The Articled Particle: The Worst Day

I suppose there were many ‘worst’ days in my two years as an Articled Clerk, a necessary step in the turgid process of qualifying as a Solicitor in England and Wales. The first day was pretty grim. There’s a sense, when experiencing something new and terrifying that even the commonplace seems to be happening differently. Bus journeys are no longer straightforward, traffic lights seem unduly complex things to negotiate and the depth of kerbs differ to the day before and are liable to send you stumbling as the most uneven of pavements. I recall nothing of that first day, but it had to have left scars: a loathing of the telephone, a terror of the dictaphone, the desperation to know where the gents were without asking…

But really my worst day came about nine months into my tenure. I had settled to some sort of routine, sharing a huge room that was probably the drawing room of the house that our offices were originally designed to be with Peter H, the junior partner. Peter was average height with piercing blue eyes, black curly hair and a rather unsettling way of holding your gaze when you were explaining something, as if he could see the flaws in your arguments by peering into your soul. He wore beige suits, dull ties and those little metal heel protectors that let you know he was approaching unless the floor was carpeted.

The room itself doubled as the office library with glass-fronted bookcases lining those bits of the walls that weren’t windows or double doors; as a result, any of the legal staff might pop in at any time and, while I doubt they ever listened to my telephone conservations or dictation that was my abiding fear, rendering me near mute and certainly incoherent.

On the day in question, a Monday no one came in. I was isolated in the horror show that unfolded around me.

Taking a step back, one part of Peter’s practice was acting for someone going through a divorce. When I joined the firm in Spring ’79 he maybe had three or four on the go, mixing them with some entertainment contract work, probate and conveyancing. He seemed to enjoy the divorce the most. The case in question had been going for many months, years probably and was, frankly very unpleasant. We acted for the husband, a forty something personnel director of a major listed company. The couple had two young children and had been living in Manchester. I don’t recall there being any third party that triggered the estrangement, just a break down in relations that was so severe they could no longer stand talking to each other. All communications came via the lawyers and it was pretty unpleasant, reflecting their clients’ entrenched positions.

I didn’t have a lot to do with it, not initially. I sat in on several meetings and took notes. My sense of our client was of a man who couldn’t really understand how things had come to pass and he wanted everything settled. At the time there was a movement in the divorce courts to a ‘clean break’ if possible – where the financial settlement was sufficiently large that on-going maintenance wouldn’t be necessary. Our client was clearly keen to make that happen, even if on-going payments to support the children would be needed.

At some point in the months that followed the start of the process, our client met and fell for a widower with a daughter. They moved in together and eventually decided they would wed. English divorce law then (it may still be the case – happily, I’ve had nothing to do with it since I qualified) works in two parts: the decree Nisi when the divorce is declared by the courts, but a sort of conditional step; and the decree Absolute when it is final and the marriage is legally over. At that point you can re-marry.

Our client got engaged the day of his Nisi and planned to wed on the Saturday after his Absolute which took place on the preceding Friday. Peter and his girlfriend were invited to the wedding which he later told me was delightful and full of hope for the future.

That I didn’t hear this on that Monday was because Peter and said girlfriend were off on holiday to a Greek island on the Sunday and I was in charge of his matters, as well as my own for two weeks. I’d experienced one holiday already when things had been scary in anticipation but fine in practice. It was by focusing on that memory that I entered the office rather hoping that I might get through the fortnight unscathed.

That lasted approximately thirty minutes.

I was reading through the post, trying to decide what needed doing first, when our receptionist rang through to say she’d a caller after Peter who said he was Sergeant Something from the Dunstable police.

Even as I waited for the call to come through, I knew it had to do with our client, since he was the only person who I knew lived in Dunstable. The policeman sounded ancient – maybe he was just tired – and asked after Peter, even though I imagine he’d been told of Peter’s absence. When I confirmed he wasn’t about, he asked if I was able to speak about our client. Since I had come to know something of the divorce and the relief that everyone had felt on its ending, I confirmed I was. I also knew that none of the other partners or legal staff had anything to do with it (or indeed much knowledge of divorce).

I’m not sure I spoke again from at least twenty minutes. In that time the policeman explained that he had been called by our client’s new wife. She had been on her way to work when she realised that there were sounds coming from their garage and there was a note taped to the door, telling her (a) not to open the door and (b) to call the police. Next to it was a letter addressed to the police.

When the police arrived they found the car running, a tube from the exhaust into the side window, an empty bottle of madeira on the passenger seat and a very dead client. In his lap was another letter, addressed to Peter. The client’s wife was put on and began asking about what arrangements Peter and the client had been making. None, but really she just wanted to talk between handing the phone back to the policeman who seemed to think, in the absence of anyone else – and his wife wasn’t capable of making any decisions – I was best placed either to receive or give guidance.

I can remember staring at the phone when I’d put it down, thinking I’d never come close to someone dying before – my relatives had either predeceased me or were still thriving – and somehow I was meant to know what to do. Jeanette, one of the two senior secretaries was the first to come in – something mundane I expect – and realised something was up. One of the other partners got involved and all the immediate pressure was removed from me, though, since I knew most about what had gone on, I remained closely involved in what happened. Somehow, Peter was eventually tracked down and made it back after a week to take over. There was a coroner’s hearing, issues over life assurance, accusations of duplicity since his former wife was convinced he’d committed suicide to stymie her – which was true from the note Peter was sent.

The tragedy though went on. Clearly mentally disorientated he believed the world would be better off without him, even though he’d just wed. His reasoning – that he’d loved his first wife and couldn’t believe it was possible for that love to turn so sour, thus he didn’t want to risk that happening again – was twisted and had all sorts of impacts.

Legally there were some fascinating issues to untangle. New legislation had been passed in 1977 allowing the courts for the first time to rewrite demonstrably unfair Wills – and his ex-wife’s legal team sought to use it on the Will he signed shortly after his wedding, unbeknownst to Peter. That was on its way to court when his former employer’s pension fund stepped in with a large discretionary payment that ended the conflict.

But my abiding memory is of that hollow call, of my silence as one family’s life came apart. I swore then I wanted nothing to do with divorce or the tragic side of the law, the violence and upset that makes for the human condition. I wrapped myself in bricks and mortar, steel and glass. I dealt with finance and corporate structures, tax and ways to avoid it. I was pretty good at it and the tragedies involved loss of money, not lives. For that, I am grateful.

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published several books: a four book series following Harry Spittle as he grows from hapless student to hapless partner in a London law firm; four others in different genres; a book of poetry; four anthologies of short fiction; and a memoir of my mother. I have several more in the pipeline. I have been blogging regularly since 2014, on topic as diverse as: poetry based on famous poems; memories from my life; my garden; my dog; a whole variety of short fiction; my attempts at baking and food; travel and the consequent disasters; theatre, film and book reviews; and the occasional thought piece. Mostly it is whatever takes my fancy. I avoid politics, mostly, and religion, always. I don't mean to upset anyone but if I do, well, sorry and I suggest you go elsewhere. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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21 Responses to The Articled Particle: The Worst Day

  1. Sadje says:

    How tragic it must have been for the family.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Erika says:

    Wow, so that must have been truly overwhelming.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. joylennick says:

    Oh dear! You must have, initially, felt disturbed by such a dramatic, unpleasant and sad occurrence. As a junior shorthand typist, I worked, via an agency, for a law firm in the City of London and that was quite an experience too as I had to decipher dreadful court scribblings into decent English for typing, and said ‘scribbler’ treated me like something unpleasant on his shoe. My actual boss was a dear, likeable man, but every day grew more un- pleasant because of the bossy male secretary, so I left. I was brought up to be polite to everyone! And why not…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There is much to be said for an uncomplicated life!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very tragic, and with no warning! I don’t know how divorce lawyers manage to withstand the battering of the proceedings, which are often brutal. Good that you stayed clear of that aspect.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Tax and how to avoid it is so much more rewarding than the trauma of human interpersonal relationships. At least the cold water treatment came early.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. V.M.Sang says:

    What a horrible experience, Geoff. How twisted some people’s thinking can become. Tragic for the family, both present and past. How awful the second wife must have felt after reading how he had loved his first wife.
    It’s so sad that people can get into such a state that they thing the world would be better without them.

    Like

  8. At least you could opt out of that part of your career!
    It is so unbelievably easy to make a complete mess of your life and from there probably only a short step for some people to decide they can’t live with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Bridgette says:

    What a terribly sad story!

    Liked by 1 person

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