There is a murmur of greeting. Liv prickles with embarrassment. She forces a smile, deliberately not meeting the eye of any of the people seated around her. Sven looks at her steadily, in his eyes an apology for what is about to come.

‘I saved you a seat,’ Kristen says. ‘Next to Roger. He’s lovely.’ She gives Liv a meaningful look as she directs her towards the empty chair. ‘You’ll love him.’

They are all couples. Of course they are. Eight of them. And Roger. She feels the women surveying her surreptitiously from behind polite smiles, trying to ascertain whether, as the only single woman there, she is likely to be a threat. It is an expression with which she has become wearyingly familiar. The men glance sideways, checking her out for a different reason. She feels the warm, garlicky blast of Roger’s breath as he leans in and pats the chair beside him.

He holds out a hand. ‘Rog. You’re very wet.’ He manages to make it sound faintly lascivious; the kind of ex-public-schoolboy who finds it impossible to talk to women without introducing a sexual undertow.

She pulls her jacket across her. ‘Yes. Yes, I am.’

They smile vaguely at each other. He has sparse sandy hair, and the ruddy complexion of someone who spends a lot of time in the country. He pours her a glass of wine. ‘So. What do you do then, Liv?’ He says her name as if she may have invented it and he is humouring her.

‘Copywriting mainly.’

‘Well. Copywriting.’ They both pause. ‘Any children?’

‘No. You?’

‘Two. Boys. Both at boarding school. Best place for them, frankly. So … no children, eh? And no man in the wings. What are you, thirty-something?’

She swallows, tries to ignore the faint stab of his words. ‘Thirty.’

‘You don’t want to hang around. Or are you one of those …’ he holds up his fingers to make inverted commas ‘… career women?’

‘Yes,’ she says, and smiles. ‘I had my ovaries removed when I last updated my CV. Just to be on the safe side.’

He gawps at her, then barks a laugh. ‘Oh! Funny! Yes. A woman with a sense of humour. Very good … ovaries … hah.’ His voice tails away. He takes a swig of wine. ‘My wife left when she was thirty-nine. Apparently it’s a tricky age for the girls.’ He downs the rest of his glass and reaches for the bottle to refill it. ‘Not too tricky for her, obviously, seeing as she got away with a Puerto Rican called Viktor, the house in France and half my bloody pension. Women …’ He turns to her. ‘Can’t live with ’em, can’t shoot ’em, eh?’ He lifts his arms and fires off an imaginary round of bullets into the restaurant ceiling.

It’s going to be a long night. Liv keeps smiling, pours herself a second glass of wine, and buries herself in the menu, promising herself that, no matter how persuasive Kristen is next time, she will chew off her own arm rather than agree to go to any kind of dinner party ever again.

The evening stretches, the couples bitch about people she has never met, the courses come agonizingly slowly. Kristen sends her main back to be redone to her exact specifications. She lets out a weary little sigh, as if the kitchen’s failure to put the spinach on the side is the most awful imposition. Sven gazes at her indulgently. Liv sits trapped between the broad back of a man called Martin, whose wife’s friend seems determined to monopolize him, and Roger.

‘Bitch,’ he says, at one point.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘First it was my nostril hair putting her off. Then my toenails. Always a reason why we couldn’t do the old … you know.’ He forms his thumb and finger into an O and slides his other index finger through it. ‘Or a headache. No such headaches with old Viktor, eh? Oh, no. I bet she doesn’t care how long his ruddy toenails are.’ He swigs from his glass. ‘Bet they’re at it like bloody rabbits.’

The lamb is congealing on her plate. She puts her knife and fork neatly together.

‘What happened to you, then?’

She glances up at him, hoping he doesn’t mean – but of course he does.

‘Kristen said you were married before. To Sven’s business partner.’

‘I was.’

‘Left you, did he?’

She swallows. Composes her face into a blank. ‘In a manner of speaking.’

Roger shakes his head. ‘I don’t know. What’s wrong with people, these days? Why can’t they just be satisfied with what they’re given?’ He takes a toothpick and digs vigorously into a back molar, pausing to examine his pickings with grim relish.

Liv looks down the table and meets Kristen’s eye. Kristen lifts both brows suggestively, and gives her a surreptitious thumbs-up. Big hit! she mouths.

‘Will you excuse me?’ Liv says, pushing back her chair. ‘I really need to visit the Ladies.’

Liv sits in the silent cubicle for as long as she can without someone staging an intervention, listening as several women come in and perform ablutions. She checks for non-existent email and plays Scrabble on her phone. Finally, after scoring ‘flux’, she gets up, flushes the loo and washes her hands, staring at her reflection with a kind of perverse satisfaction. Her makeup has smudged beneath one eye. She fixes this in the mirror, wondering why she bothers, given that she is about to sit next to Roger again.

She checks her watch. When can she beg an early-morning meeting and head for home? With luck, Roger will be so drunk by the time she goes back out that he will have forgotten she was even there.

Liv takes one last look at her reflection, pushes her hair off her face and grimaces at her appearance. What’s the point? And then she opens the door.

‘Liv! Liv, come here! I want to tell you something!’ Roger is standing, gesticulating wildly. His face is even redder and his hair is standing upright on one side. It’s possible that he is, she thinks, half man, half ostrich. She feels a momentary panic at the prospect of having to spend another half-hour in his company. She’s used to this: an almost overwhelming physical desire to remove herself, to be out on the dark streets alone; not having to be anyone at all.

She sits gingerly, like someone prepared to sprint, and drinks another half-glass of wine. ‘I really should go,’ she says, and there is a wave of protest from the other occupants of the table, as if this is some kind of personal affront. She stays. Her smile is a rictus. She finds herself watching the couples, the domestic cracks becoming visible with each glass of wine. That one dislikes her husband. She rolls her eyes with every second comment he makes. This man is bored with everyone, possibly with his wife. He checks his mobile compulsively beneath the rim of the table. She gazes up at the clock, nods dully at Roger’s breathy litany of marital unfairness. She plays a silent game of Dinner Party Bingo. She scores a School Fees and a House Prices. She is on the verge of a Last Year’s Holiday In Europe Full House when someone taps her on the shoulder.

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