‘Who’s paying you?’ she asked.
‘How many of you people have got to die before you do something about it?’ I didn’t answer.
We stared at each other: she gave way first.
I could guess why. She didn’t like to look at me. I wasn’t a pretty picture. She didn’t want to remember.
It was a long time ago that we were together. I had cut a very different figure. I was young, good-looking, bearded, radical, and going places. I weighed about three stone less.
Nowadays, I don’t wear a beard, though if I forget to shave for a few days the difference is hard to tell. My politics gave up the ghost when food and drink were in short supply. I don’t often have anywhere to go and when I do it takes me ten times as long.
‘Are you still practising?’
‘Getting near perfect,’ I said jauntily but without a great deal of originality.
‘Well, anyhow, yes, a bit. I haven’t got an office. I do ... bits and pieces from home ...’
I figured: let her go on asking questions. When it got to my turn, she’d owe me some answers.
We were sitting in the Covent Garden Plaza. On the lower deck. Outside the wine bar and rib joint. We used to go there before. It seemed as good a place to meet as any. It wasn’t too far from the Temple, where her chambers were, and though it wasn’t cheap, I was on expenses.
I guess I should have said: Anne’s a barrister and the way I got to know her is that I’m a solicitor. A lot of people don’t really understand the difference: solicitors are the ones who rip you off in an office, while barristers sell you out in court. Solicitors work in firms; barristers work in chambers. There’s a bunch more I could tell you but I doubt you really care and I know for sure I don’t.
‘How’s chambers going?’
It was a long time since we’d met: we’d gone in diametrically opposite directions. She’d gone up, I’d gone down.
‘OK.’ She shrugged:
‘It doesn’t feel like the same place any more, you know ...’
Anne was in Alexander Keenan’s chambers. Alex Keenan when he wanted to remind you he was just one of the boys. They were, so they claimed, ‘special’. Chambers which only defended criminals, never prosecuted; they acted for tenants, not landlords; employees not employers; battered women, not the violent man. They were ‘political’ and proud of it.
Anne could pass for working class - at a pinch. Her father had been a union official. She’d been a social worker first, later took up law. When I knew her, she was about twenty-nine, but still in the last year of her training, as a pupil barrister. Also, heavily feminist, and stridently gay.
She wasn’t what you’d call conventionally attractive. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t really attractive at all. She was overweight, wore glasses that couldn’t have suited her less, and dressed like she was putting out the garbage. But, like everyone else, she didn’t like to think of herself as unattractive. Somewhere deep inside of her, the only way she could convince herself she wasn’t the next thing to a sack of potatoes was if once in a while she made it with a man.
That was why she’d got it together with me.
She hadn’t changed. In the fifteen minutes and most of a bottle we’d been sitting there, she’d begun to think: well, maybe he isn’t too disgusting, too fat, too bleary-eyed, too embarrassing, to remind herself she could turn men on as well.
I’d changed, though. Some time during the last five years, as I groped feebly to find the safest gutter, I’d lost interest. I don’t mean in her particularly, but in it all. It wasn’t worth the effort.
‘Where’re you living?’ she asked. This was standard. Probe a bit; find out if he or she is living alone; what part of town (after all, and just for example, you’d have to be pretty desperate to go south of the river); is the desire enough to do it in your own home, even if it means waking up with an alien being in your bed, not just having to be polite to them first thing in the morning, but having to fix them coffee, maybe even something to eat.
‘Same place,’ I answered.
I wasn’t exactly being honest with Anne. She’d asked if I was practising, and I’d said I was practising from home. She assumed that meant: practising law, as a solicitor.
The last time I did anything as a solicitor was when I sued my former partner for twenty thousand pounds, as my share of our firm, and settled out of court for five hundred.
That was some years ago, soon after Sandy kicked me out of the office when I turned up strung out on cocaine at two o’clock in the afternoon while she’d spent the morning explaining to some handjob in a purple gown and a horse-hair wig to cover his remaining few hairs why it was we hadn’t prepared the case, told the client (for which read: thieving little bastard) he was due in court to watch the scales of justice come down against him, or instructed a barrister to put up a show our villain could complain about while he spent the next five years sewing mailbags.
Yeah, I was still in the same place. In all manner of ways. Same home. Same clothes (you’d be surprised how they last when you haven’t got any money). Same waiting around for my father to die and leave me enough money to take off for some place else. Same disillusionment with law, the legal system, lawyers and - above all - so-called left-wing lawyers, getting a healthy living pretending to fight the state on behalf of the oppressed and all along taking away from the victim the one true solace he or she ever had: they never gave me a chance.
So I’d given up law, more or less. Instead, I hung my shingle out as what the glossies call a private eye. I put my name in the yellow pages. (Let your fingers do the walking. Let your money do the talking.) I advertised in the legal press: ‘confidential enquiries and process serving by qualified solicitor.’
You can guess which I got more of. In the last three years, I hung about outside more council houses than you’ve had bad hamburgers, waiting for some violent husband to show up, so’s I could overawe, overwhelm and overpower him with the majesty of the law by hitting him on the nearest part of his anatomy with a bit of funny parchment that’s got Latin written all over it and that tells him he’s not allowed to beat up on his wife any more, and run like hell.
I’d like to say: I’ve scraped by. I’d like to say that to give you the idea I’m not the lazy, incompetent slob I’m making myself out to he, but a modest, unassuming bloke, rich in integrity, downplaying his achievements. Unfortunately, neither would be true. I haven’t scraped by (anyhow, on what I’ve earned), and I’m sure as hell not modest, unassuming or rich in integrity.
I’d place the time at about three or four months before this meet with Anne I’ve left you in the middle of that I can set my hand on my heart, wait for it to calm down, and assure you that I’d definitely stopped scraping by. Meaning? Meaning I owed more money than I could dream of. Meaning that if the people I owed it to were clean, decent, down-to-earth capitalists who understood what a fine and proper and natural thing it was to go bankrupt, that’s where I would’ve been. Meaning, the people I owed money to weren’t clean, decent or down-to-earth.
One of the reasons I’m so scathing about south of the river (the other is some residual sense of good taste) is because I live so close to it. I live on Redcliffe Square, which some of the residents like to call - imaginatively - West Chelsea, an area of London no cab-driver ever heard of. The rest of London knows it as Earl’s Court, otherwise Kangaroo Valley from years ago when all the Aussies used to hang out there, otherwise Fag Alley.
You don’t need a lot of insider information to work out why it’s called Fag Alley. That’s where all the gays live. Well, maybe not all of them, but enough to seem like it. And certainly all the gays of a particular type: leather-jacketed, slightly balding, moustachioed, the sort you wake up in the middle of the night and find pissing on your carpet - or you.
But what people don’t know quite so well is that it’s got its own mob. By mob I mean exactly what you think I mean. Gangsters. Hoodlums. Thugs. The only difference between them and the best the East End has to offer is that they slit your arse open before they cut your balls off. They’re into all the usual rackets. Gambling. Prostitution (female, male, and who knows or cares). Drugs (soft or hard). They lend money, too.
Of course, only a fool borrows from them. Only a fool, or a down-and-out solicitor with vague expectations of a timely parental death, whose brain isn’t working too good. (You are wondering: what’s the difference? ‘Are the two mutually exclusive?’ I hear you cry. There is a difference, though. The solicitor is qualified, a professional person, he is educated. That means: he does things the same way a fool does but he gets the chance to do a whole lot more of them).
About ten months ago I borrowed five hundred quid from one of these Earl’s Court community workers. Even I knew it was a pretty stupid thing to do, but, I guess, if you’re born lucky you’ll find your way out of any mess, and if you’re born unlucky it won’t make that much difference.
About five months ago, this community worker’s colleagues came around to my Redcliffe Square basement in order to discuss my problems with me. Specifically: why I hadn’t paid back the money.
I told them about my mother dying ten years ago. That didn’t impress them. I told them my youngest sister was a drug addict. That didn’t impress them either. I told them my oldest sister was a schoolteacher. One of them was a wee bit shocked, but it still didn’t make a real difference. I told them my father was bound to die some day: they asked if I’d put a contract out on him. Finally, we reached an agreement: I told them I’d pay them back within the week.
Now this is where else fools and solicitors are different. A fool couldn’t’ve done what I did. I don’t say he wouldn’t have thought of it. He just wouldn’t have had the chance. I went to see my bank manager. He was pleased to see me. He was another community worker, concerned about my problems. I told him a different story than I’d told the other lot. I told him I was past all my difficulties. I told him I was going back to work. I told him I’d had an offer from a property company, that I could handle their portfolio if I set up in practice again. I told him that was what I was going to do.
People don’t understand banks. They’re frightened of asking for money from the bank manager. They think every time they’re overdrawn the bank manager breathes fire and puts his commandoes on red alert. Wrong. Consider: you’re a nice, sweet, respectable, responsible person. You earn your money and you pay your keep. Maybe once ten years ago you wrote out a cheque that might’ve bounced if the multi-national corporation or local authority you work for happened to go bust before they paid your wages. That’s about the worst you ever did. How much do you pay the bank?
Right. You don’t pay the bank peanuts. If you’ve got more than the next month’s mortgage payment sitting in your account, you don’t get charged for anything. No charge per transaction. No charge for cheques drawn or paid in. No charge for standing orders. No charge for having an account. They even send you those pretty little books and plastic cards with magnetic strips on them free of charge. (If you ask nicely, they give you neat little covers for them - also free of charge.) You’re not worth sweet fanny adams to the bank.
Where do you think banks get their money from? They get it from lending it. They get it from overdrafts they’ve terrified people into thinking they have to pay back. They get it from taking risks. Not too great a risk, mind you, ‘cos the bank manager who doesn’t get the right rate of returns isn’t gonna be lending in South Kensington for much longer. (I’m told that in Hackney you can borrow a fiver if you leave your car as security.) That’s what bank managing is about. Calculating risks. If you’re a good risk, there’s no limit to what you can have. If you’re a bad risk, well, you might still pay some of it back.
That’s what I did. I borrowed money from my bank manager to re-establish myself as a solicitor. He lent it me to re-establish myself as a solicitor. Also, he lent it me because my family has been banking with his lot since before his father’d started dreaming about someone to carry on the clerking. But he lent it me.
My other community worker was impressed. It’s interesting. Money gets you money. Also, it gets you respect. He said to me: ‘How come you didn’t pay up before?’ I said: ‘It was tied up.’ Suddenly, I was no longer a bum he was extorting 20% per month from, but an institution he was investing in. He said: ‘You and I should get together. We should get to know each other better. We should get real close.’ I looked down at his pants. A thing like that could hurt. I passed up the opportunity.
There is, of course, an inconsistency in what I have chosen to reveal thus far. On the one hand, I have admitted lying to Anne Godwin about ‘practising’. On the other, I’m telling you how I financially organized myself back into practice as a solicitor. There is a solution, if you read the small print. I didn’t say that in fact I’d gone back into practice as a solicitor.
The solution, such as it is, poses a problem you’ll have worked out for yourself. I had to come up with money, to pay the bank with (or go bankrupt. I should have mentioned: a bankrupt solicitor gets what is quaintly called ‘struck off the roll’. For those of you who don’t know what that spells, I get to not be a solicitor any more. In turn, I get to not borrow from the bank any more. Around and around.)
Now, funnily enough, by some sort of coincidence, how I burrowed my way out of that one and how I came to be back in Covent Garden drinking wine with Fat Annie, and wondering if my client would believe a meal on expenses, have just a little bit in common. I’ll tell you about it.
It didn’t happen suddenly. For about two months, I lived pretty high off the bank. My bank manager wasn’t that much of a fool. He’d done one pretty dumb thing: lending me money. But he wasn’t so stupid as to think it’d start pouring back in the very next day. (As a matter of fact, it would’ve been a disaster if it had. The whole point was - remember - to make a profit out of it, i.e. interest. Just in case, or ‘cos he got the wobblies, he sent me a couple of clients. I had to lie my way out of acting for them without explaining I didn’t have a current practice certificate any more, and hadn’t paid the compulsory professional insurance.)
Then for another couple of months I worked really hard at process-serving. I touted for work like crazy. I rang every solicitor I’d ever acted for and hustled them for work. I slapped parchment on more bums than I care to remember. I got hit by three of them, but only one of them hurt more than my pride. One of the advantages of being fat is people aren’t too sure if you’re strong, or just overweight.
Process-serving was, of course, getting me nowhere. I was about ready to think in terms of an extended vacation abroad, and I wouldn’t have been sending my bank manager a postcard. Maybe I’d sting the community worker for a bit of ‘investment money’. Split was on my mind.
Then I got a call. Funny thing. Just before that call, I would’ve said I’d used up all my chances (and there weren’t that many to begin with). Right after, I had this feeling I was on my feet bigger than when I’d been at the height of my (so-called) career. Funnier still: I was right.
‘Can I speak with’ (note, not ‘to’) ‘Mr Woolf, please...’
‘Who’s calling?’ (I did my imitation of Lily Tomlin.)
‘I don’t think he’ll know my name. It’s Mrs Nicholas. Is Mr Woolf available?’
‘I’ll see for you, Mrs Nicholas. Can you tell me what it’s in connection with?’
‘Oh. I see. Perhaps... Perhaps you would remind him he once stayed in my house. In Wiltshire.’
I thought fast. She sounded too old for someone I’d slept with. I was certain (well, as near as I could be), it wasn’t someone I’d borrowed money from. Wiltshire? I hadn’t ever been in Wiltshire. For a start. It’s south of the river. Isn’t it? I was getting about ready to tell her I wasn’t available when she said:
‘Is that Mr Woolf?
Wily old bitch.
‘I’ll put you through now,’ I sneered.
‘Mrs Nicholas? David Woolf here. How can I help you?’ My voice dropped three octaves. ‘You don’t remember me, do you, Mr Woolf.’ It wasn’t a question.
‘Well, I’m... Er... Of course... That is to say...’ I wasn’t normally lost for words.
‘There’s no reason why you should,’ she added quickly: ‘You stayed in my house, a few years ago, with my son Jack...’
Now that was a name that rang a bell: Jack Nicholas. I was sure I knew it. I just wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t ‘cos it sounded like Jack Nicholson. It wasn’t ‘cos it sounded like Jack Nicklaus. Just in time, I remembered: he was someone I’d been at school with.
‘No, I don’t think you were at school with my son...’
‘My son was a barrister. His chambers came to our home. A sort of, well, he-called it a chambers’ outing. I think... Your wife... One of the members?’
My wife? I hadn’t been married. Ever. Had I?
It was enough, though, to put me on the right lines: Anne Godwin; chambers; Jack Nicholas - they used to call him the Jackdaw, the way his head was shaped, and he’d talk - lecture or argue, I never heard him do anything else - his head bobbing at you like he was stealing the eyes out of your skull.
‘Yes, of course,’ I lied: ‘I’m sorry I didn’t recall. How are you, Mrs Nicholas? I cared about as much as I cared if it was raining outside.
‘Thank you. Yes. I was wondering... I gather you’re not practising, as a solicitor... Any more... But... I saw an advertisement... In a magazine... Would it be, the Law Society’s Journal?’
‘Law Society’s Gazette. Solicitor’s Journal. Yes, I advertise in both of them. Could have been either.’ She wanted me for one of two things: confidential enquiries, or process-serving. The odds were stacked in favour of the latter.
‘Yes. Thank you.’ What a grateful lady, I thought. ‘You read about my son? You weren’t at the funeral, I think. Of course,’ she added quickly: ‘There was no reason why you should have been. You weren’t that close. But your wife was there...’
There are times when even I am impressed by my intellect. I worked out the Jackdaw was dead.
‘I, er, well, she wasn’t my wife...’ Was all I said. It wouldn’t’ve caused me convulsions to say I was sorry the jerk was dead. I just never thought of it.
‘Oh. Yes. Thank you.’
Stop with the thank-yous, I screamed silently.
‘I was wondering... Would it be possible... To see you, Mr Woolf? On a... Well, confidential matter...’
Like: confidential as in confidential enquiries? Hell, yes, no one wanted to see me on one of them before. I didn’t even know what they looked like.
We arranged to meet in exactly a week’s time. She would, she said, be in town in any event, and she would rather see me while she was already up. She didn’t say: it would be more convenient to see you while I’m in town anyway. More like: when I have another excuse to be in town.
We were going to meet in Harrods tea-room. That was good for me for two reasons. First of all, it was near enough for me to walk, which saved the bus-fare. Secondly, I could tell her it was near where I ‘was’ (she wasn’t to know if she was talking to my office or my home). If I was near Harrods, I might well be (for all she knew) in an office in South Kensington, or Knightsbridge, or - even! - Belgravia.
‘How will I know you?’ I remembered to ask.
‘I’ll remember you, Mr Woolf. I never forget a face.’
I thought: this may be it. Five years ago, there was only one face to remember. Now, there were at least two faces, and a handful of chins.
Part of me expected her to no-show. It could be a gag, from the one or two people I’d stayed in touch with who had followed my decline with cathartic attention to detail. Or, she might have chickened out. Most likely of all, no one went to Harrods for tea any more; the store worked their way through the telephone directory to book dates with suckers like me who’d’ve ordered something they had to pay for before they worked out it was a con.
‘Mr Woolf?’ A lady of about fifty-five, greying hair, and wearing an extremely large hat, hovered over me. Her hair was what they called blue-rinsed. She was wearing a dark grey suit. She looked so smart she could’ve been one of my mother’s friends.
‘Right. Mrs Nicholas?’ I remembered something I’d been taught at school between Latin and cricket and bending over for the house bully: I stood up.
‘I did have difficulty remembering you,’ she admitted: ‘You’ve changed.’
I was fat. My suit was worn and had forgotten the name of my neighbourhood cleaner. My shoes would’ve fainted at the sight of boot-black. But I had shaved. With a blunt razor, admittedly, but no one could say I had more than a six o’clock shadow.
It was three o’clock.
‘Can I get you some tea?’ I offered. I hadn’t used all the bank’s money yet, though tea at Harrods might well take care of what was left.
‘I think that must be for me to do, thank you,’ she said quietly.
We weren’t meeting socially, I wasn’t, eh wot, a gentleman taking a lady to tea - but professionally, and she was the client, for which read she was about to buy me.
I inclined my head with what I hope looked like graciousness but was thinking how many days can I survive on cream cakes.
After the waiter in the waistcoat had dumped the silver salver, and Mrs Nicholas had played mother (she’d just lost a child, it was the least I could let her do), we got down to business with a directness that would’ve made my community worker look like he was dissembling.
‘Did you know my son Jack had died? Before I telephoned, I mean?’
‘Well, no, to tell the truth.’ (Buy me tea at Harrods and I’ll tell you no lies.)
‘I, uh, don’t move in the same circles any more...’
‘I gathered.’ She was no dufus. (Dufus = jerk = dumbo = idiot = someone who lives south of the river = etc.)
‘He died five weeks ago.’
She paused. For a second there, I thought she was waiting for me to say something. Then I realized it was deliberate. She was weighing things up in her mind. Once she said what came next, a secret idea had turned real.
‘I want you to investigate his death, Mr Woolf. I want you to find out... how it happened...’ Then, in a whisper, she added:
‘I want you to find out who did it, Mr Woolf...’
I swallowed hard. The back of my throat was dry. My hand was trembling too much to hold a cup. This sort of thing didn’t happen. Not to me.
‘You. Want. Me. To. Find. Out. How. Your. Son. Died? OK?’
‘Yes. That’s correct, Mr Woolf. I’ll pay, of course,’ she added quickly, as if my hesitation might be on account of I thought she was asking me to do it as a favour. For staying in her house maybe?
To myself I repeated the words over. She wants me to find out how her son died.
I was caught between two conflicting impulses. I oughta put as much distance between myself and this fruitcake as I could. But there could be a lotta loot in it.
I needed time to think:
‘Uh, maybe you should tell me what happened?’
She nodded slowly. Picked up her cup. Sipped her tea. Quietly. Not a slurp, not a gulp. The way if other people ate or drank I might just have found them a bit more tolerable to have around. Then she told me.
‘He died in an accident. He was on his bicycle. It was on a Wednesday, the twenty-fifth of last month. It happened at a quarter to eleven. He was on his way home from his chambers.’
The big deal wasn’t exactly crystal clear.
‘He had carried his bicycle on to the train and only had a short distance to go to reach home.’
At least she was giving me plenty of time to think. It was about as interesting as an advert for Kellogg’s cornflakes.
‘I think I ought to say, the police said he was intoxicated.’
For the first time, she was talking a language I understood.
‘The driver did not stop. He hasn’t been found. There was an inquest. His head of chambers represented us. Alexander Keenan. You know him, of course,’ she added flatly.
It depends what you mean by know. I wouldn’t exactly say kissing cousins.
Another pause. She was getting to the real point.
‘My son... Jack... He was... He was a very careful man, Mr Woolf. Even as a child. He was well-behaved, never in trouble, always cautious. It may... It may even be that he carried it to a fault.’
‘What was the verdict?’ I wanted to get her back on the track. I needed a eulogy to Jackdaw like a hole in the head.
‘Thank you. Accidental death. But... But it was really that he had died... as a result of drink. I do not dispute that he had been drinking. I am in no position to do so. There was a blood sample. Some of his colleagues had been drinking with him. But it seemed to be all that the coroner paid any attention to. He kept saying how dangerous it could be on a bicycle, because people only think about the dangers of driving a car in drink.’
I nodded sombrely, suppressing a smile at the quaint old expression ‘in drink’.
‘I... I felt he was using my son’s death, Mr Woolf. Using it to make his point.’
I shrugged: ‘Coroners like to see their names in the newspapers...’
‘Yes. Thank you. I understand that. But he wasn’t really interested... in how Jack died. I felt... I felt none of them were, Mr Woolf. None of them,’ she repeated, and for once I was ahead of her: none of them, including Jackdaw’s colleagues.
‘You see... What I said about being careful: he had been drinking, so he took the train home most of the way. That was Jack. If he had been too drunk to travel on his bike, he would have walked from the station.’
It wasn’t enough to mount a state trial on. The police said he was too drunk to be riding his hike. There were independent witnesses who said he’d been drinking. To me it added up like the guy was simply too drunk to be out on a bike, and here was a mother who didn’t want to have to carve on a gravestone: ‘A loving son - dead, drunk and incapable.’
She read my thoughts. Like an open book. I was really bad at this private eye game.
‘Is... Is there a Mr Nicholas?’ I was playing for more time to think. I remembered the ‘phone call: she’d wanted an excuse to be in town, other than me.
‘Yes. My husband, Jack’s father, is the Reverend Nicholas of St Thomas’. He does not know I am seeing you,’ she answered my barely concealed question. She went on to answer the next one without being asked, too:
‘My husband is a highly-regarded figure in the church, Mr Woolf. You are not a church-goer, I think?
‘No, I’m Jewish.’
‘Ah, yes, thank you. We are a very tolerant family, Mr Woolf. I think - I hope - that’s where Jack got his own tolerance from...’
It’s always the first thing they tell you: they don’t mind.
‘He has... He has a philosophical bent...’ She was back on the Very Rev:
‘It has been a considerable strength in our lives. He believes - a lot of people find it difficult to accept that this is a sufficient explanation for the vicissitudes of life - that what happens is truly God’s will...’
I wanted to ask: what does vy-sissy-tunes mean? Fag music?
‘No more than I does my husband believe that Jack was drunk when he... When he had his accident... But... But he believes it was God’s will, and it does not disconcert him not to know more about what happened...’
‘But it disconcerts you, right?’ I thought I might as well show I’d been listening. As well as eating.
She nodded slowly:
‘Yes. It does disconcert me.’
Vengeance is mine, saith the mother.
For the second time, she read my thoughts:
‘I don’t know, Mr Woolf. I don’t know why I’m doing this. I don’t know why I’m seeing you. I may... I am not stupid, Mr Woolf. I know I am a mother who has lost her son. I know I am in grief. But something... Just a feeling... A mother’s intuition if you will... I have to know exactly what happened... He had... He had so much to live for. He was brilliant. I know one should not lightly use the word. He was married: he had a charming wife, a beautiful son...’
‘Mrs Nicholas... Forgive me... A lot of people with a whole lot to live for got drunk and died in a crash... Others too...’ Those without so much to live for.
I don’t know what made me speak my mind like that. I certainly wasn’t acting like I needed her money. Maybe I was getting a little frightened. If I took her money, if I took the case, I’d have to start working on it. I didn’t like the idea of poking around someone’s grave. You never knew where the body’d been.
She wasn’t even remotely thrown by what I’d said. She even smiled a little, for the first time since she’d arrived:
‘Yes. Thank you. I’m glad you said that. I told you that I have had those thoughts for myself. If you hadn’t said that, I should have had somewhat less confidence in you... I should have thought you were just... Is “taking the case” the right expression? For the money...’
‘Don’t let yourself be bought for a one-liner, lady,’ I said. I’d meant to say it to myself but I said it out loud. There was a long silence. My riposte had hardened her resolve. I was her man and she was certain of it. To fill the gap between the waistcoat asking if we wanted another pot and bringing it, I asked:
‘Why’d you choose me?’
‘I saw your advertisement. In a magazine in my son’s house. It seemed... like a sign,’ she added quietly.
‘How’d you recognize my name? It’s been a long time.’
‘I thought I recognized it. When I got home I looked it up.’
‘You looked it up?’
‘In the visitors’ book,’ she added, as if it was obvious.
‘Ah, right.’ And I truly did remember. Theirs was the only house I was ever in which had a visitors’ book.
After she’d poured more tea I asked:
‘If your husband doesn’t know... How’re you going to pay me?’
‘I have private money, Mr Woolf. It’s not my husband’s. He knows about it, of course, but he has always insisted I keep it to myself. I would... I would have left it to Jack... Now I shall leave it to Phillip...’ She caught my question again:
‘His son... But... It doesn’t matter. I don’t need to explain, do I? You need to know I can afford your services. That’s all, isn’t it?’
‘Well, I guess I need to know you didn’t rob a bank...’
For the very first time, she laughed:
‘I didn’t rob a bank, Mr Woolf. What are your charges?’
I didn’t answer for a moment. She probably thought I was deciding what was fair. Truth was, it was the first time I’d ever had the choice. Process-serving was all fixed-rate. I tried to think.
‘It’s one hundred a day... Plus expenses.’ I only just remembered to add the bit about expenses.
She didn’t bat an eyelid. I should’ve said a hundred fifty.