Bitter in Love sample

Bitter in Love

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 elevator 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 by the curb. At her vague wave, a taxi came to a lurching stop beside her.

‘Dickson Street, Shaftsbury district.’

The driver glanced curiously 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. Shielding herself among the people coming at her, she 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. 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, avoiding eye contact.

Kitty pursed her lips. ‘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 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 lounged in his seat and picked up the glass the waiter had just refilled from the bottle of premium red. He regarded Mabel.

‘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?’

‘It’s Rip, as I’ve told you before.’ He looked her up and down. ‘I wasn’t looking at the view. I was rehearsing my thoughts, but your sly approach, Mabel, has taken the wind out of my indignant sails.’

‘Why indignant?’ 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?’

 ‘No, it’s not bold at all. It’s not the first time someone has asked.’ She paused to sip her tea. ‘Nobody has saddled me with anything. 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.’

‘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 must 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.’

‘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 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 elevator.

‘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 elevator 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 stared at her. ‘And I’m going away with Mother.’

‘Going away with your mother?’


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.’

‘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 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 religious sentiments 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 cocked his head. 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 Mrs. Winston’s arm.

Mabel let her eyes rest on Rebecca in her floral dress, her face lit up 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 him 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 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 the 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,’ 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 a 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 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. 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, scowled, 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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Issues of manliness