The first chapter of my as yet tragically unpublished first novel.
Nobody watching Mr Thomas Robilliard at eight o’clock that Tuesday morning would have noticed anything wrong.
The May sun was bright, in an impossible sky, as it had been each day for a week, and the early magnolias were already exploding into blossom. Today was not a day for anything wrong.
Routine was your friend, Robilliard liked to say.
His walk to work had brought him to Joe’s place, as it did at two minutes to eight every morning.
There was the pavement blackboard, with its smiley faces and in-jokes. There was Joe, busying himself behind the counter. And there were the cheerfully tatty red tables, carefully arranged in their usual places beneath the awning.
Precisely none of which was occupied by a genial man with a ginger ponytail, whiskers and a crossword, who never ventured more than a mile from home.
Robilliard liked his quiet, orderly life. He liked it very much. He lived in what he earnestly believed to be the best house in England. It was a terrace town house with eggshell-blue stucco and black cast iron balconies that faced the sea and the Isle of Wight. Its four storeys gave him far more space than he needed. He used to say that he could manage perfectly well with half of it, so long as it was top half, and smile at his own joke.
“Good place to come home to, eh?” the estate agent had said, three years ago.
Portsmouth had been Robilliard’s home for the first fourteen years of his life. Then his father left the Navy and joined the Foreign Office, and Robilliard’s teenage years became a mess of foreign postings and boarding schools.
A few years before he died, his father’s work brought him to Gosport, the other side of Portsmouth Harbour, and his parents moved back. By then, Thomas Robilliard had joined and left the Royal Marines, and was working in Africa.
“Yes,” Robilliard had replied. “It’s a good place to come home to.”
Most evenings, he would stand on his top floor balcony, glass of wine in hand, and look out to sea, watching the seagulls swooping and diving. He would watch the sun set into the harbour, and he would watch the container ships, oil tankers and car carriers hurrying west with the tide to Southampton.
Sometimes the northern hills of the Isle of Wight were a watercolour, shapes behind a summer haze, and sometimes they were so bright and sharp and close that he could identify individual houses.
He would count off the three great gateway forts of the Solent: Spit Sand Fort, No Man’s Land Fort, Horse Sand Fort.
When Robilliard allowed his gaze to wander left, to the east, he saw ships at anchor, waiting for the tide to turn, so they could continue their journeys; and beyond them, beyond the Isle of Wight, the open water of the English Channel. It could take a respectable man in his early forties, with a sensible job, anywhere in the world, if he chose.
Desirable family residence, four beds, panoramic sea views, early viewing recommended. Available when the tide turns.
Yes, Thomas Robilliard liked his life and its orderly routines.
He liked his house. He liked his job. He liked his walk to work, via Joe’s place, nineteen minutes the quick way, or twenty-nine along the seafront, because why wouldn’t you?
And he liked his daily crossword with Mr Jonathan Pietersen, the gregarious loner with the ponytail, and the whiskers, and the kind word for everyone.
Pietersen was a short, stout, genial man of fifty-six, with rampant ginger hair and a cheerful, ruddy complexion. He had lived and worked in the same house his whole life, and had never, to anyone’s knowledge, ventured farther from it than his daily one mile walk to Joe’s, because he had everything he needed right here.
He lived alone, and that’s how he meant to keep it. Every so often, some kindly Cupid would mention the name of a single lady who might accept a drinks invitation. “You never know till you try! What have you got to lose?”
“Ha!” Pietersen would reply. “You married blokes just can’t bear to see someone happy!”
He would ask her to join him for coffee one morning instead, and they would become firm friends.
“You know everyone,” Robilliard would say, as someone else walked off, smiling, having made their good mornings.
Pietersen would raise two thick, greying ginger eyebrows, and gaze heavenward for assistance in considering this interesting proposition. And then he would return, his eyes lit in triumph, and reply: “More know Tom Fool than Tom Fool knows!”
Or, with a stage wink, “They have to be nice: I keep their books of account. Ha!”
And occasionally, when he was in that mood: “I have many acquaintances.”
Robilliard enjoyed Pietersen’s companionship, and his astonishing depth of knowledge on particular subjects, most of them of no use or interest to anyone except Pietersen. He enjoyed their crosswords too, but in truth he was at a disadvantage to Pietersen, whose peculiar brain had selected, among other things, the Guardian crossword for permanent filing, to be recalled in perfect detail on demand.
Pietersen sat at that tatty red table outside Joe’s place every morning without fail, with his coffee and his Camels and his crossword, and paid his rent in cash on the last working day of every month, because he really was not sure about those computers.
Which Robilliard knew, because Mr Pietersen was a long-standing tenant of a long-standing client of Simmonds Chartered Surveyors, Auctioneers & Estate Agents, whose politely fading paintwork announced it as the longest-standing such firm in Southsea.
General Manager one Thomas Robilliard, who really had the run of the place these days, what with old Simmonds pretty much retired.
Today there was no coffee and no crossword, because there was no Pietersen, so Robilliard arrived at the office early.
He said good morning to the early birds, and, without pausing to take his coat off, he tried calling Pietersen’s number. Pietersen only had one phone, a landline. He disapproved of mobile phones. “People are too hasty these days,” he said.
No answer, no answering machine.
Sarah walked in. Sarah was Robilliard’s assistant. She had joined Simmonds soon after leaving school, and twelve years later, now aged thirty-one, she saw no reason to move. Mr Simmonds had been a good boss, and Thomas Robilliard was – well, he was Tom, wasn’t he?
Sarah was wearing the camel coat she’d bought last week in honour of the new season. It was a knee length wrap affair, with what seemed to Robilliard to be an unnecessarily long belt, although they did not see eye-to-eye on this point. She liked to tie it in a a different knot each day.
“Good morning Tom! You’re early! Or am I late?” No one could remember Sarah James being late for anything.
Robilliard motioned her upstairs with his eyes, and she followed him up.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
“Pietersen was not at Joe’s place this morning.” Robilliard sat down at his desk and Sarah filled the kettle.
“Has he ever missed a day before?” she said.
“Not that I know of.”
“Do you think it’s something to do with what he said last week?”
Robilliard did not answer.
“Are you worried?” said Sarah.
Sarah made them both tea. Robilliard swung round in his chair and gazed through the front window into the distance.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
Sarah put Robilliard’s mug on his desk, and the familiar scent of her perfume, Coco Mademoiselle, aroused him from his thoughts.
She was wearing her pearls today, and a black, fitted polo-neck with her favourite black pencil skirt. Her shoulder-length blonde hair was tucked behind her ears for greater efficiency.
“I’ll give him a ring,” she said.
Her blue eyes met his, and they sipped their tea together in a companionable, thoughtful silence. He noticed a handwritten envelope on his desk, and opened it. It was a third birthday card from Sarah: three years to the day since he joined the firm.
“You remembered!” he said.
Yes, Sarah James remembered.
She remembered old Simmonds’s goodfellow bonhomie as he ushered Mr Thomas Robilliard – our new broom! – through the door one Monday morning, and introduced him to the smiling, courteously expectant staff, and led him up the wrought iron spiral staircase to his desk, Simmonds’s old desk, a proud father showing his son his first bicycle.
She remembered Robilliard’s physical size, that first morning: no, his presence, that was it, for he was of not much more than average height, perhaps five eleven on a good day, and, though slim and (she decided) athletic, of no more than average build beneath his well-cut dark grey suit and soft, pale pink-and-blue-check shirt.
Yet his arrival seemed to her to change the very air, as if Robilliard himself were responsible for April becoming May, and had personally summoned the sun to break through the clouds that morning, banishing the weekend’s drizzle; and as if someone had thrown a window open to admit the fresh, gentle breeze that had newly sprung up.
She remembered his hands: strong, dexterous hands made for work, made for action. He had drawn an elegant blue fountain pen from his inside jacket pocket, but it seemed too small and delicate: surely he would snap it in two. But no, he signed papers and wrote his first memos to her as if all this was quite normal. His handwriting, she noticed, was fluid and precise.
She had caught herself thinking, later that morning: he’s the kind of man who could look after you, but who wouldn’t wait for a handwritten invitation.
She remembered his eyes, startling blue, as if they were not properly part of his face but had been added later, as an upgrade, and how they seemed not to look at things, but to absorb them.
She remembered how her instinct told her that if she looked at Robilliard directly, she would turn to stone, or possibly water, or something in between. So for the first few days, to be on the safe side, she looked at her hands instead, or sometimes the file she was carrying, or the floor.
Every year after that, as April became May, and spring approached summer, she looked at Robilliard with fresh astonishment, as she had that first day, and wondered how long a man like that could allow himself to be anchored in a place like this.
She remembered the closed-door telephone calls that old Simmonds had made in the weeks beforehand, and how his voice, muffled though it was by the glass, was no longer that of the gentle provincial surveyor, but of an earlier Simmonds, clipped, calm, military: Simmonds the infantry colonel, with a creditable but unaccountably vague career behind him.
Simmonds was a good boss: experienced, kind; decisive when needed. But he was old enough that he no longer fought retirement. Robilliard was his new broom, he kept on saying to anyone who would listen.
“I’m nearly seventy, for Christ’s sake, and you lot have worn me out. It’s time for a new broom, someone to run the place when I keel over.”
Three years on, Sarah still marvelled at how clean the new broom had swept. Without fuss or fanfare, Robilliard saved the old and ailing firm. There was no bold strategy, no dramatic restructuring: routine was your friend, he used to say. His quiet revolution was fought with an encouraging smile here, an amused, kindly observation there. Behind the unruffled calm, always that joyful, nearly-contained energy, betrayed by the blazing blue eyes that banished the drizzle one Monday morning in May, when he entered her life.