The Return Journey
Ward Wood Publishing, 2011
I hadn’t expected it to be so cold – even in April. For some reason, I remembered that Ireland was surrounded by the Gulf Stream, which accounted largely for its moderate climate. A strange thought to have, standing with the Atlantic Ocean up to my chest. Strange to have any thoughts at all under the circumstances. My jeans stuck to my legs like iron casts. I could sense the blood running from my calves, my toes already growing numb in my hiking boots. I could hardly breathe.
Did I intend to keep walking? I wasn’t sure anymore. This was one thing I can say for certain that I hadn’t reflected upon. I just found myself in the sea. It was only when I felt that sharp shock of the cold water, like a brace tightening about my body, that I realised it was a moment of choice. The moment of choice you could say: to walk backwards to the shore, or forwards into the grey, heaving mass of the ocean.
I worked for the life insurance division of a respected bank in Zurich. I had taken up my position two days after receiving my degree in Business and Economics from the University of Bern. It was a good job with a good salary. I cannot say I was happy, but since I did not know what happiness was, I hadn’t realised I was unhappy yet. In university I had few friends. I went to lectures and left afterwards. I bought all the textbooks so that I would not have to go to the library. I sat my exams. I passed my exams. If anyone from my class had bumped into me on the street or in a café, I doubt that they could even have recalled my name. I most certainly wouldn’t have remembered theirs.
In any case, happiness wasn’t my goal in life. I came to think of people as essentially unpredictable and unreliable. And what, in the end, had we to say to each other? Where do you work now? Oh, very good. Are you married? Oh, that must be wonderful. Any children?
I’m not saying this wasn’t difficult for me. All those awkward moments when I couldn’t find the correct words appropriate to a situation. It was difficult certainly. Sometimes I felt as though the trick to life – if it could be found – was to learn, somehow, to breathe under water.
In the bank I was finally in my element. I did my job and took some pleasure from it. I was efficient and well respected. At least I had thought so every time I received a small increase in my salary and a step up to the next grade. I should point out there were many and I was a great distance from the top. But then, I was no longer at the bottom either. At the end of every day my in-tray was empty, and I took some satisfaction in that achievement. My accounts always balanced, and I’d been trusted with relatively important customers within six months of starting. After four years, my workload and responsibilities had increased incrementally and, at times, so had the pressure.
One Friday afternoon, just after lunch, the lumbering form of my supervisor François approached my desk. (He preferred me to use the term boss but I never did.) This was unusual. François was a man who only left his desk if he needed to use the bathroom or attend a meeting with his boss, Silka. (He preferred the term line-manager.) Rather than make the short walk to my office, if something needed to be discussed, he would phone me and summon me to his slightly bigger office – no matter how trivial the issue.
‘Hermann, we appear to have a problem,’ he said gravely, as he stood by my desk. He made every minor matter into a grave problem.
‘Yes?’ I replied absently.
He paused for effect, and looked at me like a disappointed father – a role he most certainly did not fulfil in my case, or in anyone else’s for that matter.
‘It’s the Herr Dessinger account.’
‘Yes… I have dealt with the matter. Some weeks ago I believe. Let me check my – ’
‘Well, yes. That’s the problem. You have dealt with the matter. It is, in fact, a very serious issue – and a very difficult and sensitive one for the bank. I should say, for me also – given that you are under my supervision.’
‘In what way serious?’ I asked, beginning to believe him for once.
Although the office was occupied only by me (this had been part of my most recent change of status) he leaned down close, as though he was afraid we might be overheard.
‘You have paid the wrong dividend.’ He said it in French.
‘Oh!’ I said, taken aback. This was indeed serious. ‘Well, we can pay the surplus in some way. Without making our error apparent. There must be some procedural… Has it become legal yet?’
‘No. There is no surplus to be actuated,’ he said in a whisper. ‘You have overpaid on the policy by a significant figure. I will need, of course, to call a meeting immediately with Frau Libnovsky.’
The way he referred to Silka as ‘Frau Libnovsky’ in my company irked me. And what irritated me further was that he insisted I do likewise. Even Frau Libnovsky herself felt uncomfortable with François’s somewhat outmoded formality.
He then placed a page on my desk as though it were my final notice.
I looked down slowly at the document. I studied the figures for a moment, my eyes drawn down to a number highlighted in green. (Another of François’s vanities was to use all possible office stationery.) It was very serious indeed. The amount was slightly greater than three times my salary for the current year.
François hovered above me for a moment, walked to the door, then turned.
‘The meeting with Frau Libnovsky will take place in the conference room on Monday at 2pm sharp. I’ll see what I can do for you,’ he added, as though he meant it.
He disappeared. I looked down at the page again. This was bad, very bad. To underpay a policy was an embarrassment for the department, but to overpay was a direct loss for the bank. One simply couldn’t ask a customer (particularly a recipient of a policy such as Frau Dessinger) to repay part of their dividend. She was, one would imagine, still in mourning for the death of her husband, though this was not generally considered to be the case inside the office. In short, it would reflect very poorly on us and, with a customer of this kind, it was simply not even considered. To add insult to injury, I could see that François was immensely satisfied by my error.
I hardly slept that night or the following one. On Sunday, I stayed in my apartment when it was my habit to go the café for lunch and read the weekend papers. I couldn’t understand how I had made such a mistake, particularly with an account of such importance. The claim had been processed some months back, and I was struggling to remember the specific decisions made regarding the matter. It had been a very busy period. Even so, I had been careless. And, worse still, my carelessness had been noted.
On Monday morning, I lay in bed staring at the wall, more tired than I had been when I went to sleep the night before. The exhaustion had accumulated with each agitated night’s sleep, and by now I could hardly think straight. I struggled to the bathroom. I studied my face in the small, oval mirror and noticed that the tiredness showed. I knew François would notice it also. I had not shaved all weekend and a thick, black stubble had formed about my jaw. I filled the washbasin with warm water and applied shaving foam to my face.
And just then, perhaps because of my fatigue, I had a moment of clarity. I had given Frau Dessinger the correct payment. François had calculated the figure using the guidelines for the previous financial quarter. Herr Dessinger’s claim had matured (a beautiful euphemism I thought) on the first day of the current quarter. Yes. I remembered now. The technocrats in the central bank had introduced an index-related incentive for life insurance policies in an attempt to encourage first time employees to enter the market – which was partly why it had been so busy that week. In their haste they had neglected to specify that this change should apply only to new customers and, as a result, the people most likely to benefit were the clients with large policies. Clients such as Herr Dessinger. Or, should I say, his wife. (It is one of the great ironies of life insurance that the person who holds the policy is the only person never to benefit from it directly.) How could I have not remembered earlier? François had thrown me off balance. A smile formed on my lips, made slightly ridiculous by the white of the shaving foam.
He was wrong. I was right.
It was a strange sensation. I can only call it a sense of triumph, though I thought at that moment it was the same as happiness. I looked forward to catching his eye in the lobby, or in the lift, or as I passed the open door of his office. I would say nothing. I would let François call me to the meeting scheduled with Silka to discuss the matter that afternoon. I would point out his error there.
It couldn’t be better. François spent all his time trying to impress Silka, though she would clearly never find a man such as François attractive. (Or me for that matter, but I, at least, had the intelligence to recognise the fact.) Yes, it was perfect. I would even use a green highlighter pen to draw attention to the calculation in question. When he looked in the mirror as he shaved that slightly puffy face of his the following morning, he too would see tiredness in his eyes. I was feeling immensely giddy at the prospect.