Diana sighed as she packed her suitcase for yet another fundraising event. It was all very well volunteering for these things, but since her separation from John she seemed to be volunteered for anything that meant spending time away from home. She had a feeling that this was a way of ensuring that she got out of the house when she wasn’t working. Well-meaning, but all the packing and unpacking was beginning to wear thin. Her children, Ben and Caroline, were both leading their own lives at university; the cat spent most of its life sleeping in her neighbour’s house, and for the past two years she had been sharing her home with an estranged, curmudgeonly, and now very ex-husband.
She’d hung out the virtual flags when he finally left, presenting her with an itemised list of the house contents and a ‘legal’ document telling her she couldn’t have anyone other than family staying overnight in the house. She refused to sign it, of course and took great pleasure in pointing out that half the objects in the kitchen that he claimed were his, had actually belonged to her in long-ago student nurse days.
He’d been different when they first met. Seven years older than her, courteous and always well-dressed, her parents had approved of him, even more so when he insisted on putting their wedding on hold until she had finished her nursing training, and found suitable employment. They’d bought their house on a mortgage but paid for it from a joint account, until she became pregnant with their Ben and had to give up work. At that point all the bills and wages were diverted to John’s account; his excuse was that he didn’t want her bothered with the finances when she had a baby to look after. It hadn’t taken her long to see that this was John insisting on being in control of every aspect of their life.
She was about to consider going back to work when she fell pregnant with Caroline; a very welcome and much-loved baby, but even in the early years of their marriage, Diana had realised that she was supposed to be the wife and mother that John wanted her to be. Mother definitely, but he never failed to let her know that she was falling far short of his expectations in other respects. Once the children had started at nursery and school, Diana signed up for refresher training so that she could go back to nursing. John was initially reluctant, until he realised that there would be more money coming in, and that he would have more opportunity to indulge in his new hobby; infidelity, and he wasn’t exactly selective in his conquests.
The weekend ahead of her promised to be a little different from the usual events Diana attended. The hotel accommodation was superior, and she’d been asked to staff a stall at the charity awareness fundraiser being held on the Saturday, and taking place a few miles away in the grounds of an elegant country mansion. All she had to do was sit at the stall, smile a lot, hand out brochures, and tell people what a wonderful service her company provided. This was a part of the job that Diana had no problem with. She liked people and she believed in what she did.
Packing was always the downside though; so many changes of clothing! Something to travel in, casual clothes for the so-called team-building event, her best clothes for Friday and Saturday evenings, and a practical but smart outfit for the fundraising day. She packed her favourite nightshirt, feeling that a couple of good night’s sleep was all she really required from the weekend. The sound of her ex-husband’s snoring still permeated through the walls, even though he’d been gone for three days now.
She left the suitcase and her handbag in the hallway and checked her watch. She still had a few minutes before the taxi arrived to take her to the station, and she spent the time checking that all the doors and windows were secure. Her daughter was coming home for the weekend; Diana had the locks changed the moment her ex-husband moved out, and the new keys were waiting next door with her neighbour Jane – and the cat – for Caroline to collect them. Ironic that Diana had to go away, now that she finally had the house to herself!
Although she was listening out for it, the sound of the taxi driver’s horn still made her jump, and with haste borne of many years of living with a man who was always impatient with her, she dragged her case out of the front door, picking up her coat and handbag with her free hand. The taxi driver concentrated on driving rather than chatting, and managed to get her to the station in good time to catch her train. A minibus would be collecting delegates at the other end, and Diana felt some of the stress draining out of her as she sat on the train, carefully unpacking her book, a bottle of water, and sandwiches from her capacious handbag. Smiling, she settled down to enjoy the two-hour train ride.
Apart from the noisy mobile phone users and a couple of boisterous toddlers, Diana’s journey was uneventful; there were no delays, and there really was a driver with a minibus waiting to collect her and the others from the station. Polite conversation during the short trip back to the hotel revealed that one of the other female train travellers, Alice, would be sharing the stall with Diana on Saturday. This was Alice’s first attendance at this type of event, and she was grateful to have stumbled across a more seasoned companion. As was her nature, Diana felt quite humbled by Alice’s interest and attention, and was pleased to be walking into the hotel with a new acquaintance for a change, instead of facing a sea of totally unfamiliar faces.
They went to their respective rooms to unpack and arranged to meet up in the bar for pre-dinner drinks. Diana was surprised by the opulence of her accommodation; a decent sized bathroom with a Jacuzzi bath and separate power shower, a king-sized bed and a small lounge area with a sofa, two armchairs, and a coffee table laden with magazines, complementary fruit, wine, and chocolates. She unpacked quickly and had a long soak in the bubble filled Jacuzzi, then slopped around in the equally complementary bathrobe and slippers.
Caroline phoned to say that she was on the way home, would pick up the keys and send a text later. Diana’s ex-husband texted asking if he could pick up some more of his belongings over the weekend. She reminded him that she was away, that their daughter was on her way home, and that the locks had been changed so he couldn’t just wander in and out of the house any more. When she advised him that he would not get a warm welcome if he turned up at the house, he was not best pleased. Caroline had been very defensive of her mother during the separation, angry with her father for his many affairs, for breaking up the marriage, and angrier still with him for not moving out during the two years of the divorce proceedings.
Diana felt a sense of achievement after replying to his text. Being assertive towards someone who treated her with such little regard during their marriage, and even less during the divorce, was an empowering feeling. She got up from the sofa with her glass of wine in hand, and walked confidently to the wardrobe to get out her second-best dress. Black velvet and very simple, it clung to her in all the right places, and was of a style ‘very flattering to the larger lady’. At least, that was what the sales assistant had said, with a thinly concealed sarcastic smirk. Diana brushed her long fair hair and kept her make-up fairly discreet – with the exception of her favourite red lipstick and a pair of silver star earrings that were a present from Caroline. Her essential items for the evening were stowed into a small black velvet bag, she sprayed herself with Chanel No. 5, and sallied forth to meet Alice in the bar downstairs.
The bar was busy and by the time she found Alice, Diana had also met up with some familiar faces from previous events she had attended. She found herself in a small group of six; three men from Scotland that she already knew, Alice, and Mandy, another lady that she‘d also talked to before. They took over some seats at one of the coffee tables in the lounge, and the conversation was light and entertaining. Diana couldn’t shake off the feeling that someone was watching her however, and whilst she kept looking around for another familiar face, she couldn’t work out who it was.
Alice nudged her as they were making their way into the restaurant for dinner.
“Danny Vincent. You know; our celebrity host, and the main sponsor for the fundraising day tomorrow. You must know him; ex-sportsman turned presenter – and hell-raiser. To be honest, he was the main reason for my volunteering for this weekend; he was very big in the US for several years but stopped working when his wife became ill. It’s been two years since she died and he’s been persuaded to come out of retirement. A bit old for me, but you know what they say about older men. I think he’s gorgeous!”
Diana looked in the direction of Alice’s pointing finger, but their host seemed to have disappeared into another group of people, and all she could see was a tantalising back view of his short black curly hair. She shrugged, sure that she would catch a glimpse of him later on in the evening, or at least the next day. She could vaguely remember what he looked like from his sporting days, and that far from being an ‘older’ man as Alice described him, he was about her age. It was only a dim recollection however, from a time before sport and television were overtaken by more important issues like being on time for Caroline’s ballet classes, their swimming lessons, and helping Ben to get his homework done without annoying John.
Dinner that evening was pleasant; nothing extravagant or over-ambitious, but the kind of food you could eat and still carry on a conversation without spilling anything down your front. She felt in good company, and as they sank another couple of bottles of wine between them, Diana could see that one of the men from Scotland was quite smitten with dark-haired, petite Alice, plying her with drink in the age-old conference custom.
What goes on at these events stays at these events.
It hadn’t ever happened for Diana though. Up until two years ago she had been the dutiful wife, who would never have dreamed of being unfaithful. After her husband dropped the bombshell about his numerous affairs throughout their marriage, she was too wrapped up in trying to patch up the fabric of her life to even consider looking at another man.
By eleven thirty that night, her group had left the restaurant, and only the hard-core drinkers and seducers were left lounging. Diana made her excuses and went off to bed. As she passed through the reception area, she saw that tantalising back view again and was rewarded when Danny turned suddenly, and looked directly at her. He seemed unhappy and annoyed, so she smiled at him, and felt rewarded when he smiled back. Then he was propelled through the lift doors and upwards, and she lost sight of him again. He didn’t look as fierce as his reputation would have her believe, and in that very brief moment Diana sensed a deep sadness behind those deep and rather astonishingly blue eyes.
Perhaps Alice was right after all.
Diana’s room was on the first floor, so rather than wait for the lift, she took the stairs in an effort to work off some of the alcohol. The bed had been turned down and a single chocolate left on the pillow.
Comfort food for the lone divorcee.
She munched it anyway as she switched on the late news and took off her make up, hanging up the velvet dress carefully in the wardrobe and slipping gratefully into the comforting familiarity of her nightshirt. She brushed her teeth and had a quick wash before climbing into the big comfortable bed, setting her travelling alarm clock for the morning. It was the memory of that smile that made her sigh as she closed her eyes and drifted off into the sleep of a middle-aged, but free and single woma