Oliver sent me an email from work.
“Lee said his wife could show you the ropes round here. Her name’s Charlie – why don’t you give yourself a break from the unpacking and give her a ring ?”
Lee works with Oliver, and was transferred here from the Milton Keynes office a while back. I met him a few years ago, when he sat next to me at a company dinner and kept leaning over me to pour more water in my glass – not because he was a thoughtful dinner companion, but because it gave him a good excuse to stare down my cleavage, which at the time was size-enhanced by early pregnancy hormones. He ruined a perfectly nice evening with his ogling and I’ve never since felt comfortable wearing that particular dress. Not that it fits now. But that’s not the point.
So Lee knows Oliver, and he’s English – and apart from that, we have nothing in common. I can’t imagine I would get on any better with his wife, but I don’t know anyone round here, and with Jack as my only company now, I’m forgetting how to speak the English language. Repeating myself three times in an effort to order a Starbucks latte the other day doesn’t count.
Against my better judgment – it was a toss up whether I’d rather do this or unpack another dozen boxes – I dialled the number Oliver sent me. (Yes, we have a land line now, and yes, Oliver’s mum phones us on it at five a.m. every day because she hasn’t got to grips with the time zones. If she does it once more I will phone her when our late night news is on.)
Charlie sounded quite nice, and not as if she deserved to be married to a dinner party lech.
“I’m having a coffee morning tomorrow,” she said. “Why don’t you come along and meet the rest of the girls? No car? No problem. I’ll ask Julia to pick you up. She lives near you. What to wear? Oh, anything. It’s very casual.”
* * *
Julia turns up the following day.
I’m wearing a cotton summer dress – goodness, but it’s hot in Massachusetts! – that admittedly had seen better days, but since this is a casual coffee morning and not Paris fashion week, I didn’t think it mattered.
Julia. One of those women with carefully messy hair, sunglasses welded to the top of her head, and an even, natural tan. Designer handbag, designer flip-flops, and a designer child attached to manicured hand.
I look down at my faded Next dress, at Jack who has already managed to spill grape juice on his clean T-shirt, and bravely open the door.
A designer smile. Very white teeth.
“I’m Julia,” she says. “And this is Sadie.”
I can see her eyes flickering as she sizes me up.
“Are you all set?” she asks. “Or do you need some time to get ready?”
They can’t all be like this. Can they?
* * *
I’ve been in uncomfortable situations in my time. Birthday parties with special guest tarantulas, Play-Doh tables with Captain Angie and Carol Hunter – hell, company dinner parties with my coffee morning hostess’s husband leering down my neckline.
I’d take any of those today.
This is not a coffee morning. It’s an arena, the women are barely tamed animals, and guess who is the poor old gladiator?
That’s right. Me. Fresh meat.
Jack is in his element – other children to play with, different toys to dissect – and I wish he could be like other little boys who cling to their mummies and want to sit on laps, thumbs in mouth.
Without him, I have to sip coffee and converse with the domesticated tigers.
“Have you been to the outlet mall yet?” one asks. She appears to be called Caroline. “There’s some brilliant stuff there.”
I confess that I have barely been to the supermarket, never mind this Mecca of retail therapy.
“You should. Terry got me these earrings there.” Caroline pulls back a strand of highlighted hair to show me a large diamond-like stud. “Two carats in each ear.”
I picture her with two carrots growing out of her neat little ears.
“One carat for every child.” She pats her flat stomach. “He’ll owe me a bigger pair when this one’s born.”
Ah. So this one isn’t a domesticated tiger so much as a kangaroo. Her child must be growing in that Coach bag. With a stomach that flat, there’s no other way she could be gestating.
“Eddie gets me bigger ones every wedding anniversary,” another one chimes in. “Next year he’s upgrading my engagement ring, though. The tight git won’t fork out for the four carat studs I had my eye on.”
Caroline smiles; the victor going in for the kill. “Did I tell you the OB/GYN thinks it just might be twins?” she says. “Where did you see those four carat studs, Sally?”
After two hours, the Tigers finally begin to leave, gathering up babies, toddlers, and Dolce and Gabbana bags.
Julia addresses the room. “I have an appointment at the hair salon. Could anyone give, um, Lizzy a lift home?”
A couple of women shuffle and mutter something about an urgent spin class.
“No problem,” Charlie says. “I’ll take you home, Libby.” She emphasises the correct name.
The Tigers leave, amid a lot of hair-flicking and air-kissing.
Charlie turns to me as she closes the door after them.
“It’s overwhelming at first, isn’t it?”
I nod. I’m trying not to blink, because if I do, the tears that have welled up will spill over.
“You’ll get used to them. You have to remember, they’re on this very lucrative expat package, and the novelty of disposable income has gone to their heads. With some of them, anyway. The worst show-offs were here today, I’m afraid.”
She leads me into the garage, to a nondescript black car.
“We’re not all like that,” she says. “Tell you what – how about I organise something less intimidating, where you can meet some of the others who weren’t here today?
“That would be lovely,” I say.
“And maybe you and your husband could come to dinner with me and Lee. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?”
“Fabulous,” I say. “I’d like that.”
And the funny thing is, I meant it.
© 2011 Kate Allison