Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman
The coming-of-middle-age story a whole generation of women have been waiting for...poised, witty, and emotionally resonant
For twenty-five years, Rose Lloyd has juggled marriage, motherhood, and career with remarkable success. It has been a life of family picnics, books and wine, a cherished house, and her own exquisitely designed garden-sunny and comfortable. But then the carefully managed life to which Rose has become accustomed comes crashing down around her when-over the course of a few days-her marriage and her career both fall apart.
Can Rose, whose anguish is barely softened by the ministrations of friends and grown children with their own problems, ever start over? Not easily. But it's amazing what prolonged reflection, the slimming effect of a lost appetite, a new slant on independence (and a little Parisian lingerie) will do. Especially when an old flame suddenly reappears.
Full of humor, clever insight, and a whimsical sense of the absurd, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman is an irresistible and finely written fantasy for anyone who ever wondered what a certain age would look like from beyond the looking-glass-and who will find it ripe with promise that the best days are yet to come.
"Here," said Minty, my deputy, with one of her breathy laughs, "the review has just come in. It's hilariously vindictive." She pushed toward me a book entitled A Thousand Olive Trees by Hal Thorne with the review tucked into it.
For some reason, I picked up the book. Normally I avoided anything to do with Hal but I did not think it mattered this once. I was settled, busy, different, and I had made my choice a long time ago.
When we first discussed my working on the books pages, Nathan argued that, if I ever achieved my ambition to become the books editor, I would end up hating books. Familiarity bred contempt. But I said that Mark Twain had got it better when he said that familiarity breeds not so much contempt but children, and wasn't Nathan's comment a reflection on his own feelings about his own job? Nathan replied, "Nonsense, have I ever been happier?" and "You wait and see." (The latter was said with one of his ironic, strongman I know-better-than-you smiles, which I always enjoyed.) So far, he had been wrong.
For me, books remained full of promise, and contained a sense of possibility, any possibility. In rocky times, they were saviors and lifebelts, and when I was younger they provided chapter and verse when I had to make decisions. Over the years of working with them, it had become second nature to categorize them by touch. Thick, rough, cheaper paper denoted a paperback novel. Poetry hovered on the weightless and was decorated with wide white margins.
Biographies were heavy with photographs and the secrets of their subjects' life.
A Thousand Olive Trees was slim and compact, a typical travelog whose cover photograph was of a hard, blue sky and a rocky, isolated shoreline beneath. It looked hot and dry, the kind of terrain where feet slithered over scree, and bruises sprouted between the toes.
Minty was watching my reaction. She had a trick of fixing her dark, slightly slanting eyes on whoever, and of appearing not to blink. The effect was of rapt, sympathetic attention, which fascinated people and also, I think, comforted them. That dark, intent gaze had certainly comforted me many times during the three years we had worked together in the office.
" 'This man is a fraud,' " she cited from the review. " 'And his book is worse . . . ' "
"What do you suppose he's done to deserve the vitriol?" I murmured.
"Sold lots of copies," Minty shot back.
I handed her A Thousand Olive Trees. "You deal. Ring up Dan Thomas, and see if he'll do a quickie."
"Not up to it, Rose?" She spoke slowly and thoughtfully, but with an edge I did not quite recognize. "Don't you think you should be by now?"
I smiled at her. I liked to think that Minty had become a friend, and because she always spoke her mind I trusted her. "No. It's not a test. I just don't wish to handle Hal Thorne's books."
"Fine." She picked her way round the boxes on the floor, which was packed with them, and sat down. "Like you said, I know how to deal." I am not sure she approved. Neither did I, for it was not professional behavior to ignore a book, certainly not one that would receive a lot of coverage.
My attention was diverted by the internal phone. It was Steven from production. "Rose, I'm very sorry but we are going to have to cut a page from Books for the twenty-ninth."
"Sorry, Rose. Can you do it by this afternoon?"
"Twice running, Steve. Can't someone else be the sacrificial lamb? Cookery? Travel?"
Steven was harassed and impatient. In our business-getting an issue out-time dictated our decisions and our reactions. After a while, it became second nature, and we spoke to each other in a shorthand. There was never time for the normal give and take of argument. I glanced at Minty. She was typing away studiously, but she was, I knew, listening in. I said reluctantly, "I could manage it by tomorrow morning."
"No later." Steven rang off.
"Bad luck." Minty typed away. "How much?"
"A page." I sat back to consider the problem, and my eye fell on the photograph of Nathan and the children, which had a permanent place on my desk. It had been taken on a bucket-and-spade holiday in Cornwall when the children were ten and eight. They were on the beach, with their backs to a gray, ruffled sea. Nathan had one arm round Sam, who stood quietly in its shelter, while the other restrained a squirming, joyous Poppy. Our children were as different as chalk and cheese. I had just mentioned that a famous novelist had also taken a house in Trebethan Bay for six months to finish a novel.
"Good heavens." Nathan had made one of his faces. "I had no idea he was such a slow reader." I had seized the camera and caught Poppy howling with laughter at this latest example of his terrible jokes. Nathan was laughing, too, with pleasure and satisfaction. See? he was saying to the camera. We are a happy family.
I leaned over and touched Nathan's face in the photograph. Clever, loving Nathan. He considered that the job of fatherhood was to keep his children so amused that they did not notice the unpleasant side of life until they were old enough to cope, but he also loved to make them laugh for the pleasure of it. Sometimes, at mealtimes, I had been driven to put my foot down: at best, Sam and Poppy's appetites were as slight as their bodies and I worried about them. "Mrs. Worry, do you not know that people who eat less are healthier and live longer?" demanded Nathan who, typically, had gone to some pains to find out this fact to soothe my fears.
Back to the problem. As always with the paper, there were political factors, none significant in isolation but taken together, they could add up. I said to Minty, "I think I'd better go and fight. Otherwise Timon might get into the habit of paring down Books. Don't you think?" The "don't you think" was cosmetic for I had made up my mind, but I had fallen into the habit of treating Minty (just a little) in the way I had treated the children. I thought it was important to involve them on all levels.
Timon was the editor of the weekend Digest in the Vistemax Group for which we worked and his word was law. Minty had her back to me and was searching for Dan Thomas's telephone number in her contacts book. "If you say so."
"Do I hear cheers of support?"
Minty still did not look round. "Perhaps better to leave it, Rose. We might need our ammunition."
When it was a question of territorial battles, Minty was as defensive as I was. This made me suspicious. "Do you know something that I don't, Minty?" Not a silly question. People and events in the group changed all the time, which made it a rather dangerous place to work, and one had to become rather protean, undercover and dangerous to survive.
"No. No, of course not."
"But . . . ?"
Minty's phone rang and she snatched it up. "Books."
I waited a moment or two longer. Minty scribbled on a piece of paper, "An ego here bigger than your bottom," and slid it toward me.
This implied that she would be on the phone for several minutes, so I left her to it and walked out into the open-plan space that was called the office. The management reminded its employees, frequently and cheerily, that it had been designed with humans in mind, but the humans repaid this thoughtfulness with ingratitude and dislike: if it was light and airy, it was also unprivate and, funnily enough, despite the hum of conversation and the underlying whine of the computers, it gave an impression of glaucous silence.
Maeve Otley from the subs' desk maintained, with a deep sense of grievance, that it was a voyeur's paradise. It was true: there was nowhere for staff to shake themselves back into their skins, or to hide their griefs and despairs, only the fishbowl where the owners had not bothered to put in a rock or two. I grumbled with Maeve, who was another friend, against the imposition, the terrorism of our employers, but mostly, like everyone else, I had adapted and grown used to it.
On the floor below, Steven was surrounded by piles of computer printout and flat plans, and looked frantic. A half-eaten chicken sandwich was resting in its container beside him with several small plastic bottles of mineral water. When he saw me bearing down on him, he raised a hand to ward me off. "Don't, Rose. It's not kind."
"It's not kind to Books."
He looked longingly at his sandwich. "Who cares, as long as I can get it done and dusted and into bed? You, Rose, are expendable."
"If I make a fuss with Timon?"
"You won't get diddly . . ."
No headway there. "What is so important that it thieves my space? A shepherd's pie?"
"A nasty demolition job on a cabinet minister. I can't tell you who." Steven looked important. "The usual story. A mistress with exotic tastes, cronyism, undeclared interests. Apparently, his family don't know what's coming, and it's top secret."
I felt a shudder brush through me, of distaste and worry. In the early days, I used to feel plain, unadorned guilt for the suffering that these exposÚs caused. Lately, my reaction had dulled. Familiarity had made it commonplace, and it had lost its capacity to disturb me. Yet I hated to think of what exposure did to the families. How would I cope if I woke up one morning to discover that my everyday life had been built on a falsehood? Would I break into pieces? The effect on the children of these stories of deceit and betrayal did not bear too much thought either. But I accepted there was little I could do, except resign my job in protest. "And are you going to do that?" asked Nathan, quite properly. "No." So my private doubts and occasional flashes of guilt remained private.
"I feel sorry for them," I said to Steven. All the same, I ran through a list of possible candidates in my head. I was human.
"Don't. He probably deserves it."
Steven took a bite of his sandwich. "Are you going to let me get on?" By chance, Nathan stepped out of the lift with Peter Shaker, his managing editor, as I was going in. "Hallo, darling," I murmured. Nathan was preoccupied, and the two men conferred in an undertone. It always gave me a shock, a pleasurable one, to see Nathan operating. It was the chance to witness a different, disengaged aspect of the man I knew at home, and it held an erotic charge. It reminded me that he had a separate, distinct existence.
And that I did, too.
"Nathan," I touched his arm. "I was going to ring. We're due at the restaurant at eight."
He started. "Rose. I was thinking of something else. Sorry. I'll-I'll see you later."
"Sure." I waved at him and Peter as the doors closed. He did not wave back.
I thought nothing of it. As deputy editor of a daily paper published by the Vistemax Group, Nathan was a busy man. Friday was a day packed with meetings and, more often than not, he stumbled back to Lakey Street wrung out and exhausted. Then it was my business to soothe him and to listen. If the look on his face was anything to go by, and after twenty-five years of marriage I knew Nathan, this was a bad Friday.
The lift bore me upward. Jobs and spouses held things in common. With luck, you found the right one at the right time. You fell in love with a person, or a job, tied the knot and settled down to the muddle and routine that suited you. I admit it was not entirely an accident that Nathan and I worked for the same company-an electronics giant which also published several newspapers and magazines under its corporate umbrella-but I liked to think that I had won my job on my own merits. Or, if that was not precisely true, that I kept on my own merits.
Poppy hated what Nathan and I did. Now twenty-two, she had stopped laughing and believed that lives should be useful and lived for the greater good, or she did at the last time of asking. "Why contribute to a vast, wasteful process like a newspaper?" she wanted to know. "An excuse to cut down trees and print hurtful rubbish." Poppy had always fought hard, harder than Sam, and her growing up had been like a glove being turned inside out, finger by finger. If you were lucky, it happened gently, the growing-up part, and Poppy had not fared too badly, but I worried that she had her wounds.
When I returned to the office, Minty was talking on the phone but when she saw me she ended the conversation. "I'll talk to you later. Bye." She resumed typing with a heightened color.
I sat down at my desk and dialed Nathan's private line. "I know you're about to go into the meeting, but are you all right?"
"Yes, of course I am."
"It's just . . . well, you looked worried."
"No more or less than usual. Anyway, why the touching concern all of a sudden?"
"I just wanted to make sure nothing had happened."
"You mean you wanted to be first with the gossip."
"Nathan!" But he had put down the phone. "Sometimes," I addressed the photograph, "he is impossible."
Normally Minty would have said something like: "Men? who needs them?" Or: "I am your unpaid therapist, talk to me about it." And the dark, slanted eyes would have glinted at the comic spectacle of men and women and their battlegrounds. Instead, she took me by surprise and said sharply, "Nathan is a very nice man."
Knocked off guard, I took a second or two to answer. "Nice people can be impossible."
"They can also be taken for granted."
There was a short, uncomfortable silence, not because I had taken offence but because what she said held an element of truth. Nathan and I were busy people, Nathan increasingly so. Like damp in a basement, too much busyness can erode foundations. After a moment, I tried to smooth it over. "We're losing a page because there's a demolition job going in."
"Bad luck to them." Minty stared out of the window with a sauve qui peut expression. "So, it goes on."
Again, it was unlike Minty not to demand, "Who-who?" and I tried again. "Are you going shopping this evening?" I smiled. "Bond Street?"
She made a visible effort. "I may be getting too fat."
Private joke. Bond Street catered for size eight. Since Minty possessed fawnlike slender limbs, a tiny waist and no bosom, this was fine. No assistant fainted at the size of her arms. But I was forced to shop in Oxford Street where the stores grudgingly accepted that size fourteen did exist. Ergo, together we formulated the Law of Retail Therapy: the larger your size, the further from the city center a woman is forced to forage. (Anyone requiring the largest sizes presumably had to head for the M25 and beyond.) Apart from that, Minty and I suffered-and, in our narrow retail culture, I mean suffered-from big feet, and the question of where to find shoes for women who had not taken a life's vow to ignore fashion was a source of happy, fruitful speculation.
The conversation limped on. "Are you doing anything else this weekend?"
"Look, Rose," Minty shut her desk drawer with a snap, "I don't know."
I said no more. After all, even in an office, privacy was a basic right. I had to make a decision between two reviews because one had to be sacrificed. The latest, and brilliant, book on brain activity? In it, the author argued that every seven years our brain cells were renewed and replenished, and we became different people. This seemed a quietly revolutionary idea, which would have clerics and psychotherapists shuddering as they contemplated being put out of business. Yet it also offered hope and a chance to cut chains that bound someone to a difficult life or personality. However, if I published the piece, I would have to drop the review of the latest novel by Anna West, who was going to sell in cartloads anyway. Either the book that readers should know about, or the one that they wanted to know about.
I rang Features. Carol answered and I asked her if they were running a feature on Anna West.
Carol was happy to give out the information. "Actually, we are. This issue. Big piece. Have you got a problem?"
"I might have to spike our review so I wanted to make sure there was coverage in publication week."
"Leave it to us," said Carol, delighted that Features would have the advantage over Books. I smiled, for I had learned, the hard way, that a sense of proportion was required on a newspaper, and if one had a habit of bearing grudges, it was wise to lose it.
I worked quickly to rearrange the two remaining pages, allocating top placing to the seven-year brain-cycle theory. Ianthe, my mother, would not see its point: she preferred things uncomplicated and settled.
As the afternoon wore on, the telephone rang less and less, which was perfectly normal. Minty dealt with her pile of books and transferred them to the post basket. At five o'clock, she made us both a mug of tea and we drank it in a silence that I considered companionable.
On my way home, I slipped into St. Benedicta's. I felt in need of peace, a moment of stillness.
It was a modern, unremarkable church, with no pretensions to elegance or architectural excitement. The original St. Benedicta's had been blown up in an IRA terrorist campaign thirty years ago. Its replacement was as downbeat and inexpensive as a place of worship should be in an age that was uneasy about where the Church fitted. As usual, on the table by the glass entrance doors, there was a muddle of hymnbooks and pamphlets, the majority advertising services that had taken place the previous week. A lingering trace of incense mixed with the smell of orange squash, which came from an industrial-sized bottle stored in the corner-presumably kept for Sunday school. The pews were sensible but someone, or several people, had embroidered kneelers that were a riot of color and pattern. I often wondered who they were, the anonymous needle-women, and what had driven them to harness the reds, blues, circles and swirls. Relief from a drab existence? A sense of order in transferring the symbols of an old and powerful legend onto canvas? St. Benedicta's was not my church, and I was not even religious, but I was drawn to it, not only when I was troubled but when I was happy, too. Here it was possible to slip out from under the skin of oneself, breathe in and relish a second or two of being no one in particular.
I walked down the central aisle and turned left into the tiny Lady Chapel where a statue of the Madonna with an unusually deep blue cloak had been placed beside the altar. She was a rough, crude creation, but oddly touching. Her too-pink plaster hands were raised in blessing over a circular candle stand in which a solitary candle burned. A Madonna with a special dedication to the victims of violence, those plaster hands embraced the maimed and wounded in Ireland and Rwanda, the lost souls of South America and those we know nothing about, and reminded us that she was the mother of all mothers, whose duty was to protect and tend.
Sometimes I sat in front of her and experienced the content and peace of a settled woman. But at other times I wondered if being settled and peaceful had been bought at the price of smugness. Fresh candles were stacked on a tray nearby. I dropped a couple of pounds into the box and extracted three from the pile. One for the children and Nathan, one for Ianthe, one to keep the house-our house-warm, filled and our place of our refuge.
I picked up my book bag, had a second thought, put it down again and hunted in my purse for another pound. The fourth candle was for the erring minister's wife, and my dulled conscience.
On the way out, I stopped and tidied the pamphlets on the table. Even though it was dark, I continued home by the park, prudently choosing the path that ran alongside the river.
Nobody could argue that it was anything but a city park, ringed as it was by traffic, pockmarked with patches of mud and dispirited trees, but I liked its determination to provide a breathing space. Anyway, if you took the trouble to look, it contained all sorts of unobtrusive delights. A tiny corona of snowdrops under a tree, offering cheer in the depths of winter. A flying spark of a robin redbreast spotted by the dank holly bushes. Rows of tulips in spring, with tufts of primula and primrose garnishing their bases.
So far, winter had been a mild, dampish interlude. Earlier in the day, there had been halfhearted spatters of rain but now it was almost warm. It was too early to be sure, only February, but there was a definite promise of spring shaping up, things growing. I stopped to shift my book bag from one shoulder to the other, feeling the stretch and exhilaration of my life pulse through me.
I was late. I must hurry. I must always hurry.
Five minutes later, I walked up the tiled front path of number seven Lakey Street. Twenty years ago, Nathan and I had talked of restoring a silk weaver's house in Spitalfields, or discovering the perfect-priced Georgian family house on four floors, which-unaccountably-no one else had spotted. Lakey Street fitted between our small flat in Hackney and any wilder speculations. One day, we promised ourselves, we would upgrade, but we settled promptly into the Victorian terrace that comfortably encompassed our family and forgot about doing any such thing.
The streetlights were lit, and the fresh white paint on the window frames was washed with a neon tint. The bay tree dripped onto me as I passed and, for the thousandth time, I told myself it was far too big, planted in the wrong place, and would have to go. For the thousandth time, I reprieved it.
--from Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan, Copyright © February 2003, Viking Press, a member of the Penguin Group, Inc., used by permission.
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