Authors: Jamie Rowboat
Tags: #Fiction Young Adults
An hour later, she was washed and dressed in a black Armani two-piece suit that she had bought in Paris. At the time, she had questioned her decision because it was so unlike any of her other purchases, now she knew why she had followed through with it. She looked gorgeous in the outfit, and as she stood in front of her mum's full-length mirror, she knew that Jackie would be proud of the way her daughter was seeing her off. Gemma had already called to confirm the travel times, so it was with a strange mix of deep sadness and vague travel excitement that she faced the throng downstairs and the funeral cortege that was already waiting outside.
The trip to the small church on the edge of town was uneventful. However, on seeing the coffin at the front of the church, the final hard evidence of the presence of her mum's body came home to her and the grief rose in her stomach like black tar. She slumped in her seat and stared at the wooden box in front of her. The church was packed with people, most of whom seemed to be associated with her mum's work in one way or another. No one caught her eye, until she noticed Gemma approaching her pew. She looked so strong to Marie, clad in a simple green dress that made her face shine with life. As she looked at her walking through the crowd, she felt proud to know that such people do actually walk on the earth and humbled to think of how this one was part of her life.
"Hello there," said Ian, sliding into the pew beside her.
"Oh, hello," said Marie quietly. "She really is an extraordinary woman, isn't she," she continued, still looking towards the back of the church.
"You mean Gemma? Yes, yes she is. She has an incredible presence, doesn't she? There aren't many people that I truly admire in my life, but she's certainly one that I do. I've watched her with people over the years and it's like she's tuned into life in a way that very few people would understand. She thinks differently, acts differently and gives without being a goody two shoes, if you know what I mean."
"Yes Dad, that's it exactly," said Marie, turning to him and kissing him on the cheek.
"By the way, you look fabulous. Mum would be very proud," said Ian, with a gentle smile. Marie just nodded and blew her nose on one of the many paper hankies she had stored in her handbag.
The ceremony dragged on for ages, with the priest trying to say reassuring things about someone he had never met. However, the eulogy that Ian gave brought a sense of grace to the proceedings. His honesty in admitting the difficulties in his relationship with Jackie only served to amplify the effect of his words of love for her. There wasn't a dry eye in the house by the time he finished, and as they all stood outside the church after the service, even the most ardent detractors from her family hugged him in appreciation of what he had done.
"That was beautiful, Ian," said Gemma, as she joined him and Marie on the grass outside the church.
With the wake finally over, they were free to leave the confines of the house to make it to their flight on time. Ian had insisted on driving them and this relieved Marie's guilt slightly, as it meant she didn't have to abandon him to such a sombre gathering. Heathrow airport was worse than ever. Filthy weather in Europe that morning had delayed flights and created a backlog that was still evident at six o'clock when they arrived. Bad-tempered travellers crowded every café and seating area and endless parents with young kids tried in vain to remain sane, while entertaining them in the sterile environment of the departure lounges. Once again, Gemma managed to thread her way through the chaos to the check-in area, where the attendant informed them of an hour's delay for their flight.
"Oh well, it could have been worse, some of these people look like they've been here a good deal longer than that," said Gemma, taking the tickets and glancing across at a bedraggled businessman who was pleading with an attendant nearby.
"Come on, let's go to the chairman's lounge," said Gemma, striking off in the direction of a nearby escalator.
"The chairman's what?" said Marie, as she and Ian jumped onto the moving stairs to keep up with her.
"You'll see," Gemma said, starting to move up the stairs through the crowd of people who huddled to one side. After struggling to keep up over two crowded concourses and three more escalators, they finally came to an innocuous looking door set in a plain concrete wall. Gemma walked straight up to it and pressed a buzzer that was next to a small brass plaque that read Chairman's Club — Members Only.
"Good morning, may I help you?" came a well-trained voice.
"Yes, good morning. It's Gemma Granlin here," she replied confidently. There was a moment's pause before the voice returned with a surprising tone of familiarity in it.
"Madam Chairman, how lovely to have you return," replied the voice enthusiastically.
"Madam what?" said Ian loudly.
"I'll explain when we get inside," said Gemma, turning to him smiling. Before anything else could be said, the door swung open and an elegantly besuited man in his sixties stood before them.
"Oh, Miss Granlin, it has been too long since your last visit. I feared we were not to see you again," he said, bowing slightly.
"Oh, Edward, you are a goose. But thank you, it has been a while since I've had the heart for travel," she said gently, approaching him and holding out her hands for him to embrace. His formal training prevented him from hugging her, but he held her arms with his own and shook them passionately as he looked into her eyes.
"It's so good to see you again," he said tenderly. He glanced across and saw her companions and the spell of his reunion was broken. "My word, Gemma, you have some guests with you," he said, releasing her arms.
"Ah yes, and very special friends they are too. Edward, I would like you to meet Ian and Marie Hosking. As we have a little time to spare before our flight, I thought we might share it with you," said Gemma kindly.
"What an absolute pleasure," he said, looking at Ian and Marie. "But you know, there was a time when I saw Gemma at least once or twice a week on her way between here and France, but in all that time she never brought anyone here. So I take it as a great honour to serve you both today," he said earnestly.
"We're flattered," said Marie simply.
With that, he nodded and led the way out of the thoroughfare into the refined beauty of the reception area that lay beyond the door. This was his kingdom and he was proud of his place in it. A huge tropical fish tank dominated the reception area. Four or five leather sofas sat beneath the vaulted ceiling and a smart antique desk sat in front of a partition that shielded the main seating area from view. Edward led them straight through the only opening in the fake wall before they had even had a chance to take in the surroundings. Marie was on the verge of saying something when she emerged on the other side of the partition. Any thoughts of speech were driven from her mind as she gazed at the room before her.
"It's impressive, isn't it," said Edward, turning and seeing the look of surprise on her face. Marie just shook her head in disbelief.
"It was designed by the young lady with you," he said, glancing in Gemma's direction. "After her boardroom coup here, she designed its refurbishment," he continued, starting off again before any questions could be offered.
The hall was about the size of two football fields and one could see the whole way from one side to the other. The airport world was visible, thanks to the floor to ceiling glass that ran along two walls of the room. The lofted ceiling was also largely made of glass, with healthy-looking fig trees dotted around everywhere in huge wooden pots that struggled to keep their roots imprisoned. The sculptural trees reached their arms up to the light above, leaving the whole room in dappled light. Beneath them, seating areas with comfortable looking sofas, telephones, televisions and individual coffee machines gave the whole place a sophisticated feel. Various groups of people sat in some of the sitting rooms and smart looking waiters and waitresses wearing pure white outfits scurried around serving them from silver platters that they held above their heads in a clear demonstration of their committed professionalism. Edward led them along the edge of the seating area until he made a quick turn to his right and into a particularly beautiful setting beneath the largest trees in the hall.
"I've kept it the way you like it, your timing is perfect as usual. This section with deciduous trees has only just reopened for spring," he said, turning around to present them with their place of rest.
"Thank you, Edward, you are a sweetie," said Gemma, going up to one of the trees and giving it a gentle pat. Three couches sat beneath a group of beech trees that had just come into leaf and each one was in a tub that would need a crane to lift it. A huge, ornate rug with Noah's ark depicted on it in strong, Autumn colours sat under the whole setting, and at its centre, there was a Balinese-style coffee table, that must have been ten feet long.
"Now Edward, I have only a few minutes to hear the story of you and this amazing place and if you don't sit down here right now and tell me, I think I'll burst with questions," said Marie, patting the sofa beside her.
"I'm going to like you, I can see that. You know how to handle her ladyship and that's rare," said Edward enthusiastically. "In 1972, I was the doorman at the Westminster hotel in Knightsbridge. Gemma and I became friends because she used to visit George Colney, who had a permanent suite at the hotel. In the space of one week, I lost my wife in a car accident and I was diagnosed as having the early stages of prostate cancer. This, of course, meant I could no longer work at the hotel. My whole life disappeared, the hotel abandoned me after twenty years of service and I was facing a heavy dose of chemotherapy, but Gemma came and found me and saved my life."
"Oh shoosh, Edward, it wasn't me."
"Don't mind her, you carry on," said Marie interrupting her and nudging Edward with her elbow.
"Anyway, she told me about her plan to takeover a large conglomerate that owned among other things, a stuffy 'Men's Only' club that she planned to revamp and open to a more interesting and, might I say, egalitarian range of clients. Gemma offered me the position of running the place and being involved in every aspect of its rejuvenation. But, before that, she took me to Provence to meet her friends who helped me heal my cancer. I was gone for six months, when I returned healed in the December of 1973, her coup had been successfully completed and we set about transforming the club. We took it from a stuffy, dark gentleman's lounge, full of hard leather chairs and aging generals, to what you now see before you. There are two tennis courts, a swimming pool, three individual restaurants and the reception area. We serve a huge array of clients, bishops, politicians, artists and models. Despite her remonstrations to the contrary, Gemma helped me come back from hell in many different ways and now I reside in my heaven," he said, laughing triumphantly and waving his arms around in an expression of gratitude.
"It seems so unlike you, to own a private club. You've always been a devout socialist I thought, all be it a very rich one," said Ian, leaning into the conversation from his own sofa. Gemma laughed loudly.
"Oh Ian, you are lovely, but you see, I've used this place as my hunting ground for wealthy targets. I've bent more important ears and extracted larger donations for charities in these rooms than I've managed anywhere else. I've even swayed the odd political decision over dinner amongst these trees."
"They were like the proverbial lambs to the slaughter, once she had them in her sights. I've given coats to media barons who eat people for breakfast, but after half an hour with Gemma under her beech trees, they've left looking like school boys who've been caught smoking behind the bike shed," said Edward in a reverential tone. Just then, the waiter returned from behind the trees, with a number of his friends with him and they were carrying various trays of goodies that they then proceeded to set down on the table before them.
"Champagne and nibblies," suggested Edward, as everything was put down.
"I thought, as you don't have that much time to spare, we'd have a glass of nice bubbly to celebrate your return. Bollinger 62, a very fine year," he continued enthusiastically, while he poured the champagne into five crystal glasses.
"Absolutely," said Ian, as he was handed a glass of champagne and surveyed the tray of canapés being offered to him.
"I would like to propose a toast, if that's okay," said Ian quietly, looking around for confirmation from those around him. "To my wife, Jackie, who always liked the finer things in life, which is why she left me. Look after our daughter on her journey with Gemma from wherever you are and may that place bring you the contentment you never found here," he said, raising his glass slowly. Everyone reacted to his heart-felt words and joined him in the middle of the room with their glasses touching lightly.
"I love you, Dad," said Marie into the silence.
"Well, I am indeed honoured to have met you today," said Edward, taking a sip of bubbly before wiping his eyes with a bright red hanky that he produced from his breast pocket.
"Hear, hear," said Gemma quietly. The moment was broken by one of the waiters, who appeared again from behind the trees with a concerned look on his face.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, sir," he said approaching Edward, "but the ladies' flight has just been called," he continued sternly.
"Thank you," said Edward simply. "I'm afraid our meeting has been brought to a close," he said, turning to the others. There was not much more to be said, so they gathered their belongings and filed out of the forest setting with only the bird's song breaking the silence. Within minutes, they were standing at the departure gate, saying goodbye.
"I'm glad the goodbye has snuck up on us like this," said Ian, giving Marie a tight hug when they reached their gate.
"I'll miss you," she whispered, before letting him go and turning towards Edward. "I'm afraid I need a hug not a handshake," she said, looking Edward in the eye.
"Oh dear, that won't do at all," he said, wrapping her in his arms.