To my husband, with love.

   Table of Contents





























   Last summer was meant to be perfect. Unbridled sunny hedonism with all my favourite people in Ibiza, Glastonbury and the rest of the latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah hotspots we creative, civilized people have colonized over the last few decades. How we were looking forward to indulging in excesses that Nero’s subjects might have considered over-the-top, smug in the knowledge that tiresome, bourgeois rules didn’t apply to professional free spirits like us. As I say, it was going to be perfect. But somehow, somewhere, something went wrong.

Chapter 1

   Let’s start in Ibiza. It’s the beginning of June and we’ve hired a villa for a week to coincide with the Space and Pacha opening parties. A fairly loathsome thing to do, I’m sure you’ll agree, but some of my friends have started to think they’re so cool it hurts. The renovated finca is a typically Ibicenco whitewashed cuboid affair, with roof terrace, tropical gardens kept verdant with horribly eco-unfriendly sprinklers and a big floodlit pool. Divided by ten, it wouldn’t have been too pricey were it not for the dreaded strong euro. But hey – that’s what credit cards are for.

   In varying states of undress, sobriety and attractiveness, my fellow revellers lounge around the pool. To my right, talking nineteen to the dozen, feet dangling in the water, is my oldest and dearest friend Poppy. We were new girls at school together and bonded at the age of ten over a shared love of Frazzles and Enid Blyton. The rest of the class thought we were weird.

   Tiny, with long, straight, honey-blonde hair (dyed, but not obviously) and smooth golden skin, Poppy’s the sort of girl you could easily hate if you didn’t already know and love her. After getting a first in History from Oxford, she travelled round the world on her own, bribing bent Colombian border guards, replanting rainforests in Borneo and volunteering in a Zimbabwean lion sanctuary. She’s now doing very nicely thank you in TV production. Her apparent fragility belies enormous resources of stamina. How she manages to combine outrageous partying with her high-flying job is anybody’s guess.

   I suspect she’s still pissed from last night. It’s just gone 2.30, we haven’t been up for long, and she should, by all rights, be feeling like death. Instead, she’s babbling away like nobody’s business, and – sure enough – finishes her sentence with ‘… I think the sun is well and truly over the yardarm by now, don’t you?’ She jumps to her dainty little feet, making for the bar the other side of the pool. I hear a heavy sigh and look up to see Alison rolling her eyes at Alison.

   Alison and Alison are a pair of killjoys if ever there was one. Not people I’d ever have chosen to come on holiday with, they are the girlfriend and fiancée of Charlie and Andy, who have been my brother’s best mates since their Cambridge days. Max and I unwisely decided to hire the villa together, to share with our respective friends – then the bugger bowed out at the last minute over a bust-up with his latest boyfriend.

   Skinny Alison is in full-on Bridezilla wedding planning mode. If I hear another word about bridesmaids, flowers or seat placements, I won’t be responsible for my actions. And somebody really ought to tell her that the strings on string bikinis are adjustable for a reason. I’m itching to give her boobs a good hoick.

   I’m not normally such a bitch, honestly, but the Alisons have been determined to ruin everyone’s holiday from the moment we arrived. Moan, moan, moan – and another bloody moan for good measure. It’s too hot, they don’t want to stay out too late, the food’s not up to scratch, they don’t like beaches. I mean, how can you not like beaches? They didn’t like it at all when Poppy and I brought a Croatian couple back to drink absinthe by the pool at dawn, I think, giggling to myself at the memory. But really – if neither beaches nor a laissez-faire attitude to partying is your bag, the question remains: why come to Ibiza in the first place?

   ‘The problem is that Andy wants to invite some old school friend who I haven’t even met, and who’ll probably turn up drunk anyway. It’s not meant to be a hooley, it’s my day …’Skinny is telling Plump Alison, who is hanging on her words, seemingly enraptured. I shut my eyes and turn my face up to the afternoon sun, allowing myself to drift off for a second.

   ‘So I’ve told him, we just don’t have the numbers.’ It’s no use: sleep is not an option within earshot. Andy and Charlie have driven into the village to buy provisions. I’d bet my life’s earnings (not a lot, I grant you) that they’ve stopped for a couple of sharpeners, if only to escape Alison’s inane witterings for half an hour.

   ‘Drinks, anyone?’ asks Poppy, and two prone male bodies show faint signs of stirring.

   ‘A beer might just save my life,’ croaks the lithe, brown one with messy black hair. Damian is Poppy’s long-term boyfriend, and they couldn’t be more compatible. As a journalist on a men’s magazine he is the epitome of the work-hard, play-hard lifestyle that suits my friend so well. And if ever the reams of misogynistic drivel he is required to churn out for work start creeping into his extracurricular chat, Poppy pulls him up short pretty sharpish.

   They make a fine-looking couple, I reflect, not for the first time, as Poppy opens a bottle of San Miguel and takes it over to him, crouching down to ruffle his hair and give him a kiss. Damian has his half-Indian heritage to thank for his permanent stubble and soulful dark eyes, hidden, at the moment, by a pair of classic Ray-Bans. The other half is Welsh, and the unlikely sounding genetic combination has proved a winner. Poppy has chosen her Missoni string bikini with typical nous. Its zigzag stripes of emerald, lime, khaki and aqua add curves to her slender frame and enhance her green eyes. Despite the heavy night, she is the picture of health and vitality. ‘Beer, Ben?’ she asks. ‘Or does the Pope shit in the woods?’

   ‘Cheers babe.’ Ben drags himself into a sitting position. I try not to gawp.

   Ben Jones is probably the most gorgeous specimen of manhood I have ever laid eyes on. A classically trained actor, he supplements his fluctuating income with the odd modelling stint (as you do), his full pouty lips, high cheekbones and long-lashed blue eyes lending themselves perfectly to preppy Gap-style advertising campaigns. He and Damian were at school together, so I’ve known him for as long as Poppy’s been with Damian, which must be getting on for … Jesus, nearly five years now. And even after nearly five years, it’s sometimes hard to believe that I count this Adonis amongst my closest friends; in fact it’s sometimes hard to believe that I count any of these people amongst my closest friends. But I’ll come back to that later.

   ‘So what happened after I left last night?’ he asks us all. Unusually for him, Ben left early last night as his nightmare current squeeze, an Australian model called Kimberly, wanted to get her beauty sleep (and presumably her fill of Ben, lucky bitch).

   Both Alisons sit up straighter, I notice. Fuck it, who am I trying to kid? I sit up straighter, and pull my tummy in too.

   Poppy starts to laugh. ‘Good question. Who do you want to hear about first, Mark or Bella?’

   ‘Start with Mark please,’ I say, getting to my feet. Joining Poppy at the bar, I pour myself a large gin and tonic and light the first fag of the day.

   ‘Christ, Mark’s a dick,’ says Poppy, and we all laugh.

   Mark is the art director on Damian’s magazine, all shaved head, biceps bulging out of racer-back vests and crotch attempting to thrust through the flies of his Diesel jeans. On anybody less pulsating with testosterone, this would look gayer than Elton and ‘my partner David Furnish’ on a campsite in Mykonos. Mark presides over shoots of naked women and says things like, ‘Man, Kelly’s minge is sweet’ without shame. It pains me to admit that I find him extremely sexy.

   ‘Yes, he really excelled himself last night, didn’t he?’ I say. ‘What would be your reaction, Ben, to eighteen-year-old Brazilian twins?’

   ‘Fuck me!’ Ben chokes on his beer. ‘Lucky bastard. Where did he find them?’

   ‘Pacha, of course. The last we saw of him, the three of them were heading off, arm-in-arm, to the marina, making for the girls’ parents’ yacht.’

   ‘They were bloody fit,’ says Damian. Poppy sighs patiently.

   ‘They were eighteen, darling. And Mark is thirty-two. Don’t you think it’s a tad pathetic?’ Poppy is lucky enough never to have suffered from jealousy. I suppose she’s so secure in her own achievements and beauty that it’s never been an issue. Which is more than you can say for me.

   ‘I really hope their father – who I am assuming, with my penchant for racial stereotyping, has a macho and fiery Latin temperament – catches Mark in the act with his darling daughters,’ she muses.

   ‘You messa with my bambinas, I cut offa your cojones,’ I add, and everybody laughs, even the Alisons. I glance over at Ben. Christ, he’s gorgeous.

   ‘So what did you get up to then, Bella?’ he asks. I sigh theatrically, trying to mask the shyness that used to be so incapacitating and which still occasionally rears its ugly head at entirely inopportune moments. Like at job interviews, or when talking to handsome men. I deal with it by drinking more than is seemly (not at job interviews), hanging out with people way cooler than me and hoping some of their attitude will rub off. But, deep down, I’ve a strong suspicion I’ll always be a bit of a loser.

   ‘It was my favourite dress.’

   ‘That short white lacy number you had on last night? Yes, it looked great on you. Really showed off your tan.’ He noticed what I was wearing? Result! ‘So what happened to it?’

   ‘Well …’ I’m starting to feel a bit sheepish now, as I don’t want Ben to think I’m a complete slag, even though he is by no means Mr Whiter-Than-White himself.

   ‘It’s classic,’ says Damian, grinning. His teeth are dazzlingly white against his brown skin. ‘Come on Belles, spill.’

   ‘OK then. I met this American guy – can’t even remember his name now …’

   ‘It was Randy,’ says Poppy. ‘Can’t believe you’ve forgotten that bit.’

   ‘Oh God, yes, of course! I can’t believe I’ve forgotten that bit either. Anyway, Randy and I decided to go to the loo for a line, and while we were in there we had a quick snog. In the course of the snogging, my dress came off – I did not shag him, by the way …’

   ‘Of course not,’ mutters Skinny Alison and Poppy glares at her.

   ‘I didn’t. Anyway, by the time we were ready to go back and have another drink, I looked on the floor and my dress was gone. Someone must have put their hand under the partition from the next cubicle and pinched it. I mean, really – what on earth would possess you?’

   ‘Was it the Ladies or Gents?’ asks Ben. Such a pertinent question makes me go all gooey.

   ‘The Gents. Not sure if that makes it better or worse. It must have been some sort of prank, rather than a random opportunistic cheapskate stalking me and thinking I really really must have that dress – fab though it was. Ha-ha very fucking funny.’

   ‘Actually it is,’ says Damian. ‘And you never know, transvestism isn’t unknown in Ibiza.’

   I ignore him.

   ‘Anyway, I was stranded in my bra and knickers, so had to get Randy to go and alert the bar staff to my plight. They all thought it was bloody hilarious, but the barmaid did lend me a towel, which I fashioned into a mini toga and wore for the rest of the night. No one batted an eyelid, of course.’

   ‘Excellent stuff,’ says Ben. ‘What happened to Randy?’

   ‘Dunno – I lost him in the crowds.’

   ‘Poor bloke, he’s probably brokenhearted.’ I glance up suspiciously. Is he taking the piss? Ben simply doesn’t do gratuitous compliments. Not towards me, at any rate.

   ‘Hi guys,’ coos a breathy voice from the direction of the French windows. ‘How’s it going?’

   Nearly six feet tall, with curly, almost ringleted auburn hair and even whiter teeth than Damian, Kimberly likes to make an entrance. Now she poses languidly for a second, allowing us to take in the length of her legs, before slinking across the terrace towards Ben. He leaps to his feet.

   ‘Drink, darling?’

   ‘Ew, no!’ She wrinkles her retroussé nose in disgust. ‘I can’t believe you’re all drinking in the sun? Don’t you know how dehydrating it is? Your skin’s not going to thank you, babe.’ She gives a little tinkly laugh and I want to punch her. Her skin is an unlikely bronze spattered with tiny freckles. Surely redheads don’t tan? ‘Organic OJ will do me just fine?’

   I haven’t seen Kimbo swim the entire time we’ve been here, despite her vast collection of tiny bikinis, and suddenly realize why. If her hair went anywhere near water without the aid of a hell of a lot of Frizz-Ease and an hour’s attention it would surely be a ginger afro. I’m tempted to chuck my drink over her just to check, but reconsider. It would be a waste of perfectly good gin.

   ‘I just had a call from my agent?’ she says. ‘And US Playboy is interested in me doing a centrefold? And although I’m perfectly happy with the human body as a sexual and sensual instrument –’ Excuse me while I puke. ‘– I’m more in touch with my inner spirituality? Y’know?’

   The Aussie upward inflection is doing my head in. We may be hungover, and she may be talking utter crap, but it’s not as if we don’t understand the English language. Y’know?

   ‘Babe, that’s amazing,’ says Ben. ‘I can’t believe I’m knobbing a potential Playboy centrefold. You’ve got to accept.’

   ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ says Poppy. ‘As you’re such a spiritual person, maybe you should concentrate on less obvious things.’

   ‘Oh you naughty boy,’ says Kim simultaneously, tapping Ben’s nose playfully, as I suppose a Playboy centrefold might. ‘But the shoot clashes with my yoga retreat in Kerala next month – Goa’s just soooooooo touristy these days – and I need to, like, reconnect with my soul?’ She starts doing some ostentatiously arse-revealing yoga moves and Poppy catches my eye.

   ‘Anyone up for Sa Trinxa?’

   I was hoping someone would moot this. The gin has already topped up the toxic fluid that is my blood and I want to party on. Sa Trinxa is the coolest bar on the coolest beach in Ibiza and I defy anyone not to have a good time there. Apart from the Alisons, of course, who’d rather talk weddings around the pool.

   ‘I’m game,’ says Damian.

   ‘Me too,’ says Ben.

   ‘I think I’ll take a rain check? I need to, like, catch up with my meditation? You guys have fun, OK? But not too much fun without me, gorgeous? Remember the Tantra?’ Kim licks Ben’s face in a frankly horrible display of intimacy and slinks off.

   Sa Trinxa it is then.

   I’m basking in the clear water off Las Salinas, favoured beach of Ibiza’s beautiful people. It’s a fifteen-minute walk from the car park to Sa Trinxa, at the far end of the beach, but boy is it worth it. Looking back at the beach from my watery vantage point, I’m faced with a scene right out of a soft-focus Seventies fashion shoot. Nestled into the rocks at the back of the sandy white beach, the bar is built up on a wooden platform, with bamboo and banana leaves providing shelter from the fierce Balearic sun. Exquisite semi-naked bodies of every nationality laze on the shore, tattoos and anklets much in evidence. Impossibly slender and tanned girls in tiny bikini bottoms are starting to dance on the water’s edge, swaying in time to the ambient music the bar’s sound system is pumping out. They know that everybody in the bar is looking at them; that’s the point.

   I do a somersault underwater. I could swim before I could walk, as my parents had a pool when I was a baby (when they were still together), and I’m still better at swimming than walking. The former has fewer falling-over opportunities. I come back up for breath and let my mind drift back to last night. I was a little economical with the truth when I said I hadn’t shagged Randy. It seems a tad sordid to admit you’ve done it in a nightclub loo, after all. Even if the club in question is Pacha. But hey, he was fit as fuck, and seemed to think that I was too, which is always a turn-on. He was from California, and looked like a surfer, with a broad jaw, shoulder-length, sun-streaked hair, darker eyes, lashes and stubble, perfect American teeth and mid-calf, Hawaiian-printed board shorts. One of the best things about Ibiza is that you can meet so many globally gorgeous men here.

   He approached me on Pacha’s absurdly jet-set terrace, complimenting me on my eyes, dress and legs. I lapped it up, then told him I had some coke if he fancied a line. I’m always so euphoric on Charlie (not least for its confidence-boosting properties) that I want to share it, for whomever I’m with to be on the same wavelength, to share the joy man. I’m a bloody idiotic hippy at times. Anyway, we made our way to the Gents, waiting until nobody was having a piss in the urinals, before sneaking into one of the two whitewashed stone cubicles, laughing as we locked the door behind us.

   I felt another rush of euphoria after we’d done the lines and Randy seemed to too, as he grasped my shoulders and started kissing me, tracing the inside of my mouth with his tongue. It felt great and I responded in kind, offering little resistance when he slid my dress off my shoulders and onto the floor, leaving me standing there in my bra and knickers. He undid his board shorts, which also fell to the floor. He wasn’t wearing anything underneath and his cock was impressive. He pushed me against the wall, and tried to get my knickers down, but we were both hampered by the garments around our feet. We laughed, and kicked them aside.

   Realizing that in such a confined space there was no other option, Randy sat down on the loo seat and pulled me down on top of him. He’d already managed to get a condom on (something told me he’d done this before). I felt his great American cock going deeper inside me, as I manoeuvred myself up and down on him, turned on as much by the naughtiness of it all as by his calloused thumb rubbing my clitoris. God, it was good.

   But when I told Ben that I’d lost Randy in the crowds, I was lying about that too. When we eventually emerged from the loo, with me in the towel the barmaid had lent me, he kissed me, apologized and said he couldn’t be seen with me in case his friends told his girlfriend back in Santa Barbara. Bastard. It was the first time he’d mentioned a girlfriend.

   You know what though? I’ve been treated worse. God, the hours I’ve spent agonizing over why some chap or other hasn’t called, what I might have done to put him off me. What it is that other women have that I don’t; something that keeps the opposite sex interested in them for more than just a few cheap shags. Endless, painful self-analysis. At least Randy had the decency to tell me to my face immediately after the event. OK, so decency is probably not quite the right word, but you know what I mean. It’s that being kept hanging on for weeks, sometimes months on end – because they don’t have the bloody courage to tell you to your face – that really hurts.

   Here, in the beautiful sea that surrounds this beautiful island, Randy’s nothing more than a delicious (if somewhat seedy) memory. Ships that pass, and all that. I do a backward somersault, then swim out towards the horizon for a bit, going deep underwater like a fish before heading back to the shore. It’s time for another drink.

   The jetty that sticks out into the sea in front of the bar acts as a kind of catwalk. The rocks that account for the very clean water make it difficult to get in and out of the sea without using the jetty, so every time you have a swim you know that at least someone will be observing, and quite possibly commenting on you. In the old days I’d have been horribly self-conscious hauling myself out of the water in front of such a pulchritudinous crowd. Today, emboldened by the five bottles of wine we seem to have got through with our lunch, I am the picture of insouciance. I may be nowhere near Poppy’s league of beauty, but I scrub up OK and am feeling happily confident in my fuchsia and orange halterneck bikini, my long dark hair dripping down my back. It’s great how sexy sunshine and booze can make you feel when there are no mirrors around.

   Lunch was to die for. Griddle-blackened tiger prawns pulsating with garlic and parsley, fantastically crunchy chips to soak up the juices and a lovely fresh salad to make us feel virtuous. The food, wine and swim (not necessarily in that order) have certainly sorted out my hangover, I think, as I weave my way through the bodies on the sand back to our table.

   ‘How was the water?’ asks Poppy.

   ‘Absolutely gorgeous! So refreshing, I feel like a new man. What’s the wine situation?’ I pick up my empty glass.

   ‘Don’t panic, we’ve ordered a couple more bottles,’ says Ben, laughing.

   Looking around the table I feel a moment of pure joy. I’m with three of my favourite people in probably my favourite place on earth, mellowed with sun and wine, with nothing but more pleasure to look forward to until we leave this magical island. It’s so hot I’m drying off already, salt crystals forming on my sunbaked shoulders, my wet hair keeping me cool. Whichever direction I look, I am confronted by sunshine, beauty and laughing faces. It seems as if nothing can pierce my bubble of happiness.

   And then I see him. Walking up the beach towards us, skinny brown legs in way-too-short denim cut-offs, barrel brown chest revealed by a batik silk shirt left open to the waist. His shoulder-length hair is thick and grey, his chest hair white and wispy. A shark’s tooth dangles from a leather string around his neck, above which his strong mahogany face is etched with deep vertical grooves. He is carrying – oh God – a guitar in one hand and what looks like a spliff in the other.

   ‘Bella,’ says Damian, following my gaze. ‘Isn’t that …?’

   Yes, the ageing hippy openly checking out all the topless babes on the beach is my much-loved but thoroughly disreputable father.

Chapter 2

   ‘Wow Bella, that smells fantastic. What’s cooking?’ asks Charlie, dipping a slightly podgy finger into the rouille I’ve just prepared. I slap his hand away and smile at him. Thick, sandy blond hair frames his good-natured, ruddy-cheeked face. He’ll have a double chin in ten years’ time, you mark my words.


   After boozing all day yesterday, an early(ish) night was in order, so I got up at the supremely civilized hour of 10.30 to go to the market. There I had a lovely time trading banter with the stallholders and getting their recommendations on what was freshest in. I spent most of my childhood holidays in Mallorca (where Dad still lives in a thirteenth-century hermitage) so my Spanish is passable. I stocked my pretty wicker basket high with prawns, mussels, clams, scallops, red mullet and the scraps of small fish that are so essential for depth of flavour in a good fishy broth. I’m not actually making bouillabaisse, which is of course indigenous to the south of France, but a kind of generic Mediterranean fish stew.

   I love cooking. I’ve chopped onions, garlic and fennel, skinned and seeded some overblown, sun-infused old tarts of the tomato world, and glugged in some Pernod, saffron and thyme. Now the fish is simmering away and I stop for a fag break.

   The insistent chirruping of crickets vies for attention with my friends’ laughing voices wafting through the balmy air from the terrace outside. The old stone floor is cool against my bare feet as I pad about the enormous room, wishing my tiny kitchen in London could compare. There is a huge scrubbed oak table in the middle, piled high with the usual holiday detritus of suntan lotion, shades, hats, wet towels, cameras and unwritten postcards. All the cupboards are finished in the same oak, the walls are whitewashed and the white enamel double sink has elegantly curved stainless steel tap fittings. A fireplace vast enough to roast several ten-year-olds is stacked with currently redundant logs, giving the room an almost cosy feel, despite its size.

   I’m feeling wonderfully wafty in my new multicoloured maxidress, fondly imagining I’m channelling a Seventies socialite, Talitha Getty/Bianca Jagger vibe as I float through the French windows – only to trip over the hem and fall flat on my face at Ben’s feet. Everyone creases up laughing.

   ‘Ow, that bloody hurt. Shut up, you buggers, it’s not funny.’ I sit up and rub my knee, where the skin has split and a purply bruise is starting to form. I pretend to laugh but am actually feeling a bit stupid and in genuine pain.

   ‘Shit, that looks nasty,’ says Ben, crouching down beside me. ‘You need to clean it up. Does anyone have any antiseptic?’

   ‘There’s some Savlon in my sponge bag. Poor love.’ Poppy bends over to kiss the top of my head as she makes her way inside the villa.

   Ben helps me to my feet and I go hot all over. I can’t help it: his proximity is overwhelming, even after all these years.

   ‘Have a drink, darling,’ says my father, pouring me a glass of wine as I sit down at the table. ‘Best anaesthetic there is.’

   It turns out that Dad heard from my mother that we were on the island, so he thought he’d pop over to surprise us. It’s only a short ferry ride from Palma, after all. Feeling mean not to have mentioned it to him, I immediately asked the others if they’d mind if he stayed on the sofa for a couple of nights. Everyone seemed to be cool with it, though I thought I detected some sniffiness in the Alisons’ corner. No surprise there then. As it happened, Dad didn’t need the sofa as he was travelling, as he often does, with his trusty hammock and sleeping bag – ‘I much prefer to sleep under the stars, angel face.’

   ‘Here you go,’ says Poppy, handing me the tube of Savlon, a roll of lint and a packet of plasters. Trust her to come prepared. It just wouldn’t occur to me to bring first aid stuff on holiday.

   ‘Let me do that,’ says Ben, crouching down again, gently pulling my skirt up over my knees. I can barely breathe as I glance over at Kim, but she seems entirely unperturbed, twinkling and laughing at something my father’s just said. She and Dad have been all over each other all day, and while it’s pretty obvious what he sees in her, it’s also, sadly, all too obvious what she sees in him. My father’s a photographer, you see, and a pretty influential one at that. In the Seventies he ran amok with Bailey, Donovan et al., and was never without several pretty girls on either arm. It’s amazing his marriage to my mother lasted as long as it did.

   He’s shot everyone from the Stones to Iggy Pop, Gwyneth Paltrow to George Clooney – and got pissed with them all afterwards too (except for Gwynnie, whom he called ‘lovely to look at, but probably the most boring woman in the world’). He’s stayed for nothing in the best hotels in the best locations, and is endearingly blasé about high-end glamour, preferring to rhapsodize over waterfalls or deserts. When he occasionally emerges from semi-retirement in Mallorca, the glossies fall over themselves trying to persuade him to shoot for them. Kimberly’s in the process of proving herself to be nothing more than a nasty little opportunist, and while part of me is delighted she’s showing her true colours, I’m mortified that my father should be the cause of it.

   I’m also pretty sure this is why Ben is being so unusually solicitous, but am not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Now he tenderly cleans my wound, looking up at me with those delicious blue eyes, and it’s all I can do not to grab him right here and shove my tongue down his throat.

   I am distracted from my lascivious reverie by the sound of Kim squawking, ‘Oh my God, Justin, you crack me up. You’re just sooooo witty,’ and laughing as if my dad were Peter Cook and Dorothy Parker reincarnated and rolled into one. When she smiles, her pink pointy tongue peeps through her teeth, in a cutesy manner she clearly imagines is both endearing and provocative. It might just provoke me into a spot of GBH. Dad smiles smugly and relights his spliff.

   Dad and Kim are both sitting with their legs propped up on the table we’ve laid this side of the luminously turquoise pool, just to the left of the French windows. This is Dad’s default position so it doesn’t bug me too much. For Kimbo it is another excuse to show off the length of her horrible legs. She is wearing a cream backless jersey minidress, cut away at the sides and held together with a large gold ring that showcases her pierced belly button and matches her gladiator sandals. She’s piled her copper curls up in a faintly Grecian style that emphasizes both her height and the swanlike quality of her neck. Her skirt is so short that the legs-on-table pose is a blatant invitation to look at her knickers. Oh well – at least she’s not going commando. One must be thankful for small mercies.

   Poppy’s perched on one of the sun loungers, a very contented-looking Damian sitting on a fat cushion on the ground between her legs. He occasionally turns his head to kiss her slender fingers, which are massaging his shoulders. In denim hot pants and a little white broderie-anglaise camisole, her surfer girl hair streaked white by the sun, Poppy is the picture of butter-wouldn’t-melt gorgeousness (if you discount the fag in her hand and enormous margarita at her feet). Damian is his usual understated cool in long shorts and a close-fitting Superdry T-shirt.

   To the other side of my father leers Neanderthal Mark, resplendent in crotch-hugging Daniel Craig-as-Bond shorts and a grey marl racer-back vest with ‘sit on my face’ emblazoned in neon pink lettering across his enormously worked-out chest. He and Dad have worked together on several shoots and were having a lovely time reminiscing about various tits, arses and pudenda they’ve come across (if you’ll pardon the expression) until Kim appeared, fresh from her ablutions.

   Alison and Alison are in their usual sun loungers, engaged in a crisis meeting as the woman making Skinny Alison’s wedding dress has had the temerity not to be available at the end of a phone twenty-four/seven, even though Skinny is on holiday herself.

   ‘I mean, I’m paying her enough,’ she’s fuming. ‘I just want to know that everything’s going according to plan. That’s not really too much to ask, is it? It’s absolutely vital that we get the second fitting done the minute we get back. Oh God, I shouldn’t have come to this bloody island. There’s just too much to do. And I do want everything to be perfect on my big day.’

   ‘Of course you do, sweetie,’ says Plump Alison, who is awfully wet but the only one showing the self-obsessed hag any kindness, I suppose.

   Indeed Andy seems blissfully unaware of his fiancée’s latest gripe as he sits playing chess with Charlie at the circular stone table in the bar. Andy is quite a good-looking man, in a saturnine sort of way. Tall and rangy, with short dark brown hair and rectangular, dark-framed specs, he looks exactly like the hard-hitting investigative reporter (or ‘proper journalist’, as Poppy puts it when she wants to wind Damian up) that he is.

   Though you wouldn’t guess it given her asinine wedding obsession, Skinny Alison is a high-flying lawyer. She too is tall and dark, with a severe black bob and droopily melancholy features set in a long face. She looks surprisingly elegant with her clothes on, I have to admit, clad tonight in white linen palazzo pants and navy and white striped boat-necked T-shirt, her lips defined with a slash of scarlet that matches the silk scarf wrapped around her narrow waist. The fact that she isn’t pouring with sweat in such a get-up is testament to her reptilian cold-bloodedness. She and Andy must have awfully grown-up, intellectually superior dinner parties, I reflect, as I eye them over my drink and wonder what on earth they have in common with my darling, laid-back brother. I’ve met Andy on and off over the years and he’s always struck me as nice enough. But still.

   ‘How’s that?’ asks Ben as he gives my knee one final wipe and sticks a plaster on it.

   ‘Much better – thanks so much.’ I will him never to stop manhandling my legs. ‘I’ll just have a fag out here, then go back and finish the food.’

   ‘Great, I’m starving,’ says Charlie from the bar. ‘What’s the ETA?’ So they can hear what’s going on from there, then. Interesting.

   ‘God, Charlie, do you ever think of anything but your stomach?’ says Skinny Alison. ‘You really should start looking after yourself. You’re not getting any younger, you know.’

   ‘Well, I love him just the way he is,’ says Plump Alison in a rare moment of defiance. She walks over and gives him a cuddle from behind.

   ‘Thanks babe,’ says Charlie, kissing her forearm. ‘Does that mean I can have seconds?’ He roars with laughter. He’s a pretty good sort, as Sloaney accountants go.

   ‘I’ve never had to worry about my weight,’ says Kim smugly. ‘I guess I’m just lucky – good genes? My mom and grandma both had great skin too? And they both look soooo young for their age? My guru says you get the face you deserve, and I’ve been so lucky I always try to give something back.’ She beams around complacently.

   ‘So, what’s the score tonight then?’ interjects Poppy – who’s never had to worry about her weight either – into the flabbergasted silence. ‘Dinner in – what? – twenty minutes or so, Belles?’ I nod. ‘Cool, then we’ll just chill for a bit, then hit Ibiza Town, then … does anyone have any particular debauchery in mind?’

   We ascertain that Mark wants to hit the Rock Bar, as the Brazilian twins said they might be there, Damian needs to score from some bar in the gay quarter and the rest of us are keen to go to Amnesia as it’s Manumission night. I finish my fag and go inside to put the finishing touches to dinner, Poppy hot on my tail.

   ‘Christ, have you ever met such a self-satisfied, vacuous little tart,’ she rants, opening the fridge in search of another bottle of tequila. ‘OK, tall tart.’

   ‘Hmmm … let’s think.’ I put my head on one side and pretend to consider it. ‘Nope, can’t say I have. Surely even Ben must be starting to realize that by now?’

   ‘Well, I don’t think he was ever after her mind.’

   ‘My dad and Mark slavering over her like a couple of randy old dogs isn’t helping much either,’ I ponder gloomily. ‘God, I’d like to wipe that smug smile off her face.’

   ‘Oh well, let’s not let the bitch ruin our holiday.’ Poppy brandishes the tequila bottle. ‘How about a couple of mind-sharpening shots?’

   ‘The shot glasses are in the bar. Can you really be arsed to go through and pour shots for everyone?’

   ‘Nope. But I’ve found the perfect substitute!’ cries Poppy triumphantly, producing a couple of egg cups from one of the cupboards. Giggling, we find the salt and lemon (right next to the stove as I was about to use them to season the stew) and embark on the ridiculous ritual beloved of party animals the world over.

   ‘Eurgh,’ I wince, screwing up my eyes and shoving the lemon wedge in my mouth as quickly as I can to get rid of the taste. Once the gagging reflex has stopped, I’m suffused with a warm glow and set about completing the fish stew with renewed vigour.

   ‘I’ll set the table, shall I?’ offers Poppy, heading back outside.

   ‘You’re an angel.’ I really mean it. The first stirrings of pissed sentimentality are creeping up on me, and Poppy certainly looks angelic tonight, with her lovely smile, big almond-shaped green eyes and perfect, straight nose, all framed by that silky, golden mane.

   When Pops and I were at school, we were inseparable and a trifle eccentric, not part of any of the cool bitchy girl gangs. It was just us against the world – and the world of an all girls’ school can be horribly unkind if you don’t conform. Poppy and I existed in our own little world of make-believe. After our Enid Blyton stage, we became obsessed with the 1920s and 1930s and devoured books by Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse, dressing in homemade flapper dresses, cloche hats and character shoes. My fourteenth birthday present from my mum was an old gramophone player with a horn and a pile of dusty 78s that we played over and over, dancing the Charleston and giggling till we were breathless. We even spoke like characters from the books. Things were either ‘beastly’ or ‘vile’, ‘divine’ or ‘too, too happy-making’. Our catty, boyband-obsessed classmates had no idea what to make of us, but we were absolutely content in our anachronistic, self-contained bubble. We never felt the need to befriend anybody else in that stuck-up girls’ school.

   By the time we’d hit the sixth form and discovered booze and boys, our shared obsession had died down a bit, but we were still both terribly excited at the idea of Poppy going to Oxford, and all the Brideshead-style punting shenanigans that this would entail. But the first time I went to visit her, towards the end of the Michaelmas term, I was in for a shock. Poppy had always had a pretty face, but the mouse-fair shoulder-length bob and old-fashioned clothes that swamped her tiny body meant that up until now her prettiness was very much of the girl-next-door, unthreatening variety.

   The stunning undergraduate holding court in the Christ Church bar, surrounded by sycophants seemingly hanging on her every word, was a different proposition altogether. Her recently highlighted hair had grown, and now flowed – silky, blonde and streaky – down her back and over her shoulders. In keeping with the Britpop look of the time, khaki hipster cargo pants and a black crop top showed off her pert tits, flat brown tummy, narrow hips, and … Good God, she’d had her belly button pierced! And she was smoking! I was in such a state of shock at Poppy’s transformation that I just stood there gawping for a bit, until she noticed me and squealed, running over with her arms outstretched for a hug.

   Pops did her best to make me feel welcome that weekend, but there was a definite change in her. The way she spoke, the way she lit her fags and tossed her hair – it was as if that first term at Oxford had bestowed on her an unshakeable sense of self, a glamorous patina that has not left her to this day. Her fellow students, still high on the glory of having been chosen as the crème de la crème of the country’s intelligentsia, were clearly not impressed by me, a shy, somewhat dumbstruck, London art student. We never did get to go punting.

   Back at Goldsmiths, things were hardly better. I’d been so excited about the prospect of art college, imagining I’d meet all sorts of interesting, like-minded people, my head full of romantic notions of Art, and Beauty, and Love. But once I was there, I couldn’t believe how full of themselves everybody was, how obsessed with being trendy. If I’d thought my all girls’ school was cliquey, this was ten times worse, in its shallow, sniggering, look-at-me arrogance. I was horribly conscious that I’d never be skinny enough to be properly fashionable. Not that I’m fat (a perfectly reasonable size 10–12 for my five foot seven height), but you had to be pretty bloody emaciated to make the outlandish garments favoured by my peers look anything other than downright hideous.

   No doubt, if they’d realized who my father was, things would have been different. But Brown’s a pretty common surname, and I was buggered if I was going to ride on Dad’s coat-tails. Actually, I lie. I’d gladly have ridden on his coat-tails, but couldn’t exactly start saying to all and sundry, ‘Don’t you know who my dad is?’ without looking and sounding like a total dickhead.

   Part of me hated the lot of them; another part, the insecure eighteen-year-old girl part, longed to be accepted. Sometimes I’d drink too much to kill my insecurity and make a complete arse of myself in the college bar. Sniffing out vulnerability the way a shark sniffs blood, my male contemporaries soon realized that I could easily be sweet-talked into bed; pathetically naive, and longing to be loved, I fell for it every time. Disappointment inevitably followed crushing disappointment.

   By the time Poppy returned from her round-the-world travels and came to live in London, I had a pretty low opinion of both myself and the entire opposite sex. I was temping at a post-production house in Soho; the married boss, a loathsome piece of work with a shaved head, goatee and penchant for black polo-neck jumpers, had already tried to shag me. Pops took one look and kindly swept me up in her groovy new life, introducing me to her terrifyingly successful new friends as ‘Bella, my best mate ever’. Slowly I began to be assimilated, to develop my own style and something approaching confidence. I’ve never shaken off the feeling that if it wasn’t for her, I’d still be that twat embarrassing myself in the Goldsmiths bar, desperate to be loved and accepted.

   I owe Poppy a lot, I think now with a huge rush of affection, as I taste the fish stew. It’s sublime. The basic Mediterranean triumvirate of tomatoes, onion and garlic underpins the delicate sweetness of the fish, whose variety yields a beautifully complex balance of textures and flavours. I have elevated my ambrosial mire to heady aromatic heights with saffron, thyme and the aniseedy kick of fennel and Pernod.

   I go out of the door at the back of the kitchen to get some flat-leaf parsley from the herb garden. Away from the floodlights of the pool, the stars are stupidly bright, twinkling their little hearts out against the velvety purple sky. Pulling up great leafy handfuls (I’m a strong believer that more is more when it comes to herbs), I notice a shadowy figure making its way in the direction of the outdoor loo. Having known that figure all my life, I recognize my father instantly. I’m about to say something when I hear a ghastly giggle. Stepping back into the shadows, I watch as Kimberly grabs him from behind, running her long fingers over his crotch and biting the side of his neck.

   ‘Kimberly?’ asks Dad, his voice hoarse with lust. She continues her lewd manoeuvres for what seems like minutes but is probably only thirty seconds or so, until Dad says, ‘You shouldn’t have followed me. It’ll be too obvious what we’re up to.’

   ‘This is just for starters, big boy,’ breathes Kim. ‘We’re going to have a ball later.’

   And she turns on her elegant heel and saunters back to the party.

   I wait until Dad has continued towards the loo before bolting back into the kitchen, feeling deeply queasy. You’d think I’d have become inured to my father’s various peccadilloes over the years, but actually witnessing the full sub-porno horror, and with somebody I hold in such low regard, is unpalatable on every level. And then there’s the little matter of darling, gorgeous, soon-to-be-cuckolded-by-a-much-older-man Ben.

   I chuck the parsley down onto the worktop and start chopping furiously.

   ‘Jesus, what has that poor parsley ever done to you?’ says Poppy, then stops when she sees the look on my face. ‘Christ Bella, what’s up?’

   I tell her and she starts to laugh. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, but you must admit it’s quite funny. I mean, look at Ben. I can tell you with my hand on my heart that this is going to be an entirely new experience for him.’

   ‘I know, that’s what makes it so awful. Poor Ben …’

   ‘Oh I don’t know, it’ll probably do him good, vain bugger. Come on, Belles, you know what he’s like! Mr Irresistible …’ She starts laughing again. ‘It’s really quite priceless.’

   ‘But it makes Dad look like such a silly old fool. It’s not as if she can actually fancy him more than Ben, and for him to think she can is so deluded. Aaaaargh, cringe!’ I light myself a fag and puff away like something demented.

   ‘I’m not sure your father’s that stupid,’ muses Poppy. ‘He’s been in the game for years, and he’s just taking advantage of the situation. Most men would probably do the same – silly fuckers, the lot of ’em. No, let’s be realistic, babe. The only person who comes out of this badly is Kim … Big Boy, indeed!’ And she starts spluttering again. This time I join in, feeling an awful lot better. Thank God for Pops, I think, giving her a grateful hug. She hugs me back, then says, all brisk and business-like, ‘Right, let’s get this food sorted. And don’t worry your pretty little head about things. It’ll just add to the evening’s entertainment.’

   I take another couple of drags on my fag before stubbing it out and picking up the chopped parsley. I watch the emerald confetti cover the surface of the pan in a grassy blanket, then give the whole lot a good stir. A hefty grinding of black pepper, a final squeeze of lemon and it’s ready.

   I carry the vast pot out to the table that Poppy has laid beautifully, with candles, proper napkins and jugs of flowers nicked from the garden. A couple of crusty white loaves, fresh that morning from the panadería, share table space with a happy clink of bottles, red, white and rosé. Managing not to trip over my hem this time, I put the stew in the middle. It does look and smell sensational, if I do say so myself.

   ‘Who’s my clever, beautiful, darling girl?’ says Dad, reaching up to give me a hug. I hug him back, seething with mixed emotions.

Chapter 3

   It’s ten to midnight and Ibiza Town is heaving. We amble slowly through the harbour, taking in the bustling bars and restaurants to our right, the Old Town climbing up the hill behind them, crowned by its ancient stone fortress. To our left, yachts sit imperiously on the inky calm sea, their polished wood and gleaming white bodywork a constant taunt to those yet to make a billion dollars. Palm trees line the water’s edge, and everywhere you look is a seething mass of humanity, determined to get its money’s worth of fun. Immaculate, gesticulating Italians in faded jeans and shades; evidently Scandinavian blondes with deep golden tans and suspect neon fashion sense; less attractive but edgier Brits. Every European cliché is covered here.

   We are overtaken by a procession on stilts – models in bikinis and fabulously bewigged transvestites in full evening dress; it’s hard to say which are the most gorgeous. They are promoting Manumission at Amnesia, which won’t really get going for at least a couple more hours. We pass stalls selling silver and turquoise jewellery, batik sarongs and limited edition CDs. Finally we reach the Rock Bar, with its too-cool-for-school clientele and waterfront tables and chairs. As luck would have it, a large group of Americans is leaving as we arrive, so we quickly nab their table, to the evident disgruntlement of some unfeasibly attractive French girls just behind us. Ben flashes them his most gorgeous smile, and their disdainful Gallic shrugs melt into coy giggles.

   As there aren’t enough chairs to go around, Mark, Ben and Andy make a big show of looking for empty ones. Poppy nudges Damian.

   ‘Go on, you lazy bugger. Make yourself useful.’

   ‘Why bother?’ asks Damian idly. ‘Mark and Ben just want to flirt with some randoms and Andy loves to do a good turn.’ There is a slight edge to his voice when he gets to the last bit. Perhaps Poppy’s comments about Andy being a ‘proper journalist’ have been a little too close for comfort. He plonks himself down onto one of the free chairs and pulls Poppy onto his lap. ‘Just sit down and shut up, beautiful.’

   ‘Good idea, that man,’ says Charlie in his public school way, pulling up a chair and beckoning Plump Alison to sit on top of him. Skinny Alison helps herself to a chair, leaving two left, between my father, Kim and me.

   ‘Ladies,’ he starts, but Kim is having none of it, insisting that he take the chair, while she perches on his lap like a great ginger giraffe. I sink into the final chair gratefully, my decision to wear my Terry de Havilland platform wedges not having been the best of the holiday so far.

   The three men return from their search empty-handed, which is not surprising at this time of night. At the sight of us all, with the exception of yours truly, sitting on one another’s laps, Andy approaches Alison with a rueful grin, saying, ‘Go on darling, indulge me.’

   ‘If I must,’ she huffs. ‘But we all look bloody silly.’

   Ben takes one look at Kimberly sitting on Dad’s lap and slopes off to flirt some more with the French girls, which leaves – oh shit – Man-Mountain Mark.

   ‘Babe?’ he asks me, arms stretched out, pleading. He looks so silly in his little shorts and offensive T-shirt that it’s hard not to laugh out loud, but he’s also extremely fit and muscly and I reckon if anyone can withstand me using them as a chair it’s him. I stand up to let him sit down, then settle down comfortably on his enormous lap. He casually puts his arms around me and I get a pleasing tingle, despite myself. There is something about Mark’s overt maleness that is both reassuring and arousing at such close quarters.

   ‘I’m not squashing you, am I?’ I ask stupidly, and he laughs.

   ‘Light as a feather, babe.’

   Perhaps it’s the hefty post-prandial line we all found so essential, perhaps it’s the booze, perhaps it’s the balmy evening, but his response turns me on way more than it should. I hope I don’t slide off his lap. Remembering my similar reaction to Ben earlier in the evening (and to Randy last night, for that matter), there is a brief moment during which I wonder at my fickleness before thinking, fuck it. I snuggle closer back into his chest.

   The highly camp waiter comes to take our order and we plump for vodka limóns all round. It’s not something any of us would order at home – in fact it’s not something any of us could order at home as the limón in question is a lemon Fanta, neither as sweet nor bitter, respectively, as lemonade or bitter lemon, but wonderfully tangy and refreshing in the heat. The generous Spanish spirit measures help too, of course.

   ‘Well, this is all very cosy, isn’t it?’ says Charlie, who’s sweating slightly in his chinos and polo shirt. Plump Alison, who has caught too much sun and looks pink and sore, shifts uncomfortably on his lap and he tightens his arms around her. Those shorts really weren’t a wise choice, I find myself thinking meanly, then pull myself up. Stop being such a bitch, Bella.

   As if she’d read my mind, Skinny Alison suddenly says, ‘I hope you’re planning to lose some weight before the wedding, Alison. I don’t want you bursting the seams of your dress.’ Alison, it transpires, is to be Alison’s bridesmaid, which seems odd as they only know each other through their respective other halves. Clearly Skinny Alison is not one for extensive female bonding.

   ‘I’ve got a great detox programme I can recommend?’ says Kimberly, leaning forward with deep faux-sincerity. ‘I always follow it for a week before the Victoria’s Secret show and it really makes a difference.’

   As everybody now has a clear mental image of lean, lithe Kim in her exotic underwear, compared to poor Alison in her ill-fitting shorts, I suddenly snap, ‘Oh for Christ’s sake, leave the girl alone. We’re meant to be on holiday.’

   ‘Well,’ huffs Kim, all affronted. ‘I was only trying to help.’ Alison, who was looking on the verge of tears, smiles over at me gratefully and I instantly feel guilty.

   ‘Still,’ says Skinny Alison, ‘you will think about it, won’t you? I don’t want to have to worry about getting your dress altered, when there’s so much more to think about for my big day.’

   ‘Jesus, Al, give it a rest, won’t you?’ says Andy sharply. ‘Get off me, please. I’m going for a walk.’

   ‘Wha …?’

   I catch Poppy’s eye and try not to snigger at the look on Alison’s face.

   ‘I’ll be back in ten minutes, just need to clear my head,’ he says, lighting a fag and striding off towards the harbour, his long legs in their old Levis covering ground quickly. He looks rather dashing, and he’s certainly gone up in my estimation for standing up to his witch of a fiancée.

   Ben comes over with one of the French girls. ‘Hey guys, this is Veronique. She’s never been to Manumission before so I suggested she comes with us. Her mates want to go to El Divino.’

   ‘Hi Veronique,’ we chorus, as I consider how much less attractive Veronica sounds in English.

   If you didn’t know Veronique’s nationality, French would be your first guess. Her long dark brown hair is dead straight, with a choppy eyelash-skimming fringe. Though her dark almond eyes are thick with kohl and mascara, she doesn’t appear to be wearing any other make-up, her clear olive skin and pillowy lips needing little enhancement. Stick thin in skinny black jeans and braless in a black vest with a couple of studded belts encircling her narrow hips, she is the picture of rock-chick insouciance.

   Ben has certainly upped his game here, I think dispassionately, wondering how Kim will react now and rather hoping for Dad that she doesn’t immediately switch allegiance back. Then my father, as tends to be his wont, surprises me. Gently pushing Kimbo off his lap, he rises gallantly to his feet and kisses Veronique’s hand, murmuring, ‘Enchanté, mademoiselle,’ before launching into fluent French. Within seconds the sulky pout has been replaced by a delighted, slightly gappy smile. To give him his due, Ben laughs good-naturedly and tries to join in the conversation in schoolboy French.

   ‘What are they saying, what are they saying?’ asks Kim, as Ben looks over in her direction and says something, laughing. Dad puts his arm around her waist and says, ‘Veronique was saying you look like a model. We were just telling her how right she is.’

   By the look on Veronique’s face, it wasn’t a compliment, but it is so beyond Kim’s intellectual capabilities to consider that some people might not be impressed by her profession that she is temporarily mollified and preens herself unnecessarily.

   ‘And what do you do, babe?’ she asks Veronique, launching back into faux-sincere mode.

   ‘I sing. I write. I paint,’ breathes the Frog in a seriously sexy accent. ‘I was – ’ow you say? – discoverrrred by a model agency – during my Baccalaureate. But I told zem no – I am an artiste.’

   Mark gives me a squeeze and whispers gleefully in my ear, ‘This is awesome. I fucking hope it turns into a bitch fight. Couple of hot babes too.’

   I laugh and whisper back, ‘Who do you think would win? The Frog looks pretty scary, but I reckon Kim’s as tough as old boots.’

   ‘Difficult call.’

   ‘Yeah, well …’ says Kim. ‘You probably did the right thing, babe. It’s only a few short girls who ever really make it. In fact, I can only think of Kate Moss. And I’m sure you’d agree you’re hardly in her league.’ She looks around at us all and laughs gaily.

   ‘Pouf, whatever …’ shrugs Veronique, lighting a fag and turning her back on Kim. ‘Ben, chéri, you said somezing about a drink? Vin rouge, s’il te plaît.’

   ‘I’ll get it,’ says my father, taking Kim by the hand. ‘Why don’t you come with me, Kimberly?’ And he leads her through the heaving crowds towards the bar.

   With Kimbo out of the picture, we all relax for a bit.

   ‘No disrespect, mate,’ says Damian to Ben. ‘But where the fuck did you find her?’ Then, as Veronique raises her eyebrows, ‘Not you, darling – the other one.’ Poppy rolls her eyes and stage-whispers to me: ‘Lord Tact of Tactville strikes again.’ I giggle and whisper back, ‘This is hilarious.’

   Poppy looks at me curiously. ‘So you’re feeling better about everything now?’

   ‘Oh yes, water off a duck’s back.’ I wave my hand about airily.

   ‘Ow,’ complains Mark as I bash him in the nose, at which Poppy and I laugh so much that I nearly fall off his lap. The various intoxicants have made us awfully silly, I am nearly coherent enough to reflect.

   Andy returns from his strop.

   ‘Right, when are we off to Manumission?’ he asks, looking at me and Poppy.

   ‘Oh God, not for another hour or so at least,’ says Poppy. ‘Anyway, Damian needs to go and score first, don’t you sweetheart?’

   ‘Too right I do,’ says Damian, getting to his feet. ‘In fact, no time like the present. Anyone else fancy a walk?’

   ‘I’ll come,’ says Andy, surprising us all.

   ‘Actually, darling,’ says Skinny Alison, ‘I think I’d rather have an early night. I need to get up early to try and get hold of that incompetent bloody seamstress in the morning.’

   ‘OK darling, go ahead. I fancy a night out.’Skinny Alison’s features droop, and I almost feel sorry for her, but it soon passes as she bullies Plump Alison and Charlie, who were clearly also looking forward to a night out, into escorting her back to the villa.

   Multicoloured lights flash through the darkness, the sweat of 20,000 revellers fills the air and the insistent beat of electro house pumps through our veins. Nazi officers, sexy nurses and PVC-clad beauties mingle with only slightly less exotically dressed clubbers. A naked couple is almost shagging on stage – they put a stop to the live sex shows a few years ago, but the simulation is pretty realistic. Dwarfs fondle girls in stockings and suspenders carrying whips. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose, if you’re a dwarf.

   The popularity of Manumission is staggering. Queuing time for your average Joe is generally a couple of hours, but we managed to blag our way to the front of the guest list queue in ten minutes. This was not, as you might expect, due to the extreme beauty of Kim, or Ben, or even Poppy; people are used to extreme beauty here. No, we managed to swan past a whole load of satisfactorily put-out models entirely thanks to my father’s longstanding notoriety in the Balearics.

   ‘You’ve got to hand it to him, Bella, he’s a groovy old bugger,’ were Poppy’s words, as my heart swelled with a weird kind of pride.

   Now we’re all on the dance floor, vaguely paired up – me with Mark, Damian with Poppy, Dad with Kim, Ben with Veronique and Andy kind of hovering on the sidelines. He’s a good dancer, I notice.

   Mark puts his arms around me and starts gyrating unnecessarily, grinding his pelvis into mine. As any inhibitions I might once have had disappeared hours ago, I’m finding this mightily enjoyable and looking forward to what I’m assuming will be the logical conclusion to tonight. I close my eyes and let the sensations wash over me. Suddenly they stop and I open my eyes. Mark is looking over my shoulder. I turn round and follow his gaze. Two little brunettes in short dresses, one hot pink, the other orange, are attracting quite a bit of attention with some clearly South American hip undulations. Fuck. The Brazilian twins. Just my bloody luck, I think, any idea of my night culminating in some hot shagging disappearing in a puff of smoke.

   ‘I’ll be back in a minute, babe.’ Mark can’t get away fast enough. He practically runs over to them and they both squeal enthusiastically and throw their arms around him.

   And in a flash the scene changes from divinely decadent to disgustingly decadent. Dwarfs leer repellently. The lingerie-clad babes seem to mock me, cackling as they crack their whips. The Nazis assume a terrifyingly sinister mantle. Of course they do, they’re fucking Nazis, for Christ’s sake. Whoever thought that was cool? I want to scream. My father has his hand right up Kimbo’s skirt. It’s the last straw. I mumble hasty goodbyes to a surprised Poppy and Damian and push my way past the crowds out of the club.

   Outside I catch my breath and light a cigarette.

   ‘Are you all right?’ I look up to see Andy standing behind me, his intelligent eyes concerned behind the specs. He must have followed me out.

   ‘Yes, I’m fine, thanks. It just all got a bit much, that’s all,’ I say, trying to disguise my humiliation. I’m feeling horribly frumpy in my maxidress now.

   ‘Listen,’ says Andy awkwardly. ‘I saw what happened in there, and for what it’s worth, I think Mark’s a fool. Those two girls are … well, they’re nothing special really.’

   ‘Thanks,’ I laugh, a trifle tearfully. ‘However, they’re practically half my age and there are two of them. You do the math, as our American cousins are wont to say.’

   Andy laughs too, looking relieved. ‘Do you want to go back inside?’ he asks. I shake my head.

   ‘No, I’ve had enough. I’ll get a cab back to the villa.’

   ‘OK, I’ll see you back.’

   ‘Don’t be silly; you’ve got a pink ticket. You go back inside and enjoy yourself. I’ll be fine.’

   ‘Well, if you’re sure. Let me see you into a cab at any rate.’

   He is as good as his word and five minutes later I am sitting in a taxi, speeding along the motorway back in the direction of Ibiza Town. Now I’m away from the seediness of Manumission I decide I fancy another drink. I’m still buzzing from the various substances I’ve ingested and am certainly not ready for bed yet. The idea of chilling with the Alisons and Charlie just doesn’t do it for me, so I ask the driver to take me back to the harbour, instead of taking the turn that would take us back to the villa.

   He shrugs. ‘Sí sí, claro.’ He’s seen it all before.

   Five in the morning is probably the quietest you’ll ever see Ibiza Town. Most of the bars pack up around three, as everyone decamps to the clubs, and there’s respite for a few hours before the bars and cafés start opening up for breakfast. I am starting to regret my decision not to go home, when I see a light glimmering in the distance. I walk towards it and discover a little bar, just behind the waterfront. It’s distinctly unglamorous, with unflattering strip lighting and about ten customers, but it’s a bar and it will serve me a drink. I go in.

   ‘Un vodka limón, por favor,’ I say to the barman, plonking myself onto one of the high bar stools.

   ‘Cinco euros,’ says the barman, handing me the drink. I look up in surprise. Very cheap, by Ibiza standards.

   ‘Here, let me get that,’ says an unmistakeably cheeky chappie cockney voice in my ear. I look over into a pair of very sparkly blue eyes set in a ruggedly handsome face.

   ‘Well, if you’re sure …’

   ‘Yeah, no problem. So what’s a lovely lady like you doing all alone on a night like this? Where are your mates?’

   As I start to tell him, it dawns on me that there is something out of the ordinary about this particular fellow. The short arms, the large head, the … the … little dangly legs, swinging from the bar stool. Yes, I’m being chatted up by a dwarf.

   He notices me noticing and says matter-of-factly, ‘Yeah babe, I’m a dwarf. Just finished my shift at Manumission. All the industry workers come here after their shifts – it’s the only bar left open in town. You were lucky to find it.’

   ‘I just kind of stumbled on it,’ I say, and we start chatting. He’s a bright chap, it turns out, and I surprise myself by enjoying the conversation as much as any I’ve had in the last few days. He seems to think so too, as he says:

   ‘I can’t tell you how good it is to talk to an intelligent English girl. I meet so many gorgeous babes in my line of business, but they’re Spanish, or Dutch, or Swedish, and I haven’t had a good chat for months.’ Just as I am wondering whether this is a compliment or not – nothing about me being a gorgeous babe, I notice – he pipes up, ‘Hey, I’ve got some Charlie back in my apartment – just along the front here. Do you fancy coming back for a line?’

   Without missing a beat, I say, ‘Sure,’ wondering how much weirder the night can get. I get off the bar stool and watch as he swings his little legs round and leaps down to the floor. Quite a lot weirder, it transpires, as I take his hand. It’s like walking along with a toddler.

   ‘Bye Joe!’ ‘Adios José!’ ‘Ciao Giacomo!’ Everyone calls out their goodbyes. My diminutive friend is popular in these parts, it seems.

   It’s totally light now and the cafés are setting their tables with gingham cloths and laminated menus, in time for the breakfast rush. Surprised, I ask Joe the time.

   ‘Blimey, it’s eight thirty,’ he says, looking at his watch. ‘Time does fly when you’re having fun.’ He winks. We’ve been talking for three and a half hours? Bloody hell,I think, as I follow him up the narrow staircase to his flat.

   On the first floor of a slightly dilapidated nineteenth-century building, right on the seafront, it is in a fab location. I tell him as much, as I look out to sea over his wrought-iron balcony.

   ‘Being a Manumission dwarf must pay well,’ I joke, and he nods seriously.

   ‘It’s the best job in the world. I mean, let’s face it, being born a dwarf could be a serious bummer, but in my line of work I meet all these gorgeous babes …’ He’s off again, I think. ‘… I mean, I should spread the word to all dwarfs – move to Ibiza – but then I might be doing myself out of a job.’

   As he can’t reach the table, he racks a couple of lines out on the wooden floorboards and we both sniff greedily. Then he gets out a photo album and starts showing me pictures of all the ‘babes’ he’s had over the years. ‘She was my girlfriend,’ he says, pointing out an improbably pneumatic blonde. ‘And her,’ gesturing towards a leggy brunette. And on and on and on.

   By now I am wondering what to make of it all. He is clearly trying to pull me, I think. Could I go through with it? On the one hand, it would be a great story to tell the grandchildren. On the other … hmmm. In my defence, it’s been a very long night.

   I’m still trying to make up my mind when he excuses himself to go to the loo. I’m idly wondering if he has a special WC, half a foot off the ground, so he can reach it (or is his cock ENORMOUS? – surely nature compensates in some way?), when something catches my eye. Hanging over a chair that until now was partially obscured from my vision is a very familiar-looking dress. My white dress.

   I pick it up and scrutinize it just to be sure. Yes, it’s definitely mine. Same neckline, same crochet, same red wine stain on the hem. Little bugger. It must have been him filching it from the next-door cubicle. More in his eye line, I suppose. He comes back from the loo.

   Slightly disappointed I’ll never find out about his cock, I hold up the dress and ask, ‘What’s this?’

   ‘Oh some tart left it on the toilet floor, so I grabbed it,’ he chortles. ‘Sometimes we do cross-dressing dwarf weddings and I thought it would make me a beautiful bride.’

   I start to laugh immoderately. The idea that my minidress could be floor-length on him is enough of a turn-off to bring me to my senses.

   ‘Tee hee hee … hee hee … heee hee hee hee heeeee … sorry Joe, but I’ve got to go. See ya!’

   Seeing the disappointment on his weirdly handsome face, I relent.

   ‘I’m the silly tart whose dress it was, you see.’

   He laughs too, then asks, a tad desperately, ‘Go on gorgeous, what d’ya say – a quick shag, just for a laugh?’

   ‘I can’t,’ I say, ‘but thanks for the offer.’

   ‘No hard feelings?’

   ‘No hard feelings,’ I say, as I bend down to take his hand.

   I am still giggling as I walk down the harbour, clutching my crochet dress to my breast like the blue blanket Max used as a comforter when he was a toddler. And then something makes me laugh even more.

   Mark, still in his horrible ‘sit on my face’ T-shirt, his lower flanks only in very tight briefs, is running down the seafront, a look of abject panic on his face.

   We stare at each other.

   ‘Well?’ I ask.

   ‘Their bloody father came back,’ he pants, and I laugh some more.

   ‘What happened to you?’ he asks eventually. I tell him and soon we are both laughing so much that it feels as if we’ll be mates forever.

   ‘Let’s go back to the villa,’ says Mark. ‘I’ve got a bottle of Scotch.’

   ‘OK,’ I say. ‘But no shagging. You’re a fucking slag.’

   ‘Takes one to know one,’ he says companionably, and we walk back, arm-in-arm, in search of a cab.

Chapter 4

   I’m standing in the printing room, binding twenty long and extremely tedious presentations. This is the downside of being me. I’ve wanted to be an artist ever since I was tiny, and have sold a fair amount of my work over the years, but not nearly enough to keep me in the manner to which I’d like to become accustomed. My miserable time at art college coincided with the new-found notoriety of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, and a whole host of my contemporaries attempted to emulate their success with substandard parodies, sold to a gullible public as avant-garde brilliance. My less zeitgeisty approach to art (drawing and painting things I find visually appealing) sadly failed to grab the same media attention, as a result of which I am still that oh-so-romantic figure, the struggling artist. That is, skint.

   In order to buy myself time to paint, have fun and pay the mortgage, I take on temping contracts – anything from a few days to a few weeks, depending how desperate I am. I started off temping in media companies, which I thought would be fun. And in the beginning they were: post-production houses in Soho, advertising agencies and PR firms around Charlotte Street, breathtakingly pretentious record labels in Clerkenwell where all the fonts were lower case. I liked going to work in jeans and trainers and hanging out with wisecracking movers and shakers who thought they were cool. Occasionally even the temps were treated to very long lunches that turned into druggy nights. But after a while I noticed everyone was getting younger than me, and there’s something desperately sad about making coffee for twenty-something record execs when you’re pushing thirty.

   So fortuitously I discovered I could do a new type of temping: desk-top publishing. DTP, as it’s known in the trade, involves making presentations look pretty, using computer graphics packages like Photoshop and Quark. It appeals to the artist in me. It certainly beats filing or co-ordinating people’s diaries (one of my pet hates – I mean, how much more servile can you get? Besides, I’m crap at efficiency). And it pays substantially more than bog-standard secretarial temping. But – and it’s a big BUT – most companies that use DTP operators, as we are glamorously called, are financial ones. Yes, even now, as the reviled institutions desperately try to claw back business with hideously written dossiers, brimming with management speak and graphs.

   And, as far as atmosphere goes, financial companies suck. They’ve always been life-sappingly corporate. That’s a given. From the horrible suits everyone wears, to the icy air conditioning that makes you wish you were wearing one, to the macho trading-floor filth that masquerades as witty banter, everything about them has always conspired to destroy the soul. Now, the added frisson of grim fear and shoulder-sagging desolation really make them the last place on earth any sane person would choose to hang out.

   And binding is about as dismal as it gets. At least if you’re hiding behind your computer you can waste half the day pissing about on the internet. As it happens, the binding really ought to have been done by Sebastian, the dim, blond, posh gap-year intern. But he doesn’t get asked when there’s a perfectly good female around to patronize. It’s on days like today that I feel a total loser compared to my friends in their high-flying careers, however tenuous such careers may now seem. The idea of Poppy binding is frankly laughable. But I just cannot contemplate what kind of ‘real’ office-bound career I might have chosen. Or what I could do instead. Become a tree surgeon? No, I decide grimly, if this is the price I must pay for my art, so be it. One day I’ll be able to support myself without stooping to this.

   So I punch another set of holes into another sheaf of paper.

   ‘Bella,’ calls Gina, PA to one of the directors, ‘your phone’s ringing.’

   I make my way back to my hot desk and pick it up.

   ‘Hello, darling. Can you think of anything that rhymes with erection?’

   ‘Hi, Mum. How are you?’ My mother writes erotic poetry and I love her to bits.

   ‘Rough as a badger’s arse, I’m afraid.’

   I laugh. ‘Lovely expression, Mummy.’

   ‘I think it’s rather good – I only learnt it recently. Anyway, it sums up how I feel perfectly, but it’s entirely self-inflicted so I’m trying not to feel too sorry for myself.’

   ‘What have you been up to?’

   ‘Well, Tabitha and Valentine came to stay for a few days, which you know is always lethal. She’s done something quite groovy to her hair. Then yesterday that ghastly little man with the squint – I think he’s the new postmaster or something – wanted me to sign some horrid petition so I fobbed him off with a couple of large whiskies. And then Auntie Charlotte rocked up on her motorbike – and, well, as you can probably imagine, it all went downhill from there. Anyway, what was I ringing for? Yes … erection …’

   ‘Erm … deflection? Reflection? Rejection?’ I proffer.

   ‘Not really the mood I was after …’


   ‘That’s it!’ she cries triumphantly. ‘Thanks, darling. Love you! Speak later.’

   I hang up and laugh. Mum can’t really concentrate on anything else mid-poetry and I know she’ll call back later. We speak at least once a day.

   They were fabulous tabloid fodder in the early Seventies, my parents. Dad, the boy from the wrong side of the tracks, shagging his way round London on the strength of his winning way with a camera; Mum, the outrageously beautiful but seriously impoverished posh bird dabbling in modelling to try and boost the family fortunes. There are some wonderful photos of her in my old home near Oxford, all sepia-tinted, doe-eyed, floppy-hatted early Biba and Ossie Clark stuff. I think they really did love each other, but no one in their right mind could put up with my father’s womanizing for long. Still, my childhood was happy enough. They divorced before I was old enough to realize what was going on, and Max and I had the fun of a dual existence, spending term time and Christmas with Mum in the English countryside and Easter and summer holidays with Dad in lovely, warm, beautiful Mallorca.

   Forgetting all about the binding for a few blissful minutes, I decide to have a quick look at my emails. Ooh – a Facebook notification.

   Ben Jones has tagged a photo of you on Facebook.

   I click on the link with the usual just-been-tagged trepidation. Unlike my luminously photogenic mother, I either look absolutely horrific or surprisingly pretty in photos – nothing in between. People, even Ben, whom I’d forgive most things, shouldn’t be allowed to tag one without one’s consent, really they shouldn’t. Facebook opens and I see that he’s posted an entire album of holiday snaps. Christ Almighty. I click on the first one, which features Damian, Poppy and me sitting around our lunch table that day at Sa Trinxa, several empty bottles and ashtrays between us. Poppy and Damian are smiling into the camera, their usual shiny, gorgeous selves. I appear to be eating, drinking, smoking and cackling with laughter, all at the same time. My wet hair is plastered to my scalp and my halterneck bikini top has rucked up on one side, making my boobs go all wonky. It is quite hideous, something akin to a Hogarthian gin hag.

   Frantically I detag myself, trying not to feel too depressed as I remember how attractive and confident I was feeling that afternoon. That’ll teach me. Aware of the possible damage limitation now necessary, I start to click through the rest of the photos, most of which, I can’t help but notice, are of Ben himself, unfailingly gorgeous in every one. Surely he didn’t keep asking us all to take photos of him with his own camera or phone?

   An adenoidal whine punctures my musings.

   ‘Bella? Have you finished binding those presentations yet? You do know we need them for a meeting in ten minutes? Surely whatever you’re doing can wait till afterwards?’

   It’s Stella, the other director’s PA. Thank fuck she can’t see my monitor from where she’s sitting. She’s right, of course, but I don’t enjoy being spoken to like that by someone five years my junior who is content to organize someone else’s diary for the rest of her life. Nor one who thinks, ‘Oooh I’m such a cheap date – a glass of wine goes straight to my head’ is an acceptable conversational gambit.

   Gina gives me a sympathetic glance as I hurry back to the printing room.

   Roll on 5.30.

   I heave an enormous sigh as I walk out. Being stuck in that place on such a beautiful day really pisses me off. There aren’t even windows in my corner of the office. Last week Stella told me off for dressing ‘like you’re going to the beach. We wear smart business attire in this office.’ ‘Smart business attire’ – now there’s a phrase to strike ice into your heart in the depths of summer. I’ve compromised with my old black interview jacket over a pale pink shift dress with platform court shoes. God I’m a rebel. The black kills the baby pink stone dead but I’m buggered if I’m going to waste money on another suit jacket. Now I take it off and replace the uncomfortable platforms with a pair of flat leather sandals. It’s not exactly cutting edge but at least I feel as if I’m in the land of the living. The land of the summer living. I shove the despised items into my handbag, which now bulges so alarmingly I have to carry it in my hand rather than over my shoulder.

   If my current place of work has one saving grace, it’s its Mayfair location, the majority of financial institutions being stuck in the City, or, worse, stranded in the vampirically bloodless no-man’s-land that is Canary Wharf. East London may be hip but the Square Mile depresses the hell out of me – except at weekends, when you can appreciate the buildings without the suits.

   Not wanting to waste a moment of sunshine, I decide to walk home. It’ll only take an hour or so and I’m not meeting Poppy till 7.30. People are beginning to throng the pavements, spilling out of pubs and bars. I amble through the grand streets of Mayfair to Hyde Park and the rose gardens, whose overblown beauty at this time of year transports me to some far-off fairyland. Then the long walk past the Serpentine, teeming with ducks, geese, swans, gulls, runners, Rollerbladers and tourists. By the time I hit Portobello Road I’m thoroughly invigorated by the sheer buzz of London in the summertime, Stella and binding far from my thoughts.

   When I first started coming to London with Poppy, in our teens, we’d always hang out on Portobello Road – initially to browse the market for 1920s and 30s memorabilia, then to gaze at cool boys in pubs and bars. Neither of us had the confidence to chat to them in those days. Anyway, I always loved the area, and was determined that it would be my home one day.

   It wasn’t as simple as that, but a couple of years out of Goldsmiths, living in a grimy flat-share in Balham, I saw an ad in the ‘For Sale’ section of the Standard for a ‘tiny, run-down one-bedroom flat with balcony in the heart of Notting Hill’. Balcony? This was beyond my wildest dreams. So I hopped on the Central Line on a lovely summer evening and went, heart in mouth, to the address I’d scribbled down on a Post-it note. The location was perfect – a winding side street off the dodgy end of Portobello Road, with a row of pastel-painted terraced early Victorian houses. ‘Run-down’ was accurate enough, though. The pink stucco was peeling badly and it smelt as if the rubbish hadn’t been taken away for weeks.

   Yet up four flights of rickety stairs lay the flat of my dreams. Yes, it was tiny, and yes the swirly carpet was hideous and the kitchen units painted the most revolting orangey salmon pink, but there was a little stone balcony leading out from the kitchen with views over the rooftops of West London and I just knew I’d be happy there.

   My darling nan (my mother’s mother is still ‘Granny’) had left me a small nest-egg which just covered the deposit. When she died, she was still living in the terraced house on the Hoxton/Dalston borders where my dad was brought up, one of the few slums to have survived Hitler’s bombs. Dad offered to buy her a nice place in the country but she always stubbornly refused. The East End was what she knew and loved. It came as an enormous shock to discover she’d squirrelled away fifty grand to be divided equally between me and Max, her beloved grandchildren. Dad inherited the house, which he rents to Max as premises for his hugely successful bar/restaurant business. Funny how Nan was sitting on a goldmine for all those years. I still miss her.

   Now I let myself in and look around contentedly. One of the first things I did when I moved in was to rip out that horrible carpet and paint the floorboards white and, though I say so myself, the effect is pretty damn cool. There wasn’t much cash left for decorating, but I replaced the salmon-coloured kitchen units with some inoffensive ones from Ikea, laid blue and white mosaic tiles over the splash-back and put up some French art nouveau posters in second-hand frames. With my little herb garden on the window ledge and balcony door open so you can see all my flower boxes, I like to think the effect is artfully bohemian.

   My living room is a mishmash of old and new, but that’s the way I like it. There are books everywhere. One wall is completely lined with bookshelves but that’s not nearly enough, so they tend to pile up on the floor. A zebra-print Sixties beanbag and sheepskin rug look incongruously Austin Powers against the antique chandelier, huge fake Venetian mirror and chaise longue I’ve picked up in the market over the years. I found my most recent acquisition, a fairly nasty repro Forties chest of drawers, in a skip. Now that I’ve painted it bright lacquer red, changed the handles and put some gorgeous chinoiserie silk under a sheet of glass on its surface, I adore it. I’m considering upholstering the chaise longue similarly, but that might drain my beer resources.

   White muslin curtains flutter around the sash window, which looks out onto a window box crammed with colourful geraniums. My beloved oils hang from the walls that are not lined with books, and overgrown houseplants take up probably more floor space than they should.

   I go into my bedroom to get changed and my smugness evaporates. Christ, the mess. When my flat is tidy it can look very pretty indeed. I tidied up the living room yesterday. But it’s so small, and OK, I’m such a slut, that mess does accumulate extraordinarily quickly. I start rummaging through the clothes on the floor in search of something to wear. Poppy said that Damian and Ben might be joining us later, so I need to look good. Or, at least, not like a Hogarthian gin hag. After trying on and discarding several options, I settle on a short halterneck floral tea dress in shades of mauve, navy and white that shows off the remnants of my Ibiza tan. I’ll pair it with my old navy Converse to stop it looking too girly, but in the meantime I wander barefoot to the fridge and pour myself a glass of wine.

   I pick up my phone to look at the time. It’s only 6.45; still plenty of time before I meet Poppy at The Westbourne, so I go out onto my balcony and gaze over the treetops. It really is a gorgeous evening. I do a lot of my painting out here – so much so, in fact, that I’ve probably exhausted this particular view. I really must get a studio sorted, but I’m absolutely broke, especially after the Ibiza shenanigans. And there’s Glastonbury, Bestival and all sorts coming up. Priorities, Bella. Sometimes I wonder how much I really love my painting if I’m happy to spend so much time and money partying. If I could dedicate my life to lotus-eating, would I? I probably need to be way more dedicated to ever really succeed, especially in the current dreary climate. On the other hand, artists are meant to be hedonistic, aren’t they?

   Suddenly I laugh. Come on, Bella, snap out of it. Artists are meant to be hedonistic indeed! A pretentious excuse for getting off your tits if ever there was one.

   I go inside to redo my make-up, brush my hair, drain my glass, shove my feet into my battered Converse and pick up a denim jacket in case it gets chilly later. Money, keys, fags in pocket. No need for a handbag as I’m not going far.

   As I head towards The Westbourne, it strikes me how much the area has changed since I moved here. I still love it. The architecture is fab and nothing beats getting one’s vegetables from the market on a Saturday morning (if one is up, that is), but the fabled ‘cultural diversity’ has become a bit of a joke. Whatever you may feel about American bankers, culturally diverse they are not. And now half of them are out of work, the streets are crawling with them, like expensively shod vermin. (Actually, running with them, as they can no longer afford their gyms. The heart bleeds.) Still, while Notting Hill’s no longer the in place to live, for me it still has that slightly arty loucheness that an entire plague of penny-loafer-wearing Chad Jnr IIs would be hard pushed to destroy.

   The USP of The Westbourne is its relatively sizeable beer garden, all too rare a commodity in central London, which opens directly onto the street for maximum posing potential. It’s predictably heaving, but Poppy has managed to secure a table outside. The cream of London’s beautiful people jostles for standing room on the pavement, spilling pints of expensive lager on Sass & Bide jeans. A white E-type Jag, circa 1972, provides some much-needed extra seating. Three skinny girls perch on its bonnet and a ridiculously handsome black guy grins from the driving seat. This summer a disproportionate number of people are wearing Stetsons. Wild West London indeed.

   Poppy stands up and waves enthusiastically. She’s wearing a very short navy and white striped Christopher Kane bodycon dress with outrageous vintage Vivienne Westwood silver platforms. And a trilby. No cloned headwear for my best mate.

   ‘Hello lovely, how are you?’ She envelops me in a bear hug with a strength that belies her tiny frame, a result of the boxing lessons she’s been taking for the last couple of years.

   ‘All the better for seeing you. Horrendous day in the office, as usual. Save me from those people!

   Poppy laughs. ‘Awww, try and rise above it, sweetheart. It’s only a couple more weeks now, isn’t it, till you’re free again? Just think of all that lovely money.’

   I smile. She knows me so well. There are two large bottles of Magners on the table, with their accompanying ice-filled pint glasses. ‘Is this for me?’ I ask, and she nods, so I sit down.

   ‘How are you anyway? Looking gorgeous as ever. I love the hat.’

   ‘Hides a multitude of sins. Heeeeavy night last night.’ Poppy grimaces, miming shooting herself in the head, and I laugh sympathetically. Within seconds the grimace is replaced with a radiant smile. ‘But I’ve got some good news – I’ve just been promoted!’

   ‘Oh yay, well done Pops. Congratulations!’ I lean over to give her a hug. ‘But I thought you were promoted only a couple of months ago?’

   ‘I was,’ she grins. ‘And they’ve decided to promote me again! You’re looking at the new Deputy Head of Production for Europe.’

   ‘Fucking hell, Popsicle. That’s brilliant! I’m so pleased for you. This calls for champagne. Don’t go anywhere.’ And I elbow my way through the packed pub to the bar. I certainly can’t afford to be buying champagne in pubs, but if ever an occasion called for it, this does. I am hugely impressed by Poppy’s achievements and not jealous in the slightest. OK, there may be a teensy bit of salary envy, but overall I’m delighted.

   After waiting for about fifteen minutes, I am finally served by the way-too-attitudey staff. I lug the champagne bucket back outside and plonk it on the table. ‘Sorry to take so long. It’s mad in there.’

   ‘Don’t be silly. And you shouldn’t be buying me champagne either – I’m the one with the obscene salary.’ She tries to give me a couple of twenties, but I wave them away. ‘No no, this is on me.’

   ‘OK, but drinks on me for the rest of the night.’

   ‘It’s a deal.’ Big relief.

   I pour the champagne and we clink glasses.


   ‘To Poppy’s staggering success,’ I intone solemnly.

   ‘To my staggering success,’ she concurs, knocking back the glass in one. ‘God, I needed that. I only had three hours’ sleep last night.’

   ‘Anything exciting?’ I top her up again.

   ‘Oh, just some naff awards do. Angelina Jolie was there, minus Brad and weird rainbow tribe. She’s a bit gaunt in the flesh. Very pretty, though. I got through a lot of caipirinhas. Funnily enough, Damian was also invited, in misogynist hack capacity, but obviously we were put on different tables.He kept pulling faces at me, trying to make me giggle while I was schmoozing the big cheeses at Channel 4. Prick,’ she finishes fondly.

   ‘You know you love him really.’

   ‘Yeah I do. Great big kid.’ Poppy laughs.

   ‘So what does the new job involve? What was the title again? Deputy Head of Production for Europe? Isn’t that a new area for you?’

   ‘Well, yeah, as far as Europe’s concerned.’ She shrugs. ‘I’ll need to brush up on my French, Italian and German, of course …’ All three, you notice. ‘But in principle it’s the same thing I’ve been doing over here – I just have to research the markets thoroughly. The main thing is, it’s going to involve a lot of travelling – yippee! Via Condotti, here I come.’

   ‘You lucky bugger.’

   ‘Actually, there was one thing I wanted to suggest.’ She sounds serious for a moment. ‘As I’ll be away quite a lot during the week, how would you like to take over my spare room as a studio? It’s a bit of a hike, I know, but the light is great and you’d have loads more space than on your balcony. I’ll give you a spare set of keys and you can always kip over if it gets late and you can’t be arsed with the journey back.’

   ‘Bloody hell, that is so weird! I was just thinking earlier how bored I’m getting with the view from my balcony and how I should get a studio sorted. Oh Pops, I’d love it! Thanks so much. Psychic, or what?’

   ‘Or perhaps I’m just getting as bored with the view from your balcony as you are,’ Poppy laughs, winking from under her hat.

   ‘Ow, bitch!’

   ‘Not really, silly. But it is about time you had a studio, don’t you think?’

   ‘Didn’t I just say so? Thanks again, from the bottom of my heart.’ And I stand up to give her the third hug of the evening so far. Then something occurs to me:

   ‘Are you sure Damian’s cool with it? I would hate to be an imposition …’

   ‘Oh, he’s fine about it. He’s always flying off to do his dreadful “interviews” with Z-list slappers, anyway.’ Poppy does the inverted commas fingers gesture. ‘And, as I pay most of the rent, he wouldn’t have much say in the matter … even if he did object, which he doesn’t,’ she adds hurriedly.

   Poppy and Damian, being a million times cooler than I am, live in a huge warehouse conversion overlooking Hoxton Square. It is a bit of a trek from here, but she’s right about the light in the spare room. The windows are enormous and, joy of joys, it has a skylight.

   We discuss the practicalities of the studio for a bit, until I remember something.

   ‘Oh Pops, I’m sorry. I should have asked as soon as I saw you. How’s your dad? Didn’t you go to see them last weekend?’

   Poppy’s father has Alzheimer’s, and in the last year or so his decline has become much more apparent. It was a particularly cruel twist of fate a few years ago that led him, a doctor, to diagnose himself with early symptoms of the disease, acutely aware of the long-term implications. For Poppy, always a daddy’s girl and an only child to boot, it was devastating. They shared the same keen intelligence and Dr Kenneth Wallace was always so proud of his clever little girl, encouraging her to apply for Oxford, planting the seeds of the self-belief that has served her so well as an adult. Despite her devastation, Pops has until recently remained staunchly upbeat about it, researching new breakthroughs in treatment and medication, and supporting her mother Diana with as much of a positive outlook as she can muster. Ken still lives in the family home, looked after by Diana (with the help of carers), but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this won’t be possible for much longer.

   ‘Not great, to be honest. Oh Belles, sometimes I can hardly bear it when I remember how he used to be.’ Poppy’s large, almond-shaped green eyes fill with tears, which she angrily wipes away. ‘It’s such a bloody horrible disease.’

   ‘I know, lovey, I know.’ I reach over and squeeze her hand, thinking of the tall, bespectacled gent with his wonderfully dry wit and endless thirst for knowledge. It was always hugely entertaining around the Wallace dinner table, even when we were kids. ‘He did … recognize you, didn’t he?’ I falter, as it’s the big one; the big, big horror that one day her own father won’t know who she is.

   ‘Oh yes, he still recognizes me, bless his dear old heart.’ Poppy smiles sadly. ‘It’s just the other things he doesn’t recognize that are so scary.’

   ‘Like what?’

   ‘Like last weekend we were watching telly – that’s all you can do with him any more, really, as conversation is so bloody impossible – and he thought the people on the box were outside the window, trying to break in. He got quite agitated about it and I just had to keep saying, “Dad, it’s the TV, we’re watching telly, remember?”’

   ‘Oh Pops.’ I squeeze her hand again, not knowing how else to proffer comfort.

   ‘I honestly don’t know how Mum copes. Remember I told you she was feeling guilty for getting irritated because he kept repeating himself?’

   I nod.

   ‘Well, it’s way beyond that stage now. He isn’t really a properly functioning human being at all any more. Jesus, Belles, if I ever get like that, please just give me a lethal injection.’

   ‘You’re on. And vice versa?’

   We shake on it and Poppy continues.

   ‘Dad hates the carers – keeps going on about what are all these strangers doing in my house, which you can’t blame him for really. But he’s very fond of the chap in the mirror. Keeps introducing his “new friend” to Mum. When he waves and smiles, the chap in the mirror waves and smiles back, you see.’

   ‘Oh Pops, your poor mother. Surely it must nearly be time for him to go into residential care?’

   ‘From a purely selfish point of view I’d like him to stay at home until he dies.’


   ‘Because sometimes we can pretend things are like they used to be – say if Mum and I are cooking Sunday lunch and we’ve put Dad in front of some documentary on the telly. But it’s simply not fair on Mum the rest of the time. She’s being a complete bloody martyr though – reckons it would be a betrayal to put him in a home.’

   I think of blonde, soignée Diana, an ex-Radio 4 presenter, still glamorous at sixty-two. Jesus. What a life sentence. For both of them.

   ‘Damian’s been looking into residential homes that specialize in dementia,’ Poppy continues. ‘Even though they are, by their very nature, fucking grim hellholes, some are so much better than others – actually the discrepancies are astounding. There’s one he’s found near enough home for Mum to visit daily that looks quite promising. We’re going to go and have a look the weekend after Glastonbury.’

   ‘He’s a good chap, your man.’

   ‘My rock.’ Poppy faux-swoons, then visibly cheers up. ‘Ooh look, talk of the devil. There he is with Mark! What does the sexist cunt think he’s wearing?’

   I follow her gaze and laugh. Mark’s huge chest is clad in a T-shirt announcing 10 reasons why beer is better than women. The last time I saw something similar was about twelve years ago, on an ill-advised student trip to the Greek island Ios. It involved an awful lot of booze and shagging randoms, and my (only) Goldsmiths friend Emma and I ended up running out of money and sleeping on a roof for a week with an entire rugby team from Halifax. Happy days.

   ‘Is it meant to be ironic?’ Poppy asks as she stands up to greet Mark.

   ‘I’ve been telling him it’s crap,’ says Damian. ‘But he insists it will get him birds. How are you anyway, my lovely?’ As ever, he looks effortlessly cool in dark jeans and a close-fitting scarlet T-shirt by some obscure Japanese label, his eyes hidden by yet another pair of expensive shades. They get the pick of the latest designer kit at Stadium, the magazine they work on, which makes Mark’s choice of garb even more baffling.

   ‘Well, apart from this Neanderthal seriously compromising my street cred, I’m fine,’ says Poppy equably as she gives her boyfriend a hug.

   ‘Just you wait,’ says Mark.

   ‘Actually, I think it’s hilarious,’ says a voice, and my heart jumps into my throat. It’s Ben, looking like a film star. ‘I especially like number six – a beer still looks as good in the morning as it did when the bar closed.’

   ‘All right, mate,’ says Damian, as they high-five each other.

   ‘What’s this in aid of?’ Ben picks up the nearly empty champagne bottle.

   ‘Poppy’s been promoted,’ I say, as she doffs her trilby and says ‘Deputy Head of Production for Europe to you, sir.’

   Ben breaks out in a big grin and lifts her off the ground in a great bear hug. ‘Oi, put my missus down,’ says Damian, as I try to ignore the brief stab of jealousy in my heart. I’d die for Poppy’s casual flirtiness with Ben. It’s easier when you’re already taken, I suppose.

   ‘Aren’t you going to congratulate her?’ he asks Damian, who laughs.

   ‘She actually found out a couple of days ago. We celebrated then, didn’t we, sweet thing?’

   ‘Oh, we most certainly did.’ Poppy smiles and puts a finger to her lips. Even after five years, the chemistry between them is obvious.

   ‘Enough, enough – I so don’t want the sordid details,’ says Ben camply. ‘Who’s up for beers?’

   He goes to the bar and returns minutes later with three pints of Stella.

   ‘That was quick. It took me bloody ages to get served,’ I say.

   ‘I think the barman took a shine to me,’ Ben smiles, and he’s probably right. He’s looking absurdly handsome in a slim-fitting navy blue suit with an open-collared white shirt that shows off his tan and incredible blue eyes. The narrow lapels and old-skool Adidas trainers neatly sidestep any suggestion of banker wanker.

   ‘What’s with the whistle, mate?’ asks Damian.

   Poppy groans, ‘Get him with the Mockney.’ Damian’s Welsh lilt has just about had all its curves sanded down to standard men’s magazine estuary, which is a shame. Occasionally it resurfaces when he’s tired or upset. I imagine Ben’s accent disappeared the moment he walked through RADA’s doors (though he can apply it on demand, just as he can Scouse, or Geordie, or Glaswegian).

   ‘Audition. A new BBC sitcom – it’s being touted in the biz as the This Life of the new decade, and I haven’t a hope in hell of landing a part. But it would be churlish not to try.’ His boyish modesty is so endearing it makes me want to race right over to White City and shake the execs by the scruffs of their stupid necks. How can they be so blind not to realize what delicious gold dust they’re in danger of letting slip through their fingers? But he’s probably got it down to a fine art.

   ‘Don’t be a cunt,’ says Mark. ‘You know you’re in with a chance with your big blue eyes.’ He tries to widen his little brown ones to illustrate. ‘Talking of big blue eyes, I shagged the work experience girl last night.’

   ‘Poor little thing,’ is my immediate response, and he grins. ‘Yeah, I gave her a fucking nosebag full, put on some porn and soon she was letting me piss on her.’

   ‘What?’ Even Damian looks shocked. ‘Sweet little Amy?’

   ‘Not so sweet, mate.’

   ‘But why did you want to piss on her?’ I ask.

   ‘Never heard of golden showers, darlin’?’

   ‘Good God almighty, you really are a wanker, aren’t you?’ says Poppy.

   ‘Not really. I made her laugh.’

   ‘Yeah right.’

   ‘No really, I did. I couldn’t piss because of the coke, so she had to put the bath taps on full flow to encourage my full flow. She was giggling all over the place, little minx.’

   ‘I hope you were nice to her in the office today,’ I say sternly.

   ‘She called in sick.’ Then, seeing our combined horror and amusement, he adds, ‘C’mon, it’s not like she’s a kid or anything. She knew what she was letting herself in for. She probably just had a hangover.’

   ‘I’m just wondering how much lower you can sink,’ says Poppy. ‘Never mind, let’s at least give the poor girl the dignity of not being discussed like this any more.’

   ‘But tell us what her tits were like first?’ says Damian, leaning back nonchalantly in his chair, one foot crossed in his lap. Poppy slaps his leg, laughing.

   ‘Fucking gorgeous.’ Mark makes melon-squeezing gestures with both hands. ‘Pierced nipple too. See, I rest my case for the defence – not so sweet.’ Everyone laughs and I have a hideous moment of clarity.

   Is this what we have come to?

   I am actually quite shocked by Mark’s revelation, and feel hugely sympathetic towards the work experience girl. I remember myself at that age, vulnerable and desperate to please, and can only imagine how ghastly she must be feeling today, to the extent that she couldn’t face going into the office at all. Being peed on, for God’s sake?

   ‘Oooh Ben, loved the Ibiza Facebook pics,’ says Poppy, snapping me back into reality.

   ‘Except I had to detag myself in that one of us at Sa Trinxa,’ I say grumpily. ‘That was possibly the worst photo I’ve ever seen of myself.’

   ‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad,’ says Ben, laughing.

   ‘You know which one I mean, then?’

   ‘Well, I know which one you detagged …’

   ‘Ben, it was an awful photo,’ says Poppy. ‘Don’t worry, Belles, you look nothing like that in real life.’

   ‘Thank you.’ I smile at her. ‘That’s what I wanted to hear.’

   ‘Talking of Ibiza, mate, did you ever hear from Kimberly again?’ Damian asks Ben.

   The day after my encounter with the dwarf, Kimbo and my dad said their goodbyes and left the island, leaving me hot with vicarious shame.

   ‘Nope,’ says Ben, grinning.

   ‘Oh God, I’m so sorry,’ I say, ad nauseam. ‘I can’t believe Dad did that. No, scrub that. I can perfectly believe Dad did that, but I really can’t believe that Kim did.’

   ‘Listen Bella.’ Ben looks into my eyes with such sincerity I could melt. I wish I’d bothered to pluck my eyebrows before I came out. ‘It’s not your fault your father’s a randy old goat. And it’s certainly not your fault the bird I was shagging turned out to be such a gold-digging slag. So, for the last time, stop apologizing.’

   ‘OK,’ I smile.

   ‘In fact he did me a favour. Veronique was hot as fuck,’ he goes on, and my heart sinks again.

   ‘Have you kept in touch with her?’ asks Damian, taking a swig of his pint.

   ‘Well, let’s just say she has an interesting interpretation of the text medium.’

   ‘Meaning?’ asks Mark. ‘Photos? Videos?’

   ‘Both,’ says Ben smugly.

   ‘Go on, show us,’ pants Mark.

   ‘Shall we just leave them to it?’ Poppy says to me, but Ben surprises us, saying, ‘No, it wouldn’t be right. She sent them for my eyes only.’ Drop-dead gorgeous and an old-fashioned gentleman to boot. Could this man be any more perfect?

   ‘Spoilsport,’ sulks Mark, and Ben laughs.

   ‘Surely you get to see enough of that sort of thing at work anyway?’

   ‘No such thing as enough, mate.’ Not for the first time, I thank the Brazilian twins for my lucky escape.

   ‘Yeah yeah, you boys and your ludicrous conquests,’ says Poppy. ‘Can we talk about something a tad more interesting for all of us? Like a certain festival that’s happening next week, perhaps?’

   ‘Yay, Glastonbury!’ I shout happily, more than a little pissed by now.

   The Daddy of all festivals is next weekend and I’m looking forward to it enormously, despite vowing ‘never again’ after last year’s washout. It really was repulsive, with constant, relentless rain, and mud so deep it came over the top of your wellies, which made every step a Herculean effort. Some people had their tents washed away, and were left standing in their knickers: no possessions, no money, no nothing. None of us fared that badly, but my tent was not waterproof in the slightest (not least because I kept getting too wasted to remember to zip it up properly), and I had to sleep inside a bin liner inside my sleeping bag. The irony of a bunch of middle-class twits with lovely warm homes paying through the nose to endure such miserable, Somme-like conditions was lost on none of us. Still, with that uniquely British triumph of hope over experience, we duly paid through the nose again this year. And at the beginning of April it’s a gamble, as you have no idea how the summer’s going to pan out. So far it’s been an absolute scorcher, so fingers crossed.

   ‘Remember Mark’s trench foot last year,’ laughs Damian. Mark had refused to buy wellies, claiming they were for poofs.

   ‘Fuck me, that was painful. It took about a week to unmesh my trainers from the flesh of my feet. And another week to dry off.’

   ‘Oh, it wasn’t all bad,’ says Ben. ‘That first night, before the rain had really set in, was a hoot. Remember we found that random field with the tiny sound system playing some banging house? And Bella said something funny about sinking literally and metaphorically into the quagmire.’

   I look up, shocked that he remembers something I said in a drug-fuelled moment nearly a year ago. I have a distinct recollection of him looking like a rock star in a fake fur coat, cowboy hat and shades, his long legs in mud-spattered jeans tucked into long black wellies. Film star, rock star, whatever …

   ‘We had a laugh all right,’ says Poppy. ‘It just wasn’t terribly comfortable. But this year is going to be beautiful, isn’t it?Come on, let’s all just will this gorgeous sunshine to continue.’

   ‘What day are you all going down?’ I ask.

   ‘I’m shooting next Friday so can’t get there till Friday night, which is a pain in the arse,’ says Ben. ‘I don’t suppose any of you could reserve a place and set up my tent for me? All the spaces will be gone otherwise …’

   ‘You lazy cunt,’ says Damian. ‘Course we will, mate. Mark and I have Press passes anyway, so I’ll see what privileges we’re entitled to this year.’

   ‘We’ll probably drive down on Thursday if you need a lift, Belles,’ says Poppy.

   ‘Thanks, Pops. Where would I be without you?’

Chapter 5

   ‘Bella Bella, che bella,’ says the head waiter as, an hour or so later, we walk into Osteria Basilico, the much-loved Italian on Kensington Park Road. It’s a longstanding joke he’s kept up ever since I first moved to the area. ‘And the beautiful Poppy. Why should we be so honoured tonight?’

   Poppy and I grin at each other, aware that it’s pathetic to be flattered by the blandishments of Italian waiting staff, yet enjoying the compliments nonetheless.

   ‘Hi Giovanni,’ I say. ‘Any tables downstairs?’ Of course, all the tables outside are already taken.

   ‘For you, anything!’ He kisses his fingers. We follow him down the stairs.

   Osteria Basilico is a proper old-fashioned phallic pepper mill Italian eaterie, serving classic stalwarts in lively, cavernous surroundings. The free-flowing wine and candlelit gloom encourage you to let your hair down. Not that we are in need of much encouragement.

   It’s pretty full but, true to his word, Giovanni finds us a table for five in the furthest corner from the bottom of the stairs.

   ‘Shall we order some wine before we start?’ asks Damian, and as we all nod our assent, ‘A white and a red to kick off with?’

   He selects a Chianti and an Orvieto without bothering to look at the list. We’ve been here enough times by now to know it pretty comprehensively. I pay lip service to the menu, despite knowing I’ll be going for the melt-in-the-mouth carpaccio and sublimely garlicky spaghetti vongole.

   ‘Don’t you understand, Max, that money is no object when it comes to making my day absolutely perfect?’ comes a strident voice from the next table.

   ‘OK OK, I was only offering you a couple of options,’ retorts a laid-back and wonderfully familiar voice. ‘Jesus, woman, take a chill pill.’

   ‘Max!’ I cry, jumping out of my chair. I hadn’t noticed in the gloom, but sitting right next to us in this subterranean corner of West London is my resolutely East London brother, dining with Andy and Skinny Alison.

   ‘Bella!’ He rises languidly to his feet and gives me a hug. ‘What a coincidence.’

   ‘Why didn’t you let me know you were in my neck of the woods? We could have hooked up for a drink.’

   ‘You must know I never mix business with pleasure, sis.’ Then, seeing the look on Alison’s face, he adds, ‘Just kidding. Did you know I’m sorting out the catering for Andy and Alison’s wedding? As I’m Andy’s best man? We thought we’d discuss it over a nice, relaxed dinner.’ He rolls his eyes at me and I try not to laugh.

   I know I’m biased, but Max is gorgeous. His curly blond hair used to be the bane of his life. He looked like a cherub when we were kids and spent years trying to tame it – tying it back, slicking it down, shearing it into brutal military-style No. 1s – but always the curls sprang back, a life unto themselves. Now he’s come to accept them and wears them in a kind of honky afro/golden halo. He’s very tall (six feet four), broad shouldered, and keeps himself in shape, but without Mark’s ridiculously pumped-up look. His big long-lashed brown eyes, so similar to mine, give his face a sweetness that reflects his personality probably a lot more accurately than he would like.

   ‘No, I didn’t know, although I probably should.’ I smile at Andy and Alison, willing them not to realize how comprehensively I switched off whenever Alison started boring on in Ibiza. ‘Why don’t you join us once you’ve finished eating? There’s plenty of room at our table.’

   ‘Thanks, but we haven’t finalized the catering arrangements,’ begins Alison, when Andy cuts her off. ‘We’d love to,’ he says firmly, smiling at me. ‘I’m sure we can wind this up in the next five minutes or so while we finish our food.’

   ‘Great,’ says Max. ‘We’ll be over soon.’ He rolls his eyes at me again. ‘Right, back to business …’

   We order our food and settle down convivially with the wine and breadbasket.

   ‘Why the fuck did you ask them to join us, Bella?’ says Mark, as everyone shushes him.

   ‘Max is her brother, Mark,’ says Poppy quietly. ‘Why the fuck do you think?’

   ‘I don’t care about the shirt-lifter,’ says Mark. ‘But that bird. Jeeezus, she could wipe the hard-on off Hugh Heffner in a Jacuzzi full of Playmates. Does she ever smile?’

   ‘Sssh, sssh, sssh,’ we say, trying not to giggle.

   ‘Andy’s the one I object to,’ says Damian, dropping his guard momentarily. ‘Fucking do-gooder with his “insightful and intelligent” pieces.’ His voice is sounding more Welsh by the second.

   ‘You sound like you’re quoting,’ says Poppy.

   ‘I am,’ says Damian morosely. ‘The National Press Awards.’

   Poppy laughs. ‘C’mon, sweetheart, you could have gone down that route if you wanted. You chose the sex, drugs and rock-’n’-roll path of no-resistance journalism instead, and you love it.’

   ‘Yeah, I suppose. He doesn’t have to be such a fucking smug prick about it, though …’

   At this inauspicious juncture, the three of them join us, and we all shift around to make space.

   ‘So did you finalize the catering arrangements?’ I ask Alison, as Poppy kicks me under the table. Alison is looking quite the elegant solicitor tonight, in a beautifully tailored white cotton shirt with three-quarter-length sleeves and oversized, pushed-back cuffs. Narrow black 7/8 trousers show off her slim thighs and bony ankles. Her shoes and Mulberry handbag have been expertly and expensively crafted from the same soft tan leather, while a touch of turquoise jewellery lifts the outfit from classic boredom. Yup, the bitch looks good.

   ‘No, not really,’ she sighs. ‘Nobody seems to understand how stressful it is, planning a wedding. There are so many things to consider.’

   ‘Erm, maybe I’m being stupid, babe, but why don’t you just choose some grub you like and lay on plenty of booze?’ asks Mark, shoving half a bread roll into his mouth.

   ‘People have different dietary requirements,’ explains Alison patiently, as if to a five-year-old. ‘Half of my friends are gluten-free, about a third don’t eat dairy, loads are vegetarian and most won’t countenance intensive farming, so knowing the food’s provenance is vital.’

   ‘Fucking Stoke Newington lesbians,’ grunts Mark, and I try not to laugh again as I recall that Andy and Alison live in Crouch End, North London’s liberal enclave, barely a stone’s throw from Stoke Newington.

   ‘Then there are the favours,’ she continues earnestly. ‘We can’t decide whether edible favours are the way to go – and, if so, should they come out of the catering budget?’

   ‘I’m sorry,’ says Poppy. ‘But I think favours are utterly preposterous for adults.’

   ‘What are favours?’ asks Damian, speaking for the rest of us.

   ‘Oh, ridiculous twee little gifts – sugared almonds, or packets of seeds, or horrid little gift soaps that most people will only throw away anyway and end up costing you a fortune. Honestly, Alison, save yourself the bother and expense.’

   ‘I have to say I’m inclined to agree,’ says Andy. ‘If we’re averaging three quid each and two hundred people, that’s six hundred pounds on stuff that’s only going to get chucked.’ He takes a swig of his red wine.

   ‘He can do mental arithmetic too,’ says Damian, just a tad too loudly.

   ‘I told you, money is no object,’ says Alison. ‘All the weddings I’ve been to over the last five years have had favours, and I will NOT have a second-rate, budget version.’

   ‘Suit yourself,’ says Poppy equably.

   ‘I’m sure whatever Alison chooses will be perfectly delightful,’ says Ben, smiling at her. ‘And I for one won’t be throwing mine away.’ As far as I’m aware, he hasn’t been invited, but nobody points this out.

   For the first time since we arrived (I suspect the first time all evening), Alison smiles. It sits uneasily on her long face, the scarlet lips parting to show both top and bottom teeth. In fact, it doesn’t suit her at all, and I wonder if this is partly why, like Posh Spice, she has perfected the art of looking miserable.

   ‘Well, the jury’s still out on whether we’re getting them or not,’ says Andy, and Alison’s features revert to their habitual scowl. Thank Christ for that. Andy turns to Poppy. ‘How’s your father getting on?’

   I had no idea Andy knew about Ken. Poppy must have confided in him in Ibiza. I can understand why – with his height, specs and obvious intelligence, Andy must remind her to an extent of her beloved daddy, the daddy she used to know.

   ‘Bloody awfully, but thanks for asking. Last weekend was the worst so far.’

   ‘You poor thing,’ says Andy seriously. ‘I don’t have any personal experience of it, but I wrote a piece about dementia a few months ago and it does seem to hit the family very hard, from what all the people I interviewed told me.’

   Alison is looking daggers at Pops.

   ‘And so does cancer, and heart disease, and diabetes, all of which can be prevented with a little more self-restraint in one’s life,’ she says, taking a tiny sip of her red wine. I can hardly believe my ears at her insensitivity.

   ‘Oh for Christ’s sake, Al …’ starts Andy, and Poppy smiles at him.

   ‘Thanks, you nice man, but I can fend for myself.’ She turns to Alison, and hisses, ‘I suppose you also think that if he’d done the fucking crossword or Sudoku or something more often, he’d still be right as rain. My dad is a doctor, who knows all about prevention and cure, thank you very much. Can you imagine what it felt like for him to diagnose himself? He has more intelligence in his little toe, even with his illness, than you’ll ever have in your whole body, you cow.’

   Alison puts up her hands in mock surrender.

   ‘No need to get personal. I didn’t realize he was a doctor. I apologize. It’s just that people who don’t look after themselves cost the state so much money, don’t you think?’

   ‘The tax on smoking practically pays for the NHS,’ says Mark, who’s enjoying this exchange thoroughly. ‘More wine, anyone?’ With a flourish of his huge arm, he summons the waiter and asks for four more bottles.

   ‘Four? Are you insane?’ asks Alison, askance.

   ‘You don’t have to drink them babe, do ya?’ Mark turns his back on her and starts chatting to me again.

   ‘What the fuck is her problem?’ I whisper.

   ‘She doesn’t like Andy talking to Pops, is all. Stupid bitch.’

   ‘But that’s absurd. He was only being nice about her father. And anyway, even though Pops is more gorgeous than that bitch could hope to be in a million years, she’s not exactly what you’d call a threat. She and Damian are devoted to each other.’

   ‘We know that, gorgeous, but she doesn’t.’ Mark and I clink glasses and down them in one in a moment of complete solidarity. I think I might love him, despite the Brazilian twins and the intern with the pierced nipple.

   After a bit, Alison turns to me.

   ‘Remind me what is it that you do again, Bella? Isn’t it something secretarial?’ Her pale blue eyes bore into me. Her colouring is really quite striking, I find myself thinking irrelevantly, the black hair and precisely plucked brows a vivid contrast to her pale skin and eyes.

   ‘Erm no … I’m an artist, but sometimes I have to do a bit of temping to help pay the bills.’

   ‘And you really think that’s any way for an adult to earn a living? Don’t you think it’s time you got a proper job and left the painting as a hobby? I mean, frankly, if you haven’t made any money out of it now, I can’t imagine you ever will. You’re what? Thirty-two?’

   I am stunned into silence. Not only because Alison thinks she has the right to speak to me with such vitriol, but also because she has pinpointed my Achilles heel with painful accuracy. She is beyond poisonous.

   ‘I don’t know how you can say that when you haven’t seen Bella’s work,’ says Damian loyally. The others are all laughing loudly at something Ben’s just said, so only he and Mark have heard this delightful exchange. ‘She’s extremely talented and I know her big break is just around the corner.’

   I flash him a grateful smile. Luckily our food chooses this moment to arrive and I am spared having to defend myself further to the witch. We eat our food, and drink all the wine that Mark ordered. Then we order brandies.

   ‘Andy,’ says Alison. ‘We really should be getting home. I’ve an early start tomorrow and I’m working on a very important case.’

   ‘Oh yes, your job’s so grown-up and important, isn’t it?’ I slur, completely pissed by now. ‘It must be a total nightmare for you having to hang out with plebs like us.’

   ‘Oh, I think most people around this table have pretty important jobs, Bella,’ says Alison nastily. ‘Don’t kid yourself.’

   ‘For God’s sake, Al.’ Andy looks and sounds deeply pissed off, even more than when she was going on about Poppy’s dad. ‘I’m sorry, Bella. Sorry Poppy, too, for earlier.’

   He pulls an apologetic face at us both, but I take no notice. It’s too much. After my shitty day in the office and gallons of booze, this sniping at both Poppy’s deepest sadness and my deepest insecurities makes my reaction just a smidgeon over the top.

   ‘You fucking bitch.’ I chuck the remains of Alison’s drink at her. ‘At least I’m not a dried-up old hag who can’t speak without hurting people or even smile without looking like a fucking gargoyle.’ I am mesmerized by the red wine dripping down her pristine white shirt. Then I come to my senses and burst into tears.

   Getting up with as much dignity as I can muster, I say, ‘Max, could you cover my share of the bill, please? I’ll sort it out with you tomorrow.’

   And I stagger upstairs, sobbing. I am halfway down Kensington Park Road when I hear footsteps behind me.

   ‘You left your jacket behind,’ says Ben, holding it out to me with a smile.

   ‘Oh, thanks so much, I’m such a twat. My keys and wallet are in the pocket.’ And I cry some more, as Ben strokes my hair, standing there in the street, going, ‘Sssh, sssh, it’s going to be OK, everything’s OK.’

   After a bit he laughs. ‘You certainly told Alison where to go.’

   ‘I’m already regretting it.’ I look up at him through teary eyes. ‘I seem to have sobered up in the last couple of minutes.’

   ‘Silly bitch deserved it, going on at you and Pops like that. Oh, I know I was nice about her stupid favours, but I was bored shitless by the conversation and it seemed the only way to bring it to a close.’ We both laugh.

   ‘Well, goodnight then,’ I say reluctantly.

   ‘Don’t be silly, I’m walking you home,’ says Ben, and my heart starts to beat alarmingly fast. Don’t be silly, Bella, he’s just being nice. Remember what a gentleman he is.

   He lights us each a fag. We turn right into Portobello Road and continue down through the market-stall debris, under the Westway and finally into my street. Ben is talking easily about Poppy’s promotion, laughing about Mark’s appalling behaviour, bitching about Alison. I am tongue-tied, but happy to listen, nod and laugh when required.

   ‘Well, here I am then,’ I say stupidly. ‘Thanks for looking after me.’

   ‘It was my pleasure, darling.’ Ben smiles that knee-trembling smile again. And very slowly, bends his head to kiss me. His lips are soft yet insistent. Involuntarily my own mouth opens just a fraction and he lingers a moment longer, running his tongue ever so lightly against my trembling bottom lip. Reluctantly, it seems, he pulls away, holding me in his electric blue gaze.

   ‘You looked very pretty tonight, you know.’ Then he turns on his heel and walks back down the street, turning once to blow me another kiss.

   Bugger me.

Chapter 6

   Remember waking up on Christmas morning when you were a kid? That manic overexcitement that got you out of your own bed and into your parents’ at 5 a.m., only to be told to go back to sleep for a couple of hours? Well, that had nothing on the hyperactive frenzy I seem to have worked myself up into this morning. I am a Ritalin-dependent attention-seeking seven-year-old, without the compensating cuteness.

   For today we are going to Glastonbury. It is a glorious, glorious sunshiny day, I’ve been packed since 8 a.m. and Poppy and Damian are picking me up in half an hour. I always get excited about Glastonbury, even when it’s raining, but this year is different. This year I have been kissed by Ben, and the next four days stretch out in front of me, reverberating with romantic opportunity.

   I haven’t seen or spoken to Ben since he walked me home the other night, and neither have I told anyone about the kiss. I don’t know why. Normally I’d be straight on the phone to Poppy, but she is so much closer to Ben than I am because of Damian that I’ve never really confided in her about my feelings for him, though I imagine she has a pretty shrewd inkling. No fool, our Pops.

   It’s my wonderful little secret. Again and again I play over those few seconds. ‘It was my pleasure, darling.’ … Smile. Kiss. ‘You looked very pretty tonight, you know.’ He called me pretty! He kissed me! I realize I’m possibly reading too much into what was most likely just a drunken flirty moment, but I don’t care. I’ve been on Cloud Nine for the past week and am full of joyous optimism for what the next few days may bring.

   Unable to sit still for a second, I go over my packing for the twentieth time to see what I’ve forgotten. Three bikinis (did I mention the joyous optimism?), four pairs of knickers, three vest tops, two miniskirts, black leggings in case it gets cold, black polo-neck jumper ditto, yoga pants, T-shirt and hoodie for sleeping in if I get the chance, waterproof jacket and trousers, wellies, which take up far too much room in the rucksack but I’m not taking any chances after last year, flip-flops. I am wearing ancient cowboy boots and a white sundress printed with red cherries.

   Satisfied that my clothing covers every eventuality, I turn my attention to sundries. Wipes, wipes and more wipes; toothbrush and toothpaste; moisturizer; sun block that I’ll forget to use; dry shampoo that after a couple of days my greasy barnet won’t allow me to forget to use; deodorant; make-up. Come on, I’m hardly going to be slumming it to that extent, especially with Ben around. Strapped to the outside of my rucksack are my sleeping bag and pillow. Yes, a real one. I don’t care if I look a pillock, it makes the biggest difference in the world to comfort. Oooh, bin bags and loo paper! I suddenly remember and dash to the kitchen and bathroom. I’m out of both. I’ll have to remember to get some from the Tesco megastore we always stop at on the final leg of the journey. A 1.5-litre bottle of Evian and 1.5-litre Evian bottle filled with vodka as glass isn’t allowed on site; 3 grams of coke and 12 pills secured inside my bra, the only place security won’t look if I’m unlucky enough to be stopped; 60 Marlboro Lights.

   I look at the time on my phone. Still twenty minutes until they’re due, and Poppy and Damian aren’t the most punctual of couples at the best of times. I pick up an old copy of Stadium, Damian’s magazine, and go out onto the balcony to kill some time. The cloudless sky is already a medium denim hue and it’s only ten past ten. Feeling the sun warm on my shoulders, I heave a deep sigh of satisfaction. The next few days are going to be fabulous. Trying to quell my impatience, I flip through Stadium. It falls open randomly at 17 things you should have grown out of by now. Hmmm, let’s see. No. 3. Pretending to find older women attractive. Let’s face it, nineteen is their optimum age. Saggy tits and wrinkles are never a good look. Oh charming. No wonder Mark’s like he is. I have a look at the tiny by-line to see if Damian’s responsible. No, not this time. I’m sure Poppy would have something to say if he were.

   Slightly depressed now, I shut Stadium and gaze out over the leafy view for a bit, before going back inside to pick up the card I’ve made to thank Poppy for offering me her spare room as a studio. On the front is a highly stylized pen and ink illustration of Pops herself, hair in a ponytail, jaunty scarf around her neck in the manner of a 1950s fashion drawing, heading towards an old-fashioned aeroplane, an old-fashioned suitcase with labels spelling out Paris, Barcelona, Milan and Capri swinging from her hand. On the back, in the same style, is a drawing of me standing at my easel, wearing a checked artist’s smock and a headscarf around my head like a turban. Inside, in large, glittery writing, I simply wrote, Thanks, dear friend xxx.

   I love making cards for people. I like making presents too. Last Christmas I found an old dolls’ house in a junk shop, which, I decided, with a bit of TLC, would make a perfect present for Milly, my Goldsmiths chum Emma’s five-year-old daughter. I painted it white, with a pink roof, and big, blousy cabbage roses around the door, getting carried away with a riot of hearts and flowers on the shutters and climbing up the side of the house. After spending a happy afternoon seeking out remnants in the fabrics and wallpaper departments of Peter Jones, I hung pretty pink and white gingham curtains at the windows, and had a real blast with the interior, wallpapering each room in different shades and patterns of pink and even laying tiny bits of cream carpet. The pièce de résistance was the installation of battery-operated fairy lights throughout, so that the house lit up when you pressed the switch on the back. Of course it was beyond kitsch, but Milly absolutely adored it, and the delight on her face when she opened it was worth every penny I’d spent on it (in the end, it worked out significantly more expensive than it would have done just to have bought her a new dolls’ house).

   I felt slightly sheepish about the hours I’d put into my labour of love – let’s face it, it was a pretty bloody twee thing to do – and was reluctant to tell Poppy and the others. As it happened, I needn’t have worried. They all thought it was brilliant, and Pops even insisted Damian drive me all the way over the river to Emma’s terraced house in Stockwell to deliver it, all wrapped up with a pink bow on top, one cold December evening. Mark did take to calling me Polly-Bella-Anna for a few weeks afterwards, and often asked if I’d done my good deed for the day, but all the piss-taking was affectionate.

   My phone rings. I look at the display. It’s Poppy.

   ‘Hi babe, we’re downstairs.’

   ‘Yay! You’re early! I’ll be down in a sec.’ I lock the balcony door, plonk a pair of oversized shades on my nose, heave my rucksack over my back – fuck me, it’s heavy – pick up my tent and card and stagger down four flights of rickety stairs.

   I love Damian’s car. He bought it last year when he was upgraded from staff writer to features editor and columnist on Stadium (Poppy refers to the promotion as ‘the Faustian pact’). It’s a navy blue convertible late Sixties Merc and today will be the first time I’ve been in it with the top down. Hendrix is blaring from the stereo. We are going to look like such a bunch of wankers rolling up to Glasto. I can’t wait.

   Poppy jumps out to give me a kiss. She looks fantastic as ever, in her Ibiza denim hot pants, cowboy boots, sage green long-line vest and the trilby she had on the other night. If anything, she seems even more hyper than I am, chattering away at such speed I can barely follow what she’s on about.

   ‘If you can shut up for one moment, I have something for you,’ I say, proffering the card. Pops looks at it properly and a big smile crosses her lovely face.

   ‘Oh Belles, you are so talented. I wish I could draw like that. Look, darling, at what Bella’s made for me.’ She shows it to Damian.

   ‘Bloody brilliant. You’ve captured my missus perfectly, gorgeous little jet-setter that she is.’ He gives the card a kiss and props it up on the dashboard.

   ‘Thanks guys!’ I bask cheerfully in their praise.

   Poppy opens the boot and there is just enough room for my rucksack and tent.

   ‘’Fraid you’ll have to put Mark’s stuff on the back seat,’ she says. ‘Never mind – you can put it between you like a wall to stop his groping hands.’

   ‘I really don’t think Mark’s going to be interested in groping me,’ I say, still mindful of what I just read in Stadium and thinking, irritatingly, of the Brazilian twins and the young intern with the pierced nipple.

   Damian laughs, the sun bouncing off yet another pair of designer shades. ‘You’re female, aren’t you?’

   I get into the back of the car via Poppy’s passenger seat. We get going and within minutes I am rummaging for something to tie my hair back with. Driving west out of London is great. People in other cars hoot and the odd pedestrian waves. My elation is building to a disquieting crescendo and we haven’t even started on the intoxicants yet.

   ‘So where are we picking Mark up from?’ I shout over the wind and music.

   ‘Richmond,’ shouts back Poppy.

   ‘How very respectable,’ I laugh.

   ‘I know – seems unlikely, doesn’t it?’

   ‘By the way, Bella, big respect for what you said to Alison the other night,’ shouts Damian. ‘The look on her face when you chucked your drink at her! She started ranting about getting you to pay for dry cleaning after you’d left.’

   ‘Oh, she wants more than that. She wouldn’t contact me directly, of course. She told Andy to tell Max that her shirt was ruined and she wants me to replace it. It was Jil Sander apparently. Fuck knows how I’m going to afford that.’

   ‘They’ve got identical shirts in Primark for a fiver,’ says Poppy. ‘And you can cut the label out of my old Jil Sander coat if you want. Bet she won’t notice. Insensitive bitch.’

   We all crack up at this. God, life is good.

   ‘So what’s this shoot Ben’s on tomorrow?’ I ask, unable to resist the temptation of talking about him.

   ‘Abercrombie and Fitch,’ says Damian. ‘He said the last one was great – the director got them all stoned, then just filmed all these pretty young things laughing unselfconsciously together. Money for old rope if you ask me.’

   ‘Yeah, like you work your fingers to the bone. Comparable to mining is the life of a Stadium columnist,’ says Poppy, as I try to banish from my mind the image of Ben getting stoned with a load of nineteen-year-old natural beauties. I really wish I hadn’t picked up that bloody magazine.

   After a while we turn into a tree-lined street of semi-detached Edwardian houses with perfectly kept front lawns behind box hedges. It’s the sort of street where dads wash their cars on a Saturday morning.

   ‘This can’t be where Mark lives,’ I say in bemusement. ‘It’s so … so … suburban.’

   ‘Oh he’s all talk and no trousers, our Marky,’ says Poppy. ‘Underneath all the bullshit, he’s as conventional as they come.’

   Mr Conventional swaggers out of No. 42. Bare-chested, he is wearing very tight, very faded jeans, a leather thong around his neck, Aviator shades and a cowboy hat.

   ‘He sooo waxes his chest,’ says Poppy under her breath.

   ‘Auditioning for the Village People, Marky?’ shouts Damian.

   Mark grins. ‘You’re just jealous I can carry it off,’ he shouts back, and makes his way over to the car, pausing to say hello to a couple of little girls on tricycles.

   He chucks his huge rucksack into the back seat as effortlessly as if it were made of foam, then saunters back inside and returns with a crate of Stella, which he throws in on top of the rucksack. Winking at me, he mouths, ‘Hello gorgeous.’ I smile. For all his manifold faults, there is something about Mark you can’t help liking.

   We resume our journey and soon excitement is mounting again.

   ‘Beers, anyone?’ says Mark.

   ‘Better not mate,’ says Damian. ‘But the rest of you go ahead.’

   ‘Poor love,’ says Poppy, leaning over and helping herself. ‘I’ll drive on the way back.’

   ‘Yeah, when a drink’ll be the last thing you want,’ laughs Mark.

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