‘Ed? Can you give me a hand with the goose please?' Annabel called from the kitchen.
‘Yeah, hang on; I'll be with you in a minute.'
Annabel sighed in exasperation. ‘No, I need a hand now,' she replied, pulling a stray tendril of black hair from her face. ‘It's ready to go in the oven.' After fifteen years of marriage there were many things about Ed that frustrated her; his laissez faire attitude being one of them.
Ed finished sending a text message, put his phone on the coffee table by the Christmas tree and mooched next door to the kitchen.
‘What do you need me to do?'
‘Can you pour some boiling water over it, to get the fat out? You know I don't like doing it. I don't care what Delia says, I think it's dangerous.'
‘No worries.' Ed filled the kettle, set it to boil and opened the fridge and took out a bottle of beer.
‘You want one?' he asked
‘No, not for me thanks,' Annabel replied, as he swallowed half the bottle in a single gulp. ‘Anyway, who were you texting?'
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘Oh, it's no-one, just someone from work.'
‘Someone from work? It's Christmas morning - and anyway, they made you redundant six months ago,' Annabel retorted, pulling her mouth into a thin line.
Ed shrugged. ‘Whatever. Dave says he wishes us both a merry Christmas.'
Beep beep. The phone sounded again and Ed almost ran back to the living room. At the same moment the kettle clicked off and Annabel followed Ed as he picked up the phone and began to write another text message.
‘Ed, please,' Annabel was pleading now. ‘The goose? I need to get it in the oven otherwise we'll have nothing to feed your parents when they arrive.'
‘Yeah, yeah. Whatever.' He put the phone back onto the table and went back into the kitchen. Annabel stood in the middle of the large living room, stretching the stiff muscles in her back and listening to Ed clattering the roasting pan and balancing a rack over the sink, ready to receive the goose for its scalding bath.
She saw Ed's phone lying on the table and couldn't resist the temptation to pick it up. She knew what she was about to do was wrong, but she was unable to help herself. Against her better judgment she quickly checked the messages folder, her hands shaking as she did so. She knew how she would feel if Ed were to read the text messages on her phone, but she continued scrolling through the menus none the less.
"Missing you too hun xxx" she read on opening the first text; the message was sent not five minutes previously from someone called Jodie. She continued reading, feeling numb with disbelief. There were five more messages from Jodie, all sent this morning - and one contained a photo of a twenty-something blonde posing in a see-through lace dress, with the caption "Feeling naughty? ;o)"
Annabel sat down heavily on the sofa, replaced the phone where Ed had left it and put her head in her hands.
‘Are you OK, Bel?'
She jumped guiltily. ‘Yeah . . . I'm . . . no, actually, I'm not,' she stammered.
‘You look dreadful, what's the matter?' He took her hand in his and went to stroke her hair.
‘Nothing.' Annabel finally found her voice and flinched as Ed touched her. ‘I'm fine, just a little bit stressed.' She forced a smile.
‘I'll get you a brandy,' said Ed. ‘That'll sort you out.' He went to the sideboard and poured a generous measure into a crystal tumbler.
‘Brandy?' said Annabel. ‘But it's not midday yet.'
Ed laughed. ‘My granddad always swore by brandy as a cure for almost anything, he lived to eighty-three so he must have been right. Here you go.'
He passed the glass to Annabel, she looked at it suspiciously but took a large gulp; she could feel the alcohol burn her tongue and hit her nervous system straight away. She took another, smaller sip and decided her husband's late grandfather had been right. She'd needed that drink.
‘It's good, isn't it?' asked Ed.
‘I'd better get the spuds on,' said Annabel hollowly. She picked up the brandy glass and carried into the kitchen. She felt trapped in a nightmare: her in-laws would be arriving soon, but she was determined not to cause a scene over lunch and to get through the day before confronting Ed about the texts from Jodie. She filled the sink with water, tipped in the potatoes and began peeling them.
Beep beep. She gritted her teeth and tried to focus what she was doing, knowing full well that Ed was in the next room exchanging messages with his girlfriend.
‘I'm just popping out for a bit,' Ed said as he came into the kitchen. ‘Is there anything you need?'
‘Popping out? Where are you going?' Annabel dropped the knife and a half-peeled potato back into the sink.
‘Just out: I need some fresh air.'
‘But your parents will be here any minute!'
‘Chill out, OK? They won't be here for another hour if the M25's bad. Can I get anything for you?'
Annabel picked up a tea towel and briskly dried her hands. She looked Ed in the eye.
‘You're going to see her, aren't you?' she blurted.
‘I've got no idea what you're on about,' he replied calmly, staring at the kitchen floor.
‘Jodie.' Annabel spat out the word. ‘You're off to see your little blonde whore.'
‘If you must know I was going to the pub for a quick pint before the folks arrive.'
‘Liar!' Annabel screamed, turning on him. ‘Don't you fucking lie to me!'
Ed took a step backwards and held up his hands in self-defence.
‘Like I said, I was just going . . . '
‘What do you take me for?' Annabel shouted, cutting him off. ‘You were going to see that blonde bitch! I wasn't born yesterday.'
‘How do you know?' Ed asked softly.
‘I just know. Am I right, or am I right?'
‘You will be. So what's she got that I haven't, eh?'
‘She doesn't mean anything to me, Bel. I mean, I only slept with her twice.'
‘Twice! That's meant to make me feel better, is it?' Annabel paused and gave Ed an old-fashioned look. ‘I want to know everything: times, dates. I need to know.'
Ed sighed and sat down at the kitchen table. ‘She's a receptionist from work, a temp...we met last spring. One day her car broke down and so I gave her a lift home -- it turned out she only lives up the road. Then it got to be a habit, I'd give her a lift to and from work a couple of times a week, and we got to know each other a bit better, and then one thing lead to another . . . ' Ed let the sentence drift off.
‘And then what?' Annabel narrowed her eyes and stood facing Ed with her arms crossed over her chest. He looked defeated and haggard, as if he had aged ten years in the last few minutes.
Beep beep. Instinctively Ed reached for his phone.
‘Is that from her?' asked Annabel.
He looked at the phone and shrugged before pushing it away.
‘So, come on, out with it. One thing led to another, but you only slept with her twice even though she only lives round the corner. What else?'
Ed hung his head. ‘I suppose I was flattered by the attention, she's twenty-three and I'm old enough to be her father.' He paused. ‘She invited me in for coffee one morning when I went to pick her up for work: she made a move on me then.'
‘Ah, poor you! So it's all her fault? And I bet it wasn't just twice, was it?'
‘That'll be a No, then.'
‘I said I'm sorry.'
‘When was it? Early mornings before you went to work, or after work when you had given her a lift home?'
‘She's lost her job as well, you know.'
‘And what difference does that make?' she asked.
Ed looked away, silently chewing his lip.
‘So you've been sneaking off round to her place in the daytimes as well? You're an utter bastard, you know that? I've been working double shifts at the hospital to try and keep a roof over our heads because you can't get a job, and you thank me by shagging some little blonde tart behind my back?'
‘But we never . . . I mean, we never . . . not here.'
Annabel sighed. ‘And I'm meant to be grateful for that, am I?'
Ed hung his head and said nothing. Annabel stood deep in thought for a few moments.
‘Your mum and dad will be here soon,' she said calmly. ‘What are you going to tell them?'
He shrugged. ‘I really don't know . . . . I suppose you want me to go?' Ed said at last.
Annabel shook her head. ‘No, yes, maybe . . . oh, I don't know.' She sighed again. ‘Look, I need a few minutes to get my head together before I can deal with this. Peel the potatoes, will you?'
‘Course I will, take as long as you need.'
‘Don't worry, I shall.'
Annabel trudged upstairs to the bathroom and locked the door. She fished her mobile phone out of her jeans pocket and dialled a number. The phone rang and rang.
‘It's me. Sorry to call you at home,' said Annabel, when a man finally answered ‘but it's an emergency.'
‘Oh no, what's the matter?' he said.
‘Tony, the bastard's cheating on me. I just found some texts and a photo . . . ' Annabel's voice began to waver.
‘Sssh,' Tony soothed as Annabel cried. ‘Oh, what a complete shit . . . and on Christmas Day as well . . . oh, poor poor, Bel.'
She nodded down the phone, unable to speak as she fought back tears. She finally managed to take a deep breath and pull herself together enough to reply.
‘I know, and his parents are arriving any minute for lunch, I don't know how I'm going to get through it,' she sniffed.
‘Oh sweetheart, I'm so sorry. Do you want to meet up later on, after they've gone home?'
‘What about Allie and the kids?'
‘I'm a grown man, Bel, I can slip out for an hour so we can meet up. Anyway, her mother's staying for a few days; I deserve an hour off for bad behaviour.'
Annabel wiped her face a piece of toilet roll. ‘Thank you, that would be lovely. You're too good to me, babe, what did I ever do to deserve a man like you?'
Tony laughed. ‘Wasn't it something to do with the third bottle of wine at last year's Christmas party?'
She smiled and wiped the rest of her tears away. ‘Can you text me, when the coast is clear later on?'
‘I promise. Now blow your nose, wash your face and knock ‘em dead!'
‘Sadly there's a law against that, but I'll do my best.'
‘Good girl . . . love you.'
‘Love you too. I knew you'd understand.' Annabel laughed and hung up the phone.
She washed her hands and face and went to the bedroom to get changed.
Now . . . let's have the little black dress and let him see what he's missing, she thought purposefully. She put on some lipstick and mascara, did her hair up into a bun and gave herself a critical look as she donned the dress and a pair of high heels. You know, you don't scrub up too badly for forty-two, she said to her reflection in the bedroom mirror.
At that moment the doorbell rang.
‘I'll get it!' she called out and walked briskly down the stairs, her head held high.