Ralph Marshall arrived in the department two months before Ben Collins departed and the day after Rachel returned to work. He was a good bit younger than other managers in the firm and much more handsome. He gave the impression of being a real whiz kid with a marvellous sense of humour. Rachel and Cynthia were introduced during the morning tea break and were quite bowled over by his sociable manner.
His grip, when they shook hands, was like a vice. ‘I'm pretty sure we'll get on famously,’ he said, smiling broadly, while behind him Mr Collins frowned and tutted into the air.
‘I do hope you'll enjoy working here, Mr Marshall,’ Cynthia said, fawning over him. If there's anything we can do to help you settle in, you only have to ask.’
‘Please, call me Ralph.’
Ben Collins tutted once more and retreated to his office.
Ralph smiled after him, then parked himself on Rachel's desk and pulled a packet of Rothmans from his pocket. He offered it to her.
‘I don't, thanks. Cynthia does, though, more's the pity.’
Ralph threw the packet to Cynthia, who caught it deftly with one hand. He turned back to Rachel. ‘You don't approve?’
Shrugging her shoulders, she remarked that life was too precious to shorten in such a vile way.
‘Do you consume alcohol?’
‘Sometimes.’ Rachel's eyes went down, knowing her consumption of alcohol had increased.
Cynthia crowed. ‘That stumped you, Rach.’
Rachel retaliated by showing her the tip of her tongue.
‘No fighting, ladies. Not in firm's time.’
But Ralph Marshall was laughing. Rachel was sure that, as he removed himself from her desk, he gave her a subtle wink before sauntering like a man with time on his hands to the inner sanctum.
THAT night as she opened a new bottle of Bells, Rachel noticed for the first time how her hands shook in her eagerness for a drink. Fretting that it might be a sign of permanent dipsomania, she quickly reinstated the bottle on the shelf, pushing it behind the wine and the Cinzano that
‘You did the right thing, dear girl. Would you like me to call round? Give you moral support, so to speak?’
‘I think I might go to bed,’ Rachel said, believing sleep was the only way to reject the yearning for alcohol. She didn't want Eric to rush over every time she had a crisis. Much as she valued his good will, it wasn't fair to use him as a constant prop.
‘As you wish, Rachel. Remember you can ring any time.’
‘I know, and thanks.’
Rather than have him think she was perpetually in a state of woe, she mentioned that the new man had finally started work. ‘He's ambitious, I think, and not as obsessed like Ben Collins.’
‘And different to me, I'll wager. I hope he doesn't take a fancy to groping your knee like I did. Just be careful if he does. A younger man will not be content to stop there.’
ON Ralph's second day, to Rachel's delight, he put a stop to evil-eyed
‘I'll take the look of your face,’ Ralph said, halting in front of Sid's machine. ‘If ever you talk like that again I will organise the quickest dismissal you've ever witnessed, with my boot on the seat of your pants, right out of that door.’ He inclined his head towards the bay. ‘Do you understand me?’
Sid nodded, fittingly red faced, but as Ralph strode away he brandished two fingers at his departing back.
Rachel scuttled to the office, intent on telling Cynthia at the earliest possible second. But Cynthia was not there. A message, wedged in the phone dial, presumably put there by the firm's receptionist, advised her that Cynthia would be in as soon as her doctor's appointment was through. That means lunchtime, thought Rachel, disappointed that she could not share her tale. However, when lunchtime came and there was still no sign of Cynthia, she rang her home and learned from Curtis that she had gone shopping and would call in afterwards.
Rachel slammed down the phone. ‘Call in afterwards! Who the hell does she think she is?’
‘Who does who think she is?’ Ralph was leaning against his office door.
‘Nobody,’ she fibbed, not wanting to get Cynthia into trouble.
Ralph made no comment about the brief display of indignation; he enquired instead if she was going to the staff canteen.
‘I don't usually.’
‘Would you like to use it today? Show me the ropes?’
Why not, she thought, promptly deciding she would since Eric was otherwise engaged.
THERE was a faint smell of lemons in the lift which, since the canteen was three flights up, Rachel assumed to be Ralph's aftershave. Potent but not unpleasant. It wasn't noticeable earlier but then she had not been as close to him as this. Ralph leaned towards her to view the floor indicator. His body heat seemed to seep through the fabric of his suit, emitting a whiff of underarm perspiration. Cautiously, she viewed his strong profile, hastily looking away as the lift came to a jolting halt.
In the canteen, they collected trays and joined the queue. Seeing some of the girls giving envious glances, Rachel inevitably straightened her spine. It was understandable; Ralph was quite a catch. Indeed, if she was single she might be tempted to hook him for herself. Only she had
Both Rachel and Ralph elected to have cottage pie. She had chips with hers, while he opted for salad, maintaining that he was something if a diet freak. He didn't look the sort of man who needed to diet but whatever his habits were, they worked … testimony coming from the number of women who stopped to speak.
In between politely acknowledging the intruders, Ralph told her a little about himself. He married at twenty-one and divorced last year, at twenty-nine. His ex-wife, Merry, had forsaken all affinity with her name the day they wed, letting herself go and rapidly turning into a shrew. Her continual nagging finally drove him to devote all his time to rugby, which he would willingly have abandoned had she given him the slightest encouragement.
Rachel placed her knife and fork side by side on the plate. She felt a certain animosity towards the man opposite, who thought nothing of ridiculing his former wife; something
RALPH Marshall's warning was faithfully heeded. Only Alf addressed her with his usual: ‘Afternoon, Rachel,’ the other men kept their eyes glued to their machines. Consequently, Rachel dawdled, the need to scurry having been removed by the new boss. What a tale she'd have to tell Cynthia, whenever she condescended to come to work. However, Cynthia was already in; she was standing by the kettle, cigarette smoke spiralling from the ash tray on the desk, her portable radio transmitting indistinctly in the top drawer.
‘You're just in time,’ she said, without turning. The kettle clicked off. She poured the water into the teapot, then stepped away to let it brew. She grinned. She had news to impart and, by the look of it, she would burst if she did not let it out. ‘Guess what,’ she said, triumphantly. ‘I'm pregnant.’
Rachel was consumed by intense, malevolent bitterness. It wasn't fair, was her irrational view, when she herself had not even achieved coition. A jealous battle raged inside. Unfair, cried an inner voice. Unfair, unfair, unfair. For several minutes, she wrestled with the hostility, fought to conquer the jealousy until she felt confident enough to offer, with a rigid smile, her congratulations.
Cynthia squinted through a smoke screen as she poured the tea, cigarette dangling from her mouth, speaking through a foggy exhalation. The spectacle infuriated Rachel. ‘Honest to God, you'll kill the child if you carry on that way.’ It was the right thing to say, for immediately her resentment eased, though the tears still lurked behind her eyes and the constriction still lingered in her throat.
‘Do you think smoking will harm it?’ asked Cynthia as she presented Rachel with a mug of steaming tea.
Taking the mug, Rachel went to her desk, pondering the wisdom of smoking when pregnant. Up and down the land, experts advised against expectant mothers smoking. If it was her, she would ... well, she would never have started in the first place but she certainly wouldn't want to inject a baby's blood stream with nicotine. She imagined a foetus, snug in the womb, expectorating black tar as it grappled with an ebony cigarette holder. ‘How would you like being laid up in an atmosphere riddled with exhaust fumes,’ she said.
Cynthia stared at the remains of her cigarette, plainly considering the analogy. Abruptly, she withdrew from her string shopping bag a ten-pack of cigarettes. Unhurriedly, she unzipped the cellophane and separated the packets, systematically opening every one and dispelling the contents into the metal bin on the floor. Striking a match, she let it fall. Rachel watched the screwed-up waste paper ignite, and destroy what must have cost a fortune to buy. So engrossed were they that neither heard the door open, and