Sushi for Beginners
Penguin Books

Contents

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

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PENGUIN BOOKS

SUSHI FOR BEGINNERS

‘Readable and funny… will no doubt affirm her place as reigning queen of romantic fiction’ The Times

‘Pick this one up for a quick leaf through and my advice to you is don’t make any plans, because you will not be putting it down again until you’re finished .. Put simply, it’s brilliant! A real page turner but with far more wit, skill and insight than are usually found in books of this genre… She deserves every drop of acclaim’ Sunday Express

‘Written with warmth, compassion and a sprinkling of welcome grit… if you fancy a girly read, Marian Keyes is the best bet on offer’ Big Issue

‘Marian Keyes has created three alarmingly recognisable characters in this tale about the pursuit of happiness… The elusive goal of happiness is a familiar one for Keyes and that is why she writes about it with such dexterity’ Observer

‘Marian Keyes is on her usual top form with Sushi for Beginners’ Elle

‘Keyes builds her characters beautifully, as always, and there are dozens of amusing observations to have you chuckling away’ Heat

‘It should keep Keyes’s many fans happy, delivering her trademark mix of humour and wry observation’ Image

‘She is a talented comic writer… laden with plot, twists, jokey asides and nicely turned bits of zeitgeisty observational humour… energetic, well-constructed prose delivers life and people in satisfyingly various shades of grey’ Guardian

‘[She] gives popular fiction a good name, no easy feat in a field dominated by overpaid imitators and charlatans’ Independent on Sunday

‘Keyes has taken over Binchy’s crown as the Queen of Irish Fiction. [She] is a superior storyteller who seamlessly combines style and substance, humour and pathos, and thoroughly deserves her best-selling status. [This] book is filled with wonderful warm characters and dialogue that leaps off the pages’ Irish Independent

‘Her writing sparkles and the world is a better place for her books’ Irish Tatler

‘Marian Keyes is the queen of feel-good fiction. Her hip, heart-warming comedies have made her the hottest young female writer in Britain and the voice of a generation’ Daily Mirror

‘Keyes’s light touch conceals both depth and compassion; she’s sassy yet subtle; and she has a real gift for dialogue and accents’ Ireland on Sunday

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marian Keyes is the international bestselling author of Watermelon, Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, Rachel’s Holiday, Last Chance Saloon, Sushi for Beginners, Angels, and most recently The Other Side of the Story, a Sunday Times Number One Bestseller. She is published in twenty-nine different languages. A collection of her journalism, called Under the Duvet, is also available in Penguin. Marian lives in Dublin with her husband.

Marian Keyes


SUSHI FOR BEGINNERS

For Niall, Caitríona, Tadhg and Rita-Anne

Acknowledgements

Thank you to my fantastic editor Louise Moore and all at Michael Joseph and Penguin for their hard work and enthusiasm.

Thanks to all at Poolbeg.

Thanks to Jonathan Lloyd and all at Curtis Brown.

Thanks to Caitríona Keyes, Mammy Keyes, Rita-Anne Keyes and Louise Voss who read this book as it was written and kept demanding more.

Thanks to Eileen Prendergast and especial thanks for giving me the name for the book!

Thanks to Siobhan Coogan for insider info on being a mammy.

Thanks to the Simon community for generously giving time and information about homelessness.

Thanks to Morag Prunty and everyone at Irish Tatler for revealing the world of magazines to me.

Thanks to all the stand-up comedians I know, none of whom are anything like the ones in the book!

Thanks to the Clarence hotel.

The following people also helped greatly with advice and enthusiasm. If I’ve forgotten anyone, please forgive me: Suzanne Benson, Jenny Boland, Susie Burgin, Ailish Connelly, Gai Griffin, Suzanne Power, and Annemarie Scanlan.

Thanks, as always, to my beloved Tony, for everything.

Prologue

‘Dammit,’ she realized. ‘I think I’m having a nervous breakdown’

She looked around at the bed she was flung in. Her well-overdue-for-a-bath body was sprawled lethargically on the well-overdue-for-a-change sheet. Tissues, sodden and balled, littered the duvet. Gathering dust on her chest of drawers was an untouched arsenal of chocolate. Scattered on the floor were magazines she’d been unable to concentrate on. The television in the corner relentlessly delivered daytime viewing direct to her bed. Yip, nervous-breakdown territory all right.

But something was wrong. What was it?

‘I always thought…’ she tried. ‘You know, I always expected…’

Abruptly she knew. ‘I always thought it would be nicer than this…’

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1

At Femme magazine, something had been in the air for weeks, a feeling that they were living on a fault-line. Speculation finally burst into flames when it was confirmed that Calvin Carter, the US Managing Director, had been sighted roaming around the top floor, looking for the gents’. Apparently he’d just arrived in London from head-office in New York.

It’s happening. Lisa clenched her fists in excitement. It’s actually finally, bloody happening.

Later that day the phone call came. Would Lisa pop upstairs to see Calvin Carter and British MD, Barry Hollingsworth?

Lisa slammed down the phone. ‘Too right I would,’ she shouted at it.

Her colleagues barely looked up. People slamming phones down, then shouting, were ten a penny in the magazine game. Besides, they were trapped in Deadline Hell – if they didn’t get this month’s issue put to bed by nightfall, they’d miss their slot with the printers and would be scooped once again by arch-rivals Marie-Claire. But what did Lisa care, she thought, hobbling to the lift, she wouldn’t have a job here after today. She’d have a much better one somewhere else.

Lisa was kept waiting outside the boardroom for twenty-five minutes. After all, Barry and Calvin were very important men.

‘Should we let her in yet?’ Barry asked Calvin, when he felt they’d killed enough time.

‘It’s only twenty minutes since we called her,’ Calvin pointed out, huffily. Obviously Barry Hollingsworth didn’t realize just how important, he, Calvin Carter, was.

‘Sorry, I thought it was later. Perhaps you’d show me again how to improve my swing.’

‘Sure. Now, head down and hold still. Hold still! Feet steady, left arm straight, and swing!’

When Lisa was finally granted admission, Barry and Calvin were seated behind a walnut table approximately a kilometre long. They looked frowningly powerful.

‘Sit down, Lisa.’ Calvin Carter inclined his silver bullet head graciously.

Lisa sat. She smoothed back her caramel-coloured hair, showing her free honey highlights to their best advantage. Free because she kept plugging the salon in the ‘Ones to Watch’ section of the magazine.

Settling herself in the chair, she tucked her Patrick Cox-shod feet neatly around each other. The shoes were a size too small – no matter how many times she asked the Patrick Cox press office to send a size six, they always sent a five. But free Patrick Cox stilettos were free Patrick Cox stilettos. What did an unimportant detail like excruciating agony matter?

‘Thank you for coming up,’ Calvin smiled. Lisa decided she’d better smile back. Smiles were a commodity like everything else, only given in exchange for something useful, but she reckoned in this case it was worth her while. After all, it wasn’t every day that a girl was seconded to New York and made deputy editor of Manhattan magazine. So she curled her mouth and bared her pearly white teeth. (Kept that way by the year’s supply of Rembrandt toothpaste which had been donated for a reader competition, but which Lisa had thought would be more appreciated in her own bathroom.)

‘You’ve been at Femme for –’ Calvin looked at the stapled pages in front of him. ‘Four years?’

‘Four years next month,’ Lisa murmured, with an expertly judged mix of deference and confidence.

‘And you’ve been editor for nearly two years?’

‘Two wonderful years,’ Lisa confirmed, fighting back the urge to stick her fingers down her throat and gag.

‘And you’re only twenty-nine,’ Calvin marvelled. ‘Well, as you know here at Randolph Media we reward hard work.’

Lisa twinkled prettily at this patent lie. Like many companies in the Western world, Randolph Media rewarded hard work with poor pay, increasing workloads, demotions and on-a-second’s-notice redundancies.

But Lisa was different. She’d paid her dues at Femme, and made sacrifices that even she’d never intended to make: starting at seven-thirty most mornings, doing twelve, thirteen, fourteen-hour days, then going to evening press dos when she finally switched off her computer. Often she came to work on Saturdays, Sundays, even bank-holiday Mondays. The porters loathed her because it meant that whenever she wanted to come to the office one of them had to come in and open up and thereby forgo their Saturday football or their bank-holiday family outing to Brent Cross.

‘We have a vacancy at Randolph Media,’ Calvin said importantly. ‘It would be a wonderful challenge, Lisa.’

I know, she thought irritably. Just cut to the chase.

‘It will involve moving overseas, which can sometimes be a problem for one’s partner.’

‘I’m single.’ Lisa was brusque.

Barry wrinkled his forehead in surprise and thought of the tenner he’d had to hand over for someone’s wedding present, a few years before. He could have sworn it was for Lisa here, but maybe not, perhaps he wasn’t as on-the-ball as he once used to be…

‘We’re looking for an editor for a new magazine,’ Calvin went on.

A new magazine? Lisa was jolted off course. But Manhattan has been published for seventy years. While she was still grappling with the implications of that, Calvin delivered the whammy. ‘It would involve you relocating to Dublin.’

The shock set up a smothered buzzing in her head, as if her ears needed to pop. A numb, fuzzy sensation of alienation. The only reality was the sudden agony of her crumpled toes. ‘Dublin?’ she heard her muffled voice ask. Perhaps… perhaps… perhaps they meant Dublin, New York.

‘Dublin, Ireland,’ Calvin Carter said, down a long, echoey tunnel, destroying the last of her hope.

I can’t believe this is happening to me.

‘Ireland?’

‘Small wet place across the Irish sea,’ Barry offered kindly.

‘Where they drink a lot,’ Lisa said faintly.

‘And they never stop talking. That’s the place. Booming economy, huge population of young folk, market research indicates the place is ripe for a feisty new women’s magazine. And we want you to set it up for us, Lisa.’

They were looking at her expectantly. She knew it was customary to make stumbling, tearful, overwhelmed noises about how she appreciated how much they trusted her and how she hoped to justify their faith in her.

‘Um, good… thanks.’

‘Our Irish portfolio is an impressive one,’ boasted Calvin. ‘We have Hibernian Bride, Celtic Health, Gaelic Interiors, Irish Gardening, The Catholic Judger –’

‘No, The Catholic Judger is about to fold,’ Barry interrupted. ‘Sales figures are way down.’

‘– Gaelic Knitting – ’ Calvin had no interest in bad news, ‘Celtic Car, Spud – that’s our Irish food magazine – DIY Irish-Style and The Hip Hib.’

The Hip Hip?’ Lisa forced out. It was advisable to keep talking.

Hip Hib,’ Barry confirmed. ‘Short for Hip Hibernian. Young men’s magazine. Cross between Loaded and Arena. You’ll be setting up a women’s version.’

‘Name?’

‘We think Colleen. Young, feisty, funky, sexy, that’s how we see it. Especially sexy, Lisa. And nothing too clever. Forget downbeat features about female circumcision or women in Afghanistan with no freedom. That’s not our target readership.’

‘You want a dumbed-down magazine?’

‘You got it,’ Calvin beamed.

‘But I’ve never been to Ireland, I know nothing about the place.’

‘Precisely!’ Calvin agreed. ‘That’s exactly what we want. No preconceptions, just a fresh, honest approach. Same salary, generous relocation package, you start two weeks Monday.’

Two weeks? But that gives me almost no time…’

‘I hear you’ve wonderful organizational powers,’ Calvin glinted. ‘Impress me. Any questions?’

She couldn’t stop herself. Normally she smiled while the knife was being twisted because she could see the bigger picture. But she was in shock.

‘What about the position of deputy editor at Manhattan?’

Barry and Calvin exchanged a look.

‘Tia Silvano from the New Yorker was the successful candidate,’ Calvin huffily admitted.

Lisa nodded. She felt as if her world had ended. Woodenly she got up to leave. ‘When do I have to decide by?’ she asked.

Barry and Calvin exchanged another look.

Calvin was the one who eventually spoke. ‘We’ve already filled your current position.’

The world lapsed into slow motion as Lisa realized that this was a fait accompli. She had no choice in it at all. Fixed in a frozen scream, it took several long seconds to understand that there was nothing she could do except hobble from the room.

‘Fancy a round of golf?’ Barry asked Calvin, once she’d gone.

‘Love to but can’t. Gotta go to Dublin and interview for the other positions.’

‘Who’s Irish MD now?’ Barry asked.

Calvin frowned. Barry should know this. ‘A guy called Jack Devine.’

‘Oh him. Bit of a maverick.’

‘I don’t think so.’ Calvin strongly disapproved of rebels. ‘Leastways he’d better not be.’

Lisa tried to put a gloss on it. She’d never admit she was disappointed. Especially after all she’d sacrificed.

But you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Dublin was not New York, no matter how you sliced it. And the ‘generous’ relocation package could have been sued under the Trade Descriptions Act. Worse still, she had to surrender her mobile. Her mobile! It was as if a limb had been amputated.

None of her colleagues were exactly devastated at her departure. She never let anyone else get a go of the Patrick Cox shoes, not even the girls with size-five feet. And her generosity with bitchy and untrue personal comments had earned her the nickname Slanderella. Nevertheless, on Lisa’s last day, the staff of Femme were rounded up and press-ganged into the boardroom for the customary send-off – plastic glasses of tepid white wine that could have doubled as paint stripper, a tray with a desultory spread of Hula Hoops and Skips, and a rumour – never realized – that cocktail sausages were on their way.

When everyone was on their third glass of wine and could therefore be relied on to exhibit some enthusiasm, there was a call for hush and Barry Hollingsworth made his textbook speech, thanking Lisa for everything and wishing her well. It was agreed that he’d done a lovely job of it. Especially because he’d managed to get her name right. The last time someone had left he’d made a tear-jerking, twenty-minute speech lauding the unique talents and contribution of someone called Heather, while Fiona, the person who was leaving, stood by in mortification.

Then came the presentation to Lisa of twenty pounds’ worth of Marks & Spencers vouchers and a large card with a hippo and ‘Sorry to see you go’ emblazoned on it. Ally Benn, Lisa’s former deputy, had chosen the leaving present with care. She’d thought long and hard about what Lisa would hate the most and eventually concluded that M&S vouchers would cause maximum distress. (Ally Benn’s feet were a perfect size five.)

‘To Lisa!’ Barry concluded. By then everyone was flushed and rowdy, so they raised their white plastic cups, sloshing wine and morsels of cork on to their clothing and, as they sniggered and elbowed each other, bellowed, ‘To Lisa!’

Lisa stayed just as long as she needed to. She’d long looked forward to this leaving do, but she’d always thought she’d be surfing out on a wave of glory, already halfway to New York. Instead of being shunted away to the magazine version of Siberia. It was an utter nightmare.

‘I must go,’ she said to the dozen or so women who’d worked under her for the past two years. ‘I must finish packing.’

‘Sure, sure,’ they agreed, in a clamour of drunken good wishes. ‘Well, good luck, have fun, enjoy Ireland, take care, don’t work too hard…’

Just as Lisa got to the door, Ally screeched, ‘We’ll miss you.’

Lisa nodded tightly and closed the door.

‘– Like a hole in the head.’ Ally didn’t miss a beat. ‘Any wine left?’

They stayed until every last drop of wine was drunk, every last crumb of Hula Hoop wiped off the tray with a licked finger, then they turned to each other and demanded in dangerously high spirits, ‘What now?!’

They descended on Soho, swarming through the bars in a Friday-night, tequila-drinking, office workers’ maraud. Little Sharif Mumtaz (features assistant) got separated from the others and was helped home by a kind man whom she married nine months later. Jeanie Geoffrey (assistant fashion editor) was bought a bottle of champagne by a man who declared she was ‘a goddess’. Gabbi Henderson (health and beauty) had her bag stolen. And Ally Benn (recently appointed editor) clambered on to a table in one of the livelier pubs in Wardour Street and danced like a mad thing until she fell off and sustained multiple fractures to her right foot.

In other words, a great night.

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2

‘Ted, you couldn’t have come at a better time!’ Ashling flung wide her door and for once didn’t utter her most overused phrase, which happened to be, ‘Oh shite, it’s Ted.’

‘Couldn’t I?’ Ted sidled cautiously into Ashling’s flat. He didn’t normally receive a welcome this warm.

‘I need you to tell me which jacket looks nicest on me.’

‘I’ll do my best.’ Ted’s thin, dark face looked even more intense. ‘But I am a man.’

Not quite, Ashling thought, regretfully. What a great pity that the person who had moved into the flat upstairs six months ago, and had instantly decided that Ashling was his best friend, hadn’t been a nice, big, pulse-rate-raising man. And instead had been Ted Mullins, needy civil servant, aspiring stand-up comedian and small and wiry owner of a push-bike.

‘First, this black one.’ Ashling shrugged the jacket on over her white silk ‘interview’ top and magic lose-half-a-stone-in-an-instant black trousers.

‘What’s the biggie?’ Ted sat on a chair and wound himself around it. He was all angles and elbows, pointy shoulders and sharp knees, like a sketch drawing of himself.

‘Job interview. Half nine this morning.’

‘Another one! What for this time?’

Ashling had applied for several jobs in the past two weeks, everything from working on a wild-west ranch in Mullingar to answering phones at a PR company.

‘Assistant editor at a new magazine called Colleen.’

‘What? A real job?’ Ted’s saturnine face lit up. ‘Beats me why you’ve applied for all those others, you’re way overqualified for them.’

‘I’ve low self-esteem,’ Ashling reminded him, with a bright smile.

‘Mine’s lower,’ Ted shot back, determined not to be outdone.

‘A women’s magazine, though,’ he mused. ‘If you got it you could tell that crowd at Woman’s Place to stick it. Revenge is a dish best served cold!’ He threw back his head and gave forth a hollow series of fake Vincent Price-type laughs. ‘Nnnnyyyywwwwahwahwahwahwahwahwah!’

‘Actually, revenge isn’t a dish at all,’ Ashling interrupted. ‘It’s an emotion. Or something. And not worth bothering about.’

‘But after the way they’ve treated you,’ Ted said, in wonderment. ‘It wasn’t your fault that woman’s couch was ruined!’

For more years than she cared to remember, Ashling had worked for Woman’s Place, a weekly, unglossy Irish magazine. Ashling had been fiction editor, fashion editor, health and beauty editor, handiworks editor, cookery editor, agony aunt, copy editor and spiritual advisor all rolled into one. Not as onerous as it sounds, actually, because Woman’s Place was put together according to a very strict, tried-and-tested formula.

Each issue had a knitting pattern – almost always for a toilet-roll cover in the shape of a Southern belle. Then there was a cookery page on buying cheap cuts of meat and disguising them as something else. Every issue had a short story featuring a young boy and a grandmother, who were sworn enemies at the start and firm friends by the end. There was the Problem Page, of course – invariably with a letter complaining about a cheeky daughter-in-law. Pages two and three were an array of ‘funny’ stories starring the readers’ grandchildren and the cutesy things they’d said or done. The back inside cover was a platitudinous letter, supposedly from a clergyman, but always scribbled by Ashling fifteen minutes before the printers’ deadline. Then there were the Readers’ Tips. And one of these was the unlikely instrument of Ashling’s downfall.

Readers’ tips were pieces of advice sent in by ordinary Josephine Soaps for the benefit of other readers. They were always about making your money go further and getting something for nothing. Their general premiss was that you needn’t buy anything because you could make it yourself from basics already in the home. Lemon juice featured heavily.

For example, why buy expensive shampoo when you could fashion your own from some lemon juice and washing-up liquid! You’d like highlights? All you need to do is squeeze a couple of lemons over your hair and sit in the sun. For about a year. And to remove cranberry juice from a beige couch? A mix of lemon juice and vinegar would do the trick.

Except it didn’t. Not on the couch of Mrs Anna O’Sullivan from Co. Waterford. It all went horribly wrong – the cranberry juice became ever more tenacious so that even a Stain Devil couldn’t budge it. And despite magnanimous usage of Glade, the entire room stank of vinegar. On account of being a good Catholic, Mrs O’Sullivan was a woman who believed in bloody retribution. She threatened to sue.

When Sally Healy, the editor of Woman’s Place, launched an investigation, Ashling admitted that she’d invented the tip herself. Readers’ contributions had been thin on the ground that particular week.

‘I didn’t think anyone actually believed them,’ Ashling whispered, in her defence.

‘I’m surprised at you, Ashling,’ Sally said. ‘You always told me you’d no imagination. And Letter from Father Bennett doesn’t count, I know you crib it from The Catholic Judger, which, incidentally – keep it to yourself for the moment – is about to go to the wall’

‘I’m sorry, Sally, it’ll never happen again.’

‘I’m the one who’s sorry, Ashling. I’m going to have to let you go.’

‘Because of a simple mistake? I don’t believe you!’

She was right not to. The real reason was that the board of Woman’s Place were concerned about the plummeting circulation figures, had decided that the magazine was looking ‘tired’ and were on the hunt for a fall guy. Ashling’s cock-up couldn’t have come at a better time. Now they could just sack her instead of having to shell out a redundancy payment.

Sally Healy was distraught. Ashling was the most reliable, hard-working employee one could have. She kept the entire place ticking over while Sally came in late, left early and disappeared for Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to collect her daughter from ballet lessons and her sons from rugby practice. But the board had made it clear that it was either Ashling or her.

As a sop to her long years of faithful service, Ashling was allowed to hold on to her job until she got another one. Which, hopefully, would be soon.

‘Well?’ Ashling smoothed out the front of her jacket and turned to Ted.

‘Fine.’ Ted’s shoulder bones rose and fell.

‘Or is this one better?’ Ashling pulled on a jacket that seemed to Ted to be identical to the first one.

‘Fine,’ he repeated.

‘Which one?’

‘Either.’

‘Which one makes me look more like I’ve got a waist?’

Ted squirmed. ‘Not this again. You’re obsessed with your waist.’

‘I haven’t got one to be obsessed with.’

‘Why can’t you go on about the size of your bum, like normal women do?’

Ashling had very little in the way of waist but, as always with bad news pertaining to oneself, she’d been the last to find out. It wasn’t until she was fifteen and her best friend Clodagh had sighed, ‘You’re so lucky, having no waist. Mine is tiny and it just makes my bottom look bigger,’ that she’d made the shocking discovery.

While every other girl on her road had spent their teenage years standing in front of a mirror agonizing over whether one breast was bigger than the other, Ashling’s focus was lower. Eventually she got herself a hula hoop and set to it with gusto in her back garden. For a couple of months she rotated and whittled, day and night, her tongue stuck earnestly out of the corner of her mouth. All the mammies from the neighbouring families looked over their garden walls, their arms folded, nodding knowingly at each other, ‘She’ll have herself hula-hooped into an early grave, that one.’

Not that the non-stop, obsessive whirling had made any difference. Even now, sixteen years later, there was still an undeniable straight-up-and-down quality to Ashling’s silhouette.

‘Having no waist isn’t the worst thing that could happen to someone,’ Ted encouraged from the sidelines.

‘Indeed it isn’t,’ Ashling agreed with unsettling joviality. ‘You could have horrible legs too. And as luck would have it, I do.’

‘You don’t.’

‘I do. I inherited them from my mother… But so long as that’s all I inherited from her,’ Ashling added, cheerfully, ‘I figure I’m not doing so badly.’

‘I was in bed with my girlfriend last night…’ Ted was keen to change the conversation. ‘I told her the earth was flat.’

What girlfriend? And what’s this about the earth?’

‘No, that’s wrong,’ Ted muttered to himself. ‘I was lying in bed with my girlfriend last night… I told her the earth was flat. Boom boom!’

‘Ha ha, very good,’ Ashling said weakly. The worst thing about being Ted’s favourite person was having to be the guinea-pig for his new material. ‘But can I make a suggestion? How about, I was lying in bed with my girlfriend last night. I told her I’d always love her and never leave her… Boom boom,’ she added wryly.

‘I’m late,’ Ted said. ‘D’you want a backer?’

Often he gave her a lift to work on the back of his bike, en route to his own job at the Department of Agriculture.

‘No thanks, I’m going in a different direction.’

‘Good luck with the interview. I’ll pop in to see you this evening.’

‘I don’t doubt it for a minute,’ Ashling agreed, under her breath.

‘Hey! How’s your ear infection?’

‘Better, nearly. I can wash my hair myself again.’

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3

Ashling eventually decided on jacket number one. She could have sworn she detected a slight indentation roughly halfway between her breasts and her hips and that was good enough for her.

After agonizing over her make-up, she plumped for muted in case she came across as flighty. But in case she looked too drab she brought her beloved black-and-white pony-skin handbag. Then she rubbed her lucky Buddha, popped her lucky pebble in her pocket and looked regretfully at her lucky red hat. But just how lucky would a red bobble hat be, if worn to a job interview? Anyway, she didn’t need it – her horoscope had said that this would be a good day. So had the angel oracle.

As she let herself on to the street she had to step over a man who was sound asleep in the front doorway. Then she pointed herself in the direction of Randolph Media’s Dublin office and, walking briskly past the Dublin city-centre gridlock traffic, repeated over and over in her head, as advised by Louise L. Hay, I will get this job, I will get this job, I will get this job…

But what if I don’t? Ashling couldn’t help but wonder.

Well, then I won’t mind, well, then I won’t mind, well, then I won’t mind…

Though she’d put a brave face on it, Ashling was devastated by the turn of events with Mrs O’Sullivan’s couch. So devastated that it had triggered one of the ear infections that always showed up when she was under stress.

Losing one’s job was embarrassingly juvenile, not the kind of thing that happened to a thirty-one-year-old mortgage holder. Surely she should be past all that?

To stop her life unravelling, she’d been job-hunting with a passion and putting herself forward for everything remotely feasible. No, she couldn’t lassoo a runaway stallion, she’d admitted in her interview for the wild-west ranch in Mullingar – she’d actually thought the position they were interviewing for was an administrative one – but she’d be willing to learn.

At each interview she went for she repeated over and over that she was willing to learn. But of everything she’d applied for, the job at Colleen was the one she really, badly wanted. She loved working on a magazine and magazine jobs were rare in Ireland. Besides, Ashling wasn’t a proper journalist: she was simply a good organizer, with an eye for detail.

The magazine arm of Randolph Media was on the third floor of an office block on the quays. Ashling had found out that Randolph Media also owned the small but growing television station, Channel 9, and a highly commercial radio station, but these apparently operated out of different premises.

Ashling came out of the lift and scooted down the corridor towards reception. The place seemed to hum with activity, people rushing up and down carrying bits of paper. Ashling thrilled with excitement that peaked into nausea. Just before the reception desk, a tall, messy-haired man was deep in conversation with a tiny Asian girl. They were speaking to each other in low tones and something in the nature of their exchange gave Ashling to understand that they wished they could shout. Ashling hurried on; she didn’t like rows. Not even other people’s.

She realized how badly she’d misjudged the make-up situation when she got a gander at the receptionist. Trix – that’s what her namebadge said she was called – had the glittery, luscious-sticky look of a devotee of the more-is-more school of slapplication. Her eyebrows were plucked almost into non-existence, her lipliner was so thick and dark she looked as if she had a moustache, and her entire head of blonde hair was caught up in dozens of tiny, evenly spaced, sparkly butterfly clips. She must’ve had to get up three hours early to do it, Ashling thought, highly impressed.

‘Hello,’ Trix growled in a voice that sounded as though she smoked forty cigarettes a day – which coincidentally she did.

‘I’ve an interview at nine thi–’ Ashling halted at the sound of a loud yelp behind her. She looked over her shoulder and saw the messy-haired man nursing his first finger.

‘You bit me!’ he exclaimed. ‘Mai, you’ve drawn blood!’

‘Hope your tetanus is up to date,’ the Asian girl laughed scornfully.

Trix clicked her tongue, flung her eyes heavenwards and muttered, ‘Pair of gobshites, they never stop. Take a seat,’ she told Ashling. ‘I’ll tell Calvin you’re here.’

She disappeared through the double doors and Ashling wobbled down on to a couch, beside a coffee table which was strewn with all the current titles. The sight of them sent her nerves into sudden overdrive – she so badly wanted this job. Her heart was pounding and her stomach sloshed bile. Absently she rolled the lucky pebble through her thumb and finger. Through a gauze of trembling anxiety she was semi-aware of the bitten man slamming into the gents’ and the little Asian girl stomping to the lift, her curtain of long black hair swishing to and fro.

‘Mr Carter says go on in.’ Trix was back and doing a bad job of hiding her surprise. For the past two days she’d been plagued by nervous interviewees who’d been kept waiting by her desk for up to half an hour at a time. During which Trix had had to hold off ringing her friends and fellas and deal with the interviewees’ pleading questions about what their chances of getting the job were. And to add insult to injury, she knew for a fact that all Calvin Carter and Jack Devine were doing in the interview room was playing rummy.

But Calvin Carter had been deserted by Jack Devine, and he was bored and lonely. Might as well be interviewing someone as doing nothing.

‘Come!’ he commanded, when Ashling knocked timidly on the door.

He took one glance at the dark-haired woman in the black trouser-suit and immediately decided against her. She just wasn’t glamorous enough for Colleen. He didn’t know much about girls’ hair, but he had a feeling that it was usually more elaborate than this one’s. Wasn’t it normal to have a kind of interfered look to it? Surely it shouldn’t just hang there on her shoulders, being brown? And fresh-faced is all very well when you’re a milkmaid, but not when you’re an aspiring assistant editor of a sexy women’s magazine…

‘Sit down.’ He supposed he’d better go through the motions for five minutes.

Breathless with the desire to do well, Ashling sat on the lone chair in the middle of the floor and faced the man who sat behind the long table.

‘Jack Devine, the MD for Ireland, will be here shortly,’ Calvin explained. ‘I don’t know what’s keeping him. First up,’ he turned his attention to her resumé, ‘you better tell me how to pronounce that name of yours.’

‘Ash-ling. Ash as in cigarette ash, ling to rhyme with sing.’

‘Ash-ling. Ashling. OK, I can say that. Alrighty, Ashling, for the past eight years you’ve been working in magazines…

Magazine, actually.’ Ashling heard someone giggle nervously and realized helplessly that it was herself. ‘Just the one.’

‘And why are you leaving Woman’s Place?’

‘I’m looking for a new challenge,’ Ashling offered nervously. Sally Healy had told her to say that.

The door opened and in came the bitten man.

‘Ah, Jack.’ Calvin Carter frowned. ‘This is Ashling Kennedy. Ash as in cigarette ash, ling to rhyme with sing.’

‘How’s it going?’ Jack had other things on his mind. He was in a foul mood. He’d been up half the night in negotiations with technicians at the TV station, while conducting almost simultaneous negotiations with a US network to persuade them not to sell their award-winning series to RTE but to Channel 9 instead. And as if his workload hadn’t already reached critical mass, he’d been charged with setting up this stupid new magazine. The last thing the world needs is another women’s magazine! But, if he was honest, the true source of his grief was Mai. She drove him insane. He hated her. He hated her so much. How had he ever thought he was mad about her! No way was he taking her calls. Never again, that was the last time, the very, very last time…

He swung himself behind the table, trying hard to concentrate on the interview – old Calvin got his boxers in such a bunch about them. In a moment or two he knew he’d be expected to ask something that sounded vaguely relevant, but all he could think about was that he might be bleeding to death. Or dying of rabies. How soon did the foaming at the mouth begin? he wondered.

Leaning back on the two hind legs of his chair, he held his wounded finger out in front of him, staring at it. He couldn’t believe she’d bitten him. Again. She’d promised the last time… He pulled the twist of toilet paper tighter and bright red blood rushed through it.

‘Tell me your strengths and weaknesses,’ Calvin invited Ashling.

‘I’d have to be honest and say that my weakest area is editorial work. While I can produce tag-lines, headings and short pieces, I haven’t much experience of writing long articles.’

None, actually, if she was completely up-front.

‘My strengths are that I am meticulous, organized and hard-working. I’m a good second-in-command,’ Ashling said earnestly, quoting directly from Sally Healy. Then she stopped and said, ‘Excuse me, would you like a Band-Aid for your finger?’

Jack Devine looked up, startled. ‘Who, me?’

‘I don’t see anyone else bleeding all over the place.’ Ashling attempted a smile.

Jack Devine shook his head violently. ‘Nah, no… Thanks,’ he added, surlily.

‘Why not?’ Calvin Carter intervened.

‘I’m fine.’ Jack gestured with his good hand.

‘Take the Band-Aid,’ Calvin said. ‘Sounds like a good idea.’

Ashling lifted her bag on to her lap and, with the minimum of rummaging, produced a box of plasters. Lifting the lid, she flicked through them, lifted one out and handed it to Jack. ‘Try that for size.’

Jack looked at it as if he had no idea what to do. Calvin Carter was no help either.

Ashling swallowed a sigh, got up from her chair, took the plaster from Jack’s hand and ripped off the grease-proof paper. ‘Hold out your finger.’

‘Yes, Ma’am,’ he said sarcastically.

With speed and efficiency she wrapped it around the bleeding digit. To her surprise, on the pretext of making sure the plaster was secure, she gave his finger a little squeeze and felt shameful satisfaction at the wince that fluttered across his face.

‘What else have you got?’ Calvin Carter asked curiously. ‘Aspirins?’

She nodded cautiously. ‘Would you like one?’

‘No, thanks. A pen and notepad?’

She nodded again.

‘How about – and this is a long shot, I’ll admit – a portable sewing kit?’

Ashling paused sheepishly, then her entire demeanour lifted and lightened in a half-laugh of admission. ‘Actually, I do.’ Her smile was wide.

‘You’re very organized,’ Jack Devine interrupted. He made it sound like an insult.

‘Somebody needs to be.’ Calvin Carter had revised his earlier opinion of her. She was charming and even though she had lipstick on her teeth, at least she was wearing lipstick. ‘Thank you, Ashling, we’ll be in touch.’

Ashling shook hands with both men, once more taking the opportunity to give Jack Devine’s wound a good, hard squeeze.

‘Hey, I liked her,’ Calvin Carter laughed.

‘I didn’t,’ Jack Devine said, moodily.

‘I said I liked her,’ Calvin Carter repeated. He wasn’t used to being disagreed with. ‘She’s reliable and resourceful. Give her the job.’