Read an Excerpt
On a gray London morning just after Christmas, Harry Rose stood at his office window watching the Thames mooching along below. The river was brown today, as befitted London’s post-Christmas mood. Except it looked pink. Harry wondered again whether it had been a good idea to clad the entire building in rose-tinted glass.
Across the river, the Rose’s rivals—the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, and the Walkie-Talkie—towered over the City, dwarfing the Tower of London. Towers had come on a bit since the eleventh century, Harry reflected, though something deep inside him disliked the way these thrusting newcomers made the Tower of London look so small.
Along the riverbank to the east, he could see the lower floors of the Shard. Unfortunately, it hadn’t taken Londoners long to love-match the phallic building and the round, pink office block that had unfurled just up the road. Word had reached Harry that the Rose was now known as the Vaj.
His meandering thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door, and he saw his new assistant, Aleesha, peering through the glass. He was glad she’d managed to find her way here. Yesterday, on her first day at Rose Corp., she’d had to report to @People (formerly human resources) first, and disappeared without trace for half an hour. It was unfortunate that the “petals” radiating from the Rose’s central atrium had turned the building into something of a maze.
Harry beckoned her in. As she crossed the expanse, which was the size of a small aircraft hangar, Harry couldn’t help noticing that her white shirt was just the right side of see-through, allowing a misty glimpse of her underwear, the golden hue of the tanned skin beneath. Nice.
“Good morning, Mr. Rose.”
“Hi, Aleesha. Call me Harry, remember?”
Rose Corp.’s staff were all on first-name terms, as suited the millennial vibe Harry worked hard to maintain for the brand.
As Harry went to return to his desk, pain shot through his right leg and he winced.
“Are you all right, Mr. . . . Harry?”
No need to share the truth, that the old war wound had been playing up again. He’d have to go back to Doc Butts. His leg had been mangled, along with his Aston Martin, when he skidded off the Guildford bypass during an impromptu race with his best friend, Charles, back in 2001. The shattered bones had been pinned back together, but recently the wound started to ache and twinge again. A limp wasn’t a good look, so he did his best to hide it.
“I’m fine,” Harry snapped. “Just a touch of stiffness. Probably overdid it at tennis last night.”
He saw the flash of fear on her face. His bad leg was making him tetchy. Tyrant wasn’t the profile he was aiming for, so he fixed his smile back in place.
He was about to make a friendly quip about her lovely blouse with its perfect reveal-imagine balance, but stopped himself. She might take offense. Instead he said, “Is that an espresso I see before me? Excellent!”
Too Hugh Grant?
Had it been such a good idea to employ a millennial? At fifty-four, he hoped having her around would give him more of an insight into the target market for the Rose brand. At least, that was what he’d told himself when he chose the lovely Aleesha over more experienced candidates. And she seemed different from most of the girls—women—her age that he knew. Quieter, sweeter, less combative. For all that he loved strong women, they could be so wearing.
Aleesha reminded him of Janette.
The sudden memory hurt, but he was quickly distracted by a glimpse of cleavage as she placed his coffee in front of him. Of their own accord, his eyes swiveled.
He swiftly returned them to her face, with another smile. Her expression faltered, and the niggle of worry prodded him again. Sexist tyrant would be even worse.
How had it come to this? It was like McCarthyism. People ratting on their workmates for behavior nobody used to bat an eyelid at. These young women were happy to Instagram photos of their bottoms in micro-bikinis to a thousand followers they’d never met “IRL,” but should a colleague comment on said bottom in real life, it was harassment.
Follow me, but don’t touch me. It made no sense.
He’d said as much to his daughter Eliza, who was twenty. They’d argued the toss about respect and boundaries, but their points of view were poles apart. One pole being on Venus, the other on Mars.
An appreciative comment to a female member of staff wouldn’t have been a problem ten years ago, even five. But now he felt increasingly uneasy. The worm had well and truly turned. He could be just a tweet away from public disgrace.
Aleesha turned to go, then hesitated. “Um, Harry?”
Her London twang pleased him. She sounded like a Radio 1 DJ, which was nicely in line with the top-floor vibe he was aiming for.
“Yes, Aleesha, did you need to ask me something?”
“It’s just . . . the cup, Harry.”
“This one?” He sipped his espresso.
“Yeah, it’s, like—disposable?”
Was that a question? Probably not.
“Ah. And that’s not on trend, correct? This is exactly why I hired you, Aleesha. You mustn’t be afraid to tell me when I’m not up to speed with the zeitgeist. So . . .”
“I can get you a reusable?”
“Sure.” He ran his fingers through his hair, sweeping it back. His trademark sandy locks were draining of color quickly now, but the silver fox replacing them was pleasing. He was due for a trim. Men over fifty needed to remain vigilant; otherwise; instead of looking like an older hipster, one appeared to be going to seed.
“But we don’t have a kitchen on this floor, Harry.”
God forbid. Imagine being able to see staff heating their microwavable lunches through the pink glass petal-walls.
“And the coffee machines all use plastic cups. That’s not really acceptable. Hope you don’t mind me saying.”
Hugh Grant again.
“Reusables are the thing, right?”
“Yes, Harry, but it’d be difficult when—”
“. . . there’s no kitchen, I get it. That’s why we have the Tiger Team, Aleesha. The Greenhouse’s elite brainstormers. Flick them an email—ask them to blue-sky it. Could be a new brand in it for us.”
“OK, Harry. On it!”
He opened up his computer calendar, and his heart sank as he saw “Latham” entered at eleven. The lawyer representing his late wife Caitlyn’s father. Howe was claiming Harry’s unreasonable behavior had been responsible for her death. It was ridiculous. All Caitlyn’s issues could be traced back to terrible parenting. Harry’s conscience was clear.
No matter what others—wives, wives’ parents, mistresses, jealous lovers—might think, Harry Rose always tried to do the right thing. And if that meant putting a little spin on circumstances, massaging them until the thing to do became “right,” so be it.
Some might say he was twisting the facts, but Harry had always been guided by his conscience. In turn, his conscience often needed a little guidance—after all, how can we decide what is right without considering all sides, all opinions? And if Harry was selective in which of those informed his conscience . . . well, who wasn’t?
Harry put his worries aside. The bottom line was, he’d argued with his conscience and, after some fairly intense battles, had declared it clear.
A blackbird was singing its heart out in the apple tree outside the French doors, thrown open to let the afternoon breeze drift through the house. It brought with it the scent of new-mown grass and a whiff of the honeysuckle rambling across the Cotswold-stone walls of the cottage Harry and Katie had rented for the summer.
The blackbird was competing with Bono, who was belting out “Bad” on the TV. It was Live Aid, and they’d been watching on and off all day, between popping into Oxford to buy more baby gear.
“That chap’s good,” commented Harry, massaging Katie’s bare feet where they lay in his lap.
“The blackbird’s better,” said Katie, wiggling her toes. “That tickles.”
“Should I get that haircut? Do you think I’d look cool?”
Katie regarded Bono’s black mullet with something blond going on at the front. “I don’t think it’d work in ginger, darling.”
“It’s not ginger, it’s strawberry blond. What the fuck’s he doing?”
Bono had leaped down off the stage—a not insignificant drop—and was trying to haul someone out of the crowd.
“Language, darling. You’ll have to stop that when there are little ears listening.”
“Sorry. Cup of tea?”
“English breakfast or mad pregnancy flavor?”
“Raspberry leaf, please.”
As he gently lifted her feet off his lap, Katie wondered if the cup would runneth over. Could life be any more perfect? Her tall, golden-haired Adonis there, busy in the kitchen of this idyllic cottage. Baby kicking in its appreciation of U2.
They’d been monitoring its responses to the bands. Status Quo had provoked the liveliest reaction so far, and Harry had wondered if denim rompers were a thing. That afternoon they’d spotted a pair of denim booties in Mothercare, and those were now sitting on the mantelpiece, along with a number of invitations, all of which they’d ignored since moving into their summer bolt-hole.
One of them was, in fact, a pair of tickets to Live Aid, with a note from Harry’s best friend, Charles. Like Harry, he was so well connected he could get tickets for absolutely anything: cricket at Lord’s, Centre Court at Wimbledon, the Royal Enclosure at Ascot.
Katie idly wondered if Harry had missed going to the summer events this year. He wanted to go to Live Aid, but Katie, eight and a half months pregnant, had preferred to stay home and watch it on TV. They’d had a near row; apparently this was going to be the rock concert of the eighties. Surely she could manage a first-class train journey and a taxi ride to Wembley, Harry had said.
Katie had cursed inwardly when they’d spotted Charles and his wife, Cassandra, sitting two rows behind the Prince and Princess of Wales. Harry’s jaw had tightened. He really hated to miss out, especially when his best mate, who was also something of a substitute older brother, was around. To distract him, she’d wondered out loud what Prince Charles and Bob Geldof might talk about between acts, but Harry had only grunted and left the room.