They had been married almost fifteen years. He’d thought the sex had been pretty good at first, plentiful and vigorous. Some days they’d spend the whole day on a ‘fuckathon’ as Valentina used to call it. There had been none of that for several years now. Maybe it was their age, or somehow was it his fault? Somewhere at the back of his mind he knew that it must be his fault.
On Netflix people of their age were hooking up all the time. They weren’t past it. He still got aroused, he still got hard, though the last few times he had tried to interest his wife in his penis, she had a backache… or period pains… or a bad knee… or something…
It could be their age. He expected to start falling apart once he got to the wrong side of forty. Mind you, they were neither of them quite forty yet, but he knew the menopause could make things change. Val was a bit too young for that yet, he guessed. He didn’t know for sure. When she’d first gone off sex he’d looked up such things on the internet. Maybe she was peri-menopausal. She was a bit young for that too. (He was quite proud of how much he knew about women’s workings, he wasn’t one of those guys disgusted by a period and knew what the clitoris was. Though his gynaecological knowledge didn’t seem to make having sex with his wife any easier.)
Perhaps she no longer fancied him. He’d always worried that she’d go off him. From the beginning he hadn’t been able to understand how this wonderful woman could love him, a mutt like him, who had never been what you might call a handsome man. Though men could get away with being less conventionally attractive, he was aware he’d put on some weight over the past few years. He had a tendency to, like his father. He’d tried several times to diet and had been quite successful, but he found that he put the weight straight back on. He’d once confessed his fears to Val, one drunken night when they were first together, that he didn’t know how someone as beautiful as she could go out with a monster like him; a real beauty and beast story. Val had said, that’s an awful story you know, fairytales are all about upholding the patriarchal status quo; man imprisons woman and she falls in love with him, it’s about Stockholm Syndrome. Anyway, she had said, cupping his face, looking up at him, you are not a beast, not like some of my previous mistakes, you’re a good guy, and if we were anything in a fairytale, you’d be my beautiful monster and I’d be the one who imprisoned you. He was happy with that at the time, though he didn’t really acknowledge the truth behind what she said.
The shared background, being a child and a grandchild of immigrants was the thing they first bonded over. Her grandparents had come to Scotland from Italy not long after the First World War; when the second war came, her nonno was interned. The family made their surname sound more English after that, but her dad’s insistence on traditional family first names for his children, (Valentina, Cristiana, Marco and Francesco,) still made the siblings stick out as somehow ‘other’.
His father was Turkish. His parents had met at university. They were both studying chemistry at the University of Bristol. The West Country had been where his dad had put down roots all those years ago aged 18. But recently, his parents had been considering moving back to the village in Turkey where his dad was from and the family had spent a lot of happy summers.
He could pinpoint when his relationship with Valentina changed. They had been out at a fancy restaurant for her thirtieth birthday. Her best friend had just had a bereavement, and she’d been crying about it to him all night. Being the sort of guy that he was, of course he stayed with her and gave her his full attention, knowing that Val had friends with her who would keep her company on her special night. Their closeness, the thing that they had thought was so unique about their relationship, had started to unravel from that time.
Maybe it was natural – maybe humans weren’t built for lifelong monogamy. Perhaps around ten years is the length a relationship ought to be. That was what all those celebrity men seemed to preach anyway. They didn’t have any problems getting a string of wives: the one before you are famous, your childhood sweetheart who you acrimoniously abandon; the one wife whilst you are famous who might also be a celebrity, she’ll leave you for a younger man; then the last wife when you are in your dotage, usually much younger than you. She might have a child by you, thirty years or so younger than its brothers and sisters. Well, if it was good enough for Charlie Chaplin…
He still loved Val so much, it didn’t matter that she was often angry these days – again, maybe that was the age thing. They were both starting to feel a little bit creaky. She, who had always had perfect health, resented having to go to the doctor for anything. He had to beg her to go for her smear test every couple of years, especially after there was that scandal with the fake nurse in Chippenham. He believed that prevention was better than cure and would make an appointment for the smallest things. He knew this angered her, that she felt he was wasting precious resources. His father had had a heart attack whilst playing in the dads’ rugby match at the school sports day. Turned out he had high cholesterol and a fatty liver, but never having been tested before he hadn’t known. It was a close thing. But the pills and a low fat diet had kept his dad going strong for the past twenty-five years, and oh, how he now praised the National Health Service!
Maybe it was her job. They made the move to Shepherds Bush in London because her amazing dream job in the media came up. She was at work for long hours, but at least she could walk home. The first few years she’d text him when she finished and he’d go and meet her, they’d walk back together holding hands, she’d tell him all about her day in the glamorous new job. They might drop into the local pub on the way home, a pub that had a lovely rural vibe but was in the very heart of the city; that pub changed hands a few years ago and they didn’t like what the current owners had done with it. They didn’t go there now. She still worked late frequently, but a colleague who lived nearby dropped her off home. She also went on regular long weekend trips for work. Back when they were first married, they would have jumped at the chance to go away to a hotel together. Somehow the sex was always better in a hotel room. She didn’t ask him to come with her on work things these days.
The move to London had been good timing. They hadn’t seen the growing mistrust in the faces of people when they heard his dad’s foreign surname, something his dad spoke about with sadness and anger. The surprised looks when they found his dad spoke with the same Bristolian accent that they did. The questions of where are you from? No, where are you really from? When the answer for over forty years had been Filton. The implicit suggestion that somehow his dad shouldn’t be living there, when he had lived and paid taxes there, for twice as long as he had lived anywhere else.
Maybe it was him. The sex had never really worked for them, not as it might have done. He knew her boyfriend prior to him had had an enormous dick, though she’d never made a comparison to his only average equipment in all the time they’d been together. He imagined she and the ex had fucked without abandon at every opportunity, in every way conceivable. He’d only had sex with six other women before her and it was all very conventional. Nobody had complained, so at least he didn’t think he’d disappointed them. But alcohol had always been involved and the memories were slightly blurred.
He wondered if this was it now. Sex once or twice a year till they were fifty, then maybe they’d give it up entirely. If he wanted to keep it going he’d have to get a regular supply of Viagra in order to get it up and she’d have to use KY jelly so she was wet enough.
He wondered if his parents still had sex, now they were in their late sixties. He tried to erase it from his memory but he knew they’d had a pretty active sex life when he was a kid. He’d often wake up hearing his mother’s groans. A low, inhuman noise; not the normal rounded West Country tones he was used to hearing.
Val had been quick to tears lately whilst watching her favourite Studio Ghibli movies and had developed quite a few spots around her hairline. She’d complained about him buying too much chocolate, so he’d started bringing back nuts instead, as all the time he’d known her, bar a regular pre-menstrual spot, her complexion was flawless. Maybe there were indications of peri-menopause, his research indicated that it didn’t usually happen so young, but she had also been complaining of joint aches. He bought some Epsom Salts and started making sure they had oily fish once a week.
Abi had been the first woman he’d had sex with. It was at university. Neither of them had a clue what they were doing. He’d come on his own for a whole six months before she had her first orgasm, straddled above him, a look of surprise on her face. She was married now with two kids, he was friends with her on Facebook.
Mags was a researcher at the university where he did his PhD. They only went out three times and had sex the once. It was a very beer sodden evening and he was disappointed that Mags didn’t want to pursue it. They had been friends before the drunken event happened. She had been the one who had instigated it and she was the one who seemed utterly bored by the end of it.
There had been a couple of one night stands when he’d started internet dating. They had seemed to want something so diametrically opposed to what he had always been looking for – a soulmate – but he had gone through with the actually quite bad sex because it seemed expected of him, the man. There was also Gurdeep. He’d thought they had a connection, he had liked her, they’d gone out for about a fortnight, but then she ghosted him for three months. When she got back in touch out of the blue, he’d already started seeing Valentina, and he told her she was too late, he’d already fallen head over heels for the woman who would become his wife.
There had been one other woman whilst he was at university doing his first degree, but she had been a bit kinky and he’d tried to blank her from his mind. It was weird that she was the one who tracked him down, and suggested they meet up for no holds barred, no strings sex. She was willing to come up to London for the day from Kent. They could get a hotel near to St Pancras. At the time he’d declined. Of course he did, he was #notthatguy. But he did wonder now, if this was the end of his marriage, whether he ought not to have gone for it.
Did his wife still love him? He didn’t dare ask her. When he said I love you, she’d say I know, or ditto or just nod and smile at him. She rarely said it back, but the times she did made his heart leap and gave him that little hope that maybe there was something he could do that could make it all right again. Back at the beginning they had talked about what they liked and what they wanted and how to get it, and the sex was starting to be good. Back when they still lived in Bristol, he remembered them naked, wrapped around each other under a duvet in his rented flat in Clifton. He couldn’t tell where her limbs ended and where his began. It was the best sex he’d ever had, he thought that it would be like that forever, and he wanted that still.
But something had stopped working. Had he done something so wrong when he walked her friend back on the night of her thirtieth? He’d apologised when he got home for ruining things, but she had been frosty, even after three margaritas. There was no birthday bonk. He made her tapas and cocktails the weekend after to make up for it. And he’d thought she’d thawed, that she was over it, but then she got her dream job, and they had to move to London and make all new friends, and it seemed like the quick succession of changes had forced them to reinvent their relationship, so they had ended up just two people who lived together and slept in the same bed; no longer a proper couple. She came home every night, ate, watched her murder programmes on cable, wearing her pyjamas. He had former flatmates from university that he felt closer to. Social media friends who he poured his heart out to online, tapping into the little screen in his hand, whilst she sat silently watching television.
A plan had been forming in his mind. This year she would be forty. This year on her birthday he was going to do it right, he was going to take back the mild lack of interest of the past ten years. He was going to re-inject the passion. He was going to make her love him again. A grand gesture was required. He had booked the hotel on the coast – the food was apparently to die for – and he had arranged for their neighbour, a musician called Michiko, to feed the cat. This year he would make it better. He couldn’t face the thought of not being with Val. He still loved her as much as he had done at the beginning, when he saw her across College Green. He wanted to fix it so badly, but he wasn’t entirely sure what had been broken and by whom…