Yesterday by close of play, as I was trying to make sense of bits and pieces of information even at that time of day still being thrown at me in a Teams meeting with seven other participants, one of my smartphones signaled receipt of a text message in what looked like a group chat. “You guys wanna go for a boat ride ? Boards back of Hilton!” I had no idea whose chat I had been included in, intentionally or by mistake, or which of the three or so Hilton hotels that I knew of was being referenced. I immediately lost all interest in the Teams meeting and thumbed on the smartphone in question “Sure, what time?” No sooner had I pressed the send button than another text came in: “Hey guys, don’t you think it’d be nice to ask Ding to tag along?” Before anyone could respond “Not the tightwad with the screwed up face!!! (three puke faces), I texted: “Already got the invite. Happy to.” Departure was in less than an hour from that point in time. I started backing out from the Teams meeting saying one of the cats had spasms, then, reading the faces on the screen, that both cats had spasms (“Must be food poisoning!”). Then I just clicked the Leave button. I went to the bathroom to do up my hair and make the best of my damaged face, changed from blouse and pencil skirt, that I had been wearing for no reason but to feel corporate even in virtual meetings, into a breezy yet body-con summer dress, asked in the chat for an address my satnav could work with, and raced off to the venue.
The boat was a nicely refurbished diesel-fueled wide-beam barge, perfect for navigating the canals of a certain town in the country of my exile. My arrival completed a company of five men and a woman. Three of the men and the woman were partners of a small corporate litigation boutique. The two other men were bigshots at a corporate client of the boutique. One of them owned the boat and was at the helm. He also commanded the music system from his smartphone. I had meanwhile recollected that some three months ago I had offered legal expert services to the boutique in support of litigation they were in the process of preparing on behalf of the client. This had occasioned the invite. Due to a certain pandemic we had thus far never met in real life and I had all but forgotten about the services I had offered. Providing expert legal advice to law firms is the kind of work that I do as a sidekick to my work for the tech company whose board I’m in. My contract says I’m not allowed to, a prohibition which I admit to myself is the more compelling in this particular instance, the litigation being against a client of the company. But if I smell an opportunity to make some extra cash, you bet I’m on it. One can reach that point in life.
The boat ride was enjoyable. The evening was warm. The atmosphere all around was calm. Set. The music mellow. We had wine, which we drank from plastic cups. I don’t like wine, but the idea of having it on a boat appealed to me, and I downed four cups one shortly after the other. I was light-headed for a while but soon recovered. Many other boats were out on the water. We moored at a restaurant on the waterfront, locally known as The Gilbert. We were served preordered sushi on deck and restocked on wine. The helmsman then took us back in the direction of the Hilton, but, following general acclaim of his suggestion to the effect, we detoured to navigate the inner canals of the city. We commented on the houses and apartments we chugged by. At least one of us knew the architect or the value or the owner, or that the interior had been recently redone, or that it had seen a tragic death such as a suicide, or that it would be on the market soon, etc.
The day had darkened and unobtrusive lights, mounted on the brick structures of the low bridges that we passed underneath, had turned on. The laidback boatman had notched up the music to an ambient techno and we started swaying slowly and soundlessly, like ghosts, in the vein of dancing. We moored at another Gilbert (debating in our woozy condition whether, if there were two Gilberts, there might not also be a George around the bend), where we took in another two bottles of wine. The men had started talking about a thing they knew nothing about. Although I knew everything about the particular issue, I declined to join the conversation because I wasn’t attracted to any of them and the issue was extremely boring anyway. I sat down with the only other woman on board. She’s an acclaimed litigator and a professor at law. We talked about our lives and our children. In subdued voices we exchanged very personal information. I lied discretionarily and without restraint about my own life. She told me she was divorced two years ago and that she had completely given up on her oldest son who, following the divorce, had dropped out of the school system, did drugs, drank too much and, at the age of twenty, had been convicted of several felonies already. She was quite short, her body was shapeless. She looked prematurely aged. At the video call months ago, where we had discussed the case and my services, I had just seen her pretty, digitally enhanced face.
Streets of London by Ralph McTell was playing on the music system as we approached the jetty where we had boarded. We alighted. We parted. The boatman steered the barge back to open water in the direction of where I supposed it would be docked. The woman was still on it. It was completely dark now. There was no music. She sat erect and motionless.