'Here,' said Minty, my deputy, with one of her breathy laughs, 'the review has just come in. It's hilariously vindictive.' She pushed towards me a book entitled A Thousand Olive Trees by Hal Thorne with the review tucked into it.
For some reason, I picked up the book. Normally I avoided anything to do with Hal but I did not think it mattered this once. I was settled, busy, different, and I had made my choice a long time ago.
When we first discussed my working on the books' pages, Nathan argued that, if I ever achieved my ambition to become the books editor, I would end up hating books. Familiarity bred contempt. But I said that Mark Twain had got it better when he said that familiarity breeds not so much contempt but children, and wasn't Nathan's comment a reflection on his own feelings about his own job? Nathan replied, 'Nonsense, have I ever been happier?' and 'You wait and see'. (The latter was said with one of his lovely, strong-man I know-better-than-you smiles, which I always enjoyed.) So far, he had been wrong.
For me, books remained full of promise, and contained a sense of possibility, any possibility. In rocky times, they were saviours and lifebelts, and when I was younger they provided chapter and verse when I had to make decisions. Over the years of working with them, it had become second nature to categorize them by touch. Thick, rough, cheaper paper denoted a paperback novel. Poetry hovered on weightless and were decorated with wide white margins. Biographies were heavy with photographs and the secrets of this subjects' life.
A Thousand Olive Trees was slim and compact, a typical travelogue whose cover photograph was of a hard, blue sky and a rocky, isolated shoreline beneath. It looked hot and dry, the kind of terrain where feet slithered over scree, and bruises sprouted between the toes.
Minty was watching my reaction. She had a trick of fixing her dark, slightly slanting eyes on whoever, and of appearing not to blink. The effect was of rapt, sympathetic attention, which fascinated people and also, I think, comforted them. That dark, intent gaze had certainly comforted me many times during the three years we had worked together in the office.
'"This man is a fraud,'" she cited from the review.
'" And his book is worse . . ."'
'What do you suppose he's done to deserve the vitriol?' I murmured.
'Sold lots of copies,' Minty shot back.
I handed her A Thousand Olive Trees. 'You deal. Ring up his agent, Dan Thomas, and see if he'll do a quickie.'
'Not up to it. Rose?' She spoke slowly and thoughtfully, but with an edge I did not quite recognize. 'Don't you think you should be by now?'
I smiled at her. I liked to think that Minty had become a friend, and because she always spoke her mind I trusted her. 'No. It's not a test. I just don't wish to handle Hal Thorne's books.'
'Fine.' She picked her way round the boxes on the floor, which was packed with them, and sat down. 'Like you said, I know how to deal.' I am not sure she approved. Neither did I, for it was not professional behaviour to ignore a book, certainly not one that would receive a lot of attention.
My attention was diverted by the internal phone. It was Steven from Production. 'Rose, I'm very sorry but we are going to have to cut a page from Books for the twenty-ninth.'
'Sorry, Rose. Can you do it by this afternoon?'
'Twice running, Steve. Can't someone else be the sacrificial lamb? Cookery? Travel?'
Steven was harassed and impatient. In our business - getting a paper out - time dictated our decisions and our reactions. After a while, it became second nature, and we spoke to each other in a shorthand. There was never time for the normal give and take of argument. I glanced at Minty. She was typing away studiously, but she was, I knew, listening in. I said reluctantly, 'I could manage it by tomorrow morning.'
'No later.' Steven rang off.
'Bad luck.' Minty typed away 'How much?'
'A page.' I sat back to consider the problem, and my eye fell on the photograph of Nathan and the children, which had a permanent place on my desk. It had been taken on a bucket-and-spade holiday in Cornwall when the children were ten and eight. They were on the beach, with their backs to a grey, ruffled sea. Nathan had one arm round Sam, who stood quietly in its shelter, while the other restrained a squirming, joyous Poppy. Our children were as different as chalk and cheese. I had just mentioned that a famous novelist had also taken a house in Trebethan Bay for six months to finish a novel. 'Good heavens.' Nathan had made one of his faces. 'I had no idea he was such a slow reader.' I had seized the camera and caught the trio as the children howled with laughter at this latest example of his terrible jokes. Nathan was laughing, too, with pleasure and satisfaction. See? he was saying to the camera. We are a happy family.
I leant over and touched Nathan's face in the photograph. Clever, loving Nathan. He considered that the job of fatherhood was to keep his children so amused that they did not notice the unpleasant side of life until they were old enough to cope, but he also loved to make them laugh for the pleasure of it. Sometimes, at mealtimes, I had been driven to put my foot down: at best, Sam and Poppy's appetites were as slight as their bodies and I worried about them. 'Mrs Worry, do you not know that people who eat less are healthier and live longer?' demanded Nathan who, typically, had gone to some pains to find out this fact to soothe my fears.
Back to the problem. As always with the paper, there were political factors, none significant in isolation but, taken together, they could add up. I said to Minty, 'I think I'd better go and fight. Otherwise Timon might get into the habit of paring down Books. Don't you think?' The 'don't you think' was cosmetic for I had made up my mind, but I had fallen into the habit of treating Minty (just a little) in the way I had treated the children. I thought it was important to involve them on all levels.
Timon was the editor of the weekend paper in the Vistamax Group for which we worked and his word was law. Minty had her back to me and was searching for Dan Thomas's telephone number in her contacts book. 'If you say so.'
'Do I hear cheers of support?'
Minty still did not look round. 'Perhaps better to leave it. Rose. We might need our ammunition.'
When it was a question of territorial battles, Minty was as defensive as I was. This made me suspicious. 'Do you know something that I don't, Minty?' Not a silly question. People and events in the group changed all the time, which made it a rather dangerous place to work, and one had to become rather protean, undercover and dangerous to survive.
'No. No, of course not.'
'But. . .?'
Minty's phone rang and she snatched it up. 'Books.'
I waited a moment or two longer. Minty scribbled on a piece of paper, 'An ego here bigger than your bottom,' and slid it towards me.
This implied that she would be on the phone for several minutes, so I left her to it and walked out into the open-plan space that was called the office. The management reminded its employees, frequently and cheerily, that it had been designed with humans in mind, but the humans repaid this thoughtfulness with ingratitude and dislike: if it was light and airy, it was also unprivate and, funnily enough, despite the hum of conversation and the under-lying whine of the computers, it gave an impression of glaucous silence.
Maeve Otley from the subs desk maintained, with a deep sense of grievance, that it was a voyeur's paradise. It was true: there was nowhere for staff to shake themselves back into their skins, or to hide their griefs and despairs, only the fishbowl where the owners had not bothered to put in a rock or two. I grumbled with Maeve, who was another friend, against the imposition, the terrorism of our employers, but mostly, like everyone else, I had adapted and grown used to it.
On the floor below, Steven was surrounded by piles of computer printout and flat-plans, and looked frantic. A half-eaten chicken sandwich was resting in its container beside him with several small plastic bottles of mineral water. When he saw me bearing down on him, he raised a hand to ward me off. 'Don't, Rose. It's not kind.'
'It's not kind to Books.'
He looked longingly at his sandwich. 'Who cares, as long as I can get it done and dusted and into bed? You, Rose, are expendable.'
'If I make a fuss with Timon?'
'You won't get diddly . . .'
No headway there. 'What is so important that it thieves my space? A shepherd's pie?'
'A nasty demolition job on a cabinet minister. I can't tell you who.' Steven looked important. 'The usual story. A mistress with exotic tastes, cronyism, undeclared interests. Apparently, his family don't know what's coming, and it's top secret.'
I felt a shudder brush through me, of distaste and worry. In the early days, I used to feel plain, unadorned guilt for the suffering that these exposes caused. Latterly, my reaction had dulled. Familiarity had made it commonplace, and it had lost its capacity to disturb me. Yet I hated to think of what exposure did to the families. How would I cope if I woke up one morning to discover that my everyday life had been built on a falsehood? Would I break into pieces? The effect on the children of these stories of deceit and betrayal did not bear too much thought either. But I accepted there was little I could do, except resign my job in protest. And are you going to do that?' asked Nathan, quite properly. 'No.' So my private doubts and occasional flashes of guilt remained private.
'I feel sorry for them; I said to Steven. All the same, I ran through a list of possible candidates in my head. I was human.
'Don't. He probably deserves it.'
'Or is it a she?'
Steven took a bite of his sandwich. 'Are you going to let me get on?'
By chance, Nathan stepped out of the lift with Peter Shaker, the managing editor, as I was going in. 'Hallo, darling,' I murmured. Nathan was preoccupied, and the two men conferred in an undertone. It always gave me a shock, a pleasurable one, to see Nathan operating. It was the chance to witness a different, disengaged aspect of the man I knew at home, and it held an erotic charge. It reminded me that he had a separate, distinct existence. And that I did too.
'Nathan,' I touched his arm, 'I was going to ring. We're due at the restaurant at eight.' He started. 'Rose. I was thinking of something else. Sorry. I'll - I'll see you later.'
'Sure.' I waved at him and Peter as the doors closed. He did not wave back.
I thought nothing of it. As deputy editor of a daily paper published by the Vistamax Group, Nathan was a busy man. Friday was a day packed with meetings and, more often than not, he stumbled back to Lakey Street wrung out and exhausted. Then it was my business to soothe him and to listen. If the look on his face was anything to go by, and after twenty-five years of marriage I knew Nathan, this was a bad Friday.
The lift bore me upwards. Jobs and spouses held things in common. With luck, you found the right one at the right time. You fell in love with a person, or a job, tied the knot and settled down to the muddle and routine that suited you. I admit it was not entirely an accident that Nathan and I worked for the same company - an electronics giant which also published three newspapers and several magazines under its corporate umbrella — but I liked to think that I had won my job on my own merits. Or, if that was not precisely true, that I kept on my own merits.
Poppy hated what Nathan and I did. At twenty-two, she had stopped laughing and believed that lives should be useful and lived for the greater good, or she did at the last time of asking. 'Why contribute to a vast, wasteful process like a newspaper?' she wanted to know. 'An excuse to cut down trees and print hurtful rubbish.' Poppy had always fought hard, harder than Sam, and her growing up had been like a glove being turned inside out, finger by finger. If you were lucky, it happened gently, the growing-up part, and Poppy had not fared too badly, but I worried that she had her wounds.
Excerpted from REVENGE OF THE MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN © Copyright 2005 by Elizabeth Buchan. Reprinted with permission by Penguin Books. All rights reserved.
Revenge of the Middle-aged Woman