Disclaimers: I really don't like long disclaimers, so here's a brief one. There's angst. Maybe sex between persons of the same sex. Maybe violence. Did I mention angst? Semicolons; but blame Barbara Davies for those. That's all.
The Rolls Royce seemed to glide into the small courtyard. It came to a halt outside one of the black glossed doors, and the engine was silenced.
The front door opened and a smartly uniformed man walked around the front of the car and then to the rear passenger door, opening it.
A moment later an exquisitely dressed woman unfolded herself from the rear seat. She stood a moment, straightening her coat, which was, in fairness, still in perfect order.
"Thank you Jonathan," she said, reaching back into the car for her handbag. "I should only be a few minutes."
"Madam," the chauffeur acknowledged, bowing slightly at the waist. He pushed the door closed and went back to his place in the front of the car.
Marianna Holbrook-Sutherland, or to give her title Lady Collingford, keyed in the number she knew would give her access to her daughter's small abode. The dark-haired woman pulled her coat closer about her, warding off the extreme cold of the English December day.
She had called her daughter on the journey to the small town house in Kensington that she and her husband Lord Collingford had bought their daughter. After receiving no more than a grunt from her youngest child, she knew she was in for a struggle to rouse her.
Joanna Holbrook-Sutherland was their youngest child. They expected nothing of her and she didn't disappoint by exceeding their expectations. Joanna had spent the last few years of her life enjoying the privilege of title and wealth, with her parents' approval.
Their son, Jeremy, heir to the family title, ran the huge house that was the family seat in Cumbria. It opened from April to September to the public, and in that time Marianna and her husband lived in London. Their eldest daughter, Olivia, had married the head of a large corporation, and now lived in Seattle.
Joanna had shown no ambition to marry or to make a career for herself. She was content to party, to shop, and to break the record for visiting every alcohol-dispensing establishment in London.
Marianna made her way up the short flight of stairs to the living quarters. The small courtyard had once been home to half a dozen stables. They had been bought some ten years previously and converted to luxury living accommodation. The lower level housed a good-sized garage, with a small laundry room behind. Upstairs were two further levels, with the lounge and large kitchen/diner on one level and two good sized bedrooms and a large bathroom in the roof.
Joanna knew she recognised the voice that was becoming increasingly annoying. She turned onto her back, shielding her eyes as her mother pulled the cord and opened the blind that was across the window in the roof.
Marianna regarded her youngest daughter. The telephone was still held in one hand, resting on the pillow beside the dark head.
Joanna had inherited her father's height and blue eyes and her mother's Greek colouring, which made for an interesting and stunning mix.
"Joanna, dear. There's a strange woman on your futon."
Blue eyes blinked at her from beneath the duvet. "What does she look like?" Marianna strained to hear the muffled voice of her daughter.
"Really, Joanna." Marianna tutted and sat on the edge of the bed. She looked at her daughter and then at her watch.
"Am I forgetting something?" asked the sleepy woman; she eased herself to a sitting position, her back resting against the headboard.
"Really Joanna," she said again, the phrase becoming a favourite. "I told you last week. I'm hosting an exhibition of Charles DeBurgh's photography at 'The Gallery'."
`The Gallery` had been Lord Collingford's gift to his wife when she complained of boredom. She had hosted exhibitions, parties, and fashion shows at the venue, and it had become one of the fashionable places to be seen in.
"And you're telling me this.... why?" asked the younger woman, reaching for the half-finished glass of orange juice on the bedside cabinet.
Marianna stood so quickly, Joanna jumped, spilling some of the juice across her chest.
"Really, Joanna." The phrase actually made the girl wince this time. "You promised you would make an appearance this time." She stood in front of the mirror, taking in her own appearance. Giving a small nod, she turned back to her daughter. "I want to show you off, dear, is that so terrible?"
Joanna sighed and scrubbed at her face. She looked at the clock on the cabinet beside the bed. It showed that it was 8.32am; she'd had four hours sleep.
"I'll wait in the car for you, dear." She opened the door to the bedroom but turned back before leaving the room. Joanna was out of bed now, and her mother took in the lean form of her youngest child. "A little blonde."
Joanna had just pulled a towelling robe on. "What?" she asked.
"The girl on the futon." She gave her daughter a lopsided smile, something the younger woman had inherited from her. "I see your tastes haven't changed."
Half an hour later, Joanna was sitting next to her mother in the back of the Rolls.
"You're twenty-four, Jo." Marianna had been quiet for a good twenty minutes. She'd sighed deeply when it had taken her daughter nearly half an hour to appear through her front door. Though she appreciated that the younger woman looked stunning in a little black dress with a hemline that reached mid thigh. She wore a thick black coat over it, and black stilettos that added to her already imposing height. Her long dark hair fell loose about her shoulders.
Joanna ignored her mother and watched the passing buildings, occasionally catching the gaze of the chauffeur in the rear view mirror. He winked at her.
"Your point is?" Joanna said after another long period of silence.
Marianna patted her daughter on her thigh. "Your father and I have always done everything we can for you. You know that, don't you?"
Joanna turned to face her mother. "Yes, you have. And yes, I know it, and I'm grateful" There was a wariness in her voice.
Marianna pursed her lips. "Who was that girl, Joanna? Another of your conquests?"
Jo shrugged. "I suppose so." She smiled. "Why?"
"Are you happy...... the way you are?"
The laugh that exploded from Jo's throat, startled her mother and caused Jonathan's eyes to switch from the road to the rear view mirror.
"'The way I am'. What the hell's that supposed to mean?" She ran a hand through long hair, another habit she shared with her mother.
"This life you lead, dear. It seems so..... empty."
"Jon, stop the car," she called to the driver. He looked for confirmation to the older woman.
"Drive on, Jonathan."
Joanna slumped back in her seat. "Mother, I'm not looking for a permanent relationship right now. I'm quite happy. I have friends, I have my family. I have no ambition to find a good man, which I know is what you're expecting from me."
The older woman was quiet for a moment. "This.... phase you're going through."
"I've told you before, it's not a phase. I'm not going to wake one morning and have an overwhelming desire to find me a husband. I told you when I was eighteen that I preferred the company of women. Lots of women. That isn't going to change anytime soon."
"I only thought...."
"Well don't, Mother, you could be dangerous."
Marianna decided to drop the subject. For now.
The gallery doors opened at 10am, and Joanna was there beside her mother to welcome the invited throng into the fashionable venue.
By noon, the small gallery was heaving with the young, famous, and hangers on.
Joanna turned when she heard her name being called. And her relief was evident when she saw her friend pushing her way towards her through the crowd. She smiled easily, seeing the tousled blonde head and the wide grin of the woman coming towards her.
"Harry, I'm so glad you made it." She bent and embraced her friend.
Harriet James was the daughter of her father's business partner.
"They wouldn't let me in; you didn't leave my name on the door."
Joanna shook her head. "I forgot. Four hours sleep," she explained.
"Yeah, I saw you leave. Good night?" asked Harry, grinning up at her taller friend.
Joanna put an arm across the shorter woman's shoulders. "You know me," she whispered into her ear. "Come on, let's get a drink."
They managed to find a quiet corner with a small sofa, and both collapsed into it with a glass of Bucks fizz each.
"So what's this all about?" Harry asked, indicating the milling crowd with her glass.
"Mother's latest discovery." Jo looked through the crowd. "There." She pointed to a tall willowy man, deep in conversation with two women. "That's Charles DeBurgh; she thinks he's the next David Bailey or something."
"So what does he photograph?"
Jo shook her head. "No idea."
Choking on Bucks fizz is not the most attractive look, as Harry discovered. "You've been here for two hours and you haven't looked at the bloody pictures?" she managed, after she'd recovered.
Jo was leaning back against the arm of the sofa, keeping her drink out of the range of her coughing friend. She shrugged.
"Come on, let's go see." Harry stood and hauled her friend to her feet.
Joanna stood in front of the first set of pictures. "Oh...My...God."
"What?" Harry walked over from the photos she was looking at to see what Joanna was finding so interesting.
"I can't believe my Mother dragged me out of a perfectly good bed on a Saturday morning to look at pictures of..." she leaned closer, peering at the black-and-white pictures, then straightened up and turned to face her friend, "...vagrants."
"I guess it's what they call art," said Harry, and peered at a picture.
"No, art is the body that I left back on my futon."
"That was as far as we got."
"And you left her there?"
"Not my fault if she lost the ability to walk." Joanna looked pleased with herself. "I have a reputation to uphold."
Harry chuckled, and both women enjoyed a moment of silence as they studied the photos.
Jo moved ahead and turned a corner, looking at a set of pictures that were on another wall. Harry caught up with her. "I really don't see the attraction of a picture that shows some guy sitting in a pool of vomit," said the shorter woman.
"Jo?" she said, when she received no reply.
Joanna was staring at a picture, and Harry went to stand beside the taller woman. The picture her friend was looking at was one of the larger ones in the display. The subject was a woman, no more than a girl, from what Harry could make out. Some sort of scarf was about the girl's neck, partially covering her chin. The lips were full, but unsmiling. But it was the eyes that were so striking, even though the picture was a black-and-white portrait. The eyes stared unrelentingly from the picture, almost defiantly. Blonde hair fell haphazardly across the girl's forehead, just reaching her eyelids.
"Makes you realise how lucky we are," said Harry without looking up.
When she received no answer, she looked up at the angular profile of her friend. "Jo?"
The taller woman turned towards her. Joanna saw her friend, saw her lips moving, but couldn't hear the noise that Harry was obviously making. Then Harry's face seemed to grow smaller and smaller, and blackness encroached from the edge of her vision.
Harry tried to grab her friend when she saw Jo's knees buckle, but the taller woman's weight bore them both to the ground.
She watched in horrified fascination as Jo's head fell back against her arm. Harry was aware of people rushing to see what was happening, but she just heard a whisper from her friend as she lost consciousness.
Back to the Academy