Penguin Books
Anybody Out There?

Marian Keyes


ANYBODY OUT THERE?

Contents

Prologue

PART ONE

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

PART TWO

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

PART THREE

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

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Prologue

There was no return address on the envelope, which was a little weird. Already, I was slightly uneasy. Even more so when I saw my name and address

The sensible woman would not open this. The sensible woman would throw it in the bin and walk away. But, apart from a short period between the ages of twenty-nine and thirty, when had I ever been sensible?

So I opened it.

It was a card, a watercolour of a bowl of droopy-looking flowers. And flimsy enough that I could feel something inside. Money? I thought. A cheque? But I was just being sarcastic, even though there was no one there to hear me and, anyway, I was only saying it in my own head.

And indeed, there was something inside: a photograph … Why was I being sent this? I already had loads of similar ones. Then I saw that I was wrong. It wasn’t him at all. And, suddenly, I understood everything.

Part One


1

Mum flung open the sitting-room door and announced, ‘Morning, Anna, time for your tablets.’

She tried to march in briskly, like nurses she’d seen on hospital dramas, but there was so much furniture in the room that instead she had to wrestle her way towards me.

When I’d arrived in Ireland eight weeks earlier, I couldn’t climb the stairs because of my dislocated kneecap, so my parents had moved a bed downstairs into the Good Front Room.

Make no mistake, this was a huge honour: under normal circumstances we were only let into this room at Christmastime. The rest of the year, all familial leisure activities – television-watching, chocolate-eating, bickering – took place in the cramped converted garage, which went by the grand title of Television Room.

But when my bed was installed in the GFR there was nowhere for the other fixtures – tasselled couches, tasselled armchairs – to go. The room now looked like one of those discount furniture stores where millions of couches are squashed in together, so that you almost have to clamber over them like boulders along the seafront.

‘Right, Missy.’ Mum consulted a sheet of paper, an hour-by-hour schedule of all my medication – antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, sleeping pills, high-impact vitamins, painkillers which induced a very pleasant floaty feeling, and a member of the Valium family which she had ferried away to a secret location.

All the different packets and jars stood on a small elaborately carved table – several china dogs of unparalleled hideousness had been shifted to make way for them and now sat on the floor looking reproachfully at me – and Mum began sorting through them, popping out capsules and shaking pills from bottles.

My bed had been thoughtfully placed in the window bay so that I could look out at passing life. Except that I couldn’t: there was a net curtain in place that was as immovable as a metal wall. Not physically immovable, you understand, but socially immovable: in Dublin suburbia, brazenly lifting your nets to have a good look at ‘passing life’ is a social gaffe akin to painting the front of your house tartan. Besides, there was no passing life. Except … actually, through the gauzy barrier, I’d begun to notice that most days an elderly woman stopped to let her dog wee at our gatepost. Sometimes I thought the dog, a cute black and white terrier, didn’t even want to wee, but it seemed as if the woman was insisting.

‘Okay, Missy.’ Mum had never called me ‘Missy’ before all of this. ‘Take these.’ She tipped a handful of pills into my mouth and passed me a glass of water. She was very kind really, even if I suspected she was just acting out a part.

‘Dear Jesus,’ a voice said. It was my sister Helen, home from a night’s work. She stood in the doorway of the sitting room, looked round at all the tassels and asked, ‘How can you stand it?’

Helen is the youngest of the five of us and still lives in the parental home, even though she’s twenty-nine. But why would she move out, she often asks, when she’s got a rent-free gig, cable telly and a built-in chauffeur (Dad). The food, of course, she admits, is a problem, but there are ways around everything.

‘Hi, honey, you’re home,’ Mum said. ‘How was work?’

After several career changes, Helen – and I’m not making this up, I wish I was – is a private investigator. Mind you, it sounds far more dangerous and exciting than it is. She mostly does white-collar crime and ‘domestics’ – where she has to get proof of men having affairs. I would find it terribly depressing but she says it doesn’t bother her because she’s always known that men are total scumbags.

She spends a lot of time sitting in wet hedges with a long-range lens, trying to get photographic evidence of the adulterers leaving their love nest. She could stay in her nice, warm, dry car but then she tends to fall asleep and miss her mark.

‘Mum, I’m very stressed,’ she said. ‘Any chance of a Valium?’

‘No.’

‘My throat is killing me. Warcrime sore. I’m going to bed.’

Helen, on account of all the time she spends in damp hedges, gets a lot of sore throats.

‘I’ll bring you up some ice cream in a minute, pet,’ Mum said. ‘Tell me, I’m dying to know, did you get your mark?’

Mum loves Helen’s job, nearly more than she loves mine and that’s saying a lot. (Apparently, I have The Best Job In The World™.) Occasionally, when Helen is very bored or scared, Mum even goes to work with her; the Case of the Missing Woman comes to mind. Helen had to go to the woman’s apartment, looking for clues (air tickets to Rio, etc. As if …) and Mum went along because she loves seeing inside other people’s houses. She says it’s amazing how dirty people’s homes are when they’re not expecting visitors. This gives her great relief, making it easier to live in her own less-than-pristine crib. But, because her life had begun to resemble, however briefly, a crime drama, Mum got carried away and tried to break down the locked apartment door by running at it with her shoulder – even though, and I can’t stress this enough, Helen had a key. And Mum knew she had it. It had been given to her by the missing woman’s sister and all Mum got for her trouble was a badly mashed shoulder.

‘It’s not like on the telly,’ she complained afterwards, kneading the top of her arm.

Then, earlier this year, someone tried to kill Helen. The general consensus was not so much shock that such a dreadful thing would happen, as amazement that it hadn’t come to pass much sooner. Of course, it wasn’t really an attempt on her life. Persons unknown threw a stone through the television-room window during an episode of EastEnders – probably just one of the local teenagers expressing his feelings of youthful alienation, but the next thing, Mum was on the phone to everyone, saying that someone was trying to ‘put the frighteners’ on Helen, that they ‘wanted her off the case’. As ‘the case’ was a small, office fraud enquiry where an employer had Helen install a hidden camera to see if his employees were nicking printer cartridges, this seemed a little unlikely. But who was I to rain on their parade? And that’s what I would have been doing: they’re such drama queens they actually thought this was exciting. Except Dad, and only because he was the one who had to sweep up all the broken glass and Sellotape a plastic bag over the hole until the glazier arrived, approximately six months later. (I suspect Mum and Helen live in a fantasy world where they think someone’s going to come along and turn their lives into a massively successful TV series. In which they will, it goes without saying, play themselves.)

‘Yes, I got him. Ding-dong! Right, I’m off to bed.’ Instead she stretched out on one of the many couches. ‘The man spotted me in the hedge, taking his picture.’

Mum’s hand went to her mouth, the way a person’s would on telly, if they wanted to indicate anxiety.

‘Nothing to worry about,’ Helen said. ‘We had a little chat. He asked for my phone number. Cackhead,’ she added with blistering scorn.

That’s the thing about Helen: she’s very beautiful. Men, even those she’s spying on for their wives, fall for her. Despite me being three years older than her, she and I look extremely similar: we’re short with long dark hair and almost identical faces. Mum sometimes confuses us with each other, especially when she’s not wearing her glasses. But, unlike me, Helen’s got some magic pull. She operates on an entirely unique frequency, which mesmerizes men; perhaps on the same principle as the whistle that only dogs can hear. When men meet the two of us, you can see their confusion. You can actually see them thinking: They look the same, but this Helen has bewitched me like a drug, whereas that Anna is just so-what … Not that it does the men in question any good. Helen boasts that she’s never been in love and I believe her. She’s unbothered by sentimentality and has contempt for everyone and everything.

Even Luke, Rachel’s boyfriend – well, fiancé now. Luke is so dark and sexy and testosteroney that I dread being alone with him. I mean, he’s a lovely person, really, really lovely, but just, you know … all man. I both fancy him and am repelled by him, if that makes any sense; and everyone – even Mum – I’d say even Dad – is sexually attracted to him. Not Helen, though.

All of a sudden Mum seized my arm – luckily, my unbroken one – and hissed, in a voice throbbing with excitement, ‘Look! It’s Jolly Girl, Angela Kilfeather. With her Jolly Girl girlfriend! She must be home, visiting!’

Angela Kilfeather is the most exotic creature that ever came out of our road. Well, that’s not really true – my family is far more dramatic what with broken marriages and suicide attempts and drug addiction and Helen, but Mum uses Angela Kilfeather as the gold standard: bad and all as her daughters are, at least they’re not lesbians who French-kiss their girlfriends beside suburban leylandii.

(Helen once worked with an Indian man who mistranslated ‘gays’ as ‘Jolly Boys’. It caught on so much that nearly everyone I know – including all my gay friends – now refers to gay men as ‘Jolly Boys’. And always said in an Indian accent. The logical conclusion is that lesbians are ‘Jolly Girls’, also said in an Indian accent.)

Mum placed one eye up against the gap between the wall and the net curtain. ‘I can’t see, give me your binoculars,’ she ordered Helen, who produced them from her rucksack with alacrity – but only for her own personal use. A small but fierce stuggle ensued. ‘She’ll be GONE,’ Mum begged. ‘Let me see.’

‘Promise you’ll give me a Valium and the gift of long vision is yours.’

It was a dilemma for Mum but she did the right thing.

‘You know I can’t do that,’ she said primly. ‘I’m your mother and it would be irresponsible.’

‘Please yourself,’ Helen said, then gazed through the binoculars and murmured, ‘Good Christ, would you look at that!’ Then, ‘Buh-loody hell! Ding-dong! What are they trying to do? A Jolly Girl tonsilectomy?’

Then Mum had sprung off the couch and was trying to grab the binoculars from Helen and they wrestled like children, only stopping when they bumped against my hand, the one with the missing fingernails, and my shriek of pain restored them to decorum.

2

After she’d washed me, Mum took the bandages off my face, like she did every day, then bundled me up in a blanket. I sat in the matchbox of a back garden, watching the grass grow – the painkillers made me super-dopey and serene – and airing my cuts.

But the doctor had said that exposure to direct sunlight was strictly verboten, so even though there was scant chance of that in Ireland in April, I wore a stupid-looking wide-brimmed hat which Mum had worn to my sister Claire’s wedding; luckily there was no one there to see me. (Note to self: Philosophical question along the lines of, When a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound? And when you wear a stupid-looking hat but there’s no one there to see it, is it still stupid-looking?)

The sky was blue, the day was quite warm and all was pleasant. I listened to Helen coughing intermittently in an upstairs bedroom and dreamily watched the pretty flowers sway to the left in the light breeze, then back to the right, then to the left again … There were late daffodils and tulips and other pinkish ones whose name I didn’t know. Funny, I remembered floatily, we used to have a horrible garden, the worst on the whole road, perhaps in the whole of Blackrock. For years it was just a dumping ground for rusty bicycles (ours) and empty Johnnie Walker bottles (also ours) and that was because, unlike other, more decent, hardworking families, we had a gardener: Michael, a bad-tempered, gnarled old man who used to do nothing except make Mum stand in the freezing cold while he explained why he couldn’t cut the grass (‘The germs get in through the cut bits, then it just ups and dies on you’), or why he couldn’t trim the hedge (‘The wall needs it for support, Missus’). Instead of telling him to get lost, Mum used to buy him top-of-the-range biscuits, then Dad used to cut the grass in the middle of the night rather than confront him. But when Dad retired they finally had the perfect excuse to get rid of Michael. Not that he took it graciously. Amid much muttering about amateurs who’d have the place destroyed within minutes, he left in high dudgeon and found employment with the O’Mahoneys where he rained shame down on our entire family by telling Mrs O’Mahoney that he’d once seen Mum drying lettuce with a dirty tea towel. Never mind, he’s gone and the flowers, courtesy of Dad, are far nicer now. My only complaint is that the calibre of biscuits in the house has dropped dramatically since Michael’s departure. But you can’t have things every way, and that realization set me off on an entirely different train of thought. And it was only when the saltwater of my tears ran into my cuts and made them sting that I discovered I was crying.

I wanted to go back to New York. For the last few days I’d been thinking about it. Not just considering it, but gripped by a powerful compulsion and unable to understand why I hadn’t gone before now. The problem was, though, that Mum and the rest of them would go mad when I told them. I could already hear their arguments – I must stay in Dublin where my roots were, where I was loved, where they could ‘take care of me’.

But my family’s version of ‘care-taking’ isn’t like other, more normal families’. They think the solution to everything lies in chocolate.

At the thought of how long and loud they’d protest, I was grabbed by another panicky seizure: I had to return to New York. I had to get back to my job. I had to get back to my friends. And although there was no way I could tell anyone this, because they would have sent for the men in the white coats, I had to get back to Aidan.

I closed my eyes and started to drift but suddenly, like a grinding of gears in my head, I was plunged into a memory of noise and pain and darkness. I snapped my eyes open: the flowers were still pretty, the grass was still green, but my heart was pounding and I was struggling for breath.

This had started over the past few days: the painkillers weren’t working as nicely as they had in the beginning. They were wearing off faster and ragged little chinks were appearing in the blanket of mellowness they dropped on me and the horror would rush in, like water from a burst dam.

I struggled to my feet and went inside where I watched Home and Away, had lunch (half a cheese scone, five satsuma segments, two Maltesers, eight pills), then Mum dressed my wounds again before my walk. She loved this bit, busying about with her surgical scissors, briskly cutting lengths of cotton wool and white sticky tape, like the doctor had shown her. Nurse Walsh tending to the sick. Matron Walsh, even. I closed my eyes. The touch of her fingertips on my face was soothing.

‘The smaller ones on my forehead have started to itch, that’s a good sign, isn’t it?’

‘Let’s see.’ She moved my fringe aside to take a closer look. ‘These really are healing well,’ she said, like she knew what she was talking about. ‘I think we can probably leave the bandages off these. And maybe the one on your chin.’ (A perfect circle of flesh had been removed from the very centre of my chin. It will come in handy when I want to do Kirk Douglas impersonations.) ‘But no scratching, Missy! Of course, facial wounds are handled so well these days,’ she said knowledgeably, parroting what the doctor had told us. ‘These sutures are far better than stitches. It’s only this one, really,’ she said, gently stroking antiseptic gel on to the deep, puckered gash that ran the length of my right cheek, then pausing to let me flinch with pain. This wound wasn’t held together with sutures; instead it had dramatic Frankenstein-style stitches which looked like they’d been done with a darning needle. Of all the marks on the face this was the only one which wouldn’t eventually disappear.

‘But that’s what plastic surgeons are for,’ I said, also parroting what the doctor had told us.

‘That’s right,’ Mum agreed. But her voice sounded faraway and strangled. Quickly, I opened my eyes. She was hunched in on herself and muttered something that might have been, ‘Your poor little face.’

‘Mum, don’t cry!’

‘I’m not.’

‘Good.’

‘Anyway, I think I hear Margaret.’ Roughly, she rubbed her face with a tissue and went outside to laugh at Maggie’s new car.

Maggie had arrived for our daily walk. Maggie, the second eldest of the five of us, is the maverick of the Walsh family, our dirty secret, our white sheep. The others (even Mum, in unguarded moments) call her a ‘lickarse’, a word I’m not comfortable with because it is so mean, but admittedly does the job well. Maggie had ‘rebelled’ by living a quiet, well-ordered life with a quiet, well-ordered man called Garv, whom, for years, my family hated. They objected to his reliability, his decency and most of all his jumpers. (Too similar to Dad’s, was the consensus.) However, relations have softened in recent years, especially since the children came along: JJ is now three and Holly is five months.

I will admit to having entertained some jumper-based prejudice myself, of which I’m now ashamed because about four years ago Garv helped me to change my life. I’d reached a nasty little crossroads (more details later) and Garv was endlessly, unfathomably kind. He even got me a job in the actuarial firm where he worked – initially in the post room, then I was promoted to the front desk. Then he encouraged me to get a qualification, so I got a diploma in Public Relations. I know it’s not as impressive as a masters degree in Astrophysics and that it sounds more like a diploma in Watching Telly or Eating Sweets, but if I hadn’t got it, I would never have ended up in my current job – The Best Job In The WorldTM. And I would never have met Aidan.

I hobbled to the front door. Maggie was unloading children from her new car, a wide-bodied people-carrier which Mum was insisting looked like it had elephantitis.

Dad was also out there, trying to provide a foil for Mum’s contempt; he was demonstrating what a fine car it was by walking around it and kicking all four tyres.

‘Look at the quality on it,’ he declared and kicked a tyre again to underscore his point.

‘Look at the little piggy eyes on it!’

‘They’re not eyes, Mum, they’re lights,’ Maggie said, unbuckling something and emerging with baby Holly under her arm.

‘Could you not have got a Porsche?’ Mum asked.

‘Too eighties.’

‘A Maserati?’

‘Not fast enough.’

Mum – I worried that she might have been suffering from boredom – had developed a sudden, late-in-life longing for a fast, sexy car. She watched Top Gear and she knew (a little) about Lamborghinis and Aston Martins.

Maggie’s torso disappeared into the car again and, after more unbuckling, she emerged with three-year-old JJ under her other arm.

Maggie, like Claire (the sister older than her) and Rachel (the sister younger than her), is tall and strong. The three of them come from an identical gene-pool to Mum’s. Helen and I, a pair of shortarses, look astonishingly different to them and I don’t know where we get it from. Dad isn’t terribly small, it’s just the meekness that makes him seem that way.

Maggie has embraced motherhood with a passion – not just the actual mothering, but the look. One of the best things about having children, she says, is not having the time to worry about what she looks like, and she boasts that she has totally given up on shopping. The previous week she told me that at the start of every spring and autumn she goes to Marks & Spencer and buys six identical skirts, two pairs of shoes – one high, one flat – and a selection of tops. ‘In and out in forty minutes,’ she gloated, absolutely missing the point. Other than her hair, which is shoulder-length and a lovely chestnut colour (artificial – clearly she hasn’t given up completely), she looks more mumsy than Mum.

‘Look at that hickey oul’ skirt on her,’ Mum murmured. ‘People will think we’re sisters.’

‘I heard that,’ Maggie called. ‘And I don’t care.’

‘Your car looks like a rhino,’ was Mum’s parting shot.

‘A minute ago it was an elephant. Dad, can you open out the buggy, please.’

Then JJ spotted me and became incoherent with delight. Maybe it was just the novelty value, but I was currently his favourite auntie. He squirmed out of Maggie’s grip and rushed up the drive like a cannonball. He was always flinging himself at me and even though three days earlier he had accidentally headbutted my dislocated knee, which was just out of plaster, and the pain had made me vomit, I still forgave him.

I would have forgiven him anything: he was an absolute scream. Being around him definitely lifted my mood but I tried not to show it too much because the rest of them might have worried about me getting too fond of him and they had enough to worry about with me. They might even have started with the well-meaning platitudes – that I was young, that I would eventually have a child of my own, etc., etc. – and I was pretty sure I wasn’t ready to hear them.

I took JJ into the house to collect his ‘walk hat’. When Mum had been searching out a wide-brimmed, sun-deflecting hat for me, she’d come across an entire cache of dreadful hats she’d worn to weddings over the years. It was almost as shocking as uncovering a mass grave. There were loads, each one more overblown than the last, and for some reason JJ had fallen in love with a flat, glazed straw hat with a cluster of cherries dangling from the brim. JJ insisted it was ‘a cowboy hat’ but, really, nothing could have been further from the truth. Already, at the age of three, he was displaying a pleasing strain of eccentricity – which must have been from some recessive gene because he definitely didn’t get it from either of his parents.

When we were all ready, the cavalcade moved forward: me leaning on Dad with my unbroken arm, Maggie pushing baby Holly in the buggy and JJ, the marshal, leading the party.

Mum refused to join us on our daily constitutional, on the grounds that if she came there would be so many of us that ‘People would be looking.’ And indeed we did create quite a stir: between JJ and his hat and me and my injuries, to the local youths it was like the circus had come to town.

As we neared the green – it wasn’t far, it just felt that way because my knee was so sore that even JJ, a child of three, could go faster than me – one of the lads spotted us and alerted his four or five pals. An almost visible thrill passed through them and they abandoned whatever they’d been doing with matches and newspaper and prepared to welcome us.

‘Howya, Frankenstein,’ Alec called, when we were near enough to hear.

‘Howya,’ I replied with dignity.

It had upset me the first time they’d said it. Especially when they’d offered me money to lift my bandages and show them my cuts. It was like being asked to lift my T-shirt and show them my knockers, only worse. At the time tears had flooded my eyes and, shocked at how cruel people could be, I’d turned around to go straight back home. Then I’d heard Maggie ask, ‘How much? How much to see the worst one?’

A brief consultation had ensued. ‘A euro.’

‘Give it to me,’ Maggie had ordered. The eldest one – he said his name was Hedwig, but it couldn’t really be – had handed it over, looking at her nervously.

Maggie’d checked the coin was real by biting it, then she’d said to me, ‘Ten per cent for me, the rest for you. Okay. Show them.’

So I’d shown them – obviously not for the money but because I realized I had no reason to feel ashamed, what had happened to me could have happened to anyone. After that they always called me Frankenstein but – and I know this might sound strange – not in an unkind way.

Today they noticed that Mum had left off some of the bandages. ‘You’re getting better.’ They sounded disappointed. ‘All the ones on your forehead are nearly gone. The only good one left is the one on your cheek. And you’re walking faster than you used to, you’re nearly as fast as JJ now.’

For half an hour or so we sat on the bench taking the air. In the few weeks we’d been doing this daily walk, we’d been having unIrishly dry weather, at least in the daytime. It was only in the evenings, when Helen was sitting in hedges with her long-range lens, that it seemed to rain.

The reverie was broken when Holly started screeching. According to Maggie, her nappy needed to be changed so we all trooped back to the house, where Maggie tried, without success, to get Mum, then Dad, to change Holly. She didn’t ask me; sometimes it’s great having a broken arm.

While she was off dealing with baby wipes and nappy bags, JJ got a rust-coloured lipliner from my (extremely large) make-up bag, held it to his face and said, ‘Like you.’

‘What’s like me?’

‘Like you,’ he repeated, touching some of my cuts, then pointing at his own face with the pencil. Ah! He wanted me to draw scars on him.

‘Only a few.’ I wasn’t at all sure this was something that should be encouraged, so I coloured in some half-hearted cuts on his forehead. ‘Look.’

I held a hand-mirror in front of him and he liked the look of himself so much, he yelled, ‘More!’

‘Just one more.’

He kept checking himself in the mirror and demanding more and more injuries, then Maggie came back and when I saw the look on her face, I was filled with fear. ‘Oh, God. Maggie, I’m sorry. I got carried away.’

But with a funny little jump, I realized she wasn’t angry about JJ looking like a patchwork quilt – it was because she’d seen my make-up bag and got The Look, the one they all get, but I’d expected better from her.

It’s been the oddest thing. Despite all the horror and grief of the recent past, most days some member of my family would come and sit on my bed and ask to see the contents of my make-up bag. They were dazzled by my fantastic job and made no effort to hide their disbelief that I, of all people, had landed it.

Maggie walked towards my make-up bag like a sleepwalker. Her hand was outstretched. ‘Can I see?’

‘Help yourself. And my washbag is on the floor here. There’s good stuff in there too, if Mum and Helen haven’t cleaned me out. Take anything you want.’

As if in a trance, Maggie was removing lipstick after lipstick from the bag. I had about sixteen of them. Just because I can.

‘Some of them haven’t even been opened,’ she said. ‘How come Helen and Mum haven’t stolen them?’

‘Because they already have them. Just before … you know … everything, I’d sent a consignment of the new summer products. They already have most of these.’

Two days after my arrival Helen and Mum had sat on my bed and systematically gone through my cosmetics, discarding almost everything. ‘Porn Star? Have it. Multiple Orgasm? Have it. Dirty Grrrl? Have it.’

‘They never told me about the new stuff,’ Maggie said sadly. ‘And I only live a mile away.’

‘Oh. Maybe it’s because with your new practical look they think you wouldn’t be interested in make-up. I’m sorry. When I go back to New York, I’ll make sure to send things directly to you.’

‘Will you? Thanks.’ Then, a sharp look. ‘You’re going back? When? Get a grip. You can’t go anywhere. You need the security of your family –’ But she was distracted by a lipstick. ‘Can I try this one? It’s exactly my colour.’

She put it on, rubbed her lips against each other, admired herself in the hand-mirror, then was cowed by sudden remorse. ‘I’m sorry, Anna. I’ve tried to avoid asking to see the lovely things. I mean, under the circumstances … And I’m disgusted with the others, they’re like scavengers. But just look at me! I’m as bad as them.’

‘Don’t be hard on yourself, Maggie. No one can help it. It’s bigger than all of us.’

‘Is it? Okay. Thanks.’ She continued taking things out, opening them, trying them on the back of her hand, then closing them neatly. When she’d examined everything she sighed heavily. ‘I might as well see your washbag now.’

‘Help yourself. There’s a lovely vetivert shower gel.’ Then I thought for a second. ‘No, wait, I think Dad took it.’

She sifted through the shower gels and exfoliators and body lotions, uncapping and sniffing and rubbing, and said, ‘You really do have the best job in the world.’

My job

I work in New York City as a beauty PR. I am Assistant VP for Public Relations for Candy Grrrl, one of the hottest cosmetic brands on the planet. (You’ve probably heard of them; and if you haven’t, it means someone, somewhere, isn’t doing their job properly. I hope to Christ it isn’t me.) I have access to a dizzying array of free products. I mean literally dizzying: shortly after I got the job my sister Rachel, who had lived in New York for years, came to my office one evening after everyone had gone home, to see if I’d been exaggerating. And when I unlocked the closet and showed her the shelves and shelves of neatly stacked Candy Grrrl face-creams and pore-minimizers and concealers and scented candles and shower gels and bases and highlighters and … she stared for a long, long time, then said, ‘I’ve got black spots in front of my eyes. I’m not joking, Anna, I think I might be about to faint.’ See, dizzying – and that was even before I told her to pick out some stuff for herself.

I am not just permitted to wear Candy Grrrl products, I am obliged to. We all have to take on the personality of the brands we represent. Live it, Ariella urged me, when I got the job. Live it, Anna. You are a Candy Grrrl girl, twenty-four seven, you are always on duty.

What makes it all exponentially fabulous is that it’s not just Candy Grrrl stuff I get. The agency I work for, McArthur on the Park (founded and still owned by Ariella McArthur – she never sold out), represents thirteen other beauty brands, each more delicious than the previous, and about once a month we have a souk in the boardroom, where a full and frank exchange takes place. (Mind you, this is not official policy and never happens when Ariella is around. I’d prefer if you didn’t mention it.)

Besides free products, there are other perks. Because McArthur on the Park has the Perry K account, I get my hair cut and coloured for free by Perry K. Obviously, not by Perry K himself, but one of his loyal minions. Perry K, the man, is usually on a private plane, being flown by a studio to North Korea or Vanuatu to cut some filmstar’s hair on location.

(Just one thing, though: free haircuts sound fabulous but, at the risk of seeming ungrateful, sometimes I can’t help feeling it’s a bit like high-class prostitutes being given regular, up-the-frock health checks. It seems caring, but it’s only to ensure the girls do their job properly. Same with me. I’ve no choice about the haircuts. I have to have them and I get no input: whatever is on the catwalks is what I get given. Usually high-maintenance, feathery yokes which break my heart. McArthur owns my soul, which is bad enough. But to own my hair …)

Anyway, after Rachel’s visit, she got on the blower and told everyone at home about the goodies closet. A flurry of phone calls from Ireland followed. Was Rachel back on the drugs? Or was it true about all the free cosmetics I gave her? And if it was, could they have some? Immediately, I parcelled up an indecent amount of stuff and dispatched it to Ireland – I admit it, I was showing off, trying to prove what a success I was.

However, when you’re sending products to other people, you’re supposed to ‘sign them out’ – every eyelash curler, every lipbalm. But if you say they’re going to the Nebraska Star, for example, and they’re really going to your mammy in Dublin, people are unlikely to check: I am a trusted employee.

The strange thing is that normally I’m an honest person: if someone gives me too much change in a shop, I’ll give it back and I’ve never, in my life, done a runner from a restaurant. (Aren’t there better ways to have fun?) But every time I liberate an eye-cream for Rachel or a scented candle for my friend Jacqui or send a care-package of the new spring colours to Dublin, I am stealing. And yet I don’t have the slightest twinge of guilt. It’s because the products are so beautiful, I feel that, like natural wonders, they transcend ownership. How could you fence off the Grand Canyon? Or the Great Barrier Reef? Some things are so wondrous, everyone is entitled to them.

People often ask me, their faces distorted with jealousy, ‘How do you get a job like yours?’

Well, I’ll tell you.