“It must be this way, Amit – the magazine deserves our best and I can’t deliver at that level anymore,” Alberta said firmly. “My God, I will miss this place.” She uttered the words as a kind of benediction, filled with reverence and emotion.
Amit Laghari, a proud and accomplished magazine publisher with East Indian Brahman origins, leaned back in his leather chair and observed this woman who had been so instrumental to his own success at Society. He had been fully unprepared when she arrived in his office, sat respectively on the chair opposite his, and informed him of all that had transpired in the last two days.
If she was feeling the quiet tragedy of it all, she didn’t reveal it. It could have been like any of the countless other meetings they held together, either in this office or Alberta’s directly across the way. Except that it wasn’t. Everything about this discussion was infused with business acumen and the human understanding of frailty and fate and, ultimately, how the two co-mingled.
“I actually never spent much time in India, despite my name,” he noted casually. “I was there until seven years of age, but even then, I observed how the ill and the elderly were just naturally absorbed into the family and business routine. It was the quality of the person and their relationship to the others that formed the basis of any decision of how to handle their challenges. I feel the same about you being here, Alberta. You have been a pillar in this organization for decades; we still require you.”
She lightly tapped his desk before saying, “I see what you’re doing, my old friend, and it’s appreciated, but there’s a significant difference between a family-run enterprise in Uttar Pradesh and a media conglomerate dueling with its competitors in a global arena. And you came from a Brahman family that was the richest in the state and likely had more resources than all the others put together. You could just hire people to do your tasks.”
“Mostly the menial ones,” he responded good-naturedly. “And who are you to make such an observation? You came from solid British stock yourself.”
“My father was a tailor,” she jested.
“Ah, yes, you’re right. But your mother was a daughter of diplomats. Which, now that I think about it, is an odd arrangement. How did that come about?”
Alberta smiled once more. “He assembled outfits for her family – kind of the royal tailor.” She looked across at him sharply. “That has got little to do with this regardless, Amit, and you know it. The magazine has survived, even flourished in the digital era, but the competition is fierce and endowed with riches from dubious Russian and remote Chinese business interests. You need to be on your game every second. And you require the best there is, not someone about to lose their senses.”
And there it was – as cold and rationally as it could be uttered. The very harshness of it drove them both into a troubled silence, with Alberta inwardly chiding herself for what seemed like words that were beneath her bearing.
He rose and walked to the side table where tea and Perrier were placed. He poured two cups for them both and returned, placing his hand on her shoulder before circling the desk to his chair.
“Might we arrange a compromise? You know I still require your counsel, and that we don’t need to end things so suddenly. Your good sense – that legendary intuition of yours – still has a place in this publication. We need to use it as long as we can, not just for our sakes but for your own. What if you and I arranged to meet for lunch once a week at the Ledbury? You love that Notting Hill area anyway, and it will give you the chance to visit it.”
“It’s where my father was born,” she offered.
“Good, then it’s settled. I’ll send a car for you on whatever day is convenient for you and meet you at our corner table.”
It was a statement, not a question, and Alberta nodded in resignation. This was why she had grown to admire and respect Amit Laghari. He was highly educated, refined, and in possession of an astute mind for business. But there was a humanity about him that transcended the rough and tumble of the corporate world, and it was this aspect of his character that she had come to trust in and depend on.
“We still have one problem, though,” she said finally.
“How to tell the staff,” Laghari said by way of observation. “How would you prefer to do it? You can send out a communique, or we could have you give a speech?”
“Let me think on it, Amit. I would like to say my own farewells, though, however we choose to manage it.”
“Of course. Take your time, but let me know and I’ll arrange everything.”
An hour later she sat at her spacious desk looking out over the National Gallery and thought of how she would miss the place. Working at the magazine had paid her handsomely, gave her room to expand her insightful talents, and provided her with a prestige that was hard to come by in modern London. Everything now was celebrity – even politics and finance. Her reputation was of the more traditional kind: hard working, institutional, honourable and always restrained.
Her thoughts turned to Sandy and just how much her job had aided her in moving on after those initial dark months when the absence in her heart seemed impossible to fill. She had come in to this office every morning, except for the occasional foreign assignment on the continent, and slowly, inexorably, she found her bearings again. Her eyebrows turned down as she realized that she was about to lose those sensibilities in a fashion that would never see them return. Perhaps that was the saddest thing of all.
Alberta opened her desk drawer, examining its contents – the fountain pen Sandy had given her following a promotion, her journal, a calendar, a slim copy of the New Testament, and her old wooden ruler that she had kept since her happy days at Eton. Gathering them one by one, she placed them in the large purse she had brought in precisely for this purpose.
She looked at the three photos placed unobtrusively at the corner of her desk. In cupboards and files somewhere she possessed pictures of herself with the Queen, with celebrities from both sides of the Atlantic, and with well-known painters and playwrights. And there were other pictures of her being given numerous awards. But these three – her parents, Sandy, the kids – were what had made it to this sacred spot. In a moment of clarity, she understood that the people in those frames would likely be all she had left as she moved into the darkness. It was troubling and hopeful at the same time, and she smiled at the exquisite meaning of it all. Life started with a few basic elements and now it would close out the same way.
Tenderly, she placed the frames in her bag and pushed her chair back. Looking around her vast office, she realized that all the rest of her possessions could be packed up by the company and sent out to Clerkenwell.
Alberta moved through her door and out into her assistant Leslie’s space. The woman looked up, momentarily confused by the contained emotion on her boss’s face.
“You okay, ma’am?” she inquired.
“Yes … yes. I’ll be heading out for home now. I know it’s a bit early – sorry.”
“That’s quite alright. I can handle things,” Leslie said. “Need help with anything?”
Clearly, the woman had detected that something was out-of-sorts and was attempting to be useful. She has no idea, poor girl,thought Alberta. Yet she felt no urge to explain all that was transpiring that would change everything. She knew that, at some point, she would go through it all in detail with Leslie, but not today – especially not today.
Alberta stood in front of the penthouse elevator door and waited for its arrival. At the last minute, before the doors slid open, she found herself wondering if Sandy’s smiling eyes would greet her. But she found it empty, somewhat to her relief.
She stepped through the front door and encountered an unusually hectic Piccadilly Street. Alberta had made the conscious decision the night before that she would give up her treasured BMW and use public transport or taxi from this point on. She didn’t want to chance making some kind of mistake that could prove costly to others.
She went to hail a taxi but heard over her shoulder, “Right this way, Ms. Alexander.” It was Howard, Amit’s chauffeur. Sitting in the back plush seat, she found herself deeply appreciative of the gesture of her old friend. Other than her family and Elizabeth, she realized she would miss her Brahman colleague the most.
She watched the large structure that housed Societyrecede as the car pulled away. She was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. The very sight of it receding was difficult enough, but it was also a symbol, a premonition, of what was to come. Would she remember her workplace and the important tasks she had accomplished in building the magazine? Or would it dissolve in her memory, just as it was disappearing now into the distance? For the first time, really, she dreaded what was about to descend upon her.