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