It was the first day of the autumn term at Old Gate College, the furthest scholarly outpost of the University of London, its walled campus a leafpit of learning that nestled between the pristine golf courses and boutique villages of commuter Surrey.
A new intake of undergraduates was congregating in the great hall of the historic Founders Hall to pay residence fees, some still clinging to the parents who had driven them there, others queuing alone and casting around for friendly faces.
Melanie Holden – known to her friends as ‘Laney’, from Kent, reading English Literature and Drama, likes Ionesco and Curly- Wurlys, has a cuddly dinosaur called Eric – was trying to radiate confidence, but was way out of her comfort zone, her intimidation compounded when she spotted that term’s man bait in a parallel queue. The girl was exquisitely pretty, flicking her burnished curls as she laughed alongside a handsome olive-skinned hunk who looked like a polo player; they could have stepped out of a Ralph Lauren aftershave ad. They made a great deal of noise, laughing and flirting, radiating glamour and talking orses. The girl had a curious accent which Laney couldn’t immediately place, possibly South African.
Then a smooth, clipped voice said in her ear, ‘She has more eyes following her across the room than a porter in an ocular prosthetics warehouse.’
The oblique joke, delivered with deadpan cool, made her laugh, and she turned to find a handsome stranger, like a highwayman in long leather boots, a floor-length coat and red spotted neckerchief, beside her. The startling light grey eyes were framed with lashes so tangled and dark he just had to be wearing mascara.
They now took a leisurely tour of her body. ‘Great dungarees.’
‘Actually, it’s a playsuit, but thank you.’
‘Does that mean you play dirty?’
‘It’s dry-clean-only, but I’m not.’ She grinned. Tall, buxom and fresh-faced, Laney had always preferred icons to fashion trends and, after several seasons of channelling Toyah, she’d recently begun styling herself on The New Avengers’ Purdey. In truth the pudding-basin haircut was more Victoria Wood than Joanna Lumley, polo-necks emphasised her wide shoulders and big chest, and cat-suits made her look like Super Mario, but she certainly stood out as individual, and the highwayman’s attention was all hers: he couldn’t take his eyes off her.
‘I must warn you that I’m desperately in love with you already,’ he confessed as the queue shuffled forward. ‘Your embonpoint is breathtaking. Simon de Montmorency.’ He held out a long, thin hand tipped with silver-painted nails.
‘Laney Holden.’ She shook it, admiring the silk cuffs and the signet ring featuring an S with a crown above it. She had no idea what an ‘embonpoint’ was, but it sounded wonderfully sophisticated.
‘Do you think you could love me too, Laney?’ he wondered.
‘Oh yes, absolutely.’
‘Marvellous. We can be one another’s first campus futuito.’ The glitter in his eye made it clear that futuito wasn’t an ice-cream flavour. ‘What’s your room like?’
‘I share with a chain-smoking historian called Birgitta.’
‘Then we’ll go to mine. I have a charming westerly aspect on the fourth floor with Grace Jones posters and a cafetière. If you show me a good time, I’ll rustle you up some Arabica afterwards.’
She’d never met anyone like Simon de Montmorency; he had to be the son of mad aristocrats, she decided, and almost certainly gay. As the queue shortened, he kept her in stitches, those pewter eyes focused on her. He was funny, irreverent and fearless, part Withnail, part Noël Coward. Excited to have her first gay friend – an all-girls boarding school in Sussex had limited her opportunities to be a fag hag, which she felt was a thespian rite of passage – she was honoured to be singled out, and disappointed when they had to stop play-flirting to tackle paperwork.
She got appalling giggles when she noticed that the name on his halls of residence bill was Sean Pegg.
‘It was printed before I put in my Deed Poll application.’ He flicked his curtains of hair out of his eyes.
‘Why change your name?’
‘Sean was a boring little squirt from Croydon,’ he whispered. ‘You mustn’t tell a soul he ever lived. I was a square Pegg, but now I intend to fill a round Holden.’ He reached a warm hand to her cheek and steered her into a short, sweet, smiling kiss. ‘Come for a drink. I’m so hopelessly bewitched by you, I’m afraid I’ll fluff my seduction without a few tequila chasers for panache.’
‘I love your coat!’ gurgled a voice behind them. It was the man bait, gazing up at Simon with eyes as green as lime cordial. ‘You look like a highwayman.’
I thought that. Laney glowered inwardly. Amid shrieks of delight that they were all studying Drama, the babe was introducing herself as Mia Wilde. Her polo player was now gazing at Laney, his eyes like two Galaxy Minstrels. If Simon was quirkily handsome, this boy was beautiful.
‘I’m Leo Devonshire.’ He kissed Laney’s cheeks. He smelled lovely, of lemony aftershave and expensive shampoo. She guessed being a millionaire’s son meant having carte blanche with one’s black AmEx at Penhaligon’s.
‘We’re off to get trolleyed,’ Mia was saying to Simon, in an accent Laney now realised was more Preston than Pretoria. ‘Would you two like to come?’
‘We’d be delighted!’
Laney felt a stab of disappointment, but then Simon breathed in her ear, ‘Forgive me . . . I have no cash and they look minted. We’ll lose them after they’ve bankrolled a few Jose Cuervos.’
Nevertheless, she noticed his eyes were drawn to Mia’s bottom as it disappeared across the room. She could hardly blame him. It was as pert as two scoops on a double cornet, watched by at least half the eyes in the room, the other half fixing on the polo player’s high-goal haunches. They were the ultimate rich playthings, Laney decided.
Within minutes her preconceptions about the snaky-haired spoiled brat and her olive-skinned partner were blown sky high as they all stretched out on the sunny grass of the Founders quad drinking pints from the Fall Inn.
Mia Wilde was from Lancashire tenant-farmer stock and had battled to pursue her acting dream instead of taking the veterinary route her parents had preferred for the first family member to make it to university.
‘The only theatre they want me to perform in has padded walls with a winch to hold horses upside-down – “Four legs good, five acts bad” is the Wilde motto.’
Huge rows over her choice of course had even led her to leave home a year before. ‘I lost my full grant because Dad wouldn’t sign the forms, so I deferred my place here and went to live with my boyfriend in London, waitressing to earn the money to study. It took almost a year, but they relented in the end.’ She grinned, swigging her Guinness. ‘Never work with children and animals, isn’t that what they say? I love them both to bits – Dom and me will have loads of pony-mad kids after we’ve collected a few Olivier Awards for the mantelpiece.’
Laney was shocked: her own daydreams of becoming the next great comedy actress, marrying Alan Rickman and bearing his babies were kept firmly hidden beneath wisecracking cool.
‘You have a boyfriend in London?’ Leo watched her with eyes as dark as the Guinness, clearly more than a little in love already.
‘He’s in Yorkshire at the moment.’ She stared into her pint, a shadow crossing her exquisite face. ‘Dom says I keep men on tight leads, which is his excuse for getting pissed in Leeds when I’m not around.’ She looked up at him with that wicked smile. ‘He’ll be wildly jealous I’m hanging out with such a stud muffin.’ She clinked her glass with Leo’s. ‘I’m made up we’re all on the same course – me and Leo only just met in the queue too. He recognised my pendant as an eggbutt and I knew we’d be mates.’
‘What’s an eggbutt?’ Simon’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Sounds like a sex toy for chickens.’
‘It’s a horse bit,’ explained Laney, who had gone through a pony-mad phase.
‘You’re in the gang.’ Mia grinned. ‘Leo’s parents were trick riders in a circus. Isn’t that amazing?’
‘You made that up.’ Simon snorted.
Although he looked like a polo player, Leo Devonshire turned out to be a soft-spoken, self-effacing eighteen-year-old from Reading with a passion for musical theatre. His parents had indeed toured together in a circus, although his Russian father now sold pension plans and the family home was a thirties semi in Caversham where his Spanish mother ran a dog-grooming parlour.
‘They came to Britain in the sixties with a clapped-out Barreiros lorry and six stallions, and now they have a Vauxhall Cavalier and two Shih Tzus. Mamá wanted me to go to La Complu, the university in Madrid, but when I explained that getting a place here is harder than breeding a perlino horse, they understood.’
‘Devonshire’s not a very Russian name,’ Simon pointed out.
‘Dad changed it for their double-act. He’s Dmitri Kazak by birth.’
‘You must make the most of that Dr Zhivago heritage. It’s great for chat shows – look at Peter Ustinov. I adore that man. We’re distantly related on my mother’s side, I believe.’
‘So you have Russian blood too?’ Mia asked excitedly.
‘De Montmorency blood has been mixed by the centrifuge of war and passion through seven continents over many centuries,’ Simon said grandly.
Laney tried not to giggle. Wildly jealous that modest Leo could lay claim to being the son of liberty horsemen, Simon kept very quiet about Sean Pegg’s upbringing in Croydon, hinting instead at an orphaned childhood, forfeited nobility, penury, scholarships and a de Montmorency curse: ‘I too had to fight to get here,’ he said.
‘The Sorbonne were furious I turned them down, but I hate Paris. It’s full of emaciated women carrying dogs around in handbags.’
Laney felt breathless as he rattled out anecdotes and witty oneliners with the speed of his beloved Ustinov. ‘The de Montmorency family motto is “Merda taurorum animas conturbit.” We all die young and impoverished but, my goodness, we spring-load our short mortal coils to the full. Corripe cervisiam!’ He raised his pint.
‘What does that mean?’ asked Mia.
‘Seize the beer!’ He downed it in one, giving Laney a long, hungry look that both confused and excited her. She couldn’t fathom him at all, especially when he leaned forward to whisper in Latin, ‘Frequentasne hunc locum?’
She raised an eyebrow and his eyes didn’t leave hers, the pupils so large and dark that the pale irises were just silver linings. She could suddenly hear her heartbeat thudding in her ears and felt a twinge deep in her groin, the same unfamiliar, exquisite pull she’d experienced necking a rugby hunk at her cousin’s eighteenth.
‘It means “Do you come here often?”’ Leo translated kindly. ‘I did A-level Latin.And I think your family motto is bullshit, Simon.’
Simon laughed delightedly. ‘Et tu, Kazak?’ He turned back to Laney, silver linings glinting. ‘Don’t tell me you’re the unacknowledged daughter of a Calcutta slum nun who walled you up in a cave like Antigone and begged you not to come here?’
Laney was almost too embarrassed to admit that she’d divided her cosseted childhood years between a picture-postcard Kentish oast-house and a Blytonesque boarding school, and that her parents, both GPs who indulged in am-dram in their spare time, had encouraged her to study theatre arts. Her biggest struggle in life thus far had been shutting her suitcase to go on holiday.
Her new friends were clearly astonished that somebody as boringly middle-class had been accepted on to the famously edgy Old Gate Drama course.
‘You’re too posh for us, Holden!’ they joked.then insisted on pronouncing ‘Laney’ in cut-glass tones for the rest of the afternoon. Eventually they moved on to the Students’ Union, where a freshers’ disco was revving up, the girls diving straight into the loos to salvage laughter-washed mascara.
‘Are you and Si an item?’ Mia asked, borrowing Laney’s ultrafashionable matte-brown lipstick.
‘Steady on! We only met five minutes before I met you.’
‘He seriously fancies you.’
‘But isn’t he gay?’
‘About as gay as you are, I’d say.’ She turned with a swish of long hair, purring seductively in Madonna tones, ‘Wanna get it on, Laaaaney?’
Laney giggled and returned to her mascara, but her belly was now squirming deliciously at the thought of her wild highwayman wanting to take her to his bed for futuito . . . whatever that was.
‘What about you and Leo? Do you fancy him?’
‘He’s sweet, but I’m totally mad about Dom.’
‘Your boyfriend in Yorkshire?’
‘He’s called Dominic Masters. He’s a professional actor,’ she boasted, pretty face lighting up. ‘We met at the National Youth Theatre and I played Cressida to his Troilus. He’s Yorkshire-born and – bred – we’re the Wars of the Roses, us.’ She fished around in her crocheted bag, drawing out a photograph of a craggy youth with intense blue eyes. His face was powerful, with high cheekbones and white-blond hair. He probably played drug pushers and murderers in The Bill, Laney decided.
‘How long have you been together?’
‘Four years – I was fifteen when we met and he was about to turn five.’
Laney was horrified.
‘Dom’s birthday’s February the twenty-ninth.’ Mia chortled. ‘He’ll be six next year, but he’s twenty-three really. He graduated from RADA this year,’ she explained proudly. ‘He had three job offers straight off – one a movie role – but he took the season at Agitprop Theatre in Leeds to stay close to his roots. He’s fierce on politics. When he won the Bancroft Gold Medal for best actor in his year, he reckoned they’d only awarded it to him because he’s a
miner’s son, so he gave it to another actor he thought deserved it more. Dom won it on merit, but that’s the way he is. He’s a bloody minded sod.’ She smiled fondly, but the shadow crossed her face again. ‘I’m going to miss him something rotten.’
‘I bet he misses you just as much.’ Laney patted her arm reassuringly.
She smiled wryly. ‘He’s a method actor. Right now he’s too busy being a druid in a Howard Brenton play to notice I’m gone.’
‘Then we’ll build a stone circle round your room in halls to lure him here.’
‘You’re so lovely. I hope we’ll be mates, you and me.’
‘Me and Mia.’ Laney hoped so too.
‘That’s sound. You and Mia, Laney, are going to be best mates.’
‘Of course we will,’ Laney agreed happily, wondering if it would test the new friendship to ask her to say the thing about Simon fancying her again.
But Mia was already rattling on, wired from first-day nerves and too much Guinness. ‘I can’t tell you how terrified I’ve been about coming here. I wanted to flunk it and stay with Dom, but he’s so proud of me getting this place. He told me to act the part when I arrived. I’m all right when I’m acting, it’s being myself I’m lousy at – the oldest dressing-room cliché,’ she said. ‘And I promised myself I wouldn’t drink too much, flirt with anybody or talk about
him, and that’s all I’ve done. I’m normally not this daft . . . Well, not always . . . I know I can be a soppy cow – my friends back home say all I do is bang on about him – but they’re still just into horses and they don’t get how a lad can change your life. He’s my world, you know?’
Something about the way she said it told Laney that this ravishing chatterbox stud magnet really was madly in love, the sort of love she’d yet to experience. She studied the photograph of the fierce-eyed, belligerent militant and hoped he wouldn’t call Leo out.
He certainly wouldn’t have wanted to see the suggestive way that Mia and Leo were soon grinding their hips together to Happy Mondays and the Shaman, their exclusivity clear for all to see, heedless of other hopeful male undergraduates showing off their dance moves as they tried to attract Mia’s attention.
By contrast, Laney and Simon bopped about like a pair of lady pensioners in nylon frocks trying a jitterbug at a tea dance and wary of electric shocks if they touched. They’d both stopped drinking anything more than water, and Laney couldn’t remember when she’d last eaten, but she wasn’t remotely hungry. Simon still couldn’t take his eyes off her. That ticklish feeling in her groin was back, the gorgeous pull of lust, teasing like a finger on a drink can,
eager to release the fizz.
She guessed Simon was biding his time, waiting for the perfect song, and she was determined to match his poise despite an urge to shimmy seductively closer with comedy aplomb. He had the smooth patter and Byronic mini-series looks, whereas she was more Joan Sims than Joan Collins, but the mirth in those pale grey eyes was giving her knock-out doses of confidence as her excitement mounted. At last she’d met somebody who got off on laughter too; they could share the joke of their overwhelming mutual attraction.
When Right Said Fred announced that they were too sexy for their shirts, Simon’s pale eyes rolled in frustration. Beside them, Leo and Mia were miming a strange, shirt-removing theatrical interpretation. Laney and Simon edged away, their eyes entangled. Just as she was about to gesture that she was going to get another drink, a dancer knocked her against him. His arms closed around her and, before she knew what was happening, she felt his lips against hers. At that moment, Laney wouldn’t have been surprised if they had started to crackle with blue strobes of electric charge, like two sci-fi characters in a space transporter. Simon was a Don Juan of kissing, confident, unhurried, unstoppable, oblivious to everything around him. She kissed him back, blown away by the
head-rush. She’d never imagined her body could respond like this, a great coil of lust rising from her solar plexus, circling around Simon, pulling his torso against hers, catching her breath in his mouth and guiding her tongue towards his.
Oh God, I’m snogging to Right Said Fred, she thought vaguely, but it no longer mattered. She couldn’t hear the music over her racing blood. The finger was tug-tug-tugging at her ring-pull.
Simon tore himself away, his eyes almost all pupils, the silver linings a glittering eclipse, the whites bright in the ultraviolet disco lights, glowing along with his smiling teeth.
‘I think we should go back to my room, don’t you?’ he mouthed