In part one I set the scene, of my joys as a delivery boy, here.
The nadir so far as this role was concerned came in the Spring of 1980. The senior partner had a client who worked in the shipping insurance business. We didn’t act for him in his business affairs but on his personal business. They were at school together. They had some distant familial relationship. In short they were important to each other. Not to the success of the business – I don’t think he was charged much by way of fees – but to the self regard of the senior partner.
Douglas Nowell-Hammond ran his own firm. He had an office somewhere on East Cheap (not far from the Tower of London and with an EC3 address that usually indicated a insurance, shipping or banking business) in what was then a quite usual set up.
The building itself was probably pre war, Black with soot and imposing in municipal swimming pool kind of way. The entrance hall was grand, anonymous but in no sense modern. There was a cubbyhole manned by porters but nothing like a receptionist. Their role was… you know, I’m not really sure. They portered, I suppose.
The one feature that didn’t give off a scent of empire and entitlement was a directory board on which all the businesses that used the building were listed. For instance it might say Reginald Plonker, esq. 304-306, or Downright Crooked Limited 402-409. The numbers told you the floor and the rooms on that floor they occupied.
In some places there may be a lift, one of those open grilled affairs with clanging sliding doors that were set to amputate unsuspecting digits and contained at least one dead dowager and two Russian spies. On the specified floor you would step from the lift/stairs and be confronted by a hotel like corridor of uniformly dull doors. Some just had the number, some may have a small brass plaque with the business’ name on it. You learnt to knock and enter. Inside it was like travelling through a portal. The rooms would be individually tailored to the business needs, decorated, or not, to the tenant’s desires. All drab uniformity would have gone.
Well most of the time. Mr Nowell-Hammond didn’t spend his hard earned on decor or indeed on much space. The room he rented was carved into three: the largest part and the one with the window was his office, there was then a small area cordoned off with a desk and counter for his secretary/receptionist and then a waiting are for, erm people to wait. In that there was a low coffee table covered in magazines that glorified English country life circa 1937 and two sort of arm chairs that were low to the floor and angled so that once seated you needed the core strength of a stevedore to be able to stand up. There was barely any other space.
This particular day it was raining. I didn’t possess anything like a brolly. The receptionist at my firm took pity on me and offered me hers. ‘It’s ever so new…’ It was indeed a state of the art contraption.
Rain adds a complication to travelling across London, most cities I expect. Everything becomes even more sclerotic than usual. I caught the bus – which was another timing mistake. While on board I tried and failed to collapse the brolly so held it closed while I jostled through miserable streets to my increasingly tardy destination.
I was late. I was so late I was damn near posthumous. ‘Don’t be late’ was the one piece of advice given to me by my senior partner. Thus it was that I entered room 209 at some speed while dripping and clutching my brolly.
‘Take a seat. He won’t…’
The receptionist was, I assume going to tell me he wouldn’t be long but he proved the truth of that assumption by positively leaping from his office with an ‘about time’. In his right hand he held a rather grand and pompous fountain pen and in his expression he held nothing but contempt.
‘Where are they?’ They being certain documents I was charged with having Mr Nowell-Hammond sign.
Let me pause there and try and recreate the tableau.
Mr N-H was by now on one side of the coffee table approaching at a velocity inappropriate to such a small space and especially on such a wet day. The receptionist, a study in indifference was halfway to her seat her eyes on her boss, possibly surprised at his alacrity in attending to one such as myself, viz a nobody.
And what of me? I was 90 percent of the way down into the hopper-like furniture when I was asked to reverse thrust and stand. In one hand I held my briefcase containing the papers; in the other the collapsed but un-catched brolly. It was spring loaded for ease of opening, something I’d not come across before. And in that Newtonian way mechanical objects have, increasing the ease of opening decreased by a similar amount the ease of closing.
I had not seen the approaching client until moments before I began the ascent to which I was ill-suited in a number of ways. What I did take cognisance of was the outstretched hand.
My father explained many things to me about how to behave in the business world of the City of London, circa 1980; the appropriate nomenclature for a Bishop, how to end a business letter, always to confess the farts you release in any confined space and if offered a hand to shake, meet it halfway and shake it firmly.
In my defence I was 1. over-wrought at being late 2. surprised at the speed I was being attended to 3. befuddled by the lack of free hand on my part with which to shake Mr N-H’s and 4. unaware that Mr N-H held a weapon. It can only have been this combined confusion that gave me temporary amnesia concerning my then current inability to click the brolly into the closed position.
In one swift, smooth and unutterably regrettable movement I let the the brolly drop towards the floor and reached forward. A closed brolly would have slipped floorwards in a vertical line. A spring-loaded eight pronged fantail decapitator performs a different movement when released, namely a parapluie parabola. While I rammed the fleshy part of my hand into his fountain pen, the brolly turned through approximately 263 degrees and lodged itself firmly between the edge of the coffee table and rapidly approaching client at the approximate position of Mr Nowell-Hammond’s testicles.
Things might have ended on a happier note had that been the extent of the impact on said testes since they were still coated in a pinstriped wool-cashmere mix covering viz his trousers.
Mr N-H would, in a fairer world have been able to stop and, ideally instantly reverse. Sadly the lack of grip of his own shoes on the wet flooring, the evident surprise that one such as me should seek to impale myself on the gold tip of his Mountblanc pen and the anxiety to get the papers signed meant he continued in a broadly south westerly direction at a speed inconsistent with such a happy outcome.
And so it came to pass that one the little rounded ends on the tip of one of the spokes of the brolly passed through the almost sheer material of our benefactor’s suit, bypassed his M&S Y-fronts (white; three for 57 pence) and canulated itself in some soft, intimate and tender part of the Nowell-Hammond person.
‘Ow. Fuck.’ I’m pretty sure that was me. I barely swore in those distant days but were I going to it was at times of pain and surprise. History has rather unfairly portrayed that understandable epithet. My words were misheard in the kerfuffle as ‘You fucker’ by the loyal if unreliable Secretary. These words were then presumed to be in response to my being stilettoed by the pen. And if you complete the logic of those assumptions, it is not a stretch to see me as blaming Mr N-H for my injury and that in the time it takes to blink I concocted a dastardly plan to use my brolly as an informal epee and puncture him in retaliation.
The documents were not signed; body parts that should not be exposed during office hours were shown the light of day; and I was sent packing, tail between my legs with promises to inact dire consequences if not on my person then certainly on my career. I was certain I would cease to be training to be a lawyer within hours.
But I wasn’t. Perhaps it wasbecause no one really believed what had happened. And my previous good conduct did hold in my favour. But In no small part, the fact that shortly after, Mrs N-H sued for divorce on the grounds of her husband’s infidelity with his secretary cum receptionist – such infidelity being partly evidenced by the curiously shaped bite mark near her husband’s nethers – no doubt went in my favour.
I was surprised but it then turned out the senior partner couldn’t actually stand Mr N-H. ‘I fagged’ was the nearest to an explanation I got. I’ve always wondered what he meant.