As an Articled clerk, trainee solicitor as it is now known, back in 1979, one of my many jobs was to act as a sort of underpaid postman. To hire a motorcycle dispatch rider cost real money, back then. What better therefore than to use the lowest paid in the office for such a task. Me.
I didn’t mind. Anything that got me away from my desk was to be embraced in those early days for any one or more of the following reasons:
1. It meant I didn’t have to use the phone and expose my ignorance in all matters pertaining to the law
2. It meant that my principal, with whom I had to share a room did not hear my attempts to dictate anything either into the tape machine that sat on my desk or, even worse, to one of the senior secretaries who ‘took dictation’ by sitting opposite me, pencil poised over a lined pad of A5 sized paper ready to impress with their Pitman technique. What made the human version of the dictaphone worse was the sighing. At least the machine didn’t judge the quality of what I wrote quite as much as the secretaries. I think that’s why I’ve always been willing to embrace AI. It doesn’t show disappointment.
3. Mostly it was because, out of the office I couldn’t be given a new job to add to my burgeoning portfolio of ‘impossible tasks’. I mean I’m not the White Queen and anyway it’s after breakfast so I couldn’t be expected to do one let alone six impossible things.
An example. A fabulously rich client left his books and library to one relly and his manuscripts to another. They were worth a fair bit each. Then they discovered, in the client’s library an authentic letter by Henry VII from 14 something. It was worth more than all the books furniture art and other chattels combined. Was it a manuscript – if so relly two was bathing in extract of yeti sweat forever; if not it was part of the library and relly one was feasting on deep ocean barnacle truffles every day. No one knew. The books didn’t say. I spent bloody hours at the Law Society library, Sotherby’s and the British Library and made the square root of fuck all progress. The first decade was fun but after that the question took on its own from of scripted lassitude that was like a cranial necrosis only without the holiday pay and benefits.
The deliveries ranged from the sublime – push this through the letterbox – to the terrifying – serve this summons. One such, to serve a possession summons on the occupants of a bedsit in a block on Baker Street involved a climb of about ten flights of stairs, each one containing its own microclimate of odours – sweat, piss, curry, blood and something fusty, cinnamon and, oddly, WD40. At the top was a door that had either been kicked open more often than a Frank Sinatra revival or put on sideways as the lock was now on the top, possibly because this was the only part of the doorframe that hadn’t been splintered. When I knocked, with a certain amount of trepidation, the door was answered by a woman, possibly sixteen or forty, it was difficult to tell from her face. In the crook of each arm was a baby, each of whose faces seemed to be evenly split into thirds – one third skin, one third snot and one third some sort of crust.
‘Yeah?’ ‘Miss Origami?’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘For you.’ ‘What is it?’ ‘ I’m not sure. Can you take it please?’ ‘Hold Jim.’
At this point I’m offered a child. Given I know full well what it contains (the letter that is; the contents of the child given the colour and viscosity of the snot was beyond rational assumptions), I really do not want to be around when she opens it. I decline and seek to tuck it between one mewling infant and her arm. ‘Oi! Gerrof!’
At this point something that might possibly have been a recently beached Kraken emerges from the Stygian depths of the apartment. ‘What is it Doris?’
The mythical monster is huge, sporting a green cardigan and drooping rollup And almost certainly lacking in empathy for delivery personnel. With a cheery farewell I take my leave of the star crossed lovers viz I utilise every sinew bestowed on me to descend those stairs with a speed and alacrity rarely seen outside the Olympics or the January sales.
I think mine host may have sent me on my way with a choice exhortation to return soon, namely ‘Oi, you little shite. Get yer arse back ere.’
My arse was doing no such thing either alone or in the company of any other parts of my anatomy. We skedaddled.
I must say that, for all my own fears, what I saw gave me pause. Behind the snot and aggression there was a youngish couple with at least 2 children. The woman looked awful – possibly an addict, certainly bruised – and the man not much better. The flat looked a tip and smelt – pretty indescribable really. What were their lives going to be like? Hard? Joyless? Short? I might have lived a frugal lifestyle back then but never at that level of poverty. I had a future; I was definitely the lucky one.
At least that was the way I thought until the delivery to Douglas Nowell-Hammond that nearly stopped my legal career in its tracks.