Editing Constancy sample

Editing Constancy

A Jane Austen Story

Chapter 1

An unwanted distraction

MABEL WINSTON shut the door of her sports coupé, engaged the locks with an elegantly aimed click, and strolled to the elevator, her high heels brushing the smooth concrete floor. Ignoring the admiring glances as the doors jolted open, she positioned herself at the front, a detached look at the numbers as they counted down. She walked from the lift with a polite nod at the giving way. The broad commercial avenue, spotted with cozy coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, was abuzz with enthusiasm for work and pleasure. Fashionable young men and women clutching sealed coffee cups crisscrossed each other’s paths, sometimes with a furtive glance. No furtive glance, no attention to the youthful buzz from Ms. Winston as her expression became distant. She stopped near the curb, staring but not seeing. A taxi came to a lurching stop beside her at her vague wave.

‘Dickson Street, Shaftsbury district.’

The driver threw a curious glance over his shoulder. Twenty minutes later, she stood on the dirty paper-blown pavement, holding her crocodile skin attaché case, dodging passers-by, and glancing around. She advanced for a while and, seeing the sign on the building she was looking for, backed away and crossed the blaring chaotic road at the first opportunity. She shielded herself among the people coming at her and kept her eyes on the building.

‘What on earth am I doing here?’ she whispered.

‘Hey, lady, want a ride on a rocket?’

A wizened man in his early thirties blocked her path. A sinewy hand protruding from the sleeve of an under-sized ragged coat dangled a small plastic bag.

She stepped around him and continued walking, passing a fat man in the doorway of a tattoo shop. He winked. That was enough. She entered the closest coffee shop and took a seat at the front. Without averting her gaze, she ordered a coffee from the waiter who had appeared beside her. It was the correct building. No mistake. A minute later, the waiter slid a streaky cup containing a brown fluid under her eyes. Her focus remained unbroken. He glanced at her. As he turned to walk away, Mabel came to.

‘How much, waiter?’

‘Five dollars.’

‘Call a taxi,’ she murmured, handing him a ten-dollar note.

Holding the note in one hand, the waiter picked up the untouched cup and shook his head as the impeccably dressed woman closed the taxi door.

‘What on earth am I doing here?’ Mabel whispered again.

***

BY THE time Mabel entered the noisy, open-planned office with its row of executive suites, her self-possession had returned. The usual tension greeted her entrance, followed by a rustle of activity as subordinate staff raced to catch her.

‘Not now, not now,’ she said, brushing through them. ‘See Kitty and make an appointment. I’ve told you before. Kitty, where are you?’

Her executive assistant hurried from her desk, rounded up the pack of suitors, and dispersed them to their proper corners. Before placing her attaché case on her desk, Mabel let her eyes linger on the view from her tenth-story office, on the park with its green lawns and clusters of trees, shrubs, and flowers, on the river beyond glistening and flowing in the morning sun. An American big city scene. She pulled out the two manuscripts she had been reading the night before and placed them on her desk to her left. As she centered her notepad and pen in front of her, a cappuccino and a doughnut on a white China saucer appeared beside the notepad.

‘You’re late,’ said Kitty, a plump, overdressed young woman with prankish eyes.

‘Late?’ said Mabel, focusing as she flicked open her pad and ran her eyes down a column of jottings.

‘Ah, of course, Miss Mabel never comes late. So you’re not here at your usual time, then.’

‘I had something to do.’

‘What?’

‘Don’t be inquisitive. Get the files. We have a lot to get through.’

‘Inquisitive? What have you been doing?’

‘Kitty …?’

Kitty returned a minute later with an armful of files. She settled in front of Mabel’s desk and watched as Mabel took a few sips of coffee and a delicate bite from the doughnut.

‘Cappuccino—full cream—and doughnuts, how do you do it?’

‘You keep asking, and I keep giving you the same answer,’ said Mabel as she sorted through the files. ‘I eat well, and I exercise. I have grilled fish and salad while you order Chicken Parmigiana.’ She looked up. ‘Your weight has a cause, you know.’

‘If anyone else said that to me, they’d be called a bitch,’ said Kitty with a laugh.

‘I’m just saying what’s true, Kitty.’

‘Ever so ladylike—and with that sweet smile. Chicken Parmigiana! You don’t miss anything, do you?’

‘You were sitting beside me. I couldn’t miss it—or its smell.’

‘Stop! Stop! You will totally destroy my confidence.’

‘You? I don’t think so. You have an abundance of confidence. Come on. We’ve got things to do, a meeting later, and authors to talk to. And try to regard your weight problem rationally.’

‘How dare you deprive me of my right to be irrational.’

‘Kitty, be quiet. What’s happening with the Dowling manuscript? Where are your notes?’

Kitty gave an amused shrug and shuffled her pages. Some intense discussion followed while Kitty outlined the results of Mabel’s instructions.

‘It’s not working, Kitty. Come on,’ said Mabel, rising. ‘And bring the box of tissues.’

‘Oh dear, not the box of tissues.’

Kitty grabbed the box from the bookshelf and hurried after Mabel. Mabel’s appearance again caused an administrative flutter, and the same group waving papers and books descended on her again as she made her way through administrative clusters and partitioned enclosures.

‘Not now, not now, make a time with Kitty,’ she said, waving them back. ‘Back, back … Kitty!’

Kitty again plunged among them and regrouped them with assurances that Ms. Winston was conscious of their concerns and valued their opinions and input. She then dispersed them with fervent promises that their issues would be resolved in due course. Ensuring the staff was once again corralled, she caught up with Mabel waiting outside an editor’s enclosure with a sign: ‘Demeter. Enter in peace.’ They found the object of their visit poring devoutly over a poster-size painting of a woman in ancient Greek robes. To the side was her bright little altar with several incense sticks burning aromatically.

‘Very nice, Demeter,’ said Mabel. ‘A pre-Raphaelite, no doubt.’

‘Yes. Thank you,’ said Demeter, surprised to see her boss standing over her. She blushed at her boss’s approval, but then her mouth opened, and her eyes glistened as she saw Kitty with the tissues.

‘We have to talk about the Dowling manuscript,’ said Mabel, taking a chair and drawing closer. She held up her hand as Demeter was about to speak. ‘Just listen.’

Long experience had shown Mabel it was always best to come to the point and not adorn necessary action with meaningless platitudes and untruths. If a staff member was not performing, they should know. It was for their benefit and, more importantly, for the benefit of the organization on which everyone’s livelihood depended. The latter was a harsh reality, and those who could not see it should reconsider their position on her staff. After all, as the non-fiction publisher of an international publishing house, she had the ultimate responsibility. The buck stopped with her. And so it was on this occasion.

Mabel had warned Demeter that Rip Dowling’s manuscript was controversial and must be managed with extreme care to reach its optimum sales. Dowling was a controversial figure whose aggressive, acidic tongue cowed many of his critics in public debate. She had to keep her distance. Unfortunately, it appears she had not. So Dowling was dictating the manuscript’s development. She should know a notorious author’s manuscript is one thing; its preparation for publication is another.

‘You’re acting like one of his fans,’ said Mabel, ‘and in more ways than one.’

Demeter bowed her head and sniffled, taking her fourth tissue from the box Kitty held out to her.

‘I’m taking you off this project.’

‘No, no, please,’ said Demeter, her hands clasped. ‘I’ll make sure …’

‘No, you’ve had many warnings. For your own professional development, you need to be away from Dowling—and his influence.’

‘Please …’

Mabel rose, took a stick of incense from Demeter’s stock, lit it, and placed it in the little vase with the others.

‘I’ll give you time to meditate so you can reorganize your thoughts. Kitty will advise you of the project I am assigning you to.’

They left Demeter bowed and weeping in front of her altar.

‘Who will handle Dowling now?’ said Kitty on their way to Mabel’s office.

‘Me.’

‘You?’

‘Yes, he won’t find it so easy with me. Besides, we must settle on the promotional plans—now. Demeter was way out of her depth there.’

‘Well, that’s …’

‘Be quiet, Kitty.’

Back at the office, they proceeded in Mabel’s unrelenting manner until ten-thirty, when Kitty left to fetch Mabel’s herbal tea. Mabel stared at her notes and then at the sheet of figures they had been discussing. The figures blurred, and her eyes drifted. She swung round in her swivel chair, still holding the sheet before her. The sheet dropped below the line of her vision to reveal people wandering aimlessly around the park below. Aimlessly? It must be aimless at their pace. She half-turned to her desk and reached for the daily calendar. Flicking over the pages until she came to a September page, she circled the date several times. She glanced again at the people in the park.

‘Yes, you’ll be thirty-three on your next birthday.’

Mabel started and turned. ‘Do you have to creep up on me like that?’

‘Creep up on you?’ Kitty placed the cup on the coaster. ‘You’re on edge today, aren’t you? You were a little hard on Demeter.’

‘I was not, and no, I’m not. I was just thinking.’

‘Anything to do with your visit?’

‘What visit?’

‘Wherever you went before arriving here?’

‘Kitty, please … How do you know I went anywhere?’

‘Mabel, I have known you long enough to see when something is bothering you.’

‘My mother will want to do something about my next birthday,’ said Mabel glancing up at her.

Kitty pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow. ‘You can tell me, you know. You can trust me.’

‘You’re a good friend and colleague, Kitty darling,’ said Mabel, ‘but there is nothing to tell.’

‘Poke out your tongue. It’s got to be black.’

Mabel waved her hand in mock surrender. ‘A girl gets worried when she’s about to turn thirty-three. Body clock and all …’

Kitty considered Mabel’s smiling face. ‘If that’s it, you can hardly complain. A gorgeous boyfriend dying to marry you; you at the top of your profession, dressed like a Parisian model. Most twenty-three-year-olds would be happy to look like you. I would not complain if I were you.’

‘I’m not complaining.’

‘You know, it’s not fair that someone with your looks has that smile.’

‘Let’s get back to work,’ said Mabel, looking at Kitty above the rim of her cup as she took a sip of tea. ‘And stop talking about my smile—my supposed smile. It’s irritating.’

‘Excuse me. It’s not that I don’t have a reason for it lately…’

‘Kitty.’

‘Okay, okay, I know. Don’t overstep the mark.’

‘Call in the sales manager.’

‘We’ll probably need the box again,’ murmured Kitty, rising.

But Mabel did not hear. She had turned and was looking out the window again.

***

AT HALF-PAST eleven, on leaving Mabel’s office to go to the conference room, they found Demeter outside sniffling into a tissue and surrounded by curious colleagues.

‘Don’t pay attention,’ said Mabel. ‘It’ll just make it harder for her.’

But Kitty stopped. Mabel glanced at her and kept going. Kitty whispered something to Demeter, touched her arm, and shooed the others away. She caught up with Mabel as she entered the conference room. A momentary hush came over the people.

‘You will not do her any good,’ said Mabel, arranging her files on the conference table as the talk resumed, dominated, Mabel noted, by that irritating man who was supposed to function as the fiction publisher. ‘She has to learn to keep her distance. I hate to think what she’s got herself into with that man.’

‘It’s not just Dowling,’ Kitty said. ‘She has home troubles.’

‘Not relevant.’

At that point, CEO George Kovacs strolled into the conference room in his slovenly way and installed himself at the head of the conference table with his finance director beside him. The finance director, appearing to be on the point of succumbing to his deadly boredom, threw his notepad on the table and began doodling.

‘Shut up, everyone. Let’s begin, and no waffle. I don’t want to hear waffle. No, Mabel, you’re last,’ he said as Mabel began to get to her feet. ‘I have something to say at the end that concerns you and your department.’

Heads turned to Mabel, a frowning curiosity covering most faces. Mabel directed her inscrutable gaze at the paperwork in front of her.

‘What’s she up to now?’ a male voice whispered.

George Kovacs’ editorial sessions were always grueling, and this day was no less so. He demanded speakers explain their budget figures, or give a more detailed account of a manuscript, or account for a delay in production, or outline a promotional campaign. The presentation of submissions was always the worst part. CEO Kovacs had one comment for manuscripts he did not like, a comment dreaded by all right down to the desk editors. ‘Sounds like rubbish to me’ was the dismissive comment—generally thrown at them over a shoulder while he stared out the window. The adult fiction department had to suffer that day. He unmercifully ridiculed most of the manuscript submissions. The fiction publisher stuttered as he neared the end of his presentation.

‘Wait, wait, wait,’ said George Kovacs, interrupting him and pointing, ‘Are you with us, Miss Winston?’

‘Yes, of course, Mr. Kovacs,’ said Mabel, looking up.

‘Yes, of course, Mr. Kovacs,’ said George Kovacs, mimicking her. ‘And don’t give me that assassin’s smile. Stay with us.’

‘Yes, Mr. Kovacs,’ said Mabel, holding his gaze.

‘Yes, Mr. Kovacs,’ Kovacs again mimicked. He waved his fiction publisher to continue. ‘How much more of this postmodernist nonsense will you torture us with?’

Mabel felt Kitty’s hand on her arm beneath the table.

‘Is there nothing you can’t get away with?’ Kitty whispered as the fiction publisher resumed his stuttering performance.

A tense silence seized the room at Mabel’s turn as she took hold of her papers but remained seated, looking before her. Just when people began shifting, Mabel rose. A brief smile appeared on Kovacs’ face. From then on, he threw out a series of challenges as if he were trying to catch her out. He seemed pleased she had an answer to every point of contention.

‘What about that Dowling rubbish?’ he said when Mabel had parried the torrid questioning. ‘Sack the editor if she can’t get it together. You’ve spent too much time and money on this.’

‘I have taken on the responsibility of the manuscript,’ said Mabel. ‘I will offer Mr. Dowling an extra $25,000 advance if he will accept making the few necessary changes.’

Kitty looked up at Mabel and then at the CEO. ‘What?’ she mouthed. Mabel’s colleagues fixed their eyes on her.

‘$25,000!’ His mouth wide open, Kovacs turned to his finance director. ‘Take it out of her pay if she fails.’ The bored financial man emitted a scornful sound and continued doodling.

‘The extra money is nothing in the scheme of things.’

‘Nothing in the schemes of things! It takes money to buy whiskey.’

‘Mr. Dowling writes clearly and controversially,’ Mabel continued. ‘He is virtually taking the lead in this controversial subject. His book has a worldwide market. If anything, estimated sales are on the low side. He only needs to balance his polemic while acknowledging good people exist who disagree with him.’

‘You think so? You think you’ll get that braggart to admit that?’

‘Yes, and it’s not entirely the editor’s fault. The author presents special problems.’

‘Special problems? Dowling is an objectionable, vain purveyor of spite. How anybody could … never mind. Go on.’

‘All authors present their difficulties. I have moved the editor to other duties with some necessary counseling.’

‘Counseling? What do you think it is here—a nursery?’ The CEO held Mabel in his gaze for some long seconds. ‘Draw up a document of commitment and make her sign it,’ he said out the side of his mouth to the finance director. The bored finance director acted as if he did not hear.

‘Okay, that’s it,’ George Kovacs said, getting to his feet and signaling Mabel to join him at the head of the table. ‘I have a special announcement. International adventurer and environment author, the dashing Warren McCreedy, is joining our list.’ There were gasps of surprise. ‘McCreedy’s books are rivers of gold. There is no writer at present writing as much and as appealingly as Warren McCreedy. This is a brilliant coup for this company. As you all know, I’m tough on you—we wouldn’t be successful if you didn’t give your best—but I’ll always acknowledge success when it comes. This coup is the work of Ms. Winston. You can thank her for clinching a deal that will be extra insurance for your positions here. And some get shaky now and then.’ He inclined his head toward the fiction people. ‘Get off that postmodernist crap, throw out your books on critical theory, and get stories ordinary people want to read. Stories about girls gone nuts, for example. You are invited to lunch with McCreedy tomorrow. Make sure you wear your best and sound intelligent. Mabel, you stay behind. The rest of you can get back to work.’

Kitty patted Mabel on the shoulder and winked before she followed her colleagues. Kovacs waited until the last had filed from the conference room.

‘How’s your mother?’ he said, sitting down and pointing to the chair beside him.

‘She’s getting better,’ said Mabel, pushing the chair out from the table so she could cross her legs.

‘Have they tracked down that little thug?’

‘Not yet. There’s shopping center security footage. The police say it’s a matter of time.’

‘What a nasty business.’

‘Mother’s more affected by the loss of her best friend. She says her arm and the scratches will heal, but her friend is gone forever.’

Kovacs pursed his lips, sighed, and shook his head. ‘Well,’ he said at length, ‘I hope she improves quickly.’

‘Thank you, George. I appreciate your concern. Mother will receive it with gratitude.’

He smiled at her and hesitated. He reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a folded sheet, and handed it to her.

‘You’ve done very well with the McCreedy business,’ he said as Mabel unfolded it. ‘You deserve a little break.’

‘I don’t need a break,’ Mabel said before looking at the unfolded sheet. ‘I don’t want a break. There’s too much …’

‘I want you to go to London and take your mother. Show her around, help her get her mind off that terrible business. She needs you. Kitty will manage for a week.’

‘You’re very thoughtful,’ said Mabel, perusing the bookings. He had booked them into one of the best London hotels.

‘Your dad will be okay with it?’

‘I don’t foresee any objections, but …’

‘Come on, Mabel, relax. It’s only a week, ten days out and back. Things will not fall apart here. Besides, I want you to see a few people for me, authors and what have you, and visit the London office. Appointments have been made. I’ve got something brewing there. It’s important. You’re important to it.’

‘It’s all very considerate of you, George,’ said Mabel, reassured by the business purpose.

‘Enough of that gratitude stuff. You’re the one for the job.’ He waved his hand. ‘Get up. You’re coming to lunch with me.’

They spent the first half of the lunch discussing the promotional program Mabel had in mind for Rip Dowling’s book.

‘You don’t have any doubts about this project, do you?’ said Mabel, after close questioning about the public debates she would arrange to follow the book’s release.

‘No, I agree with you about the book’s potential,’ said Kovacs, now softened. ‘Dowling is onto a topic that has been festering for a while among the chatterers. And he has a way of putting into inflammatory language what others are thinking. I can’t stand the fellow, though. But it’s topical, and we’re there to publish, not judge the caliber of the author.’ He paused. ‘The fellow’s arrogance may put readers off.’

‘That’s one reason I’ve taken the manuscript back to handle myself,’ said Mabel. ‘Rip Dowling, despite his arrogance, is personable in his way—and good-looking. Demeter could not keep her distance. His appeal will balance the arrogance. I’ll see to that.’

‘You think he’s good-looking?’

‘Very.’

‘Do I …?’

‘No, you don’t.’

George Kovacs lounged in his seat and picked up the glass the waiter had just refilled from the bottle of premium red. He regarded Mabel with a smile.

‘You know it was not merely your cleverness that got McCreedy in.’

‘It wasn’t?’ said Mabel, taking a sip of mineral water.

‘There’s the other factor—in front of my face.’

‘What do you mean?’ Mabel placed her glass on the table and looked up.

‘Well, among other things, that smile.’

‘That’s the second time you’ve said that today—and the fifth time it’s been mentioned. It’s very irritating. The idea that I’m a schemer is not …’

‘No, no, no, dear Mabel. Quite the opposite. It’s because your smile is pretty and genuine.’

Mabel hesitated, scrutinizing Kovacs amused expression. ‘It’s not my intention … I don’t see myself.’

‘Oh, no?’

‘I never try to exploit whatever people see—whatever it is supposed to be. Not consciously, at least.’

‘Okay, I know.’ He patted her arm and took a sip of wine, savoring it. ‘And if McCreedy thinks there’s anything else in it?’

‘I can handle him.’

‘Ever calm and ladylike.’

‘If that’s the way you see it.’

‘If McCreedy finds the temptation too great?’

‘He won’t. He knows he is like a kindly uncle to me.’

‘Oh? You make me feel old.’

‘It’s not about you, George. Besides, fifty-five is not old these days, especially if you stay fit and healthy—as you do.’

‘Oh, twenty years does not bother you?’

‘You’re married, George,’ Mabel said, her smile verging on a laugh.

‘I’d be careful about Warren McCreedy. He’s married, too.’

‘I have never thought about it.’

Mabel’s mobile phone broke in on the conversation.

‘Kitty says Rip Dowling is waiting in my office.’

‘He can wait another five minutes while we finish our lunch. Who does he think he is?’

***

MABEL FOUND Rip Dowling standing at her office’s plate-glass wall and looking down at the park ten stories below. His tall, trim figure was silhouetted against the afternoon light. She paused a moment before she approached him. He was not aware of her until she stood beside him.

‘I’m privileged to have such a spectacular view, aren’t I, Mr. Dowling?’ she said, glancing up at him.

‘I’ve told you to call me Rip,’ he said, first in surprise and then with a smile. He looked Mabel up and down. ‘I was rehearsing my thoughts, but your sly approach, Mabel, has taken the wind out of my indignant sails.’

‘Why indignant?’ she said as she led him to the armchairs in her office and called Kitty. After arranging coffee for Rip and herbal tea for herself, she said: ‘This is an unexpected visit. I was planning to see you next week.’

‘Mabel Winston, what a formidable name,’ he said, lounging back. ‘And the name goes with the appearance and reputation, I have noted. What on earth possessed your parents to saddle you with such a name—if that’s not too bold a question?’

 ‘Not bold at all. It’s not the first time someone has asked.’ She paused to sip her tea. ‘There’s no saddling. I like my name. My sisters are called Annabelle and Petula. I like them, too. There’s an old fashion feminine dignity attached to those names.’

‘Very proper.’

‘I am pleased you see it.’

‘Kitty warned me not to use bad language.’

‘I hope you don’t find Kitty too forward.’

‘No, not at all. I love fun-loving, outgoing girls.’

‘Be careful. You’ll give Kitty ideas,’ she said, smiling.

‘I’ve been warned about the beguiling smile, too.’

‘You shouldn’t pay too much attention to Kitty’s playful comments. Anyhow, Rip, I think we can dispense with the small talk. What brings you here, unannounced?’

‘Unannounced?’

‘I need to make appointments with authors. We have numerous books in preparation, and I have to prepare for interviews if we want optimum time efficiency—for both our sakes.’

‘Optimum efficiency of time? I fear you’re chastising me.’ He held up his hands. ‘Okay, I’m now at attention.’

‘What did you want to discuss?’

‘I want to know what’s going on. Demeter has been on the phone in tears, blubbering incoherently about changes.’

‘If you will allow me to be frank, Rip.’

‘Please be.’

‘Your book will be the most controversial to appear on our publications list this year. We need to get it right. Demeter has competently brought the manuscript to this point. It is almost ready for the press, but I think a little tweaking is necessary. I’ll deal with you from this point on, from final manuscript preparation through to promotional activities.’

‘I should feel honored,’ said Rip. ‘I suspect you found Demeter a little uncritical?’

‘She’s sympathetic to your ideas.’

‘A slavish acceptance, I’d call it.’

‘That’s not very gallant, Rip, toward a girl who has given you her trust—and her best. We have a well-prepared manuscript to this point.’

He smiled. ‘Are you in the habit of reprimanding your authors, Mabel?’

‘Just speaking honestly. My object is to produce the best book possible for the author.’

Rip Dowling hesitated, observing Mabel taking slow sips of her herbal tea as she looked over the rim of her cup.

‘Okay, so much for your professionalism. What’s to tweak?’

‘I would prefer to discuss that when I have prepared myself.’

‘Can’t you give me an idea?’

Mabel stared into her cup. She rose and called Kitty. ‘Kitty, please give me Mr. Dowling’s file.’ Kitty was back quickly, giving Rip a naughty smile as she handed the file to Mabel. Mabel pretended not to notice Dowling’s wink. She perused several pages of notes.

‘I feel like the headmaster has me by the ear. I mean, headmistress.’

‘Rip, you are a respected academic,’ Mabel said, still looking at her notes—and ignoring the silly comment. ‘I know this from reputation, not on my acquaintance, as slim as it is, with your academic work. The manuscript we have here is not what one would normally call academic level.’

‘It’s based soundly on my academic work.’

‘Undoubtedly.’ She looked up. ‘Your learning is apparent. But I would still call this a popular polemical work designed to persuade the educated reader.’

‘For the sake of argument, okay. What then?’

‘In places, it is too polemical, too one-sided. You don’t give enough credit to those intelligent people who reject your position. And there are many, as you know.’

‘The argument is precisely to demonstrate that my critics are an ignorant and deluded lot.’

‘The danger is that your violent, often abusive manner of putting your case will only confirm the opinion of those who already agree with you and put off those unaware of the issue or the strength of your arguments. Your aim is conversion, is it not?’

‘Are you deliberately antagonizing me?’ he said, leaning slightly forward.

‘Well, that’s your aim, isn’t it, to bring people over to your view, to warn them of the danger to what you call liberal society?’ said Mabel with disconcerting calmness.

‘Wait a minute,’ said Rip, leaning further forward. ‘Where do you stand?’

‘As the publisher, I don’t stand anywhere. I am trying to judge the book in relation to the market. In that context, there are problems.’

‘I still want to know where you stand.’

‘It’s not relevant.’

‘This conversation is turning bad, Ms. Winston.’

‘I cannot help that.’ She leaned back in her armchair and crossed her legs.

Rip Dowling’s eyes focused a moment on the well-formed dark-stockinged legs and the Prada high heels. He sat back again.

‘I can see how easy I had it with Demeter.’ Mabel did not answer. ‘I take it that this point is a serious obstacle.’ Mabel nodded. ‘And that publication won’t go ahead until we resolve it.’

‘It’ll be delayed while we agree on the best possible form for your book.’

‘It’s that serious? You’re getting away with things I don’t normally tolerate.’

‘It’s serious, but the adjustment you should make is not that big. But the result will be big.’

‘You’re a cool customer, Mabel.’

‘I’ve contacted several respected theologians and philosophers from three Christian denominations. They are scornful of some of your arguments. There are historical and philosophical howlers, they said. Now I cannot judge, but it will go against you in public debates if their views hold any weight. I fear it will affect the success of your book. And your acerbic sarcasm and mockery will not save you. Indeed, it might harm your publishing potential.’

‘I make mincemeat of their unscientific arguments. I know them well.’

‘They don’t think you do, that is, understand their arguments. They say you don’t know the difference between science and philosophy.’ She paused. ‘Look, there’s no need to make it more difficult than is necessary.’ She put her cup on the coffee table in front of them. ‘Why don’t you wait until you see the adjustments? It won’t be as bad as you appear to think.’

Rip seemed to see the pointlessness of arguing further and agreed to wait until he saw the proposed changes. Mabel arranged a time to meet at their earliest convenience and accompanied him to the lift.

‘By the way,’ she said, as her finger hovered over the down button, ‘The titles you have suggested are not catchy enough, too bookish. I think a better title is, The God Rot. You have the double meaning of “rot”: nonsense and decay. You have those notions in mind, don’t you?’

‘Yes, that’s exactly it,’ said Rip. ‘You’re a clever girl.’

‘I am doing my job.’

‘And you do it very well. You do a good job at being a girl, too. None of that grunge stuff for you. I hope you’re not offended.’

‘Not at all. You see what you have before you.’

‘Would Mabel Winston, the girl, like to have a drink with me, the boy, or even dinner?’ His upper lip twitched.

‘Is that a serious invitation?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then I accept.’

Rip Dowling seemed unprepared for the ready acceptance. ‘Oh, well … I didn’t expect …’

‘You issued a polite invitation.’

‘Okay. When?’

‘I have to go away for a week. Please call me when I am back.’

The lift doors opened, and a baffled Rip Dowling entered. ‘Bye,’ he said, a little stupidly, as the doors closed again.

Mabel smiled and returned to her office.

‘He certainly is a handsome man,’ said Kitty as Mabel passed by her.

‘A forty-nine-year-old who dresses like a teenager.’

‘Cute, though.’

‘He asked me out.’

‘They all ask you out. Did you accept?’

‘Yes.’

‘He’s probably already thinking of buying silk sheets. He doesn’t know what he’s in for.’

‘Come on, Kitty. I’m not that bad, am I? He asked me out for dinner. That’s what I have agreed to.’

‘I wish I could handle things as confidently as you do. There would be no containing myself if he asked me out. I would rush out and buy new silk sheets myself.’

‘Don’t be silly. He said he loved funny, outgoing girls like you.’

‘Right, I’m off to the department store tonight.’ Her expression changed. ‘You should’ve told him you’re taken. You should tell yourself you are taken.’

‘I am taken, am I?’ she said over her shoulder as she entered her office. At her desk and out of sight of Kitty, she tapped her notepad with her pen. Then with an impatient movement, she took hold of the Dowling file and began her work. Sometime later, she rose and stood beside the glass wall, looking down at the park merging into the late afternoon light.

‘What’s wrong with you today?’

Mabel started yet again. She turned to see Kitty standing at her desk, holding some papers. ‘I was just thinking. As usual, I have a lot to do, and now family things.’ She resumed her seat at her desk and shuffled the papers lying in front of her.

‘That’s the third time I have seen that distracted manner today. It’s not usual. It’s not Rip, is it?’

‘Kitty,’ she said, closing the file, ‘it’s nothing. You are letting your imagination run along, as often happens. Here, take this. There are instructions for him. Update yourself. I want you to deal with him next week.’

‘With pleasure, but it’s you he’ll want to talk with.’

‘I’ll see him when I return.’

‘Return?’

‘I will be in London for a week, taking my mother with me. I’ll talk things over with him when I get back. Make sure everything else is running in line with this revision. The title will be The God Rot. There are also a few adjustments to the cover blurb.’

Mabel’s mobile phone rang. She looked at the number on the screen and signaled Kitty to stay put.

‘Hello, Tom. Yes, I’m still at the office.’

‘What about tonight, darling? It’s still on, I hope?’

Mabel glanced at Kitty, who was looking at her. ‘I’m sorry, Tom. I can’t tonight or tomorrow. Urgent matters have cropped up.’

‘What’s going on, Mabel? You’ve been in an odd mood the whole week. And we booked the theater weeks ago.’

‘I know. Things are at a critical stage here.’ She hesitated, glancing again at Kitty, who raised her eyebrows. ‘And I’m going away with Mother.’

‘Going away with your mother?’

Mabel recounted the circumstances that resulted in the trip to London.

‘I suppose your mother needs the attention.’

‘Thank you for your understanding, Tom. It can’t be helped. Take someone else, one of your friends.’

‘Come on, Mabel. It’s too late.’

‘I’m sorry. It’s one of those things. I’ll see you when I get back. Goodbye.’

‘I’ll resist the temptation to speak what’s on my lips,’ said Kitty, shaking her head.

‘Things are hectic. He won’t run away—nor will I.’

‘Won’t run away! I’d be wondering what’s going on if I was Tom.’

Mabel thought a moment. ‘Do you want an evening out? It’s your sort of musical. You can keep him entertained with your wit and bubbly personality.’

***

MABEL NOSED her sports coupé into the busy city traffic. Space was made for her, and she took her place in the line crawling along the chic commercial avenue. She programmed the car’s stereo system for Mozart’s Don Giovanni and made herself comfortable. But the overture had hardly ended when the expression of pleasure began to dissolve. She shifted in her seat and looked around as if she thought someone might be observing her. She switched off the stereo and edged into the right-hand lane. At the next set of lights, she turned off the commercial avenue. Twenty minutes later, she was crammed in the chaotic traffic on Dickson Street.

‘Why am I doing this?’ she said out loud, biting her lip.

The crawling traffic brought her into sight of that building. The closer she approached, the more she fidgeted and ran her hand over her mouth. She fumbled her sunglasses and a scarf out of the glove compartment. The sunglasses went on, and she fiddled with the scarf until it was draped over her head. Her head was erect, but her eyes were trained on the building’s entrance. Now it was almost abreast of her. Someone was emerging; her head stiffened. But, no, it was a couple of ragged men, unsteady on their feet. As they stepped onto the footpath, they staggered, attempting to turn around and wave at someone inside.

Now she was abreast of the entrance. She had a quick look. The poorly lit corridor revealed two dark figures, one leaning against the wall while the other was gesturing. She turned full-on and removed the sunglasses. More people were further into the corridor. Now she was beyond the entrance. She fumbled the sunglasses back on as a brisk, supple figure came out of the glare of the traffic lights. He leaped up over the two entrance steps and disappeared inside the building. A few yards further, she discarded the sunglasses and the scarf on the seat beside her. She ran her hand over her forehead, over the moisture of her stress.

‘I have to stop this,’ she said again out loud.

She kept glancing in the rear vision mirror as her car edged forward. At the first opportunity, she swung out of the Shaftsbury district and headed for her apartment on the other side of town. It was not until she had poured herself a glass from the half bottle of French champagne and took her usual early evening seat on the balcony overlooking the city lights that she relaxed. But amid the strains of Don Giovanni and Zerlina’s duet, her thoughts turned to her two impetuous excursions out of the normal sphere of her life. But it was for a short time. She had to ready herself because Warren McCreedy would pick her up in an hour.

Chapter 2

A painful meeting

MABEL TURNED into the familiar curve of the road, leaning a little forward over the wheel. The tall pines on the right-hand side drew back as she came out of the curve to reveal the town’s lights sparkling across the fields bathed in the fresh misty evening air. Her clear eyes sent back the sparkle. Before the first line of houses, she pulled to the side and turned on the light. Adjusting the rear vision mirror, she turned her head to the left, then to the right, brushed her hands over her hair tightly tied into a stub ponytail, and resumed her way. Shortly after, she was cruising down the main shopping street, brightly lit and busy with people doing their Friday evening shopping. She slowed, looking around for familiar faces. There was always somebody and her smart car would attract attention. Now she was spotted, and she responded with a wave through the half-opened window. As she neared the end of the shopping precinct, a tall figure swelling at the waist and holding a broom ran onto the road, waving her down.

‘You always seem to spot me, Bede,’ she said as the passenger-side window wound down, and a man of her age and untidy, harassed appearance bent down to look inside.

‘I’m never waiting for you, Mabel. I just have this feeling sometimes you’re coming along.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ she said, an appreciative smile spreading over her lips.

‘How is your mother? Terrible what happened to her and Mrs. Cannane.’

‘She is bruised and scratched, but that’s not the worst of it … wait, I’ll park.’

Mabel joined Bede on the sidewalk outside of his snack and hamburger shop.

‘My father says it’s more her state of mind that’s the problem. She and Mrs. Cannane both fell, but only Mrs. Cannane died. I’m here to take her on a holiday—try and keep her mind off it.’

‘It’s tragic. Pass on Fiona’s and my best wishes for a speedy recovery.’

‘Thank you, Bede. I will.’ After some small talk, Mabel said, ‘Good to talk to you, Bede. I must go. The family is waiting for me.’

‘Look at you,’ he said, following her to the driver’s side. ‘And look at me. Fifteen years ago, we were the hottest item in high school.’

She stopped at the car door, hesitating. ‘I remember it well.’

‘Do you? Really?’

‘Of course. You were my first boyfriend. I was mad about you.’

‘I was mad about you, too. The best-looking and most popular girl in school was my girlfriend.’

‘You forget Rebecca Cannane.’

‘Rebecca? No, that pure princess-type wasn’t me.’

‘You were the best-looking boy.’

‘But not anymore, Mabel.’ He grabbed his bulging waist. ‘And I wasn’t the most popular.’

‘Yes, you were. All the girls…,’ she drew the door open.

‘I meant the boys, jealous, you know, the whole lot of them. Especially Raf Cannane. He gave me a hard time, and nobody wanted a hard time from Raf.’

‘Raf Cannane?’ Mabel stiffened. ‘That’s someone I want to forget. Besides, he didn’t care about me, just the opposite.’

‘Didn’t care about you? I don’t think so. We had a fight in the gym, don’t you remember?’

‘No. You never said anything.’

‘You didn’t … didn’t I? I probably didn’t want to draw your attention to him. Those punches weren’t for nothing.’

‘Are you sure it had something to do with me? He enjoyed being mean to me.’ Mabel shifted.

‘Not a doubt. Ah, yes, besides having something for you, he didn’t like the way you hogged his sister.’

‘What? Who said that?’

‘Come on, Mabel, surely you were aware? Raf and Rebecca were really close.’

‘No, no, I wasn’t aware of any such thing. You’ve got it wrong.’

‘Well, it hardly matters now.’ He glanced back at the shop. Fiona was busy with a customer. ‘We’ve all taken very different roads, haven’t we?’

‘Yes, we have.’ She hesitated. ‘Do you ever see him?’

‘Now and again when he comes to visit his parents, well, parent, now. Though it’s been a while, he drops in for a hamburger and chat. Fiona likes to see him. What about you? They lived only a few doors away, didn’t they?’

‘I saw him for the first time in ten years at the funeral. All he said to me was, “You’re late,” and then he ignored me most of the time, giving me these disapproving ironic looks. I was late, too, but I couldn’t help it.’

‘That sounds like Raf. He was a troubled soul.’

‘A troubled soul? Being nasty to me didn’t trouble him too much.’

‘Mabel, what’s wrong with you? You’ve become some hotshot publisher, and you’re telling me you did not see that?’

‘I told you. He was mean to me.’

‘Well, I thought he had something for you—in his troubled way. The guy was his own worst enemy.’

What she heard so distracted Mabel that she lost the thread of the conversation. She stared, blinking at Bede, who appeared to be waiting for a response.

‘Anyhow, that’s all history, not worth talking about,’ said Bede. ‘Look at me now, fat and weary—not a match with a girl who is all class.’

‘Few people at thirty-three with a big family remain what they were at seventeen,’ she said, still distracted.

‘Mabel, you’re even more attractive than you were then,’ said Bede, giving her a warm pat on the shoulder. ‘But I must get back to the grind.’ He glanced over his shoulder. ‘Fiona will be out with the whip in a minute.’

As he turned to walk, or rather shuffle, back to the shop, Mabel caught sight of Fiona looking at her through the shop window. Fiona gave her a wave as if to say she was too busy. Mabel waved an okay and returned to her car. She paused with her finger on the ignition button and looked back at the snack and hamburger shop. Bede and Fiona were now busy behind the misted window, serving customers. She could not help wondering how things would have turned out if she and Bede had stayed together. There was hardly a thing he could not do. He was handsome, smart, athletic, and charming. She was so in love. But then, a long-planned year away overseas after school, and when she returned, it was Fiona, all simple sweetness. They were married at twenty, hometown sweethearts; bought into a small business with the help of parents; had the first child at twenty-two; and at thirty-three, he had five children following them in a single file to church every Sunday.

What would Bede have been if he had stayed with her—a lawyer? A CEO? An academic? There was no doubt about his talent and cleverness. He was serious about the law. Would she have made something of him? Or would she be the housewife drudge, slaving at home and the business, scarcely holding on to her sanity, trying to take care of five children? The powerful surge of the sports coupé brought her out of the shopping street. She could not help the thought that Bede presented a waste of talent.

***

BEDE AND the talk about Raf Cannane unsettled her. She could not go straight to her parents’ house. Instead, she drove to those places so familiar to her, so long ago, to the homes of the friends she remembered. Most of her former friends had moved on and had settled elsewhere with varying success. Her mother said she was the most successful, but she did not want to dwell on that. She had lost that competitive drive. As much as her work mattered, being better did not matter as much any longer. At length, she turned into the driveway of her parents’ house from where she could see into the lounge room. Her mother, one arm in a sling and enveloped in the soft yellow light of a standing lamp, had a book in her hands and a grandchild on her lap. Petula sat on one side and Isabella on the other. Their husbands sat opposite, looking on. Light glowed from under the closed garage door. They looked up as she shut the car door. Petula was on her feet and heading for the front door.

‘Oh, wonderful to see you, Mabel,’ said Petula, taking her in her arms. ‘You’re needed.’

Two other grandchildren materialized from somewhere. By the time she had received kisses and hugs from the two children, she was in the lounge room.

‘The all-conquering publisher has arrived,’ said Seth, Petula’s husband. ‘What other famous author have you trapped with that smile? We’re ready to be amazed.’

There was always light-hearted kidding from Seth, and Mabel sufficed with a hug for her brother-in-law. She took up Lilibeth, her sister’s youngest, gave her a hug and a kiss, and, being careful of her mother’s arm, deposited her back on her lap.

‘I’ll just go and say hello to Dad before I settle down,’ she said, bending down to kiss her mother. Her mother’s scratched and bruised face was, for a moment, before her eyes.

‘Tell him to pack up and come back inside,’ Petula called as Mabel disappeared into the hall.

‘Oh, the darling of darlings,’ said her father, dropping a chisel onto the bench when he saw her.

‘Don’t say that, Dad,’ Mabel whispered as she let the big man’s arms envelop her. ‘It’s embarrassing, and it’s not fair to the others.’

‘Go on with you,’ he said, holding her tight. ‘I heard your car. I’m just cleaning up. I’m glad you’re here. Your mother needs you.’

‘Is she doing better?’

‘I don’t think so. At least, she has not improved much psychologically and emotionally. The arm is mending, and the head knock seems to have no lasting effect, but there is a delay up here.’ He tapped Mabel gently on the forehead.

‘What about counseling?’

‘You know what your mother’s like. That’s all hogwash. She must pray and rise above it.’ He swept some wood shavings together on the bench.

‘She can pray and have counseling. They’re not incompatible, are they?’

‘Try telling her that.’

 ‘Just what’s bothering her?’ She took the brush from her father and brushed the shavings into the dustpan he held at the edge of the bench.

‘She can’t reconcile the incident. She and Judith had strolled together each week along that shopping street, just an ordinary, uneventful stroll, meeting people and doing a bit of shopping. Then, without warning, all within seconds, she was swung around by the strap of her bag. Then they were sprawled on the ground, Judith bleeding from her head, and a young man dashing up the street with her bag flailing in his hands.’

‘She is grieving for Mrs. Cannane?’

‘Yes. She’s suffering the heavy grief of losing her closest friend, who had tried to come to her aid. Her bruised arm doesn’t matter, she says. She’s making a brave go of it, but she needs your help.’

‘I’ve come with a suggestion—or rather an invitation from George Kovacs.’

‘Oh, yes?’ He stopped his clearing up.

Mabel explained the plan to take her mother on a holiday to London, leaving on Sunday evening.

‘That’s very generous of Kovacs. Very generous.’

‘It’s combining a little work with pleasure,’ she said, catching the ironic tone. ‘It’s my reward for securing contracts with two well-known authors. I didn’t want the break, but I agreed when the offer was made to take Mom with me. It will be good for her. A change of scenery will get her mind off everything.’

‘No doubt.’

‘You okay with it, Dad?’

‘Yes, of course, I agree with you. A trip away with her favorite daughter is just the thing.’

‘Stop saying that, Dad. It’s not fair.’

‘You’ll do her a lot of good. I’m okay with the plan.’

‘Then what’s the problem?’

‘You’re a mature woman, Mabel. There’s nobody more talented than you, but are you sure your success is not a little due to the way men … to the way men see you?’

‘Dad,’ she said, cutting him short, ‘even if nature plays a role, I’ve never let that cloud my judgment. There has never been a pay-off. I wouldn’t risk my profession and livelihood. No, Dad, George is genuinely good to me. Besides, I make my own decisions.’

She tried to look him in the eye. But he resumed clearing up the last of the shavings and putting away his tools.

‘Okay, I’ve given you a warning. I trust you know what you’re doing. By the way, where’s Tom? Not with you this time?’

‘No,’ said Mabel, picking up a tool and looking for its place. ‘This weekend is for Mom and planning the trip.’

‘You keep that boy hanging on unfairly.’

‘You don’t understand, Dad. We’re too busy.’ She put the tool back on the workbench. ‘Anyhow, let me tell you about the arrangements for the trip.’

‘Just you and your mother are going?’ he said when Mabel thought she had squared everything with him.

‘Yes, of course. Who else do you think?’

‘Kovacs is not going?’

‘Please, Dad, I’ve told you my plans.’

He looked at her a moment. ‘Nature playing a role? You have a way with words, Mabel.’

Petula appeared in the doorway.

‘Come on, you two. Surely, you’ve finished your tête-à-tête by now. I’m getting a cup of tea. And Annabelle has just arrived with the children.’

‘Sorry to take so long,’ said Mabel, taking her arm. ‘I was just discussing some arrangements with Dad.’

***

AMID THE tea and cakes and many exclamations of surprise, Mabel told them about the holiday plan. It gained the full, immediate, and grateful support of the family. They quickly wore down the little reluctance her mother spoke.

‘But, darling,’ she said to Mabel, sitting beside her, ‘are you sure you want to do this? And Mr. Kovacs, is he really offering this? It is very generous. I don’t want you spending your hard-earned money.’

‘Mom, of course, I want to go with you. George Kovacs has high regard for our family. He sympathizes. We have this trip with the compliments of the company. And don’t worry; I wouldn’t be deprived even if I was paying for it—which I’m not.’

‘It’s very generous of him. You tell him that, won’t you?’

‘Of course. Your pleasure will be his reward.’

Mabel happened to glance at Seth and found him observing her. He raised his eyebrows in response to her inquiring expression. Damian, Annabelle’s husband, who sat beside Seth, was also observing her, not so critically but with an examining glint. The front doorbell drew her attention away from them. Annabelle soon ushered the new visitors into the lounge room. Mabel caught her breath.

‘Oh, Rebecca and Raphael,’ exclaimed Mabel’s mother, making a clumsy effort to stand.

‘No, no, don’t get up, Mrs. Winston,’ said Rebecca, hastening forward and gently putting her hand on Mrs. Winston’s shoulder. ‘Raf and I have dropped by to see how you were.’

‘It’s you we should be worried about. I’m so sorry for you both,’ said Mrs. Winston.

Raf stood back. He glanced at Mabel. She stood up and took Rebecca into her arms. ‘We’re very sorry for you and Raf and for your father. We know how terrible it must be.’

Rebecca let her head rest a moment on her shoulder. ‘Thanks, Belle.’

The rarely heard nickname Raf had given her jolted Mabel. She pushed Rebecca into the chair beside her mother and retreated to the lounge chair on the other side of Seth.

‘Come on, Raphael, dear,’ said Mrs. Winston. ‘Come and sit with me. I want to talk to you, too.’

Raf nodded a little stiffly and sat on the armrest next to Rebecca. He put his hand on her shoulder as if to steady himself.

‘Mom is at rest now,’ he said. ‘She’s with her angels. It’s with the living that we must concern ourselves. We don’t want you to feel guilty in any way. It’s part of life.’

‘Thank you, Raphael. I have been feeling a little guilty. It’s perhaps unreasonable to do so. I can’t help it.’

‘Such feelings are natural, but you must look after yourself.’

‘What … what was all that?’ Mabel heard Seth say.

‘Yes, you must not be upset anymore about Mom,’ said Rebecca. ‘She is happy now. You have to take care of yourself.’

‘They’re certainly a handsome couple,’ Seth, leaning over, whispered to Mabel before she could ask what he meant. ‘And so alike.’

‘We always said Rebecca was a female version of Raf—in looks, I mean. Their characters and temperament are quite different, you know.’

‘I should hope so, for Rebecca’s sake.’

‘What do you know about them?’ she said, turning to him.

‘I knew Raf before I met Petula, even before I worked for your Dad.’

‘You’ve never said anything to me. Why not, for heaven’s sake?’

‘Hang on, Mabel. Raf is not exactly foremost in my mind. And you grace us with your presence sparingly.’

‘You always have to have a little dig, don’t you?’ Mabel did not usually react to Seth’s kidding.

‘It’s not a dig. We don’t see you all that often, and when we see you, it is only for a short period. I’m not complaining. That’s just the way things are. Raf belongs to another life for me. He’s rarely been the subject of conversation between Pet and me. Don’t be so sensitive.’

Raf excused himself from the conversation with Mrs. Winston and approached.

‘Well, Seth, it’s been a long time,’ he said, hardly glancing at Mabel. ‘I didn’t think I was sending you to a job and a wife.’

‘I’m grateful for both, Raf,’ said Seth, standing and offering a hand.

‘Do you think you got the pick of the three?’ said Raf, giving the offered hand a quick shake. ‘I told you the Winston girls were famous for their style and good looks.’

‘Trust you to be tactless.’

‘Who’s tactless? They were attractive, stylish girls who got a lot of attention. Still are. Behold Mabel—all gold jewelry and London and Paris designs.’ Seth glanced at her, and Mabel stiffened. ‘Available, too. No doubt, there are eyes eager to notch their belts with Mabel Winston’s name.’

‘Steady on, mate; you forget where you are.’

Mabel stared open-mouthed.

‘What?’ Raf said. ‘Why pretend? Mabel’s a modern independent woman in a modern creative dynamic environment. I can’t think she’s been saving herself.’

‘There are things you don’t say,’ Seth began but stopped. ‘Mabel, I don’t mean …’

‘It’s all right, Seth. Raf must have his say. He hasn’t changed.’

‘Must I?’ said Raf, catching her eyes for the first time.

‘I’m happily married to a good wife,’ said Seth, resuming his seat. ‘She’s my mate and a partner. I wish you had been so lucky.’

‘Touché,’ said Raf. ‘I’m glad for you, Seth. Honestly. There weren’t many good things I did at that time. That seems to be one of the few.’

‘It was, and I’m grateful. Hope things are working out for you.’

‘They seemed to be these days.’

‘What are you doing?’

‘Working with a community group.’

‘I ran into Bede on the way into town,’ said Mabel.

‘Oh?’ said Raf, turning to her. ‘I hope he wasn’t hurt too badly.’ A smile came briefly to his lips.

‘On the contrary, I stopped to talk. I’m glad I did. Bede reminded me of what an agreeable boy he was. I was so in love with him. I couldn’t help wondering what I had missed out on.’

‘Five children and a life of drudgery?’

‘Maybe the Winston style, as you put it, had made something more of him?’

‘Your confidence, Mabel, remains undiminished.’

‘He said you and he had a fight in the gym—a fistfight.’

Raf hesitated. ‘If I have not changed, neither have you, Belle.’

Seth looked from one to the other.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Mabel, feeling the full force of that nickname and realizing she had resorted to old strategies. Why did he bring such things out in her, even after all this time?

 ‘You’re right, Mabel,’ said Raf. ‘Bede was a good guy, deservedly popular. I must check him out – haven’t seen him or Fiona for a while. It’s fifteen years too late, but I’ll apologize for my stupidity.’

He was about to walk away but lingered. ‘If you are ever in the City, Seth, give me a call or drop in. I will show you what I’m doing. You may be interested. And don’t worry. The old habits have gone. No more temptation.’ He handed Seth his card.

‘Hey, Raf, come over here,’ Mabel’s father called from across the room. ‘I want to talk to you.’

Raf shrugged, nodded at Mabel with a hint of a smile, and made his way across the room between the mobile grandchildren. Seth and Mabel watched him go in silence. Seth looked at the card. Mabel bent closer.

‘There’s a bit of antagonism between you two,’ said Seth, not seeing Mabel’s interest in the card.

‘We rub each other up the wrong way.’

‘He rubs a lot of people up the wrong way. He used to take delight in it. Now he seems to do it without much emotion.’

‘How do you know him?’

‘He’s right about steering me to a job and Petula,’ said Seth, with his eyes on Raf across the room in close conversation with Mr. Winston. ‘I met him in London when he was at the height of his powers—as they say. Wenching and boozing and blazing a frenetic path through the financial markets. Though a few years older, I was one of his admiring entourage. In the end, my conscience got at me. One night in a rare reflective mood, he told me my heart was not in it and I should return home. He scribbled your father’s name and business address on a serviette. “This is your sort of business,” he said. “You’ll do well. You can trust the owner. Say I referred you to him.” He snatched the serviette back and scribbled a recommendation about stock. To cut the story short, here I am.’

‘I knew none of this. My father never mentioned it to me,’ said Mabel, staring at Raf and her father. ‘What did he say when you fronted up with the serviette?’

‘He laughed and said that was just like Raf. He gave me a job. Later he said Raf’s scribbled advice had saved his clients thousands.’

‘My father always had a soft spot for Raf. I could never understand it.’

‘Now that I think about it, Raf seemed to make a point of saying I should take notice of the daughters. That had gone out of my mind. I met Petula first, and that was it.’

‘Did he say why?’

‘Yes, what he just said. You were all style and class—special.’

‘Special? He had a funny way of showing it. He was often mean to me. He made me cry—more than once.’

‘Really, the great Mabel Winston made to cry. There are no bounds to man’s powers.’

‘Is that necessary, Seth?’

‘Come on, Mabel, don’t be so sensitive. Your business conquests show you can’t be too much of a bleeding heart.’

‘I’m not made of rock, either. At least, I hope not.’

At that point, Petula called for Seth.

‘I’ve been listening,’ said Damian, breaking in on Mabel’s thoughts.

‘Oh?’ she said as he moved into the chair Seth had vacated.

‘That Raf’s a bit of a character.’

‘That’s one way of describing him. Don’t tell me you know him, too.’

‘No, no, until now, he has only been a name. But now I see him, I can understand the comments about him.’

‘What comments … by who?’

‘Now and again by everyone—whenever his name has cropped up.’

‘Who’s everyone? I scarcely hear mention of him.’

Damian hesitated. ‘I’ve had the impression your sisters and mother are careful talking about Raf in your presence.’

‘What? What possible reason could they have?’

‘Don’t ask me. When his name dropped, the swapping of looks and odd expressions silenced me—and Seth, too.’ He paused to observe Raf. ‘But now he’s here, and I see his attitude to you is …’

‘No, this is too much. What sort of attitude?’

‘The man has an odd equivocal attitude to you.’

‘Look, Damian, I hadn’t seen Raf for around ten years before I saw him at the funeral. That attitude and whatever else can be said about Raf and me dates from our school days—and the neighborhood. Things have changed.’

‘I wonder.’

‘I often ended up in conflict with him. I got the worst of it.’

‘Perhaps that’s why everyone’s cautious about mentioning him.’

‘They’ve never given any sign—none at all.’

‘Well, I think he has something for you—and I’m not sure it’s anger.’

‘You’re imagining things,’ said Mabel. ‘We were never involved … never boyfriend and girlfriend …’

‘What was the conflict about?’

‘I could never work it out.’

Bede had told her only an hour before that Raf did not like her friendship with Rebecca. She had had no idea. But why would you be jealous of your sister’s friendship? Or was it jealousy? Was it because they were twins? She had never stopped to think. No, it could not be, surely, that her intervening in a twin’s relationship caused all the nastiness. And now she saw Raf glance at Rebecca, and Rebecca answer with an affectionate smile. No, it can’t be. That could not incite so much meanness. Raf and her father joined her mother, and Rebecca came to sit with her and Damian.

***

Chapter 3

Rebecca

‘I HOPE I am not interrupting anything,’ Rebecca said as she sat beside Mabel with Damian on the other side.

‘No, of course not,’ said Mabel.

‘I’ll leave you girls to it,’ said Damian. ‘You’re looking good, Rebecca,’ he added as he departed.

‘You do, too,’ said Mabel. ‘Married life agrees with you.’

‘Yes, it does. I’m very content. I wish you were as content.’

‘How do you know I’m not?’

‘I don’t know, really. I just wish my contentedness on the girl who was my best friend.’

‘Was?’

‘I rarely see you, Belle.’

‘It can’t be helped with my work, you … I wish it were otherwise,’ said Mabel, noting yet another remark about her absence from friends and family. ‘You all live out of the City.’

‘Raf lives in the City.’

‘I didn’t know until the funeral. Besides, Raf and I had our problems.’

Rebecca smiled. ‘Yes, indeed. You were like firecrackers. One spark, and off you went. I always thought it a pity.’

‘Well, that was long ago.’ She hesitated, glancing at Raf. ‘What’s he doing now?’

Rebecca looked across at Raf, who caught her eye as if he were waiting for her attention. It was only a moment, and he turned back to the conversation around Mrs. Winston.

‘I think I should let Raf speak for himself.’

‘Is it a secret?’

‘No, there’s no secret. Raf went through a bad period, a terrible period. He’s come out of it. I should let him explain to friends what happened and why he’s doing what he’s doing.’

‘People may not understand?’

‘Some of his friends might not understand.’

‘Some of his friends?’

Rebecca nodded, her eyes on Raf, who seemed again to notice. Raf turned his gaze on Mabel.

Mabel looked away. ‘Are you happy he’s doing it?’

‘Yes, it’s an answer to my prayers, to all our prayers.’ Rebecca glanced again in her brother’s direction. This time Mabel did not check if Raf responded. ‘Mabel, how much do you know about Raf’s bad period?’

‘Very little … almost nothing until Seth told me he knew Raf while they were both in London. Mom has said practically nothing about him, and I was too busy with my career. I was also overseas on and off. That must have been while Raf was in London.’

‘Yes,’ said Rebecca. ‘Raf left for London not long after you departed a second time.’

‘He’s not married, is he?’ said Mabel, knowing the answer, but she wanted Rebecca to say it out loud.

‘No.’

‘Ever been close?’

‘I don’t know. There are things he won’t talk about. There’s no point, he says, turning over bad soil.’

‘Is it bad soil?’

‘I have no idea. He asked the same about you.’

‘What did he say when you said I wasn’t … or weren’t you aware?’

‘Yes, I knew. I knew about Tom. He didn’t say anything.’

‘Nothing at all?’

‘No, nothing. He did not inquire anymore.’

Mabel had the impression Rebecca was holding back.

‘Do you see him often?’

‘Yes, he comes to visit regularly. He loves his niece and nephews. And he gets on really well with Billy. But it’s not hard to get on with Bill.’

Mabel had seen Rebecca irregularly over the last ten years. When she did, it was always a rushed affair with her mind half on Rebecca’s account of her family life—her Billy and three children, childcare, and so on inexhaustibly—and half on the projects with which she was engaged. She had let the gaps between the meetings stretch out until she now saw her not even once a year. The damage she might have done to a precious childhood friendship had not occurred to her. Now, as she gazed at the astonishingly fresh face of her former best friend, all honesty and sweetness, she caught a glimpse of her neglect.

‘I am so sorry for you,’ she said, taking Rebecca’s hand and drawing her attention to the gesture. ‘How do you explain the passing of such a good mother?’ She let Rebecca’s hand slide from hers.

‘It was God’s will,’ said Rebecca, bowing her head. ‘She is now at peace. That’s our consolation.’

Rebecca had always been inclined to utter religious sentiment in response to the random events in life that give pain or pleasure. Mabel had accepted that as part of her character, an endearing part of her girlie character. But now it grated.

‘I can’t say I would regard the loss of my mother with so much equanimity,’ said Mabel before she could censor her thoughts. ‘Others would say …’ She stopped.

‘I don’t think it’s equanimity I feel, Belle,’ Rebecca said as she brushed aside the long fair hair that had fallen across one eye. ‘I simply accept it as God’s will. Mom was a good woman, a good example of Christian womanhood. She lies at peace with her Creator. I’m thankful for that. Raf is, too.’

Rebecca’s calm reply did nothing to lessen the irritation. She was reminded of

Raf’s uncharacteristic sentiments addressed to her mother and Seth’s reaction. She thought Raf was merely polite and respectful, as he always was toward her parents. Now Seth’s reaction took on a different meaning. But, no, that did not reflect the unyielding bullying mind she had known.

‘I’m glad you’re consoled,’ she said, trying to ignore her condescending tone. ‘But let’s talk about something happier, about the living, as Raphael referred to it.’ She cringed as Raf’s full name came out of her mouth.

Fortunately, Rebecca did not notice. Instead, she turned her mind with relish to her family. And now the conversation was all about Billy and the children, seemingly without end. It was Billy this and Billy that, all relating to her darling children. Billy! Rebecca’s brain must have shrunken for her to go on so much about a nondescript, talentless man who had married way above his level. How could the beautiful fair Rebecca go for such a nonentity? It must be true about pregnancy shrinking a woman’s brain.

As much as Mabel tried, she could not concentrate on Rebecca’s family news. All she saw was Rebecca’s youthful, unblemished face and the full, enticing lips. The thought rushed helplessly through her mind that some men would consider Rebecca a dazzling conquest. She was relieved when Petula announced she and her family must be going. She left Rebecca smiling sweetly on the lounge and hurried to her sister’s side. There was much commotion as kisses and embraces were exchanged, first with Petula’s family and then with Annabelle’s. Mabel became aware of Raf by her side.

‘Your dad has just given me an unedited account of your recent successes,’ he said as she released the last of Petula’s children.

‘Oh?’ said Mabel, standing back. ‘Am I to take that as an expression of approval?’

‘No. Merely a comment. One of your successes, I hear, is Rip Dowling.’

‘What do you mean? Eh, do you know Mr. Dowling?’

‘I am a little familiar with the thoughts of Mr. Dowling,’ said Raf, his lips broadening and the irony coming to his eyes.

‘What … how?’ was all she could say.

‘Are you aware Mr. Dowling thinks your mother is dangerously sick?’

‘What …?’ But then she was taken away by Annabelle’s children and then by Annabelle and Damian. When the two families were outside, she returned to Raf, standing aside at the lounge room window. ‘What do you mean…what nonsense is this?’

‘Nonsense, is it, Belle?’

‘Don’t call me that. It’s so long ago and no longer …’

‘Your mother’s Christian faith is central to her life, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, what of it?’

‘Your Mr. Dowling thinks religious faith is a socio-psychopathic sickness that will inevitably express itself in murder. Your mother is not only a very sick person; she’s a very dangerous one.’

‘Oh, that’s it, is it? I should have known. And he’s not my Mr. Dowling.’

‘Yes. That’s what he says. You’re not the only one to read, watch television, and visit websites.’

‘Nevertheless, you should read a bit more about Rip … Mr. Dowling.’

‘Perhaps you’re the one who needs to read a little more, or perhaps understand what …’

‘I understand perfectly.’ Her eyes flashed. ‘I don’t publish successful books for nothing.’

‘Another book almost ready if I’ve understood correctly.’

‘Yes. A bestseller.’ She cringed yet again at her childish responses.

‘The crowning glory of his writings and television appearances, no doubt,’ said Raf. ‘I’m sure you’re right—about its being a bestseller. The educated community is nicely primed for Mr. Dowling’s eloquent bigotry. You are the talented conduit. Congratulations.’

‘You should leave publishing and writing to those that can, and concern yourself with … with whatever it is that you do, exploiting the … capitalist activity … Besides, what could you care? I’ve heard something tonight of your productive years in London.’ Mabel had never heard herself sounding so stupid. Raf smiled and raised his eyebrows. As she scrutinized his rugged, handsome face, she saw a change in him. In the past, the distant past, she could wind him up, as he was doing to her. Now there was no reaction to her digs and pokes.

‘You don’t take enough account of the manner of Mr. Dowling’s expression,’ she continued, attempting to retrieve the self-composure for which she was known. ‘He exaggerates for effect. It’s a question of style. The book I have ready for publication is a polemical work, meant to persuade. It is a different style from that required for more analytical or academic work. I don’t think my mother should feel insulted or abused. Besides, my job as a publisher is to make sure original work is made available to the educated public—in the best form—and to take a role in current debates.’

‘Ah, the enhancement of the right of free speech? Commendable.’

‘Yes, presenting different views to the educated public is healthy. It will promote understanding …’

‘Oh, a Millian defense of free speech. Very good, Belle. I’m getting a glimpse of the influence of your liberal arts degree.’

‘Since when have you been interested? What has it to do with making money?’

‘I’ve always been interested. I grew up in an environment where we discussed these sorts of issues. Or is the gap of two houses too wide for you to remember?’

For the first time that evening, even as he leveled another barb, she noticed a change in his expression, a slight softening in his eyes as he looked at her.

‘No, I haven’t forgotten. Nor have I forgotten other things.’

‘No? I thought you had—at least some things.’ He cast a glance at his sister standing on the front porch, holding her mother’s arm.

Mabel let her eyes rest on Rebecca in her floral dress, and her face lit up with a radiant smile as she watched the two families organize themselves into their cars.

‘Excuse me,’ said Mabel, turning.

She leaned against the vanity sink with her head down. A few tears fell into the gleaming off-white enamel basin. She turned on the tap, bent over, and splashed cold water into her eyes. She hurried back to the lounge room, bypassed Raf without looking at him—though she felt his eyes on her—and stood beside her mother as the two cars were setting off.

After much waving, calling, and blowing kisses, Mabel, her parents, and Rebecca returned to the lounge.

 ‘Please don’t go yet, Rebecca and Raphael,’ said Mrs. Winston. ‘I haven’t had a chance to chat with you. Stay for a cup of coffee. Your company is consoling.’

‘Yes, yes, stay for a while,’ said Mr. Winston. ‘I want to have a few more words with Raf. That deal, eh, Raf? Stay where you are. Leave the coffee to me, darling,’ he called as he headed to the kitchen.

‘Of course, we’ll stay,’ said Rebecca, taking hold of Raf’s arm and drawing him to the lounge settee. ‘We don’t have to rush away, do we, Raf?’

Raf nodded. He glanced at Mabel, who sat opposite, next to her mother. Rebecca leaned against Raf when he was settled, as a girlfriend would lean against her boyfriend. Anyone who did not realize they were brother and sister would surely think they were lovers, handsome lovers. And just as that thought passed through Mabel’s mind, Raf looked at her and kissed his sister on her temple, drawing an affectionate glance. A feeling, years old, cramped Mabel’s stomach.

‘I don’t think a brother ever loved his sister more,’ said Mrs. Winston.

‘I’m privileged to have such a brother,’ said Rebecca. She took his hand.

‘We were always of one mind,’ said Raf. ‘Or almost always.’

‘Excuse me,’ said Mabel. ‘I’ll go and see if Dad needs any help.’

Her mother’s indistinct reply lingered in her ears as she hurried from the lounge room.

‘What do you want, darling?’ said her father, noticing her while he waited for the hot water to seep through the coffee filter.

‘I’ve come to help you.’

‘Good, you’ve come at the right time. You can take the coffee pot, and I’ll carry the tray.’

Mabel poured the coffee and passed the cookies around. She glanced at Raf as she sat down. He was observing her with that same irony. She frowned and looked away, trying to fix a distant expression on her face. Thank goodness nobody at the office was there to see her. What would Kitty think? She didn’t have time to ponder that question because Rebecca returned to the bag snatcher. She took her mother gently through all that had happened, assuring her it was nobody’s fault except the bag snatcher’s. Mabel marveled at the gentle manner and the empathy she showed.

‘You’re such a good girl,’ said Mrs. Winston. ‘It’s so generous of you to understand my feelings and reconcile your mother’s death in such terrible circumstances.’

‘Mom is with the Lord, enjoying her eternal reward,’ said Rebecca. Raf supported her with a nod.

Mabel cringed. An empty religious platitude had spoilt Rebecca’s insightful counseling. Raf was observing her again.

Rebecca had sat forward to talk to Mrs. Winston. Now that she had finished, she leaned back to rest against Raf’s right breast. She rested her head on his shoulder. Raf put his arm around her and kissed her on the top of her forehead, where her smooth, shiny skin met the boundary of her wispy fair hair. Mabel did not know where to put her eyes. What were they doing? Didn’t they realize how this appeared? But, no, Rebecca looked unembarrassed, apparently waiting for someone else to take up the conversation. Nor did her parents seem to think anything strange in the brother and sister’s behavior.

‘Okay, Raf,’ Mabel’s father said, ‘this is a good time to talk. What about it?’

‘Leave the boy alone if he is reluctant,’ said Mrs. Winston. ‘He’s finished with that type of work.’

‘Raf has finished with that type of life, surely not that type of work. Raf, few understand the financial markets better than you. It would be a sin to waste a God-given talent.’

‘You know how to strike where I’m most vulnerable, Mr. Winston. But is it a talent to exploit others—especially the deprived and downtrodden?’

‘Exploit the deprived and downtrodden? I don’t …’

‘That’s what Mabel thinks I do.’

‘What? What’s Mabel been saying?’

‘It was an off-hand comment, Dad.’

‘I should hope so,’ her father said. ‘Nobody exploits an international market—and his staff—more effectively than your Mr. Kovacs.’

‘Dad, please don’t bring Mr. Kovacs into this,’ said Mabel, rubbing her hand over her forehead. The continual assaults on her integrity and understanding were wearing her down. ‘You don’t understand the circumstances of my work.’

‘Nor do you understand the work Raf does and is brilliant at.’

‘Perhaps not,’ said Mabel, waving her hand with a sigh.

‘I wonder what got into you.’

‘I’m sure it was just the usual repartee between Raphael and Mabel, dear,’ said Mrs. Winston, with a look that warned her husband off.

In the past, Mabel would have let her mother’s intervention pass unremarked. But now, Damian and Seth had put a different slant on it. The twins were scrutinizing her, both in the same way. Two faces bearing such a strange resemblance caused her to shift.

‘Well, whatever the case,’ Mr. Winston insisted, ‘there is no reason to condemn working the financial markets out of hand. You can exploit them like everything else in life.’ He frowned at Mabel. ‘I’m a little tired of this leftist put-down of the financial sector. You seem to forget why you had such a good start in life.

‘Mabel doesn’t mean it at all like that,’ said his wife. ‘You’re too sensitive on that point, dear.’

‘It would be a bit much to call me a leftist, Dad,’ said Mabel.

‘Perhaps liberal?’ offered Raf.

‘How would you know, Raf? I’ve not seen you for ten years.’ For the second time, she sounded unbearably pompous.

‘I do read, Belle,’ he said, with the ironic smile she had first seen at his mother’s funeral, ‘even your company’s books. You should be happy your efforts have reached someone like me.’

‘I’m flattered.’

‘No need. I have been catching up on neglected reading. That’s all.’ He drew an upward glance from his sister. As far as I can see, you don’t do anything on the business and financial markets.

‘Yes, I ignore the business sector.’

‘Come on, Raf. Let’s not get off the subject,’ said Mr. Winston. ‘What about it? No risks, no high-flying, just some analysis of what’s going on around the world. The time spent is up to you.’

‘I’m a little out of touch, Mr. Winston,’ said Raf. ‘I turned my back on all that three years ago.’

‘I’m aware of that. We understand. But now that you’ve got your life in order, it’s time to think about … time to take up some old threads, legitimate threads.’

‘Because you’re asking, Mr. Winston, I will think about it.’

‘Raf will do whatever you want,’ said Rebecca.

‘I only want Raf to do something he’s willing to do,’ said Mr. Winston. ‘I’m suggesting it’s time to look beyond what he is doing now. That need not stop.’

‘You’d better tell me more about it,’ said Raf, glancing at his sister’s upturned face.

‘Give me a call next week at the office,’ said Mr. Winston. ‘We can tee up a time to get together. You need a bit more money than you exist on, young fellow.’

Since arriving in her hometown that evening, beginning with her meeting with Bede, Mabel had the impression she missed something everyone else was aware of. And now, this exchange between her father and Raf, which had seemed merely a business offer, had the appearance of something more. Had it to do with the community group with which Raf was connected? She made a brave attempt to resist her curiosity. When the visit came to an end, and Rebecca’s attention was with her mother, Mabel saw her chance.

‘You were particular about inviting Seth to visit you in the City.’

‘Yes, what of it?’ said Raf, exhibiting surprise for the first time that evening.

‘Are your invitations select and exclusive?’

He looked down at her, not understanding for a moment. ‘It’s not in the field of your interest.’

‘How do you know?’

‘You have not changed, Belle. Still the same old attitudes …’

And he had the same knack of wounding her, she wanted to say but could only get out, ‘And you?’

‘Everybody’s welcome to come and see,’ he said, frowning. ‘I don’t have any more cards, but your mother has the address. It may be for nothing, though. The area will appall you.’ He shrugged and looked away.

‘You may be prejudging.’

‘Maybe, but I don’t think so,’ he said, turning back to her. ‘Paris and London fashion design is another universe.’

‘Am I that superficial?’ she could not help objecting.

‘I’ve discovered the hard way that the surest and severest judge of one’s character is oneself—when one has woken up.’

She had to stop the exchange. He could not know how savagely he was wielding his stick. But he unexpectedly checked the collapse of her resistance.

‘Do I get a reciprocal invitation?’ he said, expecting her to squirm and make excuses.

‘You’re welcome to visit me any time at the office, Raf, if that’s what you mean.’ At last, a chance to show he was wrong, at least in some respects, about her.

‘That’s a gracious invitation, Raf,’ said Rebecca, taking his hand and holding on to it. There was another silent exchange between them.

‘But does Mabel mean it?’

‘Of course, she does, don’t you, Belle?’ said Rebecca, shaking his hand.

‘Try me, Raf. You understand I have meetings during the day. I’ll get you a card.’

‘I’m not adjusting for anyone, I hope you realize,’ he said when she had fetched the card from her bag and handed it over.

‘You don’t have to. You are obviously not familiar with the way some authors dress.’

He looked at the card, frowned, glanced at Rebecca, and then looked at her. It had not occurred to him that few women in her position would be embarrassed to have him visit them.

‘No, I am not,’ he said, slipping the card into his shirt pocket. ‘We’ll see.’

‘We will, indeed.’

It was the only time that evening that Mabel seemed to get the better of Raf. It was a consolation, a sort of second prize, she thought, as she and her parents watched Raf, with Rebecca still holding his hand, walk along the front path to their parents’ house, two doors along. As the twins moved into the shade of the ornamental trees overhanging the path, they put an arm around each other. Rebecca leaned her head for a moment against Raf’s shoulder. Mabel stayed staring after they had passed from sight.

‘Come on, darling,’ her father said, putting his arm around her shoulder. ‘You need some sleep. It’s been a hectic evening for you here.’

End of sample chapters

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Writer … and still in the fifties