EXTRACT FROM THE CUPID BUSINESS BY JULIE H. ROSENFIELD
Monday morning rush. Overnight sleet. Bad day on the Northern Line. Slush, push, crush…
“The next station is High-gert.” High-gert? Every day, I want to challenge that clipped, impersonal voice. “High-GATE,” I want to scream.
Where do they get these announcers anyway?
“Customers in the last carriage, please move towards the front doors to leave the train.”
When did we start becoming customers? What’s wrong with passengers?
“Mind the Gap.”
Why don’t they just fill it in? Who builds a platform so narrow that it doesn’t meet the train? Or is “Mind the Gap” just a subliminal advert for a well-known clothes store? It wouldn’t surprise me.
I’m standing all the way in a carriage so jam-packed with people that there’s no room for me to put my bags down. It makes me wary.
Once, squashed inside the tube train in this way, with my hands full of bags and umbrella, I suddenly became aware of someone touching the back of my coat and fondling my bottom. And then, I was aware of something hard poking my well-padded behind. And it wasn’t a brolly.
Trying to swivel round, I caught sight of a well-dressed man, holding a briefcase in one hand and my backside in the other: an opportunist who took advantage of our enforced intimacy.
And with no room for me to jab him with a pointed elbow, and too tightly pressed up against unseeing strangers to cry out, I had no choice but to endure his unwelcome attentions.
And I’ve never trusted men with briefcases ever since, which is unfortunate as I work as a secretary – or Personal Assistant – at a large insurance company: Grantham and Slater.
You’ve probably heard of them or seen their corny ads:
“Assuring you of our assurance always.”
“Insuring you all ways – always.”
How about another subliminal advert?
“Please INSURE you cover all your belongings with us when you leave the train.”
It wouldn’t surprise me. These days, nothing does.
So, is it any wonder then, after fighting against the elements, the London underground, time and my personal inclination to stay in bed, that I arrive bruised and bedraggled at the office desk where I am due to remain chained for the rest of the day?
And late – ten whole minutes. And it’s noticed…
“Oh, I thought you’d had a better offer,” sneers Marsha Bray, our stick-thin, eagle-eyed administrator. Time-keeper and office pedant. Loved by all. Not.
Nothing escapes Marsha’s newly-lasered, piercing, blue eyes. Sharp, those lasers – just like her tongue.
“Only ten minutes,” I counter, anticipating her next response.
“Thirteen-and-a-half to be exact but who’s counting?” She is, and don’t I know it!
“Oh, and Mr Sykes wants to see you.”
An early summons from the boss. Not a great start. I had hoped his Monday morning breakfast meeting might have gone on long enough to cover my late entrance. Alas, not. They must have run out of doughnuts. This is not good news.
I drag my soul and my shorthand notepad into my boss’s office.
My boss, Mr William Sykes, a senior director at Grantham and Slater, started out in the insurance field at the age of 17. Sell, sell, sell. “If it’s worth having, it’s worth insuring.”
Insurance Man of the Year. Worked his way up through the ranks and onto the Board. Big, broad-shouldered, burly; wavy, grey hair; thick, tangled eyebrows. He has one joke which he repeats often. Well, every time he speaks to a new client.
“And it’s William Sykes. William – not Bill. I don’t know what the Dickens my parents were thinking of.” And with that, he roars, as if he’s never heard his own joke before.
Every morning of my working week, Soggy Sykes – my nickname for him because he makes such heavy, wet weather of everything – hauls me into his office and loads me with dictation.
Some mornings, unlike Dickens’s hero Oliver, I actually want to shout: “Please Sir, I don’t want any more,” but, of course, I never do. Perhaps I’m just quietly going round the Twist.
On this mundane Monday morning, I emerge from Sykes’s office two hours later, weighed down with the fruits of the morning’s dictation: my humble shorthand pad a glorious testament to the British person’s need for insurance.
“Run for cover – to Grantham and Slater.”
“Your life insurance in our hands.”
It often amazes me how these light, dancing, pencilled shorthand squiggles are sturdy enough to convey such heavy subject matter as endowment policies, remortgages, life cover and all risks policies…
All risks? How about the risk of me dropping down dead of boredom in the middle of one of Sykes’s dense, dictation sessions? How about the risk of me surviving just one day without being lashed by the acerbic wit of Marsha Bray? What about the risk of me exploding with shock at the thought of typing out just one exciting letter?
“Don’t risk your all without our All Risks policies.”
Shorthand. What an amazing skill that is. Thanks to Sir Isaac Pitman for that one. It took me a while to get the hang of learning the phonetic sounds and symbols; reading them out aloud over and over again: chay, jay; kay, gay; pee, bee….
And, talking of pee: just my luck, ten minutes later, I’m cornered in the Ladies’ by our HR manager, Annabelle Lomax.
“Oh, darling. How are you? Must tell you about my fabulous weekend,” she breathes.
This could take some time. I look in the mirror. It might be wise to take a moment or two to repair the ravages of the morning. Frosted pink lipstick in hand, I gaze at my reflection: long, mid-brown, tousled hair; snub nose; a freckle or two and, as for those messy eyebrows…
And, next to me, Annabelle: tall; big hair: dark and curly; Roman nose; dazzling red lipstick; huge, porcelain, white teeth.
“Nick took me to quite the best dinner dance on Saturday night. Tickets cost a fortune but he managed to wangle two freebies for us. Contacts, you know,” she says, tapping her generous nose.
I pretend to be both impressed and interested. I even remember to make the obligatory, complimentary remark on her latest fabulous outfit. Yellow two-piece suit with black polka dots. Perfect for a cocktail party but for an insurance company HR department?
“Oh, I’m glad you like it. Charity shop, you know.”
Inwardly, I groan. Charity shop! How come I never find the latest Dior creations in my local Oxfam? The best I’ve ever done was to find an orange summer skirt which “makes you look like a plump tangerine,” according to one of my kinder friends.
Thank goodness, I didn’t canvass Marsha.
“Still, darling, must fly. People to interview, that sort of thing,” and, with that, Annabelle’s gone.
What a morning. Definitely time for a break. I make my way to the drinks machine. As always, Tony Ross, the IT guy, is there. This explains why no-one can ever get him on the phone – perhaps they should call him the High-Tea guy.
Tony is tall and lanky, with short brown hair and owlish spectacles, and sports his perennial checked shirt and grey cords. Boy, it’s good to see the first friendly face of the morning. Time for a breather and to talk about the weekend and Tony’s latest online dating exploits.
“Hang on, Tony. You actually told someone you’d seen online that, in her profile photo, she looked as if she had good, child-bearing hips?”
“And you haven’t heard from her since?”
“Well, no …”
“And you’re surprised?”
“Yes. It was meant to be a compliment,” he shrugs.
Tony never fails to amaze me. Some men just have a talent for that sort of thing. If there was an Olympic event for Shot-Putting-Your-Foot-In-It and Curling-Up-Your-Toes-With-Embarrassment, he’d be an Olympic gold medal winner every time.
“But you hadn’t even met the girl.”
“But we’d chatted on the internet. I’d virtually met her.”
It’s a mystery to me what people see in the internet. OK, it’s useful to check the weather forecasts, catch up with the news and book last-minute holidays but as for those netheads who spend hours and hours surfing… What a waste of time.
But then, Tony does work in the IT department so I guess it’s not too surprising. At least, this way, he gets paid for it.
“And how about you, Kate? How was your weekend?”
“Don’t ask. Just don’t.”
It had been a bad one – just like most weekends these days. Paul and I fighting. Again.
What had sparked it off this time? Oh yes, I remember. I’d forgotten to unpack one of the bags of shopping from Saturday’s supermarket spree. And the next day, Paul had retrieved a soggy bag of melted, frozen peas from the unopened, plastic carrier bag, left lying on the floor.
“Someone didn’t unpack the shopping,” he declared, pointedly.
“Really? Well, what was to stop you doing it, then?” I retorted.
“Well, at least, I put the tofu away,” he countered.
And there we were, straight into another bickering session. My usual accusation of how he never helps with the housework, and his standard defence that he looks after the car and that the house is my domain.
On and on – all day Sunday. Both actors knowing their lines so well that neither was willing to change, to improvise, to be spontaneous. Or even say sorry.
Ah well, no use crying over soggy peas except that I did. Silly me. Silly, silly me.
It seems to be happening more often these days. Is it my age? At 37, am I too old for boys and too young for the men-o-pause? Or is it, I wonder, just time for a change of a different kind?
I’ve often wished that men could be like library books. You pick one you like the look of, take it home, spend time with it for a week or two and when you’re done, you take it back to the library and exchange it for another one. No questions asked, no hurt feelings and, if you like it, you have the option to renew.
Why aren’t marriage licences renewable? An old man once told me that it used to cost seven-shillings-and-six-pence to buy a marriage licence which was the same price as a dog licence. I wonder which was the better value. At least, with a dog, they never complain about burnt dinners or erroneously defrosted vegetables.
Although to tell the truth, Paul and I aren’t actually married. Although these 15 years we’ve been living together, it certainly feels like it. I don’t know why we’ve never married. Somehow, I’ve never felt able to make that final commitment.
Maybe Tony, although he doesn’t realise it yet, is actually better off. Stay single, stay free, keep your options open. Sometimes, my heart feels as frozen as those wretched peas.
Still, try telling Tony that. He’s desperate to find someone, to be in a relationship, to settle down. Too desperate, I think, and it shows. Still, he’s a nice guy and that’s why I like to encourage him when I can.
Still, no-one can doubt his prowess on the computer. Just as well, for the number of times my machine breaks down. That’s how we’ve got to know each other so well, really. So many times he’s rescued me when old Sykes has had a deadline to meet and I’ve been faced with a computer which won’t do as it’s told. I just dial extension 369 and he’s there in a flash drive.
And, for that sort of service, a little coddling and advice about women is well worth it.
Recalling Tony’s earlier remarks about his disastrous online date, I start to tease him as he reaches for the chocolate digestives: “Go easy on those biscuits, Tony, or else people will be commenting on the size of your hips too.”
Smiling to myself, I manage to duck the empty plastic cup he hurls in my direction.
For all his faults, Tony does make me giggle. And, at Grantham and Slater, you need to laugh a lot – just to get through the day.
“So, how was your day?” I ask Paul when I arrive back at home in Finchley this evening. Although seeing his face crumple as he collapses on the settee, I have a fair idea. It’s a shame because I was hoping to broach the subject of me maybe giving my job up and taking on something part-time and, if possible, a bit closer to home. It’s something we’ve talked about before but I’m not sure how much he’s taken in.
“Today was tough, Kate. Look, I know you want to jack in your job at the insurance place, but things are really tight at work at the moment. We do need you to keep on working there for a little longer: just till we can be sure of Athens…”
Athens. Paul’s work is a mystery to me. Lots of wheeling and dealing from what I can tell. Building contracts mainly but who knows what else goes on? But although Paul wears a sharp suit, he never seems quite sharp enough to land the one big deal that will give us the financial freedom for me to pursue my own thing. And with a mortgage weighing heavily round our necks, there’s no choice but work, work, work for the pair of us.
“Dinner’s nearly ready,” I soothe, removing the cardboard sleeve from the Just-Heat-It-Up Chilli ‘n’ Rice ready meal and piercing the plastic cover with a fork.
Is there an art to cooking these things or does everybody else end up with the same burnt bits inside the plastic container? Ah well, who’s got time to cook proper meals these days?
I fantasise about baking my own multi-seeded, granary bread; laying the dinner table with candlesticks and solid silver cutlery, and serving up some gorgeous, golden-orange, butternut squash soup for starters; an exotic, saffron-infused, wild mushroom medley, wrapped in home-made puff pastry, accompanied by new potatoes and a julienne of vegetables for the main course and an enchanting, hot raspberry soufflé for dessert. Ah, those TV chefs have a lot to answer for. Dream on!
“You want bread with yours?” I shout through the hatch, reaching to open the wrapper of the cut-price, sliced white bread. Oven-ready, ready-sliced, nearly ready.
And, after what I laughingly call dinner, a night in front of the box. We generally catch up with one of the TV soaps while we balance our dinner on our knees. I found a couple of those cushion trays in a pound shop recently and they’re just the job.
One thing about watching TV together, though, that really annoys me is how, every time the ads come on, Paul reaches for the remote control and switches channels: just to make sure he isn’t missing anything on the other side. And, despite my entreaties, he always manages to clip the second half of the serial. He really is a remote control freak.
Tonight, as he usually does after dinner, Paul gets ready to go upstairs to our spare bedroom – his office – to spend the evening on his computer. I remember to grab him before he disappears.
“Remember, I’m seeing Suzie tomorrow night. I’ll be meeting her straight from work. You’ll have to get your own dinner.”
Always best to give him a bit of notice so he can pop into the chippy and get his dinner on the way home. Ah, modern life, so many conveniences yet so much inconvenience.
I hope the Northern Line will be working tomorrow, I think, as I iron my sensible white blouse ready for the next gripping day at Grantham and Slater. At least, let me get there early for once, just to see Marsha’s face.
END OF CHAPTER ONE
Extract from the novel, The Cupid Business by Julie H. Rosenfield