Jennifer Howze is a social media consultant and former Times journalist. Her work focuses on life writing and short stories. A native Texan, she moved to London from New York. Her essays and articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers in the UK and the U.S. and shewrites about family travel with flair on her blog Jenography.net.
The Kensington & Chelsea Women’s Club
The rain had stopped by the time Elise exited Holland Park station. The darkening evening smelled damp and sweet. People were ducking in and out of shops along the leafy street, buying bottles of wine for dinner or picking up last-minute groceries. Her copy of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance was heavy in her well-worn work bag, and as she turned off the main road onto a side street, her eyes lingered on a smart young man selecting artichokes at a greengrocer. In her neighbourhood, miles away now, people were buying cans of cider and Greggs meat pies. Elise glanced at her watch and quickened her pace. Her heels clacked on the shiny wet pavement, as she progressed from rectangle to rectangle of golden lamplight spilling from the windows she passed. Tonight Jane was hosting Evening Book Group and she didn’t want to be late.
Elise had joined The Kensington & Chelsea Women’s Club at the suggestion of a fellow expatriate at the newspaper, despite living 45 minutes from either borough. The gritty neighbourhood where she and her English husband had bought a house was south of the river. It would soon be up and coming – that’s what they told each other.
Once a month she took a Tube north to discuss novels and socialise with other Americans. Evening Book Group was just one of the monthly events organised by KCWC. Most of the others – Reiki workshops, Mayfair gallery tours, gluten-free cooking demonstrations – ran during the day, when Elise was inserting commas and correcting misspellings at The Times. Big newspaper, small job.
‘It’s nice to be around other Americans sometimes,’ her colleague had said. ‘Life here can be exhausting.’ Indeed. Elise was determined to live not as an expat but as a true Brit, assimilating, settling. She observed what the natives around her ate, how they spoke, what they read and watched on telly. She wanted to avoid at all costs the trap of doing American things, the American way, with other Americans. Yet sometimes she grew weary of attending dinner parties with her husband’s friends, pretending to know the people they referenced, laughing at jokes she didn’t understand. Being around other Americans helped. They were in the same boat.
Except these women weren’t really in the same boat. She’d realised that immediately. They were support spouses, following husbands from the States and spending their days organising the nanny, the house, the corporate dinners and the family holidays. Elise had left work on Friday in New York and started her new job on Oxford Street on Monday. She and her husband mostly stayed in and ate pasta. A Ugandan childminder looked after their baby.
But oh to be admitted to the homes of these women! In the U.S. their paths would never have crossed. Here, Elise was welcomed every month to another well-appointed home in a clean-swept quarter of town. It was a kind of entertainment to her, to see how they chose to live.
Rachel, a cherubic thirtysomething blonde, hosted the discussion for The Help by Kathryn Stockett at her bijoux mews house in South Kensington. Everything about her home was adorable, from the potted pastel flowers by the door to the wrought iron juliet balcony to the kitten-soft grey love seats. You could have pinched the cheeks of the entire place.
For Julian Barnes’s Snobs, the ladies nibbled finger sandwiches in Marianne’s brightly lit Belgravia sitting room. They perched on furniture that was covered in fuchsia and cream striped silk. Like a waiter’s uniform in an ice cream parlour.
The bottles these women pulled from their wine refrigerators were always better than the one Elise brought. The canapés – dolcelatte on polenta cakes, cherry peppers stuffed with prosciutto – came catered from upscale delis. ‘This is the kind of life I deserve,’ Elise would think, popping a smoked ducked spring roll into her mouth or sipping a straw-coloured pinot grigio. In fact, she felt she deserved it more than these women, who took their bounty for granted.
As time went on, Elise became aware that the thing she most fixated on during these evenings – that made her both love and loathe the group – was this unashamedly Yankee approach to life in the UK, buttressed by wealth. The strange food, curious customs, bizarre schooling traditions – it was all interesting to them, undertaken in good fun and utterly temporary. After London it might be Doha or Singapore or Hong Kong or Tokyo, where they would once again enroll the children, organise dinners, manage the house. So they lived like tourists, play-acting at being English. For Lady’s Day at Ascot, they all bought hats and watched the races together. They attended lectures by Earl Spencer. They went on garden tours. She wouldn’t have been surprised if they visited local farms dressed as shepherdesses.
Their homes had a similar frivolity. On that December evening at Rachel’s mews house, Elise had been drawn to the small Christmas tree posed in an alcove. Like everything else – Rachel included – it looked perfect.
‘Your tree is gorgeous,’ Elise had breathed. She tended to speak this way at book group.
‘Aren’t they great ornaments?’ Rachel had called from the kitchen, tossing her hair as she arranged portabello tartlets on a platter. ‘I got them from Liberty and I just adore them.’
When she stepped closer, Elise had seen the exact contours of the red, silver and gold ornaments. They were tiny replicas of London icons: telephone boxes, double-decker buses, scarlet Minis, palace guards. The tree was covered from top to trunk with them. They were so stylish, so sweet, and so very wrong. She couldn’t help smirking. No Brit I know would ever have a tree like this. It belonged in a department store, not the sitting room of someone living in the city of telephone boxes, double-decker buses and palace guards.
Another hostess, Catherine (white stuccoed five-bedroom house near Regents Park) kept a collection of bone china teacups, arranged just so on a side table. The delicate cups and saucers were decorated with pastoral scenes, roses, ornate curved leaves. Their rims were scalloped with real gold. The display might as well have had a placard saying, ‘Observe, the many iterations of the British teacup.’
‘I’ve started collecting these,’ Catherine had said when one of the others complimented the collection. ‘You know how they love tea here. One of the designs dates from the 1770s!’ The women had murmured their appreciation, nodding.
‘Except no one drinks out of teacups,’ Elise had said with a laugh, aloud this time. ‘Everyone drinks tea out of mugs.’ She had cocked her head at the other women clustered around the exhibit, giving them a suppressed smile. After all, she was more British than any of them, with her English husband and work visa. They corners of their mouths had moved up politely, but they’d said nothing in response.
Just last month, in a four-storey house in Kensington, Elise had seen a commemorative tea towel for Prince William’s wedding framed in the kitchen. Framed, for goodness sake! Just looking at it had made her embarrassed for the hostess. I wonder what her British friends think of it, she had thought. If she has any British friends.
* * *
The Google voice on Elise’s phone, set to a crisp British accent, piped up: ‘You have arrived.’ She was standing on the corner of two wide streets, but which house was it? She wandered a few steps down one road, then the other, before she realised. Jane’s house was the behemoth dominating the entire corner. Driveway gates blocked the walkway to the front doors. After a few more minutes of searching, she spotted an unassuming door around the side – the servants’ entrance, perhaps? – and rang the bell. Jane opened the door in a sweeping gesture.
‘Elise, come in! You’re just in time. We’re all upstairs.’ A consummate hostess, she made it sound like they had been waiting for Elise all along.
Even among this group of pampered women, Jane’s privilege wafted about her like a particularly intoxicating perfume. She strode into rooms like a high priestess, her luxurious red hair framing her face like a headdress. Her wardrobe of elegant tunics, cigarette trousers and flats whispered affluence. Set against this was a frank American manner with a pealing confident laugh. Like the others, she would goodnaturedly complain about London – the bureaucracy of the TV license fee or the dearth of US-style food. ‘Where’s the decent deep-dish pizza? Where’s the Tex-Mex?’ Jane would ask in mock outrage and everyone would nod in agreement. Everyone was always nodding in agreement to what Jane said.
She led Elise up a narrow staircase to a first floor sitting room, where the women sat around the coffee table, each with a copy of the book in their hands or on their laps. The lighting was dim and theatrical. Elise took in the heavy silk shantung drapes in ecru, the wooden antiques. In the low light every one of these women, already well-groomed, appeared breathtakingly handsome.
Elise recognised several of them. Sarah from Philadelphia had children in the American school. Elise had once asked her about the benefit of following the American system and been stuck listening for a quarter hour about high school versus A-levels. Susanna, sitting two seats away, took her kids back to San Diego during the school holidays – everyone was always complimenting her tan. Eve, with her back to the door, used to run the Daytime Book Group before taking time out to train as a Bikram instructor. There was also Lily, the stunning Japanese-Canadian from New York. She was always full of stories about the conversational French group or Tuesday Tennis Club.
Several months ago Elise had seen Lily at a flat in Marylebone (a maisonette next to Paddington Street Gardens; they’d read Great Expectations served with brown rice sushi). Several of the woman had been talking about another horseracing outing, the Epsom Downs Derby.
‘I can’t decide whether to buy a new dress or wear something I already have. If I buy one, maybe I can use it for other races. But, then, I might want a different style,’ Lily was saying. She had reached up to toy with one of her pearl earrings, the size of small marbles.
A woman standing next to Lily with a pointy chin had exclaimed, ‘I think it sounds fun! Dressing up, wearing a hat, drinking Champagne.’
Elise had been milling near them and joined the discussion in high spirits. ‘Just make sure your dress doesn’t show your tattoo!’ she’d said teasingly.
‘Sorry?’ Lily had said, turning toward her with a polite smile. Her lipstick was perfect against her white teeth.
‘Oh, just that, so many people wear those terrible shiny mini dresses that show their thigh tattoos.’ Elise had taken a sip of wine, warming to the topic. ‘We went last year with my husband’s work and it was pretty bad – everyone drunk by 1 o’clock. There was actually a man in black tie being sick in the Queen’s Enclosure.’ Elise’s group had left soon after that, retreating to a pub and marvelling at how coarse the whole affair was. ‘It’s kind of a grim scene.’
‘I’ll keep that in mind,’ Lily had said pleasantly. Then louder, ‘Excuse me,’ and she’d taken a few steps to strike up conversation with Jane. There had been an awkward pause. The pointy woman had looked down at her glass, taken a sip, cast her eyes sideways.
Here in Jane’s sitting room, the only seat left was next to Lily. Elise approached with what she hoped looked like confidence.
‘Hi, Lily. May I sit here?’
The brunette turned to her. Was her lipstick ever not perfect? ‘Hi, Elise. Of course, sit down.’ That sounded OK, Elise thought. Maybe I just imagined something was wrong last time. Now Lily was introducing her to the woman on her other side.
‘This is Elise.’ Lily shot her a look with a smirk. ‘She’s the one who thinks Derby Day is tacky.’
Elise smiled and bent to get the book out of her bag, letting the competing conversations in the room wash over her.
I loved it but it was so heartbreaking in the end…
They’re talking about sending Peter to Dubai for 3 months…
If you go you must stay in one of the villas. They are so much nicer than the suites…
She settled back into the sofa’s marshmallowy depths. Immediately she was almost swallowed. When she leaned back onto the rear cushions, her feet dangled in front of her like a child’s. She lumbered up from its doughy embrace and balanced on the seat edge.
‘Ladies, shall we get started?’ Jane said, bringing the group to order. ‘Please do help yourself to nibbles.’ She gestured to the platters with miniature fish cakes, foie gras mousse on toast, prawn and chorizo skewers. Elise forced herself to wait until another woman reached for one first. As the discussion got underway, the area between Elise’s shoulders began to ache from her awkward pose. She attempted to casually lean back, this time keeping her feet on the floor. Now she was semi-reclining, like a pasha awkwardly surveying his harem. She pulled herself up to sitting again. As she did so, an item on the large desk to her right caught her eye. An 18-inch glass dome covered some kind of exhibit. It was hard to tell exactly what it was – some kind of animal? While the women started on questions someone had downloaded from the Internet, Elise found her eyes darting back to it over and over. At last the group paused to refill their wine glasses and go to the bathroom. Elise sprang from the sofa for a better look.
Under the glass stood a bird of prey, head cocked slightly to one side. Its yellow-gold eye peered sharply at Elise. One of its talons gripped a small bird.
‘Jane,’ she said, raising a finger to signal to the hostess. ‘Excuse me, but what’s this?’
Jane walked over. ‘It’s a sparrowhawk,’ she said, matter-of-factly.
‘Yes, but…’ Elise considered how to put the question, ‘…why do you have it?’
‘Oh, my husband collects them.’
‘He collects stuffed animals?’ The minute she said it, she heard how it sounded. As if Jane’s hedge-fund husband had a penchant for plush toys.
Jane gave her an indulgent smile. ‘Victorian taxidermy. He’s gotten interested in it since we moved here.’ She gestured to shelves between the soaring windows at the far end of the room. ‘He has some amazing pieces. They really say something to me as well.’
The two women took a few steps toward the shelves and Elise realised the sparrowhawk, for all its savage beauty, was hardly the most impressive specimen. The book group had been watched all night by more than half a dozen beady-eyed animals, about to commit some act of violence or posed as if for a portrait. In one, a weasley animal clutched a rabbit and bared its tiny teeth. In another, a full-sized swan appeared to float on the water, its paddling feet visible in a cross section beneath the waterline.
‘The good ones are quite dear, real collectors’ items,’ Jane said.
‘They’re…amazing…’ Elise said, fascinated.
‘That’s the prize one,’ Jane responded, pointing to the top of a bookcase behind them. If the other exhibits were impressive, this one was awe-inspiring. A case two feet high and three feet long held a fearsome owl, its wings outspread, its talons curled. Here was a predator in full force. Below it, on a log, sat a mouse peering out at the viewer. Its fur looked soft and the expression on its face: clueless. In the next moment, its fate would arrive, inevitable and inescapable.
Elise’s mouth fell open. ‘Wow!’
‘I know. Isn’t it fantastic?’ Jane said, her eyes bright, her smile gorgeous. She turned to Elise.
‘It’s quite macabre but I think that’s why I like it.’ She fixed Elise with a gaze no less piercing than that of the sparrowhawk. ‘The Victorians were onto something – it’s Darwinian. There are owls and there are mice and that’s just what has to happen.’
As Elise contemplated this, Jane checked her watch, then turned towards the low table, where several women were putting out miniature brownies and lemon tartlets. ‘Shall we resume the discussion?’ she asked. Later, after each person in turn had shared their opinion, and next month’s book was agreed (Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth), the conversation wound down. They began to rise, picking up their Hermes and Mulberry bags and carrying the empty platters to the kitchen where the housekeeper would wash them in the morning.
In the bathroom, Elise checked her makeup and marvelled at the bizarre but arresting taxidermy. It made her consider Jane — and all these women — in a new light. She had thought their only connection was national camaraderie. That had been too hasty. Yes, they did a lot of the touristy things. Then again their time here was shorter than Elise’s. She had to admit, she had always wanted to go to the horse races with a group of gals. It seemed a shame not to have even seen Buckingham Palace.
And just how many of these women were like Jane, with fascinating personal passions? What were their private pastimes? Perhaps even the teacup collection was interesting in its own way, she thought, as the wine continued to work its blurry magic. As Elise came out of the loo, she stepped almost immediately into Lily and two other women.
‘It’s tea with the Viscountess Hampden, then a tour of Glynde Park, the ancestral home,’ Lily was saying. She stopped as her eyes caught Elise’s.
Another woman – Carol, maybe? – took up the thread. ‘I’ve heard there are some great concerts there and a wine festival. It just received the Sotheby’s Restoration Award, too.’ They seemed to know all about this minor royal, this house. Elise had never heard of it. Carol-ish continued. ‘We’ll get to see some of the family rooms, too.’
A tour of a grand manor by a viscountess? On impulse, Elise spoke up. ‘That sounds like so much fun! Is there still room in the group?’
The three looked at her with surprise. There was a small pause. Lily recovered most quickly. ‘I thought you couldn’t go to things during the day. I mean,’ she glanced at the other women, ‘didn’t you say you were too busy to attend daytime events? It’s next Thursday during the day.’
As Elise opened her mouth, Jane appeared. ‘Next Thursday? I hope you’re talking about Glynde Park. I’m arranging it and it’s going to be fabulous!’
Lily’s fixed smile swung toward their hostess. ‘Elise was just saying she wanted to come too.’
‘Oh really?’ Jane responded, raising her eyebrows. She smiled in her elegant way, as if nothing would delight her more. ‘That would be lovely. Just email and I’ll send you the details.’ Then the look on her face altered, ever so slightly. ‘Although, there is a list we had to submit in advance. For security.’
‘That’s fine,’ Elise replied. ‘Just let me know what information you need. I’ve never done one of these KCWC trips before.’ She was positively enthusiastic now. ‘What time will we meet? Do we travel up together?’
Lily’s phone has buzzed while Elise spoke, which prompted the others to reach for theirs too.
‘I’ll send you all the info,’ said Jane, with a wave of her hand as she moved toward the kitchen, where several women were looking for a place to set down platters.
‘Great, great!’ Elise said, feeling almost elated at the prospect. She could take the day off and be a tourist for once. ‘Well, bye, all,’ she said to the group, starting towards the stairs. Lily glanced up and nodded before continuing her text.
‘Bye,’ the two others chorused as they resumed tapping and swiping. Elise glanced toward the kitchen to say thank you to the hostess, but she was busy chatting, moving plates and glasses. Never mind. They would speak during the week.
* * *
Jane’s response to Elise’s Monday morning email sketched out the details: They would meet on the concourse at Victoria station and catch the train together, then share taxis from the station. ‘Just let me know if you’d like to come.’ Elise had fired back a second note straightaway. Yes, she would be there.
She shouldn’t have, but she bought a new dress. The inexpensive cotton fabric was smartened up by the style: a pretty full skirt and fitted bodice. She’d delved deep into the jewellery box for the pearl earrings, the size of ball bearings, that her mother had given her for high school graduation. All in all, she felt quite smart. Waiting in front of the destination board, amid the knots of people watching for platform announcements, she positively had butterflies.
As the minutes ticked by she checked her watch more frequently. 9:57. 10:03.
‘10:15 in front of the board, by Accessorize,’ were Jane’s instructions.
Elise ran her thumb over the perforations on the stiff edge of her ticket and scanned the crowd. Funny how she didn’t see anyone from the group waiting. Not Lily, not the Carol woman….
Suddenly she saw them. They were moving across the other side of the concourse, sweeping through the crowd towards her. With relief she spotted Jane’s crown of red hair at the front. Elise smiled. She raised her hand to signal them and looked up to check the board. Platform 12. 10:09. Just enough time to go through, find seats, get settled on the 10:15. She should have known Jane would have impeccable timing.
When she glanced back, the group was angling toward the gates. Elise started toward them. Did they think she was already on the train?
‘Jane!’ she called. A family with suitcases and a pushchair trundled past, blocking her way. As she moved to get round them, the board flicked up the time of another departing train. Suddenly the concourse was in motion, a torrent of people swarming around her, hurrying to get through. ‘Jane,’ she said a bit louder. They were further away than she thought.
The group continued walking, not looking around, not looking for her – had they all met somewhere else? Had she missed an email? Then they were filing through the gates, each slipping in their tickets, the gates opening with a beep, through to the other side. Lily said something and they all laughed. Elise was too far away to hear it.
Now Elise was hurrying too – ‘Jane! Lily!’ She didn’t want to scream but she was about to be left behind. Didn’t they realise? And then, and then it was too late. They were striding up the platform, a glossy, attractive group – happy, excited, on the way to tea with the Viscountess. Elise’s steps slowed. How could she join them now? She imagined going from car to car looking for them. The surprise on their faces, the slow recognition. The apologies for not meeting her on the concourse and explanations for the alternative arrangements. Maybe they’d say, ‘We all stopped at the Starbucks across the road…’ Or perhaps there would be no apologies. Just the humiliating pause while she looked for a seat nearby. They would all be smiling and saying words of welcome, professing to be glad she had persevered and joined them. Jane would pull out her phone and say nonchalantly, ‘I just have to make sure we’re all on the list,’ and everyone would know that last-minute arrangements were being made so Elise would be admitted. These well-brought-up American women would try to put her at ease and act like everything was just as it should be. But the truth would be obvious to them all.
10:13. There was no use now. Elise stopped. As people flowed around her, moving purposefully towards their destinations, she swallowed against the rock in her throat. The fingernail she’d been running down the edge of her ticket now dug determinedly into the tip of her middle finger. She didn’t want to spill over here in the middle of Victoria Station in a new dress and the whole day off work. Perhaps it was just a mix-up and they would laugh ruefully about it later. No, she wouldn’t cry here on the concourse in front of the departures board. She could definitely make it home before that.
– END –