When she started at Ridout and Finney’s, Melanie was very careful about what she wore. Light brown pumps with a medium heel, a wool suit in calm camel, and pantyhose the colour of weak tea. Under the suit she wore a cream silk shirt and a string of amber beads. Quality.
Jake Martin said to Roger Penrith, “Your new IT manager looks efficient.” Roger knew what he meant.
“Doesn’t she, though?” he said. “And she knows what she’s doing.”
Melanie's hair was thick and blond, caught up in a silk bow at the back. An olive green bow, streaked with amber. It tied the whole thing together.
“Makes a welcome change, doesn't it?” Roger added, showing Jake he knew exactly what he meant: Roz, the receptionist with her micro minis and her extraordinary ratty, one-sided hair. She had to tilt her head to keep it there, until she grew tired and perversely flung it all with huge drama to the other side. Making Roger wonder about airborne matter.
“We’re going to have to do something about the other, aren’t we?” said Jake. “You go and see Alice.”
Alice was a love. Thirty-two years at Ridout and Finney’s. She always knew what to do. She pointed out to Roger that there used to be a dress code in the old manual and that that was probably the best approach. Roger thanked her and said, “Good, then. You’ll look after it, will you, Alice?” Though it was not a question.
“Mmm,” said Jake as he came in to see Roger next day. “Quite an effect.”
Roger kept on writing. “I didn’t see any difference,” he said. “she still looks the same to me. She’s had the same black clothes on since she started.”
“Not Roz,” Jake stepped back to the door and closed it. “Your IT manager.”
“Oh, Melanie.” Roger put down his pen and allowed himself to gloat. It was like turning a page in a slick magazine. Melanie was wearing a suit again, navy this time with a fine pin-stripe. Hair in a navy bow. Even her legs -- a man had to look somewhere -- had a sort of midnight sheen. But the stroke of genius was the brilliant purple silk shirt. She was certainly something. And not just to look at. Her work was in a class of its own: motivated, enthusiastic, disciplined, effective.
“No comparison,” he said, “ Melanie and Roz? Not even the same league.”
Whether it was her looks or the excellence of her work was not clear, but when Melanie breezed in at the end of the month in a three-piece suit -- a man’s three-piece suit, pin-striped, probably Harry Rosen -- not one untoward remark was made.
Melanie wore the suit with flare. It was black. She wore it with a shirt in glowing royal blue and turned the sleeves back to show the same flash of colour at the wrist. Bright tan for her earrings, belt and shoes. That was dash. The shoes were supple Italian leather, cut high at the front and slightly chiselled. A low stacked heel. Perfect for her long legs.
But it was the way she wore the belt that clinched it, so to speak. There was no denying she had style.
Jake and Roger did not see Melanie’s legs again for several weeks. She had several suits as it turned out, all from HR. All dark. All pin-stripes. They began to look less interesting, so much so that when, one Friday morning, her legs reappeared beneath the much-admired camel wool skirt, Roger thought it was a refreshing change and took the liberty of saying so. With a look that could freeze a man's assets, Melanie replied that the half-yearly forecast was due.
Later, on her way out to lunch, Roz, who was not attuned to the visibility or otherwise of legs, said, “Like your hair, Mel.”
Melanie stopped and came over to the desk. “Have you ever made that remark to Mr. Martin or Mr. Penrith?” She raised an eyebrow. “Or would you?”
‘No.” Roz pulled at her own hair thoughtfully. “But I don’t like their hair, do I?”
Melanie allowed herself to smile. She straightened up and was about to go.
“Any more than they like mine,” continued Roz. “Same thing. Only they tell me.”
“Oh?” Now Melanie sounded interested.
“Oh, yeah. On my case all the time. Or they get Alice to do it.”
“Are we talking about work?”
“No. Like how I look. Like.”
“Really?” Melanie had to be careful here. She didn’t like the way Roz looked either, but that wasn’t the point. “I don’t think that’s on,” she said. “You tell them. I’ll back you up.”
She began to walk away.
“Thanks. And your hair does look good like that.”
“Thank you,” said Melanie.
It may have been that Jake's own rakish experience and numerous close calls kept him on red alert in these matters, or it may have been that he was simply more astute than Roger. In any event he was the first to notice certain subtle changes -- something in the way Melanie wore her famous suits, the way she, if you like, carried herself. But one couldn't be sure. He went in to see Roger and closed the door behind him. Roger was scribbling.
“Roger? Have you been aware lately?”
“Mmm?” Roger was always scribbling.
“Have you noticed anything at all?”
Roger put down his pen and attended.
Jake could tell that Roger had not lately been aware. “Never mind,” he said. I just wanted to check and see how Melanie’s doing.”
“Fine. Just great. You ought to have her around for a while. Revolutionize your operations. Extraordinary.”
Jake listened in silence.
“Efficient, assured. Dynamic, knowledgeable, decisive.” He scribbled some more. “Brains! Lots of those.” He put down his pen. “Do you know,” he said, getting down to details, “when she sees a problem, she goes in deep, cuts right under it and removes it, the whole thing. Makes everything flow more smoothly than before.”
Jake eyed Roger suspiciously. He saw Melanie in her pin-stripe suit swimming out to the middle of a wide, fast-flowing river, wet hair gleaming, a bowie knife between her teeth...
“Remarkable,” he said, and left.
As for the other thing, perhaps he was wrong. Time would tell.
Soon Jake was in no doubt at all. All the signs were there, the sexy fullness, the languor, the glow all around the cheeks and eyes.
Roger was slower, much slower.
At first he was dimly aware only that his dashing manager was somehow losing her verve. Her work was still first class, but she had lost that indefinable something. Actually, if he were honest with himself, he wished he’d said something about the three-piece suit that first day she wore one. They weren't really the thing. But it had looked OK. then. Bloody fantastic, in fact. He remembered thinking those very words.
Still, he thought, you can’t have everything.
He continued in this generous vein until the morning Melanie came in with her proposal for the new office systems architecture. She sat down heavily. She had put on weight.
That was what it was. Why hadn't he seen it? She was positively frumpy. She sat there with her pin-striped legs apart and her feet flat on the floor. Just like old Finnney. And her shoes! Oxfords. He’d got a pair just like that at home.
“I was asking if you want to take a look before I send it out.”
“Oh, yes. Here.”
“I’ll get those printouts ready while you’re doing that and I’ll take yesterday’s report if you’ve finished with it.”
She was already on her way out when Roger said, “Fine That'll be everything then.” His plane may have been on automatic but that didn't stop him clinging to the joystick.
At the door, Melanie, with uncharacteristic clumsiness, dropped the report. When she bent to pick it up, Roger Penrith did not permit his sensitive male mind to form the actual words: Her bottom’s huge. But the observation registered nevertheless.
“I trust you've noticed our Melanie's condition,” said Jake in the bar that evening after work. “And she's still wearing the damn suits.”
Roger was shocked. A person’s weight was their own affair. You couldn’t go round telling people you didn’t like how they looked. Clothes were one thing, but a person’s shape…Imagine if you told someone they were too skinny. Or too tall. Anyway you especially couldn't tell Melanie. Look how she'd gone to bat for Roz.
“So?” he said.
“So.” Jake had drunk half his beer in one go. He took off his glasses and put them on the bar, then heaved a tremendous, hopeless sigh. “What are we going to do about it?”
“Nothing we really can do.”
“Has she said anything to you yet?”
“How do you mean?”
“Is she staying on?”
“Oh, I assume so. I told her after the first month’s assessment that we were pleased. We haven’t really discussed it since. She seems happy.”
“I’m sure she is --’
“As I am. Very happy. Everything I've ever wanted.”
For one mad moment it seemed to Jake that his partner was implicating himself in an affair. He dismissed the idea. It was just Roger’s usual well-meaning, inane way.
“Well. Whatever. She’ll have to start thinking about leave some time. What will you do then?”
“Haven’t really given it any thought.”
Jake began to lose patience. He had expected a more responsible attitude.
“I could take mine at the same time, I suppose,” Roger said.
Jake put his glasses back on and fixed Roger with a humourless stare.
‘Why?” he said. “You're not pregnant, too, are you?”
Roger’s self, his unseen twelve-year-old boy self said, What? said, You’re kidding? Clapped the heel of its hand to its forehead and said, You dickhead! Roger the IT director merely tried to swallow his beer.
“OK.,” he said and belched painfully. Fool. He couldn’t possibly continue this conversation. “I’ll get on it. Listen, sorry, Jake, I’ve just remembered. Carol wants me back early tonight.”
Jake watched as Roger pushed his way through the door. He ordered another beer and snapped at the bartender for change.
He was right, damn it. Jake was right. Roger could see now as soon as Melanie came in. She was in full bloom and, my God, her waist. It had gone. She still wore the belt but she didn't go in. She just went roundly up.
“Roz, tell Melanie I'd like to see her after the meeting, will you?”
“Yes Mr. Penrith.”
Roz! So nice and normal in her skimpy black sweater and dandruff.
He was on edge all morning.
“Roger,” Melanie smiled as she came in. “before we begin, could I just book my maternity leave?” She opened her diary and looked up smiling.
Roger felt that some of the preliminaries had escaped him.
“Right. Good. Am I to congratulate you?”
“Oh, I don't think so. It wasn't really that difficult.”
Roger thought he detected a splash of acid, unusual for Melanie.
“Now. I'll take six weeks if that's all right, beginning on the twelfth of June.”
Roger was riffling through his diary. “Yes, of course,” he said. “Give yourself plenty of time to get ready.”
“No. Plenty of time with the baby afterwards. It's due on the twelfth.”
“Oh. Right. Right. Right. Wonderful,” said Roger. “Great.”
That night Roger had a bad dream. Melanie, her belly global, the southern hemisphere tucked inside charcoal grey pants just like his, was blocking the doorway. He really wanted to get to his desk but she just stood there. He told her he'd booked his holidays early and suddenly she lifted right up and out of her suit, breasts carrying her like balloons, whereupon two new-born babies looked out at the waist of the pin-striped pants. Twins!
People talked. In the coffee room, in the reception area. They said it just wasn't right. They said it wasn't appropriate. The word “undignified “ was taken up like a refrain. It brandished like a defensive weapon. Roz heard it all.
“Don't worry,” she said to Melanie, “I'll stick with you.”
“Roz, you are made of gold.” said Melanie. “But I never worry. And thank you for these!'
She dangled the pair of bright red braces Roz had given her—perfect for holding up the pants now that the belt was no use at all.
The talk continued. In accounts, in the conference room, and, eventually, in Mr. Finney's office.
“Thank God she's not out there with the clients, that's all.” Jake poured himself the drink that had been offered. Finney was definitely old school.
“Well I for one shouldn't allow it. It's bad enough in the office.” A fleshy quake of irritation rippled round Finney's jaw line.
“It'll have to be broached,” said Jake. He managed, however, not to offer.
As Melanie’s girth grew, so did the tension. Jake and Roger circled cagily like jackals round a fat doe. Jake's temper grew shorter. His personal assistant left him, saying if she'd wanted to work with explosives she could have gone with the military. Even Alice tut-tutted quietly in her corner like an unhappy parrot. She thought of offering her own daughter's maternity dresses.
Through it all Melanie breezed like a ship under full sail. The weather was warming up and she was experiencing a wonderful sense of change. Change exactly as it should be, the whole world, and especially her own body, going about its business with a power and a purpose beyond anything puny and human.
She went shopping. Her beautiful coloured silk shirts no longer fitted as they should. But that didn't matter. She was into white. She took herself off to Holt Renfrew and bought six large Egyptian cotton shirts with the palest of self-stripe. Perfect for after work around the house. Barefoot. She wore them with neither jacket nor pants. Of any kind. Her husband thought she had never looked more desirable. She cropped her hair. She wore her husband's suits to work, a convenient two sizes larger. In the coffee room someone said she looked like poor round Slobodian in Accounts.
In the boardroom late one Friday, Jake Martin, Harry Chu, Eric Hansen and Finney himself met. The personnel policy manual lay on the table in front of them. There was no relevant dress code.
“She's making a fool of the firm,” Finney said.
“Of all of us,” said Eric.
But Harry shook his head and pronounced it tricky ground they stood on. Very tricky. “We can't fault her on dress,” he said. “She'd be up before Human Rights or Civil Liberties before you could say ‘shirt and tie.’
“The papers would love it.” Jake said. Think of the photographs.”
They looked at one another. Thinking of the photographs.
“Are we left holding the baby or what?” said Eric. Nobody laughed.
Finney turned to Jake. If Roger can have a quiet word on the side,, “he said. “Otherwise we'll just have to suck it up till June.”
Roger watched as Melanie sat reading through the blue file on relational databases. She had it balanced on the bump and it rose and fell with her breathing. Be diplomatic! He had heard Roz talking to her in reception this morning:
“Not long now, is it?”
“Oh, it'll go quick.”
“Too quickly. There's such a backlog, I expect I’ll still be here when I go into labour.”
“Never mind.” Roz had said. “We'll cheer you on.” It had blighted Roger's entire morning. He wished the days were back when women had to go and shut themselves away. Confinement. If only.
That night Roger had another dream. In it they were moving offices as they had a year ago, shifting desks and carrying chairs. The photocopier was so heavy it might have been bolted to the floor. They got it to a doorway eventually and tried to push it through. Melanie bent down and put her weight against it. Milky sweat broke out on her forehead and she began to grunt. Roger begged her to stop. But now she was lowing, the sound issuing from some pre-conscious, primal source. And then the grunting began again. Darker, more urgent now, coming from a place where desire is at one with survival. It filled the office space: Aunhh! ... Aunhh! ... Aunhh! .... and stopped. In the sudden silence, the photocopier dissolved and there was Melanie. She was still wearing the pants -- for which even the dreaming Roger was thankful -- and suspenders and a shirt, but she had taken off the jacket and placed the new-born on the silk lining. A girl, of course.
Next morning, Roger's wife said he looked dreadful. It was time he took some leave.
Roger set out glumly for the office. All morning he rehearsed opening lines in his head. Melanie, there's been some discussion about appropriate dress. He expected her at any minute.
At last he could bear the suspense no longer. He went out to her station.
“Melanie? Want to come along to my office for a moment?”
She was on the phone. She nodded and held up one finger.
In precisely one minute she was there at his desk, puffing a little. Roger motioned to the chair.
“Thank you,” she said. As she sat down, she flattened her hands on the sides of her belly and took a deep breath, then, seeing Roger watching her, she made the smallest motion of acknowledgement with her eyebrows. Rough ride, now, it said. But we’re not complaining.
“Yes?” she said brightly.
But she had snatched the wind from his sails. He was in irons. Not just for that almost imperceptible movement of the brow, that acknowledgement that something else was going on, but for the restraint, the reserve that said, Don't worry, I can handle it, I won't be a nuisance. And still not only for that. He was becalmed but the sun was out. It was beaming. And he was remembering his own wife, he could see her, smiling at him through tears. And yes blood and sweat too and tears more to come but, God, the joy of it. His daughter handed to him still wet. Living. A little life. He could hardly see her through his own tears. The little fingers. Hands like little stars. He blinked.
“What's it going to be?” he said. “Boy or girl?”
Melanie's hands were still on her belly. She closed her eyes, shook her head slowly breathing. Then she smiled. She beamed and gave him a look that could have felled a clump of consultants with its beauty.
“A detail, Roger,” she said. “A mere detail.”