Authors: Tessa Hadley
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To Eric, Ed, Sam, and Jack
that Helly brought her new boyfriend down to meet Clare, Clare's younger brother, Toby, was also staying with them, following them round with his video camera, making a documentary about the family for his college course.
Clare gave the camera one quick exasperated glance when the doorbell rang and the guests arrived. The food should have been ready but she was still chopping hurriedly amid a debris of vegetable leavings, her fingers stuck with parsley bits.
Her deep glance at the cameraâshe has looked at the lens and not at Toby, as if it were his eyesâis caught forever on the tape. She is wishing she had had time to change into the nicer clothes she had planned. Her hair is in a short thick black plait on her shoulder fastened with a rubber band. She looks tired. When she is tired (she believes) all those things that at her best make her look like an intellectual instead make her look like a librarian: small eyes, neat straight brows, thin lips, a square high forehead. She has good skin but it is pink and hot because she is flustered. Her glance is naked and hostile, her last moment of free expression before she has to put on a smiling face.
She might be hostile to Toby; she is sometimes bossy and arbitrary with him.
Or perhaps to Helly, who comes and finds her out in her humiliation, dragged down by the children, without makeup, with wet red hands.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
her new boyfriend to Clare.
âYou two should know each other. David comes from round here too. We must have all been at parties together. He knows people we knew.
But the man was a stranger, an alien in Clare's house, with shades hiding his eyes and an exaggerated presence she flinched from, curvy big cheekbones and chin with blue-black stubble, a thick beautiful leather coat, loudly and confidently friendly in a way that suggested immediately to Clare that he didn't want to be here in the provinces visiting his girlfriend's friend who was nobody. When they all kissed, the Londoners smelled expensively of bathrooms full of bottles of scents and lotions, and Clare was aware of her limp T-shirt, which had soaked up the smells of the onion soup she was making for their lunch. The onion soup, with Parmesan toasts baked in the oven, would be delicious. (It was.) And Helly couldn't cook. But Clare feared that everything brilliant and savory about her might appear to have drained into that onion soup, leaving her wan and dull and domesticated.
Helly was her best friend.
Recently, Helly had been paid thirty thousand pounds (twice as much as Bram, Clare's partner, earned in a year) to make a series of television advertisements for ice cream; as well as on television, they were used in the cinema and on billboards. Everywhere Clare went she was confronted by Helly's golden face or the misty curves of Helly's body, intently and extravagantly inviting her into a larger-than-life golden vanilla space concealed inside the prose of every day. Whenever she saw the real Helly now, these images would get in the way for the first few minutes; the real Helly would seem slightly contracted, smaller and more precise than she should be, and muffled in surprising clothes.
Helly was embarrassed about the advertisement. She was a serious actress. She did get work, in fringe and in soaps, but not enough; she was still waiting for her break. And no one, no one, could have turned down thirty thousand pounds. The advertisements paid for the serious work; that was the theory. But her friends couldn't help feeling that something momentous had happened, that she had stepped into a golden current of money and frivolity and glamour that would carry her off. Anyway, she wasn't strikingly talented as an actress. Although none of them quite acknowledged it, this was more exciting, really, than if Helly had got a good part in a play. They watched to see what would happen next.
Clare could remember that when she and Helly were fifteen one of their shared nighttime fantasies had been to imagine their nakedness projected lingeringly onto a cinema screen in front of an audience. So she couldn't be sure just how genuine Helly's contemptuous indifference was to those golden simulacra plastered everywhere. Or how genuine her own contemptuous indifference was, either.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
THE TWO VISITORS
filled up the little terraced house with noise and cigarette smoke and with their things. They had brought in from the car a camera and bags of presents and bottles of wine and flowers and a portable mini-disk player and a heap of leather luggage even though they were only staying the one night; also a laptop on which David had already tried to access his e-mail. (He worked as a lighting technician, designing systems for stage shows and clubs; this seemed to necessitate frequent contacts with his associates and long sessions on the mobile phone.) They talked more loudly and constantly and laughed more than Clare was used to.
Clare was taken aback at how profoundly she coveted Helly's beautiful clothes. She liked to think she was fairly indifferent to material possessions. Under Bram's influence she had given away lots of her CDs, deciding she had outgrown them. They had a house full of books but no television, and Clare made her own bread and ground her own spices and salted lemons to put in salads and chicken dishes. She bought most of what she wore in charity shops, not grudgingly but pointedly, because it was more original to put together your own bits and pieces. But when she saw Helly's long lilac-colored dress and her green velvet jacket sewn with mirrors and her green painted toenails, she was reminded that there was something else you could do with your clothes, something better than just original, something that amounted to power and joy. You needed money to create a look that so mysteriously aroused longing and satisfaction at once: although you had to have a gift, too, to choose the right things so inventively and surely.
Helly was grievously good to look at: tall and spare, all flat planes, wide shoulders, big hands and feet, with big cheekbones and a long mobile mouth. Her eyes were pale green and her skin was really quite pale too, not golden like the advertisements. Her spiky hair was blond out of a bottle, with the roots left deliberately darker. The children came and watched Helly and David as if they were a show. Lily reached out a finger and stroked the velvet of Helly's sleeve; Rose put on her Superman cape especially for David, who didn't notice. He never knew what he was supposed to say to people's children, he confessed. Helly was the one who made all the efforts, she'd brought them things, and she talked to them in a chaffing ironic voice that Clare knew (she knew Helly very well) meant she was slightly afraid of them, not sure what they were thinking or how to please them. Coco (Jacob), the oldest and a boy, was deeply suspicious of both visitors. He winced at Helly's silver lip ring and ignored her, as if it was kinder not to draw attention to how she shamed herself by wearing it; but he was drawn, almost against his better judgment, to the laptop. Even Tobyâinfuriatingly because he was twenty-one and should have been backing Clare up as a fellow adultâsat dumbly smiling and blushing in spite of all Helly's efforts to bring him out (she would be much more confident of how to please him, not because she had known him since he was a boy, but because he was a man now, and couldn't take his eyes off the lip ring).
Ten years, eleven years ago, they worked out, David and Clare and Helly had all lived in this city, but had not known one another. David had even been in the sixth form with a boy Clare went out with for six months. They'd had so many teenage haunts in common, a pub, a club, even the city reference library where they revised for A levels: so many mutual acquaintances, it seemed impossible they hadn't met.
âI'm just beginning to remember, said David. When I see you two together. It's starting to come back to me.
âDon't believe him, laughed Helly. He's just flirting.
He was flirting, although Clare presumed he was only using his flirtation with her in some game with Helly. She was as aware of the unaccustomed aura of flirtation in her house as she was of the unaccustomed cigarette smoke: both things made her anxious and excited at once, and she was bracing herself already for when Bram came in. He would sniff them both out immediately, and disapprove of them, although he would be as alwaysâinfalliblyâcourteous and friendly. This was why Clare didn't see Helly very often any more. It stretched her too painfully, having to defend Helly from Bram's disapproval while mobilizing inside herself all her best arguments against how Helly's life tempted her and invited her and made her envious.
âDid you know someone called Tim Dashwood? David asked.
âTim Dashwood? No, said Clare.
âYes, we did, said Helly. Remember? We went to parties at his flat. Very naughty parties.
Pas devant les enfants.
Where we got up to all sorts of things.
âWhat did you do at the naughty parties? asked Lily.
âLots of rubbish, I expect, said Coco.
âThat's exactly right, said Helly. You're so right. Lots and lots of rubbish. And d'you know what we used to wear? I'll bet you can't imagine your mummy dressed entirely in black clothes, with a black bustier, and black eye makeup and fingernails and lipstick and earrings. We were briefly gothic. It didn't last. But that was the Tim Dashwood period. We didn't know him well. He wasn't particularly gothic. Bit of a bloodsucker, perhaps. He and his friends must have been older than us.
âBlack lipstick! Yuk! said Lily. What's a bustier?
âSomething silly that ladies wear, like underwear, on top of their clothes.
âI suddenly had a feeling that that was where I was remembering you from, said David. I'm sure I can remember Clare at one of Tim's parties.
âNo, you can't, said Clare quickly. Not if I can't remember it. I don't even remember such a person.
âCan you remember me there? Helly asked him.
âPerhaps. Did you use to have long plaits?
âLong gothic ones, naturally.
âThen maybe, maybe.
âIf I ever look in my old diaries from those days, said Clare, which mostly I don'tâit's too hideousâI feel as if I'm reading about someone else. Not just people I knew that I can't remember, and places I went and things I did, but feelings I felt, things I wanted. It doesn't connect to me as I am now.