COMPLICITY • by Claire Bourke

The meeting is at 9:30 AM. A meeting scheduled for first thing is always a bad sign. Get it done, manage the fall-out, move on for the day. I’ve scheduled so many myself.

I think of all the coaching I’ve done on how people feel when they’re summoned to the boardroom. Now it’s me, I’m all too aware of the emotional flowchart I’m suppressing within. The stages of grieving — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

My husband used the stages of grieving as a witty trope in our wedding speech and I was secretly jealous that he got so many laughs. I’ve never been renowned for making people laugh. Except Robert. He often found me funny, even when I wasn’t really intending to be. I liked making him laugh. It felt like unexpectedly getting a good mark in a subject that wasn’t your strength.

Robert and I have been together for 20 years now, on and off. He brought me here with him from our old firm. His charisma and storytelling, combined with my sharpness and uber-efficiency. We are a walking marketing spiel. The perfect, profitable combo.

Lately I hear myself as shrill, and I know that something is not right anymore. I hear my high heels in the foyer every morning getting louder and louder. I forget to ask my secretary to make an appointment with my podiatrist. My mind wanders on a call and I miss a key point.

Yesterday I looked out the window of my car and saw a mother wiping her baby’s nose and I cried. I am definitely not a crying-at-babies kind of woman. Even in the moment when I’m crying, on some level I’m not really crying at all. I was listening to a podcast in my car — an interview panel with female business leaders. I am so sick of hearing about women like me, as if we are all the same.

Where I grew up, there were no street lights at night. If you woke at 3am and looked out the window, you might as well have been staring into the abyss. My uncle died in our spare room. Every night, he closed himself in there and listened to his Irish blessing song and drank himself to death.

May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.

I keep our doors open at home and my daughters yell that they have no privacy, yet when am I ever really there? They should consider themselves lucky, my mother was always there, like a blanket suffocating me, like a sadness.

My phone rings. Robert.

“I guess you have a meeting too?” he drawls.

“Yes.”

“Mine’s at 9 AM — who are they knifing first?”

“You. I’m 9:30.”

“Have you thought about what to say?” he presses me.

“What do you think, Robert?”

“Touché.”

“That’s your attitude?”

“I haven’t done anything wrong,” he laughs.

“Denial. I’ve progressed to anger.”

“What?”

“The stages of grieving, you self-centred prick.”

“Wow,” he says, and I hang up in the silence.

I’m shaking. This is embarrassing, I am never this… flappable. I’m not sure I’ve ever sworn at anyone in the workplace before and I’m 45. My father swore a lot. I stopped doing it at university so people would forget I grew up on a farm. It definitely expresses a point to swear.

Robert. He interviewed me at the beginning of my career. My first ever job interview and he was so tall and suntanned and confident. So laid-back Australian, even though he reeked of posh. I became the hardest working graduate in the firm. Quiet and reserved but I could work harder than any man. I had no boundaries, I was everything.

We’ve worked together for so long, I’ve spent more time with him than my husband. People think he is my husband. At the beginning, I think I had a childish crush on him but then it turned into something deeper and more fiercely loyal. Like two soldiers in the trenches but I’m not sure he ever noticed there was a war. Swanning blithely around, charming the troops while I was knee-deep in the cold mud, with maps and plans and a primitive survival instinct. 

My phone rings again. My husband.

“Good morning.”

“You left early. Meeting?”

“Yes, I’ve got quite a few today and I needed to prepare.”

Silence. Then he speaks again.

“Do you think I’m a fucking idiot?”

“What?”

“I read about the claims against Robert. It’s all over the media. The girls and I are about to be thrown into a circus and you didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me?”

“I didn’t want to worry you yet. I’m going to manage this…”

“Manage it?! Manage all these poor girls he assaulted while you stood by?”

“Assaulted?!”

“What do you call it? Hard work? A promotion process?”

“That’s disgusting.”

“Please stay in a hotel tonight.”

“What?”

“And come up with some ‘messaging’ for the girls, you lying, selfish bitch.”

“You can’t say that.”

I hang up the phone. I know I should’ve given him the opportunity to hang up on me but it’s already 8:45 AM and I cannot let myself fall to pieces in the next 45 minutes. I need to prepare for my meeting. Write some notes, turn them into bullet points, rehearse it out loud a few times, get this stupid song out of my head that I haven’t thought about for years.

May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.

The guilty one is Robert, not me. Everyone will see that once I have my meeting. I have never, ever failed to get things back on track.


Claire Bourke is an Australian living in London — mother of two young girls with a background in communications, HR and law. She loves writing about the humour and heartache of everyday life.


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