I walk through reception on autopilot. Out onto the sunny lunchtime street, one foot in front of the other, just another office worker among the midday crowds.
Except Im different. Ive just lost my client ? 50 million.
Fifty million. The amount is like a drumbeat in my head.
I dont understand how it happened. I dont understand. My mind keeps turning it over. Over and over, obsessively. How could I have not seen ... how could I have overlooked ... It must have been put on my desk, then covered up with something else. A file, a pile of contracts, a cup of coffee.
One mistake. The only mistake Ive ever made. I want to wake up and this will all be a bad dream, it happened to someone else, its a story Im listening to in the pub, agog, thanking my lucky stars it wasnt me ... But it is me.
My career is over. The last person at Carter Spink who made a mistake like this was Ted Stephens, who lost a client
? 10 million in 1983. He was fired on the spot. And Ive lost five times that.
My chest feels tight; I feel like Im being smothered. I think I could be having a panic attack. I sit down on a bench set against some railings and wait to feel better.
OK, Im not feeling better. Im feeling worse.
Suddenly I jump in terror as my mobile phone vibrates in my pocket. I pull it out and look at the caller ID. Its Guy.
I cant talk to him. I cant talk to anybody. Not right now.
A moment later, the phone tells me a message has been left. I lift the phone to my ear and press 1 to listen.
Samantha! Guy sounds cheery. Where are you? Were all waiting with the champagne to make the big partnership announcement!
Partnership. I want to burst into tears. But ... I cant. This mistake is too big for tears. I
thrust my phone in my pocket and get to my feet again. I begin to walk faster and faster, weaving through the pedestrians. My head is pounding and I have no idea where Im going.
I walk for what seems like hours, my head in a daze, my feet moving blindly. The sun is beating down, and the pavements are dusty, and after a while my head starts to throb. At some point my mobile starts to vibrate again, but I ignore it.
At last, when my legs are starting to ache, I slow down and come to a halt. My mouth is dry; Im totally dehydrated. I need some water. I look up, trying to get my bearings. Somehow I seem to have reached Paddington Station, of all places.
Numbly, I turn my steps toward the entrance and walk inside. The place is noisy and crowded with travelers. The fluorescent lights and air- conditioning and the blaring announcements make me flinch. As Im making my way to a kiosk selling bottled water, my mobile vibrates again. I pull it out and look at the display. I have fifteen missed calls and another message from Guy. He left it about twenty minutes ago.
I hesitate, my heart beating with nerves, then press 1 to listen to it.
Jesus Christ, Samantha, what happened?
He doesnt sound cheery anymore, he sounds totally stressed. I feel prickles of dread all over my body.
We know, hes saying. OK? We know about Third Union Bank. Charles Conway called up. Then Ketterman found the paperwork on your desk. You have to come back to the office. Now. Call me back.
He rings off but I dont move. Im paralyzed with fright.
They know. They all know.
The black spots are dancing in front of my eyes again. Nausea is rising up inside me. The entire staff of Carter Spink knows I messed up. People will be calling each other. E- mailing the news in horrified glee. Did you hear ...?
As Im standing there, something catches the corner of my eye. A familiar face is just visible through the crowd. I turn my head and squint at the man, trying to place him then feel a fresh jolt of horror.
Its Greg Parker, one of the senior partners. Hes been in the States, I remember. Hell have just got in on the Heathrow Express. Now hes striding along the concourse in his expensive suit, holding his mobile phone. His brows are knitted together and he looks concerned.
So where is she? His voice travels across the concourse.
Panic hits me like a lightning bolt. I have to get out of his line of vision. I have to hide. Now. I edge behind a vast woman in a beige mac and try to cower down so Im hidden. But she keeps wandering about, and I keep having to shuffle along with her.
Did you want something? She suddenly turns.
No! I say, flustered. Im ... er ...
Well, leave me alone! She scowls and stalks off toward
Costa Coffee. Im totally exposed in the middle of the concourse. Greg Parker is about fifty yards away, still talking on his mobile phone.
If I move, hell see me. If I stay still ... hell see me.
Suddenly the electronic Departures display board renews itself with fresh train information. A crowd of waiting travelers grab their bags and newspapers and head toward platform 9.
Without thinking twice, I join the throng, hidden in their midst as we sweep through the open barriers and onto the train. It pulls out of the station and I sink into a seat, opposite a family all wearing London Zoo T- shirts.They smile at me and somehow I manage to smile back.
Refreshments? A wizened man pushing a trolley appears in the carriage and beams at me. Hot and cold sandwiches, teas and coffees, soft drinks, alcoholic beverages?
The last, please. I try not to sound too desperate. A double. Of ... anything.
No one comes to check my ticket. No one bothers me. The train seems to be some sort of express. Suburbs turn into fields, and the train is still rattling along. Ive drunk three small bottles of gin, mixed with orange juice, tomato juice, and a chocolate yogurt drink. The chunk of icy fright in my stomach has thawed and I feel weirdly distanced from everything around me.
I have made the biggest mistake of my career. I will have lost my job. I will never be a partner.
One stupid mistake.
The London Zoo family have opened packets of crisps and offered me one and invited me to join in their game of Travel Scrabble. The mother even asked me if I was traveling for business or fun?
I couldnt bring myself to answer.
My heart rate has gradually subsided, but I have a bad, throbbing headache. Im sitting with a hand over one eye, trying to block out the light.
Ladies and gentlemen. The conductor is crackling over the loudspeaker. Unfortunately ... rail works ... alternative transport ...
I cant follow what hes saying. I dont even know where Im headed. Ill just wait for the next stop, get out of the train, and take it from there.
Thats not how you spell raisin, London Zoo mother is saying to one of the children, when the train suddenly starts to slow down. I look up to see that were pulling into a station.Lower Ebury. People are gathering up their bags and getting off.
Like an automaton I get up too. I follow the London Zoo family off the train and out of a tiny, twee country station. Theres a pub called The Bell across the road, which bends round in both directions, and I can glimpse fields in the distance. Theres a coach waiting, and all the passengers from the train are boarding.
London Zoo mother has turned round and is gesturing at me. You need to come this way, she says helpfully. If you want the bus toGloucester?
The thought of getting on a coach makes me want to heave. I dont want the bus to anywhere. I just want an aspirin. My head feels like its about to split open.
Er ... no, thanks. Im fine here. Before she can say anything else, I start walking down the road.
I have no idea where I am. None.
Inside my pocket, my phone suddenly vibrates. Its Guy. Again. This must be the thirtieth time hes rung. And every time hes left a message telling me to call him back, asking if Ive got his e- mails.
I havent got any of his e- mails. I was so freaked out, I left my Blackberry on my desk. My phone is all I have. It vibrates again and I stare at it for a few moments. I cant ignore him forever. My stomach clenched with nerves, I lift it to my ear and press TALK.
Hi. My voice is scratchy. Its ... its me. Samantha? His incredulous voice blasts down the line. Is that you? Where are you? I dont know. I had to get away. I ... I went into shock ... Samantha, I dont know if you got my messages. But ... He hesitates. Everyone
I know. I lean against an old crumbling wall and squeeze my eyes shut.
How did it happen? He sounds as shocked as I feel. How the hell did you make a simple error like that? I mean, Christ, Samantha
I dont know, I say numbly.
You never make mistakes!
Well, I do now! I feel tears rising and fiercely blink them down. Whats ... whats happened?
Its not good. He exhales. Kettermans been having damage limitation talks with Glazerbrooks lawyers and talking to the bankand the insurers, of course.
The insurers. The firms professional indemnity insurance. Im suddenly gripped by an almost exhilarating hope. If the insurers pay up without making a fuss, maybe things wont be as bad as I thought ...
But even as I feel my spirits lift I know Im like some traveler seeing the mirage through the haze. Insurers never cough up the whole amount. Sometimes they dont cough up anything. Sometimes they pay up but raise their premiums to unfeasible levels.
What did the insurers say? Will they
They havent said anything yet.
Right. I wipe my sweaty face, screwing up my courage to ask the next question. And what about ... me?
Guy is silent.
Theres my answer. I open my eyes to see two small boys on bikes staring at me.
Its over, isnt it? My careers over.
I ... I dont know that. Listen, Samantha, youre freaked out. Its natural. But you cant hide. You have to come back
I cant. Kettermans face looms in my mind. And what willArnold think of me now? I cant face everyone.
Samantha, be rational!
I need some time!
Saman I flip my phone shut.
I feel a bit faint. I must get some water. But I cant face going into a noisy pub, and I cant see any shops.
I totter along the road until I reach a pair of tall carved pillars decorated with lions. Heres a house. Ill ring the bell and ask for some aspirin and a glass of water. And ask if theres a hotel nearby.
I push open the elaborate wrought- iron gate and crunch over the gravel toward the heavy oak front door. Its a rather grand old house made out of honey- colored stone, set well back from the road, with steep gables and tall chimneys and two Porsches on the drive. I raise a hand and tug the bellpull.
Theres silence. The whole house seems dead. Im about to give up and trudge back down the drivewhen all of a sudden the door swings open.
Before me stands a woman with blond lacquered hair to her shoulders and long, dangly earrings. She has lots of makeup, long silk trousers in a weird shade of peach, a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other.
Hello. She drags on her cigarette and looks at me a bit suspiciously.Are you from the agency?