Kelly, still stuck in the body suit, returns to London, without Jamie. Jamie leaves Kelly broke. What will Kelly do to survive?
The Airbnb flat was large and spacious. The owner had renovated it lovingly over many years. His dad had bought it back in the 70s when property along the Holloway Road was cheap. I was pleased I’d found it at such short notice. I couldn’t go back to our apartment. When Jamie got the part, we sublet it for the three months we’d be in Iceland. We weren’t going to be here and figured that we could save the extra money to cover living and IVF expenses, in case it took me awhile to get back on my feet professionally. Even if I could’ve gone back, I don’t think I would have, at least not yet.
I stood staring at the noisy street below. Cars and trucks thundered past. I wondered where they were going. There was a pile of women’s clothes on the bed. Some were the clothes Siggy gave me and some were Jamie’s that I had retrieved from storage. The rest I had bought from charity shops the first day back. There were also a few bras and panties I’d bought at the airport. These were all white and plain.
My phone buzzed. I looked down and saw it was from Siggy. I read the first line, Jamie wanted to talk. I’d been texting Siggy since I got back, to let her know I was OK but if she was going to pass messages for Jamie, I wasn’t going to reply. I felt bad putting her in the middle but that was her choice.
I tried on the black suit trousers and a blue blouse, but thought it looked too formal. Like I was interviewing to become a temp.
Again my phone buzzed. I looked down, this time it was from a friend from the ad agency. He’d heard I was back and said that Jamie was looking for me. He wanted to know if I was OK. I wished I knew myself.
Finally, I picked up the powder blue summer dress. It was a simple sheath style dress I remembered Jamie buying for our holiday in Croatia. I knew it would strike the right balance. Professional but approachable. I didn’t think I’d be able to feel at ease in a dress though.
There was a long mirror in the corner of the spare room. I examined myself in the dress. Even I had to admit it fitted pretty well. I smoothed the fabric around the belly down a bit. You could just see the beginnings of a bump.
Warm air came in through the open window. Even with the noise and the pollution, it took me back to Dubrovnik, sitting in the little restaurant on a roof top. Watching Jamie as the sun went down, her face bathed in candlelight. I could feel a tear running down my cheek. I had to pull myself together.
I had thought about taking a jacket but, after Reykjavik, London in June felt like the tropics. I picked up a light cardigan and wore it open. No English person can leave the house without some sort of cover. It’d anger the weather gods.
I was still getting used to the sheer numbers of people in London again. Each street seemed to have more people than the whole of Iceland. Because of this, I decided to take the bus rather than risk the tube. I also wanted to look presentable and not drenched in sweat.
It felt good to watch the city pass by from the top of a double-decker. As we passed through Camden, I saw the pubs filled with people. Despite it being a Thursday, the sunshine had brought people out. It made me feel good to watch them. The bus lurched forward at a pedestrian stopping. I felt my hands on my stomach. I rubbed it, feeling the contours of my bump.
For a moment, despair threatened to engulf me. I pushed it down. Meet the agent, I told myself. Get a step forward to achieving one of my life goals, then I could worry about what to do.
I changed at Waterloo and took the next bus on to Brixton. I leaned my head against the window people watching as we went. Many of the men were in t-shirts and shorts, the women in light summer dresses. I remembered coming to Brixton on a number of occasions with Jamie. Most North Londoners rarely travel south of the river but Jamie had acting buddies down here.
Checking the GPS on my iPhone, I kept an eye out for the right stop. The little red pin drew closer and closer. I wasn't the only one getting off at that stop. I had to stand halfway down the stairs, blocked by other passengers both behind and in the front. The bus driver put his foot down on the brake and sent me tumbling into the back of the large man in front of me.
The man turned to me. At first I thought he was going to be angry, but instead he offered me a helping hand.
"Bloody bus drivers," he sympathised with me. I wasn't the first Londoner to be hurled down the stairs by a sudden stop, I wouldn't be the last.
It took me a while to find the offices of Dale & Associates. I had to walk up and down the street three times before I found the right door. Each time getting a little more frazzled and anxious. It was hidden down the side of a three story Victorian style building. The whole building leaned slightly to the left. A common sight in London, the city having been built on a bed of clay.
The intercom had six buzzers in total. One was marked for a graphic design company named A-to-M and another for a TV Production company called Bad Behaviour. Three of the buzzers just had flat/office number. The final one at the top said 'Dale Associates'. I pressed it.
While I waited for a reply, I read and re-read the printed email with the details of our meeting. Despite all my worrying, I was still ten minutes early. I began to think I should have walked around the block. Finally, the intercom buzzed with the voice of a young woman.
"Hello, can I help you?" She sounded young and friendly.
"Hi," I said, my voice was high, even by the standards of the body suit, "My name is Kelly Rogerson, I have a meeting with Rich Dale?" My statement had become a question as uncertainty had overtaken me again.
"Sorry, I am a little early," I felt the butterflies in my stomach. I really wanted this girl to like me.
"Not a problem, Kelly," her voice was light and friendly. I felt muscles relaxing that I hadn't realised were clenched. "When you hear the buzzer, push the door. Sorry but we’re on the top floor!"
I was worried the three flights of stairs would leave me a sweaty mess so I stopped before the last corner for a moment to get my breath back. By the time I reached the top, the girl I had spoken to on the intercom was waiting for me.
"Hi!" she said. By my guess she was in her early twenties, probably just out of university. She looked really young to me. I had to remind myself that in the body suit, I looked only a couple of years older. "Is the lift out of order?" She looked a little worried.
"No. Just trying to keep fit." I said. I was just happy I wasn't wheezing.
"Oh tell me about it," she put her hand on my arm. Just two girls sharing. "I thought all those stairs would have been the perfect cardio work out but," she grabs at her entirely imagined love handles, "I guess snacking at my desk doesn't help."
I spent five minutes talking to the girl, Hannah. She and her boyfriend only moved to London last weekend, she had studied Creative Writing at East Anglia. It seemed like we had a bond. Somehow it made me feel less nervous.
Hannah led me into a small waiting room. The furniture was all mid-century modern and very luxurious. Even if it were reproductions rather than originals, it was not cheap. I did the maths in my head. Either the agency were doing well or it had started with an impressive amount of seed money.
On the wall opposite me were a number of photographs, mostly black and white. They showed publicity shots of writers, some holding various awards. I recognised one writer, Sadie something, whose debut novel had just been made into a BBC mini series. The only other photo I was sure of was a man in a rugby shirt. Pretty much everyone with a Kindle had downloaded at least one of his books for their summer holidays.
"Ah, Christopher Bowman," I heard a man say. As he walked into the room, his eyes followed mine. "He's a great client but a bit of a Prima Donna." The man offered me his hand. I tried to get up but nearly tripped myself up on my own bag. In the end, I crashed into him with an awkward stumble and handshake that left me a little closer to him than I had wanted.
"One day, I'll tell you about the scandal Chris got himself into," He gave me a cheeky smile and I couldn't help blushing. I wondered whether I would be the same story to someone years on. If you’re lucky, you will be, I admonished myself. "My name is Rich Dale, very pleased to meet you."
He spoke with an American accent, although I couldn't place the region. He was younger than I expected, perhaps late thirties, maybe early forties. Either way he was in good shape.
"Er, hi." I stuttered. I felt like a teenager sent to the head’s office. It was an odd experience to have another man look me up and down. I was getting used to the looks and stares in public. They almost didn’t bother me anymore. This was more appraising. I guess I would have checked me out.
The thought reminded me that I had twelve messages from her in my inbox. None of which I had responded to.
"Shall we go through to my office?" Rich smiled at me. I nodded, my voice had deserted me. "Hannah, would you mind getting us drinks?"
"Sure," she said, all bright and perky. "What would you like?"
It was like she was Jeremy Paxman asking me a question on Newsnight. I had just clammed up. Luckily, Rich didn't seem to notice.
"Black coffee," I said. At the time it seemed the simplest. I regretted it immediately, coffee was only going to further agitate my nerves. I’d lately been developing heartburn on top of that.
As Rich entered his office, Hannah put a reassuring hand on my arm. "Hey, don't worry," I looked into her open face desperate for reassurance, "He loves your book."
Bless her little shoes. Right then, I'd wanted to be her friend forever.
Rich’s office was large and well lit. On the walls were further photographs. Rich with various clients holding different awards and cheques. I wondered if it would ever be me up there..
“So Kelly,” Rich sat behind his large desk. I smoothed my skirt underneath me as I sat down. “I am so glad you came in.”
I placed my two hands down in my lap, clasping and unclasping them. The body suit forced me to sit up straight and not slouch. I wondered how they had ensured the feminine posture. Such attention to detail.
We talked for some time about the market for new authors, and how long it would take to find a publisher. I had expected him to suggest a small, independent publishers, but he was confident “one of the bigger boys would be interested.” All the time I closely watched his movements. It was as if I couldn’t believe he was real.
“But won’t my book get lost in a publishers of that size?” I quizzed him. He had a boyish face but his sandy hair was receding a little. His eyes lit up when he discussed books.
“Let me ask you Kelly, why do you want to be published?” His eyes bore into me.
“Erm, I don’t know Mr. Dale,” I shrugged.
Before I could continue, he said, “Rich. I’m not old enough to be Mr. Dale.” I smiled. I had forgotten the immediate intimacy with which some Americans expressed themselves. He continued to look at me. I felt like I had failed some sort of test.
I dug deeper, “Erm, Rich. I suppose it’s what I have always wanted, ever since I was a little,” I had to stop myself from saying ‘boy’, “girl.”
Again there was silence. His gaze wasn’t aggressive, but it was unnerving. “When I was young I always felt detached. Perhaps because mum left when I was only little. I was always the observer. By the time I became a teenager it felt like I,” I paused trying to think of the right words, “I had so much inside me but I didn’t know how to get it out.” Right then I was dying for a cigarette, even though I hadn’t had one in years. How strange it was to be talking about mum in front of a total stranger.
“So you found writing?” Rich prompts me with a little smile.
“I guess you could say that. Oh, it was the usual adolescent nonsense. I kept a diary, wrote stories. It just felt like there had to be a reason, you know, for holding so much inside of me. That it was my destiny…” I blushed bright red, “You must think I am incredibly egotistical.”
His smile was reassuring, he seemed happy, “Well you certainly sound like a true writer. Ego and all,” he winked. I felt my face turn even brighter red. He smiled. “You’ll have to get over that,” he said, pointing at my cheeks. “When you’re a successful writer, you’ll have to believe all that.” I blushed further.
“Now, for the boring part,” he said, taking out paperwork. “It’s a standard representation letter. If we place the book, I take five percent of any advances, royalties, etc etc. If there’s promotions that the publishers don’t cover, I will advance what’s necessary and we’ll split the cost.” My eyes must have been glazing over because, with a smile, he said, “I know this is a lot. Why don’t you take it home, read it over and call me with any comments.” He read my mind because he said, “I promise you will receive an advance, a large one. I know the market. If I didn’t think you would get an advance, Kelly, you wouldn’t be here. I just need you to be patient and trust me. Do you trust me?”
I nodded, “Yes, Mr...I mean Rich. I trust you.” I was impressed by his confidence. I never had that sort of confidence. I had read an article somewhere that separated the world into askers and guessers. Askers had the confidence to ask for anything, a raise, a drink, a date. Guessers don’t even put a request into words unless they’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Dick was an asker. I could easily see him chatting up any woman he fancied. Jamie was an asker. I was a guesser.
Something caught my eye, “Wow, is that Susan Crisp?” I pointed at a photo on his desk.
He smiled, “That’s my wife, Susan, yes.”
“Wow, Susan Crisp,” I said embarrassed by my own fandom.
“You’ll have to meet her soon.”
“What!” I nearly jumped out of my seat, “Susan Crisp, no I couldn’t. She’s… She’ll think I’m just some stupid girl,” I tried to compose myself, “Do you think I really could?”
“So I take it you’re on board?”
I nodded eagerly.
“Good,” he said. “This will be a long and fruitful partnership. The world will know Kelly Rogerson when we get done.” I’d have to figure out how to tell him that my name was Cooper, not Rogerson. I left how to address who I was to another day.
I was floating on air all the way home. Nothing could put a damper on my mood. Not the crowds or the lack of air conditioning on the tube. Coming out of Archway, I was wondering what to do with myself. I should call dad to let him know the good news, but then I’d have to explain who I was, why I was like this and where Jamie was and I wasn’t ready to explain all of that. I wanted to call my friends but then I’d be in the same Catch 22 situation, plus the added spice of humiliation.
I figured I’d have a quiet night tonight, enjoy the moment. I was off alcohol of course, at least until I’d made my decision but I could at least treat myself to a take-away. I had a mad craving for the seaweed from the local Chinese. I stopped at the cash machine and typed in my number. A few moments passed and the options came up. I selected cash and £50 and waited for the little whirring sound of the money gods. It didn’t come. Instead, it said, ‘Insufficient Funds’. I used to be familiar with that message, back when I was a new graduate, working freelance and trying to break into writing for TV. I hated that feeling, which is what drove me to copywriting work.
Behind me, a woman was trying to placate her restless children. She didn’t say anything, but I heard her exhale and could feel her eyes burning into me. I tried again, this time for £20. Once again the message came up; ‘insufficient funds’. I tried once more, panic rising, for £10. The same message, more panic. What had happened?
“Excuse me, but are you finished?”
I turned to see the woman. Her words cut with politeness.
“S-s-sorry,” I took my card and almost ran away.
The blood was pounding in my head all the way back to the flat. Could it be internet fraud, maybe I’d underestimated my outgoings? I didn’t want to admit it but even then I knew where the problem would lie. It took me a good half an hour to find that little calculator-like device the bank gave me to generate my login code. My hands were shaking with nerves, so much so that I kept messing up the log-in. In the end, I had to go make myself a cup of tea to calm myself down. It took another two goes but eventually I was in.
The online statement was pretty clear. The account was well in credit until 2:35 pm that day. Then everything had been emptied into another account. The bank account was registered to one James Rogerson.
I called the bank helpline. The woman was very polite but told me that, “it was a joint account and Mr. Rogerson had the right to transfer the funds. I am sorry but you should speak with him miss.” The miss cut through me like a knife, pointing out how weak I had become.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing, you…” I screamed into her voicemail, leaving off what I wanted to call her, not because I didn’t want to say them, but because I couldn’t choose. I started to say how she stole MY money since, until she got this job, I was the only one contributing funds while she worked at theaters where she couldn’t see the West End for the curvature of the earth, but, as mad as I was, that felt cruel, like I was telling her that everything I had told her over the years about her art was a lie. It wasn’t. I was happy that one of us could pursue our art. Instead, I left a long rambling message telling her how she left me pregnant and homeless and, by the end, I was in tears. I started to type Siggy, to tell her what kind of bitch her friend was. I deleted that message and started to type how I was moving to a shelter since ‘James’ had left me homeless and broke, but decided instead to cut off all communication for awhile. Let them wonder.
When the adrenaline high of “fuck you,” wore off, I collapsed onto the couch, in tears. The flat was only paid for until the end of the week and then I’d be homeless. Female, broke, no job, homeless and pregnant with a baby I didn’t know if I wanted to keep. I turned on the TV, hoping it would distract me. It didn’t. I couldn’t focus. It was like watching TV in Iceland, except this time there were no subtitles. The actors’ voices merged with the noise from the street below. I just laid there as the sun went down, watching the shadows move slowly across the back wall.
Different scenarios ran through my mind. Maybe Rich could find me a deal quickly with a big healthy advance. I knew, from experience, that was unlikely. Even if he got me a deal quickly, new writers rarely got much in the way of an advance. I’d beg Jeremy for work, maybe under an assumed name, but even in desperation, the possible humiliation felt too hard to bear.
My fists balled up, I punched the sofa. It started as a quick thing but then I found I couldn’t stop myself. I pounded and pounded away until the bottoms of my fists were raw and the downstairs neighbour was banging on the ceiling.
I’d never felt anger like that before. It was all consuming. If Jamie had walked in right then, I could have killed her. Or harmed myself. Crazed revenge plots swam through my mind. I’d go down to the clinic right then and get an abortion. After all I needed no money to do it, God bless Nye Bevan.
The computer screen showed bus times and the clinic’s location on Google maps before my mood broke. I scared myself by imagining my child crying out. I knew it wasn’t true but, in my unbalanced state of mind in that moment, I half believed it. Then my own tears came. I lay on the sofa hands on my stomach. I knew then that I was going through with the pregnancy. I needed to find a different solution.
I sat staring at Felix's card. It'd taken me the best part of an hour to track it down. In the end I'd found it shoved in the back of my notebook.
What were my options? I had my credit card, at least I didn't think she could do anything about that. But the upper limit was only £1,000 and that wouldn't cover the cost of the flat, at least not for very long. I had about £20 in loose change and about the same again on my Oyster Card. Mercifully, I'd done a big shop just a couple of days ago so I wasn't going to starve.
I could have signed up to a temping agency, but that would take time, not pay well, and I'd have to answer a few personal questions I wasn't sure I was ready to cope with.
I picked up the card and dialled.
The phone rang, and rang. I’d got to the point where I was preparing a voice message in my head...
"Hello," His voice sounded different. Older, more mature.
"Er, hi," I paused, "You may not remember but we met in a club. In Reykjavik a couple of weeks ago..."
I don’t know what possessed me to call him. Of course, he wouldn't remember me! The club had been dark and he we had both been drunk. Besides, it was probably just a pickup line.
"Sure, I remember you. The brunette right?"
"Uh huh," I was a little annoyed at being reduced to a hair colour but I wasn't in any position to complain. "You said if I was ever interested in trying modelling..."
"And you said it'd be a cold day in hell."
"Ha ha," he couldn't see but I was scratching the back of my head, "Well, it might be a good moment to invest in a warm coat,"
Thankfully, he laughed.
"Look, I'm going to level with you. I'm in a bit of a fix and need the money fast." I hated playing the damsel in distress, but there was no way around it.
There was silence. It seemed to last forever.
"You're in luck, I had a model pull out of a shoot just this morning. Ungrateful, but that's the business. It's nothing hard, mostly lying around. a day shoot pays £200."
"That's fine, I'll take whatever." £200 wasn’t going to solve my problems but it was a start.
"Can you be there 4:30am tomorrow?"
"Sure," I didn't know where 'there' was but I knew I'd work it out.
"OK, give me your email and I'll get my assistant to contact you with the details."
I read off my email, "This is so great of you. Thank you sooo much!"
"You can pay me back tomorrow," he laughed . I was so elated that I didn’t think what that might have meant.
As I waited for the email, I looked over his website again. I recognised one set of pics from an ad campaign I'd worked on a few years ago. It’d been for a bank, trying to persuade students to sign up for a life of loans and overdrafts. Most of his stuff was aimed at the younger women, the sort of thing you'd see in Dazed & Confused. Sexy and youthful. I'd always liked the style, although I'd never imagined it'd be me in the photos.
After making a cup of tea, I refreshed my inbox. It had arrived, efficient. The shoot was at some place in Bethnal Green. I didn't know it, but it wouldn't be hard to find. My only problem was how to get there. There'd be buses running at that time but more than one to get there and it’d take forever. It'd only take one to go wrong and I'd be late. I couldn't afford to lose this gig.
A taxi would be quickest, but I didn't fancy risking what little cash I had left. What if they took ages in paying me. I had one last option, the bike downstairs. It'd have to do.
That's how I ended up outside an old warehouse in Bethnal Green at 4am dripping in sweat. The streets were deserted apart from a few drunks and one team of street cleaners I’d passed near Brick Lane. The dress I was wearing was only a light one. I'd picked it expecting to have to get out of it quickly. I was left hugging myself against the cold wishing for more layers. The sweat quickly became clammy, making me even colder.
It was well past 5:30am before anyone else turned up. I'd taken to glancing at my phone every other minute, refreshing the email to make sure I hadn't got the wrong address or time. I stared at that email countless times trying to find some note I'd missed.
"Hey, you here for the shoot?" The woman was tall and looked tired. Everyone looked tired before 6am.
“Er, yes. I wasn’t sure I got the right place.”
“Let me guess. Felix told you to be here at some ungodly hour?”
“I once told him I need the models in extra early, 4am or something. But that time, we had a nightmare makeup job. He tells the girls the same thing every time. I’m never sure if he’s trying to be helpful or just enjoying the power.” She extended her hand to me, “My name’s Ellie. I’m chief makeup artist and kind of the mum around here.”
She led me into the space. It looked large and empty. The walls were brick and floors painted grey. In one corner I could see the lights we’d be using along with some boards and screens. Across the roof were a series of metal bars. I assumed they must have been part of a pulley systems designed to help move goods around. Hanging from them were a number of what looked like fishtails in all sorts of different, and very bright, colours.
“You’ve seen the fish butts then.”
“I take it he didn’t tell you you’d be a mermaid for the day?”
I shook my head. Subconsciously, I eyed the door for escape.
“You’re selling beachwear. Some ad guy thought it’d be fun,” she said, rolling her eyes. I knew exactly what she meant. I’d been in lots of those meetings. “Mermaid for the day. Every little girl's dream right?”
I nodded, missing the sarcasm in her voice. It was 6:00 AM and besides, how would I know? She reached up and pulled one of the fish tails down.
“Green will suit you, I think.”
“I’d go to the bathroom now while you can.”
By 7:30, the place had started to fill up. I sat with my fellow female models watching with trepidation as two of Felix’s assistants filled a large paddling pool. There were others blowing up beach balls and putting up various seaside paraphernalia. Kiss Me Quick hats, that sort of thing.
“I hope the water’s warm,” I muttered.
“No such luck,” The blond girl named Claire replied, “They have to keep it below a certain temperature to stop germs.”
“It could be worse,” joined in Michiko, the other female model. She nodded in the direction of the two male models emerging from the changing rooms. Both wore just speedos and bathing caps.
“At least, it’ll warm up a little when they get the lights on,” I hardly heard Claire’s words as I was distracted by an inflatable palm tree began rising off the floor.
It was gone 10am by the time Felix arrived. His presence changed the feel of the place. People seemed more focused. I wondered if he’d come over and say hi, but he seemed too busy. The first half an hour we sat in silence as he and his assistants checked the lighting levels.
“You know he’s taken me to Paris and Venice in the last couple of months,” Michiko said, looking around to see if we were listening. Claire and I stayed silent. “Jobs like these are fine. Bread and butter,” she laughed at her own joke, if that’s what it was, “but the foreign trips are when you see who he really wants to work with.”
When Michiko turned her back, Claire rolled her eyes. I had to suppress a laugh.
The first set of poses were simple enough. We, the male and female models were given various orders and told to hold various props. Guess who got the ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hat. There were two disciplines involved in the work. The first was physical, to hold a pose, which was harder than most people think. The second was mental. You had to deal with orders being barked at you while resisting the urge to hit the bastard. As we neared lunchtime, Felix started to experiment.
“Alan,” he was speaking to one of the male models, “Do you think you could carry both Kelly and Michiko at the same time?”
“Sure,” Alan spoke in an easy Australian drawl, “How do you want me?”
No one asked either Michiko or myself.
“Kelly over the left shoulder, Michiko under the right arm.”
I was about to say something when one of the assistants began lifting me. I looked over at Michiko, she didn’t look best pleased either.
“Right, now you’ve got them turn with your back to me. Can someone get Claire into the pool? Lets try her with a cigar and drink. I want her in the background.”
Once set up we began shooting.
“Wiggle those tails girls. Alan, turn to your right slightly.” The instructions kept coming.
It turned into a long day. Around 4pm, Felix got his assistants to hang some large fishing next from the ceilings, like giant hammocks above our heads. The three of us girls we dumped in them and then spent another hour or so being told to writhe this way or that. With the ropes digging into my body and the fish tail cutting off circulation in my legs, I’d never been less comfortable.
The worst part of the day was the waiting. For long periods while Felix and his assistants changed the sets around we were left with nothing to do. In our fish butts, it was an effort to even sit up. I amused myself talking to Claire about her nieces and nephews while she scrolled through pictures on her phone. Michiko seemed much more interested in the guys, although I didn’t think they returned the interest.
It was getting on for six by the time we stopped. All three of us girls dashed to the bogs as soon as our legs were released from their prisons. Or at least we tried. My gait resembled a zombie as I tried to make my pins follow my commands. It didn’t matter much, by then we were being completely ignored. Felix and his team were all standing around a laptop going through the day’s work. Everyone else, Ellie and her team were busy packing up. I doubted any of the wardrobe team wanted to stay a minute longer than they had to.
Only the photography crew seemed to be having fun. For the last hour or so they’d been passing around cocktails, all beach themed. I’d also noticed them disappearing into the toilets in twos and threes. They came back with much more energy than before.
One of their team, a skinny lad, came over to me, “Felix wants to know if you can stay for another hour? He wants to do some close ups.” The kid looked like he was only just out of Uni. He wore expensive looking jeans and a fitted long sleeved t-shirt. I caught Michiko’s eye, she didn’t look best pleased.
Honestly, all I wanted at that point was a hot bath and a cold drink.
“He’ll pay you an extra £100.”
Damn. I knew I need the money. Every bone and muscle in my body screamed in opposition, but my brain was thinking about my only other option being crawling back to Jamie. My brain won the day.
“OK,” I sighed, “What does he need me to do?”
The skinny kid held out the green fish bum. I could have cried.
Like Brexit, close ups meant close ups. For the most part, I was asked to lie on the floor while Felix stood over me. There was only four of us left. Felix, the skinny kid and some big guy who seemed to know what Felix needed before Felix did himself.
“OK, imagine I’m some dude with a big fat cock and bank account. Seduce me.”
What a prick. I pouted and tried to imagine I was going into soft focus. He was straddling me now. The feel of his legs pressed against my thighs made me feel queasy.
“You know if they go for these pictures it’ll be a big deal for you. More money, maybe more shoots in New York and Tokyo.”
He kneeled down, his groin pressed against my crotch. The fucker had a hard on.
“Of course, if you want that you’ll have to fuck me.”
My face contorted in outrage and he began snapping away. Seconds later he stood up and I was released.
“OK, I’ve got what I wanted. You get dressed now.”
Did he mean that? Was he just trying to get a reaction? With that, he was off me. The men immediately stopped noticing my existence. No one offered a hand and I had to pretty much crawl behind a barrier to get out of the mermaid costume. I had wanted to ask how quickly I was going to get paid, but the thought made me feel dirty. Instead, I changed as quickly as I could praying that I didn’t start crying. I didn’t want to give the sleazebag the satisfaction. By the time I made it to the door, it was only me and the skinny kid left. I waited nervously to be let out, half expecting Felix to jump at me from out of a shadow.
Once we were out in the alleyway the kid turned to me, “Sorry about him,” he muttered, “he’s a real arsehole.” And with that he was gone. I still had a long bike ride back to Archway to go, but at least I was out of there.
I showered twice at home that night. The first time felt like a release, getting all the dirt and the pollution off my skin, soothing my muscles. I had tried to settle afterwards but I couldn’t, sit still or think straight. It was like someone had downloaded a virus into my brain. During the second shower, I could still feel him on me. I stood there like a zombie not able to think straight. At first I didn’t realise I was crying because of the water from the shower. In the end I had to sit on the edge of the bath because I was crying so much.
I stood outside the large suburban house. I’d twisted the handles of the off-licence blue plastic bag around my hand so many times I was running the risk of it snapping. Stupidly, I’d left my credit card at home and the bottle of red had used up a big chunk of the money I had left. Added to that the journey this far south had eaten up much of the credit on my Oyster Card. Still, it was going to be worth it. I was about to meet Susan Crisp, and she was going to work on my book.
I pulled nervously at the hem of my dress. It’d taken me a full two hours to settle on it. Women have so much choice, I hadn’t known where to start. In the end I went with the only thing I knew, that a little black dress (LBD) was considered a girl’s best friend. Standing outside the Dale residence, I was questioning my intel. How out of date was my fashion sense? Would she look at me and wonder what was wrong with me.
A black shadow moved behind the smoked glass coming towards me, like the opening scene to TV adaption of An Inspector Calls. As it reached the door, it became recognisable as a person.
“Kelly, welcome!” Rich opened the door. His smile put me at ease, but only for a second. Behind him was his wife, literary critic and editor Susan Crisp.
“Er, hi,” My mouth was dry. It felt like my throat was trying to throttle itself.
“Come in, come in. We don’t stand on ceremony.” Rich ushered me in taking my coat. He took the wine. “Ah, you didn’t have to, but thanks. Susan, this is Kelly Rogerson.” I made a note to tell him Cooper but right now I couldn’t come up with anything to say, much less something as complicated as my name. “Kelly, this is my wife Susan.”
“Of course I know Susan Crisp. I read your column in the Observer religiously,” I gushed.
She took my hand and smiled, “Book of Common Prayer? Or right to left?”
“I, I,” I babbled. “Er, uh, er, sorry…”
Rich smiled. “Don’t listen to her Kelly, she loves the praise,”
Susan gave her husband a sharp look, and he beat a diplomatic retreat muttering something about a corkscrew. Susan took my arm in hers and pulled me in the direction of the kitchen.
“I must tell you Kelly, I’ve been loving your book.” I wanted to poke her to make sure it was true.
The kitchen was large and clearly expensive. The middle was occupied by a giant island that looked like it’d come from a large West End restaurant. At the far end, it turned into a conservatory with a dining table that could easily fit ten or more people.
“So tell me about your influences? Do I detect Graham Greene, even a little Raymond Chandler? Plenty of Sarah Lund and Lisbeth Salander of course …”
I just nodded, afraid talking would make it all stop. That she’d realise I was an imposter.
“Unusual influences for a woman,” she looked at me shrewdly. I was almost wetting my knickers in panic. She squeezed my arm and said, “Saving it all for the page?”
“Um, uh, sorry. I’m just grateful that you’d even look at my book.”
“Take a deep breath, dear. It’s fine.” I smelled lamb, artichoke and aubergine and my stomach flipped slightly. ‘Please don’t make me throw up here. Please,’ I thought. “I hope you like moussaka. It’s a recipe I learned in Santorini on holiday. Have you ever been?”
“Yes,” I thought of that summer and Fiona, without realising it I blushed.
Rich came in, with the wine and three glasses. “There’s a story there,” he laughed.
“Not really,” I turned an even darker colour red, “Just post-student life. Too much drinking, too much sun,”
“Too much other things as well…” Susan smacked him on the arm.
“I wished,” I answered honestly. “Thank you for dinner.”
“Kelly, no need to thank us. Your book is thanks enough. It’s going to buy a lot of moussaka for all of us,” he said, laughing at his own joke.
Susan looked at me and said, “Ah, Americans.”
He poured three glasses and handed me one. “To Kelly’s book and a long and fruitful partnership!” We clinked glasses. Susan and Rich each drank, while I pretended to take a sip. I tried to find a way to discretely dump it out while no one was looking. Rich’s phone rang. “Sorry to be rude. It’s Chris. Bowman. Let’s see what trouble Chris has got himself in now,” he said, laughing.
He walked out and Susan said, “So let me hear about Kelly Rogerson.”
“It’s Cooper,” I said. “Rogerson is my, er, married name.”
She arched an eyebrow. “How old are you?”
36 and male. Instead, I gave what I decided was my female age. “25.”
She smiled. “Far too young to be married. So, where is the lucky Mr. Rogerson tonight?”
“Not here thankfully,” I said on instinct. She looked at me as if for explanation. “Sorry. He’s in Iceland. He’s an actor. On a movie. A thriller,” I said, in staccato. “That’s what I meant.”
“Sounds like quite a relationship,” she said, checking on the artichoke. OK, I thought, I am woefully inadequate. Every attempt I made at artichoke always tasted like overdone boot.
I smiled. “If this were Facebook, it would say ‘it’s complicated.’”
“Aren’t they all? “
“Er, yeah, I mean he’s the one who sent it to Mr….Rich, sorry. Hard to get used to.”
She laughed. “Try a meeting of the families. I thought my father was going to explode when he met them. Rich is the reserved one.” I laughed and relaxed. While she cooked, she explained what she was doing and talked about my book. “There’s great bones here, as Rich would say. I want to know about Ingrid,” the lead character. “What’s her back story, why is she there, all that. It doesn’t need to be on the page, but knowing that will make it all the better.”
She finished cooking and called Rich in. “That smells great as always. All this and she cooks too,” he said, again laughing at his own joke. I laughed too, maybe a little too loud. I felt like a 5th Former getting to hang out with the cool couple from the 6th Form. Susan took it all in, with the wry cynicism of someone who’s heard it all before, too many times to count. Everything was delicious. Too bad every bite I took made my stomach turned over. I could barely handle the sauce on the moussaka. I took little bites, eating primarily artichoke. It was only thing my stomach could take. We were finishing when Susan said, “Is everything OK, Kelly?”
“Oh yes, it was delicious. I’m sorry. Just a bit of a dodgy stomach is all. Can I bother you for some club soda?”
She smiled and said, “Of course. Rich, go get her a glass of club soda, please.” He left the room and said, “So, when are you due?”
She smiled. “It’s fairly obvious you’re pregnant.” I turned white. “Oh no, you’re not showing, if that’s what you’re worried about, although you shouldn’t be. It’s the other things. You only pretended to touch your wine. You just moved around the moussaka. And you’ve been to the loo three times since you got here which either means you’re pregnant or you need to see a doctor tomorrow about an infection.”
“I am so sorry, Susan. I apologise.” I started to get up. “I’ll see myself out.”
“I, uh, I was rude?” It was all I could come up with.
“Sit.” She put her arm around my shoulder. “You were rude? You’re pregnant. It’s perfectly normal. When I was pregnant with our son, if you had put tomato sauce in front of me,” and she laughed. “I’m guessing that’s what makes your relationship complicated. Doesn’t want to be a father, is that it?”
Well, that maybe. And he tricked me into putting on this suit. And he impregnated me against my will. And I’m a guy and 36. But definitely that too, maybe. This was not the time to go into that; the time was, according to my watch, never. Instead, I sighed and went with, “something like that. This wasn’t exactly planned,” at least not by me. I decided to make a joke. “Sorry to get all American on you.” I adopted a bad posh accent. “Everything is fine. Thank you.”
She laughed. “What does your mum say about this?”
I started to tear up. “That’s complicated too. Or actually it isn’t. She left when I was four and my brother two. Sorry again.”
She pulled me in closer, while I cried. “I am sorry for you. This is too much for a young girl to bear.” Or a not so young man. “Call me if you need anything, not just with the book.”
“Thank you,” I sniffled. “I’m not much of a guest, I’m afraid.”
She laughed. “Please. You should see what Chris does.”
I helped her clear away the dishes. We put them on the counter and Rich started loading the dishwasher. Susan put her arms around him and gave him a quick kiss. I thought of Jamie and realised that, despite everything, I missed her touch.
After coffee (decaf for me, of course) and dessert, Rich and Susan called a car to take me home.
“I can take the overground,” I said.
“Absolutely not,” said Susan. “It’s,” and she paused. “Far too late for you to be going all that distance on the train, plus who knows if a strike started tonight. Besides, Rich will write it off against tax anyhow.”
By the time I got home I was crying again. The taxi felt so lonely. Would I ever have a relationship like Rich and Susan? That mixture of mild annoyance and acceptance that is true love.
In the end, I ran myself a hot bath. The steam and the water soothed me a little but, when I closed my eyes, I could still see Felix’s face looking down at me, or hear Jamie laughing at my state. I dunked my head under the water, feeling its warmth. I wanted it to wash everything away, to make me new.
After pulling myself together and drying off, I sat on the bed, just staring at my phone. I picked it up. I needed help and there was only one person left I could call. I couldn’t call my brother or any of my male friends. I didn’t want them to see me like this. Everyone else I knew were either from work (and I didn’t know them so well) or they were Jamie’s friends. There was just one person left. I looked in my contacts and dialed Fiona.
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