “You’ll be delighted to hear that at long last I’m carrying your child.” For nine months the house had rung with builders, to the very eve of Olivia’s miraculous, life-changing arrival: the most overwhelming moment of his life.
Charles turned onto his stomach. Since Olivia’s engagement, he’d lost a stone. He pulled the pillows towards his mouth to muffle any sound.
He flung open the first wardrobe, still crammed to bursting. Each evening dress hung crisp, breathtaking, beneath its wrapping. Each had cost him a fortune. Not that he begrudged it. Olivia always wore them, with her long arms and neck, that sleek-as-a-raven’s hair, with such natural grace.
This pink one, for example: how Charles had fancied her in that! When he’d looked at Olivia that evening, Irene had caught the expression on his face, he was sure of it.
Charles glanced at the door to check it was firmly shut. He slid a hand behind the dress, pulled it out, heard its surprised rustle. He zipped off its protective cover. The pink taffeta shone in the slow-dawning December light. The bodice winked, pale as ivory, its neckline edged with lace and spatters of pearls. The skirt drenched his arms in rose.
Charles bent his head and worshipped at the shrine. He carried the dress to the bed and laid it down. He stripped off his pyjamas, kicked off his slippers. Gently, he plucked at the dress, undid the bodice, felt its smooth, rounded-nipple buttons. He slid it over his head. The sensation filled him with joy. With clumsy fingers he closed the nipples, one by one. Slowly now, he had plenty of time.… There…
He took a few hesitant steps towards the mirror, feeling the taffeta caress his naked thighs. He looked. He gasped. But for his grey hair, there stood his Olivia. If he half-closed his eyes and looked only at the dress, who could tell the difference?
He placed his hands on the skirt, crunched the taffeta between his fingers. He lifted it. He twirled: once, then again. He raised his head, met his eyes in the mirror, laughed back at them, flirting, cajoling.
Just this once. Love me like I do you, just once.
“Bob?” Charles shifted some boardroom papers on the back seat of the Daimler.
“Sir?” Robert checked the face in the mirror.
“Irene and I have been asked to some daft fancy dress party in the New Year.”
“The Collinses? I thought they’d cancelled their usual bash because one of their sons died.”
Charles froze for a cheese-paring moment. “Oh, they have. This is something one of my other business chums cooked up. It’ll be in London, Covent Garden probably.” Charles warmed to his invention. “David gave me a special invitation yesterday.”
“Right. I’ll put it in the diary.”
“Would you? I’m still trying to decide what Irene and I should go as …. But I thought I’d do some research. Give her a surprise. She’s always complaining I don’t take enough interest in our social life.”
Robert glanced into the mirror again, wondering why Charles had bothered with so monumental a lie. He looked back to the road. “Of course, sir … Can I help?”
Charles stared out at the translucent winter sky, the trees frantically clinging to their last remaining leaves. “Thanks, but I thought I’d take a walk at lunch time. On my own. Do a spot of window shopping.”
“Right. Eat lunch in town, will you?”
“Yes,” Charles said quickly. “I’ll snatch a bite in town.”
He took a taxi from the City, and asked it to stop on the edge of Covent Garden. As he paid the driver, the coins slid on his palm, greasy with sweat. He pushed his way through the narrow streets, amazed at how young the crowds looked, at their casual, leisured loitering. They wore spiky orange hair and enormous wedged boots. Their pale faces, studded with silver loops, shone expectant and childlike.
Charles felt like a foreigner in his own town, as if he’d slept for a century and returned to find everything changed. He stuffed his hands into his pockets. He carried only a cash-filled wallet. He’d locked his credit cards in an office drawer. He walked anonymously, with a strange sense of lightness and freedom. He could be anybody. He would like to be anybody. He wanted to exchange a heart that constantly gnawed at his very being for one that felt no pain of any kind.
Beyond the clutch of small theatres, where the crowd had thinned, a shop window caught his eye. At its centre stared a pale, wax-modelled face with cruel blue eyes and a sulky purple mouth. It wore a clove-red wig: long, curled, with a thick straight fringe in which a butterfly clasp hovered as if it were too petrified to fly.
Charles pushed at the door and blinked. The heavy scent of musk made him choke. The shop spun with colour. Masks, scarves, candles, jewellery and lights dangled and beckoned, each object shimmering before his eyes, seducing him in a rainbow of delight.
“Can I help you, sir?” The assistant stood under the lights, rake thin, her black frock clinging to her non-existent hips like seaweed.
Charles jumped. “My wife and I … ” The words sounded ludicrous. “We’re going to a fancy-dress party.” He swallowed. “I wondered …” The taste of musk filled his mouth, silence beat against his eardrums. “I wondered whether you sold wigs.”
“Come through to the back room, sir.” The girl’s blank face hardened into stone. “I’m sure we can find you something suitable.”
Charles shut the shop door behind him, conscious that he now carried a lime-green paper bag in which nestled a wig: sleek, black as a raven’s wing. The fit was so perfect as to be astonishing. It cost him every note he’d crammed into his wallet – and still the girl hinted he’d been given a knockdown price.
He shook with relief, his back dripped with sweat, his forehead slid thick with perspiration. He needed a stiff drink. By the side of the shop a set of black railings spiralled down to a basement restaurant. The scent of wine and garlic wafted up to him. Risk it, quickly, before he lost his nerve.
The room was dim, hung with pink-shaded lamps. On each table stood a small unlit candle, by it a white vase and a single red winter rose. Charles made for a corner, sat down, looked at the wine list, asked for a half bottle of claret. He squashed the paper bag beneath the table.
A waiter brought his wine. Charles ordered a fillet steak and a green salad. He stared idly at the words on the back of the menu.
Why spend Christmas Day slaving over a hot stove? Come to our party! Bring a close friend. Celebrate this very special evening with us! We’re an exclusive club, discreet, confidential. Trust us with your most private life.
Charles slid the menu into his pocket. He glanced across at a small group who’d just come in, who now stood laughing at the bar. One of them had his arm around his companion’s shoulder. Another turned to look at him.
He met the sets of eyes. He felt heat throb at the base of his throat and rise into his face. He was looking at a man, dressed in a ferociously short skirt, a frothy chiffon blouse with a deep neck, and sparkling sandals with viciously high heels. His companion wore a white beret, perched like a seagull on a wave of coppery curls.
He dropped his eyes, reached for the claret, and poured. He had to concentrate to stop his hand shaking. He lifted the glass to his lips and drank the rich warm liquid as if it were water.
Charles sat at the dressing table in Olivia’s empty room. He’d bathed and shaved for the second time that Christmas Day. Now he smoothed his hair, dusted his face with powder, peered into the mirror, steadied his hand against it. Rouge, gleaming rose-pearl lipstick, sweepings of mauve mascara. Last but not least, the wig. Smooth, tight, black as a raven’s wing. Charles pulled it on. He pouted his lips, kissed at the air, flicked his head to one side as Olivia did when she asked for a special treat.
There … He was ready. He stood up. The dress rustled: seductive, confident. The shoes were excruciating. He walked unsteadily to the window, opened it, leaned out, swallowed the frosted air until it stung his ribs.
Christmas night. Charles watched Irene’s car leave one of the garages, speed away down the drive. Last night, Robert had also left for his annual pilgrimage to his Cornish parents.
Charles closed his eyes. A loneliness so acute it hurt like a stab wound sliced through his body. Heat throbbed beneath his eyelids. He imagined Olivia lying in the sun, her long arms by her sides, a straw hat over her face, Joshua next to her, his thighs brushing hers, his fingers massaging oils into her skin. Tonight they’d dance, cool, scented, under the palm trees, lights chinking from the trees, the tiny band of shiny black-faced players smiling with white teeth. They’d duck their bodies to the rhythm, Olivia in a black dress, her ankles slender in their high heels, a bracelet glittering.
Charles bent his head. The frosty air found his eyelashes, clung to them, gummed them together in an icy seal. He opened his eyes, forcing himself to remember where he was.
About to leave the room.
He looked at the bed, on it the case packed with his ordinary clothes. He threw a toilet bag on the top, zipped the case, flung a black velvet cloak around his shoulders and picked up the keys to the Daimler. He’d tiptoe his way down the stairs, through the back hall, out to the garage. Nobody would see him leave.
Charles parked the Daimler in Earlham Street, as close to the Covent Garden restaurant as he could get. For an hour he sat behind the wheel, pleading with himself.
Just get out and stroll across the road. Nobody will think anything unusual. Everyone is dressed up at this time of night. If not now, when? You’ve planned every detail. Do it now. Pretend you’re meeting someone. Grab a table. Sit at it. Order a drink. A bottle. Champagne. Drink some. Sit there. Soon, someone will come up to you. Whoever it is, talk to them.
Anything is better than this loneliness.
Charles put his hand up to the mirror. He checked his face. He patted the hair that sat so firmly. He smoothed an eyebrow, moistened his lips.
His legs were stiff, his feet cold. The taffeta rustled against his legs.
God, are you there? If you are, give me the courage to walk across the street.
Charles got out of the car. He slammed the door, put the car keys in a small clutch bag and straightened his back. He looked neither to left or right. If the odd passer-by glanced at him, he neither knew nor cared.
He reached the basement railings, clung to them, and stepped carefully down them, one by one, his skirt clutched in his hand. The heat from the restaurant gusted up to him.
He walked through the doorway, hesitated for a moment but held his ground.
And then he crossed the threshold.