The cake was a lie.
As I sat on a wicker armchair in the large bay window of Useless Dad's flat, I could really have done with some sugary sustenance to calm my nerves but the cake I had been promised wasn't there. I shifted around in the seat, trying to find a patch which wasn't hard and knobbly. I couldn't lean back without sliding deep into the chair's embrace, my feet sticking out in front of me as I sank down into a dark realm of loose change and forgotten trinkets. The chair was very obviously designed to be festooned with cushions but they were missing. I sat uncomfortably on the edge and hid behind my drink.
Rather than coffee, I had been given fruit tea. It appeared not to contain caffeine, rendering it effectively pointless. I sipped at it because it was there but my heart wasn't really in it.
Across the table from me, Deborah drank her own tea. As always, she was confident and pretty but she seemed taller and more imposing than normal, thanks to the vast number of cushions piled high beneath her. She frowned at me with a mixture of annoyance, disappointment and despair as she ate her cake. Once she'd finished it, she dabbed at her lips with a napkin and then sat back, arching her fingers together in front of her, contemplating me. She raised one immaculately-shaped eyebrow and waited for me to explain myself.
I sipped some more tea, playing for time.
It was still half an hour before I needed to leave to collect Marie from nursery, though. The boys were at school, as was Deborah's eldest, Ophelia. Her toddler, Josquin, was at playgroup with his dad. There were no little people to distract or intervene, no children to protect me. I was alone.
"It wasn't me," I squeaked.
"What wasn't you?"
"Er..." Truth be told, I wasn't entirely sure what I was supposed to have done wrong but I had to guess it was something to do with her husband, Steve. More specifically it was almost certainly related to the fact he'd given up on being a housedad and got himself a job with non-family-friendly hours and inflexible working conditions without considering the implications for childcare. That he hadn't consulted Deborah at all probably wasn't helping her mood.
Nonetheless, it wasn't my fault. I hadn't talked him into it. I'd told him not to do it. Why was I in trouble? What had I done to deserve being denied cake?
Wordlessly, Deborah held up a sheet of paper.
"Did you write this?" she asked.
"Yes," I squeaked again.
She began to read.
Dear Sir,Deborah stopped reading and looked at me once more, saying nothing but her eyebrow burning into my soul in search of answers. The silence was even more uncomfortable than my chair. I felt the need to explain myself. Somehow, I was compelled to speak.
In answer to your query, I do not hesitate in recommending Steve as a management consultant in your organisation. Having read your brochure, I believe his skills and level of knowledge of the business environment are a perfect match for your firm. Steve has a knack for locating logistical minefields in any process and kicking them to the top of the agenda. In so doing, he highlights the critical nature of these issues, forcing those around him to take ownership of the problem. By stepping back, he allows others to find their own solutions, thus empowering them to move forwards, clearing a path to success. The results are nothing short of explosive, blowing away accepted wisdom and replacing it with brave new ideas for a brave new world.
Over the eighteen months I have known him, Steve has often demonstrated a remarkable level of ability in adapting to fresh situations and different roles. He can answer his phone while performing almost any other task, negotiate with multiple underlings at the same time and, in an emergency, make a decent cup of coffee. On the golf course, Steve is dedicated, punctual and willing to go the extra mile. He can also use Danish pastries very persuasively.
He would make an incalculable addition to any team.
"I didn't actually lie," I said. "I maybe portrayed his accomplishments in a flattering light but I didn't actually lie. What was I supposed to do? He insisted on checking it over, made sure I signed my real name and then faxed it for me. If I'd written the whole truth, he'd only have hunted down someone else. He'd have started with Sarah and then gone after Mike and Rob. Who knows what kind of glowing reference Rob would have given him for a laugh? At least with mine there was a chance the company would read between the lines and offer someone else the position. And this way, my wife and friends didn't get hassled by..."
Deborah held up a hand to cut off my desperate grovelling. "He bribed you with doughnuts, didn't he?" she said.
The game was up. "Yes," I whimpered. "They had icing and sprinkles."
Her eyebrow raised another notch, the movement wrenching further confessions out of my mouth. "He came round with them after he'd heard the children had given me a disturbed night. I was tired. I didn't know what I was doing. I needed sugar. I'm sorry..."
Deborah pondered this information for a time, slowly tapping highly-manicured nails on the table. Then her demeanour softened slightly. "I'm surprised he was so cunning. He must have put a great deal of planning into it." She drank her tea and sighed. "He really does want this job, doesn't he?"
I nodded. "I've done my best to train him but he's survived being a housedad rather than appreciated it. He's much closer to the kids and he'll always be more use looking after them than he was but deep down he wants to chair pointless meetings and send self-important memos. It's who he is."
Deborah thought about this some more and then seemed to accept it. "Yes, I suppose so," she said. "The question is: what are we to do now?"
We? What was she expecting me to do? "Erm..." I said, holding my cup nervously.
As if from nowhere, she produced a small bone-china plate and a pastry fork. On the plate was some...
"Cake?" she asked.
She slid the plate across to the middle of the table. I eyed it suspiciously. I hadn't done anything to deserve cake. Well, not yet...
"What do you want me to do?" I asked miserably.
"We have a problem," she said. "I don't have enough hours in the week to run my business AND look after my children. When Steve starts this job, he will also be short on time. He may have to choose between the children and golf."
"Good luck with that," I said, my eyes fixed on the cake.
I was close to drooling but I still didn't see where this was going. "You could put Josquin into nursery and sign Ophelia up for after-school club."
"My workload varies from week to week and sometimes I have to travel. A flexible solution would be more appropriate. Perhaps a nanny is the way forward..."
"Yep, worth looking into," I said, my cheek twitching as I attempted to will the cake towards me with the power of my mind.
"I suspect, however, that my opinion of the qualities required in a suitable candidate will differ from Steve's opinion."
"Probably true," I said and reached towards the cake. She couldn't expect me to be their nanny, so I was off the hook. It appeared there was such a thing as free cake after all.
"We will need a third opinion," said Deborah sweetly.
My hand stopped halfway to the pastry fork. "You want me to help you find a nanny?"
"And arbitrate over the hiring process."
I hesitated. "That's not really where my skills lie."
"Agreed but Steve and I both trust you. What do you say?" She rested her fingers on the edge of the plate. It was unclear whether she intended to pull the cake back or slide it further towards me. I guessed that the direction of travel might depend on my answer.
"Erm," I said, swithering, but then I noticed the cake had nuts in. I was sold. "Yeah, OK."
Deborah smiled and pushed the plate towards me. "Good. I'll fetch a pen and paper and we can begin working on criteria. Would you like some coffee?"
I grunted enthusiastically, my mouth already full of cake.
While she was out of the room, I grabbed some cushions for myself and devoured the rest of my snack. I was relieved I'd got away so lightly. Sure, I had some work to do but it was interviewing nannies - how badly could it go?
Then I choked on a nut and made fruit tea come out my nose.
I hope that wasn't some kind of sign...
Yours in a woman's world,