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Authors: Catherine Alliott

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I sighed as I mounted the stairs to my bedroom now and peeled off my dressing gown. Hell certainly hath no fury like a woman whose child has been scorned, but I wondered, if Rufus wasn't an only child, if I'd feel everything so keenly. Feel his disappointments like serpent's teeth, his tiny triumphs like Olympic achievements. If I could share my emotions out between some siblings, would they dilute, or would I just emote even more until I became one gigantic emotion? I didn't know, because as yet it hadn't happened and however much I cupped my hands around my mouth and hollered, “Come in, Cameron minor, your time is up,” nobody showed. Obviously I knew I had to do more than holler, but sometimes I wondered if Alex did.

I had a shower and dried myself slowly, keeping an eye on my reflection in the long mirror. My figure still wasn't bad—at least I hadn't completely gone to pot like Hannah—but those thighs could definitely be slimmer. I really ought to lose a few pounds but I worried that dieting affected fertility and I couldn't help thinking that if I ate well, a big fat baby would follow. And it suited my face too, I thought. What was it they said? After thirty, you choose between your face or your bottom. Well, I'd made my choice, and Alex approved too. “It suits you,” he'd murmur in bed when he held me close. “You're voluptuous, Imo, not like those terrible stick-insect women.” Not like his first wife, I knew he meant, but part of me longed to be like Tilly and her daughters: tall, dark and reed thin, not round and blonde and obvious.

“Are you going to paint today?” Mum called up from the bottom of the stairs.

“Yes, why?” I abandoned my reflection and reached quickly for my bra and pants.

“Well, I'll take Rufus to school if you like, then get out in the garden.”

“Oh, Mum, would you?”

“Course.”

I rifled in my drawer for a top, but as my hand closed on one, I went cold. I ran to the top of the stairs.

“Mum, make him hold your hand, won't you? And he has to be taken right to the gates. Don't let him tell you he can walk from the corner.”

My mother shot me a withering look as she hustled Rufus out of the front door. “We're cycling. See you later.”

Cycling! The front door slammed on my open mouth. I stood there, horrified. Rufus had only ever cycled in the park, never on a busy road. She couldn't mean it. I ran to the bedroom window. Sure enough the pair of them were walking bikes down the path, and as Mum hopped aboard and led the way, Rufus pedalled after her, wobbling wildly, no helmet. I struggled with the window latch: it wouldn't open. I hammered: it wouldn't break. Terrified, I ran downstairs, flung open the front door and was on the point of yelling, “STOP!” when I realised that was guaranteed to send him under the wheels of that passing juggernaut. I stifled my scream and made myself watch as he peddled alongside it. He did it rather beautifully. Much steadier now, and in a straight line behind his granny. As they disappeared around the corner, the postman delivering to next door gave me an odd look. It took me a moment to realise I was in my bra and pants. I hastened back inside and shut the door. God, what was wrong with me? I plunged my fingers into my hair. I seemed to veer from flagrant neglect and tossing Rufus a crust at tea time, to suffocating the poor child, never letting him out of my sight, and running down the street after him with no clothes on.

“You're an obsessive,” Alex would say, nonjudgementally. “You're either obsessed with your painting, or your child, but the two are mutually exclusive.”

“Is that wrong?” I'd asked anxiously.

“Of course it's not wrong, it's you.”

And actually, Mum was such a breath of fresh air, I thought as I went slowly back upstairs. She gave Rufus his head, let him have a bit of slack, just as she had done with Hannah and me. When we were young, she was forever saying things like, “Don't go to school today, darlings. Let's go round London on the top of a double-decker,” or, “Fancy motoring to Haydock to catch the one thirty?” Yes, it was lovely for him to have such a free-spirited granny, and lovely for me too to have her help. How very spoiling, for example, to be able to lock myself away in my studio all day while she revamped my garden. What a treat!

Of course, I should have known better. After all, I've known her thirty-four years.

Later that day, as we stood together on a windy school playing field amongst other shivering parents, waiting for Rufus and his team to materialise and for Alex to appear from work, we exchanged furious whispers. At least, mine were furious.

“I'm not being a bore,” I hissed, “I'm not even an avid horticulturist, I just think it defeats the object of a garden!”

“Nonsense, darling, it's terribly low maintenance. Frightfully economical too.”

“Yes, but it's not real!”

“But you wouldn't have known that, would you? When you came out, you thought it was marvellous.”

I gazed at her helplessly, her grey eyes wide under her dashing suede hat. It was true, I'd emerged from my studio at midday feeling woozy and sated—my usual euphoric state after four blissful hours at the canvas—secure in the knowledge that I'd slapped some good paint today and knocked a recalcitrant seascape into shape, to find my mother outside, surrounded by empty carrier bags, seemingly planting the last of her goodies, and had fairly marvelled at the sight that met my eyes. Gone was the tired strip of pale brown lawn surrounded by depressing darker brown beds, and instead, a gloriously tasteful green and white garden frothed around a patch of soft emerald lawn. Well, I say soft. It was only when I bent to stroke my new grass and fondle the nodding ferns in my border that it hit me: it was all fake. I was standing in a silk and plastic paradise, the whole thing a fabulous fabrication, with not one petal, leaf, or blade of grass real at all.

“You never have to water it or prune it, and it never wilts or dies—what more could you ask for? It works beautifully in my little roof terrace at Wilton Crescent.”

“But you can't even smell it!”

My mother's eyes widened as she puffed away on her Gauloise in the wind. “Oh, you can, darling, you can get scented sprays. Just blast it on first thing in the morning. I've got lavender and fresh pine.”

“What, like a frigging lavatory?”

“No, I bought them in Harrods; they're the real thing. I'll get you one if you like. Honestly, you are ungrateful, Imogen, after all my hard work. Ooh, look, here they come. Come on, Rufus!”

She clapped her gloved hands together excitedly as sure enough, twenty-two little boys came running on to the pitch in white shorts and red or blue rugger shirts, looking fit to burst with pride. My heart nearly burst too when I saw Rufus, beaming widely, chest out, little legs pumping. I waved madly, and forgot for one moment my mother's breathtaking presumption to take it upon herself to replace my garden, sad though it was, with a bogus reproduction, a seasonal nightmare complete with white roses and snowdrops all blooming at the same time, for heaven's sake. Alex would freak!

Where was Alex, incidentally? He was cutting it very fine. I looked around anxiously, but saw only Mr. O'Callaghan running on to the pitch. A palpable frisson rippled around the assembled mothers. Mr. O'Callaghan was tall, blond and rugged, but just a little too white-eyelashed for my tastes: what Mum would call a near miss. He jogged about the pitch importantly and shouted instructions, wearing very short white shorts.

Kate came up behind me wrapped in scarves. She found my ear. “I think Mr. O'Callaghan's shorts could go up an inch, don't you?”

I giggled. “Got to take your thrills where you can.”

“Absolutely, why d'you think we've all come to watch? Look at Ursula Moncrief, her tongue's practically on the floor.”

“She's always sucking up to him,” I muttered as we watched her trot on to the pitch in stupid high heels to ask him something.

“Oh, Mr. O'Callaghan,” mimicked Kate, “shall I keep score?”

“Oh, Mr. O'Callaghan, shall I hold your balls?”

We cackled like two frustrated housewives.

“It's those great big rosy thighs of his,” muttered Kate as we watched him bounce around. “That's what does it.”

“Well, I wish he'd stop flashing them and get this show on the road. My hands are frozen.”

“Mine too. Shall we rub them on Mr. O'Callaghan's thighs at half-time?”

“He'd probably love that; not sure about Orlando, though. You know my mum, don't you?”

She did, and they kissed and exclaimed delightedly, and before long were admiring each other's cashmere, recommending expensive restaurants to each other and comparing the efficacy of their cleaners. I had absolutely nothing to contribute to this conversation so I kept my eyes firmly on the game.

It set off at a breakneck pace and I held my breath, waiting excitedly for Rufus to get the ball, to race heroically down the pitch and score a try whilst the
Chariots of Fire
soundtrack played in my head. It didn't take long to realise that wasn't going to happen. The pack raged up and down the field with lots of red-faced little boys scrabbling and shoving for the ball, but Rufus seemed to regard it as more of a spectator sport. If the action came down his end he danced around the scrum excitedly, offering shrill advice, but dodged the ball neatly if it came his way. If the action was up the other end, he stood pensively, staring into space with his hands behind his back like Prince Charles, only occasionally seeming to remember where he was and jump about a bit.

“He's skipping,” Mum muttered to me.

“I know,” I groaned, watching as he skipped happily after the pack when it came towards him. “Rufus, run!” I hollered.

He smiled, waved at me, and skipped even faster.

I pulled my hat down over my eyes. “I can't watch.”

“You don't have to,” Mum informed me. “He's off the pitch now.”

“What!” I squeaked indignantly, pushing my hat up. Fully expecting to see Mr. O'Callaghan sending him off and bringing on a reserve, which I'd naturally object to in the strongest possible terms, I glanced around wildly. “Where?”

“Over there. Stroking a dog.”

Sure enough Rufus had taken time out to crouch down amongst some bemused parents on the touchline and stroke a spaniel. I daren't yell at him for fear of alerting Mr. O'Callaghan, but as I watched, wide-eyed, I saw him move on from the spaniel to chat to a woman with a baby. He really was the Prince of Wales now, on a royal walkabout, chatting to the crowds.

The match finally ended at 22–14 to us, no thanks at all to my son, who didn't touch the ball once.

As the boys shouted their three cheers for each side and we all clapped like mad, I decided perhaps it was just as well Alex hadn't made it. He'd have been mortified. Inwardly, though, I was fuming. Where the hell was he? I'd tried his mobile all through the game and it had been switched off. Perhaps I'd try the office again. I finally managed to get through to Judith, his secretary, who said in a rather strained voice that she thought he'd gone home. Someone had rung, she said, and he'd taken the call and gone.

“Gone home? What, not to the school?”

“I don't think so.”

“He was supposed to meet us here.”

“Oh.”

“So—hang on, Judith, who called?”

“I'm not sure, because it went straight through to his private line.”

“Yes, but I'm the only one who rings through on that line, aren't I?”

“Um, I'm not sure.”

She sounded uncomfortable. Suddenly I went cold. My heart stopped, and then it began to pound on again. I switched off my phone and turned to Mum, who was showing Kate some earrings she'd bought in Venice.

“They're glass, you see, not stones at all. Terribly clever.”

“Mum, Rufus has to have a shower and then a quick match tea. Could you possibly wait for him and bring him back?”

“Yes of course. Why, darling, where are you going?”

“I just want to go and find Alex.”

Mum looked surprised at being charged with so important a duty and I could sense Kate's eyes on me too, but in a moment I'd gone. I tucked my chin in against the wind and walked quickly across the playing fields, found my car in the car park, and seconds later was reversing out of the playground far too fast. I raced down the backstreets of Putney, clipping wing mirrors with a passing taxi and haring round bends. As I turned the corner into our road, my eyes scanned the line of parked cars. I couldn't see it; couldn't see the horribly familiar dark green Land Cruiser, so I told myself I was being stupid. I parked and walked quickly up my path, forcing myself not to run, but my heart was racing as I got my key out of my bag.

As I let myself in the house, I saw the coat immediately. It was thrown casually over the back of the sofa: dark blue velvet with snappy brass buttons, and a handbag and some keys were on the hall table. From the kitchen I could hear voices, laughter. As I went through the sitting room to the kitchen, willing myself to be calm, I saw them through the French windows in the garden together. They each had a glass of champagne in hand, and Alex was throwing back his head and laughing at something she'd said. He turned as he saw me approach and I saw the light in his eyes.

“Oh, hello, darling, look who's here. Isn't it marvellous? It's Eleanor!”

Chapter Four

When I first met Alex he was married to Tilly. The fact that the marriage came unstuck, though, was nothing to do with me. It was 1995, and I'd just returned from Florence where I'd spent a happy year as a post-graduate studying portraiture and sculpture under Signor Ranaldez at the Conte San Trada Academy. I was going out with a sweet Italian boy called Paolo, a fellow art student, and now I was back in London conducting a rather complicated long-distance relationship with him. We wrote and telephoned constantly, and the idea was that I'd go back and see him in the summer and he'd come to England in the autumn. Life, in the main then, was rosy. Money, however, was tight, and in order to pay my rent in Clapham where I shared a house with three fellow painters, I took a job as a secretary in the city. Just for a few months, I reasoned, then I'd have enough to rent a studio and set myself up properly as an artist. The offices I'd resigned myself to working in short term were in Ludgate Circus, and Alex Cameron was my boss.

From day one, when he swept down the corridor, coat flying, pushing his blond hair out of his blue eyes and calling, “Morning, Maria!” as he passed my desk, I had a feeling my plans were scuppered. He stopped, just a few paces away, swung round, and did a double take.

“You're not Maria.”

“No, I'm Imogen Townshend. I'm a temp.”

“Of course you are!” He clapped a hand to his forehead. “It's all coming back to me. And actually, you're nothing like Maria. You're not…” he made a bump over his stomach with his hand, “you know.”

“Pregnant?”

“That's it.”

I grinned. “Hope not.”

He laughed. “Yes, that would get tongues wagging, wouldn't it? If all my secretaries got pregnant one after another. I'd have to claim there was something in the water. Coffee-making skills in order?”

“Perfectly.”

“Good, because I've got a meeting in ten minutes and I could badly do with something strong and black before I face the Powers That Be in the boardroom.”

And off he went. And likewise, off I scurried like a good little corporate secretary, thinking how I'd much rather be wielding a paintbrush than a percolator, but that actually, if I was going to be skivvying for someone, he might as well be as decorative as this.

He got more decorative. Two months passed and Maria had her baby and then decided she couldn't possibly leave it with the nanny in Sevenoaks and could someone please stay on a bit longer, like for ever, and look after Alex and her spider plants? I promised to water them and stay for as long as it took Alex to find a permanent secretary. And so the interviewing process began. Alex would chat to the prospective secretaries first, then hand them over to me, the idea being that I'd explain the job in a little more detail. One particularly foxy blonde came out of his office with her eyes shining.

“He's heaven,” she breathed as I showed her where the photocopier was. “Surprised you get any work done at all!”

I showed her to the lift.

“I thought she was fine,” remarked Alex later, as he signed some letters I'd put in front of him.

I smiled thinly. “Lazy.”

He looked up surprised. “Oh? How can you tell?”

“Trust me, it's the eyes.”

It was the same with the next one. “Too timid.” And the next one. “Too tall.”

“Too tall?” Alex said, startled.

“She couldn't get her legs under the desk; she was like a giraffe. You don't want to have to buy her a new desk, do you?”

“Er, no. No, I suppose not.”

The next one was too simpering, the next too tidy, and it was at that point, when I was running out of insults, that I realised I was in trouble. I had to make a decision. I couldn't possibly stay on as a temporary secretary for ever. I had to become a permanent one. I rang the agency to cancel the flow of interviewees and broke the news to Alex. He was delighted.

My friends back in Clapham, however, threw up their hands in horror. When would I paint? Draw? What about my art? My mother was aghast—a
sec
retary, after all that studying, with all that talent! My father, not a man to get involved, even put in his two pennyworth—“You're barking mad, girl!”—but by now I was beyond reason. I'd already written a long letter to Paolo explaining that I wouldn't be coming out in the summer due to family commitments, but a week later, I wrote another one, telling him I'd met someone else. I didn't mention that the man in question had no idea, that my feelings were unrequited, and that he was in fact married. Neither did I mention that I satisfied myself with admiring him from afar and salivating through a glass door with “A. Cameron” written on it. Details.

And anyway, it wasn't always from afar. Occasionally our fingers would touch as I handed him a file, and sometimes, sometimes he'd stand over me as I typed, then lean across and point at my screen, inadvertently brushing my shoulder. Occasionally, too, when we were in the lift together, he'd put his hand solicitously on my back to guide me out first, as I'm sure he'd done with Maria, but I bet she didn't gasp and stumble back against the buttons, sending the lift plummeting to the basement. Once, we actually got stuck in the lift together. We weren't alone—there were a couple of other people making polite chitchat until Bill the janitor released us—but I was the only one to emerge short of breath, clutching the furniture. Yes, I was in love. Painfully and properly, and it was the first time it had ever happened. I couldn't keep it a secret either. I had terrible mentionitis, and hardly a day went by when his name wasn't dropped—“Alex said this,” or “Alex thinks that.” My family were on to it like vultures, and, after a hasty pow-wow, my sister, Hannah, was sent up from the country as emissary to make me see reason. She took me out to lunch and then insisted on coming back and meeting Alex. Happily, he was in a meeting, but I showed her his office instead.

“This is his desk,” I said reverentially, tenderly squaring up some papers on it. “And this is his lamp. It's an Anglepoise.”

“Yes, I can see that,” she snapped impatiently. “Why are you stroking it?”

“I'm not.” I snatched my hand away.

“I bet you stroke that too,” she jeered, jerking her head at his coat hanging on the back of the door.

“Don't be ridiculous,” I spluttered. I didn't tell her I was beyond that. I was sniffing it.

“A banker!” My mother hooted when I went out to see her in France; she laughed throatily as she stood at the stove making a
bouillabaisse
, spilling ash in it then stirring it in, pretending it was pepper. “You'll be telling me he's got a Porsche next.”

He had, but I couldn't tell her that. My family were arty, bohemian—Hannah was a potter, my father an actor—bankers and their Porsches were anathema to them. They'd expected me to rock up with a floppy-haired poet one day, someone with a healthy disdain for materialism, a garret in Islington and a cat called Ibsen, not a thrusting young executive who lived in Chelsea and got his thrills from playing the money markets. And the worst of it was, I knew it was hopeless. He was married to Tilly—a gorgeous, languid ex-model of a creature—had two young daughters, and lived happily with his perfect family in a dear little house in Flood Street.

Occasionally, when they were going to the theatre or a drinks party, Tilly would come into the office to meet him from work. Doe-eyed and with limbs like Bambi, she'd pass my desk with a shy smile and a friendly hello, then, after tapping softly on the glass door opposite, would flash an even wider smile at her husband and go in. I'd watch through the glass, manically chewing a pencil down to the lead, as he stood up and kissed her, clearly pleased to see her, and she'd sink down into his sofa to quickly paint her nails, or ring the nanny, while he finished some work. Ten minutes later they'd sail out again, laughing and chatting and I'd watch them go with a frozen smile, feeling like Cinderella as I called a cheery, “Have a good evening!”—picking bits of lead from my mouth.

Then I'd slump back in my chair and wish my life wasn't like this. What had happened? Three months ago I'd been a promising young artist with an amusing set of friends and a sweet Italian boyfriend, and now, here I was, a suicidal secretary in Ludgate Circus, miserably turning the lights off in my boss's office, looking at the styrofoam cup he'd chucked in the bin and willing myself not to pick it up and drink from it. What was going on?

I knew I should leave. My painting was suffering—let's face it, I hardly painted at all these days—but every time I tried, I couldn't go through with it. The thought of not seeing him every day, not taking in his post, not typing up his letters and taking them in for him to sign, his blue eyes glancing up as I came through the door, his face creasing into a smile—or what was worse, imagining it creasing up for someone
else—
brought me out in a muck sweat and sent me scurrying back to my desk again.

And then, a little over a year down the line—yes, I know, a whole year—something, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it, something changed. Alex seemed distracted and upset, and Tilly, when she rang and asked to be put through to him, sounded tense. Curt, even. She rang less and less, and one day, came in solely, it seemed, to have a blazing row with him. I couldn't hear what was said, but her voice was shrill and quivering. When she'd gone I turned to Jenny, a fellow secretary who worked for a senior partner. She'd looked at me in amazement.

“Oh, yes, didn't you know? He's been having an affair. Tilly caught him out and she's livid. I think they might be splitting up.”

I sat there staring at her, speechless. Alex? My Alex? Having an
affair
? No, it was too preposterous. I felt the blood drain from my face. Felt sick. My insides shrinking. How? It was outrageous. Why, I was so close to him, kept his diary, knew his every move, I'd have
no
ticed. I made my lips move, unaware of what they were saying. Surely no one at work?

“No, no one here,” Jenny assured me. “And I only know because I know someone who knows her. It's an old family friend, Tilly's friend too, in fact. Eleanor Latimer.”

“Eleanor Latimer!” I shrieked.

Eleanor Latimer was indeed a good friend, a
great
friend, who'd grown up with Alex in the country, and whose husband was a friend of Alex's, and whose children got on well with Alex's, and whom they went skiing with every Easter, and to Tuscany in the summer. I knew. I booked the tickets. Organised the villas, the hotel rooms. I was the indispensable personal secretary about whom Eleanor raved, apparently—“Lucky you, Alex, having someone like Imogen as your right-hand girl!” Why, I'd even met her when she'd come in with her husband once, some frightfully grand titled chap, tall, lean and consumptive-looking in a covert coat, and met her again when she'd popped in on her own to have lunch with Alex…Lunch with Alex. Why didn't I think? But I hadn't, because, well, she was an old family friend, so why shouldn't they have lunch together? And she was so jolly and nice, so chatty—not shy like Tilly, but matey, with her curly brown hair and merry eyes and laughing mouth. She'd perched on the edge of my desk and confided that it was Tilly's birthday soon, and that Alex wanted to buy her some stuffy Georgian decanter, but she'd come in to persuade him to go to Cassandra Goad in Sloane Street.

“Tilly doesn't want a ship's decanter for heaven's sake,” she'd chortled. “She wants something sparkling in her ears!”

“Are you ganging up on me?” Alex had come out of his office, smiling.

“Imogen was just agreeing with me,” she laughed, winking at me. “You need to get your wife something she can wear, not pour the port with.”

I gaped at Jenny. Eleanor Latimer. Eleanor
Latimer
!

“How long?” I whispered.

She shrugged. “Don't know. Not my business. Doesn't surprise me, though. Obviously got his brains between his legs, like most men.” Jenny's Pete had been caught recently with his trousers down and her views on men were uncompromising and trenchant. She sniffed and stalked off to the photocopier.

I'd walked home that night; all the way to Clapham. It took two hours in the pouring rain. That he could do such a thing. That he could transfer his affections, have an affair with another woman, and for it not to be me! The sense of betrayal was almost too much to bear. My heart felt like a shrivelled leaf fluttering in my chest, as if someone had reached in and squeezed it dry. I'd leave, I thought as I trudged up the steps to my front door, soaked to the skin: leave now. I'd hand in my notice in the morning. Yes, first thing.

And I'd really meant to do it, but the following morning, as I arrived, Alex called me into his office and shut the door behind him. His face was ashen as he paced about the room; he was distraught. He wanted to talk to me as a friend, he said, as someone he could trust; someone he knew wouldn't blab to the senior partners, who, it being an American bank, took a very dim view of anything immoral, anything untoward: he wanted my counsel. Tilly had thrown him out. He was staying in a hotel in Bayswater. It was all over between him and Tilly, had been for a long time, oh—he sat down on the sofa beside me and sighed—a
long
time, Imogen. After the second baby was born, she'd…well, you know. Lost interest. Become so wrapped up in the children, he'd felt excluded. And Eleanor—well, of course he adored Eleanor, always had done, he'd grown up with her. Should have married her really, but she'd married Piers, with his title, and his house in Tite Street and one day, his inheritance, Stockley. But he, Alex, had
always
loved her, and when Tilly had been so cold and remote and they, he and Eleanor, were together so often on holidays, or shooting weekends, well, they just couldn't help themselves, do you see? His blue eyes had appealed to me.

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