Ten Years Ago
There are some places where you might expect to bump into your boyfriend’s ultra-posh mother.
At a Buckingham Palace garden party perhaps, or Glyndebourne, or turning her nose up at Ferrero Rochers at some foreign ambassador’s cocktail party. And then there are other places you wouldn’t expect to bump into her at all.
Like, for example, the Cod Almighty at the dodgier end of Tooting High Street.
‘Blimey, it’s Dougie’s mum.’ Instinctively wiping her hands on her green nylon overall and curbing the urge to curtsey – because Dougie’s mum was that posh – Lola said brightly, ‘Hello, Mrs Tennant, how lovely to see you!’
And how typical that she should turn up two minutes before closing, when all they had left to offer her was a tired-looking saveloy and a couple of overlooked fishcakes. Maybe Alf could be persuaded to quickly chuck a couple of fresh pieces of haddock into the fryer and—
‘Hello, Lola. I wondered if we could have a chat.’ Even for a visit to a fish and chip shop, Dougie’s mother’s make-up was immaculate, her hair swept into a Princess Michael of Kent chignon.
‘Oh, right. Absolutely. I’m just finishing here.’ Lola glanced across at Alf, who made good-humoured off-you-go gestures. ‘We close at half past two. So you don’t want anything to take away?’
Was that a shudder? Mrs Tennant shook her head and said with a flicker of amusement, ‘I don’t think so, do you?’
Having retrieved her shoulder bag from the back room and shrugged off her nylon overall —
youch, static — Lola ducked under the swing-top counter and took the king-sized portion of chips Alf had wrapped up for her, seeing as they had so many left.
‘Bye, Alf. See you tomorrow.’
‘I can drop you home if you like,’ said Dougie’s mother. ‘The car’s just outside.’
Lola beamed; free chips and a lift home in a brand new Jaguar. This was definitely her lucky day.
Outside on the pavement it was stiflingly hot and muggy. Inside the Jaguar the cool air smelled deliciously of expensive leather and Chanel No. 19.
‘This is such a great car,’ sighed Lola, stroking the upholstery as Dougie’s mother started the engine.
‘Thank you. I like it.’
‘How could anyone not like it?’ Lola balanced the steaming parcel of chips in her lap, careful to keep it away from her bare legs. Her stomach was rumbling but she heroically resisted the temptation to open them. ‘So why did you want to see me? Is this about Dougie’s birthday?’
‘No. Actually it’s about you and Dougie. I want you to stop seeing him.’
Bam, just like that.
Lola blinked. ‘Excuse me?’
‘I’d like you to end your relationship with my son.’
This couldn’t be happening. Her shoulders stiffening in disbelief, Lola watched as Dougie’s mother drove along, as calm and unconcerned as if they were discussing nothing more taxing than the weather.
‘He’s eighteen years old.’
‘He’s eighteen now,’ Mrs Tennant repeated firmly, ‘and on his way to university. He is going to university.’
‘I know.’ Bewildered, Lola said, ‘I’m not stopping him. We’re going to see each other whenever we can, take it in turns to do the journey. I’ll catch the coach up to Edinburgh every other weekend, and Dougie’s going to drive down here when it’s his turn, then—’
‘No, no, no, I’m sorry but he won’t. This isn’t the kind of relationship Doug needs right now. He told me last night that he was having second thoughts about going to university. He wants to stay here. And that’s all down to you, my girl. But I won’t stand by and let you ruin his life.’
The hot chips were burning Lola’s legs now ‘Honestly, I’m not ruining his life. I want the best for Dougie, just like you do. We love each other! I’ve already told him, if we miss each other too much I’ll move up to Edinburgh and we’ll live - together!’
‘Oh yes, he mentioned that too. And the next thing we know, you’d be feeling left out because he’d have all his university friends while you’re stuck working behind the counter of some backstreet fish and chip shop.’ Mrs Tennant’s lip curled with disdain. ‘So to regain his attention you’d accidentally get yourself pregnant. No, I’m sorry, I simply can’t allow this to happen. Far better for you to make the break now’
Who did this woman think she was?
‘But I don’t want to.’ Lola’s breathing was fast and shallow. ‘And you can’t force me to do it.’
‘No, dear, of course I can’t force you. But I can do my best to persuade you.’
‘I won’t be persuaded. I love Dougie. With all my heart,’ Lola blurted out, determined to make his mother understand that this was no silly teenage fling.
‘Ten thousand pounds, take it or leave it.’
‘That’s what I’m offering. Think it over. How much do you earn in that fish and chip shop?’
Dougie’s mother raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow. ‘No more than five pounds an hour, I’m sure.’
Four pounds actually. But it was still a mean dig; working at the Cod Almighty was only a temporary thing while she applied for jobs that would make more use of her qualifications.
‘And if I took your money, what kind of a person would that make me?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. The sensible kind, perhaps?’
Lola was so angry she could barely speak; her fingernails sank through the steamed, soggy chip paper, filling the air-conditioned interior of the car with the rank, sharp smell of vinegar.
Something else was bothering her too; up until today, Dougie’s mother had always been perfectly charming whenever they’d met.
‘I thought you liked me.’
‘Of course you did.’ Mrs Tennant sounded entertained. ‘That was the whole idea. I know what young people are like, you see. If a parent announces that they don’t approve of their children’s choice of partner, it’s only going to make them that much more determined to stay together.
Fuelling the flame and all that. Goodness no, far better to pretend everything’s rosy and you think their choice is wonderful, then let the relationship fizzle out of its own accord.’
‘But ours isn’t going to fizzle out,’ said Lola.
‘So you keep telling me. That’s why I’m giving it a helping hand. Goodness, this traffic is a nightmare today. Is it left down here at the traffic lights or straight on?’
‘Left. And how’s Dougie going to feel when he hears what you’ve said to me today?’
‘Well, I should imagine he’d be very annoyed with me. If you told him.’ Mrs Tennant paused for effect. ‘But do yourself a favour, Lola. Don’t say anything just yet. Give yourself time to really think this through, because you do have a brain. And ten thousand pounds is an awful lot of money. All you have to do as soon as you’ve made up your mind is give me a ring when you know Dougie isn’t at home. And I’ll write out the cheque.’
‘You can stop the car. I’ll walk the rest of the way.’ No longer willing to remain in her boyfriend’s mother’s plush Jag, Lola jabbed a finger to indicate that she should pull in at the bus stop ahead.
‘Sure? OK then.’
Lola paused with her hand on the passenger door handle and looked at Dougie’s mother in her crisp white linen shirt and royal chignon. ‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Why don’t you approve of me?’
‘You risk ruining my son’s future.’ Mrs Tennant didn’t hesitate. ‘We love each other. We could be happy together for the rest of our lives.’
No you couldn’t, Lola. Do you really not understand what I’m trying to explain here?You’re too brash and noisy, you have no class, you’re not good enough for Dougie. And,’ the older woman paused, her gaze lingering significantly over Lola’s low-cut red vest top and short denim skirt complete with grease stain, ‘you dress like a cheap tart.’
‘Can I ask you something else?’ said Lola. ‘How are you going to feel when Dougie refuses to ever speak to you again?’
And, heroically resisting the urge to tear open the parcel of chips and fling them in Dougie’s mother’s face, she climbed out of the car.
Back at home in Streatham — a far more modest house than Dougie’s, which his mother would surely sneer at — Lola paced the small blue and white living room like a caged animal and went over everything that had happened. OK, now what was she supposed to do? Dougie was currently up in Edinburgh for a few days, sorting out where he was going to be living come October and acquainting himself with the city that was due to be his home for the next three years. Doubtless Mrs Tennant had planned it this way with her usual meticulous attention to detail. Her own mother and stepfather were both out at work.The ticking of the clock in the kitchen was driving her demented. Bloody, bloody woman — how dare she do this to her? What a witch.
By four o’clock she could no longer bear to be confined. Deliberately not changing out of her low-cut top and far-too-shortdenim skirt, Lola left the house. What she was wearing was practically standard issue for teenagers on a hot summer’s day, for heaven’s sake — not tarty at all. And if she didn’t talk to someone about the situation, she would burst.
’Ten thousand pounds,’ said Jeannie.
‘I mean, ten thousand pounds.’
‘So?’ Lola banged down her Coke. ‘It doesn’t matter how much it is. She can’t go around doing stuff like that. It’s just sick.’
They were in McDonald’s. Jeannie noisily slurped her own Coke through two straws. ‘Can I say something?’
‘Can I stop you?’
‘OK, you say it’s a sick thing to do. And you’re going to say no. But what if Dougie comes back from Edinburgh on Friday and tells you he’s met someone else? What if he sits you down and says, "Look, sorry and all that, but I bumped into this really fit girl in a bar, we ended up in bed and she’s just fantastic"?’ Pausing to suck up the last dregs of her Coke, Jeannie pointed the straw at Lola. ‘What if he tells you you’re dumped?’
Oh, for heaven’s sake.
‘Dougie wouldn’t do that.’
‘But he might,’ said Jeannie. ‘OK, maybe not this week, or even this month. But sooner or later the chances are that you two will break up. You’re seventeen years old. How many seventeen-year-olds spend the rest of their lives with their first love? Let’s face it, that’s why it’s called first love, because you go on to have loads more. You’re too young to stay with the same person, Lola. And so’s Dougie. I know you’re crazy about each other now, but that’s not going to last.
And if Dougie is the one who finishes it, you can’t go running to his mother crying that you’ve changed your mind and can you have the money now please? Because it’ll be too late by then.You’ll have lost out big time. Think about it, you’ll be all on your own.’ Mock sorrowfully, Jeannie clutched her chest. ‘Heartbroken. No more Dougie Tennant and no ten thousand pounds.’
So that was the advice from a so-called friend. Well, what else should she have expected from someone like Jeannie, whose parents had fought an epic divorce battle and left her with a jaundiced view of relationships? Jeannie now despised her mother’s new husband and was escaping all the hassle at home by moving to Majorca. The plan was to work in a bar, dance on the beach and generally have the time of her life. Sleep with lots of men but very definitely not get emotionally involved with any of them. Any kind of romantic relationship was out.
The memory of Dougie’s mother continued to haunt Lola all the way home, that pale patrician face and disparaging voice letting her know in no uncertain terms why she was nowhere near good enough for her precious son.
Lola pictured the smirk on that face ifJeannie’s cheery prediction were to come true. Then again, imagine how she’d react if she and Dougie defied her and got married! Ha, wouldn’t that be fabulous?
Except ... except .. .
I’m seventeen, I don’t want to get married just to spite someone. I’m too young.
Back home again, Lola was overcome by an overwhelmingurge to speak to Dougie. No plan in her head, but she’d play it by ear. When she heard his voice she would decide what to do, whether or not to tell him that his mother was the world’s biggest witch. God, how would he feel when he found out?
Dougie was staying in a bed and breakfast in Edinburgh. The number was on the pad next to the phone in the narrow hallway. Dialling it, Lola checked her watch; it was five o’clock. He should be there now, back from his visit to the university campus .. .
‘No, dear, I’m afraid you’ve missed him: The landlady of the B&B had a kindly, Edinburgh-accented voice. ‘They came back an hour ago, Dougie changed and showered and thén they were off. Said they were going to check out the pubs on Rose Street!’
‘Oh.’ Lola’s heart sank; she’d so wanted to hear his voice. ‘Who was he with?’
‘I didn’t catch their names, pet. Another boy and two girls .. . isn’t it lovely to see him making new friends already? The boy’s from Manchester and the pretty blonde one’s from Abergavenny! I must say, they do seem absolutely charming. I’ll tell him you rang, shall I?
Although goodness knows what time he’ll be back ...’
Hanging up, Lola heard Jeannie’s words again. It wasn’t that she was overwhelmed with jealousy that Dougie had gone out for the evening with a group of new friends, two of whom happened to be female. It was just the realisation that this was the first of many hundreds of nights when she would be apart from him and Lola started as a floorboard creaked overhead; she’d thought the house was empty.
She called out, ‘Hello?’
‘Mum?’ Lola frowned. ‘Dad?’
Still nothing. Had the floorboard just creaked on its own or was someone up there? But the house seemed secure and a burglar would have his work cut out, climbing in through a bedroom window. Taking an umbrella as a precaution, Lola made her way upstairs.
What she saw when she pushed open the white painted door of her parents’ bedroom shocked her to the core.
’Dad?’ Lola’s stomach clenched in fear. Something was horribly, horribly wrong. Her stepfather
— the only father she’d ever known, the man she loved with all her heart — was packing a case, his face almost unrecognisable.
‘Go downstairs.’ He turned his back on her, barely able to speak.
Lola was shaking. ‘Dad, what is it?’
‘Please, just leave me alone.’
‘No! I won’t! Tell me what’s wrong.’ Dropping the umbrella, she cried, ‘Why are you packing?
Are you ill? Are you going to hospital? Is it cancer?’
Grief-stricken, he shook his head. ‘I’m not ill, not in that way. Lola, this is nothing to do with you ... I didn’t want you to see me like this . .
It was such an unimaginable situation that Lola didn’t know what to think. When she approached him he made a feeble attempt to fend her off with one arm.
‘Daddy, tell me,’ Lola whispered in desperation and tears sprang into his eyes.
Covering his face, he sank onto the bed. ‘Oh Lola, I’m sorry’
She had never been so frightened in her life. ‘I’m going to phone Mum.’
‘No, you mustn’t.’
‘Are you having an affair? Is that why you’re packing? Don’t you want to live with us any more?’
Another shake of the head. ‘It’s nothing like that.’
‘So tell me what it is then.’ Lola’s voice wavered; they were both crying now ‘You have to, because I’m scared!’ - Twenty minutes later she knew everything. Unbelievable though it seemed, Alex had been gambling and they’d never even suspected it. Through his twice-weekly visits to a snooker club he had been introduced to a crowd of card players and gradually, without even realising it, he’d found himself being sucked in. They had all met regularly at a house in Bermondsey to play poker and at first Alex had done pretty well. Now, he suspected that this had been the plan all along. Then the tide had turned, he had begun to lose and the genial group had made light of his run of bad luck. When the losses had mounted up to a worrying degree, Alex had confided in them that he needed time to pay back what he owed them. It was at this point that the genial group had stopped being genial and begun to threaten him. Terrified by the change in them, realising he was in way over his head, Alex had done the only thing possible and concentrated all his energies on winning back all the money he’d lost. Since his bank manager wouldn’t have appreciated this as a sensible business plan, he’d borrowed the money from the friend who’d introduced him to the poker group in the first place.
A week later he’d lost it all.
He borrowed an emergency sum from a money-lender, tried again.
Lost that too.
Meanwhile his family was oblivious. When Lola’s mum asked him if he was all right, he explained that he was just tired and she told him he shouldn’t be working so hard. The following night, as he was leaving the garage where he worked as a mechanic, he was stopped by two heavies in a van who explained in graphic detail what they would do to him if he didn’t repay every penny he owed by this time next week.
This time next week was now tomorrow and desperate times called for desperate measures. Sick with shame and in fear for his life — the heavies had been phoning him regularly, reminding him that the countdown was on — Alex had decided to disappear. It was the only answer; he couldn’t admit to Blythe what he’d done, the hideous mess he’d made of his life. She and Lola meant everything in the world to him and he couldn’t bear it any longer. If Lola had arrived home half an hour later he would have been gone for good.
‘I wish you had,’ he said heavily. ‘You told us you were going shopping in Oxford Street this afternoon. I thought I was safe here.’
Shopping in Oxford Street. She’d completely forgotten about that after Dougie’s mother had dropped her bombshell.
Lola, her face wet with tears, said, ‘But I didn’t, and now I know’
‘I still have to go. I can’t face your mother. I’d be better off dead,’ said Alex in desperation. ‘But I’d rather do it my way than stay to find out what those bastards have in store for me .. . oh God, I can’t believe this is happening, how could I have been so stupid ...’
Hugging him tightly, Lola already knew she had no choice. Her biological father, an American boy, had done a bunk the moment he’d found out that Blythe was pregnant. But it hadn’t mattered because Alex had come along two years later. He loved Lola as if she were his own daughter. He had made her boiled eggs with toast soldiers, he’d taught her to ride a bike, together they had made up silly songs and driven her mother mad, singing them over and over again; she had run to him when she’d been stung by a wasp, he had driven her all the way to Birmingham to see a boy band who were playing at the NEC. His love for her was absolutely unconditional .. .
‘I can help you,’ said Lola. ‘You don’t have to leave.’
‘Trust me, I do.’
Dry-eyed – this was too important for tears - she said, ‘I can get the money for you.’
‘Sweetheart, you can’t. It’s fifteen thousand pounds.’
Her stomach in knots, Lola didn’t allow herself to think of the repercussions. ‘I can get you most of it.’
And when Alex shook his head in disbelief she told him how.
When she’d finished he shook his head with even more vehemence. ‘No, no, I can’t let you do that. No way in the world, absolutely not.’
But what was the alternative? For him to disappear from their lives? For her to lose the only father she had ever known? For her mother’s world to be shattered?
‘Listen to me.’ Although her own heart felt as if it were breaking in two, Lola played her trump card. ‘Mum would never need to know’
’Lola. How nice to see you again.’ Adele Tennant opened her front door and stepped to one side.
‘Come on in.’
Following her across the echoing, high-ceilinged hall, Lolafelt sick and dizzy but grimly determined. Mustn’t, mustn’t pass out. She’d barely slept last night, hadn’t been able to eat anything either.
‘I’m glad you’ve seen sense.’ Adele sat down at the desk in her study and reached for her chequebook. Next to her, morning sunlight bounced off the glass on a silver photo frame.
Shifting position to avoid the glare, Lola saw that it was a photograph of Adele and her children, Dougie on the left and Sally on the right. The photo had been taken a couple of years ago while they were on holiday somewhere unbelievably exotic, with palm trees and an ocean the colour of lapis lazuli, because Adele Tennant didn’t take her holidays in Margate. Dougie, tanned and grinning in a white shirt, was looking carefree and heartbreakingly gorgeous. Sally, the older sister Lola had never met, was blonde and pretty in a flamingo-pink sarong. Now twenty-six and engaged to an Irish landowner, she was living with him in the Wicklow Mountains outside Dublin. Dougie adored his sister and Lola had been looking forward to getting to know her.
Her throat tightened. That wouldn’t be happening now ‘You won’t regret this.’ Adele crisply uncapped a fat black fountain pen and hovered the glinting nib above the cheque. The old witch couldn’t wait.
‘Hang on a minute.’ Lola briefly closed her eyes, wondering if she could do this.Yes, she could.
‘Ten thousand isn’t enough.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘It isn’t enough.’ She had to say it. ‘I need fifteen. Then I’ll leave Dougie alone. I’ll never see him again.’
‘The cheek of you!’
Lola’s mouth was bone-dry. ‘Otherwise I’ll move up to Edinburgh.’
Adele shot her a look of utter loathing. Frankly, Lola didn’t blame her one bit.
‘You are beyond the pale.’
Lola felt sicker than ever. ‘I need the money.’
‘Eleven thousand,’ Adele retaliated. ‘And that’s it.’
‘Fourteen,’ said Lola. What if she threw up all over Adele’s Persian rug?
Twelve and a half.’
‘Done: That was it, she’d haggled her way up to twelve and a half thousand pounds.As far as Dougie’s mother was concerned, she was now officially despicable beyond belief. But it was enough to get Alex out of trouble; his boss at the garage was able to loan him the rest.
‘I hope you’re proud of yourself.’ Adele dismissively wrote out the newly agreed sum.
Lola could so easily have burst into tears. She willed herself to stay in control. ‘I’m not. I just need the money.’
‘And hallelujah for that.’ Adele, for whom twelve and a half thousand wasn’t that much money at all, smiled her chilly, unamused smile. ‘So what are you going to be spending it on?’
As she said it, her gaze slid disparagingly over Lola in her turquoise vest, jeans and flip-flops.
It was all over now. No more Dougie. She no longer had to try to impress his mother. ‘Moving abroad,’ said Lola. ‘New bikinis. Silicone implants. Isn’t that what you’d expect?’
‘It’s your money now. I don’t care what you do with it, so long as you keep out of my son’s life.’
Adele paused. ‘Will you tell him about this?’
‘No.’ Lola shook her head and took the cheque which Alexwould pay into his account this morning. He had arranged an overdraft to cover the days before it cleared. In exchange she handed over to Adele the letter she’d written this morning, the hardest letter she’d ever had to write. ‘I’m just going to finish with him. You can give him this when he gets home. I’ll be out of the country by then.’
‘Delighted to hear it. Dougie will be over you in no time, but I agree it’s best to put some distance between you. Well, I’ll show you out.’ Adele rose to her feet and ushered Lola back through the house. Evidently relieved that Dougie wouldn’t be discovering the part she had played in seeing off his undesirable girlfriend, she smiled again at the front door and said,
‘Goodbye, Lola. It’s been an education doing business with you.’
This was it, this was really it. Lola’s throat swelled up and for a moment she considered ripping the cheque into tiny pieces.
It was what she wanted to do. But then what would happen to Alex?
‘I do love Dougie.’ Her voice cracked; she still couldn’t imagine living without him. ‘I really, really do.’
Opening the door with a flourish, Adele said cheerfully, ‘But you love money more.’
The moment he arrived home three days later, Dougie had only one thing on his mind.
‘Hi, Mum, you OK?’ He dumped his rucksack in the hall and kissed Adele on the cheek. ‘Just going to shoot over to Lola’s.’
Adele hugged her clever, handsome eighteen-year-old son, the light of her life. ‘Actually there’s a letter here for you from Lola.’
It had almost killed her not to steam open the envelope.
Now, as Dougie scanned the contents and she saw the colour drain from his face, Adele knew she’d been right to do as she had. He was far too fond of the girl for any good to come of it; at his age it was ridiculous to have let himself get so involved with any girl, let alone one as unequal socially as Lola Malone, the cheaply dressed daughter of a mechanic.
‘What does it say?’
‘Nothing’ Pain mingled with disbelief in Dougie’s dark eyes as he crumpled the letter in his fist and headed upstairs.
Adele didn’t want to see him hurt, but it was for his own good. It was for the best. Calling up after Dougie she said, ‘Are you hungry, darling? Can I get you something to eat?’
‘No’ He turned abruptly, his jaw set. ‘How did you know the letter was from Lola?’
Adele thought fast. ‘I was upstairs when I heard something coming through the letterbox.When I looked out of the window she was running up the road. Why don’t I make you a roast beef sandwich, nice and rare?’
‘Mum, I’m not hungry.’
Adele’s heart went out to him. ‘Sweetheart, is everything all right?’
‘It will be.’ Filled with resolve, Dougie nodded and said evenly, ‘I’m going to my room, then I’m going out. And yes, everything will be all right.’
But it wasn’t, thank God. Lola had kept her part of the bargain. The moment Dougie left the house, Adele infiltrated his room and found the crumpled-up note under the bed.
Dear Dougie, Sorry to do it like this, but it’s easier than face to face. It’s over, Dougie, I don’t want to see you any more. We’ve had fun and I don’t regret our relationship but my feelings for you have changed recently, the magic just seems to have gone. I don’t want to move up to Edinburgh with you, it’s not my kind of place, and the thought of all that travelling up to see you is just too much. It’d never work out – we both know that, deep down. So I’ve decided to go abroad, somewhere hot and sunny. Don’t bother trying to contact me because I’ve made up my mind. You’ll find someone else in no time, and so will I.
Have a good life, Dougie. Sorry about this but you know it makes sense.
Cheers, Lola x
Adele nodded approvingly, crumpled the note back up again and replaced it under the bed.
Good girl. She couldn’t have put it better herself.
Together-forever, together-forever, together-forever. The words sang tauntingly through Doug’s head in time with the rhythmic rattle of the tube train over the tracks. Just last week – seven days ago – he and Lola had taken a picnic up to Parliament Hill. Lola had let out a squeal of mock outrage when he’d pinched the last sausage roll. He’d run off with it, she’d caught him up and wrestled him to the ground and he’d given the sausage roll to her. They’d shared it in the end, laughing and kissing the crumbs from each other’s lips. It was a warm sunny day and new freckles, baby ones, had sprung up across Lola’s tanned nose. He’d rolled her onto her back and teased her about them, holding her arms above her head so she couldn’t dig him in the ribs. And then they’d stopped laughing and gazed into each other’s eyes, both recognising that what they were experiencing was one of those perfect moments you never forget.
‘Oh Dougie, I love you.’ Lola had whispered the words, her voice catching with emotion. ‘We’ll be together forever, won’t we? Promise me we’ll be together forever.’
And he had. Furthermore he’d meant it. Now, sitting in the swaying carriage gazing blindly out of the window as the train clattered along singing its mocking song, Doug wondered what could have happened to make it all go so wrong.
’She’s gone, love. I’m so sorry. You know what Lola’s like once she makes up her mind about something — whoosh, that’s it, off like a rocket.’
Dougie couldn’t believe it. Lola had left. It was actually happening. One minute everything had been fine and they’d been completely, deliriously happy together, the next minute she’d disappeared off the face of the earth. It wasn’t manly and it wasn’t something he’d admit to his friends in a million years, but the pain of loss was so devastating it felt as if his heart might actually break.
Instead, struggling to retain his composure, Dougie swallowed the golf ball in his throat. Did she say why?’
‘Not really.’ Blythe shrugged helplessly, as baffled as he was. ‘Just said she fancied a change.
Her friend Jeannie was moving to Majorca, they met up for a chat and the next day Lola announced that she was going out there with Jeannie. To live. Well, we were shocked! And I did ask her if she’d thought things through, what with you two having been so close, but there was no stopping her. I really am sorry, love. She should have told you herself.’
It didn’t help that Lola’s mother was looking at him as if hewere an abandoned puppy in a cardboard box; she was sympathetic but there was nothing she could do.
‘Do you have a phone number for her? An address?’
‘Sorry, love, I can’t do that. She doesn’t want you to contact her. I think she just feels you have your own lives to lead.’ Lola’s mum struggled to console him.
As if anything could. Dougie raked his fingers through his hair in desperation. ‘Is she seeing someone else?’
‘No.’Vigorously Blythe shook her head. ‘Definitely not that.’
He didn’t know if that made things better or worse. Being dumped in favour of someone else was one thing, but being dumped in favour of no one at all was an even bigger kick in the teeth.
Controlling his voice with difficulty, Dougie said, ‘Can you do me a favour? Just tell her that if she changes her mind, she knows where I am.’
‘I’ll do that, love.’ For a moment Blythe’s blue eyes swam and she looked as if she might be about to fling her arms around him. Terrified that if she did he might burst into tears and ruin his street cred for life, Dougie hurriedly stepped away from the front door.
Seven Years Ago
’Oh Lola, look at you.’ Squeezing her tightly, Blythe slipped instantly into mother hen mode.
‘It’s February. You’ll catch your death of cold!’
‘Mum, I’m twenty, you’re not allowed to nag me any more.’ But secretly Lola enjoyed it.
Hugging her mother in return, she then teasingly lifted the hem of her top to show off her toffee-brown Majorcan tan.
‘You’ll be frostbitten once we get outside.’ Taking one of Lola’s squashy travelling bags, Blythe began threading her way through the crowded airport to the exit. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to pull a jumper out of your case?’
‘Quite sure. What’s the point of being browner than anyone else and covering it all up with a jumper? Oh Mum, stop a moment, let me hug you again. I’ve missed you so much.’
‘You daft thing. How’s it going with Stevie?’
‘It’s gone. I’m not seeing him any more. We drifted apart.’ Lola smiled to show how little it mattered. Stevie had been fun but their relationship had never been serious. Patting her stomachshe said, ‘And I’m starving. Are we going straight home or shall I pick up a burger here?’
‘No burgers today. We’re eating out. Alex is treating us to lunch,’ said Blythe. ‘He’s booked a table at Emerson’s in Piccadilly.’
‘Whoo-hoo, lunch at Emerson’s.There’s posh,’ Lola marvelled. ‘What have we done to deserve this?’
Blythe gave her arm a squeeze. ‘No special reason, love. It’s just wonderful to have you back.’
Her mother had been lying. There was a special reason. Alex waited until they’d chosen their food before ordering a bottle of champagne.
‘Alex, have you gone mad?’ And it was real champagne. This was plain reckless; when Lola had been growing up she’d never even been allowed proper Coca-Cola at home, only the pretend kind because it was cheaper.
‘I’m out of the business,’ said Alex as the waiter brought the bottle to the table.
‘Oh no.’ Lola’s heart sank; then again she’d always known it was a risky venture. Following her departure from home three years ago, Alex had given up gambling, just like that. Since that terrible time when they’d almost lost him he hadn’t so much as joined in a sweepstake on the Grand National. He had given up visiting his snooker club too. Instead he had stayed at home every night, becoming more and more interested in the business opportunities being offered up by the fast-expanding internet. When he’d come up with a germ of an idea for a web-based hotel booking service, Lola had listened and nodded politely without really understanding how it might work. As far as she was concerned Alex could have been yabbering away in Elvish. All this internetty stuff sounded pretty far-fetched to her; she’d had very little to do with it herself.
But Alex had persisted, eventually setting up a company and working on it in his spare time.
Then last year he’d given up his job at the garage in order to devote more hours to it. Lola had been under the impression that things were going rather well.
Oh God ... she hoped he hadn’t slipped and gone back to gambling.
‘So’ Here came the sick feeling of dread again. ‘What went wrong?’
Alex’s eyes crinkled at the corners, the lines emphasised by the light from the candle on the table.
‘Nothing went wrong. It was too much for me to handle. I’d have needed to take on staff, find proper offices ... I couldn’t deal with everything myself.’
Lola nodded. ‘Mum said you were working all hours.’
‘I never imagined it would take off like that. It was incredible, but it was scary. Then another company approached me,’ Alex explained. ‘They offered to buy me out.’
‘Oh! Well, that must have been a relief.’As long as Alex wasn’t gambling again, she was happy.
‘It is a relief.’ Alex gravely nodded in agreement and raised his fizzing glass. ‘So here’s to us.’
‘To us.’ Lola enthusiastically clinked glasses with them both and took a big gulp of delicious icy-cold champagne.
‘By the way,’ said Alex, ‘I sold the business for one point six million.’
Luckily the champagne had already disappeared down her throat, otherwise she’d have sprayed it across the table like a garden sprinkler.
‘Are you serious?’
‘It’s true!’ Blythe’s eyes danced. ‘You don’t know how hard it’s been for me not to tell you. I nearly blurted it out at the airport!’
‘My God,’ Lola breathed.
‘And this is for you.’ Alex took a folded cheque from his inside pocket and passed it across the table.
‘My God.’ Lola’s hands began to tremble as she counted the noughts, then recounted them. For several seconds she couldn’t speak. Her mother had never found out about the traumatic events of three years ago, which made it all the more difficult to say what she wanted to say. But Alex, although he hadn’t needed to, was paying her back many, many times over. It was too late, but he so badly wanted to make amends for what she had been forced to do in order to save her family.
Finally, unsteadily, Lola said, ‘Alex, you don’t need to do this.’ Their eyes met. He smiled.
‘You’re my daughter. Why wouldn’t I?’
‘I said it was too much,’ Blythe chimed in proudly, ‘but he insisted. Now, you’re not to fritter it away!’
‘You can afford to move out of that poky little rented apartment of yours,’ said Alex, ‘and buy yourself a villa up in the hills. That wouldn’t be frittering.’
Unable to contain herself, Lola jumped up out of her chair and threw her arms around him.
Never mind a villa up in the hills; now she could afford to move back to London and buy herself somewhere to live here.
Because Majorca might be brilliant in many ways, but there really was no place like home.
‘Lola.’Appalled by the attention she was receiving, Blythe frantically attempted to tug down her daughter’s short skirt. ‘Stand up straight, for heaven’s sake. Everyone’s looking at your pants!’
There was always something deliciously disorientating about emerging from a dark, candlelit restaurant at three thirty in the afternoon and discovering that it was still daylight outside, albeit chilly grey city daylight.
But the greyness didn’t matter, because it only made the brightly illuminated shops all the more enticing. Like a human magnet Lola found herself being drawn irresistibly in the direction of the biggest, sparkliest shops.
‘We’ll leave you to it.’ Her mother and Alex couldn’t be persuaded to join her. ‘Don’t spend too much.’
‘Mum, I haven’t been home for four months! I’ve got some catching up to do:
‘Maybe a nice warm coat.’ Blythe could never resist a dig.
When they’d headed back to the car, Lola threaded her way through the narrow back streets of Piccadilly until she reached Regent Street. Oh yes, here they were, the department stores she’d missed so much, with their elegant beauty halls and perfume departments and escalators that led to other floors awash with yet more gorgeous things to lust over .. .
Better still, here was Kingsley’s.
Lola paused at the entrance, savouring the moment. Department stores were fabulous but they still came second to bookshops in her heart. Alcudia in Majorca had many things going for it but the sad collection of battered and faded English-language paperbacks on the rickety carousels in the beachfront souvenir shops wasn’t one of them. She craved a proper bookshop like an addict craves a fix. There really wasn’t much that could beat that gorgeous new-book smell, touching the covers and turning the pages of a book whose pages had, just possibly, never been turned before.
And if it was weird to feel like that, well, she just didn’t care. Some people were obsessed with shoes and loved them with apassion. Shoes were fine but you couldn’t stay up all night reading one, could you?
Anyway, it was freezing out here on the pavement; she might as well be naked for all the good her clothes were doing. With a delicious shiver of anticipation Lola plunged into the welcoming warmth of Kingsley’s.
Oh, look at them all. So many books, so little time. All those piles and piles of delicious hardbacks with glossy covers, crying out to be bought and devoured. Lola ran her fingers over them, prolonging the moment and not realising she had a dopey smile on her face until another customer caught her eye and smiled back.
‘Sorry.’ Several glasses of champagne over lunch had loosened her tongue. ‘I live in Majorca, so it’s been a while since I saw so many books.’
The man’s ears promptly glowed pink. ‘Lucky you. So, um, whereabouts in Majorca?’
‘Alcudia, up on the north side of the island.’
‘I know Alcudia!’ The man, who was middle-aged, blurted out, ‘I go there with my mother every year. We stay in an apartment in the old town. What a coincidence!’
Hmm, not that much of one, seeing as a zillion holidaymakers invaded Alcudia each year, but Lola was touched by his enthusiasm. ‘Well, I work in a restaurant down by the harbour. So if you fancy some great seafood next time you’re there, you’ll have to drop by for a meal.’
The man’s face was by this time so scarlet with excitement that she began to fear for his blood pressure. ‘That sounds most enjoyable. Mother isn’t tremendously keen on seafood, but I daresay chef could whisk her up an omelette as a special favour to you.’ He hesitated. ‘Unless ... um, are you very expensive?’
‘Not expensive at all. In fact, very reasonable. And you can ask for anything you like. We’re very obliging,’ Lola assured him with a smile. ‘You’ll have a great time, that’s a promise.’
The man, who clearly didn’t get out much, said eagerly, ‘What’s the name of the place? And whereabouts exactly are you? You’d better give me directions.’
‘I can do better than that.’ Flipping open her silver handbag, Lola fished out one of the restaurant’s business cards and handed it over.
‘Thanks.’ The man beamed. He squirrelled it away and checked his watch. It’s a date, then.
Gosh, is that the time? I need to get to a cashpoint before—’
‘Excuse me,’ barked a voice behind them, ‘that’s quite enough. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’
Bemused, Lola turned and saw that she was being addressed by a big-boned, grey-haired female member of staff who was positively aquiver with disapproval.
‘I’m sorry, are you speaking to me?’
‘Ha, don’t give me any of your smart talk. Come on, off you go, leave our customers alone.’ The woman stuck out her arm, pointing to the door like a traffic cop. ‘Out, out. We don’t need your sort in here.’
What?’ Lola’s mouth dropped open; was the woman completely deranged? Half laughing in disbelief, she turned to the man next to her but he was backing away, petrified.
‘Plying your filthy trade in here, pestering genuine customers,’ the woman went on furiously.
‘It’s disgusting and I won’t have it happening in this shop.’
‘Plying my trade?’ Lola’s eyebrows shot up. ‘What are you talking about? I’m not a prostitute!’
‘Don’t argue with me, young lady. I heard what you were saying to that gentleman. Look at you!’ The woman jabbed an accusing finger at Lola’s skimpy white top, abbreviated lime-green skirt and long bare legs. ‘It’s perfectly clear what you are!’ She turned to the man for back-up.
‘What did you think when you saw her?’
‘Um ... well ...’ In an agony of embarrassment he stammered, ‘I s-suppose she is r-rather exotically dressed.’ Oh, for crying out loud.
‘I live in Majorca! I just flew back today! I didn’t know it was going to be this cold here! Tell her what we were talking about,’ Lola demanded, but it was too late. Mortified, the man had scurried out of the shop.
‘And you can get out too, before I call the police.’The woman wore a look of triumph. ‘This is a respectable shop and we don’t need people like you coming in here, reeking of drink and propositioning innocent men: Walking out now wasn’t an option; it simply wasn’t in Lola’s nature. If someone said, ‘don’t touch that, it’s hot’, she had to touch it to discover how hot. If they said, ‘don’t jump off that wall, you’ll hurt yourself’, she was compelled to jump off the wall to find out just how much it would hurt.
The woman, she now saw from the name badge, was an assistant called Pat.
‘I came in here to buy books and I’ll leave when I’ve bought them.’ Refusing to be intimidated, Lola said coolly, ‘But before I go, I’ll be having a word with your manager.’
Fifteen minutes later she made her way to the till with an armful of books, aware that word of her set-to with Pat had spread around the store. Pat was no longer anywhere in sight. Other members of staff were covertly observing her from a distance. The young lad on the till rang up Lola’s purchases and did his best not to look at her legs.
‘Could I speak to the manager please?’ said Lola.
He nodded, picked up the phone and muttered a few words into it.
Finally a door at the back opened and a slender woman in her forties emerged.
It was like the gunfight at the OK Corral.
The woman approached Lola and said, ‘I’m so sorry about Pat, she’s just been telling me what happened and I’d like to apologise on behalf of Kingsley’s. The thing is, Pat’s retiring in six weeks and if you make a formal complaint it’ll spoil everything for her.’
‘And I probably shouldn’t be telling you this but she does have a bit of a bee in her bonnet about, um, working girls.’ Lowering her voice to a whisper the woman said, ‘Her husband, you see, ran off with one and Pat was beside herself, especially when she found out she used to be a man. The girl I mean. Not Pat. Poor thing, she was devastated. So that’s why she overreacted. I’m really, really sorry. I’ve had a talk with her and she’ll never do it again.’
‘Well, good,’ said Lola. ‘I’m happy to hear that?
The manager looked hopeful. ‘So does that mean everything’s OK? You won’t make an official complaint?’
‘No, I won’t.’
‘Oh thank you! Thank you so much.’ She clasped Lola’s hand in gratitude. ‘That’s so good of you. Poor old Pat, I know she shouldn’t have said those dreadful things, but she’s had a tough time and in a way I’m sure you can understand why she’d get upset—’
I’m not a prostitute,’ said Lola.
This stopped the manageress in her tracks.
‘Oh!’ Covering her surprise, the woman hastily backtracked. ‘Of course you aren’t! I didn’t mean it to sound like that! Heavens, of course I didn’t think that!’
Lola grinned because an outfit that wouldn’t merit so much as a second glance in Alcudia clearly held other connotations in a London bookshop in chilly November. Maybe the time had come to start modifying her wardrobe.
‘I think you did. Don’t worry about it. And you haven’t asked me yet why I wanted to see you.’
The woman looked flustered. ‘Right. Sorry, I’m in a bit of a muddle now. So why did you want to see me?’
‘This.’ Lola tapped the sign on the counter, identical to the one she’d spotted in the window earlier. ‘It says you have a vacancy for a sales assistant.’
‘We do. To replace Pat when she leaves.’
Better and better.
‘Do you need many qualifications for that?’
‘You need to love books.’
‘I love books,’ said Lola.
The manageress looked stunned. ‘You mean you’re interested? In this job?’
It was clearly an extraordinary request. ‘Sorry, would I not be allowed to work here?’
‘It’s not that! I just thought Pat said you lived abroad.’
Lola smiled at the woman and said, ‘I think it’s time I moved back.’
’You work where? In a bookies?’
‘In a bookshop.’ Even as she yelled the words above the blaring music, Lola wondered why she was bothering. ‘Kingsley’s. I’m the manager of the Regent Street branch!
‘God, rather you than me. Books are boring:The boy winked and leered over the rim of his beer glass at Lola, evidently convinced of his own irresistibility. He had super-gelled hair and a knowing grin. Having subjected her to a slow, appreciative once-over he said, ‘Nah, you’re having me on. You don’t look like the manager of a bookshop.’
What she could have said in reply to this was, ‘Well, you don’t look like a dickhead, but you clearly are one.’
‘Well, I am,’ Lola said patiently. ‘I promise.’
‘You should be wearing granny glasses and, like, a scuzzy old cardigan or something. And no make-up.’
Lola knew what she should be doing; she should be punching the stupid smirk off his face.
Aloud she said, ‘I’m guessing you don’t go into many bookshops.’
‘Me? No way.’ Proudly the boy said, ‘Can’t stand reading, waste of time. Hey, fancy a drink?’
‘No thanks. Can’t stand drinking, waste of time.’
He looked shocked. ‘Really?’
‘Not really. But drinking with you would be a huge waste of time.’ Lola excused herself and made her way over to the bar where Gabe, whose leaving party it was, was chatting to a group of friends from work.
‘Gabe? I’m going to head home.’
He turned, horrified. ‘No! It’s only nine o’clock.’
‘I know. I just feel like an early night.’
‘An early what? Hang on, where’s the real Lola?’ Gabe inspected her face closely. ‘Tell me what you’ve done with her.’
Lola grinned, because she was as mystified as he was; she absolutely wasn’t the early night type.
Parties were normally her favourite thing.
‘I know it’s weird. Maybe I’m going down with something. Anyway, you have a great time.’
Reaching up and giving Gabe a hug she said, ‘I’ll knock on your door with tea and Panadol in the morning.’
He looked even more alarmed. ‘Make it tomorrow evening and I might be awake.’
Lola left the bar, shivering as a splatter of icy rain slapped her in the face. If it was raining, the chances of managing to flag down a cab were slim to nil so she set off in the direction of the tube, tugging her cropped velvet jacket around her in an attempt to huddle up against the cold and click-clacking along the pavement in her pink sparkly heels.
It wasn’t as if it was Gabe’s only leaving party; this was just a motley collection of people from the offices where he worked as a chartered surveyor. Had worked there, anyway, for the past four years, although as from today he was out of a job and ready for the adventure of a lifetime in Australia.
Lola made her way down the street, pleased for Gabe but aware of how much she would miss him. When she’d moved back to London seven years ago with the unexpected windfall from the sale of Alex’s business burning a hole in her bank account, she had fallen in love with the third flat she’d visited.
She’d felt a bit like Goldilocks on that eventful day. The first flat, in Camden, had been too small. The second, in Islington, had been larger but too dark and gloomy and had smelled of mushrooms.
Happily, the third had been just right. In fact it had exceeded Lola’s wildest dreams. Radley Road was a pretty street in Notting Hill where the houses were multicoloured — like Balamory!
Yes! — and number 73 was azure blue and white. On the second floor was Flat 73B, a spacious one-bed apartment with a view from the living room over the street below and windows big enough to let the sun stream in. The kitchen and the bathroom were both tiny but clean. The moment Lola had stood in that flat she’d known she had to have it. It was calling her name.
Never one to take her time and ask sensible probing questions, she had swung round to the estate agent with tears of joy in her eyes, clasped her hands to her chest and exclaimed, ‘It’s perfect. I want to buy it! This is The One!’
Whereas what she should have said was, ‘Haim, not too bad I suppose. What are the neighbours like?’
But she hadn’t, thereby allowing the super-smooth estate agent to send up a silent prayer of thanks for hopelessly impulsive property buyers everywhere and say jovially, ‘That’s what I like to see, a girl who knows her own mind!’
And Lola, who now knew just how gullible she’d been, had beamed and taken it as a compliment.
But neighbours were an important factor to be taken into consideration, as she had duly discovered on the day she’d moved into Flat 73B. Sharing the second floor, directly across the landing from her, was Flat 73C. Ringing the doorbell that afternoon in order to introduce herself, Lola had been filled with goodwill and happy anticipation.
It had come as something of a shock when the door had been yanked open and a scrawny old man in his eighties had appeared, filled with malevolence and bile.
‘What d’you want? You woke me up.’
Lola exclaimed, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I just came to say hello. I’m Lola Malone, your new neighbour!’
‘Um, well, I just moved in across the hall. This afternoon!’ The man eyed her with naked dislike.
‘So I heard, all that bloody racket you made getting your stuff upstairs.’
Too late. He’d already slammed the door in her face.
His name was Eric, Lola later discovered, and while he wouldn’t put up with any noise from her, he wasn’t averse to making plenty himself. He played the trumpet, quite astonishingly badly, at any hour of the day or night. He liked his TV to be on at full blast, possibly so he could carry on listening to it while he was playing his trumpet. He also cooked tripe at least three times a week and the smell permeated Lola’s flat like ... well actually, quite a lot like boiled cow’s stomach.
Oh yes, she’d gone and got herself a living, breathing nightmare of a neighbour. Too late, Lola realised why the estate agent, upon handing over the key on completion, had given her that cheery wink and said, ‘Good kick!’
Having respect for one’s elders was all very well, but Eric was a filthy-tempered, cantankerous old stoat who’d done everything in his power to make her life a misery.
After two years of this, Eric had died and Lola was just relieved he’d been out at his day centre when it happened; as her coworkers at Kingsley’s had pointed out, if he’d been found dead in his flat, everyone would have suspected her of bumping him off.
But the reign of Eric was over now, the flat had been cleaned up and put on the market, and Lola crossed her fingers, hoping for better luck this time.
And it had worked. She’d got gorgeous Gabe — hooray! — and like magic the quality of her home life had improved out of all recognition, because he was the best neighbour any girl could ask for.
Better still, she hadn’t fancied him one bit.
Gabriel Adams, with his floppy blond hair and lean slouchy body, had been twenty-nine when he’d moved into the flat across the landing from her. And this time he had been the one who’d knocked on Lola’s door to invite her over for a drink on his roof terrace.
Which meant she liked him already.
‘I never even knew there was a roof terrace.’ Lola marvelled at the view from the back of the house; it was like discovering a tropical island complete with hula girls in your dusty old broom cupboard.
‘It’s a suntrap.’ Gabe grinned at her. ‘I think I’m going to like it here. Does this T-shirt make me look gay?’
Since it was a vibrant shade of lilac, clearly expensive and quite tight-fitting, Lola said, ‘Well, a bit.’
‘I know, it’s too much. I’m super-tidy and a great cook. I can’t wear this as well.’ Pulling off the T-shirt to reveal an enviably tanned torso, Gabe held it towards her. ‘Do you want it or shall I chuck it away?’
It wasn’t just expensive, Lola discovered. It was Dolce and Gabbana. Liking her new neighbour more and more she said, ‘I’ll have it. Are you sure?’
‘Sure I’m sure.The colour’ll suit you. Better than me chucking it in the back of a drawer and never wearing it again.’
Except it wasn’t, because a week later as she was on her way out one evening, Lola bumped into Gabe and his girlfriend on their way in. The girlfriend, who had flashing dark eyes and an arm snaked possessively around Gabe’s waist, stopped dead in her tracks and said, ‘What are you doing wearing my boyfriend’s T-shirt?’
‘Um ... well, he g-gave it to ...’ Catching the look on Gabe’s face, Lola amended hastily, ‘I mean, he lent it to me, because I, um, asked if I could borrow it.’
The girlfriend shot her a killer glare before swinging round to Gabe. ‘I bought you that for your birthday! Don’t go lending it out to some girl just because she’s cheeky enough to ask to borrow it.’
The thing was, Gabe hadn’t done it on purpose. He hadn’t meant to cause trouble, he was simply thoughtless and so generous himself it didn’t occur to him that some people might not appreciate his actions.
But he broke up with that particular girl shortly afterwards and Lola had been able to start wearing the T-shirt again. From then on a stream of girlfriends came and went, entranced by the fact that Gabe was an entertaining, charming commitmentphobe. Each of them in turn was utterly convinced they would be the one to make him see the error of his ways and suddenly yearn for a life of monogamous domestic bliss.
Each of them, needless to say, was wrong.
Or had been, up until three months ago when Gabe had met an Australian backpacker called Jaydena on the last leg of her round-the-world trip. Jaydena had bucked the trend and been the one to leave Gabe, returning to Sydney when they’d only known each other for a couple of weeks and were still completely crazy about each other. Back in Australia, she emailed Gabe every day and he emailed her back. Within weeks she’d persuaded him to jack in his job and fly out to join her.
Lola was stunned when she heard. ‘But ... why?’
‘Because I’ve never been to Australia and everyone says it’s an incredible place. If I don’t go now I could regret it forever.’
‘So I might never see you again.’ It was a daunting prospect; Gabe was such a huge part of her life. And not only for the fun times. When Alex had died five years ago — suddenly, and desperately unfairly, of a heart attack — Lola had been distraught, unable to believe she’d never see her beloved father again. But Gabe had been a rock, helping her through that awful period.
She’d always be grateful to him for that.
‘Hey, I’m not selling the flat, just renting it out for a year. After that I could be back.’
Lola knew she would miss him terribly but alarm bells were ringing for another, far less altruistic reason. ‘Where are you going to find a new tenant? Through a lettings agency?’
‘Ha!’ Gabe gleefully prodded her in the ribs. ‘So it’s only yourself you’re worried about, panicking at the thought of who your new neighbour might be!
‘No. Well yes, that too.!
‘Already sorted. Marcus from work just split up with his wife. He’s moving in.’
Oh. Lola relaxed, because she knew Marcus and he was all right, if a bit on the boring side and inclined to yabber on about motorcycles. Which could well have had something to do with his marriage breaking up.
‘So no need to panic,’ said Gabe. ‘All taken care of.You two’ll get along fine!
‘Good.’ Visualising Marcus in his oil-stained, unfashionable clothes, Lola said, ‘But I can’t see me borrowing his T-shirts.’
Ugh, it was raining harder than ever now. Wishing she was wearing flatter shoes, Lola hurried along the road with her jacket collar up, then turned left down the side street that was a short cut to the tube station. She winced as her left foot landed in a puddle and Get off me, get off!
Lola’s head jerked up, her heart thudding in her chest at the sight of the violent scene unfolding ahead of her. The woman’s piercing screams filled the air as she was dragged out of the driver’s seat of her car by two men who flung her roughly to the ground. One of them knelt over her, ripping at something on the woman’s hand. When she struggled against him he hit her in the face and snarled, ‘Shut up.’
But the woman let out another shriek of fright and he hit her again, harder this time, bouncing her head off the road. ‘I said shut it. Now give me your rings.’
‘No! Owww.’ The woman groaned as he wrenched back her arm.
‘Leave her alone!’ bellowed Lola, punching 999 into her phone and gasping, ‘Police, ambulance, Keveley Street.’ Filled with a boiling rage, she kicked off her shoes and raced down the road to the car. ‘Get off her!’
‘Yeah, right.’ The man sneered while his cohort revved the engine of the woman’s car.
‘Come on,’ bellowed the cohort, ‘hurry up, hurry up.’
‘Stop it!’ Lola grabbed hold of the attacker’s greasy hair andyanked his head back hard, shocked to see in the darkness that the face of the woman was covered in blood. ‘Leave her alone, I’ve called the police.’
‘Let go of me,’ roared the man, fighting to free himself.
‘No, I won’t.’ Grappling with him on the ground, Lola smelled alcohol on his fetid breath and felt ice-cold rain seeping through her tights. The woman was lying on her side facing away from her, curled up and moaning with pain. The man swore again and twisted like an eel to escape but Lola had him now and she was damned if she’d let him go before the- CRRRACKK, an explosion of noise and pain filled Lola’s head and she realised the other attacker had hit her from behind with some kind of weapon. Then everything melted and went black and she slumped to the ground.
As if from a great distance Lola heard the screech of tyres as the car accelerated away. Close to, the woman groaned. Without opening her eyes, Lola stretched out an arm, encountered the woman’s foot and clumsily patted it.
‘S’OK, you’re all right, just hang on and the police’ll be here.’ God, she felt so sick. The pain at the back of her head was intense. But the woman next to her in the road was now sobbing hysterically, in need of reassurance and comfort.
‘Th-they tricked m-me, I th-thought someone was hurt .. . then when I stopped the c-c-car they d-dragged me out ..’
‘Hey, hey, don’t be upset.’ Lola stroked the woman’s leg, the only part of her she could reach. ‘I can hear sirens, someone’s coming, you’re OK now.’
‘I’m not OK, there’s b-blood everywhere, he punched me in the face and b-broke my n-nose.’
‘Sshh, don’t cry.’ Squeezing the woman’s calf and shivering with cold, Lola forced down a rising swell of nausea. ‘Here’s the ambulance. I hope they don’t run over my shoes ...’
The next twenty minutes were a confusing blur. Lola was dimly aware that she was having trouble answering the questions put to her by the paramedics and the police. She hoped they didn’t think she was paralytic with drink. Blue flashing lights gave the otherwise pitch-black street the look of an eerie disco but no one was dancing. Requested to hold out an outstretched arm then touch her nose with her forefinger, Lola missed and almost took her eye out. Asked to name the Prime Minister she struggled to put a name to the face floating around in her mind.
‘Hang on, don’t tell me, I know it ... I know it ... is it Peter Stringfellow?’
The other woman had already been whisked off to hospital in the first ambulance. When a second arrived in the narrow, suddenly busy street and a stretcher was brought out, Lola waved her hands and protested, ‘No, no, I can’t go to the party, I’ve got work tomorrow.’
‘You need to be checked over, love. You were knocked out.’
‘I know I’m a knockout.’ Lola beamed up at the curiously attractive paramedic ... OK, so he was in his fifties and resembled a pig but he had lovely eyes. Will you dance with me?’
‘Course I will, love. Just as soon as you’re better.’ He grinned down at her.
‘You’re gorgeous.’ How on earth had she never found big double chins and enormous stomachs attractive before? ‘I know, I know. Johnny Depp, that’s me.’
‘No you’re not, you’re way better than him.’ As she was expertly lifted onto the stretcher Lola gazed adoringly up atthe paramedic and wondered why he was swaying back and forth. ‘You look like Hagrid.’
’Mum, I’m fine. They’ve X-rayed my skull and checked me out all over. It was just a bash on the head.’ Gingerly Lola leaned forward in bed to show her mother the egg-sized bump. ‘They’re discharging me later. They only kept me in overnight because I was knocked out for a few seconds and when I came round I was a bit muddled.’
‘So I’ve just been hearing in the nurses’ office,’ said Blythe. ‘Apparently you were hilarious, propositioning one of the poor ambulance men. I can’t believe you did something so ridiculous.’
‘It wasn’t my fault! I was concussed!’
‘I don’t mean that. I’m talking about you launching yourself into a dangerous situation. You could have been killed.’
This had occurred to Lola too; at the time she’d simply acted on impulse although in retrospect it had been a bit of a reckless thing to do. ‘But I wasn’t. And I’m OK.’ Apart from the blistering headache. ‘Could you give work a ring and tell them I should be in tomorrow?’
‘I most certainly will not. I’ll tell them you might be in next week, depending on how you feel.’
‘Mum, how are they going to feel if you tell them that? It’s December! Everyone’s rushed off their feet!’
‘And you were knocked unconscious,’ Blythe retorted. ‘Anything could have happened. My God, for once in your life will you listen to me?’
A man who’d been walking up the ward stopped and said genially, ‘It always pays to do as your mother tells you.’ He was in his sixties, well-spoken and smartly dressed in a suit. Was this her consultant? Lola sat up a bit straighter in bed and smiled expectantly, all ready to convince him that she was well enough to be allowed home. After last night’s debacle with the paramedic she’d better put on a good show
‘That’s me.’ Eagerly Lola nodded. To prove her brain was in good working order, he’d probably ask her the kind of questions doctors used on old people when they wanted to find out if they were on the ball. OK, what was the capital of Australia? What was thirty-three times seven?
Yeesh, don’t let him ask her to name the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.
‘Hello.’ He moved towards her, smiling and extending his hand.
‘Hi!’ Quick, was it Melbourne? Victoria? Lola’s brain was racing. People always thought it was Sydney but she knew it definitely wasn’t. Might he give her half a point for that, at least?
The man shook her hand warmly. ‘It’s very nice to meet you. I’m Philip Nicholson.’
He even smelled delicious. Watching him turn to shake her mother’s hand, Lola breathed in his expensive aftershave. Goodness, what charming manners, this was like being in a private hospital and getting — ooh, was it Perth?
‘I just had to come and see you,’ he went on.
‘Well, I suppose you couldn’t avoid it. All part of the job description!’ Lola beamed at him, aware that he was looking at her head. Touching the tender area she said, ‘Bit of a bump, that’s all. I’m absolutely fine. Except, can I just quickly tell you that I’m rubbish at capital cities?’
Philip Nicholson hesitated and glanced over at Blythe, who shrugged and looked baffled.
‘In case that’s what you were going to ask me,’ Lola hurriedly explained. ‘I mean, some are all right, like Paris and Amsterdam and Madrid, they’re easy, and I do happen to know that the capital of Azerbaijan is Baku, but in general I have to say that capitals aren’t my strong point’To be on the safe side she added, ‘Neither’s politics.’
Carefully Dr Nicholson said, ‘That’s not a problem. I won’t ask any questions about either subject.’
‘Phew, what a relief.’ Lola relaxed back against her piled-up pillows. ‘I’d hate to be kept in just because I couldn’t name the leader of the Liberal Democrats.’
Dr Nicholson cleared his throat and said, ‘I’m sure that wouldn’t happen.’
‘Well, hopefully not, but sometimes you do know the answer and you just can’t think of it.
Someone fires a question at you, you know it’s important to get it right and — boom! — your mind goes blank!’
‘Of course it does.’ He nodded understandingly.
‘Like, let’s try it with you.’ Lola waggled an index finger at him. ‘Capital of Australia.’
Dr Nicholson hesitated. Blythe, never able to resist a quiz question, let out a squeak of excitement and raised her arm. Lola swung the pointing finger round and barked in Paxmanesque fashion, ‘Yes, Mum?’
‘No it isn’t.’ Lola returned her attention to Dr Nicholson. ‘Your turn.’
He was looking somewhat taken aback. Opening his mouth to reply, he
‘Sshh, Mum. It isn’t your go.’
‘Melbourne!’ squealed Blythe.
‘Mum, control yourself. It’s Dr Nicholson’s turn.’
At this, his shoulders relaxed and his mouth began to twitch. ‘It’s Canberra. And I’ve just worked out what’s going on. I’m not Dr Nicholson, by the way.’
Bemused, Lola said, ‘No?’
He smiled. ‘Entirely my fault. I knew the police had told you our name last night and I kind of assumed you’d remember. But you were concussed. I’m sorry, let’s start again. My name’s Philip Nicholson and I’m here to thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming to my wife’s rescue.You did an incredibly brave thing and I can’t begin to tell you how grateful we are.’ His voice thickened with emotion. ‘Those thugs could have killed her if you hadn’t gone to help.’
Lola clapped her hand over her mouth. ‘I thought you were my consultant, coming to check whether I was compos mentis: Philip Nicholson looked amused. ‘I realise that now.’
‘Phew! Just as well I didn’t think you were here to examine my chest.’ God, imagine if she’d whipped her top off, that would’ve given him a bit of a start.
‘How’s your wife this morning?’ said Lola.
‘Well, still shocked. Battered and bruised. Two broken fingers.’ There was a hard edge to his voice now. ‘Where they tried to wrench her rings off!
Did they get them?’
‘No. Which is also thanks to you. She’s pretty shaken up, and her face is swollen. But physically it could have been a lot worse.’ Philip Nicholson shook his head and slowly exhaled. ‘My wife and I owe you so much.’
Lola squirmed, embarrassed. Anyone would have done the same: ‘No they wouldn’t,’ Blythe retorted. ‘Most people would have had more sense.’
Their visitor nodded. ‘I’m inclined to agree. Though very grateful, of course, that your daughter wasn’t—’
‘Hello, hello! Morning, all!’ A little man wearing a maroon corduroy jacket over a green hand-knitted sweater came bouncing up to them. Pumping Lola’s hand and simultaneously pulling closed the curtains around the bed, he said, ‘I’m Dr Palmer, your consultant. Let’s just give you a quick once-over, shall we? If you two could leave us alone for ten minutes that’d be marvellous.
I say, that’s a fair-sized bump on your head. How are you feeling after your little adventure last night?’
‘Great: Lola watched as with mesmerising speed he began testing her reflexes, her eyes, her coordination. ‘Are you going to be asking me questions?’
She couldn’t help feeling a bit smug. ‘The capital of Australia is Canberra.’
‘Good grief, is it really? Always thought it was Sydney. Never been much good at capital cities, I’m afraid. When I’m checking out my patients I prefer to ask them sums. What’s twenty-seven times sixty-three?’
‘Uh ... um ...’ Lola began to panic; seven threes were twenty-one, carry two and—
‘Only kidding.’ Mr Palmer’s eyes twinkled as he snatched up her notes. ‘What day is it today?’
‘Wednesday the fourth of December.’ Phew, that was more like it, that was the kind of question she could answer.
‘Cheers.’ He wrote the date on a fresh page then added o/e NAD.
‘What does NAD mean?’ Lola peered at it. ‘Please don’t say -Neurotic and Demented.’
The consultant chuckled. ‘On examination, no abnormality detected.’
‘My mother might not agree with you there. So does that mean I can go home?’
‘I think we can let you go.’
Beaming, Lola wiggled her feet. ‘Yay.’
’What a charming man.’ Blythe, evidently quite bowled over by Philip Nicholson, found Lola’s glittery shoes in the bottom of her bedside locker. ‘And so grateful. His wife’s on Ward Thirteen, up on the next floor. Poor thing, from the sound of it her face is a terrible mess. I think they’re going to be sending you flowers, by the way. He asked for your address.’
‘If they’re that grateful they might send me chocolates too. Did you phone work?’
‘I did. Told them you wouldn’t be in until next week.’
‘Who did you speak to? What did they say?’
‘It was Cheryl.’ Blythe held out the cropped velvet jacket as if Lola were six years old. ‘And it was quite hard to hear what she was saying. Everyone was cheering so loudly when they heard you were going to be away, I could hardly make out a word.’
‘Cheek. Everyone loves me at work. Honestly,’ said Lola, ‘if Philip Nicholson wants to get me something really useful, a new mother wouldn’t go amiss.’
’This is fantastic. I feel like the Queen.’ Being at home and having a fuss made of her was a huge novelty and Lola was relishing every minute. Once you’d been officially signed off work by the doctor, well, you may as well lie back and make the most of it. Friends called in, bringing chocolate croissants and gossip from the outside world, a couple of police officers had dropped by to tell her that the muggers hadn’t been caught, and Blythe had come over yesterday and spring-cleaned – well, winter-cleaned – the flat.
Best of all, she had Gabe at her beck and call.
‘You’re a fraud.’ He brought in the cheese and mushroom toasted sandwich he’d just made.
‘You don’t have to be in bed.’
‘I know’ Lola happily patted her ultra-squishy goosedown duvet, all puffed up around her like a cloud, and wriggled into a more comfortable sitting position. ‘But I get so much more sympathy this way. It’s like being back at school and staying home with tonsillitis. All cosy, watching daytime TV, everyone being extra-nice to you and knowing you’re missing double physics.
Ooh,’ she bit into the toasted sandwich and caught a string of melted cheese before it attached itself to her chin.
‘Mmmmpphh, this is heaven. Oh Gabe, don’t go to Australia. Stay here and make toasted sandwiches for me forever.’
Gabe found her toes and tweaked them. ‘What did your last slave die of?’
‘Nothing. I’ve never had a slave before, but now I definitely know I want one.’ At that moment the doorbell rang downstairs. ‘Like when the doorbell rings,’ said Lola. ‘And you just ask someone else to run down and see who it is.’
‘That’ll be me, then.’
‘Sorry. I’d do it myself if I could.’ Lola shrugged regretfully. ‘But I’m an invalid.’
He was back a couple of minutes later with a great armful of white roses tied with straw and swathed in cellophane. ‘Flowers for the lady. From a very upmarket florist. Here’s the card.’
Gabe tossed a peacock-blue envelope over to Lola. ‘Unless you want me to read it for you because you’re too ill.’
‘I’ll manage.’ Since she didn’t have any friends who would use such a glitzy company, Lola had already guessed the identity of the sender. And she wasn’t wrong. ‘They’re from Philip Nicholson. He hopes I’m feeling better. His wife was discharged from hospital yesterday.’ She paused, reading on. ‘He’s inviting me to a party at their house so I can meet her and they can thank me properly.’
‘You can’t go to a party. You’re an invalid.’
‘It’s not until next Friday; that’s seven days away. I’ll be fine by then. It’s nice of them to invite me.’ Lola hesitated, pulled a face. ‘But won’t it be a bit embarrassing?’
‘Spoken by the girl who once superglued her finger to her forehead and had to wait in casualty for six hours before the nurse could unglue it.’
OK, that had been more embarrassing.
‘I’m still not sure. They live in Barnes.’ Lola checked the address. ‘Sounds posh.’
‘You’d hurt their feelings if you didn’t turn up.’
This was true.
‘And they must want me to go.’ She showed Gabe the handwritten letter. ‘He’s even organised a car to come here and pick me up on the night. Crikey, now I really feel like the Queen.’ Having finished her toasted sandwich, a thought struck Lola. ‘Is there any of that apricot cheesecake left?’
‘No, you ate it.’
‘Oh. Well, could we buy some more?’
Gabe rolled his eyes. ‘You really should get back to work. You’re turning into Marie Antoinette.’
Five days later Lola was back. She adored her job and she loved her customers — dealing with the public was her forte — but sometimes they were capable of testing her patience to the limit.
Especially in the run-up to Christmas, when vast hordes of people who didn’t venture into bookshops at any other time of year came pouring through the doors with a great Need to Buy coupled with Absolutely No Idea What.
It could be an enjoyable challenge. It could also be the road to madness. Lying in bed watching lovely Fern and Phil and dunking marshmallows in hot chocolate seemed like a distant dream.
‘No, no, it’s none of them.’ The woman with the plastic rain hat protecting her hair — why? It wasn’t raining today — rejected the array of books Lola had shown her.
‘OK, well, that’s everything we have in stock about insects. If you like, I can look on the computer and—’
‘It’s nothing like any of these,’ the woman retorted. ‘There’s no pictures in the one I’m after.’
A book about insects containing no illustrations of insects. Hmm, that would probably explain why they didn’t stock it. ‘Would you recognise the cover if you saw it?’
Lola tried for the third time. ‘And you really can’t remember who wrote it?’
The woman frowned. ‘No. I thought you’d know that.’
She was clearly disappointed, feeling badly let down by the incompetence of Kingsley’s staff.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Lola, ‘I can’t think how else to do this. I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to—’
Okaaaay. ‘Excuse me?’
The woman said triumphantly, ‘There’s a pig in it!’
A pig. Right. A pig in a book about insects. Zrrrrr, went Lola’s brain, assimilating this new and possibly deal-clinching clue. Zzzzrrrrrrrr .. .
‘Is it Lord of the Flies?’
‘Yes! That’s the one!’
Lola exchanged a glance with an older male customer currently leafing through a book on the subject of kayaking down the Nile. For a split second she saw the twinkle of suppressed laughter in his eyes and almost lost it herself.
But no. She was a professional. To the woman in the rain hat Lola said cheerfully, ‘It’s a novel by William Golding. Let me show you where to find it,’ and led her off to the fiction section.
When she returned, Kayak Man was waiting to speak to her. ‘Hi. Well done with your last customer, by the way.’
‘All in a day’s work. You nearly made me laugh.’
‘Sorry.’ He put down the kayak book. ‘Anyway, I’m hoping you can help me now.’
Lola smiled; he had a lean, intelligent face. ‘Fire away. I like a challenge.’
‘Jane Austen. My wife’s read all her books. I was wondering, has she written any new ones this year?’
Lola waited for his eyes to twinkle. They didn’t. Her heart sank.
‘I’m sorry, Jane Austen’s dead.’
‘She is? Oh, that’s a shame, my wife will be sorry to hear that. We must have missed her obituary in the Telegraph. What did she die of, do you know?’
‘Um ...’ What had Jane Austen died of? Multiple injuries following a parachuting accident, perhaps? Had she crashed her jet ski? Or how about
‘Lola, there’s someone here wanting to speak to you.’ It was Cheryl, sounding apologetic. ‘A crew from a TV station are interviewing store managers about Christmas shopping and they wondered if you could spare them five minutes. If you’re too busy, Tim says he’d be happy to do it.’
‘I bet he would.’ Tim was besotted with the idea of being on TV; it was the reason he went along to all the film premieres in Leicester Square, why he’d dressed up as a chicken to audition for the X Factor (the judges had told him to cluck off) and what had propelled him to stand up while he’d been in the audience on Trisha to announce that as a baby he’d been found abandoned in a cardboard box at Victoria station and he was desperate to find his mother. His mum, who’d been ironing a pile of his shirts when the TV programme aired, had given Tim a good clump round the ear when he’d arrived home that afternoon.
‘It’s OK, I’ll do it myself.’ When you were having a good hair day it was a shame to waste it.
‘Cheryl, can you help this gentleman? His wife’s read everything by Jane Austen so I’m wondering if she might enjoy one of the sequels by another author.’
Having excused herself, Lola made her way over to the young male reporter waiting at the tills with a cameraman and his assistant. ‘Hi, I’m Lola Malone. Where would you like to do this?’
The reporter said, ‘Oh. We’re meant to be doing the interview with the manager.’
‘I’m the manager.’
‘God, are you really?’ The male reporter — who looked exactly like a male reporter — eyed Lola’s sleek black top, fuchsia pink skirt and long legs in opaque black tights. ‘You don’t look like the manager of a bookshop.’
‘Sorry. Were you expecting someone more frumpy?’ He looked abashed. ‘Well, yes, I suppose I was.’
It was a preconception that drove Lola mad and made her want to rattle people’s teeth. ‘I could run out and buy a grey cardigan if you like.’
‘You’re joking, no, you look fantastic.’ He spread his hands in admiration. ‘Crikey, I just didn’t think ..’
‘You should get out more.’ Lola winked, because it was also a preconception she enjoyed shattering. ‘Try visiting a few more bookshops. You might be surprised — nowadays, some of us don’t even wear tweed.’
The piece aired on the local evening news two days later. It lasted less than ninety seconds and the reporter had asked some pretty inane questions but Lola, watching herself on TV as she set about her hair with curling tongs, felt she’d acquitted herself well enough. It wasn’t easy to be witty and scintillating whilst responding to, ‘And here we are, in Kingsley’s on Regent Street, with less than a fortnight to go before Christmas! So, just how busy has it been here in this store?’
The urge to stretch her arms wide like a fisherman and say, ‘This busy,’ had been huge.
‘Well?’ Still wielding the tongs, Lola turned to look at Gabe when the piece ended.
‘Yes, that was definitely you.’
Was I OK?’
Gabe was busy unwrapping a Twix bar. ‘You answered his questions, you didn’t burp or swear, or take a swig from a bottle of vodka. That has to be good news.’
‘But did I look nice?’
‘You looked fine and you know it. What time’s this car corning?’
‘Seven thirty. Should I wear my red dress or the blue one?’ Curling completed, Lola bent over and gave her head a vigorous upside-down shake. ‘I feel quite jittery. I’m not going to know anyone else there. What if it’s all really embarrassing and I want to escape but they won’t let me leave?’
‘OK, you’ll get there around eight. Leave your phone on and I’ll ring you at nine,’ said Gabe. ‘If you’re desperate to get away, tell them I’m your best friend and I’ve gone into labour.’
‘My hero. The things you do for me. How am I going to manage without you when you’re gone?’ Vertical once more, Lola hugged him then made a lightning lunge for the Twix in his hand. She was fast, but not fast enough.
‘I’m sure you’ll cope.’ Gabe broke off an inch and gave it to her. ‘You’ll soon find some other poor guy’s Twix bars to pinch.’
By seven fifteen Lola was ready to go — OK, it was uncool to be punctual but she simply couldn’t help herself — and peering out of the window.
‘Wouldn’t it be great if they sent a stretch limo?’
Gabe looked horrified. ‘That would be so naff.’
‘Why would it? I love them!’ OK, she was naff and uncool.
‘Don’t get your hopes up. From the sound of him, this guy has better taste than you. In fact,’
Gabe went on as a throaty roar filled the street outside, ‘that could be your lift now.’
It was Lola’s turn to be appalled. Flinging the window open as the motorbike rumbled to a halt outside, she watched as the helmeted rider dismounted. Surely not. If someone said they were sending a car they wouldn’t economise at the last minute and send a motorbike instead. Would they? Oh God, her hair would be wrecked .. .
‘Hi there, Lola.’ Phew, panic over, it was only Marcus.
‘Hi there, neighbour-to-be! Come on up,’ said Lola. ‘Gabe’s in my flat at the moment.’
Upstairs in Lola’s living room, clutching his motorcycle helmet and looking sheepish, Marcus said, ‘All right, mate? The thing is, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.’
‘Go on then,’ prompted Gabe.
‘Well, me and Carol are back together, she’s giving me one last chance. And I’m taking it.
Turning over a new leaf. Cool, right? So that’s the good news.’ An embarrassed grin spread across Marcus’s shiny face. ‘But that means I won’t be moving in here after all, mate. Sorry about that.’
Gabe shrugged, having already pretty much guessed what Marcus had come here to say. ‘Well, I suppose I can’t blame you. Bit short notice, seeing as I’m off next week.’
‘I know. Sorry, mate.’
‘I’ll have to register with a lettings agency now’
‘I might know someone who could move in.’ Eager to help, Marcus said, ‘There’s a guy at my motorcycling club whose parents are keen to get rid of him. He could be interested.’
Lola pictured a spotty gangly teenager inviting hundreds of his spotty gangly mates round for parties. ‘How old is he?’
‘Terry? Early fifties. Don’t look like that,’ Marcus caught the face Lola was pulling at Gabe.
‘Terry’s a good bloke. And he works in an abattoir,’ he went on encouragingly, ‘so you’d never go short of pork chops.’
The car, a gleaming black Mercedes, arrived at seven thirty on the dot. It wasn’t a stretch limo, but it was without a doubt the cleanest, most valeted car Lola had ever been in, and knowing that you wouldn’t have to pay a huge taxi fare at the end made it an even more pleasurable journey.
She sat back as the car purred along, feeling like royalty and quite tempted to wave graciously at the poor people trudging along the pavements on the other side of the tinted glass.
The house, when they reached it, was a huge double-fronted Victorian affair in Barnes, as impressive as Lola had imagined. There were plenty of cars in the driveway and discreet twinkling white Christmas lights studding the bay trees in square stone tubs that flanked the super-shiny dark blue front door. Lola was hoping to be sophisticated enough, one day, to confine herself to discreet white Christmas lights; as it was, she was more of a gaudy, every-colour-you-can-think-of girl and all of it as über-bling as humanly possible.
She tried to tip Ken, the driver, but he wouldn’t accept her money. Which felt even weirder than not having to pay the fare.
Even the brass doorbell was classy. Lola clutched her Accessorize sequinned handbag to her side
— as if anyone was likely to steal it here — and took a couple of deep breaths. It wasn’t like her to be on edge. How bizarre that attempting to beat up a couple of muggers hadn’t been nerve-wracking, yet this was.
Then the door opened and there was Mr Nicholson with his lovely welcoming smile, and she relaxed.
‘Lola, you’re here! How wonderful to see you again. I’m so glad you were able to come along tonight.’ He gave her a kiss on each cheek. ‘And you look terrific.’
Compared with the last time he’d seen her, she supposed she must. Not having uncombed, blood-soaked hair was always a bonus.
‘It’s good to see you too, Mr Nicholson.’
‘Please call me Philip. Now, my wife doesn’t know I’ve invited you. You’re our surprise guest of honour.’ His grey eyes sparkled as he led her across the wood-panelled hall to a door at the far end. ‘I can’t wait to see her reaction when she realises who you are.’
Philip Nicholson pushed open the door and drew Lola into a huge glittering drawing room full of people, all chattering away and smartly dressed. A thirty-something blonde in aquamarine touched his arm and raised her eyebrows questioningly; when he nodded, she grinned at Lola and whispered, ‘Ooh, I’m so excited, this is going to be great!’
‘My stepdaughter,’ Philip murmured by way of explanation. Nodding again, this time in the direction of the fireplace, he added, ‘That’s my wife over there, in the orange frock.’
Orange, bless him. Only a man could call it that.The woman, standing with her back to them and talking to another couple, was slim and elegant in a devoré velvet dress in delectable shades of russet, bronze and apricot. Her hair was fashioned in a glamorous chignon and she was wearing pearls around her neck that even from this distance you could tell were real.
Then Philip said, ‘Darling .. and she swivelled round to look at him. In an instant Lola was seventeen again.
Adele Tennant’s gaze in turn fastened on Lola and she took a sharp audible intake of breath.
‘My God, what’s going on here?’ Her voice icy with disbelief, she turned pointedly back to Philip Nicholson. Did she just turn up on the doorstep? Are you mad, letting her into the house?’
Poor Philip, his shock was palpable. Lola, who was pretty stunned too, couldn’t work out who she felt more sorry for, him or herself.
‘How did you find out where I live?’ Adele’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. ‘How did you track me down? My God, you have a nerve. This is a private party—’
‘Adele, stop it,’ Philip intervened at last, raising his hands in horrified protest. ‘This was meant to be a surprise. This is Lola Malone, she—’
‘I know it’s Lola Malone! I’m not senile, Philip! And if she’s come here chasing after my son ...
well, I can tell you, she’s got another think coming.’
Yeek, Dougie! As if she’d just been zapped with an electric cattle prod, Lola spun round; was he here in this room? No, no sign of him unless he’d gone bald or had a sex change.
‘I’m so sorry.’ Philip Nicholson shook his head at Lola by way of apology. ‘This is all most unfortunate. Adele, will you stop interrupting and listen? I don’t know what’s gone on in the past but I invited Lola here tonight because she’s the one who came to the rescue when you were mugged.’ His voice breaking with emotion he said, ‘She saved your life.’
And what’s more, thought Lola, she’s starting to wish she hadn’t bothered.
OK, mustn’t say that. At least Philip’s pronouncement had succeeded in shutting Adele up; while her brain was busy assimilating this unwelcome information her mouth had snapped shut like a bronze-lipglossed trap.
‘I thought you’d like the opportunity to thank her in person,’ Philip went on, and all of a sudden he sounded like a headmaster saddened by the disruptive behaviour of a stroppy teenager.
People were starting to notice now. The couple Adele had been talking to were avidly observing proceedings. The blonde who was Philip’s stepdaughter — crikey, that meant she was Dougie’s older sister — came over and said, puzzled, ‘Mum? Is everything all right?’
‘Fine.’ Recovering herself, Adele managed the most frozen of smiles and looked directly at Lola.
‘So it was you. Well .. . what can I say? Thank you.’
‘No problem.’ That didn’t sound quite right but what else could she say? My pleasure?
‘It was such a brave thing you did,’ exclaimed Dougie’s sister. What was her name? Sally, that was it. ‘I can’t bear to think what might have happened to Mum if you hadn’t dived in like that.
You were amazing!’
Lola managed to maintain a suitably modest smile, while her memory busily rewound to that eventful night ten days ago. Euurrgh, she had stroked Adele’s ankle, she had squeezed Adele Tennant’s thigh .. .
Except she wasn’t Adele Tennant any more. She was Adele Nicholson.
‘So you remarried,’ said Lola, longing to ask about Doug and feeling her stomach clench just at the thought of him.
‘Four years ago.’ Adele was being forced to be polite now, in a through-gritted-teeth, I-really-wish-you-weren’t-here kind of way.
‘Congratulations.’ Lola wondered what Philip, who was lovely, had done to deserve Cruella de Vil as a wife. Presumably Adele did have redeeming qualities; she just hadn’t encountered them yet.
‘Thank you. Well, it’s ... nice to see you again. Can we offer you a drink? Or,’ Adele said hopefully, ‘do you have to rush off?’
Rushing off suddenly seemed a highly desirable thing to do. Excellent idea. Since every minute here was clearly set to be an excruciating ordeal, Lola looked at her watch and said, ‘Actually, there is somewhere else I need to—’
‘Here he is!’ cried Sally, her face lighting up as she waved across the room to attract someone’s attention. ‘Yoohoo, we’re over here! And what sort of time do you call this anyway? You’re late.’
Lola didn’t need to turn around. She knew who it was. Some inner certainty told her that Dougie had entered the drawing room; she could feel his presence behind her. All of a sudden every molecule in her body was on high alert and she was no longer breathing.
Dougie. Doug. Whom she’d thought she’d never see again. ‘Sorry, I was held up at a meeting.
Some of us have a proper job. Hi, everyone, how’s it going? What have I missed?’
Lola was zinging all over; now she’d completely forgotten how to breathe. Except how embarrassing if she keeled over in a dead faint in front of everyone; when a woman had done that in the shop last summer she’d lost control of her bladder.
Imagine coming round, surrounded by Dougie and his family, and discovering you were lying in a puddle of wee.
But this was the kind of situation you needed time to prepare yourself for, time she hadn’t been allowed, and now she was doing her usual thing of being inappropriately flippant.Whereas in reality she was filled with a mixture of giddy excitement — maybe twenty per cent — and eighty per cent fear and trepidation. Because as far as Dougie was concerned, she’d left him without a word, dumped him and run off abroad without a proper explanation. Had ten years been long enough for him to forgive her for that?
‘Well.’ Winking at Lola, Sally spoke with relish. ‘Philip invited along a surprise guest . .
Who turned out to be one very surprised guest. Lola dug her nails into her palms — welcome the pain, welcome the pain and don’t pass out — and turned round to look at him.
For a split second their eyes locked and it was as if the last decade had never happened. Doug looked the same but taller, broader, better. He’d always had the looks, the ability to stop girls dead in their tracks, and now here he was, having that exact same effect, doing it to her all over again.
Except it would be nice if he could be smiling, looking a bit less stony faced than this.
OK, maybe not very likely, but nice all the same. Even if I just to be polite.
’Lola.’ Doug’s shoulders stiffened as if she were a tax inspector.
Taking care to keep his voice neutral he said, ‘What brings you 1 here?’
Oh God, this was awful, all the old tumultuous feelings were flooding back. She’d never been able to forget Dougie; he’d been her first love.
What’s more, seeing as it had never really happened again since, her One and Only.
‘I did: said Philip. ‘Sorry, I hope this isn’t awkward, but I had no idea you two knew each other.
Anyway, surely that’s J irrelevant now’ He cast a warning glance at Adele with her mouth like a prune and rested a hand reassuringly on Lola’s shoulder. ‘Under the circumstances I’m sure we can put the past behind us. Doug, this is the young lady who came to your mother’s rescue when she was attacked.’
Dougie’s expression altered. ‘God, really? That was you? We didn’t know That’s incredible.’
‘The police told me her name was Lauren something or other,’ Adele said prunily and with a hint of accusation, as if Lola had done it on purpose.
‘It is, but I’ve been called Lola since I was a baby. It was a nickname that just stuck.’
‘Well, thanks for doing what you did.’ There was a warmth in Dougie’s eyes now, breaking through the initial wariness. ‘From what I hear, you were pretty fantastic.’
Oh, I was. Shaking inwardly, Lola did her best to look fantastic but at the same time incredibly self-effacing. Dougie was gorgeous and now fate had brought them back together. The break-up had happened a decade ago; they’d practically been children then. Surely Doug would forgive her for chucking him. ‘Well, when someone needs help you just go for it, you don’t stop to wonder what—’
‘Ooh, I’ve got it now!’ Sally let out a mini-squeal of recognition and pointed excitedly at Lola.
‘You’re the one I never got to meet! You were going out with my little brother when I was living in Dublin with Tim the Tosser! Then you did a bunk and broke his heart!’
Oh don’t say that, please don’t say that. I’m so sorry, I didn’t want to do it, Lola longed to blurt out. It broke my heart too! Doug said drily, ‘Thanks, Sal.’
‘Oh, come on, it was years and years ago, all in the past now. And she did break your heart.’
Sally gave him a jab in the ribs, visibly relishing his discomfort. ‘You were a complete pain, don’t you remember? All because you couldn’t believe your girlfriend had given you the elbow and buggered off abroad.’ She nudged Lola and added cheerfully, Did him the world of good, if you ask me.’
‘That’s funny,’ said Doug, ‘because I don’t remember anyone asking you.’
‘That’s enough.’ Adele intervened before the bickering could start. ‘Doug, the Mastersons have to leave very soon but they really want to see you before they go.’
‘I’ll do that now As soon as I’ve got myself a drink.’ Evidently glad of the reprieve, Doug glanced at Lola and Sally, and said, ‘Excuse me. I’ll see you later.’
They watched Doug cross the room with Adele, while Philip went in search of a waiter.
‘That’s one rattled brother,’ Sally observed gleefully. ‘God, I love it when that happens!’
Guilt and pain swirled up through Lola’s stomach. ‘Did I really break his heart?’
‘Too right you did! Talk about miserable! Ooh, is that yours?’ Lola’s phone was chirruping in her bag. She took it out and Gabe’s name flashed up at her.
‘Feel free.’ Sally made encouraging answer-it gestures.
‘Thanks. Sorry, I’ll just take it outside for a minute.’ Longing to confide in Gabe, Lola excused herself and escaped the party. She crossed the hall, quietly let herself out of the house – better safe than sorry – and answered the phone.
‘I know, I’m early,’ said Gabe. ‘Couldn’t wait. So how’s it going? Are they showering you with diamonds?’
She grimaced in the darkness. ‘Diamonds, wouldn’t that be nice. More like bullets.’
‘You won’t believe what’s happening here.’ Lola kept walking to warm herself up, around the side of the house and along a narrow stone path leading beneath a hand-carved wooden pergola into a rose garden. ‘The woman who was mugged only turns out to be the mother of an old boyfriend of mine. And she loathed me! If I’d known it was her I’d have run in the other direction. You should have seen her face tonight when she found out I was the one who’d gone to help her!’
‘So you’re leaving? Do I feel a contraction coming on?’
‘Hang on, don’t start boiling kettles just yet. I was going to leave,’ said Lola. ‘God, it was awful, I couldn’t wait to get out of here. And it went without saying that the Wicked Witch couldn’t wait to be shot of me.’ She paused, reliving the moment her stomach had done a Red Arrows swoop-and-dive. ‘But then it happened. He turned up. Oh Gabe, I can’t describe how it felt. I thought I’d never see Dougie again, but now I have. And he’s more gorgeous than ever. It’s like a miracle, I can’t believe he’s here. So I’m not going to leave now, even though his hateful mother wishes I would. I’ve got to talk to Doug properly, he’s only just arrived and it’s been a bit awkward so far. We’re all pretty stunned at the moment. But ... oh God, it’s just so amazing seeing him again, I haven’t been this excited since—’
‘Hey, hey, calm down, do you not think you’re getting a bit carried away? If this guy dumped you before, what makes you think he’s going to be thrilled to see you again?’ As a heterosexual man who had dumped hundreds of weeping females in his time, Gabe said warningly, ‘What makes you think he’ll even want to talk to you?’
‘Gabe, you don’t understand. He isn’t an ex-boyfriend. He’s the ex-boyfriend. Plus, he didn’t dump me. I was the one who left him.’ Lola swallowed. ‘According to his sister I broke his heart.’
‘And now you’ve taken one look at him and decided you want him back. Trust me,’ said Gabe,
‘that’s a recipe for disaster. You can never go back. Whatever annoyed you about this guy before will only annoy you again.’
‘For heaven’s sake, will you stop lecturing me? This is my first love we’re talking about here!
We were crazy about each other. Dougie was about to start at Edinburgh University,’ Lola paced up and down the flagstoned path in an attempt to keep warm, ‘and we planned to visit each other every weekend, but if that wasn’t enough I was going to move up there to be with him. You have no idea how happy we were together.’
She heard Gabe snort with derision. ‘So happy that you finished with him. That makes sense.’
‘But that’s just it, I didn’t want to finish with him. His bloody mother made me do it!’ Lola squeezed her eyes shut as the long-ago hideous encounter in Adele Tennant’s car swam back into her brain; the smell of expensive leather upholstery had haunted her ever since. ‘She hated me, thought I was a bad influence on her precious golden boy ... she was terrified I’d put him off his studies or, even worse, persuade him to jack in university altogether.’
‘So she asked you to stop seeing her son. Erm,’ said Gabe, ‘did it ever occur to you to say no?’
‘She didn’t ask me. She made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.’ Lola hated even thinking about that bit; had spent years doing her best to banish it from her mind.
‘You’re not serious!’ At last she had Gabe’s full attention. ‘You mean, like swimming with the fishes? She actually threatened you with a concrete overcoat and a trip to the bottom of the Thames?’
‘Not that kind. She offered me money. I was seventeen years old.’ There was a bitter taste in Lola’s mouth now; no matter how compelling the reason, the inescapable fact remained that she had betrayed her boyfriend. ‘And she offered me ten thousand pounds if I’d stop seeing Dougie.’
‘Which you took?’
‘Which I took.’ The bitter taste was guilt; it wasn’t an action she was proud of, hence never having mentioned it to Gabe before.
He let out an incredulous bark of laughter. ‘You let her buy you off?’
Lola shivered as a blast of icy air wrapped itself around her stomach. ‘I didn’t want to, but I had to:
‘Bloody hell! len grand. What did you spend it on?’
Lola hesitated, but it was no good; she couldn’t tell him. ‘ icked with remorse, Alex had begged her never to reveal their secret to another living soul and it was a promise she had to keep. Alex might be gone now but her mother must never find out what had happened. Which meant she must never tell anyone. Choking up at the memory, she said, ‘I just needed it. You don’t understand what a—’
She froze at the sound of a dry twig snapping underfoot behind her. Swinging round with her heart in her throat, Lola saw the tall figure just visible in the darkness at the entrance to the rose garden.
Not just any old tall figure either. That silhouette was instantly recognisable.
‘Ten thousand pounds,’ said a quiet voice every bit as incredulous as Gabe’s.
‘I don’t understand what?’ complained Gabe, for whom patience wasn’t a strong point. ‘Don’t stop there! What is there to not understand?’
‘I’ll call you back.’ Her hand suddenly trembling with more than cold, Lola ended the call and dropped the phone back into her bag.
’Ten thousand pounds,’ Doug repeated, shaking his head.
Lola swallowed. ‘Your mum was desperate to split us up.’
‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this.’ He moved towards her. ‘You wrote me a letter and left the country’
‘Because that’s what she wanted me to do. Don’t you see? All that stuff I said in the letter wasn’t true!’ Lola knew she had to make him understand. ‘I still loved you! It broke my heart too, I was miserable for months.’
‘Oh, don’t give me that.’ Doug’s tone hardened. ‘I’ve heard some lines in my time, but—’
Dougie, I’m not lying! And I’m sorry, so sorry I hurt you. But it was your mother’s idea — she was the one who offered me the money. And trust me, she was desperate,’ Lola pleaded. ‘If I’d turned it down she’d only have found some other way to get rid of me.’
‘Jesus! You could have mentioned it! Did it not even occur to you to tell me what was going on?
Did you not think it might have been fair to ask me how I felt about it?’
‘I was going to.’ Lola’s fists were clenched with frustration; not being able to tell him the truth meant he was always goingto think she was a mercenary bitch. Helplessly she said, ‘But you were moving up to Edinburgh, you’d have started socialising with all those girls up there ...’
‘We were so young! What were the chances, realistically, of us staying together? I knew I loved you,’ Lola rattled on in desperation, ‘but what if I’d said no to the money then a few weeks later you’d met someone you liked more than me? How stupid would I have felt if you’d sent me a Dear John letter then?’
In the darkness Doug raised his hands.’Fine.You did absolutely the right thing. Let’s just forget it, shall we?’
Did he mean that? ‘Let’s.’ Lola nodded eagerly, wondering if now might be a good moment for a lovely-to-see-you-again kiss. ‘From now on all that stuff’s behind us, right? We can start afresh.’
‘Start afresh?’ There was a smidgeon of sarcasm in his voice. ‘No need to go that far, surely.You’ll be leaving soon enough.’
‘I don’t have to.’ Hurrying after him as he abruptly turned and headed down the path leading back to the house, Lola said, ‘I’ve only just got here! Dougie, it’s fantastic to see you again, we’ve got so much catching up to do.’
‘Trust me, we haven’t.’
‘But I want to know what you’ve been doing!’ Desperation made her reckless. ‘And you came outside, so that means you wanted to talk to me too.’
Dougie reached the front door and paused to look at her. ‘I came outside for a cigarette.’
‘You smoke now?’
‘Not a lot.’
‘You should give up,’ said Lola.
A muscle twitched irritably in his jaw. ‘I did give up. Six weeks ago.’
So her sudden reappearance had jolted him. Lola sniffed the air but could only detect cold earth and aftershave. ‘I can’t smell smoke.’
Dougie pulled a single cigarette and Bic lighter from his shirt pocket. ‘I was about to light it when I heard you talking on the phone.’
‘So you didn’t smoke it, you listened to me instead. See? I’m coming in useful already.’
Reaching out and snatching the cigarette from his hand, Lola snapped it in two and tossed it over her shoulder into a lavender bush.
Dougie heaved a sigh and pushed open the front door. ‘If you hadn’t been here I wouldn’t have been tempted in the first place. If you want to do something really useful you’ll leave.’
‘There you are.’ Adele, flinty eyed, was standing in the hall with Sally beside her. ‘We were wondering what had happened to you.’
‘We’ve been catching up.’ Dougie’s tone was brusque. ‘I’ve just been hearing about the ten thousand pounds you paid Lola to stop seeing me.’
Adele shot Lola a look capable of shrivelling grapes. ‘So she told you, did she? Ten thousand pounds, is that what she said?’ Lola’s heart sank like a dropped anchor.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Doug demanded.
‘I offered ten thousand. But that wasn’t enough for her. She demanded fifteen.’ Adele shrugged elegantly. ‘And then, when I refused, she started haggling.’
‘So did you,’ Lola whispered.
Doug shook his head. ‘I don’t believe this. How much did you end up with?’
‘Twelve and a half,’ said Adele the hateful witch.
‘OK, but I needed that—’
‘Stop.’ Dougie held up his hands. ‘I’ve heard enough. Now I definitely need a drink.’ He turned and strode back into the drawing room.
Lola watched him go. It probably wasn’t the moment to be thinking this, but he was even more irresistible when he was angry.
‘Now see what you’ve done: said Adele. ‘Why don’t you leave before you ruin the entire evening?’
It might have been a tempting proposition earlier but that was before Dougie had turned up.
Since leaving was no longer an option – because what if she never saw him again? – Lola said,
‘Look, I’m not as bad as you’re making out. I only took that money because there was an emergency and I desperately needed it. I’m actually a really nice person. Can’t we just forget about all that old stuff?’
I patted your thigh, for God’s sake.
Adele exhaled audibly. ‘None of us was expecting this to happen this evening. I’m grateful for what you did the other night, obviously. But I can’t pretend I’m happy to see you again. Giving you the money was what I needed to do at the time, but I never wanted Doug to find out.’
‘Trust me, neither did I. He overheard me on the phone and I really wish he hadn’t. That’s why I need to talk to him properly, to explain. Don’t worry, I won’t slag you off.’ As Lola said this she saw Adele wince at the turn of phrase, proving as it did how common she was and how wildly unsuitable for someone as well brought up as Doug.
‘Well, let’s just get through the rest of the evening without any more unpleasantness.’ Adele shook her coiffured hair slightly as if dismissing the thought of it from her mind. Cracking a thin pseudo-smile she said, ‘Shall we go through and join the others?’
‘I’ll follow in a minute, when I’ve just, um ...’ Lola pointed to the downstairs loo, dithered over what the polite word for it was, then wondered why she was bothering. ‘After I’ve had a quick wee.’
The cloakroom was small but stylish, all ivory marble and tasteful lighting. A bit too tasteful actually; Lola, touching up her make-up, had to lean right across the sink to get close enough to the mirror to check she didn’t have speckles of mascara on her cheeks.
Lost in thought about Doug and how she might win him over against his better judgement, Lola jumped out of her skin when her phone suddenly rang. Losing her precarious balance and about to topple nose first into the mirror, she put out a hand to stop herself and sent her make-up bag flying off the side of the sink.
‘Noooo!’ Lola let out a shriek of horror as the bag landed with a splosh in the toilet bowl. Not her make-up ... oh God...
It was too late, the contents of her cosmetics bag were already drowned. All her favourite things
– lovely eyeshadows, bronzing powder, eye pencils, her three very best lipsticks – were sitting there submerged in the bottom of the loo. And to add insult to injury her bloody phone was still ringing.
‘Gabe, I know you’re trying to help, but NOT NOW!’ Switching the phone off again, Lola surveyed the scene of devastation and let out a groan of despair. ‘Oh hell ...’
Then she jumped again, because someone was tapping cautiously on the cloakroom door.
‘Hello? Everything OK in there?’ It was a worried female, possibly Sally.
‘It’s all right. I’m fine.’ At the sight of her all-time favourite Urban Decay super-sparkly mocha eyeshadow, Lola could have cried.
‘Lola? Is that you? What’s happened?’
Seeing as it was Sally, Lola unlocked the door.
She didn’t have to say a word.
‘Oh no, poor you! Crikey, no wonder you let out a screech. I had my handbag stolen once.’ Sally squeezed her arm in sympathy. ‘I mean, having to replace my credit cards and stuff was a pain in the neck. But losing my make-up was just traumatic. When I found out my favourite mascara had been discontinued I practically had a nervous breakdown right there in Harvey Nicks.’
Despite everything, Lola grinned. ‘You’re making me feel so much better.’
‘And we can’t leave it in there.’ Bracing herself, Lola bent down and gingerly picked the unzipped make-up bag out of the toilet bowl then dropped it – splat – into the waste bin beneath the sink. ‘Typical that it had to happen before I had a chance to do my mouth.’
‘Well, I can help you there.You want to borrow lipstick? Just come upstairs with me.’
Everything in Sally’s bedroom was yellow and white and super-tidy. Sitting on the king-sized bed and gazing around, Lola said, ‘This is a great room.’
‘It’d be more great if it wasn’t in my mother’s house.’ Sally grimaced. ‘Not that I don’t love her, but it’s hardly ideal, is it? I’m thirty-six. I was living with my boyfriend in Wimbledon until a fortnight ago but we broke up so I moved in here temporarily.’
‘What happened with you and the boyfriend?’
‘Oh God, nightmare. I’m a walking disaster when it comes to men.’ Sally shook her head. ‘I paid for him to have his teeth bleached as a birthday present because that’s what he wanted. Next thing I know, he’s telling me he’s seeing the dental nurse. So that’s it, I’m single again, back with my mother and giving up on men. I’m going to buy myself a dear little cottage somewhere in the country and breed llamas instead. Knit my own socks and grow my own jam. Wouldn’t that be idyllic?’ She paused, holding up a fuchsia-pink Chanel lipstick and scrutinising Lola’s mouth. ‘What kind of colour are you after?’
‘Something rusty-bronzy rather than pink, if you’ve got it. Can you knit?’
‘Well, no, but I could always pay some sweet little old lady to do that for me. Rusty-bronzy, rusty-bronzy ...’ Sally was busily rummaging through the boxes on her dressing table.
‘If you’d rather live in Notting Hill, my neighbour’s off to Australia next week. He’s letting his flat out for a year.’ Lola couldn’t help herself; it was worth a shot and at least Sally didn’t work in an abattoir.
‘Is he? I haven’t been to Notting Hill for years. Oooh, I know the one you need ...’ Sally flitted out of the bedroom, returning moments later with a lipstick in a bullet-shaped gold case. ‘Here you go, it was on the bathroom shelf all the time. Is this more you?’
Lola took it with relief. Versace, no less, and a gorgeous, distinctive shade of russet-red with a brownish-gold lustre. ‘This is exactly me.’ Peering into the dressing-table mirror, she applied it with a flourish and smacked her lips together.’Perfect. Now I can face the world again. Does Dougie have a girlfriend?’
‘D’you know, I’m not sure. He was seeing someone a while back, but I don’t know if it’s still going on. You know what men are like, they don’t talk about that kind of stuff like we do.’ Sally fluffed translucent powder onto her nose and said, ‘Why? Do you still fancy him?’
Only an older sister could say it quite like that, as if it was on a par with fancying Quasimodo.
Lola said regretfully,’He’s gorgeous.We were so happy together once and I messed that up. It was all my own fault, I know that, I made a mistake but at the time I didn’t ... I just couldn’t ...’
‘Oh please, I didn’t mean to make you feel worse.You were only seventeen,’ Sally exclaimed.
‘We all make mistakes at that age. And, OK, Dougie was miserable but he recovered. It’s not like he joined a monastery!’
Grateful for Sally’s understanding, Lola managed a wobbly smile. ‘I’m glad he didn’t. Sorry, seeing him again like this has been a bit overwhelming. But who knows, maybe I can persuade him I’m irresistible and he’ll forgive me ...’
The bedroom door, which hadn’t been shut, swung further open. ‘Look,’ Doug said curtly, ‘I really wish I didn’t have to keep overhearing this stuff, but Philip wants to make a speech and he asked me to round everyone up.’
‘OK, we’re done here.’ Sally gaily flipped back her hair and headed for the door.
‘And can I just say,’ Doug fixed Lola with a steely knee-trembler of a gaze as she passed him in the doorway, ‘don’t waste your energy with the being irresistible bit, because I’m not interested.’
Hang on, what were the qualities he’d always admired in her when they’d been a couple? Her eternal optimism and refusal to take no for an answer?
‘You might change your mind,’ Lola said bravely. ‘I’m very lovable.’
‘Not to me.’
‘I could be. If you’d just give me a chance.’
‘Lola, don’t even bother to try. Nothing is going to happen between you and me. After this evening we won’t see each other again and that’s fine by me. So let’s just go downstairs, shall we, and get this farce over with. The sooner it’s done, the sooner you can go home.’
Everyone gathered in the drawing room for Philip’s speech. It was sweet, if hard to believe, hearing this nice man speak so movingly about the happiness Adele had brought into his life.
Everyone raised their glasses to Adele, then Philip went on to talk about Lola and her actions on the night of the mugging. He concluded by announcing that they were all indebted to her, and that from now on she was part of the family. Cue applause, a toast and – hilariously – another brittle hug from Adele. It was like being embraced by a Ryvita.
Then the embarrassing bit was over and everyone went back to drinking and chatting amongst themselves. Everyone except Adele, who looked at Lola’s mouth and said, ‘What an extraordinary coincidence, you appear to use the same lipstick as me.’
Oh bugger, bugger. And she knew.
‘Sorry.’ Lola couldn’t believe she hadn’t recognised it earlier. ‘I ... um, lost mine and Sally offered to lend me one. I didn’t realise it was yours.’
‘You may as well take it with you when you leave.’ Adele shuddered as if Lola had just spat on the hors d’oeuvres. ‘It’s not as if I’d use it again now’
‘Everything OK?’ Doug joined them.
‘Lola used my lipstick.’ With an incredulous half-laugh Adele said, ‘I must be old-fashioned. It just seems an incredibly brazen thing to do. So ... personal.’
Lola opened her mouth to protest but now Dougie was surveying her with equal distaste, as if she were Typhoid Mary going around spreading her vile germs on other people’s lipsticks. There came a time when you simply had to accept that winning someone over wasn’t an option.
When Lola’s phone trilled for the third time that evening, Adele’s mouth narrowed with fresh annoyance.
Will you stop hanging up on me?’ Gabe demanded. ‘I do have better things to do with my time than keep trying to get through to you. It’s not that complicated,’ he rattled on. ‘I just need to know if everything’s going OK. A simple yes or no will—’
‘Are you serious? The contractions are how far apart? Just wait there and stay calm,’ said Lola.
‘Boil the kettle and take deep breaths. I’m on my way’
I dreamt about him last night,’ said Lola.
Cheryl was restocking the bestseller shelves at the front of the shop. Pausing to gaze at the book in her hand, she frowned and said, ‘Dreamt about who? Harry Potter?’
‘As if. I’m talking about Dougie, you dingbat.’
‘Oh. You mean you’re still talking about Dougie. Do the words "not a hope in hell" mean anything to you?’
Honestly, just because Cheryl’s marriage had ended in a bad way; now forty and happily divorced, she was enjoying a man-free life. Doggedly, Lola said, ‘Failure is not an option.’
‘Flogging a dead horse?’ Cheryl persisted. ‘Chasing rainbows? Expecting a miracle?’
‘Don’t be such a pessimist. I dreamt I was rowing a boat down Portobello Road and I lost one of my oars, but all of a sudden Dougie swam up to me and jumped into the boat.’
‘And tipped you out?’
‘And rescued me! He showed me the hidden switch that turned on the engine.’ Lola felt herself growing misty-eyed at the memory. ‘And the next thing I knew, we were whizzing along like something out of a James Bond film, all through thestreets with people screaming and diving out of our way, and Dougie was sitting next to me with his leg pressing against mine...
‘Is this about to turn into one of those mucky dreams?’
‘Sadly not. We didn’t have time. My alarm went off.’ Lola passed Cheryl a handful of Dan Browns; it was Monday afternoon, three days since the party, and Dougie had taken up more or less permanent residence inside her head. It wasn’t going to be easy, making someone love you again when they didn’t even want to see you, but she’d never felt this way about anyone else; having him reappear in her life like this was just
‘By the way, someone’s watching you,’ said Cheryl.
‘They are? Who?’ It didn’t take long to conjure up a fantasy; in less than a split second Lola had the whole Officer-and-a-Gentleman scenario rolling. When she turned round, Dougie would be making his way across the shop floor towards her like Richard Gere. OK, maybe he wouldn’t actually be wearing that white officer’s uniform but he’d still sweep her effortlessly up into his arms and carry her out, while staff and customers alike clapped and cheered, whooping with delight and calling out, Way to go, Lola.’
‘That one over there by autobiographies.’
Lola turned slowly and another delicious fantasy was dashed. For crying out loud, the man was in his fifties; why would she even want him to carry her out of the shop?
‘That’s not Doug.’
Cheryl rolled her eyes. ‘I didn’t say it was. He’s been looking over at you, that’s all. Really looking.’
‘Probably saw me on TV last week and now he’s trying to pluck up the courage to ask for my autograph.’ Lola prepared to smile in a cheery, down-to-earth fashion and prove that fame hadn’t gone to her head — God, wouldn’t it be fantastic if he really did ask? — but the man had turned away. Oh well. Ooh, unless he was a private detective hired by Dougie to find out if she was a nicer person now than she’d been ten years ago .. . he’d done his best to put her out of his mind but hadn’t been able to ... maybe he could forgive her after all ...
‘Are you daydreaming again? Tim’s waving at you,’ Cheryl pointed out. ‘They’re short-handed over at the pay desk.’
Ten minutes later Lola’s fan arrived at her till. Up close he was younger than she’d first thought; in his mid-forties probably. His hair was dark and just that bit longer than usual, and he was wearing a striped mulberry and olive shirt with well-cut black trousers. Quite trendy for a man of his age. Nice grey eyes too.
‘I’ve never read one of these before.’ He passed over the book, a thriller by a prolific American author. ‘Is he good?’
‘Seriously good.You won’t be able to stop reading even when you want to.You’ll be holding your breath for hours.’ Lola rang the book up, aware that the man was studying her name badge.
‘Sorry.’ He saw that she’d noticed. ‘Nice name. Unusual.’
‘Thanks.’ She took his ten pound note and scooped the change out of the till. He was way too old for her to be interested in him in any romantic way but he had an attractive smile. ‘There you go.
Hope you enjoy it. Don’t blame me if you get sacked for not being able to stay awake at work tomorrow.’
His smile broadened. ‘And if I do enjoy it, I’ll be back to buy another one.’
There was something about the way he was looking at her that made Lola wonder if this was how it felt to be famous. She said lightly, ‘Do you recognise me?’
He looked startled. ‘What?’
‘I was interviewed on TV the other night. I thought maybe you’d seen it.’
The man’s expression cleared. ‘No, I’m afraid I missed that. I just came in to buy a book.’
Damn, she wasn’t famous after all. ‘Sorry.’
‘No problem.’ He relaxed visibly. ‘I’m sorry I missed it. Were you good?’
‘I was brilliant.’ As Lola passed him the bag containing his thriller a thought struck her: Why was he now visibly relaxed? Innocently she said, ‘Does anyone ever recognise you?’
Ha, that surprised him.
‘I just wondered if people ever realised who you are.’ Another pause. ‘Why would they?’
‘Maybe because they’re very clever and they’ve worked it out.’ Lola flashed him a sunny smile.
He looked at her. ‘Worked what out?’
‘That you’re a private detective.’
‘Me?’ He pointed to his chest, shaking his head in amused disbelief. ‘Is that what you think? I’m not a private detective.’
Luckily there was a lull at the tills; no other customers were waiting to be served.
‘Ah,’ said Lola, ‘but you would say that, wouldn’t you?’
‘I suppose so. But I’m still not one.’
‘Except that could be you covering your tracks, like any good private detective would.’
He tilted his head to one side. ‘So if I was, which I promise I’m not, who would I be spying on?’
‘Ooh, I don’t know Anyone in this shop.’ Lola shrugged playfully. ‘Me, perhaps.’
‘You. And why would a private detective be tailing you?’ Another brief pause. ‘Are you in some kind of trouble?’
‘Not at all.’ She’d only said it on the spur of the moment – nothing ventured, nothing gained –
but Lola knew now that this man was no more than a charming stranger, albeit a slightly bemused one, thanks to her interrogation. ‘OK, you’re not a private detective. I believe you.’
He nodded gravely. ‘Thank you.’
Out of nowhere a queue for the tills had materialised. Lola said, ‘Enjoy your book.’
The man left, clutching his dark blue Kingsley’s carrier bag and wearing the kind of expression that people have when they think they’ve handed over a ten pound note and been given change for twenty.
Weren’t Toastabags the greatest invention in the whole world ever?
The toaster popped up and Lola hooked out the bag, tipping the gorgeous crispy toasted cheese and tomato sandwich onto a plate. Possibly her favourite food, and to think that when she’d first clapped eyes on a Toastabag she hadn’t believed it could work, because how could a plasticky baggy-type thing go into an electric toaster and not melt?
OK, toasted sandwich: check.
DVD in DVD player: check. She’d treated herself to the latest release starring Tom Dutton, one of her favourite actors.
Box of tissues: check. When she’d dragged Gabe along to the cinema to see the film she’d honked like a big goose during the weepy bits and shown herself right up.
Remote control for DVD player: check.
Remote control for TV ... bum, where was it? Oh, under the sofa cushions. Check.
Now she was all ready to go .. .
The doorbell rang as she was about to take the first heavenly bite of toasted sandwich. Someone had a sense of humour.
Lola looked at her make-up-free reflection in the kitchen window, teamed with dripping wet hair and lime-green towelling dressing gown, and really hoped Tom Dutton hadn’t chosen this moment to pitch up on her doorstep.
She pressed the intercom. ‘Yes?’
A female voice. ‘Who’s that?’
‘It’s me! Sally Tennant!’
Good grief. Sally. Doug’s sister. As Lola pressed the buzzer, her stomach gave a little squiggle of excitement. ‘Come on up.’
Sally, wrapped in a glamorous cream coat and black patent high-heeled boots, was looking glossy and stylish. She would have looked even more stylish if there hadn’t been a pair of sparkly red plastic antlers flashing away on top of her head.
‘Oh sorry.’ She pulled a face when she saw Lola’s hair and dressing gown. ‘Bad time?’
‘Of course not. I can’t believe you’re here.’ Lola ushered her into the living room, switched off the TV. ‘Is this something to do with Doug?’
‘Doug.’ Sally looked blank. ‘No. Haven’t seen him. Why, have you?’
No’ Lola swallowed her disappointment.
‘I asked Philip for your address. I’m here about that flat you told me about.’
The flat. Lola hadn’t thought for a moment that Sally would take her up on the offer — she hadn’t appeared to be even listening when she’d mentioned it. And now she was actually here.
Talk about cutting it fine. But at the same time, how brilliant.
‘You’re really interested? That’s fantastic. Gabe’s off to Australia tomorrow ... he’s out saying goodbye to his friends tonight, God only knows what time he’ll be back. But I’ve got a key. I can show you the flat now’ Tightening the belt of her dressing gown, Lola said, ‘You’ll love it, I promise!’
’Gabe? Can you hear me?’ At the other end of the phone Lola could make out yet more noisy celebrations. ‘I’ve just found someone for your flat. Remember I told you about Sally, Doug’s sister? Well, she’s here and she’s had a look round, and it’s just what—’
‘What?’ hissed Sally when Lola abruptly stopped and listened. ‘Doesn’t he want me to move in?
Why, what’s wrong with me? Tell him he won’t find a better tenant anywhere. Look, I can pay the deposit now, money isn’t a problem ... Lola, tell him how much I want this flat!’
Lola said slowly, ‘Yes ... OK, right ... no, of course I understand.’ She finished listening to Gabe then hung up.
‘What?’ wailed Sally. ‘Why can’t I have it? I want it!’
Lola felt a twinge of guilt; she was the one who’d begged Gabe not to take on Terry-the-abbatoir-worker.
‘It’s not you. Gabe registered the flat this morning with a lettings agency. He’s signed a contract with them. And they rang him a couple of hours ago to tell him they were bringing a client round tonight. If this guy says he wants it, there’s nothing we can do. He’s got first refusal,’ she explained. ‘And he’s keen to find somewhere fast.’
‘Oh’ Sally looked crestfallen. ‘Well, maybe he won’t like it.’
‘Everyone likes Gabe’s flat. Damn it,’ Lola said frustratedly, ‘I want you to be my neighbour, I don’t want some smelly boy moving in next door ..
‘What?’ Sally eyed her with curiousity as Lola’s voice trailed off. ‘What are you thinking?’
‘Gabe says they’re due round at eight.’ Lola checked her watch. ‘I’m just wondering what time the corner shop shuts.’
With a glimmer of a smile Sally said, ‘Has anyone ever told you you’re a little bit weird?’
‘Excuse me.’ Lola raised her eyebrows. ‘You’re the one with the flashing antlers on your head.’
The corner shop was still open. If Sanjeev wondered why his best customer when it came to magazines, chocolate and ice cream was all of a sudden buying up cabbages, he didn’t ask. By ten to eight the evil stench of boiled cabbage was thick in both Lola’s flat and Gabe’s. When the saucepans had been removed from Gabe’s kitchen Lola found a music channel on the TV in her own flat and turned the volume up to maximum. Eminem blared out and Sally took off her antlers, shaking out her hair and kicking off her shoes.
At three minutes past eight they heard the front door being opened downstairs, then two people entering Gabe’s flat. Lola gave it a few seconds then crossed the landing and thumped on the door.
It was opened by a man in a suit. ‘Yes?’
‘Hi there, is he in?’
‘The Angel Gabriel.’ Lola raised her voice to be heard above the sound of the music. ‘Mr Let’s-Complain-About-Everything.’
The letting agent said frostily, ‘If you mean Mr Adams, he isn’t here.’
‘No? Best news I’ve heard all day.’ Grinning at the potential tenant behind him – gangling, thirties, spectacles, accountantylooking – Lola said, ‘Well, can you just pass on a message from Lola and Sal across the hall, tell him we’re having a few friendsround tonight. They’ll be turning up after the pub and we’d appreciate it if he didn’t give us the usual grief, seeing as this time we’re warning him in advance.’ Leaning forward conspiratorially, she added, ‘To be honest, the police are fed up with him calling them and whingeing about us. I mean, talk about a Neddy No-Mates! If you can’t have a party and a laugh with your friends, what’s the point of living, eh?’
‘Maybe you could leave a note for Mr Adams.’ The letting agent spoke brusquely, keen to close the door on a potentially deal-breaking neighbour.
‘Hang on.’ The gawky accountant-type behind him raised his voice above the thudding hip-hop beat that was now making the floor vibrate. ‘How often do you have parties?’
‘Not often. Two or three times a week, that’s all.’
‘And the smell,’ said the accountant. ‘What is that?’
‘Hmm? Oh, can you notice it?’ Lola shrugged. ‘No idea. It comes and goes in waves –
something to do with the drains, I think. Cost us a fortune to have everything checked out but it didn’t do any good. We thought maybe Neddy No-Mates had buried someone under his floorboards.’ She paused and said, ‘Why do you want to know?’
‘This flat’s been registered with a lettings agency.’ The accountant blinked rapidly. ‘The owner’s moving to Australia.’
‘You’re kidding. Hey, fantastic!’ Hearing footsteps behind her, Lola turned and said to Sally,
‘Hear that? Neddy No-Mates is off to Oz!’
‘To get away from us?’ All of a sudden nine months pregnant beneath her coat, Sally nodded approvingly. ‘Cool. So does that mean you’re going to be our new neighbour?’
‘I, um ...’ Was that a glint of terror behind the geeky spectacles? ‘Well, I’m not ...’
‘Because if you ever fancy a spot of babysitting, I’ve got just the thing for you right here!’ Sally gave her swollen stomach a pat. ‘I mean, just because we’re having a baby doesn’t mean we have to stop doing what we want to do, does it? Whoo-hoo!’ Eminem had given way to Snoop Dogg. Sally, clutching her stomach with one hand and waving the other in the air, executed some enthusiastic hip-hop-esque dance moves. Whoo-hooooo!’
It was a sight to make a grown man nervous. Two grown men, in fact. The geek and the lettings agent edged nervously away. Lola, filled with admiration, prayed that Sally wouldn’t get carried away and attempt to shake her booty.
Imagine the embarrassment if her cushion fell out.
‘How many of you are there living in that flat?’ said the Beek.
‘Just me and Lola and this little creature when he gets here.’ Still energetically gyrating along to the music, Sally pointed gaily at her stomach.
‘Who needs a man when you’ve got a turkey baster?’ said Lola, winking at the lettings agent.
‘Our baby’s going to have two mothers who know how to have fun.’
When the agent and the geek had left the building, Lola turned off the ear-splitting music and threw open the windows in both flats to disperse the nostril-curling boiled-cabbage smell.
‘Gosh, that was fun.’ Sally pulled the balled-up velvet cushion out from under her coat and flung it onto the sofa. ‘Think it’ll do the trick?’
‘It’d do the trick if I was the one looking for a flat.’ Lola took a bottle of white wine from the fridge and poured out two glasses.
‘Poor bloke, he did look a bit stunned. I suppose we just have to wait now. Should I be drinking that in my condition?’
‘You could always have water instead.’
‘Water? Yeurgh, nasty wet watery stuff. No thanks.’ Lola’s phone rang ten minutes later and she leapt on it. ‘What did you do?’ Gabe came straight to the point. Innocently Lola said, ‘Sorry?’
‘No you’re not. I’ve just had a call from the lettings agent,’ said Gabe, ‘telling me that in view of the Situation, I’m going to need to drop my rental price.’
‘Oh Gabe, that’s terrible.’
‘Quite significantly, in fact.’
‘You poor thing!’
‘He also said getting rid of that putrid smell had to be a priority’
‘So this friend of yours, this sister-of-Doug,’ said Gabe. ‘I’m assuming she’s there with you now’
Lola looked over at Sally. ‘Might be.’
‘And she wants my flat.’
‘Definitely. More than anything.’
‘What caused the smell?’
‘Four big saucepans of boiled cabbage.’
‘Here, give me the phone.’ Reaching over, Sally grabbed it and said, ‘Gabe? Hi, please let me be your new tenant! I’m super-housetrained, I promise. I’d really look after your flat and I’m completely trustworthy, I’ll pay the full rent by direct debit and leave the deposit with Lola now, you won’t regret it .. . what? Oh, OK.’
‘What did he say?’ demanded Lola when Sally put down the phone.
‘That I was giving him earache.’
‘That moving to Australia was beginning to seem like the best decision he’d ever made.’
‘That you and I deserve each other and he feels sorry for our baby.’
Since Sally was currently sitting on the sofa with one elbow digging into the abandoned velvet cushion, Lola felt quite sorry for it too. ‘So that means ... ?’
Sally beamed and clinked her glass against Lola’s. ‘I can move in as soon as I like.’
’Oh, I’m going to miss you s000 much.’ Lola blinked and hiccuped; she hadn’t expected to feel this emotional but actually saying goodbye to Gabe was hard.
‘Hang on, you’re strangling me.’ He prised her off him. ‘It’s like being hugged by a giant koala.’
‘That’s to get you into practice. Oh bugger, what do I look like?’
‘A panda in a pink dress.’ Gabe watched her mopping up mascara. ‘I can’t believe you’re crying.
I’m only going for a year.’
‘I know, I know I’m being stupid.’ Lola blew her nose like a trumpeting elephant. ‘But what if you change your mind? You might decide to stay there for good and I’ll never see you again.
You’re my best male friend in the world and you’re about to fly off to the other side of it. What if you and Jaydena get married and buy a house and settle down and have loads of Aussie kids?’
She expected Gabe to burst out laughing at such a ridiculous idea, but he didn’t.
‘If that happens, you can always come out and visit us.’ Oh God, he really meant it! He was that besotted with Jaydena. Had he never even watched Kath and Kim?
Apart from anything else, Lola knew they had particularly evil spiders in Australia, the kind that hid under toilet seats and bit your bum. So she definitely couldn’t go.
‘You could come back and visit me,’ she offered.
‘What, with all those kids?’ Gabe grinned. ‘Are you crazy? We couldn’t afford it.’
He was in love. Lola did her best to feel happy for him. She looked at her watch. ‘I’m going to be late to work.’
‘And my cab’s due in ten minutes.’ Gabe gave her a kiss on the cheek and pushed her towards the door. ‘Go on, get yourself out of here. You’ve got your new friend Sally moving in tonight –
you won’t even notice I’m gone.’
’You were right,’ said the man who wasn’t a private detective.
‘Oh, hi.’ Recognising him, Lola dumped the pile of hardbacks she’d brought out from the stockroom and said cheerfully, ‘Right about what?’
‘Last night. I couldn’t put that book down. I was awake till four this morning finishing it.’ He shook his head in baffled disbelief. ‘I didn’t know reading could be like that, I had no idea. I’ve just never been a booky person. All these years I’ve been missing out.’
‘Ah, but now you’ve seen the light.’ Lola loved it when this happened; witnessing a conversion never failed to give her a thrill. ‘You’ve become one of us. Welcome to our world; you’re going to love it here.’
‘I need another thriller and I don’t know where to start.’ The man was wearing a navy suit today, with a burnt-orange shirt and a turquoise silk tie. ‘There are so many to choose from. Can you recommend an author?’
Could she recommend an author? Ha, it was only the favourite bit of her job!
‘You’d like this one.’ Lola picked up a book with a gunmetal grey cover. ‘Or this.’ Eagerly she reached across the table for another. ‘Now he’s a gripping writer.’
The man looked more closely at Lola. ‘Are you OK?’ Bugger, she’d redone her make-up on the tube on the way into work. Clearly not thoroughly enough.
‘I’m fine. It’s just ... nothing.’ Lola checked herself; he was a complete stranger. ‘Look, see how you get on with this one. When you’ve tried a few different authors we can work out which others you might like, then—’
‘Excuse me?’ She turned to face the hatchet-faced woman who had just barked in her ear.
‘I need a Beano Annual for my grandson!’
‘Sorry,’ the man in the suit shook his head apologetically and took the book with the grey cover from her. ‘You’re busy. Thanks for this. I’ll let you know how I get on with it.’
‘Come on, come on,’ bellowed the woman, spraying saliva. ‘I haven’t got all day!’
By the time Lola fought her way back through the crowds with the Beano Annual, the man in the suit was gone. The hatchet-faced woman didn’t even say thank you. But then people like that never did.
Twenty minutes later Lola felt an index finger irritably poking at her left shoulder blade. ‘Excuse me, excuse me,’ came an irritated female voice. ‘I want the new book by that Dan Black.’
Lola turned. ‘You mean Dan Brown.’
‘Don’t tell me what I mean, missy. I don’t care what the man’s name is, just get me the book.’
‘I tell you what,’ said Lola, ‘why don’t you stop expecting me to wait on you hand and foot, and get it yourself?’
Outraged, the woman sucked in her breath. ‘You impertinent creature! How dare you? I shall report you to the manager and have you sacked!’
‘And I’ll have you arrested for crimes against colour coordination. Because pink,’ Lola curled her lip at the woman’s fluffy scarf and padded jacket, ‘does not go with orange.’
Then they realised they were being watched by a bemused elderly man clutching a biography of Churchill.
‘It’s all right.’ Lola winked at him. ‘She’s my mother.’
‘Hello, darling.’ Blythe gave her a quick hug and kiss on the cheek and tucked a stray strand of hair behind Lola’s ear. ‘Can’t stop, I’m racing to finish all my Christmas shopping then I’ve made an appointment to have my hair done this afternoon. Just popped in to show you what I’ve bought for tonight. Tell me which outfit I should keep and I’ll take the other one back.’
Lola didn’t get her hopes up; being allowed to choose was Blythe’s attempt at compromise.
Sadly it was like telling someone they were about to be thrown into deep water and generously giving them the choice between a concrete straitjacket and lead diving boots. Blythe had as much fashion sense as a chicken, coupled with a hopeless predilection for mixing and matching things that Really Didn’t Go. Somehow it hadn’t seemed to matter when Alex had been alive – between them, they had regarded Blythe’s manner of dressing as no more than an endearing quirk. But it was five years now since Alex had died and during the last eighteen months Blythe had tentatively begun dating again. All of a sudden clothes had become more important. Keen for her mother to make a good impression on the outside world, Lola had begun attempting to steer her into more stylish waters.
But it had to be said, this was on a par with trying to knit feathers. Lola braced herself as her mother rummaged in a pink carrier bag and pulled out a silky beige top.
With purply-blue satin butterflies adorning each shoulder strap.
And a purply-blue frill around each armhole.
And scattered multicoloured sequins across the cleavage area. Lola bit her lip. If it had been just a silky beige top, it would have been perfect.
‘Okaaay. Now the other one.’
‘Ta-daaa!’ Having stuffed beige’n’silky back into its bag, Blythe produced the second top and held it up against herself with a flourish, indicating that this, this one, was her favourite.
As if Lola couldn’t have guessed.Top number two was brighter – a retina-searing geranium red –
and much frillier, with jaunty layered sleeves, sparkly silver buttons down each side and a huge red and white fabric flower – bigger than a Crufts rosette – at the base of the V-neck.
Timm,’ said Lola. ‘Is this for when you run away to join the circus?’
‘Don’t be so cruel! It’s beautiful!’
‘Right, so what would you wear it with?’
Her mother looked hopeful, like a five-year-old attempting to spell her name. ‘My blue paisley skirt?’
‘Green striped trousers?’
‘Oh. Well, how about the pink and gold—’
Blythe flung up her hands in defeat. ‘You’re so picky.’
‘I’m not, I just don’t want people pointing and saying,"There goes Coco the Clown". Mum, if you really want to keep the red top, wear it with your white skirt.’
‘Except I can’t, because it’s got a big curry stain on the front. Ooh,’ Blythe exclaimed, her eyes lighting up as inspiration struck, ‘but I could snip the red flower off this top and superglue it to the skirt instead, that’d cover the mark! That’s it, problem solved!’
People would point and laugh. Lola opened her mouth to protest but her mother was busily stuffing the tops back into their carriers, checking her watch and saying, ‘Gosh, is that the time?
I must fly!’
‘Where are you going tonight?’
‘Oh, it’s just our quiz team having a Christmas get-together, something to eat followed by a bit of a bop. Malcolm’s driving, so I can have a drink.’
Hardly the Oscars. Lola let it go. Trinny and Susannah would have a field day with Malcolm, who was bearded and bear-like, with a penchant for baggy corduroys and zigzaggy patterned sweaters. Since Malcolm was to sartorial elegance what John Prescott was to ice dance, he was unlikely to object to an oversized flower attached to the front of a skirt. If you told him it was the latest thing from Karl Lagerfeld, he wouldn’t doubt it for a minute.
But Malcolm wasn’t what Lola had in mind for her mother. Sweet though he was in his bumbling teddy-bear way, she had her sights set several notches higher than that. Because Blythe deserved the best.
The eye-watering, throat-tightening boiled-cabbage smell had gone, thank goodness. Loaded up like a donkey, Sally struggled through to the living room then dumped her belongings on the floor.
Excitement squiggled through her stomach. This was it, her new home for the next twelve months at least. New flat, new resolutions, whole new life.
Chief resolution being: no more having her heart broken by boyfriends who were nothing more than rotten no-good hounds.
And where better to start than here? Sally gazed around, taking in the unadorned cream walls, ivory rugs and pale minimalist ultra-modern furniture. There was no denying it looked like a show home. Even the light switches were minimalist. What with the total lack of clutter, it also exuded an air of bachelor-about-town.
Oh well, soon sort that out.
‘In here, love?’ Huffing and puffing a bit, the taxi driver appeared in the doorway with several more cases.
‘Just chuck them down. Thanks.’ He was in his fifties, grey-haired and ruddy-cheeked, wearing a wedding ring. Was he a lovely man, completely devoted to his wife, the kind of husband who put up shelves and mowed the lawn without having to be nagged into doing it? Or was he a shy conniving cheat who promised to do those things then sloped off to the pub instead and came home hours later reeking of other women’s perfume?
Actually, he probably didn’t. Sally softened and gave him the benefit of the doubt. And she’d never know anyway, because you weren’t allowed to ask complete strangers personal questions like that. Which was, as far as she was concerned, a big shame. Why couldn’t there be a law passed, making it compulsory? Imagine meeting a man for the first time, finding him attractive and being allowed to inject him with a truth drug:
‘You seem very charming, Mr X. But if we were to have a relationship, how long would it be before you started treating me like a piece of poo on a shoe?’
‘Well, usually about a month.’
The taxi driver gave her an odd look. ‘You all right, love?’
‘Me? Oh yes, fine.’ Sally hastily collected herself ... ooh, though, how about if you could also wire them up to a machine capable of delivering painful electric shocks when the response warranted it? ‘Sorry, miles away. How much do I owe you?’
When he’d left, Sally shrugged off her coat, pushed up her sleeves and set to work opening the first couple of cases. She was going to be happy here in Radley Road. Happier still, once she’d made the flat her own.
Left standing at the altar was a lonely place to be. It sounded like a line from a country and western song. Worse still, when it had actually happened, it had felt like being trapped in a country and western song. Some memories faded but humiliation on that scale was never going to go away.
And that bad just been Barry the Bastard. There’d been loads more over the years, more than any girl should have to endure, ranging from Tim the Tosser whom she’d lived with in Ireland for over a year, to Pisshead Pete seven Christmases ago. Culminating, needless to say, in her latest calamitous choice, William the Wanker. And in truth he was no great loss; the dental nurse he’d run off with was welcome to him. His gleaming, too-white teeth had looked weird anyway, like something out of a Disney cartoon.
Sally was looping multicoloured fairy lights around the fireplace when the bell buzzed and she heard Lola’s voice. Eagerly she rushed to open the door.
‘Wow,’ said Lola, gazing around the living room. Wow was an understatement. ‘This is ...
‘Isn’t it?’ Sally beamed with pride. ‘I can’t believe how much I’ve got done in three hours!
Nothing like a splash of colour to cheer a place up! You know, I really think I have a flair for interior design — I should do it for a living. The world would be a happier place if we all did our homes like this.’
The world would definitely be full of people wearing sunglasses. The floor was littered with empty bags and cases, not to mention several packets of biscuits. There were bright paintings adorning Gabe’s cool cream walls, with five ... no, six ... no, seven sets of fairy lights draped around the frames. The brushed-steel lampshade from the Conran shop had been taken down; in its place was a hot-pink chandelier. The ivory cushions on the sofa sported new fluffy orange covers. A sequinned pink-and-orange throw covered the seat below the window. And a fountain of fake sparkly flowers exploded out of a silver bowl on top of the TV.
‘Good for you,’ said Lola. ‘If Gabe could see this, he’d have a fit.’
‘Good job he’s in Australia then.’ Unperturbed, Sally reached into one of the cases and pulled out a swathe of peacock feathers awash with iridescent blue and green glitter. ‘Pass me that gold vase, over there, would you? At the weekend I’m going to paint my bedroom to match these!’
‘Paint the bedroom?’ Lola felt she owed it to Gabe to look dubious; he’d spent a fortune having his flat redone just three months ago.
‘It’s too plain as it is! Like being in a prison cell! I’m here for a whole year,’ said Sally.
‘Anyway, it’s only a couple of coats of paint — if your friend really hates it, I’ll slosh some cream over the walls the day before he gets back.’
‘Sorry. Gabe’s a bit fussy, that’s all. He had the colour specially mixed.’
Sally’s eyebrows shot up. ‘This colour? Are you serious? How hard is it to go down to B&Q and buy a vat of emulsion?’
‘I know, I know.’ Lola raised her hands, disclaiming responsibility. ‘He’s just ... particular.’
‘Is he gay?’
‘Trust me. Gabe’s the opposite of gay.’
‘He’s also fifty zillion miles away. So what I think is, you don’t mention to him that I’m repainting his flat, and neither will I.’
‘Go on then.’ Relenting, Lola opened her bag. ‘I’ll drink to that.’
‘Oh my God, champagne!’
‘Not quite. It was either one bottle of the proper stuff or two of pretend.’ Lola held one bottle in each hand.
‘And we wouldn’t want to run out.’ Seizing them, Sally said joyfully, ‘Come on, let’s pop these corks — whoops, don’t step on the Garibaldis!’
’... I mean, I’m thirty-six years old and this is the first time I’ve been able to do out a room just the way I like. How crazy is that?’
By ten o’clock the first bottle had been upended into the waste bin (parrot-pink, trimmed with marabou) and the second vas three-quarters empty. Sally was cross-legged on the rug (purple, speckled with biscuit crumbs), waving her glass dramatically as she ran through her life history.
With the chandelier switched off, the many strings of fairy lights gave the room the kind of festive multicoloured glow that had Lola half expecting to be given a present. She frowned, puzzled by Sally’s statement. ‘What, you’ve never been allowed to do it before? What about when you were a teenager?’
‘God, especially when I was a teenager! My mother sent the cleaner into my bedroom every morning to tidy everything up and make my bed. I was allowed to have three posters on my wall.’ Sally paused to scoop another biscuit from the packet on the floor next to her. ‘As long as they were posters of horses. I was more of a Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran kind of girl, but she wouldn’t let me put them on the walls. Ghastly creatures, she called Duran Duran. And Spandau were yobs. I think she was terrified I’d find myself a boyfriend who wore ruffled shirts and make-up.’
Lola pictured Adele’s horror at the prospect. ‘So what happened next?’
‘Daft question. I found myself a boyfriend who wore ruffled shirts and make-up:
‘And you were how old when you left home?’
‘Eighteen. But I’ve never lived on my own, it’s always been either flat-sharing or moving in with boyfriends. Which means there’s always been someone around to moan about my decorating plans. I’ve spent the last eighteen years having to compromise. Well, not any more.’ Sally’s exuberant gesture encompassed the room and caused the contents of her glass to spill in an arc across the rug. ‘From now on I’m going to do what I want to do and no one’s going to stop me.
No more Tim the Tosser, no more Pisshead Pete, no more boring men telling me I can’t have leopard-print wallpaper in my kitchen. Bum, my glass is empty.’
‘That would be because you just swung it upside down.’
Did I? Bum, now this is empty.’ Tipsily aghast, Sally gave the second bottle a shake. ‘OK, don’t panic, I’ve got a bottle of white burgundy in the fridge — whoops, my foot’s gone to sleep, I hate it when that happens.’
‘Shall I get it?’ Lola jumped up, because Sally’s attempts to stand were of the Bambi-on-ice persuasion.
‘Excellent plan. But you’ll have to hunt around for a corkscrew.’
In the kitchen, Lola took out the chilled burgundy and rummaged through drawers in search of Gabe’s corkscrew Surely he hadn’t taken it with him.
The doorbell rang and she heard Sally say perplexedly, ‘Who can that be?’ But she must have limped over to the intercom because twenty seconds later the door to the flat was opened and Sally exclaimed, ‘I wasn’t expecting you here tonight!’
Mother? Please no.
Lola’s hands froze in mid-corkscrew search as she heard the visitor say, ‘I know, but I have to meet a client in Oxford tomorrow morning, so this was the only time I could bring the stuff over.
I tried to call but your phone’s switched off.’
Oh, that voice, it was like warm honey spreading through her veins. Not one of Sally’s old boyfriends then, thought Lola. One of mine!
‘That would explain why George Clooney hasn’t rung. Thanks, just dump the cases against the wall.’ Bursting with pride Sally said, ‘So what d’you think of my new flat?’
Lola listened, holding her breath.
‘Bloody hell. It’s like a cross between Santa’s grotto and a Moroccan souk.’
‘I know, isn’t it fantastic?’ Sally clapped her hands. ‘I can’t believe how gorgeous it looks!’
Doug said drily, ‘I can’t believe you’re my sister.’ Evidently spotting the empty wine glasses on the coffee table he added, ‘Drinking for two now? Or has someone else been round?’
Sally giggled. ‘Someone else is still round.’
OK, enough skulking in the kitchen. Lola stepped into the living room. ‘Actually I wouldn’t call myself round, more curvily girl-shaped.’
’Oh, for God’s sake.’ Dark eyes narrowing, Doug said impatiently, ‘Not you again.’
It hurt, but as far as he was concerned, Lola knew she deserved it. Just as well she was the optimistic type; maybe she could win him round. Dougie, I’ve already said I’m sorry’
‘I know you have. But what are you doing here?’ he demanded.
Dougie, don’t be so rude,’ wailed Sally. ‘Lola’s my friend.’
‘I’m more than her friend.’ Lola flashed him a playful smile and saw the split-second look of horror on his face ... Jesus, surely not ... ‘I’m her next door neighbour.’
Doug shook his head in disbelief; being a neighbour might not be quite as alarming as being a predatory lesbian but it was evidently a close-run thing. He looked over at his sister. ‘You didn’t mention this.’
‘Of course I didn’t. If I’d told you I was going to be moving in next door to Lola, you’d have tried to talk me out of it.’
Exasperated, Doug retorted, ‘Damn right I would. And I’m not the only one.’
‘Well, too bad. I don’t care what Mum says — it’s not my fault she doesn’t like Lola. You and Mum should put all that old stuff behind you, it’s irrelevant now. Anyway, this is my flat and I’m jolly well staying here!
Overcome with gratitude, Lola longed to burst into applause, but the line of Dougie’s jaw wasn’t exactly forgiving. Instead she attempted to change the subject.
‘Errm, I couldn’t find the corkscrew.’
‘OK, I think there’s one in one of the cases in my bedroom. Hang on, I’ll go and have a look.’
‘You never know,’ Doug said softly when Sally had left the room, ‘play your cards right and you could land yourself another handy little windfall. My mother might be so keen to keep you away from Sal that she’d be prepared to pay you to move out.’
It hurt like a knife sliding in under her ribs. Lola said, ‘Look, what do you want me to do? Fall on my knees and beg for forgiveness? I did a bad thing once and I’m sorry I hurt you, but at the time I didn’t have any choice.’
Doug shook his head. ‘Fine. Anyway, we’re not going to argue about that again. I’m just here to drop off the rest of Sal’s things. I’ll fetch them from the car.’
‘I’ll help you! Had Sally still not managed to locate the corkscrew or was she being discreet and keeping out of the way?
‘I want to.’ Lola followed him out into the hallway. ‘I can manage.’
‘But it’s going to be easier if there’s two of us.’ She clattered down the stairs behind him. ‘And I’m strong! Remember that time I beat you at arm-wrestling?’
Doug’s shoulders stiffened. ‘No.’
‘Oh, come on. At Mandy Green’s party. Her brother started this whole arm-wrestling competition out in the garden because he said no girl could beat a boy. But he was wrong,’ Lola said proudly, ‘because I did, I beat him and I beat you—’
‘That’s because I let you win: Doug said curtly.
‘What?You didn’t! Ouch.’As he reached the front door, Lola cannoned into his back.
‘Of course I did.’ Doug yanked open the door, shooting her a dismissive look over his shoulder.
‘Did you seriously think you were stronger than me?’
‘But ... but ..’ Lola had spent the last decade — ten whole years — being proud of that achievement. And now Doug was shattering her illusions. This was like suddenly being told that Father Christmas didn’t exist.
Woooooop went the dark green Mercedes on the other side of the road as Doug pointed a key at it.
Unless ... unless he was lying when he said he’d let her win.
‘Right, you can carry the bags with the clothes in. They’re not so heavy.’ He opened the boot.
‘I’ll deal with the boxes of books: Books. If there was one thing Lola was the queen of, it was carrying piles of books. Who needed to lift weights in a gym when you worked at Kingsley’s?
Reaching past Doug she slammed the boot shut.
‘Jesus!’ He snatched his hand away in the nick of time. ‘You nearly had my fingers off! What d’you think you’re playing at?’
‘I don’t believe you lost on purpose. I think that’s just your excuse.’ Pushing up the sleeve of her sweater to give her elbow some grip, Lola angled herself up against the corner of the car’s boot and waggled her fingers. ‘So we’ll just fmd out, shall we? On your marks, get set ...’
‘I tell you what,’ said Doug, ‘why don’t we just carry my sister’s things into the flat?’
‘Lola, let me open the boot.’
He gave her a raised-eyebrow look. ‘What?’
OK, if she hadn’t been a teeny bit squiffy she possibly wouldn’t have done that. ‘It’s my chicken impression.’
‘Not exactly Rory Bremner, are you?’
‘Ooh, I saw Rory Bremner once,’ Lola said excitedly. ‘In a delicatessen:
‘He must have been thrilled. Can we get the stuff out now?’ She waggled her fingers once more.
‘You’re really scared I’ll win, aren’t you?’
‘I don’t believe this.’ Heaving a sigh, Doug pushed up the sleeve of his pale grey sweatshirt, assumed the position against the car and clasped Lola’s right hand. Her heart lolloped as his warm fingers closed around hers. She could feel his breath on her face, smell the aftershave he was wearing, see the glint of stubble on his jaw, imagine the way his mouth would feel if she were to kiss him right now ...
Like premature ejaculation it was all over far too soon. CLONCK went the back of her forearm against the boot of the Mercedes.
‘That’s not fair,’ Lola wailed. ‘I wasn’t ready’
‘Correction. You weren’t strong enough.’ He paused. ‘What are you doing now?’
‘Nothing. Just looking at you.’ She’d seen a lot of eyes in her life but none more beautiful than Dougie’s. He had the thickest, darkest eyelashes of any man she’d ever known.
‘Well, stop it. I don’t trust what’s going on here. All of a sudden you’re persuading my sister to move into the flat next to yours and I want to know why’
‘I didn’t persuade her. It was her decision. But I’m glad she chose to,’ said Lola. ‘Because I like Sally. We get on well together. And I’d rather have her living next door than the geeky nerdy type who would have moved in if she hadn’t come along in the nick of time.’
‘Is that the only reason?’
Now why don’t I believe you? Oh yes, that’s right, because you’re a mercenary liar. Take these.’
Having sprung open the boot once more, Doug dumped a huge pink canvas holdall in Lola’s arms.
‘How many times can I say I’m sorry?’
‘Forget it. Not interested.’ There was that muscle again, twitching away in his jaw as he hauled out two boxes of books. ‘Just so long as you aren’t still harbouring some kind of plan to persuade me to change my mind about you, because that’s not going to happen.’
‘I know. You told me that last week.’ Honestly, whatever happened to forgive and forget?
then we went back to my flat and tore each other’s clothes off. We had wild sex all night long and it was ... ooh, fabulous!’
‘Nice try, Pinocchio.’ Cheryl carried on stacking books on a table in readiness for an author to come in and do a stock-signing. ‘So what really happened?’
What had really happened was far less encouraging. Lola pulled a face and said, ‘He emptied the car, dumped Sally’s things in her flat and drove off.’
‘Oh dear. So you won’t be bringing him along to Bernini’s tomorrow night. I was looking forward to meeting him.’
Tomorrow night was their works Christmas party. This year for some reason someone had suggested it should be fancy dressand in a moment of madness Lola had agreed. ‘I wouldn’t inflict that on Dougie. I’m not sure he’s the dressing-up-like-an-idiot kind.’
‘Plus,’ Cheryl helpfully pointed out, ‘he’s not exactly your number one fan at the moment.’
‘I know, I know’ Lola began folding the books’ jacket flaps to the title pages to make signing speedier. Too ashamed to reveal the whole truth, she had left out the money aspect; as far as Cheryl was concerned, all that had happened was that Dougie had reacted badly to being chucked.
‘Oh, cheer up,’ said Cheryl. ‘If anyone can win him round, you can. Think about it, meeting up with your first love again is fate! It’s romantic! You made a mistake before, but there’s no reason why you can’t give things another whirl, especially if he’s as gorgeous as you say he — oh, hello!’
Looking up, Lola saw that the man who wasn’t a private detective was on the other side of the table.
‘Hi.’ He greeted them both with a friendly smile.
‘How did you get on with ... ?’ Bugger, out of the books she’d recommended, Lola couldn’t remember which one he’d ended up buying.
‘It was great. I’m going to try the other author you mentioned. It’s just that he’s written a whole lot of them and I wasn’t sure if I should start with the first in the—’
‘Lola, there’s a drunk guy trying to steal books.’ Tim rushed up, his face puce with indignation.
‘He’s over in Mysteries, trying to stuff a load of Agatha Christies down his trousers. Quick!’
Euww. Dropping the book in her hand, Lola raced across the shop floor in Tim’s slipstream, dodging customers and cursing shoplifters. Poor Agatha, what a grim thing to happen. She definitely didn’t deserve this.
‘Where to, mate?’
‘Airport,’ said Gabe.
He sat back in the air-conditioned cab and didn’t glance up at the window of Jaydena’s apartment as the driver pulled away from the kerb.
That was it then. So much for happy ever after. Happy ever after, in fact, had disappeared right down the toilet.
How had he, of all people, managed to get it so wrong?
‘It’s not your fault.’ Tears had been streaming down Jaydena’s face last night as she finally came clean. ‘You’re a fantastic guy, really you are.’
I know, thought Gabe.
‘And I’m so sorry, it’s just that it never occurred to me that Paul would change his mind and want me back. But he’s, like, the big love of my life, the one I could never forget. Oh Gabe, this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Can you understand that? I don’t want to hurt you, but there’s no other way.’
It was almost a relief, on one level, figuring out at last why Jaydena had been as jumpy as a cat on a hotplate ever since he’d arrived last night.
On the other hand, discovering the truth still hurt like hell. ‘You slept with me.’ Gabe frowned.
‘We had sex. If you and this guy are back together, why would you do that?’
‘Oh God, because I felt so terrible,’ Jaydena wailed. ‘You flew all this way.’
He looked at her. ‘And that was my consolation prize? Thanks a lot.’
‘I already said I’m sorry!’
‘Fine’ Gabe turned away; the last thing he was going to do was beg. ‘I’m just saying you could have told me before I left London.’
‘I know, but I couldn’t, I had to wait for Paul to make up his mind and by the time he did, you were already on the plane.’
‘Thoughtful of him.’ In return, Gabe imagined taking Paul along for a day trip to a crocodile farm. Preferably bound and gagged.
‘Look, I know it’s not ideal,’ Jaydena pleaded. ‘But it’s better that we do this now than next week or the week after.’
She’d sobbed some more after that, and apologised some more, and even ended up offering to sleep with Gabe one last time by way of making things up to him. ‘So you have some kind of, like, closure, y’know?’
‘No thanks.’ He marvelled at his own idiocy; this was the girl for whom he’d given up his home, his job, his London life. And here she was, offering him a pity shag.
‘Sure? I don’t mind. Paul wouldn’t either: said Jaydena. ‘I already asked and he said it’s fine by him.’
What a hero. Gabe envisaged the feeding frenzy when he dropped Paul head first into the pool of crocodiles. ‘That’s very generous of him, but it’s still a no. I’ll use your computer, if that’s OK, and get onto the airline.’
‘Absolutely. Help yourself.’ Nodding vigorously Jaydena said, ‘Feel free.’
He’d managed to book a flight, then checked his emails. There was one from Lola saying, ‘Hey, how’s it going? Why haven’t you been in touch yet? OK, maybe I can guess why — too busy doing other stuff with Jaydena. Text me when you have a few seconds to spare, you big tart. And remember, there’s more to life than sex!’
Gabe paused. If only she knew There was no point emailing Lola now; he didn’t have the words.
Anyhow, she’d find out soon enough.
It hadn’t been the easiest of nights. Gabe had slept fitfully on the sofa in Jaydena’s living room and been up by six. The sensible part of him felt that after coming all this way he should stay on in Australia, for a while at least, to experience the lifestyle and the weather, see the sights and generally make the trip worthwhile.
The other pissed-off part of him just wanted to get the hell out of the damn place, put some serious distance between himself and Jaydena and head back home.
As the taxi made its way across Sydney towards the airport, he gazed out at the glittering ocean, the paintbox-blue sky and the scantily clad blondes on their way to the beach. Keen though he was to escape the country, it occurred to Gabe that when he reached London he’d barely have any proof that he’d even been here. Reaching over and unzipping the front compartment of his rucksack, he pulled out his digital camera and began taking photographs out of the window.
‘Good holiday, mate?’
It wasn’t the taxi guy’s fault that his life had just taken a nosedive. Snapping a picture of a girl in a raspberry-pink bikinicycling along with a terrier on a lead in tow, Gabe said, ‘Great, thanks.’
‘Ah, it’s a beautiful place, mate. Nowhere else like it. Bin here long?’
‘Not too long. But you’re right, it’s a beautiful country.’
‘The best.’ The driver nodded with pride then pointed to the service station up ahead. ‘OK if I pull in for a couple of minutes or are you in a rush to get there?’
‘No rush at all.’ Gabe’s flight wasn’t leaving for another five hours; he’d just been keen to get out of the flat. ‘Do what you want.’ Everyone else does.
The man drove into the service station, parked up next to the car wash and disappeared inside the shop. Gabe, in the back of the cab, scrolled through the half-dozen or so photos he’d taken and deleted one that was blurred because they’d been driving over a bump at the time. He glanced up as a slender brunette emerged from another parked car and made her way around the corner of the building. For a split second Gabe thought she seemed familiar, before remembering he was in Sydney, Australia. It wasn’t like bumping into someone you knew in the supermarket back home.
Moments later his head jerked up again as another figure, male this time, emerged from a second car and headed in the same direction as the brunette.
Gabe frowned. Wasn’t that ... ? No, it couldn’t be.
But as the man moved out of sight, curiosity got the better of Gabe. Opening the rear door of the cab, he climbed out. Ninety degrees of heat hit him in the face. Mystified, Gabe reached the side of the whitewashed building and saw .. . blimey ... that he hadn’t been mistaken after all. Except no wonder he hadn’t twigged at first; it wasn’t every day you saw two members of Hollywood’s A-list sneaking off down a narrow alley behind a service station in order to kiss each other senseless.
Unless it was for a movie and they were being paid millions of dollars to do it.
Which certainly wasn’t the case here. This time they were doing it for free.
Click. Gabe hadn’t even planned on taking their photo; somehow, the camera in his hand came up and there they were in the frame, so completely wrapped up in each other that they neither saw him nor heard the shutter close. Gabe took another photo, this time getting a clear shot of the girl’s face. Then, realising what he was doing – God, what was he, some kind of snooper? – he turned and hurried back to the cab.
‘All right there?’The taxi driver emerged from the shop with a bottle of iced water and a bag of toffees.
‘Off we go, then.’
As they waited to pull out onto the main road, the male half of the couple emerged from the alley. Tom Dutton, Oscar-winning actor, wearing faded denims and a red checked shirt. His long blond hair flopped over his forehead as he loped back to his car. Simply because it would thrill Lola, who had dragged him along to the cinema last summer and noisily sobbed her way through the weepy that had been Tom Dutton’s most recent film, Gabe raised his camera and took one last photo.
Personally he’d thought the film was crap.•
Lola wasn’t averse to a bit of untidiness but stepping into Gabe’s flat was something of an eye-opener. The initial impression was of utter chaos, Selfridges Christmas department mixed with a charity shop the morning after an all-night party.
‘Hi there, I was wondering if you had any black shoe polish—whoops.’ Lola just managed to avoid stepping on a triangle of pepperoni pizza lying on an open copy of Heat. Something told her she wasn’t going to be in luck. Most of Sally’s clothes appeared to be strewn across the floor, along with a couple of damp bath towels. Just as well Gabe wasn’t here to see this.
‘I do, I do!’ Sally gaily dropped her apple core onto Gabe’s formerly pristine glass-topped coffee table and pressed her fingers, psychic-style, to her temples. ‘Hmm, shoe polishes, shoe polishes.
They’re here somewhere ... I remember taking them out of a case and putting them ... ooh, I know! On the window sill in the kitchen!’
Where else? Following Sally into the kitchen, Lola saw a whole range of shoe polishes flung into a pink and gold flowerpot along with a Nicky Clarke hairspray, a zebra print alarm clock, a bag of satsumas and a skipping rope.
‘Brilliant. I’ll only be a couple of seconds! Holding her favourite black stilettos, Lola squeezed liquid polish onto the toes. Instant magic. The scuffs disappeared and she recapped the tube.
‘Shall I put this out of the way in the cupboard under the sink?’
‘No need. I like things where I can see them.’ Surveying her in her dressing gown, Sally said,
‘Off out somewhere nice?’
‘Wine bar in Soho. Works Christmas party.’ Lola pulled a face. ‘Fancy dress.’
‘Ooh, I love fancy dress! What are you going as?’
‘A Playboy Bunny. Don’t laugh,’ said Lola. ‘Everyone had to put an idea into the hat and I drew the short straw. Tim from work has gone over to the fancy dress hire place to pick everything up.
He’ll be here any minute with my costume?
‘At least it’s sexy. I always wanted to be a Playboy Bunny when I grew up. But Mum said over her dead body. Oh well,’ Sally said cheerfully, ‘you’ll have to come and give me a twirl before you leave.’
’Blimey.’ Coming face to face with Tim on her doorstep, lugging an enormous zip-up carrying case, Lola said, ‘That can’t all be for me.’
Her outfit was a skimpy affair, surely. Black satin swimsuit thing, white fluffy tail and a pair of ears. How much space could that take up?
‘Been a bit of a mix-up.’ Tim looked embarrassed. ‘What kind of a mix-up?’
His cheeks flamed. ‘When I ordered a Bunny outfit they thought I meant ... well, a bunny bunny!
‘You mean ... ? Oh God, let me see.’ Lola unzipped the carrying case and was confronted by a full-size rabbit suit made of white nylon fur. ‘I have to wear this?’
‘Sorry,’ Tim said miserably.
She pulled out the suit and gave herself a static shock. On the bright side, she wouldn’t need to spend the evening holding her stomach in.
On the less bright side, what a waste of polishing her shoes. She was destined to spend the night with her feet encased in giant furry white rabbit’s paws.
‘I’m going to get hot in there.’ The nylon fur crackled and gave Lola another zip of static as she stroked it.
‘You can swap costumes with me if you want to,’ said Tim. The ‘if you want to’ part didn’t fill her with optimism. ‘Why, what’s yours?’
‘Well, I was going to be a gladiator. Kind of like Russell Crowe. But the breastplate snapped and they couldn’t let me have it!
‘So you’re not a gladiator. Instead you’re ... ?’
Tim mumbled, ‘Barney the Dinosaur?
Lola sighed. ‘Thanks, but I’ll stay with the rabbit. Purple was never my colour!
‘You’re all pink!’ Cheryl, looking glamorous and suitably exotic in her hula skirt, danced up to Lola.
All pink. Fancy that.
‘Imagine how hot it feels, being trapped inside an all-in-one bunny suit.’ Lola reached for a bottle of ice-cold water. ‘Then double it. Actually,’ she paused and glugged down several mouthfuls of the water, ‘quadruple it.’
The DJ started to play ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham!, causing a stampede (why? why?) onto the dance floor.
‘Fancy a dance?’ said Cheryl, shimmying her hips. ‘Not really, no.’
‘Couldn’t you take the bunny suit off now?’ Cheryl tilted her head sympathetically to one side.
‘I could, if I’d thought to bring a change of clothes with me.’ Huffing her damp fringe out of her eyes, Lola couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to her. But beneath the nylon fur she was scantily clad and jolly though the crowd at Bernini’s were, she didn’t feel they were ready to witness her in her pink and green polka-dotty knickers and matching balcony bra.
Mind you, it was a salutary experience dressing up like a rabbit. Until tonight she hadn’t realised how nice it was to be paid attention by members of the opposite sex. Being eyed up was something she’d pretty much taken for granted.
‘You know, I feel as if I’m wearing an invisibility cloak,’ said Lola. ‘Nobody’s looking at me.’
‘Oh, that’s not true.’ Cheryl did her best to sound convincing.
‘It is.’ Lola could see the gaze of men sliding over her without pausing in their search for an attractive girl to flirt with.Tonight, she couldn’t help noticing, the attractive girl was Cheryl in her undulating hula skirt.
‘Look.’ Eager to help, Cheryl pointed across the dance floor. ‘Those people over there are looking at you.’
‘They’re laughing.That’s different.They’re pretending to clean their whiskers and lick their paws.’ Lola took another swig of water. ‘I don’t mind. I’m just saying. Actually, those celebrities who whinge and moan about being pestered every time they go out could do a lot worse than get themselves a nice bunny suit.’
‘Hey, at least you aren’t Barney the Dinosaur.’
Poor old Tim, his outfit was even hotter and heavier than her own. Lola watched him attempting to dance like George Michael when he was still straight, wincing as his dinosaur tailswung lethally from side to side. Helen, dressed as Cleopatra, was gamely bopping around with Batman, aka Darren, who had legs like string beans. In the far corner of the dance floor a group of Hogwarts students with black bin-bag cloaks were climbing onto their broomsticks
‘I can see someone looking at you.’ Cheryl gave her a nudge. Lola didn’t get her hopes up.
‘Over there, just cone in.’ Cheryl nodded at the door. ‘The one in the blue shirt, see him yet? He hasn’t taken his eyes off you since he got here. Actually ...’ Her voice trailed off as she peered more closely at the new arrival. ‘He looks familiar. Where have I seen him before? Ooh, and now he’s coming over!’
Lola surveyed him, glad she hadn’t got her hopes up. ‘He’s one of our customers.’
‘God, you’re right, it is. Did we invite customers along tonight?’
‘No.’ Mystified, Lola watched the man who wasn’t a private detective. When he reached them she noticed that the usual easy smile was tinged with something else, possibly nerves.
‘Hi.’ As she nodded in recognition, one of the bunny ears flopped down into her field of vision, which didn’t help.
‘Hi there. I wasn’t sure at first if it was you.’ The smile became a grin. ‘Nice outfit.’
‘Thanks.’ Lola paused as Cheryl melted tactfully away into the crowd. ‘So is this a coincidence, you turning up here tonight?’
‘No, it isn’t. When I was in the shop yesterday I heard your friend talking about the party here tonight.’
At least he was honest. ‘So are you a stalker?’
Another pause. Finally he shook his head. ‘Not really. I mean, I suppose so, kind of. But for a reason. Not in a creepy way, I promise.’
That was the thing, he just didn’t seem creepy. ‘Well, good,’ said Lola, indicating Darren on the dance floor, ‘because otherwise I’d have to set Batman onto you.’
The corners of the man’s eyes creased with amusement but beneath the surface he was still on edge. ‘Look, is there anywhere we could talk?’
‘Something important. Sorry, I know this place isn’t ideal, but I didn’t want to do it at the bookshop. There’s a free table over there in the corner.’ As he steered Lola gently towards it, he eyed the empty bottle of water in her hand. ‘Can I get you another drink? Maybe a ... carrot juice?’
Lola stopped, gave him a look.
He raised his hands. ‘OK, sorry, sorry. I can’t believe I said that.’
‘I can’t believe it either. So far this evening eleven people have asked me if I’d like a carrot juice. Eight have asked me if I’d like some lettuce. Four have made hilarious jokes about popping out of a magician’s hat. Honestly, this place is just one huge comedy club bursting with Billy Connollys.’
‘Sorry, I’m usually a bit more original than that. Put it down to nerves.’
They reached the table. The man pulled out a chair for Lola then sat down himself.
‘Why are you nervous?’ Her right ear was falling over her eye again; impatiently Lola tossed it out of the way. ‘Sure I can’t get you a drink?’
‘I’d rather know what all this is about.’
Wham! finished playing and was replaced — surprise surprise — by Slade belting out ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’. Noddy Holder’s cheese-grater voice vibrated off the walls and everyoneon the dance floor punched the air, pogo-ing madly and singing along not quite in time with the music. Having watched them for a few seconds, Lola turned her attention back to the man and said, ‘Still waiting.’
In the dim lighting of this corner of the bar his expression was unreadable. ‘Twentieth of May?’
Something squeezed tight in Lola’s chest. ‘That’s my birthday’
He sat back, exhaled, pushed his fingers through his dark hair then half smiled. ‘In that case you’re definitely my daughter.’
The furry white nylon ear flopped once more over Lola’s face. Little stars danced in her field of vision as she fumbled with the Velcro fastening her costume at the neck. But her fingers couldn’t manage it and heat was spreading inexorably through her body. Finally she managed to say,
‘Please, could you help me take my head off? I’m feeling a bit ... um, faint.’
One minute you were in a wine bar more or less blending in with the twenty-two other people cavorting around in fancy dress, the next minute you were sitting in an all-night café with a mug of hot tea, attracting all manner of smirks and funny looks from everyone else in the place.
Lola still couldn’t assimilate what had happened; her brain had stubbornly refused to believe what he was telling her. Apart from anything else, this man wasn’t even American.Yet ... why would he be here doing this if it weren’t true?
‘Sorry.’ The man sitting opposite her said it for the third time. ‘I knew it was going to be a shock but I couldn’t think of any way of saying it that wouldn’t be.’
‘That’s OK.’ At least it was cooler in here. The urge to pass out had receded. Her head was still spinning but out of shock rather than syncope. ‘You can’t imagine how unexpected this is.’
He did that rueful semi-smile again. ‘For me too.’
Lola sipped her tea, burning her mouth but appreciating the sugar rush. ‘So you’re ... Steve?’
The semi-smile abruptly disappeared. ‘No. That’s not me.’
So. Not American, not called Steve. Something wasn’t right here. But he seemed so genuine, so convinced .. .
‘What’s your name then?’
What’s your name? What a question.
‘Nick. Nick James.’ Shaking his head, he said, ‘I can’t believe your mother didn’t tell you that.’
‘Tull, that’s nothing! She told me you were from New York.’ She looked at him suspiciously.
‘Are you?’ Was he, perhaps, pretending to be British?
His eyebrows went up. ‘What else did she say?’
‘Oh God.’ Lola almost dropped her cup. ‘Your eyebrows. That’s just how mine go when I’m surprised ...’ Tea slopped onto the table as her trembling increased, because the similarity was almost uncanny. ‘You’ve got my eyebrows!’
‘Actually, you’ve got mine,’ Nick James pointed out. ‘That’s incredible! And we have dark hair.’
‘You have your mother’s eyes and freckles.’
‘But not her hair. Before you saw me, did you think I’d be a redhead?’
He shook his head. ‘I knew you weren’t. I visited you once, when you were a baby!
Lola felt as if.. all the air had been squeezed from her lungs. ‘You did?’
‘Oh yes. Briefly.’ He smiled. ‘You were beautiful. Seeing you for the first time ... well, it was incredible.’
Her eyes abruptly filling with tears, Lola said, ‘And then you buggered off again! The tears took her by surprise and she brushed them away angrily; it wasn’t as if she’d had a miserable life without
‘No, no. God, that’s not what happened at all.’ Horrified, Nick James said, ‘Is that what you think, that I was the one who walked away? Because I didn’t, I swear. I loved your mother and I wanted the three of us to be a family, more than anything. She was the one who wouldn’t have it.’
‘Hang on.’ Lola stopped him, because this was just too surreal; there had to have been some kind of misunderstanding here. ‘This is Blythe we’re talking about?’
She had to double-check. Imagine if he sat back in dismay and said, ‘No, not Blythe! I’m talking about Linda.’
And the eyebrows had just been an eerie coincidence.
But he didn’t, he just nodded and said simply, ‘Blythe Malone, that’s right.’
‘Anything to eat, love?’ A waitress bustled over to their table, mopping up the tea Lola had spilled on the Formica.
‘No thanks.’ There was so much to take in, not least the discovery that her own mother had lied to her.
And in a pretty major way.
‘Sure? We’ve got a lovely lamb hotpot.’ The waitress helpfully pointed to the appropriate photograph on the laminated menu. ‘Or faggots and chips, everyone likes our faggots.’
Normally Lola would have thought of something funny to say to this, but her brain was all over the place. ‘I’m fine. Really.’
‘She’d rather have a plate of carrots.’ One of the men at the next table chuckled and nudged his friend, who broke into a buck-toothed Bugs Bunny impression.
‘Sorry.’ Nick James looked at Lola. ‘I should have found somewhere better than this.’
Offended, the waitress sniffed and said, ‘Charmed, I’m sure.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’ Lola shook her head. ‘I wish I wasn’t wearing a bunny suit, but that can’t be helped. And the tea’s great.’ She smiled up at the waitress. ‘Actually, I’ll have another one.’
‘My flat’s not far from here. We could go there if you wantto,’ Nick James offered. ‘But I thought that might seem a bit strange.’
‘A bit.’ Much as she’d have preferred to be wearing normal clothes, Lola had felt the same way about inviting him back to Radley Road.
He nodded in agreement. ‘Neutral ground’s better. For now, anyway.’
His voice was nice, well-spoken without being posh. He was wearing well-cut navy trousers and a mulberry and blue striped shirt. The watch on his wrist was a black and gold Breitling. And —
she now knew it was true; believed him absolutely — he was her actual biological father.
‘When I was little I always thought my dad was a film star,’ said Lola, ‘because the only Americans I knew were the ones I’d seen on TV.’
‘And you got yourself an advertising exec instead. Bad luck.’
‘That’s OK. It’s just weird, all these years imagining you being an American, talking like an American, and now having to lose that idea. I used to wonder if the dark one from Starsky and Hutch was my dad.’
‘I never much liked his cardigans anyway. Or the guy from Miami Vice,’ said Lola. Don Johnson.’
Nick said gravely, ‘I promise I’ve never pushed up the sleeves of my suit.’
‘Or Robert Wagner from Hart to Hart. Or John Travolta. Even thingummy with the dodgy moustache who was in Smokey and the Bandit.’
‘If I’d known, I’d have brushed up on my American accent.’ He shrugged, half smiled. ‘I can’t imagine why Blythe told you that.’
Lola glanced at her handbag, lying on the chair next to her and containing her mobile.There was nothing to stop her calling her mother right now and demanding an explanation. Or even using the camera on her phone to take a photo of Nick James, then sending it to Blythe along with a message saying ‘Guess who?’
But she couldn’t bring herself to do that.
Ooh, Tom Selleck, he’d been another on her list of possible fathers. She’d evidently had a bit of a hankering for one with a moustache.
Except Nick James didn’t have one.
God, this was so weird.
‘How did you find me?’
‘The piece you did on the local news,’ he admitted. ‘When I said I hadn’t seen it ... well, that was a lie. I was flicking through the TV channels that evening and there you were, with your name up on the screen. Lola Malone. You were Lauren when you were born.’
‘I know’ said Lola.
‘Sorry, I meant I knew you as Lauren. But the day I came round to your mother’s house when you were a baby, she handed you over to a friend and said, "Could you take Lola out into the garden?"‘
‘Our next door neighbour’s daughter couldn’t say Lauren so she called me Lola. It stuck.
Nobody calls me Lauren.’
He nodded. ‘Well, anyway, I didn’t know for sure if it was you, but it was an unusual name and you were the right age and colouring. So I had to come to the shop and see you.’
That was why he had engaged her in conversation.
‘Hang on, so you didn’t really like those books I recommended.’ Lola’s pride was wounded.
‘You were just pretending.’
Nick smiled and shook his head. ‘I loved the books. I read them because you’d recommended them. Don’t worry, I’m definitely converted.’
He was telling the truth.That made her feel better. Lola took another sip of tea. ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking to you now. Wait till I tell Mum.’
A flicker of something crossed her father’s — her father’s! — face. ‘How is Blythe?’
‘She’s great. Living in Streatham. Having fun.’
‘I had a fantastic stepdad. He died five years ago.’
Nick shook his head. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘But Mum’s doing really well. She’s started dating again. I’m trying to do something about her clothes. Did she have really weird dress sense when you knew her?’
He looked amused. ‘Oh yes.’
‘At least that’s something I didn’t inherit from her.’ Lola patted her furry white nylon suit. ‘I mean, I’d rather shoot myself than go out in public wearing something that people might laugh at.’
Nick nodded in agreement. ‘Thank goodness for that. I have pretty high standards myself.’
He did, come to think of it. Each time she’d seen him he’d been wearing expensive clothes well.
A million questions were bubbling up in Lola’s brain.
‘So what happened?’ she blurted out. ‘I don’t understand. Why did you and Mum break up?’
He paused. ‘What did she tell you?’
‘Well. A big lie, obviously. But the story was that she met an American guy called Steve when he was working over here one summer. She thought he was wonderful, completely fell for him, discovered she was pregnant, told him she was pregnant and never saw him again after that day.
When she went along to the pub he’d been working in, they told her he’d left, gone back to the States. They also told her his surname wasn’t what he’d said it was. So that was that. Mum knew she was on her own. She’d fallen for a bastard and he’d let her down. She told me she never regretted it, because she got me, but that she’d learned her lesson as far as men were concerned.
Then when I was four years old she married Alex Pargeter, who was the best stepfather any girl could ask for.’
‘Good.’ Nick sounded as if he meant it. ‘I’m glad.’
‘But none of that stuff was true, was it?’ Lola’s fingers gripped the now-empty mug in front of her. ‘Your name isn’t even Steve. So now it’s your turn. I want to know what really happened.’
‘What really happened.’ Another pause, then Nick exhaled and shook his head. Finally, slowly, he said,’What really happened is I went to prison.’
‘It was my own stupid fault. There’s no one else to blame. Everything would have been different if I hadn’t messed up.’
Having left the café, they were now heading in the direction of Notting Hill. It was a frosty night and the pavement glittered under the street lamps but Lola was protected from the cold by her bunny suit. She was getting a bit fed up, though, with groups of Christmas revellers singing
‘Bright Eyes’ at her. Or bellowing out ‘Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run run run’ while taking aim with an imaginary shotgun. Or bawdily asking her if she was feeling rampant .. .
Which was the kind of question you could do without, frankly, when you were out with your dad.
Your jailbird dad.
God, look at me, I’m actually walking along the Bayswater Road with my father.
‘Blythe knew nothing about it,’ Nick went on. ‘She was four months pregnant. We’d been together for almost a year by then. Obviously we hadn’t planned on having a baby, but these things happen. We started looking around for a place to buy, so we could be together. That was an eye-opener, I can tell you. I was only twenty-one; there wasn’t much we could afford. I felt such a failure. If only we had more money. Are you cold? Because if you’re cold we can flag down a cab.’
‘I’m fine.’ Lola’s breath was puffing out in front of her but the rest of her was warm. ‘So what did you do, rob a bank?’
‘I got involved with a friend of a friend who’d set up a cigarette and booze smuggling operation.
Bringing the stuff over from the continent, selling it on, easy profit.’ Drily, Nick said, ‘Until you get caught. Let me tell you, that wasn’t the best day of my life.’
‘You were arrested.’ Lola tried to imagine him being arrested; she’d only ever seen it happen on TV.
He nodded. ‘What can I tell you? I was young and stupid, and I panicked. Blythe would have been distraught, so I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. I appeared at the magistrates court, still didn’t tell her. Had to wait four months for the case to come up in the crown court. Still didn’t tell her. Because I’d only been involved in the operation for a few weeks my solicitor said there was a chance I wouldn’t go down and I clung on to that. I know it’s crazy, but I thought maybe, just maybe, Blythe wouldn’t need to know about any of it. That she’d never find out.’
Lola could kind of see the logic in this. Hadn’t she once failed to hand in an entire geography project and pinned all her hopes on the school burning down before her teacher found out? Oh God, she was her father’s daughter .. .
Aloud, she said, ‘Good plan.’
‘It would have been if it had worked. Except it didn’t.’ Nick shrugged. ‘The judge wasn’t in a great mood that day. I got eighteen months.’
They’d both gambled and lost. Except her punishment hadonly been a trip to the headmistress and three weeks’ detention. ‘So how did Mum find out?’
‘My cousin had to phone her. Can you imagine what that must have been like? She came to visit me in prison ten days later, said it was all over and she never wanted to see me again. I told her I’d only done it for her and the baby, but she wasn’t going to change her mind. As far as she was concerned I was a criminal and a liar, and that wasn’t the kind of father she wanted for her child.
It was pretty emotional. Understandably, Blythe was in a state. Well, we both were. But she was nine months pregnant, so all I could do was apologise and agree with everything she said. That was the second-worst day of my life.’ He paused. ‘You were born a week later.’
Lola was beginning to understand why her mother had invented an alternative history.
‘I served my time, behaved myself and got out of prison after nine months,’ Nick went on. ‘You and your mother were all I’d thought about. I was desperate to see you, and to make Blythe understand how sorry I was. If she still had feelings for me, I thought I might be able to persuade her to change her mind, give me another chance. So I came round to the house and that’s when I saw you for the first time. It was incredible. You were ... well, it’s not something you ever forget.
You were beaming at me, with your hair in a funny little curly topknot and Ribena stains on your white T-shirt. But your mother wasn’t open to persuasion, she said she’d never be able to trust me. She also said I’d put her through hell and if I had an ounce of decency I’d leave the two of you in peace, because no father at all would be easier for you to deal with than a lying, cheating, untrustworthy one. She fmished off by saying if I really wanted to prove how sorry I was, the best thing I could do was disappear. And you know what?’ As they waited for the traffic lights to change, he gave Lola a sideways look. ‘She meant it.’
‘Hey, it’s the white rabbit!’ someone bawled out of a car window ‘Where’s Alice?’
The lights turned green. Together they crossed the road. ‘So that’s what you did: said Lola.
Notting Hill tube station was ahead of them now
‘I didn’t want to. But I was the one who’d messed up. I felt I owed Blythe that much. So I said goodbye and left.’ He waited. ‘That was the worst day of my life.’
Crikey, this was emotional stuff.
‘I keep feeling as if I’m listening to you talk about some television drama.’ Lola shook her head in disbelief. ‘Then it hits me all over again; this is actually about me.’
‘Oi, you in the fur,’ roared a bloke zooming past in a van. ‘Fancy a jump?’
‘My flat’s down here.’ Loftily ignoring the van driver, Lola turned left into Radley Road. ‘I’ve still got loads more questions.’
‘Have you been in trouble with the law since then?’
Nick shook his head. ‘No, no. Apart from three points on my licence for speeding. I learned my lesson, Your Honour.’
‘Are you married?’
Another shake. ‘Not any more. Amicable divorce six years ago.’
He broke into a smile. ‘No other children. Just you.’
Lola swallowed; God, this was really happening. Wait until she told her mum about tonight.
‘Well, this is where I live.’ She stopped outside number 73; they’d walked all the way from Soho.
‘Thanks.’ The events of the evening abruptly caught up with Lola; one minute she’d been strolling happily along, the next she was so bone tired all she wanted to do was lie down and sleep for a week. But this man – her father – had just spent the last hour walking her home .. .
‘Right then, I’ll be off.’ Nick James watched her yawn like a hippo.
‘I feel awful, not inviting you in for a coffee.’
‘Hey, it’s fme. I’ll get a cab.’ He raked his fingers through his hair. ‘It’s been a lot to take in.’
Lola nodded; gosh, and now she didn’t know how to say goodbye. This was even more awkward than the end of a disastrous blind date. Was she supposed to hug him, kiss him, shake hands or what?
Nick James smiled and said, ‘Tricky, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, it is.’ Relieved that he understood, Lola watched him take out his wallet. ‘Ooh, do I start getting pocket money?’
‘I was thinking more of a business card.’ The smile broadened as he handed over his card. ‘I don’t want to put pressure on you, so from now on I’ll leave it up to you to get in touch with me.
That’s if you decide you want to.’ Turning, he began to walk back down the street.
Lola watched him go, a lump forming in her throat. What a night, what a thing to happen out of the blue. Tucking the rabbit’s head under one furry arm, she delved into her bag for her front door key.
Nick James was about to turn the corner when she cleared her throat and called out, ‘Um ...
Nick? I will be in touch.’
He paused, turned to face her and raised a hand in acknowledgement. ‘I hope so.’
At four o’clock the following afternoon the taxi pulled into Radley Road. Gabe said, ‘It’s the blue and white house up there on the left.’
OK, he was back.
When the cab had disappeared he hauled his luggage up the steps and let himself in through the front door. Leaving the cases in the hall, he made his way upstairs.Then, bracing himself, he knocked on Lola’s door.
So much for bracing. No reply.
Well, it wasn’t as if she was expecting him. As far as Lola was concerned he was still on the other side of the world.
Gabe went downstairs and fetched his cases, piling them up outside Lola’s. Then he crossed the landing and knocked on the door of his own flat.
The girl was out too. He knocked again to make extra sure. OK, it was his property and he had a right to enter it. Plus, drinking far too much water earlier meant he could do with using the loo.
Exhausted after the flight and irrationally annoyed by the lack of welcome, Gabe twiddled the keyring around until he located the right key.
He fitted it into the lock, twisted it to the left and pushed open the door.
Jesus Christ, the place had been burgled. Stepping back in horror, Gabe surveyed the scene of devastation. Except if burglars had been here, wouldn’t they have made off with that flat-screen TV? Or the expensive DVD recorder? Or that pile of money over there on the floor next to the plate of spaghetti bolognese?
What the bloody hell was this? Gabe ventured further into the living room, treading a careful path between abandoned clothes, CDs, magazines, opened packets of biscuits and half-full coffee mugs. Did the girl have some kind of stalker ex-boyfriend who’d been round to the house and trashed it?
But he knew that wasn’t right either. The mess and devastation wasn’t ... vindictive, somehow. It was too casual to have been done in anger. Squeezing his eyes tight shut then opening them again, Gabe realised with a sinking heart what kind of a tenant had moved into his home. He investigated the rest of the flat and had his worst fears confirmed. The kitchen was beyond belief. The bedroom looked as if it had been ransacked. The bathroom resembled a small branch of Boots that had been caught in a hurricane.There was a packet of smoky bacon crisps in the sink. The bath brimmed with water that was emerald green and stone cold. There were at least six damp towels on the floor.
He’d been away for four days.
His beautiful flat, his pride and joy. The muscles in Gabe’s temples went into spasm and his head began to ache. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with right now Oh well, the sooner the girl was out of here, the better. Maybe it was just as well he’d come back.
That was when he heard the bang of the front door downstairs, followed by the sound of footsteps on the staircase. Was it Lola or the new girl, the Queen of Trash?
Gabe left the flat, closed the door behind him and waited on the landing to see which one of them it-
‘Aaaarrrggh!’ Lola let out a shriek of fright and almost lost her footing on the stairs. One hand grabbed the banister while the other covered her mouth.
‘No, I’m not a ghost,’ said Gabe. ‘It’s really me.’
Lola was clasping her chest now. ‘But you’re ... you’re .. what’s going on?’
‘Didn’t work out.’ He loved Lola to death but still hated having to tell her, to admit he’d failed.
Her mouth dropped open. ‘You changed your mind?’
‘No.’ Gabe briefly shook his head. ‘She changed hers.’
Lola threw herself at him, knocking the air from his lungs. Whoosh, she was in his arms babbling, ‘You mean you’re back? Oh my God, that’s fantastic! Is Jaydena completely mad? I can’t believe it, I thought I was hallucinating! What a cow!’
This was why he loved Lola. ‘I think so too. She got back together with an ex.’
‘Oh well, her loss.’ Lola gave him another rib-crushing squeeze. ‘Come in and tell me all about it. Shall we leave your stuff out here? My God, you went all that way for nothing! Will you be able to get your job back? Where on earth are you going to live?’
‘What are you talking about?’ Following Lola, Gabe said, ‘I’m back. I’ll be living here, of course.’
‘You mean in Sally’s flat?’
‘For crying out loud, it’s not her flat! It’s mine! I’ll explain to her that I need it now, give her a week’s notice. And I’vejust been in there,’ he said incredulously. ‘Have you seen the state of the place?’
‘She’s not terribly tidy.’ Hastily, since she was the one responsible for Sally moving in, Lola added, ‘ Very nice though.’
‘Not terribly tidy? That’s like saying the Beckhams aren’t terribly thrifty. She only moved in four days ago – imagine what it’d look like after four months! No,’ Gabe shook his head, ‘she has to go. As for a job, I’ve no idea. I haven’t even thought about that yet. The last week hasn’t exactly gone according to plan.’ He took the can of lager Lola was offering him and pinged off the ring pull.
‘No wonder you’re a bit grumpy,’ Lola said sympathetically.
‘I’m not a bit grumpy. I went to Australia, I came back again and I didn’t even have time to get a suntan.’ Exasperated, Gabe glugged down ice-cold lager before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Dammit, I’m pissed of
‘OK, you choose. Now, do you want to carry on talking about Australia or shall we change the subject?’
He surveyed Lola, who was evidently dying to unleash some gossip. Nodding in realisation he said, ‘Right, of course, you’ve seen that guy again. Doug, isn’t it? Has he forgiven you yet?’
Lola’s face fell at the mention of her first love. ‘Not even slightly.’Then she brightened. ‘But something else has happened. I’ve met another man.’
‘And to think they call you fickle.’ Gabe regarded her with affection, because it wasn’t her fault his own life was crap. ‘Go on then. Who is he?’
‘Actually,’ Lola grimaced, ‘this is the weird bit. He’s my father.’
At seven o’clock they heard the front door open and close, then the sound of someone climbing the stairs.
‘Here’s Sally.’ Lola stayed sitting, clearly not looking forward to the next bit.
‘Right, I’ll speak to her. The sooner this is sorted out, the better.’ Gabe rose to his feet, ready to do battle with the bag lady who’d wrecked his flat.
‘The thing is, she—’
‘Don’t worry, I know she’s Doug’s deranged sister, I won’t yell at her.’ Ha, much.
‘I shall be charm personified: said Gabe, opening the door.
Except the girl he came face to face with on the landing was no bag lady. This girl was tall and curvaceous in a red wraparound dress and an elegant cream coat. Her hair was baby-blonde and swingy, her eyes were the colour of chestnuts, accentuated by expertly applied eyeliner. Her mouth was curvy and painted red to match her dress. She was even wearing Jo Malone’s Lime, Basil and Mandarin, which was Gabe’s all-time favourite perfume.
This couldn’t be the girl he’d spoken to on the phone last week, surely.
‘Hello!’ She smiled cheerily at Gabe and, key poised, headed for the door of his flat.
It just couldn’t.
Gabe cleared his throat. ‘Are you Sally?’
She stopped, turned. ‘Yes! And you must be a friend of Lola’s.’ Her eyes sparkling, she indicated the mountain of luggage and said jokily, ‘Are you moving in?’
‘I’m Gabe Adams.’ God, it was her.
‘Gabe?’ Sally looked puzzled. ‘But that’s the name of the one who moved to Australia.’
‘I didn’t move to Australia, I went to Australia. But things didn’t work out,’ Gabe said evenly,
‘so now I’m back. Look, I realise this is inconvenient for you, but I’ll help you pack up your stuff. And if you could be out by the end of the week, that’d be great.’
She stared at him. ‘Excuse me?’
How could any girl who lived in such abject squalor look like this? How was it physically possible? ‘Well, you’ll be moving back in with your mother.’ Ha, lucky old her. ‘I’ll even hire a van if you like.’ Gabe felt he was being more than generous; with all the stuff she’d strewn around his flat he’d need a pantechnicon. ‘And we can do it any time this week, whenever suits you best.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said Sally. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
‘But you have to. Because it’s my flat and I need it back.’ Her eyebrows furrowed. ‘And I’m saying you can’t have it back because the agreement was that I could live here for a year at least.’
‘OK, OK.’ Gabe heaved a sigh; it had always been on the cards that she might dig her heels in, decide to be difficult. ‘I’m giving you official notice as of today. That’s in the contract.You have one month to find somewhere else. God knows where I’m going to stay until then, but—’
‘Hang on,’ Sally interrupted. ‘What contract?’
‘The one you signed with the lettings agency.’
‘I haven’t signed any contract,’ said Sally.
Behind him, Gabe heard Lola’s door click open. He turned and said evenly, ‘What’s going on here? Why didn’t she sign the contract?’
Lola could feel her heart clattering away in overdrive. She’d been hiding behind the door listening to their heated exchange. Now it was time to face the music. Uncurling her clenched toes, she took a deep breath and said reluctantly, ‘I cancelled the agency.’
Oh God, Gabe had been dumped by his girlfriend, he’d just arrived back from Australia, and he was suffering from jet lag on top of jet lag. All in all, he wasn’t in the sunniest of moods.
‘OK, the thing is, I was trying to help.’ When she went on the defensive, Lola knew she used her hands a lot; now they were going like a pair of wind turbines in overdrive. ‘And you told me yourself that the lettings agency charges a fortune, so when Sally came along I thought I could save you a heap of money, which I thought you’d be happy about. Because I knew we could trust Sally, she obviously wasn’t going to be giving you any trouble with the rent, so it made sense to just, you know, deal with her direct and cut out the middleman. She gave me the deposit and the first month’s rent in cash and I paid them into your account.’
‘No problem, I’ll give it straight back,’ Gabe retorted.
‘This isn’t fair.’ Sally’s tone was heated. ‘You’re being completely unreasonable.’
‘Me?’ Gabe jabbed at his own chest and yelled, ‘I’m being completely unreasonable? What about the state of my flat?
Would you say the carnage you’ve reduced it to is reasonable?’ Sally stared at him. ‘How do you know what I’ve done to it?’
‘Because I went in and had a look!’
She gasped. ‘You can’t just let yourself in whenever you like.’
‘You can’t stop me.’ Gabe was really losing it now. ‘It’s my flat!’
‘Which you rented to me. And I like living here.’ Sally’s eyes abruptly brimmed with tears.
‘What’s more, I’m not going to move out.’
‘Oh please.’ Lola was by this stage feeling absolutely terrible. ‘I’m sure we can arrange something. Who are you phoning? Not the police?’
Having pulled out her mobile, Sally was blindly jabbing at buttons. ‘I’m getting Doug over here.
He’ll sort this out.’
Doug? Yeek, the very name was enough to set Lola’s heart racing. Would Gabe and Sally think her shallow if she quickly washed her hair and re-did her face before he turned up?
The answer to that was a resounding yes, but she’d gone ahead and done it anyway. When Doug arrived at her flat forty minutes later he surveyed the three of them and said levelly, What a mess.’
Lola really hoped he didn’t mean her. If she said so herself, she was looking pretty good.
‘You’re telling me.’ Gabe’s tone was curt. ‘Have you seen what your sister’s done to my flat?’
‘I don’t need to. I can guess. She’s not what you’d call tidy,’ said Doug with heroic understatement.
‘And she’s a liar.’ Gabe turned to Sally and said accusingly, ‘When we spoke on the phone, you told me you were completely trustworthy’
‘You promised you were super-housetrained.’
‘Oh God, you’re so picky.’ Sally rolled her eyes. ‘That’s just what people say when they want to rent somewhere. Like when you go for a job interview, you have to act all enthusiastic and tell everyone you’re a really hard worker. If you said you were a lazy toad who’d be late for your own funeral, they wouldn’t take you on, would they?’
Gabe threw his hands up in the air. ‘So you lied.’
‘It wasn’t a lie. Just a little fib. It’s not against the law to be untidy.’
Gabe addressed Doug. ‘I just want her out.’
‘I can see that,’ said Doug. ‘Right, tell me exactly what’s going on.’
When they’d finished explaining the situation, Doug looked at Lola and said, ‘So basically this is all your fault.’
‘Oh, of course it is. I do my best to help people out and this is what happens, this is the thanks I get.’
‘Legally’ Doug turned to the others, ‘either of you can cause untold hassle to the other. If you ask me, that’s a waste of everyone’s time and money. Shall we go and take a look at the flat now?’
‘Everyone put on their anti-contamination suits,’ said Gabe.
Over in Gabe’s formerly pristine living room, now awash with magazines and clothes and abandoned food and make-up, Doug nodded sagely. ‘Oh yes, this is familiar.’
Defiantly Sally said, ‘But it’s still not an arrestable offence.’
‘What I don’t understand,’ Lola was puzzled, ‘is when I came to the house in Barnes, your bedroom was fine. Completely normal.’
‘That’s because I have a mother who nags for England.’ Sally heaved a sigh. ‘And because she has two cleaners who barge in and tidy my room every day. Which is why I was so keen to get out of there.’ Glaring defiantly at Gabe she added, ‘And why I’m defmitely not going back.’
‘How many bedrooms here?’ Doug was exploring the flat. ‘Two?’
There was a pause.
‘I hope you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking,’ said Gabe.
AC Doug shrugged. ‘Do you have any better ideas?’
‘I have a very much better idea,’ Gabe retorted. ‘She’s your sister. You can take her home with you.’
‘Not a chance. Lola, could you have her?’
Sally complained. ‘You’re making me sound like a delinquent dog.’
‘Trust me,’ Gabe gestured around the room in disgust, ‘a delinquent dog wouldn’t make this much mess.’
‘I would take her.’ Keen though she was to scramble into Doug’s good books, Lola couldn’t quite bring herself to make the ultimate sacrifice and thankfully had a get-out clause. ‘But I’ve only got the one bedroom.’
‘Fine. So you two,’ Doug turned back to Gabe and Sally, ‘have a choice.You either hire yourselves a couple of solicitors to slug it out or you give flat-sharing a go for a couple of weeks.’
‘I can’t believe this is happening to me.’The stubble on Gabe’s chin rasped as he rubbed his hands over his face.
‘You never know,’ Lola said hopefully. ‘It might work out better than you think.’
‘Ha! I’ll end up strangling her, then I’ll be arrested and slung in prison, then neither of us’ll end up living here.’ As he said the word prison, Gabe winced and looked apologetically at Lola.
‘Right, decision time.’ Doug pointed to Sally. ‘Would you be willing to give it a try?’
Huffily she said, ‘Oh great, be chopped up into tiny pieces and hidden tidily away in a black bin bag. Just what I always wanted.’
‘So you’d prefer a solicitor. Expensive,’ mused Doug. ‘That’s a lot of shoes.’
You had to admire his style. Sally was now looking like a sulky fourth-former being told her homework wasn’t up to scratch. Lola kept a straight face as Sally shrugged and said, ‘I don’t see why I should, but I suppose I could give sharing a go for a couple of weeks.’
Doug swung back to Gabe. ‘But you still want to stick with the legal route, or ... ?’
What a pro. He was like an auctioneer juggling bids. Entranced by his masterful air, Lola watched and held her breath.
Gabe hesitated, then exhaled and threw up his hands. ‘Oh, for God’s sake. We’ll try it, then.
Seeing as I don’t have any choice.’
‘Good call,’ said Doug.
‘But only for a couple of weeks. Then she has to move out. And I’m not living like this.’ Gabe gestured at the floor in disgust.
‘We’ll help you clear the stuff away, won’t we?’ Lola beamed hopefully at Doug; now she could impress him by showing him how great she was at tidying up.
But Doug just looked at her as if she’d gone mad. ‘Me? Not a chance, I’m out of here. And you,’
he instructed Sally, ‘behave yourself and don’t give him a reason to chop you into pieces. Just try and get along together, OK? And put your clothes away once in a while.’
‘Not once in a while!’ Gabe exploded. ‘All the time!’
‘Oh, don’t start already,’ Sally jeered. ‘You sound like such an old woman.’
Doug forestalled their bickering. ‘My work here is done.’ His gaze fixed on Lola. ‘You can show me out.’
Lola’s breathing quickened; she so desperately wanted him to stop regarding her as the wickedest woman in Britain.
In the hallway downstairs Doug came straight to the point. ‘What was that about prison, earlier?’
He didn’t miss a trick.
‘What?’ Lola thought rapidly.
‘Your friend Gabe mentioned prison.Then he looked embarrassed and apologised. Who’s been to prison?’
‘Really? God. Alex?’ Doug frowned. ‘What happened?’
Lola felt her throat tighten. ‘Not Alex. My real father. His name’s Nick James.’ Her voice began to wobble. ‘It’s all been a bit strange really. I only met him for the first time yesterday. Well, that’s not true, he’s been coming into Kingsley’s and chatting to me but it wasn’t until last night that he actually told me he was my real d-dad. And there was me, dressed like a r-rabbit ... God, sorry, I wasn’t expecting this to h-h-happen. Must be having some kind of delayed reaction.’
Hastily she pulled a tissue out of her bra and wiped her eyes. ‘To be honest I think it’s all c-come as a bit of a sh-shock.’
‘OK, don’t cry.’ There was a note of desperation in Doug’s voice; this was rather more than he’d been expecting and way more than he could handle. Lola realised he’d never seen her crying before. It was something she hardly ever did in public, darkened cinemas excepted, largely because some girls — the Snow White brigade — might be able to cry prettily but she always turned into a pink blotchy mess. In fact, the only way to hide her face from Doug now was to bury it in his chest.
If only he wouldn’t keep trying to back away...
Finally she managed to corner him against the front door and conceal her blotchiness in his shirt.
Oh yes, this was where she belonged, back in Doug’s arms at last. She’d missed him somuch. If she hadn’t needed to take the money, would they still have been together now? It was heartbreakingly possible.
Gingerly he patted her heaving shoulders. ‘Hey, sshh, everything’ll be all right.’
The fact that he was now being nice to her made the tears fall faster. Nuzzling against the warmth of his chest, making the most of every second, Lola said in a muffled, hiccupy voice,
‘All these years my mum lied to me about my f-father.’
‘And he’s only just come out of prison?’
‘No, that was years ago. Cigarette smuggling, nothing too terrible. He went to prison just before I was born. Pretty ironic really. My mother decided he wasn’t good enough to be my dad, so she refused to let him see me. And then seventeen years later, your mother decided I wasn’t good enough to be your girlfriend.’
‘That is a coincidence.’ Doug paused. Did she offer him twelve thousand pounds to stay away too?’
OK, still bitter.
‘I haven’t even told Mum yet. Heaven knows what she’s going to say when she finds out he’s been in touch. It’s just so much to take in.’ Lola raised her face and wondered if he ever watched romantic movies, the kind she loved, because this would be the perfect moment for him to sweep her into his arms for a passionate Hollywood kiss.
‘You’ve got mascara on your nose.’ Doug evidently hadn’t read the romantic-hero rules.
So close your eyes.
But that didn’t happen. Even less romantically, his phone burst into life in his jacket pocket, less than three inches from her ear.
The spell was broken. Doug disengaged himself and answered the phone. He listened for a few seconds then said, ‘No, sorry, I was held up. I’m on my way now’ He ended the call and opened the front door. ‘I have to go.’
‘Mustn’t be late. Or you’ll get home and fmd your dinner in the dog.’ She was longing —
longing — to know who he was rushing off to meet, but all Doug did was give an infuriating little smile. Almost as if he knew she was fishing for clues.
‘Why were you dressed as a rabbit when you met your father?’
Ha, he wasn’t the only one who could smile infuriatingly. ‘It’s a long story’ Lola was apologetic.
‘And you have to rush off.’
He had the grace to nod in amusement. ‘Touché. So what’s he like?’
‘Nice, I think. Normal, as far as I can tell. We have the same eyebrows.’ If he made some smart remark about the two of them having the same morals she might have to stamp on his foot.
‘The same eyebrows? You mean you take it in turns to wear them when you go out?’ Doug shook his head. ‘You want to splash out, get yourselves a pair each.’
’Look, I’m sorry about yesterday,’ said Gabe.
Sally, just home from yet another pre-Christmas shopping trip, dumped her bags and took off her coat. ‘Really? Yesterday you were like a grizzly bear with a sore head.’ Actually that didn’t begin to describe him; yesterday he’d been like a bear with a sore everything.
Gabe shrugged and smiled. ‘Yesterday wasn’t the best day of my life. Now I’ve slept for thirteen hours I’m feeling a lot better.’
Well, that was a relief.
‘So I hope we can get along,’ he continued, clearly keen to make amends.
‘Me too. Can I ask you something?’
Sally eyed him in his falling-to-pieces Levi’s, bare feet and ancient T-shirt full of holes. ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit weird to be so tidy and nitpicky and go around looking such a scruffy mess?’
It had been a genuine question — she was interested, that’s all — but Gabe instantly got his hackles up.
‘No. Don’t you think it’s weird that you go around looking like you’ve stepped out of Vogue, yet at home you live in a tip?’
She pointed a warning finger. ‘Look, we’re stuck with each other, for better or worse. Please don’t start being annoying again.’
For several seconds their eyes locked. Sally could tell he was struggling to control his irritation.
Lola hadn’t said as much, but she wouldn’t be surprised if Gabe was a little bit gay on the quiet.
He was exceptionally good-looking for a start. Obsessive-compulsive when it came to tidiness.
And what straight man would ever have eyelashes that long?
‘Right. Sorry’ Evidently having reminded himself that he was supposed to be making amends, Gabe said, ‘How about a cup of tea?’
Oh well, she could be conciliatory too. ‘Great. White please, one sugar.’
‘And I’m making fettuccine Alfredo if you’re hungry.’
Ha, absolutely without a question gay. Bisexual anyway. The Australian girl must have found out — caught him flirting with some leathery-wiry Crocodile Dundee type or something — and packed him off on the first flight home.
But who cared, if he was a good cook? Sally slipped out of her shoes and removed her silver drop earrings. ‘I love fettuccine Alfredo. OK if I have a shower first?’
‘Fine.’ But the way the word came out, it didn’t sound fine.
‘What? Why are you looking at me like that?’ From the way Gabe was acting, you’d think she’d just ripped the head off a baby bird.
‘You’re just going to disappear into the bathroom and take a shower now?’
Sally gazed at him in disbelief. ‘Am I supposed to make an appointment?’
‘You want me to say please? Is that it?’
A muscle was thudding away in Gabe’s jaw. ‘No, I don’t want you to say please. I just don’t want you doing what you’ve just done.’
He was off his rocker. Would he prefer her not to breathe? Bewildered, Sally said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘This!’ He pointed to the dumped carriers, and to her coat and umbrella on the chair. ‘This’ Her handbag on the coffee table. ‘Those.’ Her shoes on the carpet. ‘And them.’ Her silver earrings on the window ledge. ‘And those.’ The armful of glossy magazines she’d tried to put on the arm of the sofa, which had slithered off and landed in a heap on the floor. ‘You came into this flat one minute ago and look at the mess!’
‘Oh. Sorry’ Was that really what was upsetting him? ‘I’ll pick them up later,’ Sally said nicely, to humour him. ‘I promise.’ No you won’t, you’ll pick them up now’
‘But I’m just—’
‘Now,’ Gabe repeated firmly.
‘Or I throw them out of the window into the street.’
God, talk about neurotic. But since he clearly wasn’t going to give in, she rolled her eyes and retraced her steps around the living room, picking everything up. Even though it was a complete waste of time because she was going to need all these things when she left for work tomorrow morning.
‘Good. Well done,’ said Gabe when she’d finished. You had to pity him really.
Sally said sarcastically, ‘Thank you, Mr Anal.’
‘My pleasure, Miss Slob.’
‘Where’s Sally? Have you strangled her yet?’ Having followed the smell of cooking up the stairs, Lola gave Gabe a hug. ‘Give me a couple more days.’
‘Ooh, Alfredo. My favourite.’ She inspected the pans on the hob. ‘So apart from the tidiness thing, how d’you think the two of you’ll get on?’
‘God knows. If I met her in a bar I’d think she was fine,’ said Gabe. ‘But that’s because I wouldn’t know what she’s really like.’ He paused. ‘She doesn’t have a boyfriend, right?’
Lola pulled a face. No. Bit of a disastrous history with men. One of them jilted her practically at the altar.’
‘And we don’t have to wonder why.’
‘That’s mean. You’ve just been dumped yourself.’
Gabe shrugged and tipped fettuccine into a pan of boiling water. ‘I’m just saying, she could get a crush on me. I don’t need that kind of hassle. Platonic flat-sharing only works as long as one person doesn’t secretly fancy the pants off the other.’
Enthralled, Lola said, ‘You think she fancies you?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe.’ Another pause. ‘It’s happened before. And let me tell you, it’s the last thing I need right now.’
Lola pinched a slice of parmesan; she loved to tease Gabe about his effect on women. ‘Serves you right for being so gorgeous. What did Sally do to give herself away then?’
‘Oh, you know those looks girls give you. She was doing it earlier.’ Gabe added a carton of double cream to the garlic sizzling in the pan. ‘That kind of moony, pouty thing. I just thought, oh God, please don’t start, I can’t be doing with—shit!’
The hairbrush whistled past his ear and ricocheted off the kitchen wall. ‘What the ... ?’ Gabe twisted round in disbelief. ‘Sorry, but someone had to shut you up.’ Sally was in the doorway, wrapped in a brown silk dressing gown, her hair wet from the shower and her face the picture of outrage. ‘You’re talking rubbish, you’re making it all up! You’ve been chucked by some girl in Australia who didn’t find you irresistible so now you’re fantasising that someone else likes you, to give your ego a bit of a boost. But you can’t go around saying stuff like that.’ Her eyes glittered. ‘Because it’s not true.’
‘OK, I’m sorry. I got it wrong. You could have done me an injury with that hairbrush,’ said Gabe.
‘I meant to. I’m just not a very good shot.’ Turning to Lola, Sally said, ‘And you believed everything he was telling you!’
Lola shook her head apologetically. ‘He’s usually right. Most girls do fancy him. Gabe’s a bit of an expert when it comes to that sort of thing.’
‘Well, he’s got it wrong this time, because I promise you I don’t fancy him, and I definitely wasn’t giving him any kind of moony pouty look.’ Brimming with derision, Sally said, ‘If anything, I was thinking that any man who makes such a big fuss about keeping his flat perfect is probably gay’ - - Lola stifled laughter but Sally was clearly peeved.
‘I’m not gay,’ said Gabe.
‘And I don’t fancy you. At all.’
‘Fine. I believe you.’
‘Ha, you’re saying that now, to be polite. But I bet you secretly still think I do.’
‘I promise I don’t think that. Cross my heart and hope to die. And in return you have to stop thinking I’m gay’
‘Could we call a truce and stop talking about you two now?’ Lola had been patient but enough was enough. Plaintively she said, ‘If nobody minds, I’d quite like us to talk about me.’
Over dinner Lola brought them up to date with the Newfound Father situation.
‘I phoned Mum today to try and casually drop Nick’s name into the conversation, and she said,
"Oh hello, darling, you just caught us, Malcolm and I are off to Cardiff." She told me they’re spending the night with Malcolm’s brother and his family. So I couldn’t really say anything about Nick James, could I? I’ll have to wait until she gets back. To be honest, I hadn’t realised she and Malcolm were getting so serious, I thought they were just good friends, but Mum said he wants to introduce her to everyone? Lola paused and tore into a chunk of focaccia. ‘I don’t know how I feel about that. I mean, it’s not that I don’t like Malcolm. He’s just ... well, not the kind of man I had in mind for my mum. He has this awful beard that makes you want to pin him down and hack away at it with nail scissors. And he wears weird baggy jumpers, and sandals with the hairs on his toes poking through ...’
‘Over the years I’m sure she’s wished you’d chosen different boyfriends,’ said Gabe, ‘but there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Besides, they’re visiting his brother in Cardiff, not eloping to Gretna Green.’
Lola pulled a face. ‘I really hope they’re not sleeping together.’
Brightly Sally said, ‘At least she’s too old to get pregnant.’
Which was another mental image Lola could do without. Mopping up the last of the Alfredo sauce from her plate, she amused herself instead by watching Gabe pretend not to care that Sally had dripped Frascati from her glass onto the table.
‘And how would you have felt if you’d met your father for the first time,’ Sally went on, ‘and he looked just like this Malcolm character?’ Her tone vas encouraging. ‘It wouldn’t put you off him then, would it?’
Oh crikey, it might. Especially the hairy toes. Lola went hot and cold at the thought. At least Nick James hadn’t done that to her; she was almost sure he wasn’t the type to get his toes out in public or wear
‘You’ve spilled a bit of wine,’ Gabe blurted out.
Sally shrugged comfortably. ‘Never mind, it’s only white.’ Gabe sighed. Lola kept a straight face and watched him pointedly not saying anything.
‘Oh, look at yourself.’ Sally grinned and reached behind her for the magazine she’d been allowed to leave – neatly – in the magazine rack. She opened it out, turned it upside down and blotted up the wine. ‘There, better now?’
‘Yes. Although a normal person might have used kitchen roll.’
‘This was closer.’ Turning the magazine back over and studying the wet pages, Sally said,
‘Anyway, it’s only Jack Nicholson in his swimming shorts. He won’t mind.’
‘Ah, look at him.’ Lola leaned across to peer at the shot. ‘Got a bit of a belly on him now. I had such a crush on that man when I first saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?
‘She has pretty strange taste in crushes.’ Gabe reached for the Frascati bottle. ‘More wine?’
‘Yes please. Try not to spill it this time. Go on,’ Sally flashed him a saucy smile, ‘who else does she like?’
‘That’s supposed to be a secret.’ Commandeering the magazine, Lola riffled through in search of inspiration. ‘I have normal crushes too! She jabbed triumphantly at a photo on the next page.
‘Heath Ledger, he’s one. And Johnny Depp, obviously.’
‘Not to mention Alan Sugar,’ said Gabe.
‘And my brother,’ Sally chimed in. She wrinkled her nose. ‘To me, that’s even weirder than fancying Alan Sugar.’
‘They’re both mean. But in a sexy way. Ooh, that reminds me, Tom Dutton.’ Lola’s eyes lit up and she puffed out her cheeks in appreciation. ‘Now he’s mean and sexy. And wasn’t he fantastic in Over You? I cry my eyes out every time I see it. Gabe came with me to the cinema and was laughing at me as usual ... where are you going?’ She swivelled round as Gabe jumped up and headed for his bedroom. ‘Can’t stand the competition? Feeling inadequate? Worried that no one will ever fancy you again?’
Gabe returned with his camera. ‘I forgot to tell you. I saw him.’
‘Alan Sugar?’ Lola’s heart gave a little skippety skip of excitement. It was one of her fantasies that Sir Alan would one day march into Kingsley’s in a filthy mood because he urgently needed a certain book and no one in any of the other bloody useless bookshops in the whole of London had been able to bloody help him. Then he’d fix her with his challenging, pissed-off stare and bark out the name of the book and she, Lola,would say, ‘Sir Alan, we did have a copy of this book in stock, but it was sold this morning. Happily,’ she’d continue before he could explode with frustration, ‘it was sold to me, and I have it in my bag, out in the back office. If you like, I’ll get it for you now.’ And the look of relief on Sir Alan’s face — relief and respect — would be just fantastic. Naturally he would whisk her off at once in his limo and insist on treating her to lunch at the Oxo Tower
‘Not him. Tom Dutton.’ Whilst Lola was joyfully running through her favourite daydream, Gabe had been busy with his laptop.
‘What? Where? At the airport?’
‘On the way to it. Hang on, nearly there.’
‘You’re so lucky,’ wailed Sally. ‘I never see anyone interesting. Bumped into Dale Winton once in a newsagents and that’s about it. He was buying TicTacs and— ooh!’
‘Let me see.’ Lola joined them in front of the laptop and jostled with Sally in order to gaze at the photo Gabe had brought up on the screen. ‘Wow, it is him. Who’s he kissing?’
A second photo flashed up and Lola saw at once who it was. Next to her Sally let out a squeal of recognition and yelped, ‘Jessica Lee!’
‘I thought you’d like to see them.’ Pleased with himself, Gabe clicked onto the third photo, the one showing Tom loping back to his car. ‘They pulled up separately at this service station and disappeared together up a side alley. I just happened to have the camera in my hand. I knew you’d think I was making it up if I didn’t have proof.’ His fingers hovered over the laptop’s touchpad. ‘I could make this one your screensaver if you like. Or shall I just delete them?’
‘Excuse me! Are you mad?’ To be on the safe side Sally grabbed his hand before he could press anything drastic and lose the photos forever. ‘It’s Tom Dutton and Jessica Lee!’
‘I know.’ Gabe looked aggrieved. ‘That’s why I thought Lola would be interested.’
He didn’t understand. He didn’t have a clue. Lola and Sally exchanged glances.
‘This is two major Hollywood celebs we’re talking about,’ said Sally.
‘Bloody hell, will you stop treating me like a three-year-old? I know that!’
Lola patted his shoulder. ‘They’re ‘nogging.’
‘So, no one knows they’re even seeing each other.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘Because if it was known, it would be in all the papers,’ Sally patiently explained. ‘Because those of us who aren’t major Hollywood celebs are interested in things like that.’
Ri-ight.’ Gabe was still looking baffled. Gossip magazines simply didn’t feature in his life.
It was time to treat him like a three-year-old. Sally tapped the photos on the screen. ‘You can sell these, Gabe. For a lot of money.’
‘Oh!’ He frowned. ‘What, to a newspaper?’
‘To a picture agency,’ Sally said promptly. ‘They’re the experts. They’ll sell the rights to newspapers and magazines all over the world. It’s money for old rope. We can phone one right now. These photos were taken how long ago? Three days? Wow, you’re lucky no one else has caught them since then. This is what’s known as a scoop.’
‘Hold on, hold on,’ Gabe protested. ‘I’m not so sure about this. What if they don’t want people to find out? They might already have partners.’
‘Oh, aren’t you sweet?’ Sally looked at him as if he were a puppy, then said briskly, ‘Number one, they don’t. Jessica Lee broke up with Kevin Masterson six weeks ago and Tom hasn’t had a girlfriend for months. Number two, it’s not your job to protect celebs. If they’re playing away and get caught out, that’s not your problem. In fact it jolly well serves them right, and their other halves should know what’s been going on behind their backs.’
Drily Gabe said, ‘There speaks someone who’s had it done to her.’
‘Well, yes, I have.’ Sally looked indignant. ‘Not that I did anything to deserve it.’
‘Has it ever occurred to you that they might not have been able to handle the way you live? Who knows, maybe if you’d been a bit tidier,’ Gabe shrugged, ‘you could have been down off that shelf by now’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake,’ Sally exploded. ‘I’m trying to help you here and you’re being completely ungrateful. Go on then, press the delete button, just wipe those photos out. See if I care.’
Will you two give it a rest?’ complained Lola. ‘I’m starting to feel like a Relate counsellor. Here you go.’ She dumped a copy of theYellow Pages in front of Gabe. ‘Find a picture agency and give them a ring.’
‘How do I know which one to choose?’
‘That one.’ Leaning over Gabe’s shoulder, Sally pointed to a small box advert for the Carter Agency.
Gabe twisted round to look at her. ‘Why?’
‘I know Colin Carter. He’s married to my friend Janey. That’s how I know about picture agencies,’ said Sally. ‘Colin’s a good bloke and he wouldn’t rip you off. I can give him a ring now if you like, tell him what you’ve got.’
‘Great! Gabe passed her his phone.
But Sally hadn’t completely forgiven him yet. As she began keying in the number she said crisply, ‘Not that you deserve it. I can’t imagine why I’m being so kind to you when you’re always so horrible to me.’
The photographs appeared in the Daily Mirror two days later. They were also sold to newspapers and magazines all over the world. Colin Carter had just phoned Gabe and told him that he had a good eye for a picture; if he came up with any more photos he should be sure to give him a call.
It was Christmas Eve and without ever having considered it, Gabe now found himself with the possibility of a brand new career as a member of the paparazzi.
He gazed at the newspapers spread out on the coffee table in front of him and frowned. ‘I couldn’t do it. Everyone hates the paparazzi.’
‘It might be fun. All those celebs,’ Lola said encouragingly. ‘All that fresh air.’
Gabe hesitated. He really didn’t want to go back to being a chartered surveyor. ‘But you know what I’m like. I wouldn’t recognise half the people I was supposed to be photographing.’
‘God, listen to you: Sally emerged from her room, her arms loaded with gift-wrapped presents.
‘You old fogey! You don’t say photographing, you say papping.’ Never one to pass up the opportunity to have a dig, she said gleefully, ‘You’ll be playing records next, on your wind-up gramophone, whilst puffing away on a Woodbine.’
Gabe rolled his eyes. ‘Are you off? Don’t let us keep you.’
‘Oh, are you leaving now?’ Lola jumped up; it was seven in the evening and each of them was heading home to spend Christmas day with their families. ‘Are you getting a cab to Barnes? Give everyone my love.’ Well, Dougie. She didn’t want Adele appropriating any of it; more to the point, couldn’t imagine Adele wanting any of her love.
No, I’m catching the tube to Doug’s then we’re going in his car. If you like,’ Sally told Gabe,
‘you can borrow my magazines and start learning who everyone is.’
‘Maybe next week. I’m not spending Christmas doing homework.’
Doug lived in Kensington. ‘You can’t carry all those presents on the tube by yourself,’ said Lola.
‘Why don’t I give you a hand? Kensington’s practically on the way to Streatham.’
Sally frowned. ‘But you’ve got loads of stuff to carry too.’
‘Less than you have. Wouldn’t it be easier for me to help you?’
‘OK, better idea,’ said Sally, ‘how about if I give Doug a call and ask him to come and pick me up. I’ll just say I’ve got too many bags.’ She paused, looked at the expression on Lola’s face.
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem fair on him ...’
‘But he won’t mind!’
Lola looked doubtful. ‘He might say he doesn’t.’
‘Well, I don’t get this.’ Sally shook her head, baffled. ‘I thought you’d have liked the idea of Doug coming over. Don’t say you’ve gone off him.’
Gabe grinned at her. ‘Are you serious? Try turning it around.The reason Lola doesn’t want your brother driving over is because ... hmm, let me think, she’d far rather see where he lives and have a good look around his flat. Because she’s nosy.’
‘Is that why?’ Sally turned to Lola, surprised. Lola shrugged evasively; Gabe knew her too well.
‘For heaven’s sake! Why didn’t you just say so, then? What am I, a mind-reader?’ Sally rolled her eyes. ‘Get your coat on and let’s go.’
Lola didn’t need to be asked twice. Since sobbing all over Dougie the other evening he’d been occupying her thoughts even more than before. He’d been so nice to her and being back in his arms — albeit briefly — had felt so right. She’d been dreaming about those arms. And for the first time she’d seriously begun to wonder if it might be possible to win Dougie back.
Doug lived in the ground floor flat of a huge Victorian pillar-fronted house in Onslow Gardens.
If Lola thought she’d done pretty well for herself property-wise, his flat was several rungs further up the ladder. Then again, he was a management consultant with a super-successful company he’d built up from scratch; it had to pay well.
‘Phew, here we are,’ panted Sally, climbing the white marble steps and ringing the bell with her shoulder.
‘I’m feeling so Christmassy! Wouldn’t it be great if it could start to snow now?’ Lola hugged the bags of presents and felt her stomach tighten with excitement. For so many years she’d felt this way about the thought of seeing Father Christmas; now she was feeling it at the prospect of seeing Dougie again.
What’s more, she’d watched Love, Actually enough times to know that magical things could happen on Christmas Eve. Her cheeks were glowing and her hair was fetchingly tousled. She was wearing her favourite white fluffy scarf. And her mouth was slicked with a subtle but sparkly Guerlain lipstick that looked like pink frost and tasted delicious. If Doug wanted to throw caution to the wind and kiss her, she could guarantee he wouldn’t be disappointed.
‘Come on, come on, hurry up,’ Sally urged through chattering teeth.
Well, he wouldn’t be disappointed if only he’d come and open the door. Checking for CCTV
cameras, Lola suppressed the less than welcome thought that Doug could have seen her on his doorstep and was now pretending to be out. He wouldn’t do that, would he? Had he never watched Love, Actually? Didn’t he know how romantic Christmas Eve could be, if only he’d relax into it, let bygones be bygones, and just let fate take its natural course?
Then the front door opened and there he was, barefoot and wearing a blue and white striped shirt over frayed jeans. Unable to help herself, Lola took a quick intake of breath and began to cough as the ice-cold air hit the back of her throat. One day, one day, she’d learn to be elegant and in control.
‘Bloody hell, about time too,’ Sally complained, bustling past him. ‘It’s freezing out there.’
‘OK, two things. It’s not even eight o’clock yet. I said to come over at nine.’
‘You said eight.’
‘Nine. Definitely nine.’
‘Oh well, never mind. I’m early!’
‘And secondly,’ Doug’s dark eyes narrowed, ‘what’s Lola doing here? Because I’m fairly sure our mother hasn’t invited her to spend Christmas Day with us.’
Lola’s heart sank. So he hadn’t ever watched Love, Actually.
‘Don’t be sarcastic. Lola’s here because she’s doing me a favour,’ said Sally. ‘I had too much stuff to carry so she offered to help me out.’
‘See? I’m a nice person really.’ Lola beamed hopefully. ‘And don’t panic, I’m on my way to my mum’s. I just saw that Sal was struggling with all her parcels so I said I’d lend her a hand getting them here.’
‘Fine. I’ll take them off you, shall I?’ Having seized the bags containing the presents, Doug stepped back. ‘There we go. Thanks. Have a good Christmas.’
He was a man. He probably only watched testosterone-fuelled, action-packed films like Mission: Impossible and The Great Escape.
‘Don’t be so rude,’ Sally exclaimed. ‘Honestly, I’m so ashamed of you sometimes. I was going to ring earlier and ask you to come and pick me up, but Lola said I mustn’t do that, you were far too busy and important to have time to drive over to us, and that she really didn’t mind struggling onto the tube and fighting through the crowds and trudging through the streets ...’
Lola cleared her throat; Sally was getting carried away now
‘Anyway, the least you can do is invite her in for a drink to say thank you.’
Doug gave her a long-suffering look, then turned and said, ‘Lola, thank you for helping my sister. Won’t you come in for a drink?’
‘Doug, that’s so kind of you.’ Checking her watch, Lola broke into a delighted smile. ‘I shouldn’t really, but ... oh, go on then. You’ve twisted my arm!’
The living room was blissfully warm, L-shaped and comfortably furnished. Lola, greedily taking in every detail, noted that Doug — thank God — was neither as chaotically untidy as his sister nor as obsessively neat as Gabe. Charcoal-grey curtains hung at the long sash windows, contrasting with the deep crimson walls. There were magazines beside the sofa, DVDs next to the TV, a dark blue sweater left hanging over the back of a chair, various prints and paintings on the walls, two discarded wine glasses on the coffee table .. .
Oh, and a blonde in the kitchen doorway. Now there was an accessory she could have happily done without.
‘Hi,’ said the blonde.
‘Hi.’ Lola felt as if she’d just stepped into a lift that wasn’t there.
‘Well, well, this is a surprise.’ Sally, never backward in coming forward, said, ‘Who are you?’
‘This is Isabel. A friend of mine.’ The way Doug moved towards her was oddly protective, almost as if he was preparing to defend an innocent gazelle from a couple of boisterous lion cubs. ‘Isabel, this is my sister Sally.’ In throwaway fashion he then added, ‘And her friend Lola!
Just to make crystal clear to everyone in the room how completely unimportant she was, how utterly irrelevant to his life.
To compound it, Isabel smiled widely and said, ‘Sally. I’ve heard all about you. Doug’s always talking about you!’
‘Is he? He’s kept very quiet about you.’ Sally unwound her lime-green scarf, flung aside her handbag and plonked herself down on the sofa. ‘So, how long have you two known each other?’
‘Glass of red?’ Evidently keen to be rid of her ASAP, Doug appeared in front of Lola with the open bottle and a clean glass.
Talk about brisk. What could she ask for that would spin things out a bit longer?
‘Actually, I’d love a coffee.’
‘Well, we’ve known each other for ages.’ Across the room, Isabel flipped back her ironed blonde hair and sat down cosily next to Sally. ‘We work together,’ she confided. ‘But we’ve only recently become ... you know, closer.’
It hadn’t been love at first sight then. That was something to be grateful for. Although it would be nice if she could have been a bit less pretty.
‘I was seeing someone else,’ Isabel went on, ‘but we broke up. After that, Doug and I just ended up getting together.’
Lola looked at Doug, sending him a telepathic message: we could do that, you and me .. .
‘Coffee.’ Doug’s tone was brusque; he didn’t appear to be telepathic. ‘Why don’t you sit down and I’ll make it.’
‘Actually I’ll come with you.’ Lola flashed him a sunny smile. ‘Then I can make sure you don’t palm me off with instant!
As she followed Doug into the kitchen, Isabel was saying cheerily, ‘... and I’m going down to Brighton tonight, to stay with my parents. That’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? Mind you, I’m going to miss Doug! I can’t wait to see what he’s bought me. He wouldn’t let me open it tonight.’
The kitchen was nice, black and white and boasting, among other items, a huge chrome Dualit toaster.
‘Still keen on toast, then,’ said Lola.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Inspecting the cupboards. What happened to the Pot Noodles? You used to love Pot Noodles.’
Exasperated, Doug said, ‘When I was seventeen.’
‘I bet you still secretly like them. Once a Pot Noodler, always a Pot Noodler.’ Lola carried on opening and closing drawers and cupboards; finding a secret stash of Hot’n’Spicys would bring her so much joy. ‘I bet you put on a hat and dark glasses, sneak off to some supermarket miles away, praying you won’t bump into anyone you know, and buy up trolley loads at a time. And then you have to smuggle them back to Kensington — imagine the shame if the neighbours found out!’
‘Will you stop riffling through my cupboards?’
‘Why, am I getting warm?’
‘Here, just take your coffee.’ Having sunk the plunger on the cafetière in record time, Doug shoved a small cup into her hands.
Lola peered into the cup. ‘Bit weak.’
‘Too bad. Shall we head back through?’
‘What did you buy Isabel for Christmas?’
Doug looked exasperated. ‘I’m not telling you that.’
Sally, whose eavesdropping skills were second to none, said, ‘You’re not telling her what?’
when they returned to the living room.
‘I was wondering what he’d bought you for Christmas,’ said Lola, ‘that’s all.’
‘Anything’s fine by me.’ Sally beamed at Doug. ‘So long as he’s kept the receipt.’
‘Oh poor Dougie! I wouldn’t dream of taking back anything he bought me,’ trilled Isabel.
‘Whatever it was:
‘Remember when we bought each other the same CD? Parklife,’ Lola fondly reminisced without thinking. ‘God, we used to play that album non-stop. I can still remember the words to every song.’
‘Hang on, you mean you and Doug bought each other the same CD?’ Isabel looked confused.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise ...’
Lola shrugged and managed a smile that was both carefree and tinged with regret; it seemed a bit mean to announce that Dougie had been her first love.
‘Oh yes,’ Sally said helpfully. ‘They were boyfriend and girlfriend.’
‘That was a long time ago,’ Doug cut in. ‘Back in the days when I still ate Pot Noodles. As I was just explaining to Lola,’ he added pointedly, ‘our tastes change over the years.’
Isabel let out a high-pitched shriek of laughter. ‘You used to like Pot Noodles? Oh my God!’
Lola was extremely fond of Pot Noodles and felt as protective as a new mother whenever anyone made fun of them. She said evenly, ‘I like Pot Noodles. They’re brilliant. Chicken and Mushroom’s my favourite.’
’How are things going with Gabe?’ In order to spare Isabel’s blushes, Doug swiftly changed the subject.
‘Hideous.’ Sally shuddered. ‘Talk about pernickety. He’s so gay, just won’t admit it.’
‘He’s not gay.’ Lola hadn’t yet managed to convince Sally but she kept saying it anyway. ‘If Gabe was gay, he’d be gay. He’s Jack Lemmon, you’re Walter Matthau and you drive him insane, that’s all it is. Some people leave tea bags in the kitchen sink,’ she told Doug, because there were times when you couldn’t help feeling sorry for Gabe. ‘Yesterday your sister left hers on the coffee table.’
Sally shrugged. Not on purpose. Only because I hadn’t realised it was still in my mug.’
Lola had been making her coffee last as long as possible. Finally she was down to the lukewarm grounds.
‘Finished? Good.’ Doug whisked away her cup, clearly keen to see the back of her.
Which – and here was her optimism rushing to the fore again – could mean that her presence was disturbing him in a good way.
‘Could I use your bathroom before I. go?’ It was freezing out there; even Doug couldn’t banish her and her bursting bladder to the vagaries of the great outdoors, surely?
Although he looked as if he’d quite like to.
‘Out in the hall. Second door on the left.’
It was actually a tricky exercise, walking the length of the living room in a natural manner, super-aware of Dougie’s eyes upon her. What was he really thinking? Was he mentally comparing her with Isabel? Come to that, how did she compare with Isabel? Her rival – the rival she hadn’t known existed before now – was a cool sleek blonde with high-maintenance hair and a hint of the ice princess about her. She was probably more classically beautiful but was she as much fun? Pretty was all very well but Lola felt she might have the edge when it came to character. She was the playful spaniel whereas Isabel was more of a pampered feline; Isabel was Grace Kelly while she was Doris Day; Isabel had the kind of high-pitched laugh that could easily start to get on a man’s nerves after a—
‘I said second door on the left.’ Out in the hall Doug’s voice behind Lola made her jump. ‘That’s the second on the right.’
But he was a split second too late; she’d already opened the door and walked into his bedroom.
‘Sorry. I’m always getting my left and right mixed up. Wow, this is nice!’ Taking another step into the room, she drank in the burnt-orange walls, the duvet and pillowcases in bitter chocolate, the polished oak floorboards and mahogany furniture. This was where Doug slept, this was his bed. Lola did her best to picture him in it, except there was one small but vitally important detail missing. She couldn’t see any pyjamas but .. . ‘Do you still sleep naked?’
There, she’d said it.
Doug shook his head. ‘You don’t change, do you?’
Oh well. She shrugged. ‘I like to know these things.’
‘Even though "these things" aren’t any of your business?’
But he wasn’t sounding entirely pissed off. Encouraged, Lola said innocently, ‘I just wondered if you’d turned into the kind of man who wears stripy cotton pyjamas all buttoned up to the neck, like Kenneth Williams in Carry On Nurse.’
His mouth twitched. ‘Oh yes, that’s me. That’s what I wear.’
‘I definitely do.’
‘You still sleep naked.’ Lola exhaled with relief; now she was able to picture him in his king-sized bed. Even better, ice queen Isabel wasn’t in there with him.
Hmm, ice queens probably had cold feet.
‘OK, you’ve had your snoop around,’ said Doug. ‘Now I’ll show you where the bathroom is.’
She couldn’t help herself; the question was bubbling up. ‘Do you really like her?’
‘Do I really like who?’
As he steered her out of the bedroom and pointed her in the direction of the door opposite, Doug said, ‘Again, not actually any of your business. But if it helps,’ he paused, causing Lola’s heart to expand with hope, ‘then I suppose I’d have to say yes, I do.’
The pause had been deliberate. He knew exactly why she was asking and now he was getting his own back. Recklessly Lola said, ‘Is sleeping with her as much fun as it was with me?’
There, there was that flicker again. God, she loved that flicker behind the eyes.
‘Lola, you’re talking about ten years ago. I don’t even remember what sleeping with you was like.’
Which, if she’d believed him, might have counted as a put-down. Luckily Lola didn’t for a minute.
‘You know what I think? I think I must be having an effect on you if you’re having to say stuff like that.’ There was a warm glow in the pit of her stomach that had nothing to do with needing the loo. With a playful smile Lola said, ‘Because I know you’re lying now I remember every detail of every minute of every time with you, Dougie. And I still will when I’m ninety. Because it was the most important thing in the world to me. It meant everything. And I know you remember it too.’
Another pause. He took a step closer and leaned forward, causing her to suck in her breath .
‘It was almost the most important thing in the world to you.’ Doug whispered the words in her ear. ‘Remember? It came in second, behind money.’
Which put a bit of a dampener on a potentially promising moment. Doug turned and headed back to the living room and Lola paid her visit to the bathroom, which was white and modern and thankfully devoid of girly toiletries. Careful not to clink the bottle against the glass shelf, she unscrewed the top of Doug’s aftershave and inhaled. It never failed to astound her that smells could be so evocative. Christmas trees, her mum’s chocolate cake, fireworks, Ambre Solaire ...
so many smells, each triggering a different memory, and now she had Doug’s distinctive aftershave added to the list, one more unique scent with the ability to transport her back to the night she’d met him again, the power to make her knees go weak with longing.
And it would still be happening when she was ninety.
OK, better put the bottle back on the shelf before she dropped it into the sink; that would be a giveaway. Time to say her goodbyes and leave. Gazing at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, Lola pinched her cheeks and jooshed up her hair. With a bit of luck, what with everyone being jolly and wishing each other Happy Christmas, she might get the chance to give Doug a festive hug and a fleeting kiss on the cheek.
Not much to pin your hopes on, maybe. But every little helped.
’Oh, come here, don’t you look gorgeous, where did you get that scarf?’ Blythe flung open the front door and enveloped her daughter in her arms. As the car pulled away and disappeared up the road she said, ‘Did somebody give you a lift? Why didn’t you invite them in for a drink?’
Lola closed her eyes and revelled in being in her mother’s arms; at least it wasn’t going to be a completely hug-free evening. And yes, she was looking gorgeous, not that it had had the desired effect.
‘I would have,’ she fibbed, ‘but they were in a hurry. It was Doug.’
‘Doug? You mean Dougie Tennant?’ Blythe exclaimed. ‘Oh, he was always such a dear boy –
I’d love to have seen him again. You should have forced him to come in!’
Oh yes, and wouldn’t that have been relaxing? Earlier, as they’d all been preparing to leave Dougie’s flat, Lola had briefly cornered him and murmured, ‘By the way, my mum doesn’t know about the money thing, OK? I’d rather she didn’t find out.’
Doug had given her one of his withering looks, the kind that made her insides curdle with shame.
‘I’ll bet you don’t.’ It was horrible but there was nothing she could do. And shehadn’t been able to risk not warning him, because there was always the chance that Blythe could have come rushing out of the house, blurting out anything. As far as she was aware, Lola had known that Dougie’s mother disapproved of their relationship but that was all. The decision to finish with Dougie and move to Majorca had been Lola’s alone, typically impetuous and possibly foolhardy, and based on Lola’s decision that a long-term, long-distance relationship with Dougie could never work out.
‘But if he gave you a lift over here, that’s a good sign, isn’t it?’ Now, studying her daughter’s face, Blythe said hopefully, ‘Do you think he might be starting to forgive you yet?’
‘Mum, stop it, don’t get carried away.’ Phew, just as well Doug had driven off at the speed of light; Lola envisaged her mother telling him that there were worse things in life than a bit of wounded pride. Hurriedly she nipped her mother’s fantasies in the bud – it was bad enough being disappointed by her own. ‘He’s with his girlfriend. I went over to his flat with Sally. He only gave me a lift because she forced him to.’ Maybe she was being extra-suspicious but Lola also wondered if Doug had done it in order to avoid the festive goodbye hugand-a-kiss. When she’d clambered out of the back of the Mercedes with her bags of presents, he’d pretty much made reaching him a physical impossibility by remaining in the driver’s seat with Isabel next to him.
Had that been deliberate?
‘Oh well, never mind. Men and their silly egos.’ Blythe was nothing if not supportive. ‘Come on inside, it’s freezing out here. We’re going to have such a lovely time,’ she went on proudly. ‘I’ve got smoked salmon and Madagascan king prawns from Marks and Spencer. Your favourites.’
It was the not knowing how her mother might react that was causing Lola to hesitate. On the one hand she wanted, more than anything, to talk about her father.
Not her stepfather, Alex. The biological one, Nick.
On the other hand, it was Christmas morning and the very last thing she wanted to do was upset Blythe. Their family Christmases had always been extra-special, but since Alex’s death five years ago, she and her mother had made even more of an effort, drawing closer still, both of them treasuring this time together and cherishing all the shared happy memories that meant so much.
Which was why, despite longing to raise the subject of Nick James, every time she geared herself up to do it Lola felt her stomach clench and the words stick in her throat. She had the number of his mobile keyed into her phone. Was he wondering why she hadn’t contacted him yet? It was Christmas Day and the schmaltzy, happy-ever-after side of her - the kind that wept buckets over the festive films shown on Hallmark - had dared to fantasise about blurting everything out to her mother, followed by Blythe getting all emotional and admitting that she’d made a terrible mistake all those years ago, and that she’d never stopped loving Nick. Cut to Nick, sitting alone in his flat on Christmas Day, gazing blankly out of the window at small children having a boisterous snowball fight outside in the street - because in Hallmark films it always snows on Christmas Day. A look of regret crosses his face; he made a mistake and has spent the last twenty-seven years paying for it. Blythe is still the only woman he’s ever loved, but it’s all too late now, she’s The phone rings, brrrrrr brrrrrr. Nick hesitates then answers it. His eyes widen in wonder as he whispers, ‘Blythe?’ Cut to: a sunny, snowy hill overlooking an insanely picturesque London. Lola, wearing her beautiful sparkly white scarf, sends Blythe up the hill ahead of her and sits down on a bench to wait. At the top of the hill, Nick paces nervously to and fro through the snow. Then he sees Blythe and everything goes into warm and fuzzy slow motion until somehow they’re in each other’s arms, spinning round and round in that way that can make you feel dizzy just watching them .. .
Well, it could happen, couldn’t it?
‘Okey dokey, that’s the parsnips done: Wiping her hands on her blue striped apron, Blythe counted the saucepans and consulted her list. ‘Stuffing, check. Bread sauce, check. Chipolatas, bacon, baked onions, check check check. How are those carrots coming along?’
‘Finished.’ It was a ridiculous amount of work for one meal but that was tradition for you. They both enjoyed the whole cooking ritual. In fact, Lola discovered, while she’d been lost in her happy Hallmark reverie, she’d managed to peel and chop enough carrots to feed the entire street.
‘Ready for a top-up?’ Blythe took the bottle of sparkling Freixenet from the fridge and gaily refilled their glasses. ‘That skirt’s wonderful on you. And the belt’s perfect with it. Oh, sweetie pie, I love you so much, give me a hug.’
Mum, guess whose number I’ve got stored on my phone ... ? Mum, remember when I was born ... ?
Mum, you know how sometimes you bump into someone you haven’t seen for years ... ?
Still the words wouldn’t come. As Blythe wrapped her in a Fracas-scented embrace, Lola decided to wait until lunch was over. Maybe this afternoon, when they were relaxing together in front of the fire eating Thornton’s truffles, she could casually slide the conversation round to the opposite sex in general, then old boyfriends in particular and how they might have changed since they’d last seen them
‘Ooh, I’ll get that.’ Blythe darted across the kitchen as the phone began to ring. ‘It’s probably Malcolm, calling from his sister’s in Cardiff.’
It was Malcolm. Lola popped a chunk of carrot into her mouth, tipped the rest into a pan of sugared and salted water, and went upstairs to the bathroom. By the time she came back down, her mother was off the phone.
‘What’s wrong?’ said Lola.
Nothing’s wrong.’ Blythe’s freckles always seemed to become more prominent when she was feeling guilty.’That was Malcolm.’
‘I know. He’s staying with his sister’s family in Cardiff.’ Malcolm was a divorcee whose son was serving overseas in the army.
Blythe leaned against the dishwasher. ‘He was. But now he’s back. His sister’s mother-in-law had a heart attack yesterday afternoon and they all had to rush up to the hospital in Glasgow.
She’s in intensive care, poor thing, and it’s touch and go. But poor Malcolm too,’ Blythe went on pleadingly. ‘He had to drive back from Cardiff last night and now he’s all on his own at home.’
Lola experienced a sinking sensation in her stomach, like water spiralling down a plughole.
‘Can you imagine?’ Blythe’s eyes widened. ‘On Christmas Day.’
It was so obvious what was coming next. Lola wanted to wail N0000’ and hated herself for it.
She wished she was less selfish, more generous, one of those genuinely kind people who wouldn’t hesitate for a second to suggest what she knew perfectly well Blythe was about to suggest.
‘On his own,’ Blythe prompted.
The frustrated ten-year-old inside Lola was now stamping her foot and yelling, But it’s not _fair, this is our Christmas and now it’s all going to be spoiled.
The grown-up, rational 27-year-old Lola fiddled with a teaspoon and said, ‘Doesn’t he have any other friends he could spend the day with?’
‘I don’t suppose he wants to be a burden.’ Her mother tilted her head to one side, the diamanté clip Lola had bought her from Butler and Wilson glittering in her coppery hair. ‘Everyone has their own families.’
So he has to pick on ours, bawled the bratty ten-year-old Lola. No, Mummy, make the nasty man go away, I don’t want him here!
God, she was horrible. How could she even think that? Awash with shame and self-loathing, Lola forced herself to say brightly, ‘So he’s coming over?’
‘Is that all right, love?You don’t mind, do you?’Which meant the invitation had already been extended and accepted. ‘Dear Malcolm, if it was the other way round he’d be inviting us to stay.
He’s an absolute sweetheart. If ever anyone needs any help he’s there like a shot.’
‘Of course I don’t mind.’ Disappointment hit Lola like a brick. Bang went the opportunity to raise the subject of her real father.
‘Thanks, love.’ Beaming with relief, Blythe slotted a new compilation CD into the hi-fi. ‘You’re an angel. We’ll have a lovely day together.’ Then she clapped her hands as, in his familiar raspy voice, Bruce Springsteen began to sing ‘Merry Christmas, Baby’. ‘Oh, my favourite! Did I ever tell you I used to lust after Bruce Springsteen? Those skintight jeans, that sexy red bandanna, those beautiful dark eyes ...’
Yeek, and now she was dancing around the kitchen in a scarily early eighties way. This was her mother; once upon a time she had lusted after snake-hipped gypsy-eyed Bruce Springsteen and now she was involved with Malcolm Parker who sported patterned sweaters, hideous sandals and the world’s bushiest beard.
This was what getting older did to you, Lola realised. Your priorities shifted and you truly began to believe that things like hairy-hobbity toes weren’t so bad after all.
Please, God, don’t ever let that happen to me.
’Ho ho ho! Happy Christmas one and all!’ In celebration of the day, Malcolm was wearing a bright red, Santa-sized sweater over his plaid shirt and bottle-green corduroys. As he made his way into the house he grazed Blythe’s cheek with a kiss and beamed at Lola. ‘Well, this is a treat! How kind of you both to invite me. I hope it’s not too much trouble.’
‘Of course it isn’t.’ Lola felt ashamed of herself; he was a sweet man, if not what you’d call a heart-throb. And at least he wasn’t wearing sandals today, so the hairy toes weren’t on show.
‘The more the merrier,’ Blythe gaily insisted. ‘Come on through to the living room. We’re going to have a lovely day!’
Lola watched Malcolm sit down and realised that for the rest of the day, instead of sharing the comfortable squashy sofa with her mother, she was relegated to the slightly less comfortable armchair with its less good view of the TV.
‘I didn’t know if you had a Monopoly set, so I brought my own.’ Triumphantly Malcolm produced it from his khaki haversack. ‘Nothing like a few games of Monopoly to get Christmas going with a swing! Those people who just sit around like puddings watching rubbish on TV ...
what are they like, eh? They don’t know what they’re missing!’
Lola, who couldn’t bear Monopoly and had been banking on sitting like a pudding watching TV, said brightly, ‘What can I get you to drink, Malcolm?’
And it wasn’t rubbish.
Evidently detecting the bat-squeak of panic in her voice, he looked anxious. ‘Unless you don’t like playing Monopoly?’
‘Of course we do, Malcolm.’ Blythe rushed to reassure him. ‘We love it!’
The day was long.Verrrrrry lonnnnnng. Being relentlessly nice and having to pretend you were having so much fun had been exhausting. By ten o’clock, with Malcolm still showing no sign of leaving, Lola conceded defeat. Faking a few enormous yawns, she made her excuses and kissed Blythe goodnight.
‘Sure I can’t tempt you to one last game of Monopoly?’ Malcolm’s tone was jovial, his eyes bright with hope.
‘Thanks, Malcolm, but I just can’t stay awake.’ Poor chap, it wasn’t his fault he was boring. ‘I’m off up to bed.’
‘Let’s hope it’s not because I’m dull company, ha ha ha!’ Crumbs from the slice of fruit cake he’d been eating quivered in his beard as he beamed at Blythe. ‘You’d tell me if I was, wouldn’t you?’
The thing was, people said that, but they didn’t actually mean it; if you told them how staggeringly dull they were, they’d be shocked and hurt.
‘Don’t be daft, Malcolm.’ Cheerily Blythe said, ‘How about a nice drop of Scotch to go with that fruit cake?’
Upstairs in her old bedroom Lola sat up in bed with a book and tried hard to feel more like Mother Teresa, less like a selfishspoilt brat. Malcolm’s last words to her had been, ‘Thanks for being so welcoming, pet. I tell you, this has been one of the best Christmases of my life.’
Which had brought a bit of a lump to her throat. Because Malcolm was a sweet, genuinely good man who had given up his Sundays for years to do volunteer dog-walking, and who would never say anything unkind about anyone. He would never hurt Blythe.
But he was no Bruce Springsteen either. He wasn’t even Bruce Springsteen’s older, grizzled, weatherbeaten uncle. Lola really, really hoped he wasn’t going to spend the night here .. . oh God, how did other people with parents-who-were-datingagain cope when their parents chose partners who just weren’t ... well, right?
The book wasn’t holding her attention. After a couple of chapters Lola gave up and listened to the murmuring voices of Malcolm and her mother downstairs in the living room. She couldn’t make out what they were saying but at least the fact that they were saying something meant they weren’t . urrghh, snogging on the sofa.
Reaching for her mobile, Lola scrolled through the address book until she found Nick James’s number.
As it began to ring at the other end she felt her chest fill with butterflies and, panicking, pressed Cancel.
OK, this was ridiculous. He was her father. It was allowed.
Taking deep breaths she rang again. Had he spent the last five days waiting for this moment, getting all jumpy every time his phone burst into life, then being disappointed each time it wasn’t her?
Or, or, what if she’d been a disappointment to him and he’d decided he didn’t need a daughter like her in his life after all?
What if he’d hastily changed his number? Oh God, what if it had been a fake one all along?
Five rings. Six rings. Any moment now it was going to click onto answerphone and she’d have to decide whether to leave a—’Hello?’
Whoosh, in a split second all Lola’s nerves vanished. His voice was as warm and friendly as she remembered.
‘Nick?’ She couldn’t call him Dad, that would feel too weird. ‘Hi, it’s ... um, Lola.’
‘Lola.’ She heard him exhale. Then, sounding as if he was smiling, he said, ‘Thank God. You don’t know how glad I am to hear from you. I was beginning to think I wouldn’t.’
She waggled her toes with relief. ‘And I was just wondering if you’d given me a made-up number.’
‘You seriously thought I’d do that?’
‘Well, I was dressed as a rabbit. It could put some people off.’
‘I’m made of sterner stuff than that. Hey, merry Christmas.’
Lola grinned, because her actual biological father was wishing her a merry Christmas. How cool was that? ‘You too. Where are you?’
Just got home. Spent the day with friends in Hampstead. How about you?’
Thank goodness he hadn’t been on his own; that would have been just awful.
‘I’m at Mum’s house.’
He sounded pleased. ‘You mean you’ve told her?’
‘Um, no.’ Realising that he thought Blythe was in the room with her now, Lola said, ‘I wanted to, I was going to, then this friend of hers turned up and I couldn’t. They’re downstairs. I’m up here in bed. Too much Monopoly takes it out of you.’
‘God, I can’t stand Monopoly.’ Nick spoke with feeling. ‘Sorry. So how do you think she’ll react when you do tell her?’
‘That’s the thing, I just don’t know.’ She hesitated, hunching her knees under the duvet. ‘But I’m a bit worried that she might refuse to see you. And once Mum makes up her mind about something she can be a bit, well ...’
‘You don’t have to tell me.’ Nick’s tone was dry. ‘OK, let me have a think about this. What are you doing tomorrow?’
‘Working.’ Lola shuddered, because tomorrow was going to be hell on wheels; when she was crowned Queen of the World, opening shops on Boxing Day wouldn’t be allowed.
‘I’m not working on Saturday.’
‘How about Blythe? Would she be free then?’
‘As far as I know’
‘OK, now listen,’ Nick said slowly. ‘How about this for an idea?’
But before he could tell her what it was, there was a knock at the bedroom door and Blythe poked her head round. When she saw Lola’s mobile, she said, ‘Well, that’s a relief, I thought you were talking to yourself! Who’s that you’re on the phone to?’
Um ... ‘Gabe’
Her mother, who was fond of Gabe, said brightly, ‘Say hi to him from me!’
‘Mum’s here.’ Lola gripped the phone tightly as she spoke into it. ‘She says hi.’
‘Am I Gabe?’ Nick sounded amused. ‘Say hi back. And wish her a merry Christmas from me.’
OK, this was seriously weird now. ‘He says hi, and merry Christmas.’
‘Tell him I hope he’s had a good day.’ Blythe smiled broadly. ‘Tell her very good, thanks,’ said Nick. ‘All the better for hearing her voice.’
‘And I hope he’s been behaving himself,’ said Blythe.
‘She hopes you’ve been behaving yourself.’ OK, enough now. Nick sounded as if he was smiling. ‘Oh yes. Tell her I haven’t been arrested in years.’
If there was anything more manic than working in the West End after Christmas when the sales were in full swing, it was shopping in the West End after Christmas when the sales were in full swing. Elbows were out, toes and small children were getting trampled on and everyone was carrying bags of stuff they’d either just bought or had been given for Christmas and were about to take back. And it was worth queuing for forty minutes to return a load of clothes to Marks and Spencer’s, because who but a fool would want to keep them, when the exact same items were now half price on the rails, enabling you to buy – ha! – twice as many? This was Blythe’s favourite bit.
‘Mum, we’ve been shopping for three hours. My feet hurt. My back’s starting to ache.’
‘And I’m thirsty,’ Lola said whinily.
‘We’ll buy you a bottle of water.’ Her mother was in the grip of buying fever; her eyes were darting around, greedily taking in sequinny sparkly tops, dresses awash with flowers and frills, things with spots and stripes and fringes ... OK, some of the colours might be iffy, but they were reduced in the sale .. .
‘And I’m hungry,’ Lola pleaded. Sono hungry. Mum, if youmake me carry on shopping now, I’ll last another hour. But if we stop for a proper rest and have something decent to eat, I’ll be set up for the rest of the day’
Blythe heaved an impatient sigh. ‘You were easier to take shopping when you were in a pram.
OK, we’ll eat. Where d’you want to go?’
‘Marco’s,’ Lola said promptly. ‘We always go to Marco’s.’
‘Are you sure? It’s a ten-minute walk from here. We could just go to the café downstairs.’
‘Oh no, no.’ Lola shook her head. ‘Because then you’ll just try and fob me off with orange juice and a prawn baguette. We’re going to Marco’s and we’re going to have chicken cacciatore and a nice glass of red, just like proper ladies who lunch.’
The restaurant was busy, warm and welcoming. Lola slipped her shoes off under the table and took a big sip – OK, maybe slightly bigger than a big sip – of Merlot. ‘Oh, this is better. My feet thank you. My stomach thanks you. Are we both having the chicken?’
‘Fine by me. Steady with that wine, love. You’re glugging it down like water.’
It was one o’clock. Lola felt the butterflies start up in earnest; any time now, her mother was going to find out why.
She saw him twenty minutes later through the full-length front window, making his way across the street. Blythe, sitting with her back to the entrance, was chattering away about holidays. Lola took a deep breath; in an ideal world her mother’s hair would be just brushed and she’d be wearing rather more make-up, but short of lunging across the table and forcibly applying a fresh coat of lipstick to her mouth, there wasn’t a lot she could do about it. Yeek, and now the door was being pushed open, here he came, it was really going to happen.
‘... so I said I’d think about it, although I’m not sure it’s really my thing.’ Blythe wrinkled her nose. ‘I mean, hill walking in Snowdonia. In big clumpy hiking boots. Sleeping in a tent, for heaven’s sake! Would you say I was the tenty type? It’s all right for Malcolm, but where would I plug in my hairdryer? And what happens when I need to ... to ...’ Her voice trailed away and the piece of chicken she’d been about to eat slid off her fork. All the colour abruptly drained from her face, leaving only freckles behind.
Nick, standing behind Lola’s chair, said, ‘Hello, Blythe.’
Blythe was in a state of shock. For a split second Lola thought she might bolt from the restaurant. Then, visibly gathering herself, she managed a fixed smile. ‘Nick, what a surprise.
How nice to see you.’ Even her voice sounded different. ‘How are you? Looking well.’ Her shoulders were stiff, her jaw clenched with terror; mentally she was screaming go away, go away, please go away.
‘I’m fine, thanks. And you haven’t changed at all. It’s incredible.’
Lola said, ‘Mum—’
‘Oh, sorry, love, this is Nick.’ Blythe jumped in before Lola could ask any awkward questions.
‘We knew each other years ago ... well, nice to see you again, we mustn’t keep you .. . heavens, is that the time already? We’re going to have to rush ifwe’re-----’
‘Mum, it’s OK.’ Desperate to explain, Lola blurted out, ‘I know who Nick is. And this isn’t a coincidence; he knew we’d be here today because I told him. We met up before Christmas. He’s my father. And we really like each other.’ Hopefully, because her mother was staring at her as if she’d just sprouted an extra pair of ears, she said, ‘So that’s good, isn’t it?’
Blythe’s hand trembled as she took a gulp of wine. Then another gulp. ‘You planned this.’ Her voice rose in disbelief. ‘You met up before Christmas?’
‘I was going to tell you,’ Lola said hurriedly, ‘but I didn’t know how you’d react. And then Malcolm turned up on Christmas morning ...’
‘OK if I sit down?’ Nick indicated a spare chair.
‘My God, this is too much to take in.’ Clutching her head, Blythe said, Just turning up like this, out of the blue ... how did it happen? Who found who?’
‘Well, it wasn’t me,’ said Lola. ‘It couldn’t have been me, could it? Seeing as you told me my father was an American who never even told you his real name.’
Her mother rubbed her forehead with both hands and said nothing.
‘Because that wouldn’t have exactly given me a lot to go on.’ Lola’s tone was dry.
‘Which is why I said it. And it worked,’ Blythe retaliated. ‘It did the trick perfectly well.’
Pointedly she added, ‘For twenty-seven years.’
‘I saw Lola being interviewed on the local news.’ Nick pulled out the chair and sat down. ‘Just for a few seconds, but it was enough. I had to find out if she was my daughter. And she is.’ His eyes softening, he slid one hand across the table towards Blythe then withdrew it as she snatched hers out of reach. ‘You’ve done a fantastic job, Blythe. She’s an absolute credit to you.’
Lola felt ridiculously proud. Her father thought she was pretty good, possibly even fantastic.
‘And to Alex. Her stepfather,’ Blythe said stiffly. ‘He’s the one who helped to bring her up.’
Nick nodded. ‘Of course.’
‘I’ve told him all about Alex,’ said Lola.
‘And did he tell you everything too?’ Breathing rapidly, Blythe turned her attention to Nick.
‘Hmm? Did you? Everything?’
People at other tables were starting to pay attention. Maybe organising this surprise reunion in a restaurant hadn’t been such a great idea. Lola, who had thought having other people around might help to keep things under control, said surreptitiously, ‘Mum, sshh.’
Which was kind of pointless seeing as Nick didn’t bother to lower his own voice when he said,
‘Yes, Blythe, she knows I went to prison.’
Now it was the turn of the avidly eavesdropping woman at the next table to go sshh at her husband who was droning boringly on about golf.
‘That was twenty-seven years ago,’ Nick continued. ‘I made a mistake and I paid for it a hundred times over. I lost you and I lost my daughter. And before you ask, no, I haven’t been in trouble with the police since then. I am a normal decent law-abiding citizen.’
‘Congratulations’ Frostily Blythe said, ‘Some of us have always been that.’
‘Hey. Blythe.’ His smile crooked, Nick seized the bottle of Merlot and poured some into Lola’s empty water glass. ‘It really is fantastic to see you again. We don’t have to fight, do we? Can’t we just be friends?’
‘What? I don’t know. This has only just happened.’ Blythe noisily exhaled, shook her head. ‘I can’t even think straight.’
‘I never stopped thinking about you. About both of you.’ For a second her eyes flashed. ‘And I never stopped thinking about the way you lied to me.’
‘Mum, it’s all in the past.’
‘But it happened,’ Blythe insisted. ‘I was eight months pregnant when I got the phone call telling me my boyfriend was in prison. No warning, no hints, just ... bam. It was like .. . God, it was like the whole world had exploded. I thought my life was over, I didn’t know what to do, I was desperate. And now here you are, turning up again out of the blue, saying, hey, never mind all that, it’s in the past, let’s just put it behind us and be friends!’ She paused, sitting back in her seat and raking her fmgers through her hair. ‘Because I don’t know if I want us to be friends. I’m fine as I am, thanks.’
‘I’m Lola’s father,’ said Nick.
‘Not as far as I’m concerned. Alex was the one who was there for her.’ Heatedly Blythe said, And guess what? He didn’t go to prison once!’
Lola closed her eyes; not quite the Hallmark reunion she’d been hoping for. ‘Mum, you lied to me about Nick, remember? You didn’t tell me the truth because you wanted to protect me, you didn’t want me to be hurt.’
Her mother said defensively, ‘So? Was that wrong?’
‘No! You did it because you loved me!’ Spreading her arms wide, narrowly missing the groin of a startled passing waiter, Lola said, ‘But that’s exactly why Nick lied to you! He didn’t tell you about being arrested and charged because he loved you and didn’t want you to be upset!’
‘And didn’t that work well.’ Bright spots of colour burned in Blythe’s cheeks as she scraped back her chair. ‘No warning, no nothing, just a phone call from some stranger letting me know you were in jail. Why on earth would I be upset about that?’
‘What are you doing?’ said Lola as Blythe made a grab for her bag.
‘I’m going to the bathroom, then home.’
‘It’s OK.’ Nick rose to his feet. ‘I’ll leave. I’m sorry.’ He rested his hands on Lola’s shoulders as Blythe, blindly ricocheting off chairs, hurried to the loo. ‘We got that a bit wrong, didn’t we?
Give her a while to calm down. Maybe I’ll see you later.’
Lola nodded, unable to speak.
Some time later her mother returned to the table.
‘You don’t have to tell me,’ Lola said at once. ‘I made another mistake.’
‘Sorry, love. Talk about a shock.’ Freckles glowing, Blythe energetically fanned her face.
‘Maybe next time you magic a father out of thin air I could have a few minutes’ warning. I’ve never been much of a one for surprises.’
Was it any wonder? Lola pushed away her plate and divided the last of the wine between their glasses. Of course her mother had been shocked but had she also, deep down, been just a teeny bit impressed by how Nick had turned out? Tentatively she said, ‘Our eyebrows do the same thing.’
Blythe hesitated, then managed a brief smile. ‘I know’
‘He’s very good-looking.’
‘Oh yes, he always had that going for him. And he knew it. Nick was a charmer, all right.’
Valiantly, Lola carried on. ‘Nice clothes too. He dresses well.’ Her mother’s smile changed, grew faintly mocking. ‘And that makes all the difference.’
Which was unfair, because it didn’t make all the difference. It was just that when you compared Malcolm’s external appearance, his woolly, unkempt, hairy-toed appearance, with Nick’s smooth metropolitan one, well, it made quite a lot.
And was that really so wrong? When it was, after all, the reason why there were more posters of Johnny Depp on bedroom walls across the country than there were of Johnny Vegas?
‘I like him,’ said Lola.
‘Of course you do.’ Blythe shrugged. ‘Look, I’m sorry if you think I’ve deprived you of your father all these years, but—’
‘Mum, that’s OK, you thought you were doing the right thing. But we’ve found each other now.
He’s back in our lives. And we can take it slowly, all get to know each other properly. You liked him once, you can like him again.’ Lola raised her glass with a surge of hope and a flourish.
‘Same as me and Dougie.’
‘I think you’re forgetting something.’ Signalling a waiter for the bill, Blythe said,’ You still like Dougie. But from what you’ve told me, he doesn’t seem to be too crazy about you.’
Mothers could be cruel. ‘He’ll change his mind,’ said Lola. ‘I haven’t given up on him yet.’
Across the hallway Lola’s doorbell was ringing. Sally, engrossed in the ice skating on TV — and the bowl of Ben and Jerry’s in her lap — wiggled her toes and imagined herself in a sparkly, hot-pink figure-hugging outfit twirling across the ice.
Ddddrrrrrrinnnggggg. Whoever was at the front door wasn’t giving up. As the skating routine drew to an end, Sally put down her ice cream and clambered off the sofa.
She hauled up the sash window and leaned out. ‘Hello? Lola’s not at home.’ Then she almost lost her balance and toppled out, because the man gazing up at her was just .. .
Let’s just say he was a definite cut above your average carol singer.
‘Any idea when she’ll be back? I’ve tried her mobile but it’s switched off.’ His dark hair gleamed in the light from the street lamp. Even at this distance his eyes were hypnotic.
Effortlessly hypnotised, Sally said, ‘She could be back any time now Do you want to come in and wait?’
His teeth gleamed white. ‘Are you sure?’
With a smile like that? Was he kidding? Praying Lola wouldn’t be back too soon, Sally called out, ‘Hang on, I’ll buzz you up.’
‘Thanks: His smile broadened when she opened the door to her flat. ‘I don’t want to be a nuisance. But it’s pretty icy out there: No worries, come here, I’ll soon warm you up!
Thankfully she managed to keep these words inside her head. Oh, but he was to die for, really he was, with those expressive eyebrows and chiselled cheekbones, and that dark swept-back hair curling over the collar of his coat. This was defmitely lust at first sight. And wasn’t there something familiar about those eyebrows?
‘Come on in, I’ll make us a cup of tea ... oops.’ In her excitement she almost kicked over the bowl on the carpet. ‘Don’t step in the ice cream! I’m Sally, by the way.’
‘I know. Lola’s told me all about you.’
‘Has she?’ Ridiculously flattered, Sally turned to look at him as she filled the kettle at the sink.
Wh000sh, ice-cold water promptly ricocheted off the spout, drenching her from neck to navel.
When you were in the grip of lust it was hard to concentrate.
‘Why don’t I make the tea?’ Amused, he said, ‘You’d better go and change out of those wet things.’
Which was how real life differed from the movies because if this hadn’t been real he might have offered to help her.
By the time she re-emerged in dry clothes she’d figured it out. ‘I’ve heard all about you too,’
Sally announced as he carried the tea through to the living room. ‘You’re Lola’s dad.’
‘Nick James.’ His humorous dark grey eyes crinkled at the corners. Gorgeous eyes, gorgeous corners. And the way he dressed ... well, that was right up her street too. A dark greenshirt, black trousers and black shoes, you couldn’t get plainer than that, but they were of excellent quality and so well-cut, and he wore them like a Frenchman. The glamorous citified kind you saw sitting at pavement cafés on the Champs Elysées, not the gnarled leathery farmer types with strings of onions slung around their necks.
Unlike grungly Gabe with his bleached T-shirts and disintegrating jeans, this was a man with élan, with savoir faire . . a man who knew how to dress. He even — mais naturellement! —
smelled fantastic. And he was Lola’s father. Would this make things tricky or awkward?
Sally considered the facts then decided there was no reason why it should. If Lola was allowed to have a crush on her brother and yearn for him shamelessly, it seemed only fair that she should be allowed a shot at Lola’s dad. Crikey, if Lola married Doug and she married Nick, she’d be Lola’s stepmother and her sister-in-law; wouldn’t that be a turn-up for the books? It was the kind of thing that got you invited onto TV shows and ... um, OK, maybe getting a teeny bit carried away here, just the weeniest bit ahead of herself .. .
‘The ice cream had pretty much melted,’ said Nick. ‘So I put the bowl in the sink.’
‘Right. Um, thanks.’ Oh God, please don’t say he was going to turn out to be another neurotic-obsessive-compulsive-tidierupper. But he hadn’t cleared away anything else, so that was good.
He had lovely hands too, capable-looking fingers and clean, well-shaped nails. Ooh, and if we all had children they’d be simultaneously each other’s cousins and uncles and aunts . . .
‘What are you thinking?’ Nick was regarding her with interest, his dark head tilted to one side.
Again, probably best not to tell him. ‘Just wondering if I’m allowed to ask how it went today, meeting up with Lola and her mum.’
‘Not brilliantly. It wasn’t a fairytale reunion.’ He paused, stirring his tea. ‘Hardly surprising, I suppose. Bit of a shock for Blythe. That’s why I came over to see Lola, to find out how things are now. Relationships are ... complicated.’
‘Ha, tell me about it.’
Nick grinned. ‘Lola did happen to mention you’d had your share of bad luck with men.’
Oh Lola did, did she? Cheers, Lola. Then again, maybe it had been fate all along, nature’s way of forcing her to wait until Mr Right — no, Mr Absolutely Perfect — turned up.
And since he already knew, there was no point trying to deny the past.
‘That’s a very polite way of putting it,’ Sally said ruefully, ‘but I think you mean my share of bastards.’ On the TV a groan of disappointment went up from the audience and she pointed to the pair of skaters sprawled on the ice. ‘It’s like that, isn’t it? One minute it’s all going so well, you’re twirling and flying through the air and actually starting to think you’re in with a chance of gold. And the next minute, splat, you’re flat on your face. That’s why I love watching my old video of Torvill and Dean doing Bolero. Because I know it doesn’t go wrong, nobody falls over and they carry on being perfect right to the end.’ She paused then said with a lopsided smile,
‘Wouldn’t it be great if our lives could be like that?’
Oops, had that been a bit too heartfelt? Did it make her sound needy and desperate? Was he going to make fun of her now?
But that didn’t happen. Instead, nodding in agreement, he said, ‘It’s what everyone wants, if they’re honest. We just can’thelp buggering things up. But the right man’s out there somewhere, I know he is.’
Sally looked innocent. ‘For you?’
He smiled easily. ‘For you. It’s just a question of tracking him down.’
They carried on chatting for another hour. He was so wonderfully easy to talk to. She learned about his career in advertising and told him about her own job — you couldn’t really call it a career — as a receptionist in a busy doctors’ surgery in Wimbledon.
Nick was surprised. ‘And this is NHS? I wouldn’t have had you down as a doctors’ receptionist.’
‘Because I’m not tidy?’ Hurt, Sally said, ‘I’m very organised at work.’
‘I actually meant you look too glamorous.’
She flushed at the compliment, smoothed back her hair. ‘I love my job. OK, it’s not high-powered and it isn’t glamorous, but the doctors I work with are great. Really friendly. It’s never boring. And I’m good at what I do,’ she added with pride. ‘Dr Willis says I’m the most efficient receptionist they’ve ever had.’
‘So this surgery then, is it not a good place to meet men? What are these doctors like?’
‘Old and married.’ Hastily, because she knew Nick was forty-eight, Sally said, ‘I mean, ancient.
Sixties. Much older than you.’
His mouth curved at the corners. ‘Glad to hear it. How about the patients, then? Must be a few promising ones there.’
‘Well, yes, until you look through their medical notes.’ Sally pulled a face. ‘And read all about their stomach upsets, their erectile dysfunction, the excessive sweating and eczema in their skin folds, not to mention their problems with excessive wind and snoring ... I don’t know, somehow all the magic goes out of them after that.’
He looked appalled. ‘Jesus, who d’you have coming to your surgery? A bunch of trolls?’
‘They don’t have all those things. And not all at once. It’s just when you type a name into the computer, the whole medical history comes up on the first page. Say it’s an ultra-respectable bank manager,’ Sally explained. ‘He might look really nice, he might sound really nice. But one glance at the screen and I know he caught a sexually transmitted disease when he was nineteen, had a stubborn fungal infection between his toes when he was twenty-eight and for the last three years has been seeing a specialist at a centre for gender reassignment.’
‘I take your point. What’s more,’ said Nick, ‘I’ll never try and chat up my doctor’s receptionist again.’
‘You missed Nick. He left twenty minutes ago.’ Sally beckoned Lola into the flat, eager to tell her everything. ‘Isn’t he great? He’s been waiting here for you to get back. In the end he had to leave, but we’ve had a lovely couple of hours getting to know each other. He’s just so—’
‘Oh no, he waited a couple of hours? Why didn’t he ring me?’ Distracted, Lola scrabbled for her phone. ‘Damn, when did I switch that off?’
‘It wasn’t a problem. We’ve been chatting non-stop. In fact—’
‘Hang on, let me just give him a quick call.’
Sally waited impatiently for Lola to get off the phone; she was longing to tell her how well they’d got along together and what an attractive man her father was. Not that Lola could have any reason to mind, but to be polite she was going to jokily ask her permission before making a proper play for him.
‘Damn, now his phone’s switched off.’ Lola shook her head, then straightened up and broke into a dazzling smile. ‘Sorry, not concentrating.What a day! So you met Nick. Did you like him?’
Ha, just a bit! ‘He’s great,’ Sally said eagerly. ‘I really liked him; in fact—’
‘Oh God, I’m so glad, because when you think about it, what would you do if you met your real father and he turned out to be awful? Wouldn’t that be just the worst thing in the world? But he isn’t awful, and we get on so well together, I couldn’t—’
‘So did we. Get on well together,’ Sally blurted out.
‘See? That’s it exactly, he’s a genuinely nice person. That’s why I know I can do it.’
Lola looked smug. ‘Get them back together.’
‘Wouldn’t that be perfect?’ Lola, her eyes shining, unwound her scarf and collapsed onto the sofa. ‘And I’ve made up my mind now. I’m going to make it happen. OK, it didn’t get off to the best of starts, but that was just the shock factor. I went home with Mum this afternoon and we had a proper talk about everything. It was amazing, hearing all this stuff for the first time. And look what she gave me.’ Lola took an envelope from her bag and carefully slid out a photograph.
‘It’s the two of them together, before I came along.’
Feeling numb, Sally gazed at the photograph. Lola’s mother, her red-gold hair swinging around her shoulders, was wearing a purple and white sundress, a stripy green cardigan and clumpy white platform shoes. Nick, sitting on the wall next to her with a proprietorial arm around her narrow waist, grinned into the camera. He was twenty years old, cocky and good-looking in a denim shirt and jeans, with everything going for him. Lola’s mother looked like a young Jane Asher – minus the dress sense – and Nick was her Paul McCartney.
‘This is how I know I can do it,’ said Lola, tapping the oldphoto. ‘My mum kept it all these years. That means she still cares about him: Sally exhaled slowly. The disappointment was crushing. Why did stuff like this always have to happen to her? Struggling to sound normal, she said, ‘Maybe she just forgot it was there. I’ve got photos at home of my seventh birthday party but it doesn’t mean I care about the kids I was at infants school with. I can’t even remember their names.’
‘That’s completely different.’ Lola shook her head. ‘You were seven years old. When it’s boyfriend-girlfriend stuff, you don’t hang on to photos of the ones you don’t like any more. You just don’t want those pictures to exist! But if you do still care about the other person, you keep the photos. Like I’ve still got all mine of me and Dougie.’
‘Maybe, but has he still kept his ones of you? Anyway,’ Sally was defensive; ‘it’s a personal thing. Some people keep all their photographs regardless.’ Meaning that she had. Crikey, if she were to tear up all the photos of her with the exes who’d chucked her, she wouldn’t have any left. Dammit, and now she wasn’t even going to be allowed to have a shot at Lola’s father because Lola – completely selfishly – had decided that she wanted him to get back together with her mother.
The door swung open behind them and for a split second Sally’s foolish heart leapt, because what if it was Nick rushing back to tell her he couldn’t bear to be without her, that it had been love at first sight for him too, that he had no interest in getting back together with Blythe.. .
Oh, and that he’d secretly had a spare key cut, which was how he’d been able to burst back into the flat.
‘They do it deliberately,’ Gabe announced, tipping Lola’s feet off the sofa and throwing himself down with a groan of despair. ‘I swear to God, their mission in life is to officially do my head in.
Celebrities.’ He exhaled, pushing his hands through his floppy blond hair. ‘Couldn’t you just roll them up in a big red carpet and tip them over a cliff?’
‘Not a good night?’ Lola was sympathetic.
‘Bloody useless. Complete waste of time. I waited three hours for this actress to come out of a hair place in Primrose Hill. I was getting thirstier and thirstier, but I stuck it out because I knew she had to be finished soon. Then finally I couldn’t stand it a minute longer and raced into the shop across the road. I was in there for fifteen seconds, no more than that. And when I came out, her limo was pulling away. I tell you, I felt like throwing rocks at it.’
‘Poor you.’ Lola gave his arm a squeeze. ‘Yeurgh, you’re freezing. What’s all this stuff in your pocket?’ She had a quick rummage, pulling out sandwich wrappers, crisp packets and a folded sheet of A4 paper.
‘Homework. Colin gave it to me.’ Gabe shook his head wearily. ‘It’s a list of car registration numbers belonging to celebs. If you spot one in the street, you know they’re in the vicinity. I’m supposed to learn the whole list. Oh hell, I can’t do this job. How am I supposed to recognise all these people when there’s so damn many of them? And when it comes to the girls with blond hair extensions, well, they’re even worse. They all look exactly the same!’
‘You’ll get the hang of it.’ Lola’s tone was consoling. ‘What about the other paps, are they friendly?’
‘They’re OK,’ grumbled Gabe. ‘But they’re taking the mickey out of me because I keep getting things wrong. I thought I’d spotted Britney Spears coming out of Waterstones with an armfulof dictionaries but it wasn’t her. And this. morning I got a great shot of George Clooney pushing a pram in Hyde Park, except it turned out to be some bloke from last year’s Big Brother. I’m a laughing stock. They keep pointing to old homeless guys in the street and saying, "Quick, Gabe, it’s Pierce Brosnan!" and "Hey, Gabe, isn’t that George Bush?"‘
‘But your photos of Tom Dutton and Jessica Lee were in Heat this week,’ said Lola. ‘Look how much money you made from those shots. They’re just jealous.’
‘That was a fluke. I could work for the next five years and not get another chance like that.’
‘Or it could happen again tomorrow,’ Sally chimed in. ‘That’s the thing, you never know. It’s like panning for gold.’
‘We’ll see. This isn’t as great as I thought it might be. And I have to work on New Year’s Eve,’
grumbled Gabe. ‘What a lousy way to spend the night, hanging around outside all the best parties, freezing my nuts off.’
Sally looked smug. ‘You can take my photo if you like. I’m off to a fantastic glitzy do on New Year’s Eve.’
‘That’s three days away’ Eyeing the plates with crumbs on, the dirty cups, the pistachio nut shells and the basket of makeup on the coffee table, Gabe said evenly, ‘Any chance of clearing this mess up before you go?’
‘See what I’m up against?’ Sally rolled her eyes and grinned at Lola. ‘Totally neurotic!’
It was seven o’clock on New Year’s Eve. ‘You won’t believe what’s happened,’ wailed Sally, bursting into Lola’s flat. ‘My bloody boss has only been and gone and stood me up: Lola, hopping around with one shoe on and one shoe off, said, ‘For your posh do? You can come along to the White Hart with us if you like. It won’t be posh and you’ll definitely get beer spilled over you, but it’ll be a good night.’ It would actually be a sweaty, crowded, extremely rowdy night but Tim from work had bullied everyone into buying tickets and Lola hadn’t had the heart to refuse. Persuasively she added, ‘A tenner a ticket and all the burgers you can eat.’
Sally looked horrified. ‘My God, I can’t imagine anything more horrible. My ticket for the Carrick cost a hundred and fifty pounds.’
‘Blimey, I’d want gold-plated, diamond-encrusted burgers for that price.’
But it was for charity, Lola learned. And they certainly didn’t serve burgers at the five-star, decidedly glitzy Carrick Hotel overlooking Hyde Park. The event was dinner and a quiz, with tables of ten forming teams who were to compete against each other. Dr Willis, Sally’s boss, had been due to partner her for the evening — in a platonic way, naturally, what with him being sixty-four years old and keen on astronomy — but had just phoned to apologise that he couldn’t make it after all, his daughter having begged him to babysit his grandchildren instead.
‘So the ticket’s already been paid for,’ Sally finished. ‘Seems a shame to waste it. Wouldn’t you rather come with me to the Carrick than squeeze into some scuzzy, sticky-carpeted pub?’
Weakening, Lola pulled a face; she hated letting people down. ‘Tim’s expecting me to be there. I don’t want to disappoint him.’
‘Sure? It’ll be fun.’ Sally played her trump card. Doug’s on our table.’
Oh well, everyone else from Kingsley’s was going along to the White Hart; it wasn’t as if Tim would be all on his own. ‘Go on then.’ Lola’s heart began to beat faster, because this could be her chance to really impress Dougie. ‘You’ve twisted my arm.’
Having changed out
of her beer-friendly black lycra top and frayed jeans into an altogether more suitable peacock-blue dress with spaghetti straps and swishy sequinned hem, Lola entered the Carrick’s ballroom feeling quite the bee’s knees. Moments later those same knees quavered with excitement as, through the crowds, she spotted Dougie over by the bar, looking even more handsome than ever in formal black tie. Heavens, how could any girl resist him? He was gorgeous. Giving herself time to mentally get her act together, Lola hung back as Sally approached the group at the bar.
‘Hey, you’re here.’ Doug turned when she tapped him on the shoulder. ‘Everyone, this is my sister Sally, specialist subjects fashion and shopping. And rather more usefully she’s brought along her boss who’s a doctor, so any medical questions and he’s our man. He’s also excellent on astronomy, which ... which is ...’ As he was speaking, Doug’s gaze had veered past Sally, searching for someone who would fit the description of aged, avuncular, planet-watching Dr Willis. When he spotted Lola his voice trailed off, his welcoming smile faded and he said, ‘Oh for heaven’s sake, I don’t believe it. You again?’
Which was, frankly, more than a little hurtful.
‘Honestly.’ Sally rolled her eyes at the rest of the group. ‘Is this what he’s like at work? Frank couldn’t make it, he has to babysit his grandchildren tonight, so I asked Lola if she’d come along in his place. Otherwise we’d have been a team member short for the quiz.’
Doug shook his head. ‘So Lola’s our medical expert for the evening. Perfect. Let’s just hope no one needs an emergency tracheotomy’
‘Doug, calm down. I’ll answer the medical questions,’ said Sally. The tall man next to Doug said intently, ‘Are you a doctor too?’
‘Well, no, not exactly, but I’m a GP’s receptionist.’ As the man’s lip began to curl into a sneer Sally said, ‘Do you know what papilloedema is?’
He looked startled. ‘No’
‘See? I do. I know where the medulla oblongata is. I know about systolic and diastolic blood pressure measurements. I can tell you what talipes are.’ Airily Sally added, ‘And I can tell you exactly what to do with a sphygmomanometer.’
The man took a gulp of his drink. Lola stifled a grin.Touché. ‘Fine.’ Doug looked resigned. ‘Just don’t try and take out anyone’s appendix.’
‘Sally, hiiii!’ Yeeurgh. Isabel joined the group, flicking back her silky ice-blond hair and clutching Sally’s arms as if they were long-lost friends. Moments later, spotting Lola, she said with rather less enthusiasm, ‘Oh, hello again.’
‘I’m Tony, history and politics,’ the tall man announced. Gesturing towards the others he said,’Alice is biology and Greek mythology. Jerry’s Egyptology and maths. And this is Bob, whose speciality is—’
‘Trying to swim the Channel with his arms and legs tied up?’ Lola couldn’t help herself; when she was nervous, stupid stuff just came out of her mouth.
Tumbleweed rolled past. Quite deservedly, no one laughed. Tony cleared his throat and said,
‘No, Bob’s speciality is classical music.’
‘And cricket,’ said Bob.
‘Great,’ said Lola.
‘How about you?’
Crikey, how about me?
‘Um ... well, literature.’
‘And?’ Tony eyed her beadily; it appeared everyone was required to be an expert in two subjects.
‘And ... er, sumo wrestling.’ That would be safe surely?
‘Excellent, excellent.’ As he rubbed his hands together they made a rasping, sandpapery sound.
‘So which should we be hoping for this evening, hmm? Kachikoshi? Or makekoshi?’
Bugger. And his lip was curling again. He knew.
‘OK,’ said Lola, ‘I was lying. I don’t know anything about sumo. I only have one specialist subject and I’m sorry if that’s not enough, but I’m only here as a last-minute replacement. It’s either me or an empty chair.’
’Don’t worry about Tony, he’s a pompous twit.’
‘Is he? I mean, I know he is.’ To Lola’s relief, not everyone in the group was unfriendly. With the quiz due to start in five minutes, she beamed at the girl redoing her make-up in the ornate gilt mirror in the cloakroom. ‘I just didn’t realise people would be taking it so seriously’
‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. God, this skirt’s killing me.’ The girl, whose name was Elly, straightened up and gave her stomach a disgruntled prod. ‘I’ve put on almost a stone over Christmas, nothing fits any more. I’m going to have to join a gym before I turn into a complete hippo.’
‘I hate gyms.’ Lola pulled a face.
‘I thought of giving Doug’s a go. He says it’s all right.’ Disconsolately tugging down her corrugated skirt, Elly said, ‘But they’ll still make you suffer, won’t they? What I really need’s a magic wand.’
Lola carefully untwiddled a strand of hair from around one of her silver earrings. ‘Is that Holmes Place?’
Yh00000sh, Elly sprayed Elnett Ultrahold wildly around her head like a cowboy twirling a lasso.
‘No, Merton’s in Kensington — ow, sod it!’
She’d sprayed Elnett right in her eye. ‘Here,’ Lola passed her a clean tissue; the thought of Dougie working up a sweat on a rowing machine was enough to send any girl’s aim wonky.
‘Thanks. And just ignore Tony.’ Elly’s smile was encouraging. ‘We’ll still have fun; you don’t have to try and impress him.’
‘You’re right.’ Lola didn’t tell her that the person she really wanted to impress was Doug.
Their table was doing well in the first round; everyone was getting their chance to shine. Rivalry between the thirty or so teams in the banqueting hall was intense. Having answered a fiendish question about the last rugby World Cup, Doug (specialist subjects sport and economics) was so elated he actually grinned across the table at Lola before realising what he was doing and abruptly reaching for his drink instead. But the moment was already imprinted in Lola’s mind; for a split second there, it had been just like old times. Fresh hope surged inside her; please please let him be weakening, let him realise that the attraction was still there. From what she could tell, this thing with Isabel was pretty shallow, hardly the romance of the century. Isabel might be beautiful but her personality wasn’t exactly dazzling; in fact she was like an irritatingly chirpy child, tugging Doug’s arm for attention, giggling and endlessly whispering in his ear.
Basically she was nothing but an airhead ...
‘And now,’ boomed the question master, calling the noisy room to attention, ‘the penultimate question in Round One. Pay close attention, ladies and gentlemen, because every point counts.’
He paused for effect. ‘And this question is in two parts. The first part is this. What is the speed of light?’
Lola’s spirits sank; she was desperate to show Doug she wasn’t a deadweight, that she could be a useful member of the team, but how was anyone supposed to know
‘Three hundred thousand kilometres per second,’ Isabel whispered.
‘Good girl.’ Tony wrote down the answer without blinking.
‘And now for the second part,’ the question master announced. ‘In order for any object to escape the earth’s gravitational pull, it must be flying at or above the earth’s escape velocity. The question is, what is that velocity?’
Everyone at the table turned their gaze on Isabel. No, Lola wanted to yell, no, you can’t know the answer to that, you just can’t .. .
With a self-deprecating smile Isabel murmured, ‘Eleven kilometres per second.’
Smirking, Tony scribbled down the answer on their table’s card.
‘OK, time’s up, please raise your cards.’
All across the room, cards were lifted and checked. The question master announced, ‘The answers are three hundred thousand kilometres per second and eleven kilometres per second.’
A great cheer went up around their table. Isabel took a sip of iced water and continued to look modest. ‘And Table Sixteen, the Sitting Tennants, were the only ones to get both parts of that question right. Well done, you Sitting Tennants!’
Lola, leaning over to Elly on her left, said incredulously, ‘How did she know that?’
Elly said, ‘Who, Isabel? Oh, she’s mad about stuff like that. She went along to evening classes last year, just for fun. Got an A in A-level physics.’
Lola’s stomach clenched as she observed Isabel, with her dinky little nose and perfect smile.
Geeky boffins were supposed to look like geeky boffins, not swan around like Grace Kelly in slinky sea-green silk with strappy Gucci sandals on their feet.
‘And now, the final question of the first round.’ Up on the dais, the question master tapped a knife against his glass to regain everyone’s attention. ‘Ready? This is one for all you book lovers out there.’
Lola’s heart promptly broke into a gallop. Now she was the centre of attention. Adrenaline buzzed through her veins and her knees began to judder. Across the table, only slightly patronisingly, Isabel said, ‘Come on, Lola, you can do it!’
‘Right, ladies and gentlemen, your question is this.’ As the question master paused for further dramatic effect, Lola concentrated on looking serious, focused and super-intelligent. ‘What word appears one thousand eight hundred and fifty-five times in the Bible?’
Oh, for bloody crying out loud.
‘Lola?’ demanded Tony when she shook her head and sat back. ‘Come along now, what is it?’
‘How am I supposed to know the answer to that?’
He looked at her as if she were an imbecile. ‘Because it’s a literature question and books are your speciality.’
‘It’s the Bible!’ Stung by the unfairness of it all, Lola cried, ‘Even if I had read the Bible, I promise you I wouldn’t have counted how many times each word appeared!’
‘Quick!’ shouted Jerry.
‘Um, OK ... "and".’ Lola blurted the word out in a panic, aware that across the table Isabel was writing something on the back of one of the programmes.
AND, Tony scrawled on the answer card.
‘Time’s up,’ called the question master. ‘Raise your cards please. Ah, I see lots of you got it right this time. Well done, all of you who knew that the correct answer is Lord.’
‘Oh, bad luck, Lola.’ Isabel smiled sympathetically.
The others didn’t say anything. They didn’t need to. Then Jerry, peering at the programme by Isabel’s elbow, exclaimed, ‘You wrote it down! You knew Lord was the right answer.’
‘Shh, it doesn’t matter. Questions about books are Lola’s field of expertise. I didn’t want her to feel I was muscling in.’
Intrigued, Sally said, ‘But how did you know it was Lord?’
‘Same way as everyone else who got it right, I expect.’ Isabel dimpled prettily — dammit, she even had dimples. ‘It’s a Trivial Pursuit question. Once you’ve been asked it, it’s not the kind of answer you forget.’
The four-course meal, each course served between rounds of questions, was sublime.The glittering ballroom with its mirrored walls, opulent décor and hundreds of tethered gold and white helium balloons, was beautiful in every way. By concentrating on the good parts and reminding herself that she never had to see the ultra-competitive contingent again, Lola chatted to Elly and Sally and began to enjoy the evening. It was, after all, a far cry from warm beer and burst eardrums at the White Hart.
By the beginning of the fifth and final round they were joint leaders along with the Deadly Dunns, a team from another management consultancy. The rivalry was intense now; there might be laughter on the surface but, deep down, reputations were at stake.
Sally got them off to a flying start by knowing the whereabouts in the body of the islets of Langerhans, which Lola privately felt should be found not in the pancreas but somewhere off the west coast of Scotland in the vicinity of Barra, Eriskay and Skye.
The questions continued and their table’s points continued to mount up. Bob knew something ridiculously obscure aboutthe composer Dmitri Shostakovich and earned himself a round of applause. Jerry the Egyptologist preened, having correctly answered a question about the identity of the tekenu. Elly dithered a bit but finally guessed correctly that David Hockney had attended Bradford Grammar.
Lola began to wonder if she was actually the least intelligent person in the entire room. Even people who didn’t look remotely clever were getting things right whilst she was still struggling to break her duck.
Isabel let out a shriek of delight and smothered Doug in kisses when he correctly answered that David Campese was the player who’d scored the most tries in test rugby.
Lola helped herself to more wine. One booky-type question, that was all she asked, a question that nobody else knew the answer to. And when she answered it correctly, everyone would break into wild applause and Dougie would give her one of his heart-melting smiles .. .
Finally it was the penultimate question of the quiz. Doug’s table and the Deadly Dunns were still neck and neck: It’s only a game, Lola told herself, it’s only a game. But she felt sick anyway; it felt more important than that.
‘Right, here we go,’ said the question master. ‘James Loveless, George Loveless, John Standfield,Thomas Standfield, James Brine and James Hammett are the names of ... ?’
Lola, busy knocking back wine, froze in mid-glug. She knew who they were. Bloody hell, she actually knew an answer!
Everyone else looked blank. Sally whispered, ‘Is it the Arctic Monkeys?’
‘Soldiers who won the VC?’ guessed Bob.
History was Tony’s specialist subject. He was shaking his head, gazing in turn at the others in search of enlightenment.
‘Are they footballers?’ hazarded Jerry the Egyptologist.
Tony looked at Isabel, then at Doug, before glancing briefly in Lola’s direction. Hastily swallowing her mouthful of wine and keen not to let anyone at nearby tables overhear, she mouthed the answer at him.
Tony frowned and mouthed back, ‘What?’
Tingling with excitement, Lola mouthed the words again, more slowly this time. ‘The Tolpuddle martyrs.’
Tony turned away as if he hadn’t seen her. Reaching for the answer card he scrawled a few words and, leaning across to Isabel, whispered in her ear.
Lola watched open-mouthed as she cried, ‘Oh Tony, you’re brilliant.’
‘Everyone raise your cards,’ called the question master. ‘And the correct answer ... is ... the Tolpuddle martyrs!’
‘Yayyyy!’ Everyone else on the table let out a huge cheer. Bob and Jerry clapped Tony on the back and Lola waited for him to announce that, in fact, she, Lola, was the one who’d known the answer.
But he didn’t. He just sat there looking smug and lapping up all the congratulations. Lola gazed around wildly; had none of them seen what had happened? Not even Doug?
‘Damn, the Deadly Dunns got it too,’ said Doug. ‘We’re still level. It’s right down to the wire.’
Bloody Tony, what a cheater! Lola was so busy being outraged and glaring at him that she barely listened to the final question.
‘... famous writer died in eighteen eighty. Her nom de plume was George Eliot. But what was her real name?’
This was it. Lola sat up as if she’d been electrocuted. Ha, and it was a trick question! Everyone else was going to think theanswer was Mary Ann Evans. More importantly, the Deadly Dunns were going to think that. But the clue was in the way the question had been phrased, and seven months before her death at the age of sixty-one, Mary Ann Evans had married a toyboy by the name of John Cross. So the question being asked was, in fact, what was her real name when she died .. .
‘Well?’ said Bob. ‘Do you know it?’
‘Of course I know it.’ Lola signalled for the answer card and a pen. With a flourish she wrote Mary Ann Cross. Oh yes, was that a flicker of respect in Doug’s eye? About time too! She was about to win his team the competition!
‘Raise your cards, ladies and gentlemen.’
Trembling with excitement, Lola held it above her head. Timm.’ Doug was looking at the other raised cards. Oh Dougie, have faith in me, would I let you down?
‘And the correct . .. answer ... is ...’ the question master strung it out X Factor style, ‘... Mary ...
Ann ... Evans!’
‘For fuck’s sake,’ groaned Bob.
‘No,’ Lola heard herself blurt the word out, shock prickling at the base of her skull. Shaking her head in disbelief, she said, ‘That’s wrong!’
Jerry’s tone was bitter. ‘You’re wrong.’
‘YEEEAAAHHH!’ Realising they’d won the competition, the Deadly Dunns were cheering their heads off.
‘But I’m not wrong. Mary Anne Evans married a man called John Cross ... she did ..: The words died in Lola’s throat as she realised it no longer mattered; the game was over and she’d lost it —
irony of ironies — by trying to be too clever.
Barn, went the cork as it flew out of the Deadly Dunns’ triumphantly shaken bottle of champagne. Everyone else in the room was applauding them. They rose to their feet and bowed, before breaking into a boisterous chorus of ‘We Are the Champions’.
Bob shook his head in disgust.
Tony said, ‘Shit, they’re never going to let us forget this.’
Lola was bursting for the loo. If she left the table now, they’d all talk about how rubbish she was.
Oh well, who cared? If she didn’t leave the table now she’d really give them something to talk about.
The ladies’ loo was blessedly cool, a calm ivory marble haven from the babbling crowds in the ballroom. Having touched up her make-up and enjoyed five minutes of peace and quiet, Lola was just putting away her lipstick when the door swung open and Doug said, ‘There you are.’
His miss-nothing gaze checked out her face. ‘Are you OK?’
‘Fine: As one of the loos was flushed behind her, Lola said, ‘You aren’t allowed in here.’
‘Come outside then.’ He held the door open and ushered her past him. In the corridor he said, ‘I thought you might have been upset.’
‘You mean crying?’ Lola was glad the whites of her eyes were still clear and white. ‘I wouldn’t give your friends the satisfaction. And I’m not upset, I’m just sorry I let you down.’
Doug shook his head. ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter. It was only meant to be a bit of fun. I had no idea Tony was going to take the whole thing so seriously. They’re not my friends either,’ he added.
‘Tony works for me. Jerry and Bob are friends of his. Tony was the one who persuaded me that coming here tonight would be good PR. He can be a bit of an arse. Well, quite a lot of an arse.
Tony takes his quizzes very seriously.’
‘He’s a cheating arse,’ said Lola; it was no good, she couldn’t not tell him. ‘I gave him the Tolpuddle martyrs answer. I did,’she insisted when Doug look amused. ‘That was me! He just couldn’t bear to admit it.’
‘OK. Well, I’m glad you’re all right. And I’m sorry about Tony.’
Touched by his concern — that had to be an encouraging sign, surely — Lola smiled and said,
‘Thanks. Not your fault.’
Doug hesitated. ‘I was going to ask you, how’s it going with your father?’
Yay, another encouraging sign! ‘Pretty good. I’m trying to’ fix him up with my mum but she’s digging her heels in. I won’t give up though. When you know two people would be perfect together, if one of them could just forgive the other for some silly mistake they made years ago, you have to persevere. Otherwise it would just be a terrible waste,’ Lola said innocently. ‘Don’t you think?’
Dougie gave her that look she knew so well. ‘Maybe your mother really isn’t interested.’
‘Ah, but that’s the thing. Deep down, I think she still is.’ Lola gazed at him, longing to touch his face.’Remember that weekend we went to Brighton and you took loads of photos of me on the beach?’
Doug paused, clearly wondering if there was any point in trying to say no. He shrugged.
Vaguely, right. Which meant he was definitely lying. He’d been eighteen, she’d been seventeen and they’d made love at midnight on a lilo on the beach. How could any red-blooded male fail to remember a weekend like that?
‘I’d love to see those photos again.’
His mouth twitched. ‘You don’t give up, do you?’
Lola smiled back, realising that he wasn’t going to tell her whether or not he still had them. That was the trouble with trying to outsmart someone smarter than yourself. On the other hand, reminding him of the existence of the photos might prompt him to dig them out and the sight of her cavorting in the sea in her pink bikini might in turn remind him of how happy they’d been, and how happy they could be again.
‘Well,’ Dougie cleared his throat. ‘I suppose we’d—’
‘Yes, better get back.’ She dived in, saying the words before he could say them himself. ‘Don’t want people starting to wonder where we’ve got to. Just one thing first.’ Her heart beating faster, Lola rested a hand on his arm. ‘Seeing as- it’s New Year’s Eve and I probably won’t get the chance later, can I wish you a ...’ move towards him’. . . happy ..’slide your free arm, around his neck ‘... New ..’ half close your eyes, half open your mouth .. .
‘Year,’ said Doug, planting a brisk kiss on her cheek before stepping back.
Damn, foiled again. So near yet so far. This was a man with way too much self-control.
What a job.What was he doing here, freezing his nuts off outside a club, listening to everyone on the inside counting down to midnight?
Next to Gabe, Jez muttered, ‘Hey, man, happy New Year.’
‘Yeah, you too.’ Gabe huddled further inside his fleece, his breath puffing out in front of him, his hands so cold he could barely grip the camera.
‘It’s midnight. They’re all in there, going crazy.’ Shivering, Jez jerked his head. ‘Fancy a cup of tea in that café up the road?’ Gabe nodded; this had to be the best time to get one. Ten minutes later they made their way back to the club. ‘Bloody hell,’ cried one of the other paps, ‘you missed it! That EastEnders guy ran out; all he was wearing was his cowboy boots.’
‘You’re having us on.’ Jez paled.
‘Naked as a baby, I swear to God. And he did a handstand. Not a pretty sight.’ Chuckling, the pap showed them the shots on his camera. ‘That’s my work done for the night. Picked the wrong time to leave, you lads. Look out for these pictures in the News of the World.’ He left, crowing with delight.
Jez said with feeling, ‘I bloody hate this bloody job.’
‘Me too.’ But the annoying thing was, it had its addictive side. Balanced against the cold and the tedium and the endless hanging around was the knowledge that the next big picture might be only a click away. It was like shark fishing: one minute you were bored out of your mind, the next you were firing on all cylinders because at any second anything could happen .. . like this stretch limo heading down the street towards them now, slowing down. Getting his camera ready, Gabe experienced the now-familiar rush of adrenaline as a blacked-out window slid down.
He moved into position alongside Jez. Because this could be anyone — Jack Nicholson dressed as a nun, Mick Jagger with Lily Allen, Simon Cowell with
‘What the fuck?’ yelled Jez as half a dozen yellow plastic bazookas fired torrents of ice-cold water at them. Shaking his dripping hair out of his eyes, almost dropping his camera, Gabe cursed and watched the limo accelerate away. The occupants were roaring with laughter, delighted with their prank, and no one even knew who they were.
‘Happy New Year, losers,’ one of them bellowed through the window Gabe was soaked to the skin. Four interminable hours and he hadn’t managed so much as a single decent photo. This was possibly the very worst New Year’s Eve of his life.
’I’m not sure this is such a good idea,’ said Lola. ‘Remind me again why we’re here?’
Because I’ve got the most enormous crush on your father and I’m longing to show off in front of him, knock him dead with my dazzling footwork and spinny twirls!
Sally didn’t actually say this out loud. Turning to Lola she explained, ‘Because it’s fun and it’s something you’ve never done before. I mean, look at this place! Did you ever see anything so pretty?’
Lola followed the expansive sweep of her arm, dutifully taking in the flaming torches and architectural lighting illuminating the courtyard’s classical façades. ‘I’m going to fall over and break my ankles.’
‘You won’t. I’ll show you how to do it properly. Besides, falling over’s all part of the fun.’
Personally Sally felt her choice of Somerset House ice rink, off the Strand, had been inspired.
‘And it’s only here for a couple more weeks – ooh look, there’s Nick!’
Luckily the sub-zero temperatures meant that her cheeks were already pink. In her white fake-fur hat and matching gilet,worn over a red cashmere sweater and black jeans, Sally was ready to impress the hell out of Lola’s dad. When Lola had idly wondered what father-daughter things she and Nick could do together on their road to getting to know each other, it had taken her ...
ooh, all of two seconds to think of something that could include her as well.
Even if it meant having to sacrifice Lola’s ankles to do it.
OK, that was just a joke; it wouldn’t really happen anyway. Oh God, look at Nick, he was so gorgeous, she could just-
‘Over here,’ Lola called out, windmilling both arms to attract his attention.
‘Hey, you two.’ Joining them, he gave Lola a hug and a kiss. She beamed, clearly delighted to see him again. ‘Look at you, so brown.’
Nick, just back from ten days in St Kitts, in turn greeted Sally with a kiss on the cheek that made her quiver like a terrier on a leash. Even his polite kisses were thrilling.
Nick grinned. ‘So you’re going to be teaching us all the moves tonight.’
Was that an unintentional double entendre or was he saying it like that on purpose?
‘Absolutely. You’re both going to love this.’ Her eyes shining – just in case he was flirting with her – Sally said, ‘By the time I finish with you two tonight, you’ll be whizzing round like pros.’
‘And by this time next year we’ll be going for gold in the Olympics.’ Inspired, Lola said excitedly, ‘Can we get out onto the ice now?’
‘Lesson one.’ Sally yanked her back. ‘Always best to queue up first and hire some skates.’
Lola was a revelation on the ice, more spectacularly useless than Sally would ever have guessed.
She had no sense of balance whatsoever. Clinging to the barriers and wailing, ‘This is really slippy!’ she was edging her way round the outside of the rink at the speed of a lame tortoise.
Happily this meant Sally was free to coach Nick, who might not be any great shakes on the ice but who was fifty times better than Lola. At least he could stand up and — more or less —
manage circuits, so long as Sally was there to hold on to his hands.Which was heaven, almost as good as when, upon losing his balance and wobbling crazily in . the centre of the rink, he had flung both arms around her waist.
Oht yes, that had definitely been a highlight, a moment to treasure. Maybe later she’d make it happen again and this time allow herself to stumble and fall on top of him in a laughter-filled tangle of arms and legs. When Lola wasn’t looking, of course.
Leaning closer and breathing into her ear, Nick protested, ‘This can’t be much fun for you.’
Was he serious? This was the most fun she’d had in years. ‘I’m fine.’ Sally experienced a frisson of excitement as his left thigh brushed against hers, then another as the right thigh followed suit.
Was that an accident?
‘No, it’s not fair.’ Nick shook his head. ‘Why don’t I have five minutes’ rest, then you can do some proper skating without having to hold me up. I’ll just watch from the side and admire the way you experts do it.’
Oh dear, nobody liked a show-off. But his eyes were glittering and she couldn’t resist. Having guided him to the barriers then skated back to the less crowded centre of the rink, Sally struck a pose then pushed off into an impromptu routine. God,skating was so brilliant, it was one of the few things she was really good at. And she was gliding across the ice now, as accomplished and elegant as a swan, with the stars twinkling overhead in an inky sky and hundreds of admiring eyes upon her ... if she went into a fabulous spin or launched into a triple salchow, would everyone gasp with delight and break into a spontaneous round of applause?.
OK, a triple salchow was too ambitious, but how about a double axel? Was Nick watching?
Would he be suitably impressed by her technique? Yes, there he was, Lola had managed to hobble-skate over to him and they were both hanging on to the barriers, watching her. Right, here goes .. .
‘OW!’ bellowed Sally, crashing to the ice like a felled tree. ‘OW, OW, OW, who did that?’
Because someone had come up behind her and delivered a vicious kick to the back of her calf.
Letting out a shriek of pain she clutched her left leg as melted ice soaked into her jeans. What kind of psychopath would sneak up like that and kick a complete stranger so hard? Ow, God, she couldn’t breathe, she could barely think straight, it hurt so much .. .
‘Are you OK?’ Nick and Lola slithered up to her, having somehow managed to weave their way through the crowds of skaters. For heaven’s sake, did she look OK?
Did you see who kicked me?’ Sally felt perspiration breaking out on her forehead.
‘Nobody kicked you.’
‘They did! I felt it!’
‘There was no one near you.’ Lola pulled an apologetic face. ‘If it felt like being kicked by a donkey, you’ve probably snapped an Achilles tendon.’
Damn, she was right. ‘Noon!’ Sally sank down in despair and rested her face against the ice, because this was a nightmare. ‘I don’t want it to be my Achilles tendon!’
Lola, valiantly attempting to help her into a sitting position, promptly lost her balance and gasped, ‘Oof!’ as she tumbled back like an upturned beetle on to the ice.
’What’s going on?’ Puzzled by the commotion on the stairs, Gabe emerged with dripping wet hair and a dark blue towel draped around his hips.
‘What does it look like?’ Sitting on her bottom, inelegantly hauling herself up one stair at a time, Sally was huffing and puffing and looking fraught.
‘Ice skating went well, then.’ Gabe looked at Lola and her father, who were following her up the stairs carrying a pair of crutches.
‘It’s not funny,’ Sally wailed. ‘We’ve just spent three hours in casualty. When they told me I’d torn my calf muscle I thought I’d just be limping a bit for a few days. I was actually relieved because I thought it was better than snapping an Achilles tendon, but it’s not better at all, it’s going to be a complete nightmare.’ Finally, laboriously, she reached the top step, raised both arms and demanded imperiously, ‘Don’t just stand there. Help me up.’
Gabe’s heart sank. Was his luck ever going to change? ‘Sorry, who’s going to be a complete nightmare?’
Nick, struggling to keep a straight face, said, ‘She has to rest the muscle completely, keep the leg elevated at all times. She’s going to need some serious looking after.’
Lola said helpfully, ‘You’ll have to lift her in and out of the bath.’
Fat chance of that.
‘No you won’t,’ Sally hurriedly chipped in before he could say anything about cranes. ‘I can still manage a shower.’
‘So long as you don’t fall over.’ Lola winked as she held open the door for Sally to go through.
Gabe winced as one of the aluminium crutches clunked against the door frame. ‘Look, wouldn’t it be easier to go and stay with your mother? Then she could look after you.’
Crash went the other crutch against the skirting board as Sally lurched inside. ‘Whoops, these are tricky things to get the hang of.’
Gabe took a deep breath. ‘The thing is, I’m going to be out working a lot of the time.’
‘But if I went to my mother’s house I’d be on my own all the time.’ Over her shoulder Sally said,
‘Because she and Philip are off on holiday tomorrow. So that wouldn’t be very good, would it?’
There was a crash as she stumbled into the coffee table, sending flying the cups and plates she hadn’t cleared away earlier. With a sigh of relief she lowered herself onto the sofa and stretched out across it, propping her leg up on a couple of cushions. ‘There, that’s better. All comfy now.
Ooh, I’d love a cup of tea.’
Sometimes a name simply didn’t register on your personal radar but it turned out that everyone else knew at once who it belonged to. Such was the case with EJ Mack, whom Lola had never heard of. But when his publishers had announced that he’d be available during the third week of January for signing sessions, everyone else at Kingsley’s had got as over-excited as if Al Pacino had offered to turn up.
‘But how can you know who he is?’ Bemused, Lola had studied the publisher’s press release.
‘He’s only a music producer.’
Cheryl,Tim and Darren had exchanged despairing looks. ‘He’s huge: said Darren. ‘He’s worked with everyone who’s anyone.’
‘And he’s so brilliant, all his female artists get crushes on him,’ Cheryl chimed in with relish.
‘He’s very discreet but I bet he’s slept with loads of them.’
‘Fine, we’ll let him come here then.’ Still unconvinced, Lola said, ‘But it’ll still be your fault if nobody turns up.’
It was always embarrassing when that happened. Watching the poor authors’ faces fall as they sat there behind their teetering piles of books, gradually realising that not one single person was going to come along and buy one. Their smiles faltered;sometimes they pretended they’d never wanted to sell any copies of their book anyway. Other times they feigned illness and escaped early. On one memorable occasion an author had reacted particularly badly, launching into a major temper tantrum and flinging his greatest rival’s books all across the shop.
Anyhow, it didn’t seem as if this was a problem they were likely to encounter tonight with EJ
Mack. Loads of customers had been thrilled to discover he was coming to Kingsley’s. As Lola unloaded boxes of his books and arranged them in spiral towers around the signing table, people were already starting to gather in the shop. Too cool to form an orderly queue but not cool enough to turn up at seven thirty, which was when EJ Mack was scheduled to arrive.
And he wasn’t even good-looking, according to Cheryl. Turning over one of the hardbacks, Lola scrutinised the arty, grainy black and white portrait that gave away hardly anything at all.The face was averted from the camera and further obscured by the brim of some weird trilby-style hat.
Oh well, he’d be here soon. Hopefully to sign two hundred copies of his book in double-quick time so they could all be home by nine thirty. OK, maybe not home by nine thirty on a Friday night if you were a super-successful uber-cool cutting-edge music producer, but definitely if you were a knackered bookshop manager with a drastically empty stomach and hot achy feet.
‘He’s here!’ squealed Cheryl twenty minutes later.
Lola scanned the crowded shop, absolutely none the wiser. ‘Where?’
‘That’s him, the one in the blue anorak.’
Oh good grief, how could anyone be cutting-edge in a turquoise anorak?
Then her gaze stuttered to a halt and her eyes locked with those of EJ Mack.
‘God, man, this is wicked,’ gushed Darren, appearing out of nowhere. ‘Look at him, he’s so brilliant.’
Tim, next to him, breathed enviously, ‘And he’s slept with some of the most beautiful women on the planet.’
Lola opened her mouth but no sound came out. Flanked by his publisher’s balding rep and blonde PR girl, EJ Mack approached them.
‘Well, this is a coincidence.’ Smiling, he stuck out his hand. ‘Who’d have thought we’d be bumping into each other again? How’s your partner?’
Lola tried her best to come up with an answer. Tim, keen to bridge a potentially awkward silence, leapt in with, ‘Hi, I’m Tim! She doesn’t have a partner.’
‘God, sorry.You mean you broke up? What’s going to happen with the baby?’
Funny how someone could look like a geeky speccy accountant-type one minute and not quite so geeky and accountanty the next, even if he was still wearing spectacles and that bizarre anorak.
Although now that she knew who he was, Lola could see that the silver-rimmed rectangular spectacles were probably trendy in an ironic postmodern kind of way.
‘It’s all going to be fine,’ she told EJ Mack.
‘Baby?’ Cheryl stared in disbelief at Lola’s stomach. ‘What baby?’
EJ Mack gave her a speculative look.
Right,’ Lola said hurriedly. ‘Let’s get this show on the road, shall we? Can I take your coat? And welcome to Kingsley’s! You’ve got lots of fans queuing up to meet you! And can I just say how much I enjoyed your book ...’
‘That’s very kind.’ EJ Mack slowly removed his anorak and passed it over to her. ‘Which chapter did you like best?’
‘Oh, um ... all of them.’
‘So that means you haven’t read it.’
‘Sorry, no, but I definitely will.’ Lola blinked as someone took a photograph. ‘Can I get you a drink? Coffee, water, anything else?’
Did my publisher not send you my list of needs? Bourbon biscuits,’ E J Mack said gravely.
‘Peeled grapes. And a bottle of Jack Daniels.’
Cheryl was still frowning. ‘What baby?’
The signing session had been a great success. In the music world EJ was a 31-year-old legend and devotees of his work were thrilled to have this chance to meet him. EJ in turn didn’t disappoint them, he was charming, witty and interested in talking about music. He had worked with everyone who was anyone and plenty of tonight’s book-buyers were keen for him to work with them too. By the time they’d finished, EJ had been saddled with a stack of CDs pressed upon him by starry-eyed wannabes.
‘Occupational hazard,’ he said good-naturedly
‘I’ll get you a carrier bag,’ Lola offered.
‘I’d rather have a private word, if that’s all right. In your office?’
Bum, so he hadn’t forgotten. Lola felt herself go pink, glanced awkwardly at her watch. ‘Um .. ‘
‘Just for a couple of minutes.’ Turning to the rep and the PR girl, EJ said, ‘That’s OK, isn’t it?’
‘Of course it’s OK,’ the PR girl exclaimed. ‘Take as long as you like! Take a couple of hours if you want to!’ Because being lovely to her company’s authors was her job.
The light glinted off EJ’s steel-rimmed spectacles as he smiled briefly at the enthusiastic blonde.
‘Don’t worry, a couple of minutes will be fine.’
Once inside the office Lola said, ‘OK, I’m sorry, I told a fib.’
‘More than one, at a guess.’ He leaned against the chaotic desk, counting off on his fingers. ‘The pregnant woman isn’t – never was – your partner. Was she even pregnant?’ Shamefaced, Lola said, ‘No’
‘And the smell?’
‘We boiled an awful lot of cabbage.’
‘You really didn’t want me moving into that flat, did you?’
‘Oh, please don’t take it personally. We didn’t know who you were. Whoever turned up, we were just going to do everything we could to put them off. Like playing that music ...’ Lola’s voice trailed away, because they’d been playing Eminem. Damn, hadn’t she overheard a fan earlier, gushing about the album EJ had worked on with Eminem?
‘Hmm.’ EJ raised an eyebrow ‘The music was fine, it was the dancing that worried me. So who lives there now?’
‘Um, Sally. The one who wasn’t pregnant. And the guy who was meant to be letting the flat unexpectedly came back from Australia so they’re both in there now, driving each other nuts.’
Eagerly Lola said, ‘So in fact you had a bit of a lucky escape ..’
‘Look, it’s not that big a deal.’ He shrugged and helped himself to a liquorice allsort from the bag on the desk. ‘I live in Hertfordshire and staying in hotels whenever I’m up in town gets tedious. I just thought it’d be easier to have a base here, somewhere to crash when I can’t be bothered to drive home. I’m renting a place in Hampstead now’
Lola was just glad he’d taken it in his stride. ‘Well, I’m sorry we messed you about.’
‘Don’t worry about it.’ His gaze slid downwards to where, having eased off one shoe, Lola was surreptitiously flexing her aching toes. ‘Been a long day?’
‘Just a bit. I can’t wait to get home and run a bath.’ Relieved to have been forgiven, she confided, ‘My feet are killing me and I’m completely shattered.’
‘Shame, I was just about to ask if you fancied a drink. Ah well, never mind.’
‘Oh!’ Lola’s eyes widened.
‘Doesn’t matter. Thanks for this evening anyway, I enjoyed it.’ EJ had reached the office door now. ‘Shall we go?’
‘But ... but ...’ Wow, that was an invitation she hadn’t expected, a bolt from the blue. Following him, Lola said, ‘Well, maybe a drink wouldn’t be so—’
No, no, you’re too tired.’ He turned back, his thin clever face pale beneath the overhead fluorescent strip lighting. ‘Forget I asked. You get yourself home and jump into that hot bath.’
With a glimmer of a smile he added, ‘You do look exhausted.’ Ouch. Or maybe touché. Talk about getting your own back.
The advance proof copy of EJ Mack’s book, given to her months ago by the publisher’s sales rep, was lying under her bed unopened and covered in dust. Wiping it clean on the carpet, Lola raced barefoot across the landing to 73C. Oh, for heaven’s sake, Gabe was bound to be out and he hadn’t thought to leave the door on the latch; how long was she going to have to wait for Sally to hobble across and unlock it?
Impatiently she hammered on the door. ‘Sal, quick, just roll off that sofa, crawl over here and let me in this minute because you are not going to believe who I met tonight!’ Then, as the door began to open, ‘And by the way, everyone at work was agog when they heard you were my pregnant lesbian lover— ooh!’
Of course it hadn’t been Sally answering the door that quickly. Of course it had to be Doug, whom Lola hadn’t seen for three weeks, not since New Year’s Eve at the Carrick when she’d made such a dazzling impression. Bloody Mary Ann Cross.
‘So now you’re having a lesbian affair with my sister.’ Doug shook his head in resignation. ‘My God, you really do want to give my mother a heart attack.’
‘Sorry. Hi, Doug, I didn’t know you were here.’ Otherwise I’d have quickly redone my make-up and definitely not just made myself that cheese and pickled onion toasted sandwich.
‘You know, I wish I was gay,’ complained Sally, lying in state across the sofa. ‘We’re far nicer people. It’s got to be easier fancying women than fancying men.’
‘Not when they reek of pickled onions,’ said Doug. Ouch.
Then again, speaking of fancying men. Doing her best not to breathe near him, Lola said, ‘No Isabel tonight?’ and for a split second allowed herself to get her hopes up. (Isabel, I’m sorry, it’s not you I love, it’s—’)
‘Yes, I’m here too!’ Emerging from the kitchen with a tray, Isabel said gaily, ‘Hi, Lola, look at us, meals on wheels!’
‘I ran out of milk.’ Sally eased herself into more of a sitting position, wincing with pain as she shifted her leg a couple of inches on its pile of cushions. ‘Gabe’s been gone for hours and he gets cross with me when I keep phoning him, so I gave Doug a call instead.’
To be fair to Gabe, Lola had heard about last night’s debacle when, whilst queuing at the pharmacy for Sally’s ibuprofen capsules, he had missed a headline-making punch-up between two A-listers outside Nobu.
‘Poor lamb, stuck here all on her own with no milk for a cup of tea,’ Isabel trilled. ‘Then when we said we’d pop over with a couple of pints she mentioned how hungry she was and asked us to bring her a takeaway.’
The poor starving lamb had the grace to look faintly ashamed at this point, as well she might.
Lola said indignantly, ‘What happened to the lasagne I brought over this morning? All you had to do was heat it up.’
‘It’s still in the fridge,’ Sally admitted. ‘Sorry, I was just in the mood for a Chinese.’ Hastily she changed the subject. ‘So who did you meet tonight?’
Lola’s stomach was still rumbling, baying for attention, despite the toasted sandwich. Oh well, if Sally didn’t want the lasagne — the delicious home-made lasagne she’d put together completely from scratch — she’d jolly well eat it herself. ‘Remember the geeky speccy guy who wanted this flat? Him!’