A Judge of Character
by Luigi Pagano
Laura became suspicious as soon as she entered the breakfast room of the small hotel in Bayswater.
The model agency had hyped this assignment to such an extent that she expected the interview to be conducted in a more congenial place, like the Ritz, not in a low grade establishment like this. The place was decent enough, clean and tidy, but it had an utilitarian look with the plastic table covers and vases of artificial flowers.
Her prospective employer was sitting with the remnants of his collation strewn in front of him. He had short cropped hair and was wearing a black leather jacket underneath which she could see a turtle neck sweater of the same colour. The five o’clock shadow on his chin gave him the appearance of a villain from the television series The Sopranos.
Laura’s instinctive reaction was to walk away but the curiosity of knowing how the situation would develop kept her rooted to the spot.
“You must excuse the humble surroundings,” he said with a smile, “but my penthouse in Mayfair is being refurbished.”
And if you believe that, thought Laura, you’ll believe anything.
He asked the waitress to clear the table and ordered a fresh pot of coffee. After a gesture that she took as an invitation to sit he poured her a cup. At least the coffee was good; things might not be too bad after all.
He introduced himself but she was not concentrating and only caught his first name, Norman. She passed him her portfolio and he started to leaf through it while she prattled about her experience, which in truth did not amount to much. Though ambitious, Laura had not yet achieved a breakthrough.
He seemed not to pay much attention to what she was saying and seemed more interested in her photographs with which Laura had always felt uncomfortable. They were very artistic, but she thought that the photographer had put too much emphasis on her physical attributes. The pouting lips, the provocative poses and plunging necklines, with tantalising glimpses of her firm rounded breasts, did not reflect her true personality. When she first saw them the word risqué had come to mind. She had a beautiful body and should have been pleased that its perfection had been captured on film for all to see.
“It isn’t me, Pete,” she had complained to the photographer, but to no avail. He had brushed aside her objections with a shrug:
“Nonsense, dearie. People want glamour!”
And, much to her dismay, the head of the agency had endorsed his views. Yet she still had reservations; sensed that voyeurism rather than artistic appreciation was uppermost in many people’s mind. This impression was now heightened by the fact that Norman seemed to be practically drooling over the shots while outlining his forthcoming project. She felt the tips of her ears going pink with embarrassment.
There was no place for sentiments in the cut-throat business of fashion and inhibitions had to be shed in order to make inroads in the chosen career, nevertheless she had moral principles which she was not prepared to compromise; a strong belief that one could be successful and still keep one’s conscience intact.
While her thoughts wandered, he was waxing lyrical about travels to the Middle East, cruises down the Nile and to cap it all a photo-shoot in Casablanca. The mere mention of this location conjured up visions of sordid deals and of girls being lured into white slavery by the promise of golden opportunities. Laura had heard accounts of harrowing experiences and narrow escapes and was determined not to fall into the same trap.
A sense of panic pervaded her, though she tried to maintain a semblance of normality. She hardly remembered what was said but she must have turned down his offer because, before she left, Norman had handed her a card and said: “Well, should you change your mind here is my telephone number.”
As she reached the open air, she was able to relax once more. Here the only pollution to be found was the one generated by the fumes of the cars on the congested road.
* * *
The sisters could not have been more different, not only in looks but attitudes. Laura, with blonde hair, blue eyes and a lissom figure, was, at eighteen, the younger of the two; she had a sense of purpose that Naomi—jet-black hair and deep dark eyes, and equally attractive—lacked.
The latter was more carefree. She had not yet embarked on a career path and she lived her life on the fringe of an artistic circle of friends. Her flat in Wardour Street was often the venue of parties frequented by actors, producers and film directors. Her lifestyle was more cosmopolitan than Laura’s and she frequently jetted off to some place or another.
She laughed hilariously on hearing her sibling’s vicissitudes which Laura was recounting with a deep frown. Then, fingering Norman’s visiting card, said in jest: “You are so naive, sis. To put your mind at rest I’ll give him the once over.”
Laura regarded her with affection; Naomi, although giving the impression of being a scatterbrain, was always able to offer wise counsel and moral support. She wanted to express her gratitude by hugging her; instead she simply asked:
“A cup of tea?”
* * *
Laura paused briefly at the entrance of the store. She felt as lifeless as the inanimate mannequins on parade in the shop window, with their bald heads and truncated limbs, not yet dressed for the day ahead.
At the back, Julie, the window dresser, barefoot and nimble, was sorting out the garments with which she would adorn the dummies. She gave a friendly wave. Laura waved back before entering the building. They were good friends as well as colleagues, sharing their dreams in the canteen at lunch time or at tea break. Julie’s aim was to become a fashion designer and to this end was studying for an Open University course.
Laura made a beeline to the Cosmetics Department on the ground floor where she was employed as a Beauty Consultant; in truth a euphemism for sales assistant. Well, it was a regular income while she waited to hit the big time.
There were very few customers lolling around and she stood behind the counter watching with amusement an elderly lady in a fur coat, with all the trappings of newly acquired wealth, trying out all the free samples on display before deciding on the purchase of a cheap lipstick. The advantage of this job was that it gave her ample time for reflections. She was now thinking about the last time she had heard from Naomi, six months ago. A hurried telephone message left on the answering machine:
“Hi sis, how are you? Guess what? I have met him and I quite like him. Sorry, have to dash. My date has arrived.”
The faint ring of the doorbell could be heard in the background. Then this morning a postcard from Cairo had arrived with the usual wish-you-were-here kind of message and lots of love from your loving sister.
Their worlds were poles apart, both geographically and socially, and while she would not deprive her sister of her pleasures, she wished they could return to the togetherness which they had once shared: the cosy chats and intimate conversations. Laura’s resolve to see her own face on the cover of Vogue was waning with every passing day now that Naomi’s encouragement was not available.
Before she realised, it was time for a break. She made her way to the canteen where she could indulge in further reveries. The place was almost deserted and she found a quiet spot in a corner to savour a steaming cup of coffee and relax. She fished out of her bag one of the glossy magazines to which she subscribed and looked at the cover whose caption read:
“A new super model has burst onto the scene. See exclusive coverage on centre pages.”
She was always eager to read about success and flicked through the publication until she got to the relevant section. With a look of astonishment she saw that the entire spread consisted of a set of Naomi’s pictures in several poses with a backdrop of the Egyptian desert. It was the last person she expected to see. She could have been knocked down by the proverbial feather!
Now she understood the significance of the postcard. But did the message convey the wish that Laura should be there instead of her or that both should rejoice in her good fortune? Naomi had often tried to bring her out of her shell and perhaps this was a way of showing her that with more determination and courage things could be accomplished. She was still pondering about the situation and thinking that she didn’t know her sister after all when Julie joined her brandishing the latest edition of the daily paper.
“Have you seen this?” she exclaimed, “a bit of a fairy tale, don’t you think?”
Laura cast a glance at the screaming headline:
LOCAL GIRL TO WED ECCENTRIC MILLIONAIRE.
The text that followed gave a more detailed account:
Rumour has it that Naomi Mitchell, the newly crowned queen of the catwalk, is to marry Norman Beaton, the Mayfair entrepreneur who launched her career.
“It won’t come to anything, trust me,”—said Laura with a sardonic smile—“I am a shrewd judge of character.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Luigi Pagano was born in Italy and lives in England. He has published three collections of poems, entitled Idle Thoughts, Reflections and Poetry On Tap. He has appeared in several anthologies, including UKAuthors anthologies and ABCTales magazines. His work has also been featured in Take Five Poets and Kiss of the Sun (I*D Books), Land of Stories (BarNone books), Aged To Perfection (Gwanwyn). He is a regular contributor to the websites ABCtales.com, UKAuthors.com and he is a relatively newcomer to The Flash Fiction Press.