She arrives at the office. I allow myself one deep breath: Coco Chanel and the scent of the rain.
I push her hazelnut macchiato across the desk.
‘Mike, you’re an angel.’ She leans down to pull the laptop out of her bag, damp curls clinging to the back of her neck.
Helen, whose face could launch a thousand ships.
Helen, Senior Solicitor in Trusts, Tax and Executries.
Helen, with a niche specialism that certainly doesn’t appear in the firm’s brochure.
It started when we were trainees. She’d been asked to meet a client, Mrs Finchley-Smith, who’d instructed us to set up a trust following her husband’s death.
I went along to ‘take notes’, though I’d have followed Helen anywhere, just to watch the way her lips moved when she talked. And I was curious, because Mrs Finchley-Smith was a famous author - Helen had read all her thrillers back-to-back in our final year at university, while I’d been boning up on constitutional law and EU regulations. The novels all followed a pattern. A girl, usually a journalist or a dog-walker, would witness some murder and get drawn into a terrifying plot. She’d decide to investigate the case herself, despite dark warnings from the police. She’d fall for a pathologist or woodcutter who in 50% of cases would turn out to be the murderer, and in the other 50% would turn out to be exemplary husband material, saving her from the actual murderer in a nail-biting final showdown.
But Mrs Finchley-Smith broke down in the meeting, confessing that she was horribly squeamish, and had always been quite unable to write about any ‘unpleasantness’ in her novels. This included the many violent and gory scenes, and especially the sex scenes (a minimum of three per novel). Unknown to her publishers, it had been her husband, Lord Finchley-Smith - a high court judge – who’d been responsible for those. And now he was gone.
A publishing deadline was looming, and Helen offered to help. She decided this additional work could come under the heading of ‘going that extra mile’ for the client.
She found the sex scenes easy. I watched her write once, when we were on a train to London, soon after that initial meeting. She wrote slowly, frowning in concentration, the tip of her tongue protruding from soft pink lips. Sometimes she had to stop, doubled over in a silent giggling fit. Once she looked straight at me with a raised eyebrow, and I had to sit with a book of tax statutes on my lap until Peterborough.
She found the scary scenes harder. She’d wait until late at night and write at her kitchen table in the semi-darkness. Afterwards, she’d try to walk down the tenement stairs and once around the garden without looking behind her. If this proved possible, she’d ditch the scene.
So Mrs Finchley-Smith’s long-awaited novel was published, and shot to the top of the bestseller lists. Helen was soon contacted by three more lady writers, all hoping to subcontract their sexy and scary bits.
Not many people know about it. She hasn’t even told her fiancé, Brian, the world’s most boring independent financial adviser. She’s worried about how he’d react, whether he’d ever see her the same way again. Her previous boyfriend did know, but he became fixated with the idea and used to pester her to recite long excerpts from the various works while they were having sex.
Brian would probably prefer her to whisper his golfing handicap, or the growth figures for his pension plan.
‘What did it ever do to you?’ Helen’s voice brings me back.
She nods at my coffee cup, which I’ve crushed with my fist, imagining it was Brian’s head. ‘You’re always so tense. I keep telling you - you should come to my yoga class. There’s another man who goes.’
‘You said he was 87.’
‘You should see his abs.’
‘No thanks. And don’t go trying that cobra thing on me again either.’
Oh God, please do the cobra thing…
She sighs as she opens the laptop.
‘I was up half the night. I had to write a talk outline for the Trust and Tax Lawyers Association. I’ve got to speak at their conference next month. Murray Radcliffe’s golfing buddies with the chairman.’
Murray Radcliffe, managing partner of our firm, has but one redeeming feature – he hired Helen and me and put us in a room together.
‘And then I had to do a note of my scenes for Mrs du Chambray. She’s such a dragon - much more demanding than Mrs Finchley-Smith. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep them both up – law and the writing, I mean. It’s too much. I’m tempted to agree to this New Zealand thing. I could take some time out and finish my own novel.’
NO. New Zealand must not happen. Brian the Snail has been offered a job there.
‘Have you done any more chapters? I really liked that section narrated by the were-jaguar.’
She blushes. ‘I can’t believe I let you read that!’ But she slides me a look that suggests she knew exactly what she was doing.
‘Still think you should use my idea of the were-hippopotamus.’
‘Shut up.’ She throws a paperclip at me, missing by a mile. Then she logs on and starts checking her emails.
‘Mike! Look at this!’
I go over and lean in close, breathing Chanel and damp Helen.
It’s an email from Euan Wimbleby, Chairman of the Trust and Tax Lawyers Association.
Thank you for sending me the outline of your talk. I’m very happy to proceed on this basis. Much more lively looking than the usual material. Most diverting. I look forward to hearing you speak on the big day.
PS. I have just one slight concern - I’m not quite sure how the trust and tax law examples will be worked in. I can see that there might be tax issues arising from the sudden death of Max Pilkington. But I confess I cannot see where you’re going with the other scenarios. Could you let me have a little more detail?
Helen opens the attachment:
Outline as requested:
• Mary-Lou and Dom in the cleaning cupboard at the garden centre. Include wording re the rasp of leather gloves on soft skin, womanly core pulsating etc.
• Dom tortures Max Pilkington (Mary-Lou’s violent husband) with an implement for cleaning fish tanks. Max is left convulsing in the wine cellar of his ancestral home, Glendunnon Hall.
• The autopsy of Max Pilkington. Would you prefer a medical slant or go for maximum gore?
• Intimacy between Mary-Lou and Dom (does it still have to be the Falkirk Wheel?)
• Full sex between Mary-Lou and Dom (in a woollen mill shop on the A9) interrupted by Max’s brother Geoff.
• That scene with the fish tanks in the garden centre.
Helen’s elbows are on the desk, her head on her hands. She’s shaking. I want to wrap my arms around her. Rock her.
‘What am I going to do?’
‘Just say you mixed up the attachments.’
‘I can’t! He’ll get on to Radcliffe, and I’ll be fired for bringing the firm into disrepute. Oh God, what will Brian say?’
He’ll leave you, and I can finally tell you how I feel.
‘Tell Radcliffe it was my attachment.’
‘Oh Mike, you’re sweet.’
She touches my arm. Goosebumps rise under the cotton of my shirt.
‘Mrs du Chambray will probably sack me too. She’ll have to revise the whole novel.’
‘You’ll have to tell Euan Wimbleby it was a mistake.’
‘Or… I could go along with it for now. The problem is, he wants more details on the legal implications for all the scenarios.’
She bites her lip, and her little chin dimple appears.
‘Well, let’s see.’ I force my gaze back to the screen. ‘There could be a death beneficiary dispute on Max’s death – he might’ve set up a trust. You could talk about the importance of keeping trustees informed, especially if the wife’s estranged.’
‘But Max doesn’t know that his wife is estranged. How could he inform the trustees?’
‘I don’t think you need to stick rigidly to the story arc.’
‘You could say that he died intestate, and talk about Geoff’s legal rights.’
‘Good idea! There probably is the basis for a talk there after all… I don’t think Euan Wimbleby will notice if I leave out the references to womanly cores pulsating.’
‘No.’ I clear my throat and try again: ‘No.’
‘And nobody will question it if I’m taken ill at the last minute. Oh, it’ll be fine. It’s hardly as though I’m signed up for a lecture tour or anything.’
But then there’s a ping, signaling the arrival of an e-mail.
It’s from Euan Wimbleby.
‘PS, the Scottish Institute of Independent Financial Advisers is also interested. Could you do a slot at their conference in May?’
Helen’s head is on the desk when Murray Radcliffe comes in.
‘Ah, Helen. I’ve just come off the phone with Euan Wimbleby.’
Her head snaps up.
‘He seems very excited about your seminar proposal. He’s forwarded me your e-mail and Janet’s printing off all the bits and pieces now.’
She shoots me a look of panic. I spread my hands in a ‘keep calm’ gesture.
‘Actually,’ he says, ‘I’ve had rather a brainwave. How about we roll this out to all our clients with a series of breakfast seminars? I rather thought something along the lines of… ahem… ‘Tax, Trusts and Toast’ – what do you think?’
Her body slumps as though somebody’s shot her.
‘Have you got five minutes?’ Radcliffe asks. ‘Shall we pop into a breakout room?’
Helen stands up, pulling herself very tall and straight. All her panic has gone.
‘I’m glad you’re here, Murray. There’s something I wanted to tell you. An opportunity has arisen in New Zealand.’
And they’ve gone. I’m alone now, a mountain of casework in front of me. A life sentence to be served out, day after day, in a room without Helen.
I can hear Murray Radcliffe shouting from the breakout room. I feel a stinging rush of protectiveness for Helen. And something else…
My heart’s breaking. Actually crumpling, in my chest.
I go into Google and type ‘New Zealand work visas’. Could I turn this around?
She comes back in, her face white. Her freckles - you normally only see them in summer – are standing out on the bridge of her nose.
‘Was it awful?’
‘Nah. Told him I had a fish tank cleaning implement and I wasn’t afraid to use it.’
‘New Zealand, then?’
I stand up, look her in the eye, and take some of her bravery for myself.
‘Helen. There’s something I need to tell you.’