Lester is trying to be kind. It doesn’t suit him. Not at all. He is explaining why it’s in everyone’s best interests to make my job part time. And to have Linda Kirkby in the office on the days I’m not at work. Two-and-a-half days each. Well, that’s the long-term plan. Linda will work three days to start with. So we can both be in the office for a morning every week.
He presents the arguments as bullet points. As though he’s written it down.
‘It’s good community liaison. Jobs for local people. She’s a single mother. It’ll be brilliant PR.’
I’m a single mother. And I’m local. And this is my job.
Christ knows, I need the work.
I say ‘She’s just come into an inheritance. You’re not being socially inclusive. You’re employing an heiress.’
I’ve thrown him off his stride. He says ‘How much did she inherit?’
‘You ask her. You’re her boss.’
Lester pretends he hasn’t heard.
He says ‘She isn’t qualified of course. Or experienced. But that’s a good thing. She’ll work for half your salary.’
Well yes. And so will I. Half the hours. Half the pay.
‘She can do the mundane tasks. The stuff you’re over-qualified for. It’ll leave you free to concentrate on the things you’re really good at. The bits that you enjoy.’
I’m struggling to recall exactly what those things might be.
Linda and Lester are strolling out across the field.
I say ‘What do you think they’re doing?’
Bruno says ‘It’s an Orientation Tour.’
‘An Orientation Tour?’
‘He’s showing her round the site.’
I say ‘She’s lived here all her life. I’d say she knows it pretty well.’
‘He’s explaining our approach. Showing her the ropes.’
I say ‘It doesn’t look like business.’
I’m never seen Lester walk like this. It’s completely out of character. He strides. Or storms. He never strolls.
‘Then again.’ I say ‘It doesn’t look like Lester.’
‘Why? What’s he doing?’
‘Walking at a leisurely pace.’
Bruno says ‘I don’t believe you.’
‘How did it come about?’ I ask. ‘Did Linda approach Lester or did Lester scout her out?’
I’m not letting Bruno get off lightly. It seems pretty clear to me that he knew more than he let on.
‘The job was her idea. She made an offer he couldn’t refuse.’
‘It’s quite a sales pitch. Let me do the easy bits of Dee’s job, and I’ll work for half the pay.’
‘It’s not quite that straightforward.’
‘It’s perfectly straightforward. I’ve been partially usurped by someone younger and more willing.’
It’s becoming something of a habit.
Bruno’s keen to change the subject.
He says ‘They’ve been gone for ages. What do you think they’re doing?’
‘Christ knows. Skipping through wildflower meadows? Pinning poems on trees?’
Bruno seems decidedly distracted.
I say ‘Is there something you’re not telling me?
He strokes his chin. As though he’s weighing up his options.
He says ‘He didn’t tell you, did he?
‘Who didn’t tell me what?’
‘Lester. He didn’t talk to you about the Show Home.’
‘What about the Show Home?’
‘That we’re going to demolish the Kirkbys house and build a show home on the site.’
I don’t like being in this position. Racing to catch up. That’ll teach me. To leave work early. To have Kit’s party on his birthday and not at the weekend.
‘So is Linda selling us the house?’
I think of Linda doing pirouettes around the kitchen.
‘Last time I saw her she could barely string her words together. Let alone negotiate a property deal.’
Bruno makes a noise. A cross between a snigger and a snort.
‘She seemed to manage pretty well.’
I say ‘So how much is she selling it for?’
‘She’s not exactly selling it. We’ve struck a deal. We knock down her house and build the Show Home. Slightly closer to the hedge. So there’s room for access from the High Street.’
‘Wow.’ I say. ‘That’s quite a deal. So what’s in it for her?’
‘Linda gets to live in it once all the homes are sold.’
An awful lot can happen in a single afternoon.
I don’t want to seem petty. But it is a bit annoying. She’s not up to collecting Billy. But she’s absolutely capable of stealing half my job and commissioning a house.
A perfect double whammy. A new career. A brand new home.
I say ‘There’s just one tiny little detail that I don’t quite understand.’
Bruno’s shoulders slump. He thought we’d finished.
‘I can see why that whole deal makes sense. I still don’t see why it means we have to employ her.’
‘She’s organized. She’s tidy. She keeps a perfect house.’
‘We’re not looking for an au pair.’
‘We need someone in the show home. Showing people round. Making sure it’s spick and span.’
What could be more authentic? The perfect house-proud housewife in her perfect new-build home.
‘So what’s she going to do while the house is being built?’
‘Soft marketing. By stealth. Letting it be known that she’s all for the development. That she was dead set against it. But now she understands our vision she’s decided it’s the best thing for the site. Telling anyone who’ll listen she’s so excited by the project that she’s desperate to be part of it. Securing early reservations for a select few personal friends.’
An undercover role. A spy. Corporate espionage. Irene would be proud.
‘Wow.’ I say. ‘And Linda Kirkby came up with all of that herself?’
Not bad for a woman with no imagination.
Bruno looks uncomfortable.
‘Lester said he’d told you.’
‘He gave me the impression she was in some sort of support role. Not that she’s part of our long-term strategy. Or that we’re building her a house.’
‘I wouldn’t be too sniffy.’ Says Bruno. ‘Do you know how difficult it is to find a part-time professional job?’
I say ‘I haven’t found a job. It’s my job. And half of it’s been stolen.’
He says ‘You’ll get more time with the kids.’
‘I have to pay the mortgage. A mortgage that was predicated on two adult incomes; two full-time well-paid jobs.’
‘Look on the bright side. You can sell your house and live with me.’
‘That’s what Daniel wants to do.’
Bruno looks confused.
I say ‘Sell the house. Not live with you.’
Here we are. In Bruno’s box room.
I say ‘There’s no way the boys would fit in here.’
He says ‘You could have bunk beds. But I don’t think the standard ones would fit. You’d have to have them specially made.’
It’s an attic flat. The ceilings slope.
We are discussing built-in bunk beds. This is insane. He is a colleague, an underling. I am his line manager. At least, I was last time I looked. It’s been a while since there’s been any clarity about reporting lines.
He says ‘Do you want to look at my room?’
I don’t. Not really. Not at all. I don’t want to be here.
I sound all breezy. ‘Yup, for sure.’
It’s roomy, spacious, airy, clean. A rail across one side. A practical solution. What with the sloping ceilings. A standard wardrobe wouldn’t work.
It’s hard not to look at Bruno’s clothes. Jeans in various shades of denim; denim jacket; denim shirts. Arranged not by item, but by hue. A graduated stretch of blue. A denim pantone chart.
I say ‘Who does that? Hangs their clothes in colour order?’
There’s something in his body language. The way he doesn’t answer, doesn’t look me in the eye. It makes me feel uneasy.
Who would do that? Who indeed. A perfect housewife. A woman who would organise her mail by the precise tint of the envelope. Darkest at the bottom; lightest at the top.
‘Oh.’ I say. ‘She’s organized your wardrobe.’
He’s fucking her. It all makes sense.
Jesus, she’s been busy.
He says ‘You told me to be nice to her.’
‘I didn’t tell you to fuck her.’
‘I don’t wait for you to tell me who I should and shouldn’t fuck.’
It’s the first time I’ve heard Bruno sound aggressive. I’m wrong-footed, disconcerted.
He doesn’t like it either.
He tries a different tone entirely. Petulant, aggrieved.
‘I was trying to cheer her up.’