On Monday morning I wake early, feeling rather hollow inside. My gaze flits to the pile of unopened carrier bags in the corner of my room and then quickly flits away again. I know I spent too much money on Saturday. I know I shouldn't have bought two pairs of boots. I know I shouldn't have bought that purple dress. In all, I spent… Actually, I don't want to think about how much I spent. Think about something else, quick, I instruct myself. Something else. Anything will do. I'm well aware that at the back of my mind, thumping quietly like a drumbeat, are the twin horrors of
Guilt and Panic.
Guilt Guilt Guilt Guilt.
Panic Panic Panic Panic.
If I let them, they'd swoop into my mind and take over. I'd feel completely paralysed with misery and fear. So the trick I've learned is simply not to listen. I close off the back of my mind – and then nothing worries me. It's simple self-defence. My mind is very well trained like that.
My other trick is to distract myself with different thoughts and activities. So I get up, switch the radio on, take a shower and get dressed. The thumping is still there at the back of my head, but gradually, gradually, it's fading away. As I go into the kitchen and make a cup of coffee, I can barely hear it any more. A cautious relief floods over me, like that feeling you get when a painkiller finally gets rid of your headache. I can relax. I'm going to be all right.
On the way out I pause in the hall to check my appearance in the mirror (Top: River Island, Skirt: French Connection, Tights: Pretty Polly Velvets, Shoes: Ravel) and reach for my coat (Coat: House of Fraser sale). Just then the post plops through the door, and I go to pick it up. There's a handwritten letter for Suze, and a postcard from the Maldives. And for me, there are two ominous-looking window envelopes. One from VISA, one from Endwich Bank.
For a moment, my heart stands still. Why another letter from the bank? And VISA. What do they want? Can't they just leave me alone?
Carefully I place Suze's post on the ledge in the hall and shove my own two letters in my pocket, telling myself I'll read them on the way to work. Once I get on the tube, I'll open them both and I'll read them, however unpleasant they are.
That really is my intention. Honestly. As I'm walking along the pavement, I promise my intention is to read the letters.
But then I turn into the next street – and there's a skip outside someone's house. A huge great yellow skip, already half full of stuff. Builders are coming in and out of the house, tossing old bits of wood and upholstery into the skip. Loads of rubbish, all jumbled up together.
And a little thought creeps into my mind.
My steps slow down as I approach the skip and I pause, staring intently at it as though I'm interested in the words printed on the side. I stand there, heart thumping, until the builders have gone back into the house and no-one's looking. Then, in one motion, I reach for the two letters, pull them out of my pocket, and drop them over the side, into the skip.
As I'm standing there a builder pushes past me with two sacks of broken plaster, and heaves them into the skip. And now they really are gone. Buried beneath a layer of plaster, unread. No-one will ever find them.
Gone for good.
Quickly I turn away from the skip and begin to walk on again. Already my step's lighter and I'm feeling buoyant.
Before long, I'm feeling completely innocent; purged of guilt. I mean, it's not my fault if I never read the letters, is it? It's not my fault if I never got them, is it?
As I bound along towards the tube station I honestly feel as though neither of those letters ever existed.
When I arrive at work, I switch on my computer, click efficiently to a new document and start typing my piece on pensions. Perhaps if I work really hard, it's occurred to me, Philip will give me a rise. I'll stay late every night and impress him with my dedication to the job, and he'll realize that I'm considerably undervalued. Perhaps he'll even make me associate editor, or something.
'These days,' I type briskly, 'none of us can rely on the government to take care of us in our old age. Therefore pension planning should be done as early as possible, ideally as soon as you are earning an income.'
'Morning, Clare,' says Philip, coming into the office in his overcoat. 'Morning Rebecca.'
Hah! Now is the time to impress him.
'Morning Philip,' I say, in a friendly-yet-professional manner. Then, instead of leaning back in my chair and asking him how his weekend was, I turn back to my computer and start typing again. In fact, I'm typing so fast that the screen is filled with lots of splodgy typos. It has to be said, I'm not the best typist in the world. But who cares? I look very businesslike, that's the point.
'The bwst ootion is oftwn yoor compaamy occupatinoa Ischeme, bt if tehis is not posibsle, a wide vareiety of peronanlas penion lans is on ther markte, ranign from…' I break off, reach for a pension brochure and flip quickly through it, as though scanning for some crucial piece of information.
'Good weekend, Rebecca?' says Philip.
'Fine, thanks,' I say, glancing up from the brochure as though surprised to be interrupted while I'm at work.
'I was round your neck of the woods on Saturday,' he says. 'The Fulham Road. Trendy Fulham.'
'Right,' I say absently.
'It's the place to be, these days, isn't it? My wife was reading an article about it. Full of It-girls, all living on trust funds.'
'I suppose so,' I say vaguely.
'That's what we'll have to call you,' he says, and gives a little guffaw. 'The office It-girl.'
It-girl? What on earth is he talking about?
'Right,' I say, and smile at him. After all, he's the boss. He can call me whatever he–
Oh God, hang on a minute. Hang-on-minute. Philip hasn't got the idea that I'm rich, has he? He doesn't think I've got a trust fund or something ridiculous, does he?
'Rebecca,' says Clare, looking up from her telephone. 'I've got a call, for you. Someone called Tarquin.'
Philip gives a little grin, as though to say, What else? and ambles off to his desk. I stare after him in frustration.
This is all wrong. If Philip thinks I've got some kind of private income, he'll never give me a rise. But what on earth could have given him that idea?
'Becky,' says Clare meaningfully, gesturing to my ringing phone.
'Oh,' I say. 'Yes,– OK.' I pick up the receiver, and say, 'Hi. Rebecca Bloomwood here.'
'Becky,' comes Tarquin's unmistakable, reedy voice.
He sounds rather nervous, as if he's been gearing up to this phone call for ages. Perhaps he has. 'It's so nice to hear your voice. You know, I've been thinking about you a lot.'
'Really?' I say, as unhelpfully as possible. I mean, I know he's Suze's cousin and everything, but honestly...
'I'd… I'd very much like to spend some more time in your company,' he says. 'May I take you out to dinner?'
Oh God. What am I supposed to say to that? It's such an innocuous request. I mean, it's not as if he's said, Can I sleep with you? or even Can I kiss you? If I say 'No' to dinner it's like saying, You're so unbearable, I can't even stand sharing a table with you for two hours.
Which is pretty near the truth – but I can't say that, can I? And Suze has been so sweet to me recently, and if I turn her darling Tarkie down flat, she'll be really upset.
'I suppose so,' I say, aware that I don't sound too thrilled – and also aware that maybe I should just come clean and say I Don't Fancy You. But somehow I can't face it. To be honest, it would be a lot easier just to go out to dinner with him. I mean, how bad can it be?
And anyway, I don't have to actually go. I'll call at the last moment and cancel. Easy.
'I'm in London until Sunday,' says Tarquin.
'Let's make it Saturday night, then!' I say brightly. 'Just before you leave.'
'How about eight?' I suggest.
'OK,' he says. 'Eight o'clock.' And he rings off, without mentioning a venue. But since I'm not actually going to meet him, this doesn't really matter. I put the phone down, give an impatient sigh, and start typing again.
'The best option for many is to consult an independent financial adviser, who will be able to advise you on your own particular pension needs and recommend suitable products. New on the market this year is the
..' I break off and reach for a brochure. Any old brochure. 'Sun Assurance "Later Years" Retirement Plan, which…'
'So, was that guy asking you out?' says Clare Edwards.
'Yes, he was, actually,' I say, looking up carelessly. In spite of myself, I feel a little flip of pleasure. Because Clare doesn't know what Tarquin's like, does she? For all she knows, he's incredibly good-looking and witty.
'We're going out on Saturday night.' I give her a nonchalant smile and start typing again.
'Oh, right,' she says, and snaps an elastic band round a pile of letters. 'You know, Luke Brandon was asking me if you had a boyfriend the other day.'
For an instant I can't move. Luke Brandon wants to know if I've got a boyfriend?
'Really?' I say, trying to sound normal. 'When… when was this?'
'Oh, just the other day,' she says. 'I was at a briefing at Brandon Communications, and he asked me. Just casually. You know.'
'And what did you say?'
'I said no,' said Clare, and gives me a little grin. 'You don't fancy him, do you?'
'Of course not,' I say, and roll my eyes.
But I have to admit, I feel quite cheerful as I turn back to my computer and start typing again. Luke Brandon. I mean, not that I like him or anything – but still. Luke Brandon. 'This flexible plan,' I type, 'offers full death benefits and a lump sum on retirement. For example, a typical man in his thirties who invested ?100 a month…'
You know what? I suddenly think, stopping mid sentence. This is boring. I'm better than this.
I'm better than sitting here in this crappy office, typing out the details from a brochure, trying to turn them into some kind of credible journalism. I deserve to do something more interesting than this. Or more well paid. Or both.
I stop typing and rest my chin on my hands. It's time for a new start. Why don't I do what Elly's doing? I'm not afraid of a bit of hard work, am I? Why don't I get my life in order, go to a City head-hunter and land myself a job which everyone will envy? I'll have a huge income and a company car and wear Karen Millen suits every day. And I'll never have to worry about money again.
I feel exhilarated. This is it! This is the answer to everything. I'll be a…
'Clare?' I say casually. 'Who earns the most in the City?'
'I don't know,' says Clare, frowning thoughtfully. 'Maybe futures brokers?'
That's it, then. I'll be a futures broker. Easy.
And it is easy. So easy, that ten o'clock the next morning sees me walking nervously up to the front doors of Willam Green, top City head-hunters. As I push the door open I glimpse my own reflection and feel a little thrill go through my stomach. Am I really doing this?
You bet I am. I'm wearing my smartest black suit, and tights and high heels, with an FT under my arm, obviously. And I'm carrying the briefcase with the combination lock which my mum gave me one Christmas and which I've never used. This is partly because it's really heavy and bumpy – and partly because I've forgotten the combination, so I can't actually open it. But it looks the part. And that's what counts.
Jill Foxton, the woman I'm meeting, was really nice on the phone when I told her about wanting to change careers, and sounded pretty impressed by all my experience.
I quickly typed up a CV and e-mailed it through to her – and, OK, I embroidered it a bit, but that's what they expect, isn't it? It's all about selling yourself. And it worked, because she phoned back only about ten minutes after receiving it, and asked if I'd come in and see her, as she thought she had some interesting opportunities for me.
Interesting opportunities for me! I was so excited, I could barely keep still. I went straight in to Philip and told him I wanted to take tomorrow off to take my nephew to the zoo – and he didn't suspect a thing. He's going to be gobsmacked when he finds out I've turned overnight into a high-flying futures broker.
'Hi,' I say confidently to the woman at reception. 'I'm here to see Jill Foxton. It's Rebecca Bloomwood.'
Oh God. I can't say Successful Saving. It might get back to Philip that I've been looking for a new job.
'Of.. just of nowhere, really,' I say and give a relaxed little laugh. 'Just Rebecca Bloomwood. I have a ten o'clock appointment.'
'Fine,' she says, and smiles. 'Take a seat.'
I pick up my briefcase and walk over to the black squashy chairs, trying not to give away how nervous I feel. I sit down, run my eye hopefully over the magazines on the coffee table (but there's nothing interesting, just things like The Economist), then lean back and look around. This foyer is pretty impressive, I have to admit. There's a fountain in the middle, and glass stairs rising in a curve, and what seems like several miles away I can see lots of state-of-the-art lifts. Not just one lift, or two, but about ten. Blimey. This place must be huge.
'Rebecca?' A blond girl in a pale trouser suit is suddenly in front of me. Nice suit, I think. Very nice suit.
'Hi!' I say. 'Jill!'
'No, I'm Amy,' she smiles. 'Jill's assistant.'
Wow. That's pretty cool. Sending your assistant to pick up your visitors, as if you're too grand and busy to do it yourself. Maybe that's what I'll get my assistant to do when I'm an important futures broker and Elly comes over for lunch. Or maybe I'll have a male assistant – and we'll fall in love! God, it would be just like a movie. The high-flying woman and the cute but sensitive…
'Rebecca?' I come to and see Amy Staring at me curiously. 'Are you ready?'
'Of course!' I say gaily, and pick up my briefcase. As we stride off over the glossy floor, I surreptitiously run my gaze over Amy's trouser suit again – and find my eye landing on a discreet Emporio Armani label. I can't quite believe it. Emporio Armani! The assistants wear Emporio Armani! So what's Jill herself going to be in? Couture Dior? God, I love this place already.
We go up to the sixth floor and begin to walk along endless carpeted corridors.
'So you want to be a futures broker,' says Amy after a while.
'Yes,' I say. 'That's the idea.'
'And you already know a bit about it.'
'Well, you know,' I give a modest smile. 'I've written. extensively on most areas of finance, so I do feel quite well equipped.'
'That's good,' says Amy, and gives me a smile. 'Some people turn up with no idea. Then Jill asks them a few standard questions, and…' She makes a gesture with her hand. I don't know what it means, but it doesn't look good.
'Right!' I say, forcing myself to speak in an easy tone. 'So – what sort of questions?'
'Oh, nothing to worry about!' says Amy. 'She'll probably ask you… oh, I don't know. Something like, "How do you trade a butterfly?" or "What's the difference between open outlay and OR?" Or "How would you calculate the expiry date of a futures instrument?" Really basic stuff…'
'Right,' I say, and swallow. 'Great.'
Something in me is telling me to turn and run – but we've already arrived at a pale blond-wood door.
'Here we are,' says Amy, and smiles at me. 'Would you like tea or coffee?'
'Coffee please,' I say, wishing I could say, 'A stiff gin, please.' Amy knocks on the door, opens it.and ushers me in, and says, 'Rebecca Bloomwood.'
'Rebecca!' says a dark-haired woman behind the desk, and gets up to shake my hand.
To my slight surprise, Jill is not nearly as well dressed as Amy. She's wearing a blue, rather mumsy looking suit, and boring court shoes. But still, never mind, she's the boss. And her office is pretty amazing.
'It's very good to meet you,' she says, gesturing to a chair in front of her desk. 'And let me say straight away, I was extremely impressed by your CV.'
'Really?' I say, feeling relief creep over me. That can't be bad, can it? Extremely impressed. Maybe it won't matter if I don't know the answers to those questions.
'Particularly by your languages,' adds Jill. 'Very good. You do seem to be one of those rare breeds, an all-rounder.'
'Well, my French is really only conversational,' I say modestly. 'Voici la plume de ma tante, and all that!' Jill gives an appreciative laugh, and I beam back at her.
'But Finnish!' she says, reaching for the cup of coffee on her desk. 'That's quite unusual.'
I keep smiling and hope we move off the subject of languages. To be honest, 'fluent in Finnish' went in because I thought 'conversational French' looked a bit bare on its own. After all, who speaks Finnish, for God's sake? No-one.
'And your financial knowledge,' she says, pulling my CV towards her. 'You seem to have covered a lot of different areas during your years in financial journalism.'
She looks up. 'What attracts you to derivatives in particular?'
What? What's she talking about? Oh yes. Derivatives. They're futures, aren't they?
'Well,' I begin confidently – and am interrupted as Amy comes in with a cup of coffee.
'Thanks,' I say, and look up, hoping we've moved on to something else. But she's still waiting for an answer.
'I think futures are the future,' I say seriously. 'They're an extremely challenging area and I think…' What do I think? Oh God. Should I throw in a quick reference to butterflies or expiry dates or something? Probably better not. 'I think I'd be well suited to that particular field,' I say at last.
'I see,' says Jill Foxton, and leans back in her chair.
'The reason I ask, is there's a position we have in banking which I think might also suit you. I don't know what you would feel about that.'
A position in banking? Is she serious? Has she actually found me a job? I don't believe it!
'Well, that would be fine by me,' I say, trying not to sound too joyful. 'I mean, I'd miss the futures – but then, banking's good too, isn't it?'
Jill laughs. I think she thinks I'm joking or something.
'The client is a triple-A rated foreign bank, looking for a new recruit in the London arm of their debt financing division.'
'Right,' I say intelligently.
'I don't know whether you're familiar with the principles of European back-to-back arbitrage?'
'Absolutely,' I say confidently. 'I wrote an article on that very subject last year.'
What was that word, again? Arbi-something.
'Obviously I'm not trying to rush you into any decision,' she says, 'but if you do want a change of career, I'd say this would be perfect for you. There'd be an interview, of course, but I can't see any problems there.' She smiles at me. 'And we'll be able to negotiate you a very attractive package.'
'Really?' Suddenly I can't quite breathe. She's going to negotiate an attractive package. For me!
'Oh yes,' says Jill. 'Well, you must realize you're a bit of a one-off.' She gives me a confidential smile. 'You know, when your CV came through yesterday, I actually whooped! I mean, the coincidence!'
'Absolutely,' I say, beaming at her. God, this is fantastic. This is a bloody dream come true… I'm going to be a banker! And not just any old banker – a triple-A rated banker!
'So,' says Jill casually. 'Shall we go and meet your new employer?'
'What?' I say in astonishment, and a little smile spreads over her face.
'I didn't want to tell you until I'd met you – but the recruitment director of Bank of Helsinki is over here for a meeting with our managing director. I just know he's going to love you. We can have the whole thing wrapped up by this afternoon!'
'Excellent!' I say, and get to my feet. Hahaha! I'm going to be a banker!
It's only as we're halfway down the corridor that her words begin to impinge on my mind. Bank of Helsinki. Bank of Helsinki. That doesn't mean… Surely she doesn't think…
'I can't wait to hear the two of you talking away in Finnish,' says Jill pleasantly, as we begin to climb a flight of stairs. 'It's not a language I know at all.'
Oh my God. Oh my God. No.
'But then, my languages have always been hopeless,' she adds comfortably. 'I'm not talented in that department. Not like you!'
I flash her a little smile, and keep walking, without missing a step. But my heart's thumping and I can hardly breathe. Shit. What am I going to do? What the fuck am I going to do?
We turn a corner and begin to walk calmly down another corridor. And I'm doing pretty well. As long as we just keep walking, I'm OK.
'Was Finnish a hard language to learn?' asks Jill.
'Not that hard,' I hear myself saying in a scratchy voice. 'My… my father's half-Finnish.'
'Yes, I thought it must be something like that,' says Jill. 'I mean, it's not the sort of thing you learn at school, is it?' And she gives a jolly little laugh.
It's all right for her, I think savagely. She's not the one being led to her death. Oh God, this is terrible. People keep passing us and glancing at me and smiling, as if to say, 'So that's the Finnish-speaker!'
Why did I put I was fluent in Finnish? Why?
'All right?' says Jill. 'Not nervous?'
'Oh no!' I say at once, and force a grin onto my face. 'Of course I'm not nervous!'
He'll just say 'Hall' or whatever it is, and I'll say 'Hall' back, and then before he can say anything else, I'll quickly say, 'You know, my technical Finnish is a bit rusty these days. Would you mind if we spoke in English?' And he'll say…
'Nearly there,' says Jill, and smiles at me.
'Good,' I say brightly, and clasp my sweaty hand more tightly round my briefcase handle. Oh God. Please save me from this. Please…
'Here we are!' she says, and stops at a door marked CONFERENCE ROOM. She knocks twice, then pushes it open. There's a roomful of people sitting round a table, and they all turn to look at me.
'Jan Virtanen,' she says. 'I'd like you to meet Rebecca Bloomwood.'
A bearded man rises from his chair, gives me a huge smile and extends his hand.
'Neiti Bloomwood,' he says cheerfully. 'On oikein hauska tavata. Pitiik paikkansa etti teilli on jonkin lainen yhteys Suomeen?'
I stare speechlessly at him, feeling my face turn red.
Everyone in the room is waiting for me to answer.
'I… erm..'. erm… Halla!' I lift my hand in a friendly little wave, and smile around the room. But nobody smiles back.
'Erm… I've just got to…' I start backing away. 'Just got to…'
And I turn. And I run.