“You’re Mary Ann, right?” Gemma said as she ordered a cup of chicory from the “coffee” machine. The newest addition to the “O” Courant bullpen, Mary Ann Evans, was already in the breakroom, sitting at the table and planning out her schedule that day on a small notepad. “You came from So Mod, didn’t you?”
“Yes! And you’re Gemma Olsen. Looove your work, darling. It’s like what I do, but for the stuffier people in town.”
Gemma wasn’t sure if that was an insult or a compliment. She rather thought exposing corruption and authoritative lying was not especially similar to reporting on what minor changes Davy Hackney decided everyone should apply to their wardrobe or who Nick Lightbearer was marrying or divorcing this week, but she bit her tongue before she said something overtly snotty in reply.
“I hope you won’t take this wrong way,” Gemma said, electing for a more subtle jab instead as she waited for her chicory to finish pouring, “but isn’t the Ladies’ Page a step down from So Mod?”
“Not at all!” Mary Ann said. “The “O” Courant has a higher readership than So Mod does, so my articles will get read by more people. But really, I made the switch because I’ve interviewed every celebrity in town, over and over. They get boring. I’m rather looking forward to talking to normal people about flower shows and Simon Says competitions.”
A dignified parry, Gemma had to admit. Maybe Mary Ann hadn’t meant to be demeaning after all.
“You don’t like interviewing the stars? I would have thought that would never get old,” Gemma said as she scooped out two spoons of sugar from the communal bag into her chicory and stirred.
“Maybe if we got new ones once in a while,” Mary Ann supposed. “But I’ve been interviewing the same people for years now. They put out new projects, but it’s all the same really. And when you get up close to them like that? You see how small and worn they all actually are.”
“Really?” Gemma asked, taking the seat opposite of her and leaning in closer. She hadn’t decided where Mary Ann fell on her register of camaraderie yet, but Gemma was always down to hear some dirt.
“Oh absolutely!” Mary Ann said, clearly not one to say no a gossip session either. She set her pencil down on top of her notepad and gave Gemma her full attention. “The town builds them up as these giants and puts them up on these pedestals where no one can reach them. But when you climb up there with them, most of them are just so desperate for someone to understand them and to see them as normal people.” She flashed a mean grin. “If you play them right, they’ll tell you all sorts of things they never meant to.”
“Such as?” Gemma pressed, excited.
“Oh, let’s see,” Mary Ann said. She nibbled her lip as she decided on, or maybe tried to remember, something juicy. “Oh! Like that Petunia Penny only married Nick Lightbearer because his manager arranged for her to. Basically as a babysitter slash concubine. And that they divorced because Nick shagged her sister.” Mary Ann squinted, as if looking for one last detail. “Oh, he wears a wig too!”
Gemma stared in delighted awe at this scandalous information. “No!” But now that Mary Ann had said it, Gemma could see it.
“Of course, we couldn’t actually say any of that in the magazine,” Mary Ann went on. “Not if we ever wanted them to talk to us again.”
“No, I imagine not. Oh! Here’s something I’ve always wondered,” Gemma said, “Maybe you have some insight. The Happy Face masks-“
“Did Hackney come up with them just to spite that makeup artist?” Mary Ann said, anticipating her question. “Yes! He’s the pettiest, smallest man I’ve ever met in my life. He was furious when Victoria Byng co-opted the masks into a Village morale movement. Took his beautiful, targeted revenge and gave it to the commoners.” Mary Ann laughed vindictively and Gemma joined in. “And because it was Miss Byng, he couldn’t do anything about it but let her!”
“Oh god, I can just imagine him fuming over it,” Gemma said.
“The man’s a monster. It’s so hard to interview any of his models because they’re all terrified of him. They worry over every word because they can never tell if he’ll misconstrue them and if he does? Good lord. He locked one of those girls in a closet for three days, just for tripping on the runway. He made her piss in a bucket. And it was his fault anyway; he put that poor girl in a hobble skirt!” Mary Ann rolled her eyes. “We had to fire our fashion editor after that too. He said that Poiret tried – and failed – to bring those back in the 20’s. And he was right. It wasn’t going to happen then and it isn’t going to happen now.” She sighed. “But poor Marquis had to go if we wanted to keep the peace.”
“I bet Hackney’s no easy interview himself,” Gemma supposed.
“He’s manageable, if you know what you’re doing.”
“Who would you say is the hardest interview then?” Gemma asked, genuinely curious. If Mary Ann considered Hackney manageable, then who could she possibly think was a challenge?
“Oh, they’re all terrible in their own right. Except Uncle Jack, actually. You’d think he’d be an absolute walking ego, but he’s exactly like he is on the telly. It’s a little disquieting, to be frank. When you’ve seen under everyone else’s mask, it’s strange for him to be the same under his.” Mary Ann considered the question more closely. “I suppose the trickiest interview was Sally Boyle.”
“Really? Sally?” Gemma questioned. “She doesn’t seem terribly elusive.”
“No, but she came up in that same world, you know,” Mary Ann explained. “She knows all my same tricks.”
“So how did you win her over?” Gemma asked.
“Same way I do most of them,” Mary Ann said with a small shrug and a smirk. “Start with innocuous questions to lower their guard. This was her cover issue so I started with that awful dress she was traipsing about in at the time. It made her look like an Easter egg but it was a Hackney Original so you know how that had to go. Then, I massage the ego, but gently! I give compliments, but not too many or they get suspicious again. Then I start in with the more hardball questions but I act like they’re just so misunderstood. I pretend like I think everything they ever did – no matter how heinous – was perfectly all right and justified.”
“They don’t see through that? How can they not be suspicious? You’re a reporter and they know it!” Gemma was rapidly gaining respect for Mary Ann. Since her own work was undercover, it was easy to catch people off their guard. That Mary Ann regularly conned people who knew perfectly well what her business was into spilling their own secrets was astounding to Gemma.
“Honest to god, Nick Lightbearer is the only one that doesn’t work on, and that’s only because every other girl in town is trying that same trick on him too.”
“That must be white noise to him by now,” Gemma said, just tickled pink by this turn of conversation. “Well, what’s the dirt on Sally then?”
“She puts on that air of being ditzy and friendly, but if you follow her love life, she’s never unattached. She won’t jump ship unless there’s a bigger boat waiting for her but when she does, she throws a lit torch on the last one. It’s a wonder Dr. Verloc didn’t throw himself off the roof of his labs when she swapped him for General Byng. Stewart Adams is still holed up in his workshop trying to figure a way to win her back, according to his poor wife. Oh, that too! When you bag a man, I wouldn’t let her near him. Wedding vows are just some pretty words you might have said to a man once to her. Nothing she should be concerned over.”
“She actually shagged Stewart Adams?” Gemma asked, shocked. “She admitted to it?”
“Yes, but only off the record,” Mary Ann said, rolling her eyes. “And she acted like it was some whirlwind love affair too. Imagine being just too enamored with that mustache and that little boater hat to resist! And who doesn’t love a man in an apron?” Mary Ann let out a derisive snort. “But isn’t it interesting how she was soooo in love but dropped him like a rock the second she caught Dr. Verloc’s eye?”
“Why would she tell you that though?” Gemma wondered in absolute bewilderment. She couldn’t imagine any context where Sally could be a shopkeep’s mistress and still come out looking good so it made no sense for her to go admitting a thing like that, to a reporter no less.
“Honestly? I don’t think she’s ever had a female friend in her life. The one time another woman tells her it’s fine to fuck other girls’ husbands and to toss them aside the second a better offer arises, it was like she sort of… latched on. Like she thought I saw her for her and completely got where she was coming from. I don’t think it occurred to her for even a second that I was actually disgusted with her. She reads men very well – obviously, they’re open books – but she has so little practice with women that all I had to do was tweak my usual approach for her and she was eating out of my hand. It’s a shame I couldn’t use most of it. We still have to write about her like she’s the darling of Wellington Wells to this day.”
“Wow,” Gemma said, amazed at the weight of the information she’d been given. “Sally Boyle: Other Woman. I never would have thought that of her.”
“She’s just as bad as any of the rest of that lot,” Mary Ann dismissed. She flipped the cover back on her notepad and slid the pencil through its spiral. “They all think they’re entitled to anything they can get their hands on and woe betide anyone who gets in their way. Some of them just have nicer public personas, that’s all.”
Like Mary Ann herself, Gemma thought. She was fun to talk about other people with and might turn out to be a great source of leads too, Gemma thought, but she suspected one did not want to get too cozy with her. Anything you told her was likely to be cattily gossiped to someone else. Gemma resolved that Mary Ann should be treated warmly, but held at arm’s length.
Mary Ann rose from the breakroom table. “It was lovely dishing the dirt – you can’t imagine what it’s like having to keep secrets like those – but I’ve got a flower show to attend!”
“Good luck! Not that you need it for those old dears,” Gemma said. She only just kept herself from looking visibly affronted at the notion that she couldn’t imagine what it was like to keep big secrets. After all, there was no need to let the girl on the puff piece beat get under her skin. “They’re happy to tell anyone about their nonsuches.”