You are reading Fiddleblack #9
Sara told people (when she had to) that her family were broke because of the Madoff scandal, but really they had been in trouble for years before the recession, and Madoff had nothing to do with their particular problems.
From what Sara’ indiscreet cousin Alice said, who had a habit of getting incredibly drunk and telling anyone nearby everyone else’s secrets, the Lovells had been losing money since the thirties. They must have had a lot to lose—she said—it took them long enough to get rid of the millions and millions, despite a pretty consistent spending spree and a fair amount of sadness to distract themselves from.
According to Alice, it had all started in the war.
“No, idiot, not Vietnam.” She rolled her eyes, as if I should have known she was referring to, “World War Two. In London. That’s where her family and my family—our family, I guess—were back then.”
She took a sip of her tenth Long Island Iced tea, flicked her dip-dyed blond / dark blond hair back, and kept going on about gossip from another world, very old news, and I got the distinct impression this rambling had a chemical cause. She was becoming famous for it, and her chattering was a little fast to follow.
“So anyway. Her great-grandmother died in the Blitz—not from a bomb or anything like that—but from gin and codeine. Apparently she had a bad reaction to the combination, and her cousin—my great-grandmother—found her passed out when she came to pick her up to go to a party. She’d been taking codeine now and then because London was so stressful at that time, apparently, but it hadn’t agreed with her. She was twenty-six, and had two babies. Her husband, who was fighting in the war, didn’t find out that she had died for months, and kept writing her letters that she never received.”
“So sad.” I said. She nodded, agreed.
“It got sadder. Her baby, (Sara’ grandfather), was sent to boarding school a year later, when he was three years old. Then Eton when he was eleven, and then a little time out in the army before Cambridge. He married young and missed his mother for the rest of his life. He spent some of the pain away. His daughter—Sara’ mother—spent the rest of the pain away. Or the money, anyway. I don’t know how in pain she is these days. She seems alright. I guess a lot of the money went on Valium and whiskey. It runs in the family. (My side as well…)” She whispered—her lipstick ever so slightly smudged to the right of her pout.
“I would never have guessed,” I smiled, as she sipped more of that Long Island Iced Tea.
“Anyway, Sara’ mother, met her husband, Sara’ father Bill, in Oxford. This must have been the late eighties. He studied Economics and her mother went to a party there. It all happened very quickly, apparently, and they married not long after graduation, and Sara was born a few months afterwards. I was born around the same time.”
“I don’t remember much of the eighties,” She went on, “But apparently everyone had a great time. My mother says she loved it, and we were all so happy. There were always parties to go to, and so that we didn’t feel too left out, the parents threw us decadent little tea parties pretty often, where we all wore smocked dresses and little bobs and ribbons. It prepared all the kids for future club-nights in SoHo, ill-advised early marriages and fear of moving anywhere outside of the city. Unfortunately, Sara had to leave the party early. The Upper East Side apartment was the first house to go.”
It was, of course, a familiar story. People disappeared from neighbourhoods and guest lists all the time, these days.
“But Sara is here.” I pointed out. “At least, I think I saw her around somewhere…”—Hoping Sara wouldn’t hear her cousin telling people her life story. Usually the whiskies and cocaine made people vain, but it only seemed to make Alice voyeuristic. She seemed to know so much. It was inappropriate even for her. Alice seemed to sense my unease:
“Of course it’s practically a universal story.” She announced. “Rich girl poor almost overnight.”
“But like nobody admits it. I bet half the people here are in like major debt, or about to lose it all. It’s so sad.”
“What about you?” I asked, aware that a lot of people thought she was also about to lose it all.
“I’m fine. Thank you for asking.” She sniffed.
I looked around to see if the bar was any emptier; it wasn’t. If people had financial problems they were drinking them away. Alice went on, romanticizing failure.
“There are many ways to go bankrupt, of course. You could gamble, or throw extravagant parties. You could invest in all the wrong things (or even just one wrong thing). You could go through a messy divorce, or over-spend, or take bad advice from lawyers. You could loan too much to your forgetful friends. You could get addicted to something or other, or employ a criminal accountant. You could live in a dream. You could live the dream. You could lose your job.” She shrugged, carelessly.
“It’s only money, of course,” she smiled, “And it shouldn’t mean all that. There are more important things in life than pretty things and big rooms and all the trappings of wealth. Those things shouldn’t matter too much. But they do, when the friends, the lovers, the dreams—go with them. It’s terrible to have friends who only want you for your money, but perhaps it’s a little worse to have no friends, and no money.”
She looked very serious and melodramatic, and I felt terrible for continuing to listen. I hardly knew Sara, or her family, or Alice, come to think of it. But I kept listening, sort of wondering if this would end in a car crash or a Hollywood ending.
“Sara seems fine, though, Alice. She doesn’t seem all that broke at all.”
“I’ll get to that later. Seriously—the whole reason I’m telling you this is that she’s a beacon—a—a—well, I admire her. I do. I—well let me finish.”
“Ok.” The rant—the story—continued.
“So by the time she was thirteen, she’d already lost the Upper East Side. By the time she was sixteen, the house in the Hamptons was gone as well. Apparently lost in some fraud or other.”
“And so they only had one house left. It was a summer house in France. They moved there when Sara was sixteen, and she pretended to everyone that she was going on a French exchange, when actually her whole family went there to cry and be bankrupt in exile. That was when her father disappeared. Some people have theories about jail etc, but Sara still insists that he genuinely disappeared. I think that explains the father issues and everything, but I don’t want to speculate.”
“Of course not.”
“So there they were—well, Sara, and her sister and her mother—living in the summer house in France. Only it wasn’t summer anymore. It was winter. Sara hated France. She learned good French and met a nice boy, but really she had an awful time, and came back to New York as soon as she could. I hadn’t seen her in years, when I met her that summer for lunch, to catch up. I barely recognised her. She was really thin—like beautiful—and she had just signed with Ford.
She told me that when she was in France, she was so lonely and miserable that she never ate. When she came back to New York, the first thing she did was walk into the agency and they signed her. She worked harder than anyone I know, and within a year, she had enough to rent a nice place in the East Village and make sure her sister could come back to school here. And there she is:”
Alice pointed out Sara, dancing the other side of the room. “She single-handedly got it all back. Well, pretty much. But that’s what I wanted to tell you. Isn’t it inspiring?”
“Yes—very. But—surely she was just very lucky?”
“Lucky, but also it’s just so her.”
I didn’t know what that meant. I suppose it meant that she belonged here—though I didn’t really know what that meant either.
“Why are you telling me all of this though? I barely know Sara.”
“Because I heard about—well.”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” I knew exactly what she shouldn’t be talking about.
“Like I said—half the people in this room are only pretending to be fine.”
“Alice, I am fine.”
I wasn’t fine, either, of course, but I had no idea how Alice knew, and I didn’t want to become another anecdote at another party, so I just kept pretending to be fine, as she put it.
“What do you want to drink?” She asked. She knew.
“I’m not drinking.”
“Good for you! I’ll get you an orange juice. Or would you prefer a Virgin Mary?”
“An orange juice would be perfect, thank you.”
She ran off, looking so pleased with herself, for practically drawing a confession from me. It seemed strange that asking for an orange juice was code for “I am an alcoholic and I just got out of rehab”, whereas drinking a Long Island Iced Tea meant health and happiness. I considered straying…
Alice returned, and handed me an orange juice. “So really what I was trying to say was just that—there are all those ways to become bankrupt. All those ways of becoming an alcoholic. But it’s so hard to find a way out again. And I think it’s really inspirational of you to turn things around, or at least to try. If you give up drinking now, then your liver, and your reputation, might just recover.”
Alice always did make me reach for the bottle. It had, it was true, become a bit of a problem. But it wasn’t now.
“Like I said, sweetie, I’m fine. I never realized drinking orange juice was such a controversial thing to do.”
“Lola knows someone who saw you in rehab.” Alice replied, suddenly serious and accusatory. Rehab used to be fashionable, but apparently not anymore. It was a reason to lose me.
“Why do you care?” I asked, wishing I was drunk enough to hit her in the face, though mostly glad those days were behind me.
“We’re concerned about you.”
“Concerned I don’t belong here?”
“Well, you shouldn’t be drinking.”
“That’s a very long-winded way to tell me to leave, Alice.”
“Darling I need to talk to someone else now—but don’t worry—everyone says leave the party early!”
She went off to tell someone else to leave and to buy more cocaine, and keep pretending everything was fine, and everyone else had more problems than she did, scoring names off the guest list with her anecdotes and gossip, turning everyone away, one by one and line by line, until only she remained.
As people speculated later, her story was actually quite common. There were so many ways to become an addict. Her particular narrative ended in a coma, on a clubroom floor.
Alice told people (when she had to, later on) that her boyfriend had seduced her into it, but various friends knew that her habit had been going on for years.
“But she’s going to be ok?” I asked a friend, over lunch,
“Yes, luckily. Her cousin Sara is paying for rehab.”
“That’s kind of her.”
“I know, so sweet. Are you coming to Boom tonight? She’s DJ-ing.”
“I’m not sure…”
“Don’t worry about that… I can get you on the guest list.”
“But I was banned, last year…”
“Old news. Everything’s changed. Here’s to new beginnings!”
And I smiled and raised another orange juice, and wondered how long I’d last in Boom this time.
Christiana’s third book, Death of a Ladies’ Man, was published by 3:AM Press in autumn 2012, having previously been serialized in 3:AM Magazine in spring and summer 2012. Christiana is also the author of The Wrecking Ball (Beautiful Books UK, and Harper Perennial USA, 2008) and the graphic novel The Socialite Manifesto (Beautiful Books, 2009). She graduated from Cambridge in 2011.