A TIME TO STAND
A TIME TO STAND
By John James Castle
Of course, it all blew up at breakfast. It usually did. Except that this time there was no breakfast. Paul looked over the empty kitchen. As he had bathed, dressed and shaved, Mary should have had breakfast ready.
Mary didn’t have the breakfast ready.
Where the hell was Mary?
Paul noted that the expensive two dozen roses that he had sent to her were laying on the draining board of the sink. There was a gold-paper covered parcel thrown carelessly on the top of the dresser - UNOPENED. That contained the emerald pendant that had cost him an arm and a leg. She hadn’t waited up for him last night, but had been soundly “asleep” when he had finally arrived home. Just a rigid body in bed. One that had ignored his tentative caress.
She must be sulking about yesterday.
Anger burned within him, turning his lips into a thin bloodless line. What the hell did she think she was playing at? He turned around and walked to the main bedroom. Opened the door and looked in. All that could be seen was the well covered lump in the bed that could have been anything - human or otherwise.
“Are you feeling ill?” He knew damn well that if she had been ill, she would have told him. Would have made some effort to get breakfast. But he had to go through the motions.
She had been waiting for his arrival. At the sound of his voice she shot up in bed and turned a tousled head of red hair and red rimmed, puffy eyes towards him.
“Yes, I am sick. Sick of this aimless, worthless life. Sick of being your paid, unconsidered skivvy.”
“Unconsidered? I scarcely think that buying two dozen roses and the present - both of which have been thrown to one side - is lack of consideration.”
“Those were just token payments to your skivvy. You couldn’t even be bothered to present them yourself. They were nothing I wanted. What I wanted was for my husband to have come home to me on my birthday. To have taken me out, maybe for dinner. To have told me that he loved me - made a fuss of me. All I got was a stream of delivery men.”
“What more fuss could I have made. I would have liked to have been here. I even had a table booked at Trainmar. But those people from America arrived and I had to sit in on the discussions.”
“Are you the only person at Wheatherbys that could have sat in on those discussions? I thought that every one of the directors were competent enough to handle overseas contracts.”
“There were four of us in on it....”
“Four - out of ten. What were the other six doing? Being at home with their wives? ”
“It was quite a feather in my cap that I was asked to sit in. It could mean that I will be asked to head the American branch of the company when it starts up next year.”
“What an honour. What a feather! Maybe a whole bonnet full of feathers! Nothing like coming home for your wife’s birthday. Nothing like pretending that she was of some importance in your life!”
Paul closed his eyes. Women! No matter what you did for them it was wrong. “Mary, we have been married for seven years now. And this is the ninth birthday you have had during our relationship. Don’t you think that you should put things into perspective?”
Her hands clenched into fists and beat on the bedclothes. “Perspective - that’s what you are so good at. Putting things into perspective. Like putting the firm before your wife. Like not having children.”
“We did agree on all that,” he said stiffly.
“We agreed to delay things for a couple of years - not seven. I turned thirty-two yesterday. And each year that gets added also adds to the risk of having a child.”
Of course, that was it. She was a year older and, like any woman, that was a tragedy of major proportions. She just needs reassurance, he told himself.
“Look, tell you what. Have a late lie in this morning. I’ll get something in town for breakfast. Then why don’t you also go to town. Have a hair-do, a beauty treatment - the works. We can talk it over tonight.” By that time, hopefully, she will have snapped out of it and be sensible about things.
“Getting your breakfast in town is a good idea. You better think of having your dinner there as well.”
“Oh, you should be back in plenty of time to whip up something. I’ll bring a bottle of wine and we’ll have some quality time together.”
“Are you sure that the people from America will not require all the quality time you can spare?” Her voice was pure ice.
He bit his lip. “As a matter of fact, there was some talk of it - but I’ll get out of it.”
“And risk losing the American branch? You mustn’t do that! Not for a well used wife who will not even be here.”
“Not be here,” he repeated stupidly. “Where will you be?”
“I don’t know. But I will be leaving - and I am not coming back.”
What on earth had got into the woman? This was so unlike her. So unlike the supportive wife he had grown accustomed to having around. “Now look here, Mary. Stop being so childish and....”
“This has got to stop. I will....”
And then it happened. The quiet, well ordered wife went berserk. She started throwing things. Brushes, books - even the bedside light. There was nothing he could do. Apart from leaping out of the room and closing the door behind him. Listening to the sound of the things hitting the panels.
He stood, hesitant. He had never seen her like this before. What could he do? He looked at his watch. There was no time. He had to get to the office. Would not even have time to get breakfast - have to have something sent up.
As for Mary - he’ll bring her a big box of her favourite chocolates. That should sort things out - especially if he grovelled a bit.
Mary lay in bed while she listened to him getting his things. Hearing the door close as he headed for the station. She stared up at the ceiling through her tears. Had she really meant it? That she intended going?
What would happen if she didn’t go? She looked at the years. Saw them going to America. Mixing in with the crowd there - where would it be - New York? Putting the family off for a few more years. Growing older. Growing more hopeless - more empty.
And if she left?
She had some money of her own. Paul had never been mean. In fact as a provider he had been very good. She would have enough to live on for a few months as she looked for work. But she hadn’t worked for seven years. She didn’t even know what the job market was like in the fashion world.
She had kept in practice. Studied the fashion magazines. Designed and made her own clothes - and her clothes were the envy of the set they moved in.
She would be free.
Free to choose again. To find out if she still had a chance to live the sort of life she wanted. Instead of just being a well-dressed shadow in her husband’s background.
She flung the bedclothes off and swung her legs to the floor. It was now or never. If she didn’t make a stand now, she would never know whether she could. It would soon be too late to do any thing - certainly in making a stand.
Two hours later, suitcases packed, she was on her way to the station. There was a sick feeling in her stomach fighting with the excitement building up in her brain. For the first time in years she began to feel that she was taking part in life instead of being a mere spectator.
For Paul the day which had started off so badly just got worse. Nothing at the office went the way that it should have done. Perfectly clear, signed contracts were queried by clients who, apparently, could not read plain legalese. The computer malfunctioned and several files were lost. When the I.T. man was asked to explain he went into a deluge of incomprehensible jargon which merely meant that he didn’t know.
If it hadn’t been for Stella, he did not know what he would have done. Stella, his secretary. Blonde beautiful, well groomed, intelligent and who made it clear that she felt that she would make a far better partner for a rising executive than the one he had. But Paul loved his wife - didn’t he?
It was hard to resist the warm sympathy and understanding that Stella so freely offered. He found himself pouring out the tale of woe to her. Hoping that she could explain what was wrong with his wife, why she was acting in this weird way.
Stella’s blue eyes looked into his as her fingers straightened his tie. “Do you really want me to tell what I think is at the bottom of this?” she asked softly. The red cushions of her lips noticeably inviting.
“Of course, I do,” said Paul. His mouth was dry and he felt the soft pressure of her breast on his arm.
“She is having an affair.”
Paul straightened up and pulled away. “No. Never. Not Mary.“ He walked to his window and looked out into the swarming street below. Stella came up behind him.
“Believe me. I have seen it happen so often. Bored housewife with nothing worthwhile to do and getting older. So, she finds herself a man, - mostly a younger man.”
Stella was standing very close behind him now. He could smell her perfume. Feel the soft touch of her body against his. “No, that’s not Mary.”
A sudden panic hit him. What if he was wrong? What if Mary had found someone else. Maybe even now she was.....
“Tell Mr Paterson I have had to go home. Urgent business. He can call me there if he needs me.” Then he was running for the lift. Not even stopping to pick up his briefcase.
Stella stood there looking after him. Then she moved to the phone - dialled a number. The sound of the ringing came over the wire. And went on and on and on. At last she put the phone back on its rest. A small smile curved her full red lips.
Paul’s hands shook so much that he had trouble getting the key into the lock. As last he made it and ran into the house.
“Mary. Mary.” But, even before he checked her partially emptied wardrobes, he knew she was not there. He could sense the emptiness of the house. She was gone - but where? He had to find her - now.
The phone rang.
It could be her. He ran towards it and picked it up. “Hullo- Mary?”
There was a brief silence. Then the soft, honeyed voice of his secretary came over the wire. “Oh Paul, isn’t she there? How silly of her to act this way. Is there anything that I can do?”
He controlled the burst of irritation that flooded his mind. After all, she was trying to help. “No, Stella - but thanks. I am just going to see if I can find her any where.”
“Oh dear, what shall I tell the M.D.? He was asking where you where as he wants you to follow up on the American group. They are planning a working lunch party. I really think that Mr Paterson wants you to handle the whole thing from our side.”
Mr Paterson, the M.D., wanted him to handle the whole thing. That must mean that they were thinking of him for the American posting. If he didn’t follow this up he might lose the chance.
And Mary? If he didn’t follow her up right away, he might lose her, for good. What to do?
“Paul, Paul.” Stella’s voice was warm and concerned. “Are you there? What shall I tell Mr Paterson?”
Paul looked at his watch. “Tell him that I will meet with them. I suppose they will be at their hotel.”
“Yes. I am so glad you are going. This is going to mean a lot to you and your career.”
Paul straightened up. “I’ll need you there as well. Please bring my briefcase and the files and I will meet you in the foyer in about an hour’s time.”
“Right. I’ll be there.”
Paul replaced the telephone. He was lucky to have Stella. If only Mary was more like her. More an executive’s wife. He was doing this for her as much as for himself. They still had plenty of time for children.
On her side, Stella, as she replaced the phone, let a satisfied smile curl her lips. Things were definitely going her way.
Mary had taken a room in an hotel and had decided to get on with finding a job before her courage leaked away. As soon as she had settled she looked up the addresses of local dress designers. A small place. She would be lost in too big a place, and the medium size concerns would have all the staff they needed.
A small firm would be understaffed. Maybe.
Mode Fantique was small, understaffed, but did they need her? It took all her desperation to get past the receptionist and then past the Office Manageress, who was pretty blunt about the lack of work prospects. But, at last, with a knot of despair in her stomach, she sat opposite the sole owner and Chief Designer.
Ralph Dresden was a tall, dark man who could only be a few years older than her. But the tired lines of overwork made him look older. She felt that he begrudged the time spent with her and only good manners was preventing him from sending her on her way.
She wasted no time in talk. She had done enough of that already. Instead she undid her portfolio of sketches and laid them in front of him. With barely concealed impatience he picked up a sketch and gave it a cursory look before putting it aside.
Mary’s heart sank. She had not expected to land a position with her first interview. But she had hoped for a better reception of her work than what it was getting.
Ralph was about to put the second sketch down with the first but something held him. Then he laid it down on the unseen pile and looked at Mary. “These are all yours, ” he asked.
Mary nodded her head.
His eyes examined her closely. “And the costume that you are wearing - is that also your design.”
Again, wordlessly, Mary nodded.
He sat silent for a few seconds then went back to the first sketch and now examined it closely. He said nothing until he had done the same with a few of the others. Then he laid them down.
“I’ve seen enough for now. Could you leave them with me for a day or two.”
“Yes, of course. If you need to have them.”
“I do. I just do not have the time to really study them now but I have seen enough to know that I must do so. Where are you staying ?”
“I am at the Quoin Hotel for the time being. I should be there for a day or two - depending on what happens.”
“I shall not be long - today or tomorrow - I’ll be calling on you. Okay?”
A smile lit up his tired face. “I think that you are someone I have been praying for - but never expected to come -out of the blue.”
It was mid afternoon when Paul and Stella got back to the office. He was feeling a little tired but good. He knew that he had handled things well. Mostly because he couldn’t care a damn about anything. He had felt that it was rather unfair of the firm to let him face the group alone - and without much of a briefing. And he had rather resented the initial patronising attitude of the Americans.
So, he had taken the bit between his teeth - not caring whether he was thrown out. Instead, he had impressed the Americans. Impressed Stella as well. He saw it in her face as they looked at each other.
“You very did well. I never expected you to achieve what you did, and I bet neither did the other directors.”
He frowned. “Oh. Why was that?”
She walked across to him. Stood close. “Because you happen to be very clever and good at your work. But you are not assertive enough. You let the others push you around, give you the things they don’t want to handle. That is why they let you take on the Americans. They were frightened of them. It would be easy to blame you if things went wrong, rather than take the blame themselves.”
Suddenly a lot of things became clear to him. Half-understood things. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
She reached out in her way and straightened his tie. “I couldn’t. That’s a wife’s job. I had to wait until you made a stand of your own. And today you did that.”
A wife’s job to have pushed him? But Mary would never have done that. She always said that each of them had to mature in their own way. In their own time.
Stella would not have waited for him to take his time. She would have been a force, pushing him up the ladder. She would have been an executive’s wife.
Stella was very close and her lips were waiting. His arms closed about her and his mouth fastened on hers. Time stood still. Then he pulled away. Feeling guilty. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have....”
She laid a finger on his lips. “I wanted you to do that. Have wanted you to do it for a long time now.”
He laughed, uncertainly. “I have to go to the cloakroom. Will you sort the papers out ?”
“Of course. Wipe the lipstick off before you leave. We don’t want stories to circulate, too soon.”
Hurriedly he wiped his mouth on his handkerchief as he stumbled from the room. Stella watched him go. Well satisfied. She knew she had to give him a little time to get him accustomed to the idea - which would soon take hold. She was looking forward to America.
Paul reached the cloakroom with a near sigh of relief. He wanted Stella, - she aroused in him an urge to tear the clothes from her body. To take her and to....
But he was a married man. Married to Mary, who had left him. Married to Mary who should have pushed him up the ladder - or was that his responsibility? Paul went to one of the cubicles- closed the door and sat down on the toilet. As he did so he heard the cloakroom door open again.
“How’s the American thing going,” asked a voice he recognised as Peters, one of the other directors
“On the edge at the moment. Paul is with them now discussing the agreement on our behalf. But it is not going to be easy. I was one of the group yesterday - and I can tell you - they are tough.” That was Manners, who was due to be retired very soon.
“Paul, eh? Do you think he is capable of handling those chaps?”
“Not really - but no one else was willing to risk getting egg on their faces. Paul is very useful in that way. He will take all the flak they can hand out and wag his tail. If we don’t like what comes out of the meeting, we just repudiate it.” Manners chuckled.
Wag his tail? Wag his tail?! Was that what they thought of him? Anger built up.
Peters coughed a laugh. “Well, I wouldn’t like to take them on either. Mind you, I wouldn’t mind the posting over there - if we work out a suitable deal.”
“Well, you never know.”
“So, it won’t go to Paul?”
“Not in charge. Might make him second string for a while. Then bring him back. He is useful for this sort of second string work. Taking the edge off the enemy.”
With a chorus of chuckles the two directors left the room. Paul sat there with bile in his throat. This was indeed a day in which his illusions were being shattered. Which was probably a good thing. Thank heaven’s for Stella’s warning.
Stella. Unbidden, a picture came into his mind. Stella, in bed with him. Stella, the wife an assertive executive needed to climb the corporate ladder. It was time that he made his stand. No matter what happened, things could not be worse. So now was as good a time as any. What with Mary, the Americans and the duplicity of his fellow directors he had had enough.
Paul went directly to the M.D.s office. Manners was there with Peters. Both full of smiles. Paterson came to meet him with outstretched hand. “Well done, Paul. I have just heard from the American group. You certainly impressed them - and, from what they tell me - me too.”
Manners slapped him on the back. “Very well done.”
“Thanks,” said Paul. “Stella will be typing out the details and let you have a copy first thing in the morning.”
“Good, good.” Paterson beamed. “I believe that certain formalities have to be completed now. I suppose that you will be going over there tomorrow to do this?”
Habit was so strong that he almost agreed. But just in time he remembered Stella’s voice and words. “No,” he said evenly. “That can be done by anyone. Just form filling. I have some other business to attend to.”
Manners frowned. “Oh, come now, Paul. This is not like you. You have to see it through now, you know.”
“The important work has been done. And I am a little tired of doing all the skivvy work around here. Good afternoon.” And Paul was out of the office leaving Manners with a mouth hanging open.
There was a gleam of approval in Paterson’s eyes. “It would seem that young Paul has grown up at last. Good. It is about time. Justifying my expectations.”
Manners had eyes open nearly as much as his mouth. “But - but who is to do the clearing up work with the Americans?”
Paterson beamed. “What about you? As you hear - nothing much to do. Just filling in forms. Right up your alley.”
“Good heavens,” said Manners.
Paul went back to his office and called Stella in. “Would you please let Paterson have a copy of the agreement details as soon as possible tomorrow. I probably won’t be in.”
“Right. Did you tell them off?”
“Not really. Just let them know I was tired of doing the skivvy work around here.” He looked at her. “Thanks to you.”
She looked at him. She could see the change. He knew what he was about now. He was going to be a very good catch indeed. Much too good for the woman he had. “So, do I get thanked -properly?”
He looked up at her. She was very beautiful. And why shouldn’t he thank her - properly. The old Paul wouldn’t. He walked across to her and took her in his arms. Kissed her. A long, time-consuming kiss. “Thank you very much indeed.”
She smiled at him. “It was a pleasure.” She brought up a tissue and wiped his lips. “Are you leaving now?”
“Yes. I have something I must do?”
“Right. I have left matters too long as it is. It must be sorted out.” He picked up his briefcase and walked to the door.
He stopped and looked at her. "Yes?"
“When you have sorted things out - and you need me - for anything - anything at all. You know where you can find me.” She let her hands run over her dress - over her body.
“Yes, I know.” And, with that, he left.
Stella opened her compact and looked at herself. Yes, he was a very good investment indeed. Whether it was America or anywhere else.
Paul phoned all of Mary’s friends that he knew. And drew a blank. Then he started on all of the places where he thought she might have gone. And again drew blank.
Stella looked around her kitchen and decided that she needed to celebrate. What she wanted to do was to go around to the nearby hotel and have a good dinner and a bottle of wine. To prepare her for Paul when he came around - later. Just what man could resist the bait she had so freely offered? And, after tonight, she would own him.
Mary got off the bed where she had been resting. It was time to eat. She went downstairs to the dinning room. Sat down and ordered. She smiled ruefully to herself. In just one day her life had changed.
She was sure that Ralph would offer her a job. Doing the work she loved. Would she accept it? What about Paul?
Paul would never change. He would climb that corporate ladder until he got to the top. He had to do it because he was so unsure of himself that he could only find security in achievement of the kind that made sense to him.
If she went back to him - to America - it would mean she would have to turn down any offer Ralph made to her. And she didn’t want to do that. She wanted to express herself in her designs. This had been part of her frustration in life.
If Paul had to change and to stay here, she could even work from home, and have her family. But could Paul change enough to give up America and start a family?
No - it would be divorce, and he would marry someone who was better suited to an executive climbing up, proving himself - no matter what the cost.
And what would she do?
It would hurt - for a long while. However, she felt that, working with Ralph, could be rewarding in itself - at first. But she wanted more. She liked what she had seen of Ralph. Maybe that relationship could develop into something more. Something which would give her the life she wanted?
Career versus frustration. Ralph versus Paul. What was the answer?
She looked up and saw him looking at her across the room. And she suddenly knew the answer with implacable certainty.
Paul replaced the phone and thought how much he hated the instrument. He wanted to get things settled with Mary. But he had drawn blank at every turn. Now Paterson wanted his answer.
Paterson had never been more charming or considerate. But he was also the M.D. of a firm going places. He was asking Paul to make up his mind whether he would like to go to America and head the office to be established there. Or if he would like to take charge of the firm’s complete overseas marketing. Either offer was fantastic. Challenging. He would be a made man.
He could take the home based one and this would be what Mary wanted. She was settled here and she wanted to raise a family. How did he feel about that? Having children and the commitment which they entailed. Mary and a family - did he really need that?
America was something special. It was a challenge in a new field. Exciting. In a new country. He knew Mary hated the idea. But Stella........
Stella would fit in fine. A new country - an exciting woman. A new wife. He could still taste her kisses. Still feel the warmth of her body pressed against his.
What was he to do?
He shrugged his shoulders. What he wanted was dinner. He got up and locked the house. Got the car out and drove to the city. Parked at the hotel and walked to the dining room.
It was all the question of what he loved most. What he needed most in life. He entered the dinning room and looked across the room.
She was so very beautiful. Incredibly beautiful. And then he knew, without the shadow of doubt, just what it was that he wanted. What he had to have. With the determined strides of a man who had made up his mind he walked across the room.
Stella, having ordered, sat back in her chair and looked across the room. And saw Paul come in. Saw him pause - and then walk across the room with the determined strides of a man who had made up his mind.
Ralph sat down at the table and looked across it with a smile. “Well, what is the answer?”
Paul sat down. “I want you - no matter what the cost - what the sacrifice. Without you, life is worthless. With you it is a wonderful place. I should have seen it before.”
She reached across the table, her red lips curling in the well-known smile. “Well, you have found out now.”
“Can we work things out?”
He grinned at her. “Your place or mine?”
“That’s good enough for me. Let’s go.”
Ralph waited as his wife looked up from her book. “You don’t need to ask me about that. You know the answer.”
“Yes, I need her. The company needs her. But we just don’t have the room to put her anywhere.”
His wife smiled. “Maybe she would work from home.”
“Do you think so?”
“You can only ask.”
Stella watched as Paul and Mary walked out of the dining room - hand in hand. She cursed softly. Maybe she should have pushed harder when she had the chance. Now she would have to start working on that drip Peters.
Of all the blasted luck. Losing out to a woman like that.