My thanks go to PapaGus and Deryk for their perseverance while assisting me in preparing this story for posting.
"Ooh Duncan, what have you been getting up to on the quiet?" Alice said, with a grin on her face, just after we'd taken our seats to stake claim to a large table in the hotel lounge.
Alice is my PA and we were in town - along with most of the rest of the staff in our department - for a major seminar. It was the first time I'd been called upon to give public presentation at one of those do's and the rest of the team had come along for the kick, the free trip to up-country and supposedly to offer their intellectual support; but more than likely, to take the Mickey out of me if I fluffed it.
We'd all had dinner together and then some of us — four of the girls Alice, Myra, Jean, young Brooke and myself -- thought we'd sit in the lounge for a while and have a couple of drinks,, before we retired to our rooms; maybe some of the girls would even get to have a dance or two, if they felt like it. Alice and I had gone ahead to grab a table whilst the other younger girls went off to repair their faces.
The rest of department's scallywags had headed straight for the bar, no doubt to get well and truly tanked-up.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" I asked, having no idea of what Alice was alluding too.
Which wasn't all that unusual. Alice had worked closely with me for a few years by then, as had almost all the lab techie's and our support staff. But Alice had this habit of going off on unexpected tangents whilst we were talking. Not two seconds before, we'd been discussing the itinerary for the following day.
"Well, there is an extremely good looking wench over the other side of the room who was somewhat surprised to see us walk in here. She watched us come in extremely intently. Somehow, I can't believe that she found my arrival so fascinating!"
"Sweetheart, you should know by now, that when you're with a handsome fellow like me, beautiful women can't help but stop and stare." I replied with a wink and a grin. "I'm surprised she's not looking daggers at you, because she thinks you have me all to yourself for the evening."
"You should be so lucky! The girls will be here in a minute to put an end to your wicked plans." Alice grinned back at me,
It was an old in-joke; I worked mostly surrounded by women, and - even if a do say it myself - I am not a bad looking bloke. Like Alice most of the females in the lab and office are happily married or at least in long-term relationships; my choice, I do all the hiring -- and firing -- at the Research laboratory. I find people who are committed to long-term relationships are just a little more diligent in their work. Yes, there's sometimes child illness or minding problems, or, another pregnancy can mean I lose one of the team for a while. But I can rely on their results in the lab and that's what I felt was most important.
I tried to promote the atmosphere of the lab being one big happy family and most everyone appreciated that. I might be the boss, but nearly all the staff treated me like a big brother most of the time. I was always being invited to parties, weddings, christenings and the like; Jesus I've become godfather to five -- or is it six?-- of the staff's off-spring in the six years I've run the laboratory.
As those years have past, it had become apparent that most the female staff has developed a favoured leisure activity of playing matchmaker where I'm concerned.
I, in return, play the spurned lover to whichever one of them I'm talking to at any given moment. So - when they do attempt to fix me up with their friends or relatives - I can tell them they are wasting their time, it's they who I'm in love with.
Okay it's an old and somewhat worn joke, and if any of them were to get googly eyed over me, I'd run a bleeding mile, and don't they know it! But it led to a light-hearted atmosphere around the lab and office, which we all enjoyed.
"Well now Duncan, I'd say that's the trouble. Now, she has got a face on her that would stop Napoleon in his tracks. But I'd say that she's looking those daggers at you, not me. Actually I'm surprised that you haven't been turned to stone already. Honestly, if looks could kill, I'd be calling the undertaker now."
Alice might have been speaking humorously, but she had an unusually serious expression on her face.
"Oh my Alice, and just where about will I find this purveyor of my imminent doom?" I asked smiling, joining in as best I could Alice's little joke.
I was sure that Alice must have been mistaken. Our table was quite near to the lounge's main entrance and I suspected that the female Alice was talking about, was probably showing her displeasure at the late arrival of somebody in her party. Come-on, fella's, we've all seen that kind of expression on a woman's face.
"Over there with the crowd on that corner table." She replied, gesturing with her head to the far side of the lounge.
I looked in the direction Alice had indicated, and immediately located the woman she had been referring to. The face I saw glowering back at me, took me so completely by surprise that it caused me to lose my decorum for more than a few seconds.
"Oh shit, Elvira!" I blurted out without thinking.
"And, just who is Elvira, when she's at home? And, pray tell me, Duncan, why is she giving you the evil eye?"
Now I really should have kept my big fat mouth firmly closed. But the shock of suddenly seeing Elvira, after all those years, had kind-a knocked the old brain out of kilter.
"My wife!" I heard myself telling Alice quietly.
"Your ex-wife," she repeated with an aghast tone to her voice. "Christ, I didn't know anyone had ever managed to get a rope on you!"
The shock at hearing the news, that I'd ever been married, was audible in Alice's voice and clearly visible on her face.
Regretfully I must have still been in a state of shock myself, because I found myself unintentionally explaining.
"No, I think she still is my wife, we were never divorced. Well, I don't think we were!"
Alice didn't reply to that; when I looked back at her, she was sitting there, staring at me with her mouth agape. As they say, catching flies.
Alice still had that surprised expression on her face when Myra, Jean and Brooke arrived at the table.
"You all right Alice? You look like you've seen a ghost." Myra asked as she sat down opposite her.
Alice moved her gaze from me to Myra.
"Duncan's just told me that his wife is sitting over there!" she said in a monotone.
A bemused expression came over Myra's face; she had obviously been confused by Alice's statement.
"That woman over there, the one with the long black hair, who's looking daggers at us. Duncan has just informed me that she's his wife!"
"Never!" Myra replied, looking wide-eyed at me for an instant, and turning to search around the lounge, trying to locate Elvira amongst all the other patrons.
I noted that Jean and young Brooke were doing the same thing. Luckily by then, some people had got up to dance, so spotting Elvira hadn't been as easy as it had been when Alice and I had first arrived in the lounge.
"Leave it out, girls; it was all a long time ago. It was an accident; I really didn't intend to tell Alice about her." I said trying to think of a way to extricate myself from the hole I'd so inadvertently stepped into. The girls -- I feared -- where going to want know chapter and verse.
"What was an accident, marrying her?" Alice asked.
"No, of course not! Telling you that she was my wife was the accident."
"Oh come on Duncan. After all the time we've known you, you aren't going to get away with suddenly announcing that you are married, and not give us the low down. Why have you never mentioned her before?" Alice insisted.
"Oh I see her, she's very beautiful." Jean blurted out. "If not looking a little peeved about something!"
"Where?" Brooke demanded.
Then she, Jean, Myra and Alice fell into a detailed discussion -- that excluded me -- of exactly where in the room Elvira was sitting, what she looked like and with whom she was seated. Eventually they came to the communal conclusion that none of them knew any of the party Elvira was sitting with.
"Jesus Alice, it was a long time ago, and best forgotten." I said, kinda breaking into what had turned into a private discussion amongst the four of them.
"I don't think so Duncan. Ex-wives you try to forget. But you just told me that you believe that you are still married to her. How come you've never divorced her ... or, come to that, she's never divorced you?" Alice demanded.
"Not much point really; I never intend to get hooked up permanently again, so why should I bother? I would have thought you'd have realised that by now. Why should I go through all the bother and expense of getting a divorce? If she wants to get married to one of her ... Well, she can have all the hassle! Now, if we may, can we try to forget that she's here?" I asked.
But my subordinates weren't going to let me off that easily. I suppose you probably could say that I had brought it upon myself, for being so easygoing and open with them all over the years. The atmosphere we — or rather I'd — tried to maintain in our department, was more like that of an extended family than it was a workplace. That day was the first time I'd regretted doing so.
After one of those unspoken exchanges all women seem to be able to have, where they all look at each other in turn, but even if they've said nothing out loud, they've relayed something to each other. All four fixed me with intense, demanding stares.
"No, I don't think we can, Duncan. Come on, spill the beans?" Myra finally demanded. "You've kept..."
"Elvira!" Alice, prompted her.
"Elvira from us for some reason and we want to know why. Come on, we're your closest friends and we're concerned about you!"
I looked at the four truly concerned looking faces around the table. Yeah well, they were the nearest thing to a family that I had left in the world, and I knew that their concern was genuine.
"Okay, short version, then you leave sleeping dogs lie! Okay?" I said.
Four heads nodded back to me in unison. Although I had little faith they would keep the agreement, I knew these four women too well to expect that could possibly happen.
"All right, I met Elvira when I was in my third year at Uni and she was in her second. We fell in love and eventually got married. Then it all turned to shit on us and we separated. There now, you happy?"
"Oh come on Duncan. Short is one thing; that was no more than a scenario ... not even an adequate outline! If I dropped a report like that on your desk, you'd go bloody loopy. Come on, just a little flesh on the bones please, or I'm going over there to ask Elvira myself." Alice said.
The trouble with Alice saying that was -- knowing the woman as I did -- it was highly likely that she'd do just that. I did some quick thinking.
I'll tell you what; this isn't the time or the place to tell you the full story. If I promise to tell you all about it later; will you all promise to let it go for the time being?"
Once more there was another mental exchange between the girls.
"Right-oh boss, but remember you've promised?" Alice said.
"Don't I always keep my promises?" I asked.
"Well no, sometimes you don't." Brooke said, I think everyone around the table turned to look her.
Brooke turned a little pink in the face. "Well he's always promising to smack one of our backsides when something goes wrong. But can any of you remember him actually carrying that threat out?" She said grinning.
We all laughed; Brooke's little joke having changed the atmosphere completely. After that, none of the girls mentioned Elvira again whilst we were in the lounge. Although, I was very aware of them looking in her direction almost all the time when we danced together later, and it seemed that whenever I looked her way, Elvira was glowering back at me.
Something else I noticed though, was that if Elvira was looking daggers at me, then the look the guy sitting beside her was giving me, should have really turned me to stone.
What's more he was a big guy, the sort of bloke that you really don't want staring at you with that kind of an expression on his face. I really do think he was intending — or at least trying — to put the fear of god into me.
During the evening a couple of the guys from the department came in to join us for a while. I think the rest of my department had ensconced themselves in the bar for the evening. But a few times young John came into the lounge to very timidly ask Brooke to dance with him. John was the one unattached young guy in the whole department and incidentally he made a very poor job of hiding his attraction to young Brooke; nearly as poorly as she hid her attraction for him. Once they had danced though, John would rapidly retreat to the bar again, embarrassed by the remarks about Brooke and him that the other girls threw his way.
Knowing that I had my presentation first thing in the morning, about half-ten, I decided an early night on my behalf was called for. And I was somewhat surprised that all four girls decided it was time for them to leave the lounge as well, at the same time that I did.
We went up in the lift together, the girls getting off at their respective floors, I was slightly taken aback that none of them returned my good night wishes.
Okay sometimes I can be a little dense. I had no idea that they'd been conspiring together during the evening.
In my room, I took off my jacket and thought I'd run through my much-rehearsed presentation one last time, before I was thrown to the wolves in the morning.
I'd only just set the computer up and got myself ready with my little push button in one hand and my laser pointer in the other when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find the four girls standing there, complete with bottles of wine and glasses in hand. Without a by-your-leave they strolled past me as if I wasn't there and settled themselves comfortably wherever they chose.
"Um, I was just about to run through my presentation again, girls." I said, nonplussed by their unexpected arrival.
"Bugger the presentation! With all the rehearsals you've put us through in the last few weeks; if you haven't got it off pat by now, you never will get the bloody thing right. Come on Duncan, we're here for the story of you and Elvira. And no leaving anything out!" Jean informed me.
"Girls, I've got to give this damned presentation first thing in the morning." I whined.
"Give over Duncan, we've sat through the thing nearly every lunchtime for a month now, and you've never made a slip yet. Come on, we want to know about you and Elvira; what went wrong?" Alice insisted.
"Why?" I asked
"Because, we care about you that's why. It doesn't make any sense, Duncan. You're just about every girl in the office's ideal husband, if we weren't already taken that is, and ... Well, suddenly we discover that you are taken, but for some reason the two of you are separated. Sorry Duncan, we just can't understand what could possibly have gone wrong. Was she that bad?"
"Way no! Elvira was ... I don't know, perfect I suppose. Well, perfect for me that is."
I had no idea why I had instantly defended Elvira; after all, she had done the dirty on me. It must have been instinct, I supposed. I really didn't want to go there but I knew that the girls would give me no peace until I told them the full story.
"All right, I told you I met her at Salford. To be honest it was love at first sight for me, I think it took a couple of dates before Elvira decided that she loved me as well. Anyway pretty soon -- outside lectures -- we were inseparable. Literally never apart..."
"From what you say there, do we assume... ?" Myra asked, with a coy expression on her face.
"Yes you do. Elvira moved into my flat after we'd been together for about three months. Not much point in us paying the rent on two flats when both we spent every night in one or the other of them together."
Strangely, I found that I wasn't embarrassed giving the girls that little bit of tittle-tattle.
"Anyway, things were going great. Then late the following autumn, I was doing my Masters and she was in her final year, when we discovered Elvira was pregnant."
"Hadn't Elvira been taking... ?" Alice, this time.
"Yes, of course she had, but something went awry somewhere. Unlike common belief birth control pills aren't 100% reliable, and as a chemist I should have known that. Given a level playing field they are reasonably foolproof, but other medications can interfere or even negate the pills effectiveness completely.
"Anyway we thought that Elvira becoming pregnant was no real problem, although it was going to disrupt her studies a little. We had been planning the wedding for right after Elvira took her finals anyway, so we just got hitched right away instead.
"I don't want any of you to get the wrong idea, at the time we were both ecstatic about the baby coming, even if children hadn't been included in our master plan for a few years."
I could see the obvious question in all the girls' faces, so I answered it next.
"The child was stillborn. Something drastic went wrong about five weeks before the birth was due and Elvira had an emergency caesarean. It was too late."
"Oh my god!" One of the girls said. I'm not sure which.
"It was a sad time for everybody, but these things happen in life. We got over it!"
"My Aunt Sally's the bleeding Pope, you did! You might have been able to push the baby's death to the back of your mind quite easily, Duncan! But I'm sure your wife didn't!" Myra said, sharply.
"I didn't mean for to have sounded so ... It was a difficult time for both of us, Elvira and I tried to get over it; but looking back now I don't believe either of us did really. You're right Myra, you don't forget a traumatic experience like that very easily. That's the only explanation I can come up with, for what happened later. After we lost the baby I suppose that there was this spectre of what might have been hanging over us all the time."
Anyway, having missed her finals the first time round, Elvira got her act together pretty quickly, possibly too quickly. She took her exams along with all the people taking re-sits, and passed with distinctions. Then because the baby wasn't around, she decided she'd like to do her Masters as well. The problem there was I'd been invited to go over to Canada and join a friend doing research to do my Ph.D.
"Damn, it was too good an opportunity to pass-up. I'd worked with Paul a few times while we were doing our Masters and we were on the same wavelength, if you know what I mean. What's more he had got hooked up with someone important in Fraser and Martin's research establishment and they had offered to provide us lab space and equipment to do our own research, and pay us to do some work for them at the same time. An opportunity like that doesn't fall in your lap everyday.
"Elvira and I talked about it for a long time and ... well, in the end we thought that me spending a year in Canada whilst she finished her Masters in Salford wouldn't be much of a problem. As it turned out, it was. Everything went sour on us -- we sort-of drifted apart while I was away.
"When I came got back into the UK, Elvira seemed to be to a different person. Everything had changed somehow. We just weren't anything like as close as we had been. And I sensed something was definitely different the first time we made love together as well."
"Oh dear, that happened to my cousin when he was stationed abroad with the army. His marriage didn't survive." Jean commented.
"Yeah well, I don't know, I suppose I should have known something weren't right, while I was still over there. When Elvira and I spoke on the telephone, for the first month or so she sounded fine, all lovey-dovey like she had been before I went. But as the months went by, our conversations sometimes became a little more than strange."
"In what way?" Myra -- the frustrated amateur psychologist of the lab asked.
"Well, I'm not sure really. I'd be telling Elvira how things were going in the lab and how my thesis was coming along, but she'd keep asking me what I was doing in the evenings and on the weekends. She seemed to get sharp with me when I told that I had very little free time. Look, we were doing F and M's research as well as our own. Working in two different fields at the same time, isn't easy you know. Paul and I were working around the clock sometimes, and it wasn't unknown for us to bed down for the night in the bloody lab.
"Anyway after I got back to the UK, Elvira and I chugged along for a while, trying to pretend that everything was fine. Elvira even decided to do her Ph.D. I was all for it and encouraged her to get started. But then I was offered the job of assistant to chief of research at F and M's British operation. You could say that it was the perfect position for me. I'd never get another opportunity like that, in the UK anyway. I had no idea that within the year I'd be running the operation."
"Hold up Duncan. You said that when you got back from Canada, everything had changed. How do you mean?
"Myra, I really don't want to go there, thank you. It was hard enough for me to admit it to myself. Let's just say that I thought Elvira's commitment to me had ... Well..."
"You got it into your head that Elvira might have stepped out on you while you'd been away?"
"Yes, you could say that; now, lets leave that there, can we? It was only a suspicion anyway. There were a few guys around who Elvira had always been too friendly with for my liking and a couple of them ... well, let's just say they steered well clear of me when I got back into the country."
"Ah doubt! A very dangerous thing in any relationship. Especially when you mix a little jealousy in with it. I'd never have taken you as the jealous type, Duncan." Myra mused.
"I don't think I am, normally. But I hadn't been Elvira's only boyfriend at university and some of her ex's were still in the neighbourhood, if you know what I mean. Whatever, with me down on the south coast and Elvira up in Salford, things just fell apart!""
"I somehow think you are being a little economical with the truth there Duncan, or at least the details. Drifting apart is one thing, and something I can understand. But it doesn't explain the animosity in Elvira's eyes when she saw you walk into the lounge this evening." Alice said.
"No, it wasn't that simple really. When I was down on the coast, I was out and about getting to know the staff at the lab, as you might expect. I even started the volleyball on the beach at lunch time thing, and some of us used to practice over there in the evenings."
"As we still do now ... on the beach almost every lunchtime and up to three evenings a week in the season." Myra echoed. "So it was you who started that tradition. I suspect you encouraged everyone to bring their children along in the evenings."
"Yeah, I started the volley ball team. You've got to admit it does lead to one big family atmosphere. I got the idea from F and M's Canadian operation. There's an ice rink right near the labs, and they've got a company ice hockey club going, including junior sides for the kids.
"Christ we don't know how lucky we are. How many workers get to walk out the lab, cross the road and then play volley ball on the beach or swim in the sea during their lunch hour? Not many, I'll wager!
"The problem that I never expected was that people can draw the wrong conclusions when they see you messing around on the beach. I swear I was as completely innocent then, as it is with you guys now. But word somehow got back to Elvira that I was chasing girls around down there. I suspect that someone who knew us was down there on holiday and must have seen me on the beach with the crowd from the office."
"I suppose it depends on what you call messing around?" Myra commented.
"Come on Myra, we're talking Duncan here!" Alice replied. "You know that he's the one guy on the company you'd trust to teach your own daughter to swim and know she wouldn't get groped on the quiet, no matter what it looked like! But then again I think I can understand someone misconstruing what was happening though. You've always been a laugh to be around Duncan. Maybe a little too ... boisterous for some folks!"
"Yeah well, that's what I believe must have happened. Then next thing I know, Elvira is all uppity with me on the phone again and I'm getting feedback from friends in Salford that she's out living it up, up-there every night. And keeping some very questionable company."
"You think she started going out with other guys to get her own back? Did you challenge her over it?"
"Yes, in a way. She denied it of course. Elvira told me she was finding it hard going and was spending almost all of her free time studying and doing research of her own. Well, she did have a job as well, you know; neither of us were made of money. Elvira even claimed that she never had the time to come down to visit me, because she was too busy. When we did see each other, it was always me who went up there to Salford."
"Why couldn't she afford the train fare?" Alice asked.
"Not at the time. It's a little bit of a long and convoluted journey by train, and by bus it's even worse and slower of course.
"Eventually I nipped up to Salford one Friday afternoon, all unexpected like, and caught Elvira with some guy together in one of the more disreputable local pubs. All a little too cosy for my liking."
"Christ, what happened? What did she say?" Brooke asked.
"Well, nothing really, of substance anyway. To be honest with you, she really didn't get the chance. I waded straight in and gave the guy a good pasting. Elvira just stood there begging me not to hurt him. Anyway, before I knew what was happening, I was being carted off down to the local nick. I never saw Elvira again; well, to talk to that is.
"The guy apparently didn't press charges, because the following day they let me off with a police caution. I went straight back down to the south coast and I've never spoken to Elvira since."
"What ... she didn't come to the police station to see you? Or telephone, or come down to see you, to explain or anything?" Alice asked.
"Oh yeah, she was at the nick alright, but I was still far too pissed-off with her, to risk talking to her. Look, she'd been feeding me the line "I don't have time to scratch my arse and I never go out and socialise" for months. Then I find her in one of Salford's more questionable pubs with ... No, I'm getting emotional again.
"Anyway she did come down to see me a few days later. But I was still in sulk mode, I'd taken the precaution of moving; I was still in digs at the time. She even turned up at the lab, but they wouldn't let her past security, and it was easy for me to go out the other way that evening."
"I don't understand why you would do that, what was wrong with talking to her?" Brooke asked.
"Simple really, Brooke. I'd picked up hints through the grapevine, that Elvira thought I was messing around with other girls down there, but she didn't bother to tackle me over it on the phone. Well, not directly she didn't. No ... she went out and picked herself up a boyfriend! Maybe half a dozen boyfriends for all I know. Or, more likely, the same bugger she'd been kicking around with while I'd been in Canada. I never did like that little shit!"
"Was he one of her ex-boyfriends from before you and Elvira got together, you mentioned just now?" Myra asked.
"No, not really. He was someone who'd shared a communal flat with Elvira and several other students, during her first year Uni when they were in the college accommodation. But I had always known he'd had the hots for Elvira, although she had always denied it. Elvira said that he just wanted to be her friend, but she also claimed that she understood the way I felt about him. She'd told me that she'd virtually severed all contact with him just after she moved into my flat. And she never mentioned him to me again."
"I'm sorry Duncan, but it sounds a little like too much of a coincidence to me. You travel all the way up to Salford, and then just happen to walk into the same pub that Elvira is in with another man."
"Oh, coincidence never came into it Myra. I'd been told which pub I'd find them in and exactly what time."
"Just a friend."
"By any chance the same friend who'd put the idea into your head that Elvira had been gallivanting about behind your back, while you'd been in the States?
"What gave you that idea? Besides, I was in Canada, not the US."
"Well, was it?"
"No, it was another old friend. How do you know that anyone suggested anything to me anyway?"
"It stands to reason, but you all but told us just us a little while ago, anyway. You inferred that someone from Salford hinted that Elvira might have found herself a playmate while you were in Canada. It stands to reason that that same person or someone close to them told you exactly where and when you'd find Elvira and that man together that day." Myra replied.
Myra had jogged something in my brain. I found myself trying to work out exactly who had put the idea into my mind that Elvira might be running around behind my back whilst I was away. I couldn't put my finger on anyone one person in particular, just a perceived reluctance by a couple of friends to talk to me about Elvira.
"So what's happened since then?" Alice asked, returning my mind to the present.
"Absolutely nothing. Tonight's the first time I've clapped eyes on Elvira in six, maybe seven years. I have no idea what she's doing down here in Reading. For all I know, she might even live in the town now."
Suddenly the telephone rang and Brooke grabbed it. With hindsight I've come to realise that Brooke had positioned herself right beside the handset on purpose. Anyway Brooke snatched the handset up like it was an emergency and the rest of us listened to one side her conversation
"Hi John." Brooke paused whilst John spoke to her -- "Are you sure?" — another much longer pause during which the rest of us could just about hear the faint squeak of John's voice but not what he was saying to Brooke.
The other girls were making faces and nudging each other. I only wish I could understand those silent exchanges they have.
"Yeah thanks, you're an angel," Brooke said.
That brought more strange looks from the other three, and echoes of the word "Angel" from the girls.
"I owe you a big kiss; see you at breakfast." -- Then, another pause -- "What? -- Yet another pause -- " No! Now you behave yourself John or you'll be sorry, I promise you. Good-night!" -- and another pause -- "What?" Brooke sounding slightly annoyed -- "No of course not! Alice, Myra and Jean are here as well; goodnight John!" Then she put the handset back into its cradle.
Brooke looked around at the expectant faces in the room.
"Oh nothing. Just something I asked John to do for me." She explained, in reply to our unasked questions.
I'm sure that none of us believed her.
"So what are you going to do now, Duncan?" Alice asked.
"Go to bed, if you women will let me. I want to be up early so I can go through my presentation again."
"God, you'd think it was the first time you'd ever done one of these things. Anyway I was talking about Elvira, what are you going to do about her?" Alice insisted.
"Exactly what I've done for the last six years, nothing. If she wants a divorce she can pay for the bugger herself. We've got no joint assets that I'm aware of, she just has to go to the court and apply for one, I won't argue."
"Oh come on! You can't leave things hanging like that. Supposing you meet someone in the future and want to get married to her."
"Alice, I've learnt my lesson. I found someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, and it all turned to shit on me. I'm not likely to make the same mistake again, now am I? I'll jog along as a confirmed bachelor from now on, if you don't mind"
"But I do mind, Duncan, and I'm sure the rest of us do as well. Look, you're going to hear a few home truths whether you like it or not. You've been treating us all as some kind of a surrogate family, so that gives us the right to speak our minds, doesn't it girls?
There was a general murmur of agreement.
"You treat all us girls' like we're your sisters, or in the case of Brooke here, and some of the other younger girls, like she's your daughter. All the guys in the department seem to look on you as an elder brother, even when you're chewing them out.
"You treat your staff's children as if you're their long lost uncle. Christ, how many department heads have all the children of their staff's, birthdays listed in their year planner, and send them cards and presents?"
"Alice..." I tried to explain; only I'm not too sure now, what I was intending to say.
"Don't you Alice, me Duncan Cosgain. We all appreciate that we are lucky enough to work under a boss like you. But I think all the girls will agree with me when I say you really do need to get your own life."
"No Alice, I'm very happy with my lot."
"That's a load of balls Duncan, and you know it! Finding out about Elvira explains a lot to me. Your life ... the one you should be living, stopped when you and Elvira had that argument ... or should I say, didn't have that argument! You've never cleared the air with her, and emotionally you're stuck back there somewhere six or seven years ago, or however long it's been? You need to sort things out with Elvira and move on with your life, Duncan! Am I not right girls?"
All three girls made noises that appeared to show they were in agreement with Alice.
There's little point in continuing to describe the rest of the evenings umm ... lively conversation. But by the end of it, when the girls even left for their own rooms, I thought we'd agreed to disagree on the matter and the girls wouldn't mention Elvira again.
Seems that I might have got that a little wrong.
I'd eaten most of my breakfast alone the following morning. I'd risen early so that I could go through my presentation one more time before I had to walk out on that stage in front of getting on for a thousand or so of my peers. The girls had been correct, I've done presentations before, but usually to a couple of hundred people at the most, never to an audience this size. And in addition, they hadn't included the leading minds in my field either.
A couple of the guys joined me as I was finishing my coffee. They dropped pointed hints about someone having a little private party in his room the night before that included most of the tastier females in the department.
I mentioned to them that yearly appraisals were coming up and hinted that the next round of pay rises were due. They dropped the jibes ... rather rapidly.
Then the three of us went into the conference hall where the lads helped me set everything up. We even managed to do a dry run of the graphics etc.
I can tell you that I was definitely feeling stage fright as I stood in the wings of what was in essence a massive theatre, and heard the guy running the seminar announcing my name. It was not quite so scary when I got out there on stage though and realised that because of the lights I could just make out only the first three rows of the audience.
Better still, my staff who were present -- obviously after someone had done some skilful reconnoitring -- had spaced themselves liberally around those front three rows, in twos and threes. The net result was that wherever I looked, there was a smiling, encouraging face looking back at me.
What I was not expecting, was that Elvira was sat in the middle of the second row, with the guy she'd been in the lounge with the night before, and another older couple. Elvira was smiling, but the other three were looking at me as if I was something the cat had dragged in, and that they were totally unconvinced by my arguments. Not -- from what I was later to discover -- that they had any idea what I was talking about.
I got plenty of applause at the end of my presentation though. Mind you, it was probably prompted by my staff that clapped aggressively, and hooted and shouted, like they were at a pop concert.
But you have to take into account that they did have a stake in it all, it had been they who had undertaken most of the physical research. Credit where credit is due! They also made a point of collectively looking daggers at anyone who challenged our results during question time.
Boy, the audience gave me a hard time during those questions, and I really was pleased when it was time for me to leave that stage.
Most of the rest of the day, I spent in conversation with some of my peers from all over the world who wanted to talk about our research. Alice, Myra, Jean, and Brooke were always close at hand with relevant notes and handouts for anyone who requested them.
"She was in the second row." Alice said as we sat down to dinner that evening.
"I know; I saw her all right!" I replied.
"She clapped when you came on, and at the end." Myra pointed out.
"Don't worry, I noticed. I just can't figure out what the hell she's doing here. It's not as if it's her field." I commented.
"Well perhaps she came here to watch her husband do his thing?" Alice suggested.
"Not intentionally, I don't think." Brooke suddenly commented. "Oh, she might have come into the conference hall today especially to watch you. But she probably saw your name on the board outside the hall this morning and went in to watch out of curiosity.
"She's actually here at the hotel for a small company seminar upstairs."
The four of us were by then staring at Brooke.
"Ah, well you see ... Look, yesterday I asked John and Tony to find out why she was here."
Brooke was looking like a deer caught in cars headlights.
"I was just doing my job, Duncan! I'm supposed to know anything and everything about the people who come to see you, so that I can brief you properly."
"And?" I asked.
I'm not sure if I was annoyed at Brooke or not. As my secretary I'd always relied upon her to give me a quick briefing on just about anyone I ever ran into.