The Runaway Princess
“Imagine I’m Max Barclay,” said Jo. “I’ve just got you a drink. I’m coming over to have an uncomplicated, no-pressure party chat with you.”
To make it more real, she began to swagger across the balcony toward me as if wearing a pair of invisible leather chaps, a takeaway cup of coffee standing in for the cheap white wine.
“Well, if it isn’t the lovely Amy Wilde, Chelsea’s very own Queen of Spades,” she drawled in Max’s confident Sloane-y tones. “Hoe’s it hanging, Amy? Ha-ha.”
Then she did a startling impression of Max’s wink, and paused for me to respond, as rehearsed. Right on cue, my brain emptied of all thoughts, leaving only a faint background buzz of panic, and the sinking knowledge that I was about to say something stupid. I always did. That was why I spent 90 percent of all parties in the kitchen by the sausage rolls.
I groaned inwardly. I wasn’t even at the party yet. We weren’t even in a room. I couldn’t even claim Jo had Max Barclay’s disconcerting Roman nose to put me off. This party would be the third time Jo had tried to matchmake me with Max, and on both previous occasions the famous Barclay nose had robbed me of all coherent thought; it was supposed to “prove” some familial indiscretion with the Duke of Wellington but all my brain could see was a golden eagle in red trousers. I’d virtually had to hold my jaw shut to stop myself mentioning it, which hadn’t exactly made for sparkling conversation.
I took a deep breath and made an effort to remember the inoffensive conversational underhand serves we’d been practicing. There were some advantages to sharing a flat with the woman who put the art into party. Jo put lots of other things into parties too, like vodka melon pops and undetectable guest-mingling, but for the last year or so her considerable attentions had been focused on coaching me out of what she called my “party paralysis.”
“Um . . .”
“No!” Jo dropped Max’s swagger and pointed at me. “That’s where you always go wrong. Stop thinking about what you shouldn’t say and let the conversation flow.” She made a graceful gesture with her free hand. “Let the inoffensive small talk about the weather and the shooting and what you got for Christmas ripple forth until you find a mutually interesting topic—”
“Jo, I keep telling you—I’m from Yorkshire,” I interrupted. “We don’t do small talk in Yorkshire. We don’t do any talk, if we can help it. Our menfolk play cricket, a game conducted in respectful silence by both spectators and players, and our womenfolk hold entire conversations using only their eyebrows and their bosoms. If in doubt, say nowt. It’s practically the county motto.”
“But how do you meet anyone?” Jo looked bewildered. The concept of not talking for more than ten seconds was something she found incomprehensible; she was constantly yakking away on the phone at home, even while she was in the bath, usually to someone called Tilly, Milly, or Lily. Sometimes Billy.
“We move to London. Can I have that coffee now, please?” I asked, holding out a hand. I’d been digging flowerbeds over since 9 a.m.; I needed the caffeine.
Jo lifted it just out of my grasp and raised her eyebrows expectantly, so I sighed, and delivered the line she wanted. “Everything in the garden’s rosy, Max, thanks for asking.”
She handed over the cappuccino with a proud smile. “See? You’re funny. You just need a prompt.”
“I have one. It’s called standing in the kitchen asking people what they’d like to drink. It’s been working for me for years.”
“You are not spending another party lurking around in there with the dishcloths and vol-au-vents. I want you out in the action. Mingling. Meeting people. Showing them the light you keep hiding under that portable bushel of yours.”
“You want me to show them my bushel now?”
Jo ignored that, and pounced on another hot topic while I was busy sugaring my coffee. “Now, do you need any help with your costume? The brilliant thing about a heaven and hell theme is that it gives everyone enough scope to come up with something flattering or icebreaking or even—”
“Yes, I’ve been thinking about that,” I said swiftly. “Why don’t I go as a mime artist? They’re pretty hellish. Or Ted suggested that he and I could go as a pantomime horse; then you wouldn’t have to worry about either of us putting our feet in it. We could just do party chitchat by fluttering our eyelashes. Or nodding our horsey head.”
Jo leaned back against the balcony (not a safe thing to do, several hundred feet above Chelsea, given the balcony owner’s lackadaisical approach to maintenance), and inhaled deeply through her nose. She did that so she wouldn’t have to pause to take a breath and so allow me to interrupt her.
“One,” she said, counting off on a gloved finger, “you are the cohost of this party and, as such, you can’t spend it miming ‘Here are the drinks’ and ‘Please don’t be sick on the sofa.’ Two, if you spend the evening in a horse costume with Ted Botham’s nose shoved up in your business, everyone will think you and Ted are a couple, not work partners with a common fear of conversation. Which leads me to three, the whole point of this party is for you to meet at least one of the lovely men I have lined up for you. It’s in your horoscope for this month. You’re irresistible from January the ninth. Just let Max talk about his car. I do. Ask him about fuel
consumption and nod every time you hear the word torque, and you’ll be fine.”
I stared at her. Jo had been going to parties since she was knee-high to a cocktail sausage. She’d probably been matchmaking at them from that age too.
Before I could protest she slung an arm around my shoulders and squeezed. “Amy, you’re far too much fun to waste good mingling time trapped by the fridge with the sobbing drunky girls and the weirdos. You should be out there sparkling. You’re fantastic company. You make me laugh all the time.”
“That’s because you can’t understand my accent,” I pointed out.
“Your accent is fine,” she said darkly. “It’s your weird suspicion of an honest compliment that I can’t understand.”
You wouldn’t take me and Jo for flatmates. When I first met her, she was flicking through a copy of Tatler and sipping a mineral water, and I thought she’d be one of those glossy posh girls who’d never had a job and screamed at the sight of bread—which goes to show how wrong you can be. (The “mineral water” was a vodka and tonic, for a start. And she could demolish a white loaf quicker than you could say “carb hangover.”)
But the glossiness was real. Jo de Vere had a few princess genes in her, I could tell. Everything about her was glossy, from her long brown hair to her crimson pedicure and her divine pearls-and-Labradors accent. She knew everyone—reliable builders, unreliable baronets, taxidermists, tax accountants, taxi drivers—and she was never, never lost for words, even when everyone else was rigid with embarrassment or shock. She claimed it was down to a combination of her constantly remarrying parents and moving house a lot as a child but she had the happy knack of putting people at ease, and then getting them to do exactly what she wanted.
I, on the other hand, was a newly qualified gardener from one of Yorkshire’s sleepiest villages, with the ragged nails of a serial killer and corkscrew blond hair only a troll could love. I’d been
known to deliver a one-liner or two, but usually after I’d rehearsed it for three days while doing someone’s pruning. My sole claim to fame was that my mum had baked the Eccles cake that Princess Anne sampled on her visit to the Great Yorkshire Show (“Deliciously moist, Mrs. Wilde”), and although I had plans to stun London with my wildflower balcony designs, at the moment I was London’s most thorough hedge trimmer and lawn mower.
What Jo and I did have in common, to begin with at least, was Ted Botham. Ted and I shared a house while I was studying to be a garden designer and he was studying estate management, but mainly spending his days irritating local farmers with his metal detector. He was also one of Jo’s oldest friends from boarding school. The summer we graduated, Ted needed someone to help him with a couple of gardening holiday jobs he’d blagged in London, and I, apparently, was his first choice, thanks to my first-class degree in horticultural design and, coincidentally, my van. I was full of plans for my own business, but I needed work and a place to live. And it just happened that Jo needed a lodger for the spare room in her flat near Buckingham Palace, and really didn’t want that lodger to be Ted, something I could understand after sharing a bathroom with him myself for the previous year.
Despite Jo’s demure appearance, I had an inkling that she and I might get on when my “interview” consisted of her dragging me and Ted off to her friend’s karaoke bar in Battersea. After our fourth Cher duet in a row, delivered with an impromptu dance routine and genuine tears of emotion, I realized that Jo had somehow managed to get me to sing in public, something that had never happened before, not to mention dance. The interview ended twelve hours later back at her house, with me frying up a full English breakfast for our hangovers, which she said was the best she’d ever had. (True. My fried eggs are my calling card.)
I’d been there nearly two and a half years now. That added up to about twenty parties, one roomful of “eligible men” in red trousers whom I’d so far failed to click with, dozens of full
English breakfasts, and seven houseplants that Jo had killed off with loving neglect.
“Costume,” she repeated, with the same knee-tap and urgent stare she used on her dilatory workmen. “We need to get it sorted out before Ted borrows that horse costume from whichever idiot friend of his wore it to Hattie’s wedding in Wiltshire last year.”
“What?” So Ted hadn’t been joking when he suggested it.
“Never mind. Chop-chop. What’s your idea of heaven? Or hell? I don’t mind which, so long as it can be accessorized with a feather boa.”
“Hell would be going on Britain’s Got Talent, making a fool of myself in front of millions of people,” I said at once. “So I suppose I could maybe just wear my normal clothes and carry Badger under my arm? There’s always someone with a performing dog.”
Badger was my dog. Well, sort of my dog—I’d inherited him from my grandmother, so his tricks were limited to sitting for a mint imperial and bringing a remote control. He came to work with me or Ted, depending on which location had the more interesting digging opportunities.
“Reality shows—good idea!” Jo gave me her best encouraging smile. “But we need to think hot reality shows. We need a costume where we can really trowel on the makeup. Make the most of your beautiful eyes.” She squinched her nose up in thought—not her best look. “What about Strictly Come Dancing?”
“Yup. That’s hell,” I confirmed. “Fake tan is hell. Low-cut dresses held on with sticky tape are hell. Public voting is hell. People having to do sexy tangos with washed-up soap stars is—”
“Okay, okay. I’ve got the perfect dress for you,” said Jo.
“Oh, come on! I’d look ridiculous in one of your dresses.” I laughed without thinking, then realized that hadn’t come out the way I’d meant it to. “Um, not that you wear ridiculous dresses, just that they’re much smaller than . . . I mean, you’re so much smaller than me, not that your dresses are too small, I mean, they’re very nice, but you do that low-cut thing better than me. . . .” I starfished
my hands in horror as my mouth carried on running long after my brain stopped and sat down.
This was my problem, basically. Imagine that, at a party. With guys you were trying to impress. That’s what comes of growing up somewhere chat-less.
Jo opened her eyes so wide I could see where her mascara started. “Amy. Stop thinking so hard. Fill the silence with a choking fit if you have to.”
“Oi? How long has this tea break been going on?”
We both swiveled round to see Ted Botham’s broad frame looming tweedily from Grace’s minimalist Scandinavian loft kitchen. He’d managed to trail mud from somewhere, although that could have come from Badger, who galloped across the balcony toward us, a stick in his bearded jaws, and made straight for Jo’s immaculate black pencil skirt.
“Badger!” squeaked Jo, holding out her arms for him to jump up on her.
One of the little things that had made me warm to Jo was that despite her meticulous dress sense—today: leopard-skin swing coat, pencil skirt, black patent leather boots for kicking her client’s slow-moving decorators back onto schedule—she could never see a dog without stopping to pat it. When I’d moved in, she’d worried more about where Badger wanted to sleep than whether I had references.
“Hello, Jo,” said Ted. I guessed he’d been digging borders, because his curly brown hair was even curlier with the damp, and his cheeks were as red as his trousers. I didn’t know what it was with Jo’s male friends and their red trousers. “What is it today?” he added in the gently horrible tone so beloved of old school friends. “Bullying builders, or voice-overs for washing-up liquid?”
“Builders.” She checked her watch. “In fact, I should be getting back to Callie Hamilton’s—her electricians have been fitting those dimmer switches so long now she should start charging them rent.”
Although Jo was officially an actress and had appeared in two television ads for washing-up liquid (which was nearly a series, we reckoned), she had a far more lucrative sideline managing building projects for friends of friends who were either too busy or too scared to chivvy workmen along. Between her charming manners and her refusal to hear the word no, Jo saved her clients thousands in overtime.
“You could start by cracking a whip here,” Ted observed, nodding at my packed lunch, then tapping his watch. “We need to get to Fulham by two.”
“No, I think you’ll find that’s your job.” I reached into my rucksack for our diary, glad of the chance to steer us away from the rocky subject of the party. I was in charge of bookings, as well as driving, invoicing, design, and plant purchasing. Ted chopped things and mowed things. “You were supposed to be in Fulham this morning.”
Ted looked sheepish. “I thought we could go together. I’ve, ah, had to move that job in Eltham Avenue. Mrs. Matthews wasn’t ready for me when I called round.”
“What? Wasn’t she back from the gym?”
He flushed. “Um, she hadn’t quite . . . got up.”
“What on earth do you mean?” I asked, even though I had a good idea what was coming. “Was she ill?”
“She will be if she thinks a dressing gown like that’s appropriate for January,” he went on. “Seriously, I could see her . . . She should look into pajamas.”
“She was in her negligee!” Jo hooted with glee, making Badger wriggle in her lap. “Ted! She wanted you to refresh her beds!”
“Or was she after some hoeing? Or . . .” Jo tapped my arm impatiently. “Help me, Amy, I’m running out of double entendres.”
I put a finger on my chin. “Did she want you to harden off her perennials? Um, something something her ranunculus?”
Ted gave us a baleful look, and I couldn’t go on. It was like poking fun at a big cow. A big Hereford cow in a sweater.
A significant number of our clients had seen too many TV adaptations of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and fancied having their own Mellors popping round once a week to trim the borders—it certainly kept our coffers full over the summer. Ted, with his broad shoulders and habit of turning up for work in his old rugby kit, was the perfect garden accessory, especially in hot weather when he liked to work in a white undershirt (he wasn’t the type to work topless, not even in a heat wave, not even with encouragement from his swooning employers).
“You’ll just have to be less irresistible,” said Jo. “Dig less, talk more. Start giving her your wildflower meadow lecture. God knows I love you both, but if I have to listen to the pair of you droning on about the plight of the honeybee for one more dinner, I’m going to boycott honey altogether.”
“You won’t be saying that when I’ve put a beehive on the roof of Leominster Place and we’re making our own honey,” I started.
Ted tossed his head as much as a six-foot bloke could. “If you understood the first thing about the basic biomechanics of—”
“Buzz off,” said Jo, meaningfully. “With the emphasis on zzzzzz.”
“So you just came round here to pick up your chaperone for the afternoon job?” I asked. I didn’t want Jo puncturing our business dream for the year, just a few days in.
“Actually, no,” he retorted airily. “I wanted to see what you’ve been doing with the famous feng shui cottage garden balcony. And, ah, to see if Grace’s famous Dream Seeds are surviving without her while she’s away skiing?”
I was pretty sure this was a convenient lie—he’d almost certainly come to “bump into” Jo—but I humored him, and pointed to five artisan-crafted terra-cotta pots lined up along the far railing, showing precisely arranged compost and not much else. “They’re probably quite glad of the break. She chants over them, you know.”
Grace—a twenty-six-year-old Trustafarian who’d spent more time being life-coached than most people did in full-time employment, and one of our most regular clients—had been given the seeds at the end of her latest course, and planting them “with faith and love and self-belief” was supposed to make both the plants and her secret dreams spring forth. She planted and chanted; I tended. And mended.
Jo looked deeply cynical. “What are they supposed to be bringing her again?”
“Serenity, prosperity, stability in the foreign bond market, and for Richard to seal the Palace View deal, then propose by Valentine’s Day. With a ring from Asprey.”
Ted and I also wanted Richard, a property developer, to buy Palace View, a huge development with even huger possibilities for gardening contracts. Not just the hundred or so balconies, but also the land around the site, and the rooftop. I had a bit of a bee in my bonnet—yes, ho ho—about wildflower meadows, the sort that brought butterflies and bees and insects into the heart of the city; it had been my final year project. I had a plan to create localized wildflower meadows and then set up local beehives—but first I needed the space to plant meadows.
As a side order, some serenity for Grace would be a bonus for me. I’d redesigned her balcony twice in a year already, once for feng shui, once for color therapy.
Jo and Ted were both staring at the pots, their faces strained with the effort of finding something positive to say.
“Nothing so far?” asked Jo. “I mean, should there be? I don’t blame the plants for not wanting to get out of bed in this weather.”
Ted did a deliberate double take, from me to the pots and back again. “Well, duh! They’re probably designed not to sprout so she’ll have to sign up for another session. That’s how these people get gullible women hooked.”
“You’re so right,” said Jo, deadpan. “Before you know it poor Grace’ll be on the hard stuff, like bulbs. And boracics.”
“Brassicas.” Ted’s ears went red.
“Ooh, Ted, no need for that!” She swiped him playfully. “So, when’s Grace back from skiing?”
“Can you speed them up a bit?” She peered into a pot, but there was nothing to see. “Or just put in something that’s actually growing?”
“Not allowed, apparently. Only her energies will awaken the magic seeds.” I made woo-woo gestures over it.
Jo put the pot down. “Then she’s doomed. Grace has all the energy of a three-day-old salad.”
“Ah, now.” I raised a hold-up-a-second finger. “I had a feeling she’d manage to kill them off by feeding them Red Bull or leaving them under her sunbed, so I nicked the rest of the packet while she was planting these pots and took the spare seeds home. I’ve planted my own set. For her, not for me,” I added when they both looked blank. “I haven’t completely lost it.”
To be honest, I’d felt so sorry for flaky Grace, putting what little self-esteem she had into this latest nonsense, that I’d wanted to make sure she got the boost she was hoping for. Even if she didn’t get the ring from Asprey she might get a buzz from making the seedlings appear. I was just . . . helping.
Jo caught on first. “Forward planning—I like it! So, how’s her future looking?”
“Or should I say ours?” added Ted. “Not that I’m being mercenary here, but we could do with that contract.”
I thought of the row of pea-green seedlings on the kitchen windowsill. With careful feeding and overnights in the airing cupboard, they weren’t looking too bad. “She’s okay for the bond market, the health, and the proposal, but serenity’s looking dodgy. Still, if you’ve got the first three . . .”
“Do we know what they are, these magic seeds?” Ted didn’t normally get too involved in the horticultural side of things, but he could sense a business opportunity when he saw one. “Could we be selling them? To other hippie weirdos who need backups?”
“No idea.” I’d done a bit of trawling, but so far hadn’t been able to work them out. Not even my dad, a walking plant encyclopedia, had any idea. “They look like some sort of—”
“Sorry as I am to leave this episode of Gardeners’ Question Time, I should be making tracks.” Jo got up and rearranged her huge scarf. “Callie Hamilton, the world’s neediest client, will be wanting to quiz me about this party, and I’ll have to think of reasons why I can’t invite her.” She pointed at each of us in turn, fixing us with her sharp brown eyes. “Keep thinking about your party outfits. I want glitter and conversation pieces, from both of you. And no pantomime horses.”
“If I wear those jeweled washing-up gloves you gave me for Christmas, can I stay in the kitchen?” I asked. “Ted can wear his undershirt and bring his best rake—that seems to be most people’s idea of heaven round here.”
“I’m not wearing an undershirt to a party in January,” said Ted, horrified.
Jo laughed, a full-bodied cackle that was always a surprise to hear bursting out of her rosebud mouth, and with a final affectionate ear scratch for Badger, she clip-clopped off in her patent leather boots, waving a hand behind her.
Ted watched her leave with an expression of longing I usually only saw him direct toward takeaway curries. When he turned back and saw me and Badger staring at him, it vanished at once, to be replaced by faint embarrassment. He pinched what was left of my egg sandwich and stuffed it in his mouth before I could stop him.
“So, what’s the plan with Amazing Grace’s plants? When are you going to swap them over?” he asked through a mouthful of crust.
“I’ll take these ones home with me tonight, then bring back the five pots I’ve managed to grow when she’s back next week. If I put my plants into her special pots, she’ll think these are the ones she grew herself.”
“These are special pots?” Ted peered at the handmade terra-cotta containers. “Look pretty bog-standard to me.”
I sighed. Grace had had them shipped over from Italy specially. “How little you know your female clientele, Ted.”
“And that’s what I keep you on board for,” he said, stretching out his hand for the last of my crisps.
I took enormous pleasure in swiping them out of his reach and feeding them to Badger.