It began as a normal evening.
Celia arrived home from work to find her husband and son in the kitchen-dining room. Joey was at the stainless-steel stove, wearing a chef's apron, stirring homemade risotto with a wooden spatula. Stephen sat at the mahogany dining table, feet dangling above the floor, busy with his Harry Potter colouring book. He jumped up when he saw his mother.
Celia was still dressed for work—smart pinstripe blazer and skirt, medium-high heels—and she bent down as Stephen ran to greet her. Joey paused in his cooking to smile as he watched his wife kiss their son, the boy's floppy blond hair just slightly lighter than the woman's longer blond locks. They looked beautiful together.
Celia let go of her son and went to give Joey a kiss of his own. Dinner was ready and she took off her blazer to join them. The three of them chatted as they ate, the grown-ups drinking wine, the boy with a glass of fizzy water laced with lime cordial. After dinner, Celia went upstairs to change and when she came back down, she lingered in the doorway to watch Joey show Stephen an animation short on his laptop. Father and son, the dark-haired man and the blond boy. Joey ruffled his son's hair as he giggled at the movie.
'Hey, Mummy!' said Stephen, pointing to the screen. 'It's one of Daddy's films!'
'Actually, it's Jeremy's film,' said Joey. 'I'm just the producer.'
'What's a producer?' said the boy.
'He brings in the money, honey,' said Celia, walking over to join them. 'Which I would say is just as important as being a creative genius.'
'Well ... it's a good partnership,' said Joey.
'A perfect partnership,' said Celia, sitting on his lap. 'Like us.'
Stephen pulled a disgusted face as the grown-ups kissed.
Later that evening, after Stephen had been put to bed, Celia and Joey settled themselves onto their huge L-shaped couch, the livestream movie menu already displayed on the giant flatscreen. Joey brought in two more glasses of wine and Celia accepted hers, making a mental note that this should be Joey's last if they were going to have sex this evening. She'd recently had a check-up for the coil in her uterus, everything was in place, and she was in the mood for a good shag. Besides, Joey was negotiating a big project for J&J Animation—his company with Jeremy—and if he succeeded, it might mean a family holiday in the Caribbean. Talking to Joey after fucking his brains out was always a good idea when she wanted something. Celia gave her husband a lingering kiss when he settled down, her tongue snaking into his mouth. They might have started right then if it weren't for the sound of a child screaming.
Both of them jumped and Joey spilled wine on himself. The screaming child turned out to be in a movie trailer on the flatscreen. Celia grabbed the remote while Joey went off to clean himself up. When he got back, she had settled on a film called The World Made Yonder.
'What's that?' he said.
'Historical drama, apparently,' said Celia. 'I haven't seen one of those for a while.'
'What are the reviews like?'
'Mixed.' Celia referred to her smartphone as Joey resumed his seat. 'People either love it or hate it. One person calls it "A hidden gem" while another calls it "Utter garbage".'
'Such nuance,' said Joey, taking a sip from his replenished wine glass. 'Well, go on then, Celia. Put it on.'
'Yeah. If we're bored after twenty minutes, we can always do something else, right?'
He put his hand on her thigh and squeezed. Celia smiled, put her hand over his and leaned in for a kiss. Then she turned to the flatscreen and started the movie.
The World Made Yonder was set in Victorian Britain at the time of the Industrial Revolution. The heroine was a young woman, daughter to a wealthy factory owner, who had to choose between two men: a handsome gentleman whose father was a lord, and a rugged manly man who worked in her father's factory. It was obvious you were supposed to root for the working man, but the gentleman was no wimp. There was a good scene where he stood up to his father, risking his inheritance because he wanted to marry 'the factory girl'. Celia clapped as he walked out of his father's wood-panelled office.
'Good for him!' she said.
The heroine marries the lord's son and they live in a plush town house with a butler and servants. There was an awkward sex scene, clearly to show that the husband couldn't satisfy the heroine in bed—he was mainly preoccupied with having a son to carry on the family name. He decides to go into politics, leaving the heroine to manage the household alone. Meanwhile, the manly man is promoted to foreman at her father's factory. Whenever the heroine goes to visit her father at work, she always manages to glimpse the manly man glistening with sweat or surrounded by workmen who act like they would die at his command.
'I can see where this is going,' muttered Joey.
'Shush!' said Celia.
One afternoon, the heroine is alone in her father's house, when the foreman comes around to see him. ('Servants got the day off, did they?' said Joey and he got a slap on the arm.) The couple can no longer deny their passion and they fall on each other, having wild, bodice-ripping sex on the floor in front of the grandfather clock. There follows a montage of the heroine running her household, attending her husband's campaign efforts—and having passionate couplings with her working-class hunk in a variety of secret locations.
The montage stops abruptly on a close-up of a doctor's head mirror. The heroine is in a Victorian surgery and the doctor tells her: 'You're with child.' Cut to the husband being overjoyed with the news. There is a reunion of sorts with his aristocratic father and everyone is happy except the heroine. She has one last tryst with her lover where she tells him they must stop seeing each other forever and declares that the child must be brought up as her husband's son. The foreman walks away in the rain as the heroine cries her heart out.
Celia had tears in her eyes. Joey was rolling his.
There followed another montage: the baby is born and the husband—informed of the birth during a political rally—goes rushing to the heroine's side. Meanwhile, the manly foreman is drowning his sorrows in a pub while a pretty barmaid looks on. The heroine's baby becomes a small boy and her husband dotes on him. The foreman marries the barmaid and carries her over the threshold of a small terrace house. The heroine joins a Victorian ladies' charity group. The husband gets elected, entering the Houses of Parliament. The boy turns into a teenager. The foreman comes home at night to four children and a complaining wife. The heroine is now elected head of the charity.
Then, the heroine's father dies of a heart attack and a villainous investor takes over the factory. Played by a well-known actor, his character takes the film into a higher gear. Joey stopped making sarcastic remarks and Celia watched while biting her finger.
The villain is determined to screw every drop of profit from the workforce, increasing hours and cutting safety standards. Because the heroine inherited part of her father's company, the foreman goes to her house for help. The door opens and he meets his biological teenage son who has no clue that the greying-but-still-hunky man is his true father. The heroine is angry at first, but the foreman tells her about the terrible conditions at the factory and says that he is here for his workers. The husband walks in on the conversation and it transpires that—as an MP—he is trying to put a bill through Parliament to improve factory conditions and stop this kind of exploitation. The three of them resolve to work together to bring the villain down.
But the villain is formidable and cunning. There is a dynamite scene where the heroine confronts him in the boardroom—trying and failing to wrest control of the company—and it is easily the highlight of the film. Meanwhile, the husband and foreman become allies, the foreman leading a workers' strike while the husband fights their cause in Parliament.
Celia was transfixed. She loved the turn the story had taken, with the heroine, her husband and her lover all working together against a common enemy. But she also felt a gnawing sense of dread. The teenage son kept appearing, being hugged by the husband while his real father looked on in the background. In addition, the villain hired a slimy private investigator to dig up some dirt on the heroine and Celia had seen enough movies to know that they don't introduce such a character only for him not to find anything. It seemed inevitable that the secret of the boy's parentage would come out, and it was going to destroy all that beautiful love and friendship. Unless, of course, the husband was man enough to accept that a woman can love two men in different ways. But would he?
Celia watched, heart pounding, biting her finger.
The slimy investigator follows the heroine and—watching her with the foreman—begins to suspect something between them. He finds out the name of her doctor who naturally refuses to help, so the slimy investigator breaks into the surgery in the dead of night to go through the doctor's records. He finds the heroine's file and seems to discover something incriminating, but the doctor suddenly appears in his nightgown. The investigator panics, pulls a gun and shoots the doctor. Terrified, he runs to the villain's town house and tells him everything, after which the villain coolly murders him by putting arsenic in his whiskey.
The next day, the heroine hears about the doctor's death, but doesn't connect it with herself. Her husband and the foreman leave for an important meeting and a messenger arrives. He tells her that the villain wants a private meeting with her at the factory after dark, adding that he has some information about her son. So, after dark, the heroine goes to the deserted factory without telling anyone, making her way past huge chemical vats and up a metal stairway to the offices, holding a kerosene lantern. The villain is drinking whiskey in her father's old office and he tells her that he has proof that the foreman is her son's true father. The heroine suddenly realises who is behind the doctor's death. The villain also presents a scenario in which the police find the gun which shot the doctor somewhere in the foreman's house, lending credence to the theory that she and him tried to cover up their affair. However, all this unpleasantness can be avoided if she simply agrees to get her husband and the foreman to abandon the strike.
The heroine refuses. 'Do your worst!' she cries. 'I've done nothing I'm ashamed of!' This enrages the villain, who attacks her. She hits him with the kerosene lantern, which sets fire to his tailcoat. Just as he is pulling it off, she throws his whiskey, turning him into a human torch. He screams, running out of the office to the staircase, toppling over the railing and into a vat of chemicals. The vat explodes, quickly turning the factory into an inferno and, although the heroine tries to escape, she is overcome by smoke and collapses.
Fortunately, her son had been eavesdropping when the villain's messenger had arrived at the house. He runs through the streets, finds the husband and foreman at a meeting and tells them what he overheard. They run off to the factory and see the whole place in flames. Both run inside and split up to find the heroine. The husband finds her first and picks her up to carry her out. However, part of the ceiling collapses and he turns around to shield her with his body. The foreman hears the cries and runs to find them. The husband is dead, so the foreman picks up the woman and carries her to safety. As they come out, the whole factory behind them collapses.
The film fades to black, then opens with the heroine waking up in a hospital. There, the foreman tells her how bravely her husband died and there is a tearful reunion with her son. The boy is heartbroken and, by what she says, it is clear that she wants him to always think of the husband as his father. The foreman nods smiling, accepting her decision. Then there is a funeral where her father-in-law, the lord, approaches with a proposal—he will finance the rebuilding of the factory if they name it after his son. The one condition is that she must run it. 'It's what my son would have wanted,' he says.
So the film ends with the grand opening of the rebuilt factory. The heroine cuts the ribbon across the gates, while her son stands next to his true father. The old lord and the workers all smile and clap. Then, the camera pans up to a portrait of the deceased husband, watching over the proceedings from the new sign on the factory wall. The picture fades to black as the foreman leads the crowd in giving three cheers to the heroine.
Celia sniffed. Tears were streaming down her face and she wiped them away. Part of her felt silly, but another part was exhausted with relief. The husband had died before the secret could be revealed. The love he shared with his son was intact. The love he and the boy felt for the heroine was intact, and the cause they had all fought for had been won. Plus, the heroine could now be with the foreman, her true love. It was not the tragic ending Celia had been dreading, and she was overjoyed. She sighed deeply and moved closer to her husband.
Joey was as still as a rock.
Celia looked at him. His normally jovial face was like a mask, cold and emotionless. He watched the credits roll with a stony glare.
'Joey, are you all right?' she said.
The man was silent. Then he exhaled and pointed a finger towards the flatscreen.
'That...' he said '...is a man's worst nightmare.'
'What, being killed in a fire?'
'No,' said Joey. 'To live and die without ever realising that your whole life was a lie.'
Celia moved away and stared at him.
'What are you talking about?' she said.
'The boy wasn't his son!' said Joey, astonished at having to spell it out for her.
'He was the boy's father in every way that mattered!'
'That's horseshit! The woman totally played him for a fool! And the only person who called her on it was the villain!'
'He wasn't calling her on it! He was trying to blackmail her!'
'Only because he had something to blackmail her with! Plus, she totally got away with it!'
'God, Joey, you make her sound like a criminal!'
'You don't think paternity fraud is a crime?'
Celia was shocked into silence. Joey got to his feet, switched off the flatscreen, and turned to look down at her. He was angry, more angry than she could ever remember. Celia shifted so she could hug her legs.
'Your silence speaks volumes,' said Joey.
'What do you mean?' said Celia.
'You don't think paternity fraud is a crime, do you?'
'What do you want me to say?'
'I want to hear your opinion.'
'No, you don't!' Celia glared at him. 'You want me to condemn her! You want me to agree with your opinion that the woman was a slut!'
'No, I don't.'
'Yes, you do!'
'No, I don't. I really don't.'
Joey sat on the couch's matching pouffe and looked at her earnestly. The anger wasn't gone, but Celia saw it was no longer in control.
'Celia, if you have a different opinion, I'm fine with that,' he said. 'I don't expect us to agree on everything. But it's clear to me that we feel very differently about this issue and I think we should talk about it.'
Joey frowned and looked past her. He gazed sightlessly at the curtains across the living room windows. Slowly, he began to nod.
'You're right,' he said. 'I should think about this without you.'
'Joey, I'm not saying I won't talk about it.'
'I know, but I realise that I'm not actually sure what I think myself. All I know is that I'm bloody angry.'
Joey got to his feet and left the room. Celia heard him in the hallway and got up to see what he was doing. He was putting on his outdoor shoes.
'Where are you going?' she said.
'For a walk.'
'But it's almost eleven!'
'I won't be long. I just need to clear my head.'
Joey finished tying his laces and stood up. He selected his red windbreaker from the family coats and put it on. Celia wrapped her arms around herself.
'Joey, can't we just go bed and talk about this tomorrow?'
'If I don't walk this off, I won't be able to sleep.'
Joey turned to look at her as he zipped up his coat.
'Celia, something about that film made me angry, but I don't know why. But if I go for a walk and let the anger burn off, the answer will come. It always does. You know me. I always get to the bottom of things in the end.'
He kissed Celia on the forehead, took a key from the key-rack and let himself out, closing the door without slamming it. Celia looked at the closed door, her arms wrapped tightly around herself, and shivered.
Celia was undressed and lying in bed by the time Joey came back from his walk. She heard the front door being opened and closed and listened to the sound of a man wandering around the ground floor of their house—a clunk here, a thump there. Eventually, she heard him climb the staircase. He went to the bathroom, took a piss, flushed the toilet, ran the sink tap, brushed his teeth. Finally, the cord light clicked off and Celia heard the unmistakeable sound of the spare bedroom door opening and closing.
Her heart was racing. The bed in the spare bedroom was always made up, partly because it made it easier to banish Joey there whenever he pissed her off. But only once before had Joey chosen to sleep in the spare bedroom and the memory sent chills down Celia's spine.
It had come about because of a single remark she had made. It was late evening and Joey was already in bed, sitting up and reading a business magazine by the light of his bedside lamp. Celia came in from the bathroom, having changed into a sexy nightie she had bought that afternoon. Joey goggled at her, which was nice, but she was wearing it for herself, not him. Celia thought Joey understood that, but clearly not because the moment she was in bed, he took her hand and put it over his erect cock.
'For God's sake, Joey!' she cried, pulling her hand away. 'Keep that disgusting thing away from me!'
It was a pure reaction and she thought Joey would apologise and go back to his magazine. Instead, without a word, Joey got out of bed and took his magazine into the spare bedroom. Celia was happy for him to spend the first night there and even the second. But after seven nights sleeping separately, Celia went in and demanded to know when Joey would stop sulking. Joey listened politely and then told her he was considering divorce.
It was the calmness which frightened Celia. Joey was quietly adamant that he did not want to be married to a woman who found him sexually repulsive and everything Celia said after that simply bounced off him. He was like a giant rock impossible to move. In the end, two nights later, she resorted to seducing him—sucking his cock to orgasm and making herself swallow his semen. That had finally convinced him, thank God. Plus, the sex improved after that. Celia generally regarded Joey as a pushover and finding out that he could be implacable made him a little less safe, and thus a little more exciting.
But that was months ago. As Celia lay in bed and heard the faint sound of the bedside lamp in the next room being switched off, she felt anything but excited. Sick, perhaps. Angry. Afraid of arguments to come. She knew perfectly well why Joey was in a mood—it was because of that stupid film. He identified with the husband character—of course—and was therefore worrying that she might have cheated on him. Typical man! What can you do with someone who thinks such a terrible thing? Yet Joey would never bring it up himself precisely because it was so terrible. In the end, Celia would be forced to say something and she felt sick to her stomach at the prospect.