Chapter 3: Claims Online

The screen faded leaving behind only the pulsating message in red – We can help. After a few seconds, the dark brown tones of the voice-over actor, familiar somehow but still too hard to identify, spoke softly and reassuringly. ‘Just call us. Claims Online at –‘. Moira switched her attention away from the screen as the voice repeated the familiar claims line number, the free phone number manned by sympathetic listeners, mainly men for some reason, who asked the questions before passing suitable cases to a case handler. She often patrolled the open plan office to monitor the calls, especially in the hour after an advertisement had been broadcast. That was when the lines were busiest and the calls the crankiest. The ad usually ran in the late afternoon spot when those without jobs were most likely to be watching television or prepared to admit to it. That was when the nut-cases came out to play; the former soldier who thought he had started the civil war in Ireland and wanted to know if he could claim against the government for the stress it had caused him; the downhill skier who wanted to sue the owner of the tree he had ploughed into; the woman who blamed an episode of Brookside for the break-up of her marriage. It amazed her how patient the phone handlers were with just about everyone, however bizarre their claim and however incoherent they were. Some of them had already phoned other helplines or taken legal advice in a solicitor’s office but just did not want to accept that their claim would never succeed. Some had even sued already –unsuccessfully- but would not give up.
Not that all hopeless claims were cranks though, not by a long way. A lot of the disappointed callers were either too late – since personal injury claims usually had to be brought within three years of the accident – or had cases which were just too hard to prove – trying to establish that a doctor had had made a mistake was far from straightforward.
‘So what do you think, then?’ Donald Rinder’s gloomy voice cut into her thoughts and she turned to look at him, a grimace puckering her nose.
‘It’s a bit in your face, isn’t it, Donald? Is that us, our image? I hated the red. Sorry.’
‘I hate the whole idea of television advertising but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right way to build this business. My father would turn over in his proverbial if he saw that advertisement. He’d say it was unprofessional. Only he’d use a bigger word. Or three.’
Moira suspected she would have agreed with Donald’s father, a solicitor for whom the words integrity and professional struck deep chords, even if she only knew him from Donald’s constant reference to his thoughts and values. She fluttered an arm in the direction of the video player. ‘Why don’t we tell the agency to have another go? Tell them the brief was very specific on two things – both of which they missed.’
‘Discreet and different, you mean?’ asked Donald, his voice still gloomy. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Well, it’s your decision, Donald. We can keep going with the old ad, can’t we?’
‘The Board thinks the old advertisement is why our conversion rate is so much lower than the competition’s.’
Moira restrained a sigh of exasperation. ‘Worse thing that ever happened to this company,’ she muttered. Donald gave her a disapproving look. He had inherited his father’s respect for authority, however maladjusted it might be and it was more than he could conceive of to criticise the company’s new management board.
‘It’s just a thought but the figures released by the other companies might not be totally accurate…’ She cast him a speculative glance. Donald played everything so straight he couldn’t imagine that others might not. She wondered if he was in the right business.
‘I suppose so,’ he told her doubtfully. ‘I’ll think about it.’
Moira guessed that that meant she had won but that he would dress it up to make it look as if he alone had made the decision. ‘I’ll have to run whatever we decide past the weekly meeting, anyway.’
‘Of course.’ Heaven forbid that anyone should make a decision without the Board casting its dark shadow over it. She kept her thoughts to herself. ‘I must go. I’m seeing James Carpenter for lunch.’
‘Give him my regards. It’s a shame we don’t see so much of him these days.’
‘Not surprising, given what they did to him.’
Donald nodded, still gloomy. Moira wondered if his hangdog expression ever disappeared for long. At home, with his wife, enjoying a weekend with her and the children? At the height of mind blowing sex? At the top of a hill, the wind ruffling the small amount of hair he still possessed, looking down on the landscape he had conquered? Probably only the last, she guessed, remembering the increased animation in his face when he described his walking holiday along the spine of the Sussex Downs. An eyebrow had lifted in excitement, the jowls had firmed as he spoke and although there had been no smile, he had spoken with more hope for the universe and the position he might usefully occupy in it than she had ever known before.
‘Okay, see you later.’ She looked at her watch. Christ, she was going to be late, James would kill her. She picked up her writing pad and, anxious to avoid returning to the main office where she was bound to become bogged down in other people’s problems, she headed straight out for the car park.
Promotion that week had brought her a company car – a Ford Focus – not perhaps the car she would have chosen for herself, but it was so much better than her pensioned off Renault with its rattling insecurities that her spirits lifted every time she saw its gleaming silver coachwork. They fell just as suddenly when she saw who was standing next to it. How did he know she had a new car?
She compressed her mouth in a disapproving line that she suspected made her look like a sex starved spinster, a thought that almost made her grin, and kept walking towards her car, her gaze fixed on the door handle.
‘Hello, Moira. I saw you on your way here. I hope you didn’t mind me waiting for you.’ His politeness was as disconcerting as his persistence and she found it hard to accept that she still let him bug her – that she had effectively done nothing to halt his persecution of her. Not even told anyone about it, come to think of it. That wasn’t very bright really. If it ever came to a court case, of any sort, it would do her no good to have to admit that she had never once mentioned to anyone that she was being stalked.
Not that anyone would believe that she was in any danger. The young man before her weighed less than ten stone and in a fight, most casual observers would put their money on her. If her background and training ever came out in the evidence, they would feel even more sorry for him than they already did. He was a pitiful spectacle, at first sight at least. His skinny frame looked hardly strong enough to bear the weight of a head that seemed several sizes too large for it. He was dressed in cheap clothes that looked to Moira as if they had always been old and dirty; scarecrows were better dressed than he was. His trainers were threadbare, their tread long since gone; a pair of once blue jeans hung from his hips like so many rags and a dirty mauve tee shirt, miraculously intact but shapeless and riding up at the waist, completed the effect. He sometimes wore a beeny hat but today the unwashed black threads of his fringe fell forward over his football of a head like the pelmet of a curtain.
She shuddered. She couldn’t help it but she found him so repugnant she could hardly bear to look at his face – another failure on her part which she might find it difficult to justify, if she ever had to. Still, whatever her shortcomings, there was no real doubt that this young man (how old was he? She would know from the file but mid twenties anyway) was doing his best to harass her and that she was entitled to the protection of the law. She could just imagine how much amusement that would generate in various different quarters.
So, not an option. But she had tried everything else.
‘Jason, we’ve been through this. A dozen times.’
He always treated her as if she were a slightly fragile object, to be treasured and admired but not very bright, with not much understanding, as it were. It was his job to explain things to her, clarify the world for her. He spoke slowly, watching her carefully as if to satisfy himself that she was following him.
‘We’re meant to be together. I don’t mind that you messed up my case, you know I don’t. All that’s important is that we have each other—‘
‘Shut up, Jason. We are not meant to be together. I have explained this until I am blue in the face. Now please get off my car. I have to be somewhere else.’
And I’m so late already. Get the fuck out of my way, you horrible little shit.
He held his position with his back to the driver’s door, palms pressed against the silver panels, bird-like chest shoved out like a flat chested catwalk model. His eyes never left her face but he shook his head in sorrow. ‘Sorry. We’ve got to talk.’
‘We have nothing to talk about,’ she yelled at him. ‘I’m sorry that your case went wrong but I have already given you the names of people who will help you. And that’s it. The end, finished, finito, the fat lady’s finished singing, that’s all she wrote—‘
‘You shouldn’t run yourself down like that,’ he told her earnestly. ‘You’re not fat—‘
For a second, she didn’t follow, then almost felt sorry for him as she realised how badly he misunderstood everything, a feeling which evaporated as quickly as it had come. ‘It’s not always about me. Or you, Jason. Now I’m sorry. I have to go. Please let me get to my car.’
He might have just moved if she had been gentle with him but the time for that was so far in the past it was like an alternative universe. He looked at her pityingly through the huge eyes that would never really see properly, according to the doctors, but he did not move and something in that look just made her snap. Afterwards, trying to explain it to James Carpenter as they sat in the Salubrious Sailor eating lunch, she found it hard to remember exactly but she was sure she had pushed him off the car.
‘I might have elbowed him as well, James. I feel so guilty. I mean, he’s a horrible little man and I hate it that he thinks he can wait for me in places I might be and pretend we’re an item, but I shouldn’t have beaten him up.’
‘Anyone see you?’ asked James practically.
‘Anyone looking out of the window waiting for lunch time to arrive.’
‘So most of Claims Online then?’
She nodded gloomily. ‘Did I ever tell you what a comfort you were, James?’
‘Must have slipped your mind. Seriously, I shouldn’t worry about Jason. I’ll think about what we can do to get him off your back. And knowing you, I really doubt if you beat him up.’
Moira cast him a grateful look.
‘Displacement activity, that’s what we need,’ said James thoughtfully. ‘Like having his own, real live girlfriend.’
‘I could introduce him to Kristin.’ Moira brightened up at the thought.
‘Who’s she?’ asked James, delighted to see her smile.
‘Alex and I bumped into her at the curry house down the road. She’s very pretty, drinks like a skunk, sulks for England. She had a row with her partner and then ended up at the house looking for him, barely able to stand, an hour or so after she emptied his vindaloo special into his lap.’
‘My sort of girl,’ murmured James.
‘You wish. Anyway, I made sure she got home without committing too many offences and now even though she’s patched it up with Davey she’s my new best friend. We’re going to shoot some archery together tonight, I’m told.’
‘Just a bit. Mix Genghis Khan with Joan Collins, subtract a few thousand years. Retire to a safe distance. Now if I could persuade Jason that he was in a meaningful relationship with her, all my worries would be over.’
‘And his would be starting.’
‘Oh, yes. Aren’t fantasies great?’
‘What about Alex? Can’t he do something? He’s the incumbent after all.’
Moira concentrated on her salad without answering, then looked up to see James, an amused smile on his face, still waiting for her to reply.
‘Sorry. I was struggling with you calling Alex the incumbent. I still sometimes think that you and I—‘
‘Are very good friends. Which is the way it should be.’
Moira doubted this but knew better than to argue. She had her own ideas about herself and James as a couple. ‘Actually, as it happens, Alex —‘
‘I don’t believe you,’ James interrupted her. ‘You are impossible. He doesn’t know you’re being stalked, does he?’
Moira smiled sheepishly. ‘No, but that’s not the problem.’
‘What is then?’ he demanded. ‘Did you know you are the most secretive woman in England, Moira? You’re not even working for that ridiculous organisation any longer and you still can’t tell me if it’s Tuesday today.’
‘That’s because it’s Wed—‘
He gave her a full strength frown and she subsided, a grin on her face. Then she sobered. ‘I think Alex and I are finished, James. That’s what I didn’t want to say. He’s disappeared to the Virgin Islands, just chucked in his job. He and I have hardly spoken for the last couple of weeks. My fault. I’ve been a right cow but he didn’t even warn me it was what he was thinking and then he expects me to walk away from my life and my new job.’
‘Would you have gone if he had set it up properly?’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘I don’t know, probably not.’ Only if Nicole said I had to.
‘Anyway, I’m not sure now that I shall stay with Claims Online. I think it’s time for a change. Since you stopped being involved, it’s a lot less fun.’
‘I can imagine,’ he told her dryly, his grey eyes solemn. ‘Doesn’t that argue in favour of going with Alex?’
She shook her head. ‘Too hot for me. I like England. And I’m not sure I could bear to be that close to the sailing and not actually do any. I know Alex. He’d have me shinning up masts and painting bowsprits but would I see any actual sailing?’ She shook her head again, this time smiling. But James was frowning.
‘I’d have thought it would be a great experience actually. I’d give my proverbial right arm to have a year or so out there. What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t like it and come back. And the BVI aren’t hot all year round. The Christmas Winds cool it right down in January and February and then there are the hurricanes if you get bored…’
Her eyes hooded over for a moment and he knew there was something she couldn’t tell him. He was torn, as he so often was, between allowing her the freedom to be secretive that she craved and interrogating her until she gave in and told him.
‘What will you do if you leave Claims Online? ‘ he asked eventually.
‘Don’t know. I suppose I might go back to Section.’ She lit a cigarette with the little gold lighter he had given her. He disapproved but never said anything.
‘What, to work for that old hag Nicole?’
‘What is it with you two? You’ve only met her twice and anyone would think you were childhood enemies, with back stories like a TV soap. Anyone who didn’t know you both better—‘ She stopped abruptly and her brown eyes opened wide, making her look younger than her 26 years.
He regarded her patiently.
‘Ah. More than twice then. But obviously not very successfully.’ She giggled. ‘Come on, James. Tell all.’
He shook his head. ‘We went out for dinner once or twice. It didn’t work out. We don’t like each other. That’s the story.’
Moira snorted in derision. ‘Story is right. And you accuse me of being secretive. The question, Mr Carpenter, is why you and Nicole don’t like each other. Isn’t it?’ She paused and looked at him complacently, glad to steer the relationship limelight in his direction. ‘That’s the question.’
James Carpenter looked uncomfortable. He did not intend to tell Moira that he had fallen out with Nicole over her plans for Moira or that he still bitterly regretted it. ‘She’s a bit too bossy for my taste, too organised. Different styles, I guess. No one’s fault.’
Moira eyed him suspiciously. Her instinct for half a story was well developed and she knew he wasn’t telling her something. That made them square, she supposed, and sighed. ‘Anyway, nothing’s certain as far as I’m concerned. Alex may come back from his travels, decide to stay and things will go back to normal.’
‘Anyway,’ James changed the subject. ‘How are things at COL? How’s Donald?’
‘Donald is as indecisive as ever, James. I practically have to change his underpants for him. And the bloody Board is driving me crazy. Talk about control freaks. It takes forever to get anything done. Like I said, it’s not so much fun.’
‘Well, in some ways, I’m glad to be out of it. Carpenter & Son is still getting a good share of the panel referrals and that was the only reason I got involved in the first place.’
Moira was silent. There was a rumour that the wretched Board was planning to set up a new panel and if they did, Carpenter & Son could kiss goodbye to the work. She stood up, gathered the lighter and cigarettes in her hand and dropped them into a pocket.
‘I must go. Thanks for a lovely lunch. I just hope my little shadow isn’t waiting for me outside my car.’
‘I’ll walk with you. I’m parked right by you. There was something else I wanted to ask you anyway.’
She looked at him curiously. It was not like James Carpenter to show reticence. If he wanted to ask her something, he would usually have done so before they began eating.
‘Now I’m intrigued.’
The Sailor’s car park was tucked inside an embankment overlooking the old railway line, accessible only by steep steps down to the station, before it was closed in one of the doomed attempts made to streamline the service. The embankment gave them some protection from the cool breeze and the spring sunshine felt warm on Moira’s face as they walked side by side towards the cars. She waited for James to bring up whatever he wanted to say and in the silence her eye fell on the endless fascination of the far off yacht masts in the marina, making her think of Alex. Perhaps James was right; she should let him persuade her to go out there with him. After all, she had never actually been to the BVI, there would be some sailing, she would make sure of that, however hard a task master Alex might try to be. If she found it as claustrophobic as she feared she would, living on a tiny group of islands with Alex the only person she knew and the nearest decent shops on the American mainland, she could still come back to cloudy, damp England whenever she chose. As it was, she would have to find somewhere to live if Alex went; he was hardly likely to keep his house even if it had been her home for the last few months. She could still see the faintly apologetic look in his eye as he scrunched up his face and told her, ‘Sorry, Moira but I’m going to have to sell. That’s another reason for you to come out with me, isn’t it?’
Because you’ll be homeless.
It wasn’t good enough but it might have to do. Next to her, James had begun talking.
‘I feel bad even thinking about asking you and of course if you go with Alex you won’t have time. And I entirely understand if you say that you can’t help or if you don’t wa—‘
‘James, you’re blathering. Just tell me.’
‘It’s Richard.’
Moira pictured James’s sleek, contented brother, with his ample frame filling out a bespoke suit and his air of letting nothing much interfere with his hedonistic view of the world. James had never explained it to her properly but Richard had somehow been indirectly and unwittingly involved in the job she was working on when she and James became friends. She saw that James had gone silent again and wondered what Richard had done now. From light but heartfelt remarks James had made to her, she knew that he did not regard his brother as the best lawyer that ever stalked the planet and that Richard’s conservative approach to running the family law practice made James angry and frustrated.
‘What about him?’ she asked eventually as they reached the cars.
‘Let’s wander along the path to the marina. If you’ve got time?’
She nodded, hoping he would not be too long. The path was muddy from rain earlier in the day and she trod carefully in her court shoes, glad she had not chosen to tower over him in stilettos. As it was, even the modest heels she was wearing brought her level and made her feel like a giant. She sighed. She should be used to it by now.
‘I don’t know how much you know about the set-up these days,’ he began. ‘At the office, I mean.’
‘You’re the boss; he’s the senior partner. Since you took over, the firm has grown dramatically and the bank manager takes you out to lunch. You’ve got a whole load of new partners and the line across your forehead, the one you worry with, has…’ She traced the indentation in his skin with the painted nail of her index finger, making him stop to look at her.
‘… got deeper.’
‘Succinct,’ he commented approvingly. ‘You’d have made a lousy lawyer.’
‘What you couldn’t possibly know, unless you’d seen him is that Richard has lost three stone in weight. He won’t tell me what the matter is and neither will Mary, although she may not know herself. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was worrying to death about something.’
Or has cancer, thought Moira.
‘I was hoping, I don’t know, that you might be able to talk to him, find out what’s wrong. Or to Mary perhaps.’
‘Does he have any reason to worry?’ asked Moira. ‘I mean, Carpenter & Son is still going well, he’s glad to be out of Claims Online, Mary isn’t about to get pregnant or leave him?
James shook his head. ‘None of the above. If anything, he’s glad that we got paid out from COL. He thinks the whole thing will go down the pan now that I’m not there, which is flattering but no reason for him to feel concerned. And at 49, I think Mary’s safe from a late pregnancy. If she’s about to leave, she’s not telling me and Carpenter & Son is fine. As you correctly observe, it’s making me worry but Richard thinks that’s what I’m for.’
‘And he’s not ill?’ Moira cast a worried glance at James. He lifted a shoulder in a helpless shrug.
‘I’ve asked him. He says not. But he looks gaunt. He looks ill, he looks as I imagine he would if he… you know…had cancer or something. But he says he’s fine. Says the doc told him to lose some weight so he doesn’t understand why I’m fussing.’
‘He might be right.’ Moira put a hand on James’s sleeve.
‘There’s something else.’
‘Hang on a moment. My mobile’s going. I’d better answer it.’
James nodded as she retrieved the device from her jacket and pressed the answer button. He turned towards the river to give her privacy and watched a sleek two masted yacht, a millionaire’s toy, glide past him, the reflection of its gleaming white hull disintegrating as it cut through the oily water, its diesel thudding in the background. At the wheel was a man who looked too young to be either a millionaire or the owner of such a boat, one hand negligently fondling the wheel, the other holding a cup of some sort. James sighed, envying him his opportunity, however he had gained it, to spend the afternoon on the water in the cool light of a late spring afternoon. Probably a drug dealer, he thought dismissively as he felt the envy rise in his gorge, knowing that even if he had the money, a sense of duty he could not control would somehow prevent him from just setting out to do something as simple as enjoy himself. He hated himself for simultaneously wishing that it was he, not the careless young man, at the helm of the beautiful boat. He strained to see its name as it disappeared into the haze and grinned as he made out the letters.
Pop Idle.
Not bad, he thought, unless you were a purist and insisted all boats must be named after a woman. And what did it mean? That the owner had made his money out of pop music? Or that his father was rich and so was he? Or nothing? It didn’t matter much either way. He glanced back at Moira who was facing him, her mouth slightly open, her brow furrowed, a look of concentration flickering around her brown eyes as she spoke. He found himself admiring again her long legs sheathed in their nylon coating, emerging from the pleated black skirts she liked to wear. He loved the way they swirled around her thighs when she turned, as if they had energy of their own. Her dark hair was shorter now and fell in a complicated layered cut (or so she had told him) which flicked out at the ends at shoulder level. He thought he preferred it longer but had not told her.
She flicked shut the mobile and pursed her lips, looking worried.
‘Problem?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know. That was Donald. Apparently, he’s just taken a strange call from the Virgin Islands. Someone trying to get hold of me, terrible line so it was all a bit incoherent but I think the gist was that the caller wanted to know if I had heard from Alex today.’ She paused and tapped a tooth thoughtfully, a familiar gesture that he loved.
‘Have you?’
‘No. In fact, I haven’t spoken to Alex since he left last Monday.’
‘Why did whoever it was want to know whether you had spoken to him?’
‘Because he seems to have gone missing.’

About Nick Poole

Nick Poole is a retired solicitor, happily married and the proud owner of a stubborn golden retriever. He spends his time blogging and working on his book site
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