Hemel Hempstead, UK, late March 2013.
It was not any old Monday morning as Robert Nordraak drove to work because Elizabeth’s news had unsettled him. Yet the short journey was normal in all other respects: the busy road, the car park filled with cars, his empty executive parking place, the familiar long, low sixties office block behind the town hall, the back entrance with aluminium-framed double doors, and the climb up the thin, worn carpeted staircase to his first-floor office. Nothing different, everything the same as it had been for the last fifteen years. Accountancy was a routine business.
He entered his office to see his neatly organised desk loaded with papers dealing with local businesses’ annual accounts, business plans and VAT returns. Everything the same, except today he had received the surprise news from his youngest sister.
The message had stirred up sediments buried deep within him. He needed to make a change. He contemplated his predicament as he prepared for work on a dreary morning after a dull weekend. He sat at his desk and looked at the morning’s pile of work: accounts, letters and a yellow Post-it note stuck on his computer screen: ‘Mr Evans wants to see you. 9.00 am – Doreen.’
Robert glanced at his watch, he had a few minutes to spare. After gathering his Page-a-day dairy, he strode down the corridor to Evans’ office and nodded a greeting at Doreen seated at her desk outside Evans’ door.
‘Good morning, Robert. Just knock, he’s expecting you,’ said Doreen.
‘Come in, Bob,’ burly, jovial Victor Evans shouted, waving an arm as if he was showing a plane to a landing bay as Robert poked his head around the edge of the door.
Robert entered the managing partner’s large office in central Hemel Hempstead with a concerned look and a furrowed brow, wondering what was so important first thing on a Monday morning. His stride lessened as he approached Evans’ desk and he paused waiting to be asked to sit. He had done this countless times before.
For as long as Robert could remember, the old metal cabinets had hugged the same magnolia walls and the same faded jade Axminster carpet with its geometrical pattern of small diamonds had covered floor. Occasionally, the carpet cleaner powder would change; this month’s eau de toilet smell was citrus. Everything was bland but clean and functional. It summed up the spirit of Evans, Evans and Morris, correct but dull.
‘Good morning, Bob. Well, don’t just stand there, take a seat. Doreen, bring us some coffee please,’ he called through the open door. ‘Coffee OK, Bob?’
‘Oh fine, Mr Evans, no sugar.’ Despite his long service with the company, Robert, always polite and deferential, had never called old Victor anything other than Mr Evans.
‘One no sugar, Doreen.’
Doreen, his secretary, rose and started to clatter the cups and kettle outside.
‘Something’s come up and you are the man for it. An assignment in Norway.’
‘Yes, Norway. Oslo to be precise. It’s a modern city; very smart I’ve been told. This is a great opportunity for us… for you.’ He added ‘for you’ quickly, but Robert knew it was an afterthought.
Evans was getting into his stride, leaning forward across the mahogany desk with his podgy fingers tracing invisible patterns on the green inlaid leather as he described the challenge when the door opened, and long-suffering, petite, red-lipped Doreen, entered carrying a tray with two cups and four Rich Tea biscuits. She placed the tray on the desk and whispered into Evans’ ear, loudly enough for Robert to hear, ‘Mr Knutsen has called again, he wants an answer today.’
Evans said nothing but nodded his large round head covered in thick grey hair slicked down, smooth and shiny with a central parting.
Doreen withdrew and smiled at Robert.
‘Now where was I?’ Evans asked. ‘Ah, yes, Norway. KVS, Kanttaga Vision Software to be precise. It is a Norwegian IT company with expertise in consulting, design, that sort of thing. They are on the verge of a breakthrough with a railway application. They are on the up and want to open a branch here in Hemel Hempstead, as they have close connections with Northgate Information Solutions Limited here in town – they provide them with some specialist software and information technology services in Norway, you know the stuff – and here is an ideal base from which to attack the British railway ticketing software market. They need an accounting firm and I persuaded them through my contact at Northgate to consider us for their new operation and then punted for their Oslo operation.’
‘Oslo operation?’ Robert asked incredulously. ‘What do we know about Norwegian accounting procedures and standards?’
‘Accounting standards are similar across Europe, Bob. It shouldn’t be a problem. I told them our best corporate accountant and business advisor would go out there to see them next week. We need new clients. Norway is booming, this could be the first of many new clients from Norway. They are a young company with big ideas but they need help and guidance in the financial area, and they all speak English.’
Evans made it sound attractive when he outlined the overseas allowances and possible salary increase if the contract was landed.
‘This is the sort of overseas exposure we are looking to develop: small companies, growing fast, and looking to expand in the UK.’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Go out there and win hearts and minds. You’ve got the charm and the experience. Persuade them we have the capability and expertise to act as both accountants and advisers for their business. It’s right up our street. Look I’ve got to call their chief executive, Ifor Knutsen, today, to tell him I’m sending someone over. Are you in?’ Evans asked. He paled a little and lost his smile.
Norway, it rang a bell. Robert recalled how his father’s thick Norwegian accent embarrassed him when as a boy he went with him about the town shopping or on a rare visit to watch Hemel Hempstead Town FC. Yet his father, Felix, passed over for promotion on several occasions, never complained. He was happily married as much to Nancy as to his patch of beloved garden with its neat lawn defined by sharp edges and standard roses behind their suburban semi-detached house.
‘Did you hear me? Are you in?’ Evans pleaded.
Robert snapped out of his brief reverie. He shifted in his chair, scratched his left ear, and squeezed his nose between the thumb and finger of his left hand. He was thinking and didn’t want to be rushed. He coughed. He knew Evans needed him on this project – yet another one of his dream business changers – but he was not going to rush a decision. He had been on wild goose chases for Evans before.
Norway. His Norwegian grandfather swam into his mind. He must be nearly a hundred now, thought Robert, and I haven’t seen him since that visit, thirty years ago.
‘OK, yes. I’ll go, but I’ll take a few extra days out there; my grandfather lives in Bergen.’
‘That’s fine.’ Evans’ joviality returned. ‘Take a week. Get to know Oslo, convince KVS we are right for them there and here. I’ll tell Knutsen that you’ll be there in a couple of days.’
‘What about pricing?’
‘Oh, use our standard rates less twenty per cent.’
‘Less twenty per cent?’ Robert queried.
‘Yes, this is a new venture for us, an overseas assignment, the start of something big. Let’s not get picky about pricing; I want this contract. It will make us stand out.’ … and, ‘look good at the next Chamber of Commerce meeting.’ was left unsaid. Evans pulled on the drawer on the left-hand side of his polished desk, it slid open noiselessly. He extracted some documents.
‘Here’s a copy of the company’s accounts. The company is two years old yet it has grown from the three original employees to twelve now, as you’ll see. Knutsen tells me he’s on track for one hundred and twenty in three year’s time. He’s ambitious but needs a wise head to advise and help him plan. They have won a big contract for Norges Statsbaner AS (NSB), the Norwegian state railway company. Now they are looking at our rail companies.’
As Evans droned on about the opportunities, the kudos and the need to grow the business, with phrases like: ‘It’s dog eat dog out there’, and ‘We need new business just to stand still’, Robert thought about his sister’s message and about the family holiday in Norway almost thirty years ago, that unforgettable holiday with his Norwegian family.
Back at his desk, he thumbed through the new papers in his pending tray. There was nothing urgent, then he switched on his computer and saw the long list of e-mails. Junk, junk, CC – irrelevant – as he waded through the list all with their boring headings – Black and Son’s Year-end accounts revision, Capital raising for Lead into Gold, and already one from Evans – Kattanga Vision Software background reading… Elizabeth came into his mind again.
He saw her skipping in the back garden on a sunny afternoon, her pigtails flying with the energy of her silken movements. So lithe, so small, so happy. Then he heard her violin practice as she scraped away in the front room its ochre tiled fireplace filled with an electric fire. But that was twenty years ago, now she was getting married and he was nowhere. She had taken life in both hands and gone to America with her music, while he had been much less adventurous.
Steady and bright were the epithets applied to him when it came to parents’ evenings. But although he liked lessons – very good at maths, good at history and geography too – he never really fitted in, a bit like his father perhaps. Known as nerdy Nordy or Draaker, Robert was more intelligent than most, a fatal condition in a soulless suburban glass and concrete comprehensive. He had never been popular and he kept himself to himself. The Nordraaks were like that. Yet he hated the yobbish behaviour of his sneering classmates and their dull pranks and, equally, they showed their dislike of the industrious, hard-working son of a foreigner, not only by the nicknames but also by occasional offensive posters placed out of sight of teachers or false alarms, such as when he was told to go the school secretary because his mother had an accident. He was to most boys and girls in his class a foreigner with a funny surname with the propensity to wear thick, uncool, patterned woollen jumpers, especially after Christmas. But he never let his unpopularity deflect him and he became one of a select few who went to University.
Armed with a 2:1 in Management Studies (Finance) BA from Leicester, his progress was smooth. From the university so-called milk round, he went straight into accountancy with a big London firm. His school now regarded him as a model university graduate and he was recalled on more than one occasion to advise subsequent students on career choices by telling his story at both school and university-sponsored reunions.
Yet somehow, he couldn’t settle. His schooling had deprived him of the casual social contact so necessary to feel confident in a big and strange city. For him, London was uncomfortable, unfriendly, and it had too many things to do and no one with whom to do them. You are never so alone as in a crowd, someone had said, and he knew exactly what they meant.
After passing his accountancy exams at twenty-four with flying colours, he returned to Hemel Hempstead, to the comfort of family, although he rented a small flat at a respectable distance from home. He obtained the well-paid position of junior accountant thanks to his London experience, which impressed Evans, Evans and Morris, a small local accountancy company, as much as his excellent examination mark. It was a well-paid post but he, like the company, never quite pushed on.
Hemel Hempstead was infamous for its bizarre roundabout with its six entries and exits. Whenever he said he was from Hemel Hempstead, people would reply something like: ‘Oh, I got lost on a roundabout there,’ some with a scientific background might say: ‘Isn’t that the place with a roundabout like a benzene ring?’ others, fans of children’s television in all probability, would say: ‘Oh the Magic Roundabout!’ while most would say sneeringly: ‘Oh, the Plough Roundabout.’
How he disliked the sense he came from somewhere which was nothing but a roundabout.
Even his relationship with Jane was now going round in a circle.
Jane did not want children; Robert had thought she would change her mind, but she hadn’t. She had made that clear on three occasions recently; now Robert no longer raised the subject. Jane was all about show and she made a good one: immaculate auburn hair, painted red nails, red lips, slim figure, and high heels which disguised her small stature. She was attractive and fun but the four-year relationship was going nowhere. He was content, but not fulfilled. Now his good looks were fading; his black hair had its first streaks of grey and his trousers felt a little tighter. Thirty-nine was not too old he told himself, but time was running out and he needed a jolt to move to a different orbit lest his desire for a family be nothing more than a forlorn hope. A mid-life crisis loomed as Robert considered the daily routine of an accountant working with complex calculations on company valuations and tax, rate relief, special grants, VAT and many other government-inspired initiatives to make his local companies ever more efficient. Working in a small office without much of a view, overlooking the back of the shopping centre, it wasn’t much and he was bored.
His youngest sister was getting married and he was still in a rut. The years were passing.
He picked up the phone and booked his flight tickets to Oslo.
He contemplated his predicament as he left early for home that evening. Tomorrow, he was off to Oslo.
He entered his apartment and put the kettle on. With his cup of tea, he sank into his favourite leather armchair in his simply furnished flat bedecked with film posters of his favourite actress, Audrey Hepburn. A framed poster of her in How to Steal a Million, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sabrina, and one in French, Vacances Romaines, hung on the walls. He took out the single white envelope with an American stamp in his hand and read it again as he sipped his tea. The neatly printed envelope showed the addressees as ‘Mr Robert Nordraak and Miss Jane Beauchamp.’ although Jane had her own flat in town. Robert again extracted the stiff card from the envelope. The stiff gilt-edged invitation to the wedding of Chip Spinetti and his youngest sister, Elizabeth flexed in his hand. He unfolded the card and inside read again the simple details of time – in three months, and place – in Lumberton, North Carolina.
His little sister’s wedding was a milestone and one whose consequences scared him. At thirty-nine, with a younger sister, Laura, already happily married and two children, he wondered if he had he missed the boat as far as a family was concerned. Where had the time gone?
He had known for some time he had to change his ways. He felt trapped and to escape it had to start with Jane, but procrastinator that he was, he had not got around to it.
As he read his sister’s name again, his thoughts turned to childhood memories of Lizzy, when he, as a ten-year-old, played with her as a baby. Times redolent of innocence and austerity, when, as a teenager, he would accompany his sister to her infant school. His ears pricked, could he still hear her girlish cries. ‘Goodbye, Robert,’ and ‘Oh, what a lovely surprise,’ when he would give her a chocolate bar saved from his pocket money for break time as he left her at the school gate.
At twenty-nine, she was getting married.
He stared at the words ‘Robert Nordraak and Jane Beauchamp’ written on the same line. A couple, but not a couple. A pairing of convenience which had outlived its usefulness.
Thoughts ran through his febrile mind. He stared at his most recent birthday present from Jane, a framed black and white picture of the young Audrey Hepburn with a fringe of black hair above two large eyes, the merest hint of a nose, and half-smiling full lips. The face still fascinated and captivated him. Underneath the words read: ‘The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries, or the way she combs her hair. The beauty of a woman is seen in her eyes because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides. True beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It’s the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows and the beauty of a woman grows with passing years.’
Was this Jane’s subtle way of reminding him of her intriguing eyes – not black or white but a deep and intoxicating green – or of her Hepburnesque retroussé nose, delicate and attractive – or that, unlike the portrait, people are not frozen in time but change and age.