Food is the new shopping and shopping is the new sex.
Alice wasn't really getting very much shopping or sex in
her life right now, so she thought she might as well eat
something. Yes, food. Not hard cornflakes that grazed her
gums or char-grilled toast, but proper food that could feasibly,
if she closed her eyes and let her imagination run
riot, masquerade as sex.
She opened the fridge. Not a thing. And certainly not a
host of sun-dried tomatoes or a bar of rich Belgian chocolate.
She wanted something that would make up for all
that she was lacking in her miserable life. She wanted
something to make her forget the bitter aftertaste of her
tyrannical, unfaithful ex-boyfriend, Jamie. She wanted something
so sweet that her teeth would rot just thinking about
it. A sponge. A light sponge smeared with seedy raspberry
jam and double cream. She pulled the round cake tin from
the drawer beneath the oven and set about weighing out
her flour. But as she reached for the self-rising flour, her
arm wobbled dangerously. She really should go on a diet.
She opted for a carrot cake. Fewer calories, she reasoned.
Except the fridge revealed only half a moldy carrot. Alice
wiped a floury hand through her hair and set off for Chelsea
The houses on her street were the color of sugared almonds
and were dappled with sunlight this Monday morning.
Bywater Street was the gypsy caravan of Chelsea.
Myriad baskets of flowers and rare lilies adorned the doorways.
Her neighbors were, as far as she could make out,
Woodstock refugees and grandes dames, opera singers
and retired colonels, practicing their scales, getting to
grips with elementary taxidermy and feeding lobster thermidor
to the roses in this first flush of May. Spring was
here, and if she concentrated, Alice was sure she could
hear birds above the traffic noises on the King's Road.
Wearing her holey leggings and a dyed-in-the-wash T-shirt,
hoping that her cousin Simon's Turnbull & Asser size-eleven
slippers could pass for the latest in Gucci footwear,
Alice attempted to mingle with the tawny-skinned women
and heroin-chic men hanging around outside cafés and
chewing the fat over their modeling portfolios. But catching
sight of herself in the window of an exclusive lingerie
boutique, she realized that there wasn't a cat in hell's
chance of her flour streaks being mistaken for the labor
of love of a top Toni and Guy stylist. She ruffled her rebellious
chestnut curls in a bid to liberate some of the baking
ingredients and dashed around the corner to take
a shortcut away from the withering glares of the beau
Alice rounded the corner to Chelsea Green, a curious
place. Those who had never been to the city would recognize
it instantly as London and break into a rendition of
"I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" in a Dick Van Dyke
cor-blimey-me-old-treacle sort of way. Surrounding an
elegant patch of manicured grass, it boasts shopfronts
from a film set: a fishmonger's whose rainbow trout leaped
from stream to weighing scales with a casual flip of the
fins, a greengrocer's whose pears and potatoes nestled in a
blissful time warp on a bed of AstroTurf and a newsagent
who sold penny chews and sherbet fountains. Those who
knew better regarded it suspiciously as London's answer
to the Stepford Wives, lots of impossibly perfect women
whose racehorse legs deemed it impossible for them to
have given birth to a soufflé, let alone the pristine toddlers
huddled in the back of the Mercedes. Alice, realizing that
the only part of her anatomy that could be mistaken for that
of a racehorse was her rump, stood behind one of these
beings in the greengrocer's and tried to pull her T-shirt
down to her knees. The woman was squeezing a peach so
perfectly blushing it should have been made of marzipan.
Alice helped herself to a more humble carrot, trying to imagine
a life where the only grocery shopping you had to do
was to buy soft fruits, where you kept your Egyptian bed
linen in a trunk scented with patchouli and fretted only over
the consistency of your polenta.
Alice wasn't cut out for a life of jobs and bill paying. She
wanted to live in an Aga saga. She longed for a rectory
with a crumbling wall and dogs. She couldn't quite picture
the children just yet, but she thought she could manage
responsibility of a dog kind. She accepted that she'd probably
have to marry a vicar, though she wasn't quite sure
where you found young vicars. They all seemed fifty if they
were a day. Perhaps there was a seminary nearby.
The Jane Asher tea shop next door seemed as likely a
place as any to find a member of the clergy, so Alice talked
herself into a spot of tea and a cream cake. She sat alone,
her spoon stirring up a diminutive whirlpool of Earl Grey in
her cup, as she carefully surveyed the street outside for cassocks.
Was that what they were called or was that something
Russian? God, she couldn't really pull it off at the
rectory garden party if she couldn't get a grip on her husband's
"Absolutely, Lady B. I find that Ariel automatic does wonders
for the marks on the reverend's dresses."
In the ideal vicarage life she wouldn't have to worry
about washing, of course; in those Aga sagas there always
seemed to be heaps of vicar groupies around to do all the
unsavory jobs--arranging the flowers, pouring tea, wiping
choirboys' noses. Yes, they'd have to be very choosy about
which parish they plumped for, Alice and her vicar. The only
other problem she could envision would be her looks--they
weren't terribly chaste-vicar's-wife looks, they were the
messy kind. Her hips were far from virginal--she'd look
atrocious in a pleated skirt--her lips were plump enough to
put the congregation off holy communion, and her curls
would never in a month of Sunday sermons agree to anything
as organized as a bun or a French pleat. Maybe it
was a lost cause. Except, of course, that she'd make a fabulous
Mary Magdalene in the Easter pageant.
As her carrots had sat in their brown paper bag on the
table in the tea shop, they must have been mysteriously
imbued with the spirit of Jane Asher, because Alice's cake
rose magnificently and was much improved by the maverick
touch of adding a few poppyseeds. "Inspired," declared
Alice as she licked the mixture off the whisk and contemplated
a future of cake baking for special occasions instead
of typing. But right now she couldn't even afford a dozen
eggs, so that put paid to that.
If you thought that Alice had come into this seemingly
charmed life as some genetic freak with a trust fund and
ever-so-bijou flat in a fashionable part of London, you'd be
wrong. Alice is a girl like any other. Less fortunate than
most, really, if you consider losing your job, flat, and
boyfriend in the same fortnight a misfortune. One minute she
had a somewhere career in PR, the next the company was
merging with a corporate giant and Alice was surplus to
requirements and thrust headlong into a life of daytime
television. The adage, kick a dog when it's down, became
grim reality when dastardly Jamie decided to dump her and
move his new girlfriend into the conjugal bed of their
shared flat just days later, leaving Alice nursing her pillow
and her paltry redundancy check on the assorted sofabeds
of various friends.
Thankfully for Alice, and for the friends whose Kleenex
supplies were proving woefully inadequate for their guest's
needs, she just happened to have a dashing cousin called
Simon Benedictus. Simon had left London six months earlier
for a stint in Brazil as a wildlife photographer. As far
as Alice could make out, the only wildlife he'd encountered,
or certainly photographed, was female and delectable, but
who was she to judge? He'd generously loaned the desolate
and destitute cousin from Clapham his house for a while. As
well as leaving his house keys, he'd also left a legacy of
heartbroken females who phoned day and night and occasionally
called around in all their finery, leaving the engines
of their convertibles purring in the street outside.
At first Alice had dealt badly with the Legacy. Wouldn't
you? If a constant shimmy of satin dresses and honeyed
flesh made its way to your door, leaving you to answer in
fraying leggings circa 1987 crowned with unwashed hair? I
thought so. And at first the Legacy was pretty peeved, too.
Who, they wanted to know, was this alarming creature answering
the delectable Simon's door so proprietorially?
Had he secretly wed one morning after a particularly heavy
night at the Ministry of Sound? Had the well-documented
family history of insanity come back to haunt him?
So you can imagine how relieved they were when they
found out a) that Alice was his cousin and consequently
an unlikely choice of bride and b) that her limbs were
far from honeyed. In fact, it was usually at this juncture
that Alice stopped being a threat and became an ally. For
who better than reliable cousin Alice to persuade Simon
on his return of the wisdom of marrying Trinny/Sophie/
Tamsin/whoever. And Alice was only too happy to oblige
as they'd each insisted that she join them for some night-club
opening or select soirée.
"So, darling, what do you want a horrible job for?" asked
Trinny, one of the less alarming members of the Legacy, as
she picked the seeds out of the cake and left the cake part
in a heap on her plate. (Have you any idea how many calories
per slice?) Alice had just plucked up the courage to tell
Trinny that she wouldn't be able to make it to her girls'
lunch party tomorrow because she planned to make herself
available to the Office Trollope's temping agency. She'd
been on their books for the last two weeks, but all they'd
offered her was packing frozen yogurt into cartons and
rearranging the Denby crockery in the Debenhams sale.
However, an increase on her overdraft was nigh if she didn't
make some money soon.
"Bills, Trin: food, clothing."
Trinny looked uncomprehendingly at Alice. She had
nothing to add to this list of mundanity.
"I'm seeing Simon next week." She smiled, the cat
who'd got the cream.
"Cousin Simon?" Alice swirled her finger around in the
orange icing on her plate.
"Yes, Simon B." With just the merest alteration to his
name, Trinny managed to turn the cousin Simon with bat-wing
ears who had once peed in her terrapin's tank at a
family barbecue into the indispensable social gadfly who
loved and left women in mud huts and avocado plantations
the length of the libidinous world. "He's invited me
over. Well, I called him at some hill station and said I was
doing a competition in Venezuela and wasn't that near
him. Anyway, he said I should pop in and see him. So I
Alice wasn't exactly au fait with the finer nuances of the
map of South America but thought that Venezuela and
Brazil were probably more than a cab ride apart. But she
stuck the icing in her mouth and kept quiet. Trinny's life
consisted of ceroc dancing and kite flying. Her days were a
whirl of apple-green and Schiaparelli-pink creations that
she flew high in exotic skies. The airfares it took to get
there resembled phone numbers. Alice didn't really understand
why the breeze above Clapham Common wasn't
good enough for a spot of kite flying, but for Trinny it was
an art form.
"So when you get this horrible job we won't be able to
have lunch ever again, will we?" Trinny said sulkily.
"Well, I suppose that even people with jobs eat at some
"Don't you believe it. And your bottom will spread as
well, you know." Trinny swept back a curtain of blond hair
and shuddered at the thought. "Have you heard from Simon
Alice thought it better not to mention the phone call last
night when Simon, drunk on some local spirit made from
the saliva of a hallucinogenic Amazonian tree frog, said
he'd fallen in love with a pygmy. "Oh, you know Simon,"
she muttered in an opaque way, and polished off another
piece of cake.
Excerpted from Catching Alice by Clare Naylor. Copyright © 2000 by Clare Naylor. 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.