An excerpt from Ignoring Gravity.
There was a sharp slap followed by a cry. The sound of an animal echoed in my ears and my soul and my empty womb and didn’t fade.
‘4lb 3oz. Girl. Write it in the Statement Book, then take it away.’
Thirty-five years later
Someone took her by the arm, forcing her to sit down. Breath warmed her cheek. She was icy all over. She could see nothing, nothing except one word written in the diary.
Suddenly pain, starting at her cheek and spreading through her head. Again, and again. Each slap beat that word deeper into her unconscious.
Rose Haldane fell off the edge of the world.
Three days earlier, it was 10 a.m. on Thursday morning and Rose was sitting on a sofa the size of a generous double bed. Black, low, leather, polished steel feet, it was positioned on one side of a glass coffee table bigger than her kitchen. Opposite was a black-leather swivel chair that screamed ‘executive.’ She sat on the sofa gingerly, lowering her bottom until, just as she expected to hit the floor, she sank into the sumptuous cushions.
‘He’ll be at least ten or fifteen minutes,’ his PA Amanda had said when she showed Rose into the room, using the tone that meant, ‘he’s very important and you’re not.’
The room was silent, the air still, no movement except for her chest, which she realised was heaving up and down as if she’d run up the thirty flights of stairs instead of taking the glass-and-steel bullet lift. This had happened only once before, at a big interview. Nerves. She touched her cheeks. Burning.
Do something, she told herself. Yoga.
She lay backwards on the sofa as if it were a bed, her head touching the wall behind her, her legs stretched out in front. Ignoring her pulse, she breathed deeply.
In, out. In, out.
She focussed on the questions she was going to ask, her eyes closing as she concentrated…
Nick Maddox, managing director of Biocare Beauty, was sitting at his desk, thinking about face cream. In particular, the failure of the bottling machinery at the Scottish factory that manufactured his best-selling Natura-Refresha Night Flower serum. Should he shift production to Devon? Or cross his fingers that the machines would be fixed in time to fulfil his export order to France next week?
At that thought, he leant back in his chair and allowed himself a small smile of achievement. Me, exporting face creams to France. It’s like selling an English striker to a Brazilian football club.
Having decided to trust the Scots, his mind shifted to the press interview with a financial journalist that was due to start – he glanced at his watch – five minutes ago. He sighed. It was the last in a schedule of PR interviews about his management buyout of the company. This was his least favourite part of the job, talking City talk with business journalists wearing expensive suits and carrying all the latest techie gadgets while examining his desk for similar gadgets, and who were sure they knew more about face creams than he did.
Rose sat bolt upright and stopped breathing. Her notepad and pens scattered across the smooth grey slate floor, coming to a stop beside a pair of well-polished black shoes.
She looked up. A neat man with cropped pale-blonde hair stood in the open doorway. His lips twitched, Rose was unsure whether with disdain or amusement. Neither was the response she wanted to provoke.
‘Sorry to keep you waiting. I’m Nick Maddox.’ He bent down to retrieve her stationery, placed it on the coffee table in front of her, then sat down in the Mastermind-style chair and looked at her.
She sat up straighter and tugged at what she now realised, given the depth of the sofa, was an unsuitably short skirt. Her mother would have disapproved.
‘I’m Rose Haldane, from the Herald, but of course you know that. Thanks for the opportunity to interview you, it’s…’ she couldn’t think of the right adjective, ‘…good of you.’
He looked at her, one eyebrow slightly raised.
She tried to shuffle her bottom into a more comfortable position without seeming to fidget or nudging the hem of her skirt even higher.
‘So, so… shall we start? Tell me… what’s it like being your own boss?’ Rubbish, Rose. What a predictable opening question to ask an MD who liked the company so much he bought it. To gain a little time, and to avoid looking at him, she opened her shorthand notepad.
When he didn’t answer, she looked up. He was staring at her like a university professor waiting for her to provide an answer he knew she didn’t know.
‘You know, being in control of your own destiny? Making your own history?’ Shut up, Rose.
Journalism rule number one: don’t put words into his mouth.
‘Destiny?’ He leant back in the swivel chair. ‘That’s an interesting word.’
Boy, is he confident. Arrogant. She hated arrogant men.
‘I wouldn’t say I’m in charge, the bank is. I just have a new boss.’ His voice was strong, as if he were answering questions he expected to be asked. Every now and then he glanced down at a paper in the folder he’d laid open on the coffee table. A briefing paper supplied by his PR, she guessed, a list of predictable questions and answers. His smile just about reached the edges of his mouth but fell short of his eyes.
Politeness guarantees boring copy. Journalism rule number two: if in danger of boredom, use shock tactics. ‘You’re very modest for a man who’s just completed a £50 million MBO. You’ve upped your salary and bonus to seven figures. What will you do with the cash? Buy a yacht?’
Too much. She waited, wondering if she’d blown it.
When he spoke, he was so quiet she had to lean forward to catch his words.
‘You shouldn’t believe all you read in the papers.’ His smile tightened.
Ooh, he’s hiding something. ‘I don’t, that was in the disclosure documents provided by your merchant bank.’ This was one of the things she’d read online before leaving the office. She was subbing for a sick reporter so there’d been no time for proper preparation, no time to buy a pot of Biocare Beauty’s top-selling face cream and try it at home.
Rose watched the displeasure tighten across his cheeks. Perhaps now he’ll stop treating me like some unqualified reporter on Back-of-Beyond-Gazette. True, her first job was for the Littlethorpe Mercury, but she’d worked her way up to the London Herald and had interviewed people far more intimidating than Mr Nick Maddox. So she held eye contact as he studied her, determined not to flinch. Most people she interviewed wouldn’t look her in the eye.
Journalism rule number three: think, say, feel, do. Was Maddox saying one thing and thinking another? Many people did, the trick was to unlock the puzzle.
His eyes narrowed slightly, then he smiled without warning. It lit up his face, and she forgot to wonder what he was thinking. ‘You have done your homework. That’s refreshing. I’m tired of journalists who research online and think they’re instant experts on my company. It’s insulting.’
Why is he being nice?
He turned in his chair. ‘Look at them.’ He pointed to the people sitting at desks in the open-plan area on the other side of the tinted glass partition. ‘They made it happen, not me…’
While he talked, Rose noticed his hands. Light golden skin with long fingers suited to playing piano octaves. She found herself wondering how it would feel to be touched by those hands, and was horrified to realise she hadn’t heard a word of what he’d just said. She nodded and stared down at her pad, her face hot. Carefully, she wrote the shorthand symbol for ‘Maddox’.
‘…banks are only interested in cash flow, covenants and the bottom line, they want their repayments. The bank doesn’t care if I make face creams or screwdrivers.’
‘So, now you can enjoy running your company.’ Her eyes were still fixed on her notes. Wrong again, Rose.
Journalism rule number four: statements are not questions.
‘I’ve always enjoyed it, and it’s not strictly speaking my company. The MBO is the beginning, not the end. You wouldn’t believe…’ His sentence ground to a halt and he slowly took a sip of water. ‘No, I shouldn’t tell you that. You’re a journalist,’ he spoke softly, as if to himself.
Hell yes, I am a journalist. Irritating man. Why did he start a sentence that sounded juicy, only to stop halfway through?
She’d expected him to be media-savvy but things weren’t going well. First, his PA refused to admit her because she wasn’t Alan Smart, the slick, sick journo she was subbing for. Anyone less than Alan Smart, who regularly featured on BBC Business News, would be a waste of her boss’s time, the PA implied with a glance down her aquiline nose. Then, there was the lying down on the sofa thing. Her cheeks had only just cooled from that blush when she caught Maddox trying to read her shorthand notes upside down. She offered the notepad to him, but he refused without a flush of shame. The chemistry hadn’t recovered.
She put down her pen. ‘Look, if you want to tell me something that’s off the record, that’s fine.’ She adjusted her face into a no-compromise look. ‘It’s fine as long as you say so now, before you start talking. I won’t quote you until you say it’s okay. We can go back on the record later. But you can’t decide after the interview that some bits are on the record and other bits are off. I don’t work like that.’
She held her breath.
He swivelled in his chair, his eyes fixed on her. ‘Sounds fair.’
She exhaled and smoothed her hands over her skirt to hide their trembling.
He called for more coffee. Rose watched Amanda’s procedure with cups, milk, sugar, and chocolate digestives without a word. She loves him, maybe not romantically, but she’d throw me out of the window if she had to. What is it about him that inspires such loyalty? Perhaps Amanda likes his golden hands too.
He talked for half an hour without pause, at the end of which she could see glimmers of the real man sitting in the black leather chair.
Ask him something personal now. The barriers are down, ask him…
But his mobile rang and he excused himself to answer it. Rose glanced at her watch. Jim, the photographer, was due in five minutes.
‘I’m sorry, that was a call I had to take. Shall we continue?’ Maddox was playing with a black fountain pen and studying her legs.
She sat up straight with her knees pressed together. She wished her mother could have seen her ladylike posture.
Maddox didn’t hurry his appraisal of her legs, and when his eyes rose to meet hers, they showed no embarrassment at being caught out. Damn him. To her dismay, Rose felt her cheeks grow hot again. She wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed or angry. It’s just a bodily reaction beyond my conscious control. That was how her father had explained it to her when she was five and blushed every five minutes. ‘The blood vessels in your skin get bigger to let the hot blood reach the surface so your body temperature is balanced,’ he’d said.
Where is Jim, for God’s sake?
Maddox poured water into two glasses, watching her discomfort with obvious amusement. Rose clenched her teeth and stuck her tongue in her cheek to prevent it forming the words that her mouth wanted to unleash.
Arrogant, pompous, self-important… I didn’t say that aloud, did I?
‘Are we finished here?’
‘Almost. We just need to take the photograph.’
‘Right.’ He was looking at her knees again.
What a creep. When would she stop being attracted to the same type: gift-of-the-gab salesmen who sold themselves as energetically as they flogged advertising space and houses and… face creams? Does he give all his female employees this treatment? Shut up before you say something you’ll regret. She stuck her tongue back in her cheek again. Come on, Jim.
‘Did you know that the phrase ‘cheeky’ means tongue-in-cheek?’
What? Can he see inside my mouth now?
‘Er, no.’ Her face grew hotter.
‘The Victorians thought it was rude to show your cheek in this way. They were the first people to tell children off for being cheeky.’
‘Really?’ How does he know stuff like that? He must be making it up.
She tweaked her blouse, which was clinging to her breasts, then sensed him watching her. Instantly, her nipples hardened. Oh shit! She took a deep breath and folded her arms over her breasts. Take control. Say something, quickly. Before he does.
‘So, how long have you been at the Herald? Do you enjoy it?’
Too late. Now he’s making polite conversation.
‘I love it.’ Liar, that sounds so insincere. It is insincere.
He raised his left eyebrow. ‘Really?’
He said ‘really’ as if she’d said she’d always wanted to be an exotic dancer. Feeling the flush building again, her eyes dropped to her hands and she babbled about university, work experience, and the farming magazine she’d worked on before breaking into local newspapers. The school nativities, council meetings, obituaries, police briefings. Then the job at the Herald and her flat in Wimbledon and–
At last… Jim shuffled into the office, laden with camera gear.
Rose stifled a sigh of relief and ran a hand over her brow. Her face was burning.
Thirty minutes later, Maddox shook her hand. His grasp was firm, his palm cool and dry, his fingernails neatly clipped and filed.
‘Anything you need to ask, facts you need to check, just email me or give me a call. Amanda will put you straight through.’
You bet she will. ‘Thanks.’ Rose’s eyes were magnetically attracted to the philtrum connecting his nose and upper lip in a line like a dot-to-dot picture. It was deep and dark, with a hint of afternoon stubble, and she wanted to run her finger along it.
‘Here’s my mobile number.’
She took his business card without touching his fingers, and shoved it in her pocket. Did he see me staring?
He held the door open for her. ‘I’ll be glad to help, anytime.’ His voice dropped low on the last word. Then he turned into his office and the door closed.
Amanda didn’t get up from her desk but simply pointed towards the lift in the lobby. Rose smiled at her graciously. It was always worth keeping the secretaries on-side, but she’d need a blow torch to thaw this one.
Outside, she lingered on the pavement and looked up at the top floor of the glass-and-steel building, trying to work out which was Maddox’s office. A shadow flitted across one panoramic window. She ducked behind the bus shelter. After waiting for what seemed like ages, she sneaked another look.
The shadow was still there, an arm lifted in a wave.
Oh. My. God.
Rose tucked her chin to her chest and walked away very fast.
He stood with his nose pressed to the window, his breath misting the glass, watching her disappear. Knowing he would never see her again, knowing he shouldn’t want to see her again.
‘Can you sign these?’
Amanda’s words made him jump. She had entered his office silently and was standing close behind him. Too close. Sometimes he suspected her of creeping. He took the folder and signed the documents without reading them, like he had a million times before.
He waited until the door closed, then went to the window again. She’d gone. What was it about her that drew him to her? She was a journalist, a type he avoided on principle, but… there was a vulnerability beneath the efficiency which attracted him. And her eyes, blue… almost aquamarine.
A knock at the door and he jumped again, startled from his reverie by a line of people filing into his office. The finance team. Within moments, he was absorbed in packaging costs, and forgot all about Rose Haldane.
‘Ignoring Gravity’ by Sandra Danby [UK: Beulah Press]