The Guest List by Lucy Foley Read Online (FREE)
Charlie turns to me. ‘I didn’t realise you’d seen the show,’ he says. ‘When did you watch it? We’ve never watched it together.’ Oops. I think of those afternoons, setting the kids up with CBeebies, and watching Will’s show on my iPad in the kitchen as I heated up their dinner. He looks to Will. ‘No offence, mate – I do keep meaning to catch it.’ This isn’t true. You can tell from the way he says it that it isn’t true. He hasn’t made any attempt to sound genuine.
‘No offence taken,’ Will says mildly.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I’ve never watched the whole thing. I … caught the highlights, you know.’
‘Methinks the lady does protest too much,’ Peter says. He takes hold of Will’s shoulder, grinning. ‘Will, you’ve got a fan!’
Will laughs it off. But I can feel the heat prickling up my neck into my cheeks. I’m hoping it’s too dark in here for anyone to see that I’m blushing.
Fuck it. I need more champagne. I hold my glass out for a top-up.
‘At least your wife knows how to party, mate,’ Duncan says to Charlie. Femi pours for me, filling the flute close to the top. ‘Whoa,’ I say, as it reaches the rim, ‘that’s plenty.’
Suddenly there’s a loud ‘plink!’ and a little splash up over my wrist. I look in surprise to see that something has been dropped into my drink.
‘What was that?’ I say, confused.
‘Have a look,’ Duncan says, grinning. ‘Pennyed you. Have to drink it all now.’ I stare at him, then at my glass. Sure enough, at the bottom of my very full glass sits the little copper coin, the Queen’s stern profile.
‘Duncan!’ Georgina says, giggling. ‘You’re too awful!’
I don’t think I’ve been pennyed since I was about eighteen. Suddenly everyone’s looking at me. I look to Charlie, for agreement that I don’t have to drink it. But his expression is oddly pleading. It’s the sort of look Ben might give me: Please don’t embarrass me in front of my friends, Mum.
This is crazy, I think. I don’t have to drink it. I’m a thirty-four-year-old woman. I don’t even know these people, they have no hold over me. I won’t be made to do it—
‘Down it …’
God, they’ve started to chant.
‘Save the Queen!’
‘Down it down it down it.’
I can feel my cheeks reddening. To get their eyes off me, to stop their chanting, I knock the glass back and gulp it all down. I’d thought the champagne was delicious before but it’s awful like this, sour and sharp, stinging my throat as I cough mid-swallow, rushing up inside my nose. I feel some of it spill out over my bottom lip. I feel my eyes tear up. I’m humiliated. It’s like everyone has understood the rules of whatever is happening. Everyone but me.
Afterwards, they cheer. But I don’t think they’re cheering me. They’re congratulating themselves. I feel like a child who’s been surrounded by a ring of playground bullies. When I glance in Charlie’s direction he gives me a kind of apologetic wince. I suddenly feel very alone. I turn away from the others to hide my face.