Nigel appeared in the doorway, his hair still wet from showering, and Paul followed him in, the tail end of their conversation snaking behind them as they sat down.
“Blueberry and cream or maple syryp?” chirruped Jessica.
Nigel answered first, taking command of the situation, suggesting the toppings be placed on the table so everyone could serve themselves. Yes, that was a better idea. A smile stole onto his face, like a cat, bright eyed, confident, settled and comfortable. He licked his lips in anticipation, knowing his plate would arrive first, at which point he'd lean back, just enough, not breaking his flow, his elbows remaining on the table as he delivered yet another witty anecdote to his laughing audience.
Mark fiddled with his cutlery.
The kitchen was warm and pleasant. The usual prizes were scattered about the place. A large wood-burning stove stood squarely under a hefty chimney breast, smugly enamelled in neutral beige, or was it pale yellow? Two butler's sinks squatted side by side, fitted into an oak frame, attended by hand carved and hand oiled draining boards. A huge pine dresser decorated the whole of one wall, laden with a dinner service, inherited from Jessica's grandmother.
Paul rose. Bucks Fizz. How perfect. Quite Christmassy, New Yearsy. He opened the double doored refrigerator. Sophie offered to help, blinking, pushing her chair back from the table. Nigel slapped her bottom as she walked past him, her well heeled boots striking the quarry tiled floor with small, dull blows. She let out a little whoop, softened by the exposed beams and sheer weight of cashmere in the room.
“So how long have you two been married?” asked Mark, his smile twisted, forced, stretched across his face as if pulled.
“Two years,” beamed Nigel.
“Three,” said Sophie.
“Yes, of course, three. Bloody hell, I'll be writing last year's date on my cheques for at least the next month,” said Nigel, swivelling to smile at his wife, lip curled.
“Right.” Mark arranged his napkin on his lap, shaking it out, smoothing it down. “And how are you finding it?”
“Finding it?” said Nigel.
“Well, you know,” said Nigel diffidently.
“Not really, I'm still a bachelor.”
“It has its ups and downs.” Nigel winked.
“In what way?”
“The usual ways.”
“And what are those?”
“Good God, is this twenty questions or something?” said Nigel, getting up stiffly, the back of his knees hitting his chair.
“Just making conversation,” said Mark.
The other occupants of the table turned their attention to a pot containing three hyacinth. All agreed they smelled simply divine, marvellous, quite seasonal. Christmas isn't Christmas without a hyacinth, at a push you can manage with a poinsettia, but really you can't beat the good old fashioned holly wreath. Jessica didn't have one of those. She flipped a pancake smartly and cursed when the fat spattered onto her apron.
“All right Jessie darling,” said Nigel, sidling over to her side. “Need a hand?”
“Oh you are a sweetie. If you could just pass me the plates. They're keeping warm in the top of the Aga.”
“Mark, shake a leg man,” said Nigel, his smile becoming a smirk, “Jessie wants the plates”.
Mark flicked the napkin off his lap and strode over to the Aga. He didn't realise the crockery would be so hot. One plate clattered to the floor. The sound of his mismanagement echoed 'round the kitchen. As he bent down, to retrieve and inspect it, Nigel threw an oven glove, hitting him on the head. “Oi!” said Mark angrily, bristles rising, cheeks transfused with embarrassment.
The Bucks Fizz was being handed out. Angostura bitters did make all the difference. Yummy. Mark's glass was plonked in his place. Someone wanted a maraschino cherry; they were kept drinks' cabinet in the sitting room. Mark obliged. He didn't hear her feet, because of the wool carpet. Consequently, when she said “Sorry,” he was taken aback, dropping the cocktail sticks all over the floor.
“Sorry for what?” he said, turning to look at her.
“For Nigel, he can be such a prat.” When Sophie spoke her eyes blinked a lot, as if they were connected to her lips and an invisible thread was making her whole face mobile. When she was quiet, unspeaking, her face fell silent. Sometimes Mark caught sight of her, in these silent phases, and he found himself studying her, looking for small secrets, tucked away in her eyes or the curve of her mouth. Curiously, all he found was a mask, discrete, uncluttered, but a mask nevertheless, perfectly preserved, blank, impenetrable. It wasn't that Sophie deliberately constructed a wall, more that she dissipated, became hazy, withdrew from the world around her, leaving only a smudge. Mark wondered what would happen if she took flight, spread her wings, escaped from the insufferable Nigel and found her own fresh air, somewhere up high, where it was crisp and clean and clear.
“We better pick these up,” she said, bending. As her head passed his face, Mark smelled the perfume of her hair. Lilies? No. Jasmine? No. Just fresh, she smelled fresh. Delicately, she plucked the cocktail sticks out of the carpet, using her long nails. He watched her fingers extend and contract, long, thin, with little knuckles; and then he noticed the withered mark, the banded pinch. “You don't wear your wedding ring?” he asked.
She snatched her hand up. “No, I …”
“Oh there you are,” boomed Nigel, “we were just about to send out a search party”.
Sophie's head jerked 'round. “I was helping Mark,” she said half apologetically.
“He's a big boy, I'm sure he can manage,” snorted Nigel, curling his top lip, exposing his teeth. “Anyway, we're all waiting, the pancakes are getting cold. He stretched his arm out into the hall, indicating they should proceed in an orderly manner. As his wife passed in front of him, he caught Mark's eye. The gaze was quite unswerving, unblinking, nothing was hidden or secreted away.
In the kitchen, Jessica was flushed. Nigel resumed his seat, after gallantly, and ostentatiously, pulling out Sophie's. He insisted on a small peck before she sat down. Mark trailed in behind them, because he'd forgotten the cherries and so had to go back. By the time he arrived, Nigel was in full flight. “ … 'A blonde with big tits? Why kill a blonde with big tits?' Bush turns to Powell and says 'See, I told you no one would worry about the hundred and forty million Iraqis'”. Laughter tinkled round the table. Nigel leant back as Jessica placed a plate of steaming pancakes in front of him.