The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp: ‘A razor-sharp retelling of Vanity Fair’ Louise O’Neill
The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp: ‘A razor-sharp retelling of Vanity Fair’ Louise O’Neill
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd
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London, SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2018
Copyright © Sarra Manning 2018
Cover design Ellie Game © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2018 Cover illustration ©
Sarra Manning asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Source ISBN: 9780008291785
Ebook Edition © September 2018 ISBN: 9780008291143
Dedicated to William Makepeace Thackeray who created these wonderful characters that I got to play with. I hope that he would approve.
‘All is vanity. Nothing is fair.’
Vanity Fair, W. M. Thackeray
Also by Sarra Manning
About the Publisher
BATTLE OF THE BIG BROTHER BEAUTIES!
Will It Be Amelia Or Becky Who Wins Tonight’s Final? Place Your Bets!
In one corner we have blonde banker’s daughter, Amelia Sedley, 22, the posh totty who’s been unlucky in love but has become princess of the nation’s hearts. And in the other corner we have red-headed stunner Becky Sharp, 20, a care assistant with a big heart and a wicked sense of humour.
Ahead of tonight’s final, bookies have slashed odds on either of them to win and are saying it’s too close to call. One thing’s for certain, this year’s Big Brother has had a massive ratings boost thanks to these two babes.
Who can forget Poolgate? Or Becky’s rousing ‘chicks before dicks’ speech? The double eviction of house villains, Leanne and Johnny? Or just how fabulous Amelia and Becky look in their bikinis?
So The Globe would like to wish both girls best of luck tonight and thanks for all the mammaries!
‘Big Brother house! You are live on Channel Five, please do not swear.’
Even though they’d been expecting the announcement, the two young women jumped as the excited tones of the TV announcer were broadcast into the house on a studio set in Elstree where they’d spent the last two months.
‘Are you all right?’ Becky Sharp mouthed to Amelia, her BFF, who was clutching her white acrylic wine glass for dear life.
The roar of the crowd gathered outside was audible even in the hermetically sealed house. It didn’t sound like a good roar but more like the last thing the Christian martyrs heard before they were ripped to shreds by lions in a Roman amphitheatre.
Although it was a warm August night, Becky couldn’t help the shiver that ran through her. Her eyes widened and she bit her bottom lip, making sure that her slightly furrowed brow was shown to its best advantage by the camera to her left, positioned high up in the corner. You couldn’t spend eight weeks in a house with eighty cameras in it without knowing exactly where those cameras were. Anyone who said that after a while you forgot their presence and showed your real self – like, say, the ten other contestants who’d already been kicked out of the house – were either liars or idiots. Or both. Yes, definitely both.
‘I’m so nervous,’ Amelia said, her wispy voice catching at the same time as her soft, pretty features began to wobble. Becky recognised the signs, Lord knows she’d seen them often enough to recognise when Amelia Sedley was about to burst into tears. On average, at least three times a day. On the day that Amelia had been cruelly cast aside by Gav, an ex-Marine, now personal trainer, from Wigan so he could fall into bed with Chloe, a glamour model from Braintree, she’d cried an unprecedented ten times. ‘Anyway, I won’t win. I don’t want to win. You deserve to win, Becky.’
‘Oh, Emmy, if anyone deserves to win, it’s you,’ Becky said, even as the possibility of winning sent a thrill through her.
‘So, the votes have been counted and verified and I can reveal that the winner of Big Brother is …’
Amelia grabbed hold of Becky’s arm so that Becky could feel the tremors running through the other girl. Amelia was entirely lacking in any inner reserves of strength. In fact, after Gavgate, she’d been planning to walk, but it was Becky who’d persuaded her to stay. ‘Chicks before dicks every single time. And if you leave, then I’ll leave too. We made a promise that we were in this together, Emmy, because together, nothing can stop us. So, come on! Stay! Stay in the name of sisterhood.’ Becky had spent hours locked in the toilet rehearsing that speech, so Amelia was right: if anyone deserved to win, it was Becky Sharp.
You have got to be fucking kidding me!
It took everything she had not to screech it out loud, instead Becky bit her tongue so hard that it brought tears to her eyes, even as she hugged Amelia, who also had tears in her eyes, because she was gearing up for her biggest, ugliest cry of the summer.
‘I’m so happy for you, Emmy! Of course it had to be you!’ Becky said loudly enough that her words could be picked up over the chanting of the crowd.
Amelia was sobbing too hard to reply so Becky rubbed soothing circles on her back and murmured inanities into the other girl’s blonde hair.
‘Congratulations, Amelia, you’re our winner!’ the presenter bellowed and Amelia raised her head from where it had been nestled on Becky’s shoulder and showed her red, blotchy face to the world. ‘Now hold tight, Becky, I’m coming to get you!’
It was very hard to keep her face from contorting into a snarl of rage but somehow Becky managed it. It was going to be even harder to exit the Big Brother house with Amelia, still sobbing, clinging to her like a limpet on steroids.
‘Becky, this is Big Brother! Becky, you have been evicted. You have two minutes to say your goodbyes and leave the house.’
‘We should go out together,’ Amelia insisted phlegmily as Becky patted her back and prepared to disengage. ‘Really, we’re both winners.’
‘No, don’t be silly! This is your moment and I’m not going to spoil it for you.’ Becky would rather die than be accused of stealing Amelia’s thunder. As it was, because she was the runner-up, she’d get a rushed exit interview before they came back to get Amelia. Then there’d be fireworks and cheering and Amelia would cry again as she watched the winner’s prize of £70,000 hit her bank account. Like Amelia even needed the money. Becky eyed Amelia’s tight, black, designer bodycon dress and then looked down at her own ASOS knock-off. At least she could take some small comfort from the fact that Amelia had put on at least half a stone since she’d entered the Big Brother house and her expensive Herve Leger dress now resembled sausage casing.
‘Becky, this is Big Brother! You have been evicted. You have one minute to leave the house.’
‘Emmy, please, I have to go,’ Becky said firmly, disentangling Amelia’s arms from her neck. ‘Drink some water. Go and repair your make-up so you look beautiful for your big exit and I’ll see you on the flipside.’
Then she gently pushed Amelia to one side. Took a moment to straighten the skirt of her white dress, which was tight but not too tight, short but not too short, and slightly off the shoulder but not low cut because only the wrong sort of girl did legs and cleavage. Then she straightened her spine and, in time-honoured tradition, took a second with the mirror by the door. Fluffed her red hair, ran a finger under one eye to check that her mascara hadn’t run and mouthed very clearly for the benefit of the viewing public, ‘Come on, Becky, you got this.’
She pulled open the door, took a deep breath and began to climb the stairs.
‘Becky! You have been evicted! Please leave the Big Brother house!’
She was climbing towards freedom after being trapped for weeks in a state-of-the-art prison. OK, a prison with a huge gold sofa, a swimming pool full of unicorn and flamingo inflatables and copious amounts of alcohol as a reward each time the housemates completed an asinine task designed solely to humiliate them, but a prison nevertheless.
Outside was unknown. Becky had played a clever game but the general public were fickle. Who knew how she’d come across or how she’d been edited?
‘Becky! You have been evicted! Please leave the Big Brother house!’
There was only one way to find out.
The doors swung open and the almighty wall of noise that greeted Becky made her rock back on her spindly silver heels. All those people cheering her? Not one single, solitary boo. She put an unsteady hand to her heart.
You like me. You really like me.
It was a blur of light and heat and noise as Becky’s hand was firmly taken by the excitable Emma Willis and she was pulled through the crowd, a camera in front of her, brazenly in her face this time.
There was a gratifying amount of poorly made banners with her name on them or proclaiming ‘Chicks before dicks’. Hands thrust at her. People screaming. Then up another flight of stairs on to a stage and past her former housemates sitting in two rows. Becky hadn’t even made contact with the chair before everyone’s attention was focused on the big screen above them which showed Amelia sitting on the big gold sofa in the Big Brother house with her head between her knees as she tried not to pass out.
Considering that Amelia was a posh girl, proper posh, who’d been torn from the bosom of her loving family and sent off to boarding school at the tender age of ten, Becky had been astounded that she wasn’t made of sterner stuff. In a year out from university, she’d even spent two weeks in Niger working in an orphanage, which had done absolutely nothing to toughen her up.
Maybe the joke was on Becky and Amelia was playing the longest of cons herself. But then Emma tapped Becky on the knee and a producer counted them back from a commercial break and she needed to focus on her own long con.
‘So, hello, Becky Sharp,’ Emma said by way of introduction. ‘The housemate whose shoulder everyone cried on, who had more girl power than all the Spice Girls combined, and who might not have found love in the Big Brother house, but found her way into your hearts with 37.4 per cent of the final vote. It was very close, Becky. Amelia just pipped you to the post with 39.1 per cent of the vote.’
Becky shook her head and smiled. ‘The best girl won,’ she said to approving cheers, because what else could she say?
‘And you had quite the chequered love life while you were in the house,’ Emma continued cheerfully. ‘You seemed fated to never get your man.’
‘Well, I went into the house to find myself rather than find love, though love would have been nice too,’ Becky said, and she caught the eye of Carlo who she’d enjoyed a brief flirtation with, safe in the knowledge that he’d be evicted in week two because he had all the personality of damp cardboard. Carlo smiled and waved back. ‘Even better than love, I made friends that I know I’ll have for the rest of my life.’
The script just wrote itself, really.
‘You even let one of those friends come between you and what we all hoped was going to be a Big Brother romance,’ Emma said, as footage appeared on the big screen of Becky watching Johnny (who called himself an entrepreneur though he was hard pressed to explain what he actually entrepreneured) and Leanne, PR girl (which really meant that she handed out free, flavoured vodka shots in Cheshire nightclubs), frolicking in the hot tub. One single, solitary tear rolled down Becky’s alabaster cheek, because one tear was far more effective than sobbing all your make-up off at least twice a day.
‘Well, I realised that if Johnny and Leanne really cared for each other, then I shouldn’t stand in the way of their happiness,’ Becky explained with another glance over to the housemates. ‘I just never imagined that they’d be put up for eviction because of it or that there’d be a double eviction that week. You guys are still together, right?’
Of course they weren’t. They were seated as far away from each other as possible and, judging from the skin-stripping looks that Leanne was sending Johnny’s way as a muscle pounded in his cheek, they now hated each other with a passion. Even more passion than when Leanne had given him a blow job in the Big Brother toilet.
‘You might have been one of our most popular housemates but you still managed to land yourself in hot water, Becky,’ Emma said urgently, putting one hand on Becky’s knee again. ‘We need to talk about Poolgate.’
Becky made sure her green eyes were especially wide. ‘Poolgate?’ she echoed breathily.
Another scene was beamed up on the screen. Becky and Marie curled up on the big swan inflatable in the swimming pool. It was odd that they were curled up so amicably when Marie had earlier accused Becky of stealing a Chanel lipstick from her, though Becky, with trembling dignity, had insisted that the Chanel lipstick in question was hers and that maybe Marie had simply lost her own one.
‘Now you weren’t miked up here because you were in the pool but Marie swears that you whispered in her ear, “You chat shit about me again and I will wipe you off the face of the earth, bitch.”’
Becky put her hands to her cheeks as if they were burning. She couldn’t even look at Marie and the inevitably outraged expression on the other girl’s porcine and pugnacious face. If she did, she might laugh.
‘Really? She swears that I said that? Wow! Maybe I had a strange reaction to the chlorine in the swimming pool and it gave me a complete personality change and amnesia too.’ Becky shrugged and shook her head. ‘Because I have no memory of that happening.’
Emma went on to mention ‘Slag-gate’ (it had felt like the right thing to do to tell Leanne that Marie had called her a slag), ‘Pubegate’ (and who could blame Becky for nominating Carlo for eviction because of the shocking state he left the shower in each morning?) and ‘Gavgate’ (of course Becky was going to take Amelia’s side when Gav had done her wrong, even though it was Becky who’d told Gav that Chloe fancied him).
‘More gates than a garden centre,’ Becky noted to the approval of the audience, and anyway, she hadn’t been directly involved in any of the incidents. The fact that Primark were now apparently selling ‘Chicks Before Dicks’ T-shirts and the Guardian had labelled Becky as ‘this summer’s most unlikely feminist icon’ was completely beyond her control.
There was just time for Emma to remind the viewers that when Becky had won a task and been rewarded with a phone call home, she’d given her prize to Amelia.
Again, there was Becky’s face on the screen – she really did look so much better from her left side – telling a sobbing Amelia that ‘I don’t have a home or a mum and dad, but you do, so I want you to have the call.’
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. ‘Is that true?’ Emma gently probed even as Becky could hear the producer telling her to wrap things up. ‘That you don’t have a family?’
If she concentrated really hard, Becky could always get that single, solitary tear to start its slow descent down her cheek. She’d just recall the sting of her father’s hand across that same cheek as he coached her on how to cry on cue. Rich tourist or DWP case worker, no one could resist a whey-faced little moppet crying so prettily.
She felt the tear begin its journey now, let it get level with her mouth before she brushed it away with an impatient hand. ‘My mum and dad died so long ago that it hardly even hurts any more. Anyway, friends are the new family, isn’t that what they say?’
Emma reached forward and gathered Becky into a motherly hug until they both heard the producer snap in their ears, ‘We’re due an ad break, cue her best bits.’
‘Becky, you’ve been one of our favourite housemates of all time and here are your best bits!’
What if the two minutes that comprised Becky’s highlight reel were the sum total of her life’s work? How she’d always be remembered? A slender girl in a white bikini with green eyes, riotous red curls, fair skin and what The Sun called ‘the best boobs in Big Brother’ schooling another girl in a bikini about the ‘most basic rule of feminism. Chicks Before Dicks.’
Was this it? In years to come when Becky was standing in a queue in the Post Office or the supermarket, would someone tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘Excuse me? You are, aren’t you? Big Brother? Chicks Before Dicks? Sorry, I can’t remember your name.’
She’d had a taste of it now: the applause of the crowd, the flash of a hundred cameras. She knew how easy it was to win the slavish adoration of the public and her fellow housemates (apart from Marie, and Marie could just go and fuck herself). But just one taste was never going to be enough.
No, Becky intended to gorge on it all: fame, power, success, as if she was standing in Nando’s with a tapeworm and a black card.
By the time she was done, everyone was going to remember her name.
But first she had to stand down stage, take her place with the other former housemates and watch Amelia be crowned the winner, then fluff and weep her way through her exit interview.
The only gratifying part was when she said, ‘The best bit of my Big Brother experience was meeting Becky, because I know I have a friend for life. More than a friend. She’s my sister from another mister.’
After the cameras stopped rolling Becky and the other losers were herded like cattle into a people carrier to be ferried to an Elstree hotel, while Amelia was whisked off in a limo, as befitted her winner’s status. She was the best of them all and Becky was left to mill about the after party nursing a lukewarm white wine that was all the production budget would stretch to.
Her fellow housemates were surrounded by their families. Not that Becky felt even one pang on that score, having lost her mother when she was eight and her father seven years later.
Poor Becky. Not only had she come from the most broken of homes, but at fifteen she was an actual bona fide orphan, like some poor creature from a Victorian novel waiting to be sent either to the workhouse or to live with a kindly guardian and benefactor.
In the end, her father’s old Soho drinking buddy, Barbara Pinkerton, agent to the stars of stage and screen, had fallen somewhere between the two, and even now was bearing down on her in the same hotel bar they’d waited in before Becky had entered the Big Brother house.
‘Becky!’ Babs boomed once she was within booming distance. ‘My little Becky Sharp.’
She descended in a cloud of Opium to place lips slick with shocking-pink lipstick in the vicinity of Becky’s cheek.
‘I’m surprised a devious little cow like you didn’t go all the way,’ she murmured as she sat down on the leather-look banquette next to Becky. ‘You played a blinder, even had my stony-cold heart stirring when you gave that insipid little debutante your phone call home. But turns out insipid little debutantes trump sparky orphans. Who knew?’
‘I couldn’t be happier for Emmy,’ Becky said, as she’d been saying at regular intervals to whoever drifted into her orbit. ‘It really couldn’t have happened to a lovelier person.’
‘Bet she has a trust fund the size of the Guatemalan national debt. What does she need the prize money for?’ Barbara wondered. ‘It shouldn’t be allowed.’
‘Too fucking right.’
Their eyes met. Pupil and master, though for the first time Babs Pinkerton couldn’t tell which was which.
‘I promised your poor, dear old Pa that I’d look after you like you were my own,’ she’d said when she’d shown up at the council-run children’s home in Tower Hamlets where Becky had been assigned a bed and a case worker, after six different foster placements had returned her to sender.
Compared to the horrors of the home, Babs Pinkerton was definitely the lesser of two evils, but she was still fairly evil. Becky had known Babs all her life. The Sharp family had lived in a series of rooms in Soho, usually reached through a street door with a tatty handmade sign – ‘Model 2nd floor’ – invariably pinned to it. Her father didn’t have far to stagger to The Coach and Horses, and when that shut, on to The Colony Rooms, where he’d often take a snifter with Babs.
Sometimes he’d think it amusing to bring Becky along so she could mimic the regulars. More often she’d be sent by her mother to bring her father home or ask for five quid to feed the meter and buy a can of beans. Babs Pinkerton was like an honorary aunt, or so she claimed as she sat with Frank Sharp, a large gin and tonic always within reach, and always dressed in pink because that was her thing, as if she was a frilly, feminine, frivolous little thing when actually she was a shark in lipstick. In a show of affection, she’d pinch Becky’s cheek, her fingers hard and unforgiving, and it was a point of pride to Becky never to make a sound.
So when Babs turned up in Tower Hamlets, Becky didn’t hope for the best. Just expected the worst.
For the first two weeks or so, the worst wasn’t that bad. Despite spending so long in The Colony Rooms each night that the next day she seeped noxious gin fumes through her pores, Babs did have a roster of clients in work, albeit strictly D-list. Comedians still hankering after their glory days in the seventies when they could get a primetime slot on Saturday-night TV telling mother-in-law jokes and making racist jibes. Superannuated dollybirds hoping to resurrect their careers with a slot on Celebrity Masterchef or in a gritty TV drama on Channel 4. More recently, Babs had started to mine a lucrative seam of reality-TV contestants determined to cling on to their fifteen minutes of fame like it was the last lifebelt on the Titanic.
Babs had done well enough for herself that she had a house in a little mews in Paddington where she installed Becky in a spare room along with boxes of glossy ten-by-fours of former clients and left her alone every day with ten quid to buy herself snacks and a big TV with all the satellite channels.
Becky knew it couldn’t last because nothing ever did.
The worst, when it came, was far worse than Becky had ever imagined: Babs shipped her off to Bournemouth to act as a companion to her ageing aunt, Jemima Pinkerton, once the queen of British soaps, and now a septuagenarian with atrial defibrillation, two artificial hips and a recent dementia diagnosis.
‘I’ve been so worried about poor Auntie Jemima,’ Babs told Becky as they travelled down to poor Auntie Jemima’s well-appointed bungalow in the exclusive enclave of Southbourne, under the guise of a little daytrip to the seaside. ‘She hasn’t got a soul in the world – fame is a fickle, heartless bitch. And then I thought, well, poor, dear Becky doesn’t have a soul in the world either. You’ll be the granddaughter she never had.’
‘You want me to spend my days wiping the shitty arse of some senile old has-been?’ Becky had spluttered.
‘She’s not senile. Not yet. Just a bit forgetful, and the years might not have been kind – neither was her third husband, an absolute brute – but Jemima’s a sweetheart …’
‘I don’t care if she’s the queen of fucking everything,’ Becky had interrupted. ‘I’m not doing it.’
Then Babs had taken Becky’s cheek between thumb and forefinger as she’d used to do, and this time when she finally let go, she’d left a bruise. ‘Listen to me, you ungrateful little wretch, you’ll do this or we’ll turn round and I’ll take you to the nearest police station so I can turn you in for stealing three pieces out of my jewellery box and four blank cheques.’
‘They’re not worth anything. Just glass and paste,’ Becky muttered, but she subsided.
‘Also, once you’re sixteen you can claim a carer’s allowance, which is something because it’s not like I could even get you a walk-on in a crisps commercial,’ Babs had pointed out because in those days, Becky had been small, wan and her perfectly pert breasts had yet to put in an appearance. It also explained why Babs had left her to rot in care when Frank Sharp had first been sent down four years ago. At nearly sixteen, Becky was useful in a way that she hadn’t been when she was nearly twelve. ‘Besides, you owe me for two weeks bed and board, plus your expenses. Take you months to work off that debt.’
It had taken months, but by then Becky and Jemima Pinkerton were firm friends. Jemima trusted Becky implicitly (‘You might as well have my pin number, because God knows, I won’t be able to remember it before too long’) and Becky made herself indispensable to the old lady. After all, you didn’t bite the hand that fed you and in her way, Becky supposed that she was quite fond of Jemima.
Certainly, Becky had learned more from Jemima than she’d ever learned on the infrequent occasions when she’d somehow found herself in a classroom. Becky had listened transfixed to all of Jemima’s stories. From her ingénue days as a contracted player at Gainsborough Studios, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene that had earned her the title Bond Girl, through stints as a series regular on cop shows and medical dramas, a short season with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a dry spell (‘drier than the bloody Sahara in a heatwave’) that had lasted five years and had seen Jemima working the Christian Dior counter at Harvey Nicks. Then fame had beckoned again as the matriarch of an East End gangland family in a new soap opera, which had put a sizeable sum in Jemima’s pension pot and had led to all kinds of lucrative voiceover work.
Yet it wasn’t life treading the boards or working on a big sound stage at Shepperton that had enthralled Becky. On the contrary, that seemed to involve a lot of hanging about and knitting, and she wasn’t ever going to be the type to knit one purl one. No lessons to be learned there.
But Becky was fascinated by Jemima’s tales of the casting couch, amorous directors and handsy casting agents; of ambitious starlets nobbling the competition with a tube of greasepaint carelessly left on the dressing-room stairs; of young juvenile male leads seeing to the needs of rich, older ladies; and of that other, shadow world of gangsters and dealers, kingmakers and hookers … Well, all of human life was there.
Again, it couldn’t last for ever. But it lasted long enough. Besides, her father had always said that the longer the con, the bigger the reward. Nearly four and a half years, by which time Becky had blossomed like a dewy young rose, petals slowly unfurling. And Jemima, bless her, had withered. Her limbs clawed with arthritis and her mind slowly eaten away by the ravages of time.
In the end, Jemima had gone in her sleep. The ink was barely dry on the death certificate (natural causes) before Babs Pinkerton descended in a cerise power suit (‘Auntie Jemima wouldn’t have wanted me to wear black’) clutching a will that predated the newer will that Jemima had drawn up from a will-making kit that Becky had purchased in WHSmith.
‘It will never stand up in a court of law,’ Babs had said, when Becky had presented her with the evidence that she, Becky Sharp, loyal companion to Jemima Pinkerton during her twilight years, was the late and much-loved actress’s sole heir and beneficiary. ‘Everyone knew that Jemima’s mind was so addled that she didn’t know her arse from her elbow, God rest her soul.’
It had got nasty enough, even without Becky daring to seek legal counsel. It seemed that there were items of jewellery missing, large sums gone from Jemima’s bank account, her fur coat currently in the window of the local pawn shop. But as Becky sweetly pointed out, ‘Like you just said, poor Jemima was very confused towards the end. We may never know where she hid her jewellery or what she spent all that money on.’
While Babs was gasping like a landlocked fish at that sheer audacity, Becky happened to mention that the press might be quite interested to know that a large standing order on Jemima’s account was paid to Babs every month. ‘Though it’s not like you’ve been busy finding her work. And Jemima was beloved of so many that I think people might get quite cross if they thought that she was being taken advantage of by her niece, who also happened to be her agent.’
‘Or by the common little tart that’s been living off Jemima for the last four years,’ Babs countered, and Becky was old enough and big enough now that when Babs’ hand crept up to take hold of her cheek in a bruising grip, she knocked her hand away.
‘I’m not a common little tart,’ she corrected. ‘I’m a poor little orphan devoted to Jemima. The granddaughter she never had, that’s what Reverend Squills used to say when he invited us over for Sunday lunch. Towards the end, you see, Jemima found God …’
Babs Pinkerton snorted in derision at such a notion.
‘… Anyway, we were quite regular churchgoers so I’m sure the Reverend would be happy to defend me. He’s got quite a taste for publicity. It’s hard to keep him out of the local paper banging on about the gangs of feckless youths hanging about on the seafront. I can’t even imagine his reaction if the nationals started sniffing about …’
‘What do you want?’ Babs had asked thinly.
A modest sum from the eventual sale of the bungalow, the right to keep any mementos – for instance, any jewellery that Becky might just happen to find when she was clearing out the bungalow – and some insurance against the future.
‘I’ve been stagnating in Southbourne for the last four years, so what now?’ she demanded of Babs who’d taken command of Jemima’s favourite easy chair and a very large gin, easy on the tonic. ‘I don’t have a qualification to my name and I can’t really see the point of toiling away at evening classes just so I can end up working in a call centre.’
Barbara had raised one over-plucked eyebrow. ‘The world needs people to work in call centres. Natural selection and all that.’
‘We can do better than a call centre. These …’ Becky gestured at her breasts, ‘her famous frontal development’, as they were described by the good Reverend, who wasn’t as godly as his venerated status suggested. Not when he was chasing Becky around the vestry with an avaricious gleam in his eyes. ‘And this …’ she pointed at her pretty face, her slanting green eyes and defined cheekbones giving her an almost feline, feral look, ‘and this …’ she tapped her head, ‘would be wasted on people wanting to change their internet service provider. You have contacts and connections. You can make me famous!’
Although Becky couldn’t sing or dance, her dramatic talents clearly weren’t in any doubt. If Babs could turn the girl into a meal ticket rather than a thorn in her side and collect her 20 per cent commission, then it would be win/win. Babs knew a producer at a production company who owed her a rather large favour and so eight weeks ago, Becky had entered the Big Brother house.
‘The rest is up to you,’ Babs had said.
Now, Babs placed a consoling, pink-taloned hand on Becky’s arm. ‘Even though technically you’re a loser, there’s still some serious money to be made before your meter runs out,’ she said. ‘We have a golden window right now. I’d make the most of all those personal-appearance fees to press the flesh at suburban nightclubs. Then we can get you at least ten thousand to appear in one of the Sunday tabs in your undies to spin some sob story about your dear departed ma and pa. We might even be able to bag you a footballer. Not Premier League but definitely First Division.’
What was that unpleasant sound in Becky’s ear? Ah yes, the bottom of the barrel being scraped.
‘I didn’t spend eight weeks locked in a house with a bunch of vacuous morons to get my tits out for the Sunday People and then disappear. Have you any idea what I’ve been through, Babs? There were times when I had to lock myself in the toilet and bite my hand towel to stop myself from screaming.’
‘They were a particularly sorry bunch this year.’ Babs’ eyes narrowed. ‘But if you were to get your knockers out, I could probably get you a few more thousand.’
There was a commotion at the other end of the bar as the more worthy, though far less deserving winner, entered the room. Amelia was with her mother and father, both of them tall and rangy, fair of hair and face. Amelia had told Becky that her father managed a hedge fund, and that her mother was the daughter of a man who’d made his fortune in plumbing supplies. Rich enough that home was a six-bedroom townhouse in Kensington and a pretty, ivy-strewn manor house in Oxfordshire. Rich enough that Mr and Mrs Sedley both had a set expression as if they were clenching their jaws and trying not to breathe in the smell of fried food, air freshener and cheap white wine that permeated the bar of the Elstree hotel.
There was no sign of Amelia’s Eton-educated brother who did something lucrative with energy drinks but there were a man and woman bringing up the rear, the man clamped to his mobile phone, the woman clamped to two mobile phones. It was clear that Amelia’s agent and publicist were cut from a very different cloth to Babs Pinkerton.
‘I don’t just want “a few more thousand”. I want more,’ Becky said to Babs Pinkerton, as she caught Amelia’s eye. The other girl smiled, waved enthusiastically and beckoned Becky over: but she wasn’t going to hurry to Amelia, like an obedient little pet dog.
‘More what? More money? Your boobs aren’t that great, Becky,’ Babs said witheringly. ‘And don’t start thinking that another agent will get you more cash – they won’t. They’d tell you the exact same thing and anyway, you signed an exclusive contract with me.’
That was a lesson learned the hard way: never sign anything. And no, it wasn’t just more money. Or more time in the spotlight.
It was more everything.
Amelia detached herself from the adoring throng that had congregated around her and hurried over to the corner where Becky and Babs were still in their unhappy huddle, followed by her anxious-looking Mama and publicist.
‘Becky!’ Amelia seized her hands and hauled her up. ‘I can’t wait for you to meet Mummy! I know you two are going to be best friends.’
From the pained and furrowed brow of Mrs Sedley, Becky very much doubted it. ‘It’s so lovely to meet you, Mrs Sedley,’ she said politely and as Mrs Sedley unwillingly leaned forward a scant five degrees for an air kiss, Becky held out her hand instead, to the other woman’s evident surprise and gratitude.
Then Becky made sure the handshake was brisk, firm but not too firm.
‘Rebecca, congratulations on doing so well in the house,’ Mrs Sedley said tightly.
‘I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in there without Emmy,’ Becky said, resting her head on Amelia’s shoulder. ‘She was an absolute lifesaver.’
‘I think you have that the wrong way round,’ Amelia said, putting her arm round Becky’s waist. ‘Come and sit with us.’
‘No, you must have so many people wanting to talk to you, I don’t want to intrude,’ Becky said, as she heard another one of Barbara Pinkerton’s snorts from behind her as her erstwhile mentor levered herself off the banquette.
‘When you’ve stopped having notions, you know where to find me,’ Babs muttered as she pushed past Becky who was giving her full attention to Amelia and Mrs Sedley, so that even in the muted lighting of the bar, they’d be able to see the slightly forlorn expression on her face before she gave them a brilliant smile that drooped ever so slightly at the edges.
‘Honestly, Emmy, after eight weeks you must be sick to death of me,’ Becky said with a self-deprecating little laugh. ‘I know how close you are to your mother, how much you must have to catch up on.’ She ended on a wistful little sigh.
‘Oh, Becky! And you don’t have anybody,’ Amelia exclaimed, the arm round Becky’s waist tightening. ‘You don’t even have anywhere to call home now we’re out of the house.’
‘Is that true?’ Mrs Sedley asked. ‘Are you homeless?’
‘Homeless’ had all sorts of unpleasant connotations even if technically it was true. ‘I was a live-in care assistant before Big Brother but the lovely lady I was looking after – she was like a grandmother to me – well, she died.’
Becky had mentioned this on the show. Just the once. To Carlo and Amelia (and three million viewers) but Amelia’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Oh, Becky …’
‘I’ll be all right,’ Becky insisted, squaring her shoulders and raising her chin but it was just a momentary act of bravado and then she drooped again. ‘Babs, my agent, says I can make some money if I agree to pose topless but I don’t think that I want to do that. I’m sure something else will turn up and in the meantime, I just have to look on the bright side. Like, I can’t be homeless because I’m booked in here for the night.’ Becky caught her bottom lip between her teeth and looked off to the side. ‘I’m sure I could extend my stay. It can’t be that expensive. It’s not a particularly grand hotel, is it?’
‘It’s an awful hotel. They have pot-pourri in the ladies’ bathrooms,’ Mrs Sedley said from between gritted teeth, as if, of all the indignities heaped on her by her daughter appearing on a reality TV show, pot pourri in the ladies’ loos was the very final straw. ‘I’m sure Emmy would never forgive me if I didn’t insist that you come and stay with us, for a week or so, until you’ve made other arrangements.’
‘I really wouldn’t want to impose.’ Becky lifted her chin again, even as her bottom lip trembled. ‘I can look after myself.’
‘Only because you’ve never had any other option,’ Amelia said, tucking her arm through Becky’s. ‘You haven’t even met Rhoda, my publicist, yet,’ she added, gesturing at the woman hovering next to them, who was in a sleek black suit with a sleek black bob to match and looked as if she had all sorts of useful contacts and strategies to ensure that her clients (and potential clients) could forge long, successful careers without having to flash their breasts to the readers of a downmarket Sunday tabloid. ‘She wants me to do all sorts of things. TV and radio interviews. Photo shoots. It all sounds terrifying but it wouldn’t be so terrifying if we did them together.’
‘Well, I suppose … If I could help out … then I wouldn’t feel quite so bad about imposing,’ Becky decided. ‘And as soon as I’ve outstayed my welcome, you’re to let me know and I’ll pack my bags. I mean, I hardly have anything in the way of bags, but you know what I mean.’
‘You can stay as long as you want,’ Amelia promised rashly. ‘Now, let’s get out of here. The smell of fried food is making me feel nauseous.’
Emmy Sedley @Amelia_SedleyBB
Becky and I are on our way to This Morning to chat to Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby! #BFF #bliss #humble #teamworkmakesthedreamwork
The Sedleys’ London residence (because any house with a staff annexe and its own sauna and steam room counted as a residence) was in Kensington. On the wrong side of the park, because no matter how many millions Mr Sedley had made from hedging funds and gilt-edging futures, the family weren’t old money. Only old money and the very newest money could afford the right side of the park.
But as Becky was shown into a pretty guestroom, decorated in white and a delicate pale green, with its own en suite bathroom, she decided that it would do very nicely indeed.
She hadn’t been exaggerating for dramatic effect when she’d told Amelia that she didn’t have much in the way of bags. Baggage, perhaps, but that was another matter. All her worldly possessions fitted into her Big Brother suitcase, a shabby black holdall and a checked laundry bag.
Amelia swept into the guest room the next day to be confronted by the sorry state of Becky’s goods and chattels and the even sorrier state of Becky’s wardrobe. There hadn’t been much call for anything other than jeans and a jumper when she was tending to Jemima Pinkerton and the only man she regularly came into contact with was Reverend Squills. No wonder Amelia’s mouth and china-blue eyes had become three perfect circles of horror.
‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘Oh, Becky. Oh no.’ Then she swept out again.
She was back not even ten minutes later, her arms full of clothes. ‘No, Emmy, absolutely not!’ Becky said, from the doorway of the en suite. She was swathed in a fluffy white towelling robe, her hair hidden by another towel so that she looked all eyes and cheekbones. ‘I have my own clothes. They’re not as nice as yours, but they’ll do.’
‘These are all too small for me,’ Amelia insisted, having spent a lot of time in the Big Brother house comfort eating. Mrs Sedley had remarked on the way home last night that Amelia would have to go on a juice fast immediately.
‘It goes straight to your face, Emmy,’ she’d said with some concern. ‘We were quite shocked at how puffy you looked in the last week on that show.’
Now Amelia held up a floral dress. ‘I bought this after I came back from Niger. It fitted me for two weeks and now it’s just taking up wardrobe space.’ Then a pair of designer jeans. ‘I’ve never been able to get into these. Bought them online from Net-a-Porter and never got round to returning them.’ Next a grey cashmere jumper was lifted up for Becky’s inspection. ‘Grey completely washes me out but you can wear pretty much anything.’
‘Not anything,’ Becky disagreed, creeping forward to touch the luxurious soft pile of the grey cashmere as if she couldn’t help herself. ‘Oh, I’ve never felt anything so soft.’
‘And Jos – my brother, Jos, you’ll meet him soon – sent over some workout gear. He’s booked me a personal trainer too. Said he can’t have a lardy sister …’
‘It must be delightful to have a brother like that,’ Becky murmured as she held up a navy-blue designer dress which would be perfect for her TV appearance that morning.
‘He is delightful,’ Amelia agreed, because she never had a bad word to say about anyone. It grew quite tiresome after a while. ‘Except, I feel as if I hardly know him. He’s ten years older than I am so he was at school when I was growing up and then he went to LA after university … LA is so far away and he has rather taken to the lifestyle.’
‘Oh? Is his wife from LA too?’ Becky asked as she wriggled into the navy-blue dress.
‘No, Jos isn’t married,’ Amelia assured her. ‘He says that there’s no way he could have built up the second-largest protein-ball business on the West Coast if he’d prioritised relationships. He also said that he wasn’t going to get married until he was thirty-five so we tease him that he’s only got three years left to find a wife. Oh, Becky! That dress looks so much better on you than it ever did on me.’
‘I’m sure it doesn’t,’ Becky said automatically but later on, in front of the TV cameras, Becky’s navy-blue hand-me-down really made her skin and hair pop whereas the cream blouse Amelia wore put at least ten pounds on her and, despite the best efforts of the make-up department, seemed to blend into her skin tone in the most unflattering way.
The day passed in a blur of TV-studio and radio-station green rooms. Nobody was pleased that Becky was there too, like a free gift with the booking of the latest Big Brother winner. Amelia’s publicist, Rhoda, even suggested that Becky wait in the car and Becky really didn’t want to get in anyone’s way (‘honestly I don’t, but Emmy, you’re shaking. Shall I come and sit with you while you wait to go on?’).
When it quickly became clear that Amelia only made good TV when she was crying, Becky was no longer the spectre at the feast. On the contrary, she soon had joint billing and it turned out she was a natural for live TV and radio, with an endless supply of amusing anecdotes about life in the house, all good to go. ‘No one could get to sleep for the smell, could we, Emmy?’ she recalled as she sat side by side with Amelia on the This Morning sofa.
‘No. It was a very bad smell.’
‘Finally we tracked it down to a rancid mug of soup that Johnny had left under his bed that had attracted maggots, and they made us stay in the garden while the fumigators dealt with it.’
‘And it was raining,’ Amelia added timidly.
‘Pouring with rain,’ Becky elaborated. ‘And that’s why I’m never going to eat mushroom soup for as long as I live.’ She paused. ‘At least Johnny swore it was mushroom soup but we all had our suspicions, didn’t we?’
‘Did we? But what else could it have been?’ Amelia’s face was absolutely without guile as Phil and Holly hooted with laughter.
They ended the day at a shoot and interview for Hello magazine shot in a location house in Clapham, because Mrs Sedley absolutely wasn’t going to have people tramping in and out of her house with equipment when she’d just had the parquet flooring redone. (She was also quite terrified that her choice of soft furnishings wouldn’t pass muster because she’d insisted on doing the decorating herself even though Mr Sedley had begged her to hire an interior designer.)
The journalist was blonde and perky and cut from the same cloth as Amelia who happily reeled off her list of achievements to date. The Chelsea prep school where she graduated, being able to speak German and Mandarin (though neither of them had stuck). She’d then attended the same boarding school as the Duchess of Cambridge where she failed to excel academically but had won a trophy for tennis. Only two hardships had blighted Amelia’s life to date: her sluggish metabolism which meant that the only way she could maintain a size-ten figure was by eating twelve hundred calories a day and working out for an hour, and the three years she’d spent sleeping in a back brace to improve her posture.
‘Daddy and Jos always used to joke that it was because I had no backbone,’ she admitted with a nervous giggle. And of course there was the measly two weeks that Amelia had spent doing volunteer work in Niger.
‘Like Princess Diana,’ the journalist, Emily, noted dryly. ‘Were you worried about catching something awful like yellow fever or malaria?’
‘Not quite like Princess Diana. I mean, there were no landmines and we had WiFi,’ Amelia said. ‘But I did have to have a lot of jabs before I went. My arm was sore for days afterwards.’
On the other hand, Becky’s biography was quite sparse. It was also quite hard to remember what she’d told people in the Big Brother house. Another lesson learnt: come up with a story then stick to it as if your life depended on it.
‘My father was an artist,’ she recalled with a misty look to her eye, because to be fair, some of his scams really had possessed quite a lot of artistry. The judge who’d sent him down had described him as ‘a curious mixture of criminal genius and petty thief with poor impulse control.’ ‘Everyone said that he was destined for greatness but he died before greatness came.’
‘And, I understand how hard this must be for you, but how did he die?’
Becky cast her eyes down. ‘He had a brief but brave fight against a cruel disease.’ When she said that people always assumed that it was cancer and that she’d been at her father’s side as he was carried away by the angels. The ugly truth of the matter was that it had been cirrhosis of the liver and the only person at his side had been a prison chaplain, as Francis Henry Sharp had been serving seven years at Her Majesty’s Pleasure for five counts of fraud and one count of ABH for breaking the nose of the arresting officer.
Next to her, Amelia snivelled a little and the journalist leaned closer. ‘And your mother died when you were still quite young?’
Becky did her best brave face. Downcast eyes, a little half-smile, a sudden intake of breath as if she was fighting to control herself. ‘Yes, by the time I was eight, it was just Daddy and me. I’m sorry, can I have a moment?’
‘It’s very painful for Becky to talk about,’ Amelia whispered, taking hold of Becky’s hand as if she could loan her friend some of her own meagre courage. ‘Are you OK to carry on? Do you want some water?’
An intern was despatched to bring Becky water. Sparkling water in a cut-glass tumbler with crushed ice and a big chunk of lime.
Who could blame a girl for not wanting to go back to a life where there was only tap water in any receptacle that was vaguely clean?
‘Your mother?’ Emily prompted. ‘You said in the house that she was French.’
‘Mais oui, maman etait francaise. She came from a very old family, the Mortmerencys, and she was a model. No! You wouldn’t have heard of her. She did a little catwalk, but mostly fit work,’ Becky explained, though the closest her mother had come to the catwalk was draping herself over the bonnet of a Ford Fiesta at a motoring exhibition at Olympia. She had been quite pretty before the booze and the pills and the putting up with Frank Sharp had taken their toll on her. ‘Her passing was very sudden.’
Hurling yourself in front of the 7.08 District Line train pulling into Fulham Broadway station didn’t lend itself to a long, lingering death.
‘Oh, Becky,’ both Amelia and Emily exclaimed.
‘Sorry, it’s just that it’s painful to talk about.’
Had it been painful at the time? Becky could hardly remember. Sidonie had barely fulfilled her job description. She swung from high to low, as Mr Sharp had vacillated from sweet to mean, so from a very young age, Becky had learned to keep her head down, stay out of the line of fire, especially when her parents had fought, which they did with intense ferocity. If that was love, then you could shove it.
‘So, Becky, let’s switch it up, shall we?’ Emily asked.
Becky clapped her hands together. ‘God, yes, please, let’s!’
Where had she gone to school?
School of hard knocks.
Had she had many boyfriends?
Only if you count a Bournemouth vicar who used to try to put his hand up my skirt when I was helping with the church jumble sale.
Who were her celebrity crushes?
What would be the point of having a crush on some distant celebrity who would be of absolutely no use to me?
Dear, sweet Emily and her voice recorder would probably both short circuit if Becky told them a few home truths, so she settled for the current truth and put her arm around Amelia.
‘I’m just here for moral support. Emmy’s the star and so she’s the one you should be asking about boyfriends and crushes.’ Becky nudged Amelia who giggled obligingly.
‘There is someone,’ Emmy confided, because it never occurred to her that she could fudge the details, hint, or stretch, bend and pull the truth this way and that, so it hardly even resembled the truth any more. ‘I’ve known him all my life, he was at school with my brother Jos, so I’m sure he thinks I’m still the silly little girl that he always teased.’
Such a cliché. The haughty older boy who …
‘… used to pull my pigtails.’
Even Emily was starting to look as if her back teeth were aching from Amelia’s brand of simpering, saccharine sweetness.
‘And does this someone have a name?’ Emily asked with the weary air of a woman who had an Oxbridge degree and a childhood ambition to be a lady war correspondent, but was currently interviewing the winner (and runner-up!) of a reality TV show.
Amelia ducked her hair. ‘George,’ she said on a gasp, as if even saying his name out loud was tempting fate. ‘His name is George.’
‘He’s very good looking,’ Becky whispered loudly to Amelia as they stood in the doorway of the Sedleys’ drawing room later that evening and she caught sight of the man sitting on an antique loveseat, his gaze fixed on his iPad. ‘You might have thought to mention it!’
Amelia frowned. ‘Really? Do you think so?’ The frown was replaced by a mischievous smile. ‘Shall I tell him?’
‘I’ll hate you for ever if you do,’ Becky said, noting the way the man began to stab frantically at his touch screen, as if he’d actually heard every word of their conversation.
It was no wonder that Jos Sedley – the object of Becky’s affection, Amelia’s own brother, and both the brains and the brawn behind A Load Of Balls, the second-largest protein-ball company on the West Coast (soon to make major inroads into the East Coast market too) – had caught Becky’s attention.
He truly was a sight to behold. A cross-fit addict who could bench press his own weight (two hundred and ten pounds) and a man who hadn’t knowingly eaten a carb in five years, Jos Sedley was triangular in shape. His over-muscled top half, bulging biceps, pecs even perter than Becky’s, strained the seams of his tight T-shirt, which was daringly low cut to show off his stunning he-vage. His spindly, skinny, jeans-clad legs didn’t look able to support all that complex musculature.
It took a while for Becky’s eye to take it all in and travel adoringly up Jos’s physique, past his thick neck to a face still resolutely fixed on his iPad screen. It wasn’t a distinguished face. If it weren’t for his extraordinary physique, it would be hard to pick Jos out in a police line-up. The only remarkable thing about it was that, like the rest of him, it was somewhere between teak and mahogany on the fake-tan colour spectrum.
‘Jos! Nothing on your iPad could be as interesting as my Becky,’ Amelia said and finally Jos looked up from where he’d been studying a new pull-up technique that his personal trainer had devised for him.
Becky had been gazing down at the Aubusson rug because it would have been rude to keep staring at Jos even though he really was a fascinating sight, but now she looked up too in time to see Jos blush fiercely as their eyes collided.
‘Any friend of Emmy’s and all that …’ He muttered awkwardly as he stood up, trying desperately to remember the most appropriate way to greet his sister’s friends. He’d spent his formative years in all-male boarding schools and he’d been a fat kid. A fat, shy kid. Even when there’d been dances with the neighbouring girls’ boarding schools, Jos had stayed on the sidelines, never daring to try and steal a kiss or cop a feel during the last dance. Since moving to LA after an equally unhappy three years at Keele University, Jos had turned his bulk from blubber to muscle but he was still shy. What’s more, he knew he was shy and awkward, so he was instantly suspicious of any woman who showed an interest in him.
Becky noted the blush, which highlighted Jos’s terracotta face. It seemed to Jos that she could see deep into his soul and evidently what she found wasn’t at all repulsive to her, because she stepped forward and suddenly threw her arms around him.
There was so much softness pressed against Jos that he hardly knew what to do with himself but all too soon, it was gone. Becky stepped back, hands to her own cheeks, as if she were blushing too, though her blush owed more to the Benefit cheek tint she’d taken from Amelia’s make-up bag that morning. The last thing that Amelia needed was blusher so really Becky had been doing her a favour.
‘I’m sorry,’ she apologised to Jos, who was staring at her like a cartoon character who’d just had an anvil dropped on his head. ‘I don’t know what came over me. I’m not normally a hugger, am I, Emmy?’
‘Becky’s mother died very young so she has cuddle deficiency syndrome,’ Amelia said, even though Becky had told her that in the strictest confidence in the Big Brother house as eighty cameras filmed their every move.
‘But as soon as I saw you, I wanted to hug you,’ Becky said, shrugging helplessly. ‘I’ve behaved like a total idiot, haven’t I?’
‘No, no! Not at all. I’m very honoured to have been, er, hugged. You’re a very good hugger. It was a good hug. Best hug I’ve had in a long time.’ Jos held up his hand in despair. ‘Hug. Never realised what a strange word it is before. Hug.’
‘A very strange word,’ Becky agreed. ‘But such a nice thing to do.’ She turned to Amelia who had her hands clasped to her chest, her mouth wide in wordless delight that the first meeting of her beloved brother and her BFF had gone far better than she could ever have hoped for. ‘Emmy, do you think you might hug Gorgeous George when you see him again?’
‘Gorgeous George? Hug him?’ Jos echoed. His massive chest shook with mirth at the idea. ‘I’d love to see his face if you did, Emmy.’
Jos’s laugh was infectious. Deep, braying and loud, like the mating cry of an amorous water buffalo. Becky couldn’t help but laugh at the sound of it. Amelia pouted but she could never stay angry for very long and also George would be very surprised if she did suddenly hug him, so she ended up giggling too.
When Amelia saw George Wylie later that night, it was true that she felt a strong impulse to hug him. But what she secretly wished was that George would be so overcome by the sight of her that he’d be the one to stride over and take her in his arms, kiss her on the forehead and murmur throatily, ‘I’ve missed you, Emmy. Missed you more than I can say.’
It wasn’t to be. Instead, George slightly inclined his head when Amelia waved frantically at him from across the room, then went back to talking to his friends.
‘He’ll probably come over in a bit,’ she said to Becky who had wanted Gorgeous George pointed out to her as soon as Amelia clapped eyes on him. ‘He looks quite busy.’
‘And then you’ll be too busy to talk to him,’ Becky said firmly, because although she was many things, most of them not at all good, in times of adversity she could be a great comfort. ‘After all, this is your party.’
The party was being thrown by Mr and Mrs Sedley in Amelia’s honour, less because she was the winner of a ghastly, low-rent, reality-TV show and more because she was their doted-on only daughter who’d soon be leaving London to return to Durham University for her final year where she might actually scrape through her degree in Art History with a 2.2.
An army of flunkies had spent most of the day transforming a restaurant in Chelsea into a distressed fairy grotto. There was ivy and other trailing green plants liberally strewn about, along with hundreds upon hundreds of tealights in glass holders. Adorning the rooftop bar was yet more artfully scattered foliage and paper lanterns, and it was there that George Wylie didn’t quite cut Amelia but made it clear that she could wait.
Amelia was very good at waiting for George. It was a running joke between their two families, that when Amelia Charlotte Louise Sedley was born, she’d marry George Wylie, eldest son of Sir John and Lavinia Wylie. Sir John’s great-great-great-great-great-grandfather had been a self-made man who made his money in the slave trade and bought his baronetcy, a fact which never failed to enrage his great-great-great-great-great grandson who longed to be aristocracy rather than merely landed gentry. The family fortune, built on the backs of men, women and children torn from their homes, had all but gone, most of it sunk into an ancestral pile that had almost killed Sir John’s father when a piece of decayed ornamental masonry had fallen inches away from him.
Sir John had had to do the unthinkable and restore the family’s failing fortunes by going into trade.
Trade had been very good to the Wylies, as had Mr Sedley, who’d initially provided capital and investment advice to young Sir John. Now, some thirty years later, George would never have to work a day in his life and could pootle about the estate killing any poor beast that flew across his land, scampered through his forests or swam in his streams.
However, George wasn’t content with a life of leisure. His years at Eton, then at Oxford (where he’d been a member of an infamous drinking club whose membership initiation involved setting a tramp on fire), were the perfect training for a bright young man from a good family who wanted to go into politics.
George currently worked at a right-wing think-tank while he and his backers waited for a safe Conservative seat to fall vacant. There was no rush. George wasn’t even thirty, though just as Amelia yearned for him, he yearned to make the Evening Standard ‘Thirty Power Players Under the Age of Thirty’ list.
In good time, Mr Sedley would make the perfect, political father-in-law, happy to bankroll his son-in-law’s campaigns with his many millions of pounds, but for now, Amelia held very little interest for him. George watched her visibly droop in the face of his casual indifference. She was easily one of the silliest girls he had ever met so he was quite happy to bide his time. He’d wait for Amelia to finish university and have her heart broken by someone who’d make George seem like quite the white knight when he finally made his move.
Her friend, on the other hand, wasn’t the sort of girl a man waited for. She was strictly right here, right now, don’t let the door catch you on your pretty little arse when you leave. George would swear on a thousand bibles that he didn’t watch reality TV but he’d somehow seen enough of Big Brother to get the measure of Amelia’s new friend.
The calculating glint in her downcast eyes. The steely determination behind that quivering bottom lip. Though she had a cracking pair of tits, he’d say that for her.
George smiled to himself, and, catching sight of his reflection in the mirrored wall behind the bar, couldn’t help but admire the jut of his own cheekbones. As he did, he caught the gaze of Amelia’s little friend, who had her eye fixed keenly on him. As if it were she who had his measure and not the other way round.
‘So what do you think of George?’ whispered Emmy, noticing Becky’s intent focus on her one true love.
‘You can do much better than him,’ Becky said to Amelia who immediately gasped in disbelief that anyone could find fault with George Wylie.
‘I couldn’t,’ Amelia declared. ‘He’s so handsome.’
Handsome was pushing it. George had a pale, interesting face, which reflected centuries of good breeding with the odd exotic import to keep the family line free of hereditary disease. His patrician features looked better in profile, though his body was sleek and supple, especially compared to Jos Sedley who had now lumbered over to George to reminisce about their time together at Eton.
‘Not that handsome,’ Becky said flatly, because she’d seen the dismissive way he looked at Amelia. It wasn’t with the tenderness of a man who’d treat her like the precious bauble that her family had raised her to be. There was no good reason for George to be so careless with Amelia’s affection when it was so unselfishly given. ‘Oh, don’t pout at me, Emmy! You should be pleased that the sight of Gorgeous George leaves me cold. You don’t have to worry that I’d steal him out from under your nose.’
‘I know that you would never do that!’ Amelia’s misguided belief in the goodness of Becky’s heart was interrupted by a Chelsea show pony who shouldered Becky out of the way so she could fall on Amelia.
‘Emmy! Oh my God! So glad you’re back from slumming it with the chavs!’ she cried and that was the cue for a whole pack of them – all with indentikit buttery, long limbs and sleek, shiny hair – to surround Amelia and squeal at a pitch that had every dog in the neighbourhood in a frenzy.
Becky had no choice but to step to the side or be mown down by a sharpened elbow or this season’s must-have heel.
‘How could you have kissed that awful Gav? He dropped his aitches more often than he dropped his trousers.’
‘You wouldn’t think they’d let people like that in the Marines.’
‘Was it very awful? The food looked terrible. And all that prosecco. Didn’t even give you decent bubbles.’
‘And as for that Becca girl. Common as the proverbial. What did she really say in that swimming pool? Go on! You can tell us.’
Amelia cast agonised glances between her Made in Chelsea crew and her new, common-as-the-proverbial BFF.
As it was a special occasion, Becky took pity on her. ‘It’s Becky, actually, and what I said in that swimming pool was, “If you chat shit about me again, I’ll wipe you off the face of the earth, bitch,”’ she recalled with the same menace that had made Leanne fall off the swan inflatable in fear.
The posh girls all took a synchronised step back, which was the first sensible thing they’d done.
‘Joke. That was a joke.’ Becky laughed lightly and stepped back into the circle so she could take a proprietorial hold of Emmy’s arm. ‘As if I would say something like that! And I wouldn’t say I was common. I mean, I don’t drop my aitches.’
‘You’re Bohemian,’ Amelia squeaked. ‘Becky’s parents were very artsy.’ The girls all sniffed: ‘Bohemian’ was secret code for ‘working class’. ‘Anyway, Becky, I want you to meet everyone. I know they’re going to love you as much as I do.’
It was doubtful that Minty, Muffin, Molly, Milly and Maddy would ever find it in their cold, solid-platinum hearts to love her. They each leaned in gingerly to kiss the air above Becky’s cheek as if she were covered in grime and smelt of body spray from Poundland, when actually she was freshly showered and doused in Mrs Sedley’s bottle of Coco by Chanel, which was far too young a scent for someone thundering through her fifties.
Becky might have been wearing another of Amelia’s old dresses and a pair of shoes with loo roll stuffed into the toes because they were a size too large, her pale skin unloved by the Mediterranean sun, but she refused to lower her eyes away from their collective, condemning gaze.
She was just as pretty as them, if not prettier. Besides, her beauty hadn’t been helped along by the attentions of a favoured plastic surgeon in Harley Street who’d given them all the same nose. Becky’s beauty had flourished in the harshest conditions, like a winter primrose fighting its way through frost to flower. Who knows what she might she have been with the advantages that these girls took for granted?
The Montessori nursery, the nannies, the private schools and personal tutors. The wholesome food, free of additives and E numbers, grown on the country estate or purchased by the housekeeper from London’s finest grocers. The tennis and ballet lessons. The holidays on exotic beaches and snowy ski slopes. The trips to art galleries and the theatre, Glyndebourne for the opera, Ascot for the racing.
If Becky had been born into that kind of privilege, there was no telling what she might have become.
‘You all look so glamorous,’ Becky said at last, so grateful to Jemima Pinkerton for ironing out her vowels so they were a lot less cockney and a bit more cut-glass. ‘I bet you’ve all been lounging somewhere lovely while poor Emmy and I were holed up in Elstree.’
‘Saint Tropez,’ Miffy admitted and Becky widened her eyes.
‘When my mother was alive, we used to summer in Cap d’Antibes. She was French, one of the Mortmerency family,’ she said a little wistfully. ‘We’d stay at La Belle Plage.’
It was the truth. Kind of. If you squinted at it and were already severely short-sighted. Her parents had met in Cap d’Antibes. Her mother and her mother’s mother had been chambermaids at La Belle Plage while her grandfather, pushing sixty, had never been promoted past busboy.
Her father had rolled into town one summer with a card-counting scam that had him thrown out of every casino within a fifty-mile radius. He also had three of his ribs broken and a mild concussion when he was roughed up by some casino heavies in the alleyway at the back of La Belle Plage, which was where Becky’s mother first laid eyes on him when she was rifling through one of the bins to find a pair of diamond earrings that she’d earlier thrown from a fifth-floor window.
It wasn’t so much love at first sight as like recognising like. ‘A girl after my own heart,’ her father would say when he was the good kind of drunk, pulling Sidonie on to his lap so he could kiss the top of her head.
When he was the bad kind of drunk, Sidonie was the one most likely to end up with broken bones and a mild concussion but still, it hadn’t all been bad.
There had been that one summer when the Sharps had slummed it on the Cap d’Antibes, staying on a nearby campsite and getting all gussied up to visit the family elders at La Belle Plage. Becky could remember being taken to the kitchens and treated like a visiting royal dignitary. There’d been a concoction of ice cream as big as she was and she’d sung an absolutely filthy song in French that her mother had taught her, much to the delight of the kitchen staff.
‘Good times,’ Becky sighed and now the show-ponies were looking at her as if maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t an irredeemable little chav.
‘Now you really must meet George,’ Amelia said urgently as if engineering an introduction between Becky and George was the only excuse she had for going to talk to him.
It was hot in the bar. The tealights had all but melted, the foliage had wilted and Amelia was ruddy-faced as she edged herself and Becky through the open doors that led out on to the roof terrace.
‘I’m pretty sure that I saw him slip out here when we were talking to the girls,’ she murmured as her eyes darted around the terrace, lit by paper lanterns and yet hundreds more tealights. Mrs Sedley had obviously sent a lackey to the nearest IKEA to buy out their entire stock. ‘Maybe he’s gone downstairs.’
‘Maybe George should chase you and not the other way round,’ Becky suggested because desperation was never a good look, but Amelia had her wrist in a surprisingly firm grip as she pulled Becky along.
There was a champagne bar in one corner and an oyster station in the other though Becky couldn’t think of anything more vile than sliding slimy, snotty oyster guts down her throat. Waiters circulated with canapés – an amusing affectation of tiny hamburgers, miniature newspaper cones of fish and chips, and hot dogs that could be eaten in one bite.
‘You haven’t eaten a thing all evening,’ Becky reminded Amelia, who was still gazing over people’s heads to catch a glimpse of the lesser-spotted George Wylie. ‘And you’ve already had two glasses of champagne.’
‘I’m really not hungry and I put so much weight on in the house,’ Amelia protested. She had let Becky, against her better judgement, persuade her into the black bodycon dress she’d worn for her Big Brother exit, its seams straining against all the flesh which didn’t want to be contained.
‘What rubbish! You look stunning,’ Becky insisted as she beckoned a canapé-bearing server over with an imperious finger. ‘I wish I had some curves. It doesn’t matter how much I eat, I can’t seem to put any weight on. Can you even imagine what that’s like?’
Amelia shook her head sadly. ‘No, I can’t.’
‘Apart from these beasts.’ Becky looked down at her breasts with some satisfaction, their upper curves just visible against the black silk of her borrowed frock. ‘Anyway, your parents will be cross if you get drunk on an empty stomach, so, here, have a burger!’
In one deft move, she plucked a mini burger off the tray that appeared in front of them and popped it into Amelia’s mouth, which had opened to say that she really, really didn’t want a burger. It was a little too big to be eaten in one bite and Amelia could feel her cheeks puff out as she frantically chewed and, of course, it was at that moment that George arrived at her side.
Almost as if Becky had planned the whole thing.
‘Emmy,’ he said coolly. Amelia felt a slight brush of his lips against her cheek, could feel the heat of his lean, tall body against hers, smell the faint hint of limes from his aftershave, but, still masticating furiously, she could take no pleasure from George’s attention.
It was left to Jos, bringing up the rear, to make the introductions.
‘George, this is Emmy’s friend – lovely girl, staying with us – lucky us!’ he stuttered, his face turning as red as his sister’s.
‘Does this lovely girl have a name?’ George said, his coolness turning chilly, because he knew exactly who Becky was from all the times when he absolutely did not watch Big Brother while he was waiting for News at Ten to start.
Amelia swallowed the last morsel of dead cow and bread, almost choking in her haste to be done with it and then, in an act of great daring, placed her hand on George’s arm. Her hand was as hot as her face, and as it rested there uncertainly on the white cotton of his Huntsman of Savile Row bespoke shirt, his left eyebrow quirked almost imperceptibly. Unless you were watching him as intently as Becky was.
‘George, this is Becky. I do hope you two are going to be friends. And Becky, this is George.’
Their eyes met, green clashing with black. ‘Darling Emmy has told me so much about you,’ Becky said sweetly, pulling her hand back as soon as she could: there was something quite reptilian about George’s touch, the cool disregard on his face, as if he didn’t like being in such close proximity to the lower orders.
‘I’ve heard absolutely nothing about you,’ George said flatly.
There was something about her that he didn’t trust; a knowing look in her eyes before she cast them down, a pretty smile that was a millimetre away from a smirk. It was as if the fox had disguised himself as a chicken to trick his way into the henhouse. She was clearly going to be a bad influence on his Emmy if she wasn’t quickly despatched back to whatever council estate she’d come from.
‘Oh, there isn’t much to tell,’ Becky said and then in one graceful movement, George was presented with the sleek line of her spine, her skin milk-bottle white against the black of her dress, as she curved herself into the considerable bulk of Jos Sedley. ‘Is there, Jos?’
Jos’s face lit up as though all his Christmases and birthdays, and even Easter and the day every month when his trust fund was paid into his Drummonds bank account, had come at once.
‘No, there isn’t,’ he agreed. ‘No, I mean, there is! I’m sure you could tell me lots of things.’
‘I’m sure I couldn’t,’ Becky said as she snuggled closer to Jos as if the temperature on the terrace on a balmy August night wasn’t positively roasting. ‘I haven’t done anything, been anywhere. Not like you!’
‘It’s so lovely to see you, George,’ Amelia said a little desperately, because he had eyes only for Becky, as she quizzed Jos about bench pressing, though surely Becky had already asked him all about that when they’d sat side by side on the loveseat back in the Sedleys’ drawing room. ‘It feels like ages since we were in the same room.’
George turned to her. ‘Though we’re not actually in the same room now. We’re on a terrace, looking up at the stars.’
Becky was forgotten. When George smiled at her like that, so that even his coal-dark eyes warmed, it was hard for Amelia to remember her own name.
‘Mummy had planned to do a marquee in the back garden.’ She giggled. ‘But then she realised that all the marquees were too big and would play havoc with her herbaceous borders. She was very cross about it.’
‘And I’m very cross with you,’ George said, though he still had that lovely smile, which completely transformed his face. He was still handsome, but now he looked kind and caring too, even as he pretended to cuff Amelia’s chin. ‘That awful show, Emmy. And that even more awful personal trainer who you let paw you.’
‘He hardly pawed me!’ Amelia protested. The turn the conversation had taken was thrilling: George was jealous! ‘Gav …’
‘Gav!’ George all but moaned the name as if it caused him great pain. ‘Emmy, you cried over some cretin called Gav.’
‘So, you watched the show, then?’ Amelia asked, her every nerve alight at this paltry show of attention. If it were possible to die from being thrilled, then they’d have to carry her home in a coffin.
‘Never!’ George smiled loftily. ‘Though I might have caught a few seconds every now and again. Enough to know that some horrible oik called Gav made you cry. I don’t believe he was in the Marines either. Dobbin said he’s going to check and see if he can be court-martialled.’
‘Oh, is Dobbin here?’ Amelia looked around for George’s best friend, who’d gone straight from Oxford into Her Majesty’s Royal Regiment and had already been promoted to captain. He was an absolute darling. Not a patch on her absolute absolute darling George, but still.
‘No, he’s at some dreary regimental dinner. You’ll see him soon enough,’ George said dismissively, because when Dobbin wasn’t on active duty and in some war-torn hellhole in danger of being blown to smithereens, George wasn’t exactly sure what Dobbin did. ‘Honestly, Emmy, it’s been five minutes and all we’ve talked about is Dobbin and Gav the Chav. Any more men you want to taunt me with?’
‘Oh, no!’ Amelia put a hand to her heart at the very suggestion, her face as round and as red as an autumn apple. ‘I wasn’t taunting.’ She seized every last atom of courage she possessed. ‘I have missed you, George.’
George sighed to himself. Hopefully, once she’d done with university and a few more unsuitable men like Gav, Amelia would toughen up a bit. She was a sweet girl but you got sick of sweet after a while; started to crave something tart, acidic …
Amelia plucked at George’s sleeve again, her expression pleading. ‘Have you missed me too? Even a little bit?’
George patted Amelia’s hand and gently removed it from his arm. ‘Of course I have,’ he said, but his smile wasn’t as warm as it had been and his eyes were fixed on a point across the terrace. ‘Come on. We should really go and rescue poor Jos before your friend Rebecca eats him alive.’
‘She’s not like that and her name’s Becky,’ Amelia insisted, but she didn’t protest too much because then George’s arm was around her waist (she sucked in her butterfly-filled stomach) and he was steering her over to where Becky was daring Jos to eat a mini doughnut, even though everyone knew perfectly well that he hadn’t eaten a carb in five years.
While Amelia and Becky’s former housemates made the most of what time they had left to get paid for nightclub appearances and sponsored posts on Instagram, the odd appearance in the tabloids and a few kiss-and-tell-everything stories, the Sedleys had decided that enough was enough.
Despite her desperate pleas, Rhoda, Amelia’s publicist, was dismissed because, while Big Brother had been an amusing diversion, Mrs Sedley was still being ostracised at the tennis club and Mr Sedley had had to fire one of his underlings at the bank when he discovered a picture of his darling Emmy in a bikini as the man’s screensaver.
Amelia couldn’t hide her relief that she no longer had to stammer her way through any more exclusive interviews. Instead she could go back to her normal life of beauty treatments and shopping and coffee dates and lunch dates, all the while complaining that she’d hardly had a holiday this summer at all, what with being in Niger then in the Big Brother house, and having to go back to university in a few short weeks.
Becky was less relieved. She’d been hoping that Rhoda might overlook the fact that she was already signed with Babs Pinkerton and find her some lucrative media opportunities. But now Rhoda wasn’t returning Becky’s calls and Becky’s position in the Sedley household was starting to feel quite precarious.
Mrs Sedley had even asked via Mrs Blenkinsop, the housekeeper, what Becky’s plans were and just how much longer she intended to stay. But Becky had learned from Jemima Pinkerton that to be rude to the help was unforgivable, and Mrs Blenkinsop was not Mrs Sedley’s biggest fan anyway (she micro-managed Mrs Blenkinsop beyond all measure and insisted she use a solution of white-wine vinegar and baking soda to clean everything when Cillit Bang did the job much better). So she and Becky were already firm friends and when Mrs Blenkinsop said that Mrs Sedley wanted her gone, Becky had burst into pitiful, anguished tears.
Mrs Blenkinsop had marched downstairs, shot Mrs Sedley (who, for all the micro-managing, was secretly more terrified of Mrs Blenkinsop than she was of any of the women at the tennis club) a black look and then taken out her fury on the Miele vacuum cleaner and Mrs Sedley’s new floors.
Nothing more was asked about Becky’s future plans, but Becky knew that she needed a plan B, and fast. Once Amelia had resumed her studies at Durham University, it would leave Becky without a friend in all the world and with nothing in the way of an income – when she’d phoned Babs Pinkerton to ask for her cut from the sale of Jemima’s bungalow, Babs had just laughed and hung up. Becky was left with no choice but to make hay, and other things, while the sun still shone.
So, while Amelia was still in bed, Becky spent her mornings in Kensington Gardens with Jos Sedley. He had been planning to go back to LA and his protein balls weeks before, but if he’d done that, then he wouldn’t have been able to devise a fitness programme for Becky.
‘But you’re perfect,’ he gasped when Becky had descended the stairs on that first morning in the Lululemon workout gear he’d bought for Amelia, which his sister couldn’t squeeze into. ‘You are fit. I mean, you don’t need to get fit.’
‘But I’m not firm. Everything wobbles. Look!’ Becky had done a shimmy, which had made everything wobble, including Jos. Becky had looked down at her chest and shimmied again. ‘Particularly these.’
Jos had clung on to the banister for dear life. ‘I … I see what you mean.’
‘You naughty boy,’ Becky had purred in a low voice and Jos’s torture wasn’t over, because she turned around and stuck out her Lycra-encased bottom. ‘This jiggles too.’
‘Dear Lord …’
‘I bet the women in LA are firm,’ Becky had lamented, taking a step closer to Jos, who thought that he might be having a relapse back to his childhood asthma. ‘Taut. Supple.’
She was face to face with Jos now, who swallowed convulsively – was he in heaven or hell or some heady combination of both?
‘Feel my thighs, Jos,’ Becky had commanded and she’d taken his hand and placed it just above her left knee. ‘They’re so fleshy. Can you do something about it?’
‘Water!’ Jos choked. ‘We need water!’ And he’d snatched his hand away and hobbled in the direction of the kitchen as if he was in great pain.
He’d then devised a programme for her that involved a lot of squats and lunges while he stood behind her with a sports bag clutched to his groin. Then there were a lot of exercises that thrust her chest forward, by which time Jos was standing in front of her, and though she said that she should probably work on her triceps too, Jos said that it was best to concentrate on her glutes and her pectorals for now.
Afterwards he’d help her stretch in a secluded spot.
‘I can’t help but groan when you’re manhandling me, Jos. Especially when you have my legs hooked over your shoulders. It burns but it’s the good kind of burn, do you know what I mean?’
‘No pain, no gain, eh?’ Jos would say every time. He’d grown a lot more comfortable in Becky’s presence, though after her stretches, he could often hardly talk on their walk back to the house.
In the afternoons, Becky would spend time with Amelia and whichever combination of the M’s, usually Minty and Muffin, she’d made plans with. Usually they’d have a mani/pedi or a facial, maybe even a stress-busting massage at the fancy spa on Kensington Church Street where Amelia had an account.
Then it was out in the evenings. To dinner, then to a bar or club with some more M’s and their dreary, chinless, floppy-haired boyfriends.
‘We should ask Jos to come,’ Becky would say each evening as she and Amelia were getting ready to go out. ‘It’s so lovely to see the two of you becoming closer. I wish I had an elder brother.’
‘And it’s lovely to see the two of you becoming closer as well,’ Amelia would sigh and she’d insist that Jos should come with them, and the upshot of it was that Jos hadn’t been to a Crossfit session in weeks and he could now say whole sentences to Becky without breaking into a sweat and his face changing colour.
Amelia watched the courtship with barely concealed delight. Her Jos and her dear Becky, who might actually become a real sister.
Mr and Mrs Sedley could conceal their delight only too well. ‘Why is that girl still living with us?’ Mrs Sedley asked after they’d waved off their offspring and the ubiquitous Becky to deepest, darkest Fulham to celebrate the birthday of one of the M’s’ floppy-haired beaux. ‘Do you see the way she cosies up to Jos? I’d have her out of the house tomorrow but Mrs Blenkinsop says she’ll hand in her notice if I do and I don’t trust anyone else with my new floors.’
Mr Sedley glanced at his wife with exasperated fondness. How many sleepless nights had she had over those bloody floors? Which meant Mr Sedley had had many sleepless nights too, which wasn’t very helpful when he was dealing with so many figures. One decimal point in the wrong place or one extra nought subtracted when it should have been added and they’d be ruined.
He patted her hand. ‘That Becky will do as well as any other,’ he said mildly. ‘Let him marry who he likes.’
Mrs Sedley turned to him aghast. She could feel one of her heads coming on. ‘Who said anything about them getting married?’ she exclaimed in horror. ‘We hardly know a thing about her!’ A muscle was spasming painfully between her eyebrows. ‘Although I do worry that he works so much and he’s never once had a girlfriend, but does it have to be her?’
‘She’s pretty enough,’ Mr Sedley said diffidently as if he’d never once caught his breath at the sight of Becky in her workout gear.
‘There’s something about her that I don’t like. She reminds me of a ginger cat we had when I was a girl,’ Mrs Sedley remembered with a shudder. ‘It would bring in these half-dead animals – mice, baby birds, that sort of thing – then toy with them for hours instead of putting them out of their misery.’
‘Maybe you should take one of your pills,’ Mr Sedley advised because his wife had turned a mottled red colour, which never boded well; such a pity that Emmy and Jos had inherited her high colouring. This conversation about Emmy’s little friend was getting tedious. ‘Jos is big enough and ugly enough to do as he pleases, and that’s the end of the matter.’ And then he stalked off in the direction of his study to have a glass of whisky and she went off to take a pill and have a lie down, and they were still at odds with each other the next day and Mrs Sedley couldn’t help but feel that Becky Sharp was to blame.
‘I have that horrible back-to-school feeling,’ Amelia said with a sigh. Mid September had rolled around all too soon, and Amelia was about to return to Durham.
No wonder Becky felt as if something were about to change. Something big and monumental.
She stared down at the third finger on her left hand and wondered how it would bear up under the weight of a huge rock.
Jos wasn’t at all subtle so he’d probably go for something that was at least ten carats. Becky had never thought about getting married and she was only twenty and who got married at only twenty, unless they were dull religious types? But Becky needed a plan B and Jos had his successful protein balls and his huge trust fund, and embracing the LA lifestyle wouldn’t exactly be a hardship. If she stuck it out for a little while then she could have at least half his balls in the divorce settlement.
‘Don’t you think, Becky?’
Becky blinked at Amelia as she was torn away from her little fantasy of a big house in the Hollywood Hills with its own swimming pool. She’d hardly ever gone to school so she’d never really known the Sunday-evening gloom of finishing homework that had been left to the last minute, then bath and an early night. Her childhood gloom had lasted for years and encompassed far more than a little angst about a half-finished essay on the Spanish Armada.
‘Actually, I have quite a good feeling about the future,’ Becky insisted to Amelia’s reflection as her friend put the last touches to her make-up. ‘New beginnings, new adventures, and all that. By the way, I’d go easy on that blusher if I were you, Emmy. You’re so lucky having naturally rosy cheeks. I wish I did. I’ll just have to settle for being pale and interesting, I guess.’
Amelia cast aside her blusher as if it had scalded her and started dabbing at her face with powder instead.
‘I think you look beautiful, Becky,’ she said a little enviously. Becky was wearing another one of her cast-offs, a gauzy grey little dress with tiny crystals sewn into it, which made Becky look like an ethereal wood nymph. When Amelia had worn it, she’d looked like a dumpy rain cloud.
‘You look lovely too,’ Becky said a little more perfunctorily than Amelia would have liked. She hadn’t been sure about her new dress; it was very pink and puffy, like a gigantic marshmallow, but Becky had persuaded her otherwise. ‘You look so sweet. Gorgeous George won’t know what to do with himself when he sees you. He’ll want to eat you up!’
‘I wish!’ Since her party, Amelia hadn’t seen George at all unless she was stalking him on all forms of social media, which wasn’t that rewarding. George was so focused on his political ambitions that he wouldn’t risk a careless meme or a whimsical picture of a sunset on Instagram.
Instead, he tended to tweet links to leader articles in the Daily Telegraph and Financial Times and it was hard for even the most besotted young woman to feign an enthusiasm about cuts to farm subsidies.
‘Honestly, Emmy, he’ll take one look at you in that dress and lure you away to some dark corner and ravish your poor, defenceless, young body,’ Becky said and she snatched up the pillow from Amelia’s bed and gathered it to her in a passionate embrace. ‘I’d put money on it!’
Amelia flushed with painful hope but unless George had undergone a personality transplant since their first meeting, the poofy marshmallow dress was hardly going to cut it.
They were going to an End Of Summer party at an exclusive Mayfair nightclub. There was rumoured to be a brace of young royals attending, as well as everyone. When you and all your friends lived in one postal code, had all attended one of several boarding schools and your mothers all sat on the same committees, then your everyone was actually quite small.
There were paparazzi outside when Jos gallantly handed Amelia and Becky out of the car and for once Amelia was happy to pose for photos. The hope of … (not being ravished because, try as she might, Amelia knew that George wasn’t the ravishing sort) … George’s face lighting up when he saw her put a sparkle in Amelia’s eyes, gave her a giddiness and an allure that she didn’t normally have. And when she saw Becky’s hand tucked into Jos’s meaty paw, saw the way that Becky leaned into her brother and whispered in his ear, Amelia felt nothing but happiness for them. Maybe one day, let it be soon, she’d know that same kind of happiness. With George.
But the first person she saw, when they found the table that Jos had reserved for them, wasn’t George at all.
One sweet pang of regret pierced Amelia’s heart to be replaced by a genuine pleasure as the man who’d been sitting there got to his feet and promptly knocked over his drink.
‘Dobbin!’ she cried as Becky stared in amazement at Captain William Dobbin of Her Majesty’s Royal Regiment. She’d heard his name in passing from Amelia because when she wasn’t mooning over Gorgeous George, her conversation still revolved around him, and this Dobbin was his best friend. Dobbin had distinguished himself with honours several times in war-strewn, dusty places and so Becky had expected some dashing and glamorous war hero.
Not this tall, ungainly man with large hands and feet and even larger ears, shown in all their massive glory by his close-cropped black hair, while the rest of him was poured into a hideously tight suit. Perhaps he shared the same tailor as Jos.
In fact, Dobbin might have been a good back-up plan (a plan C), but one look at those ears – so big they had to be a hazard on the front line … A world of no. She’d asked Amelia why everyone called him Dobbin instead of William and now she knew; he was like a great big carthorse in a world full of sleek thoroughbreds.
‘Emmy!’ Dobbin said in a rusty voice full of wonder. ‘How long has it been?’
He took Amelia’s hand, realised his own was wet after spilling his drink and pulled out a voluminous white handkerchief to mop at both of them.
Becky hid her smile in Jos’s shoulder. Jos was quite the heart-throb next to the hapless Dobbin.
‘Dobs, it’s fine. I’m hardly damp at all,’ Amelia said, taking pity on him. ‘And yes, it’s been ages. A couple of years. You were just shipping off to Helmand Province.’ She put her hand on his arm without any of the agony she experienced when she dared to put her hands anywhere near George. ‘Was it very awful?’
‘Quite awful,’ Dobbin conceded. Amelia eyes filled with tears at the thought of anything being quite awful and he hurriedly corrected himself: ‘But it wasn’t so bad. The Big Brother house looked a jolly sight worse.’
Dobbin had never seen anyone blush so prettily as Amelia Sedley when she covered her hands with her face. ‘Oh, Dobbin, you didn’t watch it, did you?’
‘I did and I’m looking into having that Gav fellow court-martialled,’ he said and he wasn’t joking – he barely knew how to – but Amelia giggled and his heart melted.
‘I’m pretty sure that you can’t have somebody court-martialled if they’ve already left the forces,’ she gulped, tears forgotten.
‘If he was ever in the forces. If that’s the calibre of soldier the Marines are taking on, then God help us if there’s a war,’ Dobbin declared to more giggles from Amelia until the saccharine display was interrupted by George, deftly threading his way through the throng to break up their little tête-à-tête.
‘Sorry, Emmy,’ he said. ‘Is this oik bothering you?’
‘Never!’ Emmy said with another giggle that made Becky grind down on her back molars.
‘Shall we order some champagne?’ she asked Jos as she sat down. Amelia appeared to have no plans to introduce her to Dobbin the talking horse and anyway, what was the point of being introduced to him?
‘Is it table service, do you know?’ Jos asked, peering about the room.
For someone so rich, Jos was absolutely lacking in panache and suaveness and all the other qualities that Becky imagined they gave out on the first day at Eton, along with those funny top hats and tailcoats.
‘I’m parched,’ she said. ‘But if you don’t want any … Look! It is table service. There’s a waiter! Oh, he doesn’t seem to have noticed you.’
‘I’ll run after him,’ Jos promised and he was gone, his shoulders looking especially wide in his white dinner jacket. Unfortunately, the wait staff were also in white jackets which meant that on his way to the bar Jos was stopped by three different groups of people who tried to order drinks from him.
Becky settled back in her chair to watch the rich and entitled at play. Amelia was caught between George and Dobbin and over the chatter of the party and the DJ dropping slow beats, she could still be heard giggling in the same inane fashion.
Jos was at the bar now and when he turned round he was bearing aloft a huge bottle of champagne with a sparkler stuck in it so that on his journey through the club, he was given a wide berth. It was a very romantic gesture but when Jos reached their table and proudly placed the bottle in front of Becky, she heard George murmur to Dobbin, ‘God, how common.’
Becky was sure that she was meant to have heard because when she gave George a reproachful look – the faintest puckering of her forehead, a little pout – he raised his glass in what could only have been a mocking salute.
Well, Amelia was welcome to him, for all the good it would do to love a man who thought he was superior to everyone around him. No wonder he had political ambitions. Becky turned starry eyes to Jos.
‘This is the loveliest thing that anyone has ever done for me,’ she informed Jos with the adoring gaze that always made him put a finger in his shirt collar like it was suddenly choking him. ‘I know you don’t drink, but could you have one glass of champagne? For me?’
‘No carbs plus alcohol are a dreadful combination,’ Jos protested. ‘And anyway, this stuff is pure sugar.’
‘I think it’s mostly bubbles,’ Becky said as she hefted up the bottle, tilted one of the empty glass flutes on the table and expertly poured. ‘Anyway, aren’t we celebrating?’
‘Are we? What are we celebrating?’ Jos asked, as dense as the pads he strapped on when he and Becky were boxercising in the park.
‘Well, we’ve known each other three weeks,’ Becky said with a heavy-lidded glance that made Jos adjust himself when he thought she wasn’t looking.
‘Th … three weeks,’ he gulped. ‘Only three weeks? It seems longer.’
‘Doesn’t it?’ Becky agreed, holding out a glass. ‘It feels like I’ve known you all my life. Here, have just one drink so we can toast our … friendship. Though I suppose all good things come to an end.’
‘It’s coming to an end?’ Jos echoed, his brow furrowing as he took the glass in his meaty paw and manoeuvred it with some difficulty to his lips. He didn’t really have the right build for drinking from delicate champagne flutes.
‘Yes, that’s why we’re here, silly!’ Amelia said, sitting down next to them and leaning across Becky to help herself to a glass. ‘To celebrate the end of summer. I expect you’ll be going back to LA soon, Jos.’
No one had ever treated Becky with as much kindness and sweetness and without any kind of expectation, but in that moment, Becky could quite happily have throttled Amelia Sedley. She wouldn’t even have bothered to make it look like an accident.
‘I suppose,’ Jos sighed, as if the thought of going back to a place where it was sunny all the time and he had a beautiful, architect-designed house in Malibu with three different kinds of pool in its landscaped grounds, was about as appealing as a fortnight in Scunthorpe.
‘Becky’s never been to LA, have you?’ Amelia said, nudging Becky’s arm. ‘You’d love it.’
Maybe she wouldn’t kill Amelia. Not just yet. After all, Amelia was the only person who wanted Jos to make an honest woman of her as much as Becky did.
‘I’ve always wanted to go to LA,’ she said wistfully. ‘Do you know lots of famous people, Jos? I bet you do.’
Jos gulped down the rest of his champagne and puffed out his chest. ‘Well, I’m very good friends with Ryan Gosling’s personal trainer.’ He didn’t even notice when Becky refilled his glass. ‘We sent him some protein balls and apparently he loved them.’
‘Wow! Ryan Gosling,’ Amelia gasped. ‘Who else?’
More stars than there were in the heavens. An Oscar-winning actress next door who was always having loud parties with no consideration for the fact that Jos got up at five to do his first workout of the day. A legendary film director lived up the hill who was obsessed with shooting coyotes and had accidentally killed two of his own bichon frises. And all manner of rap artists, hotly tipped young actors and even a couple of Real Housewives’ husbands, who all worked out at Jos’s gym.
Jos polished off most of the bottle of champagne as he got into his stride; namedropping all the celebrities he’d seen as he queued for his collagen berry lattes or hiked in the Hollywood hills.
‘You’re so well connected. I suppose you have lots of friends. Lots of very glamorous, very beautiful friends who are girls. Girlfriends,’ Becky said, with just a hint of a quiver of her bottom lip. ‘No wonder you can’t wait to go back to LA. We must seem so dull by comparison.’
‘Never. You’re the most beautiful of them all,’ Jos declared rashly and loudly so that George Wylie, who was still hanging around like a bad smell, smiled thinly. ‘They’re all stuffed full of silicon and Botox and actually they’re not friends at all because they’re very unfriendly.’
‘They sound awful,’ Amelia said but then her attention was caught by one of the M’s and with a coy flutter of her lashes at Becky, she slipped out from between them. ‘Must go and say hello to Muffin.’
‘It sounds to me as if you don’t like LA as much as everyone thinks you do,’ Becky commented. Although this was said gently, she was the daughter of Frank Sharp, con artist, hustler and trickster, so there was something hardwired into her DNA that gave her the ability to sniff out a person’s weaknesses. Once she’d identified what made them tick – the dark, secret heart of them – then of course she was going to use that knowledge for her own advantage. Anyone with any sense would do the same.
‘It’s good for the protein-ball business. I don’t think there’s a single person in the 90210 zipcode who’s eaten gluten since Obama became president but, Becky …’ Deep set within his roughly hewn face, Jos’s eyes were troubled.
Becky placed her hand on his knee. ‘You can tell me anything,’ she whispered, leaning forward so that Jos could tell all his fears and worries to her breasts. ‘I would never judge you.’
‘Oh, Becky, I’m so lonely,’ he confessed. He’d never told this sad truth to anyone. ‘Also, and I … I know you might find this hard to believe, but … but … well, I’m shy. Very shy. Always have been.’
Becky shook her head then turned her face away, then sighed, and the hand that was on Jos’s knee slid up a few centimetres, not enough to cause alarm or raise eyebrows, but Jos’s heart was thundering away as if he’d just done thirty minutes of high-impact cardio. ‘There is a way that you wouldn’t ever have to be lonely again,’ she said, leaning up to whisper in his ear so that her breasts almost brushed his chin and Jos had to close his eyes and practise mindful deep breathing. ‘And, a secret for a secret: I’m shy too. The whole reason I went on Big Brother was to build up my confidence.’ Her hand, almost of its own accord, moved up another inch or so. ‘It’s like we’re kindred spirits, isn’t it?’
‘Soulmates,’ Jos agreed and Becky’s face was still tilted up towards his own and he licked his lips nervously and … and … and …
‘For fuck’s sake!’
‘What the hell?’
Their romantic moment was cut short by a sudden dousing of cold champagne from the bottle Dobbin had attempted to pour into Jos’s empty flute.
‘Sorry, sorry,’ he muttered. ‘Didn’t want to interrupt you, thought I’d be all stealthy like, but the bottle slipped.’
‘I’m soaked!’ Becky snapped, furious both at the interruption and that she’d been taken unawares and sworn, when nice, shy, orphaned young ladies didn’t go round dropping the f-bomb. ‘You should be more careful.’
Dobbin actually dared to try and mop at her with a napkin held in his huge hands, then caught his cufflink on one of the crystals sewn on to Becky’s borrowed dress, which tore. Not enough to do much damage, to the dress at least, but enough that he apologised again, profusely, and Jos subsided back on his chair with a hopeless look, and the moment was ruined. Completely ruined.
‘Bad luck!’ said a silky voice and Becky looked up to see George Wylie standing over her, with a smug expression that made her curl her hands into fists, her nails digging into her palms so hard that she’d still have little half-moon marks the next day.
It was a lost cause after that. Jos drowned his sorrows not just with champagne but with whisky chasers, even though Dobbin warned him that he shouldn’t mix grape with grain.
‘I’ll drink what I bloody well like,’ he bellowed belligerently, swaying back from the bar with yet another round. Becky felt her heart sink, knowing only too well that how a man behaved when he was hammered revealed his true nature.
‘I’m going to find Emmy.’ She extricated herself from Jos’s clutches: he had also become very handsy, trying to touch what he wouldn’t dare go near when he was sober.
By the time Becky returned with a predictably agitated Amelia in tow, a large crowd had gathered around Jos who’d attempted to run after Becky but had slipped in the spilt champagne and toppled over on to his back.
He pitched one way then another like an upended turtle while the crowd of braying posh types roared their approval and held up their next-gen iPhones to record the moment for posterity.
‘Up you get, fatso!’ cried one young wag.
‘I’m not fat, I’m big boned and heavily muscled,’ Jos panted to even more hoots and jeers.
‘We have to help him,’ Amelia cried but Becky held her back. That was a sure way to end up in a video that could well go viral by the next morning.
‘We can’t manage him on our own,’ she pointed out reasonably. ‘Where’s your George?’
George Wylie, of course, had slunk off at the first sign of trouble, as he didn’t want to end up in a viral clip any more than Becky did, so it was left to Dobbin to valiantly step in and hoist Jos to his feet, to a helpful commentary from the peanut gallery.
‘Heave! Heave! Heave ho!’ they shouted as Jos was finally levered upright so that he could then lurch unsteadily against their table and send all the glassware flying.
‘More champagne!’ Jos shouted, trying to click his fingers to summon a waiter and almost blinding poor Dobbin. ‘Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends!’
‘Jos, I am cutting you off!’ Dobbin said very sternly, clamping his arm round Jos’s shoulders and steering him out of the club, with Amelia and Becky bringing up the rear.
Becky would much rather have stayed. She was sure she’d spotted a couple of young royals at the bar, but Amelia was crying. Much as the missed opportunity stung, she had no option but to leave with their sad, humiliated little party.
Once they were in the club foyer, George joined them. ‘There you are!’ he said. ‘I’ve been looking for you everywhere.’
‘You couldn’t have been looking very hard, then, as you were at our table until poor Jos fell over and then you disappeared,’ Becky pointed out.
Amelia stopped crying for long enough to gaze damply and disappointedly at George. ‘You didn’t do that, did you?’
‘Of course I didn’t. Your little friend must be confused,’ he said firmly as if nothing could be further from the truth. ‘Fell over, did he? But no bones broken? Well, let’s get him and you girls home.’
Then he took Jos’s other side and the three men lumbered out of the club like some mythical three-headed beast, only to run into a pack of paparazzi who sprang into action in the hope that one of them might be a rat-arsed young royal.
The popping flashbulbs had a disastrous effect on Jos’s centre of gravity. Or it might have been because George took one look at the cameras and abruptly let Jos go so he could slither back into the shadows. He was a prospective Member of Parliament, after all.
It was left to Amelia to take up the slack and help Dobbin to support the considerable weight of her brother, to the delight of the smudges. Two posh boys weren’t worth the effort but a Big Brother winner might do for a page-seven lead.
Then the drunk young Hooray lurched around towards the pretty redhead who’d come second in Big Brother, trailing a few steps behind as if she had nothing to do with the unfortunate trio in front of her, and he broke free of his captors so he could take her in a very enthusiastic embrace. This could be a front-page story after all.
NEW BALLS PLEASE!
Big Brother Becky Caught In Clinch With Protein-Ball Millionaire!
Friends say he wants to put a ring on it!
She might have only come second in this year’s Big Brother, but beautiful Becky Sharp, 20, looked like a winner last night as she was caught canoodling with Jos Sedley, 33, brother of Amelia Sedley, who snatched the title from her best friend.
Jos, the brains behind a health-and-fitness lifestyle brand which makes a successful range of protein balls, divides his time between London and LA. But judging by the way he locked lips with Becky, to the delight of the crowd, he’s thinking of making London his permanent base.
‘It’s been a whirlwind romance,’ a close friend of the couple reports. ‘They might only have known each other a few weeks but they’re already talking about marriage.’
Three people who would be delighted to hear wedding bells are Big Brother winner Amelia, 22, who regards Becky as a sister, and her parents Charles and Caroline Sedley, who invited Becky to live with them in their Chelsea townhouse worth £15 million, and have apparently given the young couple their blessing.
‘They adore Becky as if she was their own daughter,’ said a source close to the Sedleys. ‘Caroline is already planning the engagement party.’
It will be quite the rags-to-riches story for Becky. She entered the Big Brother house a penniless orphan who’d been working as a care assistant and may now be walking down the aisle with Jos, who is a millionaire in his own right and also inherited millions from his maternal grandfather.
Who said fairy tales never come true?
‘This is bad. This is very, very bad.’ Jos Sedley groaned the next morning from his horizontal position on the sofa in Dobbin’s Ladbroke Grove flat. ‘It’s the worst.’
Dobbin and George didn’t know if he was talking about his hangover (he’d spent most of the night throwing up and now his face was the colour and texture of elephant hide) or the front page of the Sun. Though the front pages of the Daily Mirror, the DailyStar, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express had all gone with similar stories.
‘It’s not so bad, Jos,’ Dobbin said stoutly, because while his patience was infinite he couldn’t stand malingerers. Especially when the malingering was self-inflicted. ‘You’ll feel much better with a pot of tea and some toast inside you.’
‘No caffeine. No carbs!’
‘It’s a pity you didn’t stick to no alcohol last night,’ George said cheerfully. He threw a copy of the Daily Mirror at Jos’s head. ‘What a gigantic idiot you are! I have absolutely no sympathy for you.’
‘Steady on,’ Dobbin murmured, but George was not to be swayed.
‘I saw you last night,’ he reminded Jos, tapping the other man’s pounding head with the now rolled-up newspaper. ‘Even caught some of the tender things you were murmuring at each other. No wonder she went to the papers and told them that your intentions were honourable!’
‘Rebecca would never go to the papers,’ Dobbin said because surely no friend of dear, sweet Emmy would act in such an underhand way. It simply wasn’t how things were done.
‘I’d bet money on it,’ George insisted. ‘Girls like that, you don’t need to promise them marriage to get their knickers off, Sedley. You just buy them a bottle of something bubbly, shag them, then put them in an Uber and send them on their way.’
Later, as George and Dobbin strolled through Holland Park on their way to Kensington, Dobbin wondered aloud if George hadn’t been too harsh on their friend.
‘Not harsh enough,’ George said without a shred of pity. ‘I did him a huge favour. He spends far too much time pumping iron and guzzling protein shakes, not that it’s made him any more attractive to the opposite sex. If it had, then he might have a bit more experience, might know when he’s being taken for a ride by some jumped-up little tart with ideas far above her station.’
Dobbin didn’t reply at first and they walked through the sun-dappled paths of the park in silence. It was a glorious September morning, the sky impossibly blue, the leaves fluttering in a slight breeze as dogs chased each other round and round in circles, barking joyfully. Mothers, but mostly nannies, clutched hold of toddlers intent on feeding the ducks and not waiting their turn for the swings. On the lush, green grass couples lounged and a group of taut young men and women contorted themselves on yoga mats.
Surely, if Becky Sharp had gone to the papers in order to force a shy young millionaire’s hand, she’d have asked them to photograph she and Jos as they exercised together? When they’d both looked their best in flattering black workout clothes, the photos playful and flirty. Not when they were falling out of a nightclub, Becky in a torn dress, Jos lumbering and drunk.
It was almost as if the photos of last night were the work of someone who’d disappeared at a crucial point during the night. Someone well versed in the art of spin, working, as they did, in politics. But why would someone be so invested in tearing apart two young souls who each believed they’d found their match?
Captain Dobbin certainly wouldn’t have ever imagined that George Wylie, his friend since they were tiny boys starting prep school together in knee-length shorts, red blazers and adorable little caps, might act in such an underhand, cavalier fashion.
True, George had been a member of the infamous Rakehell drinking club at Oxford, which Dobbin had never been invited to join, but George had always kept his hands and nose clean. He was more likely to be trouble-adjacent than in the thick of it.
‘But why should you care?’ Dobbin asked, then cursed under his breath as two small dogs came barrelling through his legs and almost upended him. ‘If she makes Jos happy, then that’s a good thing, isn’t it?’
‘You know why I care, you fool. I’m going to marry Amelia,’ George stated calmly. The shock was so great that Dobbin stumbled over his own size-fourteen feet and had to grab hold of a lamppost to stop himself falling to his knees.
‘I didn’t actually,’ Dobbin managed to say, gasping out the words though his throat had closed up, his heart had stopped beating, his world suddenly turned ashen and grey. ‘I thought you were seeing that little blonde researcher, Polly Somebody.’
‘Well, obviously, I’m not going to marry Amelia any time soon,’ George said with an impatient edge. ‘At the moment, she bursts into tears if you even look at her funny. And she’s twenty-two – no one gets married that young, it’s unspeakably common.’
‘I hadn’t thought about it like that,’ Dobbin choked out, because all he had thought about was how Amelia Sedley – beautiful, sweet, kind little Emmy – was perfect in every way. Far too perfect for the likes of him and, for as long as Dobbin had known Amelia, she’d fancied herself in love with George … ‘So, you’re not seeing that Polly Somebody, then?’
‘I haven’t taken a vow of chastity until Amelia acquires some backbone and a little sophistication,’ George snapped.
Being friends with George wasn’t always easy and at this particular moment, it was especially hard because Dobbin wished that he was in uniform and fully kitted out so he could Taser the living daylights out of his dear friend.
‘These girls,’ continued George, ‘the junior researchers and the likes, the Pollies and Bellas, they’re all gagging for it but they’re fabulously discreet so as not to jeopardise their own careers, so it’s win/win really.’
Dobbin glanced over at George. The dark curls framing that exquisitely patrician face, the beautifully cut grey suit, which clung to his lean frame. On this sunny day, there was something of the night about him.
‘I still don’t see what any of this has to do with Jos Sedley and Amelia’s friend,’ he said and George came to a halt, all the better to roll his eyes.
‘Must I spell it out? I’m going to marry Amelia, I’m really quite fond of her and she should shape up quite nicely, but the family’s not exactly top drawer.’
‘Then again, they’re not exactly bottom of the ladder,’ Dobbin pointed out, because he liked to think that he was egalitarian in his outlook. Though he himself came from a distinguished military family, his father was only the third son of an earl, so he’d pretty much had to make his own way in life.
‘Dobbin, I’m the heir to a baronetcy,’ George said, even though everyone knew that the Wylies had bought the baronetcy. ‘The Sedleys might be rich but they come from very humble stock and there is absolutely no way that I can have a sister-in-law who’s a nothing. A nobody. The sooner she scuttles back to whatever hole she crawled out of, the better. Like I said to Sedley, it’s just as well she was holding out for marriage because otherwise, she’s the sort to either make an incriminating sex tape or get knocked up – either way, she’d have had his balls in a vice and his millions in her bank account.’
‘I suppose you know best,’ Dobbin said dubiously. ‘Though do you always have to see the worst in people?’
George grinned, though Dobbin hadn’t meant it as a compliment. ‘I’m sure Miss Sharp will need some consoling. She might even let you go where Jos didn’t manage to break ground. Why don’t you come with me as I give her the bad news?’
Dobbin declined: the bad news that George was about to deliver so gleefully was sure to make Amelia cry, and to see Amelia cry would break his heart. Though it wasn’t true that she cried all the time. Whenever he saw Amelia, she always looked delighted; a smile on her face that had to be the reason that the sun came up and flowers grew and birds tweeted.
The Sedley house was in an uproar that morning. Mrs Sedley had cast one look at the Daily Mail and her heart had started to beat so furiously that she thought she might be having a stroke. She wasn’t but she’d had to take to her bed with one of her heads, hissing to Amelia as she went, ‘I want that girl out of the house by the end of the day, Emmy.’
Becky was already packing or, rather, she’d told Amelia that she was packing. ‘I can’t stay here,’ she said to Amelia after Mrs Sedley had been tucked up with two Valium and a hot-water bottle. ‘What must your poor parents think of me? What must Jos think of me? You do know that it wasn’t me who went to the papers?’
‘Of course I do,’ Amelia gasped, because her sweet young mind wasn’t capable of such a calculated thought. ‘I’m sure it’s not that bad. You’ll feel much better after you’ve had some breakfast.’
‘I can’t eat. Food would choke me,’ Becky declared, a trembling hand to her throat as if she was already finding it hard to breathe. She stood at her bedroom door, her body barring Amelia from the room, not just for full dramatic effect but because there were a few items that had found their way into Becky’s possession that she hadn’t had a chance to squirrel away yet. ‘I’m going to pack. I’ll be gone in a few hours.’
But Becky wasn’t packing at all. She was leaning out of the window of the second-floor guest room as she waited for the first sight of Jos lumbering into the square. He’d have a terrible hangover, which was his own fault, as nobody had forced him to drink all that champagne, and he’d be sweating profusely. Becky would let him stammer and stutter his way through a series of abject apologies for humiliating her.
After a tense two minutes – no, make it three – she’d forgive Jos, which would make him feel even worse, even more ashamed. Then with some gentle nudging, and that thing she did with her eyes, he’d admit that he’d wanted to kiss her ever since he first saw her. He’d then go on to confess that the kiss in front of the paparazzi, despite its sordid circumstances, had been the happiest moment of his life.
‘We could have more happy moments like that, Jos,’ she’d say, her voice catching, then she’d look away. Though sometimes, actually all the time, it was hard work trying to tunnel through Jos’s thick skull, so perhaps she’d have to be a lot less subtle. ‘Our whole life would be a series of happy moments. Of kisses …’
Of course, Jos would ask her to come back to LA with him. Once they were in LA, away from the annoying presence of his mother and father, and the bad influence of George Wylie, then Becky wouldn’t let Jos do anything more than kiss her and paw her over her clothes, and a proposal would be inevitable.
So, all was not lost. Far from it. Though Becky hadn’t gone to the papers (and no one could prove it either way), there was no reason why this had to end in tragedy.
Becky leaned out a little further, just in time to see George Wylie come striding around the corner. She beat a frantic retreat, banging her head so hard on the sash window that it brought tears to her eyes, especially as it had all been in vain because that smug little fucker waved cheerfully up at her.
‘Ha! Caught you!’ he cried.
Still, Becky’s tears were no match for the flood of eye-water and snot that Amelia had been producing ever since Becky had shut the bedroom door in her face. She cried even harder as George described, with particular relish, what a sorry state he’d left Jos in.
‘Been chundering for six hours straight. I left him prostrate on Dobbin’s sofa. And it’s just as well we did take him to Dobbin’s last night, as he’s the only man in London whose dressing gown would fit round your brother. Pity that he puked down it,’ George finished with an appreciative chuckle. The whole episode reminded him of similar japes at Oxford.
Also, the fact that they’d taken Sedley to Dobbin’s and not to George’s own flat in Victoria, had made him quite light-headed with relief.
‘I never thought you could be so mean,’ Amelia sobbed.
‘Then you haven’t been paying attention,’ Becky said from the doorway, because staying upstairs and sulking would achieve absolutely nothing. Not when there was no sign of a suitably contrite Jos and in his place was George Wylie, who might just explode from sheer malicious delight. Here’s hoping. ‘Where’s Jos?’
George turned around, eyes gleaming, his delight magnified now that Becky had joined them. ‘I’m afraid Jos sends his regrets but he’s otherwise engaged. Oh! Sorry! Bad choice of words. Otherwise detained, shall we say?’
Becky’s innate distrust and dislike of George Wylie, in that moment, crystallised and hardened into anger; a stinging, corrosive fury that this arrogant, odious prick had the nerve to mock her, laugh at her. It was only through a sheer accident of birth that the whole world was his for the taking and that she had nothing – not even the clothes she stood up in, because they were borrowed from Amelia.
There was an edge to George Wylie this morning, a febrile glitter in his eyes, high on his own triumph. He must have said something to Jos about her which had frightened Jos off, and Becky knew then that Jos wasn’t going to turn up and beg for her forgiveness. It wasn’t all going to come good in the end.
Oh, but she would make George Wylie pay. She would ruin him, destroy everything that he’d worked so hard for.
Not that she was going to tell him that, like some second-rate Scarlett O’Hara.
‘You’re always joking,’ she noted with a quiet dignity that made George falter. ‘It’s not nice to be the punchline of a joke, especially when there’s no one here to defend me.’
Then she walked away and George was left with Amelia, who had stopped crying and was now looking at him with a furrowed brow and jutting bottom lip. It was almost as if … as if she, silly little Amelia Sedley, was disappointed in him. ‘That wasn’t very kind of you,’ she said quietly and George immediately felt the need to squirm, even though kindness wasn’t a quality that he thought much of.
‘Amelia, you are too good for me.’ It was the most sincere thing he’d ever said. ‘Look, I know you’ve hugged orphans in the Third World and spent a few weeks with a bunch of chavs, but you don’t understand the world the way that I do. That Sharp girl overplayed her hand and Jos has had a lucky escape.’
Amelia’s heart gave a sad little flutter. ‘So, he’s really not coming, then?’
‘He’s not,’ George confirmed. ‘Believe me, it’s for the best. I volunteered to fetch his things because, actually, I can be kind, Emmy. This whole business with that Sharp girl – I was only looking out for Jos because he’s your brother and well, I do rather care about you, you know.’
The sad little flutter transformed into a rapturous symphony when George took Amelia in his arms.
He smelt delicious – a heady mix of citrus and spices from the cologne that he favoured. But though Amelia raised her face to his, her lips slightly pursed, he kissed her forehead.
‘I’m … well, I rather care about you too, George,’ she dared to say and the smile he gave her then was kindness personified.
After George left, it took quite a bit of time and some dawdling, before Amelia felt brave enough to face her friend.
Becky was perched on the window seat on the first-floor landing, her gaze fixed morosely on the square outside, the Daily Mail a crumpled, torn heap of paper at her feet.
‘You never know, he might still come,’ Amelia said consolingly.
‘Really? Have you spoken to him?’ Becky asked and even though it was hopeless, she couldn’t help the eager note in her voice.
‘I could speak to him,’ Amelia offered just as her phone chimed. She pulled it out of the pocket of her jeans. ‘I don’t need to! He’s just texted me. Let’s see … oh …’
Ems 2 ill 2 say gdbye. Hv 2 go back 2 LA due 2 protein-ball emergency. Will b gon v.long time. Pls send bst wishes 2 Becky. I was v.drunk lst nite & she shld 4get everything I said.
Of course, Amelia made it all about her. Crying over and on top of Becky so Becky could hardly think straight.
‘I can’t believe he didn’t say goodbye,’ Amelia wailed at such length, and there was no time to process, recover, regroup.
In fact, Becky was still reeling when there was an imperious peal on the doorbell, and who should be standing on the other side of the door but Babs Pinkerton, summoned by Mrs Sedley, who hadn’t been zonked out on Valium in the master bedroom suite but actually plotting Becky’s immediate departure.
‘Pack your bags, sweetie, you’re being thrown out,’ Babs said by way of greeting when a fuming Mrs Blenkinsop showed her into the drawing room where Becky was still being wept on by Amelia.
Amelia protested, tearfully, to her mother who pointed out that Amelia would be leaving for Durham at the end of the week.
‘So, you see, she had to leave sooner or later, and it was only ever meant to be a temporary arrangement,’ Mrs Sedley explained as she stroked her daughter’s hair and wished that she hadn’t just taken her Valium, because she really didn’t have the energy to deal with this. ‘I understand that Barbara, who says she’s always been like a mother to Rebecca, has found her a lovely little job as a nanny with a charming family. In the country. Deep in the country. Miles and miles away from here. She’ll be fine.’
Becky had been with the Sedleys for almost a month but it would take no more than twenty minutes to remove all traces of her from their house. It wasn’t as if she had any choice when Sam, Mrs Sedley’s driver, was pointedly lingering in the hall with ‘strict instructions to take you to the station’.
He didn’t come into Becky’s room – no, not her room, not any more, it was the guest room – while she packed, which was just as well. Becky tucked away several of Amelia’s dresses, which looked much better on her, a few pieces of jewellery that Amelia wouldn’t even miss, an iPad that Amelia had thought she’d lost and had already replaced, and several other items that technically didn’t belong to Becky. All the while Babs Pinkerton, in her trademark cerise which did absolutely nothing for her gin-raddled complexion, lounged on the bed enjoying Becky’s impending banishment far too much.
‘A nanny?’ Becky spat in disbelief when Babs told her where she was going. ‘In some place in the back of beyond? I went to the country once and it stunk of cow shit.’
‘You should feel right at home then,’ Babs said with a delighted smile. ‘Actually, it’s a country estate. Beautiful big house, set in acres of land, horses, duck pond, and all that jazz. And you’ll be looking after the children of Sir Pitt Crawley,’ she added like she was presenting Becky with a winning scratchcard.
‘Pitt who? Never heard of him,’ Becky muttered savagely as she stuffed a Rolex watch, which had been a silver anniversary present from Mr Sedley to his wife, into one of her trainers.
‘The Crawleys! One of Britain’s premier acting dynasties, you little imbecile,’ Babs drawled. ‘Sir Pitt was quite the sex symbol back in the day.’
‘When was back in the day?’ Becky asked, pausing her suitcase-stuffing. Working for some famous actor might not be so bad.
‘Before you were born. In the seventies,’ Babs said, which might just as well have been the Dark Ages. Yet he was still famous and he had a house, a very big house, in the country. He was bound to have his celebrity friends constantly dropping by and if he was very famous, then he was very rich too. There’d obviously be an indoor swimming pool, one of those fancy screening rooms and the children would be at school for most of the day, so it wasn’t as if Becky would have to do much nannying.
It might be the perfect opportunity to reassess things. Maybe even catch the eye of one of those celebrity friends that dropped by … but still the country wasn’t London, and London was the most likely place where a girl with no prospects but a hell of a lot of ambition could find fame, fortune and fools ready to give them to her.
‘No. It’s not happening, Babs. I came second in Big Brother …’
‘What you mean is that you didn’t win Big Brother …’
‘Whatever! Come on! You could find me some other job. Something more exciting, better paid.’ Becky zipped up her tatty holdall. ‘You know, I could do a kiss-and-tell on how Jos Sedley did me wrong.’ No, that wasn’t enough. ‘How he turned out to be a complete love rat after I’d given him …’
‘Boring!’ Babs yawned exaggeratedly. ‘The photos of him tumbling out of that club with his hand down your dress were one thing, but you wouldn’t get more than a couple of hundred quid for a follow-up.’ She examined her neon-pink talons. ‘The problem, my darling, is that you missed your window. I hate to be the one to say I told you so, but I told you so. Couldn’t even get you a thousand if you dropped your knickers for the Sunday Sport. Are you done packing, ’cause you do have a train to catch?’
Mrs Sedley had gone back to bed so it was left to Amelia to say a fitting goodbye. She clung on to Becky and Becky clung back, in the vain hope that if she attached herself barnacle-like to Amelia, then she might never have to leave.
‘We have to go now,’ Sam said implacably and firmly from behind them, and Babs sighed impatiently and Amelia was persuaded to release Becky from her Vulcan clutches.
‘This is from Mummy,’ she murmured brokenly, tucking an envelope, which at least felt like it contained a wad of banknotes, into Becky’s hand. ‘And you’re still my sister from another mister. I’m going to text you before you’ve even got in the car, and I get really long holidays so I’ll see you soon.’
‘I probably won’t be allowed the time off,’ Becky said with a pathetic little sniff that tore at Amelia’s soul, though Becky wouldn’t be taken for a fool twice and she was going to get time off and sick pay and whatever the going rate was for nannying the children of a famous actor. ‘You know how people exploit their domestic staff. I bet I won’t even get minimum wage with the hours they’ll expect me to work.’
‘Oh, Becky, I wish there was something I could do,’ Amelia cried imploringly.
‘It’s all right,’ Becky said as Babs took her arm in an uncompromising grip and began walking her towards the door. ‘I don’t blame you.’
No, Amelia was the one person that she didn’t blame. She blamed George Wylie, above all others. Next came Barbara Pinkerton, who could easily have found something exciting and well paid for Becky to do, and also Becky was pretty sure that Jemima’s bungalow had already been sold and that Babs would make sure she’d never see a penny of the £250,000 it was worth when Becky had had a valuation done before Jemima had died. She also blamed Jos Sedley for being weak and foolish and easily influenced but alas, not easily influenced by her. And though Mrs Sedley had sent her on her way with £500, Becky added her name to the list of people who’d done her wrong: one day she’d be in a position to pay them all back.
But right now, as she sat in a second-class carriage on her way to Southampton where she had to change on to a branch line, Becky wasn’t in any position but to take the job that Barbara Pinkerton had grudgingly found for her.
She was twenty, without any family. It wasn’t just a line she spun for sympathy; those were the facts. There wasn’t a parent or a grandparent, not even a stray aunt or uncle who’d take her in. Apart from the few trinkets she’d acquired from the Sedleys to go with the trinkets that Jemima Pinkerton would have wanted her to have, Becky had no assets. She didn’t even have a bank account.
If she threw herself on the mercy of the state, she might be found a bed in a hostel and if she was really, really lucky she’d be given a zero-hours contract on minimum wage stacking shelves or working in a call centre. Which was fine. The world needed people to stack shelves and work in call centres, but Becky wasn’t one of those people. Just as George Wylie and Amelia and the five M’s had been born into wealth and privilege, Becky had been born with beauty and a native cunning. She was meant for more than a bed in a hostel and a zero-hours contract. Maybe she was meant for gracious country living. Wafting about a huge mansion, being spoiled by a very famous actor in his dotage. As soon as she could get a decent WiFi signal, Becky would google the hell out of Sir Pitt Crawley, she decided, and she straightened her posture and put her shoulders back. Down but not out. If she didn’t make the most of this opportunity that fate had thrown at her, then she deserved to be stacking shelves.
It was raining when Becky finally reached her destination: Mudbury. The light was fading and everything was grey as she came out of the station to find herself in a dismal little backwater, rather than a charming and bucolic village. It boasted a convenience store, which was closed, a pub, which was less of a charming country inn and more like a glorified Portakabin, and a bus-shelter covered in graffiti.
Only one other person had got off the train and they had already got into a car that had been waiting outside the station and driven off.
Babs had told her that someone would pick her up at the station but there were no signs of life. She squinted left, then right for the welcoming glow of a pair of headlights coming towards her, but all she could see was sheeting rain in all directions.
Becky hurried over to the bus shelter but there was no timetable and from the barrenness of her surroundings, it was clear that Mudbury was the type of place where the bus only came once on market days and market days only happened every other week. She shivered inside her jacket. When she had left London, it had been late summer, the sun still shining, the weather warm enough that most days she didn’t even need a jacket. But in the course of four hours and two trains, winter had come.
She debated waiting inside the pub. It might be quite cosy once she was inside – or she could be raped and murdered by a bunch of inbred villagers. Just when Becky had decided that at least she’d be dry even if she did have to fight them off with a pool cue, she heard the rumbling of an engine over the persistent drumming of the rain on the roof of the bus shelter. When she peered out, there were the headlights she was longing to see. She didn’t even care if it was her lift. She ran into the road to wave whoever it was down and beg them to take her back to civilisation. Or to the nearest mainline station, at least.
The battered, ancient Land Rover came to a juddering halt and Becky scrabbled at the door handle, which swung open with help from inside.
‘You be the young lady coming up t’ Big House?’
There was no light inside the vehicle, just two shadowy figures, one of which had just spoken to her in such a rough, local dialect that Becky had trouble understanding him.
‘I’m Becky Sharp and you’re late!’ she snapped. ‘Does Sir Crawley know that you’ve kept me waiting in the pouring rain?’
There was a diffident grunt. Then, ‘Just light drizzle, lassie. Jump in. Don’t mind old Hodson. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.’
It turned out that the shadowy figure closest to her was a dog; a big, hairy, foul-smelling beast that growled at Becky as she hefted her bags and herself into the Land Rover. The back of the Sedleys’ chauffeur-driven, air-conditioned Bentley already seemed as if it belonged to another world, another life, as the man sped off with a crunching of gears. The suspension was shot and the vehicle, and Becky, shook every time they hit a bump or a hole in the road.
It was pitch black outside, but there didn’t seem to be anything to look at out of the windows, which were streaming with condensation. It was just country. Fields and hedges, and when they turned off on to a smaller road, more of a rugged track really, the branches from the overhanging trees skittered across the roof of the car and Becky stole a glance at the man driving.
Her eyes had adjusted to the gloom by now and she could see that her saviour was a grizzled old man, though the grizzle was probably dirt, because he didn’t smell that fresh. In fact, she wasn’t sure which one of them was the most malodorous – the old man or Hodson, who kept wiping his slobbery snout on Becky’s shoulder. Most of the man’s face was obscured by a filthy trucker’s cap that was pulled down so she could only make out his mouth and chin, which didn’t look like it had seen a razor in months. His clothes looked and smelt filthy too: a pair of ragged trousers and an old jumper full of holes.
He could be anyone. Maybe he’d lured many a young woman to a grisly end by picking them up outside the station. Maybe that was why the Crawleys needed a new nanny, because each new nanny was intercepted before she could start her new job.
‘Do you work for Sir Crawley, then?’ she asked, striving hard to keep the belligerence out of her voice. ‘Is it far to the house?’
Becky settled back with a tiny but discontent huff. She had done all that boxing with Jos, so if worst came to worst, she could whack him around the head followed up by a swift knee to his bollocks, then she’d run for her life.
They rounded a bend at breakneck speed, which threw Becky against the door, and just as she righted herself, she could see that they were travelling up a drive lined by trees, and in the distance there was a big house, the warm glow of electric light at some of its many windows. They were crunching over gravel now as they drove around a big ornamental pond then veered left. Maybe her dreams of gracious country living were about to come true after all. Or maybe not.
‘This is Queen’s Crawley, is it?’ Becky asked as they whisked past the grand front door. She thought she might cry if they kept going, disappearing back into the darkness until they reached this man’s hovel and whatever terrible fate awaited her.
They took a sharp right, just past the house, under an arch and Becky let out a shaky breath as they came to a jerky halt inside a yard, which must have been the old stable block.
‘Front door ain’t for the likes of us, is it?’ The man opened his door so he could cough then spit on to the gravel.
Becky clenched her fists, felt Hodson’s hot breath on her neck again.
‘How dare you!’ she hissed, turning to the man so he could get the full benefit of her fury. She was so angry she could hardly force the words out. ‘Just wait until Sir Pitt Crawley hears about the way you’ve treated me.’ Even in the midst of her rage, she wasn’t going to admit that she’d been scared half to death. Wouldn’t give this … this … dim-witted yokel the satisfaction. ‘You’re rude and you’re inconsiderate and you smell like a rubbish tip!’
She expected him to spit on the ground again. Or worse, spit on her, but he did neither, just took off his cap so Becky could see that his greasy hair was as neglected as the rest of him. He looked at her and grinned – she was surprised to see that his teeth weren’t blackened pegs but actually were even and gleamed white in the gloom – and there was an expectant air about him, as if he was waiting for Becky to say that she wouldn’t really go to Sir Pitt Crawley and do everything in her power to have him fired.
In that case, he was going to be disappointed.
‘I might only be the nanny but I’m not some silly little girl who’s only used to dealing with naughty toddlers.’ She drew herself up. ‘You try something like this again, and I will make you sorry you were ever fucking born,’ she finished with a determined sniff.
There was a moment’s silence as they both stared at each other, weighing up their enemy, then the man smiled again. He ran his fingers, nails black with dirt, through his hair, then offered his hand to Becky who looked at it in much the same way that she’d look at Hodson if he suddenly took a dump on her bag.
‘Are we clear?’ she asked.
‘Clear as crystal,’ he said, not in a guttural drawl but in plummy tones that had delighted both theatre-goers and film critics alike. ‘I’m Sir Pitt Crawley, delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Sharp. May I welcome you to Queen’s Crawley, and I hope that your stay here will be a long and happy one.’
Sir Pitt Crawley, knighted by the Queen for his ground-breaking contribution to British film and theatre, had woken up one morning, taken stock of his life and decided that it was shallow and empty.
He was in LA at the time and had been woken up by the sound of his girlfriend (the second Lady Crawley turned a blind and grateful eye to Pitt’s peccadillos) on the phone to her therapist. Or he might have been pulled out of sleep by the sound of his gardening crew trimming the hedges that had been trimmed only the day before. Or awoken by his personal trainer calling him on his cellphone because Sir Pitt was currently meant to be doing lunges, squats, burpees and other undignified exercises in his basement gym.
Later he would spend two hours in make-up before emoting in front of a green screen so CGI effects could be added in later. And later still, he was due to have dinner and drinks with a producer who he hated and the producer’s wife, who he’d slept with and who now also hated him.
It was all bullshit, Pitt thought. He thought it again. Then he said the words out loud: ‘It’s all bullshit!’ He scrambled out of bed, naked as the day he was born, flung open the windows so he could stand out on the balcony that overlooked the Olympic-sized swimming pool and shout, ‘IT’S ALL BULLSHIT!’ to the heavens and the bemusement of his gardening crew. And it was at that moment that he had an epiphany, and a few hours after that he was at LAX waiting to fly back to England to find his true, authentic self.
WHAT A PITT-Y!
Legendary luvvie Sir Pitt Crawley retires from acting to become a blacksmith
The papers had been full of incredulous headlines, passing it off as pretentious nonsense, but Pitt had retired to the crumbling estate that had been in his family for generations (the original Pitt Crawley made his fortune in the brewing of beer for none other than Queen Elizabeth I) to strip away the trappings of fame and adulation and get back to nature.
And yes, he had the old forge on his land restored and got the only blacksmith in the county to give him lessons. It transpired that blacksmithing was very strenuous work and Pitt was knocking on for sixty-five (but a very distinguished sixty-five), so when the only horse he ever shod promptly went lame, he gave up his Lawrentian dreams of hewing metal, if not his dreams of a more authentic life.
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