Chapter 20: Penny – July 1976

Simon James Donaldson arrived in the early hours of February 12th 1976 screaming lustily. Penny had endured twenty hours in labour but with the sight of her new born son the pain was immediately forgotten.  She fell in love again completely and unequivocally; the child was the centre of her universe.  From the point of view of her friends she was lost to them in a world of feeds and nappies, naps and feeds, soft toys and baby grows, many of which were dispatched by them as presents for the baby.

The Christening was to be on Saturday 17th July.  Penny and Charles had a long discussion about godparents for their first-born.  Penny wanted all her old friends as she didn’t want to offend anyone and couldn’t choose between them, and she also wanted Jo.  Charles thought that Jo should be godmother as she lived with them and was actively involved with the baby, although he could see Penny’s point that Jo was already an Aunt.  He thought he would ask Martin, his best man to be one godfather but wasn’t sure about the other.

‘Wouldn’t you want Dylan to be the other?’ asked Penny, surprised that his choice hadn’t been instant.

‘I’m not sure that Dylan would be that suitable for the role’ responded Charles.  He was very fond of his oldest friend but he had concerns about Dylan’s lifestyle that he kept to himself.  Penny digested this information before declaring diplomatically,

‘I think that you will provide the spiritual guidance for our son darling, and Martin would be a good back up.  Dylan could play the role of the hedonistic godfather.’

‘That was rather the point I was trying to make about his non-suitability’ remarked Charles, with a wry smile, ‘Anyway I’m not sure that he would accept.  He doesn’t like responsibilities.’

The decision was made eventually to have a big family party with a marquee out on the lawn so that they could mark their second wedding anniversary at the same time.  All friends would be invited and told to form an orderly queue for god parenting of the tribe they hoped to produce.  Simon’s chosen ones would be Martin and Daniel, Jo and Suzanne, two family members and two friends.  They were all delighted to accept and contrary to Penny’s worries no one left out was even slightly offended.

1976 was one of the hottest summers since records began and the day of the Christening was no exception.  Simon behaved impeccably sleeping through the whole service until Charles baptised his son whence he opened his eyes and smiled beatifically and toothlessly at his father.

Local friends and parishioners had erected the marquee, which proved to be useful as a sunshade in the scorching heat.   Many of them had also rallied around to produce bowls of salads, cakes and puddings to supplement the almost constant few days of food preparation that Penny had done.  Jane had prepared a whole poached salmon that provided a striking centrepiece to the impressive array.  Penny’s parents had arrived bearing gifts in the form of cases of champagne, which had totally taken over space in the fridge.

The women were almost all attired in maxi dresses and sandals, the fashion of the day coinciding exactly with the requirements of the weather for once.  The fine cotton and silk fabrics being wonderfully cool to wear.  After the formality of the church service was over the men had removed jackets and ties with a sigh of relief.  Most were now in suit trousers and open neck shirts with the sleeves rolled up.

Everyone cooed over the baby admiring his soft downy head and big blue eyes, attributing his various features to one parent or the other, or Auntie Jo or Uncle Daniel or Auntie Agnes or one or other of the grandparents.  The three friends gathered around Penny and took turns holding Simon as they chatted with her.  They reminisced about her wedding two years earlier, complimented her on the garden, the food, her dress, the house and most of all her pride and joy, her son.

In her turn Penny admired her friend’s outfits and wanted to know all their news.   Rebecca was pleased with the way that Palmerstone was doing and made it known that she was planning to open another shop, but probably not until next spring she qualified.  There followed much excited speculation about where the shop would be and what would she stock, would it be the same or dramatically different.  Rebecca, laughing would not be drawn on either, as she had not yet finalised her plans.

She was certainly an excellent advertisement for her business dressed in a fine cotton lawn maxi in pale pinks and mauves in a paisley pattern.  The bib style bodice and hem slightly quilted to give weight.  Here the pattern and colour intensified to deep pinks and purples, echoed in the ribbon ties from the bodice, wrapped and tied loosely at the back emphasising her slim figure.  She had not been unaware when she selected the dress that her body was visible through the fabric in certain light.  In fact she had thought that if Dylan was at the Christening he could take a look at what he was missing because he was not going to get anywhere near her this time.

Suzanne reported progress on her father’s recovery and on their plans to purchase in London.  She had found a house in Pimlico which could easily suit their purposes as it would divide quite easily into self contained parts for privacy but could also provide them with a large, light living space to share.  It looked like the Oxford house had been sold so they were planning to make an offer.

Caitlin was full of parties, theatres, opening nights and weekends in the country.  She was never short of invitations and was still finding her London lifestyle amusing.  Her big news was that she was expecting to have a half brother or sister any day soon.  Her father had married Ariel in the September of 1974, not long after she and Caitlin had first met.  They were now expecting their first child.

‘That’s really strange’ remarked Penny, ‘that I have a child older than your brother or sister.’

‘I know.  If I have children they’ll have an aunt or uncle of about the same age’ said Caitlin, ‘not that I have any imminent plans.’ She hastened to add, as she observed a quizzical look from Rebecca.  ‘Actually I’m really happy for them they are besotted with each other and desperate for the baby’ she said generously, ‘a bit like you two love birds’ she added to Penny.

It was at this point that Dylan arrived very late in the day.  It was impossible for Rebecca to avoid him as she was standing chatting with the hostess for whom he immediately headed expressing profuse apologies and producing an extravagant present for the baby.  He looked suave in a linen suit of a cafe au lait hue, the jacket slung over his shoulder. His face and arms deeply tanned by the sun shown off by a white silk shirt hinting at the well-muscled body beneath.  He greeted each of the girls with a kiss on the cheek, Rebecca steeling herself to be indifferent to him.  As her turn came she lifted her chin and said in her best artificial party tone,

‘Dylan, how nice.’ She presented her cheek for the briefest brush of his lips, and turned away from him engaging a surprised Suzanne in conversation about the Pimlico house, ‘How many storeys are there?  How are you thinking of dividing it?’ she asked, commencing a detailed exchange about floors, kitchen and bathrooms, necessary plumbing, refurbishment and decor.

Dylan moved to greet Charles and having apologised for his lateness and congratulated him apologised again that he had to leave.  No sooner said he was gone, a scrunch of tyres on the gravel and a roar of exhaust announcing his departure.

The rest of the day was uneventful and enjoyable.  Locals disappeared towards the end of the afternoon leaving family and overnight guests to clear up the debris and repair to the kitchen for cheese and wine or cups of tea for the fainthearted.

Later, lying propped up in bed having fed the baby and put him down to sleep, Penny chatted happily to Charles about the events of the day.  She loved nothing better than a house full of people, especially all of her favourite ones.  Charles finished his ablutions and approached the bed attired only in his socks and dog collar.  He waved his semi erect penis with his hand as he approached the bed with a certain look in his eye.  She shook with half suppressed giggles as he mounted the bed announcing his intention to claim his conjugal rights.

‘Time we made another baby Mrs Donaldson’ he fell on Penny and they lay together giggling happily.  Then with a well practiced manoevour he entered her and their bodies moved rhythmically together in the intense bliss of sexual compatibility, slowly and gently Charles rode Penny until she came in gasps of pleasure, only then did he allow himself to ejaculate with a groan of relief.  They would like another baby soon but neither minded practising!

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Chapter 19: Suzanne – December 1975

Suzanne finished work and tidied her desk, it was the last day of work before Christmas and almost everyone had disappeared early.  She was getting the train straight to Oxford to spend the festival with her father.  She wasn’t looking forward to it, the first without her mother.  She arrived at the house to find it looking dark and neglected.  Letting herself in she called out to her father, and heard his footsteps coming to the hall to meet her.  He looks old she thought as he approached, his arms held wide for a hug.  She smiled hello and kissed him, returning his embrace.

‘I hope there’s some food in the house’ she said, ‘I’m starving.’

‘Yes’ he responded, smiling ‘I remembered you were coming darling and I went to the covered market and got an assortment of things.  I knew you’d be clever enough to do something tasty with the ingredients.’  Suzanne looked in the fridge with some trepidation as making a recipe from some of her father’s previous purchases had proved a little challenging.  However on this occasion she saw eggs and cheese in the fridge and potatoes in the vegetable basket and she knew there were some frozen vegetables.

‘How about an omelette with a jacket potato?’

‘That sounds perfect darling, would you like a glass of wine?’

‘Yes please, Dad.  Silly question!’ she rolled her eyes at him.  He poured wine and sat at the table watching his daughter as she deftly produced a delicious plate of food with minimum fuss and effort, chatting to him as she worked.

‘We should go out to eat tomorrow.  It’s not fair that you work all day and cook all evening’ he declared out of the blue.  Suzanne was pleased; he hadn’t suggested anything remotely sociable since her mother died.

‘That would be nice’ she responded, ‘Here dinner’s ready’ she placed the food on the table and handed a bottle of wine for her father to pour.  They ate in comfortable silence.

The next day, the 23rd December, Suzanne rose early and set off for a shopping spree.  It was a lovely though chill morning and she enjoyed the brisk walk into the city where she planned to start food shopping in the covered market.  She walked along Cornmarket and entered the market through Golden Cross admiring a few shop windows as she passed.  Suzanne had shopped in the market all her life and knew several of the traders.  Today she was intent on stocking up the larder for the Christmas holiday; she wanted to make the time as festive as she possibly could.

She roamed around the market stopping to greet traders and a few shoppers as she pushed her way through the milling crowds, all jostling for last minute purchases.  First she selected a capon, thinking that a turkey would be far too big for two, bacon and sausages followed.  The fish stall produced smoked salmon. Fresh cod for this evening, prawns for Christmas Eve.  Leaving bags of purchases in her wake to be collected later she amassed a variety of vegetables, fruit fresh and dried, and nuts.  The cheese stall was next; she selected Stilton, Cheddar and some French varieties.  The wine shop and delicatessen came last, here she chose a mixed case of wine and stocked up on tins and jars of exotic ingredients to inspire her cooking, artichoke hearts, anchovy fillets, stuffed olives, pesto, pate, duck rillettes, and chestnut puree.  Bread, cheese biscuits, crisps and nibbles completed the food.  Retracing her footsteps Suzanne picked up all her bags and boxes and complete with a retinue of helpers exited onto the High Street and took a taxi back to the house.

Once everything was unpacked and stored it was time for lunch.  She put out the fresh bread and cheese and called her father through from his study.  He marvelled at the transformation of the fridge as he extracted the dregs of last night’s bottle of white to pour Suzanne a glass,

‘A holiday treat, and for all your hard work’ he excused the lunchtime drink.

‘Thanks Dad, mm lovely!’ she responded, taking a sip, ‘This is just the start, I’m going back again this afternoon to get a few decorations to brighten the place up a bit and to do some last minute shopping.  Do you want to come with me?’ she ventured, knowing that he had become something of a recluse.  To her surprise and delight he announced,

‘I’d like to and don’t forget we’re going to eat out tonight.  I thought you might like to go to the carol concert at Christ Church and then we could go to the pub in Walton Street on the way back?’

‘That would be lovely’ beamed Suzanne, ‘The Jericho or Jude?’ she asked, wondering which one was her father’s current favourite.

‘Or maybe you’d prefer the Bird and Baby?’ he asked, alluding to the Eagle and Child pub on St Giles that local wags had renamed.

‘Any one for me’ Suzanne replied, ‘I’m out of the loop these days.  You know best.’

Suzanne decided on reflection to postpone the further shopping trip until the following day. Even though Oxford would be hell on Christmas Eve heaving with shoppers, it would also be fun.  She preferred to spend the afternoon doing some food preparation and getting ready for the carol concert.  Her father concurred without hesitation.  He seems to be coping with life much better Suzanne thought with relief.

Bathed and dressed she joined her father in his study; he was also spruced up and ready to leave.

‘You look smart Dad’ she approved, taking in the dark blazer, shirt and tie and grey flannels; again feeling a sense of relief that her father seemed to be more pulled together.  They strolled into the centre glad of the topcoats and scarves they had donned.  They entered the magical world of Christ Church through Tom Gate joining a gaggle of visitors heading across the quad to the cathedral.  There was a crush to enter and queue for a seat in the nave, preferably one from where you could see the choir.

Jack and Suzanne got lucky, squeezing on to the end of a pew near to the choir stalls resplendent with Christmas flower decorations.  The serried ranks of candles in the wrought iron candelabras placed next to each chorister creating a pool of soft light.  The singing was exquisite the pure voices soaring high to the vaulted ceilings and swelling to the blast of the organ.  Suzanne was transported with delight and began to feel lighter of heart than she had for many months.  As though communing wordlessly her father chose that moment to squeeze her hand and smile sideways at his daughter.  Her heart swelled with love for him and relief that he was making a recovery at last.

They decided on the Jericho as they ambled back through Oxford.  So cutting across from St Giles through Little Clarendon Street and passed the Oxford University Press they arrived just in time for last food orders.  They decided quickly on Bangers and Mash for Suzanne and Pie and Chips for Jack and chose a bottle of burgundy to go with it. He elected to drink a pint of beer while they waited for their food, pouring a glass of the wine for Suzanne.  They chatted amiably together, first the concert then the plan for the following day.  Suzanne had presents to buy and also wanted to get some decorations to make the house more festive.  Her father suggested looking out a box of old decorations that they’d used for years,

‘I think they will be up in the loft’ he said, ‘some are as old as you!’

‘That’s an idea.  It won’t make you too sad will it?’ she asked.

‘You can’t stop the memories haunting you so may as well enjoy the best ones’ he replied philosophically.

They agreed to this plan and decided also to take a walk down to the river in the afternoon to see if they could find some holly.

The following day flashed by.  They completed their shopping, separating for an hour and then meeting up to return home together.  After a snack lunch Jack went in search of the decorations and Suzanne wrapped presents and prepared food for the evening and the morrow.  They had a successful foray for holly even managing to find a few sprigs laden with berries.  Early evening was spent decorating the kitchen, as it was more cheerful than the dining room for their Christmas meal.  The hall and her father’s study also received a modicum of attention, as they were the most used parts of the house.

Suzanne then prepared a sumptuous repast, smoked salmon, capers and cream cheese with bagels followed by cheese and biscuits.  They had a glass each of champagne with the salmon and red with the cheese.

‘I’ve been thinking about the house’ Jack began ‘I hardly use any of it now.  I’ve been thinking about selling it.’  He looked across at Suzanne trying to gauge how she would feel about this idea, ‘Not if you mind though’ he added, ‘the place has lots of memories for you too.’  Suzanne could hardly believe what she was hearing; she had been wondering how to broach the very subject to her father.

‘It’s not up to me Dad.  It’s what is best for you, and anyway I wouldn’t mind at all.  Memories last wherever you are’ she smiled encouragingly, ‘Have you thought where you would go?  Is there somewhere near here that you’d like?’

‘Not really’ he replied ‘I just need a small flat or maisonette really’ he paused and then hesitating slightly elucidated, ‘I wondered about getting a place in London to be nearer to you.  That is if you wouldn’t mind.  There are lots of things to amuse me there; the library, museums, and concerts.  I wouldn’t want to be a nuisance though.’  He paused, ‘It would save you feeling that you have to come home to see me here all the time too; which I love and appreciate.’ He finished, all in a rush.

‘Actually Dad, I think that’s a great idea.  I’d love to have you nearby as long as you feel sure you won’t miss Oxford and your friends here too much?’  Suzanne had long been thinking of this move as a potential solution and had consequently discounted the Diplomatic Service scenario that had seemed so tempting, at least for the time being.

Contrary to their expectations Jack and Suzanne enjoyed their Christmas day.  Suzanne had found for her father a leather bound copy of ‘The Pickwick Papers’ one of his favourite Dickens novels with which he was mightily pleased.  In turn he had bought for her a very attractive satchel style brief case in a conker brown hide, which was perfect she declared with a hug.  Christmas Lunch was a great success and they spent the day reminiscing without tears and planning for the future.  Jack would put the Oxford house on the market in the spring after it had received a bit of a spruce up, a lick of paint and some de-cluttering should do the trick they thought.  Meanwhile Suzanne would explore possibilities in London to buy a house that they could readily convert into separate living areas, or two flats located near to each other.  Suzanne would start their search around Pimlico.

Chapter 18: Rebecca – November 1975

Again Rebecca’s solace was the shop.  She threw all her time and energy into making Palmerstone a success.  Christmas was fast approaching and she needed more stock for partygoers.  The business was doing very well but she would have to start paying for the Spring/Summer collections that would be delivered soon after Christmas as well as start buying the Autumn/Winter collections.

Still she decided she must have new stock for the party season, the Ossie Clark had sold out as soon as it had hit the shop floor.  She decided to order more and to call in favours to get designs from Zandra Rhodes and Bill Gibb, as she felt sure that her customers would go for their labels in a big way.  She also approached Manolo Blahnik for shoes having admired Caitlin’s sapphire stilettos.  She was also expecting a delivery any day from her Indian supplier.

Palmerstone now had a staff of five, one full-time assistant manager and four part-timers. All were also good customers when they weren’t working.  Carole was the same age as Rebecca and had worked in department stores in the past.  She was reliable and honest and Rebecca felt comfortable leaving her in charge of the shop when she had to attend shows and make buying trips.  Over time Carole had developed her skills and had become adept at understanding and fulfilling customer’s expectations, she was meticulous at keeping records and introduced systems into Palmerstone, which helped the business to flourish.  She was a real asset to the business and became a confidante for Rebecca.

Rebecca was constantly busy.  She re-merchandised the shop every week so everything looked fresh and interesting, always mixing new pieces in with older ones and showing different quirky ways of wearing pieces together.  The window became quite a talking point for Wimbledon residents as Palmerstone constantly pushed the boundaries with the labels that they stocked and in the way that they were styled.

Rebecca also insisted on having regular staff training sessions so that her team were au fey with all the new trends, were confident in assessing body types and personal requirements, and were able to make appropriate recommendations to their customers.  Rebecca also planned ahead with military precision.  She constantly looked at fashion magazines and visited the competition looking for ideas.  She had a knack for spotting labels that would sell and now that she had a strong stable she found it easier to buy from the more elite designers.  She not only knew what she would buy for next year but the year after and for her new branch which would be opening in Spring 1976.

One crisp December morning Caitlin breezed into the shop holding a huge bouquet of white roses out to Rebecca,

‘Hi Becca, how are you?  The shop looks simply divine, show me everything’ she hugged and kissed her friend, already heading for the rails and riffling through.  ‘Oh!  These are beautiful, like the dress you wore for my party?’ she asked without pausing, ‘and these!’ with a shriek as she came to the Bill Gibb collection of long dresses resplendent with wide puff sleeves set into tight bodices in rich colours and bold patterns.  ‘Let me try this on, and this and this’ she proceeded around the rails like a child in a sweet shop.  Rebecca indicated to Carole which of Caitlin’s choices she should put ready in the changing room, as she knew her friend’s shape and which dresses would suit her.

Soon Caitlin had amassed a dozen outfits to try.  Not long after she had selected three pairs of Manolos, two Bill Gibb dresses and an Ossie Clarke to take her through the Christmas party season.  She then proceeded to plunder the accessories collection selecting a silk cummerbund, several patterned Indian silk scarves, silver jewellery, beads and bangles for presents all the while chattering excitedly to Rebecca and the other girls.

‘I wondered if you could do lunch Becca?’ she asked, ‘Please do!’ she followed when Rebecca hesitated.  ‘Can you get these wrapped and ready for me to pick up after?’ she asked turning to Carole, ‘Here’ she held out her credit card, ‘put everything on this.’  Carole took the credit card and very business-like confirmed with Caitlin each of the purchases she required from the melee of items tossed around the changing room.  ‘All of these’ confirmed Caitlin airily, ‘Becca took away the things that didn’t work so well.  She wouldn’t let me have that gorgeous Zandra Rhodes dress because she said it made me look fat!’ she added regretfully.  Inwardly astonished, Carole gathered everything up as the two friends headed for the door arm in arm.  Rebecca looked back and said to Carole, ‘I won’t be long, we’ll just be at the Rose and Crown for a glass of wine and a packet of crisps’ she winked at Carole.

Caitlin’s idea of lunch being rather grander than Rebecca’s they wondered further along the road to a wine bar that did good food.  They ordered mains, side salad and a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse, which arrived nicely chilled.

‘Becca your shop is wonderful.’ Caitlin was serious, ‘I’m really sorry I haven’t been before. I kept meaning to and then you know…’ she tailed off, ‘Perhaps you could open on the Kings Road or Brompton, that would be nice and close.  Maybe you could get Halston too!’

‘Well actually you are the first to know but I am getting Halston, and I will certainly be considering the Kings Road for my next branch!’

‘Wow Becca, that’s brilliant.  You are so clever!’ responded Caitlin really admiring her friend’s taste and business acumen.  The food arrived and they busied themselves with eating for a few minutes.  Caitlin then said, trying to sound casual,

‘Have you seen Dylan since my party?’

‘No, why?’ responded Rebecca, not giving anything away.

‘Because silly you both look nuts about each other’ Caitlin responded as though to a small child.  Rebecca took this in.

‘Is it that obvious that I like him?’

‘Well yeah, actually you both look as though you might copulate on the floor at any moment.’  Caitlin responded making Rebecca snort and choke on a mouthful of food, ‘I can’t believe he hasn’t asked you out, he couldn’t take his eyes off you all the evening at mine.’

‘Well he hasn’t’ answered Rebecca baldly, ‘so he can’t be that keen.’

‘I’m sure he is’ replied Caitlin, with a wry smile, ‘I had an experimental flirt with him myself and he hardly noticed my allure!’ she wrinkled her nose, thinking, ‘Perhaps he’s afraid of getting involved because he likes you too much?’ She hazarded.

‘Well I’m too busy to think about him anyway’ said Rebecca with finality, ‘I’d better be getting back to the shop.  Caiti thanks ever so much for the lunch and the flowers and the huge purchase.’ She smiled at her friend fondly, ‘How did you track him down for the party?’ she asked, suddenly reverting to their prior conversation.

‘Charles, he knows everything about Dylan’ Caitlin answered, prophetically.

Chapter 17: Caitlin – August 1975

Caitlin returned to Paris from her trip to visit her father.  She had spent a few days in New York and in that time established a rapport with Ariel that boded well for their future relationship.  They had embarked on a shopping expedition together that had been fun but held bittersweet memories for Caitlin.  It was obvious from the start that Ariel and her father were living together and that they were happy in each other’s company.  Although Caitlin occasionally experienced pangs of what could only be described as jealousy, she was adult enough to recognise the symptoms and squash any tendency to petulance.

Once back in Paris she took a long hard look at her lifestyle and decided that she needed to move on.  She had been seeing Sebastian, son of a minor French aristocrat, for some time and although he was potentially ‘suitable’ she knew that the affaire was going nowhere for her.  Her problem was that she had no real notion of what she did want to do; only what she did not.  She sometimes envied the certainty with which her friends had made their choices.

Her father had unwittingly thrown her another distraction in the form of the London house in Chelsea.  It was this distraction that Caitlin now decided to pursue.  She would move to London.  It would be fun.  She would see much more of Rebecca and Suzanne both based there.  She also had many other contacts through her parents and from school.

Her father had put in train all the legal processes that they had discussed in New York.  Within a month of her visit home Caitlin owned a Regency town house and had inherited sufficient funds to ensure that she would never want for anything.  She was undecided about the Paris apartment so decided to keep it for the present.

Sebastian, she would have to let down gently.  She called him to advise that she was back in Paris and arranged to have dinner with him at the Ritz; she loved it for the happy times she had spent there.  Once Caitlin had broken the news that she was intending to move to London imminently the conversation was stilted between them.  The possibility of one last coupling for old time’s sake receding to the impossible as Sebastian struggled to remain civil.  No loss thought Caitlin to herself, as the sex had never been that great anyway.

As Caitlin locked up her apartment to leave for London the one thought that invaded her memory was of Jean-Pierre.  She wondered briefly what he was doing now and pushed a thought away that he may be married.  She took a car out to Charles de Gaulle and travelled first class to Heathrow where she was met and driven to Pelham Crescent.  She stood outside for a few moments smiling at the white painted façade with the wrought iron railings and small balconies that she had always loved.  She must have been about nine or ten when she had first been brought here she recollected fondly.

The house was just as she remembered it; she stepped into the black and white checkerboard tiled hall and admired the polished curve of the stair rail ascending to the first floor landing.  Although the house had been unlived in for some time it had been aired and maintained regularly and appeared to Caitlin just as they had left it as she strolled around the house inspecting all the rooms.

The house had four bedrooms and a small room that the English call a box room.  Her parents had completely renovated the house before they had moved in, adding the bathrooms that Americans always feel are necessary.  There were now three upstairs plus a shower room and a cloakroom on the ground floor.  Caitlin assessed the potential for her using the master suite, she couldn’t move in as it was; it would feel odd sleeping in her parent’s bedroom.  She decided to sleep in her old room until she had refurbished and decorated everywhere.

Caitlin was daunted by embarking on the refurbishment project single handed so enlisted the help of an interior design business which had been recommended by a friend and was conveniently close for consultations in the King’s Road.  She wanted to create a look somewhere between an English country house and a Long Island home.  She briefed the company to produce designs that were fresh and light, would remind her of the sea and the garden and be simple, modern and comfortable.  Caitlin was delighted with the results and decided to have a house warming party to show off her new abode.

The first of her friends to be invited were of course Rebecca, Suzanne and Penny, and with Penny, Charles must be invited.  How about inviting that delectable friend of his that had the hots for Rebecca? Caitlin pondered.  Then there were school friends from Hill House and others from St Hilda’s.  She would also invite a few offspring of her father and mother’s; friends who she had met quite often in her teenage years.  She organised caterers to do cocktails and canapés and to provide dinner for a select few afterwards.  She sent out the invitations for a Saturday evening at the beginning of November, her best friends she invited to stay over.

Caitlin organised the guest rooms, for Penny and Charles a large double en-suite next to her own room, and Rebecca and Suzanne on the second floor.  Rebecca could have Caitlin’s old room and Suzanne next door with a bathroom and shower room between them.  She had flowers delivered for the drawing and dining rooms as well as delightful posies for each of the guest bedrooms.

The house looked beautiful and she couldn’t wait to see everyone again.  Caitlin bathed and dressed carefully in a Halston jump suit that she’d picked out in New York when she’d been shopping with Ariel a few months before.  In sapphire blue crepe de chine the halter neck backless top flowed into wide legged pants that draped beautifully around the hips and legs.  Caitlin had thought that she would look short in the type of garment that had looked so stunning on Ariel’s model body but she had been delighted by the way it flattered her figure.  The effect was enhanced by the illusion of height that the Manolo Blahnik stilettos afforded.  She turned in front of her bedroom mirror admiring the effect anew as she completed her hair and make-up.   A final squirt of Chanel 19 completed her toilette and she wafted downstairs to greet her guests.

The party was soon in full swing; drinks and canapés being circulated regularly by the catering staff.  Caitlin moved through the crowded reception rooms of her house mingling with her guests chatting animatedly. Her friends she greeted with undisguised affection, others were greeted with air kisses and protestations of delight, and she flirted disarmingly with all the men.

Penny was radiating beauty in that inexplicable way that pregnant women do.  She looked happy and chatted easily with friends old and new, as did Charles, though Caitlin observed that he never spent long away from Penny’s side, returning frequently to make sure she had everything that she needed and wasn’t too tired.  They were a happy couple.

Rebecca looked cool and interesting in that inimitable style she projected.  She was wearing a long, but somehow casual, chiffon dress awash with swirls and checks in a riot of colours which were softened by the sheerness of the fabric through which you could see the outline of her lithe figure.  She had accessorised the Ossie Clarke dress with a bead and feather head band loosely tied around her dark hair and trailing to her shoulder; on her feet a pair of Indian made toe-peg sandals.

It was as Caitlin was observing Rebecca that Dylan entered the room.  She saw the momentary flush as she caught sight of him followed by an immediate swing of her head and renewed engagement in the conversation she had been having with a neighbour.  I think she really likes him noted Caitlin with slightly mixed feelings as she thought he was rather tasty herself.  She moved to greet him with a smile just as he attached himself to his old friend Charles and the noticeably pregnant Penny, who he now proceeded to greet and kiss with genuine pleasure exclaiming as he did,

‘Congratulations to you both for I see that the patter of a new pair of Donaldson clogs will not be far off!’ Dylan grinned and shock hands with Charles, patting him on the back.  He then turned to greet Caitlin as she approached the group, holding out his hands to hers he stooped to kiss her on both cheeks, ‘Hey great to see you Caitlin, you look good enough to eat’ he flirted outrageously with her for a few seconds but she could tell he was scanning the room for someone else the while.  Dylan found who he was looking for and took in her appearance with a frisson of desire.  Sure that she was there he reasserted himself in conversation with his hostess and his oldest friend.  Rebecca could wait till later.

Guests started to depart in dribs and drabs and then, as usually happen when the crowd starts to thin out, the remaining few said their farewells and departed.  Caitlin was very pleased with her soiree, she had renewed contact with many old associates who were well connected and she had already received several verbal invitations to society events, which would be confirmed in writing.  She had taken the precaution of inviting Dylan to dine with them under the guise of being some male company for Charles, in reality she thought the opportunity was too good to miss; she planned to set him up with Rebecca.

The caterers had provided a spread of cold cuts and salads and a host of delectable looking puddings.  Suzanne laughed and pointed out that Caitlin sounded like the mother figure scolding everyone into eating up their main course before they were allowed any pudding.  Caitlin smiling at herself agreed as she fended off marauders,

‘I think you’re quite right Annie, I do.  However, I don’t want to eat rabbit food for a week so I expect co-operation in this matter!’ she asserted in mock censure.  They all obediently filled their plates with the actually delicious poached salmon, coronation chicken, ham, coleslaw, potato salad and more.  Settled at the kitchen table they ate contentedly discussing the party, the guests, what the women were wearing, and of course Caitlin’s newly decorated house and the mutual excitement that she was going to be living so near.  A conducted tour of the house was demanded by the girls and Caitlin was more than happy to oblige, though with a severe finger wave at Charles and Dylan, she instructed, ‘No pudding until we return!’

‘No Miss!’ they responded in unison.

Each of the friends genuinely liked the decor that Caitlin had chosen so coos of appreciation marked each stop of the tour.  They had all had a chance to admire the reception rooms during the party, the interconnecting rooms all cool and elegant in shades of white with accents of aqua and flower strewn curtains and cushions introducing shades of pink and green.  The floors were of polished parquet covered with some expensive looking rugs.

The upstairs rooms were equally restrained, the floors covered with thick cream wool carpets and the heavy silk curtains all hung from giant wooden poles with rings bigger than an average bangle.  The front bedrooms had French doors onto tiny wrought iron balconies looking over the crescent; the back rooms overlooked a tiny paved and terraced garden.  The friends were all used to Caitlin’s lifestyle and there was no malice in the passing envy they felt for her budget or lack of it more like.  The house was pronounced a huge success as they trooped back to join the men.

An hour later replete with chocolate gateau, trifle, ice cream and strawberries Charles took hold of his yawning wife’s hand and remarked that he must take her off to bed before she fell asleep at the table.  All administered hugs and goodnight kisses and Penny was towed upstairs.  Dylan then announced that he must be off and proceeded to thank his hostess profusely.  Kissing her on both cheeks he declared,

‘Truly the best house warming party, best house, best hostess and best guests.’

‘Thank you kind Sir’ responded Caitlin smiling ‘now be gone as Annie and I are going to clear the decks.  Becca will see you off the premises!’ she shooed him away laughing.

Rebecca obediently accompanied Dylan to the door appreciating the opportunity that Caitlin had created for them to have a private word.  Dawdling by the front door the two exchanged hesitant farewells, Dylan took hold of her hand and lifted it to his lips as though to kiss it, then with a deft step he moved in and she found herself in his arms.  He lowered his face and pressed his mouth against hers his tongue gently parting her lips and kissed her with intensity and passion, one hand slipped to the small of her back and pressed her body into his so that she could feel the bulge in his trousers pressing against her.

Rebecca responded with all the pent up frustration that she had felt all evening watching him and listening to his voice.  Her heart was beating so fast that she felt sure that he could hear it and her body was melting into his, the feel of his hard cock against her was unbearably tantalising.  He groaned softly as he eventually lifted his head from hers, he held her face in his hands and whispered huskily in her ear,

‘I must see you soon mon amour for I cannot bear to be without you.’  His hand brushed against her breast as he moved reluctantly to the door, ‘I must go, farewell!’ he smiled his faintly mocking smile at Rebecca and left.

Rebecca stood alone in the hallway collecting her thoughts before she returned to the others in the kitchen.  She felt wildly giddy with passion but confused at the same time.   He said he must see her but hadn’t made a date, not even asked her for her phone number.  Again he had turned her world upside down and then walked away leaving her desperate for him.  But he had called her his love.  She shook her head and not able to face an enquiry poked her head around the kitchen door and announced she was so shattered that she had to go to bed.  The girls exchanged fond goodnights.

Rebecca disappeared upstairs to spend a sleepless night her body on fire with desire.

Chapter 16: Penny – June 1975

Penny and Charles slipped with ease into their married life; they were both best friends and lovers always sharing their thoughts and experiences at the end of each day.  Charles had been allocated to a parish in Bedfordshire in a charming small town, Ampthill.  The rectory was a lovely Georgian redbrick house standing next to the old church.  The space that they were afforded would in time make an excellent family home for their intended children, it meanwhile made a great place to have their friends and family about them.

With a stroke of good fortune Charles’s sister Jo, having completed her teacher training at Bedford College, landed her first teaching post in a village school in Houghton Conquest, a mere stone’s throw from Ampthill.  The couple asked her immediately if she would like to lodge with them.  The idea was quickly agreed to as it suited all their purposes.

Jo moved in at the end of the summer ready to start the September term.  She chose her own two bedrooms next to each other so that she could have space and privacy when needed.  Penny helped Jo decorate the rooms and choose pieces of furniture from about the house to make her space homely.  When the revamp was completed Jo had a fresh light bedroom painted in white and pale pink with a flowery Laura Ashley border and matching curtains at the back window overlooking the pretty garden.

They reconfigured the adjoining room as a study cum sitting room.  The fireplace was blacked and polished, the surround and mantle painted cream.  Charles and one of the parishioners carried a small sofa up from the drawing room and the girls covered it with a cream cotton throw.   Some cushion covers and matching curtains were made from another Laura Ashley print and the walls painted in a warm pink.  An unused table was sourced from another downstairs room to be used as a desk.  Finally finished, Penny and Jo gave Charles a conducted tour of their handiwork with Jo enthusing about her good fortune,

‘I’m so lucky to have such lovely rooms!  Thank you both so much for making me so welcome.  I have absolutely everything that I need now except for the car I’m going to buy.  I’ll be able to afford one as I’m going to be saving so much money on lodgings’ she laughed, ‘I’ll let you drive it sometimes Charles dear in exchange for the largesse!’

‘Actually little sis I expect to be chauffeur driven’ responded Charles deadpan.

‘Then I’m afraid your expectations will not be met big bro as I shall be far too busy with my new career.  I recommend a bike.’  So the banter continued as the rooms were inspected and pronounced very grand.

‘How about we tackle the rest of the house now?’ asked Charles, ‘You two have made such a fine job of these rooms I’m confident that I could let you lose!’

‘Oh dear!’ remarked Jo to Penny, ‘now look what we’ve let ourselves in for.  If we’d have done a bad job we would have been let off!’

‘Yes indeed’ smiled Penny, appreciating the sibling’s banter, ‘Seriously though when you two are at work it’s something that I can be getting on with.  I have some ideas for several of the other rooms if we can afford it?’ she glanced at Charles with smile and a raised eyebrow.

‘I expect we can a bit at a time, my love’ Charles responded, squeezing Penny’s waist fondly.

Penny therefore shared her time between decorating, parish duties supporting her husband’s work, and other voluntary pursuits including helping out in the local school.  She borrowed some cookery books from the library and began to concoct interesting meals for the evenings.  She shopped for food at the butcher and baker in the town and visited the market each week for fresh fruit and vegetables.  She soon got to know all the villagers as she went to and fro with her shopping baskets, stopping to exchange a word here and there and always with a smile and an enquiry about a husband, a parent or a child.

Penny attended church every Sunday and sat in the front pew to listen to her husband’s sermon, usually for the second time as he had already practiced it on her.  She helped with the church flowers, learning to tend the rectory garden to provide blooms for this purpose.  She helped Charles to entertain parishioners and host charity events, often catering, baking and serving drinks much as her mother-in-law Jane had done.  Penny loved her life married to Charles the man and as helpmate to Charles the parish priest.  She had always longed for a family and a sense of belonging and counted herself extremely lucky that she had realised her dream.

Naturally Penny wanted to share her good fortune with everyone so she loved to fill the house with guests and to see them enjoy themselves.  Her parents came to stay for weekend fairly frequently now that her father was stationed at home in Wiltshire.  For Peter and Jane, Charles’s and Jo’s parents, weekends were almost impossible but they managed to visit once in a while during the week for an overnight stay.  Suzanne managed to visit occasionally for a weekend but since her mother’s death had spent most of her weekends with her father in Oxford.

One of these longed for weekends was in late June of 1975.  Suzanne had called Penny to see if the weekend would be convenient as her father was tied up with College business and wouldn’t miss her visit.  Penny was delighted and set about making everything perfect for Suzanne’s arrival on the Friday night.  Penny had decorated a guest bedroom at the back of the rectory overlooking the garden.  The room was rather like stepping into an old fashioned rose bower, the effect magnified by the accompanying rose scent provided by the cut flowers from the garden.  The walls were papered with huge swags of overblown rose blooms in shades of pink.  The curtains and bedspread were made from thick woven cotton in a deep fuchsia pink contrasting with the white painted woodwork.  Penny laid out thick white cotton fluffy towels, a bathmat and a set of perfumed soap, bubble bath and body lotion for her friend in the next-door guest bathroom.

Dinner for the evening was all prepared in advance so that she could sit and chatter with Suzanne all evening. Her best treat was a picnic that she planned for the Saturday.  Penny could barely contain herself waiting for her friend to arrive; when finally she heard the sound of a car drawing up outside she ran to the door to greet her friend.  Suzanne looked tired and Penny was all solicitous concern for her.

‘I’m fine Pen, don’t worry’, responded Suzanne, ‘Nothing that a nice chilled glass of wine and a hot bath won’t fix!’

‘Of course Annie, darling’ responded Penny with a hug, ‘everything’s laid out upstairs for the bath, same room as last time.  As soon as you’re out drinks are ready in the garden as it’s such a balmy evening.’

‘Wonderful’ responded Suzanne, ‘I’ll head up to the rose bower and dump my stuff.  I think the bath can wait for later.  I’ll be right down.’

Charles poured drinks and replenished nibbles while the two girls chatted easily together in the warmth of the summer evening.  Charles left the two girls alone for their catch up with the excuse of parish work that needed his attention.  Penny asked Suzanne about her father and how he was coping on his own, her kind heart touched by his circumstances.

‘Mostly he’s burying himself in College work.  But he isn’t looking after himself very well, or the house.  Actually Pen I am really worried about him and the worst of it is that he is expected to retire from Merton now he’s 65.  He just seems to be ignoring the fact and carrying on as normal at the moment, but come next term he won’t have a job to go to.’

‘Oh Annie, That must be a worry.  What will you do?’

‘Well I don’t really know, but what I do know is that I’ve got to make him sit down with me and face all the facts because until he’s done that we can’t really move forward.’

‘How are you coping with all the anxiety about your father on top of your career as well?  You look tired and thin.’ Penny’s voice went up at the end of her sentence in a little bleat of concern.

‘Well then it’s true that every cloud has a silver lining’ Suzanne laughing, nodding a yes and smiling at Charles as he reappeared to replenish her glass, Penny gesticulated no as Suzanne continued drily, ‘though I can’t really recommend losing one parent and looking after another semi-senile one as the ideal diet.’  Penny shook her head, laughing despite herself.

‘I am fine, really Pen’ Suzanne continued, in a more serious vein, ‘the people at work have been really supportive and allowed me to work flexible hours when necessary and I’ve put my bigger ambitions on hold for the time being.  Now tell me about what you’ve been up to.’

Penny recounted how she passed her days feeling almost guilty that she was so content, though she knew Suzanne so well that she was assured of her good will.

‘And best of all’, she finished taking hold of Suzanne’s hand and squeezing it, ‘I’m pregnant!  Charles and I are going to be parents.  I’m so unbelievably happy Annie, I can’t believe it sometimes and I have to pinch myself!’  Suzanne hugged her friend with unequivocal delight,

‘I’m so happy for you and you do so deserve to be happy.’  At that moment Charles appeared and was hugged and congratulated in his turn.

They spent the rest of the evening sitting at the kitchen table eating super and talking late into the night.

Chapter 15: Suzanne – October 1974

Suzanne had settled into her new role at work and was enjoying the additional responsibility she held for leading a specialist team.  She was due to have a performance review and felt confidant that she would receive good feedback and may even be re-graded.  Even so she was very surprised to receive a summons for a one-to-one with one of the foreign office bigwigs.  The internal memo requested her attendance in his office the following week at 11.30 on Thursday.  Although sure she hadn’t done anything untoward Suzanne spent an anxious few days wondering what the meeting was about, it was very unusual for the senior people to bother with her level.

Mr Lewis was one of the director generals, second in command only to the permanent under-secretary.  Suzanne tapped on his door at 11.29 precisely on the appointed day.  She had made an effort with her appearance and looked professional, wearing a neat, navy skirt suit and white blouse.  She entered the outer sanctum of Mr Lewis’s office and was waved to take a seat by a monosyllabic personal assistant, who proceeded to buzz through and announce her arrival. She didn’t have to wait long.  Mr Lewis appeared in the doorway, and with a pleasant smile, indicated that she should come in.

Suzanne followed him across a wide expanse of polished floor, covered by a rather good looking Turkish rug, and sat down in a big mahogany and leather desk chair as indicated.  He took his seat at the opposite side of a vast mahogany desk that you could have played table tennis on, Suzanne thought irrelevantly.  She held her breath determined not to pre-empt his address.  Mr Lewis, she guessed, was in his late 50s.  He was tall and thin with sparse grey hair cut very short and he sported a neat moustache.  He spoke very clearly in a rather clipped accent.  The gist of his summons astonished her to the extent that she was almost lost for wards.

Suzanne’s progress had been watched by her superiors with interest, and had recently been brought to his attention.

‘I have taken it upon myself to review your background’ he indicated a manila folder on his desk as he spoke, ‘I see that you graduated from Oxford with a double first in Politics and Economics and that you have some aptitude with foreign languages.’  He glanced at her file to refresh his memory, ‘I see that you speak both French and German, are you reasonably fluent still?’ he asked.

‘I’m a bit rusty in German but I have practiced my French recently and I’m currently learning Spanish’ replied Suzanne, beginning to understand the thrust of the conversation.

‘We need young people of your calibre to join the Diplomatic Service’ continued Mr Lewis, ‘I wonder if you would consider a career that would involve some travel and possibly to undertake postings overseas?’

‘It is something that I considered when I was planning my career’ responded Suzanne, ‘and yes, I had hoped that my language skills could be used in the workplace, so I would certainly be interested in opportunities overseas.  Is there something specific you had in mind?’

‘No’ he replied, ‘I wanted to sound you out first.  We haven’t got any suitable opportunities just now and also I would like you to undergo some preparation prior to any new appointment.’  He smiled, this time engaging his eyes, ‘what I have in mind is to arrange some shadowing opportunities in the department.  That way you’ll get to network and meet some of the key people.  Are you prepared to do that on top of your not inconsiderable current duties?’

‘Yes, I would’ replied Suzanne without hesitation for she was delighted, ‘and thank you for giving me the opportunity Mr Lewis.’

‘Not at all’ he replied standing and walking around the desk towards her.  Suzanne, seeing that the interview was over, jumped to her feet.  He held out his hand and shook hers warmly; ‘I’ll be taking an interest in your career young lady’ he finished, with a charming smile.

Suzanne could barely contain her excitement for the rest of the day.  She decided to go home for the weekend as she was bursting to share her news and thought that her parents would be proud of her success.  She would go straight from work tomorrow, no point trying to call them as they were impossible to get hold of at their work places.

As Suzanne approached the house she was pleased to see a chink of light shinning between the curtains of the living room.  Someone must be home she thought, smiling as she inserted her key into the latch.  She pushed the door open calling out,

‘Hello, I’m home!’ A blast of Bach could be heard coming from the direction of the study.  Suzanne made for that room expecting to see her father.  He was seated with his back to the door and obviously did not hear her enter, as he didn’t turn around.  Suzanne tiptoed over to his chair and put her arms around to cover his eyes,

‘Guess who?’ she cried, her smile freezing as she felt the tears that were rolling down her father’s face.  ‘Whatever’s the matter Daddy?’ she asked, a lump in her throat making it difficult to speak.  Her father got to his feet swiftly wiping his eyes; he reached out to give her a hug.

‘I’m sorry, darling, I wasn’t expecting you.’

‘No, but what’s wrong?’ she insisted.

‘Let’s go to the kitchen and get a glass of something’ he suggested, ‘then I’ll tell you.’

‘Is it Mum?  Is there something wrong with her?’ Suzanne asked, really concerned as in the bright light of the kitchen she could see that her father had aged dramatically in the last couple of months.  Her father passed her a glass of red wine and poured one for himself, his hand trembling slightly.

‘Yes Annie, it’s your mother’ his face seemed to cave in as he spoke, ‘she’s not been well for sometime but she wouldn’t see anybody even though she works in the bloody hospital’ he sounded bitter, ‘she finally saw one of her colleagues, a cancer specialist.  She has cancer of the colon, and it’s in quite an advanced state.’

Suzanne’s heart clenched in fear and in the anguish of seeing her father so distressed.  She made as though to embrace him but he waved her away and turned to wipe his eyes and blow his nose.  At that moment the front door slammed and they both started as though they had been caught out in a conspiracy.  Doreen could be heard crossing the hall with her usual quick, determined step.  She entered the kitchen beaming a hello to Suzanne.

‘What a lovely surprise darling’ she embraced her daughter, ‘Ah, I see that your father has told you how things are with me’ she continued, feeling the tension in the room.  ‘Well, you’d better pour me a glass as you two have both started’ she continued, indicating the as yet untouched wine.

Suzanne was amazed and awed by her mother’s brisk sangfroid as she smiled warmly at them both and announced,

‘I’ll get us some super.  I’m sure there’s something edible in the freezer.  It’ll be nice to all sit down together for once.’  She proceeded to busy herself around the kitchen as though nothing in the world was wrong.  Suzanne and her father obediently took her lead, Jack pouring her a glass of red and Suzanne by laying up the big old kitchen table.  They were soon sitting together eating spaghetti bolognaise that Suzanne couldn’t help but notice that her mother barely touched even though she kept up a stream of lively conversation.

It was not the time to mention the possibility of an overseas posting.  Suzanne filled in all the details of Penny’s wedding and Rebecca’s new shop to keep up her side of the pretence.  When they’d finished their meal, none of them having done it justice, Doreen told her daughter the prognosis for her cancer as though she were the Doctor not the patient.  She had quite an aggressive case of colorectal cancer.  She was going into the Radcliffe on Monday and would undergo surgery and radiotherapy treatment which may alleviate the symptoms and slow the degenerative process but would not be a cure.

‘This means my darling that I may have a month to live maybe three.  I’ve had a full and happy life.  A happy marriage to your father and then blessed with you when we least expected to have a child.  I’ve also had an interesting and successful career. I want you to remember me in this way, not as I will be over the next however long it takes’ she smiled at her daughter with love shining from her eyes.  ‘It’s harder for you and Daddy than it is for me.  I know that my life is finite and I’ve made my peace with that’ she paused and closed her eyes briefly, ‘I’m tired now and I think I’ll go to bed’ she hugged and kissed Suzanne goodnight, and held her hand out to Jack to go up with her, ‘we’ll do something nice tomorrow.  I’m so glad you came home’ she finished.

In fact Doreen struggled on for just over four months, finely giving in on the second day of January 1975, she was just 65.  It was a harrowing process for Jack and Suzanne, the only positive that her illness had brought them closer together as a family.  In stark contrast to the last time that the four friends had been together, they all attended Doreen’s funeral in Oxford, sombrely dressed and low in spirits.  Suzanne was comforted by her friends’ support and tried her best to be as strong as her mother had been right to the last.

Chapter 14: Rebecca – August 1974

Fortunately for Rebecca she had no time to dwell on her meeting with the rather delectable Dylan.  She returned to London to be hurled headlong into preparations for the shop opening and for her move to Wimbledon.  Her to-do list never seemed to get any shorter.  As soon as she ticked something off another task appeared.

Rebecca had given in her notice at Liberty before Penny’s wedding.  Her visit to the personnel department had been quite emotional as her employers were not keen on letting such a promising young retailer leave them.  She agreed to work an additional week more than she had planned to, as she didn’t want to let them down.  This would leave her with only one clear week to finish the preparations at Palmerstone ready to open on the last Saturday of July.

Rebecca was so fired up with enthusiasm for her new venture that she hardly regretted moving on from Liberty.  Her colleagues though were keen to give her a good send off.  Rebecca was treated to a farewell presentation of a very striking heavy turquoise and silver pendant of Indian origin from the jewellery department.  It was a really special piece that Rebecca would treasure forever.

In the last week of July Rebecca managed to move her things from her flat in Shepherds Bush to the flat above the business. The move made things simpler for her as she was on the premises to start receiving deliveries of stock.  Decoration of the flat would have to wait as her energies were entirely taken up with preparing the shop for her opening night.  Rebecca’s time was spent painting, cleaning, varnishing floors, overseeing the shop fitters, receiving stock, unpacking and hanging it in the stock room ready for display, and finally delivering fliers around the neighbourhood.  She rolled into bed and slept the sleep of the exhausted every night.

On the Saturday afternoon just before she was due to open the doors for her launch Rebecca stood on the opposite side of the high street making a final appraisal of her shop.  Palmerstone had been sign written in bold black simple print on a background of duck egg blue, which was to be the signature colour of her brand.  Three mannequins stood in the window.  Palmerstone’s style was to be projected by the window display and the merchandising of the shop and was the culmination of many hours of planning.  Although Rebecca had bought from the Autumn/Winter collections she had created her window display with lighter weight pieces that would be suitable for the warmer weather.

The three mannequins projected the Palmerstone style along with strategically placed pieces: a pair of striking platform shoes by Terry de Havilland, a belt, an embroidered bag, a bikini and some beads to show the range of stock that the shop carried.  By each of the mannequins Rebecca had placed a crisp white card with the designer, item and price clearly marked in italic print.

Inside the shop everything was carefully organised so that it was easy for customers to view.  Clothes were displayed in ‘stories’ so that it was easy to see which pieces would go together to make an outfit.  Items from different labels were mixed so that expensive and much more affordable items hung together.  Shoes were placed on the floor, beads and scarves draped across hangers to compliment a look.

The old linen press looked great with colour-coded piles of tees, fine-knit jumpers and cardis displayed within its shelves and opened drawers.  The refurbished old table that she’d found looked resplendent with a tray of glasses and champagne at one end and an antique till, tissue paper and a stack of her beautiful new carrier bags at the other.

Rebecca had bought from Missoni in Italy, Calvin Klein and Betsey Johnson from the States, Ossie Clarke and a new more affordable label, French Connection from the UK.  She had also sourced a good supplier for vintage clothes and an importer of Indian silks and jewellery.  There were many other labels she would have liked to stock but time and mostly financial restrictions had limited her ambition.  This would have to do for now.

Two of her colleagues from Liberty had volunteered to help her for the evening; Nicky and Juliet arrived as promised at 3.30.  They hugged Rebecca and exclaimed happily over the shop as Rebecca showed them the ropes.

‘There are other sizes and a lot more stock downstairs as I didn’t want to crowd the shop floor’ she explained, ‘come down and have a look so you know where everything is if we get busy.’

‘I’m sure we will’ remarked Juliet, ‘we saw quite a few girls eying up the shop as we arrived.’

‘I wondered if you would wear some of the clothes for tonight,’ Rebecca asked, ‘it really helps to sell things if people can see how to wear them.’

‘Brilliant idea, yes please’ Nicky agreed.

Rebecca showed the two what she was planning to wear and waved her hand at hangers she’d set up for the others.  For Nicky she had chosen a ditsy flower print shirt and blue jeans dressed up with a bold beaded necklace and platform shoes.

‘Cool!’  Nicky knew that the outfit was well chosen, what she would have picked for herself.  Rebecca has a great eye she thought.  Juliet was very petite and pretty not unlike Caitlin.  Rebecca had chosen a very simple shift dress in pistachio green from the Calvin Klein label with a classic high-heeled pump.  Again it was a good choice that suited the wearer.

Rebecca got herself ready in a narrow long sleeved tee in a sludgy purple colour, a short skirt over a slightly longer Victorian pin-tucked petticoat, she strapped on a pair of platform shoes in purple and lilac and accessorised the outfit with the pendant that her colleagues had given to her.  The effect was stunning.

It was nearly time to open.  The girls trooped up to the sales floor to be met by the sight of a large group, a dozen or so shoppers waiting on the doorstep.  Rebecca took a deep breath to steady her nerves,

‘Let’s open up then, no point keeping them waiting!’

The launch was a great success.  Rebecca and her helpers were kept busy constantly, pouring drinks, talking customers through the looks, finding the right sizes and combinations, helping in the fitting rooms, wrapping purchases and, best of all, ringing up the sales.

Towards the end of the evening Rebecca looked up as the doorbell rang to see Suzanne entering the shop clutching a bouquet of flowers and a card.  She had come she said to take Rebecca out for supper when she’d finished for the evening.

‘Have a glass of champagne while you’re waiting, we won’t be long now’ smiled Rebecca, thinking how lucky she was to have such a loyal and lovely friend.

Nicky and Juliet turned down the offer of joining them saying that they needed to get back to their respective families.  Rebecca gave them each a present to thank them for their help, as neither would accept payment.  All that remained was to tidy the shop floor, cash up, lock the door and set the alarm.  Rebecca counted her takings with a sense of achievement.  They had made enough that evening to pay her rent and bills for the week with some left over.  She felt ebullient.

‘Come up and see the flat Annie, it’s in a mess still I’m afraid.  I’m so pleased you came, I think I need some R&R after this last week, and a celebration!’

‘That’s what I thought’ responded Suzanne as they climbed the stairs up to the flat, ‘apart from wanting to see the shop, after all I’ve heard about it.’

‘What did you think?’ asked Rebecca, her friend’s opinion important to her even though Suzanne wasn’t that into fashion.

‘I think it looks great’ Suzanne responded honestly, ‘It looks classy and bohemian at the same time.  The window makes you want to come in and look and I love the signage.  You should be really proud Becca.’

‘Thank you Annie’ responded Rebecca, giving her a hug, ‘and thank you for the lovely flowers they’ll brighten this place up until I get the chance to decorate.’

‘I like it’ Suzanne approved, taking a good look around, ‘much bigger than your last place, and enormous compared to mine’ she laughed, ‘It has lots of potential, as an estate agent would put it, and you are just the person to realise that potential.’

‘There’s a really nice looking pub that does food just along the road, shall we head there?’ asked Rebecca, suddenly absolutely starving.

‘Yeah, let’s.’

The two wandered out into the mild evening air and ambled a few yards down to the Rose and Crown for a well-earned bottle of wine, pie and chips.