The question is, is it negligence to place a live body in a coffin?” I said, peering at him over my reading glasses.
My job as I understood it was to persuade him that the law can be fun, a good degree course to choose, and to that end I’d chosen an odd little case from a distant back number of the Law Gazette to pique his interest.
He was old-fashioned-looking, this boy Sam, thin and fair, with a spotty face and doleful blue eyes. He looked uncomfortable in his shiny sixth-form suit and wore a sullen hunted expression. I wasn’t too hopeful of success but I’d promised his father so I ploughed on.
“This case all started with a hitchhiker walking through a Yugoslavian forest in heavy rain,” I said.
“Yugoslavia,” he said. “Is that like, Serbia?”
“That general neck of the woods, yes,” I said. “Croatia as well now, and, er, a few others. This was back in the 1970s though, when it was still all one big communist state.”
“I went to Belgrade in summer,” he said, brightening up. “Inter-railing.”
“Right,” I said, quellingly.
Sam’s father had sorted me out earlier in the summer after that bout at the gym. He’d overridden me, which isn’t easy, as anyone will tell you; he’d insisted I go to A&E instead of the meeting I was set on attending, and in so doing he’d probably saved me from something much nastier than a spot of medical balloon magic. Death, even. So when he got on to me about his boy I could hardly refuse. August is a slack month anyway, with the courts in summer recess. These days heart surgery isn’t the big deal it used to be; it’s more like high-class plumbing crossed with conjuring tricks. They blow up tiny balloons in your veins to unblock them. No need to open you up! I was back at the office the same week. All pretty seamless.
Anyway, Sam had to decide in the coming school term which subject to take at university. Both his parents were GPs but he was refusing to follow their path so I had been deputed to persuade him that a law degree was a good idea. I was also supposed to offer him some last-minute half-term work experience to include in the all-important personal statement, but from the evidence before my eyes I wasn’t sure he was up to more than a spot of light photocopying.
“Your dad was telling me you’re not sure yet what subject you want to take at university,” I said.
“But you don’t want to follow him into medicine.”
“Blood,” he said, and shuddered.
“What’s your favourite A-level subject?”
“Dunno really,” he shrugged. “History’s OK. Sometimes.”
“Ah yes, history. That can be a very good route into a legal career, the practice it gives you in analysing events, marshalling information and coming to a conclusion based on the facts.”
“I don’t know what job I want to do,” he said with sudden force. “I don’t want to decide yet.”
“Freedom!” he said, giving me a wild look.
“Freedom. Ah yes, freedom versus security. Yes.”
“I might take a gap year.”
“Erm, I’d think carefully about that if I were you,” I said. “We’re finding the best universities for law now prefer students not to do that because they ‘go off’ in the interim, as they put it.”
This made him drop his eyes and the corners of his mouth.
“Getting back to our hitchhiker,” I said. “After a while, out in the rain, he managed to thumb a lift. The driver nodded at him from his cabin to hop in the back of the open truck. Once on board he wasn’t too thrilled to discover a coffin there, but the rain was torrential and he was miles from the next town so he made the best of things and settled down beside it. OK so far?”
This boy had no responsibilities. He was still a child.
Abi is one now and Ava is three. It’s a privilege to be doing it all over again and hopefully I’ll be able to avoid some of the mistakes I made first time round with Hannah and Martha.
Being wanted by someone, being desired again, and by an attractive young woman like Lauren, that was the most amazing feeling after those years in the post-divorce wilderness. Less so since the babies of course, but still! Yes, OK, Lauren is young enough to be my daughter, as Hannah and Martha have pointed out more than once. But that only makes me realise how lucky I am to get a second chance. It also makes me see I have a responsibility to look after my health and ensure I live another good few years if I want to see Abi and Ava through university. No more steak frites for me!
“He’d been sitting there for a little while, our hitchhiker,” I continued, “when the lid of the coffin lifted and a voice asked, ‘Has the rain stopped?’ This caused him to scream out in terror and then to leap from the moving truck, breaking his leg in the process.”
“Cos he overreacted,” said Sam.
“Are you ready to order, sir?” said the waiter, appearing with his notepad.
“Another couple of minutes please,” I said, turning my attention back to the menu.
No oysters of course; no ‘r’ in August. Fried whitebait, smoked eel, skate with black butter. I’d chosen this 100-year-old fish restaurant partly to give Sam a dose of City tradition but mainly because I’m trying to be sensible since the stents. I chose skate, on the grounds that it’s more substantial than other fish. Without the black butter, obviously.
He was 17, this boy, and I was 56. What he didn’t know was that keeping his options open now would likely lead to extra hard work later on. I wasn’t at all sure about his parents’ enthusiasm for the law anyway. Every bright kid these days is doing a law degree or a law conversion course and it’s massively over-subscribed as a profession. Be that as it may, this wasn’t the message his parents wanted to hear, so I soldiered on.
“You could do history at university then take a law conversion course afterwards,” I said. “That would defer things a bit.”
That’s what they’re doing now after degrees in anthropology or history or old Icelandic, the children of my colleagues — a law conversion course. At vast expense to their parents, I might add. My own girl Hannah has insisted on taking this route, so I should know. Funny, the four of us together again at her graduation in June. Bev had gone grey since the last time I saw her. She hadn’t had it cut, her Wild Woman hair, and it looked quite eccentric. Lauren’s is smooth as glass.
“Of course, if the law conversion course is not an option, you could try entering a law firm at a lower level,” I told Sam. “Go in as a paralegal.”
“What, like a paramedic?” he said, looking alarmed.
“Not exactly,” I said. “No.”
I worked out early on that I’d have to be a lawyer. I couldn’t do science and I didn’t want to teach: ergo, the law. And getting paid to argue for a living sounded alright to me. Bev used to say that in the unlikely event of my being assigned a coat of arms, one of its quarters would have to feature the hind leg of a donkey.
At the time I did my articles female lawyers were still pretty thin on the ground, though by the time we divorced they were absolutely commonplace. Naturally enough, women will often go part-time once they have children but they’re still very well-rewarded in this profession and provide a high-quality second-tier service. Because you can’t be in charge of a big case and not give it everything, that’s the thing, and that’s what Bev never was able to understand. The work comes in intense bursts, sometimes for several weeks at a time, and obviously your personal life is going to have to go on hold to a certain extent when that happens.
She was too emotional.
“What’s a Buck Rarebit?” asked the boy.
“It’s a Welsh Rarebit with a poached egg on top.”
“What’s a Welsh Rarebit?”
“It’s cheese on toast,” I said. “Don’t they teach you anything at school?”
His face turned red, deeper and deeper as I watched, even his forehead.
“Only joking,” I said, thinking to myself that he wasn’t going to get very far without a bit more bounce.
We met at the height of punk at some student party in Corpus, where everyone was pogoing beneath the medieval rafters, jump-dancing competitively — ridiculous! — and Bev, who was
reading history, was laughing at me and the other law students as we all danced to “I Fought the Law”. Whatever happened to punk, eh? I’ve still got my vinyl 45s in lime green and bubble-gum pink — the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Clash.
I looked around the room for the waiter so we could order. The shiny cream paint, the wood panelling and the steel jugs of tartare sauce gave it a collegiate feel, as did the watercolour cartoons of 19th-century statesmen up at cornice level and the framed signed cricket bats and sports shirts in glass boxes on the walls.
We were both part of that brief wave when Oxbridge let the oiks in. My father managed a branch of Mac Fisheries in Southport and hers was a school caretaker in Lewisham, the old bugger. That was in the late 1970s, with the whole country down in the doldrums and us separately doing our homework by candlelight during the three-day week. There was much doom and gloom at that point about the end of days but then we surfed into the 1980s and everything went global.
Our generation was lucky. The whole world opened up. All sorts of not terribly bright people have done extremely well in the past 30 years. They’ve had to put in the hours, sure; but even the ones who didn’t work hard and had no ambition have done all right compared with their parents. If they lived down south, that is. And lots of us did up sticks and move down south during that time.
Bev used to say, “Why not employ double the lawyers and pay them half? It would still be plenty and that way they’d get some life outside work, too.” She just didn’t get it. There is no such thing as the work-life balance. That’s the point! You cannot be both driven and laid-back. You either rise to the challenge and embrace the 14-hour day; or you don’t. Sure, there’s life outside work if you’re a lawyer. But that doesn’t mean never working through the night or a holiday — sorry!
“You know the story of the ants and the grasshoppers, Sam?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, morose. “My dad already told me it.”
“Right,” I said. “So. Back to our hitchhiker and his broken leg.”
I was beginning to think I should have fallen back on the usual hackneyed example, the one about whether it’s ever OK to eat a cabin boy.
It’s a question of attitude, I wanted to tell him; it’s to do with stamina and combative strength; courage, even. I mean for example the rugby player who reset his dislocated knee on the pitch and carried on.
“What’s your favourite sport?” I asked him.
“I don’t like sport.”
It was fine for our parents, job security and next to no unemployment. You worked not very hard and you had enough. A job with a proper pension, too! Those were the days. But it’s been different for us and this was what I wanted to get over to Sam before we finished the meal. Now there is no halfway house, not even in the public sector.
Bev said, enough’s enough, we’re lucky and we’ve grown up in a country with free schools and healthcare so let’s move outside London and make the most of it. She suggested I move away from the City, practise in the country, a bit of light probate and conveyancing, but what she didn’t understand was, they’re really struggling now, those two-horse outfits. Everyone accepts that we’ll never see a return to the stability that was once a hallmark of our profession.
Also, I would have found that boring.
“After a certain point the more a man earns, the less I think of him,” Bev said. Ridiculous. “Oh, and what point would that be?” I asked her. “The point of elegant sufficiency,” she said. Which was like a private joke we had; it was what her grandmother in Catford used to say when she asked us whether we’d had enough to eat: have you had sufficient? We used to go there for Sunday lunch or tea, all those years before we had children.
Lauren has nothing of the old hippy about her, I’m glad to say. No, Lauren has her head screwed on all right.
Bev decided to take the shame of world economic inequality on her own shoulders, the guilt at global greed. As if it hasn’t always been like this! Any normal woman would have been proud of what we’d achieved. It’s not like we inherited anything — we never had a bean from our families. Whereas Lauren has a healthy sense of entitlement. Maybe it’s a generational thing.
Divorce is no fun. No. I’m surprised how it still rankles, this much further down the line. But, life goes on.
The waiter arrived with a big pale meaty wing of skate for me and a small scorched slice of toasted cheese for the boy.
“Are you sure that’s all you want?” I asked. “Are you slimming or something?”
Again he blushed that furious shade of crimson.
“I don’t like fish,” he mumbled, glancing at the pile on my plate and recoiling.
“Ah, that is unfortunate,” I said.
I should have taken him for a sandwich in the crypt of St Mary-le-Bow and had done with it. Then I could have pointed out the churches dovetailed between City high-rises, the way a Wren church will cradle an office block in the crook of its arm. I could have shown him the figure of Justice on top of the Old Bailey with a sword in her right hand and the scales of justice in her left, and that would probably have had more of an effect on him than this lunch seemed to be doing.
“So,” I said. “Let’s return to our hitchhikers.”
He looked at me hopelessly.
“What had happened of course was that an earlier hitchhiker, let’s call him Hitchhiker One, had got into the back of the truck and decided to climb inside the empty coffin, pulling the lid over himself to keep the rain off. He heard the truck stop for another hitchhiker, our man, who we will call Hitchhiker Two, but he didn’t come out of the coffin at that point because he could still hear the rain pouring down. Then, after a while, when the rain sounded less heavy, he lifted the lid and we know what happened next.”
“Yeah, he broke his leg.”
“So what do you think?”
“Hitchhiker Two was an idiot,” said Sam. “And Hitchhiker One was a nutter. To get into a coffin.”
“Why? He would say, just common sense. If you haven’t got the sense to come in out of the rain . . . ”
“He should have waited for a covered truck, shouldn’t he, if he didn’t want to get wet.”
“Well, he didn’t,” I snapped.
Us lot, the lawyers from my sort of background, the ones who watched Crown Court on television after school, we thought we’d be criminal lawyers. Ha. Now this lot are saying they only want to do human rights cases. Double ha. Ha ha! Of course we got siphoned off into corporate tax, or commercial property, or litigation and dispute resolution.
Bev said lawyers are the little birds that fly into the open mouth of the crocodile so as to feed on the scraps of decaying meat between its teeth; pretty low down the food chain, she used to scoff. Luckily I’m fairly thick-skinned. You have to be, if you’re a lawyer. Let’s kill all the lawyers! That’s Shakespeare. We’re probably on a par with politicians in the popularity stakes, which figures: every other politician these days will be or will have been a lawyer.
“Sam,” I said. “I think we need to take a more granular and nuanced approach.”
I was starting to lose patience.
“The way that English law would approach this,” I continued, “is by looking at whether the tort of negligence has been committed. You know what tort is?”
“It’s a wrongful act in cases where there is no contract, leading to civil legal liability.”
He looked clueless, puzzled and depressed.
“You know what a contract is?”
“Like when you make a deal?”
“Correct,” I said, a touch wearily. “A contract is a written or spoken agreement enforceable by law and I think we can both see that our hitchhiker and truck driver hadn’t made a contract. Clear so far?”
“Here, negligence is a tort because there was nothing agreed in speech or writing; there was no mutual bargain or exchange on the cards. OK?”
He nodded again, without enthusiasm.
“And the question an English court would ask would probably be, was there sufficient proximity in this case for either the truck driver or Hitchhiker One to assume a duty of care to Hitchhiker Two?”
He stared down at his plate and started to tear little pellets off his bread roll.
“Do you follow me?” I asked.
“Sort of,” he mumbled.
Sort of, I thought; not good enough.
“All right, I’ll try to be clearer,” I said. “Proximity is the legal word for a relationship that’s close enough to give rise to a duty of care.”
“What’s a duty of care?”
“What do you think it is?
“It sounds like something you have to do if you get married.”
“Or have children. You ought to care for them. It’s your duty to care for them.”
“No,” I said. “That’s not it.”
“Look, I’ll give you an example,” I went on. “If I offer someone a lift in my car that means I’ve got a duty of care towards them. OK so far?”
“It’s my duty to make sure the car is roadworthy and that my driving is safe. I’ve got a duty of care to my passenger. Yes?”
“So do you think the truck driver has a duty of care towards any hitchhikers he might pick up?”
“Not if he doesn’t ask them into his truck; not if they ask themselves.”
“Ah, so you would argue, would you, that if you ask yourself along for the ride, anything that happens after that is at your own risk?”
“Then you would be pleading the doctrine volenti non fit injuria!”
He goggled at me, startled blue eyes flying wide open.
“To a willing person no injury is done.”
“Yeah,” he said. “No.”
Things reached breaking point when we got to 43. Classic mid-life crisis stuff I suppose. Two children, a great big mortgage and she was still refusing to take my career seriously. “It’s not wartime!” she said. “There’s no need to live like this.” She called me the absentee landlord. She said I only stopped off at home to refuel; that I’d turned the house into a garage. I wanted to hang on to her and the children and not be there at the same time, she said; that was me having my cake and eating it, according to her. When I look back it was like having a fifth columnist in the house, constantly criticising and undermining.
She didn’t exactly have any helpful suggestions as to what I should do about it. Retrain as a teacher? A cab driver? I think not. In the heat of the moment I referred to her little job in arts admin as a “luxury” and of course she remembered that. “I earn my keep! I pay my way!” But it was a luxury by that point. Considering how little she earned, it would have been much easier all round if she’d just accepted that the domestic side of things and the childcare was all down to her and simply got on with it; stopped all that farcical talk of juggling and sharing, all the bloody moaning. Compared with what I’d started to bring in, the money she earned was pathetic. But she refused to stop working; she said that would be like taking the king’s shilling and, if she did that, she’d forfeit her right to speak out.
Lauren’s current part-time job in HR brings in significantly more than Bev’s ever did, but she doesn’t bang on about it all the time. She knows whose job is more important. It’s the job of the one who earns the most. Obviously.
I had been scraping pale ribbons of flesh from the skate’s ribbed wing all this while. It hadn’t seemed terribly fresh, the fish, but I was hungry and had tucked in. Eventually, though, I could ignore the ammoniac whiff no longer. It smelt of urine and I should know, with two infants at home still in nappies. I called the waiter over.
“It’s fresh sir,” he said. “I saw it come in myself this morning.”
He took my proffered plate and sniffed the remaining fish.
“It won’t harm you,” he added.
There was a pause.
“Do you want to say something about it to the manager?” he asked halfheartedly.
I glanced at Sam, who was looking decidedly green round the gills at this little conversation, and decided against. No, enough fish, I said; but some more bread rolls, please. And the pudding menu.
We were deep into the dog days of summer, after all, and nowhere near the sea.
Matters came to a head when I got the offer of partnership from a Magic Circle firm. Any normal woman would have been thrilled for me but she said if it meant me working more hours then I shouldn’t take it. She said that would be unreasonable. Unreasonable! She was the unreasonable one.
Be home two nights a week by eight so we can eat together, she said; if I promised to be back two nights a week by eight, then she’d back me up and carry on. She was the unreasonable one! There was no way I could promise that if I joined the Magic Circle, there was just no way. Not two nights; not one night.
“Have you heard of the Magic Circle?” I asked Sam now as he pored over the puddings on the menu.
“Yes!” he said, to my surprise, perking up.
“What do you know about it?” I asked.
“It’s the premier organisation in the world.”
“Well you’re on the right track,” I said, sitting back, rather pleased at this development. Maybe he wasn’t as clueless as he looked after all. “Did your parents tell you about it? Or the schools careers people, maybe?”
“No,” he said, looking puzzled. “I went to an open day with my friends.”
“An open day?”
“Yeah. It was brilliant. We’re going to join when we’re 18.”
“I’m not sure it works like that,” I said, light slowly dawning. “What open day was this?”
“They have regular open days at their headquarters in Euston,” he said.
“The Magic Circle.”
“Hang on a minute,” I said. “What happened at this open day?”
“They did these really unbelievable card tricks,” he told me earnestly. “But even the ones with coins were amazing.”
He started some feat of legerdemain involving his grubby shirt cuff and a 50p coin.
“Never mind,” I said. “Never mind.”
Anyway, I joined the Magic Circle and my wife jumped ship. I didn’t think she’d do it but she did. The lady vanished. I ignored her objections and accepted the offer, assuming of course that she’d see sense. “Money is enough for some people I suppose,” was what she said, “but for anyone with a heart this way of life is brutal.” I assumed she’d eventually come round; that she’d stop all the sobbing and going on at me in the middle of the night. I simply couldn’t afford to pay that sort of carry-on too much attention at the time. Next thing I knew she’d gone, taking the children with her. “What’s the point?” she said. “You’re never there.”
Divorce is the most expensive thing you’ll ever do, I wanted to tell the boy; might as well give him some useful advice to take away from the lunch. Sometimes I feel a spurt of anger that Bev didn’t chuck in her little job and spend her energies on buy-to-let like other cannier women I could mention. Lauren’s mother, for instance. Then I might have been able to ease up a bit more at this stage. As it is, the golf course is nothing but a distant mirage in the desert.
She’s running some festival now in Norwich with a man with a ponytail. Poetry, yoga, that sort of thing. She was always on about balance and now she can stand on one leg for five minutes with her eyes shut. Good for her. She organises courses in mindfulness, too. Breathe in, breathe out. Amazing what you can charge for these days.
Part of why I haven’t progressed quite as planned at work was that I did go slightly overboard at one point, on the self-medication front as I think it’s now called. Luckily I stopped in time, with Lauren’s help. Lauren was in our HR department, she saw what was happening and she saved me. She really was my human resource! She showed me love when I was at a very low ebb and for that I owe her an enormous debt of gratitude.
“What’s Spotted Dick?” asked Sam, looking up from the menu with the suggestion of a smirk.
“It’s a currant and suet pudding which they serve in slices with custard,” I said reprovingly. Not nearly as disgusting as it sounds, actually, but there was no way Spotted Dick was on the menu for me any more. Strawberries, hold the cream; that would have to do me.
I’d been feeling below par at the gym when it happened. I’d told myself not to be such a wuss and made myself increase the incline on the running machine. Just before I fell off and blacked out, the thought flashed into my mind, “Oh Christ are my chargeable hours up to date?” And, amazingly, as I fell, I remembered that they were.
Lauren sees an action-packed future for us, the four of us off on adventure-discovery holidays as soon as the girls are old enough. Zip wires across the Amazon rainforest, gorillas in volcanic craters, that sort of thing. The Galápagos islands have been mentioned. I can’t help wondering whether she’s anticipating my demise and planning lots of visual evidence for the photo album in advance. Very proactive, Lauren.
Somebody’s got to be responsible. Somebody’s got to take care of that side of things. Diet and exercise! Think of your heart as a piece of chewing gum said the physio; if you don’t stretch it and chew it all the time, it hardens into an inelastic lump.
“So was it reasonably foreseeable that an injury could arise?” I continued, making an effort. “What do you think, Sam?”
Tenacity is the name of the game; he’d better get used to that fact if he was going to be a lawyer.
“Not really, as regards the truck driver, was it?” I persisted. “The truck driver stayed in the dry in his front seat so no, he couldn’t reasonably foresee that a hitchhiker would lie in the coffin. Do you agree?”
“Yeah,” said Sam.
Most lawyers these days marry other people in the same sort of job so both parties know what they’re signing up for. Bev didn’t sign up for that, she didn’t know the deal, and I suppose that was my mistake — trying to make her live the life she hadn’t signed up for.
“Come on Sam, was it reasonably foreseeable that an injury could arise as regards the actions of Hitchhiker One?” I chivvied him. “This could be argued with more chance of success. To rise up out of a coffin asking if the rain’s gone off — yes, in most people’s minds they might feel embarrassed or worried about causing alarm by so doing.”
“Yeah,” said the boy unexpectedly. “Hitchhiker One was wrong, if anyone. He didn’t, like, think. He didn’t put himself in the other one’s place.”
“Ah, failure of imagination. Not actually a legal offence,” I said, “Though some might argue it ought to be.”
“He was just thinking of himself.”
“That’s not a crime.”
“But he was stupid!”
“Still not a crime.”
I’m very much at the stage now of not scaling back. With Hannah going in for a law conversion course and Martha wanting to take a Masters in psychology, I’ll be shelling out for them both for a while yet. Not to mention the hefty deposits they’ll need when they come to buy. As for Abi and Ava, Lauren quite rightly wants our daughters to have the same advantages as their sisters, so it looks like I’ll be staying very much in harness for the foreseeable future.
Things don’t necessarily get easier at work as you progress in seniority. It’s recently been made clear that it won’t be viable for me to maintain my place on the lock-step. Unless. That word! Unless I put in the next few years sorting out the Dubai office.
There’s also talk of switching our remuneration system from lock-step to merit-based — or Eat-What-You-Kill as it’s more commonly known. Which would not be good news for me at this stage. So I’d better nail down the proposed arrangement pronto.
It did make me think twice, I’ll admit it. The time I’d gone to our Dubai office to consult our man Russell McKie, I got the distinct impression he’d gone slightly mad. Out there for the school fees: grew up on a housing scheme himself but his sons are down for Eton. Talk-talk-talk, he wouldn’t let me get a word in edgeways. He was too much on his own with his thoughts, that was the impression I got.
It’s a really enormous airport, Dubai, and it was absolutely heaving with people when I arrived at three in the morning. Then there were miles of gigantic motorways and flyovers. The pillars of the flyover supports were incredibly fancy and decorated. Everything was new. It was all unreal somehow. I didn’t really take to it.
But needs must and I’m no spring chicken. Highly responsive legal solutions in every timezone, we’re passionate about that, and Dubai is obviously key to this strategy, sitting on the time line as it does. It’s the place the Middle East has decided it’ll do business with the west.
Skype helps, apparently. You can be there on-screen for the bedtime story, Russell was telling me, so that’s something. Lauren wants to stay in Putney so she can be near her mother and also keep her job ticking over. They’ll come out for holidays, though not between May and October of course when it’s 45, 50 in the shade and the sea gets too hot for swimming in.
I’m boning up on sharia law at the weekends, Murabaha and all its crafty ways of getting round direct involvement with usury. Now that really is having your cake and eating it!
And of course I won’t need to pay tax, so two years there will be the same as four years back home. Maybe. If they keep me at the same level on the lock-step.
One part of me wishes she’d come out with the babies to live with me in Dubai; but I don’t think anything I say would persuade her. She’s extremely determined, Lauren, when she’s made her mind up.
I’ll be able to get some reading done in my spare time, as she pointed out the other day, some of those mega novels I’ve not had time for till now. War and Peace; Moby-Dick!
I should be back in plenty of time to plan a blowout 60th birthday party if my heart behaves itself.
“So, where are we after all that?” I said, polishing off the last of my strawberries. “What’s your verdict, Sam? Eh?”
“Guilty,” said Sam, scraping the remains of his jam roll from the plate.
“The word guilty is normally associated with criminal law,” I said. “But we’ll let that pass. I think we’ve established a clear case of negligence on the part of Hitchhiker One, though, don’t you?”
He met my eye and broke into a grin, probably in relief that it was almost over.
“Thanks for lunch,” he added.
“A pleasure,” I said, trying to attract the waiter’s attention for the bill.
This boy wasn’t the only one who was eager to be off. I had a 2.30 meeting at Crutched Friars with a visiting lawyer from the Bulgarian water company we were dealing with, and I’d have to get a move on now if I was going to be on time.
“So then,” I said once we were outside on the pavement, shaking his hand, “Good luck with everything.”
“Same to you!” he said with another guileless smile. He had jam on his tie, I noticed.
As I scanned the horizon for a cab I watched him walk away from me into the sunny afternoon and I wondered why his hands were up underneath his chin. Next thing I saw, he was tearing his tie off and stuffing it into his pocket. I didn’t envy his parents. He wriggled his shoulders, gave a little skip like a goat or a lamb, then started to run. I don’t know where he thought he was going; he was heading in completely the wrong direction for where he’d come from. I was surprised how fast he was, though; he was really flying down Cheapside. I wouldn’t have thought he had it in him. Then my BlackBerry buzzed and when I looked up again he must have disappeared off down Bread Street.
Illustrations by Matthew Cook
Listen to a podcast of ‘Ambition’, read by Christopher Villiers, at ft.com/ambition