Next to me, Napoleon would have looked relaxed
Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.
I have been invited for afternoon tea at Ottolenghi. Once upon a time, I would have taken this in my stride. Yes, it’s a restaurant in Islington. No, the tables aren’t Formica. And what? That’s how we middleclass types roll.
How times have changed. The most glamorous place I have been to in the past year and a half is the new caff in our local park, and even there my coffee-drinking time is constantly interrupted by the necessity of wiping noses and bums and clearing up spilled apple juice. The hour and a half I am scheduled to pass, child-free, amid the gently clinking glasses and white, starched nap - kins of Ottolenghi Islington glitters on the horizon like a long-sought oasis.
I have spent two weeks in a frenzy of anticipation. I have planned my outfit. I have boasted to friends. I have looked up the menu online and decided on the cardamom poached pears with yoghurt cream. I have roped my entire family into a complicated childcare arrangement that involves Larry, my two-year-old, spending the afternoon at my mum’s, while my sister lurks around Upper Street with baby Moe and texts me if he needs a feed.
I’m hoping it will be worth it because – to add to the excitement – this is a work meeting. Isla, a former colleague who now has a high-up job in the arts, has invited me out “for a chat”. There is an extremely slim chance that she may, at some unspecified point in the future, be in a position to offer me the prestigious, highly paid, stress-free, part-time, family-friendly job I have been waiting for.
My preparations are military in their efficiency. Next to me, Napoleon would have looked like a pretty relaxed kind of guy. The night before, my clothes are laid out on the bedroom chair, with shoes underneath and knickers on top. The mummy bag is packed with changes of clothes and snacks, nappies and wipes. Childcare arrangements have been run through three times with all the relevant parties. My travel card is topped up. I fall asleep and have an anxiety dream in which I am being sucked very, very slowly into a giant Ottolenghi raspberry meringue.
The next day, only minutes before leaving, I check my email. There is a message, not from Isla but from Clemency, executive assistant, marketing and communications. “Dear Alice,” it reads. “Isla has been called into an urgent meeting this afternoon, which she is required to attend. Apologies for any inconvenience.”
Inconvenience? There is a rage building up in my stomach, rising up my windpipe, threatening to burst forth in an unstoppable primal scream. Unbidden, my fingers fly around the keyboard. “As a matter of fact . . . total pain in the arse . . . stick your cardamom pears where the sun . . .”
My cursor hovers over “send”. It retreats. Delete, delete, delete. “No worries, Clemency,” is my sprightly reply. “Happy to rearrange, any time.”