work-in-progress

Minna and Jeff return in a new ‘story’

As you know, I’ve been grappling with a new story about Minna and Jeff, the characters in my novel Ready to Love. I wanted a valedictory story for them and looked to the form to gain a structure that really would set them on their way. In short, I’m looking for a moment after which we – readers as well as me – can say, ‘So that’s where they’re going. I really hope they get there.’

I think I know where they’ll end up but I think any progress they make will be incremental not decisive. (Well, that’s how they operated in the novel so if it aint broke don’t fix it.) (It sort of works for them.) So I’m nor worrying about A STORY but some scenes. They’re not offcuts, in the sense that Ann Patchett means, because they happened after the pages of the novel close.

I hope you enjoy the first of them. It’s an office scene, because that’s what people who have read the book so far really seem to like. They like commuter stuff, too, so there will be more of that. Don’t be put off from reading the novel by sampling what’s effectively a sequel. (You can read an extract here.) I pretty much reveal in the blurb that Minna and Jeff get together. It’s all about the journey, as they say …

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Mother/daughter conduct was always a relevant theme, although Minna hadn’t considered her own to be in need to repair until office banter forced a re-evaluation. The perpetrator had been Astrid, a one-time confidante, whom Minna now did her best to avoid. But there’d been an encounter which could be endured only by a two-way exchange of news.

‘Face facts, it’s awkward,’ came Astrid’s assessment. ‘Just as your little sister formalises her wedding plans you finally get yourself a boyfriend.’

‘I wouldn’t say finally,’ Minna countered, though she was happy if there was a disconnect between her new relationship with Jeff and those who’d gone before him.

‘It looks as if you’re trying to upstage her.’ Astrid was relentless. ‘I very much doubt you’ll succeed.’

‘It isn’t like that,’ Minna said. ‘That’s not how Lisa sees it. Nor Mum.’

The trouble was, from that moment on, it was exactly how Minna saw it herself, even though she was getting better at not being influenced by the views and goals of other, invariably more confident people – especially when they made her feel inferior. Luckily, such thoughts didn’t plague Minna’s every waking moment. They didn’t spoil the time she spent with Jeff. And they never arose as a problem in the office.

It was the first official coffee round of Monday morning. Staff arrived between eight-thirty and ten and drifted in and out of the kitchen until they’d met their culinary breakfast targets. There’d be an exchange of news and views and then it was heads down until the prospect of the desk-bound week triggered the panic of caffeine deficiency.

On seeing strangers in the kitchen again – they came like locusts from a lower floor – Minna’s instinct was to withdraw, but then she saw Andi, who sat two desks away, and considered the situation safe. She positioned herself amongst those attendant on the whistling kettles. It was like a game of Russian roulette: there’d be enough water; the risk was intercepting the kettle which had been filled by the person who’d temporarily abandoned it for a loo break but who’d return, without warning, to claim their boiling spoils.

‘It was so nice to meet your Mum on Friday, Shaz. Pity she couldn’t stay longer.’

‘Oh, hi, Gem. She had a train to catch so it was a bit of a rushed visit. Anyway, Mum didn’t come to London to visit me. She was passing through and had time to spare.’

‘No need to sound so ungrateful.’ A third voice swept in, cold as the north wind. ‘Don’t forget my sweetener, Shaz.’

The voice belonged to Paula, the only member of the quartet whom Minna knew (apart from Andi). They’d clashed once in a meeting, or they would have done, if Minna hadn’t lost her nerve.

Gem said, ‘You’re not ashamed of your mum, are you, Shaz?’

‘Of course I’m not.’

‘Maybe Shaz shared some office goss and was afraid that her dear mama would let something slip.’ That was Andi, at last, so Minna allowed herself to slip deeper into the discussion as she poured water into cups. ‘Careless whispers.’

‘Speak for yourself,’ Shaz reproved, ‘just because your mum’s in HR.’

‘She wouldn’t be interested,’ said Andi. ‘It’s coals to Newcastle.’

‘Newcastle?’ queried Paula. ‘Shaz, aren’t you from the north-east?’

‘Sheffield,’ Shaz revealed, and prepared to shuffle off.

‘At least you’ve got an office to show her.’ Gem wrenched the cupboard doors open, and everybody flinched. ‘I was out of work for six months before I landed this shitty little open-plan gig. No jugs! What kind of business do they think they’re running?’

‘Simmer down,’ said Paula, and then, ‘Well, Shaz, there is a point to be made. You may have issues, but least your mum’s interested in your career.’

‘Tell the story,’ Andi encouraged. ‘Oh, Minna. Hi. You know Paula, Shaz and Gem, don’t you?’ Minna offered a little wave. Andi said, ‘What time are we due to start?’

Minna hadn’t forgotten about the meeting for which this round of drinks (now cooling) had been requested. She glanced at her watch, irritably. She wanted to hear more about Shaz and her mum. If lessons were on offer only a fool would ignore them. ‘We’ve got five minutes.’

‘What story?’ Gem demanded, holding a piece of china aloft. ‘Isn’t this a gravy boat?’

‘You’ll laugh,’ Paula warned. ‘But it isn’t funny. So, the other week my gran phones to say she wants to take me to lunch. Now, this is big news because she broke her hip at Easter and pretty much lost all her confidence.’

‘Barely leaves the house,’ offered Shaz.

‘She’d have an OT,’ suggested Gem. As if just for Minna’s benefit, she offered, ‘That means … occupational therapist.’

Paula continued. ‘It’s a big event, travelling to London. Petersfield’s only an hour away, but still. Anyway. Gran named her time and I cleared my diary. I had to cancel my massage.’

Gem winced, and Minna felt compelled to speak. ‘It’s fully-clothed and they don’t use oil. There’s nothing creepy about it. The company offers it for free and if people don’t take it up then we’ll lose the benefit.’ It was a perk she’d only recently discovered but already she was fed up of being marginalised for supporting it.

Everybody frowned, even Andi, disloyally. Paula said, ‘We’d agreed twelve forty-five and by one-fifteen I was getting worried. So I phoned Gran and said where are you? She said she’d been waiting for me for ages. I asked her where. She said she was by the make-up counter towards the front.’

Shaz rocked with laughter. ‘Can you believe it! She still thought you worked at Boot’s! She thought you hadn’t moved on in your career since you were seventeen years old!’ To the others she said, ‘She’s twenty-nine.’

‘Alzheimer’s,’ Gem exhaled. She reminded Minna of someone. Of quite a few people, actually, which didn’t make Minna warm to her. ‘Her granny’s hip might be mended but now there’s concerns about her mind.’

Paula shook her head. ‘We don’t think so. She just forgot. Or else – and this is probably more likely – my parents never bothered to update her on what I’ve been doing these past eight years.’

‘Couldn’t you have told her yourself?’ Minna wondered, and thought: I’m not always very good when it comes to keeping my parents in the loop. But then, until recently, there’d been little to report.

‘We have an annual family get-together in a church hall in Cleveden,’ said Gem. ‘At the time it feels like a motorway pile-up but everyone tends to come away pretty much updated. Right, if we’re done, I’d better get back.’

‘I heard she’s the laziest person on the third floor,’ Shaz muttered to Gem’s departing back. ‘Never mind the gravy boat, it’s the gravy train she’s on. A cushy little number.’

What a lot of arcane expressions Shaz seemed to know. Perhaps they came from her mother. Which made Minna wonder—

Paula rerouted the conversation. ‘As I was saying, it was nice to meet your mum, Shaz. I hope your skin’s as good when you hit fifty.’

Entertainment over, it was time for them all to return to duty.

Somehow, Minna got abandoned, holding the tray. Andi hadn’t offered to help, but that didn’t matter. What struck Minna was that she hadn’t achieved any useful, instructional insight into Shaz and her mother. Shame, really, but at least it meant her own insecurities remained recessed for now. If not longer, because these days, Minna wasn’t stricken with despair nearly as often as she used to be. That’s why lessons were so thin on the ground.

The fact was, if you were doing as much living as Minna was – since she and Jeff had got together, about a month ago – there was little time left for learning.

With that thought, Minna cheerfully went off to her meeting. The sooner it began the sooner it was over. At lunchtime, she planned to call her boyfriend so they could discuss the evening ahead. They’d talked about a quiz or a comedy night. The prospect of either was fun, and would get her through the rest of the day whatever else occurred.

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