short stories · wording · worldbuilding

The Stained-Glass Puzzle Lady

22Dec 2011

If one should take a meeting with the CEO and founder of the Streitenfeld group- and if One is Anyone, one likely will – one might notice a woman in the corner, with Snow White’s colouring and Audrey Hepburn’s style. Then again, one might not notice, because said woman is sitting still and quiet, no trace of her at all but the soft scratch of her pen or a glance from under dark lashes. Look again and she might not be there at all, but instead holding a fresh cup of tea and murmuring soft apology for the interruption, the light gleaming softly off a strand of pearls. With Mark Streitenfeld in the room, all booming voice and broad shoulders, it’s so easy to forget she’s there. It’s nicer to forget she’s there, a relief to let her slip from attention. This woman is Justine Sureval, Mark Streitenfeld’s diligent and loyal PA. She is a first glance a ghost, at second glance a paragon, and at third, a mystery.

She is: warm charm and cool class, keen mind and sharp wit, unfussed pragmatism and uncanny self-control, haunted melancholy and hungry smile. Juste (Justine Sureval, that is) is a woman creature presenting a sophisticated collection of beautiful angles and aspects, immaculately fitted together into a whole that – while harmonious, with nothing out of place – is never exactly the sum of its parts.

A stained-glass woman, Justine is fascinating but so intimidating; easy to understand why most mortals (bless ‘em!) admire the cover and leave the book alone. It’s only if one were to start picking her apart, after all, that they may find the books don’t balance quite – but why worry over that, when the books are so beautifully illuminated?

Here is a secret: this book is not for you. The cover deceives for your protection.

Here is a creature ‘whip-smart’, ‘sharp as a pin’, with ‘razor wit’: note the words. This is a mind crafted into a weapon, a Soldier not of flesh but of thought, carrying no spear but words and Will. She’s blindingly intelligent, but hides her scorn when others aren’t. Well, usually: there are times her alienation and impatience are too great for even her to suppress, and crackle in the air around her.

Like any Soldier, Justine needs focus, a mission – without a target, this blade is panicked and pained. Her prowess and her appetites both are great, and like a shark (that perfect predator) she must keep moving, must keep that nose to the grindstone, must have an ax to grind – any ax will do.

She is gifted – impossibly, ridiculously gifted – in so many things, and yet there is always a restlessness to her, for she wants to learn and be and do and master moremoremore.
An example: She is fluent in dozens of languages, plays dozens of instruments, and has known dozens of interesting historical personages. This is not what makes her a paragon; she is very, very old.
She speaks dozens of languages, but has seen thousands fall from use. She plays dozens of instruments, but her fingers itch to play scales that haven’t existed for centuries. She has known (and ruined) so many interesting people, but without backward-cast eyes of history has missed the chance to touch so many more. All of this causes her immense frustration, and significant melancholy.

If she were a sour thing, pinched, twisted, bitter, hollowed out with resentment, she would make more sense. She is not. She likes many things; among them wine, the Blues, and traditional spicy chocolates. True, her sense of humour is so scathing dry that most never realise she has one – and yes, oft falls to the cruel side of sarcasm – but it is there, snuggled between a passionate love of music and a fascination with fine dining. Catch her halfway though a bottle of Pinot and you will find her laughing, her sardonic cleverness blossoming into lush, sparkling wit. She cannot be a true Daughter of Joy, but feels it important to at least manage enjoyment.

If she were a glutton for pleasure (a glutton for anything) she would make more sense. Let us be very clear: Justine has her vices, and enjoys every one unapologetically and without hesitation – but she never quite lets go. Always there’s that obsessive self-control, that need to keep herself together as if she’s afraid, somehow, of flying apart. Chemicals, sadism, sex, pain; she has the rapacity and passions to stamp her firmly Libertine, but so often seems missing the abandon that marks a true addict. Even sailing across society’s lines, she never crosses her own.

If she played one of those ‘career women’ so popular in the unforgiving public imagination (with blocky shoulder pads and a frost-blonde chignon), aggressively scathing, utterly focused on personal dominance, she would make more sense. Not so. She has played the Ice Queen in the past, has employed (and enjoyed) that unrelenting ambition and cold, cold air. Nowadays she mimics Ocean: unfathomable, mysterious, patient. True, her hair is slick black and cut in a bob, but too feminine to manage severity. She seems to prefer these days a softer road to power, one – as a long-dead poet once put it – “achieved by woman’s charm and yielding grace, not that clumsy mimicry of heavy-handed men”.

Yet…yielding? If Juste had lost her edge, ‘gone soft’, that would make sense. She hasn’t. She is diligent, exacting, industrious and shrewd, as canny as ever. Her expectations for others are impossible high, but far lower than the bar set for herself. She is ruthless – or we could call it sensible – she does. She can be very cruel, she can be very kind. And true, her tongue cuts deep…but it’s hard to mind when her smile’s warm and sweet as morphine and even cruelty slips in soft as a needle’s kiss. Those who take the time to know her bask in a glowing charm, the sort that curls around the heart and nestles there, growing so slowly that one never has a chance to resist.

And so on, and so on, and on. For every page-fragment, every shard of this stained-glass puzzle, there’s another facet to consider in another light and it all suggests something too fractured and complex to understand without looking far too hard, for far too long and we all know what happens to people that do that.

Close the book now, and walk away. Some books things people just don’t add up and never will. Get up, put the kettle on, and count yourself lucky to leave this book unread next to tea gone cold.