Authors: Cate Kendall
Logically it seemed that it was going to work out really well and he had decided that he would recommend her to Dame Frances. He hoped his instincts would prove to be correct.
The three women stormed through the leaf litter ignoring the rusty, angry cyclones whipping at their trackpants. The headwind made the steep hill leg of their powerwalk around âThe Tan' â Melbourne's nickname for the Royal Botanic Gardens â even more challenging.
The work-out location was Mercedes's choice. She lived in a gorgeous two-storey apartment decorated in pure Art Deco, positioned near the Yarra River, so this was a very convenient place for her to meet her friends. Her only company at the apartment was her Maltese terrier Donatella and the occasional semipermanent boyfriend who came then went when Mercedes's demands reached unreasonable levels.
âSo, I'm in,' Gemma announced, âfinally. Thanks again, Chantelle, for the contact. Julian Goodstead's a real sweetie.'
âWhat are you like?' Chantelle asked and grinned. âDon't be daft. It was just a phone call.'
Mercedes dabbed at her forehead with her armband. She was looking quite flushed. âI think you're mad. What a waste of time. I hope it doesn't cut into your social life too much.'
âNahhh, she's wonderful, Mercedes,' Chantelle said. âI think it's just great what you're doing, helping the kiddies and all.'
âI had to have a job interview with Julian. Can you believe it?' Gemma said, adjusting her stride to match her friends'.
âYah, I guess I can, really,' Chantelle said. âThey've got to be careful. You can just imagine some of the people that must try to get onto their committee. It's got such respect in the community.'
âYes, you're right. I tell you what, though: I really will have my work cut out for me. They don't even have a website.'
Gemma jumped over a eucalyptus bough that had come down in the winds.
âJeezus,' Mercedes said, âhow Dark Ages. Even my dog-walker has a website. And she's twelve.'
âYes, it will be great improving on their systems, helping them change their ways, bringing them into the twenty-first century, to improve their fundraising efforts. And I just had another idea: Dame Frances's auctions are legendary, and she could raise even more money for UP-Kids by doing them on eBay. The potential of this committee is limitless.'
They reached the top of the hill and turned right. Now that they were on the flat their pace picked up a bit.
âYeah, sounds great, luv,' Chantelle said, âbut remember, Dame Frances is a real stickler for tradition. I don't think you should go too hard at first. Softly, softly is what she's used to, you know?'
âOh, that's so conservative, Chantelle,' Mercedes said. âYou're right, Gemma: you should go for it hammer and tongs.'
âDo you really think so, Mercedes?' Gemma asked.
âChah! Of course, she'll love all your ideas. They're so good â how could she not?'
Gemma wondered if Mercedes was just sucking up, but she quickly discarded the bitchy thought.
âWell, I do have loads of ideas and I can't wait to share them all with her. We meet tomorrow.'
âGem,' Chantelle said, âtrust me on this one, my love. She's not one for change. It's her way or the highway, if you know what I mean. She's not going to like it.'
âYe of little faith,' Gemma said and patted her friend on her very tanned arm. âI'll have Dame Frances lapping out of my palm before the end of the month.'
Gemma smoothed down her grey Armani pants as she stood up from the car. She picked up her new dove-grey Michael Kors handbag and swung it from the crook of her elbow. First appearances were important so she kept her charcoal cropped Max Azria suit jacket on and buttoned up even though it was an unseasonal twenty-four degrees for the autumn day.
She'd scored a park right out the front of Dame Frances's apartment building and was in the elevator zipping up to the penthouse floor within minutes. Today was her first committee meeting and she was a little apprehensive. Although she'd worked with highly respected, well-connected pillars of society before, she also knew there was a lot riding on this meeting. This was the first time she was to meet Dame Frances, apart from one brief phone conversation. She'd laughed at Dame Frances's wit when she'd told her that she didn't have an email address.
To have the most influential women of Melbourne society in one room at the same time was a fairly intimidating prospect. Particularly Dame Frances Davenport herself. To be knighted by the Queen for her charitable works was mind-blowing. Gemma was nervous.
The elevator opened directly into the Dame's foyer. Julian walked in from the living room to greet her. He wore a pink-and-white-checked shirt with floral collar and cuffs teamed with chinos and riding boots. A navy blazer dressed up the whole country-boy-does-Mardi-Gras look he had going on.
âDarling, fabulous to see you,' he gushed and kissed her on both cheeks.
âThanks, Julian. Am I late? Is the Dame waiting for me?'
âNot at all. It's fab you're actually a few minutes ahead of schedule; it'll give you a chance to meet her before the other darlings arrive.' His voice dropped to a stage whisper. âBut whatever you do, do
call her the Dame.' His face was deadly serious so Gemma just nodded with wide eyes.
Gemma followed Julian into the living room. She suppressed a smile. It was precisely as she'd imagined. Although the building itself was a fairly modern structure with enormous plate glass and aluminium window frames, the Dame's interior designer had managed to channel Louis XIV's own decorator. Swathes of gold-fringed fabric draped over the pelmets, framed the windows and spilled onto the floor. Richly coloured Persian carpets covered every inch of mahogany floorboard. Buttercup silk damask-covered timber Carver chairs sat around the dining table. A gold-and-white Regency striped claw-footed settee faced the ornate white-marble fireplace on the far wall and raspberry-coloured velvet cushions provided a bright folly against the neutral backdrop. Red roses in numerous positions around the room also popped out from the sunny hues.
Gemma realised Julian had gone ahead and was now waiting for her at the Dame's side. She scuttled over. Dame Frances ignored her while she continued penning an elaborate thankyou note on embossed heavy white linen stationery. Gemma felt a twinge of guilt that she only SMSed her thanks nowadays. In fact, she wondered if she still possessed the skill of handwriting; it had been so long since she'd needed to do it. The Dame folded the note, placed it in the envelope, addressed the envelope then, finally, looked up.
âHello, Mrs Bristol,' she said and stretched out her right hand in greeting.
âPlease call me Gemma. It's an honour to meet you, Dame Frances,' Gemma replied, shaking the older woman's hand and resisting the sudden urge to curtsey.
âSit, please.' Dame Frances shuffled through her papers while Gemma did as she was bid.
âJulian, coffee, and try to make it taste a little less like dishwater this time,' she said. As Julian scurried to the kitchen, she turned her attention to Gemma. She glared over her half-rimmed spectacles. The Dame's black and merlot suit jacket was buttoned up firmly underneath her bust while a burgundy and gold HermÃ¨s scarf spilled from the neckline, and Gemma suddenly felt as though she hadn't dressed smartly enough or wasn't qualified enough to be here.
âThe rest of the committee should be here any moment,' she said. âThey are hardworking, well-connected, very wealthy women. I do hope that your joining us will work out.' She didn't look convinced that it would even come close to being a success.
Gemma wondered at what point anyone might thank her for donating her time and expertise to the committee but then chastised herself and remembered that she was here to help, not to be a hero.
The elevator door sounded with a shoosh followed by a clatter of heels on the marble foyer floor.
Gemma recognised the pair instantly as they entered the room. Lady Patricia Ellingsworth was an institution. Her father was Lord Ellingsworth and had, until his death three years ago, served at the House of Lords in England. Lady Patricia had moved to Australia in the early 1960s when she'd married menswear retail giant Joseph Brighton. She'd declined to take her husband's surname, creating a flurry of controversy in 1964. Lady Patricia had declared herself a feminist and had hosted a grand function in 1972 with Germaine Greer as guest speaker when she was promoting her controversial book
The Female Eunuch
. The event had caused great consternation and had split the community apart, with the conservative royalists up in arms about her flouting convention and the new-money liberals supporting her cause.
Gemma had always admired Lady Patricia's intestinal fortitude standing up to the upper classes in which she resided and had met her at a function once last year where she was guest speaker. Lady Patricia was tall, thin and coolly detached. She wore a Camilla butterfly short silk caftan over black wide-leg pants. Her pewter-grey hair hung on either side of her face in dead-straight sheets.
She entered with another woman Gemma recognised but had never met. Bobbi Robertson-Black was a direct descendant of the Robertson dynasty, which in Australian terms was ancient, but really only extended back to the gold rush. In 1852 her great-grandfather had started selling bottles of beer and bread loaves to the diggers on the goldfields, a business that eventually expanded to become what was today Australia's largest catering company supplying every sporting venue, high school and public event. Bobbi was a round little thing, her plump face belying her almost-seventy years. She was wearing a fuchsia silk shirt with collar turned up that hung out over charcoal trousers, while multiple strands of pearls draped around her multiple chins.
The Robertson compound in the heart of Toorak was famous for its sheer ever-expanding magnitude as Bobbi's father, William, at an indomitable ninety years old, continued to nibble away at the block by buying up every neighbouring three-to-five-million-dollar property as it went on the market. Bobbi's husband, Oliver, worked for her father in the family conglomeration.
Julian met the ladies at the doorway and the three of them walked to the table with Julian making introductions and Dame Frances making no attempt to seem interested.
âSit. The other three have two minutes precisely to get here or we lock the elevator keypad,' the Dame finally said.
Gemma tittered at the gag and then, noticing the blank looks on the faces of the other two women, realised the Dame was serious.
Lady Patricia and Bobbi seemed accustomed to Dame Frances's abrupt ways and murmured quietly to one another. Julian poured coffee. The lift doors opened again.
The three women who walked in together were so glitzy Gemma could barely make out their faces with the morning sunlight streaming in and bouncing off their jewellery and highlights.
Julian again rushed to introduce the women.
âGemma, this is Rachel Wiseman, Rebekah David and Olympia Varlemos.'
Gemma knew their names immediately and what their husbands and families did. Money market, furniture industry, hospitality industry, she thought as she shook each woman's hand.
Gemma was easily at least twenty years younger than everyone there bar Julian. But she figured it was all part of the succession plan and if the younger generation didn't take up the reins in the next decade, then Melbourne's charitable institution, UP-Kids, which relied heavily on the Dame's generosity, would fade away.
The Dame looked up, straight at Olympia. âI saw your eldest girl at the Carrington wedding.'
âOh, yes,' Olympia said, âSoula said she saw you there.'
âShe was wearing the same jade-green Dior that she wore to the Rose Ball.'
âEr, yes, well, she looks gorgeous in it,' Olympia stammered.
âLet's begin, shall we,' the Dame went on, ignoring Olympia's pink-stained cheeks.
âBusy, people, busy, busy, busy. Julian, let's have the minutes from last week, and try to speak up, will you â it's like listening to the mumbles of a teen.'
Julian ran through the items of the previous week.
âHow's the Fashion Luncheon coming along?' The Dame pointed at Bobbi.
âGreat, fine. Father is giving us the ballroom at the compound and providing the catering,' Bobbi said.
Gemma was astounded that rather than âthank you' the Dame snapped, âAbout time.' With three more snaps she sorted invitations, valet parking and raffle prizes. At $250 a head the event could raise $50,000, provided everything was donated.
âFlowers?' she asked and glared at each woman. They fiddled with their jewellery, glanced at each other, doodled on their notepads. The mounting pressure was undeniable. The tick of the antique mantel clock grew louder as each second sounded. Gemma felt sweat prickle in her armpits as Dame Frances's ice-grey eyes moved down the table. They eventually reached her. Gemma had never felt so intimidated in her life. But what could she offer? She didn't work in the flower business.
Well, I guess I could always ask my supplier, she thought. I give them good business. Maybe in exchange for the Rolex gig next monthÂ .Â .Â .
The steely ocular lock fastened on Gemma's eyes. âI'll sort floral!' she squeaked. The entire room exhaled.
The meeting continued for another hour. Julian was pouring out his third Bodum of coffee to the women. The silver salver of delicate pastries remained untouched but was eyeballed often by Bobbi.
âNow, the Chocolate Ball,' the Dame announced, looking at her notes. Gemma snuck a peek at her watch. She really had to get to work. Without looking in her direction, the Dame said, âAre we keeping you from something, Gemma?'
âEr, no, I â' she stuttered and felt like a high-school kid caught texting.
âIt was rhetorical. About the name,' she said. âIt's crucial we get this right as numbers have been down in the last few years â in fact, it's appalling we haven't sold out in five years. Thoughts?' the Dame scanned the table.
âThe “Chocolate Ball” does tell it like it is,' Olympia offered.
âHmmm,' the Dame countered, âit's not frightfully original though, is it?'
âWhat about the Snowball?' Rebekah said brightly. âThey're chocolate.'
âBrilliant,' Dame Frances said. Rebekah perked for a moment until the Dame finished with, âIf the ball were to be held in winter and we were children.'
To fill the silence that ensued, Gemma jumped in. âWe could call it the Lindt Ball, get sponsorship from Lindt with naming rights costing them fifty Gs,' she said. âThey are, after all, the epitome of the elite chocolate ball, which is definitely the brand link that you want to achieve. We could have a website, run a competition, giveaways, each table would be covered in the balls, have them hanging off the centrepieces as Christmas-style decorations. As an additional income stream we could use new SMS software to send out a contest e-vite and charge one dollar per vote with the prize being a luxury night on the town including tickets to the Lindt Ball. With my database, we can do a mass mail-out to your exact demographicÂ .Â .Â .'
Gemma realised that as she was pitching this volley of ideas, there was little eye contact or encouraging smiles from the committee. In fact, the only eye contact was coming from Dame Frances who was offering more a withering gaze than an encouraging smile. Everybody else was scratching away at their manicures as if their lives depended on it.
âWell, I vote we call this year's ball the Rum Ball and it will have a pirate theme and will be sponsored, as usual, by Terry's Chocolate Orange,' Dame Frances said.
A chorus of âbrilliant's and âwell done's followed, accompanied by a smattering of applause.
Hmmm, Gemma thought as she looked around the table of sycophants. I should have been given a list of rules as to how this mob operates. Even Lady Patricia was sucking up to the Dame, Gemma thought.
âI'll have an invitation designed and then get it to the printer once the sponsors come in,' Bobbi offered. âI can drop it off after the October meeting â it's only twenty minutes out of my way.'
Gemma couldn't hold her tongue. âDrop it off?' she said. âWhy not save time, money and petrol and email it?'
Bobbi sniffed with superiority and looked down her little snub nose. âI am not on the email. My kids are very good at the interweb but quite frankly I don't see how it could be useful for any aspect of my life.'