“Line up your chipolatas on the grill pan,” bright green trousers, used to be a chef in the army, says, barking at us like we’re all dogs and he’s the alpha. Fuck me, did I know I’d be faced with this twat when I agreed to come along to the cookery class with Tony, as a favour, after his wife ran off? (Can’t blame her if I’m honest, but I don’t tell him that). Well, he’d never learnt to cook had he? They were married at twenty-one and split things in that dated-archaic 1950s Britain way, where she was the domestic half and he was the professional high-flyer (gay as Kylie Minogue’s handbag mind, but we always pretended not to notice). He’s still not come out yet, but we’ve been bumping into Ricardo from the Madrid office after cookery, more often than could be considered a coincidence.
“My ex got hit by a bus,” Ricardo told us once, in explanation as to why he was looking like shit in Café Nero (about two months ago). My interest piqued – there’d always been something about him. He was fuckable in that irresistible Mediterranean way, but I didn’t know if he liked women, men, or both and I wasn’t brave enough to ask. Stefan, as it turns out (his ex), which meant Tony had hit the jackpot, (as long as Ricardo was willing to overlook the paunch he had developed from years of being fed). It seemed he was. I get it. For a man of forty-seven (beer-gut aside) Tony’s fit. I even shagged him a couple of times myself when we were at Uni, back when he was trying really hard to be straight.
When it comes to men, I am currently sitting stoically in a vast kingdom of disappointment. I divorced my second husband, Dwayne, (please don’t judge me, he was incredibly virile and had come-fuck-me-eyes) six years ago, and I’ve been living the high-life of a single parent to three children by two different fathers ever since. My first marriage started off alright. I was a journalist and he worked in finance, then the twins came along so I stopped; stopped working, stopped fucking, stopped drinking, stopped socialising, stopped bloody existing for five years. When I did, finally, manage to resuscitate myself, it came to my attention that he’d been shagging prostitutes – so I had no real choice but to get the scissors out. Two years later I met Dwayne, and it took longer than I’m proud of to realise that if I’d wanted something nice to look at I should have just bought a picture or had the garden done up.
“I can’t believe we’re just cooking sausages and mashed potatoes,” Tony, ever-the-schoolboy, whispers in my ear.
“I can’t believe you don’t know how to cook sausage and mash if I’m honest.” I raise my eyebrows, he looks hurt, we cuddle. I wish Tony wasn’t gay.
“Well, this is a bit shit, isn’t it?” I’m averse to queuing at the best of times, but it’s raining and I’ve never even heard of the celebrity chef we’re here to see (the cookery classes having burgeoned into a full-blown obsession).
“Suzie-Soo…” Tony purrs, trying to placate my displeasure.
“Like…really shit. I mean, in the rain and twenty people at a fucking time! Honestly, if I’d known…”
“Well dear, an umbrella would be nice,” an older lady in a mackintosh, behind us in the queue. Tony smiles at her and compliments her perm, she blushes. Ever the bloody charmer.
“She’s not wrong though, is she? An umbrella would be nice! Do you think it’s even worth going in? Shall we just sod it off and go to the pub?”
“And miss a demo from the Francois de Bois? He is a culinary fucking legend Suze! Besides, can you imagine the old major’s face when I pull off some (cue appalling French accent) haute cuisine?”
I smile. Tony is not a natural cook, although to give him his dues he is improving; his attempts in class no longer resemble something attributable to Mrs Cropley from The Vicar of Dibley.
“Anyway,” Tony is playing with the skin around one of his fingernails, “I promised Ricardo I’d get his autograph.”
“Hmm. Ricardo’s become quite a pal, hasn’t he?” I raise an eyebrow in hope of an admission.
“You know I’ve been temporarily working with the Madrid office.” He’s coy. I’m tempted to tell him to spit the damn thing out, I know anyway. And yet, a drizzly queue, outside the demonstration marquee at this piss-wet food festival he’s dragged me to, doesn’t seem the right place.
“I promise we’ll go to the pub tonight.” He changes the subject.
“Too bloody right we will, how often are all my children with their respective fathers for the weekend?”
“That sentence makes you sound like a bit of whore,” he says, laughing and runs a hand through his Jaime Lannister thick, blonde hair.
“I am a fucking whore, Tony,” I shoot back deadpan. The old lady behind me looks like someone just ran over her cat then pegged it on her washing line. Tony notices and smiles at her.
“Wonder if this rain’ll ever give up eh?” he says, flashing his Hollywood Smile white teeth for good measure.
“Yes, yes dear,” she says, grinning weakly at him. “If only we could do something to make it stop.”
“So, Dwayne is getting married again,” I announce. We’re drinking gin in Tony’s garden.
“Get the fuck out! I still can’t believe he found someone to marry him the first time!”
I roll my eyes but concede defeat.
“Ellie brought her invite home. Dad’s getting married, she said. On the Amalfi coast – fucker knew I always wanted something like that, but I had to make do with a registry office in Finchley. The Amalfi-fucking-coast, can you believe it?”
Tony’s laughing. “Yeah it’s Dwayne’s style, he’s still pissed off you ditched him. More importantly, has anyone got your interest at the moment?”
I sigh. In a pre-rehearsed manner, I run through the chain of disastrous dates which happened prior to him splitting up with Kat. He laughs a lot; wishes I’d told him sooner. I admit recently there’s been nothing. He looks sad then and immediately I feel a deep sense of irritation scrape away at the under-side of my skin like a cat at a scratching post.
I momentarily consider telling Tony I’ve been meeting up with Ricardo for coffee every Thursday (while Tony’s in a senior management meeting) and that he’s told me everything. Including his worries about the width and breadth of Tony’s closet (he doesn’t use the term closet though, because he doesn’t like it. He says it’s a cliché and that people keep clothes in a closet which they wear out in public. So if you’re going to use the analogy of furniture, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Tony is in the pant drawer – I can’t argue with his logic).
I don’t though.
I don’t tell Tony how I fight his corner, how I remind Ricardo that he doesn’t know what it’s like to have been married to a woman, to have kids. Then listen to him tell me how I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a devout Catholic family in rural Spain. (I actually like the sound of it, but I can appreciate how it might have been difficult for a gay man.)
I do, however, ask Tony the same question he asked me. Is there anyone?
He looks at my almost drained Bombay Sapphire gin glass and tells me I could do with another.
“I want to hear it.” I put my right hand on top of his arm. “Tell me…everything.”
“I don’t know how to say this…”
“You’re in a relationship with Ricardo.” I love Tony, but it’s been painful. Rip the plaster off or get someone to rip it off for you. He looks at me, narrows his eyes in confusion (which I know means he’s considering denying it), then nods. Resigned.
“I’ve known for a while,” I admit, smiling.
“How?” he asks, still unsure.
I laugh. “I’ve had sex with you…”
“What do you mean?” he asks, acting bemused.
“I know when I’m having sex with a gay man!”
“What? No? That was…”
“Ages ago? Yeah. But you’ve always been…”
We grin at each other.
“I tried not to be,” he says, without any hint of melancholy.
“Do you think Kat knew?” he asks, as if he has never before considered that his ex-wife might have intuited his true sexual orientation.
“Yes.” I open my eyes wide and nod.
“And the kids…?” He seems more bothered about this.
“Mmmm…” I wrinkle my nose, twisting my mouth to the side, “I’m honestly not sure.”
Then we settle down into it. How it all happened, how he realised, how Ricardo asked him out, how he’s never known what it’s like to be in a happy relationship until now. I don’t tell him most people don’t ever know. I don’t know.
My kids are on the Amalfi-coast. Both my ex-husbands are there too; one getting married to his new wife (Anouska, 29!) and the other (Stephen) attending as a bloody guest. They never liked each other when I was married to Dwayne, but time and a common enemy can change anything. I might be past my prime, but I decided (with the kids away) to throw a party – yes old people like parties too, I am as surprised as the next person. Tony said he and Ricardo would do the barbeque on account of it being a man’s job. I said I didn’t think that kind of gender-biased bullshit applied anymore but took them up on the offer anyway. The sun put on a stellar act by coming out and staying out and the rain didn’t make an appearance at all. Everyone from the cookery class came, although they’ve all gone now, including the major – his real name is Patrick and he’s genuinely quite nice when he’s not ordering you to cook greasy sausages. Tony and Ricardo are the only ones still here – they said they were staying to help me take my mind off my husbands, but I know they just wanted to use my new hot tub, they’re in there now.
Kat was a bitch when Tony came out, even though she’d known he was gay for at least twenty-five years. She told their two twenty-something daughters (Millie and Rosa) in disgust, but they both laughed and said they’d known for ages. They’ve moved in together now, Ricardo does all the cooking (sometimes you can’t fight the inevitable), Tony’s soft, podgy belly has all but disappeared, in fact I’m not sure I can ever remember him looking so healthy. He’s learning Spanish too, but I’ve so far managed to avoid attending another evening class; I think we’ve all had enough adult education for the time being.
There’s something about the way I’ve been feeling recently that’s different to how I felt say at fifteen. To how we all felt at fifteen actually, as though there were something wrong with you if you didn’t want to have a boyfriend. My mother had this ingrained belief that being alone in life was one of the very worst things which could happen to a person; find someone and be happy she always used to say. I don’t know if this was because she was immeasurably happy with Dad, or if it was because the most secret desire of her heart was to find someone else who might help her become that way. Still, the echoes of her words have reverberated around my life like a spiritual mantra; the key to happiness is a thing you find hanging, like a necklace, on someone else.
Perhaps that’s true for Tony and Ricardo. I’ve pulled the curtains shut to keep my eyes from inadvertently flicking in their direction, but I can still hear them laughing as I reach up and feel the smooth metal, which has appeared without drawing attention to itself, around my neck.