It was Christmas and the usual hubbub of over sugar saturated children and pathologically anxious parents. Cass was at home with her parents, older sister, husband and two girls. Sarah, her mother was doing the usual martyr kitchenzilla. Sarah hated cooking. She was a 1980’s feminist, where the idea of domestic drudgery should have been replaced with a microwave and other poorer less ambitious women providing these services, but unfortunately she had the 1950’s guilt of matriarchs everywhere. She shooed everyone out of the kitchen with a maniacal glint of a woman possessed by Nigella Lawson. Perhaps Cass should have brought some coke with her. Her mum could do with something to take the edge off. Why her mother felt that it was necessary for the past two years to cook a Christmas Pudding from scratch was a mystery. She must have worked like a deamon between episodes of Strictly. Peter, her father was tucking into his second Sherry at 11 am and softly baiting Mama bear with a stick. “Shouldn’t the duck gone on by now?” “Really Sarah shouldn’t it rest?”
“Fuck off Peter!”
Cass’ sister Pen wailed “Mum, the kids!”
Cass sighed thinking, after the year when Sarah hit Peter with the lamp he gave her, you would have thought he learnt. “Here Mum have some bubbles.”
“Can I do anything?”
“No, it is all under control.” Sarah retorted so sharply that it was almost as if Cass had insulted her. Cass had learnt to back off. Grabbing a bottle she retreated into the domestic bliss of her older sister Pen.
Molly, her oldest niece had just had a meltdown because Santa had not given her the exact Bratz doll she had specified. Cass could not understand why Penny had given Molly a doll which looked like a street walker, but she did not have children. Cass did not know that Penny had provided the least slutty doll in line with Molly’s requirements. Having had a small girl child, Pen was sure that the corporate world was run by paedeophiles. The emotional blackmail to buy g strings and crop tops for an six year old was unbelievable. Molly had a friend who’s mother thought it appropriate for her daughter to wear a pink sparkly tee shirt with a Play Bunny insignia on it. She was fighting an up hill battle and she chose her battles well.
Sergey, Penny’s husband did not really understand her fears. He was a post Soviet era Russian. He loved women, he thought that this was all to do with wanting to be fashionable. Women’s things. He did not know that Pen’s lack of self confidence all stemmed from realising at 5 that she was not thin and blonde, like the Barbie doll she was playing with. Sergey loved Pen. He thought that she was beautiful, curvy and dark. He got fed up with the stick insects and their neurosis. His brother Vassily had married a beautiful stick insect called Anastasia. Sergey found her boring. She was nightmarishly controlled about food, pleasure and life. He was sure that Anastasia had never once smiled just incase it would give her wrinkles.
They all sat down around two hours late for lunch, praising Sarah’s monumental efforts and Peter’s sage culinary advice for the food, for which they were about to receive. Molly sat primly at the table, as her little sister, Edith, only one, proceeded to redecorate the dinning room with blended up duck with red wine jus. Cass thought thank god for the Russian influence in these kids lives, otherwise they would be painfully Middle England. Cass, with a mixture of pride and jealousy watched as Molly was unaware that she was switching in between Russian and English. Edith lovingly smeared some mashed broccoli on Cass’ jeans. She loved her family.
“So Serg, what about Mr Putin?” Peter enquired, like Serg was the Russian Federation Foreign Minister.
“What about him?” Serg responded amused with an untraceable accent, which Peter liked. Peter thought of his son in law as a character from an Ian Flemming book. Why he wanted his oldest daughter to be married to a Soviet Era assassin is something he could not quite explain to himself, let alone anyone else.
Serg was 10 when the Wall had come down and 12 when the Soviet Union broke up. His parents, being high enough in the party to have influence but not enough to be a problem to the New Russia, sent him immediately to a minor English public school to become versed in English and Capitalism. All Serg could actually remember about the old system was a cartoon with a thing which looked like a Gremlin but was looking for a friend.
He had met Cass’ sister at University, while she was learning languages French and Russian. He was studying something useful, like engineering. They met at a meeting for people who wanted to practice Russian and those who wanted to tutor for extra credit and extra cash. Ten years on they have two children and loved each other to distraction. Sergey landed an evil executives job in a big oil company. He had the skills, and would not be able to hold down the job without the skills, but in reality he got the job because of his mother and father’s influence in the old country. They were not oligarchs but they were not far off.
Sergey’s job meant that Pen had the luxury to be a stay at home mum, much to her mother’s despair. Sarah repeatedly berated her oldest daughter for not learning the lessons of the past and wasting her education. Sometimes she even implied that Pen was lazy.
Sarah just did not want to admit that her venom was a result of guilt she felt for working away so much and having her girls raised by someone else. If only Sarah realised that they were both extremely proud of her. Pen just wanted to do something different with her kids, because even though she was proud of her mother, she missed Sarah dreadfully when she was a child.
Cass could not understand why it bothered her mother that much. Surely the idea of feminism was the freedom to chose. Cass did not buy into capitalist run feminism as much as her mother. Cass did not buy into feminism full stop. She thought that both men and women should have the same opportunities to chose. Cass just wished her mother would see that Pen’s life was not sitting on her bottom eating chocolates and watching soaps. She did everything herself running the home. She did not pay people to help her and she got very little help from Sergey because of the hours he had to work and the commute. Cass thought Pen was pretty amazing, mainly for not going mad with the isolation. Children seemed a lot harder to deal with than adults. But Pen thought that her girls were the most amazing thing in the world and loved every moment with them.
“Well he is going mad isn’t he?” Peter stated bluntly.
“For sure, but there is a genuine feeling among Russians that Western influence has undermined Russia’s strength and independence. I don’t think that, but there are people who think that Putin is the only one standing up to the old enemy. He appears strong in the face of adversity. Russians love this stuff.” Sergey really retorted.
“But Russia has some of the best brains in the world! This is Orwellian nonsense.” now Peter was putting on his best Paxman impression.
“Yes but the Intelligencia is terrified because they will be branded unpatriotic if they speak out against him and Business is terrified. Putin likes to take what does not belong to him under the guise of that it is better for the People this way.” Penny interjected.
“He sounds like Stalin” Sarah added finishing the dregs of her wine, and getting up to clear the table. Cass and Penny got up to help to. Why the men did not get up, Cass could not understand. Were they obliviously rude or just lazy?
Sergey agreed, “Pretty much. In fact he is known to admire Stalin greatly.”
Pen interrupted the dinner table politics. “Cass, Sergey’s mother is in London for the New Year. Do you want to come with us to her dinner party?”
Cass said without thinking too much,”Yes!” Free Caviar and good champagne in Chelsea, was a lot better than disappointing £15 cocktails and nachos in Hoxton, again.
Cass loved Sergey’s mother, Ivana. She had understated glamour. She was tiny and curvy but with the poise of a ballerina and blue eyes like a Siberian Tiger. Nothing got past her and that is why Cass liked her so much.
“Oh Vassily and Anastasia will be there” Sergey interjected.
“Mmmm. It will be nice to see Vassily” Cass thinking back to the last time she met Anastasia. Anastasia heavily inferred that Cass was on the shelf and that no matter what she had done in her life, Anastasia was so much better than Cass. This attack was all because Vassily found one of Cass’ jokes funny. One night, when particularly lubricated together just before Pen and Sergey’s wedding, Ivana said about Anastasia “ It is no wonder she has not got a squint.” Cass was not too sure what it meant but she was pretty sure that in Russian it meant something bad.
“It is okay, Mother hates her too and you three can get all catty with her.” smirked Sergey wickedly
“Sergey!” Pen scolded
“What! It is true! Women love being horrid to one another.” laughed Sergey, leaning back and sipping his wine.
“Not so, not one bit. I think women are wonderful.” Pen countered shaking her head, infuriated at her husband.
“That is rubbish, my sweet. You are competitive with all the other mothers in the groups you go to and they are competitive with you. You are friends with some of them, but you certainly do not have a sisterhood with all women” Sergey said with wonderful Russian nonchalance.
“You are talking utter nonsense.” Penny was getting irritated. Sarah was slowly simmering in the background.
Peter thought privately,”He is brave, but stupid.”
Cass thought, “Mum and Pen have been out of the game too long or have blinkers on.”
“In my office, I have been in recruitment discussions where the woman boss vetos every woman candidate for promotion, if she believe that the candidate is more intelligent than her. If we don’t follow her opinion, she becomes extremely angry and petulant, until she gets her own way. Women are much more vindictive than men when they feel insecure.”
Sarah’s hackles finally sprang up. “At least we don’t beat each other to death when we feel insecure. Men cause a lot more problems than women. If there were more women in power the world would be a safer, less risky place. We certainly would not have had the Banking Crisis.”
“But darling, I think that Sergey’s point is that was that women will never rule the world until they start being nicer to one another.” interjected Peter. “I know a lot of men have no problem with dominant women. “ winking at Sarah.
“Its true Mum. In my office we have quite a few female partners, who only promote men. It is the Queen Bee syndrome.” Cass stated and to finally wind her mother up further, “Maggie Thatcher never had another woman in her cabinet.”
Sarah erupted “Do not even mention that woman around my dinner table”
“More wine?” placated Cass. Peter decided not to point out the irony in his wife’s last statement.
“Indeed!” deflating rapidly back to a normal Sarah size.
That night Cass was lying in her childhood bed wide awake with the horrifying insomnia which loomed up on her when she had drunk too much. She had wobbled up the stairs after being out drunk by her parents and passed out at 10 pm.
It was now 3 am on Boxing Day and she sat there in bed feeling like she was in some sort of horror movie. The soft toys, the teenaged pretentious books, the once loved CDs all had a green sinister hue. All of them seemed to be mocking her. Reminding her of the impossible dreams she had once and the disappointment she felt that she had become. Every embarrassing episode she ever had, all the way back to wetting herself at kindergarten because she was too terrified of the teacher to interrupt her, rampaged through her brain.
Scrabbling shakily for some paracetamol and the water which miraculously she had managed to put by her bed, she hoped for some sort of salvation from the hangover terrors. Trying desperately reminding herself that all the fears and insecurities which were looming up from the back of her dehydrated brain was just a passing wave of consciousness and that she was not slowly losing her mind. She rocked herself back to sleep clutching the childhood teddy bear which always protected her from the monsters.
The next day she packed up that teddy bear, kissed her parents goodbye and returned back to London, claustrophobically wedged between her two nieces enormous car seats. Her hangover was not being helped by being bombarded the sick making cacophony of IPad games, the Wheels on the Bus blaring out of the speakers and Sergey’s Russian bellowing to friends in Moscow on his mobile. Every corner her sister took felt like Cass was on a race track. They finally took mercy on her and released her at her flat before heading up to leafy North London. Cass’ liver convulsed as she promised to meet them for the New Years Eve celebrations.
Her flat door lock clicked behind her. She saw her work phone, she had guilty left at home over Christmas, flashing accusingly from the living room, just waiting in the dark like a psychotic ex-boyfriend. Merry fucking Christmas she thought kicking off her trainers off, clutching her teddy bear, she crawled into her bed. The her alarm went off at 6.00am the next day and she was back in the hamster wheel.
Being over 30 meant that her hangover’s lasted. It appeared to her and everyone else for that matter that for every decade of drinking you live, you add a day to the recovery. Sixteen and illegally drinking the most foul drain cleaner would not touch you. Twenty, waking up next to your flat mate, praying you have your undies on and vague recollections of what happened equate to one day recovery but a life time of shame. Thirty, one day of nausea and one day of feeling that the world is going to end.
She pulled off the jeans she had slept in and dug out her running gear. She did not want to do this. She had to. She was a “City” lawyer in a “Legal 500” firm and that meant that she had to look the part, no matter what happened. Cass remembered the looks she got at the beginning of her career when she ate a danish pastry with her coffee for breakfast. An emaciated colleague, sipping on a green juice, winced and hissed loudly to another,”You would think she would worry about the fat.” Since then all Cass’ danish pastries were consumed at home, with the curtains closed, sometimes by torch light.
The look of success is perversely linked with actual success in the City, so much so that even the men were now going for botox and disappearing on long holidays for brow lifts. It matters that you have the intellect but the packaging is just as important to the charlatans at the top. She knew all to well that fatties, which barbarically means size 14, unless you were there in the Eighties and are at the top now or have a virtuoso intellect, get over looked for promotion. So she ran every morning.
Cass always got into the office sycophantically early. It embarrassed her but she needed to become a partner. Not for the prestige, not for the polo ponies and/or race horses and not for several houses, which you rent out to some poor bastard who pays the mortgage for you. Not for expensive holidays these partners all went. Cass could not really see what the point was, as they never saw or enjoyed it. Their time was spent checking emails and looking busy and important, ignoring their loved ones. They just wanted to brag that they had been there to other busy and important people.
No, all she wanted was to get just enough money together to pay off her mortgage, have a bit in reserve and do something else, which is not both stressful and boring like the law. She could do it within two to three years as a partner. She knew that she was lucky enough to be in this position to get there swiftly. Sadly she also knew that some of her friends would not get there at all. To get there quickly she needed to be partner. So she pretended that she was ambitious. That this career was her life.
To her absolute shame, she even commiserated with a partner who had to put down one of her many race horses, even though this woman had in the same week made four secretaries redundant because the firms profits were not up enough.
Cass liked fine things but they were not essential. The people who behaved like these fine things were essential, seemed desperately unhappy to Cass. She was careful with her money and knew deep down you only need three thing to survive and feel secure:- food, clothes and shelter, none of which need to be the best. It sounded simple but simple sounds normally need complicated instruments. She was not so naive to think that it would not be achieved without some serious money.
She opened her “Christmas Day” email from the managing partner. He had actually sent it on Christmas Day, or as Cass strongly suspected, rang his beleaguered PA on Christmas morning to dictate and send it for him. It was a page long! Cass cursorily read it,”As I sit here on Christmas Morning I think of you all……” it was like the Queens Message. It would have been funny had it not been serious. “Profits have not been what we had expected for the third quarter…. No bonus for the foreseeable future. We must count our blessings that last year there was no further redundancies, but if the profits do not improve redundancies will be inevitable …..I remind everyone that all fee earners must do at least 7 hours chargeable work a day and bill at least three times your salary.”
Cass thought, “We made a fucking huge profit last year you greedy twat! It was public record, moron! Do you have nothing better to do on Christmas Day? You sent this with the intention of making everyone feel inadequate on Christmas Day. We all have phones which you expect us to have on us at all times. I do all these hours and all my own administration so I am going home at 10pm every night, you condescending ancient shit. You never had to do this in the Eighties when you were trying to make it. You even had half days on Friday to go down the wine bar and fuck your mistress in your Alpha Romeo, before getting home at six to your wife and kids. Happy place…you are almost there….happy thoughts”
Cass went to make her coffee, she found the six cleaners doling out their cash wages between them from a paper envelope. They looked shifty and embarrassed to see her there. “Morning. Coffee?” Cass asked brightly. The lead cleaner said thank you but no. Cass went about her morning coffee as the women talked among themselves in Bulgarian. Cass was sure that only one of the cleaners was on the books and the rest were being paid below the minimum wage, but polo ponies do not pay for themselves, so partners have to make savings some how.