Authors: Julia Llewellyn
Tags: #Chick-Lit, #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Humour, #Love Stories, #Marriage, #Romance, #Women's Fiction
‘That’s as well.’ Minette shook her head. ‘The children from the
‘But it seems like a lovely school.’
‘I did consider a state school for Ben,’ said Bella contemplatively, as Elise re-entered, apologizing. ‘No need to say you’re sorry, Elise, what you do is amazing. I know I couldn’t.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Elise replied. ‘
amazing. There’s no job harder than being a stay-at-home mum. I could
never cut it. I’d be bored; it’s not where my analytical talents lie.’
be exhausted going to work. It’s so important to have someone keeping the home ticking along.’
Compliments batted back and forward like a ping-pong ball, then Bella cleared her throat and said, ‘Anyway, Elise, we were talking about schools. I was saying I considered state for Ben as I thought it could be very good for his development to mix with ordinary people. But in the end I decided he needed to be prepared to go to Eton, or maybe Winchester. Chinese contacts, you see. That’s where they’re all sending their children and they’re the future.’
‘Glad you think so,’ Minette laughed. ‘I do sometimes get tired of speaking Mandarin to Nicholas, but it will pay off in the end.’
‘You’re going to send your son to boarding school?’ Rosie tried not to sound incredulous.
‘Not until he’s seven, eight perhaps,’ Bella replied breezily.
‘You could give Gadney’s a call, but I would try King’s Mount,’ Patrizia said to Rosie. ‘It’s very good for boys, especially rather tricky ones, like Toby.’
‘Though it only got nine into St Botolph’s last year,’ Caroline warned, as Rosie failed to formulate a response to this.
‘Yes, but apparently everyone’s numbers for St Botolph’s were down,’ Minette said animatedly. ‘I did a spreadsheet. They must be taking more boys from
state primaries or something, and I heard about boys with full-time private tutors being flown in from Bhutan to take the exam. It’s a jungle out there, I tell you.’
‘Give King’s Mount a call,’ urged Patrizia. ‘Mention my name. They may be able to fit him in – boys drop out, parents relocate.’
‘Ladies, ladies, back to the book!’ Elise cried exasperatedly. ‘So, did we think the lack of male role models was interesting?’
‘That Jessica Chastain in the film is absolutely stunning,’ said Minette. ‘So skinny, though. I worried about her.’
‘She was in that film about Osama Bin Laden, what was it called?’ Bella said. ‘God, you know, I used to sometimes wonder if Johann was a spy, he was so mysterious about what he did at work.’
‘Daniel Craig, now there’s a spy.’ Minette sighed.
All pretence at literary criticism was over. The next hour was spent discussing which James Bond was their favourite. DC won by a country mile, though Rosie made them all laugh by voting for Roger Moore. For a second she relaxed. This was more like the girls’ nights she used to know. But then:
‘Your husband must know all these people, yes, Rosie?’ Caroline smiled.
‘I don’t think he knows any of them.’ Rosie felt herself closing up like an anemone.
‘Oh, shame,’ said Bella, who was quite obviously drunk now. ‘So who does he know? C’mon, spill the beans.’
‘He doesn’t know anyone. I mean, he’s met people but …’
‘It’s really not that exciting.’
‘Sorry,’ said Elise. ‘But who
‘Um, his name’s Jake Perry.’
‘Is he on telly? Never watch it. No time. Occasionally a film, though no Hollywood junk.’
‘He is, I’m afraid,’ Rosie said humbly. ‘On telly, I mean.’
‘He’s hilarious,’ said Patrizia. ‘He was in
. “Not under
… garden, was it?” ’
‘Oh my God,
?’ exclaimed Minette. ‘He’s on my bucket list. Like five famous men I totally have a free pass to fuck. The others are Ben Affleck, Louis Theroux, then … I forget. Anyway, they’re all kind of geeky. I love geeky men. I can’t believe you’re married to him. Wait until I tell my husband someone on the bucket list is a Wendy’s daddy!’
‘He’s in that show with Ellie Lewis now, isn’t he?’ interjected Caroline. ‘There was something on TV about it when I was on the treadmill. That must be pretty freaky, your husband and the most beautiful woman in the world working together.’
‘It’s just the way it goes.’ Rosie shrugged. She wasn’t actually unnerved by Jake working with Ellie. She knew her husband. He was the faithful type – not least because he was too wrapped up in his own insecurities to notice that much about the people around him.
be worried,’ Minette said.
‘I trust him,’ Rosie said calmly. She felt a pang of unease, like a stab in her side. She wished she wasn’t here being interrogated. She wished she was with Christy in the flat in Chelsea, with Sandrine – or Barron as she used to be – in Bristol, squeezed on to the sofa together watching
. People who knew her, whom she knew, with whom she’d been through so much and didn’t have to make an effort.
‘Er, gossip later, ladies,’ sighed Elise. ‘Now, please. Back. To. The. Book.’
Slowly Rosie opened her eyes and myopically took in the dim bedroom lit by flaccid winter sun creeping through a chink in the curtains. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t her room. What was this baggy white T-shirt she was wearing and – Oh God – who was this in bed with her? Someone with blonde curly hair, who was snoring gently. What had she done last night? Had she slept with a stranger? Had she had a …
, like she’d read about in
? She’d been so drunk she could hardly remember anything. Tentatively she pulled herself up on to her elbow and gently prodded the warm body. It mumbled and shifted slightly.
Oh, thank God, it was Christy. She was in Christy’s bedroom. Last night they’d been …
From downstairs came a crash. Rosie sat bolt upright, terrified, as if something had been jammed into her chest.
‘You fucking arsehole. Don’t you know how hard this is for me?’ Sandra screamed.
Rosie lay back down again. Last night they had been to the Mistletoe Ball at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London. Last night her eyes had been plastered with
blue Rimmel eyeshadow and Boots mascara, and her mousy hair had been sticky with an excess of hair gel.
What had they been doing attending a ball? She hadn’t dared tell Nanna, let alone Mum – they would have laughed their heads off. It had all been Christy’s idea. She’d been reading Sandra’s
and announced that this was where the fun was at.
‘I’m bored of hanging out with the Carlsedge boys,’ she’d said over lunch in the canteen. ‘I want to meet different boys. Better boys.’
‘We can’t go to a ball you read about in
,’ Rosie argued. She’d love to. Sandra subscribed to
Harpers & Queen
, and she and Christy spent hours poring over the pages, reading about people with names like Venetia wearing party dresses that cost three thousand pounds to a twenty-first on a yacht moored off a private Greek island. The idea that they could actually in some way cross paths with such a world was about as likely as Rosie’s mum becoming a nun.
‘We can. We buy tickets. Our money’s as good as anyone else’s.’
‘Sounds good to me,’ said Belinda. By the beginning of year eight their friendship with Belinda had rekindled A wary friendship, but a friendship all the same; based on worshipping Kylie Minogue; thinking
the funniest film ever made and
The Shawshank Redemption
the most profound; knowing that Oasis’s lyrics far surpassed anything written by Shakespeare and despising the teachers for not seeing it; and on
drinking pints of Bacardi and/or Malibu and Coke, and then throwing themselves at boys they’d otherwise have been far too scared to talk to.
Belinda was certainly a good enough friend to come to the ball. Tickets were thirty pounds, an unthinkable amount, as Rosie gently pointed out, but Christy had said she’d buy her a ticket. Guiltily, but gratefully, Rosie had accepted. She wished she could make it up to her friend in some way, but she had no idea how. Then there’d been the question of what to wear. She’d saved up from her paper round and found a black clingy dress in Miss Selfridge but she wasn’t convinced it worked.
The previous evening in Christy’s bedroom, Christy and Rosie had leaned into the illuminated mirror on the dressing table, applying make-up and threading huge earrings through their pierced lobes.
‘I’m getting sick of Blur,’ Christy sighed, as ‘Country House’ blared in the background. ‘Everyone’s listening to Oasis. I’m going to buy their new CD.’
‘Will you tape it for me?’
‘Course. God, I’m busting for a fag. Do you mind if I smoke?’ Smoking was a new pursuit of Christy’s. Rosie hated it. She saw how fags made Mum and Nanna cough and stink. Without waiting for permission, Christy opened the casement and was pulling a Silk Cut out of the packet, just as an odd gruff voice at the doorway said: ‘Hello.’
Rosie turned round and her heart almost stopped in surprise. Barron was standing in the doorway. Not the
Barron Rosie remembered – the tall, clumsy, thick-lipped, stubbly teenager – but a totally different Barron. Still tall, still hairy, but wearing white trousers and a flowery blouse. Hair clips were holding back his coarse black locks that had grown to chin length. His enormous lips were emphasized by pink frosted gloss.
There was silence apart from Damon Albarn warbling through the speakers about his very big house in the count-reeeee. Barron waved one of his enormous hands in greeting.
After what seemed like hours, but must have been seconds, Rosie took hold of herself. ‘Hi, Barron. I didn’t know you were here. How are you?’
‘Fine, thanks, Rosie. And you? How was your term?’ Polite as ever.
‘Fine, though I wish I hadn’t decided to do physics GCSE. You’ve been in California, haven’t you?’ After Barron had left his weird boarding school, he’d gone to the USA to stay with distant relations.
‘I have been, but my visa ran out one time too many. Anyway, I was homesick. I missed my family.’
‘So where are you going? You both look very lovely. I love the shoes.’ He pointed at Rosie’s electric-blue pumps from Jane Norman.
‘Thank you. Er …’ She glanced at Christy, who usually spoke for both of them, but she was standing there frozen. ‘We’re going to a ball. In London. It’s a bit silly, really, but it might be fun.’
‘A ball. How amazing. Will you waltz the night away?’
‘Balls aren’t like that any more,’ said Christy acidly, then her tone softened. ‘Barron, listen. If you are going to carry on dressing up like a girl, please try to do it properly. That lipstick is revolting, it’s like something Krystle would have worn in
. And the hair clips make you look ludicrous.’
‘Oh.’ Barron stared meekly at his shoes.
‘I just don’t want you …’ The look of concern in Christy’s eyes was heartbreaking. ‘I don’t want people laughing at you. I want you to do this properly. So you feel comfortable. Do you want us to sort you out?’
Barron looked up, beaming. ‘Would you?’
With a sudden whoop, Christy grabbed her Mason Pearson hairbrush. ‘I’ll do the hair. Ro, you’re on nails duty.’
Suddenly they were all giggling, though Rosie’s mind was still a whirlwind of confusion. Blur was replaced with Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’. Barron’s black, rather greasy locks had been teased into winsome curls and held in place with a wheeze-inducing blast of Elnett. His nails were ineptly filed and painted a pale pink by a nervous Rosie. ‘Classy,’ Christy opined. ‘Do a kissy mouth,’ she instructed her brother.
Barron pursed his lips and his sister dipped her lipbrush (she’d read in
that lipstick should be applied with a brush, so she’d gone to Superdrug that day to buy one) into her tube of Boots No7 Plum Beautiful. ‘Much more discreet. And then we’ll wipe the muck off
your eyes. You want a sort of beigey shadow.’ He sneezed as she waved her powder brush over his cheeks. ‘This’ll sort out the grease, but you need to use a decent face wash.’
‘I’ll buy one tomorrow,’ Barron said. ‘What do you—’
He stopped talking. Agnetha and Frida carried on singing about the Summer Night City. Rosie who was sitting on the bed, selecting a good mascara, looked up.
Sandra was standing in the doorway, arms folded across her chest.
‘Hello, Barron,’ she said.
‘Hello, Mum,’ Barron whispered.
A short pause. ‘Aah ahh,’ the Swedes crooned.
Then Sandra said, ‘Don’t do this. Ever again.’
‘Mum, we’re having fun,’ Christy protested, but Barron was already on his feet.
‘I’ll take it all off, Mum.’
Barron seemed to shrink as he scuttled out of the room. Rosie and Christy stood motionless. Out of the corner of her eye, Rosie saw Christy’s hands twisting furiously behind her back, as she stared defiantly at her mother, chin tilted.
‘Don’t encourage him, Christy,’ said Sandra softly. Then: ‘Your father’s waiting for you. You need to get on the road now, if you’re going to make it to London for seven thirty.’
The toilets of the Lancaster House Hotel were filled with skinny confident public-school girls who touched up their make-up and hoicked at their black taffeta dresses from Monsoon, dresses like Rosie’s but somehow better fitting. Rosie and Christy stood side by side at the mirror, tubes of Plum Beautiful at the ready.
‘So what’s going on with Barron?’ Rosie said out of the corner of her mouth. She’d sat the whole way on the M4, bursting to ask.
Christy stared in the mirror. ‘He doesn’t want to be my brother any more. He wants to be my sister.’
Christy shrugged. ‘He wants to be a woman. He came back from San Diego just before Christmas and told Mum and Dad. He wants to be a she. So now he – or she – is seeing a shrink at Mum’s insistence.’ She paused and sighed. ‘It’s a bit
.’ That was one of their favourite occupations, looking up rude words in the dictionaries in the school library.
‘Poor you,’ Rosie said.
‘Not poor me. Poor Barron. Why would anyone choose to do this to themselves? Mum’s beside herself with fury; people point and laugh when he walks down the street. But he says he has to do it, he has no choice.’
‘Poor both of you.’ Rosie was stunned. She knew this kind of thing happened, sometimes, somewhere, but surely not to someone you knew.
‘I just want him to be OK, Ro. I don’t want him being a freak.’
She hadn’t looked so desolate since Belinda had taunted her all those years back. Rosie’s heart swelled like an airbag. She wanted to protect Christy and Barron so badly – but had no idea how to. ‘Come on,’ she tried. ‘Let’s go and dance.’
From that point, everything became a blur. Now, lying beside Christy, Rosie remembered boogying manically to ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’. Arms waved, hips gyrated, knickers flashed. On velvet sofas shirts were untucked, skirts hitched up. Mascara-streaked girls sat on sweaty boys’ laps; a few lay horizontal. The pair of them hadn’t talked to any boys, posh or otherwise, just got drunk on bottles of wine they’d smuggled in and danced some more, but the last time she’d seen Belinda she was writhing on the floor under a boy in a dinner jacket.
And now it was morning. Rosie was in Christy’s bed and the Papadopolouses were fighting. It all began to come back to her. Barron wanted to become a woman. That wouldn’t go down too well with any parent – but especially not Sandra. What would they say at her golf club?
She lay there, listening to the yelling, hoping it wouldn’t wake Christy. But she urgently needed the loo. She rolled out of bed and crept into the bathroom next door – another thing that she’d never been able to recover from was the number of bathrooms in Christy’s house. Out of the little window she saw Sandra sitting on a bench in the wintery garden. Ice had formed on the little stone statue of a nymph bearing a basket that
Rosie always thought so pretty. Sandra was still in her pale-green dressing gown, inhaling hard on one of her menthol cigarettes and, without her usual make-up, her hair in a bird’s nest, looking suddenly old.
Nick came out of the French doors in the kitchen and approached her. Gently, prepared to duck and run, Rosie lifted the latch and pushed opened the window just an inch. She knew it was wrong, but she wanted to hear this conversation.
‘Look, Sandy. We have to talk about this. There must be some way we can get through this.’
Sandra shook her head. ‘I love him. I don’t love you. That’s all there is to it.’
Him? Was she talking about Barron? Sandra had never shown the faintest sign of loving Barron. Rosie’s head started throbbing. Sandra continued: ‘I’ll stay with you until Christy leaves university. But then I’m out of here. We only have one chance at happiness in this life. I am going to take it.’ Her lips puckered again round the cigarette.
‘But, Sandra …’
is the deal.’
‘Would this have happened if Barron hadn’t …’
Sandra raised her hand to stop him. ‘I don’t want to talk about Barron.’
Someone knocked on the door. Rosie jumped.
‘Let me in!’ Christy yelled. ‘I’m busting for a wee.’