It’s there; I can smell it beneath the expensive aftershave and Hollywood smile. It’s lurking under the surface, waiting. Oh so still, poised to strike like a serpent hiding out in a baby’s crib. Who would ever suspect it was there?
Certainly not the girls from his office, crowding around him geisha-style, laughing at his jokes and basking in that perfect gentleman charm. A little wink, some harmless flirting and he’s got them all eating out of the palm of his hand. Now and again, I catch one of them casting a quick glance in my direction. They can’t help it, it’s a mystery to the entire office – how did good old Gav end up with me?
The frumpy dress and lack of anything that even remotely resembles a hair style would be enough to keep them wondering and gossiping but it’s worse than that. I can see it all over their faces and hear it in their polite questions – how did a pinched up, miserable old cow like me manage to bag myself a man like Gavin?
It’s not as if I see them very often and I suppose that’s part of the problem. I don’t like these work dos, I never have. I go to the Christmas one because I can’t get out of it but the others – I usually have a migraine or a stomach upset. Gavin never makes a fuss about me not going out; he says I cramp his style anyway. This one though sneaked up on me. A celebration paid for by management, some sort of reward for meeting targets. “All the big wigs are going to be there,” he said. “And their wives.” So that was that. It wouldn’t do for Gavin to be the odd one out.
I can hear him laughing; that big false laugh, the one he saves for outside and my stomach tightens. Lucy is talking to me, her curls bouncing around her face in time to her words as she moves her head up and down. He’s back. I can smell the serpent even before he drops down into the seat next to me. Alcohol, aftershave and the serpent, brushing up against me as he leans in conspiratorially, “What are you girls nattering on about?”
“I’m just telling Steph how she needs to come out with us more often. We have a right laugh, don’t we? Remember the bowling...” Lucy’s words are lost in bawdy laughter and Gavin joins in.
“Oh Steph’s too serious for the likes of us,” he winks. “She’d rather stay in reading or watching something intellectual on the telly box. Isn’t that right, sweetheart?”
I think back to the bowling night, it wasn’t much of a laugh for me. At least I don’t remember laughing all that much when he dished out what was coming to me on the kitchen floor. All that charm and bonhomie used up in the bowling alley. Good old Gav, by the time he got home he had nothing left. His mood had turned sour and I just reminded him of how much he hated his life.
I’m not an idiot; I know where it comes from, all that violence and rage. I get it, I really do. I mean it’s not like I’m living the life I wanted for myself. I keep it in though, I have to. What else is there? I have to keep the family together, for the kids’ sake. My sister can’t even look me in the face anymore, I sicken her with my excuses and empty promises but what can I do? My kids need me and they love their dad.
He’s going for more drinks, I mean why wouldn’t he, it’s a free bar? I can’t help but notice the way his mouth tightens in displeasure as his eyes flick over my bitter lemon, sitting still half full on the table. It’s just a millisecond but I see it. I can feel Lucy’s eyes on me as she drains her Prosecco in readiness for the next.
“Don’t you ever drink?” she asks in that way people have. As if she can’t think of anything more tragic.
“Oh Steph thinks drinking is beneath her. Turns people into idiots. Isn’t that what you said, babe?” Gavin’s back from the bar handing out drinks with his big grin. He pushes his face into mine, his beery breath making me want to turn away. But I don’t. “Look what I’ve got,” he winks, thrusting a cherry speared on a cocktail stick towards my lips. “Come on Steph, loosen up it’s a party.”
I hear Lucy laughing nervously as Gavin mischievously pops the cherry into his own mouth. His lips, cold and wet, smash into mine, “See what I mean, Luce?” His eyes offer up a secret to Lucy, who looks uncomfortable despite her Prosecco fuelled giggles. “My wife’s frigid. It’s like being married to a nun – not even a little kiss.” It’s starting already – the serpent’s moving, getting stirred up as if someone’s poking at it with a stick. It won’t be long and good old Gav will hardly be able to keep it contained.
He’ll fight it though, keep it subdued. At least until the party’s over. Once we’re in the taxi it will all become too much for him and we’ll ride home in a charged, heavy silence. The three of us, me, good old Gav and the serpent. He’ll rally, one last time, as he pays the baby sitter and waves her off with his signature wink and then there’ll be no more good old Gav.
He’ll punch and kick until the poison’s been bled and then the serpent will slither away, back to its hiding place. He’ll go to bed and sleep like a baby and I can get on with sorting out the girls’ things. They’re going to a party tomorrow and Amelia’s counting on me getting all the sequins sewn onto her princess costume.