Authors: Caro Fraser
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Thrillers, #Legal
For all long-suffering lawyers –
in particular, Jim and Richard
Charles Beecham could see the postman from where he sat at his desk, next to the stone-framed window. He knew that he himself was screened from the postman’s gaze by the tumble of fading jasmine and honeysuckle leaves which partly obscured the window, and for this he felt both secretly relieved and ashamed. He was reminded of early days in his marriage to Hetty, when his heart had contracted at the sound of letters flipping onto the doormat, and at the awful sight of those cheap brown envelopes containing bills and reminders and letters from his bank manager. Even worse were the ones which Hetty had concealed, or mislaid under a jumble of overdue library books and children’s belongings on the hall table. Hetty was gone. Those days were gone. But, twenty years on, the guilt and dread of financial indebtedness had returned with a vengeance.
The envelopes were no longer cheap little brown things. They were long and white, franked in the City of London, and the paper on which the demands for money were written was thick and expensive, the demands themselves elegantly phrased and gentlemanly. Just as a struggling young polytechnic lecturer
in a terraced house in Maida Vale had deserved nothing more than scrappy, terse final demands for mean little sums in double figures, so it befitted a middle-aged man of independent means, living in intellectual tranquillity in his snug eighteenth-century house in the Wiltshire countryside, to receive demands from Lloyd’s of London for sums that ran into tens of thousands.
He heard the flap and clink of the letter box, and watched the postman as he made his way down the long, stone-flagged path, brushing past the clumps of lavender that grew beneath the mulberry tree. It was irrational, of course, to live in the fearful assumption that each delivery of post might contain yet another reminder from his members’ agents that there were overdue calls for which they had yet to receive settlement. But when one owed money, when the yearly demands from Lloyd’s were relentless and overwhelming, one lived in a perpetual state of anxiety and guilt. Gone were the days when he would stroll carelessly into the hall and stoop to pick up the mail, confident perhaps of another royalty cheque, or a letter from his agent confirming the sale of television rights to his latest work. Those might still come – Charles Beecham might still be a familiar name to the elite who cared to watch his documentaries, or buy his books – but the comfortable living which his occupation as a historian and academic had once provided him had long since been eclipsed, obscured by the fiasco of Lloyd’s.
Joining Lloyd’s had seemed the right thing to do at the time, back in the mid eighties, when his finances had taken that wonderful upward swing. He no longer needed to pay money to Hetty, who had remarried some stockbroker, and the children were both past school age. His elder brother, a childless bachelor, had recently died, so that he had inherited the modest country house in which he now lived, together with a tidy little fortune tied up in gilts and treasury bonds. He had been able to give up lecturing, and to use his new-found leisure to write a series of books, which were well
received. He had become established as a popular historian, and his boyish good looks, his blonde curling hair, had made him a natural for television. His first BBC Two series, on the history of the Mogul Empire, had been a success, and the familiarity of his face ensured that his subsequent book on the history of Assyria sold widely, and a further television series followed. Successful and reasonably wealthy, he had every reason to believe that membership of Lloyd’s would bring advantages in terms of both money and status. He remembered all the enticements which had been spelt out to him – making one’s capital work twice, setting off losses against taxed income, an unbroken seven-year record of profits – and how he had been told that an investment of £100,000 could net him yearly returns of £15,000 or £20,000. Now, seven years later, his boyish good looks were fading slightly, and the golden hair was greying, but he was still attractive, his books still sold well, and his latest documentary attracted a healthy audience. The nice amount of additional annual income which he had been told Lloyd’s would bring him had, however, never manifested. Disaster after disaster had hit the market, and now he was the embittered recipient of regular demands for money which he could no longer pay. It had never been meant to work that way. Lloyd’s should have brought him in money, instead of draining him of it. And there was no way out. He glanced round at the comfortable room in which he now sat, at the carefully collected pieces of furniture, the shelves of books, and then out at the rambling garden surrounded by warm, worn brick walls, and wondered how soon he would manage to sell the house. It had been on the market for five months now.
The sound of the telephone interrupted his meditations and he reached out to pick it up. When he heard Freddie Hendry’s voice, he sighed inwardly. At least, he thought, whatever bitterness he might feel about the Lloyd’s business, it hadn’t sent him barmy, like poor old Freddie.
‘Beecham?’ barked the voice.
‘Freddie,’ sighed Charles. ‘How are you?’
But Freddie did not bother with preliminary pleasantries. ‘Look, Charles, we’re going to have to rally the troops over this time-bar point. That ass Cochrane has been writing letters to everybody, and I can see we’re going to have to canvass support against the rest of the committee. Now, what I propose …’
But Charles did not listen to the rest. He just sat, the receiver against his ear, waiting for Freddie to finish. He wished, oh, how he wished, that he had never been talked into going on this committee. Charles and Freddie, along with a couple of thousand other unfortunates, were on the Capstall syndicate, number 1766, one of the worst-hit syndicates at Lloyd’s. Alan Capstall, a flamboyant Lloyd’s underwriter whose successes in the seventies were legend, had managed to underwrite a series of run-off policies involving asbestos and pollution risks which exposed his Names to liabilities of horrific, undreamt-of proportions, and had triggered the beginning of Charles Beecham’s financial disaster. Of course, the Capstall syndicate was not the only Lloyd’s syndicate to be adversely affected by the negligent underwriting of spectacularly bad risks. Other syndicates – Outhwaite, Merrett, Gooda Walker – had all suffered calamitous losses. The Capstall syndicate Names had banded together to form an action group with the aim of taking legal proceedings against Alan Capstall and the members’ agents. With all the enthusiasm of grievously wronged litigants, they formed a committee to oversee the matter of the litigation, and Charles Beecham, as a prominent figure, had seemed an obvious choice as a committee member. People liked the idea of having someone on the committee who was something of a celebrity. Besides, at forty-two, Charles was relatively youthful, compared to many of the Names, and it was felt he might inject a certain amount of enthusiasm and energy into the project.
Now, as he listened to Freddie Hendry’s dotty ramblings,
Charles felt anything but enthusiastic. When they had launched the case a year ago, his energies had been fuelled by outrage at the disaster which had befallen him, by a bitter sense of complete betrayal by an institution which he had regarded as impregnable. But the warmth of those feelings had gradually been cooled by tedious months of painstakingly slow litigation, and by the increasingly apparent eccentricities and fixations of his fellow committee members. He was still keen to pursue the litigation – anything to avert the financial nightmare which threatened to ruin his life – but he wished now that he did not have to be in any way involved in the coordination of the thing. It seemed that all the energies of the committee were taken up with internal wranglings and petty vendettas against their chairman, a harmless and well-meaning man by the name of Snodgrass. Freddie Hendry was one of the worst of the lot, forever ringing Charles and other members of the committee, and sending endless faxes to Nichols & Co, the solicitors, and even to Godfrey Ellwood and Anthony Cross, the counsel retained by the action group to fight their case.
‘… did you see that article in the
? Perfectly obvious that Capstall is a complete crook, and worse besides. I rather think they’re bugging my phone now, Charles. That happened a lot in 1981. And another odd thing. Chap came up to me three times in Wimpole Street the other day and asked me the way to Grosvenor Square. Three times! Same chap! It reminded me of the time when I was in Regent Street, couple of years after the war, actually on my way to Garrard’s—’
‘Freddie,’ interrupted Charles, ‘I’m afraid there’s someone at the door … I’ll have to go … Yes, yes – I understood all of it. Perfectly. Well, maybe we should just leave all that to counsel. They are the experts, after all … No, I don’t imagine that Godfrey Ellwood is related to the Ellwood whom your cousin knew in MI6 … You get those letters out. Super. Bye.’
He heaved a sigh of relief as he put the phone down, then sat motionless in his chair, wondering if he should go out and look at the mail lying on the mat in the hall.
In the living room of his small Bloomsbury flat, Freddie Hendry put the phone down and rubbed his chin. He sometimes wondered if Beecham appreciated the urgency of this whole thing. All very well for him to sit there in the country with his history books, doing his bit towards coordinating and so forth, but what they needed at a time like this was spirit, people prepared to fight their corner.
Freddie rose slowly and went through to the kitchen. It was small and spartan, with just the few basics – pots and pans, some crockery, a kettle, tea in a caddy, powdered milk, cereal, some tins and packets of food. He hadn’t really cooked much for himself since Dorothy died. Just the odd bit of spaghetti on toast, cold tuna … he rather liked those Batchelors Cup a Soups, particularly the pea and ham. Poor Dorothy – what would she think if she could see how he lived now? Of course, it had been the Lloyd’s business which had finished her. She had never got over losing the house in Hampshire, seeing everything sold, leaving all their friends. When they had been forced to move into this poky little flat, that had been the end for her. Freddie muttered to himself, baring his teeth and jerking up his salt-and-pepper moustache as he did so, as he engaged yet again in one of his imaginary diatribes against Capstall. Capstall the smooth-talking charlatan, the crook, the swindler who had abused the trust of his syndicate members, who had cynically underwritten those asbestos risks when the evidence of mounting asbestos claims was there for all to see.
With a hand that trembled faintly, Freddie poured boiling water onto his powdered soup and stirred it carefully. He took it back through to the living room, which was sparsely furnished
with a few handsome remnants of furniture from the Hampshire house. Silver-framed pictures of his two grown-up children and their families adorned the mantelpiece, and in the grate stood an old, inefficient gas heater. From the landing outside, beyond the faceless front doors of countless apartments whose inhabitants Freddie did not know, came the distant sound of the lift doors opening and closing, then the whine of the mechanism. It was a bleak sound. On days like this, with the autumn melancholy setting in and long hours to fill, Freddie had to try hard to stave off the loneliness. At least this litigation gave him a sense of purpose. This was probably the last fight he would fight in his life, and by God, he was determined to win it. He sat down beside the telephone and fax machine and set his mug of soup carefully next to it. Freddie had got the fax machine from a second-hand office equipment place, and he regarded it as indispensable to his work as a committee member. It seemed to him vital that he should be able to transmit his thoughts as quickly as possible to those in charge of the case. Ideas often came to him in the middle of the night, and at a time when phones would have rung unanswered, Freddie could sit in his dressing gown, feeding in handwritten pages.
He sipped his soup and wiped his moustache, staring at the pale October sky through the window. What should his next line of campaign be? He must muster more support for his views over this time-bar point. Cochrane and his quislings mustn’t be allowed to get away with what they were doing. Basher Snodgrass was far too weak to be the committee chairman. Freddie had sent three faxes to Godfrey Ellwood on the subject of the time-bar in the past two days, and he had the feeling Ellwood hadn’t paid them much attention. Freddie suspected him of approaching this case too cynically. Well, he would try that junior of Ellwood’s, Anthony Cross. The boy looked far too young to be handling such important litigation, let alone to be
a barrister, but everyone assured Freddie he was tremendously good. Maybe he would pay more attention. Freddie took another sip of his soup, picked up his pen and pad of A4 paper, and began to write in his steady, sloping hand, marking the first page for the
attention of Anthony Cross, 5 Caper Court, the Temple, London.
In the buildings of 5 Caper Court, all was not as tranquil as it should normally have been on a Friday morning. True, to the eye of the idle clerk passing by on his way from Fleet Street to King’s Bench Walk, or to any barrister glancing in at the windows as they hurried through Serjeants’ Inn to Middle Temple Lane, the picture was ostensibly that of one of the most select sets of barristers’ chambers in the Temple going diligently about its work. Shirtsleeved barristers toiled over briefs and books, computers and word processors hummed and winked reassuringly, figures came and went, and all seemed testimony to a composed little world where the fees were fat and the opinions eminently learned. Among the figures which came and went, however, one moved with greater rapidity and fluster than was normal within those sedate walls.
Felicity Waller thought she would burst into tears if she couldn’t have either a fag or a good swear – right now. Why couldn’t Anthony look after his own effing files? She was a clerk now, not a bleeding secretary, and this stupid Lloyd’s Names case of his was driving her demented. If she had to find yet another frigging Capstall file for him – and there were 208 of the bleeding things, and more to come, apparently – she’d scream.