As the story progresses, their lives become more and more mixed up, coming to a head in quite a dramatic way. I think that for women, friendship is really important and sustaining. Roxanne: glamorous, self-confident, with a secret lover — and hoping that one day he will leave his wife and marry her. Candice: honest, decent, or so she believes — until a ghost from her past turns up, and almost ruins her life.
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Waiters in dark green bow ties were gliding over the pale polished floor, carrying cocktails to tables. Girls in slippy dresses were standing at the bar, glancing around with bright, hopeful eyes. In the corner, a pianist was thumping out Gershwin numbers, almost drowned by the hum of metropolitan chatter.
It was getting to be too busy here, thought Candice, slipping off her coat. When she, Roxanne and Maggie had first discovered the Manhattan Bar, it had been a small, quiet, almost secretive place to meet.
They had stumbled on it almost by chance, desperate for somewhere to drink after a particularly fraught press day. It had then been a dark and old-fashioned-looking place, with tatty bar stools and a peeling mural of the New York skyline on one wall.
The patrons had been few and silent — mostly tending towards elderly gentlemen with much younger female companions. Candice, Roxanne and Maggie had boldly ordered a round of cocktails and then several more — and by the end of the evening had decided, amid fits of giggles, that the place had a certain terrible charm and must be revisited.
And so the monthly cocktail club had been born. But now, newly extended, relaunched and written up in every glossy magazine, the bar was a different place. These days a young, attractive after-work crowd came flocking in every evening. Celebrities had been spotted at the bar. Even the waiters all looked like models. Really, thought Candice, handing her coat to the coat-check woman and receiving an art deco silver button in return, they should find somewhere else.
Somewhere less busy, less obvious. At the same time, she knew they never would. They had been coming here too long; had shared too many secrets over those distinctive frosted martini glasses. Anywhere else would feel wrong. On the first of every month, it had to be the Manhattan Bar. She was wearing a plain black trouser suit over a pale green T-shirt — not exactly the height of glamour, but good enough.
Although they all worked at the same place — the editorial office of the Londoner — it was rare they made the walk to the bar together.
For a start, Roxanne was a freelance, and at times only seemed to use the office to make long-distance calls, arranging the next of her foreign jaunts. And Maggie, as editor of the magazine, often had to stay for meetings later than the others.
Not today, though, thought Candice, glancing at her watch. Today, Maggie had every excuse to slip off as early as she liked. She brushed down her suit, walked towards the tables and, spotting a couple getting up, walked quickly forward.
The young man had barely made it out of his chair before she was sliding into it and smiling gratefully up at him. And the three of them always had a table. It was part of the tradition. Maggie Phillips paused outside the doors of the Manhattan Bar, put down her bulky carrier bag full of bright, stuffed toys, and pulled unceremoniously at the maternity tights wrinkling around her legs.
Three more weeks, she thought, giving a final tug. Three more weeks of these bloody things. She took a deep breath, reached for her carrier bag again and pushed at the glass door. As soon as she got inside, the noise and warmth of the place made her feel faint. She grasped for the wall, and stood quite still, trying not to lose her balance as she blinked away the dots in front of her eyes.
Maggie swivelled her head and, as her vision cleared, made out the kindly face of the coat-check lady. Would you like a nice drink of water?
For pregnancy wear, her black Lycra trousers and tunic were about as flattering as you could get. But still there it was, right in front her, wherever she moved. A bump the size of a helium balloon. Why did everyone keep talking to her about it? A complete stranger had come up to her in the pub at lunchtime, pointed to her wine glass and said, "Naughty!
Let alone given birth to one. And each time, those first few weeks were the most magical time of all. You want to cherish those moments, love. I know about page layout and editorial ratios and commissioning budgets. Oh God. What am I doing? No-one else in the bar was pregnant. No-one was even fat. Everywhere she looked she could see girls with flat stomachs and stick legs and pert little breasts. Maggie sighed. Being prodded and patted and treated like a freak.
You always say the right things. She pressed them together, then stood back and studied her reflection critically, starting — as she always did — with her best features. Good cheekbones. Nothing could take away your cheekbones. Blue eyes a little bloodshot, skin tanned from three weeks in the Caribbean. Nose still long, still crooked.
Bronzy-blond hair tumbling down from a beaded comb in her hair. Tumbling a little too wildly, perhaps. Roxanne reached into her bag for a hairbrush and began to smooth it down. She was dressed, as she so often was, in a white T-shirt. In her opinion, nothing in the world showed off a tan better than a plain white T-shirt. She put her hairbrush away and smiled, impressed by her own reflection in spite of herself. Then, behind her, a lavatory flushed and a cubicle door opened.
A girl of about nineteen wandered out and stood next to Roxanne to wash her hands. She had pale, smooth skin and dark sleepy eyes, and her hair fell straight to her shoulders like the fringe on a lampshade.
A mouth like a plum. No make-up whatsoever. When the swing doors had shut behind her, Roxanne still stayed, staring at herself. She suddenly felt like a blowsy tart. A thirty-three-year-old woman, trying too hard.
In an instant, all the animation disappeared from her face. Her mouth drooped downwards and the gleam vanished from her eyes. Dispassionately, her gaze sought out the tiny red veins marking the skin on her cheeks. Sun damage, they called it. Damaged goods.
Then there was a sound from the door and her head jerked round. Why did I never do a single travel feature while I was editor? I must have been mad! Candice always looked the same, wherever she was, whatever she was wearing. Her skin always looked well scrubbed and glowing, her hair was always cut in the same neat crop, she always dimpled in the same place when she smiled.
And she always looked up with the same wide, trusting eyes. No wonder she was such a good interviewer, thought Roxanne fondly. People must just tumble into that friendly gaze. It was a strange thing, thought Roxanne. She could walk past scores of adorable babies in pushchairs and never feel a tug on her maternal instinct.
But sometimes, while looking at Candice, she would, with no warning, feel a pang in her heart. An obscure need to protect this girl, with her round face and innocent, childlike brow. But from what? From the world? From dark, malevolent strangers? It was ridiculous, really. After all, what was the difference between them in years? Four or five at most.
Most of the time it seemed like nothing — yet sometimes Roxanne felt a generation older. She strode up to the table and kissed Candice twice.
Cocktails for Three