A complete holiday novel for those moments on the beach when you don't want a blockbuster, just an 800-word novel to fill in three minutes.
Outwardly, Ellen was a smart businesswoman, holding down an important job at the advertising agency of Bunkum, Barnacle, Blister and Rheingold, earning so much money that even her au pair could afford a babysitter on her nights off. Inwardly, Ellen was suffering. Outwardly, she was beautiful and successful and enviable and only two pounds overweight. Inwardly, she was snarling. Outwardly, she was happily married. Inwardly, she had just discovered that her husband Malcolm was having an affair and she didn't know what to do about it.
It wasn't like Ellen not to know what to do about things. When she stood up at meetings at Bunkum, Barnacle, Blister and Rheingold, and old Mr Barnacle said the firm was in a fix, and he didn't know what to do this time, she always came up with a solution. It wasn't always the right solution, but it was always a solution.
‘You're different from the others,’ said old Mr Barnacle to her one day. ‘What is it about you?’
‘I'm a woman,’ she said.
‘I had noticed,’ he said, drily. ‘I do still notice these things, you know. I may be old Mr Barnacle to you’ - she winced inwardly at that – ‘but in real life I am only 61 years old, and you may be surprised to learn that the mechanism for telling the sexes apart is as lively as ever. If old people couldn't distinguish men from women, they couldn't be sexist, could they?’
‘What I meant was,’ she said, ignoring all this, which she knew was just polite flirting, ‘what I meant was that as a woman I react differently at meetings when a problem comes up. The men all try and fix the blame on someone else first. I try and find a solution first.’
‘Mmm,’ he said. ‘Who do you blame for that?’
She had opened her mouth and then shot a sharp glance at him. She hoped he was joking. It was hard to tell. But now, now that she had discovered that Malcolm was having an affair, she badly wanted a solution and she couldn't think of one.
‘There's something wrong, isn't there?’ said old, well, not that old, Mr Barnacle one day.
‘How do you know?’ she said.
‘The cleaner who cleans the ladies' lavatory reports that the consumption of paper tissues in there has risen sharply. It always rises sharply when someone is doing a lot of crying. Your eyes tell me that you are the culprit.’
‘And you want me to tell you all about it?’
‘No,’ said Mr Barnacle. ‘I want you to bring your own paper tissues in future.’
The unexpected joke made Ellen burst into tears.
‘There IS something wrong, isn't there?' he said. ‘Why not tell old Mr Barnacle all about it?’
So she told him all about her worries about her husband having an affair, and how it was driving her crazy, and he said he knew exactly what to do.
‘What should I do?’ she said.
‘I'll tell you after the meeting this afternoon,’ he said.
The meeting was one of those meetings where normally she got up and made lots of suggestions, but today she was quiet. Quiet, that is, until old Mr Barnacle got up and addressed the meeting.
‘There's one bit of business not on the agenda,’ he said. ‘It's about Ellen. She's got a problem. She thinks her husband's having an affair and she doesn't know what to do about it.’
Ellen was absolutely horrified. It was the sort of thing you might tell your best friend about, but not a bunch of mocking men.
‘Ellen didn't know I was going to say this,’ said Mr Barnacle. ‘She's probably rather tell her best girl friend, but I don't see why a bunch of serious businessmen can't work out a solution to a problem even if it's not a business problem.’
So, much to Ellen's surprise, the men took it very seriously, and asked her for all the details, and then they formulated a business plan to deal with the situation, and devised a strategy, which we won't go into, as it involved some rather nasty humiliating moments for her husband, and several months later their marriage was back on the right tracks again.
‘It just goes to show,’ said Mr Barnacle, ‘that men are very good at coming up with solutions to problems if they are somebody else's problems. No blame, no involvement, that's what men like.’
Moral: Sorry if you thought Mr Barnacle and Ellen were going to have an affair, but it wasn't that kind of story.
The Independent Tues Aug 28 01