W A R N I N G
This story contains details that some readers will find offensive.
Until recently, two obstacles stood in the way of my chronicling the most extraordinary years of my life. The first was time constraints. I was working 16 hours a day, including weekends. The second was my fear of becoming an online dartboard because of my uncensored style. Coronavirus Disease 2019 has eliminated both obstacles. Business dried up mid-March, and my fear of The Great Offended has been dwarfed by my fear of The Apocalypse. Separated from my loved ones in a world where death lurks on cardboard, I sit ready to reveal all. And seeing that I’m writing about real people and events, I refuse to sacrifice authenticity to suit a self-righteous mob. Real life is sometimes offensive, and mine is a true story.
It began at my friend Gloria’s fortieth birthday party, a glamorous bash for three hundred guests held at her father’s estate in the Florentine hills. I’ve known Gloria since we attended the same school in London, but we’d been out of touch for a while and she had only just found me on LinkedIn. (One of the few people ever to do so). The day after we’d reconnected, I received a thick envelope containing the party invitation, an itinerary and a list of charities I might want to support. Gloria did not want gifts for herself.
Three weeks later, I found myself sipping white wine on the dreamy, torch-lit terrace overlooking the vineyards that form part of the estate. Scanning the gardens for familiar faces but finding none, I headed for the upstairs gallery where I killed twenty minutes studying the seating plan. To my delight and relief, I’d been placed at Table 1 with Gloria and her closest relatives. Spurred on by the good news, I decided to mingle with guests, all whom I soon learned had one thing in common: they were at pains to emphasise that their relationship with the hostess was a particularly close one:
‘Gloria supported my charity in Burma right from the beginning.’
‘I only found out Gloria’s father was a conte because I noticed the family crest when I stayed on the boat.’
‘Doesn’t she look wonderful? Apparently, it’s the same dress she wore on her twenty-first.’
‘I know,’ I said to the small suntanned group I had muscled in on, ‘I was here.’
They smiled politely and continued with their anecdotes. When the competitive salivating became too much for my empty stomach, I made my excuses and set off for the walled garden where sofas and low tables had been arranged around the fountains. I sat down and was carefully loosening the straps on my gold sandals, if only for a moment, when a bearded man in his mid-thirties appeared by the arch of cypresses that formed the entrance.
‘Do you mind if I join you?’ He asked.
‘Of course not,’ I replied.
He held out a pack of Silk Cuts and I took one although I had quit years earlier.
‘I’m Peter,’ he said, offering his green plastic lighter. ‘So, how do you fit in here?’
‘Old friend of the family,’ I said. ‘And you?’
‘I got to know Gloria when I was an activist in Brussels.’
(This is the sort of talk that would normally make me lose the will to live, but dinner was an hour away and, at least while Peter was sitting there, I wouldn’t be looking so sad and alone). ‘How interesting,’ I said.
Never taking his eyes off the arch, Peter droned on about his charity career, his charity friends, his charity travels, his spell at the UN as a young graduate, until, having studied a shadow in the distance, he interrupted himself: ‘Oh man,’ he said. ‘I think I just saw Sophie Redhill through those trees. I’d been hoping she’d be here.’
‘The name rings a bell,’ I said.
‘It should.’ He started on about Sophie Redhill’s charitable foundation, which apparently is involved in everything from women’s rights to arts projects in Central America.
‘That’s very interesting,’ I said.
‘And what about you? He asked. ‘How is it that you know Gloria?’
‘I’m a friend of the family,’ I said. Again.
‘Oh yeah. Which organisation did you say you worked for?’ His gaze remained on the arch, ashes growing long at the end of his cigarette.
I picked up a heavy ceramic ashtray from the table and offered it to him. ‘None,’ I said. ‘I’m a tutor. I teach politics to students in the-‘
‘Ah, there’s Valentina,’ he said, as a tiny brunette in ten-inch heels staggered through the arch and headed towards us. They air kissed, and Valentina turned towards me, offering her cheek. She looked at Peter who started, ‘Valentina, this is.. this is..’
‘I’m Mette,’ I said.
‘Ah, like the Norwegian princess,’ said Valentina.
‘That’s it,’ I said.
‘Do you know her?’ asked Peter.
‘I’m afraid not,’ I said.
They started talking about some NGO awards ceremony they’d attended in Washington the previous week. Names dropped from Peter’s lips like poops from a rabbit after a carrot binge.
‘And what do you do, Mette?’ asked Valentina.
‘Twelve o’clock’, Peter grabbed Valentina by the arm. ‘I swear I just saw Al Gore.’
The two of them turned to Tuscan dust in front of my eyes and I picked up a bowl of crisps from the table and leant back, googling ‘Sophie Redhill’ on my iPhone: Heiress, socialite, philanthropist. Married to Morris Redhill, a ‘controversial businessman’ – whatever that meant.
‘I can tell you what it means, darling,’ said Gloria when I asked her at dinner. ‘Morris is a fraudster and a bully who belongs in prison. Not only that, he’s got a problem with women. I heard that he was let go from his firm in Rome because the female staff had to go to the bathroom in pairs.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said.
‘If they went alone, he’d follow them into the cubicles and try it on,’ she said, squashing her cigarette. ‘He doesn’t look it, but he’s a nasty piece of work. Follow my eyes.’ Her gaze focused on Table 15. ‘See the woman in the red dress? That’s Sophie. Morris is the guy opposite, the one with the salt-and-pepper hair.’
I studied the man whose square jaw and symmetric features flashed in the candlelight. ‘He’s quite attractive.’
‘He’s a monster.’
‘But why is he here then? And why doesn’t anybody report him?’ I asked.
Gloria shrugged. ‘As to why he’s here, I suspect it’s because we all love Sophie so much. We don’t want to hurt her. As for the rest, Dad says Morris is a dangerous man who keeps very dodgy company. He even manages to keep his.. indiscretions out of the newspapers.’
Afterwards, when coffee was served in the gardens, I was no longer short of company now that everybody had seen me sitting at Table 1. A jazz band was playing and I was finally relaxed enough to enjoy the scenery, the expensive scents that mixed with nature’s, and the soothing warm air. Patrice, a chap who resembled my first boyfriend, had gone to fetch us more drinks when Valentina approached with the woman I now knew was Sophie Redhill. She looked nice. Late thirties. Creamy, even skin and a warm smile.
‘Sophie,’ said Valentina. ‘This is Mette. She’s an old friend of Gloria’s.’
‘The whole family, in fact,’ I said. (My restraint at dinner had not extended to the booze).
‘Glorious evening isn’t it?’ said Sophie.
‘Valentina!’ A voice called out from the dark. It was Peter. ‘Sophie Redhill, right? Valentina, you must introduce us-‘ Recognising me he interrupted himself. ‘Oh hi.’
Blanked again. Had he not seen me at the top table?
‘Sorry to bore you, Mette, but I’ve got a proposal that Sophie might want to hear about.’ He turned towards her.
‘Let’s not do work-stuff now,’ she said. ‘This is a birthday party. Why don’t you email my assistant on Monday? Then we’ll take it from there.’
The garden was beginning to spin. I’d exceeded my alcohol tolerance by a long way.
Sophie looked at me directly. ‘Valentina tells me that you’re a politics tutor in London.’
‘I am,’ I said. Peter actually yawned. ‘But it’s only part time. I travel a lot with my other work.’
‘And what might that be?’
‘Private investigations,’ I said.
Mouths dropped open.
‘You never!’ said Valentina.
”fraid, so.’ I said.
‘Any specific area?’ Asked Peter, looking sceptical.
‘Corporate espionage,’ I said. ‘But I can’t really talk about it. Oops. Here comes my date,’ I added as Patrice approached carrying two glasses of prosecco.
The next morning, I called my friend Tom from my bathroom, which had five metre high ceilings and overlooked the gardens.
‘I don’t think you’ll have a problem,’ he said. ‘They’d all had a lot to drink. My bet is they won’t even remember.’ He paused. ‘But what I’d really like to know is why you felt the need to lie to those people.’
‘Because they made me feel invisible,’ I said. ‘Especially Peter what’s-his-face. I couldn’t stand his attitude any longer.’
As I dumped my Samsonite bag on the four poster bed and began throwing in clothes at random, I considered my lie. And my life. Had I reduced myself to the female version of those middle-aged blokes with an O-level and a weird body shape who tell everyone down the pub they work for MI6?
At the breakfast buffet in the walled garden, I hid behind oversize sunglasses as I washed down 2 paracetamol and 3 ibuprofen with a butter croissant and half a litre of orange juice. The thought of having to get into a car to travel to the airport nearly made me throw up in the fruit salad.
‘Mette!’ There was Valentina with a shiny blonde woman wearing a Fendi jumpsuit, Fendi straw bag and Fendi headscarf. ‘This is Suzy.’
I wiped my right palm discreetly on the back of my sundress before shaking Suzy’s hand. ‘Hi there!’ I said.
‘Suzy needs your help,’ said Valentina, elbowing Suzy’s printed frame.
The idea that this woman could possibly need my help was laughable.
‘Valentina tells me you’re based in West London,’ said Suzy in a low voice.
Ah, of course. ‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘Are you looking for a tutor?’
Valentina winked at me. ‘She knows,’ she said.
‘I need a detective,’ said Suzy. ‘I’ve needed one for a long time, but to be honest I didn’t know where to find one.’
It turned out Suzy was convinced that her fiance, Henri, a tall aristocrat holding court by the Bellini station, was having it on with somebody else.
I looked to the blue skies for divine intervention. ‘If you already know he’s cheating, then why do you want my help?’ I asked.
‘I need a name,’ she replied. ‘Or get me a face, and I’ll find the name.’
I tried to tell her I mainly did corporate.
She lowered her head, directing huge brown eyes at me. Or were they olive? Maybe a mixture. ‘I’ll pay your usual corporate fee,’ she said.
I was still a little drunk and didn’t quite trust myself. But then again, how hard could it be? Besides, I felt sorry for Suzy. ‘I won’t know the precise amount until afterwards. But it will probably be around the two thousand mark,’ I said. ‘Everything included.’
‘That’s fine’, she said at which point Valentina chipped in. ‘Does this mean you’ll accept the job, Mette?’
‘Thank you,’ said Suzy and hugged me. She felt like a silk feather.
The following Thursday, I waited outside Henri’s office off Cavendish Square until he appeared at 12.15 and headed for the Waitrose at the back of John Lewis. There he queued for ten minutes to pay for a cream cheese bagel, which he brought to the small park on the square where he was greeted by a goddess. The two of them sat down in the grass where Henri proceeded to break off bits of the bagel and place them into the woman’s mouth. It was a disgusting display, but it wasn’t enough to justify my fee, so I hung around until they left the square and followed as they crossed Mortimer Street into Chandos Street. I started getting goose bumps when we reached Portland Place. Could they be going where I thought they might? Oh yes. And not only did they hold hands outside The Langham, they actually stopped to have a snog on the red carpet by the entrance while the doorman looked away. I took three clear shots with my phone and turned around, heading for Bond Street tube.
The next day, I met with Suzy on the Harvey Nichols terrace. It’s a great little hidey-hole, tucked away between the top floors of Knightsbridge mansion blocks and the buzzing food hall. There was no one else there.
‘That’s my sister,’ said Suzy handing me back the phone.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said.
‘Henri arrived home at eight. Do you think they were.. in there the whole time?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, adding that as it had been so easy to get the shot I’d only charge her a thousand.
‘Are you sure?’ Those sad eyes again. Definitely olive.
‘I’m sure,’ I said.
Back home, I hid under the duvet, wondering if I needed to declare my earnings to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. How would I even do that? Could the money be considered a tutoring fee? In the end I decided that, since it was so obviously a one-off, the taxman and I would have to let this one slide.
I was happy. And relieved. A potential disaster and embarrassment had turned into a bit of fun. I was no longer a sad liar. And the one thousand pounds would buy the drone that I’d looked at in PC World and always thought a strange luxury for a middle-aged woman who ought to know better.
To celebrate, I opened a box of Venchi from Gloria’s goodie-bag and settled down on my sofa, making a mental note never to lie about my profession again. What does it matter if some loser who travels the world for other people’s money and calls it ‘charity’ considers me an unimportant person with a dead-end job? Not one bit.
The phone rang. Caller ID unknown. I ignored it. I never answer those. Truth be told, I rarely even answer calls from people I know.
But soon unease crept up on me. What if my amateurish antics had brought on a domestic? Christ, what if Suzy had murdered Henri? She did have very intense eyes and he was sleeping with her sister, after all. Would I be considered an accomplice to his murder? Please call back. Please call back.
For once, my prayers were heard. The phone rang again twenty minutes later.
‘Hello,’ I tried to sound collected in case it was the Metropolitan Police.
‘Am I speaking to Mette?’ asked a tearful female voice.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Who is this?’
‘My name is Sophie Redhill. We met at Gloria’s. I think I need your help.’
Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.