Matthew Harrison | The portfolio

That summer we had a glimpse of infinity, Cathy and I. Being young we soon forgot what happened, and carried on with our lives. But as the years passed, I recalled that summer and thought about it more and more. The implications of the deal we struck then are coming home to me now.

When I first saw the guy in Cathy’s restaurant, he didn’t look like much. He was talking to Cathy, but she was a waitress in between her studies and she talked to everyone. It wasn’t that I was jealous—the guy was short and stout and balding, and his suit was like from my parents’ time. But he was talking to Cathy earnestly over a little restaurant table, and there was something about it that stuck in my mind.

I was still thinking about the guy when Cathy finished her shift and came over to me. I’d been waiting for her in the restaurant as usual.

Cathy was smiling as she came up. Then seeing my face she stopped smiling. “What’s up with you, Sean?”

“Me?  I’m fine,” I said, and talked about my class. I was in my third year of a math major. Cathy was in her first year, so I had the advantage of experience.

I walked Cathy home. She was leaning on my arm and it was a warm summer’s evening with bright Venus above and the first stars peeping. There was time for a kiss before she went up to her dorm, or even more.

Then the image of the guy came back to me, and I asked who he was.

Cathy stiffened at once. “What guy?”

I knew I’d lost her for the night, so what the heck? “The guy you were talking to,” I said. “Real close, it seemed.”

It was half dark, but I could have sworn she blushed. “Sean Cartwright, you’re shameless, you are. I can’t have a conversation without you spying!”

“Depends what the conversation’s about,” I said.

But Cathy left me without another word and shut the dorm door with a bang. I waited long enough to hear the complaints of the other girls, then walked off alone.   Overhead, Venus’s brightness mocked my own misfortune in love.

It took a couple of rounds of presents and a lot of patient listening. But in a day or two I won Cathy back.

“I was just trying to protect you,” I said once it was safe to raise the topic again. “There’re a lot of men trying to take advantage of young girls…”

“Mr. Penn isn’t like that—” Cathy started to say.

“…And a lot of tricksters too,” I went on. I told her how my mate Greg had been tricked into signing for a stereo he didn’t want, and had to move in with me to escape. “Promise you’ll show me before you sign anything,” I said.

Cathy promised, although she still didn’t tell me what it was about.

But Cathy is a good girl, and the very next day she came round to my flat and told me she’d met this Mr. Penn again. She liked his proposal, but had asked to take the contract home to study it, and the guy was okay with that.

“You shouldn’t have met him without me there,” I said.

“I’m not a child, Sean. And anyway, nothing’s binding till it’s signed.”

I couldn’t argue with that. So I asked to see the agreement.

Cathy produced it. The thing was headed, “Insurance agreement between Cathy Mansfield and Stetler Ltd.,” and it was in quite large print over two sides of a single sheet. I glanced through, but it seemed like standard legal stuff to me.

“Well, what do you think?” Cathy asked.

I’m not a lawyer. But I was on the spot now. Luckily, I’d just bought insurance on my car, and I tried to remember what the contract was like. There were a lot of exclusions and warranties and things, as far as I could recall. But Cathy’s contract didn’t have anything like that. And it was pretty short, too.

“What are you insuring?” I asked, belatedly.

Cathy hesitated. Then in a quiet voice she said, “My life.”
I looked up, surprised. “What do you want to do that for? You aren’t supporting anyone.”

“He said you get paid more if you’re younger.”

I didn’t understand. “You mean, if you—if you were to die young?”

“No, silly! You get paid more to sign the contract.”

That confused me even more. Surely, the insurer didn’t pay you. You paid the insurer—like on my car. I tried to explain insurance to Cathy. A lot of people paid a small premium, and the one or two who had the bad luck got a big payout. The insurance company pooled the risk and, if it had done the math right, left itself with a profit. Simple stats, once you had the mortality figures.

But Cathy insisted she would get money upfront. She pointed to the contract.

I looked again. And indeed there was Clause 5, which read,

“…upon signing the contract, the insured will be paid a sum, ranging from US$2 to US$10 depending on age, in consideration of the rights he/she has forfeited in the insured event.”

“Now just a minute,” I said, “That looks wrong. You are supposed to get rights from the contract, a right to a payout.  It’s not about forfeiting rights.”

Cathy looked at me as if I was slow that day—which I suppose I was. “I don’t want the right to accidental death, okay? So I agree to forfeit that right. They pay me now—and if the insured event comes along, they take it over.”

“Take over your death!” I exclaimed. “How on earth could they do that?”

“Isn’t that what all insurance companies do?”

“No it isn’t!” I almost shouted. “They pay out if you die, that’s how it works.”

Cathy turned pale. Then after a moment she said quietly, “What use is a payout if I’m already dead?

“Anyway,” she continued, “I didn’t really want to talk about it. You’re so insensitive, Sean. But I’m sure that’s how it’s supposed to work.”

I didn’t think it was supposed to work like that at all. But I was already in trouble with her. And it was so strange that I wasn’t sure of anything anymore.

I read the contract again. It did say that Stetler would take over the insured event. Cathy was right. But how was that possible?



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