After the Party
The twelfth anniversary of Ralph and Jem’s first kiss falls upon a cool, paper-dry Wednesday at the beginning of March. The wisteria outside Jem’s office window has yet to yield its cascades of perfumed lilac blooms and the hydrangea by the front door is stubby and only just turning green—spring feels a long way off although it is just round the corner.
At about three fifteen, Jem leaves her office, heading for an appointment in Battersea. She takes with her a small manila folder, her mobile phone, her handbag and a loaf of brown bread. Before she leaves she turns to her assistant, Mariel, who is making tea in the kitchenette, and says, “Off to see the recluse.”
“Oh,” says Mariel, “God. Good luck.”
“Thanks,” says Jem. “I’ll need it. I’ll be back in an hour.”
Mariel smiles sympathetically, and Jem closes the door behind her. The sad irony of a trip to Almanac Road on such an auspicious date is not wasted on her. She is painfully aware of it as she walks the fifteen minutes from the office on Wandsworth Bridge Road. When she gets there, she glances down, as she always does, into the basement pit of the house at number thirty-one.
Terra-cotta tiles gleam, newly laid and freshly mopped. Three small trees carved into pom-pom balls of varying sizes sit in shiny cobalt-blue pots. The front door is thickly painted
in a matte shade of mushroom and dressed with nickel-plated knobs and knockers. Through the window she can see more mushroom paint on walls hung with black-and-white photography. Suddenly, two small hands and a baby’s head appear over the top of the sofa. Jem smiles. The baby smiles, then disappears again.
Someone else lives here now. A young family, a house-proud family with enough money to renovate the run-down flat they’d bought a year ago, and enough foresight to have done it when the lady of the house was four months pregnant with their first child, unlike Jem, who had spent the last night of her first pregnancy on a mattress in the dining room of her sister’s flat, her possessions piled around her in gigantic cardboard boxes, like a township, waiting for a woman in Camberwell to sell her flat to a man in Dulwich so that the owner of their new house in Herne Hill could sign the completion forms and hand them their front door keys.
Before the very neat and well-organized family lived here, a scruffy woman with a deadbeat teenage son and three obese cats had lived here. And before the scruffy woman with the fat cats, a young couple with matching bikes and raincoats had lived here. And before the smug, outdoorsy couple with the bikes, a man called Smith had lived here, alone, having an existential crisis that led, eventually, to his retraining as a Reiki teacher and relocating to San Francisco. And even longer ago than that, years before the man called Smith had lived here alone having an existential crisis, Smith’s best friend, Ralph, had lived here with him. And so, for a very short while, over twelve years ago, back in 1996 when Oasis was the most famous band in the country and football was, supposedly, coming home, when she was a child of only twenty-seven, had Jem.
Jem can feel it, even now, as she stands on the pavement, peering through the window at strangers’ mushroom walls—she can still feel the electric jolt of sudden promise, the thrill of new beginnings. She feels it for just a moment, and then it passes, because for some strange reason things have not worked out how she thought they might during those long-ago days and now it’s just a dull echo of a moment in her life when fate, chance and destiny all came together and took her somewhere quite remarkable.
She sighs sadly and pushes her hair behind her ears. Then she looks up, her attention taken by the clatter of a sash window being pushed open and then a loud male voice:
A small shiny object leaves his hand and hurtles toward her, catching the light as it falls, landing on the pavement within an inch of her toes.
“Let yourself in!” The large hands slide the noisy window back into place. Jem tuts and picks up the keys. She climbs the front steps and prepares herself, mentally, for the next half hour of her life. She picks her way through the debris of Karl’s life: forgotten T-shirts, a broken guitar, a shopping bag full of recycling, and, oh, God, a pair of underpants. She finds him on the sofa, eating a ham sandwich and watching an old episode of Murder She Wrote.
“I thought you said you needed bread?” she says, waving the loaf of Warbutons Malted she took for him from her own kitchen cupboard that very morning.
“I do,” he says, “that’s the end of it. Had to scrape some spores off it, make it, you know, edible.” He takes the fresh loaf from her and smiles, gratefully. “Thanks, Miss Duck.”
“You’re welcome,” says Jem, lowering herself onto the very
farthest edge of a grubby yellow armchair. “What happened to the cleaner?” she asks, looking around the room.
Karl smiles, his catch-all “forgive-me-for-I-know-not-what-I-do-but-oh-I-am-lovely-aren’t-I?” smile. It is a good smile, a smile that has seen him through a ten-year career in B-list television presenting, but not quite a good enough smile to stop his killing that career stone dead after a terrible episode in the Australian jungle last autumn, in front of six million viewers. “I kept forgetting to pay her,” he replies in his smooth Irish croon. He shrugs. “Who can blame her?”
“How’ve you been?” Jem squints slightly as she asks the question, almost not wanting him to answer it.
Karl rearranges his large form on the sofa, so that he’s facing her. “Oh, you know, the parties, the premieres, the hot dates, it never ends.” He looks old. Not a line on his face, not for a man of forty-seven, but his face looks dead, as if someone has taken a sheet of sandpaper to him and scoured away all the gloss, all the glitter.
“It doesn’t have to be like this, you know,” she says, opening up the manila folder. “Everyone’s ready to forget.”
“What you got in there?” he asks, eyeing the folder skeptically.
“Well, it’s not money, that’s for sure.”
He winks. “Maybe I need a new agent,” he jokes.
Jem sighs. Jem is Karl’s agent, and Karl’s joke (this is not the first time he has made it) is not funny anymore. She takes out a letter that arrived this morning, printed on sky-blue paper. It is confirmation of a phone call that she had last week with a production company that is filming a series of interviews with “controversial” celebrities.
Karl takes it from her and scans it, rapidly, with a furrowed
brow. “Jeez,” he says, “what is this—the Last Chance Saloon for Battered B-listers? Christ. You’re going to make me do it, aren’t you?”
Jem shrugs. “I can’t make you do anything, Karl. But it’s money in the bank—”
“How much?” he interrupts.
“Five thousand. And if you handle it well, if you paint yourself in a good light, it’ll open all those doors again.”
Karl puts the paper down on the sofa and picks up his sandwich. He stares at it disconsolately for a second. “If that’s what I want,” he says, so quietly that Jem only just hears him.
“Yes,” she replies, “if that’s what you want. But here’s the thing, Karl.” She pauses. She didn’t come here to give Karl a piece of paper. She could have put it in the post. And she certainly didn’t come here to replenish his bread bin. “Here’s the bottom line: if you don’t do the interview, I’m letting you go.”
The words are gone now, the words that Jem has been carrying round in her head for days, for weeks. She’s imagined this conversation a thousand times and every time her heart has raced, her skin has flushed. Letting a client go. And not just any client, but her first client, the one who started it all, twelve years ago. And not just a client, but a friend. It’s harsh, but it’s for his own good, she reminds herself—without the threat he wouldn’t do the TV interview, and without the TV interview there is no career for her to manage.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he drawls. “That’s bribery!”
“Well, yes, though more gentle bullying, I would have said.” Jem pauses and stares at the sleeves of Karl’s pullover, which are encrusted with some kind of beige paste. “I only want what’s best for you, and I think this,” she points at the sky-blue paper, “is what’s best for you.”
“I know,” says Karl, “I’m not stupid. It’s fine. I hear you loud and clear. And yeah, okay, I’ll do the show. But if it backfires in my face, I reserve the right to sack you.” He winks at her, smiles, and then sighs. “I’m sure life used to be simple,” he says. “I’m sure there was a time.”
Jem smiles, thinking of a night, exactly twelve years ago, when for a while life had felt far from simple. Exciting, romantic, crazy—yes, but not simple. She thinks again about the way she’d felt when Ralph had proclaimed his love for her, when she realized that she loved him too, when the gates to the Rest of Her Life had swung open and she’d taken her first tentative steps onto the open road. And now she is here: separated, a single parent, inhabiting a desperate, heartbreaking place where she never expected to be. She swallows a swell of tearfulness and smiles. “No,” she says, “it’s never been simple. Did you know, for example, that it is precisely twelve years to the day since you beat up Siobhan’s boyfriend outside an art gallery?”
Karl smiles. “What, really?”
“Yeah. Really and truly.”
“You have a very good memory,” says Karl.
“Well, it is also twelve years to the day since Ralph and I first . . .”
“Yeah,” she laughs, although she doesn’t really feel like laughing. “It’s our sexiversary! Well, it was,” she adds sadly.
Karl nods knowingly. “How is he?”
“Ralph?” Jem still finds it strange saying his name now that the syllable no longer belongs to her. Once she hadn’t noticed the word leaving her lips; now it feels like something she’s borrowed from someone, something she needs to give back. She swallows another lump of sadness and says: “He’s all right. I think.”
Karl raises an eyebrow.
“No, he’s fine. I just haven’t really talked to him lately, that’s all. It’s always such a rush whenever I see him.” Jem has begun to hate the weekly handover of the children. She hates it when he’s in a hurry and doesn’t have time to talk and then hates it when he isn’t and he spills over into the new order of her life with his familiarity and his beautiful hands that she is no longer permitted to touch.
“Here,” says Karl, getting to his feet and feeling around the bookshelf beside the TV, “talking of blasts from the past, look at this.” He hands Jem a photograph. It is of a small child, possibly a baby, but hard to tell because it has lots of long dark hair. The baby appears to be Asian, probably Chinese.
“Siobhan’s baby,” says Karl, resuming his slouch on the sofa.
Jem’s eyes open wide. “She’s adopted a baby?”
“Adopting. She just got back from China. I think there’s still a long way to go, a lot of red tape, y’know?”
“Right,” says Jem, staring at the photo, at the little soul somewhere on the other side of the world, a tiny person without a family, whose whole destiny is about to turn on its axis. “Very brave of her,” she says, “adopting on her own.”
“Yes,” says Karl, “I know. That’s Siobhan, through and through.”
“How old is she now?”
“Siobhan? She’s, God, she must be forty-eight, I guess.”
Jem nods and hands the photograph back to Karl. “Good on her,” she says, “good on her.”
“Yeah,” he agrees, “she always wanted a baby and life didn’t give her one so she’s gone out and made it happen.” He pauses and stares at the photograph of the baby for a moment. “There’s a lesson in there for us all.”
“Yes,” says Jem, drawing herself up, readying herself to leave, “yes, there really is.”
• • •
Jem pushes open the front door. She has mixed feelings about Wednesdays. Wednesday is handover day, the day that Ralph takes the children for the weekend, or at least until Sunday morning. That is how their week is split. Jem gets the kids Sunday to Wednesday. Ralph gets them Wednesday to Sunday. They both live in the same postcode and equidistant from Scarlett’s school and Blake’s childminder, and the children barely notice the difference. But Jem does. It is both liberating and depressing in equal measure when the children are away. The house feels both full of potential (Books to read! Emails to catch up on! Clothes to sort through! TV shows to watch! Even, possibly, nights out to be had!) and devoid of life. Her existence feels both joyful and futile. And whether her children are with her or not, the sheer loneliness of living apart from Ralph can sometimes take her breath away.
She stops in the hallway and peers at her reflection in the vast rococo mirror that hangs behind the front door. It is a beautiful mirror, pockmarked and musty and still holding the scent of the distempered walls of whichever lost French palace it was rescued from. It is exquisite, flawlessly tasteful, but it is not Jem’s mirror. Neither is it Jem’s wall nor Jem’s front door. The mirror was picked up from a Parisian flea market, not by Jem in some uncharacteristic moment of extravagant good taste, but by her sister, Lulu, whose house this is and whose house Jem has been living in for the past four months, while she and Ralph wait to see what will become of them.
Jem and her sister see themselves as a modern-day Kate and Allie, but with a few more kids and a husband between them. Or the Brady Bunch, but with one extra adult. Lulu has her two boys, Jared and Theo, and her husband’s three older boys from
his first marriage, who live here most of the time because their mother lives in Grenada. It is a remarkable house, Tardis-like, with unexpected mezzanine floors and rooms off rooms and secret roof terraces. It is an odd-shaped building, thrown together in the nineteen sixties. It used to be a pub. They bought it ten years ago as a set of flats and are still only halfway through converting it back into a house, so Jem and the kids have their own floor: a set of three rooms, a small terrace and a kitchenette. It is more than enough.
Jem puts down her briefcase and starts to unbutton her tartan jacket. The woman in the mirror gazes back at her—she looks preoccupied, she looks tired. She is about to sigh loudly when a noise distracts her. It is the unmistakable sound of her firstborn clattering down the stripped floorboarded stairs in her pink Lucite Barbie Princess slippers.
And there she is, her Scarlett, a vision in mauve nylon net and fuchsia polyester. But instead of sweeping this raven-haired, Mattel-attired lovely into her arms and squeezing her with every ounce of every moment she has spent thinking about her today when she wasn’t there, she looks at her aghast and says, “What on earth are you doing here?”
“Daddy’s not coming,” says Scarlett, throwing her embrace at Jem’s lower hips and almost knocking her over.
“He just called. He’s not coming.”
To her credit, Jem’s first reaction is concern. Ralph has never missed a Wednesday. Ralph lives for Wednesday evenings in the same way that Jem lives for Sunday mornings.
“Is he all right?” she asks, picking Scarlett up and heading for the big kitchen at the back of the house, where she knows her sister and brother-in-law will be.
Scarlett shrugs and runs her hand through the curls at the nape of Jem’s neck.
“Did you speak to him?”
Scarlett shrugs again.
Lulu is cleaning poster paints off a small vinyl-topped table, and her husband, Walter, is sautéing potatoes over the hob.
“Yeah,” Lulu begins, before Jem is even through the door. “He didn’t show up at six so I phoned and left messages on his voice mail—nothing—then I got through to him just now, literally about three minutes before you walked in.”
“And?” says Jem, putting Scarlett down and heading toward Blake, who is sitting on his knees in front of In the Night Garden with a finger up his nose.
“He sounded . . .” Lulu mouths the next word, silently, “weird.”
“Weird?” Jem mouths back, and Lulu nods.
“Anyway,” she continues, audibly, “he said he had to go away for the weekend; he said he won’t be able to have the children this week.”
“And he said this an hour after he was due to collect them?”
“Yes,” says Lulu. “I know.”
It is clear now that this is a conversation that needs to be had away from small ears, and Jem follows Lulu into the den, which is a small painted concrete box of a room off the kitchen and is where they keep their computer.
“What?” says Jem.
“I don’t know,” says Lulu, twirling a heavy silver ring round and round her third finger. “He just sounded . . . desperate.”
“Oh, God, what do you mean by desperate?”
“Just, like, like he was going to cry. Like it was all too much. And he said . . .” Lulu pauses, twirls the silver ring one turn in
the opposite direction. “He said to me, ‘Do you know what day it is today?’ And I said, ‘It’s Wednesday.’ And he just kind of went, ‘Humph.’ And hung up.”
“Shit,” says Jem, putting the pieces together. “Our anniversary.”
“What, your first date?”
“First shag,” says Jem, distractedly. “First kiss. First, you know, us.”
“The night at the art gallery?”
“The night at the art gallery, yes.”
“Shit,” says Lulu. “Is that what it is then, you reckon?”
“Must be,” says Jem. “Should I be worried?” she asks her sister, feeling that it’s already too late to be asking that.
Lulu frowns. “Possibly,” she says, “though at least he hasn’t actually got the kids with him.”
“Oh, stop it, don’t even joke about it. God, what shall I do? Shall I go round there?”
“Well, he did say he was going away.”
“Yes, but maybe he meant away.”
“You mean . . . ?”
Jem sighs and pulls her hair away from her face. “No, of course not. I mean he’s been a bit weird but not, you know . . .”
“Exactly.” She sighs again, feeling the weight of things she needs to do now that she has the children for the next few days: baths to run, stories to read, clean clothes to sort out. Plus a babysitter to arrange for Friday night when she and Lulu had planned a night out at the theater. But behind all that there is a terrible, gnawing sense that something is wrong with Ralph, that he is in some kind of peril. She remembers a terrible conversation she had with a woman on the street just the week before.
She remembers the woman’s words. “Imagine if there was no second chance. How would you feel?” the woman had asked. “How would you feel?”
Immediately, Jem knows exactly how she would feel. Devastated. Finished. Dead. “Okay,” she says decisively, “I’m going to give him a ring. Upstairs.”
“Good,” says Lulu, standing aside to let her pass, “I’ll keep the kids out of your way.”
Upstairs, in the tiny room that she and the kids use as a living room, Jem pulls her phone out of her bag and calls Ralph’s home number. Her hands shake slightly. It goes to the answerphone and Jem clears her throat: “Hi,” she says, “it’s me. Just got home. Erm, don’t worry about the kids, that’s okay, I’ll cover it, but just wondering . . .” She pauses, tries to picture the inside of Ralph’s flat, who might be there listening to her plaintive, slightly pathetic voice. “Actually, I’m going to try you on your mobile. Bye.”
She calls his mobile number and is surprised and overwhelmed with relief when he replies after five ringtones.
“I’m sorry,” he says, before she’s even spoken. His voice sounds soft and childlike.
“It’s cool,” she says, caring about nothing other than that he is not dead. “We’ve got it covered. Are you okay?”
“I’m okay,” he says, and it sounds to Jem like the kind of thing you’d say if you’d just been asking yourself the same question.
“Where are you?”
“In the car.”
“Right. And where are you going?”
“Er . . .” He pauses and Jem can hear the swoosh of other cars passing his, the blast of wind through an open window. “I was on my way, halfway there, to your place, then something came up.”
“Something came up?”
“Yeah, I’ll explain it all when I see you.”
“And when will I see you?”
Ralph exhales softly down the phone. “I’ll come for the kids next Wednesday. I’ll be there. I promise. I just need to . . .” The line fills up with cracks and bangs and shards of interference. Then it dies.