Chloe and Isabella

 Chloe - tall, elegant and ebony-skinned - slipped out of her coat and passed it across to the cloakroom assistant, then watched out of the corner of her eye as the garment was expertly placed on a hangar on the rail behind the counter. Good. Due care had been shown, as one would expect in a swanky place like this. She’d had several bad experiences at other receptions, when her coat had been half-thrown onto a hook or even dropped on the floor, with one such occasion appearing to be deliberate. Racism could still rear its ugly head, even in the twenty-first century.
She walked through the swing doors into the reception area proper and gladly took one of the glasses of bubbly held out to her by a penguin-suited waiter. Eugh. Lukewarm, over-sweet prosecco. With all the money on show, you’d think they could provide something half-decent to drink. Maybe the main bar had a better selection. Chloe looked around. There didn’t seem to be a main bar, nor any food set out on tables. Just waiting-staff circulating with trays, some of drinks, others of canapes. Oh, there was Jerome, the host for the evening, and he was coming her way. Better get it over and done with. Steel yourself.
‘Chloe, darling. How lovely to see you!’
A quick double peck into the air, either side of her head, and he backed away again. But would she really welcome him getting much closer and opting for real contact? An oily, condescending twat like him? Hardly.
‘You look totally awesome,’ he breathed. ‘That white dress is simply divine, the way it contrasts so strongly with your skin. You are one beautiful, lucky girl.’
Lucky? What has luck got to do with it? Skin creams, workouts, special diets, early morning runs. All have their part to play in creating a body beautiful. People call it pampering but, really, it’s just constant hard work. But worth it.
‘Thanks, Jerome. So, who’s here tonight? Who should I look out for?’
She grabbed an indeterminate-looking pastry from a passing tray and bit into it. Indeterminate was the right word. It didn’t really taste of anything identifiable. She glanced across the room, trying to spot a waiter with a more edifying selection of nibbles.
‘Well, there’s William, Jasmine and all the press crowd. Then we have a group from the local art world, plus about ten aspiring poets. And we’ve also got a world-famous physicist. You might have seen him on the tellie. He’s across there talking to Sinead.’ He flicked his finger in a vaguely arc-like direction across half the room.
Chloe looked and spotted who he meant. It also gave her a chance to check her own appearance because the couple were standing beside a full-length mirrored section of the wall. Its reflected image showed most of the people at this end of the room and, true enough, she did look ravishing. It was always a bit tricky, trying on something new at home and trying to guess how it would look in a setting like this. In this case, fortunately, it was even better than she’d hoped. A tailored, pure-white, full-length dress that contrasted completely with her black skin. The mirror also showed that more than a few people were still looking her way.
‘I’ll just circulate then, shall I?’
‘Of course, darling. Enjoy yourself!’
Her glance around the room had allowed her to finally spot a small bar, previously hidden by a tightly packed group of people. Maybe she could get a gin and tonic after all, even if she had to pay for it herself. She managed to grab a couple of chicken goujons on her way across. They were surprisingly good.
‘Who are you?’ asked a bored-looking man loitering near a ragged queue, as she approached the bar.
‘Chloe Rivers,’ she replied, widening her eyes at him. ‘I’m the literary editor at Skylight magazine.’
He looked surprised. ‘Really? I’m impressed.’
Oh God. Not another racist, sexist wanker. ‘Why? Because I’m a woman? Because I’m black? Please explain. I’m all ears.’ Then, of course, there was the other thing. Probably better not to mention it. Yet.
‘Oh no, don’t read anything into it. I didn’t mean anything like that.’
‘But what did you mean? When someone says that they are impressed, they usually mean that some factor or other is better than expected. So what was it in my case? Hmm?’ She smiled and widened her eyes again.
Her mother still said that she was far too mischievous for her own good. Was it wise to be this confrontational when she didn’t even know who she was speaking to? She held out her hand. ‘Delighted to meet you . . . Um?’
‘Charlie Osgood. Agent.’
It was just too tempting to resist. ‘Really? An agent? What type? Secret, estate, football, home shopping?’ Brief pause. ‘Literary?’
At least he laughed. A good sign. ‘The latter. Well, I’m not the agent. I’m an assistant editor at the Dorry Pilkington agency. But well done. Such a witty reply.’
‘For a woman, you mean?’
He looked crestfallen. ‘No, I didn’t mean that.’
‘At least you don’t think you did. The trouble is, Charlie, that assumptions about gendered behaviour are so deeply ingrained in us that we’re not even aware we have them. Look, I promise to be less cutting from now on. I need a stiff drink.’ Chloe caught the eye of one of the bar staff who was about to serve a man to her left. ‘I’m next, not him,’ she called. She looked at the pushy individual, a haughty-looking type wearing an immaculately cut dinner suit. ‘Shame on you. You should know better. Every man for himself and sod the women. Is that your policy?’
He backed away, glowering.
‘Gin and tonic; ice and lime. Double, please.’ She turned to her new companion. ‘Something for you?’
‘That’s kind,’ he replied. ‘I’ll have the same.’

Chloe made sure the order was correct, then turned back to her companion. ‘Have you started looking for a new job yet?’ She waited for the inevitable reaction. She wasn’t disappointed.
His eyes shot up. ‘What?’
‘Dorry was on the same degree course as me at uni. I know how useless he is. And I’ve heard the rumours.’
‘Oh, God,’ he replied. ‘No-one’s saying anything about it at work, but I can see something’s up.’
‘Best to get out while the going’s good,’ she replied, accepting a glass from the waiter. She took a large gulp and closed her eyes. Bliss. She then became aware of near silence descending on the room. She half turned and stopped dead. Who is that? Her eyes narrowed. Bugger me backwards. Really. Who is that? Most of the people in the room were reacting in the same way they had when she’d entered ten minutes earlier. Looking. Gawping. This time for a tall, slender, pale-skinned, blonde woman in a beautifully cut, black taffeta dress. She looked gorgeous. Good enough to eat. Chloe took another sip of her G&T and turned back to her companion. He suddenly seemed strangely nervous, his eyes flickering around as if he was seeking an escape route. This was getting interesting.
Chloe heard the rustling sound of taffeta rubbing against thigh approaching behind her. She refrained from turning but kept her eyes on Charlie, who looked as if he was about to explode with tension.
‘Well, hello there, Charlie. Got one of those for me? I can’t stand cheap, tepid plonk bubbling its life away in flutes that ought to be holding cold champagne. It’s a crime against the noble grape.’ The voice was surprisingly deep. Seductive.
Chloe turned. ‘My thoughts exactly,’ she said. ‘It’s still my round.’
She caught the eye of the barman. ‘Another, please.’
She turned back and found the blonde was looking at her. As she’d expected, those beautiful blue eyes were cool and steady.
‘Charlie, do your thing,’ the sultry voice said.
Charlie suddenly came back to life, as if he’d woken from a trance. ‘Oh, sorry. Rude of me. Isabella Osgood, meet Chloe Rivers. Chloe is the literary editor at Skylight. You know, that magazine that’s taken the media world by storm. The one that’s intent on breaking down barriers between art forms. That’s what it claims, anyway.’ He shrugged as if to say, what do I know?
Isabella smirked. ‘Charlie, I do know stuff. I’m not a complete moron. I actually read Skylight. It’s one of the few refreshing things to look forward to in a somewhat jaded world.’
Charlie looked contrite. ‘Sorry, Issi.’ He glanced at Chloe. ‘Issi is Professor of Linguistic Philosophy at Queens. She’s my cousin.’
Chloe laughed. ‘So we’re well-matched?’
‘It would appear so,’ Isabella’s smile was warm and genuine. ‘Delighted to meet you at last, Chloe. I love your work.’
‘I’m sure I’d be able to say the same, if I’d ever read anything about Linguistic Philosophy. Are you particularly cunning?’
‘Oh, yes. With the right person, totally. But it’s early days yet, don’t you think? Unless you’re in a particular hurry.’
Chloe gently shook her head. ‘Not unduly. I love your dress, by the way. It so suits you.’
Isabella slipped her arm through Chloe’s. ‘Do you fancy going walkabout?’
Chloe smiled. This was beginning to turn into a wonderful evening. Who would have guessed it? ‘Of course. With you, anything.’
They soon found themselves on a terrace overlooking the Thames, its dark waters flowing by silently and swiftly, and reflecting the silvery sphere of the full moon. The air held a coolness, a sign of the winter to come. A slight tremor rippled through Chloe’s body.
‘Is it too cold for you?’ Isabella asked.
‘No, not at all. I think that shiver was a result of the change in temperature, not the chill itself. I used to feel the cold more, but I’m beginning to carry an extra fat layer now. A consequence of my increasing age, I expect.’
‘Or hormones?’
Chloe shook her head. ‘No, not me. Nor surgery even.’ She waited for the inevitable reaction, but none came. Instead, Isabella’s arm gripped her even tighter, so she went on. ‘I’m a weird one. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to.’ She could sense the other woman’s smile, even though she was keeping her eyes focussed on the beauty of the reflected lights glinting on the surface of the flowing river.
‘That’s your choice. It’s a right you have, and no-one should question it. If you must know, I get really angry at trans people who see themselves as some kind of enforcement officers. They’re inevitably so narrow-minded and judgemental. Were you expecting some kind of reaction from me?’
Chloe shrugged. ‘Possibly. I’ve got used to it and it’s made me a bit more cynical than I like to be. You can guess the kind of thing. Oh, so you’re not going for surgery or hormones? What kind of freak are you? You’re not really trans. You’re just playing at it. It’s more a reflection of them than me. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to.’
‘I can imagine. Yet I bet no-one else in that lot of people here, inside, even guessed about you, not remotely.’ Isabella laughed.
‘Not even Charlie?’
‘God, no. He’s totally blind when it comes to reading people. He knows about me, of course. It went round the family like a rocket when I came out five years ago. Actually, he was rather lovely. He came to visit me twice when I was in hospital recovering from the surgery. That’s above and beyond the call of duty, as far as I’m concerned. He’s a good bloke, really.’
Chloe sighed. ‘You’re making me feel guilty now. I was teasing him a bit before you appeared.’
Isabella giggled. ‘Don’t worry. He enjoys it. Let’s face it. What man wouldn’t enjoy being teased by a gorgeous creature like you? I bet he was lapping it up.’
Chloe turned face on to the other woman. She felt her eyelids droop slightly and moved her head an inch or two forward, to be met by an identical move from Isabella. Lips and tongues touched. Their eyes slowly closed, and the sounds from inside the gallery drifted far away. Warmth seemed to shimmer through their bodies for the timeless few seconds they kissed. Finally, they pulled apart.
Chloe shivered again. ‘I wasn’t looking for this.’
‘No. Neither was I.’