Im woken the next day by Trish banging sharply on my door. Samantha! I need to speak to you! Now!
Its not even eight oclock on a Saturday morning. Wheres the fire?
OK! Hang on a sec! I call blearily.
I get out of bed and put on a dressing gown, my head filled with delicious memories of last night. Nathaniels hand in mine ... Nathaniels arms around me ...
Yes, Mrs. Geiger? I open my door to see Trish standing there in a white robe. She puts her hand over the cordless phone in her hand.
Samantha. Theres a strange note of triumph in her voice. Youve fibbed to me, havent you?
I feel a white flash of shock. How did shehow could she
Havent you? She gives me a penetrating look. Im sure you know what Im talking about?
My mind frantically runs over all the fibs Ive ever told Trish, up to and including Im a housekeeper. It could be anything. It could be something small and insignificant. Or she could have found out the whole lot.
I dont know what youre referring to, I say in a throaty voice. Madam.
Well. Trish walks toward me, swishing her silk dressing gown crossly. As you can imagine, Im rather upset that you never told me youd cooked paella for the Spanish ambassador.
My mouth hangs open.
I specifically asked in your interview if you had cooked for any notable persons. Trish arches her eyebrows in reproof. You never even mentioned the banquet for three hundred at the Mansion House.
OK, has she been bipolar all this time? That would explain a lot. Mrs. Geiger, I say, a little nervous. Would you like to sit down? No, thank you! she says crisply. Im still on the phone with Lady Edgerly. Freyas on the phone? Lady Edgerly ... Trish lifts the phone to her ear. Youre quite right Jar too
unassuming ... She looks up. Lady Edgerly would like to have a word with you.
She hands me the phone and in a blur of incredulity I lift it to my ear.
Samantha? Freyas familiar, raspy voice erupts into my ear through a sea of ??static. Are you OK? What the fuck is going on?
Im ... fine! I glance at Trish, who is standing approximately two meters away. Ill just ... go somewhere a bit more ...
Ignoring Trishs laserlike eyes, I hurry into my bedroom and close the door tight. Then I lift the phone to my ear again.
Im fine! I feel a rush of joy to be talking to Freya again. Its so amazing to hear from you!
What on earths going on? she demands again. I got this message but it made no sense! Youre a housekeeper? Is this some huge windup?
No. I glance at the door, then move into the bathroom and turn the fan on. Im a full- time housekeeper, I say in a lower voice. Ive left my job at Carter Spink.
Youve quit? says Freya. Just like that?
I didnt quit. I was ... thrown out. I made a mistake and they fired me.
Its still hard to say it. Or even to think about it.
You were thrown out for a simple mistake? Freya sounds outraged. Jesus H. Christ, these people
It wasnt a simple mistake, I cut her off in mid- flow. It was ... a really big, important mistake. Anyway, thats what happened. And I decided to do something different. Become a housekeeper for a bit.
You decided to become a housekeeper, echoes Freya slowly. Samantha, did you totally lose your mind?
Why not? I say defensively. You were the one who said I should have a break. But a housekeeper? You cant cook! Well, I know.
I mean, you really cant cook! Shes giggling now. Ive seen your cooking. And your nonexistent cleaning.
I know! It was a bit of a nightmare to begin with. But Im kind of ... learning. Youd be surprised.
Do you have to wear an apron?
Ive got this hideous nylon uniform. Im snuffling with laughter now. And I call them Madam ... and Sir ... and I curtsy.
Samantha, this is insane, says Freya. Absolutely insane. You can not stay there. Im going to rescue you. Ill fly back tomorrow
No! I say with more vehemence than I intended. No! Im ... having a good time. Ive met
I halt abruptly. But Freyas too quick off the mark for me. A man? she exclaims in delight. Well ... yes. Thats fantastic! About time too. Only hed better not be another dreary lawyer Dont worry. I feel an unwilling grin come to my face. Hes not.
Its early days. But hes ... you know. Nice.
Well, even so. If you want to escape, you know Im only a phone call away. You can stay at our place.
Thanks, Freya. I feel a tug of affection for her.
No problem. Samantha?
Yes? Theres a long silence, until I think the line must have cut out.
What about the law? says Freya at last. What about partnership? I know I gave you a hard time about it. But it was your dream. Are you just going to abandon it?
I push down a twinge of deep, buried grief. That dreams over, I say shortly. Partners dont make fifty- million- quid mistakes.
Fifty million quid?
Jesus. I hear her sharp intake of breath. I had no idea. I cant imagine how youve coped with all this
Its fine. I cut her off. Ive got over it. Freya sighs. You know, I had a feeling something was up. I tried to send you an e- mail
the other day via the Carter Spink Web site. But your page was gone.
Really? I feel an odd tweak inside.
And then I thought She breaks off, and I can hear some kind of mayhem in the background. Oh, bugger. Our transports here. Listen, Ill call again soon
Wait! I say urgently. Before you go, Freya, what on earth did you say to Trish about the Spanish ambassador? And the Mansion House?
Oh, that! Well, she kept asking questions, so I thought Id better make some stuff up. I said you could fold napkins into a scene from SwanLake ... and make ice sculptures ... and David Linley once asked for your cheese- straw recipe.
Freya ... I close my eyes.
I made quite a lot up, actually. She lapped it up! I have to go, babe. Love you.
Love you too.
The phone goes dead and I stand motionless for a moment, the bathroom suddenly very silent without Freyas husky voice in my ear.
I look at my watch. Its still early. Ive got time to have a look.
Three minutes later Im sitting at Eddies desk, tapping my fingers as I wait for the Internet connection to work. I asked Trish if I could possibly send an e- mail of thanks to Lady Edgerly, and she was only too eager to open up the study for me and loiter behind the chair, until I politely asked her for some privacy.
Eddies home page opens and I immediately type inwww.carterspink.com.
As the familiar purple logo appears and describes a 360-degree circle on the screen, I can feel all the old tensions rising, like leaves from the bottom of a pond. Taking a deep breath, I click swiftly past the introduction, straight to Associates. The list comes up
and Freyas right. The names segue straight from Snell to Taylor. No Sweeting.
I tell myself to be rational. Of course theyve taken me off. Ive been fired, what else did I expect? That was my old life and Im not concerned with it anymore. I should just close down, go to Iriss house, and forget about it. Thats what I should do. Instead, I find myself reaching for the mouse and tapping Samantha Sweeting into the search box. No result pings up a few moments later.
No result? Nowhere on the whole Web site? But ... what about in the Media section? Or News Archives?
I quickly click onto the Done Deals box, and search for Euro- Sal, merger, DanCo. That was a big European deal last year, and I handled the financing. The report appears on the screen, with the headline CARTER SPINK ADVISES ON ? 20BN MERGER. My eyes run down the familiar text. The Carter Spink team was led from London by Arnold Saville, with associates Guy Ashby and Jane Smilington.
I stop in disbelief, then go back and read the text more carefully, searching for the missing words: and Samantha Sweeting, it should read. But the words arent there. Im not there. Quickly I click onto another deal, the Conlon acquisition. I know Im in this report. Ive read it, for Christs sake. I was on the team, Ive got a tombstone to prove it.
But Im not mentioned here either.
My heart is thudding as I click from deal to deal, tracking back a year. Two years. Five years. Theyve wiped me out. Someone has gone painstakingly through the entire Web site and removed my name. Ive been erased from every deal I was involved with. Its as if I never even existed.
I try to stay calm, but anger is bubbling up, hot and strong. How dare they change history? How dare they wipe me out? I gave them seven years of my life. They cant just blot me out, pretend I was never even on the payroll.
Then a new thought hits me. Why have they bothered doing this? Other people have left the firm and havent disappeared. Am I such an embarrassment? I look at the screen silently for a moment. Then, slowly, I type inwww.google.com and enter Samantha Sweeting in the box. I add lawyer to be on the safe side, and press enter.
A moment later the screen fills with text. As I scan the entries I feel as though Ive been hit over the head.
... The Samantha Sweeting debacle ... ... discovery, Samantha Sweetingwent AWOL, leaving colleaguestto ...
... Heard aboutSamantha Sweeting ... ... Samantha Sweeting jokes. What do you call a lawyer who ... ... Samantha Sweetingfired from Carter Spink ...
One after another. From lawyers Web sites, legal news services, law students message boards. Its as if the whole legal world has been talking about me behind my back. In a daze, I click to the next pageand there are still more. And on the next page, and the next.
I feel as though Im surveying a wrecked bridge. Looking at the damage, realizing for the first time quite how bad the devastation is.
I can never go back.
I knew that.
But I dont think I really knew it. Not deep down in the pit of my stomach. Not where it counts.
I feel a wetness on my cheek and jump to my feet, shutting all the Web pages down; clearing History in case Eddie gets curious. I shut down the computer and look around the silent room. This is where I am. Not there. That part of my life is over.
Iriss cottage is looking as idyllic as ever as I dash up to the front door, out of breath. In fact, even more idyllic, as a goose is now wandering about with her hens.
Hello. Iris is sitting on the front step with a mug of tea. You seem in a hurry.
I just wanted to get here on time. I glance around the garden, but theres no sign of Nathaniel.
Nathaniel had to go and sort out a leaking pipe at one of the pubs, says Iris, as though reading my mind. But hell be back later. Meanwhile, were going to make bread.
Great! I say. I follow her into the kitchen and put on the same stripy apron as last time.
Ive started us off already, says Iris, going over to a large, old- fashioned mixing bowl on the table. Yeast, warm water, melted butter, and flour. Mix together and you have your dough. Now, youre going to knead it.
Right, I say, looking blankly at the dough. She shoots me a curious glance.
Are you all right, Samantha? You seem ... out of sorts.
Im fine. I will myself to concentrate. Sorry.
I know people have machines to do this for them, she says, hefting the dough onto the table. But this is how we make it the old- fashioned way. Youll never taste better.
She kneads it briskly a couple of times. You see? Fold it over, make a quarter turn. You need to use a bit of energy.
Cautiously I plunge my hands into the soft dough and try to imitate her.
Thats it, says Iris, watching carefully. Get into a rhythm and really work it. Kneadings very good for releasing stress, she adds with wry humor. Pretend youre bashing all your worst enemies.
Ill do that! I manage a cheerful tone.
But theres a knot of tension in my chest, which doesnt dwindle away as I knead. In fact, the more I fold and turn the dough, the worse it seems to get. I cant stop my mind flipping back to that Web site.
I did good things for that firm. I won clients. I negotiated deals. I was not nothing.
I was not nothing.
The more you work the dough, the better the bread will be, says Iris, coming over to the table with a smile. Can you feel it becoming warm and elastic in your hands?
I look at the dough in my fingers, but I cant connect with it. I cant feel what she wants me to. My senses arent plugged in. My mind is skittering about like a squirrel on ice.
I start kneading again, harder than before, trying to capture it. I want to find that contentment I had last time I was here, that feeling of simplicity and earthiness. But I keep losing my rhythm, cursing in frustration as my fingers catch on the dough. My upper arms are aching; my face is sweating. And the turmoil inside me is only getting worse.
How dare they wipe me out? I was a good lawyer. I was a good fucking lawyer. Would you like a rest? Iris comes over and touches my shoulder. Its hard work when
youre not used to it.
Whats the point? My words shoot out before I can stop them. I mean, whats the point of all this? Making bread. You make it and you eat it. And then ... its gone.
I break off abruptly, not quite knowing whats come over me. I dont feel totally on top of myself.
Iris gives me a careful look.
You could say the same of all food, she points out gently. Or life itself.
Exactly. I rub my forehead with my apron. Exactly.
I dont know what Im saying. Why am I picking a fight with Iris? I must calm down.
I think thats enough kneading, she says, taking the dough from me and patting it into a round shape.
Now what? I say, trying to speak more normally. Shall I put it in the oven?
Not yet. Iris places the dough back in the bowl and puts it on top of the stove. Now we wait.
Wait? I stare at her. What do you mean, wait?
We wait. She pops a tea towel over the bowl. Half an hour should do it. Ill make a cup of tea.
But ... what are we waiting for?
For the yeast to rise and work its magic on the dough. She smiles. Underneath that towel, a small miracle is happening.
I look at the bowl, trying to think miracles. But it isnt working. I cant feel calm or serene. My body is wound up too far; every nerve is hopping with tension. I used to be in control of my time to the minute. To the second. And now Im supposed to wait for yeast? Im supposed to stand here, in an apron, waiting for a .. .fungus?
Im sorry, I hear myself say. I cant do it. I head for the kitchen door and out into the garden.
What? Iris comes after me, wiping her hands on her apron. Sweetie, whats wrong?
I cant do this! I wheel round. I cant just ... just sit around patiently, waiting for yeast to get its act together.
Because its such a waste of time! I clutch my head in frustration. Its such a waste of time. All of it!
What do you think we should be doing instead? she asks with interest.
Something ... important. OK? I walk to the apple tree and back again, unable to keep still. Something constructive.
I glance at Iris, but she doesnt seem offended.
Whats more constructive than making bread?
Oh, God. I feel an urge to scream. Its OK for her, with her hens and her apron and no wrecked career on the Internet.
You dont understand anything, I say, close to tears. Im sorry, but you dont. Look ... Ill just leave.
Dont leave. Iriss voice is surprisingly firm. The next moment shes in front of me, placing her two hands on my shoulders, looking at me with her penetrating blue eyes.
Samantha, youve had a trauma, she says in kind, even tones. And its affected you very deeply
I havent had a trauma! I wheel away, out of her grasp. I just ... I cant do this, Iris. I cant pretend to be this. Im not a bread maker, OK? Im not a domestic goddess. I look around the garden desperately, as though searching for clues. I dont know who I am anymore. I have no bloody idea.
A single tear rolls down my cheek and I wipe it away roughly. Im not going to cry in front of Iris.
I dont know who I am. I exhale, more calmly. Or what my goal is ... or where Im headed in life. Or anything.
My energys gone and I sink down on the dry grass. A few moments later Iris comes and squats down beside me.
It doesnt matter, she says, her voice soft. Dont beat yourself up for not knowing all the answers. You dont always have to know who you are. You dont have to have the big picture, or know where youre heading. Sometimes its enough just to know what youre going to do next.
For a while I let her words run through my head, like cool water on a headache.
And what am I going to do next? I say at last, with a hopeless shrug.
Youre going to help me shell the beans for lunch. Shes so matter- of- fact that I half smile in spite of myself.
Meekly, I follow Iris into the house, then collect a big bowl of broad beans and start splitting the pods as she shows me. Pods into a basket on the floor. New broad beans into the basin. Over and over and over.
I become a little calmer as I immerse myself in my task. I never even knew broad beans came from pods like this. To be honest, my total experience of broad beans has been picking them up in a plastic- covered packet from Waitrose, putting them in my fridge, taking them out a week after the sell- by date, and throwing them away.
But this is the real thing. This is what theyre like, dug straight out of the ground. Or ... picked off the bush. Whatever it is.
Each time I split one open its like finding a row of pale green jewels. And when I put one in my mouth, its like
Oh, OK. It needs to be cooked.
When Ive finished the beans we return to the dough, kneading it into loaves. We put the loaves into special tins and then have to wait another half hour for them to rise again. But somehow this time I dont mind. I sit at the table with Iris, hulling strawberries and listening to the radio until its time to put the tins into the oven. Then Iris loads a tray withCheshire cheese, bean salad, biscuits, and strawberries and we take it outside to a table set under the shade of a tree.
There, she says, pouring some iced tea into a tumbler made of bubbled glass. Better?
Yes. Thanks, I say awkwardly. Im sorry about earlier. I just ...
Samantha, its all right. She cuts a piece of cheese and puts it on my plate. You dont have to apologize.
But I do. I take a deep breath. Youve been so wonderful ... and Nathaniel ...
He took you to the pub, I heard.
It was amazing! I say with enthusiasm. You must be so proud, to have that in your family.
Iris nods. Those pubs have been run by Blewetts for generations. She sits down and helps us both to bean salad, dressed with oil and speckled with herbs. I take a biteand its absolutely delicious.
It must have been hard when your husband died, I venture cautiously.
Everything was in a mess. Iris sounds matter- of- fact. A chicken wanders over to the table and she shoos it away. There were financial difficulties. I wasnt well. If it hadnt been for Nathaniel we might have lost all of the pubs. He made sure they got back on track. For his fathers memory. Her eyes cloud a little and she hesitates. You never know how things are going to turn out, however much you plan. But you already know that.
I always thought my life would be a certain way, I say, gazing down at my plate. I had it all mapped out.
But ... it didnt happen like that?
For a few seconds I cant answer. Im remembering the moment I heard I was going to be partner. That instant of undiluted, dazzling joy. When I thought my life had finally fallen into place, when I thought everything was perfect.
No, I say, trying to keep my voice level. It didnt happen like that.
Iris is watching me with such clear, empathetic eyes I almost believe shes able to read my mind.
Dont be too hard on yourself, chicken, she says. We all flounder.
I cant imagine Iris ever floundering. She seems so put- together.
Oh, I floundered, she says, reading my expression. After Benjamin went. It was so sudden. Everything I thought I had, gone overnight.
So ... what did you ... I spread my hands helplessly.
I found another way, she says. But ... it took time. For a moment she holds my gaze, then looks at her watch. Speaking of which, Ill make some coffee. And see how that breads getting on.
I get up to follow her, but she bats me down again. Sit. Stay. Relax.
So I sit in the dappled sunlight, sipping my iced tea, trying to relax. Trying to enjoy the present just sitting here in a beautiful garden. But emotions are still darting around me like unsettled fish.
But I dont know any other way. I feel like the lights gone out and Im feeling my way forward, one step at a time. And all I know is I cant go back to what I was.
I clench my eyes shut, trying to clear my mind. I should never have looked at that Web site. I should never have read those comments.
Hold out your arms, Samantha. Iriss voice is suddenly behind me. Close your eyes. Go on.
I have no idea what shes up to, but I keep my eyes closed and hold out my arms. The next moment I feel something warm being put into them. A yeasty smell is rising up. I open my eyes to see a loaf of bread in my arms.
Proper bread. Real, proper bread like youd see in a bakers window. Fat and plump and golden- brown, with faint striations and a crusty, almost flaky top. It smells so delicious I can feel my mouth watering.
Tell me thats nothing, says Iris, squeezing my arm. You made that, sweetie. And you should be proud of yourself.
Something hot is wadding my throat as I clutch the warm loaf. I made this bread. I made it. I, Samantha Sweeting, who couldnt even microwave a packet of soup. Who gave up seven years of her life to end up with nothing, to be wiped out of existence. Who has no idea who she even is anymore.
I made a loaf of bread. Right now I feel like this is the only thing I have to hold on to.
To my horror a tear suddenly rolls down my cheek, followed by another. This is ridiculous. I must get a grip on myself.
Looks good, comes Nathaniels easy voice behind me, and I wheel round in shock to see him standing next to Iris.
Hi, I say, flustered. I thought you were ... fixing a pipe or something.
Still am. He nods. I just popped home.
Ill go and get the other loaves out, says Iris, patting me on the shoulder and disappearing over the grass toward the house.
I stand up. Just the sight of Nathaniel is adding all sorts of new emotions into the mix: more fish darting around my body.
Although now I think about it, theyre mainly varieties of the same fish.
Are you all right? he says, acknowledging my tears.
Im fine. Its just been a strange day. I brush them away in embarrassment. I dont usually get so emotional about ... bread.
Mum said you got a bit frustrated. He raises his eyebrows. All that kneading?
It was the rising. I raise a rueful smile. Having to wait. Ive never been good at waiting.
Uh- huh. Nathaniels steady blue eyes meet mine. For anything. Somehow I seem to be edging closer and closer to him, Im not entirely
sure how. I have to have things now!
Were inches apart, and as I gaze up at him, breathing hard, all the frustrations and shocks of the last couple of weeks are distilling inside me. A huge block of pressure is growing, until I cant bear it. Unable to stop myself, I reach up and pull his face down toward mine.
I havent kissed like this since I was a teenager. Arms wrapped around each other, oblivious of anything else in the world. Completely lost. Trish could be standing there with a video camera, issuing directions, and I wouldnt notice.
It seems hours later that I open my eyes and we draw apart. My lips feel swollen; my legs are staggery. Nathaniel looks equally shell- shocked.
The bread is totally squashed, I suddenly notice. I try to reshape it as best I can, putting it on the table like a deformed pottery exhibit while I gather my breath.
I dont have long, Nathaniel says. I have to get back to the pub. His hand runs lightly down my back and I feel my body curving toward his.
I dont take long, I say, my voice husky with desire. When did I become so brazen, exactly? I really dont have long. He glances at his watch. About six minutes.
I only take six minutes, I murmur with an enticing glance, and Nathaniel smiles back, as though Im joking.
Seriously, I say, trying to sound modest yet sexy. Im fast. Six minutes, give or take.
Theres silence for a few moments. An incredulous expression is coming over Nathaniels face. Somehow he doesnt look as impressed as I thought he would.
Well ... round here we take things a bit slower, he says at last. Right, I say, trying not to look at all disappointed. Er ... well ... Im sure ... I trail off. I should not have started that sentence. He looks at his watch again. I must be off. I have to drive over toGloucester tonight.
I feel an inward drop at his businesslike tone. Hes barely looking at me anymore. I should never have mentioned timing, I realize in dismay. Everyone knows, you never bring up any kind of numerical measurement during sex with a man. Its the most basic rule.
So ... Ill see you, I say, trying to sound casual yet encouraging. What are you doing tomorrow?
Im not sure yet. He shrugs noncommittally. Are you around?
I guess so. Maybe.
Well ... I may see you.
And with that hes striding away again over the grass, and Im left with nothing but a misshapen loaf of bread and total confusion.