City Of Friends By Joanna Trollope: Book Review
If you think you know what to expect from Joanna Trollope, think again. Far from the longstanding image of agas, affluence and boltholes in the country, City of Friends is an altogether more urban tale of women, work, equal rights and unequal pay.
It tells the story of Stacey Grant and her three friends from college - Gaby, Beth and Melissa (aka The Girls).
Having studied together in the 80s, and partied together in the 90s, the four Generation-Xers are now all struggling with the work-life imbalance familiar to most women in 2017 - trying to hold down a job, a family and have something approaching a life in the slivers in between.
All have done well, in their own, very different, ways, but when Stacey gets made redundant and finds herself caring for her ailing mother and waiting for her successful husband to return from work each night, the ties that bound them begin to unravel…
City Of Friends By Joanna Trollope: Book Extract
The day Stacey Grant lost her job was a Wednesday. Somehow, having Thursday and Friday still to go, in a working week, only added to the shock of what had happened, the violent sense of injustice.
How could this be? How could it? She was, after all, a forty-seven-year-old woman who had been – usefully, commendably – at the same company for sixteen years. Sixteen years! Jeff Dodds, the senior manager who had sacked her, was two years her junior and had joined the company five years after her. He was not, Stacey had repeatedly insisted to her colleagues, a bad person. Despite his habit of sending demanding weekend emails and ringing late at night with urgent requests for feedback, he was only really testing their commitment to the company. He was, she pointed out, almost avuncular in his desire to mentor his teams, to offer advice and guidance. That he didn’t understand the realities of their lives was indeed a blind spot, but not a deliberate cruelty. There were worse managers by far, Stacey had told the rest of the team repeatedly, than Jeff Dodds.
So much, she thought now and savagely, for my loyalty. So much for my sense of stupid fair play. So much for doing the decent sodding thing. The eyes of her colleagues were upon her as she packed the contents of her desk into a cardboard box. A few were mildly gleeful – this was a diversion after all – but most looked stricken and sympathetic. Several had tried to speak to her when she came out of the meeting room with Jeff – ‘How,’ her husband Steve had said, when the move to an open-plan office had first been mooted, ‘do you fire someone in front of everyone else?’ – but she had made it plain that if she opened her mouth at all, it would be to scream. Which, after the brief, excited moment of release, would leave her feeling worse than ever. She had shaken her head, and tried to smile, and headed back to her desk as if an imperious purpose awaited her there. So they watched her, covertly, while she collected up the pitiful domesticity of her working life, and dropped it in a box.
By the lifts, a colleague came running to intercept her. He was openly agitated. The top button of his shirt collar was undone, under the loosened knot of his tie.
‘Too late,’ she said, indicating an arriving lift.
He stepped in front of her, barring the way. ‘I shouldn’t have advised you. I shouldn’t have told you to ask him.’
She stared down at the box in her arms. ‘It wasn’t you.’
‘But I advised you . . .’
She didn’t look up. She found she couldn’t. ‘He had other ideas. Other ideas entirely, Tim. All I did, in the end, was give him the chance to implement them.’
‘I don’t understand. He can’t just sack you for asking to work flexibly, he can’t – it’s against the law.’
Stacey sighed. The box in her arms had suddenly become unbearably heavy.
‘He’s not a monster, Tim,’ she said, sadly. ‘He’s just a dinosaur. He’s got a wife to run his domestic life and his own parents are conveniently dead. He just doesn’t have a clue.’
Another lift pinged its arrival.
‘Please, Stacey . . .’
‘I can’t stay. Not another minute. Not after this.’
‘Please let us take it to another level. Please don’t be so impulsive, whatever he said. Please.’
Stacey stepped into the lift. Her handbag was slipping awkwardly off her shoulder. She turned to face the open door. ‘Just be warned,’ she said.
And then the lift doors slid shut across his unhappy face, and she was borne down to the glass and chrome foyer, where Charlie from Ghana was on reception, absorbed in the football results on his smartphone.
At the top of Ludgate Hill, in the new precinct to the left of St Paul’s Cathedral, Stacey found an empty litterbin. Extracting the few framed photographs from the box, she tipped the rest of the contents into the bin: new packets of tights, sundry redundant cables, energy bars in battered packets, a toothbrush, paperclips, pens, old birthday and Christmas cards, a rubber spider someone had left on her computer screen on April Fools’ Day and a small cascade of other objects which represented, that Wednesday afternoon, happier and more certain times. After the box was emptied, she crammed it down on top of everything it had contained, breaking it in order to fit it into the bin. When she was fourteen, she remembered, and her mother’s brother had left the Royal Air Force, she had stood in the yard behind her modest childhood home and watched him burn his uniform in a galvanized metal dustbin.
‘We don’t do nostalgia,’ her mother had said to Steve when he was Stacey’s fiancé. ‘Not as a family. We don’t do regrets. We don’t look back.’ She’d smiled at him. ‘We can’t afford to.’
Stacey put the photographs – Steve, the dog, Steve and the dog, her mother and the dog – in her bag, and walked across to a coffee shop. She bought a regular cappuccino without chocolate on top, and took it to a seat in St Paul’s Churchyard. There was another woman at the far end of the bench, speaking into her phone in rapid Arabic. Stacey set her coffee down and took her own phone out of her pocket. She had deliberately switched it to mute, in order to avoid having to deal with the aftermath of the afternoon’s drama. Sure enough, there were five missed calls and a flurry of texts from her now ex-colleagues. She wouldn’t, she decided, even look at Twitter. Instead she sent Steve a brief, laconic text to let him know that the meeting was over – ‘I’m out. Tell you later.’ – and then scrolled to her Favourites section. She stared at the list. Steve, Mum, Beth, Melissa and Gaby. All of them but Mum knew that she was seeing Jeff Dodds today. Mum didn’t know because Mum was the reason the interview was necessary. Mum would be furious, livid was her usual word, that Stacey had asked for the unheard of, had asked for flexible hours, had asked for a specific nonlinear period of working, had asked, in short, for a form of employment that contravened the accepted model of the white male competitive system.
‘It’s an outdated model,’ Stacey had said boldly to Jeff Dodds. ‘It doesn’t work.’
He had been smiling at her, and his smile didn’t waver. ‘I can’t agree, Stacey. I see what you’d like to be the case, but I’m afraid you’re whistling in the wind.’
‘I have an excellent track record.’
‘You do indeed.’
‘I’ve brought more investments to this team than anyone.’
‘I wouldn’t dispute that,’ Jeff said, ‘for a single minute.’
‘And I’ll go on doing it. I’ll look after all the companies we’ve bought; they won’t even know I’m not at my office desk all the time. Nothing will suffer workwise. I just need to stagger my hours, work from home more, now that my mother will be there. I bought five businesses with the team, last year, as you know. None of those businesses will suffer; I’ll visit every one every time something needs assessing or sorting. All I’m asking is that I don’t need to be tied to this desk, in this office, all the time. I can go through all the portfolios every six months, just as I always have, but from home.’
Jeff Dodds went on looking at her, went on smiling. Then he leaned forward, put his elbows on the desk, and spoke with quiet unmistakable emphasis. ‘No. Sorry, Stacey, but no.’
She took a breath, to steady herself. ‘Why not?’
Jeff let his smile fade. He ran a hand down his tie. ‘I need someone dedicated to a lockstep career. I need someone who is physically present in this office ten hours a day minimum. I want someone hungry, someone who is at the point of catching their ambition wave.’
She felt a heady rush of fury. ‘So you are prepared to derail someone who is truly valuable to the company for some young guy primarily motivated by money?’
Jeff leaned back again and put the tips of his fingers together. ‘I wouldn’t put it like that—’
‘So the answer’s yes.’
‘Stacey, I really don’t want this to get personal and unpleasant . . .’
‘It is already,’ she said. ‘You can ask a man like you to work a sixty-hour week for years on end because most of them don’t have the bottom line of family responsibilities. They don’t have to think about gender, or race, much either. It’s easier for you, Jeff, isn’t it, to replace me with a man who mightn’t be half as good as I am, than to even try and get your mind round what I’m asking?’
He had let a beat fall, and then he said, ‘I’m not talking about replacement.’
Stacey could hear how unprofessionally urgent her voice had become. She said, trying to rein herself in, trying not to sound triumphant, ‘But you can’t refuse me, Jeff. Not any longer. You can’t refuse my request to work flexibly. It isn’t legal any more to refuse a request for flexible working.’
He looked at her levelly. ‘I’m not,’ he said.
He moved towards her, very slightly, as if bending stiffly from the waist in an absurd kind of seated bow. ‘I’m afraid, Stacey, that we are overmanned at your level. Seriously so. There is no easy way to say this, but I have to lose you. I have, you see – and your coming to me like this is completely random, of course it is – to make you redundant.’
She had felt very little then. It was as if she had been mildly concussed, and was feeling her way back to some kind of reality. She had even allowed him to say several platitudinous things about her contribution to the company, about her ability to be part of a team, even how much they would miss her. And then he said that long drawn-out departures were very destructive both for the departing employee and for team morale, and she found herself agreeing – agreeing! – in a blaze of fury and despair, almost knocking over her chair as she got to her feet and waving away his suggestion that he should call her a taxi.
‘I don’t want a taxi.’
It was such a small gesture of defiance, she thought now, that it didn’t even count. It had barely registered with Jeff. He had even held his hand out, giving her the chance to stare at it, as if she had never seen a hand before, ignore it, and then walk out past him and back to her desk, while everyone watched her, and those who were on the telephone dropped their voices respectfully, as if they were at a funeral. It had been conspicuous behaviour of a kind she had despised all her life, and taken trouble to avoid at all costs. She was, through and through, a team member, an enabler, an accommodator, a diplomat.
But now, and dramatically, there wasn’t a team. There was Steve, and the dog – thank the Lord for the dog – and there was Mum. Stacey looked up at the soaring east front of the cathedral, newly cleaned and almost theatrical in size and splendour. Mum. Mum, who had battled for Stacey all her childhood, urging her into the kind of education she had never known herself, confronting teachers and social workers and forceful relations of her dead father’s, to keep Stacey focused on learning to stand on her own two feet, fight her own corner, never even to consider being the kind of person who is dependent upon – and thus vulnerable to – others. When Stacey brought Steve home, Mum’s first reaction was that he was a lovely boy, but not enough of a personality, not ambitious enough, not sizeable enough for Stacey. But as time went on, she had come to see what Stacey had seen from the start, that there couldn’t be two hungry people in a close relationship without there being a dangerous competitiveness, too. Steve was, from the beginning, on Stacey’s side. Even when he disagreed with her, he’d acknowledge she had a point. Mum had taken Steve in, not as a rival she would tame over time, but as part of Stacey’s life. You couldn’t fault Mum for giving Stacey confidence, the confidence that had ended in her becoming a senior partner in a FTSE top-250-listed private equity company, well before she was fifty.
A senior partner who was now sitting on a bench in St Paul’s Churchyard holding a phone and a cooling takeaway cup of coffee and facing being unemployed. Unemployed! Without a job. Nearly thirty years of always – effortlessly, it seemed – having a job, and now there abruptly wasn’t one. She had gone to Jeff Dodds to suggest a different work schedule because of Mum’s situation, and he, as senior manager of three teams in the company, had told her, in so many words, that he was grateful to her for giving him the opportunity he needed to make her redundant. He wouldn’t replace her, he would simply turn her team into a more junior malleable collection of people whom he could mould in his own image.
She took a mouthful of coffee. It was lukewarm now, and thin tasting. She set the cup down under the bench she was sitting on. Pure habit, anyway, buying coffee. A kind of knee jerk reflex. A displacement activity. Jeff Dodds was where he was because he had pulled off a huge coup within two years of joining the company, buying an ailing farm machinery farm and selling it, for five times what the company had paid for it, only three years later. For a while, he’d been admiringly nicknamed Tractor Dodds. He would, Stacey thought bitterly, rest on those old laurels all his career. He’d been promoted, up and up, whizzing past people who had, in fact, made more for the company over the years than he had made in one hit. But it was a spectacular hit, showy. And the result was that he was still in a top job in the company which she had given a third of her whole life to, and she was instead sitting unemployed on a public bench in her work suit and heels which were now, suddenly, as sartorially irrelevant as fancy dress.
Because of Mum. Mum, said the specialist they had seen together at University College Hospital, had subcortical vascular dementia. It was bad luck, he said, as she was not diabetic and had never had high blood pressure and was not a smoker. She was probably, he thought, at about stage three, four possibly, so it wasn’t acute yet, but it might become so. The damage to the tiny blood vessels deep in the brain was irreversible and progressive and unfortunately the cholinesterase inhibitors that were often effective for people with Alzheimer’s disease were no use for this type of dementia.
‘We might try donepezil hydrochloride,’ he said, as if suggesting an analgesic for a headache. ‘But the trouble is, vascular dementia isn’t a single disease. It’s a syndrome or group of syndromes, related to cerebrovascular disease in itself.’ He’d glanced at Mum. ‘It isn’t,’ he said, and there was no way of knowing if this was good or bad, ‘a mixed dementia.’
Mum had been very quiet on the way home. Stacey had held her hand, even though she made initial attempts to pull it away, and stared straight ahead, at the glass partition that divided the taxi driver from his passengers.
‘At least it’s got a name,’ Stacey said. ‘At least we know what’s been the matter the last couple of years.’
Mum said nothing. Her expression was wooden. She said nothing all the way back to the flat in Holloway where she had lived ever since Stacey and Steve were married, and only when the cab stopped outside her block did she speak.
‘What if I’m a nuisance?’Next chapter
‘Typical,’ Stacey said to Steve that night. ‘Typical. It’s all she could think about. Here we are, reeling from having the diagnosis confirmed, and all she can say is will she be a nuisance? After she’d made a fuss about taking a taxi rather than the bus.’
Steve was polishing the wine glasses they’d used. Usually, they only had wine at weekends but this evening, after the visit to the specialist, had not been usual in any way, and Steve had opened a bottle without asking. And now, characteristically meticulous about such things, he was polishing the glasses they had used with an Irish linen tea towel. ‘I know what you want to do, Stace.’
She looked down at the dog. He lay at her feet, on the newish limestone flags, but although he was lying down, he was alert to her mood as he always was.
‘Bruno,’ she said affectionately.
His ears cocked at once, but he didn’t move. He was such an odd dog, a rescued mixture of umpteen breeds, black and shaggy with a nature as compliant as his exterior was unorthodox. They had found him at a dogs’ home, seven months old and sitting patiently on his bottom, staring, and straining to be noticed. It was painful, Stacey often thought, to love an animal so much.
‘Do you know what I want?’ she said to Bruno. ‘Do you know what I feel I should do?’
‘He does,’ Steve said. He put the polished glasses down and flipped the tea towel over his shoulder. ‘And so do I.’
She looked across at him. ‘It’ll change everything,’ she said. ‘It’ll alter everything about our lives if she comes here.’
‘There isn’t an alternative.’
‘We’ve got the space.’
‘Bruno’ll love it. Having someone here all the time.’
‘Oh, Steve . . .’
‘I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to.’
‘I know.’ He paused. Then he said, ‘What about work?’
She put a foot out and prodded Bruno. He rolled over onto his back, displaying a greyish belly covered in wayward tufts of black fur.
‘Work!’ Stacey said. She’d given a short laugh. And then she said, rubbing Bruno’s belly with her stockinged feet, ‘Don’t worry about work. I’ll sort that. In my mind, I already have. I’m going to ask for flexible hours. They’ll never refuse me. They can’t. They’re not allowed to any more.’
The girls had assured her that work wouldn’t refuse her either. The girls. Well, they were none of them remotely girls any more, they were women: capable, high-earning, professional women. But they had known each other since university, since that first term of being the only girls in a lecture room of men, reading economics. Only Melissa had actually intended to read economics. The others, Stacey included, had started out with ideas of history, and Spanish, and political theory, and had been drawn to economics because it was a new department, and the senior lecturer was possessed of an infectious enthusiasm and eloquence, and the idea of economics had had a heady dash of rule-breaking in it, as a subject for girls.
So they had been a conspicuous minority, the four of them, Melissa and Stacey, Gaby and Beth, and that minority had slowly segued into a companionship which became a friendship, and then a firm friendship which was, Stacey sometimes thought, better than the relationship she might have had with some non-existent sister. They saw each other through their annual exams, then their final exams (only Melissa got a first-class degree) and then through boyfriends and a few fiancés, and a couple of marriages, Gaby’s time in New York, Beth telling them, as if they hadn’t known already, that she was gay. And the relationships produced some children, and running alongside and behind it all was the steady, strong, highly coloured landscape of their careers, all on a constant upward trajectory, Gaby out-earning her husband, Melissa starting her own company, Beth a professor in a field she had almost invented, the psychology of business.
Even when they couldn’t meet, they rang each other, or texted, or tweeted. The inevitable crossed wires of their twenties and thirties had mellowed into a much less judge mental support system in their forties. They knew about Stacey’s mum. They discussed and advised on Stacey’s solution to her work dilemma. They knew, all three of them, that on Wednesday afternoon, Stacey would be working out some pattern for her future with Jeff Dodds. What they did not know – and anxious messages and texts on her phone indicated that they wanted to – was that she was sitting on a bench like any old unemployed person, having, she was now queasily realizing, simply lost her temper.
Had she, in fact, got nobody to blame but herself ? Had she, for once – possibly for the first time in her life – let her temper get the better of her? If she had worked through a definite, timetabled schedule, even of a gradual and dignified departure, and parked it under Jeff Dodds’ unimaginative nose, might she still be in that office, and not on a public bench in a public space with a chaotic-looking man digging through a nearby litterbin and stuffing discarded sandwich crusts into his mouth? Had she, in fact, managed to engineer her own downfall, after decades of rescuing other people, in a business sense, from theirs?
She glanced at her phone again. There were appeals from the girls, from her ex-colleagues, a text from Steve saying with uncharacteristic imperiousness, ‘Call me.’ She couldn’t. She couldn’t call anyone. She couldn’t communicate with anybody right then, having somehow succeeded in separating herself from everyone and everything she knew by what had happened, by what she had done. Or not done. She wondered if she should stand up. She wondered if she could stand up. Was this a panic attack? Was this what panic attacks felt like? Was this what Mum felt when she tried to reach for a word that wasn’t there any more, or remember whether she had had breakfast, let alone what she’d eaten, if she had? She leaned forward, gripping the edge of the bench, and stared at the ground. God, she thought, am I losing my mind? Is this what happens when you lose your job?
It occurred to her, suddenly, that she had almost stopped breathing. She must breathe. She knew that if you clenched your teeth and held your breath, nothing worked, not your body, not your mind. You couldn’t think, if you weren’t breathing. But she couldn’t seem to breathe, she couldn’t let go of the grip of her muscles. She closed her eyes. Pant, she thought, like Bruno. Little breaths, short breaths. Just through the nose to start with. Then deeper, just a little deeper, pushing into those lungs, just a little way—
‘You OK?’ someone said.
She nodded. Her eyes were still shut. There was no breath to speak with.
‘You want to throw up?’ the voice said. It was female, and foreign.
Stacey shook her head.
‘I got water,’ the woman said. ‘You want water?’
Her breath was coming easier now, not all the way down to her lungs but easier. She opened her eyes a little. The woman who had been speaking in Arabic at the other end of the bench was holding out a plastic bottle of water towards her.
Stacey smiled and gestured a no thank you.
‘You had a shock on your phone?’ the woman asked. She was wearing a headscarf decorated around its edge with tiny silver discs. ‘These phones bring more bad news than good. That’s for sure.’
Stacey made a huge effort. ‘Just – not a good day.’
The woman stowed her water bottle away in an immense old cloth bag on the bench beside her.
‘I have those every day.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Stacey said, automatically.
The woman regarded her. ‘Nice bag. Nice shoes.’
‘Troubles don’t care about nice things.’
To her abrupt relief, Stacey found that she could stand up. She seemed to be breathing again, too. She said, ‘Thank you for asking. And for offering the water. Thank you.’
The woman looked straight ahead of her. ‘I didn’t get that job.’
‘They said . . .’ She flapped an arm. ‘No. They didn’t say. But I knew. Wrong person. Wrong clothes.’ She glanced at Stacey’s handbag. ‘Wrong bag. Place filled, they said. Already taken. But I knew.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Only filling shelves. Evening job. Filling shelves.’
Stacey shifted a little on her heels. ‘It isn’t easy, is it?’
‘Not for me,’ the woman said, staring ahead again.
‘Nor me, actually.’
The woman glanced at her again. ‘You got a home to go to?’
‘Well, yes . . .’
The woman raised a hand and shook her forefinger at Stacey. ‘You go there, then.’
‘But will you—’
The woman made a silencing gesture and indicated the phone lying in the capacious folds of her lap. ‘I going to ring my daughter. Tell her. I tell my sons and my husband. Now I tell my daughter.’
‘You’ll be OK?’
The woman picked up her phone. ‘I get by,’ she said. ‘You do the same. You go home and get by.’
Every morning and evening, since they had moved to Islington ten years before, Stacey had caught the number 4 bus down to work. It had been an especial pleasure, somehow, to be on public transport dressed for a City office, tidy brown bob smoothly in place, among people of the same kind altogether. The bus ride had been, even in the rain, a brief breath of another air, a piquant alternative to the intense preoccupations of a working day, and a pause before she arrived home to Steve and Bruno, and Steve’s beloved jazz playing more often than not, and a feeling, kicking off her shoes in the hall, that she had, in every sense, earned this downtime.
Approaching the house now, from the alley through from Almeida Street, she found herself anticipating, almost imagining, an entirely other homecoming. She would have to recount what had happened, of course she would, but then she would move on, almost briskly. She would start planning, both her own future and Mum’s, she would not allow Steve to be sorry for her, or rant about Jeff Dodds, or offer to be some kind of knight in shining armour. The past, she told herself on the bus journey among tired people reading free copies of the evening paper, was the past now, and that was where it was staying. Beth lived with a headhunter for goodness’ sake, so where better to start the next chapter than with Claire? ‘You get by,’ the woman on the bench had said to her, making it sound like an instruction. ‘You go home and get by.’ Well, she would do just that, and more. Steve would only be permitted a very brief expression of outraged sympathy, and then the subject would be firmly closed.
As she crossed the square towards the terrace of houses in which she lived, it struck her that her own house did not look like a house in mourning. It was late September, and far from dark, but lights were on, on all floors, and it looked very much as if Steve had even lit the candles in the huge glass storm lanterns that stood in the sitting-room windows. She was very touched. How lovely of him, to read her like this, to understand that for her, if one door in her life slammed shut, it would only mean that another – and probably better – one would shortly open. He was, she thought gratefully and with a surge of optimism, treating this whole episode as worthy of celebration.
She put her key into the door and let herself in. Bruno, waiting for her three feet inside the hall as he always was, went into his usual ecstatic ritual of welcome, forbidden to jump up, so squirming rapturously on the floor round her feet, his tail pounding the flagstones.
She stooped to caress him. ‘Hello, Bruno, hello, lovely boy, ooh I’ve missed you, aren’t you good, aren’t you gorgeous, who is my own—’
‘Hi!’ Steve shouted from the basement.
‘Come on down!’ he shouted. ‘Come down here!’
‘Goodness,’ Stacey said to Bruno, ‘what a day of surprises. What’s going on?’
Bruno sprang to his feet and raced towards the basement stairs, then tore back again to herd her down in front of him. There were candles on the basement stairs and a blaze of them on the kitchen table, clustered round an ice bucket and two champagne glasses on the silver tray Stacey had been given by a cattle ear-tag company whom she had rescued from oblivion and sold, at considerable profit, to Argentina.
She looked at Steve, smiling, and put her hand out. ‘You’re amazing,’ she said. ‘Are we – are we celebrating?’
He came across the room and seized her in his arms. It occurred to her, randomly and perhaps unfairly, that he’d been drinking already. He had on a smile so broad that it almost split his face.
‘We sure are, sweetheart,’ he said. ‘I’ve been promoted!’ Next chapter
Melissa’s son, Tom, was standing in front of the fridge in their basement kitchen. It was an impressive American-style fridge of brushed stainless steel, with double doors, both of which were open, while Tom ate salami and potato salad and blueberries straight from their plastic containers with his fingers.
He was a handsome boy, with thick hair and bad skin. Melissa spent a lot of time and money on Tom’s skin, which had begun to erupt a year before, when he was fourteen, to the point where she frequently wondered if it troubled her far more than it did him. He was wearing his games socks, tartan boxer shorts and his school pink football shirt, and there were some streaks of mud on his bare legs. His striped school tie and dark uniform trousers were slung over the back of an Italian-designed kitchen chair.
She dropped her handbag emphatically onto the table. ‘Darling.’
‘Hi.’ He didn’t turn round. He had a gobbet of potato salad balanced on his forefinger.
‘A spoon, perhaps? Or even a plate?’
Tom put the potato salad in his mouth and sucked his finger. Then he peeled off three more slices of salami, dropped the rest of the packet on top of the punnet of blueberries, and slammed the fridge doors shut. ‘Don’t need one.’
Melissa tried not to notice the smears left by Tom’s fingers on the doors of the fridge.
‘But I would like you to try and be a bit more civilized, darling. Aren’t you even going to say hello?’
He grinned and rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth. Then he padded across the room and planted a garlic-scented kiss on her cheek. ‘Hi, Ma.’
She looked at his shirt. ‘Football this afternoon?’
‘Hockey,’ he said. ‘At which I am total rubbish.’
‘Why do you play, then? Did you sign up for it?’
He shrugged. ‘Dunno,’ he said. ‘Can’t remember.’
‘I’m sure you’re not total rubbish.’
‘The Indians are amazing. Three in my year. They are – wow.’
Melissa took off her jacket and hung it neatly on the back of a second chair. She had asked Tom that morning if he liked her dress, and he had peered at her, headphones on, from the planet of heavy metal music that he currently inhabited, and said, ‘I dunno. They’re all black.’
‘But different. Different black.’
He’d turned up the volume by way of reply, smiling at her to ward off further engagement. His teeth were perfect, she’d seen to that, at a stage in Tom’s life when he was definitely more biddable than he seemed to be now. She only – and only ever had – wanted the best for him. It was increasingly hard, however, to get him to want it to any meaningful degree, for himself.
He lunged forward now, unexpectedly, and dropped a second clumsy kiss somewhere near her right cheekbone. ‘Can I have some money?’
‘Ma . . .’
‘You’ve had your allowance for this week. It’s only Wednesday. Anyway—’
‘I would like us to have supper together tonight.’
She looked at him. ‘Because I want the company.’
He put a finger into his mouth to dislodge some salami from his teeth. ‘Why?’
‘I need to be distracted from being worried about Stacey. I don’t think Stacey has had a very good day.’
‘Well,’ Tom said, inspecting his finger, ‘ring her.’
‘She’s not picking up. I’ve left umpteen messages. So have Gaby and Beth. I’ve spoken to both of them. None of us can get hold of her.’
‘Tell you what,’ Tom said, suddenly galvanized by an idea. ‘Let’s drive over there and find her.’
Melissa sat down on the chair where she had hung her jacket. ‘I thought of that.’
‘Well, come on then!’
‘You’ve got homework.’
‘Stuff that. I’ve always got homework.’
‘And anyway . . .’
‘I can never decide what I should or shouldn’t tell you.’ She looked up at him. ‘Even after all these years together.’
He said, helpfully, ‘I should tell me. I can always blank you if I don’t want to know.’
She laughed. ‘Too right!’
Tom gestured at the fridge. ‘Glass of wine?’
‘No, thank you.’
He perched on the table next to her. The mud on his thigh was flaking off as it dried, brownish grey and matte. ‘Tom . . .’
‘I think Stacey may have lost her job today.’
‘Wow,’ Tom said respectfully. And then, almost at once, ‘But she’ll get another one.’
‘It doesn’t quite work like that. It’s a most terrible blow to your morale if the end of a job is someone else’s decision, not yours. Stacey has worked in that company since before you were born. In fact, she got the job almost the same time that I found I was pregnant.’
‘Didn’t you mean to be?’
‘Pregnant. You said “found”.’
‘Yes. Yes, I did. I definitely wanted to be pregnant.’
‘But,’ Tom said, ‘Stacey didn’t.’
‘I don’t think Stacey has ever wanted to be pregnant.’ Tom got off the table with sudden energy. ‘I know!’
‘Ring Steve. Steve’ll know.’
Melissa spread her hands out on the table and looked at her rings. A signet ring on the little finger of her left hand and a slender band of diamonds on the third finger of her right. No wedding ring. There had never been a wedding ring. That’s what happened when the only person you had ever really wanted to ask you had married someone else.
She said slowly, ‘I don’t think I can ring Steve.’
‘Because, darling, this has turned out to be a very complicated day. It might – actually, I think it is – the day that Stacey lost her job, but it’s also the day, quite by chance, that Steve got a promotion.’
Melissa gave a little sigh. ‘I knew about Steve’s promotion.’
‘I don’t get it,’ Tom said. He was pulling off his socks.
‘Please don’t, darling, not in here.’
‘Why wouldn’t that cheer Stacey up?’
‘It’s complicated,’ Melissa said, again. ‘You see, I knew about Steve’s promotion because I recommended it. His company was one of my clients.’
Tom straightened up, holding a sock. His bare foot was a wonderful thing, Melissa thought; if only the nails had been clean.
‘Oh my God. So you didn’t tell Stacey?’
‘No. It was going to be a surprise. If she didn’t get what she had asked for at work, Steve thought the blow would be softened if there was at least some good news from him. It was what he wanted.’
‘But, Stacey is your friend.’
‘Ma,’ Tom said seriously. ‘That is not good.’
‘What were you thinking?’
‘I don’t know,’ Melissa said. ‘I feel awful. I suppose I went along with what Steve wanted. I can’t – I can’t have been thinking straight.’
‘You helped Steve?’
‘I recommended him. I recommended him to the board while I was reconfiguring them. I wasn’t wrong. He’ll be good.’
Tom dropped his sock. ‘But you should have told him you’d have to tell Stacey.’
She looked up at him. ‘Sometimes I think I’ve done an OK job in bringing you up, after all.’
He glanced at the fridge again. ‘Hadn’t you better have that wine?’Next chapter
Melissa had been named for her father’s mother, a girl from Athens her grandfather had met in Cairo, in 1943, during the Second World War. She’d had a job with the exiled Greek government, and Melissa Hathaway’s grandfather persuaded her to follow him to England in 1945, after the war was over. Family lore insisted that the original Melissa had never come to terms with living in England, especially bleak, hungry, exhausted postwar England, and she had made several thwarted attempts to take her two little boys back to Athens, encouraged by her own family who had found her choice of husband incomprehensible. But, apart from a month each summer, she was doomed to England, and to a life in the North West whose beauty she was unable to admire through the constant sheets of rain. Her outrage at finding chilblains on her toes in winter became the stuff of family legend. She lived long enough to see her eldest son married – to a young doctor, from Hull – and to know that his first baby, a daughter, would be named for her: a second, and English, Melissa.
Melissa’s father was reticent about his Greek mother. He was as dark as she had been, but displayed no sign of her temperament in his own. He was an excellent mathematician, hugely supportive of his daughters’ cleverness, and, having married a professional himself, keen that they should exploit that cleverness to the full.
‘You’ve only failed,’ he’d say to his two daughters, ‘if you haven’t had a go.’
Melissa and her sister both went to the local grammar school and then on to London University, her sister to read classics and Melissa, at a different college, economics. And there, in a lecture room full of men, she saw three other girls, not sitting together, but not in any way appearing defensive, and approached the nearest one to ask if she might sit next to her.
The girl was small and blonde, with enormous horn rimmed spectacles, which she was later to explain were only for show.
‘Course,’ the girl said, and then added, as if the information might be crucial in such a male-dominated environment, ‘I’m Gaby.’ She moved slightly to her right, making a polite but unnecessary space.
‘Thank you.’ Melissa sat down and then held out her hand. ‘Melissa.’
‘It means honey bee. In Greek.’
‘Mine – I mean Gabrielle – means Woman of God, in French. I mean, honestly!’ Gaby gave a little snort. ‘What were they thinking? We are so completely not French.’ She regarded Melissa. Her eyes were magnified by her spectacles to the size of soup plates, round and blue. She said conspiratorially, ‘Did you mean to be here?’
‘Well, yes, I’m reading economics, I applied to—’
‘I should be in a Spanish lecture,’ Gaby said. ‘But I couldn’t stand the sight of them. All women students and not a lecturer under a hundred. But look at this room. Just look at it.’
‘Are – are you here for the boys, then?’
‘I’m here,’ Gaby said, ‘for the fun. They said I’ve got a brain but I won’t let that hold me back for a second.’ She glanced at Melissa again and winked. ‘Has anyone ever called you Melissa the Kisser?’
Gaby turned out to be almost everything her appearance and demeanour indicated that she was not. She was quick and sharp and ambitious, and was, she said, as their friend ship developed over shared meals and cups of coffee, the first of her family to go to university.
‘They despise cleverness, really. My mother’d live in a gypsy caravan with bells on her toes if she could. They’re all very sorry for me, being here – they think it’s really sad. My sister’s at circus school and that they really get. What about you?’
‘Behind me all the way. My mother’s always worked.’
‘Yes. Lucky me.’
‘Hold on to the luck,’ Gaby said. ‘Hold on to it, until you’ve got your first job. You won’t need it so much after that. Shall I tell you something?’ She leaned forward, across the cafe table where they were sitting, and breathed into Melissa’s ear. ‘I want to make money. Lots and lots of money. I don’t want to marry it, I want to make it.’ She pulled back. ‘What about you?’
Melissa glanced across the room and then she looked back at Gaby. ‘I just want to do something – a job – really, really well.’
Gaby stared at her. ‘You are lucky, aren’t you?’ she said. ‘You seriously are.’
The luck held through eight terms of university, and even, academically speaking, through nine. When she sat the final exams, for which she would get her first-class degree, Melissa believed, briefly as it turned out, that Jack Mallory was as smitten with her as she was with him. He was a postgraduate student, with a sports car, a vintage MG, and enough private income to behave as if money was no preoccupation whatsoever. He was funny and clever and well-connected and careless. He was also, Melissa discovered, random and unprincipled. But, with all his profound drawbacks, he could still light up a room for her like no one else, and it took years of her new London life to persuade her that any other man could electrify the moment the way Jack Mallory had done.
So when she met a mercurial theatre producer during a stint working for the BBC, she was looking for someone else who knew how to illuminate the mundane. Connor Corbett was ten years her senior, miraculously unmarried, childless, compelling and energetic. He had a house in Hampstead, full of books and wine bottles, and wore long mufflers and loose linen shirts with the cuffs undone, and was as good at being alone with her as he was in the centre of a party. He gave her books, he gave her flowers, he gave her an antique ring with a cabochon emerald, which he slid onto the third finger of her right hand, he took her to Italy and New York and the street in Athens where her grandmother had grown up. She went with him to endless first nights, to late dinners with famous actors and actresses, to weekends in astonishing houses, and she waited, as her upbringing had trained her to wait, for him to propose.
It was perfectly reasonable, after all, to expect it. He wanted children – he said so, frequently. He loved her – he said that too, even more often. He was proud of her, he said; he urged her to leave the BBC for a better job at Time Warner and then a better job still as the media consultant in the Corporate Finance Department of a renowned City merchant bank. When she was thirty and he took her to Paris, she bought almost an entire new wardrobe in anticipation of returning as Connor’s fiancée, and only just managed to prevent herself buying a man’s watch in order to have something to give him, when he gave her the ring.
But he didn’t. Instead, he took her to Chez Georges, which he had always faintly ridiculed, and plied her with food and wine, and told her, holding her hands and looking directly into her eyes, that they were, as a couple, over.
‘You’re too good for me, Melissa. I mean that literally. I can’t be me while I’m with you. I can’t live in your shadow and I can’t hold you back while your shadow gets magnificently longer and longer. Do you see? Do you?’
She had gone back to London, alone, first thing the next morning. She left all her hopeful new clothes in Paris and went home in what she stood up in, carrying just her hand bag. She returned to her proudly acquired Kensington cottage, and closed the door and all the blinds and curtains, and at last let herself go. Only after three days did she telephone Gaby and Beth and Stacey to tell them what had happened.
Stacey said that she had feared as much and the only way was forward. Beth was extremely sympathetic but said that she, too, wasn’t much surprised. Gaby said, ‘D’you want me to hunt him down and kill him?’ which made her, for the first time in almost a week, laugh.
Two months later, on the grapevine of human gossip that ensures that the bliss of ignorance is seldom permitted to anyone, Melissa heard that Connor Corbett was married. He had married a friend of his much younger sister’s, a sweet faced, domesticated friend whom Connor had known since her childhood, and whom he had described to Melissa as being like a fondly tolerated family pet: constantly in the household and mostly only mildly in the way. The top floor of the bookish Hampstead house was apparently being turned into a nursery with sensible bars on the windows and cloud scenes painted on the ceilings.
Melissa waited for the news to devastate her. Gaby came round with champagne – ‘Shock medicine. The only thing.’ – and was amazed when Melissa, dry eyed, declined it.
‘I’m – I’m fine. I don’t know how or why. But I’m fine.’
‘She’s free,’ Beth said. ‘She’s liberated. She doesn’t need to be validated by anyone but herself.’
It was to Beth that she then took the idea she’d had for her own business, a business that would take a long, hard discerning look at company boards and tell them where their strengths and their weaknesses lay, and who of the constituent members needed to be changed. It was a business that required, in essence, nobody but herself and an assistant, a business that would make no money in the early years, which she intended to nance from her lucrative time in the City. Beth and Stacey and Gaby would all provide her with initial contacts, as well as those already known to her. She would call the company Hathaway, after herself, to keep the kind of consultation it represented as discreet as possible. She was fired by an astonishing energy, as if the closing of one set of floodgates had released a perfect storm of water elsewhere. Hathaway was born in Melissa’s spare bedroom in the cottage she lived in then, its front garden a beguiling tangle of jasmine and clematis, in Gordon Place, behind Kensington High Street.
Not much more than a year later, there was Tom. Tom was entirely unplanned, unintended, the result of a lavish French holiday courtesy of the chairman of one of Melissa’s first clients, who invited her to his house near Aix-en-Provence. There were couples and there were people on their own, and among the latter was a newly divorced barrister who reminded Melissa of Jack Mallory and was quietly delightful company. When the week in the chairman’s house was over, the two of them repaired together to a hotel in Aix itself for three nights, a period Melissa remembered for its extraordinary absence of anxiety. It was the first time in her emotional life that she had ever felt no desire or need, whatsoever, to plan.
Pregnancy, of course, demanded some planning. Just because it was unexpected didn’t mean it was unwanted. Before she was pregnant, Melissa had fantasized about a brood of clever children in the Hampstead house with Connor. But it had, most definitely, been fantasy, a dreamy picturing of something that her rational self told her would never work out like that. Now, actually pregnant by a man she liked but did not love, who said that keeping the baby was entirely her decision and that he would be an interested but not hands-on father, was the stuff of reality rather than dreams, and this had to be confronted and planned for. There was room for a baby in Gordon Place. There was – just – enough money for a nanny. The two significant clients she had started with had grown to five, with three more applications for her services. She invited Beth and Stacey and Gaby round to Gordon Place, produced the champagne that Gaby had brought after the episode with Connor, and explained, as if announcing that she had just won the lottery, why she would not be drinking it herself.
It was then, in the hubbub of their joint reaction, that Stacey had raised her own glass.
‘And I can tell you, I can tell you now—’
‘What, Stace? You’re not pregnant too?’
‘No,’ she said. Her face was shining. ‘Absolutely no. I’d only want puppies anyway, not a baby, me. But I just heard, I just heard yesterday. I got the job!’
Tom was not supposed – rather than forbidden – to have screens in his bedroom. It was no longer the bedroom of his babyhood in Gordon Place, but the whole of the low ceilinged but luxuriously separate attic floor of the house he and Melissa had moved a few yards to, in Holland Street, when he was six and Hathaway was firmly and lucratively established. It was the end of a flat-fronted white stucco Kensington terrace, with only a patio behind it, but Kensington Gardens was five minutes away and round the corner was a charming alley of eccentric small shops.
When they initially moved to Holland Street, Tom slept on the first floor, next to his mother’s room. But when he was twelve, the whole top floor was made into an adolescent dream space, with navy blue walls at Tom’s request, and a walk-in shower. His bedroom, at the back of the house, contained the size of bed that had accommodated Melissa’s parents together, all their married lives. Tom was propped up on one elbow in it, with his iPad open, elaborately unperturbed. He had prepared an argument to counter his mother’s inevitable objection, which reasoned that a rule imposed when he was eleven could not rationally be supposed to apply to someone four years older, at fifteen.
But Melissa didn’t object. She came in, still in her black work dress but with stockinged feet, and sat down on the edge of his bed. He affected not to notice that she was there even though it was impossible not to be acutely aware of her gaze, a gratifying if sometimes overwhelming look of adoration slightly sharpened with exasperation. He strove not to look up, but silence was impossible.
‘Your teeth, perhaps? Your hair, certainly.’
‘What is the point,’ Tom said, swiping his finger rapidly across his iPad, ‘of brushing your hair just before it gets all bed-hairy anyway?’
‘OK,’ Melissa said. ‘Compromise. Teeth, then.’
‘In a sec.’
‘Thank you for this evening.’
He sighed. ‘Nothing to thank me for.’
‘You listened. You were there.’
Tom yawned. ‘You got a bit rattled. That’s all.’ He abruptly flipped the cover of the iPad down and said, apropos of nothing they had talked about all evening, ‘Oh, I saw Dad today.’
Melissa was startled. ‘Your father?’
‘Yup.’ Tom sat up a little. ‘At the hockey. He came to watch the hockey.’
‘He started coming a year ago when Marnie went into year twelve at school.’
‘Marnie? Your school?’
Tom looked up at her briefly. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You know. The daughter he had when he was married before me. She started in the sixth form at school. She’s year thirteen now. She’s quite cool.’
Melissa strove not to sound agitated. ‘Tom, darling. Why didn’t you say? Why didn’t you tell me that he’d been coming to school for a year?’
Tom looked at the ceiling, then at the far wall, and then at his knees, under the duvet. Then he said, ‘Dunno.’
‘Do – do you talk to him?’
Tom shrugged. ‘Not really. Yes. He’s OK. He – we talk about Arsenal and stuff. Sometimes the kids come.’
‘The kids he had after me. Boys. They’re at school somewhere else. They’re just little kids. Well, quite little. They’re good fun.’
Melissa straightened up again. ‘Marnie was only a baby when – when I met Dad. I know he’s always remembered birthdays and things, but I thought he – he was rather wonderfully leaving me alone to bring you up the way I wanted to.’
Tom examined a torn cuticle with tremendous attention. ‘He kind of said that, too.’
‘He said – um – he said he did think that for ages, and now he thinks he was wrong.’
‘Wrong? Does he think I’ve done such a bad—’
‘No!’ Tom said. ‘No. He thinks it’s him who’s been bad. He says he thinks he’s neglected me. Well, he has. I didn’t contradict him.’
‘Goodness,’ Melissa said faintly. ‘Will Gibbs turns up again after all these years of doing nothing but sending round the odd present and money here and there for tennis coaching and tells you, without telling me, that he thinks he hasn’t been much of a father. And you let him know you agree.’
‘He said you wanted to pay for stuff yourself.’
‘He’s right,’ Melissa said. ‘I did. I do. I’m just – gobsmacked that you’ve been seeing him for over a year and never saw fit to tell me.’
‘I am telling you,’ Tom said patiently. ‘I was always going to. I—’
Tom sighed again. ‘I didn’t mean to. After all the Stacey stuff.’
Melissa reached out and put a hand on his arm. ‘Darling, you always come before Stacey. You come before everyone as far as I’m concerned. You know that.’
‘That’s why . . .’
‘That’s why what?’
Tom took a deep breath and slid down in the bed. ‘That’s why I’d like to try what Dad suggested.’
‘What did Dad suggest?’
‘He said – well, he and Marnie said, why didn’t I go to theirs one night a week, and have supper with everyone and stay over.’
He slid down a little further, pulling the duvet up to his chin, and then he added, in a lower voice, ‘Like a family. They said. They said one night a week I could have a family. At theirs.’ Next chapter
When Gaby was twenty-one, not long after she had obtained her solid but unremarkable second-class degree in economics, she abandoned London, apparently on impulse, for New York. It seemed as if one week she was there, complaining noisily about the dreary calibre of jobs on offer in London for women economics graduates, and the next she was ringing round to say that she was packing her bags for America.
Melissa was immediately anxious about the practicalities. ‘But, Gaby, what will you live on? I mean, have you got a job? And where will you stay? What about a green card?’
Stacey, newly in a relationship with Steve and doing her trainee accountancy at a firm in the City that prided itself on both encouraging and mentoring the women on its qualifications programmes, thought she was mad. ‘But what for? Why not be part of pioneering here? Why go where you won’t know anybody and where they put dessert jelly in chicken salads?’
It was Beth who said to the others, ‘I think it’s because of her family.’
It was, Gaby said later, almost entirely because of her family. At the time, she was consumed, quite simply, with a desire to flee and it was only looking back that she could pinpoint the reason for her almost frantic sense of self-preserving urgency. Gaby’s family, in their ramshackle farmhouse in the Black Mountains above Abergavenny, were not unkind, or unloving or even unsupportive in any way that might be traditionally considered destructive, but they had their own immovable, unshakeable creed of unconventionality that was utterly unable to embrace other choices. In their view, after three years of sterile conformity at London University, Gaby was free at last to come home and surrender to the wild. Wild, carefree days and wilder nights. Woodsmoke and mystery and bonfires in the dark offering matchless opportunities to dance round the flames, in the rain, with bare feet and flying hair. Gaby would at last return to the magic of her childhood which had, like all elemental things, been merely sleeping until she came home.
The only thing to do, Gaby explained, when the others visited her in New York, was to get the hell out of it. It wasn’t that her family didn’t understand so much as that they couldn’t hear her in the first place. The only solution was to pack and go. And of course she had a job to go to. She would never have embarked on such an adventure without a plan; that was something her childhood had taught her, if only by contrast. She had followed up a lead from one of the American companies that had toured their university department in the final year, looking for high-calibre recruits, and she was going to be a trainee analyst at an old-fashioned New York securities house. They gave her a six-month trial, and initial accommodation in a company apartment in Midtown, which was not sleek or up-to-date glamorous, but old-style New York, with grimy net curtains and cockroaches scuttling across the kitchen and bathroom floors after dark.
‘But I’m free,’ Gaby reported, ‘I’m free. And the Americans seem to like me. They like me being high energy and they don’t seem to mind that I have the attention span of a midge. In fact, they seem to think I’m worth investing in. They want me to do an MBA.’
In January of 1992, when she was twenty-five, Gaby embarked on a fulltime, sixteen-month course at Columbia University, paid for by her employers. During that year and a half, the others went out, together or separately, to see her, coming back with varying degrees of restlessness, envy, incomprehension and brown bags of shopping from Bloomingdale’s. Gaby loved New York. She had even begun to sound faintly New York. She acquired a studio apartment in the Village, a fellow business student boyfriend and a job to go back to at the end of her course. There was nothing, really, for her to return to London for, so they all had to get their heads round factoring in that Gaby was on the road to becoming, with all the zeal of a convert, an American.
But then she came home. She came back as suddenly as she had left. She gave her original company two years of her postMBA skills, and then she accepted a big job back in London, a banking job. The studio apartment, the boyfriend, the desirable New York lifestyle were, in a matter of weeks, it seemed, behind her. She was focused on the world of banking, the world of big business, she said. She loved the speed of it; she loved how collegiate it was.
‘You like the glamour,’ Beth said, ‘don’t you?’
Gaby beamed at her. ‘Of course I do.’
In 1997, the year that Melissa failed to be proposed to by Connor Corbett, Gaby met Quin. Quin, named Quintin for his grandfather, had grown up in the Scottish Borders and lived for his childhood years above his father’s draper’s shop in Elgin, which sold Scottish country clothing and plaid blankets with heavy fringes. Like Gaby, Quin had run away from his childhood, but he had run, more traditionally for a Scot, only to London. He started a version of his father’s shop – an edgier, cooler, younger version – first on a stall and then in proper premises, in west London, on the Portobello Road. He sold Gaby a turquoise faux tartan scarf on a Saturday morning, and then ran after her, through the crowds, to ask her slightly breathlessly to have coffee with him. She’d been wearing the scarf already, and he’d been rendered almost speechless by the effect the turquoise plaid had had on her eyes.
She used to tease him later about his incoherence as he tried to ask her out. ‘Wha’?’ she said he’d said, imitating him, afterwards. ‘Wha’?’
He’d sounded Scottish then. He hardly did now, only when he was very tired or drunk, or exasperated with the children. He’d inherited his father’s shop, as well as enlarging his own, and changed both of their names to the Elgin Emporium, displaying the stock spilling out of wicker hampers or piled on white painted shelves held up with decoratively knotted ropes. The stock itself had been enlarged to encompass modern tastes in living – picnic rugs rolled up in leather harnesses, dog baskets lined with tartan padding, thornproof jackets with accessible pockets to hold a Black Berry.
The shops did well, but it was not their profits that had bought the huge Italianate villa on Ladbroke Road, just down the hill from St John’s Church. It was the most substantial house either Gaby or Quin had ever lived in: double fronted with a garage to the side, brown brick above and white stucco below, with arched windows, a pillared porch and a sweep of intricately patterned black and white tiles leading up to the front door. Behind the house was a huge and romantic communal garden, with mature trees and locked iron gates at the sides. When Liam, with his penchant for running and climbing, was small, the fact that he could be released into this giant outdoor playpen was a godsend.
Gaby had found the house six years ago. She wasn’t a managing director then, but had every reason to believe that she would be, and had gambled on the promotion. Taylor had then been nine, Claudia seven and Liam a ferociously active and determined two. The girls were still at a private primary school, and they were, as a family, exploding out of the house Gaby and Quin had bought together, in Kensal Rise. A move to Ladbroke Road would mean an enormous mortgage (part tracker, part fixed rate, Gaby decided) but it would also mean the children could all go to Holland School, Quin could walk to work and she, Gaby, could take the Central line from Holland Park tube station – no distance away at all – change to the Jubilee line at Bond Street, and end up in the improbable world of Canary Wharf, where her latest employer occupied two immense glass buildings and employed six thousand people. She didn’t travel by public transport as a point of elaborately democratic principle: she travelled that way because she liked it. She put trainers on her feet, and trotted off to the tube station at seven thirty every morning, leaving Quin to try and dissuade Liam from eating leftover pizza for breakfast and to persuade his daughters to eat anything at all.
When the children were younger, there’d been au pair girls and, for one blissful and expensive year, a small, quiet, competent woman from the Philippines, who graded the ironed laundry according to size and gender and effortlessly managed to make Liam stay on his chair at mealtimes. When Gloria left to nurse her old parents in Manila, Gaby and Quin went back to the au pair system, a rollercoaster ride of different temperaments and abilities to cook, smoking and drinking habits, random boyfriends, hazardous approaches to discipline and homework, and an almost universal prevalence of chipped blue and green nail polish. The children wove their way through the irregularity of this aspect of their lives, learning to manipulate and elude where necessary, and aware that the fixed poles in their world were their schools, their friends, their parents occasionally and the immovable and unquestionable fact that their small, energetic mother made work an absolute priority in her life. After Taylor was born, Gaby took five weeks’ maternity leave, after Claudia, six. With Liam, she was persuaded to stay at home for eight, but was straining to be back at work for the whole of the second month.
‘My husband and children,’ Gaby told an important business magazine in an interview, ‘would all say that work comes first with me. I’ll freely admit, before you ask me, that I’m quite bored by domestic life. I’d love it if my daughters wanted what I’d like for them. Working women should be as commonplace and unremarkable as working men. Work is how I identify myself, as well as being a mother and a wife. It’s who I am. I’ll stop working when the phone stops ringing. OK? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to hear my youngest playing the waltz from Sleeping Beauty at his school concert. He’s chosen to learn the trumpet, for some reason. Can’t think why. I can’t even toot a tin whistle.’
Gaby had risen to be managing director of the investment banking division of a huge global bank. Its London offices looked across a carefully, impersonally manicured square of green, symmetrically dotted with neatly clipped shrubs and trees, to the immense glass facades of two similar institutions. From the square outside her building, all the way to the underground station on the far side of Canary Wharf, Gaby could walk a gleaming underground arcade of cafes, bars and shops which served the area’s young and visibly aspirational population. Some of the kids Gaby passed, on her purposeful way between station and office, were not very much older than Taylor, by the looks of them. And what they were being offered, in the shop windows, was certainly not what her Scottish mother-in-law would have approved of as being necessary for keeping body and soul together. Whenever Gaby got back from a business trip in the old days, Quin’s mother, who often came to help look after the children and household in general, would look her up and down and say, with grim satisfaction, ‘Well, it’ll be back to old clothes and porridge for you now. And not before time, in my view.’
It had never been fair, in Gaby’s opinion, to treat her as if she was an improperly successful airhead. She had never been a shoes and bags woman, never gone in for discreetly expensive watches or rewarding herself for an outstanding deal with a diamond. Even when Taylor, at fifteen, was at her most indignant and resentful, she could not say that Gaby at work was in any way different from Gaby in the kitchen, boredly trying to remember the sequence of buttons that needed pressing to get the dishwasher going. She loved her children, loved Quin, loved her friends, but she adored work. It gave her immense satisfaction to hear Liam play his trumpet, or have Taylor take the lead in the school production of Guys and Dolls, or to see Claudia quietly coming top of her class in most subjects, term after term, but she would candidly admit that she felt the same pride in raising the capital to turn a promising TV cable company into a global phenomenon or buying a despondent business and bringing it back to profitability with the right injection of the right amount of money.
‘Nobody should work to the exclusion of all else,’ Gaby declared at the seminars she was always being asked to give. ‘It is career-enhancing to feed your brain with as many other interests as you can. My aim is to show my team how to wrap life around work, rather than the other way about. It’s a work structure thing, not an hours thing. Work and life aren’t in opposition to each other, they enrich each other.’
Often, she was asked about the percentage of women in top jobs like her own. She would thump the lectern she was speaking from.
‘I try, all the time, to crack the code of not enough women. I am still too rare, but at least I’m no longer The Token. We still lose women at around thirty-five, at associate to vice president level, because of the demands of family life. A gear change in a career hits at exactly the same time as family pressures mount. I want the girls on my team’ – here she would look around the room, as if collecting up her juniors – ‘to say to me, “I love what I do and please help me to make it work round my family commitments”.’ Gaby would lean forward. ‘I don’t care where people work. Agile working could be from home, on a bus, in a coffee shop. I want young mothers to feel free to ask for help in making their work lives work. All I ask of them is that they don’t hide the fact they’re struggling and they don’t quit.’
She would then pause, and take off the huge horn rimmed spectacles that she had worn a version of since she was a teenager. Then she’d say, almost conversationally, ‘Women tend to be risk averse. Of course they do. But there’s more than a tiny advantage to forcing yourself out of your comfort zone and just trying.’
To Taylor she’d say, ‘You’ll thank me, one day. You will. You think you’d like a cupcake mother right now, but I’ll be more use to you over time. You’ll see.’