I got home from a club at 6am to find my flat on fire. It was August, and the third floor of a converted Victorian house. I stared at gaping windows, open mouths vomiting smoke, taking too long over what to do. Time didn’t stand still, while I was shaking, hurtling downwards from my high on the drive, like you might expect. Time was time, and I was me. First I moved to go inside, to put it out. Stop upheaval mid-course before there was no going back. Then I changed my mind and stood still looking at the building, then the road, then the building again. The process took a good ten seconds. Then I couldn’t find my phone because I’d had three pills at the club and, while I was looking at it in my bag, I thought I was looking at my wallet for, probably, twenty seconds. Eyes in the bag, eyes out the bag, in the bag, out the bag. Big slugs of time hit me in the face as they moved past until my wallet became my phone, flashing. While I waited for my call to connect to 999 an intervention from reality made me ring the four door bells at last (thank you, reality) of the downstairs flats, and I summoned the neighbours from their beds. One had smoke stains around her mouth and I thought about offering her a tissue, before I realised it didn’t matter. That took another thirty to forty seconds. Everybody lived. The flat was destroyed. I was relieved to be told there was nothing else I could have done.
Months later I walked up a mossy path to begin my stay at the Farm. When I arrived, with my bags and my car keys and my open mind, Michael himself opened the door to welcome me. It was nice. We had emailed.
‘People just call me Jackie.’ I put my hand out to shake his but he pulled me in towards him and pecked me on both cheeks with firm, dry lips. I didn’t mind. He held a mug of tea in his other hand and he was wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up – really bright white – but the loose sort, not formal. It was tucked into dark denim jeans. He shaved his white hair close to his head, although it only really grew around the sides. He was always tanned and his teeth were bright white.
‘Such a pleasure, Jackie, delighted to have you with us,’ Michael sounded quite posh, but he always looked relaxed, not stuffy like men I had worked for in the City. I think I expected him to be younger, ‘Come on in, meet everyone.’
I wasn’t prepared for how rural it was, I just about avoided the chicken poo getting from my car to the door and congratulated myself on my decision to wear trainers. I’d have felt like a right pillock in my boots. They’re not that high but they’ve got spindly heels. I‘d have been over on my arse. I didn’t wear them at all while I was there, they stayed in the bag with most of my other stuff. The air was thinner, maybe because it was October, and the sky had been pushed further away. The atmosphere seemed altogether bigger that first day, like there was room to breathe. I got through the door and it was warm inside, I could smell a wood burning stove. An old man – a grandad type, slacks and a navy v-neck jumper with a neat check collar poking out over the top – was there to take my bags up to my room. Before Michael let me go up and see my room he took me to the family room to meet some of the others. I remember him saying,
‘We’ve got a superb group here at the moment Jackie, yourself included. I’m very excited about what we can achieve with a group such as this.’ His blurb, the spiel he used say (I can remember it so well, even now) was,
‘Essentially, what you’re working towards is release. We want you to release the person trapped inside, release that smaller, less courageous you, the person who forces your hand, the person who pushes you to do all those things that make you unhappy. Find them and let them go. Find them. Let them go.’
Looking back, what stands out is the relief I felt because Michael seemed nice and not like a pervert.
‘That’s the dining room, just through there, where we break bread. Important room, that one,’
He murmured me through the house, leaned on doors and held them open,
‘There’s fourteen of us here at the moment. We’ve got family members staying with us from many walks of life. We share stories about the past so we can heal, but we don’t tend to ask about people’s previous careers or where they’re from, OK?’ He had this way of saying OK, like he was leaning on the O.
‘Downstairs cloakroom’ he pointed towards it, looking at me, squinting his tiny eyes and smiling his firm, thin lips ‘If you take that passage you’ll reach the utility room, then out that door is the paddock.’
Places never look the same in real life as they do in pictures, but I didn’t let myself be disappointed. I wanted to be absorbed by it, and that meant letting go of my old values; opening myself up to people and experiences and ‘emotional richness’ (that was what it said on the website). There was eight of them in family room waiting: Four women, four men. It was Ray, Geoff, Jeff and Mitchell and Alice, Carole, Brigitte and Judith. Brigitte and Judith were the ones I loved the most by the end. They were on the big sofas, everyone was drinking tea (everyone was always drinking tea) and they had left a seat for me in the middle between them. I cried almost immediately when I sat down. I think I’d been waiting to do it since the fire. Perhaps longer.
There are two things that I haven’t been able to fathom since I left the Farm. One is that the old guy, the one who took my bags up, never reappeared in the six months I was there. I never saw him again. His name was never told to me, and no one ever talked about him. Second is, what happened to my car? It makes sense that they sold it. But I don’t know who to, or how they could do it without asking me to sign any papers. Maybe, what I really don’t know is why it took me six months to ask where it was. Geoff made us all tea the first day. It was just normal tea, semi-skimmed milk, but it was ambrosia. Thick and beige and safe. I must have had four cups.
‘I thought we could all introduce ourselves to Jackie. What do you think, everyone?’ Michael sat in an armchair in the corner and watched us as we went round the circle talking.
‘I’m Jackie. I’m new. I came to the Farm for a fresh start. I want to reset the clock. That’s how I think of it, like resetting a timer. I made some mistakes and I’m hoping I can forgive myself and… I would like a fresh start. Did I say that already?’
They clapped for me, like I was a child. It felt nice. Ray’s story hit me the hardest.
‘Hello Jackie. I’m Ray.’ I could see he was sad before he’d started talking. The rest of them knew what was coming, they must have heard it all before, a few times. A feeling crept over the room.
‘I had an accident at home and my son died. He was eight. We were playing with the hose on the lawn and he drowned. It happened very quickly. My wife left me after that. So, I’m like you Jackie, resetting the clock. The old life is finished now. This is the new one.’
‘You’ve always got a place with us,’ my brother said after the fire. He drove down to get me and when he found me at the fire station in my going out clothes, stinking of BO with all my hair stuck to my face he held me really tightly. I felt self conscious but he didn’t seem to care. I went to stay with him and his wife in Hertfordshire. I didn’t even think about it, I just did it. The commute to work from my brother’s house took over an hour in train carriages full of wet umbrellas, breathing in all the bad breath and steam. It took its toll. His wife didn’t like me waking the kids up when I got in late after drinks.
‘Why can’t you just come home after work like normal people do?’ He asked a couple of times. I tried explaining that drinks were part of work but it didn’t matter. There were couches I could stay on in flats near the office. Rooms made of glass looking out over the Thames. Plenty of the bigwigs had crash pads. I became a nomad with a knocked-off Louis Vuitton holdall. My brother wouldn’t say it, but I think it suited him that I stayed away. Before the fire there were a couple of times when I had stayed out late having fun with some of the others. It was drinks that devolved into something a bit more juicy, snorting coke off the other girls’ body parts and a bit of casual group fucking with some of the the younger execs; just the better looking ones. All of us were being heated up in the same pressure cooker, in the same corporate hothouse with its own yard stick for normal. It was healthy for us all to have a release. I suppose some of the older guys heard about the partying. When I needed a place to stay they already liked the idea of me being around. It worked for them; it worked for me.
‘Jackie, paint your pictures, about how it’s going to be...’
Some old bloke with a big red face sung an eighties song to me once while he went down on me. It was a song about Jessie, but he changed the name in the song to Jackie, and crooned the lines in a hammy American accent between long licks with his aging tongue while I tried to get some sleep.
‘Jackie, you can always, sell any dream to me,’
He was a board member. When I got up early for a meeting the next morning he gave me a hundred quid for a cab to take me three miles.
‘I want to go into town.’ I said to Michael. It was a wet Tuesday morning just before Easter. Rain seeped in under the utility room door and some chicks were hatching in the barn under Ray’s watchful eye. Brigitte and Geoff were getting ready to make a trip. They were rustling back and forth between rooms in the farmhouse with a notepad and a pen, in anoraks and boots. Brigitte had put on lipstick. I did a double take when I saw that. They were going to get supplies from Costco. I know it was Costco because the bathroom bins were lined with Costco carrier bags.
‘Why?’ he said, he looked up from his desk which was in a cupboard that he called his study. He smiled at me, only with the bottom half of his face these days. The study was a beige cocoon with a desk lamp and pictures of Michael with arms round everyone tacked to the walls. There was one of he and I at Christmas. I had my eyes closed.
‘There’s some things I need,’ I made a big effort to act normal. He carried on typing with two index fingers.
‘Did you put them on the list?’ I went to Costco once, before the fire. It was a huge place where kids got lost. I went there to get supplies for a teambuilding weekend – booze mostly. There were phones on all the walls at Costco, I’d seen them. I would bet money on it being nine for an outside line.
‘They’re personal. They’re women’s things,’
‘You know there’s nothing that you can’t put on the list. Anything you want, stick it on there. If it’s too personal just whisper it to Brigitte. The others needn’t know.’ He put a hand up towards me and rested it on my arm where I stood in the doorframe. I shouldn’t have, but I moved my arm away. I tucked it behind my back. It was so quiet in the study. Not even a clock. The scrape of my watch against the doorframe was the loudest noise. He laughed, a short cough-like laugh, and then he stopped. He slammed his hand on the desk really hard, bang!
‘Why are you doing this Jackie?’ As he stood up his chair fell backwards and there were tears in his eyes.
I was sent to meet Annalise in place of Steve Burman. He was my boss and I considered him my mentor. I was a stand-in because he was on a coke comedown, he said, and it was a really important meeting. She was a long standing client. I’d never heard of her. He was adamant, anyway.
‘So, you’re Jackie?’ she said. I was always in a decent suit, but her suit was Armani, or better. The shoes were current season’s Prada. I ordered us champagne, but she didn’t drink any.
‘What is your job title, Jacqueline?’
‘I manage the Executive Assistants. There’s sixteen of them, they answer to me. But I can speak for Steve, I have his confidence, so whatever your questions are please do fire away,’
There was something else, but she hadn’t asked it. She was looking at me; slow looking, ‘Steve’s extremely sorry that he can’t be here to discuss your portfolio but he has horrible food poisoning. He really would be here if he could.’
‘What’s your relationship with Steve like?’
‘He and I share absolute confidence. I was his personal EA for four years, I know his clients inside out. You really can raise anything with me and I’ll make sure it’s looked at by an analyst this afternoon.’
‘What about outside of work?’
About a month after I moved into the Farm I found Carole in the Paddock.
‘Are you crying?’ She was crying, I could see she was, but I thought it best to ask.
‘I’m fine. I’m fine.’ She sang the words to me through bubbles of spit on her lips. She was brushing one of the horses down in her wellies and a cup of tea had gone cold on top of the gate post.
‘What’s happened Carole, do you want to talk about it?’ I knew what had happened. You can’t assume people want to tell you. The tension between them had been agonizing over the last few days, Michael and her. I’d walked in on them talking in the kitchen. She was leaning back on the counter and he was standing so close that their hips were touching.
‘I wanted to do it. But I feel disgusted with myself Jackie. I hate myself.’ I let her come into my arms.
‘I’m not the first one either, Judith’s done it and so has Mitch. Loads of us have. I feel… I feel sick.’
‘Shh, shh.’ I stroked her hair. I didn’t want Michael to hear us talking.
‘Hush now, Carole. He loves you, he loves all of us.’
‘I hate myself, Jackie, I hate myself,’ She wailed into my shoulder making a wet patch on my top,
‘Carole, be quiet. You’ll hurt his feelings,’ I talked loudly. I talked as loudly as Carole wailed. I talked loudly in case Michael was listening, ‘He loves you Carole. He loves all of us.’
‘Steve Burman is worried about you Jacqueline. He wants you to take a break,’ Steve Burman was probably in his meeting room climbing the walls. Annalise had the wrong end of the stick, ‘Do you understand why Steve couldn’t have this conversation with you himself?’
Did Annalise understand why Steve couldn’t have this conversation with her himself?
‘Jacqueline, is there anything you’d like to tell me about what kind of things you like to do outside work? Is there anything that you would like to share with me in confidence? Jacqueline, you know that there is nothing expected of you other than your job, don’t you?’ Now I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand if I was in trouble,‘Some important people have shared some very intimate moments with you. if you were to decide in the future that anything about those moments had been inappropriate, it would change your relationship with the company. Do you understand the position that puts Steve in? It’s something that he cannot be part of. Can you see that?’What I couldn’t see was who had said something. Steve and I had never had that kind of relationship. Steve had always been like another brother. My heels clicked the tiled floor as I dropped from my bar stool. I fumbled in my bag and put my card on the bar. My hands were shaking. I stretched my neck to get the waitress to come over. She’d vanished so completely I thought she was in on it. There were many things that I didn’t understand. I could feel the burn on my cheeks as she was asking me to sit back down. I did understand very clearly that I could never go back to Turnerman and Associates. I did understand that it was time to find somewhere else to go.It always seemed strange to me that people think of autumn as the season when everything dies. I always think autumn is nature’s funeral, when everything that has already been killed by the catastrophe of summer’s heat is left to rest in sodden peace, rotting and mulshing into the earth. It’s a big, brown burial. I’ve always thought that. That day in April, the day the chicks were born, Michael locked me in the office because I tried to leave. He threw me against the book case and locked the door.
‘Is that Annalise? I don’t know if you remember me,’ I sat for a six hours in that room, and it felt like two days, ‘It’s Jackie, we met last autumn, I used to work at Turnerman.’ I sat on the windowsill looking out over hills I could have run across months ago but didn’t. I watched dusk come down over the farm like smoke. Annalise picked me up herself the next day. It was outside her remit but she did it anyway. Michael dragged me out of the office by my hair a couple of hours after I called her. He was angrier than I’d ever seen him when he realised he’d locked his phone in there with me.