Helen amused herself away from the groping men abandoned by their gossiping wives by exploring the enormous cavern of chandeliers, European artwork and embroidered carpets.
Silver lanterns and candles hung from the ceiling in glittering chains, hanging like new money icicles over an orgy of silk drapes, pine trees sparkling with jewels and rows and rows of Chinese silk paper chains. The canapés were built in towering monuments of all of Europe — The Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, The Houses of Parliament — all perfectly reconstructed in paté and cheese and bread to symbolise Mr Enderberg’s European routes. The women’s petticoats were huge, flounced with layers and layers of crisp white silk that seemed to sing when it rustled. Each dress glimmered with gold thread and peacock feather trim, their hair smooth and hard with hairspray. And the brooches! So many bouquets and branches of opals, diamonds and emeralds Helen wondered how many were paste. Gold and silver-leaf fish swam in exotically coloured cocktails, and champagne dyed blue flowed coloured over a fountain surrounded by candles. None of the other guests seemed interested. Money can be a great anaesthetic to the wonders of our surroundings.
The musicians in the corner looked bored by the whole display, as if they had seen this ridiculous extravagance far too many times. The second violinist was far too talented to be slumped in the corner behind a plump smug-looking woman at a party for people who weren’t listening. He sadly played with the very tips of his fingers, eyes shut, as if wishing he was far, far away, beyond the clatter of flute glass and the howling blizzards outside, somewhere where someone heard. It was a sad tune, almost isolated in the bored quintet, some Hungarian melody she hadn’t heard before. Helen studied him carefully.
She liked looking. People were all books to her, some torn at the edges, some sealed or scribbled out in places, but all filled with mystery. Even the loudest, most raucous of the society ladies had some sad story to tell; from the mysterious death of her pet poodle at nine to the fact her Daddy secretly sold her dolls to pay a gambling debt, everyone had a little secret they hid behind their vacuous smiles. This violinist was a particular mystery: black hair scraped back to reveal pits of grey at the temples, hard weathered skin, but immaculate hands. A professional musician fallen on hard times? Or a man who had left everything to play the music he loved?
The sad sweet notes hung on the air, ringing off the glass lanterns above. They shook the chandelier ever so slightly, sending light flickering down like the snowflakes outside. Perhaps this is what Europe is like, Helen thought. Decadently beautiful but with a sweet aching sadness no one likes to talk about. Everyone was rich here, greedily gobbling up the city after the hunger of the war. They flittered about handing out cards for this and cards for that, until the floor was white with the confetti of disinterested contacts. Every mouth was full, noisily chewing and eating away while hurling out gossip, wine running from the corners of their mouths to be wiped away unwanted with cobalt napkins. The deserted children sat bored in the corner, tied up with red ribbon and uncomfortable looking expensive tartan suits and frocks. They looked sullen, bored at the whole affair. A loud obnoxious boy sat kicking the bottom of the steps, his shoes already scuffed at the toe.
“ Don’t do that, you horrid awful bad boy.” A small girl said loudly, standing up to reveal the fact she was half as tall as him. “What would your mother say?”
The boy glowered at her, kicking the step again. “Go away, stupid. Or-“ his eyes lit up with triumph in remember the phrase. “I’ll kill you like those damn Japs.” The girl went pale, sitting back down quietly. The blonde boy kept on kicking, harder. “ My dad has lots and lots of guns. He could shooted you and all the dammjaps in ten-seconds flat.”
“No, he couldn’t.” The little girl said, although Helen could see she wasn’t sure. “Your daddy would go to jail for a hundred thousand million years if he shooted at me. He’d probably get put in a jail with pins in it or fed to alligators-“
“Well, he wouldn’t shoot you then but he’d definitely drop a bomb on you. An antomantic bomb And that would explode you and you’d die so there.” The boy kicked the step so hard a few adults turned around and glared. Out of the crowd, a soft mid-Atlantic voice hushed at the children.
“Kick my staircase again my dear, darling boy, and your father will have the cheque, whether he has a hundred guns or bombs or alligators or none.” The children stopped, and the speaker turned and smiled sweetly at Helen. She sailed up to her in a clinging lamé gold dress, that clung to her waist and ample chest perfectly, reeking of money and years of self-enforced starvation.
Her husband had abandoned her at some point in the evening. She was a fake blonde, peroxide, but it suited her, framing her perfect dark thin brows and perfect nose. She looked like an ageing Greta Garbo, swaying in mild intoxication. Her child-like blue eyes stared at Helen with intrigue, the light glinting in them, reflecting the chandelier. Her beauty was striking; no, stunning even. Even a cynic like Helen had to admit that she was one of the most dazzlingly attractive women in Manhattan. She seemed to have risen out of the tarmac swamp, sashayed into a lamé dress, absorbed a Mid-Atlantic purr and fallen into her husband’s green-dollared arms.
“It’s so lovely to meet you. I’m Bethany Enderberg, how do you do?”
The line sounded so rehearsed and flawless Helen had to stop herself wondering aloud how often she had said it. She smiled thinly, accepting the warm handshake from the Chanel-scented angel. “Lovely to meet you, Mrs Enderberg. I’m He-“
“Yeah, I know.” Mrs Enderberg interrupted in a staggeringly rougher New Yorker tone. “ You are Ms Helen Goldstone and you are just the most amazing doll at American Literature. I went to your lecture on Steinbeck and just died. I’d kill to be as smart as you. A smart woman is just the most deliciousest thing.”
Helen stood there in astonishment. Firstly the tone came as a shock, but the knowledge of her name and work without any form of belittling nearly had her take a seat in one of the mahogany chaise-longues. “Thank you Mrs Ende-“
“ Beth’ny.” The blonde interrupted, linking arms with the bemused Helen. “You simply must tell me all about The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve tried and I’ve tried but I just can’t get my husband to buy it for me. He says it’s Communist rubbish.”