Lost and Found
The weekend that Helly brought her new boyfriend down to meet Clare, Clare's younger brother Toby was also staying with them, following them round with his video camera, making a documentary about the family for his college course.
Clare gave the camera one quick exasperated glance when the doorbell rang and the guests arrived. The food should have been ready but she was still chopping hurriedly amidst a debris of vegetable leavings; her fingers were stuck with parsley bits.
Oh Toby, stop it!
Her deep glance at the camera she looks at the lens and not at Toby, as if it was his eyes is caught forever on the tape. She is wishing she had had time to change into the nicer clothes she had planned. Her hair is in a short, thick black plait on her shoulder, fastened with a rubber band. She looks tired. When she is tired (she believes) all those things which, at her best, make her look like an intellectual just make her look like a librarian: small eyes, neat straight brows, thin lips, a square high forehead. She has good skin but it is pink and hot because she is flustered. Her glance is naked and hostile - her last moment of free expression before she has to put on a smiling face.
She might be hostile to Toby; she is sometimes bossy and arbitrary with him.
Or perhaps to Helly, who comes and finds her out in her humiliation, dragged down by the children, without make-up, with wet red hands.
When Helly introduced her new boyfriend to Clare she said:
You two should know each other. David comes from round here too. We must have all been at teenage parties together. He knows people weknew.
But the man was a stranger, an alien in Clare's house, with sunglasses hiding his eyes and an exaggerated presence she flinched from, curvy big cheekbones and chin with blue-black stubble, a thick beautiful leather coat, loudly and confidently friendly in a way that suggested immediately to Clare that he didn't want to be here in the provinces visiting his girlfriend's friend who was nobody. When they all kissed, the Londoners smelled expensively of bathrooms full of bottles of scents and lotions, and Clare was aware of her limp T-shirt which had soaked up the smells of the onion soup she was making for their lunch. The onion soup, with Parmesan toasts baked in the oven, would be delicious. (It was.) And Helly couldn't cook. But Clare feared that everything brilliant and savoury about her might appear to have drained into that onion soup, leaving her wan and dull and domesticated.
Helly was her best friend.
Recently, Helly had been paid thirty thousand pounds (twice as much as Bram, Clare's partner, earned in a year) to make a series of television advertisements for ice cream; as well as on television, they were used in the cinema and on hoardings. Everywhere Clare went she was surprised out of her reverie by Helly's golden face or the misty curves of Helly's body, intently and extravagantly inviting her into a larger-than-life golden vanilla space concealed inside the prose of everyday. These images got in the way for a while whenever she was with the real Helly: the real Helly would even seem for the first few minutes slightly contracted, smaller and more precise than she should be, and muffled in surprising clothes.
Helly was embarrassed about the advert. She was a serious actress. She did get work, in fringe and in soaps, but not enough. She was still waiting for her break. And no one, no one, could have turned down thirty thousand pounds. The advertisements paid for the serious work: that was the theory. But her friends couldn't help feeling that something momentous had happened, that she had stepped into a golden current of money and frivolity and glamour that would carry her off. Anyway, she wasn't strikingly talented as an actress. Although none of them quite acknowledged it, this was more exciting, really, than if Helly had got a good part in a play. They watched to see what would happen next.
Clare could remember that when she and Helly were fifteen, one of their shared night-time fantasies had been to imagine their nakedness projected lingeringly onto a cinema screen in front of an audience. So she couldn't be sure just how genuine Helly's contemptuous indifference was to those golden simulacra plastered everywhere. Or how genuine her own contemptuous indifference was, either.
The two visitors filled up the little terraced house with noise and cigarette smoke and with their things. They had brought in from the car a camera and bags of presents and bottles of wine and flowers and a portable mini-disk player and a heap of leather luggage, even though they were only staying the one night; also a laptop on which David had already tried to access his e-mail. (He worked as a lighting technician, designing systems for stage shows and clubs: this seemed to necessitate frequent contacts with his associates and long sessions on the mobile.) They talked more loudly and constantly and laughed more than Clare was used to.
Clare was taken aback at how profoundly she coveted Helly's beautiful clothes. She liked to think she was fairly indifferent to material possessions. Under Bram's influence she had given away lots of her CDs, deciding she had outgrown them. They had a house full of books but no television, and Clare made her own bread and ground her own spices and salted lemons to put in salads and chicken dishes. She bought most of what she wore in charity shops: not grudgingly but pointedly, because it was more original to put together your own bits and pieces. But when she saw Helly's long lilac-coloured dress and her green velvet jacket sewn with mirrors and her toenails painted green, she was reminded that there was something else you could do with your clothes, something better than just original, something that amounted to power and joy. You needed money, to make the look of you so mysteriously arouse longing and satisfaction at once: although you had to have a gift, too, to choose the right things so inventively and surely.
Helly was grievously good to look at: tall and spare, all flat planes, wide shoulders, big hands and feet, with big cheekbones and a long mobile mouth. Her eyes were pale green and her skin was really quite pale, not golden like in the adverts. Her spiky hair was blonde out of a bottle, with the roots left deliberately dark. The children came and watched Helly and David as if they were a show. Lily reached out a finger and stroked the velvet of Helly's sleeve; Rose put on her Superman cape especially for David, who didn't notice. He never knew what he was supposed to say to people's children, he confessed. Helly was the one who made all the efforts. She'd brought them things, and she talked to them in a chaffing ironic voice that Clare knew (she knew Helly very well) meant she was slightly afraid of them, not sure what they were thinking or how to please them. Coco, the oldest and the boy, was deeply suspicious of both visitors. He winced at Helly's silver lip-ring and ignored her as if it was kinder not to draw attention to how she shamed herself by wearing it; but he was drawn, almost against his better judgement, to the laptop. Even Toby infuriatingly because he was twenty-three and should have been backing Clare up as a fellow adult sat dumbly smiling and blushing in spite of all Helly's efforts to bring him out (she would be much more confident of how to please him, not because she had known him since he was a boy, but because he was a man now, and couldn't take his eyes off the lip-ring).