‘Oh, Emily,’ said Victoria. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know. What a shame.’
‘Bad luck!’ said Piers.
‘Oh, it’s OK. It was only temporary anyway. Back to the agency on Monday.’
‘Could you do some work at the school? Victoria always needs a hand there.’
‘Yes!’ said Victoria. ‘Please do.’
‘That’s nice of you,’ said Emily. ‘But I need something long-term.’
‘Oh, please! You’d be doing me a favour. I’m going to need help interviewing the new parents.’ Victoria gave a ‘special’ look to Emily, but she needn’t have bothered. Emily knew very well why Victoria wanted her at the school. Instead of getting a nice job at a proper office with a canteen, she was supposed to go and help out at Victoria’s stage school and learn more, if that were possible, about her neighbour’s life than she already knew – which was considerably more than she wanted to know.
Piers went to the fridge and opened a bottle of white wine. He got out three glasses, which was a good start. If you were thirsty, you could die from the want of a cup of tea or a glass of wine when Victoria was hosting. ‘It would set my mind at rest to have a friend of Victoria’s working there,’ he said.
Emily wasn’t friends with Victoria. Victoria sometimes gave her hand-me-down, very expensive, brightly-coloured twinsets. But friends? No.
‘She gets very stressed when she’s planning the end-of-term “extravaganza”,’ said Piers. ‘Always threatens to close the school or flounce off and let someone else run it.’ He filled a glass with wine and handed it to Victoria. ‘I wish you would give it up, Vee. There are so many other things you could be doing if you didn’t have the school – things we could be doing together.’
‘I don’t know why I do it: parents, patrons, prize-giving, tap-dancing, teenagers, toddlers, teachers’ skits.
. And that’s just the showcase. I’m also battling the landlord because he wants to sell up. The bills are sky-high. The infant toilets keep blocking up, and there’s something wrong with the electrics that needs to be fixed by nine o’clock tomorrow morning. I’m
to giving the place up and letting someone else run it. And now there’s this other thing.’
‘What other thing?’ Piers asked.
‘I could take you in and introduce you tomorrow,’ said Victoria to Emily. ‘We do weekends and after-school and school holidays, but tomorrow is our end-of-term showcase for the students at Showstoppers – it’s a chance for them to put together everything they’ve learned – and we use it to recruit new students, too. Oh… I’ll be OK when it’s over and we go off on holiday. I love it, really. You’ll love it, too. And the kids will love you. Do you dance?’
Emily said, ‘No.’
‘What other thing?’ said Piers again.
Victoria looked at Emily, then she stood and took the poison pen letters from her back pocket and spread them out on the table.
‘Crumbs!’ said Piers. ‘Not much of a poet, is she? Or he. Who’s sending these, do you think?’ He went and put his arm around Victoria’s waist, glass of wine held at chin height in his other hand, and they stood together and looked at the notes as though they were at the private view of an art exhibition, trying to make sense of a perplexing exhibit.
‘You remember I told you about David Devereux, my old boyfriend? We made a video together when we were students.’
‘Did you?’ Piers blushed, the pink patches on his cheeks girlishly endearing, as if he had put on a pair of pink fluffy slippers. ‘I’ve never seen it.’ He broke away from Victoria and sat down and drank a mouthful of his wine.
‘Not that kind of video,’ said Victoria. ‘It was a performance piece for our degree. We began to wish we’d never made it. It brought everyone who watched it the most awful bad luck.’ Victoria looked over towards the Welsh dresser. ‘I don’t even like to touch it, to be honest.’
‘It’s here?’ said Piers. He went over to the dresser. It was obviously a dumping-ground for all sorts of once-useful or might-one-day-be-useful items. Piers crouched and opened the double doors at the bottom of the dresser and brought out: a ball of string, a cricket ball, an electric screwdriver – ‘Oh! I’ve been looking for that!’ – a roll of cellotape, a packet of plastic clothes pegs, four electric light bulbs… ‘No,’ he said, shovelling it all back in again. ‘Can’t see a video.’
‘In the top drawer. With the pizza leaflets.’ Victoria watched while Piers rummaged for a bit and then pulled an old VHS tape out of the drawer and brought it over to the table. She said, ‘It was twenty years ago. I’d almost forgotten about it, but then it arrived in the post a week or so ago. The widow of my old tutor sent it to me. She’s getting on a bit, and she’s got to move into a care home. She found it when she was clearing out her house. There was a lovely note with it, saying, “I don’t blame you for what happened to Bill.”’
‘Is the note anything like these ones?’ asked Emily.
‘No, unfortunately. Or fortunately. She was a really nice woman.’
‘Why is it bad luck?’ Piers asked.
‘Well, David and I always believed that Bill – my old tutor – died because of it. And then we split up – though that’s a good thing, in hindsight. Or I’d never have met you. It just seemed like one thing after another. Though death is much worse, of course, than the breakup of a love affair between two drama students.’
‘He died because of your video?’ said Piers. ‘What on earth do you mean, Vee?’
‘He had to evaluate it for our degree. It really was the most awful, earnest piece of tosh. An interpretive dance piece – we were very proud of it, of course, at the time. But we showed it to a few of the other students, and they cracked up laughing at it. My friend Gloria had an asthma attack – they had to take her to the walk-in health clinic and put her on the nebulizer. Then poor old Bill had a heart attack and died while he was watching it. They found him sitting in his arm chair in front of the TV, with this awful rictus grin.’
‘Surely they didn’t mention the awful rictus grin in the coroner’s report?’ said Piers.
‘No. But that’s what we heard afterwards from his wife – his widow. Everyone teased us, all the other students. They said he died laughing. I don’t doubt it’s true. Honestly, I can’t bear to have it in the house. And now this business with the poison pen letters. What shall I do with the ghastly thing?’
‘There’s no such thing as bad luck brought by a video. Your tutor would have died anyway, Victoria, if he had a weak heart. You know that. You know what we ought to do? We’ll watch it now – prove there’s nothing in it.’
‘Is it very long?’ asked Emily. ‘The video?’
‘It’s VHS,’ said Victoria. ‘We haven’t got a machine that will play it in the house.’
, Emily?’ asked Piers. He seemed ready for action.
Fortunately Emily only had a DVD player. But it seemed a good time to take her leave. ‘I have some errands to run in the morning,’ she said, meaning that she would like to stay in bed. ‘But I could be at Showstoppers by ten o’clock tomorrow to help out.’
‘That would be great!’ said Victoria. Emily relaxed a bit – actually it might be quite nice to work for Victoria for a while. She smiled. The fragrant, delicious, very cold, expensive white wine that Piers had dispensed for her in a heavy, expensive wine glass had worked its magic on her. But then Victoria delivered her punch line, ‘Unfortunately the children will start coming in around ten o’clock. It’s best if I introduce you to the staff before that. Shall we say eight thirty-ish?’
The next morning, as she was on her way to Showstoppers shortly before ten o’clock (with Piers’s help, she’d managed to talk Victoria into letting her have a later start), Emily saw her neighbour Dr. Muriel on the other side of the street. ‘Lovely day for a wedding!’ called Dr. Muriel, waving her stick in the air when she saw Emily. Dr. Muriel was a middle-aged feminist who lived alone. She was wearing a tweed skirt with a grass stain just above the hem, where she had knelt to weed her herbaceous border after cutting the lawn, going down on her right knee to do it like an old-fashioned suitor. Emily took a few moments to try to evaluate Dr. Muriel’s comment. Given her appearance and her independent nature, Emily thought it unlikely that Dr. Muriel was on her way to a take part in a ceremony that would seal her future to that of a man or woman. Emily herself wasn’t getting married. But it was a sunny day, and it was a Saturday, and someone, somewhere would be getting wed. Therefore she deduced that Dr. Muriel was just making a slightly obtuse remark that didn’t merit a reply. This was not unusual. Emily waved back as if to say, ‘Noted!’ and she did it with a smile on her face in case it was a joke, to show that she had got it and she was amused. Dr. Muriel was one of those people who could help to simplify an idea and provide an answer to a problem if one were needed – and if not, she could complicate everything needlessly. Emily wasn’t in the mood for complications or cryptic remarks. She went on her way.
But Dr. Muriel swooped across the road – a big, grey owl, Emily her helpless quarry. Why was everyone so friendly? You didn’t move to London to have a chat. You moved to London to get on in life and get invited to sophisticated parties – not that Emily had had much success with either, to date.
‘Terrible business!’ said Dr. Muriel to Emily.
‘Yes,’ said Emily, not quite sure what she was talking about.
‘You’re a bright girl. You’ll find something that’s right for you…’ Dr. Muriel saw that Emily had abandoned any attempt to pretend she understood the topic of conversation. She said, ‘Vicky told me you were out of work again.’
Emily said, ‘You should see the job adverts these days – it’s all about “passion” and “commitment” and “making a difference”. I’d just like to find an employer that will pay me a decent wage for doing a competent job. I don’t want to give up a piece of my soul.’
‘You rail against potential employers who treat their trivial business as though it were important, and yet you treat your important business – your life, your future – as though it were trivial. You most certainly do not just want to do “a competent job”, Emily Castles. You are an inquisitive, fair-minded, insightful young woman who is easily bored. It’s true that employers are continually letting you go, but it’s because you have let them go long before it ever comes to that. You could do worse than go and work for Vicky, m’dear. There are always interesting dynamics in a staffroom (I should know), and of course, there are all those pushy parents intent on polishing pebbles and producing diamonds in two lessons a week during term-times, for £20 a week. I think you’ll find it stimulating. I hope so, anyway.’
Emily would have liked to confide in Dr. Muriel about the blackmail and Victoria’s video. But she had only known this secret for less than a day, and she didn’t think it would be to her credit to spill it to the very next person she saw after Victoria told her about it. Instead she said, ‘So are you going to a wedding?’
‘Gracious, no! Weddings are awfully depressing, aren’t they? They do have a tendency to make one feel suicidal. No, indeed. This afternoon I shall be attending an event that always makes me feel positively murderous.’ And Dr. Muriel smiled wickedly and went on her way.
Showstoppers was in a red and yellow brick Edwardian building not far from the street where Emily lived. It would be pleasant to walk to work, she acknowledged – and it would be strange to be walking to school after all these years, even if it was to a performing arts school. Emily enjoyed a pleasant little frisson of nostalgia as she thought back to the days when she walked to school as a child in her blazer and grey and blue school uniform. It had always seemed sunny. For a moment she wondered whether this was a kind of false memory – the rosiness of an adult reflecting on her childhood – and then she realised that she probably only remembered sunny days walking to school because she would have got a lift when it was raining.
Victoria came out to greet her when she arrived at Showstoppers, gripping Emily by the shoulders and giving her a kiss on one cheek. She was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, with a hideous pewter-grey loose-knit shawl draped over her shoulders that made her look fragile and tragic, as though her husband had been lost at sea and she had grabbed just
to wear to keep herself warm while she walked along the shoreline, waiting for news of him. ‘Hello, Ems,’ said Victoria. ‘Listen, you won’t tell anyone here that I killed a man?’
‘No,’ said Emily. ‘I won’t do that.’
The dance school had once been a local primary school, so it had several large, airy rooms with wooden floors and high ceilings, a performance space where assemblies had been held, and a suite of tiny toilets for small children, as well as standard-sized facilities. The offices were upstairs on the first floor. It had been a long time since Emily had been in a place like this. She had forgotten about the shiny thick linoleum on the stairs, the worn banisters, the scratched wooden floors in the classrooms. From downstairs there drifted the plangent sound of the piano being played by unknown hands, and over the music she heard the excited, almost-mocking sound of children’s laughter, and she was struck again with memories, as though the school was full of ghosts whispering about P.E. lessons and colouring-in.
Victoria opened the door to the office. ‘Let me introduce you girls to each other,’ she said in her weary, posh voice. ‘People say “girls” now, right? I’ve been “a woman” since I was eighteen, but that was in the eighties. I’ve lived so long, we’ve all become girls again. I would say it’s like a fabulous rejuvenation cream – except it only recategorizes you, it doesn’t remove your wrinkles.’