“Three girls meet every month for cocktails, and this book follows their stories. Candice has an old school friend come back into her life, without quite realising what that old school friend’s agenda really is… Maggie is struggling as a new mother… Roxanne has man problems of her own. As the story progresses, their lives become more and more mixed up, coming to a head in quite a dramatic way.
Ultimately this is a book about friendship because throughout all the intrigue and suspense of the individual stories, it’s their strong friendship that keeps them all going and actually solves their problems in the end. I think that for women, friendship is really important and sustaining. If you’ve got a couple of friends and a couple of cocktails then however bad things are, you know you’re going to cheer up…”
Three women, smart and successful, working in the fast and furious world of magazines, meet for cocktails and gossip once a month. Roxanne: glamorous, self-confident, with a secret lover – and hoping that one day he will leave his wife and marry her. Maggie: capable and high-achieving, until she finds the one thing she can’t cope with – motherhood. Candice: honest, decent, or so she believes – until a ghost from her past turns up, and almost ruins her life. A chance encounter in the cocktail bar sets in train an extraordinary set of events which upsets all their lives and almost destroys their friendship.
Candice Brewin pushed open the heavy glass door of the Manhattan Bar and felt the familiar swell of warmth, noise, light and clatter rush over her. It was six o’clock on a Wednesday night and the bar was already almost full. Waiters in dark green bow ties were gliding over the pale polished floor, carrying cocktails to tables. Girls in slippy dresses were standing at the bar, glancing around with bright, hopeful eyes. In the corner, a pianist was thumping out Gershwin numbers, almost drowned by the hum of metropolitan chatter.
It was getting to be too busy here, thought Candice, slipping off her coat. When she, Roxanne and Maggie had first discovered the Manhattan Bar, it had been a small, quiet, almost secretive place to meet. They had stumbled on it almost by chance, desperate for somewhere to drink after a particularly fraught press day. It had then been a dark and old-fashioned-looking place, with tatty bar stools and a peeling mural of the New York skyline on one wall. The patrons had been few and silent – mostly tending towards elderly gentlemen with much younger female companions. Candice, Roxanne and Maggie had boldly ordered a round of cocktails and then several more – and by the end of the evening had decided, amid fits of giggles, that the place had a certain terrible charm and must be revisited. And so the monthly cocktail club had been born.
But now, newly extended, relaunched and written up in every glossy magazine, the bar was a different place. These days a young, attractive after-work crowd came flocking in every evening. Celebrities had been spotted at the bar. Even the waiters all looked like models. Really, thought Candice, handing her coat to the coat-check woman and receiving an art deco silver button in return, they should find somewhere else. Somewhere less busy, less obvious.
At the same time, she knew they never would. They had been coming here too long; had shared too many secrets over those distinctive frosted martini glasses. Anywhere else would feel wrong. On the first of every month, it had to be the Manhattan Bar.
There was a mirror opposite, and she glanced at her reflection, checking that her short cropped hair was tidy and her make-up – what little there was of it –hadn’t smudged. She was wearing a plain black trouser suit over a pale green T-shirt – not exactly the height of glamour, but good enough.
Quickly she scanned the faces at the tables, but couldn’t see Roxanne or Maggie. Although they all worked at the same place – the editorial office of the Londoner – it was rare they made the walk to the bar together. For a start, Roxanne was a freelance, and at times only seemed to use the office to make longdistance calls, arranging the next of her foreign jaunts. And Maggie, as editor of the magazine, often had tostay for meetings later than the others.
Not today, though, thought Candice, glancing at her watch. Today, Maggie had every excuse to slip off as early as she liked.
She brushed down her suit, walked towards the tables and, spotting a couple getting up, walked quickly forward. The young man had barely made it out of his chair before she was sliding into it and smiling gratefully up at him. You couldn’t hang about if you wanted a table at the Manhattan Bar. And the three of them always had a table. It was part of the tradition.
Maggie Phillips paused outside the doors of the Manhattan Bar, put down her bulky carrier bag full of bright, stuffed toys, and pulled unceremoniously at the maternity tights wrinkling around her legs. Three more weeks, she thought, giving a final tug. Three more weeks of these bloody things. She took a deep breath,reached for her carrier bag again and pushed at the glass door.
As soon as she got inside, the noise and warmth ofthe place made her feel faint. She grasped for the wall, and stood quite still, trying not to lose her balance as she blinked away the dots in front of her eyes.
‘Are you all right, my love?’ enquired a voice to her left. Maggie swivelled her head and, as her vision cleared, made out the kindly face of the coat-checklady.
‘I’m fine,’ she said, flashing a tight smile.
‘Are you sure? Would you like a nice drink of water?’
‘No, really, I’m fine.’ As if to emphasize the point she began to struggle out of her coat, self-consciously aware of the coat-check lady’s appraising gaze on her figure. For pregnancy wear, her black Lycra trousers and tunic were about as flattering as you could get. But still there it was, right in front her, wherever she moved. A bump the size of a helium balloon. Maggie handed over her coat and met the coat lady’s gaze head on.
If she asks me when it’s due, she thought, I swear I’ll smother her with Tinky Winky.
‘When’s it due?’
‘The 25th of April,’ said Maggie brightly. ‘Three weeks to go.’
‘Got your bag packed?’ The woman twinkled at her. ‘Don’t want to leave it too late, do you?’ Maggie’s skin began to prickle. What bloody business was it of anyone’s whether she’d packed her bag or not? Why did everyone keep talking to her about it? A complete stranger had come up to her in the pub at lunchtime, pointed to her wine glass and said, ‘Naughty!’ She’d nearly thrown it at him.
‘Your first, is it,’ the lady added, with no hint of interrogation in her voice.
So it’s that obvious, thought Maggie. It’s that clear to the rest of the world that I, Maggie Phillips – or Mrs Drakeford as I’m known at the clinic – have barely ever touched a baby. Let alone given birth to one.
‘Yes, it’s my first,’ she said, and extended her palm, willing the lady to hand over her silver coat-check button and release her. But the woman was still gazing fondly at Maggie’s protruding belly.
‘I had four myself,’ she said. ‘Three girls and a boy. And each time, those first few weeks were the most magical time of all. You want to cherish those moments, love. Don’t wish it all away.’
‘I know,’ Maggie heard herself saying, her mouth in a false beam.
I don’t know! she yelled silently. I don’t know anything about it. I know about page layout and editorial ratios and commissioning budgets. Oh God. What am I doing?
‘Maggie!’ A voice interrupted her and she wheeled round. Candice’s round, cheerful face smiled back at her. ‘I thought I saw you! I’ve nabbed a table.’
‘Well done!’ Maggie followed Candice through the throng, aware of the path her unwieldy bulk created; the curious glances following her. No-one else in the bar was pregnant. No-one was even fat. Everywhere she looked she could see girls with flat stomachs and stick legs and pert little breasts.
‘OK?’ Candice had reached the table and was carefully pulling out a chair for her. Biting back a retort that she wasn’t ill, Maggie sat down.
‘Shall we order?’ said Candice. ‘Or wait for Roxanne?’
‘Oh, I dunno.’ Maggie gave a grumpy shrug. ‘Better wait, I suppose.’
‘Are you OK?’ asked Candice curiously. Maggie sighed.
‘I’m fine. I’m just sick of being pregnant. Being prodded and patted and treated like a freak.’
‘A freak?’ said Candice in disbelief. ‘Maggie, you look fantastic!’
‘Fantastic for a fat woman.’
‘Fantastic full stop,’ said Candice firmly. ‘Listen, Maggie – there’s a girl across the road from me who’s pregnant at the moment. I tell you, if she saw the way you look, she’d throw up in jealousy.’
Maggie laughed. ‘Candice, I adore you. You always say the right things.’
‘It’s true!’ Candice reached for the cocktail menu –tall green leather with a silver tassle. ‘Come on, let’s have a look, anyway. Roxanne won’t be long.’
Roxanne Miller stood in the ladies’ room of the Manhattan Bar, leaned forward and carefully outlined her lips in cinnamon-coloured pencil. She pressed them together, then stood back and studied her reflection critically, starting – as she always did – with her best features. Good cheekbones. Nothing could take away your cheekbones. Blue eyes a little bloodshot, skin tanned from three weeks in the Caribbean. Nose still long, still crooked. Bronzy-blond hair tumbling down from a beaded comb in her hair. Tumbling a little too wildly, perhaps. Roxanne reached into her bag for a hairbrush and began to smooth it down. She was dressed, as she so often was, in a white T-shirt. In her opinion, nothing in the world showed off a tan better than a plain white T-shirt. She put her hairbrush away and smiled, impressed by her own reflection inspite of herself.
Then, behind her, a lavatory flushed and a cubicle door opened. A girl of about nineteen wandered out and stood next to Roxanne to wash her hands. She had pale, smooth skin and dark sleepy eyes, and her hair fell straight to her shoulders like the fringe on a lampshade. A mouth like a plum. No make-up whatsoever.The girl met Roxanne’s eyes and smiled, then moved away.
When the swing doors had shut behind her, Roxanne still stayed, staring at herself. She suddenly felt like a blowsy tart. A thirty-three-year-old woman, trying too hard. In an instant, all the animation disappeared from her face. Her mouth drooped downwards and the gleam vanished from her eyes. Dispassionately, her gaze sought out the tiny red veins marking the skin on her cheeks. Sun damage, they called it. Damaged goods.
Then there was a sound from the door and her head jerked round.
‘Roxanne!’ Maggie was coming towards her, a wide smile on her face, her nut-brown bob shining under the spotlights.
‘Darling!’ Roxanne beamed, and gaily thrust her make-up bag into a larger Prada tote. ‘I was just beautifying.’
‘You don’t need it!’ said Maggie. ‘Look at that tan!’
‘That’s Caribbean sun for you,’ said Roxanne cheerfully.
‘Don’t tell me,’ said Maggie, putting her hands over her ears. ‘I don’t want to know. It’s not even approaching fair. Why did I never do a single travel feature while I was editor? I must have been mad!’ She jerked her head towards the door. ‘Go and keep Candice company. I’ll be out in a moment.’
As she entered the bar, Roxanne saw Candice sitting alone, reading the cocktail menu, and an involuntary smile came to her lips. Candice always looked the same, wherever she was, whatever she was wearing. Her skin always looked well scrubbed and glowing, her hair was always cut in the same neat crop, she always dimpled in the same place when she smiled. And she always looked up with the same wide, trusting eyes. No wonder she was such a good interviewer, thought Roxanne fondly. People must just tumble into that friendly gaze.
‘Candice!’ she called, and waited for the pause, the lift of the head, the spark of recognition and wide smile.
It was a strange thing, thought Roxanne. She could walk past scores of adorable babies in pushchairs and never feel a tug on her maternal instinct. But sometimes, while looking at Candice, she would, with no warning, feel a pang in her heart. An obscure need to protect this girl, with her round face and innocent, childlike brow. But from what? From the world? From dark, malevolent strangers? It was ridiculous, really. After all, what was the difference between them in years? Four or five at most. Most of the time it seemed like nothing – yet sometimes Roxanne felt a generation older.
She strode up to the table and kissed Candice twice.
‘Have you ordered?’
‘I’m just looking,’ said Candice, gesturing to the menu. ‘I can’t decide between a Summer Sunset or an Urban Myth.’
‘Have the Urban Myth,’ said Roxanne. ‘A Summer Sunset is bright pink and comes with an umbrella.’
‘Does it?’ Candice wrinkled her brow. ‘Does that matter? What are you having?’
‘Margarita,’ said Roxanne. ‘Same as usual. I lived on Margaritas in Antigua.’ She reached for a cigarette, then remembered Maggie and stopped. ‘Margaritas and sunshine. That’s all you need.’
‘So – how was it?’ said Candice. She leaned forward, eyes sparkling. ‘Any toyboys this time?’
‘Enough to keep me happy,’ said Roxanne, grinning wickedly at her. ‘One return visit in particular.’
‘You’re terrible!’ said Candice.
‘On the contrary,’ said Roxanne, ‘I’m very good. That’s why they like me. That’s why they come back for more.’
‘What about your—’ Candice broke off awkwardly.
‘What about Mr Married with Kids?’ said Roxanne lightly.‘Yes,’ said Candice, colouring a little. ‘Doesn’t he mind when you …?’
‘Mr Married with Kids is not allowed to mind,’ said Roxanne. ‘Mr Married with Kids has got his wife, after all. Fair’s fair, don’t you think?’ Her eyes glinted at Candice as though to forbid any more questions, and Candice bit her lip. Roxanne always discouraged talk of her married man. She had been with him for all the time that Candice had known her – but she had resolutely refused to divulge his identity, or even any details about him. Candice and Maggie had jokingly speculated between themselves that he must be somebody famous – a politician, perhaps – and certainly rich, powerful and sexy. Roxanne would never throw herself away on someone mediocre. Whether she was really in love with him, they were less sure. She was always so flippant, almost callous-sounding about the affair – it was as though she were using him, rather than the other way around.
‘Look, I’m sorry,’ said Roxanne, reaching again for her cigarettes. ‘Foetus or no foetus, I’m going to have to have a cigarette.’
‘Oh, smoke away,’ said Maggie, coming up behind her. ‘I’m sure it can’t be worse than pollution.’ As she sat down, she beckoned to a cocktail waitress. ‘Hi. Yes,we’re ready to order.’
As the fair-haired girl in the green waistcoat came walking smartly over, Candice stared curiously at her. Something about her was familiar. Candice’s eyes ran over the girl’s wavy hair; her snub nose; her grey eyes, shadowed with tiredness. Even the way she shook her hair back off her shoulders seemed familiar. Where on earth had she seen her before?
‘Is something wrong?’ said the girl, politely, and Candice flushed.
‘No. Of course not. Ahm…’ She opened the cocktail menu again and ran her eyes down the lists without taking them in. The Manhattan Bar served over a hundred cocktails; sometimes she found the choice almost too great. ‘A Mexican Swing, please.’
‘A Margarita for me,’ said Roxanne.
‘Oh God, I don’t know what to have,’ said Maggie. ‘I had wine at lunchtime…’
‘A Virgin Mary?’ suggested Candice.
‘Definitely not.’ Maggie pulled a face. ‘Oh, sod it. A Shooting Star.’
‘Good choice,’ said Roxanne. ‘Get the kid used to a bit of alcohol inside its system. And now…’ She reached inside her bag. ‘It’s present time!’
‘For who?’ said Maggie, looking up in surprise.‘Not for me. I’ve had heaps of presents today. Far too many. Plus about five thousand Mothercare vouchers…’
‘A Mothercare voucher?’ said Roxanne disdainfully. ‘That’s not a present!’ She produced a tiny blue box and put it on the table. ‘This is a proper present.’
‘Tiffany?’ said Maggie incredulously. ‘Really? Tiffany?’ She opened the box with clumsy, swollen fingers and carefully took something silver from its tiny bag. ‘I don’t believe it! It’s a rattle!’ She shook it, and they all smiled with childish delight.
‘Let me have a go!’ said Candice.
‘You’ll have the most stylish baby on the block,’ said Roxanne, a pleased expression on her face. ‘If it’s a boy, I’ll get him cufflinks to match.’
‘It’s wonderful,’ said Candice, staring admiringly at it. ‘It makes my present seem really… Well, anyway.’ She put the rattle down and started to rummage in her bag. ‘It’s here somewhere…’
‘Candice Brewin!’ said Roxanne accusingly, peering over her shoulder. ‘What’s that in your bag?’
‘What?’ said Candice, looking up guiltily.
‘More tea towels! And a sponge.’ Roxanne hauled the offending items out of Candice’s bag and held them aloft. There were two blue tea towels and a yellow sponge, each wrapped in cellophane and marked ‘Young People’s Cooperative’. ‘How much did you pay for these?’ demanded Roxanne.
‘Not much,’ said Candice, at once. ‘Hardly anything. About… five pounds.’
‘Which means ten,’ said Maggie, rolling her eyes at Roxanne. ‘What are we going to do with her? Candice, you must have bought their whole bloody supply, by now!’
‘Well, they’re always useful, aren’t they, tea towels?’ said Candice, flushing. ‘And I feel so bad, saying no.’
‘Exactly,’ said Maggie. ‘You’re not doing it because you think it’s a good thing. You’re doing it because if you don’t, you’ll feel bad.’
‘Well, isn’t that the same thing?’ retorted Candice.
‘No,’ said Maggie. ‘One’s positive, and the other’s negative. Or… something.’ She screwed up her face.‘Oh God, I’m confused now. I need a cocktail.’
‘Who cares?’ said Roxanne. ‘The point is, no more tea towels.’
‘OK, OK,’ said Candice, hurriedly stuffing the packets back in her bag. ‘No more tea towels. And here’s my present.’ She produced an envelope and handed it to Maggie. ‘You can take it any time.’
There was silence around the table as Maggie opened it and took out a pale pink card.
‘An aromatherapy massage,’ she read out disbelievingly. ‘You’ve bought me a massage.’
‘I just thought you might like it,’ said Candice. ‘Before you have the baby, or after… They come to your house, you don’t have to go anywhere—’ Maggie looked up, her eyes glistening slightly.
‘You know, that’s the only present anyone’s bought for me. For me, as opposed to the baby.’ She leaned across the table and gave Candice a hug. ‘Thank you, my darling.’
‘We’ll really miss you,’ said Candice. ‘Don’t stay away too long.’
‘Well, you’ll have to come and see me!’ said Maggie. ‘And the baby.’
‘In your country manor,’ said Roxanne sardonically. ‘Mrs Drakeford At Home.’ She grinned at Candice, who tried not to giggle.
When Maggie had announced, a year previously, that she and her husband Giles were moving to a cottage in the country, Candice had believed her. She had pictured a quaint little dwelling, with tiny crooked windows and a walled garden, somewhere in the middle of a village.
The truth had turned out to be rather different. Maggie’s new house, The Pines, had turned out to be situated at the end of a long, tree-lined drive. It had turned out to have eight bedrooms and a billiards room and a swimming pool. Maggie, it had turned out, was secretly married to a millionaire.
‘You never told us!’ Candice had said accusingly as they’d sat in the vast kitchen, drinking tea made on the equally vast Aga. ‘You never told us you were rolling in it!’
‘We’re not rolling in it!’ Maggie had retorted defensively, cradling her Emma Bridgwater mug. ‘It just… looks bigger because it’s in the country.’ This remark she had never been allowed to forget.
‘It just looks bigger…’ Roxanne began now, snorting with laughter. ‘It just looks bigger…’
‘Oh, shut up, y’all,’ said Maggie good-naturedly. ‘Look, here come the cocktails.’
The blond-haired girl was coming towards them, holding a silver tray on the flat of her hand. Three glasses were balanced on it. One a Margarita glass, frosted round the rim, one a highball decorated with a single fanned slice of lime, and one a champagne flute adorned with a strawberry.
‘Very classy,’ murmured Roxanne. ‘Not a cherry in sight.’
The girl set the glasses down expertly on their paper coasters, added a silver dish of salted almonds, and discreetly placed the bill – hidden inside a green leather folder – to one side of the table. As she stood up, Candice looked again at her face, trying to jog her memory. She knew this girl from somewhere. She was sure of it. But from where?
‘Thanks very much,’ said Maggie.
‘No problem,’ said the girl, and smiled – and as she did so, Candice knew, in a flash, who she was.
‘Heather Trelawney,’ she said aloud, before she could stop herself. And then, as the girl’s eyes slowly turned towards her, she wished with all her soul that she hadn’t.
These three women fairly sashay - or should that be stagger - off the page