It had been such a lovely day. Desmond had enjoyed the morning of the conference particularly. Adam was an old friend and it was good to see him playing and singing happily again; there was a time when Desmond and some other members of his team had been regular attendees at the open mike club where Adam performed. The year when Margaret had been working for the health authority had given him a level of freedom that had been curtailed once she returned; angry, resentful and determined to make someone somewhere suffer for the insult she had been dealt when told that her services were no longer required.
Her job with the local authority had been filled by a very bright and personable consultant, whose services were dispensed with once it was known that Margaret was Coming Back! There weren’t many people who were pleased to see her, although the CEO’s contract was coming up for review, so their relationship was rekindled and the councillors on the review panel found themselves under Margaret’s microscope. This meant that they were wooed and complimented, provided they agreed to keep the CEO in post. In the case of those new councillors who didn’t like the CEO and wanted rid of him, Margaret used her powers of detection to find information damning enough to ensure that even the most independent of councillors found themselves bullied and threatened into agreeing with the majority.
Desmond had to admit, even though he was devoted to Margaret, there were times when he did not approve of her behaviour towards other people, and increasingly towards himself. He tried to justify her attitude by blaming it on stress and overwork. He was aware that Margaret had relied on Sally to do work that had been forgotten about, or that she couldn’t be bothered with. When Sally left the authority after her book was written and waiting to be published, Margaret had tried to find another member of staff who could deliver the same level of support, but either the person she picked was quite happy where they were and knew all about Margaret’s reputation, or they took up the new job opportunity, but found themselves so constantly criticised that they were either signed off sick with stress, or managed to persuade their previous managers to take them back.
The only workforce left for Margaret to plunder were those young and not overly bright like Joanna, or a series of agency workers who had the skills but usually decided that they weren’t being paid enough to put up with Margaret’s demands and left without notice.
She hadn’t always been so demanding; Desmond could remember a time when he looked forward to meeting up with Margaret for lunch or a few drinks after work. Although she had always been what could be described as a ‘pushy parent’, their daughters had done well and were both attending university. Desmond was pleased that both girls were doing well, had got their first choice of university and were very busy, but there was a part of him that missed them dearly and wondered whether they really needed to study their chosen subjects on campuses that were so far away from home.
Margaret’s attitude to life became more bitter when she returned to her old post; the once cheerful lunches turned into silent half hours in local cafes. Silent except for Margaret’s unremitting complaints about her follow staff, or failing that, the quality of the coffee and sandwiches which prompted a search for somewhere else that she might approve of.
When Margaret told Desmond that she was going to be having working lunches with the CEO (and other members of staff and councillors, of course), he felt torn by the loss of what had once been an enjoyable break from work, and relief that he could spend more time going out for sandwiches with his colleagues, to nice local cafes that he thought he could never visit again.
This was why he enjoyed the conference so much; he was very fond of Ruby and she was particularly complimentary about his input, and how he had helped her by carrying out some of the more time-consuming tasks. They laughed a great deal during the planning stages and up until lunchtime, the conference was going very well. Helping Ruby and Adam to clear up after the attendees had demolished the buffet was fun too. Dashing around with bin bags and separating recyclables from rubbish made him feel as if he was clearing up after a wedding.
Then Margaret turned up and took umbrage at Desmond, her husband, demeaning himself in this way. Shortly after this, Michael had arrived, more determined on having it out with Margaret about Mandy’s behaviour, and a very obvious lack of management, than putting in an obligatory appearance at the conference.
Other people overheard Michael’s words; an ominous rumble through the plasterboard walls, and amongst those listening was Gavin Slime, whose timing was impeccable. He didn’t even pretend that he had an interest in the conference; he just leaned up against the party wall with that sly and deeply unpleasant smile on his face.
Desmond had already decided that he didn’t like Gavin. When Margaret had first received a copy of the report on Mandy, her reaction at home had been explosive. How dare he blame her for Mandy’s poor management! She had suggested appointing Gavin and this was the way he paid her back! Margaret appeared to have forgotten that the very reason she had suggested Gavin’s appointment, was because of his reputation for ruthlessness and rooting out anyone who he felt was breaking the rules.
Although Desmond did his best to placate Margaret, Mandy was another colleague who was well-known to him, and he knew how her life had been falling apart since her husband and children had left her. The perma-suntan and frequent trips to Tenerife were an excuse to escape the unpleasant reality of her life. As Margaret’s behaviour became more spiteful and aggressive, Desmond almost envied Mandy’s ability to get away from it all.
Being told not to help out with the clearing up after lunch, in such a public and bullying way sent a small sliver of ice into Desmond’s heart. He apologised to Ruby and Adam, but followed Margaret meekly out of the room. Michael and Gavin left too; their missions had been accomplished. Desmond saw them laughing together in the car park. Judging by the speed with which she drove off, he felt that Margaret had seen this too.
She was silent all the way back to the office and didn’t even say goodbye when Desmond got out of the car and headed back to his office. She drove off, and he assumed that she had a meeting to go to. When he got back to his desk there was an envelope with his name on. He opened it and found an unsigned letter telling him that his wife was having an affair with the CEO. It also gave details of their lunch meetings, and the hotels they had visited afterwards, together with the ‘meetings’ that she had booked into her diary. Whoever had compiled this list had access to some very confidential information.
He asked around, but all he could find out was that the letter had come via Reception and the lad on duty there was new, and didn’t know who it was that dropped the letter off.
Desmond read through the letter again. It was very factual and whoever wrote it had been careful not to disclose who they were, or how they got the information. He sat at his desk; trying hard not show how upset he felt. Although he got on well with all his colleagues, he was always careful not to say anything negative about Margaret. There had only ever been one person who understood their situation.
She had always been welcoming and empathic when she worked in Margaret’s office. He used to tip Sally off on the phone first thing in the morning, when Margaret was on her way upstairs and in a particularly toxic mood. By the same token, Sally would let him know if the day had challenged Margaret in some way so that he could keep the conversation light, or even maintain silence on the way home.
His first thought was to contact Ruby, but he knew that she would still be busy with the conference. He would call her tomorrow and ask her if she would ask Sally about the CEO. If anyone would know, she would. He felt a bit disappointed that Sally had never mentioned this to him, but at the same time, he knew that there had been a great many things that had gone on but were kept secret. Until the publishing of her book, Sally had been considered a very loyal and discreet employee. Desmond had a feeling that the violent reaction Margaret had after reading Sally’s book wasn’t just because she didn’t feature in it, but might also be due to fear that Sally’s sequel might give away more of Margaret’s secrets.
He had no appointments booked for that afternoon, and so he spent his time looking through his own paper diary and cross-checking Margaret’s meetings with the official electronic version. It wasn’t the sort of activity that he would usually get involved in; Desmond was one of life’s listeners and would always rather rely on people rather than processes. Something drove him on to explore however, something that had a lot to do with the way he had been humiliated by Margaret, and stopped from helping Ruby and Adam with the clearing up. Was this worm finally about to turn?
When Margaret came down to summons Desmond for the journey home, she found him unusually quiet. Never one to take responsibility for her own actions, she assumed that one of his clients had upset him, but didn’t bother to ask him if anything was wrong. When they got home, he busied himself with getting the evening meal ready, and the only bright spot of his evening was pondering over whether to put something in Margaret’s dinner that would give her a stomach upset.
He felt quite shocked at himself for thinking this way; and even more shocked that he could even consider upsetting her, physically or emotionally.
Then he stopped.
He stopped and began to remember all the times when they had laughed together in the past few years. There weren’t many, and by comparison, there were too many occasions when he had felt crushed and demoralised by Margaret’s words and actions. He had left the anonymous letter locked in his desk drawer, but he remembered the date of the first of Margaret’s alleged assignations with the CEO. It coincided with her return from the health authority secondment, and now that he thought about, her initially angry mood swings had started to subside around this time as well.
Dinner was consumed in silence. Margaret was still simmering over Michael’s shouting at her in earshot of the conference attendees, and what she considered to be Gavin’s betrayal. She left half of her meal for Desmond to clear away, and disappeared upstairs where her fingers could be heard hammering frantically on her laptop. As she was so obviously busy plotting her next move, Desmond put some of his favourite music on in the kitchen and closed the door so that Margaret would not have any reasons to come down and screech at him. He thought back again to a time when they would listen to such music together. When they’d get a babysitter in and go off to see their favourite groups play live. In those days, the two of them had done similar jobs in different teams; they were both happy to be equals, or so Desmond had thought. He would be the first to admit that he didn’t have the same level of ambition as Margaret. He was doing a job that he enjoyed, and had no aspirations to be managing anyone or anything.
He felt quite sorry for Margaret’s laptop as he climbed the stairs and got ready for bed in his daughter’s room. Unknown to Margaret he had acquired a copy of Sally’s book, and like a sneaky teenager, he settled down to read it by torchlight under the covers. The torch was extinguished when he heard Margaret making her way to bed, but once he was certain from the sounds of her disgruntled snoring, the torch went on again and Desmond was determined to finish the book. His only problem was that there were several parts where he really wanted to laugh out loud as the serial killer busily bumped off many of their mutual colleagues.
The book was finished in the early hours, and it made Desmond more determined to contact Sally and talk to her about the situation with Margaret. Now that she no longer worked for the local authority, she was under no obligation of confidentiality, and no doubt Ruby would have told her about Margaret’s behaviour at the conference, and the management issues with Mandy.
For the first time in months, Desmond slept like a baby. A baby that had made sure that his copy of Sally’s book was well and truly hidden from Margaret’s prying eyes. He had a feeling that he might even have Ruby’s mobile number on his phone, and whilst the temptation was to nip downstairs and check, he decided against it, in case he woke Margaret up and gave her something else to rant about. So, he slept. Peacefully and with visions of a hippy lifestyle in California, sitting on a woven native American blanket on the warm sand, and watching life ease past him without any need for mobile phones or watches, when there was the rising and setting of the sun to rely on.