A short story by Julia Lacey Brooke
Tom’s very late, but then he would be wouldn’t he? He’s a busy man. Picture me standing at the upstairs window of our tall Fulham house, listening for his car, watching our neat wide tree-lined street, the lamps a little misty in the frosty dark. I’m a bit breathless, mostly with anticipation. Here’s a car – ah, it’s only Harry Bingley next door. He’s late too. I wonder if he’s brought anything for Maggie. I hope so.
I hear Tom’s before I see it. Smooth masculine purr of a big black Merc. My mouth waters. I can’t help it. Should I run down and greet him? Or remain where I am, not too slavish, keen? He will have dined already with his colleagues in Chambers, which means there are no chores. Me? Oh, I had soup and toasted brie and a very healthy salad of rocket, lettuce and tomato. Not too much oil. The doctor says I have to restrict myself, or she can’t answer for the consequences. The doctor is as thin as a pin, so it’s all right for her. But today I’ve been especially good. Only the brie, and a few croutons in the salad. Oh, and some garlic bread. Just a smidgeon of cream in the soup. Tiny bit of butter on a knob of whole-wheat bread. Mineral water. Oh, and that Marks & Spencer chocolate mousse afterwards – I had to. The eat-by was up. Delicious, if a bit over-sweet. Theirs is miles better than Tesco’s. But I’ve been saving myself for this evening. Anticipation is the thing.
Picture Tom putting the car away, going ‘brr!’ as the chill hits him, getting his briefcase from the rear seat, and the stiff, expensive little carrier bag. Tom. Tall, slim, suave Tom, just a bit grey round the temples now, but on him it’s sleek, distinguished-looking. He looks like what he is, does my homing Tom – successful barrister, pleased with himself, and with a really serious case on at the moment. Some would call him smug, but I say why not? He’s got a lot to be pleased about, bless him. You have to admire the man. I do. His key in the lock.
I saunter down the stairs as well as I can. It doesn’t do to look too eager, and at my size eagerness would be unbecoming. I’m in the blue silky robe he bought me from Liberty last year – I hated it then, and what it signified, but it fits beautifully now and I feel almost majestic. “Bella, darling!” He puts the briefcase and the bag down in the hall, and I can’t resist trying to see what’s in it. “Scotch and soda first,” he says teasing, kissing my nose, barring my way. In the sitting room, I pour a small one for myself too. I love these moments. The sweet delay of delight. Picture me on the sofa, twirling ice in my glass, looking at him expectantly. I wonder what sort of day he’s had. He won’t tell me much, but there is much he cannot say. His work demands discretion.
Imagine us. Often people can’t work us out, wonder why we haven’t gone phutt a long time ago. You can see why, I suppose. Maggie and my sister Anna wonder how in hell I put up with it, and they aren’t afraid to say so. Maggie’s angle is that she has to be number one with Harry, that she’d cut his you-know-what off if he played away. Anna thinks I’m mad to put up with the humiliation, thinks I ought to challenge him. “Anyone would think you didn’t care, Bella!” Anna got divorced from Peter, and never has a good word, despite still living in the grand house in Richmond and half the gallery. Me? Divorce is a messy business. I’ve given up trying to explain. They wouldn’t understand, either of them., love them as I do. I raise my glass to Tom.
Tom – bless him, the silly – is still a little unsure, apologetic.
“I have to go away tomorrow, my darling,” he tells me. “York Assizes. A week.”
“A whole week?”
“I’m afraid so…”
“I’ll miss you, Tom.” I will, too. It’s always nicer when he’s here.
“I’ll miss you too, Bella.” But Tom’s face is full of anticipation, like a little boy in a sweet-shop, though he tries to hide it. This one – his latest sweetie – has tumbling red hair and wears Victoria’s Secret secrets. I know because Mrs Frost who was secretary to my father and still works in the Clerk’s office two mornings a week loves to keep me posted. She can’t help it. Gossip is her thing. Mrs Frost loves Tom – everybody loves Tom – but she thinks I’ve wasted myself. This one – her name’s Tara, or Tanya – can’t even type, according to Mrs Frost. But if I say ‘That’s not why Tom hires her’, Mrs Frost will think I’m being unduly cynical. Or naïve, weak. I’m not actually any of these things, but nobody would really understand. To be honest, rather her than me, if you see what I mean. Oh dear! Perhaps you don’t…
Maggie doesn’t. “If it weren’t for fabulous sex, darling, I’d have probably given Harry the elbow. I mean, he’s almost broke, my dear.” Harry’s hedge funds have plummeted. Now Harry is depressed. Maggie says his you-know-what is wilting. “What,” she asks me, “is there to stay for?” There’s a boy at Maggie’s gym who’s a peach, apparently. Maggie is dreadfully predictable.
Tom finishes his drink, and grins his special grin. “Action! I have to ring Saunders and look at some briefs.”
“And pack some, I hope.” Darling Tom. He likes my little jokes. He gets up, grinning down at me. I grin back. I know he knows I know. I’m so pleased. Furtiveness is inelegant. But I shall still tease him. A smattering of guilt suits Tom. It suits me, too, that he thinks he has to make up for everything. Bless him!
“I got you a little something…”
I sit back with a sigh and wait. He comes back from the hall with the little carrier-bag and passes it to me, watching me, perhaps a little anxiously. I snuff it before feeling inside, the fragrance is thick, heady. “This isn’t Thornton’s,” I murmur. There’s a Thornton’s almost across the road from Chambers. Tom is a very good customer. “I know. You’re not cross?” He sounds just a smidge anxious, watching as I extract the contents, a box that feels laden, ripe almost, as if it might spill into my waiting lap. “Oh,” I breathe. “Il Bomboniere…oh, darling…” The petal must have gone half way across Town for this, just for me. Il Bomboniere is exclusive, very, very expensive and utterly, sinfully, mouth-wateringly delicious. To die for. “Oh, no, darling…I’m not cross…” His eyes, rich and dark as ninety per-cent cocoa, smile into mine. “Oh, Tom…so extravagant!” He hums a little tune as he goes upstairs.
Picture me, counting carefully, fingers sticky with buttery cocoa, arranging just three little nubbly irregular buttons, black, brown and white, onto a little tray, a treat to savour. A terrible agonising decision! I think of Tom, of his eyes, and bite into the darkest one, feel it melt inside me, pervasive, and shudder with utter pleasure. To think that not a year ago, I used to count out Black Magic like this, in secret. Not completely in secret as it turned out. One can forgive a husband who understands one’s true desires. SLQ
‘Guilt Sweets’ was highly commended in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Short Story Competition, April 2012