Blog Tour: Read an Extract from The Secretary by Renée Knight @AnneCater @TransworldBooks

10:00



Look around you. Who holds the most power in the room? Is it the one who speaks loudest, who looks the part, who has the most money, who commands the most respect?

Or perhaps it’s someone like Christine Butcher: a meek, overlooked figure, who silently bears witness as information is shared and secrets are whispered. Someone who quietly, perhaps even unwittingly, gathers together knowledge of the people she’s there to serve – the ones who don’t notice her, the ones who consider themselves to be important.

There’s a fine line between loyalty and obsession. And when someone like Christine Butcher is pushed to her limit, she might just become the most dangerous person in the room . 


Extract:


Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will!’ It was
Notting Hill Gate, not Transylvania, and Mina Appleton’s
home, not Count Dracula’s, but had I known then what I know
now, I might not have stepped so freely over her threshold.
When I rang her doorbell that Saturday afternoon, it was a
bitterly cold day – midwinter – and yet I remember feeling
warm as I stood on her doorstep. The heat of excitement at a
future I had not anticipated. Quite different to the sweating I
suffer now – my body overrun with hormones that make me
feel as if I’m being slowly poisoned. Early menopause, I’m told.
I had never been to Notting Hill before, and the discovery of
such leafy grandeur in the heart of London was a revelation to
me. Mina’s house was on a terrace of six-storey, pastel-painted
houses facing communal gardens – a privileged space, accessible only to those with a key. Homeowners and their staff.
I was surprised when Mina opened the door – I’d expected a
housekeeper at least.
‘Here, let me take that for you.’ I handed her my coat, and
watched as she stood on tiptoe to hang it over a hook. Until
then, I hadn’t realized how short she was. At work she wore 
heels, but there, in her own home, she padded around shoeless.
Once inside, I realized the house was even bigger than I’d
thought, and I paused a moment to take in my surroundings –
breathing in the unfamiliar smells, my eyes drawn up to the
strange sound of machinery on an upper floor.
‘It’s a lift,’ she explained. ‘The house used to be a hotel. The
children loved the lift so we decided to keep it. I’ve just sent
them up in it. Shall we?’
I never trusted that lift. It was the kind you find in small French
hotels: polished brass, red carpet – fancy but unpredictable –
claiming to hold five people but even with two it was a bit of a
squeeze.
‘Thanks so much for giving up your Saturday, Christine. I
know how precious weekends are.’
I followed her, passing the open door of a sitting room – a
glimpse of velvet cushions, vast sofas, a fire lit in the grate.
We headed down the stairs to her basement kitchen – a place
she later described as the heart of her home. I expected it to be
gloomy, but she’d done something with the lighting that
made it enchanting. As bewitching as anything I’d seen in a
theatre, as if the sun had somehow penetrated through the
bricks. Over the table hung a milky sphere that made me think
of a full moon. The effect was hypnotic. Our kitchen at home
had one fluorescent strip. It wouldn’t have occurred to us to
have anything else.
It was so like Mina to conduct my interview in her home,
and not the formal setting of the office. It’s the way she likes to
do business – softening the edges so commercial transactions
appear cosy and intimate.
‘Please, Christine, sit down.’ I squeezed on to a bench at the
table, facing into the room, and watched her take a baking tray
from the Aga, her hands draped in a linen cloth. A cascade of
golden biscuits slid on to a plate. If I close my eyes now, I can 
still smell them. It doesn’t take much for me to conjure up how
it felt, being there that first time. Mina’s attempt at humility,
her efforts to relax me. She managed to make a young woman
of twenty-five – as shy and fearful of being a disappointment as
I was, with a CV that exposed my lack of experience – feel at
home.
‘What can I get you, Christine? Tea, coffee?’ I liked the way
she kept using my name. Please, Christine. Thank you, Christine.
‘Coffee, please.’
Through the far window I could see a courtyard where the
sun filtered down through a tree so large it kept the small outside space in almost permanent shade. It was a late-flowering
magnolia. Its flowers smell of lemon, and if one falls you can
sit it in a saucer of water and the scent lasts for a week, long
after the petals have turned brown and withered.
Mina joined me at the table and then it was down to business, although I was seduced into believing otherwise.
‘How old is your daughter, Christine? It is a little girl you
have, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, Angelica. She’s four.’
‘Angelica. That’s a lovely name. Unusual.’
We sat so close I could see the freckles on her nose, the faint
blue beneath her eyes. She wore no make- up. Good skin, perfect white teeth. Her hair loose – strong, natural curls that
snaked across her shoulders. She is famous for her hair and
even now it amazes me how little maintenance it seems to
need. Everything else, over the years, has needed a bit of help,
but not her hair. It remains quite extraordinary.
‘Milk? Sugar?’
‘Milk, please. No sugar. Thank you.’
She poured the coffee and put a cup down in front of me.
‘Sorry,’ she said, stifling a yawn. ‘I was out early this morning in Barnet visiting one of the stores. I’m trying out a new 
layout – new colours. I want it to feel like this,’ and she held up
her coffee mug – blue and cream Cornish ware. I understood at
once what she was after – a cosy nostalgia. ‘I say I because my
father’s less interested in how things feel – he’d be happy to leave
everything as it is, but the business needs to change if we’re to
build on our customer base.’ She nudged the plate of biscuits
towards me. ‘Please, help yourself, Christine.’ She took one and
held it in her hand, but she didn’t eat anything the whole time I
was there. I was famished, having rushed out without breakfast,
and took a second biscuit. ‘To be honest, I was rather disappointed, so we’ll have to rethink the design. One thing you
should know about me, Christine, is that it’s only when I see
something in the flesh that I can be certain it’s right. And if it’s
not right, I’ll change it.’ It didn’t occur to me she was referring to
human beings too. ‘It doesn’t matter to me how many times
things have to be redone. I know it must drive everyone mad.’
She shrugged. She really didn’t care, and still doesn’t, if she drives
everyone mad. It was something I once admired – her ability to
simply not care. I am someone who cares very much, and will go
to great lengths to avoid irritating others, but then, opposites
attract. In that sense, we were the perfect match.
‘My father sees it as a failing. Why can’t women ever make up
their minds?’ She laughed, fondly, as a daughter might of her
ageing father and his old-fashioned ways, and I remember, at
the time, assuming she and Lord Appleton had a close relationship. Certainly, it seemed to me as I sat there looking at
her – those clear eyes, their whites the palest blue – that all she
wanted was the best for the business. ‘I like to get things right,
that’s all. So. Tell me a bit about yourself, Christine. How long
have you temped at Appleton’s?’
‘Six months.’
‘Goodness. You must know us well. And where else have you
worked?’
I slipped my CV across the table and she glanced at it, but no
more than that. Perhaps it was my lack of experience that
attracted her. I could be groomed to suit her needs. I wasn’t
aware back then how voracious her appetite was, and how
much she would expect of me.
‘What does your husband do? Sorry, you don’t mind me asking, do you? Of course it’s none of my business.’
‘I don’t mind.’ And I didn’t. ‘He builds kitchens, bespoke.
Pieces of furniture – tables, dressers . . .’ Even then, I found
myself saying what I thought she wanted to hear. My husband,
in fact, fitted off-the-peg kitchens.
‘He’s a skilled craftsman, then. I admire that. What’s his
name?’ She toyed with the biscuit in her hand.
‘Mike.’
‘Mike,’ she repeated. ‘And your parents? I’m more interested
in who you are, Christine, rather than what you’ve done. You
don’t mind, do you?’
‘Not at all. My father used to work for a company that produced thermos jugs – you know, for tea, coffee. Jugs, not
flasks . . .’ She smiled at the distinction, and I was embarrassed
I’d repeated Dad’s mantra: Jugs, not flasks, Christine. Thermos
jugs for the business environment, not suitable for picnic teas. ‘He’s
retired now.’
‘And your mother?’
‘She died when I was eight.’
‘I’m so sorry. That’s too young to lose a mother.’
I took another biscuit. I grew up quickly after Mum died,
learning from a young age not to put myself first.
‘Siblings?’
‘No.’
‘Like me, then, an only child.’ She worked so hard to put me
at ease. To make it seem as if we shared some common ground.
‘I suppose it has its pros and cons, doesn’t it?’
I nodded in agreement, but I’d always yearned for a brother or
a sister. ‘Childcare’s not a problem, Angelica’s at a day nursery . . .’
Mina held up her hand.
‘Christine. Your childcare is none of my business. I wouldn’t
dream of asking you about it. Now, my turn,’ she said. ‘My father,
as you know, is very much alive. My mother too.’ I waited for her
to say more, but she didn’t. Lady Appleton remained an enigma
to me for years, though I tried to fill in the gaps, imagining
what she was like. Unfortunately, my powers of imagination
are limited.
‘I have three children. Twin boys, Henry and Sam, and a
daughter, Lottie. My husband works in the City, but . . .’ She
paused, biting her lip. I came to learn this was something she
did when she was about to confide something. ‘I want to be
honest with you, Christine, and I’m telling you this in confidence. I haven’t even told the children yet, but we are going to
separate. There will be a divorce. I hope it won’t be messy, that
he’ll behave well, but I can’t put my hand on my heart and say
he will. My husband is not the easiest of men.’ There it was, the
first secret between us. There have been so many over the years.
‘I think it’s only fair to tell you because, if you are interested
in this job, you should know that the boundary between my
private and working life is fluid. You would be joining me at a
difficult time in my personal life, and that’s partly why I hope
you’ll say yes. I need my own assistant. Apart from being chief
exec at Appleton’s, I have many other commitments and I will
need support to ensure the children’s lives are disrupted as
little as possible. I see it as a holistic role.’
‘Mummy?’
Her daughter, Lottie, was in the doorway. A dear, timid thing,
waiting to be invited in.
‘Come in, sweetheart,’ Mina said, holding out her hand, and
Lottie scuttled over and settled on her mother’s lap.
‘This is Christine, darling. I’m hoping I can persuade her to
come and work with me.’
‘Hello,’ Lottie said, her eyes locking on to mine, assessing
whether I was friend or foe.
‘Hello, Lottie,’ I replied, smiling. Friend, I tried to communicate. Mina took an apple from the bowl, and began to peel it
with a beautiful fruit knife. She has so many pretty things, but
that is one of her favourites. Victorian – mother- of- pearl
handle – sharp as anything. I watched the skin curl away from
the apple, and then Lottie nibble on the slices her mother
passed her.
‘As you may know, Christine, I’ve been sharing my father’s
secretary, Jenny Haddow, but she’s about to retire and it’s
become clear to me that she’s not up to managing my workload
too. It’s all she can do to keep up with Dad’s, even though that
has lessened significantly. He’s beginning to take more of a
back seat – he’ll retire in a couple of years. Until then you’d
have to work for both of us, but after that . . . well, I’d have you
to myself. I need someone by my side as I move forward with
the company. Someone young.’ She stood up, hoicking Lottie
on to her hip and walking over to the Aga to make more coffee.
‘Do you know much about Appleton’s?’
‘A bit.’
‘Let me fill you in then. The industry is changing and we
need to keep up. It’s not just about selling groceries, it’s about
politics too. Food, diet, health. It’s something I feel strongly
about. Appleton’s has a reputation for treating its suppliers
fairly and that’s something I want to build on. It’s what makes
us unique. At the moment, we’re not capitalizing on it. Appleton’s is a supermarket with a conscience – we care about
farmers, we care about the land. I believe we can grow as a
business without compromising that identity. Food gets to the
heart of how we see ourselves as a nation. What we put into 
ourselves and what we offer to others.’ I should have been suspicious, hearing this from a woman who didn’t appear to eat,
but I was entranced, and it is an image that has stayed with me.
Mina, child on her hip, standing at the Aga delivering her mission statement for Appleton’s. Domesticity can be the most
marvellous disguise.
She put Lottie down, and returned to the table, leaning
towards me.
‘Christine, I think you and I would work well together. I
hope you’ll consider it.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘And whatever you decide, it’s been an absolute pleasure to
meet you properly. Here – you must take the rest of these with
you, Angelica might enjoy them.’ I watched her prepare a parcel
of the remaining biscuits – brown paper tied with a piece of
raffia.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
I remember, as I made my way home, feeling lighter, the
future opening up before me. I thought I saw it so clearly.
When the letter with a formal offer arrived a few days later I
watched Mike take in the private health insurance and travelling
expenses, his eyes darting back and forth over the sentences.
When they reached the salary, they narrowed, his sandy lashes
quivering like antennae. Then he looked at me and smiled.
There was nothing to discuss. He handed me back the letter
and I looked at it again. It was from the HR department, but
Mina had written a note at the bottom: I do hope you say yes. Very
best wishes, M. For me, the decision had little to do with the
perks, and it strikes me now that, when Mike asked me to
marry him, I had to think about it, but when Mina proposed, I
accepted at once.


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