Still Me

Page 15


‘The thing is, Jane, it’s like a madness takes hold of them,’ one said, stopping in front of the mirror to check her hair. I wasn’t sure why she needed to: it was so heavily lacquered I’m not sure a force-ten hurricane would have dislodged it.
‘I know. We’ve seen it a million times.’
‘But normally at least they’ve got the decency just to handle it discreetly. And that’s what’s been so disappointing for Kathryn. The lack of discretion.’
‘Yes. It would be so much easier for her if it had at least been someone with a little class.’
‘Quite. He’s behaved like a cliché.’
At this both women’s heads swivelled to me.
‘Louisa?’ came a muffled voice from inside the cubicle. ‘Can you come here?’
I knew then who they were talking about. I knew just from looking at their faces.
There was a short silence.
‘You do realize this is a non-smoking venue,’ one of the women said pointedly.
‘Is it? So sorry.’ I stubbed it out in the sink then ran some water over the end.
‘You can help me, Louisa? My zipper is stuck.’
They knew. They put two and two together and I saw their faces harden.
I walked past them, knocked twice on the cubicle door and she let me in.
Agnes was standing in her bra, the tubular yellow dress stalled around her waist.
‘What –’ she began.
I put my fingers to my lips and gestured silently outside. She looked over, as if she could see through the door, and pulled a face. I turned her around. The zipper, two-thirds down, was lodged at her waist. I tried it two, three times, then pulled my phone from my evening bag and turned on the torch, trying to work out what was stopping it.
‘You can fix this?’ she whispered.
‘I’m trying.’
‘You must. I can’t go out like this in front of those women.’
Agnes stood inches from me in a tiny bra, her pale flesh giving off warm waves of expensive perfume. I tried to manoeuvre around her, squinting at the zip, but it was impossible. She needed room to take the thing off so I could work on the zip or I couldn’t do it up. I looked at her and shrugged. She looked briefly anguished.
‘I don’t think I can do it in here, Agnes. There’s no room. And I can’t see.’
‘I can’t go out like this. They will say I am whore.’ Her hands flew to her face, despairing.
The oppressive silence outside told me the women were waiting on our next move. Nobody was even pretending to go to the loo. We were stuck. I stood back and shook my head, thinking. And then it came to me.
‘Giant finger,’ I whispered.
Her eyes widened.
I gazed at her steadily, and gave a small nod. She frowned, and then her face cleared.
I opened the cubicle door and stood back. Agnes took a breath, straightened her spine, then strolled out past the two women, like a backstage supermodel, the top of the dress around her waist, her bra two delicate triangles that barely obscured the pale breasts underneath. She stopped in the middle of the room and leant forwards so that I could ease the dress carefully over her head. Then she straightened up, now naked except for her two scraps of lingerie, a study in apparent insouciance. I dared not look at the women’s faces, but as I draped the yellow dress over my arm I heard the dramatic intake of breath, felt the reverberations in the air.
‘Well, I –’ one began.
‘Would you like a sewing kit, ma’am?’ The attendant appeared at my side. She worked the little packet open while Agnes sat daintily on the chaise longue, her long pale legs stretched demurely out to the side.
Two more women walked in, and their conversation stopped abruptly at the sight of the nearly-naked Agnes. One coughed, and they looked studiedly away from her, stumbling over some new conversational platitude. Agnes rested on the chair, apparently blissfully unaware.
The attendant handed me a pin, and using its point I caught the tiny scrap of thread that had entangled itself, tugging gently until I had freed it and the zip moved again. ‘Got it!’
Agnes stood, held the attendant’s proffered hand and stepped elegantly back into the yellow dress, which the two of us raised around her body. When it was in place I pulled the zip smoothly up until she was clad, every inch of the dress flush against her skin. She smoothed it down around her endless legs.
The attendant proffered a can of hairspray. ‘Here,’ she whispered. ‘Allow me.’ She leant forward and gave the fastening a quick spray from the can. ‘That’ll help it stay up.’
I beamed at her.
‘Thank you. So kind of you,’ Agnes said. She pulled a fifty-dollar bill from her evening bag and handed it to the woman. Then she turned to me with a smile. ‘Louisa, darling, shall we go back to our table?’ And, with an imperious nod to the two women, Agnes lifted her chin and walked slowly towards the door.
There was silence. Then the attendant turned to me, and pocketed the money with a wide grin. ‘Now that,’ she said, her voice suddenly audible, ‘is class.’
The following morning, George didn’t come. Nobody told me. I sat in the hall in my shorts, bleary and gritty-eyed, and at half seven grasped that he must have been cancelled.
Agnes did not get up until after nine, a fact that had Ilaria tutting disapprovingly at the clock. She had sent a text asking me to cancel the rest of her day’s appointments. Instead, some time around mid-morning, she said she’d like to walk around the Reservoir. It was a breezy day and we walked with scarves pulled up around our chins and our hands thrust into our pockets. All night I had thought about Josh’s face. I still felt unbalanced by it, found myself wondering how many of Will’s doppelgängers were walking around in different countries right now. Josh’s eyebrows were heavier, his eyes a different colour, and obviously his accent wasn’t Will’s. But still.
‘You know what I used to do with my friends when we were hungover?’ said Agnes, breaking into my thoughts. ‘We would go to this Japanese place near Gramercy Park and we would eat noodles and talk and talk and talk.’
‘Let’s go, then.’
‘To the noodle place. We can pick up your friends on the way.’
She looked briefly hopeful, then kicked a stone. ‘I can’t now. Is different.’
‘You don’t have to turn up in Garry’s car. We could get a taxi. I mean, you could dress down, just turn up. It would be fine.’
‘I told you. Is different.’ She turned to me. ‘I tried these things, Louisa. For a while. But my friends are curious. They want to know everything about my life now. And then when I tell them the truth it makes them … weird.’
‘Once we were all the same, you know? Now they say I can never know what their problems are. Because I am rich. Somehow I am not allowed to have problems. Or they are strange around me, like I am somehow different person. Like the good things in my life are an insult to theirs. You think I can moan about housekeeper to someone with no house?’
She stopped on the path. ‘When I first marry Leonard, he gave me money for my own. A wedding present, so that I don’t have to ask him for money all the time. And I give my best friend, Paula, some of this money. I give her ten thousand dollars to clear her debts, to make fresh start. At first she was so happy. I was happy too! To do this for my friend! So she doesn’t have to worry any more, like me!’ Her voice grew wistful. ‘And then … then she didn’t want to see me any more. She was different, was always too busy to meet me. And slowly I see she resents me for helping her. She didn’t mean to, but when she sees me now all she can think is that she owes me. And she is proud, very proud. She does not want to live with this feeling. So …’ she shrugged ‘… she won’t have lunch with me or take my calls. I lost my friend because of money.’
‘Problems are problems,’ I said, when it became clear she was expecting me to say something. ‘Doesn’t matter whose they are.’
She stepped sideways to avoid a toddler on a scooter. She gazed after it, thinking, then turned to me. ‘You have cigarettes?’