Would you consider yourself stressed?
No. I'm not stressed.
I'm . . . busy. Plenty of people are busy. I have a high-powered job, my career is important to me, and I enjoy it.
OK. So sometimes I do feel a bit tense. But I'm a lawyer in the
City, for God's sake. What do you expect?
My handwriting is pressing so hard into the page, I've torn the paper. Dammit. Never mind. Let's move on to the next question.
On average, how many hours do you spend in the office every day?
Do you exercise regularly?
I regularly go swimming I occasionally go swim
I am intending to begin a regular regime of swimming. When I have time. Work's been busy lately, it's a blip.
Do you drink 8 glasses of water a day?
I put down my pen and clear my throat. Across the room, Maya looks up from where she's rearranging all her little pots of wax and nail varnish. Maya is my spa beauty therapist for the day and is in her forties, I'd say. Her long dark hair is in a plait with one white streak woven through it, and she has a tiny silver stud in her nose.
"Everything all right with the questionnaire?" she murmurs.
"I did mention that I'm in a bit of a hurry," I say politely. "Are all these questions absolutely necessary?"
"At the Green Tree Center we like to have as much information as possible to assess your beauty and health needs," she replies in soothing yet implacable tones.
I glance at my watch. Nine forty-five.
I don't have time for this. I really do not have the time. But it's my birthday treat and I promised my best friend, Freya.
To be more accurate, it's last year's birthday treat. Freya gave me the gift voucher for an "Ultimate De-stress Experience" just over a year ago. She's my oldest school friend and is always on at me for working too hard. In the card that came with the voucher she wrote Make Some Time For Yourself, Samantha!!!
Which I did fully intend to do. But we had the Zincon Petrochemical Group restructuring and the Zeus Minerals merger . . . and somehow a year went by without my finding a spare moment. I'm a lawyer with Carter Spink. I work in the corporate department on the finance side, and just at the moment, things are pretty hectic with some big deals on. It's a blip. It'll get better. I just have to get through the next couple of weeks.
Anyway, then Freya sent me this year's birthday card --- and I suddenly realized the voucher was about to expire. So here I am, on my twenty-ninth birthday. Sitting on a couch in a white toweling robe and surreal paper knickers.With a halfday window. Max.
Do you smoke?
Do you drink alcohol?
Yes. The odd glass of wine.
Do you eat regular home-cooked meals?
What does that have to do with anything? What makes "home-cooked" meals superior?
I eat a nutritious, varied diet, I write at last. Which is absolutely true.
Anyway, everyone knows the Chinese live longer than we do --- so what could be more healthy than to eat their food? And pizza is Mediterranean. It's probably more healthy than a home-cooked meal.
Do you feel your life is balanced?
"I'm done," I announce, and hand the pages back to Maya, who starts reading through my answers. Her finger is traveling down the paper at a snail's pace. Like we've got all the time in the world.
Which she may well have. But I seriously have to be back in the office by one.
Maya looks up, a thoughtful expression on her face. "You're obviously quite a stressed-out woman."
What? Where does she get that from? I specifically put on the form, I am not stressed-out.
"No, I'm not." I hope Maya's taking in my relaxed, see-how-unstressed-I-am smile. She looks unconvinced.
"Your job is obviously very pressured."
"I thrive under pressure," I explain. Which is true. I've known that about myself ever since . . .
Well. Ever since my mother told me, when I was about eight. You thrive under pressure, Samantha. Our whole family thrives under pressure. It's like our family motto or something.
Apart from my brother Peter, of course. He had a nervous breakdown. But the rest of us.
I love my job. I love spotting the loophole in a contract. I love the thrill of negotiation, and arguing my case, and making the sharpest point in the room. I love the adrenaline rush of closing a deal.
I suppose just occasionally I do feel as though someone's piling heavy weights on me. Like big concrete blocks, one on top of the other, and I have to keep holding them up, no matter how exhausted I am . . .
But then everyone probably feels like that. It's normal.
"Your skin's very dehydrated." Maya is shaking her head. She runs an expert hand across my cheek and rests her fingers underneath my jaw, looking concerned. "Your heart rate's very high. That's not healthy. Are you feeling particularly tense?"
"Work's pretty busy at the moment." I shrug. "It's just a blip. I'm fine." Can we get on with it?
"Well."Maya gets up. She presses a button set in the wall and gentle pan-pipe music fills the air."All I can say is, you've come to the right place, Samantha. Our aim here is to destress, revitalize, and detoxify."
"Lovely," I say, only half listening. I've just remembered that I never got back to David Elldridge about the Ukrainian oil contract. I meant to call him yesterday. Shit.
"Our aim is to provide a haven of tranquility, away from all your day-to-day worries." Maya presses another button in the wall, and the light dims to a muted glow. "Before we start," she says softly, "do you have any questions?"
"Actually, I do." I lean forward.
"Good!" She beams. "Are you curious about today's treatments, or is it something more general?"
"Could I possibly send a quick e-mail?"
Maya's smile freezes on her face.
"Just quickly," I add. "It won't take two secs --- "
"Samantha, Samantha . . ." Maya shakes her head. "You're here to relax. To take a moment for yourself. Not to send e-mails. E-mail's an obsession! An addiction! As evil as alcohol. Or caffeine."
For goodness sake, I'm not obsessed. I mean, that's ridiculous. I check my e-mails about once every . . . thirty seconds, maybe.
The thing is, a lot can change in thirty seconds.
"And besides, Samantha," Maya goes on. "Do you see a computer in this room?"
"No," I reply, obediently looking around the dim little room, at posters of yoga positions and a wind chime and a row of crystals arranged on the windowsill.
"This is why we ask that you leave all electronic equipment in the safe. No mobile phones are permitted. No little computers." Maya spreads her arms. "This is a retreat. An escape from the world."
"Right." I nod meekly.
Now is probably not the time to reveal that I have a BlackBerry hidden in my paper knickers.
"So, let's begin." Maya smiles. "Lie down, please, under a towel. And remove your watch."
"I need my watch!"
"Another addiction." She tsks reprovingly. "You don't need to know the time while you're here."
She turns away, and with reluctance I take off my watch. Then, a little awkwardly, I arrange myself on the massage table, trying to avoid squashing my precious BlackBerry.
I did see the rule about no electronic equipment.And I did surrender my Dictaphone. But three hours without a BlackBerry? I mean, what if something came up at the office? What if there was an emergency?
If they really wanted people to relax, they would let them keeptheir BlackBerrys and mobile phones, not confiscate them.
Anyway, she'll never see it under my towel.
"I'm going to begin with a relaxing foot rub," says Maya, and I feel her smoothing some kind of lotion over my feet.
"Try to clear your mind."
I stare dutifully up at the ceiling. Clear mind. My mind is as clear as a transparent . . . glass . . .
What am I going to do about Elldridge? He'll be waiting for a response. What if he tells the other partners I was lax? What if it affects my chances of partnership?
I feel a clench of alarm. Now is not the time to leave anything to chance.
"Try to let go of all your thoughts. . . ."Maya is chanting. "Feel the release of tension. . . ."
Maybe I could send him a very quick e-mail.
Surreptitiously I reach down and feel the hard corner of my BlackBerry. Gradually I inch it out of my paper knickers. Maya is still massaging my feet, totally oblivious.
"Your body is growing heavy . . . your mind should be emptying . . ."
I edge the BlackBerry up onto my chest until I can just see the screen underneath the towel. Thank goodness this room is so dim. Trying to keep my movements to a minimum, I furtively start typing an e-mail with one hand.
"Relaax . . ." Maya is saying in soothing tones. "Imagine you're walking along a beach . . ."
"Uh-huh . . ." I murmur.
David, I'm typing. Re ZFN Oil contract. I read through amendments. Feel our response should be
"What are you doing?" says Maya, suddenly alert.
"Nothing!" I say, hastily shoving the BlackBerry back under the towel. "Just . . . er . . . relaxing."
Maya comes round the couch and looks at the bump in the towel where I'm clutching the BlackBerry.
"Are you hiding something?" she says in disbelief.
From under the towel the BlackBerry emits a little bleep.
"I think that was a car," I say, trying to sound casual. "Outside in the street."
Maya's eyes narrow.
"Samantha," she says ominously. "Do you have a piece of electronic equipment under there?"
I have the feeling that if I don't confess she'll rip my towel off anyway.
"I was just sending an e-mail," I say at last, and sheepishly produce the BlackBerry.
"You workaholics!" She grabs it out of my hand in exasperation. "E-mails can wait. It can all wait. You just don't know how to relax!"
"I'm not a workaholic!" I retort indignantly. "I'm a lawyer!
"You're in denial." She shakes her head.
"I'm not! Look, we've got some big deals on at the firm. I can't just switch off ! Especially not right now. I'm . . . well, I'm up for partnership at the moment." As I say the words aloud I feel the familiar stabbing of nerves. Partner of one of the biggest law firms in the country. The only thing I've ever wanted, ever.
"I'm up for partnership," I repeat, more calmly. "They make the decision tomorrow. If it happens, I'll be the youngest partner in the history of the firm. Do you know how big a deal that is? Do you have any idea --- "
"Anyone can take a couple of hours out," interrupts Maya. She puts her hands on my shoulders. "Samantha, you're incredibly nervy. Your shoulders are rigid, your heart's racing . . . it seems to me you're right on the edge."
"You're a bundle of jitters!"
"You have to decide to slow down, Samantha." She looks at me earnestly. "Only you can decide to change your life. Are you going to do that?"
"Er . . . well . . ."
I stop with a squeak of surprise, as from inside my paper knickers there comes a judder.
My mobile phone. I shoved it in there along with the BlackBerry and turned it onto VIBRATE so it wouldn't make a noise.
"What's that?" Maya is gaping at my twitching towel.
"What on earth is that . . . quivering?"
I can't admit it's a phone. Not after the BlackBerry.
"Erm. . ." I clear my throat. "It's my special . . . er . . . love toy."
"Your what?" Maya looks taken aback.
The phone judders inside my pants again. I have to answer. It might be the office.
"Um. . . you know, I'm reaching a bit of an intimate moment right now." I give Maya a significant look. "Maybe you could . . . uh . . . leave the room?"
Suspicion snaps into Maya's eyes.
"Wait a moment!" She peers again. "Is that a phone under there? You smuggled in a mobile phone as well?"
Oh, God. She looks furious.
"Look," I say, trying to sound apologetic. "I know you've got your rules and everything, which I do respect, but the thing is, I needmy mobile." I reach under the towel for the phone.
"Leave it!" Maya's cry takes me by surprise. "Samantha," she says, making an obvious effort to keep calm."If you've listened to a single word I've said . . . you'll switch the phone off right now."
The phone vibrates again in my hand. I look at the caller
ID and feel a twist in my stomach. "It's the office."
"They can leave a message. They can wait."
"But --- "
"This is your own time." She leans forward and clasps my hands earnestly. "Your own time."
She really doesn't get it, does she? I almost want to laugh.
"I'm an associate at Carter Spink," I explain. "I don't have my own time." I flip the phone open and an angry male voice bites down the line.
"Samantha, where the hell are you?"
It's Ketterman. The head of our corporate department. He's in his late forties and his first name is John, but no one ever calls him anything except Ketterman. He has black hair and steel glasses and gray gimlet eyes, and when I first arrived at Carter Spink I actually used to have nightmares about him.
"The Fallons deal is back on. Get back here now. Meeting at ten-thirty."
"I'll be there as soon as I can." I snap the phone shut and look ruefully at Maya. "Sorry."
I'm not addicted to my watch.
But obviously I rely on it. You would too, if your time was measured in six-minute segments. For every six minutes of my working life, I'm supposed to bill a client. It all goes on a computerized time sheet, in itemized chunks.
11:00-11:06 drafted contract for Project A
11:06-11:12 amended documentation for Client B
11:12-11:18 consulted on point for Agreement C
When I first started at Carter Spink it freaked me out slightly, the idea that I had to write down what I was working on, every minute of the day. I used to think: What if I do nothing for six minutes? What am I supposed to write down then?
11:00-11:06 stared aimlessly out of window
11:06-11:12 daydreamed about bumping into George
Clooney in street
11:12-11:18 attempted to touch nose with tongue
But if you're a lawyer at Carter Spink, you don't sit around. Not when every six minutes of your time is worth money. If I let six minutes of time tick away, I've lost the firm £50. Twelve minutes, £100. Eighteen minutes, £150. And the truth is, you get used to measuring your life in little chunks. And you get used to working. All the time
Excerpted from THE UNDOMESTIC GODDESS by Sophie Kinsella Copyright © 2005 by Sophie Kinsella. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Undomestic Goddess