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Ralph's Party - Lisa Jewell

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Published: 6th May 1999
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Published: 6th May 1999
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Meet the residents of 31, Almanac Road in a romantic, engrossing novel that takes you up the garden path, through the front door and into the most intimate part of other people's lives.

Ralph and Smith are best friends. Until they fall for Jemima their new flatmate. Jem knows one of them's the man for her - but which one?

Karl and Siobhan live in the flat above. Happily unmarried for fifteen years, it looks as if nothing can spoil their domestic idyll.

Except maybe Cheri the femme fatale in the top flat. She's got her eye on Karl and she isn't about to let his fat girlfriend stand in the way ...

About the Author

Lisa Jewell was born and raised in north London, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Her first novel, Ralph's Party, was the bestselling debut of 1999. She is also the author of Thirtynothing, One-Hit Wonder, Vince & Joy, A Friend of the Family and 31 Dream Street, all of which have been Sunday Times bestsellers.

Deliciously enjoyable . . . addictively readable * The Times * A joy . . . a fun summer read * Guardian * A book about relationships which appeals to men and women . . . pulls off a rare trick which even Helen Fielding and Nick Hornby couldn't manage * Daily Mirror * A breath of fresh air -- Tom Paulin * Late Review * Addictive * Metro * Praise for Lisa Jewell * - * Terrific * Sunday Times * The best romantic comedy we've read in ages * Company * Tackles serious issues with humour - proving that chick-lit can be intelligent, interesting and huge fun * Sunday Express * A triumph * Hello * Top marks. Fantastic * Heat * Lovely * Daily Telegraph * Moving and intelligent * Independent * Magnetic, unpretentious and bursting with one-liners * Cosmopolitan * Jewell's readability and emotional intelligence make her the cream of pop fiction * Glamour * Fans of chick-lit will understand when I say that this is a book you simply disappear into * Sunday Telegraph *

Extract from : Ralph's Party

PROLOGUE

Smith put the phone down and glanced around the living room. A few people had already been round that night, so the flat was relatively tidy after an earlier blitzing.

He picked up empty mugs and glasses and carried them through to the kitchen. It was strange and vaguely unsettling to think that these objects still carried the lip marks, the fingerprints, the traces of saliva and microscopic living organisms left there by the strangers who had been into his home that evening, strangers he had shown his bathroom to, who had seen his grubby dressing gown hanging behind his bedroom door, strangers who had sat on his sofa in unfamiliar clothes with unfamiliar mannerisms and names and lives, strangers who had been given the opportunity to peer into other strangers' private lives.

Ralph and he had reached decisions quickly and cruelly. It would be obvious in a moment that someone was unsuitable, but they all got the tour; 'and this is the kitchen - you'll be pleased to hear we've got a dishwasher and a washer-dryer!' the talk; 'Smith's up with the lark during the week but we both like a lie-in at the weekends,' the interview; 'what do you do for a living?' the conclusion; 'well, there's still a few more people to see the flat - give us your phone number and we'll let you know,' the full fifteen minutes, so that the unwanted stranger would leave feeling like he'd been in the running, like he'd been given serious consideration.

Jason had sounded hopeful on the phone but turned out to be looking for a ready-made social life;

'I just want to live somewhere that's got a bit of life - d'you know what I mean,' he'd said, his eyes wide and over-keen.

'Erm, maybe you could explain?' Ralph had asked, thinking of the nights that he and Smith spent hopping mindlessly through forty-seven cable channels without talking, and going to bed, stoned, at midnight.

Jason sat forward on the sofa and cupped his kneecaps with his hands. 'Like for example, where I live at the moment, all that happens is I get home from work every night and nobody wants to do anything. It pisses me off d'you know what I mean?'

Ralph and Smith had nodded sympathetically and felt old.

Monica had been a born-again Christian - would it bother them if she spoke in tongues occasionally? - and Rukhsana appeared to be on the run from an abusive arranged marriage. Her hands shook throughout the meeting, her dark eyes unable to rest on one object or hold a gaze. She explained that she and her husband were having a 'trial separation'. Ralph and Smith decided that a permanent separation from Rukhsana's sad but unpalatable situation would be best for them.

Simon had been sweet, but at least twenty stones, his frame throwing the rest of the flat temporarily out of proportion, the sofa making a painful noise it had never made before as he gingerly lowered his bulk onto it. Rachel had the sort of skin condition that made them want to hoover the flat the minute she'd left and John smelt of Pedigree Chum. They'd just about given up hope.

'Who was that on the phone?' Ralph switched on the television and spread-eagled himself onto the sofa, the remote control poised for action in his hand.

'Someone about the flat,' Smith replied from the kitchen, 'a girl - she's on her way over now. She sounded nice,' he kicked the door of the dishwasher closed, 'her name's Jem.'



Jem took the first turning off Battersea Rise which brought her into Almanac Road, a small sweep of three-storey Edwardian houses, long and thin with basements, unusual for this part of South London.

As she walked down the road, peering nosily into uncurtained basement flats, Jem realised with a steady flow of recognition that she had been here before. There was something familiar about the proportions, the width of the pavement, the colour of the bricks and the spacing between the weedy saplings that lined the road.

She stopped outside number 31 and the feeling of familiarity increased. She suddenly felt safe, like a child coming home after a tiring day out, to a warm house and Saturday afternoon television

Jem glanced downwards from the street into the basement flat below and saw a young man, his back to the window, talking to someone out of view. It was then that she knew she had been here before. Maybe not to this exact place but somewhere very similar. In her dreams, since she was a teenager - a basement flat in a tall house in a terrace - a view through the window, at night, the room lit up, a man on a sofa smoking a cigarette, whose face she couldn't see. Her destiny. Was this him she wondered?

Jem rang on the doorbell.


ONE

The girl standing in the doorway was tiny, about five foot two, with black curly hair held on top of her head with pins and clips in some complicated but very feminine style that looked like it should have sported ivy wreaths. She was post-coitally pretty with cherry red cheeks and a bittersweet mouth, the bottom lip drawn very slightly under the top and her eyes were bright and mustardy, framed by mascaraed lashes and feint but lively eyebrows. She should have been wearing wood-nymph muslins and lacy leather sandals but had on an equally beguiling soft flannel suit with fur at the collar and cuffs and a short skirt that would have looked obvious on a taller woman. The tip of her nose was winsomely red.

Smith let Jem walk in front of him down the hall, watching her as she turned her head this way and that, examining the pictures on the walls, peering through half open doors and patting tabletops as she went. She was definitely cute. She turned to Smith.

'This is lovely, really, really lovely.' She smiled widely and suddenly turned to face the wall, grabbing the top of the radiator with both hands and letting out a sigh of relief. 'Sorry' she laughed, 'my hands are freezing, like blocks of ice – feel.' She made her small white hands into fists and placed one on each of Smith's cheeks. 'It's so cold out there!' Smith started and felt suddenly shy.

'Shall we go to the kitchen? I'd love a cup of tea.'

'It's just through the living room,' offered Smith, attempting to overtake Jem.

'I know,' she said.

Smith moved sharply away from Jem.

'What do you know?' he asked. His mouth felt dry.

'Where the kitchen is. I know where the kitchen is. I saw it through the window. Outside.' She laughed. 'Sorry, I'm really nosy. And I've seen so many horrible flats tonight I don't think I could have faced coming in here if it hadn't looked nice.'

They had passed through the living room and into the kitchen.

'My flatmate's around somewhere,' said Smith, filling the kettle, 'he's probably in his room. He's called Ralph. I'll take you to meet him when the tea's done.'

She was examining a rack of herbs and spices. The plastic lids of the jars were covered in a layer of greasy dust; all of them were full.

'Do you and Ralph ever cook?' she asked.

Smith laughed. 'Erm - I think this speaks for itself.' He opened the door of the fridge to reveal shelves laden with colourful packets proclaiming 'Thai-style Green Curry,' 'Creole Chicken with Cajun Rice' and 'Chicken Tikka Masala' and floppy see-through bags containing fresh pasta sauces and soups.

'Oh God – typical boys! That's such an expensive way to eat!' exclaimed Jem, 'cooking's brilliant you know - I'll teach you - and Ralph, if you like,' she used the name Ralph comfortably, as if she knew him, 'I'm very good. I think. Well, so I've been told. I can cook a Thai curry. These ready-made things are dreadful for you - it's all the salt they put in them to make them taste of anything.' She closed the fridge and wandered into the living room.

'Do you want to ask me some questions?' she called, picking up a paperback from a shelf and examining the back cover.

'Milk and sugar?' Smith called back.

'Have you got any honey?'

Smith futilely opened and closed a few cupboards. 'No,' he shouted 'Got some Golden Syrup though.'

'This is a gorgeous room you know. No offence or anything, but it doesn't look like two boys live here.'

'Thank you,' Smith was embarrassed, and slightly shocked at being referred to as a boy in his thirtieth year .

Jem quickly took note of the objects strewn around the top of the dark wooden coffee table inlaid with ornate brass work. She approved of a good messy coffee table - they held so many interesting clues to the day-to-day content and clutter of people's lives. Smith and Ralph's coffee table held a selection of remote controls, a satellite TV guide, an ashtray full of stubs, two packets of red Marlboros, a business card, a box of matches and a home delivery Pizza menu. Somewhere underneath it all she could make out a proper, coffee table art book, a set of car keys, and, barely visible but unmistakable, a small piece of green cardboard torn from a packet of Rizlas. Jem smiled quietly at her discovery.

'Let's go and say hello to Ralph,' Smith was lingering in the doorway, his face cocooned in wreaths of steam from his tea, 'and then I'll show you around.'



Ralph barely noticed Jem the first time he saw her. He was arguing with his girlfriend Claudia at the time, sitting at his desk, the phone cradled under his chin as he carelessly pulled elastic bands into tight ligatures around his wrists in an apparently subconscious attempt to cut off his blood supply and end the painful predictability of it all.

As Smith entered he grimaced and took the phone from under his chin, holding it a foot or two from his ear so that Smith could hear the tinny drone of the unhappy woman. He hit the speakerphone button;

'I just feel like I'm the one doing all the, you know, work here, Ralph, d'you know what I mean? No, of course you don't. Who am I kidding? You can't see anything beyond the remote control - as long as you've got a piece of technical equipment in your hand that will prevent you from doing something else, something that might, you know, just might involve you getting up off your arse and you know, doing something...'

'Ralph,' whispered Smith, 'this is Jem.'

Jem smiled at Ralph from the doorway.

Ralph saw a small smiley girl with dark wavy hair held on top of her head with pins so that escaped tendrils fell and framed her face.

'Are you listening to me, Ralph or have you put me on that fucking speakerphone?…'

Ralph smiled apologetically at Jem and mouthed a 'nice to meet you' as he hit the speakerphone button and began murmuring inaudibly into the phone.

Smith and Jem left the room, closing the door quietly behind them.

'Claudia can be very ... demanding. They could go on like that for hours. Poor bastard.' Smith smiled smugly and took a slurp of tea.

'You don't have a girlfriend then, Smith?'

'Very perceptive,' he replied ungraciously, 'no, I don't.'

Not for the first time since Jem's arrival, he found himself feeling uncomfortable. He wanted to be friendly and welcoming, to create a good impression but try as he might, he just couldn't and was coming across instead as frosty and impolite. He put his hand out to grasp the antique brass handle fitted to the closed door in front of him and pushed the door open.

'This would be your room.' He reached for a switch to the left of the door. 'It's quite small as you can see, but it's got everything.'

The room was tiny and H-shaped, the door opening into the centre of the bar. The walls were clad in caramel-coloured wood panelling giving the room the air of a vestibule. There were brass over-picture light fixtures on the walls and the room was lit centrally by a ceiling lamp housed in a brass and glass star-shaped shade. A single bed was happily ensconced in the left-hand bar of the H and was topped with a vivacious Indian throw and several large cushions sporting tassels and fringes. A nineteen twenties dark wooden wardrobe with mirrored front panels stood in front of them and at the other end of the H was a single sash window curtained by rich, densely patterned heavy curtains, and a small chest of black lacquerwork drawers.

Jem turned and grasped hold of Smith's hands that in turn grasped his mug of tea. 'I absolutely love it. I love it. I knew I would. Please can I live here. Please!' Her face was glowing and childlike, her hands felt small and warmed by her mug of tea.

Smith turned abruptly and stood in the hallway. 'Let me show you the rest of the flat first and then we can have a chat.' He could still feel where Jem's hands had covered his. 'I need to talk to Ralph as well - lots of other people have been to see the room - I'll need to consult him.' He could feel himself blushing and turned his back on Jem.

'OK,' said Jem lightly. She wasn't worried. She already knew that the room was hers.

ISBN: 9780140279276
ISBN-10: 014027927X
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 368
Published: 6th May 1999
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Country of Publication: GB
Dimensions (cm): 1.3 x 15.5  x 2.3
Weight (kg): 0.25
Edition Number: 1