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Authors: Cate Kendall

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BOOK: Armani Angels
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All through her twenties Laura had worked as a newspaper photographer, shooting everything from protests and anti-abortion rallies to car accidents and Christmas pageants.

After her son Matty was born, she'd been happy to work as a freelancer, taking a more creative, artistic approach rather than chasing news stories. She'd had a few small exhibitions of her work and was published fairly regularly in international magazines, and that was enough for her. She wasn't after fame or money, just personal satisfaction.

But then, two years ago, her beloved husband Louis had died suddenly of a heart attack while riding his bike. As motivated by art as she was, he had left no money to provide for his wife and son from his eclectic career as a writer and script editor. All Laura had was his unfinished manuscript, a wall of books and his crazy collection of hats to remember him by. Not that she wanted to remember. She had packed up everything he owned and put it in her parents' garage the day after the funeral.

A week after his death Laura received a letter from a man who was there when Louis died. The man had worked with other passers-by to start Louis's heart again, to breathe air into his empty lungs. She imagined the peak-hour traffic whizzing past and the cold rain of a Melbourne winter soaking through their clothes, chilling their skin as they fought in vain.

Laura had never written back. She'd ripped the letter in two after quickly skimming the words and thrown it away. ‘Fucking interfering busybodies who want to pat themselves on the back for watching him die. They can fuck off,' she'd shouted angrily, tears streaming down her face as she'd opened the lid of her wheelie bin and tossed the shreds of paper inside with the rotten food and the broken bird corpse which Louis had found in the garden the week before. The sight of the shattered bird had made the ache in Laura's chest deepen till she'd thought she might die too, right there on the driveway. As she'd thumped the lid of the bin closed, she noticed the blind of Matty's upper-storey bedroom window drop down. She stalked inside, the soles of her cherry-red Doc Martens slapping on the concrete.

A few months later, as the bills piled up, she'd called the picture editor at
The Age
and begged for work. But work was scarce in the local media, newspaper circulation was dropping and mass redundancies had recently slashed
The Age
's staff.

All the editor could offer her was Weddings. A couple of shifts a week shooting society weddings. Laura hated it, but stuck at it. It was a job, and it would help with the private-school extras. Thank God Louis's parents had stumped up for the school fees. Fat lot of good the posh school was doing, though.

At sixteen Matty was withdrawn, sullen and had slowly transformed from an easygoing twelve-year-old with tousled blond hair and bright blue eyes, to a grunting goth with body odour and tufts of facial hair sprouting between his acne colonies.

She and Matty lived like strangers, each retreating to their own corner of the tiny flat she'd rented for them. Laura had been forced to sell the house that she and Louis had worked so hard to restore. Together they'd scrounged old country houses earmarked for destruction for beautiful old timbers, stained-glass panels and an array of timber doors that added charm and interest to the place. They'd only just installed a cast-iron pot-belly stove they'd found at a garage sale while on holiday in Tasmania when Louis died. Losing the house a year after his death was like losing Louis all over again, but Laura didn't cry once.

Her jaw ached for months from grinding her teeth hard in her sleep, but the pain was at least a small distraction from the agony inside her. And now, two years after his death, she still hadn't really spoken with Matty about his dad. Thinking it was for the best that they not dwell in the past, she bound her pain tightly within her and strode through life, frightened that if she paused too long the agony might consume her.

After a year on the wedding circuit, Laura was finally freed and offered work shooting society events with the paper's resident social columnist, Priscilla Simcoe, whose column, Priscilla's Socials, ran daily in
The Age
.

Funny how the paper had once considered itself highbrow, Laura laughed to herself as she grabbed a slice of wafer-thin Wagyu beef from a passing waiter. Economic viability had seen it fill up its pages with this sort of empty-headed nonsense, and Laura now spent her nights snapping vacuous socialites who cared more about their latest hair extensions than world affairs.

Stifling a large yawn, Laura tried to shake off the boredom and wondered briefly if she might get a chance to nick out the front to bot a quick fag. She didn't smoke much, usually only when she was suicidally shit-bored, like right now.

Priscilla rushed over, her bleached blonde hair gleaming in the spotlights. Laura could see she had applied her make-up with a trowel again and was wearing stiletto sandals with gold leather straps that wound around her tanned legs up to the knee. A gold lamé minidress completed the socialite's look.

‘Laura, what are you doing?' Priscilla said, her voice high-pitched with panic. ‘Nicole Kidman just walked in, where have you been?'

She shepherded Laura towards a noisy throng at the front door. ‘Hurry, is the camera on? Get a shot of me with her.' She straightened her dress and foofed her hair as she jostled herself into position.

‘Nicole, just a quick pic for
The Age
, darling,' Priscilla gushed, pushing herself nearer the star and baring her teeth at the camera as Laura clicked away.

The film being launched,
Banjo
, was touted as the greatest feature Australia had ever produced. The darlings of the nation's film industry were here tonight to celebrate their success.

The photo wall dazzled as the superstars of the event posed in their glamorous outfits before the paparazzi. Laura grabbed a goat's cheese soufflé from a passing tray and, jamming it in her mouth, sank into the fray.

Mercedes Fiorucci was excited. She always was excited to attend IQPR events as Gemma's guest. As the cab wound through St Kilda, Mercedes watched the usual Saturday night crowds that were milling around the funky suburb, eating pasta at pavement tables, enjoying twilight picnics on the beach and sipping coffee in fashionable Acland Street.

As the cab drove up to the venue named on her invitation, Mercedes was surprised to see there was no crowd outside the hotel. She checked her watch. Perhaps punctual was early in the literary world.

When Chantelle had called and offered her a ticket, Mercedes had automatically presumed that she'd be Gemma's handbag. She'd been a bit miffed when she found out that Gemma wasn't accompanying her to tonight's book launch. She knew Gemma's husband, Stephen, rarely accompanied his wife to the many social events she was invited to, which meant Mercedes scored plenty of freebies.

But tonight Gemma was at some boring car thing, so Mercedes was flying solo. She inspected her perfect talon-like nails. Oh well, she decided, flicking her long chestnut-highlighted hair over her shoulder, it was an event, a night out, a place to be seen and to mix with the beautiful people. And a book launch too, she thought with an impressed smile; she'd never been to one of those before, but it sounded pretty posh. No doubt it would be a glittering affair crowded with press and celebrities. She smeared an extra coat of lip gloss over her Restylane smile and smacked her lips with satisfaction. Who knew, she might even meet the next Mr Right-Now.

Mercedes was a serial monogamist always on the lookout for the next target. Well, mostly monogamist.

She handed a twenty-dollar note to the driver and climbed out of the cab.

The Prince's foyer was stunning. The reception desk, stairs and even the lounge suite were slabs of charcoal that seemed to hang from the neutral backdrop. Above, rusty Moorish screens offered glimpses into the mezzanine courtyard.

Mercedes veered left and made her way up to Circa, one of the funkiest restaurants in the city. She stopped at the bar to register.

‘Mercedes Fiorucci?' the girl said, scanning the list. ‘I don't see you.'

‘What about Gemma Bristol? I'm her guest,' Mercedes asked.

‘Oh, yes, of course Gemma's on the list,' the girl said, handing Gemma's name tag to Mercedes, ‘I'll just make one for you,' and scrawled Mercedes's name on a sticker.

‘Thanks,' Mercedes said. Turning, she pocketed her paper tag and pinned Gemma's name onto her Donna Karan stretch-silk jacket. She'd spent a small fortune on the outfit especially for tonight.

‘I can be Gemma for the night, what fun.' She grinned at her own cleverness as she walked into Circa.

‘Oh, no,' the girl said, ‘the launch is not in the restaurant. It's in the conference room upstairs.'

That was strange, Mercedes thought. She trooped up the narrow stairs at the side of the bar and entered the room.

There had clearly been a terrible mistake.

While little could detract from Circa's slick decor and chic beauty, this crowd came close to overwhelming the style of the room with its sheer dullness. A bunch of dowdy, bespectacled women in orthotic shoes milled about. Muted conversation competed with the low tones of Michael Bublé on the sound system.

An extremely plain-looking person of indeterminate gender bustled over. The person wore black trousers with a suspiciously polyester sheen and a rather festive jumper and sported thick-rimmed glasses atop a wiry grey crew cut.

‘Gemma Bristol, I am so honoured that you are here! We never believed you'd come. Can I get you a drink?'

‘Er, yes, please, a Rosetini, thanks.'

‘Oh, the bar is just white wine or red.'

‘Okay, a sauvignon blanc then.'

A bored-looking waitress slumped by and the person grabbed a white wine.

‘I don't know what this is. Here. It's white and quite lovely, although I've had my one for the day.'

‘Thanks.' Mercedes took a sip then quickly put the glass down onto the table next to her, her mouth pursed in distaste. The wine was obviously not from the hotel's wine cellar.

‘I'm Mary Patterson, the author and self-publisher of my book,' her host announced, sticking out a small, freckled hand.

‘Oh, great,' Mercedes said, her fingers briefly making contact with the outstretched hand. She hadn't even bothered to look at the title of the book. But there it was on a poster at the front of the room:
The Many Pauses of Menopause
.

Shit.

‘Today I was on community radio. I was so lucky to get that gig, let me tell you,' Mary babbled on, as she pulled the errant strap of her handbag back onto her shoulder. ‘And tomorrow a journalist is calling me from the local paper. It's all very exciting. I don't know about this venue, though; it's a bit “trendy” for me.' Mercedes cringed as Mary held her fingers up to use air quotes. ‘But my sister-in-law had a contact and I do hate to say no.'

Mercedes racked her brain for an escape plan as a plate of sad-looking fried dim sims was carried past. Mary followed her eyes. ‘To save on the room rental, I did my own catering,' she explained.

The squeal of a cheap mobile PA system interrupted them. Another grey-haired woman in sensible shoes was grinning at the crowd. Perhaps it was the sister-in-law in question.

‘My dear friends, it's an honour to have you all here this evening to celebrate our chum, our sister, our compadre in her great publishing achievement.'

Mercedes took a tiny step back towards the exit.

Mary linked her plump little arm around Mercedes's and whispered, ‘I want you to come up the front with me so that all my friends can see that you're here.'

Mercedes's passion for her soft grey, stretch-silk, taffeta double-layer Donna Karan skirt was the only thing that prevented her from diving headfirst from the first-floor French windows that opened onto St Kilda Road.

She joined Mary at the front of the crowd and was forced to listen to the self-congratulatory speech about years of research and writing. Then she endured the terrible menopause gags (‘Is it hot in here or am I just having a flush?'). It was the longest forty-five minutes of Mercedes's life and a sinful waste of fashion, she decided sadly.

As soon as the speeches were over, Mercedes spun to leave, only to come face to face with Mary again. The woman seemed to have the stealth and speed of a menopausal ninja.

‘There are some people I want you to meet. This is my mother-in-law, Doreen.'

Mercedes had had enough. She scrabbled in her bag and grabbed her silent mobile. ‘Hang on, Mary – sorry, this is important.

‘Hello? Yes, immediately, I understand. Bye.' Mercedes made a show of ‘ending' the call.

‘Mary, many apologies but I must go – crucial, er, PR emergency has sprung up.'

‘I understand, you're very busy. But I thank you so much for your time. It's meant the world to me, your coming. And . . .' She pressed a copy of her book into Mercedes's hands. ‘This is for when your time comes, dear. We all know what it's like.'

Mercedes threw the book into the first bin she found on St Kilda Road, horrible, disgusting thing that it was. She adjusted the collar of her new jacket as she sat in the safety of a cab, driving away from that twilight zone where women wore Kumfs and discussed their bodily functions in public.

What on earth had Gemma been thinking? Mercedes wondered with a shudder as she dug in her bag for hand sanitiser to kill off any lingering traces of the night.

‘Oh, do I ever need this!' Gemma said and slumped back into the chaise, collecting the white robe around her outstretched legs. The soothing tones and luxurious textures of the day spa's waiting room nurtured the women.

‘Mmm, I know what you mean,' murmured Chantelle as the imminent pleasures of the Plethora Day Spa tipped her already relaxed personality a little further towards catatonic.

They had all been working so hard lately: Mercedes at her hair salon, Gemma in the demanding role of temporary CEO of the Australian branch of IQPR, and even Chantelle – in between bouts of retail therapy. So when Mercedes suggested spending a Saturday enjoying Plethora Day Spa's latest indulgence – The Ancients – Chantelle and Gemma had quickly agreed.

First all the hair from their bodies, except some eyebrow hair, would be removed with the Middle Eastern art of threading – fine cotton lines twisting and rubbing over the flesh. Then they were to be wrapped in desert mud while a therapist performed soothing Paudi scalp massages and applied a nourishing hair mask. Finally they would undergo a ritualistic rock treatment where ancient polished stones were stacked upon their bodies.

Mercedes lay on the chaise across from them, fussing with her robe. ‘These things are so unflattering,' she complained, pulling the towelling closer around her scrawny frame. ‘They're always so shapeless and would it kill the owners to offer them in extra small? I have darling robes at my salon. They're designer, they're figure fitting, and they look delightful. Of course, we have to supply this kind of shit for our more sizeable clients, but my thin clients look fab.'

She stopped her fussing and sat bolt upright. ‘By the way –' Mercedes stuck her hand on her hip in anger.

‘What?' Chantelle and Gemma said, looking at her in surprise.

‘What the bloody hell were you thinking, sending me to that lame-arse book launch last week?'

Gemma looked at her blankly. ‘What do you mean?' she asked.

‘That menopause lady, she was a nightmare! The whole thing was a nightmare. How could you, Gem? I thought for sure you would be coming with me, which is the only reason I said yes.'

Gemma pursed her lips and worked it out in a second. Chantelle, the little minx. She glanced at the suspect who had lain back and closed her eyes in a faux meditation on her other side. Yep, Gemma thought. Guilty. It hadn't been the first time. There was the other incident when Mercedes had been so excited to attend the UGG Australia launch and had hurried off expecting Pammy Anderson, great nosh and free boots only to find it was the launch of the new sole cutter at the manufacturing plant, and she'd had to endure an hour of deafening machinery, ear protectors that flattened her curls and free samples of rubber.

Rather than dob in Chantelle, although she deserved it, Gemma covered for her.

‘Oh, that. So sorry, darling, I just had to be represented at that do, for strategic reasons, and I knew you'd be the girl for the job.'

‘Hmph, well, warn me next time,' Mercedes said in a sulk.

A therapist in wide-leg chocolate linen pants and taupe tunic top placed steaming glasses of herbal tea at each side table.

‘Do you have any espresso?' Gemma asked with hope.

‘I'm afraid not,' the girl said with a gentle smile. ‘We promote holistic health: mind, body and spirit here at Plethora.'

‘Never mind,' Gemma said, running her hands distractedly through her bob. She sighed deeply. ‘I guess I'm just a bit hooked on my regular caffeine hit,' she added, her voice apologetic.

She turned to Chantelle. ‘I'm just so exhausted lately,' she said, ‘but it's weird; no matter how tired I am, I can only seem to sleep for about four hours a night.'

‘Of course you're tired, luv,' Chantelle said as she reached out to pat her friend's hand. ‘How's work? Any better?'

‘It's a freaking nightmare,' Gemma said. She leaned her head back onto the bolster and shut her eyes.

‘You should do a line of cocaine. It works wonders for balance,' Mercedes offered, her head also back with eyes closed.

‘You know I don't do that shit, Mercedes,' Gemma said, sitting up again to continue her conversation with Chantelle.

‘You know how Wally left?' Wally Robinson had been the ineffective CEO at Gemma's firm for the past five years.

‘A coupla months ago, yeah?' Chantelle sipped her herbal tea.

‘Well, the powers-that-be in bloody New York have been dragging the chain on hiring a replacement.'

‘So who's running the place then?' Chantelle asked.

‘Me! That's who. The bastards are so cheap they've got me doing twice the work on half the salary of the CEO because, unlike the useless Wally Robinson, I don't have a
me
to help me. If you get what I mean.'

‘So why don't they make you the permanent CEO?' Chantelle asked.

‘No chance. A: I'm not male, and you know how “glass ceiling” PR is. And B: I'm far too young. I'm a good ten years off being considered.'

‘Can't you, like, ask them anyway?' Chantelle asked. ‘You could do that job in handcuffs, you're so good. And what about that Peter bloke? He's beautiful, he'd support you. I think he fancies you.'

Mercedes sat upright, interested now that the boardroom gossip had ventured a little closer to the bedroom.

‘Ooh,' she teased, ‘you got an admirer, have you? What would your Stephen say?'

‘Oh, shut it, Mercedes. He's IQPR New York's CEO. We're colleagues; of course we have to get along. Get your mind out of the gutter.' She turned back to Chantelle. ‘You're a troublemaker.'

‘He does, but. I saw him looking at you at the IQPR Down Under conference last year. He's a bit chunky but so loverly and all.'

‘Thanks, Chantelle. But you're right, though; I do need to call him about this situation, to find out when a new CEO will be appointed so I can stop working so damn hard.'

Mercedes piped up again. ‘Oh, any excuse will do to call your mystery Yank.'

Gemma just rolled her eyes at her and continued to talk to Chantelle.

‘I figured that if I just kept the company running smoothly, the recruitment process would kick in eventually, but I think I'm going to have to start making some noise.'

Mercedes was back in coma pose but mumbled, ‘I bet Peter would like to make some noise with you.'

‘Mercedes, just drop it,' Gemma snapped angrily.

Mercedes's bottom lip stuck out slightly and she turned her head away from the others.

Gemma felt immediately guilty. My God, she was on edge. Mercedes was giving her the shits big-time, but such good-natured teasing never normally bothered her. And today her heart was racing, her hands were shaking and she was finding it difficult to get her breathing into the deep, slow rhythm that Plethora usually commanded.

Chantelle's eyes continued to rest gently on her friend. ‘And I know things haven't been easy at home, either,' she said.

Gemma just sighed in response. ‘Where do I start?'

‘Well, how are things going with Tyler these days, then?' Chantelle asked.

Gemma rubbed her hand across her forehead. ‘I know teenagers are supposed to be hard work, but he does seem to go out of his way to give me grief. I'm so worried about him.'

‘Kids. It's just a phase; he'll be fine,' Mercedes said as she stood to follow the therapist into a treatment room. ‘Ciao, girls. See you in the massage room when I'm plumped, pricked and polished.'

Another therapist guided Chantelle and Gemma into a second room. The ladies nestled into their heated cocoons as the threading and plucking began.

‘Oh, that's a shame, that is, about your boy, darling,' Chantelle said. ‘He's brill, that kid. What do you think went wrong, Gemma? He seemed so great a couple of years back.'

‘He was doing so well, but since halfway through last year he's just become more miserable and withdrawn.'

‘Do you think it's the stress of Year Eleven, maybe?' Chantelle asked.

‘I don't think so. He just seems to have lost interest in everything and seems so angry all the time.' A tight ball of tension formed in her chest as she thought about her son. ‘Do you know he's even stopped playing guitar?'

‘I didn't know that,' Chantelle said. ‘That's terrible.' She squeaked as the threading came close to her upper lip. ‘Is there any chance he could be, you know, acting out because of the distance between you and hubby? I know that's quite bad at the moment.'

Gemma folded her arms across her chest. ‘He's one of the lucky kids whose parents are still together. That's a rare thing these days, you know, even if we're not crazy in love anymore. At least he's not damaged from coming from a broken home.'

Chantelle's voice was gentle as she responded. ‘Sometimes being in a home with both your parents is not the ideal situation though, luv.'

‘I suppose if Stephen and I were screaming and yelling at each other all the time it might affect him, but we want Tyler to have a real family,' Gemma said.

‘The way I see it, darl, is that families come in all shapes and sizes these days,' Chantelle said. ‘My dad left us, but still my childhood was happy and I turned out all right.'

Gemma thought for a second about Chantelle's fondness for father-figures in her romantic life but kept the observation to herself.

‘I guess everyone's different,' Gemma said. ‘I just want the best for Tyler. Stephen and I are okay.'

‘Really?' Chantelle raised her perfectly shaped eyebrows. ‘Do you laugh together, have lovely chats, share hobbies and stuff?'

Gemma snorted. ‘What? Are you high? We've been married so long – all the conversations are done, the laughter has finished and as for hobbies, he has his model kits, his sailing, his golf, his drinking buddies, and I have my . . . er . . .'

‘Yah, luv, go on then,' Chantelle prodded.

‘Well, I don't really have time for hobbies, what with IQPR being so busy. We've got the recent bloody scandal with that feral, Johnny Jackson – why those footballers cannot keep their pants on, I don't know. Then there's the Porsche awards night coming up, not to mention the Barry Humphries tour. He's a beautiful man, but God, that Dame Edna can be a real bitch!'

Chantelle sat quietly and watched Gemma who was staring at the ornate crystal chandelier.

‘I should have invested way more time in my marriage over the years, Chantelle, I really should have. But I was so focused on university, my career and raising Tyler, I put Stephen and me at the bottom of the list.'

‘You were pretty young when you had Tyler.'

‘Yes, we got pregnant right in the middle of our Arts degrees. Stephen did the wrong thing and proposed. Then I did the wrong thing and accepted.'

‘The wrong thing?'

‘Yeah, we were too young. Who says you have to be married to have a baby? We should have just stayed a couple and seen where it went. We were so great together but honestly, parenting puts so much strain on a marriage. Then it went pear-shaped when Stephen got a sales job at the radio station to support me while I was at home with Tyler. I think he still resents the fact that he never finished his degree.'

‘But you got your degree in the end?' Chantelle asked as she inspected her face in the mirror proffered by the attendant.

‘Of course I did, with a combination of summer school and night school. It was important to me.' She felt a catch at the back of her throat and gulped in a deep breath to calm herself down. Not again. She was getting weepy over the most ridiculous things lately. Just yesterday when the admin coordinator had announced she was pregnant, Gemma had run to the toilet to hide an unexpected wave of emotion.

‘Well, if it was so important to Stephen, he could have done the same thing,' Chantelle said. ‘Is it fair that he resents you for that? He should get over himself.'

‘Yeah, I know, Chantelle.' Gemma swung her legs around and sat upright. ‘I guess things have been a bit ugly at home lately. Stephen and I snarl and snap at each other like pit bulls sometimes. It's easier to stay at work.'

‘Darl, if you think Tyler can't sense the tension at home, you're a bit of a nuffer,' Chantelle said.

Gemma sat with her forearms on her knees and her hands clenched.

‘Yeah, maybe,' she said, her voice a strained whisper. ‘And you know, the other thing that's really bothering me is all this.' Gemma swept one arm around the room, encompassing the high gold ceiling, the heavy antique sideboard that held glowing tea lights, the cabinetry that groaned under the weight of expensive creams that were probably all tested on baby animals.

‘What do you mean, then?' Chantelle looked around, her big blue eyes blinking in wonder as if taking it all in for the first time.

‘The luxury, the money, the excess. It's really got me thinking.'

BOOK: Armani Angels
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