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Nick Dowty sat huddled alone in the empty office surrounded by ghosts. The clamour of unanswered phones bombarded his brain like shrapnel bouncing off a tin roof. Below him the factory lay silent, no angry whine of machines tearing steel, no familiar judder from gantry cranes shifting ten tonne blocks of solid metal onto the machining centres. It was eleven o’ clock on a bright Tuesday morning in the middle of January but it felt like he’d been there all day. Time moves slowly – inexorably slowly – on death row. This was the seventeenth year he had ruled over his tiny empire from the comfort of his familiar leather swivel chair. He stared out with unseeing eyes over the snow-covered golf course. The bank manager was due at any moment. Nick had spent the whole of the previous week trying to make sense of the December management accounts. Despite his best efforts he’d totally failed to construct a plausible escape plan from his company’s precipitous plunge into losses. They were in deep trouble and for the first time since he’d started the business all those years before he hadn’t been able to conjure up another plausible strategy to keep the business alive. The last strategic review they had conducted with the help of highly paid consultants had been implemented only two years previously. That solution – to lower prices and diversify away from their overdependence on one customer hadn’t worked. Now the situation was even worse. The scale of the losses was such…their debts were so great… Things were so bad it was hard to think straight any more. All that was left was to throw himself upon the mercy of the bank. He closed his eyes. He was desperately tired but sleep was impossible. There was no escape from the nightmare he was living. From down below in reception he could hear the angry buzz from the steady stream of creditors demanding to be paid. Lorna was doing her best to placate them but he knew there was no cash to pay them. It was just a matter of time before they breached the company’s flimsy defences. Any minute now the electricity could be cut off and the building would grind to a halt. Eventually even the phones would fall silent. Starved of cash, the oxygen of business, the company was rapidly dying. The bank was his last chance, he had nowhere else to turn. He knew that this meeting was going to be the stage for the most important performance of his life. If the bank manager swallowed the flimsy story he was about to spin, his thin tale of distant hope and uncertain redemption, they still had a chance. He closed his eyes and tried to shut out the noise of those bloody phones. They didn’t
have a job on their books, he’d fired half his staff, there was nothing more to be done, and yet still it was bedlam in here. Starting a business was like going to war, he thought to himself. Easy to start but almost impossible to stop. The creditors were the enemy, like religious fanatics they never gave up. The phones were like gunfire, a nonstop bombardment, assaulting your senses, driving you mad. Nick would give anything for five minutes peace and quiet. He was still slumped in his chair when Alan Tait, the senior business director from the bank, walked into the room, smiling self-consciously, his right hand extended in apparent friendship. Nick had dealt with him ever since he had founded the business. Over the years they had become professional friends. “No chance of a game today,” Alan Tait said, nodding at the view through the picture window as he deftly avoided direct eye contact. Nick stood up and grasped the familiar limp, damp hand, suppressing a shudder as he did so. It was the kind of grip you would expect an undertaker, or maybe a priest here to administer the last rites, to have. “Not in this weather, Alan.” “Sit down, Nick. You don’t have to stand on ceremony with me.” Nick lowered himself back into his leather reclining chair and stared up at the bank manager as he stood over by the window surveying the view he was about to repossess. It was the first time anyone had ever told Nick what to do in his own office, his own little kingdom. Suddenly, everything had changed. “Still, the forecast is good,” continued the bank manager, smiling pleasantly, “The snow might have gone by tomorrow. Something to look forward to.” Nick was looking forward to the future with as much pleasurable anticipation as he did when he leaned back in the dentist’s chair. “Maybe I’ll get a round in at the weekend. If I get time.” Alan Tait smiled sympathetically. “You look like you could do with a break.” “Yeah. This business grinds you down all right. Firefighting the whole bloody time. I feel like I’ve been doing it all my life.”
“It’s been a tough year.” “You’re not wrong there.” Nick waited. He knew from innumerable similar meetings over the years that they would quickly reach the limit of their ritual small talk. What happened next was what counted. Although he was in a tight corner he had done his best to prepare for the fight, drawing on all his experience to marshal his depleted defences. He knew he could offer some genuine reasons for the grim numbers. Orders cancelled at the last minute. Cost overruns due to the increase in the price of steel. More work being switched to India and China by cost-conscious multi-national oil companies. Despite the recent gloomy trading performance he had rehearsed his tale of an exciting future a thousand times in his head. Another new strategy. Even lower prices and higher volumes. More emphasis on marketing. Additional investment in new, cleverer machines. He sighed. The scenario was depressingly similar to many others he had recited over the years. Years when he had struggled to build up the company from nothing, to turn his dreams into reality. He sometimes thought that it had only been his dogged faith in the future which had kept the company alive for so long. Alan Tait opened his briefcase and took out a buff-coloured folder. “I’ve studied your management accounts for December, Nick. As you rightly say in your commentary they’re pretty bad. Disastrous in fact. No cause for any optimism at all.” “It’s the Chinese, Alan. There’s no way we can compete with their prices. We’ve tried to fight back by cutting overheads. It’s not enough. We need more investment. I’ve made the case in my Business Plan. Smart manufacturing is the only way we can compete against foreign labour costs.” Alan Tait shook his head slowly. “You’re way too highly geared as it is, Nick. You don’t see an upturn here in the North Sea?” “They’re spending more but it’s all being made abroad.” Alan Tait nodded. “It’s the story of British manufacturing.” “I should have seen it coming.”
” . The bank has already given you time to sort things out but you’re still overstretched.” “Whatever. Nick.” “No.” “You wonder where it’s all going to end.” “Yeah. The bank can’t let it go on. Everyone’s hurting. This was the moment he had been dreading for weeks. He said.” Nick frowned. There was only so much a person could take. Your overdraft…it’s growing bigger every day. years maybe. What I didn’t foresee was the speed with which the big oil companies would stop spending locally. I’ve seen it bad before but not like this. Nick. What do you propose?” His throat was so dry he could barely whisper the words. Alan. People never do.” “The numbers say it all. I guess not. He looked embarrassed.” “Unfortunately. If he had been a soldier he would now be lost behind enemy lines.“No one saw it coming. “I know why you’re here alright. no matter how tough you thought you were. None of our competitors have got a job in their workshops. History teaches us nothing until it’s too late. reeling from acute battle fatigue. Nick felt his insides turning to ice. Suddenly he felt oddly detached from the fate of the company that had once been his whole life. Not now. Anyway. He had fought himself to a standstill. we need to get down to business. He had battled so long to keep the business afloat. There was a time when he would have killed anyone who got in the way to survive. It’s worse than ‘86. Nick. Although he knew what was coming he still wasn’t prepared for the speed at which his world was collapsing. that doesn’t do you much good. He could smell the bad news coming and it made him gag. on the point of surrender. Much worse. Work from the North Sea has just dried up.” Nick swivelled round in his chair and gazed out across the snowy blanket that had completely obliterated the familiar bumps and hollows of the adjacent golf course. The Chinese have eaten our lunch. “The signs were there for anyone who dared to look. The bank manager coughed. “Sure.
There’s a skill shortage in this country even if we don’t have any manufacturing industries left. Those machines out there in the workshop cost a small fortune. I really am. This is a capital intensive business. He smiled wryly to himself.” A flicker of irritation darted across the bank manager’s eyes. “I don’t want to get into a debate with you. This is a great little company we’ve built up. If the chancellor slaps on another windfall tax. I promise you.” Suddenly they were no longer old friends. The sad truth is the bank isn’t in the risk business.Nick noted how the conversation had suddenly taken an impersonal turn. They’ll probably be better off in the end.” “And the people? Are they worried about the people who are going to be thrown onto the scrapheap? What about them?” “They’ll find other jobs. “It’s too much of a risk. it’s too late. When the customer gets busy you’ve got to put in extra capacity if you want to stay on the merry-go-round with them. As soon as they start looking for oil again in the North Sea we’ll be making money hand over fist. “I’ve always been overstretched. The games these people played. “That’s so short-sighted. Nick. Anyway. They can re-train as plumbers or electricians. “This thing has gone beyond my level. Now the merry-go-round has suddenly stopped spinning. You’ll even be asking me out to lunch again. No longer equals.” Alan Tait didn’t smile. That’s the nature of this industry. In six months time it will all be different. He said.” “They’re worried about the machines?” “That’s right. Who knows? I’m sorry. If you don’t they’ll go elsewhere.” Nick clenched his fists and stared defiantly at the bank manager. That hasn’t changed just because we’ve had a couple of bad months.” . Alan. The guys in head office are deeply uncomfortable with the extent of your borrowing. The irony is that the more successful we are the deeper in debt I get. Nick. despite the gravity of the situation. Alan. Who can say where the price of oil will be in six months time? If Japan falls back into recession and China cools down it could quite possibly go lower. The bank manager was already distancing himself from the bad news that was about to follow. They want to get as much of their capital back as they can while there’s still some residual value left in those machines. The decision has already been taken.
That shows how much faith I’ve got in the business. it’s not just you. Alan. We’ve all taken a pay cut. I warned you six months ago. Don’t waste your energy trying to fight them. “Nick.” Nick pleaded. All they want to do is flog off those machines for whatever they can get and cut their losses.” He glanced at his watch. I’ve put my house on the line for the bank. The bank wants to sell off the assets for whatever it can get and wrap things up as quickly as possible. You should have acted tough then. A fantastic team. they’re like my family. You’ve been in the last chance saloon for too long. I’ve slashed our capital spending. Despite that I’ve made cutbacks. Look. With any luck that’ll bring in three hundred grand. Nick. Like I said the time for action is past. Manufacturing in this country is dying on its feet. Everyone else is in the same boat. what kind of a risk is it for the bank? I’m the one taking all the risk. I’m the one who’s borrowed all the bloody money.” Nick was getting desperate.Nick had been determined to stay cool but the dam holding back his emotions finally burst. I’ve just told you it’s too late for all this. as if he had been drenched . “I told you this would happen if you breached your loan covenants. Six of my friends. The bank’s got me by the fucking balls. I’ve already taken all the tough decisions.” Nick absorbed the bitter news through his skin. The liquidators will be here shortly. Last week I paid off six people. All I need now is a bit more time and this will all work itself out. “Please. We’ve got some great people here.” “Not the receivers? You’re not even going to keep the business going while you look for a buyer?” “It’s not worth the effort.” “Liquidators?” “Within an hour. “Jesus. I’ve even put one of the big machines up for sale. You can’t push water uphill. Alan. I’m proud to work with them.” “I’m sorry. If you want my opinion the whole bloody country’s going to the dogs. “That’s it? After all these years? That’s it?” The bank manager didn’t move.
in cold water. He shook his head. “It’s a criminal waste and you bloody know it, Alan.” “I’m sorry, Nick, I really am.” “You know what really pisses me off? I came so close, that’s what. I nearly made it. One more contract and I would have been right up there with the best of them. One more contract and you would still be licking my arse.” “But I’m not, am I Nick.” Nick sighed. In his heart he knew it wasn’t the bank manager’s fault. Alan wasa man whose advice and opinions he had come to respect over the years. He was only the messenger. Come to that, maybe this disaster wasn’t even the bank’s fault. The world was changing. George Bush’s war on terror. Al Quaeda. China booming. The Russian oligarchs. Who knew what was going on in the world?. Shell overstating its reserves. A butterfly flapped its wings in Saudi Arabia and the price of oil was all over the place. You couldn’t build a secure future on chaos. “Don’t be sorry, Alan. I was expecting it. Most small businesses are only a few months away from failure, even the successful ones. A couple of months of losses and suddenly you’re staring into the abyss. It’s the game we’re in. I knew the risk I was taking running my own company. I don’t blame you.” The bank manager moved slowly towards the door. He looked genuinely unhappy at the turn of events. “It’s always sad when something like this happens to a well-run company like yours, Nick. Especially when it’s due to circumstances beyond your control.” The bank manager seemed reluctant to leave, as if he was fascinated by the sight of a still-twitching corpse. “What will you do now?” “Me? I don’t know. Get a job I guess. If anyone will employ me at my age. Maybe if I can persuade Maureen to leave her teaching job we can sell the house and make a fresh start somewhere else. Go abroad perhaps. Somewhere where they still make things.” The bank manager coughed. He peered down at his feet, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “About the house, Nick. Don’t forget you put it up as security for all those loans. You must understand it belongs to the bank now. It’s no longer yours to sell.” Nick went white and his heart seemed to stop beating. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It couldn’t be true. “They’re going to call in my
guarantee? I thought that was just a token gesture. A bit of paper.” “They’ll let you stay there for a bit of course. Maybe a couple of months. But after that they’ll want vacant possession so they can put the house on the market. I know it seems harsh but that was the deal you agreed at the start of all this.” “Jesus. I never thought they’d do that. How am I going to tell Maureen? She loves that house. This’ll kill her. You can’t do it, Alan.” Alan Tait shrugged. He stared at Nick with a blank, pitiless expression on his face. It was almost as if he was enjoying Nick’s distress. Revenge for years of licking his client’s arse. Nick glared at the bank manager, a man he’d once considered a friend. This reminder that their home – Maureen’s pride and joy – no longer belonged to him was the bitterest outcome of all. He cursed himself for the cavalier way he had gambled with the family home, an act of incredible folly based upon his hubristic faith in his own ability. He’d gambled everything on making a success of the business. It was rapidly dawning on him that having lost the battle to save his company his world was about to be plunged into turmoil, a civil war with horrific untold consequences. He swallowed hard. “I can’t wait to tell Maureen,” he said dryly. “I’m afraid that’s not all.” Nick frowned. “Oh. What else?” “You’ve given personal guarantees as well.” “But I haven’t any money. Everything I have is tied up in the business. Jesus, they can’t get blood out of a stone.” “They’ll take it out of your unemployment benefit if they have to. And Maureen’s still working, isn’t she? She’s a joint signatory. They’ll go after her too. And if you get another job they’ll take the repayments out of your wages. They’re going to be on your back for a long time.” “I’ll fight them.” “You can’t win, Nick. They’ll sequestrate you. They won’t show any mercy.” “So I’ll be bankrupt?”
“I’m afraid so.” Nick turned and stared again over the frigidly beautiful white undulations of the empty golf course. It was a landscape suddenly devoid of life and hope. “It’s a hell of a price to pay for trying to make something of myself. Trying to provide for my family.” “You have to face the consequences of your actions, Nick. You gambled and lost. Look, don’t quote me, but my advice is to get yourself a good lawyer.” Nick shook his head in disbelief. When he finally spoke again he couldn’t disguise the bitterness in his voice. “Twenty years ago I started with nothing and that’s exactly what I’ve ended up with. No, less than nothing. A mountain of debt which I’ll be paying off for the rest of my life.” He sighed. “To think I could have been a fucking teacher or a civil servant or something working for the state. An ordinary guy without any kind of ambition whatsoever. Instead I took a chance and ended up a fucking idiot. A bankrupt fucking idiot at that.” The bank manager shrugged. “I’ve got to go.” He turned and walked briskly out of the office. Their friendship was over. Nick turned back to the window and stared out for the last time at the view he had come to know so well. Everything looked so serene in the winter sunshine. Beautiful but bleak with no trace of life of any kind. It could have been the surface of the Moon. He closed his eyes and leaned back in the swivel chair. He had never felt so tired before and yet at the same time he felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. For the first time in years someone else had made a decision for him. At long last he didn’t have to think for himself any more, didn’t have the future of his business and everyone connected with it depending on him calling all the right shots. It was like being a kid again. With the death of his dream his old world had vanished. He knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to start a new life at his age but in a funny sort of way he was already looking forward to the challenge. Starting off with a blank canvas. His metamorphosis could even be a lot of fun. He was still young at heart, had more energy and drive than many people half his age. Then there was all that hard-won commercial knowledge, wisdom even, that he had accumulated over the years. That had to be worth something. All he needed was to find someone to give him
“It’s the bank. He picked up the phone and asked Alex Robertson. They don’t believe me any more. before he could start thinking about himself. The factory floor is like a graveyard out there. He was certain he could make a go of things second time around even if it meant working for someone else. What do those buggers want from you now? Dae they nae ken ye canny get blood from a stane. “I was kind of expecting it to tell you the truth. shit happens. We all were. he had to tell the remnants of his staff the bad news.” . “What’s up?” the old man demanded gruffly. First though.” “I’m sorry.” “I’ve been telling them that for months. Maybe they’re right. his workshop foreman.” “Oh. There’s not a job in the shop. They’d worked together for over eight years through good times and bad.” The old man shrugged.” “The bastards.” “Aye well.” “They’ve pulled the plug on us.” “Ah.” “It’s the guys out there in the workshop I feel sorry for. Some thought it was close right enough. to come up at once. ay. Alex. expressionless face hewn out of the granite of bitter experience. I knew they might withdraw their support but it’s still a shock. He’d learnt his trade in the shipyards on the Clyde and later with Rolls Royce making Spey jet engines at Prestwick.” Alex Robertson was in his sixties with a hard. “Bad news.another chance. How long have we got?” “They’re closing the place immediately. Can you not fight them? Tell them things will pick up.
” They both laughed. “Seriously.” “How has Maureen taken it?” Nick frowned.” “I’ll see you there.” Nick bit his lip. After that? Who knows? Maybe I’ll get a job collecting trolleys in a supermarket.” Despite himself Nick smiled. “You better go and call the men together.” “Nick?” .” “Aye.” “Sounds like your arse is oot the windae and the crows are pecking at it. Then there’s the house which I put up for security. She knew things had been difficult lately but this development was going to come as a major shock. Nick? What does this mean for you?” Nick thought for a moment. it’s tough on her right enough. “That’s a good question. The old man frowned. What about you? What will you do?” “Me? Och. what about yourself. I really don’t know what the future holds to tell you the truth.“I wouldnae worry about them. “You could say that. He dreaded the thought of breaking the news to her. “She doesn’t know yet. He felt sick at the thought. I just never believed it would come to this.” “I guess. I’m worried sick about what she’s going to think. They’ll be all right. He never discussed business with his wife. I’ll take the wife off to Tenerife for a few months till the winter’s past. I need a break anyway. The old guy had a quaint way of putting things into perspective. They’re always screaming for skilled men. tried to shield her from the pressures of running a small business. This’ll come as a bit of a shock then. I’ve got all this shit with personal guarantees and stuff. “Ouch.” ”That’s putting it mildly.” The old man winced. Telling her would be the hardest thing he had ever done.
He felt a lump in his throat. before I burst into tears you better get everyone together. Forced to perform in front of his wife’s oh-so-successful friends in the present circumstances. She almost never phoned him at work. “Nick. The phone rang. he looked utterly defeated. The place had often felt like a prison in the past as he battled to keep the business afloat but he would still miss it. Are you free to talk?” It was Maureen. “Thanks. Yeah.“What?” “I’m nae much given to speeches but…weel.lightly.” “What’s wrong?” . “Hello?” “Hi. He crossed to the mirror in the corner and patted his hair and straightened his tie. Alex. Keeping up the pretence when all he wanted to do was crawl under a stone and hide.” “Tonight?” “The dinner party. You dinna deserve this. That was all he needed. I’m just phoning to remind you about tonight.” Nick felt a lump forming in his throat. and I’ve worked for a few in ma time. The Murrays and the Binneys remember. His eyes seemed so dull. dear. I jist want tae say you’re the best boss I’ve ever worked for. He did not hand out compliments – or condolences . He stood up and looked around the office for the last time. Okay.” The old man went off to assemble all the men in the canteen so that Nick could break the bad news. I invited them months ago. You’d said you’d pick up some nice wine on your way back. I’ve got a rack of lamb from the butchers. I knew you’d forget.” Nick sighed. What’s up?” “Nothing’s up. “Hi. Not to mention the expense. Spending money they no longer had. are you still there?” “Sorry. He wondered if she’d somehow heard the bad news already. He was shocked to see how much older he looked. it’s much appreciated. Alex was a hard man who’d had a hard life.
“Nothing. I’m tired, that’s all. I’m having a tough day.” “You will remember the wine won’t you?” “Yes.” He wondered how he was going to pay for it. He’d have to chance his arm with one of his credit cards. With any luck his Visa card might allow him to go even further over his limit. Just long enough for him to get out of the off-licence with a bottle or two of half-decent red - like a bank robber making his getaway. “And you won’t be late.” “No.” He’d be early in fact. There was nothing for him here any longer. “Okay. Well. See you soon.” “Er.” Maybe this was the right moment to tell her the bad news. Get it over with. “What is it, Nick?” “Er…nothing.” “Are you all right, Nick? You sound very strange. Croaky. Are you getting a cold or something?” “I expect so. My throat is sore.” “Wrap up well in that case. Wear that scarf I bought you.” “Okay.” “And Nick.” “What?” “Cheer up, will you. These parties are hard enough as it is.” “I don’t know why we bother.” “Because it’s our turn, that’s why. Don’t be so antisocial.”
“All right. Sorry. See you later.” He put down the phone and tried to swallow but his mouth was dry. It was the middle of January, they were only half way through another tough winter. The future looked bleak. The office suddenly seemed cold as if they had already turned off the central heating. He started shivering. It wasn’t just the cold though. He realised he was scared. More scared than he had ever been before. Some times in life you are on your own. Like when you’re sitting in that dentist’s chair. Or going bust. Or dying. As he sat in his office for the last time he realised he was indeed totally alone.
Chapter 2 In the event Nick’s much-abused credit card proved resilient enough to support the purchase of several bottles of fairly expensive claret. He was, he decided, in the mood to get drunk. Very drunk. Paralytic in fact. Well and truly smashed out of his head. Why not? Tomorrow he would be sober. And bankrupt. Time enough then to face the consequences. “You’re early!” exclaimed Maureen, beaming, “And you’ve brought the wine!” “I’ve brought lots of wine.” “Oh dear. I don’t like that look in your eye. You’re not going to get drunk are you, Nick?” “I think it’s a distinct possibility,” Nick reached up for the bottle of gin in the cabinet beside the cooker. “Want one?” “It’s too soon for me. Listen, dear, go easy will you. You know what you’re like when you’ve had too much to drink.” Nick tasted his gin and tonic, looking thoughtful. ”Witty? Entertaining? The life and soul of the party?” Maureen made a face. “Argumentative. Boring. A royal pain in the butt.” He took his drink through to the lounge and settled down with the local
paper. It occurred to him that he’d probably be featuring in it soon. If not on the front page at least in the Public Announcement section where the liquidators would publish the winding up notice. Fame at last. Or notoriety at least. Soon everyone would know. All his friends. His fellow businessmen at the Chamber of Commerce. Public degradation would inevitably follow. At the very least he would be the talk of the village. Ritual humiliation manifested in scandalised whispers and knowing sideways glances from the other side of the street. And why not? He deserved his fate after all. Hubris. No question about it. Positively arrogant. So confident in his own abilities that he had been blind to what was really happening. He turned to the back page of the paper. Scotland had lost another home friendly and the coach was being excoriated again. He took some comfort in the knowledge that there was always one person in the country who was in deeper trouble than he was. Sometimes he thought this country positively luxuriated in failure, wallowed in a sort of inverted jealousy. By the time their guests arrived he was onto his third gin and already feeling light-headed. While the three women stayed and chatted in the kitchen the men stood with their backs to the big open fireplace, drinks in hand. They were all around the same age, early fifties, and had been friends since their university days. Alastair Murray had worked for the council all his life and was some sort of director of strategy in the planning department. His rise had not exactly been meteoric but there was no doubt he was now considered a success. Raymond Binney, on the other hand, a short, tubby man with an unnaturally smooth complexion that was positively waxy, was a primary school teacher who spent most of his waking time meticulously planning for his early retirement. “How’s business then, Nick?” said Alastair Murray, sipping his sherry appreciatively. “Still making millions?” “Not exactly. It’s tough out there right now. Very tough.” “Where’s the Merc by the way?” asked Raymond Binney, squinting suspiciously towards the driveway, “I don’t see it anywhere.” The liquidator had taken the Merc. “It’s in for a service,” lied Nick. He’d spun the same story to Maureen earlier, having caught a taxi home. “That car must cost you a fortune to run,” continued Raymond, looking envious. “Makes my Polo look a bit downmarket I must say. Still, at least I’m not harming the environment quite as much as you two.” Alastair Murray drove a big grey Audi of which he was inordinately proud.
” he murmured. Everyone knew that Maureen was a brilliant cook. It’ll be even worse once I’ve retired. Bread and water probably. Her skills would be fully tested over the coming months.He beamed delightedly at the insult. There was a general murmur of assent.” said Raymond Binnie. “I don’t know where you find the time to cook like this. “Sainsbury’s are pretty good. “It is irresponsible. Mm.” “Some of the newer Spanish wines are pretty good too. wondered Nick gloomily. he wondered.” . admiring the spread. Even better than the Local Authority. Nick took a deep draught of the wine. “Got to keep up appearances.” said Alastair. “Not on my salary. “That looks good.” said Claire Murray. At that moment Maureen announced that dinner was ready and ushered them through to the room that she usually used as her study but which doubled as a dining room whenever they had guests. Anyway.” agreed Nick.” “They’re all right. that’s how everybody eats these days. “Especially in my position. “This wine is delicious. My next mode of transport will be a bike. licking her lips appreciatively.” said her husband defensively. Teachers do all right. “You’ll get a good pension. You can’t beat a really good French wine.” “You’re right. “Always have been. “In our house we seem to live on ready meals the whole time.” said Raymond.” Alastair snorted derisively.” “Not a patch on this.” “I think Markies are definitely the best when it comes to pre-prepared meals. “We can’t afford Markies any more.” They all laughed but Nick wasn’t joking.” “This lamb is meltingly tasty.” said Isobel Binney.” I wonder what Somerfields ready meals are like. How many variations on bread and dripping did she know. Raymond. You pay a bit more but it’s worth it.
Nick felt his hackles rising. I wish I’d started my own business instead of going into education. making a face. “If only it was that easy.Nick’s pension was his investment in the company. he thought to himself. “He’ll sell out his business for a fat profit and go and live the high life in Spain or Monaco or somewhere. I’d have buggered off to the south of France long ago. He swallowed hard. Nick? I tell you. you’d get eaten alive. Nick drained his glass and poured some more drinks. She was a teacher too but she’d left the profession for several years to bring up their son – her pension wouldn’t amount to all that much. you wouldn’t last five fucking minutes in the private sector. Jobs for life.” he said angily.” Nick looked rueful. he wasn’t sure if there’d be much left after the bank had taken their cut to help towards repaying the loans they’d guaranteed. Alastair. No fighting for business.” Everybody laughed. They all thought he was rolling in it. “Get real.” Everybody laughed again. Pay up or we’ll close you down. Alastair coughed. He looked embarrassed and annoyed at the same time. He’d be relying on Maureen in the future. “Nick’s the one who’s going to score. Those guys in the pubic sector don’t give a toss for your problems. That’s their mantra. Plenty of holidays. They had no idea. “You’ve done it for long enough. Little did they know.” Nick shook his head in disbelief.” said Raymond Binnie. including Maureen.” Nobody laughed. Alastair. the mood round the table was buoyant. A big fat pension at the end of it all guaranteed by the government. Or the fact that you’ll lose everything because the bank have forced you to put your house on the line as security. “Maybe you shouldn’t take on work if you don’t think you’ll get paid.” said Alastair. “That’s total crap. “It can’t be that hard. which was now worthless. fuck them all. No worries about getting paid. Besides. Working for the public sector was a doddle compared to working for yourself. Isn’t that right. Fuck them. This is the world of . “You’ve never had to sit across the table from a fucking VAT official whose got you by the balls because you’re in arrears when some fucking customer can’t pay you. Never mind all the people that will lose their jobs.
clinging to the edge. When she finally joined him he was snoring gently. out to the world. It meant more to him than she did. She climbed into bed and turned her back on him. Had been for years. The evening gradually petered out.” said Claire Murray. “Unfortunately we can’t all work for the public sector. That bloody business he ran was the problem. right now we’ll take anything you can get. Something very bad.” “Nick. Nor do we have a guaranteed income stream .” “You never know if you’re going to get paid. grandparents who refused to fade away gracefully. Rising unsteadily from the table Nick dragged himself off to bed while Maureen tidied up in the kitchen. Wished he had become a bloody . Fucking mugs like me in fact. Whenever he felt under pressure he took it out on her and anyone else who came within range. If we need more money we can’t just turn round and put up taxes or raise the rates like you guys.” said Maureen. Even the biggest companies can go tits up these days. “Suddenly the Health Service doesn’t feel so bad after all. pushing her halffinished plate away from her. It was always the same. That doesn’t make sense. suffocating itself on a familiar chorus of complaints about kids who refused to cut their financial umbilical cords. We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing our customers. Or find a reason for not paying you which is just as bad.” “It all sounds very unpleasant. In the event Nick retreated into his shell. Something must have happened at work which she didn’t know about. Not the public sector. subdued and embarrassed. I wish I had taken the easy way out and become a fucking teacher. She wished he’d never started it. Was the only thing he really cared about. Someone’s got to go out there and create the wealth to pay your wages. Jesus. wished she’d never married him. He’d had his chances. if the truth were known. his mind silted up with the fallout from his company’s collapse. Another performance like tonight’s and she really would leave him. Fear made her feel faint. She knew that for some reason Nick had toppled over the edge. your language. Their guests left just after nine. please.work I’m talking about. Christ. It’s fucking dog eat dog out there.” Nick looked at her balefully. At times like this she hated him. sliding as far away from him as possible. looking distraught.” “There’s no point doing work for someone if you’re not going to get paid.
teacher. She wiped away a tear in the dark, and eventually, after an hour or more during which she tossed and turned, her brain whirling, she fell into a fitful sleep, balanced on the edge of the world, staring into the void, utterly exhausted Chapter 3 Nick charged about the kitchen frantically attempting to put the evening meal on hold. He glared at his watch for the twentieth time in twenty minutes. “Bastards,” he hissed loudly, “Bastards, bastards, bastards.” They were ten minutes late already and the frozen petits pois were soft and overcooked even though he'd strained them in cold water and put them to one side on the draining board. He’s bought them as a special treat, after much prevarication, down at the local Spar shop. They should only have been blanched for a minute or so to make them al dente which was absolutely the way they were supposed to be. Then served immediately with a nob of butter (or marge in their case) and a twist of coarsely ground pepper. Now they were ruined, and with them the meal, and with the meal his attempt to create a safe haven for his family in a dangerous and demented world. He cursed himself for his own stupidity. He shouldn’t have put a heat under the peas until he actually saw their headlights coming up the farm track. It was always a mistake to rely on other people. He screwed up his eyes in despair. He could weep at his own stupidity. "You're late," he snarled when they finally lugged their baggage into the kitchen, "Why didn't you phone me on your mobile? These bloody peas are ruined." Maureen hoisted a heavy bag of shopping onto the table, in the process covering over the place mats he'd arranged so carefully. "We got stuck in traffic," she said calmly. "Don't put that bag there," he snapped, furious at the way they were spoiling all his painstaking preparations for a perfect meal. He couldn't understand why Maureen was always late. She seemed to have no sense of punctuality whatsoever. Not like him, he was never late. In the time before the business had gone bust he was famous for his punctilious timekeeping. Whenever he made an appointment with one of his customers he always made a point of being early so as not to inconvenience them in any way. Equally he was careful never to be so early that he became an embarrassment. It was just good manners, that's what it came down to in the end. It was obvious really. That was what
made civilisation work when you thought about it. But Maureen just didn't seem to bother or understand. She seemed to drift through life without a care in the world. She didn’t notice how much she hurt him, how much her lack of consideration for his efforts devalued his struggle to be a good and caring husband. Sometimes he even thought she did it deliberately just to annoy him. Only it did more than annoy him. It drove him crazy. Right round the bend. Sometimes she made him so furious that he wanted to kill her. Really wanted to…not just a figure of speech. "And shut that bloody door," he yelled at Martin, "You'd think you were born in a bloody field." Martin, his son, was sixteen years old and acutely conscious of the unfairness of life. He slouched wearily back through the hallway and shut the inner glass door, a long-suffering look on his face. He was used to his dad's temper tantrums. When they were really bad they were scary, but mostly his dad just made a fool of himself. It was something he had learned to make allowances for. Maureen smiled bravely at her husband. "I bought you a present." She held out a new canister of Gillette shaving foam for sensitive skin. He looked at it in dismay. He didn't want to appear ungrateful but he resented her spending money on luxuries. Especially since he was trying so hard to economise himself. Christ, he'd given up breakfast because they couldn’t afford it. He always bought the cheapest, most disgusting sandwich pastes he could find for his lunch just to save a few pennies. What’s more he now only shaved every second day, unless he had something special on. Which had only happened twice in the four months since the business had failed. He stared at the canister of shaving foam. What really annoyed him was that no matter how frugal he was it made no difference. She still leaked money from their joint account. She might have been a lottery winner the way she splashed out. Hardly a day passed when she wasn’t frittering away their overdraft on food and shoes, shirts, bras, school uniforms, council tax demands, telephone bills, electricity bill reminders and now fucking shaving foam. Christ, if it wasn’t for the fact that he might one day actually have to attend a job interview again he would have grown a beard by now. Shaving foam. SHAVING FUCKING FOAM!! And why was she trying to be nice to him anyway? He didn’t want presents. He didn’t want to be patronised or bought off like some rich man’s mistress. Like a kept man. He just wanted her to come home on time and eat the bloody meal he had slaved all afternoon over for Christ’s sake. Just keep her side of the marital bargain. Was that too much to ask? Was he being
unreasonable? Simply by being punctual they could have had perfect peas ten minutes ago but now it was all ruined. Completely and utterly ruined. With a supreme effort he stopped himself from throwing the peas into the waste bin. He took a deep breath. He felt dizzy with anger and had to hold onto the side of the cooker to stop himself from falling over. Another deep breath. When he closed his eyes he saw stars. His heart was pounding. He was sweating profusely. Another deep breath. He staggered across to the sink and poured himself a glass of cold water. Water was free, it came from their own well. How long can you live on water? Thirty days and thirty nights? If they got any poorer his fasting would reach biblical proportions. While they hauled their bags through to the sitting-room he gradually calmed down. He stared down at the small pyramid of overcooked peas in the colander and shook his head, despairing at his own stupidity, the way he got everything out of perspective. He knew Maureen meant well. Her motives were good. It was just that her direction was all wrong. Spending money on luxuries they didn’t need. As if she was some bleeding Salvation Army general offering charity to a bloody down-and-out or something… If only she would listen to him instead…really listen and get some sort of handle on the mess they were in. Instead of throwing money they didn’t have at a problem they weren’t addressing. Try as he might he couldn’t make her see what she was doing to him by her crazy spendthrift behaviour. She had no insight whatsoever into the panic he was feeling, the waves of desperation in which he was daily drowning. When Maureen returned to the kitchen he held out the canister of shaving foam. "Thanks," he said gruffly, "But shaving soap would have done just as well." Maureen sometimes felt she could do nothing right as far as her husband was concerned and this display of ingratitude was typical of his meanspiritedness. She hid the hurt look on her face as she turned away and took off her old anorak. "Why do you always have to be so bad-tempered?" she said, struggling with only partial success to keep the intense irritation she felt out of her voice, "It's not our fault we're late." "It's his bloody fault for not shutting the door," Nick shouted back, glaring at his son, immediately on the defensive. He was perfectly aware that lately he had become increasingly bad-tempered and petty and stupid but he
It was just that by being late they inadvertently belittled his efforts to make himself useful and valuable to them. “The peas are all right. by way of gentle reproach. “They’re great. gelatinous mass topped with lashings of tomato ketchup. Just the way I like them. whatever they might be. It was bad enough that he had to fight the outside world. "How was work?" It was the same question he put to her at this time every night. in front of the television. Silently he served up their meal and they took it through in the sitting room. Nick was too weary to argue about the peas." He shook his head. and he wasn't even sure about that. He had already eaten . he said to Maureen. Making one more supreme effort. He knew he was losing the battle against imminent bankruptcy and in a way he almost welcomed defeat.but he sat with them for company and watched the news for the fourth or fifth time that day. Whose fault was that? Was it the hand you were dealt or was it the fact that you had screwed up your chances on your own because you were totally feckless? Either way he had reached the stage where he was prepared to face the consequences. as she always did. of imports and balance of payment deficits and a sheaf of threatening letters from the bloody bank manager and the credit card bloody usurers without her acting as some sort of fifth columnist trying to undermine his position from within. wolfing down the peas which he had mashed into a lumpy. To tell the truth he didn’t really care about the food any more.couldn't stop himself. nor about the people eating it. What did it all matter anyway? So you fucked up your life. A bloody war on one front against the massed ranks of their creditors was as much as he could handle at the moment. He was too tired to care. turning their poverty into a battleground. the massed forces of impending economic disaster. Maureen sighed. Now she was the one who was being petty.” agreed Martin. "Fine. .yesterday's corned beef leftovers fried up with a finely chopped onion and a clove of garlic . "I'll take it back if you like and change it for shaving soap. would be glad when it was all finally over.” said Maureen. They ate with their plates balanced on their laps. in an attempt not to appear churlish." she said. of structural unemployment. He knew all this but it didn't stop him becoming angry and bitter. of high prices and artificial demand.
You didn’t have to be an accountant to work out that what would be left would . both materially and spiritually. Being a good father nowadays was an almost impossible challenge. He had always tried hard to love the child more than anything else in the whole world. a mutual inability to communicate their love for each other. Martin’s higher education was a looming problem that seemed insoluble. Just like any father he had wanted give his son the best possible start in life – the start he had never had – but the reality was that it took money. A bright kid – a very bright kid – he wanted to go to University to become a doctor. Nominal because of their joint personal guarantees which meant the bank was threatening to take almost half her income. He sighed. Martin was a tolerant child. A situation made worse by his discovery after the business had folded that she was his only friend. had deserted him. to communicate. so much more that could go wrong. Nick felt tolerated by him. He watched Martin cramming food into his mouth. even. During the remainder of the meal she never took her eyes off the television. They might as well have been strangers at different tables in an empty café in a nameless city. End of conversation. In some ways their relationship had been a history of failure. He had wanted desperately to ensure that his son had a happy childhood. a commodity that was now in very short supply. Theirs had never been an equal relationship but recently the balance had changed and now he increasingly felt like the junior partner. No-one argued with that. on most occasions. He had always tried to give the boy unconditional love but the reservoir from which he drew this most basic emotion had been too shallow – a result maybe of his own unhappy childhood. In quiet desperation he turned to his son. so many material distractions that made you irrelevant. Maureen’s nominal salary meant that they wouldn’t get a grant to defray the costs. His teachers all said he had it in him. when there was so much that was out of your control. The problem was how they could possibly afford it. It was a classic case of Catch 22. Just thinking about the cost brought Nick out into a cold sweat. Just by being there she made him feel lonely. It was so dispiriting. Thank God they’d paid this year’s school fees in advance before the business went bust. What would happen after the summer holidays was anybody’s guess. All the rest. At least that gave them a few month’s breathing space. much more lonely than when he was on his own. He was the one who needed support and understanding. colleagues he had worked with for years.That was it. The fact that in so many ways he had failed him as a father was the worst thing of all.
The truth was they should never have moved out into the country the way they had ten years before. travelling in and out every day with Maureen. Martin hated the countryside. naff. Real life was lived in the city. Nick regarded his son with distaste. “School. Nick bit his lip. That place you go to every day. of course. Unfortunately the reality fell a long way short of the ideal. supposedly a more prestigious university in the medical field. In his eyes the countryside was barren. "What about you. Making an effort to hide his inner turmoil Nick fixed a smile upon his face and leaned across to his son. Which might indeed be the eventual outcome once the bank repossessed the house and they were forced to look for rented accommodation. Edinburgh. creating a hole in his affections the size of Denmark. in the middle of nowhere. You know. Inasmuch as he loved the idea. above all. As far as he could remember now he had harboured some sort of romantic notion that his son would benefit from a bucolic upbringing out in the middle of nowhere. And of course he did. Martin? How was school today?" "What?" said Martin. All his friends were in town. How was it?” Martin’s gaze remained fixed on the television. He even continued to go to school in town. not taking his eyes off the latest pictures on the television news. boring and. The answer. It didn’t help that to study properly Martin would have to live in town – either Aberdeen or. away from the temptations and the ugliness of the city. Always assuming of course that Maureen would agree to move back into town which was by no means certain since she loved the countryside so much. . would be for them to up sticks and move back into town. The reality was a person whose table manners left a an enormous amount to be desired. graphic images of further atrocities committed during the so-called peace in Iraq. his preferred choice. That was yet another one of his bright ideas. entirely predictably. of having a son. the concept. in limbo. And it went without saying that Nick’s chances of getting a job at his age that would allow him to pay off his huge business debts and leave enough to cover the fees and their living expenses were virtually non-existent. In the meantime though they were stuck here.fall far short of what was needed to pay for Martin’s university education. a forkful of bloody-looking peas suspended in front of his open mouth. As it turned out. He knew he was supposed to love him more than anything in the whole world. In a way.
without looking up.” said Nick. “All right. fine.was already over and now there was nothing left to say. Suddenly Maureen spoke.” said Maureen. Fair point. It’s school. quality time. There had to be more to life than this. “Chill out. It was at times like these that Nick felt most desolate. You know. before he could stop himself. who had cleared his plate in a matter of seconds.” “I’m trying to make conversation. paralysed by the direct brutality of the question. dad. even for someone who had failed as badly as he had. The highlight of their day – breaking bread together . “Have you had any news on the job front. barely disguised contempt. How was your day?” “Fine. That’s all it is. Maureen continued to peruse the paper and Martin. unable to recall precisely the previous gloss .“Martin!” “What? Oh. dad. With my family. “Er…” “Any replies at all?” “Replies?” He was immediately on the defensive. He got up and started clearing away the dirty dishes.” “Leave the boy alone. Within seconds the vacuum enveloped them once more. He knew he couldn't go on this way. Martin sniggered and turned back to the television. tiptoeing around this thorny subject. “No interviews coming up or anything?” “Interviews?” He felt exposed. Nick?” He froze.” “Fine? Fine? Is that it? Is that all they’ve taught you to say after all these years? Fine!” Martin turned and regarded his father with open-mouthed. was already bounding up the stairs to the fastness of his bedroom for the night.
“Finding a job is more important than faffing around the house all day. Nick?” “I was busy doing things to the house.” “Nick.” This was true. Broken towel rails.” This was the first time Maureen had really pressed him on his search for employment. The trouble is nobody seems to be hiring at the moment. Maybe it had a virus.” “What about the employment agencies?” “Nothing. humiliating.he had put on his job hunting progress. “Did you go today. Not with the bank taking…” “I know. He had kept himself busy doing all the things Maureen had been nagging him about for years. He found the whole process degrading. An hour on the bus and then into a building that felt like something out of Eastern Europe. Lots of other people my age are in the same boat. you’ve got to get a job. a leaking tap. full of strange and frightening people. If I was twenty years younger it might be different. the first time she had refused to be fobbed off by his . you need to start bringing in some money soon. loose tiles in the bathroom. “How many jobs have you applied for this week?” “This week?” “Nick. Not people my age anyway. I know. The unemployment virus. We can’t survive on what I earn. The list was endless and despite his efforts had grown longer since he became unemployed. I don’t give a damn about the tap in the bathroom. Sometimes he imagined the house was afflicted by some sort of sick building syndrome. The antidote for which he had yet to discover.” “I fixed the leaking tap in the bathroom. a noisy central heating pump.” “The Job Centre? Were you there today?” Nick hated the Job Centre.
” Maureen looked aghast. He stacked another pan precariously on top of the pile. They'll dry themselves.” “What kind of business?” “I don’t really know. I’ve got the whole world to choose from. While he was washing up in the kitchen Maureen came through to make herself a cup of tea. Corporate trouble shooting. I’ve learnt a lot over the past few months. I just couldn’t.” He gave up. very deep. But the fact that she had been brooding on his failure to find a job was unnerving. listen. She was deep. Absolutely not. trying to suppress his anger. “I’ve been thinking about having another go at running my own business. “No way. hoping that Maureen would notice his predicament and give him a hand instead of just taking him for granted. "Just leave them to drain. Management temping. Through gritted teeth he muttered. He would show her though. Nick. The draining board on which he was piling the cleaned dishes was already dangerously crowded. "It might help if you dried a few dishes. She was obviously getting seriously worried about their situation. I wouldn’t need money.” “What about capital?” It was typical of Maureen to get bogged down in detail. believe me. Maureen didn't seem to notice his problem with the dishes as she glanced through the mail. treating him like some sort of nearly-invisible domestic help." .” “No. Anything. Since she obviously had no faith in him any more there was no way he was going to convince her that he could still rescue them from their plight. Consultancy maybe.” “We need money now. He said.vagueness. He had always found it impossible to tell what Maureen was thinking. Anything in fact." She didn’t look up. Any bloody thing at all. Once he had thought of something. I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. If she was worried about his unemployability that was a very bad sign indeed. “I’ve got intellectual capital. I couldn’t go through that again. I could do anything.
He saw her turn pale. lamely. Momentarily panic overcame him and he had to restrain himself from running out of the house and being sick. “You haven’t had time?” He laughed sheepishly. He was feeling faint again and he held on to the edge of the sink to steady himself. worst of all. "I haven't had time to open it. but saying nothing. "What is it?" he asked.” Maureen worked her way through the pile of bills. He didn't understand where all the bills came from. He dried the last plate very slowly." he lied. His heart sank. just breathing and living on bread and water. Each dish he dried felt as fragile as antique porcelain in his shaking hands. He had bought nothing in the last month so she couldn't blame him. "It's the bank. There were several obvious bills and. an unopened letter from the bank.This was perfectly true but he had set himself the task of clearing up the kitchen immediately. seemed to cost a fortune. watching her as she read the letter from their bank. He could feel the tension in the room mounting as the pile of letters accumulated at her elbow." . We've gone over our limit and they've put a stop on the account. He had been so upset that he had forgotten to hide the rest of the mail which now lay unopened on the window sill. He was determined to show her how it would always be left neat and tidy under his regime. not for the first time. his heart thumping. Which was a bloody good reason for being dead. Just existing these days. occasionally frowning. “I just never got round to it. destroying in one blinding flash the illusion that he was safe at home. he thought. He watched her furtively out of the corner of his eye while he cleared the draining board. He grabbed a tea towel from off the chair on which she was perched and ostentatiously started drying the dishes himself. That morning he had inadvertently opened a letter from the credit card company which had exploded in his head like a letter bomb. They want to speak to us urgently. There seemed to be no way of avoiding bills while you were still alive no matter how hard you tried. With each new envelope she opened he became more and more anxious. Maureen appeared not to detect the intended symbolism of his action. "What was in the mail today?" she asked. Her refusal to co-operate in his selfimposed pursuit of perfection infuriated him.
"Jesus Christ Almighty. I keep telling you. Then you’ll have to get a job. Her . After that the best they could hope for was bed and breakfast accommodation in some ghastly place full of DHSS claimants. It was all very well to adopt a reasonable and rational approach to their problems but that didn’t actually help in the slightest as far as solving anything was concerned. that was the problem. for a miracle to happen. as if he was sinking into quicksand. In a matter of days the bailiffs would arrive. the worst he had ever received. I’ve tried. "I knew this was going to happen. “There’s no need to swear." he groaned. Maureen. We can’t go on like this. His heart was thumping so violently against his chest that he could hardly breathe. The shaving foam was a typical example. "Christ. They were living beyond their means." he groaned again.” “I can’t get a job.It was the news he had been dreading for weeks. have we?” “What the fuck are we going to do?” “First you’ll have to talk to them." “It says we’ve ignored all their previous letters and if we don’t respond they’ll have no choice but to place us in the hands of their debt recovery agents. Time for something to turn up. And still they would be left with massive debts hanging around their necks.” she chastised him softly. He had known that on their hugely diminished income they were bound to run out of money eventually but he thought they might have survived for a few more weeks.” He slumped into a seat at the table and cradled his head in his hands." Maureen flinched. He had warned Maureen continually about spending money but she wouldn't listen. By the end of the month they would be out on the street. Martin’. Debts that they would be paying for the rest of their lives. Then if they were lucky a council house on a crime-ridden housing estate where teenage gangs and drug addicts roamed the streets and people were mugged and burgled and threatened by neighbours from hell on a daily basis. feeling as if the ground had opened up beneath his feet. What letters? We haven’t had any letters from them. Now they had dug themselves into a hole and there was no way out. They were going to lose everything. Her apparent calmness infuriated him. "Jesus. I fucking knew it. I’m too bloody old. First their furniture would be carted off.
that's the only thing left.” “Jesus I’ve been living on bread and water for the past month.” “What about going bankrupt? What did he say about that?” “We’ll still be stuck with those personal guarantees. I've become the . Whatever happens we’re going to lose everything. I haven't had a holiday for years. They're all out there at their golf clubs having a good time. I don't go out with my mates do I? Christ. "What the fuck are we going to do? Is there anything we can sell? If only I could get a job? What about your parents? Will they lend us money? We could sell the furniture. Christ. "I’ve never accused you of anything. “What are we going to do?" he blurted out. I've got an old insurance policy somewhere. go on." "We can't sell the house. I’m starving myself to death. The bank won’t let us. God? I mean it's not even as if I spend any money. “We’ll have to do something.” Maureen stared at the pile of bills. "Why has this happened to us?” he moaned. Christ knows how we’re going to pay his bill.” Nick thrust his right hand to his mouth and bit hard into his knuckles. Have you spoken to the lawyer again?" “He said he’s still looking into it. When was the last time I went out for a meal. He didn’t sound very optimistic. stop it. that’ll be the next thing. I hate spending money now. I haven't even got any mates any more. What he wanted was solutions. tell me?” “Martin. you know that. I don't even smoke because I'm too mean to buy fags. his voice rising as hysteria swept over him." she whispered. "I mean I don't spend any money do I? I don't drink or gamble or go with women do I? I don't have expensive hobbies do I? I mean I gave up going fishing because I couldn't afford it. speaking rapidly. “Why us. not sweet reasonableness. I mean you can't accuse me of being profligate can you? Can you?" Maureen continued to stare down at the pile of threatening letters. spending a fortune at the bar and look at me.demeanour was as much use as someone staying calm in front of a firing squad. What about the house? We'll have to sell the house.
meanest fucking man you'll ever meet. hated Martin too if it came to that. hated the bank. that's the problem. "I wish I had never been born. Once. when he was young. Now he just hated them. All that struggle for what? For this?" Maureen began to grow alarmed as her husband became more and more hysterical. the electricity board. The sight of her heaving shoulders as she sat at the table cradling her head in her hands scared him. But I flew too close to the sun. "I fucking wish I was dead. hated Maureen too for the way she took everything in her stride. the coalman. And all because I had a bit of ambition. Abandon him. hated himself too for failing to cope with them. there was nothing else left. the child whose education had become a monkey on his back. didn’t I? I had it coming. that’s what." he continued. hated all those other fucking leeches with their fat prosperous lives and their thin.. The thought terrified him. that’s the only solution. that was what she meant. Or else what? What would happen to him if he failed to find work? He knew the answer. because I wanted to do my best for my family. the whole bloody business scared him. Nick had idolised them too. The whole fucking thing was a bloody nightmare. their absurd optimism." Maureen was looking increasingly distressed. their hypocritical wealth. those mercenary bastards. like the night their baby daughter had died eighteen years before." Her words sent a chill through him for what they left unsaid. that bastard who thought of no one but himself. above all hated that bloody nightmarish racket banging on above his head.. something that only ever happened at the very worst times in their lives. the milkman. Nick. She said softly. isn’t that right? Go on. She would leave him. All these fucking years for nothing. nowhere else to turn. hated their fatuous lyrics. insistent demands.or else. believed in them somehow. the garage. the credit card company. Taking Martin with her. Nick. "You'll just have to get a job. believed that the world was full of promise and opportunities and endless excitement. hitting his forehead with his fist. He didn’t think he could take much more. "This isn't helping. it’s all my fucking fault. He stood . He knew he was getting hysterical but he couldn't stop himself. Upstairs Martin was playing the Beatles at what seemed like full volume." "Nothing's fucking helping. Get a job." he shouted. making himself sick with worry. Maureen suddenly started crying. leaving him to do all the worrying. tell me. the newsagent.
The house was so cold that his breath condensed in front of his eyes. in that fairytale time when they could afford presents. He hated it when he was the cause of her unhappiness. tearing his muscles in frustration. using all his strength. He ignored it. He bit his lip. He struggled frantically into his old Barbour. her forehead resting on her clenched fists. fumbling frantically with the zip that no longer worked properly." he gasped. "I'm going out for a walk. I can't take any more of this. There ." He stormed out into the crisp. following his frosty sojourn beneath the stars. he had slept as deeply if he had been drugged. He bitterly regretted not apologising to Maureen for his behaviour the night before. He climbed out of bed and pulled on his thick towelling dressing-gown. Usually he got up and made them breakfast before they set off. her blue eyes already turning bloodshot. Which of course it wasn’t. "Where are you going?" sobbed Maureen looking up at him. or at least of no great concern. slamming the door behind him. his brain enveloped by a blackness that was unilluminated by the usual dreams and nightmares. starlit night. Chapter 4 Chapter 4 Maureen and Martin had gone by the time he woke up. After years of putting up with him and all his unpredictable emotional demands and endless dramas she had finally reached that point where she knew she couldn’t take much more either. It's driving me totally totally fucking crazy. tearing the fabric. Downstairs the phone was ringing. As the sound of his footsteps crunching on the hard snow died away Maureen closed her eyes once more and slumped forward. and money was no object. tearing at it.up. the one she'd given him as a Christmas present years before. as if their dire predicament was somehow her fault. This time. Not directly at least. He checked the upstairs rooms but the house was definitely empty. "Jesus. He hadn’t heard them go. He peered out of the bedroom window into the murky dawn light. He could imagine how she must be feeling after he had stormed off in a temper. tears of frustration in his eyes.
He was safe for a while longer. He was under assault . He went through to the sittingroom window and stood at the picture window and watched a flock of blue tits at the end of the garden feeding on the stale bread he had put out for them the day before. When the programme ended he switched off the radio. dazzling them all with its beauty. He padded downstairs to the kitchen in his slippers and switched on the radio. A woman with a husky voice read out the headlines. He comforted himself with the knowledge that with the imminent advent of warmer weather the garden would spring fully into life. The phone rang again. the same old tawdry political intrigues at home. He listened with distaste to the perennial diet of bad news: another suicide bomber wreaking havoc in a crowded restaurant in Israel. In the months that had dragged by since his company had folded he increasingly missed the warmth of human contact. an entirely predictable man-made famine in southern Africa.was no sign of any activity on the narrow farm lane leading up to the house. where you were part of a team fighting to win orders with all the fervour of the birds fighting for food at the end of the garden. He envied their boundless energy. He was unmoved by other people’s problems. Cold but sunny. louder this time. detached from the action. where all your energies were focused on solving tough but soluble problems. The phone stopped ringing. Beneath the birdfeeder that hung from the old apple tree the daffodils were flowering at last. He recalled how the phone had once dominated his life in a good way. unable to cope with the intellectual content of the discussion programme that followed. pleading and threatening. the stimulus of surviving in a challenging environment where time flew by. their uncomplicated. shattering the silence. Although the scene from the window was truly beautiful. He loved the sun. He sighed. At least the weather forecast was good which cheered him up a little. at the end of the day it was no more real than looking at a landscape painting in an art gallery. The Thought for the Day enraged him with its banality. existing in a sensory vacuum. The echoing emptiness threatened to overwhelm him. Not an outsider looking in at life. These days his mind was occupied by the all-pervasive sense of dread that came from the knowledge that his world was about to implode. ruthless pursuit of the next mouthful. The house fell silent again. at least for a while. admired their single-minded sense of purpose. Wheeling and dealing. organising and cajoling. John Humphries was giving a hapless minor official in the department of transport a grilling about the underground. illuminating the shadows with bold splashes of colour. He closed his eyes and tried to blank out the noise. The phone was the instrument that had driven his business forward in his dealings with the outside world.
Maureen was referring to their personal bank manager. He always fed the birds even if it meant going short himself. populated only by fear. He rammed a load of dirty clothes into the washing machine and set it running. He looked at his watch. It was still only eight thirty and there was a whole day stretching out ahead of him. It was at this point in his day. he returned to the kitchen and cleared away the dishes he had left on the draining board the night before. Mechanically. a whole day with nothing to do but dwell upon his misfortune. He found a tin of corned beef in the back of the cupboard over the sink and left it unopened beside the cooker in readiness. another of the household duties that Maureen now left to him. When the phone fell silent he opened his eyes and gazed out beyond the hedge at the bottom of the garden across to the snow-capped eastern Cairngorms poking up into the shining blue horizon about twenty miles away. This wasn’t his former business bank manager who now only communicated to him through his lawyer. with no chores left to do that his imagination often ran riot. an even more scary individual who held their immediate well-being in his finely-manicured hands. although at this time of the year he might well die of exposure. It was important that the house looked tidy. To postpone the looming vacuum of his pointless day he began to prepare the evening meal in advance of the far-off return of his family that night. The birds depended on him. an aerial bombardment of letters and phone calls. and he wasn’t going to let them down in the way he’d failed everyone else.from a host of faceless enemies. that he was trapped within the bleak. featureless landscape of his shrinking imagination. A fugitive could hide out in the hills and never be found. He peeled enough potatoes for three and cleaned and chopped up half a cabbage. He decided to put the terrifying . Whenever he did so a sense of dread would grip him for the rest of the day. it helped to buttress the remnants of his crumbling self-respect . When he had finished all his preparations he took a small heap of scraps and leftovers out to the bird table in the back garden. Just the thought of picking up the phone to that granite-faced individual was enough to bring him out into a cold sweat. He gazed at the picture-postcard view as if he was in a trance. He was boiling the kettle when he remembered that there was one thing still left to do. Arrange the visit to the bank manager. Invariably he pictured what would happen if his creditors were to suddenly descend upon the house. Maureen’s words of a few days earlier sprang into his mind. in slow motion. He shivered in chilled recognition that there was nowhere to run.
Minute by minute. As the weeks had passed he had developed a routine designed to lessen the unpleasantness. the insistent demands of the tax man. Nine fifteen. The postman was due at any minute. He’d considered taking the phone off the hook but he was worried in case that might actually precipitate a visit.call off until tomorrow at least. If he did and it actually turned out to be his Bank Manager – as had happened a couple of months before when their financial situation was only just starting to become uncomfortable – he knew that this time he would just die. It was just a shame that the mail wasn’t the only way they were able to get at him. and whenever the phone exploded into life his nerves were sent jangling. Hour by hour. This was the most tense time of the day. As usual his decision to do nothing left him with a massive guilt complex and simply exacerbated the all-pervading sense of anxiety and unease that continually haunted him these days. And every time the postman passed by without stopping meant another day's grace free from the wrath of the bank manager. Day by day. He waited anxiously for the postman's van to appear at the bottom of the hill. As well as the ultimate threat of an actual visit there was always the latent danger from the telephone. Every second that ticked by was another merciful postponement of his final reckoning. He looked at his watch. As usual he prayed silently that the van would pass the house without stopping and that for just a little while longer he would be unmolested by human contact. They continually tried to get to him that way now. He knew he was being cowardly and stupid but he simply couldn’t take the risk of picking up the phone. . Hidden in the shadows he hoped he would fool the postman into thinking that the house was empty just in case there were any recorded deliveries or warrants or whatever it was they sent you when you defaulted on your bills. In this near catatonic state he only stopped his vital organs giving up on him by dint of willpower alone. even though the constant ringing was driving him mad. By standing on tiptoe he could just see out of the window from the back of the room. or maybe even the day after. the threats of the credit card company. or even until the electricity was actually cut off and they were tossed out onto the streets and there were no alternatives left. The feeling of impending disaster was now so suffocating that it made breathing difficult and somehow mechanical. It was better to let them keep trying. After he had checked the view out of the front and back windows he sneaked back upstairs to the safety of his bedroom. That was how he lived now: in constant fear of the final showdown. His only consolation was that this particular instrument of persecution wouldn’t survive for much longer – the phone bill reminder was already way overdue which meant that they would be cut off any day now. just before the regular cascade of threatening letters and failed job applications came crashing through the letterbox. another endless day on death row.
even worse. Beside him in the passenger seat Rip his Alsatian raised his head and looked at his master with quizzical eyes. The bird table was still alive with chaffinches and blue tits feeding on the scraps he had put out earlier. licking his lips in anticipation. No. His immediate relief was tempered by the knowledge that no delivery also meant no invitations to job interviews nor acknowledgements of his multiple job applications and therefore not even a faint glimmer of hope for the immediate future. Sure he was in a fix but somewhere.This particular morning nearly an hour dragged by before he postman's van finally buzzed past the house without stopping on its way to the house at the top of the hill. He waited in the corner of the bedroom until he heard the postman’s van roar back down the hill. When he was certain the coast was clear he shuffled stiffly back down to the kitchen. He stood and watched them enviously for several minutes. There was a white Range Rover which he had never seen before sitting at the foot of the road Chapter 5 Garry Brown wound down the window of his white Range Rover and trained his powerful binoculars upon the cottage nestling half way up the hill. waiting for a miracle to happen. Even if miracles did sometimes happen. He made himself a weak coffee and took it through to the sitting room. the only person that could save him now was himself. . He stood on tiptoe and watched it disappear from view at the end of the road. No matter how hopeless things seemed he knew had to be positive. He was only days away from disaster. To make sure it wasn’t a trick he kept watch until his calves ached and his legs were shaking. He simply had to come up with a solution that would finally put him out of his misery. He knew he couldn’t go on burying his head in the sand. It was time to finally recognise that enduring reality. not to give up prematurely or spend his time perpetually casting around for excuses. He was just about to sit down when he noticed something beyond the skeletal branches of the apple tree that turned his insides to ice. somehow there had to be an answer. they didn’t happen to people like him. The only possible course of action was to keep on looking until he found a solution. or. After taking a deep breath he sat down again at the breakfast table determined to confront his problems head on. He knew he couldn’t go on this way.
That instrument was mainly for inner city use. he thought. “I seen you through the binoculars. There was no response. There was no doorbell so he knocked loudly on the wooden door with his big. It didn’t matter. He had a baseball bat in the boot but he knew he wouldn’t need it here. While he ate he read the Sun.Garry Brown surveyed the house with professional precision for five minutes before he lowered the binoculars. Generally speaking you had to be pretty feckless to get so deeply into debt. to disorientate him. “I know you’re in there. He had only just bought the debt from the credit card company but the acquisition already looked like it was going to turn into a profitable investment. calloused knuckles. “Anybody in?” he barked politely into the shadowy void. He had spotted someone moving through an upstairs window. not the kind of person who usually put up much of a fight. He repeated his assault on the door a further four times as the morning . Catching the debtor before he made a run for it was half the battle. He kicked the dog so that it snarled at him and began barking. He patted the Alsatian’s head and turned the keys in the ignition. Let the target see the dog. He was well-prepared for a long siege. a knowing smile playing on his lips. When he had finished his meal he switched on Radio One and tilted back his seat and dozed lightly.” When there was still no response he ambled back to the Range Rover. and even then most people gave very little trouble once he had cornered them. As he approached the cottage he dialled Nick Sterling’s number on his mobile. He’d bought the debt for twenty per cent of face value – the issuing bank behind the credit card reckoned it was a hopeless case – so any result was bound to be a good one. grinning. Rip leapt down after him and he tied the dog to the door handle of the vehicle. Taking his time he first fed the dog then clambered back into the vehicle where he poured himself a cup of coffee from a thermos and took out a mutton pie from his plastic lunchbox. He made a note of the time in his notebook. Garry Brown was a big man and he clambered out of the Range Rover onto the driveway with difficulty. knowing it wouldn’t be answered. He didn’t attempt to calm it.” he called through the letterbox. There was no reply so he bent down and opened the letterbox. The big car began moving up the hill with all the finality of a Sherman tank. He only wished that he was allowed to use stun grenades the way he used to do when he was in the SAS. The object was to create maximum confusion in his target’s mind.
not yet. toothy. Now you belong to me. You owe the money to me now.” The debt collector laughed. the door was slowly opened. A large. cannibalistic grin. just before midday. I’ve come to collect the money you owe on your credit card. “I know that matey. So. “Come on. Don’t look so upset. His ashen face was unshaven.” the debt collector said. you must be constipated all right.” “Your wife’s working. pal.” “What is it you want?” The debt collector’s eyes twinkled. Who are you?” The man flashed a business card. “What do you mean? They can’t do that.” “I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. what you used to owe. The stuff that makes the world go round. His whole body trembled with terror. what do you think? Money. Or rather. I’ve bought the debt. his shoulders drooping in defeat. “You deaf or something. sunshine.” “I…I’ve not been well.wore on until finally. It’s all legal and above board. see.” “You certainly look like shit. that’s why I’m here. isn’t she?” . Have you seen a doctor?” “I…no. smiling pleasantly. “Debt collection agency. “You took your time. sunshine.” “I was in the toilet. Do it all the time in fact. what about it then? What about the money you owe me? When am I going to get it back?” “I’m unemployed.” He grinned.” “Blimey. innit. I don’t owe you anything. I’d like to help but the fact is I’m absolutely broke myself. A gaunt middle-aged man dressed in pyjamas lurked in the shadows of the hallway.” “Oh yes they can.
do they? When are they going to take possession?” “I don’t know. “Why’s that then? You owe them too?” “I put the house up as a guarantee for my business loans. I’ll have some of that. Not enough to live on. There’s no way you’re coming in here. Very good.” the debt collector frowned.” “Ha!” he exclaimed triumphantly. The dog immediately leapt to its feet and started barking.” “Oh.” The debt collector thought for a moment. Them’s mine then. Very. Maybe not. which was mostly a question of thinking laterally and then applying pressure in the appropriate place. Is she working?” “She’s working but my old company’s bank is already stopping half her salary. tugging ferociously on its chain. Soon. eh?” “It’s a pittance. A Smeg is it? That’ll be worth something for a start. even if you ended up having to crush it to dust.” “You’re getting brew money though. very silly. “What about the contents?” “I don’t know. He turned back to Nick and shrugged his shoulders sympathetically.” “Of course I mind. “There’s always a way. “That’s a nice looking fridge.” “Good. People never think of the consequences. a smile playing on his lips. Most of the time you COULD get blood from a stone.“My wife? It’s got nothing to do with her.” “Did you? Very silly. Mind if I come in and look around?” He looked over Nick’s shoulder. I see it all the time. .” The debt collector turned and whistled to his Alsatian. He enjoyed the challenge of extracting blood from a stone.” “Maybe. What about the house?” “It’s signed over to the bank.
“You don’t want to have to put up with that all night. “Should get at least a grand for that in the auction. pulling on his old Barbour as he tumbled out of the house. He knew he had to get out.” Chapter 6 Nick was close to tears as he stood at his bedroom window and watched the white Range Rover drive off down the hill through a whirling snowstorm.” He whistled when he peered into the sitting-room. He was breathing hard. somehow unmanned. You got any paintings? Any originals? What about antiques? Silverware? Jewellery? Any heirlooms? Books even? Oi. Look at that. “Wow. his heart was thumping. The debt collector took out a pair of scissors and cut it in two. his face constantly whipped by stinging snowflakes. his hand shaking. Got to leave the necessities unfortunately. That’ll do nicely. Somewhere to sleep. He stopped to . He felt degraded. Right. He dressed with feverish haste. I can take the rest. do you?” Suddenly feeling that the situation was hopeless Nick stepped back and the debt collector sauntered into the hallway. The sanctity of his home had been desecrated. Georgian if I’m not mistaken. running his hand across the mahogany table in the hall. give me your credit card. “Nice piece of furniture. Only when he reached the foot of the hill did he pause to lace up his walking boots. The cooker. leaning blindly into the teeth of an icy blizzard. I’ll have that DVD player for a start.” “You’re going to take everything?” “I wish I could.” Nick fumbled in his wallet and handed over his platinum card. it would never be the same again. Never in a million years would he have believed that a debt collector would have penetrated his house. “That’s yours. He struggled on for nearly and hour until eventually the snowstorm abated sufficiently to reveal an unfamiliar cotton wool landscape. He felt like a refugee in wartime. When he bent over he almost threw up. He took out his notebook and started making an inventory. He staggered off southwards. He handed one half to Nick. brushing aside the illusion of safety. less of a person. He felt as if he had been raped. to get away from the scene of his humiliation before he broke down completely. He was out of breath and his stomach was churning as if he had been poisoned.” he said admiringly.
He sighed. Over the years he had spent many happy hours fishing the river. It would be a lonely grave. He stared thoughtfully down at the water wondering how deep it was. searching for the tell-tale flashes of silver that indicated the presence of fish preparing to dash through the rapids at the head of the pool. He couldn’t abandon his family. He leaned out over the parapet of the old military bridge and peered down into the dark churning water below. At that moment a lorry roared past. When the track petered out after about a mile he emerged from the forest adjacent to the main road at the point where it crossed the river Dee. Later. The river looked inviting for a different reason. Despite the recent heavy snowfalls the river was running free of ice and grue. He . He knew he would have to turn back eventually. He was exhausted and he leaned against the stone parapet of the bridge and stared down into the steely grey water below. He gazed down for several minutes into the powerful swirls and eddies thirty feet below. almost at early summer levels. How long it would take or the river would embrace him. Underneath the skeletal canopy of trees the snow was sparser and the going was a little easier. As a result the river was running low. He tried to re-connect with the past but failed. throwing up a slushy tidal bow wave that knocked him sideways. His brain was so numbed he didn’t feel the pain. when the snow melted up in the mountains Nick knew that the river would rise and the big spring runs of salmon would commence their journey to the spawning beds in the headwaters of the river. he wondered? The prospect of an end to all his problems was a beguiling one. In the event the water appeared empty. He waded through waving fields of waist-deep icy bracken and fought his way past massive banks of bramble bushes that tore at his exposed skin like rolls of barbed wire. He had read somewhere that drowning was a good way to die. He picked himself up and slithered on until he came to a T-junction where he deserted the main road and clambered over a wooden fence beyond which was the birch wood forest he used to play in as a child. devoid of life. Eventually he picked up the tracks of an old drove road that he knew would lead him to the river. He was the cause of all the problems. it was his duty to somehow put things right. So many fond memories. The clear nights had led to a succession of hard frosts which had reduced the run-off from the land as the earth froze. Immediately beneath the bridge was a fine pool almost a quarter of a mile long that often held large shoals of salmon.collect his thoughts. He was ready to admit defeat. He imagined himself plunging into the icy depths. potential companions on his next journey.
drifting back to sea on the current. Finally he decided that the rest of the pool was empty. He saw at once that the couple was a young female fisherman and her much older companion. Shortly afterwards he heard the sound of the fly swishing through the air beneath his feet and a few minutes later the couple appeared on the grassy bank immediately below him. From the blackness of the fish’s silhouette he decided that it was probably a kelt. Either the fish had already run on upstream after the last spate or they had not yet arrived this far inland. The ghillie looked up once more. at two equally startled people looking up at him from the riverbank below. Nick wasn’t surprised by his reaction. he thought to himself. glaring at him with all the warmth of a store detective greeting the arrival of a serial shoplifter. The harsh sunlight glinting on the rippling water had turned the pool into a silvery mirror. The woman wielding the rod fished on oblivious to his presence. whom he reckoned was in her early thirties. the cat can look at the queen. exhausted after spawning. He squinted at the burnished surface until his eyes watered. The ghillie simply scowled back while the young woman. He smiled self-consciously at them. almost thirty miles from the sea. almost certainly a ghillie. proceeded to ignore him completely as she performed a superbly executed Spey cast. He leaned further out over the parapet to get a better view into the shaded depths beneath the arch of the bridge. To his surprise he found himself staring. Fuck you. He had often in the past watched the dark. He returned the old man's malevolent stare with equanimity. so early in the season. Unable to breathe properly in his bat-like position he regained his footing on the road and waited for the couple to emerge from under the bridge as they worked their way down through the pool. As if to make a mockery of his conclusion that the stretch was empty a big fish splashed languidly in the tail of the pool sending out a huge concentric ring of ripples. can’t he? I might be a bankrupt and a failed businessman at the end of my tether but I am still a human being. appearing . sending the line out and across and down the river in a smooth and effortless delivery that he would have been proud to emulate. upside-down. Just about. a burly dark-skinned man of about sixty dressed in thick brown tweeds. ominous torpedo shapes of cock fish gliding upriver in their relentless drive to reach the spawning grounds.craned his neck to examine a stretch of pale sandy gravel running along the edge of the river. When you are the keeper on a top salmon beat every stranger is a potential poacher.
Someone who knew exactly what they wanted and how to get it. Her blonde hair was short and quite straight. but he was sure she was some sort of celebrity. or maybe he had but she thought she knew better. It struck him at that moment that this was the first time he had smiled for weeks. He could hear them muttering to each other and once more he was the recipient of a murderous look from the ghillie. A cool. Whoever she was he could see she was a looker. She was dressed in a well-cut Barbour wading jacket. She wore fashionable sunglasses. he admitted to himself with a rueful smile. Three times more the old ghillie looked back up at him. that was for sure. He knew from experience that a spring salmon. The underclass. Despite her good casting technique Nick reckoned that she was moving the fly through the water too quickly for the time of year. an actress perhaps or maybe someone from the world of modelling or music. Round her neck was wrapped a white scarf. jeans and a smartlooking pair of green wellingtons. When they had fished down through the pool the couple walked back along the bank to a landrover parked beside the bridge. The woman on the other hand never took her eyes off her fly. For the first time he could see her face clearly and he felt certain that she looked familiar. one of the most exclusive beats on Deeside. And she wanted a fish and no ill-mannered rustic gawping down at her from a public road was going to stop her.utterly intent on expertly covering every inch of the pool. especially a big springer. actually. not allowing it to sink down far enough to reach the fish. although she rose nothing. Although he had never been a political animal for once he felt like he was doing his bit for his class. He was surprised the ghillie hadn't pointed this out. From the safety of the bridge he enjoyed a mild feeling of satisfaction at the discomfiture his presence was creating – he had fallen so far below them in society’s pecking order this was probably the only way he would ever appear on their radar screens. He assumed that they were talking about him. plainly resenting his presence. haughty beauty. The sudden realisation of what he had gone . about thirty metres from where Nick was standing. Despite the almost-tangible waves of animosity beaming up towards him Nick continued to watch the pair for another twenty minutes or so as they fished down through the pool. She would certainly have to be either rich or very well-connected to be able to fish this stretch of water. She looked like the kind of person who would always think she knew best. For the time being he could not put a name to the face. like something that had just stepped out of the pages of Country Life. She was bare-headed. and at this time of the year the fish always lay deep. in any other context he would have been invisible. will often appear lethargic and disinterested unless the lure swims slowly right past the end of its nose.
He knew the river like the back of his hand. He knew they were equipped with walkietalkies and night-sights and other high tech devices. The price per pound for wild salmon was high. or at least indulge in that kind of lifestyle. An idea was beginning to take shape in his mind. He suddenly felt himself getting exited. Worth quite a bit when proffered round the back doors of some of the local fish merchants in town. hated the social hierarchy that perpetuated it. a rough and ready way with the . ten yards below the first. No questions asked. A few minutes later the ghillie strapped the rod onto the bonnet of the landrover and the couple drove off across the meadow at speed. which he wasn’t. giving him at least six months in which to make enough money to keep a roof over his head and get that ghastly debt collector off his back. And then another. Another fish splashed in the river right below the bridge. All the pain of trying to build up his own business simply wasn’t worth it and he’d been a fool to think otherwise. Not with a rod and line. The idea wasn’t too farfetched. To make matters worse he felt snubbed by their abrupt departure in some strange way that he didn’t understand. Envied their privileged way of life. He had regularly subsidised his fishing in the past by selling his catch in just such a way. There were problems of course. Nick watched them go with mixed emotions. Cash in hand. But maybe that was the wrong way to think about it. Tax-free. The spring run was just getting under way. He presumed they were off in search of a more promising stretch of water away from the public gaze. For a start his debts were so enormous that he would have to catch every fish in the river if he was ever going to pay them off. They were mobile too. Not the least of which was that the Dee was well policed by bailiffs. Maybe he had once aspired to join them. bouncing irritably across the rough pasture. He could certainly eke out an existence from poaching. A big net and a tin of poison from one of his farmer friends more like. He frowned as he stared down at the river. They had also. The sacrifices had all been in vain. It sounded crazy but…what if…poaching…on an industrial scale…Maybe the answer to his predicament was actually staring him in the face.through in that time made him immeasurably sad. reputedly. Yet another fantasy that had caused him to take risks he shouldn’t have done. Maybe even buy him enough time to get a proper job that would finally get his life back on track. He realised that he simultaneously envied and hated them. Nick had caught hundreds of fish in his time and he could tell that these were big fish. He should have remained poor but happy. he was sure of that. scattering a herd of cows as they did so. There were other drawbacks naturally.
The afternoon was wearing on and he was a long way from home. He checked his watch. He wasn’t beaten yet. expecting to be fed. Now he had a plan he would make it all up to her. It was up to him to make it work. At least while he was still within the river’s ancient floodplane the track was flat and mostly free of snow and ice. There was still hope. He reckoned he was about eight miles from home. But for the first time in weeks he was happy. his feet were lumps of ice. He knew it was his last chance. she was good at that sort of thing. He knew the river round here at least as well as any keeper. There was no doubt about it: the idea had legs. She was definitely famous. He was ravenously hungry and he started to salivate as he imagined the intensity of the flavours he would create. It really irritated him that he could not put a name to her face. He had found a potential solution to his problems. Martin in particular loved spicy foods . On the other hand… On the other hand there was an awful lot of river to watch and provided you were well-camouflaged and kept your wits about you… Nor would he be operating in an alien environment. He would be lucky to get back before Maureen and Martin arrived back from town. After a while he gave up puzzling about the woman and started thinking about the meal he would prepare for Maureen and Martin. A silvery ribbon of hope weaving its way through the rich green pasture. He had played in the woods as a child and despite the encroaching darkness he soon found a track he recognised. He clenched his fists in front of his chest like a boxer. He strode out with a sense of purpose. Maureen would have known who she was. almost certainly a film star. Even the cabbage could be glamorised if he stir-fried it for example.poachers they caught. He couldn’t wait to tell Maureen. It was a shame there wasn’t any drink in the house to celebrate his Big Idea. He was pretty sure he could spice up the tin of corned beef and maybe he could do the potatoes in a different way. Nick retreated into the wood. They would just have to make do with spring water. A ribbon he would soon untie to claim his prize. He took a last look at the deserted river. he was chilled to the marrow. She was the one who had really suffered in all this. His legs were stiff from standing still for so long. he hadn’t eaten all day. Despite his tiredness he quickly got into his stride and was soon marching along at a brisk pace. As he walked he tried to remember who the fisherwoman was that he had observed earlier down at the river. maybe even royalty. After the meal he would tell Maureen about his plan to .
Chapter 7 Nick limped into the driveway and was immediately taken aback to see Maureen's Saab parked outside the garage.rescue them from financial ruin. while Martin too would be indignant that his tea wasn't ready and waiting as usual. They had a bit of land after all. trap? His heart began to beat faster. Wearily he trudged up the hill in darkness towards the cottage. he prayed as he struggled up the hill. in trying to work out a solution to their problems. Please God. He hesitated. That was odd. An owl hooted in the woods opposite the house and he jumped. he quickened his footsteps. they’d probably been held up by traffic in town. He felt guilty at the length of time he had been away. His nerves were on edge. Where there had been despair there was now hope. Normally whoever was first back put on the outside light and of course the inside lights but everything here was still in darkness. Maybe even chickens. gooseberries and damsons harvested in the summer. He could reap salvation from the land not just by poaching salmon but by snaring rabbits and hares and shooting pheasants. Maybe there . Really he should have been home a couple of hours ago to get the tea ready. brutish and short. All the same he smiled to himself at the miraculous way the day had been transformed. It wasn’t a game was it? A surprise? Or… a …. What a feast that would make – like a medieval banquet. Nor did he hark after the good old days when he knew only too well that life for most people on the land was nasty. maybe even the odd deer. Now that spring was here he could dig up the garden and plant seeds and potatoes too. If they did arrive home before the meal was ready it would mean that Maureen would be all harassed and resentful. Mushrooms and chanterelles could be picked in the autumn. Wild raspberries. an increasingly regular occurrence nowadays. sheep and pigs were probably out of the question. He frowned. In future they would live off the land just like their ancient ancestors had done. nearly half an acre. Raising animals to kill them wasn’t something he felt too comfortable about to tell the truth. Being realistic. And he was just thinking about the meal either. he would have failed them abysmally. To his great relief there were no lights showing so he figured Maureen and Martin weren’t back yet. He wasn’t being romantic about it either – he wasn’t some old hippie or like someone out of the Good Life. Something was wrong. Once again. It occurred to him that he didn’t have to stop at salmon. In desperation. What he was doing was entirely pragmatic. An hour later he reached the foot of the farm road. please let me get it right this time. A short term solution to tide them over until he got a proper job. despite his tiredness.
Of course it was a power cut. These blackouts were a regular occurrence. Probably the weight of the frozen snow had snapped a power line although it could be anything. "It's not a power cut. mechanically stirring the saucepan on the primus. it certainly wasn’t a fuse. Very slowly and cautiously he slid open the back door and felt his way into the house. He watched her for a moment like he was watching a scene from an old silent movie." he said breathlessly. The first thing he saw when he entered the shadowy." she said softly. Power cuts were a regular feature of life in the country. His voice was almost drowned out by the roar of the primus.” Maureen looked up for the first time. Just to make sure he tried switching on the television . Nick was puzzled. "Don't tell me another power cut. The way she was behaving unnerved him. She was staring at him as if he was a total stranger. as if he was a ghost." He tried the two different light switches in the hall and the kitchen and nothing happened. staring into it like a witch casting spells over a cauldron. acting almost as if he wasn’t there. unlit kitchen was Maureen hunched over a roaring primus stove. ready to run at the first sign of trouble. She was stirring a pot by the light of a single flickering candle. Maureen continued to ignore him.” he exclaimed with unconvincing vehemence. you’d think the power company would have got their act together after all this time.” he shouted. Famously. making him feel small and insignificant. "What? It must be. “Christ. relieved that nothing worse had happened. Sometimes Maureen’s stupidity amazed him. She did not look up when he entered the room. the lights were on different circuits. Nick understood immediately what had happened. The condensation from her breath flamed in the jet from the primus as though she was breathing fire. on tiptoe. “Couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery that lot.was a posse of creditors lurking in the darkness ready to leap out on him? Or the bank manager? Worst of all maybe the debt collector had come back to take the shirt off his back. The reek of paraffin pervaded the room. She turned down the jet on the primus. the electricity company had once discovered that it had been cows rubbing up against an electricity pylon which had caused a whole winter of disruption. holding his breath. usually associated with bad weather and high winds. although on this occasion snow was the more likely culprit. “It’s the same every bloody year.
There’s no other explanation. tasting the contents of the pot with the wooden spoon as steam rose up around her. Nick?" He frowned again. "See. It must be a power cut. Nothing happened. “Look for yourself.” “Can’t you. Their world was coming to an end as they entered a new Ice Age. His teeth started chattering. I can’t figure it out. "I don't understand. rubbing his knee.” said Maureen. gently with a wooden spoon. He couldn’t breath in. He wanted to turn and run back out of the house and hide out in the fields but he couldn’t move." he declared triumphantly. The lights from a dozen scattered houses twinkled merrily like a scene on a Christmas card. He could tell from the sound of her voice that she was really upset. Normally when a power line went down the whole valley was plunged into darkness. banging his knee painfully against the sideboard as he did so. This has never happened before. he rejected the evidence of his own eyes. her voice reduced to a whisper behind the hissing flame of the primus. He tried to think. hoping against hope. I told you. As the implications of her observation dawned on him Nick felt as if someone was slowly pouring a bucket of cold water over his head. If it wasn’t a power cut they…they must have been cut off. as if he was suffering from some kind of mental hypothermia. He stared in dismay at the familiar view. The house was freezing. "Look outside. first one way then the other.in the sitting room. His brain too was slowing down. He shivered. "it's not working either. No-one else's lights have gone off. He was drowning in terror. "Why is it just us?" "Don't you?” “It’s bizarre. he just couldn’t think straight any more. He felt his way back through to the kitchen." Maureen continued stirring the contents of the saucepan on the primus. He felt as if the blood was congealing in his veins." he said. Although he dreaded what he was going to find Nick forced himself to cross the sitting-room floor in the darkness and look out through the picture window down upon the valley below. If it wasn’t a power cut…if it wasn’t a power cut…if it wasn’t a power cut…He couldn’t get his brain to work properly. There was no doubt about what happened and yet." she said eventually. What did she think had happened to them? What did she .
” "Oh. Perhaps the final link had been broken in some kind of accident." he said fatuously.” Maureen continued to stare blankly at him. An age passed before she finally spoke. the rates.” “I’ve already phoned them. So what's the problem? When are they coming to fix it?" She stopped stirring the saucepan and stared at him through dead eyes. She knew everything. "Jesus. This was it then. Leave it to me. He had been caught red-handed." “It’s no problem. Along with all the other unpaid bills and final reminders. "I found the bill stuck behind the clock on the mantelpiece unopened." He stared at her in horror. He felt the blood draining from his face. Car insurance. still in denial. a bill from the garage. The moment when all his dreams of salvation were about to be slaughtered on the altar of harsh reality. I'm amazed that hasn't been cut off already. "They said they’ll fix it when we pay our bill. the day of reckoning." His legs suddenly went weak and he was obliged to sit down at the kitchen table. half a dozen letters from the bank. The phone bill is well overdue too. I'll phone the electricity people right now and find out what's happened. I’ll put a rocket up their arse I can tell you. . She knew. "I thought we'd paid it." “Did you?” “I could have sworn I sent off a cheque a week ago. The showdown he had been dreading for months had finally arrived." "You needn’t bother. Maybe it was just them. He said." he interrupted. A big pile of threatening letters from your credit card company. "I knew it was bad but I didn't think it was that bad. “What?” “They said they’ll turn it back on…” "Jesus.know? Maybe she thought it was just the power line into their house." Nick frowned. All unopened. "Don’t worry. It was possible. even to himself.
write a cheque. There was no way he would get through the impending crisis on his own. I’ve spent bloody weeks worrying myself sick about them trying to come up with an answer. How about that? No? What about the house? Sell the house? Oh. He knew there was no defence for his behaviour. Nick. He felt absolutely wretched." She shut her eyes. It was stupid of me to ignore them. I know. No. How? What. But how? We’re broke Maureen. I’m stumped. you tell me how we can pay them all off.” “They’ll have to be paid somehow. “I know. Tell you what. I know. she had always been loyal. I was terrified. I just know they'll have to be paid somehow. I admit it. now it’s your . close to tears. Up until that moment she had always been supportive whatever his failings.” he muttered. Put them on the credit card. “I know. Maureen. Suddenly she seemed like a different woman.” He didn’t tell her about the visit from the debt collector. “I didn’t want to worry you. tried to have reached an accommodation somehow. “If you hadn’t ignored them we could have talked to them. No. "I don’t know the answer. After all. If she left him now she would be leaving him for dead.” It was his turn to stare in disbelief. had always stuck by him. There going to throw us out onto the street. I forgot it belongs to the bank doesn’t it." "Oh yes. If she abandoned him now he was finished. I know. "You didn't think it was that bad? Oh.” He hated being in the wrong. "All right. but what was I supposed to do?” “Why didn’t you talk to me about it? I’d no idea it was this bad. I was too scared. what did you think? Did you think all those bills were going to go away if you ignored them? Is that what you thought? I couldn't believe it when I found them. The next thing you know they’ll be turning up on the doorstep asking for money. If you hadn’t hidden them like that we might have been able to do something before it got to this. Nick. How could you have been so bloody stupid?" It was the first time he had ever heard her swear and it scared him.She stared at him in disbelief.
” “You can’t blame me for that.” “All right. “You never discussed the business with me.” “The loss of your major customer didn’t help I suppose. ‘I started out with nothing and I’ve still got most of it left. we can survive now. through clenched teeth. “I know it’s all my fault. I’m not a bloody magician you know. It came out of the blue. I can’t read the future. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have taken on so much debt trying to grow the business. “This isn’t helping. If you don’t do what they want they’ll get someone else who will.’” She didn't smiled at his feeble attempt to make light of the matter. Nick. I think that’s fair. I didn’t know what you were doing. don’t go on about it. spitting out the words. foam flecking the corners of his mouth. Go on. You blame me for running the business into the ground. did they?” . don’t you. “Just like the old joke. don’t you?” He was becoming hysterical.” “And where were those customers when you needed them? They didn’t care what happened to you when the work dried up.” It was a difficult question. I had to trust me.” Nick grimaced. Maureen turned away.turn. We had nothing when we first go married. The customers always want you to do more.” “So it is all my fault.” “You can’t stand still in business. say it.” “You do blame me though. I never understood why you were always trying to make the company bigger. How was I to know that would happen. She thought for several seconds. She hated rows.” she said. You can’t plan for something like that. Maureen. We survived then. Rows were his way of avoiding the truth.” “There’s no point blaming anyone.
Nick.” “I know. Jumped ship at the first sign of trouble did he? Aye. She placed the saucepan on the table in front of him." Nick took the news badly. Okay. Anything. If you hadn’t borrowed all that money we wouldn’t be in this situation now. Nick. I’ve tried everything. That doesn’t stop me going out every day and knocking my pan in at school. "You'll have to have bread with it.” “I’ve tried Maureen. I might have guessed it.” “Well.” She didn’t reply immediately.” “You can’t give up Nick.” “Maureen.” Maureen sighed. She said. you can’t leave it all up to me to sort out.” “Nick. The tinned stew she had been heating on the primus was starting to bubble. I’m sorry. what are we going to do now. "I can't cook potatoes as well. I just wanted the best for you and Martin. I did it for al the right reasons. I know. don’t you. No one will take me. “The question is.” “I don’t know." He frowned. "Oh has he. What’s going to happen to Martin and me? You’ve got to get a job." . how do you think I feel? This thing has been a nightmare for me too." she said. But I did it because I loved you both. almost as if it was somehow their fault. I’m a beaten man. he's a great comfort to us all.Nick shrugged. I don't know what to do next. You’ve got to start bringing some money into the house. "What about Martin?" "He's gone off to stay with one of his friends.” For the first time a hint of resentment had crept into her voice. She was aware that in a way he was using their love as a justification for his lofty ambitions. That’s not fair. “That’s the nature of the game I was in. It could have gone the other way and I could have made a fortune. I’ve run out of ideas. “We didn’t need a fortune. I was perfectly happy to get by on a living wage. You understand that. I was wrong.
He pushed his plate away and buried his head in his hands. He’d always believed in the family ideal. That was the whole point of being a family. He shouldn’t be blaming them. she had no lack of choice when she was young – she wouldn’t be in this mess now. What do you want him to do.” “I just think we should stick together as a family in a crisis. He said softly. I’m just living in fear the whole time. He sighed. is that what you want?" Her words wounded him deeply. The reality was that their solidarity was rapidly disintegrating at the first real sign of trouble. Nick.” “You expect too much of him. Then everything just spiralled out of control." She wasn't used to seeing her husband looking beaten. That’s what had driven him ever since he’d got married. starting the business. I really am. This wasn't how it was meant to be. Of course that wasn't what he wanted. working himself into the ground. that was all. "I'm sorry. and you know it. He was only too aware that if Maureen had married someone else – as she could easily have done. So much for being a closeknit family bound together by love. He knew it wasn’t their fault that everything had gone to pieces. And I can’t see any way out. It hurts so much. He had to take responsibility for his shortcomings. go out and get a job at Macdonald's to pay the bills? You want him to sacrifice his future to save your skin. risking everything. Just a bit of solidarity wouldn't have gone amiss. feeling so sorry for . They were supposed to present a united front against the world. When the phone rings I nearly die of fright. sentimental product of fifties Hollywood. metallic silence. Maureen turned off the primus and the room rang with an echoing. I didn’t open the letters because I didn’t know what I could do about them. The least they could do when it all went wrong was to stand by him. It's just all been too much for me recently. "That’s not a fair comment. He’s just a child.Maureen moved the candle onto the table and sat down opposite her husband. It just makes me feel worthless. Nick. This whole thing is my fault. He hated it when they fought like this. helping herself to a little of the stew. a saccharine. Every time the postman calls I’m just terrified. He couldn’t bear the thought that his ideal might just be an illusion. All those letters of rejection. Why shouldn’t he spend the night with his friends? Would you rather he sat here in the dark feeling miserable. He had done it all for them. love.
To tell you the truth I sometimes feel like I'm carrying the problems of the whole fucking world on my shoulders. It wouldn’t be long before his brain gave up too and that really would be the finish. she had no wish to twist the knife in him when he was down. whatever he might think. He was just too old. I’m so uptight my head is spinning like it’s about to come off." . The collapse of the business seemed to have changed him completely. as she always did. He was so overwhelmed by the situation that he was losing control of his bodily functions. what are we going to do about all those bills? We can't just go on ignoring them. Even the idea of poaching salmon suddenly seemed far-fetched when it was set against the reality of the pile of threatening letters. That and finding someone to take him on at his age. any halfsensible suggestions. "Nick. "If only you'd talk about these things more. you'll just have to go and see the bank manager tomorrow. however responsible he might be for their current dire straits. At the end of the day he knew the only real answer was to get a job.." She waited patiently for him to calm down. optimism. Nick. forcing the meat between his sullen lips. "The question is." She flinched at his violent language but on this occasion left her customary reprimand unsaid. maybe could have been avoided with a little common sense. Doing what though? That was the real insoluble question.. Even so. Not unsympathetically she said." "Perhaps you're right. I don’t suppose the mortgage has been paid either. “Christ. I do keep these things bottled up inside me. Explain the position. Unemployment for the likes of him was here to stay. She loved him too much to see him hurt any more. so that at times she hardly recognised him any more. She felt desperately sorry for him even if a lot of his present problems were self-inflicted. dribbling gravy down his chin and onto his shirt. Eventually she said. Ask him for a bigger overdraft to tide us over. sometimes even foolish." He ate his stew in silence. Perhaps we could find the solution together. He didn't need her to tell him that. no one needed his outdated skills any more. the world had changed and left him far behind. As it was he was struggling to come up with any new answers. knocked all the stuffing out of him. throwing in the towel like this. His present demeanour was a worrying contrast to his usual blithe.open up a bit.himself.
Nick. Nick?" Maureen persisted. leaving her to somehow pick up the pieces." They ate the rest of their meal in silence and because the house was so cold without the central heating and there was no television to watch and the candle stumps gave out too little light to read by they retired to bed before nine. He no longer looked remotely like the man she had married. "Will you. Not that there's much in the fridge. She knew how to turn the screw when she had to.” she muttered sleepily. no television." . And the coal ran out nearly a week ago and the logs are almost finished." He shifted in his seat. That night they were too angry and hurt and bitter to reach out to each other for warmth or love as they usually did. filled him with dread. that's all. no water being pumped from the well. no microwave. “I've got to get up in the morning. determined to pin him down for once. "I suppose I'll have to." he agreed reluctantly. pulling the blankets tight up to their chins in the freezing cold room." The thought of confronting their personal bank manager. no cooker. Just don't go on about it. no fridge. a man with whom in the past he had regularly shared a laugh and a joke as if they were equals. "You get it. Nick pretended he was asleep but Maureen nudged him with her elbow. the loving husband who until recently had run a successful business. no washing machine. At ten twenty-three the phone rang in the sitting-room downstairs. that’s more important. We'll have to get money from somewhere otherwise we really will be thrown out onto the streets. "All right. "We can't go on like this. She felt her sympathy turning to anger as she contemplated the way he had thrown in the towel. "Promise me you’ll go." The vehemence of her outburst scared him. all right."You mean dig ourselves deeper into debt?" She stared across at him through the shadowy light. I'll go. no lights. "All right." "Go to the bank first. No electricity means no central heating. I'll go down to the Job Centre first thing in the morning.
please. had unexpectedly lost a key member of staff. It had needed a lot doing to it too after his amateurish attempts to make it roadworthy. he prayed as he picked up the phone. the bill hasnae been paid. Couldn't pay. what can I do for you?" Ronnie Sutherland came from a farming family that had lived on the land for generations. What about it?" "Weel. "I'm sorry. "Weel. "Hello?" "Nick Dowty?" The voice sounded vaguely familiar. of generations past eking out a living from a hard and unforgiving earth. "That's strange. It happened. please God make it good news. The garage up the hill. Who?" "Ronnie Sutherland. Who's calling?" "It's Ronnie Sutherland.He stumbled downstairs in the darkness. Maybe one of the companies he had written to was suddenly desperate.” he said." The name was vaguely familiar. “That's me. He had a slow. Was it one of his old customers who wanted to offer him a fresh start? "Yes." "Oh yes." . new tyres. Who could possibly be phoning them at this time of night? Surely it wasn’t a reply to one of his many job applications. We repaired your wife’s car the other week. She must have overlooked it. a new clutch." The garage! Oh shit. If it was it would truly be a miracle. deliberate way of speaking that was timeless. Please God. wise and immutable. barely able to contain his excitement. A new exhaust. Maybe this was his lucky break at last. A fortune which they hadn't yet paid. "Yes. A toughness that was accentuated by his thick Aberdeenshire burr. The car. They had serviced the car over a month ago. The authority of the soil. of course Ronnie. He felt his spirits rising as he felt his way across the floor in the darkness. not just the brakes that he'd buggered up. Maureen usually likes to pay all the bills promptly." Nick affected surprise at this news. the bill for your car for a start. I'll speak to her about it in the morning.
" “I’d prefer if you could speak to her right noo. Nick’s legs suddenly started trembling.” “I dinna like being made a feel of. chiel. I don’t discuss these matters with her in any detail. "Will you no speak to her aboot it noo?" Considering the time of night Nick thought this was coming it a bit strong.” Nick was shocked by the unpleasantness of the remark. intrusive form of interrogation. “Look. someone going through a bad patch.” Ronnie Sutherland pondered this suggestion for a moment. I promise. in a slightly posher accent than the one with which he normally spoke. "Right. "Well. She must just have forgot. he thought angrily. I'll .“The thing is.” “Like I said.” “She’s been so busy recently. I’ll speak to her in the morning. I'm afraid she's asleep right now. “You’ll get your money I promise. “I’ve got a business to run. I canna afford to be oot of pocket jist because supposedly she’s too busy to pay me. He said. She might want to use her credit card or perhaps she’ll pay you cash. Besides. you leave my poor wife out of this. Fuck you. just a guy who was down on his luck. you bastard. My suppliers won’t wait. but I'll speak to her in the morning like I say. Cash will be fine. He wasn’t a criminal for Christ’s sake. Just because you owed someone money it didn’t mean they could treat you like shit.” The man sounded really angry.” A pause." Ronnie Sutherland was having none of it. he was determined to insulate Maureen as much as he could from the unpleasant consequences of their dire financial state. I’ve sent you three reminders already. I’ll speak to her in the morning. "Will it be cash or a cheque?" Despite his dread of creditors Nick was intensely irritated by this persistent.” Another long pause. I’ve got better things to do than to go round hounding clowns like you for money. she’s asleep right now. ye ken. "I really don't know how she intends to pay.
In the darkness his anger turned to . What right did that arsehole have to hound him like that? Invading the sanctity of his own home just like a burglar in the night.come round in the morning and collect it. "She leaves very early I’m afraid. "Well. all right. The trouble was there was no way they could pay his bill in the morning. The phone call had shaken him. his voice rising in panic. The man obviously had plenty of experience of dealing with bad payers. is that all right?" Nick knew this was his only possible course of action. He had to put him off somehow. "She's got to work tomorrow.” “Not cash?” “A cheque would be more convenient. Jesus! it made him angry. almost respectful tone. the man was persistent." he said quickly.” “Honestly. I promise. I'll bring it round in the afternoon.” "What time will you bring this cheque?" Jesus Christ! Talk about hounding someone for payment. I'm busy in the morning.” “A cheque. We don’t keep cash in the house. He switched the bedside light off and closed his eyes and tried to sleep." The idea of being confronted on his own doorstep by the burly garage owner filled Nick with horror. Maybe time to come up with another solution. "Before the banks shut?" The thought that he might delay his visit to prevent the cheque being presented the same day had never occurred to Nick. His heart thumped as he climbed back into bed. before the banks shut. It would take several days for the cheque to bounce. He said. in a conciliatory. "What time does she leave the house?" Christ. I'll bring you a cheque round myself tomorrow. Look. Or a rapist even." He put down the phone and climbed the stairs back to the bedroom. "Yes. further undermining the sense of security that being in his own home used to bring him. He didn’t attempt to keep the exasperation out of his voice.
There was no way he could pay the garage. No hope. He groaned. No future. Sitting up . begged him to go to sleep. shoals of valuable fish swimming unwittingly to his rescue. A life not worth living. rivers flooded. his pyjamas soaked. Rock bottom. He found the noise – the sound and the fury – oddly comforting. There would be people in real danger out there in the wind and rain. The shame of it all. but then what? What if the man then came round to the house to have it out with him? Or sent in the bailiffs. Soon a storm blew up. driven by the primal urge to procreate. As the rain drummed upon the roof his thoughts turned to the river. Maureen had already left. half awake. Soothed by the din from the waves of sheeting rain that the storm was flinging against the roof tiles he finally started to drift off to sleep. into the gutter.fear as he imagined what tomorrow was going to bring. flinging themselves into the rising current. Then there was the bank manager to face tomorrow. forests were flattened. an angelic expression on her face. He couldn't sleep. the very real possibility that the garage owner might actually come round to confront him about the unpaid bill. He pulled the sheets up around his chin and lay safe and warm in his own bed beside his loving wife. Or even a couple of hard men to give him a good hiding. buildings were damaged. Dawn was breaking. At a certain moment. In a few hours the water level would begin to rise. his heart thumping. Maureen groaned. He slept fitfully for three hours or so before waking up in a cold sweat. Over and over. The best that he could hope for was a few day’s grace while it went through the system. destitute. His fear turned to anger again and then to fear and back again. It was around three in the morning. He rolled over but the bed was empty. Endlessly. And it was all his fault. great shoals of silver fish swimming to the spawning beds far upstream. Beside him Maureen slept soundly. triggered by a hidden signal buried in their genes they would suddenly charge en masse upstream. any cheque he wrote would bounce. At about midnight it started to rain. In the tidal estuary far away the shoals of salmon would smell the imminent spate. Then what? Without her money coming in they would be tossed out onto the streets for certain. He kept thinking about the phone call. He could not lie still for a moment. his head throbbing. It somehow put the severity of his plight into perspective. You couldn’t rely on the buses round here. If Maureen lost the car she risked losing her job. Instinctively they would crowd together at the river’s mouth. What the hell was he going to say to him? What if he called in their overdraft? What then? How were they going to eat? What about the car? If the garage owner took the car in lieu of payment they would be stranded. People died in storms. Torrential rain and gale force winds lashed the bedroom window and rattled the slates.
He frowned. Scattered on the carpet lay the familiar collection of threatening-looking letters which he hid unopened in a new hiding place at the back of the airing cupboard. And yet. Even his soul felt leaden. even in the dazzling morning light. This letter was almost certainly a standard rejection.and looking out through the bedroom window he saw that the skies had cleared and the wind had dropped. It took him a few seconds to recall that it was a company he had written to several months previously in response to a recruitment advertisement in the local paper. In certain circumstances no news was good news. one of many he had responded to during the brief period of heady optimism that had gripped him in the immediate aftermath of his business failure. however. Another blow to his diminishing residue of self-esteem left over from the good old days when he had been a . an almost deafening dawn chorus. A few remaining innocuous-looking circulars he left on the kitchen table as decoys for Maureen to open when she came home from work. A senior post in a fast-growing young company that was making a name for itself in the software industry. He hesitated. How naïve he had been! He weighed the envelope in his hands for several seconds. Sometimes it was better not to hear back from a company at all. He tried to clamber out of bed but the effort exhausted him. Or at least it wasn’t bad news. postponing the almost certain disappointment that would follow when he finally opened it. And then. he could see no way forward. a miracle happened. The name seemed familiar. He picked it up gingerly. “Nexab International”. The blue and yellow corporate logo on the front of the envelope looked vaguely familiar. The sun was shining benignly on the massed flocks of finches and blackbirds that were singing their hearts out in the trees around the house. a polite disavowal of the need to deploy his undoubted talents in the company. One letter. Chapter 8 The postman delivered the mail at the usual time and drove off up the hill in his red landrover. just as he hit rock bottom. As far as he could recall he had applied for the position of Marketing Director. no way of avoiding his dreadful fate. stood out from the others. Nick crept back downstairs from his usual hiding place as soon as he was sure it was safe. He looked closer. Just like all the rest. with the birth of a bright new day dawning.
None of what they said made any difference to him. The Today programme was on the radio but he wasn’t really listening – he didn’t much care about the rest of the world right now. He would wait at least until he had finished a second cup of tea before opening the letter. Twice he had woken up dreaming he was drowning. He imagined that this was how life closed in on you at the very end. most of it unintelligible. In the event the tea was surprisingly good considering the cheapness of the yellow label tea bags he had bought so shamefacedly from the local village shop. Breathtaking. At least judging by the postmark it wasn’t the news he had been dreading . animation was suspended. precipitating another bout of crippling despair.he had looked around in relief at his familiar surroundings. One solitary cup of tea would constitute his whole breakfast. he had more than enough troubles of his own to preoccupy him. Even more than usual he wasn’t in the mood for bad news that morning.a summons from the sheriff officers. determined to prolong his blissful ignorance for as long as possible. Glittering. A disappointment postponed was…well. probably. It didn’t matter. He pushed the letter away from him. Trying to conserve fuel he boiled the water on the primus with the jet at half strength. He could almost feel his synapses popping from anxiety as the inevitable denouement approached. blocking off all escape routes. The Crucible. just the odd familiar word. Too many wild and vivid dreams had left him struggling to distinguish between fantasy and reality. he wasn’t sure which one. They were discussing a new production of one of Arthur Miller’s plays. darkening your horizons. Even in the cold light of day – and it really was cold without the central heating . With no morning paper to read he sat staring at the envelope in front of him while he drummed his fingers on the table. All he wanted now was silence but he was too tired to get up and switch the damned radio off. His fear of the outside world had reduced him to such a state of torpor that time itself had almost ground to a halt. The radio continued to churn out the sound of people talking and for a moment he imagined he was back at work listening to the hum of conversation all around him. After the confrontation with Maureen and the shock of having their electricity cut off he hadn’t slept at all well. He took another sip from his cup of weak tea but the dregs . Soaring imagination. It wasn’t much of a reprieve but when you’re living precariously on the slopes of an active volcano every second of tranquillity before the next eruption is a bonus. amazed that he was still alive. a disappointment postponed. Any more bad news would almost certainly tip him over the edge. The minutes dragged by in a funereal procession and the news ended. the probable precursor to something much worse.successful entrepreneur.
beaming. Bracing himself for bad news he lunged across the table and grabbed the envelope and ripped it open. Yours sincerely David Millen Personnel Director” As soon as he had recovered from his initial shock Nick excitedly phoned the company to arrange an appointment for his interview. He knew he could not put off the inevitable any longer. his eyes darting dizzily across the blue company letterhead: “Dear Mr Dowty Unfortunately the post for which you applied in February has been filled. When Maureen and Martin came home that evening they found the house transformed. . (He knew it!) We did however put your application on file and as a result we wish to invite you to a preliminary interview for the position of Business Development Executive which has arisen due to the rapid expansion of our company (Good God! A miracle!). If (IF!!!!!!!) you wish to be considered for this post please phone me to arrange an interview at your earliest convenience. They were in a hurry and gave him a date in three days time.were now cold and he recoiled in disgust as the cold. Even cowards finally reach the point where it’s easier to confront the truth than to live in permanent fear.” explained Nick. greasy liquor swilled around his mouth. He read quickly. The intervening period would be nerve-wracking but exciting. “I’ve been Spring cleaning. If we do not hear from you within the next five working days we will assume you are not interested in this position and will accordingly delete your file from our records. While this is a less senior position than the one for which you originally applied we do feel that it is one with the potential for promotion within the company. forcing himself to read what he was sure would be the latest rejection letter from a prospective employer.
Give my soul the kiss of life.” “The right way up will do fine.” “I’ve got a good feeling about this one. Maureen.” “Oh. bathing all of them in its warm glow. I really do. Even the postman passed them by. looking tired and worried.” Maureen looked close to tears. I’m sure I’ll get it. He hasn’t got the job yet. He was so ashamed of Maureen’s banger that he made her drop him off a mile from his school. You know. Optimism flooded the house. you promised.00 o’clock that afternoon. Like ordinary people. “Read this. The phone remained silent. living in constant fear of a knock at the door announcing the arrival of an irate creditor. It means everything to me.. Fitzgerald. I could do it standing on my head. Free from fear.” “I hope you get it. I read the words but I can’t take them in. Re-read all the authors I loved when I was younger. Evelyn Waugh. Re-connect to the things that really matter. “Give him a chance. “No need.” While they waited for the day of his interview to arrive they continued to live off scraps of food in the cold house.” “You’ve got plenty of time to read now if you wanted to. Come home after an honest day’s work and collapse in front of the fire with a glass of wine and a good book. without electricity. I need that job to set my mind free again. His appointment was scheduled for 1. For all our sakes. It’s made for me.” “I just want to live again. “Will you get a company car?” asked Martin wistfully.” He held out the letter from Nexab International. Miraculously no-one came near them.“Have you been to see the bank manager?” demanded Maureen. Hemingway. Nick. Get back to being the kind of person I was before I took a wrong turning in life. Maureen laughed. He hadn’t been able to sleep the night before and he was . sparing them any more bad news. Finally the waiting ended.” “I can’t concentrate. All I can think about are our debts and what’s going to happen.
After the emptiness of the countryside it was a pleasure to see this sprinkling of humanity at work. their lives bursting with purpose. It was a world so different from his own aimless. Even a schoolteacher. “You can do it. Everyone was in a hurry. all of them exuberantly self-confident. with Maureen’s best wishes still ringing in his ears and his heart pounding wildly. a steady income. The milling crowds rushed around from shop to shop. He felt a pang of envy.” “Sock it to them. The bus arrived on time for once and he climbed aboard to attend his first job interview for almost two months. He was dressed in his now unfamiliar best dark blue suit. As they entered the outskirts of town Nick watched the sporadic groups of people scurrying about their daily business. Maureen bent down and kissed him on the forehead before she set off into town with Martin. “Good luck. with a job. everyone loaded down with bulging . He envied them their apparent sense of purpose.” she whispered. frantically snapping up bargains. When the time came he set off to walk the half mile down to the bus stop. tortured existence that he ached with jealousy.” said Martin. He realised that to be like them was all he had ever wanted from life. There seemed to be many more young people too. Battling through a tidal wave of earnest shoppers he commenced his dazed progress along the crowded High Street where it ran through the centre of town. darling. mundane worries about cutting the grass and cleaning the car. giving him a big thumbs up. their floodlit windows plastered with posters announcing massive discounts on just about everything in huge screaming letters. the same grim expressions on all their faces. dad. manageable debts. living in another world. averagely happy. He should have been a lawyer or an accountant. anticipating their glass of wine at the end of the day. from the bedroom doorway. Soon he hoped to be just like them. It was impossible not to notice that all the shops seemed to be holding sales. enduring a reasonably happy marriage. glowing with a modicum of self respect. Anything that would have made him ordinary. more like other people.still in bed when it was time for the others to leave. making plans over their phones. even aggressive. a sensible mortgage. I know you can. a sight that in his day had been a comparative rarity. As soon as he alighted from the bus in the centre of town it struck him forcibly how much things had changed in the six months during which he had been exiled deep in the countryside. For a start nearly everybody now seemed to be striding around with a mobile phone pressed to their ear.
litter piled up everywhere. pushed backwards. the abandoned churches now were all pubs and restaurants. Shopping truly was the new religion. wishing he’d never left home. The expressions on the faces of the people in the crowds. people were lining up outside in the streets to get in. he thought to himself in bewilderment. He felt claustrophobic. To make matters worse he realised that he had lost his ability to navigate through crowds. especially on himself. All the fast food shops were packed. eventually reaching the stage where he actually hated spending money. elbowing him out of the way. It didn’t make sense. he was beginning to panic.plastic bags as if the world was coming to an end. By the time he finally reached Nexab House in the West End he was already ten minutes late for his interview despite running the last half mile through the broad leafy avenue lined with granite mansions built by fish . Christianity had deserted the city. Empty food cartons were discarded on the pavements without a second thought. a character trapped in the bustle of a Breughel painting. had ploughed every spare penny back into the business. He stopped and gaped. His clumsiness meant he was continuously jostled. Whatever had happened to home cooking? A flask of soup. cursed at. swept into corners by a swirling. he wished he knew. The shopping malls through which he passed became a series of brightly-lit nightmares. disoriented. The feeling of latent violence in the air was oppressive. Carried out through a heavy glass door into the chill fetid air of the main street he stood in a daze as the traffic raced past in an endless stream. As he fought his way along Union Street. What was the secret of their wealth? Christ. Universally aggressive. He felt like he was drowning in a whirlpool of heartlessness. They seemed almost subhuman. Everyone seemed to have money to spend yet no one seemed to be working. it was hard to breathe. perhaps tribal. glaring at him as if he was an imbecile. snarling at his ankles whenever he attempted to sprint across to the other side of the road. hordes of people charged past him. as if their snarling humanity had somehow degenerated in his absence into something primitive. swimming against the prevailing current. He felt like a stranger amongst these pagan hordes. Something else struck him in this alien environment. a few feet away. snell March wind. a sandwich made at home before setting off to work? Vast numbers of people were eating in the street totally without shame or embarrassment. He’d been hard up all his life. In his short time away people had begun worshipping a different God with a fervour he had never observed before. Over the years he had become conditioned to living frugally. It was all so different today. Nick was only too conscious of the fact that he couldn’t afford lunch and the pervasive smell of fast food that lingered around the entrances to the shopping malls made him feel nauseous with hunger.
Instead she spent most of her time on the phone to a friend.that’s right…no… Luton… then we’re flying Virgin to Barbados…I know…Garry booked it on the internet…I know…he’s brilliant that way. He squeezed into the proffered seat opposite his two interviewers. He needn’t have worried. He’d scare him off…What?…Too right. mercifully. A man and a woman both in their early twenties.” he observed. He sat on a plastic seat in the large. even more apprehensive. The way he drinks we might even make a profit. They seemed completely at ease in his presence which immediately unnerved him. than he was. he does it all while he’s at work. It’s all inclusive…I know. she likes him…My dad? No way. and. self-important. modern reception area of the converted town house along with half a dozen other candidates. . Garry says we’ll get our money back on the booze alone. When he stood up he felt light-headed from hunger. He was mildly irritated at the way the bored receptionist did not attempt to engage any of them in conversation or offer them coffee. all of whom were much younger. a gulf that was wider than he would ever know. “We’re flying down to London on Easyjet in September…. smiling encouragingly at Nick across the highly polished expanse of desk.merchants and Baltic traders back in the nineteenth century. cool. It’s dead cheap over there anyway…No…I’ve been to Spain and that with my folks lots of times but this is the first time I’ve been properly abroad…What?…as long as the food’s okay I don’t mind…What?…And the weather yeah…The sea’ll be warm at that time of year…I know…Garry says” As the minutes stretched into hours Nick began to hate Garry. casually dressed. “You’re obviously a self-starter if you’ve run your own business. He was dismayed to discover that he was one of at least twenty candidates for the post and his prospective employers had already fallen well behind with their interviewing schedule. A smartly-dressed young woman led him into a smallish boardroom which was almost totally filled by a large and expensive-looking rosewood desk. This is my last chance and there’s no way I’m going to let my dad screw it up…What?…Two weeks. What? My mum’s met him…yeah. After a while he noted that the switchboard on the receptionist’s desk hardly ever rang which was surprising for such a supposedly busy company. Darkness was falling outside he was finally summoned to his interview. a conversation he was obliged to overhear. The man flicked through Nick’s CV.
He was taken aback when the young man winced. without looking up. Nick’s first reaction was that this was a pretty dumb strategy for a small business. The challenges you have to face if you want to succeed in business are the same whether it’s your own business or someone else’s. On the other hand.” “How would you feel working for someone else? Not being your own boss any more?” “Not a problem. Cash in the bank earns peanuts. Nick thought for a minute but it was hard to concentrate. I’d also like to think I could put all my experience of running a business to good use to achieve the company’s key objectives. Before he could organise his thoughts his mouth opened and he heard himself saying. You wouldn’t mind that?” “I’ve been around all right. helpfully. Cash flow was all-important in the early days. He couldn’t get the nasal twang of the receptionist’s voice out of his head. Exactly the opposite impression to the one he was trying to convey. I’m numerate of course. in a surprisingly confident voice. I know how to monitor the way a company’s performing and discover what is and isn’t working. He’d managed to avoid waffling or saying anything stupid just by sticking to the truth. Just like Microsoft. profit and loss.Nick nodded. “That’s a bit old economy.” He was pleased with his answer. “Well.” “You’re quite a bit older than everyone else round here.” he added. All the key financial ratios. I can run the numbers. refined voice. forcing himself to smile deprecatingly. “I don’t lack motivation. “What special attributes would you bring to this job?” asked the woman in a bored. We’ve got first mover advantage in our field and our primary objective is to leverage that into a dominant market share. He knew he had to say something if he was to have any chance of getting the job. what did he know? His attempt to build a successful company hadn’t exactly been a rip-roaring success despite the years of careful investment. isn’t it? Cash flow? That’s not how we measure success here. Cash flow. It made him sound like an old whore who was past her sell-by date. balance sheet. As soon as he uttered the phrase he regretted it. .” agreed Nick.
max.” continued the young man airily. Business process engineering. When it obviously didn’t pay to disagree it was a technique that had served him well in the past. nodding his head sagely. “Do you mean could I sell the software?” “Well. We’re enterprise systems. Nick felt at this point that it would be prudent to guide the conversation back onto safer ground where he actually knew what they were talking about. “When we’ve burnt up our cash reserves our exponential growth means we’ll have a queue of investors dying to pump fresh capital into the company.” “Truly differentiated. looking up from her notes for the first time. “Do you think you could deliver that concept to the key players in the industry?” the woman asked him abruptly.” Nick had dedicated half his life to growing his old company. With .” explained the woman brightly. “So what is your product exactly?” The young man leaned forward.” “Ten years!” The young man rolled his eyes and whistled. yes.” “Supply chain management?” Naturally Nick had heard the term but he had no real idea what it meant in practice. He coughed politely. “I thought the technology bubble had burst?” “We’re not technology.” “I did all the sales and marketing for my own company for ten years.” he said. When we’re number one in the market then the cash will come flowing in. “We plan to sell out within three.“I see. And in our field we’re unique. How we spend it will be the problem. Definitely not. “We’ve developed an innovative suite of enterprise software that will completely revolutionise supply chain management in the oil industry. “We’re growing too fast to worry about cash flow. his eyes burning with all the fervour of a true believer.” Nick couldn’t stop himself from looking doubtful.
Maybe they were right. Once I figure out what your fancy software actually does I’m sure I can sell them the benefits in a language they can understand.” the woman added.” “I’m not too old to learn. That’s why we need an interpreter like you. He said. “I know how to talk to buyers at that level.” he said. Even if it sounded like they hadn’t actually sold anything yet. There’s still a lot of old farts in this game who don’t speak our language.” “It’s an international product. mirroring the actions of the young man opposite him. Today and tomorrow.” added the woman helpfully. “If you’ve got a good product I guarantee I can sell it. nodding deliberatively. “Okay.” The young man’s grin grew even broader. A bridge between the old and new. the oil industry is just the start. You could be one of them. someone who’s on their wavelength. I’ve probably played golf with most of them.” “The feedback is very positive. They really believed in what they were saying. Most successful companies were built on faith. “Who’s bought it so far?” The young man’s eyes widened and an idiotic smile spread across his face as he began nodding conspiratorially.” “The quill pen and the computer. A lot of these guys in senior positions are my age too.” Nick tried to look positive as the two young people stared triumphantly at him. beaming.” . “Once we’ve ironed out the bugs we’ll have an army of sales guys hitting the road running. “Our upgraded beta version is currently being evaluated by some of the biggest names in the business. Nick. “We’ll have to train you of course.” “That’s right. There are dozens more applications in just about any market segment you care to think of. If the product was half as good as they thought it was this could be his big break.disastrous consequences.” enthused the young man. “That’s exactly why we asked you here. Maybe the young man had the right answers after all.” “It’s a GREAT product.
Ten minutes later he left the meeting feeling ten years older but for once he was not disheartened by his age. the debt collector had not reappeared.“Oh. starting immediately. that beneath their confident surface these young people were rather in awe of his age and experience. The empty fridge whirred back into life. He couldn’t believe his luck. Best of all. On the strength of your good news I borrowed some money from mother and went round and paid off the arrears. “Nick. the past might just be working in his favour. you won’t believe it but the electricity has come back on. Will you be allowed to keep all of your wages? What about the . “Bright young techies who write computer games as a hobby. It’s a miracle. Maureen phoned just as he was settling back to watch some horse-racing on the afternoon telly. He phoned Maureen and told her the good news. The house grew warm. That afternoon the electricity came back on. he thought. Well.” “Oh. It really did seem as if his fortune had finally changed for the better.” the woman added. Nick.” Maureen laughed.” “Guys with brains. I…” “Maureen. They were very good about it actually. The video recorder re-set itself. The pump on the central heating started circulating. He had the feeling that he’d done rather well. “Not exactly.” They laughed and Nick laughed with them. you don’t need to know much. Even his creditors had remained quiescent.” “It is. it’s still a miracle isn’t it. Once you’ve got your foot in the door we’ll send in the real experts after you. A few days later Nick’s quiet confidence was amply rewarded when he received a phone call from the company offering him the position of he’d been interviewed for. For once. The salary was double anything he’d earned before and there were stock options attached which would be worth a large amount of money if the company went public.
We’ll see a huge difference compared to what it’s been like.” said Maureen. As a special treat Maureen cooked them some rib eye steak from the local butcher. “I knew you’d get a job eventually.” “Yeah. It’s the law. “Listen. a proud father once more. That night he and Maureen celebrated with Australian champagne.bank?” “They’ll take the lions share I’m afraid. I always knew you would. You’ve come good in the end. life can be tough . Listen. At the end of the meal Nick tapped the table with his knife and held up his glass. enjoying the novelty.” he declared. I’m starving. Even Martin had a glass. “Next time though. I’ll stop off at the shops on the way home and get something nice for tea. tears in his eyes. dad. Martin. a nuclear family that had somehow avoided meltdown. They accompanied the meal with a modest Italian red wine from the Co-op which Nick warmed by a log fire he lit specially to give the room a festive air. Besides. Nick. But they’ve got to leave us enough to live on.” “And you. Who works in very mysterious ways but who came good in the end. Nick raised his eyes to the ceiling. don’t leave it so late.” he said.” They both laughed. He was slightly tipsy and spoke slowly and deliberately so as not to slur his words. “To the man upstairs. Thanks to you.” “Don’t let there be a next time. Nick. Nick smiled. we deserve it. despite everything. After the meal the three of them watched television together.” “We did.” “To the man upstairs. When it was time for bed Martin hugged his father before he went off to his room. We survived.” they chorused. Our lord Jesus Christ. why not. We’ll celebrate. smiling. didn’t we.” “YOU deserve it. “A toast.” “We never stopped living. We can start living again. Maureen and Martin raised their glasses.
You understand?” Martin nodded. You’re the greatest. That afternoon the building was full of stunned employees. Nexab International went into liquidation. son. Nick smiled in the darkness.” “Don’t make it so long next time. no matter what it is. “I needed that.” “It’s good to be back. lover. “Welcome back. It’s what families are for.” “That’s the first time you’ve ever said it was too long. a short time after he had completed his initial induction training. Nick joined the crowd staring in disbelief at the notice in the canteen explaining what had . “I know.” She hit him with a pillow. Miraculously they had weathered the storm together and he felt that they had never been closer. “All you’ve got to do is whistle. you really are. Getting a job changes everything. for the first time in weeks. You hear me? If ever you get into trouble. just as he was about to set out on his first proper sales call. dad.and pretty unfair at times but I’ll make you this promise. It’s called unconditional love. As long as I live. You have my word on that. I’ll always be here for you. The way you stood by me. Three weeks later. “Jesus.” Maureen leant across and kissed him on the cheek.” “So are you.” “Does this mean I can go to university?” “Definitely. I’ll stand by you. I feel like I’m a whole man again. Whatever happened in future things would never be so bad again.” Later that night he and Maureen made love.” Maureen laughed. It’ll still mean sacrifices but it’ll be well worth it.” “I’ve been in such a state these past few months.” Nick gasped as he rolled off onto his back.
Then another. He felt ill at the thought of having to tell Maureen what had happened.” she gasped. He felt like he was drowning. Apparently the cash burn had been greater than anticipated. You?” She replied.” spat the man who had just become Nick’s former boss. eventually. “How was work today?” “Fine. “Bunch of fucking wankers. after Martin had gone upstairs to do his homework and he had finished the dishes. “The bastards owe me this at least. He took a deep breath. He coughed politely. The share options were worthless. Despite the best efforts of the original investors and their corporate advisers the directors had been unable to raise further capital. The bank had reluctantly called in the company’s overdraft.happened. turning away from the noticeboard with a look of fury on his face. As a result sales had not materialised as anticipated in the business plan. all her senses alert. tears streaming from her eyes.” As he left the building Nick was handed a note telling him he would get the wages due to him from the liquidator. “Not so good. without looking up from the paper. So ill he wanted to die. The company’s auditors had come in the same day and after a brief scrutiny of the books had advised immediate liquidation. there was not even enough money to pay that month’s salaries. The former receptionist who had ignored him when he had arrived for his interview tottered past in a very short skirt and improbably high heels clutching a laptop and a printer to her bosom.” Maureen looked up immediately. “What’s wrong?” . he wished that he was. And another. the usual signal that he wanted to speak. “I’m entitled. In fact. There were still bugs in the software. Later on. The current cash reserves were insufficient to take the company through to profitability. he rejoined Maureen in the sitting-room where she was reading the paper while watching the Channel Four news. Chapter 9 That night Nick forced himself to eat along with his family as if nothing had happened even though every forkful of the shepherd’s pie he had cooked for their tea tasted like sawdust in his mouth.
honest I will. “It’s the company. The programme was dominated by graphic pictures of a terrorist bomb that had gone off in London that morning in a crowded department store.” “What is it then? Tell me.” “You’ve been sacked?” “No. I…” “You’ve quit?” “No..” he said. I’ll get another job... “Please don’t cry. Trust me.. I didn’t make you. I’m sorry. turning off the television with the remote.“It’s not good news.” “What’s happened? You haven’t done something wrong have you?” “No. you’ll see.” He sighed. causing many deaths and injuries. cascading silence that drilled into Nick’s head like tinnitus. The half hour that followed was framed by a ringing. she simply stared at him. that’s all it is. Everything will be all right.” “I’m trying for Christ’s sake.” . I. “I knew I’d live to regret those personal guarantees you made me give to the bank.” “What about them?” “They’ve gone bust. “Look. looking stunned. making it impossible to think.” “That’s not fair. You won’t let me finish.” Maureen stared at him as if he was speaking a foreign language. They pretended to watch the news while they each struggled to come to terms with this calamitous development. Out of the corner of his eye Nick saw his wife starting to cry. When she finally spoke her voice was thick with resentment. It’s just a setback.” At first she said nothing.
it’s the whole fucking world. mum?” “Your father’s lost his job again. becoming hysterical. “Stop being bloody silly.” “Oh. it’s other people too. You know she can’t afford it and I promised I’d pay her back out of your first pay packet.” Maureen explained tearfully. “I’m responsible for making everyone who’s ever lived miserable now.” . “Jesus. I had no choice. We’ll be all right. “Don’t worry mum. Moral blackmail. Maureen. Almost instantly anger replaced shame and remorse.” He was shouting now.” It wasn’t the reaction he’d been expecting from the person he relied on most for support through all the ups and downs of their married life. “What’s going on? Why are you crying.“You blackmailed me into doing it.” Disturbed by the commotion Martin bounded downstairs to see what was wrong. Martin. “You’re right! I’m a bloody Jonah. I’ll look after you. you don’t think I do this deliberately do you? How the fuck was I to know this lot would go bust? You blame that on me I suppose? Yeah. So it’s not just us your hurting.” Nick felt a wave of resentment welling up inside him at this usurpation of his role as head of the household. I promise. Martin hugged his mother. I’ll leave school and get a job if I have to. “They’re going to put us out onto the street”. “Leave mum alone or I’ll batter you. If you really want to help get back up those stairs and do your homework.” Martin squared up to his father. I’ll sort everything out.” “It was the only way I could raise the capital. I’ll get a job stacking shelves.” “I should never have trusted you.” screamed Nick. okay. why not? You blame me for everything else. I simply want you to face up to things.” “I’m not blaming you. Don’t worry. please I’m tired…” “I’ve been a bloody Jonah since the day I was born. I borrowed money from my mother on the strength of you having a job.” “Nick. The co-op’s looking for people.
” When the boy had gone back upstairs Maureen turned to Nick. Maureen. “Sort out the mess? You think I haven’t been trying. You blame everyone but yourself for your own shortcomings. her hatred of him was plain to see. That’s why I started the business in the first place. It’s nothing to worry about. No more putting it off. Jesus. And you need to do it now. It flashed through his mind that if it actually came to a fight he wasn’t certain he would win.Nick was taken aback at the way his son was suddenly standing up to him. Everybody does. We’ve been living in fear of your moods and your temper for as long as I can remember. darling. “You’re a bully.” “I did it for the family. But I’ve been unlucky too. And you’re selfish. the first time it had ever happened. “If you lay a finger on my mum I’ll bloody well kill you. “Martin. do as you’re asked. Your father and I will sort everything out down here. her eyes blazing with anger. It’s about time you took a long hard look at yourself and accepted your responsibilities. “Go and finish your homework. Not tomorrow or the next day. Maureen. Now because of you we’re going to lose the roof over our heads.” Maureen eyes narrowed. Nick. You know that. Sort it out now. Maureen gently guided her son away from his father. disfiguring her face like a third degree burn. “You have to take responsibility for your own failings. The boy was almost as tall as he was and he was well built and fit from the rugby he played into the bargain.” whispered Maureen. What’s happened to this family is nobody’s fault but yours. Nick. it’s all right darling. his fists clenched by his side. You need to sit down and work out exactly how you’re going to sort out the mess you’ve created.” “You did it for yourself. At that moment another familial relationship changed for ever. All right I admit I’ve made mistakes along the way.” The vehemence of her attack shook him almost as much as the unfairness of her accusations. so softly he strained to hear what she was saying. To give you both a decent quality of life. Martin was as white as a sheet. The truth is you’ve been a rotten husband and a bad father and I don’t see why we should have to put up with it any longer. She spoke quietly. I’ve spent my whole life trying to sort things out.” he shouted at Nick.” .
fearful of the consequences now that the truth about their feelings towards each other was out in the open. We were perfectly happy with what we had. “I’m shouldn’t have lost my temper last night. usually with a joke and a muttered apology. He felt lonely and defeated. hating each other. She had never spoken to him this way before. They sat together in front of the television in silence for the rest of the evening. Eventually Maureen got up. knowing that tomorrow.” He sat up until the early hours of the morning watching the telly with the sound turned down. it would be even worse. Maureen wasn’t one to bear grudges.” . Maureen. I didn’t mean to upset you and Martin. as their creditors closed in upon them. Maureen. This time he couldn’t think of anything witty to say about the situation. You have to make a business grow if you’re ever going to make decent money. Instead he said simply.” Her words left him stunned.“That’s unfair. wrapped in his raincoat for warmth as the last embers of the logs in the grate slowly turned to ash and died. That was the only way to make it grow. “I’m going to bed. That business became an obsession. Proving to everyone how good you were. I wish you’d never started it. It was almost a relief to know that things couldn’t get any worse. really I am. “I’m sorry. What had happened yesterday was no laughing matter. The next morning Maureen got up early before he was fully awake.” “We didn’t need more money. He sat up in bed and lay with the bedclothes pulled up to his chin watching her dress. And he certainly wasn’t going to apologise for something that wasn’t his fault. Like any married couple they had had disagreements in the past which they had always managed to patch up without too much trouble. It wasn’t about us. Her eyes were red. It was all about you. never blamed him directly for what had happened.” she whispered. After all the trials and tribulations of the last six months he had finally reached rock bottom.” “When did we ever see any of the benefits?” “I had to plough everything back into the business. brooding on their predicament.
He was drying the plates when the postman arrived with the mail. A few minutes later he heard the car drive off. his abject failure to confront reality.” She left the room without speaking. had forced her out into a cruel. She was right too. Even in his worst nightmares he had never imagined it would come to this. none of which he dared to open. Anything to tide us over until I get a real job. He lingered out of sight in the shadows until the van drove off. The manager's secretary said that the earliest the manager could see him was the Wednesday of the following week so he . “Can I speak to you for a minute. crucified him to think how badly he had failed her.” Martin never appeared. He made a weak cup of coffee and then. His utter fecklessness. I’ll clean lavatories if I have to. There was only the usual pile of bills. Instead he was treated with the customary civility of indifference. He was alone in the house once more. He heard Martin coming out of the bathroom and crossing the landing. nasty world with nothing but pain and bitterness in her heart. “Martin. because he feared Maureen even more than he did the bank manager. it was all his fault. He felt giddy as he spoke into the phone. Instead he hid them in another new hiding place behind the chest of drawers. half expecting to be hit by an immediate torrent of threats and abuse. At least the back boiler also heated the water so he was able to save on electricity.” he called out. “I’ll get in touch with the bank manager this morning. he finally plucked up enough courage to phone the bank to arrange an appointment with the manager.” She continued to button her blouse in silence. Nick had no idea what his wife was going to do next or even if she would ever return. another letter from the bank and one from the Inland Revenue. “Then I’ll go down to the Jobcentre. After he got up he gathered some kindling from beneath the beech hedge in the front garden and built a fire with the last of the logs. It hurt him more than he would have believed possible to see her this way. I’ll take anything they’ve got. a small and inadequate penance that did little to salve his conscience. He wash the breakfast dishes in lukewarm water. There didn’t seem any point in saving them any more.She looked at him with dead eyes as she buttoned up her blouse.
Spring seemed a long way off. It was a miracle. There was a time a couple of years back when she had never been off the television thanks to the success of the unique organic fast food franchise she had created. There was still a thick collar of snow where the big beech hedge shaded out the sun and the powdery snow swirled around on the same bitterly cold wind which spun the hanging bird table with its vindictively icy fingers.made an appointment for that day at eleven. Recently the novelty of a successful self-made woman seemed to have worn off. The future was looking bleak once again. Some battles you just couldn’t win. Now he thought about it he vaguely remembered reading somewhere that she had bought an estate in this part of the world in order to indulge her passion for the countryside. Even at the most basic level it was starting to get difficult. She was even more successful now. Angela Roberts. Of course. He was still euphoric over his stay of execution as he fed the birds with the remains of the stale bread. Usually when his brain was in turmoil he liked to go out for a walk to clear his head but this time he didn’t have the energy. forcing the dozen or so tits and finches perched on it to cling on for dear life. Nine days grace. Perhaps it might be better to let things take their course. Later. Soon the fire in the grate would grow cold. Nine whole days for a miracle to happen. It seemed a bit incongruous to him that such a well-known vegetarian and animal lover should also be a keen fisherman. appeared to have conquered most of Europe and even America had succumbed to the fashionable organic formula that differentiated her restaurants and takeaways. He was sipping the last cold dregs of his coffee when out of the blue he suddenly remembered who the woman was that he had seen fishing down on the river Dee the week before last. but maybe fish didn't count. He had to think of something quickly. There were no more logs left. The home-made contraption rocked crazily like a spinning top. he wasn’t sure there was a solution to his problem. He wasn’t sure they would be left with enough money out of Maureen’s salary to pay the next electricity bill. the famous organic fast food entrepreneur. His heart leapt as he put down the phone. or perhaps she had deliberately adopted a lower profile. a totally artificial environment of his own creation. anyway these days she rarely appeared in the media. . he sat down at the sitting-room window and watched as the blue tits flocked around the apple tree at the foot of the garden. even if it was only an illusion of safety. He was still free. Besides. He realised that he too was clinging on for dear life. Losing his job meant that he was right back to square one in his struggle for survival. just like them.
displaying a brilliant flair for marketing that had left all her male rivals gasping in her wake. The idea of holding a king to ransom intrigued him. It was a trick that had signally eluded him.Not that she needed to worry any more about what people thought of her. But the security that surrounded her made such an idea totally unfeasible. All the same. that was one of the reasons why they were rich people. Such a stratagem. The amazing thing was that Queen did actually live just up the road at Balmoral. Besides. She'd made her fortune in a remarkably short time. A packet. What did it mean? Did people once kidnap their king and then hold him to ransom? Poor people taking the law into their own hands? Was this something they did regularly to supplement their meagre income? He put the kettle on to make another coffee. He smiled to himself. The endless battle against the elements. to be more precise. you had to draw the line somewhere and kidnapping . the very idea smacked of treason. Nowadays you wouldn't be able to get near her with all that surveillance stuff and armed detectives and walkie talkies and the SAS lurking in the rhododendrons and God knows what else besides. of disloyalty to the old country. There was no reason on earth why she should treat him any differently from all the other beggars that must continually pester her. He finished his coffee and put the last log on the fire. People like that were inundated with begging letters. He smiled ruefully to himself. He sat at the window again and watched the birds still struggling to feed in the near gale force wind. if it was in use today. Some people have all the luck. He was willing to bet Angela Roberts didn't live in constant fear of her bank manager. and beautiful to boot. He wondered if she might lend him something to tide him over. right up there with the Queen and Madonna and J. he thought to himself. Actually that wasn't really the case. Not very likely. some people had to struggle harder than others. would certainly solve all his financial problems. An impossible task. Rich people were generally pretty tight with their money. A king's ransom? The phrase intrigued him. Probably the other way round in fact. K. She was still only in her early thirties too. Perhaps that was the fate of everyone who was put on this earth. about twenty miles further inland. There was no milk left but he could drink it black. the vast majority of whom she almost certainly ignored. she must be worth a small fortune. No. Of course. Rowling. More likely to get yourself killed. A king's ransom. a large fortune. Or. People like that usually made their own luck. She was reputed to be one of the richest women in Britain.
They’d get to keep the house. Of course he'd need to hide the woman somewhere while he waited for the ransom to be paid. always paid his taxes. he wouldn't need to rough her up or anything unpleasant like that. that made it ideal. he'd always made a point of being extremely chivalrous towards the opposite sex. Following the Clearances there were plenty of derelict cottages that would serve the purpose scattered in the isolated landscape round here. Never stolen anything. a complicated pattern of logistics to work out. He'd get paid cash in a couple of days. They’d soon come looking for him. Okay. Maureen would be happy. Hardly even a sin. Even though he’d never done anything wrong in his life before. Not exactly an insurmountable problem.the monarch was pretty much beyond the pale whatever people might have done in the past. never cheated anybody. not even financially. The sort of thing where no-one needed to get hurt. Indeed. the last remaining legacy of his being brought up as a Catholic. The perfect victimless crime. in time to settle all his debts and get all his creditors off his back. but in essence the idea itself was simple. She'd be easy to handle. there was a lot of planning to be done. He stared unseeingly at the bird table which was now being mobbed by a flock of angry bullfinches fighting over the few remaining scraps of stale bread. Angela . There was even a cave or two that could be adapted for the purpose. Kind of ironic if they were put to a new use to get redress from the rich... Best of all though. rarely told lies. And her being a woman too. Just that old ghillie to deal with when she was down by the riverbank but that would be easy enough if he took the pair of them by surprise. This crime was different though. not to say politically incorrect nowadays. the scheme would be quick to deliver a payoff. The thing was. He suddenly realised he was beginning to get excited by what on the surface might seem like a ludicrous idea. On the other hand. Grab the target when she was out fishing. She might even forgive him. Wouldn't dream of it in fact. a lot of field research. the more you looked at it the more the idea really did seem to be feasible. All he would have to do was keep her in captivity for a couple of days and then release her with barely a hair out of place. even if some people thought his behaviour was somewhat old-fashioned.On the other hand Angela Roberts wasn't anything like so heavily protected and even if she wasn't quite so rich either he was sure somebody would be happy to pay a decent ransom for her release. He paused as a potential fly in the ointment occurred to him. since she was bound to be insured against that sort of thing. The more he thought about it the more the idea of kidnapping Angela Roberts intrigued him. He could tie him up and leave him in the landrover.
he was pretty sure that her ethical perspective would change once the bailiffs started hammering at the front door. Even if he couldn’t convince the money was legitimate would she really refuse it? He pondered this possibility. two hundred thousand to be on the safe side. On reflection one hundred and fifty thousand sounded more like it. His pulse quickened. He’d think of something. He needed to ensure that he was left with a sizeable lump sum after he had settled all the immediate bills. That really would be a sight worth seeing. but it would be nice. He could just picture the look on Maureen's face when he handed her the money. the best thing would be to present her with a fait accompli. The provenance of the money was another problem. there was absolutely no way she would sanction a criminal act. twenty-five thousand. She could afford it after all.Roberts might already have gone back to England. A white lie. Maybe he would have to lie about where the money came from. Although she might demur on moral grounds. and the cost of living and all that. It was time to get dressed and get down to the river. any foreknowledge of the crime would turn her into an accomplice which would be a disaster if anything went wrong. Maureen was a devout Christian. Actually. At that moment another thought struck him. The ransom would be more like a pension really. Say. Say a round quarter of a million. Wouldn't get that on the National Health. No. Except that it wouldn’t. The only thing in his favour was that the river was in excellent condition after the recent rains and he had read in the local paper that there were plenty of fish being caught. All he could do was hope. If by some miracle she was still around there was no time to lose. the bird might have flown. Absolutely no way. Enough to purchase an annuity that would see him and Maureen into a happy and secure old age. It would be just his luck. Considering the enormous risk he would be taking it would be far more sensible to demand enough to pay off the mortgage AND send Martin to university as well while he was at it. that probably wasn't enough what with the way the Health Service was going. Besides. He frowned. All right. Even then he wasn't sure if she would accept the money. Or what if they both did. The way people . Well. in the circumstances. not entitled perhaps. The idea of only asking for enough money to settle his immediate debts was a somewhat unimaginative. In fact it was probably prudent to assume that at his age he was never going to work again and take that into account. Suppose either of them had to go into a nursing home. they were entitled to that after a lifetime's hard work surely. And what about a holiday every year. It all depended on how passionate she was about the sport. not to say downright feeble.
To have any chance of success he had to plan and execute his mission with the precision of an SAS raid. This was it. His circumstances left him no alternative. Without a second thought. He was in the last chance saloon a minute before closing time. . the best he could hope for was to skim something off the margin without getting destroyed in the process.behaved was just a question of circumstances. A hunter gatherer. It was finally time to stop daydreaming. Recent history had shown that he couldn’t beat capitalism after all. He stood up. to start to figure out a solution to his previously intractable problems. hoping for a miracle. his only option in the present situation. It was at this point that Nick realised to his surprise that he had suddenly come to a major. Whatever plan he came up with he would have to implement it fast. He needed to concentrate and to think clearly about his next steps. Was he up to the challenge? All he could do was try his best. that was all. That would be hard. Whatever happened he had to act. Desperate times required desperate remedies. was bound to change his life for ever. He had run out of time for second thoughts Chapter 10 Nick could hear the clock in his head ticking down the minutes until the final showdown with the bank manager. And then to act. decision that. Their salvation was going to be touch and go. Somehow he would have to solve all their problems within the next nine days. In his present circumstances anything was worth a shot. It was worth a shot. He had to become a man of action. For the first time in months he had glimpsed a ray of hope penetrating the gathering storm clouds. Quite literally. The first thing to do was to go down to the river and reconnoitre. What was needed now was the courage and the clarity of vision that would allow him to formulate a workable plan. There was no doubt that this was a crunch time in his life. the only way left open to him. That was Robin Hood's justification in the olden days and no-one today blamed him for what he had done. and extremely radical. With no salary going into his account that month he knew they must already be over their overdraft limit. What Nick was proposing after all was a similar tax on the rich levied by the poor. His heart was beating fast. to see if his quarry was still there. He had spent the last six months daydreaming. It was a daunting prospect but there was no alternative. whatever the outcome. He took a deep breath.
A harebrained plot to kidnap a rich lady that he had caught a glimpse of almost a fortnight before was definitely not a good reason. Maureen had first call on the car during the week and he couldn’t change that arrangement without good reason. And yet his need to get down to the river in order to carry out an initial survey had become urgent. Each scheme he dreamt up seemed so hellishly complex with so much that could go wrong. The fewer people that saw him the better. Every scenario he mapped out in his mind ended up a blind alley. The problem was that the river was nearly six miles away. An hour later he still hadn’t figured out a foolproof way to execute his plan. Whatever happened he mustn’t leave any potential evidence lying around. He might have to visit it several times before he spotted his quarry again. He didn’t know where to start. In the end he decided that his only hope was that the outline of a plan might somehow emerge from the cauldron of synaptic connections that were popping off like champagne bubbles in his turbulent brain. He had filled both sides of the foolscap sheet with various scenarios as well as lists of all the tools and equipment he might need before he suddenly realised that with every stroke of the pen he was creating a mass of damning evidence that could quite possibly be used to put him in prison for the rest of his life. He started to think about the bank manager and his army of creditors again.The challenge seemed almost overwhelming. The incriminating notes would have to be burned. Walking there and back would take far too long and anyway would make him far too conspicuous. It was obvious that his salvation wasn’t going to come cheap. He began making notes on a sheet of foolscap in a desperate attempt to give some form to the jumble of thoughts cascading around inside his head. The only alternative he could think of was the local bus service. And abduction was only the start. The thought that any one of them could confront him again . He sat at the sitting-room window staring blindly into space. He had no idea how to issue a ransom demand or even to whom he would send it. He sighed. If indeed it came at all. stumped by the challenge. This whole crazy scheme was about as easy as walking blindfold through a minefield. Obviously he had never contemplated a kidnapping before. He turned the problem over and over in his head until he felt like his brain was beginning to seize up. He spent more than an hour trying to figure out where to begin with his plan. Yet he didn’t dare travel on public transport in case he created a trail that might subsequently lead to his door. He sat in the freezing kitchen with his head cradled in his hands. The more he considered the problem the more evident it became that transport was his greatest problem.
” He remembered how in the second world war German soldiers had made extensive use of bicycles to conduct covert reconnaissance near the front lines. the answer flashed into his brain. out of nowhere. that he was born to fail. Maybe there was only one solution. of losing all self control. Childish fantasies. His brain was becoming enveloped by the same dark cloud that had benighted him during the final few traumatic months before his business had gone into liquidation. Wish fulfilment. If he lost his nerve now he knew he would lose everything.” he cried. knew he was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. Just like all his other grand ideas. The old familiar feeling that had dogged him all his life had returned with a vengeance. If there had been any drink in the house he would have sought oblivion in a bottle. inherited from his mother and drummed into him throughout his childhood. rickety conveyance was the answer to his prayers. thank you. The conviction. He could feel he was on the verge of panicking. He knew only too well that in these situations his body would quickly follow his brain into shutdown: it wouldn’t be the first time recently that he had been so overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness that he had been paralysed and sunk into a catatonic state. That longdiscarded. As far as he could recall her old bike was still out in the barn that they used as a garage. The river might as well have been a million miles away. It was hard to concentrate on the problem in hand. “Thank you God. Pie in the sky. He felt his pulse quickening. Just like all those other occasions in the past he had fallen at the first hurdle. Maureen’s bike! Of course! The darkness shrouding his soul was suddenly illuminated by a blinding burst of light. His spirits had sunk to their lowest ebb since that day the bank had pulled the plug on his business. Becoming wealthy. Despite his determination to fight he was close to tears. More recently in the Vietnam war this modest form of transport had played a major part in helping to defeat the mighty American war machine. Ideas above his station. The whole idea was totally impracticable. All his grand schemes were just that. Drugs would have been even better. “Thank you. thank you. Dreams. . Schemes. only a step away from unconditional surrender. For some reason the image of Maureen cycling into the village the way she used to do when they had first moved here from town leapt into his mind. He punched the air with exhilaration. He shook his head. With the cupboards bare there was no easy way out. He was trapped inside his own head.in his home at any moment was terrifying. Buying a house abroad. Even a boat at one point. Building up a successful business. And then suddenly. Maybe his time had come.
He was ravenous. It was nearly 2 o’ clock. He wasn’t even sure he could restore it but with no alternative. Within an hour his hands were bloody and bruised and his back was sore enough to bring tears to his eyes. the wheels barely turned and worst of all the tyres were completely flat. The overhaul of the bike represented a major investment in time and effort which he could ill afford and he prayed that the rest of his plan would prove easier to implement. A split table. It took him another hour to rectify the leaking tyres. The atmosphere grew thick and acrid with WD-40. The faded red bicycle was so heavily shrouded in dust and cobwebs it was barely recognisable. an ancient sofa. he hastily retrieved his toolbox from the house and immediately knelt down on the bare concrete to begin work on the restoration. oil and tighten the chain and finally to raise the height of the saddle. an apple and an old packet of cheese and onion crisps that represented the sum total of their remaining food supplies. a cracked mirror that was still bringing them bad luck ten years on.Now the same vehicle would be deployed with the same deadly effect in his own personal battle for survival. Together with a few stale slices of white bread. He squirted oil down the barrel of the pump which partially restored the vacuum sufficiently to enable him to blow up the tires so that they were reasonably hard. Fortunately in the saddlebag he found the tyre repair kit he had used as a child. broken chairs. He hurried out to the barn. a rusty paraffin lamp. a broken down pram. There was one more tin of beans and a tin of Heinz Vegetable Soup left in the cupboard. rolls of old carpet from the sitting room upon which they had once made love. He was exhausted by the time he finally managed to free the wheels. as worn and faded as their threadbare dreams. It took him another hour to free up the pedals. The tyres presented the biggest a challenge since the rubber in the valves was perished and even the bicycle pump had lost most of its vacuum. Frantically he rooted around in the gloom. The chain and the handlebars had rusted solid. praying fervently that the ancient contraption hadn’t been thrown out without his knowledge. Barely enough for two more meals for . Only when he was convinced that the bike was serviceable did he dare to take a break for lunch. He wrestled with the rusty skeleton for the rest of the morning. Eventually he found the bicycle in the far corner of the garage propped up between an old washing machine and an ancient second-hand fridge that was on its last legs when they originally bought it. and with his future hanging in the balance. several corroded saucepans. picking over the debris of their early married life. He heated up a tin of own-label beans and gobbled down the lot.
Next he looked out the ordinance survey map for the area from the dozens he kept stowed away under the stairs. At times like this it was better not to think too far into the future. living on air. Christ alone knew how they were going to survive. If something went wrong and Maureen arrived back before he did he wanted everything to look normal. that was all that mattered. Finally. several weeks before he would get any benefit money. He consulted his list again. It was time to assemble the final items he would need to carry out the initial survey of the river. It was another ten days before Maureen got paid again. maybe even for the rest of the week.Maureen and Martin. Concentrate on the task in hand. an old pair of Swift Audubons with scratched lenses. If he could just work out how he could secure a decent ransom after he had kidnapped his target then all their other worries would vanish. The cardboard-covered sheet was badly torn through heavy use over the years. It was all he would get to eat that day. He invested more precious minutes in patching it up with sellotape. as an afterthought he added the Collins Book of British Birds to his rucksack. A groundsheet. The lightweight plastic sheet would have a variety of uses ranging from a temporary shelter if he had to camp out in the woods to something for lying on while he was watching the target to smothering…. From the wardrobe in the bedroom he retrieved his old Barbour jacket and Orvis moleskin trousers which were suitably shabby and nondescript – perfect camouflage in every way. that’s what it had been designed for after all. He consulted the notes he had compiled earlier.well. The realisation of how close they were to the breadline made him feel ill. He knew they still had one from their camping days. When he was sure he had everything he needed he finally packed a necessarily frugal lunch box with an apple and the last remaining packet of crisps together with a thermos of weak black coffee. He packed them in a side pocket of his rucksack where they could be easily retrieved. His old Barbour in particular was the perfect camouflage for hunting down quarry on a riverbank. . reckoning that it might prove useful in constructing a plausible alibi if things went wrong. No point in getting too graphic – or melodramatic – at this stage. Eventually he tracked it down to the blanket compartment under the bed upstairs where Maureen had neatly stowed it away. He could feel the familiar acrid taste of another panic attack rising in the back of his throat. They weren’t perfect but they would do for basic surveillance. If he was forced to hide out for any length of time it might prove vital. At the top of the list were his binoculars. he preferred not to think too much about its other potential uses. He cleared the table quickly and washed the dishes so that he left the kitchen tidy.
Much safer to focus on his plan and keep his overfertile imagination firmly in check. He resolved to dispose of it later to be on the safe side. He might have to dispose of a lot of things later when the time came. In less than an hour of pleasant peddling he came once again within sight of the denselywooded river valley that enclosed the river. Moving stealthily he left the track after a few yards and entered the . Christ alone knew how he would react if the police ever did question him. More things to think about. So many little things that could trip him up. When he reached the main road the rest of the route to the bridge lay across gently sloping countryside that formed the ancient flood plain of the river. Once again he told himself that it was better not to think too much about what he might have to do if things went wrong. At that precise moment he couldn’t think of a suitable cover story but he hoped something plausible would occur to him soon.After checking to ensure that there was no one around in the immediate vicinity of the house he gingerly mounted the newly-restored bicycle. At first he was alarmed by the unexpectedly rapid acceleration of the ancient machine. The wind ruffling his hair. He dismounted on the outskirts of the wood about a quarter of a mile from the same bridge where he had observed Angela Roberts flyfishing nearly a fortnight before. He had already figured out that the best way to remain unnoticed would be to travel within the cover provided by the ancient forest. More fear. He knew it was imperative to remain inconspicuous as an insurance policy against the time when the police would begin interviewing people after the inevitable manhunt that would follow the kidnap. and set off unsteadily down the hill. He shuddered. He sighed. the beauty of the hedgerows sweeping past right alongside. At the same time it occurred to him that it would be prudent to construct an alibi in advance in case he was interviewed by the police. More stress. about four hundred yards up a disused track. but gradually he was overcome by a sense of exhilaration as the old familiar pleasures of cycling returned. Apart from the circumstances it was like being young again. He was only too conscious of just how vulnerable his inexperience in these matters rendered him. even as his plan was still unfolding. His cover story would have to be watertight. He hid the bike amongst a thicket of rhododendron bushes well off the main road. his growing confidence as he mastered the balance. demanding little effort or concentration on his part. Even the fact that he had renovated the bike might be deemed suspicious. More chance of things going pear-shaped. especially since the brakes appeared to be completely useless.
Keeping a low profile therefore meant keeping under cover. On the other hand. Once he had staunched the bleeding he threw away the bloodstained paper tissue and resumed his journey. To his dismay. he discovered he was too low down to see the actual river which was obscured by a high bank as far as he could see in either direction. He thought about his strategy for a long time. There was no escaping the fact that if he wanted to observe his quarry properly he would have to leave this part of the wood and cross the main road again to get to higher ground. He continued his clandestine progress through the woods for another twenty minutes before he eventually came within sight of the bridge. he sat down on an uprooted tree trunk in a small clearing while he regained his composure and tried to work out his next move. Evidence of his movements. And of course. The snow was thinner below the canopy of leafless trees and the going was relatively easy. Stuffing the potential evidence into his inside pocket he made a mental note to burn it later when he got back home. He had absolutely no training in fieldcraft. setting off in the general direction of the bridge. He retraced his steps and retrieved the bloodstained tissue. He had only taken half a dozen steps before he paused. more parts of the jigsaw puzzle that could send him to prison.penumbral world of the birch forest. he had one big advantage: the prey did not know it was being pursued. He cursed himself for his carelessness as he dabbed at the blood running down his cheek with a tissue. less than a quarter of a mile away. from his new vantage point on the northern edge of the woods. hiding in the bushes. On the other hand he was used to staying concealed when he was fishing. Almost inevitably he scratched his face on an overhanging bramble branch. When you looked at it that way there wasn't all that much difference between trying to catch a salmon and trying to catch Angela Roberts. making sure that he kept well out of view of the anyone driving along the main road which skirted the eastern boundary of the forest. It was yet another unplanned event that he might subsequently have to explain away. Unnerved. Although he had always known that sooner or later he would be forced to emerge from the safety of the wood to get closer to his quarry it would obviously be safer if he was seen as little as possible. except in the places where he had to force his way through the dense undergrowth of tangled bracken and overgrown rhododendron bushes. whether it was by local residents or passing motorists or the ghillie or even Angela Roberts herself. Evidence. A . just as in fishing. using the lie of the land. that it was a player in someone else’s game. At one point he was obliged to bend double as he forced his way through the tangled masses of bramble and hawthorn bushes that blocked his path.
Hell. It just showed you – if you had faith in yourself you really could do absolutely anything. he thought bitterly. maybe even clever enough to succeed. that indeed he was astute enough to cover all the angles. By now his heart was beating so hard it was knocking the breath out of his lungs. If he kept his head Angela Roberts would soon be as helpless as any of the many beached salmon he had landed over the years. His mind too was racing. In the ensuing silence that engulfed him the only sound was that of his heart thumping against his ribcage. He froze in terror. he suddenly realised. He was pleased with this story . He had barely tiptoed another ten yards through the dense bushes towards the river when a pheasant flew up at his feet and lurched up into the sky squawking in alarm. He was terrified his cover was blown. If anybody accosted him he had fabricated what he hoped was a believable cover story: he would claim to be looking for kingfishers. one which he had been denied for far too long. After years of helplessness when his destiny had always been in somebody else’s hands the thought sent a thrill through him exactly like the rush he used to get from cocaine when he was younger. It was all so different from the aimless weeks and months he had wasted recently sitting at home fretting about the future while he waited for something to turn up. a rare bird in these parts. If he was spotted by any unseen eyes he wanted his behaviour to appear as natural as possible. one that was worth fighting for. people had died for a lot less.game whose rules were known only to the hunter. The power of life and death. whatever the price. He lurked impatiently amongst the trees until the busy road over the bridge was finally clear of traffic in both directions before he stood up and strolled across to the bridge as nonchalantly as possible. To his surprise he realised that in a strange sort of way he was even beginning to enjoy himself. knowledge was power. even more like playing God. pitting his wits against the most important quarry he had ever hunted. He actually believed in the prospect of his own salvation. For the first time in months he was no longer suffocating under a blanket of despair. He stopped and smiled at this thought. Once across the road he climbed the low fence that ran alongside the rhododendron bushes shielding the exclusive beat from prying eyes. its wings flapping noisily. It was a basic human right after all. clutching his binoculars to his chest and scanning the surrounding trees as if he really was a genuine birdwatcher. As in life. For several long . the drumbeats of his coursing bloodstream roaring in his ears. Freedom from fear and anxiety. It was a wonderful feeling. The principle was the same except that the game he was playing now was.he felt it demonstrated that he was beginning to think constructively at last.
seconds he waited for something awful to happen. his ignominious ejection from the wood for trespassing. He gazed in awe at the huge pile. Against all the odds the dark outlines of the old ghillie and Angela Roberts were silhouetted on the skyline. about twenty yards below him. Taking a deep breath he stepped out of the forest and crept down towards the river across the empty. The land he had loved and thought of as his own had been transformed into enemy territory. No gamekeeper appeared. fearful that he might have been spotted by the inhabitants. A tap on the shoulder. Now he too was stranded in a foreign country. his presence in the grounds remained undetected. It was a weird feeling. A few seconds later a hare loped slowly across the snow on the other side of the clearing. Surreptitiously he drew back into the anonymity of the bushes and waited. That was all. Standing there in that unfamiliar. A few minutes later he reached a grassy bank about fifty feet above the river at a point where it overlooked a long slow-flowing pool of glassy water. on the bank opposite. The vast and immaculately manicured front lawn stretched at least a hundred yards from the ivy-covered front of the house all the way down to the river. After a couple of tense minutes during which it seemed like he had been frozen in time he resumed his stealthy progress towards the river. There was no-one upstream but his heart immediately started racing when he saw once more the figures that had become familiar in his imagination. Thankfully nothing further disturbed the stillness of the air. He was safe. The enemy was all around him. assessing the suitability of the terrain for the part it would play in the . looking out for hollows and hiding places. Again nothing happened and when he had regained his composure once more he began to work his way along the edge of the forest for another fifty yards or so until he was sure he could not be observed from the house. hostile environment he had an inkling of what it must have felt like for the GIs in the jungle in Vietnam back in the sixties. He dropped down onto his belly and scanned the river upstream and down. Not far away a pigeon cooed contentedly. Maybe it always had been – he’d just been too dumb to realise that he had been trespassing all his life. exposed meadow. fishing a fast-running pool at a shallow bend in the river. Forcing himself to remain calm he began to scrutinise his surroundings through his binoculars. Eventually he emerged from the edge of the woods to find himself directly opposite a large Victorian mock-baronial mansion.
pausing to collect the two salmon still lying on the bank at the top of the pool. a black Labrador by the look of it. Satisfied that what he had in mind was feasible he once more trained his binoculars on his quarry. rooting around the bank and appearing to get the rough edge of the woman’s tongue whenever it came close enough to hamper her casting. made an occasional appearance. that it was reasonably shallow. He made a mental note that the river immediately opposite was almost fifty yards wide. It worried him that he might be forced to deal with the dog if it got in his way. resting his elbow on his wading staff a few feet from her right shoulder while she remained stationary between casts. . The river had risen slightly since his last visit and on this occasion the woman was fishing with a spinning-rod. She was obviously having more success with the new method too. particularly if he needed to get back into the cover of the woods in a hurry. most importantly of all that it was definitely wadable at its present height. Although her method of fishing had changed to one that required a lot less skill the look of fierce concentration on her face remained the same. He walked back up the river to fetch the landrover. After a brief conversation she climbed into the passenger seat. although without further success. covering every inch of water. The old ghillie shadowed her faithfully. A roaring waterfall at the head of the pool generated enough noise to drown out all but the loudest screams. He watched the couple for nearly an hour. never straying more than a few yards from her side. He smiled when he observed the outlines of two silvery spring salmon glinting in the sunlight on the bank behind her.planned abduction. Eventually all their gear was stowed safely and they headed off in the direction of the big house. thirty yards downstream. taking the dog with him. Just here would make a good crossing point. before returning to his client. A dog. The woman eventually stopped fishing when she reached the tail of the pool and this was the first time the ghillie left her side. He climbed into the vehicle and drove slowly back across the meadow. Together they worked their way gradually downstream as she fished the pool methodically. While she waited in the vehicle he got out and fixed her rod to the rod holders on the bonnet of the landrover. Fortunately the uninhabited cattle pasture he would have to cross to reach his target and then return across with his captive to reach the anonymity of the woods was out of sight of both the main road and the big house. He could not have hoped for a more remote spot so close to the main road. flicking the bait out with an easy action across the full breadth of the river and letting the spinner swing round slowly in the classic manner before she started her slow retrieve.
He rolled over onto his back and stared up at the glorious blue sky. Two minutes that would change his life forever. He was elated at the way his fortunes had finally taken a turn for the better. Two minutes which was just about long enough for what Nick had in mind. completely invisible from the road. Nick timed the whole performance carefully. After he had been walking for twenty minutes or so he paused at a mossy .he would rescue himself and his family from destitution. In those few seconds it seemed to him as if he was present at the rebirth of his lost soul. At long last it was good to be alive. flooding his brain with oxygen. celebrating his imminent release from the fear and despair that had dogged him for so long. His heart thudded against his ribcage as the adrenalin kicked in. He thanked God from the bottom of his heart. The ensuing warmth felt like God’s beneficent smile bathing his whole body. He felt like he was floating. celestial amniotic fluid. As long as he continued to enjoy God’s blessing he knew he there was a chance he could still save his family from ruin. Chapter 11 Nick hurried back to where he had hidden the bicycle. a born-again member of the human race. From the moment he left the woman’s side at the tail of the pool it had taken the ghillie six minutes to return with the landrover. He breathed a long. hovering. a sky that for once was devoid of clouds. He might be on his uppers now but in a few days if everything went to plan – albeit a plan that was still evolving in his mind as the situation developed . during which time he was out of sight for just over two minutes. glorious sigh of relief. that he was floating in warm.presumably for a well-deserved lunch. He started to pray. It was a cathartic moment. He closed his eyes and felt the sun beating down on his face. Today he had learned a valuable lesson – never give up. Against all the odds his crazy idea really did seem feasible after all. Overhead an invisible flock of skylarks sang gloriously. Most of the time life might seem like a maze of blind alleys in which you were forever trapped but actually if you persisted long enough you could always find a way out. flitting through the woods like a ghost. He took a deep breath. an out-of-body experience where he was witnessing his own redemption.
measure. Maybe ten miles each way. It wouldn’t be enough for her prison to be lockfast. Somewhere that was absolutely escapeproof during the highly dangerous period when he would be negotiating the ransom for the woman’s safe release. He was sure he would be able to find somewhere safe and out of the way in that desolate desert of heather and bog. The only casual visitors he was likely to encounter. A ten mile radius from the house took him into the foothills that formed the natural amphitheatre of the Howe of Cromar and beyond into the bleak and empty moors surrounding Morven Hill. gagged as well. especially a woman who had never done him any harm. Thanks to the effects of the Clearances and the general drift from the land the whole area in the immediate vicinity was dotted with abandoned farms and shielings. seemed an extreme. The key attribute of any hiding place. Distance from home was crucial too.clearing a few yards off the track. Somewhere he could visit regularly without attracting suspicion. possibly. The priority now was to start making plans for the safekeeping of his hostage. The idea of tying up a fellow human being. The image of the woman bound and trussed like a chicken that sprang into his mind made him feel distinctly uneasy. somewhere that was not likely to be visited either casually or as part of any organised search. apart from occasional hillwalkers who would almost certain follow the well-known ascent routes up the mountain. the conical mountain that dominated the landscape for miles around. interspersed with the odd derelict shooting lodge and deserted but and ben. was security. not to say barbaric. Because she would be left alone for long periods she would have to be restrained in some way. Say two hours cycle run maximum. To be on the safe side he would probably have to blindfold her as well to keep her from recognising him. While he ate the apple and the packet of stale salt and vinegar crisps that he had packed for his lunch he pored anxiously over the map. Reluctantly he decided she would have to be bound and. He needed somewhere that was within cycling distance since he would be obliged to visit his captive regularly in order to feed her and attend to her needs and he could hardly borrow the car from Maureen for that. with the introduction of large-scale sheep rearing in recent years the moors were no longer prime shooting country. He sat down on a tree stump and spread out his ordnance survey map in front of him. He looked at the map. He obviously needed somewhere remote yet accessible. Fortunately. He had spent his whole life trying to treat . Once he’d located somewhere the other imperative was the total security of his hostage. were likely to be either sheep or the odd deer driven down off the high tops by bad weather. he decided.
She would soon tire of screaming her head off when nobody came to her rescue. Implementing all the necessary actions would be even more difficult. Tying her up securely with rope or whatever would be difficult without hurting her. Indeed. Maybe if the hiding place was remote enough it wouldn't be necessary to gag her. Figuring out what he was going next to do was only the beginning. He took a deep breath. He tried to . Desperate problems demanded desperate solutions. that was for sure. Escape was a different matter. To contain his mounting panic at the precariousness of his family’s circumstances he forced himself to concentrate upon the main task in hand. This would be the first time he had ever used force to make anyone do something against their will. that challenge alone was sufficient to underline how desperate the situation had become. Exactly how he was going to do that posed something of a challenge. that would be unavoidable. where the hell would he get handcuffs and chains? He couldn't exactly borrow them from the police. If ever he lacked motivation. Chained to a wall probably so that he didn't have to stand guard over her the whole time. He sighed as the amount of preparatory work he still had to do began to dawn on him. He was learning fast about not leaving clues behind.people with dignity and respect. just no way round it. All that mattered now was the efficient capture of his prospective victim. At least it shouldn’t be too hard to convince her that it would be in her own interests to co-operate if she wanted to bring the ordeal to a fast and satisfactory conclusion. he hadn't even begun to work out how this phase of the operation was going to be accomplished. When he had finished the crisps he carefully folded up the empty Golden Wonder packet and tucked it back into his rucksack. the one ray of hope on his dark horizon. He bit his lip. It might be better if she was handcuffed and chained. there was no getting away from it. For a start. waiting for the ransom to be paid was likely to take a couple of days at least. Maybe longer. The least he could do was to make the experience as free from trauma and pain as possible. it was almost second nature to him now. After all. Whatever happened he would have to stop her from escaping. God alone knew how he was going to feed his family later in the week. If she could see the logic in that then any necessary violence and discomfort could surely be kept to a minimum. The thought of the poor woman being left alone at night while chained and blindfolded in a deserted hiding place in the middle of nowhere was pretty gruesome. He was still hungry but the food was finished and there was only an empty cupboard to look forward to when he got back home that evening. He could not afford to take any risks whatsoever with her security on that score.
that was the answer. It was just a pity that the easiest solution – keeping the woman at home in his attic – obviously wasn’t feasible. Problem solved. the kinky sort of stuff he’d occasionally stumbled across on the internet. He stared down at the map. with no need to keep coming and going all the time. Much less obtrusive too. sex shops weren’t exactly plentiful in this part of Scotland. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. The only other thing he could think of was bondage gear. The other item in the shed that might come in useful was the length of chain they had bought years ago to tether the goat they never actually got round to acquiring. only solutions. he mustn't get hung up on details the way he usually did or nothing would ever get done. It was hard to visualise anywhere suitable just by looking at the swirling contours and empty spaces.think laterally. And there were any number of old padlocks in his toolbox which he had acquired over the years. Didn’t exist in fact. He sat in the clearing for over an hour turning the problem over and over in his mind without getting any nearer to a satisfactory solution. It surely wasn't beyond his wit to fashion some other sort of suitable restraint. The plastic ties the police used as handcuffs nowadays were probably not much different from the ties he used in the garden to stake out young trees. Except that they would probably be designed with would-be Harry Houdinis in mind – with one bound you would be free. It would certainly make it easier to keep her under constant surveillance. Which was exactly the opposite effect to what he wanted to achieve. if she was bound securely so she couldn’t make a sound. Think out of the box. were probably out of the question. Eventually it dawned on him that he was making the problem out to be worse than it really was. Handcuffs were the sort of props a magician might use. So. . Besides. as John Lennon used to say. Besides which. He wouldn't have the nerve. maybe even had her ears stuffed with wax or something so she couldn’t work out where she was. So handcuffs. If she was blindfolded and gagged. he concluded glumly. He shivered. But of course there still were problems. Maybe he could buy them in a toyshop. There was a whole box of them in the shed. There was absolutely no way he would go into a sex shop and buy such stuff. Make do and mend. Focussing on handcuffs was a mistake. he didn’t have the money and his credit cards were useless so even buying online was out of the question. Talk about embarrassment. Without a doubt the central problem still remained the location of the safe premises. There are no problems. No.
He sighed. He squinted at the map. Somewhere that no one else knew about. of sequestration and the bailiffs coming round. Nor was it simply her moral objections that stood in the way. She would never be party to anything criminal or even immoral. He scanned the map for a suitable site. A bullet blowing the top of your head off is quite another. He didn’t want any of the locals leading the bobbies straight to his hiding place. One of the old hideaways where they used to go for a smoke and a few bottles of beer. although there had been a few times recently when he had truly wished he was dead. Wherever he kept the woman the place would be found eventually. He swallowed hard. It had to be somewhere he’d discovered on his own. As long as they didn't find her for the couple of days it would take to complete the . Her capture was bound to make front page news. He was sure she would rather suffer the degradation of abject poverty. Maybe somewhere he used to play as a kid. Somewhere he could make lockfast to keep out prying eyes. He wasn’t sure he wanted to die just yet. It was an unnerving thought. The fact was that she would never believe he was capable of pulling off such an audacious scheme. He forced himself to remain calm. A millionairess taken hostage. First and foremost was that without Maureen’s co-operation the problem of where to keep his hostage while he waited for the ransom to be paid seemed insoluble. It was inconceivable that she would allow him to go through with such an evil course of action. She would think he was mad even to consider it. They were bound to mount a massive search. Not to mention the fact that they were usually damp and smelly and obviously without any kind of sanitation. Too well known. This undertaking was going to need genuine courage as well as brains to see it through. It would be all over the telly and the radio too which was a little bit scary. There were other problems too. Wishing is one thing of course. of being turfed out on the street with only the clothes she was dressed in rather than commit a mortal sin or do anything that would bring shame to the family. An old abandoned cottage or farm steading had to be the best solution. Caves weren't really appropriate although there were a few around here. There’d be helicopters and sniffer dogs and God knows what all out looking for her. His poor hostage was going to have to suffer quite enough without putting up with unnecessary privations of that sort. The police would probably call in the SAS which meant he might be shot if they found him. They tended to attract curious tourists and youngsters looking for somewhere safe to puff the odd spliff or two. He had to keep things in perspective.But letting Maureen into the plan was out of the question. They were a bit too obvious really.
except for three or four very old damson trees which were unusual in this part of the world.ransom transaction and the handover of the money that was all that mattered really. certain that their journey through the old pine forest and the foothills of Morven Hill wouldn't be wasted. There were many. simple pleasures. The setting in the lee of Morven Hill was a delight. The place was a bit too isolated and difficult to get to on foot. That's what Maureen used to call it. even abroad. That was the place. he would know for certain. He couldn't suppress a frisson of excitement at the thought of what was happening. Didn't want them doing a Sherlock Holmes on him. They hadn't been back there for years. He folded up the map and tucked it into his rucksack. He shook his head in amazement. The simple life. With the help of the map he retraced in his mind's eye some of the walks he'd done with Maureen over the years. the original orchard had mostly been subsumed by native geans and birches. That was obviously vital. He recalled how they had been so enchanted by the magic of the place that once they had even made love inside the old cottage on the cold earth floor. It was almost miraculous the way things were falling into place. As far as they were concerned she could have been spirited away to anywhere in the UK. simple food. the old cottage with its windows boarded up. They would surely think it highly unlikely that she was being kept right under their noses. after he had checked out the site just in case. He was pretty sure his search was over and in less than a day. He'd have to watch that. back to nature. The oncesubstantial garden was almost completely overgrown the last time they’d visited it. Someone up there must be smiling down on him at last. Great memories. most of the outbuildings roofless and crumbling. . For once in his life it seemed that things were actually coming together the way he wanted. No one else had ever discovered it so that each year they could be sure of their bountiful harvest of ripe damsons. It was perfect. sharing the burden. they brought back waves of pleasure. totally surrounded by an encroaching forest of naturallyregenerating birches. An old abandoned farm. As long as he didn't leave any clues behind he should be safe. They had made regular visits for a number of years to collect the ripe fruit which Maureen used to turn into delicious jam. simple problems. The good thing was that the authorities wouldn't have a clue where to begin looking. And then it came to him The Damson Farm. A very special place.
It was hard to keep the bike on the road as his chilled hands barely had enough strength to grip the handlebars. To make matters worse he could hardly breathe as the driving snow filled his gaping mouth. At one point he thought he wasn’t going to make it. Maureen looked up from the cooker and smiled as he staggered into the . When he eventually stepped out onto the main road a swirling breeze sprang up out of nowhere and pelted him with snowflakes. Where the road was unprotected by hedgerows it was already starting to drift. He dismounted and pushed the bike up the hill. Almost magically a scene straight off a Christmas card was silently created in front of his eyes. When he turned into the driveway at the top of the hill the lights in the cottage were burning bright. His forehead ached from the cutting wind. Normally he would have been pleased but tonight he felt only foreboding as he contemplated the chilly reception that awaited him. the rising wind now in his face. Maureen must have arrived home early. leaning into the wind. By the time he reached the turnoff to the farm road leading up the final steep hill to home it was dark and the snow was coming down as thick as goose down shaken from a heavenly pillowcase. leaving a long drunken trail behind him in the fresh snow. He shivered as the temperature plummeted. His unprotected ears were frozen. momentarily blinding him. He stopped and stared in surprise as the light streamed out from the kitchen window and bounced off the dancing swirling clouds of snowflakes. dreading the thought of going home to a cold cottage and bare cupboards where he would be forced to sit with an empty belly and await the arrival of his family. half blinded.While he was pushing the bike back along the landrover track several dark clouds began drifting across the sky. the mazy snowflakes drifting down prettily on the still air. the bike wobbling all over the road. Before he reached the main road it started to snow. Several times he was almost blown off the bike by a sudden gusts of icy wind rolling straight down from the mountains. He mounted his bicycle and started peddling home. his empty body drained of energy. The return journey was mostly uphill as the road climbed out of the valley of the Dee onto the flood plain. temporarily obscuring the sun. His eyes watered as the icy snowflakes pelted his eyeballs. His legs began to ache with the effort and he was forced to stand up on the pedals in order to climb the hill. By the time he reached the half way point he was exhausted. The woods turned dark and brooding. He was almost crying from exhaustion.
He made an extra effort to be civil.kitchen. He couldn’t focus on what he was reading. resenting the way he always benefited from his mother’s unconditional love. “Did you get a paper?” Maureen reached into her shopping bag.” “Thank you. She gave me another loan to tide me over. The money wasn’t even his after all.” He was so hungry he felt dizzy. She was probably right.” Nick didn’t get on with Maureen’s mother. the print swam in front of his eyes. “Here. He looked enviously at the cooker. “I fixed your bike by the way. He put down the paper.” It was a delicate moment. He had no rights in the matter. Instead he said. He hadn’t bought any new music for months.” Nick bit his lip. “I swallowed my pride and went round to see Mum again. I couldn’t bear the thought of him going to bed hungry. The smell of cooking stopped him in his tracks. He couldn’t afford such luxuries for himself. “What are you cooking?” “Stew. The feeling was mutual. “What’s happened? I thought…” Maureen looked a little self-conscious.” “Did you? Why?” . He took off his wet clothes and sat down at the kitchen table. brushing snow from his hair and eyes. I had to think of Martin. I bought him a new dance album CD so he’s happy. He suddenly felt faint with hunger. After all the things that had happened he was by no means certain that he would be included in the feast.” “How is he?” “He’s okay. “Where’s Martin?” “In his room. none at all. He was going to say something about Maureen’s favouritism but thought better of it. He couldn’t stop himself feeling envious of his son. She thought her daughter had married beneath herself.” “Oh. She took it out of the nest egg she was left by Gran. I see. pursing her lips.
He opened his mouth and trusted to instinct. The day after when he would be ready to carry out the kidnap. I always thought that was too good to be true.” His mind was racing as he planned ahead to the big day. Not tomorrow when he planned to check out the cottage. I’ve got a job interview in town tomorrow.” “Thanks.” “Sounds a lot more realistic than that last one you had. Remember we need the money.” After a moment’s hesitation the stern expression on Maureen’s face melted into a smile.” Maureen looked impressed. I’ll need the car to get into town. You take the car. “I think so. I’ll make sure it’s got a full tank of petrol. “It’s better than nothing. It’s not a problem.” Maureen looked dubious.” “That’s what I thought.” “Nick. Something down to earth will suit you far better.An idea leapt into his head.” “What would you do all day? Martin and I will get the bus in that day. Take whatever they . And good luck. Which was a Thursday.” “Yes?” “Don’t be too greedy. “It’s not much of a job. “If it means you’ll get a proper job of course you can. “I went to the Job Centre. I’ll find out at my interview on Thursday. What time is your appointment?” “Two thirty.” “Banchory?” The lies flowed surprisingly easily. The thing is. Is it weekly paid? That would help our cash flow. “I needed it to get to Banchory. if that’s all right. It’s labouring at a builders in town. “Doing what this time?” Nick had no idea what his next lie was going to be. I could take you and Martin in and kill time in town till then.
” “What?” “Take the house away from me. Apparently there’s a precedent. None of this is your fault and yet you’re the one who’s suffering most.” It was an easy promise to make.” “What do you mean?” She hesitated.” Nick was astonished. Eventually she said. He thinks there might be a flaw in it. You went into it with your eyes open. that’s great news. It doesn’t seem right that they can arrest your wages and take the house away from you. Maureen? What about?” She looked away. her face expressionless. “You’re kidding. “Maybe they won’t. Maybe not if you get a job. Your situation is different. “I went to see about getting a divorce. Maureen. While I was there the lawyer looked at that personal guarantee we signed. Apparently we shouldn’t have taken legal advice from the same lawyer.” “I see.” “Jesus. It might be that we have to split up if I’m going to protect Martin and myself.” She looked at him. When? Why?” The seconds ticked past.” He gripped the edge of the table to stop the room spinning. In a way I deserve it…but you. “Listen. Something about you having undue influence over me. What about the arrestment order on your salary? Is that legal?” . will you?” “Sure. “I had to think of Martin. “I’ve been to see a lawyer. “Why.offer.” “Not necessarily.” “So you’re leaving me?” “Not necessarily.” “So we won’t lose the house? Jesus. I’m sorry about what I’ve put you through.
I’m sorry. I have a duty to look into these things.” Nick was devastated.” Maureen turned back to the cooker. “Give me a little time that’s all. I’ve got to know.” “What if I get this job? Will you stay then? Please.” Nick saw that he was wasting his time pursuing the matter. .” She said nothing. Maureen. her face blank.” he sighed. He’s looking into it. I think we’ve already paid enough as it is. Nick. I’ll have to take advice from the lawyer. All the sacrifices he had made were for nothing.” she said eventually. He felt betrayed. Maureen it matters to me. “Okay. “It depends how high the price is.” “Don’t you want to stay together? Doesn’t it matter to you?” “Of course it matters.“He’s not sure. I’ll get that job and pay off our debts I promise. That’s why we’re in this mess. Particularly if I’m a single parent.” She stared at him without speaking.” Maureen flinched as his voice rose. He’s thinks there’s a chance I can get the order rescinded.” “What kind of answer is that? Are you going to stay or not? Christ.. She lifted the lid on a saucepan and peered into it.” “Well then?” “I’ll have to see. The ideal of the family upon which has life had been built was shattered. Nick. Nick. “At least give me a chance. “Give Martin a shout. “I honestly don’t know. Whatever else happens I’ve got to protect Martin. “This is ready. “What about if I get this job? Will you still leave?” Maureen thought for a moment.
” She looked unconvinced. You’ll see. this is ready. sorry. “As long as Martin doesn’t suffer any more. Just make sure you get that job on Thursday. that’s all. “Not now. up towards the brown.“Please. In the event it took him the whole morning just to find the overgrown track running through the pine forest where he and Maureen used to leave the car all those years before. this is your last chance. Chapter 12 After he waved goodbye to his family the following day Nick set off on Maureen’s bicycle to re-locate the Damson Cottage. Trust me. It’s up to you. I promise. The derelict farm where the cottage was sited wasn’t marked on any map and he was relying totally on memory to guide him back.” “Okay. Half an hour later the muddy track petered out as it emerged into the open on the far side of the wood. I’m too tired to argue.” He stood up and moved to embrace her but she turned away from him. Er. As far as he could remember the Damson farm was situated around a mile and a half or so beyond the edge of the forest. I’ll get this job and everything will be all right.” Nick muttered something that he hoped sounded suitably grateful as he sloped off to find his son. am I getting any?” Seeing the downcast expression on her husband’s face Maureen broke into a smile. give Martin a shout will you. Now. I’ll give Martin a shout. The hills in front of him formed a natural amphitheatre which looked vaguely familiar but he was unsure in which .” She took a deep breath. But whatever happens. Nick. He hid the bike amongst a clump of ferns about a hundred yards in from the road and set off along the narrow footpath through the trees. I’m not in the mood. heather-clad foothills of Morven Hill. stupid. Nick. please.” “He won’t . This time don’t let me down. “All right. “Of course you are. You won’t regret this.
Another hour passed before he finally stumbled upon the ruined farmhouse nestling amongst a thicket of spindly birch trees at the base of the rolling foothills of Morven Hill. In a very short time he was cold. A small flock of bedraggled sheep watched his lack of progress with blank disinterest. He was disconcerted by how disorientated he felt and how different the landscape appeared compared to his vivid memories of the times they had foraged there for wild raspberries. on the far horizon he spotted a copse of trees shimmering in the in the misty rain like an oasis. On . In those innocent days of long ago when they were first married he had been head over heels in love with Maureen and everywhere they went assumed a special significance. He retrieved his compass from the rucksack and took a sighting a few degrees north-east of the snow-capped summit of Morven Hill. Maybe it was inevitable that as the years had passed and their love had metamorphosed into a kind of fond indifference so too the way he viewed the world had changed beyond easy recognition. an unbroken sheep track which meandered in the general north westerly direction where he thought the farm should lie. To make matters worse there was no sign whatsoever of human habitation.” he muttered. After several false starts following various twisting tracks that quickly petered out. Out in the open moorland away from the shelter of the trees a stiff breeze bowled down the mountainside. His heart leapt. as he slithered towards them down the embankment of some ancient peat lots. wet and exhausted. At last. As the rain dripped off the end of his nose and ran down his back he laced up his boot and seriously considered abandoning his search. and that there were no real alternatives left. He sat down upon a clump of heather and took off his right boot and emptied it of water. he eventually found a promising-looking path that struck out decisively across the moor. Every few yards he was obliged to make a wide detour around boggy ground and twice he sank up to his ankles in waterlogged peat. The building itself was almost totally hidden behind a thick barrier of brambles and ivy and rampant rhododendron bushes. tossing the occasional sleety shower into his face as he trudged across the heather. damsons and mushrooms when they were younger. “Thank Christ. retained its own particular resonance when he recalled their good times together in later years. which forced him to press on with his desperate quest. It was only the knowledge that he was running out of time. He was surprised that he should have forgotten so much about a place that had once been so dear to him.direction he should strike out. over an hour later.
climbing almost up to the gutters of the black tiled roof like some enormous prickly octopus crawling out of the ocean. The green wood ceiling of the room had numerous broken timbers hanging down and looked like it could fall in at any moment. The door itself looked stout enough and he was confident that he would soon make it lockfast with the padlock and screws he had brought along for the purpose. The bare earth floor was cluttered with bits and pieces of farm machinery.hearing his approach a deer ran out of the narrow opening where a gate had once guarded the entrance to the neat cottage garden many years before. The only furniture was a crude wooden table with one leg missing that dominated the centre of the room. He forced his way gingerly through the brambles towards the front door. the kind of clammy cold that quickly ate into your bones and dampened your spirits. The damp walls were covered in fungus. which was the main thing as far as his particular requirements were concerned. taking care to keep all traces of disturbance to a minimum. If anybody did stumble upon the cottage in the next few days it would look as if no one had been near it for years. the place didn’t feel like it had ever been a happy house. He shivered. he reckoned that once the door was repaired and padlocked the place should be wind and waterproof at least on the ground floor. a horse-drawn plough. Exactly as he remembered the front door had been forced open long ago but fortunately it was still on its hinges. like green flock wallpaper. He paused at the threshold to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. a giant wooden mincing machine. He congratulated himself for having the foresight to bring a padlock that was suitably rusty in order to blend in with the surroundings. all decorated in a thick layer of bird droppings. It was cold too. he thought gloomily. All the windows were boarded up and the only light within the cottage came from the open front door. Gradually he was able to make out a wooden staircase to the upper floor on the far side of the main room which appeared to be rotted through and partially collapsed. The air of dereliction was oppressive. On the other hand. “A potential holiday home in need of some renovation” he muttered aloud. for all its shortcomings. Inside the low-walled garden the carefully cultivated landscape had been totally subsumed beneath an enormous bramble bush which was in the process of swallowing up the whole house. Cautiously he toured the perimeter of the garden looking for any signs of recent human occupation but to his relief there appeared to be none. Thanks to the poor state of the corrugated iron roof which was rusty and torn the cottage obviously . several rolls of barbed wire. Even an optimistic estate agent might be pushed to come up with a description like that.
While he was bending down to examine the stove for suitably robust anchor points he suddenly heard a scratching sound. with a surprised. Although rusty and seized solid it would be ideal for what he had in mind . expression on its . The age old story in fact. What was important was that the toilet. He tried the old bakelite light switches but not surprisingly the electricity had long since been disconnected.something immovable to which he could securely tether his prisoner and render her immobile. Drinking water wouldn’t be a problem though. Looking round he thought the dwelling was probably an old farmhand’s cottage. most likely vacated after the war when the land became uneconomic for whatever reason. not the sort anyone would wish to drink. desperation and eventual defeat of the working man. There would be a poignant story behind it. he was in no doubt about that. He stumbled though to the kitchen where he discovered a huge old enamel double sink beneath the boardedup window which would once have looked out upon the tidy back garden. Standing there in the middle of the decaying room he could smell the sad history of the place. but not particularly startled. still flushed when he pulled the chain. although cracked. like sandpaper being rubbed against wood. On closer inspection he could see that the large rickety table was riddled with woodworm and dry rot and seemed about to collapse under the weight of birdshit. He reckoned that the thing must weigh at least a ton. Miraculously there was still running water in the taps although it was brown and oily. but one with a resonance to his own. although this time he was going to do his damnedest to make sure that his sad little drama would have a different ending. her brief confinement. At least his captive guest wouldn't be deprived of all her home comforts during what would be. which was located in a room no bigger than a cupboard off to the side of the kitchen. He stepped inside. picking his way carefully past the barbed wire. Back in the kitchen he examined a huge antiquated wood-burning stove which was set against one wall. a life of honest toil unrewarded. a crude precursor of the modern Aga. hopefully.wasn’t soundproof but the location was so isolated it hardly mattered. A far older tragedy than the one he was involved in right now. The silence that ensued lasted for several seconds until it was eventually broken by a shuffling sound that rapidly grew louder and eventually culminated in the appearance of a rat's head poking out from underneath the stove. blackened and seatless. The degradation. He froze in horror. there were plenty of streams nearby. a tale of grinding poverty and tarnished dreams. about two feet away from his own head.
Rolling his jacket around his arm he cleared a space on the end and sat down to contemplate this fatal setback to his grandiose scheme. everything had been slipping seamlessly into place. It was out of the question. The rat seemed unimpressed. “Fuck off! Fuck off! Fuck off!”. He struggled to restrain the urge to turn and flee. he thought wildly. there could be hundreds of them. Nick thought of poor Mrs Roberts being forced to share the house with a plague of rats. holding his head in his hands. climbing over her face and body. There might be a whole plague of rats lurking under it.face. “No way. He pictured the disgusting creatures sniffing round her feet. lazy scraping sound. A shiver ran down his spine and he hunched his shoulders and shook his head in defiance. The idea of being attacked by an army of rats was his worst nightmare. No fucking rodent was going to screw up his plans at this stage. a sort of slow unconcerned. With time . jumping back in alarm. The rats had beaten him. blinded by the realisation that his plan had failed. Silence followed his outburst. He felt utterly deflated. Now this. Up until that moment everything had been going so well. Actually eating her alive. He would rather risk being eaten alive than fail now. Nothing moved. Once again he heard the rat shuffling about underneath the stove. Only the thought of the fate that awaited him and his family if his mission failed through his cowardice persuaded him to stay. "Jesus!" he gasped. Jesus. The perfect hiding place in every respect except one: it wasn’t habitable. “Fuck off!” he screamed at the invisible adversary. Nick stumbled back rapidly to the safety of doorway and stood there staring in horror at the stove. Against all the odds his plans had been coming perfectly to fruition. his heart pounding.” he protested out loud. The rat sniffed the air while it considered the situation before eventually retreating in a dignified manner back beneath the stove. There was absolutely no way he could subject the poor woman to such inhuman. as if it knew it was safe inside its metal home. maybe even attacking her. degrading treatment. The idea was too gruesome to contemplate. He backed out of the house. He shook his head again. Beneath one of the boarded up windows he could just make out the shape of an old wooden bench covered entirely by the rampant bramble bush.
If he left now he knew it was all over. Here on earth. by association. He might as well end it here. He heard a now-familiar shuffling noise within the cottage. He seemed to have learned nothing from the collapse of the business. his family. At that moment the sun broke through the clouds and he felt its late Spring warmth focussed on the top of his head as if through a lens. Rivulets of sweat began to trickle down his temple. Hell on earth. Perhaps God was saying that he and his family deserved everything they got. that they should share the punishment. it was too late to think up an alternative scheme. feasting on his febrile imagination. Rats crawling all over him. There was no getting away from it. tearing at his flesh. Or maybe it was a warning. He felt like he was already in hell. He knew he was at the crossroads on the road to his salvation. Maybe that’s what this setback was all about. In a matter of moments the heat was so fierce he imagined the sun’s rays might even set his hair on fire. The rats would feast well tonight. Life never is. He had to make a decision about which route he was going to take. Maybe they were God's way of punishing him for contemplating something so wicked and inherently evil. The rats were gnawing away at his dream. his plan would be in tatters. he thought glumly. He’d been a fool to allow himself to be dazzled by the faint glimmer of hope that had flickered so precariously in his benighted soul. It was hard to breathe in the airless heat. Not even purgatory. bathing in the life-enhancing warmth. It was bad enough to dream up such an outrageous scam. his dreadful penance for the rest of his life. accepting that their suffering on earth would expiate their sins. He was beaten. This was the end. Rats gnawing at his sinners' soul. his face tilted up towards the heavens. A warning not to commit such a heinous crime against nature. It was God’s curse upon him and. Walking away from the cottage meant he would . Of course he should have guessed that it wasn't going to be easy. It was even worse to have deluded himself into thinking that he would have been capable of putting his crazy scheme into action. eating him alive from the inside. that they should all do their penance in conditions of abject poverty. A plague of rats upon their house. He opened his eyes and saw that nothing had changed. Maybe that was the fate that was waiting for him in purgatory. He stood up. He lay back against the wall with his eyes closed. his last crazy scheme. The sins of the father.rapidly running out the presence of the rats was an insurmountable problem. he had been guilty of breathtaking hubris.
for the evil deed upon which he was about to embark. it would be worth it if it brought some sort of earthly peace to him and his family. Although he had been an agnostic for years he was still haunted by the fear instilled in him by the priests and the nuns at his primary school. He owed it to them. Silence followed. Maybe the rats wouldn't worry her that much anyway. think. he was prepared to pay for his release from fear with the biggest sacrifice of all. He picked up a piece of roofing timber and threw it at the cooker. for his persistent envy of other people’s success.lose everything. He clenched his fist and shoved his knuckles into his mouth and bit hard until he could stand the pain no longer. and more importantly. the eternal damnation of his soul. As the pain gradually subsided his felt his brain easing. above all for his utter failure to provide for his family as any decent husband should. It was cooler within the thick granite walls and he could breathe again. He made up his mind. He could see clearly in the darkness for the first time. And there was no doubt that what he was proposing was a mortal sin. maybe she wasn't as . for his recurrent hubris. He closed his eyes and concentrated with all his might. Nothing could be worse than what he’d been through since the business had folded. Every waking second had been hell. go to any lengths to make amends for all the sins of omission he had committed over the years. She had come across as a pretty tough woman. He cursed his Catholic upbringing. brushing away the blood. Taking a deep breath he turned and went back into the cottage. of the constant scanning of the road for the approach of his creditors. He would pay any price. This plan was his only hope. Even if the price of their salvation meant that others would have to suffer. He couldn’t give up now. He wiped the back of his hand on his jumper. Whatever price he might have to pay in the afterlife – if there was one . It didn’t matter. Time to think. of the terror of the morning post with its endless demands for money. He’d seen her speak once at a Chamber of Commerce dinner. His life for the past six months had been hell on earth. There was no other way. A rustling sound from the direction of the cooker told him that he still wasn’t alone. He realised that ever since that day he had been living in constant fear of the telephone call from the bank manager. Every night’s sleep had been an extended nightmare. At the end of the day he was prepared to sacrifice everything to save his family. The rats in the cottage were simply part of the price Mrs Roberts would have to pay for her part in his salvation. For the first time he could see clearly that his sins alone had brought his whole family down. As for his own fate. They were all that mattered to him.
an outcome that only a few days previously would have seemed like a miracle. drifting to a depth of several feet in places. Once he had made the house lockfast he sat down again on the front seat and studied his map. it never had been. whatever the consequences. It had taken him far too long to get to the house. forcing him to dismount and plough his way through the drifts on foot. On the way home the snow built up on the road ahead of him. Notwithstanding the conditions it had taken him a little over thirty minutes to return to his bicycle which was now almost hidden beneath a thick blanket of snow. it started to snow. He reckoned it would take him less than half an hour from where he planned to park the car even if he had to forcibly drag his reluctant hostage along with him. He was exhausted by his efforts but also excited at the prospect of the imminent resolution of his problems. Nothing in life was easy. He realised he had been wandering in a circle. Everything was in place. Maybe it was the rats who would have to look out. including Mrs Roberts. Tomorrow. It was hard work. as he stumbled back across the moor. He would still be travelling down a rocky road that might turn out to be a blind alley or even the road to hell but from this moment there would be no turning back. The screws were rusty. As Mrs Roberts was about to find out.cowardly as he was. Half an hour later. and he tossed and turned endlessly until dawn finally arrived. He checked his watch. No one had ever said it was going to be easy. During the night his brain worked frantically to make sense of the days ahead. He stood up and made the sign of the cross in expiation for the crime he was about to commit. For the first time he felt truly confident that his plan would work. He had made up his mind. but in this world everyone had their cross to bear. much to Maureen’s relief. Guided by his compass he eventually reached the relative shelter of the woods. That night he went to bed early. From now on he was committed. There was only one way forward. He regretted the inevitable misery he was going to cause. . exhausted by the physical effort and the rapid draining of nervous energy from his body. He stood up and took a last look round. his life would change forever. He took out his compass and took a bearing on Mount Keen in the distance. By the time Maureen joined him in bed later that night he was already asleep. He took out the screwdriver from his rucksack and started work on repairing the door. he knew. In a matter of minutes a blizzard sprang up and soon he was engulfed by a total white-out. Next time he would be able to head straight for the cottage.
Chapter 13 Nick woke up in a sweat but for once it wasn’t caused by fear. He had overslept and the sun was streaming in through the bedroom window, bouncing off a million particles of dust in a tight shaft of light, firing a laser stream of focussed rays that was burning him up. He groaned. His head was buzzing as if there was a swarm of bees flying around inside his skull. He hauled himself upright and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. Beside him the bed was empty. The house was as quiet as the grave. Maureen and Martin had obviously already gone off into town. He dragged himself out of bed and peered out of the bedroom window. The car was still parked in the driveway. They must have gone off early to catch the bus. Miraculously the heavy snowfall of the day before had vanished. In its place all the newly-washed colours of Spring had emerged to light up the gravid landscape. The field that surrounded the house glowed a lurid green. The bursting buds on the clump of silver birches at the end of the garden formed a shimmering purple haze that swayed in the breeze. Overhead there were no clouds in the deep blue sky. He blinked. The world hadn’t looked this good since his one and only acid trip a lifetime ago. He felt his spirits rising. He realised that the thaw had obliterated the tracks he had left on the landscape in the past couple of days. Overnight he had become invisible. No one would ever know he had been roaming in the woods. Finally the Gods were smiling on him. At long last things felt right. He washed and dressed quickly, not bothering to shave. The noticeable stubble on his chin enhanced his unsavoury appearance. He hurried downstairs and ate a light breakfast of toast spread thinly with the last of the marmalade. It was enough. He was too excited to feel hungry. He lingered over a cup of black coffee while he constructed a mental checklist of the equipment he would need to execute his covert operation. At first the lack of a suitable weapon stumped him. A convincing weapon was vital to establish his credibility. A shotgun would have been ideal but he had never owned one. There was absolutely no way he could obtain one at this late stage. It was a major problem. The next best thing he could think of was an old pickaxe handle that he knew was lying in the shed somewhere, but that seemed inadequate to the task, even, somehow, crude. He didn’t want to appear like a thug after all. A knife seemed equally unsuitable in the countryside, it was much more of an urban weapon, designed for close range. He racked his brains for a suitable alternative, without success. He was starting to become discouraged again when he
suddenly remembered Martin's old air rifle. A Christmas present from one of the neighbouring farmers who Martin had occasionally helped with the milking a few years back. Ostensibly for shooting rabbits and small vermin it had immediately become the cause of a number of family rows. Its total unsuitability as a present in Maureen’s eyes had not been enhanced by the fact that to the casual observer it looked exactly like an AK47. Maureen had loathed the thing and had insisted that it was kept out of her sight, out of the house indeed. Ironically, in the context of what Nick was planning to do, it was hard to think of a more appropriate weapon. As an object that would create the maximum effect with the minimum of danger it was ideal in every way. In the event that he did actually have to fire the thing in anger it probably wouldn’t kill anyone but the .22 slug it projected would definitely slow someone down. In addition, the faithfulness of its design meant that the woman almost certainly wouldn't know the difference between it and a real assault rifle even if she was one of the hunting, shooting and fishing set who was familiar with guns. Just in case his bluff was called when he confronted the woman he decided to back up his makeweight arsenal with a large kitchen knife which he intended to stick down the belt he was going to wear outside his Barbour jacket. An old skiing balaclava and a pair of dark sunglasses completed his vaguely paramilitary uniform. He assembled everything he needed in the kitchen. When he was certain that he had forgotten nothing he took the clothes upstairs and checked out his appearance in the bedroom mirror. The effect was startling. Even menacing. He puffed out his chest and snarled back at his reflection. The overall effect was undeniably impressive. He doubted if even his own mother would have recognised him dressed like this. He felt different too in his new identity. Bolder. Braver. Maybe even capable of extraordinary feats that stretched beyond his normal imagination. Even though he knew that he was simply acting a part this feeling made a big difference to his confidence. After all, cowing his victim into immediate and total submission was vital to the success of his plan. He would be scared too, but she wouldn't know that. He pointed his gun at his reflection. “Okay, lady, get your hands up,” he snarled. His voice was so squeaky she would have burst into laughter. He tried again. “Move, or I’ll shoot you!” he muttered gruffly. It didn’t sound very convincing. He tried to recall some of the many gangster films and B-movies he had watched over the years for some pointers on which he could base his performance. Tarantino’s stuff naturally sprang to mind but he couldn’t immediately visualise any scenes
that actually fitted the vague screenplay he had in mind. He dimly recalled a film that had shocked him some years before. Was it directed by Oliver Stone? “Natural Born Killers”? Except that he’d walked out on that one, disgusted by the violence, somehow feeling degraded by the experience, sitting in the dark enjoying other peoples suffering. The telly wasn’t much help either despite the thousands of hours of dreary cop dramas he must have watched since he was a kid. Z Cars. The Sweeney. The Bill. The real problem was that he didn’t know anything about kidnapping - or any kind of violence come to that - from a first-hand, factual perspective. As a consequence he found it impossible to visualise how events were likely to unfold. Maybe if he’d read Terry Waite’s autobiography or something similar he would have had a better idea of what to expect. Too late now. Even Amazon wasn’t that quick. He tried again. “Do what I say or I’ll shoot you!” he snarled at his reflection. It was better but still not terribly convincing. It didn’t help that his loss of self-esteem following the collapse of the business had fatally eroded his former assertiveness, destroyed the natural leadership qualities he had developed over the years. These days neither Maureen nor Martin did what he said any more, which wasn't exactly reassuring. He smiled ruefully at himself in the mirror. Fortunately a rather scary stranger leered back. He realised that he was probably underestimating the effect his sudden appearance was likely to have on his intended victim. People usually paid attention to aggressive strangers, especially when they were bawling instructions at you while they poked a gun in your ribs. The main thing was probably to act quickly and decisively in order to disorientate his intended victim. Just like the SAS storming the Libyan Embassy. He stared at his reflection. It was only play acting after all. A means to an end. It was a mistake to think too deeply about it. What he was planning to do had nothing to do with the real him. Violence was not at all in his nature. In fact he couldn't recall ever shouting at anyone before, apart from Maureen of course, and even then he always regretted his outbursts afterwards. On the whole he much preferred to reason with people, to win over their cooperation, even their approbation, with cogent arguments. Clearly that approach wasn't appropriate in this situation. When he had finally satisfied himself that he at least looked the part he removed his disguise and put the clothes and the gun into the large canvas holdall that Martin used for carrying his rugby kit. He remembered how dark the cottage was and he rooted out from the box room an old paraffin
but that was simply a question of lack of finance. A box of matches completed his preparations. were still in working order. And a couple of blankets to keep her warm. He took his time in the little Spar shop and bought astutely. It would be in her own interest after all. Last but not least he took a pen and some paper on which his hostage could write out the ransom demand which he would dictate to her. possibly even four. After he had finished packing the basic supplies into the rucksack he went out into the shed and retrieved the old goat chain and a couple of small padlocks which. What was it they said? Cometh the hour cometh the man? Something like that anyway. although rusty. Certainly not fresh meat or anything that might attract the rats. unless they actually . Besides. He planned to get packets of soup mostly. Everything was now in place to begin the mission. but he didn't think it would be too difficult to think of something suitably authentic once he actually had her captive. she'd be able to help him get it right. She would know who he should send it to as well. there was a limit to the amount he would be able to carry across the moor in his rucksack. loaded the rucksack into the boot and set off down to the village shop to collect the necessary rations. He still had a pound left. In the end he reckoned he had enough food to last for five days. When he had completed all his preparations he locked up the house. Ten minutes later he parked in a clearing a quarter of a mile along the track through the woods where he had previously hidden the bicycle. He remembered to add a toilet roll to the little box of supplies he was planning to take. If he was careful he reckoned he might be able to buy enough food to last his victim for three. He knew that the police would find the tracks the Saab made in the mud but he couldn’t see what they would learn from that. Besides. He packed the new food supplies into the rucksack and drove sedately down to the river.lamp they sometimes used during power cuts. He carried the holdall out to the car and loaded it into the boot. Fortunately they had an extensive range of packet soups. He hadn't yet worked out the correct form of wording for that either. which allowed him some leeway in his timetable if anything went wrong. He promised himself he would spend it on a celebratory can of beer once the first phase of his operation was successfully concluded. He knew that he was being somewhat inconsiderate but there wasn’t a spare one in the house and Maureen was bound to notice if he took one off the beds. No fresh fruit either. On the way to the river he would stop off in the village and buy food with the money Maureen had left him for his supposed visit into town to attend the job interview. Unfortunately no pillow. days. stuff that was light to carry which could be heated on the old primus they used to use when they went camping on the west coast in the old days.
Besides. His hand shook with excitement as he locked the car. He’d overlooked the effect of the overnight melting snow. muddy current. He had a quick look up and down the river but there was no sign of anyone.tracked down the vehicle which he thought was unlikely now that the snow had melted. Maybe she’d packed her bags and headed for the airport and the next plane back to London. With this one symbolic act he felt transformed. He gazed morosely at the pulsing. when he came into the ransom money. almost unfishable. He could hear the river in the distance rumbling like a motorway. He climbed out of the car and spread a map on the bonnet and pretended to examine it for five minutes. It took him twenty minutes to reach the edge of the wood where it bordered the river. He was learning fast. Nothing happened. All his preparations had been for nothing. In the event he decided against carrying the breadknife – if he did meet anyone in the woods or down by the river it would look far too conspicuous. his senses on high alert. It was just possible that in an hour or two. perhaps longer. Reconditioned ones would probably be best. Pay cash too. there was more chance that he would do himself a serious injury if he fell crossing the rough ground than anything else. The very best that he could hope for was that she was waiting for the water level to drop an inch or two. Satisfied that he was alone and unobserved he removed his combat gear from the car and started changing into uniform. After finally checking to see that he remained unobserved he set off through the woods towards the river as nervously as a sun-dappled deer in the hunting season. bucking. All his hopes had vanished with the melting snow. The woman had probably taken one look at the river earlier and decided that it was a complete waste of time. He finished dressing and retrieved the air rifle from the boot and slung it diagonally across his left shoulder. He felt sick in the pit of his stomach. the river . Maybe later. It was one thing to plan things in his head but standing there in the woods dressed like a terrorist raised everything onto a different plane. The river was in full spate. He waited until he was certain that the coast was clear before he sprinted the hundred yards across the open meadow. His mission truly had begun. to his vantage point on a grassy knoll overlooking the river. he might buy some new tyres to be on the safe side. He smiled to himself. Used fivers. His apprehension was heightened by the knowledge that if he was spotted now he would be forced to abort the mission and run for it. bent double. He spread out a groundsheet on the damp grass and lay down and stared in dismay at the roaring water cascading down the river channel. the hunter becoming the hunted.
He stretched out upon the groundsheet and filled his lungs with the crisp clean air. almost certainly a taking fish. Snatching simple pleasures. living for the moment. Or maybe she had decided instead to spend the day shopping in town. Even a heavily weighted Devon might get down to the fish. As well as screwing up his life in the process. That was what life was about after all. a lovely head and tail rise. maybe. It was one of those spring mornings when it felt good to be alive. He lay on his back and closed his eyes. The minutes ticked by and turned into hours. He knew the feeling was as transitory as the clear blue sky but he was determined to enjoy it while he could. So much for God smiling upon him. The possibilities were endless. Stocking up the wine cellar perhaps. As the hours dragged by he began to doubt that she would turn up at all.the sun came out and the gorse bushes all around him were suddenly alive with flocks of finches singing their hearts out. At that moment – which would have been lunch time if he had had any food . Perhaps rattled off the Times crossword. Despite the collapse of his rescue plan at that moment he felt ineffably toplofty. stealing beauty. Whatever she was up to right now all he could do was wait. What was it Scott Fitzgerald had written? Ineffable toploftiness? That just about summed it up. He pondered on the irony that if she didn’t show up she would be missing a grand opportunity to add to her basket. He could see it was a silvery fresh run fish. As another hour dragged by and his spirits subsided he forced himself to remain optimistic that his quarry would eventually appear.would drop sufficiently to try a large Toby. He imagined she’d probably spent a heavy night carousing and feasting or whatever it was that rich folk did to pass the time. of course. The sound transcended the roar of the river and filled his heart with joy. She’d probably spent a sedate evening listening to opera or Mahler or somebody on the gramophone with a glass of port in her hand. Maybe Bloomberg on satellite. Just at that moment he hadn’t a care in the world. Certainly wouldn’t have frittered away her time watching East Enders or any of that rubbish. It was like listening to an unruly heavenly choir. Maybe played backgammon or a rubber of bridge with the servants. or a fashionable Pinot Grigio – when a large salmon splashed in the fast water at the head of the pool. He was lying there speculating on what sort of wine the woman would drink with her catch – Chablis. He cursed under his breath. unfortunately. . Most fisherman. Maybe he was doing her an injustice. when the world seemed to be bursting with a myriad wonderful possibilities.
The same principle the World Bank imposed on debt-ridden African countries. On a more serious note. He had been pushed into corner by forces beyond his control. Not that he needed to feel guilty about what he was doing. rolling across the lumpy meadow like a small boat beating against a heavy swell. Money. he knew he’d need to find somewhere safe to keep all that money. he realised. It stopped at its familiar place at the head of the first pool on the beat. The truth was. A dream not a nightmare. that would be a nice idea. A good dream. periodically come down to look at the water in a spate. A dream that ended with riches and happiness all round. Like a fairy tale with a happy ending. as Martin might say. It occurred to him that he would need to ask for cash to prevent the authorities spotting any suspicious movement in his bank account. Nick fiddled with his binoculars but he couldn’t get them to focus properly. All right.. He could just make out figures moving . That sort of dream. Once again he scanned the horizon with his binoculars. The comparison gave him a warm glow inside. he thought. Do some good for once in his life. just out of sight of the water where it wouldn’t scare the fish. He smiled to himself. that even at this stage the whole thing still seemed unreal. Giving to charity would be okay. Half a million pounds. What he was doing was not entirely selfish. He swivelled round and trained his binoculars downstream. He picked up the air rifle and nestled the stock against his cheek. How many notes was that? A lot. As a result he was simply applying other market forces of his own devising to solve a huge debt problem. Maybe he was still human after all. Might give some to charity actually. Redistribution of wealth. he heard the sound of a Landrover some minutes before the vehicle itself nosed into view. conscience money. when he had almost given up hope.he reminded himself. That moment when the water level starts dropping can often be the most productive. that was important. Lots of money would secure a happy ending. and squinted through the telescopic sight at the landrover. A shedload. It was like being in a dream. It was strange but on what was probably the most important day of his life he no longer felt in the least bit nervous or even excited. Or was that too close to home? He frowned. reassured by its coolness. And anything above a five pound deposit was going to look suspicious given the dire state of his finances. Twenty pound notes. Attacks on the rich.however it was the song went.. Imagine there's no. He found it oddly comforting that even at this desperate juncture in his life he still managed to retain the vestiges of a sense of humour. A few seconds later the vehicle appeared. Lying in wait to ambush somebody was such a bizarre experience for him that it was impossible to relate it to anything else he'd ever done. And then. Out in the shed probably. Just like Robin Hood. Imposing a unilateral tax on the rich.
Twice the man fell over the springer spaniel which kept leaping up at him to lick his face. Jesus. Someone who had never done a day’s work in their lives. . He watched in dismay as the unanticipated new arrival carried the rods down to the river. He buried his head in his hands and cursed his luck. Nick couldn’t believe his eyes. “You’ve got some fucking sense of humour all right. The third figure appeared to be a young man in his twenties. Then there was the debt collector. smoking a small cigar and laughing continuously as he darted around helping to unload the rods. Three against one considerably increased the odds against him. God. Christ. At least they did some good in the world. Three people. the one that had bounced. Like everything else he had done in his life. No doubt about it. fuck. when he went to confession as a kid he had to make up sins to tell the priest he was such a goodygoody. "Shit. “Fuck. He might have guessed it would turn out like this. Anyone with any sense in his position would have been a lawyer or an accountant. Suddenly everything was going to plan once more. thank you. they were probably battering down the door of the house right now.inside the vehicle. ginger-haired. He remembered the cheque he had written to that fucking garage owner. the inland revenue.” he swore out loud. “Christ. A wastrel. he wondered? Some fucking Hooray Henry straight out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh. A fucking toy boy. a figure straight out of Country Life. This totally unexpected appearance fatally undermined all his plans. cloudless blue sky. a feeling of despair tightening its icy fingers round his chest.” he muttered. He held his breath. The whole idea had been stupid from the start. He should never have started his own business in the first place. Dressed in a long check waistcoat and green corduroy trousers.” He started to feel sick as he contemplated the consequences of failure. and Nick cursed him vehemently. he looked like a caricature of a country squire. small black figures in the distance. Even a teacher for Christ’s sake. that guy was after his blood all right. glaring up into the expressionless. He raised his eyes heavenwards. “Than you. thumping the ground with his fist. the sheriff’s officers. And the rest of his army of creditors would be queuing up right behind him. God. trying to keep the rifle steady. Pure fantasy." he whispered. Surely to fuck he wasn't going to be thwarted by some gormless twat who had nothing better to do than play the clown on the riverbank? Who the fuck was he. Then everything stopped going to plan.” he muttered aloud. He just wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing. Talk about kicking a man when he’s down. fuck. In his heart he knew he’d fuck it up. climbed out of the vehicle. The bank manager.
He picked up the air rifle and trained the sights on the group who were now standing beside the bonnet of the landrover. a contest in which you treated your prey with the utmost respect. Declared war on them and all their class. a place at university. Whatever the outcome he was a condemned man. And all he had ever tried to do was be respectable. The woman turned frequently. Yet again he asked himself the old question that had tormented him continuously for the past six months. Nick shook his head scornfully. Four good highers. laughing as he did so. He shook his head. a glittering future ahead of him. Just where exactly had he taken the wrong turning in his life? The image of himself as a bright-eyed sixth-former at school flashed into his mind. A secret life as a sinner if he successfully carried out the crime. Appointed Head Boy in a tough comprehensive. a deadly game where you always accorded your quarry dignity. a sniper's rifle. biting through the nylon with his teeth. laughing and gesticulating. Dedicated his life to building up a successful business. A public life as a bankrupt if he didn't. Eventually. escaping the clutches of his manic-depressive mother. And for what? To be kicked in the balls by some idle bastard who had probably never done a stroke of work in his life. The ginger-haired idle bastard was tying on a fly for the woman. His exuberant behaviour irritated Nick. lovers perhaps. How had he got himself into this predicament? A lose-lose situation. especially in death. The young ginger haired man lay sprawled out on the bank behind the woman. He had always believed fishing should be a serious business. a credit to the school. Dropped the lot of them in fact. Emerging triumphantly from his unhappy childhood. Only to fail in the end. Every few minutes the man jumped up and waved his arms about. truly a matter of life and death. he'd have dropped the guy there and then. The way the guy . He couldn't understand how it took these people so long to get themselves organised. Nick snarled at the sight. They were obviously very close. If it had been him he'd already have had his first fish on the bank in the time they had wasted pratting around. A one man revolution. conducting some kind of elaborate pantomime. He had yearned for respectability. The anguish and the worry. Let nothing stand in his way as he struggled and clawed his way into the middle classes. after an interminable amount of toing and froing the woman finally began to fish. If he’d had a real gun.He lay down the air rifle and buried his head in his hands and began to cry. In a funny sort of way it didn’t really matter any more what happened next. an alcoholic father. All those sleepless nights. smiling and laughing the whole time.
The excitement over. The fish took nearly twenty minutes to land. He strung up the fish on his wading staff and held it out in front of him for the woman to admire. about a mile away. Calmly the old ghillie climbed out of the landrover and ambled down to the bank clutching a large landing net. . showing in sympathy. And then the woman got into a fish. Through the scope he could see that it was a beautiful fresh-run fish. one after the other. It was a long time since he’d caught a fish that big. with the fish slung across his shoulder in a salmon bass. The man had leaped to his feet and was frantically jumping up and down and yelling as he tried to attract the attention of the ghillie who was still sitting twenty yards away in the landrover drinking from his thermos. The river was suddenly alive with fish. before the young man finally set off across the meadow in the direction of the big house. More animated conversation ensued. as if he was the one who'd actually caught the fish. A few seconds later three more fish. the ghillie folded up his net and returned to the landrover out of sight of the woman.was behaving demeaned the sport. denigrated the sanctity of life itself. thought Nick. right alongside the hooked fish. Nick saw the line snap taut and the rod bend double as she hung on desperately. He took up position a few yards downstream from where the woman was playing the fish. The fierceness of the take almost jerked the rod out of her hands. not long out of the sea. Not surprisingly. He felt a twinge of envy. Nick saw the flash as the ghillie finally hauled the flapping bar of silver up onto the steep bank. It was almost as if they knew that something dreadful was happening. He’d probably killed thousands of fish during his career. Two more salmon splashed in the pool. He observed her technique through the scope of the air rifle. showed in the tail of the pool a hundred yards downstream. Above the roar of the cascading water he heard the young man whooping with delight. A few minutes later the ghillie unhooked the fish from his wading staff and handed it over to the young man. The woman was left alone on the riverbank to resume the pursuit of her next prize. where he resumed his half-finished breakfast as if nothing had happened. prodding and jabbing at it like a boxer in the ring. The ghillie despatched the salmon with a couple of firm blows over the head from a large wooden priest. After the initial excitement of the take had died down she became cool and determined. The ginger-haired man danced around the fish. keeping the rod up and the line tight.
He picked up the air rifle and cocked it and put a pellet into the barrel. He took a deep breath. Nick realised with a start that this was the chance he had been waiting for. It was now or never if he was going to transform his elaborate daydreams into reality. The adrenaline was pumping through his veins. her feet straddling the track that skirted the river. As soon as he stepped out onto the open ground he would be visible from the road bridge two hundred yards away. He could clearly see the upper half of the back of the woman. To reach the woman he would have to cross a patch of open ground about forty yards ahead. Crouching beneath the skyline he scurried along the floor of the valley that meandered from his vantage point down to the river. Still bent double he followed the valley until it petered out on the edge of the open ground. his mouth suddenly dry. moving quickly. he had no way of knowing which. Salvation or damnation awaited him. He crept downstream. He reached the path that ran alongside the river without being seen. his pulse thumping. Five yards from the river he dropped onto his stomach and wormed his way to the top of the ridge. about a hundred yards downstream from where he lay. the face of his bank manager leapt into his mind. This was it. He hesitated. momentarily feeling dizzy as the blood drained from his face. He paused to get his breath back. staying below the skyline. Nick visualised the look of terror in Maureen's eyes as the angry mob hammered on the front door. almost deafening him. desperately wanted to relieve himself. In the final analysis he’d rather throw it all away than have it taken from him. For a second he was tempted to give in and face the consequences of his impending bankruptcy. while he knelt beside the riverbank as if in prayer. He saw the look of shame on Martin's face as they were chased from the house. closely followed by the angry garage owner at the head of a whole army of baying creditors. fishing intently. At that moment. Vulnerable. The landrover was hidden from view behind a grassy knoll. All the old self doubt was seeping back into his bones. He knew only too well that this was a turning point in his life. He stopped just before the bend . Maybe a fatal one. There was no way he could betray his family now. He sat up and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and sprinted across the meadow.Alone and unprotected. As long as the woman didn’t turn round he would be safe. He was so nervous he felt sick. There was no alternative. Once he embarked upon his plan there would no going back.
the monofilament line arcing out across the pool. She remained frozen in astonishment as the line collapsed into the river behind her where it was immediately carried downstream by the strong current. What the hell’s going on. charged round the bend in the river. in mid cast. "Run!" “That hurt! Stop it! Get away from me. “Do exactly what I say or I’ll blow your fucking head off!” he screamed. This was it. The woman swung round in amazement and gaped up at him. “Ouch.” “Do what I say!” “Leave me alone. after a second’s hesitation. was still fishing. With shaking fingers he pulled the balaclava down over his face. dropping her rod as she stumbled backwards. He though about Maureen and what would happen to her if he failed. He needed time to compose himself but he dared not delay in case the young man or the ghillie reappeared. "Do it or I'll fucking shoot you!" The woman simply gawked at him. Despite the protection afforded by her jacket and the thick woolly jumper she was wearing he felt the end of the barrel bouncing off her breastbone. harder this time.in the river which marked the tail of the pool where he knew that the woman. It was all the encouragement he needed. "Get moving. Taking a final deep breath he stood upright and. He was immediately confronted by the sight of the woman with her back turned to him." he yelled.” the woman protested. As he crept forward he could hear the swish! and the plop! as the woman cast her bait across the pool. He ran up to her and pointed the gun at her chest. It was a pivotal moment during which his courage almost deserted him. pointing the air rifle at her anonymous back. They stared at each other for several seconds. He lunged forward and stabbed the woman’s chest with the barrel of the gun. just out of sight round the corner. "Move downstream. His heart was thumping and he was gasping for breath. the rod raised above her head. jabbing her again." he screamed.” .
“Help me. You’ve got to save him. bending forward. “My God. "Run or you’ll follow him!" he yelled.He pulled the gun back ready to jab her again. tumbled like an acrobat through the air in a graceful arc over Nick’s head. “Shut the fuck up or I’ll fucking kill you.” . uncoiling as he did so. A spindly red tartan tie dangled from his neck. Nick looked up and saw an old. “You can’t leave Peter to drown. The face-down head bobbed gently in the current like a cork.” she gasped. Nick jumped up and grabbed hold of the tie and jerked it towards him with all his might. as her face was pushed into the mud. He peered down on the scene in astonishment. white-haired man dressed in a green tweed jacket and baggy plus twos gazing down at him with a face frozen in horror. “Help. Seeing the murderous look in his eyes the woman turned round and slipped headlong onto the muddy path. "What the hell’s going on?” he demanded. his neck snapping loudly. There was a noise like a cricket bat hitting a ball to the boundary. The woman could not tear her eyes away from the sight of the old man’s body floating down the river. A six this time. Then she started sobbing. Nick and the woman stared down in disbelief as the suddenly inert body slowly swung out from the bank and began to float off downstream. He reached down and grabbed the collar of her Barbour and started hauling her to her feet. Momentarily.” He hit her again.” He hit her over the back of her head with the butt of the air rifle. she was stunned into silence. Suddenly the ghillie appeared on the bank above them. Immediately he crumpled up like a concertina. Slowly he toppled forward into the swirling water. caught off balance. Nick swallowed hard to suppress the nausea rising in his throat. He dragged the woman to her feet and pushed her forward along the muddy path. The old man.” “Leave me alone. He landed head first on the footpath. The old man must have heard her screams.” she screamed at the top of her voice.
" he hissed.Nick had heard the man’s neck snap. Twice she fell over and twice he dragged her to her feet. When he climbed into the car his hand was shaking so violently that it took him several attempts before he was able to fit the key into the ignition. run. as hard as he could. Then he made her climb into the boot. It was important to keep her moving. She stumbled forward.” he screamed into her face whenever she slowed down. He knew that if he panicked now he .” he snarled. The edge of the wood was about a hundred yards away." he said. faster. She staggered slowly forward. He eventually started the engine and reversed back along the track at high speed. Her clumsiness and stupidity infuriated him. He was appalled to see the body being swept along the shallows at the tail of the pool. pushing her in front of him. Chapter 14 Nick backed the car along the track at high speed. his face purple with rage. The past few minutes had been unbelievably violent and horrible.” When the woman tried to turn back towards the ghillie Nick hit her across the front of her neck with the rifle butt. “Run.” he screamed. The engine stalled. “Run. “He’s dead. She fell backwards and he grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and hauled her up the bank and onto the grass. “It’s too late.” he shouted. Nick too glanced over his shoulder. He burst onto the main road and slewed the car round in the direction of the cottage. "If you make a single fucking sound I'll stop the car and kill you right away. unable to work out what was happening. the spinning tyres churning up mud. slowly rotating with the force of the current. "Follow that fucking track. the engine screaming. After what seemed like hours they finally reached the safety of the rhododendron bushes at the edge of the wood. “Peter’s still alive. run. prodding her forward with the gun. Now run!” As they stumbled back up the river the woman kept turning round to look back at the ghillie. disoriented. He clenched his teeth and shut his eyes. When they eventually reached the car he handcuffed her hands behind her back with the plastic garden tie and taped over her mouth with thick brown sellotape. The woman pointed.” she cried. far beyond his worst imaginings. slamming the lid down upon her. “Faster. “He’s waving at me. He wished he had an Alsatian to bite at her ankles. cursing himself as he did so for letting everything get so totally out of his control.
but his relief was short-lived when he saw the driver shoot him a curious backwards look in his mirror as he pulled away. the twelfth century motte he often walked to from his house. They were all witnesses who might later recall seeing his car. it was one of the first things to go wrong. he had packed no medical supplies of any kind. one of the worst headaches he'd ever had. not even aspirin. His left leg was shaking so much that whenever he tried to change gear he couldn't depress the clutch properly. He was utterly exhausted. He almost fainted with fright. The simple task of driving the car to the turnoff for the ruined cottage proved to be extraordinarily difficult. certain that he was being followed. He drove off at his normal. He counted to three and turned the ignition and the engine burst into life. . The harder he concentrated on driving normally. dangerously close to giving up if anything else went wrong. So far so good. Despite his best endeavours his behaviour was attracting attention. a little later. nice ordinary people leading nice ordinary lives. His heart was pounding so hard he thought he might have a heart attack at any moment. He bit his lip. and. Murderers are not nice ordinary people.was lost. just like a learner driver. the more mistakes he seemed to make. A few miles further on he overtook a tractor whose ancient driver gave him a cheery way and. He could never be one of them now. as it had turned out. Typically. His head was splitting too. As he breasted the brow of a hill a woman weeding in her garden looked up as he drove past. He forced himself to calm down. To his immense relief the vehicle pulled out and overtook him as soon as they reached the straight stretch of road that bordered the marshes at Drem. It loomed large in his rear view mirror even after he slowed down to let it overtake. He hadn't planned for such contingencies when he’d been dreaming up his Hollywood-style version of the kidnap. He slowed right down to let it pass easily. He found it difficult to think straight any more. As he drew level with the signpost pointing to the ancient monument a car pulled up behind him and tailgated him for several minutes along the narrow winding road. Fortunately the road was empty. He had been driving for ten minutes when he passed the site of the ancient Peel Ring. He heaved a sigh of relief. Every time an oncoming car approached he was sure the driver was staring across at him as if he was piloting a vehicle from outer space. so bad it made his eyes water. His mental and physical fitness for the task was something he hadn’t considered. He took one perfectly ordinary bend so fast he nearly drove off the road. All those other people in their nice new cars. two cyclists both wearing bright yellow crash helmets. safe speed. Which in a way he was now. Several times in quick succession he selected the wrong gear.
He was so preoccupied with what he was going to say to her . Oh God. what was he going to do with her? She knew everything. she must be absolutely petrified. At first he thought that somehow time had slowed down. he would implore her forgiveness. Jesus. Despite the threat she represented his heart went out to her. Jesus Christ. He pulled over at the first opportunity and reversed into a farm track and turned the car round and drove back as fast as he dared. He bit his lip. just like the ghillie. He wondered if maybe once you've killed somebody the physical laws of time and place that you've known since childhood no longer hold true. to minimise her pain.that he missed the turn off into the woods where he had planned to hide the car. He was furious with himself for his ineptitude. As soon as they got to the cottage he would try and convince her that he hadn't meant to hurt the old ghillie. He put his foot down on the accelerator as far as he dared. he thought miserably. He kept seeing the old man flying through the air over his head and hearing the splash he made when he crumpled head first onto the footpath. She could condemn him to life imprisonment. He turned right at the T junction at Logie Coldhouse and the narrow road immediately emptied of vehicles. At that very moment she was rolling around in the dark terrified at what was happening to her. The last thing he wanted in the present circumstances was to be seen driving round aimlessly in the car. She was simply an innocent victim. Driving on automatic he began to reflect on what he had done. Finally. The sickening sound he had made as his neck broke. Jesus. She probably thought she was going to die. Above all he would try and make her understand the desperate circumstances that had driven him to embark upon this lunatic scheme. Whatever happened next he had to try and minimise the trauma to which he was subjecting her. Christ. Oh God.how do you explain away a murder to someone you are abducting . . that the world was changed forever in ways you couldn’t hope to understand. He drove on for another half hour vaguely aware that something had gone wrong. He would explain how he had panicked. Jesus what had he done? Jesus. She knew exactly what he had done.He reckoned he still had another fifteen miles or so to go before he reached the safety of the turn off into the woods. He had an obligation to try and comfort and reassure her. He had to get her to the cottage as quickly as possible and release her from her tiny prison before she died of fright. What had he done? What had he done? Then there was the poor woman in the boot. When he eventually realised that he had driven miles past the turning he cursed his stupidity. Jesus.
This was one more of the many things he hadn't thought about. He switched off the ignition and sat and held his breath while he listened for any sign of life from the boot. He squeezed the steering wheel until his knuckles went white. As the rays of the overhead sun filtered down through the . That was something else he hadn’t thought about in advance. To make matters worse he began to imagine that the woman in the boot might be dead by now.drawing even more attention to himself. appalled at his stupidity. A sob. You couldn't kill someone and go to heaven. A brief interlude before he was cast down into eternal damnation. He tried not to think about the way the woman in the boot must be being thrown around. He was damned for all eternity. He drove as carefully as he could but he couldn't avoid all the potholes. Although he had long proclaimed himself an agnostic his thinking was still tainted by the ingrained shibboleths and oppressive rituals of his Catholic upbringing. exacting upon himself some sort of retribution for his criminal fecklessness. It was easy to imagine the possibility that he would be confronted by his victims in the hereafter. no absolution for the crime he had committed. He should have checked the boot beforehand to make sure that it wasn’t airtight. As their paths crossed briefly in purgatory he would be haunted by their ghosts. He was sure about that. Even as he contemplated the idea of suicide another dreadful thought struck him. The car bounced and rolled so much it was difficult to steer. quite possibly suffocated to death. If she was dead he vowed he would take his own life too. a truly horrible way to die. The lane was more deeply rutted and pitted with potholes than it had been on his visit the previous day when everything had been blanketed in snow. buried within a dense thicket of rhododendrons. The only sound was the regular ticking noise from the engine as it slowly cooled.” he muttered out loud. a sigh. one of the unfathomable ways the world had changed since he had first contemplated his terrible crime. “What a fucking idiot. Anything. The concept of the afterlife was a powerful one that still haunted him. At last he reached the natural layby where he planned to hide the car. There was no way back. He manoeuvred the vehicle into the bushes until it was completely obscured from sight to anyone passing along the farm track. Tears began to well up his eyes. That was inevitable now. even a scream would have been welcome. He sat for several minutes and prayed that he would hear some signs of life. He considered stopping to check but the thought of what he might find was too frightening. How had this happened? How had he been so stupid as to get himself into this ghastly mess? At the second attempt he found the turn off into the woods.
How could he have been so stupid? How could he have been so deluded as to come up with a scheme like this? If only he had done the sensible thing and taken a menial job and worked for the rest of his life to pay off his debts like any sane person would have done. As the silence lengthened he began to grow increasingly afraid of what he was going to find when eventually he was forced to open the boot. hammering on the inside of his skull with her fists. smiling at him with laughing eyes as she sat up and . This time in his mind’s eye he saw his local parish priest. desperately trying to clear his head. young and pretty.treeless branches it grew warmer inside the car. The possibility of seeing a second dead body within the space of an hour filled him with dread. as if he was on LSD or something. Shaken. like something out of a childhood nightmare. Why had the good Lord put him on this earth and then forsaken him so completely? Why? God moves in mysterious ways but this wilful neglect on the part of his Creator defied all explanation. his arms outstretched as he tore up the Eucharist and scattered the pieces into the air like confetti. To make matters worse it was becoming increasingly airless inside the car but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to wind down the windows. he blinked and tried again but this time Maureen was screaming at him. He tried even harder to concentrate. She was still alive! Thank God! Thank God! He was so relieved he immediately began to offer up a prayer of thanks. misshapen. stinging his eyes. a man who had been dead for years. Two people whose lives had been ended through his stupidity. Beads of sweat started trickling down his forehead. huge. A muffled groan came from the boot. He shook his head. screwing up his face with the effort. First his dead father’s face leering at him. Nick covered his eyes with his hands and lurched forward in the seat. It didn’t work. Perched in the pulpit at the side of the altar Bob Dylan was wailing about the hard rain that was going to fall as he smashed his guitar over the head of a nun. preferring instead to seal himself off hermetically from the horrors of the outside world. It was yet another example of his failure to do the right thing in life. No matter how hard he tried he found he couldn't remember the words to even the simplest prayer. And then the car moved. drooling. his forehead banging upon the steering wheel. The face of the woman he now held captive in the boot leapt into his mind. the noise she made was deafening. Accepted his living penance here on earth instead of choosing a course of action so evil that it was bound to result in his eternal damnation. Whenever he closed his eyes to pray his mind was immediately filled with a jumble of crazy kaleidoscopic images. Yet another disaster of his own making. randomly bouncing around inside his head. kneeling down in front of the same altar Nick had served at as a boy.
She was totally in his power in a way no other woman had ever been. She was struggling to get free. Try as he might he could not expunge the impure thoughts erupting out of his brain. He was free to do what he liked with her. Up until that moment his motives for kidnapping the woman had been totally pure within the boundaries of his own twisted logic. At that moment the car shivered perceptibly as the woman in the boot moved. What he was contemplating now totally debased the moral justification for his actions. In a funny sort of way he was free. She was his to do with as he wished. He was no longer daydreaming. Yet it was hard to ignore the reality of his present situation and the temptation it presented. For the first time in his life he was so far beyond the pale that there were no longer any rules or moral sanctions to constrain him. her long blond hair cascading over her shoulders. her nipples erect. The image of her naked body triggered his imagination into . her arms still bound behind her back.tossed back her long blond tresses. He was alone in the forest with a beautiful woman completely in his power. He stared out through the windscreen at the dense screen of rhododendron branches. She was smiling demurely. His swallowed hard but his mouth was dry. Having already committed the worst mortal sin he was freed from the constraints of normal behaviour. months maybe. maybe she was also his reward. As his exhilaration grew at his new-found sense of power he was surprised to feel himself developing an erection. he realised with a start. was entirely naked. he began to feel light-headed with excitement. his pulse raced faster. He opened his eyes and the vision vanished. He had never been in a situation like this before. She was the kind of woman he had dreamt about all his life. Compared to murder nothing else mattered. He really did have a beautiful woman captive and alive in the boot of his car. He closed his eyes once more and her naked image once again drifted into focus. not even in his wildest fantasies. He opened his eyes and for the first time he began to consider the true consequences of what he had done. The vision. A few seconds later he heard her groan and the car swayed more violently. His breathing quickened. Her breasts were round and firm. Her head was bent. bound and gagged in the darkness. He pictured her lying back there in the boot. Some sort of compensation for his headlong fall from grace. He felt his pulse beginning to quicken. his first for weeks. He was shocked by this carnal reaction. Not only was she completely at his mercy. He had fallen so far from grace that nothing he did now could make matters worse.
gasping for breath. He slammed the boot shut and staggered back from the car. eyes closed. Her face was grotesquely bruised and swollen. stared at on the internet.feverish activity. He could wait no longer. There was no justification whatsoever for what he was thinking of doing but when your soul is already as black as it can be what difference did one more mortal sin make? The thought of total domination over another human being was so intoxicating. He leaned against the car. Her long blonde hair was matted with mud. The thought of her lying helpless made him ache. his knees pressed against the bumper for support. driving every other thought from his mind. The bound and gagged figure lifted her head and stared up at him. weak with desire. groaning loudly as he ejaculated onto the writhing. He recalled a catalogue of half-forgotten scenes from the dirty books he had read when he was at university and the pornographic films he had watched as a young man before he got married. Hastily he opened his fly and pulled out his cock and began to masturbate as he leant forward over her.” Now at last he knew that there were no depths to which he would not sink. A slideshow of perverted and unspeakable acts that had once shocked him to the core. just like the Nazis had over their prisoners. She was completely in his power. “Oh God forgive me. Again and again and again. It was wrong but…everything he did from now on was wrong. He climbed out of the car and staggered round to the boot. Anything was possible. within seconds. really ache." he gasped. Alone out here in this isolated stretch of woodland he could do anything he wanted. holding onto the boot lid with his raised right hand. Jesus. He sunk to his knees on the wet ground and lowered his head into his hands and began to pray in a low moaning voice. He could perpetrate acts he wouldn't dare think about doing to Maureen. something unspeakably filthy. The desire was so bad it actually hurt. even torture. Feverishly he tugged open the boot. Tears streaked her face. the . Her fear-wide eyes blinked in the sunlight. He stared down at his prostrate captive. He came almost immediately. he had absolute power over her. his brain pounding. He could do things to her he'd only read about in dirty books. "Oh Jesus. He was consumed by the desire to do something dirty to her. moaning figure in the boot. By now his imagination was ablaze. He was dizzy with excitement. there was no sin he would not commit. a billion synapses popping in the darkest recesses of his brain like a firework display. “What have I done?” His cock instantly grew limp in his hand.
and he glimpsed for the first time the full extent of the brutality and ugliness of his actions. The tables were turned." he whispered as he bent down and gently brushed the congealed semen from her hair with his handkerchief. She was unsteady on her feet and he held her upright for a nearly a minute. He jumped back. . round." He spat on the handkerchief and dabbed at the worst of the mud streaks on her face. When he had finished he folded up the handkerchief and tucked it into a pocket of her jacket. terror-filled eyes. His face would be indelibly imprinted on her memory. He was surprised how tall she was. Eventually. taller than Maureen. startled by the violence of her reaction. terrified that she might fall over in a faint. He stared down at her. his self-abasement drew to an end. The sight of her snapped him out of his dream-like state. The balaclava that had previously protected his identity lay where he had left it on the passenger’s seat. he pleaded for forgiveness from the God he had forsaken so many years before. after several minutes had passed. He bent down towards her and she let out a shriek. a forlorn. The implication of this oversight immediately struck him. "It’s all right.tears streaming down his ashen face. She lay on her side staring up at him with huge. abandoned figure in the empty forest. Chapter 15 This time he remembered to pull on his balaclava before he unlocked the boot. The woman now knew exactly what he looked like. his arm around her shoulders. without disguise. He wanted to pick her up and clasp her to his breast and comfort her as if she was his own child. Her body was still frozen in a catatonic state when he lifted her out of the boot and set her down on the ground. As her muscles gradually relaxed she started to shiver. holding her loosely against him. At that moment he realised that in his frenzy he had defiled his victim while he was bare-headed. Slowly he hauled himself to his feet. As she leaned against him she gradually became more pliable. "I'm not going to hurt you I promise. moulding her contours into his until she fitted his body exactly as if they were matching pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. As long as she remained alive and could identify him he was completely in her power. all energy spent. She looked as helpless as a baby seal that was about to be clubbed to death. He had never seen such a piteous sight.
” As the seconds passed she gradually began to relax and the shaking subsided. if anyone had been watching. as if she had aged fifty years in the last hour. Nothing’s going to happen. a patchwork of tussocky islets floating on a sea of glutinous peat. “I can’t go on.” she sobbed. The melting snow had turned the moor into a quagmire. half-carried her the next two miles through the forest until they reached the peat moor which lay between them and the cottage. like lovers in an embrace.” . Take my arm. He gently pushed her ahead of him and she immediately stumbled and fell forward onto her knees. “I didn’t mean to push you over. He hoisted the bag onto his shoulder and.” he said. “We’ll drown. until eventually she was twitching wildly out of control as if she was about to have an epileptic fit. This way. after he had satisfied himself that the coast was clear.gently at first and then more violently. it’s too far. dragging her after him.” he said as he helped her to her feet. as he moved away to retrieve the canvas holdall from the car. “Come on.” he commanded.” He half-dragged.” He leapt from tussock to tussock. When he was sure that she wasn’t going to collapse he eased her away from his side. it’s all right. he took her arm and began guiding her along the path through the woods. “I can’t.” she protested. leaving her Wellingtons behind her. He put his arms around her and pulled her out. “I’m exhausted. please. “I’m sorry. She shook her head. The woman shuffled forward slowly. As he gently caressed her hair he thought how familiar they would have looked together. He gripped her more tightly. Please stop. gripping her elbow firmly with his left hand. Please. “Stay there. “You’ll have to jump.” He grabbed her hand. as if she had arthritis. “Calm down.” “This is crazy. pulling her head onto his chest. hugging her as if she was his own daughter. When they stopped for breath she began to sink into the peat.
wet and close to collapse. In the seventeenth century. “Those skulls…what were they doing there?” Nick sat up and looked back across the bog. “And that! And there’s another one. “Yeah. Eventually he managed to claw his way up onto firm ground. gasping for breath. what are they?” Nick bent closer. okay.” he gasped. pointing at her feet. They were both hot. “If we stop we’re done for. utterly exhausted. I stood on one. Something round and white the size of a small football was gently bobbing in the jelly-like peat. A dozen or more skulls were glinting in the sunlight about sixty yards away. “Christ. She snorted in derision. They were in sight of dry ground when suddenly the woman screamed. The woman started screaming. “What’s that?” she cried. Nick’s head beneath the balaclava was sweaty and itchy. My God. Stupid thing to say. but he dared remove it. the coarse wool rubbed roughly against his skin.” he said as he struggled to unlock the padlock he'd placed on the front door the day before. And another. I read about it somewhere. They looked like a field of giant mushrooms. He lay on his back on the grass. there’s lot’s of them!” He grabbed the woman’s hand and began scrambling towards dry land as fast as he could.He dragged her across the bog.” It took them another hour stumbling across the rough pasture before they finally reached the ruined cottage.” “It’s horrible. it’s a skull! Jesus. It cracked like an eggshell. fearful of compounding his earlier error. dragging the woman along behind him on her stomach.” He motioned her to go ahead of him into the darkened room but not surprisingly she seemed . “Don’t try and run for it. The woman was the first to speak. He stopped and peered down. “I think there was supposed to have been a battle round here.
"It's all right. Please. I've just got to keep you safe for a few hours. He was so on edge that for a second he thought he might . I know. almost knocking over the lamp. It was completely out of character. Nothing like that will ever happen again I promise. He was almost as scared as she was but. "I'll put on a light once we're inside. He avoided her terrified gaze." he said gently. You’re safe now. Her eyes widened even further as she watched him. kneel down." He felt himself turning red with shame and embarrassment at the recollection of his behaviour back at the car." "Something already has happened. forcing himself to stay calm. her voice dark and throaty and well-educated." She did not move. It took several seconds for his eyes to become accustomed to the darkness. I didn't mean to hurt him. "Look. She heard it too. he said. I'm sorry about the ghillie. “I don’t know what happened. At that moment a scuttling noise came from the kitchen and he jumped. "What was that?" she whispered. I'm not going to hurt you. As long as you co-operate nothing will happen to you. a day at most. I promise.” He shook his head. the first time he had heard her speak. Once he could see sufficiently to make out the layout of the room he opened the holdall and took out the old paraffin lamp which he lit and placed upon the mantelpiece." he said. “I know. Honestly. It was an accident. "Please. "It's nothing. bending down to take the length of chain from the holdall. A myriad unfamiliar shadows immediately danced around the room like witches round a midnight campfire." Trying not to think of the noise the ghillie's neck had made when his head had hit the riverbank he reached out and took her arm and pushed her gently but firmly into the cottage. "What are you going to do with me?" "Nothing." She didn't move. I ‘m sorry." Still she did not move. their eerie outlines casting a morbid spell upon the room.afraid of the menacing black void awaiting her. I promise. Almost at once the smell of paraffin filled the room.
"If you don't co-operate then I promise something bad WILL happen to you. No one had ever looked at him that way before. He led her towards the kitchen by the chain. "I've wet myself. He placed the chain around her neck and fastened it with a small Yale padlock. "Jesus. gesticulating towards the modest pile of tins with some embarrassment." He went into the kitchen and. her hands handcuffed behind her back." This time she did exactly as she was told. secured the other end of the chain. her voice barely audible in the dark stillness of the musty room. Even as he spoke he realised it was an incredibly cruel way to react." She looked around for a chair. obediently. It’s up to you." She stared straight back into his eyes and this time he did not look away. felt as much a captive as she did. albeit reluctantly. Glaring at her he said." she whispered. "Okay. using a second padlock. fetching the paraffin lamp across to the corner of the room. to the old Aga." he said. "Stand up. "I need to go to the bathroom. All he wanted to do was to get away as quickly as possible. “Food. He hadn't meant to scare her that much. please. I've already killed one person today so I've got nothing to lose. He could sense the expression of pure hatred on her face and when he turned his back on her he felt her eyes boring into him. His nerves were on edge. can't you wait?" he snapped back." he said.hit her again but with an effort he restrained himself.” he muttered. her head bowed in shame. She must have seen then just how desperate he was because she suddenly knelt down. only her eyes moving as they tracked him across the room. "Stay there and I'll bring you a blanket. As well as the blanket he brought the rest of the food from the holdall and laid the little bundle down beside her. which was about fifteen feet long. sitting with the chain fixed around her neck. As she lowered herself awkwardly onto the floor he said. "On the floor." she croaked. He hated this place already. He was shocked. He stared . at his feet. "Stand there. You can sit down now.
anger giving his voice a rough edge. “Please don’t kill me. It’s all gone totally wrong. "What's so funny?” he muttered. “A ransom?” "That’s right." His self-consciousness had caused him to blurt out the explanation far too quickly.” “Why are you holding me here? What are you going to do with me?" He shifted uneasily.” she sobbed. How much for God’s sake?" He lowered his eyes.” “Don’t cry. at the naiveté of his scheme. As the humiliating sound grew louder. “Please don’t. She looked at him in disbelief... "If that's all right. as she became increasingly hysterical. “I don’t know what papers you’ve been reading . “Don’t you think it's enough? Or are you insulted by the low valuation I’ve placed on you?" A long time passed before she finally spoke again.. even to him. I was going to ask for two hundred and fifty thousand pounds. her shoulders heaving. He felt embarrassed. once again overcome with pity. "You can’t be serious. he was reminded of the fits Maureen used to throw whenever they had a major argument. in a whisper that echoed around inside his head. The figures he had in his head now seemed wildly unrealistic.I.helplessly at her. her head slumped on her chest. please. that's why. “What do you want with me?” He cleared his throat. This wasn’t how I planned it. "I know who you are. To make matters worse even to his ears the explanation sounded ridiculous when he said it out loud." Mentally he heard himself adding." She suddenly started laughing. He regarded her helplessly.” “A ransom?” She shook her head. even stupid." She started crying. mentally pleading with her to stop.. in a voice so low he had to lean forward to hear. an unexpected sound that to his ears quickly turned into a loud unpleasant braying. No one should have to go through the kind of ordeal he was subjecting her to. I brought you here because I want a ransom for your safe return. I’ve been watching you. "I'm sorry. I’m not going to kill you. "Well. He hadn't exposed his scheme to scrutiny before and suddenly the whole idea seemed childish and stupid and impracticable.
” “You must be fucking unique then. The accumulation of personal wealth is against my principles.” “I don’t believe it.” “What about your salary? You’re the MD aren’t you? What about stock options and dividends and bonuses and all that stuff? I bet you’re earning a fortune. "What you’re saying can’t be true.” “That’s a common misconception.” “I’m sorry if that’s not what you want to hear but it’s the truth. “I read the FT. Are you telling me you’re not one of the wealthiest women in Britain?” “That’s exactly what I’m telling you.but the fact is I don’t have any personal wealth. one of the biggest in the country.” He couldn’t immediately comprehend the full implications of what she was saying.” “I take out of the company only what I need to live on and I live a very simple life. you’re loaded. She seemed to have discovered the knack of making money out of exotic formulas that promised beauty and health and eternal youth. making a fortune in the process. You’re worth millions.” he protested.” “Jesus. He had read in the papers about her success lots of times over the years. The rest of my shares I’ve donated to various charities round the world. You floated the company on the stock market.” “I came into the world with nothing and that’s the way I intend to leave it. He was certain she was worth a fortune. What she was claiming now was the exact opposite.” “There is a small trust I’ve set up for the children but that’s not my money. She had discovered the Midas touch by plundering the Third World for ideas which she then commercialised in the West.” “That’s crap. Your company's shares .” “Come off it. As a matter of fact I take home less than the average wage.
“I’m desperate. You must be worth millions.” He felt dizzy. I have some endowment policies. Everything was slipping away from him again.” “Why are you desperate?” “It’s a long story. They’re developing sustainable business models for third world countries.” “In the final analysis. I had my own business. You better face up to facts.” Eventually she stopped sobbing. It went bust. Don’t make me do something I don’t want to do." "You’re not listening.have gone up like a rocket in the last couple of years. I’ll kill you if I don’t get the money. her whole body slowly convulsing as she burst into tears. If what she was saying really was the case then he was in deep trouble. The shares belong to the various charities I support.” “The bank?” “Yes. “You’re my only hope. you’re probably better off than I am. “Even if I threatened to kill you?” She drew her knees up to her chin and buried her head. “I’m serious. spinning out of control.” he explained.” “This is incredible. They’re going to take my house…we’re going to be out on the street.” “You’ve given all your money away to charity?” “That and a research foundation I set up in India. We all grow old. when it comes to material possessions. I’ve got personal guarantees. “Are you saying that you can’t raise any money at all?” “A few thousand at most." He looked aghast. He said slowly.” . He held out a tissue and she blew her nose into it.
“Maybe I could raise the money somehow. It’s strictly professional. I haven’t been for some time. I couldn’t just write a cheque for a quarter of a million despite what you might think. He looks after my PR. And I mean serious. We’re fucking penniless. All you need to know is that I’m desperate for the money. He was only too aware that what he was doing did not bear scrutiny.” She raised her head slowly. if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m sorry but I just can’t raise that kind of money in under a week.” . “Look. But it would take time. I don’t want to talk about all this.” “You’re married?” “Yes. furious at the way she was trying to thwart him. “I don’t have time.” She shook her head.” “Would she approve?” “Of course not.“Can’t you come to an arrangement with them? Pay them off over a number of years? They’re usually quite amenable.” “She’d rather be evicted?” The conversation was making Nick feel extremely uncomfortable.” “I’m too old.” “Does your wife know about this? About what you’re doing?” “She doesn’t know.” he snarled.” “What about your husband?” “I’m not married. Fifty thousand minimum.” He glared at her.” “Who was that man you were with down at the river?” “Robert? He’s a colleague. the faintest glimmer of hope flickering in her eyes. I can’t get a job. “Look. Now. There’s a lot of legal stuff to sort out. “Either I get the money right away or you’re in serious trouble.
” “That’s impossible." She replied. If I could get to a bank. “But you haven’t exactly been good news for me either . All he’d done was to dig himself deeper and deeper into trouble. He felt his heart sinking so rapidly it almost sucked the breath out of his lungs. I just can’t do anything that big in under a week. I’d have to convince the bank manager that I really could come up with something substantial. Now her. that had been a tragic disaster. "I'm sorry.” “It’s not enough. He didn't seem to be able to do anything right. He said quietly. I'll tell them you didn't hurt me either." she muttered. I need fifty thousand in cash minimum. Two or three days at most. "I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news. "You have to understand I’m running out of time. He leaned back against the dusty mantelpiece for support. I'll do whatever I can for you." he whispered. "If only it was that simple. A penniless philanthropist. Time was absolutely of the essence. It was his turn to feel his insides turning to water. "Jesus. in a tone of voice that left her sincerity in no doubt. I must have .Gradually it dawned on Nick that she was telling the truth. things just get worse and worse. And you better get it into your head that my problems are now your problems.” “You’re not leaving here until I get the money." The woman seemed to gain some sort of grim satisfaction from the look of dismay on his face.” “I promise that if you let me go I'll tell the police that what happened on the river to Sandy McGregor was an accident. to feel the immediate and desperate need to go to the toilet. "Jesus.” “I could probably raise five thousand immediately.” “How long have you got?” “That depends. He tried to think.” “In that case I’ve got a real problem. The situation was now critical." It was his turn to feel contemptuous. If that means I’m of no use to you all I can do is beg for my release. really I am. First there was the ghillie.
" He suddenly felt exhausted. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. No wonder I’m just about cracking up. Ever since I was a kid I’ve tried to do the right thing but now it’s all just turned to shit. exploding all over the dusty floor like a field of tiny landmines going off. Please. Without thinking he pulled off his balaclava and sat down a few feet from her. one he hadn't thought about for years. As the minutes ticked by they both tried to think of a way out of the impasse." she muttered through noisily chattering teeth. a rare gift from her. "In my experience things are never as bad as they seem. like a cancer. Where she had wet herself her sodden jeans clung to her like cold wet rags. The temperature inside the cottage was growing noticeably cooler. "I . Do yourself a favour. resting the back of his head against the damp peeling wallpaper and letting out a long low groan. the sensation reminding him of a soft toy he'd been given by his mother. None of his problems seemed to have any solutions. I didn’t mean to assault you. eating him alive. The cold from the earthen floor began to seep into the woman’s bones. getting bigger and bigger. The wind had risen too and every now and again the ceiling clattered as the corrugated sheets rippled in the stronger gusts. in a voice that hinted at sympathy. He rubbed the balaclava against his cheek the way he used to do when he was a kid alone in his bedroom where he felt safe and warm and happy." He lowered his head and began fingering the balaclava.that money right away or the whole fucking lot comes tumbling down." "In my experience they're a whole lot bloody worse. "I'm freezing. on the contrary they just seemed to multiply. She said. its synthetic fibres feeling soft and warm to his touch. Rainwater started to drip through the cracks in the roof. "I didn't think it was all going to turn out like this.” He lapsed into a morose silence. The sound of rain splattering against the corrugated roof punctuated the stillness." "Please. It just went wrong like everything else recently." he muttered. to breed almost. Just let me go. Despite the thin blanket she had wrapped around her shoulders she began shivering with cold. "Money is always important when you don’t have it.” She said softly. "Is the money really that important?" He snorted. Everything in his life seemed so difficult these days. Don’t make things worse than they are.
praying that none of the rats would have the temerity to put in an appearance before he departed.need to get out of these wet clothes into something dry.” . I know that." “I’m sorry but I didn’t bring any spare clothes. truly I am. She sat down on the bare floor just inside the sitting room with her back propped against the wall.” “I know. “I'll bring you some dry clothes when I come back.” “Look. “God. Of course him too. "This whole thing has been a fiasco. She shivered at the thought.” “I’m going to get pneumonia like this. That was a horrible thing to happen. Please don’t go on about it.” he said gruffly. I’ll take you through to the toilet now. I hate mice. “Him too. I’m sorry. “Let me help you up. What’s in there?” “It’s just mice. There were more scratching noises as they passed the old Aga and he saw her stiffen. Just the idea of them being in the same room makes me feel ill. I’m sorry. He replaced the lamp on the mantelpiece." he muttered as she pulled the toilet door shut behind her.” Seeing the look she gave him he said.” “What about poor old Robbie McGregor?” A note of anger had crept into her voice.” He hauled her to her feet and lead her through to the toilet at the rear of the kitchen. She regarded him with an anxious expression on her face. A nightmare. the chain almost at full stretch. I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life. “I heard something scratching about in the kitchen just now. He sat staring at the Aga while she finished her business.” He picked up the paraffin lamp.” “Your sorrow won’t do him much good now. I know. If it’s any consolation I’m especially sorry for what I’ve put you through. Look.” he lied. When the woman re-emerged he picked up the lamp and led her back through to the sitting-room. “It’s not possible to plan for every eventuality.
It depends how I get on.” “What time tomorrow?” "I'm not sure. “You’ll be here too. “I can’t. Are you hungry?” “No.” "You’re not going to leave me alone here all night are you?" “I’m sorry. “What about food and water?” “You’ve got those tins. I’ve got things to organise. Praying that they wouldn’t bother her during the night he said.” She had gone pale as she contemplated the possibility of spending several days alone in the company of mice and other creepy crawlies. He wasn’t sure how dangerous they really were. wondering whether he should warn her about the rats.” “I’m scared. They won’t come near you.” “What am I supposed to do to pass the time while you’re away?” He was beginning to feel a little pressurised by all her demands and he . the sooner you can get the ransom paid the sooner you’ll be set free. I’ll be back tomorrow to see that you’re all right. You can eat them cold or I’ll heat them up for you when I come back." “You’re leaving me all on my own?” “You’ll be all right. Tomorrow sometime. won’t you?” He looked away guiltily. “You’ll be all right.” “Well.He hesitated.” Something in the tone of his voice made her suspicious. I’ve got no choice. I'll have to work out what I'm going to do about the ransom. whether they might actually attack her or not. There’s a tin opener.” “You can help yourself when you feel peckish. Close to tears she said.
" She turned white. have you.” “Are you going to leave me something to read?” He looked slightly embarrassed. Trying to attract attention. Nick bit his lip. nodding his head slowly as he examined his mud-caked boots. his eyes burning with resentment.had to fight to keep the irritation out of his voice. He shook his head firmly. "It’s your funeral. "Wouldn't it be better if you just let me go?" He stared at her. "You haven't been listening. A week maybe but twenty-four hours is impossible. One way or another I've got to make enough money out of you in the next twentyfour hours to clear my debts. "I told you.” She looked miserable.” “Why not? Just something to pass the time.. you could try thinking up ways to get me that money as quickly as possible for a start. clearing his throat carefully . Please. "Right now I don’t know what’s going to happen to you. Please. It’s all gone too far. He coughed. “I can’t do that.” “I’m sorry." He stared unblinkingly at her. I’m sorry. “Well. Surely it’s not too much to ask? Anything.. The light. Eventually she said softly.” As she looked up at him tears welled up in her eyes. please don’t. You're my last chance. All I know is you're not leaving here unless I get enough money to pay off my debts. And you’ve got twenty-four hours to do it. You could set the place on fire. "I can't do that.” Several minutes elapsed before she stopped sobbing. bitter laugh. I can’t leave you the light." She uttered a short. “You’re not going to leave me in the dark? Oh no. I can’t take the risk. Please. So maybe you better put your thinking cap on.What are you going to do? You’re not going to kill me are you?" He shrugged. “You don’t understand." "What if I don't find a way to come up with the money on time?" He considered the question for a long time.
"Think about who you need to contact to release the money. “All right. She had become an integral part of his problem.” He didn’t try to argue. Do your best." He looked across to where she was staring intently back at him. He wanted desperately to let her go. He sat and watched her.” She shook her head in disbelief. a barely human outline in her living nightmare. withdrawing deeper and deeper into herself. He tossed the dregs of the coffee onto the earth floor. He said softly. even sharing her pain. I’ll think of something if you don’t. I’ll take you to a public phone box to make the call.” He paused in the doorway before he blew out the lamp. Everything will turn out all right." She sipped the coffee in silence. This time she accepted it grudgingly. her eyes screwed tightly shut. to pretend none of this had ever happened. her arms behind her back. her face pressed against the bare earth floor. the only way out was for her to somehow become part of the solution. "If I don't raise some money quickly I'll be better off dead. He knew in his heart she was right. He reached into his bag for the thermos and poured out two cups of coffee." The woman started to cry again. He poured another coffee and held it to her lips. sobbing uncontrollably. don’t worry about it.” he muttered eventually. feeling increasingly helpless. He handed one to her but she refused. she began sobbing uncontrollably." Nick stood up. "I've already told I can’t put my hands on that sort of money. “That doesn’t make it right. "And the same applies to you. She stared dully at his flickering silhouette. Fifty grand.before he replied. Almost half an hour passed before she eventually stopped crying. Turning her face to one side. "I'm sure if we put our heads together we can come up with an answer. taking short. I’ll give you the instructions about where to leave the money. When he considered that she had regained some semblance of equanimity he got up and gently hauled her back into a sitting position. He tugged the . but he knew that was impossible. breathless sips from the white plastic cup. It was time to go. Cheap at the price. He felt helpless in the face of such abject misery. her legs pulled up to her chin. curling up and rolling over onto her side in the foetal position. to put an end to her ordeal. “I want you to understand that I wouldn’t have done any of this if I wasn’t desperate.
as though he had been hit over the head with an iron bar. The pain was intense. While he worked he tried to recall some of the extraordinary events that had taken place earlier in the day. The stuff with the old man…he wasn’t sure but looking back he thought maybe…it was possible…that it was an accident. An old man had placed a noose around his neck. he was emotionally drained. his head hurt.She was too scared even to cry out. Outside thick sheets of mist and rain lashed the cottage. He was confused about what exactly had occurred down at the river. He rubbed his eyes and peered at his watch. There was no sign of life.” With great difficulty she manoeuvred the thin blanket up around her chin and curled into a tight ball as the door on the outside world slammed shut with the dread finality of a coffin lid shutting over her. everything will turn out all right. He woke up with a start.” he said as he tugged the door closed behind him. He thought he’d only been dozing for a few minutes but it was already six forty-five. He had dreamt that he was on the gallows surrounded by a baying crowd. Goodbye. as if he had been drugged. Confused. Gradually the familiar shapes of the old dressing table and the half-empty bookcase emerged from the gloom. He was so tired he could hardly climb out of the car. plunging her world into total darkness.he still felt exhausted. “I’ll be back tomorrow. He surveyed the horizon to make sure that the coast was clear. He felt exhausted. Outside the light was fading fast and the room was almost in darkness. “Don’t worry. almost dreamlike. a sharp metallic pain. Chapter 16 It was three o' clock in the afternoon by the time he finally got back to the house. It was cold enough for snow.and wearily began peeling potatoes. Maureen and Martin would be arriving at the village on the bus any time now and he hadn’t even started their tea. With an enormous effort he dragged himself through to the kitchen . He shivered as he peered up at the dead. dreamless sleep. a kind of living death. As soon as he got inside the house he took two aspirins and lay down on the settee in the living-room and fell asleep almost at once. He couldn’t believe the time. Maybe the guy . as if he'd been out on a fifteen mile hike . a deep.door open. grey sky. for a second he thought he was back in the derelict cottage. aroused by the sound of his own voice screaming for mercy. Maureen was lying at his feet prostrate with grief. His headache had worsened with the effort of driving safely without attracting attention. Already it all seemed unreal. A pile of sodden leaves swirled into the room as the wind howled in.
not since he’d last smoked dope in fact. What was done was done. It was better not to think about it. He was running five minutes late. There was no doubt about it…the future had been transformed into something wonderful.had stumbled. He hurried out to the car and drove down to the bus shelter at high speed singing at the top of his voice. just as soon as he got his hands on the money and began a new life at the ripe old age of fifty. As John Lennon had once said. But not him. “Where’ve you been?” he . He was aware that he still had lots to figure out before he got his hands on the money. They had no way of knowing that their little inconvenience would be compensated a thousand times over. After months of vacillation he had finally taken an enormous step towards solving his financial problems. When he had peeled enough potatoes for the three of them he put them into a pan of salted water and placed them over a medium heat on the stove. In all the years they had been married this would be the first time they’d ever had a nest egg of their own. Most people would have caved in before such overwhelming odds. They were probably already standing in the bus shelter opposite the post office wondering what the hell had happened to him. the vast majority of poor wretches would have let their creditors barge in and walk all over them. of the courage and bravery he had shown in implementing his daring plan. He shook his head. He smiled at the thought. He immediately became suffused with a sense of almost mystical wellbeing the like of which he hadn’t felt for years. And this time he would avoid all the mistakes of the past. But there was no denying the fact that with the hostage safely hidden away it was just like having money in the bank. He took a deep breath as he felt himself tingling all over with excitement. Would do anything too. His euphoria was heightened by the fact that he was intensely proud of what he had done. He smiled to himself at the thought. it would be just like starting over. Martin threw his schoolbag into the back seat and dived in after it. In the final analysis he had kept his nerve and gambled everything and won. His thoughts turned to the hostage safely locked up in her remote hideaway. He checked his watch. They were waiting in the bus shelter when he arrived. Indeed. of the way he had finally confronted their problems head on. He’d used hardly any force. It was hard to say. it was the first time in his life when he had been solvent and without money worries and it was an intoxicating feeling after being crushed so long beneath the weight of a lifetime’s accumulation of debt. Rather a lot of money in fact. There undoubtedly remained a number of loose ends still to tie up to ensure a successful conclusion to his scheme. What he had done had taken real courage and it was a fantastic feeling and just at that moment he felt like he could do absolutely anything he put his mind to.
He suddenly felt nervous driving the car. “The usual I suppose.” “Even so. love. In a few more days.” Nick glanced into the rear-view mirror to see if they were being followed. He forced himself to stay calm.” Nick was desperate to tell them about his own glorious. Don’t worry. “We’ve been waiting ages. How did your interview go?” For his part Nick had forgotten about the pretext he had invented in order to borrow the car but he hardly even hesitated as he fabricated an answer. She looked tired. I should know in a week. “Do you think you’ll get the job?” “I do. “What about you. yes. Things were slotting into place nicely. once he had safely collected the ransom. “How was your day?” he asked as they headed at a more sedate pace back to the cottage. we’ll soon be back on the . looking anxious. he thought with satisfaction. I didn’t manage to do half the things I intended. “Any more word from the bank?” asked Maureen. At the moment it was a forensic time bomb. how was your day?” “Fine. “Pretty good. fantastic day but for the time being he knew it was prudent to contain his excitement.” “It’s my job. He should have hoovered it out as soon as he got home. Maureen. exhilarating.” “They work you too hard.demanded angrily. I’ve been out most of the day.” Maureen climbed into the front seat beside him without saying a word. then he would be able to astonish them with the brilliant news that was going to change all their lives for ever. In fact I’m certain. “The bank? I don’t know. I’ve still got a load of exam papers to mark tonight. Martin.” Which was just about the right timescale.” “Oh yes of course I forgot.
" said Maureen. framed against the backdrop of the fast-flowing river. Speaking to camera he said. A woman still missing. The news presenter went on to say that police divers were still looking for the body of the businesswoman but that flood levels due to the rain and melting snow were hampering their search. A young girl had been abducted and murdered in Kent. Two people feared drowned. Nick pushed the inedible remains of a gristly pork sausage to the side of his plate. She had learned from bitter experience to take nothing Nick said on trust. “They should have been wearing life jackets or something. Then it was the turn of the local news. Nothing much of interest. At that point a police inspector appeared. "The millionairess woman." It was the longest speech he had made for years.” Maureen said nothing." “It sounds like a fishing accident.gravy train. A man’s body recovered from the river. The third item in. There had been renewed fighting in Bosnia with the inevitable civilian casualties. "Hey." shouted Martin. Something about an accident on Deeside. She bought an estate over on Deeside. Unemployment had risen for the third month in a row. suddenly sitting up. A big police search. There are some very deep pools downstream of where the incident is believed to have occurred and with the current so strong it could be some time before we find anything further. Now that the genie was out of the bottle the world seemed a much more dangerous place. The one with the chain of beauty shops. Yet another sectarian murder had been perpetrated in Northern Ireland. Frost was predicted overnight in the north. her eyes widening.” . Seeing it on the television was a shock. They ate their meal on their laps while half watching the evening news on television in the usual silence. “At the moment we are treating this tragic incident as an accident.” Nick stared at the screen in dismay. I wouldn't mind a fraction of her money. Mrs McKillock in the village does for her. Due to the high river levels our diving team is unable to carry out a thorough search. somehow made it all much more serious.” muttered Martin. Says she’s loaded. "That's near us. his mouth full of potato. The national news was very gloomy. No longer something that existed in his mind only. Somehow he’d hoped that what had happened down at the river would go unnoticed. "It's that woman.
the weather forecast said they were in for a spell of cold weather and he didn’t want her catching a cold. He would have to remember to take her a pair of clean knickers and some jeans. After he had done the dishes he sat watching Coronation Street with Maureen. to get out of the rut. These weren't the only reasons for his reluctance though. even if they were a bit big (and not very fashionable). Maybe if they knew what he had been up to that day they might have treated him with a little more respect instead of taking him for granted as they always did. The fact was he simply couldn't face the sight of that poor woman in his present state of mind. Maybe another jumper as well. It was just too soon. The only thing was. Mundane thoughts at first. he just didn't fancy going back to the cottage in the dark. Depressing too in a way. He could just imagine Maureen’s likely reaction if he was to casually announce that he was going out for a run in the car without a damned good excuse. If he was any kind of a gentleman of course he would deliver them tonight. It appeared that even after you go on the rampage murdering and kidnapping. having already lost interest in the news as soon as the weather forecast came on.Nick stood up. Creepy. He thought that was extraordinary. Anyway. He managed to watch about ten minutes before his attention started to wander. There could be roadblocks for a start. He could easily steal some of Maureen's warmer clothes that would do. The . Very suspicious. She was a too solid reminder of his evil actions. there were other possible risks too. it would be difficult to explain away if anyone spotted him. Stumbling around in the forest in the middle of the night. "Can I get anybody anything else?" Maureen asked for tea. he never normally went out in the car at night and it was vital that he didn’t vary from his routine in order not to arouse suspicion. Nick was momentarily nonplussed. looking for something for the pot. All the bad things that had happened today. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking about his hostage. He hadn't watched it for ages but he soon picked up the storyline again. It made you wonder what you had to do round here to make things change for the better. nothing had really changed. nothing has really changed. as soon as you get home everything returns to normal. All those skulls and things. Besides. Then again. her favourite programme. For the time being at least it seemed as if nothing had happened. even just to get people’s attention. unable to watch any more. jumped up and bounded off to his room saying that it was all right for some but that he had a mountain of homework to do. Martin. Although he could say something like he was out poaching.
The bank are going to toss us out on our ears. “What you doing?” “I was talking to one of my colleagues at school today.” “Maureen.” “I don’t believe it. I haven’t even got a job.” “She drawing up some kind of deed.personification of his wickedness. His still-living penance.” “That’s not what my lawyer says.” “Well. He focused his attention back on Coronation Street. You remember him?” “Vaguely.” “Oh yes. Robert Fleming. She represented something he preferred not to think about.” “She spoke to the bank. She’s been looking into the bank taking the house from us.” “She was told by one of the senior partners that the bank won’t want the bad publicity. Suddenly Maureen picked up the remote and turned off the sound.” “You seem confident about this latest one. We’ll have to sign it next week. As long as you make a . she doesn’t think they will.” “You’re kidding. By then there might even be something left for Martin. She says that we should be able to come to a scheme of arrangement to pay off the loan in part over the rest of our working lives and then when we die they’ll sell it and pay off the debt.” “And they’ll leave us enough to live on?” “If we’re careful. Nick frowned.” “His wife’s a lawyer.
The game was up. He froze. He pictured her huddled up alone in the cold and dark. Any job. Except that she had seen his face and she knew what he had done. Ever. Even if it is stacking shelves in ASDA. Eventually Maureen got up from the settee and answered it. With you working we should even be able to put Martin through university. It had to be the police. Surrounded by rats. His heart sank when he saw her frown. He could see it in the policeman’s eyes on the television. I promise. The fact that there was no one he could talk to about his anguish just made it a hundred times worse. He waited with baited . They were coming to get him.” “Nick. Which meant that everything he had done had been rendered unnecessary.” “And don’t ask me to sign anything ever again. Or even some way of letting her go. Filled with trepidation he could hardly bear to watch her as she placed the phone to her ear. Maureen had solved their most pressing problem at a stroke. This was the beginning of the end. Which means getting a job. I put my trust in you and you betrayed it. If you want to regain that trust you’ll have to earn it back. He knew it. He felt so guilty neglecting her this way. He could feel the blood draining from his face.” Nick watched the rest of Coronation Street without taking anything in. desperately trying to massage the images out of his brain. I’m not sure I can ever forgive you. Far from being money in the bank she had turned into a bloody great millstone round his neck.” “I’ll get a job. The thought of the terrible suffering that she must be going through at that moment made him feel slightly ill.” “So we’re not going to be turfed out. At that moment the phone rang. I think you should understand that I’ve been deeply hurt by what has happened. Whatever he did with her at the moment he still had a moral obligation concerning her welfare which he absolutely felt obliged to fulfil. Any minute now he would hear the police car pulling into the drive. In solving one problem she had created another for him.contribution. Bound in chains on a rough earth floor not knowing what her fate might be. Or even a noose. He closed his eyes and rubbed his fingers through his hair. A problem that would sooner or later come home to roost unless he could think of some way of getting a quick ransom in return for her freedom.
He packed everything carefully into his old rucksack.breath. her face ashen. He selected a blue polo necked jumper . Which meant that he would have to visit his hostage on bicycle. "He wants to speak to you. His next task was to go back upstairs and search through Maureen’s chest of drawers for a suitable pair of jeans and a thick woollen jumper. Under different circumstances he might have looked forward to a pleasant trip on his bike. He went through to the bathroom and looked out onto the drive. Maureen and Martin had already left for town. song thrushes and assorted finches packed the branches of the trees around the house. balanced diet but it was the best he could do in the circumstances. The car had gone. He got up slowly. creating a deafening dawn chorus. Chapter 17 Nick woke up just after seven. a not inconsiderable inconvenience. a thermos of Nescafe and a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut completed the rations. A dysfunctional choir of overexcited blackbirds. He's being really abusive. He added an apple and a carton of organic blackcurrant yoghurt which he thought his hostage might like. his legs shaking. all thoughts of his hostage’s discomfort instantly vanishing as he tried desperately to think of yet another excuse that would give him the breathing space he needed to execute his plan. The bed beside him was empty. Fortunately Maureen had done some shopping the day before and there was enough bread to make cheddar and tomato sandwiches for two. holding the receiver out to him. At least it had stopped raining and it didn’t look like it was too windy. A pint of milk. It wasn’t exactly a healthy. She listened for a minute and her eyes narrowed and her expression became very grave.” she said. He sat up wearily after a restless night that had been punctuated by the usual dreams in which his creditors had lain siege to the house in a variety of guises. "It's the man from the garage. Maureen had plenty of old clothes which she never wore so he was pretty sure she wouldn’t notice they had gone. “Just a minute." she muttered. Everything from a murderous band of armed bandits from a cartoon South American republic to an angry congregation from the local church ." Nick looked up helplessly at his wife. I’ll get him for you. He looked up at the clear blue sky.
He made sure that it was the one without any kind of dedication that might be traced back to him. paradoxically. It just wasn’t right. From the bathroom he collected a toothbrush. A ransom would go a long way to solving their problems. . Which meant. From what he had heard it appeared that the authorities were still treating the whole thing as a tragic accident. He went back into the house and collected a Woman's Own. that he was perfectly safe. Apart from anything else it would send out the wrong signals and might lead her to think her situation was worse than it really was. He was about to set off down the hill when it occurred to him that. Safe as long as he did nothing in other words. a small tube of Macleans. perhaps he could safely leave the paraffin lamp with his hostage after all. Maureen’s revelation that they were no longer going to lose the house completely undermined the justification for his action. Light reading to pass the time was all that was required. Suddenly feeling more positive about the situation he further resolved to improve the conditions of her incarceration by providing her with something to read. To pass the time until what. Then there was the practicalities of how he was going to get his hands on the money and free the hostage safely. a flannel. was of course the question. one of two copies he had been given as a kid. There was no point in her brooding. a Trout and Salmon magazine and a book. The situation was further complicated by the fact that after listening to the morning news on the radio it was apparent that as yet the police had no suspicion that she had been abducted. Despite wrestling with the problems half the night he was no nearer a solution about how he could safely extract a quick ransom out of her. On the other hand. Not knowing anything about the woman’s tastes in literature he just had to hope that it was the sort of material that would help her to pass the time reasonably happily. He considered adding a bible to the collection but after a certain amount of vacillation he rejected the idea. at least until he contacted someone with his demands. The thing was he couldn’t bear the thought of her spending any more time locked up in complete darkness. their creditors were still pressing hard. When all was said and done she was hardly likely to risk burning herself alive in an attempt to escape. Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh. a bar of Fairy soap and a clean towel. despite his earlier misgivings. A question that overnight had become a lot more complicated. Convinced that this humanitarian gesture would be worth the risk if it made her confinement more bearable he dismounted and leaned the bike against the wall at the back door while he retrieved the lamp from the shed. Having taken this decision he immediately felt better.from BHS and a pair of Levi’s.
He was obliged to stand up on the pedals when the bike threatened to stall going up even the gentlest inclines. that sort of thing. He set off from the house feeling reasonably optimistic. still with a mantle of glistening snow shrouding its dark. Maybe as long as a fortnight. He could of course settle for much less but it seemed crazy to take such a huge risk for so little reward. A quarter of a million really was the bottom line if he wanted to change his life and engineer a fresh start for him and his family. He sighed. No matter how he looked at the problem it seemed impossible that he could quickly transform his captive into the money he so desperately wanted. but in the end he believed he would have the courage to take whatever measures that might prove necessary to ensure compliance with his instructions. Naturally he would explain to her that he was really only bluffing and that she was perfectly safe as long as she didn’t do anything stupid. The thought of having to cut off her ear and send it to them. The heat on his back from the late March sun was unexpectedly fierce as he pedalled up the first gentle incline on the main road leading to the cottage and he was soon sweating freely and panting heavily. It was hardly extortionate. Nevertheless. To get the full amount was undoubtedly going to take time. Hopefully everything would be resolved in a civilised fashion and it wouldn’t come to that.Although describing himself as safe. Asking for anything less would only be a short-term compromise that would almost certainly end in unhappiness and ultimately even failure. it struck him. If that was the correct word. You didn’t get much for a quarter of a million nowadays. Looking up through the bud-bursting hedgerows he could see Morven Hill in the distance. When this was all over he vowed that he . As he remounted his bike he made up his mind that when he reached the cottage he would get her to write out a ransom demand – addressed to the young man he had seen her with on the riverbank probably – saying that if the money wasn’t left somewhere safe within seven days the hostage would die. powerful shoulders. filled him with revulsion. It was definitely his favourite time of the year. a period of optimistic re-birthing after all the doom and gloom of a long. hard Winter. was a purely relative term. any middle ranking company director would expect at least half a million just for having his contract terminated early. despite the effort required by his age-wasted muscles it was great to be out in the countryside again when Spring was in the air. He was only safe in the same sense that a bomb disposal expert is safe until the bomb goes off. Jesus. The question of what he would do if they refused to co-operate or take him seriously was one he would address only if the need arose.
He leaned on the handlebars of the bike and let out a long sigh of relief. He rubbed his hands with glee. He had been cycling for twenty minutes or so when he came to a particularly steep gradient on the road where he was obliged to dismount and push his bike up the hill. in particular the fact that the hills around the cottage formed a natural amphitheatre where any movement in the valley floor would be easy to monitor. Once the money was left in the designated spot the person would then have to follow another series of directives before he finally found out where the hostage was being held captive.would climb it again. like all the best plans. The only issue still to be resolved was the time it would take to get his hands on the money. It would be like a family day out. of course. was still of the essence in more ways than one. All morning he’d been brooding upon a safe way to collect the ransom. Talk about traumatic. He would just have to live with the delay. The scheme was simple but effective. while he waited for the ransom demand to be delivered. It was perfect. If what the woman said was true – and he had no reason to doubt her . he would lay the paper trail. he decided. Maybe Maureen would come too. would be to use his extensive knowledge of the local topography to his advantage. Time. giving Nick plenty of time to make his escape. Come to that. They hadn’t had one together for years. even Martin. Somebody up there still loved him after all. He could lay a paper trail based on map references for the person who brought the ransom money to follow. A series of instructions leading to pre-determined locations which he could observe from the safety of the higher ground. He should never have left her there alone. He would be able to see without being seen. and gradually the solution was starting to take shape in his mind. a twelve mile round trip. They could have a picnic. At the summit he stopped to get his breath back. just as he had done with that bastard garage owner last night. relying on his smooth tongue to buy more time from his creditors. He would study the map later and work out the best route. he should never have kidnapped .he couldn’t see any way it would take less than four to five days. Light was finally chasing the shadows from his soul. To make matters worse. With every passing day the risk of being found out increased. He couldn't bear to think what it must have been like for her in that awful place last night with rats crawling all over her in the darkness. He felt his neck turning red with shame. Tomorrow. For a start he certainly couldn't keep his hostage locked up for much longer. one of his favourite walks. It would be something to look forward to after the quiet desperation of recent months. but even in the darkest hours there was always hope. It was funny. The trick. he was worried about what the dreadful experience must be doing to her.
leaning against a tall pine while he regained his composure. He ducked as a brilliant blue dragonfly the size of a wren shot past his left shoulder like a helicopter out of control. Half an hour later he arrived at the disused track leading off into the woods. the truth was there was no excuse for the pain and the anguish he was now putting her through. By the time he finally came within sight of the cottage he was panting heavily from his exertions. Anything could have happened to his hostage overnight. And yet he still hadn’t worked out how it was all going to end. There was no way the reunion could be anything other than unpleasant and he hated unpleasantness. The last thing he wanted at this stage was to walk into a trap. When he emerged into the open he took a slightly more circuitous route to avoid the field of skulls which had unnerved him so badly the day before. Prolonging her agony would amount to wickedness on his part. There was no other sign of movement anywhere else in his field of vision. Bending double he scuttled across to the shelter of a thicket of rhododendron bushes less than twenty yards from the cottage.her in the first place. He hid the bike in the place where he had parked the car the day before and set off through the birch woods towards the cottage. In order to make absolutely certain that there was no one about he sat and surveyed the scene for a further ten minutes or so. There was no way he could even be sure that she was still in the cottage. He should have had it all planned down to the smallest detail before he started. He swallowed nervously. She might have escaped and called the police. To add to his discomfort blood was trickling into his right eye from a cut on his forehead where he had stumbled over an ancient field drainage system and ended up tumbling into a bramble bush. In the distance a squawking buzzard circled lazily overhead. The sky had remained cloudless and now that the sun was almost directly overhead the landscape shimmered in the heat. He scanned the horizon all around with his binoculars. He was experiencing a growing sense of unease at what he might find within the derelict building. He lingered beneath the shade of the tree for as long as he could but eventually he felt obliged to make a move. Seeing the woman again meant confronting the true enormity of his evil actions. He paused about fifty yards from the front of the cottage. . For the umpteenth time he regretted embarking on such a half-arsed scheme. However justified his motives had seemed at the time. Almost overnight the undergrowth seemed to have cast off its wintry lethargy and thickened up so that forcing his way through the heather and knee-high grasses that fringed the broad peat bog was surprisingly hard going. The still air was alive with millions of insects dancing and buzzing and swooping and diving in a dizzying spectacle.
What on earth was going on in there? He tried to peer through the keyhole but the inside of the cottage was pitch black. Indeed. He turned his attention towards the cottage itself. For a start he didn't know what kind of condition she might be in. He . Waiting was no hardship. As he knelt there wondering what to do next the sound rose to a new pitch of intensity that was now quite clearly audible from outside the cottage. It wasn’t what he had expected. He felt the hair rising on the back of his neck. the sound rising and falling irregularly. He frowned. Forcing himself to remain calm he tiptoed across the weedinfested granite cobblestones at the front of the cottage and pressed his ear against the door like a midwife listening to a pregnant belly for sounds of life. He lingered for another five minutes in his hiding place just to be on the safe side. The silence that followed was unnerving. How on earth do you talk to a hostage you have terrorised and humiliated in that way? And what if she asked about what was going to happen to her next? She must have realised by now that the whole thing so far had been a complete balls-up. Despite his attempt at stealth he still managed to disturb the flock of birds in the apple trees and they flew off into the woods squawking noisily. It seemed absurd but he was actually terrified at the prospect of confronting her again. There were no insects buzzing.The truth was that there could be a whole army of policemen hidden in the undergrowth and he probably wouldn't spot anything. when he was as certain as he could be that it was safe to approach. even the squawking buzzard had flown off over the hill into the next valley. Eventually. Gradually he could just make out what sounded like a low hum. no leaves rustling. What if she had a fever or was hysterical or something? What if she had indeed been attacked by rats and needed a doctor? At the very least she would be cold and miserable. To tell the truth he was in no hurry to confront the woman again. The sound wasn’t really human at all. As was the large flock of chaffinches squabbling noisily amongst the branches of the two ancient apple trees at the side of the house. Then there was the question of what he was going to say to her. but continuously. he began to creep closer to the front of the cottage. It sounded like a swarm of bees buzzing angrily inside a hive. The sight of a red deer grazing contentedly on the hedge at the end of the garden was immensely reassuring. At first he heard nothing. an abject sight for which he alone was entirely responsible. He held his breath and pressed his ear closer. She probably thought he was the village idiot. the only sound was the pounding of his heart echoing painfully in his ears.
There was no way he was going in there right now. even if something unimaginably awful was taking place inside. He closed his eyes and immediately drifted off into a light. puzzling over what to do next the finches gradually flitted back in twos and threes to the apple trees. He listened carefully. he felt sure she was the one making that awful sound. He breathed a sigh of relief. Except that the soundwaves were almost tangible. Being eaten alive. Anything could be happening inside that nightmarish world. the noise subsided. It was an old dream. and yet that didn’t make any sense. Gradually. And so on. The soldiers stood around grinning and cheering with the enthusiasm of a crowd at a baseball game. But if she was being attacked why wasn’t she screaming or shouting out for help? The sound really was just like a swarm of angry bees. In a stockade a group of soldiers had lined up dozens of prisoners. down the line. He suddenly felt very scared. someone dropping a smoke canister down the chimney perhaps. Then he passed the club to the man next to him. Within a few minutes the sound of their angry squabbling filled the air. it was a dead world. Wrapped in the protective cover of the dense leafy branches he sat listening to the awful humming sound. exhausted sleep. based on a true atrocity he’d read about years before in Idi Amin’s Uganda. Shit. Several more minutes passed before everything went completely quiet as if the swarm of bees had been dozed with smoke by an unseen hand. This time there was no sound of any kind emanating from the cottage. This way everyone was a murderer and died in a state of mortal sin. He was trapped in a nightmare of his own making. The thought horrified him. Once again the birds in the apple trees flew off in panic.stepped back in alarm. no louder than the hum from a distant electricity generator or standing beneath the faint drone of an overhead power line. He sat down again on the damp earth. No way on earth. He hesitated. until eventually it was barely audible. But why? What exactly was she doing in there? Maybe she was being attacked by something. It sounded like the bees might be attacking something. While he sat there in a quandary. A dry twigged snapped beneath his feet and he jumped in alarm. as if a warm gentle breeze was caressing his ears. He hauled himself to his feet and took an unsteady step towards the cottage. He began dreaming almost at once. And yet. who killed him. as the minutes ticked by. The man second from the end was handed a club and told to kill the man on his left. the picture conjured up in his mind was like something out of a horror film. He crept back towards the safety of the rhododendron bush. By the rats perhaps. expertly . his heart pounding. Out of sound out of mind. whatever it was. too scared to go any closer.
He had made too may mistakes to hope for victory. Not for the first time that day he felt uncomfortable at being out alone in the middle of nowhere. The free offers and the junk mail he perused only peremptorily before binning them. He woke up again on this occasion. At the end of the sorting process only one letter remained. covered in sweat as usual. It was growing colder as the afternoon wore on. The sun slowly disappeared behind the mountain. He scanned each letter with a practised. one from the credit card company) he hid unopened behind the breadbin. clustering round the summit like a halo. Cold enough for snow. Slowly he stood up and brushed the leaves and twigs from his trousers. Chapter 18 The way back home was mostly downhill and he pedalled flat out. Clouds began to gather over Morven Hill. The light began to fade. It was time to go home and face the consequences. The sight of the little pile of letters on the floor inside the back door made his heart beat even faster. the wind streaming through his hair. He paused at the foot of the road leading up to the house to see if there was any sign of visitors. The battle to save himself and his family had been going on for so long that it now seemed unwinnable. a refugee in a foreign country. The bills and the threatening letters which were easy to identify from their postmarks (one from the Inland Revenue. It wasn’t just soldiers who suffered from battle-fatigue. When he was certain the coast was clear he remounted and cycled up to the house. He was sick of fighting for his life. He circled the pile warily before he picked it up. He sat where he was for a long time. A plain white envelope with a typewritten address whose ordinariness made it stand out from the rest. Suddenly he felt incredibly weary. To make matters worse he was no longer convinced of the justice of his cause. He felt stiff and sore from squatting for so long but he no longer had the energy to stand up. He had lost. Nick always woke up before the end so he never found out what happened to the last man. circumspect eye like a security guard checking for letter bombs. At that moment he realised that for him the war was over. one from his lawyers. Dark and terrifying. Once inside he discovered that the postman had been while he was out. yet another from the bank. He glanced across one last time at the derelict cottage with its rusty tin roof and fissured granite walls and then turned and wearily set off on his last journey across the louring moor and into the murky forest. Soon it would be dark in the forest. .evaluating the effectiveness of the blows.
strode across the carpet and picked up the envelope with a reckless. had been successful and due to a re-organisation in the way the government-funded organisation was tackling economic development they were pleased to offer him the post of DEVELOPMENT OFFICER with special responsibility for High-Growth Start-Ups in which position. He read and re-read the letter. A three year . but he had a hazy idea that such a legal missive had to be handed to him in person. of which he had no recollection whatsoever. It was a job offer. He wasn’t certain. An interview he had apparently attended six months before. rich or poor. Fat chance. He didn’t know what the odds of winning were but so far the results had not been encouraging. Would he. He was pretty sure the same thing applied to a warrant. Perhaps one of his three premium bonds had come up and he had won first prize. be in a position to START RIGHT AWAY? Would he? WOULD HE! He couldn't believe it. shaky hand. his EXPERIENCE of running his OWN small business would prove invaluable. In thirty years as a patient investor he had won nothing. in fact. Odd things did happen of course. As far as he knew he had no relatives of any kind. It was from the local area enterprise agency. They apologised for the DELAY in making the offer but this had been caused by a NATIONAL STRATEGY REVIEW and they hoped he was still in a position to ACCEPT the post. On the other hand the innocuous looking letter might well be a trick. A. Maybe a distant relative had died and left him millions. that it might actually be good news. There were other possibilities of course. Someone up there had finally taken pity on him. That was the real danger. Job. if uncomfortable. Offer. The same went for the lottery. a metaphorical letter bomb from any one of his numerous creditors and pursuers.Gingerly he placed it on top of the television and sat down opposite on the settee where he ate some of the sandwiches he had made that morning and drank a lukewarm coffee from the thermos while he debated with himself whether or not to open it. He rose from the settee. A JOB OFFER. living or dead. He hesitated for many minutes. The football pools were an even longer shot – particularly since he had stopped doing them years ago. A BLOODY MIRACLE. He read the letter for the sixth time. He felt giddy. near or distant. As he read the contents he couldn't believe his eyes. The print swam in front of his eyes. It was truly a miracle. At least it was unlikely to be a summons. maybe even years. When he tore it open it didn't explode but the effect was just as earthshattering. In the end he came to the obvious. although it was months. they felt sure. There was always the chance. since he had had any of that through the post. conclusion that there was only one way to find out. not long after he got married. he reasoned.
Hark the herald angels sing. The freedom to go mad with boredom. A new shirt and tie. No. Another week and he would either be dead or completely round the bend. Six weeks holiday a year. That was downright silly. He closed his eyes and shook his head. How could he possibly look after her and hold down a full time job? There was no way he could do both. Joy unbounded. Life after redundancy. It was too important. Had anyone ever received such wonderful news? He looked slowly around the room. a kaleidoscope of random.contract (equivalent to a lifetime). He felt an absurd twinge of regret. They would be on to him in no time. Buy chocolate and cream cakes. A salary that made his eyes water. Pay off that garage bill. to get up when you want. He bit his lip. A lifeline. Mrs Roberts. Resume his sex life. The latest millstone round his neck. Look the world in the eye. His brain whirled. Yours sincerely etc. Please phone back at your earliest opportunity and confirm on receipt of letter. Self respect. to sit at the window and count every second of every day. Apart from anything else he was determined to give one hundred per cent to the new job to make it a success. Work his balls off for them in gratitude. the freedom to feel totally useless. Save his marriage. It took him ages to get through to the right person. Pension provision. The freedom to do what you want. Could he set her free without risking getting caught? He couldn’t see how. There was no way on earth he was going to allow himself to fail at that. For the last six months it had been his prison. Send Martin to university. Shoes that don't let in rain. A thirty-seven hour week. to do nothing if you felt like it. Bursting with fucking happiness. The queen's pardon. Bursting. Reasonable expenses. He was half way through dialling the number on the letter heading when he realised there was a fly in the ointment. Literally bursting. He was about to lose that peculiar form of freedom that comes with being unemployed. He read the letter once again and this time the tears welled up in his eyes. The only alternative he could think of was to keep her as a long-term captive. Eat meat. A weight lifted from his shoulders. Presents for all. Keep a roof over their heads. now it was about to become paradise once more. His hostage. Tell the bank manager to call off his hounds. He picked up the phone again and dialled the number on the letterhead. She had seen his face after all. With one bound he was free. Sleep no longer murdered. A generous (their words – but true) mileage allowance. Say a prayer of thanks. the letter had arrived just in the nick of time. He hesitated then put down the receiver. glorious thoughts. His last chance. He didn't hesitate for long. he must have been transferred to at least four different .
all right. No doubt about it. Start the new life with a bang. Don’t worry. It would be easy to be ordinary once again. "No one tells me nothing round here. That was the most important thing. He couldn't wait to see the look on her face when he told her the news.departments. She’s gone home already. For a moment he thought it was all a mistake. to his enormous relief. So in the final analysis he hadn't let her down. no more hourly dramas. All the things that made life worth living. the so-called executives in charge haven’t got a clue. She was right too. No way on earth was he going to screw up this opportunity of a lifetime. perhaps even the start of the retribution which would be exacted on him for all the dreadful sins he had committed recently. Buy a few cans of beer when Maureen came home. Okey dokey then. that it just seemed to be the way the organisation always operated. The freedom from fear." So he had got the job. He’d lived up to his half of the bargain that was enshrined in the marriage vows they had taken all those years ago. he had to give her credit for that. the post and the telephone friends once more. Even the littleness of life. And Maureen. As always. No longer a second class citizen. He was employed once more. No. No longer inferior. He stood up and looked out of the window. Who signed the letter? I might have known. She'd always said he would come up trumps in the end. a lost soul without hope. This miraculous development called for a celebration. Leave it to me I’ll organise it for you. you won’t catch her working late. and even when he spoke to the person named in the letter she didn't seem to know what he was talking about. see you at ten. ten and we’ll have everything ready for you. say. The bird table at the foot of the garden was devoid of food. Bright eyed and bushy tailed. Over the years there had been plenty of times when it had very definitely been for worse. then an early night. would be welcome after the heightened drama of the past six months. Okay. you can rely on us. Byee. a final cruel joke by Him up there. She'd always had faith in him though. He punched the air with delight. A few chaffinches sat forlornly in the lifeless . "What? Tomorrow? Yeah. And then he discovered. Raring to go. Don’t worry." sniffed the woman on the other end of the line. He should never have doubted her. Don't go overboard. For better or for worse. I’ll have to get your ID card ordered and get someone from IT to come in and hook your workstation up to the network. We always end up organising everything round here. if that's what you want. You just come to reception tomorrow at. All the old certainties that went with being a valued member of society would soon return. But from now on it was going to be for better. the humdrum grind. a good night’s sleep. wait.
Their future too was now assured. the first with no blood connections. During a rare lull between appointments Nick Dowty stared out of the first floor window of his office upon the parched lawn and recalled some of the innocent people he had played a part in killing during a lifetime of ruthless propriety. because he played an active role in condoning her euthanasia. Almost as bad. And then there was last year. respected and liked by all who knew him. Wriggling out of filial responsibility he had betrayed the only person in the world he had ever truly loved. On the contrary. He smiled. Chapter 19 It was hot. Very hot. Whichever way he looked at it the scale of the slaughter seemed totally disproportionate to the modesty. he wondered. When the fortunes of his business took such a vertiginous turn for the worse that he had embarked upon a desperate scheme to avert bankruptcy and with it the ruination of his family. In the catalogue of his crimes against humanity this was the one act for which he felt no remorse. The only person who had ever really loved him in return. loved by his nearest and dearest. if he had been a truly evil man? He bit his lip. An ordinary. He hated her. Not even goodness. anybody at all. was the death of his mother many years later. Just the desire to be ordinary. That ludicrous episode had claimed two more innocent lives. He felt his neck reddening with shame. he had felt nothing but relief as he sat at her bedside solicitously holding her hand during the five long days and nights it took her to drown so indecorously in her own saliva. liked by anybody. He had been sent to summons a doctor but acute shyness had overcome him as he approached the surgery. Jesus. a virtual skeleton weighing less than five stone. regular guy. He swivelled away from the window and stared down with fierce concentration at the pile of notes . not to say mundanity of his moral ambitions. it was too late now.branches of the old apple tree. Without a doubt the death that caused him most remorse and anguish was the one he had perpetrated while he was still a child. He knew only too well that no useful purpose could be served by dwelling upon the collateral damage that had resulted from his pursuit of goodness. His motive then was simple. Hardly a day had passed during the last thirty years when he hadn’t recalled how he had failed his father as he lay upstairs on his deathbed. Well. What atrocities might he have committed.
not his.strewn across his desk. Their blind faith placed an enormous burden on his shoulders. enough to start their own business deserved everything they got. as he had almost done a year before. Blanketing the unpleasant memories of the past beneath the humdrum problems of his everyday working life was the only chance he had of staying sane. He was so weary. Satisfied that he was properly briefed he folded shut his file and leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. “What do you think of our idea?” was the earnest chorus they all repeatedly bleated like sheep released into an unfamiliar field. Although it was only three in the afternoon he had already conducted meetings with six client groups. It didn’t help that he was no longer . He was sure that they believed he could somehow guarantee them success in their mostly half-baked ventures. or foolhardy. Indeed. He wasn’t sure whether they actually listened but they invariably wrote down everything he said. he found it scary the way they hung onto his every utterance. subtly transferring much of the responsibility for the success or. The verdict of the market was the only opinion that mattered. They simply couldn’t grasp the point that no one could predict the way the market would react to their propositions. Experts in their respective fields they were invariably commercially naïve. more likely failure. There was no mistaking how busy he was. With the benefit of hindsight he knew only too well how they risked losing everything. Brilliant though they all undoubtedly were without his input they hadn’t the remotest possibility of developing their high-growth business concepts to the point of even modest profitability. Thank God he was busy. not them. as if he was in some way omniscient. Not that he resented this unequal risk/reward ratio. None was even remotely streetwise. completely worn out with the demands of the job. Despite the fact that they knew nothing more about him than they did about a stranger they had just bumped into in the pub they trusted his judgement absolutely. It didn’t help that every group demanded instant answers. The constant intellectual challenge he faced in deconstructing and remoulding their half-formed ideas into schemes that would eventually turn a profit was stimulating but exhausting. of their ventures onto him. Except of course that in reality if their projects took off they would gain all the rewards. Sometimes he felt as if he was the one gambling everything. as if his they were catching pearls of wisdom scattered by Richard Branson himself. Anyone who was brave. And all of them demanded the same intensive brain-mangling support and guidance. He always gave the same reply.
the characteristic bitterness in her voice tinged with fear.” His mother never went out. tossing and turning continuously. When he stopped eating altogether his mum began to panic. getting down on his red raw knees on the linoleum in his bedroom. Because she hated his father and was terrified of her own impotence his mum maintained at first he was just putting it on. pleading with God for a miracle. She always had done. His constant groaning kept them awake at night. yet his time on this earth failed to stand up to even the most cursory forensic examination. That it had all started with the death of his own father was particularly shocking. And wipe that stupid look off your face. terrified by the responsibility. So many nightmares recently. Nick loved his father more than anything in the whole world and he prayed continually for him.” “Don’t be damned so lazy.” she had gasped. ever since he had been born. Because of her guilt she hadn’t let Nick in to see his father for more than a week. “What’s wrong?” “It’s him. As the days turned into weeks they both knew that this couldn’t be true. “You know fine I can’t leave the house. you go. Get dressed and go and fetch the damned doctor otherwise it’ll all be your . making her voice hoarse. On the face of it he had led a perfectly ordinary existence. He hated his mother. her tatty pink nightdress hanging from her fleshy shoulders.” His father had been lying ill in bed for the past six weeks. mum. “Can’t you go?” he replied. Looking back it was extraordinary how subtly this moral degeneration had developed. Even sleeping tablets couldn’t prevent him dreaming about that fateful morning when his mother had appeared wild-eyed and ashen-faced at his bedroom door.sleeping at night. “You’ll have to go and fetch the doctor. a tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions. the inevitable outcome of his growing awareness of how far his life had gone off the rails. “Please. She suffered from depression.” “Why can’t you?” “You know I’m not well.
pious discussion with the family doctor on the telephone three months before. innocent victims all. When he grew into adolescence she scolded him constantly. He spent the next few months being looked after by old Mrs O’Brien next door. lurking up in his room all the time. a devout Catholic. He had agreed. giving her more work to do because they didn’t have a washing machine like other people. separated by the forty hard. another three people had died at his hands. When he got home the house smelled of burnt mince and they had taken his father away. They lived with his aunt and uncle on a farm in the middle of nowhere. without a hint of remorse. After they had been there a few weeks and there had been lots of rows his mother threw some plates and was taken back into hospital where she stayed for the next six years.” the stranger told him without preamble. his head forever buried in books about goodness knows what. After a while he came to believe that the way she treated him was his punishment for killing his father.fault. two of them violently. as she always did. His aunt hated him because he was clever and lazy. The recent killing of his mother had none of the drama surrounding his father’s death He recalled the brief. During his frenzied . His mother got back out of hospital six months later and they fled to Scotland on the train because his mum couldn’t cope. thereby ensuring the termination of an existence almost unique in its total pointlessness. She hated him. “Your father’s dead. She made him scrub his neck until it bled but still his shirt collars got filthy. In between the two incestuous killings. while at the same time absolving herself from all responsibility. So did the remorse. to the discontinuation of his mother’s treatment for pneumonia. The realisation that he would never see his father again almost drove him mad. If he hadn’t been such a coward his dad might still be alive. Nick was sorry for the trouble he was causing her just by his very existence. glaring at him in such an accusatory way that Nick figured that his mother had already blamed him. the cuckoo that had been dumped in her nest. He stayed overnight at his best friend Billy Beckworth’s house until a man in a black raincoat he didn’t know came for him the next morning. The sense of loss stayed with Nick all his life. matching bookends of familial slaughter. She referred to him as “six foot of nothing”. fraught years when he had struggled to survive. The deaths of his father and mother created a strange symmetry in the family history. “ He ran all the way to the doctor’s surgery but when he got there it was packed and everyone turned and stared at him like he was something the cat had brought in and he panicked and turned round and fled back across the playing fields.
pursuit of middle-class respectability he had lied. the Scots held a special place in the annals of innovation and industry. Nothing had been allowed to stand in the way of his desperate need to attain society’s approbation. If the application of his vision succeeded in helping to recreate the country’s entrepreneurial spirit that might be the catalyst that could unleash forces that would . being a business adviser was a tough occupation. despite all the pressures of his job. Companies that would expand beyond their parochial Scottish base and go on to develop lucrative niche markets around the world. Never an inkling. especially in the nineteenth century. The world might be in recession but at least in his own small way he was doing something positive to help turn things round. his brain hurt. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. If his own experience was anything to go by the world was a far more dangerous place than anyone imagined. ultimately. Replicating the achievements of Marconi and Dunlop and Carnegie they would once more reclaim Scotland’s place as an industrial powerhouse in the developed world. bullied. He smiled to himself at the thought. despite his lifetime of lawless conformity. Which begged the rather terrifying question: what did the other “respectable” people all around him have to hide? What dirty little secrets were hidden in their apparently spotless closets? Or was it just him? Was he the only one? It was impossible to know. Amazingly. Some of the guys he advised would surely go on to create companies that would become world leaders in their fields. manipulated and killed as he had clambered up the social ladder. its pages turned only behind the unscaleably high walls that protected his innermost thoughts. His catalogue of death remained securely tucked out of sight. proved as much. In the process too they would established political influence far beyond the country’s tiny size. he loved every minute of it. And yet. There was no doubt about it. sacrificed. That was the most extraordinary thing of all. even towards those he had crushed and. every meeting was a brush with failure. no-one had ever suspected him of committing any crime. every new client represented a leap into the unknown. He was dead tired. neglected his family. creating yet more opportunities. the last person to hear his carefully sanitized confession. sweated blood. nor even his long-neglected priest Canon Murphy. such was his desperate desire to be liked. but it certainly made him wonder. cheated. He wouldn’t finish work much before nine for the third night in a row. Despite what people thought. and all the while. Not his wife nor his son nor his closest friends. A brief glance at the history of commerce. he had adopted a pleasant and solicitous air.
This dream of regaining his country’s trading pre-eminence was an exciting prospect. Cloning. being based upon a research project which had originated in the local university. of failures waiting to happen. which he had already been working upon for several weeks. His confidence was underpinned by a growing belief that the country’s industrial renaissance was most likely to emanate from the universities as they increasingly recognised the benefits that could accrue from the commercialisation of their research. seemed like a good idea to him. that was the most important . differentiation. He sighed. A vision that culminated in nothing less than the creation of an all-powerful mittelstand. It didn’t sound quite right somehow. cash flow. Eugenics? He wondered if that was the correct term. Nevertheless. All that was important was the presence of the vital ingredients that could be melded into a sustainable competitive advantage. A shadowy legacy that might scare off potential investors. what really mattered to him was the presence of the essential commercial framework that underpins every successful company launch. After years in the spiritual wilderness during which his only dream had been to build up his own company he knew he had finally found a vocation that might offer him some hope of redemption. That and getting the right people to implement the strategy. even had the potential to alter the future of the Third World. whereas in the wrong hands even the most brilliant scheme was doomed to failure. Morality didn’t come into it. Nor did he need to know anything about the detailed science behind the proposal. With the right people in place almost any idea could be made to work. with its sinister historical overtones. Innovation. time to profitability. Not that the ethics of the underlying science mattered to him.and most difficult challenge. he gladly accepted the challenge. The business plan had a decent pedigree for a start.challenge even the industrial might of America. The proposal. He didn’t think it was too far fetched to say that the proposal. He studied the notes for his next scheduled meeting. which was based upon the ability to alter certain genes relating to an individual’s susceptibility to various malarial-type diseases. one that drove him to work as hard as he did. His mission to transform the country was heady stuff. especially since the reality of his daily meetings with his coterie of aspiring entrepreneurs was very different. They were for the most part a sad succession of tiny minds and timid aspirations. This one was all about re-mapping the human genome. the group of world-class medium-sized companies upon which Germany had built its industrial might. He would address that problem when he came to write up their business plan. He knew only too well . Success was all about the people. Indeed. Eugenics. although he knew in his heart that he had an enormous task on his hands to turn his vision into reality. Given that there was bound to be a market for such a product.
She was only twenty-five. It wasn’t just that he was an emotional accident waiting to happen. The trick. his young PA. Keeping me here on a caffeine drip while these guys come by and expect me to solve all their problems for them. The truth is you collude with them. “How about just occasionally you schedule me a proper lunch break for pity’s sake?” She laughed. Tough. their private language. . He enjoyed it immensely whenever they embarked on one of their mildly combative dialogues. she didn’t give a damn what anybody thought.” “You know you love it really. tall. confident.” Sarah laughed again. No vegetarians need apply. “Jesus. elegant. He sought out entrepreneurs red in tooth and claw. Everybody wants a piece of you these days. “Don’t give me your pretend sympathy. How does it feel to be wanted by the way?” “You know what. he had rapidly discovered. a recurring metaphor for lunch. just like the rest of us. There really was something special about her. It was part of his special relationship with her. visionary. Bright. the weak. dedicated. Sarah.” he grunted. He wolfed a tiny tuna sandwich. the feeble. Sarah. the indolent. In his short time in the job he had already learned that it was almost impossible to pick winners. the strange. almost like lovers. I feel like the only thing these people are interested in is my brain.” She had a facetious grin on her face as she spoke. utterly calculating. The dim. the downtrodden.” “Stop complaining. He gazed in dismay at the crowded printout. “You don’t have time to eat. waltzed into the office holding his revised daily meetings schedule. short blonde hair that exposed a long slim neck that was almost swanlike. beautiful. was to screen out the obvious losers. He was ruthless in his suppression of those who lacked the necessary attributes. Dangerously like lovers.” “Do I? For your information most of the time I feel like a my brain is being squeezed in a vice. as he punched the latest figures from the group’s business plan into a spreadsheet. I’m sure they admire you as a person too. She had worked for him for nearly a year and he knew he was falling in love with her.that in life there were only winners and losers. her wide smile lighting up the office. you know that. Which was hardly surprising.
she laughed at the world. “Hi. How is he getting on?” “He got top marks in his essay. if not in thought. Naturally. Like most people who lead busy lives he was a man of many guises. “Oh yes.” “I always said he was bright. his wife phoned. as if she had been reading his thoughts from afar and had sensed the looming danger. I could murder an Indian. Oh. Nick switched instantly into loving husband mode. Trapped in a happy marriage to be more exact. more a way of being. And that wouldn’t be easy even though he had been faithful throughout his married life. Fortunately. Sarah meanwhile hovered nearby. by the way I got an e-mail from Martin. busily rearranging papers on an adjacent desk. It means I won’t get finished much before nine. In deed at least. dear. Happily married. Sort of. Every second she was out of his sight was agony for him now. And what dreams they were. not all of them entirely fake.” “That’s a bummer. Some sort of penance for his adulterous thoughts. love. To Maureen. “That’s a lovely idea.” Martin was in his first year at University studying mechanical engineering. Besides. the stillbeautiful student he had met at university twenty years before. not a pretence. for her life was a ball. it wasn’t fair to expect Maureen to cook after a hard day’s work. Or that he was already married. I’m working late too. Had to call a staff meeting about another new set of guidelines we’ve been issued from on high. Because you only see one dimension of a colleague at work you have to invent the rest. “Nick. And of course it didn’t help that she was twenty years younger than he was.” “That’s good. Recently he found himself thinking about her more and more. Why don’t you come round here when you’re finished and we’ll go out for a meal. up until now he had kept his feelings about Sarah to himself and under firm control. Definitely not in thought where Sarah was concerned. how are you?” he said. I’m afraid I’m going to be late again tonight.” He didn’t really want to go out to eat but it felt like the decent thing to do.” . with genuine affection in his voice. and he couldn’t be bothered. The trick would be to keep them that way. leaving the imagination free to construct the person of your dreams. At that moment.
He has his pride too. I’m too tired. Which it wasn’t. okay. Nick.” . “I am pleased.” “Nick?” “Yes?” “Is everything okay?” “What do you mean?” “You sound…preoccupied. Don’t worry about it.” Nick sighed. He loved his son but…but the truth was he wasn’t convinced that the boy worked as hard as he should.” “Bye. These days getting a degree was essential to survival in a world where everyone had some sort of qualifications after their name and full employment was rapidly becoming a distant memory. Maybe not to you. love. I’ll see you later. We’re the ones making the sacrifices after all. But he’s often told me how grateful he is for what we’re doing.“You did. Martin was so laid back about everything.” “All right then. I’m sure he’s working hard. I just wish he would acknowledge that fact occasionally. Maureen.” “Bye. Her slim silhouette made him feel faint with desire.” “Okay. Let’s not argue. You know how much he worries about trying to please you. you might sound a bit more pleased.” Nick was watching Sarah out of the corner of his eye as she leaned over a desk with her back to him.” “But he does.” “I’ll look forward to it. that’s all. As long as he passes his exams it’s money well spent. I’ll come round to your office about nine.” “Nick. he made it all seem so easy. “I’ve had a tough day.
“You’re going to be working late again you poor thing.” “You’re sweet.” “Just don’t take it so seriously. The proof. doesn’t it.” She gave him a bold. which was actually only true in a very particular way. how happy he really was. is it?” “Aren’t you dying to rush off home?” “That depends. There were limits to their flirting beyond . in fact. meaningful look that set his pulse racing. “It’s not about being middle-aged.” he sighed. perhaps. no more unhappy than the average marriage where longevity had dulled romance.” He immediately wondered what was behind this last observation. She laughed.” “You’re right. made his stomach churn with apprehension. “As usual. You work far too hard and they take you for granted. his marriage. Nick. that the only thing worse than a marriage that fails is one that succeeds. though.” “When have I ever been wicked?” “That’s what I’ve been wondering. “No rest for the wicked.” Sarah came back to his desk holding out his revised diary printout. mock heroically.” He leaned back in his swivel chair and looked up at her.” She laughed coquettishly. Take it easy yourself. You’re the one who really works hard. The way her eyes twinkled with laughter made him feel light-headed as he breathed in her beauty. “What middle-aged man does?” he responded eventually. Probably did say. Once when they were having a drink together after work he had told her that his marriage was not a happy one. As Oscar Wilde might have said. I’ll see you later. I don’t think you really want to go home that badly. This time her laugh disturbed him. chancing his arm. “Anyway. where familiarity had bred a thousand irritations. She regularly quizzed him about his home life. It’s only a job after all. The relationship was. where a once-exciting future had faded into the dull certainties of the present.“I do worry.
even. His brain hummed continually with brilliant initiatives designed to enhance his department’s performance. he had to admit. He smiled to himself. nothing like it had ever happened to him before. Now he was gainfully employed once again. “How about doing something useful and making me a fresh coffee before YOU go home. I’ll be your slave as usual.” As he waited in Meeting Room Three for his next clients to be shown in he stared out of the window across at the row of copper beech trees shimmering in the autumn breeze and reflected once more upon the remarkable change that had taken place in his circumstances. maybe a last. he frequently reminded himself that it was easy to float to the top in a sea of mediocrity. broken. beaten. if their relationship became serious it would raise difficult moral questions that he wasn’t sure he wanted to confront. At the moment though. to keep things in perspective. One day. as he had grown into his new job his crushed spirit had become revitalised. chance. fearful. Equally amazingly. in his heart he knew it was all too dangerous. “Alrighty. Nevertheless. which he knew from experience could easily become febrile. His rehabilitation had been so remarkable that within a matter of weeks of starting his new job he started to galvanise everyone around him. He preferred the status quo where at least he enjoyed the illusion that he was always in control of the situation. Not just moral questions either. As a result it was no surprise that in a short time he was promoted to head of department. He had found himself unemployed for the first time in his life. a role in which he felt safe. all sorts of questions that a middle-aged man is not equipped to answer. For the first time in his life he felt appreciated and he responded with a superhuman effort on behalf of both his clients and the organisation that had unexpectedly given him a second. He soon became the star of their weekly team meetings. Only last month. scary.” She made a face. To lower the temperature. he said sternly. at least not yet. his depleted energy reserves had increased by leaps and bounds. at the end of his tether.which he daren’t go. the wise old uncle expertly taking the lead. had even been able to put his harrowing commercial experience to good use. keep your shirt on. a respected member of the business community. there was something vaguely shocking in her forwardness. up to his ears in debt. a brazenness which dimmed the aura of innocence he preferred her to radiate. the catalyst for a dozen new initiatives. Even more amazingly. Although. Besides. Although he was addicted to the thrill of flirting with her. things just kept getting better. following an external appraisal by an international firm of . he knew. It was only eighteen months since his business had gone bust and his world had collapsed around him. he would break her heart.
He shivered. Already in the past six months he had twice been summoned to an audience with the Industry Minister in Edinburgh. In particular. Fleets of supertankers laden with pure Scottish water sailing around the clock to arid countries all over the world. his department had been singled out for praise. even if it was floating above a distant horizon. Droughts. Without a doubt the future was looking bright. Water the new oil. What lay decomposing in that isolated cottage could still bring his world tumbling down. suddenly finding it hard to breathe. The one that he had been nurturing for years. DNA was a potential time bomb. Scotland the next Saudi Arabia. Thanks to his recent forays into the political sphere he now knew the right people to help him get the scheme off the ground. Creeping desertification. Once he had finished the business plan he intended to use it to leverage his newfound influence with the country’s movers and shakers to make sure he got a share of the action. of course. Scotland a wet country. Climate change. You had to pay the price to join the club. His department’s budget was about to be doubled. his paper advocating the creation of an elite cross-network team of successful businessmen to promote the development of ultra highgrowth companies capable of becoming world-class players had been adopted as official policy. What was the half life of a corpse? How long would he be haunted by the ghostly traces he had left behind at the scene of the crime? His past lay dormant like a fossil waiting . Hardly a cloud in the sky. Even now he wasn’t sure he was safe. He tugged at his shirt collar. carbon dating could destroy any alibi. It was more than a dream. He smiled as he ran his cherished idea through his mind for the millionth time. Almost overnight he found himself in a position of influence in the business community. Looking back on his life. just the thought of how close he had come to disaster was enough to make him break out into a cold sweat. He’d thought about it a million times. He had been told that his ideas on nurturing high growth start-ups were being evaluated at the highest level. for example in his wilderness years. Like Churchill. he could see that it was axiomatic that all great leaders throughout history experienced periods of extreme adversity in their lives. Except that there was a cloud. And he was confident that he would join the club when he revealed his next big idea. getting wetter. Leith a major port. Water shortages.consultants shortly after his promotion. So far he had successfully re-built his life out of the rubble of the past. Suddenly he had an entrée into the world of politics too. All the same. He had to put them behind him. Polluted water supplies. It was a mistake to dwell on the dreadful events of just over a year ago.
I keep dreaming that I’m in a room with Jane Fonda. Before I can find out what happens next I always wake up. “A chance to study some cash flow forecasts that aren’t based on complete fantasy. It’s so vivid. I told him about my dream. A really strange dream. At that moment the door opened and his star clients. trying to bend her double. The competitive forces at play. These guys were so out of touch with commercial reality which was mostly based on fiction anyway. let me tell you a story. deprecatingly. coughed nervously. “At last. You know what he said? What the deep significance of it all meant? What my unconscious was telling me? You know what he said?” . She struggles a bit but she doesn’t really protest. the quartet of exuberant biologists in their early thirties who were going to rid the world of malaria. Listen.” Nick couldn’t hide his disappointment. We couldn’t figure out the rate at which the company will grow its market share?” Nick shook his head. I don’t know what it means though.” His clients laughed. We’re scientists. I keep putting my arm around her and pulling her head towards me. you’re making it way too complicated. We’re sitting together on a couch. Their leader. The market. “The cash flows…” “I can’t wait to drool over them.to be discovered. “A friend of mine’s a Freudian psychoanalyst. “I’ve no idea. I’ve been having the same dream for a while now.” admitted their bearded leader. a wry smile on his face.” “I’m afraid we couldn’t do them. bounced into the room. Always. What does it all mean I ask myself? Is it symbolic? What is the earth-shattering significance of that dream?” The group looked blank. “What’s wrong?” said Nick. “Guys. All that stuff you told us about.” “It’s too complex. an earnest young man with a long curly ginger beard and a faintly unwashed appearance.” he enthused. “Why ever not? I showed you how to do them when you were here the last time. He immediately switched into professional mode as he greeted them warmly.
None at all. Which was why he would help them now. God. eventually. Not exactly complicated was it? The point being that the answer is often staring you in the bleeding face. waiting for him to break the lengthening silence. No one understood the way his childhood dreams had decayed. the half life he had led. “Who is Jane Fonda?” And suddenly Nick thought. the new beginning he was trying to build out of the contaminated. make the miracle happen. Couldn’t miracles happen? Please. radioactive debris of the past.” Nick stared at the group expecting them to burst out laughing but they gazed back at him in bewilderment. The group were watching him expectantly.” “I don’t understand. They didn’t understand what was going on in his head. the washing of his sins. their eyes troubled. To atone for his sins. Except that such an outcome would defy logic. Salvation was beyond him. There was no point pretending otherwise. “You don’t get it. .” said the bearded leader. No-one did.The End . That was all he could do. maybe the woman in the cottage hadn’t died after all. The others were dead and he had killed them. He looked back and smiled. all that was left was penance. “He said it meant I wanted Jane Fonda to give me a blow job.More blank looks. Maybe her story had a happy ending too. There was no doubt about it. deeply worried.
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