Simon Carlyle couldn’t help worrying about Oscar Williams. In fact, he was losing sleep over the young man. He’d recruited him to the company in the first place and still felt responsible for his welfare. His concern deepened when he discovered that Oscar hadn’t responded to the letter inviting him to attend a disciplinary meeting set up by David Wheatley, the head of personnel. Of course, it wasn’t Simon’s responsibility to follow up the request that Oscar present himself, with a friend or legal representative, at a preliminary hearing into the case of office thefts. Indeed, Simon was fairly certain that he shouldn’t be contacting an employee who was suspended, pending an internal enquiry, especially as he would be called to give evidence against his colleague. But after four days had elapsed with no word from Oscar, he resolved to go round to his home after work.
He had to check Oscar’s personnel record to find his address as the two men had never socialised outside the office. Simon had taken care to maintain a professional distance and Oscar was rather in awe of his line manager. He’d been recruited as a graduate with three year’s experience to work in Simon Carlyle’s department, unaware that his athletic build, chiselled features and self-deprecating manner had recommended him to his prospective boss as much as his impressive academic qualifications and in-depth knowledge of the industry.
Simon remembered the boyish enthusiasm with which the new recruit had approached every project to which he’d been assigned. If that enthusiasm had recently appeared dampened and Oscar’s habitual energy and good humour had been less in evidence, then Simon found it entirely understandable in view of all the younger man had been through. But he was beginning to wonder, rather guiltily, if he’d really understood how much pressure Oscar had been under and whether, as his line manager, he could have offered greater understanding and support when the worst happened. He feared he might have come to an unquestioning acceptance of Oscar’s melancholy and missed the signs of genuine depression. After all, he reflected, you didn’t need to be a psychologist to know that the theft of objects which are neither desired nor needed can be a classic sign of disturbance and a thinly disguised cry for help.
If Oscar didn’t need any help he could always tell his boss to get lost and Simon was willing to accept the risk of rejection. He packed up unusually early in order to leave the office dead on five o’clock and fed Oscar’s postcode into his satnav. It took him to a narrow, suburban street filled with rows of Victorian terraced houses. Some were clearly in a state of disrepair but most were undergoing the regeneration to be expected in an area attracting the upwardly mobile. The number of parked cars made it difficult for him to find a space and he had to walk back to Oscar’s house, noting the unkempt appearance of the small front garden as he walked up the path to the front door. He had to ring the doorbell twice and also hammer on the old iron knocker before he sensed movement behind the stained glass panel. When the door opened a few inches he was shocked to see Oscar’s unshaven face, tousled hair and general air of dishevelment. Even more worrying was the look of incomprehension in Oscar’s eyes and Simon immediately abandoned the words of greeting which he’d been mentally rehearsing as he stood on the doorstep and instead took charge of the situation.
“I’m so glad you’re in, Oscar,” he said gently, whilst clearly signalling his intention to enter the house by taking a step forward. His confident manner had the intended effect and Oscar automatically moved back and opened the door wider. The reason for the young man’s failure to respond to the letter sent from work was immediately apparent as the bottom of the door snagged on a pile of unopened mail lying on the doormat. Simon stepped over all the envelopes and leaflets without comment and followed Oscar who ushered him into the small sitting room at the front of the house.
“Have you come to tell me I’ve got the sack?” Oscar asked at once with a mixture of belligerence and dread.
“No, no, of course not, Oscar. I told you that no decisions will made until after your disciplinary hearing. You’ve a right to hear the case against you and to make your own representations to the company. The outcome won’t be in my hands anyway.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure what would happen next.”
“I did tell you to expect a letter from work outlining the process. Don’t you remember?”
“Did you?” Oscar asked rather vacantly. “I must have forgotten.”
“Have you checked whether you’ve received a letter from work?” Simon asked in a neutral tone. He had no intention of appearing to censure Oscar for his failure to respond. He was beginning to suspect that his colleague was in no state to take responsibility for his own affairs.
“No. I haven’t got around yet to picking up the mail.”
“I expect you’ve had a lot on your mind, Oscar. Why don’t you grab all the stuff lying on your doormat and let me sort through it? I’ll recognise any letter from the company and it’ll save you having to go through all the junk mail. Go on. I promise I won’t open any of your letters.”
The words of encouragement stirred Oscar into action and he went out into the hall where Simon could hear him scrabbling around. After he returned with an armful of mail, which he tipped onto the sofa beside Simon, he appeared to remember the social niceties and offered to make a pot of tea. Simon accepted the offer at once, feeling that a shared cup of tea would open up an opportunity for further conversation and, with it, the prospect of learning more about Oscar’s state of mind. It was the work of minutes to identify the letter requiring a response from Oscar and then Simon set himself to make one pile of junk mail and another pile of the letters which seemed personal or official. He then had time to take a more thorough look around the room.
On the mantelpiece, on either side of the clock, there were photographs of Oscar and Marie on their wedding day and the room showed clear evidence of a woman’s touch, from the framed cross stitch embroideries on the wall, to the collection of china figurines on the shelves. Yet the room displayed every sign of neglect. The build-up of fluff and dirt on the carpet indicated that vacuuming was long overdue and the surfaces were covered in dust. Used mugs lay on the coffee table and a couple of ready meal containers had been abandoned on the floor beside Oscar’s armchair, their half-eaten contents cold and congealed. Magazines and newspapers, all long out-of-date, were strewn around the room and when Simon got up to put his hand on the radiator it was stone cold, which explained the pervasive chill. He sat down on the sofa again as soon as he heard Oscar walking down the passageway from the kitchen and when his host entered the room carrying the tea tray, he was busy aligning the piles of sorted mail.
“I’m afraid I haven’t got any biscuits,” Oscar explained as he poured the tea.
Simon suspected that there wasn’t much in the way of fresh foodstuffs in the kitchen. “That’s fine,” he said. “I’m gasping for a cup of tea but I try not to eat biscuits.”
“Milk and sugar?”
“Just milk, please. I think I’ve found your letter from work. Have a look when you’ve got your tea. I’ll help you write a reply if you like. I’m sure a brief email acknowledging receipt will be all that’s needed.”
Oscar looked anxious but finished pouring the tea before he sat down and took the proffered envelope. Then he scanned its contents with a furrowed brow. “It says here that a meeting’s been arranged for the fifteenth. When’s that? I’ve lost track of the days a bit.”
“It’s next Monday. I take it you’ll be able to attend.”
“Yes… yes of course. It says I can take a friend or a legal representative with me. What should I do about that?”
“Did you contact a solicitor as I suggested?”
“No. I didn’t know I needed to.”
“You don’t need to. You can ask anyone to accompany you. Do you belong to a union or a professional body? They will usually provide someone to advise you at a disciplinary hearing. And it’ll be a free service whereas your solicitor will charge by the minute.”
“I can’t afford to pay for a solicitor now I’m not working.”
“You’re suspended on full pay, Oscar. I told you that too. There’s no need to be worried about money. Not for the moment anyway. Is that why you’ve got no heating in here?”
Oscar flushed. “I’m sorry, Mr Carlyle. Are you cold? I’ll turn the central heating on. I didn’t think…”
Simon interrupted him. “I’m not cold; I’ve still got my coat on. But you’re in shirtsleeves; you must be frozen.”
Oscar didn’t reply but stood up once again and went into the passageway to turn on the heating. Simon heard the boiler spring into life and was soon relieved to notice an appreciable rise in temperature in the small property.
The warmth seemed to melt some of Oscar’s reserve and he began to ask questions about the nature of the forthcoming hearing. Eventually, raising his eyes rather shyly to meet Simon’s, he asked, “Will you accompany me to this hearing as my friend and advisor, Mr Carlyle?”
The question was not entirely a surprise to Simon but he still struggled to find the right words to frame his refusal. “I would if I could, Oscar, believe me, but I’m your line manager and the one who first investigated the thefts. There’d be a conflict of interest; I will almost certainly have to give evidence against you. I’m so sorry.”
“Oh, I didn’t realise. I just didn’t think. Of course you will. I’ll find someone else.”
“If you need a professional advisor, Oscar, I’ll help you find the right person.”
“Thank you, Mr Carlyle,” breathed Oscar with considerable relief. It was clear that, much as he’d been blocking out the reality of his situation, his boss’s visit had clarified matters in his mind and encouraged him to focus on the action he needed to take.
Simon spotted the change in Oscar as his mind began to engage with the problem. The vacant look disappeared from his eyes and even his movements appeared to speed up. Simon could see shades of the old Oscar returning and he pressed his advantage. “Look, Oscar, it may not be necessary to engage legal assistance for this hearing if you can give some sort of explanation of what you were doing. I’ve made a few discreet enquiries and everyone who reported the loss of their belongings seems to have got them back unused and undamaged. I can assure you there’s no appetite at work to pursue a criminal prosecution against you. The most that people seem to expect is that they receive compensation for actual losses sustained when they had to get new keys cut or buy replacement items.” Oscar was listening intently to Simon’s words and nodding occasionally to convey his understanding. Simon paused for breath and then spoke very gently. “Oscar, can you tell me why you took all those things? You must see how strange we all find it that they belonged only to our female colleagues and were things for which you had no need.”
For a moment Simon thought Oscar wasn’t going to answer his question and he wondered whether the young man had found it too intrusive. But Oscar’s furrowed brow indicated that he was giving the question serious thought and his faraway gaze suggested that he’d almost forgotten Simon’s presence. When he finally began to speak it was with a certain air of discovery, as though his own motives were as much a surprise to him as they were to Simon. “I thought Marie would like them, you see,” he said, without any sense of the contradiction implicit in his explanation. “I didn’t have the money to buy her nice presents, not when she stopped working and I had to pay for full time nursing care. But she always liked pretty things and I thought if I could give them to her it would make up for the rest… for the things I couldn’t…”
Oscar’s voice broke and Simon interrupted him quietly and with infinite compassion to clarify one remaining issue. “You took all these things after Marie died, though, didn’t you, Oscar?”
“Yes, I suppose so. It doesn’t make sense, I know. I couldn’t give them to her. That’s why I left them in my locker. It was just when I saw things I knew she’d like, or might need, I couldn’t help taking them for her. It made me feel less guilty.”
“You have nothing to feel guilty for, Oscar,” said Simon with all the conviction he could muster. “You gave Marie the best care you possibly could. Surely you know that it wasn’t your fault that her cancer couldn’t be cured.”
“But if she hadn’t got cancer I wouldn’t have stayed with her. I couldn’t go on as I was. Don’t you see? I’m guilty because I stayed to look after her. But it was all a sham. Right from the start. It was all a sham.”
Then the tears came and, after a moment’s hesitation, Simon reached a comforting arm around his colleague’s shoulder and Oscar responded by turning into his embrace in an instinctive search for reassurance and comfort.