‘I’ve been promoted at the bank.’
Relief washes through me. ‘That’s great news. What will you be doing?’ I don’t know why I’ve asked this, because I don’t especially understand what he does there now.
‘Kapur’s moving over to the States at the end of the month so they need someone to take over the Brussels account.’
I’ve met Kapur a couple of times; he’s my idea of an archetypal banker – pinstripe suit, pink shirt and a big mouth. I don’t like him very much.
‘It’s a decent step up?’ I phrase it as a question, smiling to show I’m pleased even if I don’t completely understand the hierarchy.
‘Quite a big one really,’ he says. ‘VP. I’ll be over four staff.’ Oscar wouldn’t even know how to be boastful, it’s one of his many endearing qualities. ‘I wanted to talk to you about it first though, because it’s probably going to mean spending part of the week over there.’
He nods, and his eyes flicker with something.
‘Part of every week?’ I try, and fail, to keep the note of alarm from my voice.
‘Probably. Kapur usually goes out three days a week.’
‘Oh.’ I flounder, because I don’t want to be a buzzkill; he’s earned this and I want him to know I’m proud of him.
‘I can pass on it if you think it’s going to be too much,’ he offers, and I feel like a bitch.
‘God, no!’ I get up and round the table, sliding into his lap. ‘My clever husband.’ I wrap my arms about his neck. ‘It’s just that I’ll miss you, that’s all. I couldn’t be prouder.’ I kiss him to show I mean it. ‘Well done. I’m thrilled. Honestly, I am.’
‘I promise not to be a part-time husband.’ His dark eyes search mine as if he needs reassurance.
‘And I won’t be a part-time wife.’ I say it, but I worry how it can be true in either of our cases. He’s increasingly ambitious and clearly excited by the prospect of the promotion, and I’m going to have to find new ways to fill half of every week. I can’t help but compare us to my parents, who always make a big thing of the fact they’ve never spent so much as a night apart, other than when Mum was in hospital having us kids, and when Dad was poorly. Being together all of the time is part of the marriage deal, isn’t it?
Oscar unbuttons the top couple of buttons of my shirt and I pull back to look at him. ‘I know your game, mister,’ I say. ‘But this table’s digging in my back and I haven’t finished my dinner yet, so you’re fresh out of luck.’
He looks downcast, then lifts one eyebrow, amused. ‘The lamb is bloody good.’
And that’s that. Three months into wedded bliss, and we’re about to live apart for half of our lives. The lamb doesn’t taste quite so good when I pick my cutlery up again.
Lucille knows perfectly well that Tuesday is one of Oscar’s Brussels days, so why she’s pressing our door buzzer is anyone’s guess. For a second I consider pretending I’m not home. I don’t though, because she probably watched me come in a few minutes ago; or more likely has a spy-cam in here watching my every move.
‘Lucille,’ I say, my face wreathed in welcoming smiles when I open the door – at least I hope it is. ‘Come in.’
Instantly I feel crass for inviting her into her own flat. After all, it’s her name on the deeds. She’s far too polite to say it though, even if the haughty look as she passes me suggests otherwise. I sweep the empty coffee cup up off the table, glad I ran the hoover round before work this morning. Oscar keeps trying to get me to agree to a cleaner, but I just couldn’t imagine telling Mum that I was paying someone to clean up after me. HRH Lucille flicks her critical eye around as she takes a seat. God, what do I say to her?
‘Oscar isn’t home today, I’m afraid,’ I say, and her face falls.
‘Oh.’ Her fingers flutter to the fat, buttery pearls she always wears. ‘I didn’t realize.’
Sure. She has his engagements in her organizer written with a special green pen she uses just for him. ‘Cup of tea?’
She nods. ‘Darjeeling, please, if you have it?’
Normally I wouldn’t possess such a thing, but someone gave us a selection of different teas as a wedding gift so I just smile and leave her to her own devices for a moment while I check. Ha! Yes, I could punch the air, I have Darjeeling. I know full well that she only asked for it because she thought she’d catch me out, and the sense of victory I feel is unbecoming. I wish it wasn’t this way between us; perhaps now is a good time for me to try and make some headway. While I wait for the tea to brew, I put the sugar bowl and milk jug – more wedding presents – on a tray with two teacups and add a plate of shortbread.
‘Here we go,’ I say, bright as a button as I take the tray through. ‘Milk, sugar and biscuits. I think I’ve covered everything.’
‘No, no and no, but thank you for the effort.’ Lucille’s eyes are a different shade of brown to Oscar’s, more amber. More snake-like.
‘This is nice,’ I say, sitting on my hands so I don’t fidget. ‘Did you need Oscar for anything special?’
She shakes her head. ‘I was just passing this way.’
I find myself wondering how often she’s just passing; I know she has a key. It wouldn’t surprise me if she let herself in when there’s no one home. The thought disconcerts me. Does she search for proof that I’m a gold-digger? Go through our mail looking for maxed-out credit-card statements or search my drawers for evidence of a shady past? She must be spitting tacks that I’m clean.
‘I imagine you find it lonely here during the week?’
I nod. ‘I miss him when he isn’t here.’ I feel a wicked urge to tell her I throw wild parties to fill my time. ‘I just try to keep busy.’ As if to prove my point, I pour her tea. No milk, no sugar.
She takes a ladylike sip and winces as if I’ve given her battery acid. ‘A little less time in the pot next time, I think.’
‘Sorry,’ I murmur, privately thinking that the most alarming part of that sentence was ‘next time’.
‘Admin, isn’t it? For a magazine? Sorry, you’ll have to remind me what you do.’
I sigh inwardly at her abruptness. She knows exactly what I do, and for whom. I’ve no doubt she’s checked it all out online. ‘Not exactly. I’m a journalist on a teen magazine.’ I know, I know. I’m hardly at the cutting edge of journalism.
‘Have you spoken with Oscar today?’
I shake my head and glance up at the clock. ‘He normally calls after nine.’ I pause, and then in the spirit of offering an olive branch, I add, ‘I can ask him to call you tomorrow, if you’d like?’
‘Don’t trouble yourself, dear. I’m sure it’s burden enough having to call home every day without adding to his list.’ She puts a little peal of laughter at the end, as if I’m some harpy wife who needs to learn her place.
‘I don’t think it’s any trouble to him,’ I say, offended despite myself. ‘It’s hard on us both being apart, but I’m proud of him.’
‘Yes, I expect you must be. It’s a pressured job, especially managing an overseas team.’ She smiles. ‘Although Cressida tells me he’s marvellous to work under.’
Cressida works out there? She wants me to ask her what she’s talking about. I swallow the question, even though it burns in my throat. To mask it, I pick up my teacup and sip the wretched tea. It tastes of cat piss. We assess each other across the glass coffee table, and then she sighs and looks at her watch.
‘Goodness, is that the time?’ She gets to her feet. ‘I should be on my way.’
I jump to my feet too and see her out. As I kiss her papery cheek by the door, I dig deep and finally find my balls. ‘Well, this has been an unexpected pleasure, Mum. We should do this more often.’
I don’t think she could look more horrified if I’d called her a whore. I genuinely think she’s going to slap me.