Bit of an abortive week on the job front, but all is not lost. My American banker-turned-life-coach friend Meredith, who I knew in Hong Kong, is coming to stay. I spent practically the whole of yesterday tidying, cleaning and filling the fridge in her honour. Am on way to collect her now. Would that there were a cure for congenital lateness.
Meredith is standing on the pavement outside Candlebury station next to a very large suitcase, turning her head to left and right as if at a tennis match. It’s about six years since I’ve seen her. She’s looking no-nonsensy and sophisticated in a black leather jacket with black leather boots. I am in my Primark coat with the missing buttons and brown cords with the yellow felt patch on the knee. I draw up in a space marked TAXIS and dash across the road, waving madly.
‘Eliza! You’re here!’
‘Look at you!’ She opens her arms and grasps me in a squeaky embrace. It’s a bit like hugging the Gestapo.
‘Can you manage that, sweetie?’ she asks in honeyed tones, getting into the passenger seat while I lever the case into the boot. On the trip home, I fill her in on the Gitface saga and she tells me about her latest beau, an old flame from Yale.
While I’m unloading the car, Meredith marches into the cottage with her boots on, makes straight for the sofa, removes my electric toothbrush from the socket and plugs in her laptop.
‘You do have wifi?’ she checks, opening her laptop. ‘Thank God! Mallorca. Istanbul. Italy, can you believe! There are people out there with no wifi! How can they live like that? What’s your wifi code, sweetie?’
I go over to the router, lift it to the light and squint at the hieroglyphs on the back.
‘You are hilarious, Eliza. Why don’t you just use your glasses?’
‘They’re always somewhere else when I need them.’
‘Why don’t you get a cord so you can wear them round your neck like this?’ she holds up her glasses on a chain. I watch as she focuses back on her screen and starts tapping away. Are we going to have any more communication? Hmmm. Seems not for the moment. I go and make lunch while Meredith works. It’s a bit like being a wife again, not that I ever got the lunch.
Meredith has joined me for Greek salad, hummus and walnut bread.
‘So, Eliza, why are you living like a hamster in a cage?’ asks Meredith, spooning salad onto her plate. ‘What happened?’
Oh God. I explain about Lily moving school and Gitface selling the Chelsea flat and this place coming up through a friend of Cass’s and how it looked bigger before we moved our stuff in.
‘And what about men? Work? Social life? A proper home for you and Lily? Spiritual fulfilment?’
My mouth is contorting in an evermore exaggerated Edna Everagey grimace with every word.
‘I can see you need some life coaching,’ she says, layering butter onto her bread. ‘For a start, you need to get back out there, dating. If I were in your shoes I’d be aggressively pursuing a wealthy man. Get online! Match.com. Dating Direct. I met some very eligible men that way.’
I look anguished. ‘I went on Otherhalf.com and I’ve been suckered in three times…’
‘Sucked in,’ she interrupts.
‘Yes, well, I’m the sucker, paying my 20 quid to be allowed to write a message to someone who looked halfway attractive, and not one of them has written back! I tell you, I’m invisible!’
‘Don’t be retarded! Every time you open your mouth you’re doing yourself out of a date! Eliza, you’re living in the wrong country. How can you be invisible? You’re beautiful and you still look so young.’
‘Young?’ I exclaim. ‘Look at my eyes. The lids overhang so much I can hardly see out!’
‘I have one thing to say to you, Eliza. Cosmetology.’
My brows knit with confusion. ‘Lily loves anything to do with space.’
Meredith throws her head back with laughter. ‘Cosmetology! Not cosmology! Honestly, Eliza. Where have you been? If you’re bothered about your eyes, have a lift! Look.’ She points to her forehead. ‘Botox.’ Then she points to the place where her crows’ feet should be. ‘Botox.’
I scrutinise her brow and eyes. ‘But you can still raise your eyebrows and create little furrows.’
A satisfied smile spreads over her face. ‘I’ve had really natural-looking botox. I go to a public hospital in Manhattan for the poor people, but it’s a teaching hospital so you get the top doctor overseeing it. You pay nine dollars per unit.’
‘How many units do you have?’
‘Oh, four, four, three, three…’ she prods her brow in a different place as she says each number. ‘It’s just a little blob in a syringe. They just poke it in.’
I grimace, but she’s on a roll. ‘Look.’ She hitches up her skirt, yanks down her tights and shows me her thighs. ‘Spider veins. I’m having them done next. They can get rid of them with a shot.’
She thrusts her hands out. ‘Look at my hands. They’re the hands of a 50-year-old. All wrinkly and veiny.’
I spread my hand out alongside hers. ‘Same thing,’ she says. ‘Hands of a 50-year-old. They can put botox in your hands too. That’s what I’m getting done next. And this.’ She points to the slight indents between her cheeks and mouth.
‘Suppose they get it wrong and you end up with a fish face?’
‘Oh stop with your concerns! Life is short. If it doesn’t work, it’ll go away in five months! So. Action. Goals. Small steps. What are you going to do?’
My mouth is involuntary curling up like Dame Edna’s again.
‘OK, let’s move on to other areas of your life, and we’ll come up with the action plan at the end. Work. What are you doing?’
‘Um… nothing, yet.’
‘Where’s your computer? Where’s your desk?’
‘I don’t have a desk.’ I open the cupboard under the spiral stairs and show her the computer shelf. ‘It’s in here.’
‘What? You can’t keep your working life in a cupboard under the stairs! You need a permanent workspace. So you can search and apply for jobs online, read the news. I subscribe to about 10 newsfeeds. You need to know what’s going on in the world if you’re going to get a job.’
‘I know,’ I wail. ‘The problem is there’s always so much stuff everywhere.’ I glance in shame at the side table which escaped yesterday’s tidy-up. It is stacked high with letters from Lily’s school, school prospectuses, forms to fill in, magazines, the village newsletter, the parish newsletter... oh God. I hasten over to the table to remove Lily’s hairbrush, two elastic hairbands, a Mini Winnie, a tape of The Hobbit and two Nintendo DS games.
‘Oh I see,’ says Meredith. ‘It’s not a Workspace issue. You have Clutter Issues.’ She makes it sound like a syndrome.
‘I’m not that bad. If I had a bigger house…’
‘Uh-uh,’ she’s shaking her head knowingly.
‘You mean you expand to fill the space available?’
‘U-huh,’ she’s now nodding. ‘I have friends in New York who make a lot of money solving people’s Clutter Issues.’
‘Right, come on Eliza, let’s deal with this. First of all, you need to put together a CV.’
‘A CV? I haven’t got anything to go on it.’
‘Sure you do. What did you do before you married Ru…’
‘Gitface,’ I remind her.
‘Yes, Ante-Gitface, you must have worked. Tell me you worked. What did you do when you left high school?’
‘I did a typing course at the local tech – college – and then I worked in an art gallery in Kensington.’
‘Right! So you can do admin! You have admin skills!’
‘Typing used to be a skill when you had to hammer on a manual typewriter,’ I protest, my fingers hammering the air typewriter. ‘But everyone can type now. The thing is, I can’t use a computer.’
‘Sure you can. You do email. You Skype. You shop online.’
‘That’s the limit of it. I don’t know how to write a letter on a computer or how to merge mail or fill in databases or whatever you’re supposed to do, and I wouldn’t know an Excel spreadsheet from… a bedspread!’
‘Sweetie,’ she leans forward and pats my knee. ‘I’m going to go out and buy you as a gift Word and Excel for Dummies and we’re going to do a tutorial.’
I affix my Dummy Smile. ‘Does anyone need secretaries now?’
‘FYI, they don’t call them secretaries any more. They’re assistants! Administrative Assistants!’
I try not to cower.
‘So, what about since you had Lily and moved down here?’
‘Nothing. I haven’t done anything.’
She’s doing her theatrical aghast look.
‘Well, I’ve been looking after Lily. And Dusty.’
‘You can fill your days like that?’
I am sinking lower into my chair. But Meredith sits up, suddenly perky and radiating warmth. I think she’s seeing me as a Client Challenge.
‘OK Eliza, let’s start at the top. Tell me what you do in your day.
‘I drive Lily to school.’
‘So. You know how to drive. You can read a map.’
‘I can listen to TomTom,’ I correct her.
She juts her head forward in a ‘What are you talking about?’ kind of way.
‘Satellite Navigation system?’
She nods dismissively. ‘What else?’
‘I confer with other mothers at the school gate and then I take the dog for a walk.’
‘Oh, so you have dogwalking skills. And then?’
‘I might do a shop at Waitrose. Come back, do the washing, check my emails, do a little research online, write my diary, that takes me up to lunch, then one of my friends might call…’
She’s looking blankly at me.
‘And if Lily’s not boarding, I collect her and cook her supper.’
‘You cook! So you can cook!’
‘Well, my friends Sally and Cass think I should do South-East Asian delivered to your door, but I really don’t think that’s feasible round here. The doors are too few and far between. I do sometimes make cakes for the local market and for Lily’s cake sales.’
‘So, not only are you a cook, you’re a baker! Can you make French confections as well?’
‘American confections… I can do chocolate brownies.’
‘So you could put an ad in the paper: Baker, specialised in American desserts.’ She does a ta-da flourish with her hands.
‘But how would that go down in Mistlebourne comma Candlebury comma Middle England?’
‘It’s only a small leap from that to catering, sweetie. What other skills?’
‘I used to deal with the rentals on the Chelsea flat when we lived in Hong Kong.’
‘You could apply to real estate agents. Rental agencies. Say you’ve been in property for many years, you have experience of collecting references and rental money…’
‘I might be able to get a job showing people round houses in this area.’
‘Now we’re getting somewhere. Number one, real estate and rentals. Number two, cooking – are there any public service bodies around who you could cook for?’
‘There’s a lot of Army.’
‘There you go! Army chef!’
‘Except I think you need to be in the Army first.’
‘Well, call them up and find out. Go to a recruitment day.’
I am sinking and cowering again. ‘They’ll all be 18-year-olds with tattoes. I’ll fail on my flat feet and eyesight.’
She seems to concede this. ‘Number three, dogminding. What can you get for that?’
‘There’s someone in the next village who charges £15 a day to have dogs when people go on holiday.’
‘OK, I’m a banker so I can do the number-crunching. How much do you need to live on?’
‘About £10,000 for the house rental and bills. No idea for car and food and general living expenses…’
‘Say another £10,000,’ she says.
‘And then £20,000 for Lily’s school fees.’
Meredith’s eyes widen. ‘Sweetie, you need to take Lily out of school, put her in a state school.’
‘I know. But we’ve just moved down here and she’s loving school, so I really don’t want to keep chopping and changing if I can avoid it. It’s only another year after this.’
Meredith is busy with the calculator. ‘So that’s roughly £3,400 a month, £110 a day.’
‘Oh my god! That’s shocking. I can’t earn that. And that’s without paying tax!’
‘So let’s say £45,000.’
My mouth is agape.
‘£125 a day. Divided by £15 per dog. That’s 8.3 recurring dogs a day.’
‘There’s no way I can have 8.3 recurring dogs in this house. Plus that means 8.3 recurring families need to go away throughout the year.’
‘Well let’s say realistically 3 dogs a day.’
‘45 quid. It’s not going to get me anywhere.
‘Yes, but at the same time you can do the cooking and the rental work and you can apply to big corporations as a receptionist or to do admin work.’
I’m feeling nauseous. How can I go from no job to four jobs in one fell swoop? ‘Candlebury doesn’t have big corporations,’ I say. ‘It has small businesses.’
We both fall silent. It’s not looking good. ‘What I need is a get-rich-quick scheme.’
‘I could invent something… like…’ I look out of the window just as a low-flying crow craps on the outdoor table. ‘Crow poo remover.’
Meredith nods her head slowly, the full ineptitude of her Client Challenge sinking in. ‘Crow poo remover,’ she says meditatively, getting up to return to her laptop. ‘Cr-ow p-o-o remover.’