Authors: Sue Watson
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Humor, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Contemporary Fiction, #Humor & Satire, #General Humor
I watched her thin-lipped mouth in close-up; she was salivating.
“The producer on our forthcoming live show,
Gardens of Prayer
, seems to have had some sort of breakdown. You will replace her. Report to Peter Willis first thing tomorrow morning,” she said, licking her lips, unable to contain the dribble. She looked straight at me, a sneer dancing across her face; “Gardening and Religion – you’ll be
for it, Stella.”
I was speechless. At Media World, TV gardening was considered to be the care home for ageing TV producers. This was where infirm, incontinent, invisible, forty-something female producers went to die. For years I had tried to fight it by wearing dangly earrings and calling everyone ‘honey.’ I even gave up cake for a while and squeezed into size twelve suits, carried a Blackberry and contributed vigorously to brainstorms for ‘the next’
. Even though it was all a sham and beneath the veneer there was a rather desperate, middle-aged woman clinging hopelessly to the career ladder, I still wasn’t ready to go yet. I knew I had years of creativity left, and the prospect of being sucked into the black career abyss of
Bulbs in my Barrow
The Rough-Handed Horticulturalist
made me shiver with horror.
“I’m not happy about this,” I began, weakly, trying to move into a more dignified position than the low seating would allow.
“Then take your ‘problem,’ to the big boss,” she smirked. “Though you’ll find that, with my recommendation, Frank approved this move wholeheartedly – over dinner last night.”
What could I do? There was no one to complain to or plead with. She was ‘in’ with Fast Frank and my career was officially over. I opened my mouth but nothing came out, tears filled my eyes and if I stayed any longer they’d burst. I wasn’t going to let her see me cry. I rose awkwardly from the seat and shakily gathered my notes, dropping some on the floor, almost falling as I bent down to pick them up.
“Oh yes, and just to let you know,
Gardens of Prayer
is starting with a live show in two weeks’ time, so you’ll be expected to head straight to Rochdale and stay there for that time to prevent the show turning into a disaster live on air,” she smirked.
I froze. “MJ, no, you know how hard I worked on the last project. I was away such a lot and I promised my family I’d spend some time with them, I can’t go away now.”
sorry Stella. The matter is decided. Rochdale awaits,” she raised her brows and smirked again. “Enjoy!” she called after me as I fled towards the stairs clutching my notes to my chest. I glanced back and for a couple of seconds the world stood still as she caught me in her glare before reaching for the can of Diet Coke and pushing it hard into her face.
Returning to the relative safety of my desk, a floaty feeling enveloped me like thick cotton. My finger hovered over an imaginary trigger as from behind my computer I watched her tight, tangerine-lipsticked mouth sucking hard on the defenceless Coke can. I looked around, moving my imaginary gun along the balcony. I would shoot her like a target at a fairground, hook a duck, hit a can and win a teddy. And as her veins bulged and her malevolent, orange lips slurped the calorie-free liquid I slowly pulled that imaginary trigger and blew off Mary-Jane Robinson's head.
Still fighting back tears of rage, I headed straight to a nearby café. As I walked into the brightly-lit, plastic coffee bar smelling of warm pastries and sweet coffee, the floodgates opened and I started to cry. I sent out an emergency text to my two best friends.
TXT: Am in cafe – need caffeine and a friend x.
Within minutes of my text, Lizzie was walking towards me with two big, sugary doughnuts and large cappuccinos as I sat numbly at the sticky, Formica-topped table. Lizzie worked at Media World too, producing a makeover show called
. With Lizzie’s son all grown up, MJ didn’t have the hold over her that she had over me, but she still knew how evil she could be. Looking at me with concern, Lizzie placed the foaming coffee and sugar-encrusted dough in front of me and jumped right in.
“I just heard about what happened and Gardening isn’t
bad. It doesn’t
mean the end...” she offered, trying to sound jolly and handing me a tissue (I’d started again).
“Not that bad?” I said, raising my voice and blowing hard into the proffered tissue. “Lizzie, it
the end. MJ is a bitch. She knows what she’s doing, it’s like saying: ‘you’re too old, you’re past it, get out’.”
“Come on, Stel. It’s what you make it. Don’t be so negative hon, it’s not like you,” she started, taking off her wrap and fanning herself with a menu.
“I hate gardening,” I ranted, “it’s so predictable and boring. Autumn is bulbs and planting and waiting. And digging and waiting. And summer is roses and flower shows. And digging and waiting. Spring follows winter and we wait for more bloody summer and that’s how it is – year in year out. Bulbs in, bulbs out.” I stopped for breath and a sip of hot cappuccino. She’d let me get it off my chest, munching on her doughnut quietly, now she saw a chink and leapt in.
“Well, yes, gardening is by its very nature cyclic Stel, but...it’s actually pure
...its birds and bees and...” she tried, but I was off again.
“Avoid early frosts. Avoid late frosts, pocket frosts, big frosts, little frosts, Jack-fucking-Frosts. Bulbs in, bulbs out, on and on, dictated to by the seasons and the RHS.”
Lizzie raised both hands in the air and in a raised voice said; “Stella, get a grip. Be calm!”
“How can I be calm? My final years will pass by in a relentless loop of generic bee-hovering-on-bloom shots and close-ups of gardener’s calloused hands patting down filthy soil. And that’s if I even make it past the first show.”
“Look Stel, I’m not belittling your situation but in this climate – well, at least you have a job,” she tried.
I wasn’t convinced. “God knows how many tortuous years of pruning, preening and pricking out lie ahead,” I whinged, between mouthfuls of sweet, bready doughnut, which was starting to have a calming effect.
“I think we need to approach this from a different angle,” she started, adjusting her ample bosom and running her fingers through her shiny, auburn bob. “It might not be a complete disaster. If anyone can fix it, you can. Think
, think Richard Chamberlain, honey. Come on Stel, I mean, bodice-ripping men of the cloth, well some of them are pure eye candy.”
There are times this would have made me smile, but I just gave her a look. Richard Chamberlain wasn’t going to do it for me today, or any other day for that matter.
“Lizzie. I don’t care if the minister is bloody Brad Pitt, I can’t do it.”
I could see out of the corner of my eye that she knew she was running out of positives and started concentrating on stirring her coffee. “I have to face it, MJ has bought me a ticket for the fast train to career death!” I wailed dramatically, getting a second wind. “It’s not just the gardening, there’s the religion, for Christ’s sake! I’m hardly what you’d call spiritual and I can’t travel the country giving up evenings and weekends in search of the Garden of Eden. Clearly, if there is a God: he hates me!!”
“Wash your heathen mouth out with soap,” squealed a high-pitched voice from the doorway. It was Al, who’d also heard the news of my dark, alfresco future and arrived to comfort me over yet more cake.
Waving his arms in the air, he rushed over, hugged me and placed a large, double-chocolate muffin on the table – which made me want to cry again.
“I’m sorry babe, that bitch MJ is out to destroy you! And at
you’ll never get another job.”
“Thanks, Al.” Ever the drama-queen, he went straight to the point.
“I’ve just seen François from Fashion who has his finger on
pulse and word is, it’s a
zone. The last producer was found at 4am running around the set with her underpants on her head. I mean, gardening and Jesus? In the same programme? Hello?! ”
He was scaring me now. As he clutched at my arm and stared intensely into my eyes with genuine (though admittedly somewhat theatrical) concern, I saw a half-smile form on his lips. Had he finally thought of something positive? I licked the sugar from my lips in anticipation and swapped plates for the muffin.
“On the plus side Stella, some of those clergy are complete
,” he breathed, searching my face for response and not getting one. Lizzie waved her hand.
“I’ve already tried that one Al,” she said, slurping the last of her froth.
Al looked down at his beautifully manicured hands and pretended to pick at them.
“Well, they wouldn’t be interested in
anyway, my darling.”
“Cheers Al, that’s just what I need right now,” I mumbled through chocolate cake crumbs. “Would it be the fact that I’m overweight, over 40 or just repulsive?”
“Darling, darling, you’re completely ravishing but, well, I have to tell you, they’re all
,” he announced, flicking his fringe, feigning nonchalance and launching into yet another vibrant story from his gay folklore collection.
“We had a vicar once, in Swimming Out.” (Al’s gay swimming team.) “He was tall, dark and
Anyway, one afternoon after a rather
team breaststroke he invited us all round to the vicarage for tea. Well, we didn’t need asking twice so piled into cars and headed to his. Thing is, he didn’t expect so many of us to take him up on it and he hadn’t come out to any of his parishioners. You can only imagine the scenes: a convoy of screaming queens turning up in pink trunks at the vicarage. The parishioners nearly collapsed. You should have seen their faces – you should have seen
Hilarious, what an outing!” he squealed, shaking his head and giggling to himself at the memory. “That’s vicars for you. Yep...they’re
He continued to regale us with more anecdotes condemning the whole ecclesiastical arm to a life of choirboys and cottaging, then sipped elegantly on his espresso, my plight completely forgotten. Al was one of those gay men who believed that gayness was inherent in all males and that men’s lives were spent concealing this from everyone else, particularly their wives and girlfriends. ‘WAGS? More like FAGS!’, was his current favourite phrase. In Al’s world it was merely a matter of time before the England football team came screaming out of pink closets to team bond over Joan Crawford movies and Vogue to Madonna.
I didn’t want Al taking over and turning this into some sort of gayfest of jewelled tiaras and Judy Garland, so I carried on whining.
“Not only will it destroy my soul, it will wreck my marriage. I desperately need some time at home and now I’m off again!” I said, waving my coffee spoon for extra emphasis. Just then Al’s phone rang.
“Look Stella,” continued Lizzie, “at least one positive is that MJ’s not your boss anymore. She may have been able to request your transfer, but she has no authority over you in Gardening.”
“Hmmm. I suppose that’s something,” I grudgingly conceded.
I suddenly sensed a new silence at the table and looked across at Al. He was staring at his mobile in horror.
“What is it, Al?” I asked, concerned.
“Oh doll. It’s horrible. I’ve been reassigned too! Apparently I’m going to be your co-star in gardening hell.” He wailed.
“Looks like we’ll both be spending some time chasing God in a garden!” I said.
Lizzie sat up. “That’s not a bad idea for the title,” she said, “
God in a Garden
.” People in TV are always doing that.
After I left the café I picked up a tired and unhappy Grace from Emma Wilson’s and tried to communicate with her about her day. It was raining and the traffic was heavy, so it took about 45 minutes to get home and in that time she didn’t say a word. She wasn’t speaking to me because I’d let her down again.
“So, who did you play with, darling?” I asked, in my Julie-Andrews voice as I swept into our kitchen and started pulling out baking ingredients from the cupboards. I’d learnt over the years that fantasising about the murder of colleagues was probably an overreaction and just a teensy bit dangerous for both parties. It may have provided temporary relief, but on the whole it was not healthy. MJ wasn’t the first person to put me in this state. There was a time when a fellow producer stole my brilliant programme idea and blatantly passed it off as her own. This hurt because I had trusted her but I found comfort imagining an anonymous, gloved hand (just like in an old Columbo movie) shaking a sachet of something highly toxic into her coffee.
Gloved-hand-poison-therapy worked – for a while – but I learned to manage my murderous thoughts and bury them in my all-time favourite hobby – baking. Yes, in my darkest hour I’d always dragged myself back to sanity with the deep joy of a light sponge, moist banana bread or cute cupcakes. There was something so comforting about cake. Eggs and flour and sugar didn’t let you down in the same way that people did. So, with my coat still on, I started measuring and weighing. Grace still hadn’t answered.
Then my mobile rang. It was Tom. “Stella, what’s going on? I’ve just got your message. Did you get Grace?” he said, sounding worried.
“Yes, someone picked her up for me. When are you coming home?”
“I’m not, sorry. The shoot’s run late and I’m going to have to stay in a hotel.”
“Oh,” I said, disappointed that I wouldn’t be seeing him and knowing he’d be less than happy with my news. I took a deep breath.
“Tom, there’s something I have to tell you. I’m not happy about it, but I’ve got no choice. I have to go to Rochdale for a couple of weeks, to rescue a gardening show.”
“What?! We’ve barely seen you for six months. You promised you’d be spending more time at home.”
“I know, but what can I do? If I don’t go I’ll lose my job. Tom, I’ve had a terrible day, I just need your support and understanding,” I almost pleaded.
“Well we all need a bit of that,” he said bitterly. “Look, I have to get back to the shoot, let’s talk when I get back.”
“There’s nothing to talk about Tom, I have to go, I…” Then I realised he’d gone. I slammed my phone onto the table in frustration.
I grabbed my largest mixing bowl from the cupboard and without a word I threw in the ingredients I had measured. Flour fell in, unsifted, and was quickly covered in crunchy brown sugar, followed by cold, yellow butter straight from the fridge. I viciously stabbed the butter with a wooden spoon to break it up and began to cream everything together. I could have used a mixer but as my wrists and arms started to ache with the effort my frustration flowed through the spoon and was stirred and stabbed along with the ingredients. I hurled spicy cinnamon into the bowl, threw in a large glug of vanilla essence and a few fistfuls of dried fruit and put down the spoon. Rolling up my coat sleeves, I plunged my hands into the sticky, gritty mix. Glancing round, I could see that Grace had taken off her coat and was standing by the kitchen table watching me.
“Mummy’s making a fruit loaf for tea, darling,” I said, as I squeezed and pressed and pummelled with feeling. After a good rummaging around the bowl I scraped out the mix and smacked raw dough down onto my wooden bread board. MJ’s face swam into focus as I was shaping and I slapped it, hard. It felt like cold flesh under my palm, so I pulled it then slapped it again and again, thinking,
take that, you bitch!
Suddenly the mixture warped and became Tom, his raisin features scowling at me disapprovingly. I pushed my knuckles into the dough with such force I broke out in a sweat. Then MJ’s smirk rose from the cinnamon-scented mound once again, her tangerine mouth mocking me. I leaned all my weight on her, squishing and mashing her face into the board until I couldn’t see it anymore.
“Mummy, what are you doing?” asked Grace. Her tight little pout had softened. “Are you fighting the cake?”
I smiled. “Ooh I am and it feels sooo good. Would you like to try?”
She broke into a smile. “Yes please Mummy.”
“Go on then, you give it some welly too, Grace.” She licked her lips and rolled up her sleeves, taking a few steps back to get a good run-up. With a roar, she threw herself at the embryonic fruit loaf with such force that I started laughing. She started to giggle and hit the dough even harder. I joined in, and we took turns in kneading and slapping. We both suddenly felt much better.