Old Romantics by Maggie Armstrong - read an extract

admin admin | 04-21 16:15

We present an extract from Old Romantics, the debut short story collection by Maggie Armstrong, published by Tramp Press.

A woman pursues a man who cut ahead of her in a line. Two nice people report that a child is being left unsupervised at a local beach. Romances, old and new, shift and sour...

Old Romantics is a collection of linked short stories; slippery, flawed and acute, Maggie Armstrong's narrator navigates a world of awkward expectation and latent hostility.


From My Mistake

It’s not true that I had never worked before. After college, I’d completed a year-long internship in the Dublin office of an international think tank. For the first month or so, there was nothing for me to do inside the think tank. I asked around, and nobody could think of anything, so I just read The Brothers Karamazov, propped against my keyboard for all to see. I made coffee and emailed friends, and read about the gross betrayals of the sons of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov while my new colleagues all clacked on their keys and went to and from the filing cabinet. One day one of the bosses (we’ll call him John Murphy) was walking past my desk. John Murphy had his own department, his own office and nameplate, the only man in the building who sported a full suit – navy pinstripe or, in summer, cream linen that smelled when it rained. ‘You’re bored, aren’t you?’ John Murphy said, with a glance from my Hotmail, to my Russian novel. The following day he invited me to his apartment for a glass of wine. I was still living with my parents and when I came downstairs, dressed in jeans and a sequined gilet, my mother asked where I was going.

‘To a party in my boss’s apartment.’

‘Oh well I hope you’re not the only one invited,’ said my mother and she gave me her particular smile, with both eyebrows arched in mischievous delight.

The situation with John Murphy lasted eight months and ended in desperate texts and emails full of blame. I wasn’t offered the job that might have followed the internship in the bustling, respected think tank, not because John Murphy came in the way of my employment but because I had no interest in applying for it, no motivation. I just slipped out the door and went to work on my own, in rented box rooms, scratching away at interviews and other puff pieces, before settling down with my husband and his family, and giving birth.

Now I’d been offered a good job, and I wanted to rise to its demands and to excel. I wanted to produce, in a white heat of cleverness, to disappear into some difficult task: I think oblivion is what we all seek at work.

I booked a room for Rosaleen, though not properly, in that my husband did it. Or he got a secretary to do it. Either way, the room was booked for us. The room was very white and it faced the sea. October sunlight beamed onto the sparkling ocean ripples, and seagulls soared up and then back down the sky as a ferry slowed into the harbour. But this gorgeous vista held all the comfort of a screensaver. The sea might have been a wistful memory in the room, it was so remote from our present anxiety. Rosaleen entered and banged her materials on the table, and I said, ‘Hi Rose,’ to silence.

‘People do call you Rose?’

‘They don’t, actually,’ Rosaleen said.

She explained the business to me, talking in perfect sentences while message boxes jumped around a screen above our heads. She talked in a language hard to fathom. The business seemed to be concerned with awesome, far-fetched things, like the shape of the scaffolding beneath everything, like creating a smooth passage from one world to the next.

‘You can do Criterion B Question 6,’ she said, and got up.

Back at the desk, I typed in my newly chosen password, then clicked on the emails that had started coming through, with attached documents. The documents were forty pages or so in length. My chest started to tighten and I felt warm. I looked around for help.

‘Rosaleen?’

‘Yes.’

We swivelled our chairs at each other.

‘Could you remind me, which am I to do?’

‘Criterion B Question 6. Two-thirds of a page.’

‘ OK. So will I do Criterion B Question 6.’

Rosaleen nodded.

Questions, I thought, showed great interest in the subject and a readiness to learn; questions showed curiosity.

‘And just, how long should it be?’

‘Two-thirds of a page, that’s what I just told you.’

‘OK.’ A few minutes went by in front of documents.

‘Rosaleen I’m sorry but I’m just not entirely sure what I’m to do.’

‘B6, right in front of you.’ She sighed.

‘This is why we needed you a month ago.’

The hallway seemed a quiet place. I stood in the hallway, then backed down the stairs, and very soon my husband came, and led me down the next flight of stairs, holding me with his apologetic eyes. I began to cry.

‘It’s a mistake! I shouldn’t be here.’

Criterion B6 was left undone. Someone else did it as they well should have, I felt, going home. Why should I do something that would take me hours to figure out, and five minutes for them? Something I had no interest in ever learning how to do? The key thing would be to make friends and identify who I could work best with.

At six o’clock my husband and I let ourselves in the front door and the two girls hopped up and down, saying, ‘Papa! Look!’ They flapped pictures. The baby called out my name from the top of the stairs then pitched himself forwards, turning upside down. He thumped all the way down the hard, wooden stairs until the last ghastly somersault and his forehead hit the parquet tiles. He bawled crying in my arms and his tears soaked through my shirt.

Old Romantics is published by Tramp Press

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