Oldies Inc - Chapter 1
Even in his less lucid moments Arthur knew what people were saying, or at least what they were thinking. He had become a burden to Linda. But just because what was said, or thought, was meant sympathetically it didn’t make him feel any better. Actually it made him feel worse.
During periods of relative clarity images or flashes of memory would come to him that he could no longer access by simple effort of will. Sometimes − rarely, an image would come to him that lasted longer than the others. But by the time he called Linda in a voice filled with breathy pipes and whistles it was too late because the image had gone. When she did come they would sit together and talk until she could see he was drifting away. Still, the conversation such as it was had value. He’d become less agitated until eventually he fell into a deep and peaceful sleep. For long moments she would look at him and wonder at how a man so vital even into old age had become so reduced.
There are some things Arthur will never forget. Memories so indelibly seared on his brain little or no effort is required for recall. How could he forget that hideous time when bankruptcy and ignominy threatened? When every day was a battle to avoid insolvency! And how could he forget how everything changed after his humiliating discussion with his friend Wingy that represented his last-ditch effort at survival. He’d expected nothing from the meeting, but amazingly, extraordinarily it paved the way to an adventure that not only put paid to his financial problems but led to his participation in the breaking up of a gang of extortionists. How strange the twists and turns of a life! No, whatever else escapes him now he will take these memories to the grave.
Ill health has made him even more irritable. Linda reminds him regularly that he once described himself to her as a pretty mild sort of man. She also reminds him how amused she’d been at the time, saying, “well my dear, there’s nothing like a bit of self-delusion.”
Arthur still has his pride. He needs help physically but resents it tending to make some cranky comment when it’s offered. It doesn’t occur to him to apologise. Now if he wants to be reminded about the detail of that special period he must look through the notes he wrote for his book. It was a book that he would have wanted to get finished had old age and the shakes not put a stop to what he’d always recognised as, well, a bit of self-puffery. But that period − that special period had changed him in other ways. He learned that by staying positive and facing up to adversity there’s nothing inevitable about life kicking you up the arse.
Arthur’s life was turning upside down. The battle to prevent the wolves from pouncing was as good as lost. For weeks he had sat up until the early hours struggling to balance the unbalanceable − to reconcile his liabilities against the pittance he called his income. Only after he had concluded that there was no new avenue of relief to be uncovered would he go to bed. By morning, after a short, fitful sleep that would leave him more tired than ever, he would eventually rise, wash, dress and yawn his way to work like a floored boxer programmed to carry on even though he knows the beating will continue.
Functioning during the day would have been impossible without doing little things like making himself a cup of coffee to take his mind off things. He’d tried to help his finances by the occasional foray into the market, but this had just made things worse. Now, in what was shaping up to be a perfect storm, market volatility was frightening his clients off from doing business; “Why buy today?” they said, “they’ll be cheaper tomorrow?” And they were right. The trouble was that when tomorrow came, it was the same story.
Among the many stockbroking companies that dot the square mile Arthur’s firm would probably rank as one of the smaller ones. His nondescript second-floor office with its beige painted walls and functional second-hand furniture hardly compares with those temples of modern capitalism − the investment banks. There, hundreds of market-savvy young people spend their shouty, working lives targeting yet another six-figure annual bonus.
Arthur envied their self-belief, their certainty that this was how it would always be and that it was theirs by right. Above all he envied them for their youth. They didn’t need to convince themselves they were Masters of the Universe − because they knew they were. He imagined them leaving for work each day from their spacious mortgage-free designer homes replete with sunken baths and walk-in showers.
It was little comfort to Arthur to remember that there’d been times when money had flowed for him too. Hadn’t he bought a house in the early years before everything went sour? But recently, when asked by a colleague about his plans for retirement he’d declined to answer. It wasn’t a question he wanted to think about, let alone expose his appalling financial circumstances to someone else.
But it’s more than just a money thing when business is scarce. It’s also about how to pass the time when there’s nothing to do. Conversations with colleagues were repetitive and seemed to go nowhere. When he couldn’t stand being in the office anymore, he’d go for long walks or maybe hop on a train or bus to, say, London Bridge. Crossing Borough High Street, he would descend the dozen or so steps into Borough Market to run the gauntlet between competing hot food vendors before arriving at stalls stacked high with artisan bread or cheese. A few minutes’ walk would find him leaning over the wall of the Embankment looking out at the broad expanse of the Thames. On the opposite bank, miraculously untouched by German bombing, St Paul’s Cathedral. Up-river to his left, Marlow, Henley, Oxford, down-river the majesty of HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge and the newly yuppified east end of London. He loved this part of the city. He loved the buildings and the history. He loved the Tate Modern, the Globe theatre and all those other icons that make London special. He took personal pride when tourists took pictures of a city he considered to be the best in the world. But there was no escaping the fact that it was all just a diversion from the soul-destroying atmosphere in the office.
It was on a desperate day like this that Arthur decided, finally, to deal with the utility and credit card bills in his briefcase. He’d known what they were from the envelopes they came in and because he’d seen enough of them to know.
Making a fan of them on his desk he knew he had only two possible choices; sit down and write to them hoping they would give him more time to pay – or bury his head in the sand. But as he had already done everything he could to reorganise his finances, he knew that realistically his choices were down to one. With a heavy heart he stood, gathered the letters together and made his way over to the shredder. As he walked, an expression came to him that he’d not understood when he’d first heard it, but now it made perfect sense: absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. One after the other, he fed the letters into the unforgiving, irresistible tug of the machine that would obliterate the evidence of his indebtedness. After the last letter disappeared he turned and made his way back to his desk.
“You look bloody grim,’ commented a nearby colleague.”
“I feel bloody grim.”
“Market getting you down, too? A pile of poo is what it is.”
“Not surprising business is shit then,’ quipped Arthur, surprising himself with his little pun. ‘Jack, you do realize that today will be the nineteenth straight day the market has fallen.”
“What about last Thursday, Arthur?”
“Dead cat bounce. It lasted a couple of hours then the market began falling again. What are you looking at?”
“I think I see a client of yours outside in the hall. Tom whatshisname. I expect he’s here for another one of your counselling sessions. You’re too bloody kind to him, Arthur. He wastes so much of your time. Why do you bother?”
“Oh, he’s not so bad. Besides, I’m not exactly overrun with things to do right now.”
The ‘counselling’ session comment wasn’t far off the mark. In his search for a broker, Tom Radcliffe was looking for two things: someone to advise him on his portfolio but someone approachable as well. He’d become Arthur’s client because at the time Arthur seemed to fit the bill.
Tom Radcliff’s eagerness to give out personal information far exceeded the stock exchange’s rules about understanding a client’s investment objectives and tolerance for risk. By the time the forms had been filled in, Tom had told Arthur that he’d been brought up on a housing estate on the Somerset Dorset borders and that he was a primary-school teacher by profession. He spoke about an aunt, who he had never seen, but had left him a small bequest of cash and shares. He spoke, too, about his wife, Marjorie how they’d met in a pub in the Lake District. After that he’d grown sad when he explained how Marjorie had developed motor neuron disease in later life and forced him to become her full-time carer. Over the following few months, it became clear that Tom’s visits were less about stocks and shares than about spinning out some time before having to go home. Selfishly speaking this didn’t matter so much for Arthur when things were quiet, but it mattered a lot when he was busy. Several times Arthur had considered sacking Tom as a client but found he couldn’t go through with it when he reminded himself of Tom’s circumstances.
Despite another worrying pain in his stomach a pain that was coming at increasing intervals, Arthur managed to give Tom a lopsided smile of welcome. He was a little surprised that his greeting was met with what looked to Arthur like a rather tight-lipped expression. Arthur wondered what was wrong.
“Before you say anything, Arthur, “I’m aware you’re not keen on me coming to the office without calling you first. Thing is, I have something I need to get off my chest.”
“Good to see you too, Tom. Take a seat and tell me what you’re talking about.”
“That last lot of shares you flogged me.”
“What about them?”
“The shares you told me to buy have gone down, and the shares you told me to sell have gone up.”
“That was nearly six months ago, Tom,’ said Arthur only partly succeeding in keeping the irritation from his voice. ‘And, for the record, I don’t tell you to buy and sell. My job is to advise! Anything you do is your decision. I suggest you check again in six months and see how things are then.”
“I suppose we’ll just have to see.’”
“Maybe we need to leave it there,’ said Arthur. “You’re obviously upset. Let me get you a cup of tea or coffee.”
“No. Glass of cold water will do me.”
“Here you go”, said Arthur returning a few moments later. “Sorry to have kept you waiting.”
“I see the markets shite again.”
“It’s those geniuses in the investment banks, Tom. I reckon they must spend half their bonus-bloated time dreaming up deliberately impenetrable investment schemes that nobody understands. Then, when it all goes pear-shaped it’s the taxpayer that foots to bill.”
“I suppose if they’re making dosh, the bank will look the other way. Anyhow, how are you managing in all of this?”
Eventually, after an hour of listening to Tom’s complaints at the state of the world and Marjorie’s continued decline, Arthur gritted his teeth, saying, “Listen, Tom, I’ve got a few calls to make, so…”
Unusually, Tom took the hint. Even he realized there were limits to conversations that centred on the villainy of bankers and hedge-fund managers. “I’ll just have another glass of cold water and toddle off. No hard feelings about what I said earlier, I hope?”
“Not at all. I’ll walk you to the lift. The water fountain is on the way.”
“Your client being a bit arsey about his shares, Arthur?”, asked a passing colleague when Arthur got back to his seat.
“Arsey? No, not really. Like everyone else he’s worried about his shares. Can’t blame him for that.”
Tom’s arrival that morning coincided with a period of particularly hot weather. With shirts sticking to the backs of chairs the office dress code was universally ignored as ties, and even shoes were discarded. Powerful fans gave intermittent relief but sent loose papers flying. Apart from one of Arthur’s colleagues who’d received an instruction to liquidate his entire portfolio − irrespective of any losses incurred, the day was shaping up to be a waste of time. Arthur, seeing no reason to extend his time in the office more than necessary, decided to try for the early train.
At exactly half-past four, the moment the market closed, Arthur grabbed his briefcase and made for the door. Shunning the old lift for its creaking slowness he took the stairs two-at-a-time. Thirty seconds later he was in the baking hot street and feeling the heat of the pavement through the soles of his shoes. His jacket slung over his shoulder and he headed for the station.
Sweating heavily, he arrived fifteen minutes later just in time to see the doors of the train he’d wanted to catch begin to close. He swore.
“You’ve just missed ‘er sir”, said the ticket inspector. “Be another one along in ‘bout twenty minutes.”
Arthur walked onto the empty platform and planted himself where he knew the doors of the train would open. He began to pace. Counting ten steps one way, he turned and counted ten steps back. After repeating this several times, he picked his briefcase up and went to stand between a small kiosk and a red fire bucket with more sandwich and sweet wrappers in it than sand. He yawned a jaw cracking yawn before checking his watch once more against the platform clock. Eventually, after what seemed an age, a few passengers began to trickle onto the platform. Taking this as his cue, he ambled back to his original position on the platform. It was the sound of the train’s wheels transmitted through the rails that alerted him to the train’s imminent exit from the tunnel further up the line.
The moment the doors slid open he made his way along the aisle to the end of the carriage. There, he laid his jacket on the overhead rack and sat down with his briefcase on the seat next to him. Outside, he watched as hundreds of commuters scurried along other platforms eager to catch their own train home. The bulge inside his briefcase where his hand now rested reminded him of the book he’d put there to help him pass the time. He’d taken it out just once since he’d put it there two weeks before. Time was something he had plenty of ‒ it was the energy to read he didn’t have.
The semi-fast to Ipswich − where Arthur leaves the train for his half-hour walk home usually takes about seventy-five minutes. The train then continues to its terminus at Norwich some forty-five miles further north. There, after a short delay for a change of driver and to take on London-bound passengers it begins its return journey.
At least until this moment there’d been little to distinguish this journey from all the others he’d taken over the years. Gradually the carriage began to fill but his briefcase ploy seemed to be working. By the time the whistle went, the only vacant seat was the aisle seat next to him. On the other side of the carriage he noticed the young woman he’d seen many times on this very train. He wondered how she had managed to look so composed, so coolly fresh especially on a day like today. He guessed her age at around thirty or thirty-five. He knew her routine. In the business-like way she had about her she crossed her elegant legs and began working on her computer. Arthur’s gaze shifted to a craggy-faced tradesman opposite. He wore white, paint-splattered bib-and-brace overalls and periodically flicked over pages of his tabloid newspaper with a wetted thumb. Suddenly he looked up and caught Arthur looking at him. Arthur looked away to where a group of well-dressed middle-aged men caught his attention. He wasn’t the only one who could hear their casually loud voices prattling pompously on about ‘redundancies’ and, ‘managing expectations.’ Arthur looked away, unimpressed.
He wasn’t alone in his surprise at the number of passengers waiting on the platform at the next station. He supposed the earlier train – the train he’d wanted to catch had developed a fault. The bigger surprise by far was the sight of a grossly fat man hauling himself aboard the carriage. Arthur looked down at the empty seat then looked up as the man, a veritable life-force of human flesh began to force his bulk along the aisle. He wore a sweat-stained white suit and white shirt open at the throat. On his head, somewhat rakishly tilted, he wore an old-fashioned fedora. Arthur closed his eyes waiting for the inevitable. Moments later, he found himself crushed against the wall of the train repulsed by the man’s huge thigh, which was as much on his own thigh as pressed against it. Then, as though adding insult to injury he received a blow in the ribs as the man leaned sideways to pull out a handkerchief. Taking his hat off, the man began to mop and fan his great moon face. Perfect as the villain in some Bogart or James Bond movie, thought Arthur as he struggled to free an arm.
Twenty minutes later the train began to speed up after emerging into brilliant late afternoon sunshine. Arthur squinted out of the graffiti-scratched window and watched as they passed the derelict shell of the old Victorian garment factory and row upon row of small terrace houses.
Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. The swaying of the train, repetitive click-clacking over rail joints and his restricted state were taking their toll. His head lolled forward on his chest but then he looked up as he felt the train begin to slow, accompanied by the worrying sound of loudspeaker crackling into life.
“This is your driver speaking. I’m afraid we’re going to be held here for a while because of signal problems ahead. I’ll update you when I know more. Thank you for choosing London East Coast for your journey today, and we hope you continue to enjoy the rest of your journey. Thank you.”
Arthur’s head fell forward once more, and he fell into a profound sleep.
At some point he became aware of feeling cold. His mouth tasted dry and claggy. Lifting an arm, he wiped drool from his chin. Opening his eyes, he saw that the giant had gone. Still befuddled with sleep, he assumed the unfamiliar landscape and the slowing of the train meant that he’d missed his stop. Grabbing his briefcase and jacket he bolted for the door.
The depth of his sleep had given him an unfamiliar amount of energy. He was hungry and thirsty but so refreshed he felt he could break into a jog. He didn’t do that, but he did give a half skip before lengthening his stride.
Delaying bodily gratification for its own sake was not an Arthur sort of thing. But on this occasion, when he arrived home he stood still for several minutes with his hand on the garden gate. If he had been asked why he did it he would have had no answer. But eventually he saw the pointlessness of what he was doing, gave the gate a good push, and strode up the path.
The bliss he felt from the cool air that bathed his head and face as he opened the fridge door contrasted with the shock and pain he experienced from the first few gulps of freezing cold beer. Yet still he continued drinking until the can lay light and empty in his hand. Wiping the tears away he was reaching for another can when he heard voices coming from the garden. He stood still wondering who Linda was talking to.
With the second unopened can in his hand, he walked through the house and out onto the patio, where he saw Linda and Alice at the back of the garden. He called out a greeting.
“Hello Arthur,” called Linda, turning. “You’re late.”
Arthur walked across the grass. “I didn’t know you were coming over, Alice.”
“Hi dad. It wasn’t exactly planned. I left work early and thought I’d come over for a chat with mum.”
“I see you two have eaten.”
“We couldn’t wait for you, Arthur. We were both hungry. So why are you so late?”
“I fell asleep on the train. I woke up thinking I’d missed my stop, so I got off. I didn’t realise I’d gone all the way to Norwich. −I was actually on my way back when I got off!”
“You mean you shouldn’t have got off?”
“Isn’t that what I just said?”
“Well, you’re here now. Do you want to have a shower before supper?”
“No. I’m starving. I’ll eat first.”
Turning to Alice, Linda said, “Alice, darling, do you want to get dad’s supper. It’s at the bottom of the fridge.”
“It’s those stomach pains you keep getting, isn’t it?” said Linda seeing he’d left half his food.
“Dad,” said Alice, “for goodness sake why are you so resistant to going to the doctor?”
“Will both of you stop nagging me about that! It’s really irritating. I’ll go when I’m good and ready. I’m simply not prepared to spend half a day waiting around in the surgery for nothing.”
“How do you know it’s nothing!” said Alice. “Look here, you two. I’ve had a basin-full today and the last thing I need is for you two to gang up on me. − I suppose that’s why you came over, isn’t it.” For a few uncomfortable moments no one said anything.
“I’m going to take a shower and watch a bit of TV”, said Alice.
With that, Arthur pushed his chair back and headed over the grass to go back inside the house. Without eyes in the back of his head he couldn’t have seen the worried glances that passed between wife and daughter at that moment.
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