My six am alarm felt like a drill piercing the base of my skull.
I wasn’t usually a heavy drinker. Sure, I’d had some pretty hard nights out in my undergraduate days; rolling into bed at four and wanting to die the next day when I had a lecture, but I’d grown out of that habit once I graduated. The only other time I’d drank so much was after Matt’s funeral, when every shot of his favourite whiskey just didn’t feel like enough.
But once in a blue moon one bottle of wine would turn into two, then maybe three, particularly when Gemma and I were in the mood to spill our deepest darkest secrets. The plan was flawless – if we said too much we couldn’t remember it anyway. The only not so flawless part of the plan was the hangover to end all hangovers the next morning, particularly when you’re supposed to be meeting one of Britain’s best actors at eight am.
With a groan, I fumbled around to silence my alarm clock’s incessant screeching. Even after the alarm stopped the throbbing in my head refused to cease, and one glance in the mirror confirmed my assumptions. I looked terrible. Last night’s mascara was smeared down my cheeks – had we been crying? – and my hair resembled a battered-up crow’s nest. Despite needing about four more hours asleep I was glad drunk me had the sense to set an early morning alarm. I didn’t want to look like a complete mess when meeting Lucas North, especially when Rachel would look immaculate and perfect as usual.
I sat on the edge of my bed with my face in my hands for a good five minutes before my bedroom door creaked open slightly. As my gaze travelled upwards, I noticed Gemma sheepishly standing in the doorway gripping a mug of piping hot coffee. She looked considerably better than I did, but then that was Gemma all over. She even had a tracksuit on, clearly indicating that she’d already been out on a run, like she did most mornings. Gemma was the person I’d like to be, in a dream world where everything I want to happen happens – but in reality the only time I ever really run is when I’m late for the bus to work.
“Christ, Charlie,” Gemma muttered, her lips edging into a smile, “You don’t look good.”
As if by instinct, I narrowed my eyes at my friend. “And whose fault is that?”
Gemma’s smile widened. I honestly didn’t know how she did it. It was six am and she already had her hair braided, hanging in a long tail down her back. She didn’t have mascara smudged down her face and no dark bags setting up camp beneath her eyes. “If it makes you feel better, I feel like I’ve got a wrecking ball relentlessly crashing against my brain.”
“No. That doesn’t make me feel better. Because you don’t look like you have a wrecking ball crashing against your brain.” She laughed, handing me the cup of coffee. The aroma was enough to jolt awake some of my senses, but not enough to make me look like I wasn’t going to pass out any second. “Nice run?”
“Thought it would clear my head,” Gemma murmured, edging into my room. She leaned against my back wall, the black of her jogging pants a stark contrast against the white paint on the walls. “But no. Do you have any clue what we talked about last night?”
I remembered saying goodbye to Roisin and Karen, a little bit tipsy, and shakily getting into a cab. I remembered Gemma saying we had a couple of bottles of wine in the cupboard. I remember laughing so hard my sides began to hurt, but I don’t remember the tears. Any and all conversation was blurry and mismatched, like I was trying to recall a dream that was quickly slipping away from me. Maybe we didn’t have a reason to talk. Maybe we just felt like getting drunk. I shook my head decidedly.
“It’ll probably come back to me,” Gemma stated, “Anyway – shower is all yours. You need to look at least semi-presentable for Mr Lucas North.”
“Bloody hell,” I whined, clasping my head in my hands, “He’s going to think I’ve been on a bender. And Donna is going to fire me because she’s going to think I’ve been on a bender. What kind of impression am I going to give him?”
“A great one,” Gemma reassured me like she always did. She paced towards my window and flung open the curtains, the sun beginning to emerge behind the orange clouds of an early autumn dawn. I’m pretty sure Gemma’s smile was enough to make the sun rise.
I used to say that about Matt, a lifetime ago. Some people are so special they have the ability to sway natural events with their moods, thunder booming when they were furious and inexorable drizzle when they were heartbroken. I wasn’t one of these people. Maybe my feelings weren’t strong or momentous enough. The sun continued to shine when I was the one who was heartbroken.
“Come on,” Gemma squeezed my shoulder, “Shower. I’ll make breakfast. And because it was apparently my fault we’re both hungover, I’ll pay for a cab. As long as you give me the lowdown on exactly what Lucas North is like in person tonight.”
Seemed like a reasonable deal to me. Satisfied with her offer, Gemma flashed me one last smile before traipsing out of my room and back into the kitchen, where immediately I could hear her rummaging around in the fridge and the bread bin. It was barely a second before that was followed by the sound of a glass smashing and a muffled curse – maybe she was immune to the physical effects of hangovers, but Gemma was definitely very talented in the clumsiness department no matter the occasion. Our flat went through a lot more crockery than what could be considered normal. I was down at Ikea every other week stocking up on basic plates and bowls.
Nevertheless, Gemma was the most reliable person I’d ever met. She may’ve been clumsy with her hands, but she wasn’t ever clumsy with her mouth.
I downed the rest of the coffee and looked accusingly at my Hawdon uniform – one that Donna had thrown at me last minute; I usually wore my own clothes when in the office – and with a defeated groan, grabbed the starchy newly-ironed blouse. Today was going to be a hell of a long day.
As the cab drove over the traditional Scottish winding roads, my nausea came and went like tidal waves. I’d suddenly be embraced by the overwhelming urge to vomit as soon as the taxi reached the peak of a hill, then it would slowly subside as we made our way back to level ground. The driver eyed me warily in the rear-view mirror fearing for his leather upholstery. My only distraction were the row upon row of coniferous trees that lined the perimeter up to Hawdon, emphasising how deeply nestled it was within the countryside whilst still being close to Edinburgh town centre. I tried to avoid staring at my reflection in the window. Even my best makeup efforts had fallen short this morning, no amount of concealer hiding the purple smudges underneath my eyes.
Donna was going to know immediately that the reliable, efficient and hard-working Charlie Costello was still in bed and a wobbly, hungover and inept one had taken her place. Lucas North was going to wonder why on Earth Donna, famed for her hotelier expertise, had employed such an incapable mess to take care of him for the week.
I was just going to have to take a deep breath, smile and be as approachable as I could be without appearing sleep-deprived and manic. It was just one day. Tomorrow, I’d be fine.
By the time I reached the parquet-floored reception of Hawdon, my colleagues were already gathered and assembled like they were waiting to welcome the Queen into the hotel. When I smiled over at Rachel, she only offered a smug and haughty look in return before looking away. Probably because I looked like a tramp and she looked like a princess, gold and bronze shimmering on her eyelids. If Donna noticed how under-the-weather I appeared this morning she didn’t mention it: her schedule was more important than anything.
“Just on time, Charlie,” she tittered disapprovingly, following me through to the staff room. “They will be arriving any minute. When I said eight o’clock sharp, I meant preferably earlier.”
I peeled off my jacket. I’d only just noticed how unbearably hot it was. Sweat had started prickling on my underarms and the back of my neck, and Donna’s slight chastising wasn’t helping matters. “I know, I’m sorry. Traffic was busier than I…”
I trailed off because Donna clearly didn’t believe me. Instead, she shoved a mug of lukewarm coffee in my hands, like the caffeine buzz was going to cure my stupid irresponsible hangover. Gemma’s coffee had come back to bite me on the arse, waking me up for the short-term but making me jittery and over-tired in the long run. I doubted this one would do much for me either.
“Take a breather. We all have bad days, although it would have been better if you could have had your bad day let’s say… next week.” Donna’s kindness threw me a bit. I’d had visions of a dramatic firing in front of everyone and me hanging my head in shame sans reference. “You’re likeable and welcoming, which is all I need this morning. If Lucas North likes you, I’ll forget that you’ve clearly got a hangover. Do this again, however – I won’t hesitate in letting you go.”
Donna’s face was deadly serious and I didn’t have any reservations about her sincerity. It didn’t matter how reliable I’d been in the past, if I made a bad impression on one of her guests I’d be sent out on my rear before they’d even made the complaint. I nodded, Donna taking my word before heading back into the foyer. Internally, I cursed my momentary failure in self-control. I wasn’t a heavy drinker, but why did I choose last night to drown myself in wine?
I was probably talking about Matt. I still thought about him a lot, usually when pissed. Getting over someone is a nice idea in theory but it’s rare that it’s so easy in reality.
I quickly downed a glass of water from the cooler and wiped my clammy hands on the material of my trousers. The coolness of the hall was refreshing in comparison to the stifling, crowded nature of the reception. People who didn’t even work front-of-house had gathered under the high glass ceiling, waiting for a glimpse of their idols. Donna was too stressed – even with her best attempts to look otherwise – to tell them to piss off, so I was on the verge of fainting from claustrophobia. Either way, I had a job to do, so I brushed a loose strand of hair behind my ears and headed straight for the reception.
By the time I got back, Donna had ushered the cleaning staff and restaurant workers out to their rightful positions and the only people remaining were her, Nicky, Dom and Rachel. Privacy was key, as Donna had put it to me so many times before. You couldn’t overcrowd the guests. They may feel uncomfortable or swamped, overwhelmed with the attention, like they didn’t get that every time they went outside. Laura Marlow had been attacked by the media just last year when she was snapped topless on a beach somewhere in the Seychelles, corrupting a totally personal moment between her and her then boyfriend. Whilst being in the limelight was a lifestyle choice, they deserved their right to privacy. That’s why Donna constantly had security roaming the perimeter when we had particularly influential guests to show the paparazzi (and misguided fans) exactly where to get off.
I couldn’t imagine having a life like that. For a moment, I felt an intense sort of pity for the people who couldn’t leave their house or have an innocent kiss without someone watching their every move. I was blessed with my bubble of safety and security – no-one would ever be interested in me enough to want to take photos of me in a bikini or buying a pint of milk at a corner shop.
“Remember,” Donna stated confidently, “They are just normal people. You treat them how you would any other guest. And do not say or do anything that may make them feel uncomfortable. Preaching to the converted, I know, but I cannot stress how important this is.”
For some reason, I felt she was directing this more at Rachel and I than anyone else. Nicky had been close friends with Donna for years, having worked at Hawdon since she was twenty in the same position. Dom had worked in Claridges in London before coming to Edinburgh, his expertise in PR nationally renowned. Rachel – whilst she was confident, cool and flirty, Donna had her reservations, thinking she didn’t quite put across the right impression. But she’d always put it down to Rachel still learning the tricks of the trade and with more experience she’d fall into it perfectly.
Me, on the other hand… well, Donna had no idea about me yet. She trusted me, but she was still unsure at just how I’d cope throughout the week. After all, I was just the office girl. I didn’t do this stuff.
I could see a few figures, guided by our porter Zaf, approaching the glass doors of the entrance. It had started raining the moment I got in, water dripping rapidly from the arch of the porch and blearing the images through the panes into a blurry and distorted mess. Donna rushed over to the door and heaved it open, hundred kilowatt electric smile ready to embrace whoever entered. She said enthusiastic greetings, reproving the bleakness of the weather and hoping it would clear up for filming. A distinctly male voice replied, echoing a similar statement.
Laura Marlow caught my eye first. Around five foot six and effortlessly elegant, her shape could be recognised anywhere. Her dark hair hung limply round her heart-shaped face, clinging to her wet skin with the rain. Even without makeup, Laura Marlow had this beauty about her that was completely unique and irreplaceable. It said on her Wikipedia page that before acting, she was scouted by a UK based modelling agency when she was just twelve years old. It wasn’t difficult to see why: her smile was open and welcoming, not unobtainable like she was sometimes described as in the trashy magazines Gemma sometimes read.
But it was Lucas North who really grabbed my attention. Maybe it was a side effect of his place in the media, him being a constant presence in the lives of so many despite being unknown to all of them. Or maybe he really had his own magnetic field, the centre of the Earth, pulling everything and everyone he came across into his orbit.
(It was most likely the former. I’d had a similar experience at eleven when I saw Kian Egan from Westlife in a restaurant whilst on holiday in Belfast. Idolatry was dangerous, and nearly always overhyped.)
Unlike Laura, Lucas had the forethought to wear a waterproof coat, so the hood of his dark blue mac covered his head and face. When he pulled it down it revealed a head of long, dark hair, a strand at the front dripping rain onto the parquet. Stubble framed his high cheekbones and above his dark brown eyes were two strong, arched eyebrows, his complexion bold and arresting. As soon as he broke out into a smile it destroyed the dark and intense expression which was vital to so many of his roles – he played bad guys and good guys, but they all felt so deeply.
He really was impressive to look at. I’d seen him in photo shoots in the Radio Times and occasionally Vogue, but they never portrayed the slight softness to his posture that I could clearly see in reality. It sounded lame, but photos didn’t do him justice.
For one brief moment, our eyes interlocked, but his attention was quickly diverted from me back to Rachel, who was readily introducing herself with her pearly-white smile. I wasn’t competing, I really wasn’t – I didn’t want or expect him to look at me in more than a professional capacity, I wasn’t shallow enough to weaken in the presence of someone famous – but a horrible part of me just didn’t want Rachel to be the one who he would inevitably dote upon. I was trying to tell myself I didn’t care, because I didn’t know him at all, but if Rachel’s silence since telling her I was attached to him for the week told me anything it was that she wasn’t always the nicest of people.
He would probably take one look at me and ask Donna to switch me for Rachel. Who would want me over Chelsea-born model material?
But like Donna said, I had to be personable and authentic. I had to make him feel welcome. However much Rachel was trying to plant herself in his vision, it was me who was entrusted with the job. I fixed the biggest smile on my face and clasped my hands together, Donna grabbing my shoulder and urging me to the front.
“Mr North?” Donna asked, catching his attention. He turned away from Rachel at the sound of his name and blinked over at me, smile creeping up his face. “Mr North, this is Charlotte Costello. Any queries or problems, you come straight to her.”
Luckily, he had grey, woollen fingerless gloves on, so he couldn’t feel just how sweaty my palms were when he leaned forward to shake my hand. His smile was the equivalent to a black hole: it swallowed the air in the room, leaving a perfect vacuum and an inability to get away.
(Today was the day that Lucas North swallowed up my whole universe.)
“Miss Costello,” he said in a light, southern Irish accent, “It’s a pleasure.”
“Charlotte. Charlie,” I insisted with a somewhat shaky grin. Thankfully, he smiled back, and I knew there and then that his smile was one that I wouldn’t tire of. It went up there, with Matt and Gemma’s, as being one of my favourite smiles of all time. It wasn’t just because he was famous. “Welcome to Edinburgh, Mr North.”
“Lucas,” he imitated my resolve. He ran a hand through his hair, sleeking it back across his face. “And it’s great to be here, even if it’s pissing it down.”
I laughed and even though a headache was starting to resurface at the back of my head and I felt like passing out, I wasn’t nervous anymore. Okay, so we’d talked for a maximum of two minutes, but it wasn’t the Big Scary Thing I was worried about. He really was just a normal guy doing his normal job, and maybe that was all this week was going to be.
A normal girl doing her normal job.