Still Me

Page 14


‘Most days I don’t either.’
He was being charming, of course. But suddenly the room felt a little less chilly. He was from Back Bay Boston, had just moved to what he described as a rabbit-hutch apartment in SoHo, and had put on two kilos since arriving in New York because the restaurants downtown were so good. He said a lot more, but I couldn’t tell you what because I couldn’t stop staring at him.
‘And how about you, Miss Louisa Clark the First? What do you do?’
‘I –’
‘Louisa is a friend of mine. Just visiting from England.’
‘And how are you finding New York?’
‘I love it,’ I said. ‘I don’t think my head has stopped spinning.’
‘And the Yellow Ball is one of your first social engagements. Well, Mrs Leonard Gopnik the Second, you don’t do things small.’
The evening was flying by, eased by a second glass of champagne. At dinner, I was placed between Agnes and a man who failed to give me his name and spoke to me only once, asking my breasts who they knew, then turning his back when it became clear that the answer was not very many people at all. I watched what Agnes drank, on Mr Gopnik’s orders, and when I caught him looking at me I switched her full glass for my near-empty one, feeling relief when his subtle smile signalled approval. Agnes talked too loudly to the man on her right, her laugh a little too high, her gestures brittle and fluttery. I watched the other women at the table, all of them forty and above, and saw the way they looked at her, their eyes sliding heavily towards each other, as if to confirm some dark opinion expressed in private. It was horrible.
Mr Gopnik could not reach her from his position across the table, but I saw his eyes flickering towards her frequently, even as he smiled and shook hands and appeared, on the surface, to be the most relaxed man on the planet.
‘Where is she?’
I leant in to hear Agnes more clearly.
‘Leonard’s ex-wife. Where is she? You have to find out, Louisa. I can’t relax until I know. I can feel her.’
Big Purple. ‘I’ll check the place settings,’ I said, and excused myself from the table.
I stood at the huge printed stand at the entrance to the dining room. There were around eight hundred closely printed names and I didn’t know if the first Mrs Gopnik even went by Gopnik anymore. I swore under my breath just as Josh appeared behind me.
‘Lost someone?’
I lowered my voice. ‘I need to find out where the first Mrs Gopnik is seated. Would you happen to know if she goes by her old name? Agnes would like … to have an idea where she is.’
He frowned.
‘She’s a little stressed,’ I added.
‘No idea, I’m afraid. But my aunt might. She knows everyone. Stay right here.’ He touched my bare shoulder lightly and strode off into the dining room, while I tried to rearrange my facial expression into that of someone who was scanning the board to confirm the presence of half a dozen close friends, not someone whose skin had just coloured an unexpected shade of pink.
He was back within a minute.
‘She’s still Gopnik,’ he said. ‘Aunt Nancy thinks she might have seen her over by the auction table.’ He ran a manicured finger down the list of names. ‘There. Table 144. I walked past to check and there’s a woman who fits her description. Fifty-something, dark hair, shooting poison darts from a Chanel evening bag? They’ve put her about as far away from Agnes as they could.’
‘Oh, thank God,’ I said. ‘She’ll be so relieved.’
‘They can be pretty scary, these New York matrons,’ he said. ‘I don’t blame Agnes for wanting to watch her back. Is English society this cut-throat?’
‘English society? Oh, I don’t – I’m not very big on society events,’ I said.
‘Me either. To be honest, I’m so worn out after work that most days it’s all I can do to pick up a takeout menu. What is it you do, Louisa?’
‘Um …’ I glanced abruptly at my phone. ‘Oh, gosh. I have to get back to Agnes.’
‘Will I see you before you go? Which table are you at?’
‘Thirty-two,’ I said, before I could think about all the reasons I shouldn’t.
‘Then I’ll see you later.’ I was briefly transfixed by Josh’s smile. ‘I meant to say, by the way, you look beautiful.’ He leant forward, and lowered his voice so that it rumbled a little by my ear. ‘I actually prefer your dress to your friend’s. Did you take a picture yet?’
‘A picture?’
‘Here.’ He held up his hand, and before I worked out what he was doing, he had taken a photograph of the two of us, our heads inches apart. ‘There. Give me your number and I’ll send it to you.’
‘You want to send me a picture of you and me together.’
‘Are you sensing my ulterior motive?’ He grinned. ‘Okay, then. I’ll keep it for myself. A memento of the prettiest girl here. Unless you want to delete it. There you go. Yours to delete.’ He held out his phone.
I peered at it, my finger hovering over the button before I withdrew it. ‘It seems rude to delete someone you’ve just met. But, um … thank you … and for the whole covert table-surveillance thing. Really kind of you.’
‘My pleasure.’
We grinned at each other. And before I could say anything more I ran back to the table.
I gave Agnes the good news – at which she let out an audible sigh – then sat and ate a bit of my now-cold fish while waiting for my head to stop buzzing. He’s not Will, I told myself. His voice was wrong. His eyebrows were wrong. He was American. And yet there was something in his manner – the confidence combined with sharp intelligence, the air that said he could cope with anything you threw at him, a way of looking at you that left me hollowed out. I glanced behind me, remembering I hadn’t asked Josh where he was seated.
I glanced to my right. Agnes was looking intently at me.
‘I need to go to the bathroom.’
It took me a minute to recall that this meant I should go too.
We walked slowly through the tables to the Ladies, me trying not to scan the room for Josh. All eyes were on Agnes as she went, not just because of the vivid colour of her dress but because she had magnetism, an unconscious way of drawing the eye. She walked with her chin up, her shoulders back, a queen.
And the moment we got into the Ladies, she slumped onto the chaise longue in the corner and gestured to me to give her a cigarette. ‘My God. This evening. I may die if we don’t leave soon.’
The attendant – a woman in her sixties – raised an eyebrow at the cigarette, then looked the other way.
‘Er – Agnes, I’m not sure you can smoke in here.’
She was going to do it anyway. Perhaps when you were rich you didn’t care about other people’s rules. What could they do to her after all – throw her out?
She lit it, inhaled and sighed with relief. ‘Ugh. This dress is so uncomfortable. And the G-string is cutting me like cheese-wire, you know?’ She wriggled in front of the mirror, hauling up her dress and rummaging underneath it with a manicured hand. ‘I should have worn no underwear.’
‘But you feel okay?’ I said.
She smiled at me. ‘I feel okay. Some people have been very nice this evening. This Josh is very nice, and Mr Peterson on other side of me is very friendly. It’s not so bad. Maybe finally some people are accepting that Leonard has a new wife.’
‘They just need time.’
‘Hold this. I need to pee-pee.’ She handed me the half-smoked cigarette and disappeared into a cubicle. I held it up between two fingers, as if it were a sparkler. The cloakroom attendant and I exchanged a look and she shrugged, as if to say, What can you do?
‘Oh, my God,’ Agnes said, from inside the cubicle. ‘I will need to take whole thing off. Is impossible to pull it up. You will need to help me with zipper afterwards.’
‘Okay,’ I said. The attendant raised her eyebrows. We both tried not to giggle.
Two middle-aged women entered the cloakroom. They looked at my cigarette with disapproval.