Chrissie surveyed the room with satisfaction. The flowers Tony had sent were carefully arranged to form an elaborate centrepiece for the table. The antique furniture gleamed mirror clear thanks to her cleaning lady’s efforts that morning. Plates, glasses and cutlery were stacked on the sideboard. Bottles were ready for opening. It was five-thirty and she still had at least two hours before the guests started arriving for the wedding anniversary party. It was still too early to put the food the catering company had delivered on the table; she might as well relax with a drink.
She poured herself a vodka and lime and flicked the TV switch on. As she saw Jonathan’s rugged but still devastatingly handsome features fill the screen, she felt a warm flame of desire stir deep in her body. Even after twenty years, it was Jonathan her body yearned for, even though Tony had always been the kindest, most considerate of husbands. Why now? She thought. On today of all days. After all, Jonathan was a household name and scarcely a day went by without his appearing on the screen. Why did seeing him now make her ache for him?
She went upstairs to the bedroom and rummaged in the dressing table drawer. It was there surely, somewhere. It was a fortieth birthday present from her friend, Judy. They’d got tiddly together on red wine and Chrissie started being indiscreet about her sex life with Tony.
‘The trouble is, he thinks it’s a precision activity, like writing a software program. I swear he codes and calculates each action; so many seconds to be devoted to each erogenous zone before he goes in for the kill. As soon as he touches my left nipple, I wander off into a world of my own. I just about manage to come back to reality in time to give the requisite sigh of contentment when Tony gives his work the final flourish. Honestly, Judy, I’ve forgotten what a real sex life is.’
‘Then you’ll just have to find a lover.’
‘Oh, sure. Why not? Do they have an aisle in the supermarket marked “lovers”, so you can pick one off the shelf?’
‘Okay. At least get a vibrator then.’
And Judy had sent her one as a belated birthday present. Chrissie had shoved it to the back of the dressing-table drawer. Never before had she felt tempted by artificial sex, but now, knowing she couldn’t have Jonathan, and dreading that inevitable moment tonight, after the party, when Tony would expect his reward for twenty years of devotion, she really needed it. She must have something to relieve the sexual tension that was making her nerves feel taut and brittle.
What she found instead was an envelope stuffed with odds and ends she had saved over the years. Stale crumbs from her life. She took it out and shook its contents on to the bed. Among them she found a strip of photos of her and Jonathan; snaps they had had taken in one of those booths you find on stations. That day, when she was young and her love for Jonathan was ineluctable, she had gone to Victoria Station to meet him off the train after he’d been away for a month on one of his first foreign reporting jobs. As soon as he saw her, he pulled her along by the hand and said,
‘I need you now. I can’t wait another minute.’
And they had both spotted the photo booth at the same time. Fortunately the camera recorded only heads and shoulders. The next week they got formally engaged.
She rifled through the scraps and mementoes on the bedspread. She found a postcard Jonathan had sent from Lebanon. It said, ‘Comfort me with apples; for I am sick with love.’
They both thought the Song of Songs was the most beautiful love poem ever written. She would gaze at him in the mornings and recite,
‘His eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk, and fitly set’.
The date for the wedding was set. Chrissie broke the news to Tony, her long-term boyfriend from university, who still lurked in the background, convinced that her infatuation with Jonathan wouldn’t last. All Tony said was,
‘Fine, Chrissie. But don’t count your chickens’
Then Jonathan got his first really big career break. It meant going away on a foreign tour on the very day they planned to marry. Of course Chrissie agreed to postpone the wedding. She didn’t want to stand in the way of his ambitions. While she would probably never rise beyond the horizons of the local rag, Jonathan had moved quickly off the newspaper and into local, then national television. He was on the way up.
Tony was always there to keep her company when Jonathan was away and he came round to see her just after she got the call from Jonathan to tell her the foreign tour had been prolonged and he no longer knew exactly when he’d be back. She sobbed on Tony’s shoulder and his attempts to comfort her slowly evolved from wiping of her tears from her face to kissing her eyes and lips and tightening his arms around her. But when she slept with Tony that night, it was Jonathan she imagined was making love to her.
Tony's weapons were patience, persuasion, attrition. Jonathan would always put his ambition before her. Her whole life would be a series of let-downs and disappointments. Surely she wanted better than that? At last, with Jonathan proving the truth of these statements over and over again, she gave in and married Tony.
Some six years later, when their own marriage had congealed into domesticity, Tony read with relish the press reports of Jonathan’s first divorce. And nine years after that, they watched him give a television interview about the breakdown of his second marriage.
‘Looks like you had a lucky escape,’ said Tony.
But Chrissie always wondered why Jonathan had been unable to sustain either of his marriages. What if she had married him?
Now she contemplated the woman who stared back at her from the mirror: the perfect executive’s wife. But this mannequin was a stranger. Chrissie took a wad of cotton wool and carefully removed the mask-like make-up the beautician had so carefully applied earlier that day. It was like scraping off the layer of silver on a scratch card to reveal the truth beneath. Next she ran a damp brush through the smooth cap of her hair and it immediately corkscrewed into rebellious curls. Finally, she took off the designer dress and exchanged it for trousers and a loose top. Now the reflection in the mirror was truly her own again.
She rang the television company on the off-chance that he would be in his office and heard a bored switchboard voice say, ‘Trying to connect you.’ Then, miraculously, he replied.
‘It’s Chrissie,’ she said.
Jonathan, without a hint of surprise, said simply, ‘Where are you?’
‘At home’ perhaps…’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘come round to my flat.’
She took down the address he dictated.
Before replacing the receiver, he said, ‘Bring apples.’