Philippa Hall: Self-Pacifying Behaviour

I definitely looked slimmest in the navy-blue suit. The waistband of the skirt cut into the flesh of my stomach but, if I didn’t do up the button and left an inch of zip unfastened, it felt fine. And nobody would know because I wouldn’t be taking the suit jacket off. I wanted to look professional.

A last check in the mirror reflected a woman in sensible heels with unfussy clothes and neat hair. My antique garnet cross on its gold chain sparkled at my throat. The necklace had been a gift from my grandmother. I wore it for luck on all important occasions and this was the day I hoped to make my first big sale. ‘The Lime Tree House’ – so named for the abundance of lime trees lining the street – was one of the most valuable properties on our books.

The sound of repeated car hooting snatched me from my thoughts. I grabbed my black shoulder bag, slammed the door, and hurtled down the stairs. Barry was waiting, his yellow MG idling at the curb. My boss had decided that I needed a chaperone for my first major showing, so he had insisted that Barry come with me. Barry had seniority. He sold a lot of expensive houses.

‘He’s just there for back-up,’ Henry had said, ‘But if you pull this off, Amy, the commission is yours.’

Barry flashed his flawless smile as I lowered myself into the low-slung car. We roared away before I had even shut the door and I fumbled for the safety belt.

‘Won’t you be hot in that?’ Barry glanced at my suit.

Annoyingly, he was right. It was warm for May and, by the time we reached the house, my armpits were slick in the jacket. Obviously, I couldn’t take it off. Barry’s face was a glistening pink, but he was keeping his jacket on too. I wondered whether the top button of his trousers was also unfastened. But at least I didn’t have to wear a tie. Barry’s head looked as though it might pop out of the top of his collar like a cork. And so there we were, pacing the gleaming floors of that fine house, waiting for Mrs Van Lit, keeping our jackets fastened, and sweating. The Van Lits, Barry asserted, had ‘more money than God’.

Mrs Van Lit breezed in on a waft of lemon and vanilla. Her hair looked like it cost my entire month’s salary to maintain. She was petite, American, and uncreased in her crisp cotton shirt, Armani chinos and Gucci loafers. She clasped my slippery palm, her hand delicate as a bird.

She liked the house – I could see that right away. Her eyes widened as we entered the drawing room and she took in the expanse of glowing parquet stretching towards the floor-to-ceiling windows.

‘Good light,’ she murmured.

‘A real statement room – perfect for entertaining,’ Barry said, waving his arms in circular gestures, his Chelsea boots clicking on the parquet. ‘Just think of the parties.’

Mrs Van Lit stroked the pearls at her neck, nails pink as little shells. Her pearls were magnificent. My own hand strayed to my throat where the garnet cross rested in the hollow between my collarbones.

‘Pretty.’ Mrs Van Lit said, her eyes following my fingers.

We were barely back in the car before Barry turned to me. ‘Ka-ching, that’s done,’ he said, starting the engine. ‘But Amy, you’ve got to stop fiddling. It makes you look weak. Stand your ground.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You keep adjusting your clothes – tugging at your skirt, playing with that necklace. Are you religious?’

‘Not really,’ I looked sideways at his profile, plump lips protruding under a small, slightly flattened nose.

‘Didn’t you go on the negotiations course?’ He careened around a corner and I was flung against his shoulder.

‘I couldn’t,’ I said. ‘My grandmother died that week.’

‘That’s a shame,’ he said, ‘because you missed a lot of great stuff about body language. Rule number one: avoid “self-pacifying behaviour”. It shows that you’re uncomfortable. You give away your power.’

Barry was prising a polo mint from its paper roll with one hand while steering with the other. The engine juddered as we slowed and the revs dropped.

‘Can you do this for me?’ He tossed the roll of mints into my lap, grabbing at the gearstick to change down.

I extracted a mint and held it out.

‘Driving,’ he said. ‘Just put it in my mouth, would you?’

Pinching the mint between forefinger and thumb, I edged it towards his lips. He snapped at it with his perfect veneers, taking it into his mouth. I wiped my fingers on the hem of my skirt.

‘So,’ he said, moving the mint across his tongue and into his left cheek, ‘self-pacifying behaviour: For a woman that means don’t touch your hair, your face, your throat – and that includes not playing with your necklace. A man shouldn’t fiddle with his chin, hair, collar, or tie.’ He turned to scrutinise me, taking his eyes off the road. ‘It’s all totally scientific. There’s this chap in the FBI who’s written a book about it. You really should read it.’

‘My necklace brings me luck.’ I reached for it, despite myself.

‘You make your own luck, Amy,’ Barry said, accelerating through an amber light.

I wasn’t wearing the garnet cross the next day when Henry called me onto his office for a ‘debriefing’.

‘Great job yesterday,’ he said, ‘Mrs Van Lit wants to see the house again – with her husband.’ He neatened the papers on his desk, weighting them with his ‘Best Dad’ mug, and avoided my eye. ‘Barry has suggested that he do it alone. Apparently, Van Lit is a real alpha guy and Bazza thinks the showing will go better that way.’

I swallowed hard and found my fingers at my throat, plucking at the hollow where the garnet cross usually nestled. Underneath the skin, my fingers detected something else, something I had never felt before: a lump. I knew straight away, the way you always do when something is very wrong.

A ‘non-malignant necrotic cyst’ on my thyroid, was what the consultant said.

I took four weeks off work for the surgery and recuperation.

‘Oh Mr McCleod, you’ve done it again. You really are an artist.’ The nurse simpered as the consultant removed the dressing to inspect his handiwork.

‘There you are.’ He held up the mirror with a flourish.

My throat was slashed with a livid welt punctured with black stitches. It looked as though I had been sewn up by Dr Frankenstein in the back of a barn with only a lantern for illumination.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘the stitches dissolve. And in two years, you won’t see a thing.’

Two years seemed like a long time to have an angry gash at my throat. I couldn’t wear the garnet cross because it irritated the stitches. My mother sent me a selection of jaunty chiffon scarves to hide the wound.

The Van Lits had not bought the house. There was a week until I was due back at work, so I went over and gazed at it, set back behind the row of lime trees on the elegant street. It was still vacant, still on the market, although there was nothing so vulgar as a ‘For Sale’ sign to broadcast the fact. Afterwards I drank a cappuccino at a café in the row of smart shops around the corner.

‘Amy?’ It was Mrs Van Lit in a white linen dress and over-sized sunglasses. ‘What a surprise.’ She slid the sunglasses up into her expensive hair. ‘Have you been on holiday? They said you weren’t available when I called.’

‘I had an operation.’ I slipped aside the chiffon scarf to show her. ‘But I’m fine. I’m back at work next week.’

‘Thyroid?’ Mrs Van Lit asked. Her slender fingers lifted the gorgeous pearls to reveal the faintest of white lines at her throat. ‘I had my surgery three years ago.’ She smiled and pulled out a chair. ‘May I?’

‘It’s amazing – you can hardly see the cut,’ I peered at her pale skin. ‘And that beautiful necklace hides it perfectly.’

‘Oh, I don’t wear the pearls to hide the scar,’ she said, settling into the seat. ‘I wear the pearls because I love them.’

I sold the house to Mrs Van Lit that week, even before I returned to work. The day after I got back, Henry called us into the meeting room. I wore my navy-blue suit. The skirt had fastened quite easily. I hadn’t bothered with the chiffon scarves after my coffee with Mrs Van Lit.

‘Big news,’ Henry said, beaming from his grey ergonomic office chair. ‘This must be the first time someone has closed a deal while they were on sick leave. And what a deal. Well done, Amy. Really impressive salesmanship.’

There was a smattering of applause. The meeting room had south-facing windows and the sun streamed in. It was very hot. I was glad I hadn’t worn the scarf.

‘God, this room’s like an oven. We need to get air-conditioning – or blinds, at the very least.’ Henry shrugged off his jacket and loosened his tie.

Following his lead, two other sales executives, Jerry and Peter, removed their jackets and hung them on the backs of their chairs. But Barry sat erect, jacket and tie untouched, his hands on the table in front of him. His face was crimson and running with sweat.

I slipped off my own jacket and undid the top button of my silk blouse. Lifting the hair from the back of my neck, I fanned my throat with the Meeting Agenda.

Henry exited the room first, the rest of us gathering our belongings and following at a respectful distance. Barry sidled to face me. There were dark patches under the arms of his suit jacket.

‘Gosh, that’s quite something,’ he said, staring at my wound and pursing his lips in a moue. ‘Poor you. You won’t be able to wear that lucky necklace for a bit.’

‘It’s okay, Barry. It turns out you were right – I make my own luck.’

I caught Peter and Jerry exchange a glance.

‘Well,’ Barry paused, ‘not that lucky it seems.’ He gestured at my throat. ‘That’s a hell of a scar for a woman to pull off. But I suppose it’ll fade in time. Meanwhile,’ he glanced around to check that Peter and Jerry were listening, ‘you could just tell people you’ve been in a fight.’

‘I have,’ I said, ‘and I won.’

Philippa Hall is co-editor of Funny Pearls