“Embezzlement, Max?” I heard, and my interest, having wandered, was immediately refocused. “A financial fraud accusation is very serious,” said John, speaking in his measured way. By now I had all my attention on Max. What was all this about?
“I don’t use the term lightly,” I heard my husband say, “and it pains me as Andrew is my oldest friend.” I glanced at Andrew, who looked so shocked and uncomfortable. “But the figures just don’t stand up,” said Max. “There is a very big anomaly. And I’m surprised,” he said turning to Jackson, the accountant, “that you hadn’t identified a problem yourself, Ian.”
“I’m sure it’s a mistake,” Andrew said, looking around the room. He wouldn’t look at me. He wouldn’t now,in public. Then turning to Max he said, “You know me, Max, I’d never put the partnership in danger. This can all be sorted out with another look at the figures, I’m sure.”
“Just what I arranged,” said Max, “I have hired an independent firm of auditors. In fact they are looking at the books as we speak.” There was uproar at this. How could he go behind everyone’s back and arrange an independent enquiry? When I looked around the room Andrew and Ian were silent. Ian’s face was like a storm cloud.
“I am not acting in this entirely independently,” said Max, loudly to make himself heard. “My concerns are shared with others, but at this stage I shoulder responsibility for the investigation.” I scanned the room. Melissa, Andrew’s wife, held her gaze steady into the middle distance.
This annual practice meeting was always held on a Friday afternoon in late November. These gatherings, year on year, were mundane formalities: discussions about investments, analysis of the annual figures and all that sort of thing. They were followed by a round of drinks in the hotel bar, with the team and their respective husbands and wives, before the evening meal, provided by the partnership in lieu of a Christmas event. Something to be endured, not always enjoyed. There had been no reason to suppose that this year would be any different.
My husband Max had been friends with Andrew since school days and they qualified as architects at the same time. In the early days it made sense for Melissa and me to stand in as board members and trustees to help get their partnership as architects established, though I doubt it would happen these days. Now the partnership had grown I was hardly needed any more. I just hadn’t extricated myself yet. Max remained a full blown workaholic: the practice was everything to him it seemed. But more recently I’d had my own career to think of and the children of course, and I was no longer involved day to day. Melissa still came up to the offices regularly, Max told me. I didn’t see her much, especially since my return to work when I was trying to get my own life back on track.
There’s a lot of preparatory reading for these gatherings, usually, so I’d put aside the morning for updating myself. I’d found, in fact that the papers didn’t take as long as expected to skim through and that the financial report was missing for some unknown reason. Max was in a meeting when I arrived after lunch and I didn’t get to see him until I walked into the board room. He looked a little grey and tense, I thought. I sat in my allocated seat and poured a glass of water. I was rather relieved, if truth be told, that I had arrived at all, let alone in time, and I felt pretty tired. It hadn’t been easy to arrange childcare for my kids….James and Anna both had colds, had been up all night coughing and were not fit for nursery. Luckily Ma said she could come down and stay. My mind certainly wasn’t fully on the meeting.
Everyone was there, plus an accountant, the practice manager, and Max’s personal assistant. General introductions had moved onto other discussions. But I gazed around the hall, a little dazed by lack of sleep. The Victorian primary school,now converted into offices had those high-in-the-wall windows, offering no view from where I sat, except for a small patch of sky with fading winter light and a crescent moon, tissue-paper thin. I had just noticed a ladybird walking purposefully across my papers, when the word ‘embezzlement’ had broken into my reverie.
Back in the hotel room after the board meeting Max opened the mini-bar, and offered me a drink as I kicked off my shoes and lay back on the bed.
“G and T, I think,” I said, “a double, in the circumstances.” I waited while he mixed the drink. “Well? Can you fill me in?”
“I’m so sorry you’ve been dragged into this,” he said, “I had tried to protect you, especially since…” he hesitated, “since your, um, breakdown.” He never quite knew what to call that episode. “But I’m still not sure what’s going on.” He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “But there’s something odd about Andrew’s drawings which we can’t fathom. Alan and I have been over the figures several times. It looks like Andrew has been team project working but then taking payment directly into his own account.” He drank his whiskey in a couple of swallows and opened the mini-bar again. “It came to light that weekend we went away. Alan rang to say we didn’t have enough in the back to pay the staff and no-one knew why not.”
“I suggest you don’t have any more to drink now,” I said, quietly. “You’ll probably need your wits about you during this evening’s proceedings.” He looked at me and grimaced. “Go and have a bath,” I suggested. “We have an hour before the table is booked.”
While he was in the bathroom I sent a text to Andrew, making sure I deleted it from ‘sent messages’ – but he didn’t reply.
I thought back, suddenly, to that weekend in the Summer to which Max had referred. We had left the children with his parents and Max booked us into a luxury hotel with a spa near where I had often holidayed as a child. I was feeling exhausted and emotionally drained following the miscarriage – and Max’s affair had come to light – and we needed a break without distractions. Time to gather our thoughts. Our marriage was in tatters and it felt irreparable. He wanted to make amends but I was so angry with him still. We’d arrived early, with an hour or two to spare before dinner. He suggested a stroll down to the river.
As we walked out together the light in the sky was queer, I remember– an odd brightness against pewter sky, making the trees emerald bright. Late Summer. A rumble of thunder. We walked past neatly kept allotments- one strip was beautifully tended and full of dahlias, I noticed. Bishop of Llandaff, arranged with Bishop of Oxford, I thought – maybe. Dad would’ve known. I suddenly missed him, so badly.
Max’s phone buzzed in his pocket – I didn’t hear it, I felt it.
“Don’t answer that,” I said. But he did. As he always did. It felt like another betrayal.
“What?” he nearly shouted. “I don’t believe it. How much is missing?” He had forgotten already that I was there. He was back in the office. “How can that have happened?” There was a pause as he listened, then, “No, we have to do something. And fast.”
I had wondered on walking alongside him, but further away now, and then I left his side and went over to the gate to gaze out at the wheat. I remembered something about this soil being particularly fertile – it was to do with the river valley, I think – and even that made me tearful. I was in such a strange mood, I remember, following the loss of the baby and the potential loss of my husband. Sort of disassociated from reality.
Max’s phone call continued; the half conversation was spoiling the stillness. He never could bear to be without that bloody thing. Next time, I remember thinking, I’ll highjack it, if there is a next time. I’d nick it from his pocket and leave it at the station – in the ladies’ loos perhaps, before we caught the train. He could collect it from the lost luggage office on the way back, if he was lucky and someone had handed it in.
Then was behind me, in his city shoes, phone back in his pocket.
“Eurchhh!” he said, and I saw he had trodden in a cow pat. “F**k it! Look at the muck on my shoes.” If I hadn’t been so rattled I would have laughed.
“Not exactly the right shoes,” I said, “for a country walk, are they?” I was irritated and irritable. A tinder box. He tried to soothe me, but it had the opposite effect. I seem to remember erupting then, shouting and screaming at him. I don’t remember much after that, until the doctor came out. I don’t think I ever asked him what the phone call had been about. And since then he’d held me at arm’s length.
We were nearly ready to go down to the bar when there was a knock at the door. Max opened it, while still trying to tie his bow tie.
“I’m from the auditing team,” the guy said. “We think we have traced something.”
“I think you’d better go on down, Alice,” said Max, “I shan’t be long.”
I joined the group gathering in the bar, numbers increased by husbands and wives, who had obviously heard rumours of the uncomfortable board meeting. Eventually most people appeared, but Andrew and Melissa missing. No one knew where Ian was. The restaurant was ready and waiting for us. I suggested that everyone else should go through and that I would check with Andrew and Melissa, to see if they would be joining us.
I elected to take the stairs, trying to get my head in order – and just before I opened the door from the staircase onto the landing I heard raised voices. I opened the door onto the landing cautiously and saw that the door to room 405 was ajar, nearly opposite me.
“Well now you know,” said Melissa. Her voice was hard. I couldn’t see much, except the edge of her red skirt and her sharp stilettos, digging into the carpet. “It won’t bother you much I don’t suppose, I hope you rot in hell –with that bitch.” She turned, “Come on Ian, let’s go.” I saw her fling open the door and she walked out with Jackson, the accountant, who was pulling her suitcase – who would have thought it? My heart leapt. They went to the lift, his arm around her shoulders: they didn’t notice me. I waited until the lift doors closed and then rushed to the room, where I found Andrew, dazed and dishevelled.
“Oh, Alice,” he said, “thank God.” He stood up and clung to me, shaking a little. It appalled me to see him this way. He’d been so strong for me after that disastrous weekend away with Max. Now I needed to be strong for him. After a while he said, “That bastard Jackson’s been cooking the books. With her help. That missing money ? – I’ve never seen it. It’s been going into Melissa’s account.”
My mind was racing. Was Max was downstairs yet, and did he already knew? How long would it be before he knew about Andrew and me? What should we do – go down to keep a business face on everything, or cut our losses and run? I thought of Max and Andrew and their lost friendship.
How long it would be before everything would be out in the open and the whole pack of cards would come tumbling down?