Olivia couldn't take it anymore. The weight of her mistake was too heavy to bear. She had lost £50 million of their client's money and her career was over. She walked through the streets in a daze, trying to make sense of what had happened. Her mind was a chaotic mess, and panic gripped her tightly. She couldn't bring herself to confess her mistake to Arnold, her partner, and colleague.
But the mistake was not entirely hers. Olivia had cooperated with others in a project, and she had been framed. Someone had put the misplaced file on her desk, and she had unknowingly signed off on the transaction. But it was too late now; the damage had been done, and she had lost everything.
Olivia was in a state of depression, and she doubted herself. She had always been a meticulous and careful lawyer, but one mistake had ruined her career. As she walked aimlessly, her phone kept ringing, but she ignored it. She needed time to think and sort out her feelings.
Finally, Olivia found herself at Paddington Station, and she went inside to get some water. Her phone vibrated again, and she saw that she had fifteen missed calls from Gabe, her friend and colleague. She hesitated before pressing 1 to listen to his message.
"Olivia! Where are you? We're all waiting with the champagne to make the big partnership announcement!" Gabe sounded cheery, but Olivia couldn't bear to talk to him right now. She needed to be alone with her thoughts and figure out how to move forward.
Partnership. I want to burst into tears. But … I can’t. This mistake is too big for tears. I thrust my phone in my pocket and get to my feet again. I begin to walk faster and faster, weaving through the pedestrians. My head is pounding and I have no idea where I’m going.
I walk for what seems like hours, my head in a daze, my feet moving blindly. The sun is beating down, and the pavements are dusty, and after a while my head starts to throb. At some point my mobile starts to vibrate again, but I ignore it.
At last, when my legs are starting to ache, I slow down and come to a halt. My mouth is dry; I’m totally dehydrated. I need some water. I look up, trying to get my bearings. Somehow I seem to have reached Paddington Station, of all places.
Numbly, I turn my steps toward the entrance and walk inside. The place is noisy and crowded with travelers. The fluo-rescent lights and air-conditioning and the blaring announcements make me flinch. As I’m making my way to a kiosk selling bottled water, my mobile vibrates again. I pull it out and look at the display. I have fifteen missed calls and another message from Gabe. He left it about twenty minutes ago.
I hesitate, my heart beating with nerves, then press 1 to listen to it.
“Jesus Christ, Olivia, what happened?”
He doesn’t sound cheery anymore, he sounds totally stressed. I feel prickles of dread all over my body.
“We know,” he’s saying. “OK? We know about Third Union Bank. Charles Conway called up. Then Ketterman found the paperwork on your desk. You have to come back to the office. Now. Call me back.”
He rings off but I don’t move. I’m paralyzed with fright.
They know. They all know.
The black spots are dancing in front of my eyes again. Nausea is rising up inside me. The entire staff of Carter Spink knows I messed up. People will be calling each other. E-mailing the news in horrified glee. Did you hear …
As I’m standing there, something catches the corner of my eye. A familiar face is just visible through the crowd. I turn my head and squint at the man, trying to place him—then feel a fresh jolt of horror.
It’s Greg Parker, one of the senior partners. He’s been in the States, I remember. He’ll have just got in on the Heathrow Express. Now he’s striding along the concourse in his expensive suit, holding his mobile phone. His brows are knitted together and he looks concerned.
“So where is she?” His voice travels across the concourse.
Panic hits me like a lightning bolt. I have to get out of his line of vision. I have to hide. Now. I edge behind a vast woman in a beige mac and try to cower down so I’m hidden. But she keeps wandering about, and I keep having to shuffle along with her.
“Did you want something?” She suddenly turns.
“No!” I say, flustered. “I’m … er …”
“Well, leave me alone!” She scowls and stalks off toward Costa Coffee. I’m totally exposed in the middle of the concourse. Greg Parker is about fifty yards away, still talking on his mobile phone.
If I move, he’ll see me. If I stay still … he’ll see me.
Suddenly the electronic Departures display board renews itself with fresh train information. A crowd of waiting travelers grab their bags and newspapers and head toward platform 9.
Without thinking twice, I join the throng, hidden in their midst as we sweep through the open barriers and onto the train. It pulls out of the station and I sink into a seat, opposite a family all wearing London Zoo T-shirts. They smile at me—and somehow I manage to smile back.
“Refreshments?” A wizened man pushing a trolley appears in the carriage and beams at me. “Hot and cold sandwiches, teas and coffees, soft drinks, alcoholic beverages?”
“The last, please.” I try not to sound too desperate. “A double. Of … anything.”
No one comes to check my ticket. No one bothers me. The train seems to be some sort of express. Suburbs turn into fields, and the train is still rattling along. I’ve drunk three small bottles of gin, mixed with orange juice, tomato juice, and a chocolate yogurt drink. The chunk of icy fright in my stomach has thawed and I feel weirdly distanced from everything around me.
I have made the biggest mistake of my career. I will have lost my job. I will never be a partner.
One stupid mistake.
The London Zoo family have opened packets of crisps and offered me one and invited me to join in their game of Travel Scrabble. The mother even asked me if I was traveling for business or fun?
I couldn’t bring myself to answer.
My heart rate has gradually subsided, but I have a bad, throbbing headache. I’m sitting with a hand over one eye, trying to block out the light.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” The conductor is crackling over the loudspeaker. “Unfortunately … rail works … alternative transport …”
I can’t follow what he’s saying. I don’t even know where I’m headed. I’ll just wait for the next stop, get out of the train, and take it from there.
“That’s not how you spell raisin,” London Zoo mother is saying to one of the children, when the train suddenly starts to slow down. I look up to see that we’re pulling into a station. Lower Ebury. People are gathering up their bags and getting off.
Like an automaton I get up too. I follow the London Zoo family off the train and out of a tiny, twee country station. There’s a pub called The Bell across the road, which bends round in both directions, and I can glimpse fields in the distance. There’s a coach waiting, and all the passengers from the train are boarding.
London Zoo mother has turned round and is gesturing at me. “You need to come this way,” she says helpfully. “If you want the bus to Gloucester?”
The thought of getting on a coach makes me want to heave. I don’t want the bus to anywhere. I just want an aspirin. My head feels like it’s about to split open.
“Er … no, thanks. I’m fine here.” Before she can say anything else, I start walking down the road.
I have no idea where I am. None.
Inside my pocket, my phone suddenly vibrates. It’s Gabe. Again. This must be the thirtieth time he’s rung. And every time he’s left a message telling me to call him back, asking if I’ve got his e-mails.
I haven’t got any of his e-mails. I was so freaked out, I left my BlackBerry on my desk. My phone is all I have. It vibrates again and I stare at it for a few moments. I can’t ignore him forever. My stomach clenched with nerves, I lift it to my ear and press talk.
“Hi.” My voice is scratchy. “It’s … it’s me.”
“Olivia?” His incredulous voice blasts down the line. “Is that you? Where are you?”