Ten months later
It is very difficult to hold a conversation with a Viking. It's terribly distracting for one thing, the little horns on top of his helmet are practically quivering with indignation and he keeps tossing his cape in my face.
"I just don't feel as though you're giving me enough to work with. How can one be expected to express oneself with this?" He brandishes his stubby plastic sword in front of my eyes. "How can one's true Nordic inner self be found? Hmmm? Tell me that? And why does Oliver get the pick axe and the hammer and I get this?"
I glance over to Oliver, who is waiting patiently and in a decidedly un-Nordic fashion by the door. Probably hoping for the off. He lights up a cigarette resignedly.
I turn back to the irate Viking and say quietly, "Now, Sean, you know perfectly well that you have a much more important role in the proceedings than Oliver. I just thought that giving him a few more props would help him feel he wasn't being left out." It's plain to everyone except Sean that Oliver couldn't give a toss about being left in or out.
Sean looks slightly mollified. "I can see your point, Izzy. Thank you for being so honest. But I really think . . ." he drops his voice to a whisper ". . . that you should ask Oliver to lose a few pounds. I mean, as a Viking one wouldn't have had a lot of food, would one? A few vegetables and a bit of chicken perhaps. One wouldn't look as if one had just swallowed Delia Smith and all her cookbooks."
"Aahh, but Oliver isn't really your fighting sort of Viking. He's more the bring-up-the-rear sort."
"More pillaging than plundering?"
Sean nods understandingly and even manages to shoot the unsuspecting Oliver a nasty look. He sniffs. "I thought as much."
I pat his arm reassuringly, but before I can plan my escape he adds, "Another petit point, Izzy. I was thinking that you ought to call me something like Arnog from now on."
"I think it will help me project myself into character."
I smile tightly and resist the temptation to look at my watch again. We have been here for over two hours and I know Aidan is waiting to use the room for his own dress rehearsal. Lady Boswell's Nordic Ice Feast is proving more troublesome than first imagined and I've still got weeks of planning to do. "Fine, er, Arnog. Whatever you think is best. Shall we take it from the top?"
I watch through a gap in my fingers as they take their positions. The door gently opens and Aidan sidles in. He looks around for a second, spots me and then tiptoes around the perimeter of the room.
"How's it going?" he whispers to me with a grimace that shows his vote would be "appallingly badly."
"Appallingly badly," I say and grimace back.
"I think it might be the feng shui in here. I've been having bad rehearsals lately too."
The proceedings kick off. Oliver nearly takes Sean's eye out with his pick axe within the first two seconds but whether this is deliberate or not it is hard to tell. All I can say is that the Vikings must have been jolly glad they were wearing those helmets. What is supposed to be a show of natural Nordic exuberance is fast turning into a French farce. Along with the fierce battle cries and sword-wielding there are people falling over bearskin rugs amid sing-song "Sorry, darling!"s, two people have their helmets on backward and Oliver has rugby-tackled Sean, wrestled him to the floor and is trying to suffocate him with his cloak.
Aidan leans over to me. "God, darling, this is more than just feng shui. My rehearsals have never gone this badly. I think you must have a jinx."
"It certainly would seem that way," I say dully, wondering how long Sean can hold his breath for.
"Darling, it's only been a couple of weeks. You're bound to drop a few balls after being dumped. It's only natural."
"Thanks, Aidan. I had managed to forget the state of my love life for a whole two minutes then."
I think Sean has probably suffered enough and so I rush over to rescue him.
Our rehearsal room is situated in the basement of a large Georgian house, which is home to our company. We are one among many identical houses in a square in South Kensington and the only thing that gives us away in all that quiet gentility is a small brass plaque etched with the words "Table Manners." Actually we plan all sorts of things: weddings, product launches, corporate events, drinks parties for twenty, masked balls for four hundred, and at any conceivable venue. My friend and colleague Aidan, the Salvador Dali of the party world, has used wigwams, submarines, stables and even a bed manufacture factory.
I really don't see the point in having another rehearsal so I wearily dismiss everyone and they run screaming from the room as though school has just broken up for summer. I'm glad I have such a moralizing effect on my staff.
I supervise the return of all props to the huge room next door, which is warehouse to our considerable stock of theatrical equipment, glassware, crockery, cutlery, seat covers, tablecloths and napkins and other paraphernalia. Everyone hangs their costumes up on a huge rail that displays the larger-than-life notice: LADY BOSWELL'S NORDIC ICE FEAST.
I start to climb the two flights of stairs toward my desk. On the first landing, Aidan shouts up the stairwell after me, "Don't tell Gerald where I am." Gerald is our formidable MD and has no truck with Aidan's artistic temperament.
"Aidan, he knows where you are. You're on the rehearsal board," I shout back.
"Well, don't let him come down here. I'm not talking to him."
"Fine. I'll try." I sigh and carry on with my journey. The company's reception and offices occupy the top two floors of the building. The ground floor houses our kitchens where all the food gets prepared and then shipped out to the required venue in one of our many refrigerated vans. The chefs can be a little volatile so I try not to venture too near them. I clear the last flight of stairs and arrive in the inner sanctum of the national headquarters of Table Manners where Stephanie, our receptionist, is hard at work.
"Any messages, Stephanie?" I ask, only as a matter of habit rather than in any real hope that she will have actually taken any. Stephanie is a firm disciple of the if-it's-important-they'll-call-back school of thought.
She blows out a stream of smoke and screws up her eyes thoughtfully. We have a strict no-smoking policy and Gerald regularly issues written warnings on the matter. Stephanie types them out with a cigarette hanging from her mouth. But what Stephanie doesn't know about the celebrity world isn't worth knowing. A skill that I have to grudgingly admit is quite useful in our line of work. It is the only reason I can see that Gerald keeps her on.
"Someone did call for you but it didn't sound particularly interesting so I didn't bother writing it down."
"Right. Excellent. Lady Boswell is coming in later so do you think we could possibly avoid a repeat of last time?"
"She's an old tartar," Stephanie says sulkily.
"That may be so but she is a rich old tartar and one of our best clients."
"I hope she catches hypothermia at this ice feast of hers."
"The way things are going that might be a good bet."
Stephanie returns her attention to Woman's Weekly and I make my way to my desk. It's all open plan on the first floor. The place is littered with sample decorations, theatrical props (which should by rights remain in the basement where they belong but Aidan insists we keep them up here for inspiration), a giant stuffed bear called Yogi who is a remnant from a Davy Crockett party, flower arrangements from the last week's functions, sample books of everything from napkins to ribbons, several different sorts of vases and candelabras as well as a couple of the obligatory computers and laptops. Papers and invites spill out on to every surface.
Just as I reach my desk our MD's office door flies open. "ISABEL. IN HERE," he announces through his handheld tannoy, which he insists on using even though I could probably reach over and touch him.
Gerald is a sharp-looking man in his late forties. He has dark hair that is always neatly combed into place and sports a slight paunch. He is our much-vilified managing director and deservedly so, for he is without doubt the rudest, most sarcastic man I have ever met. And I quite like him. He doesn't believe in beating around the bush, he says it's tedious. No "good-morning-how-are-you" stuff for him.
I follow him into his office and shut the door behind me.
"How was the rehearsal?" Gerald demands as I go over to his coffee percolator and pour myself a mug.
"Awful. Sean insisted on swapping all his props with Oliver. Coffee?"
"Please. I need something to get me through this God-awful day. Sean and Oliver will probably end up killing each other. We can only hope. Are you on the Ice Feast all day?"
"Unfortunately. Lady Boswell is in later. It's going to be a very long week."
"In the rehearsal room."
"He's going through one of his phases."
I grin. Aidan always goes through one of his phases if he feels some difficult questioning from Gerald coming on. "Has he blown his budget again?" I ask.
"Into orbit. I don't really know why he bothers doing cost projections at all."
Gerald eyes me carefully at this last comment. It's a well-known fact in the company that Aidan wouldn't be caught dead next to a cost projection. I think Gerald correctly suspects I do them all for him. "Nor do I," I say flippantly.
"Every time I question him about the cost he throws one of his fits."
"Ah." This involves Aidan throwing himself down on the nearest piece of furniture and wailing something along the lines of, "Questions, questions. Why must I deal with so many questions?" Occasionally he compares himself to Picasso or Bach in that genius must be given licence to express itself. I love Aidan's fits; he always has a small crowd gathered around him by the end. "I'll deal with him, if you want."
"Do that. Get him to cut down somewhere."
"I'll try. No promises."
"Got over being dumped yet?" he asks bluntly. "You're not exactly a ray of sunshine at the moment."
My relationship with Gerald is not such that I can weep silently on his shoulder for twenty minutes so I simply tell him that I'm fine.
At lunchtime Aidan reappears, sits eagerly on my desk and crosses his Versace-clad legs. Aidan is my best friend here at the office. When I first arrived at the company I was his assistant for a year before I got to plan parties of my own. He's been here for ages and is the most requested organizer in the company. He is, as he often likes to remind us, creative. It is his get-out-of-jail-free card with Gerald. Any slight misdemeanor and it is put down to his creative nature. Aidan has murdered four clients with a party popper and a tablecloth? Oh, that's because he's creative.
"So how are you today?" he asks. "I haven't really seen you to ask." This is accompanied by much face-pulling. You can't have a conversation with Aidan without these facial contortions; you know you've been with him too long when you find yourself incapable of saying a sentence without sucking in your cheeks, rolling your eyes and pushing up imaginary bosoms with one arm.
"Fine!" I say brightly and pull a face back.
"You don't look fine."
I can't keep it from him any longer. "Something happened to me on the Tube," I groan. "Someone thought I was pregnant and offered me their seat."
"Don't you dare laugh, Aidan," I say sharply, seeing him bite his lip hard. "Because it simply is not funny."
"Oh, I'm not laughing, Isabel. I'm merely, em . . . So what did you do?"
"What could I do? Tell them that my slightly swollen stomach is due to an excess of Cornettos since Rob dumped me? I did the only thing I could do. I thanked them very nicely and sat down."
Aidan puts out a comforting hand. "Darling, you know it always goes on your stomach and never on your breasts. Nature is a bitch like that."
"Why couldn't I have simply said that I have put on a few pounds since my boyfriend dumped me? We could have had a nice chat about the pros and cons of the Hay diet versus the Atkins and a jolly time could have been had by all. But no, I was too British about the whole thing. Someone accuses me of being pregnant and I am far too polite to disagree."
"Come on, Izzy. It's only been three weeks. Besides, I think it's very useful to put weight on your stomach. At least it can't sneak up behind you and cunningly slip on your bottom while you're not looking."
"But then people don't think you're pregnant."
"No, they just think you've got a large arse."
"Thanks so much. Why can't I be one of those women who drop four dress sizes when they've been dumped?" I complain.
"Ahhh, ducks, because then you wouldn't be you. I like you being you, apart from the anal cost projections thing of course."
"I just wish I could figure out why Rob dumped me," I say. "We used to have such a marvelous time. Maybe I was too keen, Aidan."
He snorts derisively. "Keen, smeen. Darling, we're not in kindergarten anymore."
"Do you think I should call him and ask?"
"No, no and no," says Aidan. "We have been over this. Anyone who finishes with someone by telephone, and don't forget that he tried to time the call to get your voice mail because he couldn't be bothered to actually speak to you, is simply not worth the time of day. Also, may I point out, leaving a message on your work voice mail is simply the most gutless, horrible thing I have ever heard."
"I know," I whisper, my voice wobbling.
Stephanie wanders over to us with a cigarette in her hand before we can say any more. "Lady Toss-well is here."
"Stephannnieee," I hiss, standing up and smoothing down my skirt. "I told you not to call her that. Did you put her in the boardroom?"
"Thanks." I pick up my notebook, take a deep breath and march briskly over to reception, up one flight of stairs and into the boardroom. Lady Boswell is sitting bolt upright on one of the chairs with one hand lying gracefully in her lap and the other on top of the handle of a large umbrella she likes to carry everywhere.
Excerpted from Party Girl by Sarah Mason. Copyright © 2005 by Sarah Mason. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.