FACE TO FACE
Silence. The poolside chairs stood empty, the perfect pile of fluffy white towels lay undisturbed. From the marble walls tiny spotlights radiated their soft glow across the still blue water, whilst all around, the delicate bouquet of bergamot and lavender perfumed the warm steamy air.
Suddenly, a long red fingernail hit the spa button, churning the water into life, breaking the silence with the sound of bubbling. In the same instant, the owner of the red fingernail stiffened, staring at it with mounting suspicion. 'Shit!' The word was like a whiplash as a pair of green, cat-like eyes peered closely at the crack in the red varnish. 'I don't believe it!' The woman's long thin body sank deeper into the water as her turbanned head fell back against the edge of the spa.
'What's happening to me?' she whispered. 'Why is everything going wrong?' She could feel the pimple, tight and hot on her chin, and she so much wanted to touch it; but that was strictly forbidden. It would be her beauty therapist who would deal with it, not her. No longer was she the little girl who could appease her anxieties by squeezing a pimple or biting her nails or nibbling her hair. No. Not any more. Responsibility came with owning the most expensive body in the business; it deserved respect and, accordingly, it could only be cared for by the most highly skilled professionals.
Nervously, she hooked out a strand of long black hair from under her turband and held it up to her eyes for close inspection. No split ends - thank goodness for that. She could always depend on Eduardo and his liposebum almond oil therapy. Satisfied, she tucked her hair back into place, paused for a moment and listened, straining to hear the sound of voices. Jesus. It was so eerie. She peered through the hanging mass of artificial foliage which blocked her view of the poolside. Still empty. It made her feel uneasy, isolated. She knew that most people would relish the chance of being alone in this place, but not her; she had to have people around - not necessarily to talk to - but as a diversion, a safeguard against having to be left alone with herself and her thoughts. It wouldn't be so bad if there was a television in here to keep her company.
With a long sigh, she arched her neck and gazed up at the domed ceiling, feeling the bubbles pummelling her buttocks and considering the new girl on reception. She had sounded Spanish. A foreigner. Was that the reason why she hadn't shown any sign of recognition? Probably. After all, how could a foreigner be expected to know that Peri Lomax had once been the Velvet Girl? That her name had been linked with Matt Bruce? That she had opened the Fendi show in Paris wearing nothing but a diamond-studded g-string and a cape of Arctic fox? She closed her eyes tightly against the feeling of overwhelming despair. Who was she kidding? No one recognised her any more, not even taxi drivers.
Miserably, she opened her eyes and let her gaze follow the curve of the wall, down the line of a marble column, along the tiled floor to where her mobile lay on top of a fluffy white towel. It was silent. Its very silence seemed to scream the awful truth: nobody wants Peri Lomax. And yet, up until a couple of months ago, it had rung constantly, trilling out to her that once again she had been chosen from the thousands of other beautiful girls in the world. It had been her friend then, but now it lay there cold and silent ... and she hated it.
What had she done wrong? She was still as beautiful as ever, still courting the tabloid press at every oppurtunity, stil appearing at the right places with the right people. She remained as charming and talented as ever, naturally outshining everyone else in her acting classes; and still she waited . . . waited for the one lucky break that would catapult her into the outer-stratosphere of celebrity status. She had come so close, so very close, but now she knew it wasn't going to happen. Not now. It was too late. She was on her way down ... down to making TV commercials for oven chips and babywipes while steadily sinking into oblivion . . .No! That must never happen. She needed to be in front of a camera, to be the focus of attention, to be pampered, wanted, admired: if it was all taken away from her, then there would be nothing left to live for.
So? What was happening? Was she out of fashion? Had she offended someone of importance? She bit her lip thoughtfully. The last job had not gone too well. It had been a nightmare of delayed flights, bad weather, a clumsy hotel porter and a photographer with shingles. From day one she had complained vociferously; by day four, she had been irritated to sense the sullen hostility from those around her. She had ignored them; the photographer was young and unestablished, not in a position to alter the course of her career.
She stared hard at the ceiling. Last year her diary had been overflowing with her tiny scribbled handwriting, but this year it still looked brand new, page after page ... blank. The only entry for March read: Saturday 27th. International Film Awards. 6pm backstage. Backstage! She was only there as an understudy to Caroline Morris in case she suddenly broke her neck or something. No such luck. There would be no alternative but to sit and watch someone else wearing Igor de Vere's ballgown; watch someone else sashaying onto the stage, waving to the cheering crowd and eager cameras, knowing that twelve million viewers were tuned in at that moment. Christ! It wasn't fair!
Mags wasn't helping, either. She was still sweet and motherly but nowadays she always sounded in a rush. 'Look, Peri,' she'd said with hurried kindness, 'there's no need for you to keep phoning. I'll call as soon as a job comes in. Just wait. Ciao. Love you.' So peri had waited, but the call had never come.
Miserably she rolled her head from side to side, trying to ease the tension in her neck and wondering whether she should pray. But what was the point of that? She'd had a childhood of praying and what had it done for her? Absolutely nothing! Unbidden, a memory floated into her consciouness, as if drifting towards her through a veil of mist ...
. . . she is standing by a white wooden gate, holding Aunty Doris's hand as they watch her mother walk away. How she prays and prays that her beautiful black-haired mother will turn and wave. Just once. But no - she just keeps on walking, her red pointed shoes clicking sharply on the pavement, the sound growing fainter and fainter, until there is silence. ' Well, that's that then,' says Aunty Doris, speaking to the empty street. Something in her Aunty's voice makes her look up with a quiver of fear. ' But she's coming back, isn't she?' Aunty Doris gazes down sadly for a moment and then slowly she shakes her head . . .
Peri squeezed her eyes tight against the tears and pain. Why? Why did she leave me? Why? For God's sake, Peri, stop thinking about it! But the memories would not leave her in peace . . .
. . . a stiff lady with a briefcase is sitting at the dining table filling out pink forms. Aunty Doris is telling the lady things about her, private things. Then Aunty Doris turns to her, saying over and over, 'I'm so sorry Peri, so sorry, so sorry.' There is sadness in her eyes. And pity.
This was too much! Peri sat bolt upright, blanking out the image. ' Great! ' she muttered furiously. ' Haven't I got enough problems without having to think about that.' She was going for a swim, she decided, jumping to her feet; she wasn't going to hang around here and wallow in misery. Suddenly, the sound of voices caught her attention. Through the hanging foliage she could make out two figures walking along the far end of the pool. As she leant forward to get a better look, one of the figures spotted her. Shit! It was Saffron, perfectly tanned from her assignment in Sri Lanka. Peri could only acknowledge her with a brief nod before drawing back behind the screen of her own white limbs. ' Don't come over here, please,' she murmered, squinting to get a better look. Hell. Saffron and the other girl were heading this way!'
'Having a day off?' came a silky voice echoing within the marbled walls, followed by the sound of giggling.
Peri drew back, wanting to run, wanting to hide her white body, but knowing she was trapped. In the next instant the curtain of plastic flowers was pulled aside and Saffron stood there, smiling contemptuously down at her. 'Peri! Darling!' The hazel-brown eyes swept over her. ' I was beginning to think you'd crawled into a hole to hibernate. I haven't seen you in months.' The other girl came up and stood beside her, staring down at Peri with open curiosity.
Affecting nonchalance, Peri stretched her arms out along the rim of the spa, gut-wrenchingly jealous that the long legs that stood before her were tanned to a dark golden brown. ' I've just taken some time off- that's all.'
'Really?' Saffron's pencilled eyebrows arched slightly in mild disbelief as her hands smoothed back her long dark hair from her glossy brown forehead. She flashed a nasty smile. ' I hope you can forgive me for stealing the Pernot job, but, as Mags always says, we look so alike. But I guess, this time, they were going for the fun angle.
As Peri's gaze flickered over the smug complacant face above her, she was overwhelmed with an urge to leap out of the water, grip her fingers around that thin brown neck and squeeze tight; to take revenge for all the malicious gossip, snide remarks and stolen jobs.
Saffron looked down at the water below. ' Is it broken?'
'The spa. Is it broken?'
Peris suddenly realised that the water lay still. How long had it been like that? Hastily she pressed the black button and, once again, the water bubbled around her.
Saffron yawned. ' Are you going to the Decleor audition this afternoon? Simply everyone is going.'
'Probably.' Peri shrugged again, but her mind raced. Decleor audition? Mags hadn't told her about any Decleor audition!
Saffron adjusted the strap of her bikini top. 'I've just got back from Sri Lanka. Yet another commercial for American Express, but it was such fun.' Her eyes swept over Peri once more. 'Why on earth haven't you got a tan like everyone else? The white malnourished look is out of fashion - didn't you know?'
Peri looked up at her, showing no sign of the hatred that boiled inside. 'That doesn't bother me. Everybody else can follow fashion like mindless sheep but I refuse to allow my skin to shrivel up like an Indian's scrotum.'
Saffron's eyebrows lifted in mock alarm, 'I haven't seen one, so I wouldn't know.' Her hard eyes glinted. 'If I didn't know you better, I would think that you were jealous of me.'
'Huh!' Peri sneered, rolling her eyes to heaven.
Saffron threw her friend a knowing look as they moved off. 'I mustn't waste my time, otherwise I'll be late for my seaweed wrap. It's so difficult finding time to come here with all the work I'm getting. See you at the Decelor audition.' Turning, she whispered to her friend, prompting the girl to giggle and look back over her shoulder at Peri.
As soon as the curtain of flowers swung shut, Peri sat bolt upright, fists clenched, heart pounding. The bitch! Why couldn't she just tell the cow to sod off? After all, she would have no hesitation in saying it to practically anyone else, so why didn't she say it to Saffron? Why did she continue to play this game of veiled malic? Why should she feel inferior? But she couldn't help it. It was the way that Saffron looked at her, as if somehow she knew the truth, knew that Peri Lomax was just a common fraud, a nobody. Peri gazed down into the bubbling water. That bitch was watching her career disintegrate, gloating in triumph, confident that Peri Lomax was finally finished.
'Jesus,' she breathed. 'I've got to do something. It can't end like this.' She was going to go straight to the agency and confront Mags face to face whether she lied about it or not, and find out what was going on.
Suddenly there was the sound of beeping. She swung round. Her mobile phone! It was calling to her. Her immediate reaction was to leap out of the water and throw herself across the marble floor and grab it, but she stopped herself in time, aware that Saffon would be watching. Instead, she sighed loudly as if annoyed at being bothered by the noise, and slowly got to her feet, slipping into her towelling robe and bending forward to pick it up. 'Hello,' she said in a slow, bored voice, 'Peri here.'
'Peri! Darling!' It was Mags, speaking excitedly. 'Do you want the good news or the good news?'
Peri caught her breath, electrified by the excitement in her agent's voice. Something wonderful was about to happen. She just knew it!
'You're not going to belive this.' Mags spoke eagerly, as if bursting with news. 'I received a call from Helmut Reuther's studio yesterday afternoon. You remember the audition - last October - Munich? The-'
'Yes, yes, I remember,' Peri interrupted swiftly, desperate to know more.
'Apparently, he loved your portfolio and loved the polariods and loved-' she paused tantalisingly '-you!'
'Yes!' Mags squealed.
'I got it?'
'Of course! Do you realise what this will mean? You are going to be the woman to spearhead the fashion world into the millennium.'
Peri's heart began to thump. 'Oh, my God! Oh, my God!'
'And there's more,' declared Mags triumphantly. 'You probably haven't heard about Caroline Morris yet?'
'Big bust-ups all round. I won't go into it now. You'll read about it in tomorrow's headlines. Enough to say that she won't be co-hosting anything for a very long time!'
Peri could hardly believe her luck. 'So that means I'm going to take her place at the Film Awards?'
'It's not that simple,' Mags insisted. 'Don't forget, you were only going to be there in case of a last-minute emergency. You can't expect to take her place just like that. Who are you to these people? Your recent track record isn't going to let you step into her shoes.' mags took a deep breath. 'So? What have I done? I've phoned the organisers. Told them you're Helmut Reuther's new girl, budding star and all that stuff, let them believe you're on the next month's cover of H!. While they're thinking it over, I phone Hi! and tell them you're Helmut Reuther's new girl and you're hosting the Film Awards and that you're a budding new star. Finally, I get it all in the bag. First you do th Helmut Reuther job, then you do the Film Awards and then you do Hi!. The only snag is, the editor at Hi! cant promise to put you on the front cover. But I'm still working on it. So? What do you think?'
Peri could hardly breathe. 'I'm ,,,, I'm speechless.'
'It was a Catch-22 situation. But we've done it. These three jobs will put you in the big league. You're going to be on the cover of every glossy around the globe - an overnight sensation - a celebrity. Not only will you have a face and a body but you're also going to have a name!'
Peri squeezed her eyes shut in silent gratitude. At last! Aftr all the years of dedication, of back-stabbing, of bitter disappointments and brief glories, her dream was about to come true. Stardom. Beautiufl stardom. It now lay before her, waiting. She was going to be worshipped by the masses and craved by the media; film scripts would flood in and she would pick out the juiciest roles with the biggest budgets ... may be an action romance with a tragic ending ... Audiences all around the world ould weep ito sodden handkerchief ... and Peri Lomax would finally become a superstar! At the thought of it, she could feel her joy and excitement welling up, making her want to fly around the room, to run out into the street and hug people, to ...
''... and im glad for your sake, Peri.' The excitement in Mags's voice had drained away, leaving a wistful tone. 'You deserve it.'
Peri felt a delayed rush of gratitude. 'Oh, Mags!' she exclaimed. 'I owe it all to you. Really.' Now, buoyed up on her wave of good fortune, she simply forgot the months of desperaton and depression, simply forgot that her agent had been too busy for her.
'That's so sweet of you,' Mags replied, 'but enough of this back-slapping,' She had switched back to her tough business voice. 'First things first: helmut Reuther hasn't given us much notice. You'll be leaving next Friday and-'
'Next Friday? Gosh, that's a bit sudden!'
'Absolutely. But the sooner you do it, the sooner you get to be famous.' Mags trilled the word, making it sound like an advertising jingle.
Peri could feel her heart pounding with excitement. 'Yeah, youre right. What's my destination?' She had a fleeting image of sparkling blue sea lapping silver sand under a hot sun.
'Well, you'll be flying from Luton,' Mags said cheerfully, 'which will make a change! And I'll arrange for the limo to pick you up at your place.'
Peri thought fast. Hot sun. She would pack her new biking, the pink Armani beach robe, her gold sandals, and of course her new Ricardo sunglasses.
'Unfortunately, you won't be flying Concorde this trip,' Mags explained. 'But it doesn't matter since you'll only be on the plane for an hour. It's an internal flight. To Inverness.'
Peri's thoughts tumbled to a halt. 'Inverness?' she asked, bewildered.
'That's right. It's an unusual location, I must admit, but Helmut says you're going to look perfect among the gorse and heather of the Scottish Highlands.'
'Scottish Highlands? But surely-' Questions ad images spun around in her brain preventing her from constructing a sentence.
The countryside is meant to be very beautiful,' Mags assured her. 'Lots of mountains and stuff.'
'But surely I won't have to work outside?'
'You will - some of the time - yes.'
'But it's March,' Peri protested. 'I'll freeze!'
Mags laughed gaily. 'Helmut won't let you freeze, and anyway, it's only for six days. You will be there and back before you know it.
Six days! Peri imagined bleak hilltops with storm clouds swirling overhead and an icy wind drying her skin to the texture of crepe. The thought of it made her feel sick. Why, why had it got to be like this? She wanted the job of course - but why did it have to be in Scotland? Why couldn't she have gone to Bali or Mauritius? Somewhere civilised.
'There's something else I should mention,' Mags continued cautiously. 'In some of the shots, Helmut might want to use an Irish wolfhound.'
'I know, I know,; Mags said hurriedly. 'I told him you don't like dogs.'
'Don't like dogs!' Peri said in amazement. 'I hate dogs, I loathe dogs - you know that. I'm sorry, Mags but I can't possibly work with a ...' She stopped suddenly conscious of the shrill note in her voice and hastily slipped into the nearest tanning cubicle and closed the door, shutting out the risk of Saffron overhearing.
'It's not definite,' Mags explained. 'Helmut said he might use a dog. But, anyway, darling, it doesn't matter if he wants to use a rhinoceros - this is your chance to make it big!'
'Jeeesus!' Peri exclaimed, stretching the word out on a long low breath. 'Why has it got to be like this? It's not fair!'
'Listen, darling, I think you will have to be brave about this.' Although Mags had spoken softly, there had been an unmistakable note of warning in her voice. 'I am going to have to tell you something ...' She paused as if reluctant to continue, then she began again. 'In the last six months I've been watching your career heading nowhere. It's become stagnant. You've becom stagnant. True?'
Peri felt as if she'd been punched in the stomach. 'I ... I ...'
Mags continued briskly, 'To be brutally frank, darling, you were either heading for an exhibition stand at Earls Court, or I was going to have to tell you to re-invent yourself. You know - create a scandal: snort cocaine with Richard Taylor, or shoot someone. Remember what I always say? Bad publicity is better than no publicity. But now you don't have to do any of that. It's all falling into your lap, Peri, so just be grateful.
'ut I ...' Peri stammered, confused. What had Mags just called her? Stagnant?
'Hang on,' Mags interrupted. 'Tula's handing me a fax.' there was the sound of rustling paper and then silence.
Stagnant! Peri tried to think through her jumbled thoughts. 'Exhibition stand at Earls Court? What the hell is she talking about?'
Abruptly, Mags was back on line. 'It's okay,' she announced cheerfuly. 'I've just got a fax from Helmut's assistant: he's definitely decided not to use a dog.'
Peri wasn't paying attention. Having digested what Mags had told her, she was consumed with rage. How dare she! How cruel! So all this tie Mags had been sitting complacently in her plush office thinking: 'Peri's stagnant. She'll have to be the next one out with the garbage.
Mags broke the silence. 'Peri? Are you still there?'
Peri refused to speak. She could feel her cheeks burning with shame and fury. What would have happeed if she hadn't got the Helmut Reuther job? Her photograph would have been ripped off the wall, torn up and dumped in the bin - that's what would have happened.
'Come on, Peri,' Mags said wearily. 'There's no reason to sulk.'
'I have every reason to sulk when my agent - my dearest friend -tells me that I'm stagnant. How could you?'
'Where do you think I've been for the past six months? Mags said patiently. 'On Planet Mars? ... No - I've been here in Wardour street, painfully aware that the demand for you has dried up. You know it. I know it. But things are about to change. Its not going to be easy, but if you want to get to the top, youre going to have to start towing the line. You're going to have to stop making waves every time something goes wrong. Okay, maybe this job will be a little uncomfortable, but you're not in a position to call the shots. Maybe one day you will, but not now.' She hesitated. 'And I think you're going to have to work on your personality.'
'My personaltiy?' Peri retorted, scowling.
'Let's discuss it face to face, eh? Come over to my place tonight. I'll order Thai - you like that, don't you?' The voice was sugar-sweet.
Peri tutted sharply but made no reply. A moment ago she had been deliriously happy knowing that she had got the Helmut Reuther job - but now! Now she felt as if she'd been shot down in flames.
'This job maybe a little uncomfortable,' Mags repeated firmly. 'And I would rather you were going somewhere warm, but you're not. Just keep reminding yourself that as soon as you're finished in Scotland you'll be straight back here, getting ready for the Film Awards-'
'The Film Awards!' Peri cried. How could she have forgotten! 'And the dress! But that's the twenty-seventh. I'm not going to have enough time to get ready for it.'
'Calm down. You'll be flying back from Scotland on the twenty-fourth which means you're going to have three clear days before you have to be on stage. That's plenty of time and I'll have your itinerary waiting: rehearsal times, final dress fitting, everything. Don't worry.'
'It's all happening at once!' Peri whispered. With images of the Film Awards flashing through her brain, she was consumed by a mounting, almost unbearable, excitement.
',,, and get plenty of sleep and don't get stressed out,' Mags was saying. 'You know how you worry.'
'Protect your skin at all times, don't forget to take you magnesium and Starflower supplements, and go easy on the sleeping pills.'
'The Film Awards will be your first blast of media coverage so you've got to look your best.'
'I know, I know' Peri agreed breathlessly. She didn't need to be told. As co-host to the International Film Awards, she was going to be televised - live - to the world! The paparazzi would b there in swarms, pushing and shoving, buzzing with the excitement of a new face. Who is this beautiful creature? they would ask themslves. Why isn't she a star? Of course, Mags would feed them little titbits of information beforehand, to get them excited. They would be told that Peri had become Helmut Reuther's favourite mode, his muse, and that the dress she would be wearing was the final creation of the legendary Igor de Vere.
Mags suddenly spoke in a rush: 'Look, Peri, I've got to go, but I'l see you at my place tonight. Eight o'clock. Okay?'
'And remember, Peri, everything hinges on the Helmut Reuther job. If it goes wrong, you lose the Film Awards and you lose Hi! magazine. You will be back to square one. Remember that. Okay, see you later. Ciao.'
The line went dead. In a daze, Peri lowered the phone from her ear and switched it off. This was incredible. At last - she'd done it. Trembling, she sank onto a sunbed and gazed at the floor, overwhelmed by the ernormity of what had happened.
On the edge of her happiness lurked her agent's words: You have become stagnant, Peri. she tried to push them away but they kept on coming back. How could Mags have said such things? Peri knew it would be impossible to forget those words, and for a moment she had an urge to phone her agent back and tell her what a stupid cow she was. But - no! That was one thing she couldn't do. Not yet ...
'Well, I'm on my way to the top,' Peri muttered, standing up and shoving her phone in her pocket. 'And when I get there, no one is going to dark speak to me like that. I will never again be pitied. No way. I am going to be invincible, untouchable. I'm going to be a star.'
'You didn't tell her, did you?'
Mags shuffled the papers on her desk, avoiding Tula's gaze.
'You didn't, did you?' Tula repeated.
'I know what I'm doing! I'm the one who's handled her for the last eight years. If I had told her, she would have refused the assignment. Correct?'
Tula shrugged in silent disagreement before turning to the coffee percolator.
Mags watched Tula pour coffee into her cup, irritated that her assistant could be so annoying. 'I know Peri,' Mags insisted. 'She would have exploded - thrown a godalmighty tantrum. But this way, she's going to be stuck out in the midddle of ... of ... I dont know exactly where, before she discovers the truth. And then she'll have no choice but to do as she's told.'
'I don't think you're being fair to her.'
'Fair? who do you think I'm dealing with? A telletubby? No. I am dealing with highly charged prima donna, someone who can be devastatingly unreasonable and downright hostile.'
'Sure, but something like this could send her over to Models Five.'
'She won't leave. She needs me. I've been like a mother to her, sendng her flowers on her birthday, listening to her problems. Who else would have done all that?'
Tula nodded thoughtfully.
'And I'm sick of getting complaints about her temper tantrums. She's going to have to sort out her personality - big time! Only then will I start to go easy on her.