“You’re a lovely girl, Artemis, but you just don’t know what makes people tick yet.”
That’s what glamorous Olivier Paul said on our second and last date. He was an award-winning foreign correspondent at Mercury Television where I worked and what I’d wanted him to say was, “From the first moment I saw you, I fell.” Preferably in front of the assembled newsroom of Mercury Television. Especially in front of Tim Dalby, ace camera man, pillar of the Guys Only poker school and all round cool dude. Also stand up comedian on the subject of How Artemis Buggers Things Up.
But Glamorous Olivier didn’t say the words. Instead he pushed off to write a book. And Tim collected his winnings on me clocking fewer than 5 dates before Olivier dumped me. And then Tim started a book on what my next disaster would be.
“I’m looking to you to repair my overdraft,” he told me shamelessly.
None of my house mates seemed surprised at Olivier’s defection, which was annoying. And they actually advised Tim on his betting form.
“Email,” said my friend Bella, after some thought. “You copy emails to the wrong people all the time, Artemis.”
That was because I dealt with my personal emails on the hoof, with more than half my mind on my job. I said so. Tim still added it to his list, grinning.
“Money,” said Freddy, the accountant, helping himself to Bella’s freshly baked cheese straws. “She’ll pay someone the whole month’s budget one day. She can never remember how many noughts in a million.”
If Tim had had a moustache, he would have twirled it. “With legs like that, why would she need to?” he said throatily.
He’d run me home after an even longer day than usual at work. I had bags under my eyes and coffee stains on my shirt. He had tasteful five o’clock shadow and looked sultry. He was good at that. I’d noticed. Sexy beast.
What’s more, he was an unreconstructed male chauvinist who was now bringing out the latent Schwarzenegger in my male housemates. Must have been something to do with bonding, I think.
Anyway, Freddy and even sober Jonathon went off into a roar of laughter at Tim’s bon mot. And then they all, to a man, pushed off to the pub.
I was more offended than heartbroken, but it was the end of a frustrating week. So I decided to go home to my mother’s for the weekend.
Janie, my mother, cooked me her wonderful Pasta alla Norma as a consolation. But she said it was just as well that the thing with Olivier had gone no further. “Survival Rule One. No relationships at work.”
“Great,” I said. “Between that and the House Rules, all the men I meet would be off limits.”
She looked enquiring. “House Rules?”
“No inter house relationships,” Bella explained. She’d decided to come too.
I’d invited her because she’s a cook and regards Janie’s Italian repertoire with reverence. Also, she needed cheering up as much as I did.
Bella has a real Renaissance-Madonna beautiful face but, being a cook, she is ample. “Don’t know what you’re worrying about,” she said now. “Size Sixteens don’t date at all.”
“You ought to have a party,” said Janie. “That house was made for it. You can date people from each other’s work, after all.”
She’s practical, Janie. She had to be after my father pushed off.
Bella seemed quite taken with the idea. It sounded a bit studenty to me. I mean, Glamorous Olivier had basically told me I needed to grow up. And Tim obviously thought I’d got stuck somewhere around sixteen. So I forgot about the party idea and had a great time doing my first Christmas in London.
But then January was depressing and February was worse. Then I got home from a vile day at my not-so-cool job in Mercury Television, to find Bella alone in the kitchen. She hadn’t put the light on. I think she’d been crying. And Mercury God had shouted at me because I subtracted the North American viewing figures when I should have added them and he’d had a sticky couple of minutes with the Board.
Tim had laughed like a drain about that and then drove me home, hinting heavily that he’d like to stay to supper. No doubt he wanted to pump Freddy for more inside information. I stayed polite but I didn’t ask him in.
When I saw Bella’s face, though, I forgot how much I’d wanted to slap him.
“What’s wrong, lamb?”
But she just shook her head. And I didn’t press her. She was older than I was and a private sort of person.
Even so, “This can’t go on,’ I said, putting the kitchen light on and passing Bella a piece of kitchen roll to blow her nose. Janie had a crying-in-the-dark phase when the divorce was finalised. I was seven. I remembered.
Bella looked startled. But once she stopped blinking in the light, she made some of her fabulous frothy hot chocolate and we sat down to discuss what was wrong with our lives. Well, mostly I talked and she nodded until she got her voice under control. I’d learned how to do that with Janie. Which gave me an idea.
“We need to be proactive here,” I said. “Janie’s right. A party.”
The kitchen started to fill up, as our housemates drifted back from the cinema or tango lessons or whatever. Bella produced some of her mouthwatering shortbread with the coffee. The others were pretty keen when I told them our — well, my — plan.
OK, serious Jonathon Weissman, who holds the lease, was a bit stuffy but even he seemed willing to give it a go.
“We’ll have to clear the drawing room of anything that might get damaged,” he warned.
“That’s okay,” I said. “We stuff everything into one room and lock it.”
I knew about these things. When I was in a hall of residence, our block gave the best parties on campus.
He went on finding objections. “I don’t see why Bella should cook for fifty people.”
That was typical Jonathon: cautious and responsible and infuriating. Mind you, he’s a lawyer. He says infuriating is part of the job description.
Bella said hastily, “I’m only thinking nibbles and stuff. And we do need to feed people, Jonathon, or they’ll get legless.”
So he shrugged and shut up. Actually, he did a lot more than that. He made Janie come.
It was Bella’s idea to ask her, actually. Right in the middle of our weekend in Somerset, Janie had suddenly gone off into this little riff about how she was surplus to requirements now she was over forty.
I didn’t understand what it was all about. I mean, she liked her job as a primary school teacher. And, as soon as I went away to college, she’d started going out with Boring Brian. He was a vegetarian. Okay, that limited the dishes she could cook, which was a shame, but he took her on National Trust outings. In a way, anyway; they always went Dutch. I thought it was a bit unromantic. But Janie said loftily that she and Brian had an equal relationship and I would appreciate that when I got older.
So when she suddenly went into Being Older is Hell mode I though Aha. She’s noticed he’s mean at last. Presumably, like any other right-thinking woman, she had got fed up with it. Before I could ask what was wrong, though, Bella did.
And out it all came. Not Boring Brian at all. Janie had applied for the Head’s job. And —
“They said I was an excellent number two!”
“Bastards!” Bella gave her a tissue.
She blew her nose. “Apparently, I’ve been there too long. Lost my cutting edge.”
Honesty compels me to admit that they might have a point there. Janie had taken to wearing sweat pants all the time and scragging her lovely red hair back in an elastic band. I wasn’t too sure how often she washed it, either. What’s more, the make up in her bathroom had congealed with age. And when she did any sort of socialising, she was as likely to get into a take-no-prisoners argument as charm the company. There had been an incident with my boss’s boss which still made me wince.
I didn’t say so, of course. I mean, I’m an only child, she’s a single parent. We’ve got to stick together.
She had been in pretty ferocious form about the school’s management, once she got going. “They’ll bring in a twenty five year old trend-setter over my head. I know it.” She kicked the cottage’s state-of-the-art Aga. She only used it when I came home for the weekend.
“Why would they do that?”
“Because I teach little kids, Artemis,” she said impatiently. “And little kids like their teachers young and bright.”
“Oh.” Surely she couldn’t be wearing those sweat pants at school, now? I went into the supportive spiel. “You’re young and bright —”
But she wasn’t listening. This had obviously been festering and now it was bubbling out unstoppably. “When I was your age the top team was men. Now the top team is under twenty-five. How come I’m always in the losers’ queue?”
So when we started to organise the party, Bella reminded me that a) it was Janie’s idea in the first place and b) my mother could do with some cheering up too. “Let’s ask her. Parties make anyone feel young and bright. All Janie needs is to boost her confidence.”
Janie was pleased to be asked, you could tell that. But not keen on coming. I thought: she thinks Boring Brian won’t fit in.
But she said, “Is this the great boyfriend hunt? Thank you, chick. But I’m too old for that.”
We were on Skype. Bella leaned across me and said to the screen, “No hunting, Janie. Honest. It’s just a way of putting a little bit of sparkle into a grim time of year.”
But Janie just laughed disbelievingly. “I was your age once.”
“You’re all half my age. Even if I pulled, which is about as likely as the world going backwards, I can’t afford a toy boy on a teacher’s salary.”
Pulled? Toy boy? What happened to I’ll see if Brian is free?
I must have looked a bit stunned because that was when Jonathon elbowed me out of the kitchen chair and sat in front of the computer. “It’s a multi-generation thrash, Janie. I’ve invited a couple of senior colleagues and Mercury’s so damn small everyone will turn up, from the receptionist to the Big Cheese.”
She snorted. She’d met the Big Cheese. He was my boss’s boss under reference. They had not got on.
Jonathon said, ‘No arguments, Janie. Let me know which train you’re on. I’ll meet you.’
That’s the other thing lawyers do well — the I-know-best-so-don’t-argue thing. It always brought steam out of Bella’s ears but it made me laugh.
Anyway they talked a while — Janie has always got on well with my house mates — and by the time he’d finished she was laughing.
“She’ll be here,” he said when she disappeared from the screen.
I thought it was a bit smug of him but Bella was so pleased, she forgot how his Masterful Male act annoyed her and beamed at him. Jonathon went off whistling.
Janie arrived on the Friday before the party. Jonathon collected her from Paddington in a taxi, and then went back to the office. Janie had come straight from school which may be why she turned up in a beige trouser suit with her hair in a Mrs Danvers bun. And she wasn’t carrying much of a suitcase. No party clothes, I deduced. My heart sank.
But she was cheerful, which made up for a lot and spoke highly for Jonathon’s diplomatic skills. “So who is coming that I know?”
I listed them. Ending up, “Even Tim, the sexy cameraman who does Artemis impressions. Though actually, he smiled at me when the Big Cheese was yelling.” I added carelessly, “Oh, and the Big Cheese himself.”
Janie was not pleased. I knew she wouldn’t be.
“Ed Vassells?” she said in a disgruntled tone. “Why? You don’t like him.”
“No. You don’t like him.”
Back in the autumn, I’d invited her to a discussion programme where Mercury needed an audience. She’d taken it a bit too literally when they asked for questions from the floor. It ended up with the Big Cheese striding out onto the floor and telling her to sit down.
Janie was incandescent. It got the ratings though. The Big Cheese always asked how she was, after that phenomenal score.
“Maybe he won’t come,” Janie said hopefully.
There was no point in giving her false hope. “Yes he will. He’s into corporate bonding. He always goes out with the staff.”
She sniffed and muttered something about being patronised. “I bet he brings a bottle and leaves after half an hour.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
She couldn’t tell me, so she subsided. But she was still muttering. Really, sometimes I think she picks up her behaviour from her class of seven year olds.
“Would you like to borrow some clothes?” I said, returning to the most pressing problem.
Mine were too small, of course. That made her mouth turn down and look more like Mrs Danvers than ever. But blessed Bella offered hers and they were too big and that perked Janie up no end.
Then, for some reason, Ed Vassells called. “What time tomorrow, Artemis? And is it okay if I bring a few bottles of champagne?”
Okay? Everyone beamed. Except Janie.
She looked scornful. “Told you so.” And changed the subject. “So — shopping tomorrow. I’ll buy a new dress for the party. Where can I get something that isn’t all dodgy sequins?’
Nicky, the other girl in the house, volunteered to take her. Well, Bella was cooking and I was packing away the breakables while the guys hauled furniture into the Locked Room.
Janie was out a long time. She came back with more bags than I’d seen since the last girl to leave the house got married.
“Tea,” she demanded. “I’m too old for shopping on Saturday.”
But she didn’t look too old. She was sizzling.
Bella put the last couple of cartwheel-sized quiches into the oven and we all sat down at the kitchen table with big mugs of tea.
“You’d better use my bathroom, Janie.” Bella, as longest girl resident, got the master bedroom with the en suite bathroom. “Artemis and Nick take for ever to get ready when they’re on the hunt.”
Janie grinned. “You know, you’re a new social phenomenon.”
I knew that voice. I remembered it from her teacher training days. Sort of dispassionate. It’s always made me uneasy. Especially when I’m the specimen on the study bench.
“No, I’m not,” I said, revolted.
“Not just you, chick. All of you.” She kicked off her shoes and stretched her legs out in front of her, wiggling her toes. “These starter partnerships. You all think you must have a partner but you know you don’t want to marry or live together until you’ve got your career sorted. So you’re just filling in time until you’re heading for thirty and ready to settle down.”
“Thirty? Thirty? I’ve got seven years before I’m thirty for Heaven’s sake. I can’t be without a boyfriend for seven years.” I saw Nicky was appalled too. Bella looked a bit preoccupied. Of course she was getting close to thirty, now I came to think about it.
Janie misunderstood my expression. She tucked my hair back behind my ear. She does that on autopilot.
“Fair enough,” she said gently. “But you really don’t have to hunt. There’s oodles of time. And, anyway, the best things just happen.”
Nicky said earnestly, “Not in the twenty-first century, they don’t, Janie. It’s a jungle out there. A girl has to go after what she wants.”
Bella got up abruptly and started checking the running order for the food, though she’d already gone through it twice.
The guys came in then and Janie propounded her theory of seven year celibacy to them. Freddy gave a dirty laugh but Jonathon looked thoughtful.
He poured Janie another cup of tea and asked, “So how can you tell when a woman is ready to move to the next stage?”
She chuckled. “When she gets so jealous over a bloke she can’t see straight.”
Bella looked shocked. So was I, to be honest. It was bit like betraying secrets to the enemy. But anyway, Janie and Jonathon got deep into conversation and Nicky and I pushed off to start the hair and beauty cycle.
When I came down eventually, Janie was ready. Oh boy, was she ready!
She’d bought herself an astonishing floaty dress in sunset colours that should have clashed with her hair and somehow didn’t. She must have used her National Trust money for the year. Brian was clearly an ex boyfriend.
The dress had transparent wafty sleeves and a top that showed a lot more cleavage than I’d bargained for. And she’d dusted all visible skin with sparkly glitter. Quite discreet sparkly glitter but even so! Either she’d been on Youtube for a party make-up tutorial or Bella must have done it.
It was certainly Bella who had put up Janie’s hair. It was in a sort of loose waterfall, all gleaming and soft. Nicky had lent her an Edwardian choker and drop earrings. It all made her look amazing.
The boys went into confidence-boosting mode with enthusiasm.
“Great legs,” said Freddy, after a slightly strangled pause. I think he was channelling sexy Tim. I suppose it was better than what he was actually thinking. He was right, too.
“You look like Jessica Alba,’ said Nicky.
But it was Jonathon who really rose to the occasion.”No,” he said reverently. “You look like Jessica Alba might look one day if she really works at it.”
And he kissed her hand.
Well, boosting her confidence was fine but that was going over the top, I thought. I could see that Bella thought so too.
But Janie loved it. She used to have this wonderful smile, when we ran away to Umbria after the divorce. She taught me how to catch the first leaves as they fell. We used to run after them, down the dusty hillside and when she turned round, dancing backwards, it was as if her whole body smiled. We used to swing our clasped hands as we trudged home to the delapidated farmhouse. And sing.
She almost looked like that now. Not singing, obviously. And not the whole body smile. But nearly.
“Thank you for inviting me,” she said rather mistily.
People started to arrive after that. And then Freddy put on the music and soon we were all bopping away, including Janie.
No, make that especially Janie. Maybe it was the sunset dress, or maybe it was all that loose hair, but suddenly she really started to throw her arms around. Of course, that was at exactly the moment that Ed Vassells walked in with his case — case — of champagne.
I felt I had to excuse her. I didn’t want my boss thinking my mother was unstable.
“She’s just got rid of Boring Brian,” I explained. I was pretty certain it was the truth. “She can cook roast veal with rosemary again and not ever go to another Sealed Knot display.”
Ed had piercing dark eyes and looked like a hawk. Before he became a News Entrepreneur he had been a tough American reporter, going to all the international hot spots. He looked at my mother as if she were a dangerous guerrilla leader.
“She’s letting it go to her head.”
I saw what he meant. Freddy was right. Janie had fantastic legs. Then someone put on Jailhouse Rock and she started jiving with Jonathon.
Jiving — ? Janie? And Jonathon?
They danced well together. No, better than that. They were good. He threw her up in the air and caught her. Sent her skimming between his legs and hauled her back . . .
Beside me, the Big Cheese stood rigid, not taking his eyes off them.
I shut my eyes. Don’t do this to me, Janie. He’ll think it’s inherited and fire me.
And then there was the big crashing finale. Janie’s flying red hair brushed the floor. She flung her arms out, laughing. The music ended with Jonathon Weissman’s nose about two millimetres from my mother’s gold-dusted cleavage.
I moaned. Behind me I thought Bella gave a little sob. In sympathy, I suppose.
But, astonishingly, it was Ed Vassells who cut through the applause and hauled Janie out of Jonathon’s arms.
“Behave,” he said in a tone so black, even I hadn’t heard it before.
He marched her out of the room.
There was a bit of a difficult pause. Then Freddy returned the music to the twenty-first century and everyone else started dancing again. Except Jonathon.
And Bella, who said in a gasping sort of voice, “I’d better go and put on the barbecue ribs,” and fled to the kitchen.
I would have gone after her but at that moment Tim the sexy cameraman, who had never looked at me except to laugh, said, “Artemis, you gorgeous heartbreaker, come and dance with me.”
I couldn’t turn him down, could I? It would have been rude. And that’s what seeing Glamorous Olivier had been all about in the first place. I mean, Olivier is all very clever and everything, but Tim has this cute rumpled action-man look, that makes me go all shivery, even when he’s laughing at me.
He wasn’t laughing, now. He had a sort of sleepy, why-aren’t-we-in-bed look that made me think that perhaps I didn’t need Olivier Paul to make him see I was over sixteen, after all. He’d worked it out for himself — and the shivery feeling turned into some serious heat.
But there’s no point in letting them get above themselves. “All right,” I said.
It took me a while to realise that no barbecue ribs had arrived. That wasn’t like Bella, so I went looking. The reason was in the kitchen.
Serious Jonathon Weissman had his arms round her waist and was kissing her senseless.
“Oh,” I said, too startled to remember to back out. “What about House Rules?”
Bella squeaked and tried to push him away. She didn’t look like a Madonna any more. Venus, maybe. All rosy lipped and luscious. Jonathon held onto her like one of those industrial grab claws. He did not even turn his head.
“Been a change of policy,” he said calmly. “Go away, Artemis.”
Well, I knew that lot upstairs needed food soon. There was all that drink to mop up. So I raided Freddy’s stash of crisps and went into the Locked Room, which someone had forgotten to lock after all, to find some bowls to put them in.
And there he was — the Big Cheese, the Beast of the Ratings Scores, Mercury God — holding Janie so tightly he looked like a fourteen year old on his first kiss. And Janie, who practically spat every time his name was mentioned, had pasted herself against him like wallpaper.
I tell you, it was like a sodding orgy, that house.
They didn’t notice me. Ed was saying things like, “From the first moment, the very first . . .”
I backed out and leaned against the wall. A feather would have sent me into orbit. Maybe Glamorous Olivier had been right after all and I really didn’t know what made people tick.
I would have to ask Tim. No, on second thoughts, cancel that. Tim and I had better things to do.
Brunch next day was very, very late. Jonathon and Bella touched down briefly, holding hands.
“Tell Janie thanks. She’s a wise woman,” said Jonathon, not taking his eyes off Bella.
They disappeared again.
“Wise?” I said, blank.
“I think Janie must have put him up to that nose to cleavage thing,” Nicky explained kindly. “To give Bella a jolt.”
Not just Bella, I thought. As a direct result of that bit of pop psychology, Janie was out there somewhere being ravished by the Beast of the Rating Schedules.
Oh well, at least he wasn’t entangled with his secretary as my father had been. And not a vegetarian either. That had to be an improvement on Boring Brian, even if he did bawl me out regularly. I decided to be magnanimous — when they turned up.
It was not until evening. And Janie looked like a woman who had never worn a beige trouser suit in her life. Her hair was all over the place. It shone. So did her eyes. I forgave the Beast.
Okay, so I’d decided to be magnanimous. But I still had a point to prove. “See,” I told Janie, “I was right. You did need to be proactive.”
She had that look — the catch the falling leaf look, the whole body smile — that made you want to smile right back at her.
“No, I was right,” she said dreamily. “The best things just happen.”