Coming Home . . . for Christmas Chapter 1
A bitingly chill wind blew in off the East River and hailstones sharp as wasp stings peppered Alison Dunwoody’s upraised face as she took one last look at the apartment she’d called home for the past three years. The five windows on the twelfth floor were dark now. Pitch black. No comforting glow of golden lamplight spilling out identifying it as hers, among the myriad lights that glimmered from her building.
Alison shook her head in disbelief. It wasn’t her building any more. When she’d first come to New York she’d found it so strange to hear people talking about ‘my building’ so proprietorially. As she’d scaled the career ladder, she’d moved buildings several times, her first home being a tiny, dark studio, with cockroaches and rattling waterpipes, in a less than salubrious area off Times Square; and then to a bigger studio in Chelsea before graduating to a one-bedroom apartment in TriBeCa. She’d lived there happily, knowing that she was progressing well in the financial sector. She’d studied and taken courses, the last one a three-year course for a Chartered Wealth Management degree, which she’d found thoroughly absorbing. After that, she’d got a job in the private banking sector, before leaving to join the Wealth Management team of DJ Hamilton & Associates Financial Advisers, a prestigious financial institution on Wall Street.
Her personal reward to herself, after that leap up the ladder, was a two-bedroom apartment, uptown between First and FDR, with a dinky balcony and a view of the East River. Nirvana, and an affirmation of all the gruelling hours she’d put in at her job and all her hard work over the years.
Several of the women in her building were rich men’s mistresses. Two were first wives living in apartments secured in divorce settlements from their ex-husbands. One young, spoilt madam lived there thanks to her wealthy father. Alison was paying her rent herself and that was a source of immense satisfaction. True, the kitchen in her pad was postage-stamp small and the second bedroom doubled as her office, extra closet, and repository for unironed clothes, unread magazines and anything that she needed out of sight before entertaining Jonathan Bailey, her ‘current’ boyfriend.
Alison chewed the inside of her lip. Jonathan, an advertising executive in his father’s mega-successful TransCon Advertising Agency, was out of town at the moment. He was tying up a deal in LA and had been away for almost a month doing a root-and-branch review of the business on the west coast. Belt-tightening was essential in the current climate, he’d assured her as he spent a small fortune on a new Rolex Oyster.
When she’d told him she’d been made redundant and would have to give up her Upper East Side apartment, his tanned, handsome face had registered dismay, and she knew it wasn’t because of her housing dilemma, but because he didn’t want to have to offer her a place to stay. Jonathan did not like to have his wings clipped. He didn’t do domesticity or exclusivity, he’d told her during their first encounter, at a cocktail party in the Hamptons at the beginning of the summer. He’d done marriage once and wouldn’t be doing it again in a hurry, he’d informed her crisply.
‘A man after my own heart,’ she’d reciprocated airily. ‘I can’t bear to be tied down.’
‘How refreshing.’ Jonathan had studied her with renewed interest, and she knew she’d hooked him. With her rich auburn mane of tumbling curls, wide green eyes, and a light tan, she’d been looking particularly well that night, in an elegant, cerise sleeveless dress that showed off her well-toned body to perfection.
They’d dated casually ever since and, though she liked him, and had a good time with him, she was by no means in love with Jonathan and had no desire to move in with him. This easygoing relationship had suited Alison down to the ground. Exclusivity and domesticity were so not her scene either. Work and career advancement were her consuming passions. They made her buzz, giving her an adrenalin rush no romance had ever matched.
Alison sighed from the depths of her. She wondered how long her romance with Jonathan would last now that she was jobless and moving to a small studio no bigger than a medium-sized hotel suite. Not too long, she imagined. Part of her attraction for Jonathan was her independence, financial and otherwise. He liked that she often insisted on paying for their romantic dinners. And that she was not high maintenance. His wife was bleeding him dry, he often moaned, even though he had been born to affluence and never stinted on luxury items for himself. He was fun to be with, charming and, equally important to Alison, he knew so many movers and shakers and mixed with the crème de la crème in NY and LA. She’d been on the cusp of bringing several new clients to her firm, having met them socially with Jonathan and impressing them with her knowledge and expertise in the financial sector. It was the grace of God nothing had been firmed up and none of their wealth had been invested in Hamilton’s, she thought with a shudder, remembering how quickly her world had been turned upside down.
The downturn, which had hit the financial markets with the speed of a tsunami, devastating hundreds of thousands of investors and mucking up her life big-time, was a disaster for her. She certainly wouldn’t be able to pay for dinner à deux in exclusive restaurants any more, or go to Norma’s, the ‘in’ place to have brunch in NY, on Sundays before strolling down to Central Park with the papers. She wouldn’t be flying all over the country to join her boyfriend on luxury breaks in fashionable destinations. She would be counting her pennies in her tiny burrow and doing her utmost to find a new position. Jonathan would be far from impressed with her new lodgings, she thought with a wry smile, knowing what a snob he was about such things. She’d got used to the high life, got used to spending crazy money on life’s little luxuries – designer shoes, bags, accessories. She’d spent $250 on a pair of Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses that time she’d gone to the Hamptons, and several hundred more on designer jeans and strappy sandals. She’d spent a fortune that weekend, including splashing out on several bottles of Krug. It hadn’t cost her a thought. Now she was making a cocktail last an hour on the rare nights she went out with friends, and her fridge no longer boasted splits of champagne. In fact, her new fridge was half the size of the one she’d had in her apartment. ‘Compact’ was the best adjective to describe her new abode, Alison thought ruefully as she shivered in the arctic breeze.
It was a three-month sublet which she’d been lucky to acquire through her colleague and best friend, Melora, who, like her, had lost her job. Melora Buscemi had had enough of chilly New York and unemployment. She’d had to give up her loft in the Meatpacking District for the small studio off Broadway. Her BMW Cabriolet had been repossessed and her credit card had been declined when she’d used it to pay for a new laptop when her own had crashed, with impeccable timing, the day after she became one of America’s jobless. Had she still been employed, the company would have paid for a top-of-the-range model.
Melora was heading for LA for the rest of the winter, where at least she wouldn’t have to pay heating bills, and the chances of finding a job had to be better than in gloomy, depressed, recession-battered New York, she reckoned somewhat illogically, the recession being nationwide. But having secured the studio for a six-month let she was reluctant to let it go, and lose her deposit.
‘Look, unless Jonathan’s going to pay your rent, you won’t be able to manage much longer where you are without making a huge dent in what’s left of your savings. Why don’t you sublet your apartment and take my little pad until you get sorted?’ Melora offered kindly as they sat sipping cocktails in Chez Toni’s, a club they’d had to queue forty minutes to gain entrance to. They’d watched glumly from behind the cordon as the Town Cars and sleek limos deposited gorgeous women in barely there designer dresses and skyscraper heels, and cool Armani- and Gucci-clad guys – the kind Melora was desperate to meet – swanned in to be cocooned in the rarefied, roped-off, security-guarded areas, where they could drink champagne untroubled by lesser beings who had to queue.
Had Jonathan been with them they wouldn’t have had to do anything so déclassé as queue. He was one of the social elite who had that magical access to clubs and restaurants, and swanky airport lounges. Jonathan never, ever turned right on an aircraft, and the few times she’d travelled with him, neither had Alison. Now it all seemed like a dream.
‘Or even better, honey,’ her friend interrupted her musings, ‘why don’t you come to LA with me? We could rent a place together and wow the corporate heads with our mega-impressive CVs, stunning good looks and, like, totally sophisticated NY cool.’ Melora grinned, showing her strong, white teeth. With smooth ebony skin and a long-limbed, curvy body, she looked ten years younger than her thirty-five years. ‘I suppose you wouldn’t want to leave Jonathan?’ She arched a perfectly shaped eyebrow.
‘It’s not that, Mel,’ Alison sighed. ‘I can’t see me and Jonathan lasting much longer, to be honest. He doesn’t do “failure”, and once he sees me in a walk-up studio that my bed wouldn’t even fit in, he’s going to think, “Loser”.’
‘Don’t say that, you’re not a loser. This is unprecedented – it’s a recession. It’s got nothing to do with our lack of skills or job performance,’ Mel protested indignantly.
‘Well, I ain’t a winner right now.’ Alison grimaced. ‘Heading for mid-thirties, jobless, almost homeless, living on my savings, which are dwindling much faster than I’d like – after nearly fifteen years of working my ass off, I haven’t got much to show for it. My investments got such a hammering, and my bonuses were in company shares and they’re down the Swannee just like yours.’
‘You can add “manless” to that list for me,’ Melora remarked gloomily.
‘I’m going to be manless too, soon. You can bet on it.’ Alison shrugged.
‘And it doesn’t even bother you, girl. You and I are so different in that regard. I want the man! I want the kids! I want the home!’ Melora eyed a hot guy who was strolling past with two splits of champagne.
‘My sister Olivia has all that. I’d go crazy – I’d feel so smothered and claustrophobic. Uuggghh!’ Alison winced at the notion.
‘You just haven’t met the right man yet. I’m telling you, when you meet him you’ll know, and we’ll see how claustrophobic you feel then.’
‘Dream on,’ grinned Alison.
‘Girl, we lived a high ol’ life though here in New York City.’ Mel chuckled. ‘And you can’t deny that. Come to LA with me. Let’s give it a whirl?’ she urged.
‘I don’t know, I don’t like LA. All that body-beautiful stuff, all that lettuce-leaf lifestyle, all that phoney posturing and posing and edginess and the way people are so busy looking over your shoulder when they’re talking to you . . . scouting . . . No thanks. I’m too old for it – and I hate constant sunshine: it would drive me crazy.’
‘How can you say that, you mad Irishwoman you? That holiday I spent with you in Ireland where it rained non-stop and you said you didn’t mind it. You’re crazy already,’ her friend teased, raising her cocktail glass to her.
‘Anyway, talking of home, it’s my mam’s seventieth birthday. I’m going home next week, don’t forget. I think I might even stay an extra ten days for Christmas; it would make her so happy. She doesn’t even know I’m coming home for her birthday. I can’t believe she’s seventy.’ Alison took a slug of her drink, wishing she could get hammered, but alcohol was having no effect on her mood tonight.
‘Completely forgot about that. So I guess we won’t be seeing each other for a while,’ Melora said sadly.
‘Don’t say that,’ Alison protested miserably.
‘Have you told them at home about work?’ Melora drained her cocktail.
‘Nope. Although, in fairness, my mam would say something like “Let it go, the Universe will provide, when one door closes another door opens if you let it.” She has a great outlook on life in that regard. My dad would worry a lot more. But it would still upset them, and I don’t want to ruin the party and Christmas. Have you told yours?’
‘Naw, it would only worry them too. And my dad’s not been well. They don’t need an unemployed daughter to be concerned about. They’ll want me to come home and, honey, I just couldn’t face a cold Chicago winter living back with my folks – even though I love them,’ she added hastily.
‘I know, it would be like taking a backward step, going back to your childhood almost. I’m not going to say a word. I’ll just let on everything’s fine.’ Alison frowned as she pronged an olive and chewed it.
‘Things will work out for us both,’ Melora said stoutly.
‘Sure,’ agreed Alison heartily. ‘We’ll be fine. Just fine.’
Three days later, her best friend had jetted off to LA relieved at least that Alison was subletting her studio.
Tears slid down Alison’s cheeks as she remembered their night out and their upbeat talk. Things were far from fine, she reflected, as the hailstones continued their onslaught. Her own apartment was awaiting a new tenant. She’d pulled in every contact she had, targeted dozens of firms, even cold-called executives to try and sell herself and get a job, but recession was embedded and firms were being inundated with applications from high performers who’d lost their jobs in the financial and economic meltdown. And so far, five weeks down the line from the day she’d arrived at her Wall Street office to discover that the owner and CEO of her company had drunk a bottle of whiskey, swallowed a fistful of sleepers and died in the early hours of the morning – she hadn’t had a whisper of a job.
Daniel J. Hamilton, charismatic CEO and founder of Hamilton & Associates, had taken a hit when Lehman Bros. had collapsed, but he’d restructured the company’s finances, tightened up their operation and kept going, until the news had filtered along Wall Street that another disaster with highly respected financier Bernie Madoff was on the cards – far more damaging than the Lehman debacle. Hamilton, over-extended as he was, knew he couldn’t claw his way out of this second catastrophe. He was an honourable man who had always dealt with his clientele with the height of professional integrity. He could not face telling his many clients, some high profile, his employees, and his family that they had lost fortunes because of the investment advice his firm had given in good faith, investments he’d believed in and invested in himself, investments he’d urged his employees to put their bonuses in. He’d locked himself in his office with a bottle of Jack Daniels and the sleeping tablets his doctor had prescribed for him the previous month, written a note to his wife and children and become another victim of unscrupulous, unprincipled men who thought they were above the law.
Alison and Melora, along with the other dazed employees, had been told by the financial director that their jobs were gone, the business was bankrupt, the receivers were being called in and they should collect their belongings and go home. Alison had gone from being a highly regarded senior vice-president with a very affluent lifestyle to being jobless and, it seemed, unemployable, in the blink of an eye. And she wasn’t alone or the worst off by far. She’d seen grown men cry at the thought of having to go home and tell their wives and children they had no job and would no longer be able to pay their mortgages, college fees and health-care bills. She’d seen the fear in their faces as all their security had been pulled from under them in the space of a ten-minute speech. People like them – highly educated, highly qualified professionals – didn’t get made redundant. This was America, the land of milk and honey, the land of golden opportunity. The shock and disbelief were palpable. The TV cameras had filmed them leaving the offices, and they’d been on all the news channels for a day or two and then it had been someone else’s turn.
Now, here she was standing on the pavement, about to hail a taxi to take her to a cramped little walk-up, most of her possessions in storage, and she felt lonely, scared and oppressed. Strange, unfamiliar emotions that rattled her confidence and brought her to the edge of panic. What was she going to do if she couldn’t get a job? How long could she last without an income? There were jobs in Hong Kong, Singapore, and other foreign destinations – she’d scoured the internet looking at the positions on offer – but the idea of uprooting to another country and starting afresh was unnerving and not one that she relished. She’d done all that when she was younger. Now it didn’t seem as exciting a prospect. Her mother might well say that the Universe would provide, and it looked as though Alison was going to have to put the theory to the test, even though she didn’t want to. Trusting in providence was not her forte, she thought wryly. She liked to be in control.
Suddenly, although she’d been dreading the thought of going home to Port Ross, Alison wanted to be there more than anything. Wanted to feel her mother’s warm, loving hug and listen to her words of wisdom, and inhale the familiar woody scent of her father’s pipe, knowing that there was one place at least that she would be welcomed with open arms. Port Ross, the small fishing village on the north-east coast of Ireland just thirty miles from Dublin where she’d grown up, seemed far more inviting than the bitterly cold, noisy, grimy, bustling city street she was standing on.
Her parents lived in a homely dormer bungalow right on top of a cliff at the sea’s edge. The sound of the sea caressing the beach had lullabied her to sleep every night, and the orange gold of the sunrise painting the sea and sky had woken her each morning, along with the smell of her mother’s homemade brown bread and scones wafting up the stairs.
Her older sister, Olivia, still lived in the village, with her husband and three little girls. They’d be fast asleep now, after a supper of hot chocolate and buttery toast in front of the fire, a tradition Olivia had carried on from their own childhood. God, she’d love to be sitting in front of a real fire, watching it roaring up the chimney, listening to the crackling song of the wood as it blazed merrily, sipping creamy hot chocolate and eating toast dripping with melting butter and jam, Alison thought longingly.
Impulsively, she pulled out her cell phone. It was night time at home, but Olivia would get the message in the morning Alison thought, hailing a taxi that had its light on. She gave the midtown address and settled back against the seat, her fingers flying over the keys.
Hi O. How U? How are the plans for the surprise party going? Can’t wait 2 C every 1. So glad I’m coming home. A xx