John, The Insurance Clerk
There was a very fine crack running across the ceiling, spreading from the corner and stretching out towards the light fitting. It wasn’t new. I’d stared at it every week since I started seeing Dr Ryman. I often find myself distracted by details like this when I should be thinking about weightier matters. Was the crack getting longer?
“Mr Noon? Did you hear the question?”
“Oh, sorry. Drifted off there.”
“Your sleep patterns, they’re regular? No nightmares?”
“Yes, yes... nothing out of the ordinary.”
From the corner of my eye, I could see Dr Ryman make a note in his journal then look back at me.
“I must say I’m surprised. Most men in your position would be having a few sleepless nights.”
“With the wedding? Ha! No, Elizabeth is taking care of all that.”
“Do you feel left out?”
“Not in the least. It’s her show really. I’ll just be glad when it’s over.”
“So there is some tension? You’ll feel relieved?”
“I don’t know... perhaps there was, but... talking to you always makes me feel so relaxed. I wish I could have invited you to the ceremony, or at least the reception –"
"It would not have been appropriate.”
“I know. But you’re practically the closest thing I have to family.”
“I just want to see you get better, John. I’m sure married life will suit you well.”
The timer on Dr Ryman’s desk gave a high-pitched chirrup. That was our 50 minutes.
I swung my feet off the couch and sat upright, smoothing down my tie then stretching my arms above my head. I always felt well rested after these sessions, no matter what we talked about. Fighting fit. Dr Ryman stood and put the journal aside, reaching out to shake my hand.
“Best of luck with the wedding, and I’ll see you again next week. I’m sorry to be interrupting your honeymoon. Where are you going again?”
“The south coast. Somewhere quiet.”
“Excellent. Well, Beryl has your prescription outside.”
We shook hands and I took my suit jacket from the hat-stand on my way out to reception.
Beryl looked over her bat-like spectacles and handed me a white paper bag. Not a flicker of a smile, same as ever.
I checked my watch and saw I had plenty of time to make it to the office on foot. Leadenhall Market was crammed with bowler hats and pencil skirts making their way to work as the shopkeepers wrote up their daily specials on blackboards and arranged their merchandise in neat displays. I breathed deep and noticed the smell of carrots, freshly dug, with the earth still clinging to them. It was often that way with me after the sessions: everything seemed brighter, colours more distinct, smells crisper. The effect of feeling unburdened, I suppose.
The stairs leading up to the Ludgate & Smythe entrance were clogged with two-way traffic. I nodded to the doorman and skipped through a gaggle of junior executives, making my way up to the Marine department on the third floor.
There’s always an extra buzz about the place on a Monday morning. The typing pool girls were catching up on the weekend gossip, a double delivery of mail had arrived, and the telephones had already started ringing. I was rather surprised to find Mabel wasn’t in her usual place outside my office. She generally arrives before me, but her chair was empty and a pile of mail was on her desk.
I put my head round the corner to talk to Gloria, Clive’s secretary. She was on a call, but she put her hand over the mouthpiece as I approached and spoke in a stage whisper.
“Good morning, Mr Noon. Mabel’s been caught behind a police cordon in Kensington so she’ll be late. I’ve typed up the agenda for the Monday Morning Meeting.”
She handed me a sheet of paper and I took it back to my office. This was likely to be the busiest part of my working day, so I thought I’d savour it.
I sat back in the leather chair and sighed at my desk. Apart from a phone, a lamp, a photograph of Elizabeth, and an empty in-tray, it was bare. Between them, Clive and Mabel had been very efficient in reducing my workload over the previous week or two, knowing that I would be going away on honeymoon. Clive was rather too efficient about it, in my opinion. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was proving my role redundant. It wasn’t like I were going away forever.
Gloria knocked on the open door.
“Mr Noon? The boardroom is all yours. I’ll start rounding up the team. And how do you like your tea?”
“Oh, thank you – milk and two please.”
I picked up the solitary sheet of paper and tried to carry it in a way that didn’t make me look like the post boy. It was harder than I’d thought. I went back to my desk and found a notepad and a pen. That was more substantial.
The others were taking their seats as I arrived. Monday morning meeting is small but important: just the eight senior insurance associates with myself as primus inter pares, as it were. Gloria distributed the agenda and put a tea tray in the centre of the table, pouring the first cups. I sat at the head of the table and shook out a couple of my tablets, washing them down with a sip of English Breakfast. Gloria took Mabel's usual seat and flipped up the top sheet on her shorthand pad.
“So: Item 1 on the agenda is... me, apparently. I won’t be here next week –”
The table rumbled with murmurs of congratulations and good wishes.
“...but it’s business as usual this week, so don’t use that as an excuse to slow down. It looks like we have a lot on, especially with Item 2 on the agenda – the Sverge fleet deal. How’s that going, Alan? Any closer to a contract?”
I knew the answer just by looking at him. Alan wasn’t the tidiest of executives at the best of times, but this morning he looked red-eyed and the front of his shirt was stained with what appeared to be egg yolk.
“It’s proving to be rather more difficult than we expected. It’s a 40-strong fleet and the paperwork on some of the ships is downright dubious. I’ve had to send four extra men out there to make valuations in person and all the while, the Sverge board are saying that we’re treating them like criminals and the whole deal could be off the table if we don’t sew it up in the next fortnight, and there’s Morgan Insurance in the wings just waiting for us to slip up. It’s all very... trying.”
I leaned forward and spoke in my most soothing tones.
“Alan: you’re doing very well in the circumstances. If you need me to pick up anything, I’m free to help. Just pass on the paperwork and I’ll –”
Gloria cleared her throat meaningfully.
“I’m sorry, Gloria, was there something?”
“Clive – I mean, Mr Hepworth – was very clear about your workload, Mr Noon. You’re not to get tied up with anything that could drag on beyond this week. You would only end up having to hand it over again on Friday.”
It made sense, to an extent. Alan, who had brightened just for a moment, slumped lower in his seat as Gloria’s words loaded the burden back onto his shoulders. I saw the breath being crushed out of him.
“I’ll see what resources I can put your way, Alan... Now, Item 3: the pitch to Northeastern. Before you say anything, Charlie, I’ve been thinking about this. Northeastern have been shifting from passengers to cargo for the last few years, but their ships are still rated as the same as when they were first valued. I think if I do some research into their Atlantic fleet and figure out their new liabilities, we could go in there next week and really –”
Gloria cleared her throat again.
“Next week, yes. Point taken... Anyway Charlie, that’s what I’d do if I were here. Get onto it.”
I looked down at the next item. Maybe it was that – the movement of my head, looking down at the table too quickly – that gave me a blood-rushing moment of vertigo. Maybe I should have had a proper breakfast. Or maybe it was simply the words. Item 4: The Lasserre. There was a familiarity to them, like a perfume remembered from childhood but untethered, attached to neither a person nor a place.
“Mr Noon? Are you feeling...?”
“Sorry – this... the Lasserre. What is that?”
Hugo Pilsbury, a senior account director with more swagger than sense, brayed at me from the other end of the table.
“Yeah. Thought I’d raise that. Supertanker, just refitted, en route from the shipyard to their Prussian owners' HQ. Then yesterday the coastguard in Piraeus reports that it’s sunk in the Adriatic. Prussians say otherwise. No sign of the thing anyway. Don’t know who to believe.”
“So they’re not making a claim?”
“Not at all. They’re saying everything’s fine – rather too loudly if you ask me, but there you are. Frankly, if they’re not registering a claim, I don’t want to waste my limited time clearing it up. But these things do tend to bite one on the backside. It’s a big old tub and they’re covered for a pretty penny. Best to flag it, that's all.” There were a couple of nods around the table. It was probably nothing, but it might be fraud. Sink an old empty ship. Agree to take on an expensive, fragile cargo - furs or radios - which you also transport by land to the dockside. Then claim the ship sank with the cargo on board: you get paid out for the full ship, but you still have the cargo. And no one's going to send divers down looking to see if the waterlogged fur or fried radios are really down there. Not a trick you could pull often, but if the Prussian owners were in financial trouble...
“You’re right. I’ll go out there.”
Gloria looked up at me from her pad. I wasn’t going to let her win this one. If I handed this off to someone else, it would probably not be looked into at all and I’d spend the rest of the week making chains of paperclips in my office. I’d come out of my chat with Dr Ryman feeling ready to take on the world, and I wasn’t about to waste that energy.
“It’s a simple fact-find. I’ll fly out to Athens and take a look myself – it’s most likely an identification error. I’ll be back the day after tomorrow.”
“What about your wedding preparations? Won’t your fiancée want – “
“That’s all under control. Hugo: ask your girl to copy the file for me. I’ll get myself on the next flight. Any other business?”
Gloria’s jaw seemed to be working itself loose but no words were forthcoming.
“Very good. Thank you, gentlemen.”
Fifteen minutes later, Hugo’s secretary delivered a brown folder to my office. The Lasserre. The name still tinkled like a shaken chandelier. A Norwegian-designed supertanker, built in France, owned by Prussians (although the paperwork seemed a little uncertain on that point), registered in Midway, sunk off Greece on its way to Egypt, insured by Ludgate & Smythe of London. I’d perhaps oversimplified the complexity of the problem during the meeting. This was a case I could get my teeth into.
With the folder under my arm, I left the office and headed for the stairs, passing Gloria’s desk. She stood as I approached.
“Mabel has been leaving messages. She said she’d be here in half an hour. Then she said she’d be here in 20 minutes. She’s probably only ten minutes away now. Don’t you want to hold on so she can sort out your travel arrangements?”
“I’m quite capable of booking a flight on my own. I’m going to grab an overnight bag and head straight to the airport. Tell Mabel not to worry. I’m sure she’ll find plenty of work to keep her busy until Wednesday.”
With that, I strode to the door, down the stairs, and out into Lime Street with a sense of freedom and purpose that I hadn’t felt in weeks. I was out on my own.