Behind her back, Sylvia was nicknamed Whatif by her colleagues. A nondescript woman in her forties, she could be relied upon at meetings to come up with all the potential disasters that might affect the event being planned. “What if…. there was a rail strike, some of the delegates were afraid of heights, the Severn flooded as badly as last year, one of the camels got loose?”
The company prided itself on organising every possible type of event. Sometimes Sylvia’s worries were worth bearing in mind, but there was always the temptation to say, as the MD had on one memorable occasion “That’s right, Sylvia, look on the bright side!”
She had recently sold her flat and moved back in with her parents, who were becoming decrepit. This was deemed the final tragedy in her life by her younger workmates. Rumour had it she had been jilted, not quite at the altar, and had never found another man. Her social life seemed to revolve round a church choir.
Her job was largely administrative, and she was extremely good at it. If a client queried something on an invoice, Sylvia could be relied upon to produce an itemised account of every penny spent, when the expense was authorised and by whom. Her attendance at the actual events was only occasional.
Because no one else was available, she was assigned the spouses’ programme during a very high level international meeting. While the delegates put the world to rights, Sylvia would take their consorts away for two days and a night. These ladies, for they were all female, were so grand and sophisticated, a quick run to Windsor Castle and lunch at Bray would not do. At least one had employed Heston for one of her own functions, and several had been guests at Windsor.
It was decided they would have lunch at the Manoir de Quat’Saisons. Sylvia had suggested a cookery course with Raymond Blanc, but that was vetoed as these women all employed cooks and didn’t do it themselves. Then on to Eynsham, where a former Prime Minister had been secured to play croquet with them, at a phenomenal fee. Then on to a comfortable Cotswold hotel in a picture book village.
The party swept away in a stretched limo – a minibus was considered too down market. The Indian lady was thrilled to be going to Gloucestershire, as she had attended Cheltenham Ladies College, and reminisced about dorms and midnight feasts. France said the fact that Raymond Blanc came from the Jura was ‘interesting’. It was not clear if Japan didn’t speak much English, or was simply not up for conversation. Brazil was miffed that the group was not being escorted by the Duchess, seeing as how her husband was chairing the meeting with their husbands. Spain asked about shops near that night’s hotel, and was not impressed to learn they mainly stocked antiques. Russia just sat looking bored and sulky, and picked at her manicure.
Lunch made things slightly easier. France had a long conversation with Raymond, which she reported was interesting.
The ex-PM was the hit of the day, flirting outrageously with them as they thwacked balls towards, and very occasionally through, hoops. Even Japan laughed, and the knots in Sylvia’s neck began to loosen.
The hotel was charming, dinner went off fairly well, and most of the party retired early. Russia was seen heading for the bar, and Sylvia started to go with her before being dismissed with “No, I don’t think we need drink together.”
Come breakfast, the party was in good spirits. India enthused mightily about the Full English, saying it had been her father’s favourite meal in the world. Russia, however, did not appear.
Sylvia tapped on her door, and then asked a chambermaid to open it. The bed had not been slept in.
In all her What Ifs, the disappearance of a blowsy Russian bottle blonde concubine had never appeared on her radar. Kidnap? Had she applied for asylum? Drugged in the hotel bar before being raped and murdered? If she called the police, all the others in the party would find out. It would get back to the High Level Meeting and quite probably the press. She consulted the hotel Manager. He spoke to the barman. The hall porter was despatched on a search mission.
Kasia was located with the groundsman from the local cricket club, who had been in the bar celebrating a birthday the night before. Sylvia’s plea that she be smuggled back in via the garden was ignored, and she sashayed in, still wearing last night’s spray on minidress, just as the other ladies were leaving breakfast. She told them she had been for a little walk in the countryside.
Japan was extremely disapproving, on moral grounds. France equally so, more on the whole thing not being comme il faut. Brazil said a very bad word in Portuguese. India and Spain got in a huddle.
This was a potential diplomatic crisis above Sylvia’s pay grade. They still had a private tour of a stately home, a visit to an educational farm and lunch ahead of them.
Russia, who was now wearing day clothes, took Sylvia aside and said she thought she would stay on and return to London under her own steam. The groundsman could be seen, loitering and smirking in the high street.
Sylvia made an executive decision. She said a car would be sent to retrieve her from the hotel at 4 pm, so she would not be late for the all important dinner in London that night, and that she would tell the other ladies Kasia was indisposed.
“If you like” said Kasia. “I’m not Viktor’s wife, you know. I do as I please.”
Of course she didn’t take the taxi. The Russian delegate, furious and embarrassed, took it out on the delegates over the important dinner, and the project never got off the ground.
Curiously, Kasia is still in the Cotswolds, and now does the teas at the cricket club.