Jane is lying on her back. The beautician in Love Your Body asks her to make a number four shape with her right leg. She is naked from the waist down, save for a pair of paper knickers. Soft pipe music plays hauntingly around the tiny room. There is a bowl of hot wax bubbling in the corner.
The beautician looks at her enquiringly, her raised eyebrows suggesting, briefly, that Jane needs to make her mind up. Should it be a Hollywood? Totally hairless? She’s got a new swimsuit. She envisages the horror of looking down and seeing a single corkscrewed hair jutting up at her. However, the thought of a completely naked pubic triangle makes her feel queasy. No, it must be the usual. “Yeah, a Brazilian, please,” says Jane.
“Going on holiday are we?” says the beautician, as she smooths the wax over Jane’s groin with a large wooden spatula and pats the brown viscous gloop down. Jane tenses herself for the moment. Thinking about it is always far worse than the actual experience, but she can’t help seizing up. “Yes, yes I am, I mean, we are, huoooo…” she says, half-squeaking and sighing as the beautician swiftly rips off a wide strip of cooled wax with an expert hand. The hairs rip out of the skin, each pulled out from its root. “Ibiza,” she manages to tell her white-coated torturer. The beautician puts her hand over the red, naked area.
“It’s in the Med, you know, just below Spain. One of the Balearics. Next to Majorca and Menorca.” The beautician pastes more hot wax onto this most soft, tender skin. She smooths it down and then once again, scorchingly rips it from the tender flesh, putting her hand down on the angry area.
“Oh, I know where Ibiza is,” says the beautician. “Now, put your other knee across, love.”
One side of Jane’s groin is now bright red, speckled with small raised spots. She thinks about the beautician. Smearing wax all over the pubic region of other women and then ripping it away. All in a day’s work. Jane doesn’t know how she can bear it. Yet it is addictive. Once you start, you can’t stop. Furthermore, she loves the complicity of the room, its quiet intimacy untroubled by text messages or Wi-Fi. She wonders how many women come in here a day.
The beautician knows there is a particular person who gets waxing done. This is the fourteenth client she has waxed this morning. She sometimes looks at women on the bus and wonders which of them voluntarily undergoes it. What style they go for. She can usually tell.
“My oldest son is going there too this summer, what a coincidence,” she continues nonchalantly. Jane isn’t very interested in where the beautician’s son is going on holiday. She wants her time here to be wholly about her. She focuses on her holiday. Ibiza. Hot. Delicious. Always sunny, no mosquitos, still fashionable, yet, not too trendy. So no need to bother about all those silly nightclubs and digitally streamed music by bands and singers of whom she has never heard.
“Did ya want your bottom done?” says the beautician.
“Roll over then and hold your cheeks open.” She lies face down on the bed and obeys the instructions. The paper knickers have a G-string at the back. Why bother, thinks Jane.
Life is rather tiresome at the moment. Jane is living out of suitcases, away from her large London house where she and her husband Patrick have lived for, oh, ages. She can’t even remember when they moved in. Feels like years. It’s being redecorated from top to bottom after a burst tank connected to the water main drilled down through each of the four storeys. They had to move out into a rented flat in a much less smarter area, around the corner.
Jane dislikes the arrangement. So much so that she has started to deliberately keep herself busy. She peppers each day with a series of treats. Coffee with friends, lunch with better friends, cinema trips. Self-improving appointments. Chiropodist, hair, waxing, mani/pedi, GP, opticians (even though she doesn’t need glasses). Shopping. Anything to get out of the flat. There’s so many opportunities to make life nicer, thinks Jane.
“Right, that’s it. I’ll leave you to get dressed. Here’s some cream to put on if you like. I’ll see you by the reception outside,” says the beautician. She goes out of the room and shuts the door quietly. The music continues to tinkle. Jane eases off the bed, swings her legs round, forces herself to inspect the poor, erased skin. Once it has calmed down, turned into an approximation of marble with a single strip of hair, she’ll appreciate it. Even if Patrick doesn’t. She’s been doing this for so long she can’t even remember when she started, or even why. She just knows it is something women of her age and class should do.
Forty minutes and a flat white later, she is back in the flat. She wonders when her son will appear. George goes to a private prep school. He is eight. George wears a cap and a striped blazer every day and studies Mandarin, Latin and French. He is also learning to play the piano. Back at their proper home, that is. Jane is not happy here. She does not care for the shame she feels when she gives her address to taxi drivers. Definition by postcode, even a temporary one, is affecting her mood.
By contrast, George is happy. For the first time in his life he has friends next door, two small boys called Jack and Sam. Previously his friends emanated from a giant privately educated diaspora of privilege. Now he has local mates. Jack and Sam do not have to labour over musical instruments, they don’t have to do Latin or Mandarin, and they don’t seem to have much homework. There is always a reason for George to pop over to Jack and Sam’s house and see what’s going on, because something good usually is. At the very least, a PlayStation and always lots of snacks. He likes it.
Jane’s husband Patrick doesn’t mind having a bit of a break either. He’s glad to have a change of scene. Things locally had come to a bit of an embarrassing pass for him with a nanny of their neighbour back in the old house. Very good looking. But to be found kissing her, well that was embarrassing. Sometimes he allows himself to think of her. The Polish nanny. Played the piano like a genius. Beautiful fingers. He sighs when he thinks of those fingers and what they did to him. Once, they had actually made love on the kitchen table. That was something. Nobody knew about that, of course. But to be caught kissing her was not clever. He had had to make it up to Jane. In a grand way. Weekends at spa hotels, trips to the opera, that sort of thing. Now the nanny is back in Poland and they are all in this flat. He thinks about how she had lain back on the table pulling up her skirt, unabashed and not wincing about the wooden table top. It was one of the most erotic moments of his life, and he uses it as a mental indulgence in which to revel during dull moments in board meetings.
Jane sways around her room, looking at her face in the mirror. She peers at her features. At the moment, she’s happy with Botox, but you never know. She pulls off her top and removes her bra. Is she too old to go topless? Well, in front of George of course, impossible, but privately? She jumps up and down, jiggles them a bit. Then she reaches for a pencil. If you can hold a pencil under your boob that is a sign that they have dropped and you are on the way to menopause and a sexual Gobi desert. That’s what she has been told. Although frankly, thinks Jane, what’s new about that? She picks up the pencil, puts the cool cylinder beneath one breast, and takes her hand away. The pencil drops to the floor immediately. Good. Still aloft. She flops onto the bed. Who cares? “Oh God I am
so BORED,” says Jane aloud. Her house is under dust sheets. So is her sex life.
It has been that way since her neighbour moved. Jay. The man next door. Jay and she had – what should she call it – a fling? An affair? Jay and she had an arrangement. The arrangement was basically to have sex. Everywhere. In his house, in her house, in hotels. Once even in the grass in the middle of the square, at midnight. She hadn’t been too taken with that occasion, since this was not only dangerous behaviour, but it had been slightly dirty, too. In a real, muddy way, not an erotic one. Anyway, after that, just after their house was flooded, and just after that silly thing with the Polish nanny, imagine, kissing her husband, Jay had sold up. He actually had the nerve to move away from this great flood of sex with Jane. She occasionally gets the odd risqué text from him. She always deletes them immediately with a fierce, jabbing finger. She’ll show him. Who was the winner in their affair? Her for remaining or him for leaving? She imagines him with his wife Harriet, who was large and anxious. Jane stretches out on the bed and thinks about how she is basically superior to Harriet in every way, but particularly the sexual one. He’ll be missing that, Jane thought, with burning envy. Well, he should have worked that out before moving, and leaving her.
She lies very still. She wonders if she will go to sleep. Sometimes she does, just from the action of not moving. Her groin still burns from the waxing. She raises her hands above her head and thinks about sunbathing in Ibiza. She can’t wait to feel the heat on her body. She’s looking forward to paying herself some proper attention, giving herself some proper downtime. She’ll have quite a lot of that, she thinks happily. She’ll be able to relax. She doesn’t need to bother about anyone or anything else. Even George, because of course she is bringing childcare.
Belle is her childcare. How old is she? Jane’s not sure. Grown up, but still young enough to be bossed around. She’s the daughter of a neighbour. Actually, daughter of the neighbour who employed that awful Polish nanny. But Jane has got over that now. The Polish nanny was sent home, or was sacked, and must never be spoken of. Too old for nannies now, Belle does a bit of babysitting. This year, she’s coming on holiday with Jane and Patrick. To look after George. Jane considers Belle has been handed a great deal on a plate. Jolly lucky to be coming on holiday with them. A free trip! And with only one child to look after. And not all day, either. She hears the door slam. George. Off the school bus and home. Jane puts a robe around her shoulders and pads down the corridor.
“Why is she coming, Maman?” says George. “Pourquoi?”
“Very good George,” says Jane, coming into the kitchen where she encounters her small son playing on her iPad. “Très bien.” She likes it when he tries out his French on her. “Please turn that off.”
“Bad for you.”
“What, Belle? Belle is bad for me.”
She sighs. “Oh, sorry. Sorry. I meant you and that dreadful iPad. Do you mean why is Belle coming? Because…” she tries to think about what truth will be most palatable to her small son. “Because you’ll have fun,” she says lamely. “Oh I don’t know, darling. It seemed a nice idea at the time. You don’t want to spend lots of time with me and Daddy, do you?”
There is a pause. George regards his mother steadily.
“I don’t want to go on holiday. Why don’t we stay here for the summer? Can’t we stay here, please? Jack and Sam from next door aren’t going away. Well, I think they might be going caravanning. Can we go caravanning?”
“No we can’t. We’ve got a lovely big villa in Ibiza with a lovely pool, you’ll have such fun in that with Belle.”
“But why can’t I swim there with you? In the pool, why?”
“Well, because, George,” says Jane, exasperated. “You’d get bored.”
“I wouldn’t. You’d get bored, you mean.”
George stares into the middle distance. What is Ibiza? Why does it sound like something strange, with that ‘th’ sound? He tries to imagine having fun in a strange pool with a girl who is twice his age and whom he knows is only looking after him because she wants to go to The Reading Festival. The mental exercise fatigues him. He turns away, trying not to think about the caravanning trip that Jack and Sam are taking. When are they going? He has no idea.
“When does summer begin?” he asks his mother.
Jane sighs. “Well, for you it will be at the end of term, poppet.”
“I shall mark it on my Lego calendar,” he says, formally. He walks away towards the fantasy world of the Lego Nexo Knights, where nobody is left behind or has to move or is given a chaperone for a fortnight. Maybe I’ll build a caravan for my Knights, he thinks.
Jane watches him leave the room. She examines her hands. Decides against a manicure. In a week, she’ll be away. Last night, she had asked Patrick what he thought about inviting some friends over to stay in the Ibiza villa. He had looked actually quite angry about it.
“Like who? I thought that we were meant to be having time together. On holiday. As a family. It’s bad enough bringing Belle, to be honest. Why on earth do you want to bring people from over here out there, when we can see them here any time?”
But we don’t, thinks Jane. We don’t see them. I wouldn’t want to see them, or entertain them here. Not in this scummy flat.
“Anyway,” continued Patrick, “we will have Belle looking after George during the day, and I understand you’ve arranged her to cover for most evenings as far as I can see. If we have a whole gang of people over we will hardly see him at all.
What about the idea that we focus on the notion of a Family Holiday, with Family Time?”
“Oh, of course,” she had said, kissing him.
Now, on her own, she thinks about this vision. Family Time. It is always best when firmly in the future, Jane muses. It starts with wonderful plans involving notions of picnic baskets and rugs, and ends with a row, rain, and a mercy dash to a restaurant. Or someone being sick in a car. Why does Patrick go on about it so much, when he can’t see how nice it would be to have some adults over to stay with them? On the other hand, she considers, examining her nails again, maybe he’s right. She knows friends on holiday ought to be a time for hilarity, shared experiences, long tables draped simply and crisply in white linen, groaning with perfect food while people drink and whoop with laughter and indulge in perceptive and witty conversation. The reality is more like a weekend of misery with bad mattresses. Three rain-swept days of sniping, fatigue, chaos over meal choices, subtle analysis of body fat, and competition surrounding salaries, children, schools, husbands and basement extensions. All overlaid by the crushing weight of hangover.
Anyway, having friends visit would mean she would have to look after them. Whereas on this trip, she can relax all day long if she chooses. Belle will be doing all the heavy lifting, while she, Jane, will be luxuriating in bed. Would Patrick be luxuriating with her? Probably not. He is not in her mental picture of the bedroom. He is in the kitchen, washing up. Or playing with George. Or working. Or driving. Doing many, many things. Just not in bed with her. She tries to imagine Patrick covering her body with cream and then licking it off, as Jay once did. She thinks longingly of Jay making love to her, the way they used to sneak out for afternoons in hotels. She thinks of how he used to pull all her clothes off, desperate, practically before the door closed. Or when they had no hotel reservation and instead made love in the spare bedroom of his house. That was weirdly compelling.
She used to want to leave her underwear beneath the bed, for Harriet to find, her fat fingers pulling on the lacy, flimsy pants and wondering whose they were. She had fantasies of confronting Harriet, of forcing her to leave Jay. These had never happened, of course. Jane knew she was too cowardly to face her.
Thinking about Jay makes her think of home, of her home. She forgets about sex. She remembers, suddenly, that she has an unpleasant fact to process. Her insides clench with the recollection.
Yesterday she had had a text from Tracey, Belle’s mother.
Jane! So funny! I must tell you that not one but I think TWO of our neighbours are also on their way to Ibiza – in a TV programme! It looks like the dreaded Alan Makin, you know, the TV finance guy who lives in Jay’s old house, and that very strange artist Philip Burrell are BOTH doing some TV reality show. Can you believe it? You might bump into them! Amazing! Tracey xxxx
Jane had looked at this missive for a long, long time before deleting it crossly. Why have these two people been chosen for television glory and fame? Alan Makin she could understand, she supposed. After all, he is a television presenter, or at least he has been. But Philip Burrell, that crazy artist? She always particularly disliked him. Apparently he keeps pornographic pictures of his wife on the kitchen walls. As for his art! Emperor’s new clothes, she calls it. She can’t believe that people pay thousands of pounds for it. In her view, it is about as artistic as a Scalextric track. Tiny models of marathon courses and golf courses, rendered on boards which you then hang on the wall. You call that art? thinks Jane. She doesn’t. And now they are on a big TV show and everyone will watch it and think they are achievers.
Jane was once quite keen on appearing on television herself. Someone once said to her that she had ‘a natural face for the screen’, and when she gave up working in the City, she had actually signed up for a £3,000 television presenting course and learned to read off an autocue. She hired an agent, who charged her £850 for a showreel and never sent her to one audition. After a while, she had buried the dream. Occasionally, like now, it chose to resurface. It had been her ambition. She had wanted to be famous. Had wanted? Still wanted.
It was just so unfair. Act like an arse and a show-off, like Philip Burrell does and that silly Alan Makin, who bought his way into the Square without so much as an invitation, just slapped his money down, and what happens? You get on television. Quietly get on with being sophisticated and stylish, like her, and what happens? You get ignored.
Fame and sex, thinks Jane. These things are important to her. She wants to have both of them. She has neither of them. And she’s in her forties. In a few years, she won’t be able to have either of them. Pack your stuff, she thinks. Pack for the holiday. That will push the pain away from her chest. She actually has a pain in her body from envy. She throws the empty case on the bed, pulls armfuls of clothes from her wardrobe, presses them all down into the rigid box, amassing outfit after outfit which she imagines might delight the locals in the village where she will wander, flip-flops slapping on the sunny pavement, for her morning espresso.
She spins round, sees her child in the doorway.
“What, George? Can’t you see I’m packing? Have you packed?”
“Yes, and yes.” He plumps onto the bed. “Belle packed for me.”
“Belle? When did she come here?”
“Oh,” airily, “she came over when she dropped her case off earlier today. It’s in the hall. Didn’t you see it? Can I take my Lego?”
She hugs him tightly, inhaling the fragrance of his soft hair. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Philip and Alan, they will be famous but they are childless. So. She has that over them. They don’t have the loyalty of a George. Her son will love her regardless of her dalliances, and misdemeanours, and regardless of the fact she has hired a nanny to look after him during their family holiday.
By Rosie Millard
Following a sensational scandal at one of London’s most desired postcodes, Jane and Patrick decide to escape the gossip with a family holiday to Ibiza, their eight-year-old son George in tow.
Also on the island that week is a TV reality show involving an eccentric artist, a horny It Girl, a Brazilian footballer and a famous magician.
As hapless celebrities are picked off one by one, Jane is desperate to be on the programme, leaving childcare in the not so capable hands of a teenager.
One lesbian escapade and an explosive row over hair removal later, the contestants of Ibiza or Bust leave the island with more than sand in places they never knew existed…