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Authors: Frances Fyfield

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BOOK: Staring At The Light
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‘Never
his
? Like he never made any money? Oh, yes? They all say that.’

‘He grew up in Belfast, you see. Making bombs was playtime … His brother—’

‘Nobody’s saying he’s a terrorist. Simply a destructive exploiter of knowledge. What kind of excuse is
that for selling the stuff? What does your client
want
out of life?’

‘Babies. He’s crazy for a baby. Got a good dentist, have you?’

‘Not if you judge by this.’

‘Look; about the house …’

The queue before them seemed to dissolve. An angry posse marched out, arguing and blaming. Then they were in, Cannon hanging
back like a tail and Helen West hissing, Why did you have to bring
him
? Does he ever stop smiling? and Sarah felt a moment of sincere regret.

Master Ralph was a disappointed man, who found the incessant struggle to administer decisions to the ignorant inside a room
that resembled a dungeon with a high ceiling too much of a challenge, even before the realization that every person who came
before him was less informed than he and always would be. Every legal
ingénue
went this route until they were old enough to send someone else, leaving him to witness an endless parade of inexperience,
all wanting something they could not have. It was not the iron that had entered his soul, but rust.

‘I appear for the Crown,’ said Helen West in her quiet and authoritative voice. ‘The Master is familiar with this case.’ Out
of the corner of her eye, she had the vague impression that Sarah Fortune and plain Master Ralph had actually
winked
at one another. Master Ralph was suddenly uncharacteristically cheerful.

‘Mr Cannon has been concerned in the illegal manufacture of explosives. He has been convicted of unlicensed supply to the
building trade and others, served a sentence, and all that is history. Since he profited from this, the Crown wants his money.
You have all these facts, sir, from previous appearances. Mr Cannon, otherwise known as Smith, was in business with his twin
brother but, alas, they are not alike. Under the cover of his brother’s respectable property development and building industry,
this
Mr Smith diversified into the manufacture of explosives. He was an expert for hire to the worst end of the trade, because
he
liked
it. He would have been an asset to the Army. He also used the legitimate business to capitalize himself with a property and,
we suspect, valuable paintings, by effectively stealing from his brother’s business. Mr Smith, Cannon, considers himself an
artist
.’

‘He
is
an artist,’ Sarah mumbled. ‘A
framed
artist.’

‘Did my learned friend say something?’

‘I heard nothing,’ Master Ralph said. ‘Go on, Miss West.’

She went on, ‘The only asset we have been able to trace is his house in Langdale Crescent. We want that house. This hearing
is purely about that house. The other money we must pursue as best we can. But Mr Smith – Cannon – has agreed he owes us the
house.
When
he finds the deeds and chooses to leave it.’ Here, Helen West gave a look of disapproval to Sarah Fortune. ‘Mr Cannon has
asked for an adjournment of the order. He is, of course, quite consistent in such
a request. As he would be.’ She grimaced, a brief illumination of currently pale, beautiful features.

Sarah rose to her feet. Hers was an infectious grin. ‘On the contrary, sir, my client has seen the sweet light of reason.
My client no longer wishes to adjourn the issue. The only reason he’s delayed with the handing over of the deeds is because
he could not find them. They were not in his hands. He did not
live
in the house. The Crown is welcome to the house. What’s left of it.’ She sat.

The Master raised his hand for silence and began to examine the documents in front of him, the better, it seemed, to delay
the disappearance of anyone who could formulate a sentence. He glanced up from time to time, enjoying the view.

‘What do you mean,’ Helen muttered, ‘what’s left of it?’

Silently, Sarah handed her a Polaroid photograph. Helen fumbled for her glasses. ‘That’s
his
house?’

The photo showed a ruin, one quarter of a house clinging precariously to the end of a crescent. The most prominent feature
was the stairwell, with a bath balanced on the top step. There was something so entirely ludicrous about it, like a surreal
painting, that Helen began to laugh. Mirth inside the Master’s room was as dangerous as laughter at a funeral. It became infectious,
subversive, travelled round the body like a missile, rapidly out of control, ready to emerge as a noise more animal than human.
Then both women were half double, making small weepy sounds, like puppies, and for some unfathomable
reason, without even knowing the joke, Master Ralph joined in.

‘Look,’ said Sarah Fortune, on the steps to the high court. ‘You can’t go back to work like this. I know a fantastic dentist.
If I phone him, he’ll see you straight away, I’m sure he will.’

‘No, thank you. It’s gone. Well, it’s gone for now. I need a dentist who copes with hysteria. I’m terrified. As soon as pain
goes, I find an excuse … And it’s gone. Well, it’s gone for now. Where is he, this dentist?’

Sarah jerked her head in Cannon’s direction. ‘A dentist who can cope with Cannon can cope with anyone. Wimpole Street.’

‘Can’t afford it.’

‘Oh, it’s not too ruinous. Although it has to be said,’ Sarah added in confidential tones, ‘it
is
far cheaper if you sleep with him.’

Helen was not entirely sure she had heard correctly: she was dizzy with the end of the pain. She took the offered card, watched
Sarah Fortune summon her client with an imperious wave, received the last blessing of that wide, outrageous smile and realized,
once they were out of sight, how she had failed to record details of W. J. Cannon’s current address. Yes, he was an artist;
she remembered that. An almost incredible combination, but at his trial he had sketched them all, capturing their likenesses
with uncanny flair. A man transfixed between opposing urges to create and destroy; a thief who probably made explosives for
other thieves, stole from a twin
brother, and even the gaolers liked him. Married to a wife who was going to reform him, common enough mitigation, speciously
received. They all said that. She remembered more. He had looked different then. There’d been a suicide attempt in prison,
so why did he look so much better three months out from two years inside? She gazed after them. That was the difference. That
smile. His teeth. She did not want to think about teeth and she did not want to go to the dentist. She would wait, like a
fool, until the next time.

Cold outside. Warm within. A morning of contrasts. A garret; a courtroom; an office.

I am lord of all I survey
, Ernest Matthewson told himself each morning when he passed the plaque bearing his name on the office wall, knowing each
time he said it that it was a lie. He was merely an ageing senior partner in the monolith that had grown from the microcosm
of his once modest legal practice and he did not really control anything. He could not control the staff or their relationships;
he could no longer control the character of the clients, and he often reflected how the firm provided unique opportunities
for the wrong people to meet each other in sometimes advantageous, sometimes poisonous ways. One tried to
choose
the clients, but he no longer knew who they were and could only remember the nastier ones between the many. Charles Tysall,
who had stalked and hurt Sarah; Ernest would always feel guilty about that. John Smith, the builder without
manners he had passed on to ambitious Andrew Mitchum; clients with nameless needs, not always legal. Useless clients, ungrateful
clients and barking-mad clients, who seemed to suit Sarah.

‘Are you back? Oh, there you are. Do sit down.’

These days, Ernest Matthewson adopted an elaborate formality with Sarah Fortune. It had come upon him like a cloud, this awkwardness,
and he could not shake it off, a mixture of artificial reserve replacing the easy friendship and slightly naughty camaraderie
of old, which he missed but could not resume – as if someone had told him she was subject to fits and he was waiting all the
time for one to happen. Or as if he knew how she knew his weaknesses and his vanities and he could not forgive either her
tolerance or her affection which, once faced with his coldness, simply incorporated it and behaved with the same good nature.
Sarah’s a good woman, his wife said, again and again, a
good
woman with a big heart, and she only makes you feel guilty. Ernest was neither analytical nor introspective. Questioning
his own motives was anathema. Ah, yes, the firm was a network all right, like an unruly family drawing to its bosom, via the
children, a number of unsuitable friends. Sarah had once been more like a daughter during her year-long affair with his own
son, Malcolm. Such hopes Mrs Matthewson had had then, but Sarah was like a fish refusing to be caught and he was aware that
he had been punishing her ever since.

Now, he simply told himself, this was the promiscuous gal who had thrown over his boy, thereby catapulting
his
wife into an orgy of recriminatory
disappointment. As an excuse for a retreat into behaviour that would have suited someone interviewing an upstart applicant
for the wrong job, it was adequate.

There was more to it than that, as they both knew. She was totally unfit for her purpose, for a start. She never had cared
a toss about the practice of the law, although after her fashion she was genuinely good at it. Totally irresponsible in the
commercial sense. Couldn’t give a fuck, he growled (aware, even as he formulated the word, of Mrs Matthewson’s strictures
about bad language). She was immune to lectures, annual reports, training courses on the equation of time spent per hour to
cost, and all that invaluable kind of thing, and although he was not fond of modern management systems either, at least he
had always had the knack of charging the client until the pips squeaked and making it look convincing. The endless committees
that ruled the life of the firm never voted Miss Fortune into partnership, but whenever her severance was suggested there
was always this strange reluctance to act on it. She filled a gap: she took on the duffers, the no-hope clients related to
other clients; the ones who wanted a spot of divorce or litigation so that they could get on with the business of making money.
Clients who had once been rich. The children of clients. Clients they were not supposed to turn away without taking the risk
of losing other clients and appearing to have no soul. Nobody knew where she got her clients: she seemed to find them herself
and they came by the back door. For absorbing the misfits, Sarah was allowed a generous enough
salary, unless it was compared to the partnership Turks – and how Sarah Fortune, glamorous widow, justified her existence
remained a mystery.

She had recovered completely from past traumas, he told himself. None of it was
his
fault. She was decorative – that much was universally conceded: small, slim, agile up those stairs, watchable, without being
classically beautiful. All the men felt better for seeing her around. The women looked out to see what she was wearing today.
Ernest’s wife often asked him wistfully to report on it. He suspected they were still friends, talking about him behind his
back, but he could not prove it, and it infuriated him. Women were the devil for secrets.

‘Are you well?’ he asked formally.

‘Never better.’

Court gear with a bit of pizzazz, he’d tell Mrs Matthewson, the way he would tell her every single detail of his day, especially
if she asked. He was observant about women’s clothes. Not exactly a black suit, he would say, but a sort of soft charcoal,
with a long loose jacket over a gored skirt, which swung round her ankles. Cream shirt … Why does she always have them buttoned
so high up her neck? But an old thing, antique even, with tiny buttons matching the pearls. And a belt? Mrs Matthewson would
ask eagerly, waiting for Ernest to shut his eyes and remember. Ah, yes, grey again, but darker, velvet, I think. Broad belt:
her waist is tiny.

She stood in front of his desk with her hands thrust into the pockets of the unstructured jacket, oblivious
of his attempts to record the design. He would see it again, of course: she was artful with clothes (she was artful anyway);
it would appear in several guises over trousers, over a short, straight skirt with a nice length of leg and, yes, he looked
forward to that.

‘Do sit down,’ he repeated, the sound of his parlour-maid voice making him cringe, but there was nothing he could do about
it. He loved and missed her in a way that made anything else impossible; but, by God, for all sorts of reasons she would have
made a terrible daughter-in-law: flouting the rules, both moral and social, was all very well, but not with one of his own.

She sat. Elegantly, of course, leaning back into the chair with her arm over the back, legs crossed under the fluid skirt,
at ease, cigarette lit. Useless to remind her about the no-smoking zone. They had been that route before. Oh, Lord, he wished
he was not fond of her. Sarah, for God’s sake, help me out, was what he wanted to say. I’m a half-way redundant old man in
a firm that has outgrown me and I need you to act as my protector, the way you do for everyone else.

‘How did you get on with Cannon? Our artist?’ he added sarcastically, suddenly remembering that obscure and disastrous client.
Where
had
she got
him
from? God alone knew.
She
said
he
had seen the name of the firm on headed paper on a relative’s desk and come along by chance because he knew no other lawyers,
had been sent upstairs because he was scruffy. A feasible but unfortunate explanation. They did not normally deal with criminals,
unless purely the white-collar kind.

‘Oh, fine. Someone blew his house up.’

‘Oh.’ Sarah had this tendency to exaggerate; you couldn’t believe a thing she said.

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