Jan shouldn’t have come to the party. Simon is heaping food on his plate and gulping down champagne, he’ll be drunk soon and embarrass her. She ought to leave. She’s not wearing the right dress. She doesn’t want to hear Alex dismiss Simon in that irritated way of his, or roll his eyes at her because her husband’s voice is too loud and he laughs like a horse.
Then she sees Alex across the room, surrounded by a golden haze. The light is shining from him, a halo of triumph and intoxication, as though he had just conquered the largest landmass on earth. Men and women approach him, push aside the curtain formed by others, to luxuriate in that glow. Jan thinks, what has happened to him? What have I done? The feeling is voluptuous and fills her limbs with pain. People bring him his book to sign. He obliges with a flourish – is that a new fountain pen? He smiles his coy, sly grin that women like, because he loves above all to captivate women. A girl is hovering, a girl with long fair hair, long brown legs, a long elegant neck, which he stoops to kiss, moving his arm around her.
– Do you know Freya?
So this is Freya. He dedicated his book to her, though he had no even met her when he was writing it, when Jan was typing and editing it. His hand rests on the girl’s hip, lightly stroking. Jan sees the way their bodies flow into each other and she tightens the grip on her champagne glass. The golden couple, they are called. Not very original, she thinks. But they oblige the cliché, being both tall and blonde, lithe in the way of panthers. He’s approaching, his hand in the curve of Freya’s back.
– Thank you for coming, Jan. I know this is hard for you, to leave the kids. Simon is… he seems to be having a good time. I see he’s found the champagne.
– He likes people, she snaps.
Simon is guffawing and slapping someone on the back. Jan winces. It’s hard for her to stand there, listening to Alex talk to her in that trite voice, like a stranger.
– Umm, Jan, this is Freya. You remember? I told you about her.
Jan looks up in the younger woman’s face.
– Freya’s just been cast in a play at the National and in a BBC adaptation of Great Expectations.
– As Miss Haversham?
Oh no, that was a stupid thing to say, what’s got into her? Alex frowns. Freya smiles with languid pity, her eyes mocking Jan’s unfashionable dress with its ill-fitting waist around a plump figure.
– Maybe later, when I’m your age, Jan.
Alex thinks, why is Jan behaving this way? Why is she looking at me like this, as though she hated me? He stares at her. How dare she? I’ve worked for this! For years I’ve given up comfort, prosperity, life. And she understood. She can’t do this to me, not Jan. It’s not fair. How can she let me down like this?
– You’re doing very well, Alex. I hear you’ve sold the film rights already. People like your book.
– Yeah, some of it’s over the top, you know.
– The new Amis?
He laughs, not quite freely.
– I rather liked that one.
He’s drinking too fast and holding on to Freya as though she were a life buoy. He asks Jan if she’s met his agent, a tall woman in a black trouser suit with ink-black hair and red lips, who’s standing by the window-seat. Why doesn’t she go up and introduce herself? he suggests.
Jan doesn’t want to meet the agent. All evening she has encountered people who ignore her until they realise who she is, then they slime up to her. Was he gifted as a child? You must be so proud of him. What’s it like to have a little brother like Alex? Will you introduce me? They say there’s going to be a film soon.
Yes, I am proud of him, she admits. I made him. I honed him, I nurtured his talent, a horse trainer with a thoroughbred. I taught him to look, to listen, to record it all. I edited, corrected, sent him back to rewrite, refine, bring out his best. I typed his handwritten manuscripts, because he can never be bothered to type two-fingered. I crippled my back and my neck and put his work before my own because I knew how good he could become.
Alex is moving away.
– Did you show her my poems? She asks.
– Show whom?
– Your agent. Have you shown her?
He’s looks self-conscious. His eyes flit around, resist her.
– Well, you know, she doesn’t really do poetry. It doesn’t sell.
He had not even known that she was writing poetry, until six weeks ago, when she’d handed him a file full of them. He’d read them in the bath and had been shocked. Where had she found such power and scorn? When? The images she drew had chased him in his dreams and in his work, and when he excised them, his words were flat.
He watches her sipping champagne, looking down at her flat blue shoes. So out of place. Dumpy little Jan. How had she drawn down that voice?
He’s ashamed of himself. Freya has moved away, he sees her talking to a film producer, her hand on his arm, throwing her laughter like a golden net around the man’s bald head. His agent is moving up towards Freya and the producer, she also wants to grease up baldy.
– Listen, I’ll call you, OK? Maybe I can do something about the poems.
– Right. OK. Right.
Jan is alone now. She walks away towards Simon, tired as people are after great anger or anguish have raged through them. She chats cozily, quite herself again, except for her limp body, too much champagne, she says.