2ND PART- One year later
The music bothered me. I needed to find a peaceful corner where I could relax and breathe. The palace was so big that I had troubles to find the nearest balcony. The balustrade followed the length of the facade, and a crowd stood there, holding drinks in their hands, whispering or laughing, looking for a bit of privacy. I sighed, defeated. The big doors were opened and a light breeze greeted me when I stepped out. Nobody seemed to notice me as I walked next to them. It was a beautiful night, with scattered clouds and a few stars. The full moon, white and pale, was shining like a weak sun. The gardens below reached the hills in the horizon. At the beginning I always felt excited when I got the chance to visit a private castle. Now, seeing the envelope with the fancy invitation only meant I would spend hours bored in a pretty building. I would have to chat with a bunch of bimbo girls and notice how everybody eyes me critically. Welcome to the world of the rich and famous.
I saw a man leaning on the balcony, looking at the sky. There was an empty space next to him, and I hurried before someone else saw it. I took a deep breathe while I rested my elbows on the balustrade. It was cold under my naked arms. My drink was warm, the ice had melted long ago. I looked inside the glass, letting my thoughts wander. I hated those parties. One year. 365 days. That was the time I had been living in London with Jerome. Fifty parties in one year. Sixty events. A hundred dinners. His social life was overwhelming, and he couldn't reject any invitations. He was a public figure. He had to. Sponsors paid him incredible amounts of money for wearing a suit, or a t-shirt, or a new pair of shoes to those parties. He had explained it to me a thousand times. It was his job.
But nobody had told me the price I would have to pay. I was no longer Ilse, your average German girl. I was Ilse, "girlfriend of". I wasn't myself anymore. I was Jerome's girlfriend. Jerome Dupont's. A million girls wanted to be me. A million? Maybe a hundred million! I had changed a lot in that year. It hadn't been Jerome the one who had put me on a diet, or the one who had assigned me a personal trainer. I didn't think he had time for that. I barely saw him. I smiled bitterly. A fairytale gone bad, as the song said. Jerome trained eight hours a day. When he came home, he left again and returned late at night. Doctor appointments, meetings with sponsors, meetings with the club's directors, meetings with friends… sure, he asked me to join me whenever it was possible, but… WAGs didn't belong to that world, that's what his manager had told me. Gosh, before I didn't even know what a WAG was, and now I was one of them! I hated to be labeled like that. I didn't fit in the WAG definition: I didn't look like a supermodel, I wanted to have a job, I wanted to be me, just Ilse. But it wasn't possible when you were dating a football superstar.
I was feeling a bit dizzy when I looked up at the sky. I could spot a few constellations and a far away airplane, with its blue and red lights blinking. How I wished I was in that airplane that moment. The couple on my right was whispering something and she laughed like a chicken. His face looked familiar to me, but I couldn't place it. After all, there were over one hundred football players in that party, plus their girlfriends or wives, and uncountable rich men looking for business with the directors of the most famous football clubs. On my left, the guy was silent. The yellow light coming from the palace's room created a shadow on his face, and I couldn't see him very well. He saw me watching him.
"Have you seen the Moon? It's so beautiful", I said, in English, feeling a bit awkward after being caught staring. He smiled and I could see part of his face then, when his head looked in my direction. His nose was long, his eyes blue. He wasn't as tall as Jerome, and his body was more slender. He was wearing a dark shirt without a tie, and dark jeans. Not the usual outfit for a party of that category.
"It is beautiful". He had a slight Spanish accent. Silence followed. What was I doing? I felt stupid and turned around to leave, but I saw his hand as he spoke. "My name is David". I shook it. It was warm and soft.
"Ilse". No last names. I stood there, without knowing what to do. "I should go". I said. He smiled, and turned around to look at the sky again.
"I'll meet you soon, mi amiga", he said, without looking at me.
I walked inside the palace, confused. Amiga? Who was he? But after an hour or two looking for Jerome, feeling tired and drunk, I soon forgot about the mysterious balcony man. I had a lot of things to think about. And anyway, everybody knew Ilse-Jerome's girl, right?
One month later
"You have to try to follow your diet", Will said, checking me from my feet to the top of my head. "Didn't we agree that you would quit sugar?". I looked at my too small trousers, where my slightly swollen belly didn't fit anymore. I had lost some weight that year, and all the fitness and running had toned my body and made me look quite well. But the weekend we spent in Bath, attending that French food fair had spoiled my diet plans.
"You know I had to eat! It was part of the agreement with the sponsors", I complained, feeling tired. Every day, Will came to visit me. We lived in a nice, big house in Wimbledon, one of the luxurious neighborhoods where you could see quite a lot of celebrities who had found a home there. The house had its own gym and I was supposed to train three hours a day, from Monday to Sunday.
"You're also a public figure now, Ilse. All WAGs are gorgeous and you better work hard to keep that body of yours in shape!".
As I dressed into my running outfit, I thought about all the sacrifices I was making. Life wasn't easy anymore. Sure, I had nice designer clothes, a hairdresser and make up artist for myself everyday, more pocket money that I could have ever imagined and a good job with the editorial. But my life had a dark side. Jerome often appeared in all the gossip magazines, supposedly in the company of mysterious women, or some famous supermodel or actress. There were news like that every week. Of course, I trusted Jerome, and I knew they were just gossip, twisted news from twisted yellow magazines, but it hurt. It hurt to look at him every day and wonder, for how long will I be able to keep such a gorgeous man for myself? Jerome laughed at my insecurities and every day assured me he loved me. At the beginning it was easy to believe. But now… well, now I wasn't so sure anymore. That kind of life was too different, too difficult. People around me were different too. All his friends were famous football players who had famous girlfriends or wives, and my life before moving to London had nothing in common with the kind of lifestyle they all had. I told myself every day that it was OK, that Jerome had chosen me among all those women. I had to have hope, right?
I ran in the streets of Wimbledon, followed by my personal trainer. Will forced me to keep a high pace and I had needed months to be able to do that. I saw people pass by, some recognized me, some didn't. Jerome was in the stadium, where he had a training session, and he would come home late. I had a meeting with the chief editor in a couple of hours, so I tried to accelerate my step. Will raised his eyebrows, surprised.
"Is something wrong?", He asked. He knew me quite well by now. I also knew him very well. And not because I liked him, but because I got along very well with his boyfriend James.
"I'm in a hurry, just this". He didn't ask more, fortunately.
I let the water run and closed my eyes. The shower was almost as big as my former toilet back in Germany. The fruity shampoo's scent lingered in the air when I started to dry myself. I looked at my reflection on the mirror. Long, brown hair, big, dark eyes and full lips. That's how they often described me in the media.
I said goodbye to Will and took a train to the center of London. I didn't like to drive a car. I didn't like it in Germany, and I liked it even less in England, where I couldn't get used to the new traffic rules and driving on the left lane. Jerome got me a fancy car as a birthday present, but I only drove to the supermarket in Wimbledon. Anyway, he didn't know that. He was never at home. He never had time to ask about my day.
See? I had turned into an unhappy, bitter young lady. Don't get me wrong. I do love Jerome and I'm happy with him. I just wished… what did I really wish? To spend more time with him? To get more attention? One of the WAGs told me she only saw her boyfriend on Sundays, but that it paid off. That she could afford Prada clothes and Armani coats. Well, I wasn't one of those girls, and this life wasn't enough for me. There, I had said it. I didn't want all the gifts, the car, the clothes… I wanted Jerome to be with me. Simple as that. But it's never simple with a football player. And I had to learn to live with that.
Covent Garden was one of my favourite places in London. I loved to get lost there. I walked by the market and entered the Tea Shop in the corner. The salesgirl recognized me at once, but only because I was a good customer. I smelled the mix of scents of teas from all over the world. I felt relaxed there.
"Ilse! I didn't expect you here today", She said, giving me a cup of tea. I smelled it. It was peach.
"I have a meeting with the chief editor, he said it's urgent". The office of the editorial was a few blocks away from the Tea Shop. It was a small house with a little back garden nobody knew it existed.
"Good or bad news?" She asked, but I didn't have a chance to reply. A group of Japanese tourists came inside. She threw me an apologetic look and took care of them. I waved her goodbye, left the cup of tea almost full on the desk and went back to the crowded street.
Soon I was on the first floor of the old house and I rang. Mildred, the old secretary, opened the door and smiled when she saw me. I went inside, walking on the old rugs and hearing the buzz of several computers and fans. It was being a hot summer. I stopped in front of the editor's office and knocked on his door.
"Come in!", a deep voice answered. Ralph, my editor, was browsing some papers and didn't look at me. "Sit down, Ilse". I obeyed and wondered what did he want. As we had agreed, I wrote Jerome's biography and it was about to be published. It had been corrected, edited and it was ready to be printed. I saw his bushy eyebrows frowning, then he sighed. I swallowed, nervous. "How are you?", he asked. I knew he didn't expect an answer.
"Fine" I said, with small voice. He put the papers on the desk and leaned back on his chair, crossing his arms.
"We have a problem. A big problem", He said, all of a sudden. Silence followed.
"What do you mean? Is something wrong with the book?" I asked, worried. Ralph took a deep breath.
"Ilse, you're a great writer. But… how to say this? People won't see your talent now. You're not Ilse anymore, you understand? There have been a series of accusations against our editorial. People think the book is being published because you're Jerome's girlfriend". I paled. I knew what was coming. I felt sick in my stomach.
"Are you telling me my book won't be published? After all the hard work I've done?". My voice was trembling. That couldn't be happening. Ralph rested his elbows on the desk and looked at me. At the age of sixty he reminded me of my father.
"Try to understand it. Our editorial is prestigious. We only publish books written by talented authors. And yes, you're one of them, but… in this case it will be very hard for us to prove that it's your talent what led us to you, and not Jerome". I looked at my hands and cleared my throat.
"So, it means I'm no longer working for you? What about the contract?", I asked.
"The contract expires now. It lasts one year. Your job was to write the biography but the contract doesn't specify that it would be published. We hired you to write it, the publishing contract would come next".
"But it won't", I said. Ralph shook his head. He looked sad.
"I'm so sorry, Ilse".
"It's not fair, you know? I'm Ilse Werther. I hold a degree and I can write. I really can". I tried to speak calmly, but that year in London had turned me into a different person. I kind of lost my nerves. "You can't do this to me!".
"No!". I stood up and picked my purse. "I am Ilse Werther. And I'm sick and tired of being the-girlfriend-of". I slammed the door when I left and tried not to cry. How could this be happening? I looked for my phone and called Jerome. It rang several times before he answered.
"Ilse, hi!" He said. When I heard his voice, I needed to have him by my side more than ever.
"Jerome, they won't publish my book", I said, as I walked to the next tube station. "Jerome? Are you there?", I heard a lot of male voices and laughs on the background.
"Sorry, Ilse, we're having a photo shoot, can I call you later?". He didn't wait for an answer. The line went dead. I looked at my phone, frustrated. I stopped out of Covent Garden, lost and confused. I felt lonelier than ever.
Jerome came home at midnight. I was already in bed, I couldn't fall asleep. I heard him in the bathroom, and then felt his weight when he laid in bed.
"Ilse, are you awake?", he said.
"I had important news to tell you", I replied, turning around and facing him. He looked tired, but happy. He kissed me, but I felt cold. "My book won't be published". His expression changed.
"What?". I explained him what happened. "They can't do this to you!". He sat up, angry.
"You know they can. Now I'm your girlfriend. Whatever I'll do, they'll say I achieved it because of you. I'm no longer an individual. I'm your extension". I felt his blue gaze on me. He seemed upset.
"What are you talking about? How can you say that?". I sat on the bed too, and looked at the window.
"I won't be able to achieve anything without people thinking it was you helping me. You're never with me. You're never home. No, don't start", I said, when I saw he wanted to protest. "I know how stressing it is to be a football player and I know how much work you have. I understand, and I don't want you to change that".
"What's wrong then? All my friend's girlfriends seem to be enjoying this life".
"You know I'm not like that. I've never been. This life is..." I didn't know how to say that. In the whole year we had lived together I had been quiet, keeping things to myself, I didn't want to burden him with my problems. Or with my feelings.
"Is what?, he said, angry. "Not enough for you?". I noticed his sarcasm and felt even worse.
"You don't understand me", I said.
"No, I don't. I've had a very busy day and I'm tired. Maybe we should talk tomorrow". He turned the light off. I was too hurt to speak. I sat there for a while, then went to the kitchen and made a cup of tea. I added sugar while Will's reproachful face popped up in my mind and opened the garden's door. It was a beautiful night. The full moon shone like a weak sun. Exactly the same words I had in mind a month before. In the palace. Under the moonlight.
Surprisingly, I felt confused when I remembered the tall guy, David. I blamed Jerome's bad mood for that. In that year we really hadn't enjoyed any "couple time", except for a weekend by Loch Ness, and only because I had insisted. I wondered how Nina did it. My good friend Nina. I smiled, remembering our days in Paris. She was very far away now, in New York, opening a new shop. Her own brand had been a success. I could hardly wait to have her back.
I drank my tea and sat on the grass, under the stars. Wimbledon was a very quiet neighborhood. I thought about what happened, about Jerome's reaction. And took a decision. I had no job, but I had the money they gave me for the book. I needed a break. I would go somewhere. For a week. Alone. Completely alone. Maybe a break would be good. Maybe Jerome would miss me. I needed to know if he would miss me. I had to know. Because if he didn't… well, I didn't want to think about that. Yet.
I took my laptop. I booked a flight. I packed my suitcase while Jerome snored lightly. And I wrote him a not. I wasn't in the mood to face him. I knew it was childish. But I had to do that. I had to be Ilse. And be alone. In another part of planet Earth.
The taxi was waiting for me outside. It drove me to the airport. My flight was leaving at 4 am. I looked through the car's window at the full moon. And I smiled. For the first time in a long, long time.