Later in the afternoon the rain finally stops, and we take the opportunity to all grab buckets and start bailing the water out of what’s left of Shristy’s house. By some miracle, the sitting room stayed put, and even though there’s a big gaping hole on the front of it, she’ll at least be able to build a wall there once everything dries up so that she and her kids have somewhere to sleep.
When night falls and we’ve done just about all we can do, we drag our tired bodies back to the ashram. I pay for Shristy and her kids to spend a couple of weeks there to make sure they’re safe and warm and fed, then we all head straight to our rooms, exhausted in the best possible way and overflowing with gratitude. I strip off my ripped and sodden clothes and crouch down underneath the wash tap in the bathroom, doing my best to scrub the mud off every inch of my puckered, waterlogged skin. I look at my chipped, tattered nails, and when I notice they’re encrusted with dirt I can’t help but think of Ryan. My heart surges.
You have to go home. You have to see your husband. You’re ready, says the little voice inside my head.
I know, I tell it, I know.
I get out of the shower, wrap a towel around myself and heave my laptop out from under the bed. I let out a little yelp of excitement when I see that the wi-fi next door’s up again. There are a couple of things I need to do immediately, even though I’m so shattered I can barely keep my eyelids from fluttering closed.
I log into my email, and my stomach turns inside out as I see an email from Lizzie.
I take a deep breath and dive in.
In the absence of any alternative form of communication (I’ve tried calling your phone a dozen times and left countless voice messages but it appears you are currently incommunicado), I am emailing you on your personal account to ask you two very simple questions: WHERE ARE YOU and WHEN ARE YOU COMING BACK TO WORK?
Your behaviour has me baffled. Three-and-a-half weeks ago you informed me that your best friend was unwell and that you needed to be with her to help her get better. Of course I understood, being the understanding woman that I am. But when you tell me that you’ll be back at your desk by a certain date, I expect you to be there. And when, after failing to inform me that you won’t be back, two days after your expected return I start to worry. I also start to question how much you value this job that you have – a job, mind you, that millions of other young women around the country would be beating down my door to get.
I expect to hear from you within 24 hours.
That email was written two days ago.
I squeeze my eyes shut and lean my forehead against the cool, soothing glass of the screen. Ok, here goes. I can do this. I lean back, click on the blue Skype cloud, and type in Aspire’s number. After three rings the phone is picked up by Peta, Lizzie’s assistant.
“Elizabeth Bingley’s office.”
I have a sudden vision of her sitting at her pale wooden desk, in some fabulous designer cast-off of Lizzie’s, tapping away. It all seems a million miles away now.
“Hi, Peta,” I say. “It’s… Margaux. Margaux Kirke.”
“Margaux?” Peta sounds completely poleaxed. “Bloody hell! How are you? And where are you?”
“I’m fine, thanks. Really good.” I quell a spasm of nerves. “I just rang because I need to speak to Lizzie?”
“Oh yeah! She’s been calling you and calling you, getting me to try to call you and email you and everything,” says Peta with relish. And then, lowering her voice, “I don’t think she’s very happy with you, actually. She’s been doing that thing she does when she’s mad – you know, that thing?”
“Er, not exactly… what thing?”
“Oh, you know,” I can hear noises on the other end and know she’s trying to imitate Lizzie doing some thing. “That thing! That hand-hippy, finger wagging mad thing!”
I give up.
“Ah, that thing.”
“Yeah,” says Peta, sighing deeply into the receiver. “And you know Tara? From the online division? Yeah well she was caught stealing nail polishes from the beauty department that hadn’t even been shot yet last week and so now she’s on probation! So you can just imagine…”
“Of course I can!” I cut her off, suddenly remembering her ability to gossip for hours without taking a breath. “Peta I really should speak to Lizzie. If you could possibly put me through?”
There’s a beat of silence.
“Yes,” says Peta after a pause. “Well. I’ll put you through.”
After a few moments Lizzie’s familiar voice is tinkling down the line.
“Margaux. Could it reeeeally be you?”
“It’s really me.” I try to gulp down the gobstopper-sized lump that’s formed in my throat. “The prodigal daughter has returned!” I try a laugh, but end up just coughing nervously. An awkward silence follows.
“I’m waiting?” comes Lizzie’s cool voice from the other end.
Come on girl, get a grip. You can do this.
“Right. Of course you are Lizzie. And the first thing I want to say is how deeply sorry I am for causing you any additional stress over the last couple of weeks.”
“Goff!” she scoffs into the phone. I can just see her now, standing up from her desk and pacing across her enormous office, hands on hips doing that thing. “I should hope you’re sorry Margaux, additional stress doesn’t even cover it! One minute you say you’re going to visit your dying friend, then the next you just up and – poof – disappear! Right when we were on deadline for the special bikini issue that you knew you were meant to be writing that piece, Which Bikini is Right for Your Body, for!” She gives an exasperated sigh. “Anyway, I’m glad you’ve finally resurfaced. We can talk about punishment for your unexplained absence later. But for now, I really just need you to get your butt back in this office tomorrow because we’re on another strict deadline and Emma, the new features writer, needs someone to write a mound of breakout boxes for her and…”
“Lizzie wait,” I cut her off, realizing I need to say my piece once and for all before I lose my nerve completely. “As I said I’m sorry. But actually, I’ve made a decision. I’m, er… not coming back, actually.”
There’s a long pause on the other end and I can virtually feel an icy breeze rushing through the receiver.
“I’m sorry?” says Lizzie.
Oh God. I knew she wasn’t going to take this very well.
“The thing is…” I break off and take a slug of water to get that darned lump out of my throat, and to try and work out how to put this tactfully.
Being part of the Aspire team was the glittering prize, I’d told myself, the dream I wanted my entire adult life. But what I’ve come to realise is that I actually never wanted it at all. I sure told myself I did enough times, though, believing that being part of that world would make me cool, make me accepted, make me finally feel worthwhile. The real me – the nature doco-loving, nerdy me – never felt she was good enough the way she was, and so she simply became someone else. She became her own worst enemy. But if learning to love myself, even the parts of myself I’d rather deny and hide away from the rest of the world, means being true to who I really am deep inside, then this is what I have to do.
I clear my throat.
“I’m just going to be honest with you here Lizzie. You and I both know I’m going nowhere at Aspire. I suppose I’m just not… glamorous enough. I’m not cool enough. I know I’m a good enough writer, and I hope you know that too. But what I’ve finally come to realize is that I need to be somewhere where I can be myself, and where that self will be appreciated. Because that’s the only way I’ll ever learn to be truly happy.”
There’s silence on the other end of the line.
“Thank you for all the…” I’m about to say opportunities, but we’d both know that wouldn’t be right, “…work you’ve given me over the years Lizzie, I really appreciate it.”
I can practically hear her mouth creaking into a frown on the other end of the line.
“Margaux,” starts Lizzie, the warmth of her voice heading down a few more degrees. “Now I know you’ve had a hard time of it lately, and I’m also sure you’re aware that it takes time to climb the Aspire ladder…”
“But I’m tired of climbing Lizzie,” I butt in before she can continue. “I’ve had enough! Five years and I’ve been stuck on the same damn rung. Because I’m just in the wrong place.” I take another gulp of water. “And before you remind me, I know there are hundreds of girls who’d die to take my position, I’m well aware of that. But you see I’m happy for any one of them to take over now. Because I’m done.”
And with that I hang up the phone, my hands shaking slightly and my stomach flip flopping wildly. Only this time it’s flip flopping with elation. I know I’ve just committed the cardinal sin of job quitting, I haven’t even started looking for what else is out there, let alone contacted any prospective new employers, but I just don’t care because I’m not scared anymore.
The whole episode hasn’t lasted more than five minutes, and yet the adrenalin of it all has left me even more exhausted that I was before. But I can’t go to sleep just yet, there’s one final task on my list.
I pull out my little Chanel notebook, and start writing.
I know that’s not what you call yourself anymore, but it’s who you are to me. You’re not Ram Baba. You’re not dad, either. You’re David, the man who for so many years I wished would meet me, would accept me, would love me. From the moment I was able to understand that you had left us, I tried to understand why you didn’t love me, and what I could do to make you love me.
I want to apologise for what happened in Varanasi. I’m sorry for lying to you, and I’m sorry for disrespecting you. But I also want to thank you. For finally realising that I can’t make you love me. And, more importantly, that I don’t need you to love me. What I need, and what I’ve always needed, is to love myself. Because we can’t give others what we don’t have ourselves, and I’m tired of not being able to love the people who love me properly.
And with that thought, I leap on to the Skyscanner website and book a ticket home for tomorrow afternoon.
There’s nothing to hide from anymore.