Words: Fay Weldon
Illustrations: Luis Tinoco
They were married in June. Bells rung, sun shone, the old country church was packed, the young bride was beautiful and slim in her wedding dress and the young groom was charming, kind and handsome. A perfect wedding and a perfect reception – champagne flowed and no step-parents had to be asked because there weren’t any. Miranda the bride and Hugo the groom, both 25, came from truly functional family backgrounds where people owned nice houses, behaved well and seldom got divorced. Both Miranda and Hugo were dreadfully in love and at the ceremony each swore to obey the other, though that raised a few eyebrows. How did one do that?
Anyway, the happy couple lived in blissful togetherness and harmony in their pretty little new-build, No 4, The Chase – the deposit put up by both parents jointly – until December when all hell broke loose...
Amazon delivers a six-foot artificial Xmas tree complete with a 76-piece kit of glitter decorations in silver and grey, a box of damask-style paper chains and a plastic Xmas wreath.
“What’s all this?” asks Hugo, who opened the door.
“Only just in time,” says Miranda. “Christmas decorations go up on the 15th and come down on New Year’s Eve.” Miranda works on the design pages of a glossy magazine. She knows how one’s meant to live. Family traditions are important.
“Sorry,” says Hugo. “Decorations go up on Christmas Eve and come down on Twelfth Night and we certainly don’t do plastic.” He works in advertising. You would have thought he was modern and trendy, no ties for him: but when you scratch him he’s just an old-school bear. The way he’d known it as a child was how he wanted it now.
Miranda speaks to her Facebook friends and all agree she must stand up for her rights. As you begin in a marriage so you go on. But she must be tactful.
“You must understand, Hugo,” she says. “It’s my turn to give the office party, and there’s no way I’m going to ask guests into an undecorated house. They’ll think I’m weird. It’s on Friday 22nd. The invites have gone out.”
“First I’ve heard about a party,” he says.
“I forgot,’ she says. “It didn’t occur to me you might object.”
“Well, actually, I do,” he says. “Parties are for friends not colleagues. I don’t want a lot of people I don’t know living it up in my house. Things might get broken.”
“It’s happening,” she says. “Deal with it.”
“I’m not helping put up those streamers,” he says. “They glitter. They’re intolerably vulgar.”
“Why do you think I need you to help?” she asks. “Anything a man can do a woman can do better.” He goes to bed early, sleeping on the far side of the bed. When he gets up she has already put up the streamers. He says he’s hurt and angry.
“You forget,” she says. “This is my house too. In fact it’s more mine than yours. A third more. I pay two thirds of the mortgage.” It’s true, she earns more than he does, though he expects promotion soon. “We’re having a glorious Christmas tree for my party on the 22nd and that is that.”
“Over my dead body,” he says.
“Die then,” she says and goes off to work. She is shocked to hear the words coming out of her mouth. She has not known she is capable of such meanness. When she gets home he has taken the decorations down. She sleeps on the sofa.
Frightened by what is happening they make it up. The Xmas tree is still unwrapped, the streamers are piled in an armchair.
“My Facebook friends all agree with me,” she can’t resist saying. “Women have to stand up for themselves.”
“Um,” he says. His turn to spend the night on the sofa.
Hugo tells Miranda he has given up social networking, “because it’s divisive.”
“Then we have nothing left in common,” she says.
“Don’t be silly, Miranda,” he says. “Stamp your pretty little foot all you like. It’s your time of the month speaking.” It was, too, but that made it worse. “I can’t believe I even heard that,” she says. They sleep apart again: once you’re used to it you get a better night’s sleep.
Miranda stays home, sets up the Christmas tree, decorates it beautifully – tasteful in grey and silver – puts up the damask streamers, gets in the drink and nibbles, and goes to the beauty salon. Hugo comes home, refrains from objection, but is very polite and distant. Another night apart. Neither have done any Christmas shopping, and it’s getting rather late to rely on Amazon.
Hugo comes home from work a little drunk, and finds people he doesn’t know whooping it up in his house. He is perfectly polite; but after half an hour makes his goodbyes and goes to the pub. Nor does he come home. He has gone to his parents.
Weeping, Miranda clears up after the party. Then she takes the Christmas tree, decorations, streamers and wreath round to recycling. She looks around her desolate home and goes to live with her mother.
In the afternoon Hugo calls by his house and finds it empty and denuded. He goes straight round to Poundland – fortunately still open – where he buys the only artificial Christmas tree left, plus a 54-piece decoration set and damask streamers, goes home and puts them up. He spends a despairing night alone.
Five o’clock: the doorbell rings. It’s Miranda. They fall into each others arms, so glad and relieved they are to see each other.
“Tell you what,” he says, when they are happily back in bed, “supposing instead of one really big quarrel every six months we have a small one once a week? It’s what other people do.”
“Quite agree,” she says. “It might be safer.” That’s solved. Midnight strikes.
Happy Christmas, everyone.
The New Countess, the final book in Fay Weldon’s Edwardian Love & Inheritance trilogy (Head of Zeus, £14.99) is out now; fayweldon.co.uk