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