The first time that I saw Zara Kelly she was in The Red Dog, surrounded by a bunch of Hooray Henrys in expensive suits.
It was late in the summer of 1978 and I had just started contributing to a magazine called Sailors' World. Back in those pre-email days, you either faxed in your copy (but I didn't yet have a fax machine), you put it in the post (making sure that you retained a carbon copy, just in case), or you delivered it personally to the publisher's offices. Blue Neptune, the guys who published Sailors' World, were in a building right next door to The Red Dog.
I had intended to simply drop my copy at the reception desk and then head back home again. But Marcus Plum, the features editor for Sailor's World, happened to be hovering in reception when I arrived at the fourth floor offices.
'Ah, Tom. Just the man. I was going to phone you.' Marcus said that he had a little project that he thought might interest me. If I had a few minutes to spare, we could slip downstairs to The Dog and talk about it over a pint.
I had just given up my part-time job at the ship chandlery in Little Venice and was trying to make it as a freelance journalist. It wasn't easy. I was living from hand to mouth, never quite sure where the next fiver was going to come from. The prospect of another pay cheque and a beer sounded pretty good to me.
It was while Marcus was up at the bar getting the beers that I first noticed Zara. There were at least half a dozen other women in the bar that afternoon, but there was something about Zara that made her stand out. And yet, if you had asked me half an hour after I left the bar what colour Zara's hair was, I couldn't have told you. And I certainly couldn't have told you what colour her eyes were -- although I could have told you that they sparkled. I might also have told you that she had been wearing a silky dress with a bold red and blue pattern. But that was about it.
The next time that I saw Zara -- and the first time that I actually got to speak to her -- was about a month later at the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Nicholson Narbo, the guy who did those Barnet Newman-style vertical stripe paintings, usually in shades of deep red and black and navy. To this day, I don't know why I was invited to the opening. Perhaps it was because I had written a little piece about Clarence John, the marine artist, for the Evening Standard. Or perhaps it was just a mistake. Perhaps someone had got me mixed up with another Tom Braddock. These things do happen.
'There's a certain serenity overlaying the underlying tension in his work, isn't there,' a voice behind me said. I turned around, and there she was. And she was speaking to me.
I think that I was a little tongue tied. 'Serenity? Is there? I mean ... yes, I suppose there is. You know, now that you mention it. At least I think I can see what you mean.'
'I'm Zara,' she said, 'Zara Kelly.'
Zara nodded. 'Yes. I know. You write for Sailors' World.'
'I do. Well ... just on a freelance basis. I've done a few pieces. Hopefully I'll get a chance to do more. In fact, I have another piece in next month's edition.'
'You were at The Red Dog.'
'Yes. I was meeting with one of the guys from Sailors' World. They're right next door. It's sort of their local.'
Zara definitely fell into the category of 'posh totty'. She was way, way out of my league. But we chatted for a bit anyway. She told me that her father was Paul Kelly QC and that he owned a serious ocean racing yacht -- the Sparkman and Stephens-designed Sparrow Hawk II -- hence the knowledge of Sailors' World. But then, just as I was starting to feel a bit more comfortable, she spotted Peter Keith from The Guardian and went off to talk to him. Later I saw her leaving on the arm of Desmond Eccles, the fashion photographer.
My third encounter with Zara was a real surprise. It was early February and I'd been having a bad day. The heating in my flat had broken down -- again -- and the woman from the gas company said that they would have someone around to look at it between two and four. By 6:30 there was still no sign of anyone. And soon after seven, I decided to hell with it. I grabbed my coat and headed for The Barley Mow. At least the pub would be a bit warmer.
I had just turned the corner into Dorset Street when saw what I thought was a heap of clothes on the ice-covered pavement. A rather plump Labrador was butting the clothes with its nose and whining. And then, as I got closer, I realised that the heap of clothes was actually a person.
'Are you OK?' I asked.
'No I'm not,' she said. 'I think I've done something to my bloody ankle.'
It wasn't a time to laugh, but I did. Nervously. 'What happened?'
'I'd been to visit my friend Clarice. She doesn't like dogs, so I had left Dora in the car.' She nodded, first in the direction of the plump Labrador and then in the direction of a little red MG Midget that was parked under a street light. 'I ended up staying a Clarice's a little longer than I expected to, and when I finally got back to the car I thought that Dora might need to uncross her legs. I was just walking along behind her, making sure that she didn't wander too far, and I must have slipped on a patch of ice.'
Back in those days, you could still get a doctor to make a house call after normal surgery hours. I drove Zara and Dora back to my flat and called my GP. He arrived about three-quarters of an hour later and pronounced a nasty sprain but no broken bones -- at least none that he could detect. I then drove Zara back to her parent's house in Maida Vale.
We pulled up outside the house and, as I went around to the passenger side to help Zara get out, I noticed a big ugly scratch right down the side of the little car. 'Oh dear,' I said, 'someone has scratched your car.'
'Umm ... yes, that was me,' Zara said. 'I need to get it repaired but I need my car to get to work.'
In one of our earlier conversations she had said that she worked at Caldecott Stewart, the upmarket public relations consultancy. 'Stamford Street isn't it? Just across Waterloo Bridge?'
'You could get a bus then,' I suggested.
'I don't think so.'
'Well, the Tube? The Jubilee Line would almost take you door to door.'
Zara smiled. 'I try not to do public transport,' she said.
A couple of days later, she phoned to thank me for 'rescuing' her.
'How is it?' I asked. 'The ankle.'
'Coming right. I'm still hobbling a bit. But another couple of days and I shall be ready to resume training for the Olympic Games.'
Zara laughed. 'Well ... perhaps not. But I would like to take you out for a little bit of supper. To say thank you.'
'Oh, you don't have to do that,' I told her.
'I know. But I want to. And you clearly don't understand that I'm used to getting what I want.' And then she laughed again.
We agreed to get together on the following Wednesday evening. Zara said that she would make a reservation at a little Italian place that she quite liked in Kensington High Street. And I agreed to meet her there at 7:30. I don't think that either of us made the connection that the following Wednesday would be February 14th, St Valentine's Day. But then I don't remember St Valentine's Day being quite such a big deal back in those days.
As it turned out, the evening was very pleasant. Very pleasant indeed. The simple Tuscan-inspired food was surprisingly good. Surprising to me anyway. Up until that point, my experience of Italian cuisine had been limited to not-very-good thick doughy pizza and rather indifferent spaghetti Bolognaise. The food at La Bambina (I think that's what the place was called) was something entirely different.
And, of course, the company was superb. Thinking back, it's hard to believe that, prior to that evening, Zara and I had only really exchanged a handful of words -- and about half of those had been with Zara in not-inconsiderable pain, her swelling ankle elevated on one of my kitchen chairs and surrounded with my homemade ice packs. And yet, from the moment that we sat down at our table in the corner of the restaurant, we were chatting like old friends. Well ... almost.
Was I surprised that Zara ended up in my bed that evening? Yes and no. It certainly wasn't something that had been on my list of possibilities when I had set out for the restaurant. But, on the other hand, she was a very attractive young woman. And we did seem to click.
I remember that we started undressing each other the moment we walked through the front door. Under her neatly-tailored dress she was wearing a bright red satiny bra and matching knickers. And I remember that once her bra was off I was surprised by how soft her breasts were. I also remember that, after we had fucked that first time, we were lying there, looking at the ceiling, thinking our own thoughts, when Zara said: 'Did you realise that today was St Valentine's Day?'
'Vaguely,' I said. 'I think there was something on the radio. Mind you, I'm not very good on saints' days. I only remember St George's Day because it's also Shakespeare's birthday.'
Zara laughed. 'And I only remember Shakespeare's birthday because it's also St George's Day. Anyway ... I'd better be going. One of the pitfalls of living with my parents. My mother worries if I'm not home before the milkman.'
As Zara got dressed, I asked her if she had a boyfriend.
'Umm ... no. Not really.'
'There are chaps, of course,' she said. 'But not one in particular. No.'
Over the next few weeks, Zara and I saw quite a bit of each other. And several times we ended up back in my bed. I think I was her 'bit of rough' -- a boy from the other side of the tracks. She never stayed all night. 'Too complicated,' she said.
And then -- and I guess it must have been sometime early in April -- we were having a drink at The Red Dog when she said that her father wanted to meet me.
'Am I in trouble?'
'I don't think so,' she said. 'I think he has a proposition for you.'
'Sorry. That's as much as I know.'
My 'audience' with Zara's father happened a few days later. 'You're younger than I expected,' he said. We were in his study in the Maida Vale house. It was a small room, tastefully decorated, and lined with books. There was a framed photograph of Sparrow Hawk II on one of the walls.
'Is that good or bad?' I asked.
He opened a cupboard, produced a bottle of single-malt scotch and a couple of expensive-looking crystal glasses, and poured a generous slosh of whisky into each of them. 'Neither good nor bad. Just ... well ... slightly surprising. From your writing, I expected you to be older. You seem to have a certain maturity. In print anyway.'
'I'm 25,' I said.
He raised his eyebrows, but then nodded. 'At 25 I was just finishing university. Is that where you met Zara? At university?'
'At the opening of an art exhibition,' I said. 'I didn't actually go to university.'
Again he raised his eyebrows. 'Well, you learned to write somewhere.'
'I guess so,' I said.
About a week later, I got a call from Daniel Ellington. 'Paul Kelly said that you might be the chap I'm looking for.'
'I'm about to launch a new magazine.'
'Yes. Just a small circulation. Basically targeting rich bastards with yachts. Pretty attractive to advertisers though. I already have a commitment from a dozen or so luxury brands.'
'I can imagine,' I said.
'I need a features writer. I've seen some of your stuff. I think you have potential. We should have lunch. I can show you the mock up. I've got Toby Brown on board. Do you know Toby?'
I said that I didn't.
'He did the revamp of Queen, Harper's, whatever it's called now -- as well as a few other titles. He's not a writer; he's an art director. How things look is important to the smart set. Apparently, they like things to be smart but not flashy. Toby seems to have a good feel for what pushes their buttons.'
A couple of days later, Dan and I met for lunch. And then a week after that, we were headed for Monaco -- which, as I recall, was a real eye-opener for me. From Monaco we moved on to Juan-les-Pins, and then to Barcelona. It was while I was away that Zara got the offer of a six-month posting to New York. She told me about the offer when I got back to London. 'Do you think you'll go?' I asked.
She said that she thought that she should. 'I think it would be a good career move. The PR scene over there is really the benchmark for the rest of the world.'
It was lunchtime. Zara had walked across Waterloo Bridge and we were in The Red Dog. I remember that Zara was drinking a Campari and soda. She liked the bright pink colour. 'It'll just be for six months,' she said. 'I'll be back again by Christmas.'
We both had to go back to work for the afternoon; but that evening Zara came around to the flat. I'd grabbed a bottle of Veuve Clicquot on my way home. As I recall, it was quite expensive. But I liked the dark yellow label. 'Ah, The Widow,' Zara said. 'I can see that I shall have to threaten to go away more often.' We took The Widow into the bedroom with us. I didn't have any champagne flutes so we drank it from straight-sided glass tumblers that were actually recycled peanut butter jars. It still tasted pretty good. The sex wasn't bad either.
Zara left for New York about two weeks later. Her parents drove her down to Tilbury from where she left on the SS Canberra, bound for Bermuda and then on to New York. (Four years later, with 3 Commando Brigade on board, Canberra would be steaming south to the Falkland Islands.) Zara wrote her first postcard from the ship on her way across the Atlantic. I guess that it must have been posted the moment they reached Bermuda.
Back in London, I was head down, bum up, getting together a collection of what were basically profile stories. Dan had picked out a selection of the rich and famous that he wanted to feature in the magazine's first few issues, and my job was to try and find something interesting to say about each of them. In a sane world, we probably would have allowed ourselves six months to get everything ready. But Dan was set on launching the new mag during the Cowes Week Regatta in early August, so we only had about three months. Despite this, I still somehow found time, a couple of times a week, to fire off a quick note, a postcard, and sometimes something longer, to Zara. And she, in turn, somehow found time to reply to each and every one.
Sometime about mid-November, Zara wrote to say that she was flying back to London for Christmas -- but only for a few days. The chaps at Caldecott Stewart wanted her to stay on in New York for a bit longer.
Back in London, Zara's parents had organised a packed social schedule for her, but she managed to find time for lunch on Christmas Eve. While Zara had been away in New York, I had discovered a rather good little Cantonese-style Dim Sum restaurant just around the corner from the office. Not very Christmassy, I know. But very affordable. Zara said that she would meet me at my flat and we could go on from there. I thought that we might start out with a celebratory glass of bubbles, so I splashed out on another bottle of Veuve Clic and had it chilled and waiting when she arrived.
'Ah! The famous yellow label,' she said. 'You're a darling.'
We didn't get as far as the restaurant. We took the champagne with us into the bedroom and, about three o'clock in the afternoon, when we were both getting a little famished after all of the bedroom gymnastics, I opened the Christmas hamper that my aunt had sent me and we had a picnic of Melton Mowbray pork pie and cheeses and ham and pickles and brandy-steeped mince pies.
I didn't see Zara again on that particular visit. We exchanged a couple of brief telephone calls, but that was it. And then, with Zara back in New York and me with my nose back at the grindstone, we went back to exchanging notes and postcards. But, looking back, I realise that the frequency of our correspondence had begun to diminish. I guess we were both pretty busy.
And then it was February again. The idea of sending Zara a Valentine's Day card was more of a joke than anything. Ironically, the card that I sent her had come all the way from America -- and I was sending it back again. How silly was that? But the significance of the day was not lost on Zara either. She sent me an arty sort of card with a painting of some red roses and a hand-written message that said: Gosh, is it Shakespeare's birthday again already? And she had 'signed' it with a bright red lipstick kiss.
It was about a month after that that she mentioned in a letter that 'David has proposed to me -- and I really don't know what to do.'
David? Who was David? She hadn't mentioned any Davids. And, anyway, was she asking for my advice, or what? I wrote back saying that she might need to give me a bit more information if she was looking for advice. Otherwise ....
David, it turned out, was a Scottish investment banker who was working in New York. He sounded like every girl's idea of the perfect husband: rich and handsome and full of charm. And, no, she wasn't looking for advice. She knew that she was the only one who could make the decision that she needed to make.
Towards the end of April, I went out to Antigua to talk to the organisers of the regatta there. I thought that I might fly home via New York and catch up with Zara. But, in the end, I didn't. I went to Miami for a couple of days to research a piece on offshore power boat racing, and then I flew straight home from there. There was a postcard waiting when I got back. It was a cartoon drawing of a scantily-dressed woman standing at the kitchen sink while, in the background, a smartly dressed man sat with his feet up, reading a newspaper, and smoking a large cigar. The caption said: 'A perfectly incompatible couple. He has income; and she is patible.' On the other side, there was a hand-written note: 'Well ... I said yes. God, I hope it was the right thing. Love, Z.'
Zara and David returned to London in August and they were married in September. The wedding was quite an affair, with a planeload of David's New York investment banker chums flying across to drink Paul Kelly's champagne. I was invited to the wedding, but it sort of clashed with a planned trip to Portofino to write a piece on Henry Murray's new Sparkman and Stephens-designed 80-footer. That was my story anyway. Zara and I did manage to catch up for a quick drink beforehand though. I thought that she seemed a little apprehensive. It was almost as though she was having second thoughts. 'You could always come with me to Portofino,' I joked.
She smiled. 'You don't know how tempting that thought is.'
Zara and David went back to New York after the wedding and, apart from exchanging Christmas cards and birthday cards, we remained incommunicado for the next nine or ten years. I did think, one year, that I might send her a Valentine's Day card -- just for fun -- but in the end I didn't.
And then I got married.
Moira was an old friend of Dan Ellington, and she was always popping in and out of the London office. We often had lunch together. It was usually the three of us -- Dan, Moira, and me -- but, on a couple of occasions, it was just Moira and me. She was fun -- in a rather latter-day-hippie sort of way. By the time that I met her, she had already been married to Don Scranton, the guitarist from Dove From Above. Moira's take on events was that she and Don had fallen out over his dalliances with nubile backing singers, both male and female. As I found out later, Don had a different version of the story. His version was that she just woke up one morning and said: 'No. Don't think this is for me. Sorry.'
Moira and I were married on St David's Day, the first of March. By common consent, the first of March is the first day of spring. But not that year. That year it was still very much mid-winter. The daffodils were out, but they were struggling to keep their yellow nodding heads above the snow.