Oh-So-Sensible Secretary / Housekeeper's Happy-Ever-After. Jessica Hart
‘I’ll tell Anne. She’ll be delighted,’ I said. ‘She’s got a very active fantasy life in which you figure largely, in spite of the fact that she’s very happy with her fiancé, Mark.’
‘And what do you fantasise about, Summer?’ asked Phin, his eyes on my face.
Ah, my fantasies. They were always the same. Jonathan realising that he had made a terrible mistake. Jonathan telling me he loved me. Jonathan asking me to marry him. We’d buy a house together. London prices being what they were, we might have to go out to the suburbs, and even pooling our resources we’d be lucky to get a semi-detached house, but that would be fine by me. I didn’t need anywhere grand. I just wanted Jonathan, and somewhere I could stay.
I realise a suburban semi-detached isn’t the stuff of most wild fantasies, but it was a dream that had kept me going ever since Jonathan had told me before Christmas that he ‘needed some space’. He thought it was better that we didn’t see each other outside the office any more. He knew how sensible I was, and was sure I would understand.
I sighed. What could I do but agree that, yes, I understood? But I lived for the brief glimpses I had of him now, and the hope that he might change his mind.
Phin was watching me expectantly, his brows raised, and I had an uneasy sense that those blue eyes could see a lot more than they ought to be able to. He was still waiting for me to answer his question.
Jonathan had been insistent that we keep our relationship a secret at the office, so I hadn’t told anyone. I certainly wasn’t going to start with Phin Gibson.
‘I want a place of my own,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t have to be very big—in fact I’ll be lucky if I can afford a studio—but it has to be mine. It has to be somewhere I could live for ever.’ I glanced at him. ‘I suppose you think that’s very boring?’
‘It’s not what I was expecting, and it’s not a fantasy I understand, but it’s not boring,’ said Phin. ‘I don’t find much boring, to tell you the truth. People are endlessly interesting, don’t you think? Obviously not!’ he went straight on, seeing my sceptical expression. ‘Well, I find them interesting. Why is it so important for you to have a home of your own?’
‘Oh…I moved around a lot as a child. My mother has always been heavily into alternative lifestyles, and she’s prone to sudden intense enthusiasms. One year we’d be in a commune, the next we were living on a houseboat. When my father was alive we had a couple of freezing years in a tumbledown smallholding in Wales.’
It was odd to find myself telling Phin Gibson, of all people, about my childhood. I didn’t normally talk about it much—not that it had been particularly traumatic, but it was hard for most people I knew to understand what it was like growing up with a mother who was as charming and lovely and flaky as they come—and there was something about the way he was listening, his expression intent and his attention absolutely focused on me, that unlocked my usual reserve.
‘Wales was the closest we ever got to settling down,’ I told him. ‘The rest of the time we kept moving. Not because we had to, but because my mother was always looking for something more.
‘Basically,’ I said, ‘she’s got the attention span of a gnat. I lost count of the schools I attended, of the weird and wonderful places we lived for a few months before moving on.’
I turned the cup and saucer between my fingers. ‘I suppose it’s inevitable I grew up craving security the way others crave excitement. My mother can’t understand it, though. She’s living in a tepee in Somerset at the moment, and for her the thought of buying a flat and settling down is incomprehensible. I’m a big disappointment to her,’ I finished wryly.
‘There you are—we’ve something in common after all,’ said Phin, sitting back with a smile and stretching his long legs out under the table. ‘I’m a big disappointment to my parents, too.’
I LOOKED at him in surprise. ‘But you’re famous,’ I said. I’d known Lex wasn’t impressed by his younger brother, but had assumed that his parents at least would be pleased by his success. ‘You’ve had a successful television career.’
‘My parents aren’t impressed by television.’ Phin smiled wryly. ‘They think the media generally is shallow and frivolous—certainly compared to the serious business of running Gibson & Grieve. Lex and I were brought up to believe that the company was all that mattered, and that it was the only future we could ever have or ever want.’
‘When did you change your mind?’
‘When I realised that there wasn’t really a place for me here. Lex is older than me, and anyway he had Chief Executive written all over him even as a toddler. Gibson & Grieve was all he ever cared about.’
It was my turn to study Phin. He was looking quite relaxed, leaning back against the banquette, but I sensed that this wasn’t an easy topic of conversation for him.
‘Didn’t you ever want to be part of it, too?’
‘As a very small boy I used to love going into the office,’ he admitted. ‘But as I got bigger I didn’t fit. I was always being told to be quiet or sit still, and I didn’t like doing either of those things. I wanted to skid over the shiny floors, or play football, or fiddle with the new computers. After a while I stopped going.’
Phin’s smile was a little crooked. ‘Of course it’s easy now to see that I was just a spoilt brat looking for attention, but at the time it felt as if I were reacting against all their expectations. Lex was always there, doing what he should, and there never seemed any point in me doing the same. I got into as much trouble as I could instead,’ he said. ‘My parents were beside themselves. They didn’t know what to do with me, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I don’t think they ever thought I would get a degree, and I took off as soon as I’d graduated. I suspect that they were glad to be rid of me! I mean, what would they have done with me at Gibson & Grieve? I didn’t fit with the image at all!’
No, he wouldn’t have done, I thought. In spite of its commitment to style, Gibson & Grieve was at heart a very solid, traditional company—it was one of the reasons I liked it—and Phin would have been too chaotic, too vibrant, too energetic to ever properly fit in.
‘So what did you do?’ I asked, wondering how he was going to fit in now that he was back.
‘I messed around for a few years,’ he said. ‘I worked my way around the world. I didn’t care what I did as long as I was somewhere I could keep my adrenalin pumping—skiing, sailing, whitewater rafting, climbing, sky-diving…I tried them all. I spent some time in the Amazon and learnt jungle survival skills, and then I got a job leading a charity expedition, and that led onto behind the scenes advice on a reality TV programme.’
He shrugged. ‘It seems I came across well on camera, and the next thing I knew they’d offered me my own programme, taking ill-assorted groups into challenging situations.’
And I knew what had happened after that. It had taken no time at all for Phin Gibson to become a celebrity, almost as famous as Gibson & Grieve itself.
‘And now you’ve joined the company,’ I said.
‘I have.’ Phin was silent for a moment, looking down at his hands, which lay lightly clasped on the table, and then he looked up at me and the blueness of his eyes was so intense that I actually drew a sharp breath.
‘Last year I took a group of young offenders on a gruelling trek through Peru,’ he said.
I remembered the programme. I had watched it with Anne, and even I had had to admit that the change in those boys by the end of the trek was extraordinary.
‘I recognised myself in them,’ Phin said. ‘It made me think about how difficult it must have been for my parents. I guess I’d grown up in spite of myself.’