Marlene has been entertaining again. By that I mean, of course, that Marlene has been giving parties, rather than having us all rolling in the aisles with her wit and humour, an event as unlikely as Tony Blair turning out to be a socialist after all. Quite apart from anything else, Marlene would never forget her dignity long enough to relax and make her guests truly comfortable.

Consequently, Marlene's parties are elegant, well-catered and terribly, terribly dull. She always invites everyone from the office, to make it look as though she has a lot of friends, and all the other people there are City types, too. So we perch there, on her spindly antique furniture, trying not to drop bits of exquisite canape on the carpet, and longing to talk to someone different for a change.

The only way I can survive these events - staying away is not an option - is to take a bottle of fizz and a plate of food off to some cosy corner and have a good chat with Laura, where we usually find some topic to have a laugh about. We even have a few favourites, such as adding to our list of ways to kill Neil (No 231, add cyanide to his super-deluxe latte from the local American-style coffee shop, which would be disguised by all the sickly almond and hazelnut syrups he gets them to put in).

But somehow, in Marlene's orbit, we always find the conversation taking a slightly more depressing turn, towards "what I want to be when I grow up". And one thing is certain. What we don't want to grow up to be is Marlene.

Most of my friends find this hard to understand, especially the ones trying to scrape a living in the arts; they point out her gorgeous flat in Chelsea, her swish motor, her wonderful clothes, her expensively maintained hair and figure. Then I turn round and point out her lack of friends, her taut and strained face muscles, her inability to laugh. As a role model, she's terrifying.

So, says Laura, does that mean I don't agree with the newspaper article that said that the best way to help women crash through the glass ceiling was to find them mentors, and female ones at that? Well, I replied, it's a great theory, isn't it, but if anyone had offered me Marlene on my first day in the City, I'd be making clocks in Cornwall by now. Besides, crashing though a glass ceiling sounds awfully dangerous; much better to cut a neat hole and climb through it.

And then we fall to wondering whether Marlene was always like that, or whether she's become like that because of her job. I tend to the former view, and I can just see her at school in Germany winning prizes for neatness and deportment. Laura inclines more to the idea tat she's had some great disappointment in life, which is why she's so uptight now. Only one way to find out, so we extract ourselves from the corner and traipse off to ask Marlene about her past.

"Oh, dear," she sighs, wen we ask about her parents, "my poor father. What a disappointment to him I am. You see, he was a very famous comedian, and he always wanted me to follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no sense of humour. Still, I suppose it's not the end of the world. It does, after all, make me perfect for a long career in the City."

The Trader

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