The Secret to Happiness
Everyone deserves a chance at happiness
It had to be time to get up for work. Surely. Alison stretched her arm out from under the duvet and retrieved her mobile from the bedside drawers. The bedroom briefly illuminated as she checked the time. 5.38 a.m. Not time for work, then.
She turned her head towards the window. It had been raining for three hours and forty-seven minutes now. Starting with a torrential downpour at 1.51 a.m., it had now settled into a slow but steady rhythm. And she’d been wide awake for every single drop.
Beside her, Dave was in a deep untroubled sleep, punctuated by the occasional grunt or snore.
She slowly turned over to face him, but he had his back to her as usual. He muttered something when she gave him a gentle nudge, but didn’t wake up. She was about to give him a harder shove but stopped herself. What was the point? He’d only tell her to go back to sleep. Sleep? If only she could. And he’d tell her that getting upset about it wasn’t going to change anything. No, it wasn’t. But a hug and comforting words might help her find the strength to face the hardest day of the year.
Peeling back the duvet, Alison pulled on her fluffy dressing gown and padded downstairs to the kitchen.
The familiar feeling of despair enveloped her as the fluorescent tubing flickered then burst into life revealing the concrete flooring, bare plaster, and dilapidated dark wood units. Oh, the joys of living with a builder: a house full of unfinished projects because Dave couldn’t bear to spend his evenings and weekends doing what he did all day. Of course, paying someone else to do it was completely out of the question. She’d stupidly suggested that once. Never again.
The dining room had been out of action for four years because it was packed out with boxes containing the new kitchen. It wasn’t good to moan about that either. Besides, they had no social life, so who would they invite round for a meal even if it was in use?
He’d promised this would be the year for sorting it, though, and had even booked a week off work next month to finally fit the kitchen. She wouldn’t hold her breath.
Alison placed a giant mug of milky, sugary tea on the coffee table in the lounge and took a few deep breaths. It was time.
Crouching down, she opened the cupboard on her grandma’s old dresser. There it was, nestled under Trivial Pursuit, a guidebook for Corfu, and a pack of playing cards. She lightly ran her fingers down the navy spine of the large photo album, goosebumps pricking her arms, then carefully removed it.
Curling up on the large tub chair with the unopened album resting on her legs, Alison closed her eyes and breathed in and out slowly, trying to steady her racing heart. Fifteen years. Had it really been that long?
As she slowly turned page after page, photos first, then newspaper clippings, the rain continued its patter against the front of the house and Alison’s tears kept in time with the slow and steady rhythm of the drops.
Alison was in the kitchen eating breakfast when she heard Dave thunder down the stairs. She glanced at her watch, tensing. He was running late as usual, which would somehow be her fault.
‘Where’ve you put my phone?’ he demanded as he strode down the hall, sounding more like an army sergeant than a loving boyfriend. A hefty six-foot-three rugby player, he dominated the kitchen doorway, blocking out the natural light from the glass either side of the front door.
‘I think you might have plugged it in to charge in the lounge,’ she said softly, knowing full well that he had.
When Dave returned to the kitchen, phone in hand, she looked up at him expectantly, but he didn’t even glance at her. She willed him to look at her, to hug her, to tell her he was there for her. He’d forgotten last year but surely he wouldn’t do that again.
‘What were you doing up so early?’ he asked, his voice still gruff.
Alison felt herself deflate. ‘I couldn’t sleep,’ she muttered. ‘Too much in my head.’
He yanked open the fridge. ‘Where’s my butties?’
Alison’s shoulders drooped even further. ‘In the blue container.’ She picked up her second warm croissant and slathered it with butter, blinking back the tears. He’d forgotten it again; he was more concerned with his sandwiches than her, as usual.
Pushing a stray dark curl behind her ear, Alison took another deep breath. She’d have to prompt him. Last year, she hadn’t said anything until the following day and he’d had a go at her for not reminding him on the day. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.
‘So, it’s the 11th of May today.’
He closed the fridge door and stared at her. ‘And…?’
‘And… well… it’s… you know…’
‘Ali! I’m late. Spit it out or shut up.’
His eyes bored into her and she felt that momentary burst of confidence ebbing away. ‘Never mind. It’s nothing.’
Dave dropped his packed lunch into his toolbox. ‘Where’s the bananas?’
Damn! She knew she’d forgotten something. ‘Still on the shop shelves? Sorry. There’s pears.’
‘Bloody hell, Ali,’ he snapped. ‘When have I ever liked pears?’
She continued eating while he wittered about pears being the devil’s fruit. Why did he have to make such a fuss about little things like that? Especially today.
Watching him choose a pear from the bowl – with such a disgusted look on his face it could just as easily have been a decaying mouse – Alison shook her head and bit into her croissant again, closing her eyes as the melted butter oozed onto her tongue. Heaven in pastry format.
‘Jesus Christ, Ali!’
She snapped open her eyes, startled to find him right next to her.
‘No wonder.’ He shook his head. ‘No bloody wonder.’
She flinched as he grabbed his toolbox and stormed out of the kitchen.
As the front door slammed, she ripped off a piece of croissant and crushed it between her thumb and forefinger, a mixture of guilt and frustration flowing through her. She hadn’t needed to ask him what he meant. She could fill in the rest of the sentence for him. No wonder you’re so fat. No wonder you keep ordering bigger uniforms. No wonder the stairs leave you breathless. No wonder we never have sex. She surveyed the plateful of pastries, the full-fat butter, the luxury jam, her third giant mug of milky, sugary tea. All for one person. Yes. No wonder.
She had a good excuse for the feast that morning, though, not that Dave had acknowledged it.
As she cleared the table, tears welled in her eyes once more. How could he have forgotten again? Maybe he’d remember that evening. Maybe he’d come home with flowers and a hug. Alison wiped the table with such a furious swipe that crumbs scattered across the concrete. Sod it! They could stay there.
‘Morning, Ali! Morning, Chelsea!’
Alison couldn’t see her, but she knew that Sarah the florist was hidden behind the enormous floral arrangement travelling past the reception desk of Whitsborough Bay’s only five-star establishment, The Ramparts Hotel.
‘Morning, Sarah!’ they both called.
Alison inhaled the fresh, heady scent. ‘Ooh, they’re gorgeous.’
‘They weigh a ton.’ Sarah placed the vivid orange, purple and cream arrangement on the end of the granite desk then rolled her head and shoulders. ‘I swear I get a better workout from my contract here than I would from any gym membership.’
‘I’ve never set foot in one and wouldn’t want to,’ Alison said. ‘How I maintain this sylph-like figure is a complete mystery.’ She ran her hands down her curves and shimmied, making Sarah and Chelsea laugh.
Watching Sarah reposition a couple of violet Calla Lilies, Alison sighed. ‘I love flowers. Shame the only place I get to enjoy them is at work.’
Sarah looked up. ‘Dave doesn’t buy you flowers?’
‘Not even supermarket ones.’
‘Not even today for the anniversary?’ Chelsea asked.
If only! Alison picked up the day’s visitor schedule and scanned down the names, the words blurring on the paper as tears pooled in her eyes. She would not cry. She was stronger than that. Besides, she’d already cried a reservoir that morning so there couldn’t possibly be any water left in her body.
‘He gave me nothing,’ she admitted. ‘Not even a hug.’
‘Do you think he forgot?’ Sarah asked.
Alison shook her head. ‘He’ll mention it tonight. He’s always running late on a morning.’ The thing was, in the early days, it was because he couldn’t resist her, pulling her back to bed or joining her in the shower. Not anymore. What had happened to them? Where had the intimacy gone? Together since they were seventeen, the first six years had been so good. As for the last four… But every couple had rough patches, didn’t they? That’s all this was.
‘I bet he’ll have a surprise planned for when you get home,’ Sarah said. ‘How many years are you celebrating?’
Tears under control, Alison looked up from the paperwork. She took in Sarah’s eager smile and her stomach clenched. Another person who didn’t know. She’d have to tell her. ‘It’s not that kind of anniversary. It’s actually—’
‘I’d like to check out. Room 387.’ A heavily pregnant woman accompanied by two nursery-aged girls stood in front of the reception desk.
‘I won’t be a moment.’ Alison tapped a few keys to retrieve the guest’s bill. ‘Was everything all right with your stay, Mrs Hanson?’
‘It was lovely, thanks.’
‘Ask her,’ said the older child, tugging on her mum’s skirt.
Mrs Hanson frowned at her daughter. ‘Shh!’
‘Is there something I can help with?’ Alison asked as she printed the bill.
‘No! It’s nothing. She’s being silly.’
‘I am not,’ cried the child. ‘Ask her.’
Leaning over the desk, Alison smiled at the girl. ‘I’m here to help. You can ask me anything, sweetheart.’
‘Honestly, it’s nothing.’ Mrs Hanson tried to put her hand across her daughter’s mouth, but the girl wriggled from her grasp.
And then it was too late.
The child looked up at Alison, all blonde curls, chubby cheeks, and innocent big blue eyes. ‘Is your baby a boy or a girl?’
Alison’s stomach churned as though on a spin cycle. Smile. Must keep smiling.
‘Olivia!’ her mum cried. She turned to Alison, clearly mortified. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s fine.’ With shaking hands, Alison passed her the bill. ‘If you’d like to—’
A MasterCard was thrust into her hand.
‘You haven’t said,’ Olivia wailed. ‘Mummy’s having a baby too and I want a brother this time. If she has a girl and you have a boy, can you swap?’
Mrs Hanson jabbed her PIN into the card machine then stared at it, snatching the card the second the transaction completed. ‘I’m sorry,’ she muttered again.
Alison plastered a smile on her face and turned to Olivia. ‘I’m not having a baby.’
Olivia’s face scrunched up with confusion. ‘But you have a big tummy like my mummy’s.’
The heat in Alison’s cheeks cranked up another notch and she felt sweat pooling under her arms. ‘Yes, I know, but that’s because I’m… I’m just fat.’
Alison had never seen a pregnant woman, two kids, and a large suitcase move so fast.
Grabbing her blazer, she indicated to Chelsea that she was nipping to the loo. She escaped from behind the reception area and dashed across the palatial lobby, through the empty bar, and into the ladies’.
Moments later, she slumped down onto the seat in the furthest cubicle, her head between her hands, gulping in the bleach-tainted air. It wasn’t the first time it had happened. A teenager had given her his seat on the bus. She’d smiled and thanked him, thinking he was being chivalrous, until he’d said, ‘My sister’s having a baby next month. When’s yours due?’ She hadn’t found the strength to correct him so had mumbled, ‘The month after,’ and prayed the conversation was over.
She took a chocolate bar out of her blazer pocket. Hands shaking and stomach gurgling, she ripped open the wrapper, the intense aroma of cocoa soothing her. Biting off a large chunk, she closed her eyes as the chocolate melted on her tongue, easing the tension in her shoulders. She eagerly took another bite, then another, until she’d devoured the whole bar, barely tasting anything after that first divine mouthful.
Staring at the empty wrapper, Alison shook her head. How many times had she done that? Sat in the same cubicle, surrounded by opulence, secretly scoffing chocolate? She glanced down at her uniform, stretched across her body. Dave was so right. No wonder.
When Alison emerged from her hideout, her heart raced when she spotted she wasn’t alone. ‘Sarah! I didn’t hear you come in.’
Sarah rose from the deep–rose chaise longue. ‘I wanted to check you were okay.’
‘Me? Why wouldn’t I be?’ she responded innocently. ‘Too much tea this morning.’ She moved to the sink and squeezed luxury lavender soap onto her hands, cursing that she hadn’t flushed the toilet.
‘But you haven’t been to the loo, have you? You’ve been eating chocolate.’
Alison stopped mid-rinse. ‘How…?’
‘Because it’s exactly what I’d have done. Exactly what I did do. Frequently.’
‘Yeah, right. Because you’re so enormous.’
‘I used to be,’ Sarah declared proudly.
Alison turned back to the marble sink and finished rinsing her hands while trying to find the right words. She didn’t want to offend Sarah but the last time somebody had said, ‘I used to be fat’ to her, it turned out that they’d gained half a stone and ‘ballooned’ from a size eight to a ten. Hardly the ‘obese’ category into which Alison fell on those hideous height–weight charts. She turned off the taps and wiped her hands on a sumptuous cream guest towel.
‘I lost five stone,’ Sarah said.
No! Alison spun around to face Sarah. ‘Really?’
‘How?’ She tossed the towel into the laundry basket.
‘I dumped my useless boyfriend. I was a comfort eater so I needed to get rid of what was causing me discomfort. With Jason gone, I didn’t need to turn to chocolate, cake or kebabs so the weight came off. And I go running on the beach. Never thought I’d get into that.’ She smiled gently. ‘Are you a comfort eater?’
Alison shrugged. ‘I think I’m just an eater. Full stop.’
‘Do you want to lose weight?’
Alison shrugged again. ‘I’m not sure.’
‘If you’re happy, then don’t change a thing. Personally, I think you’re amazing exactly as you are.’ Sarah paused and cocked her head to one side. ‘But people who are happy don’t usually hide in the toilets, troughing chocolate. Remember, I’ve been there, done that. I know it doesn’t help.’
‘It’s fine. I’m fine. I just…’ Alison voice cracked and she shook her head, tears welling in her eyes. Who was she kidding? ‘I hate the way I look, Sarah. I hate the way I feel. I hate the way other people make me feel, like that little girl just now. Yet I can’t seem to stop eating. What’s wrong with me?’ Tears tumbled down her flushed cheeks.
Sarah held her arms out and Alison gratefully accepted the hug. She was used to Dave’s grumpiness and could usually laugh off incidents like the one at reception. Just not today. She clung onto Sarah as sobs wracked her body.
‘Thank you,’ she said when she’d calmed down.
Sarah nodded. ‘Anytime. If and when you’re ready, I’d love to help you.’
Alison wiped at her smudged mascara. ‘Thanks, but I think I’m a lost cause.’
‘No, you’re not. I believe in you. You just have to believe in yourself. You can do this, Ali.’
Someone believed in her? For that brief moment, Alison felt inspired. ‘Okay. You’re on.’ She removed another chocolate bar from her blazer pocket and handed it to Sarah. ‘Amnesty time.’ She could do this. She really could.
‘Chelsea told me what anniversary it is,’ Sarah said. ‘I’m so sorry. I remember it happening. You must have been quite young.’
‘I’m here for you if ever you want to talk about it.’
‘Thank you. It means a lot.’ Especially since Dave clearly didn’t care.
Back home that evening, Alison found Dave sprawled on the sofa in front of the TV, shouting at the football and guzzling lager. The house smelled of the lasagne she’d prepared the night before. Had he actually taken the initiative and put it in the oven? Wow! Wonders would never cease.
‘I’m home,’ she said, when he didn’t look up. ‘Did you have a good day?’
Dave punched his fist in the air. ‘Thank you, ref! Told you that was offside.’
She coughed loudly.
‘Did you get my lager?’ he asked, eyes still glued to the TV.
‘No. Was I supposed to?’
‘I texted you. Told you to get a case on your way home.’
‘I didn’t get a text.’
He sat upright, jaw clenched. ‘Jesus, Ali! You’re winding me up, right?’
She shook her head. ‘Why didn’t you go on your way home?’
‘Because you always do the shopping. This is my last one.’ He took a final glug from his can then crushed it and dropped it onto the threadbare carpet. ‘I can’t watch the footy without a drink.’
She hesitated in the doorway. Stay? Go? Either way, she’d ruined his evening and he’d be in a foul mood for days. In all honesty, she couldn’t bear to be near him right now. The old Dave would have held her while she sobbed and reassured her that he was her family and he’d never leave her. But the old Dave had barely been around for the last four years.
‘I’ll go now if you like,’ she said, trying to sound cheerful.
He’d already turned back to the TV. ‘Damn right you will,’ he snapped. ‘You can take the van,’ he added in a gentler tone, as though he was doing her a huge favour. ‘And you might want to get something for your tea while you’re there.’
‘What about the lasagne?’
‘I’ve eaten it.’
Alison’s eyes widened. ‘All of it? That was four portions.’
‘Shoot! No! You pussy. You kick like a girl.’
Her throat tightened. Had he forgotten or was it simply that he didn’t care anymore? She wasn’t sure which was worse.
Thirty minutes later, Alison sat in Dave’s van in a deserted corner of the supermarket car park and prised open the flap on a five-pack of custard doughnuts. Saliva filled her mouth as she breathed in the sweet vanilla scent.
She paused as she pictured Sarah’s eager expression when she’d reassured Alison that she wasn’t a lost cause. Closing the bag, she took a deep breath. She could do it. Starting now, she was taking control back. Then she pictured that familiar look of contempt on Dave’s face that morning and that tiny flicker of self-belief fizzled out. Sorry, Sarah. Maybe another day.
‘To family,’ she whispered, taking a doughnut out of the packet. ‘I miss you all so much.’
Six minutes later, Alison licked her sticky fingers and stared into the paper bag. All that remained was a small dollop of custard and a sprinkling of sugar.
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