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The Heart Broke inby James Meek
The story doing the rounds at Ritchie Shepherds production company was accurate when it appeared inside the staffs heads, when they hardly sensed it, let alone spoke it. It was like a faint stink, clear enough to notice, too trivial to mention. All through Teen Makeovers autumn and spring seasons, when they clustered around Ritchie, asking him questions they already knew the answers to, cadging compliments and begging him to give their enemies a telling-off, they watched him. They saw he wasnt as funny as before. Was he keeping his jokes for someone else? He moved in a weird way now, they thought. He walked with an awkward bounce, too eager, as if he reckoned something had given him extra energy, or made him younger.
As long as the rumor was unspoken, the hearts of the staff ached. The rumor was this: that after a long peace Ritchie was, once again, cheating on his wife, Karin, this time with an underage girl. They felt sorry for Ritchies family, but what if the damage went further, to the men and women on the company payroll? They sensed a personal threat. Scandal spread from the first carrier. Everybody liked Ritchie, but they were confident that he was selfish enough to infect them all. The production company offices were intoxicated by nervousness and suspicion. When twin fourteen-year-old girls showed up one day without an accompanying parent and asked for Ritchie, his PA, Paula, got up too suddenly from behind her desk, caught the trailing edge of a printed e-mail with her thigh, and upended a cup of coffee across her skirt. The chief lighting technician wrote off a fresnel worth two thousand pounds. He dropped it from the bridge when he saw Ritchie smile and touch the elbow of a lanky year ten in a short dress. “She had womanly curves earlier than most” is what the gaffer would have said in his defense, if he hadnt been afraid to hex them all, and he only yelled “Butterfingers!” while the people down below were jumping clear of chips of lens skittering across the floor. When the script editor saw Ritchie talking to a group of pert-bottomed schoolgirls in leotards she strode over and interrupted him in mid-sentence. She realized, as soon as she did it, that she was making a fool of herself. The girls teachers were there. The ache of fear in her heart had made her do it.
The ache could be soothed only by being put into words. The production team needed an utterance to lift the dread from their chests, and when the rumor eventually found its spoken form, it relieved them so completely that they believed it. Much better that Ritchies ten-year marriage to Karin should break up and that he should lose custody of his son and daughter over the pretty but older-than-twenty-one new presenter Lina Riggs than that the boss should be doing something illegal and shameful, something that would stain them all with the indelible dye of an unspeakable word. Without anyone noticing the shift, “I wonder if” and “I bet” and “You dont suppose” changed to “I heard” and “Ive got a juicy one” and “I know who Ritchies shagging.” Believing soothed them all.
Ritchie found that whenever he went near Riggsy a stupid smile appeared on his employees faces. He didnt know how happy he was making them by encouraging them to believe he was betraying his family with a legal adult. They didnt know that their rumor had become wrong as soon as it was said out loud, and that the original rumor, the ache of fear in their hearts, was true. They didnt know that Ritchie was seeing a not-quite-sixteen-year-old girl hed met when she appeared on Teen Makeover the previous season. He saw Nicole once a week. It was his intention to enjoy it for as long as he felt like it, then end it tenderly. Nicole would, he imagined, be moved that he should voluntarily give her up. It would be soon, and nobody would have found out. How could they? The two of them were careful, and London was a wild forest of red brick and roof tiles, where maps only reminded you how little you knew.
Copyright © 2012 by James Meek
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