I have a confession.
Once, long ago in Manhattan, I harassed a female colleague at the office.
I understand now what an uncomfortable situation I put her in. I was not just a colleague, I was her boss. And I was married at the time.
I’m going back nearly forty years, I realise with a jolt, but I remember how that ‘situation’ developed and what its consequences were as clearly if it had happened last year.
Back in 1978 it was when I joined a small but growing company in a senior executive position. The lady in question worked in an important but relatively junior position in one of the areas under my supervision.
I was attracted to her from the start, and it wasn’t long before I was inviting her for drinks after work. That didn’t work, so almost every day I would ask her to have lunch with me. “If lunch is not convenient, then dinner would be even better,” I probably added with the kind of leer deployed by office predators.
She turned me down flat every time – drinks, lunch, dinner – for all the sensible reasons that I had chosen to ignore – including and perhaps mainly the fact that I had a wife.
The lady in question – the one at the office, not the one at home – was attractive, stylish, personable and living alone on New York’s Upper East Side (she had been divorced for several years). The way she dealt with me was the same way I imagine she dealt with hundreds of other unwelcome or inappropriate suitors: I was gently but firmly swatted away.
“No thanks,” she said one evening as we went down in the elevator, as I extended my usual offer of a drink. “Don’t take it personally,” she added. “I like you. But let’s be practical. First, I work for you. Second, you’re married.”
That left me with an obvious opening. “So, what you’re saying is: if we didn’t work for the same company and I wasn’t married, things might be different.
“We do and you are,” she said, obviously alive to my little ploy, “so let’s not dwell on the theoretical”.
Even so, I persisted in my pursuit, for months. And, finally, it paid off.
She joined me one evening for drinks at what we thought was a discreet midtown bar (not so discreet, as we later discovered, as so few are in Manhattan). After that, we would go out every other night. We often had lunch too, sometimes with colleagues or clients, sometimes not. And in between there was the occasional dinner.
Then, one summer evening, as hot and fetid and electrically-charged as only summer evenings in New York can be, we had our first electrically-charged physical contact. We kissed goodnight. Nothing heavy, mind, but the moment established a tacit understanding between us: if circumstances were to change, the relationship might move to the next level.
Then one day we discovered – ‘quite by chance’, as she would later insist (which should be taken with an entire salt-mine) that we had booked a trip to London at the same time. I would be there on business. She was taking a short holiday, her first visit to Britain.
We agreed that we were going to be decorous to a fault. We went over on the same flight but I had kept my hotel booking and she had kept hers. I spent my first day at the office. She went sight-seeing. That was how it was going to be, we had decided: strictly by the rules.
It was a decision that dissolved that evening in London’s dank autumnal air.
We dined at a very nice Michelin-starred restaurant on the ground floor of her hotel – both called the White House. The place had suffused lighting, soft music and old-fashioned banquette seating. The food, as I recall, was exquisite and the wine flowed expansively, not to mention expensively (Chateau Palmer, if memory serves).
And that, almost needless to say, was that. Or rather, I should say ‘it’ – and I’m sure that I don’t have to explain what ‘it’ stands for.
Office romances, whether they are common knowledge or secret, as ours was, or meant to be, can make life difficult on several levels. Or, as people tend to say of such matters, “They always end badly”.
So it was that, soon after we returned to New York, my hard-won mistress – what a terribly hard, old-fashioned word – left the company. Our relationship was the main reason, although there were also other factors involved, too complicated to go into here.
Time since those far-off days seems to have flashed past.
I often hear those same people who say office affairs always end badly saying “What goes around comes around”.
And here we are, the lady and I, thirty-nine years later, both living in dear old London of fond memory, and still the best of friends. In fact, we see each other every day.
The lady’s name, by the way, is Martha.
She is, if you hadn’t already guessed, my dear, dear wife.