No, he replies, no, he plans ahead; he’s someone who likes to be prepared. So he had no trouble finding the house. He always checks his route carefully using one of the internet street-locators.
‘How clever,’ she says, taking his overcoat.
He smiles, feeling the heat of a blush climb up his neck and over his collar as Mrs Richardson ushers him into the sitting room. ‘There are those who wouldn’t be having it,’ he adds, ‘but I must say, I rather enjoy life on the road. You see, as soon as I’m out of the car park at Head Office, I’m essentially my own boss.’
He takes a seat on an ample leather sofa. ‘And there’s the peace and quiet of a car. Your own home away from home, as the saying goes. Not that I’m not glad to have my wife and son to return to every evening.’
‘Of course.’ She’s at the window, drawing a heavy set of drapes. ‘What age is your son?’
‘He’s just turned seven.’ He gives her a tentative smile. ‘I suppose you could call me a late starter…’
Mrs Richardson tuts politely and pulls a neat mahogany tea trolley into place.
‘The good thing is, I’m home most nights in time to read him – Michael – his bedtime story. At the moment, we’re working our way through the pile of Just William books I read myself when I was a boy.’
The Skills Facilitator at Head Office says that it’s important to let the client see that you’re perfectly ordinary with perfectly ordinary concerns. And the will writer assures himself: he is perfectly ordinary. He has never had aspirations to be otherwise.
Mrs Richardson apologises that her husband has not arrived home yet. He says, not to worry, though he must remind her that nothing, of course, can progress without both their signatures, as they’ve indicated interest in a joint will package. ‘I can’t imagine what the delay is,’ she says as she passes him a cup of Earl Grey and a Duchy Originals shortbread biscuit.
He smiles reassuringly, snaps open his company-standard briefcase and lifts out a royal blue ‘Your Will’ folder.
‘Do you have another appointment today?’ she asks. On the folder she can see her name, her husband’s name, and the words, ‘Will Deluxe Service’. It makes her want to laugh. It makes her want to laugh at this man who’s come peddling death’s wares. His trousers are too short, and he’s wearing light socks with black shoes and garters that clip onto the socks. She hasn’t seen those things in years. ‘I’d hate it if we kept you.’
‘No, you’re fine,’ he replies, straightening the flaps of his tie against the spread of late middle age. ‘I had one appointment in Sutton after you but Head Office phoned just before I pulled up your drive to say the young couple in question were obliged to re-schedule.’
From somewhere in the house an antique clock wheezes and chimes the quarter hour.
‘I guess that goes with the territory,’ Mrs Richardson adds.
‘People re-scheduling… trying to postpone the inevitable.’ She smiles, as if at a shared joke, and he decides he rather likes her smile. It is delicate, even nervous by habit he would guess, yet, just now, oddly reckless.
He relaxes slightly. ‘The stories I could tell.’
‘Really,’ she says, and her grey eyes widen with mischief.
‘The male of the species, I have to admit, is the worst.’ He swallows the last of his Highland shortbread. ‘Cowards, almost without exception. If I’ve learned anything after eighteen years in the business, it’s that.’
‘I can’t tell you the number of men who have opened the door to me, drunk at three in the afternoon – you see, it’s usually the lady of the house who makes the appointment.’
‘Once, when there was no answer at the front of a particular property, I took the liberty of going around to the back, and I spotted the couple through the kitchen window – a couple in their sixties, mind you – crouching on the floor next to the breakfast bar. I’m afraid I heard the whole sorry argument through the cat flap!’ He listens to his own voice as it gathers strength in the tasteful surrounds of Mrs Richardson’s sitting room. Yes, he can be entertaining when he chooses to be; when he deems it appropriate.
‘I’m sure my husband will be home any time now.’
He nods. ‘Did I point out that our Probate Department’s fees would be at least forty per cent less than those charged by any of the major banks?’
‘You did, thank you.’
‘And that, if you sign up to the Will Deluxe Service, Mrs Richardson, we will store your house deeds absolutely free in a fireproof, high security vault.’
‘I’ll have to ask Mr Richardson but I believe they’ve been with our bank for absolutely yonks.’
He brushes biscuit crumbs from his napkin into his now empty tea cup. ‘Have you had a chance to read the testimonials I posted to you?’
‘Yes,’ she says grinning. She can’t help herself. ‘“Mr H of Milton Keynes says thank you,”’ she recites. ‘“He could never have managed the whole terrible business on his own… Mrs Trollope” – always an unfortunate name to marry into – writes, “I’m very grateful. You’ve relieved my family and I” – ‘me’ would be correct, I believe – “of a very heavy burden.”’
‘Yes,’ he nods, hardly listening. He wonders if he can bring himself to ask if he might use the cloakroom. Somehow the request seems awkward without the presence of Mr Richardson. ‘Over 70,000 satisfied clients,’ he adds.
‘No doubt, Mr… Mr..?’ She feels giddy. The truth is, she doesn’t give a damn what the man’s name is.
He reaches into his breast pocket and offers her his card.
‘Oh look!’ Mrs Richardson bends like a girl and, delighted, picks up a blue paper ticket that has fallen from his jacket. ‘Your dry-cleaner, if he’s anything like ours, will simply torture you if you turn up without it.’
‘Actually, it’s a raffle ticket,’ he confesses, and he wonders why he said anything; why he should have spoken of it at all.
‘A raffle? How exciting. What might you win? I’m potty for all of it. Raffles. The National Lottery. The gee-gees. Russian roulette when a dinner party gets dull, as they mostly do, even my own, no, especially my own, though no one else ever seems keen – on spinning the cylinder, that is, after the cheese and biscuits. You must be the same. You must like the occasional flutter, am I right?’ Why, she wonders, does she feel drunk? Hasn’t she been dry for six months now?
‘No,’ he says, pretending to chuckle. ‘I’m afraid not.’ In his line of work, it is important to appear calm, stable, yet friendly. ‘I was just passing. A stall, I think, at the local shopping centre while I waited for my wife to emerge from Tesco’s. It’s for a car. Or maybe an SUV – that’s a “Sports Utility Vehicle” to you and me. A charity raffle. Not that there’s any hope. Not that there ever really is in these things.’ He tucks the ticket very carefully into his wallet.
‘No,’ she agrees, moving across the room to switch on a floor-lamp. ‘Not that there ever really is.’
The will writer watches her face age unexpectedly as it is caught, briefly, in the light. He glances at his watch.
‘Another cup of tea perhaps?’ she offers.
‘No, thank you. I’m fine – though, please, don’t let me stop you.’
Thankfully, he is rarely lost for words. They discuss London’s Congestion Charge, the state of the NHS, her son Joshua’s summer wedding, seasonal rainfall averages, the latest property boom, and the reduction of postal services to just one delivery a day. At last the will writer gets to his feet. ‘If you’ll forgive me, Mrs Richardson, I’ll leave you in peace. But you have my card and the number for Head Office – that’s Croydon – should you and Mr Richardson wish to make another appointment.’ He snaps his briefcase shut. He thanks her for the tea and biscuits. Privately, he decides he can wait till the next motorway services for the loo.
‘Has it been raining?’ she asks – herself more than him – as she passes him his damp overcoat. He slides into one sleeve, then the next, awkwardly. He is a big man, she observes. Burly even. Why didn’t she notice as he sat, taking up room on her sofa? She opens the door and peers out. ‘Will the days ever start getting longer?’ Suddenly she is eager to have him on his way, gone, lost to the encroaching dark of the late November afternoon.
‘When your number’s up, it’s up. It doesn’t matter if you live in Middle England or in the middle of a bombardment in bloody, barking Basra.’
It’s the Exeter chap sounding off again. Everyone’s off the road. Grounded for a staff training day. On the radio in the canteen, a well modulated voice is saying that no one knows how many Iraqis have been killed. Iraq Bodycount says 17,000. An Iraqi political group, People’s Kifah, reports 37,000. The Lancet claims that Operation Iraqi Freedom may have led to as many as 98,000 civilian deaths.
The will writer unpeels the sweating cellophane from the sandwich he’s bought from the machine. In spite of himself, he wonders if this new chap, the one from the Exeter office, is right; if there is a day, an hour, a moment on the clock when you have to punch out.
He smiles to himself. He rarely thinks like this. Unlike the ‘cowards’ he laughed about with Mrs Richardson, he is not susceptible to bouts of existential panic. Indeed, in planning for the deaths of others – day in, day out, year in, year out – it is surprisingly easy to forget that he himself is not exempt; that he is not so very ordinary that Death won’t take notice of him some ludicrous day. Perhaps this is why, when asked to complete a recent Investors in People questionnaire, the will writer ranked his job satisfaction as ‘high’.
Nor will he waver on that point when, on his way home tonight, from Croydon to Surbiton, he is cut up twice during the forty-minute drive: once on the A232, just before Hackbridge, and again on the A240, after the Beggar’s Hill roundabout. He will blare his horn, braking only just in time. He will hit the fog-lights and tailgate each offending driver. He will hold his ground, relentless in the rear-view, until he or she is forced from the lane.
As his ready-meal defrosts in the microwave, the will writer finds the brochure he picked up at the stall and staples the ticket to it, so it can’t go astray again. Number 1009. He paid £15. for it. DATE OF DRAW: Nov. 30.
Less than a week to go.
The brochure is already well thumbed. ‘The Hummer SUV instantly became the most functional off-road vehicle ever made available to the civilian market. So what makes it the real deal? In a world where SUVs have begun to look like their owners, complete with love handles and mushy seats, the H2 proves that there is still one out there that can drop and give you 20.’
And doesn’t the will writer himself do his best to stay in shape? Twenty press-ups, and twenty sit-ups too, as part of his ten-minute callisthenics routine at the foot of his bed each morning.
Merci pour la lecture!
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