He was judged as the perfect man, and she was judged as his useless wife, but the truth was too dark for anyone to see.

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Susan took another sip from her glass; it tasted good, so she allowed another mouthful to slide down her throat. These works’ parties were all the same, but at least the music wasn’t too loud this time. Her eyes checked across the room, Stewart was laughing raucously at some joke or another, she guessed it was rude, he always loved crude jokes. Her back rested against the wall; she knew Stewart worked hard at being popular; he said people were useful commodities. She took another drink, and as she gazed into the crowd, she noticed a young girl staring vehemently at Stewart. The girl’s eyes seemed to slant, her face had a tight expression, yet her body seemed to be trembling. Susan looked at her intently; she was sure she was right, that girl hated Stewart. The last drop of wine trickled into Susan’s mouth, it was time to get some more, but as she moved away, the girl stayed in her mind.

“Hello,” greeted Alice. “Lovely to see you again Mrs. Jones.”

Susan looked at the false face that had spoken, did she have to reply? She knew she had to; it was all an acting game.

“Alice, how are you?” she asked, not really wanting an answer. Stewart’s last little fling was of no importance to her. Well, that wasn’t exactly true, since Alice had disappeared Stewart had been more demanding in the bedroom, and his violent sexual activities were horrendously painful.

“I’m fine,” Alice said with a fixed smile. “The party’s great, isn’t it?”

“Yes dear, just fabulous,” Susan replied. “It’s good of you to have your ‘leaving do’ in your own home.”

“I’m loving seeing everyone this happy, work can be very stressful, you know.”

“I’m sure it can,” Susan said politely as the ex-lover moved away.

Thankful the small-talk was over, Susan put a double vodka in her glass. It was great to be able to drink, Stewart didn’t allow her to have alcohol in the house, so social gatherings were the only chance she had to release her unhappiness. She downed the vodka and took a gin. The table with the crisps looked inviting; she wasn’t allowed to eat fatty foods, Stewart said her rations had to remain strict, being hungry was part of life. Apparently, because she was middle-aged, she needed to work at staying a size 10. She reached and took a handful.

“Stewart’s a great bloke,” Ted said as he stood next to her. “He’s such a laugh to work with, and he’s good with the clients.”

“Indeed, I’m a lucky woman,” she said as she took another swig of liquor. She had to play the grateful wife; he’d punish her if she didn’t praise him enough.

“He’s just helped a woman with Multiple Sclerosis to get a place at ‘The Angel.’ None of us thought it would be possible. Such a terrific bloke.”

“He certainly knows how to get what he wants,” she said as she took a handful of peanuts and stuck them uncouthly into her mouth.

“He’s such a decent guy. I wouldn’t have got my job without his assistance.”

Susan knew Stewart’s own self-interest always lay behind his altruistic gestures. “I expect you’ve been a great help to him,” she said while chewing like a starved animal. Food felt such a pleasure; she took some more.

Ted watched her with a look of disgust on his face. “I’ve been helping him with his latest project,” he said, glancing away as she swallowed loudly.

“What project’s that?” She could hear her words were starting to slur, but she didn’t care. Suddenly, she held onto the table, her stomach cramps from where Stewart had thumped her were becoming aggressive again. Why hadn’t she vacuumed the bedroom? She’d thought it didn’t need it, but she should’ve known he’d notice.

“Rehousing girls from the women’s refuge.”

Susan squirmed as her insides rolled.

“That’s one of our clients over there,” he said flicking his head in the direction of the young girl who she’d noticed earlier. “Have you had too much to drink?” he asked as she clung heavily onto the edge of the table.

“I guess so,” she replied, not wanting to give away her secret. She straightened up and finished her glass. She needed more alcohol to take away her pain. She looked over at the drinks counter; it seemed to be signalling to her, like some long-lost friend.

“What job do you do?” the ignorant man continued as he scanned her shabby attire.

She wished she did work, but Stewart wouldn’t allow it. She hated not having any money of her own, answering to Stewart, as he checked every receipt it was always a nerve-racking experience.

“I’m just a housewife,” she said apologetically. Stewart was right; no one would want to employ her; she was unable to survive without him. “My glass is empty,” she added, “I’ll just go and top it up.”

Ted bowed his head, and she guessed he was relieved the conversation was over.

She winced as her wrong-sized shoes rubbed against her blistered feet, but Stewart had bought them in the sale, so they were a bargain. Then as she staggered past a group of people, she overheard someone say, “That’s his wife, she’s always drunk at these events. Stewart’s a saint with her.” There was no point in answering, she couldn’t explain, and they wouldn’t believe her anyway. Above the sound of the alcohol pouring into her welcoming glass, she heard Stewart’s boisterous laugh emanating from the other room. She peered around the door; she could see him standing there in his designer clothes and properly sized shoes, he looked quite the gentleman. He seemed busily engrossed with a group of women; that’s good, she thought, she was free for a while longer, and she took another drink.

Her bladder felt full, so she wobbled her way towards the stairs. It felt a long climb, her stomach was aching, and her feet were killing her. She pulled herself up by the banister, the pressure easing as her arms took the weight from her hurting body.

“I’m Daisy,” said a quiet voice behind her. “Can I help you, you seem a little worse for wares?”

Susan turned to face the girl from the women’s refuge. How she envied her; she could escape, while she was too old to run away.

“Just had too much of the old drink,” Susan replied through gritted teeth. “Are you enjoying the party?” she added as she reached the landing.

“Not really. Stewart said I had to come. I’m supposed to be telling everyone how grateful I am that he got my mother a place at The Angel.”

“That was your mother?”

The girl dropped her voice as she grabbed the rail at the top of the stairs. “I wanted to say sorry to you, and I thought you should know that…” She looked at the floor and whispered, “I didn’t want to do it, but he made me … with him and his mate.”

“What! Together?”

“He told me he’d rather let mum rot. There was nothing anyone could do for her, but if I wanted his help, then he’d put himself out… if I’d go the extra mile.”

“Who was the other man? Did they hurt you?”

“Someone he knew from another department.” The girl’s eyes filled with tears. “It was horrible, he…”

“Susan, hurry up,” shouted Stewart from the hallway. “The new Managing Director’s just arrived.” He glared from the bottom of the stairs. “Daisy, you come down and meet him too.”

“We need the toilet; we’ll be down in a bit,” Susan shouted as she turned back towards the bathroom. It was too late, she could hear him charging up the stairs.

“Come on Daisy,” he yelled as he pulled the girl’s arm. “You can tell him how great I am.”

Susan watched as the girl yanked her arm away. Stewart twisted and lost his balance. It all seemed to happen in slow motion, his legs went from under him, and he fell head first down the stairs. He lay motionless at the bottom.

The girl screamed as Susan ran down after him.

“Someone call an ambulance,” she bellowed as she stood over his unresponsive body.

“You, drunken idiot, get out of my way,” yelled a woman who knelt to check his pulse. “He’s alive,” she yelled to everyone who had gathered round.

The ambulance men came and seemed concerned about Stewart’s back. “It might be broken,” one of them explained to Susan.

Ted whispered to her, “Such a terrible thing to happen to such a lovely man. I’ll organise a collection for him. And if he needs twenty-four-hour care, I’ll help you.”

“I’m divorcing him,” she replied without flinching a muscle. “I want a life.” Her eyes held his. “And my advice to you is to keep your money, and leave him… to rot.”

“How could you be so self-centred?”

“And how could you be so stupid?”

Stephanie was born in Broadstairs, her parents lived there, and she still regularly visits. The town holds the lock and key to her heart.

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