Unable to face anyone, Perdita Riley slipped down and crawled under the table. She heard the swift goodbyes of the embarrassed guests and the closing of the front door. Frank, her rescued cat, ran in and sidled up to her. Wishing she could disappear, she edged to the far end of the table and sat with her legs crossed, shielded by the deep drop of the tablecloth. Burying her fingers in Frank’s black fur, she stroked him. But the action, which often soothed her, didn’t work this time. Besides, it wasn’t long before Saul returned to the room. He stopped by the table. Would he realise she was there? Would he hear the beating of her heart? Frank’s purr?
Perdita thought back to the day which had altered everything and had led to this point. It wasn’t the beginning of her story, but it was the day her landscape changed.
Perdita glimpsed her reflection in the bathroom mirror. If she’d been attacked by an over-ripe tomato, she wouldn’t have appeared much different. But peering at her blotchy skin and swollen eyes was not going to help with either Setback Number One or Setback Number Two. She splashed her face with water, smoothed down her brown bob and went back to the sofa to bury herself under her duvet and think.
The doorbell rang. It was too early for the post. Squeezing her eyes tightly shut, she buried herself deeper under the bedding. But the doorbell pealed again.
‘Perdita?’ A male voice sounded through the letterbox. And she recognised it. ‘Perdita, we know you’re in there. We heard you moving about.’
Damn. What had happened to privacy? Although Luke and Gavin were the closest thing to family she had, taking her under their wing from the day she’d moved into the flat in Clifton, she didn’t want them to see her like this. Nevertheless, she donned her dressing gown, padded to the front door and opened it a crack.
‘Hi,’ Luke and Gavin said in unison, smiling brightly at her. They were dressed ready for work: Luke in fitness instructor gear, and Gavin, an undertaker, wearing a smart dark suit.
‘We’re worried about you,’ Luke said. He was bigger than Gavin, taller and broader.
‘We heard you crying last night,’ Gavin explained.
‘And, if it’s a matter of life or death, you have both of us calling so you can take your pick.’
Opening her mouth to comment on the lack of soundproofing between the floors of the flats, and to say she was okay and that she didn’t need any assistance, she suddenly blurted, ‘Can you find me a job?’
Gavin’s eyes widened. ‘Oh, we’re going through a bit of a quiet patch at the moment so we’re not recruiting. Must be all the government health drives.’ Gavin sniggered, but changed tack when he noticed a tear had fallen onto her cheek. ‘Oh. Sorry, Perdita. Whatever happened?’
‘We’re coming in,’ Luke said, pushing gently past her. ‘We got up early specially to see you. We’ve got twenty minutes.’ He fiddled with his sports wristwatch, and Perdita guessed he was setting the countdown timer. Being late for work would be unacceptable.
She removed some financial magazines from an armchair for Luke to sit on and dragged the duvet over one end of the sofa to make room for Gavin. The half-opened blinds were rattling, and it felt like there was a gale working its way around the room. Perhaps that was why Frank had retreated to her bedroom.
‘You’ll catch your death in this temperature.’ Luke strode to the window and shut it fast.
‘At the moment, that’s an appealing prospect.’
Luke relaxed into the armchair. ‘Now, tell us what’s happened.’
‘I got fired,’ Perdita said in a wobbly voice. That was Setback Number Two which had happened only yesterday and had coincided with Most Humiliating Experience Number Two. Getting the boot had certainly felt like a humiliating experience. And losing her only source of income was definitely a setback.
Luke raised his eyebrows. ‘What on earth did you do to get yourself fired? I’ve never known anyone as conscientious and devoted to their job as you – apart from myself and Gavin, of course.’
‘I think, on reflection, that I invited Mike to fire me.’ Mike Loader was her boss at F&Z Financial Planning, a Bristol-based company that offered monetary advice and services. As Luke’s eyes bulged, Perdita added quickly, ‘I was just trying to change company policy so that we didn’t offer high-risk investment products to clients like Violet Freestone.’ As Perdita noticed Gavin frown, she added, ‘You know, the elderly client I told you about.’
Gavin’s face smoothed.
‘Well, I told Mike that I didn’t think I could do the job anymore. He said, “Perdita, you’re one of our best!”, but I told him I wasn’t anymore because I wasn’t happy about some of what I was expected to do. At the end of the day, he called me into his office. He said he’d discussed me with the board and they’d decided not to renew my contract. If I couldn’t commit fully to the job…’ She broke off, her throat tight, her chin trembling and her eyes welling up with tears.
‘Then what happened?’ Luke asked, elbows on his knees, hands supporting his head.
Gavin offered her a tissue and Perdita blew her nose before continuing her tale. ‘Mike said I had to leave immediately, because of security and client confidentiality. Lucy, the floor secretary, gave me a cardboard box for my things...’ The conversation that had followed with Lucy was not something Perdita wished to think about right now, it being related to Setback Number One. ‘I’ve got a few weeks’ pay left – until the contract ends...’
‘I wish you’d talked to us before you talked to Mike,’ Luke said. ‘If you’d landed a job offer with another firm before you’d had that chat you’d have been in control of when you left.’
‘I could finish work early and give him a piece of my mind,’ Luke offered, his back straightening and his hands working into fists. ‘In fact, I’d really like to.’
‘No! You mustn’t. It’s over.’
Luke edged forwards in the chair as though ready to spring into action. ‘I think you should consider consulting a solicitor. And do you belong to a union?’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t want a solicitor, and I don’t belong to a union. I can’t do that job any longer: I don’t believe in it.’
Luke stared at her, concern in his eyes, and then checked his watch. ‘We need to go. And you need to shower, get dressed and go out. It will make you feel better.’
‘Yes, treat yourself to something nice,’ Gavin said. ‘And tonight, we’ll get a takeaway and help you thrash out where to go from here.’
As Luke and Gavin stood up, Perdita shepherded them towards the door.
‘Wear one of your lovely new outfits, and put some makeup on,’ Gavin suggested as he hugged her goodbye. ‘It will help cheer you up.’
‘We’re cutting it fine,’ Luke said, checking his watch and tapping his foot, ‘because you haven’t agreed. We don’t want to lose our jobs too.’
‘All right,’ Perdita said, not wanting the boys to worry about her, ‘I’ll go out.’ She said goodbye, closed the door and then lowered her gaze to where her hands were tangled anxiously with the rope belt over her belly. When should she tell them about Setback Number One?