Authors: Sarah Mason
Tags: #Fiction, #General
For my brother, Mark
With my love
My very grateful thanks to Tara Lawrence, Jo Coen and everyone at Time Warner, whose unending patience, good will and encouragement have kept me glued to the computer when I might have been lying on the sofa watching TV Jo and Tara in particular have both been wonderful and thank you for keeping your sense of humours when mine had already packed and gone to find itself in Mongolia.
Thank you to my agent, Dinah, whose early guidance on the novel proved invaluable, for your continued support and enthusiasm.
As always, my husband has put up with the complex process of writing with patience and humour. Thank you. Also to my Westie, who really couldn't give a stuff what happened just as long as we kept the Bonios rolling.
Friends and family. Useless. All of you. Not a helpful comment to be had among you. Still, at least they were funny.
Thanks also to the country estate and catering company (who shall remain nameless lest they are associated with any fictional happening from the book) for all your knowledge and advice. Any mistakes are of my own making.
e's making leaving movements. I recognise the winding-up motions of the hands, the silent platitudes, a body posed for an exit. So I've about thirty seconds in which to say something cool, witty and sophisticated, delivered with a devil-may-care, look-how-far-I've-come intonation. No need to panic, just think of something.
Think, curse you, think. The rush of emotions is making my head swim. The trouble is that on the infrequent occasions I've thought about meeting Simon again, I've always imagined myself rolling up in my fictitious sports car, my Prada bag firmly in my grip and my Manolos even more firmly on my feet. I've entertained images of giving his country estate a sniffy once-over while Simon expressed his disbelief at how glamorous/beautiful/intelligent I've become and how much he now regrets his past behaviour.
I've been waiting for this opportunity for years, but now it's arrived I feel jumpy and uneasy. He had such a momentous effect on my childhood that I can't believe he is standing a few feet away from me now. Shouldn't such events be accompanied by thunderstorms and fireworks, not stuffed sausage canapés? And where are all those saved-up witty and cutting remarks when you need them? I look over to my supposed best friend, Dominic, who is making ludicrous jerking motions with his head and ignoring the two gentlemen hovering in front of his proffered canapé tray. Just as their hands move in for the kill, Dom can't bear it any longer, hoicks the tray out from under their noses and marches over to me.
'Izzy, what are you doing?' he hisses. 'You know who it is, don't you? Go and say something.' He pushes me closer to the door, where Simon Monkwell is shrugging himself into his coat, still oblivious to my presence.
'I don't know what to say,' I nervously whisper back.
'Just start a conversation,' Dom mutters and rolls his eyes dramatically. Just start a conversation. He makes it sound so easy, doesn't he? Well, it's pretty easy to start a conversation with a tray of canapés in your hand, isn't it? Would you like the smoked salmon roulade or the mushroom tartlet? Oh yes! Pretty simple then.
Before I can stop him, Dominic puts his tray into my hands and gives me a hefty shove towards Simon. My shoes haven't worn in properly yet and the new soles slip slightly on the polished floor, so that I end up damn nearly on top of him. Simon looks quite surprised to find his arms full of a brunette and several smoked salmon roulades.
Terrific, Izzy. Just marvellous. Now you're actually throwing yourself at him.
'God, sorry,' I mumble, trying to untangle myself. This is my moment. And it isn't going as I planned it. Although I've often wondered what would happen if I came face to face with Simon Monkwell again, I hadn't thought it would happen quite so literally.
Simon takes hold of me by the shoulders and firmly rights me, as though he's putting me in my place. Some things never change. He looks me in the eye with a slightly puzzled expression.
'Would you like a wild mushroom tartlet?' I ask. Bravo, Isabel. You haven't seen him for about fifteen years and that's all you can think of to say?
Simon looks at me quizzically. 'Er, no. Thank you. I was just leaving.' His voice is like a faint whiff of perfume; it fleetingly touches my memory and then it's gone.
'Pancetta and chestnut roll?' I press. Dominic makes throat-cutting gestures behind Simon's left shoulder.
Simon looks at me as though he's trying to place me. I'm not sure he'll remember me from our last meeting: I was eleven and he thirteen. It's only because of his rather meteoric rise to business fame, as tracked by the media, that I recognize him.
'Have we met?' he asks quizzically.
'Em, em …' I stutter. My mouth has an increasing tendency to ignore any instruction my brain gives to it. I sometimes wonder whether my brain and my mouth aren't in fact two separate, independent entities.
I don't know why, but I suddenly find myself unwilling to admit my identity. We're at a rather smart party in the heart of Knightsbridge. A launch party for a trendy new trainer called Zephyr, supposedly the Dom Perignon of the trainer world. I organised it – I am a party planner by career – but he'll think I'm a waitress, standing here offering him canapés like an idiot. Dominic is waving at me now from behind Simon's back. I glare at him as Simon glances between us both, completely nonplussed.
Suddenly a light comes on in Simon's eyes. He's recognised me. He knows exactly who I am and stares at me for a second in almost morbid fascination. But the greeting fades from my lips as he bows his head in embarrassment and selects a canapé from my tray, puts it in his mouth and then continues to pull his coat on without any further eye contact. He's recognised me and he's blanked me, without even giving me the opportunity to explain. I'm immediately transported back to the house where we grew up together, and the bad memories of those years fill my mind.
I make one last effort to speak. 'I've been, er …' Dom is jumping up and down. 'Er … reading all about …' Dom now has his hand up like a four-year-old.'… you in the … CHRIST! WHAT IS IT, DOM?'
'Izzy, you need to come now.' Dom drops his voice to a whisper and says in my ear, 'It would seem that Zephyr's MD's mistress has turned up. I don't think his wife is very happy.' I look over Dom's shoulder to see a woman waving a skewer of fruit around and a huddle of people cowering in the corner. Terrific. Why do things like this always happen on my shift? This will doubtless turn out to be my fault in some way or other.
I turn to apologise to Simon but he's already gone.
C h a p t e r 1
Ten months later
t is very difficult to hold a conversation with a Viking. It's terribly distracting for one thing, the little horns on top of his helmet are practically quivering with indignation and he keeps tossing his cape in my face.
'I just don't feel as though you're giving me enough to work with. How can one be expected to express oneself with this?' He brandishes his stubby plastic sword in front of my eyes. 'How can one's true Nordic inner self be found? Hmmm? Tell me that? And why does Oliver get the pick axe
the hammer and I get this?'
I glance over to Oliver, who is waiting patiently and in a decidedly un-Nordic fashion by the door. Probably hoping for the off. He lights up a cigarette resignedly.
I turn back to the irate Viking and say quietly, 'Now, Sean, you know perfectly well that you have a much more important role in the proceedings than Oliver. I just thought that giving him a few more props would help him feel he wasn't being left out.' It's plain to everyone except Sean that Oliver couldn't give a toss about being left in or out.
Sean looks slightly mollified. 'I can see your point, Izzy. Thank you for being so honest. But I really think …' he drops his voice to a whisper'… that you should ask Oliver to lose a few pounds. I mean, as a Viking one wouldn't have had a lot of food, would one? A few vegetables and a bit of chicken perhaps. One wouldn't look as if one had just swallowed Delia Smith and all her cookbooks.'
'Aahh, but Oliver isn't really your fighting sort of Viking. He's more the bring-up-the-rear sort.'
'More pillaging than plundering?'
Sean nods understandingly and even manages to shoot the unsuspecting Oliver a nasty look. He sniffs. 'I thought as much.'
I pat his arm reassuringly, but before I can plan my escape he adds, 'Another petit point, Izzy. I was thinking that you ought to call me something like Arnog from now on.'
'I think it will help me project myself into character.'
I smile tightly and resist the temptation to look at my watch again. We have been here for over two hours and I know Aidan is waiting to use the room for his own dress rehearsal. Lady Boswell's Nordic Ice Feast is proving more troublesome than first imagined and I've still got weeks of planning to do.
'Fine, er, Arnog.
Whatever you think is best. Shall we take it from the top?'
I watch through a gap in my fingers as they take their positions. The door gently opens and Aidan sidles in. He looks around for a second, spots me and then tiptoes around the perimeter of the room.
'How's it going?' he whispers to me with a grimace that shows his vote would be 'appallingly badly'.
'Appallingly badly,' I say and grimace back.
'I think it might be the feng shui in here. I've been having bad rehearsals lately too.'
The proceedings kick off. Oliver nearly takes Sean's eye out with his pick axe within the first two seconds but whether this is deliberate or not it is hard to tell. All I can say is that the Vikings must have been jolly glad they were wearing those helmets. What is supposed to be a show of natural Nordic exuberance is fast turning into a French farce. Along with the fierce battle cries and sword-wielding there are people falling over bearskin rugs amid sing-song 'Sorry, darling!'s, two people have their helmets on backwards and Oliver has rugby-tackled Sean, wrestled him to the floor and is trying to suffocate him with his cloak.
Aidan leans over to me. 'God, darling, this is more than just feng shui. My rehearsals have never gone this badly. I think you must have a jinx.'
'It certainly would seem that way' I say dully, wondering how long Sean can hold his breath for.
'Darling, it's only been a couple of weeks. You're bound to drop a few balls after being dumped. It's only natural.'
'Thanks, Aidan. I had managed to forget the state of my love life for a whole two minutes then.'
I think Sean has probably suffered enough and so I rush over to rescue him.
Our rehearsal room is situated in the basement of a large Georgian house which is home to our company. We are one among many identical houses in a square in South Kensington and the only thing that gives us away in all that quiet gentility is a small brass plaque etched with the words 'Table Manners'. Actually we plan all sorts of things: weddings, product launches, corporate events, drinks parties for twenty, masked balls for four hundred, and at any conceivable venue. My friend and colleague Aidan, the Salvador Dali of the party world, has used wigwams, submarines, stables and even a bed manufacture factory.
I really don't see the point in having another rehearsal so I wearily dismiss everyone and they run screaming from the room as though school has just broken up for summer. I'm glad I have such a moralising effect on my staff.
I supervise the return of all props to the huge room next door which is warehouse to our considerable stock of theatrical equipment, glassware, crockery, cutlery, seat covers, tablecloths and napkins and other paraphernalia. Everyone hangs their costumes up on a huge rail which displays the larger-than-life notice: LADY BOSWELL'S NORDIC ICE FEAST.
I start to climb the two flights of stairs towards my desk. On the first landing, Aidan shouts up the stairwell after me, 'Don't tell Gerald where I am.' Gerald is our formidable MD and has no truck with Aidan's artistic temperament.
'Aidan, he knows where you are. You're on the rehearsal board,' I shout back.
'Well, don't let him come down here. I'm not talking to him.'
'Fine. I'll try.' I sigh and carry on with my journey. The company's reception and offices occupy the top two floors of the building. The ground floor houses our kitchens where all the food gets prepared and then shipped out to the required venue in one of our many refrigerated vans. The chefs can be a little volatile so I try not to venture too near them. I clear the last flight of stairs and arrive in the inner sanctum of the national headquarters of Table Manners where Stephanie, our receptionist, is hard at work.
'Any messages, Stephanie?' I ask, only as a matter of habit rather than in any real hope that she will have actually taken any. Stephanie is a firm disciple of the if-it's-important-they'll-call-back school of thought.
She blows out a stream of smoke and screws up her eyes thoughtfully. We have a strict no-smoking policy and Gerald regularly issues written warnings on the matter. Stephanie types them out with a fag hanging from her mouth. But what Stephanie doesn't know about the celebrity world isn't worth knowing. A skill which I have to grudgingly admit is quite useful in our line of work. It is the only reason I can see that Gerald keeps her on.
'Someone did call for you but it didn't sound particularly interesting so I didn't bother writing it down.'
'Right. Excellent. Lady Boswell is coming in later so do you think we could possibly avoid a repeat of last time?'
'She's an old tartar,' Stephanie says sulkily.
'That may be so but she is a rich old tartar and one of our best clients.'
'I hope she catches hypothermia at this ice feast of hers.'
'The way things are going that might be a good bet.'
Stephanie returns her attention to
and I make my way to my desk. It's all open plan on the first floor. The place is littered with sample decorations, theatrical props (which should by rights remain in the basement where they belong but Aidan insists we keep them up here for inspiration), a giant stuffed bear called Yogi who is a remnant from a Davy Crockett party, flower arrangements from the last week's functions, sample books of everything from napkins to ribbons, several different sorts of vases and candel-abras as well as a couple of the obligatory computers and laptops. Papers and invites spill out on to every surface.