Well here it is, the first of those podcasts I was talking about.
Apparently the story came to her in a dream. I don’t know what kind of cheese she’s on but she should lay off it for a while. You can find it at:
Well here it is, the first of those podcasts I was talking about.
Apparently the story came to her in a dream. I don’t know what kind of cheese she’s on but she should lay off it for a while. You can find it at:
Well, a lot has happened since I last wrote anything here. Four marriage proposals being, I suppose, worth a passing mention – three made to Peony, two by her best friend, Justine, (“at last we can be the nuclear family John craves”) and one to me. All were turned down. Laurence is now being comforted by a Russian radiographer.
I really don’t mind the radiographer, the only awkwardness in the whole situation being the fact that shortly before we broke up – and in an effort to prevent that disintegration – Laurence somehow wangled me the post of writer in residence at his hospital. I hoped this might prove a sinecure but in fact it’s unpaid and I’m obliged to produce two short stories and three poems a year to justify my title.
I can’t write poetry to save my life or anyone else’s but I’ve discovered a wonderful app (how often do you hear those words these days?) where you simply put in a few basic commands and it juggles with some arbitrary vocabulary and produces a brand new poem for you. The process is, I think, perhaps even more gratifying than had I dreamt up the things myself. You simply have to fill in three basic requests, for example:
Subject: Spleen operation
Mood: sombre, nervous
Form: free verse
And it produces an original – a highly original – creation for your negligible efforts. The most enjoyable part for me is perhaps the wonder of the randomly selected titles, no two ever the same, and rarely do they have anything to do with the poem to which they’ve been attached. My favourites to date have been the gentle nostalgia of Oatcake Britain and the rousing Wash Him!
The short stories I write myself and the process is the same laboured scratching-out exercise it’s always been.
But Peony said to me after reading the last one: “Mum, I despair in your crap brain, I do.”
“Do you? And why is that?”
“Because nobody reads anything anymore. You’re a slag heap.”
“Surely I’m on one rather than actually one.”
(She thinks I prevaricate, can’t face the truth. I just want her to get things right.)
“Enough,” she said. “Just pay attention to me. Don’t think about readers. Think about listeners. Everyone listens.”
“You wanna story? Stick the buds in. Who can be arsed to turn a page?”
As ever I needed time to ruminate. I always dismiss her dismissings of me and then I wish I hadn’t been so dismissive.
And so I present to you – very soon – original podcasts, yes podcasts. Like our earliest ancestors who could not be arsed to turn a page, we now listen to tales told by others and the only difference is that we’re not sitting around a campfire with jackals circling us just out of sight, but we’re pressed up against a whole heap of other jackals in public transport as we head off to work.
“Look at this,” I told Peony, alerting her to the beautiful new artwork for Intelligent People. “I’m re-launching the book to show off its brand new cover.”
“A new cover, you say?” she asked, failing to look at it at all, let alone admire it.
“But are they all the same old words inside?”
“All of them? Exactly the same?”
“Yes. They are.”
“Oh,” and she repeated “Oh” once more just in case I hadn’t caught the profound disappointment in it the first time.
We told you how much we wuvved HA Ferdinand’s Mrs Tempest’s Marriage Bureau. Well here’s the new one and it’s just as weird and wonderful. It’s called The Baron and we caught up with HA herself to learn more about it.
WB: You say your books are comedies of manners. What does that mean?
HA: It means laughing at the stupid things certain people say and do.
WB: Isn’t that cruel?
HA: Is that a problem?
WB: Give us a summary of the plot.
HA: OK. Well, simply put, it’s about a mother and her very outspoken daughter and a young man they pick up, well he hangs on, only we don’t know why he hangs on, and they apply for a job at a stately home, although they’ve already got jobs but they thought it would be fun and an adventure, and when they get there they meet these people who are on a mission to save the world from itself, and she – that’s the mother – really likes them, only she doesn’t know…
WB: Hold on, hold on. It doesn’t seem that simple.
HA: No, it is really. All my books are.
WB: And they’re short. They’re all kind of short.
HA: Mercifully short, yes.
WB: Do you like writing them?
HA: Bloody love it.
WB: So, the characters in this one are just crazy. They’re like upper class commies. Does that happen a lot in the UK? I don’t think we get them in the States. Are they based on real people?
HA: Well you know how it is…you read things, you hear things, the next thing you know you’ve built a new fictional world and peopled it yourself.
WB: That’s a yes then.
HA: Can I just ask…you rated the last one “very wuvvly”. Does this one get the same rating or a “very, very wuvvly” or indeed a “very, very, very wuvvly”? What is the net worth of a wuvvly?
WB: It’s got a “very wuvvly”.
HA: Well thanks for that, I suppose.
WB: You really crack us up!
They only went and sacked me.
I had it coming, to be honest. After all I did engineer it that my boss’s wife walked in on him and his mistress in mid-session in a conference room.
And I did write every detail of their sordid little office romance in my ebook A Sordid Little Office Romance which – thanks to my colleague, Amanda – managed to work its way around the entire law firm in less than forty seconds.
So much for the precious anonymity of Danby Houghton.
Cortez called me into his office and drew himself up into disciplining mode.
“You know you have to go, my darling,” he said.
I was a little taken aback at his tone but I should have known that he would do things his own extraordinary way.
“Yeah, I know. Sorry,” I said.
“You were very good. Very good.”
I smiled graciously.
“I was a legal secretary for years. I can do this job blindfold.”
“Oh not that, you great ape! I mean the book. So my marriage gets a knock – yawn, whatever – but I star in a book and, you know, Raphael is so me. That bit about the rucksack full of hand cream, underwear and French poetry. I mean, how did you know? Have you been peeking?”
“I…I…did I get that right then?”
He nodded vigorously.
“Well I never.”
“And my sexual prowess. I blushed, darling. Boys and girls. How did you know!”
“It’s just a bit of fiction,” I whined. “It doesn’t mean anything. I never intended to offend anyone. The whole thing was meant to remain anonymous.”
He leant across his desk and dropped his head dramatically on to it.
“Cortez Baignton doesn’t do anonymity,” he informed me, mumbling into the teak.
“I bet poor Mrs Baignton wishes he did.”
I don’t know how I had the gall to say something like that, but what did I have to lose? He couldn’t sack me twice.
Fortunately he slapped the desk top and gurgled a kind of laugh.
How does he get away with it? A man in his position. He must be really raking it in for his firm for them to turn a blind eye to his extravagant ways.
Laurence came in to help me collect my stuff. I didn’t ask him to. There was only a notebook and a plant and those were technically office property anyway but I refused to retreat empty-handed.
“So,” he said, catching sight of Cortez coming out of a meeting room. “This is the man who dropped you so abruptly, is it? Well. I. Never.”
“Laurence don’t!” I hissed.
But he seemed to be inflating his chest and pushing it in the direction of my baffled boss.
“Oh hello,” said Cortez coming over, his curiosity ignited. It was still sexual curiosity at this stage. It always is first thing with him.
“My God but I could lamp you for this,” said Laurence totally unexpectedly. I’ve never heard the like. Not from him.
Cortez raised his eyebrows. He took a swift glimpse of his vast gold watch.
“I’ve got a meeting,” he sighed and left us.
“That bloody told him,” said Laurence with mysterious satisfaction. “I’ve got a meeting my arse.”
“He has got a meeting. I handle his diary, remember. It’s with two clients and it’s in conference room three.”
Oh what’s the point.
We left the building and I was glad actually that Laurence had come. Glad to be going back in the sealed isolation of a car at any rate.
I think I might miss going out to work. I hadn’t wanted to go back at first but once I was in that busy, brain-dead milieu it was a relief. And briefly I was part of the real world again, having some kind of minor impact on my society.
“God but I could have lamped him,” Laurence muttered once more as he swung the steering wheel with a degree of flamboyant recklessness.
I put a hand on his knee and understood that this was his moment now, not mine. And I prefer that really. I was never meant to be in the driving seat, will always feel more comfortable looking out through the passenger side window.
Nobody – not least my “friends” – could face another of my farcical book launches. Fortunately Roberta (remember her? The kind-of publisher at The Tempest Press) said she’d tag my new book onto the publicity she was doing for her find of a writer, Bibi Berki.
I soon learned that this other poor sap is about as shy of personal publicity as I am and so between us we didn’t present much of an author platform, as they say.
This is what Roberta said on her website:
“Bibi Berki’s new book, Little Siskin, makes you cry. H. A. Ferdinand’s, Intelligent People, is sort of amusing and contains a little too much swearing.”
I ask you! Is that any kind of way to get people to read them? Tears and obscenities! I know both books and I can tell you there’s an awful lot more to them than that.
But don’t take my word for it…
“OMG! Harriet is hideous.”
JaneyBee is astonished at the turnaround. That can’t be bad, can it?
Waspeater, my other regular commentator, is also a little exercised:
“Well I never saw that coming. She seemed so good. Suddenly Raphael is a victim, not a leading man at all. She’s deliciously shocking and so violent with it. I want to get him out of that poisonous situation.”
“Don’t we all,” I thought to myself. “Don’t we all.”
Cortez and Kate came back from their illicit weekend glowing with post-coital pleasure.
“That,” she told me triumphantly, “is how a woman should spend two days. I can barely walk.”
“Did a lot of sight-seeing, then?” I asked.
“What did you tell Geoff?”
“That your phone had fallen from a twelfth floor window into the outdoor jacuzzi.”
“How did you know about the hot tub?”
“Well we lonely, washed-up, middle-aged women can only dream about the kind of life you alpha people lead.”
She scowled at me impatiently.
“What did he say to that?”
“He said he hoped you were still using it as it fell.”
She eyed me a moment then chose to ignore my facetiousness. (Of course, he’d believed every word I’d told him and she knew it.)
“Geoff is a little like you. Unnaturally innocent,” she told me. “Some people prefer to live off others. It can be very draining.”
“Can I be moved to a different department?”
She shrugged as if to say: “What do I care?” and sauntered off to her corner of the office to rest her legs, presumably.
“I need someone new, someone we can believe in,” I told my colleague, Amanda, soon afterwards.
She’s been reading the instalments of A Sordid Little Office Romance on Chapter by Chapter and we discuss it most of our working day.
“I agree,” she said breathlessly. “I know, shall we bring Mrs Baignton into the picture?”
“What Cortez’s wife? Nah. That wouldn’t work…though actually…”
I slid instantly into a reverie. It was ridiculous. I couldn’t just introduce the wife this far into the plot, could I? Anyway, the slighted missus is always damaged goods, with the suggestion that she had it coming. How could I make her sympathetic enough?
Now this is the bit you won’t believe but it was only an hour later that who should come into the office but Mrs Baignton herself. I know! For a moment I had to wonder if Amanda was somehow not only controlling me and my book, but perhaps the entire world.
“Hello,” said out visitor. She was tall and ordinary and had the whiff of exhaustion you get off the parents of small children (though, interestingly, her husband doesn’t have it.) “Cortez in?”
“I’ll just check on my diary?” I told her and rapidly typed a message to Amanda: “Windyarse isn’t in the meeting room with the boss, is she?”
“Just a moment,” I smiled up at our visitor.
Eventually I got a message back: “’Course she bloody is. I can hear them from here.”
I hesitated, bit my lip, sought out her eyes from under their drooping lids for some sign of deeper understanding and I got it. She knew. She bloody well knew.
“Ah yes,” I said. “He’s in the meeting room. Please go through.”
“So is Raphael straight or gay? I don’t get it. He’s lusted over everyone so far. Anyone got any views on this?”
To which I answered:
“It’s possible to fancy both men and women you know. Welcome to the 21st Century.”
“But in a romantic novel? I’ve never heard of a bi romantic lead?”
I was still composing my response when someone else suddenly chimed in.
“I like it. Give it a chance. It’s traditional that you don’t know whether the hero and heroine get it together at the end. This version is even more tantalising.”
They’re very articulate, the members of the Chapter by Chapter online community. I wonder why I haven’t considered writing like this before. When you know you have someone actually waiting for the next instalment, you like to surprise.
Then someone called JaneyBee chipped in: “Loving Harriet! She’s so proper and English and old-fashioned and such a contrast to Raphael. Two worlds colliding. Am I right?”
I couldn’t resist diving back in. (It’s all going to go wrong anyway. You and I both know that.)
“I’m so glad you like Harriet. I love her. She’s so good and moral and decent. I wanted to create someone who was genuinely, thoroughly likeable. Someone we can all get behind.”
“Are there really people as decent as Harriet in this world?” asked JaneyBee.
“God yeah!” I told her. “There really, really are.”
Kate Knorr-Windlass, the junior partner in the tax department, looking sweet and unaffected in a plain grey suit and red, polka dot silk scarf, came over to my desk and leant down so that her left cheek was almost flat against my right.
“We all think you’re a wonderful asset,” she told me, and she sounded thrilled to tell me so.
My heart was bursting. It meant so much from someone like her.
“Thanks very much,” I said.
“I’ve recommended you for a bonus.”
“That’s… that’s very kind. Wow.”
Her perfume was rather headier than I’d expected from such a sensible, down-to-earth kind of girl, rather sultry, far too much jasmine in it. It made my nose run.
She turned herself round so that she could face me and gave me a swift but huge and maternal hug.
“Excellent,” she said.
“Thanks,” I told her.
She didn’t move.
“Great, thanks,” I said, waiting. “Was there anything I could do for you?”
“Since you’re asking,” she said at once, before I’d even ended the ‘oo’ of ‘you’. “There is a job you could do for me and right now please.”
I watched the fascinating transformation of her expression. She didn’t seem so maternal any more.
“Fire away,” I said.
She was writing something on the pad beside my phone.
“Here’s the number for my partner Geoff’s work place. Ring him up right now and tell him that I’ve been called away urgently to finalise a deal abroad and can’t come home tonight. Then call him from your home tomorrow and tell him that you’ve just heard that my flight has been delayed and that I’m staying on an extra day.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” I said.
“So? You can call from home can’t you?”
“But can’t you call him and tell him?”
“No I can’t. I want you to do it. You want that bonus, don’t you? Then the odd bit of work at the weekends is worth it.”
“I’d rather not have the bonus,” I told her.
“Yeah, right. Like someone in your position would turn down some cash. It’s not like you have much else going for you. I heard you live with your mother.”
“What do I tell him when he asks why you can’t call him?”
“Earn your bonus,” she said with crisp authority and was off.
The impossibly good Harriet is about to show her true colours.
My new boss is about six foot two, steel grey of hair, as finickity as a Dickensian clerk but in fact American and called Cortez Baignton. Isn’t that great? Cortez!
This morning he said to me:
“You in brown again? Didn’t anyone tell you the seventies are so OV-ER?”
“I like brown actually,” I told him (we get on ever so well). “It’s very forgiving with my skin tone.”
“Not on any chart I’m looking at, sister.”
He handles the tax affairs of immensely wealthy clients. I wonder if he comments on their colour choices, too. I wonder a lot about him during the day. He’s one of those people that gets on with absolutely everybody (the polar opposite of me, in other words). I think he may bat for both sides, what’s more.
I’m also beginning to think that he and one of the other partners in the department, a Kate Knorr-Windlass, are a little sweet on each other. She’s the only other solicitor in the whole place with whom he’s tongue-tied and awkward. (There’s a partner in property called Carmen Boynton who would be a much better match in name terms but love doesn’t work like that, does it.)
Both are married or at least in relationships their partners must assume are safely permanent. When they are in the same room, Cortez is very gallant and old-fashioned and asks her if she wants to sit down or bids me fetch coffee for her whether she wants it or not. Her eyes glow in his presence and she grins a lot at anyone who’ll receive it.
“It’s a sordid little office romance,” my colleague Amanda told me this lunchtime.
“Oh no!” I protested. “I’m sure that nothing has happened between them. It’s probably all so chaste. Why should that be sordid?”
“Office romances always are,” she huffed.
“Maybe no one will get hurt,” I tried. You see I’m very fond of Cortez already. He’s the only reason I’m sticking to this awful bloody job. He can do no wrong.
But all the way home I couldn’t get him and Kate Knorr-Windlass out of my mind, the innocence of all that shyness, the fun of it, the wonderful risk of utter disaster. That’s a spectator sport if ever there was one and it’s free! But also I thought: what if an office fling was presented as a huge romance? What if it was soaring rather than sordid?
Wouldn’t that be funny.
I sat down after dinner in the new-found silence of my home and clicked on to a site called Chapter by Chapter. I’ve never written like this before – for an immediate audience. It’s just not me. But then I wasn’t going to be me. I was going to be Danby Houghton (Male? Female? Who knows?) and I was going to set out the opening chapter of A Sordid Little Office Romance.
And just like that everything changes.
Four days after Christmas, John came up to me, his lovely little face dark with confusion.
“What does my mum look like again?” he asked, evidently struggling.
I answered before I gave myself time to think.
I shouldn’t have said that, though it did seem to end some doubts.
“Oh in that case, she’s been standing on the other side of the road for days.”
I rushed to the living room window and there indeed stood Justine, underdressed and quivering in a transparent raincoat over a purple velvet tunic. She was wearing those squashed caveman boots that are everywhere and a fair isle woollen hat with a bobble as big as her head.
She had come for her son, it turned out, and I called Peony down from her room for support as I made Justine repeat her garbled monologue about needing to start again as a mother and give it her all this time.
Peony took me aside and told me: “We have no choice, Mum. I’m only his guardian if she’s not capable and even then with her permission.”
“But his education? His life here with us? Me? What about me?”
She simply hugged me in answer and we packed his bags and said goodbye.
“For now,” I emphasised as I zipped up his jacket. “It’s goodbye for now. Remember that.”
He nodded solemnly and reached up for his mother’s claw…hand, sorry, hand.
Peony went with him to ease the shock of the change. She’s much wiser and certainly more caring than we give her credit for, my dear good girl. She has kept me posted on how things are working out – relatively well – and is there for him when he comes back each day from his new school. (I knew some good would come out of her constant state of unemployment.) Justine’s parents are once more bankrolling their daughter’s whims.
So I was left to mourn. Mother was quiet and tactful, bereft herself. Laurence was solicitous, calling round all the time to take me out to dinner and I went at first but then we both got bored with comfort eating and that stopped.
And then about two weeks ago the phone rang and it was Amanda Asquith. We used to work together.
“I know you got a redundancy package and everything but there’s been a sudden up-turn in work and it’s your old department and they wondered if you would come back, part-time and everything. Would you be interest… and everything?”
“Yes,” I said.
Just like that, as quick as smacking a mole with a mallet. Yes.
Never mind that when I left I left for good, that I said I’d never go back, that I told myself it was time to call myself a writer, a proper writer, and not a part-time anything.
“There are two new partners. One’s an American. He’s a man. And the other one’s a woman. Oh and that man one is American. Did I say that?
Can I work with Amanda again? Can I work at all – running around after a bunch of lawyers, picking up their pieces, sorting out their days?
Well we’ll soon find out. I start tomorrow.