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