Before you judge me, you should know that I once did the shopping for a party I wasn’t invited to, and I did it with hardly any resentment at all.
Sarah handed me a twenty pound note and packed me off to the Co-op with a list. She was always so busy. On that day, I seem to remember, she was finishing a mosaic before meeting her psychic at teatime. She didn’t have time for shopping.
“Not that I believe in it,” she winked, handing me the money. “Aurelia’s as psychic as my slippers, but she’s still in touch with an ex who works at the BBC.”
Sarah wanted to break into television as an actress, writer or presenter. She wanted to be a name; she expected flashbulbs to start popping and confetti to rain down from the sky. She tolerated me because I’d once had a poem published in our college newspaper. I became a contact, a connection – a person of no current value, but perhaps someone to watch. Looking back, I can see that Sarah put a bet on me, at very long odds, in the hope that one day I might pay out spectacularly.
Which I have done. But now she’s lost her stake.
I felt a bit sorry for her. She was always at the edge of things, poor old Daisy – tagging along, looking for a way in. She was a plump thing in glasses and an anorak – still just a schoolgirl, really, although we’d both graduated – and I kept her around out of kindness, finding little jobs for her to do. People won’t believe that now, but it’s true.
“We were at College together,“ I tell people, “…yes, really, we were! Dumpy, frumpy Daisy. I felt sorry for her.”
Then they start to edge away, smiling, as though pacifying me. They slide along the bus stop bench, or move along the bar. I’m aware that sometimes I inadvertently raise my voice.
Standing in that Co-op queue, pushing a trolley full of cheap wine and crisps, I realised that I’d have to lug the shopping back on the bus and unpack it all among the cuttings and beads and fabric swatches of Sarah’s kitchen. Everywhere became a workshop for Sarah’s creative projects; any one of her seedlings might bloom. I wondered whether I’d be allowed a drink of water before her guests arrived – all Sarah’s pub cronies and starlets and fledgling guitarists, with their notable other halves and useful exes: the contacts. It was quite possible that she’d expect me to take the coats and serve the wine, before I left.
I wonder that it didn’t occur to me to steal the wine and crisps, and to hell with Sarah and her party. But I was co-operative, in those days. I remember sitting on the bus with the wine bottles crushing my thighs, looking at the brand name printed on the plastic bag, and thinking – “Yep, that’s me.”
I can still see Lennox as he was then – handsome, fascinating, wearing a long military greatcoat that billowed behind him as we strode along the South Bank together. Anyone could see he had prospects. At twenty-five, when we got together, he was directing plays in the upper rooms of Hampstead pubs; his parents had bought him a shoebox flat in Archway, and he and I spent the evenings of that summer – that perfect summer – perched on his roof terrace between the chimneys, smoking and making plans. I lay beside him in bed, watching him breathe; I’d take his name when we married, I decided.
I wasn’t one of those needy women. Sure, he saw other people – so what? He was young. He was an artist. I’ve never been conventional.That’s why he was drawn to me; free spirit that I am. He trusted me to understand. I just preferred to spend my time with Lennox, if I could extricate him from the cast parties hosted by his leading ladies, when their parents were out of town. He’d fold his long body into Knightsbridge courtyards and Notting Hill terraces, letting the girls compete to supply him with cigarettes.
Oh, those girls! All of them fighting to rest their golden heads on his shoulders. Good job I’ve never been the jealous type.
Daisy was always around, that summer. Wanting to be included, as usual. And because I’m a nice person I found odds and ends for her to do, just so she felt needed. I felt safe, having Daisy around. It was like having a pet. A tame little pet.
I’d watch Sarah seething whenever other women, and occasionally men, became the recipients of Lennox’s rare and chilly smiles.
Sarah would turn to me and talk loudly, her face reddening in fury as she pulled at the hem of her black tube dress. She wore woolly tights, artfully ripped with a crochet hook; she wore oxblood Doc Martens, and made a song and dance about coming from the North, whereas I was just from Cumbria, which apparently didn’t count. I liked Lennox: she knew that, but she saw no danger in it.
I was always so co-operative, after all.
“Meet us at King’s Cross,” I instructed Daisy, over the ‘phone. She’d have to buy the train tickets for us, because I was making a mad dash from work to get to the station. “What time’s the train leaving?”
“Six o’clock,” she replied. She definitely said six o’clock. For some reason that time is easier to visualise than any other, and I saw a white clock with two emphatic black hands reaching in opposite directions. No mistake: she said six. I could hear her shuffling grimy timetables among the takeaway menus and nightclub flyers on her hall table.
This was years before mobile ‘phones and Google and all the gadgets which now keep us informed and connected. We relied on each other, in those days.
It was up to Daisy to supply Lennox and me with tickets to Edinburgh, to be handed over on the platform. He and I were travelling to the festival. It was essential to be seen there - to make contacts, scout for venues, sniff out rivals. We planned to make our mark. And we’d also escape his London entanglements – I knew they were suffocating him, all those Aramintas and Mirandas, with their acres and their breeding.
“I’ll pay you back,” I told Daisy, in case she worried about the money. “At some point.”
I had no work, that day. It was eight in the morning when I got the call on the landline of my grotty shared house, and the hours stretched ahead of me. I had some savings; just enough to cover the cost of two tickets. I rang Lennox at noon – rousting him from his bed, I could tell by the laughter in his voice, and the giggles of his companion – to say that he needed to be at King’s Cross at 5.30pm at the latest.
I didn’t mention anything about the tickets. Lennox was already beyond that sort of thing – there would always be people keen to serve him; to arrange his days and handle any tiresome arrangements.
I explained that Sarah was trying to get off work early: she’d join us when she could.
“Ok,” he said meekly. Co-operatively.
My bus was held up in traffic. We inched towards King’s Cross while I inwardly wept and pleaded. I held my patchwork bags on my lap, staring at the Euston Road through the filthy window, until I could stand it no longer. I jumped from the creeping bus while the driver yelled at me to stop. I bolted through the grid-locked traffic and ran half a mile towards the station.
I was on the concourse by 5.45pm.
I searched the ticket hall for Daisy and Lennox, imagining the two of them waiting anxiously for me, little Daisy clutching the tickets, fussing like an inept PA around the great man.
Nothing for six o’clock was announced on the departures board. But a train for Edinburgh was leaving at 5.50pm. I looked up at the station clock – white face, black hands, almost exactly as I’d seen it in my mind’s eye – and then a whistle blew.
Imagine pulling into Edinburgh in darkness, to see the castle illuminated on the hill! So romantic, I thought to myself.
I recognised Lennox by his flapping greatcoat when he ambled, eventually, onto the concourse. As I approached him he peered at me through unnecessary tinted spectacles, as though I was an autograph-hunter. He was bound to have practised his autograph – it would have a carefully rehearsed air of being dashed-off; perhaps he’d already perfected the lordly initials and straight line he uses now. I grabbed his wrist and pulled him towards the platform – then we both ran, laughing, against the crowd.
“Where’s Sarah?” he called, but his voice was lost in the boom of the air. I found the correct carriage and bundled him aboard, helping him to swing his heavy leather holdall over the footplate.
Then I climbed into the vestibule, too.
It was 5.46pm. “Can I have the window seat?” I asked, and he looked surprised, but said “Of course.”
He put my small bag into the luggage rack above our heads. Then he hoisted his holdall to the same level, with the assistance of a man from across the aisle. I remembered the time I’d carted that heavy bag of wine back to Sarah’s house.
“Sarah said she’d join us later,” I said vaguely, as a conductor moved along the length of the train, slamming its doors.
“Fine,” said Lennox, sitting next to me. He saw me then, I think, for the first time ever. He almost asked me a question, but then seemed to change his mind, shaking his head as though baffled. He leaned back against the seat, and closed his eyes.
I’ve never been bitter. She’s welcome to him. Poor old Daisy, let her deal with his sex addiction, his incipient baldness, his furred-up lungs! Just because he’s got a smarter version of the famous greatcoat these days, and a knighthood, I don’t suppose he’s any easier to live with. Harder, probably.
No, I’m glad things worked out the way they did. I’ve got a really nice life here, thank you very much, and I wouldn’t be a celebrity for anything. Not if you paid me.
I hardly recognise Daisy when I see her on TV these days. Not that I watch – I’m far too busy with my creative work, sewing these cushions, and learning to paint on glass. Might get a stall on the market, one day. One day. But, anyway – Daisy: I can see she’s gone overboard with the plastic surgery. She’s usually next to Lennox on the red carpet, with a simpering expression on her face. Not that her face has any expression – it never did. She was just a blank. A hanger-on, a bit-part; content to be in my shadow.
My shadow. Ha! That’s just what she was. Little Daisy, the dark horse. The shadow I dragged behind me.
I have often recalled my last glimpse of Sarah, sprinting alongside the train as it began to slide out of the platform – red-faced, weeping, with her hair flying loose. Her bags bouncing at her side, their straps tangling and binding her arms. She scanned each carriage she passed, avid for Lennox, and she approached our carriage just as the train gained traction and outpaced her, leaving her standing on the platform, bags dumped at her feet, seeing nothing but her own reflection flashing past in the black mirrors of the windows.
I leant back in my seat and reached for Lennox’s hand, impatient for life to begin.