The city isnt the way I remember it. I cant believe how dirty it is. How rushed it is. As I arrived at Paddington Station this afternoon I felt almost bewildered by the commuter crowds moving like a swarm of ants over the concourse. I could smell the fumes. I saw the litter. Things I never even noticed before. Did I just filter them out? Was I so used to them, they faded into the background?
But at the same time, the minute my feet hit the ground I felt the buzz. By the time I
reached the Underground station Id already picked up my pace: matching the stride of everyone else; feeding my travel card into the machine at exactly the right angle; whipping it out with not a second to spare.
And now Im in the Starbucks around the corner from Carter Spink, sitting at the counter in the window, watching City- suited businesspeople walking past, talking and gesticulating and making phone calls. The adrenaline is catching. My hearts already beating more quicklyand I havent even got inside the building yet.
I glance at my watch yet again. Nearly time. The last thing I want to do is arrive early. The less time I spend in there, the better.
As I drain my latte, my phone bleeps, but I ignore it. Itll be yet another message from Trish. She was livid when I told her I had to go away for a couple of days; in fact, she tried to stop me. So I told her I had a foot complaint that needed urgent attention from my specialist inLondon.
In hindsight this was a huge mistake, as she wanted to know every single gory detail. She even demanded I take off my shoe and show her. I had to spend ten minutes improvising about bone misalignment while she peered at my foot and said, It looks perfectly normal to me, in tones of great suspicion.
She looked at me with mistrust for the rest of the day. Then she left a copy of Marie- Claire casually open at the Pregnant? Need Confidential Advice? Advertisements. Honestly. I have to knock that one on the head or itll be all over the village and Iris will be knitting booties.
I told Nathaniel in private that I had a situation to sort out with my old relationship. I could tell he wanted to know more details, that he was finding it hard being shut out, but he didnt press me. I think he saw how strained I was already.
I look at my watch again. Time to go. I head for the Ladies, face the mirror, and check my appearance. Unfamiliar blond hair: check. Tinted glasses: check. Magenta lipstick: check. I look nothing like my former self.
Apart from the face, of course. If you looked really closely.
But the point is, no ones going to look closely at me. This is what Im counting on, anyway.
Hi, I practice in a low, guttural voice. Pleased to meet you. I sound like a drag queen. But never mind. At least I dont sound like a lawyer.
Keeping my head down, I leave Starbucks and walk along the street, until I round the corner and see the distinctive granite steps and glass doors of Carter Spink. I feel unreal being back here. The last time I saw those doors I was pushing my way out of them,
gibbering with panic, convinced Id wrecked my own career, convinced my life was over.
Fury starts boiling up again and I close my eyes briefly, trying to keep my emotions in line. I dont have any proof yet. I have to stay focused on what Im doing. Come on. I can do this.
I know my plan is slightly insane; I know my chances arent great. Its unlikelyArnold has left proof of his misdemeanors just lying about. But I couldnt just give up, tamely stay inLower Ebury, and let him get away with it. My anger is like a huge driving force inside me. I had to come here and at least try to find out what I can.
And if they wont let me in the building as a lawyer ... then Ill just have to go in as something else.
I cross the road and resolutely head up the steps. I can almost see myself that day, a ghostlike figure, running down them in a state of bewildered shock. It all seems like a lifetime ago now. I dont just look like a different person, I feel like a different person. I feel like Ive been rebuilt.
With a deep breath, I pull my mac around me and push open the glass doors. As I step into the foyer I feel a sudden giddy wave of disbelief. Am I actually doing this? Am I actually trying to blag my way, incognito, into the Carter Spink offices?
My legs are wobbling and my hands feel damp, but Im walking steadily forward over the shiny marble floor, my eyes fixed downward. I head toward the new receptionist, Melanie, who started only a couple of weeks before I left.
Hi, I say in my drag- queen voice.
Can I help you? Melanie smiles at me. Theres not a glimmer of recognition in her face. I cant believe this is so easy.
In fact, I feel a tad insulted. Was I so nondescript before? Im here for the party? I mumble, my head down. Im waitressing. Bertrams
Caterers, I add for good measure.
Oh, yes. Thats all happening up on the fourteenth floor. She taps on her computer. Whats your name?
Its ... Trish, I say. Trish Geiger. Melanie peers at the computer screen, frowning and tapping her pen on her teeth.
Youre not on my list, she says at last. Well, I should be there. I keep my head well down. There must be a mistake.
Let me call up ... Melanie taps on her phone and has a brief conversation with someone called Jan, then looks up.
Shell be down to see you. She gestures to the leather sofas with a smile. Please take a seat.
I head toward the seating areathen veer in a sharp U- turn as I see David Spellman from Corporate sitting on one of the sofas with a client. Not that he seems to have recognized me. I walk toward a rack of glossy leaflets on Carter Spinks philosophy and bury my head in one on Dispute Resolution.
Ive never actually read any of these leaflets before. God, they really are a load of meaningless crap.
Er ... yes? I swivel round to see a woman in a tuxedo with a raddled face. Shes holding some typed sheets and regarding me with a frown.
Jan Martin, head of waiting staff. Youre not on my list. Have you worked for us before?
Im new, I say, keeping my voice low. But Ive worked for Ebury Catering. Down in Gloucestershire.
Dont know it. She consults her paper again and flips to the second page, her brow creased in impatience. Love, youre not on the list. I dont know what youre doing here.
I spoke to a guy, I say without flickering. He said you could do with extra. A guy? She looks perplexed. Who? Tony? I dont remember his name. But he said to come here. He couldnt have said
This is Carter Spink, isnt it? I look around. 95 Cheap- side? A big retirement party? Yes. I see the beginnings of doubt on the womans face. Well, I was told to come here. I allow just the faintest belligerence into my voice.
I can see the calculation going on in this womans head: if she turns me away I might cause a scene, shes got other pressing stuff to think about, whats one extra waitress ...
All right! she says at last, with an irritated noise. But youll have to change. Whats your name again?
Trish Geiger. Thats right. She scribbles it down. Well youd better come up, Trish.
I feel almost elated as I travel up in the service elevator with Jan, a plastic label reading Trish Geiger attached to my lapel. Now all I need is to keep my head down, bide my time, and, when the moment is right, get onto the eleventh floor.
We come out in the kitchens attached to the executive function rooms, and I look around in surprise. I had no idea there was all this back here. Its like going backstage at a theater. Chefs are working busily at the cooking stations, and waiting staff are milling around in distinctive green and white striped uniforms.
The outfits are in there. Jan points to a huge wicker basket full of folded uniforms. Youll need to get changed.
OK. I rummage around for an outfit in my size and take it off to the Ladies to change. I touch up my magenta lipstick and pull my hair further round my face, then look at my watch.
Its five- forty now. The partys at six. By about ten past, the eleventh floor should be clearing.Arnold is a very popular partner; no ones going to miss his farewell speech if they can help it. Plus, at Carter Spink parties, the speeches always happen early on, so people can get back to work if they need to.
And while everyones listening Ill slip down toArnold s office. It should work. It has to work. As I stare at my own bizarre reflection, I feel a grim resolve hardening inside me. Hes not going to get away with everyone thinking hes a cheery, harmless old teddy bear. Hes not going to get away with it.
At ten to six we all gather in one of the kitchens and receive our orders. Hot canapes ... cold canapes ... I barely listen to any of it. Its not like Im intending to do any actual waiting. After Jans lecture is over, I follow the herd of waiting staff out of the kitchen. Im given a tray of champagne glasses to carry, which I put down as soon as I can, then head back to the kitchen and grab an open bottle of champagne and a napkin. As soon as Im sure no ones looking, I escape to the Ladies.
OK. This is the difficult bit. I lock myself in a cubicle and wait for fifteen minutes in
utter silence. I dont clatter anything and I dont sneeze and I dont giggle when I hear a girl rehearsing her breakup speech to someone called Mike. Its the longest fifteen minutes of my life.
At last I cautiously unbolt the door, make my way out, and peer round the corner. From where Im standing I can see the entrance to the big function room. A crowd has already gathered and I can hear laughter and lots of loud talking. People are still coming down the corridor in a steady stream. I recognize the girls from PR ... a couple of trainees ... Oliver Swan, a senior partner. They all head into the party, taking a glass as they do so.
The corridors clear. Go.
With trembling legs I walk straight past the entrance to the function room, toward the lifts and the door to the stairwell. Within thirty seconds Im safely through the door and walking as quietly as I can down the stairs. No one ever uses the stairs at Carter Spink, but still.
I reach the eleventh floor and peer out of the glass panel in the door. I cant see anyone. But that doesnt mean theres no one there. There could be a whole crowd of them, just out of my line of vision.
Well, thats a risk Ill have to take. I take a few deep breaths, trying to psych myself up. No one will ever recognize me in my green- and- white waitress gear. And I even have a story if anyone challenges me: Im on this floor to place this bottle of champagne in Mr. Savilles room as a surprise.
Come on. I cant waste any more time.
Slowly I push the door open, step out onto the blue carpeted corridor, and exhale in relief. Its empty. The whole floor is pretty much dead. Everyone must have gone up to the party. I can hear someone on the phone a few yards away but as I start nervously walking towardArnold s office, all the surrounding workstations are empty. All my senses are on red alert.
The crucial thing is to use my time efficiently. Ill start with the computer and take it from there. Or maybe I should start with the filing cabinet. Have a quick look while the computer is warming up. Or Ill search his desk drawers. His Blackberry could be in there. I hadnt thought of that.
Suddenly I can hear voices behind me, coming out of the lifts. In panic, I pick up my pace. I reachArnold s office, wrench the door open, slam it behind me, and duck down underneath the glass panel. I can hear the voices getting closer. David Elldridge and Keith Thompson and someone I dont recognize. They pass by the door, and I dont move a muscle. Then theyre receding into the distance. Thank God.
I let out my breath, slowly rise to my feet, and peep through the glass. I cant see anyone.
Im safe. Only then do I turn around and survey the office. Its empty. Its been cleared out.
Bewildered, I take a few steps into the room. The desk is empty. The shelves are empty. There are faint squares on the walls where framed photos have been taken down. Theres nothing in this office apart from one piece of industrial tape on the floor and some drawing pins still stuck into the pin board.
I cant believe it. After all this effort. After making it this far. Theres nothing to bloody search?
There must be boxes, I think in sudden inspiration. Yes. Its all been put into boxes to be moved, and theyll all be stacked outside. I hurry out of the office and look around wildly. But I cant see any boxes. No crates. Nothing. Im too late. Im too fucking late. I feel like punching something with frustration.
Excuse me? I freeze. Shit. Shit. Yes? I turn round, pulling my hair over my face and gazing firmly downward. What on earth are you doing here? Its a trainee. Bill ... whats his name? He used to do occasional bits of work for me. Its all right. He hasnt recognized me.
I was delivering a bottle of champagne, sir, I mumble in my best drag- queen voice, nodding to the bottle where I left it on the floor. Surprise for the gentleman. I was just wondering where to put it.
Id just leave it on the desk, says Bill curtly. And you shouldnt be in here.
I was just going back. Sir. I dump the bottle on the desk, bow my head, and scuttle out. Bloody hell. That was close.
I head to the stairwell and hurry up the stairs, flustered. Its time to exit this building, before anyone else sees me.
The partys still in full swing as I creep out of the stairwell door and hurry toward the
room where I left my clothes. I wont bother to change. I can always mail the waitress gear back
Trish? Jans voice hits the back of my head. Is that you? Fuck. Reluctantly I turn round to face her. She looks hopping mad. Where the hell have
Um ... serving?
No, you havent. I havent seen you in there once! she snaps. Youre not working for me again, I can tell you. Now, take these and pull your weight. She thrusts a plate of tiny little eclairs into my arms and pushes me roughly toward the doors of the party.
No. I cant go in there. No way. Absolutely! I just have to ... get some cocktail napkins___ I try to back away, but she grabs me. No, you dont! You wanted this job! Now work!
She shoves me hard, and I stagger into the crowded room. I feel like a gladiator being pushed into the arena. Jans standing at the door, her arms folded. Theres no way out. Im going to have to do this. I grip the tray more tightly, lower my headand advance slowly into the crowded room.
I cant walk naturally. My legs feel like boards. 'The hairs on the nape of my neck are standing on end; I can feel the blood pulsating through my ears. I edge past expensive suits, not daring to look up, not daring to pause in case I attract attention. I cant believe this is happening. Im dressed up in a green- and- white uniform, serving mini- eclairs to my former colleagues.
But one thing Ive learned from doing parties with Eamonn is, the waiting staff are invisible. And sure enough, no one seems to have noticed.
Several hands have plucked eclairs from the tray, without even glancing at me. Everyones too busy laughing and chatting. The din is tremendous.
I cant seeArnold anywhere. But he has to be here somewhere. Im compelled to look for him, to raise my head and search him out. But I cant risk it. Instead, I keep on moving steadily around the room. Familiar faces are everywhere. Snatches of conversation are making my ears prick up.
Wheres Ketterman? someone is asking as I pass by.
InDublin for the day, replies Oliver Swan. But hell be at the partners farewell dinner tomorrow night. I breathe out in relief. If Ketterman were here Im sure his laser eyes would pick me up at once.
About eight hands dive into my tray at once and I come to a standstill Its a group of trainees. Hoovering food, as trainees always do at parties.
Im starting to feel edgy. The longer I stand here without moving, the more exposed I feel. But I cant get away. Their hands keep plunging in for more.
Are there any more of the strawberry tarts, do you know? a guy with rimless glasses asks me.
Urn ... I dont know, I mutter, staring down.
Shit. Now hes peering at me more closely. Hes bending down to get a good look. And I cant pull my hair over my face because both hands are holding the tray.
Is that ... Samantha Sweeting? He looks agog. Is that Samantha Sweeting? One of the girls drops her eclair. Another gasps and claps her hand over her mouth.
Urn ... yes, I whisper at last, my face boiling. Its me. But please, dont tell anyone. I want to keep a low profile.
So ... this is what you do now? The rimless- glasses guy looks aghast. Youre a waitress?
The trainees are all staring at me as though Im the Ghost of Failed Lawyers Future.
Its not so bad. I attempt an upbeat smile. You get free canapes!
So you make one mistakeand thats it? gulps the girl who dropped her eclair. Your legal career is ruined forever?
Er ... pretty much. I nod. Can I offer you another?
But no one seems hungry anymore. In fact, they all look rather green about the gills.
I might just ... pop back to my desk, stammers the guy with rimless glasses. Just check I havent got anything outstanding ...
Me too, says the girl, thrusting down her glass. Samantha Sweeting is here! I suddenly hear another of the trainees hissing to a group
of junior associates. Look! Shes a waitress!
No! I gasp. Dont tell anyone else
Its too late. I can see all the people in the group turning to look at me with identical expressions of embarrassed horror.
For an instant Im so mortified I want to curl up on the spot. These are people I used to work with. These are people who respected me. And now Im dressed up in stripes, serving them.
But then, slowly, I begin to feel defiant. Fuck you, I find myself thinking. Why shouldnt I work as a waitress? Hi, I say, shaking back my hair. Care for a dessert?
More and more people are turning to gasp at me. I can hear the whispering round the room. The other waitstaff are all clustered together, goggling at me. Heads are swiveling everywhere now, like iron filings in a magnetic field. There isnt one friendly face among them.
Jesus Christ! I hear someone murmur. Look at her. Should she be here? exclaims someone else. No, I say, trying to sound composed. Youre right. I shouldnt.
I make to leave, but the melee is all around me now. I cant find a way out. And then my stomach plunges. Through a gap in the throng, I spot a familiar shock of woolly hair. Familiar ruddy cheeks. A familiar jovial smile.
Our eyes meet across the room, and although he keeps smiling, theres a hardness to his gaze that Ive never seen before. A special anger, just for me.
I feel sick. Almost scared. Not of his angerbut of his duplicity. Hes fooled everyone. To everyone else in this room, Arnold Saville is on a par with Father Christmas. A way has parted in the crowd, and hes coming toward me, a glass of champagne in his hand.
Samantha, he says, in pleasant tones. Is this appropriate?
You had me banned from the building, I hear myself bite back. I didnt have much choice.
Oh, God. Wrong answer. Too chippy.
I have to get control of myself, or Im going to lose this confrontation. Im already at enough of a disadvantage, standing here in waitress gear, being peered at by the entire room as if Im something the dog dragged in. I need to be calm and steely and inspired. But seeingArnold in the flesh after all this time has thrown me off balance. As hard as I try to stay calm, I cant. My face is burning, my chest feels tight. All the traumas of the last few weeks are suddenly erupting inside me in a whoosh of hatred.
You had me fired. The words burst out before I can stop them. You lied!
Samantha, I know this must have been a very difficult time for you.Arnold has the air of a headmaster dealing with a wayward pupil. But really ... He turns to a man I dont recognize and rolls his eyes. Former employee, he says in an undertone. Mentally unstable.
What? What? Im not mentally unstable! I cry. I just want to know the answer to one simple
question. When exactly did you put that memo on my desk?
Arnoldlaughs, seemingly incredulous.
Samantha, Im retiring. Is this really the time? Could someone get rid of her? he adds as an aside.
Thats why you didnt want me to come back to the office, isnt it? My voice is trembling with indignation. Because I might start asking tricky questions. Because I might work it out.
A little frisson travels around the room. But not in a good way. I can hear people murmuring, For Gods sake, and How did she get in here? If I want to retain any credibility or dignity at all I have to stop talking right now. But I cant stop.
I didnt make that mistake, did I? I walk toward him. You used me. You wrecked my career, you watched my whole life go into free fall
Really, snapsArnold, turning away. This is getting beyond a joke.
Just answer the question! I yell at his back. When did you put that memo on my desk, Arnold? Because I dont believe it was ever there before the deadline.
Of course it was there.Arnold turns briefly, bored and dismissive. I came into your office on May twenty- eighth.
Where did May 28th come from? Why does that feel wrong?
I dont believe you, I say with a helpless anger. I just dont believe you. I think you set me up. I think
Samantha? Someone pokes me on the shoulder and I wheel round to see Ernest the security guard. His familiar, gnarled face is awkward. Im going to have to ask you to leave the premises.
Theyre seriously throwing me out of the offices? After practically living here for seven years of my life? I can feel my last shreds of composure disappearing. Hot tears of rage and humiliation are pressing against my eyes.
Just leave, Samantha, says Oliver Swan pityingly. Dont embarrass yourself any further.
I stare at him for a few seconds, then transfer my gaze to each of the senior partners in turn, searching for a shred of empathy. But theres none.
I was a good lawyer, I say, my voice shaking. I did a good job. You all know it. But you just wiped me out, like I never existed. I swallow down the lump in my throat. Well, your loss.
The room is totally silent as I put the tray of eclairs down on a nearby table and stalk out of the room. The moment Im out the door I can hear an animated conversation breaking out behind me. Im even more of a joke than I was before.
I travel down in the lift with Ernest in total silence. If I opened my mouth, I might burst into tears.
When I get out of the building I check my mobile. Theres a text from Nat on my phone, asking how things went. I read it several times, but I cant bring myself to reply. Nor can I bring myself to go back to the Geigers house. Even though I could probably still catch a train, I cant face them tonight.
On automatic pilot, I head down to the Underground and onto a tube. I can see my face in the window opposite, pale and expressionless. And all the way, my mind is buzzing. May 28th. May 28th.
I dont hit on the answer until Im arriving at my building. May 28th. Chelsea Flower Show. Of course. We were atChelsea all day on May 28th. Arnold, Ketterman, Guy, and I doing some corporate entertaining.Arnold arrived straight fromParis and afterward he was driven home. He wasnt even in the office.
He lied. Of course he did. I feel a wave of weary anger rising inside me. But theres nothing I can do now. No one will ever believe me. Ill live the rest of my life with everyone convinced it was my mistake.
I get out at my floor, already fumbling for the key, hoping against hope that Mrs. Farley wont hear me, already planning a long, hot bath. And then, as Im almost at my door, I stop dead, thinking hard.
Slowly I turn and head back to the lift. Theres one more chance. I have nothing to lose.
I rise up two floors and come out of the lift. Its almost identical to my floorsame carpet, same wallpaper, same lamps. Just different numbers on the apartment doors. 31 and 32.1 cant remember which one I want, so in the end I plump for 31. It has a softer doormat. I sink down on the floor, put my bag down, lean against the door, and wait.
By the time Ketterman appears out of the lift doors Im drained. Ive been sitting here for three solid hours without anything to eat or drink. I feel wan and exhausted. But at the sight of him I scramble to my feet, clutching the wall as I feel a wash of fatigue.
For a moment Ketterman looks shocked. Then he resumes his usual stony expression.
Samantha. What are you doing here?
As I stand there I wonder if hes heard about me going to the offices. He must have. Hell have heard the whole gory tale. Not that hes giving anything away.
What are you doing here? he repeats. Hes holding an enormous metal briefcase in one hand and his face is shadowed under the artificial lights. I take a step forward.
I know Im the last person you want to see. I rub my aching neck. Believe me, I dont want to be here either. Out of all the people in the world I could turn to for help ... you would be the last. You are the last.
I break off for a moment. Ketterman hasnt even flickered.
So the fact that Im here, coming to you ... should prove it to you. I look at him desperately. Im serious. I have something to tell you, and you have to listen. You have to.
I can hear a car braking in the street outside and someone laughing raucously. Kettermans face is still rigid. I cant tell what hes thinking. Then, at last, he reaches in his pocket for a key. He walks past me, unlocks the door to flat 32and finally turns.