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Authors: Kathleen Baird-Murray

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BOOK: Face Value
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Kate was third in the pecking order, after Tania, the chief sub, although that was only if she confined her counting to the features department. Gavin, who was in charge of layout and design (and generally didn’t have to do as many runs down to Starbucks as she did), and Lianne, a staff writer employed on a freelance basis, were both older than Kate and had been on the magazine longer than her, but if she included them in the count, then she’d be fifth out of five, which was all too depressing. Gavin’s burger wrapper lay in the bin, impregnating the air with the remnants of mad cow disease. Lianne’s orange peels lay on top. Everyone suspected she was anorexic as no one had ever seen her eat anything more than a satsuma washed down with coffee, but no one had actually confronted her with the dreaded truth, just in case it opened up a whole host of unwelcome problems that could dominate office politics for years and result in her taking loads of time off, and goodness knows what else. Besides, she might just be skinny and eat loads at home, like one of those people with a phobia about eating in public. She looked up as Kate walked in, and nodded a hello, tearing off more peel with her teeth and throwing it in the bin. And that, mused Kate to herself as she surveyed them all, was the true democracy of
Maidstone Bazaar.
Everyone had their own secret sin: Gavin’s burger addiction, Lianne’s assumed anorexia, Kate’s chain-smoking (until two weeks ago, minus yesterday’s totally justifiable relapse; but she still chewed her fingernails, so that could overtake smoking), Brian’s un-PC jokes, and Tania’s cat’s hairs covering everything. Her big, fluffy, stroppy Persian cat, called Badass, was perhaps the most disgusting habit of all. Tania’s obsessive love for him meant she was allowed to take him to work during the day. She called his custom of using the wastepaper basket as his own private toilet if she left the office for more than thirty minutes a symbol of the constancy of his affections.
Today Kate was working on an article for
Green Issues
magazine. She wasn’t supposed to be. She was supposed to be doing eight hundred words (it felt more like “doing” than “writing”) on the new cancer hospice out at Springton Banks, but she and Tania had a competition going to see who could be first to hit the one hundred mark for stories about cancer hospices; and as she was up to sixty-seven and Tania was up to eighty-nine, Kate thought it only fair that she let Tania forge ahead. If she was late with the story, Tania would have to finish it off for her, thus gaining the prize of one week’s supply of cat food (the type for fussy felines). Kate had put up the prize herself, knowing that Tania was just deluded enough to see it as something worth working toward. Besides, now that the Trisha story was out she didn’t want her local
Green Issues
branch to think that she was neglecting her ecological interests in favor of colluding with the devil. Fifteen hundred words on electric buses and why the local council was actively opposing them, in spite of their obvious environmental benefits, should put her back on track. She had a great quote from Councillor McQuarry—“Have you ever seen the things? They’re damn ugly!”—but she suspected the councillor, a jovial, friendly man with sweaty hands, had been talking to her off the record.
Looking at the final draft, Kate still wasn’t sure about the ending. Not punchy enough. She stared at her screen, waiting for the words to come. Of course, the three most important words in the piece were the three at the top:
By Kate Miller
. Mustn’t be distracted by ego. That way lay the danger of celebrity. Her eyebrows furrowed downward as if in a concerted effort to drag the words out from her brain. It needed something about the bus routes that tied it back to the theme of electricity. Electric dreams become electric nightmares? Too clichéd. Anyway, she’d said it already, halfway through the piece. A strand of hair rested on what was left of the graze from where Trisha’s shoe had hit her. It had healed nicely.
Brian tapped her on the shoulder.
"C’mon, love. The pub. We’re all going to celebrate.” She hadn’t noticed Tania and the others filing out the door.
“Celebrate what?” She quickly flicked her screen to her screen saver, hoping he hadn’t seen the electric bus drama unfolding there.
“Celebrate the fact that it’s time for the first alcoholic unit of the day!” he laughed.
“I’ll be down in a minute. There’s just something I need to tweak here.”
As they left, she felt the words falling. She loved this bit, where something, from somewhere, just hit her. Inspiration? She had once tried to describe the process to Lise, the excitement she felt from finding the right words, hitting on a new idea. It made her stomach spin, the satisfaction of knowing that a sentence, a paragraph, was complete, finished, couldn’t be improved on, and once committed to paper was somehow permanent. Lise, thirty-one years old, frequently described as “blonde and bubbly” by her colleagues at the gym where she worked, and whose current boyfriend, Steve, was the married bank manager with five children, didn’t quite get it. Had she tried sex? she’d asked, without lifting her eyes from a worn copy of
Grazia.
There was too much noise in the office sometimes, that’s why the ending had eluded her, but now it was coming, stepping out of the fog like a monster she couldn’t hold back. She typed rapidly:
The question is . . . will Councillor McQuarry look beyond the aesthetics of environmentally friendly public transport and put the needs of the planet first?
Crap. It was crap. She bunched her hair up and knotted the thinning straggly ends back on themselves in some form of a chignon. She’d never been good with her hair. A yellow Post-it Note on her screen caught her eye.
Your mum called. And Lise.
Her mum. Average daily calls: three. Lise. Average daily calls: six. Well, it was only right she should call to apologize for deserting her at lunch.
The question is . . . will Councillor McQuarry turn an electric nightmare into an electric dream?
Though repetitive, this was getting somewhere. Quite where exactly, she didn’t know, but somewhere. She just needed to tidy it up a little. Should it be,
The question is . . . will these “ugly” buses keep our planet looking beautiful?
The phone rang. It was probably Lise again. She’d act as though she didn’t care about lunch.
She huffed into the receiver, “Kate Miller . . .
Bazaar
.”
It wasn’t Lise.
three
Life had a habit of throwing the unexpected at you whenever you least expected it. At least, that’s what they said in those pink-covered novels Lise was always reading. But, with the possible exception of yesterday’s front-page byline, all the unexpected things that life had thrown at Kate had so far been unpleasant or uninteresting: her father dying when she was too young to remember him; finding out that Kelvin Grabbs, her second boyfriend, was using her as a “cover” to appease his homo-phobic parents; and her only recognizable talent an inexplicable ability to name a tune within the first two notes. These were the things, unexpected things, that life had so far thrown at Kate.
On June 10, as she answered the phone alone in the office that afternoon, life threw the unexpected once again at Kate Miller. This time, it was neither unpleasant nor uninteresting.
One minute, the calm of an empty office; the next minute, the phone call.
A woman’s voice, like Cagney or Lacey or Sarah Jessica Parker—regional New York dialects aside, it was definitely American—asking was this Kate Miller, because she was calling from ‘Noo-velle May-Song Editions’ and had Alexis De Vere, the editor of
Darling
magazine, New York, on the line.
“You got her? It’s Kate Miller? . . . Okay, put it down, I’m here.” Another American voice was on the line, speaking so fast Kate could hardly understand what she was saying. “Kate, this is Alexis De Vere, two words, and may I just say, I am so pleased to have finally tracked you down! Lisette, you know Lisette, don’t you? She speaks so highly of your work and she said—”
“Well . . . not personally, but . . .” Who on earth was Lisette? Who was Alexis De Vere Two Words? “I mean, I do know a Lise, but . . .” How did Lise know this woman?
“Well, we have a situation here, where we have been trying to find . . . No, forget that, how can I put it? I’m going to come straight out with it!” Kate heard the woman take a deep breath at the other end of the phone. “We love your work, Kate. Love it. Everyone loves it.” She inhaled deeply again, this time as if she was smoking. “And we want you to be
Darling
’s next beauty director!”
There was another long pause, as if having thrown it out there she wanted Kate to gush back with the same exuberance, but Kate was too staggered to say anything. Whose darling?
“I mean, obviously,” Two Words continued, filling a gap she didn’t seem prepared for, “you’re famous for your celebrity beauty stories, you do them so well, everyone’s talking about them.” She must have read the Trisha piece.
I’ve only done the one
, Kate nearly said, but she wasn’t quick enough, and the woman continued regardless, railroaded right over her: “Gustav—you know Gustav? Just shot Kate and this wonderful new girl from Estonia . . . forgot her name . . . Lizbet?? Lizbet?” There was a pause, as Lizbet failed to materialize. “You know who I mean, right? Amazing story, naked big sister-little sister thing, in a sauna with a bunch of Russian mafia. About antiaging. Very Helmut Newton, God bless his soul, did you ever work with him? Mind you, we can’t say it’s a ‘tribute’ or anything else. Gustav will have a fit. Likes to think he’s better than Helmut, can you believe? Well, anyway, Gustav is just desperate to work with you, and you know what he’s like. So, what do you think?”
“About what? I’m sorry?”
“Do you want it?”
“Well, no! I mean, yes! I mean, what exactly do I want?”
“Beauty director,
Darling
magazine, New York! What else! I just know that you’re the one, Kate, just know it! Raw talent, that’s what you are, plain and simple. That’s why everyone’s talking about you. New York needs girls like you, Kate. And we can make it very easy for you, but I must have you here in a month. One hundred fifty thousand and a relocation package suit you?”
“Well, yes . . . but . . . a hundred and fifty thousand dollars? !”
“One hundred sixty thousand, then. You strike a hard bargain. I like that. Kate! I am so thrilled! Your brilliance will shine at
Darling
, I’m sure of it!”
She was gone. In her place, the first woman, who seemed younger, identified herself as the Lizbet that Alexis had been calling for. She asked for Kate’s e-mail address so she could send over a contract. They would have to install Kate in a hotel for the first couple of weeks before moving her to the company’s apartment in the Meatpacking District.
Darling
wasn’t usually this disorganized, but everything had happened so quickly. Would she be all right with that? And by the way, was Maidstone M-a-i-d or M-a-d-e? Was that in west London?
Kate put the phone down calmly. She looked around the office and checked that it was still only Badass, Tania’s cat, staring at her. Five minutes passed.
It would come.
Ten minutes.
She could wait.
She knew what they were up to. The follow-up call, where Lise or Tania, or Gavin on the picture desk, or Lianne or Brian, or her mum, or some TV presenter would shout gleefully: “You’ve been framed!”
But it never came. Instead, an e-mail popped up on her screen offering flight details, then a contract to be printed out, signed, and FedExed back to Nouvelle Maison Editions, followed by another e-mail saying she should visit the US Embassy ASAP—Lizbet would take care of the necessary paperwork. Five minutes on, yet another e-mail, asking if she could fax or e-mail over one sample of her work, something she was proud of or that was recent. Purely a formality. For the publisher, who was a stickler for rules; you know how those people can be.
Kate stared at the screen, her head in her hands. She tapped her foot on the floor. Her hair had unscrunched itself from the back of her head, and itched the Trisha Hillmory graze. She scratched her neck and looked around the office again. Lisette. The Alexis woman had said Lis
ette
. But what if she’d misheard her? What if really she meant . . . Kate reached for the phone, hit the speakerphone button, and dialed Lise’s number.
“I like to move it, move it”
blasted out, followed by Lise’s chirpy voice:
“Hi! My name’s Lise! And if you like to move it, move it, come and work out with me! For personal fitness instruction leave your message after the tone, for everyone else, you can . . .” “Move it, move it,”
the music finished her message for her. It wasn’t funny, and it wasn’t clever. But what was worrying Kate now was how someone with a
move it, move it
theme tune for their answerphone message could possibly be on nickname terms with the editor of a New York glossy magazine.
“Lise, something really weird’s happened. Call me.”
Standing up abruptly, she sprang her chair away from her desk and strode into Brian’s office, where there was a mirror on the back of the door. All at once she felt compelled to study her reflection.
Darling
magazine had offered her a job. She had just about heard of
Darling
magazine, had seen a few copies lying around in the reception area at the gym where Lise worked. She seemed to remember it was fat and glossy, with pictures of thin girls with big breasts in expensive clothes. She didn’t have big breasts. She had flat-as-pancake breasts. The crepey French ones, not the puffy American ones. It was not the kind of magazine she would ever have wanted to work at. She had hoped one day for something suitably eco-aware at
National Geographic
, or even to be the human rights correspondent at the
Observer.
Something that might change the world, which would enable her to really do something for it besides paying her Amnesty International subscription on time or writing features about electric buses that no one would ever read.
BOOK: Face Value
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