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Stella and Bella are two intelligent working women who each fall for impossible lovers—at work.
Equal parts intelligent, funny, moving, and agonizing, In Office Hours will resonate with any woman who has ever worked in an office—or been in love. Kellaway hits a real nerve with her depictions of how people come to get into the emotional messes that we do—and how very difficult it is to get out again.
Table of Contents
Two words: four letters, then eight. The shape of them was so familiar and yet shocking to see now, after all this time.
Stella had just got back to the office after lunch and there his name was, sitting in her in-box next to an e-mail containing the minutes of yesterday's board meeting. The subject line read: "hi."
She knew what she must do. She had rehearsed it often enough with Dr. Munro and with any friends who were still willing to listen. With an unsteady hand she picked up the mouse, highlighted his name, and clicked delete.
"Are you sure you want to delete this message?" the computer asked.
But that was the problem: No, she wasn't sure.
The therapist had explained that there was nothing inherently upsetting about either him or his actions. The trouble was Stella's thoughts, which in turn caused her emotional responses. The answer, the woman had said, was to learn to control her thoughts, and then her emotions would fall into line.
As a concept, Stella had found this seductive. But in practical terms it was useless. Stella, so good at controlling most aspects of her life, had had no success in controlling her thoughts—or those that had anything to do with him. And it was also nonsense to say that his actions had been neutral—except perhaps in some far-fetched, philosophical sense. In fact, they had been devastating: five lives damaged, one of them, it seemed to her in her more hysterical moments, beyond any chance of repair. In the end, she had canceled her therapy sessions and gone to Selfridges and squandered the £210 that she would have spent on fifty minutes of Dr. Munro's time on face cream instead—which hadn't made her feel any better, either. Worse, as she kept studying her reflection to see if it was having an effect on the deep lines between her eyebrows and the loose skin around her jaw.
Two years ago, when Stella had first met him, she had given little thought to her appearance. She had felt younger than forty-four, particularly because she was tall and slim clothes hung well on her. She wore almost no makeup, though she'd started having blond highlights threaded through her hair to hide the gray. But now, if she looked in the mirror and let her eyes go dead and her face relax, an old woman's face stared back at her.
Stella looked at the computer screen, which was still demanding a reply to its question. It had helpfully highlighted the button Yes, as if knowing that this was the path of sanity and righteousness. She moved the mouse and clicked No instead. She stared at his name. It was extraordinary, she thought, to hear from him today of all days. Just yesterday she had been on Primrose Hill with Clemmie, who was taking a break from GCSE revisions from exams. The two of them had got coffee from the Italian deli and were sitting drinking it in the winter sunshine on a bench. A small, fat man with a Great Dane on a lead walked in front of them, and Clemmie had said, "Opposites attract," and Stella had laughed, thinking it the first normal, friendly thing her daughter had said in a very long time.
Stella had turned her head to watch the big dog and its tiny owner pass, then had thought she'd seen him sitting at the next bench along. He wasn't sullen and cowering, as he had been when he came into her office and stood there wordlessly as she had packed her things. Instead, she could tell from the back of his fair head and from the lazy way he was sticking his legs out that he was at ease. He had his arm around someone young and blond with skinny jeans tucked into high-heeled boots. On the pretext of putting her cup in the bin, Stella had got up and walked toward him, and at just that moment, he'd turned toward her. It wasn't him.
"You know," she had said to Emily on the phone that evening, "I think I am really over it. I thought I saw him yesterday with someone young and pretty on a park bench. And I felt curious, and, yes, I suppose if I'm honest, I was a bit… disturbed. But I wasn't destroyed. I wasn't even churned up. Even when I was certain it was him, I thought, It's okay, I've moved on."
There had been a brief silence at the other end of the line.
"Well," her friend had said, "maybe you have, maybe you haven't."
Why were one's closest friends, the people who had witnessed all one's ups and downs, so superior? Maybe it was simply that for four decades, Stella's friends had witnessed one huge "up" after another and so were relishing this catastrophic down for its novelty value.
But what was even worse than her friend's superiority was the fact that she was right. Stella's dry mouth and thudding heart did not belong to a woman who had moved on. She got up and closed her office door. She didn't want to do this under the appraising eye of her PA.
She took the mouse, moved it to the message, and clicked on it to open.
"Dearest S," it began.
From long practice, she could gauge the state of his feelings toward her from the first couple of words of his messages. Once, long ago, during an interminable conference call, she had written a list of them in order of affection:
my own dearest, funniest, cleverest, sexiest F (this had happened only once, in the very early days)
"Hallo" she disliked doubly, first for its lack of affection and then for its wretched spelling. But "Dear Stella" was the worst, as it was coldest. That was how the final and most awful message of them all had begun, its correct capitals underlining the correctness of the sentiment it contained.
But now here he was, e-mailing her after a long, arid year, and now she was his dearest again. She returned to the message.
it's been a long time. I've no idea how you are, or if you want to hear from me at all anymore. I don't even know where you are working now, but I've just googled you and I'm sending this to what seems is your new work e-mail. I hope it reaches you. I often think of you, ferreting things out. Do you still do that? I bet you do.
I've got something to ask you, and something to tell you. So I wondered… will you have lunch with me one day next week? we could meet at the bleeding heart for old times' sake or anywhere else would be fine too.
First she read it quickly. And then slowly, looking at every word. The bit about the ferret was a giveaway. Referring to that was tantamount to saying that he hadn't moved on at all either. Stella hit reply and typed:
Yes to lunch. Yes to the Bleeding Heart. Thursday? One?
PS Yes, I still ferret things out. Of course. xx
Was it too keen? She reread his message. It was definitely warm, and he did say that he still thought about her, but he didn't say in what way. She read it again. Maybe it wasn't that warm. At least not effusive. "Cheers" was a pretty distant ending, as well as being an ugly one. Respond, don't react, Dr. Munro had said. It had been one of her more helpful instructions.
Lunch would be nice. Have an AFJ board meeting in Rome Monday to Wed, so could do Thursday or Friday?
But did he really want or need to know about her schedule? He used to resent her packed diary, so perhaps it was best not to mention it now. She tried again.
How nice to hear from you. Lunch would be lovely. Thursday or Friday good for me. Let me know, Stella
She pressed send.
Bella stared at her BlackBerry in disbelief. How odd to get a message from him today of all days.
She hadn't thought of him in a long time. Or at least she might have thought of him a little bit, sometimes, but not in a bad or heavy way. But then, just yesterday, she had been packing things into boxes, finally moving on and out of her flat off the Holloway Road, and she had come across the Van Morrison CD he had given her just before it had begun. And that had got her thinking about it again.
He'd come into the office that morning—almost two years ago now—and produced the CD from his briefcase and said, "Please tell me what you think of this." The tone of his voice was just the same, just as authoritative, as when he said, "Please reschedule my four o'clock meeting." She had looked at the CD in confusion, and he had said, "It's not for anything, except to listen to, I daresay you know the track called 'Brown Eyed Girl.' It's one I especially like. I know you think that I can't see what is under my nose. But it has not escaped my notice that you have brown eyes."
None of his other presents had survived—when she had got back to her flat on the day after their last, awful lunch, she had rounded up all of them, put them into a Tesco carrier bag, and taken them to the Marie Curie shop on Highbury Corner.
The next Saturday, when she had changed her mind and gone back to retrieve the gold earrings and the pearl necklace that were far too grown up for her ever to wear, it was too late. They were sold.
Last night, she had put "Brown Eyed Girl" on the CD player.
Do you remember when we used to sing,
Nah nah na…
Millie had objected: "Who's this old man?"
And Bella had said: "This song reminds me of a friend I used to have."
Millie blanked this, grabbed the remote, put on "Love Machine" by Girls Aloud, and started to strut her skinny nine-year-old body around the removal boxes.
Bella looked again at the message. He'd sent it on the old company address, so he must still work for Atlantic Energy. The subject line said simply: "Hello."
I expect you will be surprised to get this message, unprompted. But I have something to ask of you, which, on balance, I think might be better not committed to e-mail. Would you allow me to buy you a drink next week? I am not sure what time you currently finish work or, indeed, where you work. However, if it were convenient, might you be able to meet me at Green's champagne bar next Thursday at 7 pm?
She read it, frowning. She'd half forgotten his turn of phrase: polite and precise; even his love letters (of which there had not been many) could not quite shake off the tone of the business memo. Bella felt a flash of the old resentment, hit reply, and typed quickly:
Hi—thanks for your message. Hope you don't mind if I say no to a drink—I just don't think there's much point in meeting up. Hope all is well with you. Bella.
She read it over and thought it sounded mean. Maybe the favor was something simple. And would it really be so horrible seeing him after all this time? The memory of that last day, when he had escorted her to the lift, looked at her as if they were perfect strangers, had stopped hurting. She had not seen him at all for a year, not counting that time, a couple of months after she'd left AE, when she had seen him on the Piccadilly line with his two boys, both of whom were clutching large Spamalot programs. She was sure he had seen her. But he had made no move toward her and she'd made none toward him. She had gone home and wept.
But now his words didn't tug at her at all. The miracle of indifference, which she had prayed for, had crept up on her unawares, and now she really was unmoved by his message. And so maybe it would be fine to meet up. Only not for a drink—lunch would be safer.
Perhaps something nice would come out of it, she thought. It would do her good to be able to say: Look at me now. I'm so over you. I've got a proper job—I'm an account manager now, and I love it, and I'm making better money. And I've even started seeing someone nice, who really wants me in his life properly, which—let's face it—was more than you ever did. Bella deleted what she had written and started again.
Hi—yes, it would be great to meet up but drink is difficult for me as I'm always dashing home to be with Millie (so no change, there!). could do a quick lunch. am working as an assistant client manager at Lambert Finch (ad agency) so all is well with me.
maybe you could pop into my office in Charlotte St., and we can go around the corner and grab a sandwich?
She looked over what she had written. That was better. She pressed send.
Stella's story—a story she told and retold to herself in the hope that she might come to understand what had happened to her and why she had behaved as she had—started two years earlier, on the day that Julia Swanson resigned.
That morning, Stella had got in to the office early. She was writing a presentation for the board, and unless she stole a march on the day she would get caught up in endless meetings and nothing would get done.
She walked across the marble floor toward the glass barriers and reached into her handbag for her wallet, which contained her security pass. She put her bag on the receptionist's desk—manned at this early hour by a uniformed night security guard—and started to rummage through its contents. Nothing.
In her head, she retraced her movements from the night before. She had left the office early for a lecture on the newly attractive economics of nuclear power and then had gone on to a dinner party with Charles's old boss from his days at Granada. She had paid for the cab on the way home—Charles, as ever, having no money with him—so she must have had her wallet then. Which meant that with any luck, it was now sitting on the table in the hall.
She asked the guard for a temporary pass, and he opened the visitors book. "Name?"
"How are you spelling that?"
"I am spelling it," she said crisply, "B-r-a-d-b-e-r-r-y."
Slowly he wrote it down, omitting the second r. "Department?"
"Who's your line manager?"
Stella sighed. Why, she thought, do I have to give my line manager's name in order to get into an office where I have worked for the last twenty-two years?
"Stephen Hinton," she said. The name of the CEO seemed to mean nothing to him, and he wrote it down indifferently.
Under "Time in" he entered 7:12, looking up to check the clock, which was a giant elliptical Atlantic Energy logo set into the wall over the lifts. He handed her an oblong of plastic on a string to wear around her neck.
She smiled at him and felt a little jab of discomfort when he didn't smile back. Charles used to laugh at the way Stella always needed everyone to love her, even people she didn't especially like herself. As she got older, she was getting a bit better: She could tolerate not being loved by security guards, but only just.
She pushed through the glass barrier and pressed "Home" on her mobile. "Darling. Are you still in bed?… No, I've just got in… Can you check and see if I left my wallet by the front door?… Oh, thank God… I'll get Nathalie to send a bike later…"
Stella took the lift to the thirteenth floor and went along the corridor past the aggressive works of modern art that Stephen Hinton was so proud of. She eyed the latest arrival: an oversize blue canvas with some hessian fabric stuck to it. She looked at the name of the picture. Tower of Nothing, it was entitled.
Her office was on the wrong side of the building, looking north over the building sites of the City of London, and was slightly smaller than her status merited. Some of her male colleagues made a fuss about this sort of thing, but she quite liked the way that her office was smaller and her pay lower than her worth to the company. It made her feel off the hook in a way that she knew was illogical, but she didn't care. Stella had made no attempt to make her room homely—others had filled their offices with photos of their families, but she considered that sentimental. She had only one picture—of herself with Nelson Mandela taken when she visited Atlantic Energy's South African subsidiary six or seven years ago.
She turned on her computer and waited while it clicked and whirred and played the triumphant four-note symphony that welcomed her to Windows. She opened up her e-mail and scanned down the ninety-four messages that had arrived since last night. At the bottom, with a red exclamation mark beside it, was an e-mail from Julia Swanson.
Must talk. Tried to catch you yesterday but you were in meetings all day. Wanted you to know that I'm seeing Stephen this morning to hand in my notice. Eeek. Lunch?
Stella wasn't surprised it had come to this. Julia had been unprofessional and unwise, and now she was paying for it. Yet the news made Stella feel unsettled. She didn't really like Julia, but neither did she want her to go, as without her there would be no other women in senior management to gossip with.
God are you sure? That is terrible news (for me)… I'll miss you… Yes to lunch, though am v busy doing board presentation so will have to be quick. 12:45? xS.
For Bella it began that same day, the day that Julia quit. She was half an hour late getting into the office—which wasn't like her. But that morning everything had gone wrong. Millie had refused to put on her school sweatshirt, and Bella had ended up screaming at her. Millie had started to cry, and Bella had said that if she didn't stop, she couldn't go to the party at the weekend. Millie had recovered by the time they got to school, helped by a strawberry Chewit, but Bella hadn't: These pointless scenes left her feeling distressed and almost envious of her contemporaries who were spending their twenties getting drunk and behaving exactly as they pleased.
Then there were delays on the Piccadilly line—someone was having an even worse morning than she was and had decided to fling themselves under a train. Stuck under a man's armpit on a stationary tube, Bella opened Metro and read her horoscope: "Your career is progressing well and it seems that your plans cannot fail. Do not get carried away with your ambition. All work and no play will get you down so also take some time out for you." What crap, she thought. Progressing well? I don't think so.
She changed at King's Cross onto the Northern line and then ran the short distance from Moorgate tube to Atlantic Tower, fearing her boss's wrath. She never knew where she was with Julia. One minute she would behave as if her PA were her best friend, the next she would be shouting at her over some minor transgression.
Bella went up in the lift, and at the third floor Stephen Hinton got in. The CEO fixed his eyes on the security pass that Bella had hung around her neck, making her feel that he was staring at her breasts.
"Good morning, Bella," he said, reading her name off the pass.
"Hi," she replied, and then neither of them said anything and looked at their shoes. What are you meant to say to the CEO? She wasn't sure, but she hated silences, so she said: "There was a person under the train this morning at Caledonian Road."
He stared and then guffawed, which didn't strike Bella as the right way to respond at all.
She got out at the thirteenth floor and went along the corridor past the new work of art, which was a bit of old rag stuck to a canvas. She'd heard that the company had paid $140,000 of shareholders' money for that, which was pathetic.
The plate of blueberries that catering delivered every morning was still waiting outside Julia's office, which must mean that Julia was late, too. Bella picked up the shrink-wrapped plate, pushed open the glass door with her foot, and was surprised to see Julia's coat left carelessly on her chair. Bella picked it up, admiring its swirly Paul Smith lining. She took off her own H&M duffle coat and slipped on the other coat. It was both too long and too tight; Julia almost never ate and so, despite being six inches taller than her PA, was considerably thinner. Bella envied her both the coat and the figure. Hastily she took it off, hung it up, and started going through her boss's e-mails. At the top was a message from Stella Bradberry, saying, "I'll miss you." What was that about? And why had Julia fixed a lunch with Stella when she was meant to be taking out the new oil correspondent from the Financial Times?
She looked up to see Julia approaching. She was immaculately made up as ever, though Bella noticed a tightness about her, an intensity that she had seen only once before, and then by mistake.
"Sorry I was late," Bella started to say, but Julia batted it away.
"I wanted you to be the first to know: I've just resigned."
Bella knew this was an inadequate response but didn't know what else to say. What she was thinking was: I would have quit in your shoes. Though she never would have been in Julia's shoes, as she would have had more sense. But she couldn't say anything because she had never worked out if Julia knew that she, Bella, knew all about it. Sometimes she thought Julia must know—as it would be stupid to expect her not to have read the e-mails. Though not as stupid as writing them on the office e-mail system in the first place. Julia's approach to privacy would have made Bella laugh if it hadn't been so tragic. She had simply transferred all her messages to and from him into a folder marked "misc," which was available on the desktop for anyone who wanted to look.
"What are you going to do?" Bella asked at last.
"I've been headhunted. I'm going to join Wiley and Marston as a senior political lobbyist."
Bella wasn't quite sure what this was. "Congratulations," she said. "When are you actually going?"
"They've asked me to leave today, so I'll be on three months' gardening leave at home."
Bella thought this unfair. If you quit on a salary of £140,000, they pay you to stay at home for three months. But if she were to quit on her salary of £29,000, she'd have to work out every last minute of her four weeks' notice period.
Stella looked at the sentence she had just written:
"We support urgent but informed action to stabilize greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations by achieving sustainable long-term emission reductions at the lowest possible cost."
She was wondering whether to redraft it to make it snappier when Julia put her head around the door. "Ready?" she said.
Stella got up from her desk and told Nathalie, who sat in a glass antechamber to her office, that she'd be back in an hour.
They walked around the corner to Le Pain Quotidien, a bakery shop with scrubbed wood tables pretending to be in rural France, and Stella ordered a tricolor salad. Julia said she'd have the same, though she told the waiter that she didn't want dressing or pine nuts and only one slice of mozzarella.
"So," said Stella once the waiter had taken their orders. "How did Stephen take it?"
"I've never seen him so upset," Julia said. "It was just extraordinary. He put his head in his hands and for a second he didn't say anything. Then he said I was the best head of press we've ever had and he offered me a pay rise and a promotion."
"So weren't you tempted to take it?"
"Well," said Julia, "it's not entirely about the money. It's more about me, and where I see myself ten years from now. You know what really scares me? It's being bored. Doesn't that thought worry you?"
Stella started to say that she wasn't bored, but Julia went on:
- On Sale
- Feb 7, 2011
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing