Carol had been working at the Wilton Tribune for seven years, but never allowed to report on anything more glamorous than the Ryland cat show, the local ‘am-dram’ production of ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ and The School Friend’s Fancy Dress Disco, Barbecue and Charity Beetle Drive. She was officially titled ‘Community Correspondent’, but known amongst her colleagues as ‘Our Man at the W.I.’.
Today she was scheduled to be reporting on the long term effects of a burst water main outside the Wilton sub-post office. The leak had been cleared up over a week ago and as far as she was aware, the only long term effects had been felt by a cardboard box-full of Reader’s Digest ‘You may already have won…’ cards. Still, it was an assignment and it didn’t pay to argue with the editor. It would get her name in the paper and if all else failed she could always make something up. Perhaps if she tried really hard, she would be able to find a water damaged water bill…
Not to be. The Tribune’s senior leader writer had been taken ill with something that the whole staff sincerely hoped would be fatal and a replacement had to be found to cover the annual Society Bash. Carol was to hand when the Editor went ballistic and was duly despatched, party frocked and coiffured, to the local conference centre.
It was a nightmare. Wall-to-wall swank… and swankers. A room full of the kind of people that only ever get to fill a room of this kind. Carol stood, spiral bound notebook and pencil in hand, and watched as the dinner suits and sequined frocks wafted by: all designer-label mating-plumage, silicon-breasted, botoxed and lipo’d, carved and padded, a room full of semi-clothed and penguin-suited egos and shoulder chips. A human menagerie, doused in expensive perfume and naked ambition, smelling of pride and envy, jealousy and impotent rage.
She had tried to get a ‘star’ interview. She had tried to get any interview. She had tried to get some inside information from the caterers, from the waiters, from the bar staff, from the cat….. It was impossible; no-one willing to talk to a reporter wearing a borrowed frock and less-than-expensive perfume. No-one willing to talk to a woman who was asking questions that didn’t appear on the crib-sheet. No-one willing to talk to a woman who was ever-so-slightly tipsy…
She yearned for her long-since burst water main and its all-too-difficult-to-find water damage. She began to crave her W.I. meetings, lukewarm tea and soggy biscuits, interminable lectures, dried flower arrangements and crocheted blankets. She began to ache for the company of people in pleated dresses, high-necked woollies and sensible shoes. She began to long for gin and tonic. A very large gin and tonic, with very little tonic…
Then salvation arrived. It was in a face she knew. It was wearing an expensive dinner jacket of immaculate fit. It was looking cool and comfortable in a silken shirt and bow tie. It was tall, slightly ungainly, but none-the-less relaxed and at home in these opulent surroundings. Damien West, the most eligible boy in the whole class of ’99 strode easily through the gathered throng towards her.
“Carol… It is you, isn’t it?”
“I think so,” she said, aware of the banality of her answer and desperately eager for the floor to swallow her up. He laughed. He laughed! Joy of joys, he laughed. She wanted to laugh too, but embarrassment led her to try and hide it and, in doing so, she merely succeeded in contorting her face into some kind of grotesque halloween mask. She feared she might be dribbling. “Save me, God. Please save me…” And then she remembered that he had crossed the room to come to her. Of all the people in the room, he had come to her. And he’d remembered her name.
“So, what are you doing at this boring old lot?” he asked. He sounded friendly, he sounded interested and Carol felt closer to heaven than she thought she had ever been.
She took a deep breath, determined to speak without stumbling over her words. She looked up into the crystal blue eyes and knew that it wouldn’t be possible. “I just, that is I… I work for a newspaper. I have to cover this… I have to get, that is, I have to try to get some interviews. I haven’t done very well up to now. Nobody wants to talk to a nobody. I might have had a glass or two of wine…”
“You could interview me,” he said before leaning in and whispering conspiratorially into her ear “I don’t blame you, I don’t think anyone can make it through one of these evenings sober.”
Carol studied his face. He meant it, he really meant it. She smiled in gratitude, hoping that it didn’t look too much like a gloat. And then she noticed for the first time the elegant woman at his side. Her blonde hair was expensively styled, her clothes had obviously been designed especially for her, her perfume was intoxicating. She was every inch the professional woman, every man’s dream and every fibre with Damien. She leaned towards him and whispered into his ear before slipping away into the crowd. He smiled and nodded before turning back to Carol. “Do you know, at school, I used to loiter around the corridors, waiting for you to come along, hoping I would be able to speak to you, but you seldom came my way. When you did, I could never think of anything to say.”
“I was hanging around some other corridor, waiting for you. I could never speak to you either.”
“It’s strange,” he said. “When you look back, things could have been so different.”
“Would you have wanted them to be?”
“Not everything, for sure, but you always wonder, don’t you. ‘What if’s’.” His colleague/agent/companion/partner/wife (bitch, bitch, bitch!) appeared carrying champagne. She handed a glass to Carol and one to Damien before taking up station once more at his side.
Carol coughed her thanks and stared hopelessly from her notebook to the floor, to Damien and his tall and perfectly proportioned odalisque and then back to Damien, who was looking at her expectantly. She took her cue.
“You’re a famous person these days. A well-known and respected author. Is there any facet of your fame that you find difficult to handle?” An obvious, but sensible attempt to get the interview back onto some sort of professional footing.
“Evenings like this,” he said. “Usually…..”
“I used to stand in the trees, you know, watching you playing football.”
“Well, I know that you used to stand in the trees. I thought you were watching somebody else.”
She laughed, more loudly than she should have. “Half the Sixth Form was in those trees,” she looked down at her feet.
“I didn’t realise teenage girls had a ‘thing’ about uncoordinated boys with gangly limbs and knobbly knees.” Embarrassment flashed across Damien’s face. He turned to his companion who smiled benignly, like a mother. Suitably assured he turned back to face Carol and she realised she had shocked him. Oh God, she didn’t want to blow it now. She had to get a decent interview. “I’m sorry.” She was stammering again.
“Don’t be,” he said. “It’s erhm… flattering, I guess.”
Carol coughed, nervous and excited. “Did you… Have you based any of your characters on people that you have known?” She was trying again, to get the interview back on track, but at the same time, she couldn’t help but fish.
“No.” His answer was definite and a profound disappointment. “But you’ll be in my next book, I promise.”
“The love interest.”
He smiled. She swallowed and felt her whole body flush red. In her mind, they were now alone, the crowds around them ethereal, insubstantial. For reasons she did not understand she was overcome by anger and hunger and injustice and need, mostly need.
“You must have known how I felt about you then, but I suppose I was just one of many. Besides…” she was becoming indiscreet and she knew it. The couple of glasses of wine were actually many and they had been washed down with an equal number of gins. They had fortified her resolve, galvanised and empowered her ragged self-belief and honed her indignation into a dagger. Carol Massingham felt herself rising. She prickled with resentment and exhilaration. “…You had someone special, don’t you remember? The skinny redhead from the fourth form. She had the most awful buck teeth. She wouldn’t leave you alone, stuck to you like glue she did. You must remember. I wonder what ever happened to her?”
“I got myself a dentist,” said the goddess at Damien’s side. “Put some weight on; dyed my hair…”