Lies and Linguine
The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold. Aristotle.
1. Lip Service
Damn! That’s all he bloody needed.
Blake Snipes pursed his lips, his neck disappearing into a double chin as he looked down and tweaked the pulled thread on his shirt sleeve. Wasn’t it enough that the temperature was an unbearable thirty degrees and he’d run out of cigarettes, without the dichotomy of fragrant lemon roses assaulting him with hidden weapons? He turned the key and let himself into his girlfriend’s house.
The sweet smell of roast chicken greeted him as he placed his brief case on the bottom stair. Soft mumblings from his girlfriend’s hushed voice drifted from the kitchen making him smile, his ripped shirt instantly forgotten. Blake eased his foot out of his hot imitation brogue and was on the verge of calling a greeting, when he heard his name mentioned and froze.
Although the kitchen door had been left slightly ajar, the conversation hadn’t stopped, so he assumed that his girlfriend Tess Fenton and her best friend Holly hadn’t heard him come in. He bent to quietly remove his other shoe and crept down the hall, stopping at the narrow gap left by the open door. Inhaling the bitter sweet tang of waxed pine, he closed his eyes and listened.
Inside the kitchen Tess continued to scrape parsnips, their sweet pungent aroma smelling like cheap perfume. She considered Holly’s question before answering.
“I can’t remember.”
“Honestly. It was a couple of months ago.”
“Bloody hell Tess!”
Tess shrugged. Sitting on the worktop, Holly stopped swinging her legs and leant forwards.
“Does it count if the mattress bounces up and down when Blake has a coughing fit?”
“You know it doesn’t. What’re you going to do?”
Tess patted her friend’s legs by way of asking her to move them. Holly bent her knees so that they touched her chin, giving Tess room to retrieve a serrated knife from the drawer.
“You know what? I’m happier having a physical relationship with a four pack of Ferrero Rocher, a Jilly Cooper novel and my pillow. It’s tastier, very pleasurable and a lot more satisfying. He’s happy pretending to be Richard Branson in the office or planning his annual trip to a Star Trek convention, so let him get on with it.”
“Aren’t you, I don’t know….sad?”
“I’m sad that he’s changed since he’s been promoted. The old Blake was romantic. He used to book a surprise weekend away, suggest summer picnics and share the cooking. Now…” Tess nibbled the skin inside her bottom lip as she top and tailed the parsnips. “Now he’s always exhausted, he’s developed an irritating cough, works longer hours and drinks too much.” She shrugged again. “I’m just bored I suppose. I want to find my own Rupert Campbell-Black, because I’m fed up of reading about other people’s passionate love lives.”
Tess took the roasting tin out of the oven and tentatively pealed open a steaming foil parcel with her fingertips.
“Have you talked to him about it? Can’t you explain that your relationship’s dying?”
“Dying? It’s flat-lined!” Tess leaned backwards to let the billowing steam escape from the foil. “There’s more life in this half-cooked bird.” She poked the chicken and watched the oily blood ooze down its pale skin. “It’s time to face facts, Holls. I think we’re over.” She placed the tray back on the shelf and slammed the oven door shut.
On the other side of the door Blake reeled in shock as he leant his forehead against the door surround. Its wood grain was out of focus as he breathed rapidly through his mouth. He slumped back against the wallpaper, the pulse in his neck throbbing in time to his pounding heart. Slowly, Blake slid down the wall and sat on his heels. He closed his eyes and squeezed them tightly beneath his fists.
What did Tess mean, she thinks it’s over? Why wasn’t she impressed that she was now dating an associate director? And who the hell was Rupert? As for romance, he thought she understood that his coughing and long hours wore him out. Surely it was romantic of him to drive over to see her every evening, despite being so tired.
Oblivious now to their conversation, Blake held his head in his hands whilst hyperventilating as quietly as he could. His face felt hot, pins and needles prickled his finger tips and his eyes stung. He was horrified at the thought that he might cry. God, he hadn’t cried since…..since Spock died in The Wrath of Khan. He needed a plan – and quickly.
As the seconds slowly passed by, a shameful thought pricked at his mind making him hold his breath.
Plan A was to impress.
Plan B was unforgivable.
A few days later, Tess closed her eyes and faced the warm slice of sunlight which was cutting across their table in Caffe Nero. She concentrated on the kaleidoscope of colours behind her eyelids, caused by the hot July sun flickering through a canopy of leaves on the high street. They’d timed it perfectly, pouncing on the still warm tan leather armchairs just as the previous occupants had vacated them. Blake had been talking into his mobile for the past ten minutes, so with her elbows on the table, Tess rested her cheeks on her clenched fists which stretched her mouth into an imitation smile.
Turning away from the comforting beam of sunlight, she distractedly pulled apart the remnants of her mozzarella and tomato panini. The nutty smell of coffee and sweet aroma of melted cheese hung in the air amidst the general hubbub of conversation and clattering of crockery. She didn’t know why she’d agreed to meet Blake during her precious lunch hour, especially now that she’d admitted to herself and Holly that things had changed between the two of them. It wasn’t just that the spark had gone. She felt like their viewpoints and horizons had shifted over time, like seismic plates grating and jostling for new ground.
Tess wiped her hands on a flimsy single ply serviette which instantly ripped beneath the pressure of her greasy fingers. She scrutinized her boyfriend over the rim of her coffee cup, her smile belying her thoughts as she caught his glance. She watched him lean backwards on his chair, one hand clutching his mobile to his ear and his other hand supporting the back of his neck. His generous stomach revealed a button ready to burst free from his shirt. Tess mused that she had a lot in common with that button. They were both at a loose end and letting the pressure get to them.
She peeled the skin off a slice of tomato and tried to remember when their romantic dinner dates had stopped and when his flatulence had started. She glanced back at him. Come to think of it, where had his cheek bones gone?
Despite the fact that she was sitting opposite him, Tess saw Blake’s eyes linger on the tight black skirt which looked vacuum-packed onto the pert buttocks of their waitress. The girl’s hips banged against an adjacent table as she moved backwards and forwards, cleaning the surface in circular movements. He seemed mesmerized and unblinking as he stammered into his phone.
“Yes, yes I’m still here. I was distracted by…….” He caught Tess’ eye and at least had the manners to shift uncomfortably. “….sorry mate, carry on.”
Tess nibbled on a piece of mozzarella as she watched Blake lean forward, pick up his teaspoon and slowly stir his lotta-chocca-mocha coffee - or whatever its silly name was? She knew that at his house he’d throw a palm full of a supermarket’s own brand coffee granules into a chipped mug and slurp away to his heart’s content. Now, she thought gloomily, even his drink had taken on an air of superiority. Perhaps he thought she was impressed. Had he forgotten that she knew he couldn’t find matching socks this morning? Didn’t he remember that she’d caught him playing with his man boobs in the shower five hours earlier?
“Super,” he purred. “If you can navigate your way around that little humdinger, I’ll shout you a bottle of Bolly to celebrate….indeed….affirmative….indeed….cheerio.”
Cheerio! The closest Blake got to cheerios was eating a bowl full of them for breakfast, thought Tess. She lowered her latte and feigned interest for conversation’s sake.
“Big business deal?”
“You’d better bloody believe it.” Blake laid his mobile on the table. “Halcott Manor’s coming on the market at last. It’s a huge mansion in the Vale of Belvoir and I’ve been sweet-talking the owners for months. Have you any idea how much commission I’d make if I sold that place? Fucking shed loads. I’d say goodbye to my overdraft for starters and then I’d book a ticket to Amsterdam for Kent’s stag weekend in November. Now bloody Henderson’s Agency has got wind of it. Parasites! I’d better ring Kent at the office to see if he can head them off somehow. I’ve had too many ball-breaking conversations with that pompous Lord What’s-his-name to lose the Manor now.” Snatching up his phone again, Blake dialled the office. “What I’d give to join the lads in Amsterdam.”
Tess didn’t think he was looking forward to perusing the clog collection in the markets or choosing the latest hue in tulip bulbs. She knew his idea of heaven would be smoking dodgy cigarettes and looking at even dodgier women sitting in red-fringed window parlours wearing next to nothing.
As he waited for his colleague to answer, Tess sipped her latte and looked at him - properly looked at him. Seriously, where had his cheek bones gone? They must be under there somewhere. They’d been there when they’d first met. Where had the romantic charmer gone? And where the hell had that belly come from? Tess noticed that the loose shirt button was now missing and a hairy white mound of flesh was protruding through the gap. The escaping bulge of skin resembled a forgotten marshmallow which had been lost under a bed and become covered in carpet fibres. She shuddered involuntarily.
“He’s not picking up. You cold?” Blake snapped his mobile shut.
“No I’m fine.”
“That reminds me. What was wrong with you this morning?”
“I heard you scream in the bathroom.” Blake licked his finger and stabbed at the remaining crumbs on his plate. He nibbled them off his crusted fingertip, crunching them between his front teeth as he waited for an answer.
Tess clenched her teeth, irritated that a small golden crumb nestled in the corner of his mouth. “If you must know,” she snapped, “I found a grey hair this morning. I’m twenty-six and I found my first grey hair.”
“A grey hare? What the fuck was Bugs Bunny doing with you in the bathroom with you?”
Blake threw his head back and guffawed at his own wit. He reached for his cup and sniggered as he drained the dregs of his coffee. Mid-swallow it occurred to him just how hilarious his remark was and jerked forwards with another uncontrollable snort. Coffee sprayed from his nose like a high pressure hose. A gloopy stream of dribble hung from his lips like bungee elastic, as a large crumb of panini abseiled down it. Through bloodshot eyes, Blake croaked, “Sorry, dangerous sport - being funny.”
Tess stared at him motionless. She felt eyes boring into her head from all directions and decided that she’d had enough. Reaching under her chair she grabbed her handbag and mumbled, “I’m heading back to work.”
Blake sniffed coffee back up his nose making him cough and swallow. “Already? What about lunch?”
“I’m tired, Blake. Tired of letting things drift. I feel as though my grey hair was trying to tell me something. I’m getting older but not wiser. I’ve put up with your moods and your bloody dirty washing for long enough. We don’t even live together! If I just got the occasional thank you, or maybe taken out for a meal, it wouldn’t be so bad.”
“I’m sorry, okay? I’m so busy at work now that I’ve been given more responsibilities. I know I’m not free to do the things we used to, but I’m working hard for us. I don’t understand why you’re not pleased that I’ve got a promotion. One day you’ll move in with me and we’ll get married and have kids. All this hard work is laying the foundations for our future. Isn’t that what you want?”
Tess sighed and leaned back against her chair. “I don’t know.”
“What’re you saying?”
“Nothing. I don’t know. I need to get back to work.”
“It’s the grey hair isn’t it?”
“Why are you being like this? It was just a bloody grey hair Tezz.”
“Just! That’s like saying The Great Wall of China is just a garden boundary! Besides, it’s patronizing to suggest that it’s a grey hair which is making me feel how I do.”
“How do you feel? I’m not a bloody mind reader.”
Tess shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.”
“Fine! That suits me just fine.” Tess stood up and grabbed her cardigan from the back of her chair. “I’ll see you tonight,” she muttered as she walked past him, almost relishing the thought of inhaling a lungful of traffic fumes. Just before she reached the swing doors to freedom, she heard Blake yell her name across the packed room.
“TEZZ! YOU DIDN’T LEAVE ANY MONEY.”
Turning slowly, her eyes met a room full of faces staring back at her, eager to see who the tight-fisted Tezz was. Mortified and with her face stinging like a bed of nettles, she walked with her head bowed back to the table. She slapped a £10 note on the table.
“Is it too much to expect lunch from my boyfriend once in a blue moon?” she hissed, aware that conversation in the room had stopped and ears were straining to hear her. “I cook for you four or five times a week and do you ever hear me asking for a contribution?”
“It’s the end of the month, that’s all. I’m a bit short.”
“You and me both, Blake. You and me both.”
She didn’t give him chance to answer as she turned on her Kurt Geiger heels and marched out the air-conditioned coffee shop and into the sticky heat. She didn’t look up or wave as she passed him sitting in the window. Her lips were pursed into a straight thin line as tears stung her eyes. How did he manage to embarrass her at every opportunity? Thanks to his loud self-important telephone voice and his choking fit, they’d been the comic entertainment for lunchtime diners for the past thirty minutes. She weaved her way across Maddox Square and through a long queue lining up in front of a Mr Whippy ice-cream van. She could have spent the last hour crunching on a Flake stuffed into an ice-cream cone and then looking around the July sales with Holly. She had face wipes to buy and needed a French stick to feed his silly face tonight. Too late now!
As she marched angrily back to work, she realised that she wasn’t just bored of Blake and irritated by his superior attitude now that he’d been promoted. She had fallen out of love with him. It was as simple as that. Yes he’d put on a little weight, but it wasn’t his increased BMI that she didn’t love any more. It was him. His being. The part of him that made him who he was, and more importantly, who he would become. Suddenly everything became clear. She didn’t want to meet him in her lunch hour or have his photograph looking back at her every time she opened her purse. It also occurred to her that she hadn’t doodled Mrs Tess Snipes in over a year. She resolved to finish with him before the end of the month.
That gave her six days!