Read by Dan Levia
Every morning, Margaret – Maggie – Henderson, would stand in the hallway of their apartment, knot her husband's tie, and send him out into the Wicked World of Advertising. Every evening, she would cheerfully greet him home with a hug and a kiss and a careful inspection of the tie for any tell-tale signs it had been removed or loosened.
Maggie had made it quite clear the day she consented to be Alfred's wife that she did not trust him - or indeed, any man - to be faithful. That she consented nevertheless was in large part due to the promise she made that day, and the glimpse of fear in Alfred's eyes when she solemnly told him of that promise.
Alfred's colleagues would tease him and his refusal to remove his tie, whenever they managed to cajole him down to one of the many local pubs and bars for an after-work drink. “Who wears the trousers?” they'd ask, but it was a question he was in entirely no doubt as to the answer of. He would calmly put up with their ribbing, and they would look for loopholes in his domestic arrangements. This was not with the intention of convincing Alfred to be unfaithful, but merely the sort of good humoured banter that any group of men might engage in over a few pints. They would suggest he really ought to be able to tie his own ties. He'd say he could, but he couldn't tie the ties his wife could tie. She knew, apparently, 85 distinct knots, whereas he knew a mere two – the Half-Windsor and the Schoolboy. And his wife was very careful never to use those.
“So why don't you learn the others?” they would ask.
“All 85 of them?” Alfred would reasonably object. And in any case, even if he could, a small difference in length or some other discrepancy would be sure to give him away, and this was also why he couldn’t even afford to loosen his tie.
“But you can't let her beat you!” they would cry, their honour as men demanding increasingly dastardly plans, all with the aim of allowing him at least the opportunity to cheat, even if he never actually used it.
But Alfred was happy to have this unwanted opportunity denied him. It simplified his life, and though his colleagues might view him as a bit of a square - a grey in the vibrant world of Advertising - there was a core strength that came out of the simplicity of Maggie's promise, out of her threat.
“If you are unfaithful to me,” she had said, that spring day long ago, before agreeing to wear his ring, “I WILL find out. I WILL leave you. And I promise you this, Alfred Henderson, you WILL suffer.”
It had become the easily satisfied bedrock of their relationship. The apple in the garden of Eden. All other faults could be worked through, compromises found, apologies offered and accepted; just as long as this one cardinal rule was not violated. The constant thought of it, the reminder he wore round his neck every day, the fact that his tie seemed to feel a fraction tighter if temptation did happen to come his way, kept him well out of trouble.
Until the Office Christmas party.
Alfred never knew if someone had said something, or if he’d simply been picked on at random. But there she was, leaning over the table in front of him. “My, that’s a nice tie!” she’d said, to ripples of laughter from his table. And not just his table, the whole packed room seemed to go a little quieter, a little more focused on him, and on her. She leaned further forward, impossibly forward, and draped her gloved arms around his shoulder as he stared at the expanse of cleavage on display.
“Have a little faith,” she whispered in his ear, and then she was gone, the crowd of paper-hatted Christmas revellers cheering as she stood and waved something in the air.
It was a tie.
His hand flew to his neck as the room roared at his shocked reaction. The female magician loosely knotted the striped length around her corseted waist. “What do you think?” she asked her audience. “Does it suit me, or ... should I give it back?”
Alfred tried to add his voice to the cries of “Keep it!” and “Give it back!”, but it rasped and croaked, barely audible to his own ears. He stood and took a couple of unsteady steps towards her, still trying to make himself heard.
“Hmm,” she said, her head cocked to one side, “or does my bum look big in this?” There was a sudden bright bloom of flame around her slim waist, and the tie – his tie – was gone.
The crowd went wild. As Alfred felt himself crumple, her eyes locked with his, a fleeting look as if for a moment she’d realised what she’d done to him, how she had utterly destroyed him.
Then the smile returned and she winked, before raising her hands until the holler died down. “I think Alfred here deserves a round of applause for being such a good sport!”
Once again she had her hands on his shoulders, and as he stifled a sob and a tear welled up in his eye, she leant in and he felt a firm kiss on his cheek.
Then she was gone, onto the next group to work her magic there, leaving Alfred stranded, bereft. His table was still howling with laughter and pointing excitedly at him. But why were they pointing? He realised that the tightness around his neck was back. He looked down, and there it was: his tie. It was even done in the same distinctive Cavendish knot Maggie had tied that morning. His mouth gaped open. Impossible! How? Had it all been an illusion? But he’d felt the looseness at his collar, had brushed his fingers against the top button of his white shirt. He staggered back to his seat, a giddy grin replacing the death’s head grimace, and as his boss clapped him on the shoulder he tried to check his reflection in the flat surfaces of the silverware.
The circus performers – the clown, the magician, the ringleader - were gone by the time the after dinner speeches began, by the time people got up from their tables to find stronger drinks, to dance, and to mingle. So he never got a chance to ask his magician how she’d managed it, never got to thank her for saving his marriage. There was still a tiny, lingering doubt that the tie might not pass muster, but this was surely a magical night, and all would be well. Though, not wanting to push his luck, he took himself home before things got too messy.
As he opened the door, as his wife flip-flopped over in her house slippers, as she scrutinised his immaculately knotted tie, he beamed with relief.
A pity then, that as he turned to present his cheek for her customary greeting, Maggie found there the perfect imprint of a female magician’s ruby-red lips.