Snuggled deep into the womb-like depths of their king-size sleigh bed, Grace was drifting in and out of sleep. In a distant, disconnected place her brain was trying to tell her to get up, get ready, and go to work, but her body wasn't responding. Her limbs seemed to have been paralyzed overnight. Even her eyelids were refusing to open. She was just lying there. Thinking nothing. Doing nothing. Just breathing in. And breathing out. Slowly, dreamily, blissfully.
There was a flash of blinding light as the curtains were yanked back.
Diving for cover, she scrambled back underneath the safety of her duvet. Breathing in the warm darkness she released a deep sigh of relief. Grace had enjoyed a lifelong affair with her bed, be it her childhood bunk bed, single, badly sprung university mattress, twenty something, backbreaking futon, or her current grown-up expensive oak number from John Lewis. Like lovers, they'd all had their good points and bad points, but she'd adored them all and never wanted to leave any of them.
Unfortunately it was Friday morning, and as a designer at a graphic design agency in West London, she had to get up for work. Groaning dully, she toyed with the idea of snoozing for five minutes. Fat chance. Sun was streaming in through the window and in the background she could hear the TV blaring away in the kitchen. Spencer had obviously left it on again, she thought, feeling a wave of irritation. Living with someone for three and a half years meant getting to know all of their annoying habits, and one of Spencer's was getting up, flicking on the portable in the kitchen, and then getting distracted and forgetting all about it.
But then Spencer's attention span was incredibly short. He was the kind of bloke who started things with good intentions, but then got sidetracked, changed his mind, and never finished them. Like running a bath but never getting in it, putting bread in the toaster but never eating it.
Getting engaged but never getting married.
"Babes, are you awake?"
Why did people do that? Deliberately wake you up and then ask if you're awake? Emerging from her goosedown lair, Grace prised open her welded eyelids. She blinked blearily, trying to focus on the gray shape in front of her.
"Uh...what time is it?" she mumbled.
"Seven-thirty!" she screeched, her body jolting awake in indignation. She could have had another forty-five blissful minutes of sleep. A whole three-quarters of an hour. Grace felt robbed. Groggily peeling her tangled hair out of her eyes, she blinked again, her vision snapping into focus. The instigator of this heinous crime was wearing just a towel and leaning across the bed holding a pain au chocolat with a single pink party candle stuck in the middle. Grace felt the seeds of irritation wither away.
"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you," he began singing. His voice was a remarkably good baritone and whereas other men might have trailed off self-consciously, he proceeded to belt out the whole verse: "Happy birthday dear Grace, happy birthday to you." He finished with a little flourish on the end. "Happy Birthday, Babes."
Blimey. Of course. Her birthday. Sleep had caused a delay in registering, but now the last reluctant smudges evaporated and it clicked. Grace smiled up at Spencer. Just out of the shower, his dark blond hair was still wet, his tortoiseshell-framed glasses slightly steamy, and tiny drips of guava and citrus scented water were trickling across his enormous freckled shoulders and running down the dip between his pecs. For someone nudging his late thirties he was still in incredibly good shape, she thought proudly. It caused her to smile happily. What with his nakedness and the promise of a chocolate fix, it was a vision of loveliness.
And too good to be true.
In the four birthdays Grace had spent with Spencer, he'd never woken her up singing Happy Birthday. Never brought her breakfast in bed. He didn't go in for all that slushy sentimental stuff. And anyway, he was usually in too much of a rush, always in a hurry to get to the office, always promising to make it up to her later. Her mind began whirring up to full speed, clicking through the possibilities: he hasn't had time to buy me a present, he's got to work late tonight; he's forgotten to book a restaurant...
Spencer interrupted her thought process. "Can't a man wish his woman a happy birthday without there being something wrong?"
"No," she yawned, shaking her head.
His offended expression dissolved into a shrug of admission. "You know me too well."
Grace sensed her good mood was about to be crushed underneath one of Spencer's excuses, and folding her arms she leaned back against the pillows, a judge in PJs. "So come on then, own up," she demanded, but she was smiling. Well, it was a ceasefire of sorts.
"It's just that there's this case I've been working flat out on and it's being heard in court tomorrow."
"So we can't go out tonight," she concluded, cutting short what was no doubt going to be a long story. She'd lost count of the number of times plans had had to be cancelled because of Spencer's work commitments. If it wasn't some drinks party to welcome foreign clients, it was a corporate dinner, or a late meeting, or a pressing deadline.
"Hey Babes, let me finish." He pulled a face. If there was one thing Spencer hated, it was being interrupted. "Of course we're going out tonight. I've already booked the restaurant for nine, although admittedly I might have to meet you there a little later as there's this cocktail thing after work and I've got to show my face, have a quick drink..."
"A quick drink?" repeated Grace, grinning. "Isn't that an oxymoron in your case?"
"No in my case there's a couple with three kids, two lovers and a million-pound house, and I'm the one trying to clear up their messy divorce," he snapped irritably. As one of London's top divorce lawyers, Spencer was kept incredibly busy. He sighed, "Sorry Babes...it's just I've been working so hard on this case and...well...I know it's no excuse but I haven't had a chance to buy you a present." Taking off his glasses Spencer wrinkled his forehead so that the blond lock of fringe that always hung over his forehead, fell into his faded, denim blue eyes. To the innocent observer it would appear a spontaneous action, when really it was a technique that had taken years of practice. And one which, he knew, made him look adorable. "Would you mind if I just gave you cash instead?"
Now normally, Grace would be the first one to feel hurt if her boyfriend hadn't taken the time and effort to choose her a gift: she would assume he didn't care, that he couldn't be bothered, that he didn't love her. But with Spencer, she was actually relieved. She didn't mean to be ungrateful, it was just that, whereas she always bought him impulsive, outrageous, extravagant presents that had caught her eye, he always bought her presents that were -- dare she say it -- terribly practical.
Last year she'd unwrapped a leather box and flipped it open, thinking it was jewelry, only to discover a Mont Blanc pen. It was lovely, it must have cost a fortune, and it was extremely useful, but it was hardly the figure-hugging, chocolate satin Ghost dress she'd been dropping hints about for weeks. The year before it had been a mountain bike -- again it had been lovely, again it must have cost a fortune, with extra chunky tires and fifteen gears and all the extras, but she'd been exhausted just looking at it and was secretly relieved when it had been stolen less than a week later. And the year before that it had been a bag, but not a ridiculously dinky shoulder bag in the softest chamois leather she'd been craving, but a sturdy leather briefcase from Mulberry which, yet again, must have cost a fortune, and was so extremely practical for work. Which, as far as Grace was concerned, was the kiss of death for a present. By their sheer nature they had to be impractical, luxurious treats. Practical, she mused, was by no means perfect.
"Am I forgiven?"
God, he's trying to be so nice, thought Grace, feeling suddenly guilty. And I'm being such a cranky, narky old girlfriend. She threw him a big smile. "Don't be silly, of course you are."
"So does this mean you're going to blow out your candle and make a wish, or am I going to have to sit like this all day?" He checked his wristwatch.
Grace rolled her eyes. "Shucks, you're so romantic."
"I have my moments," he smiled, leaning forward to kiss her.
Feeling his lips against hers, the smell of naked skin and damp aftershave, Grace felt her mind wandering off in an unexpected direction. Usually the morning routine involved the usual coupley stuff: Spencer rushing around with a hangover, scraping burned toast into the sink and losing his keys while she poached herself in the bath, looked for tights without ladders, and found his keys down the back of the sofa. But the coupley stuff didn't stretch to sex, not lately anyway, not even with the help of two espressos and a soak in a tub of honey and tangerine bubbles. Then again.
"That depends..." she murmured.
Pulling back, Grace tilted her head, closed her eyes and blew through the crook of his shoulder. A wisp of smoke began rising from the candle. "On whether or not I get my wish..." Still keeping her eyes closed she ran her hand over his bare chest, tracing her fingers through the smatterings of hair. She smiled happily. She hated hairy chests but Spencer's was deliciously sexy. She couldn't think of anything nicer than resting her head between his broad shoulders and snuggling into its furry softness. But that's love for you, she thought, as her hand began weaving its way down underneath the towel. Or was it just lust?
"I better get dressed, I'm going to be late."
Snapped out of her X-rated reverie, Grace opened her eyes to see Spencer untangling himself from the duvet and standing up. She felt a pang of disappointment, followed by rejection, followed by irritation as she watched him retucking the lilac towel firmly -- a little too firmly -- around his middle. What did he think she was going to do? Rape him?
"I've got a deadline and..."
"Sure," she nodded, making an attempt at nonchalance. It wasn't easy. One minute she'd been immersed in a warm, happy, sensual bubble bath of expectation, and the next she'd been plunged under an icy cold shower of reality.
And no sex.
Annoyed at being made to feel like some kind of nymphomaniac, and on her birthday, Grace didn't say anything as Spencer pulled on a clean pair of Calvin Kleins, chose a shirt from a dozen identical ones that hung in his wardrobe, all drycleaned, all from Thomas Pink, and pulled out his suit.
"Which do you reckon? The silver, or the gold?" He was holding up two pairs of cuff links.
"You choose," she snapped sulkily. There she was, all naked and warm and ripe for sex, and he wanted to talk about cuff links?
Oblivious to her feelings, he shrugged. "I think I'll go with silver," he muttered, fastening them into place. "Oh by the way, about tonight..."
"Yes?" she hissed, overemphasizing the "s."
He didn't notice. "What were you thinking of wearing?"
Grace bristled. Spencer had an annoying habit of always suggesting what outfit she should wear whenever they went out. He liked her to look "classic" and was always sticking Boden catalogues under her nose and talking about "quality not quantity," and how she should invest in a few designer pieces that would last her for years. Last her for years? The thought nearly killed her. She was a high-street fashion junkie who got bored with things within weeks and was attracted to anything with an "As recommended by Glamour magazine" ticket around the coat hanger.
"I don't know." She attempted a smile. It was more of a snarl. "Why?"
"You'd look great in that little black dress."
"What little black dress?" she demanded suspiciously. She didn't do little black dresses, she did jeans with flowery chiffon tops, or spangly vests, or spaghetti-strap dresses in rainbow colors.
"You know, the one with the long sleeves."
"You mean the dress I wore to your grandmother's funeral?"
"Oh, is it?" he said, sitting on the side of the bed to lace up his brogues. "Never mind. I just thought it would be nice to see you in something other than jeans for a change," he grumbled, giving her a quick peck on the forehead before striding out of the bedroom.
With still half an hour left before she had to get up, Grace lay in bed listening to the blurred babble of TV in the kitchen, the turning on of the bathroom light and its noisy extractor fan, the sounds of Spencer cleaning his teeth, the hiss of antiperspirant, the buzz of his electric razor. How could it be that one minute she'd been feeling happy and horny, and the next Spencer had managed to use something as trivial as a pair of cuff links to set off a whole series of nagging doubts?
It's not as if I even care about what type of cuff links he wears, or whether he wears any at all, thought Grace feeling inexplicably irritated. That wasn't the point. The point was that they were another example of the little things that had lately begun to niggle her about Spencer. His increasing hangovers, his diminishing sex drive, his suggestion she should wear her funeral dress on her birthday, his refusal to set a date for the wedding. First one, then another, and another, and another. Once they'd started toppling over it was like one of those record-breaking domino lines you see in American shopping malls on the telly.
His jangle of keys broke into her thoughts, and she was about to call out and remind him to turn off the TV before he left, when she heard him yell goodbye and the front door slam. Abruptly the flat fell into silence, emphasizing sounds of breakfast TV which wafted into the bedroom.
"Huh," she tutted, feeling out of sorts and disgruntled and not really understanding why. Sinking down into the bed, she tugged the duvet up under her chin, forgetting the plate of pain au chocolat balancing on top, and hearing it fall clattering onto the white wooden floorboards. Ignoring it, she flung out her arm with the intention of hitting the snooze button on her alarm but with characteristic clumsiness managed to knock over the snowglobe that perched beside it on the IKEA shelving.
For a split second she blearily watched it roll toward the edge until, with somewhat impressive reflexes, she jerked upright, shot out her arm and caught it. The globe felt cold and smooth in her hand, and uncurling her fingers she placed it upright on the flat of her outstretched palm. It was one of those you could put a photograph inside and magnified through the clear plastic was the image of a couple ice skating in Central Park. Noses Rudolph red from the falling snow, they were wrapped up in silly woolly hats and stripy Dr. Seuss scarves, smiling idiotically as they clung to each other, trying to stay upright on the slippery ice.
Looking at the photograph, Grace felt a glow of nostalgia. It had been just before New Year's Eve, a few months after they'd met, and Spencer had whisked her away to New York for the weekend, fulfilling in one fell swoop every romantic fantasy she'd ever imagined. And some more she hadn't. That Polaroid had captured a perfect moment and preserved it forever. The moment when, at twenty-seven years old, she'd realized she'd finally found her Mr. Right.
Impulsively Grace shook the globe and as the millions of tiny white snowflakes began swirling around inside, fluttering and twirling, her mind flicked back over their relationship, thinking about the times they'd spent together, the rest of their lives they were going to spend together. Lost in her thoughts, she didn't notice the snowflakes gradually settling until she looked back at the globe and all at once saw the clearer picture. And it was then, on the morning of Grace's thirty-first birthday, that all those doubts, all those differences, all those fears clicked into place, like one great big jigsaw.
And a disconcerting thought hit her.
If Spencer was Mr. Right.
Why did he feel like Mr. Wrong?
Copyright © 2004 by Alexandra Potter