Stars The Insurance Policy
THE doorbell rang just as Mike Harding was tucking into his bacon and eggs. His fork hovered inches from his mouth as he pondered the law of cause and effect. Why was it that something always happened to prevent him from eating his breakfast while it was still warm? He waited. From upstairs, a voice came. 'Will you get it darling? I'm dressing the children.' The fork hovered for a few more seconds, then clattered on to the plate. Mike opened the kitchen door and looked down the corridor, Through the porch window, he could see a middle aged woman with an over-sized handbag. Not the Jehovah's Witnesses again!

'Before you say anything, there's something I think you ought to know,' said Mike as he launched into a confession of atheism he had repeated so many times it was word perfect.

Before he had the chance to continue, a pleasant voice cut him short. 'I think there is something you ought to know, Mr Harding. I represent the New Age Insurance Company. I have come out here today especially to see you. I have some information to give you of vital importance to you and your family.'

At the word 'vital', the woman's voice seemed to purr. It suggested the intimacy of a friend you had known for years, a person who could be trusted with your life. She was striding through the door before Mike had even realized that he had said, 'Come in.'

'Actually, we're already insured with the Prudential,' Mike was saying as his visitor perched down on the edge of the sofa. She smiled indulgently. 'I promise you, this is different.' She began to take brochures out of her handbag and was spreading them on the seat beside her. 'We'll look at these in a minute, but first I want you to see this.' She took a cassette out of the handbag and marched over to the video recorder.

The first shot showed a suburban street. 'This is the story of Stephen Franks, but it could have been you,' a man's voice began. The camera approached a front door, which seemed to open by itself. In the hall, a woman was handing a briefcase to her husband. A boy and a girl were playing. 'Stephen Franks works at the Accounts Department of a famous London store,' the commentary continued, 'but that morning, he never reached his office.' The scene changed to a high street jammed with cars and buses. In the centre, there was an ambulance with lights flashing. A short distance away, a sprawled figure lay face down in the road. 'Stephen Franks was hit by a number 33 bus. He was dead on arrival at hospital.'

Mike was beginning to think that this was all in very bad taste. Then he did a double take. The next scene showed the very same man being handed his briefcase by the very same woman. This time, they were both grinning broadly. The boy and girl turned round to wave at the camera. 'Yes, believe it or not, as a result of a secret process exclusive to the New Age Insurance Company, we were able to restore Stephen Franks, as good as new. What's more, he only lost three days' work. Our representatives are now touring selected areas. This is an offer you can't refuse!

The video drew to a close. The camera left the suburban street and began to climb higher and higher into the air, to the strains of the hymn 'Jerusalem'. As the final chord faded, the company logo appeared in the clouds, in red letters surrounded by a halo of gold.

'I know what you're going to say,' said the woman before Mike had the chance to protest. 'You're thinking that you can't possibly afford our service. Of course, it isn't cheap. But as a special offer, we will provide full cover for your death or serious injury free of charge for three months. During that time, we will introduce you to other clients many of whom would not have been here but for us. All you have to do is come in for a check up once a month. What do you say?'

Mike couldn't think of anything to say. He was dumbfounded. Did the woman seriously expect him to believe all that stuff? But why should anyone go to the trouble of perpetrating such an elaborate hoax? He didn't want to know. His wife was coming down any minute now. He wasn't going to have the sales pitch repeated for her benefit. Once she started asking questions, they'd be here all morning! All he could think of doing was getting rid of the saleswoman as quickly as possible.

'All right. Sign me up for three months. But don't bother about the introductions. I'm too busy.'

Four weeks later, Mike's wife was handing him his briefcase. Samantha and Trudy were playing in the front room. 'Have a good day at the office, dear.' Mike's wife removed a tiny flake of egg from the corner of his mouth. He opened the door and walked down the drive, turning briefly to wave. Then he climbed into his Ford Granada and drove off.

More than a dozen vehicles were involved in the pile-up. A lorry had jack-knifed at high speed in the middle of the Westway. Mike's car lay on its roof, the front end cleanly sliced off. Several fires had started. A woman was screaming. In the distance, a single siren wailed. Mike lay in the road. He was not in any pain, but he felt very cold. Next to him, he could see a chunk of twisted metal, streaked with blood. Then he realized it was not a piece of metal. It was his leg. Mercifully, he lost consciousness.

'Mr Michael Harding' awoke to find himself in a hospital bed. The last thing he remembered was going into the office of the New Age Insurance Company for his first so-called 'check-up'. He'd expected to see a doctor, or at least to be asked questions about his health. Instead, he was made to stand in a cubicle for five minutes while bright lights flashed all around him. Funny, he had no memory of stepping out of the cubicle...

A nurse came by. 'Your wife is here to see you. You're very lucky. Only a few cuts and bruises, nothing to worry about.' Mike Harding's wife Nicky approached the bed, nervously at first, them embraced her husband in a flood of tears.

'Don't worry about me, I feel fine,' he said. 'But I wish someone would tell me how I got here.'

Mike awoke to find himself lying on the floor in a darkened room. He clutched at his leg. The stump was warm and sticky. He cried out, 'Help! Help me please!' Then, in a weaker voice, 'Where am I?' But there was no answer. In the gloom, he could make out an assortment of electronic equipment: computer keyboards stacked untidily on top of one another, circuit panels with wires dangling, a couple of VDU's on their sides in one corner. In another corner was a pile of cardboard boxes, a broom and some crumpled overalls. He took a deep breath and called again. Still there was no answer. Finally, a key turned and the door opened, flooding the room with light. A young lad in jeans sauntered in, munching a sandwich.

'What do you want? Can't you see I'm busy?' 'M-my leg,' Mike stammered. 'Oh, I shouldn't worry yourself about that. We'll be disposing of you soon. Just keep the noise down, eh?'

More time passed. Mike drifted in and out of consciousness. The door opened again. It was the woman who had visited his house a month earlier. Mike struggled against a leaden weight that seemed to press him to the floor. He could barely focus his eyes. 'What are you doing here? Why are they doing this to me?'

'We're not doing anything to you,' came the familiar purring voice. 'Right now, you're on your way home with your wife.'

'But I'm not with my wife, I'm here!', Mike pleaded. The woman crouched down next to him and took hold of his hand. 'Now listen to me carefully.' There was no urgency in her voice. She seemed to be rehearsing a routine she had been through many times. 'You remember your check-up, don't you? While you were in the cubicle we were taking a total body scan and storing it on tape. The information can be used whenever it's needed to build a perfect replica. Now, who would you prefer your wife to have as a husband? Who is going to be better at providing for her? Here, this will cheer you up.' At the far end of the room, a TV set flickered into life. On the screen, the new Michael Harding and his wife were smiling at the camera, while Trudy and Samantha waved.

'Congratulations! You've been chosen for our next video!'

On the coffee table. in front of the imitation log fire, the bottle of champagne was almost empty. Samantha and Trudy were sound asleep. 'Darling,' Nicky said to her husband, 'You know it's our anniversary next week.'

'How could I forget? I've already bought you your present. I'm going to book a table at your favourite restaurant, La Caravaggio.' Then he added, teasingly, 'Unless of course you've got a prior engagement!' Nicky snuggled up close. Her husband had such a good memory.

'Stars' © Ruth Klempner 1999

'The Insurance Policy' © Geoffrey Klempner 1995