Abigail walked quickly towards her husband; arms outstretched, with the attitude of one who had seen God. Her husband, Andrew, kissed her lightly on the cheek.
“You remember Di, don’t you?” she said as she guided him towards me. Shit! I thought. Now I’m going to have to make small talk with this jerk.
I smiled and stuck out my hand. “Hi. We met at my law firm, Langley, Watson and Johnson about eighteen months ago.” I said, acting polite. Abigail had enough on her plate as it was.
Andrew smirked. “Aah, yes of course. Di, the clerk.”
“You’ll be qualifying soon, won’t you Di?” Abigail said, in my defence.
“That’s right. I qualify this year,” I added, hoping to put an end to the prick’s self-righteous remarks.
“How nice for you,” remarked Andrew with obvious disinterest. It was ironic that, for a man who had never picked up a book since high school, he considered it beneath him to mingle with the working classes.
He glanced around the room looking for more interesting, and profitable, company.
“Now Andrew, I want you to talk to Di while I see to the other guests. She may be able to give you some legal advice on that hunting accident you had last year.” Abigail told him.
I vaguely recalled when he had dropped his rifle, sending a rather large bullet through another hunter’s leg. Tally ho, asshole!
“Yes, why not,” he agreed, staring at his watch, “I’ll have a word with her while I wait for Lord Haversham. He should be here any moment.”
Well, thank you very much. I’m flattered, I thought.
“Wonderful. Then I’ll leave you both to it. Now behave you two, d’you hear?”
“Yes, dear. Will do,” her husband answered. I noticed a not-so-discreet roll of his eyes as she walked away from us. Just then, a waiter carrying a silver platter of champagne glasses walked up to us.
“Here, grab one of these. You look like you need one.” Without bothering to wait for a reply, Andrew grabbed two glasses and handed one to me. Hoping that alcohol would make the conversation bearable, I took it from him.
“Cheers,” he said, waving his glass in the air. By the looks of his flushed face, this wasn’t the first toast he’d made that afternoon.
“Cheers,” I muttered, imbibing the expensive bubbly. “Soooo,” I said, scrambling for a topic of conversation, “tell me about that hunting accident. Maybe I can help.”
“Nah, fuck that!” he cursed. His change in attitude was so sudden and unexpected that I snorted champagne up my nose.
“’Scuse me” I spluttered, wiping my nose with a paper napkin.
“Oh come on Di, why act so surprised?” he laughed before knocking back the champagne in one. Andrew was clearly a man who liked alcohol, a lot! He slammed his empty glass down on the tray of another passing waiter. “You ‘n me are the same, ya know.” I doubted that, even though his posh public school accent was vanishing, replaced by a Cockney twang. To my amazement, he was letting his guard down. In front of me, now, was the real Andrew Smythe. I wondered if his wife had ever met this man.
“How so?” I asked, curious to hear his reasoning. It occurred to me that Andrew was about to let a kitten or two out of the bag.
“Waal, look at us. Blue collar ‘n all ‘at. The minute you opened your mouth I knew that you come from the dodgier area of Manchester” (he was right on that score, at least). “While Oi” (he poked his thumb at his chest), “come from the East End. Ya know, of London? Although the ole trouble and strife thinks I’m from Knightsbridge!” he roared with laughter. “But don’t tell ‘er that willya?” he whispered loudly, tapping the side of his nose with his index finger.
“That’s Interesting,” I remarked politely. Kitten number one out of the bag. I could sense the next one out of the bag would be more of a bobcat than a kitten. “So how did you meet Lady Dainford?” I asked, keen to milk all the information out of him I could before he sobered up or became paralytic.
“At the fish counter at Harrods, wouldn’t ya know.” He guffawed at the memory of rubbing body parts with nobility in the poshest shop in the world.
I had only been to Harrods once with a tourist friend who had wanted to visit the Princess Di and Dodi Fayed Memorial in the basement. Then we’d hoofed off to a burger joint after seeing the exorbitant prices they charged at their sandwich bar. By our reckoning, you’d have to take out a mortgage to visit Harrods’s fine dining restaurant.
“Yeah. Me ‘n my mate had just delivered their flounder for the day, and there sits ‘oo of all people? Lady fucking Dainford” he chuckled, punching me in the arm. “Stroke a’ luck for me, ‘ey?”
“And then…?” I urged, rubbing my arm. He was a tall man and packed a bit of a punch. But there was a lot of Veritas in his vino, and I wasn’t about to waste it.
“Well, let’s just say, when Princess Fiona over there” (he jerked his head at Abigail who was over mingling with the horsey set), I detested his reference to the film, ‘Shrek’. “She saw this face and it was game over for ‘er. I just put on me best jolly-hockey sticks, up-yer-own-arse accent and snagged me a gen-yu-wine aristocrat. Not bad for a fella ‘oo never made it through his ‘O’ levels, ‘ey? Can’t do nuffink wrong in ‘er eyes.”
“Oh wow. Well done you” I agreed, massaging his ego so that he was totally convinced I was his newest best mate. “So, aah, you must be living the million quid lifestyle. Flying first class, five-star hotels, and that outfit you’re wearing looks like it came from Saville Row.” It grated on me to befriend him, but I wanted to keep the conversation going.
“Sure, it’s a good life. But I ‘ope it gets even better soon.”
“How so? Abigail’s doing alright, money-wise, isn’t she?”
“Princess Fiona,” he began, setting my teeth on edge, “gets a pretty good monthly allowance. But for wot I’ve got in mind, it’s not nearly enough.” He tapped his head with his finger, indicating his scheming thoughts.
“What’ve you got up your sleeve, you rogue?” My accompanying grin was more of a grimace, but Andrew was too plastered to notice.
“I saw a nice little villa for sale in Monaco last summer. The trouble is that Abigail can’t afford to buy it, only rent it at the moment. Not good enough. I want to own that baby! The view of the Med is fucken amazing! Besides,” he leaned towards me and whispered, “I’ve got me a cute brunette on the side and she bloody loves the place!” I clenched my right hand in case it lashed out and dented his pretty face. I made,‘what-a-stud-you-are’ face at him and continued my fishing expedition. I didn’t want him to veer off at a tangent about his floozy.
“But what’s the rush, Andy?” I asked, taking the liberty of using the diminutive. It hit the mark. He was now completely at ease while across the room, I spotted Abigail’s smiling face. She had noticed our long conversation and was obviously pleased that her beloved husband and a close friend were getting on so well. If only she knew.
“It’s under offer to some stoopid sheik. But I want it. I’m flying out there tomorrow to put the wind up the estate agent to give the sheik the old ‘heave-ho’, if ya know what I mean.”
“But even if you did get the agent to decline the sheik’s offer, how are you going to afford to pay for it?”
Andrew leaned towards me again and whispered: “It won’t be long until Abigail gets her trust fund. Know wot I mean?”
My ears perked up. “No. What do you mean?”
He rubbed his hands gleefully together. “They don’t expect the old bag to last another week.”
“The old bag?” I knew who he meant; I just wanted to hear him saying the words.
“Abigail’s mother. Her vital signs are dropping like a lead balloon. Another few days and she’ll be brown bread,” he beamed, using the Cockney rhyming slang for ‘dead’.
I forced a grin. “Are you sure about that?
“Oh yeah, I’ve got friends in low places who keep me informed, if you know what I mean. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.” He guffawed out loud, his florid face split in two by his dazzling teeth (paid for by his wife, no doubt).
“That’s handy. Good planning, mate,” I complimented, though disgusted by the low-life’s cunning manipulations.
“Yup. That way I move straight into the villa in Monaco! Don’t have to put up with all the snivelling from wifey over there. She doesn’t even know about the villa, the stupid cow.” He caught his wife’s eye and gave her a wave and a smile. She smiled at him and waved back, clearly delighted that her handsome husband was paying her attention.
“Shrewd man.” I told him. “You’ve clearly got it all figured out. I hope there’s a spare room in that villa in Monaco for a working peasant like me.”
“Ten rooms in the villa.” He bragged. “People like us gotta stick together.”
Even industrial strength glue couldn’t make us ‘stick together’, I thought. We may be of the same class, but we are about as alike as a codfish and a canary.
“Andrew! Andrew, darling!” Abigail’s voice interrupted our conversation. I watched her walk towards us, a traitor’s grin on my face.
The instant change in Andrew’s demeanour was worthy of an Oscar. “Abigail, sweetheart, I was wondering what had happened to you.” Once again, he planted a Judas kiss on her cheek.
Abigail looked adoringly up at her husband, tears gathering in the corner of her eyes. “I’ve just had a call from the hospital. Mummy’s not doing so well. The doctors are doing their best to stabilise her. I have to be with her.”
“Of course, of course. We’ll go straight to St. Peters Hospital” replied Andrew in his affected plummy (if somewhat slurred) Oxford accent. I caught the sly smirk slipping across his face. Anyone else may have mistaken it for a reassuring smile to calm his wife, but I knew better.
“Di” said Abigail, reaching out her hand to me, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to love and leave you. I’m so sorry about this, but please stay and enjoy the lunch.”
I gave her hand a squeeze. “If there’s anything I can do, you know how to get hold of me.”
“I know, thank you Di. I appreciate your offer” she replied, trying hard to hold back the tears. “You’ve been such a good friend to mummy and me. I promise to phone you if I need anything.” Abigail wiped a stray tear that had crept from the corner of her eye. The woman was as vulnerable as a wounded Bambi during hunting season.
“Come now, darling. We’d best be going,” Andrew said to his wife. He turned to me. “Nice seeing you again Di. We must meet again soon. There’s a lot to discuss,” he said, giving me a surreptitious wink.
“Sure Andrew. We’ll talk.” I reassured him, sadly, and without conviction. Then he put a protective arm around his wife’s shoulders and steered her out of the crowded room.
I stood watching them solemnly as they disappeared out the door. Part of me felt the urge to drag Abigail into a corner and tell her the truth about Andrew, but another part of me knew that wasn’t such a wise choice. How the hell could you give someone that kind of information at a time like this? Besides, opening my mouth could find me out on the street without a paycheck and with no chance of a law degree. I chose the better part of valour – discretion.
Threading my way through the guests, and out into the parking lot I felt utterly deadened. I had lost my hard-earned cash that day; as well as my faith in human nature.
Monday arrived, dank and dreary. I glanced gloomily at my watch. Another hour to lunch. Shit!
“So, how was your day at the races with Lady Dainford yesterday, you lucky sow?”
It was Jonathan, my irritatingly upbeat colleague. “Mm, oh hi Jonathan,” I answered morosely.
“What’s it like for a working gal to mix with the great and the good then, hey?”
“Meh, it was okay. I lost money on the favourite.”
Jonathan parked his bum on the corner of my desk. “I don’t give a shit about that. I want to know the glorious details about life at the top of the food chain.”
“Not much to tell. Abigail had to leave early. Her mother wasn’t doing well.” I wasn’t about to tell the office gossip about Andrew’s plan to snaffle a few billion quid.
“Oh, crap. Any news about how the Countess is doing?” Jonathan asked, hoping for some more juice.
“I read on Abigail’s Facebook page that the doctor’s had managed to stabilise her during the night.”
“Oh,” he remarked, clearly disappointed. Jonathan would have to find somebody else’s drama to gloat over.
We were interrupted by the sharp Whatsapp yell of my mobile. I picked it up to see Abigail’s smiling face staring back at me. Under it was a message: ‘Mum taken a sudden turn for worse. Pls can u come to St. Peter’s Hosp. Ward A100. Thx Abigail’’.
What about that goddamned husband of hers? But there was no time for questions. That would come later. I had to get to St. Peter’s as soon as possible. I quickly tapped, ‘on my way’ and shoved my phone into my handbag. Then I stood up and grabbed my coat.
“Bad news?” asked Jonathan. “Something to do with the Countess, perhaps?” This guy had no shame. He would wheedle information out of a corpse if he could.
“Uhm, no. I have to brief a client who’s getting a divorce. A very messy child custody case” I answered, averting my gaze.
“Yeah, right,” he countered, eyeing me suspiciously. Lying obviously isn’t one of my talents.
“Cheers,” I greeted, cutting him off. I wasn’t about to hang about and get grilled.
Down on the street, I hailed a black cab.
“Where to darlin’?” asked the cabbie as I slid out of London’s drizzle and into the cab’s warm interior.
“St. Peter’s Hospital,” I replied hoarsely, the tension thick in my throat. Hospital visits to the dying weren’t high on my bucket list. Staring out of the rain-streaked window, I wondered how in the hell I was going to protect Abigail from her greedy husband when her mother died.