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The salad bowl was an enormous glass shell, big enough for Botticelliís Venus with room to spare. Even Emmaís nervous picking every time she passed barely impacted on the enormous mound of lettuce, tomato and olives. The smell of burnt sausages signalled further delights to come.
Hierarchically organised huddles in neat casual dress occupied the scarce patches of sunlight, moving slowly across the lawn as the icy cold of the shadows engulfed them. Sue, wearing black and red ski pants and a red jumper, lurked possessively over the wine casks. Petra, in tight fitting white jeans and a baggy orange jumper that said "Thereís lots to see underneath, but itís too cold out here", and Kathy, in blue jeans and an even baggier brown jumper, stood guard over the plastic cutlery, the paper plates and the plastic cups.
Emma had called them out in a flurry of frantic telephone calls the previous night. "Weíve got this visiting expert from Iceland," she had said, "and heís got to be exposed to Australian culture, so guess what they want to do ... So I said whatís wrong with El Toro, or Cookayourown, the steakís the same, thereís fifty different bean salads, and itís warm, but they said no, it wasnít the same, and anyway it was my turn. So heeellllp!"
But the call had been in vain. They had tried to mingle, without any luck, and had retired to the strategic high ground.
Even that hadnít worked.
"Theyíd rather not drink, than talk to us," Kathy said.
"What do you expect," Sue said. "I told Emma that there was no point in us coming to a work barbeque."
Emma swept by, her left hand making a dive for the salad. "Itís not for your benefit," she said. "Itís to keep me sane. The only ones out there not actively backstabbing are asking polite questions of our guest of honour about pickled herring."
Sue helped herself to another glass of wine, slopping it a little. "How come all the males are fat or ancient?" she asked.
She surveyed the crowd with a patrician air of disgust, then stopped as her glance traversed the barbeque. A blonde man with a craggy face and a chin, in jeans and a white roll-neck jumper, was piling sausages at the side of the hotplate at the speed of a dealer shuffling a pack. He saw them watching, and waved a steak. "Nearly ready," he said.
"I suppose he looks half okay," Sue said. She turned to Emma. "Who is he?"
"Thatís Charles, my personal assistant. Iím just hoping he hasnít the sense to claim overtime."
Kathy frowned. "He doesnít look like a P.A.. All the ones Iíve seen are wet behind the ears or they glare at you."
"Heís an ex-professional student," Emma said. "But after two Ph.D.ís, temporary research jobs all over the show, and still no tenure, I think he gave it up as a bad job. I canít see him staying for long, though. Heís very competent."
"Is he married?" Sue asked.
"Knowing our luck, heís probably gay," Petra said.
"Or narcissistic," Kathy said. She glanced at Petra and Sue. "Do the bossís friends count when it comes to sexual harassment?" she asked.
Emma was ushering them towards the barbeque. "I can always claim that I donít know you," she said.
"Is Emma a good boss?" Sue asked Charles after Emma had continued on her rounds.
Charles turned over a steak. "Itís an interesting job," he said.
"In what way?" Kathy asked.
"I now know why personal assistants get big-headed. You really feel that you have your fingers on the reins of power. All that information ..."
"So youíre going to launch a coup against Emma any day?" Kathy said.
Charles shook his head. "Itís more fun being a fly on the wall. But if you want to write a thesis on Personal Ego as the Determinant of Policy, itís the place to be."
"Do you plan to stay there?" Petra asked.
Charles shook his head. "Iím going for a job in the Bureau of Ecclesiastical Economics," he said.
Sue looked puzzled. Petra pulled at the neck of his jumper and glanced down. "No dog collar," she said.
"It would be a conflict of interest," Charles said. "But my Ph.D. was on Schism and Amalgamation in Greek Mystery Religions in the first century B.C., which means that Iím ideally qualified." He bowed.
"So whatís this Ecclesiastical Economics place supposed to do?" Sue asked.
Kathy frowned. "I think I know," she said. "The government needs a miracle to get the economy straight. But because most people in this country who worship anything worship the same god, he or she has become complacent and has been a bit sparing on the miracles lately. So the government is looking at introducing a degree of competition into the field."
Charles speared a sausage and passed it to her. "Got it in one. Theyíve even got a couple of possible contenders." He rotated a steak. "Thereís BuddhaCorp, which is has substantial Asian backing, and The Animist Association, which has strong environmental links, particularly to the spirits of the forests and the streams. But it will be open tender, of course. To give minor or hitherto unknown religions a chance."
"But how will they get established?" Kathy asked.
"The existing churches will be required to share their facilities. Letís face it, most of them are grossly underutilised. Once a week and weddings, most of them. And multiskilling. Thereís no reason why the same person canít do Muslim on Friday, Jewish on Saturday, Christian on Sunday, and a couple of others during the week, apart from some irrational prejudices and closed-shop agreements. And as an additional aid, there will be a salvation levy of three cents on a loaf of bread and five cents on a cask of wine, to be distributed to suitable applicants by a suitably chosen panel."
"So whatís the job youíre going for?" Sue asked.
"Director of Armageddon," Charles said, stacking the steaks onto a plate. "More and more splinter sects are predicting the coming of the end of the world, millenium or no millenium. But theyíve all got different dates, so commercially itís a disaster area. If we can get them to agree, at least on the day that itís going to happen, if not the year, then the shops can organise their End of the World sales, the tourist operators can arrange to populate the mountain tops, the weather forecasters can recommend the best places for thunder and lightning."
He looked at the sky, at the gathering clouds, then picked up the plate.
"Better get this lot fed first," he said.
Kathy nodded approval. "We wouldnít want the sausages to be struck by lightning," she said.
As they tipped the last of the bones into the rubbish bag, and scraped the last crushed plastic cup off the lawn, Petra said, "We didnít find out if heís attached." She glared at Kathy. "You were too busy getting stuck into him."
"Heís a drug dealer," Kathy said. "And if you donít believe me, read Marx."
"Heís spunky," Petra said.
"Have you got his phone number?" Sue asked Emma.
Emma shook her head. "But you could check with Kathy in a couple of days. Because Charles asked me for hers."
Copyright © D.W. Walker, 1993
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