As they stepped up to the door, Haywood saw that Ronson had a small toothpaste stain on his lapel.
“Good thing I noticed,” he said. When he reached into his pocket to find a tissue, his fingers skimmed the hard velvet box and he let out an involuntary smile.
“Thank you, Sir.” Ronson spat on the tissue and rubbed at the stain.
He was one of the newest recruits, and was eager to please. In Haywood's view the job was better-performed by those with at least some life experience, but who was he to question the decisions of Head Office?
“Presentation is very important,” Haywood said. Ronson nodded his agreement.
Music was playing inside the house. “Although I wasn't there, he said I was his friend...” Haywood could not place the song, but Lexi would know it. He made a mental note to ask her about it at dinner. But before or after he asked the other question – the most important question? Before, definitely before.
The door was opened by a neatly-dressed woman with a helmet of shiny blonde hair.
“Good morning,” Haywood flashed a smile and issued the standard greeting. “Angie Lawrence, is it? Just one moment of your time.”
The woman looked nervous but stepped back from the door. They followed her into the living room; lots of beige furnishings, expensive and comfortable. A scented candle burning on the mantlepiece. Lifestyle magazines on the teak coffee table.
“I thought you people usually worked solo.”
“Well, you have to learn somewhere, don't you?” Haywood said. “It's the first day on the job for young Ronson here. You don't mind that he sits in?”
Ms Lawrence studied her hands as though she could stop them trembling through force of will. “Well, I know who you are.”
“That's a great start,” Haywood said. “Makes our job a lot easier.” He could see Ronson taking notes with his eyes. His attention to detail did him credit. He said, “As Ms Lawrence is familiar with our purpose, perhaps you would like to give the opening address?”
Ronson opened his clipboard and looked over the notes.
“Hello. We are tidings couriers – or, in common parlance, Ripplemen.” Ms Lawrence's mouth drooped open and she gazed up at him, silent and still. Faced with this reaction, Ronson looked to Haywood, who gave an encouraging nod. “We are independent contractors hired to deliver news in a sensitive and nonpartisan manner.”
“Yes, yes.” She had snapped out of her inertia and sounded impatient. “But why are you here?”
Haywood stepped in: this was the delicate part. He was careful to do a textbook delivery so Ronson could watch and learn. He recited the script from memory. “I have some bad news. Your husband, Mr David Robert, would like you to know that he has fallen in love with his business partner, Mr Jim Osterberg. Mr Robert wants a divorce. He's terribly sorry about all this and expresses his sincere condolences.”
Ms Lawrence's manicured hands clawed at her face for a moment, then dropped to her lap.
“Is there someone you would like us to call?”
She shook her head, her eyes unfocussed. “You know what?” she said, almost to herself. “I'm relieved. My son is fighting in the war. I thought it might be something like that.”
“Oh no, Madam,” said Haywood, his smile still in play. “The army has its own team of tidings couriers. It's easy to tell us apart when you know how – they wear uniform, we wear suits.”
“Is it always like that?” Ronson looked pale as they got back into the car.
“Not always,” said Haywood. He was disappointed – Ronson had done well in the house, remained still, with an expression of detached empathy. He hadn't tried to comfort the recipient, the way so many rookie couriers did. But his reaction now, the regret in his voice, the way he fidgeted with his clipboard, suggested that he was not going to be a great Rippleman after all.
“It's important, you know,” he said after a time. “We have the conversations which need to be had. It's an important service.”
Ronson nodded and looked down at his clipboard for the next address.
As evening drew near, they had crossed almost all of the day's recipients off their list. Haywood was in a good mood, ready to go home. It was Thursday - pizza night - but tonight was going to be different. He slipped his hand back into his pocket and held the velvet box in his palm. Tonight was going to be very different.
“Why don't you do the last one?” he said to Ronson. “You've earned it.”
“Oh, wow. I mean. If you really think I'm ready …?”
He smiled. “Why not? Where to?”
Ronson flicked over his clipboard. “148 Finchley Road.”
Haywood took his eyes off the road for only an instant. “What?”
Ronson repeated the address. “Why, is something the matter..?”
Haywood pulled over. “Give me that.” He snatched the clipboard off Ronson. “I don't understand.” His vision began to cave in around the sides. His name was at the top of the paper. His address was printed neatly on the cover sheet. Please, no...
But Ronson took it off him.
“You said I could do this one. Sir.” He did not sound petulant, but firm. Like a true Rippleman. Businesslike, he flicked over the cover sheet and read aloud from the script. “Lexi Roeg would like you to know that she no longer wishes to pursue a relationship with you. She's terribly sorry about all this and expresses her sincere condolences.”
Haywood felt like he was drowning. He clawed at his face. The words were so impersonal, so heartless. How could she do this, with no explanation?
“Mr Haywood? Would you like me to call someone?”
With shaking hands, Haywood removed his tie.