• Rhys Evans

The Paunch

This story was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.


Ralphy was too lazy to have an affair. He had known men and women, contemporaries of his in the City, who pursued extramarital dalliances with a vigour that left him tired just thinking about it. The effort! The stress! The texting! Illicit, secretive rendezvous! Sex! Christ, you’d actually have to commit to the act. What was an affair without lust? Imagine, with his paunch, Ralphy having sex. He could barely even shower without shame these days, the folds of his gut glimpsed in the steamy mirror nearly brought tears to his eyes. Contemplating sex made him tired. Masturbation was hard enough. Contrary to popular trends, Ralphy liked Flora, his wife of 15 years. Love might be a bit strong, but he definitely liked her. It was questionable whether or not she liked him back, of course, and Ralphy had grown to accept this.

It had been disheartening to learn that Flora was actively pursuing an affair with Mordecai, a polyamorous art dealer based in Peckham. Everyone in Notting Hill knew, apparently; apart, it seems, from Ralphy. Because gossip was tiring, right? Keeping up with it over coffee or in the pub required stamina. You couldn’t just simply accrue it, you had to be in a position to contribute, and that required a certain amount of effort that Ralphy could not muster anymore. Being upset about Flora’s affair was itself too tiring to even contemplate. If anything, Ralphy felt embarrassed that he couldn’t simply indulge in the activity himself. Everyone thought he was, even Flora. In fact, she was shocked that he had always remained faithful to her.

‘Even when you were working in Los Angeles?’ Flora enquired, aghast.

She had broken the news to Ralphy in the reception room, a room reserved solely for formal occasions. Copies of The New Yorker and The London Review of Books were tousled insouciantly on the coffee table. The twins were elsewhere: Lucien in the garden knocking a tennis ball against the wall; Hattie in the den listening to Vivaldi, painting. The rhythm of the house remained unaffected by the revelation.

‘Of course.’

‘Huh.’

‘I was only in Los Angeles for three weeks There wasn’t time for a one night stand, let alone an affair.’

‘Two months surely?’

‘No. I grazed three weeks.’

‘Really? Because it felt longer.’

‘So you’re having an affair?’

‘Affairs, yes. Would you like to know with whom?’

Flora seemed keen to divulge the details which left Ralphy reeling.

‘Not particularly.’

‘And you? Have you had an affair?

‘No. Never.’

‘Not even with the nanny?’

‘Ada? God no. I have morals Flora!’

‘It’s a legitimate consideration.’

‘She’s half my age.’

‘Dean is having an affair, you know.’

‘Dean is always having an affair.’

‘You’re scared of him, aren’t you?’

‘No. Not scared. He makes me nervous, sure, but scared? No.’

‘He’s vulgar.’

‘I suppose this means you want a divorce then?’

‘I hadn’t really thought that far ahead.’

Summer had been exhausting for Ralphy even without the news of Flora’s affairs. Mood Indigo, the film production company he helmed with Dean, a childhood friend, was on the brink of collapse; the result of the EU referendum had also left him in a lethargic state. Like so many in his rarefied enclave, Ralphy had not anticipated a Leave victory, nor had he expected it to impact so much on his mental health.

Ralphy and Flora had never been outwardly political; they were a comfortable Blair/Cameron hybrid, subscribing to The Guardian, advocating the Big Society. Flora organised ornate soirees in galleries around London, raising money for her pet projects, most notably a homeless charity. Ralphy and Flora believed in the free market, and the free market thrived on their investment. Yet Brexit changed everything. Ralphy and Flora couldn’t specify what they would miss the most about membership, they knew next to nothing about particular policies; it was the principle that mattered. Ralphy and Flora had never relied on freedom of movement, but now that it was gone, it was vital that they had access to it.

The flipside to Brexit was that it had brought Ralphy and Flora closer together. On the eve of the referendum, Flora was in the process of initiating a trial separation, taking the twins to stay with her parents in Chiswick. She didn’t fully understand what Mordecai meant when he extolled the myriad pleasures of polyamory, nor did she particularly care for the art he promoted in his galleries; yet Mordecai represented change in a way that tired old Ralphy simply couldn’t. However, in the weeks after the shock result, Ralphy and Flora located an emotional middleground. Ralphy promised to end Mood Indigo; Flora severed ties with Mordecai. The nascent campaign to remain in the EU had given the couple purpose.

Mood Indigo, Ralphy now accepted, was a bad idea. Like every middle aged male in West London, Ralphy fancied himself an aspiring creative. Mood Indigo was pure surface. It was something to brag about to friends at dinner parties. No one needed to know that Mood Indigo productions rarely progressed further than an embryonic spec script, nor was it of interest to learn about the unsavoury characters that Dean used to source funding.

Filmmaking, of course, required stamina which Ralphy no longer had. It was different in the City. He had energy in those days.

It was the jargon of the film world that first seduced Ralphy; he could admit that now.

Bloody jargon.

The City, where he had spent the guts of his working life, was also rife with jargon. There was solace in jargon. It was manageable; it was, with practice, malleable. The money that Ralphy worked with was ideologically fluid. It was sorted and shifted in a coded aloof manner; it was money that required its guardians to understand the nuance of avoidance and evasion, who read the markets keenly, surviving on instinct and street-smarts. Amidst the hoary leftovers from the ‘80s intake – who still indulged in the boozy lunches, the casual sexism, the double-breasted suit, the pied-à-terre heart attacks – and the younger puritanical tech-savvy LinkedIn crowd, with Latin mantras in their twitter bios and 5.30am gym sessions before work, Ralphy thrived.

Recces, splits, dollys, best boys, gaffers: film-speak was better than talking dirty.

Even now just thinking about the slew of words, a unique, esoteric language reserved for the wealthy and the film school elite, made Ralphy feel an incredible, all-encompassing calm and comfort. It offered you gravitas wherever you went. Mood Indigo allowed Ralphy and Dean to pursue their schoolboy fantasies of what the film industry could be, rejoicing in the associated clutter such a venture required. Overpriced offices littered with bean bags and new iMacs were secured off Wardour Street; an eager, unpaid intern, Bella, perpetually reading Joan Didion, greeted visitors at reception. A framed Scarface poster – inevitably, unfortunately – hung in the main office, a further symbol of toxic masculinity, as if another was required. But now it was time for Ralphy to get his house in order. Brexit had provided him with an opportunity to revive his marriage. It would be difficult, certainly – Mordecai lurked on the fringes of every party he attended with Flora; he was certain that the twins despised him, or pitied him, or both – but he was determined to change. Getting a divorce and starting again seemed like a much more terrifying – and tiring! – prospect.

Mood Indigo, the EU, his marriage: everything was fucked.

And he was just so bloody tired.

Unemployment only seemed to heighten his torpor.

Spending more time at home was an unsettling experience.

The twins were wrecking his head.

Lucien was meant to go to Argentina with his school for a tennis tournament. Flora thought it would be a great opportunity for Ralphy to bond with his son.

Lucien was a precocious talent. Not only had he graduated to grass courts with aplomb, equipped with a thrumming forehand, his penchant for history often put his teachers to shame.

Ralphy didn’t like Lucien. Not at all. Lucien knew he was already smarter than his father and seemed to revel in such knowledge. Hattie Ralphy liked. She was equally as gifted as her brother. Her watercolours were masterful, as was her eye for interior – and exterior – design. Such was Hattie’s prowess that Flora had allowed her to re-design the front of the house: the facade of the Anscombe home was now a fey mint green, with rustic green ivy stencilled on, winding its way from the basement around the portrait windows to the roof. Returning home each day and seeing his daughter’s work never ceased to fill Ralphy with joy.

But Ralphy abhorred Lucien, the way he called his father by his first name, and his cocksure, perma-tracksuit strut.

‘I think Argentina will be good for both of you,’ repeated Flora.

‘Only because you don’t have to go,’ Ralphy retorted.

‘Your lethargy is quite unbecoming, you know?’ replied Flora.

Her tone recently was equal parts cutting and convivial. It left Ralphy uncertain if this marriage reboot was working at all. Maybe she liked him tired; it kept him limited, supple perhaps. ‘That’s simply not the case.’ Ralphy was forced to put his iPad down. ‘In fact, today I was looking up a new school for the twins.’

‘You were?’

‘I was. I’m sick of the Falk. I truly am. The fees we pay are not commensurate with the standard of the teaching.’

‘You don’t have a job, Ralphy. That’s more important than the children’s schooling.’

Ralphy was aghast. For the past year Flora complained on a daily basis about the standard of teaching at the Falk. It had been a nightmare getting them in in the first place. Brexit had seen large swathes of international pupils leave and, inevitably, the fees were due to rise in September. This meant that the twins were no longer considered siblings and no second child discount would be available to the Anscombes. Flora had even threatened to home educate which made Ralphy baulk; in his eyes, home education was one of the few fates worse than a bad private school.

‘The French teacher has never even been to France, remember? I think that’s pretty extraordinary. Bad enough that he hasn’t lived there, but to not even have visited? That’s completely irresponsible.’

‘I agree. But this is the first time you’ve seemed at all worried about the twins’ education and I can’t help but feel that you’re using this as an excuse to get out of the Argentina trip. Or get a job.’

Given a choice between a trip to Argentina watching Lucien and his hateful peers do battle against their South American counterparts on clay courts or returning to the sturm and drang of the City, Ralphy knew that he would much rather settle for the latter.

The thought of City life after his brief sojourn in the film industry filled Ralphy with dread. It was a sign that he had failed. But this was what Flora wanted him to do. There was only so long she could abide having an unemployed husband. It could ultimately lead to exclusion from their social group. Ralphy had the connections after all. A job could be secured with ease, if he wanted. Growth Advisor had a neat ring to it. Something Advisor. Nothing too fancy, just sturdy.

There was money to be made post-Brexit. Ralphy and Flora were shocked to learn that Malcolm and Eloise – friends from the tennis club – made substantial profits from the Leave vote. In private, Flora always referred to Eloise as the Ayn Rand of their circle, her libertarian bent came replete with views on capital punishment enough to make the most ardent Thatcherite blush. Making money in such a coarse fashion was the antithesis of what Flora believed in; of course, her gilded, vaguely ideological money, inherited and knotted up in land, allowed her this privilege.

iPad propped on his pink shirted paunch, Twitter open – his daily repose – Ralphy pondered his next move. He craved something grander than the City. That life was behind him. He wanted to make a difference the way Flora did with her charity fundraising. Was there some ethical way to make money? Plenty of executives in the charity field seemed to make tidy incomes on the auspices of helping children in palliative care units or animals with early onset dementia; perhaps he could learn something from them? It was imperative that he make a statement, for Flora and for himself.

To offset Flora’s concerns, Ralphy had made a show of soliciting advice from other parents down at school or the tennis club. All the talk courtside was Brexit. Avowedly apolitical mothers and fathers, who once viewed politics as something trite and unsexy, were now transformed into rabidly partisan fact-checkers. Conspiracy theories abounded as these freshly invigorated denizens monitored the development of their offsprings’ weighted backhands. The legitimacy of the result was questioned with impassioned attacks on the very nature of referendums. One parent remarked to Ralphy that facilitating such a vote was undemocratic and decidedly un-British. Un-British! What did that even mean? thought Ralphy.

Ralphy and Flora were resolutely unpatriotic. They never had cause to cling to the flag and all the brittle securities it supposedly provided. Ralphy enjoyed the Brexit babble and how it had encroached on this elite sliver of London, whether you were on the left or the right. It felt like something approaching bi-partisanship might be on the horizon. Discussions about the state of modern Britain and its role in the world fascinated him. So much so that he began to formulate a plan. Ralphy was rising from his languor. He broached his new plan with Flora: a pro-European publication.

‘So you don’t want to go back into finance?’ was Flora’s muted response.

Ralphy had not anticipated such an underwhelming reaction when he burst into the den with his news. Flora was drinking wine with Ada, the nanny, surrounded by a number of Hattie’s in-progress canvases. Hattie had recently developed a fascination with the post-Impressionists, and their influence was present in her latest offerings.

‘I thought you would be ecstatic,’ replied Ralphy. ‘You want to overturn the vote, don’t you? Or have a second referendum at least?’

‘I do. I think. I want to repeal it democratically, if possible. I just don’t think I fully understand your plan, fully.’

Ralphy provided further details: a website dedicated to extolling the virtues of EU membership; regular features from those in the know; political cartoons that captured the moment. And poetry. There would definitely be poetry.

Through his networking at the Chelsea Arts Club, he had managed to secure the services of a notable journalist who was willing to contribute a rolling column for well below her usual fee. It should have been encouragement enough.

‘Will there be actual physical copies of this paper?’ asked Flora, stiffly.

‘No. Too expensive. Online only to begin with. Test the waters.’

‘This is really what you want to do?’

‘It’s the next logical step. I can cash in on the pro-European clamour. Follow the hashtags, darling. FBPE!’

‘You’re going to start a blog based on a hashtag?’

‘Not a blog, a website. An online journal. Think of the clamour, darling.’

‘I think you should go back to doing what you do best. Why not call up some of the old heads and see if they’ve got any leads?’

‘But this has the potential to be utterly transformative, Flora. Don’t you understand? I don’t want to just make money anymore. I want to make a living, certainly, but also bring about change.’

Ralphy was in danger of sounding desperate.

‘Ada, what do you think?’ asked Ralphy.

‘Me?’

‘Do you think this sounds like a good idea?’

‘I guess,’ replied Ada, rolling the wine glass in her palms.

‘Would you read it? Your peers?’

‘Leave the poor girl alone, Ralphy,’ interjected Flora.

‘It’s a simple question. Ada is young and informed. I want her opinion.’

‘I don’t think so, Ralphy,’ Ada replied meekly.

‘Why is that?’

‘Isn’t it all, well, a bit late? To talk or write about the benefits of EU membership now that the UK is leaving? It seems sort of redundant to me.’

Ralphy sighed.

‘I understand. You’re upset. I’m upset. This wretched referendum has caused untold damage to all of us,’ said Flora, before leaning across to kiss her husband lightly on the lips.

Ralphy found the action jarring. It had been months since the couple had engaged in such an intimate, reassuring gesture.

‘I just want you to have purpose, Ralphy.’

Purpose, thought Ralphy.

Purpose. ▲ Rhys Evans is a writer from Ireland with an English accent and a Welsh name living in London. He is currently working on a novel entitled Eat The Frog.