The champagne cork popped, making a noise only a champagne cork can make. A few enthusiasts clapped their hands.
The party had been going for the past couple of hours. Around 40 guests filled the lounge nicely. They had all arranged themselves into their own groups. Some of the guests tried to mingle with the new faces but after a few meaningless sentences and a few pretentious laughs, they all went back to the group they knew the best and immersed themselves in the comfort of familiarity.
Finger food was spread on the kitchen bench. Smoked trout in crispy wonton wrappers, figs with blue cheese and prosciutto, anchovy and goats cheese baked mushrooms, caramelised onion tartlets, lemon yoghurt muffins, Jamaican-spiced chicken, Scotch eggs with herb mayonnaise, mini pizza, bread and chips.
Joseph, the host, brought champagne to his guests.
“Did you invite Charlotte?”
“Of course. You walk with her every Saturday morning. I couldn’t invite you and leave her out. We don’t want her to think we don’t like her.”
“Speak for yourself. You might like her, Ella may not.”
Laughter exploded within the group. Joseph quickly moved away from them. He didn’t want to get caught up in their gossip. Experience had taught him that it could cause unnecessary hardship so he tried to avoid it altogether.
“Did I miss something?” Jamie asked.
“Charlotte and Joseph went to the same high school.” Matthew explained.
“We guess maybe there was a little romance between them a couple of years ago,” Hannah added.
“You don’t say!”
“I’m telling you, I witnessed it with my very own eyes. We were having the Melbourne Cup long weekend away at Phillip Island, about 2 years ago.
Charlotte was new to our group then; we didn’t know much about her. They sat in front of me on the bus – I mean Charlotte and Joseph. They were talking nonstop from Melbourne to Cowes. You should have seen the way she laughed. She was shaking her head, waving her hands, like something was so hilarious.
I’ve talked to Joseph heaps of times. He’s not funny at all. Trust me, nothing could be that funny.
It was irritating to watch Charlotte try to seduce Joseph. Come on, why else would a woman laugh like that?
Obviously, Joseph was hooked by the time we reached the Guest House. There was some mix up by the staff so our group ended up one room short and the House was fully booked.
I heard Joseph say to Charlotte that they could share a room. Charlotte laughed. Come on, who would say a thing like that to a woman unless they were a couple or they were going to be a couple.
Women know what other women are doing. To me, her laughter meant agreement. Joseph is a tall and reasonable looking guy. He’s not my type but, to be fair, he is ok. There are not many men around like that. Charlotte could see that very clearly so she was willing and ready, I could tell.
Our leader, which was Matthew, had arranged for Charlotte to stay with us – Joan and I.”
“Hey…” Matthew tried to explain himself but no one gave him the chance. They were all eager to hear what happened next with Charlotte and Joseph. No one really cared why or how Matthew had arranged the accommodation. Matthew was stopped from saying more by the looks on everyone’s faces. He knew Hannah’s story was more appealing than his.
“We didn’t know anything about Charlotte. She could have been a thief you know and we didn’t want to stay with someone we didn’t know.” Hannah continued, “It was our weekend away, we wanted to enjoy ourselves, not put up with a stranger in our room.
Matthew did ask Joan and I whether Charlotte could stay with us. Joan was so quick to answer ‘no problem’, what could I say? Although I wanted to slap Joan’s face. I should have.
We stayed there for 3 nights. On Monday night, Joan and I went back to our room early after dinner. We didn’t want to stay up too late. We just wanted to pack our bags and have plenty of sleep before we headed back to Melbourne the next day.
Charlotte came back to the room after midnight. What had she been doing between dinner and midnight? There had been 4 hours to kill. You tell me what she could have been doing. Talking? Please, Charlotte is not a talker, is she? Imagine Joseph talking for 4 hours? He was here a second ago. Did he talk? I don’t think so.
Joseph had a soft spot for her. Even a fool could see it, it was so obvious.”
Ella came and joined the group for a while, a good hostess mingling with her guests.
“Hannah is telling a story again! Hannah is a good story teller. I always enjoy hearing your stories, Hannah.”
“I was telling them that Joseph is a man of few words.”
“Tell me about it. If he says 10 sentences to me in one night, something must have happened that he suddenly needs to talk about. He is more a man of actions rather than words.”
“Yes, we’ve been told.”
“Very good Hannah, you know Joseph well.”
“Sure, I do.”
Hannah was pleased that her story just been confirmed by Ella.
Everyone in the group tried to take it in quietly. No one wanted to upset Ella. After all, she was the hostess of the night. Without her, the party wouldn’t even have been on. She had been kind enough to put on the party, spending money on the food and alcohol. The least they could do was spare her for the night.
They started to complement her on the food. Ella was dying to explain to them how she had learned to cook all those dishes. She also told them about her family, how her mother was a good cook, how she had been married twice, how they all loved to come home to a good meal. Her aunt, on the other hand, was a person who didn’t bother to cook a decent meal. She had lost her husband to another woman and had never been able to find another man willing to marry her.
No one really cared to know how Ella’s mother had a way with men while her aunt did not. They were old ladies, part of the past. They had had boring lives that were not worth talking about. Who wanted to know uninteresting details of some unknown people?
Soon after, Ella moved to another group to mingle. Hannah whispered, “Charlotte cooks better than her. If she thinks that food can tie Joseph down, she has another thing coming.”
“I wouldn’t say Charlotte cooks better. Charlotte presents the food in a different way than Ella, that’s all. They’re both not bad cooks.”
“Men – as long as someone cooks for them, they are fine.”
“That’s not true, we have taste buds you know. Nowadays lots of men can cook for themselves. Only old grandpas depend on their women to cook.”
“When have you tasted Charlotte’s cooking, Matthew? Did you take her out?”
“What’s going on between you and Charlotte?”
“Nothing, we’re friends.”
“What’s your definition of ‘friends’?”
“We help each other out whenever it’s needed.”
“That’s right, Joan saw you and Charlotte in Dick Smith once. What were you two buying?”
“Nothing. I was helping her look at computers. She wanted to get a new one.”
“Did she get one?”
“I have no idea. That was last month, she might have bought one since then.”
“You two never went on a date?”
“I asked her once, she said no.”
“Just like that, no?
“It doesn’t matter what she said, the answer was no.”
“Was that after you helped her look at computers?”
“You still helped her?”
“Hey, she didn’t want to date me, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to be friends with me. How about all of you ladies here? I didn’t date any of you but we’re friends aren’t we?”
“Typical of Charlotte, she is a user. Am I right Matthew?”
“Leave me out of it, Ivy! I know you can’t stand Charlotte, don’t drag me into the middle of it!”
“What do you mean, I don’t like Charlotte? I like her, I think God is very kind to her. I just don’t like her selfishness.
Come on guys, why try to cover it up? For whose sake? Unbelievable! Jamie, you are a visitor from Queensland but you should know what’s going on. I don’t think we should keep you in the dark.”
Ivy couldn’t wait to air her opinion of Charlotte. She didn’t need any encouragement, all she needed was the right moment.
“Thank you Ivy, I really appreciate it. Please tell me what was going on.”
“Charlotte was married to a prominent charted accountant once. He worshipped the ground she walked on. Don’t ask me why, men can be so stupid sometimes. Present company excluded of course.
He gave her everything. A big 2 carat diamond ring, a new model fancy car, clothes and jewellery. He spoiled her rotten, you get my drift?
But Charlotte being Charlotte, she was not satisfied. She had all the stars in the sky but that was not enough for her. She wanted the Sun, the Moon and the whole universe. Oh yes, that’s the Charlotte people don’t see – a selfish woman.
She had an affair with an artist named Jim Roe. That man had no money. He couldn’t sell his paintings and was living in a rented warehouse apartment in Carlton. When her husband found out about it, he pretended it was not happening. Can you believe that? That a man could be blinded by love like that?
Charlotte left her husband anyway. She stayed with her lover for a little while. A very short period of time in fact. You see, it was easy to have an affair but living together was not easy.
Her poor husband was broken-hearted. He never dated anyone nor was interested in any woman after they divorced. I bet he lost his trust in women because of the way Charlotte had behaved. Ungrateful, unfaithful, all she could think of was herself, regardless of her children, her husband and her family.
Someone I know, who knows one of the nannies of Charlotte’s children, said that often the young ones would cry for no reason. She thought they were missing their mother. Poor kids, what did they do wrong to have a mother like Charlotte? She put her own personal pleasure before her children’s welfare.
Charlotte is every man’s sweetheart. When she first joined our group, we had 5 single men. She had to have all of them. After she spoiled them, she kicked them out like an old pair of boots. A woman who doesn’t care for her own children’s wellbeing, you think she would care for other men’s feelings?
Last year when she went to the States, I asked her to buy some cosmetics for me. It’s much cheaper to buy them duty free. I gave her a list of what I wanted. All she had to do was buy them and carry them onto the plane. She told me that she didn’t want to carry too many things onto the plane and I could just buy them here in Melbourne.
I knew I could buy them here in Melbourne but they are expensive to buy here. See, that’s how selfish she is. What is so hard about carrying them onto the plane? Bitch, what an absolute bitch she is.”
“I won’t carry anything for anyone when I travel either. I like to travel light.”
“Oh shut up Matthew. You don’t have a clue about women, do you?”
“Hey, don’t shoot me too.”
“Are the ladies giving you a hard time too Matthew?”
Joseph put his left hand on Mathew’s shoulder, offering the group a plate of finger food in his right hand.
“Don’t go away Joseph, those ladies are slaughtering me inch by inch, cruelly.”
“I’m sure you are enjoying every minute of it!”
“Did Ella give you a hard time?” Ivy asked.
Joseph gave Ivy a big smile, quickly disappearing into the crowd.
“They haven’t been together that long; he already doesn’t want to talk about her. What happened? Maybe cooking for him is the only thing that’s working for her.”
“If she doesn’t smarten up, Charlotte may sneak him away from her.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Didn’t you hear? Joseph was envying Matthew being single.”
“Look at his body language and choice of words!”
“When a couple is hot, they don’t want to share their precious time with others. When they need others in their life, usually that means they’ve had enough of each other. This is the second time we have been invited to their love nest this year and its only July.”
“Some people love to be surrounded by people!”
“That’s what I am trying to say.”
“Ella is not the most easy person to be with. She loves to talk about herself. She probably thinks if you have a wonderful life, people would want to hear about it. Forcing people to listen to a dull conversation is really a put off.”
“Joseph paid a big price for it, didn’t he?”
“He’s not the most exciting person either. If I had a dollar for every time someone thought he was boring, I could have travelled to the UK on a first class ticket long ago.”
The front door opened again. People turned their heads to see who had arrived.
“Charlotte! You made it.” Ella’s voice was cheerful. “We are going to start our main meals in a minute. What good timing.”
Ella gave Charlotte a big hug and kiss on the check. Joseph did the same.
Charlotte looked around and seeing her group, she rushed to them with a big smile.
“Charlotte.” Hannah kissed her on both checks. “I was getting worried that you were not coming.”
“No party is any good without you, Charlotte.” Ivy kissed her.
“How are you Matthew?”
“Fine, Charlotte. I am just like rest of the group, so pleased to see you. I say that sincerely.” He kissed Charlotte on the cheek too.
“How come you’re late anyway? Another function to attend?” Ivy asked.
“I took my brother to the airport. This time he won’t be back for a year or two. He got a contract to tour around with his work in the States.”
“What kind of the work does your brother do?”
“Jim is an artist. He’s doing better in the States than in Australia. We are twins, that’s why it’s so hard for us to be apart.”
“So do you paint as well?”
“Oh yes! But I’m not dedicated like him. I got married and had kids. Life had too many distractions for me. Now Jim won’t be back for a while so he’s letting me stay in his studio to work. With his support, I have no excuse not to try.”
“Are you going to quit your job?”
“Jim said that’s the only way. When there’s nothing to go back to, one tries harder.”
“Wow, what an honour to know an artist.”
“Don’t forget us when you become famous.”
“Always remember that we are your most sincere friends and fans.”
They were indeed. Without their gossip behind Charlotte’s back, without those juicy words, how else would Jamie have been able to remember her name?
* * *
Years later, Jamie led a group of her friends to visit Charlotte’s painting exhibition in Queensland.
She told her friends that Charlotte was a true artist because she was a passionate artist. She did not just paint with passion, she also lived with passion. She knew this because Charlotte’s closest friends told her that she left her husband and family for her own twin brother.