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Planet Single

Maggie McGuinness

Copyright 2017 Maggie McGuinness

Published by Word Wise at Smashwords

ISBN: 978-1-370012-90-9 (ebook)

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Chapter 1 – Shot into orbit

Chapter 2 – A convenient affliction

Chapter 3 – Two types of people

Chapter 4 – Finding Katerina

Chapter 5 – Helen’s never-fail remedy

Chapter 6 – Online shopping . . . for men

Chapter 7 – Oh, what a beauty

Chapter 8 – Armed and dangerous

Chapter 9 – Mel the man-seeking missile

Chapter 10 – A big night out

Chapter 11 – Brad? Chivalrous?

Chapter 12 – Nasty little pixies

Chapter 13 – Guilt, schmilt

Chapter 14 – A seething swamp

Chapter 15 – Initial Attraction

Chapter 16 – Maintaining Appeal

Chapter 17 – Two-minute noodles

Chapter 18 – A summer full of possibilities

Chapter 19 – The rhythmic thud of my heart

Chapter 20 – Come in, spinner

Chapter 21 – Put the staple gun down

Chapter 22 – Detective Jack

Chapter 23 – Heavy metal scones

Chapter 24 – A genie from a bottle

Chapter 25 – A one-off thing

Chapter 26 – A two-off thing

Chapter 27 – Clingy fever

Chapter 28 – Meeting the bereaved

Chapter 29 – Girl Power

Chapter 30 – A rat in a trap

Chapter 31 – Married man alert

Chapter 32 – Men bearing caffeine

Chapter 33 – That tricky beast called love

Chapter 34 – No fiddlesticking idea

Chapter 35 – Grumpy-arse Graham

Chapter 36 – Bubbles of happiness

Chapter 37 – Butterflies and bluebirds

Chapter 38 – Five cats, no kitty litter

Chapter 39 – Men on call

Chapter 40 – The Summer of Love

Chapter 41 – How’s the serenity?

Chapter 42 – A lovely surprise

Chapter 43– Ex-detective Jack

Connect with Maggie

About the author

Chapter 1 – Shot into orbit

The night I landed on Planet Single, I had no idea I was about to blast off from the familiar married landscape and land in a strange, alternative reality. If I’d known, I could have packed a few essentials like some nicer undies, a dating guide book and a much thicker skin, but I didn’t have the chance. I was dumped – defenceless – into a strange new world that looked quite like the old one, but was so, so different.

The night had started like many others. My two sons were in their bedrooms. Angus should have been asleep but was probably plugged into his iPod. Ben had homework but I could hear some stifled laughs. He was either on YouTube again or calculus was more amusing than I remembered. My husband, Neville, was watching a DVD – his favourite documentary on the mating ritual of Leopard slugs, which involves hanging upside-down with glow-in-the dark genitalia and an awful lot of mucus. For the slugs, that is, not Neville. That documentary fascinated him, which I found quite interesting, as he’d never been very inspired by the human type of ritual. Anyway, with all that slug-porn going on I knew he’d barely notice my absence, so I ditched the washing up and grabbed my coat to go for a walk.

I often paced the streets at night and I didn’t mind bad weather – it gave me an excuse to wear my hooded raincoat. This became a cocoon I could hide in, lost in my own world, while raindrops splattered on the oilskin in a soothing rhythm. I liked the invisibility of walking when the slick, black streets were empty.

I printed ‘Gone For A Walk’ in big letters on Neville’s Daily Schedule Whiteboard (he liked things to be capitalised), and shut the door softly behind me. It was beautifully cold outside, and I gulped the fresh, damp air like a drunk at a cocktail party and set off. While I walked, I used the muted backdrop of the night to watch a movie playing in my head – written by me, starring me. I often did this. I’d create another life for myself – full of passion and sexy adventures. I’d be an adventurer in an exotic location where I’d meet an exotic man. The sexual chemistry between us would flare up like one of the saucepans I had a bad habit of setting on fire, to my spouse’s annoyance. To go into my fantasy world, I only had to select a storyline in my head, like reaching for a book on a shelf. It made a nice break from Neville and his daily recitations of things I hadn’t done properly.

I squelched through the door an hour later to find my husband in the kitchen. Strange! I thought he would have been cloistered in his study by now, crooning to one of his beloved spreadsheets, but there he was – sitting under the fluorescent light with two coffees on the table.

I waited to be criticised over the greasy pans I’d abandoned in the sink, but he just sat there, with his thick, grey hair perfectly in place, like a giant pad of steel wool on top of his head. I noticed how grey and long his eyebrows were these days. Is it only men whose eyebrows sprout at a certain age? I wondered what my eyebrows looked like, as I hadn’t scrutinised them for a long time. I didn’t study myself in a mirror often, just a quick glance in the mornings as I tied back my curly hair and slapped cheap moisturiser on my face. I was lucky I had good skin – Neville had a fit if I spent much on toiletries.

“Thanks for the coffee.” I slid into a chair while quickly trying to gauge my eyebrow length with my fingertips. Neville took his glasses off, blinked, and put them on again.

“There’s something I have to tell you.”

Oh, no. He’d probably devised a new compost roster. I imagined the boys rolling their eyes and saying, “Yes, Dad.”

“Okay, go for it.” I tried to sound enthusiastic. He sniffed. This was odd – Neville hated it when people sniffed.

“Well, Katherine . . .” He cleared his throat. “It’s not something I thought I’d ever have to say.” He fiddled with the crumbs on the table and lined them up a row, using the edge of the coaster to make sure they were straight. Also odd. He couldn’t stand it when people fidgeted.

While he rounded up an errant crumb, my concentration began to wane. I was impatient to shower and go to bed, so I could lie in the dark and get back to the current storyline. It involved a gorgeous, sensitive hero, who hated slugs and had neat eyebrows.

“Well, let me guess.” I stifled a yawn. “You’ve realised you want to be a woman? Oh, I know! You’re having an affair with a twenty-year-old lap dancer called Sharee!” I giggled at my own wit. The thought of sedate Neville hanging out at a strip joint was pretty funny. He started talking, but it took a while for the words to sink in.

“Yes, an affair . . . Christine. Forty-five actually . . . canteen manager . . .”

“Canteen manager?” I snapped back to reality. “Not the Christine? Corporal Christine at the boys’ school?”

He nodded.

I was gobsmacked. I knew the Corporal. She barked at me whenever I was dragged in to do canteen duty when I scorched the party pies and mangled the hot dogs. She was a stout woman, with a no-nonsense bosom, who organised the canteen with military precision and loved to reminisce about her glorious army days.

“I didn’t mean this to happen, but I think Christine might be The One.” A strange, dreamy look appeared on his face, and the moment was so surreal I almost laughed.

“But Neville, that’s so . . . interesting! It’s the least boring thing you’ve done in fifteen years!” I was babbling – dizzy with shock. I’d never thought Neville capable of passion or spontaneity.

“You don’t have to hide behind sarcastic humour,” he said. “You’ve always had intimacy avoidance issues. Please focus on reality. And – I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you and turn our lives upside down. It just happened. On Dads’ Day in the canteen I stayed back to help reorganise the pantry and, well, I think Christine and I are soul mates.”

What? This was so unlike Neville it jolted me out of my paralysis.

“Soul mates? Fucking hell! That’s not fair!”

“Please don’t swear, Katherine. And besides, life isn’t fair. You know that.”

“Don’t you ‘life isn’t fair’ me! I’m not talking about life; I’m talking about us. We got married, remember? I wore a frock like a sequinned meringue, and you wore a brown suit and new shoes with ‘Help!’ written on the soles by your hilarious accountant mates. It’s not fair because the one interesting thing you’ve ever done in our marriage just squashed it. It’s not fair because I’m the one who was supposed to be unhappy – not you. How dare you turn out to be unhappier than me and then waltz off and get bloody . . . interesting!” My voice was getting higher and louder. I didn’t usually raise my voice and it felt strange – like I was trying to sing opera.

“Shhh!” Neville whispered. “The boys will hear! But, what do you mean you were unhappy? You never told me.”

“I did!” I whispered back. “You never listened! You always had your head pointed at the TV or the computer. When I said I was bored you told me to try cooking classes. I meant I was bored with you, Neville. I couldn’t fix that by learning deft tricks with couscous. I was the one who was bored and resentful, not you. I was the one who should have had an affair. How dare you be unfaithful before I was!”

I was sounding a bit peculiar with my enraged whispering. And during my rant, without noticing, I’d grabbed the newspaper on the table, ripped it into confetti and flung handfuls in the air. Some of the pieces were still floating gently back to earth. I looked around the kitchen and spotted Neville’s masterpiece – the Household Duties Roster – on the fridge. I marched over and yanked it off the door, sending fridge magnets clattering in all directions.

“And I’ve hated this bloody thing for years as well,” I hissed. “But did I run off with the milkman? Or even get a job? No! I did the stay-at-home mumsy-wife thing like you wanted, despite being so bored for so long I thought my brain might turn to mush and drip out my nose. And now I learn that you and the Corporal are floating each other’s anal-retentive boats and sailing down Soul Mate River. It’s not fucking fair!”

It was an interesting sensation, letting anger boil over after all those years on slow simmer, even at a whisper level. I’d tried for so long to be the sort of wife Neville wanted. When we’d first got together I’d liked his approach to life – his lists, his planning, his restraint. I didn’t so much like his fussiness and zero tolerance for take-away food, but love could solve everything, couldn’t it?

Now, standing there in the kitchen under the shuddering green-tinged light, I wanted to take my young self and slap her. I had learned love’s limits. Now I knew that whatever annoys you a little bit when your love is shiny and new annoys you ten times more with every year that passes, until your bubbling frustration threatens to make your skull explode and your brain fizz out like an ice-cream soda.

It wasn’t all Neville’s fault; I really should come clean about that. I used to crave the orderly lifestyle he offered, but it gradually began to suffocate me, creeping up like ivy through a gum tree and strangling me with subtle force. I’d been in denial about this for years, but the real me wasn’t Neville’s sort of person at all. The real me liked being spontaneous, relaxed and not very organised and was usually running ten minutes late for everything – more like my mother than I wanted to admit. I’d tried hard for years to be different to her, and had married her complete opposite, but I’d made a bad decision.

One of Mother’s favourite sayings, which I’d always liked, popped into my head. “It’s too late,” she cried, as she waved her wooden leg!

It had always annoyed Neville. “Who is she?” he would grumble. “What wooden leg? Your mother’s quite demented, you know.” This, from a man with a phobia of constipation and a cupboard full of laxatives to prove it. They were both as mad as cut snakes, but at least Mother was more fun.

Neville wasn’t a bad man. That was the problem – he was just on the reasonable side of intolerable. The fact that he’d done a PhD in Tedious Behaviour, majoring in Annoying Habits, wasn’t a reason to break up a family, so I’d stayed. I loved my sons, and being a mother, but as the boys grew older and the marriage staggered from one year to the next I felt like a sort of robot-mum. I’d been programmed to be the tidy wife who ran the house in an orderly fashion, but the core of me – the passion, the joy, the capacity to laugh till I cried – had gone. I think it was packed away in one of those plastic storage bags you suck the air out of with a vacuum cleaner.

Neville was staring at me. I’d ripped the roster into pieces and thrown it in the air as well. I’d just learned that severe stress turned me into a human confetti machine. A few flakes landed on my nose and others wafted to the floor.

“We don’t have milkmen these days,” he said, literal to the bloody end.

“I suppose we’ll have to get a divorce.”

“Yes. I’m truly sorry, Katherine. Please believe that.”

“I’m not Katherine.” Neville had been amending my name for years. He reckoned his version was more sensible than the fanciful name my whacko mother had chosen. (His words, not mine.) As you might guess, Neville and Mother didn’t get along. In retaliation to Katherine, she always called him The Accountant, which was a bit unfair as he’d become a financial advisor now. I knew it was ridiculous that I’d let him change my name but, if you knew him, you’d understand. Once he got an idea in his head he was like a bull terrier attached to your ankle – he never let go. So, for many years I’d been Katherine, but now I was getting my name back.

“My name’s Katerina,” I said, liking the way it felt on my tongue.

“I understand you’re upset and I’m expecting a period of adjustment. We’ll talk some more tomorrow. Can I get you anything? A glass of port?”

Incredible! Normally I’d be in trouble for drinking alcohol late at night. I’d sneak Bailey’s Irish Cream into a mug and pretend it was chocolate Quik.

“No thank you, I need some time alone,” I hissed as I stalked past, with bits of paper on my shoulders like giant flakes of dandruff.

“Of course. I’ll bunk in the spare room until we get things sorted out. Okay, Katherine?”

I stared at him.

“I mean . . . Katerina?”

“Too fucking right,” I said, enjoying the fact that he hated me swearing. I went to our bedroom – my bedroom now – and sat on the bed, looking out at the rain dropping like shiny bullets in the light of the street lamp.

Chapter 2 – A convenient affliction

As I watched the silver explosions of rain strafing the paving, I felt like the world had tilted and I might slide off the edge. I gripped the edge of the bed and contemplated the train wreck of my marriage. For all its faults, I had thought it would be a constant in my life, but now the marriage train had hit an unexpected obstacle, leapt the tracks and crumpled into twisted debris.

For years I’d assumed Neville was content, while I nurtured my own unhappiness like a convenient affliction. It allowed me to make excuses for everything. No, I wasn’t creative, or productive, or particularly useful to society – I was unhappy. No, I didn’t do anything beyond being a half-decent sort of mum – I was unhappy. No, I didn’t think about what I might be able to achieve – I was unhappy, okay? Now my life was to become my own, my excuses were gone and the thought of independence made me breathless with fear.

I rang my mother – I knew she’d still be awake. Although in her seventies with a pacemaker, she was a night owl who was always up late, usually socialising on Skype, her latest hobby.

“The Accountant did what?” she exclaimed. “Wahoo! Yippee!” I knew she’d be doing a happy dance round the kitchen, so I waited until she started talking again. “Who would have thought that boring old git had it in him?” she continued. “Oh, are you alright, dear?”

“Not really,” I sighed. “Although, I admit our marriage has been clinically dead for years.”

“Pretty well decomposed,” she added helpfully.

“I’d thought about leaving but it all seemed too hard, and I didn’t want to wreck the kids’ lives. But now he’s done it. It was supposed to be me, not him. All those years I spent as a martyr – do they count for nothing?”

“What are you more upset about? That the marriage is over, or that he ended it, not you?”

I chose not to answer.

“You’ll manage,” she said. “You’re very capable when you’re not drifting off into la-la land.”

“Gee, thanks. But seriously – will I? I’m worried about the boys, and how they’ll cope and whether I’ll have to get a job, and how we’ll split the CD collection. I don’t want to get stuck with all Neville’s crappy Eagles CDs. I guess I can just chuck them out, right? Or should I—”

“Who cares, darling? Get a blowtorch and melt them into a sculpture for the patio if you want. You’re free – at last!”

I managed a smile. I knew she would be gesticulating wildly and probably sloshing a glass of bubbly all over the place. My father had died years ago, but at least I still had Mother’s particular brand of quirky support.

“Okay,” she said. “Don’t think about the boys, just think about you. Your life. Your future. How do you really feel about being on your own?”

I concentrated hard, thinking about nights alone. I imagined switching off the TV. How radical! No more sex-mad slugs. No more rosters. I pictured myself staying up late reading a book and sipping alcohol from a real glass.

“Maybe . . . kind of okay.”

“There you go! You’ll be fine. Now get some sleep, darling. I have to get back to some pals on Skype, but I’ll talk to you tomorrow. This is very exciting news!”

I lay in the dark for a long time trying to imagine the future. I veered from feeling desolate and rejected, to being jealous of Neville’s proactivity, and – finally – to exploring the secret thrill I felt fluttering in my belly like a baby’s first kicks. Corporal Christine had dropped freedom at my feet like a dog dropping a stick. Did I want it? What would I do with it?

The next morning, I wondered if it had all been a dream. As an experiment, I left crumbs on the bench after I made the boys’ lunches and saw them off to the bus stop. I didn’t stack the dishwasher. I messed up the newspaper. Neville didn’t rant at me, so I realised it must all be true.

“We’ll talk some more tonight,” he said, then picked up his briefcase and bolted for the door like he’d rounded the home turn in the Melbourne Cup. I felt sick. My shreds of optimism had fluttered away like moths in the night. I couldn’t imagine how I would manage on my own; I’d been dependent on my husband to organise everything – six months ahead and in triplicate – for so long.

I wandered into the bedroom and scrutinised myself in the full-length mirror. Where was the sexy heroine of my daydreams? All I could see was a bedraggled forty-year-old in track pants and a faded red windcheater. It was time to face up to reality, so I stripped down to my undies and stood with hands on hips, studying myself like a desperado at a men’s gallery. Uh-oh. If I was a stripper, the blokes would demand a refund.

Despite my walks around the block, I was out of shape and needed to lose at least ten pounds. When you’re short like me – five feet two inches – a few extra pounds really make themselves known. I grabbed a handful of the blubber around my waist and wobbled it, and my mind flicked to the walruses at the zoo. All I needed was some tusks and a whiskery snout. Well, the latter probably wasn’t far off, I thought gloomily, squinting at my top lip.

My face was puffy like a toadfish, and my browney-green eyes, which I used to think were exotic, looked as dull as a stagnant pond. My curly hair, once bouncy and lush, hung listlessly around my face as though any sort of bounce was far too much effort. Wisps of grey heightened the overall effect of gloomy decay. It had happened. I was one of those women who’ve ‘let themselves go’. No wonder Mother was trying to get me to do Zumba classes with her.

On the plus side – I still had good boobs. I had forgotten how nice they were. “Hello, boobs,” I said, turning this way and that to admire them. They still had a nice, firm shape like ripe peaches. They wanted to be appreciated by someone, not neglected, but cupped and caressed by a strong, masculine hand—

A car horn blasted on the road outside and I snapped out of the daydream with a jump. That was ridiculous. Who would appreciate them now? Despite my fantasies, I couldn’t imagine being with another man in reality. I wasn’t even sure I still had a libido. I think it had been packed away in the cupboard under the stairs about ten years ago, along with all the other defunct household items. Neville had been far more interested in mollusc sex than the human type, and after a while I’d realised I didn’t mind a bit, and our sex-life had dwindled to virtually nothing.

With a sigh, I lowered my glance to my legs. Pre-children, I had been fit and lean and I’m pretty sure I could remember having smooth, tanned thighs. But now, all I could think of was custard. White, lumpy custard. Ugh.

My custardy thoughts were interrupted by a phone call. It was Mother, who saw the demise of my marriage as an exciting project to oversee. I put the phone on loudspeaker while I dragged my clothes back on.

“Make sure you negotiate shared care of the boys,” she said. “The Accountant has to pitch in.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Children are all very well but you need your own time and space.”

“Yes, Mother.”

I knew that full-well, having grown up with the notion drilled into me. My parents were actors and singers when I was young and their lives had been whirlwinds of parties, plays and concerts. I learnt to get my own dinner from an early age, with fried eggs on toast as my signature dish, and to enjoy time alone. I was a completely different personality to both of them and, although my parents loved me, I knew they were a bit bewildered by their quiet, mousey daughter. I was so shy, I would flush bright red if one of their extroverted friends tried to coax me into joining the group’s conversation. I once overheard one of them talking about me. He had a particularly strident voice, hence his nickname of Foghorn.

“Gertie!” he’d bellowed. “Is she the real child of either of you? Talk about chalk and cheese! She never says a word!”

My mother shushed him, but it was too late. I’d cringed at his words and was sinking back into the corner of the couch, blinking back tears. I was sure they’d have preferred a different daughter – a confident, talkative one who’d fit into their sociable, chaotic lives. Meanwhile, I longed for a different lifestyle – an orderly one like my schoolfriends had, involving neat braids, tidy houses, and regular meals served at the table. I suppose that’s why I was drawn to Neville – the polar opposite of my parents. It was all Foghorn’s fault, obviously.

Mother was still talking on loudspeaker. “Stick up for yourself when you talk money. Don’t let The Accountant walk all over you. Be tough! He’s the one who can’t keep it in his pants, after all. Ride that guilt train and toot the horn! Woot woot!”

“Yes, Mother.”

After she’d hung up, having promised she wouldn’t say a word about The Affair to anyone except Deidre and Esme and lovely Sharon at the hairdressers, I wandered around the house feeling restless. This was where I should be confiding in my friends – if I had any. I used to, but Neville didn’t like me doing things without him or talking on the phone for too long. And when we went out together and he got onto his pet topics of portfolio diversity or imputation credits, I would see people’s eyes glaze over. Most of my old friends drifted away. Except Matt.

He and I had been best mates at university. We’d been an item for a while, but travel and jobs sent us in different directions. I used to talk to him about everything, but after I married we were never as close. I knew he couldn’t stand Neville, although he never said so. Matt married and had kids too, and we still kept in touch, but the friendship had dwindled to occasional emails. Even so, something prompted me to send a summary of recent events. He rang straight away.

“You’ll be okay, Kath. You’ll see.”

“Kat. I’m back to Katerina now.”

“Thank fuck for that! You’re too sexy to be a Katherine. Katherines are librarians who wear chunky knits and girdles.”

I snorted, feeling like I was twenty again. “That’s so not fair! I know some gorgeous Katherines. But Mother is delighted I’m Katerina again. She’s so happy Neville’s dumped me, she’s buying lottery tickets. Reckons this might be the start of a lucky streak.”

“Ha! Good old Gertie. She’s a cracker, your mum. I still adore her.”

I smiled. “She sometimes asks why I didn’t marry you.”

“Good question, why didn’t you?”

“You never asked me! You’d moved to Sydney for work so I was with that guy Robert, and by the time I came to my senses and dropped him you were overseas, and then you were bonking Tracey, that scrag you met in Bali.”

“Oh yeah, Tracey – what a woman! Lips like a vacuum cleaner. But I only went for Tracey because I thought you were with Robert. I still had a thing for you, Kat.”

“Well, you didn’t tell me. I was so jealous of Tracey. Remember how she used to ponce around in those hankies she called clothes, showing off her long legs?”

“Mmm, strong legs, too,” Matt reminisced. “She nearly cracked my ribs once—”

“Okay, enough about Tracey. This is my crisis,” I interrupted. “Where was I? Oh yes, so then I met Neville and thought he was The One. Perhaps he was, at first. You know I craved order and stability, but when I got it, it began to smother me. Be careful what you wish for, hey? But we’d had a baby, and then another one, and things just drifted off course. It wasn’t all Neville’s fault, you know. He’s not a bad person, underneath all the spreadsheets and schedules and—”

“—imputation bloody credits!” Matt had always been able to finish my sentences.

We talked until he had to go to a meeting. I felt lighter, as though I had taken off a heavy winter coat and hung it on a peg. I still had a friend.

The phone rang again and it was Neville, saying he’d been working all morning on a multi-option separation proposal – complete with spreadsheet models – to outline alternatives for financial settlement and shared childcare. He would explain it to me in depth that evening.

When I finished the call, I felt that morning’s scrambled eggs make a sudden dash for freedom. I made it to the kitchen sink and vomited with surprising determination. My new life had started – not with a bang, but a retch. I ran the cold tap and rinsed my mouth. I could do this. I had to do this.

Chapter 3 – Two types of people

“What about this one, Mum?”

Angus held a garden gnome up for my inspection, which had crazy eyes and a crooked leer. We were in the local thrift shop, as I’d asked the boys to help me decorate our new house and they’d taken to the job with gusto.

Things had happened quickly. Liking the thought of a fresh start, I rented a small unit nearby and Neville and I agreed on shared care for the boys with a week-about schedule. For all Neville’s annoying habits, he was a devoted father, and his sons loved him with a kind of good-natured exasperation.

“Excellent!” I said to Angus. “It’s even worse than the last one you found!” He giggled. The boys liked helping to choose mutant gnomes, lopsided pottery things and chipped plaster ducks for our new place. While I’d always loved thrift shopping, Neville had banned second-hand goods as he reckoned they were germ-infested, so I enjoyed this first venture into doing things differently at my house. My house. I sometimes walked around it saying those words aloud and rearranging the furniture, simply because I could.

Calling ‘my house’ a house was perhaps generous. It was a small, two-bedroom unit with a shady courtyard garden and it was near a park and a walking track along a creek. I felt comfortable there straight away, and revelled in the luxury of regular solitude. I loved the courtyard, and I planted flowering shrubs in pots and turned one of the garden beds into a herb garden. I bought lots of different herbs and enjoyed watching them thrive. Neville had always mistrusted herbs. Too many links to witchcraft.

The most immediate problem was that I needed a job. My share of our assets wouldn’t be freed up until Neville sold the house and untangled some investments, which was going to take a while. And even when I was paid out, I wouldn’t have enough money to loll around in fluffy slippers all day watching Dr Phil. I needed to get back into the workforce and I wanted to join the real world anyway – I was bored with being a spectator in the stands.

But how to get a job? I hadn’t been in paid work since a short stint as a teacher after university, years ago. What sort of job might I want? What sort of job might want me? I’d applied for anything that looked like I could do it on Seek.com but hadn’t even got an interview yet. I considered re-registering for teaching, but didn’t really want to go back into the classroom. I had to persevere. Surely something would turn up.

Now that I no longer needed to escape the house at night, I walked for an hour every morning. At the end of my walk I would buy the paper and have a chat to Peter the newsagent, a wiry bloke who started work well before dawn yet still had a friendly word for his regulars.

“What’s on today?” He straightened up from a bundle of newspapers and gulped tea from a chipped mug.

“Job hunting – still. Do you need anyone here, by chance?” I liked newsagencies, with all the stationery and magazines, and the smell of newsprint.

“Nah.” He cut the strapping from another bundle of papers. “But the wholesaler I buy from has an admin job going. Stationery Plus. Tell the boss, Martin, I’ve recommended you. He’s a tough-nut – old-school – but a softie underneath. You could do worse than work for him.” He scribbled down a phone number on the back of a coffee-stained invoice.

“But, Peter, you hardly know me! Why are you recommending me?”

“I know you well enough. You’ll do fine,” he said, with his usual economy of words.

I drummed up the courage to ring Martin and he confirmed he needed a sales and marketing coordinator. He was gruff-sounding but polite on the phone, and he arranged to see me the next day when I said I was recommended by Peter. I didn’t know anything about either sales or marketing, but I figured I could coordinate things. More or less.

Waiting in the timber-veneered reception, which looked like a set for Mad Men, I peeked through the glass door into the warehouse – a vast concrete area bordered with metal walls and dissected by tall rows of racking. The racking held box after box of what had to be enticing stationery products. I loved stationery, and my fingers itched to explore the goods on the shelves.

A tall man burst through the door and, since the receptionist stopped gossiping on the phone and sat up straighter, I gathered it was Martin. He had a steel-coloured crew-cut and shrewd blue eyes above a grey moustache. With his knee-length shorts, long socks and wide, old-fashioned tie, he looked like a relic from the seventies.

“Messages, Fiona?” he barked at the woman behind the desk, who shook her head. “Good. No calls for half an hour. Tell ’em I’m busy.” His gaze swung to me. “Katerina, eh?” He gripped my hand in a brief, painful handshake. “This way.” He held open the door.

I trotted to keep up as he strode through the enormous warehouse. He spoke in staccato bursts and while he spoke he was watching everything around him. The workers stacking shelves stepped up a gear as we approached.

“Those the two-ring binders, Stavros?” he said to a man dragging a loaded pallet on a jack. Stavros nodded.

“Hurry up and get ’em out. Customers are screaming.”

Several men and women wheeled big trolleys up and down the aisles. They greeted Martin, and he knew all their names. “Morning, Bill, Norma. Gidday, Tran.”

“Stationery retailers and newsagents,” he said to me. “Bulk of our customer base.” I nodded and tried to look intelligent. We marched up a flight of stairs to his large but plain office. It had big windows looking over the warehouse floor.

“You can see a lot from up here,” I commented.

“Yep. And the staff forget I’m watching, silly sods. Well, they don’t forget twice. Coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

“Good. I’ll try to drive this new-fangled machine the wife gave me. Hope you like it strong – no time for people who drink dishwater. And if you want any of that soy milk stuff, I can’t hire you.”

I couldn’t tell if he was joking about the soy milk. “Strong is fine, with real milk and one sugar please.” He nodded approval and showed me to a seat opposite his broad, polished desk.

With Martin busy at the coffee machine, I surveyed my surroundings and noticed an array of different coloured pens on the shiny surface of the desk in front of me. I surreptitiously tried a few out on the scribble pad lying beside them. They were smooth to write with. Nice. Martin brought the coffees over, and I put the lids back on the pens and tried not to feel nervous as he sat down opposite me.

“So, tell me about Katerina,” he said, and I outlined my background of university and teaching, followed by the years at home raising two boys. He didn’t seem fazed that I’d been out of the workforce for so long. Luckily, I’d kept my computer skills up to date so I could browse the internet when I was slacking off from housework.

I sipped a coffee I knew would keep me awake for the next week, and Martin gave me a job description to read and explained some of the duties.

“We’re a wholesaler, and our customers are newsagents and other retailers of office supplies. We sell stationery – truckloads of it. Get the stock in, on the shelves fast, and then out the door again. The coordinator keeps sales data up to date, runs reports, does the newsletters and helps in Orders when the girls get busy. Then there’s our sales team; six reps on the road. Good lads but they have to be kept in line. They can sell alright, but they couldn’t organise a good time in a brothel – need a firm hand. Round here we all pitch in and get stuck into whatever needs doing.”

I asked a few questions that I hoped were sensible. I wanted to do this job – desperately. The salary was mediocre but I liked the busy atmosphere with people darting in all directions and miles of beautiful stationery stretched out below us.

The phone rang and Martin frowned. “Thought I said no calls!” he bellowed. “Oh, it’s you, Louise. What?” He listened for a moment. “How the hell would I know? Here, ask Katerina.”

He handed me the phone. “It’s my daughter. Wants to know if she should let her kids on some internet thing. Talk to her, would you?”

“Umm, sure.” Louise was a pleasant-sounding woman who was in a tizz about whether to let her thirteen-year-old twin daughters join Facebook. They were begging to be allowed, but she knew nothing about it and was worried they’d be kidnapped by paedophiles.

“Well, my eldest son is fourteen, and he’s on Facebook,” I said, “The deal is that I’m on it too, as his friend, so I can see what’s going on. If you join, you can keep an eye on things.”

“Oh, that sounds sensible. Is it hard to use?”

“No, easy. But you and the girls should make your privacy settings ‘friends only’, so strangers can’t see your stuff. I like Facebook, but kids do need guidance. You don’t want two thousand people turning up at your house because of a party invitation made public.”

“Oh god, has that happened?”

“At least once that I know of. The kid didn’t mean to invite the whole world. Look, let me know if you join. We can add each other and I’ll help you figure it out.” I gave her my phone number and she ended the call with effusive thanks.

Martin put aside the paperwork he was reading, and I waited for the nitty-gritty of the interview to start. He hadn’t asked any tricky questions yet. “So, what do you think? Do you want to join our team?”

“Oh! Are you offering me the job?”

“Correct! I like you, Katerina. You ask sensible questions and don’t blather on too much. Good phone manner too, and you talked sense to Louise about that Bookface thing. Best of all – you like stationery.” He beamed. “I saw you try out those Pilot G2s. That’s why I put them there. Test never fails. There are two types of people in this world, I always say. Us – and them. Those who love stationery, and those who use cheap pens and don’t care. You’re one of us, I can tell! So, do you want to board the good ship Stationery Plus?”

“Yes, please.” I smiled and we shook hands and marched back through the warehouse to an office. My office! It was huge, and messy, and it had a big window that looked through a corridor and another window into the warehouse.

“Needs sorting out.” He picked up some files on the desk and dropped them in a cloud of dust. “The cleaner will give it a once-over, then it’s up to you to sort all this out. I want everything ship-shape. There’ll be a new computer in here, pronto.”

I looked around the big office with its untidy shelves and dusty desk and imagined it gleaming, with orderly stacks of paperwork and a potted plant on the filing cabinet. While I wasn’t too fussy about housework, I wanted my office to be spick and span. I was going to be a professional. “I can’t wait to get started!”

“That’s the way. Just don’t put up with any nonsense from the reps. Those boys are bloody good at sales, but when they come in here for our meetings they piss-fart around like they’re at holiday camp, ’scuse the French. Be strict and make ’em get the reports in on time. And no dodgy expense claims.”

We arranged I would start the following Monday, and I walked to the car in a happy daze and sat in it, hugging myself with glee. I was going to be part of the real world at last! Tomorrow I’d go shopping for work clothes and a lunch box.

The first few days at Stationery Plus passed in a blur of learning about the computer system, stock control program and reports, and meeting my new colleagues. The two girls in the Orders room, Kylie and Tayla, looked so similar I could barely tell them apart. They were younger than me – probably mid-twenties – and both had straight blonde hair with bangs and blindingly white teeth. They were impeccably made-up and smartly dressed in tight skirts and impressive heels.

“Have you met the reps yet?” Tayla asked.

“No. Are they nice?”

“Oh yes,” she giggled. “Lots of fun.”

“Quite handsome, too,” Kylie added. “Don’t let them tease you too much. They can be very naughty, especially Brad. And McKenzie. And Simon.”

“And Tyler!” Tayla chipped in. “And Theo and Kingsley and . . . who’ve I forgotten?”

“No one. They’re all naughty!” They screeched like cockatoos. Those blokes were either going to be lots of fun, or really painful. I couldn’t wait to meet them and find out which option applied.

I loved arriving at work each day. I’d park outside the big tin shed and walk into the now-tidy office I’d decorated with photos of Ben and Angus and a couple of indoor plants. When I watched the computer screen flicker into life, I always felt a little thrill when my log-in name flashed onto the screen: Katerina, the real me. Not Katherine – she was already long gone. That thought always made me smile, and I worked hard to learn the systems and improve my spreadsheet skills.

Then it was Friday – sales meeting day. I was compiling a list of new products when I heard a chatter and clatter of laughter and feet – and they were heading my way. I felt a twinge of anxiety. What did I know about dealing with handsome, funny young men? Suddenly the corridor was full of blokes in suits and they surged through the door, shook my hand and introduced themselves. One was very handsome and had coffee-coloured skin and black eyes. He could have been a male model. Another had tousled sandy hair and a sexy smile, while an older one was shorter than the rest and had a clipped beard and glasses. The tallest had floppy brown hair and a grin that was slightly goofy, but nice.

With the shock of all that virile manhood arriving in my office, their names evaporated from my head, but they were friendly and welcoming and chatted and joked as though they were completely at home.

“This office looks great!” one exclaimed.

“Are you enjoying the job?” another asked.

“Has Martin yelled at you yet?” a third one winced.

“Are you married?” asked a fourth.

“Jeez, Brad, you’re incredible,” the first one said.

“Shut up, will ya? Just a question. Means fuck-all. She won’t think I’m having a crack.”

Remembering Martin’s instructions about keeping them in line, I channelled my teaching days, cleared my throat and tried to remember the right ‘strict but fair’ tone. “Gentlemen! Language, please. It’s great to meet you, but now I – or she – must get back to work.” I shot a glance at the culprit. “And, to answer your question, I’m a single mother who doesn’t talk about her personal life. See you in the sales meeting.”

I held the door open and they obediently trooped out, leaving behind a delicious atmosphere of aftershave and coffee, with just a hint of cigarette smoke. Standing alone in the middle of my office, I had a feeling I’d just been checking out the lean thighs and broad shoulders of my colleagues, and the resulting sensation was not something I’d expected to find in a big tin shed surrounded by stationery. Lust. That’s what it was. Maybe my libido wasn’t dead after all, but was only in a coma. Well, if it ever woke up properly it would have to be kept on a leash. There was no room for sex in my new life – I had enough to deal with already.

Martin ran the meeting with authority and the atmosphere was relaxed but business-like. As I took notes and listened to the discussions, I snuck a few more glances at these undeniably attractive young men and began to learn who was who.

The cheeky young one who’d asked if I was married was Brad. He was very handsome in a sharp sort of way, with a pointy nose and piercing dark eyes. The nice one who’d scolded him was McKenzie, with the sexy smile, and he sat next to tall Simon with the floppy hair. Kingsley was the dark-skinned, suave one who seemed a bit aloof. The youngest one was Tyler with the blond spiky hair, and he was trying hard to assert himself among his confident workmates. The oldest with the beard was Theo, who during the coffee break showed me a photo in his wallet of his wife and two young daughters. I gathered from the general chit-chat about chicks, hot chicks and sizzling hot chicks that the others were all single. I was amused to see that my earlier tone of voice had worked. Every time one of them slipped up and used the ‘f’ word, they would glance at me and mutter an apology.

The meeting continued over a lunch of pizzas and Coke. We reviewed the sales results I’d compiled for each territory and, since Martin was happy with the dollars they’d brought in, the reps were allowed to knock off early. They said goodbye and wished me a good weekend, and the warehouse seemed quiet and dull after they’d gone.

I realised I would look forward to Fridays.

Chapter 4 – Finding Katerina

I settled into working for a living – and realised the ‘working’ dominates the ‘living’ somewhat. When the boys were with me I was always rushing to do the domestic chores, and get them to school and me to work on time, and then do more chores plus homework supervision in the evenings. When they were with Neville, things were easier – but lonelier. I was often too tired after work to do anything other than flake out on the sofa. Welcome to the real world, I told myself.

Sometimes, when the alarm beeped me into reluctant wakefulness, I would lie in bed and run through the list of all the things I had to do that day – feeling tired before I even got up. On those days, I would be tempted to yearn for my old life as a stay-at-home mum, until I remembered the aimlessness that used to seep into my days like stagnant water. At least now I was busy – very busy. Christmas came and went in a flash and, back at work in the New Year, the days at Stationery Plus flew past. The customers were gearing up for Back to School promotions and stock was flying out the door. We were all flat out and I loved feeling needed.

I was getting more confident in the job and, having realised the reps’ reports and expense claims resembled the proverbial dog’s breakfast, I handed each of them a copy of ‘Kat’s Rules’ at our first sales meeting for the year, setting out how and when I wanted things done – to Martin’s amusement. It was like being a teacher again, but with bigger – and much sexier – students. “Bloody hell, Kat, do we have to do all this?” they grumbled.

“Only if you want those expenses reimbursed,” I said with a sweet smile.

Writing the company newsletter was a joy and, since I could spell and write reasonably well, I was considered something of a literary genius by my colleagues. Mind you, if I got too carried away with wordy phrases Martin would edit my work with flamboyant slashes from his favourite red pen (a UniBall Eye Micro).

“Keep it simple, girl. You’re not writing the advice column for Women’s Weekly magazine – this is business,” he would growl.

Occasionally, he showed a chattier side and would ask about the boys, and how I liked being back in the workforce. One day I confessed I was finding it hard to keep up with the housework.

“Hire a housecleaner,” he said. “Or get used to the mess. Just make sure you keep working here. You’ve got those reps trained to sit, stay and heel already. Knew you’d do a good job!” He marched off to his next appointment, leaving me fizzing with pride.

It was true that the reps were cooperating. They liked me but, more importantly, they needed me. Martin was making them each write an article for the newsletter about what was happening in their territories every month. For salespeople who loved to talk all day, battling with the written word was a terrible chore and they really struggled with it. I was happy to take their hastily typed pieces of gibberish and translate them into readable English, and for that I was revered and showered with thanks. I often did extra writing for them too, but I didn’t mind. I felt sorry for the boys being given extra homework on top of the relentless push to meet sales targets. We eased into a professional relationship based on mutual respect and mild flirting, and I loved it when one or other of them would pop into my office for a chat. They brightened my day with their silly jokes and masculine energy.

I was getting to know Kylie and Tayla in Orders department, although sometimes – with their similar blonde hairdos, high heels and well-manicured nails tapping delicately at their keyboards – I still had to think twice about who was who. The reps called them B1 and B2, McKenzie whispered to me one day during our meeting.

“What does the ‘B’ stand for?” I whispered back.

“Can’t say. Secret reps’ business,” he grinned.

“Well, it can’t be banana. Busty?”

“Nope. They don’t qualify. Too skinny.”

“Tell me or I won’t fix up your newsletter articles.”

He grimaced at me. “Bimbo.”

“Well! I definitely won’t fix them now!”

“Not you!” He flashed his sexy smile. “That’s what the B stands for.”

“McKenzie! That’s sexist, and really unfair. They’re nice girls.”

“It’s a term of endearment, really,” he explained. “Look, we like them. We do. But they’re just so . . . blonde. And identical. And a bit scary.”

“Scary? What on earth are you talking about?”

“You’ll find out,” he grinned. And so I did. That very afternoon.

“So, what do you girls do on the weekend?” I’d popped in to say goodbye at knock-off time.

“We date,” they chorused, white teeth gleaming like icicles.

“Or work on our dating strategy.”

“We’re on a mission – to find Mr Right. It takes a lot of work you know.”

“Does it? Don’t you just go out with friends and meet people?” I asked, and soon wished I hadn’t. It turned out the girls were devotees of Man Project, a dating advice book for single women.

“We need to follow the book’s Man Strategy, since we’ve reached a certain age.” B1 and B2 looked at me solemnly.

“What age is that?”


“What happens at twenty-seven?” I was starting to feel like I was in a Monty Python sketch.

“You need to make your dating plan top priority, so you can find a partner. If you haven’t got one by the time you’re thirty at the latest you’ve had it. You’re over the hill,” Kylie said.

“On the shelf,” agreed Tayla. “You know, like damaged goods.”

“Damaged goods? What do you mean?”

“Too much history, too many failed relationships . . . too much experience. Men don’t want girls with baggage.” They both winced.

“But the men you’re dating, they’d have equivalent baggage, wouldn’t they?”

“That’s different. Men have a separate set of rules. It’s all explained in chapter three.”

I opened my mouth and shut it again. My brain was beginning to feel like the marble in a game of Mousetrap, but I ploughed on. “So, getting back to the ‘twenty-seven’ thing, how do you find a husband?”

“A life partner,” Kylie corrected. “We’re not looking to trap them into marriage.”

“Not at first, anyway,” Tayla added. “So, you meet as many men as possible, through online dating, speed dating, hiking clubs, computer swap-meets, the supermarket – fruit and veg is good, or walking the dog, as long as you have a dog of course. Cats don’t work. They won’t heel.”

“Then when you meet a man, you screen him,” Kylie said. “The whole process is detailed in chapter five, so you can make sure he’s suitable. It’s very important.”

“There’s a screening process?”

“Yes. You have to make sure he’s not needy, controlling, insecure, poor, fixated on his mother, obsessive-compulsive, addicted to alcohol, drugs or sex, unemployed, showing signs of anger-management issues, or a commitment-phobe . . .” She had to stop to draw breath.

“Or a Star Trek fan.” Tayla pulled a face.

“Oh yeah, we don’t want Trekkies.”

“Or vegans. Too hard to cook for.”

“So, how poor is too poor?” I asked.

“They have to earn $90,000 a year. Minimum.”

“That’s a fair bit.” I raised my eyebrows.

“We’re worth it.” Kylie flicked back her long blonde hair. “And since the rule is that the engagement ring has to cost three months’ salary, the bigger the salary . . .”

“The bigger the rock!” they chanted, and dissolved into high-pitched giggles.

I was paged over the PA then – to my relief – and managed to back out of the room slowly, but not before Tayla pressed a copy of Man Project into my hands.

“Here,” she gleamed. “You can borrow it. You’re single and it would probably work, even though you’re kind of . . .” She gave me a vacant smile, and giggled.

“I may be kind of old, but at least I’m not barking mad,” I muttered to myself as I fled to my office and dropped the book on my desk.

Later that afternoon, I was looking for missing stock in the far corner of the warehouse when I heard muttering and cursing coming from behind a pallet of binder books.

“Take these pencils and stick ’em, Martin! Nice and sharp, aren’t they? Ha! That’ll teach you to be nicer to little old me!”

Curious about the ranting, I peeked around the corner of the pallet, and there I saw a smartly dressed woman a bit younger than me, with short, spiky hair, red-framed glasses and a pretty pixie face. I’d seen her around but we’d never spoken. I knew she worked for one of our major suppliers of pencils, markers and art products. She was scowling at the pallet, hands on hips.

“Um, hi,” I said.

She jumped and turned towards me, red-faced. “Sorry! I didn’t think anyone was down here. Martin’s been giving me a hard time and I was venting. Therapy, you know?”

I’d seen Martin in action, bawling out some of our suppliers, so I sympathised. “I know the feeling,” I said. “Sometimes when he barks at me I feel like I should salute and say ‘Yessir!’ Would you like to have a cup of coffee in my office? We’ll shut the door and you can vent all you like.”

The pixie face smiled. “I’d like that. I’m Helen, and I work for StatCom. You’re doing the sales coordinating job now, aren’t you?”

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