‘You’re sure there’s not some specific reason for this get-together?’ I ask Oscar as the cab turns into Lucille’s road.
Oscar frowns and shakes his head without answering. I’m not surprised; I’ve asked him the same question several times already since we were summoned a week ago for ‘casual summer drinks’ at his mother’s. Lucille never has casual summer drinks. I’m glad Oscar’s been able to clear his diary for his mother, even if he finds it difficult to do the same thing for me.
‘Perhaps she’s going to make a surprise announcement,’ I suggest. ‘Retiring to Spain?’
He rolls his eyes. It’s selfish of me really; I of all people should be able to appreciate the fact that having your parents around is important. And, truth be told, she’s not quite so overbearing these days. She’s softened towards me a lot since Dad died. She’ll never think I’m quite good enough for her precious youngest boy, but I don’t think anyone could be.
‘So who’s going to be here?’ I accept his hand as he helps me down on to the pavement and pays the driver.
‘No clue.’ He links his arm through mine as we walk towards Lucille’s shiny black front door in the balmy evening sunshine. ‘Family. A few friends. I think Mum’s been feeling quite isolated since the op.’
Lucille had a knee operation in July, and although it was routine, she’s had Oscar doing her bidding more than ever. It’s uncharitable of me to think she’s hamming it up to keep him concerned, but I think she’s hamming it up to keep him concerned. I can say it inside my head, at least.
‘You’ll have to ring the bell,’ I say, looking down at the expensive bunch of flowers I have in one hand and the fancy bottle of red in the other.
He obliges, and moments later Gerry swings the door open to let us in. I’m pleased to see him; he’s the closest thing I’ve got to an ally amongst Oscar’s family.
‘People! Enter,’ he booms, kissing me as I pass. ‘Everyone’s in the garden.’
Lucille has a gorgeous orangery on the back of her house, and we find it already full with neighbours, distant relations and her fellow ladies who lunch.
‘Darlings, you’re here!’ Lucille appears, sailing across the room when she spots us. Oscar hugs her, and I hand the gifts over as she turns to me. It’s a practised move, one I’ve perfected to get past the ‘hello’ moment; give someone flowers, no need for awkward air kisses. But Lucille only looks at them and smiles politely, then shoves them back towards me.
‘Be a darling and go and pop them in some water in the kitchen, would you, dear?’
Darling? Dear? She may still be treating me like the kitchen maid, but these are new and encouraging words in her vocabulary as far as I’m concerned. We might actually be getting somewhere. Lucille makes a beeline for the garden with Oscar on her arm, leaving me to do as I’ve been asked.
I’m arranging the flowers in a vase I found under the sink when Cressida slinks in. Fabulous. Thank you, Lucille. I’ve somehow managed to never exchange more than a word or two with her; even at our wedding I got away with just thanking her for coming. Until now, I thought she was as keen to avoid contact as I was.
‘Hello, Laurie, how nice to see you here.’
‘It’s lovely to see you again, Cressida,’ I lie. ‘How are you finding Brussels?’
Her dentist poster smile falters; I can only imagine that she wanted to drop her presence over there into conversation herself. ‘Fantastic!’ she gushes. ‘I mean, we’re busy, but we work hard, play hard, yah?’
‘Yah,’ I murmur. Why is it I always find myself imitating posh people? ‘I can imagine.’
‘Have you ever been to Brussels?’
I shake my head. You’d think I’d have been out there by now, but Oscar always says he prefers to come home. I turn to look around the kitchen for a likely spot to deposit the flowers. As I move to place them in the centre of the table, Cressida lunges.
‘Not there. Lucille doesn’t like flowers on the kitchen table.’
I smile and try to take the vase back but she clings to it and the water slops all over her floaty coral shirt. We both look down as the sodden material clings to her lean frame, and the look in her eye when she releases the vase and raises her face is unmistakable. The woman detests me.
‘You did that on purpose.’
‘What? No …’ I almost laugh, shocked at her audacity.
‘Everything okay?’ Oscar appears in the doorway as if on cue, his eyes darting nervously between us.
‘Just marvellous,’ Cressida says. ‘Your wife spilt water over me.’ She gestures down at her drenched clothes. ‘Accidentally, I’m sure.’ She shoots me a magnanimous smile and looks at him under her lashes, theatre that suggests she’s covering for my mean streak.
‘What?’ He looks at her wet shirt and then at the vase in my hands, perplexed. ‘Why would you do that, Laurie?’
The fact that he didn’t stop to wonder whether she was lying is a red flag; I file it away to think about later.
‘I didn’t,’ I say, and she huffs imperceptibly and folds her arms lightly across her chest.
I’m trying to read between the lines to see what is really happening here. Something is clearly eating Cressida up from the inside out.
‘I’m going to the bathroom to try and sort this out.’ She turns on her heel and huffs off down the hallway, leaving us to stare at each other across the table.
I attempt to put the flowers down on it again, but he reaches out and takes them from me.
‘Mum has a thing about flowers on the kitchen table. I’ll find somewhere for them in the hall.’
We’re finally home. All the way back in the cab we were furiously silent, and now we lie in bed, inches apart, both staring at the darkened ceiling.
‘I’m sorry I believed Cress so easily,’ Oscar says quietly, finally breaking through the wall of silence. ‘I should have taken your side.’
Under the safety of darkness I roll my eyes at his shortening of her name.
‘It surprised me,’ I say. ‘You know me well enough to know I don’t go around throwing water over people.’
He pauses for a moment. ‘She was soaked through. It sounded plausible for a second, that was all.’
It’s my turn to pause. Why would he think it plausible for me to hurl water at Cressida? There’s something here I’m missing. ‘Is it?’
‘Is it what?’
‘Plausible. You said it sounded plausible that I might have thrown water over Cressida. Now, either you think I have the maturity of a sixteen-year-old and can’t stand the idea of you being friends with your ex, which is categorically untrue by the way, or there’s some other reason why you think I might have tossed water at her. So which is it?’
It might be dark, but I hear his sigh all the same.
‘Three days a week is a long time, Laurie.’
I swallow. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t that.
‘What do you mean?’ Since Sarah left for Australia, I’ve put all my energy into being the best wife ever. I could win awards. And now he’s telling me what? That he’s been shagging his ex all along?
‘That I miss you when I’m there,’ he says. ‘And Cress is making it increasingly bloody obvious that she’d be happy for us to have an arrangement.’
‘An arrangement? How frightfully fucking Parisian,’ I say, almost laughing at the absurdity, aware that I’m on the edge of yelling. ‘And do you want that arrangement?’
‘I haven’t done anything,’ he says, heated. ‘I swear I haven’t, Laurie.’
‘Do you want to?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘Not really.’
‘Not really? What does that mean?’ I’m nearly yelling again.
He doesn’t answer me, which is telling in itself. After a minute or two’s silence, I speak again. I don’t want to go to sleep on an argument, but I need to say this.
‘Maybe it’s time to ask about transferring back to London full-time. Brussels was only meant to be temporary.’