There was nothing physically or mentally demanding about the task of picking up a mobile phone from the bedside table every morning. Lee’s waking ritual nonetheless remained a less enjoyable part of his daily routine. One corner of his brain constantly begged him to resist the habits of his time and avoid starting the day by beaming LED light into his irises from a distance of six inches before he’d seen any natural light.
Lee tried to get it over and done with as soon as possible. This meant tapping a couple of icons to check a news website, less out of genuine interest and more out of reassurance that he wasn’t in the dark about a horrible terror attack or sudden declaration of war. He no longer checked Facebook as it seemed to always have images of Natalia in some swanky joint with her new boyfriend.
Lee knew this day was going to be rubbish as soon as a ping had shook the phone and sent a flurry of words jumping down from the top of his screen.
Worse still, the name to the top left of the text flashed Tim/Meyson & Butler. Tim Morris! Having wasted the previous evening of his life taking this boorish middle-aged man out to a steak restaurant just because his insurance company was dragging their heels over a contract renewal, he had the cheek to write to Lee at 6:45 in the morning.
Lee squinted to read the text, puzzled at the unusual form it was sent in:
I love my hour of wind and light,
I love men’s faces and their eyes,
I love my spirit’s veering flight,
Like swallows under evening skies.
Sara Teasdale. No, means nothing to me, thought Lee as his tube train rattled clunkily, as if making a quiet and ineffective protest, away from Tooting station. Teesdale Logistics – he knew them alright, as they were the first client he had ever signed to the full system – he’d popped a bottle of champagne with colleagues as they took the train back from Durham. Sara Teasdale, an early 20th century poet though? Nope.
“Ribbit, ribbit!” Lee said as he chucked his unread free business paper onto his work keyboard.
“Ribbit,” mumbled the majority of the five other members of his team as they pounded their computer keys.
It was two years since Lee’s sales team, officially known as S102, were christened The Frogs by Malcolm, the company’s sales director. It was coined during a boozy speech at their summer get together. “Just when you think this hapless bunch have finally been crushed into an ugly mush underneath the shoe of a competitive marketplace, they find a way to bounce back like a slimy frog,” were Malcolm’s words – unusually positive for him. With the unspoken Führerprinzip reigning in the office, Malcolm’s questionable humour became unquestionably funny. Lee’s team itself had no alternative but to embrace the joke, painting their computers green and hanging giant paper tadpoles from the ceiling.
“Did you get lucky last night with Tim Morris?” asked a voice from behind a desk divider and screen.
“Christ, where do I start?” said Lee.
“With an answer maybe.”
“Oh for fu- What’s that now? Three weeks without a single sale in the team?”
“The fat so-and-so was playing hard to get. Even though I threw 100 quid on the corporate card just for his steak and three bottles of wine.”
A female somewhere to Lee’s left groaned.
“I know,” Lee continued, “he was totally sozzled by the end but still kept his cards close to his chest. Kept on saying their procurement department would have to give a go ahead for an extension and they have a backlog.”
“Sounds like complete bull.”
“Slimeball as well. He told me during the third bottle that when they first signed with us they had a better quote from ComGuard but he decided to go with us as when we threw a thing for potential clients there was a receptionist with the best knockers he’d ever seen. Julia, he said. I don’t think we’ve ever had a Julia working with us.”
“Yeah as if ComGuard would ever give a better quote than us,” said the female to the left.
Lee opened his emails and almost jumped straight out of his swivel chair.
Right at the top of the list was a brief message with a red exclamation mark next to it sent at 7:29 am. “Quick progress check in my office asap thanks,” was the ominous mixture of words.
“You’re late, frog face!” said Malcolm, his face buried in some papers as Lee walked into the door of his office.
“Well, not really,” said Lee quietly. “It’s 8:18 and we’re not supposed to start till 9.”
“Hum,” said Malcolm, tapping the huge fingers of his hairy hand on the desk. “Suppose. Suppose. Suppose.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Malcolm added, finally looking up to Lee and grinning with all the might as if he’d just finished a particularly successful sketch on Live at the Apollo with a hilarious joke. “And I suppose your job title is something like Junior Sales Executive?”
Lee nodded, even though his title was Deputy Sales Manager.
“And would I be at all correct to supposeeee,” he added, smirking as he stretched the word, “that your job is supposeeeed to involve actually selling actual damn stuff?”
Lee nodded again, reaching out behind him to feel the nob of the closed door for comfort.
“Excellent,” said Malcolm with a smile, “you’re a little cleverer than your reptilian appearance would indicate. Except you still haven’t registered a sale after your meeting with Tim Morris yesterday.”
Malcolm waved his hand angrily as Lee started to open his mouth.
“I don’t want to know. Make sure that sale is done by the end of today or don’t even think about showing your face in here tomorrow. Ciao!”
As soon as he was back in his desk, Lee brought up the mysterious message Tim Morris had sent this morning on his phone and tapped to call him. It went straight to his voicemail. After a few seconds of crackling, he heard a woman with a Chinese accent say:
When I am dead and over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Though you should lean above me broken-hearted,
I shall not care.
I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
When rain bends…
The recording then ended abruptly with the tone prompting the caller to leave their message. It sounded like the recital had overrun the 30 seconds limit for a voicemail message. Lee called again and got the same message.
If the text message had been puzzling, this was nothing short of bamboozling. Shaking his head, Lee typed the first line of the poem into a search engine. Sara Teasdale again. A melancholy poem which was wrongly believed for a long time to have been written as a suicide note.
“Has anyone heard of Sara Teasdale?” Lee asked his team.
“Is she the one on Love Island with the, well you know?” said Mike opposite.
Lee leant back and his chair and thought. He had two hypotheses, both of which were pretty bleak for him. Firstly, as an intoxicated mess, Tim Morris lost his phone last night, which has since been happily claimed by a Chinese poetry nut. Or as an alternative, as an intoxicated mess, Tim Morris arrived at his posh house in the home counties, argued with his wife, got the boot and somehow ended up immersed in poetry with what he presumed was a lover.
But what about his office? Panicking, Lee dragged a drawer open at his desk and went rummaging through his haphazard collection of business cards, looking for Tim Morris’s office number. Predictably it was one of the last he pulled out. Relieved but fearful, he dialled the number on his office phone.
It rang about 50 times in three different tones, which didn’t sound too good.
“Meyson and Butler good morning!” said a semi-enthusiastic female eventually.
“Hello, is Tim Morris there?” asked Lee.
“Erm, he’s not actually in the office at the moment. Actually, could I ask if you are a business contact of Tim’s?”
“Yes indeed,” said Lee.
“Right, well. Something a little unusual is happening. We’ve been receiving lots of faxes with a well, rather naughty photo of Tim underneath a poem. Really a lot of them, actually. Around 500 so far, all identical.”
Having tried Tim Morris’s mobile 20 times throughout the morning, Lee decided to hit the road. He’d taken a note of the poem burning churned out incessantly by the fax machine at Morris’s office. It was another Sara Teasdale piece, the Rose and the Bee, starting with:
If I were a bee and you were a rose,
Would you let me in when the gray wind blows?
Lee had printed out copies of the three poems Morris – or whoever he was with – had recited on his morning of mayhem. Laying them across his desk he had studied any possible hidden messages, thinking if this were an episode of Sherlock Holmes it would all be some puzzle to be resolved by circling various words. There were several references to nature, and bad weather, wind and rain, but that told Lee nothing. Last he had known it was a lovely sunny morning. He peered outside the office blinds and saw that was still the case. No, this man had lost his mind, Lee thought. The one man Lee had to track down more than any other in his life.
Lee’s mind raced to think where he could look for Morris as he trundled to the underground station. The man had spoken to him for three hours over dinner the previous night, but Lee couldn’t remember being told anything about any possible hobbies or his private life. Morris had given his opinion on the new European insurance industry regulations around 12 times, so one idea Lee had was going to Westminster to see if had started a one-man protest about excessive tier-two capital buffers or whatnot. Lee dodged between stagnant tourist groups in parliament square without seeing Morris. When he became aware a heavily armed policemen was staring at him, he decided to move on.
Chinatown would be his next place to check, Lee decided, seeing as the Chinese lady reciting the poem on Morris’s voicemail message was just about the only clue to go on. He got the directions on his phone and arrived under the colourful arch after a brisk 20 minute walk. It didn’t take long to confirm there were no pot-bellied men in suits here either. He stopped for breath and realised for the first time he had broken into a steady sweat.
Lee had an instinct to sit down and think before making his next move. He walked into the first restaurant he came across – which just happened to be a black door leading into the Dim Sum Palace. He found a small table by himself and buried himself in the menu. Flicking through the pages without taking anything in, the absurdity of the situation dawned on him for the first time. Sure, he had done a few silly things to sign up clients before, but nothing quite like a hopeless chase around London in a forlorn hope of bumping into someone likely to be in a confused or maniacal state of mind. Do I have any choice though? Lee thought, with his eyes resting on a picture of a poorly presented but tasty looking bowl of crispy beef. This whole job had been one big wild goose chase, with sales targets always hovering out of his grasp. He could walk away and right into another sales job, but he’d start on a lower rung of this particularly unpleasant ladder with the knowledge he’d walked before he was pushed hovering behind his neck.
A pretty waitress of oriental appearance in a black t-shirt and leggings was peering at him over the top of the menu with a concerned look on her face.
“Does the name Sara Teasdale mean anything to you?” Lee asked.
“Haven’t the foggiest,” she replied, pushing a fork and knife out onto his place.
By the time Lee had finished his meal and reviewed the restaurant on Trip Advisor, it was late afternoon. He tried Morris’s phone again from the restaurant, reluctant to leave the dim and sleepy environment for the bustle and chaos outside. The same message. It had sounded like a depressing poem at first but became more soothing every time he heard “I shall have peace. I shall not care.”
Lee reflected that he now had one option to keep his job. With no hope of locating Morris and extending his deal, he could go back to the office and dial through all the contacts on his file until he had made enough sales to cover what the company was hoping to make from Morris’s insurance firm. With the end of the working day drawing close, that felt too much like swimming against the tide – more like plunging head first into choppy water and expecting to be magically carried to a tropical island rather than getting tangled in seaweed or hit on the head by a sightseeing boat. The only alternative was giving up, which the more Lee thought about it, had few drawbacks at all.
Lee strolled around the streets in search of an underground station. He studied some of the blank faces rushing past him and smiled. It felt like the slowest he had walked in years. He had the funny feeling that even though he had lost this particular battle, he was now winning some wider fight he couldn’t quite conceive or express in full.
He was lost in thought until he suddenly found himself at Tottenham Court Road, and continued to think as he dropped in line at the back of a giant procession of soldier ants heading down the escalator. What would Sara Teasdale have to say about that? He realised if he didn’t have to go to work tomorrow, he could go to his local library and read some more of her work. Maybe even take the book out to the park. Except the last time he’d been at the library, the experience had been ruined by a guy in an anorak at his table reading bible passages out loud, and the last time he’d taken a book to the park, a homeless guy had tried to befriend him. Not that I have anything against Christians or the homeless, thought Lee as he tapped his Oyster Card, but –.
The packed tube train had only wound out of the station when it stopped. “Heavy delays likely due to an incident at our control centre,” said the driver, to a chorus of groans. Before it had started again, the driver announced “we have a message we have been asked to play to you.”
A couple of high-pitched sounds that could have been made by someone wrestling over a microphone were played. Then a flat voice that Lee instantly recognised read:
Heaven-invading hills are drowned
In wide moving waves of mist,
Phlox before my door are wound
In dripping wreaths of amethyst.
Ten feet away the solid earth
Changes into melting cloud,
There is a hush of pain and mirth,
No bird has heart to speak aloud.
Here in a world without a sky,
Without the ground, without the sea,
The one unchanging thing is I,
Myself remains to comfort me.
Passengers’ eyes darted around the carriage at hearing the unexpected poetry recital – mostly in the hope of meeting another pair of eyes and forming an unspoken agreement, with a smile or shrug of the shoulders, on how to react. When the poem was finished, there were a couple of seconds of high-pitched interference before the voice returned.
“Good afternoon everybody. Or as it’s half four, I suppose that should be good evening to anyone lucky enough to get off work that early. My name is Tim Morris and I head the purchasing department at a blue-chip insurance company. And that, quite frankly, is it. My life, all my waking energies for the past 29 years have gone into helping a company almost drowning in money to not spend too much of it. I’ve been like you, stuck on an underground train every day for decades, kidding myself that it’s all worth it as I have a comfortable way of life and a good pension scheme. A final salary one, and there aren’t many more of those left. But that’s not the point. The point is, that’s not truly living. Last night, I had a horrible meeting with an arrogant millennial who thought because he could throw in some marketing term in every sentence that he knew something about life; about people. All because he wanted money from my company. I sat on a Circle Line train late at night, planning to read a presentation of the latest version of his rubbish software, when I noticed a book discarded in the next seat. A poetry book. ‘I haven’t read any poetry in 30 years since I was at school’ I thought. And I read it. And it was amazing! A fantastic American poet called Sara Teasdale. A little bit gloomy maybe, but that’s alright for me as I always liked The Smiths. I decided to stay on the Circle Line all night as I’d missed my train, talking to ordinary people just like you. I felt like a new man. I met a lovely lady called Kim Su from Korea, who I’ve decided to leave my wife for. It was like I was born again. That’s why I had to tell you all today. Get out now! Run, hop, buzz away little bees – while you can!”
“Okay please drop the gun now, Mr Morris” said a fainter voice in the background.