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