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It was one of those parties that would live on in the collective memory, ripening over the years with significance and irony; a party that would launch a hundred favorite anecdotes and change lives. But to actually experience it was hell. It was full of tomorrow's celebs and high-fliers, yesterday's love affairs and embarrassments. The laughter was loud and the talk thunderous, the noise almost drowning out the din from the music deck but not making a dent in the clash of egos.
Katie sipped at her paper cup of sweet punch again because she'd forgotten how disgusting it was. Ex-boyfriend number three, Hugh, was bellowing at her over the thumping bass. She hadn't seen him for four years, and was frowning so hard to hear him that she looked as if she was straining. Hugh did not have a naturally loud voice, but what he lacked in ability he made up for in motivation.
"... but the annual bonus," he trumpeted, "you see, is a golden handcuff."
"A golden what?"
"Handcuff. Uncouth to go into details, but they really know what they're doing."
"Excellent. So, how is -- "
"I mean put it this way, we're talking more than -- "
And then he did an impression of a person whose trousers had been set on fire. Katie was impressed. He'd rarely been so interesting. As he re-landed, the grinning face of their hostess, Sandy, appeared beside him. It was Sandy's engagement party and she was very, very drunk.
"Hello everybody!" she greeted them. "Hello Hugh-Poo. If I wasn't a taken woman, you'd be in trouble."
Hugh gave a tight smile. "Anyway, if you'll excuse me." His voice was slightly pained.
"Oh dear," said Sandy. "You're not leaving on my account, are you?"
"No, no," said Hugh. "I must just ..." As he limped off, Sandy turned to Katie.
"It's so hard not to do it to him," she whispered into Katie's left eye.
"It's his face."
"How am I going to be mature enough to get married?"
"Show me the ring again!"
Sandy extended her hand in glee and Katie ooh-ed at the beautiful diamond in its platinum setting. As she did so, Geraldine, Sandy's flatmate, appeared as if from nowhere.
"Oh my God," she muttered. "You're not still showing that thing off are you?"
They looked up at her.
"Hello Gerry," greeted Katie. "Sprinkling happy fairy-dust all around, as usual?"
Ignoring Katie, Geraldine looked down at her flatmate. "People will think you're getting married for all the wrong reasons, you know."
Sandy gave a regretful look at her ring. "I just think it's beautiful." She gave a little sigh.
"It is!" squealed Katie. "Let me see it again."
Sandy, never one to stay unhappy for long, extended her hand again, as Geraldine tutted. "Have you been remembering to take pictures?" she asked.
Sandy gasped, "Oh no!" She rushed off on heels that seemed to have turned her ankles to sponge.
"I knew it," Geraldine said to Katie. "All that money on the newest digital camera and she hasn't taken one shot. Money to burn."
"You know, you should be careful," warned Katie. "People will think you're jealous."
It was Geraldine's turn to gasp. "Me? Jealous? Are you mad? I wouldn't marry that man unless he ... I don't know ..." Katie raised her eyebrows. "Proposed?"
Geraldine sighed. "Piss off." She took a gulp of punch and then grimaced. "I told her she put too much sugar in this. It's like medicine," she said before finishing it in one. "I just assumed I'd get married before her."
"Do you want to talk about it?" asked Katie.
Then Geraldine was off. "All the way through college -- three goddam years -- I had to listen to her pathetic relationship problems-- that girl has the emotional maturity of a boohbah. I could become a relationship counselor just off the back of being her flatmate. The hours I wasted listening to her waffle. And all the time," she took a deep breath, "I thought I was on to a sure-fire thing with that wanker. A man whose idea of commitment is to buy a newspaper. Mr. Emotional-Retard."
"Well," sighed Katie, "you should have guessed from his name."
"And can you believe," squeaked Geraldine, "two years together and he chucks me during a Pizza Express meal -- a Pizza Express meal -- and then comes to the party tonight?"
"Yes. You know what he is, don't you?"
"An emotional retard?"
"He's a fucking emotional retard."
"So, where is he?" Katie looked round the expanse of oak-floored room.
"In the corner," said Geraldine. "Don't look!" She yanked the back of Katie's halter-neck dress. "Jesus, Katie, I don't want him to think we're talking about him. He's arrogant enough already."
"Did you invite him?" choked Katie, rearranging herself.
"Of course I did. We're good friends. I'm completely over him."
"As long as no one looks at him."
"All right then, Miss Smarty-pants. I'll introduce you -- and then you can tell me what an emotional retard you think he is."
"Ooh, I can't wait. Lead on McMadwoman."
Just as they turned round, Hugh blocked their path. He gave them both a big grin and Geraldine abandoned Katie to his monologue.
"Right," he said. "Goolies all straightened. Now, where was I?"
Despite herself, after talking to Hugh for a while Katie remembered why she'd been able to stay with him for so long. Ten months and three weeks to be precise. There was a comfy solidity about him, a warm reassurance that seemed to emanate from his M&S cardi ... The Waitress. Copyright © by Melissa Nathan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.