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'Sometimes I get so low I feel like I'm looking up at myself through the soles of my shoes. And they're ugly shoes.'
When Sarah House's husband doesn't come home for yet another Christmas, she finally sees her marriage for what it is...a sham, and a waste of twenty good years. No amount of wine is going to fix it. She knows. She's tried.
But she's going to discover her marriage isn't the only lie in her life. When her husband goes missing, she has just twelve days to set things right...and sometimes right isn't the man you've got. Sometimes it's the kind of man that speaks quietly and carries a .45.
A Sarah House Novel...noir, love and guns. And brandy.
The 1st Day of Christmas Best Stuffing
On the first day of Christmas, I should've been getting up, thinking about making Christmas Dinner. Maybe even hitting the sherry early...it's Christmas. Eight in the morning for a first sherry seems perfectly reasonable. Instead of being drunk in charge of turkey, though, I'm in the bath thinking about shaving my ankle-moustaches. I've had them for around a year. My husband's barely home, and when he is, he doesn't look at my ankles. I suppose I'd worry about my appearance if he did. But he doesn't. So screw him.
Or not. It's been a while. I could give birth to dust bunnies, it's been so long.
I don't really want ankle-moustaches. It's not a conscious thing, like wearing knickers that cover my ass since I hit forty. I think I just got tired, then I got belligerent about it. They're my ankles, right? Every time I shave my legs, I cut off a knee or an ankle. I have beards on my knees now, and moustaches on my ankles. I'm forty-five and my husband hasn't noticed this odd fashion in leg hair. I'd be very surprised if he ever does...but by New Year's Day, I'm getting laid and I suspect he's not going to have a damn thing to do with it.
Once I get going, I'm going. It takes me a while, but there are choices when you're home all day...or your husband thinks you are.
'What did you do today?' he asks, every now and then. I think he asks mostly to show willing. When he's 'listening', I see his eyes turn right back into his head while he's thinking about what he's going to say next. Then he's prattle out some boring shit that happened at work.
The truth is, around ten years ago, he stopped knowing what I do all day, and I stopped caring in the slightest who got hired, fired, or spilled their coffee in the playground. He thinks I watch the soaps, and what do I care if he does?
Would it matter if I did? It would to me.
So, I get up slow, but when I get going, I really get going.
At around nine in the morning, legs freshly shaven (except the knee-beards and ankle-moustaches) I start stuffing the turkey. Sage and onion's just fine, but I've got olive, a little tarragon, a ton of sausage (I wish) meat, all soaked in Amontillado sherry since the night before. There are other things involved, but I never made up a stuffing before. This one probably would've turned out just fine, except it was only a little sherry because it was Christmas Eve, I was alone, and I like getting drunk.
In truth, it was very little sherry in the stuffing. It was a small bottle and I didn't want to waste it. It was a largely sober kind of stuffing.
I stick my hand right up the turkey's behind, which squelches.
'Uh-huh...you like that? Just a little...oh yeah...that's it...that's the spot...'
I talk dirty to the turkey between large sips of red wine. Red wine's not really drinking in the morning, as long as you're cooking. Also, breakfast counts as cooking.
I'm not an alcoholic. It's more of a dalliance. Call it an affair, if you will, of a woman who thinks marriage should be final.
I look at my hand stuffed up the turkey's behind and sigh. I'm not saying I fancied someone stuffing their hand up my behind. I'm just saying at this point, this was the closest thing I'd seen to a bit of action since...Christ...must've been months.
Dust bunnies and tumbleweed blow through the kitchen. Spitefully, the dust bunnies were giving the tumbleweed a damn good rogering.
Sometimes I hate that I have an imagination.
Potatoes are peeled, resting in salted water. I've got trimmings...chipoltas wrapped up like dwarf penises in the loving embrace of tasty bacon. Little nubs of chestnuts nestled in the bosom of Brussels Sprouts. Red cabbage seeping in red wine vinegar, which is an experimental thing as I don't really want to waste good alcohol on red cabbage. No one will eat the cabbage, either way. It's just for a bit of colour, really.
It's only dinner for three this year. Mum and Dad and little old pissed me. This year it's just me and the oldies. My husband's not coming. I don't think he ever planned to.
I take a sip (kind of a big sip, but it's a small glass. Smallish.) of the red wine and wonder if I'll still be standing by the time they get here.
When the doorbell rings I look at the clock on the wall, which is unnecessarily large. It's one in the afternoon. I can smell burning, I've got dribble all the way from chin to cleavage, and I'm on the sofa.
I don't have the foggiest how I got on the sofa, or what's happening with the dinner. Everyone likes crispy turkey, right?
'Fuck!' I say, and realise I haven't got dressed, done anything much with dinner, I've got a kind of purple dribble down myself and no doubt a purple tongue, and Mum and Dad will be tapping their feet on the red flagstones on our stupid porch with its stupid white plaster columns, like some footballer's mansion.
I'm a bit wobbly, a bit drunk, so the first excuse I think of when I open the door in my nightdress and dressing gown isn't the best.
'Sorry, Mum...had the shits.'
Mum's not an idiot, though. We're both from the East End of London, and we weren't born yesterday.
'Purple shits, was it, Love?'
'Come in,' I sigh.
'He didn't come home, did he?'
'Nope,' I say. Not even for a good stuffing, I think. She's probably thinking the same, too. Mum's mind's a dirty one. She grew up in pubs, worked in pubs, 'til she married dad. Dad's used to be a copper. Between the two of them they could turn the air blue at a Christening.
'Come on,' says mum while dad just grins, like he always does. He says more than mum even when his mouth's shut. 'I'll give you a hand. And we'll see if there's any wine left, too, eh?'
I groan. I like a good drink, but mum's basically a pub on legs.
'Thanks,' I say, though, because when your husband doesn't even bother to come home for Christmas, a mum and dad are pretty welcome house guests.
Three places laid, dad sits at the head of the table. It's where my husband would sit, I guess, if he were the man of the house. He's not, though...turns out I am. I'm turning into the man I wanted to marry. Getting better at having sex by myself, too.
We're not poor. I've got the right tools for the job. I haven't had to shag the washing machine yet. It's an expensive washing machine, though. Barely shimmies. Not that I've butted up against it or anything. Out of curiosity. Maybe once, I might have leant on it to reach up for a glass or something.
Mum and I bring in the stuff, the turkey, which looks like it just got back from Marbella.
Dad nods his approval as we serve him up the biggest portion. Turkey, pigs-in-blankets, stuffing, sprouts, roast potatoes, about a litre of gravy and put a healthy dollop of horseradish out, too, because cranberries give him the runs.
When we're all sitting, eating or watching or drinking, mum starts in with the talk I know she's been dying to have. Probably since I married the man who stood me up for Christmas...and plenty of other meals besides.
'Honey,' she says. She says 'honey' when she's going to give me a lecture, calls me 'love' when she's being sweet. It's always been one or the other.
Dad gives her a hint of a look, like they spoke about this before. They probably did. It's been going on for the last ten years. Half of our marriage, maybe.
'Don't you think it's time you did something about this...situation?'
'Mum...he's my husband. I'm in for life. I take my vows seriously...'
She puts on that soft look. She's had that look there since my first boyfriend. I was thirteen, he was fifteen. She put that soft look on then, when we had one of several talks. We'd had the talk before my first shag. We had a different one after.
I know what she's going to say.
'But if he doesn't take his vows seriously?'
'Mum, he's working. Working to keep food on the table...'
'That he doesn't eat.'
'It's not like he's off shagging younger birds, mum. He's just...busy.'
'Too busy for you? You're his wife, aren't you?'
I sigh. I'm sticking up for a husband I don't believe in, even though I know it's pointless, like trying to argue dragons are real. She knows exactly what I'm thinking, but I won't say it.
I'm not going to stop her, though.
'You should've married a good man, love,' says mum.
'He's a good man.' Even as I say it, I feel dirty like a liar.
'No, he isn't,' says mum, and dad punctuates that with a hearty nod. 'I mean a good man. Like your father. I know I moan about him. I nag him, too. But that's all right. He was a man who could screw like a racehorse.'
'Believe me,' she says, 'that man could pound nails with his...'
Dad's grinning through all this. She can see him, I can see him, and we lay a place for him every meal, but of course he's not there. He's been dead five years. Dead, but he still hangs around. It's kind of nice. He doesn't eat much, though.
Dad winks at me. Mum pretends to be all innocent.
'What?' she says.
'Mum, seriously...if dad was still alive, he'd be blushing or something...'
'But he's not, honey. If he was, he'd been home for Christmas dinner. And a good fucking Christmas night, too.'
'Oh, grow up, honey. And you know I'm right. Anyway, enough. Let's eat. Then we'll get pissed.'
'Spare room?' I ask with a sigh.
She smiles and nods. 'Got any more of this wine? Good, innit?'