Bacchus or Bust
Abigail Brett didn’t miss optometry one iota. All those hours stuck in a darkened room peering into strangers’ eyes and prescribing for ungrateful patients, no, when Simon told her to ditch her career, that they’d move to the country, she didn’t need to think twice. Except now, seven years later, she was beginning to wonder. She’d hoped, with the children long gone, to be having fun with her husband, but since he’d planted his wretched vineyard, he was a different man. She'd said as much to Juliet the other night, had one almighty rant and told her best friend she’d be happier if Simon was having an affair. Then she could hate him.
But Juliet, juggling a catering business with childcare and still reeling from an acrimonious divorce was unsympathetic. Naturally. She simply pointed out how privileged Abigail was, not needing to work, living in a stunning country house with a gorgeous husband who adored his wife, and owning a vineyard for heaven’s sake, how romantic was that? Of course, on the face of it, her life was to be envied.
Abigail knew she shouldn't complain, but she felt cracks in their once solid marriage insidiously appearing as all her efforts to distract Simon from his precious vineyard failed miserably. Even tonight’s simple dinner was set to be sabotaged by a call from a prospective client. Abigail wished she didn’t care, but the truth was she did.
‘Why can’t he communicate via email?’ She asked, placing a bubbling lasagne on the table.
‘Sweetheart, he prefers to talk. With eight outlets his business is no small enterprise. If I get the order, it will put the vineyard on the map.’ Simon told her, his expression one of optimism. ‘Once I’m established success is guaranteed.’ But as he spoke Abigail watched his smile fade. ‘I just need time,’ he said, pouring wine whilst she served the pasta, and then they ate in silence.
Even after twenty-five years of marriage Abigail loved Simon madly and just being with him filled her heart with happiness. And that was the problem. She yearned to spend more time with him. In his mid-fifties Simon was a handsome man in a rugged sort of way, his dark hair, speckled with just enough grey to be attractive and the inviting twinkle in his laughing eyes never failed to captivate, but tonight Abigail could see no look of adoration. She pushed her plate aside. ‘Simon, it’s March. You’ve finished the winter pruning. Maybe we could have a few days away.’
‘Abigail I’ve a huge amount to do in the vineyard and the winery.’ He leant across and took her hand. ‘It would be nice if you understood.’
‘It would be nice if you understood!’ She said just as the phone rang. Folding her arms, she huffed whilst Simon jumped up, took the call but then handed her the phone. ‘Jonathan Shepherd. For you.’
She stared at him, open-mouthed and held the phone against her chest for a minute. The last time she’d spoken to Jonathan was during the professional exams twenty-four years ago.
Jonathan Shepherd. Hearing his voice again took her breath away. She should have kept in touch, of course she should, but back then she was newly married, and he disappeared to Canada. The best option, he’d said. As far away as possible, he’d told her with such sadness in his eyes, and she’d hugged him, wishing with all her heart he’d find the happiness he deserved. She’d heard he’d married, but divorced with two sons? She’d no idea.
And back in England with his own practice in Knightsbridge, he told her. Abigail grinned. Jonathan always did have an agenda. Something to do with being a mature student she supposed, remembering his grand plans to open a chain of practices and employ an army of staff.
‘I’m having a party to celebrate my fiftieth,’ he said. ‘I want you both to come.’
Fifty? Was he really going to be fifty? She smiled, reminded of his birthday party twenty-six years ago. July 6th. The day she met Simon. ‘We’d be delighted,’ she said.
‘Great. Now tell me about you.’
Abigail babbled on about how wonderful her life was since she’d given up optometry, and how Simon was intent on becoming a famous winemaker, and then Jonathan teased her about being a lady of leisure and dared her to work for him. The thought of being back in London was thrilling, but attending refresher courses? Preposterous, she answered, laughing. He laughed too and then insisted she had lunch with him.
‘That was a shock.’ She handed Simon the phone. ‘He’s having a party. Oh, and I’m having lunch with him next week,’ she said. ‘I’ve not much else to do.’ She shrugged.
‘Sorry sweetheart. I promise we’ll go away soon.’ He reached for her hand and kissed it. ‘I love you Abigail, even when you’re angry.’ His blue-grey eyes smiled at her infuriatingly. ‘Lunch with Jonathan? You go and enjoy yourself,’ he said, glancing at the clock on the wall which simply exacerbated her frustration.
The following Friday morning Abigail stood opposite Jonathan’s practice wishing she hadn’t agreed to come. The chill in the air made her shiver and she began to fret over her choice of outfit. It was just lunch after all. Her tan linen dress was smart but not overly, or perhaps it was. And the navy and tan silk scarf, years old like her navy jacket, brought the look together, yes, think elegant, she told herself, sophisticated, understated elegance. Taking a deep breath she pulled her stomach in. Not as slim as she was at college, but she still had a good figure, and with renewed confidence, Abigail crossed the road.
Prominently positioned in a row of equally opulent properties, the navy and gold premises gleamed in the spring sunshine, every bit of woodwork highly polished. Planters either side of the entrance brimmed with daffodils and gold lettering on the navy façade read: “Jonathan Shepherd MCOptom.”, professional not brash, and so Jonathan, she thought, pushing open the glass-fronted door.
‘Jonathan Shepherd!’ She shrieked as he walked towards her with open arms.
‘Abi Hart! Sorry, Brett,’ he said, hugging her. ‘Such a long time.’
She beamed at him, amused to be called “Abi” again, an abbreviation Simon loathed.
‘You look positively radiant. As beautiful as ever. Life in the country clearly suits you.’
She nodded appreciatively. ‘And you’ve hardly changed.’ Noting his golden-mousey hair, she smiled mischievously, convinced he had it coloured. Immaculately dressed too, wearing a maroon waistcoat over a white shirt, a maroon and white checked bow tie at his neck, Jonathan was every bit the charismatic man she’d once fancied. He looked well. He looked affluent.
‘You flatter me,’ he said, his green eyes fixed on hers.
The sound of a door opening made Jonathan turn around. The door to a consulting room, Abigail assumed and watched a tall, slim woman usher out a patient and demand he returned soon to discuss his spectacle requirements. Her voice, loud and authoritative, was strangely familiar.
‘Oh my God,’ Abigail whispered as the woman joined them.
Abigail gasped. Tina Lock. There was no denying the unmistakable ruthless look of determination in her cold blue eyes. ‘Tina, you look so different.’
‘Abigail, darling.’ Tina kissed Abigail on both cheeks. ‘You look,’ she stood back, her eyes wide and searching, ‘you look uncertain.’
Abigail’s cheeks began to flush, and she wished she’d had her highlights and roots touched up. Tina’s hair was beautifully styled and a glorious shade of ash-blonde, complimenting a flawless complexion. Wearing a pale blue suit, the jacket nipped in at her tiny waist, Tina looked dead sexy.
‘Jonathan says you dropped this career yonks ago. Lucky you. A kept woman. Wouldn’t do for me. I like to have my own dosh. Couldn’t be reliant on anyone else, but then Simon always was the gallant gentleman. And still with you. How sweet. Where is it you live?’
‘Kent. We bought an old manor house, part of a country estate.’
‘Yes, it is.’ Abigail snapped. ‘Simon has planted a vineyard and we’re about to market the wine.’
‘Good luck with that. In my experience English wines are like male escorts. Over-priced and rarely memorable. Still, important to have a dream. And cocooned in the depths of the country. Must be lovely,’ she said, emphasising the word “lovely”, ‘no need for you to worry about the latest trends in fashion either. I bought that dress from Hobbs last season. So comfortable, don’t you think? More autumn than spring, I'd say.’
‘Your next patient is waiting.’ Jonathan said, casting Abigail an apologetic glance. ‘Take a seat in reception, Abi, whilst I might one quick call before we go for lunch,’ he said, squeezing her arm.
Abigail sat down in a plush navy leather chair by the front window and checked her phone. A message from Simon: “Sorry about earlier, sweetheart. Enjoy lunch. Give Jonathan my best xx.”
Simon had been so grumpy and wrapped up in vineyard paperwork before she left. It wasn’t meant to be like this. Life in the country, a vineyard, fun. They’d agreed. She’d only wanted to discuss celebrating their wedding anniversary, not argue. Silver was special, after all. They must do something. A trip to Mauritius maybe, but no, he refused to consider such a holiday. Still annoyed with him she simply replied “ok”.
‘Ready for lunch?’ Jonathan said, standing behind her. ‘I’m taking you to a bistro down the road. I know. A five-minute walk if that,’ he said, putting a hand on her shoulder.
Off a side street, the bistro was delightful and not what Abigail was expecting in Knightsbridge. The menu advertised simple food freshly prepared and there were wrought iron tables and chairs outside, set back from the pavement. It reminded her of the local pub where she and Simon often had a glass of prosecco or supper, except she couldn’t think when they’d last been there.
‘Sorry about Tina,’ Jonathan said, holding the door open, ‘I should have warned you, but I didn’t expect her to be so caustic. Not sure what’s got into her today.’
Abigail shrugged, still trying to think when she and Simon had been out for a drink or have supper.
‘Don’t be intimidated by her, Abi. Think back. You sailed through the exams whilst Tina and I had to do all we could to get by.’
A waiter seated them at a table in the front by a window and gave them menus.
Abigail shook her head and laughed. Jonathan was right. She got the first-class honours degree. He’d been destined to succeed through sheer hard graft but streetwise Tina, with her gypsy-like appearance and poisonous tongue was set to self-destruct.
‘She’s still outspoken,’ Jonathan said as if reading Abigail’s mind. ‘She always did enrage the most tolerant of lecturers, but you know, having to take the professional exams twice to qualify was a wake-up call for her.’
Abigail struggled to feel any compassion and wondered if Jonathan knew the hurt Tina caused. Probably not. Besides, it was something and nothing. Harmless flirting, Simon said at the time.
‘Abi? Are you ok?’
‘Yes sorry, I was thinking back. About Tina.’
‘She’s mellowed, truly.’ Jonathan carried on, studying the menu. ‘Crevettes and avocado to start? The sea bass is always good, too. Fancy a glass of wine?’
‘Sounds perfect.’ Abigail grinned and nodded. As impoverished students the three of them treated themselves most Saturdays to the best shellfish they could afford. ‘I had to show Tina how to peel prawns, remember? Miss Cocky had no idea, but I suppose now,’
‘Quite the career woman, I know, but forget about her.’
Which they did. Devouring the complimentary bread and olives they chatted about being parents, being married or not, and where the years had gone. When the starters arrived, the conversation returned to optics.
‘I’d had enough. Working for a multiple got me down. Targets to be met, procedures to follow. I loved being in London, not the job.’
‘But you were good at it, Abi.’
‘Maybe, but when Simon suggested moving to the country I jumped at the chance.’
‘And Simon gave up too. Wasn’t that a bit risky?’
‘You know Simon. Mr Cautious. Nothing he does involves a risk. No, he made a fortune at Linton and Matthews, apparently. His father wasn’t impressed he gave it all up, obviously, and as for the vineyard, the old man was so condescending. I guess now Simon is determined to prove him wrong.’
‘Donald Brett appeared cold, disinterested in his son’s achievements even at school.’
Abigail nodded. Jonathan and his brother Edward went to the same boarding school as Simon and had known the Brett family far longer than she had.
‘Simon never was the city type, always hankering after a life in the country. His mother understood and since she died, we haven’t seen much of Grandpa Brett.’
‘How about your parents?’
Abigail explained she’d lost them both months apart soon after they moved to Kent. ‘I’m over it now and having a fantastic time gardening, renovating the house and I’m into antiques too. Marsha, my neighbour, we’re always at the markets,’ she exaggerated. ‘I’d prefer it if Simon and I spent more time together, but the vineyard,’ she began, eager to confide.
‘An exciting venture. Potshotten Vineyard. Part of the Whitton Estate, you said the other night. Unusual name. Sounds very posh.’
Abigail started to giggle. ‘Long story, but way back Lord Whitton’s wife grew tired of his drunkenness and kicked him out. She continued living in the main house, ours, and he lived next door in a converted cottage. She renamed the properties “Potshotten”. It’s an old English word for drunk. Simon thought the history hilarious and knew we just had to buy the house and plant a vineyard.’
‘Our old friend fate, then. So what grape varieties is he growing?’
‘Bacchus. I know he’s growing Bacchus.’
‘You don’t have a clue, do you?’ Jonathan laughed and then explained Bacchus, with its distinctive taste of gooseberries and nettles was an English wine he loved. ‘Put me down for a case.’
‘Really? Simon will be pleased. Do you know Bacchus is the Roman god of wine and revelry?’ She said, giggling again. ‘I’ve bought a statue.’
‘No. I didn’t.’
‘Make Simon realise what he’s missing, spending all his time in the vineyard instead of having a bit of revelry. With me, that is.’
Jonathan reached for her hand. ‘If only, Abi,' he whispered.
‘No Jonathan.’ She warned, recognising the look in his eyes. Yet despite being weighed down by all her frustrations with Simon and the vineyard she knew in her heart the life she had was the one she wanted.
‘I’m sorry, Abi, it’s just seeing you again,’ he said as the waiter arrived with their main courses.
‘This looks wonderful.’ She said. Served on a bed of wilted spinach accompanied by crushed new potatoes sprinkled with rock salt, the sea bass was divine.
‘This place never disappoints. So, optometry. I can’t tempt you back to work for me?’
‘My refracting days are over.’
‘Ok,’ he said, grinning. ‘And you have two children, you said.’
‘Yes, Tash our scatty daughter works in advertising and Dan is an accounts manager for a cosmetic company.’
‘I’ll be happy when my boys leave university and earn their keep. My divorce settlement has meant retirement is inconceivable.’
Abigail sensed Jonathan’s life wasn’t as easy as she’d imagined and wondered if he’d ever find contentment and as they laughed and chatted, she dared to imagine what might have been if fate hadn’t intervened.
‘So, the big birthday and you’re having a party.’
‘Yes. At the house before I downsize. I’ll have a marquee but need to find a caterer and I was wondering about your friend Juliet. Are you still in touch?’
‘Of course. I’m sure she’d love to organise the catering for your party. I’ll get her to call you,’ she told him and then explained how Juliet was frantically building up her business, working all hours since her messy divorce.
‘Great, thank you,’ he said, 'Anyway, coffee back at the practice?’ He suggested once they’d declined dessert and the waiter brought the bill.
‘Yes, that would be lovely. Then I’ll get a cab to St Pancras.’
Sitting in the taxi Abigail felt a twinge of envy. Life in Kent was perfect, except increasingly there were times, especially when Simon was preoccupied with his vineyard, she felt lonely and without a sense of purpose. Maybe she should offer to help him. Doing stuff together would be nice. Just being together would be nice.
Meeting Jonathan and Tina had stirred up memories and unsettled her. She got a buzz from optometry once. Wearing smart clothes and pretty shoes, she’d loved all that. Tina’s suit was beautifully cut. Designer, no doubt about it, and – the sound of her mobile ringing invaded her wistful thoughts.
Number unknown. The caller said she was a policewoman, addressed Abigail as Mrs Brett and asked for confirmation of identity. Abigail opened her mouth, but her throat was dry. She swallowed hard and through trembling lips managed ‘Yes, I’m Mrs Abigail Brett.’
More questions. What train was she catching? The trains are every half an hour, she heard herself say. She would be met and taken to the hospital. Abigail nodded instinctively, her body shaking, and ended the call. She stared out of the taxi window. Tears pricked her eyes. Her heart pounded and with a morbid sense of dread and anticipation she knew the fast train back to Ashford would seem anything but.