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