Sometime in March…
Tara Metrovich probably paid her staff in gold. She had a voice to match her face: small pekinese features barely framed by the once more trendy page-boy haircut. Her high nasal voice, in reality, was quite unlike the pleasant tones which reached our ears via radio, TV and the internet. I could just about see her sound engineer, almost completely obscured as she was by the bulk of the studio camera, the reflection of the sound booth window and her huge mickey-mouse looking earphones. Tara’s make-up artist was scuttling away with a make-up kit almost as broad as he, while one of the camera-persons (impossible to say whether male or female) was holding up a piece of white board once again–white balance, I knew, a studio camera must and a topic of countless Phil rants. I adjusted the little microphone attached to my uncomfortably crisp new white collar jutting out from under my newly tailored black peach-skin suit. I was already wilting under those harsh studio lights.
A sound assistant scurried out of nowhere to smile professionally, fiddle my mic back into the most uncomfortable position and instruct, “Don’t touch the mic, Ms Donnet. It upsets the sound levels and we’re live in 90 seconds.”
Another professional not-quite-fake smile from her before she disappeared into the now cavernous dark of the studio behind the main lights. Tara Metrovich stopped complaining to a PA about a coffee she had not be-smudged her lipstick with before turning to me, all professional plastic and exuding eager girlfriendness.
“Just breathe, darling. And remember to suck that tummy in!” she giggled as someone yelled ’30 seconds!’ “Now just remember to be yourself,” she added.
I smiled back sickly thinking I surely wouldn’t be able to remember to be anyone else. Fervently, I wished I was having my normal morning with my pot of Earl Grey and the newspaper out on my balcony, enjoying the sunrise; instead of being in this overheated fake studio about to be humiliated by the second most popular talk-show hostess in South Africa. Why, oh why, had I agreed to this madness?
“In 3, 2, 1!” called the 30-seconds voice. The two giant cameras winked nasty red eyes at us and continued staring balefully at the set. Off went Tara.
“Good morning, Surf City! It’s a gorgeous, beautiful start to our day with a special Exclusive treat for you worth billions! Yes, that’s right. We finally have that exclusive interview we’ve been promising you with our very own reclusive Durban-grown billionaire, Charmaine Donnet!”
And Tara hadn’t even taken a breath whilst sucking in her tummy too. I began to wonder if Tara Metrovich, neé Niemand, wasn’t just some automated TV mannequin. Then she turned those brilliant eyes on me and I knew she wasn’t. Shark was more like it.
“Thank you, Charmaine, for joining us this morning. Such a pleasure!”
I murmured something I hoped was appropriate but which sounded incomprehensible even to me. Maybe Tara’s mic system would make it sound intelligent.
“So tell us, Charmaine, how does one become a billionaire or billionairess these days? Besides marrying one, like me!” Giggle, giggle, snake-stare.
“Well, Tara, I guess you just have to wish on a box of chocolates and work damn hard.”
“’Wish on a box of chocolates’, that’s a new one, Charmaine.” She leaned forward, her mic shifting and probably giving her sound engineers a group heart-attack. “Whatever do you mean? Is it some New Age thing or a new business method?”
I laughed, higher and somewhat more panicked than usual. “Er…no. What I mean is…” I would have shifted in my ever-heating seat, but remembered in time the tired face and professional smile of the mic arranger. “Years ago, I had the good fortune of meeting and having the opportunity to support the owner of Angel Chocolates.”
“Oh, yes! They are just divine! My favourites.”
“And you invested in them?”
“Ja. In fact, I guess you could call me one of the first investors.”
“How much did you invest, Charmaine? A hundred thousand?”
“Er…actually, it was…oh, maybe fifty. Ja, I think it was about fifty.”
“Fifty thousand Rands! Not bad, Charmaine!”
“No, it was about fifty Pounds, Sterling.”
For once Tara Metrovich appeared speechless.
I continued, “It was way back in two thousand or so. Angela had only just come up with the idea and needed someone to believe in her more than anything else…”
“So you were friends with Angela Green before you became business partners?”
“Ja, something like that. We were house-mates back then–working holidaymakers in Edinburgh.”
“So you helped come up with the Angels’ fabled recipe!”
Tara now looked more than ever like a shark, sensing a story, sensing some blood and a possible scandal. Angela’s secret recipe was the reason for her success. No-one had ever managed to re-create it.
“Oh, no. Angela always worked on it at the dead of night, leaving chocolate trails in the kitchen for us to find the next morning, like it had been some house-gnomes party. Used to drive us nuts!”
“So she uses nuts?”
“Probably. I’m not sure.” I smiled back, wondering how to change the topic. “So, anyway. Angela, another friend, and I mocked up a pretty box of chocolates for her first presentation to some venture capitalists back in the day; and three years later I got ten percent of Angels Chocolates’ stocks for my trouble.”
“Wow!” stated Tara with dollar signs in her eyes. “You must have been really good friends!”
“Oh, you know how it is when you have others in the same boat as you.”
It was plain that she didn’t. Her earwig squawked.
“Fascinating. And some luck, eh? But, tell us Charmaine, you didn’t make billions just from chocolate, did you?”
“That’s right, Tara.” I had by this time gotten the hang of the interview. I would just treat it like a board meeting. “I kept investing in start-ups, and had the good fortune of making mostly paying choices.”
“Amazing. Just…inspiring, Charmaine.”
Beads of perspiration were congregating at the base of my neck to race each other down my spine. I was gratified to see that I wasn’t the only one sweating. Tara’s face was quickly acquiring a wet sheen with her perfectly done hair starting to look wet and frizzy under the punishing lights. She turned directly to the cameras.
“We’ll be back with more exclusives from Charmaine after the break and traffic report. Stay tuned!”
The cameras closed their baleful eyes as Tara’s crew stormed her: water bearer, make-up, sound, and what looked like a masseuse.
The 30-seconds voice was clearly heard to say, “Adjust that blonde.”
I almost smiled, realising he meant the huge yellow light poised to my right and not Tara. The nice studio assistant brought me a bottle of water.
“You’re doing great, Ms Donnet. You’re really photogenic and the sound team loves your voice. Just remember to keep your chin up when speaking so the sound’s not muffled.”
I smiled back, gratefully for the swig of cool water and the kind words.
“30 seconds!” went the call, signalling the dispersion of the swarm around Tara.
She gingerly flicked a single stray strand of hair from near her eye with a fierce look boding ill for her hair-stylist, then turned to face the cameras, schooling her features as the studio manager called, “In 3, 2, 1!” On came the camera tally-lights and Tara Metrovich, talk-show hostess.
“We’re back, Surf City with Charmaine Donnet, Durban’s very own billionaire. And! Most eligible bachelorette! This morning she’ll be telling us all about the ins and outs of her singleton life and her new search for her very own elusive Mr Right! Isn’t that right, Charmaine?”
Her sharkish look was once again on me as I looked in mortification at the evil twin red eyes of the cameras. That’s what you get for selling your soul at 7am in the morning.
“But, Charmaine, I thought it went wonderfully! You were so adorable. Just the antidote to Plastic Tara.”
“You’re not helping, Joss!”
We were in her practice rooms in Umhlanga–Josslin Murray, Life and Dating Coach Extraordinaire. She was an excellent life coach, but I was beginning to suspect her coaching on dating might be the undoing of me.
“The interview made you seem very human and vulnerable, not the way most people have seen you, Charmaine.” I stared at her open-mouthed. “Pity you didn’t stick to your work-out programme. We’ll have to find you a personal trainer, I think.” She was popping a biscuit into her mouth, her ultra-thin body once again prepared to overlook the influx of sugar and butter it was about to experience.
Joss was considering the still of me in the studio. Whomever said ‘The camera never lies’ was a liar! A born-in-the-heart-of-hell liar! The studio cameras had added a good three kilos to my less than svelte self and shortened my height by half a metre or so. Then there was the lighting and make-up giving me a jaundiced complexion instead of my usual olive, while the appalling glossy peach lipstick had the effect of a badly done botox. And the hair. Oh god, my hair! Steelwool had never looked so expensive! On the plus side, I had looked nothing like me. No-one would ever recognise me out on the street. I began to relax. Joss was looking reflective. The worst seemed over. But that’s just Joss’s way; get your guard down before she delivers the knock-out.
“You know, Charmaine, that you absolutely must have that make-over now. And we’ll keep on with the plan to celebritise you even more. You can’t fail to meet a suitable guy then.” She smiled, not unlike Tara Metrovich, neè Niemand.
It was then that I really began to suspect what a cruel sense of humour the universe really has.
“Can you believe she said that I’m hostile to all men, Max? Although, what she actually said was ‘You can’t expect to meet Mr Right if you are hostile to all males’. And we both know that’s not true!’ I fumed, indicating right onto the beach road at the never synchronised robots. “’Cos I do love you, and dad, and my brothers and Merv and Phil and the little cousins…”
Max shot over to his favourite window by the back-seat, glancing at me in the rear-view mirror as if to say, “Yeah, but I’m a dog, more or less.” And he was; a husky of the wolfish kind, looking like the Siberian wolves I’d seen at the animal park in Harties–all russet and tan save for his incredibly expressive particoloured eyes. He looked me directly in the eye and lifted his chin to the road ahead: “You’re driving too slow. Get us to the beach already. My feet are itching.”
That’s what I loved about Max. He was so direct and endearingly selfish as only a husky could be. He was actually my mum’s spoilt mutt, but I was just as culpable at letting him think he was human. Despite our fondness for each other, I wasn’t going to let his wolfish good looks con me into breaking the speed limit. I drove at my usual cautious speed.
“And she wants to ‘celebritise’ me! Is that even a word? I think she means to turn me into some kind of celebrity or something,” I continued. Max dexterously used his slim paw to wind the window partly down and stick as much of his snout out as he could, impatient for his first whiff of salty air and the promise of a limitless sandpit. “I really think I ought to fire her as a dating coach. What do you think?”
Max pulled his snout back in, seemed to seriously consider my dilemma for a couple of seconds, then whined softly as if to say, “Of course you should!” before once again sticking his nose out the window like some salt-air junkie.
“Ja, I know…but she’s helped me so much!” I muttered miserably, wondering how in the world one went about firing their dating coach: ‘Look Joss, this isn’t working for me; it’s me, not you. I really think there’s someone more deserving of your attention…’
In the back-seat, Max seemed to be whining along to ‘Don’t Talk To Me About Love’. He really loved Claire Grogan–even as a puppy.
Flashback time: Ten years earlier…
“So did you get the job?” Angela asked, spreading what looked and smelt like freshly melted tar on her salty-crax. She bit into the cracker.
“Yep!” I answered triumphantly, throwing a box of Magnum Choc Mint gently on the kitchen counter. “And it’s not even in a hostel!”
“The Prestigious Financial Institution?”
“The very same. Took one look at my data capture rate and snapped me up.” I clicked my fingers a couple of times hopelessly, giggling. “Started this afternoon, actually. They have some tremendous backlog or something.”
“Lucky devil! And they pay quite well too! Even holidays and overtime.”
“Ja,” I sighed happily. I had been in the city for just over two weeks and had begun to worry about my steadily depleting Travellers Cheques with the exchange rate never having been in my favour to begin with. I opened one of the ice-creams and handed it to her. “Cheers!”
Angela gave a black-stained grin and grabbed the offered ice-cream, crackers and Vegemite forgotten, “Too right!”
“So how was your day? Anything of interest in house-keeping today?” Angela had the dubious honour of working in an equally prestigious and significantly historic hotel in our temporarily adopted city.
“You would not believe who is staying on my floor!”
“Who? Barney The Purple Dinosaur?”
She threw a stained tea-towel at me. “No! Mr Spooky-Files himself. Wolf Muldoon!”
“You mean Damon Duchny?”
“Yeah.” She looked incredibly pleased with herself.
“And did you see him? Did you talk to him?” He was then my favourite TV actor and she knew it.
“Smiled at him as he went to the elevator. He smiled back.”
“No! You lie!”
“Do not! Didn’t get to clean his room though. Mariette beat me to it.”
There was a moment of silence as we both thought of Mr Spooky-Files and the fact that Mariette always managed to clean all the interesting rooms.
“I swear that woman has some kind of radar or spy-system,” said Angela eventually.
“Or a friend at the front desk.”
“Too true. Now I’m all depressed. Got any more of that Magnum?”
“No. But we’re celebrating. Let’s go get some more!” We rushed for our parkas.
“And let’s get some of that awful chocolate too!” insisted Angela as we bundled through the door and started up the stairs to ground-level. “It’s strangely addictive!”
I laughed, partly because I was happy, but mostly because she was right.
I was on a sugar high the next morning as I flashed my newly minted security pass at the doorman and stepped into the great hive that was the processing centre of The Prestigious Financial Institution–affectionately and unaffectionately referred to as The Institution by all city natives and worker bees. Margaret Holmes, a homely reassuring soul, was the team-leader of the little department to which I had been assigned. She was waiting for me with a broad smile by the big metal and glass stairwell.
“Ah, there you are Charmaine. I thought I’d meet you here. So many new people get lost for the first few days, so I like to make sure you know your way up to your desk.”
“Morning, Margaret. It is all quite intimidating. Thank you!”
“Ach, it’s no bother. But we’ll just give the new lad a chance to meet us too. He seems to be a little late. He was supposed to be here half an hour ago.” She looked with worry at her watch. “Did you take the bus, dear? Is there a problem with the traffic?”
“No, I walked, and I haven’t been here long enough to be a good judge of the traffic patterns,” I half apologised.
“Ach, it will be Ok, I’m sure…Oh, that might be him. Robert! Robert Hart!” She bobbed up and down like a large robin with one half-extended arm to wave him over.
I turned around to see a ghastly apparition approaching. He looked too tall and too gaunt; harsh features set grimly with deep-set eyes almost obscured by his scowling brows. He moved swiftly towards us, but still managed to trail a little stream of water like some displaced kelpie despite his expensive Londoner trench coat.
“You must be Margaret Holmes,” he stated as reached us. His voice was deeper than I’d expected. Margaret took his proffered hand and seem to light up at his smile.
“Oh, yes. That’s me. And this is…oh, I’ve almost forgotten, silly me! This is Charmaine Donnet. She’s new too. I’m sure you’ll be friends.”
His glance at me was brief, unfriendly, dismissive as he all but took Margaret’s hand and all her attention, leaving my hello strangled on my partly opened lips.
“I’m really looking forward to working with you in New Business Bonds, Margaret,” he began, brushing past me to lead a bemused Margaret up the stairs.
I followed like some newly bought slave, gratified to hear Margaret contradict him with a, “Oh, but you’re to be in Unit Trusts. Charmaine started in New Business yesterday…”
“But, I specifically asked to be in New Business,” insisted Mr Kelpie Hart.
‘Too bad’, I thought, ‘I got here first.’
I trusted Margaret enough to resist his strange charm and to act fairly. Although Margaret proved to be strong and true, her superior didn’t. I was transferred not two hours later to the nomadic Unit Trusts, recently returned from the basement. Despite my initial disappointment of losing what appeared to be a much coveted position, Unit Trusts proved to be a wonderful training ground for me. Thus began my love affair with the curiously fickle financial world, and my despisal of all things Robert Hart. I could have told you even then that the financial world would show me more respect and treat me better than the likes of Mr Hart ever could.