Francesca Honeycomb, International Beauty, Philanthropist, and Academic, 1972-2060
Francesca Honeycomb [oh, come on, if you think that in my fantasy life I'd be noble enough to keep the name my parents gave me you've got me all wrong] lived a life without compromise. There were times she was so wasted on fabulous substances that the morning after a night of unparalleled hedonism she'd hitch a ride home on the milkfloat only to discover she'd lost her house in a game of blackjack with a Russian card shark. Fortunately, Francesca was the kind of girl that the card shark would fall madly in love with and serenade with "Down the River Mother Volga" at four in the morning. He would give her back her house and a bitten fountain pen that had belonged to Karl Marx and leave her to concentrate on her study of neoclassical armoires. But study alone couldn't hold Francesca's attention for long--she was diverted along the path of academic brilliance by the appearance of a lethal rock star and a glittering aristocrat, neither of whom she had an iota of respect for but both of whom knew how to twinkle her toes in every sense. In fact, it was not until her forties and an exhausting decade of being pursued by the most eligible and delicious men in the world that the girl who boasted the unique accolade of appearing as a guest star on Eastenders and as a panelist on Newsnight finally met the man she was to settle down with--marketing guru turned yogi Tim Evans--a man in the Terence Stamp mold [Francesca figured Terence himself may be a little past it as she approached her forties and he his seventies]. She is survived by two children with piercing blue eyes, a daughter who has just been awarded the Turner Prize and a son who lives in Falmouth with his boyfriend and their eight cats. A distraught friend said last night, "Frannie was the greatest. She spent every last penny in the bank account of life." Mourners are asked to send as many flowers as the hearse will hold but none of those awful supermarket carnations.
It was another day in the accounts department and Liv Elliot was thinking ahead. Thinking ahead to the day she died, to be precise. Newspapers across the land would be splattered with coverage of her life well lived. Her obituary would read like the blurb on a fantastic novel and everyone would agree that she hadn't wasted a moment.
"Like hell," moaned Liv, and quickly flipped the computer screen from her fantasy obituary to the work she was meant to be doing. But instead of a spreadsheet detailing company profits she was confronted by the XXX-rated pictures of Naked Brad she'd been glancing at earlier. She didn't always spend her mornings ogling electronic images of movie stars in the buff, but she was getting married in a few weeks and the strain was wreaking havoc with her brain and hormones. In short, she wanted to have mad sex with every man who walked past her desk or banged into her trolley in the supermarket. It was all getting a bit ugly.
"Liv, we need the monthly accounts before lunchtime. We've got a meeting with the board at Selfridges and I want ammunition!" Fay shouted as she bristled past Liv's desk. And what Fay wanted Fay got. Fay was Liv's superwoman, superenergetic, super-bloody-human boss who lived on Nutri-Grain snacks alone while she reared a fourteen-year-old child whose first play in Greek had just opened the Royal Court. Luckily, she'd flown past back into her office before Brad's lack of skivvies had time to register on her double-first-from-Cambridge brain.
"Sure!" Liv yelled out, and maniacally began drumming figures into her keyboard. She hated numbers. Which wasn't very useful for an accountant. If Liv had to tell a total stranger what she was all about, it wouldn't be algebra or equations or anything even remotely resembling the senior financial executive she was. She'd have a way with a musical instrument that would take her to Albert Hall for a solo performance in a taffeta dress or, even closer to her heart, she'd be the milliner out on the studio floor nestling organza into a trilby. Somehow, though, she'd become an accountant. Albeit a good one. In fact, her life could be described, to the casual onlooker, as a bit of a success story.
Liv pretty much has it all: a flat--small but great location-location-location in the heart of London's fashionable Notting Hill--a job that, even if a bit dull, is definitely better than a kick in the teeth with a cheap stiletto. And to top it all off she's got a man. To whom she's engaged to be married. So Liv's hardly a candidate for a charity sale. With half of what she's got most people would be counting their blessings and planning their next winter sun holiday. But not Liv. Not that she's ungrateful or anything, just that she's starting to panic a bit. Wondering whether she's doing the right thing, et cetera. Worrying that this is it, the end of the road, and she'll never know what it is to sleep with someone who has a record in the Top Ten or discover whether bald men really make the best lovers. This really is where the train of romance and lust stops and Liv gets off.
The trouble is, this bit is a source of embarrassment and she's never admitted it to anyone, but she's never had a one-night stand, which kind of tweaks the nipples of bra-burning feminists really. What did they get saggy boobs for if not so that girls like Liv could know the joys of regretting that last glass of wine and wondering why they hadn't noticed he was wearing a wedding ring last night?
When Liv started working at Goldsmiths, the most dusty and prestigious milliner in London, she planned to learn how to magnificently trim a boater at night classes; then one evening she would stay late, ostensibly to work on the annual financial report. The next morning everyone would come into work unsuspectingly clutching cappuccinos and croissants as usual and discover the most magnificent hat that anyone had ever seen outside of an Audrey Hepburn movie. The Hat would be resting insouciantly on a dummy, and croissants and Nutri-Grain bars would remain uneaten as everyone merely marvelled, wondering who, but who, had given birth to The Hat. For Liv's Hat would be the Platonic Ideal of hats. A prototype of wonderfulness that would have Philip Treacy, creator of the most beautiful headwear in history, meeting seedy figures in overcoats in subterranean bars negotiating just how much it would cost him to have The Marvel's legs broken. Or maybe her arms. No, on second thoughts, both. . . .
"It'll run late, too. Could you book us both a cab home for nine?" Fay did a few quad stretches as she whirred past Liv's desk again. She was off for her lunchtime run around Hyde Park. All of it. When she heard the doors of the lift close safely, Liv flipped back to Naked Brad and thought of her upcoming wedding. Her lust obsession had coincided, to the day, with her engagement. Since then she hadn't been able to stop looking at other men. And not in a "lucky me I'm marrying the only man in the world for me" type way. No, she was wondering what it would be like to . . . if she were being honest with herself . . . shag them senseless. Not very blushing bride, is it? Much more lusty, perspiring, panting in some locked stationery cupboard / seedy motel room / quickie in the back of his Audi woman-you-wouldn't-want-to-marry-in-your-darkest-nightmares type thing. But that said, she and Tim had been together for five years and she'd never once been unfaithful. It was just that simply wanting to on her wedding day would be an act of treachery and not the act of a newly married woman. A newly married woman who would never again until her dying day as long as ye both shall live know what it was like to so much as kiss someone else. So, you see, apart from that small, niggling doubt, she was blissfully happy to be getting married.
"It's not that I'm sex-mad or anything, just that I'm curious." Liv spilled Sweet'n Low all over her skirt as she and Alex settled down for a lunchtime catch-up in Patisserie Valerie.
"Had one, you've had them all," said Alex Burton, Liv's closest friend and a ferociously smart woman trapped in the body of a supermodel. "I promise that the second you so much as kiss another man it'll be like dej' vu. One tongue's the same as another and the more penises you see the more repellent and frankly ridiculous they start to look."
"But at least you can use the plural--in my life it's just a penis. Only the one. I just want to know what it's like out there."
This was a conversation that Alex and Liv had been having every day since May, when Tim had taken Liv to Blakes Hotel and proposed. In bed on a gorgeous Sunday morning, with a beautiful tombstone of a ring. The only problem was that to Liv it might as well have been a tombstone. A huge gaping grave, a creaking coffin with her inside it all bridaled up. Bridle. That's what horses wear, isn't it? Man's faithful servants. "I mean having to take his name. I'm not ready to be someone's chattel. I'm not ready to be Liv Evans. Shit, I'm not Welsh."
"You don't have to take his name. Keep your own. But you're twenty-seven; isn't it about time?" Alex sipped the froth of her cappuccino and glared in a schoolmarmish fashion at Liv.
"Time?" Liv's eyes rolled wildly in panic. A huge gong signalling Doomsday. Time to give up all your dreams and ambitions, girls. Time to admit that you're just another one of the little ants that scamper round the earth eating, getting married, procreating, and then snuffing it. No matter what you think, you're just the same as the woman who serves you in Woolworth's. You're no different from the superconfident housewives stocking up with salmon en croute in Putney Sainsbury's on Friday evening. You have the same dreams and desires as the next clone. Time? How dare Alex (who was about to collide headlong with thirty) threaten her with Time? Since when had her best friend decided that it was time to put the clock forward to GMT, Get Married Time?
Liv fiddled with her spoon and tried to resist the urge to run to Thomas Cooke across the road and book the sixty-four-pound one-way ticket to Malaga. Weren't those holiday reps for all their sunburned drunkenness at least flying in the face of convention by not exactly longing to run down the aisle at the drop of a hint from their mother? Liv simply wasn't ready. She hadn't lived the life she fantasized about. She'd never had a studio flat of her own with knickers hanging from the antique chandelier that she'd bought with her own money. For heaven's sake, she'd never even kissed a man whose name she didn't know. "Will you marry me?" is the sumptuous curtain call of a romantic encounter that has taken in shifting sand dunes and desert storms; sex and sunsets on beaches in the South Pacific; ecstatic kisses atop some mountain that only you two and a few Aztecs have ever climbed. This hallowed question is meant to be the full stop at the end of a life less ordinary. Not the beginning of a life pretty much the same as before save for a few more sticks of furniture and the addition of an infant in the box room.
"Let's go and look at some frocks," said Alex as she bolted down her Florentine. "I've seen the most amazing McQueen gown in this shop round the corner." In case you were wondering how Alex manages to bolt down Florentines and still be slim enough to utter the words Alexander McQueen you have to understand a thing or two about Alex. Mostly, that she's not like me or you. For one, she's the kind of girl you see in South Kensington patisseries and Gucci and wonder how. How come she doesn't have inky cuffs and a bullying boss? How come she can buy trouser suits in three colours and one for evening? How come life is so unfair and I have to shop in French Connection? The short answer is that if you knew how, you might be prepared to settle for French Connection.
She makes a very decent living having very rich boyfriends and immaculate hair. Her Gucci is always paid for by someone called Richard who has the same surname as a large American bank. Dinner is usually courtesy of a shipping tycoon, and the penthouse in Holland Park was a good-bye present from a seventies rock star who wanted his past to remain a secret when he got married to a French heiress with a Catholic mother. See, it's easy when you know how.
Alex discovered how by accident really. Her natural habitat as a book reviewer led her to late-night conversations with many a literary lion who would thrill at her knowledge of allegory but much prefer the journey around her Amazonian body. Alex would fall in love and give them five-star reviews and then they'd suddenly remember that they had a lioness and cubs in some den in Primrose Hill. Adieu, literary lion. Soured and fed up with men who evidently preferred her bra size to her IQ, Alex tumbled along with the old maxim if you can't beat 'em beat 'em up and sometimes whip 'em, too, as long as you never have to see your own credit card statements. Which she'd been doing lucratively for the past three years to some of the most powerful and rich men in the world. Though she claimed not to do much sex anymore.
"You just don't have to. It cheapens the product." And she would never kiss before the third date unless he was under forty and passably sexy. What's more, all her spending money came in useful for her brothers. Alex's parents had died a few years ago, leaving her solely responsible for her two younger brothers, Luke and James. She'd kept them in trainers, driving lessons, private schools, and university since that day. They didn't come cheap and they didn't get any cheaper. Luke had just been accepted to Yale University in the States and James was about to start his second year at Exeter. All bank-breaking stuff, so she gratefully accepted all the help she could get from her suitors.
Liv and Alex met via one of the literary lions five years ago. Liv was his accountant and teaching him to collect as many receipts as possible from lunch dates so they could all be written off as business expenses. Alex was his current mistress, whose shoes and salads were being written off as a business expense. The girls met in his hallway one day when his wife was in the Mull of Kintyre. They were instantly bonded in hilarity over his misconception that shiny trousers made him look taller than his five-foot-two in Cuban heels.
Excerpted from Dog Handling by Clare Naylor. Copyright © 2002 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.