As they stepped up to the door, Haywood saw that Ronson had a small toothpaste stain on his lapel. 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. 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 hair.
‘Good morning.’ Haywood flashed a smile and issued the standard greeting. ‘Angie Lawrence? Just one moment of your time.’
They followed her into the living room; beige furnishings, a scented candle on the mantelpiece, lifestyle magazines on the teak coffee table.
‘I thought you people usually worked solo.’ She didn't offer them tea. Haywood respected that. He hated it when a recipient pretended they were paying some kind of social call.
‘Well, you have to start somewhere, don't you?’ Haywood said. ‘It's the first day on the job for young Ronson here.’ Ronson jumped to attention at the sound of his name. ‘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 looked over his 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. 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. ‘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 has fallen in love with his business partner, Mr Jim Osterberg. Mr Lawrence has decided that the best solution would be for he and you to 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?’ This signaled the end of the interaction. Haywood was aware of the respect and awe in Ronson’s gaze.
Ms Lawrence 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 was…I mean, I thought it might be...’ She left the words hanging in the air.
‘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.
‘Not always,’ said Haywood. He was disappointed–Ronson had done well in the house, hadn't tried to comfort the recipient the way so many rookie couriers did. But now he fidgeted with his clipboard, his eyes downcast.
There was a silence, and then Ronson said, ‘Why do they call us Ripplemen?’
All the new recruits asked this. Ronson had held out longer than most. For a long time now, Haywood thought it should be addressed directly by Head Office in initial training. Of course, he would never voice this opinion.
‘I think the accepted reasoning behind it is that we manage the ripple effect. Our existence allows people to contain the emotional fallout from misfortune.’ He tapped twice on the steering wheel; an old habit. He knew this was not quite a satisfactory answer. Ronson looked out the window. ‘I know it's thought to be a somewhat pejorative term. But personally, I like it. I like to think it means that we keep everything calm, that we smooth out the ripples.’
They lapsed into quiet again.
‘It's important, you know,’ Haywood said after a time. ‘We have the conversations which need to be had. It's an important service.’
Ronson looked down at his clipboard for the next address.
As evening drew near, Haywood was in a good mood. 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.
His good mood made him uncharacteristically impulsive. He decided to go off-book.
‘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 Street.’
Haywood took his eyes off the road for only an instant. ‘What?’
Ronson repeated the address. ‘Why, is there something wrong…?’
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 from 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. ‘No, thank you.’ He set his eyes on the road ahead.