When a man who never talks at breakfast clears his throat meaningfully at eight o’clock on a Monday morning, it’s an even bet he has something momentous to say. Jill Franklin looked at her husband to signify her attentiveness then waited for him to speak. He cleared his throat again.
“I’ve been a bit of a prat.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“What sort of a prat?”
“The usual sort.”
Jill fought the sudden temptation to throw the contents of her large cappuccino in his handsome face. Instead, she sighed.
“That’s such a cliche. Middle-aged man. New young secretary. I find myself insulted.”
He had the grace to blush.
“Yeah. I suppose you might at that. Look. I’m sorry. But it gets worse.”
“Worse than rank stupidity?”
“Much worse. She wants to marry me. And her uncle is Maximilian Shaw.”
“Jim. You are beyond idiocy. Whatever possessed you to get naked with your boss’ niece? How asinine is that! Are you asking for a divorce?”
“No. I’m begging you not to divorce me. Please.”
His wife laid her head on the breakfast table.
“Go away. Now. I’ll talk to you this evening. Or will you be otherwise engaged?”
“No. I’ll be home at six.”
He picked up his car keys and left. Quickly.
Jill lifted her head and stared narrowly at the space in the air where her husband’s burly form had been.
“You fucking wanker,” she said slowly and distinctly, before picking up her cup and heading for the garden. The family dogs, sensing that the crisis was at least postponed, leapt out of their baskets and pranced out into the morning air. Jill downed the last of her coffee, lit a cigarette and looked at their intelligent faces.
“Your Dad is a complete asshole.”
The dogs wagged their agreement.
“You want a walk?”
More wagging, so she dumped her cup on a bench, opened the back gate and strode out across the fields that led down to the river.
An hour later, a plump woman let herself into the house. “Sorry I’m late, Jill.”
Surprised to hear no response, she poked her head into the kitchen, then the big office, then the sitting room. Nobody in! She walked into the conservatory to find the big double doors out into the garden were open. She called again, then went upstairs to look out of the landing window. Coming up the valley she could see a tall, thin woman and two prancing dogs. The woman held a pair of sodden slippers in one hand and a big stick in the other. She threw the stick and the dogs bounded after it. The watcher rested her forehead against the window pane for a moment.
“Oh Jill. Is that bugger at it again?”
By the time Jill and the dogs returned, the breakfast table was cleared and there was a fresh pot of coffee brewed. Jill dropped the ruined slippers into the kitchen bin and wiped the dogs’ paws with a large brown towel. The dogs drank noisily and retired to their beds and their mistress sat down with something of a bump.
“I liked those slippers,” she said moodily, then smiled at her housekeeper. “Thanks Cicely.”
“Don’t mention it. Trouble?”
“Yeah. Just the usual, only a bit more complicated this time. His secretary. Only the MD’s niece. Wants to marry him.”
“Well fuck me!”
“I sometimes wish he would, it’d be simpler.”
“No chance. I’m over twenty-five and I don’t flatter his ego.”
“True. But back to reality. Jim is up to his impressively taut buttocks in the mire and, needless to say, he expects me to extract him.”
“It’d serve the stupid fuck right if you cut him loose.”
“I know. But I don’t think I can.” Jill shrugged her shoulders helplessly. “I like the stupid bugger. He’s a kind and considerate husband…”
“If you don’t count the bits on the side,” Cicely interjected.
“I don’t. Mostly. But that’s not the point. I repeat, I like the old bugger. I like having him around. He makes me laugh, and I want to keep him.”
“Has it occurred to you that he might do something one day you can’t forgive?”
“It has. But I don’t want to think about it. Point is, this one is going to get sticky. I feel it in my bones. So. Prepare to repel boarders could be the order of the day.”
“Will do. But now I’ve got hoovering.”
“And I’ve got a deadline to meet. Do I call this week’s column Unfaithful Again?”
Cicely gave a bark of laughter and went about her work.
By the time Cicely left, Jill had managed to put in a solid day’s work and she was feeling more settled in her mind. Whistling up the dogs she took them for a brisk run before investigating the contents of the fridge. At six o’clock on the dot, she heard the unmistakable sound of Jim’s Range Rover pulling into the drive. The dogs got up and went wagging to the kitchen door. It opened to admit a sheepish-looking man toting half a dozen carrier bags. Jill quirked an ironic eyebrow.
“Not trying to buy my way out of trouble,” Jim said vehemently. “We had a photo shoot involving cars and food and booze, and divided the food and booze when it was over.”
“Oh. Okay then. What’ve you got?”
“Very expensive chocolate. Ditto biscuits. Cheeses various. Some stinky. Serrano ham. Wine, red. Wine, fizzy. Whisky, single malt.”
As he spoke he unloaded the bags onto the kitchen table. The last bag he put on the draining board.
“Fillet steak, sadly only fit for Ben and Bonnie as it has been out of the fridge for four hours. The photographer was going to throw it away, but I said the dogs would love it.”
“They will, judging by the wagging tails and vertical noses.”
She poked her nose in the bag.
“Crikey. That’s a lot of steak. What sort of a photo shoot was it?”
“Buggered if I know. It’s for some supplement in The Gentleman – one paid heavily for by a far eastern car manufacturer, and that is likely to end up in the waste bin as soon as it gets opened.”
“Never mind, we shall enjoy the bounty while we can.”
Sensing that he was at least partially forgiven, Jim came and hugged his wife with real affection.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I really didn’t see this one coming. I mean it isn’t as if I’ve even…” He stopped speaking and Jill raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “Honour bright. I haven’t. I took her out to lunch twice. And I always call her ‘darling’ – principally because I can never remember her name. And that’s it.”
“So How has she decided to marry you then?” Jill didn’t bother to hide her scepticism.
“I don’t understand it and I wouldn’t even have known she had me down as husband material if she hadn’t had a couple of days off and threatened to scratch out the eyes of the temp if she touched ‘her property’. The temp was kind enough to pass it on to me. I broached the subject when Wossname got back, and got told that she was the next Mrs Franklin. When I replied that there wasn’t a job vacancy, she stared me a cold stare and told me I’d better make one. Honestly I think she scares me. She could be a bunny boiler.”
Jill looked at his face and it came to her that he wasn’t wriggling, he was actually speaking the simple truth. Then she had a horrible thought.
“Was she at this photo shoot?”
“No. I didn’t take her. She pouted, but I was adamant she had to mind the office as I was expecting a call from the States. Got Bunny to call from San Francisco and flatter her. Why do you ask?”
“I was a bit worried about the dog meat.”
She watched the implications of that sink in. Jim’s shoulders sagged and he suddenly looked his age.