Happy publication day to Tracy Bloom and ‘The Last Laugh’. Thank you to Bookouture for the blog tour invite. Here is an extract from Tracy’s new book, alongside the all important ‘to buy’ link should you want it!
Jenny discovers her days are numbered at the same time she discovers her husband is having an affair…
Frankly, her life was tough enough already. Two tricky teenagers, her mother’s constant complaints, friends who aren’t up to the job and a career which has been spiralling downwards since she won ‘Sunseeker Tour Rep of the Season’ twenty years ago.
And now this: a cheating husband and a death sentence.
Enough is enough. Jenny vows to keep both catastrophes a secret. She takes her life – and death – into her own hands and decides to live as she did when she was happiest… in 1996. She plans a spectacular 1990s themed party in place of a wake that she herself will attend. But will she be able to keep her secrets for long enough to have the party of a lifetime?
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25th June 1996
Bataria Beach, Kassiopi, Corfu
Somehow our bodies move as one, bouncing up and down to the beat, singing our hearts out, beer sloshing out of stubby bottles, broken plastic glasses crackling under our feet, air guitar solos occasionally breaking away momentarily before being brought back in the fold by hugs and kisses and the joy of feeling as one under the glorious champagne supernova that is the sky. There’s me in the middle of it, high on someone’s shoulders, long sun-kissed hair cascading down my back, smiling inanely down at Mark’s face bobbing up and down below me.
I’m so high.
Not because I couldn’t have dreamed of a better way to spend my twenty-fifth birthday, not even because of the quantity of tequila slammers I’ve inhaled.
I’m just high on life.
At least I managed it once.
Twenty years later…
‘Table for three?’ asks the waitress, standing guard next to a cardboard cactus at the entrance to the restaurant.
‘No, four.’ I turn around. ‘Where’s Ellie?’ I ask Mark.
‘You really wanted to come here?’ he replies with a look so disdainful I whisk my head back round towards the waitress, ready to apologise for my husband’s rudeness, but she’s busy handing George a colouring-in menu and a pot of crayons.
‘He’s a very short fifteen!’ I say, thrusting my hand out to intercept the handover. It’s not George’s fault he’s still waiting for a growth spurt, but it might help if he didn’t hide his face in the depths of a hoody if he wants to avoid being mistaken for someone in need of artistic distraction during a meal. I am too eager in my protectiveness, however, and send the pot of crayons flying out of the idiotic waitress’ hands and all over the blue and white mosaic tiled floor.
The waitress gasps.
No one helps as I bend down to pick up the broken colouring sticks.
‘What’s Mum doing on the floor?’ I hear Ellie say as she emerges from whatever cover she was using to avoid being seen dead with her family.
‘She knocked the crayons out of her hand,’ I hear Mark reply with a sigh.
I can see the yellow one has rolled next to his foot ready to cause a potentially serious incident. I leave it there.
‘Sorry about that,’ I say, standing up and handing over a pile of broken coloured wax into the hand of the waitress. ‘He’s just a bit short,’ I add, pulling George’s hood off his head to reveal the back of his neck, which is bright pink.
‘Would you like to follow me?’ asks the waitress, grabbing four enormous menus as she escapes down the length of the restaurant towards the back.
I chase after her to ask if we could actually sit near the front. I need to be able to see the cactus fairy lights, you see. And I want to be near the bar where it’s livelier. Where I can sit and watch other people enjoying themselves even if I’m not.
‘We’re not actually serving food in that area,’ she replies as she carefully lays the enormous menus on a table in a dark corner with no view of anything.
‘But I would like to sit there,’ I say defiantly, looking round to see if there is any vague chance Mark will step in and back me up. Mark, Ellie and George have not even registered that I have moved, all engrossed in their phones or, in George’s case, his own mortification.
The waitress looks at me and puts her hands on her hips. Yes, her hips.
‘We are only serving food in this section,’ she says.
I stare back at her. Part of me wants to give up now, go home and write the night off as a bad idea. But it’s my birthday. I want to at least attempt an enjoyable meal with my family before… well, before things may never be the same again. Before I break the news to Mark on the twentieth anniversary of us getting together that, well… there might be something wrong with me. Catastrophically wrong with me.
‘I want a table where I can see the cactus fairy lights,’ I tell her with what I hope is an air of authority.
‘Yeah.’ She shrugs.
I realise I am in a stand-off in the back of a Mexican restaurant.
‘You let us have a table at the front or we will leave,’ I demand. My voice wobbles slightly, which may have given her the upper hand. I hold my breath.
She looks at me and sighs – yes, sighs.
‘I’ll have to go and ask the manager if we can open up another section,’ she says, strutting off and leaving me standing on my own.
I quickly gather up the enormous menus and begin a fast walk back up to the front of the restaurant. I’m thinking that if we’re seated before the waitress gets back she won’t be able to do anything about it.
‘What is Mum doing?’ I hear Ellie ask for the second time that night.
In my haste to win the race I have not spotted that the other three members of my family have finally deigned to join me and are walking in the opposite direction down the next aisle.
‘We’re sitting at the front,’ I say, barely slowing up. ‘Quick, this way,’ I shout over my shoulder.
‘But someone might see us if we sit there,’ I hear Ellie cry.
By the time Mark, Ellie and George join me, I’ve bagged, in my opinion, the best seat in the house. Back to the wall, right at the front, facing the bar, I can see everything going on. That is, until we all pick up our menus, blocking all of the view and a big chunk of light.
‘Why on earth did you want to come here?’ grumbles Mark from somewhere behind two layers of laminated card. ‘We could have gone to Sebastian’s. I said I’d treat you all. You don’t even have to book to come here. I can’t remember the last time I went to a restaurant where you could just turn up. Can you imagine if you did that at Sebastian’s?’
I remember the last time I’d agreed to go to Sebastian’s with Mark. It was his firm’s Christmas do. The lack of food (overblown and insipid) and terrible company (men: overblown, women: insipid) had led to an overindulgence in champagne on my part. When I loudly whispered into Mark’s ear that the only way the night could be salvaged was by a visit to a karaoke bar he’d given me a horrified glare followed by a large glass of water.
‘Do not drink any more champagne,’ he’d angrily whispered. ‘This is not the time nor the place to get drunk.’
But it’s a Christmas party, I thought. If there is any time and place to get completely pissed, surely it’s now. I watched as Mark leaned forward over his vanilla and basil posset with a hint of lavender foam to ask the Chairman’s wife about her plans for the holiday season. I leant back, sulked and never said another word. No one noticed.
The atmosphere between us was somewhat frosty for several days afterwards until he announced we were at the point in our marriage where we should no longer bother with Christmas presents. I declared I’d already purchased his and so he begrudgingly agreed we should do it one last time. The next day I went out and bought him a karaoke machine. He bought me a SodaStream.
The enormous menus effectively prevent any eye contact until a waiter, thankfully not the scowling one, appears to take our order. All that can be heard is Mark huffing at the thought of nachos being the peak of today’s culinary experience. We even place our orders from behind our temporary barriers. I hear Mark ask for a chicken burrito like he’s agreed to eat regurgitated frogs’ testicles. Ellie asks for a taco salad but without the tacos, and the only indication that George has successfully ordered is the lowering of the menu and a wordless jab of the finger at an item, followed by a tremor of panic when the waiter asks how he wants his steak to be cooked.
‘Do you want it medium rare?’ I ask George.
‘For goodness’ sake, Jenny,’ snaps Mark. ‘Make him ask for it, if that’s what he wants.’
George doesn’t raise his eyes from the menu but I know he is wounded.
‘Medium rare, please,’ he whispers without looking at the waiter.
Then suddenly our barriers are whipped from us and we are all caught like rabbits in the headlights from the glare of our nearest and dearest.
‘Drinks?’ the waiter asks chirpily. Clearly he’s already completed the course on how to smile at a customer – unlike his colleague.
‘I’ll have a lime and soda,’ answers Mark before any consultation can take place.
‘I’ll have a large Chardonnay,’ says Ellie.
‘You will not,’ cries Mark.
‘All right then, a small one,’ she replies.
‘It’s a school night and you are seventeen,’ says Mark, looking at me as though I made the request.
‘Perhaps we could share a bottle?’ I say.
He doesn’t say anything, just shakes his head in wonder.
‘I mean, you and me could share and perhaps let them have a small bit,’ I say.
Mark looks at the waiter.
‘These two will both have a Diet Coke,’ he says, waggling his finger at Ellie and George.
‘I’ll have a margarita,’ I jump in.
‘It’s only six o’clock, Jenny,’ warns Mark.
‘On the rocks or frozen?’ the waiter asks, looking right at me with a smile. I like him.
‘Definitely on the rocks,’ I reply, grinning back. ‘It’s a special occasion.’
I watch him cast his eyes around our party. Ellie has her elbows on the table, phone held at eye level, the screen illuminating her face as she taps away furiously. George has his head staring down in his lap, the air of concentration giving away the fact he has also turned to his phone for company. Mark is stroking his own phone, which is on the table in front of him, as though to reassure it of his constant presence.
‘And what is the occasion?’ the waiter asks, struggling to keep hold of the slippery menus clamped under his arm.
‘It’s my birthday.’ I swallow. We share a look. I could burst into tears but I hold them back. I stupidly bought cheap mascara that doesn’t mix well with tears, and I can’t cry yet.
My gaze goes to the cactus fairy lights above the bar. I love them. They are so stupid and pointless but so bloody happy. How can you not smile at the sight of cactus fairy lights? There’s a couple sitting on high stools sipping fluorescent pink cocktails. Clearly not married. He’s trying really hard to entertain her and she’s trying really hard to be entertained. They are all smiles, hair flicks, body part touching and eye contact. Maybe it’s the promise of potential sex that is the only reason why people make eye contact these days, I think as I pull my eyes back to my fellow celebrators. Or to deliver bad news. I shudder.
I wonder how Mark will look at me when I tell him later that I’ve been prodded and poked to investigate my defects. What will he say when I tell him I need him to come and hold my hand when they deliver the verdict on what they have found? That it could be bad, really bad. They might say the C-word. How will my husband look at me then, I wonder.
Mark gets up out of his bright green chair and wanders off, murmuring into his phone. George and Ellie… well, you can guess what they are doing.
The drinks arrive. The margarita looks magnificent. I thank the waiter as he places it in front of me, then thank him individually for everyone else’s drink as they fail to acknowledge their arrival.
Mark takes his seat again and puts his phone face down on the table. It buzzes immediately, its glowing underside making it look like a mini rectangular UFO. Thankfully he ignores it and gulps down half his lime and soda. George and Ellie sip on their Cokes without tearing their eyes away from their screens. Mark picks his phone up again.
I sigh and lift my glass to my lips and mutter, ‘Happy birthday, Jenny.’
About the author.
Tracy started writing when her cruel, heartless husband ripped her away from her dream job shopping for rollercoasters for the UK’s leading theme parks, to live in America with a brand new baby and no mates. In a cunning plan to avoid domestic duties and people who didn’t understand her Derbyshire accent, she wrote her romantic comedy, NO-ONE EVER HAS SEX ON A TUESDAY. This debut novel went on to be successfully published internationally and became a #1 Best Seller.
You can follow Tracy on Twitter at @TracyBBloom, like her Facebook page on www.facebook.com/tracybloomwrites or get in touch via her website at www.tracybloom.com