The Red Shoes
“About twenty minutes,” she said, looking up from the tapestry on her knee and glancing at her husband, lying on the other sofa. He looked rather flushed and was breathing heavily. A recording of Strictly Come Dancing was on the TV, and he watched half heartedly as the glossy dancers whirled their steps round the studio,
“What about twenty minutes?” he muttered. “Any chance of another scotch?”
“Of course, darling” she said. “I’ll get it now. Give you time to enjoy it. Then, perhaps we can have a chat. There are a couple of things on my mind.”
Felicity put the tapestry down and went out. Patrick looked confused, as if a thought was lodged somewhere in his brain, but he couldn’t quite find it. He sighed and gave up, returning to watch the swirling dancers measuring their meaningless patterns. “Typical,” he thought. “Watching this rubbish when there’s a good football match on.”
When Felicity returned, he was dozing. She stood and looked for a moment, wondering whether to let him drift off, but decided she still had things she wanted to say. She nudged him with her foot until he opened his eyes, then handed him the glass.
“Yes,” she said, as she sat down and picked up her tapestry. “Less than twenty minutes. More like fifteen. How’s the drink? Just as you like it?
Before you go, I want to talk to you about our life together. Do you remember how it was at first? How much I loved you, and how hard I tried to please you. I knew it was different for you, of course. You’d been married before and were experienced with women. That’s one of the things that attracted me to you, I suppose. Your self possession and urbanity. Me, I was just an innocent. A virgin of twenty three when we were married. Who ever heard of a virgin of twenty three? It was so good, those first two or three years. You made me feel the centre of your universe, and I was so proud to be married to a man who was so distinguished.
Do you remember when we went to Frinton to see your mother? She was a formidable woman. No wonder none of you called her Mum. Wonderful cook, beautiful house, straight out of Homes and Gardens. She looked at me as if I crawled out from under some stone. And you. How different you were when we were there. All the self-confidence disappeared and it was like watching a small boy again. She never said an unkind word, but her sniffs spoke volumes. I remember she asked me once what I had been reading and I said something by Agatha Christie. She looked over her glasses at me, and sniffed loudly, then went to the bookcase and offered me Bleak House.
Do you remember that time at dinner when I put my knife down with the blade pointing away from the plate?”
“No, Felicity,” she said. “The knife blade always faces the plate. Wouldn’t want you attacking someone now would we.” Or the episode with the stilton, when I cut a slice from the end nearest me, and your sister Clare pipes up, “Oh look, Felicity’s nosed the cheese!”
“Your mother looked at me pityingly, and then whispered to Clare, “Shush, dear, Felicity wasn’t brought up like you and Patrick,” before giving me a glacial smile.
“ I always had this feeling that somehow I wasn’t quite good enough, not quite up to the mark. Not really out of the top drawer, something of a disappointment. When we had been married three years and I still hadn’t managed to become pregnant your mother started taking me on one side and asking if everything was alright n the bed department, and was I feeding you properly. Had I heard how good oysters were, and was I making sure I ate the right sort of diet to help make me fertile. You must remember that Christmas dinner when your mother asked, as she was carving the turkey,” Perhaps Felicity would prefer some fish, if she’s trying for a baby,” as if it was nothing to do with you. “There is some lovely poached salmon if you think it would be better for you,” and you went and found it in the kitchen and gave it me, even though you knew how much I dislike fish.
I went for all those tests, and the doc said everything was fine with my body and suggested you get checked out too. Do you remember that day, when you said there was nothing wrong with you, and you were blowed if you were going to let some homosexual doctor examine your private parts. I tried to enlist your mother’s help, but that was a huge mistake. She looked at me over her glasses and sniffed. Now really, dear,” she said,” I don’t think there can be any doubts about Patrick in that department.” She spoke in such a knowing way that I wondered what I had missed.”
She paused for a moment, thinking of Jeremy and his farm. How she longed to visit him again, this time for an extended stay. She loved the countryside and the lambs and cattle in the fields. He had even said there was room for her to have a pony of her own. True, she didn’t care too much for the pigs, which smelt quite bad. She’d get him to move the piggery further away from the house when she settled there. They could go free range, in the meadow down by the stream, well away from the house.
The house. She thought about the romance of living in a fifteenth century manor house, and how she could make it look great, so that it could be featured in Homes and gardens.
He groaned. “I don’t understand,” he said.
”Of course, that comment of your mother’s was when I realised about your affairs. Do you know you have never been on time for anything? Perhaps this once. Do you remember how many times I had to wait for you at the station after work? How you used to smell of strange and powerful perfumes that wafted in on your clothes and that you took no trouble to conceal. Do you remember that time I challenged you about having an affair with your secretary, and you laughed, and pointed out that you worked with twenty or more women. You told me I was paranoid, but I knew. Suddenly you started spending hours in the bathroom and money on clothes. Frequently you failed to arrive home on time, explaining airily as you walked in that you had been held up at a meeting. And those phone calls that you said were just business, but made you go out in the middle of the evening. As if a junior insurance adviser ever had such demanding client. In the end you stopped trying to pretend, just going out without a word. That’s when you moved into the spare room.”
Patrick started to snore. “No,” she said, poking him with her foot. “Not yet. Wake up. There’s more I want to say. I want you to know why. That’s when I decided things would have to change. It was before I met Jeremy. Such a kind and gentle man. You introduced us at an office party. Asked me to be nice to him as he had a big estate that you wanted to win the account for. Like you, he was urbane and well educated. Like you, there were always women clustered round him, though no one permanent. I don’t think I ever saw him with the same woman twice, and of course, he made the mistake of being nice to me. How could I resist. He made me smile, made me laugh, and when he offered to take me out for dinner, I was more than happy to accept.
You were too busy to notice that I’d bought some new clothes. But by then, you’d stopped noticing me at all. I wouldn’t mind, but I’d tried so hard. Like the Cordon Bleu cookery. Your mother came to dinner, and I felt totally intimidated, as usual. The fish was a little overcooked, because you were half an hour late and the chicken that followed had dried out being kept warm.
Your mother took me on one side as we were clearing away. She fastened her look on me and said, “Felicity, we really need to do something about your cooking. You can’t expect to keep Jeremy at home if you can’t cook properly. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, you know. Have you thought about getting someone in? I tell you what, I haven’t bought you a present yet, but a very good friend of mine runs a cookery school and I’m sure she’d take you on. She likes a challenge. That can be my birthday present for you.”
I think she thought that if I became a better cook, she might hear the patter of tiny feet before too long. I have to admit I enjoyed the course, and my cooking improved enormously, but I don’t think you noticed. By then you were eating out a lot, and starting to get fat. And drinking more and more.
I tried to make the house look good. Clare came over one day. God I hate Clare. She looked round the house with one sweep of her superior eyes, and put her hand on my arm and said, “Felicity, it’s time we helped you take the house in hand. It’s not quite there is it? No-one has curtains like these, darling. Blinds are the thing. And this sofa. Stripes are so yesterday. Leather has a timelessness, don’t you think. Look,” she added, giving me a card,” this is the address of my new interior design partner. I’ve already paid for a visit from him. After all, you do need to make the sort of home that Jeremy will want to come home to, if you now what I mean. Especially if you’re going to have little ones. How’s that all going,” she said, running her finger along the top of the mantelpiece, and looking enquiringly at the dust on her finger.
“The drinking. It slowly grew worse and worse. At first I minded. You were so aggressive after a couple of drinks. It was bad enough at home, but the times we were out with our few friends were the worst. I don’t suppose you remember the time we were discussing Dickens with my friends. I had just managed to finish Bleak House, and seen the TV production. Jan and I were talking about it over dinner, when you decide to join in. “Bleak,” you said. “Felicity knows all about Bleak. Should see our bedroom. That’s Bleak. More like a fridge. Don’t go in there any more. Don’t want anything getting frozen, if you now what I mean.”
Jan looked at me with shocked sympathy. “Is he often like that?” she asked later. “ I don’t think I could put up with it.”
“You used to humiliate me in public, calling me stupid or criticising me in front of our friends. Then you wondered why I didn’t want to go out with you, why our friends started to drop off. You blamed me, of course, but they were tired of being embarrassed, and I was tired of the secret looks of sympathy from the wives. And the drinking. You were bad enough sober, but after a few drinks, you were unbearable. “But now,” she said, “sometime in the next ten minutes, you’ll be gone and I’ll be free at last.”
Felicity looked at her watch. It was taking longer than she thought. The internet said fifteen to twenty minutes, and it had already been half an hour. She hadn’t wanted to go over the top with the dose. More alcohol, she thought. “I expect you could do with another drink now, dear,” she said, getting up and going into the kitchen, returning with a large whisky. “You may as well enjoy your last drink,” she said. “It’s your finest malt. The one you drink in secret when you watch your pornographic films. There. Let me help you. It will make you feel better, ease your passing.” She helped him sip from the glass, and went and sat down. She watched with satisfaction as he tipped the tumbler and swallowed the lot.
She looked at her watch again. Time to go. It was half past four. Patrick looked ready to drift off for one final time and she didn’t want to be there to see him go. She had shopping to do, and then an appointment at the hairdressers. By the time she returned it would all be over.
Felicity went upstairs to finish her preparations, packed her clothes in a suitcase, and checked her hair. When she came down, she picked up the bottle of malt whisky and the bottle of barbiturates, and put them on the table by her snoring husband. She put on her new red leather coat and the new shiny red shoes she had bought specially for today. She put the suitcase in the back of the car and drove into town. Soon, she thought, soon. A new life with Jeremy, as he had promised.
Jeremy looked at his watch and thoughtfully scratched the ear of his favourite pig. “As if I would move you to the lower meadow,” he said. “I like having you near the house.”
He looked round the sty, making sure everything was as it should be. He loved pigs. Despite the popular misunderstanding, they were clean and intelligent animals. OK, they ate anything, which meant they only had to be fed on scraps. Potato peelings, stale food all went the same way. Come to that, they weren’t even especially fat. He treated them like pets, and they responded to his affection, coming to the side of the pen whenever he came to see them. In one corner of the sty he spotted a shiny new red shoe.