Blue and Unassuming Under the Christmas Star is a seasonal spin-off from Jackie Mallon’s book, Silk for the Feed Dogs. The story returns to the problems of the loveable but habitually disaster-prone Kat as she tries to find some Christmas spirit in the hearts of the famously grumpy New Yorkers.
Jackie Mallon manages to capture what it is that is so terrifying and exhilarating about the city. So for anyone longing for a proper winter and a proper Christmas, this is the perfect story to help you pretend that you’re in the city that can never be beaten for festive excess.
Blue and Unassuming under the Christmas Star
Kat, a farmer’s daughter from rural Ireland, and Edward, a preppy Economist-reading builder’s son from Birmingham, met five years ago in London at an illustrious school for fashion design. Forced to collaborate on a project, they became unlikely friends and upon graduation, embarked upon an exploration of the “Bella Vita” in Milan, Italy.
My debut novel, Silk for the Feed Dogs, follows the agreeable pair through the ruthless and hierarchical fashion system, as they design the course of their careers, talk Italian, and practice in the fine art of seduction, Italian-style.
In Blue and Unassuming under a Christmas Star, we find Kat a year later, landing in New York from Paris, where she and Edward have been living since leaving Milan. She is to meet Edward, who is arriving in town on the tail end of a work trip, at their hotel. Kat anticipates the kickoff of a glamorous holiday sojourn enjoying their friendship, the world-famous sights and revelling in the Big Apple’s gung-ho conjuring of the Christmas spirit. But one mishap threatens to throw a damper on it…
“She realizes she has left her phone on the AirTrain. A sign on the back of the cab driver’s seat informs her the airport is fifteen miles from Midtown Manhattan. Therefore she is about seven and a half miles away from her phone, and light years away from Edward. He’s stuck in Shanghai with no idea when he will board a flight. This she found out after landing at JFK. In a hurried voicemail message, he recounted a story about a lorry load of knit samples being stolen en route from the factory, leaving them with only thirty-five percent of the Spring collection. He would have to scramble to put everything into work again, and it was the night before he was supposed to leave, the night before he was supposed to join her for their glamorous Manhattan Christmas.
We couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery, thinks Kat, looking out at the light snow flurrying between one lane of traffic and the next.
From the hotel she will call him. What if it’s night-time there? She’ll write him an email briefly explaining the loss of her phone and describe a hastily composed itinerary for the day. Then she’ll make her way back to the hotel and call him again around lunchtime. Otherwise she’ll just see him whenever he checks in. Whatever day he arrives. She looks down at her lap. She has been picking the skin on her thumb which she does when she is anxious. The distant Manhattan skyline stretches out alongside the cab like a misty hedgerow.
“Do you know the cross street, Miss?”
“Um, no, just the address, 204 West 29th?” The driver doesn’t look too impressed with her organizational skills either.
Why isn’t the street address enough here? And why isn’t the price advertised the price you end up paying? She is already fretting about what tip to give him.
The hotel lobby is medieval dark, dotted with untreated wood and hunks of dulled metal slabs edged with rivets posing as furniture. The soft lighting is mostly provided by the rows of laptops on low tables. She waits for a well-shaven man in a narrow cut suit to finish with another guest. He approaches beaming a wide, white-toothed welcome.
“Hello. My name’s Kat Connelly. I’m checking in.”
He studies the computer screen. “I don’t seem to have anything by that name.”
“Oh, of course not! It’ll be under Edward Brandreth. He made the reservation. Two single rooms.”
Wide, white-toothed understanding. He hits several keys. “No, I’m sorry, we have nothing under that name either. Are you sure you’re in the right hotel?”
The piece of paper in her right hand shows the name and address of this hotel, her handwriting. “It is––I mean, it should be. It was booked weeks ago. Are you sure? Can you just check again?”
No white teeth this time. “Do you have a confirmation or booking number?”
She hadn’t thought to print it out. “My friend Edward booked.”
He taps repeatedly the same key. “Wait up. I have a Brandreth for tomorrow night. Two single rooms. Ten days.”
“Oh, thank God! You had me there! I knew he couldn’t be that dizzy—I mean, dizzy enough, obviously, as the booking should include tonight, but at least all’s not lost. Phew!” With no effort she matches the width of his smile. “That’s a relief. Can I have a room for tonight, please?”
His smile goes again and the lobby darkens. She watches him shake his head. “I’m sorry, miss, it’s the week before Christmas, we’re full up.”
“I’ll take a double, whatever you’ve got. I don’t mind paying more.”
His demeanour softens and he leans in, his elbows on the counter. “Girl, you’re going to have trouble getting in anywhere no matter how much money you got.” His accent had eased down-home. “I mean, maybe a Holiday Inn in the boroughs but, seriously, come on, a room tonight? New York is busier than a one-legged dog with fleas.”
There it is: the calamity she feels has been looming since leaving the airport. Alone in New York City with nowhere to sleep. She and Edward should have figured out alternative arrangements in case something went wrong, because with their track record something always goes wrong. It seems inconceivable she didn’t get a copy of the confirmation email. Instead of discussing the details of the booking, they had spent most of their last phone conversation giddily quoting Christmas movies:
“If it’s Serendipity, I’ll get in two hours after you. I’ll meet you just left of Miracle on 34th Street.”
“Can you believe it, Jack Skellington? Next stop, shopping in Christmastown!”
“‘What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.’”
“‘I’ll take it. Then what?’”
“‘Well, then you can swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve, see… and the moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair!’”
Weighing the pointlessness of sitting in a hotel where she is not a guest versus the aimlessness of wandering the city alone, Kat chooses the latter. She’ll be able to think as she walks; neurons will wake up, band together, and storm her cranium to arrive a solution. She curses the people of Shanghai as a bunch of Scrooges trying to spoil their holiday merriment, all over a few sweaters.
If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!
The desk clerk agrees to hold her luggage until the evening. “It’s against hotel policy if you’re not a guest but, geez, far be it from me to contribute to your troubles, child. Quick, leave it there, I’ll pretend I don’t see.” Theatrically he turns away. “I see nothing!”
Taking a deep breath, she steps out into the circular currents of snow and asks someone directions for Fifth Avenue. Considering herself well-travelled, she is surprised how much New York intimidates her with its size and noise and brashness. What becomes immediately clear is she’s not wearing the right shoes. Her toes are clenching in retreat from the damp that’s seeping through the seams of her vintage leather. She studies the feet that pass; even the lower legs of the women wearing dainty pencil skirts culminate in one of two ways: a quilted nylon blob, somewhere in the vicinity of a ski boot gathered by drawstring at the calf, or a garishly patterned rubber boot resembling children’s footwear that waggles about the leg. Both serve to annihilate the line of calf to ankle. Parisians would opt for being born with a cloven hoof rather than have that happen, regardless of the weather, she thinks, then reminds herself that this is the land where chic lags behind comfort. In every company she has ever worked, jersey knit, the ultimate leisure fabric, sold best in the US market. In her line of business, she can’t help but compare how people dress from place to place and what they tote, forming opinions, reaching conclusions.
She catches a glimpse of herself in a window. Hands clasped before her, she looks like she’s praying. She resolves to be less of a blip moving erratically across a grid and more attuned to her surroundings.
She wonders how she ever found her way about or did anything before smartphones, and then gives a grunt. Smartphones render their owners idiots.
Even as her thinking desperately turns to public pay phones, she notices how many people are bearing down on her at speed, heads bent over their own personal screens and keypads. Pate first, they charge; a herd of headlong bovines branded with Apple or Samsung. A telephone booth, there has to be one or two left. The words telephone booth sound so cozy as she trudges on, the prospect of curling up in intimate seclusion for a chat with a friend so appealing. It suddenly sounds as archaic a term as hat box, penny farthing, and powder puff. Still, there just has to be one or two left.
A massive stone building, beautiful, opens up on her left with sculptures of robed men lining the ledges against the sky, four sets of twin columns flanking tall arched entrances, and two stone lions on podiums. The brave pair wear wreathes around their necks and matching jaunty red satin bows tied at the throat. Carved into the stone in large capitals are the words New York Public Library. A library is for the people, she reasons, a bricks and mortar font of information left over from the pre-Information Age, immobile, uninvolved with satellite signals, and from what she can see, open. Hurrah for the old world! She climbs the steps, past the lions surely guarding the last of the city’s public telephones, heartened by the sight of the gold and red Christmas tree twinkling warmly just inside the central archway. A security guard steps forward, asks to search her bag. He peeks inside and taps the leather reassuringly to move her on.
“Can you tell me where the public telephones are, please?”
“Payphones, you mean?” He smiles. “Huh, now, there’s a question. Do we still have them even?” He looks around, purses his lips. Without warning he calls out, his voice echoing through archways, up stairways and crashing off ceilings “Hey… Hey Curtis! Yo, we got any payphones up in here?”
When those echoes subside, new ones ripple in from a hidden Curtis. “Yeah, bro. Saw them the other day. By the children’s section.”
The security guard points over his shoulder to the right. “Just through there, the second room.”
Her eyes glisten with unspoken thanks as Curtis’s voice soars in again. “They all broken though. Somebody needs to make it their business to call a repair guy.”
The sight of her downcast face touches the security guard, compels him to offer what he thinks is a serviceable solution. “Miss, we have Wi-Fi though. On every floor, in every reading room and even in the grounds outside.” With a nod and smile, his duty done, he beckons the next visitor forward. Kat heads back down the steps to be reclaimed by the Fifth Avenue throng.
The ground is laced with white now. As she walks she imagines herself at the centre of a Christmas movie scene, the city’s noises, already dulled by snowfall, overtaken by some soaring Henry Mancini soundtrack with added jingle bells, the cameras panning out to focus on her lone black figure growing smaller on the city’s grand grid, progressing uptown, yes, uptown because now she is at 49th Street. She finds the architecture miniaturizing, yet when she manages to forget for a second her predicament, it’s uplifting too. She could be protagonist or extra in any story here, feel like a star or be extra anonymous. On impulse she reaches out and touches the expensive plaid sleeve of a passing woman’s coat.
“I’m terribly sorry, would I be able to use your cell phone briefly to make a call? I’m alone in the city and––” The woman flicks Kat’s fingers from the plaid without stopping. Kat tries this with three more strangers. An older woman steps back alarmed which makes Kat fade embarrassed into the crowd, her heart pounding. A teenager tells her to get lost. Finally a man pauses and listens to her tale with his head cocked to one side. At first it might be a business pitch he’s hearing but presently Kat detects in his eyes a glimmer of compassion. Then at the mention of Shanghai, he splutters “Yeah, right!” and bolts with a flap of his topcoat. Bolstered, however, Kat fishes ten dollars from her purse and holds it in both hands as she approaches another man in a suit, tie and topcoat. These corporate types seem to be the most amenable to her intrusion, and she ignores her uneasiness when she thinks how it must look: young female approaching older businessman leading to a sidewalk exchange of money.
“Listen, I’ll help you out, but if my wife calls, I need to answer it, you got that? She’s been chasing me all day and I’ve sent her to voicemail four times.” He looks down the street, both ways, turns his lapel up. “She is not happy.” He waves away her money and hands her earbuds. “Use these. I’ll keep hold of the phone.” Glancing up gratefully and with clumsy fingers, she inserts them in her ears, pulls the same piece of paper that contains the hotel address from her pocket and punches in Edward’s cell phone number. Her forefinger picks a shard of skin from around her thumbnail and she barely registers the sting of it as she listens to the dial tone. Curse him to Almighty for not answering. She can picture him squinting at the screen, lifting it up to study the number, pursing his contrary little lips, then replacing it on a desk with a sniff and turning back to what he was doing. It goes to voicemail and she feels like hurling the stranger’s phone into the traffic.
“Hey, it’s Edward. Why are you disturbing me with a phone call? Nowadays it’s much less invasive to text. Oh, while you’re here, go on then, leave a message. If you must.”
BEEP. Barely managing to keep from shrieking, she launches breathlessly into her message, “Bloody hell, Edward! You booked the hotel for tomorrow night, not tonight. I’m stranded in New York with no place to sleep! I’ve lost my phone and––” There is a noise, not a promising one. The phone gulps and she realizes the man has shot off in the other direction with the phone to his ear, the chord of his earbuds dangling between her fingers. “Hey! Wait, please! I was in the middle of talking! WAIT please, I’m begging you!” She runs after him and pulls at his coat, his sleeve, his flapping scarf; he jerks away. “No it’s no one, honey. I promise. Don’t be silly, it’s just some crazy person on Fifth Avenue. Tis the season, after all. Look, I’ll be home early; we’ll go to our place.” He turns, mouths sorry and hurries off.
She drops onto the steps of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Mentally exhausted and with nowhere to sleep, she now recognizes the lumbering juggernaut of jetlag encroaching from the peripheries. The dusting of snow on the step turns to water under her rear, no doubt marking her best coat in an unfortunate, truly homeless-looking way. Over her shoulder a long queue snakes from the door of the neo-Gothic cathedral around the block, a mixture of prayer book and guidebook believers anticipating the exalted stained glass, the Tiffany-designed altar, the lofty marble columns fanning out like palm leaves to the ceiling, and the pietà that’s three times the size of Michelangelo’s Pietà. She thinks about joining them and curling up just inside under the holy water fountain till morning. She could light a candle and leave it to the heavens to seal her fate. If Edward were here he would say, “You don’t come to New York to go to church, Kat, you can do that anytime. I personally don’t do religion unless I have drink in me. See? I’m more Irish than you think.”
She picks herself up and crosses the street alongside a trio of singing Santas bearing a Salvation Army donation bucket. Their accelerated harmonies of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” make shoppers dance and sway.
She fights to extract herself from behind a group of Italians who have halted smack dab in the middle of the pavement. They are all dressed in the same quilted jacket but in different colours and resemble a little barricade of activated airbags. She attempts unsuccessfully to go around them and the old irritation arises in her even though it has been over a year since she left. Loitering with lack of intent she called it. You can take the Italian out of the piazza but you can’t take the piazza out of the Italian.
“Permesso?” She sighs dramatically. “Mi fate passare?”
Looks of surprise. The airbags are deactivated. “Prego, Signorina!” Just like that, she has removed the look of the tourist from each of their faces by generously placing them on familiar territory. Sure enough, she feels their eyes work their way down the length of her and make the return journey.
“Mille grazie,” she says haughtily, passing through their centre. A few steps later, she, like them, stops short, infuriating those behind her.
Of course, there is its stature, but she is already used to the bigness of big here. That isn’t what makes it special. It is the inch-by-inch attention to detail on such a scale. The Rockefeller Christmas tree. There isn’t a pine needle that doesn’t sparkle against the fuchsia-lit facade of the skyscraper behind it. It is the Taylor-Burton diamond of Christmas trees. It symbolizes ambition, hope, confidence.
Kat has to believe this energizing trio must surge through the city all year round but at Christmas they really come into their own, accompanied by French horns, gussied up with flashing lights and tied with bows. Quiet confidence is an oxymoron here, quiet hope akin to hopelessness, quiet ambition no ambition at all. That must be the New York way from what she has observed. Just four hours since landing and she marvels at the unapologetic volume of people’s voices. Everyone’s an announcer. Italians yell at each other in the street, a barrage of obscenities or the same predictable Ciao Bellissima, but New Yorkers make you privy to the full-throated details of divorce settlements, bank accounts, therapy sessions, troubled childhoods, this verbal release ushering them on to greater things. All the neuroses of a Woody Allen film seem to sputter from the city’s orifices like natural waste, better out than in. Beside her, with the Rockefeller spectacle as his backdrop, a man on his cell phone describes being audited by the tax authorities, having his screenplay rejected by a famous director and getting hit by a yellow cab––and no health insurance!––all in the same week. Then he turns and offers her a toothpaste commercial grin. Built on the smoldering remains of trauma and dysfunction rises the city of eternal hope; white teeth in the face of adversity.
She decides she would do well to learn a thing or two from them and quit being such a defeatist. All she needs is a room for the night. There are infinite possibilities that could yet unfold. A brass band bursts buoyantly into “Good King Wenceslas” and she feels grateful she didn’t leave her wallet behind instead of the phone. She drinks in one last view of the tree and adjusts her thinking. I am in control of my own destiny. Look around! Here I am in the heart of Manhattan despite less than ideal circumstances but how can I complain if I am at the centre of the world? This isn’t called the Empire State for nothing.
The corner of Fifty-Fourth and Fifth offers prime people-watching opportunities. New Yorkers have a possessiveness to their stride; every purpose-filled step is a flag planted in the patch of cement they have landed on. Even though their foot abandons it immediately in search of pastures new, for that fleeting moment, that square meter of the city is all theirs, a successful mini takeover bid. Kat tries to mimic this and with renewed resolve, enters two nearby hotels and requests a room. Both times the hotel staff wear the same looks of worried confusion that the previous hotel clerk wore.
Then Kat sees it, blue and unassuming under a Christmas star of neon fixed to a lamp post: a public telephone. It’s clear it’s working because a man is talking into it, and quite animatedly at that. The brass band plays on and Kat blesses their merry souls. She almost tingles with the certainty that this time she will get through, that Edward will have listened to her truncated message and will be on alert for her to call again. Dare she hope it?
As she draws near, there is a new noise discernible above all the rest, a sound like the animalistic grunt boxers make when they suffer repeated blows to the head. The telephone user’s voice. “Look behind me, he says. Behind me, motherfucker? I ain’t no fool. Put your head back in your Facebook. Tell me, does this train run express? Huh, does it? Holy shit, this carriage stinks.” His head, wrapped in a purple bandanna that’s tucked under an orange baseball cap embellished with badges, jerks back with the delivery of every short sentence as if with the force of a punch. He pokes the air for emphasis. “It’s the Uptown train I need, motherfucker. Get out my way!”
He removes the phone from his ear and stares the mouthpiece down. With his lips pulled into two taut slivers, he mutters between clenched teeth and strikes the corner of the payphone with the receiver, a gut-wrenching noise, simultaneously slamming his fist against the numbers, once, twice, three times. Kat is beside him. “No-no, please, no don’t do that, no…” She seizes the receiver, prizing his fingers off it one by one. His hand falls limp. Puzzlement knits his features. He frees the telephone receiver and runs off, turning to look back at her as he cuts through the crowd.
Close to tears, Kat hangs up the receiver. She can feel the pulse at her wrist stampeding. She lifts the phone again, her body slack with pessimism, and holds it to her ear. Not a sound. Probably wasn’t even working in the first place.
The bobbing and curtsying sound of the brass band can be heard from several blocks away, mocking her.
And the Grinch said, “Blast this Christmas music… it’s joyful AND triumphant.”
Up ahead, a sign propped against a homeless man’s knees catches her eye, and its gallows humour manages to draw from her the vaguest smile: “I always wanted to be someone but I see now I should have been more specific.”
“I love your sign,” she tells him, yearning for conversation. “Profound.”
“Could you spare some change please, Miss?”
She can’t resist asking his name. Sean. Sean Donnelly. He is a down-on-his-luck corn-fed All-American boy with an all-round good Irish name. His sign informs her he needs bus fare back to Kansas. She empties her purse.
Sean counts the different sized coins she has poured into his hand and looks up at her. “Sixty-four cents? You’re giving me sixty-four cents?”
“Is that all that’s there?” Back in her purse, nothing; she fishes in her pockets, nothing. “I’m sorry, that’s all I have. I haven’t been to an ATM machine yet.”
“Man, I cannot believe it. What the fuck am I supposed to do with that?”
In Sean Kat recognizes not a point of conversation anymore but the repository for all her frustrations. “Give that money back, you little shit. Go on, hand it over.” She holds out her hand and several shoppers gasp. “Come on, it’s Christmas, let it go,” says one, “you won’t miss it.” “You mind your own business,” she hisses, bracing herself menacingly at the passers-by who walk on, shaking their heads and muttering, “Some people have no sense of charity, and at this time of year…” When Kat turns back to Sean, he wears a look somewhere between amusement and challenge.
“You’re disrespecting me. You don’t deserve my money. I didn’t have to give you anything, I could have walked on by like everyone else. This is not a place for pennies, I can see that. Well, fair enough, give it back, come on. Hold out for some of those great big dollar bills you’re waiting for. And good luck to you!” She looks at the yoghurt pot he uses to collect money, gives it a light kick. It contains silver and copper but only two notes. “It looks like they’re harder to come by than you think.”
“You’re a feisty wee one, aren’t ye?” His accent evokes less of the Kansas cornfields and more of the Wicklow Mountains. “If you want your money back you’ll have to come in here and take it.” He puts the hand holding the coins down deep into his sleeping bag.
“You’re not even American. You and your transatlantic false accent.”
“Who broke your train set? Don’t you have no Christmas spirit? You’re in the wrongest place on earth then, aren’t you?”
She hunkers down and leaning against the wall of a men’s luxury tie store, she breathes in deep, falls silent. She secretly enjoyed that outburst, probably because Sean is the first company she’s had since she left Charles de Gaulle. She eases up and finds him to be a decent listener as she confides in him her run of poor luck.
“There’s a YMCA on Forty-Seventh that might have vacancies if you don’t mind the bedbugs, cockroaches and constant smell of marijuana, as well as the long walk down The Shining corridor to get to the shared bathroom. It’s where I go when I’m feeling flush after a win on the horses, it being a smidgen closer than the Waldorf Astoria.” He smiles wryly and produces from his sleeping bag the latest iPhone which with a swipe of his finger casts a festive glow onto his features. He hands it over. “Call them.”
“You got the newest one. How? There’s even a waiting list.”
“I took my sleeping bag and camped outside the Apple store overnight. I got the second last one.”
The Hispanic lady who answers the phone tells Kat there are no vacancies but sometimes there are no-shows and she should stop by that evening around seven when they give out unused beds on a first come, first serve basis. It’s the most encouraging news she’s had since she landed. She visits an ATM machine and drops twenty dollars into Sean’s yoghurt pot. Then adds another ten in exchange for making a second call to Edward.
This time she expects no response and isn’t disappointed. She leaves a message stating that she will be at the YMCA Vanderbilt at seven and will hopefully stay there that night. “Otherwise I’ll be temporarily residing in a cardboard box on Fifth Avenue––cross street?––Fifty-Sixth beside a nice Irishman called Sean whose phone I’m using to make this call that you can’t be bothered to answer. But the cardboard box will be Bergdorf Goodman’s largest because this was supposed to be a glamorous holiday after all, and it will have oodles of tinsel draped over it because, God forbid, I lose the Christmas spirit. Hope you’re warm and cosy toasty with a dirty martini at arm’s length. Ciao.”
“Ah, sarcasm. I do miss me ma.”
While Sean slides his iPhone into the depths of his sleeping bag, Kat rises and hops about to warm up. “I can only imagine what else you’ve got down there.”
He flashes a crooked smile. “It’s not the most subtle of advances I’ve heard but what the hell, cease imagining immediately, woman, and hop on in.” He lowers the zipper and holds open the mouth of the sleeping bag. “I’ll show you mine if––”
“Oh, God, I didn’t mean that! I mean, I wasn’t, God, total embarrassment.”
“Ach, I’m only messin’ with ye.”
She smiles. “Right. Well, I’m going to have to keep moving or I’ll catch pneumonia. Although of sturdy stock, today I’m being sorely tested. Care for a walk?”
“Can’t, doll. Guy’s gotta make a living.” Sean’s American accent is back. He spirits the bills from the yoghurt pot, shakes the coins up and looks expectantly into the faces that pass. She wishes him merry Christmas and melds with the crowd.
Soon she is in the thick of Manhattan’s fanciest shops, passing Prada, Henri Bendel, Gucci, Tiffany, Dolce & Gabbana. Street carts sell roasted chestnuts and hotdogs but she can’t account for the smell of cinnamon everywhere. It hangs under her running nose. Eartha Kitt purrs from every doorway, “Santa cutie, fill my stocking with a duplex and checks. Sign your X on the line…” She should feel right at home; it’s the New York equivalent of strolling along Via Montenapoleone or rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré as she and Edward had done so often in the past. She wishes he was beside her, the sight of luxury goods making her feel surprisingly melancholy. The window displays are like spreads from her favourite fashion magazines, opulent optical feasts curated with an eye for theatre, and yet, she can reduce them to towers of expensive white-frosted clutter in a second.
She joins the little assembly of fashion devotees paying homage outside the first window of Bergdorf Goodman. The window is as large as a room, with all the pomp and ceremony of a Broadway stage. Kat’s eyes gorge on human-sized marionettes brandishing trumpets, frilled candy-striped lampshades resembling the petticoat skirts of Toulouse-Lautrec’s dancers, crystal-flecked Venetian masks and studded pink suede shoes, little caped drummer girls, bunches of swollen grapes tumbling from goblets and confetti-flecked doughnuts as big as wreathes suspended above vintage cars; velvet purses under icicles and whipped cream pies arranged in a still-life with jellyfish, tapestries and reptiles; Audrey Hepburn’s pearls are strewn across the leather and chrome of a Harley Davison parked in a glacially lit grotto next to a stuffed peacock; giant slices of cake with chocolate dipped strawberries may have been made of papier-mâché, but Kat would eat them all anyway. This glorious lack of cohesion makes her want to lick every window. She craves all of it, her nose to the glass in the hope of at least smelling it. She hadn’t known this ravenous consumer was rushing about inside her, clamouring to get out.
A liveried horseman in a frosted, duck-egg blue carriage pulled by a horse sprouting feathers from his forehead and a lei around his neck passes close to the sidewalk. Kat turns around just as the lascivious clap of manure hitting Manhattan’s tarmac rings out. A voice at her shoulder says, “Kat, how is it possible that livestock still know just where to find you, all these years after leaving the farm?”
“Edward!” The heads of the Bergdorf Goodman pilgrims swivel in unison. She squeezes him so tightly he yelps.
“You’re throttling me, you daft apeth! It hasn’t been that long. I just saw you a couple of weeks ago!”
“Are you joking? Did you get my messages? I’ve been worrying all day. How did you know where to find me?”
He winks. “As Cary Grant says to Deborah Kerr, “‘If you can paint, I can walk––’” She joins in, “‘––anything can happen!’ An Affair to Remember!” She squeezes his arm. “Yep, you’re real.”
“As real as Christmas, and twice as camp.”
“But still, how did you know in all of New York I’d be here?”
“It required no great calculation. I know you too well. I knew you’d stare moony-eyed for hours at these windows. Of course I did. What else would you do on your first day, the zoo? I’m not saying you’re predictable or anything. So I sat in the Plaza Hotel by the window and waited with a piping hot toddy for my trouble. I was getting worried. Would I be able to see you when it got dark? Lo and behold, I stepped outside to smoke a ciggie and saw you turn the corner right at the window that has the perfume bottles sliding down the mini ski slope. What a relief. I’ve picked up the cargo, crisis averted, now, let’s go. I’ve wangled a night at the Plaza for us from a rather charming gentleman I met. You’ll meet him too. Incidentally, do you know how much those suites cost? Cripes, try our whole holiday budget and then some! See, turns out I made a little mistakeroo with our hotel booking but don’t worry about it. They serve the best sidecars in the upstairs bar here and we can dine on truffle-flavoured popcorn––what are you looking at me like that for?”
“But I was planning on staying with the cockroaches at the YMCA, dining on the lingering smell of marijuana?”
“Suit yourself but it’s really rather nice over here. Aren’t you cold? You look a wreck. Why is the arse of your coat all black? You look like you’ve slept on a park bench. This is the Plaza we’re talking about!”
“Did you see the Valentino shoes in that third window?”
The bar upstairs at the Plaza is doused in crimson light. Everything dances and flickers, down below the magnificent chandeliers sparkle in the art deco foyer, its domed ceiling of sepia stained glass florals trellised with black shedding a benign serenity over the heads below. The Christmas tree is trimmed with ropes of crystals and shimmering glass balls and at the heart of all these lights, beams, sparkles and glimmers, Kat and Edward’s eyes dance as their conversation meanders.
Outside, the white-gloved doormen welcome guests from town cars. The horse drawn carriages have bottlenecked at the entrance to Central Park. Yellow cabs circle the Pulitzer fountain arriving and departing the hotel’s red carpeted front steps in steady numbers. At the centre of it, Pomona, the goddess of abundance, with her basket of fruit raised, looks off contentedly, to the right of Kat and Edward, beyond the trees into Central Park, past the ice rink and the Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis reservoir and to the dark empty grassless greens of Strawberry Fields and Sheep Meadow, now completely white.”
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