‘Love in a Corporate Climate’
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On the first anniversary of Princess Imelda’s death, it is thought her ghost finally completed the return journey to Ingot Manor, her childhood home. At least, that is what the box office stewards said, still claiming, to this very day, it was a spirit, rather than a living, warm-blooded woman who paid them an unexpected visit on the twelfth day of September. During lunch hours and coffee breaks, they enjoy scaring one another with stories of how it took the ghost twelve months to complete the journey from the scene of her demise; she was assassinated during a twelve-day-long romantic excursion to the twelfth largest country on the Continent; or how she was declared a corpse at twelve minutes past midnight, a full twelve hundred miles from home; and twelve million the number of grieving fans that streamed by her coffin to pay their last respects, the facts and figures twisted to add weight to one of many conspiracy theories that claimed her death was really a murder, carefully orchestrated by someone near the top of the royal household, a lineage that happened to celebrate its twelve hundredth birthday that very month.
Of course, Naomi Fullerton was no ghost and was very much aware of the striking resemblance she bore to the now deceased princess. Truth be told, she actively cultivated her look to match Imelda at her most practical, at her most glamorous, at her most mundane, at her most decorous, at her most divorced. Her league of costumes carried similarly hefty price tags to those once worn by Imelda. It is a costly exercise emulating a once famous, high profile member of the royal household. And those hair and make-up artists once employed by Imelda, eventually became Naomi’s own stylists. A haircut now regularly set her back several hundred pounds, one or two of Imelda’s hand-picked team gawping open-mouthed when Naomi first introduced herself and made clear her plans to them. Yes, she was every bit an Imelda look-alike. Any monies she made from television appearances or magazine focus articles were ploughed directly back into helping her maintain such a look.
It follows then that those who had been close to Imelda wanted also to meet Naomi, a few even slipping into their old ways of addressing the princess, every conversational faux pas proving enormously entertaining to Naomi for she’d succeeded in pulling the wool down over another pair of eyes. To such people, Naomi’s beauty was a facsimile copy of the nation’s much loved rose and any prolonged encounter with the look-alike princess often gave way to the silence of anger, or grief, or questions directed at the government, the royal family, or at the father of Imelda’s millionaire boyfriend who, some argued, had shamelessly used the tragedy to angle sympathy from influential establishment figures, bringing Eastern and Western empires together during a time when both houses should have been privately mourning the passing of their children.
In the estate’s gift shop, Andrew, the dead princess’s younger brother and presiding Earl, paused in between signing copies of his bestseller The Haunting of Imelda, the nib of his fountain pen vibrating ever so slightly, poised directly above the page but unable to advance or withdraw. His curiosity ignited, he stepped from behind the chest-high counter and followed the young woman out of the shop and into the courtyard. The light of day was milky and sustained, giving the impression one had fallen through a hole in the glacial wastes and the underwater world of the far north stretched out in various directions, at least until the solid blue walls of the ocean deep prevented one’s eye from probing beyond the known.
Naomi knew she was being followed and accepted the fact that here, more than in most places she’d visited, she would be stared at by one and all. She stepped into the first of four inter-connecting exhibition rooms and breezed through Imelda’s childhood, mementos and oddments stacked in glass cases, the eerie print of Naomi’s own reflection gracing each protective screen and unsettling tourists that were momentarily lost to the mythology of it all. A looped home movie was set to music by some famous composer, possibly someone from the Continent, thought Naomi, and various photographs accompanied her through each the rooms she passed in and out of, hapless phantoms let loose among the living.
At the final room, a large, draughty tunnel that housed some of the dead princess’s most exclusive garments, Naomi felt a cold rasp of fingers at her shoulder and turned to face a breathless Earl, his cheeks blue and his lips a pasty white. The full gravity of grief he had displayed at his sister’s funeral was flushed through him anew as if the last twelve months had done nothing but fool him into thinking life would ever get back to normal.
‘Forgive me, I had to speak with you,’ he managed, his mouth drying with every word uttered.
Naomi looked across at him, Imelda’s full six feet in height, calmly replying, ‘A lovely exhibition, Earl.’
And with her words the colour returned to his visage, his palms dried out and his mouth loosened:
‘The resemblance is uncanny, truly uncanny. I must apologise for stopping you in so rude a manner.’
Naomi and Andrew newly engaged in conversation quickly drew the attention of tourists. Many of them misread this encounter as a photo opportunity, greedily snapped away until rolls of film were exhausted. The camera flashes lit up the room and the brilliance of each the dead princess’s outfits once again endured the glare of paparazzi-style attention.
Show-Dog Davis was the by-product of a sexual encounter between one woman and an immigrant taxi-driver who had come from the East to make his fortune. Her boy she loved, but Anna thoughtlessly gave him the name Show-Dog in reference to his father, which her son suspected had been that man’s CB radio handle, and not a real name at all. Though this unfortunate name appeared on his birth certificate and had to be used in all official matters, Show-Dog adopted the name Oliver for everyday use.
He lived out his life rather sedately until the day he switched on the television and, at the age of forty one, realised that from that moment on people would forever suspect he was the ghost of Iqbal Rafiq, the playboy tycoon who had been killed in a car accident alongside the new love of his life, Princess Imelda. The likeness between the two men was so convincing that initially even friends and family knew not how to deal with Oliver, his presence forcing them to constantly re-play painful emotions associated with the crash, the endless hours of C.C.T.V. footage that played day and night on the satellite and terrestrial channels, only adding further to his misery. Entirely against his will, Oliver was plucked from obscurity and thrust into the world of minor celebrities.
In the early days, journalists thought nothing of camping out in his garden, and any close relations desperate for a little extra cash soon sold their souls to newspaper magnates covering the story. In a bid to reclaim his identity, Oliver donned a multitude of disguises, with varying degrees of success: A deer-stalker cap, an unconvincing moustache, even skin-lightening make-up was employed to throw the filthy press-hounds off his scent. Of course, he found it impossible to go into work, he invented ice-cream flavours for a living, and his bosses promised his job would be kept open should he ever want to return. A preposterous notion at the time, he thought, that he should ever find himself craving this kind of attention over his old life of quietude, but a notion that became fact just one year after the fatal accident that killed off his doppelganger, Iqbal Rafiq.
Doctor Jon McClelland’s Life Coach Studio was last door on the left and at the end of a corridor that seemed to stretch on forever, the distant pinpoint of window light somehow making the walls and ceiling less substantial than they ought to be in such an institution. Even the air appears hassled by stale smells that have made the long journey from the canteen, Oliver remarked to himself, steadily floating across the cream-coloured flooring to his destination.
Once inside the room, he immediately felt his feet had hit safer ground for arranged in a large semi-circle were nearly two dozen other look-alikes and their eyes invited him into their midst, no questions asked.
‘Welcome to the support group,’ a tall, long-faced man said, perkily standing from his seat and shaking Oliver’s hand, ‘my name is Doctor Jon. You are?’
Show-Dog paused. The doctor reminded him of some dead comedian that had one graced the Mainland’s television schedules before alcoholism finished him off. The new member answered clearly, and rather convincingly he thought,
People nudged this way and that and made room for a spare chair: Oliver’s space among them secured. Only when he sat down did his rattled nerves allow him to observe more closely the other members of the look-alike support group. Among their numbers he recognised:
An International tennis star, whose fall from grace after she tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, resulted in her gulping down a fatal concoction of headache pills.
A pop star that leapt from a hotel balcony after the pressures of incessant touring took their toll on her mental fortitude.
A soap actor, whose abseiling lines snapped during a routine decent into a ravine, a stunt done for charity mind.
An information technology billionaire who the courts had proved was the brains behind a paedophile ring, and into the first week of serving the first of three life sentences, had slashed his wrists.
There was even a look-alike couple that closely resembled a pair of child killers from yesteryear. Oliver wondered if this gruesome couple had been ostracised by society, or had even suffered at the hands of the public. And how exactly had they found one another? They seemed very happy, but the front of toothy smiles did not fool Oliver. Every member of McClelland’s group attended these meetings precisely because the pressure had become too much to bear and all were now seeking guidance on how best to cope with the prying eyes of the public and the press. All except Naomi of course, whose personal life required any kind of attention from her legions of devoted fans, and whose beguiling green eyes now settled on one Oliver Davis, as Princess Imelda’s eyes had once, so famously, settled on one Iqbal Rafiq.
He said he would follow in his car, a drizzle of rain soon forcing him to activate the windscreen washers, most of the commuter traffic crawling at a snail’s pace in the opposite direction. He kept an eye on the milometer, watched one digital number be replaced by another until the counter told him he had chased her seventeen miles, only then to come to rest at a public house: The Black Prince.
Naomi’s long, slender legs appeared first before her upper body and she climbed from her car, turning and signalling to Oliver using only three fingers: three minutes, yes, he understood, give her three minutes and he would join her in the ladies, there to take her roughly, and so finish a flirting act that had begun earlier that afternoon in McClelland’s Studio during a tea-break. But what was significant about this pub, over others? Why bring him all this way to a little village on the outskirts of nowhere.
His fears were not allayed upon entering the mock-Tudor building, its walls crooked and moving at angles away from one another, its clientele most definitely Middle-Mainland white. As a free citizen of the City he took for granted the fact his ethnic looks didn’t usually overturn the mood of a room in less than five seconds, and was not at all prepared for the greeting extended to him via the patrons of The Black Prince.
‘Can I ‘elp you mate?’
The disembodied voice spoke for every pair of searching eyes; the rank smells of their lacquer and liquor combining to churn the contents of Oliver’s stomach.
‘He’s with me, Frank.’
And he’d latched onto Naomi’s velvet tones like a ship weighing anchor in a tempest.
‘What, with you Naomi?’
And at hearing her real name she dealt her ex-husband a look filled with disgust, the landlord’s demeanour rocked sufficiently to have him step back from the bar and allow the Iqbal Rafiq look-alike to circulate freely among his more regular customers.
The very next morning Oliver bounded down the marble steps leading him away from Naomi’s swank City apartment, spotting immediately a heaving wall of journalists and television news anchormen. The cold of early morning meant the people gathered about the ten feet high cast-iron gates sent little flag-shaped pockets of warm air into the atmosphere. Oliver caught the occasional vowels and consonants of their conversations as he bent his body in half and positioned himself behind the steering wheel of his car.
Naomi observed the action from her bathroom window, her static expression like that of a waxwork effigy. Would Oliver do as he had promised: roll his window down and eloquently refute the journalists’ claims that he and Naomi Fullerton were set to exploit their look-alike status to the hilt? Last evening, over a bottle of wine, bathed in the whispery light of candles, she had professed a liking for Oliver, yet he had been more reticent to surrender himself to such an unusual relationship, and he certainly wasn’t sure he could handle any further attention from the world’s media. After all, he told her, he was an introvert at heart. She had convinced him it was Oliver Davis she had fallen in love with, not some dead business tycoon from the East. And later, was it not Naomi and Oliver that enjoyed sex on her kitchen floor, action then moving to the bedroom and concluding in her deep Jacuzzi bath in the early hours of this morning? As they dozed off, she talked of how her marriage to Frank had floundered since Imelda’s death twelve months ago. She was convinced her husband, who she described as individual looking, became jealous of Naomi’s success and hated having to stand back to let his wife savour the benefits of a celebrity lifestyle. The final straw had come when she talked of them adopting a couple of boys, ideally the same age as Imelda’s sons had been the day she died. This suggestion led Frank to pack a suitcase and bid his wife, his black-hearted princess, a foul farewell. Yes, mused Naomi to herself as she spotted her lover’s car pause at the gates to handle a few of the journalists’ questions, it was Oliver Davis she had fallen for, but it would be the memory of Iqbal Rafiq that would bring the couple untold riches if they could hold their collective nerve.
Within a week of the story gracing tabloid front pages, the public took the look-alikes to their hearts, the blossoming romance between the couple suddenly making them the talk of the town. The Weeklies paid them handsome sums to set in print and pictures their unique tale, and the couple were soon too busy to attend Doc McClelland’s support class. An agent was recruited to sort the chaff from the wheat and ensure every deal was legally binding, each new guest appearance financially more lucrative than the last. Oliver held onto Naomi’s hand throughout the storm of appointments, fearful now to not let go as their romance was almost as high profile as Imelda’s and Iqbal’s had ever managed. The people on the street seemed willing to suspend their disbelief to the point where they thought the look-alikes actually were the princess and her eastern-flavoured boyfriend. The long mourning period of last year was forgotten, Imelda truly walked among them once again and they were grateful to her for returning.
Doubtless, Naomi handled each new responsibility with the aplomb of a well-disciplined royal and, at a Gala Variety Performance staged for the reigning monarch, Queen Alexandra the First personally invited Naomi backstage for an informal chat and to enjoy an after show beverage, Her Highness even mindful to exclude Oliver from her invite, as it was rumoured she had often done with Rafiq. So, Naomi accepted the kind offer and later she carried herself with magisterial gusto, eventually coming face to face with Imelda’s ex-husband and heir to the throne, Prince Quentin the Second. Attired in her favourite low-cut dress, drawing all eyes to her, Naomi ensured the poor Prince quickly lost his footing. His partner for the evening, a wrinkle-faced horse riding buddy from his youth, Bethany Fleming-Harrold, clung to him throughout the couple’s edgy exchanges as if she would never truly rid herself of Imelda. As the look-alike Princess registered the Quentin’s cold, damp lips on her cheek, she realised she could never go back to her life as Naomi Fullerton. It was what the people had wanted: they had their princess back and she was now in the commanding seat Imelda had occupied before her untimely death.
‘My mind is made up’, she whispered to Oliver as they grabbed their coats from the cloakroom and fled to their waiting limousine, ‘we must change our names and actually become the people we so closely resemble.’
Once a Show-Dog, then an Oliver, now an Iqbal. He wondered if he would ever settle on an identity to call his own, the constant shifting earth beneath his feet forever catching him unawares.
Established in the back of their swish car, the couple enjoyed a glass of top drawer champagne, offering their bodyguard orange juice and indicating to the hired driver they would like to see the City lights one final time before they returned home. He nodded and pulled out, the crowds of people pressed hard against the metal barriers and excitedly waving little plastic flags that were emblazoned with the faces of the look-alike couple. The street lights doused everyone in a fizzy orange glow and Naomi playfully squeezed Oliver’s hand, a vote of thanks to him for helping her realise a childhood dream. Her lover chinked his glass against hers and kissed her fully on the lips. Only as Iqbal had Show-Dog found true love, the likes of which any sensible man held onto for his dear life.
They soon hunkered down against a dozen leather cushions and lost themselves to a moment of intimacy, wholly unaware that trio of motorcycles were, at that very moment, shadowing their car, travelling at a speed to make their lights blur into one, a cargo of passengers setting cameras to ready, the sleepy-eyed chauffeur soon to spot the pursuers in the rectangle of his rear-view mirror.