The gleaming bridal carriage with its plumes and ducal coat of arms drew up outside the Abbey's Great West Door. Alexa, helped out by liveried footmen, glided into the cool gloom of the ancient cathedral.
T he Bach cantata coming from the great organ could barely be heard above the murmur of the crowd. The place was packed. Royalty was present, as well as nobles and notables from several counties around. Adding a particularly decorative touch were the friends of the bride and groom, the cream of the young London set of whom Alexa and her fiancé were the leaders. These occupied several pews in the middle of the nave, seats spilling over with long brown legs in short pale dresses and tumbling hair gleaming from the attentions of monogrammed silver hairbrushes and the best colourists in Chelsea.
Alexa wafted gracefully past in her long white satin dress. It was cut close to her slender figure and its neckline was demure, the better to show off the anything-but-demure gems above it. The diamond necklace had stones the size of apricots, and a pair of matching enormous peardrops sparkled at her ears. Brought back by an ancestor who had been Viceroy of India, the celebrated parure contained some of the biggest gems outside the Crown Jewels. As Alexa passed beneath one of the medieval stained-glass windows, a rainbow shaft of light set the necklace and earrings ablaze with an almost painful brilliance.
Shutting her eyes against the dazzle, Alexa could see the facets imprinted on her retinas.
She glanced ahead, to the altar. There stood the man of her dreams, the man she had all her life longed to marry. He was no oil painting, but his family owned a lot of them. They had Holbeins, Rembrandts and a Raphael, all of which he would one day inherit, along with an enormous and very ornate Victorian ancestral home bristling with towers, turrets and heraldic beasts. The ancestral home, however, was only the beginning of it. He stood to inherit two additional piles, plus an estate in Scotland, a house on Mustique and a villa on Cap Ferrat. And money. Vast and unbelievable amounts of it. Alexa had estimated that he would, even after death duties, be worth £80 million when he gained the dukedom. And that was in cash – quite separate from the property...
The boom from Coronation Street coming up through the purple shagpile jerked Alexa out of her favourite daydream. The copy of Socialite magazine she had been perusing slid off the bedspread and hit the floor.
Coronation Street – how ironic was that? Anything further from a genuine coronation was impossible to imagine. Alexa grabbed Socialite off the carpet and tried to lose herself in the social pages again.
The sleepy Scottish village of Stovie didn't know what had hit it when 400 close friends of Highland beauty Tara Gussett private-jetted in for her wedding to mobile-phone heir Orlando Smellie. The bride arrived at Boggie Cathedral wearing the Gussett family tiara, which had been brought by her mother the Duchess of Skegness by sleeper from Monte Carlo. Then it was back to Gussett Castle for dinner courtesy of party planners Orgasm and dancing by Lord Caractacus Smallpiece's Doo- Wop-A-Doggy-Doo-Doo Band.
One of the bridesmaids, Alexa noticed, was a particularly beautiful, particularly lissom, particularly carefree-looking blonde whose name, according to the caption, was Lady Florence Trevorigus-Whyske-Cleethorpe.
She turned to the next page of Socialite; photographs of a society party covered the whole of the subsequent spread. Le tout jeune Belgravia turned out in force when titled twin Teutons Princesses Dodo and Fifi von Sauerkraut-Bogenfratzel held their joint twenty-first in the London Dungeon... Alexa looked gloomily at the pairs of bronzed aristocratic legs in couture miniskirts cavorting among the racks and executioner's blocks. She noticed that the longest, bronzest and most aristocratic of all belonged to a certain Lady Florence Trevorigus-Whyske- Cleethorpe. Her again.
Behind Lady Florence, evidently in hot pursuit, was a face Alexa recognised. It belonged to the son of a duke with whom she had been at university but upon whom she had singularly failed to make any impression. Lady Florence's face, however, betrayed no interest in who might be behind her; it was an absolute, beautiful blank. Alexa felt sick with envy.
In the small sitting room below – or the lounge, as they insisted on calling it – her parents sat transfixed by the latest events in working-class Manchester. There was the occasional boom of her father's laugh in response to some particularly salty televisual rejoinder. 'You tell 'er, Ken!' chimed in her mother. What was the point? Alexa stared miserably up at the paper ball shade that had been yellowish ten years ago and hadn't improved much with age. Far from it; it now looked more like a wasps' nest than ever. That shade had looked down on, had lit, so much of her youth.
Not just the dreaming she had done over magazines like Socialite, and her subsequent ambition to have one of the glossy lives contained within them, but the very real work she had put in to make it happen.
As the best universities obviously attracted the best people, Alexa had slaved over her A levels. And while she had missed Oxbridge, she had managed St Andrews, which had seemed more than fit for purpose. As a magnet for the upper classes, the place had form, and even if the biggest royal bag of all had been and gone, there were plenty of minor dukes and lords still littering the place.
Taking as her maxim that of the Boy Scouts – her interest in them otherwise being absolutely zero – Alexa went prepared. Money carefully hoarded from Christmas and birthday presents was equally carefully invested in elocution lessons. Answering an ad in a local newspaper entitled 'Lose Your Ey Up Accent' proved the gateway to a paradise of long 'a's and the reassurance of knowing that never again could she be tripped up by hidden assassins such as 'butcher' and 'bush'. While the lessons were kept a secret from her parents, the results could not be; her mother was mystified and her father openly annoyed. But it was not him, of course, that she was trying to impress.
As well as Socialite, her bible, Alexa devoured every etiquette manual she could lay her hands on for pointers about gracious living, absorbing like blotting paper the rules concerning not holding your knife like a pen, how to avoid taking someone else's bread roll by mistake and the rights and wrongs of powdering one's nose at the table. The final piece of the jigsaw was clothes; there was no point speaking and acting the part if you didn't look it, too. As designer shops were, especially after the elocution lessons, out of the question, Alexa devoted her energies to scouring eBay and built up a respectable collection of secondhand designer wear.
'I hardly recognise you,' Dad said disapprovingly, humping the luggage after her as she prepared to board the train to St Andrew's. And soon, she planned, he wouldn't recognise himself either; at university, when asked, Alexa would upgrade her father's job in a supermarket warehouse to 'commodities dealer'. Mum's part-time post in the chemist's shop, meanwhile, was repackaged as 'consultant to a cosmetics house'.
Things had gone well at first. As it was relatively straightforward during Freshers' Week to join the shooting, beagling and hunting groups and the most right-wing political societies, Alexa was soon running after small yappy dogs through muddy woods and pondering the finer points of Conservative policy. She soon realised, however, that politics did not interest her and shooting was not only harder than it looked, but even less enjoyable. Fortunately, this hardly mattered; Alexa had managed acceptance in a set who spent weekends in each other's country houses. Her calling card was her sexual availability; the warm and reliable welcome she gave to any titled corridor-creeper who happened to be passing her room, irrespective of whether he was attached, or even married. As many of them were, however, the women affected took action and eventually even the thickskinned Alexa realised that the nickname 'Sit Up And Beg', stuck above her pigeonhole, posted on her Facebook page and pinged through in anonymous text messages, might refer to a reputation as the university bike.
But again, it didn't matter, as by then her efforts had paid off in the unprepossessing but nonetheless titled shape of a stammering Border baronet called Sir Lancelot Ffogge. His own prospects were unspectacular – he was the penniless heir to a ruin – but he had the connections Alexa needed. The somewhat ironically named Sir Lancelot, so physically unlike his dashing namesake, was her 'starter' aristo; the boyfriend-cum-platform from which she would jump higher up the social tree.
'The bugger!' now boomed her father from downstairs, evidently in response to the TV again. In the room above, Alexa felt misery clench her concave stomach. Her mother had been concerned at her thinness on her return from university, but Alexa, used to picking at expensive morsels, was unable to eat the vast piles of mashed potatoes and sausages as thick as forearms, swimming in thick, viscous gravy, that were regularly plonked in front of her. 'You need feeding up,' her mother would chide in mid-chew from the other side of the sauce bottle.
It was a remark that filled Alexa with horror. There was nothing 'up' about feeding. The grand were rarely fat, the women, never.
Alexa had stuck with Sir Lancelot for the first year, but the second had brought promotion to the etiolated and freakishly tall Lord Atticus Pump. From him, Alexa planned a raid on a duke's son – until fate unhelpfully intervened. The relationship – and Pump's life – met a sudden end when, as high on crack as he was up the building, he fell out of a topfloor window at a party. Alexa's counter in the game of social snakes and ladders now slid down a python almost as long and thin as Lord Atticus himself.
This inconvenient setback had been reversed only when, out of sheer desperation, Alexa had at the start of the next term barged up to the richest fresher, a banking heir called Reinhardt Silverman, and introduced herself as his second-year mentor. His actual mentor was a bombastic member of the female rowing team called Caroline Squareside, but by the time Reinhardt, who was not very bright, and the even-less-so Caroline found out, Alexa had been mentoring him for some time in her own very special way. Her hopes of an engagement were high. Then the shocking news broke that Reinhardt's father had absconded with the contents of his financial management portfolio and was wanted by Interpol.
As Reinhardt fled and markets plunged all about her, Alexa was left only with her own wrecked dreams of riches. Worse still, as Reinhardt's conceit and appalling manners had alienated everyone whose acquaintance she had previously nurtured so carefully, she had become persona non grata. After three years of frantic social climbing, she was left right at the bottom with precisely nothing and no one.
Not even a degree; as studying had seemed irrelevant if she was going to marry Reinhardt, whose sexual demands had anyway precluded time in libraries, Alexa had failed her end-of-year exams. Back home she had come, her purse empty and her suitcase stuffed with tweed shooting suits and designer party outfits. She had had no money even for a cab home. Waiting at the railway station for her parents' battered Micra to come and collect her, she had restrained herself with difficulty from throwing herself under a passing express.
'Is anything wrong, Allison?' her mother kept turning to ask as they drove home. Alexa, in the dark safety of the back, shrank against the seat so the overhead street lights could not illumine the expression of utter misery that for once even she could not disguise.
Once home, she was tortured by the possibility of redemption, of email invitations, of friendly messages on Facebook. The upper classes had short memories – most of those she had known had no idea what day it was; perhaps, in her absence, she had been forgiven. Rehabilitated. But as her parents had no computer, she had to walk miles to the local library, where invariably the computers were out of order. Or else monopolised by tramps or tense men in baseball caps jiggling their legs agitatedly as they pounded the keys. If she managed to log on, there would be only spam in her inbox, while on the Facebook pages of those few who hadn't yet managed to unfriend her, she saw her former acquaintances falling out of exclusive nightclubs, hanging with the band at hip music festivals or playing drunken hide and seek at weekend house parties. None of which she was invited to, and obviously never would be again.
She would clench her fists with helpless envy at this glittering life she had once been so close to, but which now seemed further away than the moon.
Her social life these days consisted of sitting at the pine kitchen table opposite Dad with his mug of tea beside his brown-saucesmeared plate as he made sausage sandwiches with Mother's Pride. But at least he rarely spoke, being more involved in squinting at the distant – and always on – television. Mum, on the other hand, liked to pore over the local freesheet, and in particular the large adverts for coach trips it contained. But at least if she was weighing up the opposing merits of 'Lakeland Loveliness' and 'Dutch Bulb Field Spectacular', she wasn't asking about Reinhardt, who Alexa had mentioned briefly in a rare unguarded moment and whose fate she could not bring herself to speak of, any more than she could bring herself to acquaint her parents with her failure in the exams.
Death seemed the only option; having briefly, histrionically, considered suicide, Alexa realised that a demise was in fact necessary. Allison Donald must be killed off. Only then would the social disaster of university be eradicated. She would change her name, regroup, rebrand. Allison Donald would die and Alexa MacDonald rise from her ashes like a phoenix, smart-sounding in an untraceable, vague, castle-in-Scotland sort of way. She was pristine, full of potential and had never been called Sit Up And Beg. She was the future.
But where, otherwise, was this future? Alexa had no idea. Certainly it was not at home. Home was so small! Horribly, vilely small. There was barely a stride between the entrance to her room and the side of her bed with its hideous frilly bedspread. Oh, the bedrooms she had stayed in at weekend country house parties! Bedrooms where you walked for minutes on end from the wide, high entrance before encountering any inanimate object, often human, male and awaiting her services.
‘You should get out,’ Mum had advised at tea earlier this week. ‘You should meet up with someone your own age,’ she had added, looking up from perusing the delights of ‘Torbay and the English Riviera’. ‘An old friend from school, maybe. Do you good.’
School! Alexa had been too shocked to speak. After life in the social fast lane, the thought of her late, despised schoolfellows made her almost want to retch.
'I saw Mary Stevenson today,' Mum added. 'She says Polly's home.'
'Boz Eyes, you mean,' Alexa snarled, her lip remaining firmly curled.
Her mother's eyes widened behind her glasses. 'I didn't realise she'd changed her name as well. It's quite the fashion, isn't it? But – Boz Eyes...?' Mum looked puzzled.
'We used to call her that at school,' Alexa snapped. 'She squinted. Probably still does.'
As Mum chuntered on, Alexa tuned out, then suddenly tuned back in again.
'What did you say?' she demanded.
'I was just saying that Polly's at Oxford,' Mum repeated obligingly, frowning over 'Cream, Crabs and Coastline: A Cornish Cornucopia'.
Alexa stared, her mind's eye filling with pictures of dreamy spires, of carefree, well-heeled young men in white tie drinking champagne. Oxford! Old Boz Eyes had gone there? It was too bloody irritating to contemplate, except that, of course, it might be useful. A sly smile began to curve Alexa's thin lips. Mum, most unexpectedly and possibly unprecedentedly, was right. It might be worth seeing Polly. One never knew who she knew.
Lots of people she had cultivated had relatives at Oxford; there could be a way back in.