Claudia Taylor's life is a mess. Her twenties and thirties seem to have disappeared in a haze of boring office jobs, unsuitable shags, and superficial spending. Her latest disaster? An ill-advised fling. In an attempt to get some perspective on her life, Claudia jets off to glorious Santorini with her two best friends, Tara and Sophie. But it's not long before they're shaking their heads at some of Claudia's shenanigans. Meanwhile, Sophie and Tara are wrestling with their own issues. Sophie, a former high-flying career woman, is struggling with being a stay-at-home mother and her husband's nasty ex-wife. Tara is sick of her dead-end job and trying to write a novel. Claudia's Big Break is an hilarious novel about friendship, romance, laughter, and loyalty. It's also about three woman taking stock of their lives—with a bit of drunken karaoke thrown in to the mix. For Claudia and her friends, life will never be the same after their much-needed holiday in paradise.
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Claudia's Big Break
By Lisa Heidke
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Lisa Heidke
All rights reserved.
I called Sophie and Tara. My place, 7 pm sharp! Not such a stretch for Tara — we live together and she normally arrives home from work around then. But Sophie has a three-year-old son and hesitated for a moment.
'What's so important we have to meet up tonight?' she asked.
'It's a surprise. Come on. Your babysitter is a fifteen-year-old girl with an expensive Diva habit to support. She's always available to mind Levi.'
'I guess,' Sophie replied before agreeing.
I had it all planned. The Mamma Mia DVD playing on television, taramosalata, dolmades and olives for starters, then steaming calamari, moussaka and Greek salad for mains. Ouzo, wine. Nothing was left to chance. I'd even placed a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic on the dining table as a not so subtle reminder of our last holiday together. But the pièce de resistance? A photo of the three of us taken at a Polynesian theme night on said holiday! Ah, the memories.
I gazed at the photo of Sophie, Tara and I, flanked by two strapping Hawaiian dancers in traditional costume. We looked so young. Sophie, with her beaming pixie face and masses of curly hair, was looking off to the side; from memory, at a gyrating Elvis (circa 1962) impersonator. Tara was front and centre, holding her wineglass and shouting, 'Cheers!', her eyes as wide as saucers. And then there was me, leaning forward and laughing so hard I was almost falling over, despite having my arm wrapped tightly around a gorgeous Hawaiian. It was one of my all-time favourite photos. It didn't hurt that my hair, as dark as Sophie's is blonde, had a carefree wave, and my freckles, usually prominent, seemed to have been airbrushed out. My pale skin was slightly tanned and, thanks to the stilettos I had been wearing, I appeared tall.
'What gives with all the Greek stuff?' asked Tara after I'd poured us all a glass of wine.
'You're opening a Greek restaurant!' said Sophie.
'Not quite.' I sipped my wine, pausing for dramatic effect. 'I'm off to Santorini ...'
'Lucky you,' said Tara. 'Way to rub it in!'
'It would be if I was going alone, but I want you guys to come with me.'
They both squealed.
'You're kidding,' said Tara.
'I can't just up and leave,' said Sophie.
'Why not? Bring Levi. He'll love it. It'll be like old times.' Old times like when the three of us jetted off to Hawaii ten years ago. I picked up the bottle of Hawaiian Tropic and popped the lid. 'Smell that and tell me you can't escape for a couple of weeks.'
We all sniffed the oil and giggled.
'Come on. Let's get sunburnt, outrageously drunk in Greek bars and cut loose for two weeks.' I almost had them. 'Please! I can't go without my besties!'
Tara and Sophie were my best friends, but over the past few years, what with us each pursuing different paths, we hadn't spent as much time together as we used to. Although I was sharing Tara's house, we were like ships passing in the night. I wouldn't go so far as to say we were drifting apart but we weren't drifting together either. And in the last six months I'd probably seen Sophie five times. I missed my friends, missed our sleepovers when we'd talk into the early hours of the morning, sharing secrets, dreams and ambitions. I wanted to recapture that time, that enthusiasm, that deep friendship.
'Why Santorini?' said Tara, picking up the photo and examining it. 'We were so young.'
'Weren't we. Why Santorini? Because I've got a tiny bit of work to do in Athens and, as a bonus, Marcus — my boss — is paying for a further two weeks of accommodation on Santorini.'
'Lucky you,' said Tara again.
'And lucky you, too. With the accommodation taken care of, all you two have to cough up for is the airfare. You're always saying we should take another holiday together.'
'I was talking about a weekend in Melbourne,' said Sophie.
'Or Byron Bay,' Tara chimed in.
'Byron, Santorini ... Come on, guys, what's the problem?'
'I've got deadlines,' said Tara.
'But when was the last time you took a holiday?'
Tara rolled her eyes.
'I'll tell you. Three years ago. You give your all to that magazine. Besides, didn't you say that you'd had enough of Melinda?' Melinda being Tara's maniacal boss. 'Especially after the bomb shelter incident?'
'What?' Sophie said.
Tara waved her hand. 'It was nothing. Just another editorial meeting in which Melinda started canvassing story ideas in five words or less and then exploded —'
I laughed. 'Because you goaded her.'
'All I said was, "Boho mod meets urban disintegration."'
'And?' said Sophie.
'Melinda spat back with, "A bit 2010 don't you think?" So I responded with, "Countdown to chic: Creating a formidable home weapons arsenal that's practical as well as stylish."' Tara shook her head. 'On second thoughts, maybe the timing is perfect.'
'Melinda didn't get the joke, huh?' Sophie laughed as she sipped her wine. 'Has it really been a decade since we went to Hawaii?'
I nodded. 'Yep. It was just after you met Alex.'
'And you made us watch all of those Hawaiian Brady Bunch episodes,' said Tara.
'The curse of the Tiki!' Sophie squealed.
'Mike's and Greg's frizzy perms,' I said, laughing at the memory.
'I was terrified about parasailing,' said Sophie.
'But you did it,' said Tara. 'The pineapples, leis, Elvis ... It was great.'
'The best,' agreed Sophie. 'But we were younger then. Won't I cramp your style, being the only married one and taking Levi as well?'
'Nonsense,' I said. 'I have very little style so there's absolutely nothing to cramp. What do you say?'
'A break would be nice,' said Tara.
'Especially in Santorini,' added Sophie.
'So we're all agreed?'
We clinked glasses and danced around the living room, singing Dancing Queen and sloshing wine. The deal was sealed. Ten days from now we'd be flying off on a holiday of a lifetime.
Of course, I'd neglected to mention to the girls how this little venture had really come about and that after our sojourn I'd be looking for a new job.
It wasn't as though I'd been sacked or anything. No, Marcus was too smooth for that. Instead, he'd orchestrated my removal from the office for two weeks so I could get over my ill-advised fling with him, by way of an all-expenses-paid vacation in Europe. Then he'd dropped hints about the difficulty of our working together after that.
I felt like such an idiot. Marcus, a self-made millionaire, had built up one of the largest importing firms (olives, oils, that kind of thing) in Australia. He was good-looking, charismatic, and for the past few months I'd been ... well, I just hadn't been myself, and therefore I'd been vulnerable to his considerable charms. I'd slept with him once, a while back, even though I'd known it was wrong on so many levels. First level, he was my boss; second level, he was married — well, newly separated. And the levels went on.
I swear I'm not the sort of person who sleeps with married men, newly separated or not. And after that first time I promised myself it wouldn't happen again. But it did — a further dozen times. What was I thinking!
Anyway, it was over — well and truly. When Marcus's soon to be ex-wife, Trish, had come into the office a couple of weeks ago, I'd felt physically ill. It didn't matter that they were no longer together, our affair felt sordid and cheap. And I was past being sordid ... and cheap. Truthfully, my feelings for Marcus had deepened, and there were moments (mostly after watching a Julia Roberts or Hugh Grant movie; definitely after watching Notting Hill) when I believed if I quit working for him we could have a real relationship conducted openly, sipping champagne at Belle Époque or margaritas at Cloudland. But Marcus wasn't interested. In fact, he'd been decidedly cool the previous few weeks. So before I really fell in love, it needed to end.
True to my good intentions, the day after Trish's visit I hung around the office until the other staff had left for the evening. 'I can't do this any more,' I said to Marcus when he swung by my office.
'And what might that be, gorgeous?'
'Don't gorgeous me. You know what I mean — you and me. I think your wife knows. She looked at me —'
'You're paranoid, Claudia. Trish doesn't know anything. Besides, it's none of her business anyway.'
'I don't care. I'm not the sort of woman who goes around sleeping with married men.'
Marcus regarded me with his blue eyes, gym-toned arms crossed in front of his broad chest, and cocked his handsome head sideways. 'Calm down. We're okay.'
I shook my head. 'I don't think so.'
I mean, how could we be okay? Sneaking around, never going out in public. Tara and Sophie didn't even know about us. It was wrong. If we were truly a couple, I would have told them and Marcus and I would be dining at Aria Brisbane instead of eating takeaway pizza in the boardroom.
He took a moment. Several moments. Marcus likes to deliberate when it comes to making decisions. 'I was going to head over to Athens to meet with a new investor, but quite frankly I think you could do with a break. Why don't you go instead?'
'For a day or two. Meet this guy, have him sign a slip of paper, and then take a holiday. The Greek Islands. Santorini maybe? Take your girlfriends.'
'So you want me out of here? Got your eye on the new sales rep, is that it?' I was being irrational, thinking about how he'd held Maddie's gaze a bit too long at that afternoon's sales meeting.
'Claudia, I thought you didn't care. Now that you mention it,' he said, rubbing his chin, 'she's not bad looking ...'
I shook my head. 'I'm so glad I didn't fall in love with you.'
Marcus smiled at me in that provocative way of his. 'Seriously, it's probably best that we —'
'End it?' The it caught in my throat.
Marcus nodded and I willed myself not to cry. 'Yeah, that's what I was thinking, too.'
He hugged me and then held my shoulders. 'We good?'
I couldn't speak.
'Go. Have fun,' he said cheerily. 'Use the holiday to get over me. I know it will be damn hard, but you have to try.'
So that was it. Marcus, the Porsche-driving gazillionaire and I were kaput. And to soften the blow he was offering me a holiday in Greece, all expenses paid. I deliberated over the ethics of the situation for all of five seconds before accepting Marcus's deal. He knew I was totally cash strapped. I couldn't afford a holiday in Sans Souci, let alone Santorini.
So there we were — me, Tara, Sophie and Levi — filling out departure cards at Brisbane International Airport. (Well, obviously Levi wasn't filling out a departure card; he was too busy running around pretending to be an aeroplane. At least he was on theme.) So I had to do a little job for Marcus in Athens en route to Santorini? No biggie, I was used to running errands. But I was stumped on the sixth question — occupation?
'Tough one?' The masculine voice came from behind my right shoulder.
I turned around, annoyed at the interruption even though I was holding up the queue at the bench. I think I had the only working pen. 'Pardon?'
The smiling man standing beside me showed off his perfectly straight white teeth. 'You seem to be having trouble with your departure card. Can I help?' As if this was the thirteenth century and helping damsels, whether in distress or not, was a man's everyday business.
I shook my head and moved away. I was too hungover to make idle chitchat with a man who was wearing an Akubra hat. Where was his stuffed koala?
'Well?' he persisted, moving closer.
I studied his face. Tanned, even complexion, big brown cowlike eyes. Way too attractive.
'I can't remember my passport number,' I lied, instantly regretting my stupidity. My passport lay open in front of me for all in the customs area to see.
'Well, Claudia Marie Taylor,' he said with boyish enthusiasm, pointing to my passport number. 'MC879045. Enjoy your flight.'
I glared after him as he strolled towards the security X-ray machines, then down at my passport photo. The day it was taken I'd had the flu. I looked fifty! My hair was a mess, my skin blotchy — and my nose? I looked demented.
I jotted down Office Manager in the blank space on my card (boring but true) and joined Tara, Sophie and Levi outside a duty-free shop where oversized bottles of gin, Scotch and other spirits clamoured for attention.
'Where the hell is Claudia?' Tara was saying. 'Don't tell me she's lost already. That'd be a record, even for her.'
I flinched. That's the thing about best friends — they know all your failings; thankfully they still love you anyway. Tara and I had met at school, in Year 10. We'd been partnered together in biology, first term, and dissecting frogs was our first joint endeavour. When I fainted at the sight of several dead frogs pinned to chopping boards, Tara threw a cup of cold water over me. By the time I came to, she'd made the necessary incisions in the dead amphibian and then she proceeded to tell me I was a retard for passing out. I still can't believe I was the only one of the twenty-two giggling fifteen-year-old girls in the lab who passed out. It's not like slicing open frogs' intestines is an everyday occurrence.
'She was right behind us,' said Sophie. She was too busy struggling with her Prada carry-all, an assortment of stuffed toys and Levi to notice my arrival. She and I had met in homeroom, Year 9. She stood next to me during rollcall (Taylor, Turner) and we bonded over our mutual love for Michael J Fox and Family Ties. God, how we desperately wanted to slip into Justine Bateman's shoes!
Anyhow, Sophie, Tara and I had been best friends forever. We'd never actually lived together, apart from a very long four months in our late twenties. After that we'd come to the mutual conclusion that flatting together was one of those things we shouldn't do, along with sharing boyfriends or razors, doing the Hokey-Pokey and blowdrying our hair in the bath. Despite this, I'd ended up living back with Tara and had been sharing her small Queenslander in Red Hill for over a year.
'Sorry,' I said, making my presence known. 'Stress attack over the departure card. All sorted.'
'I want chocolate,' huffed Levi as he threw his pink lollipop to the ground.
'Well, you got strawberry,' said Sophie, sounding as though she'd already flown halfway across the world with a marauding toddler.
Tara nudged me. 'Twenty hours on a plane with him!'
'Nothing a few long movies and a sturdy set of earplugs can't fix,' I replied.
'A litre of vodka wouldn't hurt either,' Tara added, only half-joking.
'That's enough, Levi,' said Sophie, but her petite Kylie Minogue frame was no match for her son's energetic and noisy theatrics.
Generally Levi's antics were the kind that led strangers, childless strangers in particular, to believe that someone, in most cases his mother, was beating him. She wasn't, of course. When it came to Levi, Sophie had amazing self-control and love. As for today's airport display, fellow travellers soon realised it was only a tantrum and tsk-tsked as they hurried by.
'I'm off for a spot of duty-free shopping,' said Tara, abandoning Sophie and I to our noisy fate.
'Wait!' I said, frightened she'd disappear into the shiny rows of liquor and designer perfumes without me.
'What?' Tara sighed. 'He's started already. How am I going to find the solitude to write on this holiday? I need space and silence. Instead, there'll be tears and tantrums.'
'Come on, don't be like that,' I said, wrapping my arm around her. 'Levi's excited, he'll settle down once we're on the plane. Besides, you need us. Most of your ideas are stolen from Soph and me.'
'As if,' she snorted. 'You won't let me write down any of our conversations.'
'You bet. Copyright.'
'What's the point of having friends if I can't write about you?'
One of the things I loved about Tara was her forthrightness. She didn't pull any punches. A few years ago when I'd decided to go blonde in an attempt to win over a potential boyfriend, she had taken one look at me and declared, 'Your hair's yellow. You look like a clown. Either fix the colour or shave your head and wear a wig for the next six months.'
Most of the time I admired Tara for her honesty. Sometimes, though, I wanted to slap her.
Nearby, Sophie was verging on tears as she continued trying to calm Levi.
'I'm insane for thinking I can holiday with this monster. I should just turn around and go home.'
Excerpted from Claudia's Big Break by Lisa Heidke. Copyright © 2011 Lisa Heidke. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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