Updated: Sep 13
As newlyweds, we'd have the neighbours round for drinks. The conversation felt like an enactment of the school game Mums and Dads: 'How are the kids? Has Sophie mastered the potty yet?' They were nice enough but I didn't really care, and according to Cora, no offspring of theirs would amount to much. Once they'd left, we'd impersonate them, and it made us giddy—we'd fall about laughing, which turned us on. We were in our late twenties then but thought of ourselves as being in a suspended state of youth, and on top of that we had proper jobs and a nice flat. We didn't accept that adulthood had arrived. We never thought we'd start to yearn or feel the need for children, for one thing. It didn't seem like us. Although we did have Felicity, a little tabby cat, who more or less took care of herself.
There has always been a nastiness in Cora, of which I was aware from the beginning, but hoped wouldn't break through the surface more than it needed to. Being loving towards me in the traditional ways had never come naturally. I'd accepted that she was an Ice Queen when we met in a backstreet bar in Hemel Hempstead—I initially found it quite attractive, the elusivity, and I didn't mind her telling me I didn't suit blue, or that I should stop buying cheap shirts.
But after a few years, she'd had enough of dealing with me a particular way and changed tack.
'You look like shit,' she said one morning, working on a crossword.
Stopping dead in my tracks, all I could produce was a rather meek 'Why?'
'You just look unattractive,' she answered. 'You've really let yourself go.'
Is it the stubble? In an attempt to tease her, I sidled up and adjusted my tie. 'I thought I was rugged? Do you prefer me clean-shaven?'
She looked me up and down as you would an unremarkable job candidate. 'I liked when you looked like the man I married.'
It stung. I'd never been anything special, but nothing much had changed, and I didn't think her attraction to me was dependent on presentation. 'Well... 'I scrambled for words and remembered she'd had her hair done the day before. 'That haircut doesn't suit you.'
She didn't flinch. 'Your opinion is so immaterial it's hilarious.' Not looking up from her crossword, she stood slowly, and took it to the other room. Felicity observed me from the kitchen, ears flat against her head.
That was March. Many interactions of that nature ensued over the following months and, despite my burgeoning resentment, I didn't take long to give up on questioning and challenging her. By the summer, we were eating our meals mostly in silence, planning only cinema date nights with no dinner out afterwards so we didn't have to talk properly, hanging around that bit longer at work. Friendly exchanges were superficial and disagreements were fraught. We had the occasional day where everything just seemed natural, where we almost genuinely liked each other again. We'd lie in bed and listen to Blur or throw an assortment of snacks into the car and drive to a randomly selected destination. During those times all the rest seemed worth it, almost like it didn't matter.
'Do you remember the night we met?' Cora asked one blustery afternoon in Brighton, biting into a scotch egg, trying to find a comfortable position on the uneven ground. The weather report had been wildly inaccurate.
'Not really,' I joked.
'As if you could forget,' she said, gazing at the water.
I could see the bar clearly in my mind: her packet of pork scratchings reflecting the strobe lights, 'What Is Love' smothering what little either of us could hear of the other's introduction.
'You were Mr. Confident back then, weren't you?'
I've never been particularly confident—whenever I've appeared as such, it's been mostly an act. Maybe over time I just lost the ability to pretend. I shrugged. 'I wanted to impress you.'
'And you did. Where should we go for our next holiday? I'm bored of caravanning in England.'
'Let's go to Venice.' I'd already been there on a family holiday with Becky, my ex. We wanted to ride in a gondola but her parents voted against it—far too expensive.
'That's because you went with her, isn't it?'
I'd forgotten Becky was a no-go. But, on such days, things like that were usually nipped in the bud. 'Of course not, it's a beautiful city, that's all.'
'My parents say Rome is fantastic. Maybe we should look into it.' She was all talk. There likely wouldn't be another holiday.
I have never been perturbed by the fact that she could so easily mess around with a more accomplished, exciting man. Although her male colleagues were up for it—she makes sure I'm privy to that—somehow, I trust that she never would. She seems bound to me by something other than her need to control—which sounds ridiculous, given how incompatible we are in some crucial respects. I used to contemplate it myself, a sordid liaison or even a prolonged emotional affair, but I realised I didn't want to betray her... that and I am too insecure. Besides, I wouldn't know how to pursue someone. Not having the energy to try is a secondary problem.
One evening we were watching Graham Norton. Cora was immersed with a glass of red while I was stroking Felicity and texting. She glanced at my phone.
'Who are you texting?'
'Just my boss.'
'Your boss is a woman, right?'
'Yeah, Shirley, you know that. I mean, Bradley is kind of my boss too.'
'You're texting a woman, who isn't your mum or your sister at 9pm? And don't tell me it's work related.'
'No, it is. She always texts at funny times, it's quite annoying. Normally she sends group messages, but this pertains to me in particular, so—'
'What's she saying?' She adjusted herself in order to face me. 'Why am I, on my one day off, sitting here watching you text some woman?'
I didn't expect her to be insulted or jealous. I'm not remotely close to Shirley. She keeps to herself and is in her late sixties. Felicity looked up at me, her all-knowing bottomless beads imploring me not to fuck it up.
'Well, ahhh. It's to do with the monthly spreadsheets, and basically—'
She muted the TV and erupted into laughter. It seemed to reverberate in my skull. I didn't know what my face was doing.
'Did you actually think I'd be threatened by that bint you work for? You wouldn't dare look at anyone else...you know this is it.'
Felicity jumped off the sofa and sauntered to her playroom, leaving me to deal with it alone.
'Remember when we separated before we were married?' Cora continued. 'You wanted a break. I didn't put up a struggle. Less than two weeks later you came crawling back, telling me how much you regretted it.'
I was tired but angry. Sometimes the exhaustion breaks me down. Others, it fills me with an anger I can't fully suppress. I didn't want to just let it slide this time.
'What the fuck is your problem? You're being a total bitch.'
'I don't have a problem. Why are you swearing at me? I was just pointing out the obvious. Lighten up.' She gave me a pitying look, a sort of half-smirk, and unmuted the TV, turning back to Graham Norton. She was transfixed by the glamour of the actors on the couch as they relayed their charming tales of auditions and award ceremonies, thinking if she'd only taken a different path, she could have been a household name. She's told me she wants to be famous many times. It tends to go something like this:
'Yeah, me too, as a kid.'
'Not just as a kid. It's only a matter of time. I can't just spend the next fifty years living a normal life.' As if the notion is ridiculous.
'Famous for what?'
'You know how high my IQ is, right?'
'You're very clever babe, but just being clever doesn't make someone famous. You'd need some kind of niche.' Although I always respond in that way, I actually sort of believe her. The capacity to do so always presents itself, no matter what comes out of her mouth. It isn't a wholehearted belief—logic, like a shoulder angel, whispers in my ear that I've lost my senses—but something in me just does.
'And I have a winning personality and a beautiful face, babe. What else is required?'
I argue that if anything the Reality TV generation would take issue with a beautiful woman having brains, but she dismisses me.
Although I have a wide-ranging base level knowledge of films, TV shows and books, history and even philosophy, Cora has a complete, in-depth understanding of these subjects; when it comes to a battle of wits, she always wins. She spends next to nothing on clothes but always manages to look stylish, even when she doesn't bother to wash her hair or iron her tops. Don't get me wrong, there are times when I would love to pour something piping hot all over her beautifully round head, flattening those bouncy curls so they look pathetic like Felicity's ears, not just because she's mean but because she's fucking obnoxious. But could I deal with the fall out?
My mother-in-law is a strong woman. That's how Cora would describe her. We like to say that: She's a strong woman. When in reality, the woman in question is a bitch. Same goes for 'feisty', another popular adjective. There's a mutual admiration between Cora and Donna, whereas her dad George is 'wet'. From what I know, George isn't a husband anyone envies. Donna's not into the mind games, but she's pretty messed up in her own way. For one, she doesn't bother with anniversary gifts for him (while George has to go all-out for her on any kind of occasion) and she's never extended much effort to welcome his family into hers. Yet, she expects his unconditional support and commitment, because—and this is the part I've never understood—she feels entitled. She isn't even beautiful or a go-getter like her daughter. He must have held up his end of the bargain because they're still together, with three children. No doubt Donna's mum and grandma were strong too. It trickles down the generations.
So, my wife was raised by a doting (but dangerous) mother and a well-meaning (but ineffectual) father. And her childhood, between the ages of about nine and twelve, was disrupted. She was bullied: at one point for having puppy fat, another for her slightly uneven teeth. She's never said it in so many words, but it's quite obvious that, if she had any friends in the beginning, they phased her out once the bullying got out of hand; all her school-related nostalgia from that time centres around high test scores or being teacher's pet.
I gathered that at first, during that period, she wanted to make friends but was afraid of initiating conversations only to be rejected, and later, something had convinced her that she didn't need them—only Mummy. I wouldn't be surprised if kids who'd been similarly ostracized had tried to approach her, but by that point she was so hardened that she turned them away.
She told me that once, when she was particularly upset, she confided in Donna, and she said, Do you know why this is happening, sweet pea? You're a different breed, that's why. and that it brought her comfort. She said whenever she felt lonely as a child, she would remind herself of that conversation.
I once asked her if she ever went to George for advice or reassurance. She replied: 'Yeah, but no more than a few times. He always said something like I'm sorry you're having a rough time darling, but your mother is better than me with this sort of thing.
She witnessed many discussions around her Aunt's divorce after her Uncle's affair had been exposed. Take him for all he's got, Donna would press. He broke your trust, now you bleed him dry. You never got much out of it anyway. Cora gave this advice, almost verbatim, to a couple of her friends after their husbands had done the dirty on them.
Over time the criticisms ratcheted up and became more personal. Knowing I pride myself on my intelligence, she made that her new target. I know, sales rep hardly denotes 'mighty intellect', but I've always been a bit too lazy to spend the majority of my days pushing my brain to its limits. I'm a spare time polymath. From a young age I've enjoyed achieving and impressing in little ways. I read voraciously. But Cora developed a habit of researching my favourite books and finding all the possible ways to ridicule them, going in from every angle.
'You just love The Catcher in the Rye don't you... talk about a basic bro. Why can no-one admit that Holden is nothing but a depressed, spineless little moron? And Salinger is so repetitive. You just like whatever bookish people are supposed to like—no opinions of your own. It's embarrassing, that hipster, pseudo-intellectual shit.' She placed it back on the coffee table and went to the kitchen for her breakfast. 'And what in the fuck is this?' She gestured to the pile of crusty dishes in the sink from the night before. I had cooked, which was rare for me, but I assumed she'd do them. I went to a lot of effort.
I'm handsome enough, nice enough, clever enough, charming enough, but Cora does the lion's share of the housework. I order expensive takeaways at least once a week just to avoid washing up, I sleep in 'til two on weekends, unashamedly, and she never used to raise an eyebrow. So how or why she'd come to the conclusion that that wasn't good enough, I don't know. I'm not saying she's a nag—I'd never level that at her—but why sign up for something you're not willing to tolerate?
'So yeah, she lambasted me for saying it was my favourite book. Ha. Jesus...'
'Why haven't you divorced her?'
'This again, eh?' Bradley, my closest friend, has a habit of getting straight to the point, and I wasn't in the mood for this one. But it was my fault for bringing up The Catcher in the Rye.
'Leave her. This is ridiculous.'
'You know it's not that simple.'
'Um, of course it is? She's making you suffer. She's... I'm sorry, but she's a bitch.'
'She can be. But she's stunning, intelligent, fun...it makes me feel good, being with someone like that. Someone so well-liked.'
'I don't like her.'
'That's because you know her.' We both laughed awkwardly. Bradley out of obligation. Me, because I was all out of options.
'You're a decent person. In a relationship that has well and truly run its course. And that's putting it mildly.' Bradley doesn't know everything. I looked at him. 'But she is more intelligent. You've got a blind spot where she's concerned.' He checked his watch. 'Right, Shirley's starting the 9 a.m., you coming?'
'Just getting a coffee. I'll see you in there.'
I felt compelled, at that point, to think about his words. I mean, I always contemplated the subject; it massively preoccupied me. But at this stage I was going to be critical and objective. I wanted to stop allowing my life to be dictated by my fear of her or the unknown (and it would feel like the unknown, being single again. We'd been married for six years). The good times no longer seemed to compensate for the animosity. I was realising, day-by-day, bit-by-bit, that our marriage was just as fallible if not more so than any other. I bet most couples, at least in the beginning, secretly think they're special: that they have an intense connection that no one else could possibly imagine or understand. That feeling doesn't mean what we think it means. I woke up one biting cold Autumn morning and had the realisation that I was a person I didn't want to be, married to a person I didn't want to be married to, and whatever bond we had left was too tenuous to justify any of this. But finding a way to broach the subject with her... that would take some working out. To avoid maximum damage, I had to allow her to feel like she, ultimately, had control over the fate of our marriage. And the fact that I'd realised I no longer wanted to be with her didn't mean we'd be divorced within six months or a year or however long it usually takes. It would be a drawn out, complicated and nasty process. I planned to take however long I needed to get it right.
But the more time that passed, the more impossible it seemed.
Looking down on me, she was both radiant and powerful. As always, she dictated the rhythm, her stomach slowly rolling in and out, her chest rising and falling in conjunction.
'You like it when I take charge, don't you,' she said.
She felt so good, so strangely warm, I couldn't formulate an answer.
'Don't ignore me.'
She smiled. I love making her smile like that. 'You get off on it. Why?'
I couldn't answer.
'You're a follower, aren't you? Answer me.'
I didn't want to; I just wanted to go on feeling her exactly like that.
'Because I'm yours.'
'Because I'm yours, Cora.'
'That's right. And why are you mine?'
I enjoyed the degradation, but so much so that I couldn't speak. Not that she really cared.
'You've always been a follower, haven't you.'