Matthew sat looking down at his cup of tea; he felt faint and was sure that his face had paled. They sat in a traditional tea room by the window, his hands were steady with focus and it was all he could do not to tremble. Was this happening? It felt wrong, there must be some mistake. A couple of hours ago he was sitting in the kitchen with Laura and her mother discussing where they should go on their last city break before the baby was born.
“How about Budapest? We’ve never been there, or Monaco maybe, that’s a good place to go before the little one comes along?” he had suggested.
“Why don’t you have a look at the flights when I’m out with mum … also Prague might be nice.”
He watched her walk out of the kitchen door. To think that he would soon be a father, that they would be parents, a few years ago this would have seemed such a challenging prospect but it was the logical next step and he was certain he would be ready for it.
Then at ten thirty, he’d received the call from Colleen.
“Matthew? Haven’t you been a naughty boy.”
“What? Sorry, Colleen is that you?”
“Yes it’s me and I know what you’ve been up to Matthew!”
“Err … sorry Colleen you’ve lost me, is something wrong at work?” He did not understand what she was talking about; as far as he could remember he hadn’t done anything to upset Colleen; had he let loose an undue comment that had reached back to her? He didn’t think so. He never spoke derogatorily about other members of staff, no matter if he wanted to.
“Yes Matthew something is very wrong.” She often used these well-worn one-liners to put her point across; an infuriating aspect of her character.
“Meet me at the Tipsy Teapot at noon,” she finished with.
Noon? Did she think she was in a Western? He put the phone down and for a few minutes stood still not knowing what to do. Eventually he picked up his car keys, looked at Pepper the cat and walked out of the house and into his car. It was difficult to concentrate on driving but he managed to keep the vehicle under control and parked in the multi-storey across the street from the cafe. He arrived early and took a seat by the window ordering a cup of English Breakfast Tea from the waitress and there he waited for half an hour, trying to think of something that could make this situation disappear. At ten past twelve Colleen strolled in through the door dressed more smartly than usual in a grey blouse and black pencil skirt, though her red lipstick and black eyeliner were still as haphazard as always. He assumed she had arrived late so that she could make an entrance and wouldn’t have to wait; she sat down opposite him.
“I know what you’ve been doing, and I can prove it,” Colleen said.
She had with her a brown A4 envelope from which she pulled numerous documents which, when all viewed together, showed exactly the procedures he had taken. When she had finished she put all the documents back inside the envelope. There was silence for a few seconds.
“What are you going to do?” he asked, looking down at his tea cup.
He had never liked her; he had been at the company for fourteen years and she was one of the few who had been there longer, an overweight busybody who looked like Dame Edna Everage being forced to dress as an office worker. God he hated her and now she had him over the proverbial barrel.
“I’m going to tell Derek everything. He’s on his way right now,” Colleen said.
“Derek? What do you mean … he’s coming here?” Matthew answered.
“I told him I’d discovered some discrepancies in the accounting … that it’s very serious. I didn’t mention your name yet; I just said I was with someone who would explain everything. And you will. If you have any grain of decency left in you that’s exactly what you’ll do.”
“Colleen please. Why do this? I’m sorry … things … well they just got out of control, I can sort it all out,” he said.
“It’s too late for that,” she said, picking up the envelope and waving it triumphantly.
He wanted to rip it out of her hands and run off down the street; they were the originals, he could tell; he was the one who had doctored them. But had she made copies? In her haste and excitement at uncovering them it was possible she hadn’t. He could take the papers and bolt out the door; but then again, the trail would still be there and now Derek was on to it too, it wouldn’t make any difference. He looked up at Colleen, she knew what he was thinking and knew that he couldn’t do it, her eyes were focussed on his and her mouth was curving up into the tiniest hint of a smile.
That’s why she hasn’t told him my name yet, he realised; she wants to be there to see his face when it all unravels, be there to reveal the truth, to be the saviour of the company, to claim the prize and walk off into the sunset with Derek.
Matthew had started as a junior accountant in the company straight out of college and had been there ever since, gaining promotions and working his way up consistently, talking to the right people, doing what was expected of him, subtlety manoeuvring people and situations in his favour and when he got to the top he discovered there was a whole lot of money coming in and out of the business and he was overseeing all of it. At first, his duty of responsibility, meant he obsessively accounted for every penny and took pride in balancing the books, when the numbers were off it was like a puzzle that needed to be solved, he would look tirelessly at the problem from every angle until he found the solution and would internally punch the air when he did. This continued on for a couple of years until finding the solutions began to become too easy and any real sense of joy from the job had disappeared; he was at the top of the ladder; there were no more promotions to be had unless something happened to Derek the CEO which was unlikely – the man was a lifer and good at his job too. That’s when Matthew began to play around with the numbers. He didn’t really know why he started doing it, boredom or fun he supposed; a pastime that he had to himself, a little secret part of his life that no one could touch. He set up non existing clients and jobs and an account that led back to him. At first he transferred the money back into the company the month after taking it out, he wasn’t stealing anything, it was just easy and fun to be in control of these fabricated transactions.
Matthew’s money game went on for a while until of course this too eventually became mundane; so why not keep some money … you only live once! The extra income had gone on securing the house for him and Laura; a noticeable increase in foreign holidays and just to follow the cliché, a red Porsche. Looking back this was a bad decision and may have been what set Colleen onto him in the first place. It had all been so easy, and it didn’t really feel like he was doing anything wrong, the company was still doing well, there were no victims, but he had become complacent.
Matthew was sweating, his hands were wet and he felt off balance, his heart was beating faster and he felt sick. He was starting to panic as he envisaged being in a prison cell while his wife brought home a successful lawyer who his child would call daddy. Being released early for his unquestioned good behaviour wouldn’t help him get her back or find a job in any part of the financial sector.
“I need to go outside and get some air,” he said and got up, looking down at Colleen. He saw a glimpse of concern on her face and she stood up facing him.
“Have you paid for this tea?” He looked down; he never forgot to pay. He fumbled in his pocket for his wallet and pulled out a five pound note, leaving it on the table and walked quickly out of the café followed by Colleen and her envelope.
“Not that I think you’re going to run off Matthew,” she said walking out the door. “But I think it’s best if we just stay together, Derek will be here in a couple of minutes.”
Matthew wanted to punch her in the face but instead he looked at her with sympathetic eyes; surely there must be something to be gained by showing humility and regret, surely he could get out of this somehow. Perhaps if he feigned an addiction or depression or something then they might not call the police.
“Look Colleen, there are a few things you don’t know about me, I’ve had some very … difficult issues to contend with, it’s not an excuse I know but I’ll explain it all when Derek gets here.” That should plant some seeds and buy him some thinking time.
“You really are a nasty piece of work aren’t you? There is nothing wrong with you apart from you being a lying, cheating, money grabbing low life. You’re going to get exactly what you deserve.”
That was it then, it was over, she had him and she wasn’t going to stop using these bloody hackneyed insults.
“OK, let’s wait for Derek”, he said.
Matthew imagined how the fallout of this day would unravel. Should he admit what he had done? He may have implied his guilt with Colleen but he hadn’t actually confessed it yet; though the evidence was overwhelming; he was trapped, his mind, his emotions, he just felt numb; waking up this morning he could never have envisaged the day would unfold like this. He had to think about his future in a sudden departure from his thinking earlier on that day. He had to stay on talking terms with Laura as he would be granted access after his release and needed to be involved with the baby. He was sure to be found guilty if he denied it; so he would admit it, admit everything and get the lowest possible term, possibly even a suspended sentence with his previously unblemished record, then try and rebuild his life and live honestly, he wasn’t a criminal anyway, he’d just made a mistake. He would be open and contrite with Derek; he would confess it and somehow pay everything back. He turned from Colleen to the road looking out for Derek’s silver Landrover.
Derek sat at the lights sweating; the finances of the company were not something he got much involved in, he should know more about them but Matthew seemed to have everything under control, the guy was so meticulous it was crazy to think he didn’t know what he was doing. Derek couldn’t remember where exactly the Tipsy Teapot was so he drove around the streets searching the shop signs carefully as he passed them. The day was getting hotter and the phone call from Colleen had worried him.
Oddly, he started to feel numb around his face and arms and the people walking on the street were beginning to blur. A severe pain shot from behind his right eye; a car in front had stopped and he managed to swerve out of the way before hitting it – he didn’t know what side of the road he was on but his face was leaning on the steering wheel while his legs had disappeared. Through the windscreen he could see Colleen and Matthew standing just a little way up ahead on the side of the street. He had to get closer to them. He tried to shout but it came out as a gurgle. It felt like someone was drilling into the side of his head; his vision was failing and becoming smaller until it was like looking through a straw at Colleen right in front of him and then what felt like a bolt of lightning hammered through his mind and everything was black.
Matthew saw Derek’s car approaching but Colleen was still focussed on him, her voice like radio noise in the background as he thought about what he was going to say to Derek in a few minutes. Then suddenly Derek’s car veered into the middle of the road and headed straight for them.
Matthew realised the car would hit them in a few seconds unless they moved; was his boss trying to run them down or was the car out of control?
“Colleen”, he said, cutting off her babble and she stopped talking.
Matthew jumped backwards as the vehicle ploughed into her and somehow their eyes kept contact for a second before she was sucked under the car.
There was a massive crash and then a strange quiet. Nothing happened for a couple of seconds but then people ran towards the car; Matthew was on the ground and found himself checking his legs and arms; he seemed fine and got up. For a moment he didn’t know what to do. A voice told him to turn and run away, but no, he could not do that so he wandered, dazed, to see the car embedded in the window of a glass fronted furniture shop and a crowd of people peering in and on the floor in front of him, the brown envelope.
He picked it up without looking around to see who was watching and walked over to the car.
A man straddling his bicycle in shorts and t-shirt was on his phone, a woman in her thirties with a little girl was holding her hands over the girl’s eyes while herself unable to look away. There was broken glass everywhere; the car was disfigured and half way into the shop mingled with a bed and some matching wardrobes and chests of drawers, and there lay Derek, strewn across a king size mattress, covered in glass and splattered with blood. He obviously had not been wearing his seatbelt and quite obviously, he was dead. It was awful; but it was not the worst; that was Colleen; she was still under the car and all he could see was one of her legs and her head, both sticking out from behind the front wheel next to each other. Her eyes were open, fixed forwards, bare and empty.
Matthew turned around and was sick on the pavement. After there was nothing left in his stomach he put his right hand against the wall and realised the envelope was still in his left. He wiped sweat off his forehead and turned back to the wreckage. He had to think.
There would be CCTV of the event … probably. There would be witnesses, he was here, why was he here, why would he have left home and come into town without telling Laura? It was an emergency … there was a problem … but he didn’t find out what it was because Colleen was waiting for Derek to arrive to explain it. Yes. No – not an emergency, that would raise too many questions … perhaps insinuate a problem between Derek and Colleen. Colleen phoned this morning, upset, and he agreed to meet her. He had no evidence that she was in love with Derek, she said things, and now it had come to a head. But he was in the dark, he didn’t know anything. The story came together piece by piece very easily and very quickly. He rolled up the envelope as best he could, it was thick, and pushed it down into his left hand pocket and stuck it up under his shirt, doing up his jacket so that no one would notice the bulge.
The ambulances and police arrived and it was creeping up on him that he might have killed Colleen. No he did not kill her, the car killed her. He was in shock, which was to be expected. He wished it had never happened; didn’t he? Of course he did; he would never want anyone to die. But he could have saved her. He could have but he didn’t, he pulled that car towards him and in that moment when he said her name he pretended to himself that he was trying to save her when he knew very well that he was only trying to deflect her attention from the oncoming vehicle, he was trying to get her run down to save his job and his life and his wife. But he didn’t kill her; it was a tragic accident that he was not responsible for. But did he leave a person in the scene when he could have taken them away? No! He would not spend his life, his time, personally remonstrating on such a matter.
He would do the adjustments to the accounts, slowly, over time and exchange the documents inside the envelope for an arbitrary report of the latest project in case its presence was questioned. He knew that he should stay and talk to the police and give some description of what had happened but he couldn’t face it just yet. He sat on a bench as the people meandered past him talking to each other, carrying their bags of shopping and talking on their phones. A busker sat playing a tune on his guitar that he recognised but couldn’t place, it was a classic he was sure, perhaps operatic, maybe a finale from a score, it hit the notes he wanted it to hit but his mind couldn’t jump over that fence that showed him its name.
You woke up with everything to live for and then in a moment it was taken away, everything, your job, your marriage and your life, it was all gone, and then, just as quickly, it was delivered back to you, everything.
The busker continued and changed to a tune he did not know, and he thought that in life such things happen, there are wars, people die, children starve. Colleen had not been a bad person and twenty minutes ago she and Derek were alive and the route was one way, now it was another. What exactly are you guilty of? You stole money, but many people do, but today, in those few seconds, were you culpable of more?
Somewhere in infinity, where the world took endless paths and the car had missed them both and Derek had walked out fine, in this reality he was doomed, and he owed it to his other self not to dwell on what could have been but to take the chance he had been given and erase the evidence. While this other Matthew was currently admitting his guilt and processing the consequences he would realise his good fortune and not waste his reflections on where the accountability lie.
By Chris Humphrey from the United Kingdom