Get Away with Martha Hall
It came to something that it was a Friday night and Jo Wheeler was doing her ironing. What had happened to the kid who at ten thirty on a Friday night would be in a night club drinking out of a bottle and dancing with any number of good looking women? She took a slug of beer. O well, if nothing else, she still had San Mig even if she didn’t have the girls. She pressed the button on top of the iron and a plume of steam hissed out over her smart trousers. The local news had just finished, she’d ignored the weather, and the next programme had started. She recognised the theme music and the audience laughter. Shit. She hated Danny Tussaud Tonight, particularly she hated the host.
Danny Tussaud was an arrogant tosser who was so far up his own arse Jo doubted he even knew what the sun looked like anymore. However, for some unfathomable reason, the British public loved him. But it wasn’t too much of a surprise; there was a nasty, sadistic side to the British that had always made her uncomfortable. Yes, they’d root for the underdog, but they also enjoyed other people’s misfortune. Maybe it wasn’t a national trait, maybe it was species wide. Look at the brutal cruelty of the Roman Coliseum, the humiliation as entertainment of Japanese game shows. Much as everyone loved to see unprepossessing postmen and shop girls battle against the odds on The X Factor, they preferred to see the sadly deluded have their dreams shattered. Jo sighed as she pressed a neat crease into the leg of her trousers; they were bound to love Tussaud’s style of interviewing. She was about to switch channels when something grabbed her attention and she fumbled the hot iron onto the metal rest of the board.
There was no mistaking those blue eyes, even if the smile was a bit too dazzling, the hair and make up a little too perfect; behind all that artifice were eyes the colour of a summer sky. Jo would know them anywhere, she didn’t need Danny Tussaud to announce her but he did anyway. Ladies and gentlemen, Martha Hall. Jo dropped to the armchair, unable to tear her eyes away even when Martha responded to Tussaud’s sleazy flirting with knowing smiles and light touches on his arm, his knee, giving anyone watching the impression that Tussaud was such a stud that even a woman as gorgeous and desirable as she couldn’t resist his charms. Jo felt sick, churned up with mixed emotions. Seeing Martha, so beautiful and vibrant, was a joy that never diminished, but sometimes it meant sitting through things like this; for every shot of Martha in a bikini, there were ten minutes of her playing up to some flash bastard.
She was snapped out of her reverie by the phone ringing.
“Hello Jo? It’s Matty”
“Hey, I’m just watching you”
“O Christ. Danny Tussaud is such a twat”
Suddenly, Jo felt her mood lighten. She heard Martha sigh dramatically. Jo had to restrain herself from laughing.
“He’s friend of Marco’s, which makes him think it gives him carte blanche to come on to me and I have to act as if I’m loving every second of his attention. He makes my skin crawl”
“You look gorgeous”
Jo could hear Martha’s delighted smile in her voice.
“Now, I’m sure you didn’t ring so I could bolster your ego. What can I do for you, Ms. Hall?”
“Do you like art?”
“I suppose so. Why?”
“I wondered if you’d like to come to an exhibition at Tate Modern with me”
“I’d love to”
Martha sounded almost surprised that Jo had said yes.
“You would? O that’s wonderful. Thanks Jo. Can you make it for next Wednesday at three?”
Just as Martha said goodbye on the phone, her entertainment double was saying goodbye to the Friday night audience. The lag was too confusing; Jo shook her head and returned her attention to her trousers, but not before she consigned Danny Tussaud to televisual oblivion.
The massive red brick building that loomed up in front of her had once been a power station, something Jo could never get over. It seemed the trend these days to make museums out of old industrial buildings: power stations, flour mills, railway factories. It was good that the buildings were used rather than falling into dereliction only to be torn down and replaced by soulless office blocks, but Jo had a hankering for Victorian excess. Tate Britain, just up the river, was a slab of wedding cake in comparison, Britannia with her trident, flanked by her lion and unicorn, holding court on the roof. However, Tate Modern had one definite aspect to recommend it, and it had nothing to do with art or imperialism.
Standing on the shallow steps in front of the Turbine Hall, in a patch of June sunshine, was Martha Hall in a very pretty black and white dress, her blonde hair pulled back in a short pony tail. She was beautiful in a subtle, understated way. Jo took a moment to just enjoy Martha before she noticed; when she did, her face broke into an intimate smile, so different from the smile she’d given Danny Tussaud. Jo found herself grinning back like an idiot, her heart thundering in her chest as Martha walked towards her: a woman confident in her body, the sway of her hips unconsciously seductive. Jo swallowed her sudden nerves when Martha reached her and kissed her cheek.
“You look lovely. Like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday”
Martha smiled her thanks and slipped an arm through Jo’s.
“I wish I’d known we were dressing up. I’d have made more of an effort”
Jo had gone for comfort rather than style, wearing faded black jeans, a blue and white striped T shirt and her battered leather jacket. Martha pulled away slightly to look at her.
“You look cute”
Jo was crestfallen. Cute?
Martha leant in so that her lips brushed Jo’s ear.
“Did I say cute? I meant hot”
She certainly was hot. Her skin was burning, her blood was burning, she was in danger of melting into a puddle right there on the Embankment.
“Would you like to go in and see art?”
“In a bit, at the moment I like being out here with you”
Martha’s smile was pleased and happy.
“Shall we go for a walk along the river?”
They’d been walking for a little while when Martha slipped her hand into Jo’s. Surprised, Jo turned to glance at her, seeing only her profile as she looked down at the pavement. She seemed unconcerned by the overt display of affection.
Martha looked up and smiled at her. Jo lifted their joined hands.
“Are you sure this is okay? Aren’t you worried someone will see us?”
“It’s amazing what people see and don’t see. I bet nobody here recognises me at all”
She had a point. People barely recognised celebrities out of context and Martha wasn’t merely out of context, she couldn’t look any different from the woman they knew from the television or the pages of Hello and Heat. There she appeared like almost every other B-lister with their identikit hairstyles and revealing dresses. Here in front of Jo, Martha was quietly sophisticated; it was a sophistication you had to look twice at to see, and the tourists and Londoners weren’t prepared to take that second glance. Still, Jo was anxious that someone eagle eyed would notice, but it was Martha’s call to make, not hers, and if she was honest with herself, holding hands with Matty was too nice.
“Fancy an ice cream?”
“Make mine a ninety nine”
They didn’t see the inside of the gallery, it was too pretty a day to be stuck inside. Instead, they walked up the side of the river, past the eighteenth century churches on the other bank, their delicate spires dwarfed by Victorian Portland stone, 1960s Brutalist concrete and twenty first century twists of metal and green glass. A power boat, released from its speed restrictions, skipped across the water, cutting up a plastic roofed baton mouche packed with tourists. Martha and Jo were leaning against the retaining wall, Jo resting her forearms on the stone, Martha braced, the muscles in her arms flexed. Both watched the speed boat until it disappeared.
“It’s strange to think about how busy it used to be around here”
“Yeah, not even that long ago. My granddad knew some blokes who worked on the docks”
“I love being by water. Hate being on it with a passion, but I could stand and look at it all day”
The tide had changed, the river was wide and fast moving, thick and brown with churned up mud. Jo was hard pressed to be romantic about the Thames, much as she couldn’t find it to be nostalgic about London. The best she could muster was ambivalence. She was happy to admit that it could be a beautiful place, crackling with energy and vitality, but it was too freighted with memories and unresolved issues. When she’d moved away, it was with a sense of relief. The occasional visit was fine, but any longer and she slipped too easily into who she’d been and had worked hard to get away from. Jo snorted; Christ, sometimes she could be so pompous. Unfortunately, Martha misinterpreted the sound and looked embarrassed.
“Did that sound stupid?”
Jo squeezed her hand.
“No, not at all. I was just thinking about what an oik I was when I was a kid”
“I bet you were a little heart breaker with those eyes”
“Hardly. Not like you”
Martha’s smile faded even further.
“I don’t know about that. I think I just blundered around not knowing any better”
“That’s part of being a kid”
“Hm. I suppose so. What time is your train?”
“I’m not going back tonight”
Martha turned and looked at her, a little surprised.
“No, I’m going to go and visit my mum”
“Really? Where does she live?”
“O I live in East Dulwich, we’re practically next door neighbours. I was going to get a taxi home. Can I drop you off?”
“I’ll go on the bus”
Martha was useless at hiding her feelings. Intense disappointment was clearly visible on her face, her blue eyes downcast. Without thinking, Jo’s palm went to Martha’s face and cupped her cheek. When Martha looked up at her, Jo thought her heart would leap out of her throat. She was so open and vulnerable.
“Matty, I’ve had a wonderful time with you. I’d like to see you again, would that be okay?”
Martha was leaning into her touch, brushing her cheek against Jo’s palm like a kitten.
How could Jo admit that she didn’t want Martha to see where she was from? That her mother lived in a flat on the fourteenth floor of an eighteen story tower block where the lift didn’t work three quarters of the time and when it did, it reeked of piss, as did the stair wells. That the reason her mum lived on her own was because her father was coming to the end of a prolonged stretch in the Scrubs, that Jo had seen more of him in a prison visiting room than she had in their own kitchen. It wasn’t that she thought Martha was a snob, or that she was a snob herself, was it? Whatever it was, she wasn’t ready to confront it. Not yet.
She let her hand drift from Martha’s face, down to stroke the warm skin at the nape of her neck. Leaning in, she softly kissed her mouth, loving the surprised huff of Martha’s breath against her lips.
“Will you call me?”
All Martha seemed capable of was a nod.
“For Christ’s sake, Martha. Why can’t you ever be ready on time?” Martha stifled a sigh as she got into the limousine. Marco was sitting with his knees spread wide, dominating the back seat in the way he always did, as if his cock and balls were so enormous they required space to themselves. She squeezed into a corner by the door, ignoring the scowl that marred his features. He was impossible to please. If she hadn’t taken the time and effort with her dress and make up then that would’ve been wrong too. Martha stared out of the window as the early evening traffic slid by. It would be light for another couple of hours. She almost preferred these sorts of ceremonies in the winter when the lights were lit and gave everything a fairy tale feel, especially when it rained and the colours reflected on the wet pavements. The cold and the rain didn’t ever seem to deter the fans, in fact it made for a carnival atmosphere, their bright umbrellas and camera phones. Martha always took time to go over and say hello, much as it wound Marco up. Tonight was no exception. She turned her back to him and moved towards the rope edging the red carpet where a middle aged woman and an early teenaged girl called out to her.
“Good luck tonight, Martha”
Martha looked up from signing the girl’s autograph book and gave a woman a heartfelt smile, making the woman blush.
“We voted for you, didn’t we, Maria?”
“Well, thank you both very much. Have a great night”
When she rejoined the stony faced Marco, she made sure to smile but under her breath she hissed at him.
“That’s our audience, buster. The ones who keep you in moisturiser”
He glared at her.
“Just get inside”
The hand on the small of her back didn’t feel protective however much he might be smiling.
Coming in from the bright sunshine, the auditorium seemed impossibly dark and it took a while for her eyes to adjust. She could just make out the tables positioned in front of a large stage that had been specially constructed, with a spot lit podium, the backdrop subtly lit in gold and reds. The hand on her back was still pushing her forward to weave through the tables; obviously Marco knew where the Get Away crew were seated. Martha just went where she was directed, not paying much attention to her surroundings until a familiar voice hailed her.
She looked around and saw the dark haired woman waving at her.
“Over here, hen”
Martha couldn’t help the grin that threatened to split her face. Janine O’Reilly was the one good thing that came out of her time on Good Morning World. The warm and friendly persona that radiated through the television was perfectly genuine; she was one of the kindest people Martha had ever met. Janine had taken the young weather girl under her wing the day she found Martha crying in her tiny dressing room. It transpired that the male anchor, Bill Bates, had made a particularly heavy handed pass at her and the girl hadn’t known what to do. Her rise to fame had been so rapid she hadn’t had the chance to develop the thick skin she needed. Not like Janine who had worked her way up through local radio and news back home in Glasgow. Janine marched straight to Bates’s dressing room to read him the riot act, letting him know in no uncertain terms that if he tried anything like that again, pal, she’d rip his balls off and wear them as earrings. Or worse still, tell his wife. Janine O’Reilly was a force of nature, and Martha fell a little in love with her there and then.
Janine was sitting at a table with four other people. One of them was Dougie, her husband, a self effacing man whose quiet, dry wit made him the perfect foil for Janine’s natural ebullience. Two of the others were the producer and director of The Janine O’Reilly Show, and the fourth – O my God – the fourth was Jo. Jo sitting there, apparently as surprised as she was, stunning in a simple black suit and white shirt with a loosely knotted, black and white geometrically patterned tie. Jesus, Mary and Joseph. She bent down to kiss Janine and Dougie, surreptitiously looking at Jo. If Janine noticed, she didn’t let on.
“Martha, you know Bridget and Magnus, don’t you?”
“Yes, hello. Nice to see you both again”
“And this is Jo Wheeler. She’s doing a feature on me for The Observer. Imagine, me in The Observer, eh?”
“I always said you were a classy bird”
She extended her hand to Jo, feeling exactly the same jolt of electricity shoot up her arm as when she had taken Jo’s hand by the river.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Hall”
Martha didn’t miss the smile ghosting Jo’s lips, or how she held onto Martha’s hand a little too long. Nor, would it seem, had Marco. His eyes narrowed for a moment before he pushed his way towards the other table. Janine cocked her head.
“What’s up with His Lordship?”
“He’s pissed off because I left him waiting for five minutes”
“I don’t understand what you see in him. Man’s a pure wanker”
Martha looked around nervously but Janine simply flapped a hand.
“Ach, I’m not saying anything nobody else thinks”
Martha’s laugh was brittle, even she could hear it. Jo had slumped back in her chair, apparently intent on the bubbles in her sparkling wine. Knowing Janine, it would be the real thing, not the cava Marco was likely to order. It was ridiculous, but Martha felt a little hurt by Jo’s sudden withdrawal.
“I’ll see you later, Neen. Nice to see you all again, and to meet you Ms. Wheeler, maybe you’ll do a feature on me someday”
“Who knows, maybe I will”
The Get Away table was set off to the right about four over from The Janine O’Reilly Show, and from her seat, if she leant a little to the left, Martha could make out Jo’s profile. She tried not to look too often but she couldn’t help it, her eyes were powerless to resist drifting off in that direction. And every time they did, Martha’s traitor of a heart would thud. It had been three weeks since she and Jo had met up, since Jo had refused her offer of a lift. She hadn’t been able to forget the guarded expression on her face, and it had been a shock to see it there again in those cloudy eyes. Shocking and saddening.
Jo strolling up the steps of Tate Modern had been a sight to behold in her baggy jeans and a T shirt that hugged her body in a way that made Martha both jealous and hungry. The elderly black biker jacket gave her a raffish air; she was the epitome of soft butch, the sexy rebel, and as they walked, she took Jo’s hand and allowed herself to pretend for awhile that they were a couple. A good looking one too, judging by the sideways glances they were getting. Martha knew the difference between recognition and approval. You look like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Martha’s imagination got the bit between its teeth: they were on the streets of Rome, fearless on an aquamarine Vespa, Martha’s arms threaded around Jo’s waist as they bobbed and weaved the Fiats, the drivers good naturedly sounding their horns and gesticulating. They would sit at pavement cafés sipping cappuccinos, watching the modern Romans check each other out. There was no hurry, no need to be anywhere else. They could just be close and together.
It was a seductive fantasy, one that became embellished as the weeks passed. For the first time in her life, she was glad she’d travelled the world as she cast Jo in different and increasingly exotic locations: drinking champagne cocktails in a bar in the Marais; tanned and wind blown on the deck of a yacht off the coast of Antigua; diving from a boat into the crystal clear waters of the Croatian Mediterranean. The last one was her favourite; Jo would emerge from the water sleek as an otter, her hair slick to her head. Sometimes she would be wearing a one piece bathing suit, black, or maybe a dark blue or green, sometimes in a pair men’s trunks, like close fitting boxers, and a T shirt that clung to her body like the one she’d worn that day, clinging even closer in its wetness, Jo’s nipples hardened by the air and water. Occasionally, she’d be wearing nothing at all, and would pull herself back into the boat, her muscles rippling. That fantasy would become urgent, and Martha would conveniently forget her hatred of boats, the rocking motion of their rowing boat marking time with Jo’s insistent thrusting.
Jo was standing up, making her way towards one of the exits. Martha was up before she could stop herself, realising that Marco was in the middle of saying something, not that she’d been listening. No doubt he was laying down the law to Anya, who would be taking it with her usual unshakeable good humour. Marco’s humour, however, was far from good. Another scowl cut into his forehead. Why did I ever find him attractive? She didn’t have time to analyse, there was a real chance Jo was leaving and Martha couldn’t bear it. Marco’s voice was sharp.
“Where are you going now?”
“To powder my nose, darling”
“Fuck’s sake, they’ll be reading the nominations soon”
“So, better that I go now”
She pushed passed the tables with agonising slowness, having already lost sight of Jo through the double doors. She was hailed by several people but did nothing more than smile or wave hello. Finally, the door swung under her a little harder than necessary shove and she was in an internal corridor, at the end of which she could see Jo. Relief swamped her.
Jo spun around and looked directly at her.
“Wait a minute, I can’t run in these heels”
Jo’s smile was radiant, even from this distance.
“Take ‘em off then. C’mon, Hall, show me whatcha got”
Her laugh was a bark when Martha did just that, holding her shoes in her right hand, lifting up the skirt of her dress and running towards her. Martha came to a halt mere inches from Jo and couldn’t stop herself from dropping her shoes and reaching out to touch Jo’s hand, happy when she didn’t flinch and her eyes stayed clear and grey. The colour of rain on the sea. Emboldened, she placed the tips of the fingers of both hands on Jo’s chest, leaning in very slightly, her voice barely a whisper.
“You look lovely”
Jo smiled and looked down, blushing slightly.
“I was about to say the same thing. You look like Grace Kelly”
Martha gave her a teasing smile.
“Is that a good thing?”
Martha was pleased. Despite Marco’s protestations, she’d fallen in love with the midnight blue vintage gown, it was simple and beautifully cut, and would look like nothing anyone else would wear. She’d remembered the way Jo had looked at her in what she now called her Audrey Hepburn dress; black flowers on a white background, its New Look-esque shape making her feel frivolous. This dress, which she’d now call her Grace Kelly, made her feel as if she’d stepped out of a Monte Carlo casino. Shoes in her hand, arm linked through that of someone in a black suit, someone in a black and white patterned tie, their dark hair flopping into silver eyes.
“I didn’t know you’d be here”
“I should’ve told you. I knew you’d be here. Congratulations, by the way”
Martha waved a slightly dismissive hand.
“Doesn’t mean we’ve won. And it’s hardly a Best Movie Oscar. It’s – Jo – were you leaving?”
“Leaving? No, I was just going to the Ladies. Is that why you chased me, you thought I was leaving?”
It was Martha’s turn to blush, and she did, intensely.
“I thought you were going to go without me having a chance to say goodbye”
Jo covered Martha’s hands with her own. Neither seems to notice that they were standing in a corridor where anyone could see them. Jo was stroking Martha’s hands with the edges of her thumbs.
“And – and before –”
“Shh, it’s okay”
Jo looked around, suddenly aware of where they were.
“Let’s get away from here”
She led Martha into the Ladies.
“We met in a toilet, do you remember?”
“How could I forget? It’s not every day you see a famous television presenter in her bra”
“I can’t believe how kind you were to me that day”
“How could I not be? You were so beautiful, so vulnerable and trying to hide it”
Martha leant in and stroked Jo’s cheek, marvelling at its warm softness. She remembered kissing her, how it been so smooth, no stubble rubbing and burning her lips, how she could’ve carried on doing it forever. She let her fingers stray into Jo’s hair. The night they spent together was like a dream: intense but unreal. The sort of dream you woke disappointed from because it wasn’t true. Every morning she’d woken up, disappointed, sometimes on her own, sometimes with Marco, but that was tantamount to the same thing as he kept his distance. Her body held the memory of Jo’s stretched along it; soft breasts against her back, hips and thighs against her buttocks, her breath warm on the nape of her neck. Standing so close to Jo brought it back so strongly the breath caught in her throat. Looking up, she connected with eyes that had turned to smoke.
“O God, Jo”
“I really want to kiss you”
“Then kiss me”
O my God. If her body temperature got any higher, she would spontaneously combust. Not even the wood of the door on her bare shoulders and arms was enough to cool her. She had never heard a sound as erotic as the rustle of taffeta as Jo pressed into her, her hands insistent at the bodice of her dress. Her own hands were buried in Jo’s hair as she pulled her as close as she could, her tongue plunging into Jo’s scorching mouth. She simultaneously wanted to be completely in her body and watching from outside. She wanted a snap shot of the moment, Martha Hall losing herself in the arms of another woman; a clip of one of the most exciting moments of her life. Jo’s hands skimmed up the fitted bodice, easily finding their way to her small breasts, and Martha couldn’t help but groan against Jo’s mouth, arching her back to push them into Jo’s palms. It was almost too much and she bit down on Jo’s bottom lip.
“Aw, Christ, Matty”
Martha tightened her fingers in Jo’s hair.
“I like it when you call me Matty”
“Matty, I really want to – ”
“Martha, are you in here?”
Anya Wolf’s voice cut through the haze of arousal. Both women froze, Jo still cupping Martha’s breasts, Martha rested her fingers on Jo’s lips in an unconscious attempt to quieten her.
“Marco’s getting a bit twitchy”
“It’s okay, I’ll be out in a moment”
She moved her fingers from Jo’s mouth and replaced them with her lips, her touch tender. Martha made sure that she left the cubicle without Anya seeing Jo. Even so, Anya was looking at her intently.
“You okay M? You’re very flushed”
Martha gave her a dazzling smile.
“It’s this frock. It’s gorgeous but hell trying to have a wee in. And I’ve probably had a bit too much to drink”
Anya seemed mollified by that and opened the external door for her. Martha wanted to turn round and take another look at Jo, but resisted the temptation.
The rest of the evening was a blur. She was dimly aware of watching a huge version of herself on the screen behind the podium, the same clip she’d watched in the hotel in Broadhaven, déjà vu adding to her disorientation. That had been the day before she met Jo. She’d been determined to find and talk to Lauren; she hadn’t known what she was going to say and then it had become academic because Lauren wasn’t there. But Jo was, and things hadn’t been the same since. Lost in her own thoughts, Martha didn’t hear her name called and didn’t react until she felt fingers squeezing her arm painfully hard. Dazed, she made it to the stage and let professional Martha Hall take over, remembering to thank everyone she should, but as she scanned the auditorium, even though the light in her eyes meant she couldn’t see anything beyond the first four feet, there was only one person she wanted to thank and couldn’t.
Continued in part 9
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