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Rebecca was fiddling with the tuner button on the car radio. She'd been sitting in the monster traffic jam on Camden Road, engine off, for the best part of fifteen minutes. For the last two she'd been trying and failing to find some traffic news that might explain what was going on.
". . . still offering huge discounts on our exclusive range of Lazee Dayze recliners . . ."
"Here's Brotherhood of Man, with Save All Your Kisses for Me . . ."
Jab this time:
". . . and my Alan was just lying there, completely limp--not even the faintest sign of life. So, I did what anybody would do. I got down on the floor and started giving him the kiss of life."
Rebecca found herself stopping to listen.
"And isn't that a cheery, feel-good story to brighten up this drizzly a.m. in the capital? Jacky from Borehamwood, there, talking about her house fire and how she successfully resuscitated Alan, her iguana."
Her nose wrinkled as she imagined puckering up to some slimy reptile. Not that she hadn't puckered up to one or two in the odd drunken moment. The only difference was, her reptiles had worn tight leather pants and called her "babe."
". . . so best to avoid the Camden Road area if you can. More traffic news in the next hour. Caroline Feraday, 5 Live Travel . . ."
Rebecca Fine, newly appointed beauty columnist of the Daily Vanguard Saturday magazine, now let out a tiny yelp of frustration and switched off the radio. The monthly beauty, fashion and lifestyle meeting was due to start in half an hour, and unless the traffic freed up in the next few minutes, there was no way she was going to make it on time. It was her first meeting and she'd been so anxious to make a good impression. Her only hope was that other people would be driving in from north London and they would be late too. For now, all she could do was sit it out. She picked up her bag, which was lying on the passenger seat, and went rummaging for her lipstick and mascara.
She was staring into the driver's mirror, finishing her lashes, when the car behind her let out three long blasts of its horn. The first made her jump so violently that her mascara brush shot upward, leaving a gash of black from her eyebrow to her hairline, which made her look like some kind of unihorned devil. As the honking continued, she saw what had happened. A broken-down lorry, which had been causing the holdup, was now being towed away and the traffic was moving. Clearly the driver of the car behind her was more than a tad put out that she hadn't noticed. Her hand flew to the ignition, but the car refused to start. Honk. Honk. A twenty-yard gap had opened up in front of her.
"All right. All right." She was getting flustered now. Looking down, she saw the automatic gear lever was in drive. She shoved it into neutral. Honk. Honk. Honk.
As she turned the ignition key a second time, her eyes darted back to the rearview mirror. The honker was some guy in a flash sports car. No surprise there. Before she had a chance to move, he began pulling out to overtake her. He couldn't get up any speed because he was squeezing between her and the oncoming traffic. As he drew level with her, he leaned across the sports car's passenger seat and lowered the window. Rebecca lowered hers.
"My apologies for disturbing you," he smirked. Plummy voice, expensive suit, floppy Hugh Grant hair. Posh estate agent, probably. "It's just that some of us have jobs to go to."
"Look, I'm really sorry, but there was no need to blast me like that . . ."
Just then her mobile started ringing.
As she picked it up off the dashboard and pressed OK, the sports car roared off.
"And it's Mr. Subaru Turbo," she said in a singsong voice, "who wins the award for the smallest penis, this drizzly a.m."
"Hi, Becks. It's me," the voice on the end of the line giggled. "Listen, have I disturbed some kind of intimate moment? I mean I can always call back."
It was Jess.
"No, you're fine," Rebecca said, her tone brightening. She put the phone between her shoulder and chin and asked Jess to hang on while she pulled away. It was a difficult maneuver, since all the cars behind her had followed the Subaru and nobody was allowing her to rejoin the stream of traffic. Finally somebody let her in.
"God, he'd have thought twice about intimidating me like that," Jess said when Rebecca had finished telling her about the hooray honker.
"Too blinkin' right. You see I've got this brilliant new bumper sticker that says: 'I'm out of estrogen and I've got a gun.' "
Rebecca burst out laughing. "So," she said, "how's the baby?"
"Oh, you know," Jess said with a sigh, "fine, but knackering. In the two months we've had him I don't think either of us has had more than three hours' sleep on the trot." She paused. "Then there's my Bagpuss."
"Oh, sweet. Bought it for the baby?" Rebecca asked, assuming quite reasonably that her best friend had been to Toys "R" Us and bought the furry TV character for the baby.
"No, you dope, Diggory hasn't got it."
Diggory. Jess adored the name. And since Rebecca adored Jess, she pretended to love the name, too, but secretly she worried that the poor child might grow up to become a bearded botanist in a cardigan.
"What, so you bought it for you? Getting in touch with your child within. Nice."
"Oh God. Becks, listen. I haven't bought Bagpuss. I've got it. Let's put it this way, since giving birth, my pencil-gripping days are definitely a thing of the past."
"What? You could do that?"
"I don't know. I never tried. But if I could, I wouldn't be able to do it now. And I know Ed's noticed. Why else would we have only done it twice since the baby? The second time it took him ages to get a hard-on. He doesn't fancy me anymore. I just know it."
"Oh, come on," Rebecca soothed, "Ed's crazy about you. Always has been. He's not going to go off you simply because you've gained a millimeter or two in the pussy department. You've got a new baby. He's exhausted like you are, that's all. Sex is hardly going to be what it was, not for a while anyway. You of all people should know that."
Jess was the agony aunt at Femme magazine. It always amazed Rebecca how she seemed able to get a handle on everybody else's problems except her own.
"Just keep doing the pelvic floor exercises," Rebecca went on, "and I'm sure everything'll spring back into shape."
"Yeah, you're right," Jess said, cheering up. "Look, you don't fancy popping round tonight, do you? Ed's got to work late on the news desk and I'll be all on my own with the Digsbury. I'm longing to hear how the new job's going."
"Great," Rebecca said. "I'll bring pizza."
The moment she hung up, her mobile went off a second time. She pressed OK, desperate for whomever it was on the other end to be one of her few friends who wasn't pregnant or recently delivered and with whom she could still have an above-the-waist conversation.
". . . still leaking when she sneezes . . . Hello? Rebecca?"
Rebecca's brow furrowed.
"Sorry, darling, I've got Esther here. We're off to the sales. I was in the middle of telling her about my cousin Doreen's bladder operation. I didn't think you'd pick up so soon. So, did you see it?"
"What, cousin Doreen's bladder operation?"
"No, silly. The e-mail I sent you."
Grandma Rose was a Net head--a "silver surfer" who had forced herself to come to grips with new technology when she realized how much cheaper it was to e-mail her brothers and sisters in Miami and Sydney, not to mention her cousin Doreen in Montreal with the leaky bladder, than phone. With time on her hands, what had begun as a money saver had become a hobby verging on an obsession.
"No, sorry, I haven't had a chance to check my e-mail. I was out till quite late last night."
"Ooh, somewhere nice?"
"Just a bar in town with a few friends."
"And you ate?"
"So, what did you eat?"
"We all went out for sushi afterward."
"What? A few bits of raw fish? You'll fade away. You'll turn into your great-aunt Minnie. The woman ate like a sparrow. If it wasn't for her nose she'd have had no shape at all."
From the moment Rebecca's mother died ten years ago, her adoring, devoted Jewish Grandma Rose had taken it upon herself to worry, fuss and kvetch about every aspect of Rebecca's life. "Not that I want to meddle, but . . ." became her mantra. This of course was the surest sign that she was about to do precisely that, on a scale unsurpassed since Hitler meddled with the Sudetenland.
Top of Rose's causes for concern list was Rebecca's lack of a husband. This was closely followed by her granddaughter's health, which naturally included her eating habits. God forbid she should mention the gut pain she'd had last week after a dodgy prawn bhuna. Rose would have her off to a gastroenterologist before she could say barium enema.
"So," Rose continued, "did you, er, you know, meet anybody nice?"
"Gran, believe me, the only man I went to bed with last night was Jerry Seinfeld."
"Ooh, do I know him? You've never mentioned him. Well, I hope he took precautions."
Rebecca decided against teasing her grandmother further and explained that she'd been watching the TV show. (Seinfeld being her absolute, all-time favorite sitcom. Last night The Paramount Channel had been showing twelve episodes back-to-back. She'd managed to stay with it until just after one, before finally dropping off.)
"So, Gran--the e-mail."
"Oh right," Rose said cheerily, clearly over her disappointment that Rebecca wasn't going out with Jerry Seinfeld. "Well, I was surfing yesterday afternoon and I came across this lonely hearts Web site. Listen, have I ever got a fella for you."
"OK, get this: 'Orthopedic surgeon, Jewish. Midthirties. Looking for love.' Doesn't he sound just perfect?"
Rose was positively squealing with delight. " 'Dark. Six two. Lean, masculine guy. Not hairy chested.' Personally I like a man with a bit of chest hair, but never mind. Goes on to say he's got a mustache . . . You know, I think that Clark Gable look's definitely coming back . . . and that he's passive and very versatile. What more could you want? A man who doesn't argue and can turn his hand to anything. Then it says he likes to give O . . . I'm not sure what that last bit means. Maybe he donates to some orthopedic charity or something. My God, a philanthropist as well. So what do you reckon? There's an e-mail address."
"You sure that's all it says?" Rebecca said with faux casualness.
"Yes, except for some initials I don't understand at the beginning."
"What initials?" Rebecca asked. She knew precisely what was coming.
"G.W. M. Actually, thinking about it, I reckon that must mean good with money."
"Gran, it stands for gay white male."
Grandma Rose missed a beat.
"Positive," Rebecca declared.
"Esther," Rose hissed, "Rebecca says he's gay."
Rebecca could hear her explaining about G.W. M. A few moments later she was back on the line.
"Esther reckons it might be worth contacting him anyway. She says perhaps he's not very gay. She could be right. It's possible he's just confused. So many young people are these days. You could help him sort himself out. What else have you got to do? After all, you haven't had a date for nine months. Why you had to finish with that Simon beats me. He sounded so nice. Two weeks you went out. How can you expect to get to know a person in two weeks?"
"Gran, you can't be a bit gay. It's like being a bit dead. And I've told you before, it just didn't work out between me and Simon. I know you worry, but I'm doing fine on my own, honest. And it's not like I don't have friends. Look, I gotta run, I've just pulled up outside the office and I'm running late. I'll speak to you later. Love you."
She was grateful for an excuse to get off the phone. There was no way she could ever tell her the real reason she ended it with Simon.
The truth was that Simon, an exceedingly cute stand-up comic and ventriloquist, had been just a tad off piste personalitywise. But not in a trendy, cool way--more in a weird, Star Trek convention kind of way. For a start, his hobby was wood turning and polishing. On their second date he presented her with an exquisitely finished mug tree. On the third, a newel!
What was more, he insisted the dummy--a pint-size football hooligan with a rictus grin, two earrings and a Tommy Hilfiger tracksuit--accompany them on all their dates. At first Rebecca thought this was a hoot, since Wayne (the dummy) would often pipe up with the odd witticism. The real problem--and the reason she finally ended it--began as soon as she and Simon started having sex. Whenever Simon came, the omnipresent Wayne would yell at the top of his voice: "Back of the net! Back of the fucking net!"
Apart from the occasional till-dawn-do-us-part relationship, there hadn't been anybody since.
"You know what you should do?" Grandma Rose had said soon after she finished with Simon. "Pack up and move somewhere where the men outnumber the women."
Rose immediately went on the Net to gather statistics. It turned out Rebecca's choices were the Shetland Isles, Qatar or Tower Hamlets.
Occasionally she found herself sharing Rose's pessimism about her lack of a man. She was thirty-two; if she wasn't careful her life was going to end up on the remaindered table along with all the Anthea Turner biographies. It was always Jess who brought her to her senses, made her see that playing the field could be just as much fun as being in a relationship. She'd done it the other night when she popped in for a quick chat (having left Diggory and a bottle of expressed milk with Ed), only to discover Rebecca sitting in her PMS dressing gown, drowning her sorrows in Baileys and Marshmallow Fluff sandwiches.
Jess spent ages doing her sympathetic but sensible agony aunt bit, reminding her that a relationship did not guarantee happiness. "I mean Liz Hurley had to put up with Hugh's antics. Mick constantly cheated on Jerry."