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Authors: Catherine Alliott

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I'd been leaning right in to listen to his monologue so our noses were practically touching now. “Has she?” I inched back, hopefully not too obviously. “Oh, well, I suppose I haven't known her that long. Only since she moved to Putney a few years ago. We've been there a while.”

“We?”

“My husband and I. And my son, Rufus. He's nine.”

“Ah.” There was something deeply disinterested in this monosyllable and I could feel his attention wandering.

“But Kate's lovely, isn't she?” I rushed on. “Sebastian too. They're great mates of ours. How do you know them?”

Nice one, Imogen. Back to him.

“Oh, Kate knows everyone,” he said airily, and as he turned to wave down a passing wine waiter, I thought that, to an extent, this was true. Or to be more precise, everyone knew Kate.

Married to an eminent surgeon and with her very own designer label and boutique in the Fulham Road, Kate was one who attracted others. If I hadn't liked her so much I'd have envied her horribly—beautiful, fun, but kind too, and terribly self-effacing. I'd heard about her long before I'd met her. “Oh, you
must
know the Barringtons,” people said when Kate and Sebastian moved to Hastoe Avenue. “They live across the road from you.
Every
one knows Kate.” Well, I certainly knew their house. Huge, red brick and imposing and on the right side of the Avenue (south-facing gardens and off-street parking), it was as hard to miss as our modest little semi opposite (north-facing pocket handkerchiefs and parking in the street) was easy to. And I knew the girl they meant too. Had seen her sailing off to work, blonde hair flying, calling out last-minute instructions to the nanny, and then returning from the school run later, hordes of gorgeous blonde children in the back of a gleaming four-wheel drive. I'd seen her in the evening too, going out to dinner with her husband, waving to the children at their bedroom windows, swathed in cashmere and pearls, long legs flashing out of a tiny skirt. But I hadn't met her, and might not have done either, had she not knocked on my door one Monday morning looking wild-eyed and desperate.

“Have you got a hacksaw?” she'd blurted urgently.

“A hacksaw?” I blinked.

“Yes, only Orlando's got his head stuck in the banisters, and I remember seeing you sawing up some boards in your front garden.”

“Oh!”

My painting boards. Cheaper than canvas, but sometimes too big and unwieldy to fit in my easel, so requiring surgery.

“Oh, yes, I have. Hang on!”

I ran up two flights of stairs and seized it from my studio, then together, we'd dashed across the road.

The Barringtons' hall was about the size of a hockey pitch and had a grand sweeping staircase, up which marched hundreds of very expensive-looking balusters. Orlando's face was going a nasty shade of purple between the top two so I hastened up with my saw, but as I hacked away close to his left ear with Kate shouting, “It's either that or his neck!” I rather hoped Dr. Barrington didn't decide to leave his operating theatre early and come home to see me sawing his son out like some flaky magician. Orlando emerged unscathed, but causing wilful damage to a listed house left me in serious need of a sharpener. Since it was only ten in the morning Kate had hastened to her Present Cupboard and produced—oh splendid—we'd bonded over a box of Lindor chocolates.

Yes, everyone liked Kate, and it seemed my young gallery owner was no exception. He'd long been an admirer, meeting her first at St. Martin's where she'd designed shirts and he'd painted landscapes and…oh, he still painted landscapes, did he?…Really?…still dabbled in oils, and—oh Lord, we were back to him again.

“Even now,” he confided over clasped hands, sotto voce, “when people come in to buy a Hodgson, or a Parnell, but find them too expensive, I say—hold on a minute,” he raised a finger expressively, “you might be interested in a little-known artist I have out the back here, and then I take them out and show them one of mine, and do you know, they very often buy.”

“How fascinating! Without knowing it's you?” I asked breathlessly but without the slightest interest. I really
did
have to collect Rufus soon.

“Oh, no, I never let on.”

He winked and I looked suitably impressed and little womanish, but—oh,
please
, perhaps over a coffee, could we look at my work? Find out when this wretched exhibition was?

“So…coffee?”

I beamed. Finally. “Please!”

“And shall we take it upstairs? Where it's more comfortable?”

Oh, even better. Clearly there was some sit-soft area, a lounge or something, where we could spread the pictures out, stand up and view them around us.

“Good idea.” I was on my feet.

In retrospect I suppose I did notice a flicker of surprise pass over his eyes; a faint startle, perhaps, at my alacrity, but he soon recovered. His face was naturally pink from all that champagne—either that or a rush of excitement at the prospect of seeing my work—and I let him guide me, his hand perhaps a touch too solicitous on my back, through the restaurant and back to the front desk.

He was talking nineteen to the dozen now, rather nervously in fact, about the new Turner Whistler exhibition, and it occurred to me this might be quite a big moment for him. A young star in the making? The new Tracey Emin perhaps, with him as my mentor? My Svengali? I smiled and nodded indulgently at his prattle, although I did pause to wonder why we were getting in a lift. That struck me as odd. Up it glided and on he chattered, smoothing back his waves and laughing too loudly and then, as the doors slid open, he ushered me out into a long corridor. A long, wallpapered corridor, with pink carpet at our feet, and lots of oak-panelled doors on either side. He walked me down it, rummaging in his trouser pocket, jingling loose change, but it was only when we passed a girl with a mop and bucket that it struck me…that this was a hotel. And that the jingling in his pocket was not coins, but keys, which he was bringing out even now, and fitting into a door with the number fifteen on it.

I gave a jolt of horror. Blood surged up my neck and face and to other extremities I didn't even know could flush. I stood there, aghast. Casper gently pushed open the door to reveal an enormous double bed with a bright red quilt in the middle of a dimly lit room. The curtains were drawn, and there was another bottle of champagne in the corner in an ice bucket. I half expected soft music to drift from the speakers, petals to float down from the ceiling. The bed seemed to be getting bigger, flashing alarmingly at me like the pack shot in an early TV commercial. As I gazed in disbelief, the saliva dried in my mouth.

“Shall we?” Casper murmured, indicating we should move on in.

“Oh—I…”

“We can spread your paintings out on the bed.”

I panicked. And for one awful moment, was tempted. Tempted to believe the fiction: to go right on in—perhaps wedging the door open with my foot, I thought wildly—that's my foot on the end of my elastic cartoon leg—whilst my elastic cartoon arm flung open the curtains or dragged that passing maid in for moral support—but in the very next moment it came to me with absolute clarity that if I set foot in that room, I had also to be sure I could survive a leap from a third-floor window. Either that or be prepared—when I emerged via a more conventional exit, shouting rape—for critics to suggest that by entering such an obvious seduction suite, I had Willing Accomplice writ large on my forehead. I turned. Took a deep breath.

“There's…been a misunderstanding.”

His smile wavered for a second. “I'm sorry?”

“Yes, you see, I had no idea this was a hotel. I was in such a terrible rush to get here I didn't pause to look. I thought it was just a restaurant, and when you said coffee upstairs, I assumed you meant in a bar or something. I had no idea you meant…” I trailed off, gesturing helplessly at the bed.

“Oh! Right,” he said shortly.

I saw his expression change from one of incredulity that I could have misunderstood him, to one of anger that I could have embarrassed us both so. For a moment, I thought he was going to hit me. Then he did something far worse. His face buckled and he ran a despairing hand through his hair.

“This isn't me,” he said softly. “This is so not the sort of thing I do.”

Oh Lord. I swallowed.

“Look,” I began, “it's fine, honestly. You don't have to explain.”

“My wife and I—well, we've split up. Recently, if you must know.”

Must I? I hadn't asked, had I?

“We—we're having a trial separation.”

“Right,” I whispered. I looked longingly down the corridor, to the lift, to freedom.

“But it's not permanent,” he said defiantly, as if perhaps I'd suggested otherwise.

“No, no,” I assured him quickly. “I'm sure it's not.”

“And God knows I loathe it,
loathe
it. Seeing the kids only at weekends, not living at home, all that crap. But—well, I've got to get on with it, you see, and I get so lonely, and I'm staying here, at this hotel, while we sort things out, and I thought—well, we were getting on so well downstairs, so I thought—”

“It's an easy mistake to make,” I said quickly. “And my fault too. I expect I missed the signs. The signals. Forget it. And now I really must be—”

“And when you said, ‘Let's go and look at my etchings,'” he looked at me accusingly, “I thought—well, I assumed…”

Did I? God,
stupid
Imo. “Yes, yes, I do see.” I blushed hotly.

“And the thing is, she's seeing someone else, I think. In fact I know she is.”

His eyes, to my horror, filled with tears. I had a terrific urge to be in the Scilly Isles. On a little boat, perhaps, bobbing around the bay. I glanced around wildly. Where was that passing maid? Surely her shoulder to cry on would be more appropriate? More absorbent?

“Someone younger than me,” he blurted out, “her personal trainer, such a cliché!”

Younger? Younger than Casper? How young could they get?

“He's Spanish, called Jesus, would you believe it, probably performs miracles, probably takes her to heaven and back,” he said bitterly. “He's certainly been spreading more than the word. I expect he's hung like a stallion too—probably has to sling it over his shoulder when he gets out of bed.”

I gazed around.
H-e-l-p.

He pinched the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger to quell the tears. “He's twenty-four,” he gasped, “with the body of an eighteen-year-old! The children call him Jeez. They ride on his back at the local swimming pool, he can do handstands on the bottom. Apparently he can make his ears waggle without touching them. Heaven knows what else he can waggle. With my wife! My Charlotte!” At this his voice broke and his shoulders gave a mighty shudder.

I stared at him aghast. He was struggling for composure but seemed to be losing the battle. I hesitated, but only for a moment, then plunged my hand into my bag for my mobile. I quickly punched out a number.

Casper leaped back in fear, his eyes wide with terror. “What are you doing?” he squeaked. “Are you ringing the police?”

“No,” I sighed resignedly, “I'm ringing my son's school. I'm going to ask them to put him into after-school club and then I'm going to ask my neighbour to collect him for me.”

“Oh!”

I put a hand on Casper's shoulder and swivelled him around in the direction of the lift.

“You, meanwhile, will come with me and together we'll find that sit-soft bar I've been fantasising about all lunch time. You will have a brandy and I will have a coffee, and whilst we sup our respective beverages you can tell me all about your wife and her scheming, faithless ways, and all about the dastardly Jesus too. On second thoughts,” I muttered as I marched him off down the corridor, hobbling a bit now in my heels, mobile clamped to my ear, “I think I'll have a brandy too.”

Chapter Two

“Oh God, I'm so sorry!” Kate wailed, hurrying through from the kitchen to put a mug of tea on the coffee table in front of me.

“Why should you be sorry?”

“Because it's all my fault! I thought he was going to sign you up for the Cork Street equivalent of the Summer Exhibition, not try to molest you, then weep all over you.”

“I suppose I should be flattered,” I mused, sitting up a bit in the squashy pink sofa in her conservatory and sipping my tea in a dazed fashion. “I can't remember the last time a man other than my husband even tried to hold my hand, let alone have sex with me. Unless you count the deputy head at the school carol concert last year.”

“The deputy head tried to have sex with you?”

“No, tried to hold my hand. I was miles away and hadn't realised we'd been urged to greet our neighbours with the sign of peace. Nearly slapped him.”

Kate snorted. “Very Christian. But I'm surprised at young Casper,” she said thoughtfully, sinking into the sofa beside me. “He's always had an eye for the girls, but I wouldn't have thought he'd try it on with you as blatantly as that. I shall ring him later. Have words with him.”

“No, don't,” I said quickly. “It was a complete misunderstanding and, actually, probably my fault too. And anyway, he's miserable and lonely.”

“I suppose,” she said doubtfully, sipping her tea.

“Although hopefully after two brandies and a thorough character assassination of Jesus of Barcelona, he's feeling a bit better now.”

“Jesus of who?”

“Barcelona. The personal trainer. The Latin Lothario who's taking his wife to the Promised Land on a regular basis.”

“Oh God,” she groaned. “You really got the works.”

I laughed hollowly. “Oh, I've sat through more photos of Barnaby and Archie, aged eighteen months and three years respectively, than I have of my own child.”

Kate made a face. “Sad.”

“Very.”

We were quiet a moment. Kate narrowed her eyes thoughtfully at the Welsh dresser opposite. “Does Alex carry around pictures like that in his wallet?”

“What, of me and Rufus? No, does Sebastian?”

“No!”

We regarded each other in silent outrage.

“Actually,” I conceded, “I think I've always found it a bit cheesy. Those men with pictures of the wife and kids on the desk—what's that all about? In case they forget what they look like by the time they get to work? Or to announce to the office they've got a happy marriage?”

“The latter probably, and you're right, it's an insecurity. I mean, look what happened to Casper. He had the pictures and his wife went out shagging.”

“Yes, and then he tried to redress the balance, although I must say, I think his current strategy of picking up middle-aged women in hotel restaurants is deeply flawed. I'm not convinced that's going to make her drop her square-jawed hunk and come running back.”

“I agree. I mean,” she added quickly, “about him picking up women, not the middle-aged bit.”

“Thanks,” I said gratefully.

She cradled her mug and shifted round in her seat to eye me wickedly over it. “And you weren't in the least bit tempted? Casper's rather attractive in a loose-limbed, puppyish sort of way.”

“Not remotely. Too wet behind the ears for my tastes and, as you know, I go for the older man. I don't want a puppy.”

“Which is not just for Christmas.”

“Well, quite. I'd have to throw sticks and get house-training. Anyway,” I added, “I hadn't shaved my legs.”

“Ah. Now we get to the nub of it.”

We giggled.

“Quite nice to say no, though,” I reflected, resting my head back in the soft, damask cushions and gazing up at the ceiling. “I'd forgotten what it was like to be sexually propositioned and turn a man down.”

Kate shot me a quizzical look but I didn't elaborate. There was a time and a place for such confidences and six o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon with four small children running about, some with bigger ears than others, was not one of them.

“Thank you for collecting Rufus for me,” I said, watching my son on his hands and knees in his grey school uniform on the conservatory floor, as he assembled a Playmobil fort with Orlando, whilst Tabitha and Laura, Kate's daughters, who were enjoying an exeat from boarding school, painted each other's toenails with rapt absorption. Not for the first time I reflected that daughters would have been nice. Would still be nice.

“Oh, it was no trouble. Orlando was in after-school club anyway because I suddenly realised we're at the opera tonight and I wouldn't have time to wash my hair, so I quickly shot to the hairdresser's.”

I smiled into my tea, marvelling at the disparity of our lives. My son was in after-school club because I was desperately trying to earn a few pennies by flogging my pictures whilst Kate's was there because she'd been indulging in a luxury I'd never experienced and probably never would. Not whilst I could stick my head under a shower for free.

I gazed out of the sunny conservatory, a natural extension of her enormous vaulted kitchen beautifully furnished with free-standing oak cupboards and hand-painted Swedish linen presses, to the billowing garden beyond; well over half an acre and possibly the largest London garden I'd ever seen. When I'd first stood at these windows and gaped at the view, I'd been staggered. I couldn't even see the bottom of it. An initial sweep of lawn complete with croquet hoops gave way to an apple orchard and longer grass, then beyond that, in the middle distance, something that looked remarkably like a bluebell wood. It was like being in Wiltshire, rather than West London, and I'd said as much.

“Ah, but you see, that's where my heart is,” Kate had confided with a smile as she'd joined me that day at the window, arms folded. “In the depths of the country, preferably on a horse. But I have to make do with pretending I'm there in this
rus in urbe
extravaganza.”

“I wouldn't mind making do with this,” I'd gawped.

“I know, neither would most people. I'm spoiled. But it's a sad fact of life, my friend, that however much you have, you want more. Or something different, at least.”

When I knew her better I realised she seriously minded about living in London. But Sebastian was a cardiovascular surgeon at the Wellington and needed to live within a certain radius of his hospital in case they needed him, so that was that. They'd tried owning a country cottage in Norfolk, but Sebastian found it almost impossible to get there on a Friday night and Kate hadn't wanted to be there without him. “I'm rather like the Queen Mother in the Blitz,” she'd quipped. “If the King isn't leaving neither am I, and if I'm not leaving, neither are the children.” So they'd sold the Norfolk cottage, and sold their Knightsbridge house too, moving from Montpelier Square to leafy Putney as a sort of compromise. And actually, once inside, you'd be forgiven for thinking you really were in a country house. Faded chintzes on the sofas, heavy oil paintings of dead ducks and partridges on the walls, and antique furniture on the polished wooden boards all contrived to preserve the illusion. There were even rabbits in a hutch in the garden and Kate was threatening a Shetland pony.

“There's plenty of space,” she'd said excitedly, dragging me down to the orchard one day, “and if I scooped the poop to keep the pong at bay, Sebastian would be none the wiser. He never comes down here, anyway.”

“He might see it from the bedroom window,” I said doubtfully. “I'll tell him it's a big dog.”

“What, the Hound of Putney Common?”

“Why not?”

I smiled to myself now as I gathered up my son's belongings—book bag, lunch box, PE kit—and attempted to prise him away from the joys of Orlando's toy box with its mountains of Lego and remote-control cars, and back to his own, less exciting quarters with no sisters, bantams or ponies. But as I told him the other day as he'd dragged his heels from this very same kitchen, other people's houses were always more attractive, and Orlando probably felt the same about Rufus's house. Rufus had turned contemptuous eyes on me.

“Come on, Rufus.” I beamed down at him now.

“We're going?” The eyes he turned on me now were anguished. “Aren't we staying for tea?”

My son had yet to enter polite society.

“No, darling,” I said quickly before Kate could offer, “because Daddy's coming home early tonight so we can all have supper together. That's nice, isn't it?”

Not as nice, clearly, as stopping here with Orlando and Laura and Tabitha and sitting around the huge tea table whilst Sandra, the nanny, produced tiny sandwiches with crusts off and meringues in the shape of white mice and melon balls—
melon balls!—
for pudding; whilst at home, Mummy hacked a doorstep off a loaf and frizbee'd a Jaffa cake at him. But he was an obedient child and I could do a lot with my eyes.

“Alex is coming home early for a change?” Kate got up to show us out. “That's nice.”

“Well, relatively,” I said nervously, following her down the black-and-white-tiled hallway. “I mean, relatively early, not relatively nice. Nine o'clock rather than ten o'clock, probably.”

She grimaced. “Tell him from me to break the habit of a lifetime and make it back for bath time for once. Really bust a gut.”

I laughed, but was aware of a whiff of disapproval in Kate's tone. A suggestion that Alex's after-work socialising—even though it was client-oriented and he loathed it—was excessive and at odds with family life. But then as Alex had pointed out as he'd flopped down exhausted on the sofa the other night, his handsome face racked with tiredness, tie askew, fresh from yet another city cocktail party, it was all very well for Sebastian. His clients were all horizontal and anaesthetised by the end of his working day; there was no chance of one of them sitting up and saying brightly, “Mine's a pint.”

“And anyway,” he'd observed sourly, rubbing the side of his face and yawning widely, “we can't all save lives for a living.”

I think Alex was fond of our new best friends, but found them a little worthy for his tastes. An “
homme sérieux
” was how he described Sebastian, adding, “That man's never dropped a bollock in his life.”

“Meaning?”

“He can't let go. Never has a drink and lets his hair down. What's he afraid of? That he'll make a prat of himself? So what?”

“Well, he may be an
homme sérieux
, but he's also a fairly
grand fromage
,” I'd replied archly, thinking personally, I wouldn't mind a little less bollock-dropping around here. Always the last to leave a party, always the life and soul, Alex was the ultimate bon viveur; but then, he would argue, it went with the territory. As a mergers and acquisitions specialist at Weinberg and Parsons, his job was to drum up new business and schmooze clients, and you couldn't do that on a glass of tomato juice and a face like a wet weekend, now could you?

Rufus and I said our good-byes to Kate and walked across the road. As I let us into the little semi with the Queen Anne door and the pretty stained-glass fanlight, the mess hit me. The house had originally sported a long thin entrance hall but it was dark and gloomy, so Alex and I had knocked the wall through into the adjacent sitting room. The net effect was that you walked straight into one largish, slightly less gloomy room, but straight into clutter. My response—which should have been to stoop and scoop the toys and clothes as I went, like a cotton picker—was to step gingerly over it all, whilst Rufus's was to run straight through to the only other downstairs room, the kitchen. As I neatly sidestepped a basket of laundry, I thought wistfully of Sandra across the road, but at the moment I couldn't even justify a cleaner, let alone a nanny. I followed Rufus to the kitchen, where he'd hopped up on to the counter and had got the bread out of the bin. He was hacking away fairly adeptly with a knife.

“Hey, what about having supper with Daddy?”

“Oh.” He paused, mid-slice. “I thought you were just making that up to be like the Barringtons. I didn't know we really were.”

I laughed and dumped his book bag on the table. “You're too shrewd for your own good, Rufus Cameron. Come here, I'll do it.” I took the knife from him.

“What's shrewd?”

“Um…knowing, I suppose.”

I cut the bread, spread it with peanut butter and folded it into a sandwich for him. He took it and bit into it, still none the wiser. But it was true, I thought, as I watched him sitting on the counter, munching away, swinging his legs in his shorts and grey socks and drumming his heels against the cupboard door, this was a very knowing child. One who tuned into my moods very acutely: who knew when his mother was happy or sad, pensive or nervous. My beautiful boy, with his auburn curls and deep chocolate-brown eyes: edible, clever. One of the things that had astonished me about having a child was that feeling of him being an extension of oneself, another organ pumping away. I wondered if other mothers felt that way. Since I had only one child, I had nothing to compare him with. Sometimes I wondered if our bond was too strong; if I should step back a bit, let out the umbilical cord. Alex said I mollycoddled him, but then Rufus and his father…I licked some peanut butter from my finger and turned to put the bread back in the bin. I shut it with a brisk snap. And to be fair, Rufus wasn't altogether the son Alex had expected.

“Throw a ball at him and he ducks!” Alex had complained after a disastrous trip to the park when the pair of them had returned looking mutinous. “He needs to toughen up a bit, be more of a lad.” He tossed the rugby ball on to the sofa and flopped down crossly beside it, still in his coat, whilst Rufus ran upstairs.

“He's nine, Alex. You want him sinking pints and singing rugby songs?”

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