'It’s something that needs two men to haul it out of a van. Oh my God, it’s not some sort of . . . equipment?'
‘All right? Dan Winter, is it?’
‘Yes!’ says Dan. ‘All ready.’
‘We’ll get it out the van, then. Will we be all right, spacewise?’
The guy comes in a step and peers around.
Dan nods. ‘I think so. You should be able to get it through the hall.’
I’m gaping at them in shock. Get what through the hall?
This isn’t a set of underwear from Agent Provocateur, is it?
It’s something that needs two men to haul it out of a van.
Oh my God, it’s not some sort of . . . equipment? Should I hurry the girls away before they glimpse something that will scar them for life?
‘Can you take the girls upstairs, Sylvie?’ says Dan in unreadable tones, and my heart flips over. ‘Just until I say so.’
‘OK!’ I say, my voice a bit strangled. What has Dan done?
I hustle the girls into their room and read them a Winnie-the-Pooh story in a self-conscious voice, all the while thinking: erotic chair? Erotic sofa? Erotic . . . oh God, what else is there? A sex swing? (No, Dan couldn’t have ordered that. Our joists would never support a swing.)
I’m desperate to google big sex item needs delivery in van on my phone, only the girls are bound to grab it. (This is the trouble with your children learning to read.) So I just have to sit there, talking about Heffalumps, getting into a lather of suspicion and fantasy . . . when, at last, I hear the front door slamming and the sound of Dan’s tread on the stairs.
‘Come downstairs,’ he says, looking round the door, his whole face glowing. ‘I have quite a surprise for you.’
‘Surprise!’ yells Tessa joyfully, and I glance at her in alarm.
‘Dan, should the girls . . .’ I give him a meaningful glance.
‘Is this suitable?’
‘Of course!’ says Dan. ‘Go to the kitchen, girls. You won’t believe your eyes!’
OK, I’m really not following this.
‘Dan,’ I demand as we go downstairs, the girls hurrying ahead. ‘I don’t understand. Is this your sexy surprise?’
‘It certainly is.’ He nods beatifically. ‘But not just sexy . . . beautiful. She’s beautiful.’
‘Arrrggh! A snake!’ Tessa comes bombing out of the kitchen and wraps her arms round my legs. ‘There’s a snake in the kitchen!’
‘What?’ My heart thumping, I skitter into the kitchen, turn around and immediately jump back six feet. Oh my God. Oh my God.
Lined up against the wall, where our toy box used to be, is a glass tank. Inside the glass tank is a snake. It’s orange and brown and has a black snakey eye and I think I might vomit.
‘Wh – wh—’ I’m gibbering. I’m actually unable to form words. ‘Wh—’
‘Surprise!’ Dan has followed me in. ‘Isn’t she lovely? She’s a corn snake. Bred for captivity, so you don’t have to worry about her getting upset.’
That’s not what I was worried about.
‘Dan.’ Finally I find my voice and grab his lapels. ‘We can’t have a snake.’
‘We have a snake,’ Dan corrects me. ‘What shall we call her, girls?’
‘Snakey,’ says Tessa.
‘No!’ I’m nearly hyperventilating. ‘I won’t have a snake! Not in the house! I won’t do it, Dan!’
At last, Dan looks at me properly. Eyebrows raised innocently. As though I’m the one who’s being unreasonable.
‘What’s the big deal?’
‘You said you were getting something sexy!’ I hiss furiously.
‘She is sexy! She’s exotic . . . sinuous . . . You must agree.’
‘No!’ I shudder. ‘I can’t even look at her. It,’ I correct myself quickly. It’s an it.
‘Can we have a dog?’ pipes up Anna, who is quite intuitive and has been watching our exchange. ‘Instead of a snake?’
‘No!’ cries Tessa. ‘We have to keep our lovely snakey . . .’
She attempts to hug the glass tank and the snake uncoils.
Oh God. I have to look away. How could Dan think a snake was a sexy surprise? How?
By the time the girls are in bed, we’ve reached a compromise. We will give the snake a chance. However, I do not have to feed, handle or look at the snake. I will never even touch the freezer drawer dedicated to its food. (It eats mice, actual mice.) Nor am I calling it Dora, which is what the girls have named it. It is not Dora, it is the Snake.
It’s 8 p.m. and we’re sitting on our bed, exhausted by our negotiations. The girls are in bed and have finally stopped creeping out to ‘see if Dora’s all right’.
‘I thought you’d like it,’ says Dan dolefully. I think the truth has finally dawned on him. ‘I mean, we talked about having a snake . . .’
‘I was joking,’ I say wearily. ‘As I have explained about a hundred times.’ It never occurred to me he might be serious. I mean, a snake?
Dan leans back against the headboard with a sigh, resting his head against his hands. ‘Well, I surprised you, anyway.’ He looks over with a wry smile.
‘Yup.’ I can’t help smiling back. ‘You did.’
‘And you liked your cardigan, anyway.’
‘It’s stunning!’ I say with enthusiasm, wanting to make up for the snake. ‘Honestly, Dan, I love it.’ I stroke the fabric. ‘It’s so soft.’
‘You like the colour?’
‘I love the colour.’ I nod as emphatically as I can. ‘So much better than the bl—’
I stop mid-word. Shit.
‘What did you say?’ asks Dan slowly.
‘Nothing!’ I paste on a bright smile. ‘So, shall we watch some TV, or . . .’
‘You were going to say “blue”.’
‘No I wasn’t!’ I say, but not quite convincingly enough. I can see Dan’s mind working. He’s not stupid, Dan.
‘Tilda called you.’ The light is dawning on his face. ‘Of course she bloody called you. You two talk about everything.’ He eyes me balefully. ‘That cardigan wasn’t a surprise at all, was it? You probably—’ He breaks off, as though a fresh theory is dawning. I have a horrible feeling it might be the truth. ‘Is that why it was warm?’ He’s shoffed, I can tell. He’s goggling at me, as though his whole world is crumbling about him.
‘Were you at Tilda’s house?’
‘Look . . .’ I rub my nose. ‘Look . . . I’m sorry. But she didn’t know which size to choose, and this way you didn’t have to faff around . . . it made sense . . .’
‘But it was supposed to be a surprise!’ he almost bellows.
He has a point.
For a while we’re both silent, staring up at the ceiling.
‘My surprise breakfast wasn’t any good,’ I say morosely.
‘And you didn’t even notice my kitchen makeover.’
‘I did!’ Dan says at once. ‘The . . . uh . . . candlesticks. Great.’
‘Thanks.’ I raise a wry smile. ‘But don’t pretend. I was deluded to think you’d get excited by a kitchen makeover, of all things.’
Maybe I was deluded, I’m thinking more honestly to myself . . . or maybe I just wanted an excuse to buy new stuff for the kitchen.
‘Well,’ replies Dan, his hands spreading in acknowledgement.
And I know we’re both thinking: Same goes for the snake.
‘And we never went to Tim Wender . . .’ I add mournfully.
‘Tim Wender?’ Dan swivels round. ‘What do you mean?’
Oh my God. What with all the snake shenanigans, he doesn’t even know.
‘I had tickets!’ I almost pop with frustration. ‘A special lunchtime performance! It was going to be—’ I break off. There’s no point rubbing it in. ‘Never mind. We can go another time.’ A sudden gurgle of laughter escapes from me. ‘What a fiasco.’
‘Maybe surprises are a red herring,’ says Dan. ‘It was a fun idea, but maybe we should call it a day.’
‘No,’ I retort. ‘I’m not giving up so soon. You wait, Dan, I’m going to come up with an awesome surprise for you.’
‘I’m not giving up,’ I repeat obstinately. ‘And in the meantime, I do have one more thing up my sleeve.’ I pull open my bedside table drawer, take out my tingly massage oil, and throw it to Dan.
‘Now you’re talking.’ His eyes shine as he reads the label and I can tell I’ve scored. The way to Dan’s heart has always been through sex. So . . .
Wait a minute. Hang on.
I actually blink, as my thoughts crystallize. Why on earth have I bothered with all this other stuff? Why on earth did I think he’d notice a new tablecloth or care what he has for breakfast? I’ve been a total idiot. Sex is the answer. Like they say: It’s all about sex, stupid. This is how we keep our marriage alive.
Already ideas are bubbling up in my head. A new strategy is forming. I have the perfect surprise for Dan. The perfect plan. And he’ll love it, I just know he will.