Lying in bed that night Simon Carlyle couldn’t help recalling with pleasure the moment when Oscar’s fingers had clutched blindly at his shirt front and he’d held the younger man close as hot tears fell on his shoulder. Guiltily, he examined his conscience but concluded, in all honesty, that it was the utter trust Oscar had shown him at that moment which so affected him and not any trace of a carnal response. Indeed, it wasn’t possible to focus on his long standing attraction to Oscar Williams when his overwhelming emotion was one of pity and compassion. He still didn’t fully understand the reasons why Oscar had felt compelled to take things which didn’t belong to him, but the young man clearly wasn’t acting out of greed or malice. It seemed that the death of his wife had disturbed his mind in some way and he wasn’t behaving rationally when he embarked on his campaign of theft.
Once Oscar had started to cry, it seemed that grief had utterly overwhelmed him and Simon could only offer the comfort of strong arms and gentle words of reassurance until his tears had finally ceased. Then it was a case of getting him to calm down, wash his face and ready himself for bed. There was no question of returning to the earlier conversation and getting Oscar to explain what he meant about his relationship with his dying wife being a sham. Simon suspected that Oscar wouldn’t have been able to put it into words anyway. He was still too deeply distressed over the death of the woman who, it was rumoured, had been his childhood sweetheart and Simon understood that a sense of guilt was an entirely normal response in the circumstances.
In Oscar’s case, this misplaced sense of guilt had led him to act in a way which was entirely out of character but which any court of law would regard as a mitigating circumstance. More importantly, Simon was certain the company would not wish to pursue punitive action against an employee whose behaviour was the result of psychological disturbance. Rather, it was incumbent on them to provide the help he so clearly needed. Simon had come to that conclusion as he calmed and reassured Oscar but he hadn’t wanted to raise his colleague’s hopes by voicing his thoughts. Instead, he’d waited until Oscar was in the bathroom and then opened the laptop which lay on the table, finding that it sprang at once to life and was not password protected. Despite a fleeting qualm about the propriety of his actions, he’d opened Oscar’s email and drafted a brief reply to the letter from the company.
When Oscar re-entered the room, wearing his pyjamas and looking rather sheepish, Simon had been able to direct his attention very briskly to the email he’d just created. It seemed that Oscar found nothing amiss with his boss commandeering the laptop, rather he appeared grateful that a suitable reply had been drafted for his approval. Nonetheless, he took somewhat longer to study it than might have been expected, given that he made no changes and finally pressed send without passing any comment.
Simon had made a point of not standing over Oscar as he gazed at the screen and instead busied himself with collecting the tea cups, and some of the stray mugs, to stack on the tray. He had no difficulty understanding that Oscar felt acutely embarrassed by his earlier loss of control and was finding it difficult to meet his boss’s eye. He was glad that he’d been able to provide the young man with a distraction and if Oscar was using the time in front of his laptop to recover his self possession, rather than make an informed judgement about the email which was to be sent in his name, Simon felt that was hardly a cause for concern. His final act before departure was to see Oscar up the stairs on his way to bed, visibly more composed and at ease. He left the house with a promise that he would be in touch again the following day.
A plan was already forming in his mind as he drove home and, lying in bed, he resolved to speak to the managing director first thing the following morning. Simon didn’t believe it would be possible to get the disciplinary hearing cancelled but he was sure he could persuade management to conduct the meeting in a sympathetic manner designed to establish the facts, provide adequate reparation for Oscar’s victims and arrange counselling for him. Above all, Simon was anxious to secure Oscar’s job, fearing that dismissal would lead to a downward spiral into depression.
He’d been shocked by the deterioration in Oscar’s mental state which had occurred during the few days he’d already spent at home. There’d been no sign of the young man’s usual buoyancy and alertness when Simon first arrived at the house although, on reflection, he suspected Oscar had become adept at putting on an act at work which he was unable to sustain in his own home. Simon concluded that the thefts were merely a symptom of a more serious underlying problem which, as Oscar’s line manager, he had a responsibility to investigate and sort out. He thrust to the back of his mind a nagging suspicion that he was motivated more by personal inclination than high minded duty and turned his thoughts to ways in which he might assist his subordinate. He was coming to the conclusion that he really should accede to Oscar’s request and accompany him to the hearing. He was still mulling over the difficulty of acting as a witness for the prosecution, whilst attempting to serve as the defendant’s advisor and supporter, when he fell asleep.
Yet the problem resolved itself remarkably quickly when he spoke to the managing director the following morning. He’d found it easy to get an appointment when he made clear that he had additional information to impart about Oscar Williams. It seemed that the thefts had been discussed at a board meeting and management was anxious to avoid the publicity which would inevitably attend upon a court case. In addition, it appeared there was considerable sympathy for the promising young graduate whose personal misfortune had led to uncharacteristic behaviour. According to the personnel department, even Oscar’s victims were prepared to forgive and forget if they were recompensed for their immediate losses. Simon’s observations about Oscar’s mental state and his opinion that the young man’s most pressing need was for professional counselling fell upon a sympathetic ear.
The managing director assured him that the forthcoming meeting would concentrate on establishing the facts of the case and planning the best way forward for all concerned. It would not be referred to as a disciplinary hearing and would not be conducted in an adversarial manner. He was even prepared to allow Simon to act as Oscar’s supporter at the meeting, so long as it was clearly understood that Simon might have to make a short statement about his discovery of the stolen objects. Simon was able to confirm that the arrangement would present no problem as Oscar didn’t intend to contest the facts or deny responsibility.
All things considered, the meeting with the managing director went better than Simon could possibly have hoped. What had appeared to be a life changing crisis for Oscar Williams now looked as though it could be dealt with in a manner which would enable him to retain his job and the respect of his colleagues. When Simon got back to his desk he could barely contain his elation and had to suppress the urge to phone Oscar at once and tell him the good news. He had to remind himself that the situation was still fluid and he couldn’t afford to raise false hopes in Oscar’s mind. It would be better, he decided, to explain face to face that evening what the managing director had said. Nonetheless, he found he was looking forward to seeing Oscar and feeling rather triumphant at the concessions he’d managed to extract from the company.
It came, therefore, as a blow to his pride, as well as a profound disappointment, to get a distinctly frosty reception when he called round at Oscar’s house again after work. This time the young man was expecting him and had clearly dressed for the occasion. He was wearing the suit and tie he usually wore for work and, when he ushered his boss into the small front room, it was immediately obvious that he’d spent the day engaged in a major spring clean. The carpet had been vacuumed, the surfaces cleared and dusted and a tea tray had been prepared and set out on the occasional table.
“May I offer you a cup of tea, Mr Carlyle?” Oscar enquired formally.
Simon put the formality down to embarrassment. He thought Oscar must be remembering his emotional outburst of the previous evening and be feeling uncomfortable in the presence of his boss who now knew more about him than was comfortable. “That would be very welcome, Oscar,” he responded with a smile but Oscar merely gestured to him to take a seat on the sofa and went immediately into the kitchen to brew the tea.
He must already have boiled the kettle in readiness for the visit because he was back in no time carrying an earthenware teapot and a sponge cake on a china plate. “I hope you’ll have a slice of cake this evening, sir. I apologise for my lack of hospitality last night.”
“Call me Simon; we’re not in the office now. And please don’t apologise for last night. You had every reason to be upset and I’m just glad I was able to be here and offer you some support.”
Despite the friendliness of Simon’s tone, Oscar didn’t respond. He poured the tea, took a knife to the cake and eventually enquired again, “Would you like a slice of cake, Mr Carlyle?”
Simon stifled his rising irritation. Despite his sympathy for Oscar’s plight, he couldn’t help thinking that the young man was being deliberately provoking. “Yes, please, Oscar. It looks very nice,” he replied evenly.
“I didn’t make it, you know. I had to go out and buy it.”
“Thank you. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.” Simon detected a slight frown from Oscar. Clearly the young man had been trying to make him feel uncomfortable and was irked that his complaint had elicited only words of thanks. Simon determined to show him that lack of cooperation would achieve nothing. “I hope you’re going to have a piece too,” he continued calmly. “We’ve got something to celebrate. I think I’ve secured quite a concession from the company and your situation at work is now looking much better.”
Oscar ducked his head and concentrated on transferring two slices of cake onto the small plates he’d laid out on the tea tray. He didn’t quite know how to respond to his boss who appeared not to appreciate how angry and confused he was feeling. And he didn’t want to betray the extent to which his heart had leapt with hope that his job might yet be secure. By the time he’d sorted out cake forks and paper napkins, he’d had time to compose his features into an expression of polite disinterest and he raised his eyes enquiringly to Simon’s.
The look he encountered in return froze him to the core. Despite Mr Carlyle’s friendly and reassuring manner, he was still the boss Oscar knew from work, the boss who seemed to have an uncanny ability to know what he was thinking and who didn’t take kindly to discourtesy. Oscar forced himself to relax and sit back in his armchair. He focussed on cutting his slice of cake into smaller and smaller pieces in order to avoid his boss’s penetrating stare but his attempt to assume a nonchalant pose was undermined by the blush creeping up his cheeks.
Simon saw the telltale sign of discomfiture with some satisfaction. He understood precisely how Oscar was feeling: on the one hand ready to bite him and, on the other, desperate to hear how he was going to be saved. Simon knew that he was being subjected to a campaign of sullenness more suited to a teenager than a grown man but he wasn’t going to utter one word of censure, not when Oscar was still so confused and vulnerable. It was enough that he could convey, just by a look, that he knew precisely what was going on and that he was standing for it no longer. It seemed Oscar had no difficulty in interpreting that simple, non verbal message and Simon immediately followed up his advantage.
“If you’re ready to listen now,” he said quietly, “I’ll tell you what was agreed with the managing director this morning.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Oscar sincerely, all trace of earlier glibness ruthlessly suppressed.
This time Simon saw no reason to dissuade him from using the formal mode of address. If he was going to act as Oscar’s advisor during the forthcoming hearing he needed to be assured of the young man’s cooperation. There was no room for hostility born of embarrassment or shame. It was clear that Oscar responded instinctively to a display of authority and Simon was fully prepared to use his natural air of command to elicit obedience. He was under no illusions about the intensity of his own response to Oscar’s instant submission but he had the self discipline to control his urges and relegate to the realm of fantasy his desire to master the captivating yet maddening young man.