The foyer was dazzling, spotless. The marble plated walls and black granite columns set at intervals gave it a regal feel, like being in a palace. Martin Shields had been sat on one of the black leather chairs for over an hour, intermittently going over the questions he would be asked in his head, trying to picture the best way to answer each of his suspected questions. He tried to relax, to open his body and assume a power pose, but something inside him kept winching his limbs into his torso, constricting him from within into the weak frame of insecurity.
It was necessary, they told him, to arrive early for the appointments. Failure to attend in punctual fashion was not only to miss that slot, but to risk being unable to book another for weeks. Demand was high for the essential service they offered after all.
Without looking up the receptionist called his name. Her voice piercing the echoing silence made Martin jump a little, he concealed it by continuing his upward trajectory and standing. Already regretting the two cups of coffee he had downed that morning, Martin Shields walked down the length of the black, knee-high table and towards the large set of frosted glass doors. They swept open as he approached revealing a room about twice the size of the foyer in which he had been sat. The room was sparsely decorated, one abstract painting on the wall opposite the door. Underneath the painting sat a prim bald man at an oversized and immaculately kept desk. The man was reading something on his impossibly thin computer screen. He did not look up. Martin stood in the door, feeling rather sheepish. The bald man’s hawklike nose scented something and his eyes darted up to regard Martin in the doorway.
“Yes, h… hello, that’s me.”
The man paused for a second and stared at Martin.
“Sit down, then,” he said, flicking his eyes towards the low seat on the opposite side of the desk to himself.
Martin moved forwards, drawn to the seat by the man’s beady glare. The man looked as if he were made of knives under his suit, all angles and edges. Martin settled himself in the seat, his chin about level with the top of the desk.
“My name is Nigel Streckler,” the man said, hands pinned to the desk in front of him.
“Nice to meet you, Mr Streckler,” Martin lied.
Streckler’s eyes clicked back to the computer screen, Martin prepared himself.
“I have your information here, Mr Shields. I was hoping you might clarify one or two points for me.”
“You are here for a loan, yes?”
“You would like me to grant you a loan amounting to £80,000, yes?”
“That is correct, yes.”
“That’s rather a lot of money, isn’t it?”
Streckler leaned back in his chair, hands still fixed to the desk.
“On your form here, Mr Shields, it says you are unmarried, correct?”
“Why is that?”
The question took Martin by surprise and he cursed himself for his lack of preparation. He sat for a moment, dumbfounded.
“I suppose I just never met the right person,” he said eventually.
A puzzled expression crossed Streckler’s face.
“Yes,” he said, “no children then I assume?”
“No, none that I know of” Martin said, attempting a smile. Streckler stared at him, the confused expression hardening.
“This is a very large sum of money you ask for, Mr Shields. How do you intend to pay the company back? You are aware of the six percent APR we offer here, I assume.”
“I am, yes,” Martin started, finally a question he was ready for. “I’m an artist, you see. Mostly I work on commission pieces, though I also sell a few original pieces a year too, pieces I have painted because I have wanted to, not with specific guidelines.”
Confusion was written on Streckler’s face once more. Martin gathered himself.
“I am rather prolific,” he continued, “I’ve made somewhat of a name for myself over the years. You see there’s a little niche for my particular style, perhaps you would like to see?”
At that, Martin brought the A3 portfolio up to his lap and opened it up. Inside were photographs of each of his proudest pieces. He stood so Streckler would be able to see them and offered them across the desk. Streckler’s hands remained motionless. Instead Martin began to flick through the images, glancing up at Streckler’s cold features as he did so. Streckler showed little interest in the paintings. Sensing this, Martin lay the portfolio on the desk in front of Streckler, open on his favourite painting, one of a boy holding hands with his mother, faded, blues and greens.
“Interesting,” Streckler said, “so how do you intend to make £80,000 from these, Mr Shields?”
“Well, each of my paintings sells for about £1000. Over the last three years, I have averaged ten commissions and two original sales per year, certainly enough to get by for myself. If I am granted the loan, I would increase my work load by five paintings per year, those proceeds I would use to pay you back by about 2042, if my calculations are correct.”
“By which time you will be 71 years old?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“And you expect to remain just so prolific over the next 18 years, Mr Shields, as you are now? Age won’t slow you down, hey?”
“I love painting, Mr Streckler, it is all I do, my only true love. I know I can do it.”
“And how can you guarantee there will be 18 years worth of clients to buy your paintings, Mr Shields?”
Martin stopped, “I suppose I can’t.”
Streckler leaned back again, peeling his hands off the desk and pyramiding them in front of his face, propping up his beak with the middle fingers.
“You are aware that the likelihood of your treatment being successful is relatively low, Mr Shields?”
“I wouldn’t say it’s that low. My doctor has told me the survival rate is around 63% as long as treatment is started within the next few weeks.”
“And have you tried any other companies, Mr Shields?”
“Yes, a couple,” he said, unable to lie.
“And they denied you.”
“That’s the problem with these self-employed positions,” Streckler said, leaning back and failing at a look of pathos, “especially those based on whim and fancy such as yours, Mr Shields – they simply don’t offer any certainty of income.”
Martin felt a lump of anxiety form in his throat. He had seen the look spreading across Streckler’s face before. Five times to be exact, on five other faces, not completely dissimilar to this one. Streckler inhaled from within his finger pyramid, then released his fingers back to the desk.
“Mr Shields, at this time I am unable to grant you this loan. The company has strict guidelines on a number of variables, chances of survival and assurances of repayment not withstanding. You simply don’t meet our criteria, Mr Shields. Best of luck with your future endeavours.”
Martin felt the nail hammer into his coffin, felt the hangman’s noose around his neck. He had to fight, to do something.
“No, please, you have to approve me!” Martin started, tears forming in his eyes, “this is my last chance! It’ll be too late by the time I get another appointment!”
“Mr Shields, I am unable at this time to grant you this loan, you do not meet the criteria necessary for me to do so. You are welcome to reschedule an appointment with a different loan officer before you leave. You are also welcome to contest my decision. Ask Sam at the desk for a copy of form C-6-17, she will happily oblige you. Thank you for your interest, Mr Shields, best of luck with your future endeavours.”
Martin stood before the man. Streckler had turned back to the computer and was concentrating on whatever was on the screen again. He couldn’t believe it, a death sentence from this pencil pusher. How could he possibly raise the money necessary for his treatment? There was no way. He had already practically bankrupted himself paying for all the consultations and screenings up to this point, only to be told his only chance of survival was the treatment. The cheapest of its kind and still beyond his reach.
For a moment Shields contemplated violence against this sharp little bureaucrat sat before him, ignoring him now. He decided against it, what would be the point? Spend his last year in prison, waiting for trial like he had been waiting all day. At least he could paint. At least now he could go home and paint, no need for money, no point worrying. Go into the abyss like so many others before him, the uninsurable and the weak, the poor and the self-employed. At least he could paint. They couldn’t deny him that.
As he left the temple-like building, still clutching his life’s work, Martin Shields gave a thought to the others in his position, there were so many now. At least he would cause no grief in his passing, his parents were long dead and his friends would move on. He felt strangely free, no longer pinned down by the responsibility which had loomed over him since his diagnosis. It was out of his hands now. He would never again have to deal with the likes of Nigel Streckler, never again go crawling into a soulless place like that office and beg for his life to the face of a system that didn’t care. Martin Shields felt the cool afternoon air fill his ruined lungs, he relished it, and gazing at the sky turning pink with dusk, he had an idea for his next piece. Must hurry home to paint it.