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I, Alicia Isabelle Kingston, am miserable. Absolutely miserable. Not just normal Monday morning miserable, but bone-deep, mind-numbing, fist-curling, toe-twitching miserable. The sort of miserable that makes you scowl at your perfectly well-behaved children and snarl at your husband when, for once, he really doesn't deserve snarling at. And the worst thing is, I have no idea why. Really, I don't.
Admittedly, my coffee is stone cold, but that isn't reason enough to be in this anxious state of, suppressed aggression blended perfectly with utter desolation. I'm sitting outside the appropriately named Covent Garden Café in Covent Garden's main piazza -- if you can use the word "piazza" in London and not appear too poncey. It's supposed to be spring, yet I'm frozen. I've tried pulling up the collar of my coat and nestling down on this very trendy, but rock-hard aluminum chair, and now its slats are digging even more deeply into my bottom. The sky is the startling blue of Paul Newman's eyes, and the brash yellow sun, brazen as a bottle blonde, lacks any form of warmth. I glare menacingly at some passersby so that they are aware of my discomfort, but they ignore me and this feeling just doesn't go away. Do You ever wake up feeling like this? I do. More and more often.
Marie Claire tells me it's my age. My children tell me it's my age. My husband tells me it's my age. My sister tells me it's because I'm a moody cow and always have been, but then, she can talk!
I stir my coffee and spoon up some cappuccino froth, which, let's face it, tastes okay whether it's cold or not. By now, I'm getting rigor mortis of the buttocks, and I cross my legs andwriggle about a bit in vain hope of finding a portion of my cheek that of my that isn't yet dead.
"Don't move," a voice instructs me.
I turn and say "What?" in my snappiest voice. A boy is sitting there with his easel, his young, untroubled forehead creased with the intensity of sketching me.
"I'm drawing you."
"I don't want to be drawn." Told you I was grumpy.
"I've nearly finished."
"I'm not paying you."
"I don't want to be paid."
"Then why are you doing it?"
He looks up and smiles, and for a moment shows the lackluster sun what it should be doing. "You have beautiful hair."
"I do not have beautiful hair." For the record, I have hair that would be considered flamboyant on a film star. The sort of hair that Nicole Kidman can get away with, no problem. To me it's just plain irritating. Hair that gave me a nightmare time all through school. It's red to the point of a ginger-nut biscuit and corkscrew into dreadlocks the minute it hears the word "damp." I was the person who wept with relief when John Frieda invented Frizz-Ease.
"Swish it about a bit."
"I will not."
He grins, very cheekily, and whizzes his charcoal around like a true professional. I turn away from him and stare out into the piazza in the hope that he will go away and find a less reluctant model.
I'm supposed to be at work. Work being an assistant to a C List interior designer with a "studio" just around the comer from here next to a Mexican-themed bar on Maiden Lane. She's the sort who pops up on Changing Rooms or Richard and Judy for guest appearances every now and again when they're desperate and can't get Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen or that other posh chap who paints everything beige. But she isn't sufficiently into monochrome or orange or brushed-steel tubing to make the grade regularly, harboring as she does an unhealthy appreciation for chintz, which isn't at all the thing for a hip, up-and-coming designer. And she looks sort of normal and has a boring name, which she can't help, even though I can testify that she's as mad as a March hare and organization is not a word in her vocabulary. She's as daffy and arty as they come, even though she looks like someone who's running a bit late for her Women's Institute meeting.
It's only eleven-thirty, but I was starting to bark and niggle at perfectly nice customers who wanted nothing more sinister than their living rooms made over or their kitchens kitsched, so I thought it was time to take an early lunch, even though I'm not the slightest bit hungry.
I've been sitting here for ten minutes, and now I'm not only miserable, but I'm getting bored too. Before the intrusion by Andy Warhol here, my thoughts were wandering on to the barren plains of what we might have for supper tonight and the fact that no matter how many times they eat them, my children never get tired of chicken nuggets and oven chips. I have tried to bring them up not to be philistines, but hey, I'm a funky millennium working mother and time is short. Time is short for everything.
Covent Garden isn't what it used to be. There's hardly anyone here this morning, and usually the place is packed with tourists and street entertainers and pickpockets. This was once the old flower market -- until the developers got hold of it and jazzed it up, but I expect you all know that. You can't imagine it now, can you? There's not a flower in sight. Everything looks gray and dirty, or maybe I'm back to that mood thing again. Too many sweet wrappers drift across the cobbles on the slight breeze, making the whole place look like no one cares for it, Perhaps that's why I'm. feeling like this. Perhaps I feel no one cares for me either.
One of the street performers in front of the graffiti-covered facade of St. Paul's Church is strutting his stuff. He has a thin, ragged audience that looks to be comprised of truanting children who are heckling him, and bemused Swedish tourists. He is juggling, very badly, and his shirt is grubby and looks terminally unwashed and I can understand why his audience is keeping its distance. I used to love the spontaneity and creativity of the street entertainers. Oh, the courage of just standing up before a crowd and laying your soul bare for the meager reward of gaining its pleasure and a few grudgingly spared pounds! Then I found out that all the performers have to book and pay for their pitches in advance and turn up come hail, rain or shine to entertain the tourists whether the tourists want to be entertained or not. They're not fickle, will-o'-the-wisp artistes, here today, gone tomorrow carefree performers. They have day jobs like the rest of us after all. Disillusionment, thou art a cruel bedfellow.
I look up and my artist smiles at me again. And I smile back, because it's really hard not to when someone turns the full force of their white, twinkly teeth on you, isn't it?
He sidesteps the scraggly bushes and plastic chain-effect fence that ineffectively mark out the territory of the Covent Garden Café and comes toward me. His own hair isn't too bad. It's dark blond, mussed up, and looks like it too is tempted to take on a life of its own. He has gone down the spiky hair-gel route to tame it, although bits of it still fall forward in an artily foppish way, and he pushes it back with his fingers, which seems particularly unwise as they are very dirty.
"Here," He holds out the drawing.
"I'm not paying for it," I have reverted to grumpiness and refuse to succumb to any cheeky street vendor charm.
"If you like it, you can buy me a cup of coffee," he says.
"If I don't like it?"
"Then I'll buy one for you."
I take the drawing and, believe me, it's all I can do not to gasp. It is utterly fantastic, It looks absolutely nothing like me. It is a drawing of some fabulously gorgeous person with a wild, flowing mane and searing eyes. Although the nose is a bit like mine. . . Really. And the sulky lip is very me at the moment."
"Do you like it?"
"Who is it?"
He smirks, "That's how I see you."
"It looks nothing like me."
"Then I'm buying." And before I can protest, he's called the waiter -- a miracle in itself -- and orders two more cappuccinos. He pulls up a chair and plonks himself down, and I have to tear my eyes away from this wondrous drawing that could look vaguely like me on a good day. A very good day. "As well as beautiful hair, you have sensational bone structure. Classic."
Any minute now he is going to whip out a bill for fifty quid and I'll have been stung. I just know it. The waiter brings the coffee, and he settles back in the chair, looking an awful lot more comfortable than I do. And I don't know why, but I start to examine his bone structure -- like I know anything about it! His cheeks are high, sharp, his jaw square and he has soft, pate lips that pout like they've been stung by a bee, He has youthful, fresh skin with hardly a trace of stubble and eyes that are the color of nuts, whole hazelnuts. You see, I've, gone silly already. I don't usually carry out this sort of analysis on the faces of strange young men I meet. This is definitely a first for me.
"I'm Christian," he says, making me blush as I become aware that I am staring at him with my mouth pleasantly agog. "Christian Winter." He has a posh, upper-class accent that he probably peppers with swearwords and the hip slang of youth to make him seem less educated. Why do the young do that?
"Alicia," I say. Even though no one calls me Alicia except when they're telling me off. "Ali. Ali Kingston."
"Well, Alicia, Ali Kingston," Christian says. "It's been a pleasure to draw you."
And now I've gone all shy and pathetic, which is ridiculous because I'm about a zillion years older than he is and should know better. "Do you do this for a living?" I ask, sounding like he shouldn't.
"I wouldn't call it a living. I've just finished college. Fine arts degree. I'm doing this for the summer, until I see what else comes along."
"You're very good."
"No, really. You are. You just caught me on a bad day. I got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning or something."
"Perhaps you got out of the wrong person's bed?"
"I'm married. I get out of the same bed every day." I wonder why I' m embarrassed by how that sounds to this confident, good-looking young stranger.
"Wow. You don't look. . . "
"Old enough." And you don't look old enough to be flirting with me. I smile to myself and then realize I didn't do the "to myself" bit and he smiles back.
I scrabble round for my handbag for something to do. "I have to be going. I only popped out of work for a coffee to see if I could shift my mood."
"Did I help?" His eyes appeal to me like a puppy desperate to be loved.
I laugh and suddenly my heart wants to bleed or stop and I'm in severe danger of dropping my handbag and spilling its contents onto the cobblestones. "Yes, you did." And his puppy-dog eyes glint with wolfish mischief. I glance at my watch to break his gaze, which has gone on for far too long. "I really must go."
"Where do you work?"
"In a design studio around the comer." I'm not about to tell him that I answer the phone and hold the tape measure when required. I realize I am making a fuss about leaving and stop.
"Don't forget this," Christian says, and holds out the drawing.
I take it and regret that our fingertips don't touch, even though his need to be scrubbed with a Brillo pad, I walk off across the ever-widening expanse of the piazza, trying to keep straight yet sexy and not fall over any of the rubbish that is lying around, I don't look back, so I don't even know if he can see what an effort I've made in walking away from him. "Don't forget this." What a laugh. By the time I've bashed out three lots of chicken nuggets and chips tonight and two frozen lasagnas with two tepid glasses of Chianti as a softener, I'll have even forgotten his name.
"I could die before we finish this." Ed put his head in his hands. "Why, oh why, am I doing this?"
"Because you have a wife, and several more children than is good for one person, to feed."
The two men were in a comer of a vast warehouse on the premises of Performing Power Tools, which had been turned into a temporary set. They were attempting to film a blonde in a minuscule white crocheted bikini, who in turn was trying to drill a hole with a dual-action hammer drill into a two-inch-thick plank of wood.
"And action!" Ed shouted encouragingly, ever hopeful that in his role as Executive Producer of this promotions video he might at some point be able to produce something.
Nothing. The Performing Power Tool was not performing. Neither was the blonde. Out of all of them, the plank of wood was doing best.
"Okay. Let's take a break," Ed called out.
The blonde tottered into her waiting terry-cloth dressing gown. Trevor eased the camera from his shoulder. "Smoke break?"
"Why not?" Ed tried to get a crack to come from the tight bones in his neck, but, like the dead drill, it wasn't playing ball either. He addressed no one in particular: "While I help Trevor in his quest to develop lung cancer, can someone please find a drill that actually works?"
He followed the cameraman out into the relatively fresh air of Brent Park industrial area and they leaned on the hood of his four by four, which saw its only action in the car park at Sainsbury's rather than the rugged terrain that God and Mitsubishi had intended.
Ed closed his eyes and pretended he was somewhere else. Somewhere hot and tropical with swaying palms and rolling surf, somewhere that didn't smell of engine oil and spent fast-food cartons. "I was that far away from stardom, Trev." He indicated a metaphorical inch with his fingers. "That far."
"Don't give me the Harrison Ford routine again, Edward. You usually save that for when you're drunk."
"He was nothing before Raiders of the Lost Ark. That film made him what he is today. It could have done the same for me."
"It's made you into a boring old fart. Ciggie?"
"I haven't had one for four years -- you know that. And I'm not about to start now. Just blow the smoke in my direction, I'll inhale."
Trevor obliged, filtering a stream of Benson & Hedges toxins through tight lips. Ed widened his nostrils and snorted deeply.
"I don't know what more you want," Trevor nagged him. "You run a very successful corporate video company. You have a great staff. A great wife. Great kids, if you like that sort of thing."
"I have spent two days in a warehouse trying to get fantastic camera angles on a woman drilling a hole in a piece of wood." Ed sighed. Heavily. "I was the man who blew up the plane at the end of Raiders. Did I tell you about the time Harrison and I were in a bar in Morocco and he said. . . ."
"Yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes. I know about the time the camel nearly bit him on the arse. I know about the effect that having sand permanently down his underpants had on him. I know about what a great broke he was because he always remembered Ali's name. I have worked with you for five years. Long enough to have heard all your Harrison Ford stories several times. And they're great. They really are. But not today, Ed, Not today. Let me finish this cancer stick and we'll get on with Miss Driller Killer showing the old folks down at B&Q how to get the best from their DIY."
"I gave it all up for Ali, you know."
"You didn't. You gave it up because, like the rest of us, you were fed up with the insecurity. The fear of being only as good as your last explosion, the trailing halfway round the world for a few months' work only to be forgotten at the bottom of a very long line of credits; the nights spent propping up seedy bars in dubious Third World countries with the likes of Harrison Ford and living on diarrhea pills when you'd rather be at home on your own comfy little sofa watching repeats of Frasier. . . with a nice cup of tea."
Ed huffed in an unconvinced kind of way.
"There are an awful lot of extremely talented people out there, Edward, chasing a tiny handful of jobs. Be grateful that you had the big time and can now settle for cozy suburbia on a fat executive salary. Life could be worse." Trevor took the last drag of his cigarette.
"Can I grind the butt out for you, mate?"
"My pleasure." Reverently, Trevor handed the glowing butt to Ed, who kissed it to his lips with a quivering sigh.
"I still miss it desperately. It doesn't get any easier even when you've given it up."
"Are we talking about films or cigarettes now?"
"Maybe both." Ed dropped the cigarette to the floor and ground it out with his heel.
Trevor gazed across the weed-ridden expanse of car park, "Did I say life could be worse?"
"I'm bloody psychic, " he sighed. "It's the Ogre."
Ed looked up. Orla O'Brien was out of her BMW and heading toward them. She already looked tetchy and she didn't even know what a cock-up they were making of the nonperforming Performing Power Tools demonstration video. And, being blessed with an ultra-feminist heart, she'd probably go ballistic when she saw the blonde in the bikini.
Orla had been put in place by the owner of the company as a management consultant. Her remit was to downsize, upsize, modernize, rationalize, digitalize and all sorts of other "izes" that were bound to arouse suspicion and engender hatred in the work force. She had been with them for a month, and everyone loathed her except Ed, who for some chivalrous and inexplicable reason found her merely misunderstood. Despite her leanings, Orla wore tight skirts and filmy blouses and her hair piled on top of her head as if she were an extra in Pride and Prejudice. Wispy ringlets of jet-black hair escaped when she shook her head, which she did often. Ed thought it was supposed to make her look stem and unapproachable, but it didn't. It made her look sensual.
And she was American, which didn't help. She was brisk, efficient and didn't understand most of their jokes, and when she did she complained about them being sexist, which they invariably were. Her sense of humor bypass didn't allow her to click into the more usual response of the other women in the office, which was to riposte with an equally risible comment or throw a missile at the offending person-paper clip, elastic band, Kit Kat wrapper (used) or plastic cup (preferably empty, though not essential). Orla thrived on punctuality and schedules and forecasts, and Wavelength Films had existed happily for several profitable years on a sublime blend of chaos, camaraderie and sheer goodwill. They had a loyal if disorganized staff, and there was an unwritten rule that when the shit was about to hit the fan no one ducked-they all closed their mouths and faced it together head-on. It worked. Sometimes well, sometimes less well, and it didn't fit into Orla's brief at all. And she said so, frequently, in a seriously kick-ass sexy accent.
"She is scarier than Cruella De Vil," Trevor muttered.
"She's okay," Ed said and, without realizing it, crossed his arms defensively across his chest.
Orla stopped in front of them.
"How's it going?" she asked without preamble.
"Great," Ed replied with an easy smile."I thought I'd stop by for the last hour-if that's okay with you. There are some things I want to go through." Ed noticed her bulging briefcase with something approaching resignation. "Maybe we can go for a drink when you're done?" She looked from Ed to Trevor and back.
"Count me out," Trevor said and pushed himself away from the car. "I'm going home to watch 101 Dalmatians on video." He sauntered back toward the warehouse with all the alacrity of a man who knows he's about to meet his maker.
Orla wrinkled her nose crossly. "Is that another one of these jokes that I don't get?"
"Search me," Ed said, suppressing the smile that threatened to curl his lips.