Martha Thompson had arrived home from her Saturday morning appointment at Aeva’s Hair Salon on Wairau Road. She had tipped her stylist Pete an extra twenty dollars on top of the usual price. She checked her reflection in her car’s rear view mirror. Once again, she was hugely satisfied with the finished article – her ash blonde hair cut with precision into a shoulder length graduated bob. Perfection personified, she thought to herself, as she stepped out of her car, locking it behind her. She reached deep into her handbag and found her house keys, which were always kept separate. Kaiser and Roody, her two boisterous German Shepherds, were looking out of the living room window; their sweaty paws marking the window pane that had been cleaned to an inch of its life. Martha opened the front door, and threw her handbag to one side, looking at her watch.
‘Shit! They’re meant to be here at twelve-thirty!’ Ann, her housekeeper, had been round whilst Martha was having her hair done. Due to the size of the property, cleaning it was no mean feat. Martha was awed by the amazing work that Ann had managed to do in such a short space of time. The kitchen worktops gleamed, and the bathroom floors sparkled. She carried the six bags of groceries and went into automatic pilot, putting them away in their rightful place. After receiving the habitual slobbery kisses from Kaiser and Roody, she unlocked the doors to the veranda and watched with glee as they galloped away to freedom. Time was running away with her. Whilst her capsule wardrobe was colour coordinated to ease the anxiety of what to wear daily, Martha dithered at the abundance of clothes and shoes in front of her. She picked out a crisp white shirt, teamed this with a pair of red corduroy bootleg trousers and her favourite black velvet ankle boots with the mock silver side zip. Her make-up was immaculate as always. All she needed to do was blot away the kisses from her dogs and refresh herself by spraying Chanel Chance liberally all over.
Having drunk her third cup of coffee in the space of forty minutes, Martha drummed her fingers against the breakfast bar worktop. It was now one-thirty, and the couple who were scheduled to view 4 Manon Crescent hadn’t turned up. The letting agents that she had appointed to manage the renting of her home hadn’t even telephoned to explain or apologise. The idea of downsizing had been on the cards for the last few years, however the thought of becoming a prospective landlord was so taxing. As much as she loved her five-bedroomed house in Greenhithe, Auckland, it had the air of an abandoned shipwreck. Its vastness and eeriness suffocated her most nights as she tried to sleep. Although she had Kaiser and Roody to comfort and protect her, she was looking forward to moving day. Martha picked up her cell phone and dialled her letting agent. The monotonous tones of an automated voicemail advised her that their office was now closed.
‘What a bloody discourtesy!’ Martha was about to leave a condescending tirade and a torrent of abuse in her voicemail message when she heard someone knocking on the front door. ‘Hold on, hold on, I’m on my way…No, not you, you bunch of charlatans!’ She left her phone on the breakfast bar, walked through the lounge and opened the door. Confusion spread through her body like a hot flush on a balmy night.
‘Can I help you?’ She asked the man who stood in front of her.
‘I’m here to see Ms Martha Thompson?’
‘Well, yes, that’s me. I don’t mean to sound rude, but who are you?’ Martha was flummoxed. He was certainly not Mr or Mrs Khan. There weren’t any other viewings scheduled.
‘Um, my name’s Danny Connolly. The Airbnb unit? I’m here to see it.’ He sensed unease.
‘Well, I do have a self-contained unit, but it’s never been used it in that sense. Are you sure you have the right place?’ Danny took out a folded piece of paper from his grey denim pocket and passed it to Martha. It was her house alright. At six foot four he towered over her. He was Irish and clean shaven. His wavy brown hair slicked back with gel. He could pass for Billy Bragg’s secret lovechild, even with the tattoos, Martha thought to herself, flashing her most winning smile.
‘Seeing as you have made the journey, come in and I’ll show you around. Leave your shoes by the door. Oh, by the way, these two here are prone to nipping. That alright with you?’ Danny nodded his head, pulled his black boots off and followed Martha as she took him on a guided tour around each room; Kaiser and Roody tailing Danny’s heels.
On Sunday morning, Martha was startled by a thunderstorm. The rain lashed heavily against her bedroom windows. Kaiser and Roody burst into the room whimpering and clambered underneath the bedcovers. Martha enjoyed nothing more than curling up with a good book or binge-watching Game of Thrones when the weather was wet and wild, but not at nine o’clock and most definitely not on her sixtieth birthday. She grabbed her silk dressing gown that had been cast over the distressed Chesterfield wing-backed chair the night before. She stretched and yawned like a tom-cat, made her way into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of pomegranate juice. She weighed out some porridge – forty grams to be precise; added some water and blasted it in the microwave for just under a minute before drenching it in maple syrup. She ate her breakfast in silence, cherishing the moment. She was looking forward to taking the afternoon off from preparing and cooking Sunday lunch for Callum and Caleb. Her smartphone pinged. She read the text message from Callum:
Caleb’s going to pick you up at 7.30pm. Sharpish. Wear the black lacey number that we gave you for Christmas – you’ve never worn it. Happy birthday, you legend xxx.
Martha smiled to herself. Out of all things considered, her two sons were her proudest achievements. The former Oxfordshire swimwear and lingerie model had adopted new-born twins Callum and Caleb five years after she had endured an ectopic pregnancy so severe, she had an emergency hysterectomy. At the time, her husband Stefan had sought solace at the end of a whiskey bottle whilst Martha had kept her dignity in front of family in friends. When their decree absolute came through, the couple were relieved and eventually sold their house in Berlin. Martha moved back to England temporarily to live with her parents and Stefan remained in Germany running his graphic design business. At the age of thirty, Martha Thompson the model had become Martha Thompson the photographer. Her work was compared to Cecil Beaton’s. As word spread throughout the fashion houses of London, New York, Paris and Milan; her new career had afforded Martha everything she ever wanted in life. In 1990, she made the bold decision to uproot herself, the twins and move to Auckland, New Zealand. They lived in a beautiful white wooden colonial house in Parnell and Martha opened her own photography studio and modelling agency in Newmarket. She had raised her sons to be respectful and independent. As a single mother Callum and Caleb came first – before herself and before relationships.
Stepping out of the shower Martha slathered on Palmer’s Cocoa Butter all over her body. She caught sight of her reflection in the illuminated vanity mirror. She was growing old graciously and that’s how she liked it. Her facial features and vital statistics were au naturel. She had always invested in regular manicures and pedicures as well as eyebrow, leg and bikini waxes. Glancing at the time on her phone she chuckled to herself. She was going to be fashionably late this evening.
Caleb had set off from Mairangi Bay an hour early. He loved his mother enormously, but her time management skills were sometimes lacking. The staff at Madam Woo, Martha’s favourite Malaysian restaurant in Takapuna, had gone all out to cater for a private function. Callum had invited her closest friends and work colleagues. Caleb didn’t want them to be waiting forever and a day for the guest of honour to turn up. Everyone had been planning for several months to make sure the night was going to be one to remember. Caleb’s one and only job was to get her there for eight o’clock and he was failing miserably. Pete, Martha’s hair stylist, was giving her a pep talk.
‘Now come on, you damaged broken biscuit, breathe in, breathe out. You can do this. Little black dress, smoky eyeshadow, Cuban stockings and heels. A smatter of red lipstick and a drawn on little black mole. Who do you want to be tonight? Tragic Marilyn Monroe, or the fantastical Dita Von Teese?’
‘Dita, darling, Dita,’ Martha replied. Caleb blushed the entire length of his body, whilst Martha and Pete laughed hysterically.
‘Hey Mum, it’s seven-fifteen. We need to leave as soon as. You know how congested traffic can get from here to Taka at this time of night.’ Caleb’s impatience was rising.
‘Caleb, five more minutes. Pete’s nearly done and we’ll all be ready to go. Make yourself useful, go check that Kaiser and Roody have enough kibbles and water. Oh, and their toys. Not the squeaky ones though. They’ll rip them to shreds.’
It took twenty minutes for Caleb to find a parking space on Lake Road. A furnace of rage was building up inside. He bit his bottom lip to stop him from saying something stupid. Callum readily accepted Martha’s time-zone tardiness. To him, this was endearing. He had already warned his younger sibling not to upset their mother on any account. If he did, there would be hell to pay. Callum opened the car’s passenger door and helped Martha out.
‘Well now, just look at you! So radiant! Not a day over 59! Or should that be 58 or 57? Let’s pop this this blindfold on…’ He tied it tight so it wouldn’t slip.
‘What the hell, Callum? These Louboutin’s weren’t borrowed from the studio! They cost me a couple of grand! What if I fall?’
‘Caleb will catch you and you’ll have to hobble in. Your entrance will be fabulous. Come on now, baby steps.’ Callum guided his mother inside the restaurant and removed the blindfold from her face. As her eyes adjusted to the pitch-black darkness, she felt disorientated.
‘Callum? Caleb? Guys…Where are you?’
Martha’s anxieties were rising. She wanted to throw up, hyperventilate and run away. Suddenly, she felt the warm glow of a spotlight shining on her. Then the jazz music started. Madam Woo had been transformed into a 1920’s speakeasy worthy of The Great Gatsby himself. The Xennials and Millennials from each department at Vintage Grace, her burlesque and glamour photography studio, were dressed up as flapper girls and gangsters. Silk beaded dresses with tassels to compliment the colour of their eyes, hair and skin, with matching hats. The men wore individually tailored suits and carried tommy guns. Her closest confidents as dancers from the Moulin Rouge. Parisian corsets in the colours of the French Flag that were tightly laced at the front and back; with frilly garters, suspenders and stockings. Martha knew that they were not from her costume department and was so impressed with the effort that everyone had made. Tears were welling up in her eyes. She dabbed at her mascara with her fingertips to stop it from running down her face.
Sallie Cooper, Martha’s Personal Assistant, Public Relations and Human Resources Manager, clinked his champagne flute with a silver cocktail stick. The noisy chitter-chatter stopped, and the party guests gathered in close.
‘Now Martha, before we allow you to get absolutely shit faced, there are a few things that we all want to say to you. Firstly, we know that you are not the luddite that you claim to be in the office, Strider Stark. I mean, seriously, who chooses a Twitter profile based on Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones, then uploads a picture of Robert Downey Jr. as Ironman? Your game of pretence of knowing nothing about the social network is up too, Jon Snow. The email you received for the sign up to the Digital Marketing Course for Beginners? We know that you attended it because we privately paid for your place, even though you thought that it was free for the over fifties. Oops, my bad. Also, we received a letter from an old flame concerned about your mental state. Stefan has asked Callum and Caleb to confiscate your smartphone. He can no longer deal with your naked WhatsApp video calls at three o’clock every morning, with you singing Lionel Richie’s Hello and Endless Love. Mariella Frostrup when you’re sober, but after downing several shots of tequila and sambuca, shame on you Foghorn Leghorn. And, the empty nest syndrome bullshit must stop. No-one needs to push a trolley around Farro’s Martha, especially when they’re only picking up a truckle of cheese and a carton of milk. Use your bloody hands, that’s what they are for. And without further a-do, time for your present. We have colluded and collaborated for a year. Our gift had to be unique. We racked our brains so much that we had to pilfer Xanax from your office desk drawer to stop the headaches. We bartered and traded our services with one and other, with so many payments in kind. Ava, Jamie and Aiden, will you do the honours please?’
The room erupted into a round of raucous laughter. Martha wobbled nervously on her Louboutin’s. WTAF? How did Sallie know all this? She undid the red ribbon from the colossal gold lacquered box. Martha felt stupefied and embarrassed as her gift uncoiled itself.
‘Danny Connolly is your new head of I.T. From tomorrow morning he will be your office spouse. And your live-in sex slave for the next two years. Contracts signed are legally binding. We all know you like your fantasy Martha, but there is something a little bit kooky about calling a six-foot-four giant “The Imp”. Resign, and we will upload the YouTube video from last night’s carnal knowledge between you and Danny here. So, ladies and gentlemen, please raise your glasses and repeat after me…To the Gods of Tits and Wine, Happy Sixtieth Birthday Martha!’