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Authors: Brooke, Simon

Model guy

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Model Guy

 

Simon Brooke

   

© Simon Brooke2013

Simon Brooke hasasserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to beidentified as the author of this work.

First publishedas 2cool2btrue in 2004 by Orion Books.

This editionpublished 2013 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

   

Table of Contents

ChapterOne

ChapterTwo

ChapterThree

ChapterFour

ChapterFive

ChapterSix

ChapterSeven

ChapterEight

ChapterNine

ChapterTen

ChapterEleven

ChapterTwelve

ChapterThirteen

ChapterFourteen

ChapterFifteen

ChapterSixteen

ChapterSeventeen

ChapterEighteen

ChapterNineteen

ChapterTwenty

ChapterTwenty-One

ChapterTwenty-Two

ChapterTwenty-Three

ChapterTwenty-Four

ChapterTwenty-Five

ChapterTwenty-Six

ChapterTwenty-Seven

ChapterTwenty-Eight

ChapterTwenty-Nine

ChapterThirty

Extractfrom Sugar Mummy by Simon Brooke

   

Chapter One

 

"My problem", says the girl sitting opposite me, "isthat my celebrity status is overtaking my acting credentials."

 She is talking to a redhaired girl sitting next to her who is nodding gently and absentmindedly runningher hand up and down her leg.

 "Mmmm," saysthe red haired girl, obviously partly concerned about this dilemma and partly preoccupiedwith the fact that it will be her turn in a moment. The girl with the problem hasrecently appeared in a commercial miniseries for shampoo. You know the one - she'sjust moved into a new flat and finds that she hasn't brought her shampoo or it'sgot lost amongst all the boxes or something and so, with just a towel wrapped roundher, she knocks on the door of the flat opposite and the bloke who opens the doorgrins smugly, looks her up and down and let's her borrow his.

 I reflect on the girl'sCV-versus-fame problem for a moment then realise that I'm staring. Still, perhapswhen you're the Thick 'n' Glossy girl you're used to people doing double takes."Isn't that the girl from that shampoo advert?" So it is. Thick 'n' Glossy- you're right.

 I know this room so well:the groovy pink leather settees, slightly worn now and marked in a couple of placeswith biro, MTV playing silently on a monitor in the corner, the bored, hip girlson reception, the empty water machine which causes everyone who doesn't have theobligatory bottle of Evian to go up to it, realise that in fact it's empty and thenwalk away, trying to look cool about it. Looking cool at all times is the most importantthing about being in this room.

 Another model walks in,turns to the girl at the desk and gives his name.

 "Jake Cooper, ModelsUK, here for the Sunseekers ad?" he tells her.

 She consults a list, ticksoff his name and says:

 "Okay Jake, darling,just take a seat and fill out the release form, will you?"

 "Ta" he says,practising his 1000 watt smile ready for the casting director. He turns to finda place to sit, the smile dimming to about 250 watts as he sees the number of othermodels waiting ahead of him. Then the power is turned up a bit more as he sees someonehe knows.

 "Hey, sweetie,"he says to a girl who is combing her hair in a boredom induced trance.

 "Hi, honey,"she says looking up at him as he kisses her on both cheeks. "How's it going?"

 "Great," hesays, as if it wouldn’t be anything else. "Yeah. You?"

 "Great".

 "Busy?"

 "Yeah, pretty"she says. Diplomatic answer: no one is going to say, 'No, dead, actually,' are they?But you can't say 'I'm working every day - it's just mad' because no one would believeyou. "You?" she asks.

 "Yeah, not bad"he says, nodding thoughtfully. Then he launches his Exocet: "Yeah, got theFord Cirrus campaign so I'm off to Sicily next month to shoot it." He knowsvery well the effect this will have. Two or three other guys look up casually tosee who picked up that job after all. It was a biggie - three days of casting, hundredsof guys and thousands of pounds. Why didn't I get it? Perhaps they were lookingfor someone dark, I reason. That's probably why they called in so many blond models.Other guys around me, dark and blond, are checking him out discreetly. He basksin their, well, all right, our envious loathing for a moment and then carries on:"Did you ever see the pictures in the end from that job we did together?"

 "Oh, don't,"says the girl. "The agency sent me the brochure. Why do they always choosethe worst shots? That one where you're picking me up? And carrying me across thegrass? I look like I've got this huge nose."

 "Yeah," he says.They both laugh. But now he is starring at her nose. Her laughter dries up aftera few seconds and she says: "And I haven't, have I?"

 As if it were absurd,obviously.

 But he is still staringat her nose. Actually it is quite large. Yeah, that's a big conk for a model. Anothergirl looks up from the blockbuster novel she is reading and surreptitiously checksout the first girl's nose. As she looks down at her book again, she gratuitouslywipes around her own nostrils with a long slim finger. Just checking.

 "It just looks likeit, doesn't it?" says the girl, her voice betraying a degree of panic now."In the picture. It's daft."

 Jake Cooper is still mesmerised.

 "Yeah it does,"he says at last. "Yeah, I mean, it's just the picture. I mean not really inthe picture, either. It's a lovely nose. That's a great picture. No, honestly. I'dput it in your book if I were you." he says, patting his own portfolio whichhe has already removed from his rucksack ready for when he goes in. 'He goes in?'.Makes it sound like a military assault on enemy held territory. Ridiculous. Whata daft comparison.

 This is far more terrifyingthan that.

 I turn back to my paperand sense once again the tense edgy atmosphere as other models read novels or magazinesor consult AtoZs, locating their next casting. Some stare into space or smile atpeople they half know while we all secretly wish everyone else would just sod offand die so that we could get this job.

 Another guy comes in,gives his name and flashes a grin that he’s used a hundred times before to charmvarious casting directors and girls on reception.

 "Here you go, Ben,my darling," says the receptionist.

 He takes his form andthen makes a joke about the dying flowers on the desk.

 "What?" shesays, looking up from the list of names.

 "You need someoneto buy you some more flowers," he says again, nodding at the drooping whitetulips in the vase.

 "Eh? Oh, yeah. Ithink the office manager does it," she says vaguely, looking back to her list.He gives a little embarrassed sniff of a laugh and then goes to sit down. The schadenfreudis palpable as the rest of the models, oh, all right, us, again, enjoy his discomfort.Yeah, practice your charm somewhere else, mate.

 Rather conveniently, bythe time I've got to the crossword and discovered that I haven't got a pen, thegirl on the desk says:

 "Charlie, babe, yourturn." I practice my own 1000 watt smile on her but she has returned back toanswer the phone.

 The guy coming out, ahuge South African I've met before, holds the door open for me and I try it outon him instead. He looks vaguely alarmed.

 

I walk in and am immediately blinded by the lights. Just behindthem I can see the shadows of people including presumably the director and the client.The only person I know is the casting director, Angie.

 "Hi Charlie, darling,"she says, taking her huge glasses off her head and shaking her greying, bobbed hairfree. We double kiss. This familiarity - after all, I'm an old hand at this game,aren't I? - makes me feel much better. My smile feels slightly more genuine, slightlyless fixed when I use it again. She introduces me to various other disembodied voicesfrom the darkness behind the lights. I say, "Hi", hoping I'm looking inthe right direction.

 "OK, identify yourselfjust for the record, sweets. Name and agency," says Angie who I can just see,looking down at a monitor. I make sure I'm standing on the little masking tape crosson the carpet and look up.

 "Charlie Barrett.Jet Models," I tell the glassy eye of the camera as if I'd just asked it tomarry me.

 "Beautiful,"says Angie. "Can we see your profile, Charlie, love?"

 "Sure," I sayconfidently and turn to the left and then the right, taking my time, a slight, jocularwobble to the head, making it clear that I'm not only perfectly self assured butI'm actually quite enjoying this whole daft, familiar business.

 "Luv-leee,"says Angie. My smile almost seems real now. "Okay, love, take your clothesoff down to your undies." However genuine, that smile must have evaporatedpretty quickly. With a very tight timetable to keep to, Angie obviously noticesmy slight hesitation. "This is for a beach scene. Didn't they tell you?"

 Sunseeker Holidays. Makessense, I suppose. You might take your clothes off. The only problem is that I'mwearing an age old pair of white (oh, go on then, slightly grey) M&S undiesbecause they were the only ones that were clean. It's not even as if I'm going toget a trip out of this - no need to go to a beach with today's new technology. Allthe glamour and expense of a studio in Acton for a half day. My image (if I getthe job and somehow I don't think I'm going to now) will be superimposed onto powderyyellow sand thanks to a special computer image enhancement programme.

 Modern technology, eh?Damn it to hell.

 Suddenly I can make outat four girls squashed onto the settee who I haven't been introduced to but whoare now staring sullenly at me and I remember the South African hunk whose turnit was just before mine.

 God, I'm too old for this.

 

I really am though.

 I take the stairs threeat a time. I don't care if I break my neck, I've just got to get out of here. Istep out onto the street and make for the tube.

 It's been on my mind fora while. At 30 I reckon I'm ready for a job that not only has better long term prospectsbut also provides a greater mental challenge than the ability to remember a nameand address and to respond to a request to move your head to the right a bit. ButI'm also spurred on by the morbid fear of spending my twilight years doing chunkypullover ads for Reader's Digest. It'll be easy-to-get-out-of baths and Stannahstair lifts before you know it.


Page 2

 

It's been fun, I must admit. I've earned quite a lot of moneyfor doing very little. I've travelled, often business class. Stayed in nice hotels.I've met some fun people and quite often thought to myself 'What a ridiculous wayto make a living,' which is probably the best attitude you can have towards anyjob. I've stopped crowds in the City modelling suits - secretaries shouting risquécomments, men looking on, contemptuous but intrigued, wondering what I've got thatthey haven't - and I've entertained picnickers in Battersea Park while doing a fashionshoot.

 I've travelled acrossKenyan game reserves (aftershave) and I've curled up on settees with girls in softsweaters holding mugs of coffee (empty of course) in loft apartments to sell lifeinsurance. I've cruised the Caribbean and been paid for it - the only drawback beingthat we weren't allowed in the pool or the top deck and in some of the lounges becausetechnically we were suppliers to the cruise company or something.

 I've been married countlesstimes and sometimes in really beautiful churches. Should it ever happen for realI'll be well prepared and able to offer my intended advice on all the best venuesin which to get hitched in central London. I think my favourite would be Farm Street,Mayfair. That was lovely wedding. A sunny afternoon in May. The groom wore a JasperConran suit and the bride, a tall Irish lesbian, called Fennoula or something, lookedstunning in an ivory satin dress with a train. Two of the bridesmaids were lovelybut the third, whose mother was having a row with her agency about travel expenses,was not such a sweetie.

 

I get home to my flat in Chiswick and let myself in to find mygorgeous girlfriend on the phone. Sitting on the kitchen unit she is saying "Uh,huh," and stretching out a smooth, tanned, never ending leg and letting hershoe hang off her toes. I throw my keys down on the surface next to her, get downon one knee and look up at her. She smiles down at me, half anxious, half thrilled.

 Lauren's legs have beenphotographed protruding elegantly from the door of a quarter of a million poundssports car, slightly soaped in a shower cubicle and with a scarf sliding down themto prove that a certain hair removal cream lasts longer than shaving or waxing.If any commercial or any press advertisement requires a classy blonde girl withlong, beautiful legs, Lauren's the one they go for. She was in that advert for aftershavewith the swarthy bloke sniffing the underside of her knee and the hair mousse commercialwhere the girl walks into the restaurant in a shimmering red dress and causes havocwith waiters dropping their trays and male customers being rebuked by their girlfriendsas they ogle her.

 I touch her skin withmy lips, enjoying the unperfumed, unselfconscious, natural smell of her for a moment.Then I slip off her shoe and kiss around her foot. I hear her gasp and tell theperson at the other end "Nothing." I run my hand round the gentle curveof her calf and then move my lips up her shin, hovering over the skin, stoppingoccasionally to kiss her. She gasps again. "Yep. Look, I'll have to go."I bite her knee gently and then move my mouth round behind it. "No, of course.Don't worry. Ah, listen, gotta go." I kiss around to the front of her thighand squeeze it a little more aggressively as I push her skirt up. "Oh, erm.Yes, I'm fine. I think Charlie's coming that's all." I look up again and giveher a wide eyed goofy look of 'You bet.' I begin to bite her inner thigh gently."He's down here, I mean he's here. Okay, okay, bye mum." She clicks offand puts down the portable.

 I look up again quickly.

 "That was your mum!Oh, shit, why didn't you say?"

 "What could I say?"she laughs. "Gotta go mum, Charlie's slowly bringing me to orgasm?"

 I smile then stand upand pull her against me roughly.

 "She'd know whata good prospective son-in-law she's got."

 "You could put itin your speech," Lauren suggests. Then she smiles and begins to kiss me. Ourlips still touching, I lift her up and carry her to the bedroom.

 

"Do think you got it then?” She says, curled up, nestlingher back into me in bed after we've made love.

 "What?" I saysleepily to the back of her head.

 "The Sunseekers thing."

 "No, I mean, I don'tknow. They didn't say anything obviously. Actually I think I probably buggered itup. The agency didn't tell me they wanted to do body shots so I was wearing somehorrible old undies."

 "Oh, Charlie, youmust check these things, I told you," says Lauren, turning round. "Alwaysask if there are any special clothing requirements and always wear good underwearin any case. You've got tons of pants."

 "But you haven'twashed them." I explain sweetly.

 She gives me an admonishingtap on the nose.

 "It was pretty obviousthat they wanted to see bodies if it was for a holiday brochure."

 "I suppose so, Ijust wasn't thinking. Anyway, why do you ask whether I've got it or not? Can't aman come home and make love to his woman, just because he feels like it, whetherhe's had a successful day or a crap one?"

 "I'm not your woman.I just wondered if that's why you're in such a good mood, that's all."

 "I just am I suppose.I shouldn't be - the casting was pretty bloody embarrassing."

 She looks at me and thensays:

 "Why do you alwaysgo into these things with such a negative frame of mind?"

 "I don't."

 "You do - it's always'Why have they put me up for this one? It's not me' or 'God, I made such a foolof myself'. You should walk into every casting thinking to yourself 'I'm the onethey're looking for', 'I'm the perfect person for this job'. Then you'll get it.It's all about positive thinking."

 "Is that what youdo?"

 "Yeah, of courseI do".

 "Why don't you alwaysget it then?"

 "Because....oh, shutup." She squeezes my cheek hard and then kisses me again. Then she gets upto have a shower. I look at my watch. Nearly five o'clock. Time for a drink? Ora cup of tea? Big decisions. Drink? Tea? Drink? Tea? I find a cool place for myfeet across Lauren's side of the bed and lie back with my hands behind my head.I can still smell her on me. Drink? Tea? Tea? Drink?

 "Lauren?"

 "What?" shecalls from the shower.

 "Shall I have a drinkor a cuppa tea?"

 "Whaaaat?" Thewater stops for a moment.

 "I said shall I havea drink or a cup of tea?"

 "Have a cup of tea- it's too early to start drinking. And make me one too, will you?" The waterstarts again.

 Well, that's that decided.Now all I have to do is get up and do it. I turn over and see myself in the mirrorson the wardrobe. Do I look too old to call myself a model still? Course not. Oneof the few advantages of being a bloke in this business is that you can go on foryears. More character. The downside is that people either think you're gay or stupidor both but at least you can go on working and getting decent paying jobs for longerthan women can.

 Except that they're probablyadverts for incontinence pants.

 

We've got mirrors along our built-in wardrobe doors. They werethere when we first moved in and we immediately decided to remove them because they'reso naff but somehow we never got round to it. My mates had a good laugh when theyfirst saw them. "Bit more subtle than putting them on the ceiling, I suppose,"said Mike, giving me a leering smile. "You can tell he's a bloody model,"said Becky. "Vain or what, Charles?" Laughing, I explained that we reallywere going to get rid of them.

 What would Mike and Beckyand others say if they saw we still had them? They haven't been round here for ages.

 When we first moved in,sometimes as we were making love, I would catch Lauren looking across at these mirrors,at the images of the two of us entwined. Her long legs around me or her perfectbreasts cupped in my hands as she straddled me. At first I wasn't sure whether tobe embarrassed or annoyed. Was she looking at me or at herself? Was it because thesex was so good? Or was it because it was so boring that she needed some sort ofextra stimulation? Was she enjoying it or being subtly critical - making a noteto work her thighs a bit more at the gym or advise me to keep off the beer and chipsfor a while.

 Now sometimes I glanceacross too. There I am with my girlfriend, almost like a stranger kissing her stomachas I move down her long, honey-tanned body, holding myself above her on my elbowsas I push my way into her, slowly, conscientiously kissing her breasts. My own,private version of those articles you find in men's health and fitness magazinescalled things like 'How to achieve the ultimate climax' or 'How to give your womanthe best time ever in bed'. Or just a home-made porn movie with me starring anddirecting.

 Sometimes I look overat the same time Lauren does and our eyes meet. We exchange a glance of love, lust,intimacy through the glass.

 Our whole home is beautifulI must say. It's Lauren's work, of course. A ground floor flat in a large Victorianhouse off Chiswick High Road, it has scrubbed pine floors, white washed walls, bigRoy Lichtenstein-style prints plus little things she has picked up from antiqueshops and from a visit a few years ago to Morocco, especially arranged for the purpose.She did all the research about freighting the things home. Spoke to couriers, checkedup on the paper work, got a good deal. Bullied, begged, and bribed her way throughit. People love our flat as soon as they walk in. I tell them "It's all downto Lauren" and they say "Yeah, I can believe that."

 

The sound of my mobile ringing shakes me out of my reverie.

 "Ye-e-e-llow"I say.

 "Charlie?"

 "Speaking. Karyn.How are you?"

 "Good, darling. You?"

 "Pretty good."

 "How did the Sunseekerscasting go?"

 "Oh, pretty crap,actually."

 "Really? Why?"

 "I was wearing thesereally disgusting old undies..."

 "Oh, how lovely -I'm just visualising them. Anyway, you knew it was for a body shot, didn't you?"

 "No."

 "Oh, Charlie, youdid."

 "Penny gave me thedetails."

 "Oh, I see."

 Penny might be Karyn'sboss at the agency and a frighteningly tough business woman who can screw everypenny out of a client for a model - and every penny out of a model for her agency- but her ability to pass on the simplest bits of information for any casting orjob is negligible.

 "I think she wasprobably too pissed again," I explain.

 Karyn giggles.

 "Very possibly. Anyway,this is me giving you a casting so you know it will be totally correct in everydetail."

 "If you say so."

 "I do say so. Now,got a pen?"

 "Hang on, let meget of bed."

 "What?"

 "Sorry, just exhaustedafter that casting."

 "Tough job beinga model isn't it?" snaps Karyn. "Come on, I've got other people to talkto before six."

 "Ooh, 'scuse me.Right. Here we go. Shoot."

 "OK. It's to go to11a Kenworth Mews, W11 to see a guy called Dave Howland. It's advertising for anew dotcom company - "

 "I thought they'dall gone under."

 "Fortunately foryou matey, they haven't. This one is just launching and they need some advertisingand some images for their homepage which is where we come in."

 "Jolly good."

 "So it's anytimebetween 10 and 12 tomorrow. Go smart-casual, you know, like a young entrepreneur."

 "I'm going to getthis job." I tell her, remembering Lauren's sensible words.

 "'Course you aredear," says Karyn with exaggerated condescension, “just make sure you're wearingclean pants."

    

Chapter Two

 

I am the face of Lord James cigarettes.

 In Uruguay, that is. Laughing,talking to my friends, getting the girl, sipping a cocktail, elegantly smoking acigarette - my picture appears in magazines and bill boards from Montevideo to Puntede l'Este. I'm on the side of the buses as they snort and push their way throughthe swirling exhaust fumes and jostling traffic on stiflingly hot days in the palm-filledsquares, past crumbling former colonial mansions and along newly-built express ways.Peasant women from the outlying regions and girls from Spanish Catholic schoolsin stripy uniforms get on these buses and they must sometimes look up at my facesmiling down at them.


Page 3

 Do those women reallybelieve that I am some British aristo who likes nothing more than to enjoy a relaxingciggie with his smart friends? Do those school girls giggle and wonder who am I,what I'm like in real life and where I live? Or do they think I'm just another tosserin a stupid ad? (Obviously I hope not - although in strictly moral terms, it isprobably more acceptable than their being so overwhelmed with my handsome face andthe mood of effortless elegance which I embody that they actually start smokingthe disgusting things that I'm advertising).

 And when those buses goback to their corrugated iron sheds at night in the outskirts of the city I'm stillsmiling, smoking, talking to my friends, my face inches away from my face on anotherbus or pressed up against the image of a dark haired woman advertising a Braziliansoap opera.

 So, although I've neverbeen to Uruguay and I don't particularly want to go, I suppose that if I walkeddown the street in Montevideo, somebody would stop and stare and nudge someone elseand say: "Hey, that's the guy from the Lord James ads". That's fame, yousee - someone knows you even if you don't know them.

 People have done it tome in Britain. I was once standing on a tube station platform when two women withshopping bags looked across at me and began to giggle. I smiled back, slightly bemused.Then I checked my fly and rubbed my mouth just to make sure that it didn't stillhave toothpaste on it or something. What's their problem? I thought, irritably.It was only when I turned round that I noticed a huge poster behind me on the tubestation wall: my smiling face looking up at a stewardess in an advertisement fora business class airline seats.

 With my swept back blondhair, linen suit and smooth, tanned skin, I'm also the face of Lord James cigarettesin Paraguay, Ecuador, New Guinea and various specified southern states of Braziland associated territories for poster, print and point of sale advertising withno specific conditions attached until June 2005 when the license will have to berenewed. And, if it is (oh, please, oh, please), I'll get another big, fat cheque- for doing absolutely nothing.

 I remember being in theagency when the call came to say that I had got the job. Since it was the end ofthe day one of the girls dashed out to the corner shop and bought a bottle of AustralianChardonnay. We toasted my success with our plastic cups. "Well done, darling,"said Karyn, kissing me on the lips. "Thanks, babe," I said, putting myarm around her waist, knowing it looked pretty cool, but hoping all the same thatit was okay by her.

 Penny also kissed me onthe lips so that I could taste her bright red lipstick, as well as the stale alcoholon her breath from her lunchtime session.

 "Congrats, darling,"she growled at me. "You're an absolute bloody star. Isn't he, everyone?"There were murmurs of agreement from all around me.

 I'd never been in theagency before when one of these big jobs came through - previously I'd just be toldabout it on the phone so I wasn't sure of the etiquette, whether to say 'Thanks'to them for helping me or just look pleased with myself. I suddenly felt ratherembarrassed at being the centre of attention. It's not like I could explain howI got the role, what special skill or strategy I'd employed. I’d just turned upat the casting, showed some guy my book, let them take a Polaroid of me, as theyalways do for some unfathomable reason even though they've got your card with halfa dozen pictures on it anyway, said 'Thanks very much' and went home. But somehowI did it. So there I was. The man of the hour.

 "Hey, bud!"Brad, one of the girls' bookers, gave me the high-five model handshake, a giantpec moving under his skin tight 'Army' T-shirt. "Mr Uruguay!" It wasn'tvery funny really, but we all laughed, glad to have something to laugh about. Thenwe stood in silence and everyone sipped, eyes looking up for someone to speak next.I took a deep breath. "I could do with a cigarette." I said. "ShameI don't smoke". Everyone laughed again.

 "Sophisticated, confident,European," the brief from the ad people had said. That's me. Well, if theysay so, but then who am I to argue?

 

I arrive at the casting early because I know it'll get busierlater, old pro that I am. Unfortunately lots of other old pros are there too havinghad the same idea. But perhaps the other reason I'm usually early for these thingsis simply because I hate hanging around with other models. I nod hello to a fewfamiliar faces and have a brief chat with a red headed guy called Brian, who isfrom Glasgow and who I did a job with a few months ago when we both spent an afternoonin a brand new office in Docklands, pouring over a laptop computer and then shakinghands - doing what is known in the trade as the 'grip and grin'.

 On the way here I've beendoing Lauren's thing and telling myself that I'm the man they're looking for andthis is the perfect job for me, but I always feel a bit of burk doing it - thankgoodness no one can hear me. Unless, of course, I'm actually talking out loud. Theclients are late, natch. At nearly half past ten when the room is beginning to fillup and I've read most of my paper and am sliding a creased old copy of Men’s Healthout from under a precarious pile of magazines on the coffee table, two thirty-somethingguys burst in, one gushing apologies at everyone and telling us that his breakfastmeeting ran over, the other standing back and offering a quiet 'So, sorry' to thegirl running the casting.

 She offers them both coffeeand the talkative guy reacts as if she's just left him her house in her will. Theyare shown into another room, Mr Verbosity still apologising and thanking everyonein sight. Somehow the collective malevolence radiating from us models - especiallythose of us who have been here now for nearly three quarters of an hour - escapeshim and he just smiles wildly at us.

 "Sorry guys."He says lightly. We smile back absolution with varying degrees of sincerity, eachthinking 'Just shut up and get on with it, you incompetent tosser.' The other guyseems to pick up this vibe and looks genuinely embarrassed, smiling nervously.

 I'm fourth in. There isa strict order in these matters even if no one is keeping a list. First come, firstserved. Anyone who tries to get ahead risks being ripped limb from limb by theirfellow models. Got to get off to another casting? Haven't we all, mate? Got a jobin half an hour? Go and do it then. Car on a meter? Should have taken the bus. Needurgent dialysis? Bite on a towel, bud. You can steel my money, take my girlfriend,shoot my dog, but don't ever try and get ahead of me in a casting.

 I walk in and say:

 "Hello, Charlie Barrett.Good to meet you."

 "Charlie. Excellent.Piers," says the talkative one, extending a hand. "My associate, Guy."I shake hands with him too and then hand them my book. It's the standard format- good, strong headshot at the front then a mixture of fashion, lifestyle, business- me with suit looking at watch, staring down into laptop, walking fast with anotherguy- then a bit of young Dad stuff with a girl and a four year old, plus a coupleof my weddings. They flick through and I give them my well-rehearsed anecdotes."That was actually taken at seven in the morning, even though I'm wearing aDJ", "That kid was such a brat", "The girl I'm with there presentssomething on Sky TV now", "That one? Thanks. Actually the photographergot really drunk at lunchtime, I'm just amazed it's in focus. Ha, ha."

 Piers laughs uproariouslyand Guy smiles and asks more questions. They ask me how long I've been modellingand I tell them since I left University.

 "What did you read?"says Piers, obviously surprised that someone in such a brainless profession couldhave gone to university. Don't worry about it Piers, I'm used to it.

 "Marketing. At Leeds,"I tell him.

 "Really? Why areyou...?"

 "In this daft game?"I laugh. Does that sound too cynical? Oops, never mind - plenty more jobs out there."I thought I'd do it for a while after university and, well, here I am eightyears later."

 "It's a form of marketing,I suppose," says Guy.

 "Yeah, I supposeit is." I say, hoping to recover the situation.

 "OK, Charlie, that'ssplendid," says Piers. "Absolutely fantastic. Great pictures. Thanks verymuch for coming in to see us."

 "Thanks, Charlie"says Guy.

I smile, take my book back, and then it's the next bloke's turn.

 

First come first served is how I first met Lauren. I'd seen herat castings before a couple of times. Even in a room dotted with stunning womenyou couldn't fail to spot Lauren. There was something about her manner and her self-assurance.She certainly knew how to make an entrance too, she breezed in as if she was doinga catwalk show, ignoring looks of interest from the boys and depressed resentmentfrom the girls.

 It was a casting for anew type of mobile phone. Europe wide. Lots of money. Even more models up for it.She gave her name, turned around without looking at anybody else and found a seat.Then she dipped into her bag and took out a book called 'Know the market: Choosingthe best ISA for you.' 'What?' I thought. Around her other female models are readingMarie Claire or novels about girls with fat thighs, a Chardonnay habit and no boyfriends.This girl even seemed to be enjoying her improving tome. She brought a pen out ofher bag and made a note in the margin.

 I knew I was staring andI knew she would sense it and look up in a moment but I didn't care. In fact hereyes didn't move away from her book so I went back to my own reading matter - amindless thriller. A few moments later I realised that there was some discussiongoing on about whose turn it was next, because one girl had arrived late but hadbeen allowed to go in early. I could sense the tension rising. The girl at the deskwas checking her list and muttering "Just hang on a sec....what was your nameagain?". Another model said something about being before someone else and havingto be away by four because she had to pick her daughter up from her boyfriend. Laurenwas also looking up from her book now. I wasn't that bothered - I had all day withnothing else to do and the sight of a model cat fight always amuses me. But suddenlyLauren was speaking and the others were quiet.

 "It's you next, thenyou, because you agreed to let her go ahead" she said talking to another girl."And then you, followed by me. OK?"

 Whether that was the rightorder or not, there was something about Lauren's confident tone that prohibitedany further discussion. A challenge to 'Argue with that, if you dare', seemed tohang in the air as the other models decided slowly that it probably made sense.Lauren went back to her book and everyone else fell silent, either satisfied orterrified.

 Fucking hell, I thought.Luckily my turn came before hers and I hung around afterwards, clutching my rucksackand an A to Z, pretending that I was just in the process of leaving and, hey, gosh,you got another casting, too? I'd also thought of mentioning something about ISAsbut I couldn't think of anything intelligent or funny to say about them. Know anyISA jokes, anyone?

 In fact she nearly breezedpast me, so I had rush after her and catch her up.

 "Hi," I said.

 "Oh, hello,"she said, looking slightly surprised.

 "You were just inthat casting weren't you?" I had hoped to do this a bit more subtly but I wasin for it now and so there was no turning back.

 "Oh, yes" shesaid, not having to add: 'Were you? I didn't notice you.'

 "Erm, how did itgo?"

 She stopped walking andturned to look at me properly.

 "Not bad. I don'tthink I got it, though - I think I'm too English looking for the kind of girl theywere looking for. I asked the casting director which countries it's being sold toand I think they wanted someone more American, more West Coast, sort of a KirstenDunst or a Cameron Diaz."

 "Yes," I saiddumbly.

 "How about you?"Well in my case the agency told me to go and I'd gone. That was it.

 "Erm, seemed okay,but I don't think I got it either."

 She looked at me for amoment. Then she said:

 "Never mind, youalways learn something about your look and the potential market for it at everycasting I think, don't you?"

 "Yes, I suppose so."She smiled (patronisingly?) and then carried on walking. I heard myself callingafter her: "I wondered, actually, whether you'd like to go for a drink sometime?"

 She stopped again andthen slowly walked back towards me.

 "What's your name?"she asked.

 "Erm." Oh shit,what is my name? I thought, panic gripping me like an anaconda. "Charlie, CharlieBarrett" I said, at last. It sounded like I'd just made it up. That was right,wasn't it? Yeah, Charlie Barrett, that's me.


Page 4

 "Thing is CharlieBarrett, I'm booked up all this week -"

 "Ohrightnoproblemsureofcoursejustwonderednevermind,"I spewed elegantly.

 "But I could do lunchon Wednesday."

 "Lunch?"

 "Yeah, why not? Youdo have lunch don't you?"

 "Yes I have lunchevery Wednesday," I said. It was supposed to be a joke but I'm still not surehow it sounded.

 "Give me your numberand I'll ring you in the morning to confirm where and when," she said. I thought,'Oh I see, that's a nice way to do it'. You won't ring, you'll accidentally loseit and I'll be too embarrassed to mention it if we ever meet again at a casting.Slightly despondently I gave her my number and expected nothing.

 

But she did ring me. We went out to a little Italian restaurantin Soho where she had fish and salad because she was on a high protein/low carbdiet. I ordered chicken kiev. I didn't particularly want it but I'd been too busytalking to look at the menu and when the waiter came it was the first thing I saw.

 "You're not doingany swimwear stuff at the moment," she said as I gave my order.

 "How do you mean?"

 "Chicken kiev, allthe butter."

 "Oh right, no, notreally."

 "That's the thingabout boys, you never have to watch your diet, do you?" she said.

 "No, I suppose not.I just tend to eat any old thing," I said, laughing oafishly.

 "You're lucky, you'vegot a naturally slim build," she said. Was there just a flicker of a smileacross her face as she realised the effect that this innocent observation was havingon me? I mean, it was a compliment, wasn’t it? "I bet you never put on weight,do you?"

 "Yeah," I said."I mean no, not really."

 She definitely smiledthis time.

 "Do you do much sportor go to the gym?"

 "Swimming - and Iplay football on Saturdays." I watched her snap off a piece of bread stick."Why are you laughing?" She laughed more. "Because you sound likea little boy talking about your hobbies to a friend of your mum's or something."She laughs again. "I didn't mean to make it sound like that."

 "I collect stampstoo."

 She stopped smiling andlooked unsure for a moment as if she felt she ought to something polite to say aboutphilately. I let the confusion continue for a moment. Then I said:

 "I'm joking."She laughed - amused by my joke or her own gullibility? Who cares? Lauren 1. Charlie1.

 

I loved the way she loved being annoyed by my teasing. It waslike playing along with my silly jokes annoyed her but she couldn't help it.

Even if nothing had ever come of this romantically, I'd havelearnt something about how to market myself as a model, how to buy an ISA, how tonegotiate with hotels to get the best room rate and how to fillet a fish.

 That makes the rest ofour conversation sound so tedious but it wasn't. Lauren was just so on the ball.About everything. Opinionated, perceptive - and funny too. Everything interestedher and she had strong views on every subject.

 

Later having, asked about my background and my career she toldme about hers: she had done A-levels, two As and a B, but had decided to put offgoing to college because she wanted to see something of the world. She had knownshe had the potential to be a model, so she decided this would be good way of earningmoney while she thought about what she really wanted to do with her life.

 "I just couldn'twork for anyone, could you? I've always needed to be my own boss," she said.

 "I don't know, neverdone it really," I told her. "Work generally doesn't, you know, do itfor me."

 She stopped the expertfilleting of her sea bass and looked at me again. Was I being serious? I wasn'tsure. I was just giving her a provocative, enigmatic look which always works wellin shots for women's magazines, when my chicken kiev, which I'd just stuck my knifeinto, spurted melted butter across the table at her. It exploded. All over thisbeautiful elegant woman. In the middle of the restaurant. On our first date. Hot,liquid butter, flecked with chopped parsley, dripping down her elegant cream-colouredlinen dress. A huge yellow smear. The restaurant seemed to go silent or was thatjust the strange hissing noise in my ears, the kind you get before you faint?

 Eventually I managed todrag my eyes away from the stain and look up at her face. She seemed expressionless.Then she rolled her eyes (oh God, not a good sign, surely. Why? Why me? Why now?)and suddenly smiled.

 "Charlie Barrett,"she said. "You are a fuckwit."

 

Waiters fluttered around. The owner's wife was consulted. Napkinswere produced. Advice was given. We finally ate although on my part every mouthfulwas torture. As we ordered coffee and I emptied her sachet of sugar into my cappuccinoas well as my own, it occurred to me that not only could she carry off almost anysituation, anything that life, figuratively speaking, or me, literally speaking,could ever throw at her, I'd never be lost or bored with this woman. I was right.Lauren has an in-built compass so she always knows exactly where she is going andat that moment I decided I wanted to tag along.

 As we walked through therestaurant she had an even greater effect on our fellow customers than she had hadin the casting. The butter stain looked at a cursory glance like a pattern on thedress and she gave the impression that she really didn't care at all about it. Garlicbutter appliqué? Oh, it's very in this season, didn't you know?

 I held the door open forher and she swept out, putting on her sunglasses as she did so.

 "Are you around nextweek?" I asked her, assuming she'd give me a polite, polished brush off, thekind of thing a girl as stunning as her would have to say to men about two or threetimes a day. Especially to one who has just covered her with the contents of a chickenkiev.

 But she didn't.

 "Actually, we coulddo something tomorrow," she said.

 "Oh, right, I thoughtyou were busy all..." What the fuck was I doing? Trying to put her off?

 "Yes, I was,"she said. "But I've decided to cancel."

   

Chapter Three

 

I arrive at the job early with a selection of trendy young businessman'sclothes as instructed. I've brought a navy blue suit, a long-sleeve polo shirt,a black T shirt, a cream button-down collar shirt and a French cuffed navy bluenumber with matching cufflinks. One thing about this job is that you need a largewardrobe - although mirrors on it aren't compulsory. Oh God those mirrors. It happenedagain last night. Perhaps we can't do it without the use of mirrors anymore. Wedon't smoke, natch, but we do use mirrors to create an illusion.

 Lauren, needless to say,has put her wardrobe together over the years she's been modelling with militaryprecision. Her side of the hanging space contains suits, skirts, blouses and casualclothes to fit every occasion: busy executive, young mother, seductive girl in bed,sensible girl in the kitchen. All perfectly appropriate for her colouring and build,all tax deductible. Lauren does her own accountancy. She also does mine now.

 I, needless to say, havechosen my work clothing with absolutely no thought or skill, whatsoever. Most ofit is stuff I wear anyway, stuff I've rushed out and bought the day before a job,stuff I've borrowed from friends and sort of forgotten to return, stuff I got cheapat Primark because I know I need it, plus a couple of things I've nicked from fashionshoots. "Where is that grey T shirt?" one harassed stylist asked me aftera job. I shrugged my shoulders: "Dunno, search me," I said, knowing thatif she did she'd find the missing item in my bag. Oh, shut up! They've got thousandsof them. On the other hand I've also been chased down the road by a stylist to returna pair of socks that I'd forgotten to take off. It's tit for tat.

 But this is a suit job.Smart, confident, and on-the-ball. Huh, I wonder what that feels like. It's thejob from the casting the other day, the dotcom job.

 "Clever boy"said Karyn when she rang to tell me I'd got it. "I knew you looked like a dotcommer."

 "What? You mean broke,washed up and desperate."

 "What's the matterwith you? What happened to your get-up-and-go?"

 "It got up and went."

 "Oh, Charlie. Don'tbe so cynical."

 Perhaps it's beginningto show.

 "Sorry Karyn. I'mdelighted. How much is it again?" I know that will encourage me - even minusagency commission.

 "Fifteen hundredand you're worth every penny of it."

 "You say the sweetestthings."

 

We're shooting it at a massive loft apartment overlooking theriver in Battersea. Sun is flooding in and the clothes they have brought for meafter having spurned my own motley collection are actually really cool - lots ofPrada, Ermenegildo Zegna and Dries Van Noten. They've even managed to get the rightsizes in some cases. It always amazes me that although all my sizes are clearlyprinted on my card in UK and European sizes and we always confirm them before thejob, the stylists always manage to get the wrong ones. It must be on their listof things to do: 1) Bring iron. 2). Polish up shoes. 3). Make sure model's clothesdon't fit. Etc.

 Oh, moan, moan. Sorry.

 Piers bursts in, lateagain, just as we're going through the wardrobe and the photographer's assistant,a fat guy called Benny with Joe 90 specs is putting up the lights.

 "Morning, gang,"he sings at us, his fruity voice filling the whole cathedral-like void of the apartment.There is no way any of us can match his enthusiasm so our response sounds decidedlydownbeat. "What have we got for our cool young businessman to wear?"

 He dives into the neatlylaid out wardrobe and starts throwing the things around, much to the annoyance ofthe stylist Hilary, a tall willowy girl who is frightfully posh and has just beentelling me about working on the latest Joseph Fiennes movie. "He's like, sucha total sweetie, yeah?" I feel I should apologise for being just a nondescriptmodel doing some crappy advertising shoot.

 "This is great,"says Piers, pulling out a black Prada shirt and holding it up. "This is very'2cool'. Guy! Very '2cool', don't you think?" Guy who is talking intently tothe photographer looks over and nods.

 "I haven't ironedthat yet," says Hilary, snatching it back.

 "You need a darksuit too, like this," Piers informs me, ignoring Hilary and grabbing a jacketoff the rack. "Yep, perfect."

 "He can't wear allthat black, he'll just disappear in the picture," says Hilary, catching thetrousers as they slide off the hanger.

 "Excellent,"says Piers, dumping the whole lot on her and marching over to Guy and the photographer,presumably to cock things up there too.

 Hilary runs her handsthrough her hair and says quietly:

 "Just keep that twataway from me will you?"

 "Yes, ma'am,"I tell her, picking up the trousers.

 

I always get on well with stylists and makeup artists, even thoughmakeup takes thirty seconds for boys - just a bit of powder to stop us shining andsomething to cover up any spots and shaving cuts that have chosen to appear thatmorning. Remember those unwelcome but very noticeable visitors on the day of a teenageparty? Well the bigger the modelling job the more likely they are to pop up - literally.

 Perhaps because this isn'texactly a massive job, there are none of the little buggers in evidence which meansI spend even less time with the makeup artist, an Eastern European girl with a round,pale face whose name I don't catch.

 The only time I've everlost my temper with a wardrobe person was when I was doing a show for Paul Costello.My dresser rabbited on endlessly about the new flat she was buying with her boyfriendand so I only just had time to let her rip off one set of clothes and help me puta suit on ready to go out again. I did my stuff, sauntering down the catwalk (orrunway as we call it in the biz, just to make it clear that we are in the biz) andcame back ready to change into the next outfit on the rail. It was only when I reacheddown to take off my trousers that I realised that she had sent me off there andback without my fly done up.

 "Oh, fuck,"I hissed. "How embarrassing. How could you do that?"

 "Look, mate,"she said, thrusting a jacket at me, "there are some places where only yourhands go."

 The thing about theseshoots is that as a model you have almost nothing to do all day until the very lastminute when the photographer, art director, client and God knows who else decidesthat they are ready for you. So you sit around and chat with strangers. By the endof the day you sometimes find that you know almost all there is to know about someonewho you had never met that morning and might never meet again.


Page 5

 

This shoot is relatively painless. They only need three differentpictures apparently. It still manages to take all day, of course. I talk to Piersand Guy quite a bit in between shots. They're actually nice guys. They're interestedin what it's like to be a model and I ask a bit about their new venture.

 "I thought dotcomswere all finished," I say, smiling to show I'm being deliberately provocative.

 "The first generationcertainly are," says Piers. "It's all about timing. Those guys thunderedin without thinking and everybody - banks, investment houses, venture capitalists- just poured money at them in a sort of blind panic, but if you looked at the businessplans very often there were no obvious revenue streams".

 Guy says: "We'reabout building stable business models - "

 "With carefully targetedaudiences and correct market positioning," jumps in Piers.

 "We're looking tocreate market synergies with appropriate trading partners," says Guy, lookingat me intensely as if he's willing me to challenge him or ask him to elaborate.

 Instead I say: "Thatseems very sensible".

 

Lunch is a vast selection of sandwiches, cold chicken and salads.It's one of the best lunches I've ever had on a job. There are fruit juices anda kind of mineral water which I haven't seen before. According to the label it comesfrom newly melted snows and glaciers at the tip of the Andes. The rain from whichthis snow was made fell before the industrial revolution and so it is exceptionallypure, it says. Glacial Purity. What does that mean? I hold it up to the light. GlacialPurity. I like the sound of that. Mind you, when I see the menu and the receiptsfor the food and notice that it's six pounds a bottle, I'd have to really like it.

 

We finish by just before five.

 "OK, we're wrappedguys, well done," says the photographer, a small, dapper man in black witha cap of salt and pepper grey hair.

 "We're wrapped everyone,"echoes Piers.

 "Thank you, Piers,"says Hilary, folding venomously.

 I take off my suit andput it back on the rack and then start to put on my own clothes.

 "Can I have a word,Charlie?" says Guy.

 "Sure," I say,assuming that he and Piers are going to ask me to do some more work for them withoutthe agency - freelance, you might say. It's not that I'm particularly averse toit, Penny has done very well out of me. Besides, it happens. Everyone does it.

 Sure enough, he guidesme to one corner of the huge open-plan living room and says quietly: "We wonderedif you'd be interested in working for us."

 "Mmm, could be."Play it cool, see what they want and what kind of rates they'll pay. What wouldLauren ask?

 "We think you'rethe kind of guy we're looking for, for our venture, you know, just from talkingto you today," says Piers. "You've got the right look, the right manner."

 "So, you want todo something without the agency?" I ask, as if suddenly I'm not so sure aboutthis and will need to be convinced - and remunerated adequately.

 They exchange glances.

 "Yeah," saysGuy, laughing gently. "We'd like you to help with our marketing."

 I let it sink in for amoment. "Really? You mean, not modelling." I'm not handing out flyers,that's for sure. God, how bloody insulting.

 They laugh a bit morethis time.

 "No, full-time marketing,"says Piers, his dark brown eyes fixing on me. "I get the feeling you're prettybored with this game aren't you?"

 "New challenge?"suggests Guy, raising his eyebrows.

 "You've got a degreeyou haven't used yet," says Piers.

 I think about it for amoment. This is a proper job they're talking about. I'm about to ask whether I'llhave to wear a suit then I realise that I should probably find out about somethinga little more serious, such as private health insurance or non-contributory pensionschemes or something. Instead I just say:

 "Ummm".

 "Well, think it over,"says Guy, handing me a card.

 "It does sound veryinteresting," I say, trying not to sound like a complete dingbat. "It'sjust that I haven't done any marketing for, well, since I was at university."

 "Oh, you've got thebasics," says Piers. "This thing can really market itself."

 "Anyway, the importantthing," says Guy, "is that you've got the personality and the look. We'vedone the hard work, what we need is someone to charm the investors and customers,schmooze the media a bit. We'll brief you on the company and what we're doing. We'dlike you to be the face of 2cool2btrue.com."

 "2cool2btrue?"

 "dotcom," addsGuy, helpfully.

 "It's a second generationinternet venture, learning from the mistakes of the first," says Piers.

 "Yeah, you said.But what does it do exactly?"

 "Have you got a momentnow to talk about it? Shall we go for a drink somewhere?" says Guy.

 

We find a quiet pub across the road and Piers buys three Cokeswhile Guy begins their presentation. By this time I'm over the initial shock anda bit more switched on. I decide to play devil's advocate a bit.

 "So what's differentabout 2cool2btrue? I mean what's your unique selling point?" I ask.

 "I thought you'dforgotten all your marketing stuff," says Piers, setting down the drinks. "USP'salready, I'm impressed."

 Guy ignores him and pausesfor thought for a moment. "Image is everything these days, isn't it?"he begins, putting his hands together in a prayer position. "Labels, marketpositioning, brands are what counts. No one, well hardly anyone, buys things todaybecause they need them or because they're the cheapest or whatever. They buy productsbecause of what is says about them. Look at advertising in the fifties and sixtiesand even the seventies - it was all about things working better than their competitors-"

 "Or being cheaper,"interjects Piers.

 "Exactly, or beingcheaper, but no one really cares about that nowadays."

 "Mmm," I say:it all makes sense to me but I decide to keep looking sceptical.

 "Now it's the label.You buy Armani, Mercedes, Nike or Apple Mac or Smeg cookers or whatever, not becausethey're better put together or they fit you, and certainly not because they're cheaper,but because you want to be seen with them.

 "Take your trainers,"says Piers.

 I look down quickly atthem.

 "What make are they?"

 "Nike," I say,pretending to have to look.

 "But lots of otherpeople make them - why not George at Asda, for instance?"

 "What make of jeansare those?" asks Guy.

 "Levis. Engineered."

 "Why not M&S?Their jeans are just the same, only slightly cheaper."

 "Because you'd feellike a middle-aged man."

 "What kind of cardo you drive?"

 "I don't - don'tneed one."

 "Okay, your Dad.Volvo? Audi?"

 "Not a good example,"I say.

 "Oh, sorry, is he....?”Guy asks, awkwardly.

 "Dead?" suggestsPiers, helpfully.

 "No, he's not, he'salive, very alive. Too alive, if anything. Anyway, he drives a Porsche."

 "Ah ha," saysGuy. "Middlescent?"

 "Mm?"

 "Middle-aged mantrying to be an adolescent," he explains.

 "Sort of." Igroan at the thought of him.

 "Underwear?"says Piers.

 I don't want really wantto think about my Dad in his underwear, actually, but Piers is off.

 "Armani pants arereally just like anyone else's - M&S or John Lewis - except that they say 'Armani'on them. Or 2(x)ist if you're really cool. And, of course, only you know that whenyou're wearing them, don't you?"

 "Yes," I say.Because I do. Like now. Like Lauren says, always wear good underwear to a job -don't want everyone to see your old grey Y fronts when you change your trousers.

 "So it's all aboutthe label, the image. Brand image is so important. Armani will not let just anyonesell their underwear, for example. If you want them to supply you, they'll comeand inspect your shop to make sure that you're not some pile-it-high, sell-it-cheapmerchant in Leyton High Road."

 "Okay," saysGuy. "So you get the idea. At the beginning of the third millennium, the labelis what counts. Look," he points out the window at two black kids walking past."See that? 'Dolce & Gabbana' all over their T shirts. People don't evenwant designs these days, the label is the design. The label has to be visible -the bigger the better."

 "That's why thesecompanies are diversifying - you can now buy Armani for the home, Ralph Lauren paint.You'll soon be able to buy their food." I think of the Harvey Nichols’ coffeeand chocolates I bought the other day for Lauren's mum when we went over for lunch.

 "Everything musthave a label, otherwise we're just not interested," says Piers.

 "So 2cool2btrue.comis a label."

 "Exactly," saysPiers. "Think of an ultra chic, upmarket website."

 "Like Armani.com?"

 "Armani.com is justthe web presence of the company."

 "Well Mercedes musthave a pretty cool site."

 "But again, it'sthe just the website of a smart car company, not a smart website in its own right,"says Piers.

 "2cool2btrue.comwill be the web equivalent of Armani, Prada, Rolls Royce, Wallpaper*," explainsGuy.

 "You'll be proudto have it on your Favourites list."

 "Your boss will beimpressed when he sees you visiting it at work."

 "What will you sellthen? Clothes?" I ask, playing with a beer mat.

 "A whole lifestyleexperience," says Guy.

 "People will be ableto live 2cool2btrue."

 "They'll want tolive it."

 "People like you."

 "People who wantto be like you."

 "Very flattering."I offer, mainly just to halt the tide for a second.

 "Nothing of the sort,"says Guy, "It's just effective marketing. 2cool will be the smartest, coolest,hippest thing in cyberspace and you will be the human face of it."

 I gaze up at a sign saying'Bar Snacks'. 'Cod Almighty: tasty bite size cod pieces battered served with ourown tartar sauce' £3.95. Vegetable lasagne served with chips and salad. Dressingof your choice. £4.95'

 A large screen TV is playingAmerican football at the back, slightly out of focus. An old man with a pint ofmild is trying to watch it, brow creased with confusion and irritation at the mystifying,blurred images. He reaches over almost painfully to tap ash into a huge grubby plasticashtray emblazoned with the name of a type of lager. Pubs, when he was a lad, hadpianos, ham rolls under a glass dome and busty, blowsy landladies - not big screenall sports cable television and Australian backpackers wearing the T shirts withthe pub's corporate owners' logo and a name badge.

 Glacial Purity. Six poundsa bottle.

    

Chapter Four

 

 "I think it soundslike an excellent opportunity. Pass me the balsamic vinegar," says Lauren.

 "It does sound quiteexciting, doesn't it?" I do as she says. "But I'm just a bit wary - itall seems a bit too clever, somehow."

 "That's probablywhat somebody said about television - or the internet," says Lauren.

 "And half a dozenother crack pot schemes we've never heard anything more about."

 "Oh, Charlie, thisisn't balsamic vinegar, it’s washing-up liquid."

 "Is it? Sorry. Hereyou go. I am interested - just a little bit sceptical."

 "Well, nothing ventured,nothing gained. I think this is an opportunity staring you in the face," saysLauren, picking some basil leaves off the plant in the window sill, which is nowbathed in the low, evening sunlight. "Check it out - if the worst comes tothe worst you just go back to modelling."

 "True."

 "Anyway, I had someinteresting news today," she says, in a bashful, little girl kind of way.


Page 6

 "Oh, do tell,"I say, aware that we've been talking about me for the last half an hour.

 "We-e-e-ell, youremember that audition tape I did for the shopping channel?"

 "Oh, yeah, did youget it?"

 "Not that particularone but I'm actually quite glad. That is a bit naff, I think. But anyway, they showedit to this other producer and he thought it was great. He thought I had real screenpresence."

 "Oh, that's brilliant,"I say, coming round from the other side of the work top where we are both cooking,well where Lauren is cooking up dinner and I'm cocking it up.

 "He said I was, oh,what was it? 'Warm but authoritative'."

 "That's you."I say, turning her round from the chopping board and putting my arms around her.

 "Don't take the piss,Charlie, this is serious," she says crossly, slapping my shoulder.

 "I am being serious- that is you. You are friendly but authoritative."

 "Warm but authoritative."

 "Yeah, whatever.Exactly," I say, kissing her neck.

 "Well, don't youthink that's good?"

 "Yeah, I do. So what'snext?"

 "Well he wants meto go in and discuss some programme ideas with him and some of his colleagues laterthis week."

 "That's great. Sowhat kind of programme ideas? Who for?"

 "We don't know yetbut they'll probably be lifestyle or property related. Perhaps something like ChangingRooms or Ready Steady Cook, but with a new twist."

 "Brilliant. You meanfor the BBC or Channel Four or something?"

 "Well, it would probablystart off on cable but then it could transfer to terrestrial at a later date."she says, letting the jargon roll off her tongue.

 "Hey, you could dosomething for 2cool."

 "A tie in? It mightwork, mightn't it? I'll suggest it." We both chop and stir in silence for amoment then she says: "So you're going to do this thing then?"

 "Yeah." I say,realising that I've already made up my mind. "Yeah, I am. What have I got tolose? They're going to pay £35,000 a year and if the whole thing crashes I'll justgo back to modelling, like you say. Or I might even set up my own website."

 "Mmm," she says.Dinner is actually ready now - grilled organic chicken, penne with homemade tomatosauce and salad of rocket, cherry tomatoes, shaved parmesan and balsamic vinegardressing. But somehow we're not ready to eat yet, too lost in thought and excitedby the prospects of our future career plans stretching out before us.

 "I think we shoulddo it, both of us," says Lauren looking across at me. "I think it's timewe made a career change."

 "OK. Here's to newcareers," I say, holding up my glass.

 

I only got into modelling because a friend of mine from universitywanted to do it. Paul was very good looking with his wavy, dark hair and Tom Cruiseeyes and he knew it. He was planning to take a year off after we graduated and hehad decided to try and earn some money as a model. He suggested I have a go too.I wasn't that bothered, in fact I didn't really fancy the idea very much, but Itold him I'd come with him. So we both got some pictures taken by a photographerhe'd had recommended to him and we took them to a few agencies. Obviously we didn'ttell anyone.

 We started at the topand not surprisingly were told that we both had a great look but it wasn't quiteright for them at the moment.

 "Never mind,"I said, assuming we'd knock it on the head and go and work in a bar or photocopyingin an office like most of our friends. But Paul wanted to try some other agencies,so one hot afternoon in July, AtoZ and Travelcard in hand, feeling like a completeburk, I followed him from one address to another. On one occasion just as we wereleaving a girl called to us: "Sorry, excuse me a minute".

 Paul froze. This was it,at last, a break - someone had seen what the others had missed, someone ready totake a punt, trust an instinct. The girl looked closely at him and said: "Canyou leave this at reception on your way out", as she handed him a large envelope.Whether it was simply economy of effort on a hot day or just casual sadism, I don'tknow, but, either way, I was already pretty sick of this.

 Then, after I had beenso keen to leave yet another large, sun flooded room full of beautiful people talkingon the phone and surrounded by photographs of even more beautiful people, and hadwalked into the stationary cupboard instead of out onto the landing, still saying'OK, thanks anyway, g'bye. No problem, thanks," I secretly decided I'd do justone more of these and then leave Paul to it.

 So, finally, we visiteda woman called Penny who was based in an attic in a street just off the Kings Roadin Chelsea. She was on her own apart from a very pretty looking Oriental bloke ina black polo neck and a rather jolly hockey sticks girl in a faded denim jacket.Cig in mouth, she flicked through Paul's cards at 90 miles an hour as the othershad done and said they were really great but they weren't quite right for her atthe moment. Then she looked at mine.

 But this time she didit at 30 miles per hour and then showed them to the Oriental bloke. He looked throughas well, looked up at me, raised his eyebrows at her and nodded and then handedthem back. Then she called over to the girl to get a portfolio. She began to slidethem into it, taking a moment to choose the best order for them.

 "Okay, lovey, you'llhave to get some more done and we'll need to talk about a card," she said asshe pushed my stupid, naff, amateur pictures down into the plastic wallet of eachpage of the black, shiny book with JET in big red letters over the front. Stillwith the cig in her mouth, its ash wilting precariously now, she showed me a contractand told me to sign at the bottom which I did in a slight daze with the pen thegirl gave me as I opened my mouth to ask for one. Paul looked on as we both realisedthat weirdly enough, at the end of this long hot, exhausting day, our faces glazedwith perspiration and pollution, I had done it. I had entered the world of modelling- even though I wasn't really sure I wanted to.

 Afterwards Paul was dismissive.

 "Never mind, mate,thanks for coming along with me," he said over a very welcome cold beer inthe Chelsea Potter in the King's Road.

 "No problem,"I, said, just wishing we could swap places. He obviously wanted it so much and Ijust wasn't really that bothered.

 

Penny's agency grew, moved to bigger offices, took on more peopleand my career has sort of taken off with it over the past eight years. My currentbooker, Karyn, joined three years ago and we speak almost every day. We sometimesgo out for a drink and I was the first person she rang after she split up with herboyfriend. She came over for dinner, which should have been fun but she and Laurendidn't seem to get on with each other, so I don't mention one to the other now.

 Am I good looking? Well,I must have something, although I'm never quite sure what it is. When I first startedworking, one girl said to me thoughtfully: 'You've got the kind of face I'd liketo see if I was lost in a foreign railway station and I didn't speak the language."

 I think that's a compliment.

 

Having waved modelling goodbye - perhaps, only temporarily, ofcourse - my first day in my new job, on the first floor of a building in Soho, dragsa bit because there is so little for me to do. The office itself has maroon wallsand all the desks are heavy constructions in dark wood which contrast beautifullywith our white and clear Perspex state-of-the-art Apple Macs, I notice. That, somehow,can't be a coincidence. There is a sort of fresco painted on the ceiling. Piershas already explained that the room is intended to look cool but understated andcost effective to make it clear to our investors and trading partners that all theirmoney is going into the product. Whatever that is.

 He shows me 'my desk'.

 'My desk'.

 What my parents alwayswanted. Okay, I'm not wearing a suit but I've still got a desk with a phone on it.Their reaction when I told them that I was going to start modelling was every bitas joyous as if I'd said I was going to join a monastery or become a Bangkok ladyboy.I kept trying to explain that I was just going to do it for a while until I workedout what I wanted in the way of a career. Their sad, anxious looks every time thesubject was raised drove me bonkers with irritation.

 "What shall we tellour friends when they ask what you're doing now?" said my mum as if this wasthe final, clinching argument against this whole daft idea.

 "Just tell them I'mdead," I shouted as I headed upstairs to my room, now more determined thanever to do it - and to succeed at it just to spite them. What better driving forcefor a career could you hope for than revenge on your parents?

 They relented slightlywhen they saw that I was making a living and enjoying it - that being the orderof importance to them. I just worry sometimes that my career decision is what mademy Dad turn out the way he did.

 I haven't actually toldthe agency about my new job. You know, just in case. Well, I told Karyn and shesaid she couldn't believe it and she was very sad but she wished me all the luckin the world. In the end we agreed that I wouldn't go to castings, unless they were'requests' - in other words the client has specifically asked to see me - but ifjobs came up she would definitely pass them on and I'd take a day off to do them.

 

I sign another form about being a director and then get introducedto a guy called Zac who is the technical wiz, as Piers puts it. Zac sits in a cornersurrounded by two giant computer screens, a number of key boards, a computer graphicsdrawing board, some CPUs, I think they're called, and an explosive spaghetti ofwires and cables.

 He avoids my gaze shylyas we shake hands and says in an American accent:

 "Welcome aboard,bud."

 "Thanks. This alllooks pretty impressive," I say, less out of interest and more by way of conversation.

 "It is," Zactells me. He strokes the giant Apple Mac between us. "It's some of the mostsophisticated software packages ever devised running on state-of-the-art equipmentand we're using it all to create the most beautiful images and the most excitingexperience ever on the internet."

 Stunned by this visionaryspeech, I let his words sink for a moment.

 "We're all on a journeyhere at 2cool," says Piers quietly from over my shoulder.

 I consider this thought,too.

 How right, he was. Ifonly I'd known it at the time.

 

Our secretary is Scarlett. She has bright pink dreadlocks andis wearing a yellow angora cardigan, a tartan mini-skirt and jelly sandals. I findmyself looking her up and down but she doesn't seem offended - I suppose if youdress like that you must be used to people giving you a stunned once-over wheneverthey meet you.

 "Hi Charlie,"she says over a firm handshake. "Welcome on board."

 "Thank you,"I smile, trying to make up for my discourteous gawping. "So what's your backgroundthen Scarlett?" It turns out that she used to work in film post-production,but has decided that the internet will take over from conventional movie productionand marketing very soon as the principal creative medium of the future.

 I'm about to ask 'Won'tpeople still want to go to the cinema together?' but it seems churlish and besidesPiers has thrown a pile of glossy magazines on my new desk and is asking me to findproducts and services that 2cool would have 'a natural market affinity with'.

 I start to look throughthem but almost immediately he gives me a list of things we 'need' for the office,such as a new stereo system, a visiting masseuse, laptops for him and Guy, and acouple of company cars because apparently we won't look good arriving at potentialaffinity partners' offices in a battered old cab. He also asks me to find out abouttrips to Mauritius and some spas in East Asia. "We're going to have to getaway from here, all of us, at some point, and brainstorm. You know, get some distancefrom this office so that we can see the wood for the trees."

 I like the idea of brainstormingand seeing wood rather than trees while two babes give me a simultaneous massagein a bamboo hut set on stilts above the rippling, azure waters of a secluded lagoonbut I'm not quite sure how to arrange it - or the stereo and the laptops.

 Piers looks slightly surprisedand annoyed.

 "Just ring them up,get them to send the stuff over and tell them bill us."

 "Oh, okay."

 "It's standard purchasingprocedure, Charlie."

 Nervously, I call a fewof the luxury goods suppliers on the list Pier's has given me. Amazingly they agree,promising the goods within the next four working days or sooner. Soon clothes, moreoffice furniture, sophisticated computers, even a couple of watches to replace mySwatch jobbie, are on their way over to us.


Page 7

 And to think I'm gettingpaid for this.

 

At lunch time I go with Scarlett to get a sandwich.

 "I'm a vegan,"she says heading for an organic, vegetarian cafe and takeaway called Wild Worldwhich apparently offers "Sustenance for the body, mind and soul."

 "I'm an omnivore,"I tell her.

 "Is that like beingJewish? Does that mean you can't eat certain things?" she asks.

 "Er, no," Isay, feeling slightly embarrassed at toying with her obviously heartfelt views."You know, omnivore - like certain animals".

 "Oh, right, so youcan only, like, eat animals. Which ones, for instance?"

 "No, I mean, I'mnot an herbivore - I eat anything."

 "Oh, I see,"she says, with a toss of her dreadlocked head. I remember at this point that I'msupposed to be a spokesman for the company. Perhaps communication isn't my thingafter all.

 In the end we both getsandwiches - cheese and tomato for me and humus and alfalfa sprouts for her andshe buys me a tiny shot of wheatgrass which, she explains, contains the equivalentnutrients of six tons of green vegetables or something.

 It's the most disgustingthing I've ever tasted.

 

"We're still at the early stages," I tell Lauren thatevening as we sit on our white settee, sipping Frascati. I'm saying this as muchas to reassure myself as to explain it to her. I still don't know exactly what 2cool2btrue.comactually does but Piers and Guy keep telling me that 'it will become clear verysoon' or 'all will be revealed'.

 "I think it's allvery exciting, I'm so proud of you," says Lauren. Then she adds: "Likeyou say, even if it doesn't work out, you've given it your best shot and anyway,nothing ventured, nothing gained." Did I say that?

 "So how did yourmeeting with thingy go?"

 "With Peter?"

 "What's his nameagain?"

 "Peter Beaumont-Crowther."

 "Bit of a mouthful".She ignores my less than complimentary remark and carries on. I squeeze her armby way of apology for belittling her fledgling TV career.

 "They want me todo some more screen tests and go on a TV presentation course."

 "Really? That's great.They're really going to invest some money in you then."

 "Yeah, but I'm worthit."

 "Isn't that a linefrom an ad campaign?"

 "Yeah, I was in it,remember?"

    

Chapter Five

 

"Hello? Keith?" says my Mum.

 "Hi mum", Isay, holding the receiver under my chin as I turn down the stereo which I'm playingat full blast because Lauren is out at a meeting with Peter and the people upstairsare on holiday and the people downstairs don't count because they have a 'NuclearPower? No Thanks!' poster on their living room windows and leave their rubbish lyingaround the bins.

 "Keith?" saysmy mum again. My mum isn't actually bonkers. I was christened Keith by my parentsbut Penny changed it to Charlie because she thought it sounded smarter, classier,and that it completed the whole package. (Lauren is actually Lorraine but she madethe decision to change her name herself as part of her 'personal marketing proposition',as she put it at our first lunch.)

 "Hi, that's better.How are you mum?"

 The important thing toknow about my mum is that she is one of those women who keeps a tissue up her sleeve.

 "Oh, okay, I justthought I'd ring and check you're all right." This is mother-speak for a) it'sbeen three geological eras since you've rung me and b) I worry about you, you knowthat don't you?

 "I'm fine. I've gota new job," I add, triumphantly, hoping that this will lift the conversationa bit.

 "Oh? What, a modellingjob? The lady across the road saw you in that advert for, what was it, chocolates?"

 "No, it's nothingto do with modelling. I'm the marketing director for a new internet company."I tell her as suddenly it hits me. God, I am and all! I'd better ask about gettingsome cards printed.

 "Oh." Thereis a pause. Please, please, don't drag it down mum. Please sound happy about it.Please don't irritate me and make me say something unkind and then feel guilty.Finally she mutters with a glimmer of enthusiasm: "How exciting." I'mgrateful for the effort, at least.

 "Yeah, I just startedthis week. I'll see how it goes. If it folds I can still go back to modelling orfind something else," I explain as a concession to her disapproval of my usualwork.

 "They haven't askedyou to put up any money then?"

 "Oh no. You're joking,I wouldn't do that," I tell her confidently.

 "Good. Very sensible.What does it do then? Haven't all the internet companies gone bankrupt?" sheasks.

 "It's a second generationdotcom," I inform her, getting up and looking out of the window as I talk."These guys have learned from the mistakes of the first lot. We're buildingstable business models with identifiable revenue streams." I know it's goingover her head, but it doesn't really matter, besides isn't it every child's innateneed to impress their parents? And to confuse them - to make it clear that the worldhas moved on from them and their experiences of it?

 "Oh, I don't knowabout these things. Just make sure you don’t give them any money."

 I laugh. " ‘CourseI won't. Even I'm not that daft."

 "Mmm." Thanks,mum. "Lauren okay?"

 "She's fine. I'llsend her your love. She's out tonight. She's at a meeting. She's going to becomea TV presenter."

 "Gosh, really? Willwe see her on the telly?" "Hope so."

 "Tell me when andI'll set the video."

 I laugh again. "You'llbe invited to the party."

 There is a pause. I knowwhat's coming next but we've got to go through it.

 "Have you heard from...?"

 "Not recently,"I say briskly. "But I'll give him a call and tell him about my new job."

 "Oh, right. I'm surehe'd like to hear."

 "I'm sure....byethen."

 "Bye." We bothhang on the line for a moment.

 "I love you mum...oh,don't cry...I'll come and see you very soon, I promise. Bye."

 

I do feel guilty about my mum, stuck on her own in that littlehouse now that they've sold the family home. My sister tells me not to worry abouther, that she is getting better and after all it's been nearly seven years. I rememberthe doctor, though, when Mum and I went to see him. "It's not clinical depression,"he said as if to cheer us up. "Just ordinary depression?" I said, my angrysarcasm hitting him with the impact of a paper plane against a brick wall. He wasalready writing out a prescription for her.

 "Er, yes," hemuttered, scribbling away. Just ordinary, crushing, grinding, paralysing depressionthat made her burst into tears in Sainsbury’s or lie awake every night for two monthstill her head ached and her eyes stung all day.

 

I arrive at the office at ten the next day. Piers and Guy arealready in and on the phone. They nod 'Good morning'. I sit down at my desk andrealise that I haven't really got anything much to do. I've flicked through allthe magazines Piers gave me and put yellow post-it notes against all the advertisementsand articles relating to posh or smart things that I think might be right for 2cool.In fact, of course, that is just about everything so all the magazines now havetatty, yellow fringes.

 Most of the stuff I'veordered won't be here for a couple of days although I could ring that travel agentPiers told me about - Madonna's favourite apparently (they're so smart that they'reex-directory) and chase up our Mauritian spa trips.

 "Morning, champ,"says Piers when he gets off the phone. "Sorry about that - been on the phoneto Hong Kong since five this morning. They're very excited. You know how they lovetheir luxury and their labels in Honkers."

 "Was that the moneymen or the retailers?" I ask, trying to sound a bit more switched on today,a little less easily impressed.

 "Both really,"says Piers taking aim at the bin with his Starbucks cup. He runs his hand throughhis thick dark hair and shuts his eyes for a moment, screwing up his face with itsstrong features and permanently flushed cheeks. "Investors and marketing peopleseem to love the whole concept." The cup hits the bin, dances around the rima bit and finally falls in, splattering coffee dregs up the wall. Piers punchesthe air in a movement that turns into a stretch and a yawn. "Yep, see, that'sthe thing about 2cool. It has no national borders - like all labels these days buteven more so because it's internet based. Anyone, anywhere in the world can be 2cool2btrueat any time of the day or night." He performs a sort of pirouette and stretchesagain. "At any one time around the world a broker in Manhattan, a designerin Cannes, an entrepreneur in Hong Kong, even someone in Sub Saharan Africa canbe 2cool."

 "Sub Saharan Africa?"

 "Yeah, why not?"

 "Well," I say."That's not really our market is it? I mean, wouldn't they more interestedin food or something?"

 "Perhaps. However,people need more than food to live."

 "Yeah, but it's usuallya good starting point - "

 "The point aboutthe third world, Charlie, is that they are becoming the planet's workshop. We don'tactually make things in the first world anymore. Your Nike trainers, your Levis,your Apple Mac - they're manufactured in the Philippines or India or somewhere."

 "By children,"I suggest but Piers is off again.

 "Do you know whatwe do manufacture in the first world? Brands! We make the brands and they take careof those little details like the products they go on."

 "Hi, Charlie, howare you?" says Guy as he puts the phone down. "Piers, we need to get somethingover to Li Ka Shing's people by midday."

 "Right you are,"says Piers, diving onto his computer.

 "Got some coffee,Charlie?" asks Piers.

 "No, fine thanks,"I tell him.

 "Listen," saysGuy, coming round to the front of his desk and sitting on it. "We've scoreda bit of a PR coup. Piers knows a journalist on the Post and she's agreed to doa piece about the site. She's coming in today to meet us and I want you to takeher out to lunch and tell her about the whole concept."

 "Yeah, sure."I say, hoping I sound more confident than I feel. I can probably manage the overallconcept, the big picture - it's the details that I'm not so hot on. At this ratewe'll have run out of things to talk about before we've even ordered. I hope she'sbeen somewhere nice on holiday recently otherwise we'll have absolutely nothingto say to each other.

 "You know what we'reall about here."

 "I think so Guy.I just wondered, you're, er, you're not coming along as well then?"

 "No, matey, thisis your territory. She's arriving here at quarter to one. Just take her out andtalk to her. Scarlett's already booked a table for you both at one o'clock at Dekonstruktion.Oh, nearly forgot, here's your 2cool credit card." He grabs an envelope offhis desk and slides out some pieces of paper along with a Mastercard. It has 'CharlieBarrett, 2cool2btrue.com' embossed on it.

 I run my finger over thelettering appreciatively but then a thought strikes me:

 "Charlie's not myreal name, it's actually Keith, Keith Barrett."

 "Is it?" Guyseems unconcerned.

 "Charlie is – was- just my modelling name."

 "Oh, don't worryabout that, it's the 2cool bit that counts. We'll have our own cards soon - noneof this tacky Mastercard shit. What kind of a logo is that? About as smart as Doritos."

 

The journalist arrives ten minutes late. I'm on the phone organisingsome plants for the office from a company that rents them out. Piers has given mecertain varieties that are very '2cool' and the woman is making a note of them andpointing out that they are very expensive as well as being difficult to maintain.She asks for a large deposit which I decide to allow Scarlett to sort out.

 When I put the phone downGuy introduces us. I notice that Piers has double kissed her and so I assume theyknow each other.

 "Nora, this is Charlieour marketing director," says Guy. We shake hands.

 "Nora Benthall,"says the girl, smiling.


Page 8

 "Hi Nora," Isay. "Good to meet you." I smile too - about 750 watts, which is friendlybut not too obviously designed to impress. She is a bit younger than me, late twentiesperhaps. She has dark red hair, pale skin, a small mouth and big brown eyes behinda pair of black framed glasses. But what is she wearing? It looks like she has raidedan Oxfam shop: baggy purple satin trousers, big Army boots, a sort of New Romanticshirt that looks like it came from a jumble sale and a loud checked brown and yellowcoat.

 Has no one else noticed?Perhaps they're just a bit more subtle than I am and have not checked her out soobviously. Hearing Scarlett's voice in the phone reminds me that this is gettingto be a habit.

 "Do you want to havea quick look at the site Nora, before you and Charlie go off?" says Piers.

 "Love to," saysNora, looking up at him expectantly. I thought so - there is a definitely a subtleAmerican accent there. She spins round to check out the software bit of the officeand her coat catches something on Scarlett's desk. Scarlett grabs it and looks daggersat her but she is oblivious to it.

 Zac, who has arrived bynow, sighs like this whole thing is a total pain in the arse and taps at his keyboard.The big Mac that we are all peering at bursts into life. 2cool2btrue seems to growfrom nothing in the distance and then comes forward until we are overtaken by oneof the 'o's of 'cool'. There are images of groovy young people in bars, shots ofsigns saying "Fifth Avenue", "Bond Street" and "Via Veneto"interspersed with pictures of Madonna, Hugh Grant, Lady Helen Windsor and MartinLuther King. Then there are shots of beautiful people in what looks like the ArtDeco area of Miami before we're transported to a modern airport lounge in some partof Scandinavia where a pale skinned girl with long blond hair gives us a curious,lingering stare. Suddenly there is newsreel footage of Woodstock and the riots atPenn State and then a rave in Ibiza. There are catwalk shows and finally stillsof some tosser relaxing in a huge loft apartment overlooking a river and workingon his laptop as he reclines on a Charles Eames chair.

 "Hey, that's you,"says Nora, prodding me. Quite hard, actually.

 "Oh, yeah,"I mutter. I hate seeing myself in pictures, even in such august company.

 "That's really cool,"says Nora when it has finished.

 "It needs some tweakingand we want to make it all completely interactive of course," says Piers.

 "Everyone who logson will be able to customise the site to fit in with their own interests and requirements,"says Guy.

 "And aspirations,"adds Piers.

 "After you've loggedon a few times the site will be able to identify your own personal, individual intereststogether with your activity and retail patterns and actually offer you things thatit thinks you'll be interested in or that you probably need to know about,"Guy tells her, eyes wide with excitement.

 I feel I should be makingnotes.

 "OK, thanks Zac,"says Piers.

 Zac makes a tiny movementwith his head to acknowledge their belated gratitude as he races the mouse aroundits pad and hits a couple of keys.

 

"That's some site," says Nora as we make our way downthe street to the restaurant.

 "Well, I think it'sthe whole concept that's so exciting," I hear myself saying.

 "Kids'll love it,"she says, as if she isn't one of them of course.

 "It's very much ofits time, I think, you know, after all the dotcom hysteria that surrounded the firstgeneration of internet entrepreneurs."

 "Wasn't all thatbusiness just crazy?"

 "Absurd."

 

Scarlett has got us a nice quiet, corner table at Dekonstruktion,this week's scorchingly hip restaurant. After we have ordered tuna Carpaccio followedby Steak and Kidney pudding for her and smoked wild boar on a bed of Pak Choi andthen Alaskan cod tagine for me, she says the one thing that I really don't wantto hear above all else:

 "So, you used tobe a male model."

 "Model," I correcther. "I used to be a model. Unless, that is, you're a lady journalist."

 She is unembarrassed:"Oh, I'm no lady".

 I decide not to wait forthe standard 'Do you shave your chest?' line (to which the answer is no, never)and change tack: "Is that an American accent, you've got there?"

 "Does it still show?When I go back to the States all my friends say I talk like the Queen."

 "I thought I heardit," I smile, trying to smooth over the male model faux pas and also, I haveto admit, to avoid discussing 2cool in case she guesses that I haven't really gota clue about what I'm talking about.

 "My father's Americanand I grew up mostly in New York but then I came to London to work after I leftjournalism school about ten years ago."

 "Do you like it atthe Post?"

 "Uh huh, it's prettycool. I mostly get to do things like 'Which of these women is most likely to sufferfrom cellulite in five years time?' and 'Men who spend more on beauty products thantheir wives do.' You know, the big issues". She gesticulates with the forkshe has picked up and inadvertently stabs a passing waiter in the arm. He tuts prissilybut Nora continues regardless, clearly unaware of what she has done. "Plusa few celebrity interviews."

 "Really? Like who?"

 "Oh, Debbie Harrythe other week."

 "What was she like?"

 "Big head."

 "Oh, I bet a lotof these people are really conceited."

 Nora looks at me.

 "No, she has a bighead." She spreads her hands around her face to make the point.

 "Oh, right."That communication thing again.

 "They mainly employme to take the piss." Nora is saying. "But this is quite a fun story bycomparison. I think it'll be pretty big."

 "If it all worksout," I say, consciously lowering expectations a bit.

 "Sure, but even ifyou all fall on your asses, it'll still be interesting."

 I smile.

 "You'll still geta story."

 "Sure. A better onein a way."

 I try to work out whethershe is being deliberately provocative or whether she simply doesn't appreciate howannoying that sounds, but her innocent smile gives nothing away.

 "You know Piers already?"

 "Piers? Er, yeah,we've known each other for a long time. He's quite a guy - never stops."

 "A real ideas man."

 "Always."

 Our food arrives and I'mquite relieved to have something to concentrate on.

 "So why'd you giveup the male, I mean, the modelling?"

 "This seemed likean interesting project. They asked me. I'd been modelling for eight years or so- it seemed like the right time to change careers".

 "What experiencedo you have in internet entrepreneurship?"

 "None," I tellher confidently, deciding that I'd better make a virtue of it. "That's thepoint in a way, I've come to it fresh, no preconceptions, no baggage. Like I said,we're a second generation dotcom, we've drawn a line in the sand after the firstwave and learned from their mistakes." Way to go Charlie! I almost believeme.

 "What experiencehave you got in marketing?" she asks, shovelling food into her mouth as ifshe hadn't eaten for a week.

 "I've got a degreein it."

 "That all?"

 Her bluntness takes meby surprise but I get back into my stride: "Well, to be a successful model,you have to market yourself effectively. After all, you're selling yourself as adistinctive product at every casting and when you do a job you have to be in tunementally with whatever you're selling, be it fashion or... I don't know, officefurniture, or holidays," I waffle fluently, cobbling together some of the thingsPiers, Guy and Lauren have said to me recently. Sounds good, anyway - we're on aroll here.

 "Suppose so. Whatkind of things did you model?"

 I really want to get awayfrom the modelling thing so I say quickly: "Clothes, holidays, laptop computers,but this is a more exciting challenge."

 "I think I've seenyour face. Did you do that one for a bank or something where you're walking acrossa station concourse while everyone else is in slow motion."

 "Yes. So what elseare you writing at the moment?" I ask pointedly, as the waiter, thankfullynot the one she's just stabbed, takes our plates.

 "I've got to interviewa woman this afternoon who's just discovered that her husband is married to threeother women." She looks up at me over the top of her heavy glasses then shepushes aside a stray hair that has fallen out of place as she has been shovellingher food.

 "Three other women?"

 "I know, I supposeif you're going to do these things you might as well do it big, really go for it."

 "Why not? Do it instyle."

 "Even if you fallon your ass," she says taking a sip of wine.

 

We leave the restaurant at gone three o'clock. I can't believewhere the time has gone but I'm just relieved it has. As we make for the door, Noramanages to take out another waiter, this time by walking into him as he is carryinga stack of dirty plates. She is telling me about a piece she did some time ago aboutpeople who have married their old school teachers, walking fast through the crowdedrestaurant turning her head round completely to talk to me. I try and warn her aboutwhere she is headed but perhaps she doesn't notice or she cottons on just too lateand so, either way, seconds later there are plates everywhere, one of which slideselegantly down the back of a woman I recognise as a TV weather presenter.

 "Oh, no," saysNora, only mildly concerned. "Did I do that? I'm so sorry."

 The weather presenter'sface has what could be described as a black cloud on it. She looks slightly absurd,glowering at Nora, her familiar smiley face now contorted with fury while she triesto see what kind of damage the dirty plate has done to the back of her bright pinkjacket.

 "Oh, shit. What amess," says Nora. Is she enjoying this? "Don't worry", she says,"that kind of fabric dry-cleans really well. I had a jacket like that - lastyear."

 The recipient of her helpfulobservation opens her mouth to say something but is speechless.

 "Just send the billto the restaurant - I would," says Nora, touching her shoulder kindly.

 

I say good-bye to Nora at the top of the street and suggest shegives me a ring if she has any questions. She says she will do that and that thepiece should be in the paper on Monday.

As soon as I get back to the office I brief Guy and Piers onthe lunch. They seem pleased with how it went although I missed out the final disastrousepisode.

 "She should be auseful ally in the PR campaign," says Piers. "I met her recently at adinner party and I thought she could be helpful to us.

 "Right, next thingon the agenda for you mate is the launch party," says Guy. "We've bookedFrederica's - do you know it?"

 "That big place inBerkeley Square?"

 "Yep, we've got thewhole place. Piers' dad knows the owner. Saved us a bomb. It's all booked for nextFriday."

 "A week tomorrow?"

 "Yep, hope you canmake it," says Guy, only half joking.

 "Oh, yes, of course.That's brilliant." I say, genuinely impressed.

 "Our PR company havedeveloped a guest list for us. Can you look over it and let us know about any thoughtsyou have - anyone else you think we should ask. Ta."

 Scarlett hands me a filewith lists of names and their organisations. There are newspapers and magazines- Vogue, Harper's, Tatler, GQ, Esquire, Wallpaper*, some TV presenters and a batchof celebs, most of whom I've heard of, with a note of their agencies, some modelswith agencies and figures next to them. "Sophia Kendall - £5,000," saysone.

 "Is she doing a shootfor us?" I ask Scarlett, pointing to her name.

 "No, that's her attendancefee."

 "What? She's beingpaid for coming to our party?"

 "Yep. For..."she runs her finger further along the line, pushing mine out of the way, until shefinds what she's looking for. "For a minimum of 55 minutes. Any less and she'sin breach of contract."

 "Any more?"I ask, not really interested but thinking vaguely of overtime - every model's firstthought (after travel expenses and buyouts).


Page 9

 "Sophia won't behere for thirty seconds more than her contract states - our doormen will time herentry and departure," says Scarlett, rolling her eyes towards her eyebrow ring.

 There are other nameson the list: aristo model Henrietta Banbury, £4,000, one hour ten minutes, BluePeter presenter, Sarah Jones, two hours subject to other commitments on the evening,exact timing to be decided with agent by 5pm, £2,000. And, oh fuck, the weatherpresenter in the pink jacket, well, the pink, brown, yellow and red jacket. She'llbe pleased to see me. I can't help smiling at her fee: £500.

 "Simon Smith, thePR, is coming in at four to talk us through it and to confirm the other arrangements,"says Scarlett.

 "OK. Simon Smith."I murmur, really just trying cope with the all names and information being firedat me.

 "Yes" says Scarlett,picking up her phone. "He's a tosser."

 

Simon Smith from The Communications Game seems like a nice blokealthough he does engage in what appears to be an amateur arm wrestling matchwith Piers. They call each other 'Wanker', 'arse face' and 'donkey bollocks' beforehe sits down with me.

 "We've invited A-listcelebs and movers and shakers. See people like Richard Branson, Jonathan Ross, RikMayall," he explains, staring me hard in the face.

 He fiddles with his silkcuff links as I whizz down the list and nod approvingly.

 "Anyone we shouldadd?"

 "Um, there are acouple. One is the TV producer Peter Beaumont-Crowther - you've heard of him?”

 "Oh, yes, of course,"says Simon, scribbling on the list.

 "And the other ismy girlfriend, Lauren."

 Simon and Scarlett exchangeglances and I wonder if I've over stepped the mark. For God's sake, it's one personin 2,000.

 "We don't reallyhave much more in the budget for models," says Scarlett.

 "Oh, she usuallycomes to parties free of charge," I say dead pan, realising what a terriblelost money making opportunity this is for her.

 "Splendid,"says Simon, shuffling the papers together. "I think you've approved the menus,haven't you?"

 "I haven't,"I say. It comes out slightly petulantly so I add: "I wouldn't mind having alook."

 Silently Scarlett takesout another file and I read through the menu of Japanese-style black cod, poachedsea urchins, miniature smoked reindeer soufflés. Champagnes: Pol Roger, LaurentPerrier, Krug. Price per head: £250.

 "Bloody hell! £250?Times 2,000 people. That's...."

 "Half a million quid,"says Scarlett calmly.

    

Chapter Six

 

"When did you hear?" I ask Lauren.

 "I got back froma casting this afternoon. I was just putting my key in the door when my mobile wentand it was Peter."

 "So what's it foragain?" We're lying on the settee. We've just made love. Lauren told me abouther audition within seconds of my getting in through the door and then she pouncedon me. We did it in the living room - something we haven't done for ages. Well,not since we, I mean Lauren, had the settee dry-cleaned. The mirror here is an antiquefaded Venetian job resting on the white limestone mantelpiece so we can hardly actuallysee each other in it. It often occurs to me that it must dawn on people who comefor dinner or to our parties (Lauren loves entertaining) as they see our flat thatwe actually live the scrubbed pine, neutral coloured, elegantly understated, sunlit lifestyle we spend so much of our time advertising. Sometimes even I'm not quitesure where our work ends and our real lives begin.

 I push my face into herbreasts, kissing and biting them gently.

 "Charlieeeee",she says pushing me away. "Stop it. Aren't you interested?"

 "Of course I am.I told you, I'm so pleased for you babe, honestly. What's the show again - sortof a dating thing?"

 "Well, each weekwe take an ordinary person and the idea is that a group of experts - psychologists,agony aunts and other people - assess who would be the right boy or girl to go outwith that person and then I have to find one with the help of their friends - onthe street, at a club, at work."

 "That's great. Howmany are up for it?"

 "There are just threeof us - I got through the first two rounds just on the strength of my audition tapealone."

 "You're a star. Itold you."

 "How was your day?"she asks rearranging her hair and sniffing it for some reason. Must be a girliething. I sniff my armpit in reply and tell her: "Pretty busy. I had lunch withthis journo who's going to write something about the site."

 "That's good. Didyou fix that up?"

 "Well, no, Piersdid. She was bloody weird. Dressed like a tramp - bizarre clothes that sort of didn'tmatch - wouldn't match anything really." I can see her now, sitting oppositeme at the table. Intense and provocative. Totally unselfconscious. I've never feltquite so closely observed. Even casting directors don't look at you that deeply- they just check out your face but she seemed to be going further. Probing, penetrating.Was she taking the piss throughout the whole meal? Or is that how she is with everyone?She must be clever. When I asked her about her career she told me she went to Vasserand Columbia journalism school. Perhaps if you're as bright as her it's temptingto take the piss out of everyone else - the less bright of this world. Especiallya former male model who's trying to persuade you that he works for the planet'scoolest website.

 "And?"

 "Erm," I'm shakenout of my unexpected reverie. "Erm, oh God, and then, when were leaving shecrashed into this waiter," I laugh. "Just smashed into him. Plates flying.Food everywhere." I tell her about the weather presenter. "It was so funny,Nora, this journalist, was like 'Hey, ho! These things happen."

 Lauren says: "God,how embarrassing. I'd have died. That woman, what's her name, should have sued forthe dry cleaning or costs, or even the whole jacket. You'd have loads of witnesses."

 "It was funny."I say. I suppose you had to be there. With Nora, still intent on carrying on herconversation, oblivious to the chaos she had just caused.

 "Sounds more dangerousthan funny."

 "You know me, I'vejust got a strange sense of humour." I begin to kiss her breasts, tasting theslight salty sweat on them, feeling myself get hard again.

 "Oh, well,"says Lauren looking down at me and squeezing my ear which she knows I like. "Makesa change from you throwing food all over the woman you're having lunch with."

 I smile sarcastically.

 "You still thinkthat was an accident."

 She makes a face and pushesme away.

 "I think we shouldcelebrate our successful weeks - do something fun on Saturday," I say. "Let'shire one of those £30-a-day cars and drive into the country, it's going to be lovelythis weekend. We could go to -"

 "I can't hon, I'vegot to practice for this next audition," she says, getting up and putting herbra back on.

 "Oh, OK." Ilook at her, looking at herself in the one reflective spot of mirror. Is this howit's going to be with the new career? Weekends spent practising for auditions? Whatshall I do? I used to spend Saturday afternoons playing football with some old matesfrom University, a couple of other models and a guy called James who everyone thoughtwas a friend of everyone else but who, it turned out, was pretty good in goal.

 Then we'd go to a pubin Barnes, the game contracting and the drinking expanding, depending on the weather,how many of us turned up and how energetic those that did felt. I wonder if theystill play? When Lauren and I bought this place my Saturdays were suddenly spentat Ikea, Habitat and The Pier, or painting and sanding under her direction, or justholding the end of things while Lauren made comments like "Oh, watch what you'redoing, will you?"

 "It'll take all Saturday,will it?" I ask in rather a small voice.

 "Sorry?" Laurenis running her fingers over the mantelpiece and looking at the resultant thin filmof dust irritably. Was it my week for dusting? Well, if there's still dust around,it probably was.

 "It's not going totake all day, is it? Why don't we go out on Saturday evening and celebrate. I'llbook La Trompette, shall I?"

 "Charlie," shesays, turning round. Oh fuck, now what? It's just a bit of dust, for God's sake.

 "What's happeningon Saturday night?" Phew, acquitted on dust charges anyway.

 "This is somethingI should know about, isn't it?" I surmise. Accurately, as it happens.

 "Yes, Saturday night,I told you."

 "You didn't."

 "Oh Charlie,"she says shaking her head, trying not to smile. "I told you weeks ago: dinner.Tim and Sally, Mark and Sarah and I've invited Peter too."

 "You didn't tellme." OK, perhaps she did but I'm a bloke and I'm no good with these things.

 "I bloody well did,sieve brain. I assume you can make it."

 "Yes, of course Ican. Sorry babe."

 "It's not your fault,you're just a boy."

 "Guilty, m'lud. Imean, m'lady."

 She takes my face in herhands and kisses me deeply.

 "I love you."

 "Love you too."

 "Even if your memoryis crap - and your dusting's abysmal."

 

While Lauren is doing her audition practice, I decide to makea duty call and go and see my Dad. My Dad lives in Docklands now and he is veryhappy for me to come round to his flat, I mean 'place'. As long as it's not tooearly that is.

 He works in advertising.Ten years ago he set up an agency with two colleagues half his age. Dad is actuallyan accountant and was working with them in a big agency balancing the books andlooking for tax breaks, but when these two guys - Cambridge educated, off the walltwenty somethings who exist in a world of street fashion labels, pop culture andwall to wall irony - decided to go solo, they realised that his dull, safe financialknow-how forms an essential bedrock to the company and so they invited him to jointhem.

 Needless to say my Mumwasn't keen. She pointed out the risks of starting a new business with referenceto her auntie who had opened a wool shop in Lewes in the seventies and failed, remindedhim that he was comfortably on his way to retirement and just sighed a lot whenthese two arguments failed to convince him. I think it was her retirement pointthat actually clinched it for him and made him go out and do it.

 He pointed out that hehad paid off the mortgage, the children had left home and, after all, nothing ventured,nothing gained. He didn't mention the real reason: mid-life crisis, but then perhapshe wasn't aware of it.

 The new company, MatthewmanKendall Barrett (the order of names should tell you something) won a clutch of bigaccounts with their cheeky, irreverent approach, grabbed some headlines in Campaignmagazine, provoked a couple of outcries from the Daily Mail over risqué copy linesand then quickly floated. Suddenly my Dad was 50 and a millionaire. He decided toget a new wardrobe and a new car. He got rid of his old suits, his Volvo estateand his wife and set up home in a Docklands' penthouse flat that has its own lift,speakers in the ceiling and panoramic views of the Thames - just beyond some corrugatedirons sheds and a double glazing storage depot that is.

 Getting there is nearimpossible: you have to go to a perpetually windswept DLR station and then ringfor a taxi which takes you along the dual carriageways, through the post-industrialwasteland to a shimmering white residential Fort Knox, which has a surly securityguard and a 'Marketing Suite' which is permanently open.

 Dad has had a number ofgirlfriends since he left my Mum but to be honest I tend to get them confused: they'reall thirty years younger than him, all blonde, all leggy and have names that endin 'i' like Linzi, Leoni, Nikki and Toni. I'm sure most of them put a smiley facein the dot of the 'i' when they sign their names although none of them have everwritten to me.

 Amongst other things myDad bought was a coffee table supported with the kneeling fibre glass figure ofa naked woman in a leather Basque which he proudly showed to me when I went overthere once. Holding our shots of frozen flavoured vodka, we circled it, studyingit intensely.

 "Sexy, eh?"said my old man, eyeing up the cellulite free, rock hard curves of her behind ina way that still makes me shudder slightly.


Page 10

 "I think it's supposedto be ironic, Dad." I said uneasily, trying to make out the woman's expression.He walked round to get a better view of her face too.

 "Yeah, whatever,"he said.

 

When I finally penetrate the security and arrive at my Dad'sflat he has obviously just got up and is still in a sort of Kimono thing. My initialreaction is to say 'I think you're a bit old for that, aren't you?' but then, ofcourse, that observation applies to his entire life so really what's the point?Dad thinks he is Hugh Heffner made over by Stussy. My sister says that he is moreAustin Powers meets Burton's.

 "Hey Charlie,"he says, hugging me and slapping me on the back. Unlike my mother, Dad does callme Charlie and he seems to really like the name. Whose idea was Keith anyway? ButI still call him Dad, not Jared, as he sometimes asks me to. I suppose Jared issimilar to John, but then it was John who was married to my mother and fatheredme so I'm a bit sensitive about that.

 "Hi Dad," Isay, wondering in and looking around with a mixture of intrigue and trepidationfor his latest purchase. "Pool table's gone."

 "Mmm? Oh yeah, tookup too much space," he tells me, his voice echoing around the barn-like emptiness."Want some coffee?"

 "That'd be great,"I say, drifting around and looking out at the view. In the distance a tractor ispushing something into a hole and crane moves almost imperceptibly against the shimmeringskeins of cloud.

 "How do you haveit?" he asks looking, slightly apprehensively, at a black and chrome espressomachine the size of a nuclear power station.

 "White with a coupleof sugars, please." I wouldn't expect him to remember that.

 "Espresso? Cappuccino?Latte? Ristretto?"

 "Rigoletto? Ravioli?Ravenelli? Oh, I don't know - just white coffee would be great, thank you."

 "O...K," saysthe non-streak bronzed barrista. "Erm..." he yanks the handle off andlooks for somewhere to bang out the dregs. He looks along the line of identicalminimalist brushed stainless steel cupboard doors and chooses one. His smile indicatesthat this is the one with the bin.

 "I can have instant,Dad, honestly, whatever's easiest."

 "Nope, nope, thisis no problem...honestly," he says, mesmerised by the line of dials and buttons.He presses one and suddenly boiling water begins to trickle down into the gratebelow. He leaps back and curses again.

 Just then an angel appearsand saves us. I say that because a beautiful girl, straw blonde hair cascading overher shoulders, wearing only a baggy white T shirt and a pair of tiny panties wandersinto the vast living area, the shadows of the window frames slipping over her shouldersand clearly visible breasts as she glides along, hips swaying. She comes up behindDad, puts her arms around him, reaches up to kiss his neck and then gently, silentlyand confidently takes charge of the coffee machine.

 Two minutes later we'reall three drinking wonderful lattes.

 "Very good."I tell the girl to break the ice.

 "This is Kari,"says my Dad over his chunky American Retro mug. No, I don't think I've met thisone before which is very possible since I haven't seen my Dad for nearly three weeks.

 "Charlie," Ismile. I'm never sure whether to admit I'm the son or just let them assume thatI'm a cool young dude my Dad happens to know - his dealer, perhaps.

 The girl smiles back fromthe black leather settee, her legs luxuriously folded up under her. Like fatherlike son: me and my Dad both have the same taste in women. Except that his are usuallyten years younger than mine.

 "Good coffee,"I say again to the Sphinx-like Kari.

 "Should be,"says my Dad proudly. "Kari works in Café Nero, don't you, Carina?" Presumablyafter school. "So what's this new job?" he asks, dragging his lips offhers and turning to me.

 "I've jacked themodelling in. I did a shoot for an internet company last week and they offered mea job as marketing manager, I mean, marketing director."

 "Director? You'vegot equity in this thing?"

 "Er, no. How do youmean? Have I invested something? No. I'm just on a salary."

 "Oh, that's good."

 "I thought I'd wait."I say, enjoying this paternal approval.

 "What's it called?"

 "2cool2btrue.com."

 "Oh, right, heardof them."

 "Really? Have you?"

 "Oh yeah, there'squite a bit of talk in the creative and media industry about them at the moment,"says my Dad levelly. "Sort of a lifestyle site or something isn't it?"

 "That's right. It'sa second generation website. It's going to be the first of the truly aspirationalinternet brands. You know, the web equivalent of Gucci or Louis Vuitton."

 "Interesting,"says my Dad.

 "I think it willbe."

 "All life consistsof a label of one kind or another," says my Dad, running his fingers throughKari's hair as she stares at a silent MTV on the massive TV screen.

 

As I leave a couple of hours later, it occurs to me that it wouldsometimes be nice to have a Dad who mowed the lawn on Saturday before falling asleepin front of the cricket and who spent Sunday mornings in the loo with the paperslike normal fathers, but then you can't choose your parents.

 I do some shopping intown on the way home and then, because it's quite near to Chiswick anyway, dropin at the pub in Barnes where we used to meet at, post Saturday afternoon footy.I wander in, avoiding the gaze of the girl at the bar and look around for the oldgang. But they're not there. I do another quick tour just in case I've missed themor don't recognise them and then I walk back over the bridge to Hammersmith andthe get the bus to Chiswick.

 It's nearly seven whenI let myself in. I smell cooking and hear Lauren laughing. I leave my bags in thehall and wander into the kitchen. She is sitting on the work top, swinging her legsand laughing at some middle-aged bloke who is stirring something on our hob andtelling her a story: "So this girl's reading the bloody autocue as fast asshe can and the director's shouting: For God's sake...." He trails off as hesees me. "Hello. You must be Charlie. I'm Peter, Peter Beaumont-Crowther,"he says extending a hand.

 "Hi, Peter,"I say. I've just realised that I really can't be bothered with this. I just wantto lie in front of the telly with Lauren, a good bottle of wine and a crap film.

 I look down at what he'scooking. Lauren fills the silence: "Peter came to Sainsbury’s with me afterwe'd finished and it turns out he makes this chicken casserole thing. I thoughtit sounded delicious so I bullied him into making it." They both laugh. I knowLauren on charm mode so well. It's just a bit unnerving to see it happening in ourkitchen. I'm not sure who is the target of it, me or Peter.

 "It's a kind of chickencacciatore but with a few secret ingredients." Peter tells me, raising hiseyebrows. The first thing that struck me about him was: 'Why don't you get a haircut?'His hair flops forward and he is constantly sweeping it back with his hands. Hehas a pudgy fleshy face, big lips and a sharp nose and he's just a bit too smoothfor my liking.

 "Smells great,"I say and leave the room. I'm kicking my trainers off in the bedroom when Laurencomes in. She watches me for a moment as I take my T-shirt off.

 "What's the matter?"she asks from the door.

 It's decision time: Ican either go for a fully-fledged sulk which is what I feel like but would maketonight a hell of an effort for both of us and probably result in at least 48 hoursof awkward silences and bickering or I can just give in and be a good boy. I choosethe latter.

 "Sorry, babe, I'mjust knackered."

 Lauren sensibly meetsme half way.

 "That's OK."She turns me around and puts her arms round me, whispering in my ear. "Sorryabout this. Peter insisted we try his chicken thing and you know I've got to benice to him."

 "I know. I'm justgoing to have a shower and then I'll be fine."

 "'Kay," shesays. She kisses me. "Hurry up, though, the others will be here in a minute."

 

I'm about to walk out of the bedroom naked as any man would naturallydo in his own flat but then I remember about Peter. Oh, sod it, I do it anyway.

    

Chapter Seven

 

I'm such a devoted boyfriend/crawler/good actor/spineless wonderor mixture of all four that I even ask to taste Peter's stupid bloody chicken creation.

 "Mmm," I say,licking my lips as he holds the spoon inches away from my mouth, his hand poisedunderneath it to catch the drips. "That's delicious." In fact it's justabout okay. It tastes like chicken casserole with tinned tomatoes in it to me. "Babe,have you tasted this?" I say, deciding to put my back into this crawling.

 "Yep, good isn'tit?" says Lauren, who is slicing courgettes at the other end of the kitchen.I know I'll get my reward for this tonight.

 Peter is smiling knowingly.Oh, leave it alone, you smarmy pillock. It's just bloody chicken.

 "Can't wait,"I say, moving away, having done my duty. Getting drinks and laying the table ismy limit of culinary ability, besides it's not a good idea to get in the way ofLauren while she is cooking unless she tells you to.

 

Sarah is relating her favourite dinner party anecdote.

 "So I came back earlyone day because I had to pick up a file I'd accidentally left on the dining table,"she tells Peter in her heavy, throaty, 30 Marlborough Light-a-day voice. She isthe only smoker that Lauren allows in the house and she revels in this accolade."And I know the cleaner is there obviously because it's a Tuesday. So I putmy head round the door to say hello and let her know I'm not a burglar or a madrapist and there she is doing the washing up at the kitchen sink." She pauses."Topless." She punctuates her punch line with a slurp of wine.

 "No!" Peteris leering across the table in disbelief.

 "Seriously. And she'snot exactly Kate Moss either, yeah?"

 Peter roars with laughter.

 "What was she doing?"asks Peter.

 "It's just for cleaningthe glasses," I explain, twisting two imaginary glasses over my own chest.

 Peter roars again.

 "What did you do?"

 "What could I do?I just said 'Oh, hi, Janet, could you do the oven please if you get a moment?"

 "But preferably notwith your tits," adds Sarah's husband, Mark.

 More guffawing from Peter.

 "Oh, not that awfulcleaner story," says Lauren, entering the room with two more bottles of wineand a basket of warm, rosemary infused focaccia which we immediately fall on.

 "Cleaners are sucha problem aren't they?" says Sally. Everyone nods and mumbles agreement. ThenSally says: "The woman next to us has a Brazilian."

 I can't help it: "Haveyou looked?"

 Sarah is howling withlaughter.

 "I think Sally'stalking about her cleaner, Charlie," she says. "Not her bikini line."

 "Oh, right, sorry,"I groan, overdoing it. There is a pause while Sarah and Peter try to control themselves.

 "Ooh, can I helpyou Lauren?" says Sally suddenly, always glad to lend a hand. Whenever sheand her husband Tim come over, Sally seems to spend more time in our kitchen thanmost of the appliances.

 "No, Sally, honestlysit down, thank you. Charlie can do it."

 "Charlie's doingthe wine," says Sally. "Here you are." She gets up. I let her - afterall, I've done my bit with the brown-nosing casserole appreciation.

 "So Peter, you'rein television," says Mark, who does something with futures in the City thatwe've all given up trying to understand a long time ago.

 'Yes," says Peter."I run a company called Freak Productions.

 "What kind of thingsdo you make?" asks Sarah, obviously feeling she should repay him after histremendous reception for her cleaner story. At least I'll find out a little bitmore about Lauren's New Best Friend without actually having to talk to him.

 "Mainly lifestyleprogrammes, like Ready Steady Cook."

 "You make Ready SteadyCook?" says Sarah. "I love that programme."

 "Er, no, but programmeslike it," says Peter. "I do one for a cable channel where a celebritychef comes round to your house and makes over all your boring, ordinary food - takesit up a peg or two. So if you're giving your kids beans on toast, for example, he'llmake it really special by adding some extra ingredients or showing you how to makeyour own beans on toast with real Cannellini beans and fresh tomato sauce and newlybaked sour dough bread.


Page 11

 "Oh, right. You mustreally learn something," says Sarah. She mulls it over while Peter looks onsmiling at the brilliance of his baby. "But on the other hand I think I'd betempted to say 'OK, you try keeping a three year and a five year old from killingeach other while you piss about with Cannellini beans and skinning tomatoes.' Youknow what I mean?"

 But apparently Peter doesn't.Tim who has also been listening to the exchange and who deals in commercial propertydoesn't really do jokes unless they come from a client, so there is only one personnow roaring with laughter in the room. Oh dear, it's me.

 "It'd be wasted onour kids," says Mark, inadvertently twisting the knife, I mean the reinforcedsteel, Sabatier cook's paring knife, in the wound.

 Fortunately at that momentLauren and Sally come back in, each with a tray full of starters arranged on smallplates.

 "...it's called centreheight," Lauren is saying to Sally. "The idea is that you arrange thedish so that it’s raised at the centre - looks more dramatic, more interesting,then it's so easy, you just chop up a packet of herbs and sprinkle them over - givesit a more professional appearance in no time."

 "That's another thingwe do," says Peter. "We give little tips on how to get that professionallook."

 "Oh, that would beuseful," says Sarah, clearly feeling guilty about her last joke. I know shecouldn't give a toss, though and so I'm trying not to laugh again.

 The others ask Laurenabout her new career and she smiles knowingly at Peter. Then they ask about my newventure. Mark doesn't say anything even though I address most of my comments tohim. He nods in an interested but noncommittal way.

 I make my usual contributionto the meal by taking the dinner plates into the kitchen and putting them in thedishwasher. Then I carefully take the Patisserie Valerie tart aux fraises out ofits box. Two things are racing certainties at this point: one is that I'll nearlydrop it which I do, breaking the crust slightly. Shit! Lauren will notice, evenif no one else does. The other is that Mummy's Little Helper will make an appearance.

 "Can I do anything?"asks Sally from behind me.

 "No, it's fine, honestly.No problem. Thanks."

 "Are you sure?"she asks, her voice rising another octave.

 "Yes honestly. It'svery kind Sally, but there's no need."

 "Really? I feel soguilty leaving you out here doing all this while we're in there having a good time."I'm probably having a better time loading the dirty dishwasher and struggling withan uncooperative tarte aux fraises than I would be in there, but I don't say it.

 "No, I know my place,Sally. The old kitchen porter."

 "Oh, you are good."Oh, you are annoying. "Are you sure?"

 "Oh, go on then,clean the oven will you?"

 There is a silence fromSally as I crush up the tart box and bash it down into the overflowing bin. Obviouslynot my funniest line ever. But when I turn around, Sally, in her pearls and immaculateThomas Pink shirt and pressed blue jeans, is peering into the oven anxiously.

    

Chapter Eight

 

On the way to the tube station on Monday morning I grab a copyof the Post to see Nora's piece. I have to read through quite a bit of other stuffbefore I find it and by this stage I'm sitting on the train, so when I say: "Oh,shit," loudly, quite a few people around me notice.

 The first thing I seeis a picture of me. It's from a job I did last year, or the year before, for someSwedish fashion house. I'm in a white linen shirt with most of the buttons undoneand an old pair of jeans and cowboy boots, lying back against a huge, moss-coveredlog in a wood, hair ruffled, giving it the old, three quarters-to-camera, frowny'come to bed' look. I hated the picture when I first saw it and never even put itin my book. Now coupled with the headline "At last.....the net nerd gets sexy,"I hate it even more.

 It's huge - across nearlytwo whole pages. There are other pictures including one of me in a tux which istaken from a catalogue and another featuring me on a beach, wearing some stupidbright yellow trunks where I was originally advertising a holiday brochure, exceptthat now my 'family' have been carefully cut out so I look like an extra from 'Baywatch'.

 If the pictures are toecurling, the text is worse:

"The blonde, six foot hunk is self-effacing when I ask abouthis involvement with the new site. 'I think they've just employed me because I'vegot the right look, you know, classy, cool', he says."

Did I? Possibly during lunch at some point, but I was being sarcastic.Tongue in cheek. Didn't she understand that? Well-aired observations about Americansand irony flit through my mind.

"You won't know his name but you'll know his handsome face- and his well-toned body - from hundreds of advertisements and commercials aroundthe world, for a variety of luxury products ranging from designer label clothingto fast cars. Charlie Barrett is one of Britain's most successful male models..."

 No, I'm not - and I toldher not to use the phrase male model.

"Over lunch at his favourite restaurant, the mind bogglinglyhip Dekonstruktion in Soho, haunt of celebrities and the media world's most beautifulpeople, he explains a bit more about how the site, dubbed 'the coolest thing incyberspace', will work. "It's a second generation site so we've learnt fromthe mistakes of the net pioneers."

 I've never used that phrasein my life.

'"It'll be the first web designer label," explainsBarrett. "But what about the Gucci and Prada websites?" I ask'.

 No, you didn't.

 "Ah", he says,his deep blue eyes flashing with excitement, "they are just luxury productswith a website - this will be a website that is itself a luxury product. It's aglobal village of cool. Your boss will actually be impressed to see you surfingit at work."' With his chiselled jaw and elegantly swept back mane of blondehair, Barrett, who lives in trendy Chiswick with his model turned TV presenter girlfriend...

 When did that happen?

"...is something of a designer label himself. But he hasnow decided to turn his back on the modelling world..."

 I can't wait for Pennyto read that.

...and to trade on his good looks and his cool, self-assuredmanner in order to bring his lifestyle of elegance and hip sophistication to a wideraudience."

 "'It's very aspirational'"he says, using one of the marketing men's favourite buzz words. Now we can all aspireto be like Charlie Barrett.'

 Feeling lightheaded withthe initial shock and anger welling up inside me, I fold up the paper as the womannext to me quickly goes back to her book after allowing herself one final glanceat my face.

 

I get off at Piccadilly Circus and feel, or at least imagineI feel, thousands of pairs of eyes on me. I've been stopped in bars, at the gymand even on the street before with the question: "Aren't you the bloke from- ?" Or, "Sorry, but aren't you in that ad for - ?" It goes withthe territory and it can even be quite funny sometimes, depending on who makes thecomment and what kind of mood you're in, but "Hang on, aren't you that vain,arrogant tosser in today's Post?" isn't quite as much fun somehow.

 As I open the door ofthe office Scarlett and Piers, who are the only ones in, cheer in a sort of unison.

 "Our media star,"says Piers, beaming.

 "You mean your mediatwat."

 "What's the matter?"

 "I don't think helikes the piece, Piers," says Scarlett dryly.

 "Don't you? Why not?"

 "Why not? It's justso fucking embarrassing."

 "Is it? Why? Where?"

 "The pictures fora start - and all this shit about me being Mr Super Cool, drop dead elegant...."

 "I liked the picture,"says Scarlett. "Nice bod, honey. Is it true that male models -?

 "No, it's not. WellI don't anyway."

 "Look, Charlie,"says Piers putting an arm round my shoulder and walking me over to my desk. "I'dbe lying if I said we didn't employ you for the way you look but it's much morethan that. It's your style, your presence, the way you wear your clothes, the wayyou carry yourself...you're our...what's the word Lettie?"

 "Muse," saysScarlett, scraping the bottom of a yogurt pot with a plastic spoon.

 "That's it, you'reour muse. We want to create a website, oh, more than that, a lifestyle, a façonde vivre for people who want to be like you." He pauses for effect. "That'swhy that piece is so good, so important."

 "But, Piers, I looklike a total bullshitter and a total tit," I say, shaking his arm off me andsitting down heavily.

 He puts his hands on mydesk, leans over and looks down at me.

 "Charlie, you thinkthat you do because you're a nice guy, a modest sort of bloke who is embarrassedby this kind of adulation, OK? But believe me, to the ordinary punters out there,to those Post readers, you're the smartest, hippest thing ever. You simply are 2cool2btrue.You represent what they want to be, what they want a piece of. This is exactly whatour target audience is looking for. Aspirational! You said it yourself."

I get some water out of the fridge. It's that six quid a bottlestuff. Glacial purity. Actually, I never mentioned the word 'aspirational' to Nora.Did I?

I ring Nora at the Post's office just to see if I can at leastask why she wrote what she did but funnily enough she is not around.

 "Who? Nora?"There is a laugh. "No, she's sort of out at the moment."

 "Sort of out?"What does that mean? Just generally out of it?

 "She will be backlater, can I take a message?"

 "Yes please. Couldyou ask her to ring Charlie Barrett."

 "Will do."

 "Ta."

 I put the phone down.Can't that girl even be out in a normal way?

Lauren rings towards lunchtime. She has just done a casting andsomeone we both know pointed it out to her.

 "Oh don't! Who wasit?"

 "Jo Preston."

 "Oh shit.”

 "What do you thinkof it?"

 "Well..."

 "Oh fuck, don't'say 'Well'."

 "Are they pleasedat the office?"

 "At 2cool? Yeah,Piers is delighted."

 "Well, that's whatI was going to say - that's the important thing. If they're pleased then you'redoing your job."

 "I suppose so."

 "Cheer up. I'll savea copy for my mum. Love you. See you tonight."

Karyn also rings to tell me that she has seen it and to ask whatshe should tell Penny at the agency.

 "Well, I'd betterbe honest I suppose."

 "Why?" saysKaryn.

 I laugh.

 "You're right, Penny'snever been much into honesty has she?"

 "Why don't you justsay that it doesn't change your relationship with us greatly and that you can stilldo the occasional job. Penny will hate to see you go."

 "You're right, I'vebeen dreading telling her."

 "I'll put you throughto her now, let me just see if she's in her office...er...yep. OK, just tell herwhat we agreed and don't say anything more. Ring me back and let me know how itgoes if you want."

 "Ta, babe."

 There are a few minutesof a dance track and then Penny picks up.

 "Hello Charlie."She is curt.

 "Hi Penny, how areyou?"

 "Fine." Oh,shit.

 "I suppose you sawthat piece in the Post today," I begin, flattering her that she is on the balland reads more than just OK and her stars.

 "Yes I did Charlie,I was rather surprised I must say."

 "Yes, it all happenedrather quickly."

 "It must have done."

 "I wasn't sure initiallyhow much of a commitment this job was going to be or even if it was going to befull time," I explain, glad that the others are out at lunch and can't hearthis statement.

 "Well, is it?"

 "Yes, yes, it is,but they're giving me quite a bit of freedom so obviously if any good jobs comeup..." I decide not to be too specific here.

 "OK, we'll see howit goes," she growls. "A lot of clients will be very disappointed aboutthis but I suppose we could say something like you're by Special Arrangement onlyand hope that works. I can't promise anything though, and don't come running backhere when it all goes tits up."


Page 12

 "No, sure. Well,as you say, we'll see how it goes. That's great". Then I play my only trump."Obviously we'll be using Jet models whenever possible."

 She hardly skips a beat.

 "We'd be very happyto work with you."

 "Great. Thanks Penny."

 "Bye."

 She hangs up and so doI, after I've made a face and stuck two fingers up at the receiver.

 "Oh, she could havebeen a lot worse." Karyn points out when I ring her back later on the mobileand she pops out onto the fire escape to talk. "You know how it is. RememberPaul Sommers?" Paul Sommers, an affable Australian, was caught doing some 'freelance'work for a shifty photographer. The pictures ended up being used everywhere andeventually Penny saw them. She screamed at Paul across the office: 'You'll nevermodel in London again!" and threw his cards at him. In fact he went back home,got into some soap and now he's coining it, but no one wants to feel the full, Concordeengine force of Penny's wrath.

 I try to get on with somework such as finalising the details for the party and chasing the PR company fora draft of the press release. Perhaps Lauren is right. And even Piers. I might notlike the coverage but it might be right for the target audience whatever I think,but all the same: 'chiselled jaw', 'well toned body' Oh, God!

 

On Tuesday after lunch when Scarlett is out having a cranialmassage and Zac is...well just not in the office, I ring my Dad on his mobile.

 "I thought it wasgreat - very positive coverage."

 "I thought I lookedlike a tit."

 "Yeah, but it's notaimed at you is it? Think of your target audience."

 "So what? I stilllook pretty daft - everyone I know will be laughing at me."

 "Not when you makea mill or two out of this thing. Look I've got to run, I've got a busy morning aheadof me."

 "What do you mean'morning'? It's afternoon. Where are you?"

 "I'm in New York.Someone faxed that piece over to me yesterday as soon as it appeared. We're justkeeping an eye on 2cool."

 "Okay, give me aring when you get home again. Come and find me. I'll be in hiding up in the hills."

 "Will do. Don't worry- like I said, it's brilliant brand positioning". It's this comment and therealisation that he saw the piece not because of any paternal pride or interestbut because of the commercial opportunity associated with it that makes me snapat him: "Except I'm not a brand, I'm your son," I point out. But he hasgone and I'm left shouting to no one across thousands of miles of empty air.

Our fantastically cool and expensive stereo arrives later thatday and a bloke spends a couple of hours installing it, asking if I have any ideahow state of the art this thing is. I say I don't but can I get radio 2 on it? Hedoesn't see the joke and talks about watts per channel and digital quality soundreproduction or something wanky.

 Bags of clothes are deliveredfrom the 2cool stylist and Scarlett and I have some fun trying them on while Piersis out lunching someone at Le Caprice and Guy is doing the same at the Savoy Grill.Later a couple of crates of champagne are dropped off which have apparently beenordered for entertaining in the office. Before I can stop her, Scarlett has decidedthat we need some entertainment and she opens one.

 But other than that thereis very little to do in the office for the most of the week. I begin to learn something,though, that all my friends who went to work in offices after school and universitylearnt many years ago: the art of paper shuffling and time killing. Scarlett andI go for organic juices and Shiatsu massages and even spent a couple of hours shoppingon Wednesday with our 2cool credit cards: a Hugo Boss shirt for me and an outfitfrom a shop called Sceeech! for a lesbian wedding she is going to on Saturday.

 

On Thursday Piers takes me for what he describes as ‘a fact findingtrip’ to Bond Street and Harrods.

 "This ghastly tatis just the kind of thing we're not about," he says very loudly in Harrods'Room of Luxury. A few shoppers look around in surprise. I pretend to be one of them."Harrods is what Gucci and Pierre Cardin were in the seventies when they licensedthemselves to anything and everything," explains Piers. "You've got toguard a brand with your life. After all, it is your life, well, your livelihoodanyway."

 We move into another areaof the shop, part of the menswear department and Piers picks up some ties and dropsthem.

 "Crap display!"he bellows. Partly to hide my embarrassment I say: "I'm just going to the looPiers, shall I see you back here in five minutes?"

 "A piss?" heroars. "Yeah, I could do with one too."

 "I think the Gents'is down there," I whisper. At the urinals Piers continues to lecture me onluxury goods marketing.

 "They're called 'ostentatiousgoods'. Part of the attraction is the high price - people feel they're treatingthemselves whenever they buy something like that or they just feel good becausethey know other people simply can't afford them. It's that old tag line 'reassuringlyexpensive.'"

 Piers even pees fast -his jet could cut slate. Mine is a pathetic, old man's trickle by comparison. Piersfinishes, looks down to see if I'm going (yes, I'm going as fast as I can!) andthen spins round to wash his hands.

 We sprint out of the shop,Piers managing to make a couple of telephone calls between the inner and outer setof doors at the entrance. As we dash further down Knightsbridge we pass a beggaron the street outside, patterned shawl and skirt blowing in the breeze generatedby the cars, hand extended, face set in the usual contorted mask of desperationand pleading. A drugged baby lies slumped in her arms. I look away, embarrassed,uncertain whether to give her money or not.

 "See, that is badmarket positioning" says Piers, dialling another number on his mobile. It takesa moment for me to realise that he talking about the woman we've both seen.

 "What?"

 "No one is goingto give her money there. They're either hard hearted bastards who don't care orthey've only got plastic on them. She should try the King's Road or somewhere likethat where there are lots of kids around who are into that sort of thing, you know,begging and busking."

 Later we pass a youngguy beggar with a painfully thin mongrel on the end of a piece of rope who shakesa tatty McDonalds cup at us. Again I look away but Piers tells him: 'Oh, eat yourdog."

 "'Iya," saysLauren. "Good day?"

 "Pretty quiet, I'vejust been finalising things for the launch party on Friday night. It should be spectacular.Scarlett and I did a final tour of the place this morning. The money they're spending- three bands, giant video walls to show the site when it goes live, thousands ofstaff, cars to pick up the VIP guests and the food budget - I told you didn't I?£250 a head. Even the guy at Frederica's said it was one of the most amazing menushe'd ever seen."

 "Grea'" saysLauren, opening a bottle of Merlot.

 "What did you say?"

 "I's like that'sreally cool, yeah?"

 "Why are you talkinglike that?" I laugh, slightly spooked.

 "Well, the thingis, Pe'er says my accent is a bi' too cu' crystal, yeah? A bit too Received Pronunciationand I should troy fla'ening it ou' a bi'."

 "You're joking! Yousound like you're an American doing a terrible loveable cockney routine."

 "Well, thanks forthe encouragement," she says, slamming the corkscrew down on the work surfaceand turning to get the glasses.

 "Sorry, it's just...why?"

 "I'm going for thispresen'ers job on Friday, yeah? And it's a bit more stree'y? A bit more cu'ing edgeand so Pe'er's worried my accent might coun' against me."

 "But I thought youwere warm and, what was it, authoritative or something?" I ask, taking a welcomemouthful of wine.

 "Oh, I am, but forthis part I just need something different, a new string to my bow," she saysnormally.

 "I liked your oldstrings," I say sulkily.

 "Oh, honestly Charlie,I'm no’ going to do i' f'rever, just for a few days while I ge' into it, yeah?"

 "All right ElizaDoolittle," I say, lifting Lauren's simple cotton dress over her head. "Now,lawks-a-mercy, let's have a bath and get that soot off you."

 

   

Chapter Nine

 

On Friday I arrive back at the club just before seven and tryto smile confidently in a you-know-who-I-am kind of way at a bloke in a DJ withan earpiece and a headset. He lets me in impassively. The party is planned to startat eight but I've been here all afternoon, watching the giant video walls go upwhile armies of glasses spread across white table clothes and plates pile up readyfor the buffet. Cables and control boxes appear then disappear as they are neatlytucked away. In fact I haven't had to do much because Simon Smith, our PR man, andhis assistant Charlotte have been organising most of the activities.

 The morning was spentwith Scarlett and a couple of Simon's colleagues arranging for a fleet of nearlya hundred Mercedes and BMWs from every chauffeur drive company in London to pickour VIP guests up and take them back home again afterwards. On their return journeythey'll find a 2cool goodie bag featuring, amongst other things, an Italian-designedcrocodile mobile phone holder, a bottle of Krug especially labelled 'poile de chien'(hair of the dog - geddit?) and a pair of Luttoxica sunglasses to protect the reallyhung over.

 A little envelope containscomplementary treatments at spas such as the Dorchester, Aveda, Moulton Brown andBliss. There is a little coke container with their own monogram on it created byone of Mayfair's finest Royal Warranted silversmiths. Poor old buffers were toldthe little solid sterling silver tube with its miniature scoop was for snuff. Ahbless, as Scarlett put it when they agreed.

 Now I'm back on duty wearinga black Armani suit and dark grey Costume National shirt with Tim Little shoes Ibought on my 2cool credit card.

 Simon is still shoutingat people and consulting a clip board when I get back. It seems Heaven, the decorator,is giving him a hard time about some delivery. Over the last two weeks of workingin an office I've discovered that the thing to do in these situations is to concentrateon doing some small job. It makes you look busy, it keeps you out of the way, andat least you can point to something you've done if anyone asks. Not that they haveso far. In this case it is telling two guys where to put some potted plants.

 "Two, two. Testing.Two, two," says a voice from behind me but when I look around I can see noone. A techie guy laughs at my confusion and explains: "It's a new sound system.There are three hundred miniature speakers around the place, tucked away in flowerarrangements and places like here..." He reaches up and pulls out what lookslike a black match box from behind a picture. "So wherever you are it soundslike someone next to you is talking rather than all that shitty sound quality withTannoys booming and distorting across the room."

 Suddenly sequences ofthe new, updated website flash onto the screens. One telly in the wall of monitorsisn't working and remains obstinately blacked out, like a missing tooth in a smile.The techie tuts and yells something to his mate.

 "I told you thatthey were your responsibility," Simon is saying.

 "Hello? Are you nothearing me? My responsibility was to buy them. Your responsibility was to get themhere," spits Heaven, lovingly enunciating every venomous syllable.

 Simon consults his clipboardbut, finding no solace in it, says: "Well, I would have thought buying themwould have included actually, you know, getting them here."

 "Not when I had nobudget for transport and the shop doesn't deliver. I would have thought that wasobvious," says Heaven, hands on hips, edging slowly closer to Simon who ispretending that he is not remotely interested in this conversation. Finally Heavenis so far into his adversary's personal space that Simon has to say something: "Well,at the end of the day it's your problem. You're responsible for candles and youhaven't got them." Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, goes unsaid. The two faceeach other for a few moments.

 "Oh, working withyou is just Hell," says Heaven.

 At that moment Piers arrives.

 "Finger tip control?"he says, rubbing his hands together. Heaven and Simon give him a poisonous lookbut he is impervious to it and rearranges some of the exotic flowers, admiring hisirrelevant handiwork. "How's it going Charlie?"


Page 13

 "Fine, no problem.Should be ready in plenty of time, shouldn't we Simon?"

 It's supposed to be supportivebut Simon obviously doesn't see it that way. His jaw locks and he shudders slightlybefore spitting out: "No problem."

 "Great," saysPiers.

 "Huh! Give him aclipboard and suddenly he thinks he's bloody Stalin," yells Heaven from acrossthe room. Simon begins to talk to Piers. "Poncey public school twat!"adds Heaven for good measure.

 "You will never workfor The Communications Game again," says Simon with dignity.

 "Good!" yellsback Heaven. "I wouldn't want to!" He turns around to concentrate on somethingelse. "Oh, for God's sake, sprinkle love, sprinkle," he shouts at oneof his terrified staff. "If I'd wanted that much glitter on it I'd have givenyou a bloody shovel."

 "Splendid,"says Piers.

At two minutes to eight it looks like we're finally there. Waitersand waitresses are milling around with full drinks trays, moving into position aroundthe main reception room - one is showing another the underside of his shoe for somereason. An older waitress with rather exaggerated eye make-up sidles up to me andsays: "What time does overtime start?"

 "Midnight,"I tell her.

 "Oh, good, thanks"she says. I've actually no idea but I suppose I ought to know. The candlesticks,I discover, have arrived because the owner of the shop was persuaded (and bribed)to come back and open it especially so that they could be biked over to us. Nowthe huge, gilt gothic pieces with their towering black candles are placed on eachtable along with white lilies and black tulips.

Hundreds, well not hundreds but it seems like it, of girls withflicky blonde hair and names like Arabella and Louisa who work for the CommunicationsGame arrive suddenly and introduce themselves to me and say how exciting it allis and how much they're enjoying working on the account.

 Lauren arrives with Peterjust after half past eight as we agreed. She looks stunning: a cream coloured dressand simple gold chain. Peter is wearing a maroon velvet smoking jacket and spottedbow tie and looks like he's just walked off the stage of an amateur dramatic societyproduction of The Mouse Trap.

 "Hi babe," saysLauren.

 "You look great,"I say, putting an arm around her and kissing her on the lips.

 "Thought I be'ermake an effor'" she says.

 "You're not goingto do that all night?" I half beg, half command her.

 "Oh, don't worry,"she laughs. "It's been driving Charlie bonkers," she tells Peter. "No,I didn't get it babe. Peter thinks they wanted someone a bit more in your face,a bit more off the wall."

 "A bit more SaraCox or Davina McCall," says Peter knowingly.

 "Oh, right,"I say, thanking God I'm not going out with someone 'in your face.' "What wasthe programme exactly?"

 "It's a proposalI put to E4," says Peter, glad to be able to take the lead here. "Theidea is that it's a bit like This is Your Life, only it's This is Your Sex Life,at least that's the working title. We find a celeb and reintroduce them to everyonethey've ever had sex with from the person they first lost their virginity to, tolong term lovers and one night stands. The guests rate them and tell some funnystories."

 "But E4 didn't likeit," I say, unsurprised.

 "Oh no," saysPeter. "They love the concept, it's just -" Just Lauren they don't like?"They just haven't found the right presenter yet."

 "That's not you isit really?" I tell Lauren rather than ask her.

 "No probably not.But Peter's got some other projects in the pipeline for me," says Lauren, whoI notice is standing next to him, not me. Anyone who didn't know us might thinkthat they were the couple rather than her and me. I'm about to try and angle myselfnearer to her and get my around round her again when Guy approaches us.

 "Hi Charlie, lookingpretty sharp tonight," he says, beaming.

 "Thanks. From someonewho knows so much about labels and style that's quite a compliment. Looking prettygood yourself. Er, Guy this is my girlfriend, Lauren Tate, and this is..."I know I should say a friend of ours, not a friend of hers but it sticks in my gullet,so I just say "Peter Beaumont-Crowther".

 "Pleased to meetyou," says Guy, shaking them both warmly and taking in Lauren I note proudly."Charlie mate, I need to introduce you to some people, can I, er, steal youaway for a sec?"

 "Of course,"I say.

 "Sorry, duty calls,"grins Guy at Lauren and Peter. "Very nice to meet you, look forward to seeingyou later, perhaps we can have a proper chat then. Have a great evening."

 Lauren and Peter smilegenerously as Guy leads me away. I turn briefly to tell Lauren I'll catch up withher later but Peter has already moved around to talk to her, standing between us,so that she can't see me anymore.

I meet a couple of very dry money men from New York who Guy talksto for most of the time as if I might put my foot in it. By this time the placeis really filling up. The girls from the Communications Game grab me every few secondsand say: "Charlie, I'd really like you to meet..." or "Charlie, doyou know....?" or "Charlie, you must meet..." Marketing people fromthe smart brands, editors of glossy magazines, style journalists, design celebsappear, tell me how much they're enjoying themselves and how excited they are aboutthe site, tell me they loved the piece in the Post, give me a card and suggest wehave lunch, dinner, breakfast or drinks before disappearing back into the crowdto be replaced by another well-moisturised, expertly-made-up, non-streak bronzedface.

 "How's it going?"says Guy to me anxiously at one point.

 "Very well,"I say.

 "Good, good,"he says, looking around us. "Everyone happy, everyone enjoying themselves?"

 "Yep. I've met somany new people, all really excited about it all."

 "Mmm? Good,"says Guy, looking around in the other direction, rather distractedly.

 "These people, er,where are they?" I say, fiddling around with the mass of cards I've assembled."They want to do a promotion with us. Develop some synergies," I explain,repeating the woman's phrase.

 Guy looks down at thecard for a moment and then sniffs: "Huh! It's a possibility. I'm not quitesure that they're 2cool material, though."

 "Oh, OK."

 "Good stuff, champ,"he says, diving back into the crowd.

 I go to get another drinkand notice Lauren and Peter talking to two gay guys and it dawns on me who Peterreminds me of - Barry Humphries. Not as Dame Edna or Sir Les but just in civvies,just himself. It also dawns on me that they look like a couple. My girlfriend withBarry Humphries. I begin to move over to them but Arabella or Sophie or whateverthe hell her name is grabs me and introduces me to someone from some in-flight magazine.When I finally escape Lauren and Peter have disappeared. I look around to see ifthere is anyone else I should speak to when I notice Nora talking to a tall guywith floppy hair.

 She immediately sees meand I decide to go over and say hello. I still haven't managed to speak to her sincethe article so it might be useful to share a few candid thoughts.

 "Hi Charlie,"she says extending a hand.

 "Hello," I saycoolly.

 "This is Rupert.Rupert works for Cartier."

 "No I don't."says Rupert. "I work for Sotheby's.”

 "Do you? How interesting,"says Nora as if she has just met him.

 "Don't worry."I tell him. "Accuracy's not her thing."

 "Isn't it?"she says sweetly. "Here, Charlie, you haven't got a drink." She sticksher hand out to a passing waitress but moves rather too quickly and immediatelyglasses begin to fall like dominoes on the tray. The waitress squeals in horrorand tries to steady herself but she is soon covered with red and white wine, champagneand orange juice. As is Rupert who has tried to help her.

 "Oh, you're soaked,"says Nora, who like me seems to have escaped the deluge of booze.

 "I think I'd bettergo and dry off in the gents," Rupert says as calmly as he can.

 "Don't worry, justgo to reception. We've had some spare jackets put aside just in case," I tellhim - one useful thing I did discover from Simon Smith. I check that the waitressis all right. She says 'Fine, thanks', looking malevolently at Nora and then disappearsinto the kitchen where they are presumably used to this sort of casualty.

 "Well done,"I tell Nora.

 "I can't believethat woman's a waitress," says Nora, watching her go.

 "Why not?"

 "She's so clumsy."

 "She's so clumsy."

 "Yes, didn't yousee her? You would have thought a waitress could at least keep a bunch of glasseson a tray. Poor woman, it must be her first night or something."

 I open my mouth but nothingcomes out.

 "So, nice party,"she says.

 "Thanks." Sheis wearing a maroon velvet dress, long sleeved but backless and her hair is up.There is a chunky, hippy chain around her neck. She does look pretty good actually.I remember Lauren once telling me that in many ways it doesn't matter what you wear,as long as you wear it with confidence and feel comfortable in it and Nora seemsto feel pretty pleased about her outfit.

 Despite this I decideto plunge straight in.

 "I saw the article."

 "Oh yeah, Monday'spiece. Did you like it?"

 "Well no, frankly,I didn't."

 She looks surprised.

 "Really? Why not?Did I get something wrong?"

 "Yeah, most of it."

 "Oh my God, no. Ihate getting things wrong. Which bits?"

 "The whole thing.It was so naff. It made me look like a complete smarmy, arrogant tit. How did youfind those pictures?"

 "Oh, the picturedesk do all that kind of thing. I liked the one of you in the white shirt though.What was that for?"

 "Oh, just a fashionshoot I did ages ago."

 "'Oh, just a fashionshoot', he says. So cool," she laughs.

 "Well, it was justa job. But it was the article as well: 'the blonde, six foot hunk is self-effacing.'

 "Well you are."

 "And what about 'Theyemployed me because I've got the right look - classy, cool." It's not difficultto show her how painful those words are for me.

 "Well you did saythat - in a manner of speaking - over lunch."

 "What?"

 "Anyway, I'm reallysorry if you didn't like the piece. My editor loved it and I thought it was verypositive really. Just what Piers wanted."

 "What? Piers toldyou to write that."

 "Well, he didn'ttell me exactly what to write, obviously, but he did give me the spin beforehand,told me all about the site and then I pitched the story to my editor and she saidto write it like that. I couldn't not do it."

 "It was all Piers'idea, all that stuff?"

 "Yup. Well, mostof it."

 "And you just wrotewhat you were told."

 "Charlie," shesays, suddenly serious. "I've got to keep my boss happy. That's the way itgoes. You want to please Guy and Piers, I want to please my editor. If I don't she'llfire me - it's as simple as that."

 I think about it for amoment. I've sort of only had to please Penny and Karyn in the past by going tocastings and turning up at jobs on time properly shaven and with my hair washed,but, talking to my friends who have worked for companies I think I know what shemeans about pleasing the tosser in the glass surrounded office.

 I look at her for a moment,trying to decide what it must be like to be Nora Bentall. To be very bright butto have to please your boss by writing clichéd guff that is only marginally connectedto reality, to be so amazingly clumsy (is that why I'm standing some distance awayfrom her?) and to have a dress sense which somehow doesn't correspond with whatyou see in the shops, with what your friends wear or what appears in any magazine,but which you are perfectly confident about and comfortable with.

 "So where were youwhen I rang?" I ask. "Why were you 'sort of' out?"

 She grimaces.

 "I was keeping alow profile."

 "From me?"

 "Oh, no, like I said,I tried to ring you but 2cool isn't in the phone book yet and I only had Piers'mobile and he said he'd get you to call me but obviously he didn't pass on the message."


Page 14

 "Obviously not."Thanks Piers, I make a mental note to ask him about that when I see him. "Soyou were just avoiding someone else you'd slandered?"

 "No, no," shesays, holding her glass in both hands and looking away while she begins her story."It's really embarrassing, actually. I'd just done something really stupid.”

 "Something else?"

 "Something else?"

 "I mean in additionto that article."

 "Oh, not that again."

 "So what was it youdid that was really stupid?"

 "I was sending thisemail to my friend Gemma saying: 'I'm going to the ladies, meet you there.' Youknow, it was for a girlie chat. Thing is we both quite fancy this guy in the office.I'm sure he's gay but never mind. Anyway, unfortunately, her last name is Allworthy,well that's the not unfortunate bit, after all it's quite a nice name, isn't it?Don't you think? Allworthy."

 "Lovely," Isay, wondering where the hell this story is going.

 "No, the unfortunatebit is that instead of clicking on 'Allworthy, Gemma' in the 'Send To' box, I clickedon 'All Staff'."

 She pauses.

 "So all the staffat the newspaper got an email from you inviting them to meet you in the loo?"

 "Basically, yes."

 I consider it for a moment.Then I realise that actually it's probably the funniest thing I've heard all night,all week, and I find myself almost crying with laughter. When I look back her, wipingmy eyes, she has a 'What can you do?' sort of look on her face.

 "So did anyone turnup?" I ask her, not too seriously.

 "Well, I'm told thatquite a few people did. Even the boys from the mail room were sticking their nosesround the door out of interest. I think they thought drugs were involved. Apparentlythe Fashion Editor went, but she doesn't have a lot do at the moment because therearen't any shows on - as you know. Who else? A couple of people from the news deskpopped in. Actually it was quite sweet - the editor's secretary emailed me backto say that he couldn't come because he had a lunch booked with the Home Secretary."

 "Has he no senseof priorities?" I demand.

 "He'll never getanywhere in journalism with that attitude," says Nora.

 Just then the music pausesand there is a kind of fanfare from the rather spookily placed mini speakers aroundus. "Ladies and gentleman," says a voice. "This is 2cool2btrue.com."Suddenly the video wall is alive. To the sound of some chilled out instrumentalbeat which rises and turns into a dance anthem we see some of the images I saw inthe office but which are now enhanced. They seem to appear out of nowhere and disappearby blending into each other, drawing us in and spinning us round. I almost feellike I'm losing my balance at one point.

 You can tell how impressedpeople are with the graphics and the breathtaking special effects by the fact thatthere is a slight pause after the show before the applause begins.

 Guy then appears and says,as if he means it: "Wow."

 There is a ripple of laughterfrom the audience and then he begins to speak without notes about the importanceof labels and branding in the third millennium, singling out, sometimes admiringlyand sometimes teasingly, but always charmingly, representatives amongst the audiencefrom Vogue, Dunhill, Tanner Krolle, Rolls Royce, Salvatore Ferragamo and Cartieramongst others. Then he moves onto his theory that what they have done for clothes,accessories, cars, electronics, and watches, 2cool will now do for the internet.He is self-deprecating about his knowledge of internet technology and even moreso when he talks about dotcom start ups - and closedowns - to the further amusementof the audience but then he talks about why 2cool will be different.

 I look around me as hespeaks. There are certainly some very clever people here and many of them look intrigued,heads to one side, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed shrewdly. Not necessarily wowed- they're obviously too cool, too blasé for that - but they certainly seem interested,intrigued by this rather serious, intense young man with pale skin and piercingeyes, his dark hair receding into a widow's peak and his slight stoop. He looksmore like a political speech writer or a City economist than an entrepreneur, letalone a style guru. Perhaps that is why his audience is so gripped - he is not oneof them but he certainly has a certain nervy, edgy charisma.

 Beside me is Nora. Eyesfixed in an intense, shrewd gaze that I have not seen before. She seems to be weighingup every word and analysing it, somehow thinking beyond it. I ought to ask her ifshe's going to write this up as an article. Is that what she's thinking? She looksaway from Guy for a moment and sees me watching her. We smile at each uncertainly.

 Embarrassing. Never mind,I could just be checking her reaction along with everyone else's like any good marketingman.

 But I'm wondering whyshe is called Nora. She sure is a strange girl. Inviting the entire office to meether in the loo! Is she really that daft? I can't tell. Anyway, why should I carethat she fancies some bloke in the office?

 Apparently slightly takenaback and overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reception he generates, Guy mutters somethanks and hands over to Piers before walking off the stage. He's the least smart,cool thing about the whole evening and yet somehow by far the most intriguing. Piers,by contrast, is confident and relaxed. He introduces himself, makes a few obviousbut funny jokes about dotcoms and designer labels, and then explains that food isabout to be served but first he would like to express the company's gratitude toa few people for making tonight such as success.

 "I'd especially liketo thank Simon and Charlotte from the Communications Game who have put in so muchhard work this evening," says Piers. "Simon, take a bow matey, well done."There is a round of polite applause as people begin to look round to where the foodis coming from.

 "Fuckin' arse wipe,"hisses a voice next to me. It's Heaven.

 "And also to Charlotte.Charlotte...where is she?" A spotlight swivels round and falls on a small,timid-looking girl wearing a pink ball dress obviously designed for someone biggerand more outgoing. "Here she is. Well done, Charlotte. You've done a splendidjob here tonight." Charlotte beams, some people begin to applaud. "AndI know you haven't been well the last couple of days." Her smile weakens. "PoorCharlotte." The smile evaporates altogether. "Chronic diarrhoea,"booms Piers, sympathetically. "Sounds like it must have been awful." Charlotte'sface is frozen in a mixture of horror and a desperate supplication to Piers to justfucking shut up. "Can't have been much fun but glad you've made it tonight."A couple of people move discreetly but noticeably away from her. "And...er...let'sjust hope there's plenty of Immodium or something in that beautiful handbag she'scarrying," adds Piers for good measure.

 I can't bring myself tolook back at Charlotte but I am sure she is now on her way to the ladies eitherto cry her eyes out or to...well, I find myself hoping like Piers that the Immodiumis working.

I turn to ask Nora what she thinks - as much as anything to sortof explain my staring at her in that very obvious way during the presentation butshe has turned to talk to someone else.

 "Hey, you look greatthis evening," she says to someone just out of view behind a pillar. I lookround to see who it is and recognise her instantly. Instead of appearing flattered,the weather woman looks alarmed by Nora's compliment and moves away quickly.

After the speeches I congratulate Zac, who has made no effortin his dress at all tonight - baggy combats and tie-dyed sleeveless green T-shirtwith the words 'Eat the Poor' on it. He mutters something and crams some food intohis mouth as if he hasn't eaten for a week. Then I try and find Lauren. She andPeter are also getting some food so I grab a plate and join them.

 "What do you think?"I ask casually.

 "Pretty bloody amazing,"says Lauren. "That film is incredible - I didn't know it was possible to dothat."

 I smile modestly. I waitfor her to kiss me but she just shakes her head in wonderment.

 "Very impressive,"says Peter. "Is that PictureMark they're using?"

 "Is is what?"

 "For those lap dissolvesin between the stills and the principle sequences - is it PictureMark they've usedthere? I'd heard it can do things like that, even in an off-line edit."

 "It's PictureMarkSuper," I lie blithely, chasing a giant tiger prawn around my plate and catchingit elegantly before I stab it, feeling the fork push its way in and the flesh givingway to the sharp metal. "Do you want to dance, babe?" I suggest. "They'veimported this guy ‘specially from New York. He's only here for a few hours thenhe's off to Ibiza. We're paying him fifty grand for it. Can you believe it?"

 "Not yet," shesays. "Peter wants me to meet this woman from...where was she from?"

 "Channel Five. They'relooking for new programme talent."

 "I'll introduce youif you want," I say. "I've just been talking to her. She wants to do apromotion with us."

 "Don't worry,"says Peter. "We were at Cambridge together; she's an old, old mate."

 "Sure," I sayand walk off. There must be a way to separate Lauren from him - perhaps with a crowbar - I think as I wonder around the room. I suddenly realise that the girls onthe soundtrack arranged by the ultra cool DJ are groaning:

"Hey, babe.

Do you wanna ride me?

Do you wanna come inside me?"

 Perhaps I'm just gettingold but that is bloody rude isn't it? Suddenly someone slaps me on the back.

 "How's it going?"

 It's Piers.

 "Great," I replymiserably.

 "Splendid,"he bawls.

 I find myself talkingto a woman from an expensive shoe company.

 "Think Jimmy Chooon acid," she says.

 "OK," I don'tthink I could do that even if I was on acid.

 "Think classic witha surrealist twist."

 "Right."

 "We're talking deconstructionismtaken to its logical, terrifying conclusion – in terms of sling backs anyway."

 "I see." I wishI did have some acid now. Suddenly she takes a step closer towards me and says:"After all, you know what they say: 'Shoes are the windows of the soul'."

"It is all pretty impressive isn't it?" I say to Laurenas she nestles under my shoulder in the car on our way home. It's gone four andwe were almost the last to leave. Guy and Piers are still chatting up the remainingpotential investors and partners. Peter is talking to some 'old mates' from thebeeb and Nora must have gone without saying goodbye to me.

 "Oh yes, it's amazing.Your friend Guy certainly knows his stuff."

 "He's brilliant -so, what's the word? Cerebral. I think that's why they like him. They sense thathere is someone with something new, something different to offer. Did you have agood time?"

 "Oh, we did, yeah."

 We? What's with this we?

 "Peter enjoyed himselftoo did he?"

 "Oh, yes. It turnedout he knew quite a few people there. Mind you he knows so many people." Nowthat his name has been introduced again it feels as if he is in the car with us,crammed on the back seat. The atmosphere is suddenly soured. My arm's going to sleepa bit anyway so I pull it out from under Lauren's head - perhaps a bit more roughlythan I had intended. We sit in silence as the car speeds along Knightsbridge.

 Finally Lauren says: "Whowas that strange looking girl you were talking to?"

 "Which strange lookinggirl?" I ask unnecessarily.

 "The one in the maroondress. You seemed to be having a great laugh at one point."

 "Oh, her. That'sthat journalist who wrote the piece in the Post."

 "Oh right."There is a pause as shop windows fly past, their reflections dancing over us - latenight stragglers, a few walking backwards looking for cabs and night buses, or jokingwith their mates while others stagger around drunk. "Well you seemed to begiving her a good talking to like you said you would".

 Lauren's sarcasm hangsin the air like a challenge. I try to neutralise it: "We discussed the pieceand she explained why she'd written it."

 Silence.

 "And that's that?"

 Silence.

 "What do you wantme to say? We discussed it. I told her what I thought of it, she told me why she'dwritten it the way she had and that was that. Piers asked her to do it like thatapparently."


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 Silence. With Peter andNora in the car with us now things are getting very cramped - and very uncomfortable.

 "I see."

 Silence.

 "Look I've got tokeep her onside. She'll be very useful"

 "Huh. What for?"

 "For promoting thesite. Now let's leave it shall we?"

 "What's her nameagain?"

 "Nora. Nora Bentall."

 "Never heard of her,"says Lauren. "She's obviously slept her way to the bottom."

 Lauren and I get readyfor bed in silence. When I get in she has her back to me. I wriggle over to herand put an arm round her. She mutters something about being tired.

    

Chapter Ten

 

It takes me ages to get to sleep. My mind is still buzzing fromthe party. I've got lunches arranged from now until the end of my life and thereis a stack of business cards on the dressing table. I can still hear the voices:"So exciting", "Excellent product", "So looking forwardto doing business with you", "You certainly have a wonderful propositionhere", "Tremendous opportunities for developing synergies". Or somethinglike that. Smart people, rich people, powerful people, famous people asking fora piece of the action, a piece of me.

 The light wakes me up.I reach round instinctively for Lauren, looking for some lazy Saturday morning sex.The kind where you don't mind if you come or not. But she's not there. The curtainsare open already. I squint my eyes up against the harsh, unforgiving light. I cansmell coffee. I fumble for my watch and check the time: just before eleven. I getup and stumble into the kitchen. Lauren is chewing on a piece of toast and flickingthrough the newspaper. I come up behind her and put my arms round her, nestlinginto her hair and kissing her neck.

 "Morning, hon,"she says quietly, still reading the paper.

 "You're up early,"I say, wandering over to the fridge.

 "Mmm? Yeah, I know,we've got access to a studio today, so I'm going to do some autocue practice."

 "What? Today? Butyou were at it last Saturday."

 "Yes. That's whenthe studio's free. Do you know how much these things cost to rent? Thousands. Thankgoodness Peter knows someone who said we could borrow it for nothing."

 "So you're goingto a studio this Saturday as well?" A pretty pointless summary of the situation,I admit, but I want her to understand how ridiculous it is that she's working allday given that we've seen so little of each other over the last week or so. Insteadshe takes the opposite view.

 "Yes, like I say,it makes obvious sense."

 "When will you befinished?"

 "I don't know. WhenI've had enough. When Peter thinks I've done all I can."

 "Will be you backby five?" I ask, drinking orange juice out of the carton because I know itwill annoy her.

 "I don't know, Charlie,please don't pressurise me." I turn up the sulk meter a bit more. She comesover to me and studies me for a moment then she laughs. "You look like a littleboy with your hair all messed up." I narrow my eyes at her with mock crossness.She laughs again, takes the carton out of my hand, puts it back and then says: "Whatam I going to do with you?"

 I look into her eyes,pull her towards me and say: "I can think of one thing."

 She pinches my cheek andgiggles.

 "That'll have towait." She pulls away. "I'm going to be late."

 I catch her arm but, insteadof asking her what she wants to do tonight, I find myself saying: "Do you loveme?"

 She pushes my hair outof my eyes.

 "Course I do."

I pick up the paper after Lauren has gone and begin to flickthrough it, making my way towards the sport to see whether Chelsea are at home.Halfway through there is an article by Nora along with a picture of her, lookingcheekily over her black framed glasses. It's called "Why I'll never marry aman who waxes his behind." I have to read the title twice to make sure I'vegot it right. The piece is about how women hate male vanity and how she and herfriends (who are her friends? Other clever, barmy women with strange names? Or doesshe just invent them too?) would rather have a man with shaggy nose hair than onewho spent hours in the bathroom cutting it with their nail scissors. It seems thather friend Amanda who works in marketing once went out with a bloke who waxed hisbum - hence the headline. My buttocks clench at the thought of it. They clench eventighter as I read on:

 "Male models shavetheir chests" Nora informs the nation. "Can you imagine a greater turnoff? Most women I know like curling their fingers around a light dusting of chesthair. The idea of a waxed, fake tanned chest is about as attractive as low calorie,frozen risotto compared to the real thing, oozing wicked butter and parmesan andeaten overlooking the Canale Grande."

I finish the paper and wander into the living room. Now wheredid Nora get the inspiration for that? I'm not being vain, it's just an obviousconnection. Actually I did know a guy who shaved his chest. Gary had the kind ofbody that looked like it had been carved out of granite at the dawn of time. Underpantswere his speciality. I still see him, well his six pack and lovingly sculpted (andshaved) pecs on packets in department stores. He told me that he was once doinga shoot and just as the client arrived he felt himself getting a hard on. Desperatelyhe tried to think about his tax return or Alan Titchmarsh but it had no effect.As six women from the client company entered the room he found himself salutingthem through their soon-to-be-launched cotton and lycra microfiber mix knitted trunks.

 I flick on children'sSaturday morning television and watch, feeling rather confused and out of it. Aftera phone-in, in which Leanne from Burnley correctly identifies Ronan Keating's starsign and wins a baseball cap and a CD, a girl band comes on:

 "Oh babe, the cat'sout of the bag.

 Your love's become a drag."

I rub my chin trying to decide whether to have a shave. Sod it.It's Saturday.

At about seven I ring Lauren on her mobile. I've been avoidingdoing it all day, not wanting to pester her like the good boy that I am but nowI've had enough. I want to know what we're going to do this evening. I want to spendit with her.

 I get her voicemail and,with super human effort, manage to sound casual and friendly. "Hi babe, justwondered what time you thought you'd be finished." I wait nearly an hour andthen decide to go for a run because I can feel anger rising from deep within meand I can't think how else to release it, other than yelling at her when she ringsor just throwing things around the flat but that would just make things worse andI simply can't bear to do that, although part of me feels that I should. PerhapsI would if I were a real man, not just an ex-male model now working in the virtualglamour business.

I only run for twenty minutes or so, just round the block, butlaziness - and the sight of other couples walking along hand in hand - draws meback home. It's just long enough, though, for Lauren to have called: "Hi babeare you there....Charlie....Charlie? OK, well, just to say sorry I couldn't talkto you just now, had to turn my phone off. But listen, babe, we've bumped into somefriends of Peter's and they've offered to take us to dinner so I'm just going tohave a quick bite to eat with them but I won't be late. Sorry about this, but I'llmake it up to you tomorrow night I promise. Love you."

 She rings off. She mightas well have said: "I'm in bed with Peter, see you tomorrow perhaps" forall the comfort it brings me.

I have a shower during which I find myself singing that stupidgirl band song from the children's television show. I knew it would get stuck inmy mind when I heard it.

 I put my bathrobe on togo into the kitchen. There is no wine in the fridge and the only stuff in the cupboardis a Chateauneuf du Pape which we bought last year in France and promised to drinkon a special occasion. I shut the cupboard and begin to wonder whether I can bearsed to get dressed and go up the road to the off license and buy another.

 I can't so I open thecupboard again and take the expensive, slightly dusty bottle out.

I don't bother to get a coaster and, glass in hand, I flop downon the settee and switch on the telly. I flick between channels and watch DavinaMcCall explaining to a group of lads with viciously gelled hair and River Islandshirts and girls with diamond nose studs exactly how they can earn points and whatthey can do with them. "But," she explains from behind a huge perspexlectern bathed in a ghostly blue light, "if someone from the opposing teamgets the answer before you then you have to give them half as many points as yourtotal so far, although, you can of course challenge them to gamble their bonus pointsprovided they haven't earned any bonus points this round. OK?"

 I must be getting oldbecause I can't understand a word of it so I switch off and throw the remote downnext to me. The flat is suddenly silent. I get up and wander over to the music centreand flick through the CDs. Opera highlights, Ministry of Sound Chill Out sessions,Dido, the best of Frank Sinatra, jazz compilations. They're all Lauren's. Wheredid mine go? I go back into the bedroom and reach up to the top shelf of the wardrobewhere there are some boxes of my stuff from before I moved in with Lauren. She didn'tseem to like any of my music and so it all got tidied up into these cardboard boxesalong with photographs from college and various other personal effects from LifeBefore Lauren.

 I flick through the cassettesand find Suzanne Vega. I don't know why but I've always had a bit of a thing fora chick with an acoustic guitar. I stick the tape in the machine, turn up the volumeand let her plaintiff, melancholy voice fill the room. Then I take a big gulp ofexpensive wine and lie back, committing aural adultery.

    

Chapter Eleven

 

Perhaps to get away from home, I'm the first in the office onMonday morning, just before nine. There are a pile of letters waiting on the mat.I scoop them up and put them onto Scarlett's desk. Then I realise that I might aswell open them, partly because I am, after all, one of the team, so I have everyright to, and partly because, well, I've got nothing else to do. There is nothingvery exciting amongst them - just routine correspondence from the phone company,the computer people and the landlord.

 There are also lettersof welcome from the bank. Quite a few banks actually, including some in the CaymanIslands and Monte Carlo, thanking 2cool for using their services and promising thatthey are always on hand to help us. And there are some bills, lot of bills in fact,most of which come from the do on Friday night but also from taxi companies, stationers,a florist and even our masseur who I don't seem to have had the benefit of yet.There is something from a Paris chocolatier which seems a bit bizarre as well asinvoices from The Communications Game and various Bond Street stores.

 "Morning," saysGuy, striding in with a coffee in his hand. "How are you, Charlie? Good weekend?"

 "Yeah, great thanks,"I lie. "You?"

 "Erm, yes, yes good,"he says, eyeing the pile of post.

 "Recovered from Friday?"I say by way of conversation, suddenly feeling a bit shy of him now that there arejust the two of us in the office.

 "Eh? Friday, oh yes,of course. We had breakfast afterwards with some of those money men, most of themwere still working on West Coast time and so they weren't that bothered about goingto bed at all really - look why don't you just shove all that crap on Scarlett'sdesk, let her deal with it?" he says, snatching the sheaf of letters from infront of me and thrusting them into Scarlett's in tray.

 "I don't mind goingthrough them," I say. "At least until Scarlett gets in."

 "No, don't you worryabout that. Your time would be better spent chasing up some of the valuable contactswe made on Friday night. Look, let's work up a list of people to see - get somelunches planned, set up some meetings with some of the possible 2cool partner organisations,shall we?"

 "Sure" I say.

 Later that morning a rangeof specially imported Italian crockery and cutlery is delivered as is a huge cappuccinomachine. We all look at it appreciatively as it's being plumbed in but then realisethat we can't actually be arsed to use it and we'll just stick to Café Nero roundthe corner.

"I got you a wheatgrass shot," says Scarlett puttingthe tiny plastic container carefully down on my desk as she arrives just after halfpast ten. "I've already had a double."

 "You're such a healthfreak." I tell her.

 "Yeah, I know butI dropped two Es on Saturday night and I just cannot get my shit together today,"she explains.


Page 16

Piers bursts in at lunchtime. He's just driven up from Gloucestershire,he explains, where he’s been staying with friends who are all very excited aboutthe new site. A girl called Suzie who does PR for a newly launched line of luxuryFrench silks thinks they might be able to work together, he tells me, so will Iring her? He throws a business card at me but before I can ask exactly what he envisagesus doing together Zac calls him over to show off some new visuals on the computerand he goes into paroxysms of delight. "Have you seen this, Guy?" he asks."Here Charlie, look at this new gizmo our brilliant techno whiz here has cookedup. It's just...just..."

 "2cool2btrue?"asks Scarlett.

 "Yes, yes,"says Piers. "It is, that's exactly it."

 We crowd round the monitorin Zac's corner of the room to watch a new computer graphic which allows us to sitinside the new Bentley sports car and imagine we are being driven in it. We then'drive' into a virtual mall and a chauffeur in the form of Oddjob from Goldfinger("I wanted a driver who was instantly recognisable, an iconic chauffeur,"explains Zac morosely) reaches out, picks up items and hands them over to us inthe back seat.

 "You can sit in thefront if you prefer," he says. He taps away at the keyboard and suddenly weare alongside Oddjob. "Or you can swap places with him if you'd prefer to drive."

 "Absolutely fan-fucking-tastic,"says Piers.

 But Guy just says: "Great.Look, I need to talk to you Piers. Erm, let's go step outside for a moment."

 The three of us 2coolersremaining exchange glances.

 "That's incredible,Zac" says Scarlett standing up straight and wondering over to her own desk."Even better with an E hangover."

 "Most hi res graphicslook better if you're slightly drug fucked," says Zac, racing his mouse aroundits pad.

 "That's true. I thinkI need something to jump start me a bit. I'm just going to get a shot of wheatgrass,"says Scarlett.

 "You've already hada double this morning," I tell her.

 "Have I? Christ Ihave, haven't it?" She sits down and taps away at her keyboard a bit. Thenshe says: "Spiruleena, that's what I need."

 "What?"

 "Spiruleena"she says. "It's a nutrient derived from algae."

 "Yum," I say.

 "It's the dog's bollocks.Want some?"

 "I'd rather havea ginger, carrot and apple". I can't believe I've just asked for this, especiallyas if I'm offering it as a sane alternative.

 "Sure. Zac?"

 "Doctor Pepper, please."

 "Have you any ideahow much sugar there is in those things? Like a ton in every mouthful."

 "That's what keepsme sweet."

 Scarlett looks completelymystified. As she opens the door to leave Guy and Piers come back in.

 "Where are you going?"asks Guy.

 "Bikini wax,"she tells him. Guy opens his mouth to say something but then just looks away, embarrassed.Piers throws himself down in his chair and stares at his desk for a moment.

 "Everything all right?"I ask, partly out of genuine concern and partly to point out that hurried meetingsoutside in the corridor with no subsequent explanation aren't exactly good for staffmorale.

 Piers opens his mouthbut Guy speaks: "Fine. We just needed to talk about the second tranche of financing."

 "Sure," I say,relieved.

 Then Piers opens a drawerof his desk.

 "Taste this,"he says. He holds up a jagged piece of dark chocolate. I take it from him and putit in my mouth and let the familiar sweet, cloying sensation flood over my tongue.

 Piers is watching me:"Just imagine - something that tastes like chocolate, feels like chocolateand yet has no calories whatsoever".

 "That's incredible,"I say, running my tongue over my teeth. I swallow hard in near disbelief. "Everywoman in the country - and lots of men too - would go mad for this stuff. What isit?"

 He looks at me for a moment- slightly confused, slightly disappointed.

 "Well, it is chocolateactually," he says throwing the bar back in the draw. "But just imagineif you had something that tasted like that but wasn't chocolate".

 Now it's my turn to lookconfused and disappointed.

 "Oh, right, yeahit would be - great". I try and redeem the situation: "Very marketable".

 "It would, absolutely,very marketable" says Piers getting back into his stride. He gets up from hisdesk and moves over to the window. "You see, Charlie..." and he is offagain.

I spend the day making appointments to meet some of the peoplewhose cards I collected at the party and take the opportunity to leave that eveningwhen Scarlett does, just after six.

 "Do you think everything'sokay?" I ask as we step out of the front door and into street.

 "How do you mean?"she says.

 "You know, with thecompany, with 2cool?"

 "Yeah. Why shouldn'tit be?"

 "Well, I didn't likethat hurried meeting Guy and Piers had this morning. They sounded distinctly worried."

 "Oh, that, well theyboth cheered up later in the day, didn't they?"

 "I suppose so."

 "Don't worry - mediaprojects, especially major ones like this require a huge initial cash outlay. Itall comes out in the wash."

 "Does it? I supposethe important thing is that the investors still have confidence."

 "Oh, yes. They'renot going to pull the rug from under our feet. They know that this is a second generationecommerce operation and has the potential to be like a major money spinner. Mostof them are just busting to get back into the whole net business as soon as possible,anyway."

 "Yeah, I just couldn'thelp noticing how much money we're spending - like the party on Friday and things."I hadn't originally planned to say all this to her but what the hell: "Andall those bills this morning. And those bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. What'sthat all about?"

 "Look, don't worry.It's the same in the film business. Most creative industries are like this. It'swhat they call the J curve, or the V trajectory or the U bend or something."

 "If you say so."I mutter, even less reassured. We march out of Old Compton Street into Charing CrossRoad, our speed and Scarlett's bright red dreadlocks terrifying some ageing Japanesetourists.

 "People who are reallyclosely involved in the development of a project often get cold feet at this stageof its development," explains Scarlett. I think about. She's probably right."I mean, my sister, yeah?" she says. "She's a stylist, works withDazed and Confused and does a lot of pop videos, yeah? Anyway, she's bought a cat,yeah? And it just won't go into the kitchen. Any other part of the flat - no problem,but the kitchen? It's like she's spooked or something. It's the same thing, yeah?"

 We walk along in silencefor a moment. It's no good - I've got to ask her.

 "How is that thesame thing as 2cool's financial situation?"

 "How's what the samething?"

 "Your sister andher cat."

 Scarlett stops for a moment,thinks and then carries on walking.

 "Oh, shit sorry,did I say that? That's the E talking again. Don't worry I should be okay by Thursday."

 I can't wait.

We get to Leicester Square tube station and as she walks towardsthe Northern Line barrier I say to her: "Bye then, see you tomorrow."

 She looks around and thenapparently slightly surprised that I'm not coming all the way home with her, callsto me: "'Kay babe. Stay beautiful, yeah?"

 God, I hope no one heardthat.

 

That evening I go to see my Mum. It says something about my relationshipwith Lauren at the moment that I think an evening with my Mum would be more funthan one spent with her. I take the tube to Barnet but give up on the bus and takea mini cab into the tightly knit pattern of suburbia in which she now lives. Afterthey split my Dad more or less gave her the family home since, thanks to the powerof advertising, or its financial clout anyway, he didn't need it anymore. My sisterregarded this piece of thoughtless generosity as the final insult. "Anyway,how could I live in that place without him?" pointed out my Mum as the tearsdripped into her tea.

 So now she lives in asmall thirties style semi in a quiet, non-descript street. It's actually so non-descriptthat it always takes me a moment to confirm that it really is the right house andthe right street.

 She opens the door onthe chain and then lets me in. She's getting liver spots on her hands, I notice- they're already beginning to have that 'roast chicken' skin look of an old lady.

 "Hi mum," Isay, bending down to kiss her on the cheek.

 "Hello dear,"she almost whispers.

 "Brought you someflowers".

 "Oh." She takesthem from me. "I'm not sure if I've got a vase big enough for these."

 "Oh well." Imentally roll my eyeballs.

 "Well, it's verykind. I'll put them in something. Now do you want a cup of tea."

 "I've brought somewine as well," I tell her, holding up a bottle of Australian Chardonnay. Wealways go through the 'Tea? I've brought some wine' syndrome.

 "Wine? Really? Oh,well, how nice," she says as usual.

We have shepherd’s pie, peas and diced carrots sitting oppositeeach other in her spotless kitchen and I listen to her prattle on about the neighboursI don't know and about my brother-in-law and how well he's doing at work but howshe wishes he would spend more time at home with my sister and the baby. She askshow Lauren is and I look down at my plate as I say: "Fine, fine."

 "And how's the newjob going?" she finally asks as she stirs a saucepan full of rice pudding andI wonder why she never uses the microwave I bought her for Christmas two years ago.I'm sure we ate better than this when we growing up - ratatouille and spaghetticarbonara even made an appearance when I came home from university - but it's asif she has withdrawn into a sort of culinary nostalgia, resorting to the familiarcomfort food of her childhood.

 "It's going verywell," I tell her, as much to convince myself as anything. "We had anincredible launch party on Friday at Frederica's, this ritzy nightclub in BelgraveSquare," I say, adding my own footnotes. "And now it's officially up andrunning. You can actually visit the site if you want to. Go and use one of the machinesdown at the library. Here, I'll write the address down."

 "I know where thelibrary is," she says indignantly.

 I laugh gently. "No,I meant the address of the website, so you know what to type in."

 "Oh, don't worry.I'm not much good with computers. The woman in the post office was saying she stillcan't use hers properly and I said 'Don't look at me'". She laughs sadly.

 "Oh, go on, mum,have a look." I'm slightly offended that she won't even check it out. "It'sincredible - amazing graphics."

 "Graphics? You meanthe pictures?"

 "Yeah, it looks fantastic."

 "Oh, okay. I'll havea go. I've got to take a couple of books back anyway. Actually, there's a new -what are they called? - cypher cafe on the high street. I could go there and havea coffee - a latte or whatever is they drink now."

 "Yeah, that's a goodidea. You'll love it, mum. It's incredible, what they've done".

 "Do you want jamin it?" she asks carefully spooning rice pudding into two bowls that she hasheated in the oven.

 "Please. You cango virtual shopping on Bond Street or Fifth Avenue and find out what's hip in HongKong or Melbourne at the moment."

 "Oh, and that's rightup my street, isn't it?" We both the laugh at the idea and I'm glad to seethat she doesn't dissolve into tears this time.

I get in and watch Lauren sleeping silently. I take my clothesoff, brush my teeth, look at myself in the mirror and decide that with those adsfor comfy cardigans and geriatric baths looming I was right to make the career change.

    

Chapter Twelve

 

"Sweetie, can you change the channel, I can't stand anymore of this crap," I mutter at Lauren from my position on the settee.

 "Where's the controller?"she asks, curled up in a chair next to me.


Page 17

 "Down on the floor,I think."

 She tuts. "If youget any lazier, you wouldn't bother to breathe." She finds the elusive remoteon the floor and throws it onto my stomach.

 "Ouf! I think you'vebroken some ribs."

 "Good," gigglesLauren.

 But before I can switchchannels the phone rings and she reaches over and picks it up. It's my mum.

 "Oh, hello Sheila.How are you?" says Lauren, looking across at me with a face which says 'getready to take this off me very soon'. They chat briefly and then Lauren says. "Anyway,nice to talk to you, Sheila. Take care now. He's just here."

 "Hi mum," Isay, taking the receiver from Lauren's outstretched hand and still looking at thetelevision.

 "Hello dear. Everythingall right?"

 "Yep, fine thanks."

 "Good, good."There is a pause.

 "What is it mum?"I ask, sitting up.

 "Well, I had a lookat your website -"

 "Great, what didyou think?"

 "It was er...thepictures, you know the graphics, were very exciting, like you said. Everyone inthe library was very impressed."

 "Good," I smile,enjoying the idea that we had an audience in her local library - definitely the2cool target audience. Not.

 "And those clothes- very smart. I liked one of the skirts by that Italian designer, except for theprice of course - do people really spend that much money on a skirt?"

 "Oh, yeah, you'dbe amazed."

 "Incredible. Anyway,we looked at what was you know trendy, like you said and then..."

 "Yeah?"

 "Well, the thingis Charlie, we went on the bit that said 'Extra Curricula" and..."

 "Sorry, which bit?"

 "The little thingcalled 'Extra Curricula' you know the what's it? The icon. The cursor turned intoa little hand like it does and we clicked on it and then we found these pictures..."

 "What pictures?"

 "Charlie, I don'tknow about these things and I'm sure you know what you're doing..."

 "Mum, what pictures?"

 "Charlie, you mustknow."

 I sit up and reach forthe telly controller. Even Lauren is watching me now.

 "No, what pictures?"

 She takes a deep breath.

 "Pornographic pictures."

 "What? Porn? On thesite?"

 "Yes, dear, didn'tyou know?" I look to Lauren for some reason but she just gives me a questioningfrown.

 "No, I didn't. Listenmum, are you sure you went to the right site?"

 "Oh, yes, everythingelse was there like you said."

 "2cool2btrue.com"I spell it out for her just in case.

 "Yes, you wrote downit here. I'm looking at it."

 "Somebody's hackedinto the site."

 "You mean, like...likeburglars."

 "Yes, exactly. Oh,God, mum. I'm so sorry about this. How embarrassing. I hope the people you withdidn't see it all."

 "Oh, they did, wewere all looking."

 "Oh God."

 "Don't worry, I thinkthe head librarian was very interested in it. He spent ages you know - checkingthings. He was still at it when I left."

 She laughs shyly. I laugha bit too, mainly to encourage her like we always do but also to show that it'sall right, I'm a professional, I can handle this little hiccup.

 "Oh, hell's teeth.Listen, I'll tell the others. Well, thanks for letting me know. I'd better ringthem now, actually. Love you. Speak to you soon."

 I click off and get upto find Guy's mobile number.

 "Someone's put pornpictures on the 2cool website?" asks Lauren.

 "Yep, looks likeit," I mutter, leaving the room.

 "Oh, my God"she laughs. "Let's have a look."

 "It's not funny,"I tell her.

 In the bedroom, beforeringing Guy, I switch on my computer and log in just to check that my Mum is right.Sure enough, along the options along the left hand side is a new one 'Extra Curricula'.I click on the icon and am immediately presented with pictures of girls lying backexposing their crotches, grasping their tits in wide eyed amazement as if they'dnever seen them before and others with men and women, women and women, and men andmen having sex together. Most look like they were taken recently but some have agrainy, seventies quality and some a harsh, lip glossed, heavily blushered lookof the eighties about them.

 I'm stunned for a moment.I haven't been so unaroused by naked flesh since a biology lesson. Then I ring bothGuy and Piers' mobiles to warn them. I get voicemails on each of them so I leavemessages telling them what I've discovered and asking them to ring me at home ifthey want otherwise we can discuss it in the office tomorrow.

"Oh, yeah," says Guy when I mention it to him the nextmorning.

 "So, you did getmy message?" I ask, dropping my newspaper on my desk. "About the pornthing?"

 Instead of being shockedand angry as I had expected he simply refers me to Piers who says what I'm sortof dreading by now.

 "Good, eh? Zac putthem on yesterday."

 "What?"

 "Zac's been sourcingthem over the last few days. We've even had some done specially. He uploaded themyesterday."

 "You knew?"

 "Yeah, of course,"says Piers, draining his coffee and crushing the cardboard cup with obvious satisfaction.

 "Look, I don't likethis. How the hell can you say that porn pics are too cool to be true?"

 "Oh Charlie -"says Piers with a sad smile.

 "Oh Charlie nothing!Why the fuck didn't I know?"

 "Because Piers shouldhave told you," says Guy. "Listen mate, I'm really sorry about this butsometimes thing move so quickly in this game."

 Piers is looking slightlymiffed about being dumped on but finally even he realises that this is his rolein Operation Keep Charlie Sweet.

 "We need to keepeach other informed of what's going on all the time, after all, we're supposed tobe in the communications business, aren't we?" adds Guy.

 There is a deafening slurpingsound as Scarlett finishes her juice and looks meaningfully at him.

 "We certainly bloodyshould, but what the hell has porn got to do with our site?"

 "Thing is Charlie,porn is what drives the internet. Eighty per cent of internet searches are for pornography,"explains Piers.

 "But why do we haveto get involved in it?"

 "Because it's partof modern consumerism," says Guy, looking up from his computer.

 "Oh, that's so eighties!"howls Scarlett, looking at her own screen. "Look at the blusher and that lipgloss. And that one's pure seventies, I love the long beads and the afro hair andis that a Biba print in the background? Zac, these are brilliant."

 "Thing is, Charlie,"says Piers and I find myself spinning back to him, "we're treating these pictureshumorously. They're not for spotty teenage boys to drool over, they're part of modernday life. We're exposed to porn of one kind or another every day - just a look ata Gucci or a Haagen Daz ad, for goodness' sake. We're just having a laugh at ithere."

 Once again everyone seemsto be in the know and have reached a consensus except me.

 "Ironic porn,"explains Scarlett. "Everyone's doing it. My friend Maria, yeah? She's a performanceartist. She's made a couple of porno movies.

You know, ironically."

 "What? Sort of fuckingin inverted commas?"

 My sarcasm is wasted onScarlett.

 "They're really funny- crappy sets, sound quality so bad that you can hardly hear what they're saying,awful dialogue. At one point she says something like 'But I'm a good girl from aconvent school, can you teach me to be bad?'" Scarlett and Zac yell with laughter."The guy she was doing it with - he was a fine art student or something - hadthese like huge sideburns? And a gold medallion and she was wearing false eyelasheslike, you know, spiders? And a huge blonde hair piece. It was so funny."

 "And she actuallyhad sex with this guy?" laughs Zac enthusiastically. "Full penetration?"

 "Oh, yeah, shavedher minge down to a Brazilian. Did all that 'Oh, my God, my God. You're so big!'bollocks." Scarlett runs her hands through her hair, closes her eyes, opensher mouth, licks her lips and throws her head backwards, arching her back ecstatically.Zac looks on, thrilled. I've got a horrible feeling that he is turned on in a decidedlynon-ironic way.

 "She's like reallycreative," explains Scarlett, now mercifully out of character again. "Theyhad to go all the way - it was a condition of their grant."

 "Look, porn is porn,"I tell them.

 "And what's the moralminority going to do about it?" sneers Zac. I give him an evil stare.

 "But we've had someof these girls shot specially," says Piers. "They appreciate the irony."

 "Oh, she looks veryironic," I say pointing to a girl on my screen in patent leather high heelsand a long pearl necklace, spreading her legs wide and grasping her huge manmadebreasts as if they might just go off at any minute.

 "But that's a classicporn mag pose. Mayfair, Penthouse circa 1973. 2cool readers are immediately goingto appreciate the historical reference," grins Piers enthusiastically. "Anyway,those shoes are specially acquired Manolo Blahnik's. How many porn mags use ManoloBlahniks?"

 I'm lost for words.

 "You never done anynudey stuff then, Charlie?" asks Zac, from a near horizontal position behindhis desk.

 "Oh, don't be disgusting."

 "Bit of skin?"

 "I said no."

 "What about thatpic in the Post?"

 I sigh deeply.

 "That was to advertisea holiday. There was a woman and a couple of kids in the original photograph. Theyjust cut them out."

 "You looked kindacute in those groovy little swimmies."

 "Fancy me then doyou?"

 "'Fraid not bud,just wondering why they used you?"

 "In that picture?Why not? I was a model."

 "Exactly."

 "What's that supposedto mean?"

 Zac flicks a pen up inthe air and catches it.

 "Well, why not someold guy with a beer belly and a hairy back?"

 "Because...well,because you obviously use good looking people in advertising." My phone beginsto ring but I ignore it and let Scarlett get it.

 "Oh, right. Goodlooking people....showing off their nice bodies...in sexy poses?" asks Zac,innocently.

 Oh, very clever.

 "It's not the same,it's not obscene...I'm wearing swimming trunks," I tell him sulkily. He carrieson flicking the pen in the air and smiling victoriously at me. I'm just wonderinghow things could get worse when fate obliges. "It's Nora Bentall for you,"says Scarlett, holding up her receiver. I look round at Piers and Guy who nod forme to take it.

 "Hey Charlie,"says Nora.

 "Hello," I saystiffly.

 "How's it going?"

 "Fine, how are you?"I say with an effort, aware that four pairs of ears are trained on me, however busytheir owners seem to be with other tasks. This will be a test of my communicationsskills, and my overall professionalism, I realise.

 "Good thanks. ListenCharlie, I was just looking at the site and I noticed that there's a new sectionon it." I can imagine that cheeky - dare I say it? - ironic smile at the otherend of the phone.

 "Yes?"

 "Extra Curriculaor something? Well, it seems kind of rude to me. I'm just doing a little piece aboutit, you know, the threat of cyber porn and...."

 "Yes?"

 "I was wonderingwhy you'd done it? Not very too cool is it? How do you answer the allegation thatyou're already going down market and you've gone for the lowest common denominator- pornography."

 Oh, God, I'm really temptedto agree with her. I pause for a moment just to build up a little tension amongstmy colleagues. Guy so obviously isn't reading that piece of paper. "That'sright, Nora, we just thought 'Fuck it! Sex sells' and decided to put lots of pornon the site but I hope you like the boots - they're real Manolo Blahniks."


Page 18

 I take a deep breath.

 "It's obviously ironic,"I say. Around me there is silent but noticeable feeling of relief as the othersrealise that I'm going to play ball. "Pornography is now in the mainstream- it's all around us, part of the consumer experience. You've got to remember thatthe 2cool audience is one of the most sophisticated on the net, they appreciatethis kind of stuff for its, er..." Before I can turn to him for help and immediatelyGuy mouths "cultural significance" at me. "Cultural significance.They can put it into context."

 "Uh huh? Really,"says Nora, obviously scribbling away.

 "Yeah, of course.It's not there for a bunch of adolescent boys to wa- I mean, drool over." Ilook meaningfully at Zac but he is tapping at his keyboard and checking somethingon the screen.

 "So you don't thinkthis is offensive?"

 "No, because ouraudience gets the joke," I explain. "It's taking the piss, I mean it'spoking fun at porn itself."

 "Okay, ironic porn.Interesting concept."

 "Interesting conceptsare what 2cool is all about," I tell her. Guy gives me a thumbs up and I beginto feel that I have finally managed to beat Nora and him in one go. I decide toquit while I'm ahead. "OK, hope that all makes sense."

 "Sure. If that'swhat you want to say".

 "Yep, that's aboutit," I tell her.

 "Okay, thanks verymuch, Charlie. Speak soon. Bye."

 "Bye." I putthe phone down.

 Piers immediately givesme a round of applause.

 "Well done"says Scarlett. "Wheatgrass?"

 I'd prefer a drink.

 

When I see the piece in the paper the next day while sittingon the tube with my quote in it, I feel relieved but quite removed from the wholething, detached, neutral.

"Designer website 2cool2btrue.com was branded 'sleazy anddegrading' yesterday following revelations that it contains blatantly pornographicimages. Women's groups and morality campaigners condemned the recently launchedwebsite which described itself as the coolest thing in cyberspace for featuringfull frontal images of nude women and men.

 Mary Fairfax of NetWatchsaid: "It's basically just a porn site. Children who are looking for thingsto buy could easily stumble across these pictures. They're also highly offensiveto women."

 But Charlie Barrett, theformer top male model heading up the site defended the use of nudity. "Pornographyis now in the mainstream - it's all around us, part of the consumer experience.These pictures are poking fun at porn itself. Our audience gets the joke."

I can't help smiling at the idea that I was 'heading up the site'.Guy and Piers will love that. But why am I still a former male model? On the otherhand they can't complain about the quote. It sounds pretty good. I quite like beinga spokesman. At least there are no pictures of me in it this time.

In the office I'm greeted as something of a hero. Everyone hasa copy of The Post.

 "Excellent publicity,"says Piers, tapping the article.

 "Perfect positioning,"Guy tells me. "You got the message across beautifully."

 "Mate of mine inthe City says all the traders are already looking at the site" says Piers."It's all part of the marketing mix along with the Ferrari Testarossa and theArmani suits."

 "I see," I say,sitting down at my desk. "Well you guys know what you're doing."

 "Oh, Zac, tell him,"says Piers.

 The perpetually horizontalZac, who has just got to, please God, got to fall off his chair on to his authenticallydistressed antique 501-clad arse, takes the floor.

 "Some company ITsystems have filters these days that can, like you know, sense excessive areas ofskin tone in an incoming emails or websites and block them so that people at theirdesks can't check out porno pics at work," he explains. "But I've includedthis little gizmo in the 2cool site protocol to override them."

 "Incredible, eh?"says Piers. "Ours is the only T & A that most of my pals on the tradingfloors can actually look at while they're at work."

 "I'm so proud,"I tell him.

 "Zac, you're a genius"says Scarlett. "A gentleman, a scholar - and a pornographer."

 "I revel in yourlaudatory portraiture," says Zac finishing off a Dr Pepper and stamping onthe tin rather unnecessarily.

 Did he detect her sarcasm?Was he being sarcastic in return? Perhaps she wasn't being sarcastic after all?Perhaps it was just ironic? Perhaps he was being ironic too? Perhaps she was beingsarcastic and he was being ironic in return? Perhaps I've ODed on irony so muchrecently that I just can't recognise it any more.

Later that morning Guy tells me that he wants me to develop myrelationship with Nora.

 "What relationship?"

 He looks slightly startled.

 "Well, you've establisheda good working relationship with her, haven't you?"

 "Erm, well I supposeso. Yes, she's a useful contact isn't she?"

 "Yes, exactly. Anyway,apparently she also freelances for Esquire and various other magazines, you know,like High Life and Elle and things so we need to cultivate her a bit."

 "Oh, okay."

 "We've done a dealwith this new bar in Clerkenwell," says Guy in his silky smooth sales voice."Take her there one evening this week. It'll be a nice contrast to the 'ExtraCurricula' section, make the point that the pictures are just one part of the packageand that whatever those moral crusaders say, we're the coolest, smartest thing incyberspace."

 "Evening?"

 "Yes, you don't mindworking the occasional evening do you? Come in later the next day, if you want,"he says as if I'm being a 'job's worth' about it.

 "No, evenings arefine," I tell him. What is wrong with an evening, anyway? Just a quiet bottleof wine, bit of a chat...cosy bar, settee in the corner. Oh, for God's sake. It'sjust a drink for work. Like Lauren and Peter do every now and then. Somehow thatdoesn't make it any better. "Yes, okay," I say. "It's useful forcoverage isn't it? I mean if we can get her to write articles for some other magazinesit might be helpful, especially High Life, that's the British Airways in-flightmag, isn't it?" But I'm gabbling, chattering away, protesting too much.

 "Just take her therefor a drink at this place and you know..."

 "Show her a goodtime," says Scarlett lecherously from the other side of the room.

    

Chapter Thirteen

 

As it happens Nora's packed diary means that she can only makethat evening so we arrange to meet at 7pm at the bar Guy has suggested. She managesto make it sound like a bit of a drag. I'm tempted to say that I'm only doing itbecause I've been asked to but I don't. I ring Lauren and let her know that I won'tbe home till late. Well, not that late, quite early in fact.

 "It's a work thing,"I say. "Very boring. I've got to charm this reporter. Guy and Piers want herto write something else about us in another magazine or something."

 "Oh, OK. I see."

 "Sorry about this."

 "Don't worry. Ifthey want you to meet her you'd better do it."

 "You out with Peter?"I ask, trying to change the subject but sounding like I'm making a point.

 "Peter? No, he'sin New York at the moment. Make sure you keep the receipt - and charge them fora taxi home."

 "Will do. What'reyou doing tonight, then?" I'm pleased that just for once she's not seeing thattwat but I'm disappointed that we won't be able to enjoy a quiet evening alone together.

 "Nothing."

 "Oh, okay. Why don'tyou give Sarah a ring or something - have a girls’ night out."

 "Why would I wanta girls' night out?" She laughs.

 "I don't know - mightbe fun." Why is this developing into a row?

 "No, I'll just potterround the flat. I've got to sort out paperwork, actually."

 "Oh, OK, good idea."

 There is a pause and I'mabout to check again that she doesn't mind about tonight but then I hear her talkingto someone else.

 "OK, babe, listengotta go, they're ready to shoot again."

 "OK, love you."

 "You too." Sheends the call.

 

Nora is late. I'm waiting at the bar, talking to the owner whois struggling to explain the concept behind it.

 "It's very now,"he says.

 "Yeah," I say,encouragingly.

 "Its look is verymuch of its time, very fin de siècle."

 "Yeah, looks likeit."

 "But it doesn't takeitself too seriously. See this bar - pure antique aluminium. Came from an old brasseriein Paris - so it's fin de siècle, well the last siècle."

 "Really? I love it,"I say rubbing my fingers over it. He does the same. We both caress the cold, smearymetal as he tries to think of something else to say about the place and I wish toGod Nora would hurry up and get here.

 I listen to the musicon the sound system for a while. It's a boy band:

"Babe, there's one thing you must do,

 If you want to get toheaven above,

 Don't ask what your lovecan do for you,

 Ask what you can do foryour love,

they sing.

 The guy who owns the jointis just telling me about the colour scheme when she walks in. No apology.

 "Couldn't you havechosen somewhere more inconvenient?" She smiles. "I know a bar in Aberdeenthat's slightly nearer."

 I ignore her remark, mainlybecause the bar owner looks rather upset about the idea that his place is so offthe beaten track.

 "This is Jim, theowner," I say pointedly. "He was just telling me about the decor."

 "I was just sayingit's very now," begins Jim again. I'm actually slightly relieved when Noraslams her bag down on the floor and says: "I'm sure it is. Can I have a G&T- a large one."

 "Okay," saysJim slightly miffed that he won't get a chance to do his spiel. "What can Iget you, Charlie?"

 "I'll have a beer,"I say.

 He offers me some newThai beer that is exclusive to the place.

 "Very '2cool',"says Nora cleaning her glasses on her silk scarf and looking round her.

 "Yeah, we've donea deal with them. A sort of synergy thing," I explain, hoping she won't pressme on this as I've no idea what I'm talking about. What did Guy say again? Oh, yes."Even though we're a virtual concept we know that we also need to have a realdimension, a physical presence." Or something like that.

 Nora is looking up atme, nodding her head, slightly and giving me that knowing, piss-taking look.

 "You see?" Isay as Jim hands us our drinks.

 "Not really,"she says, taking a large mouthful.

 "Well..."

 "Oh, don't bother.I'm used to hearing things I don't understand and just nodding and looking interested.Anyway, I'm bored with 2cool, aren't you?"

 "Er, no, not really."

 "Oh, perhaps I'vejust a got a short attention span."

 "Wouldn't surpriseme. Anyway, why did you come if you don't want to talk about the site?" I ask,fool that I am.

 Nora swallows a mouthfulof G&T and raises her eyebrows at me.

 "OK, how was yourday at work? Any more embarrassing emails?" I say quickly.

 "No thank goodness.I managed to go a whole day without embarrassing myself - apart from a little incidentwith a cup of coffee which wasn't my fault. If people will leave them lying aroundon their desks...."

 "What are you writingabout at the moment?"

 "Erm, I've been interviewingLara Trewin, you know, that actress. She's set up a homeopathic hospital for animalsat her farm in Sussex. Went down there that's why I'm a bit late."

 "Oh, interesting."

 "No. Ludicrous. Iso ripped the piss out of her," says Nora taking a large gulp of G&T. "Mmm.I needed that."

 We talk a bit more herwriting and 2cool and I pepper the conversation with references to Lauren and ourflat and how long we've been going out together and the surprise trip to VeniceI'm organising for her birthday.


Page 19

 "Venice," saysNora, shaking her empty glass at Jim. "Ah, La Serenissima."

 "Yes" I say,irritated that she can make even my wonderful, inspired romantic gesture sound vaguelyridiculous. Perhaps she's just jealous. Yeah, that's it.

 "It's stunning actually.God, I'm picking that English habit of saying 'actually' every five seconds. No,it is beautiful. Don't go in the summer, though, go in the Winter when it's desertedand grey and foggy. It's sort of sinister."

 "I'm not sure wewant a sinister holiday."

 "No, no, you're missingthe point - that's the real Venice. Mysterious, decaying, inscrutable, corrupt.Hey, you should meet my friend Peta, she studied art history there. Says the placeis impossible to know unless you've been there for at least a year - all the bestrestaurants are hidden behind closed doors, tourists never notice them."

 "I'm sure we'll findthem," I tell her through thin lips.

 "Sorry, didn't wantto put a downer on it. You'll have a great time, I bet," says touching my knee."Hey, I'll get Peta to email you some places to go, some of those hidden restaurants.Harry's bar. You must go there. Just have a drink -"

 "A bellini."

 "That's the one.Don't eat there, though - it's a rip off but for a drink it's great with the waitersin their white jackets and the dark panelled walls. It was one of Hemmingway's favourites,wasn't it? Oh, you'll have a great time, I wish I was going."

 Why not? I can imaginewhat effect that would have on Lauren.

 "So why did you leavethe States and come here," I ask her.

 "I thought it mightbe fun. Change of scene. Get away from a country where the 16 inch chilli dog isconsidered haute cuisine and where only five per cent of the population hold a passportwhich is, coincidentally, the same number that believe they've been abducted byaliens at some point in their lives." It sounds like a frequently repeatedrant. I wonder how often she makes this kind of comment. I smile. "But mainlybecause my then boyfriend came over here. And promptly dumped me."

 "Oh, I'm sorry."

 "Don't be!"she says a little too emphatically. "I'm so much better off without him. Hewas a tosser, as you'd say, started working for a glossy men's magazine here anddecided he need a glossy men's girlfriend to go with it."

 "You're pretty glossy,though" I laugh. I'm not sure what I mean by that.

 "Thanks," shesmiles.

 By the time we leave itis much later than I had realised and it is pouring with rain.

 "How are you gettinghome?" I ask her.

 "Taxi I suppose,"she says looking in vain around the deserted rainy streets for one.

 "Sure, let's findyou a cab then. Where do you live?"

 "Notting Hill."

 "Very nice."

 "Oh, I only movedthere because of the film. Looked like a nice place - all those gorgeous movie starsand bumbling, charming, floppy haired Englishmen wandering around spilling thingson them every five minutes. Where do you live?"

 "Chiswick."

 "Oh, I know it, afriend of mine who works at the BBC lives there. It's just a bit further out Westthan me isn't it? We may as well share a cab."

 Yes, we may as well. Howconvenient.

We eventually find a cabby. In fact Nora finds him by throwingherself in the road in front of him. She lives in a flat in Oxford Gardens off LadbrokeGrove.

 "I'll just see thelady in," I shout to the cab driver.

 "Oh, how charming,how Hugh Grant. It must be the effect of Notting Hill," says Nora, openingthe door. "You don't have to."

 "Better to be onthe safe side," I tell her manfully.

 We walk up the gardenpath past the overflowing bins, lager cans and Sainsbury’s bags. Nora opens herbag while telling me about a diet she's doing a piece on which consists of onlyeating fruit in the morning and corn on the cob in the evening. She is still ferretingaround in her shiny pink retro kitch vinyl handbag after some time and I look aroundjust to reassure the cab driver and check that he doesn't give up the ghost andleave without me.

 "We've got threewomen who have been on it for a month and we're checking their progress, one felloff the wagon last week and had a Mars bar but that makes it more interesting ina way. She felt terrible about it though -"

 "Um, Nora, have yougot your key?"

 "Somewhere. Men areso lucky not being afflicted with these things, handbags I mean - I can never findanything in here."

 I was quite enjoying watchingNora feel shy, self-conscious about me being on her doorstep. For once this bright,aggressive girl is out of her depth, not in control. Now, though, her nervous gabblingis making me nervous too. What's she worried about? I'm not coming in for coffee,this isn't a date, after all.

 "Here it is,"she says, holding up a couple of keys on a ring. "Phew! That's a relief. Well,night then."

 "Night Nora. Seeyou soon," I tell the back of her head as she opens the front door and disappearsinside.

In the taxi back I try and decide which is worse - smart, sneeringNora or shy, nervous Nora. Both are pretty hard to deal with.

 

The next day we have a meeting with our new PR company.

 "What happened toSimon and the Communications Game?" I ask Guy.

 "They were appropriatefor the launch, for the financing and corporate positioning things but now we needa luxury goods specialist," he says. "Someone who really knows how luxurygoods work.

 Two blonde girls calledLucinda and Annabella from a company called Glambusters arrive dead on eleven carryingLouis Vuitton brief cases and we gather around Guy's desk.

 "Before we start,can I just say how thrilled we are to be working on this project," says oneof them while the other agrees. "It's a dream account for us."

 "Well, we're veryglad you've agreed to help us," says Guy.

 "And we're very gladto be helping you." says the other blonde girl, nodding vigorously.

 "And I'm very gladthat you're very glad about us being glad that you've agreed to work with us,"I add. It's supposed to be a joke (obviously) but the others just smile and nodin agreement at me. I realise that Guy just doesn't do jokes; life is too seriousfor him.

 We plan some more partiesanddevelop a press release distribution list. I have an idea for a competition whichthe others really like.

 "We thought you mightdo some surveys too," says Annabella (or is it Lucinda?)

 "Yes", saysher colleague. "They're always good for easy publicity we thought of one showingthat 30 per cent of men these days spend more on clothes than their wives or girlfriends."

 "That's a great idea,"says Guy.

 "It could also showthat 50 per cent of those wives and girlfriends actually resent it - you know geta bit of a battle of the sexes going."

 "Great," saysGuy.

 "Sorry, did you say,you've done this survey," I ask.

 "No," says Annabella."We'd do it and then publish the results."

 "But how do you knowthe results before you've done the survey?" I ask.

 Annabella looks at Guyfor a moment.

 "Well obviously youdon't do these kinds of surveys unless you know roughly what the results are goingto be."

 "Don't you?"

 "Yes, you want tofind something fun and controversial and newsworthy, there's no point in doing aninvestigation that finds that most women like shopping and most men don't, for instance- everyone knows that."

 "We'll still askour site visitors to take part in the survey - we'll put it in the Whatscool page,I think, but we'll make sure that when we've finished it, in, say in a week's time,that we've got the right result."

 "Oh, sure, of course,"I agree.

 "We'll do a Sundayfor Monday release on it," says Annabella. She turns to the slowest ship inthe convoy. "I mean we'll send it out on Sunday for the publication Mondaypapers because Monday is a very quiet news day and they're always desperate forsomething," she explains to me.

 "Great," I tellher.

    

Chapter Fourteen

 

I'm cooking dinner because apparently it's my turn. Lauren istalking to guess who? on the phone. She is laughing and saying something about "No,I don't believe you. Get away! No!" As a result I'm chopping the peppers alittle more aggressively than is strictly necessary and after a few minutes theinevitable happens. It's not a serious cut but it does start to bleed profuselyand it makes me feel a little bit sick - especially when I hear Lauren again. "Peter!You're outrageous! What did she say? Mmm? She's got a point." Lauren gigglesseductively. "Well, she has."

 I wander out into thehallway and present my bleeding finger to Lauren.

 "Plasters?"I mouth.

 She winces at the sightof my injury.

 "Listen, can youhang on a minute Peter, Charlie's cut himself. No, not seriously. It's nothing.I'll be right back. What did you do?" she says putting down the phone.

 "I was just cuttingthese peppers. It'll be ready in a minute," I add by way of hint that she hadbetter finish her cosy little chat with Peter.

 "You know where theplasters are, Charlie." She opens a cupboard and takes out a First Aid boxwhich I probably have seen before at some point. "What are we having?"

 "My ratatouille thingwith pasta." It's my special. Peter might have his chicken thing but I've gotmy sautéed peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic thing.

 "Great," shesays putting a plaster on my finger. "I'll come and give you a hand when I'vefinished with PBC."

 "Who?"

 "Peter - Peter Beaumont-Crowther.PBC. That's what people call him."

 Yeah, amongst other things.

 "Okay," I mutterand go back to my chopping.

True to her word Lauren comes in a few minutes later and takesover the cooking as I know she will. At the same time as she prepares the dinnershe manages to make a plate of little bruschetta - some with chopped tomatoes andbasil and some with creamed artichoke. I pour us both a glass of Orvietto. Has anyone,anywhere in the world been cooked for by someone as wonderful as Lauren? I ask myselfas I sip my wine. And had a plaster put on by them?

 "How did your drinkgo with that journalist?" she asks, stirring and chopping.

 "Oh, fine. We didn'ttalk much about the site in the end....but...erm..." Oh, oh, wrong answer.I can't decide whether I'm relieved or disappointed that Lauren makes no reactionto my confession. "We might be able to give her some more stories we think.We're going to do a survey about shopping and they've already decided on the result- can you believe it? They're going to find that 30 per cent of men spend more moneyon clothes than their wives or girlfriends."

 "That can't be right,"says Lauren without looking up. "Never mind, I suppose if you're going to dothese surveys you've got to find something interesting to say, something newsworthy,haven't you?"

 "I'm sure Nora willbe able get a piece out of it."

 "Nora? Was she thatslightly weird one at the launch party? The one in that bizarre Mortitia Addamsdress that you were having such a laugh with?"

 "Nora, yes,"I say defensively.

 "Was it her you werehaving a drink with last night then?"

 "Yes. I told you."

 "No, you said a journalist."

 "Well, I didn't mentionher name but so what?"

 "This is almost ready."

 The adrenaline is flowingnow - I've finally made Lauren jealous.

 "What's the matter?You can hardly complain after your conversation just now with Peter."

 Oh, what the fuck! Let'sgo the whole hog.

 "Charlie, what areyou on about?" Lauren looks up from her cooking.

 "You know - giggle,giggle!"

 "Don't be ridiculous.Peter is a friend and we were just having a chat."

 "Sounded like a verycosy chat to me."

 "Don't be absurd.I think this whole website thing is all getting on top of you," says Lauren.


Page 20

 "Perhaps it is butI think this whole PBC/TV presenter thing is getting on top of you," I snapback, but it's the last word that pushes it too far: "Literally."

 She looks at me for amoment.

 "I'm going out,"she says quietly.

 I watch her go. Then Iput my glass down and go out after her. She is in the bedroom putting on her coat.

 "I'm sorry,"I say quietly. She ignores me and opens the cupboard to find her shoes. "Isaid I'm sorry."

 "I heard what yousaid." I gently close the wardrobe door. "Excuse me. I'm trying to getmy shoes."

 "Please don't getyour shoes. Please don't go out." She avoids my eyes. "I'm sorry I saidthat about you and Peter." I know I'm making some progress now so I press on.

 She looks up. "Idon't know why you've got such a thing about him. I've got to do this for my career.I told you."

 "Yeah, you said."

 "Why are you so jealousof him all the time?"

 "Because...becausehe sees more of you than I do these days."

 She runs her hand throughmy hair.

 "Oh, Charlie."

 "I don't want tolose you."

 "You're not goingto lose me." She plays with my hair some more and begins to massages my eargently. "But don't expect me to give up this part of my life. It's very important.Don't make me choose between you and my career, it's not fair."

 "I know."

She takes off her coat again along with the rest of her clothesand, deciding that dinner can wait, we end up having great 'make up' sex. I watchus just momentarily in the mirror and think again how lucky I am.

Scarlett offers me a shot of some dark brown liquid when shegets into the office the next day.

 "What's this?"I say, eyeing it with disdain.

 "It's called maruca.It's made of peat extract or something."

 "What does it do?"

 "Gives you energy,detoxes and, erm, what else did they say? Oh, yes boosts your melatonin levels.Makes you feel good."

 I shrug my shoulders andknock it back. It's sort of earthy initially but then the aftertaste kicks in -like farts mixed with rotting rubbish.

 "Aaargh!" Igasp, looking round for something to rescue my taste buds with.

 "Hey, that's my DrPepper" says Zac.

 I let the sweet, fizzyliquid drink rinse away the taste of shit and rotting vegetables and then hand thecan back to him. Once I've got over the experience I look up at Scarlett.

 "Oh my God. How canyou drink that stuff?" I mutter, still swallowing hard.

 "I don't. I've nevertasted it before; I thought I'd try it out on you first."

 "Oh, ta, Scarlett."

 She smiles sweetly andanswers the phone.

 "2coolt2btrue, canI help you? Guy? No, he's not in yet, I'm afraid. No, he's not either. Can I takea message. Okay, all right babe, I'll get one of them to call you. Bye"

 "Where are they?It's gone ten," I ask when she's put the phone down.

 "I dunno, but I'llget them to report to your study when they get in, shall I?" she says.

 "All right, I'm justsaying".

"What's this thing down here at the bottom of the screen?"I ask Zac a bit later. With lightening speed in response to my question he mumbles:

 "What you talkingabout?"

 "This thing, thislittle icon at the bottom right hand on the home page? 'Digitally Enhanced HyperResolution Graphics System'. What the hell does that mean?"

 "It means shag allas you Brits would put it."

 "Nothing? You meanit doesn't do anything? Why have you put it in there then?"

 "Cos, it looks coolman. People think it’s a new bit of kit, something that no one else has."

 "What? You just madeit up?"

 "Yup."

 "I still think itshould be Enhanced Hyper Resolution Digital Graphics System," says Scarlett."Rolls off the tongue better."

 "Well, you're wronglittle lady" says Zac, not bothering to look up at her. "I'll do the hi-techstuff and you stick to rolling things off your tongue."

 Scarlett gives him a sarcasticsmile.

 "Oh, Zac, I'm sureyou'll be a much nicer, more relaxed person when you finally lose your virginity."

 Fortunately the phonerings and I get it. It's someone asking for Guy or Piers again. They're quite insistentbut all I can do is to take a message.

 "Where are they?I'm going to ring their mobiles," I tell the others.

 "Give them a pieceof your mind," says Zac.

 Just at that moment thedoor swings open and Piers sweeps in.

 "Sorry I'm late everybody- bit of a night of it last night."

 "No problem,"I say. "Quite a few people have been calling for you that's all."

 "I bet they have.Well, we've done it!" he announces looking around at us excitedly.

 "What? You and Guylast night?" asks Scarlett raising an eyebrow.

 "No. What?"says Piers. "No, we've done it - all of you! 2cool! We've reached our two months'target of half a million hits in just three weeks."

 "Excellent,"I tell him. "That's brilliant."

 "Cool," saysScarlett. "Too cool in fact."

 Zac says nothing but sincehe wouldn't have had anything pleasant or encouraging to say this is probably agood thing.

 "That's fantastic,"I say again.

 "Isn't it? Well doneteam." The team looks slightly embarrassed at his hearty praise. "Excellent.Yes, well done. Now I could do with something to bring me back to life after lastnight."

 "Yeah, you look terrible"says Scarlett, obviously not just being rude on this occasion. "Have you sleptat all?"

 "No, to be honestI haven't much," says Piers with a slightly false, hearty laugh. "I'llgo to that place you're always off to along the road, what's it called?"

 "Wild World,"I tell him.

 "That's right, I'llget a juice or something."

 "No," says Scarlett,"get yourself a Maruca - it'll do you a world of good."

"Hey, guess what? We've beaten our target at work,"I tell Lauren that evening as we snuggle up on the settee after supper. "Wewere supposed to take two months to get half a million hits but we've done it injust three weeks."

 "That's brilliantbabe," she says, turning her face around in my lap to kiss me.

 "It is pretty good,isn't it? All down to the marketing of course."

 "Of course. You shouldmake sure you keep all the press cuttings and file them."

 "That's a good idea.I think Scarlett or the PRs do it."

 "No, I mean for yourown file so that you've got something to show future employers."

 "That's a very goodidea. You're so sensible. Hey, let's go out and celebrate tomorrow night, I'll booka table somewhere." Lauren doesn't say anything. "What about that newplace down by the river?"

 "I'm actually seeingPeter tomorrow night."

 "Oh, okay,"I say in a small voice.

 "Charlie, I'm sorry.He's been in New York for the last few days and we've got a lot to catch up on."

 "Sure."

 "You know this thingmeans a lot to me, don't you?" She sits up and looks at me. "I'm boredwith modelling - you've made a successful career move. It's not really fair, isit, to try and stop me?"

 "No, 'course notbabe."

 "Friday night, Ipromise. We'll do something really cool."

    

Chapter Fifteen

 

By midday the next day neither Piers nor Guy are in and I seemto be the only one vaguely bothered about it. Neither mobiles are answering thistime either so I decide we'd better find them.

 "Scarlett. Scarlett."I try waving at her.

 "Hang on bud, I'llsend her an email," says Zac, being helpful for once.

 "Don't worry,"I tell him, getting up.

 I tap her on the shoulderand she jumps.

 "What, for goodnesssake?" she says taking off her headphones and switching off her Discman.

 "It was just thinkingit's odd that we haven't seen Piers yet this morning and we haven't seen Guy fornearly two days."

 "No, that's true,"says Scarlett. "Perhaps they're at a meeting. Let me check their diaries."

 "I think we mighthave heard something though don't you?"

 "Erm, let just mehave a look at what they've got booked in at the moment," murmurs Scarlett,tapping away and glancing at her screen. "No, you're right there's nothinghere in their diaries, so they've obviously been murdered."

 "Thanks Scarlett,very helpful."

 "Oh, I'm just kiddingdon't worry, Charlie. They'll ring in soon I'm sure."

 "I suppose so butit just bugs me that they piss off like this. Someone must know where they are -haven't they got friends or something?"

 "You've met them,"says Zac by way of an answer.

 "They must do,"says Scarlett. "Let me ring their home numbers."

 A few moments later shereports that she got answer machines on both.

 "Like I said, they'llbe in later, I'm sure," she says, putting back her headphones.

 I look round at Zac whois, as usual, nearly horizontal with one leg crossed loosely over the other. He'swearing a T-shirt that says 'Lesbian in a man's body.' He shrugs his shoulders andlooks back to his screen.

 I decide to go out andget a cappuccino.

By mid afternoon, I'm both quietly satisfied that I was rightto worry, unlike the others, but at the same decidedly unnerved. We've all leftmore messages for them everywhere we can think of.

 "Mind you, creativepeople are like that," says Scarlett. "When I worked in the music businesspeople would disappear for days and then just turn up again. They're highly sensitive,highly strung."

 "Really? What theyhell had they been doing?"

 Scarlett thinks aboutit.

 "Drugs usually."

I'm the last to leave the office. I decide to ring my old mateBen. We were at college but then he got a sensible job. He's read about the site.

 "Saw that pictureof you in the paper - you looked a right tosser, if you don't mind me saying,"he tells me over a beer in a pub in the City where he works.

 "No, you're right;I did look like a tosser."

 "How's it going thenwith this thing?"

 "Really well."I say wondering whether to be honest. "We've hit our targets for visitors."

 "What are your marginslike?"

 "Margins?"

 He smiles.

 "Profit margins."

 "Oh, yeah of course.Profit margins."

 He smiles again.

 "Well, how are they?"

 "Too early to tell...ohall right, fuck off smarty pants. I don't know. I don't really have a lot to dowith that."

 The smile turns more patronising.

 "Let me get thisstraight - you're the marketing director and you don't know much about the profitmargins. "It's early days, too soon to tell."

 "What about the projections?I mean the profit projections -"

 "I know what youmean. Look, Ben, all right, I don't know but I'm sure they're healthy."

 "What about the businessplan?"

 "Bugger the businessplan, I don't know."

 "OK, just wondered.You should ask your fellow directors, though. What are their names? Piers and Guy?"

 "Yeah, you're right,perhaps I will."

 Except one slight problem.I turn the conversation around to him and his new job at the bank.

I get back to the flat at gone ten and Lauren still isn't homeyet from seeing Peter so I make myself some baked beans on toast with extra butterand tomato ketchup.

I wake up feeling cold and uncomfortable on the settee. Thereis something I don't recognise on the telly. The reason I've woken up is that Laurenhas just come in.


Page 21

 "Oh, hi hon, youstill up?" she says, kicking off her shoes.

 "Yeah," I groan,"must have fallen asleep."

 "Come on let's getyou to bed."

 "Sure." I yawnand stretch. "What time is it?"

 "Erm, just afterthree."

 "What?"

 "Just after three,you fell asleep in front of the telly."

 "Never mind aboutme, where have you been all this time?"

 In the cold, blue, flickeringlight of the telly Lauren looks surprised and irritated.

 "What do you mean'Where have I been?'"

 "It's bloody threeo'clock in the morning; I thought you were just going for a drink or something."

 "Then we had somethingto eat and then we went to a club Peter's a member of."

 "Till this time?"

 "Yes, dad."

 "Sorry, it's justa bit late, that's all." I pull myself up to standing, feeling groggy and dizzy.

 "I'm getting a bitfed up with this, Charlie. I told you I was seeing Peter tonight and I don't expectyou to be holding a stop watch against me."

 She walks out and I sitback down again with my head in my hands.

 

Next day there is still no sign of Piers and Guy.

 "I'm going to theirhomes," I tell Scarlett.

 "Good idea. I can'tthink of anything else to do," she says seriously. Scarlett serious. Now I'mreally worried.

 "What about yourfriend Nora?" says Zac.

 "What about her?"

 "She knows Piersdoesn't she?"

 "Actually she does,doesn't she? She might have some idea where he is or at least who might know."

 I ring her.

 "Hey Charlie, how'sit going?" she says.

 "Not bad, you?"

 "Okay. Thanks forthe other night. It was nice."

 "Yeah, it was, wasn'tit? Nora, I was just wondering if you'd heard anything from Piers."

 "Piers? No why?"

 "Well, he seems tohave disappeared. And Guy. We haven't heard from either of them for days."

 "Really? What? Nothing?"

 "No, they haven'tbeen into the office. We've tried to track them down on their mobiles but there'sno answer."

 "How bizarre."

 "It is a bit, isn'tit? Never mind, just wondered if you'd heard anything. You do know Piers anyway,don't you?"

 "Yes, I do. LookI'll try and get hold of some of his other friends."

 "Thanks Nora, couldyou let me know if you hear anything."

 She sounds distractedfor a moment.

 "Yes, of course.Sorry, when did you last see them again?"

 "Well, Piers camein on Thursday but we haven't seen Guy at all since Wednesday."

 "Mmm. Almost allweek. And no one's heard anything from them?

 "No. Nothing."

 "So you've rung theirmobile numbers?"

 "Yep, nothing."

 "Bit worrying isn'tit?"

 "Well it is a bit.Anyway, as I say, if you hear anything just give me a ring."

 "Erm, yep will do.Do you think the site will suffer without them, they are the leading lights aren'tthey?"

 "Well, they developedthe concept, that's true."

 "And raised the finance."

 "Yes. Anyway, asI say, it was just in case you hear something."

 "Sure, sure. So it'sjust the three of you left."

 "Yeah, well, no.Not left as such, I'm sure Guy and Piers will be back soon I just wished they'dtold us where they were going, that's all."

 "Are you going totheir homes?"

 "Might as well, havea quick look around, see if there's any sign of life."

 "Where do they live?"

 "Guy lives in Chelseaand -"

 "Piers lives in Fulham,doesn't he?"

 "Er, yeah that'sright. Anyway -"

 "What about the police?"

 "I'm not sure. It'sdifficult. I don't want to alarm people unnecessarily. I think we'll give it a fewmore days, presumably if they are missing their family or friends would do that."

 "That's true."

 "Anyway, I'll keepyou informed."

 "What's Zac's surnameagain?"

 "Zac's surname? What'sthat got to do with anything? Nora you're not going write about this are you?"

 "Erm, write aboutit?"

 "Yes, put it in thebloody paper."

 "Erm, well, I don'tknow. I mean it might help, mightn't it?"

 "Help bugger thewhole thing up completely you mean. Look you'd better not."

 "Okay," shesays half heartedly.

 "Nora, please don't."

 "Oh, honestly Charlie."

 "I said 'don't'!"

 "And I heard you.Look I'd better make some calls. I'll let you know what I find out."

I set off to Chelsea first of all, having made the others promiseto call me the minute they hear something. I'm sure everything's fine but it's beginningto dawn on me that of the three of us 'left' as Nora's puts it, I'm the only onewith any sort of responsibility or common sense. I realise that the suit I'm intoday is Armando Basi, bought by 2cool and that most of what I wear these days comesfrom the company, either our stylists or via my smart new totally transparent 2coolbranded credit card. Like I say, I'm sure it's all kosher and above board, but ifthere were something, well, dodgy, I'd have to admit that I've had my fair shareof goodies from this little operation. Even my skin is glowing from a free facialcourtesy of a new men's grooming studio that we've hooked up with.

Guy lives in a basement flat not far from South Kensington tubestation. I walk down a tiny staircase and peer into the window. The living roomitself is traditionally furnished with an old chesterfield couch, patterned rugand some repro landscape paintings. There is a fire place with some china ornamentson it and some invitations. Next to it is a large telly.

 On the floor, on the settee,on the shelves either side of the chimney breast and on almost every available spaceare piles of paper and magazines. Hundreds of them. Thousands probably. Some neatlystacked up, some slipping over. A sock hangs limply out of one pile. There are precariouslybalanced towers of thick glossy magazines all around the floor and on the coffeetable so which must make watching telly almost impossible.

 There is not much elseI can do other than to knock on the window hard and shout through the letter box.As I do, a gentle gust of cold, stale air greets me. If anything this visit hasmade me feel more anxious.

 There is no answer fromPiers' small terraced house in Fulham either. He has the same kind of Country-House-in-a-London-boxfurniture but the place is sort of casually messy, not maniacally so. Again I bangon the window and do some pointless shouting before setting off back along the street.I ring Scarlett and tell her that I've drawn a blank and I'm coming back to theoffice. After I finish the call, something makes me turn back just before I've gotto the main road and I see a bloke taking photographs. He looks pretty professional- angler's jacket full of gear, automatic rewind on his camera, another camera aroundhis neck.

 He is definitely shootingPiers house.

I'm up before Lauren is awake for once the next day - Saturday- and I dash out to buy The Post. Walking back to the flat I begin to flick throughit. There is nothing on the first few pages. I smile at a picture of someone I knowfrom my old agency, advertising a laptop by looking harassed as he walks acrossan airport concourse. What a crap shot. That guy just cannot act. But when I turnthe next page there is a massive picture of me. Plus one of Piers next to a smallerone of his house.

 I feel like I've beenkicked in the stomach. I have to stop and take a deep breath before I can read it.

EXCLUSIVE

2COOL TWO GO MISSING

 Hyper cool website 2cool2btrue.comwas in chaos last night following the disappearance of its two leading lights, GuyWatkins and Piers Gough-Pugh. Questions were being asked about the whereabouts ofthe two marketing whiz kids whose website has grabbed the attention of the nation'ssmartest young things and boasts a host of celebrity fans. Some commentators havebeen arguing that 2cool has even signalled a return of business confidence in theinternet.

 Watkins and Gough-Pughhave been missing most of the week although the police have yet to be informed.

 With only three membersof staff left to run the website which has signed deals with a host of designerlabels and luxury goods manufacturers, experts were yesterday predicting that itwould difficult for the company to build on its remarkably successful launch, whichfollowed a party at Frederica's night club in London's Belgravia, attended by rockstar Sir Josh Langdon and aristo model Henrietta Banbury amongst others The siterecently revealed that it has already received half a million 'hits' after justthree weeks trading.

 Speaking exclusively toThe Post, the face of the new site, former male model Charlie Barrett said: "We'reall very worried indeed. We haven't seen Guy since Monday and Piers since Tuesday.It's difficult because they're the ones who developed the concept and raised thefinance."

 Gough-Pugh, a former citytrader and financier was not at his half a million pound Fulham home yesterday.One neighbour said: "He's a nice young man, always very polite and charming.He's been working long hours so he doesn't seem to have much time for friends."

 Barrett has not yet reportedthe disappearance of the two to the police because of concerns that the news mightaffect the image and financial position of the site. However, a spokeswoman forThe Metropolitan Police Missing Persons Unit confirmed: "If we are contactedwe will take the case seriously as we do with any report of a missing person."

By the time I get back to the flat Lauren is wandering aroundthe kitchen.

 "You're up early,"she says in a sleep-croaky voice.

 "Yeah, there wassomething in the paper today about Piers and Guy."

 "You're kidding."

 I open it again and Ipresent it to her. Seeing my stupid face grinning up at us makes me feel sick again.I turn away to carry on making the coffee. By the time it is dripping through thefilter Lauren has finished with reading the piece.

 "Well?" I ask.

 "Doesn't look good,does it? Why haven't you contacted the police?"

 "Well, why shouldI? Haven't they got friends or family or something?"

 "How would I know?"She opens the fridge and takes out the orange juice.

 "Yeah, okay. I'llring the police on Monday. Can't do any harm. Sod's law they'll come back if I do."

 "Why did you sayall this to the paper?"

 "I didn't. I, oh,for God's sake, I rang Nora because she knows Piers anyway and I just wondered -"

 "Did she write it?"asks Lauren, snatching back the paper. "Oh, well, what did you expect? Youring a journalist and tell her all this and expect her not to write about it?"

 "All right, I know,I'm completely stupid. I thought she might be able to separate her professionallife from her private life."

 "You thought youcould trust a journalist?"

 "I was ringing heras a friend."

 Oh, shit that doesn'tsound right. Lauren laughs irritably and rolls her eyes.

 "I'm going to havea shower."

I decide to ring my Dad and try and get some advice from him.A girl answers the phone with a sleepy voice: "Hallo, is John there?"

 "Qui? Who?"

 I've definitely got theright number - it's on speed dial - so I persist.

 "Sorry, is Jaredthere?"

 "No, er, no, he run."

 "What? He's gonefor a run? Okay ask him to call his son when he gets back, will you?"

 "Er, call?"

 "Oh, fuck."I'm actually quite used to this now so I run through the usual list of possibilities."Parlez-voulez Francais?"

 "Er, sorry?"

 "Habla usted español?"

 "Er?"

 "Parla Italiano?"


Page 22

 "Er, sorry?"

 My Serbo-Croat - usuallya good bet these days - has deserted me but fortunately at that moment my Dad obviouslywalks in and takes the phone from her.

 "Hello?"

 "Hi, it's me, Charlie."

 "Hi, kiddo."

 "Are you around thismorning?"

 "Yeah, sure, we weregoing shopping but we can do that later. Everything all right?"

 "Not really."My throat suddenly feels a bit tight.

 "You and Lauren?"

 "Erm, partly - there'sa piece in the paper today about the site, Guy and Piers, the guys who started it,the guys I work for, they've disappeared."

 "Disappeared?""Look, can we meet for coffee or something?"

We arrange to meet for a breakfast at a new restaurant in Knightsbridgewhich specialises in a mixture of French and Thai food. I manage to extract a normalcappuccino out of them and wait for my pop who is fashionably late.

 "Hiya," he says,slapping my arm. "This is Marika, Mari for short."

 "Hello," I smile.She is tall with long blond hair - well, you know the deal. "Where are youfrom?"

 She looks confused fora moment and then my Dad rescues her.

 "Hungary," hesays proudly. "Or somewhere like that." I make a mental note to get aHungarian phrase book.

My Dad has fresh fruit and yogurt, I have a couple of muffinthings which apparently have some Far Eastern connection although you could hardlytell and Mari eats for a week - omelette with Thai spiced prawns, muffins, croissants,toast and some sort or porridge like thing with passion fruit in it. I show Dadthe cutting from the Post.

 "Why did you sayall this?" he asks.

 "Oh, fuck. I know,I'm so naive. She knows Piers - I thought she might be able to help as a friend.How can she stab me in the back like that? I asked her not to."

 "Charlie, she's ajournalist."

 I look down at my plate.He squeezes my shoulder.

 "Hey. It's OK, soyou learnt a lesson in business."

 "Yeah, I s'pose so."

 "First thing you'vegot to do is try and find these guys. Look, I'll put out some feelers too. I'lltry and find out something more about them."

 "Thanks, Dad."

 "What are the bookslooking like?"

 "What?"

 My Dad smiles sadly.

 "What kind of financialshape is the company in?"

 "We've achieved ourtwo monthly target of hits in just three weeks."

 "Yeah, yeah, great,but are those visitors spending money?" "It's not just about people spendingmoney -"

 "Charlie, listen,son, it's always just about people spending money."

 "Erm, I don't know.I've never looked at the financial side of it."

 There is flicker of concernacross my Dad's immaculate, tanned, moisturised, face. Is he wearing eye liner againtoday? Never mind, I've got slightly more important things to worry about.

 "You'd better havea look first thing on Monday."

 "Okay."

 "You're not a directorare you?"

 "Er, yeah"

 "You are." Suddenlyhe looks more serious. And I wanted him to be proud of me. "So you're a signatoryon the cheque books?"

 "Well, I don't thinkso."

 "And have you eversigned a cheque?"

 "Well, a few, ofcourse, for some of the suppliers."

 My Dad looks thoughtfullyat me.

 "I'm sure you'refine if you've still got the invoices and things then but you've got to be carefulyou don't implicate yourself in anything."

 "No, of course."

 "You realise thatas a director, you're legally responsible. If it can be proved that you've actednegligently or fraudulently you can be sued."

 I suddenly feel slightlysick. Like being told off when I was a kid and I got stopped by the police for throwingstones and breaking the windows of an empty factory down the road. It was the naughtiestthing I had ever done - until now.

 "Really?"

 "Don't worry I'msure it won't come to that but watch out, hey, son," he says kindly, reachingacross and patting me on the shoulder. "And if you've got any questions, justgive me a call."

 "Will do, sure."

 "Can they carry onpaying you?"

 "Yes, for the timebeing. Scarlett, who also works there, checked with the bank and the account thatour salaries come out of looks pretty healthy at the moment." I don't liketo think about what state the other accounts 2cool has around the world might bein.

 "Well, that's onegood thing."

 My Dad smiles broadlyand then reaches across and squeezes my shoulder again.

 "Mari and I are goingshopping, wanna come?"

    

Chapter Sixteen

 

The conversation with my dad gives me a sleepless night. Laurentuts and moans as I turn over, yet again. I can see myself being portrayed suddenlyon some TV documentary as a crook. I've defrauded people. Interviews with angrycreditors and innocent investors who were taken in by me. I think of the money we'vebeen spending.

 I suppose the most I canhope for is that I look naive not criminal.

On Sunday Lauren and I go to a lunchtime barbecue with some othermodels from the agency and some friends of hers in Clapham. Sarah and Mark are thereand as we stand by the French windows, glasses of Merlot in hand we have a quiet,conspiratorial laugh together about how much, Sh!! we actually hate barbecues.

 "Botulism in a bun,"says Sarah taking a drag of ciggie and watching our host manfully trying to flipa crumbling homemade hamburger with an unwieldy kitchen utensil while being advisedby his spouse. Then she asks: "So, how's the new job going?"

 "Bit difficult atthe moment," I say, looking out at the garden.

 "Oh, sorry to hearthat." There is a pause. "Don't want to talk about it?"

 "Not really."

 "Sure. Look, Markand I were thinking: why don't you and Lauren come and spend a weekend with us atmy parents' place in France. Go on! It would be a laugh. Lots of lovely food andwine. Sunshine and swimming. Watching my parents bickering. Great spectator sport."

 I laugh. "I'd loveto; I mean we'd love to. Thanks."

To avoid talking to anyone else about the site and answeringthe inevitable questions I end up playing with the kids. Jack who is two and Lilywho is five invent a game with some pebbles and some toy cars and dollies and itkeeps them occupied for hours. Me too.

 "You're so good withthe children. Everyone's very grateful to you for keeping them quiet," saysa woman I don't know as she carries some dirty plates over my head into the kitchen.

 I smile up at her.

When we get back there are two messages on the answer machine.My heart leaps. Perhaps finally a call from Guy and Piers. The first is from Lauren'smum, just ringing for a chat and sending me her love and the second is from my oldmate Becky who I haven't seen for years.

 "Hi Charlie. It'sBecky. Long time no speak. Erm, hope you're well. Just ringing to say that I'vehad a baby. Louise Emily. Just over 7lbs. The father is a guy called Daniel whoI don't think you've met. We've been going out for two years. Not yet got roundto the marriage thing - on my list of things to do, though. Sure we will. Alwayswanted to see Vegas!" She laughs. "Anyway, come and meet her! It wouldbe really nice to see you." She sends her love and leaves a number.

 Becky and I had a minifling just before I met Lauren. It could have been my child, in another life. Icould have been a father. I remember the woman at the party "You're so goodwith children." So is Lauren actually, but then she is good at most thingsso perhaps it doesn't really count.

On Monday I wait until lunchtime to make absolutely sure thatGuy and Piers really aren't coming into the office again and then I tell Scarlettthat I'm going to ring the police.

 "Good idea,"she says. Serious Scarlett is really frightening me now.

 I decide not to ring 999,after all, it's not really an emergency is it? Well, not yet. I didn't sleep muchon Saturday night after my conversation with my dad. Somehow reporting Guy and Piersmissing will make it official: we really are in trouble, but, on the other hand,it also feels like I'm doing the right thing.

 I speak to someone atthe Met's Missing Persons Division. A woman with a kind voice takes all the details.She seems slightly surprised when I explain that I'm calling about two people.

 "Two? Oh, right.Are they in a relationship?"

 "With each other?No. Well, just a business relationship."

 "I see. What relationare you to either of them."

 "I work with them.For them." Suddenly, following the conversation with my father, the distinctionseems very important.

 "Let me just checkthe database to make sure that we haven't had anyone else reporting them missingalready." She taps away for a moment and then says: "No. Funny. Usuallyit's family and friends that report it first. Have you spoken to these men's relationsor people they know outside work?"

 "We don't know ofanyone," I say, deciding not to mention Nora.

 "Oh, okay."

 "Does this sounda bit odd?" I ask.

 "Odd? Erm, not really.Men in their late twenties, early thirties are one of the most likely groups ofpeople to disappear, actually. Them and teenage girls."

 "Right."

 "On the other hand,we don't know that they have really disappeared. Sometimes people just go off withouttelling anyone - they forget or they suddenly decide that they need to get awayfrom it all."

 "I know how theyfeel."

 "Don't we all? Lookwe'll carry out our own investigations and as soon as we hear something we'll letyou know."

 "Thanks." Shegives me the number of the Missing Persons Helpline and I hang up.

 "Well?" saysScarlett.

 "You heard what Itold her, what more can we do?"

 "Why don't you ringNora Bentall about that piece."

 "I don't trust myselfnot to yell abuse at her."

 "So? Yell abuse ather."

 I look at Scarlett fora moment while I think it over and then I ring Nora's number.

 "Hey, Charlie,"she says, bright as ever.

 "Thanks for the pieceon Saturday."

 "No worries."

 "Nora, I'm beingsarcastic."

 "Why? What's wrong?It'll help find them."

 "I asked you notto write it."

 "Well, Charlie, youcan't tell me what I will and won't write. It's a good story. Look, we've alreadyhad a couple of calls about it."

 "Really?"

 "Yeah, hang on letme find them. Jenny, where's that note about those calls? Thanks. Right...oh, wellperhaps we need to wait a little bit longer."

 "Why? What do theysay?" "Well, erm, a Mr Hampson from Birmingham called in to say that itserves you right for worshipping mammon and you'll all go to hell -"

 "Great, very helpful.

 "And someone calledJeremy from Southampton rang. Now, what's this? Oh, he wants to know where you gotthe shirt you're wearing in that picture because he'd like to get one too."

 "Oh, case solvedthen."

 "OK, I admit thoseprobably aren't going produce very good leads but someone else might crop up."

 "Well, call me whenit does. You owe me, all right?" I tell her and put the phone down.

 "So?" asks Scarlett.I can hardly bear to repeat the conversation but I do for hers and Zac's benefit.She thinks about it for a moment and then says: "Well, if you don't mind mesaying...that shirt was horrible, why would anyone want one like it?"

 "What are you onabout?"

 Zac is smirking.

 "Glad you think it'sfunny you sniggering nerd."

 He bursts out laughing.

 "Am I the only onewho gets what's happening?" I ask. "A lot of money has disappeared here.Am I the only one who actually realises that this whole thing is collapsing aroundour ears?"


Page 23

 Zac stops laughing, sitsup and leans across his desk.

 "No, bud," hesays. "You're the only one who ever thought it wouldn't."

I go out and walk up and down the street for a while to regainmy composure. What does Zac know? Cynical, sneering net nerd. Nobby no mates. ButI am the most visible aspect of this site aren't I? Spokesman, frontman. The embodimentof 2cool. Muse? Fall guy? Director more to the fucking point. I did sign some cheques- six, in fact. I counted them as soon as I got back to the office on Monday aftertalking to my Dad. Over £40,000 worth. Oh, for fuck's sake. If 2cool's crashed inflames then so have I. And very, very publicly and I could go to prison for it.

 Images of a celebritytrial begin to flood into my mind. Stories of our spending. Me arriving in a vanat the Old Bailey. Is that right? Would that happen? Or would it be a smaller court?Who cares? My old mates at the agency reading about me and gossiping at castingsas my case goes on. Penny smiling grimly in that little office of hers. My poormum. It would kill her.

 I ring Lauren's numberbut get her voicemail. I leave a short message asking her to call me when she can.We've hardly spoken over the last few days. After the party on Sunday she went intotown to do some shopping and I came back to the flat and watched telly. I reallyneed to talk although I know what she'll say.

 I wander into a newsagent.On the front of a woman's magazine are a guy and a girl from my old agency. Smiling,hugging, gazing adoringly at each other, so in love. Well, in love for £100 an houron a Thursday morning in a studio in Clerkenwell, hair and makeup provided but nowardrobe at that price so bring your own selection of smart casual tops. Not a lotof money but a nice cover shot for your book.

 I ring Karyn at the agency.

 "Hey, how are you?"Not saying my name out loud, I notice. "Alright. How's it going? Busy."

 "Yeah, it is quite."I didn't want to hear that. "You?"

 "Well, did you seethe piece in the Post on Saturday?"

 "Yes, Penny pointedit out."

 "Oh, shit."

 "Difficult times?"

 "You could say."

 "So where are theseguys? Derr! Sorry, obviously you don't know but it does seem very odd, doesn't it?They've really just disappeared into thin air, then?"

 "Yep. It's too weird."

 "You sound down."

 "Just a bit. It'sall a bit worrying, you know. I'm sure it'll be fine." I feel I have to addthe last comment so that she doesn't think I'm a complete crook. Or naive pillock."Anyway, how are you? Busy?"

 "Yeah, pretty. Littlejobs." The kind I used to moan about and turn my nose up at. Suddenly theysound safe and familiar. Boring but manageable.

 "Better than nothing,"I say, hoping it doesn't sound like I'm angling for something.

 "You never used tosay that," says Karyn, teasingly.

 "Yeah, I know."There is a pause. I nearly ask about going back. It does sound tempting - so mucheasier after the stress of 2cool.

 "A couple of peoplehave been asking about you."

 "Really? That's nice."

 "Penny's a bit funnyabout it, though. Keeps suggesting other models."

 "No, of course. Well,she'll be even funnier about it now."

 "Probably. She'sout to lunch with a client today so she'll be totally smashed when she gets back."

 "Good old Penny."

 "Give me a ring ifyou want to have a drink sometime, Charlie."

 "Will do. Take carebabe."

 "OK, bye."

I go back to the office after half an hour or so. FortunatelyZac has gone to lunch. Scarlett is on the phone.

 "No, you'll get yourcheque, I promise. It's just that we're up to our eyes at the moment and our, er,accounts department has got a bit behind. No, they're not here at the moment butI'll pass your message on. Well, I can't comment on press stories. Well, you believewhatever you like but as soon as they come back I'll get them to sign the chequeand we'll bike it straight over. OK, will do. Bye." She puts the phone down."Honestly, some people. Money, money, money. Don't they know there's more tolife?"

 "Have we had a lotof calls like that?"

 "Quite a few, wellquite a lot actually. But what can we do? I don't know where the cheque books are."

 "Even if we findthem I certainly don't want to go signing any more until I've spoken to Guy andPiers and seen the bank statements. Let's look in their desks - see if we can findthese statements, and the cheque books are in there."

 "Oh, OK I supposeso but I just feel a bit funny about rummaging around while they're not here."

 I laugh bitterly.

 "Yeah, but wherethe hell are they? Anyway, I'm also a director. I just want to see the figures."Saying that I realise that I don't.

 "Come on, Scarlett,someone's got to do it. This is getting silly." Not to mention frightening.

 "OK." She goesover to the end of the room where Guy's and Piers' desks are. I've checked the surfaceof the desks a hundred times over the last few days for clues as to their whereaboutsbut I've never looked inside the neo-industrial filing, stainless steel cabinetsthat surround them.

 "I'll need to getinto their computers too," I tell her as she gets the keys.

 "They're passwordprotected and I don't know -"

 "Where's Zac?

 "At lunch. Playingpinball across the road."

 "Ring him and gethim over here, can you? Ta."

 I open the first drawof one of the filing cabinets and almost gasp in shock. Hundreds of bits of paperare stuffed into it. Most of the suspension files are hanging off their rails, documentssquashed down between them. I pick out a piece of paper at random. It's a bill forred roses. £350's worth from a smart new florist in Notting Hill. I flatten it outand put it carefully onto Piers' desk. Slowly I pull out another piece of paper,dislodging a few others and sending them cascading onto the floor. This one is areceipt for a couple of suits and trousers from the press office of an Italian designhouse. 'Sample loan. Please return in good condition to London Press Office by 20thJune'. Three weeks ago. I look around hopelessly as if the suits might be hangingup somewhere.

 There are bills, invoicesand statements of accounts from clothing companies, taxi firms, stationers, restaurants,PR companies, event’s organisers, video production people and hotels, as well asplenty of well known designer names. Many of them are red bills and final demands.There is even one for a model agency I know. £3,500 day shoot fee and usage agreement.

 Some bills are for hundreds,some for thousands and some for tens of thousands. Others are for forty or fiftyquid. Many are related to the launch party. Others I recognise from things thathave just appeared in the office or been mentioned by the others.

 I begin to try and sortthem in date order but I'm soon running out of desk space. There are big ones, smallones. Some are on coloured paper and some are hand written. There are ones withfamiliar logos and addresses and ones where even the type of goods isn't apparent.Who the hell is Watson Blencowe? And what are 'professional services'?

 "Hey, dudes,"says Zac as he strolls in.

 "Have you seen these?"I ask. He looks across at the papers in my hand.

 "Oh, hello twentyfirst century calling. Why do people still do it on these bits of paper? Haven'tthese people even heard of ecommerce...?" But his voice trails off as he nearsthe desks and sees the other drawers full of papers. "Holy sssshit." Zacserious. Now I'm really scared.

 "Why didn't we noticethis?" I ask the others, sheaves of papers in both hands.

 They stare in silencefor a moment and then Scarlett says: "Because they were always in the officebefore us and still working after we'd all left?" At that moment the phonerings again. She answers it and as soon as she starts: "Yes, your invoice hasbeen logged and you'll get a cheque very soon," the three of us exchange glances.

 Eventually she puts thephone down.

 "Zac, we need toget into their computers."

 "No, problemo,"says Zac but without his usual chilled bravado. He sits down at Guy's desk and switcheson the machine. Then he kicks his foot against something, looks under the desk andsays: "Oh, shit." He pulls out another box, overflowing with invoices.

 "Oh, my God how couldanyone spend money so fast?" I ask the world in general.

 "They have been working18 hours a day for the last few months," points out Scarlett. "Shop tillyou pop, you know." I pull out some more bits of paper. "And...we've allbeen doing our fair share," she adds. I think of my new suits, cars everywhere,the champagne we've got into the habit of opening at 5 o'clock.

 "Okay," saysZac from the other desk. "We're in."

 In what, I don't know.There are files of letters, games, lists, press releases and finally some spreadsheets.But even these don't say much. Lists of amounts with dates and names, most of whichmean nothing to me. I look down them just in case. The money has certainly beenpouring in - until recently, anyway.

 "Don't they havebank statements?" I ask Scarlett.

 "I don't know, Isuppose so. Actually I have opened letters with bank statements in."

 "So have I come tothink of it," I tell her. I remember Guy grabbing them off me a couple of weeksago. No wonder he didn't want me to see them. Was it all going wrong even back then?

 We ignore the phones andspend another few hours rooting around the desks for some evidence of any sort ofcorrespondence from the bank but we really only find more invoices. Some envelopes,I realise to my horror, are full of things that have been ordered by me. I stuffthem back in a drawer.

 My mobile rings and it'sLauren.

 "Hi, babe,"I sigh.

 "Hi. Got your message.What's the matter? You sound really down."

 "Just this moneything. I'm trying to sort out the invoices and bank statements here. Look, I'llbe late tonight - I'm going to try and get this stuff in some kind of order if Ican.

 "Okay, I'm seeing,erm, seeing Peter tonight, anyway."

 "Yeah," I saywithout having to add, 'thought you might be.'

 "He wants me to watchsome of the tapes I've made recently to see where I can improve my performance."I'm tempted to make a cutting remark about Peter and her performance but I decideagainst it. I'm just so pissed off.

 A few minutes later myphone rings again.

 "Hi Charlie, canyou talk?" says Nora.

 "Sure", I tellher, trying to sound cheerful, learning from my last mistake.

 "Good, listen. I'vegotta be quick because I'm on a deadline but a couple of people, sane people, thatis, have called in about Piers and Guy."

 "Really?" Somegood news at last.

 "Yeah. Okay. Piers'parents live in South Africa and he doesn't see them much which is I suppose whythey haven't reported anything yet. I've broken the news to them and I told themI'd pass on anything I could. You haven't heard anything?"

 "No, nothing."

 "Okay. Guy's parentsare both dead unfortunately and his only blood relative is an older brother who'san entomologist in the Galapagos Islands. We're trying to contact him at the moment."Somehow the kind of thing you'd expect of Guy. "But, and this is a bit of goodnews, there's a party tomorrow night -"

 "What? Nora, I'mnot really in the mood, thanks anyway -"

 "No, banana brain!It's being thrown by....by, here it is, Sir James Huntsman whose son and daughterare friends of Piers. I've got us invited. My friend Anna knows them and she's gotan invitation. I say we go along and do some snooping, okay?"

 "And I say this isn'tScooby Doo, you know."

 "I know, Fred, butwe might as well go along and talk to some people, see what we can find out.

 "What the hell arewe going to find out?"

 "Haven't you gotany sense of curiosity?"

 "Haven't you gotany sense?"

 "Look it can't doany harm, can it?"

 "I suppose not. Ifwe turn up anything, though, we go straight to the police."

 "Oh, sure,"she says unconvincingly.


Page 24

 "We don't publishit."

 "Well, that depends."

 "All right, I'm notgoing then."

 "Don't be silly,Charlie, you can't stop me writing about any conversations I might happen to havewith anyone."

 "OK, but don't includeme."

 The party is at an addressoff Kensington High Street. We agree to meet in a pub nearby at 8pm. I'm past feelingnervous about it.

By about seven Scarlett, Zac and I have got most of the receiptsin some sort of order. They are now spread across Guy's and Piers' desks as wellas mine and Scarlett's with the most up to date being lined up against one wallof the office. The monotonous process of sorting them by date order and category- the biggest of which is miscellaneous - has almost put us into a kind of trancebut that now we can see the full extent of 2cool's financial predicament spreadaround the office walls and across various desks we're numbed by it.

 I tell the others go tohome.

 "Don't stay too late,hey?" says Scarlett, stroking my cheek.

 "No, don't worry,I just want to have another look at those spreadsheets and check a few names andthings. See you tomorrow."

I make myself a cup of coffee to keep me awake and begin to readthrough the spread sheets that Zac has printed out for me from the other computers.I realise that part of the reason I want to sort this out is because I want to showmy Dad that my first proper job hasn't been a total fiasco. I want to show thathim that I've saved it or least done all I can to stop it going under and walkedaway with a clean conscience and the knowledge that I did my best, that I learntsomething from it. No criminal record would also be nice.

 He got used to my doingthe modelling thing after a while, but I know he was never particularly proud ofthe career path his only son had chosen.

I'm still there at ten when the buzzer for the outside door goes.I walk across the office which is now in darkness apart from the light over my desk.I pick up the entry phone.

 "Hello?"

 "Pizza."

 "Pizza? I didn'torder a pizza."

 "Er, you sure?"

 "Yeah, honestly.Sorry, bye."

 I put the phone back.It buzzes again before I've got back to my desk.

 "You definitely didn'torder a pizza?" says a voice above the street noise.

 "Yeah, really, I'dremember."

 "Oh, well, it mustbe a mistake. Look, someone ordered a pizza and I'm only going to have to take itback. You might as well have it."

 I realise that I won'teat anything any other way tonight.

 "Well, if you'resure. Thanks. Come up. Second floor."

 I buzz him in and standby the door of the office, waiting for him to come up the stairs. After a few momentsa guy in leathers with a black crash helmet appears. He doesn't look like a pizzadelivery man, not least because he doesn't seem to have a pizza with him. I'm justpondering this when his hand comes up and pushes me hard in the chest, sending meback staggering back into the office.

 "Oi," he says.

 My heart is pounding withshock as well as the impact.

 "Oh, fuck! Who areyou? What do you want?" I gasp, trying to get my breath back.

 "Oi," he saysagain.

 "What do you mean?"I'm suddenly offended as well as frightened. Who the hell does he think he is?

 "I mean some of yourcreditors want their money and they're not going to wait for it."

 "All right, all right.We'll pay everyone as soon as we can. Just bear with us."

 "Yeah, well, listen,some of them aren't going to just hang around, see?" He moves towards me, menacingly."Ow!"

 He's managed to walk intothe desk in the semi darkness of the office, made more obscure by his helmet. "Aw,fuck that hurt!" he says, holding his thigh.

 "Are you all right?"I ask.

 "Shut up!" hebellows, still nursing his upper leg and limping around a bit on it. "Anyway,yeah, er, right. Like I said, some of your creditors aren't going to wait for theirmoney, okay?" he snaps, pointing a gloved finger at me.

 "Well, tell me whothey are and we'll make sure they're on the list."

 "What? I'm not tellingyou who they are, am I? Just make sure you pay up - and fast. Got it?"

 He goes to thump me againbut I step back quickly and he half misses so his intended assault ends up as asort of tap on the shoulder as if we were playing tig. Looks like I'm it now.

 "Remember what Isaid."

 On his way out he glancesaround for something to smash up to make his point but, with nothing to hand, heends up just tossing some invoices onto the floor. Then he turns back to leave butwalks into the half open door. "Ow, fuck!" He stumbles back, stunned.Then he leaves and slams it behind him. I close my eyes and take a deep breath,telling myself I'm okay. I'm not hurt, just a bit shocked.

 But then suddenly thereis terrible thumping, followed by a crashing sound and a voice roaring in anger.For a moment I think he must have smashed up something in the stairwell as a finalact of intimidation. Then I realise that there really isn't anything much you coulddamage out there. I open the office door a bit and peep out. Nothing. I look furtherout and realise that he's fallen downstairs.

    

Chapter Seventeen

 

I leave the office shortly afterwards and take a taxi home whereI have a large drink. Whiskey for a change. As far as gangland muscle goes, my assailantwas pretty incompetent. Poor bugger, he's going to have a horrible bruise on hisleg tomorrow. Perhaps I should tell the police now? I laugh sadly at the idea thatthey'd easily be able to identify the man. Just round up the usual suspects andcheck their left legs for nasty contusions.

 I don't hear Lauren comein.

 "Hi," she says."Why are you sitting in the dark?"

 Am I? I must have forgottento put the lights on. Perhaps I don't want anyone to know that I'm at home.

 "Sorry, I didn'tnotice."

 She switches them on andcloses the curtains.

 "Are you all right?"She sits down on the settee next to me and gives me peck on the cheek.

 "I was working latetonight, like I said, and this bloke came in and tried to beat me up."

 "What?" Shesits up and looks at me. "Are you hurt?"

 "No, no. I'm fine."Casually my hand wonders up to my chest where he shoved me. I can hardly feel anythingthere at all. "He's in a worse state than I am, I think."

 "What? You're kidding.You attacked him back?"

 I laugh.

 "I didn't have to.He walked into a desk and then into the door - and then he fell downstairs."Relief and delayed shock makes me laugh even more.

 Lauren is deadly serious.

 "Charlie, this isawful. You've got to get out of this. Let's call the police and tell them. I don'twant you going to that office tomorrow. It's not safe." She stops for a moment."This puts a whole new perspective on the Guy and Piers thing, doesn't it?Perhaps they've been..."

 "Murdered?"I say. And then I burst out laughing.

 "What's the matterwith you? It's not funny."

 "No, sorry, it'snot. Perhaps I'm still in shock or something."

 She stands up and looksthoughtful.

 "Look, I think youshould keep away from this whole thing. It's doing you no good."

 "I just want to tryand sort it out."

 "Charlie, it's beyondthat. Can't you see?"

 "Look what it's doingto your image. Who's going to employ you as a model - or anything else? - afterthis publicity."

 She's right in a way.As always. But there is one very strong argument against her: "Babe, I'm adirector. I've signed cheques. My dad says...my dad says that if someone could provethat I was negligent or dishonest I could be prosecuted. I could be in big shit."

 She looks horrified.

 "But you haven'tdone anything wrong, have you? Have you?"

 "No, of course not.Well, I've been spending money but we all have. Piers and Guy told us to."I wonder how that would stand up in court. I'm sick of thinking about it so I ask:"How did it go with Peter tonight?"

 Lauren is still staringintently at me.

 "Peter?" shesays. "Okay. Yeah, fine. There's a new proposal he's got in with the At Homechannel for a DIY makeover thing."

 "Sounds interesting,"I say, staring at the fire place.

 "Should be.""Tell me about it." "The idea is that a decorator does over someone'shouse while a celebrity chef cooks them dinner."

 I smile.

 "Great. And whatdid you do tonight?"

 "We went to the studioagain. Peter wanted me to work on my technique."

 I smirk.

 "And is he pleasedwith your technique?"

 "Yes". She pauses."What's so funny?"

 "Oh, nothing."I feel her watching me. "Why don't you show me your technique?"

 There is another pauseand she says: "I just don't understand you anymore, Charlie".

A few moments later the spare duvet and a couple of pillows aredelivered in silence.

I sleep fitfully on the settee. The Couch of Correction, as Sarahcalls it when she makes Mark sleep there. I don't feel particularly redeemed thenext morning, though. I finally get up about seven, have a quick wash and shaveand get the tube back to the office, taking in a cappuccino and an almond croissantfrom the cafe next door.

 I let myself in and stareat the spreadsheets again. Lauren's right. It's hopeless. Names, amounts and datesare all neatly laid out. I recognise quite a few of them. Sir Josh Langdon, of course,and some other pop stars plus some big names from the City, some designers and theatrepeople but so what? It doesn't explain where the money actually is, does it? Whenthe post arrives, as well as the usual Final Demands and Invitations to luxury goodslaunches there are two banks statements - one from a bank in Monaco (over drawnto the tune of a few hundred thou), the other from a bank in the Cayman Islands(In credit. Whoopee. £13.47).

 I'm just putting thesein a pile when the phone rings.

 "Could I speak toMr Barrett, please," says a gruff male voice. I curse myself for picking itup.

 "Speaking."

 "Oh, good morning,Mr Barrett, this is Detective Inspector Slapton from the Metropolitan Police. Iwondered if I could talk to you about the disappearance of your colleagues."

 "Yes, of course.Well, I'm around at the office all of today."

 "Okay, shall we makeit, let me see, 11?"

 "That's fine withme." I give them the address. "Have you got any news about them, then?"

 "About their whereabouts?No."

 "Oh, I've also readyspoken to someone in your office."

 "Have you? Whichoffice?"

 "Missing Persons?"

 "Eh? Oh, sorry, no,I'm not Missing Persons," he says. "I'm from the Fraud Squad."

I've warned Scarlett and Zac that the police will be coming overand might want to talk to them. Zac shrugs and nods. Scarlett says 'Oh, OK"and then takes something out of her desk, leaves the room with it and a few momentslater we hear the lavatory flushing.

 Somehow that would havebeen the least of our worries.

I also tell them about being attacked.

 "I think none ofus should be in the office on our own, well, neither of you," I say, hopingI sound braver than I feel.

 Scarlett is looking atmy face.

 "What did he do then?"

 "He didn't hit mein the face but he punched me in the chest."

 "Break any ribs?"

 "No, well, I don'tthink so."

 "Oh, not seriousthen."

 "Scarlett, I wasn'tactually beaten to a pulp," I say. My masculine pride seems to be getting roughedover worse now than I was last night. "But they might come back for more. Thatwas obviously just a warning."

 "OK," she says,clearly unimpressed. "Gonna tell the filth?"

Detective Inspector Slapton and two younger colleagues arrivedead on 11am. We shake hands and I suggest that we sit at the settee and armchairsin one corner of the office. Scarlett offers to make us some coffee. The older policemancan't hide his disdain for her red dreadlocks, purple shades and leopard skin miniskirt,while the colleague looks up at her in awe.

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