My latest book, Others Will Have Their Say is going through the final stages before publication. The picture above is a candidate for the cover if the book is self-published. It was taken at Madisa Camp, Namibia, one of the locations in the novel.
What follows is the Preface, Chapter One and a part of Chapter Two.
This is the story I always had to tell. Right from the beginning. Your world gives you values, and then you break them. And it can never be the same. You can recover, but on another path. They say time heals all. It is not true. Time gives you another skin. What is underneath is not healed, never forgotten.
Of course I have invented new people to populate the story. But the story remains, is universal. It’s about betrayal and the long process to discover the new path, and to let the skin grow over so that the flies can’t get at it.
Sometimes the second path is a victory.
When he thought back upon it, trying to make sense of the irrationality of it all, what drove him to such a reckless act, and all the pain and heartache that was to follow, he remembered it started at the year-end party.
They were all there that night, all the agency leaders and their partners: account and art directors, some of the top writers and the media planners, most with the grandiose title of ‘director.’ And of course, the two real directors, Allister Surtees and Jonathan Thompson, the men who had started the agency just after the turn of the century. No clients. Less pretentious that way, more fun.
The seed was laid before the party, when they were dressing for the event.
“I suppose Surtees is going to make another mammoth speech filled with his pithy jokes.”
“His prerogative, Lynn, he’s the boss.”
“One of the bosses and not even the clever one of the two.”
He said nothing, knowing the baiting game his wife played, and her dislike of Allister Surtees.
“It’s Jonathan who holds your agency together, Nic. And you. That’s why your team falls under Surtees. To give him some gravitas, some competence.”
“They’re good together, Lynn. Allister woos the clients and the press, Jon motivates the team and supervises the product.”
“And I suppose Jane will make moon eyes at you all night again.”
“Moon eyes? Really!”
“You know she does. What will you do, Nic, when she finally plucks up the courage to proposition you?”
He did not answer immediately, suddenly struck with the thought that he did not know the answer. He had never thought it through. Jane Surtees had an elfin vulnerability about her that he found incredibly endearing.
“Ridiculous question, Lynn, I could ask the same about your friendship with Jon.”
“Oh, no! Don’t deflect the question.”
He looked at her closely, seeing the tightness around her jaw. She was a striking woman, Lynn Riley, clever and determined. Ambitious. What for, he often asked himself. It was not for the team. Team Riley, the two of them and their eight-year old daughter, Stacey. They were successful, seen to be well-heeled. Why the surfeit of appetite? It was a form of desperation, he thought, for wealth and position. For acceptance. Where did it come from?
He had never seen that in her in the two years they lived together before they married. Had his more modest ambitions alienated her? Driven her to believe she had to make the running, be the leader, the standard bearer?
“I don’t know, Lynn. I would think I would be gracious in turning her down. Do you think I’m vulnerable to such an advance?”
“I’m sorry, Nic. You’re right, ridiculous question. It’s been one of those days and now we have this big party tonight.”
“In the enemy camp?” he teased her, pleased she had moved off the subject of Jane Surtees.
“Well, we are competitors in the work we do.”
“I know, I also have to attend your Christmas do.”
“So, we must support each other. Team Riley, not team Thompson Surtees or team MBH.”
He took heart from her use of the same word he had thought about earlier. It showed that some things had become common language for them in the thirteen years they had been together.
The party was at the Thompson’s house that year, a rambling property in Honeydew with many acres, and enough entertainment space to cater for nearly forty members of staff and their partners. Outside caterers had been hired and the party was scheduled to start before sunset so that they could get the benefit of the country aura and the sometimes spectacular colour show on the western horizon.
Their Uber driver took them directly to the front porch which was on the eastern side of the house. There were many cars in the driveway. Some people would be taking a chance on a road block, or even worse, a drunken smash. Not cool, thought Nic.
There was a butler just inside the open door with a tray of drinks. Lynn took a flute of champagne, Nic declined.
“Are most people here?”
“Yes, sir, you are the last. Do you know the way?”
Even if they had not been to that house many times, the noise of numerous voices would have guided them, and they walked through the lounge and out to the large covered verandah.
Jonathan Thompson had obviously been looking out for them and came to meet them.
“Nic, Lynn, welcome. You look rather smashing tonight, Lynn.”
“Thank you, I have to make up for my husband.”
Nic was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers without socks.
Thompson looked him over.
“He looks the same, Lynn. We would be surprised if he looked any different.”
“Okay you two, you’ve had your fun. Where can I get a beer?” He spotted the bar as he said it. “It’s okay, I see the bar. I’ll catch up with you, Lynn.”
He let Thompson lead her away, his hand on her elbow guiding her, and he walked across to the bar, greeting people as he passed them. He knew nearly everyone, even most of their partners. It was that kind of agency.
With beer in hand he went looking for his team, and found them together, as he knew he would. They worked together all day, sometimes acrimoniously when strong feelings about idea and execution differed, yet they longed for each other’s company outside work hours. It was unusual, and they were a diverse bunch in race, gender and ideas. Two writers, a graphic artist, a social network geek and an account executive.
He had no favourites, but he worked most closely with Lane Bartholemew, a copywriter in her late twenties with a zest for life and a brilliant feeling for words, allied with a mind which sought out the unusual. The other copywriter was Herb Ndlovu, the ‘elephant’, the oldest of them and perhaps the smartest and most rational, certainly the most versed in political and economic realities in the country. It was he who tapped into the urban cred of the middle class black consumer. The graphic artist was Billy Clarke, a 32-year old computer whizz, who could do anything with an image and had a can-do mentality which sometimes was all that rescued an advertising concept that was eluding them. Their social network geek was Kels Mackovich, who had a single-minded naivety which was startling for someone who had left his teenage years a decade earlier. Finally there was Jenny Abrahams, an account executive, a mid-thirties woman who had dragged herself out of Mitchells Plain with a scholarship to Stellenbosch where she gained an honours degree in languages. She was both personable and fanatically attentive to the needs of their clients.
Only Jenny and Herb were married, she to a teacher, he to a lawyer, and their partners were the only ones present.
Nic came up behind Lane, who sensed his presence and turned.
The others all chipped in with their greetings and Herb’s wife Liz gave him a hug, her generous breasts making a pleasant impression, and then they all ignored him and went straight back to their previous discussions, and Nic played catch-up, and then left to circulate.
The mood was celebratory among those he spoke to. It had been a good year. Thompson Surtees had landed three major new accounts, two of them by Nic’s team: a large supermarket chain that focused on brand building instead of the in-house publication of inserts in newspapers with pages of specials – a greater challenge for the agency, and a greater financial and artistic reward – and a new Chinese automotive entry into the market, whose planned share of advertising spend way exceeded their targeted market share or even, perhaps, their market potential. Nic was looking forward to working those accounts and he still accompanied Jenny on visits to them. He would cut her loose in the new year.
Both additions were national accounts, a major coup for the small agency.
Allister Surtees found him.
“A helluva year, Nic. You should be drinking champagne.”
“Don’t like the stuff.”
Nic had time for Surtees. The man had been a sporting whizz kid, played SA Schools Cricket three years running, the first when he was only 16. The early successes gave him confidence and a following, and he had never looked back. Despite the bonhomie, there was an honesty about him. But he could be brash and he could be domineering, and he was a man’s man, and it was those characteristics that alienated Lynn Riley.
“I see our wives are chatting tonight.”
Nic had not noticed and he searched the crowd and found them, standing together, Lynn talking, animated, Jane listening in her quiet way. The earlier bedroom conversation came back to him and he compared them.
Lynn Riley was a tall woman, with a full, almost stately figure, and wore her fair hair long. Jane Surtees was slimmer and shorter, her dark hair cut short, framing a face that had classic lines: wide set black eyes, high cheek bones, a mouth that telegraphed mood, and there was a stillness about her that was calming. Jane was wearing dark pants and a wide collared blouse that fitted her well, gave her the look of a girl, the elfin quality he found so attractive.
He caught himself. He was standing next to her husband, and he knew his reaction to Jane Surtees was coloured by his increasing disquiet of his wife’s self-centred ambition and desire to control her environment, which included her husband and daughter.
“They’re different, aren’t they?”
“I admire Lynn. Her self-assurance, her work ethic. Pity she doesn’t work for us.”
Surtees’s responsibilities included media planning and media liaison, not a natural pairing, the one a PR function, the other requiring planning skills.
Nic changed the subject.
“Are you making the speech?”
“Nah. Jon’s turn. His house. I’m glad really, don’t have to think up all those jokes people expect me to tell.”
Nic looked at him, a little startled. Surtees could have been an onlooker to the conversation in the bedroom.
The moment that was to change Nicholas Riley’s life came towards the end of the evening, two hours short of midnight.
“You’ve been avoiding me all night.”
He turned to see Jane Surtees at his side, close, her thoughtful face tipped up towards his.
“That’s not true,” he lied.
“I missed you. You’re my voice of reason.”
He felt a strong desire to take the conversation into uncharted territory, was hushing his ‘voice of reason’. He had been drinking steadily for four hours, whisky following the first few beers. He felt in control but his mind was more open, less measured, and he felt the recklessness building within him, the desire to know how far their liking for one another would go.
“Not sure about my reason, Jane. Lynn was wondering what I’d do if you propositioned me, and I had no immediate answer.”
As he said it he knew he had crossed a boundary, and nearly made light of it. Just kidding. But he did not and then it was too late.
“What does that even mean? Proposition you for what? Oh God, no! Did she mean that?”
Her question gave him another avenue of withdrawal, but he did not take it and became committed to follow it through.
“And you did not answer?”
“Because I wasn’t sure.”
“I don’t know what to think about that. But then you told her you would say no. Didn’t you?”
“So why raise it? Why get me hot under the collar about it?”
“If it gets you hot under the collar you’ve just answered your own question, Jane. Haven’t you thought about it?”
She stared at him, her beautiful face displaying the uncertainty, the discomfort of the decision, the momentousness of it. She took her eyes off him and looked around the room and he knew she was looking for her husband, looking for his wife, considering it all.
She looked back at him and her expression had changed. The calmness was upon her again.
“You organise it, Nic, keeping us safe, and I’ll be there.”
She touched him on the arm, a lingering touch, and then she left him without another word.