Chapter Four

The weekend comes and goes in a flurry of moving and unpacking. It takes several trips to move everything from my sister’s apartment to Robyn’s – trust me, it would have taken a lot more if it hadn’t been for my sister and her obligatory lists. Clipboard in hand, she organised everything with military precision, which is not easy, considering my two suitcases had somehow transformed themselves into about eight bin liners full of stuff. I swear it was like magic porridge. The more I packed, the more I found to pack. Correction: the more my sister found to pack.

She was like something from CSI, going through the apartment with a fine-tooth comb, discovering random socks under radiators, my toothbrush in the kitchen (don’t ask, I have no idea how it got there either), a do-it-yourself Pilates DVD in the recorder. I bought it in a burst of enthusiasm. According to the blurb on the back, in no time at all the unsightly roll over the top of my jeans would apparently be transformed into what the cheery, super-toned instructor called a ‘steel corset’.

I say ‘apparently’ because trust me, two weeks later there is nothing underneath my T-shirt even vaguely resembling a corset, steel or otherwise. Admittedly I’ve only done it once. Twice, if you count fast-forwarding through the boring bits.

To be honest, I was secretly hoping I could ‘accidentally’ forget it and leave it at my sister’s. That way, I’d have an excuse not to have to do it. I wasn’t reckoning on Kate’s sniffer-dog talents, though, and before I knew it, it was ejected from its hiding place and added to my mountain of luggage.

Thankfully Robyn was on hand to help me unpack it all at the other end. Her approach was slightly different to that of my sister. Hers was more along the lines of:

1. Rip open a bin liner.
2. Chuck everything all over the floor.
3. Then spend hours randomly picking things out with cries of ‘Ooh, what’s this?’ (my new Butter Frosting bubble bath from Sephora – God, I love Sephora. It’s my new spiritual home), ‘Wow, can I try this on?’ (a silver sequinned scarf I bought from Top Shop yonks ago and which I’ve never worn but still insist on taking with me every time I go away, just in case this time I get an uncontrollable urge for a silver sequinned scarf) and ‘Oh my God, is this really you?’ (my old photo albums, in particular a teenage picture of me when I was going through my goth stage and was all liquid eyeliner and dyed black hair).

Robyn, I quickly discover, is what they delicately describe in novels as ‘loquacious’. In real life it means she never stops talking. Not for one moment over the weekend does she appear to draw breath. If it’s not to me, her mum in Chicago or her numerous friends, it’s to her two beloved dogs, Jenny and Simon, who follow her wherever she goes, heads cocked on one side, eyes beseeching, waiting for treats to drop from her pockets.

Both are strays that she rescued from an animal shelter. Simon is short and fat, snores like a pig. Jenny is thinner, hairier and has a terrible underbite. Robyn loves them like they’re her children. In fact, the way she mothers them you’d almost think she gave birth to them herself. When Simon isn’t having acupuncture for his arthritic hip, or Jenny isn’t being given Chinese herbs for her allergies, they’re sitting on the sofa having their bellies tickled and watching Oprah.

Oprah is to Robyn what the Pope is to a Catholic. Armed with a bowl of popcorn and the remote, she listens solemnly as Oprah discusses infidelity, dabs away tears during Oprah’s interview with a couple who lost their cat to cancer and high-fives the sofa when Oprah appears in a pair of skinny jeans and announces she’s lost twenty pounds. In forty-eight hours we cover sex, love and weight loss. By the time Monday morning rolls around, I’m relieved to leave Oprah behind and go to work.

Although Robyn promises me tonight’s episode about a man who married a grizzly bear is going to be ‘a good one’.

Work is at an art gallery in SoHo called Number Thirty-Eight, and with my new address I can now walk there, which means an extra twenty minutes in bed.

Well, that was the idea.

Only in practice my terrible timekeeping is made worse by sleeping through my alarm and those extra twenty minutes turn into an extra forty.

Which means I have to rush like a mad thing in my flip-flops (which is a bit of a non-sequitur. I mean, seriously, have you ever tried running in flip-flops?).

‘Morning.’ Smoothing down my shower-damp hair, I push open the glass door of the gallery. My heart is hammering in my chest, a sure sign that I need to do that DVD, if not for my muffin top, then so I don’t have a heart attack before the age of thirty-five.

‘Loozy!’ booms a loud voice from the back office, heralding the appearance of Mrs Zuckerman, my boss, otherwise known as Magda. By the strength of her vocal chords you’d be forgiven for expecting someone over six feet tall and two hundred pounds. Instead she’s a diminutive blonde woman who can’t measure more than five feet, despite her skyscraper heels and carefully constructed beehive, which rises five inches from her scalp in a golden haystack.

‘It is so good to see you!’ Dressed head to toe in Chanel, she bustles into the gallery, her miniature Maltese dog scampering at her heels. Reaching up, she grabs my face firmly with her diamond-clad fingers and plants two brisk lipstick kisses on either cheek.

This is the way she greets me every morning. It’s a bit of a departure from the clipped ‘Hello’ that I grew used to from Rupert, my old boss in London, but then Rupert was Gordonstoun-educated and mates with Prince Charles. He used to walk around the gallery as if he still had the coat hanger in his suit jacket and wore one of those rings on his little finger with his ancestral coat of arms or something on it.

Whenever anyone came into the gallery who wore one, he would fiddle with it, like it was some secret code and they could communicate telepathically through their pinkie rings.

Magda is the antithesis of that old-school pinkie-ring mentality of the British class system. A rambunctious Jewish lady with a thick Israeli accent, despite having moved to New York thirty years ago, she’s not about subtleties, calling a serviette a napkin or saying, ‘What?’ instead of ‘Pardon’ (all lessons I learned from Rupert, who seemed to take it upon himself to play Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle).

Instead everything is about extremes and exaggeration. Why call a spade a spade when you can call it something completely different? And preferably outrageous. She talks in exclamation marks and is forever regaling me with one of her outlandish stories, be it about an amazing dessert (‘The apple pie was unbelievable!), her three ex-husbands (He was terrible I tell you, terrible!) or the time she was arrested (‘I say to the police officer, “Why cannot I break his windows? He broke my heart. It is justice!”’).

Like strong cheese, or Russell Brand, you’re either going to love Magda or hate her.

Luckily for me, it’s the former.

‘Are you hungry? Did you have breakfast?’ Without waiting for an answer, she dives into her large Louis Vuitton tote. Out of it she pulls an enormous paper bag filled with what appears to be the entire contents of a bakery. ‘I bought bagels. Sesame, poppy seed, onion . . .’

‘Thanks, but I’m fine with coffee.’ I smile, reaching for the coffee-machine. ‘I’ve never actually been much of a breakfast person.’

Magda looks at me like I’ve just told her I’m an alien from outer space. ‘You don’t eat breakfast?’ Her eyes are wide with astonishment.

Saying that, Magda always has a certain astonished look about her. At first I just thought she was permanently surprised by things, but now I’ve figured out it’s due to her eyebrows, which sit much higher on her forehead than normal, a result, I suspect, of having had ‘work done’.

Which in the States is not in reference to a new loft conversion but to a series of nips and tucks performed by a man in a white coat at some fancy address on Fifth Avenue.

‘Well, no, not usually.’

Magda is shaking her head violently. ‘But this is terrible!’ she cries, pounding the countertop with her fist for emphasis. ‘Terrible!

I swear you’d think she’d just found out her entire family had died at sea, not that her employee skipped breakfast.

‘No, honestly, it’s fine. I’m not that hungry,’ I try explaining, but Magda is having none of it.

‘You must eat. You must eat to survive,’ she insists dramatically.

I open my mouth to protest. Trust me, I eat. And I have the thighs to prove it. Remember that movie Alive, in which the survivors of a plane crash had to eat each other to survive? Well, those passengers could have lived for months on my thighs. Years, probably.

There’s no point trying to point this out to Magda, I realise, looking at my boss’s determined expression. I surrender and take a poppy-seed bagel.

Immediately her expression changes from tragic to comic, like one of those theatre masks. ‘It’s good, no?’ she chuckles, beaming with pleasure.

‘Mmm, yes, delicious.’ I nod in agreement.

‘I have cream cheese and lox.’

Lox, I’ve learned, means smoked salmon in New York.

‘No, thanks,’ I mutter through a mouthful of bagel.

‘You want it toasted?’

‘Mmph.’ I shake my head.

‘I have honey. You like it with honey?’

I’m still chewing.

‘Peanut butter? Pickles?’

I had no idea there were so many different ways you could eat a bagel, and I’m sure she would have kept suggesting them if I hadn’t swallowed hard and managed, ‘Um . . . it’s yummy just as it is,’ nearly choking myself in the process.

‘Hmm, well, OK.’ She clucks her tongue reluctantly. ‘It is important to keep up your strength as we have a very, very busy day today. We have some new paintings arriving by an amazing artist from Columbia. Oy, the colours!’ She smacks her lips with her scarlet fingernails.

At the mention of the paintings, I feel the familiar tingle of excitement that I always get when I see work by a new artist. A sort of fluttering in my stomach, like when I was little and I would run downstairs on Christmas Day and see all my presents under the tree. The feeling of anticipation, followed by the discovery of something new and wonderful.

I’m sure the paintings will be amazing. Magda’s judgement when it comes to husbands and broken windows might be questionable, but when it comes to art, she has great instincts.

I glance around the gallery. She’s been running this place for over twenty years, ever since she won it in a divorce settlement from her second husband, a millionaire property mogul. By her own admission, she had no formal art background and just sort of fell into it, buying whatever took her fancy, whatever made her smile, and because of her unorthodox approach, it’s totally unique.

When you think of art galleries, you often think of those huge, imposing white lofts with several floors, but Number Thirty-Eight is housed in the converted basement of a townhouse. Most people walk past it on their way to the big-name designer stores and never think to glance down at the sidewalk, through the railings and into our windows. They never notice an amazing abstract painting by a new artist, or a series of striking lithographs that form part of our latest exhibition.

But if you do happen across us, and take a few moments out of your busy schedule to look inside, you’ll want to keep coming back. Because unlike those big, austere galleries, the moment you walk into Number Thirty-Eight and hear the stereo blaring, you’ll realise this is a whole new way to experience art.

Forget silence and speaking in hushed voices – Magda believes in having music playing (she has eclectic taste. Last week it was La Bohème; today it’s Justin Timberlake), along with fresh coffee brewing and a popcorn machine. ‘We are like the movies,’ she cries to the curious members of the public who wander inside and find themselves being asked if they want sugar or salt on their popcorn. ‘Here you can escape, be entertained, use your imagination. And even better, no Tom Cruise!’

Magda’s passionate dislike of Tom Cruise (‘If he jumped on my sofa, I would keel him!’) is paralleled only by her passion for art, and her desire is to make it accessible to everyone. ‘Remember, it’s always free to look’ is her mantra, and her enthusiasm is so infectious that people can’t help but be seduced by it. In the few weeks that I’ve been working here, I’ve noticed regulars coming in just to hang out and enjoy the art, with no pressure to buy. It’s not like any private gallery I’ve ever worked in.

‘And I have decided . . .’

I focus back on Magda as she pauses for a silent drum roll.

‘Yes?’ I brace myself. I’m fast learning to expect the unexpected.

‘It is time for us to do an opening. Show off our talent. Fling open our doors.’ She throws out her arms. ‘Fly in the face of this nasty recession!’ Curling her lip, she snarls at me.

‘Wow, er, great,’ I enthuse, flinching slightly. ‘That’s an excellent idea.’

I feel a secret beat of relief. My boss’s magnanimous attitude to art might be commendable, but we’re not the MoMA or the Whitney. We do actually need to sell some of it to stay open. In the six weeks I’ve been working here, sales have been slow to the point of zero and I’ve started to worry a bit about my job.

I only got it because Rupert knows Magda from his Studio 54 days, back in the seventies, when he lived here for a brief period. When he discovered she needed an extra pair of hands, he suggested me. He knew I wouldn’t turn down the chance to work in a New York gallery. ‘Plus I owe Magda a huge favour,’ he’d confided darkly, refusing to be drawn.

Not that I’d tried. To be quite honest, just learning that Rupert, in his navy blazer with gold buttons and pinkie ring, used to shake his thang at a world-famous disco was information enough.

‘We will have wine, champagne . . .’ she continues, then frowns ‘ . . .well, maybe not champagne, but the fizzy wine we can do.’ Thanks to her generous divorce settlements, Magda is a very wealthy woman, but she’s also frugal. ‘I mean, who can tell the difference?’ She looks at me, palms outstretched.

People who spend thousands of dollars on art, I’m tempted to say, but she’s already run on ahead.

‘And food, we must have lots of food,’ she says, reaching for a bagel, then thinking better of it and putting it back. Despite her desire for everyone else to eat, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen anything pass Magda’s suspiciously inflated lips.

‘You mean canapés?’

Magda looks at me mistrustfully. ‘What is this canopy?’

‘Like, for example, mini-quiches,’ I suggest. ‘Or you could do sushi – that’s always easy.’

‘Pah! Sushi!’ She wrinkles her nose in distaste. ‘I don’t get this sushi. These little pieces of raw fish and bits of rice.’

‘Back in London we catered an exhibition with sushi and sake, and it was very successful,’ I try encouraging. ‘In fact, we got several compliments.’

‘No.’ She gives a dismissive shake of the head. ‘We will do meatballs.’

For a moment I think I’ve heard wrong.

‘Meatballs?’ I repeat incredulously. The thought of inviting people to a gallery opening and serving meatballs is unheard of in the art world. I try to imagine Rupert eating meatballs while admiring a watercolour with Lady So-and-So.

Strangely I can’t.

To tell the truth, I think Rupert would have a coronary at the mention of a meatball.

‘Yes, I will make them myself. To my special recipe,’ Magda is saying decisively. ‘They will be wonderful. My meatballs are famous.’ There’s a pause. ‘What? You don’t believe me?’

I zone back in to see Magda looking at me indignantly.

‘Oh, er, yes, of course I do,’ I protest hastily. ‘I’m sure they’re delicious!’

Arms folded, she peers at me, nostrils flared. She reminds me a bit of a bull just as it stampedes. I know this because I grew up near a farm and there was a bull that had nearly trampled to death a rambler who dared cut across his field.

Right now I feel a bit like that rambler.

‘Meatballs, mmm,’ I enthuse, groping around in my head for something to say about meatballs and trying desperately to dismiss images of school dinners. ‘How . . . um . . . meaty!’

Meaty? That’s it, Lucy? That’s all you can come up with?

I cringe inwardly, but if my boss suspects anything, she doesn’t show it. Rather, the corners of her mouth turn up slightly and I see her visibly thawing.

‘My favourite,’ I add.

Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.

‘They are?’ Magda’s ample chest swells.

‘Absolutely.’ I nod, crossing my fingers behind my back.

‘In fact, I could eat them all day every day,’ I continue.

Now I’ve started, I don’t seem able to stop.

‘You could?’ Magda is positively beaming.

‘Oh, yes.’ I nod. ‘In fact, if someone said to me, “Lucy Hemmingway, you can only eat one thing for the rest of your life,” it wouldn’t be chocolate or Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream. Oh, no.’ I put my hand on my hip and waggle my finger theatrically, suddenly feeling a bit like when I played Annie in the school play.

‘Dynamic,’ was how the local newspaper described me. Mum has the cutting in a frame in the downstairs loo, along with a picture of me as Annie. Which is very unfortunate – me in braces and a curly ginger wig at thirteen is not a pretty sight, and not something I want to see every time I use the loo.

It’s the reason I spent my entire teenage years whizzing boyfriends straight out through the front door, despite their bursting bladders.

‘No. Do you know what it would be, Mrs Zuckerman?’ I ask, throwing my arms out wide.

I’m now in full pantomime mode, complete with hand gestures and over-the-top facial expressions. I’m quite enjoying myself. Perhaps amateur dramatics would have suited me.

Had I actually been able to act, that is.

‘No. Tell me,’ whispers Magda with anticipation.

‘Meatballs!’ I declare dramatically. ‘Nothing but meatballs!’

OK. Maybe I got a bit too carried away there.

Surprisingly, though, Magda looks like all her Christmases have come at once. Or, I should say, Hanukkahs.

‘Oh, Loozy.’ Reaching for my hand, she clutches it in her tiny one, which is encrusted with diamonds, courtesy of her ex-husbands. ‘If only you were Jewish, I would beg you to marry my youngest son, Daniel. Nothing would make me happier.’

‘Oh . . . um, thanks.’ I smile uncertainly, not sure how to take this compliment.

Magda discovered my single status within thirty minutes of my first day at work. By noon she’d demanded my entire relationship history since primary school and by closing time had declared them all schmucks.

‘You would be the perfect couple,’ she says, reaching into her enormous tote and pulling out a concertina-type thingy, which she opens out like an accordion. It’s filled with photographs of her family. ‘See! Here he is!’ She thrusts a picture at me.

I stare at it, my face momentarily frozen in shock.

Think Austin Powers in a yarmulke.

‘I know, he’s handsome, huh?’ She beams, misinterpreting my reaction. ‘Look at those green eyes! And that smile! Have you ever seen a smile like that before?’

‘Um . . .wow,’ I manage, trying to find a positive angle.

Then give up.

Well, really. I’m not shallow. I know looks aren’t everything and that it’s personality that counts, but, well . . . I glance back at the photo and his giant rabbit-sized teeth.

OK, sod it. Call me shallow.

‘And an architect too!’ Magda is swelling up so much I’m fearful she’s going to burst with maternal pride.

‘Wow,’ I repeat. My vocabulary, it seems, has shrunk to one word. Not that Magda has noticed, mind you. She’s too busy beaming at her son’s photograph and polishing it with her sleeve.

‘But it is such a shame because you cannot marry. The Jewish faith passes through the woman.’ She takes a deep, heartfelt sigh. ‘It is wonderful for the feminism but not for you and Daniel.’ She turns to me, her eyes downcast.

‘I understand.’ I nod gravely, while inside I feel little bursts of joy. Like tiny fireworks going off inside me. I’ve always been an atheist, but now suddenly I’m a born-again.

‘I’m so sorry.’ She’s still shaking her head.

‘It’s OK. Really, I understand.’ I try to look as sad as I can, while stifling a giggle that’s bubbling up inside. ‘I’ll survive.’

Any minute I’ll start breaking out to Gloria Gaynor.

‘It is a crime that a girl like you is single. A crime!’ she repeats, passionately thumping the reception with her fist. ‘But don’t worry,’ she quickly reassures. ‘Leave it to me.’

I feel a beat of alarm. ‘Leave what?’

‘I married off my brother and three of my cousins. My family call me Magda the Matchmaker.’

Oh my God, this cannot be happening. It’s bad enough having friends try to matchmake, but your boss?

‘I even found someone for Belinda, my sister’s daughter. A nice doctor from Brooklyn. And that was a tough one,’ she confides, lowering her voice. ‘The girl’s a vegan and refuses to shave her legs. I mean, I ask you.’ She throws her hands in the air. ‘I said to her, “Belinda, we’re not in Germany. Buy a razor!”’

I’m like a rabbit caught in headlights.

‘Trust me, your single days are numbered,’ she vows, throwing me a triumphant beam.

I stare at her dazedly. Never have I wanted to be part of a couple more than in this moment.

‘Um . . . great,’ I manage. ‘Lucky me!’

She smiles in consolation. ‘Well, it is no substitute for my Daniel, but it is the best I can do.’ Then, taking one last lingering look at her beloved son, she snaps the concertina of photographs closed. ‘OK, enough of this love stuff. We must go to work!’

You're the One That I Don't Want