Pru was getting hassle from her spaghetti. It was playing her up. Twirling away valiantly, willing the stuff to stay on her fork, she wondered enviously what it must be like to be Liza, who seldom bothered to even glance down at her plate, yet whose spaghetti miraculously stayed put.
It was New Year’s Eve, four o’clock in the afternoon and already dark outside. In Liza Lawson’s Provençal-style kitchen, around the scrubbed pine kitchen table, sat Dulcie, Liza and Pru, lining their stomachs in preparation for the long night ahead.
Far too impatient to bother with Le Twirl, Dulcie had used the edge of her fork as a knife and hacked her spaghetti to bits. It might not be the done thing but it was efficient; her stomach was no longer empty and her plate was clear. Anyway, if you couldn’t do the undone thing in Liza’s kitchen, amongst friends, where could you do it?
Having finished eating, Dulcie pulled a battered exercise book from her bag. ‘Look what my mother found the other week during a clear-out.’ She held it up for them to see. Emblazoned across the cover, in loopy, eighties-style lettering, were the words PRIVATE, KEEP OUT and TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSTITUTED.
‘My little joke,’ Dulcie said fondly. ‘I was fifteen. Imagine.’ Resting her chin on the cupped palm of her hand, Liza grinned.
‘I was never fifteen.’
‘I spent ten years being fifteen,’ said Pru with feeling. When everyone else had graduated to tights, her domineering mother had refused to let her wear them. Pru’s recurring nightmare had involved walking up the aisle in white knee socks.
‘We were all fifteen,’ Dulcie reminded them, ‘and all at the same time. This is the whole point of having friends of your own age,’ she explained with exaggerated patience, ‘so you can share your experiences. Like when you had a crush on Simon Le Bon, they had one too. When you couldn’t sleep at night for worrying about that huge spot on your chin, at least you knew they were worrying about their spots as well. And when you weren’t sure about one or two of the facts of life, you always had someone to ask who wouldn’t laugh.’
‘I never had spots,’ said Liza.
‘And you both definitely laughed when I asked you about French kissing,’ Pru pointed out. ‘You told me it was to do with French letters and the boy having to wear a condom on his tongue.
Honestly, it’s a wonder I ever kissed anyone after that.’
Dulcie giggled, recalling her lecture on the subject and Pru’s solemn belief in every word.
‘Anyway,’ said Liza, ‘that was donkeys’ years ago.’ Reaching across the table, she filled their glasses with Pouilly-Fumé. ‘And this is New Year’s Eve. We’re supposed to be making resolutions.’
‘That’s why I brought the book along.’ Opening it, Dulcie riffled through graffiti-strewn pages.
‘God, school must’ve been boring to make me doodle this much. Ah, here it is.’ Triumphantly she showed them the list. ‘January the first. My New Year’s resolutions are: 1. Buy a black satin shirt (long pointed collar).
2. Snog you-know-who.
3. Do more homework, especially maths.
4. Watch Top of the Pops every week.
5. Keep my room tidy.
6. Buy silver nail polish.
7. Join the Starsky and Hutch fan club.’
‘A black satin shirt with a long collar.’ Liza pulled a face. ‘Yuk.’
‘The ones about doing more homework and keeping my room tidy were in case my mother had a snoop.’
Pru was looking puzzled. ‘Who was you-know-who?’
‘D’you know, I haven’t the foggiest. I’ve been trying to remember. Isn’t it sweet, though?’ said Dulcie happily. ‘When I was fifteen those were my New Year’s resolutions. That was what mattered. Such innocence.’
‘Things are a bit different now,’ Liza mocked. ‘Sixteen years later. We’re ancient.’
‘Go on then.’ Dulcie closed the book. ‘What’s your resolution for this year?’
Liza’s humorous dark-brown eyes flicked from Dulcie to Pru.
‘Oh, I want to get married.’
She spoke with the easy confidence of one who knows all she has to do is take her pick.
‘How about you, Pru?’ asked Dulcie.
Pru took a gulp of wine. She thought of Phil, her husband, and the odd way he had been behaving recently. She hoped nothing was wrong at work.
‘I just want to stay married.’
Dulcie was leaning her chair back on its hind legs, wondering again who you-know-who could possibly have been. It was frustrating not being able to remember. Glancing at her watch, she realised she should be making a move. Patrick would go mental if she was late home; they were supposed to be meeting friends at seven, before going on to the country club dance.
‘Dulcie,’ prompted Liza. ‘Your turn.’
‘Me?’ Dulcie brought the chair back down on to all fours with a thump. ‘All I want is a divorce.’
‘So who’s the lucky chap?’ Dulcie asked Liza as they said their goodbyes on the doorstep.
‘Anyone we know?’
‘Haven’t decided yet.’ Shivering in a thin white shirt, Liza hugged herself and edged back into the hall. Glancing up, she saw a couple of moths batting furiously around the outside light like rival lovers competing for attention.
‘Still road-testing, I suppose. So many men, so little time.’ Dulcie was flippant. What did Liza expect, sympathy? ‘Maybe it’s just as well you aren’t coming to tonight’s bash at the club. Less competition for me.’ She looked smug. ‘Personally I plan on snogging as many men as I can get my hands on.’
‘You’ll have to catch them first.’ Liza’s smile was deceptively innocent. ‘Do you have any idea how much garlic went into that pasta sauce?’
Dulcie’s hands flew to her mouth in horror.
‘I hate you,’ she exclaimed. ‘When I said I wanted men to fall at my feet, I meant them to be overcome with lust, not garlic fumes.’
‘You shouldn’t want men to fall at your feet. You’ve got Patrick.’
‘I’m tired of Patrick!’ It came out as a howl. ‘Dammit, you know better than anyone how that feels! How come you’re allowed to do it and I’m not?’
‘I’m not married.’
‘Of course you aren’t! Who’d have you?’
‘Come on, if you want a lift home,’ said Pru, because once these two started, they could bicker for England.
‘I’m coming, I’m coming. Even if my life is over.’ Dulcie huffed into her cupped hands and gazed heart-rendingly at Pru. ‘Can we stop off at a chemist on the way, pick up some Gold Spot?’
‘Bye,’ said Liza, hugging them both. She kissed first Pru’s icy cheek then Dulcie’s indignant one. ‘And let’s have a Happy New Year. May all our resolutions come true.’
When it came to people’s lives, it was generally agreed that Liza Lawson’s was the kind you could envy.
She was single, successful, blonde and beautiful, with dark- brown, come-to-bed-this-minute eyes, flawless skin and a bewitching smile.
There is little more alluring than a woman utterly at ease with her body, and Liza – a curvy size fourteen – had never experienced the slightest urge to diet. She liked herself just as she was, and everyone else seemed to as well. She’d certainly never had any complaints.
Liza’s job was pretty enviable too. Her career as a food writer had received a massive boost eighteen months earlier when she had landed the plum position of restaurant critic for the dazzlingly successful Herald on Sunday. Now, each week, her article appeared beneath the same photograph of herself smiling provocatively up from the last page of the colour supplement, with her gold-blonde hair falling over one shoulder and the beginnings of a heavenly cleavage peeping over the scooped-out top of a low-cut black velvet dress.
Men were forever falling in love with this photograph of Liza, and writing to tell her so.
Women envied her, because if looking like that and eating for a living wasn’t a dream existence, they didn’t know what was.
And restaurant owners wondered frustratedly why they had never spotted Liza Lawson in their restaurants, even when they knew she’d visited them because there in the Herald’s glossy Sunday supplement was the review.
Waking up late the following morning, Liza made her way gingerly downstairs. Two letters lay on the mat by the front door. She stuffed them into her dressing gown pocket, put the kettle on for coffee and opened the new packet of paracetamol she had had the foresight to buy yesterday afternoon. A hangover on New Year’s Day was pretty much de rigueur; it was just a shame the way the older you got, the more blistering the effects became.
It was also a shame she had to work today, but a deadline was a deadline and the job had to be done. Slotting bread into the toaster – just one slice, to reassure her nervous stomach – she made coffee and hoped her appetite would recover in time for lunch.
While Liza ate breakfast she played back last night’s messages on the ansaphone. One was from an old lover, calling from London to wish her a happy New Year and inviting her to visit him at any time. The second was from her sister in New Zealand, drunkenly bawling ‘Auld Lang Syne’
down the phone along with what sounded like an entire team of All Blacks. The third message was from someone called Alistair, sounding self-conscious but determined, shyly telling her that having for many months admired her from afar, he would be thrilled if Liza would do him the honour of accompanying him to the theatre one night.
. we’ve never spoken, but maybe you’ve noticed me playing squash at the country club,’ he explained falteringly. ‘I’m thirty-seven, six foot two, not in bad shape ... um, I have dark hair, grey eyes and I drive a blue Volvo. Does this ring any bells?’
‘No,’ said Liza, swallowing another paracetamol.
‘... oh dear, this isn’t working out.’ Alistair’s voice was sounding worried now. ‘I don’t know how else to describe myself. Look, I’ll hang up. I don’t live too far from you. Why don’t I drop a photograph of myself through your door? Then at least you’ll know—’
At that point the tape ran out, because Liza had forgotten to rewind it the night before.
‘Good thinking, Alistair.’ She smiled as she retrieved the envelopes from her pocket. The first was a belated Christmas card from another ex, married and with children now but from the wry postscript sounding as if he wished he weren’t. ‘Missing you,’ Liza read at the bottom of the card. ‘Really missing you. How about dinner sometime?’ And he had scrawled the number of his mobile phone.
The second envelope, hand-delivered as promised, contained a small photograph of Alistair, whom she wouldn’t haverecognised if he’d run her over in his blue Volvo. Still, he looked perfectly presentable and considering he was shy, the note enclosed with the photo was written in a masterful hand.
‘Have I made a complete pig’s ear of this attempt to ask you out?’ he had written with endearing candour. ‘I assure you, I’m not the hopeless case you must by now think I am. A few more salient details – I’m a barrister, divorced, three children, healthy income, detached house, fond of theatre, opera, Scrabble and Maltesers. Now I’m embarrassed again – I sound like a one-man dating agency. Enough. If you would like to contact me, my number is ... If the prospect is too awful, please throw note and photo away and pretend this never happened. But I hope you don’t.
Yours respectfully, Alistair Kline.’
This was the kind of thing that happened to Liza. It was the kind of girl she was.
When Dulcie accused Liza of being a flirt, Liza declared she wasn’t. Men simply liked her; she didn’t do anything to actively encourage them. The way she acted towards men was never contrived.
‘Do I flutter my eyelashes at them? Do I flash my cleavage?’ she argued. ‘Do I clutch their biceps and tell them how big and strong they are? No I do not. I never do any of that. You do.’
This was true, Dulcie couldn’t deny it.
‘I’m married; it doesn’t count. Anyway, that’s harmless flirting. Amateur stuff. You’re the professional. You don’t make men think you’re flirting with them, you make them think you’re in love with them. Dammit,’ protested Dulcie, ‘you make the poor sods think they’re the only person on the planet worth being with.’
‘Of course I’m jealous! I want to know how you bloody do it.’
Having witnessed the phenomenon a million times, Dulcie had an inkling. She suspected it had something to do with Liza’s dark-brown eyes and the way she looked at men when she was talking to them, the way she concentrated on them with such total absorption, the way she smiled
Sadly, it didn’t appear to be copyable. Dulcie had tried it a few times herself on her own in front of a mirror, but — being brutally honest here — all she’d looked was constipated.
There must be an art to bewitching men, and you either had it or you didn’t. Dulcie could do standard flirting — she giggled, she joked, she could make men laugh, which was something —
but she was never going to be in Liza’s league. Which was a shame, because it was undeniably a handy knack to have.
Yet Liza, in turn, envied Dulcie, because attracting men might never have been a problem but staying interested once she’d got them was something else again.
She didn’t know why, she simply couldn’t do it. Something to do with a low boredom threshold, maybe. She could adore them initially, fall head over heels in lust, love — whatever — think this is it, this is the big one ... then after four or five weeks the old, niggling tell-tale signs would begin to surface. She’d got to know them, she was up to date with the stories of their lives, she’d heard all their best jokes. Insidiously, boredom started to set in. While they were still enraptured by Liza, Liza found herself noting — and becoming increasingly irritated by — the way they cleared their throats, scraped their forks on their dinner plates, revealed a penchant for irritating catch-phrases, watched endless reruns of Star Trek .. .
It was a failing over which she had no control. Liza thought she must be a hopelessly shallow person, happy to pick the icing off the cake but uninterested in the sponge underneath. Once she grew tired of someone, there could be no going back. The adrenaline had seeped away, the spark was gone. Another relationship bit the dust.
It was sad. Liza sometimes wondered if she would ever meet a man who didn’t bore her witless.
She so badly wanted to. She wanted to be normal, to marry someone and have childrenand grandchildren. She wanted to share a life with them, not a few giddy weeks. At the rate she was going, she was going to end up a sad old maid.
This was why she envied Dulcie, who might now be hell- bent on divorce but who had at least spent the last six years married to the same man.
Liza pulled up outside the Songbird at one o’clock. It was a newish restaurant several miles to the west of Bath, whose delights — or otherwise — she had intended to investigate a fortnight ago but a streaming cold had put paid to that. When you were a restaurant critic, a sense of smell and fully functioning tastebuds were a bit of a must.
But the Herald on Sunday needed the piece in order to make the printer’s deadline, and it had to be faxed through before tomorrow. Luckily, although most restaurants didn’t open for lunch on New Year’s Day, the Songbird did.
Liza briefly checked her reflection in the car’s rear-view mirror. It was amazing the effect a nondescript mousy wig, minimal make-up and a pair of unflattering spectacles could have. She was never recognised. Never chatted up, either. No men cast admiring glances in her direction.
She was so uninteresting they seldom even acknowledged her presence. She became invisible.
It was an experience that never failed to entertain Liza. Handy, too, when you didn’t want the publicity-hungry restaurateurs to know who you were.
Mark was already there, waiting for her, when she entered the restaurant. An ex with whom she had stayed on friendly terms — because he might be mad about Star Trek but at least he shared her passion for good food — he greeted Liza with a grin and a kiss on her un-made-up cheek. A dining companion was another must-have in Liza’s line of work, enabling two meals to be assessed rather than just one. It also meant thestaff’s curiosity wasn’t aroused by the sight of a woman — albeit a mousy one — lunching alone.
‘You look well,’ Mark told her, when the waiter had taken Liza’s sensible navy-blue mac. ‘New outfit?’
She was wearing a high-necked cream blouse, brown cardigan, calf-length beige pleated skirt and sturdy lace-ups. Mark adored the subterfuge; it gave him a kick. When he shared these meals with Liza he frequently found himself on the receiving end of sympathetic glances from waitresses wondering why a good-looking chap like him should be landed with such a frump.
They were seated in a far corner and left to study their menus. An agitated-looking blonde in her mid-twenties whisked through from the kitchen, murmured something to another waiter and whisked back again. As the doors swung shut behind her, the smell of burned garlic wafted across to their table. A party of eight, evidently still going strong from the night before, piled noisily into the restaurant and bombarded the girl behind the bar with orders. A loud cheer went up as the girl fumbled and dropped a glass on the tiled floor.
This could be promising. Liza had been given a lecture at the staff Christmas party by her editor-in-chief.
‘We’ve been getting a bit of negative feedback,’ he had explained as he sloshed whisky into a half-pint mug. ‘Your reviews, my darling. Too complimentary by half. Some readers are asking if the restaurants pay us to advertise them. All this crap about enchanting presentation ... elegant sauces .. . heavenly fish dishes ... darling, a critic has to criticise, don’t you see? You need to get the claws out, bitch it up a bit. Be wicked! Think more Michael Winner, less Dana. More Private Eye, less Hello! magazine. Aim for the jugular, sweetheart. Give the readers something to smirk about. Don’t be afraid to make those restaurant owners cry.’
Liza didn’t want to be Michael Winner. She wasn’t naturally an aim-for-the-jugular type. But she saw her editor’s point and the Dana jibe had hurt.
In the past she knew she had tended to gloss over the occasional less-than-perfect paella, the chef’s overexuberant use of salt, the insufficiently chilled vichyssoise.
Maybe she was about to have her chance to bitch it up a bit, here at the Songbird. Liza glanced across at the flustered waitress on her knees sweeping up broken glass and mentally hardened her heart. If the meal wasn’t up to scratch, she decided, she would go for it.
She still had the remains of her hangover too. That would help.
To begin with, Liza chose deep-dish aubergine Parmesan torte. Which was good, if a bit on the heavy side. The accompanying tomato sauce could have done with being a little less sweet.
Mark had Provençal fish soup. He pronounced it delicious. Liza tasted some.
‘Too much saffron,’ she remarked briskly. ‘And the bread should be hot.’
Mark raised his eyebrows.
‘Whose bed did you get out of on the wrong side this morning?’
‘No one’s. I’m in training to be a cow.’
The restaurant was beginning to fill up. The party of eight, seated by the window at the front of the restaurant, emptied bottles of wine at a rate of knots and sang rousing choruses of ‘Why Are We Waiting?’. The flustered waitress, serving them finally, got her bottom pinched. The other girl, the blonde, came out of the kitchen and told them sharply to keep their wandering hands to themselves. Three fingers on her own left hand were adorned with blue catering plasters.
‘What happened?’ jeered the chief bottom-pincher. ‘Don’t tell me, you tried to stab the chef and missed.’
For their main course, Mark had ordered tournedos of beef with wild mushrooms and vin santo.
‘Is the steak tough?’ Liza asked eagerly.’No.’
‘You asked for it rare. That’s not rare, it’s medium.’ Mark sat back in his chair.
‘I don’t think I like you like this.’
‘It’s my job.’ Narrow-eyed, she surveyed her lamb with polenta and artichokes. It looked divine, which was no good at all.
Happily, when she tasted the lamb with its herb and breadcrumb coating, she hit paydirt. The garlic they had smelled burning earlier was right here, on her plate.
The wine was good and Mark stubbornly refused to fault his sweet – which was a trio of home-made ice creams in a brandy snap basket – but Liza was well into her stride now. Her plum and apricot tart was definitely stodgy, the sweet almond pastry case way too thick. The crust around the edge, which had been doused with icing sugar in a futile attempt at a cover-up, was burnt.
‘It’s busy,’ said Mark, valiantly defending the little restaurant. ‘Must be good to be so popular.’
‘It’s New Year’s Day.’ Liza wasn’t to be deterred. ‘Everywhere else is shut. Anyway,’ she pointed out, ‘you’re only saying that because you fancy the blonde.’
‘I feel sorry for her. Poor thing, she’s in a flap.’
‘Not surprising. I’d flap too, if I had to serve up burnt offerings like this.’
‘Shall we ask for the bill?’
‘No way. I want to try the coffee. Wouldn’t it be fab if it was instant? Oh my God—’
Liza stared at the door, opening to admit two more customers.
Twisting round in his seat, Mark craned his neck to see who had come in. Liza was just glad she was wearing her glasses and mousy wig.
It was Phil Kasteliz, Pru’s husband. He was laughing and holding the hand of a woman with piled-up white-blonde hair.
Her leopard-print top ended above her belly button, and a black rubber skirt began several inches below it. The amount of make-up she wore was staggering. She looked like Lily Savage, only less demure.
She wasn’t Pru by a long chalk.
‘That bastard,’ Liza hissed as the waitress showed them to their table. The moment they were seated, the blonde slipped off one spiky black stiletto and began teasing Phil with her toes.
Mark looked ill at ease. He hated scenes. (It was another reason Liza had gone off him; his anything-for-a-quiet-life attitude had driven her to distraction.)
‘Who is he?’ He prayed it wasn’t the latest man in Liza’s life. She was in such a weird mood today. He prayed even harder she wasn’t about to start a cat fight.
‘His name’s Phil. He’s the pig my friend Pru’s married to.’ Her dark eyes narrowed to slits. ‘I think I want to kill him.’
‘So that isn’t his wife?’
‘That old bike, are you kidding? My God, the nerve of the man!’
Liza’s knuckles were white around her pudding fork. Mark envisaged the headlines: RESTAURANT CRITIC PUNCTURES DINER TO DEATH.
Or: WOMAN FORKED TO DEATH.
Feeling sick, he said, ‘I don’t think you should cause a scene.’
Liza gave him a pitying look. ‘No, I’m sure you don’t.’
But for once Mark was right. Maybe it was just as well Phil hadn’t recognised her, although his attention was so clearly taken up with his companion she doubted whether her disguise was even necessary. From the look of him, he’d hardly notice if the SAS stormed the restaurant and smoke-bombed the place.
Liza had never had much time for Phil Kasteliz. She wouldn’t have liked him even if he wasn’t an estate agent. Despite working long hours – allegedly – he always seemed tohave plenty of time left over for gambling, drinking and having a laugh with The Lads.
Pru, who adored him, stoutly maintained that she didn’t mind her husband’s late-night excursions to Bath’s clubs and casinos. Phil worked hard, she explained patiently whenever anyone dared to criticise him. He needed to relax. He wasn’t the stay-at-home, watch-a-bit-of-TV and put-up-a-few-shelves type. Anyway, Pru invariably ended up saying, where was the harm? At least Phil wasn’t a womaniser, she had no worries on that score. He was far more interested in roulette.
Shame it wasn’t the Russian kind, thought Liza, who had never believed a word of it anyway.
When you were as generally lacking in moral values as Phil Kasteliz, what would be the point in making the effort to remain faithful? It was like expecting a crack addict to throw up his hands in horror and say: Oh no, I’d never touch grass.
So it didn’t exactly come as a surprise to find Pru’s husband dabbling in adultery, but the urge to kill him was still there.
What annoyed Liza more than anything was the kind of woman Phil was with. It was shaming to Pru. Letting her down.
If he had to cheat on her, he could at least have had the decency to do it with someone who wasn’t a complete dog.
‘Umm ... would you like coffee?’
The young waitress was back, escaping further hassle from the rugby types and looking closer than ever to a nervous breakdown. It occurred to Mark that any stabbing spree instigated by Liza would give the waitress just the opportunity she needed to join in.
Imagine the headlines then:
BLOODBATH AT THE SONGBIRD.
No, even snappier: BLOODBATH IN BATH.
He began to nod. Liza shook her head.
‘Just the bill, thanks.’
As the waitress hurriedly began clearing their table, her hand slipped. The chargrilled pastry Liza had left on her plate slid on to the tablecloth.
‘Oh God I’m sorry—’
Liza wasn’t normally rude but Phil Kasteliz hadn’t improved her mood. She picked up the pastry, examined it speculatively for a moment and said, ‘So am I.’
On their way out they passed within feet of Phil and his lunch companion. The woman, pretending to read Phil’s palm, was saying, ‘... I predict an afternoon in bed with a sexy blonde.’
Phil’s answering smirk was too much for Liza to bear. Just loudly enough for him to hear – and when she was sure he couldn’t see her face – she murmured to Mark, ‘Yes, but where on earth’s he going to find one?’
There was no denying it; when you were in the mood, writing a really bitchy review was fun.
And easy, too. The six-hundred word piece practically wrote itself.
‘Was the chef at the Songbird having an off-day,’ Liza tapped into her word processor, ‘or a day off?’
Too cruel? N000.
.. I couldn’t help noticing the management’s advice to book early in order to avoid disappointment. Well, if you really want to avoid disappointment, my advice to you would be don’t book at all.’
Unfair? Unkind? Maybe, but it was the truth.
.. unable to face the prospect of coffee, we left. Happily, the day wasn’t totally wasted. On our way home we stopped at Reg’s mobile café on the A46. Reg’s egg and chips,’ Liza concluded with a flourish, ‘were heaven on a plate. Not a speck of burnt garlic in sight.’
True? Well, not quite. Reg’s had been shut. But if he had been open, she was sure she would have enjoyed his egg and chips.
Liza might have envied Dulcie her marriage but as far as Dulcie was concerned, marriage sucked.
Anyway, she had made her New Year’s resolution now. And she was jolly well going to keep it.
Yes, it was a shame, especially when everyone was forever telling you how lucky you were to be married to someone as dishy and wonderful as Patrick Ross in the first place, but they didn’t know what it was really like. Because what was the point of having a dishy and wonderful husband when you hardly ever got the chance to experience his dishyness because all he ever did was bloody work work work?
It was particularly annoying, Dulcie mused, when you had been so sure you’d hit the marital jackpot. After years of falling for the wrongest men imaginable – and boy, had she had a talent for sniffing them out – meeting Patrick had come as such a shock to the system she’d barely known how to handle him. It had taken her months to learn to trust him, to realise she didn’t need to know how to handle Patrick, because he wasn’t playing an elaborate trick on her, he actually was as nice as he seemed.
Weird. It took some getting used to, especially when you were as addicted to bastards as she had been. HHB, Liza had called it, as in: ‘Oh, Dulcie’s HHB. Hopelessly Hooked on Bastards.’
She hadn’t meant to be, but somehow that was always the way Dulcie’s relationships had managed to turn out. Something to do with the adrenalin rush that went hand in hand with chronic insecurity, or some such crap. Reading about it once in a magazine, Dulcie had recognised herself at once. Any man who was nice to you clearly didn’t deserve you and had to be a complete wimp. If, on the other hand, he lied, cheated and treated you like dirt, you obviously didn’t deserve someone as fantastic as he was and were promptly desperate to hang on to him at all costs.
Except Patrick Ross hadn’t been awful to her, nor was he a wimp. He had obviously never studied the rule book. Confusion all round. Patrick was witty, he was smart, he had girls drooling over him everywhere he went. Even Dulcie’s parents had approved of him, which was a startling new experience for all concerned.
Patrick had carried on being charming, phoning when he said he’d phone and turning up when he said he’d turn up. He brought Dulcie presents, made her laugh and never embarrassed her at parties. Other girls, pea green with envy, continued to swoon. Dulcie’s mother even looked once or twice as if she might swoon too.
It took time, but in the end Dulcie couldn’t fight it any more. She resigned her membership of the HHB club and allowed herself to fall in love with Patrick Ross. She was twenty-five, he was thirty-three. She was lazy, he was ambitious. She liked chicken breast, he liked leg. She enjoyed a drink, Patrick ‘Better keep a clear head, big meeting tomorrow’ preferred to drive.
It was a match made in heaven. It was perfect.
For the first four years at least.
Things had only started to go really wrong when Patrick, tired of making money for the computer company for which he was working, decided to take the plunge and set up in business on his own. The hours he put in were ridiculous. He made junior doctors look like part-timers.
He would leave the house before Dulcie was awake and return home just as she was crawling back into bed.
‘I never see you,’ she wailed one night when it all got toomuch. ‘You never see me with make-up on. It’s not fair ...’
‘I’m sorry.’ Patrick sat down on the bed and hugged her, getting moisturiser all over the lapels of his best suit. ‘I know it isn’t fair, but I’m doing it for us. From now on things will be better, I promise. I’ll do more work from home.’
He had been as good as his word and the result had been as disastrous as Dulcie had known it would be. She’d have got more conversation out of a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork. Patrick’s body might be there but his mind was so occupied with work it may as well have disappeared on a round-theworld cruise.
Like a small child desperate for attention, Dulcie found herself putting three sugars in the cups of tea she took him, just to provoke a reaction. One evening, frustrated beyond endurance and having read in Cosmopolitan that the element of surprise could pep up a marriage no end, she danced naked into Patrick’s study, threw herself on to his lap and uncorked a bottle of champagne with her teeth. Children, don’t try this at home. All it achieved was foam everywhere, a chipped upper molar and a fused disk drive. All the work Patrick had been about to save was lost and he had needed to stay up all night replacing it.
Dulcie considered suing Cosmopolitan. Her marriage had been pepped down.
‘Get a job,’ Liza had suggested when Dulcie had moaned to her about how bored she was.
‘Are you mad?’ Dulcie looked appalled. ‘The whole point of Patrick working these stupid hours is to make money. The last thing we need is me slogging my guts out as well, earning more of the stuff. That really would defeat the object.’
‘You might enjoy it.’
‘No I wouldn’t.’ Honestly, Liza had the oddest ideas sometimes.
‘Okay, what about charity work? Just a few hours a week.’
‘For heaven’s sake,’ cried Dulcie, ‘aren’t I already suffering enough?’
Happily, another of Liza’s suggestions met with greater success.
‘Why don’t you come along to Brunton Manor? Give it a try?’
Brunton Manor Country Club, situated three miles outside Bath, was where Liza went to play tennis and squash. Pru, also a member, swam there two or three times a week.
Dulcie, who was to sport what Scooby Doo was to astrophysics, wrinkled her nose.
‘Don’t give me that look. You might enjoy it,’ Liza argued.
‘People say that when they try and make you eat frogs’ legs.’
‘And you don’t have to do anything sporty if you don’t want to. Brunton’s a country club, not the Foreign Legion. During the day it’s full of pampered housewives drinking gin and ogling the musclemen in the gym.’
Perking up considerably at this news, particularly cheered by the prospect of a little gentle ogling, Dulcie had agreed to go along and check it out.
Brunton Manor had proved a revelation. It was, quite simply, one of the most glamorous country clubs in England.
The old manor house itself, two hundred years old and built of honey-coloured Bath stone, was gloriously situated on the side of a hill with unrivalled views over the Langley Stoke Valley. The estate surrounding the house comprised ninety-three acres of wooded and landscaped gardens.
The sporting facilities were, of course, superb.
The club prided itself on its decidedly upmarket image, and astronomical membership fees ensured it stayed that way. People liked to boast – in passing – that they belonged to Brunton; it was on a par with casually flashing a platinum Amex. If having to pay next year’s fees was likely to keep you awake at night, Brunton wasn’t the place for you. You went somewhere less exclusive instead.
Dulcie had fallen in love with the club at first sight. Brunton Manor was her idea of heaven.
You really didn’t have to be energetic at all.There was an endless supply of gin, as promised.
There was a sun-drenched terrace overlooking the glittering turquoise outdoor pool and – as Liza had also promised – plenty to ogle.
There was a terrific restaurant, a cinema, sunbeds, saunas and a beauty salon. There were evening discos, impromptu parties and barbecues around the pool. It was the easiest place in the world in which to while away all those surplus hours. You could watch other members puffing and sweating their way through step classes or launching themselves around the squash courts.
You could jeer – quietly – at the Wimbledon wannabes playing hopeless tennis. You could admire the miraculous tanned legs of the tennis coaches. You could laze in the sun drinking Pimm’s and pretending to read a book.
Perhaps best of all – and Dulcie felt in this respect it had all the comradeship of an AA meeting, not of course that she had ever been to one – you could moan freely with the other wealthy, bored housewives about your workaholic husband and know they knew exactly what you meant.
As far as Dulcie was concerned, Brunton Manor was the answer to all her prayers. Miraculously, and certainly unintentionally, it had even turned out to be economical, since every day spent lazing by the pool in a bikini was a day not spent shopping in Bath.
The phone rang. Since Patrick was in his study working – well, it was New Year’s Day, a Bank Holiday, what else would you expect? – Dulcie picked it up.
‘It’s me,’ said Liza.
‘Oh well, I’m not speaking to you. That garlic totally wrecked my chances last night. Even Luigi in the wine bar pretended he couldn’t come near me because he’d got flu—’
‘Never mind your snogathon. I had lunch today at the Songbird and guess who was there?’
‘Cliff Richard and Angela Rippon. They were holding hands. No, wait, they were canoodling.
Don’t you love that word?’ Dulcie sighed. ‘Canoodle-oodle-oodling—’
‘Sometimes I wonder about you,’ said Liza.
‘You started it. Go on then, so who was he with if it wasn’t Angela Rippon?’
‘Phil was there. With another woman. In a rubber skirt.’
Liza said firmly, ‘She was the one wearing the skirt. And it isn’t funny. She was awful.’
‘Oh,’ said Dulcie. ‘Were they... um ... canoodling?’
Dulcie decided there must have been some kind of a mix-up, a typographical error, when God or whoever organised life had been organising Pru’s. She was supposed to have been given a loving husband. Instead she’d been landed with a roving one.
Poor Pru, it wasn’t what she deserved.
‘Did he see you?’
‘So what happens now?’
‘We’re going to tell her.’
When the phone had rung Dulcie had been draped across the sofa watching a trashy New Year’s Day-type film. Now, glancing across at the television, she saw the tear-stained heroine covering her face with her hands and sobbing: ‘But I love him, I love him! Please don’t do this to me ... I love him...’
Dulcie thought uncomfortably that nobody loved anyone more than Pru loved Phil.
‘It’ll kill her.’
‘She should know. It’s only fair. Dulcie, we have to tell her.’ Liza wasn’t a fan of dishonesty.
‘Okay, you do it. If you really have to:’
‘We’ll do it,’ Liza corrected her briskly. ‘Together.’
Pru and Phil Kasteliz lived in a modern detached house on the outskirts of Bath, on one of those exclusive keeping-up-with the-Joneses type of estates bristling with carriage lamps and bay trees.
Anyone whose car was more than two years old was regarded with suspicion. If your curtains weren’t swagged and tailed and your windows not cleaned every week you were riffraff. If the grass on your front lawn exceeded an inch and a half in length ... well, you were scum. Any small children, needless to say, were expected to show consideration for their neighbours and play quietly. And tidily. But preferably not at all.
It was that kind of estate.
‘What if he’s there?’ Dulcie peered ahead as they swung into Acacia Close. Loads of roads were called that, she really must find out what it meant. She wouldn’t know an acacia if it leapt up and bit her on the bum.
‘He won’t be. It’s Wednesday, everyone’s back at work. Anyway,’ Liza rounded the corner and nodded at the empty drive, ‘see? His car’s gone.’
‘I don’t know if we’re doing the right thing.’ Dulcie was already racked with guilt. It was all right for her, she wanted a divorce. Pru didn’t. ‘What if you got it wrong? It could have been an innocent meeting with a client.’
‘In a rubber skirt?’ Liza wasn’t having any of that. Her tone was dismissive. ‘And with her foot buried in his crotch? Come off it, the woman was a scrubber. If anyone was the client, it was Phil.’
When they rang the bell and the gold and white front door was pulled open, Liza got something of a shock to come face to face with the rubber-skirted scrubber herself.
Upstairs, Pru didn’t hear the doorbell. She was bent double with the hair dryer going full blast, putting the necessary lift into her straight conker-brown hair. Luckily it was thick and there was plenty of it; with a bit of tweaking and a lot of hairspray (maximum hold, what else?) the illusion would be complete. Her ears wouldn’t peep out, they wouldn’t even be glimpsed. There would not be the slightest tell-tale sign that they stuck out like jug handles at all.
Pru hated it that Phil’s pet name for her was Toby.
‘Well, I can hardly call you jugs, can I?’ he had quipped, eyeing her 32A breasts. Playfully he had tweaked her awful ears. ‘Come on, Pru, where’s your sense of humour! Would you prefer Dumbo?’
Pru would have preferred it if he’d stopped making perpetual fun of her ears. It was hard to have a sense of humour about something that had blighted your life since you were eleven when a group of boys in your class had asked how far you could fly.
She had tried sleeping with a scarf tied round her head, praying nightly that by morning she would wake up with miraculously flattened ears. She had even been so driven to desperation one Friday night that she had gone along with one of Dulcie’s brilliant suggestions.
This had involved superglue. ‘It’s what Clark Gable did,’ Dulcie had exclaimed, thrilled by her own cleverness. ‘It’ll be like instant plastic surgery, only pain free!’
As the doctor had later drily remarked, maybe they should have practised first with UHU. They had ended up in the casualty department of Bath Royal United with Dulcie’s right hand glued to Pru’s left ear, Dulcie’s left hand glued to a great deal of Pru’s hair and Pru in floods of humiliated tears.
Dulcie’s jokes that they were Siamese twins about to be separated didn’t help. Three hours of serious solvent abuse and intricate work with a scalpel later, they were allowed home.
‘Don’t do it again,’ warned the young male doctor, attempting to keep a straight face.
‘Oh well,’ Dulcie shrugged, ‘it was worth a try. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’
Pru, who had left most of her hair behind on the floor of the casualty department, was forced to endure the next six months with her ears on show while she sported the ultimate haircut from hell.
She jumped as the bedroom door swung open and Liza and Dulcie came in.
‘Hi!’ Pru switched off the hair dryer, delighted to see them. ‘What are you two doing here? Hang on a sec, I’ve just about finished.’
‘Pru, what’s that woman doing downstairs?’ demanded Liza.
‘You mean Blanche? Hoovering, I think.’ Pru reached for the Elnett and sprayed vigorously, checking her reflection in the dressing table mirror. There, magic. No ears.
But Liza, behind her, was looking grim. Pru swivelled round.
‘Why, what’s the matter? Don’t tell me you caught her pocketing the silver spoons?’
‘She’s ... your cleaner?’ Dulcie sounded dazed. Pru looked shamefaced.
‘I know. Mad, isn’t it? Here’s me, no job, at home all day .. . and I’ve got someone coming in to do the housework. Honestly, it was Phil’s idea. He got it into his head just before Christmas that everyone who’s anyone has to have a lady-who-does. I told him it was stupid, we didn’t need a cleaner, but you know what Phil’s like. As far as he’s concerned it’s another status symbol, like a Gucci belt.’ She paused, frowning. ‘Is everything okay? She wasn’t really nicking spoons, was she?’
Liza barely knew where to start. She’d never realised Phil could sink this low.
Dulcie, needing something to occupy her hands and determined to leave Liza to do the dirty work, began investigating the make-up on Pru’s pretty dressing table. As she undid the top of a pink Chanel lipstick the sound of the Hoover being switched on drifted up from downstairs.
‘This Blanche person. How did you find her?’ Liza realised she was prevaricating.
Dulcie closely examined a Lancôme mascara.
‘From an agency. She was highly recommended.’ Beginning to look flustered, Pru said, ‘She lives half a mile away, on the Everton estate. She’s divorced with two grown-up sons. I know she doesn’t look it, but she’s nearly forty ... Oh, for heaven’s sake, what’s wrong? What are you going to tell me, that she’s a mass murderer?’
Estee Lauder translucent powder and a swansdown puff. Nice. Dulcie picked up Pru’s bottle of Youth Dew and gave herself an experimental squirt.
‘Pru, I’m sorry. This isn’t easy.’
Get on with it, thought Dulcie.
‘The thing is ... the thing is ...’
This was Liza for you. All mouth and no trousers. Dulcie, who was leaning into the mirror trying out a smoky Clinique eyeshadow, said, ‘What Liza’s trying to tell you is that Phil’s the one who’s got himself a lady-who-does. Except we aren’t talking vacuum cleaners and I don’t think you can call her a lady.’
‘That isn’t fair,’ Pru sounded almost. angry. ‘Blanche is a hard worker. Just because her clothes are a bit ... well, a bit skimpy—’
‘I’m not talking about her clothes,’ said Liza.
‘And she isn’t only a hard worker,’ Dulcie put in, ‘she’s fast, too.’
Liza took the plunge.
‘Look, I saw them. Having lunch together on New Year’s Day.’
Pru’s face was white. ‘No you didn’t. Phil was working. He told me.’
‘I saw them. And I heard them. He’s having an affair with her.’ Liza shook her head. ‘I’m sorry.
I wish it wasn’t true, but it is.’
Dulcie thought she might buy herself one of these Clinique eyeshadows. She couldn’t bring herself to look at the expression on Pru’s face. Downstairs the Hoover was switched off.
Moments later there was a tap on the bedroom door.
‘All done, Pru. I’m off.’
Pru rose slowly to her feet and went to the door. Liza and Dulcie exchanged alarmed glances.
Liza swallowed. Dulcie held her breath.
‘Blimey, are you all right, love? You’re as white as a sheet.’
‘I’m fine, Blanche. I’ll come down with you. You’ll want your money.’
Dulcie, wearing too much eyeshadow, collapsed on the bed.
‘Will she kill her in the kitchen, d’you think?’
It was what Liza had had in mind at the Songbird. She moved across the room and opened the door a fraction. ‘If we hear a scream, we go down,’ she told Dulcie.
But all they heard was the low murmur of voices, the sound of Blanche’s high heels tip-tapping across glossy parquet, and the front door slamming shut.
Dulcie and Liza raced to the window in time to see Blanche, now wearing a red leather bomber jacket over her green top and short white skirt, making her way jauntily to the end of the road.
Pru reappeared in the bedroom doorway. She watched them watching Blanche leave.
‘No, I didn’t say anything to her, if that’s what you’re wondering.’
‘Don’t. I like Blanche. She’s friendly and she’s good company when I’m here on my own.’
‘And I love Phil.’ She was still pale but her jaw was clenched, her expression defiant. ‘He’s my husband and I love him. What was my New Year’s resolution, can you remember?’
Of course they remembered.
‘Well, I’m sticking to it,’ said Pru. ‘I’m going to stay married. I still don’t believe what you told me about him and Blanche, but even if it is true, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world.
Certainly not the end of a perfectly good marriage.’
Liza had to say it.
‘Pru, it is true.’
Her grey eyes bright with tears, Pru demanded, ‘Did you see them actually doing it?’
‘Practically. She had her shoes off, and her foot in his—’
‘Don’t say it!’ Her voice rose to a shriek, her hands went up, stopping Liza in her tracks.
‘Anyway, I’ve already told you. There are worse things a man can do than have an innocent fling. If you hadn’t seen them, no one would have known anything. If you hadn’t told me, I would never have found out.’
‘Pru, how can a fling be innocent when you’re married to the man?’ Liza blurted out. ‘He’s cheating on you, for God’s sake! I know how upset you must be, but—’
‘Don’t lecture me,’ Pru said coldly. ‘How can you possibly know how I feel? You’ve never had a proper relationship in your life.’
‘That went well,’ said Dulcie conversationally when they were back in Liza’s car. ‘Oh yes, I’d call that a great morning’s work. A raging success.’
Liza shook her head. ‘How can she stand it? How can she hear that kind of news and stay so calm?’
‘She isn’t calm.’ Leaning across from the passenger seat, Dulcie commandered the rear-view mirror. ‘How about a spotof shopping?’ she said brightly. ‘I want to buy one of these eyeshadows. This colour really suits me.’
‘How can you be so shallow?’
Dulcie grinned. ‘Sallow? I’m not sallow, I’m tanned.’
Pru sat in the middle of the bed surrounded by photograph albums. Each album was full of pictures of herself and Phil, separately and together, at home or abroad, in Cornwall, in Tunisia, in Scotland, swimming, sunbathing, skiing, partying .. .
How can Liza and Dulcie ever understand how I feel? thought Pru, carefully turning another page and smiling at photos of Phil and herself on holiday last year in Morocco. Phil, sunburnt and peeling, was balancing a glass on his head, showing off for her benefit. And here was one of the two of them, taken by someone they had become friendly with in the hotel bar. They were dancing, and Phil’s arms were clasped around her waist, and just looking at the photograph Pru was able to relive that blissful moment, experience again the feeling of utter security.
No, neither Liza nor Dulcie could ever have understood how she felt about Phil, Pru decided.
Dulcie had put herself about a fair bit before settling down with Patrick, and Liza... well, Liza was still putting herself about.
But Pru, who had been with Phil for fourteen years, had never even looked at another man. He had been her first and only love, rescuing her from the terrors of teenage dating, and she had been more than happy to be rescued. Phil was all she wanted; he made her feel safe, she was Phil Kasteliz’s girlfriend, she belonged to him .. .
Pru’s hand trembled as she took the photograph out of its cellophane casing and looked more closely at it. Phil was her whole life. Finding out about Blanche had been horrible, of course it had, but she wasn’t a complete innocent. Sometimes men did stupid things. Their hormones got the better of them, they took risks they shouldn’t have ... and were found out.
But it doesn’t mean he’s stopped loving me, thought Pru. It’s a temporary weakness, that’s all.
I’m his wife. He still loves me best.
Slowly, she bit her tongue. Not enough to draw blood, but almost. Although it hurt, the pain was bearable.
Like this thing with Phil and Blanche, Pru thought, carefully sliding the photo back into the album. Dulcie and Liza were acting like it was the end of the world, but it didn’t have to be.
She could bear this too.
Telling your husband you no longer wanted to be married to him was proving less straightforward than Dulcie had imagined. When she had first envisaged the scenario, it had seemed simple. She would just deliver her speech and that would be that.
Now she was ready to do the deed, however, a problem had cropped up.
The problem was .. .
It would be so much easier, Dulcie thought, if Patrick was awful. If he used her as a punchbag, blacked her eyes and sent a few teeth flying, all she’d have to do was scream, Right, that’s it, get out of my life NOW.
Ditto if she found out he was having an affair.
But Patrick wasn’t awful and she didn’t want the break-up to be any more traumatic than it needed to be. Which was why the timing had to be right.
Before Christmas had been a no-no. That would be too cruel, too inconsiderate for words.
Knowing she couldn’t bring herself to do it in December was what had prompted Dulcie to make it her New Year’s resolution instead. Get the festive season out of the way and do it then.
Except now it was the middle of January and Patrick’s birthday loomed. His fortieth, at that.
Unhappily aware that only a complete cow would wreck her husband’s birthday, Dulcie realised she had to sit on her bombshell for a couple more weeks yet.
Forty. God, the more she thought about it the more terrifying it sounded. Whoever said life began at forty must have been senile. Feeling sorry for her ancient husband, Dulcie made two mugs of coffee and wandered through to the study. Patrick was tapping lists of figures into one of the computers and peering intently at the screen. It probably wouldn’t be long before he started to need glasses.
‘It’s your birthday in ten days’ time.’ Dulcie perched on the edge of his desk, both hands clasped around her mug. ‘What do you want?’
The least she could do, she had already decided, was buy him a really nice present.
Patrick keyed in a few more numbers.
‘Don’t know. Haven’t given it much thought.’
‘You’ll be forty.’
‘Better get me a Zimmer frame then.’
‘Come on, I need some clues.’ Something to remember me fondly by, thought Dulcie with a burst of uncharacteristic sentimentality. A gorgeous watch, perhaps? Flying lessons? A fabulous painting?
Patrick glanced up at her. He shrugged.
‘I really don’t know. Clothes, I guess. I could do with a couple of new shirts.’
Men, they were hopeless.
‘That’s so boring. What would you really, really like, more than anything?’
Patrick grinned. Ah, thought Dulcie, now we’re getting somewhere.
‘Okay.’ He reached past her, picked up a copy of last month’s PC Answers, and flipped through a few pages until he found what he was looking for. ‘There you go. The new Hewlett Packard Laserjet. What a machine ... six hundred dpi output, no less—’
‘A computer!’ wailed Dulcie. ‘I’m not getting you a bloody computer.’
‘It isn’t a computer,’ Patrick explained patiently. ‘It’s a printer.’
’Whatever, it’s still a crap present.’
‘Sorry, but you did ask what I wanted.’ He looked resigned, then gave her hand a squeeze.
‘Never mind. Just shirts then.’
‘No, no. I’ll get you the printer.’ She could do that much for Patrick. He would have something to keep him company during the long, lonely evenings after she had left.
It was his money anyway.
Dulcie just thought how ironic it was that her parting gift to him would be a computer-type thing, when they were what had effectively destroyed her marriage in the first place.
Still, at least the present-buying problem was solved. ‘What shall we do then,’ she persisted, ‘on your birthday?’ Patrick was trying hard to concentrate on the flickering VDU.
‘You choose, sweetheart. We could go out to dinner if you like.’
They always went out to dinner on Patrick’s birthdays. It wasn’t going to win awards for most riveting suggestion of the year. Dulcie wished he’d say, just once, ‘How about a torrid weekend away, making love under the moonlight in Marrakesh?’
Wherever Marrakesh was when it was at home. She hadn’t a clue, but it certainly sounded torrid.
She remembered a discussion she had heard the other day on Talk Radio, about men hitting forty.
‘Do you think you’ll have a mid-life crisis?’
Patrick was used to Dulcie’s startling about-turns in the middle of conversations. He drained his coffee and handed her the empty mug.
‘I haven’t got time for a mid-life crisis.’
‘You never know.’ She looked wistful. ‘You might suddenly realise that all you’ve done is work yourself stupid while life passes you by.’
Smiling, he glanced at his watch.
‘If I don’t get a move on I’m likely to have a mid-morning crisis. These figures have to be faxed to Manchester by twelve.
Thanks for the coffee, sweetheart.’ He ruffled Dulcie’s spiky dark hair. ‘See you later, hmm?’
A party, Dulcie decided. That was what she would do. Hold a spectacular surprise fortieth birthday party, to show Patrick she still cared about him and to launch him painlessly into single middle-agehood.
It would ease her own guilt and be fun into the bargain, she thought happily.
And then a week or so later, when all the excitement had died down and the timing was right, she would leave.
‘A party?’ Bibi Ross sounded amused. ‘Darling, it’s a lovely idea, but we couldn’t come. Too complicated for words.’
‘But it’s a surprise for Patrick,’ Dulcie protested. ‘You’re his mother. You have to be there.’
‘Impossible,’ Bibi replied flatly. ‘How can I bring James to a—’
‘Don’t bring James.’ Dulcie had already thought of this. ‘Tell him you’re ill. Tell him you’re going to an old girls’ school reunion ...’
Bibi visibly winced at the words ‘old girl’. She shook her head.
‘I can’t do that. Anyway, we’re already busy that night. James has invited some terribly important client and his wife round for dinner. He really has,’ Bibi insisted when Dulcie gave her a look. Rummaging in her bag, she pulled out a diary. ‘See, I’ve written it down. Friday the twenty-eighth. Dennis and Meg Haversham, seven thirty.’
It was true. Dulcie gave in with good grace.
‘Well, it’s a shame. You’re going to miss a terrific party.’
‘Never mind, can’t be helped.’ With some relief, Bibi snapped the diary shut. ‘Anyway, you know me. Never a great one for birthdays.’
Bibi had more reason than most not to be a great one forbirthdays. Dulcie adored her mother-in-law but the past two years had been a definite strain.
Complicated wasn’t the word for it. To maintain the degree of deception Bibi had landed them with you needed your wits permanently about you. Not to mention a degree in maths.
At the age of nineteen, Bibi – christened Barbara – had met and married George Ross. At twenty, she gave birth to Patrick.
When she was forty-five, George had died of a heart attack on the golf course. Distraught, Bibi had mourned him for three years. When finally she rejoined the outside world, she vowed never again to love anyone as much as she had loved George. The pain was too great. She couldn’t bear to risk losing anyone like that again.
Bowled over by her astonishing looks, many tried, but Bibi stuck to her guns. Until she met James Elliott, and realised what she had been missing all these years.
This was when the awful subterfuge had begun.
Bibi had always taken pretty good care of herself but her chief ally was her genes. Her mother had been the same. Some people can’t help it, they just look older than they are. It isn’t their fault.
Bibi, going to the other extreme, looked a lot younger than her years. She always had. At forty, people refused to believe she could be the mother of a strapping twenty-year-old son. At fifty, in a police line-up (heaven forbid) she could have passed for thirty-five.
At fifty-eight she met James Elliott and was astounded by the strength of her feelings for him.
When, on their third date, he mentioned in passing that he was forty-three, Bibi had been stunned. James’ neatly trimmed beard had fooled her; she had put him at fifty.
And she liked him so much. Really liked him. The prospect of losing him was unbearable.
Panicking, she told James she was forty-six.
The repercussions of her spur-of-the-moment fib had been endless. No longer could Bibi relate the story of the day her father had come home from the war. Memories of her teenage years were hastily rejigged. Her entire past had needed to be unceremoniously hauled forward a decade-anda-bit.
And since owning up to a thirty-seven-year-old son was out of the question – ‘What, you mean you had him when you were nine?’ – Bibi had been forced to lop a few years off his age too.
Patrick hadn’t been thrilled.
‘Is this a joke?’ he had demanded. ‘Ma, you’re mad. It’ll never work.’
But Bibi wasn’t joking. She was desperate.
‘It will, it will. He doesn’t suspect a thing. Anyway, you only have to be twenty-nine. I’ve already told James I had you at seventeen.’
Only the fact that his mother was so obviously happy again for the first time in years persuaded Patrick to go along with the ludicrous charade.
‘It won’t last,’ he had warned her. ‘You’ll be caught out sooner or later.’
Bibi hugged him.
‘Not if we’re clever I won’t.’
And, miraculously, she hadn’t been caught out. Everyone played their part, all Bibi’s friends kept her shameful secret to themselves and Bibi kept her passport and driving licence locked securely out of sight. She and James were a couple, happier together than any other couple she knew. From time to time, referring to the three-year age gap between them, he lovingly called her his older woman. From time to time as well, he asked Bibi to marry him.
If she could have done so without him finding out how old she really was, Bibi would have been up that aisle like a shot. As it was, she insisted she preferred living in sin.
‘For God’s sake, tell him,’ an exasperated Patrick had urged just before Christmas. ‘He’ll understand. After all this time, how can your age matter? It’s you he loves, not your date of birth.’
But Bibi flatly refused to even consider telling James the truth. She couldn’t take that risk. There was too much to lose. Besides, some ages sounded worse than others. James teased her enough about being forty-eight.
And she was sixty.
Could anything, Bibi wondered with a shudder, sound worse than that?
Once Dulcie had made up her mind about the party she threw herself into organising it with enthusiasm.
She decided to hold it at Brunton Manor. Home was out of the question if the party was to be a surprise — immersed in his work he may be, but even Patrick’s suspicions might be aroused by the sight of a mobile disco being set up in the sitting room and Dulcie sweating away in the kitchen sticking a million sausages on to sticks.
Anyway, sweating away in the kitchen wasn’t Dulcie’s forte. Eating food was more her line of country than preparing it.
Far better to let the Brunton Manor catering team take care of all that.
Better still, she wouldn’t have to clear up disgusting party debris the next day.
‘You’ll come, won’t you?’ said Dulcie when she rang Pru.
Pru hesitated. ‘What does that mean? Who are you inviting?’
‘Loads of people!’
‘I mean just me, or me and Phil?’
They hadn’t spoken since the awkward showdown at Pru’s house. Dulcie chewed her lip.
‘Whichever. Just you, if you’d prefer. Or both of you.’ Ouch, she’d chewed too hard. ‘Um ... do you want to bring Phil?’
‘He’s my husband. Of course I’d like him to be there.’ Pru sounded stilted.
‘Well, that’s fine.’
‘But only if you’re going to be nice to him. I mean it, Dulcie. No snide remarks. No digs. Not from you and not from Liza either. I couldn’t bear it. You both have to promise to behave.’
It was on the tip of Dulcie’s tongue to remark that if anyone should be promising to behave it was Phil. Heroically she kept her opinion to herself.
‘I promise.’ Heck, she felt like a schoolgirl being told off for smoking in the toilets. ‘And Liza will too. We’ll both be .. . angelic. On our very best behaviour,’ she assured Pru. ‘We’ll treat Phil like a king.’
King Rat, thought Dulcie as she put the phone down. Maybe she’d invite Rentokil along to the party. A spot of poison slipped into Phil’s drink might just do the trick.
Dulcie was wrapping up the box containing Patrick’s laser printer on the morning of the party when the phone rang. Armed to the teeth with Sellotape, she had used up at least three miles of foiled paper and six miles of curly ribbon. Cooking might not be her thing but if she said so herself, she wrapped a mean present.
Patrick knew what was inside the box, of course. Not trusting Dulcie to come back with the right one, he had gone to Computerworld and bought the printer himself.
Still, it was what he wanted and it was spectacularly wrapped. As soon as Dulcie had put the finishing touches to the sides she was going to cart it down to the club where he could open it tonight.
The phone was still ringing. Dulcie grabbed the receiver, fantasising briefly that it was one of their friends asking if they could bring Kevin Costner along to the party.
But life was somehow never that thrilling. It was Eddie Hammond, the manager of Brunton Manor. Sounding agitated.
‘Dulcie, bit of a hitch. I’m really sorry about this—’
‘What?’ yelped Dulcie, all of a sudden agitated too. If the club had been burned to the ground, where would she hold the party tonight? More to the point, where was she going to spend the rest of her life?
‘It’s the kitchen staff, darling. Gone down like ninepins. Fingers crossed it’s just a virus but the health inspector’s thrown a wobbler. Until salmonella’s ruled out, he’s shut down the kitchen. So
... ah ... no food, I’m afraid, tonight.’
Uh oh, panic attack. Dulcie went hot and cold all over.
‘No food?’ She wanted to cry. ‘What, nothing at all? Eddie, we can’t have a party without food!’
‘I know, I know,’ he said soothingly. ‘Sweetheart, I can’t tell you how bad I feel about this. But you’ve got a few hours to go ... that’s why I rang as soon as I could. If you organise your own buffet you can bring it down here yourself. I checked with the health inspector and he said that would be fine.’
‘Oh terrific. Hooray for the health inspector,’ howled Dulcie. ‘Maybe he’d like to whip up a couple of dozen quiches in his tea break.’
But it didn’t matter how sympathetic Eddie Hammond was to her plight, there was nothing he could do to help.
So Dulcie did the only thing she could do. She phoned Liza and Pru.
Liza was out. She had driven up to London to meet her editor, Dulcie remembered as soon as she got the answering machine, and wouldn’t be back before seven. Typical.
But Pru was at home, thank God. Pru with the best-stocked kitchen cupboards in Bath.
‘How many guests?’ she asked, cutting through Dulcie’s anguished wailings.
‘About a hundred.’
‘Right, I’ll make a start here. I can rustle up rice salad, pasta salad, stuffed baked potatoes, that kind of thing—’
‘That won’t be enough.’ Dulcie knew she sounded ungrateful. She didn’t mean to, but her heart was in her boots already. Any minute now it was going to start burrowing through the carpet.
‘Of course it won’t. That’s why I’m doing it. Leaving you free to shop. Got a pen and paper?’
said Pm, admirably unfazed by the crisis. But that was because it was all right for Pru, thought Dulcie, it wasn’t her crisis. ‘Now, start making a list. I’ll tell you what to buy.’
God bless M&S, thought Dulcie an hour later as she steered her trolley expertly past an old dear with a basket-on-wheels. This was okay, this was fine, her heart was back in its rightful place and she was actually beginning to enjoy herself.
Buying up Marks & Spencer’s food department was far more fun, too, than simply dropping in to pick up a couple of chicken tikkas and a lemon drizzle cake. Cramming a trolley with baguettes, boxes of hors d’oeuvres, bags of prawns, packets of Parma ham and twenty different kinds of cheeses was an exhilarating experience. No longer panicking, Dulcie meandered happily amongst the fresh fruit and veg, choosing the ripest Charentais melons, the reddest, glossiest strawberries .. .
A male voice in her ear made her jump.
‘Can I come?’
Dulcie spun round. Good grief, it was James.
Three lemons and a bottle of tonic were rolling around in the bottom of his wire basket. Dulcie remembered that he and Bibi had guests for dinner themselves.
James, meanwhile, was studying the contents of her overloaded trolley with interest. Grinning, he said again, ‘Can I come’?’
‘Come where?’ Dulcie prayed she wasn’t blushing.
‘Well, call it spooky intuition if you like, but something tells me you’re having a party.’ His eyes twinkled; he and Dulcie had always got on like a house on fire. ‘Either that or an attack of rampant bulimia.’
Dithering mentally, she decided it would be safe to tell him the truth. He and Bibi were otherwise engaged tonight, after all.
‘It’s a surprise party for Patrick,’ Dulcie explained. ‘At Brunton Manor. All very last minute,’
she added hastily, so as not to offend him. ‘I only decided to do it yesterday. And yes, of course you’re both invited. Eight o’clock tonight, it’s going to be great ... Patrick doesn’t have a clue ...’
She beamed up at James, waiting for him to frown and say, ‘Damn, we won’t be able to make it.’
Instead, beaming back at her, he said, ‘That’s terrific. Look, we’ve got a couple of dinner guests but they’ll be gone by ten. They have to catch the last train to Oxford. What we’ll do is drop them at the station and drive straight over. Better late than never, eh?’
Dulcie was by this time dithering in earnest. If she was going to conjure up a plausible excuse –
a reason why James and Bibi couldn’t possibly come to Patrick’s party – she had to do it in the next few milliseconds.
She stared up at James, wide-eyed and in desperate need of inspiration .. .
Bong. Too late.
James looked concerned.
‘Are you all right, Dulcie?’
‘Er ... um ...’
‘Come on, you must have everything you need by now.’ Taking control of her piled-up trolley, he began steering it in the direction of the checkouts. ‘The least I can do is help you load this lot into your car.’
Dulcie emptied the food on to the conveyor belt and James stood at the other end packing it into bags far more efficiently than she could have done.
The solution came to her as she was unloading the last armful of French sticks.
It was simple. All she had to do was phone Bibi and warn her. Then Bibi could either plead exhaustion or feign sudden illness.
Sudden illness might be better, then James would be worried about her. This meant he wouldn’t leave Bibi at home and come along to the party by himself.
Dulcie glanced across at him, still diligently packing bags at the other end of the checkout. That was the thing about James, he was considerate. Kind. Devoted to Bibi.
He really was a lovely man.
If Bibi could only bring herself to tell him her dark secret, they could marry.
Inspiration, like a bolt of lightning, struck for the second time. In that moment Dulcie knew what she had to do. Because Bibi never would tell James.
The answer had to be, therefore, to let James find out for himself.
And what better place for it to happen than at a party, when everyone was already in carefree party mood ... and where Bibi’s little white lie could be laughed off?
Dulcie knew she was right. It was a brilliant solution. James would know the truth at last and it wouldn’t make a scrap of difference to his feelings for Bibi. And Bibi would be so relieved. And grateful.
I was meant to bump into James today, Dulcie decided.
Everything happens for a reason. This is fate, taking a hand.
‘I’ve had an idea,’ she told James as they loaded the green and white carrier bags into the boot of the car. ‘Bibi doesn’t know yet about the party. Don’t tell her, okay?’
James looked amused. ‘Why not?’
‘It’ll be more fun! Just say it’s a wedding anniversary do for friends of yours and bring her along.’ Dulcie’s eyes were shining. ‘Then, when you walk in, it’ll be extra special. A double surprise.’
Pru had worked flat out all afternoon. At five o’clock, having done as much as she could, she jumped into the bath. By six she was dressed and ready. All she had to do now was load the food into the car, take it over to Brunton Manor and help Dulcie lay everything out.
She phoned Phil’s office but he was out.
‘Showing a client around a few properties,’ said Janet, his secretary. ‘Try him on his mobile.’
No joy there either; the mobile was switched off. Instead, Pru scribbled a note explaining what had happened and left it on the kitchen table. When Phil came home he could shower and change and follow her down to the club in his own time.
In one way, Pru was glad the food crisis had arisen. Coming to the rescue as she had meant Dulcie would be so grateful she wouldn’t dare say anything awful about Phil. She knew she had Dulcie’s solemn promise not to anyway, but a little extra emotional blackmail never went amiss.
Dulcie was already there when Pru staggered into the banqueting hall with her arms full of salad bowls.
‘Hey, you look fab!’ Rushing across, she helped Pru unload and gave her a hug. ‘And these look brilliant too. You are an angel. Honestly, Pru, that git of a husband of yours doesn’t deserve you.’
Pru leapt away as if she’d been electrocuted.
‘If you’re going to start—’
‘I’m not, I’m not.’ Dulcie grabbed her back and kissed her noisily on both cheeks. ‘It’s okay, I’m just getting it out of my system before jerk-of-the-year turns up.’ She grinned. ‘Would I say anything to upset you when you’ve done all this for me?’
‘Not if you don’t want a bowl of rice salad over your head,’ said Pru.
‘Anyway,’ Dulcie changed the subject, ‘you do look fab. Love the dress.’
Pru was pleased. The white silk jersey was clingier than her usual style but as ever she had been too afraid of hurting the sales assistant’s feelings to walk out of the shop without it. Now she was glad she’d been a wimp. Dulcie and the sales girl had been right; it was a great dress.
‘Love yours too,’ said Pru, cheering up. ‘And the hair. Very chic.’
Pink-faced and shiny from her exertions, Dulcie was wearing an orange sweatshirt over a lime-green elongated vest. Her short hair stuck up at weird angles and she had a shopping list scrawled in mauve felt-tip up one arm.
She checked her watch.
‘Half six. I’d better get a move on. Look, can you finish putting everything out? Liza’s promised to turn up before seven thirty and everyone else has orders to be here by eight. I’ll arrive with Patrick just after eight. Any problems, give me a ring.’
‘Right.’ Pru was struck by the look of excitement on her friend’s face. She smiled. ‘You can’t wait, can you?’
‘I promise you,’ Dulcie declared dramatically, ‘this is going to be a night to remember. And whatever happens, don’t get drunk and pass out before ten o’clock.’ Her green eyes sparkled.
‘There are going to be a couple of late arrivals. Call it a special guest appearance.’
The temptation to confide in Pru was overwhelming. Manfully, Dulcie held back. Instead she held a finger to her lips.
‘Ssh, not another word. Top secret.’ She winked at Pru. ‘After all, if you’re having a party, why settle for one surprise when you can have two?’
Eddie Hammond wasn’t a great one for examining his reflection but in the aerobics studio, which was mirrored from floor to ceiling on three sides, he didn’t have a lot of choice. While he waited to speak to Diana, Brunton’s terrifyingly fit aerobics instructor, he studied himself without much enthusiasm in the nearest of the mirrored walls.
Terrifyingly unfit was the phrase that sprang to mind.
Or maybe overweight, overstressed and over forty.
Eddie tried sucking in his stomach but all it did was make him feel dizzy, since you couldn’t suck in your stomach and breathe at the same time.
He gave up, combed his fingers through his greying hair instead, briefly closed his baggy eyes and mopped his perspiring forehead with a handkerchief. No wonder he looked harassed, he thought gloomily. Who wouldn’t be, faced with a day like this, his first crisis since moving down to Bath and taking over the running of Brunton Manor two months earlier? His staff were still dropping like flies, the health inspector was on his tail, the publicity could be disastrous for the club .. .
Eddie’s smile was rueful. It was no good, he could go on making excuses until he was blue in the face but he couldn’t get away from the fact that stress or no stress, this was the way he looked.
This was him. He was unfit, overweight and over forty. Okay, forty-five.
Let’s face it, he was no Jean-Claude van Damme.
A flash of lime green and orange made Eddie jump. Dulcie, whose reflection he had glimpsed in one of the other mirrors, stopped and stuck her head around the glass door.
‘Everything okay?’ Eddie prayed she hadn’t tracked him down in order to report some new catastrophe.
But Dulcie, thank God, was grinning.
‘No problems. All under control,’ she told Eddie, entertained by the sight of him studying his own reflection as intently as any teenager. ‘The rest of the food’s being set out and I’m off home for a bath. Didn’t know you’d signed up,’ Dulcie added.
‘Signed up?’ Eddie frowned. ‘For what?’
‘One of Diana’s aerobics classes.’ She winked. ‘I can’t wait to see you in a leotard.’
Amused, Eddie said, ‘There’s about as much chance of that as of seeing you in one.’
As he spoke, Diana and the next scheduled class spilled out of the changing room, heading down the corridor towards the studio. Dulcie, who lived in terror of waking up and finding out she’d got drunk the night before and signed up for one of Diana’s classes, said, ‘Help, Cruella’s coming. I’ll see you later.’ She waggled her fingers at Eddie. ‘And cheer up, okay? Everything’s fine. It’s going to be a night to remember.’
The great advantage of surprise parties, Pru discovered with some relief, was the way they got everyone there on time. Instead of having to endure that awkward first couple of hours of guests trickling in, all leaving it as late as possible because nobody wanted to be the first, everyone had piled in through the doors dead on five to eight.
Everyone except Phil.
Ducking out to reception at five past, Pru tried ringing home again. No reply. Ditto his mobile.
But she didn’t have time to start worrying. Dulcie and Patrick had arrived.
‘What’s going on?’ Patrick was looking suitably confused. ‘I thought the table at Langharn’s was booked for eight fifteen ... Hello, Pru, what are you doing here? Did Dulcie tell you it was my birthday? Come and give me a big kiss.’
‘Right, that’s enough,’ barked Dulcie moments later. She seized his arm. ‘No time for snogging.
As soon as I’ve booked a sunbed for tomorrow, we’re off. Pru, where’s Anna?’
Pru pointed obediently in the direction of the banqueting hall.
‘Do I deserve you?’ Patrick murmured, wrapping his arms around his wife as they danced to something slow and slushy. Dulcie was looking amazing in a skin-tight little black dress and the kind of seriously high heels he liked. Her black hair was slicked back Valentino style. The diamond studs he had given her for Christmas glittered in her ears. Dulcie had the figure, the looks and the legs; what’s more, she knew how to flaunt them.
And she had gone to the trouble of organising a surprise party for him, even to the extent of doing all the food. Well, with a little help from Pru.
Patrick was touched.
Dulcie stuck her tongue out at him.
‘Deserve me? Of course you don’t.’ His dark-brown eyes narrowed with amusement.
‘I do love you.’
Patrick didn’t say it often, he wasn’t that kind of man. But Dulcie knew he did.
It was just a shame he loved work more.
‘I should bloody well think so.’ Reaching up, she flicked his ear lobe with her tongue. It had been so long, she’d quite forgotten how nice Patrick was to dance with. If she wasn’t so excited about James and Bibi’s imminent arrival she might have put the pleasurable churning sensation in her stomach down to the effect of her husband’s body pressed against hers.
‘Come on then.’ Patrick gave her waist a pinch. ‘Your turn. Only fair.’
It was a long-standing joke between them. When she said it, Patrick didn’t. When he said it, she didn’t.
But this was the last birthday they would celebrate together. On impulse, Dulcie gave it one final try.
love you too.’
Patrick looked startled.
She went on, ‘But I’d love you more if you worked less.’
He had that look on his face, the look she had come to know oh so well during the course of the last couple of years. The one, Dulcie thought bitterly, that was about to end their marriage.
‘Not a lot less,’ she urged, ‘just a bit.’
‘Sweetheart, don’t you think I would if I could?’ Sherecognised the note of exasperation in his voice as well. They had had this argument too often in the past. The novelty had worn off. ‘I’m building up a business. It’s tough.’
Damn right it’s tough, thought Dulcie.
‘But I’m doing it for us,’ Patrick went on. This was how he always justified himself; she could have recited the words by heart. Dulcie hated this bit. She hated the way he always managed to make her feel like a spoilt child. She wasn’t selfish. Well, not very. She just wanted a husband she could see occasionally, and talk to. She wanted a normal married life.
‘Okay, I know the rest,’ said Dulcie before he could launch into the next phase of his defence.
‘Let’s not argue. This is your party. And we can’t stay here smooching, either.’
Patrick, as keen to change the subject as she was, looked affronted.
‘Why not? It’s my birthday.’
‘You’re supposed to spread yourself around. Smooch with other women.’ Dulcie detached herself from his grasp and peered around. ‘Go on, there’s Pru. That bastard husband of hers still hasn’t turned up.’
Pru was glad she was dancing with Patrick when Phil eventually appeared. Well, she’d rather not have been there at all, but dancing with Patrick was at least better than standing on her own propping up a wall.
Not a lot better, considering it was the most horrendous moment of her life, but a bit.
Pru felt the blood drain from her cheeks. Phil was drunk. Seriously drunk.
And ... oh God ... Blanche was at his side.
‘Shit, shit,’ breathed Liza, startling the banker she had been introduced to only moments before.
She watched in horror as Phil shambled on to the dance floor.
Blanche was wearing the infamous rubber skirt and spike heels higher than Dulcie’s. Her emerald-green halter-neck top was studded with rhinestones. Despite the stilettos, she was doing a good job of keeping Phil upright.
‘Pru, sorry he’s late. I bumped into him in the Forester’s Arms. He kept saying he was supposed to be here so I put him in my car. You won’t be cross with him, will you? He’s had a few, but no real harm done.’
Pm, who had never been cross with Phil in her life, stared at him. Across the room, dimly, she heard Dulcie say, ‘Oh Christ.’
Blanche’s ex-husband had drunk for England. She had had plenty of practice with piss-heads; compared with her ex, Phil was only tiddly. Planting him expertly upright, she turned to leave.
‘Okay, Pru? I’ll be off then.’
Phil took one look at the frozen expression on Pru’s face and swung round like a cartoon drunk, grabbing her back again. ‘No you won’t. Don’t go. Stay and dance.’
‘Really, I can’t.’ Blanche shook him off.
‘Come back!’ roared Phil. He gestured recklessly in Pru’s direction. ‘Look at her, Miss Prim-and-bloody-proper .. . Blanche, I want you to stay. I don’t love her, I love you. I don’t want her any more ... I WANT YOU ..
Patrick couldn’t do anything – he was holding on to Pru. Instead Dulcie launched herself like a rocket across the dance floor and punched Phil Kasteliz so hard he toppled over.
‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,’ muttered Blanche, not looking at Dulcie. Evidently as strong as an ox, she hauled Phil to his feet and all but carried him out of the room. By the door, she encountered Liza.
‘I shouldn’t have brought him. This wasn’t meant to happen. I was only trying to help.’
Liza’s voice dripped with derision.
‘Oh well, that’s all right then. Give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve done your good deed for the night.’
Pru wasn’t crying. She sat on a chair in the loo, eerily composed.
Except she wasn’t composed, Liza realised as she handed her a massive brandy. How could she be? She must be in a state of shock.
‘You’re in a state of shock,’ she told Pru.
‘Am I?’ Pru stared straight ahead, her gaze fixed on the hand dryer. All in white like a jilted bride, she shrugged. ‘Probably.’
Liza felt uncomfortable. Weeping and wailing wasn’t Pru’s style but it would be far easier to deal with.
‘What do you want to do?’
Another shrug. ‘I don’t know. Go home, I suppose.’
‘Are you sure? Phil might be there. Stay with me tonight.’ Liza felt rather heroic; she had been enjoying herself tremendously. Now it looked as if she was going to have to miss the rest of the party and take Pru back to her flat instead.
Dulcie cannoned through the door.
‘He’s gone. I just hit him again, out in the car park. And I told that stringy cow to fuck off too.’
Her green eyes glittered. ‘I said if she ever sets foot in your house again she’s dead. Oh Pm, I’m so sorry it had to happen like this. And they could have ruined the party—’
She went to fling her arms around Pm, still sitting stiffly on her chair.
Pru flung the contents of her glass into Dulcie’s face. At least that was her intention but her aim was off. Most of it splattered against the mirror above the basin.
‘What the ?’ Dulcie staggered backwards, stunned by Pru’s reaction. It was like being spat at by a nun.
‘You planned all this, didn’t you?’ hissed Pru. She began to shake. ‘Wait until ten o’clock, you said, for an extra-special surprise. Two late arrivals. For God’s sake, Dulcie, what did you think you were playing at?’
Liza stared at Dulcie. Surely she hadn’t .. .
‘Oh come on!’ Dulcie howled, mopping helplessly at her wet left shoulder and brandy-spotted dress. ‘They weren’t the surprise! Do you seriously think I’d do something that crass?’
Nobody said anything. Dulcie stamped her foot in frustration. Some friends she had.
‘Well I bloody wouldn’t. What I’d planned was brilliant, the answer to a problem nobody else has had the guts to solve. And dammit’ – she checked her watch – ‘if we don’t get out there we’re going to miss the whole thing. It’ll happen without me.’
Pru rose to her feet.
‘Dulcie, I’m sorry. I can’t believe I just did that.’ She looked worried. ‘Is your dress okay?’
‘I can’t believe you did it either.’ Dulcie broke into a grin. ‘And my dress will be fine. Just as well it wasn’t egg flip.’
‘Come on, let’s go. We don’t want to miss your big surprise,’ said Pru with a ghost of a smile.
‘What is it, a Chippendale for Liza?’
Bibi looked pretty shell-shocked when she arrived on James’s arm and realised whose party he had brought her to. Rushing over to welcome them, Dulcie saw her eyes flicker around the hall in search of banners screaming: 40 TODAY!
To allay Bibi’s fears and prevent her dragging James back out to the car, Dulcie greeted her with a kiss, whispering in her ear, ‘Don’t panic, all under control.’
She wasn’t completely insensitive. It wasn’t as if she was going to jump up on to the stage with a loud-hailer yelling, ‘Hands up all those eligible for a bus pass.’
Oh no, that would be downright naff.
Subtlety was the key, Dulcie had decided. She wasn’t going to say anything at all. Just wait for the revelation to casually slip out.
It casually slipped out sooner than she had expected. Having recovered from the Pru-and-Phil incident, everyone had taken to the dance floor with a vengeance. Dulcie and James were telling Bibi about the panic over the buffet and Dulcie’s trolley dash around Marks & Spencer. Patrick returned with drinks for Bibi and James.
Suzannah Somers was the effervescent wife of one of Patrick’s old rugby friends – from way back, when he’d had time to play rugby. She tapped Patrick on the shoulder.
‘Hello, birthday boy! Dulcie, you don’t mind if I borrow him, do you? My hopeless other half dances like a gorilla with gout.’
‘Feel free.’ Dulcie waved an indulgent arm in the direction of the dance floor.
The DJ was playing something weird Patrick had never heard before. Looking worried he said,
‘Don’t expect miracles.’
Suzannah giggled. ‘Come on, you used to be a terrific dancer! Mind you, that was in the good old days. Before you turned forty.’
James gave Suzannah an odd look. Unable to help herself, Dulcie choked on her drink. Bibi turned white.
Patrick’s laugh was loud and unconvincing. ‘Suzannah, someone’s been spiking your shandies.’
Since the best course of action was clearly to get her out of earshot, he grabbed her hand and began hauling her on to the dance floor. ‘Forty, ha ha ha. That’ll be the day.’
At that moment the music stopped. Suzamah, by this time deeply puzzled, said loudly, ‘Patrick, are you drunk? Of course you’re forty. That’s why we’re all here.’
Patrick couldn’t bear it. He danced with Suzannah to something by Babylon Zoo, whoever they might be. If this toe-curling situation had something to do with Dulcie – as he suspected it had –
then Dulcie could sort it out.
‘What’s going on?’ said James, who was even more confused than Suzannah. ‘Patrick isn’t forty.
He can’t be. He’s thirty-two.’
Bibi’s stricken expression made Dulcie feel uncomfortable. This wasn’t going as well as she had planned. Somehow, when she had envisaged this scenario, everyone had looked a lot happier.
Instead, Bibi looked as if she was about to pass out.
Panicking, desperate to get to the happy bit – and how could it be reached, until someone said something? – Dulcie gabbled, ‘Now listen, James, it was just a harmless fib that got out of hand ... and now the time’s come to sort everything out, clear the air, start afresh—’
‘Sort what out?’ demanded James.
Dulcie attempted a merry laugh but it didn’t quite come off. Unable to stand this torture a moment longer, Bibi turned and left.
‘Sort what out?’ James repeated, his voice dangerously quiet.
‘Look, women lie about their age, they do it all the time,’ burbled Dulcie. ‘You love Bibi, don’t you? All she did was lop a few years off ... What does it matter if she’s older than she said she was? It’s not as if she’s done something really awful, like have an affair!’
‘When I met Bibi she told me she was forty-six,’ said James. ‘Now you’re telling me Patrick’s forty. For pity’s sake, Dulcie. How old does that make her?’
Dulcie cringed. She did her best to soften the blow. ‘Nearly ... um ... sixty.’
‘Nearly sixty! How near?’
Oh well, that hadn’t worked. ‘Er ... that’s it, really. Sixty.’ Hurriedly she added, ‘But only just.’
James closed his eyes. He looked as if he was having a bad dream and wanted desperately to wake up.
‘Oh James, I know it’s a shock, but is it really so terrible?’ Wearily, he opened his eyes. ‘Thanks, Dulcie. I’ve heard enough.’
‘But Bibi’s still Bibi—’
‘—and the only reason she wouldn’t marry you was because she was scared of you finding out!’
‘I’m not surprised.’
In desperation Dulcie cried, ‘We only wanted you to be happy.’
‘Really?’ James studied her for a second. ‘You’ve got a funny way of showing it.’
When he had gone, Liza and Pru joined Dulcie. Hovering not far behind her throughout the uncomfortable exchange, they had heard it all.
‘Was that it?’ said Liza. ‘Was that your other surprise?’ Miserably Dulcie nodded.
‘I was trying to help.’
‘Hmm. Somehow I don’t think trying to help is your forte.’ Patrick had returned Suzannah to her husband. He came up to them, looking grim.
‘It needed to be done,’ said Dulcie defensively.
‘And with such style.’
‘Oh shut up.’ She was feeling got at. ‘Anyway, James might be okay. Once he’s over the shock.’
‘You saw his face, Dulcie. Don’t count on it.’
So much for marital solidarity.
‘How can you be so horrible?’ Dulcie longed to kick his shins. ‘After all my hard work too. I organised this party for you. I wanted it to be memorable—’
‘Oh, it’s that all right. Nobody’s going to forget this night in a hurry. Especially not Bibi.’
Patrick’s tone was derisive. ‘You’ll be lucky if she ever speaks to you again.’
But luck wasn’t on Dulcie’s side. Bibi did speak to her again.
She reappeared as Dulcie was helping herself to a quadruple gin and tonic and grumbling, ‘Next time I say I’m planning a surprise party, just make sure you hit me over the head until I stop.’
Pru – who somewhat bizarrely was now comforting her – murmured, ‘Bibi’s back.’
For a split second Dulcie fantasised that everything was going to be all right. James had forgiven Bibi and Bibi had come back to thank her. There would be laughter and tears, emotional hugs and happy endings all round...
Extremely wishful thinking.
The fantasy skidded to a miserable halt the moment she turned and saw the stony expression on Bibi’s pale, unlined face.
The atmosphere was horribly reminiscent of the gunfight at the OK Corral.
‘Well, he’s gone. I don’t suppose I’ll see him again, thanks to you.’
Dulcie shivered. Was it her imagination or had the central heating just been turned off?
‘Bibi, I can’t tell you how—’
‘Sorry you are? Oh please.’ Bibi spat the words out like loose chippings. ‘You knew exactly what you were doing. You had to meddle, didn’t you? You had to interfere.’
‘You’ve wrecked my life, Dulcie. I’ll never forgive you for this. I wish you’d never married Patrick.’
Oh no, this is too much, thought Dulcie. Glancing across atPatrick – surely now he would come to her rescue? – she saw that she was on her own. Patrick had no intention of backing her up. He was staring.grimly back at her, not on her side at all.
‘I wish I’d never married him too.’ Dulcie’s fingernails gouged into the perspiring palms of her hands. Well, it was the truth. She may as well say it now. She’d started so she’d finish. ‘Still, we can soon sort that out. A trip to the solicitor, a quickie divorce ... and bingo, no more interfering daughter-in-law.’ To make sure Patrick understood, she turned her gaze on him and concluded bitterly, ‘No more bored-to-the-backteeth wife.’
Apart from their immediate circle the rest of the party was still going great guns. Eddie Hammond, who had been busy organising tomorrow’s squash tournament, spotted Dulcie and Patrick through a gap in the crowd and came up, munching a Marks & Spencer spring roll.
‘Everyone enjoying themselves? Having a jolly time?’ He gavé Dulcie’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze. ‘Darling, the food’s great. You must have worked your gorgeous fingers to the bone. I hope this husband of yours appreciates all the trouble you went to.’
Bibi turned and stalked out without uttering another word. Dulcie, not trusting herself to speak, took a gulp of her drink.
Linking her arm through Eddie’s, Liza drew him diplomatically away, murmuring, ‘How about a little dance?’
Dulcie went in search of a much-needed refill. Then she perched on the edge of the table upon which Patrick’s laser printer was displayed and fidgeted fretfully with a strand of the blue and silver ribbon she had used to decorate it.
The trouble with spur-of-the-moment emotional outbursts, she realised, was nobody believed you meant what you said. It hadn’t occurred to Patrick that she actually wanted a divorce. He thought she was just in a strop.
Well, thought Dulcie, he’ll find out soon enough.
She watched him make his way towards her, still wearing his I’m-the-headmaster-and-you’re-in-detention look.
‘Terry and Jean are leaving. They have to get back for the baby-sitter.’
‘Better go and wave them off then.’
‘Are you coming?’
She felt her bottom lip jut out practically of its own accord. She was fourteen again.
‘They’re your friends, not mine.’
‘Come on, Dulcie, don’t sulk. That doesn’t solve anything.’
She longed to hurl her gin and tonic in his face, but Pru had been there, done that already tonight.
It was no longer original.
Besides, her glass was empty.
She watched Patrick heave a sigh. She was clearly being extra troublesome. Detention might not be punishment enough. Maybe she was going to be expelled.
‘Look, you brought this on yourself,’ he told her wearily. Dulcie snapped. She jumped down from the table, gripping the sides with her fingers. Lifting it was easy.
The super-duper laser printer slid backwards and landed with a crash on the floor.
Turning, she regarded the shattered printer with immense satisfaction.
‘So did you.’
Liza woke up the next morning cold and with a crowded flat. Dulcie, lying next to her, had hogged the duvet. Pru, who had taken the sofa, stood in the doorway holding mugs of tea.
‘Makes a change,’ Liza remarked cheerfully, ‘waking up next to someone who doesn’t have hairy legs.’ She prodded Dulcie, who was snoring, and looked at Pr-u. ‘How are you feeling, or is that a stupid question?’
‘Headache,’ grumbled Dulcie. ‘Ouch.’
‘Okay.’ When they were both upright, Pru handed them theirtea. ‘Better, at least, now I’ve had time to think.’
Dulcie underwent a lightning replay of last night. Hell, it really had happened. The fan had been well and truly hit.
‘This is it then.’ She sipped and burnt her tongue. ‘Here we are, all girls together. Welcome to the singles club.’
Pru plonked herself down on the end of the bed. She had been drinking tea for the last five hours.
‘I’m not single.’ She looked defensive.
‘Oh come on,’ exclaimed Dulcie. ‘You can’t stay with Phil! Not after what he did to you last night.’
‘He didn’t mean it. He was drunk, that’s all.’ Pru knew from experience what Phil was like after one of his infrequent benders. He would wake up feeling hopelessly sorry for himself, unable to recall much, if anything, of the night before. He would beg for Heinz tomato soup and spend the day being penitent and little-boyish. He would also be enormously affectionate towards her.
The pattern was always the same. And although she was ashamed to admit it, even to herself, while she hated the binges, Pru actually enjoyed the recovery periods after them. They made her feel wanted and secure.
‘He humiliated you in front of everyone,’ Liza protested, but with less force than last time. She knew when she was wasting her breath.
‘My marriage is worth fighting for. Phil didn’t mean those things he said last night. He won’t even remember saying them.’
‘You’re mad,’ Dulcie said flatly.
Pru looked at her.
‘Are you really going to leave Patrick?’
‘Too right I am.’ Dulcie thought for a moment. She had stalked out of the party, hadn’t she? She wasn’t at home, she was here. ‘I already have.’
Pru stood up, looking waif-like in one of Liza’s oversized white T-shirts, but utterly determined.
‘In that case,’ she told Dulcie, ‘you’re the one who’s mad.’
Dulcie was in no hurry to get home. Sod Patrick, let him stew a bit longer, let the sanctimonious bastard wonder where she was.
But her conscience was pricking her on another matter. Okay, the other matter. Not that it had really been her fault. Her intentions had been good.
Still, Dulcie knew she would feel a lot better if she could solve at least one of the ticklish problems last night’s party had thrown up.
She phoned James on his mobile.
‘James, hi, it’s me! Where are you?’
He didn’t seem thrilled to hear from her. Somehow she could tell.
‘Is that your idea of being subtle, Dulcie? If you mean am I at home tucked up in bed with Bibi, then no, I am not. I’m at the Berkeley Hotel.’
Lord, he sounded positively grim. Dulcie pulled a face and did a thumbs-down at Liza, who was getting ready to go out. Wasting no time as usual, she was meeting last night’s banker for lunch.
‘Right, okay, stay where you are.’ Dulcie decided she wouldn’t waste time either. She would be bold and assertive. She was going to force James to see sense if she had to hammer it into his head with one of her high heels..
‘Don’t move, I’m on my way,’ she said very firmly indeed. ‘I’ll meet you in the lobby in twenty minutes.’
* * *
Dulcie found herself on the receiving end of some pretty dubious attention when she made her way through reception at the Berkeley. There was no sign of James so she settled herself on a sofa by one of the long windows. Within the space of five minutes she was asked by a porter, a snooty receptionist and the manager if they could help her in any way, madam.
‘I’m meeting someone,’ Dulcie told the manager pleasantly. ‘I’m not on the game. The reason I’m wearing this dress is because I left my husband last night, rather unexpectedly, and I didn’t happen to have a change of clothes with me, okay? I stayed with a friend who’s a good six sizes bigger than me and if you think I’d wear something the size of a circus tent just to keep your geriatric guests happy ... well, you couldn’t be more wrong.’
James appeared behind the manager.
‘Troublemaking again, Dulcie?’
He looked awful, as if he hadn’t slept for a week. The manager, glaring at Dulcie, muttered some insincere apology for an apology and melted away.
Dulcie glared after him. ‘I’m not a troublemaker. He’s a pompous git.’
‘Well, at least try and pull your skirt down. Everyone can see your knickers.’
‘Do them a power of good.’ Dulcie looked truculent. ‘At least I’m wearing some.’
Ignoring this, James waited until she’d managed to cover up at least a couple more inches of thigh. The black velvet dress certainly had its work cut out. He ordered coffee from a waitress and lit a cigarette.
‘Can I have one?’ In times of stress Dulcie always liked to smoke; it made her feel like Bette Davis. Pre-1950, of course. Before those lines and wrinkles had set in.
‘No. Why are you here, Dulcie?’
‘To make you see sense.’
He didn’t smile.
‘I’m forty-five. Bibi is sixty. For God’s sake, how sensible does that sound to you?’
Déjà vu loomed. Dulcie prayed she could come up with something original, some dazzling new tack she hadn’t already tried.
‘Yes, but she doesn’t look sixty, she doesn’t sound sixty, she doesn’t act sixty!’
Was it her imagination or was James wincing every time she uttered the s-word?
He sounded irritated. ‘Obviously she doesn’t, otherwise she would never have got away with it for as long as she did.’
‘There you go, then.’
‘Dulcie, that isn’t the point. Not the whole point, anyway. Don’t you see? Bibi lied to me—’
‘It wasn’t a lie,’ Dulcie put in hurriedly, ‘just a fib.’
‘It was a lie. A big one. I thought we had no secrets from each other. Now I find out our whole relationship has been built on a lie. Relationships are all about trust, Dulcie. How can I ever believe anything she tells me now? She could be lying. She’s an expert.’
‘James, she wouldn’t! That was her only secret, believe me!’
‘Was it?’ He stubbed out his cigarette with a shaking hand and immediately lit another. ‘But that’s the thing, Dulcie. How would I ever know?’
Phil was sprawled across the sofa when Pru let herself into the house. A half-empty bowl of tomato soup, several bread rolls and a packet of paracetamol littered the coffee table. Strewn across the floor in front of him was a sheaf of letters.
Along with almost everyone else, it seemed, Phil was still wearing last night’s clothes.
He looked pretty rough, too.
‘Hello.’ Pru prayed she didn’t sound as nervous as she felt. ‘How are you feeling?’
Phil picked up one of the letters and glanced at it, avoiding Pru’s gaze. ‘Sick.’
‘Oh. More soup?’
This was normally when he held his arms out to her, gave her his little-boy look and said sorrowfully, ‘Pru, give me a cuddle. I don’t feel very well.’
Instead he said, ‘I meant it, you know. That stuff last night.’
‘Come on, Pru! I might not be able to remember saying it, but Blanche assures me I did.
Anyway, it’s the truth. I’m getting out of here. I’m sorry if I showed you up in front of your friends, but you can’t plan these things. Sometimes they just happen.’
Pru couldn’t believe it. This wasn’t what Phil was supposed to say. Oh God, this was awful, awful .. .
‘You’re moving in with Blanche?’
He shrugged. ‘I suppose so. Probably. I just know I have to get out of here.’
‘But ... but ...’
‘Look, I’m sorry.’ For the first time his bloodshot eyes met hers. She saw weariness in them, and guilt. ‘You’re going to have to get out of here too.’
Phil held the letter in his hand out to her.
‘Go on, take it. And don’t worry,’ he gestured dismissively at the others on the floor, ‘there’s plenty more where that came from. Help yourself, read as many as you like. Take your pick.’
Shaking violently, wondering how on earth this could be happening to her, Pru read the first letter.
Then the second.
And the third.
She read all of them, forcing herself to keep going until she reached the end.
It was unbelievable. Phil owed money everywhere. The gambling she had always taken to be a harmless pastime had clearly rocketed out of control.
‘I didn’t know you’d remortgaged the house,’ she said stupidly.
‘Why would you?’ Phil, the traditionalist, had always taken care of the bills.
Well, until he’d stopped paying them and started stuffing them into the dustbin instead.
‘Anyway, now you see why you have to get out.’ He shrugged. ‘This place is being repossessed on Tuesday.’
‘But they can’t—’
‘Don’t be so bloody naive,’ Phil shouted at her. ‘Of course they can. Anyway, losing the house is the least of my worries. By this time next week I could be jobless, car-less ... minus a few other vital bits and pieces too, if that mob from the casino have their way.’
In the space of five minutes Pru had lost her home, her husband ... her whole life.
‘How much altogether?’ She spoke through chattering teeth. ‘How much do you owe?’
Phil shook his head. ‘You don’t want to know.’
‘Look, it’s a hiccup, that’s all. I was doing okay until last summer. Then I hit a bad patch. The longer it lasted the bigger the bets had to be to cover my losses. But it’ll come good again, you’ll see.’
His eyes had lit up. God, thought Pru, even talking about it makes him more cheerful.
‘Phil, you have to go to Gamblers Anonymous.’
‘No I don’t. Listen, my luck has to change soon. It has to. Then as soon as that happens, I’ll get the house back—’ Pru’s eyes brimmed with tears.
‘Is this why you’re doing it? You’re leaving me because you’re ashamed of what’s happened?’
She felt a wild surge of hope. ‘Phil, gambling is an illness, you mustn’t blame yourself! Together we can get through this, we can get through anything—’
‘You’ve got it wrong.’ Phil shook his head. ‘This isn’t to protect you. I’m going because I don’t want to be married to you any more. I used to think you were my type. But you aren’t,’ he concluded coldly. ‘Blanche is.’
Dulcie knew she was really going to go ahead and do it when she arrived home and Patrick, looking supremely unconcerned, said, ‘Where have you been, stayed at Liza’s I suppose?’
So much for passion, possessiveness, an explosion of red-blooded jealousy, thought Dulcie.
She imagined his reaction if she told him she’d spent the night being happily ravished by the Bath first fifteen. That would capture Patrick’s attention all right. ‘Really? What, in the clubhouse? Did you happen to get a look at their computer system while you were there?’
Explosions of red-blooded jealousy weren’t Patrick’s scene. ‘Yes, at Liza’s.’ Dulcie couldn’t even be bothered to make up a more riveting story. What was the point?
‘Coffee?’ said Patrick, when she followed him into the kitchen. ‘Kettle’s just boiled.’
This was his contribution towards clearing the air. It was how they overcame arguments. A bit of stilted small talk executed in an I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong-but-I’ll-forgive-you kind of voice, followed by a hug and a kiss. Then everything would be back to normal.
Except this time it wasn’t going to happen.
‘No thanks, said Dulcie, ‘but I’d love a divorce.’
‘Sure you wouldn’t prefer a KitKat?’
Patrick had his back to her. She watched him pour boiling water into a mug. He was wearing a dark-green and white rugby shirt and his semi-respectable jeans, the ones patched together at the bum.
Oh, she was going to miss that bum.
Dulcie sat down, all of a sudden feeling terribly tired. It had been an eventful morning so far and it wasn’t over yet.
‘That wasn’t a joke,’ she said, when she finally had his attention. ‘Come on, Patrick. Look at the way things have been.
This marriage isn’t working, you know that as well as I do Time to call it a day.’
It was a no-win situation. If there was anything more futile than trying to knit fog, it was persuading Dulcie to change her mind. Patrick hadn’t been married to her for seven years without learning this much. Once Dulcie made decision, that was that. Nothing he could do or say would have any effect.
He did try, but not for long. Dulcie was immovable am Patrick couldn’t bring himself to beg.
Pride was one reason Another was the knowledge that — as far as Dulcie was concerned —
there was no bigger turn-off in the world than grovelling man.
So instead he had remained outwardly calm and heard her out. Oh yes, Dulcie’s mind was definitely made up.
‘Okay, if that’s what you want,’ said Patrick at last, his tone neutral. Anyway, how could he argue? She had a point, he hat neglected her. The knowledge that he was at least partly to blame for all this had knocked him for six.
Dulcie looked at him. ‘Fine, that’s settled then.’ She bit her lip, determined not to cry. ‘Good.’
‘Are you going to spend the rest of the day in there?’ she shouted, hours later, outside Patrick’s office.
All the computers were switched on but Patrick hadn’t don( a stroke of work. All he could think about was Dulcie, who wanted out of their marriage. Who, for God’s sake, wanted divorce .. .
He wiped his eyes, glad he’d remembered to lock the door The last thing he needed was for her to see him like this. ‘I’m busy.’
Dulcie could have kicked the door down with her bare feet How bloody dare Patrick be busy?
As she turned away she said bitterly, ‘What’s new?’
* * *
How can this be happening to me’?
Pru stood in the doorway and gazed at the bedsitting room being offered to her. It was hideous
— cramped and filthy and three floors up — but it was available. She could move in straight away.
‘I’ll take it,’ said Pru, and even the grimy-looking landlord had the grace to sound surprised.
‘You sure? When from?’
‘Today.’ Dry-mouthed, she opened her purse and counted out the deposit from her rapidly dwindling sheaf of notes.
‘And the first month in advance.’ The landlord cleared his throat, salivating at the sight of cash.
When he had pocketed the notes he handed Pru the key and gestured vaguely at the cracked pane of glass in the window. ‘I was ... um ... going to get that fixed. If I did it this afternoon, you could move in tomorrow.’
God, how can this be happening to me?
Pru shook her head.
‘I have to move in today.’
Not even mildly curious, her new landlord shrugged and headed for the stairs.
Suit myself, thought Pru when he had gone. Did he really think that was what she was doing?
She had to move into this dismal room and she had to move in today.
Because between Phil, the bailiffs and the building society, she didn’t really have much choice.
I’m single, thought Dulcie. Weird.
Technically, of course, she was still married, but separated. Morally, as far as Dulcie was concerned, that meant she was single again. And free to do as she liked.
It was exactly five weeks since Patrick’s party. Yesterday he had moved out of the house and into a flat above his office in the centre of Bath. The flat was tiny but the commuting time was four seconds. It would be two if he installed a fireman’s pole.
Dulcie still felt guilty about this. She had wanted out of the marriage and he was the one who’d had to find somewhere else to live. But Patrick had insisted.
‘Your parents gave us the deposit for this house,’ he had reminded her. ‘It’s more yours than mine. Anyway, you need the wardrobe space.’
He had been so damn reasonable Dulcie had wanted to hit him. If she had been expecting him to argue, to fight to save their marriage, she would have been bitterly disappointed.
Except she knew Patrick too well.
He never would.
So, it was done. She was on the market again, the sun was shining and the sky was blue.
Bring on the dancing boys. Dulcie stuck her Reeboked feet up on the chair opposite and closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face and waiting for Liza to finish her game of squash. The conservatory at Brunton Manor adjoined the bar. It was where people relaxed over Perriers —with ice if they were being decadent — after knackering themselves on the tennis courts. It was where Dulcie — in a fetching white tracksuit — relaxed over gin and tonics and a constant supply of salt and vinegar crisps.
Liza appeared looking hot and tousled but pleased with herself.
‘Hammered the bitch, six one. That’ll teach her to say I’ve put on weight. Another drink?’
Dulcie nodded. ‘And more crisps. Anyway, talking of bitches,’ she waved the Herald on Sunday’s colour supplement at Liza, ‘what happened to you? In a bit of a pooey mood, were we, when we wrote this?’
Liza cringed. The edition featuring her review of the Songbird had come out last week. Every time she read it, it sounded nastier. Her editor had been thrilled — ‘This is more like it, sweetheart! This is what gets people talking’ — but Liza was awash with guilt. The food hadn’t been perfect, but it wasn’t that bad, not as terrible as she had made out.
‘That was New Year’s Day, the place where I saw Phil and Blanche.’
‘Oh, I get it now.’ Dulcie grinned. ‘It’s the restaurant’s fault for letting them eat there. This is your revenge.’
‘Of course it isn’t. It was my editor’s bright idea.’ Liza, looking defiant, edged towards the bar.
‘He wanted me to be controversial, that’s all.’
Eddie Hammond, bumping into Dulcie earlier, had checked that Liza was meeting up with her for lunch. Someone had phoned, he explained, wanting to know when she would be around.
‘One of Liza’s besotted boyfriends,’ Dulcie guessed, but Eddie had frowned. ‘I don’t know about that. He didn’t sound besotted to me.’
Dulcie watched Liza flirting with the bar manager. He was gay, but she still flirted with him.
Even more weirdly, he was flirting back.
She hoped the phone call Eddie had taken wasn’t from a hit man, hired by the furious owners of the Songbird. It’s all right for Liza’s editor, urging her to be controversial, thought Dulcie; his kneecaps aren’t the ones at risk.
Liza made it back to their table by the window overlooking the entrance to the club. Since she could hardly put a PS in next week’s column saying ‘Oh by the way, that stuff I wrote about the Songbird was a bit mean, it wasn’t that bad really’, she chucked the magazine on to a spare chair and changed the subject.
‘So how do you feel, now Patrick’s gone?’
Dulcie ripped open her crisps and started crunching.
‘He was never there anyway. It’ll take me a year to notice the difference.’
Bravado. Liza said, ‘Are you looking for someone else?’
‘No way.’ Dulcie’s silver and tiger’s-eye earrings – not very sporty – rattled from side to side as she shook her head. ‘Play the field, that’s all I want to do. This is the start of my new life. I want to celebrate by being wild and irresponsible! I’m going to have more fun – with more men – than you could shake a stick at. Please, another relationship’s the last thing I need.’
More bravado. Actually, Liza amended, more like bullshit. Until Patrick, Dulcie had spent her life crashing from one wildly unsuitable man to the next. She craved excitement but she needed security.
She wasn’t nearly as independent as she liked to make out.
But this wasn’t the kind of thing people liked to hear about themselves. Diplomatically Liza changed the subject yet again.
‘Did you speak to Pru? Is she coming up here this afternoon?’
Dulcie shook her head. ‘Gone for an interview, some awful telesales thing. Can you imagine Pru selling, for heaven’s sake? She won’t get it.’
‘She needs to get something. That bedsit of hers is an awful tip.’
‘I know, I asked her to move in with me.’ Dulcie, gazing out of the window, watched a dark-green Bentley turn into the tree-lined drive. Crikey, look at it, who was visiting the club, the Queen? ‘It would’ve been ideal but Pru turned me down, said she couldn’t. She’s determined to stay where she is. Something to do with pride, I suppose.’ Dulcie tipped back her head, emptied the last crisp crumbs down her throat, wiped her hands on her tracksuit trousers and shrugged.
‘Maybe it’s just as well. If I’m going to be bringing men home all the time she might feel in the way. And I don’t want my style cramped, do I?’
‘Mm.’ Liza was no longer paying attention. She was peering out of the window along with Dulcie as whoever was driving the Bentley screeched to a halt and parked at a reckless angle in front of the entrance.
If this is the Queen, thought Dulcie, she’s desperate not to miss her step class.
It wasn’t the Queen.
‘Blimey,’ Dulcie whistled, ‘I thought only old codgers drove those kinds of cars. Mayors and stuff. I wasn’t expecting something like that.’
Having jumped out of the car and made his way rapidly up the flight of stone steps leading into reception, the driver was soon lost from view. Liza, who didn’t ogle like Dulcie, only had time to glimpse a fit-looking boy in his early twenties with longish dark hair. If the Bentley belonged to him, the chances were he had to be either a footballer or a rock star, Liza decided. The kind that liked to be noticed and bought his old mum a Barrett home in Basingstoke.
Dulcie was already looking excited.
‘I wonder who he is?’
‘No idea, but I know what he is.’
‘What? Tell me!’
Liza grinned and retied her ponytail, which had come loose. ‘Far too young for you.’
Dulcie had forgotten all about Eddie’s mystery phone caller. There were so many other riveting things to discuss, like Liza’s latest ex-lover (was there any bigger turn-off in the world, Liza argued, than discovering that the new Mr Wonderful in your life banked with the Co-op?) and how Pru was well shot of Phil, even if she didn’t yet appreciate this fact, and which clubs in Bath Dulcie should hang out in if she wanted to meet millions of seriously hunky men.
‘... not forgetting this place, of course,’ said Dulcie charitably as she ticked venues off on her fingers. ‘You do get the odd one or two dishy ones who aren’t married. Oh wow—’
‘What?’ Liza had scooped the slice of lemon out of her drink and was busy sucking it. She raised her eyebrows at Dulcie, who’d gone all glazed and stupid-looking.
Next moment Liza realised someone was standing behind her. She swivelled round, the strip of lemon peel still dangling from one corner of her mouth.
‘Are you Miss Lawson?’
‘That’s right.’ She smiled, deftly removing the peel. ‘Liza, please. And we know who you are; we saw you arriving just now. You’re the boy with the Bentley.’
Up close he was even more spectacular-looking than Dulcie had suspected. Hungrily she drank in every detail: yellow-gold eyes, the colour of freshly minted pound coins; thick black lashes; cheekbones to die for; a tan like peanut butter; and a narrow, fabulously cruel-looking mouth.
Cruel mouths were Dulcie’s favourite kind. She loved the transformation when they broke into a smile.
Except this one didn’t seem in much danger of doing that. ‘My name’s Kit Berenger, Miss Lawson.’
Oo-er, thought Dulcie, none the wiser but realising from the icy tone of voice that he was every bit as cross as he looked.
Liza, who recognised the name at once, stopped smiling. All of a sudden she knew what this was about.
L. B. Berenger was a Bath-based property-development company which specialised in tacking new estates on to existing picturesque villages. The people living in the villages– and those whose prized views were threatened by the springing-up of these new estates – had begun campaigning furiously against the company’s bulldozer approach.
In his New Year’s Eve letter to her, Alistair Kline had neglected to mention that his weekends were spent leaping into the paths of Berenger’s bulldozers and grappling with security guards.
Far from being shy, he had turned out to be a die-hard protester. He was eloquent too, persuading Liza – as a high-profile journalist – to write to the local paper publicly denouncing L. B.
Berenger’s latest plans.
She hadn’t minded doing that, but weekends ankle-deep in mud with only a thermos to keep her warm weren’t Liza’s idea of heaven. Her relationship with Alistair Kline had lasted three weeks.
Quite good, for her.
‘I see,’ she said now, surveying what must be the son-of Berenger. ‘And you’re the heavy mob, are you? Come to tell me to mind my own business and leave your family alone to make money in peace?’
Dulcie stared at Liza. What in heaven’s name did she think she was up to? If this was Liza’s idea of a new chat-up line, she had to be told it completely and utterly stank.
Kit Berenger clearly thought so too. His cruel upper lip curled with distaste. ‘Funny, that. You think we should be ashamed of the way we make our money. Does it never occur to you to be ashamed of the way you earn yours?’
Dulcie gazed at the pair of them, totally riveted. She’d always been a sucker for a curled lip.
‘Look,’ said Liza, ‘I’m a journalist. My job is to write the truth as I see it. The people who already live in that village would never have moved there in the first place if they’d known it was going to be turned into Milton-bloody-Keynes.’
Kit Berenger stared hard at Liza. Finally he said, ‘If you’re talking about West Titherton, thirty-six houses and a mini-roundabout hardly add up to Milton Keynes. Anyway, that isn’t why I’m here.’
Glancing across at the chair Dulcie was resting her feet on, he reached for the colour supplement Liza had thrown down earlier. Dulcie shivered with pleasure as his tanned arm – he was wearing a denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up – brushed against her bare ankle.
Liza wished her glass wasn’t empty. Now she desperately wished he was only here to harangue her about that stupid letter to the local paper.
She didn’t want to hear what was coming next.
‘This,’ said Kit Berenger, ‘is why I’m here.’
Liza’s jaw tightened in self-defence. Perspiration was breaking out on her upper lip. She didn’t take kindly to being sneered at by a mere boy.
‘Like I said, I write the truth as I see it.’
‘And does it give you a kick,’ Kit Berenger snapped back, ‘to write this kind of vindictive crap?
Do you have any idea how hurtful it can be, or is that all part of the fun?’
‘I don’t—’ began Liza.
‘No, shut up, just listen to me. What you wrote was complete bollocks anyway. I’ve eaten there dozens of times and there’s never been anything wrong with the food. The Songbird’s a great little restaurant struggling to make a name for itself, and your review was totally out of order.’
Liza already knew that, but she was damned if she was going to admit as much now. How dare this arrogant bastard give her such a public ticking-off?
‘Who runs that restaurant, your girlfriend?’ she demanded furiously. ‘Okay, you’re on her side because I gave the place a poor review and hurt her feelings. But I’m on the other side, the customer’s side. When a man scrimps and saves for a month to be able to afford to park the kids with a baby-sitter and take his wife out for a meal, he doesn’t want the food to be crap, does he?’
‘No, your turn to listen to me.’ Liza pointed an accusing finger at him. ‘Don’t you see? That’s what my job’s about. I try out these places and give my honest opinion of them. If a place is good, I say it’s good. But I’m telling you, I ate at the Songbird on New Year’s Day. And if that married couple had spent their hard-earned cash on the meal I ordered, they’d have had their big night out ruined.’
Dulcie was still ogling away quietly in the background, admiring Kit Berenger’s long legs in white Levis and Timberlands. She liked his aftershave too. The wristwatch was a bit of a let-down but he was young, she could forgive him for that. Anyway, there was definitely something cool about a man driving a Bentley and wearing a purple Swatch.
Disappointing news about the girlfriend, Dulcie thought bravely, although to be honest you’d wonder if he didn’t have one. And it was sweet that he cared enough about her hurt feelings to come storming over here on her behalf.
Dulcie couldn’t help noticing that Liza, not at all used to being spoken to in such a manner, was looking more and more like an outraged cat whose tail has got caught in a cat-flap.
‘She isn’t my girlfriend,’ said Kit Berenger. ‘She’s my cousin.’
Dulcie cheered up at once.
‘And she’s worked bloody hard to get that restaurant on its feet. If you had any idea of the hours she’s put in—’
Liza’s lips were pressed together. ‘It’s a tough business.’
‘I know, I know. Restaurants go under all the time.’ His amber eyes bored into hers. ‘But humour me, okay? Just tell me when this review came out. How long since it hit the news stands?’
Liza didn’t speak.
‘I’ll tell you. Five days,’ said Kit Berenger. ‘Right, next question. Bit more tricky this time. In those five days, how many people do you suppose have phoned up and cancelled their bookings at the Songbird? Hmm?’
Dulcie began to feel sorry for Liza.
Liza shook her head.
‘Come on, make a wild guess,’ he coaxed silkily. ‘No? Give up? Okay, I’ll tell you. Eighty-two covers. Eighty-two fucking covers in five days.’
Dulcie swallowed. She didn’t know what a cover was, but all the little hairs on the back of her neck were standing to attention. Kit Berenger was awesome when he was angry. He was positively lethal .. .
‘So give yourself a pat on the back, Miss Lawson. As you say, it’s a tough business. And now, thanks to your hatchet job, it looks as if you’ve singlehandedly closed my cousin’s restaurant down.’
Dulcie was beginning to get seriously on Liza’s nerves. If she didn’t shut up soon she was going to get a squash racket jammed down her throat.
‘Cruel mouths, I just love cruel mouths.’ Dulcie swooned, ticking off each dubious asset on her fingers. ‘Calvin Klein aftershave, that’s my favourite too. Did you recognise that was what he was wearing?’
Liza was too busy smarting furiously and thinking up brilliant ripostes. It was too late now, of course, he’d gone, but there was always the horrible possibility she might one day bump into Kit Berenger again. It didn’t do any harm to keep a few ripostes up your sleeve anyway. Just in case.
‘... and he’s the exact opposite of Patrick, you know. I mean, talk about gallant. Look at the way he leapt to his cousin’s defence. Patrick never leapt to my defence ... in fact he leapt as far as possible in the other direction, that’s how bloody loyal and gallant he was.’
‘It’s the family thing. You upset Patrick’s mother. He was being loyal to her.’
‘Yes, but I’m his wife!’ Dulcie tore open another packet of crisps. ‘Well, I was. Well, still am, I suppose ...’
Liza wondered which would be worse if you were kidnapped and held hostage in a damp cellar for five years. Solitary confinement or being made to share with Dulcie.
‘... anyway, you have to admit he’s gorgeous. Imagine the fantastic-looking children you’d have.
God, I could definitely marry someone like him ...’
Solitary confinement, no question.
‘Whatever happened to being wild and irresponsible and changing your men as often as you change your nightie?’ Liza observed drily. ‘What happened to celebrating a whole new life?’
‘Yeah, but what a way to celebrate,’ sighed Dulcie, well ensconced on Fantasy Island now. ‘And who’d need a nightie?’
Pru had a whole new life and she didn’t much feel like celebrating. In the space of five weeks she had exchanged a perfect home, a loving, faithful husband (ha ha), no money worries and an N-reg Golf Cabriolet for a hideous bedsit, no husband and enough money worries to float the Titanic.
Ironically, she would still have forgiven Phil and stood by him. Together they could have battled their way out of debt. But in the end Pru hadn’t been given that option. You could only stand by a husband who wanted you there at his side, she had belatedly discovered. If he couldn’t bear the sight of you, regarded you with undisguised loathing and contempt and was only interested in the new woman in his life ... well, there didn’t seem much point.
Since a car was a necessity if she was going to find work, Pru had answered a newspaper ad and bought an ancient mini for a hundred pounds. Taxing and insuring it used up the rest of her modest savings. At least they were her savings to use up, Pru reminded herself. When they had bought the house, she had been inwardly hurt by Phil’s insistence that only his name went on the mortgage. Now, thanks to his greed, his debts were his alone.
In fact, Pru discovered, becoming broke in such sudden and spectacular fashion had its weird advantages. When you spent every waking moment in a blind panic, trying desperately to figure out how you were going to cope money-wise, you didn’t have much time left over to feel depressed about the fact your husband had done a bunk.
She hadn’t seen Phil since the day after Dulcie’s party, although she knew where he was living.
He wasn’t working either. Pru wondered if, desperate for money, he had got caught doing some dodgy deal or other and been sacked.
She wished she could hate Phil. If she did, Pru was sure it would make her feel better.
But how can I hate him, she wondered miserably, when I’d give anything in the world to have him back?
The interview had been a nightmare, no way was she going to be offered the job.
‘Come on, come on,’ Pru urged through gritted teeth as she turned the key in the ignition and prayed for the engine to catch. In the last month she’d had enough practice jump-starting the Mini to go on Mastermind (‘And your specialist subject, Mrs Kastelitz ...?’) but today she was pointing uphill. Anyway, her sadistic interviewers might be smirking out of their office windows, jeering at the moron who was as hopeless with cars as she was on the phone.
They had put a headset on Pru, given her a prompt sheet and instructed her to show them what she could do.
‘Come on! Give us your sales pitch ... show some enthusiasm!’ they had roared at her. ‘No, no, enthusiasm not exhaustion. Right, take a deep breath and try again! Give it all you’ve got! Okay, that’s enough.’ They had rolled their eyes at each other. ‘We’ll let you know.’
From the safety of her car, Pru looked up at the blank windows and mouthed bravely, ‘Well, fuck you.’
The engine, evidently stunned by this act of outrageous rebellion, coughed and spluttered and came to life.
Didn’t want to sell crappy conservatories anyway, Pru decided, determined to stay positive.
Especially not in some frightful office where every time you made a sale you were expected to jump up on your chair and go ‘Yee-haa!’
She made it home ... home! by five o’clock. Pru, used to a glistening, top-of-the range, fully fitted Neff kitchen, fed fifty pence into the ancient meter and made herself a mug of tea.
Clutching a copy of the evening paper in one hand and a couple of digestives in the other, she climbed into her narrow bed to keep warm.
I’ll be all right, thought Pru, astonished to realise that not getting the job hadn’t upset her nearly as much as she’d imagined. In fact it had quite cheered her up. So what if she wasn’t cut out for high-pressure telesales? There were plenty of other things she could do.
It was just a question of figuring out what.
A fortnight later, at six thirty on a stormy Thursday morning, Pru was on her way to work when a car roared out of nowhere at her, smashing into the passenger side of the Mini and shunting it across the road into a ditch.
The road, a mile or so from Brunton Manor, was narrow and unlit. Pru screamed as the car toppled sideways and the headlights went out, plunging her into pitch darkness. The thick scarf around her neck flopped over her face. A can of Mr Sheen, catapulting off the back seat, hit her on the back of the head.
She wasn’t hurt. When she had scrambled out of the car she realised she didn’t have so much as a bump or a scratch on her. It was a miracle.
It was also raining stair rods.
‘... oh thank God! You’re out ... you’re alive ...’
A man was crashing through the blackness towards her. He slithered into the soggy ditch, colliding with Pru and almost knocking her flat.
He clutched frenziedly at her arms.
‘Are you hurt? Are you okay? The car just skidded—’
‘I’m all right.’ Pru’s teeth were chattering. ‘My car isn’t.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll sort it out.’
Pru found herself being hauled none too ceremoniously back up the slope and on to the road.
Bewildered, she wondered if this meant he was a mechanic, about to roll up his sleeves and start sorting it out this minute. But could he? Surely it was going to take more than a couple of spanners and a monkey wrench to get her car out of the ditch?
‘We’ll h-have to phone the p-police,’ she told him, struggling and failing to control her chattering teeth.
‘No need for that. I said I’d deal with everything and I will.’
‘B-but you have to inform them after an ac-ac-accident.’
His voice strained, he replied brusquely, ‘Look, never mind the police for now. It’s Arthur I’m worried about. He needs help, fast.’
Pru was confused. Had Arthur been driving the other car? Oh God, don’t say he was dead .. .
‘Quick, get in.’ The man, evidently frantic with worry, pulled open the passenger door of his car.
Pru shivered and braced herself, but there was no visible corpse. No visible anyone, for that matter.
Fearfully, wondering if she was being kidnapped by a madman, she turned and opened her mouth to say, ‘Where’s Arthur?’
Instead, getting her first glimpse of the man who had crashed into her, she exclaimed, ‘Oh thank goodness, it’s you!’
Eddie Hammond peered in turn at Pru. The light inside the car was dim and she was pretty damp and bedraggled but he recognised her finally as a member of the club. Hopefully this would go in his favour.
‘That’s right. You’re one of Dulcie’s friends.’
‘Pru. Pru Kastelitz.’ Sticking out her icy hand – and feeling idiotic – she said, ‘Phew, I was starting to get worried. Thought you might be a kidnapper.’
Eddie made his way around the front of the car – a gleaming, pillarbox-red Jaguar – and climbed into the driver’s seat. He restarted the engine.
‘Hang on.’ Looking bemused, this time Pru remembered to say it. ‘Where’s Arthur?’
‘On the back seat.’
She swivelled round in alarm.
And saw, half-hidden beneath a rumpled tartan blanket, a golden labrador. Asleep.
‘Arthur’s a dog?’
Grimly Eddie nodded. ‘He’s ill. I have to get him to the vet.’
He was reversing, putting the Jag back on course. Pm, never a tremendous dog lover, said, ‘What about my car?’
‘I’ll get it fixed.’
‘But I haven’t even locked the doors! I’ve got loads of stuff in there—’
‘Flaming Nora! What’s more important, Arthur’s life or your ... stuff?’ Eddie stared across at his passenger, exasperated. Then, remembering he mustn’t alienate her, he forced himself to smile.
‘Pru, please. Let’s get Arthur to the vet first. As soon as he’s been seen to, I’ll sort everything out with you. That’s a promise, okay?’
Feeling horribly ashamed of herself, because as far as she was concerned Arthur’s life wasn’t nearly as important as the contents of her car, Pru nodded and gave in. She couldn’t help not being keen on dogs. An unprovoked attack on her as a child by a neighbour’s Alsatian had left vivid scars on her mind as well as her arm. But to be fair, that hadn’t been Arthur’s fault.
To make up for being heartless, Pru twisted round and took another look at the animal snoring on the back seat.
‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘I don’t know. I woke up half an hour ago and found him like that. Out cold on the kitchen floor.’
Eddie’s voice wavered. For an awful second Pru wondered if he was going to cry. He was desperately worried, she realised. No wonder he had been driving like a maniac along Brunton Lane.
And then, quite suddenly, something Dulcie had mentioned in passing last week popped into her head .. .
The vet, who lived above his surgery in Primrose Hill, was used to being woken up at unearthly hours by frantic pet owners.
‘He’ll live,’ he pronounced, when he had finished examining Arthur.
Arthur, opening a weary eye, looked appalled by the prospect and promptly closed it again.
‘Thank God, thank God.’ This time Eddie’s eyes filled with quivering tears of relief. ‘But what caused it? What did he have, some kind of convulsion?’
The vet shook his head.
‘More like some kind of cognac.’ Laconically he added, ‘Or it could’ve been Scotch.’
Pru, perched on a stool a safe distance from the examination table, exclaimed, ‘You mean he’s drunk?’
The vet nodded. Eddie stared at him, dumbfounded.
‘Glenfiddich,’ mumbled Eddie. ‘I was drinking it last night. I fell asleep in the armchair. When I woke up this morning I saw the bottle on its side. Thought I must have knocked it over with my foot.’
Arthur whined and rolled his eyes open again, the effort clearly immense.
‘Oh my poor boy,’ Eddie consoled him, stroking his head. ‘You must feel terrible.’
‘Take him home and let him have plenty of water,’ said the vet. ‘No Scotch with it this time. The last thing Arthur needs is the hair of the dog.’
‘Right,’ said Pru, when they had loaded Arthur gently back into the car, ‘time to call the police.’
He gave her a pained look. ‘Could we just get Arthur home first?’
Pru gazed steadily at Eddie Hammond over the Jag’s glossy red roof. Then she held out her hand, palm upwards. ‘I’ll drive.’
He twitched visibly.
‘Because you lost your licence last week.’
Staring back at her, Eddie said nothing. Finally, wearily, he nodded.
’What was it, drink-driving?’
Eddie looked offended.
‘Certainly not. Only speeding. And jumping a red light. Nothing desperate,’ he went on defensively. ‘No big deal. They got me on points. Three months and a bit of a fine, that’s all.’
‘No wonder you didn’t want me to call the police,’ said Pru. ‘Driving when you’ve been banned.
No insurance. Causing an accident. And how much did you have to drink last night, before falling asleep in your armchair?’ She consulted her watch. ‘It’s only seven thirty. You’re probably still over the limit.’
Wordlessly Eddie passed over the keys. He knew Dulcie but had never actually spoken to Pru before. Having assumed she was the quiet, biddable one, he was experiencing a distinct sense of unease. Right now she looked about as biddable as Rudolf Hess.
He waited until Pru was driving before trying to explain.
‘I knew it was stupid of me.’ All he could tell her was the truth. ‘I just panicked. I thought Arthur was dying. I was desperate.’
The Jaguar was bliss to drive after the temperamental Mini; the gears were heaven on a shift-stick. Marvelling at the metronomic sweep of the windscreen wipers – no hiccups, no judders, none of those awful screeching bird-of-prey noises her own wipers liked to make – Pru flicked a sidelong glance at Eddie.
‘You could have phoned for a taxi.’
Wearily he shook his head.
‘Last time I did that, the bloody thing took forty minutes to turn up.’
‘What about a friend? Don’t you have any of those, to call on in an emergency?’
Since moving down from Manchester to Bath four months earlier, Eddie had discovered at first hand that all the guff about northerners being friendlier than southerners was true.
‘Plenty, thanks.’ He heard his voice sharpening but couldn’t help it. ‘I have plenty of friends.. In Manchester. How silly of me, I suppose I should have given them a ring.’
‘It was silly of you to drive.’ Pru remained calm. ‘You could have killed someone. You could,’
she pointed out, ‘have killed me.’
Eddie was beginning to wish he had. His eyes felt gritty and his head ached. He gave up.
‘So what are you going to do, call the police and turn me in?’
Pru indicated left as she turned into the entrance of Brunton Manor. He looked so crushed she couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.
Her voice softened. ‘Is that what you think? Actually I wasn’t planning to.’
‘Look, phone a garage. Get my car towed away and fixed.’ Pru parked the Jag neatly by the side entrance to the club but kept the engine running. ‘Am I insured to drive this one?’
Bit late to ask now, thought Eddie, but he nodded.
‘It’s covered for any driver.’
Except banned ones.
‘Okay.’ Briskly Pru checked her watch; she was already late for work. ‘So if it’s all right with you, I’ll borrow this car until mine’s ready.’
Eddie panicked. He felt like a smoker having his cigarettes confiscated.
‘But I might—’
‘Might what?’ Pru’s delicate eyebrows lifted. ‘Need it? Oh no, you won’t need it, Eddie. You’re banned.’
By the time Pru arrived back at the scene of the crash, someone else had got there before her.
The Mini was still lying on its side in the ditch but the five bulging black bin liners she had piled on to the back seat were gone.
This was a major blow; Pru’s landlord didn’t know it yet, but paying the rent depended rather heavily on the contents of those bags.
Pru, who had astonished herself this morning – she’d never been that bold and assertive with anyone in her life – now felt her eyes begin to prickle with distinctly unassertive tears. All her good clothes, fifteen years’ worth, had been stolen. It had taken her hours to wash, press and check everything, making sure no buttons were missing, no hems coming undone. The woman who ran the designer as-new shop in Carlton Street, the Changing Room, had been keen to take as many of Pru’s outfits, with their impressive labels, as she wanted to be rid of.
Pru didn’t want to be rid of any of them but it was fast becoming a question of selling either her clothes or her body, and she couldn’t imagine anyone being interested just now in her scrawny frame. Selling the clothes, on the other hand, would give her enough for six months’ rent.
Pru stared at the Mini’s empty back seat and hanging-open doors and wondered who could have nicked them. Had a smartly dressed young businesswoman spotted the car on her way to work, stopped to make sure nobody was lying hurt, and taken a peek inside one of the bags? Maybe she’d pulled out the navy-blue Escada suit, held it up against herself and thought, ‘Size 10, what a stroke of luck, let’s see what else we’ve got here ...’ Then, clearly liking what she found, had she stowed the five bin bags in the boot of her own sporty little car and zoomed off to work, happy in the knowledge that that was her spring wardrobe sorted out?
Or had a gang of school kids found the bags, torn them open and dumped her clothes in the nearest pond in disgust?
‘Don’t fret about it,’ Marion Hayes declared when Pru finally turned up at Beech Farm. Arriving two hours late, and in a posh car, meant Marion’s curiosity was aroused. Before she started work, Pru was forced to sit down, eat Hob Nobs, drink tea and tell all.
‘That’s his problem, not yours.’ Marion dismissed Pru’s worries with an airy flick of the hand.
‘Just give him an estimate stating how much the stuff was worth. He’ll send it on to his insurance people. They’ll pay up.’
Pru nodded and tried to look suitably relieved. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to tell Marion the whole story — about Eddie Hammond being banned and therefore uninsured — not out of any sense of loyalty, but because some things were simply safer left unsaid. She didn’t fancy being arrested and slung into prison for aiding and abetting a criminal.
She couldn’t help wondering, either, just how suspicious Eddie was going to be when she suddenly presented him with a hefty additional bill for stolen frocks.
I mean, how likely did it sound, Pru thought gloomily, thousands of pounds’ worth of designer labels being nicked from the back of a clapped-out Mini? She used to buy shoes that cost more than that car.
‘Well, at least you weren’t hurt,’ said Marion, draining her tea and standing up as the clock in the hall struck nine. ‘Time I was out of here. The cows’ll be wondering when they’re going to get fed. I’ll leave you in peace.’
* * *
When Pru had finished washing up the breakfast things she scrubbed the kitchen floor. While that was drying she vacuumed through downstairs. Next she cleaned the drawing room windows.
When the floor was dry in the kitchen she threw a great pile of muddy jeans into the washing machine. Then she sat down at the table to polish silver and listen to a radio phone-in on the subject of dishonesty.
‘When my husband’s been horrible to me,’ Teresa from Tunbridge Wells was confessing with a guilty giggle, ‘I wait until he’s asleep and pinch a fiver out of his wallet. The next day I spend it on chocolate.’
Pru idly considered phoning up the programme to say if anyone listening had her bin bags, could they please give them back?
She imagined herself on the radio, appealing to the thief’s better nature: ‘The thing is, I know they’re nice clothes, but please don’t think I’m rich. Because I’m not, any more. I’m horribly broke.’
At this point, the presenter would enquire gently: ‘Pru, if it’s not too personal a question, what brought this about?’
‘Well, Gary, let me put it this way. Two months ago I had a wonderful husband, a perfect home.
I employed a cleaning woman. Now I have no husband, no home, and I work as a cleaning woman.’
‘Pru, that’s terrible. But how did it happen?’
‘How did it happen? Gary, I’ll tell you how it happened. Some husbands do the routine thing, they have flings with their secretaries. But my husband had to be different, Gary. He didn’t even have the decency to have an affair with his secretary, oh no, he had to be different, didn’t he? He had to go and do it with our cleaner.’
‘Pru, are you all right?’
Pru leapt a foot out of her chair. Marion was standing in the doorway giving her an extremely odd look.
Horrified, Pru realised she was pressing a half-polished silver candlestick to her ear, holding it like a telephone.
Hastily she pretended to be testing its temperature against her sizzling cheek. ‘Oh hi! Amazing, don’t you think, how the harder you rub, the warmer it gets?’
‘Pru, you could have bumped your head in the crash.’ Marion sounded nervous. ‘Maybe you should see a doctor after all.’
Liza had never really felt guilty before. It was awful; she didn’t like it one bit. She wondered how long she would have to wait until it went away.
She was doing the stupidest things too, indulging in the kind of antics usually reserved for obsessed ex-lovers. Although the Songbird was miles out of her way, Liza found herself driving past it two or three times a week. Her stomach churning, she would count the number of cars in the restaurant’s tiny car park and try to figure out how many customers were inside.
Not many, by the look of things.
Once or twice she had phoned the restaurant, pretending to have dialled a wrong number, just to see if it sounded busy.
She even persuaded Dulcie to go along there one Friday evening, to report back on atmosphere and food. Dulcie dragged a protesting girlfriend with her — ‘God, Dulcie, can’t we go somewhere else? That place has had some terrible reviews’ — and enjoyed her meal but was hugely disappointed not to bump into Kit Berenger.
‘I thought he said he’d eaten there loads of times,’ she complained to Liza the next day. ‘I was really looking forward to meeting him again. Lying toad, I bet he never sets foot in the place.
What a swizz.’
‘But the food was fine?’ prompted Liza, bursting for details. ‘What did you have? Take me through each course.’
‘I can’t remember,’ Dulcie protested. She gave Liza a ‘you’re weird’ look. ‘We had three bottles of Côtes de something, told each other millions of dirty jokes and had to be poured into a taxi.
Isn’t that good enough?’
’You are hopeless.’
‘If you’re so desperate to check out the food, go there yourself.’ Dulcie was miffed. Honestly, do someone a favour and all you got was abuse.
‘Oh right, I’ll do that,’ said Liza with some sarcasm. ‘I’m sure they’ll welcome me with wide-open arms.’
Heavens, Liza could be thick. Dulcie rolled her eyes in despair. ‘Do what you did last time, stupid. Go in disguise.’
The mechanics at Joe’s Autos had a great laugh when they heard what Eddie Hammond wanted them to do to Pru’s car.
Joe explained to Eddie over the phone the meaning of the technical term write-off.
‘Basically, when a car like this has a headlight smashed, it’s a write-off. Repairing the headlight is going to cost more than the car’s worth, d’you see? And I’ve had a good look at the damage to the passenger door, the wing, the wheel arch, the bonnet ... it’s just not worth it, Mr Hammond.
You’re talking five hundred quid’s worth of repairs on a total rust heap.’
‘I know, I know,’ said Eddie with a sigh, ‘but do it anyway.’
The car was ready three days later. Eddie dialled the number Pru had left with him. A spaced-out-sounding hippy answered, mumbling, ‘Yeah man, like, I’ll get her, okay?’
About half an hour later, Pru picked up the phone. Eddie wondered who the hippy was; a son, maybe? God help her if that was her husband.
But it was hardly the kind of question you could ask over the phone. He switched into brisk mode instead.
‘Pru? Eddie Hammond. Your car’s here waiting for you, all fixed and ...’ No, no, he could hardly say as good as new. ‘.. . um, raring to go. So if you’d like to bring back the Jag we can do a swap.’
‘Right.’ Pru wondered why garages always did that. When you were desperate to get your car back, it took them a fortnight just to change a wheel nut. When, on the other hand, you were enjoying yourself thoroughly, zipping around Bath in a bright-red Jaguar, they managed to carry out six months’ worth of repairs in no time flat.
Full of spite, garage mechanics.
Pru bit her lip and took a deep breath. She was doing it again, daydreaming deliberately, in order to avoid doing what had to be done next. She had been putting it off for three days and now she mustn’t put it off any more.
‘Fine, great, I’ll come up now. Thanks very much. Only the thing is, there’s ... um ... something else I have to—’
‘See you in a minute,’ said Eddie, whose other phone had begun to ring. ‘You know where my office is. Just come straight up.’
Eddie wondered why Pru Kasteliz was looking so twitchy. She should be pleased, he thought, to be getting her car back.
Bloody hell, thought Eddie, who had just written out a cheque to Joe’s Garage for £536, if anyone around here should be twitching it’s me. He handed Pru the keys to the Mini. She promptly dropped them. He watched her kneel down, her long dark hair swinging forwards as she retrieved the keys from under his desk.
‘That’s settled then,’ he said generously, ‘all sorted out and no harm done.’
Pru felt sick. She knew she should have done it over the phone. Face to face was impossible.
‘What?’ said Eddie when she had opened and closed her mouth a couple of times and no sound had come out.
Three days ago, she had been awash with self-confidence. Pru wondered where it had got to now she really needed it.
Maybe that was my lot, she thought despairingly, and I used it all up in one go, like Phil at the roulette table. One glorious, exhilarating surge of assertiveness ... and then, boom. Gone.
The meek shall inherit the earth ... as long as that’s all right with everyone else.
Wimps rule, okay? No, but really, are you sure that’s okay?
‘Look, I told you I had some things in the car,’ Pru blurted out, ‘and you said there wasn’t time to go back and lock it, so we didn’t. The thing is, by the time I did get back there, my things had been stolen. So I’m sorry, but here’s a list of what was taken. I spoke to my insurers but I’m not covered, so I’m afraid this is up to you as well.’
Eddie stared at Pru in disbelief. Then he stared in even more disbelief at the sheet of paper she had pushed across the table at him.
Her hands were trembling so much it could have been a bomb. It was hardly surprising they trembled, Eddie thought when he saw the size of the bill. More of a bombshell.
‘You mean you want me to give you another fourteen hundred pounds?’ He sounded totally baffled. ‘For a bag of old clothes?’
‘Five bags,’ whispered Pru. She wanted to tell him that if she had sold them through the Changing Room, she would have got more than that, but the words wouldn’t come.
‘You can’t be serious,’ said Eddie.
Pru stared down at her fingers, scrunched together in her lap. She knew what she should be doing. She should be fixing Mr Eddie over-the-limit Hammond with a haughty glare and telling him in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t her fault her car had been smashed up and spun into a ditch, that he was the one in the wrong and that if he found the prospect of reimbursing her so appalling ... well, then she would see him in court.
Joan Collins would have done it. Joan would have carried it off brilliantly. Maybe that’s my trouble, thought Pru. No shoulder pads.
‘How do I know you’re telling the truth?’ Eddie Hammond demanded suddenly. It crossed his mind to wonder about the hippy on the phone. Was there a drug problem there? Was Pru so desperate for money to feed her son’s/lover’s/husband’s addiction that she would do anything to raise extra cash?
He jabbed at the list with an agitated finger.
‘How do I know these clothes were really stolen?’
Well, thought Pru, I could show you a few empty fitted wardrobes.
Or she could have done, if the house hadn’t been repossessed.
He was right, of course. She had no way at all of proving it. She couldn’t blame him for being suspicious either.
I’m gullible, Pru thought, but even I’d have my doubts about something like this.
‘It’s okay, it doesn’t matter.’ Realising she’d started to shake, she stood up and made a dash for the door.
‘Where are you going?’ Eddie half rose out of his own chair, confused by the abrupt volte-face.
Quick, thought Pru, get me out of here before I start blubbing.
‘Home. Thanks for getting the car fixed.’ She shook her head violently. ‘It doesn’t matter about the clothes.’
Liza took Pru along with her to the Songbird on Saturday night. She picked her up at eight o’clock.
Pru, thrilled to be invited — anything to get out of that bedsitter — said, ‘This is a treat. I thought you’d have brought your new chap. Couldn’t he make it?’
‘No.’ Liza slotted Sibelius into the tape deck. ‘Mainly because I didn’t ask him.’
Pru recognised the look on her face. Clearly, new chap was no more.
‘But you said he was gorgeous last week.’
‘Last week he was. This week,’ Liza said heavily, ‘he started asking me about my star sign. I mean, give me a break. He’s supposed to be a grown man.’
It occurred to both of them, though neither said it aloud, that considering it was mid-April, so far their New Year’s resolutions weren’t turning out terribly well.
Entering the restaurant was nerve-racking. Liza, wigged-up and dressed-down, knew she was being irrational. No one had ever recognised her yet, so why should they suddenly start now?
But that didn’t stop her heart pounding like a Sally Army drum the whole time they were being greeted and seated.
Liza’s eyes flickered to the left. There was the little waitress who had been in such a fluster last time. Quick flicker to the right ... and there serving behind the bar was the attractive blonde who had tried so valiantly to keep the rugby rabble in check. Liza wondered if this was the girl whose feelings she had hurt so much, Kit Berenger’s cousin.
Sweat began to prickle her scalp beneath the unflattering mouse-brown wig. She felt like a spy, a wartime secret agent desperate not to attract the attention of the enemy.
‘Relax,’ said Pru, ‘no one’s looking.’
‘I know. I just don’t want to be recognised.’
‘It’s hardly likely, if even Phil didn’t spot you.’
‘Phil!’ gasped Liza, covering her mouth in dismay. ‘Shit!’
‘Well, yes,’ said Pru, ‘I know that now.’
‘I mean I can’t believe I did this to you. This is where .. . and I completely forgot ... Hell’s bells, how could I be so insensitive? Why didn’t you say something?’
Liza cringed. Then she double-cringed, realising they were actually sitting at the table where Blanche had wriggled her toes with such enthusiasm in Phil’s trousered crotch.
‘It’s all right. I knew you’d forgotten. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.’ Prue shrugged. ‘Why should I be bothered?’
Liza said admiringly, ‘You’ve got brave.’
‘My husband ran off with my cleaner. I live in a bug-infested bedsit. The hippy downstairs plays bloody Donovan records non-stop and apart from this dress I own precisely two jumpers, three nighties and a skirt.’ Pru hesitated, looking as if she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. ‘You’d be surprised; after a while you can learn to not care about quite a lot.’
Liza stared at Pru. Pru gazed back.
Pru tried hard to keep a straight face.
Liza said slowly, ‘Donovan records?’
Pru nodded. Liza began to smirk. Within seconds Pru was in fits of giggles. Liza was helpless with laughter.
Holding her sides, barely able to get the words out, she said, ‘This hippy of yours. Do they call him Mellow Yellow?’
Pru was giggling so much her mascara had run.
They were drawing attention to themselves. The family at the next table nudged each other, watching them. With a huge effort, Liza controlled herself.
‘I mean it,’ she told Pru when they had both recovered. ‘You are brave.’
‘I’m not,’ said Pru, mentally reliving the moment she had fled Eddie Hammond’s office. Oh yes, that had been brave, that had been breathtakingly courageous. Give the girl a VC.
‘You definitely can’t stay in that bedsitter,’ Liza persisted. ‘Death by Donovan, imagine. Come and live with me instead.’
‘What, in your one-bedroomed flat?’ Pru was touched by the offer but untempted. For the first time in her life — at the age of thirty-one — she was on her own. The least she could do was learn to cope with it.
‘My flat’s a jolly nice flat.’ Liza leapt to its defence. ‘It’s bijou.’
‘And if I moved in, it’d be more than your style that got cramped. Thanks,’ said Pru, ‘but I’m fine. Really.’
They were supposed to be ordering their meal. Liza forced herself to concentrate on the menu.
Every time she looked up, she realised Pru was glancing across the room.
‘Right, I’ll have the Stilton soufflé and the duck with kumquats. How about you?’ she said finally. Pru was doing it again. ‘Someone you know?’
Pru shook her head.
The blonde girl arrived to take their order. She was pretty and utterly charming and Liza, deciding she must be the cousin, wondered how she would react if she knew who’d she’d just been charming to.
‘Come on, who is it?’ she persisted, when the girl had left them. Pru’s eyes were still darting across the restaurant. ‘No idea. He just keeps looking over.’
‘Fancies me. Fatally attracted to my stunning wig,’ Liza smirked, ‘not to mention my cardigan.’
She glanced over her shoulder and found Kit Berenger staring straight at her.
‘It’s him, isn’t it?’
Liza nodded, white-faced. ‘How did you know?’
Embarrassed, Pru pleated her napkin. ‘Dulcie said he was gorgeous.’
‘More to the point,’ said Liza, ‘does he know who I am?’ But how can he, she wondered, when I’m looking like this?
‘What happens now?’ Pru’s stomach rumbled; she hadn’t eaten all day. The prospect of not staying after all almost made her want to cry.
‘Right, no need to panic,’ Liza announced firmly. ‘I mean, let’s be logical about this. He can’t possibly have recognised me. And we’ve ordered now, so we can’t leave.’ Fretfully she said,
‘What I don’t understand is why I didn’t spot him before.’
‘He wasn’t there when we arrived,’ Pru whispered back. ‘He came through that door.’ She nodded at one marked Private. The look Liza gave her was long and measured.
‘So you guessed who he was straight away.’
‘I didn’t think it mattered,’ Pru protested guiltily, ‘so long as he doesn’t know who you are. I didn’t want to put you off your meal.’
The Songbird was a forty-seater restaurant. Tonight – and Saturdays are the busiest night of any restaurant’s week – it was half full.
Or half empty, depending on your viewpoint.
Either way, it wasn’t great news. Liza wondered how many of the unoccupied tables were down to her.
She couldn’t fault the Stilton soufflé, which was creamy and light with an outer crust browned to perfection. The roast duck with kumquats was brilliant too.
‘This,’ declared Pm, prodding her poached salmon with a fork, ‘is divine.’
Liza wondered how on earth it could be physically possible to feel a pair of eyes boring into your back. She didn’t need to look round, she just knew it was happening.
‘If you want to leave,’ said Pru heroically, sensing her discomfort, ‘we can.’
Liza wanted to. The trouble was, she wanted to sample the puddings more.
‘Is he still looking over?’
‘Well, kind of.’
‘That means yes.’
‘He’s standing up,’ Pru murmured, watching covertly as he pushed back his chair.
‘It’s okay, he’s gone through that door again, the one marked Private.’
He was away for some time. When the door finally reopened, Liza had just taken her first mouthful of almond and apricot tart. Pm, who had chosen the honey ice cream, was so carried away by its miraculous taste and texture that her eyes were closed.
‘You don’t mind if I join you for a moment,’ said Kit Berenger, pulling out the empty chair next to Pru.
Liza wondered briefly if it was worth putting on a German accent. If he challenged her, she could simply deny everything, say she didn’t know vot he was tocking about.
But really, was there any point?
She wondered instead if Kit Berenger was about to rip her wig off. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight if he did; she was wearing an Ena Sharples hairnet underneath.
He didn’t. He looked hard at her for several seconds. Then with his index finger he tapped the dark-blue linen tablecloth, less than an inch from Liza’s wrist.
‘Very good, but that was the giveaway.’
Pru stared at the tablecloth. Heavens, was there a microphone hidden beneath it? Was the table bugged?
‘I heard you laughing. When I turned round I couldn’t see your face.’ He tapped again. ‘But I saw this.’
She had always worn her watch, a man’s steel Longines, on her right hand. On her little finger she wore a narrow platinum ring. Liza was so impressed by his powers of observation she almost smiled. Maybe this is it, she thought, my chance to apologise and make amends, to tell him what a terrific meal we’re having .. .
‘I don’t know what the fuck you think you’re doing back here,’ Kit Berenger went on icily, ‘but you certainly aren’t wanted. So I suggest you leave, this minute.’
‘Haven’t you done enough damage?’ he demanded, hissing the words across the table like poison darts. ‘Haven’t you already hurt Nicky enough?’
Liza flinched. Mortified, Pru stared down at her melting ice cream.
‘This restaurant doesn’t need customers like you,’ said Kit Berenger, standing up. ‘Come on, out.
And don’t start bleating about the bill because we don’t want your money either.’
‘Have you told your cousin who I am?’ asked Liza, feeling sick. So much for making amends.
‘Are you mad? Why do you suppose I want you out of here?’
‘You’re making a scene.’
‘I am not. I’m getting rid of you before I make a scene. Because if I did,’ Kit Berenger spoke through gritted teeth, ‘I promise you, it’d be a bigger one than this.’
Eddie Hammond’s frighteningly efficient secretary had left the computer print-out of last month’s renewed memberships on his desk, together with an updated list of applications to join the club. This list was growing, which was a good sign. Since taking over the running of Brunton Manor last November Eddie had worked hard to raise the club’s public profile.
Only three people hadn’t renewed their lapsed memberships. He flicked the edge of the print-out with his thumb, to jog his memory. The Turner girl had got married and moved to Oxford.
Well, it was a reasonable excuse.
R. Cooper-Clark had emigrated last month to work as a flying doctor in the Australian outback.
Which was an improvement. This was what Eddie called a good excuse.
The third name on the list was P. Kasteliz.
So, Eddie wondered idly, what’s yours?
He found Dulcie indulging in her favourite pastime, swinging her legs on a stool in the bar and flirting outrageously with the captain of the local cricket club. The cricketer, who hadn’t been married long, looked relieved to make his escape.
‘You’re always working,’ Dulcie protested, eyeing Eddie’s crumpled grey suit and loosened tie.
‘You never have any fun.’ She pulled a face, remembering why the words sounded so familiar.
‘That’s what I used to tell Patrick. Eddie, how old are you?’
‘Forty-five. Too old to have fun,’ he said, humouring her.
Dulcie gave him a told-you-so look.
‘You men, all the same. And then you wonder why you end up on your own. I mean, you were married once, weren’t you?’ Eddie nodded.
‘Did you work non-stop?’
Nodding again, he caught the barman’s eye and ordered a refill for Dulcie, a Scotch for himself.
‘And she got more and more bored, until in the end she couldn’t stand it any more,’ Dulcie scolded, wagging a finger at him. ‘So when was that, how long ago did she divorce you?’
Their drinks arrived.
‘Cheers,’ said Eddie, clinking glasses. ‘Oh, she didn’t divorce me. She died.’
Dulcie clapped a hand to her forehead. Slowly, it slid down her face.
‘I’m sorry, I’m just so stupid. Does it ever happen to anyone else or am I the only one? I tell you, every time I open my mouth I manage to say the wrong thing. Honestly, I could kill myself.’
Eddie shook his head. ‘That’s all right. It doesn’t matter.’
‘But you poor thing, how terrible for you. Um ... how did she die?’
‘She killed herself.’
Dulcie was appalled. It wasn’t as if she’d even wanted to know, she had simply remembered that bereaved people got upset when you tried to pretend it hadn’t happened. They didn’t like you changing the subject.
But this was too much. For possibly the first time in her life Dulcie didn’t dare speak.
It seemed safest to keep her mouth shut and just look as sympathetic as she could.
‘Sorry,’ said Eddie, ‘that was awful of me:’I shouldn’t have said it.’
‘You mean it was a wind-up?’ squawked Dulcie, her eyes wide. ‘You total bastard.’
‘No, no, it wasn’t a wind-up.’ Hastily he shook his head.’She did kill herself. I meant I could have put it a bit more subtly. Not dumped it on you like that.’
Dulcie hung her head. ‘I kind of asked for it.’
She looked so forlorn Eddie began to wish he’d stayed in his office.
‘Anyway,’ clumsily he patted her arm, ‘that was all a long time ago. And it isn’t why I’m here now. Actually, I wanted to talk to you about your friend.’
Another one bites the dust, thought Dulcie with an indulgent smile.
‘You mean Liza?’
‘No,’ said Eddie. ‘Pru.’
What people say is true; word of mouth is the best form of advertising. No sooner had Marion Hayes at Beech Farm boasted about Pru to her friends than they were on the phone bagging Pru for themselves. Within a week she was booked up with two hours here, three hours there ... and as much extra work as she liked.
It wasn’t exactly a glittering career but at least she was in demand. And cleaning other people’s bathrooms all week had one major advantage; it definitely made you appreciate your days off.
Which was why, at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning, Pru was still in bed when the doorbell rang.
She buried her head under the pillows. Donovan had been bellowing up through the floorboards until the early hours. The bell continued to ring.
Finally — because what if it was Phil? — Pru crawled out of bed and flung a dressing gown over her nightdress. Since the building didn’t stretch to luxuries like intercoms and buzzers, she had to stumble downstairs and pull the door open herself.
If it was Dulcie, she thought with bleary outrage, she jolly well wasn’t going to let her in. It wasn’t even midday; this was too much.
It was weird, opening the door expecting to see thin, laughing, spiky-haired Dulcie and coming face to face with paunchy, thinning-haired Eddie Hammond instead.
‘Oh,’ exclaimed Pru, startled by the sight of him on her doorstep and characteristically wondering what she must have done wrong. ‘Is it the car, has something happened?’ Her huge grey eyes grew defensive. ‘That scratch on the boot was there before I borrowed it.’
‘I know.’ Eddie couldn’t help admiring her slender figure, wrapped in an obviously expensive sage-green satin robe. ‘Sorry if I woke you up. May I come in?’
Pru automatically ran her hands over her slept-on hair, checking her ears weren’t sticking out.
She nodded, bemused by the request, and led the way back upstairs.
‘Tea? Coffee? Um ... would you like to sit down?’
Hurriedly she swept last night’s clothes off the only chair in the room. God, the place was a pit.
It was horrible seeing it through a visitor’s eyes. She must look a berk, too, she realised, prancing around such a dump in her best La Perla nightie. Like Zsa Zsa Gabor camping out at Greenham Common.
‘Dulcie tells me she offered you a room at her house.’ Eddie didn’t think Pru looked a berk but he was shocked by the state of the bedsit. There was mould on the ceiling and strips of wallpaper were peeling themselves off the damp walls. ‘Why didn’t you go?’
Pru busied herself making coffee. She shrugged.
‘I don’t know ... pride? Shame? Something like that.’
‘Come on, she’s your friend. What d’you think she’s going to do, gloat?’
Pru turned and looked at him. Clearly Dulcie had brought him up to date with the story so far.
Where gory details were concerned, holding back wasn’t Dulcie’s style. She couldn’t exercise discretion if she was strapped to a Nautilus machine.
‘She might not mean to gloat, but she’d find it hard not to say I told you so. She and Liza did warn me, you see. They told me what my husband was getting up to and I refused to believe them.’’But still—’
‘Anyway,’ said Pru, handing him his coffee and sitting down on the unmade bed, ‘that’s not the only reason. Dulcie’s still got her house. She doesn’t have to worry about money. I couldn’t bear to feel like the poor relation.’
Eddie shook his head.
‘You’ve had a rough time,’ he said gruffly. ‘I had no idea, until Dulcie told me.’
Cheers, Dulcie, thought Pru. What could she look forward to next, she wondered, charity fundraising? Collecting tins being rattled outside Sainsbury’s? Give generously to the humiliated wives appeal?
Save Pru from Poverty?
‘Here,’ said Eddie Hammond, ‘I’m sorry about the other day, in my office. I shouldn’t have doubted you.’
Pru took the cheque for fourteen hundred pounds. She bit the inside of her mouth and smiled a wry, lopsided smile. Maybe Dulcie wasn’t so bad after all.
‘And I noticed your club membership had run out,’ Eddie went on, handing her a card made out in her name, ‘so I renewed it for you.’
Pru felt herself going red.
‘The thing is ... I can’t really afford ...’
‘You don’t need to,’ Eddie cut in brusquely. ‘It’s my way of apologising. I’m not usually that crass.’
Pinker still, Pru said, ‘Well, thanks.’
‘My pleasure.’ He cleared his throat and looked embarrassed. ‘That’s when you need somewhere to go, after all. When your marriage has just broken up.’
‘Now you sound like Dulcie.’
‘It’s what she told me last night,’ Eddie admitted. ‘Still, it seems to work for her.’
‘She’s man-hunting,’ Pru said simply. ‘I’m not.’
* * *
‘Bloody taxis,’ stormed Eddie half an hour later. He peered out of Pru’s second-floor window and yanked up the aerial on his mobile, jabbing out the numbers he had soon grown to know by heart. ‘Hello, hello? Yes, it’s me again. Where the bloody hell’s my cab?’
Pru, still in her dressing gown, watched him scowl into the phone.
‘I said Medwell Crescent, not Street! Just get on to him, will you, and tell him it’s Medwell Crescent. What? You mean he’s picked up his next call? So how long am I supposed to wait before someone—? No, I cannot hang on another twenty bloody minutes!’
The unsatisfying thing about a mobile phone is you can’t slam the receiver down. Eddie, ready to explode with frustration, did the next best thing and tried slamming the aerial down instead.
It snapped off.
‘This is silly.’ Pru dangled her car keys at him. ‘Here, go and sit in the Mini. It’ll take me two minutes to get dressed.’
‘Thanks,’ said Eddie when she dropped him at the railway station with two minutes to spare. The Mini might be a banger but Pru knew how to handle it. She was, he had to admit, an extremely good driver.
As he struggled to open the passenger door he joked, ‘Next time I need a lift, I’ll phone you.’
Pru wondered if it was sitting at the wheel of a car that gave her more confidence. She said, ‘Lots of people hire chauffeurs when they’ve been banned.’
‘I know.’ Eddie sighed. ‘But I don’t need a full-time chauffeur.’
‘You could do with a part-time one. My hours are flexible,’ Pru went on rapidly. ‘The people I clean for don’t mind when I turn up, so long as the job gets done.’
Eddie saw the quiet determination on her face. With that straight dark curtain of hair and those serious grey eyes of hers, Pru looked more like a schoolgirl than a grown woman.
She was painfully thin too, beneath the man’s dark-blue sweater – her husband’s presumably –
and those battered black jeans. ‘Are you volunteering?’
‘I need the money,’ said Pru bluntly. ‘You need a driver. I could do the job.’ Leaning across, she jiggled the handle Eddie hadn’t been able to get to grips with, and opened the temperamental passenger door. The train he was in a hurry to catch was just pulling into the station. ‘Quick or you’ll miss it. Look, think it over. If you want me, give me a ring.’
Eddie grinned. ‘If I want you ... ?’
‘Oh well,’ Pru went pink again, as he had known she would, ‘you know what I mean.’
‘Of course I do.’ He pulled himself together. ‘And I’ve already thought about it. How soon can you start?’ The enormous slate-grey eyes widened.
‘As soon as you like.’
‘Terrific,’ said Eddie, knocking the gearstick expertly into reverse. ‘In that case, back to Brunton to pick up the Jag. We can’t stand bloody trains anyway.’
‘We?’ said Pru.
‘Arthur hates them too.’
Pru was in the pool when Dulcie saw the latest notice up on the noticeboard, announcing the appointment of Brunton Manor’s new tennis pro.
Dulcie’s eyes flickered incredulously from the written announcement to the photograph pinned beneath it, of a blond male in tennis whites being presented with a trophy the size of a fridge.
Her heart went kerplunk. Ignoring the receptionist’s indignant squawk of protest, Dulcie grabbed the photo, clutched it to her chest and raced all the way to the pool. Everyone who saw her stopped and stared; Dulcie had never been known to run before. Whatever next, sit-ups?
Pru was instantly recognisable in her daffodil-yellow swimming hat. Her head bobbed up and down as she doggy-paddled her way laboriously up to the shallow end, completing her sixteenth length. The hat was a must for Pru. If she didn’t wear one, her hair would plaster itself to her head leaving her ears on show to the world. This way her long hair stayed dry. In fact, as Dulcie had once innocently pointed out, the yellow rubber cap flattened her ears so nicely, it was a shame she couldn’t wear it all the time.
Personally, Dulcie wondered why Pru persisted with this swimming malarkey, especially when she was so bad at it. All swimming did, as far as Dulcie was concerned, was wear you out and totally wreck your make-up.
She crouched at the edge of the pool, waiting for Pru to reach her. It was no good yelling, trying to hurry her up; the hat wasn’t only a jolly efficient ear-flattener. When it was on, Pru couldn’t hear a thing.
‘What?’ said Pru, hanging on to the side and blinking chlorinated water out of her stinging, pink-rimmed eyes. She peered up at the photograph Dulcie was dangling in front of her nose.
‘It’s you-know-who,’ said Dulcie triumphantly.
Pru peeled the edge of the yellow cap cautiously upwards, just enough to be able to hear but not enough to let her ear spring out.
‘You-know-who,’ repeated Dulcie, her voice loaded with meaning. ‘Come on, think back a bit.
New Year’s Eve, Pru! New Year’s resolutions.’
Pru looked blank.
‘I give up. Is it someone Liza might want to marry?’ Sometimes Dulcie despaired of Pru.
Honestly, if this was what swimming did to your brain.
‘I’m talking about my resolutions,’ she said impatiently. ‘The ones I wrote when I was fifteen, remember? Do more homework, keep room tidy, all that guff?’
‘Join the Starsky and Hutch fan club.’ She brightened. ‘I forgot to ask, did you ever join? I liked Starsky best. Didn’t you think he looked sexy in that wrap-around cardigan?’
‘I preferred Hutch. He was gorgeous. Nobody fancied Starsky.’ Dulcie was full of scorn.
Seriously, was it any wonder Pru’s marriage had failed? She’d always had diabolical taste in men.
Pru peered more closely at the photograph. The chap was blond and tanned, but .. .
‘Dulcie, that isn’t David Soul.’
‘Give me strength,’ sighed Dulcie. ‘Did I say it was? Now listen to me. One of my resolutions was to snog you-knowwho.You said who was he and I said I didn’t have a clue. Right? With me so far?’
Cautiously, Pru nodded.
‘Well, this is him. This is you-know-who.’ Dulcie broke into an uncontrollable grin. She still couldn’t believe it herself. It was the fabbest thing to happen since Pop Tarts.
Pru looked up at Dulcie, still clutching the photo lovingly like a teenager. She didn’t know who you-know-who was, but he must be famous for Dulcie to have had a crush on him for so long. A rock star or something. A tennis-playing rock star like Cliff Richard.
‘And you’ve joined his fan club?’ said Pru. It sounded a bit of an immature thing to do but ...
well, this was a free country...
Gazing down at her, Dulcie decided they were both in need of a stiff drink.
‘I haven’t joined his fan club,’ she told Pru. ‘He’s about to join mine.’
‘Remember how I always used to moan about our family holidays,’ said Dulcie when Pru emerged from the changing rooms at last and joined her in the bar.
‘In South Wales? Tenby, wasn’t it?’
Dulcie nodded. ‘Bloody yacht club. Talk about mental cruelty. I should have sued my parents for dragging me along with them every summer. All day, every day, out in that sodding boat of theirs—’
‘Maybe that’s what put you off swimming,’ Pru suggested. ‘You’re just generally anti-water.’
‘Anyway, when I was fifteen we stayed in our usual cottage and a group of boys were renting the place next door. There were four of them and I fell in love with the best-looking one—’
‘Fell in love?’
‘Figure of speech,’ said Dulcie. ‘Had a crush on. Fancied like mad. His name was Liam and he was seventeen. I was sure he fancied me back but you know what boys are like when they’re with their mates. We chatted on the beach a few times.
When they played tennis they let me be their ball girl, that kind of thing. The others used to tease Liam about me. I was so besotted I didn’t even care.’ Dulcie sat back dreamily in her chair. So dreamily she spilt red wine down her T-shirt. ‘On our last night, he gave me a kiss on the cheek and said, "See you next year." I was so happy I almost died on the spot. I gave him my address and he promised to write to me. My parents couldn’t get over me crying buckets all the way home, when I’d always hated Tenby so much. I swear, that was the best holiday of my life.’
‘I don’t remember this,’ said Pru. ‘You kept pretty quiet about it. So what happened, did he write to you?’
‘Nope.’ Dulcie grinned. ‘I must have driven my mother mad. I kept accusing her of intercepting the post and destroying his letters. Poor Mum didn’t know what I was talking about.’
‘Did you write to him?’
‘Not often. Only about twice a day.’
‘Don’t go all feminist on nie. I was only fifteen.’
‘So this Liam ... he was the one you were so desperate to snog?’
‘He kissed me here.’ Half closing her eyes, Dulcie touched her cheek. ‘I can still remember how it felt. It was stupendous,’ she looked rueful, ‘but it wasn’t a snog.’ Then she smiled at the memory. ‘Can you imagine the sheer agony of having to wait a whole year to see him again? I was crossing off the days to August. Dammit, I was crossing off the hours.’
‘And did you?’ said Pru, by this time riveted. ‘Did you see him again?’
‘Did I heck! The cottage was let out to a pair of geriatric spinsters. No sign of Liam or his friends anywhere ... and God knows I spent enough time looking for them.’
‘You never told us any of this.’
‘What, that I was dumped?’ Dulcie started to laugh. ‘Excuse me, I did have some pride. I’d have told you about Liam if there’d been anything to tell.’
The photograph of Brunton Manor’s new tennis pro was back up on the noticeboard, having been plucked from Dulcie’s grasp by an irate receptionist.
‘And now he’s coming here to work,’ Pru marvelled. Dulcie hugged herself. ‘It’s fate.’
‘It didn’t work out brilliantly last time.’
‘I was fifteen,’ Dulcie rolled her eyes in exasperation, ‘he was seventeen. I had spots and the haircut from hell – how could it have worked out?’
‘That’s why it’s fate. We’re adults now. This is our second chance,’ she looked smugly at Pru, ‘a chance to make a real go of it. You’ll see.’
Pru called Terry Lambert her mystery client because she had never seen him. Terry, brother of Marion Hayes over at Beech Farm, was a solicitor who lived alone in a picturesque Bath-stone cottage high on one of the hills surrounding the city.
‘I’ve been telling him for years to get someone in. Men, they’re hopeless,’ Marion had robustly declared, before phoning Terry and informing him that she had found him a cleaner.
Marion had given Pru the spare key to Terry’s house. Every Tuesday afternoon Pru let herself in, spent four hours restoring order from chaos, took the money her absent employer left for her on the kitchen dresser and let herself out again.
Even if she hadn’t met him, however, she felt she knew Terry Lambert quite well, having hung up his clothes, dusted his bookshelves, washed up his breakfast things and put endless CDs and videos back in their cases. Divorced four years earlier, he was in his mid-thirties, with no children. He earned a jolly good salary and drove a metallic-green Scorpio. Pru knew all this because Marion had told her. According to Marion, her brother was quite a catch: handsome, generous and kind to animals.
‘Once you’re back on an even keel,’ she told Pru with an encouraging wink, ‘you could do a lot worse, you know, than our Terry.’
Pru couldn’t imagine ever getting back on an even keel, nor was she the least bit interested in getting to know another man. Anyway, kind to animals he might be, but with the best will in the world you could never classify Terry Lambert as handsome.
She didn’t say this to Marion; it didn’t seem polite to point out that if the photo in Terry’s bedroom was anything to go by, he was half-man, half-anteater.
But the photograph of Terry and Marion with their now-dead parents was clearly of sentimental value. Whenever she polished the ornate silver frame Pru couldn’t help studying it, touched by the similarities between father and son. Both had dark eyes and thick, straight eyebrows, pronounced laughter lines and mouths that curved upwards when they smiled. They also shared the same nose, big and beaky and truly attention-grabbing.
Marion, luckily for her, had followed her mother’s side of the family; her eyebrows were narrow, her nose pert.
It didn’t feel odd to Pru, talking to Terry Lambert on the phone, but she wondered if it was strange for him. After all, she knew a lot about her mystery client but he knew next to nothing about her.
In fact, Terry didn’t appear to find it strange. He sounded charming, and thoroughly relaxed.
‘... the thing is, I’m going to be working unpredictable hours,’ Pru explained, ‘so I won’t always be able to manage Tuesday afternoons. If it’s a problem—’
‘No problem,’ Terry replied easily. ‘I’m at work between eight and six, five days a week, so it doesn’t affect me. Come round any time you like.’
Relieved, Pru said, ‘Thanks.’
‘I’m the one who should be thanking you.’ He sounded amused. ‘I can’t believe what a difference you’ve made to the place.’
Pru felt herself going shy. Hopeless when it came to compliments, she mumbled her goodbyes and rang off.
He had definitely sounded nice though. Maybe when the time came to start thinking about a divorce she would ask Terry Lambert to handle it.
Oh God. Divorce.
Just not yet, thought Pru, swallowing panic. Not yet.
* * *
Liza’s editor was pleased with her. Beaming, he emptied the folder of letters on to his desk.
‘Great stuff, sweetheart. Controversy, that’s what we want. You caused quite a stir, you know.
And these are only the ones who’ve bothered to write.’
Liza picked up a couple of the letters, skimmed briefly through them – one, she noticed, was addressed to Ms Super-bitch – and dropped them back on to the desk.
‘What are you going to do?’
‘Bloody print ‘em.’ He reached for his jacket. ‘Come on, Superbitch, I’ll buy you lunch.’
Dulcie was doing her make-up when she saw Patrick’s car pull up outside. She smiled at herself in the mirror, confident that she had never looked better. This was what six days of extensive sunbedding, a brilliant ultra-short haircut, an even shorter lime-green dress and the promise, at long last, of a bit of serious fun did for you.
She sincerely hoped Patrick would notice and be impressed. He rang the doorbell like a stranger.
‘What happened to your key?’ said Dulcie, puzzled, as she opened the door.
He was wearing a deep-blue polo shirt and jeans. Despite the sun blazing down, Patrick never wore dark glasses, which he regarded as an affectation. Sunglasses were for cissies, according to Patrick.
Dulcie, who whipped hers on at practically the first hint of daylight, owned at least a dozen pairs.
They made her feel so Hollywood.
‘I wouldn’t want to interrupt anything.’ Patrick followed her into the hall.
‘Nothing to interrupt.’ Yet, thought Dulcie, because you never knew, today could be the day.
‘Anyway, I just need to pick up my dinner jacket. Won’t be a sec.’
We might be separated but we can still be friendly, Dulcie reminded herself. She waited at the foot of the stairs for him to come back down.
Any man looks good in a dinner jacket. Patrick had always looked gorgeous.
‘Going somewhere nice?’ she asked ultra-casually when he reappeared.
Patrick shrugged. ‘Doubt it. Some charity thing, a dinner-dance.’
‘Not like you to be vague.’ Dulcie gave him a teasing look. ‘Come to that, it’s not like you to go to dinner-dances. You’ve always been far too busy.’
Looking deeply uncomfortable, Patrick shifted from one foot to the other.
Dulcie’s intrigue deepened.
‘Is it work? Or are you seeing someone else?’
His dark eyes narrowed as he gazed with intense concentration out of the hall window. Finally he said, ‘It’s allowed, isn’t it? You were the one who didn’t want us to be married any more.’
Astonished, feeling as if she’d been kicked in the stomach, Dulcie gasped, ‘You are seeing someone else?’
Patrick shook his head.
‘I’m not. I’ve just been invited to this thing tonight. I’m going with a girl.’
‘Who’ — Dulcie cleared her throat — ‘who is she, anyone I know?’
Another shake. Followed by a sigh.
‘Look, it feels pretty weird being single again. I’m not used to it yet. All this is down to Bibi, if you must know.’
‘Oh.’ Dulcie was confused.
‘Some chap invited her to the dance. She hasn’t been out much since . .. well, since James left ...
so she was um-ing and ah-ing a bit. Anyway, this chap happened to mention he had a daughter.
Bibi said something — God knows what — aboutme. He said how about if the four of us went together ... and the next thing you know it’s all bloody well arranged.’
The look on his face said it all. Dulcie started to giggle.
‘You’re double-dating. With your mother.’
‘Don’t laugh, it isn’t funny.’
‘This girl could be awful. She could be a complete dog.’
‘Better bloody not be.’
Dulcie’s kicked-in-the-stomach feeling had gone, magically disappeared. The thought of Patrick actually getting involved with someone else had been a bit weird, but this was okay. This wasn’t involvement, this was a blind date.
‘She might be stunning.’ Dulcie felt she could afford to be generous. She still hoped the girl would be a dog, but only because the idea of Patrick being set up on a blind date by his own mother was such a scream. Besides, Dulcie thought smugly, if the girl was so stunning what was she doing letting her dad fix her up?
Dulcie had more important things on her mind anyway, because today was the day Liam was due to arrive at Brunton Manor. At three o’clock this afternoon.
And he wasn’t married. In a rare burst of practicality she had checked with Eddie Hammond.
It was as well to find these things out in advance, Dulcie felt. Imagine wrapping yourself dramatically around the long-lost man of your dreams, only to be peeled off and hear him say,
‘Let me introduce you to the wife and kids ...’
At ten to three, Dulcie sauntered out on to the terrace with a drink and a book — Pride and Prejudice, because she didn’t want Liam to think she was the kind of girl who only read airport novels.
Cutler and Gross sunglasses in place and bare, freshly pedicured feet up on the chair opposite, she began to read.
The great thing about dark glasses was you could look as if you were lost in a book when in reality you weren’t missing a trick. Like the sight of Imelda Page-Weston three tables away, surreptitiously spraying the backs of her knees with Tresor and making sure she had more cleavage on show than anyone else. Silly moo.
Eddie was evidently giving Liam the full guided tour, introducing him to members en route. By three thirty Dulcie’s feverish anticipation had begun to flag somewhat. Too excited to sleep last night, too hyped-up to eat anything today, she now found herself struggling to stay awake. What with the afternoon sun beating down on her head and two glasses of Frascati nestling comfortably in an otherwise empty stomach, it was a job keeping her eyes open. Anyway, thought Dulcie with a yawn, what was the hurry? Liam wasn’t paying a fleeting visit, he’d still be here next week, next month, whenever she woke up ...
The bad news about dark glasses is the way people can’t tell when you’re asleep.
Seeing Dulcie apparently engrossed in the book on her lap — and recalling her earlier interest in Liam’s marital status — Eddie said, ‘Now there’s someone I must introduce you to.’
Leading the way across the terrace he announced jovially, ‘Here we are, then! Dulcie, meet our new tennis pro, Liam McPherson. Liam, this is Dulcie Ross. Dulcie?’ When she didn’t move, he hesitated, peering down at her more closely. ‘Dulcie, are you awake?’
Jerked into consciousness, Dulcie’s eyes snapped open. Seeing Eddie looming over her, red-faced and shouting her name, she snatched off her sunglasses and struggled to sit upright.
Her confusion was only momentary. As she put her hand up to her mouth, checking she hadn’t been dribbling in her sleep, Dulcie’s gaze fixed on the tall blond figure standing behind Eddie Hammond.
Hastily she wiped her mouth. Her sunglasses clattered to the ground. Jane Austen was already lying there, face down, next to her shoes.
Bugger, bugger, thought Dulcie, this isn’t how it was supposed to happen. She had planned on smiling enigmatically, like Ava Gardner, then slowly and sensually removing her glasses so that Liam McPherson could admire her for a few seconds before doing a double-take and gasping,
‘My God, it’s you...!’
From then on he would be too awestruck, too overcome by emotion to make much sense. When he eventually stopped kissing her, and she was free to speak again, Dulcie would simply say to Eddie, ‘We knew each other once. A long time ago.’ Then, there would be more hugs, more kissing, and hopefully a convincing explanation for his lack of correspondence after Tenby. Like his parents had suddenly emigrated to Australia, dragging Liam with them and ruthlessly ignoring his desperate pleas to stay behind .. .
Something along those lines anyway.
‘Sorry, darling, didn’t realise you’d crashed out.’ Grunting as he bent down, Eddie retrieved her glasses. ‘They aren’t broken. Jane Austen, eh? Dulcie, I’m impressed. Had you down as more of a Jackie Collins girl myself Anyway, where were we? Ah yes – Dulcie, this is Liam McPherson.’
Grinning, Liam held out his hand.
‘Hi. Good to meet you.’
‘Dulcie’s one of our most regular ... er, regulars,’ Eddie said with some pride.
‘Terrific. I hope we’ll have a game soon.’ Nodding in the direction of the tennis courts, Liam swished an imaginary racket. ‘Are you entered for the doubles tournament, Dulcie?’
Not a flicker of recognition. Not a double-take in sight. Dulcie told herself that this was actually a good thing, because who wanted to look like a fifteen-year-old with chip-shop hair and rampant acne anyway? Not being recognised was proof that she had changed for the better.
It wasn’t the most promising of starts, but at least she hadn’t dribbled in her sleep. As she took Liam’s hand – heavens, what a firm shake - Dulcie gave him her mysterious Ava Gardner smile and said, ‘Actually, we’ve met before. Many years ago.’
Liam was smiling too, but she could tell he was being polite; he clearly wasn’t racking his brains to remember when or where this might have been. He was a tennis pro, after all. He had once, albeit flukily, reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.
During his years on the circuit he must have met thousands of devoted female fans. He had probably signed so many autographs it was a wonder he had enough strength left in his arm to hold a racket.
‘Sixteen years ago,’ prompted Dulcie. ‘In Tenby.’
Liam frowned. He’d never played a tournament in Tenby. Hang on, sixteen years ago ... ?
‘You were there on holiday with your friends. I was staying in the cottage next to yours.’
‘You’re kidding me!’ Liam pointed at her in amazement. ‘You were the skinny little kid ... oh, what was your surname, something totally weird ...?’
‘Fackrell,’ said Dulcie. God, it was a wonder she hadn’t developed a massive complex about that name. One sniggering clique at school had called her Fuckall Fackrell. Everyone else had called her Mackerel.
Marrying Patrick had been no hardship at all.
‘I’m Dulcie Ross now.’
‘We used to send you into the nettles to fetch our lost tennis balls,’ Liam recalled. ‘Your arms and legs were covered in stings but you swore they didn’t hurt. And on the night before you left, the other lads bet me a fiver I wouldn’t kiss you.’
Eddie roared with laughter. Dulcie tried hard to look as if she couldn’t remember this bit.
‘And did you?’ said Eddie.
‘Damn right I did. We’re talking sixteen years ago. In those days a fiver was a lot of money.’
Rather beginning to regret this trip down memory lane, Dulcie decided a detour was in order.
She said brightly, ‘And now here we are, all these years later. How are you settling—?’
‘Hang on, didn’t you write me a truckload of letters?’ Looking delighted, Liam nodded his head.
‘It’s all coming back to me now. I think you had a bit of a crush on me, Dulcie Fackrell. Is that so?’
This was mortifying stuff, but what could she do, throw a tantrum? Mentally gritting her teeth, Dulcie gave in with good grace.
‘Of course I did. I slaved over those letters,’ she protested. ‘I suppose you laughed your head off and showed them to all your friends, you heartless beast.’
‘Well, maybe. It was kind of funny at the time.’ Liam’s grin was apologetic. ‘I mean, you weren’t exactly Debbie Harry, were you?’
This was true, but Dulcie still wished he’d stop harping on about it.
‘I was fifteen years old.’
‘Little Dulcie Fackrell.’
‘Ross now,’ she reminded him. Then, in case he got the wrong idea, ‘I was married, but we’ve been separated for some time.’ It was Eddie Hammond’s turn to look amazed.
‘Some time?’ He raised his sandy eyebrows. ‘Darling, it’s only been a couple of months!’
‘Ten weeks,’ said Dulcie. ‘Anyway, the marriage was over long before that. You know when things aren’t right.’
‘Hey, I hope you weren’t upset when I never wrote back,’ said Liam.
‘I can’t remember.’ Dulcie attempted the Liza Lawson smoulder. For good measure, she quivered a provocative lower lip. ‘But if I was, I forgive you.’
He grinned. ‘What a relief.’
‘We’ve both grown up since then.’
‘Well, you certainly have.’
The look he gave her this time was frankly appreciative. Hooray, thought Dulcie, getting somewhere at last. She hoped Imelda was watching and taking note.
‘Right,’ said Eddie Hammond, rubbing his hands together in that’s-enough-of-that fashion,
‘we’d better be moving on. Still plenty of people waiting to be introduced. Maybe catch you later, sweetheart.’
‘There is that small chance.’ Dulcie nodded vaguely. As ifa wagonload of wild horses stood a chance of dragging her out of the bar tonight.
‘See you around.’ Liam winked as he turned to leave.
‘If I do bump into you later,’ she casually called after him, ‘I’ll buy you a drink.’
‘This is going to be awful.’ Patrick spoke through gritted teeth as he and Bibi made their way up the crimson-carpeted staircase of the Aston Hotel, where the dinner dance was being held. They were supposed to be meeting their dates in the Kavanagh Bar, directly ahead of them. The place was heaving already. Patrick flinched as a girl with yellow teeth and popping-out eyes turned and beamed expectantly at him. Oh please God, don’t let that be her .. .
‘There they are,’ exclaimed Bibi, veering to the left and waving.
Patrick could hardly bear to look. He felt sick, and hopelessly unprepared. He glimpsed a flash of turquoise satin, a skinny girl plastered in more make-up than a Come Dancing contestant.
‘Not her.’ Observing the expression of undiluted horror on his face, Bibi pointed past the vision in turquoise. ‘The one in the red.’
Having performed the necessary introductions, Leo Berenger bore Bibi off to the bar, ostensibly to help him with the drinks but in reality to give Patrick and his daughter a few uninterrupted minutes together.
‘Look, I’m really sorry about this,’ sighed Claire Berenger as soon as they were alone. ‘I don’t know how much pressure you were put under to come here tonight, but I can guess. I’m thirty years old and my father’s beginning to panic.’ She paused and pulled a face. ‘Actually, that’s wrong. He’s been panicking for the last five years. As far as he’s concerned, his daughter is up there on that shelf, in serious need of dusting. I’m afraid I’m breaking his heart.’
Miraculously, Patrick felt himself begin to relax. Maybe the evening wasn’t going to be quite such an ordeal after all. Claire Berenger had a sense of humour. She was no dog either. With her glossy brown hair fastened in a plait, her pale skin and clear grey eyes, she exuded health and vigour. She was attractive in an unflashy way. Her red velvet dress was plain but close-fitting enough to reveal a good figure. She looked like an off-duty gym mistress. At school, thought Patrick, she would definitely have been house prefect.
Amused by Claire’s world-weary air, he said, ‘Has he done this before?’
She gave him a look.
‘My father’s mission in life is to get me up that aisle. Then, nine months later, into the nearest maternity ward. I’m afraid his idea of sexual equality is letting the little woman choose the colour of the wallpaper for the downstairs loo.’
‘I’m already married,’ Patrick apologised.
‘You are? Heavens, where’s your wife?’
‘Well, we separated a few weeks ago.’
Claire said, ‘I’m sorry.’ Then, keeping a straight face, she added, ‘Still, my father will be pleased. He probably thinks that’s my only hope now, catching some poor chap on the rebound.’
Patrick smiled, charmed by her self-deprecating manner. He had, after all, just emerged from a seven-year marriage. And they didn’t come much less self-deprecating than Dulcie.
‘Anyway,’ Claire glanced over her shoulder, checking that her father wasn’t making his way back, ‘I felt I should explain. Now you needn’t be embarrassed when he starts dropping hints the size of Land Rovers. All we have to do is humour him.’
She was an accountant, Patrick discovered over dinner. And an excellent cook, Leo Berenger informed him proudly. Oh yes, she knew how to cook, his daughter. She would make some lucky man a truly wonderful wife.
As their coffee was being served, Claire leaned over and whispered in Patrick’s ear, ‘He’s slipping. He hasn’t told you yet about my child-bearing hips.’
She was wearing Chanel 19. Patrick breathed it in.
‘We shouldn’t be making fun of him. He’s just a proud father.’
‘Who can’t wait to be a proud grandfather,’ murmured Claire. ‘Go on, I dare you. Tell him you’ve had the snip.’
Dulcie was busy being vivacious at the bar when Liam McPherson finally made his way over to her corner of it.
He appeared before her, wearing a white Nike tennis shirt and black tracksuit bottoms and looking — if it were possible — even more tanned and super-fit than he had earlier.
‘We meet again,’ he told Dulcie with a grin.
‘Amazing. Aren’t some coincidences just too spooky for words?’
‘What about that drink you promised me?’
‘I lied,’ said Dulcie. ‘I don’t buy men drinks. They buy them for me.’
‘You have changed. You always used to buy me drinks.’
Dulcie remembered running to the corner shop, counting out her precious pocket money and dashing back to the tennis court where Liam and his friends lay sprawled on the grass, waiting.
‘Cherry Corona doesn’t count.’
His tone was affectionate.
‘You were a funny little kid.’
She ran an index finger idly around the rim of her almost empty glass.
‘Like I said, I’ve grown up.’
One eyebrow was raised. Liam smiled his havoc-making smile.
‘Indeed. And I’m beginning to think we have some serious catching-up to do.’
While Dulcie’s stomach was still churning with pleasure, he attracted the barman’s eye and had her vodka and tonic topped up. Somewhat alarmingly, he ordered a pint of orange juice for himself.
‘So tell me what you get up to these days. You said you were divorced, didn’t you?’ Liam looked sympathetic. ‘Any children?’
Dulcie loved the way he spoke to her, giving her his undivided attention. It was exhilarating, being made to feel you were the most fascinating and desirable girl in the world, after years of neglect.
That was the difference between him and Patrick, Dulcie realised. Liam was interested in her as a person. He actually cared.
‘Almost divorced,’ she fibbed. ‘And no, no children.’
He nodded and put his arm out, shielding her back from a carelessly held cigarette. Dulcie felt absurdly protected. ‘Career girl, is that it? What line of work are you in?’
‘No line of work,’ she said with a playful smile. ‘Just ..
you know, idle rich.’
‘Not too idle, by the look of things.’ Liam cast a professional eye over her slender body. He ran the flat of his hand over Dulcie’s bare shoulder, nodding approval. ‘Taking care of yourself, that’s good ... although those deltoids could do with a bit of working on. What’s your regime?’
Dulcie said, ‘Sorry?’
‘Your keep-fit regime.’ Liam tilted his head, studying her through narrowed eyes. Dulcie felt like a racehorse being given the once-over. ‘Eddie said you spend a lot of time here. Are you lifting weights?’
Dulcie returned his speculative gaze. Her keep-fit regime went something like: Get out of bed ...
eat cake . .. lie in bath ... eat chocolate Hob Nobs.
After that she generally got dressed and went out to lunch. But something told her Liam wouldn’t be too impressed. ‘Not every day,’ she said truthfully. ‘I don’t actually have a ... a regime, as such. Just a few sit-ups here, a bit of .. um ... jogging there.’
‘Exercise,’ announced Liam. ‘Exercise is the key. A healthy body is a happy body, am I right?’
‘Oh, yes.’ Dulcie nodded, unable to tear her eyes from his muscular brown arms.
‘If there’s one thing I can’t stand,’ Liam confided, ‘it’s a woman who lets herself go.’
Dulcie, who would never let herself go – she would rather die than step outside her front door minus mascara – nodded more confidently this time.
‘People who don’t take care of themselves make me sick,’ Liam went on. ‘I mean, what is wrong with them? They stuff themselves with the wrong food, can’t be bothered to exercise and then have the nerve to complain when their arteries clog up.’
Dulcie looked suitably outraged. Inwardly, she was experiencing mild stirrings of panic. Gosh, he was serious.
Liam’s smile was rueful. ‘I’m sorry, it just bugs me. I don’t understand people who aren’t interested in looking after themselves. I mean, if they can’t be bothered to respect their own bodies, why the hell should I respect them?’
This was ominous stuff. Worse still, the harder Dulcie tried not to think about salt and vinegar crisps, the more she craved some. Hastily she changed the subject.
‘Tell me about you. Tell me all about the tennis circuit. I bet it was brilliant fun ...’
Luckily it worked. Liam finished his pint of orange juice, ordered another and began regaling Dulcie with stories. A natural raconteur with a wonderful line in self-deprecating humour, this was much better. It must be the Irish blood in him, Dulcie decided dreamily. Liam really did have it all: looks, wit and charm by the bucket load. She could gaze into those dark-blue eyes, admire that amazing body and listen to that melting Dublin-accented voice of his all night.
* * *
Leo Berenger was okay. He was polite, he was presentable and he was certainly prosperous, but it didn’t take Bibi long to realise he wasn’t the man for her. When there was no spark, no chemistry, it didn’t matter how loaded the man was, you couldn’t make it happen.
This was a shame because Leo was sixty-one, a perfectly suitable age for the suitor of a sixty-year-old widow. As they danced, Bibi forced herself to make witty conversation and to concentrate on Leo’s replies, but it was hopeless. While her mouth did the talking and her ears listened, her rebellious brain was conjuring up depressing pictures of Leo Berenger, sixty-one years old and stark naked. Then it compared them with pictures of James, her darling James, so much younger and more attractive, all tanned and gorgeous and infinitely beddable.
Bibi carried on dancing, averting her gaze from Leo’s and determinedly blinking back tears. She hadn’t seen James for almost three months. It was no good moping; life went on.
Sadly though, not with Leo Berenger.
‘Look at those two,’ he said with some pride. Turning, he allowed Bibi to see Patrick and Claire at the far end of the dance floor. ‘Reckon we might have started something there. They seem to be enjoying themselves, anyway.’
Every cloud ... thought Bibi.
Patrick had been so certain the evening would he a nightmare, he couldn’t get over how easy to talk to Claire Berenger had turned out to be.
Having expected the worst, he had been pleasantly surprised.
When, at midnight, the band struck up the first notes of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ – it was that kind of band – Claire said, ‘Well, we made it. You’ve done your duty. And if my father slips my phone number into your pocket don’t worry. Feel free to chuck it in the bin; you don’t have to see me again.’
Much to his amazement Patrick heard himself say, ‘But I’d like to see you again.’
For a second Claire looked equally astonished. Then, endearingly, she blushed.
Patrick nodded. ‘I would.’
He smiled briefly. ‘Bit of a shock for me as well. I wasn’t expecting the evening to turn out like this. I’m horribly out of practice too,’ he apologised. ‘The last time I asked a girl out I wore flares and drove a two-tone Cortina.’
Coincidentally, it occurred to Dulcie much later that night that the last time she’d jumped into bed with a man she didn’t actually know terribly well, he’d worn flares and driven a blue and white Cortina.
That had been Patrick, of course, and she had carried on happily jumping into bed with him for years ... until his work had taken over and she’d grown used to going to bed alone while Patrick murmured ‘just-finish-this’ to his beloved computer and only came upstairs hours later when she was asleep.
Tonight, though, she wasn’t alone. She was with Liam McPherson. Dulcie lay back, closed her eyes and deliberately didn’t think of Patrick.
And after a briefly rocky start, Liam was living up to all her expectations. Her old feelings for him were as strong as ever. Better still — because even Dulcie had to confess it, it had been a bit of a one-sided relationship in the past — the attraction was now mutual.
It was so powerful you couldn’t fight it even if you wanted to ... which she certainly didn’t.
It was sheer chemistry.
This is more like it, thought Dulcie rapturously. This is what I need, a glorious Greek god of a man, all blond hair and rocksolid muscles, and not just some brainless hunk, either. A glamorous tennis pro, a star.
Liam had been modest, but as far as Dulcie was concerned, if the Duchess of Kent once watched from the royal box while you played on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, that definitely made you a star.
‘All this time and I never knew you were famous,’ Dulcie murmured dreamily, lying wrapped in Liam’s arms. She had never watched much tennis on television. ‘I wish I could’ve seen you in that quarter-final.’
‘Really?’ Liam sounded amused. ‘I’ve got the video around here somewhere. Want to watch it?’
Startled, Dulcie’s eyes snapped open.
But his hand was already travelling lazily up her warm thigh. As he began nuzzling her neck again, Liam murmured, ‘Maybe later.’
Dulcie kissed him back, glanced at her watch — 4 a.m. -and shifted herself happily into a more accommodating position. Now this was the kind of exercise regime she liked.
And goodness, what a difference it made, being with someone who, in turn, actually enjoyed being with you.
Rather than with their sodding computer.
That morning-after scenario was something else with which Dulcie was drastically out of practice.
Her first thought upon waking was: Yes! Bingo! And yahboo-sucks to Imelda Page-Weston who had spent most of yesterday evening jealously eyeing Dulcie and Liam from afar.
Dulcie, her eyes still closed, couldn’t help feeling a bit smug; this was what she’d so desperately wanted to happen, but even she had never dreamt it would happen so soon. It was like settling down on the riverbank for a long day’s fishing and before you’d had a chance to unscrew your thermos, hooking and landing Jaws.
Oh, Mr McPherson, Dulcie smirked happily, this is all so sudden.
Her second thought was that something weird was going on. The earth appeared to be moving.
She opened her eyes. No, not the earth. It was the floorboards juddering. Rhythmically, every couple of seconds. There, it was happening again.
Liam’s side of the bed was empty. Moments later, wriggling across the crumpled dark-blue sheet and leaning over the edge, Dulcie found out why.
He was lying with his feet tucked under the bed, doing astonishingly energetic sit-ups.
‘... eighty-six, eighty-seven,’ muttered Liam. He grinned but didn’t stop when he saw Dulcie peering down at him. ‘Morning, sweetheart ... eighty-eight ...’
‘Two fat ladies,’ said Dulcie.
‘Ugh. Not in my bedroom, thanks.’
She sensed he wouldn’t be smitten by Liza. Voluptuous curves clearly weren’t Liam’s thing.
This, Dulcie decided, was a definite plus. Liza’s ability to reduce grown men to quivering masses of testosterone grew wearing after a while. In fact, if you didn’t have a strong stomach, all that hopeless devotion could make you quite sick.
‘... ninety-four ... sleep well?’
Dulcie nodded. Since it was only seven o’clock she had actually been asleep for less than three hours, but so what, who cared? Was she complaining? Not on her nelly.
‘You’re naked,’ she told him.
Dulcie grinned. ‘I couldn’t very well miss it.’
.. ninety-nine, a hundred.’ Not even out of breath, Liam leapt up and planted a smacking kiss on her mouth. ‘I’ll make breakfast. Do feel free, by the way.’
It took a moment to realise he was offering her his space on the floor, now he’d finished with it.
‘Bit early for me.’ Dulcie slid back under the duvet with alacrity.
‘Saving it for later, eh?’ Liam made a playful grab for one of her ankles. ‘Tell you what, I’m free between twelve and one. When you’ve finished in the gym lll check you out, give you a game of tennis. How about that?’
Some men, thought Dulcie, gave you flowers. Some gave you chocolates. What she wanted to know was what she’d ever done to deserve a man whose idea of romance meant giving you tips on your backswing.
Liza was pounced on by a starry-eyed Dulcie the moment she drew up outside the club. Dulcie, pink-cheeked with elation, dragged her through to the coffee shop.
‘My God, I suppose this means you pulled the pro.’ Liza resigned herself to missing her turn on the toning table.
‘Did I ever,’ declared Dulcie, realising she couldn’t keep the stupid grin off her face if she tried.
‘And he is divine, so funny and charming ... Wait till you meet him, he’s a dream come true! I’m telling you, this is the real thing. It’s love.’
The housewife, bored and starved of affection, and the gorgeous, bronzed country club tennis coach. Honestly, it was such a cliché. Then again, Liza realised, things like this happened all the time. It was how they became clichés in the first place.
Recognising a bad case of lust when she saw one, she nevertheless decided to humour Dulcie.
‘Good in bed?’
‘The best. Oh, and the body is to die for—’
‘And is it mutual?’ Liza felt it was her job to strike a note of caution. ‘Is he as besotted with you?’
Dulcie looked radiant.
‘That’s the best part, he really is! Honestly, we talked nonstop yesterday evening, then he took me back to his place .. . he’s rented a fantastic flat just behind Royal Crescent—’
‘And you bonked the night away.’
‘We did, we did,’ Dulcie agreed happily. ‘It was out of this world.’
’So when are you seeing him again?’
‘Midday. On the tennis courts.’
Liza raised an eyebrow. ‘You’re going to bonk on the tennis courts? Won’t you get in other people’s way?’
‘We won’t be bonking. He’s giving me a tennis lesson.’
Dulcie tried hard to sound casual, to pull it off. Somehow, though, the words came out lacking conviction, even to her own ears. It was like hearing Linda McCartney say, ‘Yum, bacon sandwich.’
Liza raised the other eyebrow and said, ‘Oh dear.’
Dulcie cracked at once. You could fool a lot of the people a lot of the time, but not Liza.
‘Okay, I know. He’s a health freak.’ She groaned and covered her face with her hands. ‘What the hell am I going to do?’
Liza hid a smile. The way Dulcie made it sound, health freak was on a par with mass murderer.
‘It’s his job to be fit, that’s all. You don’t have to join in.’
Dulcie wished she could be so sure. That was the thing about Liza, she never compromised herself. If she didn’t want to do something she simply didn’t do it.
But Liam’s idea of breakfast had been three Shredded Wheat, a handful of multivitamins the size of horse pills and a malt and wheatgerm milkshake, and although he hadn’t forced the horse pills on her, he had made her eat two Shredded Wheat. Without sugar either because he didn’t keep empty calories in the house.
From little hints dropped here and there, Dulcie had begun to suspect that coming clean with Liam wouldn’t be the smartest thing to do. He might not be interested in a health slob, a bone-idle junk-food junkie whose idea of a really good workout was trying on ankle boots in Russell and Bromley.
‘He’s everything I want,’ she told Liza. ‘I’m not going to risk losing him. Anyway, how hard can it be, getting fit? Come on, don’t laugh—’
‘You aren’t serious,’ said Liza, wiping her eyes. ‘You, of all people, a born-again Jane Fonda.’
But Dulcie wasn’t to be swayed. ‘You don’t understand,’ she cried. ‘He’s worth it.’
The coffee shop overlooked the tennis courts. Liza watched a tall, vaguely familiar-looking chap in a yellow and white tracksuit make his way out on to the court closest to them. Next to him walked Imelda Page-Weston, her sleek white-blonde hair shimmering in the sunlight.
‘Is that him?’
Dulcie’s head swivelled round. You knew it was love when just the sight of him made your heart do Skippy-the-kangaroo impressions. She watched Imelda say something to Liam and swing her racket experimentally above her shoulder. Liam positioned himself behind her and showed her how she should be doing it. He grinned and whispered something in Imelda’s ear that made her shake with laughter.
You also knew it was love, Dulcie reflected, when the sight of him touching someone like Imelda made you want to bash that someone’s brains out with her own Slazenger.
She realised Liza was watching her.
‘He’s a tennis pro. It’s his job to flirt,’ Liza pointed out. ‘I know.’
‘And there are always going to be women who flirt back.’ Fit women. Healthy women. Women who took care of their bodies.
Women who liked salad.
‘I know that too,’ said Dulcie, gripped by a perverse longing. That only made her want him more.
Preparing to walk out on to the court was worse than any dental appointment. Having spent an hour in the on-site sports shop, Dulcie was kitted out in a new Lacoste shirt and a staggeringly expensive pink and white tennis skirt. What with the racket as well, she’d blown quite a hole in her credit card. Still, Dulcie reasoned, she’d be saving money on junk food.
Since her stomach was growling and she no longer ate crisps, she made her way back to the coffee shop and — ignoring the astonished eyebrows of the woman on the till — virtuously bought a couple of muesli bars instead.
The trouble with muesli bars, Dulcie discovered — apart from the fact that they were disgusting
— was the bits they left lodged in your teeth. Rushing to the changing room for a last nervous pee and to check her teeth in the mirror, she ran slap bang into Imelda.
Imelda, just out of the shower, was wearing an olive-green towel. She cast a look of amusement in the direction of Dulcie’s pristine skirt.
‘Don’t tell me you’ve booked a lesson too.’
‘I didn’t, actually. It was Liam’s idea,’ Dulcie replied as loftily as she could.
‘And you said yes,’ Imelda marvelled. ‘Well, well, wonders will never cease. Although you have to admit, he is gorgeous.’ As she spoke, she was drying herself with the towel, giving Dulcie the opportunity to see just how toned her own body was. ‘Looks like we’re both after him, then,’
Imelda went on, smiling as the towel dropped to the floor and she reached for her white satin bra and knickers. ‘May the best girl win, eh, Dulcie?’
Dulcie stared back at her. The bra was a 36D, which didn’t help. She had never liked Imelda, who was a man’s woman, a woman without female friends.
Dulcie said, ‘Maybe I already have.’
‘Oh dear, is this my fault?’ Liam laughed and shook his head at Dulcie. ‘Are you that exhausted after last night?’
Exhausted wasn’t the word. What Liam called a quick knock-up had felt to Dulcie like a marathon five-setter. She couldn’t understand, either, why the ball wouldn’t go where she wanted it to go. She’d played enough tennis at school to know she wasn’t that hopeless.
Liam leapt over the net and jogged over to her. Dulcie’s legs were trembling uncontrollably and she had a raging stitch in her side. Her racket, doing double duty as a walking stick, was the only thing propping her up.
‘Sweetheart, you look terrible.’ He was frowning now, clearly concerned. ‘What is it?’
Dulcie, thinking she would just die if Imelda was sitting in the coffee shop watching her make a spectacle of herself, croaked, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong. I f-feel awful.’
Liam put his arm around her waist and helped her off the court. Dulcie was sweating, trembling, as weak as a kitten and unable to hit a ball for toffee; it wasn’t hard to figure out.
‘Flu,’ he announced. ‘That’s what it is. You’re going down with flu.’
Dulcie almost collapsed with relief. ‘Oh I am, I am. I knew I wasn’t well! Flu, that’s it—’
‘Home,’ Liam instructed. ‘And straight to bed.’
‘Um, about tomorrow ... I was going to invite you round to my house for dinner?’ Dulcie began to panic at the thought of not seeing him.
But Liam shook his head.
‘Sweetheart, you’ll be in no state to cook dinner. I’ll see you when you’re better. Maybe next weekend,’ he gave her waist an encouraging squeeze, ‘or the week after that.’
Liza, who had caught the end of Dulcie’s lesson, was in the car park chucking her squash racket and sports bag on to the back seat of her white Renault.
‘This is my friend Liza,’ said Dulcie, gesturing weakly. ‘I’m sending Dulcie home,’ Liam explained. ‘She’s sick.’
‘You don’t have to tell me,’ said Liza. Honestly, what was Dulcie like? Did she seriously expect to get away with this? Clinging on to Liam’s arm, Dulcie gasped, ‘We th-think it’s flu.’
‘Sure it’s not mad cow disease?’ said Liza.
‘How’s the invalid?’ Liza asked gravely when she phoned the next morning.
‘Not funny,’ Dulcie wailed. ‘I’m telling you, flu would be a doddle next to this. I’m totally and utterly seized up.’
Since leaving school, reaching for the next custard cream had been about as energetic as Dulcie got. Hurling herself without warning around a tennis court for sixty minutes had sent every muscle in her outraged body into spasm.
‘I’m in bed,’ she groaned. ‘I crawled to the bathroom earlier. It took me an hour to get back.’
Liza grinned. ‘You need looking after. Want me to phone Liam and ask him to pop over?’
‘Don’t you dare. Ouch.’ It even hurt holding the phone up to her ear. ‘God, this is agony. I’ll never walk again.’
‘Can’t say I didn’t warn you.’ Liza was cheerful and not the least bit sympathetic. ‘Told you not to overdo it, didn’t I? Take some paracetamol, you’ll feel better in a day or two.’
‘I can’t get to them, they’re downstairs.’ Dulcie pleaded feebly, ‘You could come over, couldn’t you, just for a few hours? I really do need looking after. I’m helpless.’
‘I think you mean hopeless. And no, sorry, I can’t.’ Having pulled open her wardrobe doors, Liza stood and surveyed the neatly lined-up contents. ‘I’ve got something else on.’
The peacock-blue silk shirt, she decided rapidly. Black leather trousers and her high-heeled black ankle boots. Why not? Just because she was joining the protesters didn’t mean she had to dress like one.
‘Something more important than your best friend starving to death in her own bed?’ Dulcie sounded hurt.
‘No, but I can’t back out now. If I did,’ said Liza, ‘then I’d really be a wimp.’
Driving towards West Titherton, Liza barely noticed the dazzling scenery, the white clouds drifting high in a duck-egg-blue sky, dappled sunlight sweeping over the rolling Mendip hills and the thousand different shades of green that made up the countryside in late spring.
She still didn’t know how Alistair Kline had managed to bamboozle her into going along today.
But that, Liza supposed, was what successful barristers were all about. It was their job to persuade you to agree with them, to convince you – against your better judgement – that they were right.
‘It’s simply a matter of following through.’ Alistair had been forceful. ‘You start something, you finish it. That letter to the paper generated a fair amount of publicity, if you remember. People will expect you to be there. They’d be disappointed if you didn’t turn up, Liza,’ he went on, his expression sorrowful. ‘Disappointed in you for not caring enough to make that small effort—’
‘Stop,’ Liza groaned, ‘this is worse than The Waltons. Okay, I’ll do it.’
Alistair instantly reverted to a normal tone of voice. ‘Great. See you there then. Ten o’clock sharp.’
She wondered despairingly how she could ever have thought he was shy.
Liza slowed as she reached the brow of the next hill. Below her lay West Titherton, a golden toy village surrounded by a patchwork of fields, some dotted with. immobile black and white cows, others with clusters of sheep.
To the left of the village the protesters were already gathered at the site of the proposed new development, milling around the yellow bulldozers that stood ready, waiting to swing into action.
It was very much a last-ditch protest. The amateurish ruse of planting a rare breed of wild orchid in the path of the diggers hadn’t worked. Berenger’s had their planning permission and that was that. Basically, the new estate was going to be built but – the protesters were determined – not before the last drop of bad publicity for Berenger’s had been squeezed out.
Parking the Renault at the roadside where everyone else had left their cars, Liza joined the rest of the group. Sixty or seventy in total, they were a mixed bag, ranging from New Agers to Nimbys (those outraged members of the middle classes who don’t mind anything being built so long as it doesn’t happen anywhere near them, i.e. Not In My Back Yard).
The ground was dry and the sun blazed down, but all the Nimbys were wearing Barbours and Hunter wellies. The New Agers wore holey jeans and layers of jumpers in various shades of black.
Everyone pursed their lips at the sight of Liza in her dazzling peacock-blue shirt. She couldn’t have looked more out of place if she’d worn a ball gown in a butcher’s shop.
Alistair bounded over to her.
‘Going on somewhere, are we?’ Eyeing the gold chains around Liza’s neck, disappearing into her cleavage, he looked as if he were itching to tell her to do a couple more buttons up.
‘Lunch with Liberace, by the look of it,’ Liza heard one of the dreadlocked New Agers murmur, nudging his friend.
‘Sure you won’t be cold?’ asked Alistair.
‘I’m fine.’ Pointedly Liza shielded her eyes from the sun. ‘Sure you won’t be warm?’
‘I’m wearing three sweaters,’ Alistair told her with pride, ‘in case they try setting the dogs on us.’
Liza kept a straight face.
‘If they set any dogs on me,’ she promised, ‘I’ll tie their paws up with my necklaces.’
‘Hmm. I don’t know how you’re going to climb bulldozers in those heels.’ He glanced disapprovingly at her boots. ‘Alistair! I’m here, okay? Supporting the protest. I am not climbing up on any bulldozers.’
Alistair looked resigned. She wasn’t taking this seriously at all. Liza had turned out to be a major disappointment, he thought sadly. All the more so since she had truly been the woman of his dreams. He adored her, he simply didn’t understand how she could not be as concerned about preserving the environment as he was. Together, Alistair thought sorrowfully, they could have made an unbeatable team.
Still, she was the nearest to a celebrity they’d got and the press were kicking their heels waiting for the action to begin. Signalling to the chaps from the Evening Post who were eating Big Macs
– any excuse to wind up the vegetarian New Agers – Alistair steered Liza towards them.
‘They want a photo of you waving a placard. And make a point of telling them how committed you are to the cause,’ he instructed briskly, ‘despite your clothes.’
For ten minutes Liza answered questions put to her by the reporter, who sounded almost as bored as she was. Then it was the photographer’s turn. He spent ages organising Liza in the foreground with a motley crew of placard-waving New Agers behind her and the bulldozers strewn with banners bringing up the rear.
He was halfway through the reel of film – and startled to find himself already half in love with Liza – when the contractors rolled up in two filthy white vans and the carefully arranged group photo promptly disintegrated.
Within seconds, the bulldozers were swarming with protestors. Minutes later the police arrived.
Scuffles broke out. Alistair punched one of the bulldozer drivers on the nose.
‘Want to wait in my car, love?’ the Evening Post reporter offered, clearly worried about blood getting spattered on Liza’s silk shirt. But the photographer was waving his arm, beckoning her over. A group of the less nimble protesters were staging a sit-in, blocking the path of the rumbling bulldozers.
‘Come on,’ bellowed the photographer, ‘it’ll make a great picture!’
‘Do as he says,’ Alistair bellowed even more loudly, from his precarious position on top of one of the diggers. ‘Get over there!’
Liza hesitated. She didn’t really mind joining the sit-in. She didn’t even mind getting her leather trousers muddy. What did bother her was being picked up and carried away like a struggling beetle by the police ... and being photographed in that position.
Talk about undignified.
All eyes were on the tremendous struggle in progress. Since no one’s attention was on the road behind them, and the noise of the heavy machinery drowned everything else out, nobody saw or heard the dark-green Bentley purr to a halt behind the police van.
Liza was still torn between not wanting to look a wimp and not wanting to look a prat. Most of all she wished she hadn’t been feeble enough to give in to Alistair’s emotional blackmail. She could be playing squash now, she thought with longing, or at home working on ideas for the new food book she had just been commissioned to write.
Damn, thought Liza, even waiting hand, foot and finger on dipstick Dulcie would be fun compared with this.
‘Liza, will you stop faffing around and JOIN THE BLOODY SIT-IN,’ roared Alistair, kicking out at one of the contractors who was trying to grab his ankles, and pointing imperiously down at Liza.
I could just turn round and leave, she thought, willing herself to do it.
The next moment she jumped out of her skin as a weirdly familiar voice inches from her ear drawled, ‘Is he your boyfriend? I’m amazed, I didn’t take you for the kind of girl who’d let men boss you about like that.’
Liza’s heart began hammering wildly in her chest. Kit Berenger was standing next to her, arms crossed, feet apart, sunglasses in place as he calmly surveyed the scene of chaos spread out before them. He was wearing black jeans, a black and white striped shirt and that familiar aftershave.
Had it occurred to her that he might turn up today, the final day of the protest?
Of course it had.
So far, Kit Berenger had seen her sweating and out of breath after an hour on the squash court, and in her eating-out frump of-the-year disguise. Now for the first time he was seeing how she really looked.
Liza couldn’t quite bring herself to admit that this was why she had taken such care with her appearance today.
‘He’s not my boyfriend,’ she said as calmly as she could manage, ‘I don’t let him boss me about, and since I’ll be thirty-two next week, I’m hardly a girl.’
‘Well, you’re hardly an ancient old trout.’
Was there actually a flicker of a smile playing around his mouth? Sideways on, and never having seen Kit Berenger smile before, it was hard to tell.
‘Anyway,’ he went on, his tone conversational, ‘what are you doing here, dressed up like a Christmas tree?’
Liza ignored the jibe. ‘Same as everyone else. Protesting.’
‘You don’t look much like a protester. You’ve washed your hair for a start.’
Before she could move, one hand came up and touched her blonde hair, idly following the line of the curve between her left temple and shoulder.
Liza shivered and looked up at him, but the narrow mouth gave nothing away. The eyes were still hidden behind black glasses.
‘My cousin heard from your editor, by the way,’ said Kit. ‘Loads of people wrote to the magazine defending the Songbird. Nearly a hundred letters altogether, saying you were out of order.’
‘Really,’ said Liza, who had written most of them. ‘They’re printing a selection in next month’s issue.’
‘Well, there you go,’ said Liza steadily. ‘Looks like I was wrong and you were right.’
He took off his sunglasses. Liza waited for another smart remark. But he didn’t say anything, just gazed down at her.
Alistair, meanwhile, was being dragged down from his digger by a pair of sweating policemen, one thin, one burly, like Laurel and Hardy. Mid-tussle, he spotted Liza and a tall dark-haired boy making no effort to join in the protest.
‘Hey, you two! Get yourselves in front of that bulldozer, fast.’
Kit called back, ‘Actually, we’d rather not.’
The next moment, as Alistair disappeared beneath a heaving mound of navy-blue serge, Kit Berenger reached out and took hold of Liza’s hand. His strong fingers gripped her wrist.
‘What are you d-doing?’ Liza gasped, trying to snatch it away.
‘Taking your pulse.’ He raised a dark eyebrow. ‘Hmm, fast. Very fast.’
This was even more humiliating than being hauled into a police van in struggling-beetle position, as was now happening to Alistair. Liza stared hard at the goings-on at the back of the van and pretended she hadn’t heard Kit Berenger speak.
‘Mine too,’ he went on, releasing his grip on her wrist and offering her his own. ‘Have a feel if you want.’
‘No thanks,’ Liza replied faintly.
‘The thing is, there’s something I’ve been wanting to do rather badly for quite a while now,’ said Kit. ‘Is it okay with you if I give it a go?’
Liza could barely breathe.
‘Not if you’re going to slap my face.’
‘I don’t want to slap your face.’ He turned her slowly towards him, so there was no escaping the look in those extraordinary black-lashed, yellow-gold eyes. ‘I want to kiss your mouth.’
This, thought Liza, is ridiculous .. .
Then she stopped thinking because it was too late now to do anything, let alone think. Kit Berenger’s mouth came down on hers and Liza gave herself up to it, utterly helpless to protest.
Every nerve in her body was going zinnggg. She was only managing to stay standing because his arms were keeping her up. The knees had gone, the stomach had disappeared .. .
Just don’t stop, Liza silently begged him, willing the kiss to go on and on. Please don’t stop.
‘Bloody hell, it’s Kit Berenger,’ exclaimed the reporter, gazing in amazement at the scene confronting him as he made his way back to the car for a fag break. ‘Oi, Joe, over here,’ he yelled, beckoning frantically for the photographer. ‘Look who’s snogging Liza Lawson! Get a shot of this, for Chrissake.’
Alistair was still putting up a terrific struggle, resisting every effort to bundle him into the back of the police van. Hearing the journalist’s words, he twisted round and stared in horror at Liza who appeared to be clinging to Kit Berenger for dear life.
‘You bastard, take your hands off her this minute,’ roared Alistair. ‘Liza, what the hell d’you think you’re doing? Don’t you know who that is?’
In no time they were the centre of attention. The protesters had all stopped to watch. Joe was using up his last roll of film.
‘I always say you can’t beat a bit of privacy,’ Kit Berenger murmured against Liza’s mouth, his hand stroking the back of her neck.
When the Evening Post reporter had been eating his Big Mac earlier, a group of New Agers had hissed ‘murderer’ at him. Now, behind her back, Liza could hear them hissing ‘traitor’ at her.
‘I may not get out of here alive,’ she said, her voice still unsteady, her whole body quivering shamelessly with lust. ‘At least they’re vegetarians, they won’t eat you alive.’ A nightmare thought struck Liza.
‘Why did you do this, to make a fool of me?’
‘Come on.’ Kit half smiled down at her. ‘You don’t really think that. I did it because it had to be done. Before we both drove each other demented.’
Liza nodded. She could no longer deny it; the chemistry was simply there between them. It had been from the word go.
‘How old are you?’ she asked, needing to know the worst.
‘I’m thirty-two.’ It sounded terrible. She had never been out with anyone younger than her before. Not even nine months younger, let alone nine years.
‘No you aren’t, you’re thirty-one.’
‘Only until next week.’
Kit grinned. ‘A week’s a long time in politics.’
The protest had by this time pretty much fizzled out. When the protesters’ attention had turned to Liza and Kit, the contractors had revved up their engines and got busy with the bulldozers, to-ing and fro-ing at surprising speed as they shifted great mounds of earth.
The police van, with Alistair’s outraged face glaring out of the tiny back window, bumped and jiggled its way across the churned-up ground on to the main road.
‘You must be joking,’ said Kit when the reporter from the Evening Post asked him for a quote.
‘Liza?’ The reporter looked not-very-hopefully hopeful. ‘She doesn’t have anything to say either.’
‘I think I’d better go home,’ said Liza, when they were alone again. She was floundering, unsure what was going to happen next. He might be nine years younger, but Kit Berenger had somehow automatically assumed control of the situation. If he were to bundle her into that dark-green Bentley of his, Liza thought with longing, and whisk her off somewhere – anywhere – to bed, she would willingly go.
‘I’ve got a heavy day too.’ Kit glanced at his watch – that ludicrous purple Swatch. ‘I’m already running late. Sorry,’ he smiled slightly as he led the way back to their cars, ‘if I’d known this was going to happen, I could have postponed a few meetings. You’d better give me your phone number.’
He leaned against the bonnet of the Bentley and wrote the number on the back of a crumpled ten-pound note pulled from the pocket of his jeans. Liza, who couldn’t bear men with namby-pamby handwriting, was passionately relieved to see how assertive he was with a pen, not nancyish at all.
As he helped her into the Renault, his lips brushed hers, thrillingly, once more.
‘I’ll be in touch,’ said Kit.
My God, you’d better be, thought Liza, far too proud to ask when.
‘Did someone slip something into my cocoa?’ Dulcie demanded with suitable drama two days later. ‘Am I hallucinating? Or is this really a photo I see before me in the local paper – on the front page, no less – of my friend Liza snogging with the enemy?’
Liza bit her lip, gazed out of the window and said nothing.
‘And you can turn that sodding answering machine off for a start,’ Dulcie went on, ‘because it isn’t fooling anyone. We know you’re in there. Dammit,’ she wailed the next second, ‘do you want me to die of curiosity?’
That, thought Liza, would be too much to hope for. Chewing her pen, she leafed irritably through the research notes she was amassing in preparation for her new book, a history of Mediterranean cookery.
‘Fine, I get the message,’ said Dulcie in a sing-song voice when it became clear Liza had no intention of picking up the phone. ‘But don’t think you can hide for ever. The minute I can walk again, I’ll be over. I don’t know what you’ve been up to,’ she concluded briskly, – God, now she sounded like Joyce Grenfell on speed – ‘but I’m jolly well going to find out.’
Dulcie rang off at last. Wearily, since the kitchen table might be awash with reference books but that didn’t mean she was getting a stroke of work done, Liza snapped the file shut and switched the kettle on instead. For the millionth time she compulsively checked her watch.
What a hideous day. The phone hadn’t stopped ringing, the poor answering machine didn’t know what had hit it. The story had even been picked up by a couple of the nationals; at lunchtime a call had come through from the Daily Mail, who were keen to include Liza in a feature on star-crossed lovers.
‘We’ve got a pair of besotted MPs so far – one Labour, one Tory – and a vegan who’s fallen in love with a butcher,’ the journalist explained with maddening cheerfulness. ‘The third couple were going to be Catholic-Protestant, but to be frank,’ she lowered her voice to a confiding whisper, ‘your story sounds much more fun.’
Liza stood at the kitchen window, sipping lukewarm tea she didn’t even want. Her so-called story might sound fun to the girl from the Mail but it was a lot less entertaining being on the business end, Liza could promise her that.
She gazed out at the tiny patio garden bursting with tubs of geraniums and petunias, and tried to remember if exam nerves, the real stomach-churning kind when you actually felt sick with fear, had ever been this bad.
Except with exam nerves, at least you knew when the exam would be over.
She shuddered as something alien sloshed into her mouth. Ugh, she’d forgotten to fish out the tea bag.
Uselessly Liza checked her watch again. Still only twenty-six minutes to five.
I’m a grown woman, she thought, willing herself to believe it. In four days’ time I’ll be thirty-two. I can handle this.
But the sick feeling showed no sign of going away.
Liza bit her lip. It was fifty-four hours since Kit Berenger had oh so casually said he would phone her.
It hadn’t happened yet.
Three times a week Pru drove Eddie to Bristol, to Elmlea House, a nursing home in Clifton overlooking the suspension bridge. While she waited in the car, passing the time with one of Dulcie’s eye-boggling sex-and-shopping paperbacks, Eddie disappeared inside the ivy-fronted building to visit his mother- in-law, now frail and in her late eighties but still mentally all there.
‘She’s a darling,’ he told Pru when she had commented – quite daringly, for her – that not many men would put themselves out as much as he did for their mother-in-law.
Eddie had simply looked amused. ‘It’s no hardship. We’re great friends. Anyway, I’m all the family she has left.’
Their regular trips to and from Bristol had proved the ideal opportunity for him to talk to Pru about his marriage. Simply and without drama, Eddie described Catherine’s bizarre mood swings in the early days, and the difficulties he’d faced trying to control her when neither of them had had any idea there could be an actual medical reason for it all.
Then the petrifying roller-coaster of full-blown manic depression had taken hold. The first of many hospital admissions had given Eddie a few months’ much-needed respite.
‘The doctors would spend ages juggling her medication, getting it just right,’ he explained to Pru, ‘but as soon as she was well again, they’d discharge her. Catherine would then decide she felt so much better she didn’t need the medication any more. Even if I stood over her she’d just hide the capsules under her tongue and spit them out later.’ Eddie shook his head sorrowfully at the memory of those times.
‘Anyway,’ he went on, while Pru concentrated on the road ahead, ‘it got worse. Then, twelve years ago, she ran out of the house one night when I was trying to persuade her to take her pills.
She was only wearing a nightdress. My car keys were hanging up by the front door. She grabbed them, yelling that she’d had enough, and drove off. There was a high wall at the end of our cul-de-sac. Catherine must have been doing sixty when she smashed into it.’ For a second Eddie’s voice wavered. He cleared his throat. ‘Oh well, could have been worse. At least she was killed outright.’
Pru didn’t know what to say so she didn’t say anything. But her grey eyes filled with tears.
‘Hey, don’t you cry.’ Eddie sounded alarmed. ‘I wouldn’t have told you if I’d thought you’d cry.’
‘Sorry.’ Ever obedient, Pru wiped her wet face with the back of her hand.
He shook his head, half smiling as he passed her a clean handkerchief. ‘I thought you were tougher than that.’
She spluttered with surprised laughter. ‘Me, tough? I am the original wet lettuce!’
‘That isn’t true. Your marriage broke up. And in dramatic fashion,’ Eddie pointed out. ‘But you’re coping with it.’
‘Am I?’ Pru sighed and blew her nose. ‘Inside, I wonder if I’ll ever feel normal again.’ She glanced across at Eddie in the passenger seat. ‘How long before you did?’
It was Eddie’s turn to be stuck for words. Twelve years since Catherine’s death and he still hadn’t been able to bring himself to form any kind of emotional attachment. The barriers had gone up and stayed up. Well and truly up. The prospect of getting involved with someone else was still too terrifying to contemplate.
‘Well ... not long, not long at all,’ Eddie lied heartily. He gave Pru a clumsy pat on the arm to cheer her up. ‘You’re okay. You’ll be fine, you’ll see.’
The book Dulcie had passed on to her this week was all bonk and no plot. Pru waded through a couple more
Chapters then gave up, bored. She fiddled with the car radio instead, zipping from station to station in search of something – at 7.01 p.m. – that wasn’t the news. Next she tried out all the mysterious switches and buttons she’d never bothered to investigate before, unexpectedly locating the electronic wing mirror wagglers, a well-hidden lever to open the boot and an astonishingly efficient mechanism for tipping the seats back in a trice.
Whoomph, Pru was flat on her back. She pressed the switch a second time. Whoomph, upright again! What brilliant fun. Grinning to herself, Pru catapulted up and down a few more times.
Until, mortified, she realised she was being watched.
An ancient old dear, one of the residents presumably, was standing less than six feet away.
Indicating with a jab of her walking stick that she wished to say something, she moved creakily towards the car while Pru, crimson with embarrassment, slid open the driver’s window.
‘You’ll do yourself an injury, child,’ the old woman observed. ‘Whatever are you playing at?’
‘Trying out the seat recliner,’ mumbled Pru apologetically. ‘Well, it works.’
‘I know. Sorry.’
The woman, who was clutching a folded-up newspaper in her free hand, peered past her into the car.
‘What’s that, any good?’ Beadily she eyed the lurid paperback lying on the passenger seat.
The thought of this precisely spoken, autocratic old lady reading Dulcie’s bonkbuster was even more blushmaking than being caught playing with the seat recliners like a three-year-old.
‘No, actually, it’s awful,’ Pru said hurriedly. ‘You wouldn’t like it at all.’
‘How do you know I wouldn’t? I might.’ The old woman’s expression was challenging. ‘I can see from the cover it isn’t a Barbara Cartland,’ she went on, almost irritably, ‘which makes a change in this place, I can tell you. Wall-to-wall Barbarabloody-Cartlands in here. Just because you’re eighty they seem to think that’s all you want to read.’
‘This definitely isn’t a Barbara Cartland.’ Pru was as firm as she dared.
‘Good. Well, if it’s awful, you won’t be wanting it. So can I have it instead?’
Pru was taken aback by the bluntness of the request. You expected to be stopped in the street by beggars and asked for spare change but you didn’t expect to be faced with imperious OAPs demanding pornographic paperbacks.
As if sensing her dilemma the woman said briskly, ‘I promise not to have a heart attack, if it’s the sex you’re worried about.’
Then, when Pru still hesitated, she held out her paper. ‘Go on, you can have this instead. I’ve done the crossword but at least you’ll have something to read.’
Pru’s eyes began to boggle as she saw the photograph on the front page. She grabbed Dulcie’s paperback and thrust it through the open window.
‘Thanks.’ The old lady looked immensely pleased with her swap. ‘Just one other thing.’
‘All that whizzing up and down in your seat’s played havoc with your hair, child. Better do something with it; your ears are sticking out.’
‘Liza, it’s me. Help, you know I hate these machines ...’
Hearing Pru’s voice, Liza picked up the phone. Pru was about the only person on the planet she could bear to speak to just now, she realised. Nobody was more au fait with public humiliation than Pru.
‘I’m here. I know, you’ve seen the Evening Post. Oh Pru, I think he did it to teach me a lesson.
He kissed me in front of all those people and I practically melted on the spot. He promised to phone me and I was so sure he would,’ Liza admitted brokenly, ‘but he bloody hasn’t.’
There was no need to pretend with Pru. Unlike everyone else, she wouldn’t make sympathetic noises and all the time be madly smirking and thinking ha ha, welcome to the real world and about time too.
Pru wasn’t like that. Her sympathy would be genuine. Desperate to unburden herself, Liza told her everything.
Sometimes a very old and completely trustworthy friend – which rather ruled out Dulcie – was the only person you could tell this kind of stuff to.
‘I mean, you know me,’ Liza rattled on. Having started, she now found she couldn’t stop. ‘I’m not promiscuous – well, not that promiscuous – but all I wanted to do was go to bed with him!
Dammit, how could he make such a fool of me? He’s nine years younger than I am, for God’s sake! And every time I think of him my knees still turn to jelly – why am I echoing?’
As Liza’s voice had risen, the echo had become more apparent.
‘Um ... I’m in the car.’
But Liza could hear someone else snorting with laughter in the background. Someone male.
‘What’s going on? It doesn’t usually echo like that.’ Her blood ran cold.
‘Sorry, darling, my fault.’ It was Eddie Hammond, chuckling unashamedly. ‘Couldn’t resist it. I switched you on to hands-free.’
Cold wasn’t the word for Liza’s blood now.
‘You eavesdropper,’ she hissed, mortified.
‘Come on,’ he protested, still laughing. ‘Pru showed me the picture in the paper. I was curious too.’
When Liza had slammed the phone down it occurred to her that although he wasn’t married, Eddie Hammond had never flirted with her.
First Eddie, now Kit Berenger, thought Liza gloomily. I must really be losing my touch.
Dulcie hadn’t wanted to ring Liam at the club, it seemed a bit keen, but he’d forgotten to give her his home number so she didn’t have much choice.
Or much time to lose, Dulcie thought twitchily as she waited for him to come to the phone. She could just imagine what Imelda had been like over the last four days, throwing herself at Liam and making the most of Dulcie’s unexpected absence. The girl was shameless and desperate.
You could almost feel sorry for her.
Almost, but not quite.
Cheered by a mental image of Imelda in one of those Velcro suits you got at fairgrounds, hurling herself at a vast Velcro wall with Liam perched like Humpty Dumpty — only better-looking, of course — on top, Dulcie forgot to be nervous when he at last came to the phone.
‘Hi,’ she said brightly, ‘I’m better! How about me cooking you dinner tonight at my place, to celebrate?’
‘No more flu?’ She heard the smile in his voice. He was clearly pleased to hear from her.
‘No more flu,’ Dulcie said with pride. ‘So is that a yes?’
At Brunton Manor, Liam leaned against the receptionist’s desk and grinned at the prettier of the two receptionists. She promptly went pink and smiled back. Playfully he tapped the little emerald ring on her engagement finger and pulled a mock-sorrowful face.
‘Liam, are you still there?’
‘Dinner sounds great.’ It really did, he decided cheerfully. And he liked Dulcie a lot, she was sparky and fun. If she was as good in the kitchen as she was in bed, he was in for a treat. ‘Look, I promised to meet someone else for a quick drink at eight. Just a business thing, but I wouldn’t want to let them down. Is nine-ish okay with you?’
Almost bursting with happiness — ha! Imelda hadn’t got him yet — Dulcie replied triumphantly,
‘Nine-ish is fine.’
Not one of life’s Delia Smiths, Dulcie had nevertheless been forced during the course of her marriage to conjure up the odd decent meal or two. She even knew how to cook a proper dinner-party dinner, which might have impressed Liam if it hadn’t been mushrooms fried in garlic butter followed by chicken à la crème and chocolate mousse.
The prospect of cooking something healthy was fairly daunting but Dulcie refused to be intimidated. As she had told Liza — quite often, actually — Liam was worth it. Nothing was too much trouble. If all Liam ate was roast alligator, she would happily race to the nearest swamp, catch an alligator and roast it.
Anyway, he didn’t. All she had to do was grill a couple of fillet steaks, chuck a few baking potatoes in the oven and microwave a bowl of frozen peas.
It sounded simple enough but still somehow managed to take ages to do. Dulcie didn’t mind, she was in love with a glorious, glamorous vision of a man and you had to suffer for someone as heavenly as Liam, that was only fair. She even did a bit of salad to go with it, and cut the tomatoes painstakingly into zigzag halves so they looked like lilies — albeit slightly wonky lilies
— floating on an artistic lettuce and onion pond.
Dulcie wasn’t asleep when the hail of gravel rattled against her bedroom window but she was buggered if she was going to get up straight away.
She heard Liam scrunching across the drive, scooping up and flinging another handful of gravel at another window further along because he didn’t know which was hers. Torn between passionate relief that he hadn’t stood her up after all and indignation, because – let’s face it –
there’s late and there is late, Dulcie lay in bed for a few seconds more.
It was a retaliation, of sorts.
When she heard a shower of stones hit the bathroom window and a pane of glass go CRACK, she got up.
‘There you are,’ Liam exclaimed, peering up at Dulcie’s spiky-haired silhouette.
‘Sshh,’ Dulcie hissed.
He looked alarmed. ‘Why? Is your husband up there?’
‘Of course he isn’t.’ Men, honestly. ‘I was thinking of the neighbours. Anyway, what’s wrong with using the doorbell?’ He looked shocked.
‘It’s too late to ring doorbells.’ This was a hangover from Liam’s rowdy teenage years. His father had gone ballistic whenever he’d forgotten his front door key. Now, standing beneath Dulcie’s window, he checked his watch and offered up his wrist as proof. ‘See? One o’clock.’
‘You don’t say.’ Dulcie hadn’t forgotten she was supposed to be miffed. ‘Funny, I could have sworn you said you’d be here by nine. Or were you talking about breakfast?’
‘I’m late,’ said Liam. ‘I know, I’m sorry.’ He gazed up at her, utterly repentant in the moonlight.
‘But I’m here now. I came all this way. Angel, you have to let me in.’
‘I bloody do not,’ Dulcie retorted briskly, not meaning it for a second.
‘Okay, I’ll climb up.’ Grinning, he moved towards the drainpipe next to the porch. He stood on one of the flower-filled stone tubs and began testing the strength of the drainpipe.
‘All of a sudden he’s Milk Tray Man,’ mocked Dulcie, but her own mouth was beginning to twitch. In all honesty, how could she resist him? Before he managed to yank the drainpipe off the wall she said, ‘Okay, you win. Get down before you break a leg. I’ll open the front door.’
When she did, she was naked. Liam solemnly eyed each ofher small breasts in turn, bowed his head politely and murmured in his soft Irish drawl, ‘So pleased to meet you both, you’re looking wonderful—’
‘Berk,’ said Dulcie.
When he’d finished kissing her, Liam led her by the hand into the kitchen.
‘I’m starving. What’s for dinner?’
‘Is that a joke?’ She gave him an indignant prod in the ribs. ‘I fed your dinner to the foxes hours ago. You didn’t seriously expect me to save it?’
Seeing the expression on his face, Dulcie realised he had. She marvelled at the kind of life Liam must have led, the star tennis player so used to getting what he wanted, it didn’t occur to him that turning up four hours late might be considered a bit offish.
Although, actually he didn’t know how lucky he was. Having stupidly imagined Liam would arrive promptly at nine, she had first grilled the steaks then put them in the oven to keep warm.
By ten o’clock they had acquired the consistency of dog chews. Flinging them out through the kitchen window had been an act of mercy. If the foxes had got at them, thought Dulcie, serve them right.
‘Sweetheart, it was a business meeting. I was held up,’ Liam protested. In reality it had been an Imelda meeting and he had been held down, but some details were better glossed over. From what he could gather, there wasn’t much love lost between the two girls.
Dulcie was on the brink of making some cutting remark about the lack of phones where he’d been when she realised how it would make her sound. Like some nagging old wife, she thought with a shudder, the frumpy, bitter kind whose husbands you felt most sorry for, the kind where you wouldn’t blame their husbands for wanting to sneak off.
How awful, and this is only our second date. If it even counts as a date . . .
But Liam was here, and that was what mattered. When you were famous, Dulcie realised, you lived by different rules. It was like inviting the Queen to tea and expecting her to pitch in afterwards with the washing-up. If you ever wanted to see her again, bunging her a pair of Marigolds and telling her to get scrubbing wasn’t a smart move to make.
Liam was glad he’d made the effort to come round. Fish fingers and reheated baked potatoes might not set the pulse racing but they were an excellent source of vitamin B. Anyway, now she’d stopped sulking he had Dulcie to make his pulse race.
If he was honest, Liam preferred Dulcie to Imelda, who had spent most of the evening dropping hints the size of comets about holidays. Liam had marvelled good-naturedly at her train of thought; women were funny creatures. He’d taken Imelda to bed a couple of times, that was all.
Whatever made her think he’d want to spend a fortnight with her in Phuket?
Liam’s attitude to life was uncomplicated. All he wanted was to keep fit, play tennis and have as much fun as possible with the opposite sex. This, he decided, was where Dulcie definitely had the edge. He was genuinely fond of her. She was more laid-back, probably relishing her own new-found freedom, and hadn’t so much as mentioned holidays. Liam, very much a ‘so many women, so little time’ man himself, was mystified by the female preoccupation with — yawn —
monogamy and — bigger yawn — settling down.
Jesus, where was the fun in that?
With Eddie needing to be driven that morning to Swindon for a meeting at eleven which was likely to go- on for hours, Pru had consulted her diary and decided to get Terry Hayes’ cottage out of the way first. Ringing him beforehand to be on the safe side and getting no answer — he wasn’t kidding when he said he started work early — she pulled up outside his front door at seven thirty and let herself in.
The kitchen didn’t take long. When Pru had finished in thereshe moved on to the bathroom.
Terry had bought himself some new aftershave, she noticed. Ralph Lauren, Polo. Nice. And a bottle of hair-thickening shampoo. Trying to spruce himself up, Pru thought with an indulgent smile. Bless him. What’s the betting he’s splashed out on new underpants too?
Humming to herself, Pru fished the Hoover out from the cupboard under the stairs and hauled it upstairs. Elbowing the door open, she launched herself into Terry’s bedroom. Honestly, what was it with men? Why did it never occur to them to draw back the curtains before they left for work?
The Hoover landed with a crash on the floor. Two people abruptly jack-knifed into sitting positions on the bed. Only semi-covered by the tangled duvet, they were both naked.
And neither of them was Terry Hayes.
‘What’s going on?’ demanded the man, sitting bolt upright. ‘Who’s she?’ squeaked the girl next to him, pulling the duvet up to her ears.
‘I’m the cleaner.’ Pru told herself not to be so silly, they couldn’t possibly be burglars. In the semi-darkness she peered closely at the man, who was rather good-looking. Those heavy eyebrows and piercing dark eyes, now she came to think of it, were definitely familiar.
‘Who are you?’ said Pru. ‘Terry’s brother?’
‘Pru?’ The man began to relax. He grinned at her. ‘I’m Terry.’
‘No you aren’t.’ Pru hesitated, confused. This was like a John le Carré novel where the gardener suddenly whisks off his beard and turns into a KGB agent.
‘Actually, he is,’ volunteered the girl in the bed. ‘And I’ve worked with him for the last four years, so I should know.’
Having taken the intrusion amazingly calmly, considering, Terry asked Pru if she wouldn’t mind making them all a pot of coffee.
Ten minutes later, showered and dressed, he appeared in the kitchen.
‘Sorry about barging in,’ said Pru, going pink at the memory as she poured the coffee into green and gold cups. ‘I thought you were at work. I did ring.’
‘Day off. I never hear the phone when I’m asleep.’ Terry dismissed her apology with a good-natured shrug. ‘Anyway, I’m curious. Why didn’t you think I was me? What’s my bossy sister been telling you?’
‘Nothing,’ protested Pru. ‘Marion didn’t say anything. It’s my mistake. It was the photograph in your bedroom, that’s all. I just assumed the chap in it was you.’
Terry’s rather angular mouth twitched.
‘It was me.’
He tapped the side of his nose.
‘Before I had this done.’
Pru winced. She’d put her foot in it again.
‘You mean you had an ... an accident?’
‘No accident. You’re being wonderfully tactful,’ Terry looked amused, ‘but there’s no need.
You’ve seen the photo, Pru. Let’s be honest, I was born with one hell of a nose.’
‘Oh ... well ...’
‘Jokes? I heard them all. Witty nicknames? Honker, Concorde, Big Bird ... I’ve been called everything in my time. When I was at school, the other kids made my life hell,’ Terry went on.
‘Then you get older, and people might stop calling you names, but you know they’re still staring at you, trying to concentrate on what you’re saying to them and all the time thinking: "God, look at the hooter on him." ‘
Pru couldn’t stop staring either.
‘So ... so you had plastic surgery?’
‘It wasn’t a question of vanity.’ For the first time Terry sounded defensive. ‘I just wanted to look
‘Oh I know,’ cried Pru. She understood exactly how he must have felt. ‘I know. Did ... well, did it hurt?’
‘A bit. But it was worth it. If it had hurt a hundred times more, it would still have been worth it.
You see, I don’t have tothink about my nose any more. Why are you crying?’ He looked worried. ‘Pru, stop it. You mustn’t cry. Your nose is fine.’
Unable to speak, Pru raised her arms and scooped her hair away from her face.
At that moment the girl who shared both Terry’s office and his bed came into the kitchen wearing his towelling dressing gown.
‘Good grief.’ She eyed Pru’s ears with alarm. ‘Shouldn’t you get those seen to?’
‘Karen is to diplomacy what Margaret Thatcher is to tap dancing,’ Terry apologised. ‘But this time I have to say she’s right.’
Pru covered her ears back up again. Funny how all it had taken to overcome a lifetime’s fear of surgery was a snapshot of a man with a beaky nose.
Typical, too, that all those years when money had been no object, she hadn’t been able to pluck up the courage to have her ears fixed.
Now I’ve got the courage, Pru thought gloomily, and I can’t even afford a tube of UHU.
Liza lay in the bath for an hour, watching her skin shrivel and marvelling at her spectacular stupidity. It was her birthday, she was thirty-two, and she was acting like a pathetic teenager.
Damn, worse than that. She was acting like ... Dulcie.
There had been plenty of offers over the course of the last few days, from various men eager to take her out on her birthday. Stupidly, still hoping against hope that Kit Berenger would be in touch, she had turned them all down. She had even invented ever more elaborate excuses on Kit’s behalf, every time the phone rang and it wasn’t him.
In the end Liza had run out of excuses. Reasonable ones anyway. The only excuse that would do now was if he were dead.
So here she was, a grown woman in the grip of a deeply embarrassing crush – an unrequited crush at that – all alone on her birthday and feeling more spinsterish by the minute.
Climbing out of the bath, Liza put on a baggy yellow sweater and a pair of pink shorts. Since it was sunny outside she took her work out into the tiny garden.
Seconds after she’d settled herself down with more reference books and a notepad, the post arrived. Sending her coffee flying, Liza raced to the door. Cards, cards, cards .. .
None of them from Kit Berenger.
Hating herself for being foolish enough to even think he might have sent one – how truly pathetic could you get? – Liza crammed her sunglasses on to her face and forced herself to work for two hours straight.
At midday she made herself another pot of coffee and phoned Mark.
‘Dinner tonight. Are you still up for it?’
‘I thought you were busy.’
‘Change of plan,’ Liza replied brightly. ‘I can make it now.’
‘Oh, shame, I made other arrangements.’ Bemused by her call – it didn’t occur to him for a second that she could actually have been stood up by another man – Mark added, ‘Of course, you’re welcome to join us. Suzie wouldn’t mind ...’
Dulcie was just as much of a let-down.
‘I can’t, I’m seeing Liam. He’s mad about me,’ she confided happily. ‘You should have seen him last night, trying to climb in through my bedroom window! He’s so romantic,’ she sighed, ‘so masterful.’
Not in the mood to hear this, Liza attempted a quick getaway. ‘Okay, doesn’t matter—’
‘Hang on! You still haven’t told me what’s been going on between you and Kit Berenger.’
‘Terrible line, I can hardly hear you.’ Liza bashed the phone against the wall a couple of times and hung up.
When the doorbell rang an hour later she was tempted not to answer it. Why bother when it was either flowers from Mark – a guilt gift to make up for not being able to see her tonight – or Dulcie determined to get the low-down on the Berenger affair.
Some affair, Liza thought miserably. Chance would be a fine thing.
The doorbell rang again. Heaving an irritated sigh, she went to see who it was. If it was flowers, she’d answer the door. If it was Dulcie she definitely wouldn’t.
It wasn’t Dulcie. It wasn’t flowers either. And the silhouette through the stained glass was man-shaped.
Pulling the door open, Liza came face to face with Kit Berenger.
He was wearing a dark-green shirt with a fine crimson stripe and the most impeccably cut black suit.
‘Thanks.’ Liza wondered how he knew it was today. But who cared? He was here, he was here.
‘You could always invite me in,’ Kit suggested when she didn’t move.
‘I thought you were going to phone.’ Liza stayed where she was. ‘Don’t tell me, you spent the ten pounds and couldn’t remember my number.’
He grinned. ‘Oh ye of little faith. Actually, I learned it off by heart. And I nearly phoned, hundreds of times. Had to exert a fair amount of self-control, I can tell you.’
Liza took a deep breath. She was having to exert a bit of self-control herself, right at this moment.
‘Either way, phoning would have been the decent thing to do,’ she said evenly. ‘If you decide you don’t want to see someone again, you should still let them know.’
‘Come on,’ chided Kit, his tone humorous, ‘you didn’t think that for a second.’
Liza pulled him into the narrow hallway and slammed the door shut. They stood, inches away from each other, her dark-brown eyes fixed angrily on his yellow-gold ones.
‘I thought I didn’t think that for a second,’ she almost hissed at him, ‘until you didn’t ring. Oh for God’s sake,’ she blurted out furiously, ‘how could you do that to me?’
‘Look,’ said Kit, ‘I thought we both needed the time to think. I don’t know about you, but I don’t make a habit of feeling like this about someone. It’s pretty scary, if you want the truth.’ He hesitated, then half smiled. ‘Bloody scary, in fact.’
‘It’s only lust. You don’t have to be scared!’
‘Ah, but what if it isn’t only lust?’ Kit put his hands on her shoulders. ‘You said yourself, I was too young for you.’ Liza smiled up at him.
‘I meant I was too old for you. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We’re hardly talking weddings here.
What’s wrong with a harmless fling?’
‘Is that all you’re interested in?’ demanded Kit. He began to sound annoyed.
Liza was just glad he was here. The relief was overwhelming. She decided to be frank with him.
‘Don’t take this personally, it’s just the way I am. And the age thing’s irrelevant; I’m the same with everyone. I get bored quickly, that’s all. So trust me, you don’t have to worry about getting involved, being scared,’ she told Kit, ‘because it won’t last long enough for that to happen.’
Inexplicably, Liza heard her voice break. She paused before finishing what she had to say. ‘My relationships never do.’
He touched her mouth with one finger, tracing the outline of her full lower lip.
‘How soon before you get bored?’
‘Three or four weeks.’ She tried to move her mouth away from his finger, found she couldn’t do it. ‘I’m a very shallow person.’
‘A month? Is that the longest you’ve ever been involved with someone?’
Liza nodded, ashamed.
‘Pretty much. I think I managed five weeks once.’ He shook his head.
‘That’s really sad.’
‘I’ve kind of got used to it,’ said Liza.
‘That’s even sadder.’
‘Don’t you dare start feeling sorry for me.’
‘I’m not.’ Kit grinned. ‘Wouldn’t dream of it. Anyway, you’ve met me now. Things could be about to change.’
That would be just my luck, thought Liza. After years of being left cold by endless hugely eligible men, how typical if I finally fell in love with a toyboy. How unsuitable could you get?
She didn’t seriously expect it to happen. It was hardly likely. All she wanted to do was enjoy the next few weeks for what they were and accept the inevitable ending with good grace.
But for Kit’s sake she pretended it was a possibility.
Smiling up at him, she said, ‘Who knows? Maybe they are.’
Kit’s eyes narrowed at once. ‘Don’t humour me.’ His voice sent shivers of longing down Liza’s spine. ‘I’m not.’
‘You are. You think I’m too young to understand what makes you tick.’
Liza wished he’d stop talking. All she could think about right now was how badly she wanted him to make love to her.
That, she decided, would definitely be a birthday present worth having.
She gave him her most sensual and bewitching smile, the one that no man could ever resist.
‘I’m telling you, you aren’t going to get tired of me,’ promised Kit, resisting it. ‘I’m going to keep you interested if it kills me.’
‘Really?’ Liza gazed at him dreamily, her fingers itching to start unbuttoning his shirt. ‘And how are you planning to do this? By hypnosis?’
‘Stop looking at me like that,’ Kit said with a grin. ‘By not sleeping with you, for a start.’
It was the first week in June. The significance of this only struck Pru as she sat on a wooden bench outside Elm lea House in Clifton, absently flipping through the Daily Mail.
‘Driving ban for vicar after peacocks get the chop’, read Pru, but it was less alarming than it sounded. An absent-minded vicar, his thoughts on next Sunday’s sermon rather than the road ahead, had managed to veer into a yew hedge and demolish thirty years’ worth of lovingly tended topiary. Six sculpted peacocks had promptly been decapitated. The Morris Minor had escaped unscathed. The vicar, his licence suspended for a month, was quoted as saying, ‘I feel terrible about this. Everyone in the parish knows how keen I am on birds.’
It suddenly occurred to Pru that Eddie’s ban must almost be up. He had served his time, paid his penance. Any day now, surely, he’d be getting his licence back.
Pru was surprised how disappointed she felt. She would miss driving Eddie around. Maybe she should pin up a card in her local police station, offering her services to anyone else about to be banned.
But it wouldn’t be the same without Eddie.
‘I know who you are now.’
Pru shielded her eyes from the setting sun and looked up to see who had spoken. Oh help, it was that bossy old woman again, the one who had commandeered Dulcie’s steamy paperback.
‘You’re with Edna Peverell’s son-in-law,’ the woman announced triumphantly. ‘You come here with him three times a week. Edna tells me he’s a damn fine chap.’
Unable to think of anything else to say, Pru put down her paper and nodded.
‘Oh yes, he is. Um ... damn fine.’
‘So what I want to know,’ the old woman’s eyes were shrewd, ‘is what’s wrong with you?’
‘Excuse me?’ said Pru.
‘Why hasn’t your chap introduced you to Edna? Too ashamed, is he? What are you, one of those topless models in your spare time?’ The old lady had a laugh like a fox’s bark. ‘Come on, child, you can tell me. Why does he always leave you waiting outside like a wet umbrella?’
The old dear was clearly a couple of sausage rolls short of a picnic, but Pru was still flattered.
She glanced down at her almost nonexistent chest.
‘Hardly a topless model.’
‘No, you’re right. Something else then. Traffic warden? Jehovah’s Witness?’ She pointed her walking stick accusingly at Pru. ‘Member of the SDP?’
‘Actually,’ said Pru, ‘he’s not my chap. I’m just Eddie’s driver. That’s why he hasn’t introduced me to his mother-in-law.’
‘Balls,’ declared the old lady. Inching arthritically around, she jabbed her stick in the direction of one of the ivy-clad second-floor windows overlooking the car park. ‘That’s my room up there.
I’ve been watching the pair of you for the last six weeks. I’m not blind, you know.’
No, just dotty, thought Pru.
‘How did you get on with that book?’ she said, changing the subject.
‘Not bad.’ The batty old dear had turned towards the heavy oak front door. Preparing to leave, she paused and gave Pru a sly smile. ‘Not enough sex.’
She muttered something else under her breath as she disappeared through the doorway.
‘What?’ Pru called after her retreating back. ‘What did you say?’
‘I said not enough sex.’ In an oddly regal fashion, the old woman waved her walking stick briefly at Pru. Then she snorted with laughter. ‘Rather like you and your chap.’
Pru didn’t mention this exchange to Eddie when he returned to the car. Instead she asked him when his three-month ban was up.
Eddie gazed out of the side window at the spectacular Clifton suspension bridge, stretched across the Avon gorge.
‘Did I tell you three months? That wasn’t quite true,’ he said, sounding awkward and still not looking at Pru. ‘Actually it was ... um ... six.’
Dulcie surveyed herself carefully from all angles in the wardrobe mirror but she still didn’t look any different.
This was most annoying, because when you’d put in as much hard work as she had during the last month you expected to end up looking like an international Gladiator at least.
Still, she had to be fitter on the inside. The sweating was disgusting, the grunting and straining horribly reminiscent of childbirth and the sheer pain involved was unimaginable but if this was what it took to persuade Liam she was his kind of girl ... well, then it was worth every grunt and strain.
Following the flu fiasco, Dulcie had realised drastic measures were now called for. Some things you could bluff your way through, others you couldn’t, and attempting to pass yourself off as Bath’s answer to Steffi Graf when in reality you were Bath’s answer to a cross between Jo Brand and a walking Mars bar clearly wasn’t on.
As a result of this, Dulcie had joined another, less sumptuous sports club on the other side of the city and had booked daily lessons with the far less desirable middle-aged tennis coach there.
Biting the bullet, she had also enrolled herself in the beginners’ aerobics class. If she could still walk after this, she stumbled along to the gym and pumped iron for an hour.
It had been far and away the most hideous month of Dulcie’s life. The only consolation was that she was doing it where no one recognised her; she was working out at a club so un-smart she was unlikely ever to bump into anyone she knew.
But if hanging on to Liam McPherson involved keeping fit, Dulcie was prepared to suffer.
And now she had suffered, for a whole month. It was just such a bugger that it didn’t show.
Maybe she could squeeze Liam half to death with her thighs. Then he’d be impressed.
Having finished her inspection in front of the mirror, Dulcie wriggled her way into a new dress, a tiny clinging thing the colour of sherbet lemons. With it, she wore flat silver sandals and understated silver jewellery. She was meeting up with Liam at Poppers, the new wine bar on Pulteney Bridge, and she wanted to look good. Poppers was definitely the kind of place people went to be seen.
‘Dulcie? Are you here on your own?’
Turning, Dulcie came face to face with her estranged husband. Honestly, trust Patrick to make her sound like a prostitute.
‘No need to panic! I promise not to flash my knickers at any strange men. Anyway,’ she gave him a teasing smile, ‘this is a wine bar, not a street corner. I’m allowed to be here; it’s all quite legal.’
Actually, it was really nice to see him ... until the next moment when Dulcie realised the girl doing her best to look as if she wasn’t in any way connected with Patrick was connected with him after all.
‘Ah, sorry. Claire, this is Dulcie. My... er, wife. Dulcie, Claire.’
A bit of advance warning wouldn’t have gone amiss, Dulcie felt. She smiled as casually as she could at Claire and was surprised how hard it was to do. What a shame people didn’t wear beepers, like little personal radars, so you always had a few minutes’ notice that you were about to bump into them. That was all you’d need really, Dulcie thought, just a couple of minutes to gear yourself up, mentally prepare yourself for those awkward chance meetings. If Patrick was so clever with acomputer, maybe he should give it a whirl. There had to be a market for a beeper to let you know you were about to cross paths with your husband and his new bird.
‘It’s really nice to meet you,’ said Claire, reaching out and shaking Dulcie’s unsuspecting hand.
‘Look, if you two ‘d like to talk, I could leave you in peace for a few minutes ...’
‘No need for that.’ Patrick acknowledged the diplomatic offer with a brief smile and slid an arm around Claire’s waist.
Dulcie’s eyes almost fell out. Public displays of affection weren’t Patrick’s style at all. For heaven’s sake, it had taken her about four years to persuade him to put his arm around her waist.
‘Anyway,’ he went on, as if Dulcie had deliberately tried to change the subject, ‘why are you here on your own?’
‘I’m not on my own. I’m meeting Liam.’
‘Oh? Where is he?’
‘I got here early,’ Dulcie fibbed.
Patrick shot her a look of disbelief.
‘You’re never anywhere early.’
That was the trouble with husbands; they knew you too well. Dulcie cursed Patrick for knowing her. She began elongating the fib.
‘Well, I didn’t mean to be early but I was over at Liza’s and she had to go out so she gave me a lift. And Liam warned me he might be held up ... someone’s offered him a Lamborghini and if it looks good he’ll take it for a test drive ...’
This bit was actually true. The reason Dulcie was fibbing was to cover up the fact that Liam was over an hour late already. She just knew Patrick would disapprove.
Irritatingly, Patrick wasn’t as impressed as he could have been by her casual mention of the Lamborghini. Knowing him as well as he knew her, Dulcie sensed the lip curl, the slight air of amusement. He was wondering what she thought she was doing, getting herself involved with the kind of man who drove that kind of car.
Cringing inwardly, Dulcie remembered what Steve Ellis, the leering pro from Brunton Golf Club, had called them when Liam had mentioned he was thinking of getting one. ‘Hey, major babe-magnet!’
And Liam, grinning, had replied, ‘I’ve already got one of those.’
‘He probably won’t buy it,’ Dulcie told Patrick and Claire. ‘Not that he couldn’t afford to. It’s just not really his style, you know. Bit naff.’
‘My father had one. He sold it last year,’ said Claire. Realising her gaffe, she covered her mouth and let out a peal of laughter. Then she clutched Dulcie’s arm and, still giggling, whispered conspiratorially, ‘Please don’t be embarrassed. You’re right, of course. Too naff for words. He looked an absolute sight.’
Dulcie was trapped. By nine o’clock there was still no sign of Liam and Patrick was clearly determined to keep her talking until he turned up. Since she knew no one else there, Dulcie didn’t have much choice.
She thought men were supposed to go for a particular type of woman and stick with them, but Patrick certainly hadn’t; he’d managed to find someone the complete opposite of her.
Furthermore – it was irritating but she couldn’t help it; feeling miffed was a natural response –
he definitely seemed happy with Claire.
Maybe that’s all he ever wanted, the type he should have gone for in the first place, Dulcie realised. A sensible, cheerful, gosh-where-did-I-put-my-hockey-stick kind of girl. Intelligent, friendly towards everyone and with heaps of common sense. The type of person, Dulcie thought darkly, who held up her hand and said, ‘No thanks, really, one chocolate’s enough for me.’
She even had a real career, dammit, so Patrick’s ridiculous working hours wouldn’t bother her in the least. The chances were she wouldn’t even notice he was never home because she wouldn’t be there either, she’d still be working too.
They could be Executive Couple, thought Dulcie, and themost annoying part of all is they wouldn’t even think they were missing out on any fun, because when you’re that career-minded, work is fun.
Willing it to be Liam every time the door was pushed open hadn’t worked. By nine thirty Dulcie was growing desperate ... and trying even more desperately to hide it.
‘Looks like he’s stood you up,’ said Patrick, not sounding in the least sympathetic. ‘Come on, we’ll give you a lift home.’
How sad could you get? Dulcie suppressed a shudder – God, the humiliation – and gaily emptied her glass.
‘Don’t fuss! He’ll be here any minute now,’ she exclaimed. ‘Anyway, this party we’re going to doesn’t start until midnight ... it’s at the home of one of his rock star friends, did I mention that?
They live in this fantastic mansion outside Calne. Oh for heaven’s sake, Patrick! Stop looking at your watch. What difference does it make if someone’s a tiny bit late? Look, let me get you both another drink—’
‘We’ve got a table booked at the Blue Bowl.’ Patrick’s tone was curt; he wasn’t amused.
‘If you’d like to, you’d be more than welcome to join us,’ Claire said eagerly, her clear grey eyes reflecting genuine concern. She nodded as she spoke, so rhythmically that Dulcie wondered if someone behind her was tugging on her glossy brown plait, practising a spot of bell ringing on the nearest available rope.
Bloody, bloody Liam...
And bloody Claire, come to that, for being so caring, so jolly, jolly nice. Where had Patrick found her, anyway? Graduating with honours from the Jane Asher School of Charm and Utter Loveliness?
This reminded Dulcie that he hadn’t told her yet how things had gone the night his mother had fixed him up.
To divert Patrick’s attention from Liam’s lateness, Dulcie said brightly, ‘I forgot to ask, how was your awful blind date the other week, the one you were dreading so much? Total nightmare or what?’
Patrick looked at Claire. Ha, thought Dulcie, delighted. That’s caught you out! Been two-timing her already .. .
Claire, in turn, looked at Dulcie. There were dimples in her cheeks.
‘I don’t think it went too badly, considering,’ she said with a playful smile.
‘Oh, Dulcie, the awful blind date was me.’
‘Where have you been?’ hissed Dulcie when Liam finally appeared. ‘For God’s sake, you’re two hours late!’
Liam cupped a hand over one ear and shook his head. ‘Damn, I hate it when that happens.’
‘That terrible noise in my ear. That nagging noise.’
‘I’m not nagging,’ Dulcie said crossly, ‘I’m just telling you, that’s all. You should have been here at nine.’
‘Why, what happened?’
The blonde standing with her back to Liam suddenly giggled and swivelled round to look at him.
Liam, happy to have his wit appreciated, grinned back.
‘My husband and his new girlfriend were here, that’s what happened,’ Dulcie wailed. ‘They insisted on waiting here with me until you turned up.’
Liam looked around.
‘So where are they?’
‘They left two minutes ago!’ She almost stamped her foot. ‘Phew, great timing.’
The blonde giggled again. Liam tried without much success to keep a straight face. Dulcie could have kicked the pair of them.
‘It isn’t funny. Dammit, they felt sorry for me.’
‘Am I going to get this earache all night?’ protested Liam.
There was an unfamiliar edge to his voice, as if he were on the verge of losing his patience. Suddenly overcome by a rush of fear – what if Liam turned round, grabbed the giggling blonde and disappeared with her out of the door? – Dulcie forced herself to calm down. Liam wasn’t the type to sit alone and mope. She held a privileged position. And if she didn’t want it there were plenty of other women queueing up to take her place.
‘I’m sorry. It was pretty embarrassing, that’s all. Forget it.’
His good humour instantly restored, Liam slid his arm around Dulcie’s hips and pulled her playfully towards him.
‘You mean I don’t get detention from teacher?’ he murmured in her ear. ‘I don’t have to write out a hundred lines: I must not be a naughty boy and upset Dulcie?’
She quivered helplessly. Oh, that soft, purring Irish drawl! It really should come with a government health warning .. .
‘I’ll let you off, this once,’ she said faintly as Liam began kissing the tips of her fingers. Damn, why couldn’t Patrick and Claire be here to witness this now?
‘In that case,’ his blue eyes crinkled at the corners, ‘I’ll let you have a ride in my new car.’
‘Oh dear, I’m afraid I don’t accept lifts from strange men,’ said Dulcie.
‘It’s a Lamborghini.’
‘Red of course.’
‘Oh, all right then.’
Liza, rubbing her eyes and pulling open the front door, protested, ‘Good grief, it’s only seven o’clock.’
Kit looked as if he’d been up for hours. He winked, unperturbed by the grumpy welcome.
‘Do you know what today is?’
She had to think for a minute. ‘Tuesday.’
‘No. Well, yes,’ he admitted, ‘but what else?’
‘I give up.’
‘It’s time you got bored with me.’
Liza already knew that. She smiled.
‘Do I have to?’
‘It’s been a month,’ said Kit. ‘Aren’t you bored yet?’
Her arms went around his neck. When she had finished kissing him, Liza looked up into his extraordinary yellow-gold eyes.
‘You know I’m not. I’ve never been less bored.’ Or more frustrated, come to that.
‘The thing is,’ said Kit, reading her mind and looking amused, ‘you aren’t bad. I quite fancy you, in fact. Maybe we shouldn’t risk spoiling things.’
‘Well, I don’t know. Maybe we should stay as we are. Platonic friends. No sex for at least the next ten years. What are you doing?’
Ask a silly question.
‘Unfastening your belt.’’Oh. Not keen, then, on my idea?’
‘Not very keen, no.’
Kit kicked the front door shut and leaned back against it, his eyes fixed on Liza’s face.
‘What are you doing now?’ he said finally.
‘Just unzipping your trousers.’
‘I love you.’
Liza looked away, unable to speak. All these years and it had happened at last. She’d heard these words so many times before, but this was the first time she’d actually wanted to hear them. Until now, they’d always made her feel sick.
‘It’s almost killed me, waiting this long,’ Kit went on. ‘I want to make love to you more than anything in the world.’
Liza quivered helplessly. She knew it was corny, but a tingling sensation actually was going down her spine.
She cleared her throat and nodded. ‘Me too.’
‘But if it’s going to change things between us ... if it’s going to spoil all this ...’
‘I don’t think it is,’ said Liza, who had wondered the same thing herself. This time she shook her head, desperate to convince him she was right. ‘I really don’t think it is.’
‘Tell you what.’
Slowly, he slid the straps of her white nightdress off her shoulders.
‘You don’t get bored with me,’ whispered Kit, his breath warm against her neck, ‘I won’t get bored with you.’
He was so in control. Liza wondered how on earth a twenty-three-year-old could be so self-assured. Heavens, he acted older than she did.
‘Is that a promise?’ she said, dry-mouthed. The need to know was overwhelming.
As he carried her through to the bedroom, Kit said, ‘Cross my heart, hope to die.’
* * *
It wasn’t a let-down.
Not that Liza had seriously expected him to be lousy in bed; it was just when you built something up so much in your mind, your expectations soared so sky-high they became almost impossible to live up to.
Anyway, thought Liza, smiling with her eyes closed, it hadn’t been a let-down in any shape or form.
And she definitely hadn’t been bored.
‘By the way, my cousin wants to meet you,’ said Kit, much later that morning.
Liza was admiring his brown legs. Better legs, possibly, than any she had ever seen on a man.
‘You mean from the Songbird?’
Kit mimicked her look of horror.
‘Yes, from the Songbird.’
‘Oh my God, does she want to kill me?’
‘Don’t panic, business is on the up. The restaurant isn’t going to close after all.’
Liza covered her face with the duvet. Her voice was muffled. ‘She must hate me.’
‘Actually, she agrees with you. As soon as I said you’d eaten there on New Year’s Day, it clicked. That was the day her chef turned up half-cut, apparently, and Nicky had to do most of the cooking herself.’
‘She’s okay. You’ll get on fine,’ said Kit.
Liza rested her head in the crook of his shoulder.
‘This is proper boyfriend-girlfriend stuff. Meeting the family.’ She smiled at the thought. This was something else she’d shied away from over the years, simply because there hadn’t seemed much point. ‘Whatever next?’
‘May as well mention it while we’re on the subject,’ Kitsaid evenly. ‘My father. This thing is, he
‘Your father wants to meet me too? My God, talk about popular! How does—’
Kit put his hand gently over Liza’s mouth to shut her up.
‘Don’t jump to conclusions. I was about to say don’t expect anything like that from my father, because he absolutely doesn’t want to meet you.’
‘I’m not offended,’ said Liza, deeply offended.
‘Look, he’s pretty old-fashioned. Upsetting Nicky didn’t do you the world of good, for a start.’
‘Right.’ Liza nodded against his chest. She could understand that.
‘Well, so basically, he wasn’t thrilled when I told him I was seeing you.’ Kit paused and drew breath. ‘Then, when he found out how old you were ...’
‘Don’t tell me. It was scrape-him-off-the-ceiling time.’
‘Like I said, he’s old-fashioned. He has these set ideas. Set in concrete,’ Kit amended wearily.
‘You know the kind of thing. My sister’s thirty so she should be married and having babies. I’m twenty-three so I should be playing the field.’
‘How does he know you aren’t?’
‘He wants me to play the field with nineteen-year-old girls. Twenty-year-olds. I said I wasn’t interested.’
‘Heavens, maybe he thinks you’re gay.’
‘Worse still,’ Kit looked down at her, ‘I told him I wasn’t playing the field. I told him this thing with you was serious. And, God knows, that’s a first for me.’
Liza’s stomach did a slow, snake-like somersault. Not normally superstitious, she was nevertheless terrified of tempting fate.
‘Isn’t that jumping the gun a bit?’
‘Maybe, but I meant it.’
Oh please, please, thought Liza, squirming with pleasure as his hand trailed down her stomach, don’t ever get bored with me.
Everyone else always seemed to sneer at it, but Dulcie adored daytime TV. She loved the pointlessness of it all ... the viewers’ makeovers, the snippets of movie gossip, the panel of experts deciding which baked beans were the least disgusting. She also enjoyed the effortless jolly banter between her favourite presenters, the how-to-transform-a-box-room-into-a banqueting-hall items, and the cookery slots, which Dulcie found quite soothing to watch.
Best of all though, she liked Nancy, the five-times-married resident problem-solver, who was wonderfully motherly and quite unshockable. If anyone said anything shameful or embarrassing she immediately told them in her lovely soothing voice that she understood completely because that had once happened to her too.
‘Believe me, I know how you feel,’ Nancy was saying now to a tearful woman who had just discovered her husband had a bit of a predilection for lacy underwear. ‘Tell me, is it just the undies or does he wear frocks too?’
He did, he did, confessed the woman, between sobs. She’d found a flouncy yellow chiffon dress in the back of the wardrobe and wondered what on earth it was doing there. It was horrible, not her taste in clothes at all.
While Dulcie bit the chocolate off a jaffa cake, Nancy suggested to the woman that shopping together for clothes might bring her and her husband closer, and could also help to avoid costly mistakes.
The next caller was more up Dulcie’s street.
‘... the thing is,’ pleaded Greta from Scarborough, ‘I really love him, Nancy. If he left me I don’t know what I’d do, I just need someone to tell me how I can keep him ... I’ll do anything ...’
Dulcie ate another jaffa cake. She knew that feeling all right.
‘Right, Greta. I understand completely how desperate you must be feeling,’ said Nancy cosily. ‘I can hear it in your voice. But first of all I have to tell you what you mustn ‘t do.’
‘What mustn’t she do, Nancy?’ enquired one of the show’s presenters.
‘Yes, Nancy,’ said Dulcie, ‘what mustn’t we do?’
‘Please, please don’t be tempted into thinking all your problems would be solved if you had a baby.’ Nancy sounded sorrowful. ‘Because believe me, Greta, that would be the biggest mistake you could make.’
The jaffa cake was melting. Dulcie licked chocolate off her fingers and conjured up a mental picture of a tiny baby, the image of Liam, wearing tennis whites and waving a miniature racquet.
This was a possibility that hadn’t so much as crossed her mind.
‘It’s crossed my mind,’ admitted Greta from Scarborough. ‘Don’t let it,’ Nancy said firmly.
This was like being told not to think of pink elephants. Dulcie promptly imagined Liam showing off his new son, driving him around in the Lamborghini, proudly telling everyone how fatherhood had changed his whole life .. .
‘I know,’ said Greta, beginning to sound a bit desperate, ‘but it worked for my sister. She got pregnant and her bloke stuck by her. And she did it on purpose,’ she added defiantly. ‘He thought she was still on the pill but she stopped taking it.’
‘Deceit and trickery,’ Nancy looked sad and shook her head, ‘deceit and trickery. Trust me, pet, this isn’t the answer. Getting pregnant – when all you’re trying to do is hang on to a man – is a recipe for disaster. You’re just grasping at straws.’
Dulcie lifted up her white sweatshirt and gazed down at her flat stomach. Then she shoved the biscuit tin under the sweatshirt and surveyed the odd-shaped lump. Nancy had got rid of Greta now. She had moved on to John from Norwich who was forty-four but his mother had never let him have a girlfriend.
Dulcie knew from the tone of Greta’s voice that she would go ahead and do it anyway. You could always tell when people were going to ignore Nancy’s sound advice.
Dulcie pulled the biscuit tin out from under her sweatshirt, opened it and thoughtfully bit into a bourbon. There was no doubt about it, getting pregnant accidentally-on-purpose might not do the trick — but then again, what if it did? It could be a risk worth taking.
What a shame there wasn’t a Predictor pregnancy kit for men, a just-pee-on-this type of thing that would reliably inform you whether the prospective father of your child might actually be quite keen on the idea.
Or, on the other hand, if he was a fully paid-up member of the run-a-mile club.
Minutes later, it came to her.
Brilliant, thought Dulcie excitedly, amazed that a solution so perfect and simple hadn’t occurred to her before. Or, indeed, to Nancy.
Who needed a pre-pregnancy test? All she had to do was bend the truth a bit.
It wasn’t even fibbing, it was ... well, it was research.
‘You’re what?’ said Liza, horrified, when Dulcie announced her momentous news the next day out in the back garden. ‘You’re kidding!’
‘I found out last week. Isn’t it terrific?’
Dulcie beamed at them both. Pru, sitting cross-legged on the grass, looked dazed. Liza, frowning, swirled the ice cubes around in her tall glass.
‘I don’t know,’ Liza said finally. ‘Is it terrific? How does Liam feel about it?’
Feeling quite pregnant already, and weirdly protective of her nonexistent child, Dulcie decided Liza was jealous.
‘I’m telling him tonight. I bet he’ll be chuffed.’
Pru was shielding her eyes from the sun, peering at Dulcie’s stomach.
‘How many weeks are you?’
‘Six.’ Dulcie was firm. She had consulted her diary and committed the necessary dates to memory. She had learned her lesson from the Bibi fiasco, the lesson being: If you’re going to lie, be thorough, be convincing and above all be consistent.
All the same, she was glad she had her RayBans on. It wasn’t so easy fibbing to your friends.
‘Morning sickness?’ said Liza, giving her a slightly odd look.
‘God, morning sickness!’ Dulcie groaned and clutched her stomach. You didn’t watch as many soaps as she had in her time without becoming something of an expert on the various signs and symptoms of pregnancy. ‘I’ve been throwing up like nobody’s business—’
‘Cravings!’ Dulcie rolled her eyes. ‘Tell me about them! Custard creams, pickled beetroot dunked in chocolate spread, peanut butter and honey sandwiches—’
‘You’ve always eaten those.’
‘I know, but then I just fancied them,’ explained Dulcie. ‘Now I crave them, totally. Morning, noon and night. And cornflakes mashed up with double cream and marmalade.’
‘I read an article in the paper recently,’ Liza went on. ‘Some professor was saying women who crave green olives have boys, and if they go for lemons it’s a girl.’
Dulcie had already decided Liam would prefer a son. To start with, anyway. She patted her stomach and said happily, ‘I’m eating millions of olives. I know it’s going to be a boy.’
Then because Liza and Pru were both still exchanging furtive glances, she wailed, ‘Isn’t anyone going to congratulate me? Come on, I’m having a baby here! Is this exciting or what?’
Pru looked away, pretending to pick a bit of grass off her shirt. Finally Liza spoke.
‘It might be exciting,’ she said drily, ‘if it were true.’
‘But it is true!’
Liza reached across and whipped off Dulcie’s dark glasses. ‘You might be able to do it to everyone else, but you can’t lie to us.’
Oh bugger, so much for subterfuge.
‘Damn.’ Resignedly, Dulcie grabbed her glasses back. ‘How could you tell?’
‘You might be flippant,’ said Liza, smiling at the expression on Dulcie’s face, ‘but even you aren’t that flippant.’
‘Plus,’ Pru added, looking apologetic, ‘if you really were pregnant, you wouldn’t be able to keep it to yourself for an hour, let alone a week.’
‘I made up the bit about the olives, by the way,’ said Liza.
Feeling ganged-up on, Dulcie said nothing. She drank her glass of tonic and pulled a face. At least now the game was up, she could stick some gin in.
‘Sorry.’ Liza was trying not to laugh. ‘What were we, the practice run?’
‘Thought so. It’s a really sick thing to do, you know.’
Since Liza wasn’t Liam’s greatest fan, this came as something of a shock to Dulcie; it made her sit up a bit. Hang on, was she defending him here? Was she actually on Liam’s side?
‘I thought you’d approve,’ she protested. ‘I’m being responsible, aren’t I? If he’s thrilled, I’ll do it for real. If he isn’t .. . well, then I won’t.’
Pru looked at her.
‘Well, don’t you think it’s a good idea?’ said Dulcie defensively. ‘I’m testing the ground first.
You’d try on a dress, wouldn’t you, before you bought it?’
‘Except we aren’t talking about a dress here,’ said Liza, ‘we’re talking about a baby and that’s a pretty major deception.’ She shook her head. ‘I still think you’re mad.’
‘Some men just need a nudge in the right direction.’ Dulcie hugged her knees; she still thought it was a brilliant idea. ‘Look, how did you really know I was lying?’
‘We know you,’ said Liza with a shrug.
‘Okay, but Liam doesn’t. He’ll believe me, won’t he?’ Dulcie raised her eyebrows, pleading with them to be on her side. ‘So long as you two back me up.’
Pru looked flustered. Subterfuge didn’t come naturally to her.
‘Why don’t you just ask him if he’d like a baby?’ she said with an air of helplessness.
Sometimes Dulcie wondered about Pru. Was she from the real world or not?
‘Because,’ she explained patiently, ‘it just doesn’t work like that.’
* * *
Kit was taking Liza away to the Lake District for the weekend. He picked her up at four o’clock and chucked her case in the back of the Bentley.
‘We’re going to stay at this amazing hotel,’ he told her, ‘surrounded by woodland. The countryside’s fantastic. You’ll love it.’
Liza wondered jealously who he’d taken there before. She wondered how many times he’d been there and how many girls he’d been there with.
‘None,’ said Kit, glancing across at her as they headed for the motorway.
‘In case you were wondering.’
‘Wondering what?’ Liza unwrapped a packet of fruit pastilles.
He grinned. ‘The look on your face. Total giveaway.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she protested, but it was half-hearted.
‘Five years ago, the father of my best friend from school remarried,’ said Kit. ‘The reception was held at Egerton Hall and I was invited along. As soon as I saw the hotel I knew this was the place for me. When I met the right girl I’d bring her here.’ He paused, concentrating on the road ahead.
When they had navigated round a swaying horsebox, he added casually, ‘And now it’s happened.
You are that girl.’
‘I’m thirty-two. Hardly a girl.’
‘Okay, you are that ancient old battleaxe.’
‘Oh God.’ Fearfully she pulled down the sun visor, studying her face in the mirror. ‘What if the chambermaids think I’m your mother?’
They were approaching a lay-by. Kit braked hard and pulled in. As the trundling horsebox overtook them, he took Liza in his arms.
‘Stop it,’ he said firmly. ‘I love you. I don’t care that you’re older than me. And if it bothers anyone else, then they’re theones with the problem. We’re talking nine years’ difference here, not ninety. I mean, so what? Big deal.’
He was still kissing her when the phone rang in the car. ‘Bugger,’ said Kit, then he grinned and flicked a switch. ‘Hooray for hands-free.’
But Leo Berenger’s autocratic voice, booming through the car, stopped them in their tracks.
‘Kit, you’ve gone off with the bloody keys to the safe.’
‘Shit.’ Kit’s hand went to his jacket pocket. He pulled out the keys and gazed at them in disgust.
‘You’ll have to bring them back,’ ordered Leo Berenger. ‘Lucky we stopped before the motorway.’ Kit winked at Liza. To his father he said, ‘Forty minutes, okay?’
‘We’re waiting for them now,’ roared Leo. ‘Make it twenty.’
‘Looks like it’s meet-the-folks time,’ Kit said cheerfully as he swung the Bentley into the gravelled drive. There, waiting for them on the front steps of Rowan House, was Leo Berenger.
Tall, burly and ominous-looking, even from this distance. Liza wondered about hiding herself under a blanket on the back seat – except there was no blanket to hide under. There was no anything. It was an incredibly clean car.
‘You should have dropped me off first.’ She shivered, unable to help herself.
Kit gave her thigh a reassuring squeeze.
‘Come on, he’s only my father. No need to be scared, just because he can’t stand the sight of you.’
‘Ha ha,’ said Liza, because Kit was grinning. She was glad someone found it funny.
Leo Berenger clearly didn’t, when they reached him at last. ‘Keys,’ Kit announced, sliding open the driver’s window and holding them out to his father. ‘Sorry about that.’
But although Leo Berenger took the keys, he appeared not to hear his son’s apology. He was too busy, instead, looking at Liza. Having rather hoped he would opt for ignoring her completely, Liza now found herself forced to return his gaze.
She tried to look friendly but not totally grovelly.
Leo Berenger’s expression, by way of contrast, was on a par with slicing open a peach and finding a nest of squirming maggots inside.
Rapidly, because he couldn’t very well not, Kit performed the introductions.
‘I already know who you are,’ Leo Berenger told Liza. ‘And I daresay my son’s told you how I feel about this ... relationship.’ His eyebrows were like caterpillars, his tone Yorkshire-blunt.
‘But I’ll say it again, just so you get the point. You all but wrecked my niece’s business, and you’re certainly the wrong sort for my son. I don’t know what you think you’re playing at, but the sooner he comes to his senses and finds himself a girl his own age—’
‘Thanks, Dad, that’s fine, we’ve got the message.’
‘Because believe me, the sight of you sitting there in that car where my late wife used to sit—’
‘Right,’ Kit said wearily, ‘I wondered when we’d get to that.’
He switched off the ignition, opened the driver’s door and climbed out. Within seconds, the boot was unloaded. Carrying four cases, Kit somehow managed to open the passenger door.
‘Come on,’ he told Liza without emotion, ‘we’ll go in mine.’
It made a change, anyway. Instead of feeling old, Liza now felt about fifteen. The last time she’d been told off by a boyfriend’s enraged father was when they’d been caught smoking in his garden shed.
‘She might not want to go in yours.’ Leo Berenger’s taunting voice followed them around the side of the vast Georgian house. ‘After all, it’s no Bentley.’
At the back of the house, across a cobbled courtyard, an old stable block had been converted into garages. They loaded the suitcases into Kit’s battered – and spectacularly untidy – slate-grey Peugeot.
‘He thinks I’m a gold-digger,’ Liza marvelled.
‘We could really gee him up,’ said Kit, slamming the boot shut, ‘we could tell him you’re pregnant.’’I’m not.’
Kit’s yellow-gold eyes glittered like a cat’s in the dusty sunlight. He kissed Liza’s warm mouth, then her neck, then her bare shoulder.
‘You’re not yet.’
Oh my God, thought Liza dazedly, marvelling at the effect he was having on her body. How does he do it? How can this be happening to me?
But when Kit drove the Peugeot around the side of the house, Leo Berenger was still standing there next to the Bentley, his arms folded across his barrel of a chest, his disapproving gaze fixed on Liza.
Kit lowered his window and said cheerfully, ‘See? It’s my body she’s after, not your cash. Bye, Dad.’
His father didn’t reply.
Making sure she spoke loudly enough to be heard, Liza said as they drove past, ‘Is he really your father? Sure you weren’t switched at birth?’
It was one of Eddie’s visiting days. Pru picked him up at five o’clock that afternoon and gave Arthur’s ears a friendly scratch when he scrambled on to the passenger seat ahead of Eddie.
Arthur had formed a passionate attachment to Anita, the golden retriever belonging to the caretaker at Elmlea nursing home; for the past couple of weeks he had taken to yelping with excitement every time he spotted Pru, and hurling himself into the car like a frantic commuter hailing a taxi.
‘It’s love,’ said Eddie with a grin, shoving Arthur through to the back before he drooled over Pru’s pale-green shirt.
Pru was getting used to Arthur now. As dogs went, he was okay. How he’d ever managed to get himself a girlfriend though, was beyond her. Arthur had frightfully bad breath.
‘Down,’ Eddie commanded as the dog’s paws crept over the back of his seat. A long pink tongue lolled wetly, inches from his shoulder. For a mad moment he wished it could be Pru’s tongue.
Pru, extremely glad it wasn’t her shoulder, said, ‘You’re supposed to play it cool, Arthur. Look like you don’t give a damn.’
But with dogs there was no need for all that. The second Arthur spotted the object of his desire, he would howl with joy and scrabble in desperation at the car door until he was let out. Anita, in her turn, would leap up, eyes alight with pleasure, and race across the grass towards him, Hollywood style.
None of your complicated human stuff, Eddie thought, all this hiding your true feelings, preserving your pride and generally falling about.
‘Speaking of playing it cool,’ said Eddie, ‘how’s it going with Dulcie and Liam?’
He only asked because Liam’s new car was hard to miss and this morning he had spotted it racing out of the club’s car park. Eddie hadn’t paid a great deal of attention but even he hadn’t been able to help noticing that the mane of blonde hair attached to the girl in the passenger seat didn’t belong to Dulcie.
This is it, thought Pru, willing herself to stay calm and unflustered. This is my chance to see if I can pull it off.
‘Actually, I saw Dulcie this morning. She rang Liza and me, asked us to go and see her. She’s really excited’ — eyes on the road, just sound normal, don’t blush, don’t blush — ‘you see, she’s just found out she’s pregnant.’
‘Good God.’ Eddie sounded horrified. ‘What — who’s — I mean, is it Liam’s?’
Pru was hating this already. She felt hot and unhappy. Fibbing might come naturally to some people but she wasn’t one of them.
Except Dulcie had made her promise.
Pretending she was an actress playing her part on a stage, Pru nodded. Actually, it helped.
‘Of course it’s Liam’s. She’s thrilled!’
‘Is Liam thrilled?’
‘He doesn’t know yet. She’s telling him tonight. So don’t say anything,’ Pru warned him,
‘because I shouldn’t have told you.’
Eddie looked at Pru and decided not to mention the blonde in Liam’s car. It was none of his business anyway. If Pru relayed this information to Dulcie — and it all ended in tears — he would only be left with the finger pointed accusingly at him.
Safer not to get involved, he thought. Hear no shenanigans, see no shenanigans, that was the way to deal with these kind of adventures.
Pru wondered unhappily why Dulcie couldn’t have left her out of it. She had lied. Successfully, too.
And it felt horrid.
On the back seat, as they sped down the dual carriageway towards Bristol, Arthur let out an impatient whine, the doggie equivalent of: ‘How long before we’re there?’
Pru may have felt terrible at deliberately deceiving Eddie, but she didn’t feel as terrible as Liam did when Dulcie broke the momentous news to him that night.
In addition, her hearing appeared to have been affected.
‘Christ. A baby! I don’t know if this is a good idea—’
‘Isn’t it the most fantastic news ever?’ Dulcie rattled on regardless, ignoring his less-than-thrilled expression. ‘Just think, a son! You’ll be able to teach him to play tennis!’
‘Dulcie ... sweetheart, sit down. Stop yakking for a minute.’ Liam shook his head; he looked pained. ‘The thing is, I’m not sure I’m ready to be a father.’
It was bound to come as a bit of a shock, thought Dulcie. She could understand that. She had to make allowances. When it began to sink in, the idea would grow on him. She just had to plant the right seeds.
‘Nobody’s ever sure they’re ready for children,’ she told Liam soothingly, ‘but once it’s happened, they wonder how they ever lived without them. Look at all your old tennis pals ...
John McEnroe, Pat Cash ... they’re devoted to their kids! And it makes men so attractive, too,’
she enthused. ‘Look at Sting, Simon Le Bon, Tom Cruise ...’
Dulcie had worked out the best way to play it, and she was right. Even in his shell-shocked state, Liam was drawn to the sexy-but-caring image. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad; he could do it Rod Stewart style, have umpteen kids by a succession of drop-dead-gorgeous girlfriends .. .
Then he thought of the astronomical child support and shuddered.
‘Look, Dulcie, we do need to think about this.’ He paused, not wanting to upset her, choosing his words with care. ‘Weneed to think about it seriously. There are other ... well, other options, you know.’
Dulcie, her green eyes huge, gazed at him like a wounded fawn. Her lower lip began to tremble.
‘How could you even think that?’
Her hands clutched her stomach. Liam instantly felt dreadful, like an axe murderer.
With a sigh, he supposed he was lucky this hadn’t happened before. He was almost thirty-five, had been firing on all cylinders since he was fifteen ... well, that was a pretty good innings.
Okay, so he’d been let down by a faulty condom, but they were said to be only ninety-seven per cent effective anyway, weren’t they? And he’d certainly used more than ninety-seven condoms in the past twenty years.
Anyway, looking on the bright side – at least now he knew he wasn’t infertile.
Liam decided to give in gracefully, he may as well make the best of it. He’d been caught out, but so what? It might not be what he wanted but then neither was it the end of the world.
He relaxed, sat back in his chair and smiled at Dulcie.
‘So how are you feeling?’
Dulcie hurled herself at him as joyously as Arthur had hurled himself earlier at Anita, the glorious golden retriever of his dreams.
‘Oh I knew you’d be thrilled,’ she cried, covering his face with kisses. ‘Imagine, our very own baby! Our own future Wimbledon champion—’
‘Do you feel okay?’ Liam studied her face. Dulcie certainly seemed to be glowing.
‘Sick.’ Belatedly she remembered her long list of symptoms. ‘But that’s normal. Hundreds of food cravings, which the doctor says I should just go along with. Oh, and I’m tired so I have to rest a lot, mustn’t do too much.’
‘Really?’ Liam looked alarmed.
‘Otherwise your ankles swell,’ Dulcie explained. ‘It can be dangerous.’
He glanced at her ankles, which looked okay to him, but Dulcie was reaching down, miming them blowing up like balloons and exploding. She pulled a face and shook her head.
‘That’s what my doctor said. Yuk, imagine. So no more tennis, which is a real shame. Still, you have to do as you’re told, don’t you?’ Patting her stomach, looking regretful but at the same time serene, Dulcie added caringly, ‘The baby comes first.’
Never having had any involvement with pregnant women before, Liam’s knowledge of the subject was largely limited to the old black and white movies he had watched on TV as a teenager. Happily for Dulcie, their attitude towards mothers to-be was pretty much on a par with hers.
Liam racked his brains for a second and came up with, ‘You’d better lie down. Shall I make you a cup of tea?’
Dulcie, who had watched a lot of the same films, happily did as she was told. This was more like it. Liam was going to turn into Cary Grant, she’d be Audrey Hepburn and together they would live happily ever after ...
‘Tea, brilliant.’ She sank back on to the sofa and put her feet up. ‘Actually, I’m just craving a bowl of peanut butter ice cream. There’s some in the freezer.’
When he had switched the kettle on, Liam came back into the sitting room with a spoon and the tub of ice cream. He frowned as he read the list of calories per 100 mls. and the percentages of sugar and fat.
‘This stuff’s lethal. You’ll end up the size of a sumo wrestler.’
‘No I won’t.’ Reaching up, Dulcie grabbed the tub and the spoon. Liam watched her expertly peel off the lid and balance it on one knee.
‘I’ll go and get you a bowl.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Dulcie, swooning with pleasure, ‘I’ll manage like this.’
Liza hated the word toyboy. She wished it didn’t get to her, but it did. If you’re ugly you can wear make-up, if you’re bald you can wear a wig and if you’re short you can wear high heels .
But if you’re nine years older than the man in your life, Liza thought with rising frustration, there’s damn all you can do about it. Because you can’t wear anything to make you younger than you are.
It didn’t bother Kit at all. He really couldn’t care less.
‘You have to come to the party with me,’ he urged. ‘What’s the problem? Everyone knows I’m seeing you. Now I want them to meet you.’
The party was being held to celebrate the twenty-third birthday of one of Kit’s friends. Since the weather was dazzling, it was taking place outside in the garden of his home overlooking the river. As soon as they arrived, stepping out of the taxi on Sunday afternoon, Liza began to feel twitchy.
It didn’t take long for things to get worse.
Terrified of looking like mutton dressed as lamb, she had decided against wearing anything Dulcie-length. Instead, she had chosen a long, loose, topaz-yellow summer dress and strappy yellow high heels. The bad news was, her heels kept sinking into the lawn so to avoid toppling over backwards she ended up having to take them off. This meant the dress was now too long and trailed along the ground. Nobody else had made the same mistake. Everywhere Liza looked, girls in either tiny dresses or ultra-short tops and skirts showed off acres of midriff and conker-brown leg. They all seemed to have hair like spun silk that had to be continually flipped back.
There wasn’t a wrinkle or an ounce of flab in sight. Worst of all, hardly anyone else looked old enough to drink.
Liza felt like a Shetland pony amongst racehorses. Minus her heels, she wished desperately she’d worn her hair up, instead of loose, to give her a couple more inches. As friends of Kit stopped to chat, she fumbled in her handbag, her fingers desperately searching for a couple of stray hair combs.
She couldn’t bear to look round when she heard two girls behind her, discussing her in giggly cut-glass voices.
‘Is that really Kit’s latest?’
‘Must be. Hugh said he was bringing her.’
‘My God, she looks like thingummy from The Munsters. Cousin It.’
More giggles. Liza was surprised they knew who the Munsters were.
‘Wonder what Kit sees in her? She’s hardly his usual type.’
‘Oh well, you know Kit. Anything with novelty value. She won’t last long.’
‘It’s weird though,’ mused the second girl, ‘when he could have anyone he likes. Me, for a start.’
‘Give him time.’ The first girl sounded smug. ‘He will.’
It didn’t help that while Liza was listening to this going on behind her, she was being subjected to some serious chatting-up from the front. A blond, rather good-looking boy called Toby was giving every impression of being bowled over.
But Liza’s confidence had taken such a knock, instead of simply taking the attention for granted, she wondered if he was doing it for a bet.
Somehow she stuck the party out for the next hour and a half, hating every second but by some miracle managing to hide the fact from Kit. Having decided miserably that she was the oldest person there, Liza was hugely relieved to spot a late arrival making his way down the garden towards them.