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Eighty feet below Trafalgar Square the train rattled southward, steepening its angle as it prepared to plunge beneath the Thames. It was Friday rush-hour on an unseasonably mild afternoon in early October. The overcrowded carriage simmered with body heat and eau-de-commuter, a musty composite of stale perfume and warm armpit. Wheels screeched. Conversations droned. From all directions came the rhythmic hiss of personal stereos, like a chorus of invisible crickets.
Molly Clearwater stood midway between the doors, wedged between a dandruffy male shoulder and an enormous backpack, with one arm crooked for support around a metal pole. At her feet was a small, worn suitcase. She held a paperback inches from her nose, the pages flat and open. But she wasn't reading.
'A stupid secretary.' That's what Malcolm had called her. The tormenting words repeated themselves over and over in her head, and unconsciously she raised her chin, and shook back her tumble of fair hair, like a swimmer coming up for air. She was not a 'secretary'. And how, she would like to know, could you call someone 'stupid' who had a first-class degree in English Literature? Plus a distinction for her dissertation ('The Gothic Novel: from Mrs Radcliffe to Daphne du Maurier'). The image of Malcolm in his exec-on-the-make suit, smirking with the conviction of his own sportswagon-driving, Men's Health-reading, investment-checking, cellphone-blathering, hair-gelled rightness made her cheeks glow pink. The man couldn't even spell 'accommodation'.
It was pathetic to remember how excited she'd been, only six months ago, to get this job. No more living at home, being driven barking bananas by her mother. No more slaving for a pittance at Bloom 'n' Veg in Minster Episcopi, sleepiest town in the universe. Destiny called! She and Abigail, her best friend from St Swithin's comprehensive, had gone out to celebrate at the Horse and Groom in the high street and got so plastered on Bacardi Breezers that Molly could barely ride her bike home. Abigail, who was a beauty therapist now (but a really good one), had conjured up a magical vision of Molly's future - chic clothes and funky haircuts. Notting Hill restaurants and Soho bars, sophisticated men for whom an evening out did not mean a McDonald's and a snog in their van. There would be promotion, her own swanky office, business trips. (Oh, bitter irony.)
The job title was 'Marketing Officer', and the advertisement had specified a creative self-starter with degree-level education and superior writing skills - 'Right up your Strasse,' as Malcolm Figg had said himself at the interview. Molly hadn't cared that it was a pharmaceutical company rather than something more glamorous. The point was that she had a job. In London. She was launched on life, big-time.
To begin with, it had seemed a tremendous adventure, joining the commuter rush to work, getting kitted out with free pens and multi-coloured paperclips, and taking possession of a fat stack of business cards printed with her own name. Determined to make a success of her first proper job, she had obeyed Malcolm's every request, however incomprehensible. She leapt from her desk whenever he yelled, 'Hey, you, whatever your name is', ran to the coffee shop for cappuccinos, told callers that Mr Figg was out when he was in, and in when was he was out, typed pages of handwritten gobbledygook and even - she burned with indignation to think of it now - organized the servicing of his beloved 'motor', complete with bull-bars, dangly dice and 'Divers Do It Deeper' sticker. She pestered everyone with intelligent questions, and fought to be included in the important-sounding Progress Meetings, held weekly behind closed doors in the boardroom — which, to her dismay, had turned out to be no more than an interminable catalogue of things no one had got round to doing yet.
There had been some wobbly moments, most embarrassingly last Easter when she'd hit the wrong button on her computer and copied in the entire office on an e-greeting from her mother, involving dancing daisies and an animated bunny singing 'I just called to say I love you'. And possibly she had overdone the literary references in her press release for Trepazamine, though personally she still thought 'Do you dare to eat a peach?' a refreshingly original copy line for an indigestion drug.
But the point was that she had worked hard, brought her fine mind to bear on each trivial task, even stayed at her desk throughout the summer while everyone else took time off, returning smug and suntanned with fat packets of holiday snaps. And her reward had come, as she had known it must.
About a month ago Malcolm had called her into his glass box of an office. Swivelling away from his Simpsons screen-saver, he looked her over consideringly, gave his breath-freshener gum a few macho chomps, and drawled, 'You speak French, don't you?'
Caught on the hop, Molly stared as blankly as if he'd asked her to mend his carburettor.
'Unless you're a lying cow,' Malcolm added, tossing her a document that she recognized as her own wildly exaggerated CV.
'Oh, French' Molly attempted a confident smile. 'Oui. Bien sûr.'
'Got a presentation coming up in Paris,' he told her. 'Important medical conference, first weekend in October. I usually take one of the girls with me, to see to all the bits and pieces. No extra pay, of course - it's a perk. You'd have to dress smart, mind, and suck up to those lah-di-dah doctors. This is business, not a frigging holiday. Play your cards right, we could be talking a whole new scenario promotion-wise.'
Once she had clarified that he (Malcolm) was seriously intending to take her (Molly) to Paris (France), Molly could have fallen to her knees and kissed his gold signet ring. Her first business trip! All expenses paid. En-suite bathroom. Fluffy towels. Mini-bar. Maybe one of those remote-control thingies that enabled you to open and close the curtains while lounging Cleopatra-like in bed. And Paris! She'd never been to Paris - not that she hadn't longed to ever since she'd first read Nancy Mitford when she was about fourteen. But it was a luxury, and so far luxuries hadn't figured in her life.
For as long as she could remember, money - the shortage thereof - had been a problem. Half of her clothes came from Oxfam; her school uniform had always been second-hand. She was the only child to carry her (organic) packed lunch in a wicker basket instead of the regulation plastic box with Disney stickers ('A waste of good money,' insisted her mother). 'Travel' was by bus or bicycle. 'Holidays' meant camping, or borrowed cottages out of season. She was probably the only twenty-one-year-old in Britain who'd never been further abroad than the Isle of Wight; now she was about to visit the most beautiful city in the world. The grandeur of it all made her swell with pride that Malcolm had chosen her, and she had worked even harder than before, collating data, sourcing yucky slides of diseased tissue and putting them on disk. She had managed to block out Malcolm's boorish manners, his volleys of contradictory instructions and ridiculous mistakes, by holding Paris in her mind like a beacon of light, growing brighter and more dazzling each day.
'Dunno how you stand that little prick,' Fatima in the Art Department commented one day, rolling her eyes. But it was easy. The more Malcolm shouted, the louder she hummed under her breath. I love Paris in the springtime, I love Paris in the fall. . . She bought guidebooks, practised her French, spent money she absolutely did not have on a new 'smart' outfit, and polished and pressed everything else into what she hoped would pass for a genuine business person's wardrobe. She applied for a passport and had her photograph retaken eight times in the Boots' booth until she was satisfied that it accurately conveyed her new status.
This morning, the longed-for day had finally dawned. She had arrived at the office showered, nail-varnished, leg-shaved, hair-washed, eyebrow-tweezered and meticulously packed. On her desk was a stack of presentation folders ready to be boxed up, conference agendas, hotel bumf and the disk containing all the visual aids, neatly labelled, which she placed for maximum safety in her own suitcase, carefully cushioned in the folds of her cut-price pashmina. A car would be coming at five thirty this afternoon to take them to the airport. Tonight – tonight! – she would be in Paris …;