'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.
From Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan, Copyright Elizabeth Buchan February 2003,. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Viking Press, a member of the Penguin Group, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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