© Claire Whatley
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Waiting for Diana
A SHORT STORY
© Claire Whatley
Twelve minutes past eight by my watch. Only four of us here so far. As a low-ranking female, I always arrive on time. It’s less daunting than making an entrance when everyone else has arrived because it means I avoid that cold-sweat-inducing decision: who do I sit with? Anyway, if the new alpha female comes tonight, she’ll arrive late. She’ll sweep in with all the easy grace of an A-lister treading the red carpet, assessing everyone’s status at a single glance. She’ll know exactly who to sit with, on whom to bestow the pleasure of her company. It’s what alpha females do best. I can tell you now, it won’t be me.
She’s called Diana. She only moved in to the village five weeks ago. They came here from Bermuda. Anyone paying two million for a house in the village tends to cause a frisson of excitement in certain quarters and, predictably, the high status females were jostling for toadying positions even before she arrived. I didn’t jostle. The moment two-million-pound Diana finds out that I inhabit one of the handful of unprepossessing shoeboxes in the village, she’ll very quickly dissociate herself from me. Besides, she doesn’t need to find out. I think it shows.
The Reading Group tonight is at Jan’s house. Her sitting room is dark in a cosy-country-cottage way. A few tastefully shabby side lamps relieve the gloom. There are three plump old sofas in wine red and a single, green brocaded, winged armchair. I choose the largest sofa, seating myself close to the arm. Jan’s walls are heavy with art of every genre, frames carefully unmatched. I can just catch glimpses of an old William Morris style wallpaper in between the artworks. Below the dado rail there is slightly distressed Farrow and Ball paintwork and I marvel at the strangeness of the colour for a few moments, imagining the paint’s name. ‘Devonshire soil’? ‘Faded peony’? ‘Good Family Blood’?
Within the three sides of a square formed by the sofas is a dark, heavy coffee table. Scattered on it are today’s Guardian (crumpled), today’s Telegraph (less crumpled), and a few dog-eared, intellectual works of fiction which surround a jam jar, the ornate shape of which suggests it once accommodated an exclusive brand. In the jam jar some wild flowers droop languidly.
Jan is floating about with studied calm, handing glasses of wine to the three of us, and telling us repeatedly to help ourselves to pretzels and peanuts. Her attire, like her room, manifests her effort to appear effortless and she has succeeded, in my opinion. I consider my own outfit and wonder briefly whether I might be a tad over-dressed. Jan’s delicately flowered, fine cotton blouse hangs in a loosely flattering way over unstructured linen trousers. She wears a long necklace of chunky semi-precious stones including amber and tiger’s eye. It’s all just right even down to the slightly wacky Moroccan slippers.
“Hi-i,” we chorus back, half an octave or so higher than our normal conversational voices.
One of the Kates has arrived.
There are five Kates in the village. One of them is here already. She is Kate Five. At thirty-six, she’s the youngest here. She is seated on the sofa to my right. The one who has just arrived is Kate Two. I number them to reflect each one's distinct position in the village hierarchy, with One being a top grade female, and Five, well, somewhere approaching my own status, really. Kate Five would so like to be Kate One. Or even Kate Two.
Anyway, here is Kate Two. Still the right side of forty, slim as a reed: her aura of success and confidence crackles around the room like an electrical power surge. She stands, framed in the doorway, smiling at everyone in turn; her orthodontically faultless grin shines down on me last of all. I beam back at her, brightly, “Hi, Kate, how are you?” I ask with a two-note emphasis on the ‘you’ as though we’re best buddies.
Kate Two has to walk straight past me and my otherwise unoccupied four-seater sofa to reach her chosen seat, so her conversation with me concludes with that monosyllable. Let’s face it; rudeness is de rigueur to keep caste distinctions clear to those who may have delusions about themselves. I inhale the intoxicating scent of serious money as she and her perfume waft past. She has chosen the sofa to my left, bending her elongated Conference pear shape to join Mary, a grey-haired and sombre member of the farming elite.
They sit together like the puritan and the cavalier. Despite their physical and sartorial differences, they are two of a kind. They understand each other. They throw themselves with quiet gusto into some long-standing and private topic of conversation. I sip my wine and reach for a pretzel.
“Did you manage to get the same woman?” asks Mary, sotto voce, furrowing her brow in concern.
She leans her sturdy, liberty-print-encased body forward, fingering the section of pearl necklace which hangs down neatly from under her blouse collar. As I exchange a few pleasantries across the room with Kate Five, I listen to Kate Two’s reply.
“Yes, thank God.”
“You must be so relieved.”
I wonder whether the ‘same woman’ in question is a consultant and there may be some serious underlying medical condition. As Kate Five shares her thoughts with me on the Reading Group book, I angle an ear towards Kate Two’s answer, “I’d’ve kicked up a stink if I hadn’t! I’ve been an account holder there for ever. If they can’t even give me the same personal dresser on the eve of my cousin’s wedding…”
There is much nodding from Mary and her face contorts into an even more serious expression.
I turn my attention to Kate Five’s views and ponder what it must be like to be Kate Five. Despite her lowly position in the pecking order she can talk on and on in her Estuary drone with blithe confidence. She veers from the current Reading Group book to the outstanding achievements of her children, to her promotion at work, to the astonishing creativity of her children, to a new recipe she has discovered, to the amazing sporting abilities of her children; creating more tangents than her eight-year-old’s Meccano, all the while assuming my unfailing interest. She halts her monologue as Jan ushers in more guests. Kate Five twiddles a fake pearl earring as we all turn to the door.
Pat and Kate One have arrived together. Pat, who just about hovers within the line on the graph separating Overweight from Obese, holds a copy of this month’s Reading Group book to her chest like a shield. Kate One stands, cool and bookless, beside her.
Kate One’s cloud grey cashmere sweater looks so new, she must have only just snipped off the price tag. The perfect fit of her jeans is a wonder to behold. She surveys the room with her social networking radar, searching for the woman who is to be her New Best Friend. Diana’s absence shadows the serenity of Kate’s face for a nano-second. She has to make a decision. Does she sit with the higher ranking females, Kate Two and Mary, who are already here? That move would fill the three seater sofa, so that when Diana herself arrives, she’ll have to sit with the plebs. She could hedge her bets in the lone winged armchair. Or does she – horror of horrors - sit next to either Kate Five or me to fill some of the glaringly obvious free space still available?
I don’t exist for Kate One but her smile never wavers as her eye passes over my corner of the room. With a dismissive eye-flicker she scans me from earrings to footwear. My chain-store cotton-knit top does not, of course, pass muster. I fear the sequinny bits around the neckline were a mistake. Meanwhile, Pat reduces Kate’s options by trundling over to join me. Pat has reached a certain age. Knowing every nuance of the village caste system, she’s comfortable about breaking the rules. She deposits herself next to me with the heavy tiredness that proclaims her sixty-two years.
“Katie G sends apologies,” she calls across to Jan. “Parents’ evening.”
“OK, thanks, Pat.” Jan reaches for another wineglass, “Red or white?”
“Oh red, please,” Pat replies in a tone suggesting she has never before been asked such an intriguing question.
Katie G is Kate Four. If I have an ally in this village at all, it is Kate Four and I’m sorry she’s not here, though I try to be pleased for her that she had a genuine excuse for apologies tonight. Like me she dreads these evenings. We come because we’re invited. We come because we have to. It’s called Participating In Village Life, or Being Involved In The Community. If you’re not a member of the Church, or the W.I. or the Horticultural Society, then what’s left but the Reading Group? Failure to join is an implicit criticism of the pseudo-Archers lifestyle: the very lynchpin of status in the village. Kate One wouldn’t be Kate One without Kates Two, Three (where is she tonight?), Four and Five to disdain – or me, to ignore.
I think it was Jan who had Katie and me added to the group email list. Was it due to her liberal-ish, left-ish leanings, or was she just feeling kind?
As for Kate Five, she comes because she aspires to be Kate One. Kate One with her breathtaking mortgage on her eighteenth century cottage; her four long-haul holidays a year, plus Christmas at the cottage on the Scilly Isles; her five privately educated children; her darling chocolate Labradors. Oh, and her husband.
Kate Five fidgets in febrile anticipation of being joined by her idol. She budges up and smoothes down her skirt. Her agitation is painful to watch, as though her sofa has turned into a bed of nettles but she’s trying not to fuss.
While Pat asks me a question about myself that suggests she is truly interested, I observe Kate One as she seats herself with the lithe elegance of a prima ballerina next to Kate Five. She gives low-grade Kate a winning smile and compliments her on her necklace. Kate Five is so thrilled she makes the mistake of telling Kate One where she bought it, but Kate One’s flickering eyes keep returning to the doorway and I think she misses her fellow Kate’s answer.
I hear the name “Diana” bandied about between Kate Two and Mary. Kate Two is unable to disguise a certain triumph playing around her mouth and eyes as they discuss the eminent new neighbour. Yes, she’s struggling to suppress a grin, she really is. A point must have been scored. As she listens, Mary’s face is a picture of greedy intrigue, like a portrait of a Renaissance pope. She’s fiddling with her pearls again. I wonder whether Kate Two has managed to invite Diana for coffee. Or, for ten points, whether Diana has invited her? Kate One has heard the name, too, and even as she continues to look Kate Five in the eye and ask her about her youngest daughter, I know she is listening to the conversation opposite.
“Really?” says Mary, “So Diana’s extension will include a media room and a library?”
“Mmmm,” replies Kate Two, clearly revelling in her insider knowledge, tossing her information at Mary like crusts to a duck. “Apparently, they can go ahead because only the front of the building’s listed.”
“Really?” repeats Mary in a tone of poison green, “so they’ve already received planning permission?”
Ah, planning permission! In this particular rural village the sexy topics in the communal consciousness are not, for instance, the date of the first cuckoo of spring or even the sighting of the rare bee orchid; they are: planning permissions; property prices; and bloody builders. The former are of course of interest as, rumour has it, cuckoos and bee orchids can push property prices through the stratosphere.
Kate One’s hands are clasped demurely on her lap. I notice her knuckles whiten as she eavesdrops. Apparently, she has just been refused planning permission for the second time for her media room and gym.
Meanwhile Jan’s calm is crumbling a little as it’s twenty to nine and there are still only seven of us here. She re-fills everyone’s wineglass one more time, apart from Kate One, who has a soft drink of some description. It’s in a long tumbler with plenty of ice and a slice of lime, but I think it may be tap-water. Jan’s voice is shrill, “Well, shall we talk about the book now?”
At every Reading Group meeting this sort of question is met with mock surprise or derision and a few giggles as though it’s the last thing we want to do. Which of course, it is. Jan chooses the winged armchair, and continues, “Anyway, time’s getting on, so…did anyone actually finish it?”
More giggles and some mock guilty face-pulling.
The six-hundred page tome set in Renaissance Venice was so painfully dreary that I couldn’t turn a page beyond seventy-five, so I keep quiet. Happily, nobody usually listens to anything I might have to say anyway, so I don’t feel unduly worried.
Kate Two leans forward. Still glowing with triumph over her revelations about Diana’s planning permission, she’s going for gold tonight. “Oh yes, I did. I found it utterly compelling. The fine detail about fifteenth century Venice was so vivid and I found the prose wonderfully lyrical and moving – so much so that I’ve marked a few paragraphs that I particularly enjoyed and I wondered if I could share them with you.” She lifts up her copy. It is stuffed with blue post-its so it looks like Kate’s planning to treat us to a long reading and lit-crit. She runs her slim fingers through her well-cut, brown-and-blonde hair, slightly raising her dark eyebrows as she searches for her first post-it. As I reach for my wineglass, I glance at Pat who smiles at me as though in eager anticipation and leans forward, clasping her knees with both hands. I try to reflect her enthusiasm in my own face but I fear it may not be entirely convincing.
Kate One seizes the opportunity to patronise, “Oh yes, please, Kate. I always love to hear your thoughts on our books.” She has one more glance at the door. She quickly turns to Jan, “Just before Kate begins though, Jan, I just wondered, did you include Diana on your email list? I’m quite surprised she’s not here. Do you think we should wait a few more minutes in case she’s been held up?”
Jan’s right hand dives up her left sleeve to scratch her eczema-prone skin, and then up to the back of her neck before she replies, “Oh, well, no – I didn’t have her email address. I thought you said you were going to invite her when she came to you for coffee last Friday.”
There is a tightening of Kate’s jaw. Kate Five, next to Kate One, leans back to have a better view of this exchange. And, I suspect, to keep clear of the ten-thousand-volt anger sparking from Kate One towards Jan.
“Unfortunately, Diana couldn’t come for coffee so we had to re-schedule, but if you’d told me you didn’t have her email I could have got it for you. Did anybody else invite her?”
There’s a silence that I decide to break by piping up, “I’ve never even met her yet!”
Pat, Mary and Jan chime in to fill the void,
“Er, no, I assumed…”
“No, I don’t really know her.”
“No, I’ve only met her once.”
Kate Two, toying with the edge of her post-it, says nothing, a small, serene smile illuminating her face: Mona Lisa with eyebrows.
Silence. Kate One leans back on the sofa with an inscrutable look. Jan turns to Kate Two, “So, would you like to start us off, Kate?”
Kate Two smiles, nods, pushes her hair away from her face, and begins to read her first chosen passage. Mary bottom-shuffles back a little to give Kate Two unimpeded limelight. After two sentences there is an unintelligible sound from the opposite sofa. Kate One is slumped back, leaning oddly to one side. Her face looks strange, distorted, frightening. She is trying to speak but her words are like those of a toddler or a drunk. We can’t understand her. Kate Five shrinks back in horror.
“Christ, what’s going on?”
“Bloody hell, what’s the matter?”
“Kate, what’s wrong?”
Pat, who used to be a nurse, steps forward and takes charge, “For God’s sake, call an ambulance. She’s had a stroke.”
Jan disappears into the hall and we hear her shaking voice as she gives her name and address.
Pat is asking Kate One questions, asking her to raise her arms, asking her to try and speak. Kate One seems to be passing in and out of consciousness. The right side of her face is slack and she is dribbling slightly from the right corner of her mouth. Pat kindly mops up the saliva with a clean tissue. The rest of us feel helpless, hopeless, at a loss.
Mary asks, “Pat, is there anything we can do? Does she need warm blankets? Aspirin? Or anything? There must be something we can do.”
Pat shakes her head. “She just needs the ambulance to get here. Quickly.”
Kate Five looks truly terrified. I move over to the vacant winged armchair. I reach across and hold her hand. She’s trying not to cry.
The paramedics arrive at last. With smooth efficiency, gentleness and a cheeriness we find oddly comforting, they place this particular lump of ailing humanity onto a stretcher. We watch as one of the top females of the village tribe is carried out of the house and into the waiting ambulance. She looks grey, disfigured, old.
We stand silently and watch the ambulance lights disappear down the lane. As I glance about me, I realise that everyone has an arm around someone else, or is holding a hand. The masks have fallen, and for the first time in this village, I feel a connection.