Was my luck about to change? The moment he wandered over to me in the bar and offered to buy me a drink I started praying that he wasn’t too good to be true. A tall blond, handsome American stranger? A corporate lawyer in a really nice suit? In his early 30s? That dream-come-true sort of thing doesn’t normally happen to me. And sure enough, it didn’t last. We had just started chatting about work and, if I was not mistaken, there was a little bit of flirtatious eye contact and subtle smiling going on when Marcia walked into the bar. She stopped in front of us, posed elegantly, looked at him, looked at me and said in her beautiful, languid voice, “Suzie darling, I can hear you from here. Do stop being so amazingly dull.” And she sat down between us, smiled at him, turned her back on me, and I might as well have left right then, for the amount of attention I knew I was going to get from him from that point on.
I shifted my seat so that I could see him again but he didn’t seem to notice.
“We were just chatting,” I said to the back of her head, unable to hide the disappointment in my voice.
“But why would this charming man be interested in hearing all about your little job?” she asked and smiled at him again, shifting her position slightly to better display her long neck and cleavage. Her gleaming brunette hair swung alluringly round her face. “I’m Marcia. I’m a model.”
“Ex-model,” I muttered, but he was too busy staring at her to hear.
“What is your name anyhow?” Marcia asked him. “I just know Suzie won’t have bothered to ask. No social skills whatsoever.”
I glared at her. She ignored me. “His name is Brett,” I said.
“Brett! What a wonderful name! I do just love American men’s names. And American men of course.” She laughed again and reaching forward touched his arm lightly. I thought about making a gagging noise but, frankly, what was the point? She might be treating me like a child but I didn’t have to behave like one. Anyway he was mesmerised by her, just like all the rest. There are times when I quite hate Marcia.
“I hear HRT talking,” I muttered into my glass of white wine.
“Excuse me?” said Brett, finally finding his voice again.
Marcia turned and hissed at me, “Suzie, do stop whining.” Then her smile clicked smoothly back into place and she started to play suggestively with his tie. “Hermès?” she asked. “It really flatters your colouring.” She looked at him playfully. I knew that look. Brett was about to find himself ordering a bottle of something extraordinarily expensive from the sullen, blond barman with the metrosexual eyebrows and we’d be stuck for the evening.
“We’ll be late for that dinner we’re supposed to be going to,” I said.
“Susannah.” Marcia’s hazel eyes flashed warningly.
I sighed. The tiny suedette stool I was perching on like an overweight pigeon was both cutting into my bottom and causing it to sweat through my tights into the acetate lining of my party dress, no doubt causing it to crease atrociously. But Marcia was moving into full flow, charming, cajoling and flirting and lawyer boy was lapping it up. (“Why yes, I do love skiing – how did you guess, you clever man?” “You look like a woman who enjoys dangerous sport.” Urgh!) Their eye contact, even in the dim, purple, mood lighting of the bar, could have cut through steel. I could have fallen off the stool and they wouldn’t have noticed or cared.
I pointedly opened my bag and looked at the brightly coloured ticket. It still said 8pm start and it still said £90. I thought briefly about that £90 that I now couldn’t spend in Hobbs or John Lewis and how it was entirely Marcia’s idea in the first place and how she’d forced me into coming with her, “entirely for your own good darling”. OK, I would have gladly skipped it to spend the evening alone with someone like Brett, but that was hardly the point.
“Shall I just go by myself?” That was the sensible way out.
Marcia appeared not to hear.
“OK, I’m going then.”
Still nothing. I took another quick look at the ticket. Venue tbc. Oh God.
“Can you just give me the address please?”
Marcia swivelled round and glared. I noticed that she was touching Brett’s hand. “Not now, for God’s sake, Suzie,” she muttered.
So I was supposed to wave goodbye to my ninety quid and just spend the evening sitting there and being ignored while Marcia sank her claws into a man who’d seemingly fancied me before she arrived. No, I decided. Not on.
“I need the address of the restaurant,” I repeated.
Marcia turned and glared again.
Brett started to look confused. “Are you going somewhere?” He looked at me for the first time since Marcia arrived.
“Ignore the silly girl,” said Marcia playfully to him. “She can’t stand not being the centre of attention.”
OK, now that was just unfair. The bitch. I took a deep breath and decided that she’d just invited me to invoke the nuclear option. Immediately my hands and upper lip started to sweat too and my heart began to race. I would suffer for this later, I knew I would, but it was the only way. I took another deep breath, attempted to stop my voice shaking and said as loudly as possible, “Mummy, Lili asked us to be there for 8.00. It’s 8.30 now. Don’t come if you don’t want to but at least tell me where it is so I can go. Mum.”
Immediately Brett gulped audibly, jerked away from Marcia and looked visibly revolted. “You’re her mom?” he said to her. “But she’s gotta be nearly 40. That makes you…”
“Late for a dinner party,” Marcia cut in smoothly as she stood up. And she swished out of the bar, with me jogging heavily in her wake. Yes, just another evening, picking up men with my mother.
“What the hell was all that about?” Marcia screeched, as we got into the taxi. “He really liked me!”
“He really liked me till you arrived,” I said, knowing that I sounded petulant.
“Well, exactly! He liked me more and you couldn’t deal with it.”
“Anyhow,” added Marcia, “you’re meant to be helping me to find a toyboy, not sabotaging me at every step of the way. He would have done perfectly. And do stop being such a baby. You’re 36, not four.”
“And you are meant to be helping me find a boyfriend, which is why we’re going to this shitty dinner thing.” I slumped back in my seat, still aware that I was being appalling but too annoyed to care.
She huffed a bit at that and said, “Language Susannah!” Then amazingly, she said nothing more, concentrating instead on pinning her hair up, until the taxi rounded World’s End, when she said, “This is an original Diane von Furstenberg you know. She gave it to me when I modelled for her in the ‘seventies.” I rolled my eyes. She always told me that whenever she wore the dress, a geometric print, silk jersey wrap number.
I’m amazed you didn’t manage to tell Brett that,” I said snippily. “Or the bit about what David Bailey said to you.”
“Oh, you mean about me being the 1970s’ Twiggy and more photogenic than her and the Shrimp put together,” Marcia said, suddenly happy again.
“Oh Mum,” I sighed again. “Forget about Brett and let’s just get through this evening, shall we? I’m sorry I’m being whiny. I’m just a bit nervous. And the dress looks really good.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? Stop calling me Mum.”
Of course, she looked fantastic. She always looked fantastic – like Audrey Hepburn, gamine, elegant and sexy even in her fifties. In contrast, I look nice. Friendly. Comfortable. Just not sexy and elegant. In fact you’d hardly think we were related. And this evening my dress wasn’t helping. It still felt clammy and clingy for a start and as I expected it had crushed down the back. It had of course looked fine in the shop, black silky chiffon from Hobbs, empire line, which highlighted my breasts and disguised everything else. Now I felt a lot less sure about it. In fact I felt like a frumpy old heffalump. Of course, trying to compete with Marcia was a dead loss in any case. About the only thing I seemed to have inherited from her was brunette hair but even that looked mumsy on me while it looked glamorous on her. Not only could I not come out ahead in any comparison, I wasn’t expected to and this had become increasingly clear over the past few months, since she turned fifty. For the fifth time.
Mind you, if you’d told me a few months ago that I would be going to a singles event on Valentine’s Day with my mother, I would have laughed at you. A few months ago I had a boyfriend and so did Marcia.
I had been with Derek for about two years. He was OK, if a bit boring at times and a bit on the tight side. I really think I loved him for a while. OK, so he wasn’t a genius. Or a millionaire. Or an Adonis. And frankly, he did have his boring and sometimes downright mean moments. But he was mine, at least for a time, and at my age, pretty much anything is better than being on the shelf. And I did think at the time that he would have made a lovely dad. So there I was on my way, in my own head at least, to becoming Mrs Derek Tidworth.
The only real problem with him was Marcia. She hated him. In fact she was positively evil to him. Her very first comment, on meeting him for the first time, a few months after we started dating, was, “Darling, he’s awfully short.” Her second was, “And patchily bald. Just like a pig.” In fact Marcia just wouldn’t let up. “How could you even think of making grandchildren with something that looks like that?” she kept asking. “Goodness knows that you didn’t really get my looks but even you can do better than that.” And she didn’t make much effort to ensure that he was out of earshot during these conversations.
Hardly surprisingly Derek hated Marcia right back. Indeed our break-up concerned Marcia, or more precisely the question of whether to spend Christmas with Marcia or with Derek’s parents in Streatham.
I still have nightmares about that conversation with Derek. All I’d said was, “Wouldn’t it be nice to go away for Christmas this year?”
“But we haven’t even discussed it. I’d really like to go somewhere hot.”
“OK. Well, we went down to your parents last year…”
“We are not inviting your old bag of a mother over, if that’s what you’re angling for.”
“What on earth is up with you? You’re not normally this nasty.”
If he’d left it there or better still apologised, I think we’d have been fine (if Streatham bound for Christmas) but he looked at me gawping at him and added, “And while we’re at it, I don’t want the stuck up old tart coming over here at all any more.” The room went silent for a moment and then I felt my temper go.
“But Marcia owns the flat!” I yelled.
“Which I never hear the end of. Guess what? I don’t care. I live here too.”
“So, you’re saying I can’t invite MY mother to visit me in HER flat which you are living in rent free?”
“Do whatever you want but if you do, you’ll be doing it without me.” Derek stared at me, his eyes tinier and more piggy than usual, then heaved himself out of the armchair. “You know, actually, I’ve had enough. You could be Miss World with the personality of Mother Teresa and it wouldn’t be worth putting up with your mother.” He picked up a picture from the mantelpiece of Marcia and me at some party, looked at it for a few moments with an exhausted expression on his blunt face and added, “OK, perhaps I might just feel it was worth sticking around if you actually looked like her. But you really, really don’t, do you?” He then picked up his Palm Pilot (he never went anywhere without his trusty Palm Pilot – none of that Blackberry nonsense for Derek) and walked out. I was speechless for a few moments until the unaccustomed adrenaline surge died down and I started to cry, in what suddenly seemed like a very empty flat. The next day, when I got back from work, all his stuff had gone.
Marcia didn’t say much about the break up, thank God, except that she wouldn’t have wanted to spend Christmas with Derek anyhow, so she didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I didn’t tell her exactly what he said about her, but for some reason I did repeat the comment about how he wished I looked like her. She just smiled benignly.
It was only when I was still bursting into tears at the end of December that she decided to do something to make it all better for her darling daughter.
So there I was, on New Year’s Eve, all alone in my (OK, Marcia’s) little flat in Crouch End, except for Lucy the Pussy, my Siamese cat. I was single, mildly slaughtered on vodka and overstuffed on a Viennese hazelnut torte I’d spent the day baking and feeling that 36 was dangerously near to 40. The problem was only highlighted by the fact that I’d just endured the dreariest December in social terms ever. Gradually, over the past few years, all my friends from school and college had got married and had babies and were no longer up for long evenings in nice bars or brasseries. Of course I was still having to talk about work-related matters at MK2 Events where I worked as an events assistant but some days, the only non-work people I got to speak to were the Lazarides, the Greek family that ran the Deli, the local delicatessen on Archway where I stopped for coffee on the way to the Tube. Or Marcia.
I even found myself deliberately not talking to people for fear that I’d start whinging at them. Thea Lazarides for example, the teenager who worked part time at the Deli – nice and friendly as she was, why would she want to hear my troubles? My married friends were more likely to want to complain about their husbands or rhapsodise about their babies, neither of which I wanted to hear in the state I was in.
In fact the only even vaguely social thing I did during the whole of December was to go for pre-Christmas drinks at work and even that turned out to be pretty dismal, thanks to everyone wanting to know whether I had a new boyfriend yet.
As I was pondering whether to chew my way joylessly through another slice of torte, the front door of the block of flats I lived in banged and I heard Maire and Eamonn, the elderly Irish couple from downstairs come home. Shortly afterwards there was a tap on my flat door and I opened it to find them both on the doorstep clutching a bottle of whiskey.
They were holding hands (no mean feat given that they must have been over 70 and both had shocking arthritis) and looked the sweetest advertisement for togetherness that you could ever imagine. After ten minutes of mixing whiskey and vodka and fervent New Year’s wishes, it became blindingly clear to me that I wanted to be them. Well, not literally but in 35 or 40 years’ time. The moment they said goodnight and shut the front door behind them, I started to cry. Because I was nearly 40 and SINGLE.
So when Marcia rang up ten minutes later I was in no fit state to retain even a shred of dignity about my lack of a love life.
“Happy New Year darling. I’ve just got in from the most fabulous party so I thought I’d give you a little ring,” she cooed down the phone.
I retained enough of a sense of self-preservation, even when so sozzled, to avoid using the ‘nearly 40’ line to Marcia but the rest of it came out in a garbled stream of misery and self-consciousness. “I hate being single and I can’t get a date and things are going wrong at work and I really want a boyfriend and I even miss Derek and I’ll never have a baby and I’m sick of being single and…”
The moment I paused to catch breath Marcia broke in. “Darling, I had no idea. Now let’s calm down, deep breath, that’s right, and Mummy will sort it out.” Very, very occasionally, Marcia’s alter ego, Mummy, puts in an appearance. But just never when anyone else is listening so she clearly had come home from the party alone and I had her undivided attention. “I shall come over. Immediately,” she added.
Twenty minutes later, which is pretty good going from Islington to Crouch End even at night, she arrived. Lucy hissed and grumbled and then disappeared under my bed. She can usually smell Fred, Marcia’s chocolate labrador, whom she detests and she’s none too fond of Marcia either, a sentiment that is warmly reciprocated.
In fact by that time I’d calmed down quite a bit and could done with shoving the whole miserable shebang to the back of my mind and going to bed. But Marcia had the bit between her teeth.
“First of all Susannah, you must forget about Derek. He was a ghastly little man and you are much happier without him.”
I knew better than to argue.
“And there are absolutely plenty of lovely men out there, not all of whom like scrawny girls.”
Oh wonderful. “That’s fine but how am I going to meet them?” I muttered. “There’s no-one at work except the computer guy and he’s about twelve and ginger and likes Tolkien and I can’t pull people in bars. So what am I going to do? The only thing I can think of is the Internet.”
I expected Marcia to look puzzled at this. She had a computer at home, an elderly Apple that she used to organise dog breeding data but I didn’t see her surfing the superhighway somehow. Plus, she had a boyfriend, Mitch. What would she know about computer dating? Turned out I was wrong.
“You don’t want to do that darling,” she shuddered. “Dreadful, dreadful people.”
“You’ve tried Internet dating? Why didn’t you tell me? What was wrong with it?” I asked. “How many replies did you get?” Maybe she didn’t get any – I could see that would annoy her. “And what about Mitch? Doesn’t he mind?”
“Oh, darling, it didn’t bear talking about, it was so tiresome. They just kept on and on. I think I got over two thousand in one week. It got to the stage where I couldn’t face even looking at my breeding notes because every time I turned the computer on, some foul message would appear from some frightful, little chap from God knows where.”
“But Mitch?” I asked.
Marcia gave me a sidelong glance. “Mitch had to go,” she said. “I was going to tell you but…”
“But you’ve been with him for years! And his father just died.”
“Yes, well that was unfortunate timing but he was getting a bit soft,” she said.
“Soft!” Mitch is ex-SAS and runs a security firm. Soft is not a word you would use of Mitch and expect to retain all your appendages. Apart from that, he was lovely.
She crooked a delicate finger. “Mr Floppy,” she said.
“Ah,” I said and changed the subject. “Why were the Internet men so frightful?” I asked.
“Well,” she thought for a moment. “You just can’t tell who you are dealing with for a start. I only met about five of them in the end but every single one was precisely two inches shorter than he said he was, ten years older, a yard fatter and was lying about everything else too. Bankers who turn out to sell mortgages, men who forget they are married. There was one chap who said he was a RAF navigator and then turned up 30 minutes late because he couldn’t decipher the bus map. It was just too appalling. If someone is hiding behind a computer screen, there’s a very good reason, in my opinion. Never again. Ghastly, ghastly, ghastly.”
It sounded like I wouldn’t be using the Internet then. Or at least not when Marcia was watching.
“I have a far better idea for you,” she said. And she explained about Lili’s new venture.
Lili was Marcia’s ‘best girlfriend’ and confidante. She’s Columbian and about ten years younger than Marcia, not that she will ever be allowed to know that. And apparently she had just set up a company organising dinner parties for singles – that sort of thing is ever so popular South of the river apparently. Perhaps there isn’t much else to do down there. But then I’ve always lived North of the river so what do I know?
“The best thing,” Marcia added, “is that Lili gets to check out all the men first. She’s only inviting absolutely gorgeous men and they all have to provide credentials. So we won’t get saddled with some loathsome little troll from Romford hiding behind an email alias and pretending he’s some big stink in the City when he actually works in sanitation for the Corporation of London.”
“Frankly I’d be happy with a troll from Romford right now,” I muttered.
“No darling, you wouldn’t. And I’m going to talk to Lili about letting you join. There’s no harm in providing a bit of choice for the men, is there?”
I attempted to look suitably grateful without starting to cry again.
“That’s better darling,” clucked Marcia. “I told you Mummy would make it better. This is going to be such fun. It’s so nice doing things together again.”
“So what sort of men will Lili invite?” I asked.
Marcia smiled smugly. “As far as I understand, darling, it’s all going to be professional men of around our age.”
What does that mean, I wondered? “Forties?” I hazarded.
“Thirties, early forties.”
“Isn’t that a bit young for you?”
A brief frown battled with Marcia’s botox and lost. “Darling, you aren’t feeling well so I’m going to ignore that. But since you ask, no. I have decided that after Mitch what I really deserve is a lovely, firm, fresh toyboy or two. And you are going to help me find some.”
So that’s why, despite the feeling that after the Brett episode, the evening could only get worse, I was going to a singles party on Valentine’s Day with my mother.