By the time Cate had cleared Christmas dinner from the floor the Haywards were not in a very good mood. The lamb – Steve’s mother had told her a few days before that the Haywards didn’t ‘do’ turkey – had fallen in a neat arc from stovetop to floor. Before Cate had been able to rescue it, the Haywards’ giant schnauzer had clamped his jaws around the haunch, Cate had screamed, Max had dragged the lambkin away, and Mrs Hayward had come into the kitchen in her twin-set saying “Whatever is the matter?” looking shocked and – Cate could have sworn it – just a little pleased, as the gravy spread around her slippers like a pool of warming blood.
The air was now spiced with the lamb they would not eat. Through the glass partition door Cate could hear Theresa Hayward say how they should have hosted in Hampshire, and that Cate’s London flat was just not right for Christmas. In the glass Cate read the reflection of her apron: Keep Calm and Be Merry. She poured herself a larger glass of wine.
“The dog’s savaged it,” Steve said, coming in from the garden. “Can I help?”
Cate shook her head. In the fridge there was nothing but packaged ham and eggs. There was enough cheese for a soufflé, but she hardly thought she should have to make a second meal because the Haywards’ big dog had eaten dinner.
“Just keep her out of here,” she said to the fridge lights.
Steve went off to soothe his mother and Cate went into the bathroom with her handbag. She had promised herself she wouldn’t do this, but these were mitigating circumstances. Like a naughty teenager, she climbed onto the sill, opened the window and smoked a cigarette.
Peace, at last.
She flushed the last of the cigarette and stuck her head out of the window to enjoy the last blast of cold air. Steve’s mother had been like this all day: twittering on in the living-room knowing perfectly well she could be heard in the kitchen. “Oh, Steve,” she had said, just before Cate had dropped dinner, “really, I think it’s just too much for her!” But Cate had insisted: Christmas, at hers, in London. Not in Hampshire. Not again.
The breeze was delicious. Cate put her arms through the window, testing the size of the space, wondering if she might fit. Then she watched her torso follow. She wondered why she had never done this before. As a girl she would have; she was always climbing up and over things. But now, she was always so busy. If she wasn’t at work she was out at evening events. Some days she only saw Steve passing in the hallway.
Cate found that if she turned on her side she could pull her hips through as well, and by the time one leg had swung over the pane, so had another. Her lungs took in the good icy air. She jumped onto the frosted grass and pulled her handbag with her.
Goodbye, Mrs Hayward.
In the garden, Max began to bark but no-one came out to look, and she took this an encouraging sign. She walked past the shed and the failed herb patch and imagined herself as the heroine of a film: a lone woman abandoning the Christmas dinner she had already ruined. In her head a song started, a soundtrack; something with drums.
Cate neared the main road. No traffic. She began to jog, and then run. By now the potatoes would be boiling over and the water greening with mushing sprouts. This only quickened her stride. To be free felt magnificent.
At the top of the high street she stopped to catch her breath and, too hot, pulled off the Christmas jumper Mr Hayward had given her this morning with a suggestive smile: the reindeer nose beckoned on her left breast like a ruby nipple. She left it outside Oxfam.
All of the shops on the high street were closed. Now that she was here she didn’t know what it was she meant to do. The Haywards would be calling her deranged for fleeing through the bathroom window.
Then in the corner of her eye she saw what would save her story. One shop glowing yellow. Signs blu-tacked to the window read: ‘Only two school-children admitted at one time’ and ‘Halal’. Cate walked toward the lights.
At home, Steve met her at the door and rubbed her arms. “Where have you been?” he said. “We were worried!”
“I… went out.”
“You might have used the front door.” He gave her a kiss, longer than usual, and when she pulled away he held onto her. “I’m sorry about the meal. And my mother.”
In the living room, Cate tipped a bucket of chicken onto the china plates and left a shovel of fries next to each sprig of mistletoe Mrs Hayward had brought. She had enjoyed ordering the bucket of chicken at the fast-food place. She wondered if Mrs Hayward had ever had the good fortune to order a chicken bucket.
“Well,” said Mrs Hayward, with her pearls flashing in the candle-light and her bosom resting on the table, “isn’t this unorthodox!”
Within moments Mr Hayward’s chops were greased with wings and his hands were stuffing fries into his mouth.
“Yes. Same again next year?” Cate said.
Steve grinned at her and winked.
Outside, they could hear Max attack the lamb she had, only an hour before, thrown onto the floor with such gusto.
Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway (Picador, £12.99) is out on 13 February 2014