A Spectrum Story for Christmas
Note: Dianne Simms is the real name of Rhapsody Angel, and this is a back-story set in late 2062/early 2063.
Lady Dianne Helena Louise Simms negotiated the drizzling, traffic-clogged streets of central London in her electric-blue Mini-Jazz and sighed with exasperation. She hated driving slowly, anywhere. The fault lay with a familial speed-gene, which she inherited, in all likelihood, from her great-uncle George, who placed himself firmly in the history books when he won his eighth Formula One championship title in a row at the Monaco Grand Prix in 2017.
The lights changed ahead and the queue of traffic crawled forward. A cyclist weaved suicidally between the Mini and a huge lorry and Dianne gave another impatient sigh, drumming her manicured fingernails on the leather-covered steering wheel. At this rate she might get home for Christmas, which, in reality, was only around the corner. Although it was still November the pavements were packed with early festive shoppers and it reminded her that she probably needed to get started on her present list at some point.
After what seemed like an eternity she finally turned into the small cul-de-sac street and the Chelsea mews-house that she shared with her long-time girlfriend, the Honourable Alexandra Fanshaw. The house actually belonged to Dianne’s parents, but it made eminently better sense for Dianne to stay there during her studies at London University, without having to fork out an exorbitant rent for some hovel in one of the less salubrious parts of London.
Dianne fumbled for her key-card in order to open the lock at the entry-port, and finally let out a long sigh of relief when she entered the blissfully warm hallway.
“Sandra, I’m back!” she called out, and dropped the two overflowing bags of tins of soup, duck and venison pate and assorted crackers onto the floor of the tiny kitchen,
“In here,” a voice returned her greeting, and Dianne wandered into the living room to find Sandra sprawled on the sofa clutching an ice bag to her dark-haired head with one hand and flicking through a copy of Harpers and Queen with the other.
“Sorry, Di, I should help helped you in with the shopping but I'm shattered, had to leave work early with a pounding head.”
“Oh dear, not one of your migraines again?” Dianne said, as she flopped onto a bright chintzy armchair opposite the cream-leather sofa.
“No, thank heaven, just a boring everyday headache. I think I can head it off at the pass, I’ve practically consumed the contents of the medicine cabinet.”
“You can say that again. Lady Thelwell came in for her Mother-of-the- Bride fitting today. I must have displayed the entire store selection, and can you believe there wasn’t one single thing that took her fancy?”
“Poor you,” Dianne consoled. “That’s enough to do anyone in. What you need is a nice cup of tea. I replenished our supply of Earl Grey during my little trip to Fortnum and Mason’s.”
“Go on then, but no biscuits, I’m on a diet starting from today.”
“Not another one.”
Sandra sniffed. “It’s all right for you – one of those annoying people with a fast metabolism. Me, I just need to look at a crumpet or biscuit to go up a dress size.” She sighed and shifted the bag against her head. “I do hope I’m able to go to Imogene’s party tomorrow night.”
“Goodness, I practically forgot all about it.”
“How could you forget one of Imogene’s do’s? Honestly, Dianne, I give up with you sometimes. She always invites some well-known names. I wonder who’ll be there this time.”
Dianne laughed. “You are a celebrity groupie.”
“Celebrities tend to have rather more ready cash than your average Earl these days, present company excepted. It’s all right for you to turn your nose up at the ludicrously rich and famous.” She waggled a free finger at her friend. “You happen to have an honest-to-goodness rich boyfriend. Filthy rich, as in ‘I-could-buy-half-of-Yorkshire-before-afternoon-tea.”
“Oh, come on Sandra, money isn’t everything.”
“Huh, easy for you to say. Just you try living on my allowance and see where that takes you.”
Dianne bit her lip. She supposed Sandra had a point, after all. The Honourable Fanshaws were a bit down on their luck since her father had lost a rather considerable part of his fortune on a dodgy investment deal in Asia. Sandra's mother had left him in disgust, taking up with an American oil tycoon that she met during Cowes Week. She left Sandra, her two elder brothers and the family schnauzer to console their desolate father. Henry Fanshaw was now making a hearty effort to reduce the remainder of their inheritance on a disastrous mixture of horse racing and pretty women younger than Sandra herself.
Sandra shifted her weight on the sofa, putting the ice-bag to one side on the Bauhaus coffee table. “At this rate I’ll never be able to afford a decent holiday next year with the meagre pittance I get paid.”
She had just graduated from London University with honours in Fashion Design, surprising even herself, but no plum jobs had come her way as yet, and her dwindling trust fund meant she had to resort to taking a job as a personal fashion advisor at a posh Oxford Street department store to supplement her clothesaholic lifestyle.
“Listen, you should demand a pay rise,” Dianne said. “You’re a marvellous personal advisor.”
“Lady Thelwell doesn’t think so.”
“She’s a dragon, and I’m sure she does it to scare you.”
“Well, she succeeded. You know, she didn’t even like any of André Verdain’s Bridal collection, I mean, his stuff looks good on anyone!” A dreamy look instantly replaced the gloomy one on Sandra’s face. The French designer was her idol.
“Maybe you should apply for a place at Verdain’s fashion house in Paris,” Dianne said with a mischievous grin. “I bet he would jump at a chance to hire you.”
Sandra’s delicate eyebrows drew together for a moment. “Very funny, Dianne, as if that tasty man would look at a mere mortal like me. Anyway, I studied for a laugh, for the booze and the boys and the parties.” She let out a great gust of a sigh, which made her wince. “I didn’t actually plan to make a career out of it. Unfortunately, Daddy seems to have put a rather large dent in my plans for a life of leisure. I mean, honestly, working for a living is so - common. You’re not actually planning to go into law, are you?”
“Well, I don’t know…”
“Having to stand around all day in those shapeless black robes and with your hair buried under one of those awful wigs. Ewww…doesn’t bear thinking about. And I’ll bet being a fashion designer is no glamour job either. No, on second thoughts, I think I’d just be better off marrying André. Mind you, he’s probably gay, all those fashion types are.”
Dianne shook her head fondly. “You’re hopeless.”
The following day, Sandra had recovered from her headache, and Dianne announced that she would treat the two of them to a few hours pampering at their favourite salon in Kensington to get ready for the evening’s festivities.
“Oh Dianne, you can’t possibly. It’s quite bad enough you let me stay here half-rent, without making me feel like a complete charity case.”
“Nonsense, you’re my best friend, that’s what friends do, help one another out when the going gets tough.”
“I don’t know when I can pay you back”
Dianne dragged her out into the hall and held out her coat, in effect stopping all further protests. “I don’t care if you ever do; it’s only money, after all.”
Sandra grudgingly allowed Dianne to put on her coat. “So you keep saying.”
One hour later, they were both submerged within a sunken tub filled with frothy fragrance, and saluting each other with a glass of Tattinger apiece.
“Ah, this is more like it,” Sandra said with a happy sigh. “My brain has floated off and is now totally unconcerned with Lady Thelwell and her infuriating dithering.”
“That’s the spirit,” Dianne murmured, her eyes closing with the delicious warmth surrounding her.
There followed a few silent pleasurable minutes as they sipped their champers, and then Sandra piped up.
“Is Hugh coming to Imogene’s tonight?”
“Yes, he rang me yesterday, and he said he’d pick us up in his father’s limo to take us to the party.”
“Oh good, I don’t fancy trying to catch the Tube, not in my four-inch heels, and especially if it’s still raining.”
Dianne had been seeing Hugh Wellesley-Stuart on-and-off, since they had met at Glorious Goodwood a year ago; a meeting that – Dianne had suspected at the time - if she knew her mother, hadn’t happened entirely by chance. Hugh’s father, Lord James, and her father, Lord Robert, had retired to the marquee to get quietly plastered on the Bollinger, while their respective wives plotted dynastic manoeuvres.
Dianne wasn’t terribly interested in pursuing a serious romantic relationship, far less in getting married, but she was far too well-brought up to tell Hugh to buzz off. In any case, she kept telling herself, he was handy to have around as a chaperone in order to discourage any hangers-on, who might be interested in her merely to get their hands on the family estate.
“So, when are you going to stop playing hard to get, then?” Sandra piped up, quite spoiling Dianne’s pleasant daydream, in which she was being kissed passionately by a man who looked remarkably like a young Virgil Tracy.
“Sorry?” she replied, confused.
“You and Hugh; he’s crazy about you. But he might not stay that way forever, if you don’t give him a little encouragement.”
“I’m happy just the way we are, thank-you,” Dianne said primly, not really wishing to discuss it. Sandra could be as bad as her mother sometimes when it came to matters of the heart.
Sandra proceeded to ignore the tone of warning in her flatmate’s voice, and carried on regardless. “Well, Mummy used to say that after a certain age women become invisible, You’ve only got a few good years left, and then he might go looking for something a bit younger.”
“Good grief, Sandra, I’m beginning to think I ought to throw all your Jane Austen’s in the bin. I’m nineteen for heaven’s sake, hardly an old maid. And anyway, I might want to sample what’s out there before I settle down, that is – if I ever want to settle down in the first place.”
Sandra gave a melodramatic sigh, which made all the bubbles froth up in her tub. “Well, if you decide to give that sweet man the big heave ho, can I have first dibs?”
For a second Dianne looked at her friend, and then let out a very unladylike peal of laughter. Both girls dissolved into uncontrollable giggles, cut short only with the appearance of the po-faced masseur, who soon pummelled all frivolity out of them on the wooden blocks. Another hour later, massaged, exfoliated and coiffed, they departed the salon, feeling quite ready to face the rigours of the party to come.
That same evening, Dianne rummaged through the racks of dresses and outfits in her large dressing room, to find something for Imogene’s pre-Christmas bash. She wrinkled her nose at each outfit she pulled out. The little back dress may be too funereal looking and the gold taffeta was too much. She delved deeper. Aha, she thought, and pulled out a knee-length, shimmering, turquoise dress that she had worn last Boxing Day. Despite coming from a wealthy background, Dianne’s parents had brought her up to believe in the idea that waste was a ‘bad thing.’ She was twirling in front of her bedroom mirror, when Sandra came into the room.
“Oh, you look fabulous, Dianne. But then, you’d look great in a sack.”
Dianne rolled her eyes. “Oh for goodness sake, you really are in a mood these last couple of days.”
“Sorry.” Sandra flopped onto a chair. “It’s just I don’t seem to have anything half-decent to wear in my wardrobe.”
“Well, be my guest, have a look and see if there’s anything you fancy in here.”
“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it!”
Sandra sprang up and explored the rack of clothes. In seconds she had pulled out a red silk, halter-neck dress, “I haven’t seen you wearing this before, it’s divine.”
“With my hair? Aunt Eleanor is colour-blind and will insist on buying me clothes. You can have it with pleasure.”
Sandra slipped the dress over her shoulders and preened in front of the mirror. The dress contrasted with her dark hair and she gave Dianne a happy grin. “Lucky for me. Good old Aunt Eleanor, she’s my fairy godmother.”
They had just put the finishing touches to their make-up, when the front bell jangled. Dianne opened the door to see her boyfriend in the narrow porch, wrestling with a huge black umbrella in the drizzle. He gave her a hearty kiss on the cheek and then stood back a moment to look her up and down with evident approval in his eyes.
“You look ravishing, old girl. I’d better keep an eye on you this evening, wouldn’t want anyone to run off with you.”
Hugh Wellesley-Stuart was conventionally handsome – with his luxurious mane of dark hair, and aquiline face, which had a tendency to turn into a petulant pout when he didn’t get his own way. Hugh was used to getting his own way, being, like Dianne herself, a doted on only child, and the sole heir to his considerable family fortune. He also had an impeccable family pedigree, which might have impressed most of her circle, and especially her mother, but Dianne considered she had moved beyond those antiquated ideals. After all, she’d been to University, and mingled with all sorts of people on the social ladder, and some of them were actually quite interesting.
“Are you girls nearly ready?” Hugh said. “I’ve got Perkins parked on a double yellow outside.”
“I think so.” She called upstairs. “Sandra, it’s time to go!” Two minutes later her flatmate tottered down the steps in the red halter dress and four-inch Blanolos.
Perkins, the chauffer, dropped the three of them off in front of a four-storey Belgravia mansion. They climbed the three wide steps and from within the house they could hear the muted sounds of revelry and music. A moment after pressing the ancient, lion-shaped doorbell, the door was flung open and a glamorous woman of indeterminate age appeared in the entrance hallway.
“Darlings! I'm so glad you could make it…do come on in." Imogene Wainscott-Harkness waved her half-full champagne flute in welcome, while her other elegantly manicured hand brandished a long cigarette. Imogene was half-Parisian on her mother’s side, while the other-half was descended from a member of the Bloomsbury set, which certainly went a long way to accounting for the almost louche, bohemian air that that pervaded the mansion day or night.
Dianne and the others entered the long hall, pulled off their outerwear and hung them on the already overflowing wooden stand, which was doing a sterling impression of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In the huge drawing room, to the left of the hallway, the party was in full swing, and Dianne immediately recognised quite a few of the revellers – the usual faces, in fact, the offspring of other upper-class families and wealthy entrepreneurs.
The sounds of ‘Firewire’ pumped out loudly and she caught the unmistakable odour of burning cannabis drift into the hall from the room.
Imogene led them straight to the sprawling kitchen, which was equally full of bodies, propping up the counters and the appliances, glasses in hand and munching on canapés, their animated chatter adding to the decibel levels.
“Help yourselves to champers and nibbles,” she said loudly, waving a hand at the massive oak table standing in the middle of the kitchen. Several Jeroboams of Dom Perignon sat snugly within their dew-covered ice-buckets and the ‘nibbles’ could have fed a medium-sized African nation.
Hugh recognised several of his old Etonian chums in a huddle over by the Aga, and they waved across when they spotted him.
“Bother,” he said in a low voice to Dianne, “I wanted to get you in a clinch on the dance floor.”
“That’s all right, you can do that later.”
He grinned. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“Good gracious, no, I don’t really want to listen to rugger and cricket all evening.”
He gave her an affectionate peck on the cheek. “You’re a brick. Why don’t you two go and chat to some of those actor fellows, I saw Ralph what’s-his-name as we came in – you know - the one playing the ‘Phantom of the Opera’?”
Dianne made shooing gestures. “Go on, we can fend for ourselves.”
She rolled her eyes at Sandra, as Hugh grabbed a glass of champagne and headed for the noisy group. They’d evidently been there for some time taking advantage of the bubbly.
Dianne filled two glasses for her and Sandra, while the latter wolfed down several chicken and asparagus vol-u-vents. She wiped flaky crumbs away with a guilty look, as she took the proffered glass. “Sorry, I’m ravenous.”
“Don’t be. Cheers.” Dianne took several long sips of the fizzy liquid, suspecting she might have to get a little squiffy, if she was to survive the evening without dying of boredom. Even Imogene’s bashes were beginning to pall a little. At the beginning, it had all been frightfully exciting for her as a young, wealthy debutante entering the swinging party life of her social set, but recently, insidiously, she had begun to get the restless feeling that somehow it was all a bit, well, pointless. She’d mentioned her feelings to Sandra, but her flatmate had simply looked at her as if she’d just announced she was setting off on an expedition to Everest, and she replied that her intention was to live life as one big continuous party, if only she could find someone willing to pay for it.
They mingled with the others in the kitchen for a while, chatting to acquaintances and strangers alike. Ralph Whitman – the aforementioned actor – joined them both at one point, and it didn’t take very long for Sandra to become smitten, and he seemed rather taken with her too. Suddenly feeling like a gooseberry, Dianne excused herself for the bathroom, and on her return the two of them seemed to have vanished. The sound of raucous laughter from one corner of the kitchen suggested Hugh was still firmly entrenched with the old Etonians, so Dianne decided to leave them to get on with it, and see what was happening elsewhere.
She filled her glass to the brim and wandered into the drawing room. The music was still pumping out, and a small group of people had launched into some impressive impromptu dancing in front of the marble fireplace, trying their best to avoid knocking over the enormous, bespangled, Douglas fir in one corner, Imogene’s only concession to the festive season.
“Dianne, my darling, how marvellous to see you.” Camilla Wright, the editor of Fabulous Style magazine, hove into her view trailing a cloud of Chanel No 5 in her wake. It was too late to turn tail, and Dianne suppressed a wince as the older woman bore down on her.
“Hello, Camilla, fancy seeing you here.”
“Oh, I never miss one of Imogene’s soirees, so many stylish people, such juicy gossip, especially at this time of year,” the older woman replied airily.
Dianne found herself hoping that Sandra and Ralph had chosen a decent hiding place for a smooch, otherwise they were going to be splashed all over the pages of the next edition of Fabulous Style in glorious colour. The merest hint of gossip was pounced upon and blown up to labyrinthine proportions for the delectation of Camilla’s avid readership
“And how is your dear mother?” Camilla was asking.
“She’s fine, thanks.”
“I really must get her to arrange another charity do. The last one was a wonderful success. All those poor children, makes you wonder what the world is coming to.” Camilla looked tearful for a moment, and then brushed back her sweeping, bouffant hair, recovering from her momentary slide into compassion for the war-orphans of the third world. “And how about you, darling? You know, you really ought to take up modelling. It’s a waste, darling, truly a waste, with your figure, your looks, why, you would be the toast of the catwalk, a real fashionista.”
“It’s not really my thing…”
“That dress you’re wearing, why, it’s so unique, and only you could carry it off with such style. Oh, you’ve given me an idea: what the best dressed graduates are wearing this year. I could call Juanita Longoria, you’d look frightfully photogenic in some of her stuff…”
“Just a teensy, little photo shoot? Wouldn’t take up much of your time –”
Dianne saw Camilla’s eyes dart left, as she spied a minor celebrity entering the drawing room. In an instant Dianne was forgotten, and she let out a sigh of relief as Camilla sailed off in a sea of perfume towards her next victim. Dianne downed her glass and wondered about going back into the kitchen to drag Hugh away from his chums and help her work off some of the champagne with a spot of dancing.
Some of the couples moved away from the fireplace, and then Dianne noticed a tall, slender man propping up one end of the stately Adam surround, watching the proceedings with a look of bored amusement. Like Hugh, he was dark, almost raven-haired, with a deep tan, and he looked vaguely familiar, although the opaque sunglasses obscured a large part of his face. She stood exactly where she was, pretending to watch the gyrating couples on the carpet, and sneaking the odd look at the man leaning against the fireplace. She turned for a moment, wondering if she should go and find Sandra. Her flatmate would never forgive her if she knew the great designer himself was gracing Imogene’s party, and Dianne hadn’t let her know about it. She flicked her head around, and to her surprise, she found him hovering right at her elbow. He could certainly move fast, she thought.
“I am sorry, I did not mean to startle you,” he said in perfect English, laced with an unmistakable French accent.
“Oh, you didn’t, at all,” she said, recovering her composure immediately, feeling annoyed at herself that he had snuck up on her unawares.
“I do not believe I have had the pleasure, mademoiselle, I am André Verdain.”
“I thought it was you, even with the glasses. It’s very nice to meet you, I’m Dianne Simms.” She put out her hand to shake his, but he lifted it swiftly to his lips and kissed it extravagantly.
“Enchanté. Such a beautiful name, like the huntress, and if I may be so bold, like the bearer.”
Dianne had to suppress a giggle. The great designer seemed too stereotypically French to be for real. “You’re a friend of Imogene’s? I had no idea.”
“Mais oui, she is an old friend. We used to run the streets of Paris together when her mother came back to the city after her divorce. When I have the time, I try to visit, but this year, it is crazy, everyone wants a little something from Verdain.”
“Yes, I saw some of your gowns at the Oscars.” Dianne didn’t add that Sandra made her stay up all night to watch it, and knew exactly who was wearing what dress and who designed it.
He removed his sunglasses and beamed at her, and she found herself thinking that he was rather a dish, just like Sandra had said.
“You liked them? I am so pleased. I hope that you too have a little something Verdain in your closet?”
Dianne blushed. “I’m afraid I don’t, actually. I’m more of a Carnaby Street girl.” She thought of Sandra again, and the champagne made her bold. “My flatmate, well, she’s one of my best friends actually, she’s crazy about your clothes. She’s just graduated in fashion design, and I know she’d make a wonderful addition to anyone’s company. She has a real eye for spotting trends, unlike me.”
One of the Frenchman’s eyebrows raised and she hoped she hadn’t overdone her sales pitch.
“Indeed? She has a portfolio?”
Dianne nodded enthusiastically. “She certainly has, I’m sure you would be impressed.”
He smiled again. “Then, for you, I shall take a look.”
Dianne returned his smile with equal delight, thrilled that she might have been able to help her friend. André Verdain however, took a step back and cocked his head from right to left, scrutinising her from head to toe.
“I must find a way to change your mind. I have something from my collection that I will send to you.”
“Goodness, I couldn’t possibly.”
“It would be my pleasure, although I fear the dress will have much competition from the wearer.” He glanced at her empty glass. “Please, allow me to get you another.” He strode purposefully across to a large sideboard along one wall, where several ice-buckets stood and filled two glasses with champagne.
He returned to her, and they clinked their flutes together.
“So,” he continued their conversation, “I know all about your friend, but nothing about you. What is it that you do, Mademoiselle Dianne?”
“Absolutely nothing at the moment, I just graduated, and I haven’t thought much beyond that, really.”
“Of course. And what did you study, if I may ask?”
“Law and sociology.”
“Such serious subjects.”
Dianne took another swig of champagne. “Compared to fashion design I suppose so,” she said, and then blushingly added, “I’m awfully sorry, I didn’t mean to sound so…”
Verdain waved his hand theatrically. “It is forgotten. You are a very clever young woman, to have completed such difficult degrees in such a short time, non?”
“Yes, but I’ll have to study a lot more if I want to take law as a career.”
“Well, you are still young; there is plenty of time to make a choice.”
She sighed suddenly. “It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but now I’m not so sure. She took another sip of champagne. “Did you always know you were going to be a fashion designer?”
“Mai oui, ever since my mother found me cutting up her tablecloths so I could make clothes for my sister,” he replied with a twinkle in his gaze.
Dianne laughed, and realised she was feeling quite light-headed. The music had somehow suddenly changed to a quieter tempo, and several more party-goers sprang up from the sofas for the excuse to have a slow dance in the middle of the floor. Dianne regarded the nearest of the entwined couples dragging one another across the Axminster, and idly wondered if André Verdain was a good dancer. She didn’t get a chance to find out however, for Hugh chose that moment to finally show his face. With a proprietary self-assurance that she suddenly found irritating, he slid a hand around her waist and kissed her soundly on the cheek.
“Sorry, old thing; I got stuck with Bob Rutherford. Honestly, that man’s a crashing bore. I don’t know why Imogene keeps inviting him to her do’s – he keeps telling the same old jokes every time, and droning on about how he’s a name in Lloyds. I mean, isn’t everyone?”
“Hugh, this is André Verdain,” Dianne interrupted him. “He’s a famous fashion designer.”
“Hello there.” Hugh pumped his hand. “I thought you were a bit of recluse – you do realise the editor of Fabulous Style magazine is lurking around here somewhere? That might blow your cover.”
Verdain gave a slow smile, and Dianne suddenly had the absurd notion that there was more to the Frenchman than met the eye; an underlying intelligence that jostled with the first impression of gay frivolity.
“Madame Wright is good for my business,” Verdain replied. “She always ensures to have my – as you say – good side, in her photographs.”
Don’t be ridiculous, she thought, immediately dismissing her flights of fancy. I’m just drunk and imagining things.
“I wanted to find Sandra so she could meet Monsieur Verdain. Have you seen her anywhere on your travels?”
“I nearly fell over her and Ralph what’s-his-name, smooching in the hall, when I was making for the cloakroom,” Hugh replied with a knowing smirk. “She might not appreciate being interrupted.”
Verdain slipped a card from the inside of his jacket and handed it to Dianne. “My number is here, and please tell your friend she may call me at my office on Monday.” He kissed her hand again with a flowery gesture. “And now, I have a long day tomorrow, and I think I will say my goodbyes to Imogene. It was a pleasure, Mademoiselle, I hope we meet again.”
“That would be nice,” Dianne replied.
Hugh watched Verdain’s departing back and snorted. “He might be as gay as a maypole, but those froggies can’t help trying it on with any female in sight.”
“That’s an awful thing to say!” Dianne was genuinely shocked. “He was not trying it on. He was, in fact, very nice.”
“Well, forget him and come and dance with me.”
It was well past three a.m. when Dianne finally begged Hugh to take her home, but a large number of party-goers were still knocking back the bubbly and wearing holes in the carpet, and it looked like the shindig wasn’t quite in its dying throes. Sandra, rather shamefacedly, surfaced at last, lipstick smeared but her eyes sparkling, although that might have just been due to the champagne.
The limo dropped them off at the mews house. Sandra struggled with the key and was the first in. They listened to her shoeless feet pattering down the hallway and then Hugh whispered in Dianne’s ear.
“I didn’t tell you that you were the most gorgeous thing at the party, did I?”
“No, the music was too loud.”
He shut the front door so that Perkins, still waiting in the car, didn’t get an eyeful from the Rolls. And then he kissed her, quite passionately, until she tapped hard on his shoulder for some air.
“You’ve never kissed me like that before,” she said.
“More fool me.” He gripped her hand tightly and pressed his lips to it, then waggled his dark eyebrows. “Any chance of a nightcap?”
“At this hour, after all we’ve drunk?” Anyway, poor Perkins will catch a cold out there,” she added as an afterthought.
“I can always send him home…”
She raised an eyebrow. Hugh always gave the impression, like a few other men of her acquaintance, of being more interested in money and sport than sex. As a typical nineteen year old female, she flipped between indignation and relief that he hadn’t seemed smitten with her obvious charms. Relief usually won out, since sex meant ‘Commitment’ in her book, and she wasn’t quite ready for that just yet.
“I’d really rather hit the sack,” she said finally. “I’m pooped. I’ll see you later in the week maybe?”
He pouted and kissed her cheek again. “Spoilsport.”
She waited till he got in the car and waved, and then she unsteadily climbed the stairs to crash in her comfortable bed.
The following morning Dianne awoke with the light from the low, winter sun warming her face. She squinted at her bedside chronometer, and dragged herself from beneath the coverlets, knowing that any further sleep was impossible. She pulled on a dark-blue, silk kimono, a present from her father, courtesy of a governmental trip to Japan six months ago, and wandered through to the kitchen to see if some breakfast would help the dry after-taste in her mouth.
She sat at the table in the kitchen, stirring her cup of Assam and musing about the week ahead. She had a fencing lesson on Tuesday afternoon, Robert Linden’s birthday bash at the polo club on Wednesday, and a charity dinner at the Connaught on Thursday. Goodness, it made her feel exhausted just thinking about it, and it wasn’t even Christmas yet. At this rate her liver wouldn’t survive her twentieth birthday.
She heard Sandra’s startled “Ouch!” and a tinkling sound as she walked into the wind-chimes hanging from the ceiling in the hall. She had obviously forgotten to put in her contact lenses again. Dianne smiled as she wandered blearily into the kitchen.
“You look disgustingly chirpy this morning,” Sandra muttered.
“And you looked like you were enjoying yourself last night,” Dianne riposted with a smile. “I hope you managed to avoid Camilla and her gossip-detector.”
Sandra’s face turned smug. “He’s a very good kisser, eleven out of ten. And he’s actually very clever.”
“I’m surprised you had time for conversation.”
“Oh, very droll, Dianne. He was studying mathematics and planning to be the next Einstein when he got hooked by the singing bug at his Polytechnic’s annual musical. He jacked it in and went to acting school instead.”
“Goodness, from partial differential equations to arias, what a jump.”
“Don’t swear at me, not when I have a hangover. Anyway, he’s taking me out to dinner after the show tonight.”
“That’s nice, just the two of you?”
“Are you kidding? Most of the cast of Phantom will be there. Still, he’s in theatre for the next two months, so there’s plenty of time to work on him.”
Dianne suddenly remembered something. She dashed off to her room, much to Sandra’s bemusement, rummaged in her handbag, then returned to the kitchen, handing over the card in triumph.
“What’s this?” Sandra squinted at it.
“André Verdain’s business card.”
“How did you come by that?”
“He was at the party, silly. I tried to find you, but you were – um – otherwise engaged.”
Sandra looked at though she was about to burst into tears. “I don’t believe my luck. He was actually at the party and I missed him?””
“I told him all about you.”
“Yes, and he said you must call him tomorrow morning, at his office.”
“He did? Oh, my gosh. Crumbs, Di, that’s really decent of you. First you lend me a dress, and now you try and get me a job.”
“Well, that’s if you want one of course. I mean, after all, you want to spend life as one long party if someone pays for it, remember?”
“Did I say that?”
“Yes, just after my comment about there being more to life than going to endless lunches and soirees.”
Sandra twiddled the card in her fingers. “Fancy that. Well, I don’t think there’s any harm in calling him, is there? After all, nothing might come if it.”
Dianne kept a straight face. “Absolutely.”
Sandra got cold feet on the Monday morning and Dianne had to insist that she made the phone call to Paris. A Frenchwoman, his secretary, answered, and was about to dismiss a faltering Sandra when Dianne grabbed the phone and insisted, in firm and perfect French, that Monsieur Verdain was a good friend of hers and would be extremely cross if he found out she had been treated with such contempt. Immediately, Sandra was directed to the man himself and in no time at all he made arrangements for her to come to Paris for an interview in two weeks time.
“Goodness, Dianne,” Sandra said, with flushed face, when it was all done. “I’m awfully impressed. Maybe you ought to go into law after all. I can just see you berating some hapless witness in the box and winning the case.”
They celebrated Sandra’s first step onto the working ladder at Robert Linden’s party, where the ‘Roman Orgy’ theme seemed to go down well with the bulimic faction of the guest list. At the height of the proceedings, a pneumatic, blonde D-list celebrity, jumped out of five-foot cake, dressed as a slave girl, and there was a bit of a scrum amongst the toga-wearing, male members of the party, as they tried to catch a personal item of her skimpy garb that she tossed onto the dance floor. Dianne gamely tried to enjoy herself, but found the entire spectacle just a little over the top. She downed another glass of champers and then spotted a particularly nasty strain of paparazzi, working his way into the room.
“Quick, into the ladies, before we’re spotted!” she whispered to Sandra, and dragged her bemused friend away, to avoid being splashed all over the pages of the tabloid rag.
“I don’t know how you do it, Di,” Sandra said, when she returned, after said photographer had been non-too-politely ejected from the premises of the Polo Club.
“Oh, I must have a built-in radar for danger, I suppose,” she said with a grin.
“I’ll drink to that. Cheers.”
Dianne floored the Mini along the ten-lane M-4 heading west out of London, realising she would probably be racking up goodness-knows how many debits, on the automatic road-tracking system, but she’d dropped Sandra off at London Airport for her trip to Paris, and the traffic was heavy westwards, and she was going to be late for lunch with her parents. But, as she slid the roof down and let the breeze catch her hair, to trail it like a coppery scarf behind her, she knew, deep down, her lack of punctuality was partly an excuse to drive at speed.
Maybe I ought to take up motor-racing or flying or something, she thought idly as she cruised along.
Some forty-five minutes later, she arrived in the pleasant countryside where Ashton Manor stood nestling within its sweeping lawns. Ashton had been in the Simms family for two hundred years, and it always gave her a safe, cosy feeling when she caught sight of the warm, red-brick walls.
She braked sharply, causing the Mini to crunch to a halt on the gravel driveway. She let herself in one of the side entrances and went around to the back of the house, with its splendid view over the Berkshire countryside, and found her mother deadheading some rose bushes, in the sheltered arbour.
“Hello, Mummy,” Dianne kissed the proffered cheek, catching the scent of her mother’s usual fragrance, L’Air du Temps.
Lady Charlotte glanced past her for a moment, as if expecting someone else to be following her. “Didn’t Hugh come with you?” she asked.
Dianne shook her head. “He’s gone up to see his grandmother in Braemar for the weekend. I’m sure I told you.”
“Perhaps you did, my memory isn’t what it was these days. What a shame, I was looking forward to seeing him too. It’s been absolutely ages since you last brought him over to the house. Goodness, anyone would think you’re ashamed of us –”
“Where’s Daddy?” Dianne asked, quickly changing the subject before her mother launched into one of her monologues. “I hope I’m not late for lunch.”
Lady Charlotte attacked a stray rose-stalk with a vengeance before replying. “No, you aren’t, but your father is still locked in his study, he’s been there since eight-thirty this morning.”
Dianne’s interest pricked up. Her father’s role as a World Government Official often drew him into what Dianne thought was ‘exciting territory’. He was an experienced diplomat, and his skills were often called upon to intervene in delicate political situations.
“What’s it this time?” she asked.
“Oh, don’t ask me, you know how secretive he gets. But I heard a few words of Chinese, so I expect he’s trying to placate the Asian Director General.” Lady Charlotte gave a great sigh, and rubbed the back of her gloved hand over her forehead. “I hope he doesn’t have to go across to Beijing again, just when Christmas is around the corner. I always have so much to do - what with the orphanage and the charity ball in two weeks time, not to mention Christmas day itself.”
Dianne kissed Lady Charlotte’s cheek fondly. “Oh, you’ll cope, Mummy, you always do.”
She left her then and followed her nose into the kitchen, to find Mrs Holt, the cook, pulling a huge, rib-roast of beef out of the oven, as she sauntered in. The older woman set the metal pan down on the wooden table and dived in again for the tin of Yorkshire puddings. When her flushed face bobbed back up again she caught sight of Dianne and a smile split her broad cheeks.
“Hello, Mrs H,” Dianne said, inhaling the air. “What a heavenly aroma. I sometimes forget what real food smells like when I’m in London during the week.”
Mrs Holt shook her head. “You’re looking far too peaky, if you don’t mind me saying so, not to mention too thin. As I was just saying this morning to my Alison, you need to eat three square meals a day. You can’t live off muesli and diet-free yoghurt you know, that’s not going to keep a body healthy.”
“You’ve been sneaking a look in my fridge,” Dianne smiled, and listened fondly as Mrs Holt harangued her for a bit, while she munched on a stolen end off one of the gorgeously fluffy Yorkshires.
The door to the downstairs cellar opened and a distinguished man in his late fifties appeared, clutching a dusty wine bottle in his right hand.
“Hello, Forsyth,” Dianne greeted the family butler.
“Well. Look who the cat dragged in,” he said, raising one stately eyebrow as he set the bottle down on the table next to the puddings. “You’ve been partying again, haven’t you?”
“Privilege of the newly graduated,” she replied with a mock sniff. This was a little game they always played when she came home to her parent’s house. “And I don’t see why not. We’re a long time dead, you know.”
“So, I understand, but you’ll be getting there a little faster than most.”
“I’m not against alcohol in general,” Mrs Holt interrupted, “But as I said to my Alison, too much of it ruins the skin, not to mention the liver.”
Dianne rolled her eyes and the butler gave her a wink as he polished the dust off the bottle and stuck in the corkscrew.
“So, what’s happening in the Smoke, then?” Forsyth always insisted on calling London by its old nickname, despite the fact a hundred years had passed since it could be rightfully called that.
“Well, I went along to the opening of that new Car-Vu thingy they put up in the centre last Wednesday. The Mayor and the Duke and Duchess of Walton went along to smash a bottle of champagne over the entrance, and then we got to drive up in convoy to the top.”
“I’ve never heard of such a pointless thing in all my life,” Mrs Holt piped up again.
“Well, it has a pretty fantastic view,” Dianne countered, “But it’s so draughty up on the viewing platform.”
“I thought it was supposed to have a restaurant at the top?” Forsyth said.
“Oh, yes, I saw the slogans. ’Park your car and eat the view’, or something vacuous like that. But it all went horribly wrong in the planning process, I understand, and the City council blocked it on health and safety grounds. The architect, Marco Moretti, wasn’t very happy with the Mayor during the ceremony, I can tell you. There were a few black looks exchanged between them over canapés at the makeshift bar on the roof.”
“Right, Miss Dianne,” Mrs H announced, “you’d better get your father out of his study. My Yorkshires just don’t taste the same when they’re left to get cold.”
Lord Robert finally extricated himself from his diplomatic meeting and joined his wife and daughter in the dining room. Forsyth served the food and poured the wine and left them to enjoy it in peace, as Dianne told them all about Sandra and André Verdain.
“That poor girl, all she’s had to put up with,” Lady Charlotte said, and looked ready to launch into a diatribe about the Fanshaw clan, except Lord Robert knew his wife too well and diplomatically headed it off at the pass.
“So, what else have you been up to the past week, apart from playing job-finder general?” he asked his daughter.
“Well, I met up with my old school friend Deborah Palmer-Huntley, for lunch.”
“Is she the one who went off to be a chalet girl last year?” Lady Charlotte interrupted.
“Yes, she got back from Val d’Isere three weeks ago. She’d finally had enough of being a skivvy for a bunch of Hooray Henrys and getting paid a slave’s wage.”
“I don’t blame her in the least,” Lady Charlotte commented. “Heaven knows why these young girls do that sort of thing; after all it’s not as if they need the money for goodness sake.”
“I expect they enjoy the après-ski,” Lord Robert said dryly, and Dianne giggled, even though she knew she shouldn’t.
"I was just saying to Dianne earlier that it’s a shame Hugh wasn’t able to come today. We do so love to see him, isn’t that right, Robert?”
"Well, you certainly seem to, my darling,” Lord Robert replied, with a faint smile. “Personally I could take him or leave him.”
"He’s a very sweet young man.”
"Certainly, but I've seen more life in a cushion."
"Oh, Daddy, that’s cruel,” Dianne said.
“True enough, though.” He sent her a gentle wink.
“Well, I’m very fond of him,” Lady Charlotte insisted. “And you could do worse, Dianne.”
Dianne kept silent, wondering if her mother and Sandra had been having secret meetings to plan her future. Why on Earth did everyone in her immediate circle seem to have this frantic haste to get hitched at the earliest opportunity?
Marry in haste, repent at leisure, was the old saying, although she couldn’t quite remember where it came from. Still, she could forgive her mother for marrying her father in her early twenties, since, as far as she was concerned, he was quite simply the most wonderful man in the world.
“Any more thoughts on what you want to do with yourself, young lady?” Lord Robert interrupted her, and Dianne felt herself blush.
“Not really. Maybe I’ll get Christmas out of the way and think about it a bit harder.”
“You don’t have to work either, you know, darling,” Lady Charlotte said. “It’s not as if you need the money.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Charlotte, I was thinking of financing another dig in Egypt next year.” Lord Robert glanced at Dianne with a twinkle in his eye as he said it.
Her mother didn’t rise to the bait.
After lunch, Lord Robert excused himself from their company, saying he had a few more telephone calls to make. Dianne accompanied him along the hallway to his study, her arm linked into his.
“I hope you didn’t think I was trying to pressurize you into getting a job, my dear,” he said.
“Well, I suppose I ought to think about it, really. It seems silly having those qualifications and not doing anything with them.” They reached the door of the study and Dianne made a face. “Mummy seems hell-bent on me settling down.”
Lord Robert smiled and squeezed her arm. “Don’t let her bully you into an early marriage, my dear, unless that’s what you want, of course.”
“That’s the trouble; I don’t know what I want.”
“Is the party life beginning to pall?”
“A little.” She kissed his cheek. “You’ve always let me be myself; I don’t think I’ve ever told you how much I appreciate that.”
He beamed. “That’s something to hold onto when I am in the thick of another seemingly pointless argument with the aides of the Director General this afternoon.”
“Will you really have to go to Beijing before Christmas? It just wouldn’t be the same without you.”
He patted her hand. “Well, that gives me an extra incentive to wrap it up as soon as possible.”
Leaving him to his work, Dianne went around to the stables to say hello to the horses. Her mother was an excellent horsewoman, winning at the Badminton Horse Trials several years in succession, and Dianne had learned to sit on a horse before she could walk.
She fed them some carrots she had filched from the pantry, and they whinnied softly, their muzzles grazing her fingers for more. Afterwards, she tucked her hands in the pockets of her down jacket and strolled around the gardens at the rear of the house.
Her father was still behind his desk as she passed the study, telephone to one ear. He didn’t look up so she walked on, not wishing to disturb him any more than necessary. He looked as if he would be there for some time. Dianne felt her heart brim over with love, and felt more than a shade guilty that she was still spending all their money instead of thinking about getting a proper job.
She tried to imagine the future that stretched out before her and wondered why she was suddenly plagued by feelings of restlessness. Perhaps, she thought, it had been exacerbated by the fact that Sandra, the ultimate hedonist, was getting excited about the possibility of a career and of pursuing a new, exciting life. That’s what she needed, some excitement. The only problem was in knowing just where to start.
Dianne returned to the house in Chelsea the following morning, just in time to find a courier delivering a bulky package to the door. She signed for it, noting the French postmark with interest. After quickly removing the packaging she wasn’t terribly surprised to find it contained an evening dress. There was a handwritten note on the top of the tissue, and it said simply: “Wear this at New Year for me. André Verdain.”
She smiled secretly to herself as she strolled through Bond Street making her Christmas purchases, thinking how fabulous she had looked in that black and white silk dress. It was a show-stopper of a gown, elegant, yet dramatic. Dianne was a slave to fashion, and loved nothing more than to make an entrance in a new outfit, especially for an important social occasion as the New Year.
She finished her shopping then met up for lunch at the Gallery restaurant in Mayfair with a few of her old school friends. The majority of them were on pre-festive diets, and ordered main courses that wouldn’t have fed a gerbil, yet they somehow managed to swig back at least a bottle of bubbly each.
“God, I can’t believe I’m getting crow’s feet already,” Debbi Hedley-Smith complained. “They say if you have plastic surgery before you’re twenty-five the effects last longer.”
“Yoga was fabulous yesterday. I feel so good I think I’m in love with the teacher. He’s got the most amazing arms…”
“Have you girls heard about Clarice Dempster?” Tabitha Fenwick piped up. “She’s dumped Charles for some artist who lives in Fulham. I managed to wangle an invite with her to his flat, well, it was more like a broom closet actually, and can you believe – there was mildew on the shower curtain,”
The other girls, with the exception of Dianne, made sounds of mewling disgust at this sanitary faux-pas.
“I know,” Tabitha continued, “Well, I took a good look at his so-called artwork, but I thought they all looked like a pile of old squiggles. I honestly don’t know what she sees in him, he looks like a refugee from Bereznik.”
“Maybe he has a big you-know-what,” Debbi offered.
“Oh, yes, he definitely had a big easel.” Tabitha countered.
There was a chorus of knowing screeches, and Dianne tried to smile as she dipped her fork into her porcini risotto. A year ago she would have found this chat hilarious, but, with a rising sense of dismay, realised that she was finding she had little in common with these friends of her youth, apart from a fondness for champagne. Maybe it was going to university, interacting with people that didn’t have the privileged life that she had taken from granted. She suddenly felt caught between two worlds, seemingly unable to fit into either of them.
Sandra called Dianne that evening from Paris and she was almost breathless with excitement.
“He loves my work! I can’t believe it – he actually wants me to come and work for the House of Verdain!”
“See? And you wouldn’t believe me when I said you were brilliant.”
There were a few seconds of silence.
“Sandra, what is it?”
“It’s all happened so fast. I mean, it probably means upping sticks and moving to Paris, and I can’t speak a word of French apart from the swear words.”
“You’ll learn fast enough when you are immersed in it constantly. Gosh, imagine living in Paris – it’ll be lovely.”
“But, I’ll miss you.”
“Well, I’ll miss you too, silly, but opportunities don’t come along like this every day. It had to be fate, Monsieur Verdain being there at Imogene’s party.”
“I suppose so.”
“I know it seems daunting, but you really want to do this, don’t you?”
“You know, I really do. For the first time in my life I feel excited about something! Imagine. I might be clothing the stars on the catwalk at the Oscars some day!”
Dianne chuckled. “I believe you will. So, you have to take it, and never mind about leaving me.”
“Gosh, what will I tell Ralph?”
“If he’s interested, he’ll come and visit you in Paris.”
“Yes – I suppose so. Well, I have to go, I’m off to a fancy restaurant near the Sacre Coeur in about an hour, and I can’t decide what to wear!”
Christmas arrived at last. Dianne was rather glad to leave for Ashton since the house had been a little too quiet since Sandra had left for sunnier climes a few days previously. Things seemed to be looking up for her at last. Not only was she about to start a new job, but it seemed she might make peace with her mother as well. Shortly after she had returned from Paris, Davina Fanshaw had called unexpectedly, and begged her daughter to join her and her new fiancé, the oil tycoon, on his new two hundred and fifty-foot yacht, cruising around the Gulf of Mexico. Sandra thought she ought to be magnanimous, since it was the season of goodwill.
And soon she’ll be gone for good to Paris, Dianne mused poignantly, as she headed westwards again towards her parents house.
When she arrived, Mrs Holt was on her way out, her normally calm demeanour mutating into full-fluster mode as she prepared to tackle Christmas day with her brood.
“I’m so glad I didn’t miss you, Mrs H,” Dianne said, and handed over five bagfuls of presents for the cook and her family.
“Oh, Miss Dianne, you shouldn’t have, you’ll spoil us all.”
“Well, that’s what Christmas is for.”
“Now, you make sure you eat enough, or you’ll waste away to nothing. I know Forsyth will look after you all, but I don’t always trust these catering companies, and what a to-do it would be if it started snowing, and they couldn’t get to the house. So I’ve done a ham, and I’ve made a Christmas pudding and there’s two sherry trifles in the fridge.”
Dianne kept the smile off her face with difficulty. The chance of snow in Berkshire on Christmas Eve was about as likely as England winning the World Cup.
“I’m sure we’ll all survive just fine, Mrs H, you just worry about getting home and enjoying it all with your family.”
“Oh, you’re so right. If I don’t get home now my Rodney will start panicking, I left him with the tree and the decorations. A lot safer than letting him stuff the turkey, I can tell you.”
After she had departed, Dianne wandered through to the drawing room where a ten-foot Spruce tree waited, bare and expectant. A fire was burning merrily in the grate and the mantelpiece was festooned with pine garlands and dried fruits, making the whole room smell divine. She opened the box she’d bought with her and unwrapped the pretty crystal angels from their tissue paper. These ornaments would join the ranks of those lovingly gathered from many Christmases’ past.
It was a family tradition since as far back as she could remember, she and her father decorating the tree together on Christmas Eve. He appeared around the door and the two of them set-about it, and soon the tree glittered with lights and baubles. A short while later Dianne’s paternal grandmother Helena Simms arrived. The old lady was as doughty as ever, despite being a little less nimble on her feet these days. The four of them sat in the drawing room where Forsyth served mince pies and mulled wine and afterwards they all went to Midnight Mass in the local village church, another tradition that Dianne was grateful for, since it meant not having to get up too early on Christmas morning.
Christmas day dawned at last, and after breakfast, presents were exchanged all round. Dianne was especially pleased with the new epee she received from Helena, since her old one had badly needed replacing.
Aunt Eleanor, Lady Charlotte’s sister, still as delightfully scatty as ever, arrived around eleven with her two corgis in tow. In a break with tradition, Lady Charlotte had invited her other sister to lunch as well. Half an hour later, Aunt Victoria and Uncle Michael appeared with Dianne’s three cousins in tow. The final family guest, Lord Robert’s brother, Edward, arrived in furious mood after being stuck behind a broken-down tractor in one of the country lanes which had necessitated having to turn around and find another, more circuitous, route to the house. He was placated by a nice chilled glass of Krug, and then there followed another round of present giving. Aunt Eleanor did not disappoint Dianne, as she had given her a lovely, red, cashmere scarf. Being a well-brought up girl she smiled gamely in gratitude.
Lunch was a convivial affair, and Forsyth served the coffee and mints in the drawing room while they watched the King’s speech on the televiewer. Everyone was exceedingly lazy after that, and sat around in small groups drinking what was left of the red wine. Dianne was discussing the finer points of fencing with her cousins, Freddie and Andrew, when the phone trilled through the muted buzz of conversation. Lady Charlotte was the nearest and her mouth creased in a delighted smile when the caller announced himself.
“Hugh, how lovely to hear from you…and a very happy Christmas to you too, and your parents naturally. Yes, lunch has been delightful….You did? Oh that’s good. Yes, here she is.”
Lady Charlotte handed Dianne the phone and she escaped into the hall for a bit of privacy.
“Happy Christmas, Hugh,” she said, keeping her voice low.
“Hello, old girl, happy Christmas to you too. Look, we’re having a bit of a shindig for New Year at the house, cocktails and dinner in the evening to see in 2063, then a spot of clay-pigeon shooting the following day to clear the cobwebs. Do say you’ll come - I want to show you off to everyone.”
Dianne hesitated for a moment. She didn’t feel comfortable with the idea that she was some sort of trophy to be paraded in front of Hugh’s relatives; however, she did love a spot of target shooting.
“Di, are you still there?”
“Yes, of course, it was just that –”
“Sorry, were you and Sandra planning something else?”
“No, she’s away, seeing her mother.”
“Oh, good for her. Well, are you going to say yes?”
Dianne tried to sound enthusiastic. “Of course I’ll come.”
Dianne drove across to Kent from Chelsea on New Year’s Eve. The traffic crawled, south-east of the Orbital, due to some very un-festive road works, and it was only around Sevenoaks that she could let the Mini loose. Finally the GPS signalled to turn right from the minor road she was on, and she roared up the long, curving, path that led to the sprawling mausoleum that was the Wellesley-Stuart’s ancestral home. It made Ashton look like a country cottage, and Dianne and Sandra jokingly referred to it as ‘Gormenghast’.
She alighted from the car, and a member of the household immediately appeared from the front entrance, and set about removing her bags from the trunk of the MG. She followed him into the cavernous entrance hall, with a king’s ransom’s worth of Canaletto’s and Turners hanging on the walls. Dianne and Sandra had been awed the first time they’d visited one spring, with Hugh, to attend one of Lady Anne’s garden parties. They’d been given adjoining rooms and spent most of the night giggling like schoolgirls.
“I’ll tell his lordship that you’ve arrived, ma’am,” the man said.
“That’s all right, Benson, I’m here,” another male voice called loudly from above, and Dianne looked up to see Hugh clattering down the elegant staircase.
He bestowed a warm kiss on her cheek. “Lovely to see you, old girl. I hope the drive down wasn’t too taxing?”
“Hardly, it was only a few miles,” she replied drily. Hugh owned a fast MG, but tended to drive it like a hearse, which Dianne found highly irritating, given her fondness for speed.
“I think Mother’s put you in the East wing,” he was saying, as she followed him back up the stairs.
“Oh, I’m sure I’ll be comfortable wherever I am,” Dianne replied, as they trooped down a long twisting corridor lined with family portraits of the Wellesley-Stuarts. Other corridors radiated off in other directions – the place was a maze – but Dianne memorised every step of the way. Hugh finally stopped at one heavy wooden door and flung it open, to reveal a sumptuously appointed bedroom, with a gigantic, silk-covered, four-poster bed commanding centre spot.
“Sorry you’re so far away,” he said, as he took her bags from Benson and laid them on the carpet. “But this room’s got a nice view of the lake.”
Dianne wandered across to the windows, and saw the low sun glitter off the expanse of water. Beyond that, the fields stretched as far away as the eye could see. “You’re right, it’s lovely.”
Hugh came to join her, and he was so close that she could almost feel his breath on her neck.
“It’s funny to think that all this will be mine someday,” he said wistfully. “It’s quite scary, really.”
Dianne didn’t meet his eyes, and continued to stare at the sparkling lake, wondering if she imagined the subtle change in Hugh’s manner – he wasn’t normally into being contemplative. She sensed some unspoken thought that hung in the silence between them, and imagined fancifully that he might be going to say something ‘Very Serious’. Her heart started beating rapidly. They had a very nice friendship; surely he wasn’t going to spoil it all by going and getting feelings for her?
She deftly sidled away from the window, and his suddenly uncomfortable proximity, to retrieve one of her suitcases. She threw it on the immense bed and opened it to make a show of rummaging through it.
“Wellies. Check. Evening dress. Check. I think I’ve got everything with me.
“Right, well.” Hugh mumbled, “I’ll leave you to it, shall I?”
She smiled sweetly at him, feeling a bit duplicitous, since he looked like bit like a puppy that had just been given a scolding.
“Thanks,” she said. “I think I’ll have a soak before dinner, if you don’t mind. What time do I need to be downstairs?”
“We’re having drinks in the drawing room at seven-thirty. Do you think you can manage to find it on your own, or shall I come up for you?”
“Oh, I’m quite sure. I got a first in orienteering at Abbey, after all.”
“Of course, so you did. I keep forgetting how clever you are.”
Dianne gave him another smile, and he hesitated at the door. “Sure I can’t stay and rub your back?” he offered hopefully.
His lips curled in a pout, but thankfully he didn’t say anything more. When she heard the door close behind him Dianne sat heavily on the bed and let out a sigh.
Dusk had fallen when Dianne dragged herself out of the claw-footed bath-tub in the adjoining bathroom. She slipped into the fabulous Verdain dress and stood in front of the age-speckled mirror, to contemplate her appearance. She had seriously wondered about wearing it here, after all, it wasn’t as if the style police were lurking at Gormenghast to inform the designer that she had spurned his gift. But, she had made her mind up that she would wear it at New Year, and that’s what she would do, despite feeling apprehensive at the possibility of encouraging Hugh’s amorous attentions in his current mood. Hugh’s kisses were pleasant enough, but they didn’t exactly leave her panting for more, at least, not in the way it was described in the letters column of Heat magazine, or in some of the more daring romance novels that she occasionally flicked through in the spa or the hair salon.
Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m frigid. She looked at her reflection again – the Virgin Queen of Chelsea. All she needed was Sir Walter Raleigh, or one of the Tracy brothers, when they were much younger, of course. She giggled at this irreverent thought, and told herself that this was simply a party, just one more party, in a long line of tedious social occasions.
She patted down the dress, and held her chin high as she left the room, walked briskly past the spectres of Hugh’s ancestors on the corridor walls, and descended the wide staircase to the great hall. It was obvious more of the guests had arrived from the animated buzz of conversation from the drawing room, accompanied by the sounds of clinking glass
The chatter died as she entered the palatial drawing-room, myriad heads turning with interest to look at her. Usually, Dianne liked to make an entrance, but tonight she felt oddly ill-at-ease with the attention. Almost immediately, Hugh was at her side, and she certainly didn’t mistake the look of admiration in his eyes.
“You look absolutely gorgeous, darling,” he whispered. “Come and say hello to everyone who’s arrived so far.”
She accepted the glass of well-chilled champagne he offered her, and she restrained herself from downing it in one gulp, allowing him to sweep her into the group of guests.
After a whirl of introductions, Hugh left her for a moment with his parents, Lord James and Lady Anne, and went off to welcome another guest who had arrived. After some polite enquiries about the health of her family, they too wandered off in separate directions to mingle with their guests, and almost immediately, Dianne was cornered by a minor member of the royal family, who regaled her with horror-stories about his domestic staff. She smiled politely and tried desperately to look interested.
She was seemingly rescued from crashing boredom by Hugh’s aunt, who drew her into her circle of friends, but her hopes were dashed when their conversation centred on the disadvantages of opening one’s estates to the tourist hoi-polloi. Dianne stifled a yawn. If the conversation was any less scintillating, she might well fall asleep before 2063 had made its appearance. She sighed and thought enviously of Sandra; drinking strawberry daiquiris and probably being chatted up by some tanned American chap on her potential stepfather’s yacht.
The conversation dipped again and Dianne heard Lady Anne’s voice pipe up. “Oh, so, delighted you could make it.”
No doubt another dowager duchess to add excitement to the dreary proceedings, Dianne thought unkindly. Her stomach rumbled suddenly and she realised she was actually starving, so she headed for the nearest tray of canapés as it was ages yet till dinner
“You must be Hugh’s girl, eh?” piped a voice from beside her. She turned to see an elderly gentleman eying her up speculatively as he piled several caviar blinis onto a plate. His glass of sherry tilted precariously towards The Dress, and Dianne stepped backwards away from a potential soaking.
“Er, yes, I am actually.”
“Lucky blighter,” he muttered, then wandered off.
“You’re lucky,” a female voice piped up.
“Excuse me?” Dianne turned to see a petite, blonde-haired girl, about the same age as herself. The girl smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. Dianne took an instant dislike to her for some reason.
“The old boy,” she said, “That’s the Colonel, Hugh’s godfather. He normally regales any newcomer with stories of his prowess in the war. He must be slipping.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Hugh’s second cousin, Annabel de Longhi.”
“Nice to meet you,” Dianne lied, wondering why Hugh had never mentioned her in passing.
“How are you enjoying the party so far?” Annabel said, wolfing down a tuna tapenade. “I can’t believe it’s actually nearly 2063 already.”
“It’s… very nice.”
“Yeah, can’t wait to get my hands on my trust fund. I can go and do what I like then, without mumsy telling me what to do. It’s such a bore, isn’t it?”
Dianne smiled vacantly. “I suppose so.”
“Dianne!” Hugh’s voice broke the awkward pause in the conversation, as Hugh arrived in tow with another blonde woman, however this one was tall and willowy, and dressed from neck to toe in pink satin.
“I like to introduce you to someone.”
It couldn’t be, surely not?
“This Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, an old friend of my parents, Lady Penelope, this is Lady Dianne Simms.”
“Less of the old, my boy,” Lady Penelope said in a severe tone, but there was a twinkle in her eye, and Dianne warmed to her instantly. She held out a long, perfectly manicured hand for Dianne to shake. ““Hello, my dear, how lovely to meet you.”
Dianne knew her by reputation only, one of the most glamorous women of her generation. But in recent years she had become something of a recluse from the party set. Dianne couldn’t help admiring how elegant she still looked, dressed in her signature colour, and remembered reading somewhere in some glossy magazine that she’d been born in 1999.
Crumbs, that makes her nearly sixty-five, Dianne thought with astonishment. She certainly didn’t look anywhere near that.
Annabel thrust her arm into Hugh’s and made eyes at him. “Can you come with me to get a glass of champers, please, pretty please?”
“Go on, Hugh,” Lady Penelope said, “I’ll keep Dianne company.”
“All right, then,” he replied, and Dianne saw a pout on its way again, since it was obvious he had wanted to stay and chat with the two women. However, Annabel was stronger than her small frame would have suggested, and she was already frog-marching him half-way across the room.
“Well, that leaves us to get to know one another,” Lady Penelope said brightly.
“I had no idea you knew Hugh’s family,” Dianne said.
“Well, Foxleyheath is just down the road, you know.”
“I suppose it is, I never thought about it. I’ve only been here a couple of times. Last time was for a garden-party, in the spring.”
“Ah, yes, such a pity I missed it, but I was unfortunately… indisposed.” She wrinkled her perfect brows, as if trying to recollect. “I think I was in Italy, it does get more difficult to remember with the passing years, you know.”
“You don’t look… well…”
“Like an old woman?” Penelope offered, her blue eyes sparkling with amusement.
Dianne felt her cheeks heat in a faint blush. “Gosh, I didn’t mean to be rude... you look absolutely fabulous, I jolly well hope I look as elegant and beautiful, when I get to your age.”
“That’s very kind of you to say so. And you are by far the belle of the ball in that gown. It’s by Verdain, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Oh, yes, it is! Would you believe I met him at a party in Belgravia and not only did he send me this dress, but he’s hired my flatmate to work with him at his fashion house.”
“Ah, serendipity, it’s such a marvellous thing.”
“I know, talk about fate. I wish something like that would happen to me.”
“Become a fashion designer?”
“Goodness, no. My degree was in law and sociology.”
“Oh, how very clever,” Lady Penelope said. “I don’t think I got past A- level you know.” She leaned close and whispered conspiratorially. “Between you and me, I much preferred skiing to studying.”
Dianne laughed. “I know what you mean.”
“So, do you intend to go into law, my dear?”
“I really don’t know. But I’ve got to do something with my life, and going to endless lunches and parties isn’t it.”
“There are lots of less fortunate girls of your age, who would swop their dreary job at the check-out for your life at the drop of a hat, my dear girl.”
“It does make me sound very ungrateful, doesn’t it? And I don’t mean to be.”
Lady Penelope patted her hand gently. “Don’t worry, I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
Dianne was conscious of Hugh waving at her from across the room. He had obviously jettisoned Annabel and was now chatting with some male members of the party.
“He’s a nice young man,” Lady Penelope said. “I imagine you’re a very happy girl.”
“Happy? Yes… I suppose I am.”
Except she didn’t feel happy.
She certainly felt guilty, since, as Lady Penelope quite rightly pointed out, she had everything any girl could want - a happy home life, loving parents, enough money do what ever she wanted, and a boyfriend who seemed to adore her. Yet, despite Hugh’s undeniable good-looks, she was fast approaching the realisation that for her, at least, he had zero-sex appeal. She suddenly had the overwhelming sense of being trapped - of trying to fit into a life-script that wasn’t hers at all.
“Are you all right?” Lady Penelope was asking, and there was genuine concern in her eyes.
Dianne nodded, with a sense of camaraderie stealing up between them, a feeling that instantly precipitated a longing to confide all her sense of confusion to someone. Lady Penelope looked like a woman of the world, and it wouldn’t be quite as embarrassing as talking to her mother.
Dinner was announced shortly afterwards and the guests streamed into the dining room, a vast cavern that echoed with the sound of chairs being scraped back as guests found their places at the long mahogany table, silver and glass sparkling at every setting. To her dismay, Dianne found herself sandwiched between the boring royal and the Colonel, with Hugh opposite her, and Lady Penelope at the top of the table, near Lord James. Annabel sat down on Hugh’s left and smiled at Dianne with the friendliness of a cobra. Dianne smiled back just as sweetly. She had no intention of allowing any of them to spoil her dinner.
Lady Anne led the distaff members of the party into the drawing room after dinner, and Lady Penelope somehow became the centre of attention as everyone, made quite garrulous by the plentiful supply of wine and champagne at cocktails and dinner, pressed her to divulge her fashion and beauty secrets, and the truth of the rumours that she had been associated with the world-famous International Rescue, and its divinely handsome knights-in-armoured-jets. The men joined them shortly afterwards and Dianne watched fascinated as Lady Penelope, continued to hold court with an equally besotted male retinue, hanging onto every word and gesture.
Soon it was approaching the eventful hour, and the staff hurried around the drawing room to fill everyone’s glass for the toast. Hugh was close by Dianne’s side, and she glanced around to see Annabel talking with Lady Penelope. Ridiculously, she felt rather jealous.
Sir James announced the countdown: “Five, four, three, two, one, Happy New Year!”
The Grandfather clock on the wall of the drawing room chimed out the start of 2063, and the guests erupted in happy cheers and rounds of exuberant hugging and kissing.
“Happy New Year, darling,” Hugh whispered in her ear, and planted a passionate kiss on her lips.
“Same to you,” she smiled, but felt an empty spot in her heart where she was sure she should have felt a rush of excitement, especially at a momentous occasion like the start of another year.
“You know,” he said, still holding her close, “Maybe we ought to –.”
Whatever he’d been about to say was interrupted by a very tipsy Annabel, as she threw her arms around his neck and planted her lips firmly on his. For some reason Dianne felt an unaccountable sense of relief.
The two tiny, black, clay targets shot out of the trap into the air, in an unpredictable zig-zag flight. Lady Penelope aimed her shotgun and they exploded within seconds of one another, a round of muted applause breaking out as the pieces rained onto the soggy ground.
“Oh, another good shot!” Sir James announced admiringly. “I think that puts you in the lead for the moment.”
The party-guests who had managed to rouse themselves from their hangovers, were congregated in a rather chilly, flat, open, field on the Wellesley-Stuart’s estate where the traps had been set-up for the late morning’s shoot.
Lady Penelope looked radiant again, dressed in a very stylish, pink fur-trimmed parka and matching wellingtons. On anyone else, Dianne thought, the combination would have looked ridiculous, but somehow, the older woman carried it off with panache.
Dianne was next in line. She’d played the sport many times, although it was a while since she’d actually been on a shoot. She took a lungful of the bracing air, her heart beating in anticipation. She steadied the gun, lining up the sightline with her eyes, and then called out. The two targets flew up into the air, their trajectories simulating game birds in flight. Eyes, mind and fingers acted in concert, and she pulled on the trigger. The recoil of firing selected the next barrel, which fired almost instantaneously afterwards. More applause broke out and Dianne felt her face flush with excitement as Hugh stepped up next to take his shot.
A short while later, everyone took a break for flasks of tea and biscuits to ward off the chill.
“You handle a gun very well, my dear,” Penelope said to Dianne, with a speculative look in her eyes.
“Thank-you. I’ve always enjoyed the sport.”
“Hmpph, it’s still not the same as firing at the real thing,” the colonel wandered past them holding a cup of tea in each hand. “Bloody do-gooders and their hunting bans. Wish we still lived in the 1980’s, didn’t have any of this pinko nonsense back then, so I heard.” He strolled off unsteadily in the direction of the house, muttering to himself. The two women caught one another’s eyes, both trying not to laugh.
“You’re not afraid to beat the men at their own game, are you, Dianne?” Penelope said, after a lull in the conversation while they drank some tea.
“Oh, I hadn’t thought about it like that. I just like to win.”
“Yes, I felt exactly the same way at your age. Well, actually, I still feel the same way, although nowadays, one has to be rather more discreet about it.”
Dianne smiled with a warm glow of pleasure at this comparison with a woman she had very rapidly come to admire over the last twelve hours.
How odd, she thought, I’ve only just met her, and yet it’s as if I’ve known her for years.
At that point Hugh came up to the two of them and planted a kiss on Dianne’s cheek, pulling her close to him with a fond embrace. Dianne instantly felt embarrassed at this display of public affection and wriggled gently out of his grasp.
“We seem to have run out of tea,” she said sweetly, “Would you be a darling and go get some for us?”
“Of course,” he said, a little too brightly, and headed off to the tea-trolley.
“If you don’t mind me saying,” Penelope said quietly, “I don’t think you’re quite as enamoured of that young man as he is with you.”
Dianne blushed. Lady Penelope seemed to have the perspicacity of a mind-reader. How awful if everyone else noticed the same thing. In the space of a few seconds, the strain of trying to pretend she was happy with her life overrode her natural sense of propriety, and her mouth overtook her mind in a sudden confessional outburst.
“It’s not as if we’re engaged or anything – although Mummy likes him a lot and she thinks I should settle down – but I think I’m far too young, and I suppose I ought to find a job anyway – but the thought of being cooped up in an office makes me come out in hives – but I’m fed up with endless parties and people who talk drivel and – I just want a bit of excitement in my life!”
She froze, conscious of Lady Penelope regarding her with a serious look on her face. “Oh, God, I’m awfully sorry, I didn’t mean to blather on like that, you must think I’m a complete – ”
Lady Penelope took her hand in a comforting gesture. “Now, now - as Parker, a very dear old friend of mine used to say, there’s no point in crying over spilt milk. I think you have, if you’ll pardon the pun, been bottling a lot of this up for a while now, am I right?”
Lady Penelope smiled. “You know, another great man was once quoted as saying: ‘One’s real life is often the life that one does not lead’.”
“That was Oscar Wilde, wasn’t it?”
“Quite right, my dear. Now, I think you want a real life that makes you feel alive, don’t you?”
Dianne nodded again,
“How would you feel about coming over to Foxelyheath?” Lady Penelope continued. “I’m sure we can have a cup of Earl Grey and a nice chat about the possibilities for your future.”
“I certainly would,” Dianne replied enthusiastically, with no idea of what those possibilities might be, but more than willing to trust the older woman.
A week later Dianne drove down to Kent once again – except this time, she felt a sense of excitement rather than impending boredom. She soon arrived at a splendid Palladian-style mansion, with the symmetry lacking in the more rambling architecture of Ashton. She left the car on the driveway and walked up the short flight of stairs to the front door. A rather young looking butler opened it in answer to the chimes.
“Hello, I’m Dianne Simms, Lady Penelope was expecting me.”
“Oh, yes, her Ladyship is in the drawing room. She’s just about to serve afternoon tea. Come this way, if you please, Miss.”
Lady Penelope stood up from the chaise longue when the butler showed Dianne into the drawing room, as large and splendidly appointed as the one in Gormenghast, except rather more eclectically decorated. She motioned to a red Louis XIV chair for Dianne to sit next to her. The butler discreetly vanished, leaving Lady Penelope to pour from the antique silver pot into the china cups.
“Now, my dear,” Lady Penelope said, after a sip. “I’m not the sort of person to beat around the bush; there simply isn’t enough time for that. I feel I can trust you, Dianne, and my feelings are very rarely wrong, they have even saved my life on occasion. So, let’s get down to business, shall we?”
Dianne felt butterflies swoop around her stomach. “Yes, of course.”
“You said you wanted some excitement in your life, and I think I can offer you that. How would you feel about becoming a secret agent?”
Dianne almost dropped the cup. In her wildest dreams she didn’t expect this.
“I can see you’re a little surprised.”
“Well, yes, I mean it’s not the sort of thing – ”
“ – you would expect an old lady to be? That’s the beauty of it, my dear,” Lady Penelope smiled. “It’s such a perfect cover. Rich, society gel, no one would ever suspect. It’s suited me for years.”
“How long have you been a spy?”
“Oh, I do detest that word, it has such grimy connotations; I prefer to think of myself as an intelligence gatherer. But, in answer to your question, oh, let’s see, about forty-seven years.”
“You were my age?”
“Well, yes, of course. I was sick to death of the expectations of my up-bringing, so I decided I was going to live life my way, and do something important. I sense the same needs in you, young lady.”
“Oh yes, absolutely! But, what makes you think I’d be any good as a secret agent?”
“I know excellent raw material when I see it, my dear. I’ve been doing it for long enough to spot it in minutes. And not only that, I have been spying on you in my own way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Imogene Wainscott-Harkness used to be one of my agents.”
Dianne’s mouth fell open in astonishment.
“I can tell you that now, since she is no longer an official operative, but she still passes me useful information from time to time.”
“Goodness, I don’t know what to say…”
Lady Penelope smiled “Saying yes, would be a start.”
“Of course, yes, yes!” Her face fell. “But what shall I tell Mummy?”
“You don’t have to tell her anything for now. After all, I’m hardly going to parachute you into deepest Bereznik tomorrow.”
Dianne gave an almost imperceptible sigh of relief, despite thinking that parachuting into the rogue state was infinitely the preferable of the two options.
“No, first, there will be training – lots of it. And tests, physical and mental, just to make sure I haven’t made the wrong choice.”
“Oh, I promise, you haven’t!” Dianne could hardly contain her excitement.
When she finally left the Creighton-Ward mansion, Dianne knew she had to tell Hugh that she could no longer see him romantically and turned the car towards Gormanghast. There was no time like the present. She suspected he would take it with a stiff upper lip, even if, initially that bottom lip did slip into its trade-mark pout, and there was always the prospect of Annabel for him to turn to, in consolation, thank goodness. Although, that wasn’t the only reason she was willing to face him rather than dump him electronically, of course.
She was British after all.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Dianne was taken under Lady Penelope’s wing, and under her tutelage, became one of the Federal Agent Bureau’s (F.A.B) top agents.
Acknowledgments and Stuff
I’d toyed with this a few years ago and it sat on the backburner with only a couple of scenes while I attended to other challenges. I was a bit lost for ideas this Christmas but I then I remembered that I’d read in some of the CS books that Dianne joined F.A.B in early 2063, so I thought, why not make the meeting with Lady P around about the festive season? The flighty, care-free environment of wealthy young socialites got me writing in a light-hearted vein, with Dianne being a bit of a smarter, richer Bridget Jones character.
I’ve referred to the biography details for the future Rhapsody Angel mostly from the 1967 Captain Scarlet Annual, where it states she is the daughter of Lord Robert, a World Government official and she meets Lady Penelope at a dull party.
André Verdain is the French fashion designer whom Spectrum is sent to protect in the ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’ episode ‘Model Spy’. It’s divulged that he is secretly the controller of the European Area Intelligence Service. These spies really do lead busy lives…
I’m making the assumption that Parker, Lady Penelope’s faithful butler, is probably in his late eighties and would no longer be ‘opening doors’ or ‘safe-cracking’.
I’d like to thank Colonel Chris for her wonderful website, and extending the Challenge till the 31st January which enabled me to slip it in at the last minute! I’d like to thank Marion Woods for doing her usual splendid job of reviewing the story and catching all my bloopers, and last but not least, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, without whom, none of us would have had forty years of sheer enjoyment.
The following characters from Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons : Rhapsody Angel, Lady Penelope, Parker, André Verdain, and Lord Robert Simms are © ITC/Polygram/Carlton Entertainment.
All other characters mentioned are of my own devising.
With every good wish for 2008.
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