First Time, Last Rights
This will be the last time I do this. Honest. But, let me tell you about that first time, which seems a lifetime ago now.
I remember the day clearly – 3rd April 2003, my 35th birthday. Rain cascaded down the picture windows of the fashionable restaurant I was working at. Tempers were short in the kitchen, bookings were down, somebody had absentmindedly drizzled washing up liquid onto a warm scallop salad and then Lady Providence and her Divine Daughter walked in. Those, of course, are not their real names – for personal reasons I would prefer to keep these anonymous – but the titles are appropriate enough.
From the start they were difficult. Let me add, quickly, that I’m not trying to justify my actions, but let’s just say their extreme and demanding behaviour made it that much easier for me. At 2.30pm and in a fast-emptying restaurant we were all keen to call it an afternoon. But no, Lady P and Divine D demanded to be served. “Champagne!” first and then oysters, and Chateau d ‘Yquem and foie gras and lobster tagliatelle…Lady P’s wide girth was testament to her ability to consume it all. Divine D picked around her foie gras and stuck pointedly to the liquids.
It quickly became apparent that the ladies were marking a double – possibly a treble – celebration. It was Divine D’s 35th birthday – just like mine. But, unlike me, she was also celebrating her sparkling divorce settlement and was fitting in “mumsie” before jetting off on “a fabulous six week safari, spa and beach holiday in South Africa” with her new, “fabulous”, “loaded”, boyfriend. But the conversation didn’t stay “fabulous” for long. The knives were out long before the second course arrived.
“And you’re going to keep his name – don’t be ridiculous!” exhorted Lady P, who clearly harboured no lingering warm feelings for her ex-son-in-law.
“But, mumsie, everything’s in his name – and, you must admit – it is quite a name!” replied her daughter.
Lady P obviously didn’t give two shakes for the marketability of a “brand” name, even one attached to a C-list celebrity. “Don’t you know the value of your own heritage?” bellowed her ladyship, “I reverted back to Providence within minutes of my divorce from your feckless father.”
And so it continued – the venom and volume rising and subsiding between mouthfuls. They barely glanced up as I ferried plates, bottles and jugs to their table.
“The bill!” snapped Lady P some time later. “Presumably you are paying?” she barked at her daughter, who looked like she was making moves to leave, tidying her skirt and stubbing out a cigarette in the remains of her tagliatelle.
“Well,” sighed Divine D, studying her manicured nails, “Why ever not. You may have the name, mumsie, but I have the cash – lots and lots of it. And, what’s more, this will probably be the last time I use my own card for the next – oh six weeks, maybe more.” I watched her flick out one of many credit cards from her purse and push it towards me. As she did so a gold-edged card fell out and fluttered to the floor. She left it there, as she would a fallen fork, for someone else to pick up. My heartbeat quickened. Could this be my golden ticket? “The bill!” she snapped, sounding, all of a sudden, like Providence herself.
And so I took the credit card. And I returned the card. But not before writing down every detail from it. I took it into the small, scruffy staff lavatory around the back of the kitchen and wrote down the number in full, the short collection of digits on the back, her name and, most importantly, her mother’s name: her mother’s maiden name – the one that she was so proud of – and which I, also, would come to appreciate enormously. And when they left I picked up that card on the floor – the one with her Knightsbridge address emblazoned in gold print. It was like I had the key to the door at last.
That’s how it all began – my first time, the life changing event which has got me here, a place not so far removed – in fact just a degree of separation away from – Lady P and Divine D’s own elite circle.
So why did I do it, you may ask? Because it was easy? If I’m being honest – and believe me I am – the answer has to be yes and no. Yes it was easy – but that wasn’t the main reason for taking advantage of two mildly annoying women who at any other time in my life I would have merely served and walked away from. Circumstances had much to do with my first foray into my new career. Circumstances, many of them unfortunate or just plain disappointing, had brought me to this position. Circumstances had then contrived to place two diametrically opposed 35 year-olds in the same expensive, fashionable restaurant at the same time. And circumstances had placed me on the hard toilet seat of life and her on the throne.
If I’m honest – again that phrase – I will admit that Divine D’s life – on a plate – was something I wanted a taste of. Even more so because I felt life was closing in on me. The day was, after all, my 35th birthday – not the best day in the life of a jobless, jobbing actress – whose “interesting ingénue” looks were fast fading. It was also my last day at the restaurant – they were “letting me go”. I could only rely on Giselle to let me stay on at the flat for a few more weeks, at best, without rent. And then what – several more disappointing auditions and back to Brentwood?
Those thoughts were uppermost in my mind as I wrote down the card details and Divine D’s maiden name. I racked my brain to think of any other words which might constitute a secret password – she’d mentioned a dog, Buzz, who was being put in kennels, and two children, Freya and Bertie (who were staying with their father – Frank). Favourite colour? She was wearing lemon – I wrote it down – lemon, yellow, I wanted to use all the information available to me to make the most of what I saw as my last chance of success, that first time.
Those first weeks were glorious. I gave the performance of my life. I ordered haute couture from Harvey Nicks, bracelets and a Gucci watch from Tiffany’s, six pairs of Jimmy Choos and a few Manolas. I spoke in cut-glass English, no trace of Essex, I’m proud to say. Those years of stage training, financed by hard graft at bars, restaurants and canteens, were paying off – in spades, diamond encrusted ones.
I had the “luxury items” sent to my new, temporary abode – a small, unpretentious apartment in a respectable part of London. It was the “change of address” that I had advised the card company of. I paid two months’ rent in cash – the last of my savings. The landlord was happy enough to accept, particularly from one as eminent as Divine D. And then I waited for the bell to ring and the deliveries to arrive – shimmering gowns and seductively understated day-wear, exquisite hats and handbags. They were beautiful things – things that I always thought I would be able to afford one day, but which were now coming my way by Divine credit.
The card was platinum and, no doubt, used to serious work outs, but I began to exercise caution after the initial spree. Instinctively I knew it was time to develop a longer term strategy. I didn’t want to get caught like the serial spendthrift fraudsters that you read about, the ones that appear to revel in fooling their victims and the sluggish authorities. I knew that if I was careful I could see this through and triumph. The police had let me – and friends – down on countless occasions. How many burglaries can be perpetrated, cars and handbags stolen and people assaulted before they are moved to catch the culprit? I reasoned that their incompetence, lack of resources or sheer idleness could work for me too.
Because I had no cash – and couldn’t access any through the card, without a pin number – I sold the Gucci watch and a bracelet on the internet. I used some of the money as a deposit and the first month’s rent on a one bedroom riverside flat in south west London, and positioned myself for my next move.
As I looked down from the 7th floor balcony I considered my options. I could either put an end to all this now or take it to the limit. I went into the kitchen, drew a pair of scissors from the cabinet drawer and cut the credit card into four quarters – and then into tiny pieces. I went back to the balcony, leant over and scattered the fragments over the side, watching them float like cherry blossom onto the river below. It was time to find a new benefactor.
With cash, once again, I paid for a month’s membership at a nearby chic health club. Nobody questioned the motives of my new alias– a rich Eastern European wife looking to whittle away the hours and her waistline while her husband concluded lucrative deals in the city.
I spent several weeks on the treadmill, at the classes, in the restaurant – listening, learning and, eventually, making contact with other rich housewives. My first victim was a twig thin, brittle blonde who liked to talk loudly at the communal mirror, on her mobile, or to whoever would listen. I listened. She was evidently a woman of considerable means and a creature of habit – attending the same work outs on a daily basis. At 10.40 am on the Monday of my third week I told reception that I had lost my key – but I seemed to remember the locker was 152. They duly opened it for me and while my victim was power pumping away I raided her handbag for the details needed for my next foray.
This time I booked events, as well as a few essential accessories and beauty procedures. I got tickets for Ascot, Glyndebourne and Glastonbury and availed myself of an escort, who was unceremoniously dumped when I had established myself. I was enjoying this and fast becoming the “Cinderella” of the season.
I applied the locker trick just one more time – after all, how absentminded can a rich Ukrainian be? But the cards carried me through the summer.
Sitting on my balcony one night I was brought up short by an article in the evening paper. There, in tabloid technicolor, was Divine D, being cuddled reassuringly by Lord Providence, her brother. This was “her story”, a tale of how she had been “violated by a vicious credit card skimmer” and how it had caused her untold distress at a time when her dear brother was himself recovering from a mysterious tropical illness. An initial pang of guilt was soon dispelled by the article’s happy ever after – the card company, eventually, picked up the tab. All’s well, that ends well, I thought, tearing out the article and pinning it to my kitchen notice board.
I wasn’t short of dates – men are reasonably easy to come by when you’re rich and “increasingly” good-looking. But there was something about him – Lord Providence – that captured my imagination. Whether it was guilt, his name, or his good looks, that the illness only served to enhance with its rendering of seductive shadows, I can’t be totally sure. But I wanted to see whether Providence would provide the ultimate prize – a rich, titled, husband.
And so that brings me here – to a South African “retreat” – courtesy of my last credit-card extravagance. I’m just having some final cosmetic work done before I spring back into circulation.
My stomach and legs have been honed to perfection. My breasts are perky. My face is under wraps – nose, eyes, lips and a little lift.
I had to leave the last apartment rather abruptly – so this safari ‘n surgery was most timely. Interestingly, Divine D is here too, also having some minor work done.
Of course I knew she’d be here, we move in similar circles now, and I timed the trip to coincide. I won’t be rifling through her belongings though. No need now. In fact, I have to say, I rather like her. We may even become friends, perhaps more. Who knows where Providence will take me?