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Authors: Catherine Alliott

A Crowded Marriage

BOOK: A Crowded Marriage
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Copyright

Copyright © 2011 by Catherine Alliott

Cover and internal design © 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover design by Michel Vrana/Black Eye Design

Cover illustration by Ben Gibson

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

All brand names and product names used in this book are trademarks, registered trademarks, or trade names of their respective holders. Sourcebooks, Inc., is not associated with any product or vendor in this book.

Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

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www.sourcebooks.com

Originally published in the UK in 2006 by Headline Review, an imprint of Headline Publishing Group.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Alliott, Catherine.

A crowded marriage / by Catherine Alliott.

p. cm.

1. Married people--Fiction. 2. Man-woman relationships--Fiction. I. Title.

PR6051.L543C76 2011

823'.914--dc22

2010053373

For the Gwynns, with love.
Chapter One

By the time the suicide victim had been cleared from the Piccadilly Line and normal service had resumed, I was, inevitably and irrevocably, half an hour late. As the train lurched out of the tunnel where it had slumbered peacefully the while and picked up speed—quite alarming speed actually, and wobbling precariously, as if perhaps a shoe or some garment was still in its path—I glanced feverishly at my watch. Half-past one. Half-past one! I went hot. I mean, naturally my heart went out to the deceased man—or woman even; we hadn't been told the gender, just a rather macabre announcement over the Tannoy about a “person on the line”—but why did it have to be my line? Why not the Jubilee or the Bakerloo? Why, with unerring accuracy, did the severely depressed have to pick the blue one—for the second time this year? It was almost as if they saw me coming. Saw me happily applying the eyeliner and the lip gloss in my bathroom, chuckling away to Terry Wogan, merrily swapping grubby trainers for a pair of high heels, putting on my good suede jacket for a foray into the West End and thought—yikes, if she's getting out and about, if she's having a good time, that's it, I'm out of here, I'm toast—and hurled themselves into the path of an oncoming train.

Which is an extremely selfish and uncharitable reaction to a truly tragic event, Imogen Cameron, I told myself severely as I got off at the next stop and hurried up the escalator. Sorry, God. I raised my eyes sheepishly to heaven. Even as I did, though, I knew I was cutting a secret deal with Him. Knew I was admitting to being a guilty sinner in return for Him making it go well with the guy I was about to meet and oh, sorry, God
again
, but oh Christ—I was going to be so
late
!

I raced out of the tube entrance and down Piccadilly in the direction of Albemarle Street. Late, for my first meeting—first
lunch
, nay—with anyone who'd ever shown even the remotest interest in my work: a gallery owner, no less, who'd casually mentioned exhibiting my paintings in a private view and who'd offered to buy me lunch, discuss terms, but who, under the circumstances—I glanced at my watch again—had probably got bored of waiting and scarpered. In desperation I hitched up my skirt, clutched my handbag to my chest and for all the world like Dame Kelly Holmes sprinting for the line, jutted out my chin and hurtled through the pinstripes.

I'd met him at Kate's last week, at a seriously smart drinks party surrounded by her fearfully social friends. There'd been buckets of pink champagne sloshing around, and since Alex and I were on an economy drive and only knocked back the cheapest plonk these days, I'd got stuck in. By the time Kate sashayed up with the gallery owner, introducing me as “my artist friend across the street who does the most
fab
ulous paintings,” I was practically seeing double. She'd then proceeded to lure him into her study—simultaneously tugging me along with her—to admire a rather hectic oil she had loyally hanging above her desk. Not one of my best.

“Yes…” He'd peered closely, then, as if that sort of proximity was a bit alarming, stepped back sharply. He flicked back his floppy chestnut waves and nodded contemplatively. “Yes, it's charming. It has a certain naïve simplicity—” or was it a simple naïvety?—“that one doesn't always come across these days, but which, personally, I embrace.”

He'd turned from the picture to look me up and down in a practised manner, taking in my wild blonde hair and flushed cheeks. I was delighted to hear he embraced simplicity as there was plenty more where that came from, and I beamed back drunkenly.

“Tell me, do you exhibit a lot?”

I didn't, not ever. Well, not unless you counted that time in a pub in Parsons Green where me and three other painter friends had paid for the upstairs room ourselves and only our mothers had turned up, and once in a converted church in the country where I'd put the wrong day on the flyers so no one came at all, and was about to tell him as much when Kate chipped in, “Yes, quite a lot, don't you, Imo? But not so much recently. Not since that carping critic in the
Times
burbled on about the possibility of over-exposure.”

She took a drag of her cigarette and blew the smoke out over his head as I regarded her in abject amazement. That she could
tell
such flagrant lies, standing there in her Chanel dress and her Mikimoto pearls, but then Kate hadn't just been named Most Promising Newcomer at the Chelsea Players Theatre, her very upmarket am-dram group, for nothing, and continued to smile her sweet patron-of-the-arts smile and fix him with her baby-blue eyes. He buckled under the pressure, swept back his waves and turned to the painting again.

“Yes, well, critics are a loathsome bunch,” he growled. “Don't know their arses from their elbows, and certainly don't know talent when it hits them in the face. I should know,” he added bitterly. He drew himself up importantly and slipped a hand into the inside pocket of his tastefully distressed corduroy jacket.

“Casper Villiers,” he purred, pressing a card into my hand, his dark eyes smouldering into mine. “Let's do lunch. I'm planning a mixed media exhibition in the summer, and I need an abstract artist. Say Tuesday, one o'clock at the Markham? Bring your portfolio.”

And off he sauntered, just pausing to shoot me another hot stare over his shoulder as he relieved a passing waiter of a glass of Kate's excellent champagne. I hadn't liked to tell him that the “abstract” art before him was in fact an extremely figurative hay cart in an extremely figurative barley field and that I didn't even possess a portfolio, I'd just felt my knees buckle.

“Seriously influential,” Kate hissed in my ear. “Knows literally everyone in the art world and can pull all sorts of strings. Rather cute too, don't you think?”

“Very!” I gasped back as, at that moment, my husband had sauntered up, looking amused, but never proprietary.

“Pulled?” Alex enquired.

“Hope so,” I gushed back happily. “He's a gallery owner, in Cork Street. He liked Kate's picture and he wants to look at the rest of my work. At—you know—my portfolio.”

“Terrific!” He had the good grace not to question the existence of that particular work of fiction. “About time too. I was wondering when my artist wife was going to be discovered and I could plump for early retirement. I'm looking forward to adopting Kept Man status. Oh, and incidentally, you can tell him from me, we don't want any of that fifty per cent commission nonsense either. It's ten per cent at the most, and if he's not interested, it'll be back to the Saatchis for us.”

“Us?”

“Well, obviously as your manager I'll be taking a close interest in all financial arrangements.” He waggled his eyebrows and twiddled an imaginary moustache.

I laughed, but could tell he was pleased, which thrilled me. Recently I'd started to get rather despondent about my so-called work and its lack of remuneration, and wondered if I shouldn't retrain as an illustrator or something. Something to get a few much-needed pennies into the Cameron coffers, something to make me feel like a useful working mother now Rufus was at school full time. It had begun to seem grossly self-indulgent to shut myself away in the attic with my oils, a broom handle wedging the door shut, yelling, “I'm on the phone!” to all-comers, producing paintings that no one except me had the slightest interest in. I'd even dutifully gone out and bought some watercolours and a sketch book with which to capture Paula the Pit Pony or Gloria the Glow-worm, but my heart wasn't in it, and in no time at all I'd found myself throwing on my overalls and squaring up to one of my huge canvases again. Casper Villiers' invitation, then, was the lifeline I needed. A boost to morale that had been far too long in coming.

As I hurried along the dusty West End pavements, my progress impeded by ludicrously high heels—I'd decided against the struggling-artist look since Kate had implied I was so successful the general public was in danger of being saturated by my talents—I tried to drive from my mind the summer exhibition he'd referred to. It was an increasingly pressing fantasy. The opening night: a private view on a warm evening, friends and family spilling out of the gallery on to the pavement, chattering excitedly, clutching champagne flutes; Alex looking heavenly in a biscuit linen jacket, stroking back his silky blond hair; my mother elegant in flowing taupe, my father…oh God, Dad, in that black leather jacket and cowboy boots. I moved smartly on. The press then: cameras flashing, lenses trained on my canvas in the window, my latest life drawing perhaps, that I'd rather pretentiously entitled
Nude in South London
(or as my sister, Hannah, had snorted,
Bollocks in Brixton
), and then my name in discreet grey lettering on the window: “Imogen Cameron—Solo Exhibition.” No. No, that wasn't right because he'd said it was to be a mixed exhibition, and golly, not necessarily with me in the mix since he'd only seen one picture.

To broaden his knowledge, I'd spent the whole of last week feverishly photographing the rest of my paintings and arranging the prints in a leather portfolio—hideously expensive but worth the outlay, I'd reasoned—which I now clasped in my hot little hand, along with a couple of small oils, which I was sure he'd like, in a carrier bag. If only he was still there! If only he hadn't got bored with waiting and—oh, hello—here we are, the Markham. And I'd almost shot straight past! I gave a cursory glance to the rather grand pillars that heralded the entrance to a white stuccoed restaurant and hastened on in. As I pushed through the glass double doors I emerged into a sort of panelled lobby. Luckily there was a girl behind a desk directing traffic.

“I'm meeting a Mr. Villiers,” I breathed, peering anxiously through the door to the restaurant. “But I'm terribly late and he might well have—oh! Oh no, he hasn't, there he is.” And I was off, waving aside her attempt to escort me, and bustling through the packed dining room, weaving around tables with a “Sorry, oh,
sorry
,” as I jogged a media type's crumpled linen elbow, misdirecting a forkful of risotto, intent on the solitary figure in the corner.

“I
do
apologise,” I began breathlessly as he got up to greet me, looking much younger than I remembered and much better-looking. His chestnut waves flopped attractively into his dark eyes and his smile was wide and welcoming as he took my hand. “You see, there was this wretched suicide on the line—well, no, sounds awful, not wretched, although obviously for him, but—”

“Couldn't matter less,” he interrupted smoothly. “I was late myself. I've only been here five minutes. Drink?” He gestured to a bottle in an ice bucket. “I took the liberty of ordering some champagne, but if you'd prefer something else?”

“Oh! No, how marvellous.”

I sat down and reached for my glass eagerly, taking a greedy sip. Well, glug, actually. God, I was thirsty. I put it down thoughtfully. Steady, Imogen. Don't want to get disastrously pissed and start showing him your appendix scar or your cellulite, do you? Just…take it easy. But that was a good sign surely? Champagne? You didn't expend that sort of outlay unless you were interested?

I crossed my legs in a businesslike manner and smoothed down my skirt with fluttering hands. I was horribly nervous, I realised. “And, um, obviously I've brought along my Portaloo,” I glanced down at it, propped up by my chair. No, hang on…

“Portfolio?”

“That's it.” I flushed.
Shit.

“Only I'm pretty sure this place is fully equipped on the sanitary front,” he laughed.

“Yes, bound to be, ha
ha
! Oh, and plus, I've brought along a couple of small oils, but I don't know if you want to eat first or…?”

“Oh, eat first, definitely. Plenty of time for all that.” He grinned, and twinkled at me as he flicked out his napkin.

Ah, right. A bit of chatting and flirting were in order first. Well, fine, I could do that. Could flirt my little socks off, if need be. Still smarting from my faux pas I managed to flick my own napkin out and twinkle back, then, taking the quickest route to any man's heart, plunged in and asked him all about himself.

Casper rolled over like a dream: he leaned back in his chair, stuck his legs out in front of him and launched expansively into “My Glittering yet Thwarted Career,” whilst I leaned in, captivated, eyes wide, murmuring, “Really?” or, “Gosh, how marvellous,” then later, “How dreadful!” when we got to the thwarted bit. It transpired Casper had been the most promising student at St. Martin's and a close contender for the Turner Prize, but his ideas had been cruelly stolen by jealous, inferior rivals. He'd reluctantly given up his dream of becoming an artist and opened a gallery instead, which was a tremendous success, and he now enjoyed great acclaim as a talent spotter.

“Benji Riley-Smith, Peter De Cazzolet—you name them, I've discovered them,” he murmured confidentially, leaning right back in his chair. He was practically horizontal now, chin level with the table.

“Really?” I hadn't heard of any of them and could hardly make out what he was saying he was so far away from me.

“Casian Fartmaker, Barty Bugger-Me—” (I was lip-reading now so I may have got that wrong) he shrugged modestly—“I've been, well, shall we say, instrumental in their success?”

“Yes, let's,” I breathed, sneaking a look at my watch under the table. I mean, granted this paean of self-congratulatory praise was being delivered with plenty of smouldering looks and lashings of champagne over a fashionable monkfish apiece, which was all very pleasant, but time was marching on. I had to pick Rufus up from school at three thirty and Casper still hadn't looked at my work.

“So. You're a friend of Kate's,” he said, lurching forward suddenly. He propped his elbows on the table, laced his fingers over the fish he'd hardly touched, and fixed me with his dark eyes. “She's kept you very quiet.”

BOOK: A Crowded Marriage
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