I stared at myself in the mirror, frowning mightily, finding fault in just about everything I saw. "I can't wear this," I finally protested, turning back around to face Maddie. "I look... I look..." I tried to search for a word which adequately described how bloated, how old and how maternal I felt, but Maddie cut me off.
"You look absolutely fantastic," Maddie reassured me. "Doesn't she look fantastic, Beth?"
"Fat, hideous, utterly horrible, can't stand to even be in the same room as you," retorted Beth without even looking up from her copy of the NME.
"That's it! I'm not going!" I cried, whirling around and disappearing back up the stairs, just in time to catch Maddie glaring at Beth. Throwing myself down on the bed in a fit of self loathing, I flicked the CD player on, and pressed play, and was immediately rewarded with the maudlin opening strains of my favourite Radioshack album. The thing had hardly left my stereo for the past year, seeing me through more crises and crying jags than any album of my life. Whenever I felt miserable, or sad, or was even just having a bad day, the plaintive wails of Thom Eboracum’s melancholic voice were enough to remind me that I wasn’t alone in feeling depressed or upset or even overwhelmed. As the chords swelled around me, I prepared myself for an evening in my room, sulking.
A few minutes later, there was a knock at my door. "Kate," ventured Beth softly.
"Come in, that is, if you're sure you can fit in the room with me," I retorted sulkily.
"I was joking. You look fine. Really, you do," she assured me.
"But I need a new body... I need a new pair of hips and I need new breasts!" I whinged, turning sideways and sucking in the slight protuberance of my belly. Actually, it wasn't that bad, even I had to admit. The dress was an absolute head-turner, a thigh-baring veil of thin black lace draped over an almost invisible flesh-coloured lining. I couldn't have picked anything to better shout I'm not pregnant any more, just look at these legs boys!
"You need a bra," observed Beth astutely.
"Beth!" I whined. Although my pregnancy had much enhanced my bust, the brief month of breast feeding had made sure that my new endowment no longer sat perkily at the top of my chest. "Where am I going to hide bra-straps under these tiny strips of spaghetti?"
"So? Let 'em hang out. If it's good enough for Jezebel videos, it's good enough for you!"
A brief operation of underwire cantilevers and suspension, and I stood back to observe the effect. The dress now hung properly, clinging at the top, yet loose and slinky at the bottom. "Alright," I finally sighed, picking up the pocketbook I had abandoned on the dresser.
"My god, sound the alarm," bellowed Beth down the stairs. "She's actually ready to go!"
"OK, OK, let me just call Carlos and tell him we're on our way. Are you sure you're not coming, Beth?"
"Um-hmm." Beth nodded mysteriously, checking her lipstick in the hall mirror. "But I'll walk with you as far as the subway." Something new was going on in Beth's life, and if she was behaving this secretively about it, chances are it was a new man.
"Subway?" I yelped. "I'm not going on the fucking subway dressed like this!"
"We'll be fine," dismissed Maddie, taking me by the arm, then taking Beth by the arm and breezing us both towards the door. "Shall we go? Carlos will have a fit if we're late for his opening."
"It's not just Carl's show," pointed out Beth cattily. "It's a joint show."
"It's still an incredibly prestigious event and I'm very proud and happy for him!" Maddie replied defensively, in a tone that indicated that their "casual, low-key, friendship, let's see if it works just dating-type thing" was not as casual as she would like to pretend.
Trying to head off the unavoidable disagreement between the two of them, I tugged self consciously at the hem of my skirt. "Are you sure this outfit is appropriate, then?"
"Kate, it's in Soho," laughed Beth, successfully diverted from the hatchet she had never buried with Carlos over his treatment of Maddie. "I absolutely guarantee there will be at least one woman there, spray painted silver with duct tape over her nipples."
I laughed, starting to feel a spring in my step. Although it was nearly 8, the sun had still not dipped below the horizon, and the air was warm, even for Spring. An old man came out of his doorway, stared at us, and declared. "Saints alive! It's Charlie's Angels!"
Beth blew him a kiss, then skipped ahead of us to the subway kiosk on Astor Place. "Aren't you going downtown?" asked Maddie suspiciously.
"Nope," shot back Beth, practically skipping. "Uptown. Cause I'm an Uptown Girl..."
Maddie waved goodbye, but as soon as Beth was out of sight, her eyes narrowed sceptically. "That girl has a new boyfriend she's not telling us about."
"I'm sure she does, and I'm sure she'll tell us in good time." Pulling a token out of my pocketbook, I dropped it in the slot and sauntered through while Maddie fussed with her Metrocard.
"God dammit," she finally swore when the thing let her through, just as the downtown train was pulling into the station. "Hold the door for me..."
"The cards don't work!" I sang back tunelessly in my best histrionic rock god drawl. "They just make you late, but I know I'll see your train again..."
"Trying to make trains meet - you're a slave to tokens then you di-hie!" Maddie shot back without missing a beat, until we collapsed, panting and giggling on one of the benches.
"So who is this wanker Carlos wants me to meet?" I finally sighed. This dress I almost had on was certainly not for his benefit, no.
"He's not a wanker," insisted Maddie. "Carlos says he's very nice. Rob Sugarpussy is bringing him - he's the front man for his new band, and he's very excited about meeting you. Carlos says you two have a lot in common."
"Rob Sugarpussy?" I giggled. "Does he still call himself that? The Jesus Sugarpussy have been broken up for a good 3 years now."
Maddie blushed, holding her hand over her mouth. "Oh god, no. He's using his real name again now. Please, please, dear god, let me not slip up and call him that to his face."
"I don’t know why I’m letting you push me into this. It's going to end in tears, I know it is," I insisted pessimistically. "There's a reason I've been avoiding the dating scene, and an even bigger reason why I no longer date rock boys.!"
"Who knows? What's the worst thing that could happen? You could waste an evening drinking free champagne and looking at bad art in Soho. You never know - you might actually like this fellow."
"I haven't drunk in even longer than I haven't had sex," I pointed out. "I'll probably have one glass and fall all over myself."
"Just don't bend down... unless you want to display your new knickers to Jon."
"Jon? His name is Jon? I simply can't date a man named Jon. I just can't do it, too damn generic..."
"Kate!" warned Maddie, standing up to indicate that this was our stop. "Just shut up and stop making excuses. You'll be fine."
We strolled up to the huge slab of a warehouse where the exhibit was taking place at 7:50 p.m., ten minutes before the doors were even supposed to open, and hours before the Beautiful People would even roll out of their beds. "Damn, we're going to have to ring the bell to be admitted, aren't we?" sighed Maddie, pressing the buzzer.
"Can't we just go get coffee for half an hour or so or something?"
"No! People are never on time for these things, and I promised Carlos we'd be here at 8, so it didn't look like there was no one here."
We had to be buzzed in, and a freight elevator was sent down for us, but the relieved look on Carlos' face made the embarrassment of being early worthwhile. "Thank god, you're here," he sighed, kissing Maddie quite fondly on the lips. "Kate, thanks so much for coming. Jon is so looking forward to meeting you..."
"So I've heard," I nodded, hoping it didn't come out as rude as it sounded.
"Help yourself to drinks, oh wait, I don't think they've got them set out, yet..." Carlos wrung his hands nervously. "Dammit, where is the caterer?"
"We can pour our own drinks, Carl, it's fine," Maddie assured him, squeezing his hand.
"Come on, guys, people are going to be here any minute! Let's the lights off, and let's get the music on!" he directed, clapping his hands. Although he was dressed in a hip, 3-button Italian suit and a black turtleneck in an attempt to pass for a serious artist, he was still every inch the Madison Ave. advertising executive he was pretending not to be. Still, he was cute, with his hair perfectly mussed, and a twinkle in his eye that I had not seen since before he had quit his band for the less exhausting and way more financially rewarding work of sourcing indie-rock tunes for soundtracking commercials. Somewhere under all the gel and the Italian silk still lurked the skinny, wild-eyed rock boy and painting student that Maddie had fallen in love with in her brother's garage.
Suddenly, the lights flipped out overhead, and a huge bassline started to throb through enormous sets of speakers dotted about the floor. "Bloody hell," I burst out over the music as a giant disco ball in the centre of the room sprung into action, pushing through the dark to where I'd last seen Maddie. Red and blue party lights flicked on overhead, infusing the cavernous hall with a dim, hellish, otherworldly glow. "What the fuck is going on?" I shouted at Maddie.
She shrugged, pointing at Carlos, arguing loudly with a short, balding man in ripped overalls and a white T-shirt. "There are supposed to be halogen lights pinpointing the artworks, but the electrician hasn't finished wiring them." Her knuckles tightened on the tray of drinks she was holding. "Would you care for some champagne?"
The music shifted in speed, settling into Mamma Mia. "Actually, yes, I think I could well stand for some right now..." Why the hell had no one seen fit to tell me it was a retro-70's theme party? If there was one thing I hated, it was 70's nostalgia... I mean, it would be fine if people meant Krautrock and early Funkadelic records, but they never did, they meant polyester suits and shitty, kitschy Abba records.
There was a loud crackle over the loudspeakers, the lights flashed for a second, and then suddenly tiny pin-points of light sprang up all around the outskirts of the room. That was a fairly lovely effect, even I had to admit, and the event certainly called for a drink. For a moment, I merely stared at the sparkling gold liquid in the glass, wondering if this was a good idea. It had been so long since I had last touched a drop of alcohol, through the mysterious morning stomach ailment that had turned out to be pregnancy, and then the brief blissful weeks of motherhood and breast-feeding... Well, Tristram had certainly put an end to that idea. My breasts ached vaguely at even the memory of the agonising weeks the milk took to dry up when my son was handed over to his biological father's custody. Loneliness shook me like a sudden chill. The most heart-wrenching break-up in the world could not have prepared me for the pain of losing Ian in the custody battle. Still shivering slightly, I stared down at the fizzing golden liquid in the glass, remembering the oblivion it could bring, and then took a sip.
My god! How could I have forgotten how good champagne tasted? It took every bone of restraint in my body not to swill it like a glass of soda and go running back for another glass. No, down girl, your tolerance is probably down to nothing right now, I warned myself, and took a second, smaller sip.
Wandering over toward the art, I started to gaze at the paintings, one after another, trying to overcome my nervousness by at least pretending to have something to do, but none of them held my attention for very long. Carlos' were alright, I supposed, in a sort of glossy magazine photorealist sort of way. His technique was absolutely faultless, influenced by years of working in advertising, but he simply didn't have very much to say. There was one of a tall, slim woman with short, dark hair, probably Maddie in a younger, less inhibited time, naked except for a pair of rumpled cream-coloured silk panties, standing with her back turned to the painter, gazing wistfully out a curtained window, which caught my interest momentarily.
But the others... god, I might not know much about art, but I had no idea what the gallery curator could possibly have been thinking when he put these four artists together. One worked in collages of found objects, speckled with gnarled clumps of dried paint, while another preferred pseudo-primitive depictions of street scenes in garish tones of grey and red. And the sculptor? I wasn't even going to attempt to figure out what he was on about.
"Kate..." I turned around to see that the room was starting to fill with small clumps of people, one of whom was anxiously waving me over.
I stared at the nattily dressed young man beckoning me over for a few moments, trying to work out why his face looked familiar, but it wasn't until he grinned and I saw the gold tooth that I saw past the trendy new haircut to the face. "Rob Sugarpussy!" His face fell. Oh god, no, I didn't just call him that to his face, please... I'd only had half a glass of champagne, I couldn't possibly be tipsy. “Sorry. Rob. How are you?”
"Good to see you, Kate," greeted Rob, ignoring the faux pas and continuing where he had left off. "I want you to meet a friend of mine... this is Jon, the singer for my new band, Tractor. Jon, this is Kate."
"Hi. Nice to meet you." We shook hands nervously - wet palm, ugh - and spent the next few moments in the awkward but time-honoured tradition of checking each other out. Well, I suppose he was handsome enough in the de rigeur plastic Hollywood sort of way, though he looked more like a member of the cast of some television light romantic comedy with his baby sideburns and the short, stubby fringe of dark hair blow-dried inexplicably up, off his face, about an inch or two into the air. But as my eyes swept lower, taking in his clothes, my heart sank. His muscular frame was wrapped in a ill-fitting powder blue suit of some dubious synthetic origin. Ridiculous cowboy boots, cuffed trousers, and to top it all off, a brick red nylon shirt with an impossibly wide collar, open just about all the way to the buttons of his suit.
No, I had to give him the benefit of the doubt, I reflected as I noticed him taking in my ridiculously daring dress with obvious pleasure. Perhaps Carlos had told him ahead of time about the cheesy retro-70's Boogie Nights theme to the party. "Man, this is such a surprise!" he contradicted. "I was a little, you know, worried, what with Rob's glam metal past, that this was going to be some sort of heavy metal nightmare, but no, this is cool, man. This music's got soul."
Help me. Help me now. Please. Hoping the abject horror didn't show in my eyes, I tried to smile wanly at Jon, but I already saw my hopes for an entertaining evening slipping away. The Jesus Sugarpussy had been called many things - glam-trash, drug-addled debauchery, even New York Dolls rip-offs, but never glam metal. I wondered if he'd ever even heard the band. How the hell had Rob, one of the most talented guitarists I'd ever heard, got involved with this joker? If this was what Carlos would have been reduced to backing had he stayed with the Sugarpussy, well, he was wise to get out when he did.
"So what do you think of the art?" I ventured, carefully changing the subject to neutral ground.
"Art?" Jon looked disoriented, as if he'd only just noticed the decorations on the walls. "Aw, sorry to disappoint, but I don't know much about art, nor do I really care. I’m just here for the free booze and the ladies, really."
Strike two, I thought to myself.
"So what label you guys on?" he immediately probed, then plunged on without waiting for an answer. "We just signed with MVC last month. Is it true you guys are going to go over to Warner for your next album?"
"That was just a rumour," I sighed, loathing musicians and the music industry in general. "We did the one off single for their New Order tribute album, but nothing further than that." For a moment, I wondered if he even knew who New Order were. "We're on Destructive in the UK, distributed in the States by MVC. We're happy enough with the arrangement."
"Destructive Records, huh?" That pricked his interest. "You know Mirage?"
Did I know Mirage? Jesus Christ... "We haven't been back to the UK on business in nearly a year," I answered non-committaly.
"We did a tour with them about a year back," he announced proudly, grinning toothily and revealing a row of pearly whites too perfect not to have been capped. "Well, it didn't last long. That William Gallivant, man... I went drinking with him one night, and, man, what a lunatic, what a guy..." Taking a deep gulp of my champagne, I did my best to try to tune him out. Even hearing about their aborted tour of the US brought back too many painful memories of Em Evesham, my former friend and Alex Jones, my former lover, that were better left untouched.
Suddenly, his attention was diverted by something else. I turned around to see a six foot woman with close cropped blonde hair undulating across the room wearing nothing but a coat of gold paint and what appeared to be a chain mail bikini. If Jon hadn't spoken first, I probably would have spit my drink out in laughter. "Now that," enthused Jon, nodding towards the shiny spectacle. "Is what I call a work of art..."
"Jon," I sighed delicately, touching the sleeve of his jacket. "Could you possibly get me another glass of champagne?"
"Coming right up, babe. Though you sure they ain't got anything stronger? Wine is such a faggot drink..." Strike three, you're out!
As he moved away, the glittering woman caught sight of me and waved boldly, saché-ing over as only a woman wearing a chain-mail bikini can saché. "Hi," she interrupted in a slightly accented voice. "I can't help thinking that you look familiar. You must be with my agency... are you a model?"
I shook my head slowly. "No," I drawled. "Are you a brain surgeon?"
"No. I am performance artiste," She giggled nervously, a squeak of a laugh, as if she wasn't sure whether she'd been insulted or not. "I'm sorry to intrude, but is that Jon from Tractor that you're talking to?"
"I'm sorry, what's your name?"
"Liesel. I am from Copenhagen."
"Liesel, would you like to meet Jon from Tractor?" I offered, my hopes leaping at the sight of a way out of the interminable torture of the rest of the evening.
"Oh yes," she purred. "I'm a huge fan..."
Jon magically appeared next to me, handing me my glass of champagne, his eyes popping out of his head with excitement that he was standing with the two most scantily clad women at the party. "Jon, this is Liesel," I introduced. "She's a huge fan of Tractor," I noted, taking their mutual goggle eyes as an excuse to beat a hasty retreat back to Carlos' paintings to find Maddie.
I found her standing with a gaggle of Carlos' co-workers, chatting pleasantly about the paintings, but as soon as she saw me, she excused herself from the conversation and pulled me aside. "So? What's Jon like?"
"But that's perfectly alright with me, as I have the feeling that in about 3 months, he will be announcing his engagement to a 6' tall Danish model named Liesel." Turning around, I gestured with a snide wink to Jon and the Valkrie, currently attempting to dirty dance under the disco ball.
"Oh dear, I'm so terribly sorry."
"No, it's fine. I'm not devastated, trust me. Now I just have to find a way to entertain myself through five more hours of bad art and worse music."
"Oh, Kate." she squeezed my arm reassuringly. "I can introduce you to some of Carlos' co-workers, if you like. Some of them are quite good-looking." This had to be the most infuriating thing about being single - the way that all your married friends simply insisted on attempting on setting you up with anything in sight with the required Y chromosome.
"No, it's OK," I insisted.
"At least mingle a bit?" she urged. "Carl is terribly excited because his friend Matthew, who writes the art column for the NY Times - and incidentally owes him a very big favour - is coming, and apparently he's bringing a very important friend. Some 500lb gorilla in the art world, apparently. Name's... erm.. Day... Dave? Damon? Carlos, honey, what's Matthew's friend's name?"
"Damien Hearse!" shouted back Carlos, nervous, but obviously glowing.
For half a second, every voice in the room stilled, as if observing a moment of silence for the Holy Name, then the steady buzz renewed with even more vigour. My heart felt like it had skipped a beat, leaping into my throat and threatening to choke me, and the blood must have drained from my face.
"Why? Do you know him? He's apparently quite famous in these circles, though I'm embarrassed to admit to Carlos or his friends that I've never even heard of him," she whispered, but I barely heard her. Memories that I had been trying very hard not to dwell on for the past year came rushing back with a vengeance. "Kate, are you alright?"
"I've just had a little too much bubbly, that's all," I lied, trying to explain away the angry flush that my dress did nothing to cover. “Can we go outside for a bit?”
"Come on, then, let's get some air," suggested Maddie, taking me by the arm and leading me back towards the freight elevator. "Damn, it's not here. They must be loading something in downstairs. We should have taken the other one."
"No, that's OK." I wanted to run no risk of running into Damien back in the now surging crowd. Damn, when did this place get so full? I never understood the bizarre herd instinct that New York's Beautiful People seemed to have, this uncanny knack they had of suddenly turning up at an empty hall, so that none of them risked looking awkwardly early or succeeded in looking fashionably late.
"Oh Kate, come. It's here," Maddie pointed out as I was about to give up and head back into the thickest part of the crowd, seeking solace in numbers. The elevator ground to a stop, and the operator raised the safety grate to reveal a precious cargo of the man I assumed must have been Matthew, and Damien. He had cut his hair, his unkempt cloud of curly dark locks shorn to a blunt-looking buzz cut, but I would recognise that self-satisfied grin anywhere.
I froze, wondering whether to call attention to myself by dashing for the cover of the crowd, or to simply stay where I was, hoping that he would not notice me. But as his piggy little blue eyes swept the room, he immediately clocked me, stepping forward out of the elevator and bellowing, in a voice that was obviously used to being the centre of attention, "Kate Gordon!" I did not answer, could not answer, my face burning and my feet rooted to the spot. He strode over to me, not even bothering to look me up and down before throwing up his hands in the air and accusing "You never phoned me!" in an equally resounding tone.
Without even thinking what I was doing, and to whom, I raised my hand, took a swing and slapped Damien, full on the side of the face, so hard that the sound of flesh hitting flesh echoed around the club. Everyone had turned around to stare at us, the room suddenly silent except for the susurration of bated breaths and the ever present throb of the disco beat.
After about a minute, Damien's voice broke the silence. "Now what was that for?"
"You know very well!" I snarled back.
He paused, his eyes boring into mine, then took a deep breath and stepped forward slightly. "Go on, then," he offered, proffering the proverbial other cheek. "It's all yours." I raised my hand, then, catching sight of Maddie's panicked face, lowered it slowly. "Have you got that out of your system now?"
I stared at him resentfully for quite some time before Maddie cut between us. I could see the alarm in her face as she threw me a pleading glance. Please, Kate, this man could make or break my husband! "I'm terribly sorry, Mr. Hearse. Kate's had a bit too much champagne, and..."
Damien shook his head, waving her away. "No, I think the problem is that Kate hasn't had nearly enough champagne, or she would have hit me again while she still had the chance." Nice to know that his snide sense of humour was sill in top form. "I think Kate and I just need a few minutes alone to discuss this. Matthew, be a dear and get us some champagne?"
Carlos stared as the supercilious columnist scurried to do Damien's bidding like a mere servant, then quickly rushed off to the small smoking lounge area, clearing the couches with a single hissed phrased. Damien's coming, Damien's coming... It was like a buzz in the air, but I refused to be intimidated, as I knew the little weasel thrived on the effect he had on people.
"Kate..." he ventured, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it as he sat down on the couch next to me, far too close for my comfort. I coughed pointedly and glared at him. "I like to smoke," he shrugged. "Every time I smoke a cigarette I think about death. Each sublime little puff is a confrontation of my own mortality."
"I don't have anything to say to you," I interrupted before he could divert the conversation into one of his self aggrandising tangential discourses. "Except one word: Why?"
He glared back at me, obviously irritated that I had cut off one of his flowering plumes of erudition. "Kate, Alex might be my best friend, but the bastard was cheating on you."
"You lied to me!" I accused with perhaps excessive vitriol, then drew back and smiled falsely as Matthew handed us each a glass of champagne. Damien brushed him away with a wave of his hand. "You never even spoke to Alex that night at the Groucho. You saw him, alright, but you didn't even try to talk to him. He didn't even know that I was still in London. If you'd just said one word to that effect... one word, Damien, he never would have gone home with that Evesham woman, and... and..." I didn't know what it would have changed, really, but I was still so hurt and so angry that I was just looking for someone to blame.
"And what? Kate, look at me!" Leaning closer, he took my hand in his. "He'd suddenly remember you and go running back to you? Is that what you would have wanted? I did what I thought was kindest."
"Kindest?" I gasped.
"Would you rather have prolonged the agony of the separation through his impassioned apology, your magnanimous forgiveness of him, and then his heart-wrenching repetition of the entire scenario?"
"What makes you think it would have been like that?" I hissed.
"Did you honestly want a man that had to be continually verbally reminded of his girlfriend to prevent him from copping off with someone else?" I paused, shocked back into reality by this statement, then took another sip of champagne. Forget tipsy, I was drunk - that boisterous, dizzy but intensely fragile champagne drunk. "Kate, he was in love with that Evesham woman before he even knew who you were."
"But he loved me," I protested dumbly.
"He loved you passionately, madly, maybe even obsessively with all of his heart. But that man's soul belonged to Em Evesham a long time ago."
"So what the hell does she have that I don't?" I spat out vehemently.
"Oh, Kate, it's not even a question of that. I'm not even going to comment on who is a better woman or a better person. It's simply a question of a better fit."
"Are they still together?" My stomach lurched, but the answer didn't hurt as much as I had expected. Perhaps I was finally over Alex Jones.
"Yes. I heard they might be planning on buying a house together in the autumn, though why Alex would want to part with that charming little flat, I don't know. I hope he sells it to me, though. I could do with a Soho pied a terre."
"Is he happy?" I finally stuttered, afraid of the answer, whichever it was.
"Good." I was surprised to find that I actually meant it, from the bottom of my heart. If he had left me for a stupid, angry mistake, I would have ripped him to pieces and then kicked myself to death, but if he'd left me for the love of his life, well, I could hardly fault him for that. No, wait a minute, I reminded myself suddenly, the fierce light of pride shining in my eyes again. He didn't leave me. I left him. That was one thing no one could ever take away from me. I was the strong one. I left him.
"If you hadn't said that, I would have slapped you," teased Damien. "Now finish your champagne and tell me about this bad art I'm supposed to be looking at."
"Actually, I don't know the slightest thing about it," I confessed.
"Exactly why I'm asking you. Any art that requires a massive intellectual backpack is by its very nature shit art. I fucking loathe openings. All these people standing around murmuring the same tired platitudes to one another over and over. I avoid them like the plague back at home, but for some reason, the first night I spend in a foreign city, everyone seems intent on dragging me to them. At least with you I know that I will get an honest and original opinion, not merely a rehash of the latest issue of Art In America or whathaveyou."
I laughed, leaning backwards and craning my neck to get a second look at the paintings. "Those are Carlos'. They're absolutely meaningless bits of pretty fluff, but they'll look perfectly non-threatening in the apartments of apartments of washed-out yuppies who burnt out on the cocaine scene in the 80's.
"The grey paintings," I continued, squinting at them dubiously, emboldened by the wine. "I don't fancy them at all, but they'll go over really well with people who like to bandy about the word ‘multiculturalism' in cocktail conversation."
"Even though they were probably painted by some French ex-patriot in Indian jewellery squatting in Camberwell," sighed Damien in commiseration.
"Williamsburg," I corrected. "And the rest, as they say, are what we would call album tracks."
Damon exploded in laughter. "I'm going to have to remember that one. Matty! Matty-Matt!"
Matthew darted over, obviously irritated at the new sobriquet, but trying not to incite Damien any further. "Yes... do you fancy some more champers?"
"Yeah, bring a bottle over, will you. But wait..." With an evil grin on his face, he proceeded to repeat my entire drunken spiel, almost exactly word for word, except for a few salt and peppered swear words.
"Damien!" I hissed in mock annoyance, punching him playfully in the shoulder as soon as the critic was out of earshot.
"Don't worry, he won't dare print that!"
"He better not! Carlos is a good friend of mine, actually. He's married to our drummer, Maddie. Look at them now, working the crowd. Funny to think that a year ago, the two of them were on the verge of getting a divorce. So far they've come."
"So what about you, Katie?" So I was Katie again now, was I? "How far have you come in the past year?"
I paused, sighing deeply and leaning my head back against his shoulder. Where the bloody hell did I start? Although at the time, it had seemed like I was barely moving, suspended in some sort of vacuum, only in retrospect did I realise how much we had actually accomplished.
"Oh god, let me think. In roughly chronological order... well, we went to Number One. I think that's one of the things we're all most proud of. Ah, so what if it was a bloody cover, still... Number One on the UK fucking charts." I shook my head in disbelief. "That doesn't happen to you every day."
"What was it?" he asked curiously.
"New Order's Bizarre Love Triangle."
Damien grunted appreciatively. "That was you? Dead good that was. We got off our kits at the Ministry of Sound one night, and they played the Carl Craig remix of it at about 6 in the morning, just as the sun was coming up. It was really brilliant. Pretty appropriate, if you ask me. Their idea or yours?"
"New Order's new label approached us, said the band loved us, and told us we could pick any song, for a remix or a cover." I still couldn't believe that he cared about these tiny minutia of my life. "I didn't have to think twice. The decision made itself.
"So then all sorts of major label people started sniffing around, making noises about buying our contract. But thank god we held our ground - Emma's to thank, really. Said she'd never be able to look her boyfriend Klaus in the face again if we signed to such a huge, corporate label. We thought it was nonsense at the time, but about a week later, on the strength of that single, we ended up negotiating a distribution deal with MVC on a pretty equitable cut."
"Good for you," guffawed Damien, pouring himself another glass of champagne. He offered it to me, but I shook my head, pacing myself, as I had no desire to spend the remainder of the night in an alcohol-induced coma.
"So there we were, working on our second album, with, like, this completely unheard of artistic control for a bunch of girls whom no one ever thought would have a second single. I had a recording console set up in my spare room, Maddie was sleeping in there, Emma was sleeping on the couch, we were all just learning what the hell to do in the studio without someone to hold our hands, and, then all of a sudden - disaster! We got thrown out of our house!
"The landlord stopped by unexpectedly one afternoon on a noise complaint, and found this utter chaos... I had signed the lease as a single professional woman with a boyfriend from out of town, and suddenly there's three people, fast on the way to four, basically an entire fucking band living and recording on the top floor of this posh brownstone.
"So I'm eight months pregnant, out on the street, with an album half finished in boxes on the sidewalk. Maddie went back to her husband at that point, but they were still having residual difficulties, so they decided they were going to ‘date casually' for a while-.."
"How do you casually date your own husband?" interrupted Damien.
"Good question," I shrugged, then ploughed on. "Maddie and I were in terrible straits, Emma was living in what was basically a welfare hotel on St. Mark's Place and Beth's father – who owned her flat – decided to sell the building out from under her.
"So we took our entire accumulated savings, blagged an advance off the label, and bought ourselves this abandoned tenement building in Alphabet City. The place was a fucking dump - no heat, half the apartments had been disconnected from mains electricity, and there was running water in only two of the bathrooms, but somehow we camped out in one apartment after another as Maddie's brother Tony, and his architectural firm renovated them on the cheap for us. It's quite nice now, all snug and cosy, like the Monkees or something, but god, when we first walked in there, it felt like we'd just walked into hell."
"So what do you do if the band breaks up?" ventured Damien cynically.
"Pray it doesn't happen?" I laughed. "No, each of the four apartments is in each of our names, and the basement we knocked together into a recording studio. That we'll probably fight over, but I own over half of the equipment, so... It doesn't seem likely any time soon, though. If we've come through this much together, well, I don't know what it would take to actually break us up." I paused, reflectively sipping at my drink, and then refilling the glass.
"You've told me an awful lot of things about the band," Damien, observed. "But absolutely nothing about you."
"Same thing, most of the time," I laughed.
"Well, not completely. I mean, last time I saw you, you were several months pregnant, and now..." he probed, looking me up and down appreciatively.
"And now I'm obviously not," I teased, stretching a bit. As I slid down the couch, reclining against his chest, the back of my skirt had ridden up alarmingly, but somehow it didn't seem to matter right now.
I caught Damien's eyes flitting up and down the length of my body, rather flattered by the way his face lit up into that disarming leer. "Obviously not," he repeated. "Boy or a girl?"
"Boy." This was the part of the story that tore my heart out. "Ian Hamish Gordon. 9 lbs. 8oz."
"With a name like that, he'd better look Scots," commented Damien wryly.
"Blond hair, bright blue eyes - longest skinniest baby the nurses had ever seen. Absolute heart-breaker, bright, alert, personable... some babies are sick and cry a lot, but not Ian. He was an utter delight. But, when the birth was announced, well, someone counted back nine months on their fingers..."
"Tristram. Tristram Thornaby-Gore," supplied Damien, snapping his fingers. "I remember. It was in all the papers. I wasn’t even aware that you'd ever even known him, let alone...”
“Yeah, there was this huge court case, and next thing we knew he'd won. He ordered a blood test - I refused at first, but the court ordered one. Set all sorts of legal precedents, as it was the first time a woman had ever sued not to have the paternity revealed. Of course, he was the father."
"How? Well, that's obvious... When?" He sounded more perplexed than judgemental, so I shrugged and told him.
"Too much acid at Glastonbury."
"I'm surprised more babies aren't brought into the world that way," he noted with a bawdy smirk.
"So Tristram mounted this huge, dirty, mud-slinging court case. He had a pair of dirty, ripped, underwear that I'd been wearing at the time, that he'd apparently been carrying around with him for nearly a year, the sick fuck, which were dragged out as evidence, simply to humiliate me and make me look like a slut. Jeremy's entire court history was dragged out in lurid detail - never mind that I'd not been arrested a single time! Just because I'd been unknowingly pregnant in this man's presence...
"He managed to find Jeremy's greedy, conniving bitch of a mother. This woman, mind you, has been dogging me since Jeremy died. She even went so far as to hire a private fucking investigator to dig up dirt on me in England, and he came up with some wild, completely unsubstantiated rumour that Jeremy's death wasn't a suicide - did you know that this bastard has a site on the internet, purporting to prove that I had Jeremy murdered in order to get my hands on his money? I'm still fighting the appeal on that court battle, and this crap is out there and there's nothing I can do about it legally without making his case look stronger. I don't give a fuck about the money - I've already given it to charity, to a home for runaway kids - I just don't want that bitch to get a cent of it!" Without even bothering to ask, Damien refilled my champagne glass as soon as I emptied it.
"That stupid, irresponsible picture of you and I at the London Design Museum was dragged out yet again to prove that I was an unfit mother who'd been taking Class A's while pregnant..."
"I knew there was a reason that I remembered the trial." I raised an eyebrow at him dubiously. "Apart from the fact that it involved you, my dear," he confessed hastily, patting me on the knee then disrupting my rest to place the empty champagne bottle at our feet, before leaning back again, wrapping his free arm casually about my shoulders.
"So the upshot of this all was that after all the evidence was presented, the judge withdrew to his chambers for precisely 5 minutes before coming back and granting sole custody to Tristram, with visiting rights one weekend every two months."
"So he went back, took a shit, then shat on you," Damien observed with his customary wickedly inappropriate grin. "When was this?"
"Six weeks ago," I replied, wishing my voice wouldn't quaver so. Was that all? It seemed more like six years since I'd last seen Ian.
"So you see him in two weeks?" I nodded, my voice choked up. "Coming to England?" I nodded again. "You can stay with me if you like."
Turning my head slightly, I planted a soft kiss on his bristly cheek. "That's very kind of you, Hearsey Darling." I paused for a moment, attempting to collect my thoughts, then gave up and dissolved them in the champagne before nestling back into the crook of his arm. Short, stocky and slightly rounded, Damien was a comfortable man to lie on, soft and yielding after the harsh angular frames of Alex and Jeremy.
As if sensing the direction of my thoughts, Damien coughed slightly before venturing. "So how about boys."
"Boys?" I snorted. "The first date I've had in a year just walked out the door with a six foot Danish model turned performance artiste."
"Fool!" ejected Damien. I shifted slightly, turning towards him so that I could study his expressions better. "I've never understood what men find the slightest bit attractive in stupid women. I mean beautiful women, yeah - they're tolerable to look at, but they come and they go. But what I want is a woman who can keep up her end of the dialogue without resorting to a dictionary every time the words reach a length of greater than three syllables."
"What's a syllable?" I teased in a babyish and heavily accented voice.
"Shut up, you," he guffawed. "You're exactly the sort of woman I'm talking about. An intelligent and articulate knockout."
"Am I?" My bruised and battered ego blossomed under his praise. He thought I was intelligent? Funny, Damien was the only man in whose conversation I'd ever felt completely lost. "I thought you had no interest whatsoever in me. You were the first man in... years, who actually had the nerve to turn me down."
"That's not what I said. I said I had no interest whatsoever in shagging you simply to get back at Alex Jones. I never said I didn't fancy you." I looked up into his face, questioning, waiting for the cheeky leer that meant it had all been a terrible joke, but his eyes remained open and honest. "Bloody hell, I'm not blind, deaf and dumb. I think, if I recall correctly through the vodka and the coke, the first night I met you, I proposed marriage."
I had to smile at the memory of Damien encouraging Alex and I to top each other at more and more ridiculous intellectual posturing, then sloppily kissing me and proposing marriage, much to the annoyance of Jeremy. "I thought you were joking."
"I was. Alex would have snapped me in half like a twig if I hadn't been. But trust me, I fancied you."
Raising myself up on one elbow, I studied him carefully. Although he wasn't even approaching anything that could even be considered classically handsome, or even pretty, his face still had an odd, mismatched appeal and an undeniable charisma. It was the alcohol talking - no, it was definitely something. His eyes; that was it. The huge, constantly turbulent, quixotic ocean leering out from behind those narrow, deep-set, water-blue eyes. Sometimes he made me hate him, sometimes he intrigued me, but the man had never bored me. "You know what? I've always rather fancied you, too," I finally confessed.
"Shall we have it off, then?" he suggested boldly. It was so off-handed that had I refused, he could have passed off as an attempt at humour, but in that moment I saw right through the bluster and bravado straight to his core. This man believed in himself 110%, but he had been hardened by years and years of people telling him no. The naughty Damien he kept in a box upstairs was simply a method of preserving his pride intact if god forbid he should ever stumble and fall, which apparently he had done more than a few times during his perilous climb to the top.
"Why not?" I finally shrugged, leaning forward to kiss him.
"Why not, indeed," he shrugged. The expression in his eyes was priceless - I'd finally caught him by surprise, made a move he hadn't anticipated.