It’s Writer’s Island time again.
The prompt this week is extravagant.
My story is a bit of an anti-corporate rant. I just couldn’t help it.
THE GIRL IN THE CAFÉ
Miranda hated the bag George, her boss, had given her, handing it to her reverently like it was the Holy Grail. ‘It’s a Prada Nappa Frills Tote,’ he said. ‘Very chic. I paid two and a half grand for it. You deserve it after clinching that deal for us.’
Miranda almost spat on that gold and black leather bag with its cowboy fringes. It was the ugliest thing she had ever seen. It signified another deal where she had put the brakes on someone’s livelihood, merging them with another company, watering down their assets until all they had left were the clothes they were standing in.
Brian, the man who owned the little clothing business, had watched through his fingers as she had drawn up the paperwork, mumbling to himself as if trying to muster a fragment of hope.
‘I am sorry it has to be like this,’ she said, noticing the tears in his eyes. He signed the contract, shaking his head at the glass of champagne she offered.
‘You’re not sorry,’ he said. ‘ Look at you. You’re getting rich from people like me whose businesses turn sour because we can’t compete with the big corporations. You’re wearing a Burberry double-breasted dress that would have cost you a thousand dollars, to a meeting with a man whose most expensive garment costs 45 dollars retail. You are immovable and extravagant in your self-importance. People like you – you’re never sorry.’
He left the office, shoulders bowed, stumbling on the stairs as if he had lost all sense of momentum. Miranda felt like a crow in a Bangalow Palm, bullying the other birds whose tree it really was, pushing them out, displacing them, so she could sit for a minute, always only for a minute, and gloat.
She saw the man on the street below waiting at the bus stop, clenching his fists as if trying to stop himself from lashing out at the world. A cab passed him. Then another. Then another. Miranda realised with shame, with guilt, with sorrow that he couldn’t afford the cab fare.
She scrambled for the lift, pulling a twenty from her purse, pressing all the wrong buttons in an attempt to get to him as quickly as she could. She encountered a colleague in the lift, carrying a Valentino bag filled with perfume, another clutching a pair of Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses, yet another wearing new Jimmy Choo pumps. It struck her how extravagant were the rewards for plunging others into misery.
On the ground floor she ran out into the street, holding out the twenty dollar note. Brian was gone.
Robert, her boyfriend, or more accurately, the man she was currently sleeping with, came striding towards her, Armani suit the colour of tempered steel. ‘Don’t forget dinner tonight, babe,’ he said as he summoned the very cab meant for Brian. ‘I feel like lobster, how about you?’
‘I feel like shit,’ Miranda muttered as the cab pulled away. ‘And don’t call me babe.’
Just last week Robert had received a bonus of twenty thousand dollars. He had treated Miranda to a dress he thought she’d look good in and had insisted she wear it tonight to dinner.
It was a Donna Karan twisted knot dress. Red. Smocky. Made her appear washed-out and pregnant but no one would say she looked bad in it, not with a price tag of almost three thousand dollars. She teamed it with George’s bag. She felt she looked ridiculous.
Robert kissed her when she arrived at the restaurant. ‘You look fabulous,’ he said. Miranda was irritated that yet again she had to meet him at a restaurant. Three months they’d been sleeping together – three months, and he still said ‘I’ll meet you there’ whenever they went out as if going to her end of town was beneath him.
‘I’ve taken the liberty of ordering the seafood platter for two,’ he said. ‘The crab here is out of this world.’ Miranda had a shellfish allergy which she was sure she had mentioned to Robert several times. She noticed one of the senior partners sitting two tables away, tucking into the same platter with a girl young enough to be his daughter and she realised why Robert had ordered it.
‘Don’t you ever get sick of it?’ she asked.
‘Sick of what, babe?’
‘This. All this. The clothes, the food, the deals. Take it all away and what are we? Who are we? Where are we going? What does it all mean?’
‘What’s wrong, babe? Are you drunk? No one’s going to take it away from us. We’re wheeler dealers. We’re the real thing. We’re invincible.’
Miranda watched as Robert sucked the meat out of the crab claws, smacking his lips, ripping the guts out of them like a predator pouncing on roadkill. She was put off. She was saddened for the crab whose life had been taken for Robert’s enjoyment when it could still have been frolicking in a rock pool at the beach, skittering sideways on sand. He had butter on his chin that he wiped with his shirt sleeve, probably ruining a three hundred dollar shirt, but what did he care, there were at least fifty more where that came from. She was repulsed.
After Belgian chocolate soufflé and an entire bottle of Cristal champagne which Robert drank on his own, he asked her if she’d like to come back to his place.
‘Not tonight,’ she said. ‘Not ever again,’ was what she wanted to say. Robert protested, starting the old song and dance about how much the dress she was wearing had cost, how much the dinner she had
hadn’teaten had cost, insinuating that she owed him something for all the trouble he had gone to. She stood up. ‘This was all your idea,’ she said. ‘This excessiveness, this extravagance. It’s like we’ve returned to the corporate greed of the 1980s. It’s like we never left.’
A grey weariness descended, a joylessness. She was half-dead in the purple light. Her dress was the colour of blood under the streetlights. She hailed a cab. ‘Drive, just drive,’ she said.
Miranda got out a few steps from home. The café across the road was still open. She was suddenly ravenous. She ordered coffee and cake and sat at a small table at the back. A girl sat at the table next to her, dressed in jeans and a hooded jacket. Her clothes were stained and crushed as if she had picked them up off the floor before putting them on, but her hair was shining and clean, blonder than spring.
The girl was writing furiously in a notebook, something that looked like poetry, nursing a cold cup of tea.
‘Would you like another?’ Miranda asked.
The girl looked at her, suspicious for a moment. ‘Sure,’ she replied. ‘That’d be nice.’
‘Are you a writer?’ Miranda asked.
‘Yeah. I’ve had two novels published. I’m presently working on another. I wash dishes here to make ends meet. There isn’t a lot of money in being a relatively unknown author.’
‘I’m a lawyer,’ Miranda said. ‘Today I just shut down the business of a man who didn’t deserve to lose everything, which I am sad about. I think I’ve just broken up with my boyfriend, which to my surprise, I am happy about. I don’t think I can stand going to work tomorrow, or ever again, which I am bewildered about because up until a few moments ago I characterised myself as being a workaholic. I feel like laughing and crying at the same time. I can feel my eyelids quavering slightly, I am alone, exposed. I feel like I have to explain myself but I don’t know how.’
‘You have reached a crossroads,’ the girl said. ‘Somewhere along the way you have lost the essence of who you really are. Your spirit is crying out for recognition. I read in the paper yesterday that a man died from work stress. Too much work. Too many people getting him to do things that meant nothing. Too many deadlines, and meetings, and bargains, and deals, and complicity, and blurred perspectives, and empty reminders, and false intent, and useless skills, and fierce looks, and evaporating rage, and endless cigarette smoke and shots of whiskey, and the never-ending, wrenching, blood-chilling fear that it’s never going to stop. And he died from it. Don’t die from it. Live.’
The girl took her writing and went behind the counter into the back where the kitchen was. Miranda heard the jostle of pots and pans. She remembered when she was a little girl sharing a room with her sister, falling asleep as they listened to their mother washing up the pots from dinner. She made a three-course meal every night with real homemade cake. Miranda hadn’t cooked a three-course meal for over a year. She wasn’t sure she knew how to bake a cake anymore but for the first time in years she wanted to, it was suddenly the most important thing in the world. It was suddenly all she wanted to do.
She stuck her head through the kitchen door, startling the chef.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I wanted to say goodbye to the girl. The writer.’
‘She’s gone,’ said the chef.’ Her shift is over.’
Miranda paid the bill and walked out into the night. That girl with her crushed clothes and notebooks had caught her red-handed, loosening her foothold on what she thought she wanted. She wondered if the girl would go home and write about the strange woman in the expensive red dress she had met in the café, eating coffee and cake alone, talking about how her life hadn’t turned out the way she planned.
‘Don’t die from it,’ she had said. ‘Live.’
Miranda went home and made a cake. Teacake with sugared apples. The smell of cinnamon and creamed butter filled her apartment. She ate it warm with her fingers, spilling crumbs on the red dress. She bought an airline ticket online. To her home town. One way.
In the morning she would call her boss and resign. In the morning she would pack up all her designer gear, the meaningless, vapid, extravagant mess of it and take it to a thrift store. In the morning she would forget to blow dry her hair and would wash her face with soap. In the morning she would cancel her weekly manicure. In the morning she would fire her personal trainer. In the morning she would go for a walk along the river. In the morning she would read The Daily Telegraph and not The Financial Review. In the morning she would tell her mother she was coming for a visit and that she’d like some of her ginger cake. In the morning she would smile at a new day. In the morning she would listen to the birds sing. In the morning she would remember things long forgotten. In the morning she would begin to live.