Friends or Lovers

Commissioned by Social Exchange Ltd

Rory Ridley-Duff

Friends or Lovers
For every man who has lost love, and every woman who can’t find it… Penny Leyton is one smart sexy woman on her way to the top. Bridget Jones she certainly is not, but she has the same chaotic approach to romance. Just as she is breaking through the glass ceiling, her boss Dave Stockton hints at a workplace scandal. Ablaze with moral outrage, Penny realises too late that one of her own friends is implicated and that she is part of the problem. Can she untangle herself from a hidden web of intrigue and save herself? Dr Rory Ridley-Duff is an author, composer and university lecturer whose research established how friendship, courtship and parental interests shape behaviour in organisations. His interest in gender issues and workplace democracy evolved out of directorships in worker cooperatives and 15 years of consultancy work in the social economy.
www.roryridleyduff.com

“Anyone who cares about love will give this book to their partner or spouse, sister or brother.” Dr Poonam Thapa Gender, Culture and Sexual Health Expert

Also by Rory Ridley-Duff

Emotion, Seduction and Intimacy:
Alternative Perspectives on Human Behaviour “Rory‟s work is insightful and helps to redress some of the imbalances in the feminist theory of patriarchy while simultaneously introducing the concepts of gender and intimacy to the subject of enterprise governance”.
Professor Phil Johnson, Head of HRM and Organisational Behaviour, Sheffield University

“Rory is a man who has deliberately chosen the left-hand path of progress. He does not shun the moral maze of human desires and passions but brings greater understanding to that very facet of life – the forbidden fruit that made us fall from grace and its role in our emancipation.”
Dr Poonam Thapa Gender, Culture and Sexual Health Expert Available from Amazon.co.uk

Copyright © Rory Ridley-Duff, 2009 All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission except as defined below. No material may be reused except in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, or under the terms of any licence permitting limited copying issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency, 90 Tottenham Court Road, London W1T 4LP. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages. Rory Ridley-Duff has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Acts 1988. Published by: Rory Ridley-Duff 4 Rosehill Close Penistone Sheffield S36 6UF

Social Exchange logo designed by Natasha Ridley-Duff

Acknowledgements
The people who made this book possible are numerous. Firstly, I‟d like to thank Caroline, my wife, for the enormous patience and support she has given to my writing aspirations. It is every author‟s dream to have someone with whom they can freely discuss ideas, draft chapters, propose story lines, and who will also check their manuscript for errors and support them through lean times. For these and many other reasons, you are still my dream woman. To family members and life-long friends who did not spare my feelings in their feedback on early drafts, you have my enduring thanks. Your comments were invaluable and I trust you will spot your influence in the end result. To my children, Natasha and Bethany, you have been a constant source of inspiration and the best antidote to loneliness that any writer could ask for. This book tackles a sensitive subject and I am indebted to many research participants and work colleagues for the insights they have provided over the years (whether intended or not). This book is fiction but without undertaking a series of workplace studies, this text would never have seen the light of day or come close to the reality of working life in early 21 st Century Britain. To my muse in business, Poonam, I thank you for helping me find moral courage when everyone around me thought I was mad or hopelessly naïve for writing this novel. Our conversations about the human condition will remain with me always.

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 1
“So, Mike,” I said, “why have you been bothering Elona?” He looked so unconcerned that it made me slightly irritable, but that is not something that you show in this job. Calm, confident, concise – look him in the eye. “It‟s nothing, just a misunderstanding. She wanted to discuss something private so I asked her if she‟d like to go for a drink. She said „no‟. End of story. It‟s no big deal.” “Not to you, maybe. There‟s been a complaint.” “She‟s never said anything about it. If she felt uncomfortable, she never showed it. And yes, we‟ve been close at times, and sometimes I think she‟s tried to flirt with me, but I‟ve always been careful.” Mike looked uncomfortable now. His eyes looked around the floor. The frown on his brow was more pronounced. Time to give him a push. “Bit of a tease, was she?” I said with a laugh. “No, that‟s not what I‟m saying. I‟m not making out she was „up for it‟ or anything crude like that. I just never got any sense that she didn‟t like the way I behaved.” Yes, Mike was traditionalist all right. To him a „bit of fun‟ probably included the occasional trip to a lap-dancing bar or shagging in the toilets. To Elona, it was a different matter. Still, Mike was moderately bright, had worked his way up through the ranks, landed himself a regional sales management job and probably felt he was enjoying the best years of his life. He was married and fancied himself a bit too much, if you ask me. He prided himself on being „friendly‟ but I just found him a creep. He was 50, one of those „pretty boys‟ who does not realise that

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they are past it. God, was he past it! He had aged well, I guess, but too old for me – definitely! And he really irritated me when he shared dirty jokes with his friends but never with me. I could see right through him. He was certainly not my type. Not my type at all. I‟m fairly new here. Nine months into my first job as Head of Personnel. In my previous job I‟d been fast-tracked to deputy director but came up against the glass ceiling. To progress I had to move. I guess the sexual revolution has helped a bit. Twenty years ago this company would not have contemplated me in this position. Many of my management colleagues are women too. I can see that men have it harder in some respects, but the patriarchy seems alive and well. Mike is proof enough of that. I would not call myself a feminist, but I‟m not averse to a confrontation with the occasional unreconstructed man, particularly in the company of like-minded female friends. It can be quite a laugh making a sexist-pig squirm. So, here we are. Mike the macho, sales rep of the year four years ago, now leading a successful team but getting angry when one of his administrative staff won‟t go for a drink with him. Married with children, probably bored at home, still wanting to resurrect his youth and put it about. Not quite as straightforward as some situations I‟ve faced because he has a good reputation and is well liked. I think, perhaps, I‟d better check with my boss before I do anything here. “Mike. Leave it with me for the next 24 hours, I‟ll look into this and get back to you. In the mean time, steer clear of Elona. She‟s a bit sensitive at the moment. Boyfriend trouble, I think. Come see me tomorrow and we‟ll wrap this up.”

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Mike did not look relieved at these comments and mumbled something I could not hear. He shook my hand. His eyes met mine and he fixed his gaze for just a second then looked away. He had never struck me as a formal sort before.

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Chapter 2
“He‟s done what?” asked Dave, my director. “Not completely sure, but it clearly looks like he‟s got the hots for Elona. I hear he‟s not been a paragon of virtue in the past. This does worry me. Elona‟s upset. I can‟t let this rest.” I liked Dave. Unlike most men, he engaged with women as equals and was sympathetic to many of the problems they faced. I could happily spend time in his company in the office or away on business. He enjoyed working with me but was careful never to overstep the mark or make me feel uncomfortable. He was not much older than me, and I knew that he was ambitious too. We shared a professional ethic and modern outlook. “Well, this isn‟t easy. Mike‟s good – his team like him. But I agree we can‟t let this pass. Zero-tolerance and all that! What‟s right here, Penny?” I was not sure whether the question was rhetorical but as no more words were forthcoming I gathered my thoughts. “As far as I‟m aware this is the first such complaint against Mike. I don‟t think he should be sacked, but we should move him. It‟s fair to Mike and it„ll send a strong message to the rest of the company that it won‟t be tolerated.” Dave looked at me thoughtfully for several seconds. “Do it sensitively, Penny. Okay?” I nodded. * * * Innovation Centre Ltd was modern and dynamic. Dave was „Director of Business Development‟ and spent his time seeking out creative types and developing relationships with them. He

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found inventors, got them to commit their products to us then helped them obtain development grants. Over the last decade, the Innovation Centre – or IC as we call it in-house - has created a network of 60 inventors and a catalogue of wonderful gadgets. As for me, I did the „women into business‟ thing a few years back. They were dishing out bursaries to encourage graduates into management. I thought I may as well get myself an MBA couldn‟t see what harm it would do - and now I understand all that talk of returns on investment, nett present values and can put together a business plan. I still prefer the „relationship‟ thing, however, and decided to specialise in human relations work. Dave has a penchant for that too. He looks smart, speaks well and is incredible at building trust. He mentors me and I appreciate that. Of course he‟s taken – most guys like him are – and he now has a young child that he rarely sees. I remember that he wistfully joked once that IC not only wanted its pound of flesh but also insisted that you hand it over with a smile. Much as I like him, he is „strictly business‟. I‟ve read my share of self-help books, but avoid the ones called „How to Find the Man of your Dreams at Work”. They‟re fine for those who want to give up work when they find their prince, but for me they‟re a heap of crap. My friends joke that I am a model of the Cosmopolitan revolution – vibrant, smartly sexy, intelligent, able to live independently, but go out on the town and get a shag if I want to. I have my share of paranoia about my looks, but even so I am a bit of a man magnet when I wear black. I‟ve worked hard for my career. Workplace relationships might put that at risk. Most men are bastards anyway, interested only in sex, football

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and drinking. I do boyfriends, but only until they want me to cook them a „special‟ meal or wash their clothes. I lived with a guy once but soon felt like his mother. I dumped him. Since then, I‟ve taken my pleasure carefully and on my own terms. It seems to work for me. * * * “Thanks for dropping in, Mike,” I said showing him to a chair. “I‟ve had a chat with Dave and Elona about the situation and I‟ve a suggestion for you.” Mike looked at me and nodded to indicate he was ready. I can‟t say that I like this side of my job, but it goes with the territory and you have to harden yourself to it. “We think it‟d be a good move for you to join Direct Marketing. Same salary, same status. It‟d mean travelling more, of course, and working with a new team. They‟re a bit wet behind the ears, so we want someone with lots of experience.” Mike looked blankly at me for a moment. “Carry on,” he said quietly. “It‟s a new project. Another feather in your cap.” “Cut the crap, Penny,” Mike interjected, “I wasn‟t born yesterday. I‟m taking the flak for Elona, aren‟t I?” “Well, we need a solution to that too, and this provides one.” “And what if I don‟t take this position?” he asked. “That‟d create a problem,” I said firmly. Our eyes locked and his hand moved up and rubbed his chin, then around the side of his head as he pinched his ear-lobe. “Can you give me until Monday?” he asked.

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“No, Mike, I‟m away in France next week. I can give you „til 4 pm. If you need to talk to your wife then take the day off, but I don‟t want this hanging around while I‟m away.” “She‟s working.” “Can‟t you call her? Meet her for lunch?” “I‟ll try. Penny...” he hesitated. He was trying to say something, but I could see that he was struggling to find the words. “What is it, Mike?” “This…” his eyes looked up at the ceiling then down at the floor. His awkwardness was palpable but no further words came out. “If that‟s all, Mike, I have to go.” I got up from my seat and felt his eyes burn a hole in me. He was not a happy man. Mike called me back later that day and accepted the new job. It is never easy giving someone a sideways move but it has to be done sometimes. The hardest thing is protecting someone‟s dignity while sending a message that some behaviour is unacceptable. In some ways, I feel sorry for Mike, but the world is changing and the type of behaviour he is responsible for is no longer acceptable to either men or women. I do have a conscience. I was able to protect his income. He can‟t really complain. His family is still safe. The problem is sorted and Elona is protected. I get a small amount of satisfaction that I can contribute to changing the values of society and make the world slightly safer for women. If I have to clip the wings of a man who sets a bad example then it feels like a job well done.

Friends or Lovers

Chapter 3
France was fun, but hard work – a two-day conference. If I go to these events with Dave I feel obliged to spend time with him, but this time I was on my own and had the chance to really let my hair down. If there is one thing I enjoy about going away on business it is the freedom I have in the evenings. At home I might bump into a neighbour or colleague from work. But abroad, I can either lock myself away in my hotel room and read a good book or slip on a sexy outfit to indulge myself at conference parties. This time I did both. First night I snuggled down with a Bernice Rubens novel. The second night I decided to dress up and take my chances at the conference party. After relaxing in the bath, I shaved, moisturised myself with assorted oils, and applied a dab of Clinique near my ears, wrists and breasts before setting off to await the chat up lines. It was a dull evening. The best approach I got all week was not at the conference. He must have been at least ten years older than me and at the boarding gate I saw him reading what looked like a textbook. Our eyes met briefly a couple of times. He was casually dressed in jeans and a black top. I studied him. He had dark brown hair with touches of white. I guess he was around 45 but still had a hint of the handsome features of his youth. He had definitely aged well. His eyes were brown and there were wrinkles stretching from the outer corners across both temples. Clearly he was a person used to smiling and laughing. They were nice eyes, kind but sexy. When he cast them in my direction, I could feel them undressing me. Usually that pissed me off, but not

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today. He was not bad, I thought. A pity he had not been at the party the night before. When we boarded the plane, I manoeuvred myself into the queue just in front of him. My bum looks good in jeans so I ensured that he got a good look at it by bending down to tie a (non-existent) shoelace. It seemed to have the desired effect because five minutes later I was in a window seat and he sat down next to me. He continued to read his book until the plane took off but then started to look across me out of the window. As the plane rose higher and higher, he continued to gaze at the buildings and roads below. “Flying always makes me feel humble,” he suddenly remarked. “You look down there and you realise just how insignificant you are.” He looked straight into my eyes and held my gaze for a second, and then he smiled. All the lines at the corners of his eyes creased. Definitely nice eyes. I instinctively smiled back. He held my gaze long enough to let me know he liked the way I looked, then without another word he resumed reading his book. From then on, I noticed his every move. He was reading intently, underlining phrases that caught his imagination. Sometimes he would sigh, and at other times he frowned. After a while he let out a laugh. “A comedy?” I asked. He turned to me again and smiled. “Of sorts,” he remarked showing me the title of an article he was reading. I obliged by reading it out. “The impact of sexuality on group dynamics: a symbolic interactionist perspective.” I paused for a moment and then quipped, “Some comedy!”

Friends or Lovers

He looked carefully at me and nodded in agreement. “Penny,” I announced, “thirty-something manager from Warwickshire.” “John,” he responded, “forty-something consultant from London.” There was that smile again. This time I held his gaze for a little longer to let him know I liked the way he looked. “A consultant, eh! In what field?” I enquired. “Behaviour,” he responded. “Are you in my line of work?” I asked, hoping to dig a bit into his background. “And what line is that?” “Employees. I‟m an HR manager.” “Partly, I guess. I sometimes work with HR people. I would guess they read my work sometimes….” “You‟re a writer?” This was getting better and better. “Well, I write, but I‟m not a writer. I mean I don‟t write for a living; writing is a by-product of my living.” “Very enigmatic. So, what is it you do?” He paused. “I challenge the way people look at themselves and each other,” he said guardedly. “In what way?” I was genuinely curious. “Well….I might help men to look at women differently, or women to look at men differently.” “So are you a relationship counsellor? A sex therapist?” As I said the word „sex‟ I placed just enough emphasis on it to ensure he knew it was a flirt. “Only to my wife!” he joked, acknowledging my interest and deflecting it at the same time.

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“You‟ve got a wife?” the words came out so fast that I kicked myself. “Yes, and kids,” he immediately answered. He continued without any trace of embarrassment while I wanted to shrink into my seat. If my cheeks had coloured up, he convinced me that they had not. “Some of my clients think of me as a pain in the arse.” I was tempted to make another flirty comment, but resisted. “Why?” “Well, let‟s see. You‟re in HR, right? You must have an abundance of „knowledge‟ about men and women.” The way he said „knowledge‟ was weird, like a challenge. Did I detect the hint of mockery? “As much as the next person, I guess.” “Oh, more than that, surely? It is your job to know about men and women. You must be acutely aware of their typical profile.” “Of course,” I said with a smile. “Woman are made of sugar and spice and all things nice while men are made of slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails.” He smiled. “We don‟t have long enough to discuss that one! Okay. A taster only. Let‟s take something outside your everyday experience. Let‟s think about the army.” “The army!” I was genuinely surprised. “Your assumption is right. Khaki never was my colour and I don‟t like getting dirty.” “You disappoint me,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “What about the army, then?” I asked, brushing aside his comment with a smile.

Friends or Lovers

“Well, it may not be fair. I usually ask this question at the end of a course,” he said. “Aha! The million pound question!” I said. “Can I ask the audience?” “Well, it‟s your opinion that really intrigues me,” he said. I liked that. It was flattering to think I intrigued him. “Okay. Here‟s your question. „What‟s the most sexist thing about the army?‟” What an odd question, I thought, and it made me pause. “Fuck! Where do I begin?” Where would this lead? I turned over half a dozen arguments in my head – the army is, after all, an organisation created by men, staffed largely by men with the purpose of keeping men in power. However, I didn‟t want to spoil a promising conversation by saying this. I started to offer less controversial suggestions. “Bullying, raping and abusing.” He looked at me kindly. “That‟s three things,” he said with a wry smile. “I saw a documentary some time ago about women in the army. Some had to put up with dreadful abuse. I had a girlfriend who was in the police, and she talked of similar things happening to her. I imagine the army is even worse.” “Bullying, rape and abuse happen to men as well,” John said. I felt nervous and my right hand instinctively went to pinch my ear lobe. I found it difficult to look him in the eye while I thought. “Can I phone a friend?” I teased. “All mobiles must be switched off during the flight,” he said with mock severity.

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“What‟s the most sexist thing about the army?” I repeated quietly to myself. “It‟s not a trick question, is it?” “Not at all. But it‟s a thought provoker, don‟t you think?” In a way it was and I kept looking for the way he wanted the question answered rather than the way that I would have answered it myself. That, I felt, was the real thought provoker. “You did ask!” he said with a laugh. I wasn‟t going to be put off that easily, so I thought some more. “Women soldiers get raped….men don‟t.” “Male soldiers get raped too, usually when in enemy hands,” said John. I was genuinely shocked to hear that. “God, that‟s sick.” “Indeed.” “But it‟s not the same, surely?” I retorted. “I mean, a woman is always going to feel more violated, more powerless.” Even as I said it, I wasn‟t sure that I was making sense. “Maybe. Have we asked the men how they felt about it?” I paused. He was probably so practised at fielding answers to this question that I was on a hiding to nothing so I looked for a way out. “I can‟t say I‟ve given this much thought.” “You wouldn‟t be alone in that.” “Bit of a depressing subject,” I added and shot him an irritated look that hopefully did not cross the boundary into rudeness. “You‟re right. And I wouldn‟t want you to remember me as the depressing old git who spoiled your flight home.” “Don‟t get me wrong. It‟s food for thought,” I replied somewhat apologetically.

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“But not a very sexy topic. Not nearly as sexy as your perfume ….” I laughed before I could stop myself. “Hey, married man! Should you be talking to me like that?” I snapped back ensuring my eyes caught his again. “But it is sexy. Are you asking me to lie to you? I thought women hated liars….” “Perhaps you should be a bit more choosey about the things you say.” I said these words with a smile that reassured him that his compliments were very welcome. “Okay, what should I say to a young woman like you?” It was not what he said that induced butterflies, but the way he looked at me as he said it. “Less of the „young‟, please,” I said coyly. “I‟m old enough to gobble you up.” “Hmmm. Nice thought. I can see that I‟m going to have to watch you!” he chuckled. “Watch me? I think you opened up this…..er…..line of talk.” I was enjoying this. “Do you like to open up?” he asked inquisitively. “Yes, but only with strangers,” I quipped. “Then I‟d better not get to know you too well, had I?” Whatever I had expected on the journey home, it was not this. I was not sure whether to invite him to join the mile high club, or punch him in the balls for being so cheeky. I felt that perhaps I should not be encouraging him to continue this conversation but there was something magnetic about him and I found myself energized in his company. I wanted the conversation to continue. It was one of those moments where I could have

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stubbed out the fire before it got too hot but chose to fan the fire instead. Our banter continued. He talked fondly of his wife, Ann, and children. By the time we landed I felt like I‟d had a brief tour of his life. He was an academic turned marketing consultant, who specialised in work with creative teams. He‟d been married for 20 years, survived a few ups and downs, and had two children he loved deeply. His boy was 12 and his daughter 14. For a living he helped companies educate men and women to improve their marketing skills. Our flirting gave way to convivial conversation but as I found him both engaging and interesting I did not care so long as it continued. As our descent into Heathrow started, I took him back to the start of our conversation. “So what is it you do exactly?” “I just told you,” he said pleasantly. “Exactly,” I stressed. He thought for a moment. “I try to find another way to look at human relationships.” “And what way is that?” I added, continuing to dig. “The way they really are.” The brevity and simplicity of his response made me pause again and he used the moment to spring another surprise on me. “Would you like to meet up for a drink next week?” “What about your wife and kids?” I said with a hint of sarcasm. “My wife knows me well. I don‟t hide my friendships from her.” Friendship? That was a quite a leap in such a short space of time and I was taken aback. It was not just his forwardness that

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caused me to stop short, but also a sense of disappointment that his aspirations were not a little higher. He saw my hesitancy and I felt a burning need to say something, anything. “You‟re a most unusual man and while I‟d like to go for a drink, I don‟t think it would be sensible….” He nodded his head, but did not look disappointed. “Just thought I‟d ask. How about swapping e-mail addresses?” I smiled. He was hard to resist. I gave him my personal email, rather than work. “Okay,” I found myself agreeing before I could stop myself. “I can pretend that we met at the conference.” “Do you need to pretend?” he inquired without a trace of mockery. As we swapped cards I felt a pleasant sensation that was rare for me. I‟d flirted with quite a number of men over the years but I‟d never really cared whether they liked me or not. With John it immediately mattered to me that he liked me for more than my womanly charms; I actually found that I cared what he thought. As I drove away, I could not get him out of my mind. When I reached home, I chucked my bags into the corner of my bedroom, went through my winding down routine and settled into bed. I continued to think of him as I allowed my fingers to work their way down into my pants. I let a story unfold in my mind. His eyes moved over me, greedily consuming every inch of my skin, and his hands moved slowly across me tantalising and pinching my nipples, caressing my stomach, then slowly pulling down my knickers. With one assured movement his mouth latched onto me and began to knead my flesh. My head and body arched as the pleasure rose within me. Here was a man who knew how to make a woman

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feel good all over. I focussed all my thoughts on his delicate firm tongue circling and massaging until every nerve ending in my body sizzled and my heart pounded so loud that I heard it thumping in the dead of night.

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Chapter 4
On my return to work I found that Mike was now complaining that his salary would drop because his team would earn no commission until the direct marketing operation was up and running. I asked one of my staff, Phil, to find out the unresolved issues and discuss them with me at the end of the day. This gave me time to cast my eye over some of the mail I had received. There were several memos about recruiting regional organisers for the new home catalogue. Our approach was to recruit people with school age children who could use their local networks to recruit others (usually mothers) to go door-to-door. Just like Avon, really, but specialising in a much broader range of gadgets, not simply beauty products. The marketing manager, Jo, wanted specialist training for her team on consumer behaviour. None of this was new, just a variant on previous recruitment campaigns. We advertised in the local press, short listed people, and then interviewed them at a hotel. Those that I liked would be invited to our headquarters in Leamington Spa for an assessment day, where they would have a second interview with Jo. After spending the morning organising the following week‟s meetings, I turned to my e-mails. Despite the efforts of our IT department, junk mail still got through and I weeded this out as quickly as possible. There were offers of Viagra and penis enlargers as well as selection of links to web-sites for dating rich men or a quick shag. I found most of these distasteful but they were becoming commonplace and whatever we did the problem still increased.

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I dealt with a couple of e-mails from friends wanting to know if I‟d had any conference adventures and I responded with the cyberspace equivalent of flouncing my hair. There were several messages from Dave wanting to set a meeting to discuss what I‟d learnt in France so I arranged a follow up session for Monday. Lastly, there was a message from someone that I did not immediately recognise:
From: j.t.simons@tascali.com To: penny@hotlips.com Subject: Drinking with women? Penny, Had a word with my wife. No probs if you want a drink. John

My god, he‟s e-mailed me already. He must be keen. I hit the [Reply] button:
From: penny@hotlips.com To: j.t.simons@tascali.com Re: Drinking with Women Hi John, To think that you are so willing to corrupt a sweet innocent girl like me….. Who are you playing verbal tricks on today? Penny

Even though I knew that I had more pressing tasks to do, I kept wondering if he was going to reply. Every time a new e-mail arrived, I felt a sense of expectation disturbing me. The hour seemed to drag.
Penny, Isn’t it your turn to teach me some tricks…? John

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Good. He likes to play.
John, Tricks? Well, I can walk on my hands (always goes down well in a beer garden when I’m wearing a summer dress without knickers). Can you do that? Penny

While I pondered whether this was too risqué, habit caused me to hit the Send button. Bugger. Too late. And the bastard made me wait over an hour for a reply.
Penny, Which? Wear a summer dress, walk on my hands or lose my knickers? John x

Ha! He‟d added a kiss! What was he trying to say? I started to wonder whether he‟d really asked his wife about me or whether it was just a trick to put me off my guard. Every time a voice inside me warned me to be cautious another told me to be daring.
John, I’ll come if you wear a kilt. We can shock some genteel country folk by doing handstands together…. Penny x

Not much chance of him accepting on those terms, but at least I get to kiss him back. This time he replied quickly.
Penny, Hmm! Tempting, very tempting. But unfortunately I don’t have a kilt. I think my wife has one from her Scottish dancing days, but she’s petite and it won’t fit me. Do you have any that would fit me? John x

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The cheeky bugger! He‟d mentioned his wife again. Better back off for now.
John, I’m a big girl, but not that big….. Looks like we are going to have to postpone that drink for the time being. Penny x

I hoped that I‟d not pushed him away too quickly. After 30 minutes, the joy I‟d been feeling drained away. After 45 minutes, I felt a mixture of annoyance and regret. What was I playing at? Were we flirting or joking? I was not sure. Whatever my thoughts, they had to be put on hold because Phil entered the office and sat down with a large sigh. He‟d clearly had an eventful meeting with Mike. “Okay, hit me with it,” was my starter for ten. Phil was a good lad. He was young and hard working, bright but inexperienced. He had good grasp of psychology (always useful in this line of work) and had recently graduated with a good degree. He was personable too, the pick of an excellent bunch, and with careful guidance I could see him going far. For now, however, he had to learn how to do the donkeywork and that meant devising and running the administrative systems I needed. “Do you want the good news or bad news?” he asked. “Good news first, please,” I replied. “I think I‟ve found the people to fill the vacant positions in the marketing team.” “That‟s good. So what is the bad news?” “You‟ve got three vacancies in Mike‟s old team.” “Shit!” I exclaimed. “What‟s he playing at?” Phil settled back in his chair.

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“Not sure. Not sure he‟s playing at all. The moment I arrived in his department I was collared by three of his sales reps. They were pissed as hell at Mike being moved. “Well, they would be, wouldn‟t they? The old boy network will naturally stick up for him. Don‟t worry about it.” “It‟s not the men – it‟s three of the women. They want to move with him.” How weird, I thought! Perhaps he weaves a magic spell that I don‟t know about yet. I nodded to Phil to carry on. “It overlaps their territories so they‟re confident they‟ll build sales quickly. They all fit our desired profile. Their sales records are pretty good. Two have school age children and the other has grandchildren. All have contacts from previous sales jobs. They want to work with Mike.” “Hmm. What about Mike‟s money concerns? Did he raise that?” I asked. “Well, he said that he‟ll accept the temporary drop if these three can join him. I get the feeling that he‟ll quieten down if he gets his way on this, or prepare for battle if he doesn‟t. What d‟you want to do?” “Leave it with me. I‟ll check with Dave. Sounds okay to me. Anything else?” “Nope.” “Okay. I‟ll keep you posted. Thanks. Are you off now?” I asked. “Not yet. Few things to round off.” Phil was good. He had no problem working for a woman and we got along well. He was fresh out of college, part of a new generation that accepts the way the workplace is changing.

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I sought out Dave to confer on the latest developments. He did not immediately jump at the idea and rubbed his chin in thought. Something was disturbing him. He asked if recruiting three salespeople for Mike‟s old team would be any more difficult than recruiting for the new one? I thought not. The job information we sent out would be slightly misleading, but I could explain the changes at interview. The differences were not so great that we needed to worry. The starting salary would be the same. Dave finally agreed but as I left he said something that set off alarm bells. “Mike may become a problem. Find out more about him - it may come in handy.”

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Chapter 5
Back at my desk I started to wind down for the night. I locked away sensitive information and tidied my desk. Before logging off, I retrieved my e-mails to see whether there were any final issues to deal with. I‟d forgotten about John, so it was a surprise when another e-mail from him appeared in my inbox.
Penny, Thanks for playtime. It was fun. I hope we can enjoy more banter in the weeks to come. Before that resumes, however, I want to give you the chance to walk away if you wish. You are an attractive woman. I like you. In saying that I don’t want you to read more into these comments than is in them. I love my wife. I love my kids. I have women friends and I’d like you to be one of them. If I flirt it is because I think you find it fun too. But enjoying a mutual attraction does not mean I’m going to make a pass at you (that will have to remain a fantasy). If you are okay with this, then we will become friends. If you are not, then I still have a pleasant memory of meeting a smart and sexy woman. That is a lovely thought to keep in my head if that is all you want to give. My wife does not usually interfere in my personal friendships (unless she feels threatened) and we have become much more relaxed in recent years. Our relationship is a strong one. Hope to hear from you soon. John x

Who was this guy? His arrogance pissed me off. Fuck him. That evening I settled down with my Bernice Rubbens again. Try as I might, I could not concentrate. Mixed in with my anger was a spine-chilling excitement that I could not shake off. What had he called me? “Smart and sexy.” “A Fantasy.” Why does

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he tell me he won‟t make a pass at me? Why not? Bastard. No guy has ever talked to me like this. The hours passed and still I could not read my book. I put on music, but I did not listen to it. I tried to watch a film but the moving images were just a backdrop. Slowly it dawned on me why I‟m angry at him – he dares to resist me. He dares to resist me. And that realisation had a strange effect. My thoughts kept returning to our e-mail exchanges. He makes me laugh, no denying it. He‟s fun. He‟s intelligent. He‟s sexy. I must stop thinking like this. He‟s too old for me. He‟s married. He‟s got kids. He‟s got “ups and downs” in his life. Maybe he is just after a fling. Don‟t trust him, Penny. Play it cool. The word „danger‟ keeps forcing its way into my thoughts but my mind wanders back to his eyes. The prospect of looking into them thrills me. Why do I want to trust him? I never trust men. As I lay in bed, the minutes ticked and questions invaded my thoughts, circling around like vultures gnawing at old wounds. Why does this hurt? Don‟t let him in, Penny. Don‟t let him in. By 2am, my eyes finally got so heavy that I dropped asleep. For a few hours I was free of the conflict raging in my soul.

Friends or Lovers

Chapter 6
Following my conversation with Dave, I asked Phil to find out more about Mike. I told him not to be too obvious - to start by finding out what he could from members of his former team as unobtrusively as possible. Naturally, he quizzed me. “I‟m still concerned about Elona‟s complaint,” I said. “I want to be sure that there is not a pattern to his behaviour.” “If I start asking about him, won‟t they start wondering why?” “Just spend time with them in the canteen, get to know them, see if they talk about him. If they do, then join in the conversation. Just take an interest.” Phil looked awkward. His eyes looked at the table while he rubbed his chin. As he looked up, he scratched his nose. “What am I looking for?” he asked. “Nothing in particular. Just see if you can find out about him. I‟m trying to build a picture, not find out dark secrets.” He rubbed his hands together, and his brow still showed a frown. I remembered the first time that my manager asked me to keep my ears and eyes open. I too felt awkward because I had initially imagined that work was conducted in the way described in study texts. When you experience the real world, of course, you find there is this whole other world that no-one talks about. Much as I wanted to focus on recruiting the best people and developing them to their full potential, we have to work within management objectives and commercial constraints. Whether I like it or not, we are part of the management team and that means we bend to their wishes.

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“Phil, I understand how you must feel. Sometimes we have to do things that are not pleasant. The worst thing you might have to do one day is make people – decent people – redundant. If you stay in this profession, you‟ll learn how awful that can be. At other times, you may suspect that someone is acting more in their own interests than those of the business. When that happens, we sometimes need to be circumspect in finding out what we can. It is a very difficult job and we can only find out so much by asking people directly. I‟m not asking you to spy, just keep your ear to the ground and mix in certain circles when the opportunities arise.” He looked at me briefly and smiled, but the lines on his forehead never totally disappeared. “Okay. I‟ll see what I can find out.” “Good man,” I said and I felt my body relax. I smiled strongly at him, got up and walked towards the door. Phil got up slowly and made to leave. As he passed me, I put my hand on his shoulder and reassured him. “You‟ll be fine. If you‟re not, come and talk to me.” With Phil gone, my mind turned back to the task I‟d been putting off. I knew that I must reply to John, but did not relish the task. Even though I‟d thought about it all the previous evening, I was still not sure what to say. One thing I am sure about - I want to keep in touch with him. The problem is how to do that without ending up in a “situation” where I get hurt. Words and phrases keep going around and around in my head but no concrete sentences form. It is just a drink, I keep telling myself, but I cannot forget that nearly every relationship I‟ve had with a man gets complicated. One that I lived with, despite having a lovely side to his character, ended up taking me for

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granted. I don‟t want to mother my partner; I want him to look after me. There have been others that I adored for a short while (and who adored me) but as soon as they started talking about their goals in life, I felt them threaten my own. One wanted me to move with him to London just after I‟d started this job. I wouldn‟t go and the relationship ended. Why am I thinking like this? It is just a drink, after all. As much as I keep trying to convince myself that he only wants friendship, I cannot shake off the idea that going drinking with a married man will lead to problems. If I get close to him, will he make a pass at me? Why will this one be any different? And if he did, would I be able to resist him? Perhaps this is why I am so nervous. I don‟t want to be a mistress. I have to write something so I create an e-mail and stare at the screen. My fingers start to type:
John, Tell me about your marriage. How strong is it? Penny

I hit the Send key before I realise that he might take this question the wrong way. While contemplating my gaff, a message appears in my inbox.
Penny, Strong enough for you not to worry about it. John

I had hoped for a fuller explanation than that. No kiss today, I notice. Perhaps my question irritated him. At times like this, I tell myself to follow my head. What does my head say today? I listen carefully to my thoughts; there is danger here, to myself, to his marriage and children. But there is potential too. What if

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he is how I hope he is? It will be a pleasure to know him. Could he become a friend I can trust and talk to like my father? But what if he turns out to be a creep? What will happen if I start to love him? I can‟t deny my desire to meet him or the thought that if I turn this opportunity down I‟ll always ask have the question “what if..” I will never answer any of my questions if I don‟t get to know him. As one of my school friends used to say to me “life is not a dress rehearsal”.
John, I accept. When would you like to meet? Penny x

In for a pound. Later that day, he e-mailed me back to ask if I‟d meet him in Leamington the following Wednesday. He could stop by as he was working in Birmingham then staying with friends in Warwick. With that out of the way, I relaxed and focussed better on my work.

Friends or Lovers

Chapter 7
With the week coming to an end, I finalise arrangements with interviewees and then decide to check on Elona. She is quite young, in her mid-twenties, and works within sales administration. She‟s been with the company since leaving school and is well-known about the place. I‟ve only met her half a dozen times or so since joining, twice due to her recent complaint. I want to check that she is happy with the way we have dealt with it so I decide to read over her file and recent appraisals. She is a single child, the daughter of local shopkeepers. When she was in her teens, she worked in the shop with her parents and saved enough money to go to college for two years. She lives in Kenilworth, a small town about 7 miles away. Nice place. In her interview notes it says that she led a relatively sheltered upbringing due to her parents‟ ties to the shop. Holidays have been few but she does have good friends in the local community. She has a boyfriend – her fiancé - who she provided as a second emergency contact. They hope to buy a house together soon but each live with their parents at the moment. Her career at IC has progressed fairly smoothly. She started in a typing pool seven years earlier. When it was disbanded she took on a series of clerical jobs, including a stint in customer services, but eventually felt her attention to paperwork and maintaining filing systems was being under utilised. In short, she wanted something more challenging than a continual stream of phone calls. The move to sales administration, therefore, was a good one for both her and the company. Her knowledge of

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order processing together with customer skills equipped her for a trouble-shooter role in which she dealt with customer complaints. By all accounts, she appears to be a reliable hardworking employee. So I called her and asked her to drop by. Fifteen minutes later, we were sitting together in my office having a cup of tea. “Hi. Glad you could come. Do you take sugar?” I asked. “No. Thanks. Hmmmm. That‟s very welcome,” she said taking her first sip. “I won‟t take much of your time – I‟m sure you want to get away like me. I want to check that you are happy with the way we have dealt with your complaint.” Elona looked slightly puzzled, but smiled and settled back in her chair a bit. “Yes. Very. It‟s the first time I‟ve seen anyone in this company take a complaint like this seriously,” she commented. “Good. I‟m glad I‟m making a difference. The directors want this company to follow best practice and I‟m here to make sure that happens.” Elona‟s comment made me feel good on the inside. I continued boldly and directly. “Elona. One of the directors wants to be sure that Mike‟s behaviour is not part of a pattern. Had you ever been concerned about his behaviour before you made the complaint?” “Me? Well…” she hesistated, “…sometimes I felt uncomfortable around him. He‟s very friendly – too friendly if you ask me – and he does seem to be very attentive to some of the women reps.”

Friends or Lovers

Elona stopped for a moment to gather her thoughts. She rubbed the back of her neck and crossed her legs. “They didn‟t seem pleased with me when they came in for a meeting yesterday. I heard later that they were leaving my section to stay with Mike. They always speak highly of him and he‟s always joking with them. I find it embarrassing sometimes. He treats them almost like they are his daughters. They seem to like it, but I don‟t. I don‟t like it when men are too familiar with me, put their arm round me and things.” “Things?” I asked. “Well, you know…” she said. “No, Elona, I don‟t know. Tell me?” I said firmly. “Well sometimes, especially if we‟re down the pub after work, they go too far.” “How?” I asked. “They put their arm round me like they would their girlfriend or something. I don‟t like it.” “Does Mike do this?” “Not often. Sometimes. The younger lads are worse.” “How exactly?” “Well sometimes their hands go down my back, and sort of rub it. It‟s too familiar, but I feel stupid if I say „no‟ because everybody seems to be okay with it. One of them sometimes puts his hand on my bottom and squeezes it. I don‟t know what to do, so I do nothing.” This seemed like „normal‟ behaviour in most companies that I‟d worked in but that did not make it okay. Clearly Elona was more shy than most. Others would have to be sensitive. I decided to dig a little more deeply; I adopted a more woman-to-woman style.

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“I guess it depends whose got their hand on your behind, eh?” I said with a furtive look. Elona tensed and was unsettled by this remark. “What do you mean?” she replied as she shuffled in her seat. I detected a touch of embarrassment in her behaviour. “I was just saying that perhaps some blokes‟ attention is nicer than others?” She rubbed her ear and her brows came together as she spoke. “I don‟t understand what you are implying, Ms Leyton. I have a boyfriend and I only like him to touch me like that. I don‟t want other men doing it.” Ms Leyton? A bit formal, I thought. Still, I could see she was agitated so I took another approach. “And quite right too, Elona. I‟m glad we had this talk.” I smiled strongly at her as I drew the conversation to a close. “It seems that we have a few more heads to knock together, doesn‟t it? If anyone does something that you don‟t like, tell them straightaway. Can you do that?” “Yes. I‟ll try.” “Do you have a diary?” I asked. “Yes. Why?” “If you‟ve asked someone to stop and they continue to touch you in a way that you don‟t like, make a note in your diary. Can you do that too?” “Sure.” “And if you feel the need, come and see me. Okay?” She seemed to relax. “Okay,” she confirmed. After Elona left the room I pondered her behaviour. Her defensiveness suggested she was hiding something. I wondered

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if she was receiving more attention than she was saying. I‟ll discuss with Phil before I depart on Monday. Clearly we will need to work on this problem together.

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 8
I live on the outskirts of town in a two-bedroom flat. It suits me for the moment, although one day I‟d like a house with a garden that I can tend. I take some pride in my home. Although I live on my own, I‟ve worked hard to shape it in my own image. Last year, after I was accepted in this job, I splashed out on a wooden floor and cream leather sofa. I always work hard to make my living room the most welcoming one in the house. Over the brick fireplace I have some ethnic artwork. On the wall either side are two African masks, each with different tribal markings. At ground level, I have large vases with dried flowers that give some colour and texture next to an attractive gas fire. The mantelpiece supports two tall candles in wrought iron holders and a number of stone carved nightlights. When I settle down with a box of chocolates and dim the light, the candles give the room a romantic sexy feel. On the opposite wall, I have a photo of my younger sister, Carole. She is 30, two years younger than me, and has made her career in teaching. At the moment she is on maternity leave, her first child with boyfriend Chris. I think he‟s a bit of dope – she does too – but since their son was conceived he‟s taken his job (as a computer programmer) more seriously. Recently he got a promotion to project analyst and is now supervising others for the first time. Next to Carole is a picture of my parents on their 40 th wedding anniversary. Considering their generation, they had children quite late. After meeting at university they wanted to travel the world together for a while. They had decided that if they still wanted to be together after living in each other‟s pockets for two

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years, they‟d do it for life. And so it has been. When they got back, they each established their careers, got married and had children. My mother, like my sister, is a teacher; she will be able to retire next year. My father, however, still has two years before he can retire. He is a civil servant who rose through the ranks to lead a unit that answers parliamentary questions. Sometimes he gets to prepare answers for TV. He even gets to write answers for the Prime Minister sometimes. Fame of a sort, I guess. I‟m proud of him. My father is the kindest man I know but I have had a prickly relationship with my mother ever since I turned 14. At that time, I grew close to my sister and we stayed that way ever since. We now call each other every week, sometimes we write e-mails to each other and swap humorous cards. A few of these hang on a pin board in my living room. My favourite card is… Men have only two faults Everything they say And everything they do …although I also like another one that says “Grow your own dope: plant a man”. My sister sent these to me when she was having difficulty getting her boyfriend to settle down with her. I ask if we will hear wedding bells soon but the most optimistic response she‟s given so far is “Next Year: probably.” What is it about men and commitment? Even though she‟s been with him for three years now, many of our phone conversations still dwell on “man problems”. I keep telling her that we are better off without them, but she holds out hope that eventually they‟ll get married. Forlorn, I reckon, but hope springs eternal where she is concerned.

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My bedroom is a mini-paradise. The focus is my pinewood king-size bed with a deluxe duck feather duvet and pillows. I don‟t have a regular fella to keep me warm at night, so a sensuous bedroom equipped for lingering self-pampering is one of life‟s essentials. I have a built-in wardrobe and dresser – a present paid for by my parents when they helped me buy this place four years ago. They know how I like to adorn myself, so the dresser came with an array of drawers to hold all my paraphernalia: lip gloss, selections of lipsticks, nail varnishes and eye shadows (which I use only on special occasions). Either side of the mirror is a raised area for an assortment of bottles; moisturisers, facial scrubs, make-up remover and spot sticks. Jewellery is in one of my side drawers; organised into earrings, belly bars, necklaces, bracelets (wrist and ankle), and a choice of rings for fingers and toes. The other side draw holds my collection of lingerie, carefully selected so that on the rare occasions I think enough of a man to invite him back, I can make him think that he‟s gone to heaven early. The headboard is decorated with subtle white lights, and on each bedside table I have one of these new cylindrical lights with slow moving silver flakes that refract light. When I go to bed, I switch out the main light, switch on the bedside lights, and watch the patterns that meander around the room. Wrapped in my duvet, I feel deliciously erotic, a sensual and very personal love nest, just perfect for fuelling my fantasies when I feel like playing with myself. The kitchen is small but functional. The work units and oven are built in so there is a reasonable amount of workspace and cleaning is easy. I don‟t have space for a washing machine so I still do my laundry down the road. It gets me out of the house

Friends or Lovers

and I can chat to Betty who does the service washes. She gives me the latest celebrity gossip. When Big Brother hits our screens we chat about it each week and I invite her around my flat to watch eviction nights. * * * “Hi sis‟” “Hi Carole. Good week?” I enjoy these chats with my sister. “Not bad. He‟s sitting up now and he‟s a lot happier because he can look around. I give him a toy with a bell on it and he sits there shaking it and laughs for ages.” “If only adults were as easy to amuse…” I commented. “Chris has raised the idea of using his flexi-hours to spend more time at home. I don‟t know, I‟m not sure about it. In some ways it‟s good to have him home, but he just makes more work for me.” “Can‟t you train him better?” I ask. This has been a standing joke ever since she started going out with him. “I try. I try. He is trying too, bless him. He can change a nappy now, but baby refuses to be fed by bottle. He actually gets upset that he can‟t feed his child. I reassure him that as soon as he starts on solids then he‟ll be able to get in on the action.” “He sounds keen,” I interjected. “Yes. He is. Quite sweet really. Just wish he could cook then he‟d be really useful to me.” “Nothing on the matrimonial front, yet?” “Haven‟t raised it for a while, it just creates tension. How about you?”

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This is another standing joke - my inability to find any man worthy of me. “No, nothing to report there. But I did meet an interesting man this week on the plane back from France.” “Tell me more….” Carole quipped. “He‟s married, got kids, so that‟s a no go area. He was keen to meet me again so we‟ve agreed to meet up next week for lunch.” “Hey you. Sounds like he‟s a fast worker, and you‟re giving him a big green light.” “No Carole, it‟s not like that.” No sooner had I uttered the words than I realised how stupid they sounded. “Oh, yes?” she asked. “No. He‟s most odd. I can‟t explain. He burned my ear with all this stuff about sexism in the army. Like I say, he‟s an oddball.” “So, why are you meeting him?” It was a pertinent question. “Oh. I‟m not sure. He has lovely eyes. He is a practiced flirt. He‟s intelligent, a consultant, a writer.” “You‟re smitten. I can tell.” “Oh don‟t say that Carole. I have no idea whether I‟m doing the right thing and you know what I‟m like with men. But he seems different. I want to satisfy my curiosity.” “And your libido?” “I don‟t think so,” I said weakly, but I didn‟t even convince myself so I doubt that I convinced her. “Go for it, I say! You only live once.” We are so alike. “Yeah! I‟ll call you in the week; let you know how it goes.” “Too right you will.”

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“Say „hi‟ to mum for me if you talk to her.” “I will. Stay cool.” “Bye sis‟” And with that, we both put down the phone and returned to our very different lives.

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Chapter 9
My weekend was fairly typical: shopping, cleaning, reading, relaxing and sleeping. Living on my own, I have the pleasure of buying in exactly the foods I wish, watching only the television that I want to, and getting up when I like. I can also avoid having my house systematically trashed by boisterous kids (although I imagine it won‟t be long before my nephew will oblige). Not having a man about the house also helps in that respect; most men who I let into my bed think that the corner of my room has an invisible linen bin placed there. There is a constant battle to train them to put their clothes in a bag ready for them to take away when our romantic interludes are concluded. No way am I going to start washing their clothes. But I can‟t deny that there is loneliness too. I still can‟t get used to going to bed by myself and I especially miss the pleasure of waking up next to someone, snuggling up to them, and sharing my thoughts and feelings. I don‟t always feel safe on my own. Despite the façade of strength I present at work, if the doorbell rings on a dark winter evening I use my spy hole to check who‟s the other side. If it is a man I do not know – and sometimes even if I do – I don‟t let them in. I particularly hate having workmen in the flat during the day. One thing that only women can understand, I think, is the silent fear we have of violence. Breaking up with a man is traumatic because you never know how he‟s going to react. Some withdraw into themselves and skulk off; but with others you can visibly see their bodies convulse with anger. Sometimes I get really scared. So far none have hit me, but my sister was not so lucky. Her last boyfriend punched and kicked

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her when she ended the relationship. Sitting with her, looking at her bruised mouth and eye, holding her hand while she sobbed like a young child, watching her shrivel with humiliation as she admitted to a nurse how she received her injuries; that‟s an experience that‟ll never leave me. By Sunday, I‟d done my chores so I took myself off to the Malvern Hills for a walk. It was a pleasant day, warm for April, and I was able to remove my jumper and wear just a tee-shirt and shorts. Walking gives me a wonderful sense of freedom; time and space to think. At the moment I wonder whether my life is going in the direction that I want. On the surface it looks very fulfilling; good career with responsibility and the chance to travel; two circles of friends (inside and outside work) that balance each other and provide good times and support for bad times. I have a nice home and neighbours; a family I can see when I need (far enough away not to crowd me but close enough to visit the same day). I‟m sufficiently attractive to be able to enjoy male company more or less whenever I like, so why do I feel so empty? As I walk on the brow of the hill I look north towards Worcester. The houses on the plain are as tiny as an architect‟s model and the specks that move slowly along the motorway look like matchbox cars. The wind buffets my face as I stand like the French Lieutenant‟s Woman; an isolated and desolate beauty searching the wilderness for something in life that will make it more meaningful and satisfying. In my mind, I recall John‟s comment that looking down on the world reminds us of our insignificance. Am I significant? Do I make a difference? Have I had a positive influence on the people I‟ve known? I wasn‟t sure.

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I‟ve been hard on boyfriends who would not make a commitment to me, but perhaps it is me who is avoiding commitment. The life I have is safe, and I have many things that give me pleasure, but deep in my heart I‟m still quite lonely. Even when I‟m shacked up with a man, I still feel lonely. Family and friends are great but there are limits to how I can be with them. If my parents knew how I behaved sometimes they would probably die with shame; I can‟t show them the real me. I even hide my feelings from my sister. My deepest need; the desire to share myself physically, emotionally and spiritually, cannot be satisfied with any of them. In fact, I‟m not sure there is anyone with whom I can do that. Why is it that the greatest source of pleasure is also the source of so much fear and pain? As I resume my walk I cannot help but notice that most people are walking with someone else. Husbands walk with wives (lovers or friends, perhaps). Parents walk with children. Rarely do I see two women or two men walking together; the hills are filled with people who have come to terms with sharing themselves with another. I don‟t think I‟ve shared myself fully with anyone. I‟m too afraid.

Friends or Lovers

Chapter 10
I‟m in Leeds today. The interviews went off as well as could be expected. I found a man and woman; both married. Both with children in the 11-15 age range and extended family support (that‟s usually necessary in this line of work). There was a single woman with previous direct sales experience and good family support so I think we have found the people we need. I also interviewed a single man who had won custody of his children. He too seems to possess the necessary enthusiasm and skills. At the moment, I‟m driving back to meet John. I can‟t help but feel excited even though I know this is not an appropriate way to feel. I have George Benson playing “Lady, Love Me One More Time” on the CD player and this fuels an expectation that lunch will be the start of a romance. I keep reminding myself that this is an unrealistic (and unhealthy) way to be thinking but the butterflies in my stomach won‟t go away, no matter what I do. We e-mailed each other over the weekend and agreed to meet at Pizza Hut. As I enter the outskirts of town, the clock shows there are only 50 minutes to go and my breathing deepens and lengthens as my nerves start to intensify. “Stop it!” I shout. “Go away!” but ranting makes no difference. I wish I didn‟t feel like this. I shouldn‟t be meeting him. But I keep driving towards the town centre, turn right into an NCP car park, watch the barrier rise, see the front of the car turn to the left and climb the levels. The car parks itself as if I‟m on auto-pilot. I try not to think and focus on getting through the next few minutes.

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Find the exit. Go down the stairs. Turn left. Now right. Along the high street. Look in the shop windows. Check my handbag. Where is my lippy? Look in the shop window. Apply evenly. Press lips together. Turn left. Continue. Go to cashpoint. Press 7725. Enter. Choose “Cash no receipt”. £50. Wait for card. Take the money. Turn left. Walk. Open the door. “Penny! There you are.” The moment I hear his words I come out of my trance. I take off my jacket and sit down, look at him and smile. My hair was washed this morning and tied back into a ponytail. Around the eyes, I applied a modest amount of eye shadow and liner; a subtle shade of blue (just enough to emphasise my long black lashes without looking trashy). Studs with a light blue jewel adorn my ears and a matching necklace drapes around my neck. I‟ve put on a white top – thin enough to give a hint of the lace bra underneath – styled into a „V‟. The necklace is long enough for the jewel to draw attention to a hint of cleavage; classy but not tarty. All this elegantly covered by a light purple trouser suit that hugs my figure. There‟s no harm in showing off my pert behind and womanly curves. “You look good. Thank you.” “Thank you?” I ask. What a surprising remark! “Yes. Thank you for making the effort to look nice. I appreciate it.” “Just my normal work clothes,” I say with false modesty. Inside, I‟m not only pleased I‟ve made an impression but also delighted that he‟s noticed. I can feel myself beginning to relax. He has turned up wearing an unironed tee-shirt and jeans with a hole in one knee. But his hair looks freshly washed and there

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is a day‟s stubble giving him an undeniably rugged look. I like it. “I see you dressed up for me too…” I say cheekily. “Yes. I carefully ironed the creases into the shirt and hired a tailor to give my trousers that deliberate „just torn‟ look.” “Does your tailor get much business from you, then?” I quip. “Lots. Especially before I go on holiday. I need an exclusive casual outfit for each day otherwise my beach cred is seriously damaged.” “Perhaps it will catch on in Hollywood?” He laughed and looked deeply into my eyes. All the nerves that I‟d felt were swept away. I felt comfortable and content. “So, did your interviewing go well?” he asks. “It did. Shortlisted four people, including a single father, would you believe?” “Only just,” he jests. I settle into my seat and look at him more closely. I still don‟t know how old he is, but in the daylight I guess he‟s a bit younger than I first thought – somewhere in his late 30s. His face has worn well and his hair shows only slight signs of greying. The lines at the corners of his eyes only display when he smiles; when he‟s relaxed they disappear. “Tell me,” I say boldly, “how old are you?” “Forward aren‟t we?” “Oh, yes! I don‟t beat about the bush.” “I‟m 44,” he says without any embarrassment. Then he adds, “I use my wife‟s Nivea every day. Good on the wrinkles.” “She keeps you young, obviously.” “Yes. Very energetic woman. I have to work hard to keep up with her.”

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Given that we‟d moved onto the subject of his wife, I felt we should dwell there a bit. “What does she do?” “She‟s a linguist. Translates government documents from English to French to German and back again. It suits her.” “Not out and about like you, then?” “She prefers a quieter existence where her opinions are not the subject of public scrutiny. She saves her strong opinions for our marriage and children.” “Strong minded?” He says nothing. He doesn‟t need to; his smile and nod say it all, including that he admires her. “So!” he says. I could sense a question coming. “Want to try something I do on my courses?” “Why not?” I answer. “Your life in 5 minutes. Can you do that? Then I‟ll give you mine.” “Okay. Here we go. Born, age 0, in Malvern where I grew up with my teacher mother and civil servant father. Warm loving home for the first dozen or so years. One sister who is two years younger than me; now with child and dopey boyfriend. She‟s also a teacher but currently on maternity. Age 13 onwards I became a bit of a rebel, fell out with mum, always closer to dad. Politics became liberal. Did radical bit at university. Protested the Gulf War (the first one). Shouted regularly at politicians, got angry with men; attended women‟s groups; got angry with women. Started to like men more. Tried a few. Started to like men less. Chose career instead. Developed well, manager at 29 but stumbled across the glass ceiling. Now HR manager in a growing firm. Relatively happy modern career woman. Likes

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chocolate, exercise, walking, nights in with cat. Eastenders. Frost. No Angels. Friends. Sex and the City – shame it has finished. Now 32, usually fine, sometimes lonely. I stop. “How about you?” I quickly ask. “Wow!” he injects. “All in one breath?” I laugh out loud. This is fun and I am enjoying myself. “Right. My turn. Born in Hampshire; same age as you funnily enough. Artist mum. Marine engineer dad who died when I was eight. Very sad but coped okay. A rebel until age 13, then calmed down. Lots of freedom. Lots of responsibility. Two sisters. Both older. One works in a women‟s refuge; the other lectures in some obscure social science. Went through the football craze. Went through the basketball craze. Went through the „girls‟ craze. Did my extremist bit at university. Protested the Poll Tax; refused to pay it. Missed first Gulf War demo. Flirted with radicals (both ideologically and literally). Went off radicals. Always liked women. Tried a few, fell in love with one. Married her. Did a masters, then PhD. Worked in academia. Tried real world. Went off real world. Returned to research. Had kids. Loved kids. Hated kids. Loved them again. Started writing. Got hired as a consultant. Liked kudos, the pay, the freedom. The portfolio life is for me. Hobbies include walking, Mexican food, romantic comedies, flirting and friendship – but in reverse order.” He stops and takes in a deep breath to replenish his oxygen supply. “I think that‟s the best exercise I‟ve had all day,” he adds. A waitress stands at the end of our table ready to take our order. We both laugh in unison and I look at her.

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“Could you give us a few more minutes?” I ask. “Would you like any drinks while you are thinking?” Her voice came out in a monotone as if it had been prerecorded. “Decaf coffee, please,” I request. “Cappuccino?” asks John. “I‟d afraid the machine‟s broken, sir. Is a normal coffee okay?” “Of course,” he answers politely. As soon as she went, he leans over towards me and speaks quietly. “I think someone has placed a contract to sabotage all cappuccino makers worldwide. Wherever I go they never seem to work.” * * * As we chatted away, we were joyous and smiling. He felt like an old friend, not a new one, and I was drawn more and more into the conversation. “So what have you been doing in Birmingham?” I enquired. “Helping some marketing recruits find new ways to look at men and women.” “And did you succeed?” I was actually interested this time and he could sense this. His demeanour changed and took on a more relaxed and thoughtful expression. As he started to speak, he started to gesticulate. “These things take time. People have many preconceptions; some well-founded, others not.” “Such as?”

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He thought for a moment. I could tell that he was selecting one from a great long list. “That men are instinctively more violent than women.” “Is that well-founded or not?” I asked, feeling that I knew the answer already. “Difficult to tell,” he replied surprisingly. “It depends on whose data you look at.” “But we all know that men are more violent that women.” I affirmed. I could feel a sprinkle of alarm go through me because I could sense he was leading me into a trap. “Perhaps.” But he sounded sceptical. “In the 70s and 80s,” he continued, “lot of studies suggested that men were more violent than women in personal relationships. Then some people started to ask whether the research design was distorting the results. Researchers started to ask both men and women, not just women. The results were surprising and not what you‟d expect. In the last few years there have also been findings that children raised by single fathers are less violent that those raised by single mothers.” “You are joking! I don‟t believe you. It‟s everywhere. You see it all the time. In the papers, on TV. Men are definitely more aggressive and violent.” I thought of my sister and my body felt tense all over, but John continued calmly and reassuringly. “There‟s a growing body of research now. Over one-hundred and seventy studies in the last three decades disagree with you. I don‟t understand why. It‟s my job to make sense of reliable data.” “The studies must be biased.”

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“I can‟t rule that out. But the results are consistent across different industrialised countries, different age groups, different social environments, and have been conducted by people from different research backgrounds.” “I don‟t believe them.” “You‟re not alone,” he said with a smile. I stopped for a moment. I was in deep shock. At that moment, the waitress returned. She had an impatient look on her face. John and I looked at each other and this time we didn‟t laugh. We both picked up a menu, quickly found something we liked and ordered. “Thank you,” said the waitress. I‟m sure there was a hint of sarcasm in her tone. John looked at me supportively. “We don‟t have to talk about this if you don‟t want to,” he said. “No it‟s okay. I am interested. It is just hard to accept.” “Of course.” “Explain. I know you are going to try.” “I can‟t explain it – this is very new data to me too and I need time to reflect on it.” John paused. “D‟you remember „Wait „Til Your Father Gets Home‟?” he suddenly asked. I thought for a moment. Yes, I remembered a TV series with this name. What is meant by this phrase? I looked at John with curiosity. “Dad is being used to threaten the kids. Is that your point?” I asked.

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“Not sure. I think it is about Mum making Dad responsible for discipline. That happens in my house too. My wife sometimes says to me „John, they won‟t listen to me. Make them go to bed, will you?‟ I‟ve managed to avoid smacking so far, but sometimes they dig their heels in and I come very close. I have threatened it once or twice. I hate doing it – I feel like I‟ve failed - but what d‟you do when kids won‟t respond to anything?” I was beginning to see his point. The threat is only effective if the kids fear Dad. “Maybe we use Dad as a weapon because he is more scary,” I said. John paused for a moment. He was forming his thoughts onthe-fly as well. “Maybe we use Dad as a weapon whether he wants to be scary or not,” he answered speaking directly from the heart. “When I think about this,” he continued, “you see it everywhere. I‟ve seen girls say „leave me alone or I‟ll get my dad onto you‟ or they might say „I‟ll get my brother onto you.‟ Even my female students used to say that they‟d play dumb or frightened to get their brothers, fathers and boyfriends to do things for them.” He paused. “Now I come to thing of it, there have been times when my wife says „are you going to let that man talk to me that way?‟” John became immersed in thought again and I watched him struggle to put his thoughts together. “I‟m not sure any more that men choose to be aggressive,” he said finally.

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“Maybe,” I answered, “but the issue for women is that the threat is always there. The threat is enough. We‟re never free of fear.” “Yes. I‟m sure you are right. But it is double-edged, isn‟t it? On the one hand we want men to be violent for us but we don‟t want them to be violent against us.” We both paused. Instinctively, we both realised we‟d had enough of this. That moment, our starters arrived. He‟d ordered potato skins, and I was eating chicken dippers. After that, we shared a stuffed crust with extra mushroom and chicken. “What‟s your work like?” he asked. “Okay. Busy at the moment. Tricky situation in one department. We have a man who has been pressuring a young woman for a drink. I‟ve had to move him. I don‟t understand all the ins and outs, but he‟s done this before and the young woman was so upset that I had to separate them. I‟m trying to find out more because something peculiar seems to be going on. The woman is holding something back. I‟m not sure exactly what.” I stopped myself. “John. I‟m not sure it is appropriate for me to talk about this. You understand?” I said. “Yes. Completely. But I‟m under no such obligation. I have a friend who felt a young woman was getting too close to him. She‟d been having some difficulties at home and she singled him out as a father figure to talk to. He only became worried after she started to flirt a bit. He tried to cool it off.” John looked at me in a way that suggested he did not know whether to carry on. I raised my eyebrows, nodded and then

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tilted my head slightly to one side to indicate that he should continue. “He suggested they meet outside work to sort things and made it clear that he was providing her support as her manager and not asking her out on a date. She backed off and was hurt. Next thing he knew she‟d complained about him.” “It‟s always complicated, isn‟t it?” I said. “Yes. Always. A minefield.” He held my gaze. We both knew exactly what the other was thinking. We had our own minefield to navigate. I said softly…. “…we‟ll have to tread very carefully…” He nodded and also spoke softly. “I don‟t want to tread on any mines.” “Me neither,” I responded. Men and women talk to each other in such oblique ways. I could have said “I‟ll be very sensitive about your marriage”. He could have said “I don‟t want to ruin this by sleeping with you.” But, no, we danced around each other using metaphors hoping the other would understand, protecting our egos while leaving the door open just in case we both had a change of heart. “We‟ll be fine,” he asserted. I hoped he was right. After coffees, he paid, but only after I made him promise that it would be my treat next time. We both agreed there would be a next time in about a month. We swapped mobile phone numbers too. When we parted, we hugged. As I walked back to my car, I felt good. I hoped that I had found a friend – a real friend.

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 11
When I returned to work, I met Dave to discuss the interviews, then confirmed the final shortlist. I got Phil to phone all the candidates and give them the news. Four accepted an invitation to our offices for the following week. The assessment centre uses an array of techniques to provide a more rounded picture of a candidate‟s suitability for a position. They undertake a psychometric test, participate in role playing exercises, we introduce them to teams that undertake similar work to give them a flavour of the „real‟ workplace, and also to give the teams a chance to evaluate the candidates in a less formal setting. Lastly, there is a formal interview that asks a series of technical and social questions that enable us to probe their experience and handling of social situations. Even with all this care and effort, recruitment is a hit and miss affair. More than once, we‟ve found our perfect candidate only for them to decline the position at the last minute. At other times, those that were marginal in the recruitment process turn out to be the best performers. I‟d like to better understand why people decline, but I‟m confident that we‟re reducing the recruitment lottery through the use of these techniques. After I rounded off with Dave, I called Phil into my office for an update on Mike. “Have you been able to find out anything?” I asked. “Some. Not quite what I expected, but interesting nevertheless.” “I chatted to Elona too. Anyway, you first?” “Okay. Nearly all his team talk highly of him. I found them a good deal more open than I expected. They are sad that he‟s

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moved on, particularly the women. It sounds like he had a reputation for not putting up with any nonsense, but was also sympathetic and supportive when his staff had problems. A couple found him a bit „old school‟, you know, polite and caring to women and a bit rougher and more argumentative with the men, but they all respect his abilities as a manager and as a salesperson.” “Did you pick anything up about Elona? Were he and Elona close?” “Yes and no. People liked her well enough but they found her a bit quiet. She worked closely with Mike – that went with the job. They were always working together to resolve customer issues. Some didn‟t mention the complaint – in fact I got the impression they didn‟t know about it.” Phil stopped talking for a moment and had a puzzled look on his face, then he gave out a slight laugh. “I can feel a „but‟ coming….,” I said. “Those that knew she had made a complaint were surprised. Some said they were shocked because they thought the two got on extremely well. They wouldn‟t elaborate, and I felt that it wasn‟t the right time to probe.” I decided to share what I found out. “Elona told me she felt uncomfortable socialising with her team. Mike, and some of the younger men, touch her and make her feel uncomfortable. I still think there is something going on that we don‟t know about.” Phil paused. He rubbed his chin and touched his eyebrow before making several attempts to start speaking. Finally, some words were forthcoming.

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“I agree…..something didn‟t feel right but I can‟t put my finger on it.” “What about Mike‟s marriage?” “Ah! Yes. He did have a rough patch a couple of years back. I think they sensed at this point why I was taking an interest. They clammed up a bit. I got the impression that they were saying „don‟t go there‟.” “Interpretation?” Phil was hesitant, but I pressed him. “Tricky. Nobody said it out loud, but I would hazard a guess that he broke up with his wife for a while.” I shared something that Dave had told me. “I‟ve heard that too. He got close to Sally, one of the sales reps, and his wife kicked him out for a while.” Then Phil said something that shocked me. “Yes – I gathered that much and I‟m sure I spoke to her.” “Why d‟you think that?” I said with genuine surprise. “Sally‟s attitude to him was so different from the others. She spoke about him almost like….” He rubbed his chin vigorously as he sat thinking. He was searching for words. “Yes?” I prompted. “….a cross between a brother and a lover….No. I don‟t know. There was such a familiarity in the way she talked about him, as if they had spent a considerable amount of time together outside work…..” He paused again and I was starting to get a little frustrated. “Come on Phil, spit it out.”

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“Well. I got the feeling that Sally had lived with him for while. So far as I can see, he still lives with his wife. I just can‟t work it out at the moment.” “Hmm. Okay. Keep your ear to the ground, I‟ll see what I can find out my end.” After Phil left my office I pondered what I‟d learnt. What do I know? Firstly, Mike asked Elona out for a drink. Secondly, Elona is upset. Thirdly, Mike admits that he put his arm around her, and when he admitted this he was definitely agitated. We now know that Elona has been troubled by over attentive men at social events and that she‟s hiding something. Fourth, Mike had an affair with a sales rep, his wife kicked him out, he lived with the rep for a while, his wife forgave him and he moved back in. What I find hard to understand is why his team is so supportive of him. Am I missing something? Why would the women put their jobs on the line to move with him? Why is his ex-lover so supportive? I think I should talk to Mike again – it is only fair to let him tell his side of the story.

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Chapter 12
“Hi. Come on in, Mike,” I said with a welcoming tone. He did not look relaxed so I tried to put him at ease. “Mike. I‟m trying to clear up the background to this situation with Elona and, to be frank, it doesn‟t make sense to me. Are you happy to talk about it some more?” Mike‟s hands were locked together and he looked very tense. “What do you want to know?” he asked. “I talked with Elona about a week ago and I can‟t help feeling that she‟s holding something back. I understand that you worked closely with her.” The moment I said this, Mike shuffled a bit in his seat. I let him settle before I continued. “I‟m not accusing you of anything, but I wondered if there is anything that you can tell me that would help me understand the situation.” Mike looked at me for quite a few seconds. It was as if he was trying to decide whether he should speak. “Has she told you about her problems at home?” he asked. “Not in any detail. I understand that things have not gone smoothly with her boyfriend. Is that right?” “Er. Yes…..” but he stopped short of saying anything more and looked down at his knees while he pondered further. “Is there anything further you can tell me about your working relationship with her?” He knew he had to talk and I watched as he drew in a large breath and settled into his chair. “It was good. She worked well. We worked well. She was not the most talkative or outgoing young woman, but I liked her

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and worked well with her. She does have problems at home and some issues within the team – my old team – but I felt she and I had a good understanding. Her complaint took me by surprise.” “She didn‟t make a complaint, Mike,” I corrected. “She didn‟t?” he asked. “No. It was someone else in the department.” “Well that explains a lot,” he commented. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, they clearly had no idea what was going on.” His statement puzzled me. I was not sure where to go next. “Why did you ask her out for a drink?” Mike tensed and I could see his hands clench. Then his right hand moved swiftly to his face and he touched his cheek. His hands settled back into lap and he started to speak. “Haven‟t we been over this before?” he asked. “Why are we raking it up again?” “Because I think there‟s more that I don‟t know and maybe I didn‟t fully understand,” I said. He started to nod slowly and relaxed a bit. I thought I detected a wry smile. “There is more,” he said deliberately, “but she spoke to me in confidence. I would feel more comfortable if you talked to her directly about it.” “I‟ve tried. But she‟s hedging,” I asserted. “Penny, she confided personal stuff to me and I don‟t think I should break her confidence.” I felt myself start to get irritated, but tried to remain calm. “If I‟ve made a mistake, I need to know, Mike. Nobody‟s interests are served by withholding relevant information.”

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He thought for a moment, then gathered his thoughts. He decided to open up. “She spoke to me in private about issues with her boyfriend and also an upsetting incident with a team member. I talked to her several times over a number of weeks, gave her whatever support I was able. I also offered to meet her outside work and the next thing there‟s a complaint against me. I thought I must‟ve said or done something insensitive. If I have, I apologise but I really don‟t know what was alleged or why.” “Why didn‟t you come to me earlier?” I asked. “I am used to handling these things within my team.” I found that remark patronising and privately wondered if he resented my involvement. “You get close to people don‟t you?” I commented. He immediately tensed again. “What on earth do you mean?” I regretted the remark but it was out now and I had to limit the damage. “I know you give good support to your team.” “Who‟ve you been talking to?” he asked aggressively. “I thought you were trying to straighten this thing out.” His defences were up now, but I needed him to calm down if we were to make any progress. “Mike. Mike. Slow down. Like I say, nobody‟s accusing you of anything.” “Then why can‟t you look me in the eye when you say that?” he retorted. I looked him in the eye. “Nobody is accusing you of anything.” Inside, I knew the damage had been done.

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“Okay,” I said. “Cards on the table. You are well liked by your team. Clearly you give them excellent support and I can see they appreciate this and it has worked well in the past. But you have got too close to team members before and this has made managing the team complicated. Are you sure you‟ve not overstepped the mark with Elona?” I could see his anger rising and his face started to go red. I felt uneasy; I did not want this situation to get nasty but experience told me to remain calm and sit in my chair. He fixed my gaze. “I did not „overstep the mark‟,” he said with some force. “I did what any good manager would do. I offered personal support for a member of my team who was experiencing personal difficulties at work and at home.” I struggled to contain my own impatience. “Then tell me about these things. I cannot manage a situation I don‟t understand.” “She spoke to me in confidence and I‟m not prepared to break that confidence. I gave her my word. Even if it makes my position difficult I‟m not prepared to break my word.” He was a stubborn bugger and I decided to exert a bit of pressure. “I don‟t want to fall out about this Mike, but it is as well you understand how I feel. I think something has taken place between you and Elona, or Elona and a team member. It sounds like one or more of policies have been breached and you have a duty to inform me if this is the case. You have a chance to be open with me now, or later. On the basis of this conversation, I will have to talk to Dave about calling a formal enquiry.” Mike looked at me. Curiously, he seemed to relax.

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“Do that and a can of worms will open so large that you may never recover from it”, he said My patience ended. “Are you threatening me, Mike?” It was my turn to fix my eyes on his. “No. I‟m saying that you do not know enough about this situation to handle it, and seeing as you‟ve moved me to another department it is no longer my responsibility. You‟ve made mistakes already, calling an enquiry will just compound things. People will get hurt.” “Mike, maybe this is one can of worms that needs to be opened,” I argued. “Penny. There is more at stake here than my job. This is not in your interests – trust me. Elona, you and others will be hurt if you pursue this.” Trust him? I don‟t think so. This is one situation in which I will trust my own instincts. There is some serious shit going on here and it is my job to find out what it is. I gave him one last chance. “People have already been hurt. I need your co-operation. Are you going to give it to me?” He stood thinking. Then, with a more friendly gesture he made a concession. “If you get Elona‟s consent, I‟ll talk,” he replied. “Okay. Let me think on this and I‟ll get back to you.” “Right. I‟ll await your call.” His tone was slightly sarcastic and that annoyed me, but I let it ride and saw him to the door.

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Chapter 13
Things calmed down over the next few weeks. With all the recruitment issues to deal with, and the new starters, I put the Elona issue on a back burner. John and I continued to e-mail each other in the evenings and steadily got to know each other. We bantered about men and women and I started sending him feminist jokes. He replied with “masculist” ones. My favourites were:
Question: Why does it take 20 million sperm to impregnate an egg? Answer: Because none of them know how to ask for directions.

…to which he responded….
Question: Why does it take 20 million sperm to impregnate an egg? Answer: Because the egg is so busy rehearsing a speech about equality it forgot to meet the sperm half-way.

The other one I really liked was:
After God made man, she said to Adam, “there’s some good news and some bad news”. Adam asked to hear the good news first. “The good news is that I’ve given you a brain and a penis”. “So what’s the bad news?” asked Adam. “The bad news is that you can only use one at a time.”

…..to which he replied….
Scientists have, after 20 years of diligent research, and a study involving 2000 women, finally discovered the food that reduces women’s sex drive by 90%….. ....it’s called Wedding Cake.

He added that when both men and women could laugh at both jokes, then perhaps we‟ll be approaching the end of the sex war. I responded with a George Burns quote:

Rory Ridley-Duff

There will always be a sex war because men and women want different things: men want women and women want men.

His final retort was that there were still too many women who thought the best way to end the sex war was to chop off the useless bit of skin attached to a penis called “a man”. * * * Tonight, after several months off the scene, I‟ve decided it is party night! My sister Carole and Chris will be around in half an hour and we are going to hit the pubs. They managed to pack the baby off to mum‟s so we‟re going to really rock „n‟ roll. I‟m well into my beautification routine. About an hour ago I had a bath and soaked myself in essential oils, shaved under my arms and between my legs (quite the fashion at the moment). I am lucky to have young skin, not least because I have looked after it. Although I‟m thirty-two, I easily pass for 25 and that means I can still enjoy the singles scene and taste the delights of men who have more passion than technique, more ardour than intellect. It still gives me a thrill to lead a man from first eyecontact to passionate fuck knowing that I am controlling every second of his (and my) pleasure; I can choose to blow his mind or tell him to piss off. Not all women have this power – I‟m lucky, I guess. And with this power comes some responsibility. But the men in the singles scene are playing the same game; out for fun without commitment. If they didn‟t fancy me they‟d probably tell me to piss off. In fact, now I come to think of it, they do say that in their own way after they‟ve shagged me. They don‟t call me. Do I care? Yes, actually, it hurts. It hurts a lot. But when I think about things, there is a perverse balance of power. If I‟m eventually going to get rejected, at least let the man have a

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smooth tanned muscular body, a handsome face, plenty of money in his wallet, and a cock as big as his ego. When I‟m getting ready for nights like this, I like to soap my boobs. I have a great pair – no need for a padded bra or implants. Any under wired bra brings out the best in them, and when I put on a black body-hugging Elle top with a suitably cut V-neck, I look sexy as hell without looking cheap or trashy. Tonight, I‟m going for it. I‟ve put on some crystal studs and some dangly earrings that have a blue tint (to match my eyes). Around my neck I have a Swarovski necklace bought for me by a former boyfriend – bastard wanted it back but I wouldn‟t give it to him. It is studded with crystals and an eye catching sky blue jewel that fits into the crease of my cleavage. Under my trendy black leather jacket there is a leather skirt with an overlong belt – dead stylish, really cool – and cut above the knee but not so short that I look like a chav. To complete the effect I‟m wearing close woven black fishnet stockings – not the unsubtle type with large holes that you get from Ann Summers – the type with holes so small that a guy won‟t notice them until he‟s up close and personal. On my feet, I‟ve put on black high heels with open toes and a single buckle strap at the ankle. They are not that comfortable, but they complete the vision. I‟m a hot babe tonight; a femme fatale out for a kill. While I wait for my sister, I apply sky blue varnish to my fingernails. This is a skill men cannot appreciate – one area where you must be ambidextrous and exercise care so that the varnish is evenly applied and no splodges get on the skin. I imagine most blokes won‟t notice the detail, but the women will. I‟m a piece of art, fashioned to move the senses, a living sculpture. Sometimes being a woman is such fun.

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Even with all this preparation, it‟s not looks alone that will attract. I‟ve learned from experience that the way I walk into a bar, the way I dance, the way I talk and engage makes a huge difference. If I go out in a bad mood and don‟t talk much, far fewer men approach me. But when I‟m with girlfriends being vivacious, talking boldly giving men discrete (and sometimes indiscrete) eye contact, then they flock to me like bees around a honey pot. There is nothing magical about it, I just understanding how to flaunt myself. Now my nails are dry, I open a bottle of wine. No harm having one glass before I go out. If I do have to buy my own drinks (unlikely) then it will cut down the cost of getting drunk. I take in the latest episode of Eastenders while I sip away. Eastenders! That reminds me – out comes my pad and pencil. I decided to try something out. Do men or women hit more in the soaps? To my astonishment, I find that the women hit far more often. Funny, I‟d never noticed that before. And as for adverts, I am finding that if anybody is ridiculed it is men. The only advert that reverses this is „Nuts!‟ an advert for a trashy weekly men‟s magazine. That advert is so unfunny – like women don‟t know how to do car repairs or serious DIY work in the home. Actually I don‟t know how to do these either, but it doesn‟t matter because I get my father to come over. If I‟m really stuck, then I pick up the phone to get my favourite handyman to sort it out for me. Isn‟t that what men are for? The adverts that do make me laugh are the car adverts aimed at women. „Size matters‟? It sure does – although girth is probably more important. And that AA car insurance advert, it just shows what plonkers men really are. Why spend hours and hours looking for a good deal when the AA can do it for you?

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And there are those women only insurance companies now. I can‟t believe that there is talk about banning them or forcing them to offer insurance to men too; if we women are safer drivers we should get cheaper insurance. All this stuff about insurers discriminating against men, it‟s just bollocks. Why don‟t men just learn to drive more safely? Anyway, these thoughts go through my mind as the doorbell rings. Up I get, open the door, and see Carole and Chris looking chic and ready to party. “Come on in,” I say. “Just let me finish my glass of wine and we can shoot.” I give Carole a hug. She looks great too, but her bust isn‟t as good as mine. She tends to avoid „V‟ neck tops and wears a wonderbra with smooth silky fabric against her skin. This gives the suggestion of a full breast and shows her nipples when she gets sweaty or turned on. She‟s got great nipples, my sis‟. I compliment her while I look at Chris. His eyes are on stalks as he takes in my outfit. He may be a bit of a twit, but he knows how to look at a woman and make her feel good. “You look good tonight Chris,” I say. I‟m not lying. He‟s been to River Island to buy new jeans and a shirt. I imagine Carole went with him, but he‟s a credit to her. His hair is washed and groomed. He‟s clean shaven – which I know Carole likes – and he‟s got some dead cool trainers on too. “Just let me pop to the loo,” interjects Carole. “Back in a mo.” As soon as Carole is out of sight, Chris turns to me. “You look fantastic, Penny. Whoever reels you in tonight will be a lucky guy.” “Thank you, Chris.” I respond coyly. “I aim to please.” I pause for a second and then a thought occurs to me.

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“…but I think it is me who will be doing the reeling in.” “I bet you will,” he replies, his eyes firmly looking into mine. “Doesn‟t Carole look great?” I say to deflect his attention. “She sure does. I‟m a lucky guy going out on the town with you two – I‟ll be the envy of every other bloke there. You both look a million dollars.” He was doing so well up to that point but had to spoil it by drawing attention to how good we‟ll make him look. I like attracting men, but hate it when they regard me as some sort of trophy. It is comments like these that show Chris for the prat he is. Still, Carole loves him, so I guess there must be something about him. For the life of me I can‟t see what it is. Carole returns from the loo and we call a taxi. Carole and Chris stay over on nights like this and I give Chris a pair of spare house keys. There is a good chance I won‟t make it back home so they need to be able to let themselves in. I usually try to come back for breakfast, but I like to take things as they come. I can‟t predict whether I‟ll feel like coming back home; it depends on whether a gorgeous guy has whisked me off to a stunning penthouse. The taxi arrives and drives us to a classy bar at the better end of town. I like this bar. It has lots of comfy chairs to relax in with stylish tables. There is a dining area too with a dance floor between the bar area and restaurant. On Friday nights it is quiet until about 8.30pm and is rocking by 10pm. A good time to arrive is 8.15 – as we have done – early enough to get a table in the bar area, drink until the restaurant table is ready, and then work off the calories on the dance floor. Chris gets in the first round of drinks. I alternate between sparkling mineral water and wine on these occasions – it gets me

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drunk quite quickly and the water prevents me dehydrating. We chat while deciding what to eat: “So what‟s happening in your life, sis?” asked Carole. “Usual stuff at work. Always someone having difficulties or creating tension,” I replied. “And outside work?” she added. “Well, I met John. We had a good time, I think.” “You think?” queried Chris. “You can never be sure, but yes, I think we had a good time,” I confirmed. Carole looked at me closely, and rested her chin on her hand momentarily as a subtle grin took shape on her face. “What?” I asked. She continued to grin but didn‟t say anything. “Why are you looking at me like that?” Both Carole and Chris looked at each other and smiled. “Are you going to meet him again, then?” Carole finally asked. “Yes. Now would you like me to tell you the length of his penis?” I remarked pointedly. Chris laughed. Carole looked me directly in the eye and did not miss a beat. “Yes. Just give me a rough idea. Was it as long as his CV?” “His what?” “His CV – you said he was an academic turned consultant – he must have a very long CV…..” “Carole. I‟ve news for you. He‟s just a friend.” “Oh yeah.” She took on a superior tone as she started to make fun of me. “My big sister who is all upright and proper at work, but a regular shag-bag outside work, has got a „friend‟. It‟s got bells on. Try again.”

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“I like him, okay. He‟s married. He‟s told me straight that he loves his wife, his kids. This is a friendship.” “And you believe him?” interjected Chris. I paused for a moment. Inside I was not sure whether I believed him or not. I was not sure I wanted to believe that all he wanted was friendship, but for reasons that I could not understand I felt that he meant what he said, even if I would have liked more. Finally, I spoke. “Yes,” was all I said. Both Chris and Carole looked at each other again and gave each other a puzzled look. “But you never have male friends outside work!” shrieked Carole. “You have male friends at work and a line of hunks knocking at your door outside work.” I was about to object but on reflection she was probably right. I do have female friends although many stop seeing me when they have steady boyfriends. I used to think they were just busy, but slowly I realised that they were deliberately avoiding me. Men as friends? No. She was right. Friendship with men had thus far proved impossible. “Hey! Perhaps she‟s growing up?” Chris commented to Carole. “Cut the cheek you,” I objected, but there was no stopping him. “Next you‟ll be telling us that you are going to look for a husband.” “Not tonight,” I quipped. Then, to make sure Chris was aware that I‟d not enjoyed his comments, I looked at him with a dismissive smile. “Men over 25 need not apply.”

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It was Carole‟s turn to laugh. “God sis‟! When are you going to grow up and settle down?” If there is one thing that Carole had never said to me before it was that I should settle down. I thought she knew better, but the way she said this in such a carefree and matter of fact way actually stopped me in my tracks for a second. “Not tonight,” I said after a moment. “I‟ll give it some thought tomorrow.” My mind returned to the task in hand and I could feel my face relax and a more pleasant demeanour return. “But since the night is young and there are some young strapping lads here who are hot and willing…….let‟s get on and eat, drink and party.” We ordered our food and I finished my second glass of wine. People were beginning to come into the bar in greater numbers; couples, groups of young men and women, sometimes together and sometimes separate. By 9pm we were sitting at our table, and the bar was getting so crowded that we had to queue for drinks. After main courses and coffee, and a third glass of wine, I was ready to dance. “Shall we hit the floor?” I asked. Carole turned to Chris and gave a gesture. “I‟ll stay here and order some coffees?” he responded. “I‟d rather have another sparkling water. Best not to mix drinks too much,” I said with a delicate hint of sarcasm. Carole nodded and we made our way onto the floor. As I looked around, I could see the eyes of several men follow me. One of my great pleasures in life is attracting admiring looks when I dance. When the DJ put on “You Sexy Thing” I began to take control of the dance floor. I like this song, particularly

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since I saw Robert Carlisle strut his stuff in The Full Monty. God, he was great – but I think I have the edge when it comes to oozing sex appeal. I put my arms above my head and I let my hips swing and my long hair fall sensuously about me. I began to look around as I danced to see whose eye I could catch. At the bar was a strong looking young man in a white tee-shirt and jeans. He looked good and I caught his eye before quickly turning my face away and giving him a sight of my curves swinging in time to the music. Each time I turned quickly the hem of my skirt rose up enough to show an increasing number of admirers that I had black stockings and suspenders on. As I cast my eyes around the restaurant tables, I caught half a dozen men looking in my direction. One was so taken that his girlfriend put her hand under his jaw and twisted his face back so that it looked at her. I grinned broadly and briefly as I flashed a look at the young man sitting at the bar. He was with friends, chatting, but his eyes kept looking in my direction. Good, I have his attention. As the song ended, I saw that Chris was queuing at the bar not far from him so I turned to Carole. “I‟ll just help Chris with the drinks,” and off I went. As I walked towards this young man I looked directly at him and I could see his nervousness. In Cosmo I read that a second of eye contact is a flirt. A two-second gaze is a come-on. Three-seconds is tantamount to telling him I want him inside my knickers. For now, I give him a series of strong admiring looks each lasting a second or two. As I walk right past him, within a couple of feet, our eyes meet. Then I turn to Chris so that my back is towards him.

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“Shall I take that,” I ask. Pretending to be helpful. “Dancing is thirsty work.” “Watching you makes my throat go dry too, Penny,” he jokes. “Not as much as his, I think” I say turning to my admirer and catching his eye again. “Go easy on the young lad, Pen. His heart may not be up to it.” “It‟s not his heart I‟m interested in, Chris.” Even though I was alternating water and wine, I could feel the effects of the drink. I knew that I‟d probably had enough, and that another glass might cause me to get sleepy before I‟d had any fun. Still, it had been a while since I‟d let my hair down so I decided to take things as I found them. As I returned to the dance floor, I walked past my admirer again and this time I made sure that I brushed close by him and turned my head to check his eyes were following me. They were. His friends realised I was giving him the eye and they were ribbing him and laughing loudly. One gave him a shove forward as if to say “Go on, get after her!” He smiled and laughed in an embarrassed way but did not come out onto the dance floor. He seemed a bit more nervous that most men. Whether it was the drink or not, he definitely looked good to me. I decided to bide my time. Carole was bopping away to YMCA when I arrived back with my drink. I tip-toed around her while I downed the water, gently moving in time with the music so as not to spill anything. The next record was Madonna‟s Open Your Heart, one of my favourites, and Carole decided to leave me to hog the limelight while she drank her coffee. Soon I was in full flow again, with my arms above my head, gyrating my hips and inviting the onlookers to let their imagination run wild.

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A number of men tried to join in with me while my young admirer remained at the bar drinking his pint. I allowed them to dance near me, but if they tried to touch I quickly moved away so as not to discourage the man I‟d set my eyes on. After five minutes Carole and Chris joined me and we grooved away for the next couple of records, letting the alcohol and atmosphere go to our heads. It was time to cast my line and hook my man. “Just going to the loo,” I shouted in Chris‟s ear. “Back in a minute!” I walked towards the bar again and could see my catch stare at me as I approached him. His friends, like the parting of the red sea, backed away a little as I went up to him calmly and confidently. “Hi! I‟m just going to the girls‟ room. Would you like to get me a drink and we can chat when I get back?” He broke into a big grin and nodded. Yes, he was really very fit indeed and his face was kind and very pleasing to the eye. I put my hand on his shoulder as I drew my mouth close up to his right ear. “White wine. I shan‟t be long.” As I drew away, I let my cheek very gently touch his. I walked down the stairs to the toilets, past two young couples who were already exploring each other‟s throats and fondling each others‟ buttocks. I imagined my youthful admirer - almost certainly rock hard by now – as I entered the women‟s loos to reapply make-up that had been affected by the sweaty atmosphere. I looked in the mirror. My black hair had become loose and free-flowing and I looked like a high-class tart. The tingle of anticipation heightened my arousal as I entered a cubicle to relieve myself. I closed my eyes and pictured the young man who was buying me a drink. I was ready.

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I returned to the bar and he had my drink ready. It occurred to me that I had not heard him speak yet so I held out my hand. “Hi. I‟m Penny.” He took it and instead of shaking it, he raised it to his lips and kissed it. Very smooth. “George,” he said. His conversation skills could do with a bit of grooming, I must say. “Out with your mates, I see,” I said, looking over in their direction. “Yeah. Load of tossers, but they‟re alright.” I raised my glass in their direction and they acknowledged me en masse. “Nothing wrong with a good toss….,” I said, looking him straight in the eye. To my surprise, he did not respond. In fact, if I‟d not known better I would have said he almost wet his pants. It looked like I was going to have to be gentle with him. “So, what do you and your mates do?” I said, trying to get the conversation going again. “Them lot?” he said. “Most of us work for the AA, you know, emergency breakdowns and that stuff. Rescuing damsels in distress!” So, not overloaded in the brain department, but there was a hint of humour there. I decided to play with him and see how far he would go. “Are you feeling lucky tonight, then?” I wondered if this was too much of a come on, but I thought it was already obvious that I was coming onto him. Again, he didn‟t respond and I began to wonder whether I‟d misread him. “Do you like the outfit?” I asked giving him a quick twirl, fast enough to give a flash of suspenders.

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I saw the Adam‟s apple in his throat move. Christ, he really was nervous! But then some words came out. “I….I think you look…..I…..” Come on lad, spit it out. “I…..I think you look….absolutely fucking fantastic.” At last. “There, that wasn‟t so hard, was it?” He laughed and suddenly he relaxed. I‟m not sure exactly what I did or said, but from that moment on he seemed to change into a different person. “I‟ve not seen you here before,” he said. “I only go out when I‟m with my sister. She‟s over there with her would-be hubby.” I moved closer to him and pointed her out on the dance floor. “Hmm. Hot stuff,” he said and then he must have detected a slight movement in me because he looked me in the eye and continued “…but not as hot as her younger sister.” Keep them coming. That was good, very smooth. “Well, you look like a fit young lad. Are you old enough for me?” I teased. “Twenty next week. How about you?” I decided to lie – no point shattering his illusions. “I‟m twenty five.” “Fuck. You don‟t look it!” I was not sure whether that was a compliment or not but I need not have worried because he quickly reassured me. “I thought you were my age.” Cool. I thought. Is he deliberately flattering me or does it come naturally. I smiled at him – a genuine smile of appreciation, and then gave him a wicked look.

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“Old enough to teach you a few tricks?” Before I knew it he‟d slipped his firm hand around the back of my head and kissed me, gently as first, and then more passionately. I opened my mouth and let his tongue in. For his age he was a good kisser, and his tongue explored my mouth. It felt confident and firm which I hoped was a good sign for later. I pulled away slightly and whispered in his ear. “….don‟t waste it all now, plenty of time for that later…..” I put my hand between his legs and gave a quick squeeze. I heard a slow rising sound from my right. He friends were looking on and gave a long slow “Wwwwooooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrr!” With perfect timing Rock DJ started to play. There was a sudden movement from all of George‟s friends and I followed them onto the dance floor. The place suddenly came alive and I found myself surrounded by young men, with George‟s arms around my waist as we did a bump and grind. We must have cut quite a picture – my arse pressed against his groin as he pretended to pump me from behind. He moved well. I thought him quite a sexy dancer and his friends were fun too. Carole and Chris joined us and we had quite a party for the next hour. I drank another glass of water and wine and started to feel very naughty. Over the loud music, I managed to make him understand that he should meet me outside the loos in 5 minutes. I went to check my make-up again, relieved myself once more and then waited outside, leaning against the wall like a prostitute waiting for a client. He came down the stairs and I could see the animalism in him. I parted my legs slightly and guided him in between them. We kissed passionately, our tongues winding around each others,

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our hand moving over each others bodies and between each others legs. His hands were all over me, under my skirt and inside my top. “Time to get out of here,” I said. He nodded and we gathered our jackets and left. I flagged us a taxi and gave the driver the address. As the car moved away, his hand was under my skirt again and I opened my legs wide for him. His fingers worked inside the hem of my pants and rubbed around my clit. Then a finger was inside me and I gasped before grabbing his hair and guiding his mouth back to mine. My hands were inside his tee-shirt, feeling his muscular body, rubbing him up and down while he finger-fucked me. We paid the taxi driver, who bid us farewell with the comment “Have fun!” As soon as we were inside the door of my flat, I jumped up and put my legs around his waist. “That room,” I indicate with a nod of the head. He carried me through and dropped me on the bed. I slowly pulled my arms up behind my head, closed my eyes, and opened my legs wide for him so he could see my suspenders in all their glory. His head was between my thighs, kissing me gently, moving up slowing. He pulled my pants to one side and buried his face in my pussy. Then came my first disappointment. That firm tongue that was so good exploring my mouth felt like a dish mop between my legs. I tried to focus and get excited but his tongue action was so off putting that I could not put up with it for long. I grabbed his head, indicating he should stop, and pointed down to his crotch. He understood immediately and took off his trousers and pants. Then he climbed roughly back on top of me and tried to put it in. He did

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not guide it in with his hand, but poked around inexpertly, looking for the entrance. Eventually he was inside, but he pumped me so fast and furiously that it hurt. I liked it long and slow, preferably with my lover holding my legs up over his shoulders and making sure he angled his cock into the pit of my stomach. I was beginning to get frustrated, so I shut my eyes and let him fuck me for a few minutes. “Do you want me on all fours?” I asked. “Yeah. Yeah,” he said furiously. “Take it a bit slower,” I said with a hint of impatience. ”Long and deep,” I added in a seductive tone. He looked at me in an odd way. Then quickly nodded. I took up my position, and lowered my head against the pillow and presented my perfectly fuckable clean-shaven fanny to him. He broddled about again before he found the hole and despite my instruction he continued to pump fast and furious. I put my hands down between my legs and tried to compensate for this unerotic experience by massaging my clit. It started to work, my excitement rose. Then I did something that perhaps I should not have done. I shut my eyes and started to imagine it was John behind me, thumping away in my hole and I began to feel a prickle welling up in my body. I pictured John‟s handsome face behind me, his strong hands on my back, and his cock working away in my pussy. I started talking, egging him on, come on big boy, give it to me hard, fill me up with your spunk, come on John…….. “John?!” he shouted and suddenly pulled out of me. “Who the fuck is John?” he shouted at me.

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“George, George, come on hun, get it back in me, come on…..” I saw his face slowly turn to beetroot as the resentment rose in him. As it did, so it rose in me too. I turned away, got up and shot an irritated glance at him as I walked to the bathroom. “Well, I suppose it was good while it lasted!” I added sarcastically. His face turned red. Then he bellowed. “I am not a piece of meat!” He started to put on his clothes. As soon as I realised he was going to leave the rage boiled over in me too. “You bastard. You‟re a fucking crap kisser, your tongue is like a dish mop and you fuck like a pneumatic drill! Go on. Piss off out of here.” He dressed quickly and did not bother to button up his shirt or jacket before he made for the door. As he left the room, he turned around and with a cruel sneer made a parting remark that I‟ll never forget. “And you, you old slapper, are never 25.” I picked up a glass of water by the bed and threw it at him, but he closed the door and it smashed. “Fuck off out of here….!” I shouted at the top of my voice but he was already out of the front door before I‟d finished saying it. I sat back on the bed and curled up. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with distress and an emotion that I‟d not felt for years. It grew inside me slowly, swelling like a wave and rolling slowly into shore. As I felt it get closer, the wave started to break, my emotions started to erupt, engulfing me and crashing frenetically throughout my body. I felt my mouth twitch and my eyes grow moist. What am I doing? I‟m a grown

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woman picking up a teenager for sex. What am I doing? Suddenly, I was being swept away on a huge wave of feeling. My pitifully shallow life crushed me. With my eyes dripping, I curled up into a ball and started to howl like a baby. My insides convulsed in pain, as if I had been run through with a wooden stake. Never in my life had I felt such pain and I wept for the first time in 11 years, the first time since I kicked out my university boyfriend after he‟d cheated on me with my best friend. And as I wept, I thought of only one thing. John. I wanted to be with John, to feel his arms around me, to weep as I lay on his chest. I thought of nothing else but to be with John.

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Chapter 14
I cried for an hour as thoughts bounced around my mind like a powerball inside a hollow steel container. I was all over the place, pulled this way, then that. Who am I? What is this life I have created? Why am I so afraid? Why do men treat me like shit? Why do I treat them like shit? As much as I hated George for saying it, I had treated him like a piece of meat, a succulent Sunday roast to devour and then throw away the carcass. I never sought a relationship, certainly nothing that would last. Why not? What was I doing wasting my life? I‟m not young any more. Okay, so I can pull the guys. But there is something missing that I can‟t understand. I‟ve lived like this, on and off, for ten years, never settling with anyone, never letting anyone settle with me. If they get too close, I push them away. If they run away, I get mad and grab onto someone else to ease the pain. There must be more. There must be something beyond passion and sex. And, am I really happy at work? I tell everyone that I am, but I don‟t know any more. Every year that passes, I earn more brownie points but feel less enthusiasm. The greater the responsibility, the less I seem to feel for people. In the past, I used to like the staff I recruited, to enjoy nurturing them and watching them grow. But now, it is a chore. Yet another person leaves and I have to shuffle everyone around, fill out more paper work, update more systems. Sometimes I wish people would just stay still. I get up and go to the bathroom. My face is stained and I look ugly. I feel ugly. Who have I ever made happy? I‟ve done so much, but achieved so little. Same old, same old, week after

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week, month after month. I pull my hair back and begin to dab my face to remove some of the stains while the tears start to flow again. What is the point? As I throw myself on the bed, I look at the clock and the mobile phone next to it. Without a moment‟s thought, I pick it up and type „John‟ and press „Dial‟. It rings. And rings. Come on John, be there, pick it up. Pick it up. “Urrm. Hawww… Who‟s th… What time is it? Fuck! What? Errm. Who is there?” he finally says. I try to talk but all I can do is sob. “Hello?” he asks. “I can hear you crying. Who is it?” Amongst the whimpers, I finally manage to say my name. “Penny? What is it? What‟s happened?” In the background, I can make out a woman‟s voice saying “who is it, darling?” and he responds that it is me. I can faintly hear another question….”wh….she …..this…ime….of….giht”. It sounds like the line is breaking up, but then his voice comes across strongly. “Penny? You still there? What happened, love?” I have no idea why, but the moment he said the word „love‟ I started to feel safer. I calmed down enough to get a sentence out. “I‟m such a fool. Such a fool. I‟ve really fucked up.” I knew I was not making much sense but at least some feelings were coming out. “Just take your time. No hurry. Just tell me what happened.” I paused. I really did not know what to say. “Oh, John,” I said. “Just hearing a friendly voice helps.” “Good. Good. But what‟s happened?” he asked again.

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“I feel so stupid. It is so stupid. I don‟t even understand why I‟m upset or why I‟ve called you. Please forgive me for waking you up, I just wanted to talk to someone.” I knew that he would not be able to make head or tail of this, but as I talked I was trying to work out in my head exactly what it was that I was upset about. Why exactly was I crying? “I just had a bad night,” I continued. “Have you been attacked?” he said kindly. “No. No. It‟s not that. It‟s just that….it‟s just….you know I just don‟t know what it is. I‟m not even sure. Maybe it is the drink.” I stopped for a moment and he spoke with a strong voice. “Penny. Can you do something for me?” “I‟ll try,” I replied. “Can you get a pen and paper and write down what you are feeling now. Right now. Write out what you are feeling. Don‟t think too hard, just get a pen and paper and write.” “Why?” I said with a puzzled tone. “Tomorrow I‟ll come round and we‟ll read it together.” And that was all he needed to say. To know that I was going to see him made such a difference that I felt my tears and distress subside. Normality returned. “Thank you. Thank you, John. I‟ll call again in the morning.” I could hear a woman‟s voice again asking “wher…..uck….goin….morrow?” and then John‟s voice explain that it was me on the phone and that I was seriously distressed by something. Then another faint question: “why….ling you?”. He said he didn‟t know but that he‟d find out tomorrow. Before he signed off I heard her say in a less concerned, and much

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friendlier voice “come…ack…t….ed, superman.”. Then he spoke to me again. “I have to go now, Penny. Find that pen and paper. Start writing for me.” I said that I would. I got a pen and paper and started to think. I did so for over 30 minutes trying to form thoughts in my mind and get them down on paper. By the time I heard a key in the lock I had written only two words. I’m lonely.

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 15
Carole looked after me. Chris slept in the spare bed while little „sis slept with me. I couldn‟t tell her what happened - I just couldn‟t - and luckily she did not press me. I‟m sure she must think that I was raped or assaulted, but I just can‟t tell her that the man I‟d seduced had realised, mid-shag, that I was fantasising about another man. How do you tell that to anyone, let alone your sister? I had another session sobbing my eyes out at the breakfast table. Carole and Chris had no idea how to stop me. They just sat there quietly, Chris on one side, with his hand on my back, Carole holding my hand. “Um….Do you….d‟you….want to…” “No,” I said quickly. “It‟s too painful.” “What about the police?” Chris asked. I could tell they‟d been talking to each other. “God, no!” I said with a start. “You mustn‟t do that!” “But….” I had to tell them something. I had to tell them enough of the truth for them to understand and not blame anyone. “He walked out on me. We got back here, started having sex and then he just got up and walked out on me.” “What a bastard!” said Carole. “I‟ll punch his face in next time I see him,” threatened Chris. “No. No. You must not blame him.” “Why not?” they said together. Then Carole took my arm and spoke more softly. “What happened, „sis, you can tell us. We just want to help.” “I….I….He….”

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What could I say? I did not want to lie, but I could not tell them what happened. What could I say? “I don‟t want to tell you,” I started but suddenly the words started to come out. “Something happened that upset the evening. It is no-one‟s fault – you must not blame him - but when this „something‟ happened we got angry with each other. That‟s all I can say.” “But why all the tears, sis‟” said Chris. “Oh! Carole. It just all came down on me. My life looks great on the outside but inside it is a heap of shit. I look at you and Chris and wonder what I‟m doing with my life. I know I look all confident and happy, but I‟d trade places with you if I could.” Carole‟s mouth dropped open. Clearly she could not believe what she was hearing. Then her mouth closed, she took my hand and indicated I should stand up. As soon as I was on my feet she held her arms open and I fell into them. “Welcome to the real world, sis,” she whispered. “No fairy tales. No happy endings?” I asked. “Don‟t be such a cynic,” she said pulling away and looking me in the face. “Why not?” “I found my prince charming. So will you,” and she cast a glance at Chris the like of which I‟d never noticed before. I was so used to her moaning about his habits that I‟d not noticed that she really admired him. Chris smiled back then put his arms around both of us. “Family cuddle,” he said, and for reasons I could not understand another wave of emotion engulfed me and the tears

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started to flow again. Carole spoke softly while Chris hugged us both. “That‟s right. Go on. Let it out. Get it out.” I suddenly realised that my little sister had done more growing up than I had. She had taken on the responsibility of a partner and baby. What had I done? Yeah, I had my career but how did that compare to the responsibility of loving another person? I hadn‟t done that. I‟d never been ready to do that. And I was still not sure if I was ready to do it now. “By the way,” Carole suddenly interjected, “John called. He said he‟ll pick you up at 12pm.” “John? Oh God, yes!” I remembered and was amazed. He was going to keep his word. Carole smiled at me. “He sounded nice.” “Don‟t!” was my first response. “I‟ve had all the romance I can take for one weekend.” “Romance?” laughed Chris. “Oh, shut up,” I said, but the smile that was creeping back into my demeanour communicated to him that I did not really mean it. Chris smiled back at me. I‟d never noticed before what a kind smile he had. I wondered if, perhaps, I had misjudged him. It was already 10.30; John was coming at mid-day so I had to stir myself to start getting ready. I went over to the dresser and combed my hair. “Now girl,” said Carole. “Don‟t dress up for him. Just put on something real casual and be yourself.” My hand rose to my forehead as I gave her a salute.

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“Don‟t try to impress him. Just let the day unfold and run with it, however it goes.” I knew she was trying to help, but it always annoyed me when she gave advice like this. I took it on the chin, however; it was good advice after all.

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 16
Twelve o‟clock came and went, and I could feel a few butterflies in my stomach with each passing minute. I drank the dregs of my tea, fidgeted, walked around, sat down, walked around again and generally irritated everybody. As each car passed outside, I kept expecting it to be him. The wait seemed interminable. After what seemed like forever, a car pulled up and a handsome man in jeans and a black pullover got out of the car and looked around. He was clearly looking at the house numbers to check which doorbell to press. I looked at my watch and could not believe that it was only 12:06. I unlatched the door and opened it. “Hi there!” he said without a moment‟s hesitation. “Would you like to come in for a sec?” I asked. “Sure. I can meet that sister of yours. The one with the sexy voice.” “And her partner….” I quipped nodding my head in Chris‟s direction. He put his hand over his mouth. “Oopps!” he said self-consciously. “Don‟t apologise,” chirped Chris. “She has got a sexy voice.” Chris was standing behind Carole and wrapping her in his arms. She lent back and gave him a kiss on his neck to thank him for the compliment. John had a cup of coffee and made small talk with Carole and Chris while I gathered up my things. I‟d dressed casually, just jeans and a rugby shirt (with a cut especially for women). I‟d removed my make-up, and just put on a small amount of transparent lippy to give them a moist look.

Friends or Lovers

“I‟m set to go!” I finally said. John got up, said his „farewells‟ and „nice to meet yous‟. “Your carriage awaits you, Madam,” he joked as he escorted me to his car. It was quite a swish car, I thought. I was no expert, but from work I had more knowledge of motors than the average gal. He‟d chosen a mid-range Ford in black, with a 2-litre engine, incar stereo/CD player, full security system, sunroof and alloy wheels. It fitted his character. He had no need for a flashy sports car, or gas-guzzler, but he liked a few luxuries, and the colour and style had a hint of sexiness about it. Inside the car, he had a selection of CDs, compilations of classical music by French classical composers and American jazz artists. His tastes were broad and selective; the music of a person did not care about fashion or his own image, just the sensuous experience of listening. He saw my eyes casting over his collection. “Any preferences?” “I particularly like Carly Simon, Norah Jones and Eva Casidy but it doesn‟t look like you have any.” To my surprise he opened another hidden compartment with a further dozen CDs. In there was music by Casiopeia, Carly Simon, Queen, the Yellowjackets and Mozart. He took out the „Very Best of Carly Simon” CD and away we drove to the rich tones of „You‟re So Vain‟. “Any particular destination you‟d like?” he asked gently. I thought for a moment. I had no wish to go a long way, but was keen to walk somewhere quiet. “How about Warwick castle? We could walk around the grounds,” I suggested.

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He nodded. I was about to give him directions but he made a left turn. I realised that he must already know the area. “You know the way?” I queried. “Yes, a bit. I have friends in Warwick.” “Of course, you told me.” I did not feel talkative because I was not sure how to start. I‟d called him when I was distressed and he was bound to think I wanted to talk about what happened. Now he was here, I was not sure what to say. I could hardly tell him the truth. “Do you want to eat before or after the walk?” he asked. I still had a bit of a hangover so food was not high on my agenda yet. “Let‟s walk first,” I suggested. I recalled the voice in the background during our phone conversation. “Was your wife okay about your coming here today?” “Not really. She‟ll get over it. She knows that no man – particularly me – can totally resist being a knight in shining armour. She was forgiving.” “Is that what you are?” I asked. “I don‟t mind being a stand-in until you find someone who can do it for you full time.” It didn‟t fit somehow with the conversations we‟d previously had about equality between the sexes, but at this particular moment I was happy to borrow someone else‟s knight for the day. “But there is one condition,” he added. “What‟s that?” “No hanky panky!” he said with a smile.

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“The thought never crossed my mind,” I snapped back with a grin. He may have been driving, but he caught my message and smiled back at me briefly. “Just so long as we both understand the boundaries,” he confirmed. “I do,” I said, with some irony. This small phrase, normally the preserve of people tying the knot, seemed appropriate for the contract that we were making between us. After this, I felt myself relax and the prospect of the day ahead filled me with pleasure. The trauma of the previous night receded as I filled my senses with thoughts of what we would do with our day. We turned a corner that brought the castle into view then drove around the perimeter to the visitor car park. “Okay, Madam,” he said with mock politeness. “I am now in your hands.” “In my dreams”, I thought to myself. My sumptuous naughty side had not been destroyed by the humiliation I‟d been through; I was grateful for that. Even though it sometimes got me into trouble, the kitten in me was still there. He continue playing the game of „protector‟ by opening the car door for me and indicating the direction of the grounds with a slight nod and wave of his right hand. “Thank you, my man,” I said with a haughty look that I imagined women of class would give to a chauffeur, or footman. Then I blew it by whispering to him „do I give you a tip?‟ He broke into a chuckle as he swung the door shut. We set off on a path around the perimeter of the castle. I liked this path because it led through a couple of wooded areas, then up a slight incline as we crossed more open ground until we had

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a view of the whole locality. The full circuit would take about 45 minutes and by then I would feel ready for lunch. We walked for a couple of minutes without saying anything to each other. I sensed that both of us were looking for an opening line that would enable us to talk about what had happened. Finally, he spoke. “I imagine a man was involved somehow last night?” I wished it was that simple, but I had to start somewhere. “Yes. That was the trigger,” I replied. “The trigger for what?” I looked at him and the distress must have shown in my face. “Penny, we don‟t have to talk about this if you don‟t want to.” I was afraid but I longed to talk to him. “It‟s okay. This is not easy for me to talk about. I‟m not good at sharing my feelings, particularly with men.” He gave me one of those half-smiles that conveyed both sympathy and an understanding of my suffering. He did not interrupt and I realised that he expected something more. “Last night I tried to follow your advice. I sat down after I came off the phone, made myself a coffee and tried to write down what was troubling me. I could have written pages and pages of trivia; lots of tiny agonies; irritations with things at work; lots of conflicting emotions about how angry I feel about things that happened in the past. All the boyfriends I dumped, their irritating habits, the bastards that dumped me, or didn‟t call me, or made me feel beautiful when they were trying to get in my knickers, but then backed off when I opened my heart in response to their lovely words. I could have written about how jealous I am of my sister. She‟s found a man to love her and now has a beautiful child that she dotes on. I could have written

Friends or Lovers

about the distance I feel from my mother for the way she used to look at me when I brought boyfriends home. I could tell she thought I was little better than a tramp so I dug my heels in and took my boyfriends up to my bedroom just to make her mad.” I stopped for a second to gather my recollections. I noticed that he was listening intently so I continued. “I fought her for years. She thought I was „too young‟ for boyfriends! How can you choose things like that? I was ready at 14. I had passion in me, John, real passion and I did not want to wait until some stupid outdated law said I could sleep with boys. You‟d think my father would be the one to object, but no, it was my mother who was constantly critical. There were times we would hit each other, but I would not be controlled.” He nodded. “Well, all this was going through my head last night while I held the pad. Do you know what I wrote in the end?” It was a rhetorical question, but he followed form by asking me anyway. And then I said it. I said out loud the words that I‟d hidden in my head for years. “I‟m lonely, John. Really lonely.” As I said the words, I felt my eyes moisten again and I looked at him. And then I got a total shock. I could see a single tear rolling down his left cheek. He was crying. He was crying. “John!” I started. “What is it, John?” “Come here,” he said, and just as my sister had earlier in the day, he offered his arms and I fell into them. Unlike my sister, however, his arms were larger and stronger. They made me feel safer and all warm inside.

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He rocked me gently from side to side for a few seconds. Then he released me and started to walk again. I wished that I could have stayed in his arms for longer, but it would not have been right. “I‟ve made all my own choices, never let anybody run my life for me, or be my slave.” He gave me a sideways glance. “But at such a high price…” he responded. I was not sure what he meant, so I gave him a puzzled look. “All that „control‟, all that „competence‟, all that „professionalism‟ comes at a high price, don‟t you think?” And I did think, but I was still not sure what he meant. He spoke more. “When was the last time you felt like this, talked like this?” I thought hard. I could not remember a time when I had cried like this….. My God! I looked at him. “Not since my first day at university. After my parents drove away, I sat alone in my room and felt so unbearably alone that I cried my eyes out.” “And by the end of the day, I‟ll bet, you had made several girlfriends who later became your enemies. And after your first disco, you had lads competing to become your boyfriend.” I smiled. “Yes. But those few hours were the loneliest. Unbearable.” “We all need intimacy in our lives, Penny, even hard-nosed career women.” As he said this he cupped my cheek with his hand. It was such a gentle gesture, something that my father might have done to me as he put me to bed. For the first time in years, I felt the

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warmth of a man‟s love and I could not stop my head incline itself towards his soft touch. “Do you want to talk about last night?” he asked as we resumed our stroll. I was not sure, but I felt I should give him something to understand why I‟d called. “I fell out with the person I picked up at a bar. He walked out. All that loneliness – it just crashed down on me and I had to talk to you. I felt I just had to hear your voice.” “Why mine?” he asked. That, indeed, was the question I did not want to answer. I had to say something, however. “Because if there is anyone who can help me unravel the minefield that stands between men and women, I guess it is you. You‟re an expert in it, after all.” I detected his pleasure at hearing this. “Not an expert, Penny. It is just something I take a keen interest in.” Suddenly some words popped out of my mouth that I did not intend. “Help me, John.” There was a pregnant pause while he considered the import of what I had just said. “Of course I will,” he said reassuringly. “I‟ll try.”

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 17
Over the next few hours we took in the views around Warwick, lunched in a tea shop, climbed a tower, laughed, joked, discussed politics, the meaning of life, travelled to deepest outer space, and generally just chilled together. I was more relaxed with him than I had been with any man for over a decade, perhaps more relaxed with him than any man except my father. Our conversation never stopped all day. Wherever we were, whatever we did, we talked and exchanged thoughts constantly. The sexual tension was always there. My attraction to him never completely left me, and the way his eyes fixed themselves on me sometimes, I could tell that he was sucking in my beauty so that he could savour and bathe in it. His eyes were not lustful, just filled with the admiration a person might feel looking at a beautiful portrait or marvelling at a moment of cinematic brilliance. He looked at me as if he was searching my soul, not ogling my body, and it filled me with a confidence that I could not explain. I admired him, but the desire to seduce him slowly ebbed away. I just wanted to be with him, occupy the same space, hear his voice, and know that he was nearby. By late afternoon, he suggested that we might like to eat at Pizza Hut again. I felt, however, that I should take him somewhere special to thank him for the day out. I chose my favourite Italian, a place tucked away in a cobbled side street that was quiet enough to have a hint of romance, but with a festive atmosphere. “How‟s that problem at work you had?” he asked, as we started on our desserts.

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“Which problem is that?” I answered without looking up. “You mean there are so many?” “Can we utter a sentence without it being a question?” I asked. “I don‟t know. Can we?” he said with his smile broadening all the time. “What was your question again?” was my retort. “My first, second or third question?” he said chuckling. “Do you want to ask the first one?” I was not giving up first. “The one about the problem you had at work.” “Gotcha. Fifteen love.” I said with a victory salute. His face told me that he was interested in more than the game, so I dropped the stupid stuff and regained my composure. “Work. Yeah. Things have moved on a bit. Things don‟t seem to be quite right. The more I talk to the man, the more I sense that he‟s trying to be straight with me. The more I learn about the woman‟s situation…… Well, he seems more on the level than I first thought, but he‟s hiding something from me, not just about the current incident but about a past relationship too. She‟s a prude for sure, but I think she is holding back on an incident with somebody in the team. I get the feeling that some sexual shit is going on that nobody wants to talk about. What about your friend? “I‟ve only had one update, but I should get the full story soon – we‟ll be working together on a project.” “So what‟s the story there?” “Well, it has been difficult at home for him. The problem at work has made things worse at home.” “Why‟s that?” “He thinks it will be okay, but he‟s very sensitive about what happened.”

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“Why?” “To explain that I‟d have to go way back.” “I‟m in no rush,” I said. “Okay. Well he had a difficult period with his wife about….er…four years, yes, about four years ago. He‟s a really sweet guy. One of his colleagues was having marital problems and she started talking to him about them – eventually she admitted she was being abused by her husband.” “Not a situation you come across every day,” I commented “Not something you hear about every day,” he clarified. “Anyway, he gave her support but after a few weeks they had a real heart to heart and she said she wanted to get out.” “So what happened?” “Well, that night he collected her from her home and took her to his. His wife was not pleased, but he convinced her that he‟d no choice. She became his lodger for several months while they waited for a vacancy at a refuge. He helped her furnish her room. Later he helped her find and move into a flat – he even gave her the money for a deposit.” “I bet his wife did not like that!” “Yeah. Right. Big problem. Big rows. His wife accused him of having an affair, and to this day he has always denied it. The money thing was too much for her and she threw him out. So he stayed with his woman friend as her lodger for a while. It took a few months but eventually his wife came around and let him come back home. She took him back but made him promise never to get involved with another woman again.” “So how does that have a bearing on his current problem?” “From what I gather he started to help another woman at work who had been having problems at home. He didn‟t want to let

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her down, but he also didn‟t want her to get too close to him. So he backed off and upset her. He changed jobs and only told his wife afterwards.” I felt sorry for this guy. He sounded like he really cared for both his wife and his work colleagues and just wanted to help everybody. John was relaxed while we chatted and I could tell he cared about his friend. In fact, I got a feeling that John just cared about people. There didn‟t seem to be anyone in his life that he did not like. “John. I‟ve enjoyed today.” It was one of those leading phrases, one that invites intimacy. “Penny. I‟ve enjoyed today too,” and he gave me that same warm smile that I remembered from our first meeting. “Do you…..” I stopped. This was risky. Did I have the courage to say it? “Do you….” Hell, why was I so nervous? I hate my nerves. “Do……ah!” Then he did something that really startled me. He took my hands in his. “Sometimes things don‟t need to be said.” Inside I could feel my heart pumping and my breathing quicken. I said it anyway. “Do you….ever fantasise about me?” I asked. Whatever he had expected, I don‟t think it was this because he immediately raised his eyebrows in astonishment. He took one hand away and squeezed his nose. “I‟ll answer that question if you will tell me why you‟re asking it.” Why was I asking it? I was not sure. “Deal.” I said.

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He hesitated, but only for a moment. “The answer is „Yes‟, but not when I‟m making love to my wife.” I felt a peculiar sensation; a deep pleasure that he thought of me sexually, but disappointment that he mentioned his wife. Clearly he wanted me to know that I would not take her place. “Your turn,” he said, reminding me of the pact. I hesitated. I shuddered because I realised why I‟d asked him this question. I wanted to tell him I fantasised about him. I wanted to tell him about the night before, about the way things had unfolded. I tensed, and he noticed immediately and took my hands again. “Last night…..” I stopped and looked down into my lap. “Last night?” he queried. I could feel the emotion rising in me again. I was not sure if I had the courage to say it. I closed my eyes and summoned my strength. Was this going to lead to disaster? I wanted to tell him. I wanted to share this, but I did not want him to reject me. “I….,” my hands started to shake. “Penny, Penny. You don‟t need to say it.” I never trusted anyone so why did I want to trust him? What was I doing here with him? He was married and we were holding hands in a restaurant while his family was a hundred miles away. This was crazy. I wanted to share my humiliation with him, to tell him the part he had played in it. What if he was angry? What if I spoiled the whole day? What if it ruined our friendship? “I….,” but I stopped again. “You don‟t need to say it,” he repeated.

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I made an attempt at a smile, but it was not a very convincing one. I felt the tears fill my eyes again and I looked up at him. He gave my hands a little squeeze to keep me reassured. My whole body was rigid, tears were dripping down my face, and I shuffled awkwardly in my seat. I had never talked like this with anyone, not my sister, not my mother, not my father or any of my boyfriends. I looked up, letting the tears roll. I could not say the words. I just could not. John got up from his seat, came around to my side of the table and pulled up his chair. He put his right arm around my back, and stroked my cheek with his left hand. Through my sobs I suddenly heard the sound of my own voice. “It was awful. ….as he was fucking me I started to think of you, and then I blurted out your name.” “Shit! I bet that cooled his ardour,” he said with a laugh. I laughed, with relief mostly. I laughed and suddenly I felt it was okay to carry on. “You bet it did. He got really mad at me. And then he left. And…and…” His hand was rubbing my back and it felt lovely. “…I felt so alone. I‟m so sorry I rang you. I can‟t believe I‟m telling you this. I should not be telling you this.” “Why?” he asked. “Why?” I said with astonishment. “Yes, why?” he asked again. “Are you crazy? You‟re married and I‟m pouring out these feelings to you. I shouldn‟t be saying this.” “So we‟ve broken the rules. Big deal. You‟re attracted to me. I‟m attracted to you. I like that – it‟s honest. People normally

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make each other miserable because they can‟t express or share the simplest feelings.” He paused. “That took courage, didn‟t it?” “More than you‟ll ever know,” I responded. I was not sure where to go from here but it did not matter because he carried on talking. “Somebody once said to me that there is no such thing as a non-sexual relationship between a man and a woman. There are only sexual relationships where they agree not to have sex.” There was a prolonged silence during which neither of us dared to ask the question that was on both our minds. “I love it that you are attracted to me,” he finally said. “Why?” I asked with genuine curiosity. “Because my fantasies will be much more exciting now!” I laughed again. How did he make this happen? How did he take my troubles away at the very moment I felt more vulnerable than ever before? “I can‟t believe how close I feel to you,” I said. He was quiet for a while and just rocked me in his arms. It was my turn to break the silence. “I feel a bit better.” “Thank you,” he said. He was so strange. Why was he thanking me for sobbing all over him? “What for?” “For sharing this.” “You are really weird,” I said. “I tried Mr Normal,” he interjected, “but I couldn‟t keep it up!” I shook my head as my smile returned.

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“And thank you,” I said at last. “You‟re welcome,” he responded. He asked the waitress for coffee then continued. “Where are we going to find you a good man, then?” I wanted to say I‟d found one, but I knew that it was not the right thing to say. “Are there any left?” I asked. “Oh, yes. So long as you know where to look.” I was about to say that I thought he must be joking, but on this occasion I let it pass. I was not about to start another debate. “Where?” I queried. “Have you looked at work?” he asked. “I don‟t think people react well to women in positions of authority having sexual relationships at work.” “Why on earth not?” he reacted. “Isn‟t that why people go to work?” he asked. “What do you mean?” “Why is work any different from anywhere else?” “It‟s a place of work, surely?” “Employerspeak!” he laughed. “If not at work, where will you find Mr Right?” His question was rhetorical. I could not think of any good prospects at work that were not already in relationships and said so. “And you know that they are happy and committed?” “Well no, I don‟t,” I answered. “Find out. Perhaps you‟ve already met him?” he suggested. “I can hardly ask them,” I said. “You don‟t need to ask. All you need to do is get the person you are interested in talking about their life. Take an interest.”

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We drank the last of our coffee and I paid the bill. Then, he drove me back to my house and walked me to the door. In the movies we might have kissed, but I just knew that we would not. At the door, he hugged me, pecked me on the cheek, then returned to the car and gave me a salute as he drove off. I wanted him to come in, but I knew he needed to get back home to his family. He‟d given up a whole Saturday for me and it was important that I should not intrude further on his time. I find it difficult to describe how I feel now. I‟ve been more distraught today than I can ever remember, but inside I now feel like I‟m walking on water. This is not like the butterflies of teenage love, but a tingling feeling burrowing into the darkest caverns of my soul, a warmth so spiritual that I can feel my humanity light up. He makes me want to be a better person, to live more, risk more, and share the best of myself. Is this, I wonder, how people feel when they first experience the deepest kind of love?

Friends or Lovers

Chapter 18
Due to a lot of demands on my time, when I got to work the weekend was purged from my mind. Phil was first to update me. He had been diligently taking lunch with Elona‟s team and learned that a number of the men enjoyed teasing her and flirting with her. According to them, Elona was pretty off-hand with all of them except one. Nathan was a lad in his mid-twenties and the general consensus was that she had a crush on him. Nathan himself was not that interested although he did join in some of the flirting. Phil thought this was more to bond with his mates than to pursue Elona. “They are surprised that she accused Mike. Most of his team said that he was very gentlemanly. He was careful how he behaved and spoke around everyone, particularly Elona. I was perplexed by this. It did not seem to fit. Even Mike had admitted to me that he‟d flirted with her. I nodded for Phil to continue. “Then there‟s this Nathan!” Phil said. “What about him?” “He was quite cagey when the others were talking. He did not volunteer anything and I got the feeling that the whole conversation made him uncomfortable.” “D‟you think I should talk to him?” I asked. “Well. If you ask me, the relationship between Elona and Nathan is connected to all of this somehow. I don‟t understand how Mike fits in – maybe he got jealous or something – but I feel there must be a connection somewhere.” “Okay. What about Mike and Sally?” I enquired.

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“Yeah. I was right about that. He did live with her for a while. She‟s one of the people who transferred with him to the new team. Nobody is completely sure why they are so close, but they did live together for a few months. But they don‟t live together now, he‟s back with his wife. It all sounds kind of bizarre. If they‟d had an affair and split up, why would she want to keep working with him? It doesn‟t make sense.” I was puzzled too, but there was nothing to be gained by discussing it now. “Okay. Well done. I‟ll have a word with Dave. We seem to be getting closer. Perhaps it is time for another chat with Elona. Then I‟ll speak to Nathan.” I had to set this to one side for the moment. The marketing manager, Jo, had enlisted Mike‟s support to get his team some training in consumer behaviour. As I was up to my eye-balls helping Dave bring on board some new inventors, I was keen to off-load this. She said that she had worked with a consultant several times and wanted to bring him in again. I could not see any reason to object, so I signed off a purchase order for 30 days consultancy and left her to get on with it. I thought back to my weekend conversation. John had suggested I look for a partner at work for two reasons. Firstly, most people meet their marriage partner in a workplace setting. Secondly, he claimed that nearly half of all married women chose their job in order to find a partner. I told him the second one must be rubbish, but he provided me with a source. I promptly went to WH Smith and bought the book. Sure enough he was right. I found the statistics both staggering and appalling. In this modern age, after 40 years of gender equality, who would have thought this? To think that hoards of women at

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work were actively looking for husbands. The thought actually annoyed me. Who, I wondered, was searching for a husband in our workplace? * * * “Come in Penny,” said Dave. “Hi. So what needs doing today?” I asked. “We need to draw up three contracts. I‟ve got Clive Preston coming over from London, Brian Thwaite from Birmingham, and Claire Nunn from Glasgow.” “A woman?” I remarked. “Rare that?” “Yes. But a good find. She‟s a remarkable designer and has assembled a small team of engineers to make customised kitchenware. They manufacture through companies in Sheffield. She‟s ready for exposure and now has a large portfolio. I‟m sure you‟d be impressed.” I‟d never pictured Dave as someone with either the inclination or ability to appreciate cutlery and kitchenware. “Careful,” I commented, “your wife will be asking for freebies.” He gave me an odd look. I did my best to ignore it and returned to the issue at hand. “Okay. Standard Terms?” I asked. “For Claire and Clive yes, but Brian will be getting 25%” “Is he worth it?” I asked. “We‟ll see in due course. We are poaching him away from his current distributor so I had to offer a bit extra. He also wants help recruiting marketing support staff and I said we‟d be able to help. Sorry I didn‟t ask you beforehand. Is that okay?”

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He gave me one of his hopeful looks, opened his palms and shrugged his shoulders. He really could look quite cute at times. I made his request sound like an imposition, but I did not mind. “I‟ll see what I can do…..” As I made to go, he touched my arm to stop me. “By the way,” he added, “my wife doesn‟t buy stuff for the house any more.” “Why‟s that?” I asked. He looked hesitant. “She‟s…..not well.” “I‟m sorry to hear that. I hope she gets better soon.” It was not often that Dave ever talked about anything outside work and it took me a bit by surprise. I confirmed the contract details with him one last time and then remembered that I wanted to ask him about Mike and Sally. “There is something else,” I said. “I‟ve been putting together a picture of our sales manager friend and it seems that he has a mystery relationship with Sally, one of the local sales reps. Do you know anything about that?” Dave pondered and raised his eyebrows. “I heard they shared a flat for a while. Lots of rumours flying about, just tittle tattle, I imagine.” “Come on, Dave. Spill it,” I insisted. “Well, most people just think they had a fling – that they moved into a flat together and that it didn‟t work out so he left.” Something in his tone suggested that he had something else to add. “And?” I asked with an expectant look. “…..and I don‟t believe that. I used to get on well with one of Sally‟s colleagues and it seems that she moved in with him and

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his wife. That‟s not the sort of thing that she would do if she was having an affair him. Unless the affair came later, of course.” Dave paused for a smirk, and then carried on. “No. I think Sally had some domestic crisis and Mike offered her a way out. Anyway, it caused no end of problems in his marriage and Sally had to move out. Then Mike joined her, I think. Not sure what happened after that – all I know is that his personal life got into a real mess for a while. I‟m not a rumourmonger. What he does in his own time is really not our business.” “He‟s back with his wife now.” I said. “Really?” he said with surprise. “Interesting. Bet Sally was pissed when he went back,” he remarked. “Apparently not,” I said, “They still get on well. She asked to carry on working with him recently when he moved jobs.” “Feathering two nests, you think?” I sensed that there was no love lost between Dave and Mike. “Maybe. Not sure. What is it with you and him?” I enquired. “Oh. I‟ve no strong feelings. I just think that whenever people let their personal and professional lives get confused things can become very messy.” My sentiment entirely, I thought. “He should‟ve left well alone, I think.” He paused for a moment as pieces of the jigsaw were reassembled in his head. “How does this link to Elona?” he finally asked. “Not sure. Should find out soon. I‟m meeting Elona in a few minutes, then Nathan. I think we‟ll get to the bottom of this soon.”

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“Okay. Keep me posted. When you have a complete picture we can discuss how to bust up this secret network.” I had not realised before how similar Dave and I were in our outlook but it pleased me that we shared this point of view. I thanked him and returned to my department to meet Elona. With Dave‟s support, I felt ready to get to the bottom of things and achieve closure.

Friends or Lovers

Chapter 19
“Come in, come in,” I said as I welcomed Elona into my office. “Do you mind if Phil sits in on this one?” Elona looked around the room and rubbed her ear. She looked unsure but answered positively. “If you want him to stay, I guess that‟s okay with me.” “Thanks. He knows more about this situation than I do, so I‟d like him here.” Elona shuffled in her seat and looked uncomfortable. “Can I offer you a cup of tea?” I asked. She lifted her hand to decline the offer, but I decided to ask Phil to make one for me anyway. It would give me a moment to put Elona at her ease. As Phil left the room, I got up from my chair and sat beside her. “Elona. There!” I said, as I put my hand on her shoulder. “Don‟t worry. This is just a quiet chat to establish what has been going on. Phil‟s been following up on some of your concerns and we want to discuss a few things with you. There‟s no need to worry.” Despite my calm and sympathetic words I detected an increase in her nervousness. She would not look at me and her hands were clasped together on her knees. “Elona. Before Phil comes back, is there anything you want to share with me privately?” She glanced at me and shook her head quickly in denial. Phil entered the room with two cups of tea and a glass of water. He put one cup on my desk, keeping the other for himself. Although Elona had declined the tea, she immediately

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picked up the glass of water and drank half of it. As she put the glass down, she summoned up a slight smile and I felt ready to begin. “Thanks for coming in again,” I began, and she looked a little more relaxed. “As I was saying earlier, we are grateful that you made a complaint and raised some important issues. Phil‟s talked to others in your team and they admit they behaved inappropriately to you. I‟ll be talking to them in due course.” Elona seemed to relax when I told her this. “What they say is that they flirted with you, you ignored them, and they stopped. Would you agree with that?” Elona said nothing but nodded her agreement. “Thanks for that,” I said reassuringly. “There is one thing, however.” “What‟s that?” she asked, finally finding her voice. I looked squarely at her. “Well, the lads in the team said that one of them, called Nathan, gave you some attention and that you did not seem to mind.” At the mention of Nathan‟s name, Elona immediately went bright red and got extremely agitated. “Elona. Elona. It is alright. If you like Nathan‟s attention, nobody minds.” She looked down at the table in front of her, saying nothing. I tried to calm the atmosphere further, but clearly this was a sensitive matter and she was deeply embarrassed. Phil chipped in too. “Elona. Nobody is judging you, love. We just need to understand whether there is any link between this and the incident with Mike? Is there?”

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Elona seemed to be petrified by this suggestion and started to shake. I remembered that Mike said he would talk if Elona gave her permission. I tried a new tack. “Mike mentioned that you confided some information in him. He has refused to talk about it because he gave you his word that he wouldn‟t.” At this, Elona looked up at me and her mouth dropped open. She was clearly fighting back tears but to my surprise she started to nod. “Yes? You did confide in Mike?” She nodded again. “Something about Nathan?” Phil asked. She nodded again. “Mike won‟t speak about it without your permission. Would you give your permission?” At this suggestion, her face went red again and her eyes filled with moisture. Her shaking got more acute and suddenly she exploded. “No! No! No! I don‟t want to talk to anyone about any of this. Leave me alone!” She got up and ran out of the room in tears. Phil got up to follow her, but I shot him a look that he should let her go. “Not now,” I said. “Let her calm down. We can always go and see her later.” “Fuck!” offered Phil. “Some serious shit has happened to her. That‟s for sure!” I felt angry that Elona was still so distressed. It fuelled my desire to find out more. “Go get Nathan!” I commanded Phil. “Now?” he asked.

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“Yes! Now!” I said raising my voice. Phil held up both his hands as if to hold me at bay and quietly made his way out of the room. My mind was spinning again. What had Nathan done to her? Had he raped her? Had she confided this in Mike? Had Mike done nothing? Had Mike tried to take advantage? Why was she later upset with Mike and not Nathan? None of this seemed to make any sense. As I was running over all these things in my mind, Phil returned with suspect in hand. I was in no mood to be pushed around any more. “Nathan. Come on in. Take a seat.” He sat down, looking as puzzled as he was concerned. “I‟ve just had Elona in here and clearly something has happened between you and her. She is extremely distressed. Can you explain?” Nathan seemed to go completely white and started reeling in his chair. “Fuck!” he said as his eyes seemed to look everywhere in the room except at Phil or myself. But no more words came forth. I started to get angry again. “Nathan,” I said. “Look at me!” Nathan looked pale and distressed but finally looked me in the eye. “Tell me what happened.” “What has Elona said?” he asked. “Nothing. That is why I am asking you.” Nathan held my gaze and did not flinch for even a fraction of a second. “I would like to leave, please,” he asked.

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Phil, who was sitting in the corner, seemed to get agitated and looked at me and if to indicate that he should be allowed to go. That did not satisfy me, however. “Nathan,” I said, “Let me be completely open with you…..” I saw Nathan‟s lips go tight and the whites of his teeth show. Phil was gently moving his head from side to side to indicate „no‟, but my anger got the better of me and I let rip. “We have a situation here. Someone in Elona‟s team has made a sexual advance. She is seriously distressed and will not talk. She confided something to Mike, but he will not talk either. You can either give me an account of your behaviour or I‟ll call a disciplinary hearing. You can give a full account to your line manager and myself. What is it to be?” I imagine that while I said this, the whites of my teeth were showing too. With Phil in the room I felt a bit bolder. Nathan, still calm and unflinching, gave me a look of absolute disgust. Phil, in the corner, was looking down at the floor as if he could not bear to watch what was happening. “You don‟t have a fucking clue, do you?” Nathan started. “About what?” I fired back. “A fucking clue about anything….” he added. “If you use that type of language once more, I‟ll suspend you here and now. Do you understand?” “I would like to leave, please,” he asked again. “No!” I shouted. “You tell me what happened, or I will have to take this to your line manager first thing in the morning.” Phil looked as white as a sheet. What on earth was going on here? Nathan kept looking at me and was unmoved. “I would like to leave, please,” he repeated without showing any anger.

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“Okay, you have made your choice. I would like you here at 10am tomorrow morning with your line manager. You may go.” Holding my gaze, he slowly left the room with hatred burning in his eyes. I could feel them pierce me right through. I was glad that Phil was in the room. Shaken as I was, I held myself together and summoned Phil over. The situation felt like it was getting out of control, but I had one more card to play. “Right. Firstly, go immediately to Nathan‟s manager and inform him of the meeting at 10am.” Phil nodded. “Is Mike still in the building?” “Sorry?” asked Phil, who seemed taken aback at this question. “Is Mike still in the building?” Phil looked unsure. If he‟d been more experienced, perhaps he would have suggested that I sleep on this, but he was too intimidated. Still looking shaken himself, Phil nodded a „yes‟. “Okay, I want you to get Mike and bring him here immediately. Do not take no for an answer. Is that clear?” Phil obediently did as I asked while I made myself another cup of tea. I felt on a roll, as if everything was coming together. Nathan must have made a pass at Elona. Maybe she didn‟t reciprocate and got upset. I imagine she tried to confide this in Mike. Then again, what if Elona did want Nathan to make a pass? Perhaps he seduced her, then dumped her. Whichever is true, she tried to confide in Mike and he tried to handle it „within the team‟. Idiot. What a bloody amateur. He must have suggested they go out for a drink and then said something that upset her. Whatever he said made Elona mad. This kind of

Friends or Lovers

stuff really makes my blood boil. Always the woman who gets hurt; always the man who gets away with it. Phil returned with Mike, who stormed into my office with an irritated look on his face. “What the hell is this? I was in a meeting with my team and Phil tells me that you have an emergency. What is so urgent it cannot wait until morning?” “Sit down, Mike. It has come to light that there is a relationship problem between Elona and Nathan and that she reported this to you. I want to know what she said and how you handled it.” Mike raised his hands and grabbed his head in despair. “I told you to back off this. What on earth are you doing?” “Don‟t piss me around, Mike.” Phil had again retreated to the corner of the room and was looking uncomfortable. “Okay, okay. Sit down and let‟s talk about this,” he said ushering me into my chair with his open palm. “So where d‟you want to start?” he asked. “What‟s the relationship problem between Elona and Nathan?” I asked. “Have you talked to Elona?” he responded. “Yes. She got so upset that she left the room in tears. She won‟t talk about it.” Mike, surprisingly, seemed to slow down and take this in. He looked away as he thought for a moment, and then he rubbed his cheek. “I‟m not surprised,” he finally said. “Why?” I asked. He looked me calmly in the eye.

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“Because this situation is probably the most upsetting thing that has ever happened to her.” “Are you going to tell me about it?” I asked again. “Did you ask her if she‟d mind me talking?” he asked. “I did and she confirmed that she had confided in you,” I replied. “Did you ask her if she was okay about you talking to me?” he repeated. “Yes, but she did not answer,” I confessed. “They why don‟t you respect her wishes?” he asked. I began to wonder who was conducting this enquiry, him or me. “There may have been a breach of the law and I have a duty of care towards her.” “A duty of care! You call this a duty of care?” he asked accusingly. “She‟s distressed. I cannot help her unless I understand the cause of the distress,” I responded keeping my calm. “Did it ever occur to you this witch-hunt is the cause of her distress?” His words inflamed me. “How dare you! If people told me what the fuck is going on then we could sort this mess out. I‟m trying to help her. Why can‟t you see that?” “Oh, I can see that alright. She is of great concern to you. And what about Nathan? What about me? Are you concerned about us too?” “What? What on earth are you going on about?” If looks could have killed, then Mike would have been dead on the floor in an instant.

Friends or Lovers

“I‟m asking you why you only seem concerned to protect Elona?” “You arrogant bastard. She is the one who is distressed and somewhere in this heap of shit Nathan or you did something to cause that distress. You are not going to wriggle out of this.” “And what did Nathan tell you?” he asked. I resented him asking all the questions, but I did not know how to respond. “He would not talk. He seemed to think that I don‟t know what I‟m talking about.” Mike gave a small laugh. “What‟s so funny?” I said angrily. “Because he‟s right.” “You think you are so fucking clever! Well, not this time. One of you is going to answer for Elona‟s distress. One of you is going to answer for what happened.” Suddenly, Mike snapped and shouted at me in a way that reverberated in the marrow of my bones. “You stupid woman!” I was bright red with anger and started to defend myself. “You sexist bastard….. my being a woman has nothing to do with it…….” Mike, however, pointed an accusing finger at me and carried on. “It‟s got everything to do with it. Did it ever occur to you that it might be Elona who made a pass at Nathan? Did it ever occur to you that Nathan was the one receiving unwanted attention? Did it ever occur to you that Elona might have made accusations because she felt rejected and hurt? No, not for one second!”

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He paused for a moment and seemed to calm down. I was so shocked that I did not know what to say. After a moment, Mike got ready to speak again. This time, his voice was much calmer but the words cut into me and I felt a shiver run through my body. “Tell me, Penny,” he said as he fixed his gaze on me, “have you ever made a pass at a man?” Then he calmly walked out of the room. There have only been a few occasions in my life when I have been completely lost for words. This was one of them. It took me a full 10 minutes to calm down and regain my composure, during which time Phil remained seated. I looked at the cold cup of tea on my desk and gave a short laugh. What had just happened? I looked up at Phil and beckoned him over to my desk. He came over slowly looking as shaken and as shocked as me. “Sit down,” I said. “Tell me honestly, Phil,” I asked, “What d‟you think of what he just said?” Phil looked uncomfortable. His mouth opened several times without any words coming out. He found it difficult to look at me, and his hands fidgeted on his knees. With his eyes fixed on the desk, he eventually ventured an opinion. “Mike‟s an awkward bugger, isn‟t he?” I grabbed my head with both hands. “What a mess. What a total fucking mess! Call Mike and tell him that I want him back here at 10am tomorrow.” Phil looked at me and nodded slowly.

Friends or Lovers

Chapter 20
When I was young, my father told me that my instincts and emotions were my greatest assets. He was an unusual man. While many people, particularly men, put great stock in objectivity and science, my father was quite different. I think it was his career inside the civil service that inclined him towards a political way of thinking, including a view that science was rarely scientific. He argued that science was always oriented towards a political goal, even if that goal was a modest one such as building the scientist‟s reputation. As such, he had a strong spiritual side that, if not religious, was imbued with deeply human values. Emotion, he would say, is the key to a deeper understanding. Scientists, he argued, were doing themselves a disservice when they argued that emotion had no place in science. He would ask me why I enjoyed learning some things but not others. He would ask me why I liked some people and not others. Intertwined in our deliberations, he always pressed me to talk about the underlying reason for my interest in something. Together we had many conversations in which we traced my interest back to an emotional experience or aspiration. His words echoed in my head. “When we are interested in something, Penny, it is because it moves us emotionally. We don‟t study a subject because it is intrinsically interesting – if that were true then everybody would be interested in the same things. We study something because it is interesting to us. It is interesting to us because it is meaningful.

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“Don‟t you find it strange when people talk about being motivated? They talk as if the thing that motivates them is outside themselves. So strange. Emotion is what drives us! When people say we should not let emotion affect our judgement they forget that it‟s emotion that inclines us to make a judgement in the first place. “Just look at what we do when we desire someone‟s attention. We open our mind to their views, become more willing to learn things they are interested in, more willing to change our own values. We may find ourselves learning new skills, studying new things in order to impress them. Our behaviour and feelings can change dramatically. And the reverse! What monsters we can be when we don‟t want a relationship. We‟re at our most cruel when trying to get people out of our lives.” Despite his slightly pompous manner, my love for him grew with the conviction that there was wisdom in his words. My mother, on the other hand, would often walk out of the room and leave us to it. She said my father talked twaddle about sex. I disliked her for that – she seemed to deliberately misunderstand him - and this was one of the reasons she and I argued throughout my teens. To me, my father was, and is, more humane than anyone else I‟ve met. Why does this situation with Elona and Mike make me so angry? Why does Mike rub me up the wrong way? What is the deeper truth here? Is my past coming back to haunt me? My father would say that if I want to hurt someone it is because they have hurt me. Has Mike hurt me? Maybe it was the other way around. Had I hurt him and he was now trying to get back at me? My emotions did not settle and Mike‟s words kept echoing in my head.

Friends or Lovers

“Did it ever occur to you that Nathan was the one who was receiving unwanted attention?” Had I considered this? It was an unfair question, I felt. It was only the previous day that I had learned there was a Nathan at all. I had no feelings about him except as yet another person who was adding to Elona‟s distress. I tossed and turned throughout the night and in every configuration, I could not make the pieces fit the puzzle. Elona would not make up an accusation like this, would she? I couldn‟t buy Mike‟s view that Elona was the protagonist here. It made no sense. Whenever I met her, she was quiet and scared. She was as introverted as any person I had ever met. Would a person like that make a move on Nathan? I did not see how it was possible. And yet, even as I had these thoughts, my emotions kept on churning. Am I reacting to my own past? I can feel Elona‟s hurt. I empathise with her. I may have the veneer of confidence, but underneath I understand how it feels to be crushed by the weight of male attention. We either buckle under the weight or kick back. In my first year at university, I felt used by men. At first I was flattered. It was exciting, then confusing, and finally annoying. My father helped me look at these as learning experiences. Eventually, I committed to one lad, but later he cheated on me and I was crushed. I fell apart and he quickly left me for someone else. So, I decided that I‟d never again be a shrinking violet. I would have the men I chose, not those that chose me. I would no longer wait for a man to make up my mind, I would make up my own.

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Is my past affecting me now? Can I really understand her? For the first time I am having real doubts. Do I understand what she is going through? I thought of Mike. Encountering him up close was disturbing me. He is a good-looking man. Even at his age, I can see why young women might be attracted to him. It is quite possible that Elona likes him more than she‟s saying. All the other women seem to like Mike. He‟s strong too. Both mentally and physically. I thought of John. Maybe he could help. He might have some words of wisdom for me so I called him. “Hi, Penny,” he said brightly as he answered the phone. “Hi, John,” I replied. As if by instinct, he immediately sensed concern in my voice. “What‟s up?” he asked. “Are you still troubled by the weekend?” The weekend? That seemed like a lifetime ago. “Good lord, no!” I laughed. As I did so, the burden of the last few hours seemed to lift instantly. “That‟s my girl” he responded. I was a bit irritated by his use of the word „girl‟, but I let it pass. “I just thought I‟d pick your brains, if you don‟t mind. That situation at work is spiralling out of control. I find it very confusing and thought……” I hesitated for a moment. Up until this point, I had never intruded into his professional world to benefit my own. We‟d been intimate in a personal way, but never professionally. This was something new. I realised that I was crossing another line and inviting a new type of relationship.

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“….I thought that maybe we could discuss it a bit more and you could guide me a bit.” I chose my words carefully. In this world, I was not an amateur, and not seeking a fatherly opinion so much as a professional dialogue. “Sure, why not?” he answered without a moment‟s hesitation. “Do you remember that I mentioned someone who had been moved to a new job because he had distressed a young woman in his department?” I asked. “Yes. Sure I do. Has anything changed?” he asked. “Perhaps. It seems there is another young lad involved and that she and this other lad somehow got „involved‟ with each other.” As I said the word „involved‟ I cringed, but there it was tripping out of my lips before I could stop it. “Involved in what way?” John enquired. “That‟s not clear. She confided something to her boss about this lad, but later she accused the boss of inappropriate behaviour,” I said. “Hmmm! This does sound a bit more complicated than you first thought.” “Yes. But the strangest thing is that the boss is now saying that she had a crush on the lad, and that the situation was caused by her giving him too much attention. How likely is that?” I asked this as a rhetorical question, but John took it literally and gave me a most peculiar answer. “Most relationships are started by women in very subtle ways. They initiate with non-verbal stuff that induces the man to talk to her. It is fallacy that men always pursue and women always resist; it is more like a ritual series of moves that women and men make in turn. When it works everyone is happy. When it

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doesn‟t things can turn quite nasty, particularly if one party feels led on and then humiliated. Most of women‟s behaviours are non-verbal, most of men‟s are verbal – at least initially.” I paused for a moment unsure what to say next. “Is that a surprise, Penny?” he asked. “Well…..yes, I suppose it is. Men are always pursuing and pestering women, don‟t you think?” “If that is what you believe, it will look that way. I assure you that it‟s not the case. Men tend to think they are making the first move but often they are responding to a non-verbal cue. This is true in most cultures. Women signal. Men respond. Women comfort their own egos by thinking they have been singled out by an attractive man. Men comfort their own egos by thinking they‟ve initiated the relationship. Close observation, however, shows women select the man they want and do everything they can to ensure he notices them so that he starts a conversation. These are generalisations. There are women who take verbal initiatives but generally it is the other way around. I was puzzled by this. I‟d studied psychology and this was the opposite of what I had learnt. “So you are saying this is only true for some people?” I asked. He started to give me to fuller explanation. “Men will respond quickly if an attractive woman signals, providing they can overcome their own nerves. Many won‟t – they‟ll get scared. But, if an unattractive woman signals in a similar way, she may be ignored both verbally and nonverbally.” “Do men signal?” I asked, feeling a little more relaxed. “Successful ones do, but most don‟t. Others jump in with both feet at the first opportunity. Men who don‟t pay attention to a

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woman‟s signals will probably end up embarrassing themselves.” I stifled a laugh. Interesting as this was, I felt a need to direct the discussion. “Is it likely she made a pass at him?” I asked. “Well, we are talking probabilities. I‟ve never met them and different couples behave differently. All I can say is that it is possible but against the norm. If she likes him enough, she‟ll eventually make a move that he cannot ignore.” “So this is unlikely?” I confirmed. “I don‟t know the specifics, I‟m giving you behaviour patterns. Men who get a signal will usually proceed fairly gently at first to see whether they continue to get signals, such as prolonged eye contact, laughter, positive body movements and such like. This is often unconscious, just gut feeling stuff, but people have been able to observe it. They‟ll only carry on if they are interested, otherwise they‟ll ignore the signals. In these early exchanges, a woman‟s behaviour generally encourages the man to talk more, tell stories. If there is a mutual attraction, behaviour moves through a series of stages. They‟ll exchange personal information, start sharing opinions, talk about common interests, increase their eye contact, turn towards each other, start touching each other. Then you get a kind of game that signals mutual interest. She lifts a glass, he lifts a glass, she nods, he nods, she links his arm, he puts it around her, she whispers in his ear, he laughs and says something back. Not everyone agrees about the meaning of this, but in the trade it is called „synchronisation‟ or „rapport building‟. You‟ll know if this is happening in a group because a pair seem to be ignoring everyone else.”

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He paused for a second before making one final comment. “If he doesn‟t respond, she‟ll feel rejected and may do something to hurt his feelings. She‟ll give him an emotional slap. Men are routinely humiliated. It is nothing special for them,” he added with a light-hearted chuckle. “No less than they deserve!” I replied quickly. There was a moment of awkward silence as I contemplated my last comment. “Only kidding!” I added. “Sure,” he said, but I detected a coolness in his tone. I was still contemplating when he started to talk again. “Penny, I‟m away in the Lakes this weekend, but would you like to meet up next week to chat about it? You can give me specifics. I‟m in Leamington next Wednesday afternoon and all Thursday. We could meet in the morning if you are free.” I could hear an urgency in his voice. It was unlike John to cut short any conversation, so my defences were immediately triggered. “Errr….can you let me get my diary?” I asked to buy myself a moment. What is going on here? I wondered. I decided to ask directly. “Is there something you need to do?” I asked. He hesitated for a moment. “Um. Sort of…” he responded, “….it will be easier to talk next week. Are you free?” I could hear other voices in the background and realised that someone in the house was calling to him. It really pissed me off that someone else only had to shout and he wanted to cut off our conversation.

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“Let me see…..” I said, making him wait a bit longer, “…..ah……yes…..maybe. No. No, yes!” I finally said, “I can fit you in on Wednesday morning.” “Okay, I‟ll e-mail you with a time and see you then.” He rang off before saying goodbye. I was not impressed. The conservation was not as friendly or as pleasant as I had come to expect. I wondered if he resented me asking him for a professional opinion. I could not understand why he had been curt with me. Still, his comments were interesting and useful. He confirmed that it was unlikely Elona would have made the sexual advance, but could have done so if Nathan had not been responding to her. Phil told me that all the lads had flirted with her. If Nathan had started flirting, from what John says, it is unlikely that Elona would have felt any need to make an advance. No, I think I have enough here to read the riot act to Nathan tomorrow if I don‟t get answers.

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 21
My sister has just called. She says she has news. Big news. I imagine that she‟s pregnant again and wants to celebrate in style. I still can‟t get used to being an aunty, but if another sprog is going to come along I guess I‟ll just have to accept it fully. Every time she does something grown up like this it makes me feel a little bit older. While I wait for her to come around, I tidy up the house. There is not much to do. When I go around to Carole‟s, it always looks like a bomb has hit it. Young Toby, Carole‟s boy, has progressed from sitting up to rolling around. She called me a few nights ago almost wetting herself with laughter. “I just wish you could see him,” she said trying to contain guffaws. “Tell me what you see….” I dutifully command. “Well. He‟s on his back with a rattle in his hand. Wait………here he goes. Over onto his front now. Come on baby, do your stuff!” As I wait, trying to sound enthusiastic, she roars with laughter as he manages to shift his weight again and roll onto his back. “He‟s on his back, feet in the air, cooing and laughing. This is just brill! I wish you could see this.” Try as I might to understand how watching a baby roll over and over can make her giggle like a schoolgirl, I just can‟t fathom it out. Still, she‟s happy and that‟s what matters. I tidy round the kitchen, put the few plates I‟ve used in the dishwasher wondering just how lazy I can be. My windowsill is adorned with an assortment of stones and rocks that I‟ve picked up over the years, along with holders for utensils and

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instruments for practising my Nigella Lawson recipes. Decadence! Just what the moment needs and I rustle around the cupboard seeing if I have the ingredients for a calorie busting meal. Just as the boredom is banished, the front doorbell rings. I flick the switch on the kettle and amble back into the living room. “Come on in!” I shout. “The door‟s open….” And in she walks looking groomed and beaming. “Has someone given you a happy pill?” I ask “No need,” she says. I look her up and down to try to understand what is different. I cannot put my finger on it but something has definitely changed in her appearance. “All right you. What is it?” “Keep looking,” she says mysteriously. I walk right up to her and put my hand on her stomach. It is firm and flat. Absolutely no sign of a baby there, I think. “Am I getting warm?” I ask. She smiles, playing with me. “Try a bit higher,” she says. I give her a puzzled look and start to move my hand upwards. Her breasts look quite firm today so I cup one in each hand. “Don‟t tell me you‟ve had these done?” “Better than that!” she jokes and with one swift move she places her left hand on top of my right hand. “See anything now?” she asks, with her smile getting wider all the time. I look carefully, tracing a line from her shoulder to her elbow. Nothing special there, I think. I continue tracing a line from the elbow to her hand. Her hand is different.

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As I look at the image before me, I felt something in my sides coarse up through my body. My mouth dropped open and I barely heard myself speak as a wave of emotion moved through my neck and my head started to tingle. “When?” was the only word that came out. I could feel the moisture start to fill my eyes. “July 31st?” “Oh, Carole!” I still felt in shock. “When did he ask?” “Last night. He came home and told me that he‟d got another promotion and had a present for me.” “Some present!” I shouted and suddenly the tears were there. I don‟t know why I was crying but the drops started to roll down my face as I grabbed her with both my arms and squeezed her as if my life depended on it. “Be my „best woman‟?” she asked. I took a step back and held both her arms, one with each hand. “Your what?” “My „best woman‟. I want a „best woman‟!” I just looked at her unsure what to say. What do you say when your younger sister displays a dazzling engagement ring and asks you to be her „best woman‟? I pulled her to me and held her tight. The tears just kept rolling down my cheeks. “Careful sis‟,” she gasped, “I want to make it to the alter without crushed ribs.” “I don‟t know what to say. How many women have ever been asked that question?” “‟Yes‟ will do nicely.” I just closed my eyes and nodded. It is so hard to describe how I‟m feeling. It isn‟t happiness. It is, of course, what she has been dreaming of for the last few years, but now the moment is

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here, I feel worried, ecstatic, concerned, shocked – every emotion I have in me just crashes down and I feel giddy with the intensity of it all. “Of course. Of course,” I manage to get out before I completely give the game away. “Sis‟? Are you alright?” “I feel a bit woozy…..” And then it happened. I can‟t explain why. My legs just gave way as if they simply could not hold me up any more, and I tumbled onto the floor and nearly hit my head on the table. For a few moments, I can‟t get up. “Jeez sis‟,” says Carole almost falling to the floor with me, “What‟s happened?” “You think I know?” I ask. “Here. Put your arm around me!” She levers me towards the sofa and finally I think I can make it to my feet. “I never thought of you as heavy!” she joked as she hauls me up. “If I knew my news would have this effect on you, I would have got you to sit down first….!” Instead of feeling wild with excitement and happiness, I feel cold and sweaty, like the room is spinning. My little sister is getting married. My little sister. My little sister is getting married. I am pleased for her, but I realise that I did not expect to feel like this. I did not expect her to marry before me. When we were young, we would play „weddings‟ and I was always the bride and she the bridesmaid. We would write all the words of the ceremony out and act the whole thing for hours and hours. We never took it in turns, she was always the bridesmaid and I was the bride.

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I looked up at her and felt ashamed. This should be one the happiest moments in our life. My little sister is getting married, and yet I feel totally hollow inside, totally useless, totally alone, totally old. How can I feel like this? I bury my head in my hands as more tears emerge. How can I possibly tell her? Whatever she was expecting it was not this, but she took it in her stride. It pains me to say it, but she is the mature one, not me. I feel like taking a dagger and stabbing myself for not thinking of her, for not thinking of how happy she must be feeling, not being able to feel the excitement she feels. But the truth is that my little sister‟s announcement makes me realise that I have not grown up yet. She is not my little sister any more. She is my big sister. “Right!” I shout, “down the pub we go, get smashed, talk dirty and then…….you tell me exactly what is expected of a „best woman‟…..” “That‟s simple!” she says without a moment‟s hesitation. “You make us all laugh with a funny speech and then you get drunk and try to shag the „best man‟!” My moment of despair is over as quickly as it started. When I hear her wicked suggestion the grin returns to my face. A few seconds later, my lips part and my teeth are showing. I playfully punch her on the arm. “Okay! Okay!” I say, my confidence returning. As I go to get my coat, I quickly turn and give her a sly look. “I think I can manage that.” “Okay sis‟ – lead the way!” and with that remark we went to the pub, drank all evening, got thrown out when we started to sing rude songs and staggered back to my place. We flopped on my bed in fits of giggles.

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“Do…..do you…..” Laced with liquor, my words just will not come out properly. “I do!” she shouts hysterically. “No. No. No!” I exclaim. “Stop a moment. Be serious!” I demand as we lie there trying not to giggle. “Do you want to hear something funny? Do you want to know what I thought?” “Thought about what?” Carole asks. “Thought your „big news‟ was going to be….” “Tell me!” she asks. “I thought you were going to say that you were pregnant again,” I laugh. Carole dissolves into fits of giggles and starts kicking her feet in the air. “Do you want to hear something funny?” she retorts busting her sides and unable to contain her hilarity. “Yeah, come on! Spill it to sis‟” I tell her. “I am!” she says. “It‟s due in November and her name is going to be Penny Anne – after you and mum!”

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 22
My plans for Elona were thwarted the next morning. Nathan phoned in sick. I called Mike‟s department and his colleague said that he had also not arrived at work yet. I switched on my PC and opened the personnel database system and searched for their details. I called Nathan first and heard an answer phone message. I left a message asking him to call me. Next I called Mike‟s home number and a woman replied. “Leamington 397333. Can I help you?” “Hello. Is Mike there?” I asked. “Can I ask who is calling?” “My name is Penny – I‟m the Head of Personnel at IC,” I answered. “Hang on a minute, I‟ll see if he‟s still here. I think he‟s already gone.” There was a long pause and in the distance I thought I could hear some voices. Eventually, the woman returned to the phone. “Hello?” she said. “I‟m still here,” I replied. “He‟s already gone to work. Can I take a message?” I thought for a moment because the issue was sensitive. “It‟s nothing really. We had a disciplinary meeting this morning but Mike‟s not turned up for work. We‟ll have to rearrange. Can you get him to call me?” “Sure,” she said, “if I see him before you do.” The tone in her voice was strange, almost mocking, but I thanked her and spent a few moments considering what to do next. I had a full schedule until the end of the following week. I

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really wanted this resolved now and did not want it to drag on. I called Phil into my office and asked him to check later that day whether Nathan or Mike made it into work. We found a slot free at 3pm the following Wednesday week – I would meet them after I‟d had lunch with John. Phil agreed to inform all the parties concerned. I retrieved my e-mails and my mood improved when I received a note.
Hi sexy, Just to let you know that I’ll be arriving in Leamington about 10.30am. I’m stopping overnight with friends so we could either have our meeting late morning or make an evening of it. Will it damage your street cred if you are seen out on the town with an oldie like me?

I was glad that his sense of humour had returned, and I felt my emotions stir a bit when I read his greeting. I checked my diary and found that I had to go to an evening event with Dave – a launch event for a new product. I was to chaperone the young entrepreneur who would be speaking while Dave was acting as host. With a tinge of regret I declined John‟s offer of an evening meal.
Hi John, Still trying to corrupt my sweet innocence? Naughty, naughty. I’d love to be seen with you, but it will have to be in the morning as we arranged – although a lazy lunch is possible, if you prefer. I’ll save the silky black dress for another occasion (!!) you’ll just have to admire my power suit instead. Penny xx

I read over the message again. Was I being too flirty? Hell, this was John and “flirt” was his middle name so I hit the [Send]

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button without further ado. Fewer than five minutes had passed before I received his response.
Penny, Lazy lunch it is. We can compare power suits. If my meeting goes well in the afternoon then I’ll be in Leamington quite a lot over the next 2 months and you can impress me with your silky attire . Meet you at 12.30pm at Bella Marie? John xx

I loved flirting with him. He still had a way of making me feel special. I confirmed the time and place of our next lunch date and allowed myself a few minutes to bask in the warmth of feeling attractive and desirable. The issues with Nathan and Mike slipped from my mind as I contemplated the prospect of spending more time with John. I finished going through my emails and the last one was from Dave about the evening event.
Subject: Launch Event Pen, Just finalising stuff for Wednesday. Are you able to meet me in the morning so that I can try out my presentation on you? Also, just been going through some Professional Development stuff. Both you and I need to consider this before our appraisal in July. Do you know of any CIPD events coming up that we could attend to catch up on the latest issues? Dave

I confirmed that I could meet him and asked Phil to call the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development to find out any events that would be running in Birmingham in the near future. He found an afternoon event with an optional evening dinner. It would run on 30th June and covered the latest legislative changes in our field. The evening event had two guest speakers

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scheduled – one giving a talk on entrepreneurial behaviour and the other called “Intimacy at Work”. Given what was going on, the second of these really caught my attention. For those attending the evening event, there was an option to stay overnight in the hotel. I thought Dave would enjoy the first talk so I asked Phil to liase with him and book the overnight option for both of us. Thankfully the day ended without further incident.

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 23
On the Monday morning, I got into work early and resumed work on the contracts for Dave. Around 9am, the phone rang. “Phil,” I shouted, “could you get that for me?” He picked up the receiver and redirected the call to his own phone. A few moments later I could hear him conversing in a slightly agitated way. “I‟m afraid she‟s……no she‟s…..she‟s busy at the moment. Can you……?” It sounded as though someone was not letting him get a word in edgeways. I mouthed to him „who is it?‟ but he shrugged his shoulders to indicate that he didn‟t know. “Please hang on a moment, sir! I‟ll see if I can find her,” and with these words he pulled the handset from his ear and gave it a harsh look. “Who is it?” I asked out loud. “It‟s a man for you. Called John. He insists he must talk to you.” I smiled because it was unusual for him to call me. He may be bold by e-mail but he rarely initiated phone conversations. “It‟s okay, Phil,” I say. “He‟s a friend.” “Well he doesn‟t sound very friendly to me,” Phil said as he diverted the call to my phone. I picked up the receiver. “Hi, John. Is everything okay?” I asked. “Wednesday. Can you meet any earlier?” he asked without seeming to pause for breath. “And a „good morning‟ to you too, John!” I pointed out.

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“Sorry Penny! „Good morning‟ to you. Can you meet any earlier on Wednesday?” he repeated. “Well, a bit – I could bring it forward to 11.30 if that helps.” “Yes. That‟s good. Okay. I‟ll see you at 11.30.” “Hang on, hang on!” I say, trying to slow him down. “What is this all about?” “Can‟t say, Penny, not on the phone. I‟ll tell you Wednesday. We need to talk.” “That sounds fairly ominous! What do „we need to talk‟ about?” I said in an attempt to mock him slightly and lighten the mood. “Can‟t say, Penny, not on the phone,” he repeated. “Why not? The heavens haven‟t fallen down over the weekend have they? My sister‟s wedding hasn‟t suddenly been cancelled, has it?” He completely ignored this piece of news and carried on. “It‟s better to talk in person.” “John? Has something happened to you?” I could feel concern creeping into my being. It was unlike John to sound so agitated. “No! Not me.” “Your wife?” “Penny. I don‟t want to talk on the phone. I‟ll meet you at 11.30 – we can talk over a coffee before lunch. Try not to worry.” With that last comment, he rang off. Whenever anybody says “try not to worry” it is sure to make you worry even more. He did not answer my question about his wife and I wondered whether something might have happened between them. But

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then I remembered that he said it was nothing to do with him. What then? “Did he say anything to you?” I asked Phil. “About what?” “Did he say what he wanted to talk about?” “No. He was just very insistent that he talk to you immediately. Very pushy guy, if you ask me.” I thought for a moment. “Yeah. He‟s a pushy guy alright.” In my head I added a few extra words that Phil did not hear. “That‟s what I love about him.”

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Chapter 24
I took the contracts around to Dave‟s office and he ran through his presentation. I took notes and stopped him after each section to give him feedback. He ran through the section again until I gave him a thumbs up and we continued this process until late morning. We don‟t do many major product launches so Dave was putting in extra effort. His belief in this entrepreneur and his innovations was high so he was making a career gamble by investing in a lavish public relations event. After working through the contracts, we agreed a few minor changes for his afternoon meeting. “Do you have to rush off?” he asked. “No. Something on your mind?” I enquired. Dave is rarely hesitant, and for him to pause for any length of time before giving an answer was quite strange. “Yeeaah!” he finally said slowly. “Well, come on then. Tell aunty Penny….” I was beginning to get used to the idea that I was going to be an aunty twice over. “Do you remember I said my wife was ill? I vaguely recollected him saying something, but I responded with more confidence than I felt. “Of course! Is she not better?” Dave did not show any emotion. It was almost like he was a blank, looking straight into my eyes in a way that I‟d never seen before. He licked his lips and I could tell that he was slightly nervous so I walked up to him and touched his arm. “Come on, Dave. If there‟s something, you can tell me!”

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He looked into my eyes again. There was fear in them. I had never seen him like this before. He licked his lips again. Finally, he spoke. “She‟s dying!” This news had a deep and lasting impact on me. I held his left arm in my right hand and then placed my left hand on his shoulder. He didn‟t say anything either, just tilted his head until it rested on my hand and closed his eyes. He was in pain and I let go of his arms and put my hand on his cheek and stroked it. “Have you told anyone?” “No. You‟re the first person I‟ve told.” I‟d worked with Dave for 10 months and this was by far the most human moment that we had shared. “Family? Have you told them?” “I‟ll do that later today. She‟s not been well for a while, and she‟s been back and forth to the doctor. I took her into hospital this weekend because her headaches were so painful that she could not sleep. They‟ve done a scan and found a tumour. It‟s advanced. They don‟t think she‟ll survive more than a few months. “Oh Dave! I‟m so sorry. Come here.” I put his head on my shoulder and my arms around him. Dave had a lot of energy but deep down he was a gentle soul. As I held him I could feel his heart breaking and the gentle movement of someone crying. We stood there for many minutes before he slowly pulled away and without looking at me said “thank you”. He turned slowly and left the room. Sometimes you work with a person for a while and simply do not realise the bonds that are forming. I was sad for the rest of the day, and in the evening when I was on my own I felt acutely

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distressed. Deep down a pain formed inside me that actually hurt. My friend Dave should not have to bear this so young. It was unnatural, cruel and so unfair. He was a bit older than me, but not by much. I found myself struggling to get to sleep as the silent anger I felt kept me awake. There was no God if this could happen. I had not realised I cared about him and it came as a surprise. As I lay there - thinking of him sitting with his wife at the hospital - I decided he needed a friend. He needed someone to care about him. It was my time, my moment to face someone else‟s pain and not shrink from the thankless task of helping him through it.

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 25
When Wednesday came, I had no idea what was in store for me. I had taken extra care getting dressed because I wanted to look good for my lunch date with John. In the afternoon, I was due to meet Mike and Nathan for a showdown. In the evening was Dave‟s product launch. I strode into work feeling smart and confident. When Phil saw me, he raised his eyebrows. “Doing something special today?” he asked. “Got the launch event tonight and have no time to go home,” I lied. But it was a good lie, I thought. “That young entrepreneur will think he‟s died and gone to heaven!” For Phil to pay me a compliment was so unexpected that I actually stopped in my tracks. I looked at him with new eyes. “That‟s very sweet of you,” I said, smiling. He looked a little embarrassed, as if he had said more than he meant to, but with a small shuffle of his feet and with his eyes slightly lowered, a few words came out. “You‟re welcome,” he said sheepishly. I was surprised at how flattered I felt. He was a good-looking lad, too young for me, but for a moment I looked at him in a lustful way. I got myself a cup of coffee and went through my e-mails.
Hi Penny, Is there any background information you can bring on that personnel problem you have got? May help us find out what is going on. See you soon, John

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Even if I had wanted to, I couldn‟t take anything with me. The information was confidential. If I hired him, it would be different, but I responded by saying that the Data Protection Act prevented me sharing confidential records. We would have to discuss the issues as a series of hypothetical situations. Next, there was an e-mail from Dave.
Subject: CIPD Pen, Thanks for booking the CIPD thing. I just don’t feel like a big social evening afterwards. After the speeches, would you like a drink?

Not the most difficult executive decision I have ever had to make. A swift response winged its way back through the IT network.
Dave, That would be lovely. I look forward to it.

The other e-mails were either trivial or junk. By the time I‟d waded through them, the time for Dave‟s presentation approached. I took Phil with me, a reward for his earlier flattery, and we both settled into the company‟s small lecture theatre. It was quite a showpiece, complete with visuals and sound. As he stood there in a new suit and tie, hair cut and groomed, his voice confidently outlined the magnificent benefits of tomorrow‟s personal health gadgetry. I thought he cut a fine figure. He was impressive and looked cute. “You‟ll go down a treat,” I reassured him. “The preparation was worth it.” “Are you sure? Are you really sure?” he hurriedly asked. “You don‟t think that final video is slightly overlong or overdone?” I put my hand on his arm and reassured him.

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“Slicker than a New Labour political broadcast, but much less spin.” He just beamed. As he was a dedicated New Labour supporter, he took this as a big compliment, even though I didn‟t intend it that way. The materials were fine, I thought, but it was Dave who gave them charm and wit. “Thanks, Pen,” he said. “See you tonight when the madness has died down.” This was going to be a very long day. * * * John was slightly late. We arrived at Bella Marie around 11.50 and settled down for lunch. He was pleased to see me but carried a grave look that I‟d not seen before. He was dressed in a dark deep blue suit. It was the first time I‟d seen him wear a tie. He was well groomed and I quickly realised that I preferred him in casual attire. John „the businessman‟ just didn‟t seem quite right. His behaviour was different as well and I initially attributed this to his meeting in the afternoon. He would be nervous, I felt. When we chatted on the phone yesterday, he said that this was one of the best contracts he had been offered and it would bring him about £30k for little more than a month‟s work. He intended to use the money to support his writing for several months. We settled down at the table, ordered drinks and looked at the menu. The banter I expected didn‟t materialise so I probed him to see if anything was up. “Nervous about this afternoon?” I asked.

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“A bit. Not too bad. I know the person contracting the work. We‟ve worked together several times so I think today‟s a formality. There are others to convince, however, so I thought I‟d dress the part.” If it was not his interview then why was his behaviour so different? I was puzzled and tried a bit of flattery. “You look the part. Very smart – you‟ll knock them dead.” I looked at him directly as I said this, but his gaze remained firmly on the menu. He momentarily looked up and tried to smile, but he averted his eyes quickly. I started to feel that something had changed between us but was at a loss to understand why. “John. You said we had to talk. No point beating about the bush. What‟s on your mind?” He looked up, slightly relieved. As he settled back in his chair, his gaze started to focus on me properly. “Tell me about Mike….” he requested. “Our hypothetical Mike!” I answered. John nodded and set himself in a listening pose. “He‟s one of our sales staff, 50-ish, married, personable and popular. I can see that he‟s good looking, and women would fall for him, but I‟m not sure why. Sometimes he gives me the creeps.” John intervened at that point. “Not sure why? Can you expand on that?” “Well, he‟s good at his job. My boss Dave is suspicious of him. I find him a bit „old school‟, you know, patronizing. I feel he looks down on me sometimes. We had quite a row last week. He called me a „stupid woman‟. I called him a sexist pig!”

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John nodded, and his demeanour was attentive and serious, encouraging me to continue. “Someone complained that he was hassling a colleague for a drink. It looked open and shut initially. I moved him to a new position. He took some of his staff with him, women mostly, and I thought that‟d be the end of it.” “So what‟s changed?” John asked. “Well, my boss wanted me to find out more. I asked my assistant to keep his ear to the ground. He found that men in the department had been flirting with her. There was one lad in particular that seemed to take a fancy. That‟s where the stories conflict. The young woman won‟t say what happened. The young lad won‟t co-operate, either. Mike, their former boss, says the young woman confided in him but he won‟t talk unless she consents. Now he‟s implied she might have been pursuing the young man, not the other way around. But I know her. She lives at home. She‟s engaged to be married. There‟s a meeting this afternoon. I intend to crack some heads.” John nodded, looking very thoughtful. “What do you think?” he asked. “My instinct tells me that the lads went too far, and one in particular got quite keen. He made a pass and she rejected him. She was sufficiently upset to confide in her boss. He gave her support, they got close, he invited her for a drink and perhaps she misunderstood – or maybe he was making his own play she got upset again and now she won‟t talk. The boss is pissed off with everyone because he got landed with the blame for a situation not originally of his own making. I don‟t buy his story, however, because he‟s got a reputation as a womaniser. He has a history.”

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John kept nodding. I had never seen him this intense and studious before. “Shall I try another interpretation for you?” he asked. I was slightly taken aback. I was not looking for another interpretation. “Err. Okay.” I said hesitantly. John started to talk. “The young woman – tell you what, let‟s call her Elena – she‟s quiet, fairly pretty, and has a job as administrator to a department that has quite a few young men. In her previous job she worked with women so this is a change for her. She starts to receive more sexual attention. She‟s inexperienced with men, a bit embarrassed, but likes one of them. Let‟s call him Nath, shall we?” “Hold on!” I said. “Where are you getting these names from?” “This is a hypothetical example, Penny, right?” This was too coincidental, but I nodded to indicate he should carry on. “Okay. Nath thinks she‟s a bit of alright and joins in the flirting at first. But then he realises that her boyfriend is an old school friend. His mate is crazy about Elena, wants to marry her, but he sees her flirting with a whole group of lads. So he backs off. Elena is not put off and actually starts to single out Nath himself. She‟s confused. He backs off some more. She confides in her boss. We‟ll call her boss Mick, shall we?” “You know these people. Explain!” I commanded. “Penny, if I tell you the source of my information then I‟ll be involved and could be dragged into the process. If things go badly, I could be called as a witness to a tribunal. Regardless, I want to help. Let me pretend this is a hypothetical case. You use the information as you see fit.”

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I was angry. He seemed to have more information than I did. “D‟you want me to continue?” he asked. I struggled to keep my emotions in check. When I felt in control again, I nodded. “Her boss has a reputation for being sympathetic to his staff. He‟s been known to intervene personally sometimes and help people out when their personal lives are troubled. Mick listens to Elena and realises she‟s in a difficult situation. Nath then tells his old school friend that Elena came onto him and was flirting with all her work colleagues. Her boyfriend reacts badly. He storms around and tells her the wedding is off. Her parents are furious. Every day she goes home they argue with her and tell her she‟s ruined everything. She becomes desperate to leave home.” It was my turn to start nodding. I did not know where he was getting this information but suddenly things started to make more sense. He continued the story. “Mick‟s known for his kindness. Once he helped a work colleague suffering abuse. He‟d risked his own marriage to get her out. He put her up at his home until she found a new home.” As these words came out, I could feel the shock rise through me as I realised where all this was coming from. John knew Mike. I‟d never told John exactly where I worked. He never asked. It never seemed relevant. Pin-pricks shuddered all the way through me. For a moment, I reeled, completely bewildered. Luckily, the waitress brought the drinks and asked for our order. Having recovered my composure, I asked John questions. “What happened to….Mick?” I asked.

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“The situation got so bad that Mick‟s wife gave him an ultimatum. Either the work colleague leaves or the marriage is over. Mick gave in, on the condition that he be allowed to help her find a place to live. He hoped that would be the end, but later his wife learned that he‟d given money to buy furniture. Mick‟s wife felt betrayed. She kicked him out. With nowhere else to go…..Mick….moved into a flat with his work colleague. They became extremely close but were never lovers. After a few months of Mick calling his wife every day, she finally relented and let him go back home. There was a condition, however, that he never bring another woman into their home. Mick agreed.” I felt I knew where the story was heading and my sense of dread started to increase. My head dropped and my eyes fixed on the table as John continued talking. “Elena wanted Mick to let her have his spare room. Mick was sympathetic, said that he would help her, but could not let her move into his house or give her any money. Elena was angry because she‟d heard how Mick had helped someone else. Elena told him private details about her life and now felt abandoned. In a rage, she goes around to Nath‟s house and tells him what he‟s done. Nath tells her to „piss off‟. She goes into work the next day and is angry, not with Nath, but with Mick and shouts at him for not helping her. She tries again to persuade Mick to take her in, but he refuses. She won‟t calm down so Mick tries to persuade her to leave the building and continue the conversation at a local pub for a drink. She resists so he takes hold of her by the arm and makes her leave. Someone walking past stops to watch and immediately reports the scene to their manager.”

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My head just hung there as I looked down at the table. I did not speak for several minutes. “What a total fucking mess!” John was silent so I looked up at him feeling completely at a loss. “It gets worse, Penny.” “Worse? How could it get worse?” “You may want a stiff drink. Are you ready?” “I need a stiff drink now!” I said trying to lighten the mood but John‟s face was implacable. There was more to come and I had to hear it. “There is another hypothetical character, let‟s call her Pen.” At the mention of this name, another shock wave went through me and I became rigid with fear. “Mick, because of the past, did not tell his wife why he had recently changed job. He was concerned that his wife would pre-judge the situation and end the marriage. So, he told a half-truth, that the new job was a promotion rather than a convenient solution to an accusation of sexual harassment. However, one day, Pen calls his house announcing herself as the Head of Human Resources and that Mick should be in a disciplinary meeting. His wife‟s curiosity is fired and she relentlessly asks questions until Mick tells her the whole story.” “Well, in some ways I‟m relieved,” I said. “She threw him out again,” said John. “She did what?” I said. “Why the hell did she do that?” “At the moment he‟s staying at a hotel with a friend.” No prizes for guessing who the „friend‟ is, I thought. “He‟s been to a solicitor. She feels the problem lies with the way Pen handled the original complaint, a clear case of sex

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discrimination and failure to observe natural justice principles now enshrined in law. There is also the issue of the call to his home. The solicitor takes the view that Pen has not fulfilled her duty of care to all the parties concerned.” My body froze a second time, and my eyes dropped as I let John finish. “Today he‟s going to bring his solicitor.” “He can‟t do that!” I interject. “He and his solicitor have checked the employment contract. It says he can bring a friend if there is a disciplinary hearing. There‟s nothing to say whether the friend must be a work colleague or not. The solicitor is coming as a friend. At least, that is the story he will stick to if challenged.” “Is that true?” I ask. “It is. She‟s been a friend since his university days.” I was silent. “Fucking mess was about right, I think, Penny!” said John. I did not know how to feel. Could I really have got everything so wrong? “Well, that‟s one way of looking at things,” I commented sardonically. “Penny!” John exclaimed. Suddenly, I lost my appetite. My head was spinning while I tried to work out what to do. “Why are you telling me?” I asked in a slightly accusing way. “Because I couldn‟t let you go into your meeting later today completely unprepared.” I felt attacked from all sides and my defences started to bristle. “How noble of you!” I retorted.

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“M….Mick….has been a life-long friend of mine. He led my scouts group when I was a kid. I‟ve not known a kinder more honest man in my entire life. He doesn‟t know that I know you. If he did, or knew I‟m telling you this, he might terminate our friendship.” “So it‟s all lads altogether is it?” I didn‟t know where these words were coming from, but part of me sensed that I had to get out of the restaurant and find Dave. I needed to talk to the legal department of the company before the meeting. Panic overwhelmed me. This could be the end of my career. What was I to do? “Where did that come from?” he demanded. “Just let me think a moment, this is all too much,” I snapped. “Penny, I care about you. This is serious.” “Yes. This is serious. It‟s going to come down on my fucking head not yours.” I was getting more and more defensive and angry. “Don‟t be like that. I‟m trying to help. I don‟t want to lose your friendship, but this could come between us if Mike asks me to testify.” “Why on earth would he do that? This is nothing to do with you.” “Penny, this is my field. I act as an expert witness at tribunals.” “How? Why? You know nothing about this case, really, you are just telling one side of the story.” “I try not to take sides, just give a professional opinion.” “You what? You‟re saying you might testify against me?” “Penny! He‟s been a friend all my life. He‟s been like a father to me. He‟ll ask for my help and I will give it to him.”

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“You are going to testify against me, aren‟t you?” “Not if we can find another way.” “Another way? Is there another way? You said he‟ll have a solicitor with him this afternoon…..” “There is a way out. You‟ll have to grab it with both hands this afternoon.” “Well, I‟m fresh out of ideas. Amuse me.” I wished that I could stop myself being sarcastic and argumentative but I was shaking from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. I felt like I was being driven by something outside myself. At the moment I was not in control, just existing from second to second, hoping somehow I would disappear down a hole in the ground and this would all go away. “You must listen this afternoon. Don‟t say anything, just listen. Listen to the story the way it is told by the other parties. Make notes, lots of notes. Do whatever you have to do to get the company to offer mediation to all the parties involved. Help him with his domestic situation until the mediation is complete. Don‟t admit liability, but acknowledge the points of view of the other parties.” “I don‟t know if I can do that,” I said weakly. “If you don‟t, this is going to end up in a court of law.” “I‟ll have to involve the company lawyers…..” “No! You mustn‟t do that,” he shouted. “The moment you talk to them, they‟ll call your insurers and the insurers will instruct you to have no further contact. If you contact Mike after talking to your insurers, the insurers will not cover your employer for any losses. You – and the company – will be completely exposed. You have to mediate. Once you talk to

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your legal team it will be out of your hands and will go to court.” “I can‟t handle this, John. This is too big for me. Anyway, why should I take your advice? I hardly know you.” He looked hurt at my words but composed himself. “Penny,” he said firmly. “Once a formal process starts it‟s almost impossible to stop.” I wanted to talk to Dave. For all I knew, John was doing this to save Mike, to protect him. My responsibility was to the company. Not John. Not Mike. I had to protect the company‟s interests. John was not put off and continued his attempts to persuade me. “Penny, please listen. Please. You are personally at risk from prosecution.” “I bloody know that. Do you think you get to my position and not know stuff like that?” I resented him treating me like an idiot. “And if I don’t tell the legal team, then I could lose my job as well. Do you appreciate that, John?” My fiery response took him back a bit and he regrouped. “There are risks. But do you think they‟ll protect you? They might get you through the court case, but what then? What of your future career?” “Oh God! I don‟t know!” Privately, I did. There was little chance I would survive after such a misjudgement. “What if you can mediate?” he insisted. “What if you can get Mike and his wife back together?” The pretence that we were talking about hypothetical characters had completely vanished. This was as real as it gets.

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“I can‟t authorise that on my own. At the very least, I‟d need Dave‟s support.” “Would he help?” “I couldn‟t do this without him. We‟re close. I can‟t keep this from him.” “Would he help?” “I see him later tonight. I can run it past him. I don‟t think he‟ll like this.” The waitress brought our food and asked if we‟d like any more drinks. I looked at the meal in front of me. In any other circumstances it would have looked beautiful and tasted delicious, but I picked at it intermittently. I felt sick. “I‟m sorry for getting angry,” I said. “It‟s okay. How could you know?” Indeed, how could I know? There was so much that I‟d not been told. John continued. “We can only see what we look for. It‟s a kind of blindness,” he said. It sounded like he was criticising my judgement. “What do you mean?” I asked sharply. “What?” he reacted, sensing immediately he had irked me. “I mean that you were looking at the situation the way the vast majority of people look at such situations. We assume men pursue women, and that women spend most of their time resisting men.” “Don‟t stereotype me. I wasn‟t blind to this!” I said with some irritation. “No more than anyone else,” he said in a slightly frosty way. “And you‟re the big shot who thinks he knows?” I said sarcastically.

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“I‟m sorry. I didn‟t mean to sound critical. It‟s a common problem. Unless you understand that both men and women are initiating and responding in different ways it is easy to presume the man is doing all the initiating and is always to blame.” “Stop talking like a fucking academic…” I wished I could stop myself behaving in such an angry way, but it just kept pouring out of me. “Sorry. I‟m sure you are very knowledgeable.” I simmered for a few minutes and ate my food. John ventured a question. “Who is protecting the men, Penny?” “What?” I responded. I remembered Mike saying something similar during our earlier argument. “Women aren‟t weak,” he said. “You know that.” I looked at him coolly. “Equality means protecting both sexes,” he said looking me firmly in the eye. I nodded. “As one of my friends told me a few years ago „if you think women are weak, try divorcing one!‟” “John. You are so fucking pompous!” He smiled. “You are not the first person to say that,” he laughed. “Good!” I added. “But this is my field!” he responded. “Bugger off!” was all I could say. He laughed again and I found that I could not sustain my anger with him. I started to realise that I was being deeply unfair to him. As the remorse grew, I looked at him. “Sorry,” I said with as much conviction as I could muster.

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Right now I had a plateful of food and an attractive man sitting opposite. I was not going to waste either a moment longer. “Shall we enjoy the rest of our meal?” I continued, offering a conciliatory smile. When he saw this, his own smile broadened and I realised how tense he had been throughout. As his body relaxed, I considered what an ordeal this must have been for him. Hearing this story from Mike, and then deciding to tell me over lunch, must have been difficult for him. It would have been much easier for ignore it, or cry off the lunch date and avoid me. We chatted away, about nothing in particular, for the next hour. As we departed, he reiterated that the situation could go pear shaped if the legal teams got involved. I acknowledged what he was saying but said that I still didn‟t see how I could avoid discussing this internally. I had to protect myself, not just the other parties. As I left the restaurant, it was this last point that occupied my mind. How was I going to protect myself while finding a way to resolve the situation? We said our goodbyes outside the restaurant and agreed to call each other the following evening. I saw real concern in his eyes, and for the first time I saw him more as a friend than a potential lover. Parting turned out to be quite difficult. We stood there chatting for a bit then going silent then chatting some more. Neither of us wanted to walk away. Eventually, he said “come here” and guided by an external force I stepped forward and fell into his arms. He hugged me for a whole minute and I just clung on for as long as I could. Sometimes words are so inadequate and unnecessary. Touching says everything that needs to be said. I guess John must have felt the same way.

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Chapter 26
By the time I returned to work all my doubts and dilemmas had returned. I felt so torn about what to do that I went to the staff canteen for another coffee. Others could see I was troubled and avoided me. I thought about visiting the legal department to spill all this out, but John‟s caution made me pause – at least for now. Another part of me wanted to find Dave and have a heart to heart but he was preoccupied with the product launch. Another thing that consumed me was how I felt about myself. I was ashamed. If I had got things completely wrong then I was responsible for a great deal of misery. Elona‟s distress, and that of Nathan, Mike and his wife, even John – these all beat a path to my door. And yet, how could I have known? Was I being too hard on myself? Nobody would explain. Nobody would talk. How could I have known? So, I sat there both angry at myself and at others. In the end, I decided to follow some of John‟s advice. I hatched a plan. * * * “Hi Phil,” I said as I returned to my office. “I need to discuss things with you before we go into the meeting.” He looked as apprehensive as I felt, and my invitation to discuss things did nothing to reduce his unease. “Come into my office for a chat.” At this suggestion, his apprehension seemed to progress to outright fear but he obediently followed me. “Can you close the door?” I asked, and he duly obliged.

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I had gathered my thoughts and knew how I wanted to play this. Phil was my first port of call for a good reason. I took a deep breath and made a start. “I‟ve been thinking a lot about Mike‟s outburst.” I paused for a moment to see if Phil would say anything, but his eyes remained fixed and expressionless. “What if he‟s right?” At this suggestion, Phil‟s lips parted and his rigid body began to move and come alive. His hands, both of which had been in his lap, suddenly surfaced and started to gesture strongly. Everything about his body screamed “Thank God!” His words, however, were cautious. “That thought had occurred to me too. It makes more sense.” The idea that Phil has worked out the situation without help came as both a relief and a surprise. I wondered whether I should have solicited his opinion more quickly. “If he is right, Phil…..,” I let the words linger for a moment, “……how are we going to approach this meeting?” As I asked this question, Phil‟s moment of relief ended and his face became thoughtful again. Clearly he had not expected this, or considered this question, so I gave him a few moments by leaving the room to make coffee. When I returned, he was more relaxed. “Any ideas?” I asked as I walked in the door. “I think we need to admit that maybe we got it wrong. Then listen and listen and listen…..” He was moving in the right direction, but a little more caution was called for. “I agree with you on the „listen and listen and listen‟,” I answered.

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After waiting for a moment to see whether he might say anything else, I offered my opinion. “Of course, if we admit that we „got it wrong‟ both you and I could be for the high jump if this ever goes to court……” I had his attention now and a look of horror spread across his face. His eyes left mine and looked down at the table for a few seconds. When he looked up again, there was a definite sense of conviction as he spoke. “Then I guess admitting we got it wrong is out of the question,” he said, with just a hint of a smile. I smiled back at him – a big smile showing my teeth. I looked him straight in the eye as I answered him. “We‟ll make a manager out of you yet!” Without letting my eyes wander even for an instant I took the lead. “Okay, Phil. We‟ll do as you suggest. We‟ll say that we want to look at the whole thing again, listen to what they have to say. I want you to bring a notebook and take lots of notes. We‟ll keep our mouths shut, at least until I‟ve talked to Dave and Legal, and just keep insisting that we‟ll do everything we can to mediate a solution. This afternoon is about buying time. Okay?” I could see from Phil‟s reaction that his ego felt well and truly massaged. He broke into a smile and nodded. I looked away from him to give the impression the meeting was over. When Phil got up and made to leave the room, I completed the act of seduction. “Phil?” I asked, and then waited until his eyes were again looking into mine, “You‟re a good lad. I appreciate you.”

Friends or Lovers

I did not look away and his eyes remained on mine until he could hold the gaze no longer. I caught a trace of redness in his cheeks. He turned to go, started to walk, but when he reached the door he glanced over his shoulder and smiled at me again. I smiled back. I have to admit that sometimes it is great fun being a woman.

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Chapter 27
I feigned surprise when I met Mike‟s solicitor and was as pleasant as possible. If his solicitor had been a man, I might have peppered my pleasantness with a brusque manner. If we were to meet again in a court room or industrial tribunal, a married woman giving a single woman a hard time in the witness box would not be pleasant. I have to say that Mike was proving a lot smarter than I‟d expected. To my surprise, I found myself developing a grudging respect for him. If we made it through this conflict, I promised myself that I would get to know him better. I opened the meeting and stressed that we would be as cooperative as possible. No conclusions had been reached. Mike initially looked as if he was ready for a battle, but my opening gamble paid off and took the wind out of his sails. I introduced Phil as my assistant and said that he had expressed a view that we should listen to Mike and Nathan. At the mention of his name, Phil looked up and smiled, still beaming from our earlier encounter. First Nathan, then Mike, gave their accounts while I nodded, prompted, enquired and encouraged. Phil made copious notes as the story unfolded more or less exactly as John said it would. At certain points in the narrative, I expressed surprise and shock at what I was hearing. Phil followed my lead and we successfully communicated the seriousness of what had taken place. Every few minutes I glanced at Mike‟s solicitor friend to see how this was playing with her. At the start of the meeting, she had looked calm and confident. With each reaction, I noticed that her look changed from one of confidence to one of

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puzzlement. Sometimes she would look at Mike and tilt her head to one side. She was trying to work out how the meeting could be going so well for her client. At the end, after taking both Mike‟s and Nathan‟s statements, I offered to get Phil to type them up and send Mike‟s to her for checking. At this suggestion, she started to engage me. “That‟s good of you, Penny,” she said. I didn‟t like her using my first name but I let it pass. “My pleasure,” I answered. “Mike‟s got issues over lost pay, and a problem with his housing situation……” “We can help with that,” I answered. My comment stopped her in her tracks. She was not expecting this. With surprise on her face she uttered a question. “How?” I was growing in confidence and put the final piece of my plan into place. “There are two flats rented by the company to accommodate sales managers who commute here from time to time. One of them is free at the moment and I can arrange for Mike to use it until he can make alternative arrangements.” “Who will pay?” she asked. “The company will pay,” I answered. “And what about the loss of pay since changing his job?” “On pay, I‟ll have to clear any changes with my director, David Stockton. I meet him later tonight.” I paused for a second before I asked the next question to ensure it had maximum impact. “What would be helpful is if you could work out with Mike the amount of wages he has lost. I cannot guarantee that we will

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meet it in full, but I‟m sure it will be sufficient for him to treat you to dinner. Could you do that?” As I asked this question, I looked at them both. They looked at each other for a moment and I noticed that she nodded her head at him. “Yes. We‟ll do that now. Mike can confirm it in writing.” Mike looked at me, then at her, then at me again. I detected a smile on his face. After a few moments, he gave a short chuckle. “Women! I have no idea why you go around letting men think they are in charge.” He chuckled again as he looked at Phil, then me again. “I‟ll check with Dave tonight,” I said, “just to see whether I need to involve Legal. If we don‟t, then you‟ll have my response tomorrow. I‟ll deliver it by hand, if necessary.” Mike smiled at me – the first time I had seen him do so – and I have to admit that his face was handsome. In all our previous meetings, he‟d looked worried and pensive, but now I saw him in a moment of happiness, I was taken aback at just how attractive he looked. “Penny?” he asked. “Yes?” I answered. “I underestimated you. Thank you.” He looked me strongly in the eyes. “I underestimated you as well. Thank you.” At the start of the day, I would have been happy to see someone kick him hard in the balls, but as it turned out a mutual respect was born. I‟d hoped to stall things long enough to consult with Dave but we‟d gone almost as far as resolving the

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whole thing. As Mike turned to leave the room, he fixed me one last time with his handsome face. “I can now see why Dave hired you.” I tried to return his look but found that I could not as I felt a rush of adrenalin rip through me. He beat me at my own game. The moment of exhilaration passed and I finally understood why he had such a good reputation as a salesman. Not only did he have integrity and courage but, when he felt at ease, he was also extraordinarily sexy.

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Chapter 28
I remained in the room with Phil while Mike and his solicitor exchanged words. I noticed them hug warmly as she departed. Clearly they were more than acquaintances; the way they looked, laughed, touched and moved indicated a much closer relationship. Mike, now I was experiencing him up close, was a friendlier person than I had thought. It made me wonder why Dave harboured hostility towards him. Phil, with a puppyish expression, fussed about me. “That was fantastic, Penny! Absolutely brilliant.” Such praise I can live with, but I actually felt exhausted. It‟s hard to force niceness and that was exactly what I had been doing for most of the last two hours. It was time to cool Phil‟s ardour now the job was done. “That is sweet of you,” I said, with a look that communicated not just my appreciation, but also the gap in status between us. His face, while still smiling, developed a small frown and his body language became submissive. “Thank you,” was all he could say. “Can you tidy up the loose ends here? I need to get ready for this evening.” Phil nodded and still smiling, offered a further comment. “I learnt a lot today,” he said. A curious look came over his face. “What made you change your mind about Mike?” he asked. This comment caught me short for a moment. “Let‟s just call it a woman‟s intuition, shall we?” I responded. “Nothing more?” he asked again inquisitively.

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Clearly he was not convinced. I flicked my head back, and let my locks fall about my face alluringly. “Don‟t you believe in women‟s intuition, Phil?” His smile returned as well as his confidence. If he had felt dominated a few moments ago, all trace had left him. He started to walk out of the room and his final remark not only surprised me, but also deflated my ego a bit. “I certainly believe in a woman‟s cunning!” he remarked. As I stood there, I thought back over the whole day. A number of shocks, surprises, twists and turns had left their mark. I thought of the way John had helped, Mike‟s willingness to accept a settlement when he could have thrown the book at me, and Phil‟s shrewdness at seeing through me. I had one of those “ah ha!” moments in life. Suddenly things came together. Perhaps men were not jerks after all.

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Chapter 29
What a day it had been and there was still quite a way to go. I visited the women‟s toilets. As I delicately added a small amount of rouge to my cheeks, Jo – the marketing manager – came in looking very pleased with herself. “You look happy,” I remarked. “Yes, good meeting. We signed a contract this afternoon. It will give a boost to our training programme, and get the new team ready.” “Sounds good,” I chirped. “I‟m off tonight to see Dave strut his stuff at the launch. Are you coming?” “Yes, of course, I‟ll be there. Always enjoy watching Dave strut his stuff!” she remarked. Her comment surprised me, but as I‟d had a totally stressful day, I let my hair down a bit as well. “Hmm! He can look quite dashing at times, can‟t he?” “Yeah! I‟ll say. Shame he‟s taken. All the good ones are.” “You looking?” I asked, thinking back to the book John had recommended to me. “Aren‟t you?” she answered. I thought for a moment. Was I? I didn‟t really know. Certainly, I enjoyed fantasising about people – sometimes people I knew – but did that mean I was looking? Jo smiled at me as she washed her face and removed some of her make-up. She was not a stunner but even without make-up her skin was quite good. She had cut her hair quite short – a mistake I thought – because without a good size bust it gave her a rather boyish look. Long hair would have made her look womanly. Jo looked professional, not attractive.

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As these thoughts flashed through my mind, I also considered her question. Over the last couple of months I felt a change in myself. With Carole announcing her marriage, having a second child, with meeting John and feeling more comfortable with men as friends, perhaps I was ready to look. I considered Mike, and how hard he had tried to make things work with his wife. Clearly, there were men who wanted marriage. Even John, flirty as he was, had a maturity and confidence that came from understanding how to keep a relationship interesting. Then there was Dave, the sadness in his eyes when he thought of his wife, the total commitment he seemed to have for her. I certainly felt that I wanted that before I died. “Maybe I am!” I finally answered. “Really? With Dave?” I could not help but laugh out loud at this suggestion. “No! Not Dave. He‟s nice and all, sweet really, but I don‟t think he‟s my type.” Jo seemed pleased that she was not in competition and moved a little closer. “There‟s a rumour going round that his wife is ill, that she won‟t live long. He might be back on the market soon.” Her comment made me both cross and curious. I found it hard to believe that Dave himself would mention this to anyone else. Perhaps he had. Perhaps I had misjudged him. “What‟s the rumour?” I asked, deciding to dig a bit. “That his wife has cancer. One of my neighbour‟s children is at school with Dave‟s kids. They were playing one day and came straight out with it. „My mum‟s going to die‟ he said. Anyway, my neighbour went round and they admitted she was not well.”

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Just as Jo was giving me the low down, Elona walked in. She looked dreadful, as if she‟d been unable to sleep for a week. “Hi!” we both said to her. She nodded, but did not talk and started to look in the mirror. “Anyway,” Jo continued, “they said that Dave‟s wife looked terrible.” I was not sure whether to confirm or deny the rumour. This was a difficult call because I was obliged to keep information confidential. At the same time, rumours spiralling out of control were problematic and could cause embarrassment. “When was this?” I asked. “Oh! A couple of weeks ago, I think. You know anything?” With this remark, I could tell that Jo was digging for information because her casual manner was suddenly replaced by attentive curiosity. “I‟ve heard the same rumour,” I responded as casually as possible. It was not a lie. Jo seemed to know as much as I did, even if her source was a little further from home, and the admission that I‟d heard a rumour did nothing to substantiate or deny her claim. “Where did you hear it?” she asked, clearly not satisfied by my response. I gave a small laugh. “Well, Jo, where do you hear most rumours?” I asked. “In here!” she responded. I said nothing. Quite masterful that, I thought. I omitted, of course, that it was Jo who had told me the rumour only a few moments ago. I was relieved that she‟d got the rumour from outside the company. My respect for Dave remained intact.

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Elona reapplied her make-up and listening to our conversation. “Bloody rumours!” she remarked, clearly not happy. “Sorry, Ellie?” asked Jo. “What rumour?” “I just said that I don‟t like rumours. They are hurtful and mess people up.” Jo clearly did not understand why Elona had the hump. “Someone been pissing you off, Ellie?” she asked. “If you haven‟t heard, you will soon. There‟s a rumour going „round about me.” “What rumour‟s that?” asked Jo. “‟bout me and Nathan!” “What about you and Nath?” Jo enquired. I was concerned at the direction of this conversation. If there was a rumour, it was the first I‟d heard. I knew from past experience that if a rumour started it would be hard to quash. “What rumour?” asked Jo enthusiastically. “That Nath has a thing going with me!” What was Elona doing? I felt that I had to act fast. “Elona! Not another word. To my office now!” I was not sure if there was a rumour, or whether Elona was trying to start one, but whichever it was I had to put a stop to it. Jo looked both shocked and amused. She gestured with her eyes and head to indicate something to me, but I could not take it in. “Quickly now!” I demanded and Elona packed up her stuff and hurried out of the toilets. As she left, I turned back to Jo. “That rumour,” I said, glancing at Elona, “is not true.” I turned to leave wondering whether issuing a denial was wise. By drawing attention to it, I was indicating that „something‟ was going on between Elona and Nathan. Half an hour earlier, I felt

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that things were under control, but now they could easily spiral out of control again. If Jo went back to her team and started talking about it, the rumour might yet cause more problems. “Jo?” I said. “Yes,” she replied. “I would appreciate if you did not repeat to others what Elona just said.” “Sure!” she said, with a smile. But it was a smile I didn‟t feel I could trust. There was too much pleasure in it. I don‟t often lose my temper, but this was an occasion when coolly losing my temper was the most effective way to drive home what I had to say. As soon as Elona was installed in my office, I turned to her and let fly. “What the fuck d‟you think you were doing?” Elona was so shocked that she did not sit down. “What…..what do you mean?” she said quietly. “Just answer the question,” I demanded. “But….but you……you…..” blurted Elona, trying to get a grasp of the situation. “I what?” “I…..I thought…..thought you…,” mumbled Elona “Thought what?” Given that I was faking my anger, this exchange struck me as slightly comical, like something out of Yes, Prime Minister, when Jim Hacker had Humphrey Appleby in a corner embarrassed and grasping for words. Elona, however, did not really cut the mustard as “Sir Humphrey” and that made it hard for me to keep a straight face. “I thought you knew?” she said.

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This was an interesting turn of events. Was Elona implying that there was something going on with Nathan, or just that she thought I knew about the rumour. “Thought what?” I repeated, gesturing that I needed more clarification. Elona‟s eyes started to dart around the room as if she was looking for something to say. Clearly, she was trying to get me to say what I knew, but I did not oblige. “I thought you……well you had Mike and Nathan in here nearly all afternoon, didn‟t you?” “Yes, I did.” “So you know, don‟t you?” she prompted again. “Elona, please tell me what you think I know.” Elona looked concerned but did not say anything. “Sit down, Elona,” I said. “I imagine you‟re wondering what happened earlier?” She took her place and nodded. I considered carefully how to put it across. “I can say with reasonable certainty that we will not be investigating the matter any further.” She looked relieved. When I remember the way she left my room in some distress, it was good to see her relax. “Does that mean you‟ve got to the bottom of things?” I wondered what she wanted to hear. Was she asking who had been found „guilty‟? I wished I could tell her more, but to do so would breach the confidentiality I observed in these matters. “Elona,” I started. “We won‟t be looking into it any more. I‟m satisfied that all parties have told me the truth, at least as far as they are able to, and I don‟t think that questioning people further will reveal anything more. I accept that you‟ve had a

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difficult time, and I don‟t want to add to your distress any more. You can go home tonight and sleep better, I hope.” I was being economical with the truth, but no untruths passed my lips. My only regret was that Elona might think that her account of events had been vindicated. But could she really think that Mike and Nathan would back up her story? That was naivety beyond possibility. She must surely realise I was being kind and saving her face. She seemed happier and relaxed. “So don‟t start any rumours, okay?” I said pointedly. She looked up and paused for a moment. Then she nodded to indicate that she understood. “I‟ve got a question,” Elona said. I braced myself. “Do you know anywhere I could stay?” I didn‟t enquire why. “I don‟t, I‟m afraid. Have you put a notice on the board?” I asked. “Don‟t want to do that,” she said. “People will ask why, and I don‟t want to say.” “Okay. I‟ll ask around discretely. Is there anything else?” “No,” she answered. “Give me a few days,” I said. “I have an idea.”

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Chapter 30
The evening passed off well. The entrepreneur that Dave was promoting came across fairly well, and I quite enjoyed minding him for the evening. He had his younger wife and family with him and the evening was something of a personal endorsement and triumph for him after years of struggling at home and in university laboratories. He was dynamic and Dave made the most of this during the presentation. “I‟ve saved the best for last,” Dave announced. “All of Sam‟s products involve the use of advanced technology to improve personal hygiene. This last product is something that every woman will want, and every man will want to buy for her. Sam tells me that his wife, Elaine, has extensively tested this final product. She will vouch for it personally.” Dave cast his eye over to the other side of the stage where Sam and Elaine were standing. “Play it again, Sam,” said Dave boldly, and there was a gentle ripple of laughter as the video images appeared. The lights dimmed as the finale began. Sam‟s product range comprised „advanced technology‟ approaches to personal care that were – to say the least – sensuous in their design and application. This last product, however, was the one that Dave believed would become a top seller. It was a battery operated hair remover that could be strapped onto arms, legs, or anywhere else that a woman wanted to remove hair. Just as selfexercise belts use gels to transmit current into the muscles (without actually having to do any exercise), Sam‟s product went one further. A narrator started to explain benefits to an attentive audience.

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What does every woman want? Yes, to have silky smooth skin. And what does every man want? To buy the ultimate gift for his partner and bring a smile to her face. You want to SHARE. What every woman will want next Christmas, and what every man will want to buy for her, is the - Sensuous Hair Removal Experience. On the screen, a handsome male model gave a gift wrapped present to a beautiful brunette, her face full of mock excitement at receiving her „favourite‟ present. Then, as the man wanders onto a patio to reveal a breathtaking mountain landscape, he dons a pair of black glasses – a la Terminator - and a fanfare of music alerts the audience to a James Bond like action sequence. The man jumps off a cliff edge and the next 90 seconds is a tongue in cheek satire of past Milk Tray adverts. The mockhero slides down the mountain-side, risking life and limb, to deliver a second package to a mansion home in the valley beneath. He leaves the package, with his card, in her bathroom and jumps out of the window into the night. Moments later, a blonde in a long robe picks up the package. With a hint of wickedness in her grin, she takes the package into her stately bedroom and lies down on the four-poster bed. The music changes again, the model tastefully disrobes, removes the gift from her package and relaxes. The satire switches to playful pastiche of 1980s Flake adverts, and as the model‟s eyes close and she enjoys the sensual delights of the SHARE experience, Sam‟s wife moves to centre stage. Dressed in a daring black dress, adorned with tasteful jewellery, a beam of light is shone onto her from the back of the auditorium and the volume of the music lowered.

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“Dear guests – Sam and I are so confident that you will enjoy this wonderful product that we – and I personally – will guarantee that you will treasure it. We‟ve prepared a gift pack for every woman here tonight. Take away your own SHARE experience and enjoy the benefits of the latest in personal hygiene technology.” As she stepped back from the microphone, the larger than life model held a pose reminiscent of the flake advert delicately crumbling chocolate between two gorgeous red lips. She sucked, then bit her finger, as her mind becomes occupied with the erotic. Even as I was starting to think that this was a bit OTT, I looked around the hall and saw women alternating their glances at the presentation with chuckles into the ears of their female friends. The eyes of the men, however, were on stalks watching every tiny movement of the model applying gel to the insides of her thighs, then turning the appliance - and herself on. Nobody said it out loud, but everyone clearly understood. This was no ordinary hair remover. As Elaine walked off the stage and sat down next to me, I lent over and whispered into her ear. “You should be selling this at Ann Summers parties!” She gave a broad smile and leaned towards me. “We will be, but we can‟t say that here.” It was my turn to smile at her. When I watched Dave‟s practice run, he had not shown me this video. He did tell me that there was another presentation but that Sam and Elaine were keeping it under wraps. I could now see why. “What accessories?” I whispered with more than a hint of curiosity.

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“Let me put it like this,” said Elaine. “If we‟ve not beaten „the rampant rabbit‟ into second place by next Christmas then I‟m going to be pissed as hell.” I chuckled. This was pretty risqué for IC but it was becoming clear why Dave was prepared to take the unprecedented step of a full product launch. She carried on talking in my ear as the video presentation neared the end. “You won‟t see the accessories advertised anywhere in your brochures. Dave thought it might be regarded as distasteful. It‟s a good hair removal product, much less painful than wax and much more effective than creams. There is a range of „innovative‟ extensions. Our pilot trials have produced spectacular feedback.” “Can‟t wait to try mine out!” I said. We exchanged smiles and a final fanfare alerted the audience to the finale. As the final chord echoed throughout the hall, the blonde looked seductively into the camera and spoke breathlessly. “Much better than Milk Tray!” The place filled with roars of laughter and the lights came up. Dave walked back to the microphone and announced that drinks and snacks were available in the lobby. The gift packs could be collected at the exits. The chatter was interminable but the evening was a success with guests energised and enthusiastic. When the VIPs had been safely escorted home in pre-booked taxis, I pulled Dave to one side for a private word. “Can we slip out of here - there is something I need to discuss. It can‟t wait until tomorrow.”

Friends or Lovers

Dave nodded, then walked over to Sam and Elaine. He exchanged words with them, shook their hands and spoke with a representative of the PR company. “Okay – we‟re off. They have everything under control.”

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Chapter 31
We walked to a nearby bar and settled ourselves into a corner table. Dave bought the first round – a real ale for himself, a gin and tonic for me. As soon as he had parked the glasses on the table, he removed his jacket and loosened his tie. “No point standing on ceremony,” I said. “May as well take it off.” “I‟ve been wearing these things for 20 years and still hate them.” “You should try wearing high-heels!” I joked. We spent a few minutes discussing the evening. We both thought it had been a mini-triumph. He confessed that he thought the product was risqué for IC, but Harry (the MD) had given him the go ahead. With the company enjoying some success, there was a feeling that a calculated risk was appropriate. It might backfire, but if it did so, the portfolio was now broad enough to weather a set-back. Alternatively, it might catapult the company into the top league. “You wanted to talk about something?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “I‟ve had quite a day.” I recounted the events, including the lunchtime meeting with John, and Dave reacted in quite a peculiar way. “John? Who‟s this John?” “I met him at the conference in Paris. Not at the actual conference, on the flight home...” “Is he married?” he interrupted sternly. “Yes,” I said a bit defensively, “Why do you ask?” His question irritated me. “Is it wise?”

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“Dave! You are married too!” I said trying to lighten the mood. “Yes, but I‟m a close colleague,” he said casting me a badtempered glance. “It‟s different!” he said. I sat for a few moments wondering why it mattered to Dave. The more I thought about it, the more incensed I got. “Why is it different?” I said, deciding to defend my friendship with John. Dave immediately looked a bit put out. Could he be jealous, I wondered? “Well…I see you all the time. We know each other well.” I thought about how much more John knew about me. For all the time I‟d spent with Dave, he knew only a fraction of the real me. “John and I know each other well,” I affirmed. Dave looked at me with surprise and I realised that he may have misinterpreted what I said. “Work colleagues often go out together. It‟s just different isn‟t it?” “I don‟t see why,” I said firmly. “John and I exchange e-mails as often as you and I talk.” Dave raised his eyebrows. “It‟s different, Penny,” he said starting to sound defensive. “How often do you and I go out after work?” I asked. “I didn‟t even know that your wife had been unwell until you told me recently.” I wished that I could hide my irritation, but it must have been obvious because Dave backed off a bit. I could see in his body language and movements that he felt hurt. As I didn‟t

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want the situation to spiral out of control I decided to offer some reassurance. “I‟m fond of you, Dave!” I said, and his face lit up again. “How are things at home?” The smile left his face and his eyes were downcast. “My parents are with her tonight. I don‟t think she‟ll ever leave hospital.” “D‟you want to talk about it?” I asked. He looked up at me and appeared unsure. “Maybe after another round of drinks…” he said tentatively. “Let‟s get this work stuff finished, then I‟ll get the next round in,” I said positively. Dave listened to the story that unravelled with Mike, Nathan and Elona. I watched him closely as I described Mike‟s part of the story to see if I could detect anything in his response. He seemed to take it in okay, and concurred with me that I would need his authorisation to fund Mike‟s housing costs until he could find accommodation elsewhere. He recommended that I see Legal to arrange a three-month tenancy. He promised to email them first thing in the morning. “When does he want to move in?” “As soon as possible, I think. He‟s shacked up at a hotel at the moment.” Dave gave a small laugh. I don‟t know why, but I was immediately irritated. Why did he have to laugh like that? Why take pleasure at Mike‟s marriage breaking down? I didn‟t expect it of Dave. “Thanks!” I said with as much sincerity as I could muster. I downed my gin and tonic then went to the bar to get another round of drinks. I had not been to this place before so I cast my

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eyes around while waiting to be served. Most of the patrons were in their 30s and 40s. The tables were wooden. They had a natural look about them, not that “manufactured to the nearest tenth of a millimetre” feeling. The edges were jagged and rough, and each table had a bowl in the middle that had the appearance of driftwood, filled with stones. On the wall, there was wood panelling, deliberately unvarnished to fit in with the tenor of the furnishings. I liked it. Drinks in hand, I returned to the table and asked Dave again about the situation at home. He looked awkward and reticent, so I put my hand on his shoulder and encouraged him. His eyes looked down into his lap as he spoke. “She‟s deteriorating,” he said. “They give her less than a month. The doctors want to talk to me tomorrow. I‟m dreading it.” It was difficult to respond. I thought about trying to show deep sympathy, but it was impossible for me to feign feelings that I didn‟t have. Certainly I cared, but doing the “there, there” routine just was not me. I thought of my father. He had an expression, drawn from his love of cricket: “playing a straight bat”. “What will you say?” I finally responded. He looked up. I don‟t think he expected me to ask such a question. “Er….I‟m…..I‟m……” he stopped for a moment. “You‟ll have to tell them something, Dave,” I continued. He looked pained and I could not really work out why. Not having had a lover or even a family member in this situation, I wondered if I was being insensitive. The problem, however, was that I didn‟t know how else to be.

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“I‟m……I‟m……” I began to grow tired of his hesitation, but I tried not to show it. “…..torn!” Finally! “What are you torn about?” He gave me a look that was puzzling, as if he thought I might be slightly mad. “I‟m torn between helping her die and keeping her alive,” he responded brusquely, as if he had noticed my prickliness and was responding with some of his own. “I‟m sorry, Dave, of course!” I felt a bit of a twit but then some words emerged from my mouth that I wished had remained in the darkness of my mind. “Might it be kinder to let her die?” He looked at me and I saw tears form in his eyes. I surely should have felt more sympathy for him, but for some reason he was irritating me. For someone approaching forty, he sure was immature. And yet, even as I had these thoughts I heard my father‟s voice. „What‟s the deeper meaning here, Penny?‟ I kept asking myself „why don‟t I feel more sympathy?‟ Why? The right thing to do at this moment would have been to put my arms around him. I could see his face growing red. A few days ago, I had no problem comforting him. Why was I putting up barriers now? These thoughts swirled around in my head. I traced my mind back and suddenly realised that his moment of mirth at Mike‟s situation really infuriated me. But why? “What is the deeper meaning here?” I kept asking myself. There in my mind was my father smiling at me, encouraging me to reflect. Suddenly, the

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awful realisation hit me. I was evaluating them, deciding which of them would get my sympathy. When the meeting with Mike had concluded, he found it in him to pay me a compliment. “I can see why Dave hired you,” he had said. He had every reason to hate me, but instead he appreciated me. It was generous and I kept thinking I had completely misjudged him. I didn‟t feel worthy of his respect. The moment Dave took pleasure at Mike‟s misfortune he lost my respect. So I sat there and found myself no longer wanting to comfort Dave. I even started to wonder if Dave was playing the sympathy card. Even as I chastised myself for being so uncharitable, I kept asking myself why I felt more sympathy for Mike than Dave. After all, I hardly knew Mike. Why did it matter? Dave broke the silence. “I don‟t want to admit that it would kinder to let her die. I can‟t bear the thought of losing her.” As he said this, I saw his eyes furtively look at mine. That didn‟t seem right. He was watching me to see how these lines played. I continued with a straight bat. “It would be kinder, wouldn‟t it?” Dave‟s eyes were on me now as we talked and I felt increasingly self-conscious. “Yes. Unbearable. But kinder!” It felt incongruous that he was looking deep into my eyes while talking about his wife dying. I fought a gut instinct to get up and walk out. I stopped looking at him but then he spotted my awkwardness. “Penny? Are you okay?”

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I was not sure what to say. I couldn‟t tell him how I was feeling. My sense of urgency was growing. “I feel a bit unwell,” I said hurriedly. “Just need to go to the loos and then I‟ll be back. Wait here,” I said. “Okay,” he replied. As I started to get up, I felt his hand touch my back and my body reacted like it had received an electric shock. I was sure he sensed my tension because his hand dropped and eyes looked away. It was an instant reaction and both of us realised what it meant. I made my way to the toilets and lingered there for as long as I could without appearing rude. When I came out, I grabbed my glass and tried to smile. “Look, Dave, I‟ve had a really long day and my stomach does not feel good. I appreciate you meeting me and going through things. I‟ll come in early and sort the stuff out with you. It went really well tonight. You were a star. Book some time off and spend it with your wife. Grab every moment you can.” I was talking too quickly. Even so, he did not challenge me and just kept nodding. “Okay, Pen, okay. D‟you want me to walk you back?” “No, no!” I said too quickly. “It‟s okay. I‟ve drunk too much. I‟ll get a cab. Pick the car up tomorrow.” I looked at the table and saw that he had nearly a whole pint to drink up. “Perhaps, you should do the same!” I blurted out. “I‟ll do that!” he replied. “Okay, then. I‟ll see you in the morning. Don‟t stay up too late, will you?” “No, I won‟t” “Bye.”

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“Bye,” he replied with just a hint of sarcasm. Whatever hopes I had of growing close to Dave, they evaporated that night. I could not explain why, it was a sixth sense telling me not to get close to him. As I rode home in the taxi, the events of the last week just kept playing in my mind. My opinion of Mike had risen from rock bottom to something approaching respect. Perhaps I was attracted to him? My desire for John had changed from one of girlish lust to one of sisterly love. As for Phil, he had changed from someone on a level with a placement student, to a sharp and roguish young man who merited the occasional fantasy. As for Dave, my respect for him was waning. What was going on? What was happening?

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 32
When I got home, I poured myself another glass of wine and had a bath. The events with Dave were upsetting so I tried to eradicate them from my mind with soothing music and some self-pampering. I ran a bath and as I lay in the warm water, I thought about Mike. I had to find a way to make up for the way I had treated him. Even though he had reason to feel bitter, he chose not to be. I wondered why he was not offended. The more I thought about him, the more I felt I had misjudged him, the more I started to like him. As these positive thoughts about Mike ran around my head, it raised new questions over Dave. He had told me to “find out about Mike” because “he may become a problem”. I was now curious about Dave‟s comments. It was as if he felt threatened by Mike and wanted me to get dirt on him. I made a mental note to follow it up with Phil. With these thoughts behind me, I started to relax and drink the wine. I indulged myself by recalling Phil‟s red cheeks when I flirted with him. He may be young, but he was quite a dish. With the soap in my hands, I ran it over my breasts and built up a sumptuous lather. Then I did my stomach, thighs and between my legs. I arched my buttocks and started working on the folds of flesh between my legs. This was a good way to relax, but the water kept washing away the wetness I was feeling and prevented me reaching orgasm, so I got out of the bath and returned to my bedroom. On my bed was the bag from the launch. The SHARE experience? Yes, it was there. Inside the bag there were two gift-wrapped presents. I undid the larger one to reveal a tasteful

Friends or Lovers

package that contained a battery operated motor. There were two buttons on it, one for switching the device on and off, and the other to increase and decrease the intensity. On the side were four holes for attaching accessories. There were several pads and a tube of gel. Some of the pads were round, but one was triangular and obviously moulded so that women could use it to remove their pubic hair. I started to feel aroused as the sense of expectation started to build. I used my fingernail to slide under the sellotape and gently remove the gift wrap from the second gift. As I opened the package, I started to lick my lips with a sense of exhilaration. Inside was a dildo extension and another tube of gel. The dildo was mainly plastic but there were small metal panels inlaid at various points. A small instruction book was also inside and I excitedly opened it and read: “Apply the SHARE gel to both the accessory and the pubic hair remover for an unforgettable experience.” So there I lay on the bed almost breathless with anticipation. I took it in my hand and turned it over. There was a fine mesh of plastic teeth interspersed with similar inlaid metal panels. I applied the first tube of gel, plugged the panel into the motor, and attached the straps that were included. By the time I had finished, I looked like a porn model. Next I took the dildo and second tube of gel and worked my hands up and down the shaft until it was covered all over. I pictured Phil‟s cock in my hand to increase my excitement. I looked like someone‟s whore, enjoying my sexual power. Lying back on the bed, I lifted up my legs and inserted the dildo into the motor device then inserted it. The gel was good and it slid in nicely and I worked it around until its full length

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was pressing on the pit of my stomach. I played with myself for a couple of minutes, pressing on my clitoris at the same time to heighten my arousal. Then, with my free hand, I reached over to the motor and pressed the on switch. A sensation ripped through me that made me shudder in total ecstasy. Not only could I feel a gentle vibration on my pubic bone, there was a gentle vibration inside me. I remembered the booklet describe an intensity button for “a special experience”. With each press, small shots of electricity engulfed my pussy from both the hair remover and the dildo and I just gasped. The SHARE experience had been thoughtfully designed. As I let my finger work me into a frenzy, I imagined Phil, Mike and John walking into the room. There I was, bare breasted and naked with my legs wide apart, dildo inserted, as I played out a fantasy of being a hot and horny slut. Phil and John came either side of me. John took my breasts in his hand and gentled rubbed them while I felt Phil‟s mouth on mine. John started to pinch and suck my nipples and run his hands all over my stomach and sides. While they gorged themselves, I imagined Mike‟s hand on the insides of my thighs and his mouth sucking on my fingers. My finger was now circling furiously, and I closed my eyes as I imagined Mike‟s tongue in place of my finger, massaging gently then harder then gentler again, then hard as his firm tongue edged me towards a heavenly climax. With one finger on my clit, and the other periodically pressing the „ecstasy button‟, I imagined my three lovers filling me with cock and spurting their cum over me until wave after wave of pleasure set my convulsing body on fire. As I lay on the bed exhausted, two strange thoughts burrowed into my mind. Firstly, I wanted Mike. I wanted to fuck him like

Friends or Lovers

no-one else I had ever met and felt I would do anything to have him. Secondly, the SHARE experience was going to make IC rich beyond belief. How could this product fail? How could anything capable of bringing women so much pleasure be anything except a runaway success? In that moment, the future took on a positive glow and I saw myself as Phil had seen me, as a Professor of Cunning, a vixen with a keen eye, finishing a new plan to suck as much pleasure out of life as possible. With these debauched thoughts filling my mind my satisfied, naked, emotionally and physically spent body fell into a deep sleep.

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 33
Despite my good intentions to get up early and speed off to work, my exertions the previous day caused me to oversleep. Hurriedly, I got up and took breakfast on the way to work. Even so, I was half an hour late. Given my attendance beyond the call of duty the previous evening, I felt entitled. Once at work, my first port of call was Office Services from where I picked up the key to the company flat. I found that Dave had not e-mailed them and I wondered whether he too had overslept. That being the case, I signed for the keys on my own authority and proceeded to the legal department to sort out the paperwork. “Hi, Stella,” I said walking up to her desk. “I‟m here about the company flat. I need to arrange for Mike to rent it for three months. Has Dave been in yet?” “Yes, he was in here about half an hour ago, but he didn‟t mention anything about a flat.” That‟s strange, I thought. I was sure Dave said he would sort this out. Perhaps I had misunderstood him. “Did he e-mail you about it?” I asked “Let me check,” said Stella. She quickly checked her inbox and shook her head. “He must have forgotten!” I said. “We agreed last night that I could rent it out to Mike Bennett. I need to sort out a threemonth tenancy agreement for him.” “Well, I can get the paperwork sorted,” Stella replied. “But you‟ll need Dave to sign the contract. It has to be a director.” “Okay. Can you sort out the paperwork and I‟ll come back this afternoon.”

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I returned to my desk and said good morning to Phil. He was cheerful and greeted me warmly. I felt that we were developing a good working relationship and the prospect of that pleased me. We had been through an emotional experience together. I sent Dave an e-mail to ask him to sign the contract that Stella was preparing and promised to catch up with him later in the day. I told him that “after testing the product personally, I think the SHARE experience is going to be a winner.” I chatted with Phil and mentioned that I wanted to offer my apologies to Mike. “Keep that off the record,” quipped Phil. “Yes, of course,” I responded. Then – for a reason I could not fathom - I winked at him. He gave me a broad smile in return. What was I doing? Even as I struggled to understand myself, I felt good inside, like a newborn person. She was happier than the old one, confident and self-assured, complete and rounded, tolerant and self-critical. I found that it gave me pleasure to give others pleasure. I found Mike having a coffee with a woman. “Can I just interrupt a moment?” I asked. “Sure, we‟re just chatting.” “Here are the keys for the flat. Dave says you can move in any time you like. There‟s some paperwork being drawn up. You‟ll need to sign that later.” “Thanks! I appreciate this.” The woman nodded her approval too, which struck me as slightly odd. She was older than me. Her clothes were well kept but not designer labels. She came across as someone who would look chic if she could afford it, but was not currently able

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to. Her face had a modest amount of make-up around the eyes, but other than this she had a natural beauty that her advancing years did nothing to diminish. “Do you need any help moving in?” I asked. “Are you offering?” Mike replied, in hope more than expectation, I think. “Sure, I‟ll help!” I responded. “Thanks!” he said with some surprise and pleasure. “This is Sally,” he said looking at his coffee companion. “She‟s offered to help as well.” Sally! Things quickly slotted into place. I studied her more closely and felt her doing the same to me. She was in her midforties and kept herself fit. Her face looked as if she applied cream, but I could not detect any eye-shadow or blusher. Her attractiveness was natural, not manufactured. I extended my hand. “Good to meet you. I feel like I already know you a bit,” I said. She glanced in Mike‟s direction as she responded. “Yes, I gather he has told you quite a bit about me. Not all good I hope!” I liked her playfulness and returned the favour. “Well, he said he‟d leave you to fill in the details.” Mike smiled when he heard me say this and glanced at Sally to check that she was not going to scold him. Sally continued the riposte. “From what he‟s been telling me, it doesn‟t sound like he left details out!” “Then you can get your own back by telling me all his secrets!”

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I felt an instant rapport. It was like that with John, and I hoped it would be the same with Sally. Sally looked playfully at Mike. “Good idea. There are plenty to tell,” and then, as she looked back at me she added, “Are you interested in them?” Linguistically speaking, she had just speared me and I realised she was checking me out on Mike‟s behalf. My confidence was high, however, and I continued to joust. “Only the particularly wicked ones!” She laughed out loud and then turned to Mike. “Watch this one, Mike! She‟s got her eye on you.” Mike gave me a wry smile. Today I stood my ground much better and did not look away. “And very nice eyes they are too,” he complimented. Sally laughed and managed to divert attention from the colour that was flushing through my cheeks. “Well, I have to familiarise myself with this new SHARE experience!” blurted Sally. I laughed out loud and it caused both of them to look at me enquiringly. At that moment I felt just a touch of embarrassment. “What?” I asked. They both paused momentarily, and then Mike spoke. “Are you going to share it?” he said, with a chuckle. I caught his dark and sexual humour, but it went over Sally‟s head. I wondered how I could respond without being too explicit. “I‟m already familiar with the SHARE experience. Sally, you‟re in for a treat – particularly if they give you a product sample.”

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Sally and Mike looked at each other in a puzzled way, and then Mike turned and winked at me out of Sally‟s line of sight. I actually felt butterflies. He was definitely flirting with me. To my relief Sally did not ask any further questions. “See you after work, then?” asked Sally. “I‟ll come by your office around 5-ish,” answered Mike. “You definitely in?” asked Sally, directing the question at me. I nodded and then Sally lent over and whispered into my ear. “Be careful! He‟ll charm the pants off you and before you know it you‟ll be deeply in love with him.” Her remark cleared up many loose ends. The story that Phil had uncovered, and that Dave had hinted at, suddenly made sense. Sally realised that she would never have a hold over Mike the way that she wanted to and had accepted the next best thing. I realised that she was talking from experience and while I was grateful for the advice, it also brought home to me that the issue was not whether he could charm the pants off me, but whether I could charm the pants off him.

Friends or Lovers

Chapter 34
Back at my desk, I asked Phil to come into my office. As my mind went back over events, I realised that Dave had fuelled my concerns about Mike and this had directly motivated me to ask Phil to investigate Mike‟s private life. Given the way that events had turned out, I wondered why Dave had done this. “How are you feeling?” I asked. Phil looked quite relaxed so I felt it may be a good time to gather his thoughts on the outcome of the investigation. “Okay. Quite a turn of events, wasn‟t it?” “Yes – it certainly was. When did you think something wasn‟t right?” I asked. Phil sat back in his chair and became quite animated. He clearly appreciated his views being taken seriously and was keen to express them. “Quite a while ago. When I sat in the canteen with Mike‟s colleagues nothing seemed to fit. When Mike lost his temper with you in that meeting, I think my suspicions were confirmed.” I wondered how much I should tell Phil. I was going to need his help again and involving him would be risky. I decided to come clean. “I was not particularly clever over this,” I said. “You seemed pretty sharp to me,” he replied. I gave him a smile and shrugged my shoulders. “I‟d love to take the credit,” I said, “but that would be dishonest. Someone outside work – a good friend – suggested to me that maybe I was looking at things the wrong way.” “I see,” mused Phil.

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“You were not entirely wrong when you asked if someone had influenced my thinking.” It was Phil‟s turn to smile at me. “Anyone I know?” he asked. “No. Someone outside work. We discussed the situation – hypothetically.” Even as I gave Phil this explanation, I felt a tinge of embarrassment that I did not admit how completely wrong I had got things. Why had I been so convinced that Elona was right and Mike wrong? Mike, if anything, had acted with remarkable restraint when I moved him to a new department. I took that as an indication of his guilt. It never crossed my mind for one second that he might actually be helping and protecting his accuser. In fact, he sacrificed his own interests to honour a promise to Elona. I had never met anybody willing to do that. It did not just add to my respect for him, it shamed me for the selfish way I conducted my life. In the pub, John said we only see what we are looking for. What an insight that is! I was only looking for things that confirmed Mike‟s guilt and Elona‟s innocence. As I considered these thoughts, I reflected on my own behaviour. How many times had I taken the lead? Often. How many times had I made a pass at a man? I had lost count. I was a master at coaxing someone into making a pass and I suddenly realised how it is almost impossible for two people to get into an intimate situation without both parties actively considering a relationship. In the past I had been hurt. My cavalier attitude toward men, indeed my hostility toward them, was rooted in the pain of past rejection. Afterwards, I had judged all men harshly. It was only

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when I met John that I wanted to find a way out. My loneliness was largely a choice and not an accident or misfortune. My fear of being intimate – my fear of sharing thoughts and feelings – began to fade when I met John. He taught me the value of being honest about my desires. My errors were born out of a desire to protect myself, to avoid the pain of rejection and avenge those who I thought were responsible. Can I forgive myself for not being perfect? Can I forgive myself for having fears? If shame and fear are the price of the warmth and desire I now feel, then it is a price worth paying. However imperfect, inconsistent, fearful and difficult they are, I want to know the people in my life better. Phil waited patiently. Finally, I spoke. “If he had not helped me understand my own prejudices, I might have been responsible for a tremendous injustice.” I saw Phil‟s eyebrows quickly rise and fall and he tried to form some words. “I can only speak for myself,” he said. “You should take some credit. I may be young, but I‟m old enough to have seen people dig themselves into an early grave through bitterness.” I looked up at Phil. “When did you become so wise?” I asked. “We all have our cross to bear,” he said with just a hint of sadness. It was strange to sit in my office exchanging these views with a person who just a few days earlier I would not have credited with sufficient experience or wisdom to handle a dispute. In this moment, I felt young next to him, and wondered what else I might have missed. The humility did me good. He grew in

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stature before my eyes. Perhaps I had as much to learn from him as he from me. “Phil,” I said. “I need your help again.” “What did you have in mind?” “D‟you remember that I asked you to find out about Mike – a kind of necessary evil?” “Yes.” “I did so because Dave led me to think Mike might become a problem.” Phil realised not only the extent to which I was about to take him into my confidence, but also the import of what I was about to suggest. I saw him momentarily shuffle uncomfortably. “And now?” Phil asked. “And now I‟m not sure who to believe,” I responded. “Are you suggesting what I think?” queried Phil. “We need to find out whether there‟s a reason for Dave‟s animosity.” “How?” Phil asked. “Eyes and ears to the ground again. Not sure what else we can do because I‟ve no idea where to start.” “Okay. I‟ll see what I can find out.” This instant loyalty and acceptance of responsibility moved me so I felt it necessary to sound a note of caution. “Phil,” I said pointedly, “we‟ve just poked around a number of people‟s private lives and screwed them up. This isn‟t a seek and destroy mission, just a way to understand what happened.” “I understand,” he replied. “There‟s one other thing,” I added. “What‟s that?” I swallowed hard at the thought of what I was about to say.

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“I am starting to fancy Mike like crazy. Do you think I‟m mad?” Phil‟s face broke into a broad smile. “Come on, what d‟you think?” I asked with urgency. “I think,” Phil said with a momentary pause, “that he is old enough to be your father….” “Oh!” I said, somewhat deflated, but Phil put up his hand to indicate that I should stop talking. “…and that he‟s also one hell of a lucky guy.” I was so chuffed that Phil said this that I was lost for words. Eventually, in a moment of blind instinct, I offered him my hand. “Friends?” I said. He took my hand and shook it firmly. “Yes, of course!” he replied. As I look back over my life now I can trace the start of my friendship with Phil to this meeting. The amount of goodwill that was generated between those four walls in a few minutes contributed to one of the best working partnerships I would ever have. It was a risk, much as John had taken a risk with me. The result would be one of the most enduring and loving relationships I would ever have.

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Chapter 35
Later in the afternoon, I returned to Legal to collect the contract for Mike. I found that Dave had still not signed it. I guessed that Dave must be too busy to deal with it, so I took the contract to Harry, the company‟s managing director, and explained the situation. I admitted my mistake, but also said that the proposed settlement would ward off the possibility of litigation and save the company money in the long run. I added that Mike was doing a good job establishing the new sales team and that any protracted dispute could have indirect costs that were unforeseeable. Harry accepted my comments with good grace. “Quite a learning experience?” he asked. “You‟ve no idea,” I answered. “I know we see each other infrequently, Penny, but I‟m assured by Dave that you‟ve made quite a mark here.” “Thank you. That‟s good to hear,” I responded. Today was turning into a very good day indeed. “Don‟t be afraid to drop in from time to time.” I swallowed quite hard when I heard this. Until now, I had only met Harry formally, but he was inviting me to be more informal with him. The flattery that I felt was considerable and I duly made the promise. He signed off the contract to rent the flat to Mike and called Legal to approve the pay settlement. I thanked him for his help and left his office feeling as though I had just grown wings and could fly. My detour took me near to Jo‟s office. I felt I should touch base with her over the comment Elona had made. I did not want gossip or rumour to spread. As I walked into her office I heard a voice that was familiar. A strange feeling came over me.

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Surely it could not be? But as I walked up to the door the voice was unmistakable. As I entered the room, presentation in full flow, John was outlining his thoughts on male and female consumer behaviour. John noticed me at the back of the room and his face beamed. “Hello there!” he said with just a trace of a smile. Everybody turned around to look at me and for a moment I felt quite embarrassed. “You know each other?” asked Jo. I was not sure whether to admit to a close friendship in front of all the others, but if I had denied it then it would surely have shown in my face. My attitude to mixing business and personal relationships was momentarily compromised. “Yes,” I answered, “We are good friends.” I could see Sally looking both pleased and surprised as she whispered something in the ear of a colleague. As I looked at John, our eyes connected just long enough for others to register that we were more than acquaintances. Tongues would probably wag, but there was little I could do. “You are Jo‟s new consultant, then?” John looked at Jo. “Jo and I are good friends too…,” he replied, continuing the charade. In my mind I wondered “how good?” but I resisted the temptation to ask. I imagine she was asking herself the same question about me. “….we‟ve worked on projects together and had some interesting results!” The way he said „interesting‟ made both Jo and him laugh out loud.

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“Okay everyone. That‟s more or less it for today. See you all next Wednesday. Remember to bring in lots of magazines. Guys, you‟ll need to bring some in yourself – if you don‟t buy them normally, buy some this week. We are going to learn where different products are advertised and you are going to do some serious research about men and women! And don‟t forget to ask yourself „what is the most sexist thing about the army?‟ We‟ll touch on that again next time.” With these words, he shut down his laptop to signal the end of the meeting and walked over to greet me. Without batting an eyelid, he put his hand on my shoulders and kissed me on the cheek. For a second I wondered whether to chide him for creating the impression we were close, but his manner was so open and unaffected that he disarmed me. Mixed with surface irritation, however, was a deep pride that he acknowledged me so warmly. Not only did it make me feel special, it would probably do my social standing amongst the staff no harm at all. “Well, this is a turn up, isn‟t it?” “I guess it is,” I responded. “How are you fixed later?” asked John. I thought for a moment and remembered my commitment to Mike. “Helping Sally and Mike move him into a company flat!” He turned to them both, smiled, and gave a thumbs-up sign. “Things worked out, then?” “Sure did!” and he immediately sensed the glint in my eye. John leaned over and whispered into my ear. “Watch out! He‟ll charm the pants off you before you know it!” I laughed out loud, but John did not understand.

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“Someone else said the same thing earlier!” “Must be true then,” he quipped. “Problem is that he‟s far too devoted to his wife!” “Can a man be too devoted?” I joked. “Sure if it leads him to deny himself the company of other interesting people.” “Aren‟t you devoted to your wife?” I asked, with just a hint of playfulness. “Yes, I am, but not so much that I would avoid your company, Penny.” His eyes had that glorious warmth that I had come to adore. I could have deliberately misunderstood him and read more into his words than was there, but an instinct told me not to. Sure he wanted to be close to me, but I was beginning to realise the limits of his commitment. I felt that his marriage, indeed his life, must be an endless juggling act. Reluctantly, I felt myself giving up any aspirations I had to seduce John and I comforted myself by looking forward to more fantasies. “So what‟s going down with Mike, then?” I asked. John took one look at me and twigged. “You interested?” I blushed. Damn it, why do I do that! His remark caught me so off-guard that for a moment I was angry with him. He immediately sensed this, and his tone changed in an instant. “Penny,” he said in a low voice and drawing me towards the corner of the room. “I would normally not say such a thing, but Mike is not just a nice man, he‟s a very nice man. Treat him well.” “I intend to,” I said. John smiled.

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“I believe you will,” he said with more confidence than I felt. “What about Sally?” I asked. I thought there was no harm seeing if she was competition. “The way he tells it to me is that she wants children – he does not. He‟s got three already and does not want any more. If they‟d agreed on that then perhaps he would have let her get close to him, but because of this he would never let anything start. Apart from that, they‟re like a married couple. They fight and bicker all the time! She‟s been in love with him for years, but I can‟t see his feelings changing.” “No more kids?” I said, more as a remark to myself than a question for John. Even as my own sister brought hers into the world, I still felt no maternal twinge. I wanted a man, not children. I looked at John again. “Thanks for that,” I said warmly. “For what?” he asked. “For that advice,” I responded. “What advice was that?” he said. Whether he was being deliberately obtuse or just plain dumb, I did not care. Knowing that neither Mike nor I wanted children took away one potential conflict. John then grinned at me and I realised that he was playing. Mike and Sally came over and John announced that he too was helping with the move. I returned to my office and decided to make one more trip to Dave‟s before packing up my things. I was looking forward to the evening.

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Chapter 36
“There you are!” I said. “I‟ve been looking for you all day.” “Why‟s that?” answered Dave. “The flat, the contract!” I said “What contract?” answered Dave. “Don‟t you remember?” I asked. This was odd, I thought. Dave was behaving quite strangely and I was confused. I went over the talk we had the night before in the pub and he listened without making comment. When I finished, he finally said something. “I said you‟d need my approval, but I didn‟t approve it.” “Dave! What d‟you mean?” “I wanted to discuss it with Harry first. We didn‟t agree anything last night – you just told me what you wanted to do. I didn‟t agree to it.” “What do you mean? You said you‟d e-mail Legal this morning. You said you would go and see them to sort this out.” “You‟re mistaken, Penny,” he said. His stubbornness was mirrored by the rigidity in his body. He was standing next to his desk. His fists were clenched as he spoke. My mood changed from one of confusion to concern. I couldn‟t understand why he was behaving this way. What was he playing at? “Well, whatever Dave!” I said. “I just dropped by to say that I‟ve sorted it anyway. Mike is moving in tonight.” “What?” Dave was acting so strangely that I felt like asking why, but I confined myself to the issue in hand. “He‟s moving in tonight,” I said again.

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“But we haven‟t sorted out a contract yet. You haven‟t given him any keys, have you?” “Yes, I have. And I‟ve sorted out the contract.” He looked defensive and angry. “How?” he said, almost shouting. “I need to sign it. You haven‟t signed it yourself?” “No!” I answered. It was my turn to feel defensive. “So how d‟you sort it?” he asked with a tone bordering on aggression. “I got someone else to sign it because I couldn‟t find you.” “You went around me?” “No, I didn‟t „go around you‟, I couldn‟t find you so I got Harry to sign.” Dave looked at me, clearly irritated. I wondered if something might have happened at the hospital. “Don‟t do it again!” he said finally. On another occasion I would have challenged him, but I wanted to retreat. His behaviour was strange and my evening engagement so much more inviting. He was speaking to me like a child. That was so out of character I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. He must have had a very bad day. “Okay,” I said. Without saying goodbye, I left the room.

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Chapter 37
It took us less time than expected to move Mike‟s stuff. As the flat was partly furnished, he needed to take only a few easily transportable things, plus his clothes, bedding, computer, hi-fi and a portable television. With four helpers and four cars, we quickly filled each of them up, drove to the new flat, unloaded and had four glasses of champagne on the table before the 7pm. Sally raised her glass. “To new beginnings,” she announced. We all dutifully raised our glasses and clinked them together. “To new beginnings!” I noticed myself glancing in Mike‟s direction repeatedly. Sometimes he would look back and acknowledge my interest, but at other times he would remain engaged in conversation with John and Sally. I initially felt out of place amongst such close friends, but they took care to include me in their conversation. As the evening wore on I felt more and more relaxed. By nine o‟clock, after we had consumed a pizza-takeaway and several bottles of wine, Sally stood up and raised her glass. “Penny,” she started. “This man here….,” she lost her balance for a moment as the drink began to affect her. She quickly regrouped and continued, “….this man saved my life.” Mike‟s eyes looked downward as he shook his head and laughed. “Yes he did! Yes he did! I don‟t mean he saved my life like he rescued me from death or anything. I mean that he rescued me in here.” She pointed to her heart with a finger and kept stabbing herself as she laughed.

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Mike‟s eyes looked everywhere but towards me and I sensed that he wished Sally would shut up. “Don‟t you look around the place like that!” she barked at Mike. “You‟re one of life‟s superheroes.” Mike threw up a hand to discard her remark. “I don‟t think Dave would see it like that…,” answered Mike. “Come on Sal, sit down love and rejoin the party.” “Sod Dave!” she said. “He and his stinking brother can rot in hell for all I care.” This outburst – and the mention of Dave‟s name – fired my curiosity but in my drunken state I was more interested in giving Sally some sisterly support. “You leave „er alone, you!” I said boldly. “If she wants to praise you, let „er!” As Sally sat down, I stood up. Her boldness had made me bold and I wanted to say my piece as well. I wobbled momentarily as I raised my glass to John. “This man,” I said looking at him. I decided to mimic Sally so I feigned a stumble. “This man saved my career!” John smiled back and raised his glass to me in appreciation. “Did he? Well, I never,” responded Sally. “How d‟ee do that?” I was feeling liberated so I let my feelings spill out. As I spoke I looked deep into John‟s eyes. I wanted him in no doubt how special he was to me. “Well firstly, he helped me see something that I couldn‟t see. When he did that….(hic)….” Everybody laughed as I struggled to articulate what I felt. “….he stopped me causing this man…”

Friends or Lovers

I quickly glanced at Mike before continuing “…any more upset and pain.” Mike‟s embarrassed look left his face and was replaced by one of genuine surprise. “I was about to do one of the most stupid things I‟d ever done, and I would‟ve done so if my good friend John – who I will now love forever…..,” as these words spilled out my hand instinctively moved to cover my mouth. “Ah shit! What the hell,” I said and then continued. “This man…..this man….this man….” As I stood there, the other three giggled away, but in my mind a whole world of understanding descended on me and I felt completely overwhelmed. Before I knew it there were tears in my eyes and I was struggling to talk. John noticed and started to get up but I put my hand up to stop him. I did not understand what was happening to me, but I knew that I had more to say so I gathered myself and started to find the words. “….this man…,” as the words formed in my head a single tear started to roll down one of my cheeks. “Penny,” said John, “you don‟t have to say this.” I looked at him and was overcome with such feelings of love and affection that I put my hand up again. “John, I do. I do have to say it and I want these two to listen.” He sat down again and with a resigned look, braced himself for what he thought I was going to say. “….this man did more than save my career.” “Penny!” John interrupted again. “You don‟t have to. Really you don‟t.” I laughed as I realised just how comfortable I suddenly felt.

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“Shut up, you…..you…..arsehole!” I said with a smile. “You‟ve had this coming to you for a long time so don‟t spoil it.” Sally and Mike were transfixed as they witnessed this intimate exchange. “Since when did you two get so close?” asked Mike. “You shut up too, you arsehole, and I‟ll tell you!” Sally creased up with laughter when I called Mike an arsehole, and John gave a short chuckle and relaxed in his chair. “You men, honestly! Never know when to shut up….” As I spoke, I giggled at the comedy that was taking place. “Right! This man…,” and this time I paused for effect more than anything else, “taught me how to feel again.” John obviously felt that I was going to tell him again how much I loved him, so this caught him by surprise. “For the last 10 years, I‟ve known a series of jerks and losers and none of them ever made me actually want to know them. You John, you changed all that. I don‟t know how you did it but you made me take an interest in living again. I mean really living – not just have a job and exist. I‟ve been a bad girl, me. I‟m the sort of person your mother warned you about. Good as gold at work, but a vixen at night who stalks and preys on vain and needy men to satisfy her own vanity and neediness. What I‟ve done while at conferences would fill the pages of a Jackie Collins novel! But you, John…” I fixed my eyes and aggressively pointed my finger at him. “…you made me want to behave!” Sally and Mike creased up with laughter as I fired my double barrel. John looked less worried and began to take in what I was saying. I had them all where I wanted them now, so I continued

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with the performance and grew in confidence. As Mike‟s giggles subsided, the vixen started to return and my gaze left John and fixed on Mike. Mike starred back at me and for a few seconds we were transfixed by each other. “You, on the other hand….,” I said conjuring up the sexiest look I could muster, “…are the most difficult, stubborn…and surprising person I‟ve ever met. And one more thing…” I held up both hands to stop them interrupting. “You make me want to be bad again!” When I said this, Sally‟s giggles subsided and it was John who creased up with laughter. He roared and clapped. Sally, despite her feelings, started to join in too. Mike, on the other hand, grinned to himself contentedly. Then, he got up, came over and gave me a hug. “You make me want to be bad too!” he whispered in my ear. And then he pulled away, walking backward, and kept his eyes on me while he sat down in his chair. I knew. In that moment, I knew. If I had thought that John had helped me to feel again, it was nothing compared with the tidal wave that engulfed my being on hearing these words. Suddenly all the other sounds in the room seemed to go silent and every fibre and nerve-ending in my body was focussed on Mike‟s eyes and mouth. A few moments later I felt a tingle rush through my body and I had to shut my eyes and wait until it passed. It was the most exquisite feeling I had ever known, better than any orgasm, better than any drug. Was this love? Was this lust? In that moment I was touched by my own humanity. This was living. I blew Mike a kiss then sat down. A modest contented grin was etched onto his face and we both knew what was going to happen. There was not a force in the world that was going to stop it.

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It took me a few moments to notice that Sally had climbed onto John‟s knee and was kissing his forehead. “As for this one,” she started to say, “he‟s been a bad boy a few times, haven‟t you my dear?” Now it was my turn to crease up with laughter. I pointed at John and shouted at him. “You sly old dog, you! And there was me thinking you were a devoted and loyal husband!” “You are mixing me up with Mike!” he said. Mike raised his glass to John in appreciation but when I glanced at Mike, and he glanced back, the thought ran through my mind that his loyalty was coming to an end. “Sally?” I quizzed. Sally looked at me. She did not need to say anything. She and John were lovers. “John! How long has this been going on?” He looked at me half-embarrassed. “How else do you think I got to know all the stuff that was going on in his life?” he quipped firing a glance at Mike. “But I thought he told you?” I responded. “He‟s too damn loyal for his own good,” answered John. “He was so loyal to this sweet woman that he nearly destroyed his marriage. Then he was so loyal to Elona that he nearly destroyed his career.” I was laughing again. All my inhibitions regarding John vanished. Suddenly his resistance made sense. It was not only his family that he was protecting; it was Sally. He was not the paragon of virtue I had believed him to be. “And there was I thinking that you are a family man,” I joked.

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“He is, darling,” said Sally. “He‟s frustratingly devoted to his wife and children.” I remembered the recent phone call. “You told her, didn‟t you?” “Yes, and you called me right in the middle of it! She thought you were Sally and started wrecking the house. That‟s why I had to go.” “Why did you tell her?” “I wanted to stay at Sally‟s while working on this contract.” I got up from my chair, offered my hand to John, and asked Sally if I could borrow him for a minute. She consented, so I grabbed him and led him roughly across the living room and out of the flat. Whether it was the drink, the situation, or the knowledge that he was weak with women, I was not going to waste this moment. “Right you!” I said. “This is the one and only chance you will ever get to kiss me because by midnight tonight I‟m going to be off the market.” As I said these words, I pressed myself up against him, put my hands around his buttocks and pulled him close. “You have no idea….,” he said. “Oh yes I have…,” I replied. Our lips met, gently parted, and our tongues touched. As my hand slipped under his shirt and felt his strong body, his hands clutched my behind. We pulled each other close and snogged until we both sensed that enough was enough. “One day soon,” I said to him, “I want to talk about this. You must have known how much I wanted you. Why did you resist me?” He looked at me and draped his arms around my neck.

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“Sally is not the only woman that I‟ve given in to - there has been one other. But with you, it was different somehow. Being with you was enough.” I stroked his face. He did not have to explain how he felt. Just being with him had been enough for me too. “I love you, John,” I said. “That‟s what I thank you for the most. You are the first man, after my father, that I‟ve not been afraid to love. If you „saved me‟, that‟s how you did it. You made it possible for me to love again.” “And I love you too, Penny. You‟re the first woman I‟ve not had to sleep with to keep interested. With others, if they thought I was not intending to sleep with them, they would lose interest. You liked me from the moment we met, even after I told you I wouldn‟t make a pass at you. That made you special. Very special.” “What about Sally?” “If I‟d not slept with Sally, I‟d have lost her. I‟m fond of her and she was in a state after Mike returned to his wife. She was, not surprisingly, very needy. I was there, Mike was gone. That was the price of continued friendship.” “She‟s certainly a looker,” I said. “Yes, but it‟s not that. It was hard for her to leave her husband. I was part of her recovery, I think.” I nodded as I spoke. “You look after her and I‟ll look after you.” He laughed and held hands. “You have yourself a deal, Penny Leyton.” “How are things with your wife?” “They‟re okay. This isn‟t the first time for either of us. Things changed some years back. When the kids were both at

Friends or Lovers

school she started working again. We drifted apart and she had an affair. We worked things through but a lot changed. I admitted to her that I‟d thought of having an affair as well. We found that we both liked the idea of more freedom. Soon after, I took the plunge. Then I met Sally through Mike and gave in again! My wife and I are still good friends. She‟s a lovely woman and, thankfully, we‟re able to get past blaming each other. I admire her more than when we first married but the exclusivity has been lost. There‟s no way to get it back so things have changed. The kids are older now. I‟m travelling much more. We both get lonely. When we are together we still have a fabulous time.” “D‟you think you‟ll have a house in one piece when you get home?” I quipped. “We both love the kids. There‟s no reason to divorce. Sally won‟t marry me. She holds a torch for Mike and likes having her own place. I‟m just a temporary distraction for her.” “But you need somewhere that‟s a home. You don‟t want to just drift between places like a visitor?” “With my work, Penny, my whole life‟s like that. I travel for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. This is a long contract and it‟ll be lovely to spend time with Sally. A nomadic life suits me and I have friends and nests in many places. Maybe I can sleep in your nest occasionally?” I smiled. That was a lovely thought and I warmed to it. “As long as you behave,” I said. “Not so white as white, am I? I hope you aren‟t disappointed.” “Don‟t worry, lover. You‟re secret is safe with me.” With this exchange of words we made our pact. I was determined to hold onto his love. We hugged again but this time

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it was devoid of sexual passion. It was almost as if we were saying goodbye and hello at the same time. I thought of Sally and Mike and how everyone thought they had been lovers. It would be John and I that others would mistake now. But when I thought about it, we had become lovers of a sort. There was now such a deep intimacy, a bond as strong as I‟d ever known. It would be our joke – just as it had been for Sally and Mike - that acquaintances would misunderstand. I remembered John‟s words that there was no such thing as a non-sexual relationship between men and women, only ones where they chose not to have sex. Our relationship was now like that. We both understood our attraction to each other. We knew that sex would be there if we ever both needed and wanted it at the same time. But I didn‟t care either way – the most important thing was to protect the trust. As for the rest of the evening, Sally retired to one of the bedrooms with John. I retired to the other with Mike. Sleeping with Mike for the first time was, without question, the most special moment of one of the most extraordinary days of my life. The memory is like a precious stone, a priceless treasure that sparkles. I hope you will forgive me for shielding it from gossip that would corrupt it. This diamond is mine, and mine alone.

Friends or Lovers

Chapter 38
I went into work the next day on a tremendous high. Suddenly all those soppy romance novels, movies, and songs made sense and I realised people were not simply making it up. Every few minutes I would pause to think of the future. To have waited nearly 33 years to discover this! Suddenly I understood why people could fall apart when their partner leaves, or how a husband or wife might feel driven to murder after discovering the other was having an affair. If anybody tried to steal Mike from me, I felt capable of doing anything. As I sensed these feelings, I was astonished and frightened, worried and pleased at the passion I felt. As I settled down to my computer to retrieve my e-mails, there was an apology from Dave.
From: dave.stockton@innovation.co.uk To: penny.leyton@innovation.co.uk Subject: Sorry Pen, Sorry about yesterday. forgive me? Dave, Don’t worry about it. We all have off days. Is there anything we need to follow up after the product launch? I was irritable and too harsh. Can you

I answered immediately.

I was pleased that Dave apologised because that was how I expected him to be. Even though I felt like telling him (and the whole world) what had happened the night before, it would have been imprudent and insensitive.

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There was a knock at the door and Phil was standing with a cup of coffee. “You don‟t have sugar, right?” he asked. This was a surprise. Phil did not usually make coffee unless I asked. “Thank you. That‟s very sweet of you.” “Have to keep the boss happy!” he joked. “No need to do that today, I‟m happy enough for both of us,” I responded. Phil looked up and my smile told him all he needed to know. “Bloody hell, Penny. That was fast work.” “Hard to believe it myself,” I said. “Don‟t tell me…..you…..?” I just kept silent and smirked enough for him to work out that he was right. “Don‟t you go blurting this around the place. Keep it under wraps for now, okay?” “Okay. But I can‟t see this staying a secret for long,” Phil said. “If any rumours start, I want them to come from me.” “Sure thing, boss!” he said sarcastically. “Okay. What have you got for me?” “Elona‟s off sick again. That‟s the third time in two weeks. She‟s over the 10-day mark and her manager is asking if you‟ll visit.” Elona! I had forgotten about her in all the excitement. “I guess that‟s a good idea. Have you called her?” “Yes. No answer.” “Hmm. Strange. Okay, give me the address and I‟ll go round. No answer from her parents?” “No. They‟ll probably be in the shop.”

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“Yes, of course.” *** I drove to Elona‟s flat and rang the bell. There was no reply so I entered the shop and spoke to her mother. “She‟s up there but we can‟t get her out of bed. All weekend, all last night, just crying and crying. We‟re worried sick.” I asked them to let me in. Her mother led me though the shop and up the stairs. “Elona! Elona, love!” she shouted, “there‟s someone here to see you….” There was silence, so her mother gently opened the door of her room and a crumpled figure lay in the bed asleep. “Oh the pet!” said her mother. “She‟s cried herself to sleep. What do you want to do?” “Can I stay here a bit, maybe make her a drink, wake her up and chat.” “Feel free, my dear. We‟re at our wits end. Don‟t know what to do. We‟ll be in the shop.” I sat with Elona for fifteen minutes before stirring myself to go to the kitchen. I took the liberty of putting together breakfast-in-bed. Having played hide and seek with the butter, bread, plates and bowls, I finally assembled something that looked appetising. “Elona?” I said gently as I rocked her shoulder. She turned around and after a moment of confusion she saw the breakfast tray. “You‟ve been busy!” “Yes. You looked like you could do with something.” “What‟re you doing here?” she asked.

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“I‟m finding out how you are. Nobody at work could contact you. We were worried.” She sat up in bed and I gave her the tray. “This is kind of you.” “Just part of the job. Don‟t make me into a saint,” I responded. “No. This is kind of you.” Earlier in my career I might have believed that these visits were out the kindness of the company‟s heart but over the years I had come to realise that this was just another way to ensure that people did not take the piss and bunk off work. And yet I did feel concern for her so I accepted her thanks. “Your mum and dad say you‟ve been upset.” As I looked at her face, I could see the tear stains around her eyes. Without make-up she looked quite different, but still had a girlish charm. She looked at me sorrowfully and tried to talk but nothing coherent came out. Eventually, she started to nod and the tears began to flow as she tucked into her toast and cup of tea. I did not try to start a conversation and just sat next to her. It is hard watching someone sink into the depths of despair. We sat there while she finished her breakfast and then she thanked me again. “You didn‟t have to come,” she commented. “Elona. I won‟t kid you. I‟m here because you‟ve been off work for 10 days this year and it is my job to be here. At the same time I do care what happens to you and if there‟s a way I can help then I will. Have you seen a doctor?” She gave a dismissive laugh. “He‟ll just say I‟m depressed and give me some drugs. I don‟t want that.” “I‟m sure they‟ll do what‟s best.”

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At this comment Elona looked at me angrily. “I said I don’t want that. Did you not hear me?” The sharpness of her tone took me aback and I realised that perhaps she was not quite the shrinking violet that I had previously thought. “Yes. I heard you,” I said. “What then?” I asked. “Nothing,” she said. “I‟m nothing. Nobody likes me. Nobody. I‟m useless, completely fucking useless, a waste of space, a zero, a failure.” I listened with patience. In the back of my mind, I recalled the many conversations I‟d had with John. I wondered if he might be able to help. At the moment, however, I was on my own and had to do the best I could. “I need you,” I said. “You don‟t need me. Administrators are ten-a-penny.” It was my turn to show a bit of aggression. “Don‟t give me that crap. I‟ve seen your file and you‟ve earned that position. There are people at work who believe in you.” My efforts were not rewarded. “I don‟t give a shit. It‟s all meaningless.” “Why?” I asked. “I‟m useless. Nobody likes me.” “Is this to do with Nathan?” At this remark she turned toward me and I could see the rage building in her face. Even though she was slightly built I began to feel a bit afraid. She looked like she was going to explode, so I started to clear the tray and returned to the kitchen. As I walked out of the room a torrent of abuse showered my back as

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she screamed the place down about Nathan, her parents, her exboyfriend, Mike, work, me, Phil. We had all ruined her life. I tried to remain calm but it was difficult. When I returned from the kitchen I held out my hand and surprisingly she took it. She turned onto her side and wept again. I sat with her for another quarter of an hour, motionless except for the occasional stroke of her face. “Elona. I need to go now. There are a couple of people I want to talk to and then I‟ll be back. Do you understand?” She made no movement so I repeated the question and she gave a nod of her head.

Friends or Lovers

Chapter 39
For the rest of the day, I busied myself. My first port of call was John. He was in a meeting with Jo, but he agreed to take a break at mid-day and chat to me in the canteen. Next I went to see Mike. As I walked through the door, he smiled at me as if it was any other day at work. Even though I was there on business, I felt myself get aroused as I moved closer toward him. “Hello….err….Penny!” he said slightly stiffly. “What can I do for you?” “Can I speak to you in private?” I asked. “Anything in particular you want to speak about?” he enquired. “Elona!” I said in response and suddenly he dropped the formality and whispered in my ear. “….and there was I hoping you wanted to shag me in the toilets….” I whispered back. “…..I do, but this has to come first ….” He pulled his head away and I noticed there was a bulge in his trousers. “Better do something about that!” I said with a smile, looking down towards his crotch. “Any ideas?” he replied. “Plenty, but none that I can act on here,” I said. “If there was a cold shower somewhere, I‟d go and have one.” “We‟ve got to keep a lid on it at work,” I said. He nodded and even though I felt like dragging him into the nearest broom cupboard for a quickie, I managed to calmly lead him into his own office. “Okay. What is it?” he asked as soon as I closed the door.

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“Elona needs somewhere to stay.” “Elona? What‟s the problem now?” “The same problem. I visited her and she‟s in a right state. I‟ll talk to John later, but I think she needs some space to herself.” “What d‟you have in mind?” I gave a half smile and got ready to ask him, but he anticipated me. “You‟re not thinking…..Jeez! I‟ve only just got you to myself. Is it really that urgent?” “Well actually, I wanted to know how you felt about the idea. It‟s technically your place. I can‟t act without your consent. I‟m not sure it‟d be a good idea anyway.” “Elona and I have always got on well. I don‟t hold what happened against her. She was upset and I was there so she took it out on me. We were always friends before and I‟m sure we will be again.” “Does that mean you‟d be okay if she moved into the other room?” “It‟s going to look very odd, Penny?” he said. “Of course, if you want to get back with your wife….” I proffered. He looked surprised at my remark. “Are you checking me out?” he queried. My hand instinctively jumped to my mouth. I could hardly believe what I‟d said and started to apologise profusely. He walked over and silenced me with a kiss. “Stop! People will see,” I protested. “Let them!” he said. I allowed him to kiss me briefly but stopped him when I felt my passion rising.

Friends or Lovers

“I‟ll tell her….I‟ll tell her that she can move in next weekend if she wants.” “Why next weekend?” he asked. I lent over and spoke quietly into his ear “Because this week I‟m going to fuck your brains out every night!” And with that remark, I turned to leave the room. “I‟m all yours,” he said with a big grin. One of his staff had noticed our kiss and by lunchtime a rumour was making its way around the offices. As I sat with John in the canteen, one of the reps came up and congratulated me. I played it cool by asking “what for?” I talked to John about my idea and he concurred that a move to the flat might be helpful to Elona. When I returned in the afternoon, Elona was up and dressed. She took the news of the flat offer in her stride and did not seem to show any great enthusiasm. She promised to think about it and let me know the next day. I told her again that there were people at work who cared. When I got back to the office, the rumour about myself and Mike had spread to Phil. “Not a word passed my lips!” said Phil as I brought him a cup of tea. “Already?” I asked. “What did you do – send out a company wide e-mail?” “No, just a little kiss in his office,” I replied. “May as well have sent out an e-mail!” he retorted with a chuckle. “Oh well! It‟s out now.” Phil looked at me warmly.

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“I‟m happy for you,” he said. *** At my desk, I decided to have one last trawl through my emails in case Dave had replied.
Subject: Sorry Pen, I just wanted to say that the thought of you testing the SHARE experience “personally” is definitely something to dream about at night!! I look forward to a blow-by-blow description of your experiences. Dave x

I sat for 30 minutes while thoughts burned my mind, crashing and spinning out of control. Beads of sweat formed over my body and face. With every passing minute, my heart sank slowly into the quicksand of despair, and the clarity I had brought to work evaporated as my mind felt like it was turning to treacle. Where on earth had this come from? As I tried to find answers to impossible questions, the high spirits that had kept me aloft all day dissolved. By 4.30pm Phil found me slumped at my desk. “What‟s up, Penny?” I swivelled my screen around so he could read the e-mail. After a few moments, just two words sprang forth from his lips. “Oh fuck!”

Friends or Lovers

Chapter 40
Instead of going home, I returned to Mike‟s flat. I think he expected me to jump him as I walked through the door, but after receiving Dave‟s e-mail, my mind was preoccupied. Now I had a personal problem it dawned on me that I hardly knew him. Could I talk to him? What if I scared him off by mentioning it? What if he asked questions? Did I really want to explain that I‟d told Dave about testing out the SHARE experience? Whichever way my mind went, I could see a potential for disaster. I gave him a hug, but the promise to explore the love-making potential of the flat was a distant thought. He seemed to take it in his stride and did not press me. He made me a cup of coffee, sat with me, watched the television and held my hand. To others we looked like a regular couple but inside I was full of questions about how far I could trust him. He went out for bottle of wine and came back with two. He joked that the second was “just in case”. “Just in case what?” I asked. “Just in case we finish the first one,” he answered. I could tell he was nervous too but he poured us both a glass of wine and we passed the time watching Channel Four News. He sat at one end of the sofa and I put my head on his lap. Even though we were not speaking, we communicated a lot. His right hand lay on the side of my face, stroking me. My right hand rested on his knee and every few moments I would caress it and sometimes rub the inside of his knee. Intermittently, his left hand would stroke the back of mine and I would move my head and nestle it even more deeply in his lap. Sometimes, he would slide his fingers between mine and hold my hand more tightly - I

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would respond by tightening my grip to catch and squeeze his fingers. As I lay there, a line from a film entered my head. “The little things. There‟s nothing bigger is there?” “Little what?” he answered. “I remember this film. There‟s a man standing with a woman and she‟s talking about her husband who has just died. She says to him „I miss the little things‟ and the man replies „ah!….the little things, there‟s nothing bigger is there?‟ Don‟t you think that‟s a great line?” He smiled and stroked my head again. “Where‟s this coming from, Penny?” he asked. “Well I was just lying here and our hands are touching, I‟m stroking you, you are stroking me, and these little things mean a lot, don‟t they?” “I hope so,” he said. I sipped the wine as the TV programme played in the background. I was not really watching it so I started to ask Mike questions. “Are you going to tell me about your wife?” I asked. “Not yet,” he said. “Plenty of time for that!” It was a small remark, but it gave me confidence that he looked upon me as more than a fling. “When did you know?” I asked. “Know what?” he replied. “Know how you felt about me?” I answered. “When I insulted you!” I sat up and looked at him. “What do you mean?”

Friends or Lovers

“When we were arguing and I called you a „stupid woman‟ and I asked you if you‟d ever made a pass at a man. Do you remember that?” “Yes,” I answered. “Won‟t forget that in a hurry!” “Well there I was shouting at you. I can‟t remember ever standing up to my wife like that. At work, maybe, but at home I‟ve always been quite passive. And there I was challenging you on whether you had ever made a pass at a man.” “Go on,” I encouraged. “I was thinking how nice it would be if you made a pass at me.” I laughed out loud because at that moment I would have fed him to the sharks. “You thought of that while we were arguing?” “Well, yes, I did. I remember being really angry, then looking at you intently thinking that a woman as confident and smart as you would surely have made a pass at a man, so the thought came into my head.” I was not sure how to react. Before I had time to think, he‟d asked me the same question. “When did you know?” he asked. I thought and went back over my mind. “Well, I think there were two moments. Firstly, when you asked why women let men think they rule the world. I‟d always pegged you as old fashioned and that completely took me back. Secondly, when you held my gaze and would not look away. That‟s my trick and you stole it from me! You made me go funny inside and I couldn‟t hide from myself that you excited me.” “Do you remember when we first met?” he asked.

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I tried to recollect but I couldn‟t. “Tell me,” I commanded. “I was with Dave. He‟d been bitching about Harry insisting on your appointment. He told me to watch out for you because you were a „ball breaker‟” “He said that!” I exclaimed. “He didn‟t want you in the company. He preferred the other candidate, but Harry insisted on you.” This came as a surprise. Dave had successfully hidden this from me for nine months. “Go on,” I directed. “Dave and I were chatting and I was about to tell him a sexual joke. He said to be careful because of you. Anyway, I started the joke then stopped when I saw you walking toward us.” “My God! I remember now,” I interjected. “I annoyed you, didn‟t I?” commented Mike. I thought back. “Yes. Yes, you did. I pegged you as a paternalistic antifeminist old git.” Mike laughed. “Why are you laughing?” I demanded. “John,” he replied. “What about him?” I asked. “I was thinking what John would say,” he replied. “He‟d say that I censored myself because I was afraid of you.” “Is that true?” It was Mike‟s turn to reflect. “Yes,” he said, after a moment. “Why would you be afraid of me when you don‟t even know me?”

Friends or Lovers

Mike looked me in the eye. “I don‟t know any male manager today who‟s not afraid of sexual accusations.” “Are you serious?” Mike frowned. “My God, you are!” I responded. “I didn‟t want your first impression of me to be a bad one.” “Well, it was, I‟m afraid,” I said. “Why?” he asked. “Because you didn’t tell me the joke.” “That‟s the problem,” he said. “What‟s the problem?” I asked. “Damned if you do, damned if you don‟t.” “What do you mean?” I queried “If I tell the joke, I‟m sexist because I turn women into sex objects. If I don‟t tell the joke, I‟m sexist because I‟m excluding you.” “Was it a good joke?” I said trying to lighten the mood. “It was brilliant. One of John‟s best.” I thought back to my e-mail exchanges with John. “I can imagine,” I replied. “Tell me the joke,” I said sinking into his lap. “No,” he replied. Without any further words he pulled my face closer. His mouth met mine and we got properly reacquainted. We soon finished the first bottle of wine and opened the second. If he had been John, a witty remark would have been forthcoming as he popped the cork, but Mike was quieter and calmer. While he had charm and sex appeal, he did not routinely crack jokes or flirt when he was alone with me. It was strangely reassuring.

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“I had a shock today,” I blurted out. Mike felt no need to press me to explain myself. His body was relaxed and I felt comfortable opening up to him. “Dave sent me an e-mail that was sexually suggestive,” I said. “And?” “That‟s it,” I said. “You‟re concerned?” he asked. “Well, yes, I am. He‟s never done that before.” “Too repressed for his own good,” he answered. “Too repressed?” “Yeah. Comes across as such a „nice guy‟ but underneath beats a heart of appalling meanness,” he said with considerable force. “I‟ve always liked him,” I remarked, not absolutely sure how I felt about him now. “Yeah! He behaves great to his favourites or women he fancies. Get on the wrong side of him and you‟ll discover just what a bastard he can be.” I recalled how Dave had been suspicious of Mike. Clearly the feelings were reciprocated. “He asked me to find out about you.” “Did he really?” said Mike with a sarcastic knowing laugh. “Did pretty well, didn‟t I?” I quipped. “Very well indeed,” he answered seductively as his hand moved under my blouse, around my waist and started to caress the small of my back. “Hmmm. Nice. Do that some more,” I said. Mike obliged but kept talking at the same time. “Dave and I go back a long way,” he continued. “We joined IC at roughly the same time. I was his boss back then.”

Friends or Lovers

“What happened?” I asked. “We fell out over Sally,” he said. “Sally?” I responded with some surprise. “Oh yes. Whenever there is shit in the workplace, there is usually a man and woman involved!” “Cynic!” I joked. “Only half the time…” he answered. I began to realise that his wit was considerably drier than John‟s. “What about the other half?” “Optimist!” he said without missing a beat, smiling or wavering for an instant. “You‟re teasing me!” I answered. “You like being teased,” he asserted. Where did he get these insights from, I wondered. “Get on with your story,” I said with mock impatience. “Sally used to be related to Dave.” He paused, as if waiting for me to ask a question. “Are you going to ask how?” he continued. “Okay. How?” “She was Dave‟s sister-in-law.” I suddenly pretended to be stupid. “Oh, Mike. You know how dim women can be. Please explain it for me.” “Doesn‟t work!” he suddenly said. “What?” “Doesn‟t work!” he said again. “What doesn‟t work?” “The „can you explain it to me coz I‟m a stupid woman‟ routine,” he replied.

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He did not play the way that John played so I tried another approach. “Just get on with the bloody story, will you?” I said briskly. “That works!” he said with a laugh. It was beginning to dawn on me that Mike liked to play things straight. He might not make me laugh as much as John, but his assertive and commanding manner turned me on. With only a moment‟s hesitation, he continued and finished the story. “Sally used to be married to Dave‟s brother. Dave‟s brother used to beat her. You‟ve had this story from John so I‟m not sure what else to tell you.” I sat up straight and suddenly the pieces dropped into place. “Say again?” I asked. “Sally used to…..” “It‟s okay – I was being rhetorical!” I said. There was just a hint of smile on his face. “What?” I asked. He gave a gesture to indicate that he did not understand. “What are you smiling for?” I asked. “You are so sexy when you raise your voice,” he answered. “You like it, do you?” I queried. “Oh, yes. I like strong direct women,” he replied. “Well, my lad,” I said, gathering words together in my head. “You are going to like me a lot!” He relaxed a bit and laughed. I could feel my confidence and ardour beginning to build. “So now you know why he and I are not best buddies,” Mike concluded.

Friends or Lovers

I still did not get it completely. He had helped Sally. So what? Then the final piece of the puzzle clicked into place and I instinctively covered my mouth in shock. “He thinks….,” I started. “He thinks that you…..and Sally.” “Yes, he thinks I fucked Sally and broke up his brother‟s marriage.” “Did you?” I asked. The words came out so fast I had no time to retract them. “You don‟t need me to answer that,” he responded. “No. I don‟t.” I said. No wonder Dave had a grudge against Mike! Suddenly my need to tell Mike about Dave‟s e-mail became more urgent. If Mike and Dave had fallen out once before, there could be more unpleasantness. “I want to tell you more,” I said. “Okay.” “You may not like it,” I added. “Still want to hear,” he replied. And out it all came. I told Mike of Dave‟s wife, her illness, my fondness for him, that Dave had invited me out after the CIPD event in Birmingham and that we would be staying in the hotel together. When I told him the details of the recent e-mail exchanges, I began to wonder whether I had been completely blind. Whatever Dave felt when he recruited me, I thought he was getting ready to make a move on me. What would Dave do if he found that I was sleeping with Mike? “Maybe we should deny our relationship?” I suggested. “He has to know sometime,” Mike replied. “Just try to look at this from his perspective,” I insisted. “You and I are at loggerheads. You leave your wife after a big row

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with me in the workplace. I find you a company flat to move into. Then it comes out that we are sleeping together. How does that look to you? Dave behaved strangely at the pub the other night. The following morning he didn‟t want to sign the contract for this flat. Later he and I had our first angry words. I don‟t want to take the risk, Mike!” Having felt a bit dim a moment before, I suddenly felt quite clever. “What did he say, again?” asked Mike. I repeated the recent e-mail exchanges with Dave. “He must have taken your message as encouragement….” Mike pointed out. “I didn‟t mean it like that. I was just being polite after the hasty exit the night before.” “You? Polite?” he teased again. I gave him a playful shove and he shoved me back with a deadpan face. When I did not respond, he gave me another shove and I realised he wanted to play. So I shoved him off the sofa, got up and ran away. For the next 10 minutes he chased me all over the flat until he managed to corner me in the bathroom. As I backed up against the wall, his strong frame moved towards me and my screams gave way to giggles, then my giggles gave way to a low pitched moaning as I suddenly felt his hand between my legs and his hot breath on my neck. That was the first of many times we made love there. The next day Elona decided she wanted to move in and with only a few days of freedom, Mike and I made the most of our freedom. After she moved in, we used my flat as a new base. Never in my life had I enjoyed such passion and intimacy with a man. Within a month neither of us had any secrets left to tell.

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Despite the generation gap, we started to talk extensively about politics (office and otherwise). I listened to his experiences as a father, he listened to my memories of childhood. I learnt of his dreams and fantasies, he learnt of mine. Many joint dreams were born. The threads of our lives intertwined and bonds were woven into a fabric so strong that I could not imagine them ever breaking. If our first night together was the most special moment of my life, our first month felt like a honeymoon that would never end. I savoured every second. Carole and my parents thought I had disappeared off the face of the earth. John and Sally occasionally dropped in and we would all go out for a meal. When, towards the end of June, I turned up at my parent‟s house for Sunday lunch with Mike in tow, we announced that he would be moving into my flat. Even as they expressed surprise, they accepted and welcomed this development and all quietly congratulated me. Privately Mike and I had discussed that if we enjoyed living together, he might file for divorce so we could marry. But publicly nobody, not even John and Sally, knew of our plans. To call this a “whirlwind romance” does not do it justice. For sure our relationship took off at quite a pace, but we were never a lovely-dovey couple. Our conversations were realistic and grounded, our plans firm and concrete, and our love-making was varied and passionate. But throughout all this, for all the intense times we spent together, for all the future plans we mapped out, for all the commitments we made, the words “I love you” never passed our lips. Carole phoned me daily after Mike and I had appeared for lunch at my parents. I talked to her of the things we had done together, but never of our future aspirations. At the end of each

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phone call she would say “I‟m really happy for you” and gradually I began to see what it was that bound she and Chris together. We talked about her forthcoming wedding and the preparations. I apologised for not getting more involved but she assured me that mum was on top of everything. All I needed to do was to turn up, speech in hand, make everybody laugh and be beautiful. I broke the news to her that I would have to pass up the opportunity of shagging the best man. To my surprise, the rumours at work died quickly and did not spread further. Dave, fortunately, did not learn of our relationship and Mike and I managed to keep our contact low-key and light-hearted. If people knew, there was a conspiracy of silence. The only person I updated from time to time was Phil. He, in turn, told me about people that he fancied. Like true professionals, we remained the very souls of discretion.

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Chapter 41
The prospect of going to the CIPD event with Dave was something that I came to dread. While we still worked together well on a professional level, our personal relationship had cooled. Neither of us spoke about the situation with his wife or his admission that he fantasised about me. Even if he had said it as a joke, I felt that raising it with him was too risky. In the back of my mind I wondered whether it was wise to say nothing. I was conscious that my probationary period was coming to an end and Dave would decide my future. So far as I could tell, confirmation was a formality but this new situation meant that I could no longer take my appointment for granted. Following the launch of the SHARE experience, I met Sam and Elaine again (with Dave) to organise the recruitment of more support staff. Mike, as sales manager for the domestic market, also met Sam and Elaine regularly to develop marketing strategies. I would join them for drinks and found that I particularly enjoyed Elaine‟s company. Her background in sociology and international business was different to mine, but there was sufficient common ground to compare perspectives. As a group, we developed too. John knew Elaine from academic conferences so all six of us started going out weekly for meals. The story of how Mike and I got together became something of a party piece. After much drinking we playfully acted out the battle-axe and gentle man confronting each other angrily while an unspoken mutual passion was developing. We exaggerated, of course, and many side-stories and alternative plot lines were elaborated.

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Elaine became the first person to learn of my private aspiration to marry Mike. We would take lunch together and have girly chats. She had also been a human resources manager before advancing her education. After obtaining an MBA she took up a senior management post at the engineering company where Sam had been working. It was her interest in his engineering, and the company‟s ignorance of its potential, that spurred their close relationship. Their close working relationship evolved into a personal one. They married secretly and this triggered a hostile reaction from some board members. They decided to establish a new company for Sam to continue working on his ideas. For the last 5 years they had developed their product line. It had been a struggle but the relationship with IC was a breakthrough. This enabled them to expand their market and leverage in considerable financial investment. After all their hard work, they were beginning to achieve security both for themselves and the company. On the day of the CIPD conference, I arranged to go with her to Birmingham beforehand to buy an evening dress. She picked me up about 10am and we made our way up the motorway. “So what you going to get?” Elaine asked. “Not sure. I love sexy outfits, but as I‟m going with Dave I don‟t want to send out the wrong signals.” “Get something you can wear for other occasions as well!” said Elaine. “I guess. I look good in tight black dresses but perhaps that would be too risqué.” “Is there such a thing?” she asked.

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“Depends, surely. I could hardly wear something like that to work!” She glanced at me and we laughed at the thought. “Men use their power when it suits them. We shouldn‟t be embarrassed about using ours,” she answered. I nodded and she carried on. “Don‟t know about you love, but I don‟t have millions stashed away to bring in the punters. But I do have a lovely pair of legs, great boobs and a sharp brain.” “Killer combination,” I quipped. “Just ask Erin Brockovich.” “You better believe it!” And with our sights set on the shops, lunch, coffee and chocolate cake, she gave out a loud “Yee-haw!” and put her foot down on the accelerator as if she was about to drive off the cliff in Thelma & Louise. Her Porsche 911 accelerated quickly and my body pressed back into the seat, flushed with shock and excitement. After a few seconds, she took her foot off the gas and cruised into Birmingham at 90mph. I found a lovely black dress, elegant with a cut that was suggestive without being too daring. It hung at the knee and had a waist that was gathered with a belt that was covered in ethnic beads. A matching necklace and earrings completed the vision. After shopping, we retired for coffee and cake. “Chocolate delight! They weren‟t kidding were they?” I said as I tucked away another slice and sipped on my café latte. “If only men tasted as good!” said Elaine. “Some of them do,” I quipped. “You‟ll have to introduce me,” she replied. She was irrepressible, irresponsible and exuded a freedom than I‟d never witnessed at close quarters. She reminded me of John.

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I could see why they had become friends and I secretly wondered if perhaps she was the „other woman‟ to whom he had once „given in‟. My new circle of friends gradually brought me out of my shell. I talked more about my thoughts and feelings to Mike, Elaine and John than to everyone else in the whole of my life. My sense of well-being grew. I found an emotional security that reminded me of my early childhood. We said our farewells and departed to attend to our respective tasks. The CIPD event went off well. After an opening key speech, we were split into workgroups for role-play exercises that covered recent legislative changes. Of particular concern were provisions regarding temporary and part-time staff. Their employment rights had been strengthened, but many organisations still did not grasp the full impact. Various scenarios were introduced on video, then pairs of people acted out one-to-one meetings between an employee and personnel officer. Others made notes and gave feedback on the legality (or otherwise) of their intended actions. I sat with Dave during the keynote speech but we were separated for the group sessions. After a question and answer panel, and closing comments, we adjourned and were asked to come back at around 7.30pm for the dinner. Dave and I checked into the hotel and agreed to meet in the bar about 6.30pm. As I retired to my room I began to realise that for the first time I found myself struggling to find things to say to him. Nagging at the back of my mind was the possibility that he might be harbouring feelings for me. I showered, pampered myself with goodies from my overnight bag, then sat in front of the mirror applying my face.

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At 6.30 I made my way down to the bar. Dave was chatting and laughing with the barman. “Here she is!” he said. “Doesn‟t she look fabulous?” A compliment is almost obligatory when a woman presents herself in a new frock so I acknowledged and dismissed the remark. Perhaps I should have complimented him too but I didn‟t. “What would you like?” asked Dave. “Thanks, Dave. I‟ll have a rum and black.” He duly ordered and the barman said he would bring it to our table. Given the occasion, and the prospect of spending the whole evening together, I felt I should broach the subject of his wife. “How are things at home?” I asked. “She‟s stable,” he responded. I expected more than this, but nothing was forthcoming. He smiled gently at me but it only increased my nervousness. “Here you are ma‟am,” said the barman as he delivered the drink. He presented the till slip for Dave to sign. “I don‟t suppose it matters who signs it,” he said looking at me. The barman looked surprised but took the hint and gave me the bill. I signed it and gave it back to him. “Thank you, ma‟am!” he said with appropriate emphasis. “Barman?” I said boldly. He turned to face me again. “You can call me, Penny! I‟m not the queen.” “Thank you, Penny!” he said and we both smiled. Dave looked slightly flustered. “That was a bit „familiar‟, wasn‟t it? Do you know him?” “No. I was just being polite.”

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I wondered if we were in for a bad tempered night. “You shouldn‟t be too familiar with bar staff, Penny.” “You were,” I answered, immediately recalling that Dave was laughing with the barman when I entered. “Just don‟t, Penny,” he said defensively. “Oh lighten up, Dave,” I said dismissively. “Don‟t use that tone with me,” he said. “Dave,” I started, “I don‟t want to fall out with you. But please don‟t tell me how to behave towards people when I‟m not at work.” “You are at work, Penny. You‟re representing the company here.” “And I was doing it splendidly, being polite to the hotel staff,” I said. “You were flirting with the barman,” he said sternly. A bubble of rage formed in the pit of my stomach but I managed to contain it. “Dave?” I said. “Yes, Penny?” “Up yours!” I said, holding my drink aloft. We sat in silence for a few minutes. I felt so awkward that I got up and went back to my room. I began to panic. That was a really dumb thing to do with my appraisal only a few weeks away so I phoned Mike on my mobile. At first he laughed, which made me all the more cantankerous, but he managed to calm me down. At the end of the conversation, however, I was none the wiser whether I should apologise or not. I decided that it would be stupid not to. First, however, I decided to see if table places had been set.

Friends or Lovers

In the dining room I met Jules, the conference manager, who showed me to a private bar and the seating plan for the evening. It had been turned into a charity event so the 50 participants were swelled with another 200 people for the dinner. Husbands and wives joined the delegates and professional bodies had been invited for the evening speakers and networking opportunities. I had been allocated a place next to Dave so I asked Jules if I could sit elsewhere. Using her mobile she called reception and about ten minutes later a man came through with an amended seating plan. “Thank you,” I said, “I really appreciate this.” “Not too keen on your boss, I take it?” she asked. “Not at the moment, no,” I answered. “Glad to help,” she said with a warm smile. I thanked Jules then went to the private bar to order another rum and black. With the prospect of a stressful evening receding, I returned to the main bar. “Dave?” I asked. He turned around and acknowledged me, but there was no smile. “I‟m sorry for earlier. That was rude of me.” “Forget it,” he said. I waited for him to give me an apology in return, but none was forthcoming. This time I went back to the private bar without making a show of my feelings. The sea change in our relationship worried me. The food was well presented but not especially delicious. The service and company, however, were excellent. Waiters and waitresses plied us at regular intervals with wine and aided the socialisation over dinner. My table included a CEO and his

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wife, a female entrepreneur and her husband, and three other human resource professionals (two men and a woman). With four men and women around the table, the conversation was mixed and lively. The woman entrepreneur started to talk about one of the speakers. She heard him once in Scotland. Later they contracted him to assist in the investigation of a sexual harassment case. She described him as humorous and charming, but with a mind and attitude so sharp that you could cut yourself on it. She found him difficult to work with but praised the way he helped staff reconcile their differences. Desserts came and went, coffees were served, and the chatter was eventually interrupted by a clink of glasses as the Chair introduced the fundraiser. It was a typical appeal to emotional sympathies. I felt sickened by the scene of an earnest charity worker begging for crumbs at the tables of the rich. I wrote a cheque for £30 – unsure what would be considered an appropriate amount – but as I was getting dinner for free I contributed the cost of the meal to the charity. Even as I did it, I felt no virtue. There must be better ways to help the less fortunate than this. The first speaker was reasonable. The subject matter was more in Dave‟s line, but I did see the pros and cons of entrepreneurial behaviour amongst employees. While she talked about side-stepping rules and procedures, the CEO at my table joked that if anybody tried that in his place, they‟d be out. Controls were there for a reason, he said, and had to be followed. I wondered whether he had ever been an accountant. Our table was a long way from the platform. When the second speaker stood up, I did not recognise him but there was a touch

Friends or Lovers

of familiarity in his voice. I thought he must be a celebrity off the TV but annoyingly one of my dinner companions kept distracting me. The speaker continued. “Thank you. Thank you very much,” he said. “I hardly recognise myself in those kind words.” I asked my dinner companion if we could continue our conversation later because I was particularly keen to hear this speaker. He looked offended, but at last I was able to focus on the speaker‟s words. “I‟ve been asked to talk about a subject that most of us think about daily, some of us talk about regularly, but which is rarely talked about publicly. It is a subject hardly ever discussed in business books. In my view, it exerts more influence over the workplace than any other single thing and is the bedrock of social organisation both at home and at work. I‟m talking, of course, about sexual attraction and intimacy. Now if you think I‟ve come here to talk about bonking in the broom cupboard……” With most of the audience tipsy, the speaker expected a few giggles and paused. A few people obliged. Everyone else stopped chatting and started to listen. “…..or kissing in the canteen, then you are going to be disappointed. If you‟ve come here to understand how private lives impact on work then you are in the right place.” I noticed that more and more people were sitting up and taking notice. On the top table was a jug of water. The speaker paused for a moment and poured himself a glass. “Always good when they give you a large jug of gin to drink – always makes the talk more interesting,” he quipped. “If you see them bringing a second jug, then the chances of me telling

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you a story about bonking in the broom cupboard rises considerably!” A slightly larger group laughed at this remark, but one of my dinner companions just raised their eyebrows and gave a disapproving look. “Talking of stories,” he continued, “I have a couple for you that I hope will prompt interesting discussion in the bars.” Everybody in the room was now paying attention. He came across as an above average public speaker. “Not so long ago I was sitting in an airport lounge and an attractive woman called Patsy glanced in my direction. When they called the flight, Patsy joined the queue and edged her way in front of me.” I laughed out loud as I recalled the way John and I had met. A few people on adjacent tables turned their heads to look at me. I thought it was uncanny the speaker had such a similar experience. “Then Patsy did something that most people here will probably think is a bit bizarre, but which – to me – was not bizarre at all. She bent down to tie her shoelace……” My laughter subsided and I began to feel slightly uncomfortable. “Nothing strange in that, you might think? Well, it would not have been strange except for one small detail. Patsy was wearing shoes that had no shoelaces……” A ripple of laughter went around the room and the speaker paused to let the import of the joke linger. As for me, my heart was pounding as I realised that the speaker was John and that he was talking about our first meeting.

Friends or Lovers

“What is significant about this story is that Patsy‟s willingness to give me a bird‟s eye view of her butt was one of several reasons I decided to sit next to her. Very bold behaviour, I felt, and not something I was likely to come across every day. We fell into conversation, swapped e-mail addresses and later met for lunch. Now we take walks together. She became a close friend and is now also a professional colleague.” He paused again. “She‟s also dating one of my best friends!” he said loudly with gusto. His comic timing was excellent and there was a further smattering of laughter. “Now what‟s the relevance? Sexual attraction is often the reason we choose to take an interest in someone. As we work out the tensions many long and durable friendships are formed. I was lucky. Patsy liked and welcomed my response, but not immediately and not without a lot of soul searching about my intentions towards her. If she had taken offence, she might have withdrawn, confronted me, argued with me, perhaps even accused me of sexually harassing her.” “We are still, even in this modern age, overwhelmingly social beings. Yes, we come to dinners like this to talk about how to make more - or lose less - money. We come for the networking opportunities, the social opening that will start a new business venture. But I want to suggest to you that there is something more than that, something deeper, more important.” He paused and took a sip of his water before continuing. “Once, a business mentor of mine said to me that money was not the most important thing to him. To him, the money was a means and not an end. The money enabled him to feed his

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family, to open doors to social networks he wanted to belong to, to attract and be in the company of many beautiful women. In short, he was in business to have fun. „If you‟re not having fun‟ he would say, „sell the business‟. To him, business was entertainment.” “So what‟s the key thing here?” asked John. “For him, being in business meant an emotionally fulfilling life. He did it for the buzz. For the challenge. For the company. And yes, let‟s admit it, for the sex. He was, in a way, one of the business world‟s rock stars, although he liked to avoid the press.” “Of course, there are many out there….and perhaps even in here…who will take a dim view of this. Business is about profitmaximising, about efficiency, about effectiveness and all those terms that are popular in business schools and board rooms. There are a few strange people who actually get off on this. Picture them in your mind: Laddie Lawyer…… Amy Accountant…… Adam Auditor.” There was substantial laughter as he recounted these names. He knew his audience. Human resource staff often battled legal and financial staff for influence and John cleverly used his knowledge of workplace tensions to win them over. “Now, I imagine that you‟re sitting there thinking „not me‟. I‟m rational, everybody else is emotional. I always do my best for my boss. I‟m a complete professional – never let myself get distracted by this stuff. So I‟m going to ask for a bit of audience participation. Can I have a show of hands, please? How many of you met your most recent wife, husband, boyfriend or girlfriend in an organisation? Don‟t just think of your own place of work. Did you meet in theirs? Was he or she your client? Were you students together?”

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The hands started to rise, at first tentatively. The murmurs grew as spouses and partners reminded each other of their first meeting, with the result that more and more hands were raised until at least three-quarters held them aloft. “More than usual,” he commented. “We have a horny bunch in tonight!” The room rumbled with chatter and laughter as people started to absorb what had just been illustrated. As the noise died down, so John continued. “So let me make one or two comments before I tell you my second story. Firstly, how is it that most human resource professionals here tonight met their partner or spouse in a workplace and yet the profession is being persuaded to support zero-tolerance policies towards sexual behaviour at work?” There was less laughter now and he paused to have another drink. The women entrepreneur opposite looked irritated. “See what I mean?” she said. I nodded, but privately I thought John had a point. “Need a bit more gin for this bit,” John quipped as he drank some more water. “More controversially, recent research suggests that research participants say harassment is very rare, almost unheard of, during the formative stages of a relationship. Accusations are made when relationships are breaking down. This raises an issue. Are we are missing the underlying sexual dynamics that bring about these accusations. It may be that a man is trying to break off the relationship rather than form it, or that a woman is trying to back off a relationship that has aroused her sexual feelings. When it comes to the law, have politicians created a rod to break our back?”

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I looked around and saw some people nodding. “This leads me onto my second story. This also has a lovely butt in it, but this time it belongs to a man. It involves Ben and Diane. During Ben‟s induction, Diane told him about the company annual dinner. Each year they have a big celebration, and without fail there is some set piece bit of „corporate fun‟. The year Ben joined, they had a „Butt of the Year‟ competition. This involved a number of men taking pictures of each others‟ naked bottoms and creating a slide show for the women.” John smiled. The audience laughed some more. “Okay, okay – I realise that some of you probably consider this essential work in the run up to the Christmas party, but this story has a challenging ending.” He paused again and took another swig of „gin‟. “Diane thought one of the directors‟ butts was so sexy that she described it to Ben during his induction. Diane is a CIPD qualified member of staff. I looked hard but couldn‟t find that induction technique in the CIPD manual!” he quipped. He paused and the audience obliged with more laughter. Then his tone suddenly became quieter, more measured. “Yes – it‟s funny, isn‟t it?” he agreed with his audience. Then he delivered a killer sentence. “Would it have been funny if I‟d told you that Ben was making comments to Diane about one of the women director‟s tits?” The room quickly went quiet. John‟s tone was not critical, but questioning. He somehow managed to avoid accusing his audience, but everyone in the room suddenly felt embarrassed that they had been laughing. In the silence that followed, the hum of personal reflection lingered in the air. “Here‟s the rest of the story,” he continued boldly.

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“At the Christmas Party, Diane flung her arms around Ben and playfully put ice cubes down his trousers. He did not mind her attention and they grew close. They started to go out for drinks after work. Both were married. Diane confessed that her marriage was sexless. Ben confessed his wife had been having an affair.” “You may think that you know what is coming……,” he teased. “Ben‟s marriage collapsed and Diane offered him a place to sleep. He thanked her but did not accept. She told him repeatedly that he had „admirers‟. „You won‟t be lonely,‟ she told him. Ben thanked her and felt reassured. Ben responded that he liked one or two of the women at work and had asked one out for a drink.” “Instead of being pleased for him, Diane got cross and told him he should not look for love at work. When Ben asked why, Diane reported his activities to her own manager. She now claimed that Ben was „womanising‟ and might misuse personnel records. Ben was questioned for over an hour in a private room about „inappropriate‟ behaviour. Ben argued that the accusation was unjustified, hypocritical and sexist. His objections fell on deaf ears. Ben argued with the company‟s MD.” John raised his volume a couple of notches to finish the story “He was fired.” A few people in the audience gasped. “So!” he said, “a woman who talked openly about her lust for a male director during Ben‟s induction, put ice cubes down Ben‟s trousers at a party, invited Ben to stay at her house, told Ben he had admirers and then got jealous when Ben admired someone

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else…she only had to make an accusation that Ben might be behaving inappropriately for his world to quickly fall apart.” John paused again, but this time he did so for effect. “That is power,” he said, “a kind of power that we don‟t acknowledge.” I thought back over my own experience, at the way the accusation against Mike has triggered the storm inside IC. We had weathered it but not without capsizing a few times. “What can we learn from this?” continued John. “Firstly, my main point is not that men can also be subject to sexual harassment or false allegations. That much is obvious and while it is not discussed much, most enlightened people realise it. “My main point is that whenever there is a sexual conflict it is usually underpinned by a complex intimate relationship. Both parties play a part. Both parties are responsible. Accusations often reveal as much about who is hurting as who is being hurt. HR departments rarely investigate the motive for an accusation, only the accusation itself. Attention switches immediately to the accused. The accuser may be given special protection before it is known whether their accusation is true. “These are two cases where the underlying dynamics are known. Most people are like icebergs. Nine tenths of what might be known is submerged beneath the surface. Workplace behaviour arises out of our desire for, or our desire to avoid, intimacy. Those desires, in turn, are affected by what is taking place in our lives outside work. Our desires are not always sexual. Maybe we are trying to avoid loneliness. Maybe we are trying to be accepted. This said, feeling accepted by a sexually

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desirable or successful person is particularly meaningful. It is, therefore, emotive and triggers disruptive conflicts. “Two thoughts for you as you retire to the bars. Firstly, if Patsy had objected when I started to talk to her on the airplane, would I have been guilty of sexual harassment? Or was her behaviour, by deliberately being provocative, itself a form of sexual harassment? Perhaps neither? The situation we have now is that if she claims to others that I am creating a „hostile environment‟ for her, regardless of my intent, I could be accused in the same way as Ben. How would you go about investigating that to undercover „the truth‟?” “So, are we destroying our society with zero-tolerance policies? Are we compromising our ability to take, face and overcome the everyday risks that underpin stable enduring relationships? Zero-tolerance approaches assume it is right and proper to prevent any intimacy that could be interpreted as sexual. Isn‟t this the most naïve policy in the history of humankind? “So, to conclude, I want you to think about how to contribute to the current debate on equality of opportunity and sexual harassment. Would it not be better to have a process that allows each party to tell their story until they find closure? Should we approach conflicts in a way that allows both parties to learn about each other, or continue to „name and blame‟ one party? Are we serious about equality? “If you are sitting next to your financial director and she or he is saying „too expensive‟, I ask you to think of the cost of replacing staff. In Ben‟s case it cost the company over ten thousand pounds to replace him, enough to pay for over 20 days of mediation. That ignores the costs of training and lost

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productivity. It ignores whether the replacement is as good at the job. So, while this is an ethical issue, it is also a financial one. “Ladies and Gentlemen - thank you for listening! My name is John Simons and I am at your service. My business cards and these two cases are available on the table.” The audience broke into a round of applause. I did not join in. Instead, I got up and walked towards the front. When John saw me, he initially beamed with pleasure, then – as he realised that I had been in the audience – he started to look apologetic. “Can you forgive me?” he asked. “You might have asked,” I said with a smile. “Such a good story and I never thought that you would ever be in one of my audiences.” “And I‟m a case study, am I?” “An anonymous one, yes!” “And close friends, eh?” “You think I‟m being economical with the truth, Penny?” “I‟ll let you get away with it, just this once,” I said. Suddenly I felt another person moving up beside me. “Get away with what?” asked Dave. My mood changed and John noticed instantly. “Hello. My name is John.” “Dave! Good talk, mate. Hope I‟m not interrupting anything.” “Not at all,” said John, turning on the professional charm. John smiled as we shared the private joke. Dave, however, was surprisingly astute. “You know each other a lot better than you are telling me, I can see.” “Indeed we do. I did not realise that ……”

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Oh God! I prayed that he was not about to say what I though he was about to say. “….. one of my best friends was in the audience.” “One of your best friends!” said Dave. “Well, Penny, you are a dark horse. Is this the John you mentioned to me? The one you met on a plane?” I hesitated. There was little point denying it. “Yes.” “And John, is this Patsy?” asked Dave pointedly. John and I hesitated. Dave laughed. “So, you don‟t just flirt with barmen, but also strange men in airports!” John joined in the conversation again. “And you don‟t, Dave?” asked John. “Don‟t what?” asked Dave. “Don‟t you flirt?” asked John. “I‟m married!” he said indignantly. “So am I,” replied John, “but like most adults I still end up in situations where there is flirting, whether I like it or not. How else can people establish another person‟s motive?” Dave was slightly taken aback at these remarks. “Flirting is dangerous,” said Dave. “Would you like to have this conversation at the bar so I can buy you a drink?” asked John. Dave nodded. “If you go to the bar and order what you like, I‟ll join you in a second. Just ask them to charge it to Room 1156 and I‟ll sign the receipt in a moment.” “Are you coming, Penny?” asked Dave.

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John glanced in my direction and I realised that he was trying to get me on my own. “I‟ll join you in a second, I just want a quick word with John.” Dave had committed himself now and went off to the bar. “He‟s hurt. You‟ve got a problem,” said John. “Tell me about it. It‟s getting worse and worse. We had an argument earlier this evening.” “Do you want to talk about it later?” asked John. “I‟ve chatted to Mike and thought we were through this.” “I can meet you later if you like?” he asked again. “Yes, okay.” John and I made our way to the bar. On the way, he engaged with people who wanted to talk to him. Were the stories true? Yes, totally true. Was it not all a bit Freudian? Not really, said John. Freud thought it all emanated from complexes formed in childhood experiences. He did not agree with that. However, in the sense that sexual desires and aspirations underpinned a lot of adult behaviour, John did agree with Freud. Having negotiated these questions, we got to the bar and Dave was ready with our drinks. We found a space to talk. “You were saying that flirting is dangerous?” remembered John. “Always leads to trouble,” said Dave. “I disagree,” said John boldly. “Flirting is a good way for men and women to establish the level of intimacy they want in their relationships. They push and probe to check out how the other responds. Most people do this in non-threatening ways and it works most of the time. Many find it fun. It is those who are inexperienced or shy who are uncomfortable with flirting. I accept it is a problem for them.”

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I was not sure whether John intended to be offensive but he was coming perilously close. It was almost as if he was suggesting that Dave was inexperienced and shy. “But it causes so much disagreement,” said Dave. “Only if people are insensitive to each other,” answered John. “Insensitive?” I asked. “Perhaps that‟s not a good word,” said John. “Flirting causes misunderstandings,” insisted Dave. “I‟ve had to deal with many problems caused by flirting.” “I don‟t doubt it,” said John, “but you won‟t notice all the problems that are solved by it. They never land on your desk.” “Don‟t buy it, mate. Too much experience,” said Dave arrogantly. “What about you, Penny?” said John. “You‟re a good flirt!” I wanted John to stop because his comments could deepen my problems. “I can‟t say that flirting has ever landed me in deep water at work, but it has certainly landed others…” I responded. I added a rider as a warning shot, “…as well you know!” John picked up my allusion and acknowledged my concern. Dave, however, also picked up that some covert message was passing between us. “Sounds like you‟ve discussed this before,” commented Dave. “Not directly,” answered John, “but I think we will later,” he added. “Oh! Are you two getting together?” asked Dave. The sarcasm was back and I couldn‟t help fuelling the situation. “Yes we are. By the way, John, how is Sally?” “Sally?” asked Dave, as John proceeded to respond.

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“Oh she‟s great. We‟re enjoying ourselves - I wish I could stay longer but I‟m needed back at home.” “Sally at work? Do you know Sally?” “Yes – known her for years,” answered John. “She never mentioned you to me,” replied Dave. “John is staying at Sally‟s while he works for us. Didn‟t you know?” I said. “No,” said Dave. “Small world, isn‟t it?” he added, totally engaged by this discovery. “By the way, Penny,” asked John. “Do you and Mike want to come over for dinner on Sunday night?” My blood ran cold. By asking John about Sally it invited John to ask me about Mike. Before I could answer, Dave intervened. “You and Mike?” he asked. “Yes.” “And when did this happen?” he asked, piecing things together in his head. “Just recently – hardly got used to the idea myself!” I said pretending joy while my mind was turning to clay. “Before or after you arranged the flat for him?” Dave asked with disdain. John looked at me, slightly embarrassed and mouthed the word „sorry‟. “After!” I said firmly. “Just as well,” said Dave cynically. John made another intervention. “Well!” he started. “Perhaps the two of you could explain to me what the fuck is going on?” Both Dave and I looked at John with a start. “What?” said Dave.

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“It‟s a simple question,” responded John. “The two of you are antagonising each other. Why?” “It‟s complicated,” I said, trying to diffuse the situation. “Not complicated at all,” said Dave. “I‟m fed up working with this tart.” Dave turned and left before I could answer. I was about to go after him and make him apologise but John stopped me. “I‟d like to fry his arse!” I shouted. A few people near us picked up my tone and turned to look. “There are better ways to do it, Penny!” said John trying to calm me down. “That…..that…..pig is going to do my appraisal in three weeks!” “Then you‟ve got to use this,” he said pointing at my head, “as well as this,” he said with his hand on his heart. “Fuck him! Wanker!” “I hope so,” quipped John, “because if he‟s not we really have a problem.” It took me a moment to get the joke. “Why don‟t we circulate for a bit and then slip out? If Dave comes anywhere near you, then find me.” “My knight in shining armour?” I queried. “No. If he starts a fight with you, I want to be there to watch you beat the shit out of him!” “And you the mediator?” I asked, my sense of humour returning. “Only as a first resort!” he responded. John moved closer and whispered in my ear. “Be careful. You‟ve not been employed for a year yet.” “Shit! You‟re right.”

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“You‟ll need friends for this one, Penny. How‟s Mike going to take this?” he asked. “I‟ll call him later. I want to go home.” “I‟d take you – but I‟ve been drinking gin all evening…..” he joked. “Damn,” I said before I saw his grin. “I‟m probably the only sober person in the room,” he corrected. I never drink before a talk so if you want to go home, I can take you.” “Thank you. You‟re a sweetie.” The rest of the evening passed off without any more incidents. About an hour later, John and I took a cab to a quiet pub and I told him about Dave‟s wife, the launch evening, Dave‟s e-mail and my conversations with Mike. I could see the concern growing on his face. He called Elaine and Sam, invited them for dinner then insisted that I come with Mike. He said that he wanted to talk “strategy”. When I asked why, he cryptically replied that „every good soldier needed the support of his unit‟. I told him of my wish to marry Mike. When he heard this, he grabbed me and hugged me for what seemed like an age. When he let go, I noticed that his eyes were filled with tears. I told him not be such a soppy idiot. As days go, today had not been a good one. When I set out this morning I was full of the joys of spring, but now I was battling to save my job.

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Chapter 42
I was glad to get home to Mike. When I told him what had happened, he was matter of fact and kept reassuring me that I had truth on my side. Given what I‟d learnt from the conflict between Mike and Elona, however, I was less confident. If, as John had suggested, we can only see what we are looking for, then I was up shit creek without a paddle. Dave would not be looking for evidence of my innocence, only evidence of my guilt. And what was it that I was guilty of? Most of his attacks were about my flirting. Hard as it was to admit, I was now experiencing things from the other side. Two months earlier, I had been judgemental about Mike‟s motives. Now it was Dave who was being judgemental about me. I began to wonder whether perhaps I might have done things differently, or left Mike and Elona to sort out their own problems. The law required me to investigate, however. In the past, I had been convinced that sexual harassment laws were progressive, but now I was not so sure. It was bad enough that I had intruded into a number of delicate personal relationships, but now it was the other way around I started to experience how the intrusions feel on the receiving end, and the frustration of having to deal with others‟ unstated agendas. How could others possibly know or understand what had gone on? How could I possibly explain the complexity of this situation so that another person could understand it? The world not only looked more complex but it also made more sense. Not only had I misjudged Mike, but I now realised that my attitude had been coloured both by the hurt I felt in the past and my attraction to him. It may not only have been my

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judgement that was at fault, but perhaps my values as well. I had created an imaginary world in which men and women should behave one way at work and another way outside work. Not everybody saw the distinctions as I did, or felt they should be enforced. I remember once seeing the film About a Boy. The main character Will tried to live an „island‟ existence but gave in to the attention of a lonely 12-year-old boy. I started to see myself as a female version of Will. I had my island existence at work, rather than at home. I protected myself with professional ethics and personal boundaries to create a haven for corporate values. I was „independent‟ and „efficient‟. I was also emotionally disconnected and dysfunctional. Just like Will, however, others intruded into my world. Firstly, John pierced my armour. Later, Mike did the same, and most recently Elaine. Elona has, to some extent, and Phil has also made some inroads. I was coming to a realisation that these bonds not only reached deep into my personal life, but were also contributing to better decisions about people in the workplace. Mike and I had a quiet day. Unlike John, he had no wish to talk “strategy”. Instead he just savoured the conversation we had. Mike and John were different. John was the pragmatic politician, Mike the stubborn idealist. Together they were a formidable combination, searching for “truth” and “justice” and then working out how to make it happen. They rarely saw eyeto-eye, but every conversation made me question my life a little bit more. On Sunday we went for a walk. I retraced the route I took with John around Warwick castle and we ended up at the same Italian restaurant. In my mind, I did this not only to share treasured

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memories with Mike, but as a tribute to John. When I look back, my change of heart, my coming out of myself started on that day, from the moment I faced-down my fear and shared my most private feelings. “I brought John here a couple of months ago,” I said. “Nice for him,” responded Mike. He never used five words where three would do. “And for me,” I said. “And now for me,” he replied with a straight face. That was another difference between them. With John, his emotions always came out as he spoke, but with Mike you had to dig for them. “Do you have any special places? Places you went with your wife?” I asked. “A few,” he said. “Would you take me to them?” “I‟d rather find new places,” he answered. I smiled and said that would be nice. “You don‟t talk about the past, Mike,” I commented. “What would be solved by talking about it?” he responded. “I‟m just interested.” “What would you like to know?” I suddenly realised that it was not so much his past that I was interested in, but any remaining attachments that might affect our future together. “You,” I said. “You have me. Lock, stock and barrel.” “Yes, in body. But I also want to know the person in here!” I said, pointing to his head. “You might be disappointed,” he replied.

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“Haven‟t been so far,” I said with a grin. “That‟s because you‟ve only microscopically examined my body!” he joked. There was little point holding back now I had started. “I guess I‟m curious how you feel about your marriage.” He stopped and turned to me, then held me in his arms and kissed me. While it was nice to have his attention, he had also evaded the question. “You were very committed to her……” Suddenly I stopped. His silence on the issue of his wife troubled me. While we had made plans – and I kept telling myself that I should take comfort from them – it worried me that he may not truly be over her. “I prefer not to think about it,” he replied. “I guess,” I responded. Even though I did not push him, I realised that I was starting to have doubts about his commitment. Strangely, I felt unconcerned. No matter what happened in the future, nothing could take away the bliss that I was enjoying right now. I would have these memories forever.

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Chapter 43
“He‟s not going to bring that up!” asserted John, getting quite heated. “But that‟s what pisses him off – surely he‟ll raise it?” I argued. We had been discussing my situation at work for nearly half an hour over after-dinner coffee. John was trying to persuade everyone that Dave was going to block my appointment, but most of the others would not believe him. “But Penny is brilliant at her job – aren‟t you, Penny?” said Sam, who probably knew the least about all the cock ups I had made. “Thank you, Sam. But John is right about Dave. He‟s pissed off with me.” “But you said that even Harry thought you were doing a good job. It was Dave who gave him this impression.” Mike joined in the “strategy” discussion and kept coming back to what people had said about my work. He thought the company would be crazy to sack me. I knew he was biased, but it was good to have his support. “How long have you been there, Mike?” asked John. “Nearly 6 years,” he answered. “Now look at this from Harry‟s point of view. Is he going to believe someone he‟s worked with closely for 6 years or a probationer that he‟s met just once or twice?” asked John. “He‟s going to look at the truth, surely?” responded Mike. “He‟ll see through Dave, won‟t he?”

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John gave Mike a dismissive look, showing considerable irritation. Elaine, who had been listening more than talking, now joined the conversation. “Let‟s assume for a moment that John is right,” she started. “Let‟s assume that Dave is going to look for a way to get Penny out. He‟s under no obligation to keep her on. He does not even have to give her a proper reason. The only thing Dave has to fear is Harry‟s reaction. I concur with John. If there is a conflict, he‟ll control what Harry hears. It‟s not what‟s going to happen, but what we are going to do about it.” Everyone around the table stopped for a moment to consider her remarks. I noticed John smile at Elaine and she raised her glass to him. “That‟s right,” said John enthusiastically. “If I‟m wrong then we have nothing to worry about. But if I‟m right then we need to ensure that Dave does not control what Harry is hearing.” “And also give Dave a few worries of his own!” added Elaine. Everyone turned to look at her. “What do you mean?” asked Sam. Elaine had talked to me about some of the corporate battles that she‟d been in, the subtle political pressures and pragmatic alliances that work behind the scenes. I began to catch her drift. “You‟re not suggesting we get involved?” queried Sam. “I certainly am,” said Elaine. “We‟ve invested a huge amount in this partnership. If Dave wants to fuck it up because he can‟t deal with Penny‟s rejection then I want to apply some pressure.” “But isn‟t this between Penny and Dave?” asked Sam. “No. If he sacks Penny, then I‟m going to kick his arse – it will affect my working relationship with him!” she said pointedly. “And how is Mike going to be able to work when

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Dave sacks his future wife. This isn‟t just about our friends, Sam, this is about our company‟s well-being. Mike‟s our sales manager. Dave‟s the Director of Business Development. Can‟t you see the threat?” Since I had told both Elaine and John about my marital aspirations it had been common knowledge within the group. However, Mike was not aware that I‟d talked to the others and he shot me a quick glance then cast his eyes down at the table. “We all have an interest!” said Elaine. “You too, Sally!” Sally had remained fairly quiet throughout. “I‟m keeping out of this,” she said. “You‟d stand by while Dave shits on Mike?” asked John. I wondered for a moment whether Sally might secretly want me off the scene to open the way to Mike again. Since we‟d become a couple, I‟d taken over his life and he saw her much less. With John returning home in a couple of weeks she might start to miss Mike‟s company. “It‟s not that,” she said. “I don‟t have a way of influencing things the way you do.” “Okay, Sal. Perhaps you‟re right!” responded John. “But you can influence things on the ground.” “On the ground?” she asked. “Stuff like this doesn‟t stay secret. If your colleagues talk about it, you can put them straight!” “And have Dave on my back?” she asked. “So little confidence!” complained Elaine. I could understand Sally‟s fear. Elaine had both political and financial independence whereas Sally‟s life was more precarious. She was also in a line management situation with Dave. Only Mike stood between her and Dave. If Mike‟s

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position was threatened then Dave would be able to exact personal revenge on Sally. “Sal has to be careful,” said Mike. Elaine, I realised, did not understand the complex background and network of relationships involving Dave, Mike and Sally. I made a mental note to update her. The debate continued over more bottles of wine. Various scenarios and plans were hatched, debated and discarded. By the time Mike and I left, we had some idea of what to do if Dave tried to block my appointment and there was talk of a “last resort” action plan if he succeeded. It was reassuring that my friends took such a keen interest in protecting my future, but they were protecting theirs at the same time. In fact, as we talked, I realised that it was not so much that they were protecting me, or protecting themselves, as protecting the group. We all wanted to work and live together and this guided our discussions. My security came from the knowledge that there was no shortage of organisations seeking HR professionals. My mind, therefore, was not over worried regardless of the outcome of my appraisal. I focussed more on Mike‟s reaction to Elaine‟s comment about our marriage plans. He had been much quieter after her comment. I did not have to wait long. As soon as the car sped away from Sally‟s house, Mike opened up. “We have to talk,” he said. “Yes, we do,” I replied. “Are you having second thoughts?” “Not exactly,” he replied. “What then?” I enquired. “I‟m much older than you, Penny!” “So what?”

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“What if you want children?” he asked. “I don‟t want them. You know that,” I answered. “You don‟t now. But what if you change your mind? What if you accidentally get pregnant?” “I don‟t know!” I answered. “I had a friend once who „didn‟t want children‟ until she got pregnant.” “What‟re you saying?” “I‟m saying that I know for sure that I don‟t want children.” “How can you know that?” “My wife got pregnant a few years ago and I was completely opposed.” Despite what I had told him previously, I actually felt a pang of disappointment that he did not want children with me. Did I want to give up the choice? “Tell me about your friend.” I asked. “She was successful – like you. She had a good career, a regular boyfriend who she lived with. She didn‟t want children until – in her mid-thirties - she accidentally got pregnant. Once she faced a real choice her feelings started to change. And who could blame her?” he asked. “How do you mean?” I said. “Well, it dawned on her this might be her only chance to be a mother. Did she want to miss that chance?” “I have thought about this, Mike. I don‟t want children.” “But have you ever been pregnant, Penny?” When he asked that question, the argument began to affect me. I paused trying to imagine what it would be like to have a child growing inside me. When I considered the question in the abstract I was sure of my feelings, but when I asked myself how

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I would feel aborting Mike’s child it affected me differently. Could I do that? “No, I haven‟t,” I finally answered. “What will happen if you get pregnant and I don‟t want it?” His questions were beginning to deeply unsettle me and I started to feel emotional. “I can‟t say, Mike!” “That‟s what worries me,” he continued. “It could tear us apart. If you want a child and I don‟t, our relationship won‟t survive.” “But don‟t you love me?” He smiled broadly. “Yes – but I don‟t want to be a dad in my 70s. I really don‟t.” “What did your friend do?” “She had the child. The relationship with her boyfriend broke up soon after. Now they hate each other with a vengeance. They both feel the other betrayed them. She thought he‟d change when the child was born. He never forgave her for ignoring his feelings. She never forgave him for leaving.” “So what‟re you saying? You want to break up?” “No, no, no! I want to treasure this for as long as possible and that means being realistic. Our relationship probably won‟t survive the birth of a child. Is it a good idea to marry?” I did not respond. “I‟ll live with you – but if you want children then I‟m going to bow out so you can fulfil your dream. I can‟t stand in the way of that.” I pondered this strange proposal. When I was young I imagined that all serious relationships operated on the basis of unending commitment. I was not sure what to think.

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“Tell you what,” he continued again. “If you reach the menopause and we‟re still together, I‟ll marry you!” I gave a short chuckle. Romantic this was not, but that was Mike through and through. “Okay. I‟ll think about it.” And with that, we arrived home, went into the kitchen and made two cups of cocoa. We chatted more in front of the TV and caught a late night film, then went upstairs. For the first time since we‟d started sharing a bed we did not make love before going to sleep. Even though we‟d talked about the possibility of breaking up, this was the clearest indication I‟d had that we were going to have a long-term relationship. Moments later I felt one of his arms around me as he kissed my neck and said “goodnight”. The future was still full of possibilities.

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Chapter 44
Elona‟s move into the flat with Mike was problematic at first. I dropped in a couple of times to check how things were. As part of his professional development, I asked Phil to make some visits to see how she was progressing. Normally we would not visit so much, but given her precarious state, I felt we should visit daily. It took two weeks for her to feel strong enough to return to work. When she did, my professional worries receded. When I had been at her parents‟ shop and heard her torrent of abuse, she accused me of bullying her. As a result, I decided to visit her when Mike went out with his drinking pals. We started to have chats in the evening at home and at work during lunch breaks. I was trying to build her confidence, not just to learn about her, but also to learn about myself. Was I a bully? Mike sometimes joked that I could be, a by-product of my strength of character. He had not seen me when I felt weak and feeble (the way John had seen me). I told him I was not always strong but he would not believe it. Elona, on the other hand, turned out to be strong in ways I‟d not realised. We talked about her upbringing. There was no weekend in her family, just a Sunday and Wednesday afternoon when the shop closed. Her parents were committed Christians and they arranged for her aunt to take her to Sunday school each week. Brownies and Guides followed and she talked of the many skills she had developed, but also the scriptures and morality that affected her freedom. Even as a grown up, her parents disapproved of her drinking in pubs and when the situation erupted at work they felt deeply ashamed. Instead of showing sympathy, they chided her for

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getting mixed up with a “bad crowd”. They would tell her that in the „devil‟ world of „Godless‟ people, people pursued each other for sex and treated each other disrespectfully. I listened as much as I could, judged as little as I could, and avoided the temptation to get angry with either her or her parents. Instead, I started to wonder how she had turned out so „normal‟ despite her upbringing. My parents had been liberal in their attitudes, especially my father. Elona‟s father was protective and would never let her go to parties. Both my father and mother allowed me to have male friends, to take them up to my room, play music, chat and talk. Sometimes I would get keen on a boy and still my parents would not interfere, although my mother would tell me what I should and should not do. More than once that led to us having a fight. Even so, my voice was heard and sex talk was commonplace in our house. If I had a boy with me they would knock on my bedroom door. My room was a private space to do as I pleased. Elona, on the other hand, was not allowed to bring boys into the house without the permission of her father - upstairs was strictly out of bounds even after she reached the age of 18. They did not even let her take girlfriends upstairs. When I asked her how she got to know boys, she simply said that she had not been able to. Private conversations with boys were not allowed in her house – one or other parent had to be present. Attitudes to sex – or more accurately, those of our parents could not have been more different. I can still remember my parents telling me on my 16 th birthday that if I wanted boys to stay over they would be allowed to sleep with me if I wished. I remember only mild embarrassment at their openness, and

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confessed to them that sometimes I had sneaked a boyfriend into my room in the middle of the night. They admitted that they knew but chose not to say anything. We laughed as stories came out of hiding and got aired for the first time. I remember feeling grateful, rather than relieved, at their attitude. Elona, on the other hand felt embarrassed if her parents even hinted at sex. Even at work, she would walk away if she heard crude conversations. Some women deliberately excluded her. Others picked on her and ridiculed her prudishness. But in talking to me, she gradually opened up and admitted that she had been buying romance novels for years. Privately she lusted after the kind of life that was described in them but never imagined she could ever be part of it. She fantasised about this other world, this strange morality where people could express themselves freely. When the young lads at work invited her to the pub, and showed interest in her, she was bursting with curiosity. There was something tragic in hearing her story. She was a young woman trying to navigate the minefield of courtship armed only with knowledge from romance novels. She imagined bold heroines aggressively seducing their prey, or meek wallflowers schooled in the art of attracting „real‟ men. When Nathan took a shine to her, he triggered all the feelings she was harbouring. When he rebuffed her, she felt bitter, betrayed and misled. I tried to reassure her that experience had to be gained first hand. You could not rely on what was written in books. As I talked, it was as if I was also talking to myself. I shared with her my boldest adventures. While I had no inhibitions about my body, when it came to my mind, thoughts and feelings I was

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even more inhibited than Elona. Through her candid confessions to me, I found yet another avenue to release the pain and hurt of the past. Before I realised it, I was learning again from someone years my junior, and our friendship gave her a way to compare her fantasy world to the reality of my life. As for Mike, he gradually opened up about his marriage and I learnt that his kids were the principle reason he had remained for so long. They mattered to him and he felt the pleasures that came from fatherhood and family life outweighed any problems in his relationship with his wife. He did admit too that, despite the problems, he found his wife attractive and their argumentative relationship spiced up their sex life. But since the fall out over Sally he had returned home only to be with his children. His wife never forgave him for giving financial support to another woman. Mike joked that if he had lied and said it was „just sex‟ his marriage might have survived. It was the financial betrayal that killed it. I switched the conversation back to Elona. “You are good for her, you know!” I told him. “If she‟d had a father like you, she might have grown up very differently.” “And a mother like you, perhaps?” he retorted. A mother like me! At hearing those words, I felt a shudder. His comment started a chain of thoughts that still haunts me. I started to get a sense of just how important parents are and the huge responsibility they bear. Was my hostility to motherhood another way of avoiding responsibility? These questions troubled me. As I watched Mike and learnt about each new layer of his character, I found new depths in myself. I started to realise new things that I had been missing – that the ephemeral materialism

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of corporate life, the transient consumerism pressed on us by the media, was not important. I found that there was nothing more fascinating or more pleasurable than getting to know people well. Corporate life was not a reason for being, it was a means. It was a setting in which our lives unravelled, but was not life itself. The media was not reality, it was a place where vanity ran amok, where those obsessed with self-importance told us how to live our lives. Their stories – which had for two decades been a source of entertainment and amusement to me – started to lose their standing. In their place, conversations with real people flourished to the point that my television became just another piece of furniture. I cast my mind over my life with my mother and father. Before the arguments of my teenage years, my mother told me stories. I had loved Scooby Doo and rather than watch videos again and again, she would make up new adventures on the spur of the moment. In them, she and I would join the gang and solve our own mysteries. Perhaps that is what spurred me to write this story. Perhaps my own mother encouraged this creative streak in me, something that my father‟s pragmatism and liberalism also shaped. For me, setting out my life on paper became part of my liberation. The world of parenthood took on a new fascination. No longer could I ignore how the crazy complicated mess that Elona and I had created at work had its foundation in our family histories. That spurred me to take greater interest in how I came to be who I am. And when Mike suggested I would make a good mother the urge to be a parent grew stronger and stronger.

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Chapter 45
Six weeks after Elona moved in with Mike, something happened that transformed her life. Her excitement was so great that she could not contain it. The moment I arrived at her flat she screeched at me to come and see something. “Penny! Penny! Come here, come on, come here!” I hastily hung up my jacket, pleaded with Elona to let me go to the loo first. When I emerged, she was waiting on the sofa clutching something in her hand. Her eyes were wide open and her face was so animated that I thought she would burst a blood vessel. “What‟s happened?” I asked. “Have you won the lottery?” “Better than that,” she answered. “Well, come on then. Show me!” Inside her sweaty palm was her mobile phone. She open the lid, pressed “menu”, then “messages”, then “inbox”. For a couple of seconds a fancy graphic showed a pile of papers being sorted. Down the list I could see messages from her old boyfriend, but at the top was a phone number. “Who is that from?” I asked. Elona excitedly pressed a green button and the message appeared. M and P tell me u r recovering. Wud u like drink with mates after work? Phil x “Better than the lottery?” I asked, raising my eyebrows in wonder. “Well, it‟s good isn‟t it. I mean he must……he must like me!”

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I didn‟t know how to break the news that this may be kindness, or an attempt to help her mix in with people at work. It was „good‟, however. I mentally got ready to nail Phil when I saw him next morning. He had mentioned Elona, but had his eye on others as well. “Maybe you shouldn‟t read too much into it,” I commented. “But it‟s a drink invitation! He‟s asking me out.” My heart sank. It may be that Phil was asking her out, but then again it may not and I felt that it would be irresponsible not to prepare her for the possibility. “Elona, love! Look at me,” I said as I took her hands and our eyes locked. She duly obliged. “When a man asks you for a drink, it does not always mean that he‟s asking you to be his girlfriend. He may be interested in that. But he may just want to be your friend…..” “But my Dad said…..” “Forget your Dad,” I interrupted. “I have a friend called John and when he first asked me for a drink I thought that perhaps he was trying to ask me out…..” “You just want to spoil my dreams!” she interrupted, starting to look a bit downcast. “Dream all you like, my love. Pretend he‟s your fantasy hero, but remember that this may be your wish but not his.” “What about John?” she continued. “I was excited. Very excited. Secretly I thought about him a lot, but when I was with him I took nothing for granted. You‟ve met him?” I asked. “Yes,” she answered. “Everyone talks about him at work, especially after he did that workshop about sexism in the army.”

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“Have you replied to this?” I asked, returning to the question in hand. “No! I was waiting for you. I don‟t want to appear too forward.” “Good. But you don‟t want him thinking you‟re not interested either?” I replied. “But I don‟t know what to say! Could you…?” “Could I what?” “Could you reply?” I laughed. The thought of me flirting by mobile with Phil while he thought he was talking to Elona tickled me. I saw that she looked slightly hurt by my mirth so I immediately apologised and gave it some thought. Would it be so bad? “I can‟t have a text conversation with him,” I said. “Why not?” she asked. My heart went out to her. She so wanted to get this one right. “I think it would be better if it all came from you,” I said finally. “Just start me off, Pen,” she said imploringly. “Just send the first few messages then I‟ll take over.” I thought about this. Perhaps Phil would never know the difference. “How d‟you want to play it then?” I replied, giving in to her. She jumped on her seat and punched the air with her fist. She‟d been planning this all day. I gave her a school-ma‟am grin. “You‟re hot for him, right?” “You‟re the best! First impressions, eh? I want him to know I‟m interested – I mean really interested.”

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I thought for a second. We didn‟t want to be tacky or crude. I knew Phil could be shy, but also that he had a quiet confidence. How could we use that? “Okay! Give me the phone,” I said. I selected „reply‟ and typed away carefully. I showed the message to Elona and she kept nodding enthusiastically. Then she broke into laughter as I added the last two words. “D‟you think that‟s too risqué?” I asked her. “Depends!” she replied. “On what?” I asked. “On whether I care about frightening him off!” I‟d assumed that she‟d be crushed if he turned her down so I was confused by her comment. “Don‟t you care?” “A bit, I guess. But it‟s so exciting, isn‟t it?” she replied. “I want to have some fun!” I suddenly felt as if, despite all our conversations, I hardly knew her. Could she change that much in a few weeks? “You can get hurt, you know?” I answered. “Never stopped you!” she said, in a matter of fact way. “No, I guess it didn‟t!” “Penny?” I looked up at her and she continued to speak. “Do you have any idea how much I admire you?” “What! Admire me?” I said, in response. I sat for a second wondering why she would admire me. We were so different. “I‟m flattered. Thank you!” I said, wondering if she was drunk. She took my free hand with both of hers.

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“You‟re my heroine!” she said. “Oh, Elona! I‟m nothing of the sort. I‟ve pissed around and messed things up big time. I can be crabby and unreasonable, bitchy, emotional, selfish, mean and nasty……” I started to run out of words so Elona decided to take over. “…..and kind and thoughtful, and sexy and vivacious, and strong and fair……” I shuddered at the thought that someone would use me as a role model. “But most of all,” she continued, “you‟re a natural.” “What do you mean?” “I mean that you live your life without any fear.” “I wish! Seriously, Elona, you only see what‟s on the outside. Inside I have doubts just like you. Sometimes I‟m miserable, lonely and wretched...” She suddenly got cross with me. “What are you talking about? You‟ve done so much with your life. Been places, travelled, done things, studied, got a good career and now a fantastic man. From where I‟m sitting, you know how to live!” She said this with such force that I didn‟t know what to say. Inside I knew I was no better and no stronger than she was. I‟d not had to overcome the things she had lived through, or suffer the disappointments she had faced. What possible claim could I have to a life better than hers? And yet, she wanted me as her role model. It was not something that I felt I could refuse. “Elona, that‟s such a sweet thing for you to say. I‟m really touched.” She glanced at the phone. “Are we going to send that, then?”

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I looked at the message once more and read it out loud. “Accept. What outfit wld u like me 2 wear for u, sexy?” Elona took the phone out of my hand and pressed the green button. “Too late for second thoughts now,” I said. A moment later, her mobile signalled the arrival of new mail so we excitedly opened her inbox. Elona held it up and read it out loud. “Wot u have in mind? P xxxx” “Look! Look!” shrieked Elona. “He‟s added four kisses.” “Okay, girl. He‟s taking the bait. Let‟s reel him in,” I said confidently. Elona handed me the phone again and I typed away. When I finished, I looked up at her. “This is the last one I send, okay? After this you‟re on your own!” Elona nodded. She read the message to herself and cackled again. We were like two schoolgirls swapping messages in class with a boy. She pressed the green button and away it went. In an instant, she read Phil‟s reply out loud while jumping up and down. “Skn-tite and sexy? Wow! Looking 4wrd to seeing you in it…and out of it….. Call right now!” I got up and went to get my coat. “Where are you going?” she asked. “You two should be alone, I think.” “But Penny?” “Trust me, Ellie. This is between you and him.” She looked slightly confused. “But tomorrow,” I said. “I want all the gory details, okay?”

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She grinned broadly. “Okay, piss off then and see if I care!” she said. If I had only heard her words I might have been offended, but the excitement and joy that filled her whole body was matched only by the size and breadth of the smile she beamed. With my coat on, I walked over and gave her a big hug. “Thank you!” she said. “You‟re welcome,” I replied. As she dialled the number and let it ring, I turned and walked out of the flat. In the distance the sound of an excited young woman could be made out amidst much laughter and giggling. Elona had come alive – she was, as she put it, ready to learn „how to live‟. As I walked down a flight of stairs into the car park, I realised that this was the first time I‟d ever been someone‟s heroine. Even as I contemplated my own heroes and heroines – Mike, Elaine and John – the extent of my impact on Elona was beginning to dawn on me. She had seen me stand up for her against men she felt had hurt her. Even as I chided myself for my judgement, I realised that perhaps this mattered less to her than the example I had set. In her eyes, I had challenged the behaviour of others and shown no fear. She could not see what was going on inside me, only the confidence and bluster that erupted when I was in the grip of moral indignation. I would have to talk to her about that. Some other time. Perhaps I was able to show her that you could be a woman in your own right, with your own thoughts and feelings, able to make your own judgements – even if sometimes they turn out to be flawed and wrong. For me, I had taken from the experience that I had to be more cautious and respectful of others. She was

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setting out on a bumpy road – of that I had no doubt – but after several weeks of pain and years of loneliness it was a moment of unfettered joy. She grasped her future with both hands and held on firmly.

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Chapter 46
Mike and I had a quiet evening at my flat watching a DVD. At around 10pm the phone rang. It was Elona again, laughing and shouting that she needed a wage rise. “Why?” I asked. “Not just booked a holiday with Phil, have you?” “I talked so much I ran out of credit. Need a raise to keep my mobile phone topped up.” “Then how come you are talking to me now?” I heard her giggle, and then heard something crash in the background. “What was that? Is there someone with you?” “Maybe,” she said coyly. “Faaannnnntttttaaaassssttttiiiiccccc!” I shouted, and Mike looked at me with a quizzical expression on his face. “Now don‟t rush things. Take things slowly,” I started to say. “I don‟t think „slowly‟ is in his vocabulary, Pen!” “Are you okay?” “I‟m on cloud nine! Thank you so much.” “I did nothing, really.” Mike got up and walked over to me and I felt his arms move around my stomach. He fondled me gently as I talked some more. Gradually, one of his hands edged up inside my blouse and started to fondle my breasts while the other stroked my leg, then moved underneath my skirt and played with the elastic of my pants. “I‟ve got to go now, Ellie!” I said. “Why?” “Because I won‟t be able to talk soon!”

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“Why? What‟s wrong?” “Nothing at all – it is just that right at this moment there is someone‟s hand gently playing with my…..oooohhh…..left nipple, while the other…….aaahhhh……has just gone down inside my pants.” Mike whispered in my ear “Keep talking”. “What?” I replied. Elona thought I was talking to her and asked again what was wrong. “Keep talking,” whispered Mike a second time. “Ellie? I have a man here who is dying ……….” I had to pause for a second as his finger touched a spot that took my breath away, “……to have sex with me while I talk on the phone to you…….” I heard a round of giggling as Elona repeated my words to Phil. A few moments later, her level of laughter increased and I heard her shriek. “Me too!” she said when she finally came back to the phone. “Better finish…..this………conversation………Oh God!……..” Mike had knelt down on the floor, lifted me onto the table, pulled down my knickers and buried his head between my legs. “……..tomorrow…….I‟ve got…..to go…..bye Ellie!” I put the phone down and spread my legs wide. He was dying for me. Right there in the hall Mike nibbled the folds of my flesh while two fingers eased their way in. I imagined what might be happening to Elona, that Phil‟s strong body had moved between Elona legs. I tried to imagine Elona‟s excitement as she trembled in anticipation of her first fuck. As Mike pleasured me between my legs, I pictured Phil ripping open Elona‟s blouse, then picking her up and carrying her to bed.

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In my mind‟s eye, I watched him as he spread her legs and climbed between them. His strong muscular buttocks thrust into her with each movement of Mike‟s fingers inside me. Just as I started to wonder whether it was pure wickedness to picture Phil as Mike brought me off, waves of pleasure started to glide up through my body. I arched back and focussed my thoughts on the feeling of Mike‟s tongue while picturing Phil between Elona‟s legs. The surge continued and built, and I surfed towards heaven, my breath shortening, my eyes closed, until the nerve ends all pulsated simultaneously and I convulsed struggling to catch my breath. As I lay there, moaning, Mike‟s lips made their way up the front of my body gently kissing the breasts that I had exposed, until I felt his breath on my face. He tried to kiss me but I pulled away. “How do you do that?” I said. “Do what?” he asked. “How d‟you make me feel like that?” He laughed gently. “I don‟t know. Comes naturally, I guess.” He did not intend the pun, but I laughed anyway. Then I put both my hands on his cheeks and felt tears welling up in my eyes. “Have you any idea how deeply I am in love with you?” I asked. It was the first time I had uttered the actual words and I waited for his reply. “This much?” he said, gesturing a small amount with his thumb and finger.

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I laughed again but wanted to preserve the tenderness of the moment. “No. This much!” I said as I pressed my lips onto his and aggressively pushed my tongue into his mouth. I held his head in my hands as I explored everything I could find. As we kissed, he picked me up and I wrapped my legs around his waist. After carrying me to the bedroom, he threw me down manfully and put his hands on my knees while glancing down at a huge erection. “And I love you this much!” he said. He tried to spread my legs but I resisted him. Something told me I was wicked but I just knew he was dying for me. I revelled in the lust that we‟d created and teased him to the full, pretending to resist while egging him on to have his way with me. “Come on, big boy,” I said, remembering the way Elona and I had goaded Phil. “Show me what you are made of!” As these words left my mouth, I gave in and allowed him to overpower me. I held his sleek and powerful body as it tensed and relaxed. I spread my legs as wide as I could, and guided his penis towards my pussy. Then, for reasons I could not fathom, my mind suddenly cast itself back to the moment when John had asked me about the army and sexism. Suddenly here, as Mike overpowered me and started to thrust himself deep into me, I found myself wondering if I had stumbled across the answer. I immediately pushed the thought from my mind. As the man I had chosen to give my heart glided into me again and again, I helped to bring him to the heights of ecstasy. As a teenager, my sister once said to me that she could not imagine anything more satisfying than the thought of her lover so filled with passion

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that he could not resist her. She would fantasise about her boyfriend so full of lust that he would force himself on her as she tried to resist him. At the time, I found her fantasies sick, as if she was fantasising about rape. But in this moment I realised what was so exciting to her. I wanted to be Mike‟s greatest fantasy, the woman that he could not resist. I wanted to him to feel an uncontrollable desire for me that no-one, not even I, could stop. If I could do that to him…for him…he would be mine forever. And there, as Mike arched in the throws of orgasm and shot his sperm deep into me, I hoped he was feeling the same crushing desire that I felt for him. I hoped he felt the bewilderment and disorientation I felt when his magic tongue took me to another plane of existence. I watched his face strain as he reached the limits of his passion, every spark of sexual energy that he possessed ignited and firing through his body. What greater gift could I give him? And what more could he give me than show his inability to resist me? As I lay on the bed, with Mike‟s spent body still lying inside me, I held him in my arms and wept. All the certainties that I had ever felt about how men and women should behave vanished in the dust. I had entered a new world and reached a new level of understanding.

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 47
My first task, when I arrived at work the next morning, was to invite Phil into my office for a private conference. I had two agendas - one personal, the other professional. Unusually for him, he was late so I passed the time by checking over my emails. There was the usual junk that I discarded, but today I looked at them differently. I found myself less worried about pornography than e-mails offering prescription drugs. Did we want staff self-prescribing Vallium or Diazepam? That thought horrified me considerably more than sex-invitations from places like Dirty Dicks or Giant Jugs. In fact, I was tempted to tear up the zero-tolerance policy on porn completely. Would it really cause a problem to treat people like adults and allow them to exercise their own judgement? I received an e-mail from Dave. It was my appraisal form. When I started, one of my first acts was to introduce 360º reviews. I had to appraise myself, then ask one of my peers, then one of my subordinates and lastly get feedback from a director. The objective was to stimulate discussion and reflection about different perceptions of my work. I printed it and filled it in. Each part of the appraisal had tick boxes. The tick boxes allowed each person to say how the employee performed relative to their own expectations. I felt this was better than a 1 – 5 scale because “communication skills” in a CEO were much more important than in a bookkeeper. But when it came to “attention to detail” the reverse was probably true. It was strange filling out an appraisal form that I had designed myself, but I did it both quickly and diligently, adding written

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comments at the bottom of each section. I was quite hard on myself – a reflection of the difficult period I had just been through – but in the comments I talked extensively about what I had learnt. As soon as Phil arrived, I gave the form to him and asked if he would complete it then pass it to Jo. Finally, Dave had to complete the section as director. When Phil had completed the form I called him into my office. As he walked through the door the two of us beamed at each other in the knowledge that we had both enjoyed the evening before. “Good morning, Mr Trent!” I said with mock formality. “Had a good evening, did you?” “Yes, Ms Leyton,” he replied with a smile. “Very pleasant. How about you?” “I‟ve had worse!” I replied in probably the biggest understatement of my entire life. Phil broke into laughter and I instinctively moved to embrace him. “Too late,” he said, slightly defensively. “For what?” I asked. “I‟m off the market, Penny!” Before I could protest, I realised that he was having a joke with me. “Between friends,” I said, “I think it‟s permitted.” My gentle sarcasm amused him and he felt slightly awkward as I put my arms around him for the first time. After a second, his arms made their way around my back and he held me much more tightly than I expected. It felt really good. I found myself hanging onto him and not letting go. I started to rub his back, then felt his hands on mine.

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When we finally let go of each other, we looked into each other‟s eyes and both realised the intensity of the feelings that we had just communicated. “Well, there‟s a first for everything!” I said with some surprise. “She worships you, you know!” A sudden surge of modesty interrupted my moment of vanity. “I cannot think why!” I replied. “I can,” he said, as he separated himself from me and sat down in a chair. “You are too kind, sir!” I said mocking him a bit, but inside I was uncomfortable at anyone building me into a special person. “She gave me a message for you, by the way,” added Phil. “What is it?” He rummaged around in his briefcase and brought out an envelope. On the outside were the words “Penny Leyton – strictly Private and Confidential”. I showed the writing to Phil. “Go on then, hoppit and come back in 5 minutes. Go make a coffee or something.” “Aren‟t you going to show me?” he asked. “Rule number 1,” I said, “if an employee says something is private and confidential, then treat it as private and confidential! Go on, see you in a moment!” Phil, slightly surprised, but accepting of my command, left for the coffee machine while I opened the envelope. Inside was a folded bit of paper. Penny, I lost something last night – I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean. It was not the wonderful and incredible experience that I had hoped for but it was still very exciting. I found the

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cuddling afterwards more enjoyable and we talked and talked. Waking up with someone next to you is something else, isn’t it? Is this normal – I don’t feel completely bowled off my feet? Ellie I immediately picked up the phone and dialled her extension. “Can you talk?” I asked. “Yes. There‟s no-one here at the moment.” “I got your note!” I said. “Am I being too hard on him?” “No, Ellie. Sex is like everything else in life. The more you practice it, the better it gets. Just be patient and it will happen. Was the spark there?” “What do you mean?” “I mean did you want to rip his clothes off and jump into bed with him?” “God, yes. But when we started it hurt a bit. He wasn‟t that gentle!” “Then tell him.” “I can‟t do that.” “Why not?” “I might hurt his feelings!” Why, I wondered, did people so often think that it was preferable not to hurt someone else‟s feelings when their body was being hurt? “Ellie, he‟ll want to give you as much pleasure as he can. If he doesn‟t then you‟ll want to think again about whether he‟s right for you.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see Phil coming back into the office.

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“I have to go now,” I said. “Phil‟s coming!” “Don‟t tell him. Please!” “Jeez, Ellie! I wouldn‟t dream of it. See you at the flat tonight, okay?” “Yeah, sure!” I rang off as Phil entered the office. “She told you then?” “No secrets between girlfriends,” I answered. “What did she say?” “That‟s between me and her, but if you are wondering whether she wants to see you again, I think I can definitely confirm that the answer is „yes‟!” He smiled as he gave me the coffee. “I‟m more interested in what you have to say,” I offered. He suddenly looked quite sheepish and unsure. His eyes left mine for a moment and studied the floor and I noticed that his hands moved from his knees and joined together in an awkward clasp. He was surprisingly nervous. “Phil?” I asked. “Are you alright? You don‟t have to say anything.” “This is in confidence, right?” “Like a doctor and patient!” I said, trying to be reassuring. “Well, it was good and all, but we didn‟t……I didn‟t…..” He hesitated again. When he didn‟t start talking I tried to give him some gentle encouragement. I realised that his anxiety about sharing his feelings was no different from mine. As I watched Phil struggle it reminded me of my own struggle with John. I remembered how he had moved around to my side and gently reassured me. I decided to

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do the same. As I sat next to him, I put my arm on his back and helped him. “I was so excited, Penny! I just wanted her so bad, but she didn‟t really know what to do. Do you know what I mean?” I looked at him and nodded. “I mean – I took her into the bedroom and I could tell she wanted me……” He hesitated again. Clearly this was difficult for him to say. “But……we didn‟t……” “It‟s okay – nobody‟s going to judge you, Phil.” “We didn‟t……..have any……foreplay!” he finally said. I started to understand what he was saying and gently encouraged him. “I really like her and all, but I didn‟t know how to ask her to……you know…..?” “I think I know what you mean, Phil!” I said confidently. “I wanted her to…but she didn‟t seem to know anything. I just ended up sticking it in and pumping away. It hurt and I was worried about hurting her. But I‟d started and didn‟t want to take it out because I thought she might think I didn‟t want to make love to her. I thought I might hurt her feelings.” I had to stifle a laugh – he would not have understood why I found this funny. I was instantly relieved. They were going to do well if they cared so much about each others‟ feelings on their first date. Neither was interested in blaming the other. These are the moments when people are at their most vulnerable, when one wrong word or gesture can destroy trust and end a relationship. I gently listened to him and tried to work out how to tell him what he needed to hear. Can there be

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anything more important in my line of work? Is there anything more important in life? “Talk to her, Phil. Talk to her about her parents. Talk to her about her upbringing. If you can do that you will find the answers you are looking for and discover someone who is going to bring you a lot of pleasure.” “You think?” he said. “No promises!” I said, “but I‟m confident you‟ll be happier the more you get to know her.” “I just wanted it to be better for her, you know?” “Then tell her,” I said reassuringly. “I can‟t do that!” I felt like I was in the middle of a re-run, but I smiled broadly and looked him in the eye. “Tell her!” I said gently. “She‟s ready to learn if you have the confidence to teach her.” As I looked at him, I saw his eyes grow moist. This was a first for me, I realised. I couldn‟t remember any other occasion when a man, any man, family, friend or lover, had expressed his fears to me about sex. I had always thought men didn‟t care but as Phil poured out his feelings, I thought about George, the lad I had picked up in the bar when I was out with Carole and Chris. He had screamed at me that he was not a piece of meat. As Phil talked about the pleasure he had wanted to bring Ellie, I thought about George and the violence I had done him by not treating him with respect. Where did he end up that night, I wonder? I tried to imagine how he must have felt as he walked away. Before I knew it, words started to spill out of my mouth. “I did something once that I‟m truly ashamed of….” I started.

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It was my turn to feel ashamed and hesitant, to cast my eyes down on the floor and wonder whether I had the courage to talk. I looked at Phil and his gentle smile reassured me. “I picked up a young lad once. He was called George, not even as old as you…” It was Phil‟s turn to touch me gently and reassure me that it was okay to talk. “I ruthlessly seduced him.” Phil looked surprised at my choice of words. “Yes, I ruthlessly seduced him,” I repeated, letting the import of the words hang in the air for a moment. “What happened?” Phil asked. “I took him back to my flat and demanded service. When he wasn‟t very good at it, instead of gently telling him how to give me the pleasure I wanted, I did the most disrespectful thing I‟ve ever done…..” Phil sat there, saying nothing, but gently coaxed me with his eyes and gentle touch. “I……”, I began, but found it too hard to say at first. As the realisation of what I had done engulfed me, my eyes started to moisten and tears started to roll down my nose and drip onto the floor. “I…..wished…….,” as I struggled to say it, I felt Phil‟s hand at the small of my back rubbing my spine. It felt nice. I looked up at him with eyes full of tears. “I wished he was someone else.” Phil just nodded and suddenly the words started to flow much more freely. Out poured the story of that night with a frankness and level of detail that I had withheld from John. I realised that I was letting Phil into my life, not just as a professional

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colleague but as my closest personal friend. I poured out my feelings to him for nearly 15 minutes. When I stopped, Phil started to talk again. “Penny. I‟ve never talked to anyone, ever, about this kind of stuff.” “Never?” I asked. “Never!” he reaffirmed. When I thought about it, for all John‟s openness, for all my closeness to Mike, neither of them had ever revealed to me how they felt about making love to a woman. When do men talk about this I wondered? “Never?” I asked again. He nodded more strongly. “Never!” he said again. “My God,” I said after a pause. “What a thought!” As we gathered ourselves up we noticed the cold coffees on the table. “I‟m going to get us some more drinks,” I said, drying my eyes. “Then, I have to tell you that I think I‟m going to be sacked.”

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Chapter 48
The rest of the week was unsettling. After I had divulged to Phil what happened at the CIPD event, Phil confessed to me that he‟d been visited by Harry. At senior management levels, there was a growing interest in the dispute between Elona and Mike. Phil reassured me that whatever happened I would always have his respect. I told him he was too generous. I nearly screwed up completely for no other reason than my own prejudices. Phil berated me for being too hard on myself and said that I had come to terms with it more quickly and more fully than anyone else he had known. The way I changed my mind about Mike, and the care I had shown to Elona, mattered more to him than the prejudices I had initially displayed. It was this that gave him confidence in me. I received my appraisal from Dave and there were no surprises. He had marked me down on most aspects of my performance and cited the handling of the dispute as the reason. Privately I knew that it had more to do with the way our relationship had turned sour. This was the beginning of the end. Jo had been kind and positive, as had Phil. Nevertheless, having briefed Dave and the other senior executives about the appraisal process, I quickly realised that my continued employment was problematic. I took the matter into my own hands and visited Harry. I talked with him for nearly two hours, going over the issues that the appraisal had raised but avoiding the matter of Dave‟s behaviour toward me. At the end of our meeting, he said he could make „no promises‟ which I took to mean that a decision had already been taken.

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As I left his office, I suddenly realised something that had never occurred to me before. It is only by keeping someone in a post after they have made a mistake that a company can benefit from what they learn. The human resource policy capable of developing truly outstanding leaders is the one that allows people to learn from their mistakes. If our propensity to sack people, or demote them, goes unchecked then eventually a company loses the very people capable of forming a top-rate management team. Intolerance toward failure removes the very people learning the most and those lucky enough to avoid it remain untouched. And so, a layer of new managers develops beneath them - a generation of sycophants and conformists who (having watched their own bosses fall from grace) learn not to take risks and never do anything that might lead to failure. As conformity and false consensus takes root, challenges to management behaviour, ideals, thoughts and actions slowly fades away. Managers stop facing – on a daily basis - the impacts of their decisions, or any moral debate about their actions. Management failure is passed down the line and before long senior managers start to wonder why „no good people are coming through‟. As I contemplated what would happen if I failed my probation, I felt in awe of the social forces that were assembling. Harry, perhaps, was about to make a corporate decision that would spark a major conflict. Maybe he would survive it, maybe not, but his isolation from what had taken place meant that people around him should have been urging caution. They should have been urging him to avoid acting precipitously. I could see that matters were already spiralling out of control. Harry would act on what he knew. My two-hour conversation

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was a drop in the ocean compared to the tidal wave of advice and information sweeping across his desk from Dave and others who knew nothing of what had occurred. I was foolish to harbour any hope. I was tempted to return to Harry‟s office and say all this. Instead I returned to my office and trusted that my friends would be able to bring off their coup d’etat.

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 49
John was waiting for me at Pizza Hut. I wanted to return to the scene of our first meeting. He had anticipated a long lunch and had ordered a bottle of wine. It felt like a homecoming. At the end of such an emotional week, I was particularly glad to see him. His contract at IC was at an end. He felt the training had gone well and that there was now a good chance that the SHARE experience would sell well. As we looked over the menu, he chatted about progress. Before I left, I talked to Jo and realised that John‟s contribution was not just technical. In the time he had been there, he had formed a committed and thriving team. The way he talked and cut through bullshit impacted on staff morale. Two-months earlier when the department had been formed, there was a group of disparate and irritable people. Now it was a cohesive squad equipped to take on the competition. I finally realised why John‟s reputation was so good. “Everything is set,” he said. “That‟s good. A week ago I was dreading this, but now I‟m quite excited about it.” “Mike talked to everyone in the department yesterday. The reaction was really good. He let me say my piece. I was moved that people listened to my views and were so supportive.” It was good to hear that the future was positive for IC staff despite the direction of my own life. We were gearing up for the largest marketing and sales push in our history and even Sam and Elaine had taken the time to speak with everyone. They had

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organised a drinks reception to round off the day: a last chance to let their hair down before “the big push”. We chatted and exchanged small talk until the food came. Then I decided to get personal. Several things bugged me and I wanted to clear them up. “John?” I started tentatively. “Yes, Pen?” “Why did you sit next to me on the plane?” “Seriously?” “Yes, I really want to know!” I said. “Remember my talk at the CIPD?” “Could hardly forget it!” “Well, your arse was definitely part of the equation but not the main reason!” “What else?” “I noticed you sitting in the lounge. Our eyes met a couple of times and I liked that. You were reading a book, like me. It was a novel by Bernice Rubens, I think. I‟ve read her novels so I thought we might get on. But it was when you moved in the queue that I realised you‟d noticed me too.” I was listening attentively, trying to see myself through his eyes and understand how I had impacted on him. He looked at me from time to time, but as he spoke he focussed more and more on his thoughts. His eyes wandered around, looking variously at his food, the table and me. As he did so, his face lit up. “The clincher was definitely the shoelaces,” he said. “You mentioned that in the speech, didn‟t you?” “Yes. When you did that I knew you must‟ve read Ms magazine.”

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I did not understand how he could work out that I had once read Ms magazine. “How could you know that?” “Easy. That‟s where the advice was first given to women. There was an article in the mid-90s telling women how to flirt at work. The headline was quite uninspiring, I remember. I think it was something like „The Working Woman‟s Guide to Sex at Work‟ right before an article about sexual harassment! Anyway, I pictured you as a single professional woman who enjoyed her independence and men!” We both laughed at the irony, but I was still amazed that he‟d made a connection. “You never cease to amaze, John. Are you really telling me that you remembered this article about tying non-existence shoelaces while in the queue at the airport?” “It‟s not so strange Penny. I didn‟t read the article, I wrote it! I added that bit of advice about the shoelace as a joke. I‟d never seen anybody do it. I thought the idea was amusing and it would be a laugh for the magazine‟s readers.” “You?” “Why so surprised? I‟d just finished my PhD and was full of that stuff. I had to make a living and for a short while I wrote lots of magazine articles.” “I can‟t believe it!” I said, absolutely gob-smacked. John looked me square in the eye. “So there you were doing something to attract me that I‟d written about nearly 10 years earlier. It was art creating life. I was looking at you in those fantastic jeans and pondering the connection between us. I stood there behind you and realised

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that my life had touched yours 10 years earlier. I couldn‟t resist talking to you.” As I was trying to take this in, to comprehend the myriad of different things that he had been thinking about when we met, I realised what a complex and accidental thing attraction can be. “Do you remember what you asked me on the plane?” “We chatted for ages, I must‟ve asked you many things,” he replied. “About sexism in the army!” “Did I ask you that? My goodness – we must have got on well for me to ask you that!” He had forgotten. To me that question had separated him from everyone else I‟d ever known. To him, the question was old hat, a party piece that he‟d asked hundreds, if not thousands of times. “Yes! You were very forward,” I said. “You mean there are people more forward than me?” he joked. I tried to think of one, but could not. “Well, there‟s me!” I answered. “Yes,” he laughed. “You‟re definitely more forward than me!” As we laughed, I wanted to tell him of my discovery. “I have an answer for you.” “To what?” “To your question, dummy!” “Oh, that?” he said mockingly as I realised that he was jesting with me. “If you have, Pen, then you have my total respect. Usually I have to spend ages giving hints and heavy clues before people work it out.” I hesitated. What if I had missed the point and was about to make a complete fool of myself? I dismissed it quickly from my

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thoughts. If I was to become a fool again, it would take its place at the back of a very long list of foolish thoughts and actions. I wanted to know whether my answer was the one he was looking for so I set aside my fears and told him. He looked gob-smacked. “How did you come up with that?” He was truly amazed. Just as I was about to panic that I‟d made a huge gaff, a grin started to spread over his face. His hand moved to his cheek and he rubbed it as his mouth stayed open. He was truly amazed. “How did you work it out, Pen?” he asked. “It‟s strange, really,” I said. So I started to tell the story. Mike had been fondling me while I was talking on the phone and in my head I kept thinking „he‟s dying for me, really dying for me‟. That phrase kept popping into my head. And then, as I started to tease him and goad him I had a sudden realisation that I wanted him to be strong – I wanted him to be stronger than me. So I started to resist him. Initially, I felt bad, as if I was doing something wrong, but I wanted him to overpower me to prove to me that he could. I wanted to test that his love was so great that I couldn‟t stop him expressing it. And in the next instant, I thought how unfair it was that I should be testing him, making him use force to get what I dearly wanted to give anyway. I was encouraging him to be aggressive and I started to wonder why I was doing it. Then it hit me. I wanted him to prove he was stronger than me. Never before had I thought of sex as a kind of test through which men had to pass to prove their strength. Never before had I thought of the problems that might create.

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So I set out for John what had been going through my head. If he was not stronger than me, how could he ever protect me? And the moment I felt ashamed of thinking this way, I stopped resisting him. And yet, the phrase “he‟s dying for me” kept spinning through my head. Suddenly, I put these two thoughts together. I wanted him to overpower me so that I would know he was strong enough to protect me, even die for me. I wondered about that phrase. Why do we say „he‟s dying for me‟? Where does that expression come from? There I was lying there wanting him to prove that he would be prepared to die for me. John‟s question popped into my head – it was one of those flashes of intuition that have no explanation. What could be more sexist than expecting a man to die for you when you were not prepared to die for him? Would I be prepared to die for him? I would kill to keep him, but that was not the same thing as being prepared to die to save him. I wanted him to be prepared to die for me, but I realised that I would not die for him. So I stopped teasing him and started to care instead about giving him as much pleasure as I could. It gave me my first true glimpse of the power that women can wield – that we make a man feel that he has to prove his willingness to die before we will love him. Mike, I knew, would sacrifice himself for me, but not in the movie hero sense. A few days before, when we had been driving home, he told me that he would let me go if I wanted children. I could not imagine making such a sacrifice. “But your question, John,” I continued. “It stopped me insisting that he be prepared to die for me as a pre-condition of my love. I gave it to him willingly, no preconditions, no tests.”

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“That‟s it, Penny! That‟s what men are taught to do. Usually they never think twice about it for the entirety of their lives.” “We expect men to die. We expect them to die to protect us. And for no other reason than they are men,” I said, finally. What a journey I had travelled. For the last 20 years, since I had been introduced to feminism, I had been taught (and taught others) that war was caused by men, fought by men, for the benefit of men. It had taken me all this time to see it a different way. War might be fought – in the minds of the men who fought them – to protect those they love. Perhaps it was not even for this reason. For them, perhaps, it was to show themselves worthy of someone‟s love. As I faced up to the truth that I would not die for my man, but wanted him to be prepared to die for me, my own part in men‟s violence became clearer to me. John interrupted my thoughts with some of his own. “If we cared about equality, Pen – if we valued men as much as women - we would be recruiting the strongest people to fight our wars. Many women are strong and fit, even if the average man is stronger than the average women. By rights, our armies would have many women fighting alongside men. Equality means that women would insist on their responsibility to fight, not just their right.” I thought about this for a second and suddenly became bold. “Then that‟s what we should do,” I said. “It‟s only fair!” “Fair, yes. Sensible, maybe not.” “Why? Surely we should recognise this…..” I said with ardour of a convert. John stopped me. “There is another point of view,” he said firmly.

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I gestured for him to continue. “Let‟s suppose that there was a battle and after there were 1,000 women left in a village who could bear children, but only 100 men. Would the society be able to survive?” “Of course. And those men are going to be busy, aren‟t they?” “I suppose they are,” he said. His face, however, was not whimsical. “But what if it was the other way around? What if there were 1,000 men and only 100 women left?” His question made me think. It would take countless more generations to rebuild a community if this happened. I thought about his words but challenged them. “I don‟t buy that,” I started. “If women and men were fighting on the front line together, not only would they be building mutual respect and enduring relationships with each other, when the battle was over there would be roughly equal numbers left. I think any community would be happier as a result of that, wouldn‟t they, even if there were not as many left. Women have fought alongside men in revolutions so why not in armies?” He smiled at me. “Would you fight?” he asked. I hesitated. “Would you?” I responded. “I don‟t have a choice, Penny.” “Of course you do,” I insist. “We don‟t force people into the army.” John disagreed. “Look at the history of war. If I refuse to fight, my own government is likely to put me in jail where I can be expect to

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be beaten, buggered and left to die. If I fight at first, then change my mind, I am court-marshalled for cowardice, not bravery. Not long ago I would have been executed if I tried to reject violence. My only other alternative would be to take up arms against my own government – which means fighting my own people, my own brothers and sisters. Either way, I‟m left with no way out of violence. I can choose the enemy, my own government, or a court of law. Even if my own country supported a right to conscientiously object, would I get mercy from the enemy?” he asked. “What do you mean?” “Do you remember Fallujah?” he enquired. “Fallujah? In Iraq you mean?” “Yes. No man between the age of 15 and 55 was allowed out of the city before the US forces attacked it. Remember the phrase they used? The soldiers were „clearing the ground‟. They cleared the ground by shooting everyone they came across.” “But that‟s genocide,” I objected. “No,” John replied. “Only men were killed. The women and children were allowed to leave. Even if my own side spares me, the enemy won‟t. They don‟t care if I support the war or not, they‟ll still kill me. Again, I have no choice except to fight.” “My God!” was all I could say. The horror of this appalled me. I felt sick. John saw my discomfort. “I don‟t have the choices you do, Penny. It‟s not a question that really means anything to me. It‟s not true that men love war. If we did, there would be no need for conscription, no need for draft laws, no need for military laws to punish deserters, no

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need for court marshals, no executions or jail for men when they reject violence.” I wondered what it must be like to grow up constantly wondering if, one day, you would be forced to fight against your will. Suddenly it made sense that little boys played with guns. It‟s not necessary to teach them, they simply work out for themselves that one day they may have to fight. “Keep saying these things, John. Don‟t let anyone stop you.” He nodded and the conversation moved onto an assortment of trivia as we finished off a lovely “stuffed crust” pizza with chargrilled chicken, peppers and extra cheese. After a second bottle of wine, I was too drunk to drive home so we walked it off in the park and visited a coffee bar. I had a truly wonderful day.

Rory Ridley-Duff

Chapter 50
I wish I could tell you that things worked out well, that truth and justice prevailed, that the initial love I felt for Mike lasted until the day I died. I wish I could say that most of us lived happily for most of our lives. It wasn‟t to happen, but as things changed, new relationships were formed and moments of happiness were found amidst the problems we all faced. I was sacked. Or, if you prefer the description on my employment record “Penny failed her probationary period because of poor job performance”. It would have been easy to get bitter and start a crusade over the injustice but I did not want to become another statistic at the Equal Opportunity Commission, or a voice to be used against men and women I had come to respect. They did their best, but were as frail, prejudiced and limited as me. If it had not been for the intervention of a gifted person, who did so only out of affection for me, I would have added to these statistics myself. I did not want to end up being one of the women who contributed to the problems that men face today, problems which after millennia of neglect are finally becoming the subject of debate. But nor did I want to become another woman who gave up her dreams of mixing work and family by finding a balance that enabled me to enjoy life outside the home. Several generations of women made it possible for me to exercise choice, some died so that I could do so, and I felt a responsibility to give back some of what they had given to me. John returned to his wife and they continued, between his and her escapades, to make their peace with each other. For the rest of his life he enjoyed – if that is the right word – an open

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marriage. I prefer to think of them as two free spirits with the capacity to forgive each other when loneliness led them astray. John saw Sally from time to time, and certainly whenever she needed his support he made himself available. At the same time, he kept returning home from his travels to enjoy time with the family that he created, nurtured and loved. Professionally, John remained a nomad for another decade before finally giving in to the temptation of politics. My cynicism about politicians faded dramatically as I met him over the years and learned of the endless no-win scenarios that they face. It was impossible, of course, for him ever be completely free of bias or prejudice, or the interests within which he had become embedded, but I watched as he did his best to navigate them. He never rose to the level of cabinet minister but he distinguished himself in small ways as a member of one government. You have probably never heard of him. After serving just one term, he lost his seat and switched to writing. I have his books and read each one that comes out. He remains my dearest and most enduring friend. Once or twice, at times when we both felt sad, we got together to spend good times. Sometimes we would cuddle on the sofa. But – and this is something I partly regret, but am also proud of – we have not felt the need to consummate our relationship. It is no less special for that and we continue to protect what we have in ways that seem right to us. I enjoyed many happy years with Mike, but he was right about my desire to have children. I gave him one or two pushes in that direction but he kept his word and stubbornly encouraged me into a new relationship. We parted amicably and he remains a good friend. Sally was immediately on the scene and this time

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Mike gave in to her. She had been through the menopause and Mike lost his excuse for resisting her. They are now married. Sally finally got her man. Nine years after his first wife had falsely accused him of sleeping with her, Mike ended up committing himself to Sally for life. When I meet them, I detect the kind of closeness that I have in my own marriage. They are one of life‟s happy couples. As for Sam and Elaine, their marriage hit the rocks about five years later. The success of their company created problems. Elaine enjoyed life as a company director and took on more directorships. She got a buzz from the political battles and liked to forge change. Sam, when the success of SHARE began to fade, wanted to get back to inventing and engineering new products. She was the business brains and it was her will that prevailed in the short term. After Procter & Gamble bought them out, their marriage failed. Sam rejoined IC to engineer new products. Dave kept his job, of course, but the events that took place following my departure cost him dearly. His wife went into a hospice where she died six-months later. Within twelve months he had been demoted. Afterwards, he had a breakdown. According to Phil, he never fully recovered. I once wrote to him to see whether he wanted to talk about the past. He declined, adding that he hoped never to see me again. It was a sad way for our relationship to end and despite the bitterness on his side, I think of the good times we had. My sister Carole married Chris, and their second child – Penny Ann – was born one day early. In giving a „best woman‟ speech, I discovered my talent for public speaking. I also found myself taking a much greater interest in being an aunt. The love

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between Carole and Chris was elastic: it stretched and bent as life threw its worst at them. Each had a tremendous capacity to accommodate the other‟s weaknesses and failings. Phil and Elona had a crack at things, eventually got married and had two children. However, it did not last. When Elona‟s parents retired, they devoted themselves to grandparenthood. Phil felt they spent all their time interfering in his marriage and the raising of his children. He felt so superfluous that eventually he left. When Elona took out a court injunction to stop Phil seeing his children, it created a big rift between Elona and myself. Given what happened later, I found it impossible to build bridges with her again. Phil got limited access after a lengthy court battle. It took much of the spirit out of him for many years, and when his children started blaming him for the marriage break-up, he eventually stopped seeing them altogether. It broke his heart. He writes to them each birthday and still clings onto the hope that one day he will be able to make up for lost time. As for me, the contingency plan worked a treat. I went to work for Sam and Elaine. Phil was promoted into my position at IC and we kept in touch. Mike, with help from John, Sam and Elaine, persuaded the entire SHARE team to leave IC and become members of Sam and Elaine‟s company. In exchange for giving up continuous employment rights, Sam and Elaine gave each member a generous shareholding in the new company. Everyone expected the SHARE product to be a success, so they took up this opportunity in large numbers. There was a furious legal battle, of course, but Sam and Elaine had committed investors and staff. When I look back, the dispute between Elona and Mike was the catalyst that ended

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IC‟s rapid growth. In the 5 years that followed, I rode on the crest of a wave as the SHARE experience exceeded all our expectations and became the number one seller in the personal hygiene market. It gave the rampant rabbit a good run as the number one sex toy, but never toppled it. Many of us became paper millionaires for a while, but arrogance and shortsightedness eroded the share price before the company was sold off. I remain close to Elaine and we both did well out of the company sale. We formed a new business together – the Social Exchange. Today, I am its managing director and we help organisations develop progressive approaches to human resource management. John works with us on some projects, but he is getting quite old now. As I learnt through reflecting on my life and writing this story, it is not only inside the home that intimate relationships are of vital importance. Each new business starts out with two people who like and trust each other well enough to give the other what they need. While banks and development agencies get flustered about business planning, finance, constitutional matters and legal frameworks, this simple truth is not stated often enough. Trade begins when you trust someone enough to pay for the products or services they offer. That can happen without any written agreement, or company constitution, and certainly does not require a written contract of employment. Through the simple act of exchanging labour for money, two people enter into their own agreement. If it works for them both, they continue it. It is a thankless task arguing against bureaucracy, against the trend towards ever more standards of excellence, standardised codes of ethics and kitemarks, against increasing numbers of

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laws that seek to regulate not only our behaviour, but even the way we articulate our thoughts. In this struggle I have – unsurprisingly - made little headway. But I am pleased to have influenced a few organisations so that they keep bureaucracy to a minimum and replace this with the exercise of moral judgement in the way they deal with investors, customers, employees and suppliers. For a business to grow, there needs to be a culture in which relationships are intimate and people can learn from the mistakes they make. I learned this at IC, and that is why I wanted to tell you this story. Intimate relationships are the foundation our society, and from them spring not just new human life but new economic life as well. Thankfully I have been able to make a living saying this to many people, and exploring ways to make it work in practice. After I split from Mike, and Phil split from Elona, I started to see Phil more. Our friendship developed into a lasting romance. We now have two lovely children: a boy I insisted we call John. Three years later we had a girl. We called her Hope. It may not last, these things are never certain, but for now I am content. Phil and I are the closest of friends and managed to rekindle our passion for each other after we got the kids out of our bed. As I look to the future, there is only one thing of which I am certain. There is a strength that grows from being quick to listen and slow to judge. If I can teach this to my children and grandchildren, my time on this earth will not have been wasted.

~ End ~

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