I heard the taxi door slam, bottles chinked, shrieks and grumbles were heard. At last! The gang had arrived. I allowed myself a wry smile; of course Allegra wouldn’t take the underground. I grabbed the blanket off the back of the sofa, where I had been sulking and sobbing for the last couple of days, and went to open the door. It was dark out and drizzling.
‘Hey, you survived the weekend without killing each other! Well done,’ I exclaimed.
‘Only just,’ laughed Lisa. ‘These two have been bickering the whole time.’
‘No surprise there, then.’ My three best friends had just clambered out of the warmth of the black cab. Lisa was standing on the pavement, shivering slightly as the cold hit her, waiting for Allegra to pay. She grinned and raised an eyebrow.
There is something about the people you meet whilst working ski seasons. At the end of six months of living in each other’s pockets you either walk away from the resort and certain people, without a backward glance, or you know that you have made friends for life. Lisa was one of the latter; gregarious, mad, more energy than is normal for a human being and my partner in crime on my last ever ski season. We made a great team. She was 5ft 10 and a redhead, and I was 5ft 3 and a slightly fuller figured redhead. We were the little and large of the resort and loved every second of the attention we created for ourselves. She was more than capable of handling my two other best friends, Allegra and Jess, who purported to hate each other but deep down had a grudging respect.
‘Well you all look fabulous,’ I stated, in my best Ab Fab voice but was drowned out by Jess.
‘This bloody latest drama had better be worth it; an hour stuck in the confines of a bloody expensive cab just because your posh friend won’t take the tube and that after having to spend the entire weekend with her. You had better be about to die or something equally vile. Actually, you do look like shit, that’s good at least.’
I looked at Lisa, she mouthed, ‘All weekend!’ to me and I couldn’t help but grin. Jess was on form.
Jess and I had worked together for a tour operator in London. She had sold African holidays and I had sold Indian holidays. We had then both moved on to other companies, but had kept in touch and shared regular drunken Thursday nights out. She was never one to mince her words.
She continued, ‘And typically, she’s been a pain the whole time, mummy this and daddy that, famous person I know said this, Lord so and so who came to dinner that. Lord and Lady Smartpants could go shit themselves for all I care.’ Jess, was purportedly cross she hadn’t been able to escape to the comfort of her own flat. She wasn’t massively into spa’s either but had been dragged along because her fiancé was away on a boys weekend.
The usual brunt of Jess’ faux anger was Allegra, the third of my closest friends. A tall, skinny fabulously glamourous ex-model, she was everything that Jess, who was more my build with a mass of unruly dark curls, was not. She was just quite possibly the poshest person I had ever met. Well, she was until I met her mother, who knocked her off the top spot.
Allegra and I had met on a photo shoot I had arranged in India for a fashion magazine. Somehow, I had managed to persuade my boss, over a bottle or two of wine, that it would be great PR for me to accompany the models out to Kerala. Why I wanted to put myself through that torture I don’t know. Just shows how much I love India I guess, that me, at 5ft 3 and 11 stone on a good day, would put myself in the company of top fashion models for a week. All the others were shopping for calorie free flight snacks and anusol to pat under their eyes and so I decided that it was time to leave them to their own devices and headed off to the bar for a much needed pre-flight drink. There was Allegra, on her own, nursing a glass of wine. I immediately ordered the rest of the bottle and we hit it off immediately, but even so I was surprised when she kept in touch after the trip. I was amazed that someone so posh and glamorous was interested in hanging out with an oik from Yorkshire. All I could think of was that I was the only person who she could tuck into a large bag of kettle chips with without having to pretend to feel guilty.
She stepped out of the cab, all legs and designer gear, looking incredible as usual. She could look amazing wearing a bin bag.
‘Hi darling, are you ok? We’ve been frightfully worried, especially as you said that there are two major things to chat about. We usually struggle dealing with just one of your dramas. So sorry we couldn’t make it on Friday, have you had a terribly dreadful weekend?’
‘I have,’ Jess interjected, looking pointedly at her.
Lisa hooted, ‘The whole weekend Jo, it’s been hilarious, but not half as funny as when the stylist tried to straighten Jess’s curls.’
Allegra chose to ignore them both and she bent down to kiss me on both cheeks. ‘You don’t look great, have you been crying? It plays havoc with the complexion you know? Anyway, this will help.”
‘It’s not anusol is it?’ I asked as I pulled the blanket protectively around me, I was, as I had been all weekend, in my pyjamas.
Jess and Lisa guffawed, Allegra merely raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow,
‘No, wine. I wasn’t sure if you would have anything decent in or left for that matter.’
‘Left is more like it,’ I conceded.
‘We always drink decent stuff, just ‘cos it’s not from daddy’s cellar doesn’t mean it’s not decent.’ Laughed Lisa.
‘Really?’ Allegra glanced at me an unconvinced expression on her face.
I smiled at her reassuringly.
‘Yes, really, it is decent stuff by normal people’s standards, but we do rather like your dad’s collection. Right, come on in. Put your wine in the fridge, there is a semi-warm bottle on the table that I’ve already started.’
Lisa nudged passed me but Allegra was reaching into her bag, ‘So despite the emergency, is this still a no smoking house?’
‘Yes,’ grumbled Jess, ‘and she is hardly going to build a conservatory just for you. Now, hurry up and find your cancer sticks. They’ll help shorten your life by a few minutes and put us all out of our misery.’
‘Got them,’ exclaimed Allegra. ‘Would you like one, Jess?’ and she proffered the packet with an innocent grin on her face that everyone saw through.
Deliberately misconstruing the meaning of the offer, she said, ‘Oh, go on then. Might as well get some pleasure out of having to spend more time with you.’ They both smiled and sparked up. Bitch at each other as much as they did it was, generally speaking, in a good natured fashion.
Lisa and I went inside. I stacked the wine in the fridge whilst she went for a nosey around; she hadn’t been to visit for a few months, having got recently engaged and me having been with Yank. ‘Gosh, you’ve done loads with it. It looks amazing. I love it. You are clever.’
‘Thanks, it all just came together really. Kind friends and relatives donated a few pieces of furniture, so nothing matches but it all kind of gels. The pictures are all my own photographs from my trips around India.’
‘Bloody Hell! Talents we never knew about.’
At that, Allegra and Jess with a sceptical look on her face, peered through the doorway.
Allegra put her cigarette stub in a plant pot on the step and came inside. ‘Oh my goodness, it is looking fabulous, are seriously these your own photos?’
I smiled, ‘Indeed, now let’s get some wine poured.’ Allegra looked at me sympathetically and gave me a quick hug mouthing ‘Are you really okay?’ I shrugged as she took off her coat.
In no time we were gathered on the sofas in the lounge, glasses of wine in hand, and I began to tell them the first of the reasons for the confab, or fill in the details that they didn’t already know.
Jess slammed her glass down, shot up and began to pace the room. ‘He is FUCKING married? Not again Jo, how do you find them? I presume that you have told him to fuck right off?’ She was never one to mince her words.
I looked at her sheepishly. ‘Well, I did on Friday, since then he has sent a couple of messages.’
‘Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, do you hear me? We are NOT going through this again. What the hell happened to separated?’
Allegra cut in, ‘Are you quite sure?’ She reached over to take my hand in sympathy. ‘I mean, it all seems a bit strange.’
‘Of course it’s strange!’ Lisa butted in. ‘This is one of Jo’s relationships. What do you expect? It was never going to be drama-free, was it? I knew there would be something. It was all going far too well. Bloody hell, even Jess liked him.’
‘Only moderately,’ Jess muttered under her breath.
‘Guys, please.’ I sighed. ‘Jess, calm down. Lisa, thanks for that, like I need to be reminded of just how crap my love life has been ‘til now, and Allegra, bless you but, yes, I am sure. He told me on Friday morning, just as we were getting out of the shower. He is actually still married. He maintains that, technically, they are separated and he doesn’t want to be with her, but she has moved back to the UK and into their home.’
‘Well, thank goodness he came to tell you before you turned up at his house. That could have been awful.’ soothed Allegra.
‘It is pretty awful anyway.’ I countered sulkily.
‘Oh my God, can you imagine?’ shrieked Lisa. ‘Letting yourself in and finding his wife there! Mind you, it would have been a good chance to check out the competition.’
‘Hang on, he told you on Friday morning? When did he turn up?’ This from Jess.
‘He was here when I got home from work on Thursday.’
‘And he didn’t tell you until the following morning, after he’d been here all night, un-bloody-believable,’ even Jess was shocked, but then added, ‘though that does show a certain kind of balls, you said he was tough,’ She nodded in admiration before Allegra poked her in the ribs.
‘Jess, that’s awful.’
Jess reluctantly conceded, ‘Fair enough, but look, it’s blatantly obvious that he has been lying to you all along, I am fed up of you being cheated on and lied to even if you aren’t. Delete his number now, before you drive us all insane. I know you and you never seem to learn, you will be messaging him before we’ve even got home.’
‘No I won’t, not this time.’ I tried to say with conviction.
‘Glad to hear it, although I don’t believe it for a second. Your relationships are such a waste of my time and sympathy.’
‘Ha! Love it!’ shrieked Lisa, ‘Sympathy and Jess; that is like using the words black men and skiing in the same sentence. They just don’t go together.’
‘Oh good heavens, no, don’t bring black men into this. We don’t want to open that can of worms,’ said Allegra with a smirk, bringing a laugh, even from me. I threw a cushion at her.
‘Ladies, please!’ I exclaimed, ‘It’s years since that disaster, that was a couple of years before Yank, and I have been with him now for eighteen months.’
‘Oh oh, Jess, she has slipped into the present tense. Slap her or something,’ said Lisa, and then carried on before Jess could actually take action. ‘Seriously, babe, Jess is right. You have to stay strong this time. Don’t go putting up with this like you did with Charity Man.’
‘I won’t, I have learnt you know.’ They had good reason to disbelieve me. Despite finding out that my boyfriend before Yank was married, I had believed all his lies and let it carry on for another year before I had the courage to put an end to it, dragging us all through unnecessary drama and wine consumption.
‘You gave him the benefit of the doubt but we could all smell a rat. It was only when you discovered that he was seeing another women and was still married, that you finally put a stop to it.’ I knew I was in trouble if even Allegra was being so pragmatic.
‘I know, but there was such chemistry between us!’ I implored, as if this accounted for everything.
‘We all know the sex was amazing,’ said Lisa, ‘we had graphic accounts, every time you had make up sex, which was every bloody couple of week; I was quite envious you know.’
Jess threw her arms up in exasperation. ‘Brilliant, so we finally get rid of him and instead she found someone else who has also lied to her about being married.
‘It was you lot who made me meet him in the first place, remember? I was quite happy being miserable and single thank you very much.’
‘Aaarrrhhh,’ Lisa hooted, ‘That’s why I love this girl, she makes less sense than I do.’
‘Hard to believe but true,’ chuntered Jess. Lisa threw some peanuts in her direction and Allegra looked horrified. ‘Children please.’
Jess stuck out her tongue, ‘Didn’t you ever have food fights at your posh boarding school?’ Then turned back to me. ‘True, we did make you meet him but we weren’t to know, and the point is, that now we do. For once in your miserable life, learn from the past and walk away. Now!’ Jess all but stamped her feet. Her dark curls were bouncing angrily around her furious face.
‘Darling,’ consoled Allegra. ‘You are worth so much more than being treated like this. You have to stick to your guns, you know you do.’
‘She’s right,’ Lisa nodded at me emphatically. ‘Cut him dead now. Finished. Finito. Termine!’ she added with a flourish. She had started throwing French words into the conversation, the wine was obviously starting to take effect.
I paused and looked around, I knew they were right but it was alright for them, they all had someone. Here I was back to square one – again!
Jess came over and started knocking on my head with her fist. ‘Jesus Christ, is anybody in there? For someone who is meant to have a reasonable level of intelligence, in matters of the heart, you can’t half be bloody stupid. Listen to me, give me your phone and I will delete his number now. We know you and you will call him. Hand it over.’
Allegra, batting Jess away and putting her arm around me said, ‘As much as I hate to agree with Jess, she is right, we do love you but you are hopeless, it needs to be done.’
Lisa groaned, ‘More wine required,’ and popped the cork of the next bottle, sniffing it. ‘Ahh, the sweet scent of Sancerre. We do love you, Allegra,’ and with that, she filled everyone’s glass except mine.
‘Oy, what about me?’ Annoyed, I reached for the bottle which Lisa, one step ahead as always, snatched out of my way.
‘Non ma cherie, no more for you until his number is deleted.’
Jess came and stood over me. ‘Phone, delete, now.’ Although I knew I possibly had a future plan which didn’t involve Burke at all, this all of a sudden seemed quite final.
‘Can’t I just, well text him first, you know a kind of goodbye?’ I whined and allowed the phone to slip out of my hands onto the table.
‘NO, DELETE NOW!’ They all shouted and the room virtually reverberated with their vehemence.
‘Why not? Just a, you know, farewell kind of thing?’
‘Okay, yes, why not, how about, ‘’Fuck off, dickhead,’’ said Jess.
Lisa almost spat out her wine. ‘Well, maybe a little bit less harsh Jess, how about, sorry dude but I told you I don’t do married men, I have to move on. Call me if your situation changes.’
‘Lisa, are you mad? She doesn’t want to leave him any opening or hope that he can come grovelling back.’
‘Well, look, he has made her really happy and they do get on brilliantly, the sex is great and he might get a divorce.’ She looked at me.
‘No Lisa, Jess is right, no more deception, it has to be over.’ I sunk back into the sofa. Allegra looked at me pointedly and handed me the phone.
‘God, I know you’re right, ok, here goes.’ And with that I hit delete.
They all looked relieved and Lisa handed over the wine bottle but then, slowly, one by one they started to look suspicious.
‘You haven’t written his number down anywhere have you?’ asked Allegra.
I shook my head.
‘You’d better bloody not have done.’ Growled Jess. ‘Though that was remarkably easy; there is something you’re not telling us isn’t there?’ said Jess.
Now was the time to hit them with my second dilemma.
‘Well, yes, kind of, I mean, it’s only an idea as of now but I’ve had all weekend to think about things and……’
‘What?’ They all asked in unison.
‘Well,’ I paused as much for effect as to gather a little more courage, ‘I got an email a couple of weeks ago from a friend who has a lodge in a tiger reserve in central India; she is looking for a manager and wondered if I knew of anyone.’
‘Oh, so do you?’ asked Allegra, not quite cottoning on.
‘She certainly does,’ exclaimed Lisa, never one to miss a trick ‘don’t you?’ She winked at me.
‘Oh, I see where this is going,’ added Jess. ‘You’re considering it aren’t you?’
I took a deep breath, ‘Well I wouldn’t have but now that this has happened with Yank, why not? I am not exactly massively happy at work, John is being so unreasonable, I even got that massive deal signed on Friday and he is still being arsey with me. I don’t want to set up my own travel company. If I have to be single, which given the idiots I seem to attract, I seem to be, then why not go and do something completely different?’
They all looked dubious but I pressed on, ‘Look, it’s in the middle of nowhere, no phones or computers for miles, so it is a good opportunity to get Yank out of my system. I wouldn’t be able to contact him even if I wanted to and…..’ I started to run out of steam as I looked around at their faces.
‘Brilliant,’ announced Jess, ‘Genius. A spur of the moment instant decision the minute you get dumped at a time when you are bound to be thinking perfectly rationally.’
‘She hasn’t made a decision, have you?’ Allegra looked questioningly at me.
‘No, but, well it is a thought.’ I nodded, my eyes pleading with them to understand.
‘Because Jess does have a point, I mean you have more or less just bought this house and got it all sorted.’ Allegra pointed out.
‘Well yes, but that needn’t stop me. The house will rent, I rented it before I bought it.’
There was a lull as they each took time to assimilate my latest mad cap idea.
Jess was the first to break the silence, ‘Jo, even by your impetuous, idiotic standards, it is a ridiculous idea.’
‘Well I think its incroyable!’ threw in Lisa, ‘An amazing opportunity, but to be fair to Jess, you have to remember, the idea when we came back to the UK was to settle down into proper jobs and find men and be grown-ups. It doesn’t follow that theme does it?’
‘Well no, but it hasn’t exactly worked out brilliantly for me has it?’ You guys have all found someone and are happy, even Jess, but I’m not, am I?’
‘You were ‘til Friday.’ Allegra leaned over and patted my leg. ‘Of course you are not right now but you never know what’s around the corner.’
‘Well, thanks for the cliché.’
We all lapsed into silence.
Jess was the first one to break it, ‘Actually, you know, the more I think about it, the more I am starting to like the idea, I mean, she’s never had a disastrous relationship with an Indian, or any relationship for that matter, look at how she has been wined and dined by all these maharaja’s whilst staying in their forts and palaces and she’s managed to stay drama free.’
‘Err, that’s cos its my job, it wouldn’t be professional to misbehave when you are out representing the company!’
‘Partly true,’ agreed Jess, ‘but you’d still be representing them this time, this is only a sabbatical isn’t it?’
‘Exactly. So,’ she continued, addressing Lisa and Allegra, ‘She will be in the middle of the jungle, not contactable. Yank won’t be able to find her and she won’t be trying to molest any of the locals. My word, we might get six months peace and quiet.’
‘No need to sound so triumphant!’ I whined. ‘This is quite an exciting offer, you needn’t make it sound like just an opportunity to be rid of me. You’d get bored without my dramas, you know that!’
She raised an eyebrow sardonically at me.
‘Well I love the idea of it,’ Lisa emphasised the word, idea, ‘and it is the kind of thing we have all done in the past, but it’s not like we are in our twenties anymore is it, I mean you are thirty six.’
Allegra butted in, ‘How long would it be for?’ She was sounding thoughtful, ‘I mean you don’t necessarily have to quit your job. Do you think John would agree to a sabbatical and you could just go for six months? Then there’s no harm done. You will have got away from Yank and got him out of your system. John will have had the chance to realise just how much he relies on you, and then you can come back and you will have had an experience that will help your work. That might not be such a bad idea.’
I nodded, I liked that, thank goodness for Allegra and her reliable voice of reason. I had just been about to quit my job; thank goodness I had taken the weekend and not been too impetuous.
‘It won’t be as swanky as it is when you are out there for work you know. You won’t be being chauffeured about all over the place, staying in the best hotels and being a princess. I ran a lodge in Africa for a while and working there doing that was very different from being a tour operator.’
‘Well, I know that, obviously.’ I blustered in response. Though that actually hadn’t occurred to me.
‘Well then, why not?’ said Allegra, ‘Speak to John tomorrow and see if he will agree. That way you will have a job to come back to and won’t be just running away.’
‘Running away, who said anything about running away?’
Three pairs of eyes stared at me over the rims of their wine glasses.
‘Okay, okay, maybe I am but we all know how pathetic I am. I am bound to find some way to contact Yank, his number will be on my next phone bill or he will message me and I will respond. I have to find a way to stop myself and this could be it.’
‘Absolutely, I mean why bother with good old fashioned principles and will power if you can run off to an Indian jungle?’ Jess was in her element now.
‘Exactly’ I was starting to warm to my theme, ‘I know it may seem a bit extreme to most people but this is us, we have never been conventional, look at how we all met.’
‘Well, I only met her because of you’, Jess looked from Allegra to me, ‘Not sure if I am a fan of unconventional.’
‘Charming,’ said Allegra. ‘I think it’s time for a cigarette.’
‘Finally, something we agree on,’ and they both headed outside.
Lisa shrugged and we watched them go, ‘Look, sleep on it. More than that, think about it for a few days before you speak to John, don’t make any hasty decisions.’
‘You’re right.’ I nodded in agreement but then we shared a knowing look and reaching for the wine again, she added, ‘But it would be an amazing adventure, when do they want you to start?’
‘In two weeks.’