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Jilly Cooper

PRUDENCE

For Maura McCarthy

with love

Author’s Note

The idea for PRUDENCE first came to me in 1967. I wrote it as a long short story called HOUSE OF CARDS and it appeared in serial form in 19. I took the story and completely rewrote it, and the result is PRUDENCE.

Chapter One

For the twentieth time I said goodnight to Pendle and let myself into the flat. Big Ben was striking eleven. Jane, my flatmate, stretched out in front of the fire, raised a scarlet face to me through a mass of drying blonde hair.

‘Any progress?’ she asked hopefully, then answered for herself. ‘No, obviously not — you look as unpounced upon as ever.’

I went over to the mirror. My curls were unruffled, my lipstick unsmudged. Boasting apart, I looked great. Why then, after twenty dates, hadn’t Pendle made a pass at me?

We’d met at a party a couple of months back — a ghastly What-do-you-do-for-a-living? Oh-I-bash-a- typewriter sort of party, with overhead lighting and someone dishing fruit salad from a huge bowl into our glasses. Pendle and I were the only sheep among a huge crowd of goats, but then they always say the fairest flowers grow on the foulest dung-heaps.

He was not the sort of man you noticed immediately — light brown hair, a thin, expressionless face and pale grey eyes, but he had a detachment and exaggerated cool that was, in itself, a provocation. He wore a charcoal grey suit, of the most irreproachable orthodoxy, grey shirt and a pale tie, but he was tall and very thin, so his clothes looked good on him.

I was wearing my joke kit that evening. I’m very sensitive to clothes. When I wear frills I become demure; in studded leather, I stride around and act butch, but when I wear my joke kit — orange Bermudas with braces and a cheesecloth shirt — I scintillate and tell jokes. When Pendle came over and joined our group, I rattled off three jokes in quick succession that had everyone except him falling about, so I moved off to talk to someone else.

The party was given in one of those long, high eau de nihilistic Sloane Square rooms where you always think something exciting is happening at the other end, and it never is. One of the flatmates, Marcia, had even asked her mother. Not that I’ve anything against mothers in the right context, but at parties they do waste valuable hunting time. And this one was a twenty-stone do-gooder, who’d set like a great pink blancmange on the sofa. Every so often unfortunate guests were clobbered to talk to her.

‘Eats, anyone?’ said another flatmate, waving a plate under our noses. ‘I’m sure you’re not on a diet, Pru, you’re so skinny.’

‘I’m starving,’ I said, spearing a sausage. ‘I only had time to grab a sandwich-board man at lunchtime.’

‘I do hope I don’t pong,’ confided the flatmate. ‘Marcia filled the bath with ice so none of us could have a bath.’

Next minute Marcia rolled up with two new arrivals.

‘I want you to meet Eileen,’ she said, introducing me to a large blonde with dirty finger nails, ‘who makes absolutely sooper jewellery. I know you’d like some, Pru. And this is Clifford, our firm’s accountant, who’s very clever with figures.’

‘Only some figures,’ said Clifford, leering at my too tight Bermudas, then braying with laughter and spraying cashew nuts all over me, between the gap in his front teeth.

I asked Eileen about the ‘sooper’ jewellery.

‘Oh please don’t interrogate me,’ she said. ‘I’m so tired,’ and proceeded to describe the entire plot of a film she’d seen that afternoon.

‘I work in Harrods,’ said a pale girl, ‘but in the book department,’ as though that made it better.

Then they all talked about President Carter, Mrs Thatcher, Laura Ashley, and the latest biography by Antonia Fraser, which everyone seemed to have read except me. I know one should try to look vivacious at parties when one’s stuck with boring people. Attractive men are always supposed to think what fun you look and come over and introduce themselves; but the man in the charcoal grey suit was showing no signs of approaching me, and any minute I’d be buried alive in cashew nuts. The flatmate came round with the sausages. I drew her aside.

‘Who’s the man in the grey suit?’

Her face brightened. ‘Oh, isn’t he lovely? He’s called Pendle, Pendle Mulholland.’

‘I bet he made that up.’

‘He’s quite capable of it,’ she said. ‘Marcia invited him. She says he’s absolutely brilliant. Evidently he was called to the Bar younger than anyone else in years.’

‘He ought to be called to the bar more often,’ I said crossly. ‘He hasn’t touched his drink. It might make him more jolly.’

I’m a trier at parties, so I chatted up all the draggy men and danced around to the record player, but I was conscious all the time of this Pendle man watching me like a cat.

Perhaps the fruit salad was more potent than I’d thought, because I finally went up to him and said, ‘Why don’t you have another drink and look a bit more jolly?’

‘There isn’t any whisky,’ he said, ‘and the local wine’s a bit too vigorous for me, although it’s done wonders for that plant.’ He pointed to a mauve chrysanthemum in a pot on the table. ‘It was quite dead when I arrived.’

I giggled and took another sip at my drink.

‘I can’t place the tangy flavour,’ I said.

‘Vim probably. Marcia mixed it in the wash basin. You must have the constitution of an ox,’ he added as I drained the glass.

‘I’m after the cherry,’ I said. ‘I hear you’re a solicitor.’

‘Barrister.’

‘I never know the difference.’

‘I talk more in court.’

‘What did you do today?’

‘Defended a wife-basher.’

‘Goodness, how exciting. Did you get him off?’

‘Naturally.’

‘How?’

‘By proving his wife was utterly impossible.’

‘Was she?’

‘Shouldn’t think so. That isn’t the point,’ he said. ‘My job was to get him off.’

‘Defending the wicked for the sake of worldly gain,’ I said. I examined his cold, fleshless face with its beautiful bone-structure, and strange, grey, unblinking, deep-set eyes. He must look stunning in a wig —

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