Winner Sisters in Crime Best New Talent Award, 2010. Published in ‘The Second Cut’, anthology of selected Scarlett Stiletto prize winners, 2011.
I should probably start by declaring that I have never been a glamorous woman. Never a beauty; my personality is far too prominent in my features for me to have ever been considered as anything other than an aside.
But women, and particularly young women, rarely escape from the romantic dream (I’ll refrain from the word bullshit) of chrysalis, emerging from our earthy fermentation into a stunning butterfly, a sudden release of colour and vitality. The gasp of discovery: all plain women have those hideous memories of Cinderella hopes, coiffing ourselves into travesties, thinking this will be the night that we will be recognised, and entering scenes looking grotesque and garish while elegant women smile effortlessly from the spotlight.
It was on one of these nights – the last one for me in fact – that I allowed my employer to get me drunk and cajole me into bed. I will try to say I was young, but it was actually five years ago and I’m hardly a debutante, so I will also say, more honestly, that I was stupid.
I cannot bear how stupid I was. I wear that stupidity every day, dripping down my face, as if I had been spat on.
I started working for Lachlan James initially as a temp. His secretary had flounced out – inexplicably of course – and he was busy and exasperated. ‘For God’s sake,’ he’d told the agency, ‘send me a workhorse, not a show pony.’
He told me this himself when I arrived, adding that he’d stipulated that he didn’t want a ‘spirited filly’, he was sick of working with women who expected to be admired and pursued. He thought I would do nicely. Within five minutes of meeting he had transformed me into a piece of his furniture.
Lachlan James is a large man in every sense. He is both tall and wide, with board, chubby hands, the sort that would, in childhood games of Snap!, submerge the piles of cards beneath them. They are hands accustomed to smothering. He has a wide mouth, fond of being heard, and a glowing expanse of forehead, like a stretch of wet, glistening sand deserted by the retreating tide.
I’m making him sound like an unattractive man, because he is an unattractive man. But he is also one of the richest men in Australia, and wealth and power can achieve for an unattractive man what no amount of hairspray and make-up can do for an unattractive woman.
Women would do anything for Lachlan James. Women did do anything for him, constantly. He described it once to me in as an analogy involving ping-pong balls. They hurled themselves over the boundary net at him, and he backhanded them away, point scored. But he always made sure that he scored before returning them.
Lachlan James loathed women. And who could blame him? They lit up when he appeared at social events, lipsticked mouths gaping into smiles like those carnival clowns: feed me a pingpong, any risk worthwhile when there are prizes to be won. They were willing to do anything to become Mrs James, so willing that they generally negated their value within the first week. They threw themselves, prostrated themselves, spread themselves. And so he scored and volleyed, scored and volleyed, with such ease that he barely needed to raise his bat. He could play his shots still reclining against the bar, it was that easy.
It was disgraceful. And so was I. Little Miss Blunt, Not A Hope In Hell, My Position Here Is As Legitimate As That Desk, was as callous as the man himself. Being off the playing field, I stalked its boundaries like some kind of daemon umpire, enforcing rules and penalties, no arguments tolerated. Teary phone calls I treated heartlessly, with the disdain he would have shown had I put them through. There were no excuses. ‘An honorable woman,’ he’d told me, ‘is as easy to find as a dinosaur’s fart. There isn’t a single one in existence who doesn’t have a price.’ And he’d pat my hand as if I shared in his knowledge, and I felt special, prized – honorable in fact. I felt as if he saw through into me, appreciated my qualities, my difference and value, despite my unglamorous face and clothes in shades of black and olive green. I despised the others for their weakness, for continually proving Lachlan James right.
And then there was the business trip to the Gold Coast. The trip I tend to think of, with a hefty amount of bitterness, as Game Over. The government affair, where participation was expected and after hours entertainment wasn’t supplied, so secretaries were necessary, and then afterwards the only option. And I blundered into the situation like a dowdy schoolgirl on her first date, so excited at being somewhere I considered exotic, clomping down to dinner in my new heels, with my assymetrical hairdo and my $89 David Jones dress. I remember feeling slightly perturbed at being at the dinner table with him, until Lachlan ordered me my first ever martini, after which my hair flowed from side to side and my wings unfurled at my shoulders.
I’d always known he’d recognize me, one day, for what I was.
Which he did. I woke the next morning to the foulest of mouths, a stained but barely disgruntled bed and, instead of a lover, a note instructing me to order breakfast to his room for 8.30, book a flight for him (first class) and me (economy), and organise a stockbrokers’ meeting for the end of the week.
That marked the end of our collaboration. I had crossed the border, jumped the net from his side, and become one of the fray, one of the ocean of women who disgusted him. I could no longer look down on these women because he now looked down on me, among them. And they, with barnyard instinct, knew this. They recognised weakness and beaks were raised against my lack of authority. I was an object of contempt for him, and for the train of women desperate to be by his side.
It was intolerable. I endured the cold amusement in his eyes, his sneering instructions to arrange his lunch dates and reschedule any afternoon appointment within an hour of the rendesvous, for less than a week. When I gave notice the Thursday after the conference he looked me in the eye and actually laughed. ‘Why?’ he asked.
I felt my face betray me, the prickly blush rising along my neck, so unexpected was this cruelty. ‘I don’t think I really need to spell it out for you.’ But I’d lost my bearings and my words stumbled.
‘I think you do. You’ve been an efficient employee (how he relished that description) for almost two years now.’ At this point he actually reclined in his chair.
I actually twitched in the face of his smirk. ‘My position with you,’ I sounded shrill, how I hated the sound of my voice, ‘is no longer tolerable.’
‘No longer tolerable,’ he mused. ‘How strange. I can’t see that there’s been any change. So if you find your employment here “intolerable” now, I can only say that the influence is coming from you yourself. You are obviously not comfortable anymore. You,’ he repeated for good measure, ‘are obviously not comfortable anymore.’
‘I have nothing more to say.’
‘Then shut up,’ he said, crossing his legs, ‘and listen closely, because I will only make this offer once. You are perfectly good at your job and you are safe.’ His eyes touched me with a hint of disdain. ‘I do not want the hassle of replacing you. You know where your place is and where it isn’t and you will get over your sulks.’
‘I am not staying.’
‘Don’t interrupt. Your salary has just doubled.’
My salary was generous to begin with. So there you go. Not only is every woman attainable, anyone can be bought. Except him of course, when you’re wealthy already it’s easy to be incorruptible. He had just, with complete indifference, given me the means to purchase, or at least realistically to save for, the home of my own I’d always despaired of having as my savings fell further and further behind the property prices.
What is pride when faced with the attainment of a dream? I did attempt it, but it was quickly quashed by the nature physically evident in his smothering hands. There was to be no thinking it over – his car should have been there by then, a yes or no answer now please.
I had already proved myself weak.
‘Right. Now see to the car.’
So I learned to toughen. I endured his scornful disinterest as I endured the malevolent disinterest of the women who dropped in and out of his life.
‘Miss O’Halleron,’ he would mutter by way of introduction on his way past.
‘Miss O’Halleron?’ they would repeat as if they had not noticed my presence. ‘Darling, can’t we have lunch at Macey’s today?
He would turn briefly back in my direction. ‘Table for two, one o’clock.’ She would not look back.
They were revolting, these women. Aghast at the sudden arrival of their use-by dates, their only avenue became to suddenly acknowledge me, a descent that was heartily resented. Some would attempt dignity, some were abusive (‘Don’t you tell me I can’t talk to him, you’re just his bloody secretary.’), but the worst were those who thought me so stupid they could undo a month’s rudeness by wheedling and cooing. (‘Believe me sweetie, I understand perfectly how difficult that man can be …’) I got no pleasure from each one’s demise now, each one’s tactics were simply a fresh wound to me because ultimately women like these will always fall on their feet. There are always plenty of rich men to whom large busts in flimsy dresses are assets. There would always be room for these women elsewhere.
I would say I lived through those years, but it would be more accurate to say I survived them. I became an automaton, cold and distant and bitter, horribly bitter.
And then, at the beginning of another year, Lachlan met Amanda, and suddenly it was a whole new playing field. Because, finally and irrevocably, Lachlan had met his match.
Physically Amanda was no different from all the others, except that her flawless ochre was due to Polynesian blood rather than a spray gun. She sported the same long lacquered hair and nails, the rollercoaster eyelashes, and carted round the same inflated lips and ridiculously enhanced boobs, cleavage as deep as an ATM. She was tall though, with narrow hips and long shapely legs. She strode into the room in enormous heels, on those legs so graceful and assured they looked as if they could just as easily lob a footy.
But instead of striding past me as if I were a fixture, Amanda sashayed up to my desk with a smile that was a wall of teeth and took my hand between her acrylic talons.
‘But what’s you first name honey?’ she drawled, her voice deliciously guttural. ‘Miss O’Halleron sounds like some kind of dusty old maid.’ She looked deep into my eyes, her smile never wavering. ‘Jessica? Beautiful, much, much better.’ Her handshake was almost a stroke. ‘We’ll be great mates Jessie. I’ll be needing someone smart and sassy to help me take care of this man.’ And she put one foot out and thrust a hip in a kind of Spice Girl pose that would have looked ludicrous on anyone else. Her laughter was deep and flowed languidly into a tinkle as she stalked over to Lachlan, whose customary exit had been delayed by her manoeuvre. She put both of her arms around his waist and beamed.
And for a minute I thought he would die. Just the sight of her earlobe, that tender flap of skin pierced by a single pearl was enough to make him demented with lust. Because Amanda knew how to return a serve, she could volley with the best of them. She knew full well that the way to a man’s heart wasn’t by giving them everything, but by giving nothing. And so she posed and she embraced and she laughed. She glowed, she literally seethed with promise, which she withheld.
Lachlan wanted, and he was used to having what he wanted. He was besotted.
She allowed him so much. He could fondle and nudge those ridiculous boobs, caress her athletic arse, and her taloned paws would relieve him of the discomfort he lamented, but those were her limits. In desperate frustration one night he tried to overpower her, but Amanda was a woman of ‘principles’ (she always said this last word as an ironic sigh), with the strength to match. She kinghit him and left. He sported a shiner for a week, while she returned his flowers but not his calls, until he presented her with a silver Porsche.
‘You big duffer!’ she gasped with delight, and laid her palm gently against his sore eye. ‘I didn’t really hurt you did I?’
I know all this because Amanda kept good on her promise to me. She was determined, in her dizzying whirlwind way, that we would be mates, and frequently came early to meet Lachlan so she could perch on my desk for a chat, a ‘wee girly gossip’. She would always bring some kind of treat, a vanilla slice or a custard pie, something messy that left residue requiring a tongue or a finger to remove. But only ever one, whatever she brought would always have to be divided and shared between us. ‘To have a whole one to yourself would just be greedy now, wouldn’t it sister?’ she would say, and swing her long strong legs from her position next to my In tray.
We did become close, strange as it might seem. Amanda was a carefully created character, and while she kept up her act with me, the fact that it was a front was tacitly accepted by us both. We knew that she was larger than life, and we enjoyed it. I found that in Amanda’s presence I started to come back to life a bit. I told her one day, timidly, that it was my birthday, and she was like a volcano erupting.
‘That’s it!’ she shrieked, ‘lunch is cancelled, sorry Lachlan my love, you’re on your own today. The table for two is ours and you can just cool your toots doing whatever it is you do here.’ And she dragged me out from behind my desk with a vice grip and held her other hand out to Lachlan. ‘Money please. I’m taking our little Jessie shopping for a birthday present. From us.’
And Lachlan, big powerful important Lachlan, handed over his wallet like a puppydog. She selected several large notes, removing them slowly and elegantly with her shining purple nails (embellished with tiny gold stars) and handed it back to him with a long lingering kiss, before whirling back to me and dragging me from the office as if we were two schoolgirls let out early for the day.
What a birthday it turned out to be. By this time Amanda had been around an uncharacteristically long time, so was she known, to those who need to know these things, as the woman who had Lachlan James in the palm of her hand. So that doors I would never have even dreamed of approaching suddenly swung wide for me. Amanda rang Dermott, at that time the most coveted hairstylist, from her mobile as we flew towards town in the silver Porsche, and he cancelled Susan Woodsborough, would you believe it, of all people, to fit me in. In the boutiques at the top end of Collins Street she flung designer outfits aside while immaculate women simpered. She had me try on half a dozen dresses, before choosing a loose, elegantly simple silk in a flowing blue. Stunning, the colour of river water.
‘That’s it,’ she nodded, ‘now you’ll match the silver Porsche.’
I was enjoying all this immensely. ‘Oh yes,’ I agreed, ‘it’s vital that I match the silver Porsche.’
Amanda chuckled. ‘But mais oui! You can’t settle for something that doesn’t suit you.’ The briefest of glances. ‘That’s for people who aren’t special.’ She dropped the car keys into my hand. ‘See if you like it. If it’s your destiny.’
At the restaurant we clinked champagne glasses at a window table, while waiters hid their true feelings. ‘To destiny!’ sang Amanda, raising her glass.
‘Destiny!’ I echoed, raising mine.
When she burst into Happy Birthday the ubiquitous waiters kept their frozen smiles intact and felt compelled to join in.
It took Lachlan five months to give up struggling like a dying fish and propose. Five months of gifts – everything from designer chocolates to dripping rubies – that would melt any normal woman, were mere appertifs. He knew what she wanted. And he finally conceded Match Point.
And she said no. Her father, she said, would expect her to return and marry within the community. That’s why she was so protective of her integrity. If she wasn’t married a virgin, her father would lose his position. For the first time since Lachlan had met her, Amanda looked lost. She loved him so much she would marry him in a shot, but she couldn’t go against her father’s wishes or her family would disown her.
Lachlan had always known this was coming, but he was too far gone to care. After all, this was his language. ‘How much?’ he asked her.
‘My father is already a rich man,’ Amanda bridled, then added quietly. ‘By Samoan standards.’
‘So consent will cost what?’
‘Oh!’ wailed Amanda, ‘my father is such a stubborn man. And to marry an outsider would be breaking with tradition, it would mean going against all his values.’
Lachlan ran his large hand over his shiny expanse of forehead and arrangements were made. Amanda would fly to Samoa first, to soften her family and convince her father of Lachlan’s standing and honorable character, ratified by Lachlan’s gift of a $500,000 bank cheque, to be handed over when he had agreed – in writing of course – to the marriage. After the old man relented – as of course he would, everyone can be bought – James would fly straight over to pay his respects to his future in-laws.
When my phone rang just before lunch I answered expecting it to be the travel agent with the flight details. But it wasn’t. It was Bob Hutchins, editor of the Herald Sun. They were planning to run a photo of Lachlan and Amanda taken at the Crown casino’s gala ball in their Society column. But Bob wanted to check the wording of a caption. He’d heard a wee rumour that he wanted to confirm.
‘They want to know whether to refer to her as your fiancé,’ I told Lachlan. He kept his back to me, peering over the top end of the CBD. ‘I said no.’
‘Did you now?’ He turned and gave me a look of pure loathing. ‘Well you can just ring him back then, can’t you?’
When I rang Amanda to say I had the flight options and would need her passport to do the booking, I felt compelled to warn her of Lachlan’s attempt at pressure. She was silent a minute. ‘He acts as if it’s a game of chess,’ I couldn’t help saying.
But she laughed. ‘Oh well mon cheri, it’s all games really isn’t it? But making it public isn’t such a bad move. I’ll drop my passport in this afternoon. Is the cheque ready?’
‘I have it here.’
‘Shameful really, isn’t it, to have to buy yourself a wedding. Éclair or Danish?’
She arrived around mid afternoon, prancing into the office on her heels, lovely legs displayed to perfection. James had left for a meeting with his directors. She looked over the flight options and handed me her passport, along with a huge slice of bulging cream cake and a printout. ‘I think these flights would be the most convenient, if it’s not too late to arrange.’
I looked at the printout without surprise. ‘Tomorrow might be tricky. But Lachlan’s name can usually fast track things. It’s something he’s always been exceptionably proud of.’
She bit into her half of the cake, watching my face as I opened her passport. I put it on the desk and looked at her. It was as I’d expected. Amanda squirmed her buttocks on my desk, where she usually perched. I picked up the phone, not taking my eyes off her. ‘Qantas reservations please.’ I bit into my half of the cake while I waited for them to put me through.
Amanda’s smile was all gleaming teeth. ‘We always understood each other,’ she chuckled. ‘Sister.’
When our cake was finished I gave her the cheque and she kissed me full on the mouth and hugged me to that enormous bosom.
And then she was gone and I was alone in the room with her wonderful scent. For me it would always be the essence of sensuality. I breathed deeply.
I couldn’t help sad as I approached my little house, but the sight of the silver Porsche in the driveway lifted my mood a bit. Amanda’s goodbye letter in the mailbox directed me to the car keys hidden in the backyard, behind the Forget-Me-Nots. It told me the car had always been part of my destiny, the rest of which would be paid into my bank account by the end of the week. ‘Not half the cake this time,’ she’d written, ‘but a tasty mouthful nevertheless.’
At work the next morning Lachlan looked smug. The Herald Sun was folded under his arm.
‘Has Amanda’s flight been booked?’
‘You fly to Samoa at the beginning of next week.’ I gestured to the paper. ‘The phone has been running hot all morning.’
‘And you are saying?’
He nodded. ‘Get me coffee, and Roddick on the line.’
‘Max will be here at ten,’ I reminded him. He paused in the act of kicking his office door shut behind him. ‘And book a table for two at Delix tonight. Flowers to Amanda’s flat, orchids.’
It was late afternoon when he kicked his door open again. I was waiting.
‘Come in here,’ he called. On the desk in front of him was a transcript of his AMEX statement, showing payment for the three flights I’d billed to his card the previous day. He gave me a look that would wither someone who was unprepared, and gestured to the statement. ‘Explain these charges,’ he said calmly.
‘Those are the flights I booked for you yesterday. One for you and two for Amanda.’
‘One of which was to Auckland?’
‘Yes. Auckland early this morning and,’ I checked my watch, ‘she should have left for Los Angeles two hours ago.’
‘And you gave her the cheque. It was cashed by her father in Auckland this morning.’
‘I don’t believe so.’
‘You don’t believe so?’ He was like a cat playing with a freshly caught mouse. ‘The cheque made out to her father was cashed in Auckland at 11.45 this morning.’
‘I don’t doubt that.’
‘Her boyfriend I suppose?’ His face couldn’t seem to decide whether it was grey or red, but he still managed to laugh at me. ‘You know I’m surprised at you. You obviously think you’ve been so clever, but you’re even stupider than I’d realised. This is called fraud, and $500,000 is larceny. And you’re an accessory, left here to face the music while that dirty little slut tries to hotfoot it. You’re both unbelievable fools.’ He picked up the phone. ‘The police will be waiting to intercept her in LA – if that’s where she’s going, which can be checked anyway, you imbecile. Federal police,’ he spat into the phone.
‘Make sure you give them her real name, the one she’s traveling under, so there’s no confusion at the airport.’
‘I’m not the dickhead you and your little trollop seem to think I am. I wouldn’t think for a minute she’d be using the name she gave me. It’ll be nothing to trace her from the tickets you purchased.’
‘Just make sure you spell it right. I’ll write it down for you. Oh, but you should know the spelling. From the cheque.’
The automated operator was offering to connect him to the number he’d requested. The red in his face was draining to allow the grey to finally dominate.
‘The cheque,’ he said, simply.
‘A gift. You authorised it. Hardly theft.’
‘This changes nothing. It was deception. Obtaining property under false pretences.’ He started to get his fight back. I could hear the phone chiding him to choose an option.
‘Of course it changes nothing. You were conned, an astute business man like you, and by such an obvious hussy. A shame it’ll be such a public scandal, that’s all.’
‘It won’t be. This will not get out.’
‘Of course it will,’ I smiled. ‘Fancy losing your reputation, so publicly, over such seedy talk, all for $500,000. What will be worse – people saying you knew all along, or really believing that you didn’t? I mean really, even her name gave her away.’ To the right of Lachlan’s desk was the Herald Sun, open to the society page. I gestured to the photo, a good one, Amanda in the skimpiest of dresses, rainbow-coloured, that barely covered her silicone implants. She glowed, towering on her long legs above a sea of starving blondes, Lachlan beside her looking so wolfish he appeared to be salivating.
Lachlan slowly reached to the desk and dropped the phone.
‘By the way, I was asked to give you a message. Just a little one. “Check mate.”’ I straightened my plain black skirt over my knees. ‘I have rung Bob Hutchins and told him they have made an error that will need a correction in the next edition. Shall I also ask him to correct the misspelling of Ms Le Journiers’ name?’
‘Get out,’ said Lachlan.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘In that case, there is the small matter of my severance pay.’
Because it’s all just a game in the end isn’t it sweets? she’d written. Love you to bits. Your Amanda.
A man. Dah!