This was supposed to be a short story complete in itself but the first chapter in a novel in which each subsequent chapter takes up a thread or issue first introduced in this story.

Sarah entered the meeting room five minutes early. She knew Geoff had a previous meeting at which he was planning to make an intervention during ‘any other business’ so would probably be late to this one. Hopefully she should be able to insert herself at the table amongst friends and avoid him sitting either next to her or opposite her, as had been his tactic at previous meetings where he could contrive it. Even when he has failed to do this he had sometimes managed to seat himself so it was almost impossible for her to avoid eye contact with him if she had to address the Chair.

She stood near the water cooler as others began to arrive for the meeting. She exchanged greetings and watched as one or two of them began to sit at the conference table. After a while, having made some calculation of how the pattern of seating occupancy was shaping up, she sat next to James, one of the trainers from the IT Department she had worked with on numerous projects at the Institute. She asked him how his visit with his children the previous weekend had gone. James had had a particularly corrosive break up about a year earlier with his wife of nineteen years and had only recently managed to assert his rights to see and spend time with his two teenage children. Sarah, although never having been married herself and childless, had become a source of comfort and understanding for James over the last year as he had confided in her in great detail and with a frustration and anger that sometimes brought him to tears and incoherence. Sarah could only listen and offer words of sympathy as she did not feel qualified in any way to offer advice. But talking things through with her seemed to have helped James keep a controlled perspective on his situation and helped him shore up his resolve to see the painful process of gaining access to his children through without doing anything stupid or counter-productive. The previous weekend had been his first unsupervised meeting with his children, a lunch and visit to the cinema, and Sarah knew he had been looking forward to it with great anticipation but also fearful of how it would turn out.

In response to her question James told Sarah that it had gone pretty well, in fact as well as he could reasonably have expected, but some aspects of the visit had worried him for some reason that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. There was something about the children’s demeanour and behaviour that made him feel rather on edge, almost as if he was under some sort of scrutiny, or as if there was some sort of game being played to which he didn’t know the rules. Perhaps they could meet for lunch? As Sarah agreed to this she was watching the door to the meeting room as there was still a vacant seat next to her beyond which sat Roberta, not everyone’s favourite person as she had, in some people’s opinion, far too much power to veto their proposed plans and projects due almost entirely, it was said, to her personal relationship with the Finance Director. She had some friends of course, some genuine and some who only strategically engaged her friendship, but if none of these turned up soon the seat might still be empty when Geoff arrives, in which case he would almost undoubtedly sit next to her.

Sarah took the opportunity to greet and engage in small talk anyone who passed by or paused on their way to get a drink from the table near the water cooler where tea, coffee and biscuits were on offer, hoping that one of them might choose to slip into the vacant seat beside her. It was a considerable relief when one of Roberta’s colleagues sat next to her. In many respects it would be far easier if Sarah’s situation with Geoff were common knowledge and her friends could be knowing and active collaborators in shielding her from Geoff. In other respects, however, things might be much harder. She would have to step down from various groups and committees she was involved with, she would undoubtedly have to abandon some key strategies she was pursuing to advance her career and promotion. She may even find herself in a position where pressure mounted for her to get involved with complaint and disciplinary procedures.

As the Chair called order and enquired about any apologies for non-attendance that had been notified, Geoff hurried into the room, somewhat dishevelled, an untidy collection of papers under his arm, and looking extremely displeased with something or other. He glanced round the room, his frown deepening almost imperceptibly as he saw Sarah and made his way to an empty seat at the far end of the table opposite the Chair.

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