Performed at “Yay & Nay” on October 14, 2019.
Dina glared at the phone clamped in her hand. She waited in the gloom of a windowless basement conference room packed with women in expensive clothes. The thirteenth text from her daughter Ava lit up her screen: ‘where are my yoga leggings?’. Dina ground her teeth. For fuck’s sake. She thought of all the women sat in rows around her, all the phones flashing and beeping in thousand-pound handbags with requests about pick-ups, drop-offs, homework, allowances, data top-ups, PE kit and the wifi, always the bloody wifi. And where were the men? Doing the actual work obviously.
Dina focused on the speaker on stage for a moment and estimated she had thirty seconds before her name would be called to receive her Female Leaders in Public Relations award. Time for one final check of her phone. A text from her PA Caroline caught her eye and she clicked on it: ‘Board has just announced Philip as new Chief Exec. I’m sorry.’ Dina’s stomach lurched. She didn’t understand. She had been the unofficial successor for the last five years. She had had endless fucking dinners with the Chairman. He had said the interviews were a formality. Dina felt bile rise in her throat, tasted acid, scanned the room for exits. And heard her name called on stage.
When Dina had shaken hands with the host and recited the necessary words about the progress of women in the sector, she looked out at the sea of upturned faces and thought they were all wasting their time. When it came to it, those years of orchestrating company mergers from a blackberry at soft play, of sitting at the back of every music recital in order to take nine phone calls in 45 minutes, of negotiating an application for a super-injunction from the ice cream aisle in Waitrose – they would all count for nothing. The whole point was to hide the balancing act, make it all look effortless, which meant you wouldn’t get an ounce of credit for the back-breaking effort involved. When she left the stage, she did not return to her seat but walked calmly out of the room, her smile rigid, and located a bathroom. She vomited twice, rinsed her mouth, reapplied her lipstick, then found the way out and emerged blinking into the light.
She took a taxi back to the office and used the journey to nurse her shock and fury into something more powerful. She thought about Philip, that odious shit. He wasn’t even that good. He had the American client book and the crucial contact on an acquisition that would give them new offices in Tokyo, Singapore, and Shanghai. And a clammy hand, he always had a clammy hand. Good God man, give it a discreet pat with a handkerchief, wipe it down on your trousers if you need to, but don’t offer people that warm, damp palm. She grimaced at the thought of it. By the time she arrived, she was ready. She went straight to Philip’s office to congratulate him. She ensured he noticed her wipe her palm after his conciliatory handshake and as he looked away, embarrassed, she took the opportunity to pick up his mobile phone from the desk and dropped it into her pocket.
Dina returned to her own office. She wrote a post-it note for Caroline: ‘enjoy these’, and stuck it to the Fendi sunglasses Caroline had always admired and sat them on top of the company credit card. She picked up her laptop and iPad and left.
When she got home, she worked methodically. First, she packed a small bag with pyjamas, a cashmere wrap and her most luxurious toiletries. Next, she left messages for both nannies, setting out a tag-team schedule to cover the next 72 hours, and one for her ex-husband’s PA to move his fortnightly dinner date with Ava to this evening. She found Ava’s yoga leggings tangled in amongst her own and put them on her daughter’s bed. Then she gathered select electronic items from around the house and placed them into the laundry basket. She took her haul to the utility room and put her two work mobile phones, her work iPad, her work iPad for home, four chargers and Philip’s phone into the washing machine. On a whim, she went to the kitchen, picked up Alexa and placed her into the drum as well – she’d been starting to grate. Dina set the washing machine for a delicates wash and called through the machine door ‘Alexa, start the washing machine’. She felt a glow of satisfaction that she had paid extra to link all the appliances to the home bluetooth network.
Dina left the house to the soothing sounds of electrical devices being spun to destruction and drove to a boutique hotel. She booked a suite for three nights and set herself up on the palatial bed, chilled chablis to hand, and laptop open in front of her. She drafted a series of emails about some of the company’s top clients, detailing in calm and elegant prose the most highly explosive material that they had been paid to cover up over the decades. In each email, she referenced new Chief Exec Philip Engler and the fresh direction he was taking, starting with this process to wipe the slate clean. For some emails, she attached photos. She knew they would blame her, say she’s bitter, unhinged, sue her, but she also knew it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. This stuff was so good that it was going to be picked up everywhere; no hack would be able to resist and there wouldn’t be a single client left on the books by the end of the week. And she didn’t give a fuck anyway. No job? Right now, that sounded perfect. Legal battle? Great, she was in the mood for a fight.
So there was the FTSE 100 Chief Exec who prepared years in advance for a crucial floatation by hiring a new Finance Director, wining and dining her, spiking her drinks, taking photos of her in compromising positions and then blackmailing her to cook the books. There was the Life Peer who liked to black up and say he’s Obama for costume parties (keeping that out of the papers had been a superhuman feat). And then there was the Cabinet Minister whose special request was ageing blonde rent boys to whom he shouted the name Boris repeatedly at the crucial moment. She felt a small prickle of guilt at that one but reminded herself that however meagre the agreed price of the services, he had always, always tried to underpay.
Dina stared into the laptop screen and hesitated. She thought of the life she was giving up, the astronomical salary, the satisfaction of her regular table at the Ivy, the exhilaration of winning unwinnable privacy battles with the press. And the sheer endless graft of it. The days, the nights, the weeks, the weekends, the months, the years that she had put in. For what? To end it like this? But it was already as though that life belonged to a different person, a different her. She’d stepped out of it. She drained her glass, feeling the cool hit of the wine in her chest. She pressed send.
Dina closed her laptop and padded out into the corridor to drop it down the service chute, sending the cast-off skin of her previous self down with it. The adrenaline of the day fell away and her body sagged, exhausted. She gently washed the make-up from her face, with a tenderness she’d forgotten. She remembered her daughter’s childhood illnesses when she would sleep fitfully on the floor next to Ava’s bed and wake in the dark to hold the small, sweaty body to her chest, murmur the Punjabi of her own mother into Ava’s ears and press damp flannels to her forehead. Dina got into the vast hotel bed and pulled the clean, white sheets into a cocoon around her. She felt the soothing beat of her heart, the lift and fall of her chest, the flow of her blood. She slept well for the first time in many years.
In the morning, she woke up late and phoned room service to request all the tabloids and broadsheets, plus coffee, grapefruit and croissants. She took the tray from a nervous-looking young man at the door, fanned the papers out across the bed and marvelled at her work blazoned across every front page.