QUID PRO QUO

QUID PRO QUO

Telegraph Creative Writing Competition Jan 2014 on the delicious subject of REVENGE        – WINNER

 

 

“ I’m off for a well earned holiday.”

Alice stretched her legs languidly, removing a piece of Jack’s Lego from beneath her right shoe.

“We thought Jamaica, just for a week.”

“Biscuit?”

 Barbara offered her the plate, a wave of tiredness sweeping through her. She’d been up finishing Alice’s work until 2.15 a.m.

“No thanks, have to squeeze into the bikini!” laughed Alice, smoothing her impossibly flat stomach with her beautiful, manicured hand. Coffee finished, she rose and moved to the front door without even a mention of money.

“By the way…” Barbara’s heart sank, though her voice rose. “That’s seventy pounds, Alice.”
Alice slipped the folder (274 pages faultless, double spaced, all lousy spelling  and grammar corrected) into her fine leather briefcase. Wide eyed, she snapped it shut, saying,

“Darling, you do my manuscripts perfectly but I can’t always carry cash…..would one of my credit cards do? Oh, of course not, you don’t pay tax, you’re actually beating the tax man, clever thing! I’ll get it to you as soon as we’re back. Bye, darling.”

Kiss kiss, both cheeks, her grip on Barbara’s arms definitely on the how-dare-you side, she disappeared in a cloud of Prada perfume.

“Bitch!” muttered Barbara, not loudly enough, slamming the door behind her. Her income (widow’s pension, child benefit) was barely enough to cover the basics. Now Jack wouldn’t be able to have those leather shoes, 20 pounds cheaper in the sale. He was five and wouldn’t care. Barbara did.

 

 

 As they checked in at Heathrow for the Amsterdam flight, Alice’s husband said,

“Shame I have to stop off at Shell for that meeting, but we’ll easily make the Jamaican flight directly after.”

After landing at Schiphol, they sped in a taxi towards the Hague.

“I’ll be finished by two. You can entertain yourself till then, can’t you?”

Gerard was a big man, easy going, amiable. He had a large appetite for life, yet in those green eyes steely flecks could be detected.

 

Alice wandered through the Hague. Her future as a writer depended on recording impressions, sounds, sights. She checked the gold American Express was in her bag.

Four hours later, laden with  Dolce & Gabbana and  Chloe bags, she flopped onto a terrace and ordered a cappuccino. Repacking the clothes expertly, everything finally squeezed into just one bag. She took out her notebook, looked about and began to write.

 

“Tall good looking men, the women casually dressed but have a way with a scarf. Some really old, important buildings –  Barbara to Google what they are later. Trees nicely trained up, the Dutch are good at gardening.  Cobbled streets but a feeling of modern attitudes, they look confident, well off.  Fabulous clothes shops. Doggy doo everywhere!  Bikes all over the place;  story with bikes in it, perhaps a tandem?”

 

 

“How did you go, darling?” she asked as Gerard climbed in to join her in the waiting taxi.

“Great!” he flopped back, loosening his tie.

“Things are much clearer thrashed out face to face, though there’s no way round the political mess. Pick up anything new for the book?”

Alice’s day had been marvellous – those clothes! – yet as they sped back to Schiphol she pouted, saying,

 “ I hate walking around strange towns by myself.”

“We’ve a week of nothing but sun and fun, starting this minute,” Gerard said.

“Announcing the departure of Flight KL643 for Kingston, Jamaica….”

Gerard put his arm round Alice, after checking through Customs.

“What’s up Alice? you’re so flat….”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged.

As they walked past the duty free diamonds she stopped and looked at a tray of sparkling, pure diamonds set in platinum. Leaning hard into his side, brushing his face with her hair, she purred

“Maybe I need something little, about this little….” gesturing towards the tray  “…to cheer me up.”

Gerard stiffened, his face reddened, looking as though he might explode. He opened his mouth, then closed it.  Alice smiled brilliantly at him, waiting for the Give In signal to come on. Gerard shrugged, a bit later than usual, then Alice took his arm and steered him diamond-wards.

 

 

On the long flight, Alice rewarded Gerard. The cabin was darkened, people slumbered. She spread two rugs over them and, well, the diamond had been very expensive.

 

 

Three weeks passed. Barbara opened the door to a tanned, even slimmer Alice. Flashing the diamond so that the morning sun caught its brilliance, Alice cried “Darling!”

She had all the mannerisms of a famous writer and just needed the talent to match.

“Here’s a present,” she said digging in the briefcase. Out came a straw hat. Barbara violently regretted ever putting that small ad in the paper offering secretarial services, the results yielding only the dreadful Alice.

“Something ethnic. Isn’t it perfect?”

The hat would be worn only by donkeys ferrying kids along a beach, yet Alice tried to pass it off as a Philip Treacy creation.

“About the money…” Barbara began.

“ Money, money, yes it’s here, a whole 70 pounds crisp and clean,” said Alice tersely handing her a white envelope.

“Barbara, you wouldn’t believe how much material I’ve got . We were in the Hague….”

“I actually lived in the Hague for four years,” Barbara’s voice interrupted clearly.

“ Really!”

Alice arched an eyebrow and continued,

“I’ve come up with a Dutch title “Heartbreak in Holland,  you’ll have to change all the background stuff from my new notes. They’re all very liberal, the Dutch,”  she said, with the great authority of one who has spent four hours shopping there.

 

Barbara’s mind went into retreat as Alice rambled on. Their last posting had been the Hague.  The smell of a million crocuses on Lange Voorhout outside the embassy came sharply back. The Peace Palace, the Panorama Mesdag floated in her mind, as clear as glass. Could it really have ended only three years ago? Jack had been born there. Tom had suffered a heart attack in their last month . He’d been rushed by ambulance to hospital, but died. So much of her past was bound up in that city; motherhood, widowhood. Feelings she thought were fading catapulted through her heart. They’d lived and made friends amongst the Dutch and now Alice – who’d never asked her a single question about her life – was pontificating on the surface images she had picked up in a day.

Anger blasted through Barbara, making her reckless.

“Listen, Alice, the going rate’s twelve pounds an hour, cash in advance.”

Alice’s mouth dropped open.

“Twelve pounds! Come on Barbara….”

“Take it or leave it.” Barbara, past caring,  moved to open the door.

“But darling I haven’t been published yet……”

Alice remained rooted to the spot.

“I had an acknowledgment slip from Mills & Boon saying “Miranda’s Miracle” will receive their consideration.”

This meant it had got further than a first reading. Barbara couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t publish such empty rubbish! Her best efforts at editing and presentation couldn’t disguise the low quality of the writing. Barbara, after her fine arts degree, had worked for a local newspaper in advertising and marketing for years. How could someone as self-obsessed as Alice, disinterested in everything and everyone around her, ever have something to say about life?

Alice was quietened by Barbara’s glare.

“I suppose I’ll have to agree,” she said pointedly, trying to get a message across. Barbara stayed brisk.

“Have you anything now?”

Alice handed over a mountain of notes and several internet pages with information ringed for copying so Barbara made a calculation (erring in her own favour).

“That’s 290 pounds Alice. If you don’t have cash I’ll start as soon as you’ve paid me.”

Alice looked beaten.

“I do have the cash, by chance.”

She paid the money and left, her face a study in forebearance.  Opening her bag for the car keys she saw the new pill prescription…surely she’d  collected that before the holiday?

“Chemist!” she ordered, as she started up the powder blue Aston Martin which she always parked two streets away.

 

– – –

 

Barbara leaned against the door. Now the MOT could be renewed, she’d be back on the road. The Audi had been delivered on the day Tom died, a bizarre twist of timing she’d never quite been able to decipher the meaning of. They’d chosen it together, not knowing he’d never drive it. The ambivalence she felt towards the car was something she’d never come to grips with. It marked the last decision they’d made together, and veered between mocking her aloneness, and comforting her that their marriage, their life had been a reality. It was stupid to invest it with meaning, but she was not yet ready to let go.

 

– – –

 

 

Six weeks passed. Barbara phoned Alice as she had not collected the latest work.

“I’ll pop in this afternoon.”

Alice’s voice was different, heavy.

 

“Hello,”  said Alice looking haggard and tired as she plumped down on Barbara’s sofa. The immaculate hands were swollen, she wasn’t wearing the diamond.

“How’s the writing?” Barbara asked.

Alice burst into tears.

“I’m pregnant Barbara, I feel dreadful. I’m sick every day, look at my hands, my ankles. I want to get rid of it but Gerard put his foot down and told me to grow up.” Her tears flowed on.

“ I can’t write a thing. My creativity has disappeared… .”

“ The first three months are the worst,” Barbara told her, sympathetic despite herself.

Alice went away, having promised to deliver the last chapters of Heartbreak in Holland as soon as three months were up.

 

– – –

 

Seven weeks went by. Alice delivered a feeble impression of the Hague and the Dutch, so thin it broke Barbara’s heart. She tried not to read it as she typed it into the word processor. She was angry again, so fired up she punched out six pages of her own experiences there. Feeling better, she drank three glasses of Beaujolais, then slept like a log .

 “The BBC invites writers of short stories to send in their ideas….” Barbara heard as she made a coffee after dropping Jack at school.  First hand experience was the prerequisite  and since Europe was in the endless, messy process of uniting, anything linking to that would be welcomed. On impulse Barbara sent in her six pages. Back came a letter, promptly, from the BBC.

“Well written but needs to be put in a firm context,” was the gist of the producer’s remarks. She realised that, except for landmarks,  she’d written a factual account of a diplomatic wife’s life.

 

She made a questionnaire and sent it off to her two oldest friends, Liz ( Madrid) and Jan ( Buenos Aires).

“Try it out on the BDSA in London,” Liz wrote.

The Diplomatic Spouses Association – that bastion of good housekeeping, taste and manners –  said they would send it out to members.

Within weeks Barbara had 292  replies with extra pages attached.

 

She borrowed her sister’s best suit and went to see her old boss. Eight years on, Martin Field was as busy, as frank, as he’d always been.

“Bloody sorry about Tom, Barbara. Dreadful business. Are you coping? D’you want a job?” He flicked his red braces, leaning back into his chair.

“No, Martin, I don’t. Jack’s too young. I really want to pick your brains….” She knew how he hated beating round any sort of bush.

“Tell me,” Martin said as she opened the briefcase.

An  hour later as he walked her to the lift, Martin said “Phone me next Friday, I’ll see what I can do.”

 

Barbara’s heart soared. For the first time in years, she felt a fully paid up member of the human race . Encouraged by her old boss’ enthusiasm, she worked day and night on the manuscript.

“ I’ve got two possible takers for you,  they’re keen.” Martin told her.

– – –

There’d been a tussle between two publishers to get Barbara’s manuscript – if you could call three chapters a manuscript. She accepted Martin’s advice again.

“Go for the biggest advance, you’ll need it to research more thoroughly. You don’t want to worry about money at this stage.”

Back to the drawing board she went. “Diplomatic Wives (sub-titled  “Two for the Price of One” – the  recurring theme in the questionnaires) wrote itself.

 

A wall of anger had come back.  A divorce lawyer in Washington was unable to get permission to work, her only function in life to entertain endlessly. A violinist (ex London Symphony Orchestra) was considered a security risk  because in Moscow she had contacts in the music world. She was forbidden, in a subtle but firm way, from socializing with musicians she had anything in common with and was thinking of leaving her husband, so great was the isolation. The ambassador’s wife in Jakarta wrote,
“Last week over 100 marauding locals were at our gate waving sticks and threatening to kill us, my husband was out so I talked to them for almost an hour about some political disagreement between governments. They finally left, but that night our two beloved dogs disappeared… I can’t bear to live here any longer, we still have 2 years to go.” Barbara remembered being told the story of the ambassador in the Hague who’d been shot dead on his doorstep by the IRA, and the terrible consequences.

 

Another told of her child dying of meningitis because no plane was available to get him out of Lagos at the critical moment. A three month old baby, bitten by rats, had to have a series of rabies injections -painful, in the stomach – because rabies was rampant.  The separation from children, the inevitability of boarding school and the lasting effects, poured out bitterly.

 

The families moved country every couple of years, more quickly in situations where the government severed diplomatic links. There were tales of earthquake, flood, midnight flits in car boots leaving everything behind, from Beirut, Tripoli, Tehran, Jakarta. Personal opinions aired in the wrong company, resulted in many being instantly expelled – personae non gratae – lock stock and barrel.

The wives cooked, entertained, lived with bars on the windows, armed guards at night, often in compounds. Their families lived through typhoid, malaria, riots. Despite being their husband’s main assets, they weren’t paid. No pensions either, despite their resources being used in every capacity, to stretching point. They raised money for orphanages, set up family planning clinics, promoted the cause of many African women.

“I see no difference at all between my situation and that of women here,” wrote one correspondent from Nairobi. ” I was a career diplomat. My husband was posted here but there was no job for me. It was a choice of sitting in London for three years without him, or bowing to the establishment. Now I’m here, they’ve offered me the same job on local pay. I refused.”

 

This was the tip of the iceberg! Barbara hadn’t yet contacted women who, divorced or widowed, had fallen outside the service again. Her network helped deliver a massive response. Time had loosened their tongues, loyalty was  reviewed in the harsh light of life alone.

 

“No partner wants to go abroad any more,” the pragmatic president of the BDSA told Barbara when they finally met.  “A few years ago there was a huge clash when the wives said they owed the service nothing, and though the Foreign Office agreed – not only us, but the Australian and American governments – had the nerve to say of course the wives owe nothing, but any contributions they make will be very welcome. Imagine!  Fifteen years on, nothing has changed, so we’ll  march on Downing Street, force them to listen to us.”

 

It made headlines on the national news. The President of the BDSA (“All diplomatic wives must be paid a salary, and be entitled to pension rights, married or divorced”) was interviewed with Barbara outside No. 10. An earthquake had devastated Ankara three days previously and those embassy families who had survived – some had not – arrived at Heathrow that very morning. It was this coincidence which would take Barbara’s book to number one on the non-fiction bestseller list, though she couldn’t know it then. The book was launched that afternoon, the very day Alice gave birth.

– – –

Alice!  the catalyst for all this. By the time Barbara got round to visiting her and the new baby ( Miles Farquhar George Armstrong) he was six weeks old. Alice held that tiny personage as he screamed and screamed.

“Come in, Barbara.”

Alice looked pleased to see her. She was wearing her dressing gown and hastened to the television to turn off  Neighbours.

“I’m still fat,” she confided.

Barbara, who was later that day off to the BBC for the taping of the Book Programme, absentmindedly remarked,

“You’ll have that gorgeous ring back on your finger in no time.”

Tears sprang to the corners of Alice’s eyes, her lips quivered.

“How’s Jack?” she asked unwrapping the sweater Barbara had bought.

“Thriving,” replied Barbara, amazed at Alice’s interest.

“Miranda’s Miracle didn’t make it. When Miles is in a routine I’ll re-write. I’ve gone off Heartbreak in Holland.”

Alice didn’t say why. Barbara had meant to say she couldn’t work for her again yet it didn’t seem necessary. She couldn’t bring herself to mention what extraordinary things had happened in her life, through her rage at Alice. By now the book was selling out faster than it could be printed and the wives’ situation was being thrashed out in parliament.

– – –

 

Barbara drove away along the High Street. The lights turned red, she slowed, braked. Picking up the Exchange & Mart off the passenger seat, an ad caught her eye:

“Exchange: One powder blue Aston Martin for good quality family saloon, low mileage, urgently required.”

She circled it with a pen, just as the lights went green.

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