Read an Excerpt
“Elizabeth Taylor died? Ah. Still, the old girl was getting a bit past it.” As Cyn switched her mobile to the other ear she felt the taxi slow down and turn left. “Are you sure you’re OK?” her mother asked tenderly. “I know how much she meant to you.”
“I’m fine,” Cyn said, rubbing at the condensation on the rain-speckled window and peering out. “I mean, it wasn’t entirely unexpected.”
“The vet did all he could,” her mother was saying. Cyn’s mind immediately conjured up a frantic scene in pet ER. She could hear the vet instructing everybody to “Stand clear” as he turns poor Elizabeth onto her shell and shocks her scaly chest with two tiny tortoise-sized resuscitation paddles. Half a dozen attempts later he wipes his brow and announces, “OK, I’m calling it. Time of death, ten after four.” His face etched with failure, he snaps off his rubber gloves and throws them into the bin. Meanwhile, a tearful nurse sniffs and covers Elizabeth with a tiny white sheet.
“I remember the day I found her,” Cyn’s mother went on. “It was February 1981. The Canadian cousins were over and I’d gone to the garage to get some vol au vent cases out of the freezer. And there she was, hibernating inside a pile of sunlounger covers.”
Elizabeth Taylor was by no means the only animal her mother, Barbara, had “rescued.” In the years before and since the tortoise joined the Fishbein household, there were assorted stray cats, lost budgies and the odd hamster. There had even been an actual lame duck, which, having been attacked—probably by a fox—had somehow managed to waddle the half mile from the park pond to find sanctuary in the Fishbein kitchen. Barbara found homes for all the other animals. Even the duck was nursed back to health and eventually, with much ceremony, released “back into the wild” of the local park. She wasn’t so lucky with the tortoise. Despite “tortoise found” notices stuck on virtually every lamppost in the neighborhood, nobody came to claim her. In the end the Fishbeins adopted her, but it was Cyn who loved her. It was Cyn who spoiled her with slices of tomato and painted ET Fishbein on her shell in Wite-Out, and it was Cyn who worried obsessively every winter about her not waking up from hibernation.
Back then it wasn’t just tortoises and lame ducks Barbara had taken in. She also rescued people: best friends going through messy divorces came to stay for weeks on end—usually with several badly behaved, bedwetting children. For a few years she did emergency short-term fostering for the local council. This meant that every couple of months an “at-risk” baby or toddler would be delivered by social workers and stay a few days. Barbara loved the babies as if they were her own, but they were never around long enough for Cyn or her brother, Jonny, to get jealous.
Not long after Elizabeth Taylor’s arrival, the miners went on strike. Straight away, thousands of them headed down to London for rallies and marches. Being on strike they couldn’t afford accommodation. Barbara, whose father, Sid, had been a union shop steward all his working life and had raised her in the old-fashioned Labour Party tradition, which regarded the working man as nothing less than a hero, immediately phoned the Miners’ Union HQ and offered to take in half a dozen. To her everlasting dismay, all the Hampstead and Highgate middle-class liberals had gotten there first and there weren’t any to be had for love or money.
Sometimes when the crying babies or sleeping bags all over the living room floor got too much for Cyn’s father, Mal, he would escape to his shed. Cyn would find him with his feet up on the workbench playing his John Lennon LPs or listening to the cricket on his old Roberts radio, muttering about how the house was turning into “the blinkin’ Inn of the Sixth Happiness.” But he never asked Barbara to put a stop to her rescue missions. Cyn knew that deep down he loved and admired her far too much.
Barbara’s mother, Grandma Faye, had accused her of having a Mother Teresa complex. Barbara just shrugged and said, “Call it what you like. I’m just doing my small bit to make the world a better place.”
Barbara was in her sixties now, and although she still took in the odd stray cat and wrote the occasional outraged letter to the Guardian about cuts in education and the health service, there hadn’t been any friends, babies or oppressed workers needing a bed for years.
“You and your brother named her Shelley,” Barbara said about the tortoise. “Then she kept getting ill. The vet brought her back from the brink so many times that Grandma Faye started calling her Elizabeth Taylor.” The name stuck, despite the vet having informed Barbara on at least five occasions that Elizabeth Taylor was a boy.
Cyn carried on looking out the window, vaguely aware of her mother chortling to herself. She was pretty sure the car showroom was about half a mile farther down on the right. Her heart rate started to pick up. Her very own shiny, freshly minted, brand-spanking-new Smart Car was sitting there, waiting for her to claim it. What’s more—and this was the truly amazingly fabulous bit—she was getting it for free.
Cyn was a junior copywriter at a cutting-edge and very much on the up advertising agency, Price Chandler Witty. Occasionally, companies whose accounts they handled would, after a particularly successful campaign, express additional gratitude and appreciation by offering the agency a car for an employee to have on long-term loan. The “long-term” bit was fairly ambiguous, but it pretty much meant that unless the recipient left the agency, nobody would ask for it back. The deal was that the car would carry advertising for whatever it was the donor company manufactured. Of course nobody at the agency minded, since it was generally thought that driving around advertising a sleek PalmPilot, digital camera or laptop was a pretty fair exchange for a new car.
Whenever a car came up—usually once or twice a year—the names of all the agency staff, from the directors to the cleaners, were put into a hat. The draw always took place in the function room at the Bishop’s Finger across the road and afterward there would be a bit of a party. Last week there had been a couple of cars up for grabs. Although they were from different companies, both happened to be Smart Cars.
Cyn took no more than a passing interest in cars. It was partly that like many women she found the subject less than fascinating and partly that taking a proper interest would have led to yearnings, and yearnings ended up costing money. She had just bought her first flat. What with the mortgage payments and the loan on her new Ikea kitchen, she couldn’t even contemplate replacing her old Peugeot. Nevertheless she adored the Smart Car. Its tiny, almost cartoonishly cute wedge shape made her laugh. She liked the way its straight back gave the impression that it was in fact the front end of a much larger, longer vehicle from which it had somehow been severed. Even though it looked like the transport of choice of a circus clown, there was no doubt that the Smart Car had style. She was aware, of course, since it was the coolest, most must-have two seater on the market, that everybody who drove one looked like a fashion victim, but that night, as she’d sat in the pub drinking with her little gang from the office, Cyn had decided that if she were ever lucky enough to own one, she would find a way to live with the shame.
Until last Friday Cyn had never won anything in her life, apart from the Yardley lavender bath soap selection box, which didn’t count because she’d secured it in the school fete raffle when she was nine.
The first name out of the hat was Chelsea Roggenfelder. Chelsea was from New York and another junior copywriter at PCW. Since she had only been with the agency six months, it was spectacularly good luck. Chelsea managed to look utterly bowled over. A few meaningful looks were exchanged among PCW employees. Everybody knew she was loaded and that deep down she probably wasn’t feeling much more than mild amusement. The truth was that had she the inclination, Chelsea could have afforded to go out and buy a dozen Smart Cars. Chelsea’s father was Sargent Roggenfelder, the Madison Avenue tycoon who had been behind the advertising for a successful presidential campaign and several gubernatorial contests. Although she never said as much, it was perfectly clear that he paid the rent on her Sloane Street flat and had bought her the BMW Z4, the perfect “zipping down to the country” accessory.
Her face on full beam, Chelsea stood up and pulled at the cuffs of her exquisitely tailored black jacket. With a flick of her Nicky Clarke highlights, she sashayed over to the tiny podium where Graham Chandler, one of the CEOs, was standing at the mike waiting to present her with her car key. On her way she stopped for a few seconds to smile and wave at everybody. One of the blokes sitting next to Cyn mum- bled something about Chelsea’s performance reminding him of Catherine Zeta-Jones dispensing largesse at the Oscars.
The applause was trailing off when Cyn heard her mobile ringing. She rushed outside where she could hear, only to discover it was somebody flogging plastic window frames. As she walked back into the pub she was met by loud cheering. It was a few seconds before she realized it was being directed at her. She frowned and looked questioningly at one of the temps from the office, who happened to be standing next to her. “It’s you! You’ve won the other car!”
“No, really.” Then she saw Graham Chandler nodding and laughing.
After Graham had kissed her on both cheeks and handed her the car key, and Natalie, one of the PAs, had come rushing up to her, thrown her arms around her and made her do that jumpy up-and-down thing like kids in the playground, she went back to her table and just sat there with a daft grin on her face, completely overwhelmed. She was suddenly aware of how good news can be as much of a shock as bad news. Chelsea, on the other hand, was swanning around doing her best to convince people how stunned and delighted she was and that she simply couldn’t believe her luck. “This is just too perfect,” she simpered to Cyn, at one point. “Now I can keep the Z4 for driving to the country on the weekend and use the Smart Car in the city.”
“Lucky old you,” Cyn said, with just a hint of sarcasm.
“Yes. Lucky old you.” The slurred Welsh accent belonged to Keith Geary, another copywriter. Keith, who was lanky and awkward, with jutting-out hips and shoulder blades, had been brought up in a small mining town. He liked to think of himself as a Marxist and was forever taking the piss out of what he described as Chelsea’s Saks and the City lifestyle, particularly after he’d had a few, like now. Chelsea always gave as good as she got, though. “You know, Keith,” she said, making use of her elegant nose, which had been perfectly engineered for looking down, “in you, I really do see a face unclouded by thought.” Her tone made Camille Paglia sound affectionate.
“And on you, Chelsea,” he said, “I see a head so big that your ears have separate zip codes.”
Ouch, Cyn thought, suppressing a giggle. For once Chelsea was lost for words. Her mouth opened and closed a few times, goldfish-style. Then she turned on her long, spiky-toed Kurt Geiger heels and walked away.
“That showed her,” Keith snorted, digging Cyn in the ribs. Then he staggered off, back to the bar.
Chelsea had come to advertising relatively late in life. She never talked much about herself, but a couple of people had found out that after university, she’d spent ten years in L.A., trying and failing to make it as a screenwriter. Finally, she decided to make a fresh start in London. There was no doubt that she had found her niche at Price Chandler Witty. Even though this was her first job in advertising, she was creating a considerable reputation for herself among PCW’s clients. When it came to thinking up advertising slogans or designing campaigns, witty, razor-sharp ideas seemed to spill out of her like jackpots from a slot machine. It was quite obvious that she had inherited her father’s talent.
Chelsea refused to be intimidated by the fact that nearly all the bosses at PCW, all the people she had to pitch ideas to, were men. From the off, she had never been scared to go into meetings and argue her corner. She was highly competitive and absolutely refused to be cowed. Fear simply wasn’t part of her vocabulary. “You know, Graham,” she would say, insisting on pronouncing Graham like most Americans do, as Grahm, to rhyme with ham, “I think we really need to start thinking outside the box here. I mean, it seems to me that you guys just haven’t considered the click-through rate on this thing. And have you calculated the cost per click? . . . I figured not. Well, I have some preliminary data here which I’ve printed out and would like to pass round.” The way it usually worked was that everybody would sit there examining her figures and come to the conclusion that she had a point.
While she wasn’t exactly easy to warm to, women forgave her because they were in awe of her New York hey-mister-don’t-bullshit-me feistiness. A few women—Cyn included—made no secret of wishing they had her balls. Some of the men felt the same. Mostly though, with the exception of Messrs. Price, Chandler and Witty, from whom she commanded considerable respect, the blokes referred to Chelsea behind her back as “the Terminator.”
Cyn’s relationship with Chelsea hadn’t gotten off to a good start. Before she was taken on by PCW, Chelsea had three interviews over a four-week period. During that time the coffee machine kept going on the blink and Cyn, along with everybody else, took her turn at doing a coffee run to the sandwich bar over the road. By pure chance, each time Chelsea arrived for an interview, Cyn was handing out cups of coffee. On the day she started work, Graham Chandler took Chelsea round the office and introduced her to everybody. “And this is Cyn, another of our junior copywriters.”
“Ah, yes, I’ve seen you getting the coffee. Be a sweetie, would you, and fetch me a skinny cappuccino, hold the chocolate.” Had Graham not introduced Cyn as another copywriter it might just have been reasonable for Chelsea to assume she was one of the office juniors, but even then, her puffed up, snooty manner was inexcusable. What made the whole thing worse was Graham standing there and saying, “I know it’s not really your job, Cyn, but maybe you wouldn’t mind.”
“Of course not.” Cyn smiled thinly, realizing she had no option but to go and get Chelsea her coffee.
As the weeks went by, though, Chelsea’s manner changed where Cyn was concerned. It never became warm, exactly, but she seemed to be making a real effort to be more friendly. Cyn put it down to guilt over the coffee incident. Soon Chelsea was inviting her out to lunch, and Cyn decided it would be churlish to refuse. She had even got round to apologizing over the coffee incident, claiming she didn’t realize at the time that Cyn was a fellow creative. “You know, I’m perfectly aware of how the men at PCW see me,” she said on one occasion, referring to the “Terminator” epithet, “but the fact remains that women still aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve in this business. The only way for us to push through the glass ceiling is to fight. You are clever and talented, Cyn. Women like us need to stick together—to keep faith with the sisterhood. Say, if you ever want to brainstorm some ideas with me or have me give you my opinion on something, feel free.”
“That’s so kind of you,” Cyn said. “I really appreciate that. And if you have any thoughts or ideas you’d like my opinion on, don’t hesitate to come to me.”
“Oh, how absolutely darling of you,” Chelsea simpered, smiling at Cyn over the slitty black-framed glasses she’d taken to wearing. Cyn couldn’t work out why she felt as if she’d just offered Nancy Reagan a joint.
Then a few weeks ago, Chelsea had said something to Cyn that made her feel even more uncomfortable and took her right back to the coffee episode. It was the day all three agency directors were taking Cyn out to lunch to say thank you for the work she had done helping secure a big shampoo account. Most people in the office had patted her on the back and said well done. Chelsea, on the other hand, had come striding over, all radiant smiles, her arms wide open. She wrapped Cyn in a huge bear hug and kissed her on both cheeks. The expression on her face seemed to convey genuine delight. “Well done, you,” she cooed. Cyn returned the smile and thanked her, but there was something about Chelsea’s emphasis on the word you that had felt not so much congratulatory as patronizing and condescending. It was as if Cyn was the class dunce, who had despite all the odds somehow managed to win a house point.
Later on, when she thought about it, Cyn told herself she was just being ridiculously oversensitive. When did she become so paranoid that she was starting to judge people purely on the emphasis they put on one word?
On the other hand, Cyn was no fool and she knew there was a strong likelihood that Chelsea was being bitchy because she saw her as a rival. One of the senior copywriters was leaving PCW and it was common knowledge that Cyn and Chelsea were both being considered for the job. Normally the agency wouldn’t have considered promoting somebody who had been there for as short a time as Chelsea, but since she was so talented the directors knew that if they didn’t promote her, they risked losing her. Cyn knew she wasn’t without talent—she’d won the Aqua Elite shampoo account after all—but since then, her professional life seemed to have taken a bit of a downturn.
First there was the stupid joke she’d made to Keith Geary. He’d been taking a conference call with a Japanese electronics company launching some new, very powerful loudspeakers, and she was sitting in. “Keith,” she giggled at one point, “Tell them they could always say ‘The XL2000 speakers. The loudest you’ve ever heard. From the people who brought you Pearl Harbor.’ ” Of course they were on speakerphone and the Japanese heard everything. PCW lost the account.
Then a few weeks ago she came up with a pretty innocuous, fairly average slogan to promote Secure roll-on deodorant: “No more embarrassing underarm stains.” How was she supposed to know the deodorant people were going to market it in Nigeria where the slogan translated in one of the local languages as “Secure roll on—no more pregnant tadpoles in your armpit”?
In both cases, Graham Chandler had been gracious enough to see the funny side and told her not to worry, but she could tell he was cross, particularly about losing the Japanese account.
There was no doubt in her mind that Chelsea would get the senior copywriter job. Surely Chelsea knew that, too. How could she not?
“Anyway, I dug a hole and buried her in the garden.”
“Who?” Cyn said, suddenly coming back to earth.
“Elizabeth Taylor,” her mother said. “You OK? You sound like you’re miles away.”
“Sorry. Look, Mum, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to go. I’m almost at the car showroom. I’m picking up my new car.”
“Oh, yes, the Smart Car. Funny-looking thing, if you ask me. Shame they didn’t offer you a nice Renault Clio or a Fiesta. So much prettier.”
Deciding she wasn’t about to be addressed on style by a woman whose kitchen possessed an Alpine-style breakfast nook, Cyn said, “Look, I’ll phone you later when I’ve got more time to chat. Love you. Say hi to Dad for me.” Cyn flipped her phone shut just as the taxi was pulling up outside the car showroom. Casting thoughts of Elizabeth Taylor from her mind, she concentrated on the utter joy she was going to feel in a few minutes as she climbed into her new car and slid the key into the ignition.
Inside, the showroom smelled of rubber, TurtleWax and new car interior. She breathed in. She decided the smell was right up there with her other nonbottled favorites: her mum’s roast chicken, coal smoke and skin of bloke on a bitterly cold day. Of course the bloke had to be one she was seeing rather than blokes in general. Cyn looked down at her watch. It was ten past six. She and Chelsea had arranged to meet at the showroom at six. Chelsea had suggested a few days ago that it would be “such fun” for them to pick up their cars together. “Then we can go off and celebrate with champagne.” Although Cyn was aware that Chelsea probably felt threatened by her, the champagne gesture suggested she had a warmer side and that it would be a mistake to write her off.
Cyn glanced around the showroom. Behind the reception desk a woman with a caramel tan and matching hair was on the phone. At the back, a lad was fixing a plastic price sticker across a car windscreen. There was no sign of Chelsea, who had the day off work and was coming from home. Cyn was wondering what was holding her up when a stout, fifty-something chap—clearly one of the car salesmen judging by the gray-green double-breasted suit and chunky gold bracelet—came ambling toward her, smiling a greeting. Cyn explained that she was here to pick up her new Smart Car.
“Ah, Miss Fishbone. I’ve been expecting you.”
“Actually, it’s bine not bone.”
“No. Fishbein. As opposed to Fishbone.”
“Oh, right. Gotcha. So, you’re the lucky lady who’s won the Smart Car. You’ll love the power steering. It’s wonderful for all you girlies who need a space the size of Wembley Stadium to park in.”
She smiled. He seemed harmless enough. She decided not to take offense. “I’m meeting my friend here.” She explained about Chelsea winning the other car.
“Oh, yes, Miss Romanfelter.”
“Really? I was sure it was Romanfelter. Anyway, she collected hers last night.”
Cyn frowned. “Are you sure? She didn’t say anything to me.” It occurred to Cyn that Chelsea had probably left a message on her answer machine. She’d been out until late last night and had forgotten to check her messages this morning. “Oh, OK,” she shrugged. “No problem.”
“Your car’s over there,” he said, nodding toward the back of the showroom. They weaved their way past a row of gleaming, new and very long Mercedes. As they reached the minuscule Smart Car, she noticed how the corners of the narrow metal grill under the hood turned up in a half smile. Ooh, it was Tiffany blue. Fab. She stood there feeling like all her birthdays had come at once. She ran her hand over the smooth shiny hood.
“Now, you know about the corporate advertising on the side?” the salesman asked her. Cyn nodded. Chelsea had told her that both cars had come from drug companies. Since she didn’t handle their accounts, Cyn couldn’t remember the names. “Well, I have to hand it to you,” the salesman chuckled, “you’ve certainly got balls, if you take my meaning.”
“Don’t see why.” Cyn shrugged, still stroking the hood and making no effort to walk around to the side of the car to look at the ad. “God, it’s gorgeous. Really gorgeous. So, can I drive it off?”
“Absolutely. She’s all yours.” He said he would get one of the lads to move the car onto the forecourt.
It was only then, as she moved round to the side of her precious Smart Car, that she saw it. Shock seemed to render her temporarily dyslexic and it took a few moments for the three syllables to register simultaneously on her brain. First she read sol. That was Spanish for sun, wasn’t it? Hmm, maybe she’d gotten it all wrong. She hadn’t been listening that carefully when Chelsea told her who was giving them the cars. Perhaps this one had come from a company that made fruit juice. The next thing to hit her was the image of the giant tube. Toothpaste? Sunny, fruity toothpaste? Then she saw it. The twelve-inch-high lettering seemed to flash at her in brilliant neon: Anus. Her stomach flipped and she felt sick. She stepped back and read the words in front of her: “Anusol—shrinks piles, soothes itching.” Panic rose up inside her, and although she knew it was utterly stupid and futile, she couldn’t prevent herself rubbing at the words to see if they would come off.
“What the . . . ? I can’t. I mean people will see and . . .”
“Bloody hell, you didn’t know, did you?” the salesman said, barely concealing his amusement. She shook her head. By now she was completely lost for words. Her heart was pounding and beads of sweat were bursting through her foundation. She felt like Blanche DuBois going through menopause. She swallowed hard and turned to the salesman. “My friend, Ms. Roggenfelder, just as a matter of interest, could you tell me what her car was advertising?”
“I think it was Stella McCartney,” he said. “Bit of luck her getting here last night, eh?”
“Yes,” Cyn said. “Wasn’t it just?”