Read Not Quite Perfect Online

Authors: Annie Lyons

Not Quite Perfect (5 page)

‘What can I get you?’ drawls the ponytailed man behind the bar. Garen, as his name badge declares him to be, is surly but smart in his black shirt and silver tie with a Premiership footballer-type gigantic knot. The glass in which he serves Emma’s Sauvignon Blanc is the size of a goldfish bowl and could easily house the whole bottle. Richard’s Czech beer is the colour of gold with a price to match.

‘That’ll be nine eighty thanks guys,’ says Garen with as much cheer as he can muster. Richard waves away Emma’s purse,

‘You can get the next one,’ he says with a grin.

They find a seat and Emma takes a large gulp of wine feeling herself relax a little.

‘So,’ says Richard at last, watching her carefully.

‘So,’ replies Emma.

‘Look, I’m really sorry how things turned out today.’

‘Are you? You seemed to be thoroughly enjoying yourself. As did your cohort.’

‘Oh Joanna’s, you know, an agent. She’s a bit fierce, but she knows what she’s doing.’

‘Oh and what’s that? Eating editors for breakfast?’

‘OK, maybe she’s a bit heavy-handed, but we authors do need a bit of protection from you merciless publishers you know.’

‘Publishers? Merciless? How very dare you. We act with integrity at all times.’ Emma is getting into her stride now and the wine is making her feisty and flirty.

‘Yeah, yeah. Whatever,’ grins Richard making a sign with his fingers.

‘Well I act with integrity.’

He fixes her with a piercing look. ‘Do you know, Emma Darcy? I believe you do.’

It might be the wine or the dodgy lighting, but Richard is starting to remind her of some actor she used to fancy. She pats her cheeks, which are starting to feel warm and fixes him with a look. ‘Then why did you give me such a hard time?’

‘Well you weren’t very nice about me on the train.’

‘I didn’t know who you were then.’

‘And that makes it OK, does it? You listened to the tittle-tattle of others before you made up your own mind. That doesn’t show too much integrity, does it? Shame on you, Emma Darcy,’ he says with a superior smile.

‘OK, I’m sorry. I’m sure it’s all lies,’ she says, daring him to contradict her.

‘Complete lies. I am actually very choosy both when it comes to girlfriends and editors.’

‘Well that’s very reassuring.’

‘I’m glad you think so. But enough about me, tell me about you. What’s your favourite book?’


One Hundred Years of Solitude
,’ says Emma without hesitation.

Richard looks pleased. ‘Mine too.’

‘You’re kidding me.’

‘Why would I do that? It’s not as if I’m trying to get you into bed. You’re attached and I respect that.’

‘Again, very reassuring,’ grins Emma.

Richard gives a little bow. ‘Favourite film?’


Il Postino
. Yours?’


Cinema Paradiso
.’

‘That’s definitely in my top five.’ They continue to talk and Emma is amazed at how quickly the evening passes and that she has managed to put away three glasses of wine before she notices the time. Her stomach is growling from emptiness and she is feeling decidedly woozy. ‘I really should be getting home. I was only going to stay for one,’ she says, fumbling for her handbag.

Richard sits back in his chair. ‘I’ve had a great evening, Emma Darcy, and the best is yet to come. Do you want to know the real reason I asked you here tonight?’

‘Surprise me.’

‘Well, despite our faltering beginning, I think you understand my novel and you get what I’m trying to say. So, for that reason and the fact that you’ve got really nice legs, I want you to be my editor.’

Emma is blown away and slightly flattered by the leg comment. ‘What about Joanna?’

‘Oh she’ll come round. She’ll still get her fifteen per cent and she needs to keep England’s most promising new novelist happy doesn’t she? So, what do you say?’

Emma hesitates. Something deep inside her brain is trying to warn her off this one, but the wine and the fact that she has decided she quite likes this man makes her say, ‘I’d love to.’

‘That’s wonderful. I’m so happy,’ says Richard grinning. ‘Let’s have champagne to celebrate and if you insist on paying, I’ll accept. That was a joke by the way.’ He reaches for her hand, kissing it in a mock gentlemanly way, looking up at her as he does. Emma’s mouth goes dry. ‘The deal is sealed,’ he says.

Rachel plods down the stairs glancing at the wonky display of what Steve calls their ‘Rogues’ Gallery’ of family photographs. She looks at the pre-children photo of Steve and her at a friend’s wedding and notices, not only that she was half a stone lighter and Steve’s hair was several tones less grey, but that they look happy. It’s not the happiness of stories or romantic endings but the happiness of possibilities, of what might be; that pre-marriage, pre-children happiness, when you still think you might write that novel or open your own business. It’s not that she feels bitter that she hasn’t achieved these things, she’s just resigned to the fact that she probably never will.

Tom appears at the foot of the stairs wearing a pair of pink marigolds and clutching a tea towel. ‘All sorted?’

‘Yes, thanks. Have you done the washing up? You really didn’t have to.’

‘It was my pleasure. Along with my sad devotion to hostas, I also take a tragic delight in cleaning baked bean encrusted pans.’

‘Goodness, I married the wrong man,’ declares Rachel and then wishes she hadn’t.

‘Well, I should let you put your feet up.’

‘You don’t have to go. Steve probably won’t get home until midnight and if you go I’ll only watch some reality floozie’s TV show. If you want to be a friend to me it’s your absolute duty to stay and save me from such purgatory.’ Rachel fears she is sounding a bit needy.

‘Very well, you can save me from another night watching eighties sitcom repeats and I will save you from ITV4,’ says Tom immediately.

‘Deal. I’ll get the wine, you put on some music. Fancy a game of DJs?’

Tom looks bemused.

‘It’s a game Steve and I play. Each person selects a song of choice and the other person judges. Anything too pretentious or cheesy and you face a penalty, usually of a drinking nature.’

‘OK, but I warn you, despite my cuddly bear exterior, I am a bastard when it comes to competition and I rarely play fair.’

‘Hurrah, that’s fighting talk!’

When Rachel returns with the drinks, Tom has selected ‘Major Tom’ by David Bowie and is smiling and singing along.

‘Excellent choice but careful with the karaoke, sunshine, or you’ll be knocking this back’.

Tom laughs. ‘My dad used to sing this to me. He loved music but was completely tone deaf. It’s where I inherited my talent.’

Rachel laughs and is strangely touched by this shared confidence. ‘Do your parents live nearby?’

‘They’re both dead, I’m afraid, and in answer to your question, we grew up in Norfolk.’

‘Sorry to hear that’

‘Ah Norfolk isn’t so bad’

‘No, I meant –’

‘Rachel? That was a joke. It’s OK. It’s few years back now and they were older than your average parents. Dad got cancer and died within a few months and Mum couldn’t really survive without him. She had a heart attack about six months later. My older sister, Viv, and I always say she died of a broken heart.’

‘Oh Tom, that’s so sad.’

‘Yes it is, but they had each other for nearly fifty years and surely it’s better to have that kind of connection with another person?’

‘Better to have lived and loved? I’ve always thought so.’

‘Come on then, your turn. Bowie’s nearly finished. Surely you need to have a tune on or penalties will have to be faced?’

‘I see the man play to win, no? Right, try this one, mate.’ The opening tones of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Lately’ fill the room.

‘Nice move. Although of course, if you had chosen ‘I Just Called’ you would have been downing that bottle.’

‘True, but even geniuses have their off days.’

‘Indeed we do. So how are you then, Mrs Summers?’

Tom is looking earnest now and Rachel isn’t sure if she wants to take the conversation down this route. She’s enjoying a bit of flirtatious banter and doesn’t want to spoil it. She sighs and looks slightly vague. ‘Oh, you know.’

‘Ah, you don’t want to talk about it.’

‘No, it’s not that, it’s just that I really need to talk to Steve and haven’t had the chance.’

‘Hmm, sounds serious.’

‘Well, not as serious as Third World poverty, but important in our lives.’

‘Sorry, Rachel, I didn’t mean to pry.’ Tom looks slightly embarrassed and Rachel feels guilty.

‘It’s OK, really it is. Oh shit I’m making this into more than it is. Right, well Steve can’t be bothered to come home and talk to me properly, so you are officially my designated male for the evening.’ Rachel thinks Tom might be blushing, but she’s had too much wine to stop now. ‘Steve wants us to move to Edinburgh.’

‘Right,’ says Tom as if he’s waiting for the punchline.

‘That’s it.’

‘Right,’ repeats Tom, ‘and that’s bad because –’

‘Because it’s so far away from everything we have here; from my family, my friends. I mean, surely you’d miss me!’

‘Of course, of course,’ says Tom nodding with enthusiasm.

‘And he knew about it over a month ago and didn’t tell me about it.’

‘Ah.’

‘So I’m frankly furious and would like to discuss it with him rationally.’

‘I see.’

‘Well?’

‘What?’

‘You need to tell me why I should go and how great it could be and how unreasonable I’m being.’

‘Do you think you’re being unreasonable?’

Rachel considers this question. She knows the answer. ‘I just wish he could have talked to me about it earlier, discussed it properly, from the beginning. Not waited until it was a done deal.’

‘Well, on behalf of Steve and men everywhere, I would like to apologise for our general crapness. We are weak and feeble beings and essentially simpletons at heart.’

Rachel laughs. ‘OK, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be ranting at you.’

‘It’s OK. I have very broad shoulders.’

Rachel’s mobile starts to ring. ‘It’s Steve.’

‘Look, you go ahead. I’ve got to go on snail patrol anyway. And remember, don’t be too hard on him, he’s just a weak and feeble simpleton.’ Tom squeezes her shoulder and Rachel feels a little jump in the pit of her stomach.

‘Hell-o,’ she says uncertainly into the phone.

‘Rach, look I’m sorry. I should have spoken to you about the move earlier. I know. It’s just that we’re so exhausted and it’s difficult to find the right time with the kids and everything.’

Rachel listens to his voice and watches Tom leave, giving her a little backward glance and mock salute as he leaves.

‘Rach?’

‘Hmm?’

‘Can we start again? Please?’

‘‘kay’

‘I’ve asked your mum and dad to have the kids on Saturday. We can go for lunch and talk it all through properly? OK?’

‘OK,’ she agrees knowing she’s been unreasonable too. ‘Sorry for snooping. I sort of wish I hadn’t but I guess it’s better to have everything out in the open.’

‘I guess. OK, no more secrets and no more snooping. We’re a good team and we need to stick together. Listen, I’ve got about another hour to do here and then I’m coming home. Don’t wait up sweetheart. I love you.’

Rachel can hear him waiting for her reply. ‘I love you too,’ she says and she means it.

Chapter 5

It’s not until Emma has switched on her computer and made herself a coffee, that she notices the bottle of champagne on her desk. ‘We got it!’ shouts the note attached to its front. She races round to Miranda’s office. Digby is there.

‘Ah Emma.’ Emma is almost touched that he’s remembered her name. ‘Congratulations – wonderful news. We must have lunch to celebrate. I’ll get my secretary, er –’

‘Fiona?’

‘Ah yes, Fiona, to arrange. Quite so. Well I must –’

Lose some weight? Find a proper job? Finish my sentences properly?
thinks Emma.

‘ – go to a meeting. Yes. Quite so. Well done – again.’ He shambles off.

Miranda sweeps over and folds Emma in a mother-hen embrace. ‘Well done, Emma. Passion never fails eh? At least not with authors.’ She holds Emma at arm’s length, studying her face as if considering a particularly tricky cryptic crossword clue. ‘Richard seems to have taken a shine to you.’

Emma tries to hold her gaze, but fails and pretends to study the photograph on the wall of Miranda as a young editor with Evelyn Waugh.

‘Just be careful, Emma. Creatives can be complex creatures, you know.’

‘I know. I’m just his editor. Strictly professional at all times. How much did we pay in the end?’ asks Emma, changing the subject.

‘Enough, but not as much as Joanna wanted so at least that’s some blessing. Richard is coming in to sign the contract this afternoon. I called
The Bookseller
and they’re sending a photographer to mark the happy occasion.’

‘Great’

‘See you later then and well done, my dear.’

Emma practically skips back to her desk and is delighted when she bumps into Jacqui, head of publicity and Joel’s sidekick. Emma observes that her scarlet nails are looking particularly talon-like and her pouting lips shine with matching lipstick and gloss.

‘Emma, darrrrling. I hear we got the booook – haauuuw splendid,’ she rasps sounding like the snake from
The Jungle Book
.

‘Thank you,’ says Emma smiling. Jacqui looks perturbed that she has mistaken her comment for congratulations.

‘We-ell, if yoou’ll excuuse me, I’m just orff to see Jooel.’

‘Oh lovely, I’ll come with you,’ says Emma. Jacqui frowns but says nothing.

Joel’s office is the size of a broom cupboard, but he does have an impressive view over the roofs and occasional spire of central London. Pictures of every kind of motivational speaker and business guru, whose flesh Joel has pressed, hang on his walls. His favourite is the one of Alan Sugar pointing accusingly out of its frame signed with the words ‘You’re bloody fired, Joel mate’. As Jacqui walks in his face lights up and then falls as he sees Emma behind her.

‘Jacqui. Emma.’ The two names are uttered in tones relative to his feelings for each of them.

‘Hi, Joel. I just wanted to check that you’d heard the good news? About Richard?’ asks Emma, grinning shamelessly.

Joel’s face remains fixed in a smile, but his eyes betray panic.

‘Oh, didn’t Digby tell you?’ says Emma without mercy. ‘We got it. Isn’t that fantastic?’

‘Congratulations, Emma. You must be delighted. I suppose Jacqui and I will have to do our best to market the unmarketable, eh?’

Emma is almost impressed by this neat left hook, but nothing can dampen her mood today. ‘I’m sure you will, Joel. See you later,’ she says, skipping back down the corridor like a schoolgirl who’s just got one over on the mean kids.

Diana Darcy looks at herself in the mirror and is satisfied. Despite the onset of grand-motherhood and the advent of her sixties, she senses that she is still a good-looking woman. Her mother taught her that to dress well is to live well, and it is a sentiment she carries with her still. Sometimes, when she is shopping in town or out with the children in the park, she notices the fat people, the unkempt, the careless and their appearance disgusts her.

‘Mum, don’t be such a snob!’ Rachel hisses as her mother wrinkles her nose at another overweight child in a tracksuit getting wedged at the top of a slide.

‘Rachel, dear, it’s just indicative of our society. I read about it in the paper. Overweight mothers breed overweight children. It’s tragic really.’

Diana pats her hair, fixes a bracelet onto her wrist and dabs a little of her perfume behind each ear. She checks her appearance once more, smoothing her skirt and removing a hair from her black cashmere jumper.

‘Ah, my vision, my life.’ Edward appears at the door, bowing in a mock-romantic gesture.

‘You old fool,’ laughs Diana fondly. ‘Right, I’m going to meet daughter number one and those recalcitrant children for coffee. What are your plans?’

‘Oh don’t worry about me. The
Telegraph
crossword beckons. Do we have any Kit Kats?’

‘No. No chocolate for you, not with your cholesterol,’ she scolds him like a mother with a sixty-two-year-old toddler.

‘Very good ma’am. Anything else ma’am?’

‘Yes. You can stop being cheeky and maybe put in those bulbs? It’s a glorious day. Much too nice to be sitting indoors.’

‘All right, my darling. Have a wonderful time. Send them all my love.’

The phone rings and Diana answers with impatience. ‘Hello?’

‘Diana, darling. It’s Rosie. Are you well? Good, good,’ she continues without waiting for Diana to answer.

‘Rosie, I’m just off out to meet Rachel.’

‘Of course, you run along, darling. I wanted to speak to Teddy anyway.’

Diana balks at Rosie’s use of this name. It’s a vestige of the past, of Edward’s university days, before he knew Diana. She hands the phone to Edward. He looks nonplussed and holds the phone to his ear.

‘Oh Rosie, it’s you. How the devil are you?’

Diana feels suddenly invisible as Edward is lost in conversation with one of his oldest friends. She knows it’s ridiculous to feel jealous after nearly forty years of marriage, two children and three grandchildren, but somehow Rosie can provoke this feeling. She has tried to bond with her, but all the time she has this nagging sense that Edward should have married her instead. Rosie has it all; the brains, the career in Fleet Street, the contacts. She’s the mother the girls might have preferred; the one who can get them the jobs, the restaurant bookings and, even now, she’s wooing the grandchildren with trips to the Cbeebies studio and tickets to film premieres. Diana should be grateful and magnanimous, but she feels churlish and undermined.

She rallies herself now, pecking her husband on the cheek, mouthing ‘Be good,’ and sweeping out of the door without a backward glance.

She loves driving into town, finding a parking space and having a potter around the shops before she meets Rachel, who is always late.

‘I’ve got three children to manage, Mother. You’re just one person,’ Rachel observed when her mother brought it up.

‘Rachel, darling, you were never on time before you had the children.’ This is true and Diana was quite pleased by her quick-witted observation, which had made Rachel laugh.

She pulls into the car park situated behind a budget supermarket branch, which Diana can’t bring herself to use. Rachel laughs at her mother’s superciliousness, but Diana knows she is right. She doesn’t expect everywhere to be as nice as Waitrose, but she knows that they keep the lighting dim so people can’t see what they’re buying. Also, the entrance hall smells of urine, which to her mind can never be conducive to a happy shopping experience.

Diana finds a space by the exit. She is just placing a ticket on her windscreen when she hears two squeaky voices: ‘Granny, Granny, Granny!’ Diana turns at the cacophony of excited greetings to see Lily and Alfie waving frantically from their pushchair as a weary-looking Rachel plods across the car park towards her.

‘Rachel, you’re on time,’ she says with a wry smile.

Rachel rolls her eyes. ‘And good morning to you too, Mother.’

‘Just my little joke,’ trills Diana dismissively. She has never found smalltalk easy, particularly with Rachel, who often seems so quick to take offence. ‘Now who wants some cake?’

‘Meeeeee!’ chorus Alfie and Lily with glee.

They reach the coffee shop and Diana leads the children to a table, while Rachel places their order. Alfie and Lily scramble onto the furniture and Diana sinks into an armchair blinking at the sunshine, which is filtering in through the window. She looks over at her daughter and notices how tired she is looking. Her shoulders are hunched, as if she’s doing battle with life, not like the cocky teenager who used to give her so much trouble.

‘Here we are.’ Rachel puts down the tray with care just as Alfie kicks the table spilling milk from the too-f cups.

‘Alfie!’ shouts Rachel with more force than she intends. Two middle-aged women look over unimpressed.

‘It’s all right. There’s no use crying over spilt milk, as my mother would say,’ declares Diana, smiling at the women, trying to make up for Rachel’s outburst.

Irritated, Rachel hacks at a chocolate muffin with her teaspoon, setting the portions in front of the children, who fall on it like hungry lion cubs.

Diana sips her coffee and wrinkles her nose. ‘Too hot,’ she complains.

Rachel remains silent, but can feel her annoyance increasing by the second. Most people could make comments like this, but with her mother the negativity is suffocating. Rachel can’t remember the last time Diana paid a compliment. She takes a sip of her own coffee, burning the roof of her mouth, but refusing to acknowledge it.

‘I tell you what you should do,’ says her mother without any small talk, ‘you should bring the children over one day and treat yourself to a trip to the hairdresser’s’

‘Why? What’s wrong with my hair?’ says Rachel immediately offended.

‘Nothing, darling, nothing. It just looks as if it could do with a cut. You could make a day of it. Go to Bluewater, have some lunch and get yourself some new clothes.’ This body blow is dealt with a quizzical look at Rachel’s baggy grey jumper.

‘Look, Mum, I know you’re trying to be nice, but you sound like you’re criticising me.’

‘Well, if you don’t want to.’

‘No, I’d love to, really. Thank you.’ Rachel doesn’t have the energy for this conversation today.

‘So,’ says Diana, changing the subject, ‘how is my favourite son-in-law?’

Rachel’s reply is curt: ‘Your favourite son-in-law wants to move us to Edinburgh as it happens.’

‘What?’

‘That’s right. He wants your grandchildren to grow up on a diet of fried Mars Bars and in a climate more akin to the North Pole.’

‘Oh darling, but you can’t go, surely?’

‘I don’t know, Mum, we need to talk about it. Are you still OK to have the children this weekend?’

‘Of course. Oh Rachel, we’d never see you.’

‘I know, I know. Oh Mum, I just don’t know what to do any more.’ The tears spring easily into Rachel’s eyes and Diana is suddenly lost.

‘Oh look darling, there, there.’ She pats Rachel’s hand and smiles with embarrassment at the women on the next table, who are looking over nosily. ‘Come on, don’t cry. I’m sure you’ll sort it out.’

Lily and Alfie have noticed their mother’s tears and Alfie starts to cry as well, his face a mess of chocolate muffin and snot. Lily offers her arms to her mother and scolds him. ‘Stop it, Alfie, and give Mummy a cuddle.’

Rachel can’t believe that her children are the ones comforting her instead of her mother. She wonders at how they must appear; her mother looking awkward and embarrassed and her, a crumpled mess with two small children covering her in sticky kisses and fierce little hugs.

Miranda’s PA, Andrea, has dressed one end of the boardroom with fresh flowers and bottles of Moët. At the opposite end, a table is lined with chairs, as if Allen Chandler is about to announce a major football signing or host the ratification of an international treaty. Miranda has e-mailed the company to make sure that Richard is welcomed properly into the fold and the designers, always first at the mention of free booze and Twiglets, are already gathering, making the place look cool and a little untidy.

When Joanna and Richard enter the room, the atmosphere prickles with excitement as if a couple of celebrities have just walked in. The assembled company part to make way for them and Emma notices a lot of the females nudging each other as they clock Richard who, with his floppy schoolboy hair and grinning demeanour, is looking undeniably handsome.

Ella sidles up to her friend and whispers in her ear. ‘Well, isn’t he just the dish of the day?’

‘Can’t say I’d noticed,’ smiles Emma.

‘Liar.’

Miranda is a stickler for punctuality, so the clock has only just struck three o’clock when she booms out her welcome: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to be able to gather you together today to witness a truly exciting event. As most of you will know, we have been working tirelessly to lure Richard to Allen Chandler. I am delighted to announce that he has accepted our offer. Richard, we normally get our authors to sign in blood but for you we will make an exception. Would you do the honours?’

A cheer goes up and Richard bows to the crowd, who laugh. The contract is signed and the photographer ushers Richard and Miranda into the shot. Emma is mortified when Miranda drags her into the frame and is amused to see Jacqui muscling in on the action too. Emma hears her spelling her name to the journalist.

‘That’s Moss, as in Kate Moss. No, no relation but thank you, people often wonder if she’s my sister.’

Emma watches as Joanna whisks Richard over to meet Digby, who embraces him tightly, much to Richard’s surprise. She is feeling a little light-headed due to a combination of early-afternoon champagne and last night’s excesses. She wanders over to the window to take in the view. She is suddenly aware of someone standing next to her and turns to find Richard at her side.

‘Hello, Emma Darcy,’ he says with a smile.

‘Hello, Richard Bennett. Welcome to the family. I see you’ve met Digby.’

Richard chuckles. ‘It was like being hugged by a bear. He seems like a decent chap.’

‘He is. Actually most people here are.’

‘Miranda terrifies me.’

‘So she should.’

‘And what about you, Emma Darcy? Do I need to be scared of you?’

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