Authors: Cate Kendall
Raucous laughter broke out just as Gemma pushed open the door to the bar. She was immediately assailed by a waft of warm air, ripe with the smell of Friday night drinks and too many bodies squeezed into a small space.
The Bot, in trendy South Yarra, was the place to be after work on a Friday. Gemma weaved her way through the throng of overexposed cleavage and charcoal suits, wincing at the blaring doof-doof music and sidestepping to avoid her new Manolo mules being stilettoed. Her navy Jil Sander jersey sheath dress would absorb the body stink of the crowd if she didn't slip by quickly.
God, is everyone in this bloody place twenty-seven? she wondered, shouldering her way through. The familiar feeling of panic started to build in her chest as she took in the fake laughter, the overdone faces and the try-hard guys with their hair product and Calvin Klein cologne.
Since seeing the doctor, Gemma had tried to cut back on coffee, but it was a hard habit to break. However, even just cutting down to half her usual caffeine intake had reduced the waves of anxiety. Except right now, she thought as she got caught between two broad-shouldered blokes swapping stock tips loudly over the intense music.
âExcuse me,' she said, pushing past. The men ignored her and carried on their conversation over her head, holding their drinks out to one side to prevent spills as Gemma fought past them.
This was Mercedes's stupid idea, Gemma grumbled as she finally got to the end of the long room and made her way to the Bubble Bar.
It was Mercedes's birthday and in typical fashion she had arranged the night, invited the girls and would then no doubt sit back, sip sparkling and not lift a credit card all evening. Gemma wondered how she'd become such close friends with the woman.
She thought back to their meeting; Gemma had had a last-minute hair disaster and rushed into the nearest salon. Mercedes had saved her social life that day and Gemma had been so grateful that she'd given her two tickets to a nightclub opening. In the end Mercedes had invited Gemma to go with her and they'd had a ball, drinking shooters, flirting innocently with good-looking guys and dancing all night long. They'd become friends immediately. At first Mercedes seemed to be an amazingly attentive friend who had only praise and support for her new BFF. But lately Gemma wondered if maybe Mercedes was getting somewhat bored with her. She seemed more interested in the parties and events that Gemma could provide access to than their friendship.
A drunk punter staggered past her in the dimly lit corridor and sloshed beer onto her foot.
I'm too old for this crap, Gemma decided as she reached the much quieter, more sophisticated Bubble Bar. She stood at the entrance for a few seconds to steady her breathing; her reflections on Mercedes had managed to make her all panicky and anxious again. Gemma's eyes adjusted to the subtle lighting of the room.
Okay, this is better, she thought to herself, taking in the sheer curtains that muted the view of a striking Japanese-style courtyard. The decor was plush and ornate, quite French in persuasion, Yael Naim's lovely tones were soothing, and the bar exclusively served Gemma's favourite drink: champagne.
She cheered up instantly and decided that maybe the night hadn't been such a stupid idea after all.
The girls had already secured a table in the corner. Mercedes flicked up one silver-draped arm. âYoo-hoo, the party's started. Where have you been?'
Gemma stopped to talk to the bartender then strode over to the ladies.
âHappy birthday, darling,' Gemma said and kissed Mercedes on each cheek and then greeted Chantelle in the same way.
âYou both look divine,' Gemma said, even though she was a bit worried that Chantelle looked slightly like a stripper. Her dress was made from white clingy cotton with rips down the sides, leaving no doubt that her underwear was absent. High gladiator bootsandals were the perfect complement to the look. The curling leaves of her bicep tattoo peaked out of the white cotton jungle.
âHere's your present,' Gemma said as the waiter arrived with a ninety-dollar bottle of Veuve Clicquot. She felt slightly petty doing this, but she knew from experience that she'd be buying the bubbles all night anyway and in the past she'd bought a present too and usually came away just feeling plain overgenerous and used. But it was worth it now that she witnessed the glimmer of a pout from Mercedes's lips. It seemed the birthday princess had expected a gift-wrapped trinket as well.
âOhhh, thanks, you shouldn't have.' Mercedes recovered her decorum and they all raised their glasses. âHappy birthday, me!' she toasted herself. The flutes chinked and the night began.
The girls were on their second bottle of bubbles and the hush of the room had been replaced by loud conversation and laughter as the place filled.
âSo it's just been dreadful, you know what I mean?' Chantelle was regaling the girls with her recent dates. âAnd then, not only did he vomit all over my new shoes in the limo on the way home, but I lost my house key so had to wash my feet off with the garden hose and climb over the balcony to get in. Gorgeous shoes, they were too. He was such a wanker. Too young.'
âEwww,' the two others squealed.
Chantelle went on. âAnd then today, it was just horrible; I couldn't find a handbag the exact white of my bootsandals. I thought,' she pronounced it âfought', âthat my Choo would do the job and all, but it was dreadful. I looked a right prat so I had to go out to Chaddy and nip into Coach for a new one. It's fab though, innit?'
The girls nodded enthusiastically. They were all Coach fans. Coach worked with everyone's style; Chantelle's urban whore, Mercedes's European Versace glamour and even Gemma's staid Armani elegance were all catered for at the slick American accessories boutique.
As Chantelle prattled on, Gemma watched her and thought back to when they'd met. Chantelle had travelled from the UK to see the world. She was twenty-one when she'd got the temp job as receptionist at IQPR, the international PR firm where Gemma was the rising star. It hadn't taken long for management to notice Chantelle's eager-to-please attitude and upbeat personality and offer her a full-time position on the front desk.
It hadn't taken much longer for the CEO, multimillionaire, player and divorcee extraordinaire, Ed Portsmouth, to fall in love with her and offer her a full-time position in his marital bed.
He was fifty years old to Chantelle's twenty-five as she walked down the aisle, or more accurately, a Thai beach. âIt's so romantic,' Chantelle had sighed when she'd struck upon the idea. And so different, she'd decided, because
got married on the beach. She opted for a white sarong and bikini instead of a dress and all the guests went barefoot. There were hibiscus bouquets and the bride and groom sported matching tattoos on their biceps. Gemma was one of the handful of guests.
The gossips loved the fact that Chantelle was Ed's fourth wife and the same age as his twin sons from his first marriage and that Chantelle was a receptionist from a working-class neighbourhood in Essex who dressed like Pink, with a body like Barbie.
But Gemma knew her friend was truly in love. She also could see from a mile away that Chantelle was looking for a father-figure and found it in Ed.
Tragically Ed keeled over from a massive heart attack on their first anniversary during a lovemaking session. It had actually been the fifth session for the afternoon so Chantelle had been racked with guilt. Her sobbing at the funeral, âI'm a murderer; it's all my fault, I killed him,' had not assisted her at all in the resulting bitter court case where the twin boys fought her for the millions of dollars in assets and capital she'd inherited on Ed's passing. The case was eventually thrown out but she'd split the fortune evenly in the end and gave the boys half. âJust to make them go away,' she'd told Gemma, âannoying little sods that they are.' She'd always treated them more like brothers than stepsons.
The grief hit Chantelle hard. She had loved Ed and their romance was just in its prime. She mourned for three years before feeling ready to face the singles scene again.
âSo it's just a hell week,' Chantelle concluded, then downed her glass and sat slumped. But she pepped up again within seconds. âOh, what am I like? Going on like this after your nasty turn at the spa the other day.' She turned to face Gemma.
âHow are you doing now?'
Mercedes pulled a downward face in sympathy.
âYes, darling, how
you? That was so frightfully embarrassing for you, you poor thing. Fancy having everyone
like that â how dreadful for you.'
Gemma hadn't been aware that anyone had stared. She suddenly didn't feel so comfortable with sharing, especially not the parts about her family life.
âApparently it's caffeine. I'd hit it too hard that morning and it brought on a panic attack.'
âNooo! Coffee?' Chantelle squeaked. âThat's completely mad, that is!'
âWell, I must admit, it makes sense. I was lying there and my mind was going a mile a minute. I'm so worried about everything, and it was like my brain short-circuited and I just snapped.'
âYes, the exact same thing happened to one of my clients,' Mercedes purred, âbut much worse; she had to be hospitalised. I don't think it was a panic attack though, more a heart arrhythmia, so it was like an actual illness.'
âSo it wasn't exactly the same then,' Gemma pointed out.
âYeah, like not at all,' Chantelle guffawed. âBut you go on, luv. What's this about “worries”? Is it the business with Tyler again?'
âOh, come on,' Mercedes said, âyou have a golden life. Look at you, you're beautiful, you've got a killer job, a drop-dead hottie for a hubby, an amazing mansion. You're a spoilt brat, Gemma Bristol.'
Gemma flinched, but chose to ignore Mercedes's caustic remarks.
âIt's silly, really,' Gemma sighed and fiddled with the large amethyst ring on her right hand, âbut I've got the middle-class guilts something shocking and I just can't seem to shake them. Mercedes, you're right: I do have it all, but I'm not doing enough. Sure, I give to the tin rattlers and I have fridge kids like everyone, but I have this urge to make a difference, to make a huge impact.'
âOh, that's gorgeous,' Chantelle beamed, clutching her hands together. âI'll help. It'd be so great to do something for the community.'
âAnd it looks fabulous on the CV,' Mercedes drawled. She'd been texting and the girls weren't aware she was still plugged into the conversation. âWhy not get the breast cancer account? They spend a fortune on PR. And you can quash your middle-class guilt at the same time.'
âPerhaps,' Gemma said. âI don't know.'
âI know, I know.' Chantelle bounced up and down on her tiny bottom in excitement. âHow about joining Dame Frances Davenport's team? They raise gazillions for the underprivileged kids foundation, you know, UP-Kids.'
âYeah, or you can spoon out soup to the homeless on Saturday nights,' Mercedes said, her sarcasm completely wasted on Chantelle.
âYes! Soup!' Chantelle agreed with Mercedes. âThat's brilliant, that is.'
Mercedes simply rolled her eyes and went back to her texting.
Chantelle turned back to Gemma. âYou should do the UP-Kids one, luv; you'd be great. Think of how much you could raise, how many lives you could change, go on then. Do it. I know her, I know Dame Frances, I do. Honest, I go to her things all the time. Me and my mate Pippi go.'
âReally?' Gemma asked. âWell, it's a wonderful idea; it could be the answer. Would you call her for me?'
Chantelle patted Gemma on the knee. âSure, happy to. She'll do anything for anyone if you donate to her cause. I've got an invite at home for her next do. She's expecting me to buy loads of her raffle tickets.'
âThanks, Chantelle â you're a star.' Gemma raised her glass to her friend.
âNo worries, luv.' Chantelle clinked her glass against Gemma's. âYou know I'd do anything for you. By the way, how'd you go talking to that lovely Peter Blakely, darlin'?'
âHas anybody got a photo of him on their phone so I can see what we're dealing with here?' Mercedes drawled.
âYeah, I called. No joy at all, I'm afraid,' Gemma said.
âOh, wot?' Chantelle was enraged enough to stamp her bootsandalled-foot. âThey are mad, they are. You're absolutely fucking brilliant and should be running the place. Did you remind him that you are running the place?'
âYes, but it's quite hard telling someone via Skype how amazing you are. It was most embarrassing to see his face drop as soon as I raised it. He said he'd do anything for me but he can't recommend me as I don't fit their current directional needs in management style but am definitely in the succession plan.'
âWhat the fuck does that mean?' Chantelle asked.