In Office Hours
By Lucy Kellaway
Paperback, 336 pages
Grand Central Publishing
List Price: $24.99
Two words: four letters, then eight. The shape of them was so familiar and yet shocking to see now, after all this time.
Stella had just got back to the office after lunch and there his name was, sitting in her in-box next to an e-mail containing the minutes of yesterday's board meeting. The subject line read: "hi."
She knew what she must do. She had rehearsed it often enough with Dr. Munro and with any friends who were still willing to listen. With an unsteady hand she picked up the mouse, highlighted his name, and clicked delete.
"Are you sure you want to delete this message?" the computer asked.
But that was the problem: No, she wasn't sure.
The therapist had explained that there was nothing inherently upsetting about either him or his actions. The trouble was Stella's thoughts, which in turn caused her emotional responses. The answer, the woman had said, was to learn to control her thoughts, and then her emotions would fall into line.
As a concept, Stella had found this seductive. But in practical terms it was useless. Stella, so good at controlling most aspects of her life, had had no success in controlling her thoughts — or those that had anything to do with him. And it was also nonsense to say that his actions had been neutral — except perhaps in some far-fetched, philosophical sense. In fact, they had been devastating: five lives damaged, one of them, it seemed to her in her more hysterical moments, beyond any chance of repair. In the end, she had canceled her therapy sessions and gone to Selfridges and squandered the £210 that she would have spent on fifty minutes of Dr. Munro's time on face cream instead — which hadn't made her feel any better, either. Worse, as she kept studying her reflection to see if it was having an effect on the deep lines between her eyebrows and the loose skin around her jaw.
Two years ago, when Stella had first met him, she had given little thought to her appearance. She had felt younger than forty-four, particularly because she was tall and slim clothes hung well on her. She wore almost no makeup, though she'd started having blond highlights threaded through her hair to hide the gray. But now, if she looked in the mirror and let her eyes go dead and her face relax, an old woman's face stared back at her.
Stella looked at the computer screen, which was still demanding a reply to its question. It had helpfully highlighted the button Yes, as if knowing that this was the path of sanity and righteousness. She moved the mouse and clicked No instead. She stared at his name. It was extraordinary, she thought, to hear from him today of all days. Just yesterday she had been on Primrose Hill with Clemmie, who was taking a break from GCSE revisions from exams. The two of them had got coffee from the Italian deli and were sitting drinking it in the winter sunshine on a bench. A small, fat man with a Great Dane on a lead walked in front of them, and Clemmie had said, "Opposites attract," and Stella had laughed, thinking it the first normal, friendly thing her daughter had said in a very long time.
Stella had turned her head to watch the big dog and its tiny owner pass, then had thought she'd seen him sitting at the next bench along. He wasn't sullen and cowering, as he had been when he came into her office and stood there wordlessly as she had packed her things. Instead, she could tell from the back of his fair head and from the lazy way he was sticking his legs out that he was at ease. He had his arm around someone young and blond with skinny jeans tucked into high-heeled boots. On the pretext of putting her cup in the bin, Stella had got up and walked toward him, and at just that moment, he'd turned toward her. It wasn't him.
"You know," she had said to Emily on the phone that evening, "I think I am really over it. I thought I saw him yesterday with someone young and pretty on a park bench. And I felt curious, and, yes, I suppose if I'm honest, I was a bit . . . disturbed. But I wasn't destroyed. I wasn't even churned up. Even when I was certain it was him, I thought, It's okay, I've moved on."
There had been a brief silence at the other end of the line.
"Well," her friend had said, "maybe you have, maybe you haven't."
Why were one's closest friends, the people who had witnessed all one's ups and downs, so superior? Maybe it was simply that for four decades, Stella's friends had witnessed one huge "up" after another and so were relishing this catastrophic down for its novelty value.
But what was even worse than her friend's superiority was the fact that she was right. Stella's dry mouth and thudding heart did not belong to a woman who had moved on. She got up and closed her office door. She didn't want to do this under the appraising eye of her PA.
She took the mouse, moved it to the message, and clicked on it to open.
"Dearest S," it began.
From long practice, she could gauge the state of his feelings toward her from the first couple of words of his messages. Once, long ago, during an interminable conference call, she had written a list of them in order of affection:
my own dearest, funniest, cleverest, sexiest F (this had happened only once, in the very early days)
"Hallo" she disliked doubly, first for its lack of affection and then for its wretched spelling. But "Dear Stella" was the worst, as it was coldest. That was how the final and most awful message of them all had begun, its correct capitals underlining the correctness of the sentiment it contained.
But now here he was, e-mailing her after a long, arid year, and now she was his dearest again. She returned to the message.
it's been a long time. I've no idea how you are, or if you want to hear from me at all anymore. I don't even know where you are working now, but I've just googled you and I'm sending this to what seems is your new work e-mail. I hope it reaches you. I often think of you, ferreting things out. Do you still do that? I bet you do.
I've got something to ask you, and something to tell you. So I wondered . . . will you have lunch with me one day next week? we could meet at the bleeding heart for old times' sake or anywhere else would be fine too.
First she read it quickly. And then slowly, looking at every word. The bit about the ferret was a giveaway. Referring to that was tantamount to saying that he hadn't moved on at all either. Stella hit reply and typed:
Yes to lunch. Yes to the Bleeding Heart. Thursday? One?
PS Yes, I still ferret things out. Of course. xx
Was it too keen? She reread his message. It was definitely warm, and he did say that he still thought about her, but he didn't say in what way. She read it again. Maybe it wasn't that warm. At least not effusive. "Cheers" was a pretty distant ending, as well as being an ugly one. Respond, don't react, Dr. Munro had said. It had been one of her more helpful instructions.
Lunch would be nice. Have an AFJ board meeting in Rome Monday to Wed, so could do Thursday or Friday?
But did he really want or need to know about her schedule? He used to resent her packed diary, so perhaps it was best not to mention it now. She tried again.
How nice to hear from you. Lunch would be lovely. Thursday or Friday good for me. Let me know, Stella
She pressed send.
Excerpted from In Office Hours by Lucy Kellaway. Copyright 2011 by Lucy Kellaway. Published by Grand Central Publishing. All Rights Reserved.