Short story: Front of house
(Rewritten July 5, 2015)
HALF a mile away from Roy’s and Costello instinctively started looking for parking, then laughed at himself. Months ago Roy had moved out of a black-and-white in the old town saying he needed more space. Costello had chided Roy, saying he’d lose elderly clients but Roy had pointed down to acres of marked-out tarmac. “Oldsters with legal problems all drive Jaguars.”
Even so Costello didn’t warm to the glazed tube which zoomed him up the side of the tower to the twelfth floor. Gave him the heebie-jeebies. The lift’s floor was glass and he could see his Audi framed, as it were, between his Hotter casuals.
Back in the black-and-white you rang a brass bell to wheedle a fonctionnaire away from piles of black deed boxes. Here the grand curve of desk, backstopped by polstyrene lettering, lacked even a telephone. Very global but heck, Roy was in the end just a solicitor.
The receptionist glittered. “You are a teeny bit early, Mr Costello,” she said. “He has another client.”
“No problemo,” Costello said, mysteriously talking like the huge desk. “I’ve got an Ipad full of work.”
It was the receptionist’s job to make clients feel special in all sorts of ways. “I’ll let you know the minute…” she began, then ran her tongue quickly round her upper lip. Costello tried not to stare, tried not to approve or disapprove. That came later.
Roy was tie-less as if Costello had interrupted him dressing. Displaying a certain déja vu he listened to Costello’s latest tax-avoidance trick. “A large home conservatory; patients take their ease there before I see them in the consulting room. No sign of anything medical, much less surgical. Water colours of rural scenes and several copies of the current Country Life. Note that: more than one copy. They see the garden and there’s not a single kid’s toy. With oncology you’ve got to get patients into the mood. I’m looking for twenty-five thou in allowances.”
Roy smiled in his superior solicitorish way. “You may be looking for it but I recommend you don’t find it.”
Costello sighed. “Go on. Tell me why.”
“Simple. It isn’t worth it.”
“Now look here, Roy. Twenty-five thou may not mean much in this space-ship HQ. But I’m in theatre for fourteen hours at a stretch.”
“And you’re amply rewarded, Cos. What are you on? Close to half a mil? That’s more than I take home when I split between nine partners. Don’t be greedy; greed can take you to the abyss.”
Costello sighed again. Their conversation was costing him two hundred pounds but he saw it as spending money to save money.
Roy on the other hand saw large invoices as compensation for not showing he was bored. “Do I have to spell it out, Cos? You have a perfectly good consultancy room where you work, at the ironically named Ancient Free. Furnished in impractical light grey, as I recall.”
“But this will be different. No signs on the walls, no antiseptic smell. Cancer patients need calming, especially when they’re getting used to the bad news.”
“And Country Life will do that? Look I’ll admit I haven’t looked closely but this screams privilege. You’d be taking a big chance. You could risk tax provisions already agreed. Do you really want HMRC to get suspicious? Start taking a second hard look at that Zurich arrangement?”
Costello leant back, laughing. “Still the same old Roy. Now living like Andy Warhol but as cautious as ever.”
Roy smiled. “Because, in essence, the law hasn’t changed. This is a successful legal partnership but it needs to be up-to-date. You may hate the floor show at reception but it shows we’re past the millennium.”
Floor show! The earlier eroticism abruptly returned. “It’s more than interior design, isn’t it?” said Costello. “You’ve gone further than wall-paper. A different kind of employee for one thing.”
Roy recognised the allusion. “You’ve been exposed to Vicky? Was it a pleasant experience?”
“I’ll settle for that. Do you know she did PPE at Magdalen? And, I might add, she’s paid accordingly.”
“It’s a new side to the law.”
“Not the law, Cos. A new view of commerce. The hell with Charles Dickens.”
COSTELLO thought about Vicky driving back to the old County Hospital for a token hour of NHS surgery. Reckoned she’d been pretty subtle, far from louche. Her breasts weren’t involved, her tongue had worked for no more than a second. But what sort of job interview had crafty Roy engineered? Was there anything there for a medical man?
Costello scrubbed up with his two male house surgeons. Neither was yet thirty; surely they’d understand. After all they still talked about girlfriends not garden centres. It wasn’t just solicitors who needed to look cool. He’d talk to them during a longer op.
Updating his records at the Ancient Free he deliberately left his office door open so he could listen to Gladys, making appointments, answering queries. Softly in her swan’s-down voice. She’d come recommended: “A comfort to the patients, men and women.” But now he tended to specialise in prostate surgery and the gender ratio had changed. How did men regard Gladys? The grey bun at the back. The partly suppressed Brum accent. The derrière that spread out when she sat down. He doubted Gladys could make her tongue glide that way.
The more he thought the more serious he got. Playing soccer kick-about with his sons that evening he was even considering the nuances of a job advert. Not a hint of lip-licking, of course. It would have to be womanly sympathy. Tricky. There’d be dozens of applications; for reasons he’d never understood many women fancied comforting those in physical and mental despair. A great deal of sifting would be needed, without Gladys to help him. Whoops! What about unfair dismissal?
The next morning Costello spent just ten minutes at a job agency. The questions were shockingly intrusive and he had difficulty disguising what he was up to. He emerged quickly, embarrassed and very slightly ashamed.
Where might he find his Vicky? Buried in schemes as he passed into the County Hospital he almost bumped into Ellen, his wife. Last seen ten minutes before he went to bed the night before.
“Slumming, I see,” she said. “Twice in two days. The NHS is grateful.”
Their marriage had been a victim of temperament and ideology. Ellen not only worked exclusively in the NHS but in geriatrics – its most poorly funded sector. Sexual relations had withered after he’d taken the Ancient Free’s shilling and gone substantially private. For a decade he’d been a lost soul to her: a blocked drain, say, or a crossword puzzle. But, as usual, neither had time to talk.
“Don’t forget, you have the boys tonight,” Ellen called out over her shoulder.
LATER, in theatre, one of the house surgeons whispered, "It’s Yvonne's do later on." Costello hadn't forgotten. Yvonne was senior theatre nurse, as vital to him as his left hand, but he still hadn't bought her a present. “What can I get her?”
“I don’t know what she likes.”
“Spend enough money, and it won’t matter.”
The woman behind the glassy counter practised what she preached, her face a stiff beautiful mask, her eyes blackly staring. The bottles were faceted like jewels, her scarlet finger nails like diamond chips around giant amethysts.
Was this Vicky? Could this woman enhance him as a surgeon? Her inhuman looks suggested a high salary and yet she was after all only a shop assistant. How might he impress her, get her on his side? He pointed to the largest bottle and her eyes widened fractionally.
“A very special gift,” she whispered, “for a very special person.”
No mention of price. Only when he saw the total on the credit-card scanner did he realise. He glanced to see whether she was impressed but her face remained impassive. Possibly the maquillage prevented expression. The gift-wrapping took time and his bravado leaked away. When he thanked her her eyes, previously animate, were blank.
Out on the pavement he recognised a new problem. Because of its price the perfume was now a disproportionate gift. Yvonne might easily make the wrong conclusion. Oh hell.
OVER the next fortnight Costello searched out what he took to be feminine gathering places. Bars in large hotels, entrances to fashion boutiques, latterly - in despair - Waitrose. Women he saw, some lively, some magnificent, some both, but all eventually discouraging. The plausible approach eluded him and his mouth tended to dry up. Finally he conceded. Only one person had pulled off this successfully and Costello decided if it cost two hundred pounds then so be it.
He called randomly and wasn’t pleased to discover he’d picked what had to be Vicky’s break. Instead a fiftyish bald man in pin-stripe agreed immediately to his request for five-minutes with Roy “on a personal matter”. Amazing! Roy had always claimed he was so busy.
But something was wrong. Roy wasn’t facing out from his desk, he’d swung round to his left, rested his heels on the window-ledge and was looking – yearningly it seemed – at a building site dominated by a tower crane.
“You’ve come to gloat, of course,” said Roy.
Something deep inside his tripes kept Costello silent. Sitting down, he crossed his legs. Neutrally, he hoped.
Roy said, “There’ll be a Law Society hearing.”
Costello’s knowledge of the rules governing solicitors was vestigial. He played along. “A bit rough,” he said, tentatively.
“They’ll get me under one of those catch-alls they have in the armed services: conduct prejudicial. You know.”
“But what proof have they got?” It seemed the obvious question.
If Roy hadn’t been day-dreaming about catastrophe he would have realised Costello’s ignorance. But perhaps Roy wanted a confidante. “It was the partners, you see. They scared the living daylights out of Vicky. She swore at a client in reception. I’d have got her round that somehow but they made her confess everything.”
Roy waved an irritated hand. “The terms under which I employed her. The secret terms.”
Light was beginning to break through. Costello said, “But you said she was intelligent. Magdalen and all that.”
“She’d been unable to find work for six months.” Roy writhed slightly in his seat, as well he might. “She was fairly easy to persuade.”
Costello said nothing.
Roy turned. “Hell, all I wanted was to put a bit of piss and vinegar into this medieval organisation.”
The phrase was new to Costello. He stared at Roy as if he’d never seen him before. Christ, how old he looks, he thought.
On the way down the lift capsule stopped between floors. The recording of a woman’s voice – it could have been Vicky’s – soothed him, told him it was a routine happening, pre-ordained to monitor the lift’s electronics. Costello looked down reluctantly, saw the Audi, wished he was at the wheel, driving away at an illegal speed.
The cylindrical walls reflected his image. Costello wondered whether he too looked old but the reflection was distorted, almost Cubist, it could have been anyone. Then, as he still concentrated, the lift resumed its descent.