As predicted, I have scrapped most of the scene about Josh and Ivy that I published last week. This is a new one…
“You’re up early.”
I squint over my shoulder at Josh’s slouchy, bare-chested figure in the hallway. His blonde hair – usually so carefully coiffed with his special hair stuff, is completely flat on one side and fluffed up like a peacock’s tail on the other.
My pulse quickens. I don’t know why.
“It’s my birthday,” I say.
“Course it is. Happy birthday babe – sorry, I shouldn’t call you that.”
“Don’t worry. Thank you.”
“How about – would you want to…I’ll take you to the pub for lunch shall I? My treat.”
An image passes through my mind of the two of us in a gloomy booth at the Wheatsheaf surrounded by noisy families eating roast dinners. Sticky children scratching blunt colouring pencils into pre-printed outlines of clowns and circus elephants. We’d talk about work. Josh’s personal training clients, Susan, who smashed her personal best on the burpee challenge even though her mother just lost her battle with cancer, and I’ll pretend to be moved. I might mention the upcoming art exhibition Vivian’s assigned me to. The art deco posters I’ve commissioned, the luxury yacht I’ve hired as our star-studded venue. I could tell him about the phone conversation I had with Robert De Niro’s frosty personal assistant, he’d like that. But it would all be a sad little show, a scripted scene in our domestic fantasy.
“Won’t Emily wonder where you are?”
I see his countenance shift, like I knew it would. I’d used the safeword. The ultimate ceasefire in our strange relationship. And now, just like that, the fantasy is over. I realise suddenly how much he looks like a naughty schoolboy standing there with his bare chest and skinny legs on show. In his muscle-tight T-shirts and jeans he looks so masculine, so confident. It’s funny what clothes can do.
He clears his throat.
“She’s gone to a spa with Rebec- with her friends. Ivy, god. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
Josh first started fucking Emily on a regular basis about the same time we were choosing throws, scatter cushions and overpriced coffee table books to make the apartment feel like home. Moving in together had been his idea. SoFit, his elite personal training business, was booming, Vivian had just given me a pay rise and this brand new apartment complex by the marina was only a short metro ride to the inner city where I worked. I agreed because the alternative was to give up Josh and the familiarity and distraction he provided, and resume solitary life in my studio apartment with the endless cycle of work, running club and my lousy attempts at painting, while thoughts of another life, the life I should be living, played like a never-ending showreel at the back of my mind.
Josh is the only child of an esteemed solicitor and a snooty housewife. I can only assume that’s why adultery came so naturally to him.
Her nipples are huge. That was my first thought when I saw her bare breasts splashed across his phone screen. I only wanted to get the number of the plumber. They were great big dusky-pink circles plastered over the balloon-like orbs of her breasts. Undoubtedly silicone-enhanced I thought, judging by her naturally petite figure and defined abdominal muscles. Being confronted so unexpectedly with these giant appendages made me think anxiously of my own breasts, which are, thanks to running club and my mother’s genes, on the small side of medium. Firm and perky is how I’d describe them, with my PR hat on. Further analysis of Josh’s phone revealed steamy texts and more photos of the girl’s oversized nipples. Sideways shots, mirror shots, one photo with her bust stuffed into a tight Puma sports bra, her bleach-blonde hair cascading over her shoulders, blue eyes making love to the lens, pumped up lips pouting seductively. I was surprised, and perhaps on some level disappointed, at how easy it was to find out who she was. One quick Google search later and I’d identified her as Emily Rose Best, 21, personal trainer, pug owner, dancer, health freak and fake tan aficionado.
I stalked her around the city for a while before I asked Josh to leave. Her routine was uninteresting. In the morning she went to a street dance studio, then she had various treatments administered in a beauty salon before brunch with equally dolled-up friends at a vegan cafe. In the afternoon she drove to an Italianate villa on millionaire’s row – a client, I presumed, and finally she met Josh at her apartment – conveniently located just across the water from ours, and they stayed there for an hour or two before he headed off to the gym and she settled in with dinner and half a bottle of rose wine.
I told him I wanted him to leave our home. I sat on the sofa finishing off a blue whale sketch I’d started that morning while he packed his bags. I didn’t really expect him to go to her. I’d assumed, naively in hindsight, that she was fuckable but temporary, like a blow-up doll.
“Do you want me to have them killed? I know a guy,” Vivian said at the office when I decided to tell her.
“I wish I cared enough.”
“Do it for me then. I’m not kidding girl. I’d gladly have his knackers for breakfast.”
“They’re insubstantial. You’ll be hungry again before eleven.”
Now they live together. Some nights I watch them across the harbour in her apartment through my binoculars, two far-off figures moving around in the windows like a living doll’s house.
I knew she wouldn’t be enough for him. Men like Josh always need a secret, it’s the only way they can feel meaningful. He kept coming round, pleading with me to let him in, to give him one last chance to explain everything, as if all I needed was an explanation. One night I found him leaning against the biometric security box when I got back from running club. He was holding a steaming plastic bag from the take-away shop. I invited him inside, mainly because I was very hungry, and only on the condition that he wouldn’t utter a single word about our relationship. We ate curry, watched a documentary about psychopath killers and made love for old-time’s sake. But then it kept happening, weekend after weekend whenever Emily was out with her friends. I’m not very good at being the Other Woman. I don’t send explicit photos, or talk dirty, or initiate exotic sex positions. I am, I suppose, what they call vanilla. But he keeps coming back, so I suppose I must give him something.
“I should go really. When my bread’s done. Are you going to be okay Ive?”
I sigh and lean back on my hands. The soft lamb-like wool of the rug feels nice on my skin.
“Does she know you still come here?”
“Of course not.”
“Why do you still come here?”
“You know why.”
“Because you’re still paying the mortgage? Or you fancy me?” I grin at him, knowing full well I look a mess with my hair in a topknot and yesterday’s eyeliner smudged around my eyes.
“No. I mean, yes, I fancy you. But it’s not just that. And it’s really not about the mortgage.”
Still grinning I say, “Spit it out then.”
He looks uncomfortable, and I wonder if he’s about to tell the truth.
“You’re…you’re Ivy. You’re my Ivy.”
I laugh. A snort, really, and when he leaves an hour or so later, I drop his still-warm breadmaker off the balcony. It splashes into the harbour water five storeys below. I imagine it sinking into the murky depths to join the seaweed and limpet-studded shopping trolleys, and realise guiltily that I should have just taken it to a charity shop. It’s my fault. Despite everything I’m still a romantic.