The Way We Were
At five past six, every day, the same question:
“Katie, what have you done?”
For some people that might have been a question filled with foreboding. You know, what have you done with your life; or look what you’ve screwed up now. But from me, at this time, it always got the same answer, a smart answer:
“Made coffee, chatted to the girls, tried (and failed) to make the printer print, had my nails done next door at the N.Y. Nail Bar, went for a latte at Gino’s (flashed my second best smile at the divine boy Dante, but I wouldn’t tell Penny that), chatted some more to the girls, thought about the collection, phoned the factory (why can’t they learn to speak English?), got a sandwich from Cranks, puked it up in the bog, had a spat with the French, sent reminders to Harvey Nicks and the new shop in Harrogate. Just the usual.”
And Penny, breathing exasperation into the phone, always came back with, “You know exactly what I mean. What did you do?”
And so I’d give up. “Three and a half.”
“Not bad for a Tuesday.”
“Bloody good for a Tuesday. But today’s Wednesday.”
“Well, not bad for a Wednesday, either. What did you say you did?”
“Three and a half.”
“And what about Beeching Place?”
“Just one and a half.”
“Oh. Still, that’s . . . six thousand for the two shops.”
“You know I’m no good at fractions. What did you say you did?”
The miracleis that I managed to stay sane for so long.
I suppose when I first went to work for Penny she was pretty good. After all, she’d built up Penny Moss from not much more than a market stall into a perfectly respectable business, a business that people had almost heard of, even if they sometimes got us mixed up with Ronit Zilkha, or Caroline Charles, or, heaven forfend, Paul Costelloe. Two shops and a wholesale side that had taken off and was cruising at a comfortable altitude. People had worn our clothes on daytime telly. Penny, conspicuously without Hugh, had been in Hello!. Well, okay, OK! But, as Penny pointed out to anyone who’d listen, it’s got a bigger circulation anyway. A cabinet minister wore one of our suits at the party conference (a coffee tussah silk affair, like a funked-up Chanel) and, for the first time, looked more feminine than her male colleagues. Professional women who want to look chic and chic women who want to look professional wear our clothes. The next time you’re at a wedding, look around you. There, among the neuralgic pink and monkey-puke yellow, you’ll see our clothes: subtle, perfectly tailored, elegant.
Where were we? Yes, just as we were beginning to make some real money, Penny started to get battier. She’d always had tendencies. Odd flights of fancy, a fondness for viscose. But now she was forgetting things. Losing things. The usual signposts in the foothills of senility. If I sound callous, it’s because she’s not my mum. She’s Ludo’s. Oh, God! It’s all getting complicated already. I’ll have to set it out straight, or you’ll never catch up.
My name is Katie Castle, and this is the story of how I had everything, lost it all, and then found it again, but not quite all of it, and not in the same form, and, if I’m perfectly frank (which, I have to confess, doesn’t come naturally), not, in every single particular, quite so good. The story’s mainly about me, but it also involves, in no special order:
• Penny, my employer, the wife of Hugh;
• Hugh, the husband of Penny;
• Liam, my Big Mistake;
• Jonah, who was nearly an even bigger mistake, but who turned out to be a Good Thing;
• Veronica, my loyal and faithful servant, up to a point; and
• Ludo, who is the adored child of Penny and Hugh and who was, at the very beginning, the point at which you came in, my beloved, my betrothed.
There’re lots of other people as well, friends and hangers-on, but you’ll meet them when you meet them. I’ve decided to be honest, so you might find yourself thinking me a madam or a minx, but even if I do some bad things, and some silly things, you must try to stay on my side, because in the end I turn out to be quite good, I promise.
In the beginning. Like everybody else, I live in London. Like almost everybody else, I live in Primrose Hill, the bit of London where Camden stops being horrid and Regents Park stops being boring. Like not quite everybody else, but like an awful-lot-of-body-else, I work in fashion. So I’m not really a designer, but anyone who works in fashion will tell you that the most important person in any fashion company is the production manager. We all know that. What’s a designer, anyway? A tricky East E what to steal and who to screw. Or who to be screwed by. Not even an original thief, but a parasite on parasites. A magpie collecting bits of tinsel other magpies have thieved. Art school losers too good at drawing to make it as artists, too vain to be teachers, too thick to be anything else. I love them, but I wouldn’t want to be one. And anyway, we don’t really have designers in our company. We have Penny. And Penny has me.
I started in the shop. There was a card in the window: “Help Wanted. Experience preferred.” Well, I had experience. Penny and Hugh interviewed me. I did my trick of being girlie and grown-up at the same time: girlie to Hugh and grown-up to Penny. The shop’s on a little lane just off Regent Street. It looks quite small from the front, but it goes on up forever, stairs winding into the sky. I should say that it starts out as a shop, and then it becomes a studio, where the samples are made, and then at the top it turns into an office. I spend most of my time at the top, with Penny, who goes home at four o’clock every day except Friday, when she goes home at three. That’s why she always phones me at five past six to find out how we’ve done.
The girls in the shop don’t like me very much. We all chatter away whenever I drop down to see how things are going, but I know they bitch about me when I’m gone. That’s just the way shops are—there’s nothing else to do. If it’s not the fat bums and flabby tits of the customers, then it’s the stupidity and cruelty of the bosses, and that sort of includes me. They don’t like the way that I skipped upstairs, leaving them behind. They think I think I’m too good for them now, which I do, and I am. But our warfare is cold, and mainly takes the form of sulks and obstinacy over rotas.
Things are different with the studio. The problem there is that I have to tell them when things go wrong. I have to make them do things they don’t want to do, and then I have to make them do them again. I have to tell them off. Penny is too grand to concern herself with such matters as stretched necks, lumpy zips, badly distributed ease on the sleeve head, sloppy felling, and wavering seams. And that means, of course, that it’s me who has to stand there as Tony, our unreliable, temperamental, irascible, but entirely essential sample machinist, throws one of his tantrums, spitting out curses in Maltese and rending pieces of calico to frayed white ribbon. It’s me that has to endure the open enmity of Mandy, with her leopardskin pants and tongue to match.
But I didn’t care. And why didn’t I care? Because my life was perfect.
. . .
A poet died in my square. I read her poems once, but they were all me me me. The flat isn’t mine, of course. It’s Ludo’s. But it felt like mine. I’d made it mine. Everything apart from the brick and slate had been chosen by me. Out had gone Ludo’s schoolboy clutter—his saggy old armchair, his disgusting family heirloom curtains; pictures of dead people. So now we had clean lines, a gleaming wood floor, blinds that seemed to make the rooms lighter rather than darker when they were down. There were always flowers. Ludo hates flowers. “I’d see the point if you could eat them,” he’d say. His horrible old books were confined to his study—the Smelly Room, I called it.
Ludo. Everybody loved Ludo. He was so helpless. He looked like a completely random pile of clothes, hair, shoes, and beer bottles somehow come to life. I tried to do for him what I’d done for the flat, but it didn’t take. It was like trying to polish suede. At least I managed to get him to cut his hair, which was something, even if he resented it in that slow-burning way of his.
The really funny thing about Ludo is that he was a teacher. And he didn’t even have to be. He could have done all sorts of things, he was so clever. But instead of all sorts of things, he taught English at a school in Lambeth—the kind of school where even the teachers carry knives. I suppose it was some kind of reaction against his parents. Or rather against Penny. He’d spend all night marking in the Smelly Room. He had views about the National Curriculum, but none of our friends ever listened.
Seducing Ludo was easy. I could tell that he liked me because he blushed the first time he met me. I was still in the shop then, and he came in to see Penny. Although it was August, he wore a hairy tweed jacket, like a cowpat with arms.
“Mum in?” he said to Zuleika, the Lebanese girl who’d been there for years without doing very much, unless you count having lovely skin as doing something. Before she had the chance to answer, I carpe diemed.
“She’s lunching with Vogue. You must be the genius. I’m Katie Castle.” Before he knew what was happening, I had him out of there and into Slackers wine bar. During the first bottle of Pouilly-Fumé we did, in a slow spiral downward, his favorite books, his favorite films, his job, his loves, his hates, his inner despair, his aching loneliness, his family. I sighed and nodded, eyes moistening in sympathy. And then, in a textbook maneuver, I led him from that dark place and showed him that life could be fun. I joked, I flirted I sparkled, and we spiraled up through the second bottle, like pearl fishers. I made it seem as though he were doing the entertaining: I laughed at his first jokes, moved closer, bent toward him, touched his arm.
And, you know, it really wasn’t all pretend. Underneath all that hair and cobwebs and mustiness, I found a perfectly nice-looking man, with a lovely, shy smile and really quite kissable eyes. Even if he hadn’t been my big chance, I still might have fallen in love with him. We made it back just before Penny—I was always a good judge of a lunchtime. Zuleika was fuming, but that didn’t matter. Penny made her entrance and enveloped Ludo in her customary critical embrace. And instantly, with that famous low cunning of hers, she knew.
“Darling, have you been getting in the way of the girls?” she declaimed, and without pause swept Ludo up the stairs to write the check. But on his way out, a long, long half hour later, he asked for my number, and his fate was sealed.
Of course, Penny tried to fight it. Penny understood me very well. Because, I suppose, we’re really quite alike. Or could it just be that she always thinks the worst of people and the worst, on this one occasion, just happened to be true? I always had an ally in Hugh. Hugh loves women, and the prettier they are, the more he loves them. And whatever they might say in the shop, or the studio, or anywhere else, I am pretty. Hugh always thought I was good for Ludo. “You’re good for Ludo,” he’d say. “You bring him out of himself. Stop him from brooding and sulking all the time like a wolf in its lair.” It became clear that Ludo was a disappointment to him. Hugh was big and bold and successful and confident. He’d sent Ludo to his old school, hoping it would turn him into a copy of himself. Instead poor Ludo emerged broken and resentful. To Hugh and Penny’s despair, and despite insanely good grades, he refused even to apply to Oxford, but went instead to some college in Wales. “Not even a wretched redbrick,” as Hugh bemoaned. “Looks like a Bulgarian nuclear power station.” It was always hard working out Hugh and Penny as a couple. Hugh was posh, you couldn’t escape that. He had that faint sheen that only posh people seem to carry with them, even into late middle age. Not like my parents. Not, I suspect, like Penny’s. Penny had been an actress. She would rattle off titles from TV series in the sixties I’d never heard of. She talked about a play. There had been a couple of films. Sean Connery was mentioned, but I never worked out in what connection. She said that she had given it all up for Hugh and Ludo. Penny Moss—her maiden name—began as a hobby. She made her own clothes in the sixties— tie-dyed head scarves, crocheted ponchos with matching berets, that sort of thing, I imagine. People liked them. She began to sell them to friends. The next thing she knew, she had a Saturday stall in Portobello, just a bit of fun, really. And then the first shop.
All this time Hugh’s enterprises—things in the City, investments, speculations—were starting to “go a little stale,” as he put it. And then, sometime in the early 1980s, there came a point when Penny Moss began to bring in more than he did. Rather than pick up the gauntlet, he capitulated. Drew up the drawbridge and took to golf. Penny used to drag him into the office occasionally, to help with hiring and firing, but it was more symbolic than anything. He didn’t seem too bothered about it. He’d bought the fabulous house in Kensington. He still had a few investments, and Penny Moss was doing nicely. Why work when, again in his words, he could simply “live off his hump”? But this had all led to a power shift in the relationship. And Penny was never one to miss an opportunity. As Hugh retreated, so she advanced. She’d been attractive (I’d seen—who hadn’t?—the photographs) as a young woman, but as a woman of a certain age, she was a stunner. She went every year to Cannes during the festival, and there were rumors of affairs with the most surprising people. Could Peter Sellers really have proposed one moonlit night on a yacht chartered by the French minister of culture? She claimed she kept the ring as a memento when he refused to take it back. Did Marcello Mastroianni really suggest a spot of troilism with a Scandawegian starlet? Penny used to talk about these things in a wistful sort of way, as though it were something she’d desired rather than achieved, but Ludo’s grumpy silence on the subject offered some kind of authentication. I got the feeling that he’d been teased about her at school. I found it hard not to laugh whether or not the stories were true.
But that’s all ancient history. I’ll cut to the chase. Ludo was mine, whatever Penny thought about it. We lived together in the Primrose Hill flat, and we were engaged, although Ludo could never quite remember when or how he had asked me to marry him. When it became clear that she could not maneuver me out of Ludo’s life (she’d tried both blackmail and bribery), Penny had the good sense to draw me up to the office, to avoid the shame of her sweet boy consorting with a shop girl. I was made an assistant to Carol, the previous production manager. But Carol must have known the writing was on the wall, and after a week, to everyone’s relief, she left to do volunteer work in Egypt and was never heard of again. I used to like to think that she’d been eaten by a crocodile. I know that might suggest that I’m a bit lacking in the generosity of spirit department, but I used to be much preoccupied by the question of whether it would be better to be eaten by a crocodile or a shark. Crocodile always seemed more likely, because of Tarzan. You see, I could always imagine myself as Jane, whereas sharks mainly seem to eat Australians, and imagining oneself as an Australian is out of the question.
With my new job I soon found that I had new friends. The London fashion world is a small one. There are six people you have to know. Enter that blessed circle and you will never miss a party and never brunch alone. If I hadn’t quite made it into that circle, I was at least a satellite of a moon orbiting a planet that was part of the circle, and for now, that would do.
And then—could it really be just nine months ago?—came that phone call from Penny and my usual smart reply. But it was not to end there.
“Katie darling . . .” A bad sign, that “darling.”
“There’s some trouble at the depot. Cavafy says he can’t find the right interlining. I know it’s there, somewhere. You couldn’t go out there tomorrow morning and check for me, could you? There’s really no one else I can ask. You can do it on your way in to work.”
I pulled my Jean Muir face and hissed out three shits and a fuck. The depot was the worst thing about my job. A hideous warehouse in outer Mile End, full of toiling women whose lives were simply too awful to contemplate. Cavafy was the old Greek who ran the place, with his idiot son, Angel. And the “on your way in to work” was typical Penny. Mile End was no more on my way in to work than my ass is on the way to my elbow.
Copyright 2002 by Rebecca Campbell