Having finally got The Cinnamon Snail up on Kindle, something I would never have managed without family members in IT, I am about to upload book number two. It is the second in the series of four books set in the countries in which I have lived. I need to think of a series name so any suggestions welcomed. Each of the books involves a twenty something British woman being forced by circumstance to move country. I am working on the blurb for Sunshine State without giving away the entire plot. So far I have –
“Emily Martin has spent the past six months putting her life back together after her bitter divorce from Jack. Meeting him every day at work hasn’t exactly helped, especially as he seems to be trying to date every one of Emily’s colleagues.
She finally has the chance to escape. A year in Florida ought to be enough time to find someone who is different from Jack in every way. That way, he will see that she is the one who has moved on. Nothing could be simpler…”
So a couple of sample chapters. I’ve tried to double space it this time for ease of reading.
A novel by ROSEMARY WHITTAKER
‘See you at eight, sweetheart. Don’t be late.’
Jack leans across the desk next to me and winks at Mel. She giggles and then glances guiltily at me. I am all of two feet away from him but he doesn’t even look in my direction as he blows her a kiss and drifts away in the direction of the canteen. This is the final straw. My ex-husband just arranged a date with my work colleague right under my nose and they both expect me to grin and bear it. Well, this time I have reached my limit. I jump up, turn off my screen and push past Mel, ignoring her startled look. I walk as quickly as possible down the corridor after Jack, trying not to look as though I am chasing him. That particular ship sailed long ago. I catch up with him just inside the canteen, where he is staring along the counter at the trays of lasagne, cottage pie and macaroni cheese – all of which look sad, white and remarkably the same.
‘Jack!’ I start to pretend this is an accidental meeting and then remember he saw me sitting at my desk a moment earlier. He grins.
‘Emily. You seem in a rush. Just got in to work?’
This is so typical of Jack, playing mind games, pretending never even to notice my existence. He saw me. He could hardly have missed me, squashed into the corner of the open plan office with Mel and Jason. But I am not playing his stupid games today.
‘I wanted a word with you.’
‘And an email would be a problem for you because..?’
‘Because several extremely personal ones I’ve sent you in the past have mysteriously ended up going to all staff. Because I was given a warning letter by my manager when they did. The first I’ve ever had, I might add, and all your fault as usual.’
He nods seriously. ‘Yeah, it took me a while to get the hang of that email thing. All that CC and BCC stuff. It’s tough to get your head round at first.’
The man has the same computing degree from Manchester that I have. But long experience has taught me that it is never worth getting into any kind of an argument with him. He has all the weapons – passive aggression, feigned ignorance, fake serious answers to any point I make. So I ignore his last comment and focus on what I want to say to him right now. It might have been better if I had given myself time to think first but his repulsive flirting with Mel was the last straw. I take a deep breath to centre myself.
‘Like I said, I want a word with you and I’m not putting it down in an email. I want you to stop flirting with every single woman in the office, right in front of me.’
He lowers his tray and looks pained. ‘I ask one woman out on a date and suddenly the flirting police are after me?’
‘It’s not one woman and you bloody know it. It’s lots of women and not from all over the company either, just from my department. Keep this up and I might even think you were doing it deliberately.’
He shakes his head. ‘Keep this up and I might even think you were being paranoid.’ He lowers his voice. ‘Or jealous.’
‘I am not jealous!’ My voice rises to a squeak and I lower it as I see people in the queue shooting amused looks at us. I try again. ‘I am not jealous and you know it.’
‘Look, I’m not getting at you, Em. It’s only been six months and I know how hard it hit you.’
I know how hard I would like to hit him. It might have been only six months but, after the hellish three years that preceded it, it has been bliss. No one likes to admit they have made a mistake but there was no getting past this one. In our defence, we were very young. We married straight after university and surely everyone is allowed one bad relationship decision. The fact that mine was a completely horrific relationship decision is neither here nor there. His crooked smile and sparky green eyes managed to hide his real nature for the whole of our final year and for enough weeks after graduation for me actually to marry him. Unfortunately, marriage isn’t great for hiding things and inevitably his self-absorption, his total irresponsibility and his eye for any woman who didn’t happen to be me, pretty quickly brushed the bloom off our particular rose. But I am not picking through the wreckage of our marriage again in front of a whole canteen of interested observers so I stare him straight in the eye.
‘Whom you go out with is none of my concern. I honestly don’t care if you shack up with a women’s beach volleyball team. But when you do it at work, right under my nose and only with the women you know that I have to work with, you’ve crossed a line. So I’m telling you to knock it off. Ask people out on your own time and turf, not on mine.’
I turn to walk away but he grabs my arm. ‘Let me get this straight, Em. Even though there’s no company policy against employees having personal relationships, you seriously think of this as some kind of turf war?’
‘Sleaze war,’ I retort and push his arm away. ‘You’re not pursuing personal relationships, Jack. You’re just trying to bother me. But not anymore. If this carries on, I’ll report you – and don’t think I won’t.’
He raises his eyebrows at this threat. ‘To clarify – no dating women in your department?’
‘No coming near your part of the office in work hours?’
‘Right again. There’s no need. We’re software developers. You’re sales.’
‘And what about you? Can we speak at all – apart from the delightful occasions when you chase me into the canteen for these little chats?’
‘I didn’t… Oh, shut up! No, I don’t see any reason for us to have to speak. If you have a query, then email it. I promise not to post it for everyone else to read. I’m not that low.’
‘Message received loud and clear.’ He swings his tray onto the counter and points at the lasagne. The woman behind the counter smiles and gives him an extra large helping. He looks over his shoulder.
‘Still here? Am I to have the pleasure of your company at lunch?’ He picks up some cutlery and holds it out to me.
‘Shove it where the sun doesn’t shine,’ I say and turn on my heel and march out.
I am in a storming temper by the time I get back to my desk. Mel takes one look at me and pretends to be absorbed in her code. I don’t mean to take it out on her. She is welcome to see anyone she likes and Jack and I are well and truly over. But he ought to show more sensitivity – if he only knew the meaning of the word.
I slam in my password – cheat1ngbastard – and wait for the screen to come warm up. I have three new emails. I delete the first two without reading them. I have no desire to go either to the office dinner where our bonuses are announced or to the annual barbeque the firm holds in the grounds each August. In fact, since Jack and I split up, I have avoided all work social events. He came to the Christmas party, just one week after I had moved out of our flat, with the peroxide blonde from publicity. I had to cope with every woman’s sympathetic eye on me all evening and every man’s envious one on Jack.
The third email is marked urgent so I open it.
Could you come down for a short chat this afternoon at your convenience?
I have to think for a moment before I can place her. She is a short, dumpy woman in Human Resources with cropped red hair and oversized bright green glasses that are supposed to say, ‘I take my work seriously but I also know how to have fun and be the life and soul.’ What they actually say is, ‘I am a self-absorbed, self-important jobsworth whom no one would ever conceivably want to spend ten minutes with, let alone date but trust me, I’ll never realise that.’
What does she want? Trust her to pick a day when I am busy. Human Resources seem to spend most of their time sorting out squabbles between members of Sales. They usually leave the IT staff alone, which suits us just fine. I glance at my watch. I may as well go down and find out what she wants before I get my lunch. That will give Jack time to finish his meal – and hopefully break his leg on the stairs back down to his department.
I arrive in HR and the man at the desk tells me to take a seat. Maddie will be out soon.
‘Great,’ I say gloomily and sit and study the posters round the wall where earnest looking people smile out from behind captions about a trouble shared being a trouble doubled, or whatever. The door swings open and Maddie ushers out a weeping woman.
‘It’s just the complete unfairness of it all that gets me,’ says the woman, wiping her eyes. Maddie puts an arm around her shoulders. ‘You come back whenever you need to. I’m always here.’
‘You’re wonderful, Maddie,’ gulps the woman and goes out.
‘Another satisfied customer!’ chirrups Maddie in a self-congratulatory sort of a way and I give a vague nod.
‘Do come in, Em,’ she beams and I instantly feel annoyed. No-one but Jack has ever called me Em, and that was only because he knew it bothered me.
‘It’s Emily,’ I say and take a chair before she can offer me one.
‘Oops!’ She screeches with laughter. ‘I’m always getting names wrong like that. But what can you do?’
Not do it? But she’s not worth the bother. Let’s just get this over with, hear about the particular bee she has in her bonnet today and then get back to finish that application for Keith before he starts complaining.
She pushes her chunky shape behind her desk and leans across it. I notice that she has adjusted her chair as high as it will go and is peering down at me. Am I supposed to feel intimidated? I wait in annoyed silence for her to get to her point.
‘Emily, this is a little difficult to bring up so I’ll try to be as tactful as possible.’
What on earth can the stupid woman be about to say? I have an almost overwhelming urge to check my socks and armpits in case they smell.
I interrupt her. ‘Don’t bother about being tactful. I’ve got quite a busy afternoon ahead and I haven’t had lunch yet. Can you just get on with it please?’
‘Oh, you IT types! What are you like?’ She looks slightly annoyed that I am depriving her of her chance to emote, but I don’t care. I haven’t got time for her to drag the whole thing out. I notice there is a giant half-empty box of tissues on my side of the desk, and a sign that says – The Main Business In Life Is To Enjoy It.
‘I’ve had a complaint about you today.’ She sits back and folds her arms as if to say, ‘Don’t you wish now that you had let me tell you about it in my own special, sympathetic way?’
‘About your people skills.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘It has come to my notice that your behaviour has been both aggressive and inappropriate of late and…’
I cut across her. ‘Wait a minute. Who’s been complaining?’
‘I’m not sure that’s relevant.’
‘And I’m bloody sure it is. Let me guess – five ten, wavy brown hair, green eyes, complete arse?’
‘I have to tell you that your response is only confirming me in my decision to take this complaint further.’
‘Go on then. What’s Jack accusing me of?’ I lean my elbows on the desk and stare past her out of the window.
‘Sexual harassment.’ She purses her lips and frowns at me to make sure I appreciate the full extent of this shocking accusation.
I burst out laughing. ‘Yeah, right.’
‘I think you should take this seriously. The company certainly does. Just because these complaints usually come from women, doesn’t mean that men don’t suffer too. In fact, I attended a very interesting course recently…’
I cut in before she can get going. ‘I’m sure you did. But that’s not relevant to whether or not my idiot ex-husband has grounds for complaining about me. And I’m telling you that he hasn’t.’
‘I don’t think we can decide that completely on your word, I’m afraid.’ She has an idiotic, tinkling laugh that sounds like out-of-tune sleighbells.
‘Just on his?’ My stomach rumbles loudly and I reach into my jeans pocket and cram a piece of gum into my mouth.
‘When a complaint is made, we always listen. As you know, our company prides itself on being an equal-opportunity employer and completely gender-blind.’
I slap the table. ‘And common-sense-blind? A man accuses his ex-wife of being aggressive and you just accept his word? What about him? Did he tell you he spends most of his time in my department, leering at all the women and asking them out in front of me?’
She pushes the box of tissues closer to me. ‘He told me how hard it has been for you since he left you.’
I push them back. ‘He didn’t leave me! I left him.’
‘Let’s not get bogged down in the little irrelevant details. Your ex-husband was very honest and showed a great deal of compassion for your feelings. It’s why he came to me and didn’t make a formal complaint to your manager. He said he hurt you terribly when he left and that you have simply not been able to move on. He tells me he waited for a sensible amount of time but you showed no sign of relenting towards him so he decided he must get on with his life. Therefore he started dating a woman…’
‘… who was, most unfortunately, in the same department as you…’
‘They all were. What rotten luck for the poor man.’
‘… and today he has just called to tell me that you pursued him to the canteen, harangued him loudly in front of several people and demanded he stop seeing his girlfriend. To make it worse, you apparently threatened to do something he didn’t care to outline more specifically to me, with some cutlery. He assures me he has witnesses.’
I give up. There is nothing I can say to this smug, gender neutral-woman that will ever make her listen. I am going back to work. She seems to interpret my silence to mean I am too ashamed to answer because she actually pulls out a tissue and hands it to me. I drop it in the bin and she sighs.
‘Em…oops, Emily. It’s terribly understandable that anyone should be devastated when their marriage breaks up. We professionals see it as a mourning period in the same way we would if someone had actually died. Grieve, weep, allow yourself to feel the pain.’
Her eyes are brimming with her own eloquence so I pull out a tissue and hand it to her instead. I’m not explaining that my particular mourning period consisted of a wild celebratory dinner with my best friend Samantha, followed by finding a flat in an area of town that Jack hates, working extra hours and getting the promotion I have wanted since I started here. Nor am I explaining that I would have been just as happy if he had dropped dead. It is none of her business. I stand and stare down at her. ‘I think this conversation is over. The whole thing is a complete nonsense. All he needs to do is stop flirting with every female single member of IT when both he and they should be working. Outside work, he can do as he damn well pleases. Now I’m going to see if there’s any lunch left. You’ve kept me talking and I’m starving.’
She scuttles out from behind her desk and pats my shoulder as she holds the door for me.
‘Super idea and very positive thinking. Well done, you. Low blood sugar – it’s never a good idea and particularly not now. A nice lunch and you’ll feel quite different.’
I walk past her and out of the door as quickly as possible, but not quickly enough to avoid hearing her chirpy voice.
‘Another satisfied customer!’
By the time I arrive at work the following morning, I am feeling a lot better. I worked late yesterday and finished the application for Keith. I had the office to myself, which I love, with no one to talk at me or interrupt my work with their problems. I ordered a four-cheese pizza and ate the lot.
I am at my desk by eight and ready to tackle a pile of work. I have to present the designs for the new web site tomorrow and quarterly progress reports for the team are due by the end of the day. I don’t mind. I enjoy working right up against deadlines, bringing order out of chaos. Jack hated that when we were married. He works to time and leaves everything behind him when he clocks out. I can’t understand anyone doing that. How does the unfinished work not prey on their mind and ruin whatever plans they have for the evening? In the end, and only after endless rows, we agreed that if I was working late, he wouldn’t wait. I have no idea what he did most of those evenings, although I have since found out enough to know he didn’t exactly sit around pining for my company.
Mel slides in twenty minutes late and deliberately avoids my eye. I don’t know why she thinks I care. What she and Jack get up to outside the office is none of my business. My only objections are to what they do inside the office. I glance at her desk and quickly drag my thoughts away from that horrible image. I wonder if I ought to say anything about Mel being late. Since I was promoted to Head of IT, I’m her senior and I sign off all her expense claims and do her appraisal, which is due next month. I suppose I had better get someone else to do it. Jack is quite capable of making a formal complaint to mad Maddie if I give Mel anything less than a perfect report. In the end I decide to ignore her lateness.
‘Did you have a good evening?’ I ask her, to show that her dating Jack isn’t going to cause any awkwardness between us and that I am quite capable of separating our work and social lives.
‘Oh, yes, fine.’
She shoots me a wary glance and I grin. ‘Where did he take you?’
‘Bowling and dinner.’ She’s still eyeing me as though I’m a black mamba.
‘Bowling? He doesn’t like bowling. I doubt he’s ever been before.’
‘He’s very good at it. He beat me by miles.’
I shrug. She must be totally crap then. I can’t imagine Jack bowling. He is more one for nice restaurants and sophisticated bars – and going to gigs. His taste in music is definitely not mine so we never went together. And he hated the sort of films that I like so we usually split up on those evenings too and went our separate ways.
The morning ticks by with no more emails from Human Resources. Hopefully, Maddie will have found some other victim she can hug hard enough to make them cry. It can’t be a fun job, listening to loads of losers grumbling about their co-workers and job conditions. But it keeps her from being part of the main company, where some of us get some real work done and make the money that keeps it afloat. I doubt she ever asks herself how CFH would have become one of the biggest travel companies in the market if it was staffed entirely by Maddies.
By mid-afternoon, I am ready for a break. Mel hasn’t finished the new user sign-in module so I can’t take a look at it and start reviewing the code. I decide to get a coffee and go outside for half an hour. CFH keeps some lovely gardens for the employees, with a pond full of koi carp. I get a coffee from the machine and a packet of cheese crackers from the one next to it. The koi seem to like those. I wander down and sit in the sunshine, flicking crumbs at the fish and watching them heave their bulk to the top of the water to swallow them. Last summer was so hot that they got sunburned and a vet had to come out in waders to apply ointment. The summer before that, the gardener left the net off one night and a heron took some of the smaller fish. They are probably more trouble than they’re worth but they do put things in perspective. I spent a lot of time here after Jack and I split up, watching the fish slide softly through the water, gloriously untroubled by any of the crap and heartbreak in the real world above them. Perhaps I should get a fish tank at home. Jack hates pets but now I can do whatever I want. I know that Mel has cats. I hope they shed hairs all over his clothes whenever he sleeps over.
The peace is interrupted by a shrill voice. ‘Em! I thought I might find you here.’
I groan inwardly as I turn round. Maddie looks totally out of place out of doors. She belongs in a little room with little slogans, handing out little tissues. She is the sort of person who, if she went on a country weekend, would buy a Barbour because she would think it the right thing to wear, then team it with funky, multi-coloured high heels, just to remind everyone what fun she is. But I had better not antagonise her too much two days running so I fight down the urge to shove her into the pond just to watch the koi shoot to the weeds for safety.
‘Afternoon,’ I say curtly and don’t repeat my wish for her to call me Emily. She probably picked up Em from Jack when he went to see her and I am definitely not mentioning him again.
‘I thought you might be communing with nature!’ She waves a finger waggishly and I cringe.
‘Why was that?’ is all I say and she smirks.
‘I went looking for you in your office and a little bird told me you like to visit the fish in the afternoons. I hope it isn’t taking too much time away from your real work.’ She tinkles merrily and shakes her head at me. Her oversized earrings clank in sympathy.
‘You mean Mel told you I was out here.’ I am determined not to be sucked into her little world of intrigue and innuendo. ‘So it wasn’t such a great piece of detective work on your part, was it?’
‘Oh, you!’ She taps my arm. I hate that about her. She always seems to be touching people, patting, stroking, hugging. It may be her idea of showing what an empathetic person she is but I loathe it. I like to choose who to get physical with, not have it forced on me.
‘What can I do for you today?’ I ask and watch the last of the carp glide out of sight behind the water lilies. They probably sense how annoying she is too.
‘I’m just checking how you are after our little chat yesterday. It was all quite emotional and I like to follow up on my people.’
‘I didn’t notice it being particularly emotional. You cried of course but, other than that…’
‘There is such a thing as suppressing our innermost feelings, Em. Much of the time we don’t even realise we’re doing it.’
‘No, don’t do that, Maddie. It can’t be good for you.’
‘It can’t be good for any of us.’ She gives me a roguish wink and I look away so she doesn’t see me pulling a face.
‘Well, you’ve checked up on me now, thank you very much, and you can see I’m fine. I was just feeding the fish, you understand, not thinking of throwing myself in.’
‘It’s good to see you haven’t lost your sense of humour,’ she says in her best encouraging voice.
I refrain from commenting that, in most circles, suicide isn’t generally considered a topic for humour. I don’t want to see her switch on her ‘serious’ face or hear any of her thousand truisms on overcoming adversity.
I stand and brush the cheesy crumbs off my jeans. ‘I think I’d better be going in now. I don’t want to waste too much of the company’s time chatting.’
‘There was something else,’ she says and I sit down again unwillingly. I should have moved faster and started across the grass at top speed, leaving her to jog after me in her spiky heels.
‘Shoot!’ I say and she looks momentarily puzzled. Perhaps she thinks it’s another suicide metaphor. She pats my arm again.
‘I received a request from the Executive Team yesterday. As you know, CFH has just taken over a start-up based in Florida. They’ve been very successful in packaging tours to cruise the Caribbean. Doesn’t the mention of that place just make you drool? But now we’ve got to get them doing things the CFH way. And I’m sure you know what that means! They need someone to help connect their computers to our network and to customise our planning tools for the US. Basically they need an IT genius to help them out, and the Executive Team wants to send out one of our developers, all costs paid for a year, to the Sunshine State.’
‘Sounds sensible,’ I say thoughtfully, my mind running over the problem. ‘It makes no sense to have someone who needs to be brought up to speed. Sending someone from here may seem more expensive but they’d get value straight away and it’s easier to keep track of what’s happening.’
‘Exactly!’ she beams. ‘Trust you to work all that out.’
‘It’s not rocket science.’ My interest in the problem is fading and I don’t want her getting all chummy with me.
‘Guess who’s got the best set of skills for what they need?’
She shrieks with laughter. ‘You should be on the stage. No, silly. It’s you!’
She leans back and seems to be waiting for me to say something witty, or perform some trick.
‘Oh, right. That’s probably…’
‘So you see where this is going?’ She’s almost quivering with excitement now and I watch her with interest, wondering if she’s about to have a heart attack. If so, will I get the blame for triggering it with my immense wit?
‘I wish I did,’ I say. If she doesn’t hurry up with this, I am going to push her in, just so I can escape and get some work done.
‘I suggested you!’ She clasps her hands and leans towards me, almost as though she is positioning herself for a hug. Does she seriously expect me to shriek and giggle and fling my arms around her?
‘You suggested I what?’
‘I suggested that you take the assignment. Think of it, a year in Florida. Most people would kill for a chance like that.’
‘Not me.’ I get this in before she starts to marshal arguments, but it is too late.
‘I’ve been sitting up half the night thinking about this,’ she says, as though I am supposed to be impressed by her total dedication to her job.
‘While I was up half the night finishing the application for Keith.’ I stand up again.
‘I do think you should consider this, Em.’
‘…ily,’ I finish for her and she winces at my tactlessness. ‘But I don’t, so that seems to balance out, doesn’t it? And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.’
‘I’ll walk you in.’
You’ll have to catch me first, I think, glancing at her ridiculous pointy shoes on feet which look far too small for her pudgy body. She puffs after me. ‘Perhaps I should have mentioned before that your ex-husband’s complaint was not the first we have received about you.’
‘What!’ I stop dead in the middle of the grass and glare at her. ‘Do you mind telling me what the hell you’re talking about?’
She winces at my tone. ‘This is exactly the sort of thing we’re hearing. That you used to be so pleasant and easy to work with but, during the last year, you’ve become snappy and irritable and very demanding. From your behaviour to me, I can tell that you have a sarcastic tongue.’
Only when faced with complete idiots, I think, as I plaster a charming smile across my face to prove just how wrong she is and what great people skills I have.
‘This assignment seems to have come at a perfect time for you,’ she continues. ‘It will give you a chance to come to terms with what has happened with your marriage. And what a super place to be while you’re getting your perspective back. Disneyworld! All that sunshine and those endless beaches! Perhaps you’ll meet a handsome lifeguard out there!’ She giggles girlishly at the thought and I ignore her. She is welcome to any handsome lifeguards there might be – if she can entice them.
‘I don’t want to be away for a year,’ I say at last. ‘I’m enjoying my work here and I don’t know anyone out there.’
‘If you stay,’ she says bluntly, ‘you are likely to be placed under review and face disciplinary procedures. I thought this might be a way out for you.’
I shake my head impatiently. She must be talking garbage as usual. No one is going to place me under review. I am one of the best developers they have. But she has sown an annoying seed of doubt. I find myself thinking back over the past few months. There does seem to have been a worse atmosphere than usual in the office. I have put it down to the deadlines we have had and the increased workload since Sara went part time. Yes, there have been a few arguments – well, more rows than arguments – but they have been about me trying to get the team used to working my way since my promotion. No one likes change and this lot don’t seem to either. But it is all calming down now. Hardly anyone ever argues anymore when I give them instructions. Hardly anyone talks to you anymore either, whispers a little voice, but I tell it to shut up – no one is in this game for personal friendships. We are here to do our jobs efficiently and make a profit for the company so that we can keep those jobs. But if people are complaining about me, then Maddie may be right. The company takes that sort of thing very seriously. Witness them employing people like her to interfere and get in everyone’s way. And wouldn’t Jack just adore it if he found out I was in trouble?
‘I’ll think about it, OK?’ I say as we reach the building. I don’t expect I will but promising makes me sound accommodating and open to new ideas.
‘If I were you, I’d do a little more than think about it,’ she says as we enter the building. ‘If you want to stay clear of disciplinary procedure, this might be your best hope.’
‘Uh huh.’ I keep my tone non-committal but I don’t fool her. She flashes her white teeth and shiny green glasses at me but her eyes are steely.
‘Let me re-phrase that to make it a little clearer. Your only hope.’ And she disappears in a swirl of bright red hair and short pink ra-ra skirt.