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Authors: Kathleen Baird-Murray

Face Value (6 page)

BOOK: Face Value
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Kate wondered if it was rude to stare out of the window when someone was talking to you. Or really rude. The city was impossibly glamorous, each block, each burning window a world waiting to be discovered. Her skin was caressed by the dirty, balmy breath of the July night sky; her cheeks plastered into a permanent smile that she hoped radiated self-assuredness. She felt small in a nonpetite way, dwarfed by the towers that bore down on her like giant monuments to capitalism, industry, and efficiency; each rectangular soldier lining up before her like a domino. People walked so fast they looked like birds before takeoff, talked into mobiles, jostled, all in black, like an ocean at night, all the better to reflect the sparkling lights around them. Well, they had mobiles in Maidstone, too, and sometimes you walked fast, if there was a bus coming. She wasn’t going to be intimidated, merely joyous, excited, curious, but she felt almost as if she couldn’t breathe, she was that elated.
She positioned herself in the car as she’d once seen Lise do, that night when they’d shared a limo with two local footballers. Small-town celebrities out on the town. They’d been drunk, something she was fast realizing she wouldn’t be able to admit to here, and Lise had sat with her back straight, shoulders square, and stared out of the window. Later she said it was something her mum had taught her as a child so she wouldn’t throw up, but it also gave her an air of strength, capability, even indifference. She wondered what Lise was up to now. With Steve? At home in her flat? Watching TV with a bowl of Doritos?
“Now, tell me about yourself . . . ,” demanded Alexis, and Kate, her face thrust like a rabbit’s not so much in the headlights as way under the front wheels, attempted to change the subject.
“Actually I’ve heard so much about you,” she said.
Alexis looked quizzically at her: “You have?”
“Well, just . . .”
“Park here, Bill, right here,” barked Alexis to her driver. They’d arrived. In a hurry to extricate herself, Kate tripped over the seat belt onto the pavement. She picked herself up and tried to shake off a puddle, while Alexis glided out of the other door like a swan sailing regally off into the horizon. Cameras flashed, at whom, Kate had no idea. Alexis acted as if she hadn’t seen anything, and whirled her past the security on the door and inside to the sea of black-clad bob-headed men and women chatting more reverently than animatedly, holding glasses of champagne.
The exhibition at City Art of works by Jean-Paul Suchet was exceeding everyone’s expectations, but Kate knew in an instant that it would fail hers. His broad canvasses, perfect for a loft apartment’s bare walls, depicted women with bare breasts, rounded bellies, their hair marcel-waved into flowing curls, juxtaposed with disconnected phallic objects, floating strangely in white spaces. Kate, her awareness of women’s bodies and hairstyles heightened for the first time in her life by a sudden need to observe and draw some kind of references, however sketchy and patchy they might be, just in case they became useful to her in her new career, found them profoundly disappointing. They left her cold. Instead, she preferred to gaze at the throng of people, who seemed glossy, groomed, airbrushed, yet still with imperfections that made them fascinating to the eye: loud voices, heads that threw themselves back every time they laughed, hips that snaked through crowds, shoulders that made their presence felt when eyes were turned away from them and the owners were engaged in conversations with someone else. Theirs was a confidence she had never seen before, haughty, cold, and self-aware.
“Kate! I want you to meet Jean-Paul, the artist and a close personal friend.” Alexis De Vere interrupted her from her trance. “Jean-Paul’s first night, your first night!”
“Your first night . . . I don’t understand,” said Jean-Paul, a man neither tall nor small, nor especially handsome, who in another life could be an off-duty postman or a computer programmer, except for his French accent.
“What do you think of the show?” asked Alexis, ignoring Jean-Paul’s question.
When contemplating art, there were two options. The first was to keep quiet, in an intellectual way, responding to any questions with a “Do you think so?” response in the hope that her ignorance would be cloaked by a veil of mystery. The second was to attempt to make an impression. Having arrived only that afternoon, Kate felt she had no option but the second, dangerous a game though it was. What if this was some kind of test Alexis was putting her through, a chance to make an impact on the evening? She was already aware that she could only blame jet lag for so long for her somewhat subdued demeanor. That and the fact that there were only so many times one could say “Wow!” when one was a journalist and still pretend it was a raw response, charged with unchecked emotion, and not just because she’d run out of adjectives for tall buildings.
"They look like Vargas girls,” she said. (Gavin, back at
Maidstone Bazaar
, had had a copy of a Vargas book on his desk to help him design the Larkfield Leisure Centre swimming pool competition. Babes in bikinis, they’d sniggered at the time, but she was bloody glad he’d opted for that now.)
“Vargas? The illustrator!” Jean-Paul looked appalled. Was he cross-eyed? He kept looking beyond her while talking to her, which was most peculiar.
Alexis laughed. “Kate! You can’t call an artist an illustrator!” She flitted off into the room as someone else in black touched her arm gently, propelling her toward some suited men with ash gray hair standing near the doorway.
“I didn’t . . .” Kate started to explain to the artist, blushing as red as the lips of one of the girls in his paintings.
“You new at
, yes? I make excuses for you,” said Jean-Paul. His eyes continued to scan the room curiously.
“Yes,” she said. “You?”
“I bin ’ere fifteen years,” he said.
“You haven’t lost your accent then.” She couldn’t blame him for wanting to keep it. Cute.
“French people . . . zey never lose their accents. Not if they want to do well in New York, anyway,” he laughed. “You want to go for a coffee one day?”
“Well . . .” All she could think about was how proud Lise would be of her.
Suddenly the Frenchman looked handsome. She was impossibly tired, desperate to fall asleep, and could curl up at any given time on one of the benches around the edge of the gallery, but at the same time, she felt energized in a way she hadn’t felt for a very long time. She was in New York. With a new job. One that she might even find interesting. For a lot of money. With a Frenchman chatting her up on her first night. Anything could happen. Maybe it would.
Later, as she finally got to lie in the king-size bed, watching the moonlight cast shadows on her wall, picking out in delicate filigree the silhouette of a tree on the roof terrace outside, and reminding her of a silver Maltese cross she’d been given as a child from a father she’d never known, she allowed herself to believe for the first time, with the deepest of convictions, that her future was here, in New York. It had to be. She felt drunk on the excitement, intoxicated with the possibilities, the potential that the city was offering. And this time, there would be no hangover.
She was to need that same strength of conviction the following morning in her new office.
"I, like, so love your hair,” said Cynthia, a twentysomething blonde with the figure of a waif and a walk like a show pony, whom Kate had just discovered was her personal assistant. An assistant! “Is that, like, the new style in England?” She seemed to be unusually interested in her hair, but then Kate remembered this was the beauty department after all, what else was she supposed to be interested in?
“You have an appointment with Lolly Bergerstein, but I can cancel it for you if you like.” Cynthia chewed her lower lip, and moved her light frame over to rest on the other foot.
“Er, yes. I mean no. No, don’t cancel.” Who the hell was Lolly Bergerstein? Was she supposed to know? She’d have to look her up on the Internet when no one was looking.
Kate had always imagined that working in New York might be a little stressful. She presumed all the girls on these kinds of magazines would be complete bitches, wanting to make her look foolish and stupid at every turn, laughing at what they perceived as her ungainliness, her gaucheness, her mispronunciation of obscure (except to the world of fashion) Mexican photographers’ names. But so far, this Cynthia girl was surprisingly friendly.
Although admittedly, there had been some consternation in the beauty department when she had arrived at nine that morning. Her number one assistant, the deputy beauty editor (she had
assistants!), Clarissa, had been comfortably ensconced, some might say entrenched, in the beauty director’s desk in the hope that by sitting there and looking like she could do the job, she would somehow be given the job. With Kate now physically in the office, she was forced to admit her aspirations had been dashed once and for all, and, wearing her best discounted Chanel suit, she set about removing pictures of her ex-boyfriend from the wall and clearing out drawers of favorite fluff-covered lipsticks and old business cards. Kate loitered, not really knowing what to do with herself beyond rereading the cards attached to the many bouquets of white orchids, white pashminas, white candles, white handbags, all sent to her from beauty companies keen to garner her favor. Quite why, she had no idea.
Today’s outfit, the same black wrap dress cunningly made to look different with her new Topshop jacket, suddenly didn’t look so smart. It couldn’t begin to do justice to the grandeur of her offices. She felt she had landed somewhere truly important, in a building whose sheer might would change things, shape destinies, form opinions, even if it was just by imparting such essential knowledge as how to turn a working wardrobe into a look for the evening with the magical addition of some kohl eyeliner and a pair of earrings (Yolanda’s top tip). It was made of stone, this building, not concrete, which was far more transient and always had the potential to be turned into a multi-story car park, at least in Maidstone. Circular doors spun round, with side entrances for bulky packages being carried by bulky couriers, their helmets and shoulders making them look like American footballers in black. Receptionists, looking as old and cranky as the judges on
The Muppet Show
, lent the fashionably dressed an aura of old-fashionability. Elevators soared proudly, their elevation taking on greater social and political importance the loftier they climbed. And
magazine, she had quickly learned as she assailed the heights in the glass-walled lift, was on the fifty-second floor, which in Kate’s mind made it, and her, incredibly important.
“Shall we go through the appointments?” said Cynthia. She was clearly at a loss for what to make of Kate. She was not what she expected, but then she’d read some of those weird English fashion magazines, where it was all about shocking the reader, rebelling against convention, and she wondered if Kate’s black Lycra look wasn’t in fact a bold avant-garde statement on the future of fashion. Her punky striped hairdo certainly seemed to testify to this.
“Appointments, yes,” said Kate, wondering what the hell she was talking about. The doctor’s?
“You have a ten o’clock meeting with Alexis, then—”
“What will she want to talk about?” said Kate.
Puzzled, Cynthia glanced at Clarissa for help. How would Cynthia possibly know? Since when did an editor ever discuss, let alone divulge, anything of any importance to a lowly beauty assistant?
Clarissa wasn’t giving anything away.
“I guess it’s probably to welcome you, talk about ideas for the next few issues, that kind of thing. . . . I can come with you if you like,” Cynthia suggested.
“No, no, that’s okay. Ideas. Sure.” Look confident. Pretend you know what they’re talking about.
“You have lunch with BeautyCorp, with Peter Skye and Marilyn Preston, the presidents. It’s at Dauphinoise.”
“And then that hair appointment at Lolly Bergerstein’s I told you about earlier. She’s changed her whole schedule so she can fit you in; she usually has a six-month waiting list.”
“Oh. That’s nice.” So Lolly Bergerstein was a hairdresser. She was allowed to get her hair done on company time?
"There’s nothing
about Lolly making that appointment for you—she wants you on her side, she wants to be able to tell everyone she does your hair.” Clarissa pointedly threw a large pile of files into the bin. "They’re all the same.”
Cynthia smiled sympathetically. “But she’s very good anyway, you’ll like her.”
“Could you show me where the toilets are?” said Kate.
The prime site in any office was a corner on as high a floor as you could get. By these markers, Alexis was a valued member of the company. But Kate realized the moment she entered Alexis’s office that over and above the floor ranking, your true status was all about window space. And Alexis loved her windows. She had pots of orchids lined up along the edge. Blinds flanked the glass walls where the office faced her staff, so she could shut herself away from them at any given time, spin her chair around, and sit and contemplate the view.
She was giving it plenty of contemplation now, seemingly tired from her night’s adventures at the gallery, and evidently not in the best frame of mind to deal with a new employee, an important one at that. Today’s power suit, all pink tweed with fashionably frayed edges, with big gilt buttons running down it, looked in contrast to last night’s white, a bit of a mess, or so Kate thought with her uneducated eye. It transformed this legendary editor into a trussed-up turkey, frazzled and pink from a recent plucking.
She turned round to face Kate, uttered a hurried hello, and moved to the chaise longue, a black leather architectural-looking sofa that struck the right note of informality yet gravitas in her first proper meeting with her new English import.
BOOK: Face Value
5.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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