Still Me

Page 17


‘This is the most romantic story I’ve ever heard.’
‘And then we fuck, of course, and my God, I can feel that this man has been frozen for years, you know?’
At this point I coughed a piece of ramen onto the table. When I looked up several people at nearby tables were watching us.
Agnes’s voice lifted. She gesticulated into the air. ‘You cannot believe it. It is like a hunger in him, like all this hunger from years and years is just pulsing through him. Pulsing! That first night he is insatiable.’
‘Okay,’ I squeaked, wiping my mouth with a paper napkin.
‘It is magical, this meeting of our bodies. And afterwards we just hold each other for hours and I wrap myself around him and he lays his head on my breasts and I promise him he will never be frozen again. You understand?’
There was silence in the restaurant. Behind Agnes, a young man in a hooded top was staring at the back of her head, his spoon raised halfway to his mouth. When he saw me watching, he dropped it with a clatter.
‘That – that’s a really lovely story.’
‘And he keeps his promise. Everything he says is true. We are happy together. So happy.’ Her face fell a little. ‘But his daughter hates me. His ex-wife hates me. She blames me for everything, even though she did not love him. She tells everyone I am a bad person for stealing her husband.’
I didn’t know what to say.
‘And every week I have to go to these fundraisers and cocktail evenings and smile and pretend I do not know what they are saying about me. The way these women look at me. I am not what they say I am. I speak four languages. I play piano. I did special diploma in therapeutic massage. You know what language she speaks? Hypocrisy. But it is hard to pretend you have no pain, you know? Like you do not care?’
‘People change,’ I said hopefully. ‘Over time.’
‘No. I don’t think is possible.’
Agnes’s expression was briefly wistful. Then she shrugged. ‘But on bright side, they are quite old. Maybe some of them will die soon.’
That afternoon I called Sam when Agnes was taking a nap and Ilaria was busy downstairs. My head was still swimming with the previous evening’s events, and with Agnes’s confidences. I felt as if somehow I had moved into a new space. I feel like you are more my friend than my assistant, she had told me, as we walked back to the apartment. It is so good to have somebody I can trust.
‘I got your pictures,’ he said. It was evening there, and Jake, his nephew, was staying over. I could hear his music playing in the background. He moved his mouth closer to the phone. ‘You looked beautiful.’
‘I’ll never wear a dress like that again in my life. But the whole thing was amazing. The food and the music and the ballroom … and the weirdest thing is these people don’t even notice it. They don’t see what’s around them! There was one entire wall made of gardenias and fairy lights. Like, a massive wall! And there was the most amazing chocolate pudding – a fondant square with white chocolate feathers on it and tiny truffles on the outside and not one woman ate hers. Not one! I walked the whole way around the tables counting, just to check. I was tempted to put some of the truffles in my clutch bag, but I thought they might melt. I bet they just threw the whole lot away. Oh, and every table had a different decoration – but they were all made of yellow feathers, and shaped like different birds. We had an owl.’
‘Sounds like quite an evening.’
‘There was this one barman who would make cocktails based on your character. You had to tell him three things about yourself and then he would create one.’
‘Did he make one for you?’
‘No. The guy I was talking to got a Salty Dog and I was afraid I’d get a Corpse Reviver or a Slippery Nipple or something. So I just stuck with champagne. Stuck with champagne! What do I sound like?’
‘So who were you talking to?’
There was just the slightest pause before he said it. And, to my annoyance, just the slightest pause before I responded. ‘Oh … just this guy … Josh. A suit. He was keeping me and Agnes company while we waited for Mr Gopnik to come back.’
Another pause. ‘Sounds great.’
I started to gabble now. ‘And the best bit is, you never even have to worry about how to get home because there’s always a car outside. Even when they just go to the shops. The driver just pulls up outside, then waits, or drives around the block, and you walk out and ta-daa! There’s your big black shiny car. Climb in. Put all your bags in the boot. Except they call it a trunk. No night bus! No late-night tube with people puking on your shoes.’
‘The high life, eh? You won’t want to come home.’
‘Oh. No. It’s not like it’s my life. I’m just a hanger-on. But it’s quite something to see up close.’
‘I have to go, Lou. Promised Jake I’d take him out for a pizza.’
‘But – but we’ve hardly spoken. What’s going on with you? Tell me your news.’
‘Some other time. Jake’s hungry.’
‘Okay!’ My voice was too high. ‘Say hi to him for me!’
‘I love you,’ I said.
‘Me too.’
‘One more week! Counting the days.’
‘Gotta go.’
I felt strangely wrong-footed when I put the phone down. I didn’t quite understand what had just happened. I sat there motionless on the side of my bed. And then I looked at Josh’s business card. He had handed it to me as we left, pressing it into my palm and closing my fingers around it.
Give me a call. I’ll show you some cool places.
I had taken it and smiled politely. Which, of course, could have meant anything at all.
Fox’s Cottage
Tuesday, 6 October
Dear Louisa,
I hope you are well and enjoying your time in New York. I believe Lily is writing to you, but I was thinking after our last conversation and I had a look in the loft and brought down some letters of Will’s from his time in the city that I thought you might enjoy. You know what a great traveller he was and I thought you might enjoy retracing his footsteps.
I read a couple myself; a rather bittersweet experience. You can keep hold of them until we next see each other.
With fondest wishes,
Camilla Traynor
New York
Dear Mum,
I would have called but the time difference doesn’t really fit around schedules here, so I thought I’d shock you by writing. First letter since that short-lived stint at Priory Manor, I think. I wasn’t really cut out for boarding school, was I?
New York is pretty amazing. It’s impossible not to be infused by the energy of the place. I’m up and out by five thirty every morning. My firm is based on Stone Street down in the Financial District. Nigel fixed me up with an office (not corner but a good view across the water – apparently these are the things by which we are judged in NY) and the guys at work seem a good bunch. Tell Dad that on Saturday I went to the opera at the Met with my boss and his wife – (Der Rosenkavalier, bit overdone) and you’ll be happy to hear I went to a performance of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Lot of client lunches, lot of company softball. Not so much in the evenings: my new colleagues are mostly married with young children so it’s just me trawling the bars …
I’ve been out with a couple of girls – nothing serious (here they seem to ‘date’ as a pastime) – but mostly I’ve just spent my spare hours at the gym or hanging out with old friends. Lots of people here from Shipmans, and a few I knew at school. Turns out it’s a small world, after all … Most of them are quite changed here, though. They’re tougher, hungrier than I remember. Think the city brings that out in you.
Right! Off out with Henry Farnsworth’s daughter this evening. Remember her? Leading light of the Stortfold Pony Club? Has reinvented herself as some sort of shopping guru. (Don’t get your hopes up, I’m just doing it as a favour to Henry.) I’m taking her to my favourite steakhouse, on the Upper East Side: slabs of meat the size of a gaucho’s blanket. I’m hoping she’s not vegetarian. Everyone here seems to have some sort of food fad going on.