She wipes her mouth, her forehead, with the palm of her hand. Wipes her hand on the front of her blouse – not thinking.
Looking down, Chloe sees her hands are clean, amazingly, but clammy, and a smear of perspiration has appeared across the front of the delicate, cream-coloured material. The blouse was a present, from Paul, last Christmas, exactly a year ago. She’s hardly worn it. It was obviously expensive, carrying a fancy label – though to her it has always felt cheap.
In a hurry, it was the first thing she grabbed from the wardrobe. Of all the things to put on. She’ll never wear it again. In fact she’d like to rip it off right now, have a very long shower, and then put on warm, untainted clothes, grab the kids, and drive away, fast up the A11. Though that can’t happen.
Lifting the fabric away from her stomach, her skin, trying to waft it, to dry it, Chloe catches her face in the huge mirror above the large sink. Oh, she’s getting used to the fine lines round the eyes, the hint of sagging, the pallor, even if Paul never did. You are young and then you are old. No middle age for her.
But there’s another look on her 42 year-old face, a look she’s not seen before. And this look, this face, suggests not panic or terror, but triumph. There is a flicker of freedom staring back at her. Some seasonal cheer. With a shudder she also notices some speckles of blood in the bottom corner of the mirror.
Not turning around, never, she lets go of her blouse, lets the thin material cling once more to the soft flesh of her softening stomach, and quickly and very carefully steps out of the en-suite, closing the door firmly after her.
Before she’s reached the kitchen, she finds herself coming to a stop in the hall, outside the kids’ games room. Her flush of success suddenly evaporates. It is as if, for that brief time, she were possessed. Of course she was.
The noise of electronic warfare is seeping from under the door – new presents, new wars being enacted. Young human sounds too. As if Christmas wasn’t expensive enough.
‘Hi, it’s me. Where the hell are you, you bastard?’
It had gone straight to answerphone again. Fran stabs the red end call button. Throws the phone across the bed. She is livid, with herself mainly. She shouldn’t have called him, again. So much for her resolve. How long did it last, 20 minutes? Half an hour?
Pull yourself together, girl. But this other voice begins to reverberate in her head: easier said than done, easier said than done.
She knows she should go back downstairs, join Don, the others, for pudding and more brandy. But her heart is not in it. Her heart is elsewhere.
‘Sorry guys,’ Chloe says, stepping into the kitchen, which opens out into air and dark glass. She looks down at her silly blouse, from a different life, sees that the sweat has all but dried. She considers her hands again; sees once more that they are clean, but ridiculously pale. Almost blue. The word bloodless comes to her.
Looking up she takes in the large table at the far end of the room, and the four people clustered around it.
‘Is everything OK, Chloe?’ Izzy, her sister, mock shouts from the echoey distance.
‘Yeah, fine. But Paul’s decided to go for a walk. I’m sorry, he’s ruining everything.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ says Izzy. ‘Dad was always smashing plates, going off in huff on Christmas Day.’
Chloe tries to smile back, but can sense she’s grimacing. She feels naked, transparent, and hurries forwards.
‘It’s you and the children we’re really here for,’ says Izzy, who had never much liked Paul. ‘Why did you ever move to this charming little city?’ She laughs.
‘It was Paul’s idea, his work,’ Chloe says, not laughing.
‘Do you think he ever regrets it?’ Ash, Izzy’s husband, suddenly says.
‘He’s hardly ever here,’ whispers Chloe, pleased she got the tense right. She takes the seat next to Izzy, which, once she’s sitting, realises wasn’t where she was sitting before. It was Paul’s place. She just stops herself from getting straight back up. ‘Too busy, seeing -’
‘Oh my God,’ shouts Izzy, looking, staring towards the door.
A small boy has appeared. His face drained, blood on his hands, his front.
The phone is in her hand again – over the last few months it’s become part of her. She’s checked the news. Checked there’ve been no major incidents. Checked there’s no obvious excuse for his silence.
Fran stands, having made a decision. She knows where he lives. She’s explored it thoroughly on Google Maps, more than once. Big house, on the outskirts of the city. Only two hours away, if she drives fast.
She’ll sneak out. Now Don’s on the spirits it’ll be fucking ages before he notices she’s gone anyway.
Determined, she heads for the door. If Paul won’t leave his family willingly, she’ll drag him out, alive and kicking. What’s Christmas for if you can’t be together, with the person you really love?