Jojo, a high-flying literary agent on the up, has just made a very bad career move: she’s jumped into bed with her married boss, Mark …
Jojo’s sweet-natured client Lily’s first novel is a roaring success. She and lover Anton celebrate by spending the advance for her second book. Then she gets writer’s block…
Gemma used to be Lily’s best friend – until Lily ‘stole’ Anton. Now she’s writing her own story – painfully and hilariously – when supershark Jojo stumbles across it …
Three girls hoping and sometimes needing to make it big in the publishing world. But did anybody ever tell them that there’s always another side to every story?
'Her best book to date'
'Best-selling U.K. novelist Marian Keyes has concocted a tasty literary latte in her latest novel, The Other Side of the Story'
'Her best book to date'
'Best-selling U.K. novelist Marian Keyes has concocted a tasty literary latte in her latest novel, The Other Side of the Story'
FROM: Gemma email@example.com
SUBJECT: runaway dad
Susan, you wanted news. Well, I’ve got news. Although you might be sorry you asked for it. It looks like my dad has left my mam. I’m not sure how serious it is. More as and when.
When I ﬁrst got the call, I thought he’d died. Two reasons. One: I’ve been to a worrying number of funerals over the past while – friends of my parents and worse again, parents of my friends. Two: Mam had called me on my mobile; the ﬁrst time she’d ever done that because she’d always persisted in the belief that you can only call a mobile from a mobile, like they’re CB radios or something. So when I put my phone to my ear and heard her choke, ‘He’s gone,’ who could blame me for thinking that Dad had kicked the bucket and that now it was only her and me.
‘He just packed a bag and left.’
‘He packed a . . . ?’ It was then that I realized that Dad mightn’t actually be dead.
‘Come home,’ she said.
‘Right . . .’ But I was at work. And not just in the oﬃce, but in a hotel ballroom overseeing the ﬁnishing touches to a medical conference (Seeing the Back of Backache). It was an enormous deal which had taken weeks to pull together; I’d been there until twelve-thirty the previous night coordinating the arrival of hundreds of delegates and sorting out their problems. (Relocating those in non-smoking rooms who had slipped and gone back on the fags in between booking their room and showing up for it, that sort of thing.) Today was ﬁnally Day Zero and in less than an hour’s time, two hundred chiropractors would be ﬂooding in, each expecting
a) a name-badge and chair
b) coﬀee and two biscuits (one plain, one fancy) at 11 a.m.
c) lunch, three courses (including vegetarian option) at
d) coﬀee and two biscuits (both plain) at 3.30 p.m.
e) evening cocktails followed by a gala dinner, with party favours, dancing and snogging (optional).
In fact when I’d answered the mobile I thought it was the screen hire guy, reassuring me he was on his way. With – this is the important bit – the screens.
‘Tell me what happened,’ I asked Mam, torn as I was between conﬂicting duties. I can’t leave here …
‘I’ll tell you when you get home. Hurry. I’m in an awful state, God only knows what I’ll do.’
`That did it. I snapped my phone closed and looked at Andrea, who’d obviously ﬁgured out something was up.
‘Everything OK?’ she murmured.
‘It’s my dad.’
I could see on her face that she too thought that my father had bucked the kickit (as he himself used to say). (There I am talking like he actually is dead.)
‘Oh, my God… is it… is he…?’
‘Oh no,’ I corrected, ‘he’s still alive.’
‘Go, go, get going!’ She pushed me towards the exit, clearly visualizing a deathbed farewell.
‘I can’t. What about all of this?’ I indicated the ballroom.
‘Me and Moses’ll do it and I’ll call the oﬃce and get Ruth over to help. Look, you’ve done so much work on this, what can go wrong?’
The correct answer is, of course: Just About Anything. I’ve been Organizing Events for seven years and in that time I’ve seen everything from over-refreshed speakers toppling oﬀ the stage to professors ﬁghting over the fancy biscuits.
‘Yes, but . . .’ I’d threatened Andrea and Moses that even if they were dead they were to show up this morning. And here I was proposing to abandon the scene – for what exactly?
What a day. It had barely started and so many things had already gone wrong. Beginning with my hair. I hadn’t had time to get it cut in ages and, in a mad ﬁt, I’d cut the front of it myself. I’d only meant to trim it, but once I started I couldn’t stop, and ended up with a ridiculously short fringe.
People sometimes said I looked a little like Liza Minnelli in Cabaret but when I arrived at the hotel this morning, Moses had greeted me with, ‘Live long and prosper,’ and given me the Vulcan split-ﬁngered salute. Then, when I told him to ring the screen guy again he said solemnly, ‘That would be illogical, Captain.’ No longer Liza Minnelli in Cabaret but Spock from Star Trek, it seemed. (Quick note: Moses is not a beardy biblical pensioner in a dusty dress and child-molester sandals but a hip, sharp-suited blade of Nigerian origin.)
‘Go!’ Andrea gave me another little push door-wards. ‘Take care and let us know if we can do anything.’
Those are the kinds of words that people use when someone has died. And so I found myself out in the car park. The bone-cold January fog wound itself around me, serving as a reminder that I’d left my coat behind in the hotel. I didn’t bother to go back for it, it didn’t seem important.
When I got into my car a man whistled – at the car, not me. It’s a Toyota MR2, a sporty little (very little, lucky I’m only ﬁve foot two) number. Not my choice – F&F Dignan had insisted. It would look good, they said, a woman in my position. Oh yes, and their son was selling it cheap. Ish.
Men have a very conﬂicted response to it. In the daytime they’re all whistles and winks. But at night time, when they’re coming home pissed from the pub, it’s a diﬀerent story; they take a penknife to my soft-top or hurl a brick through the window. They never actually try to steal the car, just to mortally wound it and it’s spent more time at the dentist than on the road. In the hope of currying sympathy with these bitter mystery men, my back window sticker says, ‘My other car’s a banjaxed ’89 Cortina.’ (Anton made it specially for me; maybe I should have taken it down when he left, but now wasn’t the time to think about that.)
The road to my parents’ house was almost car-free; all the heavy traﬃc was going in the opposite direction, into the centre of Dublin. Moving through the fog that swirled like dry-ice, the empty road had me feeling like I was dreaming.
Five minutes ago it had been a normal Tuesday morning. I’d been in First Day of Conference mode. Anxious, naturally – there’s always a last-minute hitch – but nothing had prepared me for this.
I’d no idea what to expect when I got to my parents’ house. Obviously, something was wrong, even if it was just Mam going loola. I didn’t think she was the type, but who can ever tell with these things? ‘He just packed a bag…’ That in itself was as unlikely as pigs ﬂying. Mam always packs Dad’s bag for him, whether he’s oﬀ to a sales conference or only on a golf outing. There and then I knew Mam was wrong. Which meant that either she had gone loola or Dad really was dead. A surge of panic had me pressing my foot even harder on the accelerator.
I parked, very badly, outside the house. (Modest sixties semi-d.) Dad’s car was gone. Dead men don’t drive cars.
But my rush of relief kept on going until it had circled back and become dread once more. Dad never drove to work, he always got the bus; the missing car gave me a very bad feeling. Mam had opened the front door before I was even out of the car. She was in a peach candlewick dressing-gown and wore an orange curler in her fringe.
I hurried in and made for the kitchen. I felt the need to sit down. Mad though it was, I was nursing a wish that Dad would be sitting there, saying in bemusement, ‘I keep telling her I haven’t left, but she won’t listen.’ But there was nothing but cold toast, buttery knives and other breakfast-style paraphernalia.
‘Did something happen? Did you have a ﬁght?’
‘No, nothing. He ate his breakfast as normal. Porridge. That I made. See.’ She pointed to a bowl which displayed the remnants of porridge. Not much remained. He should have had the decency to have his gullet choked with shame.
‘Then he said he wanted to talk to me. I thought he was going to tell me I could have my conservatory. But he said he wasn’t happy, that things weren’t working out and that he was leaving.’
‘ ‘‘ That things weren’t working out’’? But you’ve been married thirty-ﬁve years! Maybe . . . maybe he’s having a mid- life crisis.’
‘The man is nearly sixty, he’s too old for a mid-life crisis.’
She was right. Dad had had his chance for a mid-life crisis a good ﬁfteen years ago, when no one would have minded, when we’d been quite looking forward to it, actually, but instead he’d just carried on losing his hair and being vague and kindly.
‘Then he got a suitcase and put stuﬀ into it.’
‘I don’t believe you. Like, what did he pack? How did he know how to?’
Mam was starting to look a little uncertain, so to prove it to me – and probably to herself – we went upstairs and she pointed out the space in the spare room cupboard where a suitcase used to be. (One of a set they’d got with tokens from buying petrol.) Then she took me into their room and demonstrated the gaps in his wardrobe. He’d taken his top coat, his anorak and his good suit. And left behind a staggering quantity of colouredy, knitted jumpers and trousers that could only ever be described as ‘slacks’. Fawn of colour and nasty of shape, cut and fabric. I’d have left them behind too.
‘He’ll have to come back for his clothes,’ she said.
I wouldn’t have counted on it.
‘I thought he’d been a bit distracted for the last while,’ Mam said. ‘I said it to you.’
And between us we’d wondered if maybe he had the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. All at once, I understood. He did have Alzheimer’s. He wasn’t in his right mind. He was driving around somewhere, stone mad, convinced he was Princess Anastasia of Russia. We had to alert the police.
‘What’s his car reg?’
Mam looked surprised. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Why should I? I only sit in the thing, I don’t drive it.’
‘We’ll have to look it up, because I don’t know it either.’
‘Why do we need it?’
‘We can’t just tell the peelers to look for a blue Nissan Sunny bearing a ﬁfty-nine-year-old man, who might think he’s the last of the Romanovs. Where do you keep the documents and stuﬀ?’
‘On the shelves in the dining room.’
But after a quick scout in Dad’s ‘oﬃce’ I couldn’t ﬁnd any car info and Mam was no help.
‘It’s a company car, isn’t it?’
‘Er, I think so.’
‘I’ll ring his work and someone there, his secretary or some- one, should be able to help.’
Even as I rang Dad’s direct line I knew he wouldn’t answer, that wherever he was, it wasn’t at work. Hand over the speaker, I instructed Mam to look up the number for the Kilmacud peelers. But before she’d even got oﬀ her chair, someone answered Dad’s phone. Dad.
‘Da-ad? Is that you?’
‘Gemma?’ he said warily. This in itself was nothing unusual; he always answered the phone to me warily. With good reason
– because I only ever rang him
a)to say that my telly was broken and would he come with his toolbox
b)to say that my grass needed cutting and could he come with his lawnmower
c)to say that my front room needed painting and would he come with his dust sheets, rollers, brushes, masking tape and a large bag of assorted chocolate bars.
‘Dad, you’re at work.’ Indisputable.
‘Yes, I – ’
‘What’s going on?’
‘Look, I was going to ring you later, but things went a bit mad here.’ He was breathing hard. ‘The prototype plans must’ve been leaked, the oppo are going to issue a press release
–new product, nearly identical, industrial espio – ’
Before we go any further, I have to tell you that my father works in the sales department of a big confectionery company. (I’m not going to say their name because under the circumstances I don’t want to give them any free publicity.) He’s worked for them my entire life and one of the perks of the job was that he could have as much of the produce as he wanted
–free. Which meant that our house was always littered with bars of chocolate and I was more popular with the kids on the road than I might otherwise have been. Of course Mam and I were strictly forbidden from buying anything from the rival companies, so as not ‘to give them the edge’. Even though I resented his diktat (which wasn’t really a diktat at all, Dad was far too mild for diktats) I couldn’t ﬁnd it in myself to go against it and although it’s ridiculous, the ﬁrst time I ate a Ferrero Rocher, I actually felt guilty. (I know they’re a joke, all that ‘ambassador, you are spoiling us’ stuﬀ, but I was impressed, especially by their roundyness. But when I casually put it to Dad that his crowd should start playing around with circular chocolates, he gazed at me sadly and said, ‘Is there something you’d like to tell me?’)
‘Dad, I’m here with Mam and she’s very upset. What’s going on, please?’ Instead of my father, I was treating him like a bold child, who was doing something idiotic but would knock it on the head as soon as I told him to.
‘I was going to ring to talk to you later.’
‘Well, you’re talking to me now.’
‘Now doesn’t suit me.’
‘Now had better suit you.’ But alarm was building in me. He wasn’t crumbling like something crumbly, as I’d expected he would the moment I spoke sternly.
‘Dad, me and Mam, we’re worried about you. We think you might be a little . . .’ How could I say this? ‘A little mentally ill.’
‘You think you’re not. Mentally ill people often don’t know they’re mentally ill.’
‘Gemma, I know I’ve been a bit distant for the past while, I’m well aware of it. But it’s not from senility.’
This wasn’t going the way I’d expected at all. He didn’t sound bonkers. Or chastened. He sounded like he knew something that I didn’t.
‘What’s going on?’ My voice was little.
‘I can’t talk now, there’s a problem here needs dealing with.’
Snippily I said, ‘I think the state of your marriage is more important than a tiramisu-ﬂavoured bar of – ’
‘SSSSHHHH!’ he hissed down the phone. ‘Do you want the whole world to know about it? I’m sorry I ever told you now.’
Fright deprived me of speech. He’s never cross with me. ‘I will call you when I can talk.’ He sounded very ﬁrm. A little like… funnily enough, a little like a father.
‘Well?’ Mam asked avidly when I hung up.
‘He’s going to call back.’
‘As soon as he can.’
Chewing my knuckles, I was uncertain of what to do next.
He didn’t sound mad, but he wasn’t acting normal.
I simply couldn’t think what I should do. I’d never been in a situation like this before and there was no precedent or set of instructions. All we could do was wait, for news that I instinctively knew wouldn’t be good. And Mam kept saying, ‘What do you think? Gemma, what do you think?’ Like I was the adult and had the answers.
The only saving grace is that I didn’t get all cheerful and say, ‘How about a nice cup of tea?’ Or even worse, ‘Let’s get a brew on.’ I don’t think tea ever ﬁxes anything and I vowed that, no matter what, this crisis would not turn me into a tea-drinker.
I considered driving over and confronting him at work, but if he was in the middle of a tiramisu-ﬂavoured crisis, perhaps I wouldn’t even get to see him.
‘But where would he stay?’ Mam blurted plaintively. ‘None of our friends would let him move in with them.’
She wasn’t wrong. The way it worked with their circle of friends was that the men held the purse strings and the car keys but the women were the power-brokers in the home. They had the ﬁnal say over who came and went, so that even if one of the men had promised Dad he could kip down in their spare room, his wife wouldn’t let him over the threshold, out of loyalty to Mam. But if not one of his friends’ houses, then where?
I couldn’t imagine him in a mildewed bedsit with a gas ring and a rusty kettle that didn’t click oﬀ automatically when it boiled.
But if he had taken some mad notion he’d last no length away from Mam and his home comforts. He’d spend three days playing with his golf ball machine and come home when he needed clean socks.
‘When’s he going to ring back?’ Mam asked again. ‘I don’t know. Let’s watch telly.’
While Mam pretended to watch Sunset Beach, I wrote the ﬁrst email to Susan. Susan – known as ‘my lovely Susan’ to distinguish her from any other Susans who mightn’t be quite as lovely as she was – had been one-third of the triumvirate, with me and Lily the other two, and after the great debacle she’d taken my side.
Only eight short days ago, on January the ﬁrst, she’d moved to Seattle on a two-year contract as PR for some huge bank. While she was there she’d hoped to bag herself a Microserf but it had taken no time to discover that they all work twenty-seven hours a day, so they don’t have much time left over for a social life and romancing Susan. Drinking multiple-choice coﬀees can only ﬁll the gap so far, so she was lonely and looking for news.
I kept the details brief, then pressed ‘send’ on my Communicator Plus, a huge brick of a thing with so many functions it could nearly read your thoughts. Work had given it to me, in the guise of a present. Yeah, right! In reality it just made me more of a slave than I already was – they could contact me in any way they wanted, whenever they wanted. And the weight of it tore the silky lining of my second-best handbag.
When Sunset Beach ended and Dad still hadn’t rung back, I said, ‘This isn’t right. I’m going to ring him again.’