If Lucy could see me now, she’d get all huffy and puffy about me behaving like a waitress.
“Gaby wants you to help with the catering?” Lucy screeched when she called me last night, just as I’d begun the fiddly process of piping pistachio cream onto six dozen halves of pale green macaroon. “I thought she got everything catered! She gets her children’s birthday parties catered. I bet she gets an average Tuesday morning breakfast bloody catered! Why does she want you to help with the catering for your own father’s memorial service?”
“Because her usual caterer has let her down at the last minute, and there’s nobody else available at short notice.” I paraphrased, slightly, what Gaby actually said when she called earlier in the day, which is that there was nobody else “decent” available at short notice. “But really, Luce, it’s not a big deal. It’s a tea party after the service, so it’s just a few crustless sandwiches and dainty cakes.”
“So? Why can’t she cut the crusts off a few sandwiches herself ? Why can’t she do a trolley-dash round Waitrose and get a few dozen boxes of bloody mini yum-yums? Not that I’m suggesting Waitrose makes stuff as delicious as yours, Charlie,” she added, loyally. “But that’s not my point. What are you making, anyway? You’re not going to go berserk, are you?”
“God, no, not at all,” I said, wondering—as I still am—if baking three dozen pistachio macaroons, the same number of miniature scones, five whole lemon drizzle loaves, three Victoria sponges, and (my pièce de résistance) one perfect, glossy, gleaming Sacher torte might count as going berserk. “Like I said, it’s not a big deal. Just a few cakes. And if I have anything left over, I’ll bring them round to you on my way home from Gaby’s tomorrow.”
“If you have anything left over? All the guests work in fashion, Charlie. I don’t know why Gaby’s bothering to cater it at all. Honestly, couldn’t she just stick a couple of arugula leaves on a plate and see if anybody dares to take a nibble? Oh, and talking of mad anorexics, is Robyn gracing your dad’s memorial with her presence, or is she having too hectic a schedule of detox wraps and sea-salt scrubs at a Thai spa?”
Robyn is my other (half ) sister, and Lucy’s no more a fan of her than she is of Gaby. In fact, to say that Lucy isn’t a fan of my sisters is rather like saying the French Revolution was a bad time to be a bit posh.
“That’s not fair, Luce,” I said, putting down my piping bag for a moment so I could hurry and check the oven to make sure lemon drizzle loaf number four wasn’t browning too much at the edges. “Robyn really got herself into a bad way after Dad died. She needed to get away from it all. And yes, in answer to your question, she’s back from Thailand and she is coming to the memorial.”
“And the Ice Queen? She Who Must Not Be Named? The High Priestess of Mordor?”
These three are all names that Lucy (and okay, me, too) has attributed, over the years, to just one person.
“Diana? No. She’s not coming.”
“To her own late ex-husband’s memorial service? But she looked so happy at the funeral, bless her coal-black heart. I’d have thought she’d be taking the opportunity to be right up there at the front of the church tomorrow, popping champagne corks and singing ‘Roll Out the Barrel.’”
“Nope. Bunions. Well, to be more precise, surgery to remove her bunions. Won’t be seen in public until she’s back in her heels, apparently.”
“Good. I hope the surgery hurts. And then I hope she gets another great, big bunion, right in the same place. In fact, I wish a plague of bunions upon her.”
Which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the way Lucy feels about my stepmother. And the fact that I didn’t object in any way tells you, I guess, pretty much everything you need to know about the way I feel about my stepmother, too.
“Well, just promise me one thing about tomorrow, Charlie. Will you promise me that even if you’re making the food, you won’t let Gaby turn you into a waitress for the afternoon? Or any other kind of drudge.”
“Lucy, making a few cakes isn’t being a drudge! You know how much I love cooking. And don’t you think it’s nice that Gaby actually thinks I’m good at it? Good enough to serve her snooty fashionista friends? Gaby doesn’t usually think anybody’s good at anything! And anyway, I’m doing it for Dad, really, not for—”
“You’re avoiding the question.”
“Fine,” I sighed. “I promise, Lucy, that I won’t let Gaby turn me into a waitress for the afternoon.”
“Or any other kind of drudge?”
“Or any other kind of drudge.”
Well, one broken promise out of two isn’t so bad!
Anyway, Lucy was unfair to imply that I’m being turned into some kind of drudge, because Gaby has put a huge amount of effort into this afternoon, too. She’s managed to transform this rather shabby, empty space—Dad’s original flagship store, up the less posh end of the King’s Road—into a perfectly pristine party venue, complete with freshly whitewashed walls, a newly polished floor, and big black-and-white photos of Dad hanging everywhere, with ELROY GLASS: DESIGNER, FATHER, LEGEND printed beneath. Which is a nice echo of the obituary in the Times the other week, where the writer called Dad “the legendary British designer bad-boy whose subversive footwear has graced the feet of the glitterati since the 1970s.” And Gaby stage-managed the entire memorial service, complete with eulogies and hymns and choirboys: she’s been desperate to give full vent to her superb planning skills ever since she was (in her view) cheated out of organizing a proper funeral thanks to Dad suddenly becoming uncharacteristically religious right at the end and asking to be buried in the traditional Jewish manner, meaning within twenty-four hours of his death, and therefore without giving Gaby the time to do things “properly.”
(Lucy also asked, in our phone call last night, why on earth Gaby was holding the memorial service in a Church of England church, when Dad was Jewish by birth and atheist by conviction. I don’t know the answer to this question, but I think it probably has its roots in the fact that Gaby’s not all that keen on . . . well, her roots. And in the fact that all the synagogues are in dismal bits of north London while St. Anthony’s church is picturesquely and glamorously located on one of the smartest streets in Chelsea.)
This is Gaby now, waving me over to where she’s standing, by the far wall next to one of the framed black-and-white photos of Dad. She’s stepping away from the crowd of very thin, very groomed, very surprised-looking women she’s been talking to, which is just one of the many crowds of very thin, very groomed, very surprised-looking women who have been invited to the memorial. Today’s illustrious guests are mostly fashion editors and buyers, with a smattering of VIP customers thrown in for good measure. Not who I’d have invited, if I were the one actually hosting Dad’s memorial—I’d have asked, oh, I don’t know, Dad’s extended family, his oldest friends, and just a few of the doctors and nurses who took such good care of him these past nine and a half years—but then, Gaby is the PR director of Elroy Glass Ltd, so she must know what she’s doing.
“Oh, for crying out loud, Charlie,” Gaby hisses at me now, when I manage to totter across the floor without a fatal mishap. “Couldn’t you have worn something a bit more suitable on your feet?”
I shoot her a bit of a look. “Well, the thing is, Gaby, when I got dressed this morning, I didn’t know I was going to be doing quite so much walking about with a heavy tea tray.”
“A nice flat ballet pump would have been a much better choice.” Gaby has missed—or ignored—my pointed remark. “Where did you even dig those shoes out from, anyway?”
“They were my mother’s.” This silences her, but I carry on anyway. “And I wanted to wear something Dad had made, and the ones he made specially for Mum are the only ones that fit me. Oh, which reminds me: did I tell you that there are at least two hundred old pairs of Dad’s shoes in a load of boxes up in the storeroom?”
“Fantastic.” Gaby rolls her eyes. “More crap to sort out.” She’s looking stressed and irritable—or rather, even more stressed and irritable than usual. It’s a wonder, really, that she is as immaculate as she is: head to toe in sharp black Armani, her dark bob practically blinding me as it reflects the light, her skin and nails buffed to perfection, and her eyebrows—of course—meticulously tweezed into inquiring arches. It gives me an odd glow of pride in her: my sister, Gaby, the thinnest, glossiest, and most surprised-looking of them all. “Look, I called you over because I need you to go and help with Robyn.”
“Help?” I cast my eyes about the room, looking for our other sister. There she is—chatting animatedly to a redhead in a black dress. But I can’t see what Gaby is looking so worried about: Robyn doesn’t look like she’s about to howl, or burst into hysterical song, or produce a pair of kitchen scissors and start hacking off her own hair, all unexpected delights she blessed us with at the funeral three weeks ago. “She seems okay.”
“She’s high as a fucking kite,” Gaby whispers, furiously. “And that girl she’s talking to is a journalist for Grazia, and the last thing I need right now is having to explain to Mummy why her darling Robyn is being described as ‘confused’ and ‘excitable’ in an article on page four of Tuesday’s magazine. Just go and get her away, will you? Becca can handle the tea on her own for a bit.” She waves a hand at the other girl who’s been carrying around a tea tray—a mousy girl in John Lennon glasses who I think is either Gaby’s au pair or her cleaner—and mouths come on, come on, keep it moving at her. “Please, Charlie,” she adds, turning back to me. “Robyn listens to you.”
Which is obviously desperate flattery, but if you knew how rarely Gaby utters the word please, you’d do what she asked you, too.
“No problem, Gab. I’ll go and sort it out.”
“Good. And when you’ve done that, Charlie, pop up and bring down the rest of the cakes, would you? I thought it might be nice for me to say a few words about Daddy, and I could do it before I cut into that Sacher torte. It was Daddy’s favorite, wasn’t it?”
“Yes!” I try not to look too amazed that she remembered this. “He loved it! I used to make it for all his birthdays, remember, and . . .”
“Good, good. I can use that.” She nods, thoughtfully, as if she’s just been asked to deliver a eulogy about a near stranger and she’s carefully gathering together any little snippets of personal information she can find. “Okay, Charlie. Thanks for your time.”
Knowing when I’m dismissed, I set out manfully across the packed room, my mission to make it over to Robyn without a slip or stumble. Or ankle twist. Or, for that matter, an incident involving any of my vertebrae. Balance, I’m quickly working out, is the key to successful high-heel wearing.
“. . . and I’m telling you, the hot-stone massages there were absolute heaven,” Robyn is saying, in a tone that’s merely mildly manic, as I approach her and the journalist. “I really felt like the stones were kind of drawing all my grief to the surface. Honestly, I’d recommend Chiva-Som to anyone who’s just had a death in the family. You know, I’ve even been thinking a stay there should be made available on the NHS. Not two weeks, of course, but maybe just one week, or even just a nice long weekend . . . Oh, hey, Charlie!” She greets me with a little wave. “I’ve been telling Eloise here about what an awful state I’ve been in since Daddy died. I mean, the mess I was in at the funeral. Cutting off my beautiful hair and everything!”
Of course, I should mention that even without her beautiful hair, my sister Robyn is still a total stunner. Sharp of cheekbone, long of eyelash, and pouty of lip, she would have been a model, like her mother, Diana, if she’d grown another couple of critical inches taller. She’s skinny enough to be a model, thanks to a triple-whammy combination of great genes, a fondness for eating disorders, and an even greater fondness for cocaine. Today she’s looking even more model-like than usual, in a thigh-high black minidress and her usual six-inch heels with—disloyally—a slash of Louboutin red on the sole. It’s all a bit much for three o’clock on a Friday afternoon (let alone your own father’s memorial service), but at least it makes me feel temporarily better about my own ill-advised footwear.
“Honestly, without amazing people like Charlie to support and care for me, I don’t know how I’d have survived my daddy dying at all!” Robyn goes on. Her pupils, now I’m up close, are a little bit dilated, and she’s wearing a rigid smile. “She was the one—weren’t you, Cha-Cha, darling—who sat me down after my daddy’s funeral and said, ‘Book yourself a first-class flight right this very minute, Robyn. Take yourself off somewhere lovely and warm and sunny, where you’ll have time to grieve, and heal, and pamper yourself.’”
“Er—I suppose I might have said the thing about grieving and healing,” I begin, “but I’m not sure I said . . .”
“Sorry—who is this, exactly?” Eloise-from-Grazia asks Robyn. (She’s another stunner, is Eloise: so young and so naturally beautiful, in fact, that I’m surprised Robyn has put her looks-related paranoia on hold for long enough to talk to her.)
“Charlie, you mean? She’s my sister!”
“Your sister?” Eloise’s lovely mouth falls open in amazement. “But you don’t look . . .” She stares hard at me. “God, sorry—Charlie, is it?—I didn’t mean . . . Well, you’re really pretty and everything, it’s just . . . you’re . . .”
“Half sister,” I interrupt, with a smile, to save Eloise the embarrassment of having to avoid the dreaded “F” word. Fat, that is. Besides, it was nice of her to say the thing about me being pretty. Quite often, people comparing me and Robyn are so blown away by the difference between our respective waistlines that they can’t see anything beyond that.
“Oh, but Gaby and I never think of her as a half sister—do we, Charlie, darling? At least, I don’t.” Robyn grabs a pistachio macaroon from a plate that’s being whisked past by the frantic Becca, and makes all the ooohing and aaahing noises she always makes when confronted with food, to divert everyone’s attention from the fact that she’s not actually eating any. “Surely you know, Eloise, that my daddy was an absolutely awful womanizer? Mistresses in every port, illegitimate offspring everywhere?”
“That’s not exactly true!” I say, as Eloise’s green eyes widen to match her open mouth. “In fact, that’s not true at all. There’s only Gaby and Robyn and me! And Dad was only married twice—to their mother and then to mine.”
“Oh, yes, I do recall something about that now.” Eloise-from-Grazia looks rather embarrassed. “Didn’t he . . . er . . . run off with the Irish cleaner, or something, while he was still married to Diana Forbes-Wilkinson?”
“Yes! The Irish cleaner was Charlie’s mother!”
Before I can add any mitigating information to Robyn’s pronouncement, we’re interrupted by the Tatler photographer whom Gaby, in an impressive coup, has persuaded to cover the event. He asks us to pose for a picture; then, after a swift glance at the picture in his digital camera, asks me if I’d mind stepping to one side, “so I can just get the other two on their own instead.”
Evidently I’m not Tatler material.
“My mother was the housekeeper,” I tell Eloise, as soon as the photographer has wandered off to take more shots of thin people. I’m determined to give Mum her due, and to make one other very important fact clear. “And they ended up happily married, by the way, and having me. Besides, Dad didn’t just run off with her. It was . . . complicated.”
Complicated, I could point out, by the fact that Dad and Diana’s marriage was over in all but name long before Mum even came on the scene. They were really only staying together, at that point, because they were partners in the shoe business—Dad the design genius, Diana the hard-nosed businesswoman—and the husband-wife brand was a great selling point. But I don’t like to say anything flippant about her parents’ marriage in front of Robyn.
“And it was the swinging seventies, Eloise,” Robyn interjects, evidently having no qualms about being flippant about her parents’ marriage herself. “I mean, Mummy was already cheating on Daddy with most of the neighbors before he took revenge and shagged the housekeeper. God, sorry, Cha-Cha.” She slings a bony arm around my shoulders. “You know I don’t mean anything horrible about your mum. Especially not today, when the three of us should all just be thinking about poor Daddy.”
For the first time today—in fact, almost for the first time since Dad died, three weeks ago last Wednesday—I feel a stab of something painful, somewhere deep down inside. So I gather it up as quickly as I can, pop it into a mental box marked To Deal with Later, and carry on as if Robyn hasn’t spoken.
“Anyway, Robyn, I came over here to tell you that somebody really wants to talk to you . . . er . . . over there.” I gesture, vaguely, towards the swirling vortex of blondes that are filling the room. “That blond woman in . . . um . . . the black dress.”
“Fuck, that’s Jessica from Vogue. Sorry, El, darling, but I have to go and talk to her, or she’ll just get uppity and refuse to take my calls from now on.”
Robyn is already hightailing it across the store, leaving me and Eloise-from-Grazia stuck with each other.
“Well, Robyn seems quite . . . high on life this afternoon,” she says, as soon as Robyn’s out of earshot.
“Oh, you know Robyn. Always high on something!” Which wasn’t what I meant to say at all. Gaby is going to kill me. “High in a . . . a metaphorical sense, I mean!”
“And you’re the third Glass sister,” Eloise continues. She’s gazing at me with curiosity in her beautiful green eyes. This may not be much, I grant you, but it’s more interest than anyone else has shown me this afternoon. “The cleaner’s daughter. Wow—your family is complicated.”
“Housekeeper. And what family isn’t?”
“So do you work for Elroy Glass, too?”
“God, no. I mean, I don’t work for Elroy Glass the company. I’ve been looking after Elroy Glass himself for the last nine years! Dad, that is,” I add, in case she hasn’t understood me.
“Looking after him? As your job?”
“Um, yes. Absolutely,” I add, hoping to make this fact sound better than she’s just made it sound. I smile at her. “Motor neuron is a pretty life-altering illness, you know. Dad needed someone to help him do everything, from eating and washing to . . .” I stop myself, before I start to regale a total stranger with the pretty depressing details about the day-to-day indignities of living with a debilitating neurological condition. “Anyway, yes, in answer to your question. Looking after Dad is . . . sorry, was . . . my full-time job.”
“Wow. That must have been hard.” But Eloise-from-Grazia is distracted already, as a skinny blonde waves at her from across the room, mouthing, Come and say hi, sweetie! “Oh, sorry . . . I really need to go and get round to a few more people. But it was nice talking to you, er . . .”
“Charlie.” She hoists her bag up farther into the crook of her arm, turning away as she does so. “And my condolences, of course, about your father.”
It’s the first time anyone has said this to me at Dad’s memorial.
I fight back the prickly feeling that’s crept up, quite suddenly, in my throat, and go and busy myself with another tray of teacups.
I suppose I should be more upset by Eloise-from-Grazia forgetting my name and then swanning off to talk to someone more interesting. But it’s hardly worth getting offended. I mean, fashion people aren’t going to waste their time chewing the fat with someone who’s so obviously not one of them.
I’m not one of them, in fact, in more ways than you’d think. Mostly because I’m the combined size of at least three of them. And I’m not Putting Myself Down when I say that, by the way (Putting Myself Down being another one of Lucy’s pet peeves). I’m just stating an out-and-out fact. The average size of the women in this room has to be . . . a four. Well, if it’s a four, then my ratio is accurate. At least in the bum department, seeing as my (roughly) planet-sized rear end is the reason I had to buy my new dress in a size sixteen rather than the fourteen, which fitted okay everywhere else. It’s a wrap dress, specially ordered from the euphemistically titled “plus” section of H&M online, so at least I’ve managed to fasten the tie-belt a bit tighter around my waist, and hopefully not look as though I’m (partially, at least) a size sixteen. I felt pretty good in it, especially teaming it with these shoes. They’re peep-toed four-inch heels, and they’re made from soft, silver leather that’s covered with tiny, glittering crystals—impossible to walk in but magical to look at. Anyway, what with the new dress, the vintage shoes, and careful makeup to emphasize my eyes and bring out my cheekbones (which I’m still determined to believe are lurking there somewhere), I was congratulating myself on scrubbing up well, until I got to the church earlier and realized that everyone else was kitted out in Armani Privé and new-season Stella McCartney.
Talking of Armani, Privé or otherwise, Gaby has caught my eye from across the room. She’s mouthing Sacher torte!!! at me as if she’s a drowning woman and the only thing that will save her is a life raft made from traditional Viennese chocolate cake.
Fine—Sacher torte it is. I stop faffing with teacups and set off for the staircase at the back of the store to go up to the first-floor storeroom, where I’ve stashed the rest of my baked delights.
It’s yet more tortuous progress, because the stairs are shallow and uneven. This isn’t exactly news to me, but navigating these stairs in spindly heels is an entirely different ball game from running up and down them in sensible buckled Mary Janes, the way I used to when I was a child. This, Dad’s original flagship shoe store, was my and Lucy’s favorite Saturday-morning hangout when we were six and seven. Down on the shop floor, where the scary-eyebrowed fashionistas are now fiendishly networking, there was a thrilling air of decadence, with loud music, popping champagne corks, and a revolving door of perfumed and glamorous customers, who all seemed to be half in love with Dad. But up in the stockrooms above, things were even more thrilling, at least for a couple of six-year-olds. In the first-floor stockrooms, you could play endless hours of “shoe shop” with the pairs of shoes you secretly took down from the shelves; or, up in Dad’s airy, light-filled studio on the second floor, you could pull a couple of chairs up to one of the many windows and spend whole afternoons “spying” over the backyards of the neighboring stores, which would occasionally—grippingly—feature the canoodling couple from behind the counter at the café next door, or some of the staff from the nearby health food shop gathering to smoke weird-smelling homemade cigarettes out in the back.
There was even one—only one—glorious Saturday morning here with Gaby and Robyn. I barely ever got to see my half sisters until I went to live with them when I was eight, so an unexpected opportunity to hang out with them would have been exciting enough even if it hadn’t been here at the store. Admittedly, things weren’t absolutely perfect—Dad let each of us pick out a pair of shoes to play dress-up with, and we all inadvertently picked red pairs, which made Gaby go into a mood because she thought we’d copied her, and made Robyn cry because she wanted both of us to wear boring black ones—but it’s a happy memory for me nonetheless. Though when I tried to mention it to Gaby earlier today, in an attempt to create a glow of rosy nostalgia for the old place, she simply stared blankly at me and claimed it had never happened.
Of course, this place hasn’t housed an Elroy Glass store, much less a flagship one, ever since my stepmother, Diana, finally got her way four or five years ago and moved operations to a swanky new site on Bond Street instead. She is the CEO, after all—a position she’s occupied ever since she married Dad thirty-five years ago—and Dad had been so ill that he’d stopped even the pretense that he was still designing many months previously, so I suppose it was her prerogative. The old store has been let out to a succession of businesses ever since—most recently an antiquarian book dealership—but seeing as it’s not really at the plum end of King’s Road anymore (really, it’s more like the prune end of King’s Road), it’s never exactly regained its old atmosphere. In fact, after Gaby’s swift and merciless makeover downstairs, to get the place suitable for today’s party, it’s more lacking in atmosphere than ever before. Which makes the quiet, almost padded calm of the unchanged upper floors feel melancholy in comparison.
Dad’s old studio has been taken over by these big crates, filled with old pairs of his shoes, that at some point have been moved up here from the more convenient first-floor stockroom by one of the intrepid but unsuccessful shopkeepers who have leased the place over the last few years. I’ve used one of the crates to conveniently store my cakes on—the two remaining lemon drizzle cakes and the rich, glossy Sacher torte that Gaby has sent me to fetch—but there’s another crate free, luckily, for me to perch on and rest my protesting feet.
The voice takes me by surprise. Though the windows up here are grubbier than they used to be in Dad’s day, there are still enough of them that I can easily look out over the back of the store. Two buildings along, and almost at a right angle to the back of this building—the site of the old health food store, actually, where the dodgy cigarettes were smoked—a man is waving at me from out of an open second-floor sash window.
It’s Ferdy Wright, the love of my life.
Well, okay: secret crush is probably a more accurate description. You can’t call someone the love of your life unless that person is actually in love with you, too—can you? And Ferdy Wright isn’t in love with me. We’re just friends—and fairly new friends, at that. His dad, Martin, has been a kind of friend of the family for the best part of two decades, but I’d never met his son until Martin broke his ankle skiing two winters ago and I bumped into Ferdy during hospital visiting hours when I was dropping by with an Ian Rankin novel and a box of praline seashells for his dad. We got to chatting by the coffee vending machine and our friendship just kind of blossomed out of that.
I get up from my crate, manhandle one of my own sash windows open, and lean out to greet him.
“Ferdy! What are you doing there?”
“Plumbing in the staff toilet!” he calls back. “But don’t get me wrong, Charlie. My life’s not all glitz and glamour. The rest of my day has been spent with the health and safety people from the council, discussing how to block off access points for a variety of delightful rodents!”
I should explain: the reason Ferdy is two buildings along at all is because that’s where he’s setting up a new branch of his ice-cream parlor business. It’s called Chill, and he already has two branches—one in Soho and one just off Marylebone High Street. They’re really gorgeous: proper old-fashioned Italian ice-cream parlors with retro fifties décor in appropriately ice-creamy shades of strawberry and pistachio, but with modern touches like slouchy leather sofas and free Wi-Fi. And more gorgeous still are the ice creams themselves, all homemade and delicious, from traditional Italian flavors like dark chocolate tartufo and zabaglione to Ferdy’s trad-with-a-twist confections like blackberry ripple and lemon-meringue crunch.
And more gorgeous still, of course, is the owner himself. Even at this distance, today, I can make out his wide, open grin and the cheery gleam in his pebble-colored eyes. His hair is messy and tufty and a kind of dusty brown (dusty because that’s its natural shade, I mean, not dusty because he doesn’t bother to wash it; in fact, I’ve surreptitiously inhaled his hair on several occasions, and I’m thrilled to report that it smells very freshly washed indeed, with sparkling notes of citrus and peppermint). As for his build, he’s not what you’d call perfectly in shape (actually, he has a distinct hint of ice-cream-induced tummy), but he’s tall and broad and strong-looking, which is incredibly handy for this silly fantasy I sometimes have. I won’t give you all the embarrassing details, but there’s this part where Fantasy Ferdy sweeps Fantasy Me into his arms and lifts me up onto his Fantasy Horse. And there’s a rain-lashed moor in there, too, the bleak landscape of which Fantasy Me has been wandering for some unspecified reason, looking artfully disheveled in a ragged bodice and a threadbare cloak, until Fantasy Ferdy rides out of the mist and does his whole lifting-me-onto-his-horse thing.
“I was thinking about you this morning, actually,” Real-life Ferdy calls out now, from his window.
“Yes. I’m trying out a new mint stracciatella ice-cream recipe and I really need to get your opinion on it. There’s an issue with the amount of chocolate chips. Honey—she’s the interior designer for the new store—tasted it yesterday and she thinks there are too many chocolate chips. And I think there are too few. So I thought to myself, who else is there who can give me proper advice about all-important chocolate quantities but my head of R and D? That’s you, by the way, Charlie. It’s an unpaid position, I should warn you, but one of great influence and honor. I expect,” he adds, pushing up his sash window so that he can position himself more comfortably, sitting on the inside ledge rather than leaning out of it, “you’ll be getting calls from top headhunters quite soon, trying to poach you to go and work for rival ice-cream makers, people who promise six-figure salaries and exciting foreign travel. But don’t forget that I was the one who discovered you, Charlie Glass. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you unlimited ice cream, that’s all I’ll say.”
He’s joking. Well, he’s joking about the rival ice-cream companies. And it’s an exaggeration that he’s calling me his head of research and development, because obviously I’m nothing of the sort. But then, this is kind of the basis on which our friendship has blossomed since we first met. I think he was only being kind at first, because we’d discussed my dream of working with food one day, but he started bringing around samples of his ice cream for me to taste and comment on. The first few times we tried them together, but after that he really seemed to start taking me seriously. He started bringing around so many that we couldn’t taste them all at once, so I became more methodical about it, blind-tasting the different varieties after he’d left and writing up proper tasting notes to email him. I can’t help feeling that he was a bit taken aback the first time I emailed an entire page of (single-spaced) notes on his bitter-chocolate sorbet, but honestly, ever since, he seems to really value my opinion. For example, when I emailed to let him know that his blackberry ripple was good and sharp, but might benefit from some crunch, he wrote back within five minutes to ask do you mean biscuity kind of crunch or honeycomb-y kind of crunch? And should I try similar ripple thing with rhubarb?
“I’d love to try your . . .” I won’t attempt to say the word; I’ve never been able to properly pronounce what I call scratchy umbrella ice cream. “. . . new mint ice cream, Ferdy. Whenever you want.”
“There’s no rush. You’re busy. Anyway, what are you doing there?” he carries on, gesturing at my window. “I thought you said you never went to your dad’s old store.”
“I don’t. Not usually. It was Dad’s memorial service this afternoon.”
“Oh, Charlie.” The limitations of holding a conversation across fifty feet of space are becoming clear. Ferdy looks stricken, but he’s still having to shout. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry. You should have said! You know I’d have come, if you’d mentioned it.”
“Don’t worry, you weren’t invited! I mean,” I add, hastily, when I see him look a bit put out, “nobody was invited. Nobody normal, that is.” I’m just going to have to hope that none of Gaby’s illustrious guests have stuck their heads out the back window downstairs for a smoke. “It’s fashion people,” I clarify, “and really, it’s more of a business thing than a . . . Dad thing. My sister’s the one in charge.”
“The bossy sister, or the loopy one?”
Now I really hope nobody’s stuck her head out of the back window for a smoke.
“Gaby,” I say, wishing I hadn’t told Ferdy quite so much about my family. “But I guess she does need to do the client-schmoozing stuff. She is the head of PR, after all.”
“Oh, right. Still, I wish you’d told me about today, Charlie. I’d have come and taken you for lunch.”
Like, as in lunch . . . out?
I know this sounds weird, given that we’re friends and everything, but Ferdy and I have never been out, together, anywhere at all. Partly, that’s because until around three months ago, Ferdy had a very pretty girlfriend called Davina, but also with Dad so ill these past few months, I couldn’t even go down the road to Tesco without getting Lucy to come in and sit with him for twenty minutes. This, though, was the thing that transformed me and Ferdy from friend-ly to proper friends, because when he found out that I was so housebound he immediately volunteered, without taking no for an answer, to come and sit with Dad whenever Lucy wasn’t available and I needed to get something important done out of the house. Thanks to Ferdy, these past months, I’ve been able to get the shopping done, go to urgent dentist’s appointments, and—once or twice—just have an hour or so walking by the river to clear my head.
It was also the thing, I have to admit, that turned Ferdy from a guy-I-had-a-bit-of-a-crush-on into the unrequited love of my life.
As for his own motivation . . . well, I don’t know. Lucy (of course) is convinced that these are the sorts of kindnesses you’d show someone only if you were wildly in love with her. But I think these are the sorts of kindnesses you show someone if you just happen to be a seriously good guy. Not to mention the fact that, thanks to his dad, Martin, Ferdy knows I’ve not always had the easiest time of it, even before Dad got ill. I’m pretty sure that his generosity has been nothing more than the result of an exceptionally sweet and gentle nature. After all, if he were (ha!) wildly in love with me, there are all kinds of other ways he could show it.
Like . . . like asking me out for lunch, for example?
The mere thought that this might—just might—be an entry into a new phase in our relationship is enough to make me wobble off my shoes slightly. I have to grab on to the windowsill for safety.
“Charlie? Christ—are you okay?”
“I’m fine—it’s just these silly heels I’m wearing!”
“Good. Because I’d really rather you didn’t plummet to your certain death from an open window today, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Oh, I don’t think it’d be certain death. I’d break an ankle, probably, or maybe a thigh bone . . .”
“Either way,” Ferdy interrupts me, thankfully, before I can get started on fractured hips or shattered pelvises, “I’d prefer it if there wasn’t any plummeting at all. I mean, I’d be prepared to come and eat sandwiches by your hospital bed, but if we’re going to do this lunch at any point, I’d rather do it properly.”
This lunch? Now he’s so determined to do it that he’s calling it this lunch?
I ought to be able to handle a situation like this one. I mean, Ferdy is only suggesting a bloody lunch, not a torrid all-night sexathon in a five-star hotel. I should be able to string the words lovely, would, yes, lunch, and be into a coherent sentence, then move on to the easy, practical matter of coordinating a suitable day, time, and place. But I’m speechless. So I decide to muster up one of those flirty, swooshy hair moves I’m always seeing Robyn do when men are around in the hope that Ferdy will take this as encouragement. And if it all goes wrong, I’m so far away from him that it will probably just look like I’m avoiding a fly or something.
So I risk it. I go for the hair swoosh.
I shouldn’t have. I’ve forgotten that my center of gravity is already thrown off by the spindly four-inch heels.
I wobble for the second time in as many minutes, but this time, it’s a really serious wobble. As my head comes back to its usual, non-swooshy position, I try to grab the windowsill for support. But I misjudge the height of the windowsill. I try to grab something else for support. But there is only air. My only option is to flail wildly backwards until I come to a halt, in a sitting position and with a real thud, on top of the crate behind me.
No. It’s not a thud, sorry. It’s more of a . . . squelch. Because I’ve come to a halt on top of the Sacher torte that was on top of the crate behind me.
Ferdy may be fifty feet away, but I’m pretty sure he can still see my face above the windowsill, so it’s imperative that my face does not give him any indication that I’ve just sat down on a chocolate cake.
“Charlie?” Ferdy is looking a bit uncertain. “Was that just you falling off your shoes again? Or is the idea of us having lunch that appalling to you?”
“No! It is the shoes, I mean. Lunch would be . . . brilliant.” I’m desperate to make him realize that I am, actually, keen, which is probably why the next thing I hear myself say is, “Or dinner, even!”
“Dinner?” He looks startled. “Just . . . you and me?”
Shit. I’ve pushed things too far.
“I didn’t mean . . . I’m having friends over tomorrow night, in fact!” It’s a lie, but it’s a get-out-of-jail card. After all, a preplanned dinner with friends, to which I’m casually inviting him at the very last minute, couldn’t be any farther away from the date that’s so obviously spooking him right now, could it? “So why not swing by?”
“I could . . . swing by.”
“Brilliant! Well, I’d better let you get back to your toilet.”
“Your plumbing, I mean . . .” It’s not ideal that, right at this moment, beneath my left buttock, the Sacher torte gives a squelch so loud I’m almost certain he can hear it fifty feet away. “And I’d better get back to my memorial.”
“God, yes—look, I really hope it all goes okay, Charlie . . .”
“It’s all fine! It’s great, in fact. I’ll see you tomorrow, Ferdy! Eight o’clock all right?”
“Yes, eight is all right.”
I get up, give him a wave, and close the window. I make very sure not to turn my back to him until he’s given me a little wave of his own and disappeared back through his own window. Then, and only then, do I start trying to inspect the worst of the damage.
It’s a toss-up between which is more destroyed: the chocolate cake or my new H&M “plus-sized” dress.
Nope—it’s definitely the chocolate cake.
On the bright side: at least the sponge must have been lovely and light, because if it had been chewy and tough, it might have done a better job of withstanding the backside blitzkrieg.
On the less bright side: I can hear sharp footsteps, and—barely a moment later—Gaby appears in the stockroom doorway.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Charlie,” she says—astonishingly for her, more in weariness than in anger. “You’ve sat on the Sacher torte.”
There’s really no point in trying to deny this. “Yes.”
“Well, it was the shoes. I wobbled . . .”
“For Christ’s sake.”
“But, you know, Dad loved lemon drizzle cake, too! I don’t think it’ll ruin your little speech, if you still want to make it . . .”
“It doesn’t even matter what cake,” she says. “I just wanted something ceremonial to cut after my speech, that’s all. More to the point, you can’t possibly wander around the party with what looks like . . . well, never mind what it looks like. And Becca can’t manage all by herself, and Robyn is still acting like a liability every time she opens her silly great mouth . . . But I’m on my own. As usual.”
She sounds tired, rather than irritated, which makes me feel even worse.
“Look, Gab, I’m really sorry. Give me five minutes and I’ll probably be able to scrape the worst of it off.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It looks awful.” She sighs. “Honestly, Charlie. You are hopeless. And I could really have done without this today, you know.”
Which is unfair, because it’s not as if I regularly go around sitting on cakes. But Gaby has just said this as if sitting on cakes is my life’s work. Whereas, to the very best of my recollection, I’ve never sat on a cake before. Though I do admit that today probably wasn’t the best of times to start.
“You shouldn’t have worn the shoes, Charlie, if you were going to be a liability in them. Still, I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies. At least you didn’t fling a boiling-hot teapot over Keira Knightley or anything!”
Which is even more unfair, because I never came close to flinging a teapot over anyone. And anyway, Keira Knightley isn’t here. I know, because Gaby was moaning, all morning, about Keira Knightley turning down the invitation.
“Look, I think it’d be better if you just headed home, Charlie, okay? You’re no use to me here, now, all covered in chocolate cake.”
It’s not that I want to stay—in fact, it’s not as if I really wanted to be here in the first place—but I don’t particularly want to be unceremoniously ejected from my own father’s memorial, either.
Mind you, as a not terribly grief-stricken shriek of fashionista laughter floats up to the second floor, I’m reminded that it isn’t really Dad’s memorial at all. It’s a networking event. For people who, for the past few years, wouldn’t have known Dad from a hole in the ground. And he would have felt just as out of place here as I have.
“Sure. I’ll go home.”
“I mean, it’s not exactly your kind of crowd, is it?” Gaby is obviously feeling a bit guilty, not quite looking me in the eye as she comes to pick up the tray holding the two remaining lemon drizzle cakes. “But, you know, thanks for the cooking and everything.”
“I . . . well, I appreciate it, Charlie.”
I follow her out of the stockroom and down the rickety staircase. Halfway down, I hear a sudden clatter of heels, and Robyn appears at the bottom of the staircase below us.
“There you are,” she tells Gaby. “I’ve been looking for you for ages. Tatler wants a photograph of the two of us together . . . isn’t that right?” she asks the Tatler photographer, who’s lurking behind her, pretending that he isn’t eyeing up her tiny, peachy little bottom.
“Yeah,” he says, “I’ve been told we need a pic of the Glass sisters . . .”
“Then we have to have Charlie in the picture, too!” Robyn declares, reaching around Gaby to practically pull me down the last few stairs. “You can stand in between us, Charlie, and stop Gaby from digging her nails into my arm or stamping her heel into my foot.”
“One time I did that,” Gaby spits at her. “And it was only because you kept trying to get in front of me in all my wedding photos.”
“Oh, I don’t think I should be in the photo, really,” I say. I’m all too conscious of the fact that I was hardly the photographer’s pick for Look of the Year before I got Sacher torte all over myself. “Besides, I was just leaving . . .”
“Bollocks to that,” says Robyn, looping an arm through mine to prevent any attempt at escape. “You’re a Glass sister, aren’t you?”
“Is she?” the photographer mutters, not-that-inaudibly.
“Anyway,” Robyn adds, as Gaby places herself on my other side and we all wait for the photographer to get his shot right, “I’m looking really podge in loads of my photos at the moment. If I stand next to you, Cha-Cha, I look teeny-tiny!”
Just as the camera flash goes off, Gaby obviously remembers that she’s still holding the tray of lemon drizzle cakes. Quick-thinking, she shoves the tray sideways into one of my hands, so that nobody could mistake her for the waitress amongst the three of us.
Then, as soon as this Kodak moment is over, Gaby grabs the tray from me again, and Robyn sees someone she simply has to talk to, and they both stalk back into the hub of the party, leaving me with the Tatler photographer.
“Would you mind,” I ask him, “if I had a look at the picture?”
“Knock yourself out,” he says, handing me the camera so I can peer at the display window on the back.
It’s not a great photo. It’s not even a good photo. Gaby is looking slightly startled, so determined is she to divest herself of the domestic-looking tray before a solitary Tatler reader might spot her with it. Robyn looks her usual photogenic self—at first glance—but on a closer inspection is rather wild of eye, presumably thanks to whatever narcotic she recently inhaled. And I . . . well, the less said about my (shiny, frizzy, overweight) appearance the better. The only positive function I’m fulfilling in this picture is that I do, indeed, make Robyn look teeny-tiny. And, I guess that—if printed in the Tatler—I might make most of the readers feel better about themselves, too.
Nevertheless, it’s the three of us. It’s the Glass sisters. Not united in a single picture since the time, more than twenty years ago, when—on another of those exceptionally rare occasions when I got to hang out with Gaby and Robyn—Dad took us all to Bethnal Green for the day, to visit his uncle Mort. Dad kept that picture on his bedside table right up until the day he died: a seven-year-old me, standing in between a nine-year-old Robyn and a twelve-year-old Gaby. Gaby is frowning at the camera with the disapproving expression she wore throughout that entire day at Uncle Mort’s, where she found the cousins too loud and the house too small and the food too Jewish. Robyn is pouting, as she did that entire day, because Dad had refused to drive via Knightsbridge, where she wanted to try on a new party dress they were keeping aside for her at Harrods. And I—thrilled by the exotic food, enjoying the noisy cousins, but most of all, loving every rare minute I got to spend with my sisters—am beaming wide enough to pull a muscle, and trying to put an arm around Gaby and Robyn to draw them both closer.
“Could I get a copy of this?” I ask the photographer now, thinking that—unflattering a shot though it is—it might be nice to prop it up beside the old photo on Dad’s bedside table for a while, until I’ve psyched myself up to clear his room out. I feel that Dad would like this, somehow. I feel that, amongst the ghastliness and fakeness of this memorial, the photo might stand in true memorial to Dad: that he may be gone, but that he still has three daughters who—in their own ways—loved him.
“Sorry. Making copies is a load of hassle. Look in the magazine for the next couple of months, though. You never know—you might see it on the party pages.”
But I can tell from his tone of voice that the photo won’t be on the party pages. That coverage of Dad’s memorial will be limited to his pictures of the very thin, very groomed, very surprised-looking guests instead.
The photographer takes back his camera, and I slip out of the door onto King’s Road, making sure I don’t transfer a smear of chocolate icing from my dress onto Gaby’s pristine white walls as I go.
A Very Modern Fairy Tale
Charlie Glass's Slippers
A Very Modern Fairy Tale
When Charlie’s beloved father, iconic shoe designer Elroy Glass, dies after a long illness, everyone expects that he’ll leave his business to his glamorous wife and eldest daughters. After all, they’ve been running the company for years. But Elroy surprises everyone from beyond the grave: at the will reading, it’s announced that his fashion empire has been left to Charlie, his youngest—and plumpest—daughter.
Before she can run the company, Charlie decides she needs to make a few changes in her life. After several weeks at a California boot camp, she returns to London a new woman: thinner, blonder, and ready to revitalize the Elroy Glass brand. But as she’ll soon discover, a good esthetician and a killer pair of stilettos can only go so far, and there’s more to reinvention—and running a fashion empire—than meets the eye.
Endlessly entertaining, surprising, and ultimately inspiring, Charlie Glass’s Slippers is a modern-day fairytale about finding your own magic and transforming yourself from within.