Ben stood on the doorstep staring at my fingernails.
‘Ah that,’ I said. My synapses scampered across explanations as to why I, a rugby-playing barrister would be wearing nail polish. Yet, despite convincing countless juries to acquit obviously guilty accused, I couldn’t think of one excuse as to why my fingernails were painted purple.
I’d known Ben for twenty-five years. Rugby blues at Oxford. Best man at my wedding. Families entwined as bindweed. We lived in the same village. Shared the drive into chambers. Shared everything. Once, at a conference in Amsterdam, even a whore. But dare I confess about Shona?
It had been bad enough when Stella, back early from the gym, discovered me posing in front of the cheval mirror wearing full make-up and her silk underwear. Usually a composed woman, Stella shrieked before running from our bedroom.
Emetic panic surged in my throat. I’d heard enough from Ben, the divorce czar, to know the damage they cause. Wiping away all traces of Shona, I changed into my clothes and went downstairs. In the kitchen, Stella was banging saucepans and wearing the expression I’d seen on jurors faced with serial killers and rapists. ‘You’re a pervert,’ she spat, ‘thank heavens the children are at school.’
I constructed my defence with precision. Being Shona, I argued, did not mean I loved Stella less or that my desire for her was diminished. Shona only appeared at times of stress. The antidote to rational thought and cogent argument, Shona was a relief from myself.
Terminating my eloquent speech with tears, I pleaded, ‘Surely our marriage can surmount this.’
‘Very well,’ Stella said with ice in her voice, ‘for the sake of the children, I’ll stay. But know this, if I ever catch you wearing my clothes again, I will ruin you.’
That was three months ago. Yesterday, Stella and the children went to her parents' in Ludlow. Despite my promise, the People Trafficking case was proving a challenge and Shona was determined to have her way. She sprayed Stella’s scent across my throat. She painted my nails. She applied rouge to my cheeks. She slipped Stella’s satin kimono over my shoulders and rubbed the cool material over my thighs until the thrill exploded.
I woke up to my mobile buzzing and insistent ringing on the doorbell. It was Ben’s turn to pick me up for work. I ran downstairs to let him in before realising dizzy Shona had forgotten to remove the nail polish.
‘The truth,’ Ben barked, driving too fast towards the motorway. ‘When did it all start?’
‘Remember after we came down from Oxford, I spent a year with that law firm in Bangkok? I met a woman in a club. A doll-like thing with porcelain skin. A boy, as it turned out. He described how an alternative persona offered escape, in his case from poverty. His story was beguiling. I experimented with wearing women’s panties under my suit. It was my secret. Knowing that beneath my wig and gown, I wore stockings and suspenders made me feel invincible. Shona didn’t fully materialise until we started our own law firm.’
‘Does Stella know?’
I explained what happened three months ago and the promise I’d made to her.
‘And you’ve broken it already. How can I trust you?’ Ben asked, knuckles white on the steering wheel. ‘If this ever comes out, you’ll ruin both of us.’
‘It won’t, Ben.’ I rubbed clammy palms on my trousers. ‘I’ll be careful, but the truth is, Shona can be very strong-willed.’
‘In that case, I’d better meet the little minx, hadn’t I?’
I turned to Ben’s eagle profile, ‘I can’t believe what you’re saying.’
‘We’ve shared everything so far, why not her?’ He paused before adding, ‘But do me one favour, George.’
‘Anything,’ I replied.
‘Ditch the purple nail varnish. It’s simply not your colour.