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Sushi for Beginners(3)
Marian Keyes

Lisa nodded tightly and closed the door.

‘– Like a hole in the head.’ Ally didn’t miss a beat. ‘Any wine left?’

They stayed until every last drop of wine was drunk, every last crumb of Hula Hoop wiped off the tray with a licked finger, then they turned to each other and demanded in dangerously high spirits, ‘What now?!’

They descended on Soho, swarming through the bars in a Friday-night, tequila-drinking, office workers’ maraud. Little Sharif Mumtaz (features assistant) got separated from the others and was helped home by a kind man whom she married nine months later. Jeanie Geoffrey (assistant fashion editor) was bought a bottle of champagne by a man who declared she was ‘a goddess’. Gabbi Henderson (health and beauty) had her bag stolen. And Ally Benn (recently appointed editor) clambered on to a table in one of the livelier pubs in Wardour Street and danced like a mad thing until she fell off and sustained multiple fractures to her right foot.

In other words, a great night.

2

‘Ted, you couldn’t have come at a better time!’ Ashling flung wide her door and for once didn’t utter her most overused phrase, which happened to be, ‘Oh shite, it’s Ted.’

‘Couldn’t I?’ Ted sidled cautiously into Ashling’s flat. He didn’t normally receive a welcome this warm.

‘I need you to tell me which jacket looks nicest on me.’

‘I’ll do my best.’ Ted’s thin, dark face looked even more intense. ‘But I am a man.’

Not quite, Ashling thought, regretfully. What a great pity that the person who had moved into the flat upstairs six months ago, and had instantly decided that Ashling was his best friend, hadn’t been a nice, big, pulse-rate-raising man. And instead had been Ted Mullins, needy civil servant, aspiring stand-up comedian and small and wiry owner of a push-bike.

‘First, this black one.’ Ashling shrugged the jacket on over her white silk ‘interview’ top and magic lose-half-a-stone-in-an-instant black trousers.

‘What’s the biggie?’ Ted sat on a chair and wound himself around it. He was all angles and elbows, pointy shoulders and sharp knees, like a sketch drawing of himself.

‘Job interview. Half nine this morning.’

‘Another one! What for this time?’

Ashling had applied for several jobs in the past two weeks, everything from working on a wild-west ranch in Mullingar to answering phones at a PR company.

‘Assistant editor at a new magazine called Colleen.’

‘What? A real job?’ Ted’s saturnine face lit up. ‘Beats me why you’ve applied for all those others, you’re way overqualified for them.’

‘I’ve low self-esteem,’ Ashling reminded him, with a bright smile.

‘Mine’s lower,’ Ted shot back, determined not to be outdone.

‘A women’s magazine, though,’ he mused. ‘If you got it you could tell that crowd at Woman’s Place to stick it. Revenge is a dish best served cold!’ He threw back his head and gave forth a hollow series of fake Vincent Price-type laughs. ‘Nnnnyyyywwwwahwahwahwahwahwahwah!’

‘Actually, revenge isn’t a dish at all,’ Ashling interrupted. ‘It’s an emotion. Or something. And not worth bothering about.’

‘But after the way they’ve treated you,’ Ted said, in wonderment. ‘It wasn’t your fault that woman’s couch was ruined!’

For more years than she cared to remember, Ashling had worked for Woman’s Place, a weekly, unglossy Irish magazine. Ashling had been fiction editor, fashion editor, health and beauty editor, handiworks editor, cookery editor, agony aunt, copy editor and spiritual advisor all rolled into one. Not as onerous as it sounds, actually, because Woman’s Place was put together according to a very strict, tried-and-tested formula.

Each issue had a knitting pattern – almost always for a toilet-roll cover in the shape of a Southern belle. Then there was a cookery page on buying cheap cuts of meat and disguising them as something else. Every issue had a short story featuring a young boy and a grandmother, who were sworn enemies at the start and firm friends by the end. There was the Problem Page, of course – invariably with a letter complaining about a cheeky daughter-in-law. Pages two and three were an array of ‘funny’ stories starring the readers’ grandchildren and the cutesy things they’d said or done. The back inside cover was a platitudinous letter, supposedly from a clergyman, but always scribbled by Ashling fifteen minutes before the printers’ deadline. Then there were the Readers’ Tips. And one of these was the unlikely instrument of Ashling’s downfall.

Readers’ tips were pieces of advice sent in by ordinary Josephine Soaps for the benefit of other readers. They were always about making your money go further and getting something for nothing. Their general premiss was that you needn’t buy anything because you could make it yourself from basics already in the home. Lemon juice featured heavily.

For example, why buy expensive shampoo when you could fashion your own from some lemon juice and washing-up liquid! You’d like highlights? All you need to do is squeeze a couple of lemons over your hair and sit in the sun. For about a year. And to remove cranberry juice from a beige couch? A mix of lemon juice and vinegar would do the trick.

Except it didn’t. Not on the couch of Mrs Anna O’Sullivan from Co. Waterford. It all went horribly wrong – the cranberry juice became ever more tenacious so that even a Stain Devil couldn’t budge it. And despite magnanimous usage of Glade, the entire room stank of vinegar. On account of being a good Catholic, Mrs O’Sullivan was a woman who believed in bloody retribution. She threatened to sue.

When Sally Healy, the editor of Woman’s Place, launched an investigation, Ashling admitted that she’d invented the tip herself. Readers’ contributions had been thin on the ground that particular week.

‘I didn’t think anyone actually believed them,’ Ashling whispered, in her defence.

‘I’m surprised at you, Ashling,’ Sally said. ‘You always told me you’d no imagination. And Letter from Father Bennett doesn’t count, I know you crib it from The Catholic Judger, which, incidentally – keep it to yourself for the moment – is about to go to the wall’

‘I’m sorry, Sally, it’ll never happen again.’

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