Still Me

Page 11


‘What?’ Sam was grinning, trying to peer to the right of the screen. ‘What’s going on?’
‘The housekeeper,’ I said, straightening my top. ‘Oh, God.’
Sam had fallen back in his chair. He was properly laughing now, one hand clutching his stomach, where he still got a little protective about his scar.
‘You don’t understand. She hates me.’
‘And now you’re Madam Webcam.’ He was still laughing.
‘My name will be mud in the housekeeping community from here to Palm Springs.’ I wailed a bit longer, then started to giggle. Seeing Sam laugh so much it was hard not to.
He grinned at me. ‘Well, Lou, you did it. You cheered me up.’
‘The downside for you is that’s the first and last time I show you my lady-bits over WiFi.’
Sam leant forward and blew me a kiss. ‘Yeah, well,’ he said. ‘I guess we should just be grateful it wasn’t the other way around.’
Ilaria didn’t talk to me for two whole days after the webcam incident. She would turn away when I walked into a room, immediately finding something with which to busy herself, as if by merely catching her eye I might somehow contaminate her with my penchant for salacious boob exposure.
Nathan asked what had gone down between us, after she pushed my coffee towards me with an actual spatula, but I couldn’t explain it without it sounding somehow worse than it was, so I muttered something about laundry and why we should have locks on our doors, and hoped that he would let it go.
To: [email protected]
From: [email protected]
Hey, Stinky Arsebandit Yourself,
(Is that how a respected accountant is really meant to talk to her globetrotting sister?)
I’m good, thanks. My employer – Agnes – is my age and really nice. So that’s been a bonus. You wouldn’t believe the places I’m going – last night I went to a ball in a dress that cost more than I earn in a month. I felt like Cinderella. Except with a really gorgeous sister (yup, so that’s a new one for me. Ha-ha-ha-ha!).
Glad Thom is enjoying his new school. Don’t worry about the felt-tip thing – we can always paint that wall. Mum says it’s a sign of his creative expression. Did you know she’s trying to get Dad to go to night school to learn to express himself better? He’s got it into his head this means she’s going to get him to go tantric. God knows where he’s read about that. I pretended like she’d told me that was definitely it when he called me, and now I’m feeling a bit guilty because he’s panicking that he’ll have to get his old fella out in front of a room full of strangers.
Write me more news. Especially about the date!!!
Miss you,
Lou xxx
PS If Dad does get his old fella out in front of a room full of strangers I don’t want to know ANYTHING.
According to Agnes’s social diary, numerous events were highlights of the New York social calendar, but the Neil and Florence Strager Charitable Foundation Dinner teetered somewhere near the pinnacle. Guests wore yellow – the men in necktie form, unless particularly exhibitionist – and the resulting photographs were distributed in publications from the New York Post to Harper’s Bazaar. Dress was formal, the yellow outfits were dazzling, and tickets cost a pocketful of small change under thirty thousand dollars a table. For the outer reaches of the room. I knew this because I had started researching each event that Agnes was due to attend, and this was a big one not just because of the amount of preparation (manicurist, hairdresser, masseur, extra George in the mornings) but because of Agnes’s stress level. She physically vibrated through the day, shouting at George that she couldn’t do the exercises he’d given her, couldn’t run the distance. It was all impossible. George, who possessed an almost Buddha-like level of calm, said that was totally fine, they would walk back and the endorphins from the walk were all good. When he left he gave me a wink, as if this were entirely to be expected.
Mr Gopnik, perhaps in response to some distress call, came home at lunchtime and found her locked into her dressing room. I collected some dry-cleaning from Ashok and cancelled her teeth-whitening appointment, then sat in the hall, unsure what I should be doing. I heard her muffled voice as he opened the door: ‘I don’t want to go.’
Whatever she went on to say kept Mr Gopnik at home way after I might have expected. Nathan was out so I couldn’t talk to him. Michael stopped by, peering around the door. ‘Is he still here?’ he said. ‘My tracker stopped working.’
‘On his phone. Only way I can work out where he is half the time.’
‘He’s in her dressing room.’ I didn’t know what else to say, how far to trust Michael. But it was hard to ignore the sound of raised voices. ‘I don’t think Mrs Gopnik is very keen on going out tonight.’
‘Big Purple. I told you.’
And then I remembered.
‘The former Mrs Gopnik. This was her big night, and Agnes knows it. Still is. All her old harpies will be there. They’re not the friendliest.’
‘Well, that explains a lot.’
‘He’s a big benefactor so he can’t not show. Plus he’s old friends with the Stragers. But it’s one of the tougher nights of their calendar. Last year was a total wipe-out.’
‘Aw. She walked in like a lamb to the slaughter.’ He pulled a face. ‘Thought they would be her new best friends. From what I heard afterwards, they fried her.’
I shuddered. ‘Can she not just leave him to go by himself?’
‘Oh, honey, you have no idea how it works here. No. No. No. She has to go. She has to put a smile on her face and be seen in the pictures. That’s her job now. And she knows it. But it’s not going to be pretty.’
The voices had risen. We heard Agnes protesting, then Mr Gopnik’s softer voice, pleading, reasonable.
Michael looked at his watch. ‘I’ll head back to the office. Do me a favour? Text me when he leaves? I have fifty-eight things for him to sign before three p.m. Love ya!’ He blew me a kiss and was gone.
I sat for a while longer, trying not to listen to the argument down the corridor. I scrolled through the calendar, wondering if there was anything I could do to be useful. Felix strolled past, his lifted tail a question mark, supremely unbothered by the actions of the humans around him.
And then the door opened. Mr Gopnik saw me. ‘Ah, Louisa. Can you come in for a moment?’
I stood and half walked, half ran to where he was standing. It was difficult as running brought on muscle spasms.
‘I wondered if you were free this evening.’
‘To come to an event. For charity.’
‘Uh … sure.’ I had known from the start that the hours would not be regular. And at least it meant I wasn’t likely to bump into Ilaria. I would download a movie onto one of the iPads and watch it in the car.
‘There. What do you think, darling?’ Agnes looked as if she had been crying. ‘She can sit next to me?’
‘I’ll sort it out.’
She took a deep, shaky breath. ‘Okay, then. I suppose so.’
‘Sit next to …’
‘Good. Good!’ Mr Gopnik checked his phone. ‘Right. I really have to go. I’ll see you in the main ballroom. Seven thirty. If I can get through this conference call any sooner I’ll let you know.’ He stepped forward and took her face in his hands, kissing her. ‘You’re okay?’
‘I’m okay.’
‘I love you. Very much.’ Another kiss, and he was gone.
Agnes took another deep breath. She put her hands on her knees, then looked up at me. ‘You have a yellow ballgown?’
I stared at her. ‘Um. Nope. Bit short on ballgowns, actually.’
She ran her gaze up and down me, as if trying to work out whether I could fit into anything she owned. I think we both knew the answer to that one. Then she straightened. ‘Call Garry. We need to get to Saks.’
Half an hour later I was standing in a changing room while two shop assistants pushed my bosoms into a strapless dress the colour of unsalted butter. The last time I had been handled this intimately, I quipped, I had discussed getting engaged immediately afterwards. Nobody laughed.