Tess and I had been invited to a dinner party on the other side of town by friends of our new friends. We had become part of a network of sorts, instigated via a colleague at my office. We were the new faces in the ranks, but it didn’t matter. These people didn’t share any history, carried no baggage. There were no attachments from the past likely to cause repercussions in the future. They were all about the here and now and these people had money and it was this that was the connecting factor.
The first time we attended a gathering I felt as though I was taking part in an adaptation of a Martin Amis novel, but without the drugs and sex and I soon realised that it wasn’t like that at all, that no-one here was spiralling out of control. I considered, just fleetingly, that they might resemble the children of the characters in Amis’s books and had learnt from their mistakes. But in reality I suspected that the mums and dads had led much more austere and humble lives, going without so that the kids could attend the best schools and university and easing them out into the world with the necessary credentials and an abundance of confidence.
We weren’t there yet. Tess and I couldn’t compete with these people, not in the salary stakes, nor in the house size stakes. But I was confident of a significant promotion and we could easily wing it for a while. Tess seemed to believe that being around them would help, that some of their wealth would rub off on us. And of course, the old adage is that it is not what but who you know and I was certainly meeting and mixing with the right people.
Tess wanted what they had. I could see it in her eyes. From the moment we stepped inside one of their big houses until the very instant we left she was in awe, determined to impress and I have to admit she was very impressive.
Afterwards, in the car as we drove home, I could hear it in her excited chatter. And why not? This world, their world, wasn’t a bad place to be, with its cool Italian marble, the old oak and the polished pine. A swimming pool out back and a gym in the basement with mirrored walls.
I knew I could make it happen and this pleased me more than I cared to acknowledge. The fact that I was good at what I did and that if I worked hard I could make Tess’s dreams come true caused me to feel giddy and also a little sick.
The evening began in a way that was already familiar to us. The hostess bustling the women off on a grand tour or to look at, and admire, something in particular, something big and bright and shiny. A new colour on a wall somewhere or a glass screen in one of the en suite bathrooms whilst we, the men, stood around and talked, mostly about work.
I wasn’t drinking, I had to drive but it was more than that. I suppose it was because we weren’t properly a part of this select set, not yet. I wanted to stay alert and as the others gradually became drunk I needed to feel that I was in control of myself.
Tess wasn’t drinking either. I only noticed this because I was stone cold sober. She had a glass of wine and guarded it with an intense dedication that I found a little endearing. Occasionally she took a sip but more often than not she pretended to do so. From across the room she raised her glass in a mock salute and smiled at me conspiratorially.
Everyone was nicely relaxed and mellow when it happened, when the girl emerged from the box. There was an audible gasp and we all stayed as we were and watched. Thankfully I was standing outside of the main throng but Tess, who was sitting on a sofa, was trapped at the very centre.
The girl danced, a delicate ballerina, still standing in the box and holding the lid above her head she began to pirouette. She was wrapped in a fine black cloth and I feared the intention was that, as she danced, this garment would unravel. Wincing I stepped backward but I didn’t turn away, I didn’t stop watching.
Thankfully she didn’t disrobe but, once she had stopped spinning, the girl began ever so slowly to lower herself back into the box. It soon became obvious that this was going to take quite a while and that it was to consist of a series of freeze framed movements.
Everyone started to shift again, conversations were picked up from where they had been left and the party recommenced as if nothing had happened. I was distracted and couldn’t help but stare at the girl as, gradually, she made herself smaller and smaller until at last she disappeared. The lid slotted back into its place and the wooden box was once again, to the uninitiated, merely a piece of furniture. An ornamental trunk or even a small coffee table. It was the size of a large holdall, the sort you would take away on a long weekend, carry onto the plane and stash in the overhead locker. But this was timber, hard and polished and not forgiving fabric, soft and pliant.
I expected her at any moment to re-emerge and take a bow but she didn’t and as the evening progressed I became more and more agitated. I moved from group to group but I wasn’t listening, wasn’t participating. Eventually I found myself standing alone and beside the box. I gazed down at it. There was no handle on top, nothing that you could grasp.
Suddenly Tess was in front of me and shielding me from most of the room.
‘Go on,’ she whispered, ‘do it.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, but of course I knew.
‘Just do it,’ she urged, ‘go on.’
‘I need something to lever it with.’
She rummaged in her bag and pulled out a plastic shoehorn.
‘Will this do?’
After a couple of attempts I managed to lift the lid. It was surprisingly light and grabbing it I stepped back. Everyone now was watching us and the girl rose once again, but much less gracefully this time, and she appeared to be just as embarrassed and equally as perplexed as the others.
Reaching out, Tess took the lid from me and put it down on the carpet, alongside the box. She then waved goodbye, and we fled the scene, running for our lives