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.
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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