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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.”
Not now. None of our competitors have got a job in their workshops. There was a time when he would have killed anyone who got in the way to survive. He had battled so long to keep the business afloat. What I didn’t foresee was the speed with which the big oil companies would stop spending locally.” Nick frowned. that doesn’t do you much good.” “Unfortunately.” “Whatever. reeling from acute battle fatigue. Everyone’s hurting. I guess not. Suddenly he felt oddly detached from the fate of the company that had once been his whole life. no matter how tough you thought you were. Anyway. He looked embarrassed. If he had been a soldier he would now be lost behind enemy lines.” . Nick. Nick. Nick. Much worse. The Chinese have eaten our lunch.” Nick swivelled round in his chair and gazed out across the snowy blanket that had completely obliterated the familiar bumps and hollows of the adjacent golf course.” “You wonder where it’s all going to end. Although he knew what was coming he still wasn’t prepared for the speed at which his world was collapsing. He could smell the bad news coming and it made him gag. People never do. Your overdraft…it’s growing bigger every day.” “Yeah.” “The numbers say it all. Nick felt his insides turning to ice. The bank has already given you time to sort things out but you’re still overstretched. There was only so much a person could take. I’ve seen it bad before but not like this. He said. The bank can’t let it go on. years maybe. Work from the North Sea has just dried up. “The signs were there for anyone who dared to look. This was the moment he had been dreading for weeks. on the point of surrender. we need to get down to business. It’s worse than ‘86.” “No.“No one saw it coming. The bank manager coughed. He had fought himself to a standstill. “I know why you’re here alright. Alan. History teaches us nothing until it’s too late. What do you propose?” His throat was so dry he could barely whisper the words. “Sure.
“This thing has gone beyond my level. No longer equals. They’ll probably be better off in the end. Alan. Those machines out there in the workshop cost a small fortune.” Suddenly they were no longer old friends. That hasn’t changed just because we’ve had a couple of bad months. You’ll even be asking me out to lunch again. They want to get as much of their capital back as they can while there’s still some residual value left in those machines. The decision has already been taken. Anyway. If you don’t they’ll go elsewhere. As soon as they start looking for oil again in the North Sea we’ll be making money hand over fist. 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. This is a great little company we’ve built up. “I don’t want to get into a debate with you. it’s too late. “I’ve always been overstretched. Nick.” “They’re worried about the machines?” “That’s right. They can re-train as plumbers or electricians. Alan. The games these people played.” . Who can say where the price of oil will be in six months time? If Japan falls back into recession and China cools down it could quite possibly go lower.” Nick clenched his fists and stared defiantly at the bank manager. I promise you. The sad truth is the bank isn’t in the risk business.” A flicker of irritation darted across the bank manager’s eyes. In six months time it will all be different. He said. despite the gravity of the situation. “That’s so short-sighted. This is a capital intensive business. I really am. That’s the nature of this industry. He smiled wryly to himself.” Alan Tait didn’t smile. Nick. Who knows? I’m sorry. The irony is that the more successful we are the deeper in debt I get.” “And the people? Are they worried about the people who are going to be thrown onto the scrapheap? What about them?” “They’ll find other jobs. “It’s too much of a risk.Nick noted how the conversation had suddenly taken an impersonal turn. The bank manager was already distancing himself from the bad news that was about to follow. Now the merry-go-round has suddenly stopped spinning. The guys in head office are deeply uncomfortable with the extent of your borrowing. There’s a skill shortage in this country even if we don’t have any manufacturing industries left. If the chancellor slaps on another windfall tax.
I’ve just told you it’s too late for all this. Alan. “I told you this would happen if you breached your loan covenants. I’ve already taken all the tough decisions. Everyone else is in the same boat.” Nick absorbed the bitter news through his skin. You’ve been in the last chance saloon for too long. “Please. “Nick. I’ve put my house on the line for the bank. Manufacturing in this country is dying on its feet. Alan. “That’s it? After all these years? That’s it?” The bank manager didn’t move. You can’t push water uphill.” He glanced at his watch. Don’t waste your energy trying to fight them. I’ve slashed our capital spending.” Nick was getting desperate.” “I’m sorry. Nick. The bank wants to sell off the assets for whatever it can get and wrap things up as quickly as possible. A fantastic team. The liquidators will be here shortly.” “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. Last week I paid off six people. it’s not just you.” “Liquidators?” “Within an hour. All they want to do is flog off those machines for whatever they can get and cut their losses. The bank’s got me by the fucking balls. they’re like my family. I’ve even put one of the big machines up for sale. Despite that I’ve made cutbacks. Six of my friends. as if he had been drenched .Nick had been determined to stay cool but the dam holding back his emotions finally burst. Look. You should have acted tough then. I’m proud to work with them. Like I said the time for action is past. what kind of a risk is it for the bank? I’m the one taking all the risk. I’m the one who’s borrowed all the bloody money. That shows how much faith I’ve got in the business. If you want my opinion the whole bloody country’s going to the dogs. All I need now is a bit more time and this will all work itself out. I warned you six months ago. We’ve all taken a pay cut. With any luck that’ll bring in three hundred grand. We’ve got some great people here.” Nick pleaded. “Jesus.
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
” “It’s the guys out there in the workshop I feel sorry for. Can you not fight them? Tell them things will pick up. “It’s the bank. How long have we got?” “They’re closing the place immediately. Some thought it was close right enough. What do those buggers want from you now? Dae they nae ken ye canny get blood from a stane. Alex. “I was kind of expecting it to tell you the truth. The factory floor is like a graveyard out there.” “Aye well. to come up at once. ay. I knew they might withdraw their support but it’s still a shock. shit happens.” . First though.” “I’ve been telling them that for months. He was certain he could make a go of things second time around even if it meant working for someone else.” Alex Robertson was in his sixties with a hard.another chance. “What’s up?” the old man demanded gruffly.” “Ah. He picked up the phone and asked Alex Robertson. They don’t believe me any more. “Bad news. He’d learnt his trade in the shipyards on the Clyde and later with Rolls Royce making Spey jet engines at Prestwick.” “They’ve pulled the plug on us.” “Oh.” “The bastards. There’s not a job in the shop. his workshop foreman. Maybe they’re right.” “I’m sorry. before he could start thinking about himself. We all were. expressionless face hewn out of the granite of bitter experience.” The old man shrugged. he had to tell the remnants of his staff the bad news. They’d worked together for over eight years through good times and bad.
He never discussed business with his wife.” Despite himself Nick smiled. tried to shield her from the pressures of running a small business. it’s tough on her right enough.” “Sounds like your arse is oot the windae and the crows are pecking at it. I’ll take the wife off to Tenerife for a few months till the winter’s past. She knew things had been difficult lately but this development was going to come as a major shock.” “I’ll see you there.“I wouldnae worry about them.” They both laughed. I’ve got all this shit with personal guarantees and stuff. Telling her would be the hardest thing he had ever done. After that? Who knows? Maybe I’ll get a job collecting trolleys in a supermarket. The old guy had a quaint way of putting things into perspective.” Nick bit his lip.” The old man winced. They’ll be all right.” “I guess.” “Aye. “She doesn’t know yet. What about you? What will you do?” “Me? Och. “You could say that. “That’s a good question. what about yourself.” “Nick?” .” “How has Maureen taken it?” Nick frowned. The old man frowned. I need a break anyway. They’re always screaming for skilled men.” ”That’s putting it mildly. This’ll come as a bit of a shock then. He dreaded the thought of breaking the news to her. “Seriously. He felt sick at the thought. I really don’t know what the future holds to tell you the truth. “Ouch. Nick? What does this mean for you?” Nick thought for a moment. I just never believed it would come to this. Then there’s the house which I put up for security. “You better go and call the men together. I’m worried sick about what she’s going to think.
“Nick.“What?” “I’m nae much given to speeches but…weel.lightly. Spending money they no longer had. “Thanks. His eyes seemed so dull. You’d said you’d pick up some nice wine on your way back.” Nick felt a lump forming in his throat. I’ve got a rack of lamb from the butchers.” Nick sighed. Yeah. it’s much appreciated. and I’ve worked for a few in ma time. He was shocked to see how much older he looked. I’m just phoning to remind you about tonight. Not to mention the expense. Alex was a hard man who’d had a hard life. before I burst into tears you better get everyone together. “Hi. The phone rang. he looked utterly defeated. “Hello?” “Hi. dear. You dinna deserve this. What’s up?” “Nothing’s up. He felt a lump in his throat. She almost never phoned him at work. The Murrays and the Binneys remember. Are you free to talk?” It was Maureen.” “Tonight?” “The dinner party. 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. Keeping up the pretence when all he wanted to do was crawl under a stone and hide. He did not hand out compliments – or condolences . Forced to perform in front of his wife’s oh-so-successful friends in the present circumstances. He wondered if she’d somehow heard the bad news already.” The old man went off to assemble all the men in the canteen so that Nick could break the bad news. He crossed to the mirror in the corner and patted his hair and straightened his tie. I invited them months ago. He stood up and looked around the office for the last time. I jist want tae say you’re the best boss I’ve ever worked for. Okay. That was all he needed. are you still there?” “Sorry. I knew you’d forget. Alex.” “What’s wrong?” .
“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.
“Always have been. “We can’t afford Markies any more. “I don’t know where you find the time to cook like this. “Sainsbury’s are pretty good. Anyway. “It is irresponsible. It’ll be even worse once I’ve retired.” “I think Markies are definitely the best when it comes to pre-prepared meals. that’s how everybody eats these days.” “Some of the newer Spanish wines are pretty good too.” said Claire Murray.” “They’re all right. Nick took a deep draught of the wine.” “This lamb is meltingly tasty. “Especially in my position. “In our house we seem to live on ready meals the whole time. How many variations on bread and dripping did she know. he wondered. “Not on my salary. Even better than the Local Authority. My next mode of transport will be a bike.” said Alastair.He beamed delightedly at the insult. 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.” “Not a patch on this.” he murmured. “Got to keep up appearances. Mm.” Alastair snorted derisively.” “You’re right.” said Raymond Binnie. wondered Nick gloomily.” said her husband defensively. “This wine is delicious. “That looks good.” They all laughed but Nick wasn’t joking. “You’ll get a good pension.” said Raymond. Bread and water probably.” said Isobel Binney. licking her lips appreciatively. You can’t beat a really good French wine. Her skills would be fully tested over the coming months. Raymond.” . There was a general murmur of assent.” I wonder what Somerfields ready meals are like. admiring the spread.” agreed Nick. Everyone knew that Maureen was a brilliant cook. You pay a bit more but it’s worth it. Teachers do all right.
“That’s total crap. “You’ve done it for long enough. “If only it was that easy. Nick felt his hackles rising. Alastair. he thought to himself. “Maybe you shouldn’t take on work if you don’t think you’ll get paid. They all thought he was rolling in it. They had no idea. Besides. Or the fact that you’ll lose everything because the bank have forced you to put your house on the line as security. He’d be relying on Maureen in the future. fuck them all. Working for the public sector was a doddle compared to working for yourself. Little did they know. you’d get eaten alive.” Nobody laughed. I’d have buggered off to the south of France long ago.” Everybody laughed.Nick’s pension was his investment in the company. Never mind all the people that will lose their jobs. I wish I’d started my own business instead of going into education. which was now worthless. Plenty of holidays.” he said angily. “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. No fighting for business.” Nick shook his head in disbelief.” said Raymond Binnie. “Get real. Nick? I tell you. Fuck them. making a face. “He’ll sell out his business for a fat profit and go and live the high life in Spain or Monaco or somewhere. Isn’t that right. you wouldn’t last five fucking minutes in the private sector. 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. including Maureen. 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. Pay up or we’ll close you down. A big fat pension at the end of it all guaranteed by the government. No worries about getting paid. Nick drained his glass and poured some more drinks. He swallowed hard. This is the world of .” Nick looked rueful. Those guys in the pubic sector don’t give a toss for your problems. “Nick’s the one who’s going to score. Jobs for life.” Everybody laughed again. Alastair. He looked embarrassed and annoyed at the same time. “It can’t be that hard. That’s their mantra. Alastair coughed.” said Alastair. the mood round the table was buoyant.
Jesus. Nor do we have a guaranteed income stream .” “It all sounds very unpleasant. Something very bad. We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing our customers.” said Maureen. grandparents who refused to fade away gracefully.” “There’s no point doing work for someone if you’re not going to get paid. please.” Nick looked at her balefully. At times like this she hated him. suffocating itself on a familiar chorus of complaints about kids who refused to cut their financial umbilical cords. subdued and embarrassed. Fear made her feel faint. looking distraught. I wish I had taken the easy way out and become a fucking teacher. That doesn’t make sense. “Unfortunately we can’t all work for the public sector. She climbed into bed and turned her back on him. The evening gradually petered out. his mind silted up with the fallout from his company’s collapse. Had been for years. wished she’d never married him. sliding as far away from him as possible. If we need more money we can’t just turn round and put up taxes or raise the rates like you guys. Even the biggest companies can go tits up these days. right now we’ll take anything you can get. She wished he’d never started it. clinging to the edge. Not the public sector. She knew that for some reason Nick had toppled over the edge.work I’m talking about. Or find a reason for not paying you which is just as bad. Was the only thing he really cared about. out to the world. Whenever he felt under pressure he took it out on her and anyone else who came within range. That bloody business he ran was the problem. When she finally joined him he was snoring gently.” “Nick.” said Claire Murray. Wished he had become a bloody .” “You never know if you’re going to get paid. “Suddenly the Health Service doesn’t feel so bad after all. pushing her halffinished plate away from her. your language. In the event Nick retreated into his shell. He’d had his chances. Another performance like tonight’s and she really would leave him. Someone’s got to go out there and create the wealth to pay your wages. It meant more to him than she did. Rising unsteadily from the table Nick dragged himself off to bed while Maureen tidied up in the kitchen. Something must have happened at work which she didn’t know about. if the truth were known. Their guests left just after nine. It’s fucking dog eat dog out there. Christ. Fucking mugs like me in fact. It was always the same.
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
would be glad when it was all finally over. turning their poverty into a battleground. He was too tired to care. “The peas are all right. in an attempt not to appear churlish. What did it all matter anyway? So you fucked up your life. Just the way I like them. nor about the people eating it. He had already eaten . . Silently he served up their meal and they took it through in the sitting room. whatever they might be." she said. and he wasn't even sure about that.but he sat with them for company and watched the news for the fourth or fifth time that day. They ate with their plates balanced on their laps. He knew all this but it didn't stop him becoming angry and bitter. as she always did. by way of gentle reproach.” said Maureen. gelatinous mass topped with lashings of tomato ketchup. It was bad enough that he had to fight the outside world.couldn't stop himself. wolfing down the peas which he had mashed into a lumpy. 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. Now she was the one who was being petty.” agreed Martin. "I'll take it back if you like and change it for shaving soap. Nick was too weary to argue about the peas. “They’re great. "How was work?" It was the same question he put to her at this time every night. He knew he was losing the battle against imminent bankruptcy and in a way he almost welcomed defeat. he said to Maureen. in front of the television." He shook his head. Maureen sighed.yesterday's corned beef leftovers fried up with a finely chopped onion and a clove of garlic . of high prices and artificial demand. Making one more supreme effort. It was just that by being late they inadvertently belittled his efforts to make himself useful and valuable to them. A bloody war on one front against the massed ranks of their creditors was as much as he could handle at the moment. the massed forces of impending economic disaster. To tell the truth he didn’t really care about the food any more. "Fine. 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. of structural unemployment.
What would happen after the summer holidays was anybody’s guess. Thank God they’d paid this year’s school fees in advance before the business went bust. to communicate. Nominal because of their joint personal guarantees which meant the bank was threatening to take almost half her income. Maureen’s nominal salary meant that they wouldn’t get a grant to defray the costs. Theirs had never been an equal relationship but recently the balance had changed and now he increasingly felt like the junior partner. Just thinking about the cost brought Nick out into a cold sweat. He was the one who needed support and understanding. You didn’t have to be an accountant to work out that what would be left would . colleagues he had worked with for years. Martin’s higher education was a looming problem that seemed insoluble. During the remainder of the meal she never took her eyes off the television. Being a good father nowadays was an almost impossible challenge. had deserted him. when there was so much that was out of your control. Martin was a tolerant child. He had always tried hard to love the child more than anything else in the whole world. It was a classic case of Catch 22. It was so dispiriting.That was it. A situation made worse by his discovery after the business had folded that she was his only friend. He watched Martin cramming food into his mouth. Nick felt tolerated by him. In some ways their relationship had been a history of failure. A bright kid – a very bright kid – he wanted to go to University to become a doctor. All the rest. so much more that could go wrong. on most occasions. 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. End of conversation. Just by being there she made him feel lonely. a mutual inability to communicate their love for each other. much more lonely than when he was on his own. even. He had wanted desperately to ensure that his son had a happy childhood. He sighed. No-one argued with that. At least that gave them a few month’s breathing space. both materially and spiritually. so many material distractions that made you irrelevant. The fact that in so many ways he had failed him as a father was the worst thing of all. The problem was how they could possibly afford it. His teachers all said he had it in him. a commodity that was now in very short supply. 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. In quiet desperation he turned to his son. They might as well have been strangers at different tables in an empty café in a nameless city.
How was it?” Martin’s gaze remained fixed on the television. in limbo. creating a hole in his affections the size of Denmark. 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. Making an effort to hide his inner turmoil Nick fixed a smile upon his face and leaned across to his son. the concept. It didn’t help that to study properly Martin would have to live in town – either Aberdeen or. "What about you. a forkful of bloody-looking peas suspended in front of his open mouth. entirely predictably. Nick bit his lip. “School. Real life was lived in the city. Martin hated the countryside. Inasmuch as he loved the idea. Edinburgh. He even continued to go to school in town. In his eyes the countryside was barren. would be for them to up sticks and move back into town. Martin? How was school today?" "What?" said Martin. of course. supposedly a more prestigious university in the medical field.fall far short of what was needed to pay for Martin’s university education. of having a son. In the meantime though they were stuck here. Nick regarded his son with distaste. . above all. All his friends were in town. 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. And of course he did. The truth was they should never have moved out into the country the way they had ten years before. Unfortunately the reality fell a long way short of the ideal. travelling in and out every day with Maureen. The reality was a person whose table manners left a an enormous amount to be desired. That was yet another one of his bright ideas. In a way. not taking his eyes off the latest pictures on the television news. He knew he was supposed to love him more than anything in the whole world. naff. away from the temptations and the ugliness of the city. Which might indeed be the eventual outcome once the bank repossessed the house and they were forced to look for rented accommodation. That place you go to every day. boring and. As it turned out. his preferred choice. graphic images of further atrocities committed during the so-called peace in Iraq. in the middle of nowhere. You know. Always assuming of course that Maureen would agree to move back into town which was by no means certain since she loved the countryside so much. The answer.
Martin sniggered and turned back to the television. He knew he couldn't go on this way. Maureen continued to peruse the paper and Martin.” “Leave the boy alone. The highlight of their day – breaking bread together .” said Nick. paralysed by the direct brutality of the question. who had cleared his plate in a matter of seconds.” “I’m trying to make conversation. “Have you had any news on the job front.“Martin!” “What? Oh. It’s school. fine. even for someone who had failed as badly as he had. He got up and started clearing away the dirty dishes. “Chill out. before he could stop himself. That’s all it is. You know. Nick?” He froze. tiptoeing around this thorny subject. “Er…” “Any replies at all?” “Replies?” He was immediately on the defensive. unable to recall precisely the previous gloss . Fair point. dad.” said Maureen. There had to be more to life than this.was already over and now there was nothing left to say. Within seconds the vacuum enveloped them once more. With my family. How was your day?” “Fine. “All right. barely disguised contempt. without looking up. was already bounding up the stairs to the fastness of his bedroom for the night. Suddenly Maureen spoke. It was at times like these that Nick felt most desolate. quality time. dad. “No interviews coming up or anything?” “Interviews?” He felt exposed.” “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.
Not with the bank taking…” “I know. a leaking tap. Lots of other people my age are in the same boat. The antidote for which he had yet to discover. “Finding a job is more important than faffing around the house all day.” “The Job Centre? Were you there today?” Nick hated the Job Centre. Not people my age anyway. Sometimes he imagined the house was afflicted by some sort of sick building syndrome. you’ve got to get a job.” “What about the employment agencies?” “Nothing. Maybe it had a virus. “Did you go today. humiliating.” “Nick.” This was the first time Maureen had really pressed him on his search for employment. full of strange and frightening people. loose tiles in the bathroom. The trouble is nobody seems to be hiring at the moment. The list was endless and despite his efforts had grown longer since he became unemployed. The unemployment virus.” “I fixed the leaking tap in the bathroom. If I was twenty years younger it might be different. An hour on the bus and then into a building that felt like something out of Eastern Europe. He had kept himself busy doing all the things Maureen had been nagging him about for years. the first time she had refused to be fobbed off by his . We can’t survive on what I earn.” This was true. He found the whole process degrading.he had put on his job hunting progress. I don’t give a damn about the tap in the bathroom. Nick?” “I was busy doing things to the house. Broken towel rails. a noisy central heating pump. I know. you need to start bringing in some money soon. “How many jobs have you applied for this week?” “This week?” “Nick.
Consultancy maybe. But the fact that she had been brooding on his failure to find a job was unnerving.vagueness. very deep. He would show her though. She was obviously getting seriously worried about their situation. Corporate trouble shooting. I couldn’t go through that again.” “No. treating him like some sort of nearly-invisible domestic help. trying to suppress his anger. Maureen didn't seem to notice his problem with the dishes as she glanced through the mail. “I’ve been thinking about having another go at running my own business.” He gave up. I could do anything. I wouldn’t need money. “I’ve got intellectual capital. Through gritted teeth he muttered.” Maureen looked aghast. She was deep. “No way. 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.” “What about capital?” It was typical of Maureen to get bogged down in detail. Nick. hoping that Maureen would notice his predicament and give him a hand instead of just taking him for granted. He said.” “We need money now. "Just leave them to drain. If she was worried about his unemployability that was a very bad sign indeed. Absolutely not. listen. believe me. Management temping. Any bloody thing at all. I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. Anything in fact." She didn’t look up. He stacked another pan precariously on top of the pile.” “What kind of business?” “I don’t really know. "It might help if you dried a few dishes. I’ve learnt a lot over the past few months. Anything. He had always found it impossible to tell what Maureen was thinking. I just couldn’t. Once he had thought of something. The draining board on which he was piling the cleaned dishes was already dangerously crowded. While he was washing up in the kitchen Maureen came through to make herself a cup of tea." . I’ve got the whole world to choose from. They'll dry themselves.
Each dish he dried felt as fragile as antique porcelain in his shaking hands. We've gone over our limit and they've put a stop on the account. He had been so upset that he had forgotten to hide the rest of the mail which now lay unopened on the window sill. “You haven’t had time?” He laughed sheepishly. not for the first time. he thought. His heart sank. "I haven't had time to open it. Maureen appeared not to detect the intended symbolism of his action. He didn't understand where all the bills came from. "What was in the mail today?" she asked. There were several obvious bills and. Momentarily panic overcame him and he had to restrain himself from running out of the house and being sick. just breathing and living on bread and water. occasionally frowning. He watched her furtively out of the corner of his eye while he cleared the draining board. He was feeling faint again and he held on to the edge of the sink to steady himself. That morning he had inadvertently opened a letter from the credit card company which had exploded in his head like a letter bomb. lamely. his heart thumping.” Maureen worked her way through the pile of bills. He grabbed a tea towel from off the chair on which she was perched and ostentatiously started drying the dishes himself. He had bought nothing in the last month so she couldn't blame him. watching her as she read the letter from their bank. "It's the bank. destroying in one blinding flash the illusion that he was safe at home. “I just never got round to it. an unopened letter from the bank. With each new envelope she opened he became more and more anxious. There seemed to be no way of avoiding bills while you were still alive no matter how hard you tried. He dried the last plate very slowly. worst of all." . He could feel the tension in the room mounting as the pile of letters accumulated at her elbow. Just existing these days. "What is it?" he asked. but saying nothing. He was determined to show her how it would always be left neat and tidy under his regime. Her refusal to co-operate in his selfimposed pursuit of perfection infuriated him. seemed to cost a fortune. Which was a bloody good reason for being dead. They want to speak to us urgently. He saw her turn pale.This was perfectly true but he had set himself the task of clearing up the kitchen immediately." he lied.
"Christ. His heart was thumping so violently against his chest that he could hardly breathe. Debts that they would be paying for the rest of their lives. What letters? We haven’t had any letters from them. 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. Martin’. that was the problem.” He slumped into a seat at the table and cradled his head in his hands. I fucking knew it. After that the best they could hope for was bed and breakfast accommodation in some ghastly place full of DHSS claimants. Maureen. “There’s no need to swear. 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. They were living beyond their means. By the end of the month they would be out on the street.It was the news he had been dreading for weeks. In a matter of days the bailiffs would arrive." “It says we’ve ignored all their previous letters and if we don’t respond they’ll have no choice but to place us in the hands of their debt recovery agents. I’ve tried. Her apparent calmness infuriated him. I keep telling you. The shaving foam was a typical example. the worst he had ever received. Now they had dug themselves into a hole and there was no way out. "Jesus Christ Almighty. First their furniture would be carted off.” “I can’t get a job." Maureen flinched. Time for something to turn up. He had warned Maureen continually about spending money but she wouldn't listen. They were going to lose everything. feeling as if the ground had opened up beneath his feet." he groaned. 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. We can’t go on like this. Her ." he groaned again. And still they would be left with massive debts hanging around their necks. as if he was sinking into quicksand. have we?” “What the fuck are we going to do?” “First you’ll have to talk to them. Then you’ll have to get a job. I’m too bloody old.” she chastised him softly. "Jesus. for a miracle to happen. "I knew this was going to happen.
"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. When was the last time I went out for a meal.” Nick thrust his right hand to his mouth and bit hard into his knuckles. go on. I haven't even got any mates any more. I’m starving myself to death. What he wanted was solutions. He didn’t sound very optimistic. “What are we going to do?" he blurted out. you know that. Have you spoken to the lawyer again?" “He said he’s still looking into it. I've become the . I haven't had a holiday for years.” “Jesus I’ve been living on bread and water for the past month. I don't go out with my mates do I? Christ. not sweet reasonableness. "Why has this happened to us?” he moaned. "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. Whatever happens we’re going to lose everything. They're all out there at their golf clubs having a good time. Christ." "We can't sell the house.demeanour was as much use as someone staying calm in front of a firing squad. 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 hate spending money now. speaking rapidly." she whispered.” “What about going bankrupt? What did he say about that?” “We’ll still be stuck with those personal guarantees. his voice rising as hysteria swept over him. spending a fortune at the bar and look at me. I've got an old insurance policy somewhere. “We’ll have to do something. What about the house? We'll have to sell the house. “Why us.” Maureen stared at the pile of bills. that’ll be the next thing. tell me?” “Martin. God? I mean it's not even as if I spend any money. stop it. Christ knows how we’re going to pay his bill. that's the only thing left. "I’ve never accused you of anything. I don't even smoke because I'm too mean to buy fags.
leaving him to do all the worrying. insistent demands. "I wish I had never been born. The thought terrified him. the child whose education had become a monkey on his back. hated himself too for failing to cope with them. their absurd optimism. He didn’t think he could take much more. The whole fucking thing was a bloody nightmare. that’s what. when he was young. The sight of her heaving shoulders as she sat at the table cradling her head in her hands scared him. their hypocritical wealth. nowhere else to turn. the newsagent. She would leave him. Now he just hated them. hated Maureen too for the way she took everything in her stride. making himself sick with worry.." Her words sent a chill through him for what they left unsaid. Upstairs Martin was playing the Beatles at what seemed like full volume. All these fucking years for nothing. But I flew too close to the sun. hitting his forehead with his fist. believed that the world was full of promise and opportunities and endless excitement. Taking Martin with her." Maureen was looking increasingly distressed. tell me. those mercenary bastards. the coalman. She said softly. the garage. hated the bank. Once. that’s the only solution. because I wanted to do my best for my family.or else. isn’t that right? Go on. He knew he was getting hysterical but he couldn't stop himself. All that struggle for what? For this?" Maureen began to grow alarmed as her husband became more and more hysterical. like the night their baby daughter had died eighteen years before. that was what she meant. Nick. above all hated that bloody nightmarish racket banging on above his head. the credit card company.meanest fucking man you'll ever meet. that's the problem. the whole bloody business scared him.. Nick. that bastard who thought of no one but himself. didn’t I? I had it coming. there was nothing else left. something that only ever happened at the very worst times in their lives. "This isn't helping. "I fucking wish I was dead. He stood ." he continued. Abandon him." he shouted. Or else what? What would happen to him if he failed to find work? He knew the answer. hated their fatuous lyrics. it’s all my fucking fault. hated Martin too if it came to that. "You'll just have to get a job. Nick had idolised them too." "Nothing's fucking helping. And all because I had a bit of ambition. Get a job. believed in them somehow. the milkman. hated all those other fucking leeches with their fat prosperous lives and their thin. Maureen suddenly started crying. the electricity board.
He hated it when he was the cause of her unhappiness. "I'm going out for a walk. 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. I can't take any more of this. her blue eyes already turning bloodshot." He stormed out into the crisp. as if their dire predicament was somehow her fault. his brain enveloped by a blackness that was unilluminated by the usual dreams and nightmares. using all his strength. and money was no object. Not directly at least. the one she'd given him as a Christmas present years before. or at least of no great concern. He peered out of the bedroom window into the murky dawn light. As the sound of his footsteps crunching on the hard snow died away Maureen closed her eyes once more and slumped forward. her forehead resting on her clenched fists. tearing the fabric. in that fairytale time when they could afford presents. The house was so cold that his breath condensed in front of his eyes. He bitterly regretted not apologising to Maureen for his behaviour the night before. There . He could imagine how she must be feeling after he had stormed off in a temper.up. Usually he got up and made them breakfast before they set off. he had slept as deeply if he had been drugged. starlit night. He hadn’t heard them go. "Jesus. slamming the door behind him. following his frosty sojourn beneath the stars. He checked the upstairs rooms but the house was definitely empty. He climbed out of bed and pulled on his thick towelling dressing-gown. It's driving me totally totally fucking crazy. He bit his lip. tears of frustration in his eyes. He ignored it." he gasped. He struggled frantically into his old Barbour. tearing his muscles in frustration. "Where are you going?" sobbed Maureen looking up at him. tearing at it. This time. Chapter 4 Chapter 4 Maureen and Martin had gone by the time he woke up. fumbling frantically with the zip that no longer worked properly. Which of course it wasn’t. Downstairs the phone was ringing.
where all your energies were focused on solving tough but soluble problems. He listened with distaste to the perennial diet of bad news: another suicide bomber wreaking havoc in a crowded restaurant in Israel. At least the weather forecast was good which cheered him up a little. He loved the sun. When the programme ended he switched off the radio. In the months that had dragged by since his company had folded he increasingly missed the warmth of human contact. He recalled how the phone had once dominated his life in a good way. He was under assault . the stimulus of surviving in a challenging environment where time flew by. their uncomplicated. detached from the action. Beneath the birdfeeder that hung from the old apple tree the daffodils were flowering at last. The Thought for the Day enraged him with its banality. The phone stopped ringing. an entirely predictable man-made famine in southern Africa. organising and cajoling. The house fell silent again. ruthless pursuit of the next mouthful. at the end of the day it was no more real than looking at a landscape painting in an art gallery. He sighed. dazzling them all with its beauty. unable to cope with the intellectual content of the discussion programme that followed. He envied their boundless energy. existing in a sensory vacuum. pleading and threatening. The echoing emptiness threatened to overwhelm him. Not an outsider looking in at life. John Humphries was giving a hapless minor official in the department of transport a grilling about the underground. He was safe for a while longer. A woman with a husky voice read out the headlines.was no sign of any activity on the narrow farm lane leading up to the house. admired their single-minded sense of purpose. He closed his eyes and tried to blank out the noise. The phone rang again. Wheeling and dealing. The phone was the instrument that had driven his business forward in his dealings with the outside world. Although the scene from the window was truly beautiful. at least for a while. shattering the silence. He comforted himself with the knowledge that with the imminent advent of warmer weather the garden would spring fully into life. louder this time. 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. 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 same old tawdry political intrigues at home. Cold but sunny. He was unmoved by other people’s problems. These days his mind was occupied by the all-pervasive sense of dread that came from the knowledge that his world was about to implode. illuminating the shadows with bold splashes of colour. He padded downstairs to the kitchen in his slippers and switched on the radio.
that he was trapped within the bleak. It was important that the house looked tidy. 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. although at this time of the year he might well die of exposure.from a host of faceless enemies. A fugitive could hide out in the hills and never be found. an even more scary individual who held their immediate well-being in his finely-manicured hands. an aerial bombardment of letters and phone calls. featureless landscape of his shrinking imagination. Arrange the visit to the bank manager. He looked at his watch. and he wasn’t going to let them down in the way he’d failed everyone else. 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. Whenever he did so a sense of dread would grip him for the rest of the day. He always fed the birds even if it meant going short himself. This wasn’t his former business bank manager who now only communicated to him through his lawyer. Just the thought of picking up the phone to that granite-faced individual was enough to bring him out into a cold sweat. He shivered in chilled recognition that there was nowhere to run. in slow motion. Maureen’s words of a few days earlier sprang into his mind. he returned to the kitchen and cleared away the dishes he had left on the draining board the night before. He gazed at the picture-postcard view as if he was in a trance. Invariably he pictured what would happen if his creditors were to suddenly descend upon the house. He peeled enough potatoes for three and cleaned and chopped up half a cabbage. He decided to put the terrifying . populated only by fear. Mechanically. another of the household duties that Maureen now left to him. The birds depended on him. He rammed a load of dirty clothes into the washing machine and set it running. a whole day with nothing to do but dwell upon his misfortune. it helped to buttress the remnants of his crumbling self-respect . He was boiling the kettle when he remembered that there was one thing still left to do. with no chores left to do that his imagination often ran riot. 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. It was at this point in his day. 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. It was still only eight thirty and there was a whole day stretching out ahead of him.
Day by day. He looked at his watch. the threats of the credit card company. another endless day on death row. By standing on tiptoe he could just see out of the window from the back of the room. Every second that ticked by was another merciful postponement of his final reckoning. . In this near catatonic state he only stopped his vital organs giving up on him by dint of willpower alone. just before the regular cascade of threatening letters and failed job applications came crashing through the letterbox. 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 insistent demands of the tax man. 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. They continually tried to get to him that way now. He waited anxiously for the postman's van to appear at the bottom of the hill. As the weeks had passed he had developed a routine designed to lessen the unpleasantness. The feeling of impending disaster was now so suffocating that it made breathing difficult and somehow mechanical. And every time the postman passed by without stopping meant another day's grace free from the wrath of the bank manager. or maybe even the day after. That was how he lived now: in constant fear of the final showdown. and whenever the phone exploded into life his nerves were sent jangling.call off until tomorrow at least. As usual he prayed silently that the van would pass the house without stopping and that for just a little while longer he would be unmolested by human contact. As well as the ultimate threat of an actual visit there was always the latent danger from the telephone. The postman was due at any minute. He’d considered taking the phone off the hook but he was worried in case that might actually precipitate a visit. Nine fifteen. It was just a shame that the mail wasn’t the only way they were able to get at him. 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. Minute by minute. or even until the electricity was actually cut off and they were tossed out onto the streets and there were no alternatives left. It was better to let them keep trying. even though the constant ringing was driving him mad. This was the most tense time of the day. Hour by hour. He knew he was being cowardly and stupid but he simply couldn’t take the risk of picking up the phone. After he had checked the view out of the front and back windows he sneaked back upstairs to the safety of his bedroom. 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.
Beside him in the passenger seat Rip his Alsatian raised his head and looked at his master with quizzical eyes. even worse. licking his lips in anticipation. 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.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. not to give up prematurely or spend his time perpetually casting around for excuses. The only possible course of action was to keep on looking until he found a solution. Sure he was in a fix but somewhere. somehow there had to be an answer. He made himself a weak coffee and took it through to the sitting room. No matter how hopeless things seemed he knew had to be positive. they didn’t happen to people like him. When he was certain the coast was clear he shuffled stiffly back down to the kitchen. It was time to finally recognise that enduring reality. He stood on tiptoe and watched it disappear from view at the end of the road. He waited in the corner of the bedroom until he heard the postman’s van roar back down the hill. To make sure it wasn’t a trick he kept watch until his calves ached and his legs were shaking. After taking a deep breath he sat down again at the breakfast table determined to confront his problems head on. waiting for a miracle to happen. or. He knew he couldn’t go on burying his head in the sand. No. There was a white Range Rover which he had never seen before sitting at the foot of the road Chapter 5 Garry Brown wound down the window of his white Range Rover and trained his powerful binoculars upon the cottage nestling half way up the hill. He stood and watched them enviously for several minutes. He simply had to come up with a solution that would finally put him out of his misery. He was only days away from disaster. the only person that could save him now was himself. Even if miracles did sometimes happen. He knew he couldn’t go on this way. 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. The bird table was still alive with chaffinches and blue tits feeding on the scraps he had put out earlier. .
calloused knuckles. He made a note of the time in his notebook. He kicked the dog so that it snarled at him and began barking. While he ate he read the Sun. to disorientate him. The big car began moving up the hill with all the finality of a Sherman tank. There was no response. He didn’t attempt to calm it. It didn’t matter. 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 was well-prepared for a long siege. knowing it wouldn’t be answered. 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. “I seen you through the binoculars.” When there was still no response he ambled back to the Range Rover. He had a baseball bat in the boot but he knew he wouldn’t need it here. Garry Brown was a big man and he clambered out of the Range Rover onto the driveway with difficulty. and even then most people gave very little trouble once he had cornered them.” he called through the letterbox. 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. Rip leapt down after him and he tied the dog to the door handle of the vehicle. he thought. He repeated his assault on the door a further four times as the morning . Catching the debtor before he made a run for it was half the battle. a knowing smile playing on his lips. He patted the Alsatian’s head and turned the keys in the ignition. “Anybody in?” he barked politely into the shadowy void. When he had finished his meal he switched on Radio One and tilted back his seat and dozed lightly. He had spotted someone moving through an upstairs window. There was no reply so he bent down and opened the letterbox. “I know you’re in there. The object was to create maximum confusion in his target’s mind. There was no doorbell so he knocked loudly on the wooden door with his big. As he approached the cottage he dialled Nick Sterling’s number on his mobile. Generally speaking you had to be pretty feckless to get so deeply into debt. not the kind of person who usually put up much of a fight. He only wished that he was allowed to use stun grenades the way he used to do when he was in the SAS. grinning. Let the target see the dog. That instrument was mainly for inner city use.Garry Brown surveyed the house with professional precision for five minutes before he lowered the binoculars.
It’s all legal and above board. you must be constipated all right.” “I was in the toilet.” “Blimey. “Come on. You owe the money to me now. “You took your time.” “I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. innit. not yet. I’d like to help but the fact is I’m absolutely broke myself.” “Your wife’s working. I’ve come to collect the money you owe on your credit card. A large.” The debt collector laughed. Or rather. smiling pleasantly. Now you belong to me.” “What is it you want?” The debt collector’s eyes twinkled. “I know that matey. The stuff that makes the world go round.” the debt collector said. sunshine. what you used to owe. Do it all the time in fact. sunshine.” “You certainly look like shit. toothy. what about it then? What about the money you owe me? When am I going to get it back?” “I’m unemployed. isn’t she?” . pal. A gaunt middle-aged man dressed in pyjamas lurked in the shadows of the hallway. cannibalistic grin. his shoulders drooping in defeat.wore on until finally. “What do you mean? They can’t do that.” “I…I’ve not been well.” “Oh yes they can.” He grinned. I’ve bought the debt. see. what do you think? Money. His whole body trembled with terror. just before midday. “Debt collection agency. His ashen face was unshaven. So. “You deaf or something. that’s why I’m here. Don’t look so upset. Have you seen a doctor?” “I…no. Who are you?” The man flashed a business card. the door was slowly opened. I don’t owe you anything.
He turned back to Nick and shrugged his shoulders sympathetically. Not enough to live on. There’s no way you’re coming in here. Is she working?” “She’s working but my old company’s bank is already stopping half her salary.” “Maybe. very silly. Soon. Mind if I come in and look around?” He looked over Nick’s shoulder.” “Of course I mind. I see it all the time. “That’s a nice looking fridge. which was mostly a question of thinking laterally and then applying pressure in the appropriate place. What about the house?” “It’s signed over to the bank.” “Oh. tugging ferociously on its chain. The dog immediately leapt to its feet and started barking. Very good. I’ll have some of that.“My wife? It’s got nothing to do with her.” “Did you? Very silly.” “You’re getting brew money though. even if you ended up having to crush it to dust. Them’s mine then. .” the debt collector frowned. “Why’s that then? You owe them too?” “I put the house up as a guarantee for my business loans. “There’s always a way. Maybe not. “What about the contents?” “I don’t know.” The debt collector thought for a moment.” “Ha!” he exclaimed triumphantly. eh?” “It’s a pittance.” The debt collector turned and whistled to his Alsatian. Very. a smile playing on his lips. Most of the time you COULD get blood from a stone.” “Good. A Smeg is it? That’ll be worth something for a start. People never think of the consequences. He enjoyed the challenge of extracting blood from a stone. do they? When are they going to take possession?” “I don’t know.
his heart was thumping. He was breathing hard. Never in a million years would he have believed that a debt collector would have penetrated his house. leaning blindly into the teeth of an icy blizzard. The debt collector took out a pair of scissors and cut it in two. He staggered off southwards. “Wow. He knew he had to get out. He struggled on for nearly and hour until eventually the snowstorm abated sufficiently to reveal an unfamiliar cotton wool landscape. running his hand across the mahogany table in the hall. Got to leave the necessities unfortunately. his face constantly whipped by stinging snowflakes. He handed one half to Nick.” he said admiringly. it would never be the same again. “That’s yours. I can take the rest. “Nice piece of furniture. brushing aside the illusion of safety. The sanctity of his home had been desecrated. 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. He stopped to . “Should get at least a grand for that in the auction. The cooker.“You don’t want to have to put up with that all night.” “You’re going to take everything?” “I wish I could. That’ll do nicely. He felt like a refugee in wartime. pulling on his old Barbour as he tumbled out of the house. Right. less of a person. Look at that. to get away from the scene of his humiliation before he broke down completely. He felt as if he had been raped.” He whistled when he peered into the sitting-room. Somewhere to sleep. his hand shaking.” 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. somehow unmanned. Only when he reached the foot of the hill did he pause to lace up his walking boots. When he bent over he almost threw up. You got any paintings? Any originals? What about antiques? Silverware? Jewellery? Any heirlooms? Books even? Oi. I’ll have that DVD player for a start. He felt degraded. He dressed with feverish haste. Georgian if I’m not mistaken. do you?” Suddenly feeling that the situation was hopeless Nick stepped back and the debt collector sauntered into the hallway. He took out his notebook and started making an inventory. give me your credit card.
In the event the water appeared empty. throwing up a slushy tidal bow wave that knocked him sideways. He was ready to admit defeat. potential companions on his next journey. 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. Immediately beneath the bridge was a fine pool almost a quarter of a mile long that often held large shoals of salmon.collect his thoughts. He imagined himself plunging into the icy depths. The clear nights had led to a succession of hard frosts which had reduced the run-off from the land as the earth froze. almost at early summer levels. 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. He stared thoughtfully down at the water wondering how deep it was. He waded through waving fields of waist-deep icy bracken and fought his way past massive banks of bramble bushes that tore at his exposed skin like rolls of barbed wire. He gazed down for several minutes into the powerful swirls and eddies thirty feet below. The river looked inviting for a different reason. He sighed. devoid of life. He was exhausted and he leaned against the stone parapet of the bridge and stared down into the steely grey water below. Later. So many fond memories. He tried to re-connect with the past but failed. Despite the recent heavy snowfalls the river was running free of ice and grue. He had read somewhere that drowning was a good way to die. 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. Underneath the skeletal canopy of trees the snow was sparser and the going was a little easier. His brain was so numbed he didn’t feel the pain. 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. he wondered? The prospect of an end to all his problems was a beguiling one. He couldn’t abandon his family. He leaned out over the parapet of the old military bridge and peered down into the dark churning water below. He . It would be a lonely grave. How long it would take or the river would embrace him. 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. Over the years he had spent many happy hours fishing the river. At that moment a lorry roared past. He knew he would have to turn back eventually. As a result the river was running low. it was his duty to somehow put things right.
To his surprise he found himself staring. exhausted after spawning. Finally he decided that the rest of the pool was empty. The harsh sunlight glinting on the rippling water had turned the pool into a silvery mirror. When you are the keeper on a top salmon beat every stranger is a potential poacher. He smiled self-consciously at them. he thought to himself. Just about. From the blackness of the fish’s silhouette he decided that it was probably a kelt. He saw at once that the couple was a young female fisherman and her much older companion. appearing . whom he reckoned was in her early thirties. The ghillie looked up once more. The ghillie simply scowled back while the young woman. He had often in the past watched the dark. Either the fish had already run on upstream after the last spate or they had not yet arrived this far inland. a burly dark-skinned man of about sixty dressed in thick brown tweeds. 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. ominous torpedo shapes of cock fish gliding upriver in their relentless drive to reach the spawning grounds. He returned the old man's malevolent stare with equanimity. 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. drifting back to sea on the current. almost thirty miles from the sea. Nick wasn’t surprised by his reaction. 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.craned his neck to examine a stretch of pale sandy gravel running along the edge of the river. glaring at him with all the warmth of a store detective greeting the arrival of a serial shoplifter. almost certainly a ghillie. He squinted at the burnished surface until his eyes watered. at two equally startled people looking up at him from the riverbank below. the cat can look at the queen. so early in the season. The woman wielding the rod fished on oblivious to his presence. can’t he? I might be a bankrupt and a failed businessman at the end of my tether but I am still a human being. 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 leaned further out over the parapet to get a better view into the shaded depths beneath the arch of the bridge. Fuck you. proceeded to ignore him completely as she performed a superbly executed Spey cast. upside-down.
not allowing it to sink down far enough to reach the fish. jeans and a smartlooking pair of green wellingtons. one of the most exclusive beats on Deeside. he admitted to himself with a rueful smile. actually. haughty beauty. He assumed that they were talking about him. The underclass. like something that had just stepped out of the pages of Country Life. but he was sure she was some sort of celebrity. When they had fished down through the pool the couple walked back along the bank to a landrover parked beside the bridge. She would certainly have to be either rich or very well-connected to be able to fish this stretch of water. She wore fashionable sunglasses. It struck him at that moment that this was the first time he had smiled for weeks. The sudden realisation of what he had gone . although she rose nothing. A cool. Although he had never been a political animal for once he felt like he was doing his bit for his class. Round her neck was wrapped a white scarf. Someone who knew exactly what they wanted and how to get it. an actress perhaps or maybe someone from the world of modelling or music. He knew from experience that a spring salmon. She was bare-headed. especially a big springer. For the time being he could not put a name to the face. She was dressed in a well-cut Barbour wading jacket. in any other context he would have been invisible. Despite her good casting technique Nick reckoned that she was moving the fly through the water too quickly for the time of year. He could hear them muttering to each other and once more he was the recipient of a murderous look from the ghillie. or maybe he had but she thought she knew better. plainly resenting his presence. about thirty metres from where Nick was standing. For the first time he could see her face clearly and he felt certain that she looked familiar. Whoever she was he could see she was a looker.utterly intent on expertly covering every inch of the pool. Her blonde hair was short and quite straight. And she wanted a fish and no ill-mannered rustic gawping down at her from a public road was going to stop her. 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. that was for sure. The woman on the other hand never took her eyes off her fly. and at this time of the year the fish always lay deep. 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. 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. She looked like the kind of person who would always think she knew best. He was surprised the ghillie hadn't pointed this out.
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. Another fish splashed in the river right below the bridge. 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. hated the social hierarchy that perpetuated it.through in that time made him immeasurably sad. Nick watched them go with mixed emotions. The spring run was just getting under way. There were problems of course. They had also. For a start his debts were so enormous that he would have to catch every fish in the river if he was ever going to pay them off. A big net and a tin of poison from one of his farmer friends more like. But maybe that was the wrong way to think about it. Maybe he had once aspired to join them. 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. He suddenly felt himself getting exited. ten yards below the first. Not the least of which was that the Dee was well policed by bailiffs. No questions asked. Nick had caught hundreds of fish in his time and he could tell that these were big fish. Yet another fantasy that had caused him to take risks he shouldn’t have done. bouncing irritably across the rough pasture. He should have remained poor but happy. He could certainly eke out an existence from poaching. Not with a rod and line. He presumed they were off in search of a more promising stretch of water away from the public gaze. There were other drawbacks naturally. Cash in hand. The price per pound for wild salmon was high. He frowned as he stared down at the river. which he wasn’t. He had regularly subsidised his fishing in the past by selling his catch in just such a way. To make matters worse he felt snubbed by their abrupt departure in some strange way that he didn’t understand. He realised that he simultaneously envied and hated them. reputedly. It sounded crazy but…what if…poaching…on an industrial scale…Maybe the answer to his predicament was actually staring him in the face. An idea was beginning to take shape in his mind. And then another. 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. Worth quite a bit when proffered round the back doors of some of the local fish merchants in town. Envied their privileged way of life. he was sure of that. Maybe even buy him enough time to get a proper job that would finally get his life back on track. scattering a herd of cows as they did so. or at least indulge in that kind of lifestyle. The idea wasn’t too farfetched. Tax-free. They were mobile too. a rough and ready way with the . The sacrifices had all been in vain.
He strode out with a sense of purpose. His legs were stiff from standing still for so long. He was ravenously hungry and he started to salivate as he imagined the intensity of the flavours he would create. There was still hope. He had found a potential solution to his problems. almost certainly a film star. she was good at that sort of thing. He would be lucky to get back before Maureen and Martin arrived back from town. maybe even royalty. expecting to be fed. He had played in the woods as a child and despite the encroaching darkness he soon found a track he recognised. He couldn’t wait to tell Maureen. After a while he gave up puzzling about the woman and started thinking about the meal he would prepare for Maureen and Martin. She was definitely famous. It was a shame there wasn’t any drink in the house to celebrate his Big Idea. 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 wasn’t beaten yet. Maureen would have known who she was. He took a last look at the deserted river. Nick retreated into the wood. 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. At least while he was still within the river’s ancient floodplane the track was flat and mostly free of snow and ice. Now he had a plan he would make it all up to her. The afternoon was wearing on and he was a long way from home. But for the first time in weeks he was happy. He clenched his fists in front of his chest like a boxer. After the meal he would tell Maureen about his plan to .poachers they caught. He was pretty sure he could spice up the tin of corned beef and maybe he could do the potatoes in a different way. As he walked he tried to remember who the fisherwoman was that he had observed earlier down at the river. A silvery ribbon of hope weaving its way through the rich green pasture. he was chilled to the marrow. He reckoned he was about eight miles from home. his feet were lumps of ice. He knew it was his last chance. It was up to him to make it work. He checked his watch. Even the cabbage could be glamorised if he stir-fried it for example. There was no doubt about it: the idea had legs. They would just have to make do with spring water. He knew the river round here at least as well as any keeper. It really irritated him that he could not put a name to her face. She was the one who had really suffered in all this. he hadn’t eaten all day. A ribbon he would soon untie to claim his prize.
gooseberries and damsons harvested in the summer. an increasingly regular occurrence nowadays. Normally whoever was first back put on the outside light and of course the inside lights but everything here was still in darkness. he quickened his footsteps. They had a bit of land after all. Wild raspberries. What he was doing was entirely pragmatic. sheep and pigs were probably out of the question. His nerves were on edge. Something was wrong. brutish and short. A short term solution to tide them over until he got a proper job. He frowned. he prayed as he struggled up the hill. That was odd. In desperation. And he was just thinking about the meal either. What a feast that would make – like a medieval banquet. Please God. He wasn’t being romantic about it either – he wasn’t some old hippie or like someone out of the Good Life. they’d probably been held up by traffic in town. please let me get it right this time. Wearily he trudged up the hill in darkness towards the cottage. It occurred to him that he didn’t have to stop at salmon. Chapter 7 Nick limped into the driveway and was immediately taken aback to see Maureen's Saab parked outside the garage. Really he should have been home a couple of hours ago to get the tea ready. while Martin too would be indignant that his tea wasn't ready and waiting as usual. In future they would live off the land just like their ancient ancestors had done. If they did arrive home before the meal was ready it would mean that Maureen would be all harassed and resentful. To his great relief there were no lights showing so he figured Maureen and Martin weren’t back yet. trap? His heart began to beat faster. despite his tiredness. He could reap salvation from the land not just by poaching salmon but by snaring rabbits and hares and shooting pheasants. Now that spring was here he could dig up the garden and plant seeds and potatoes too. Maybe even chickens. he would have failed them abysmally. An owl hooted in the woods opposite the house and he jumped. Maybe there . 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. nearly half an acre. Where there had been despair there was now hope. He felt guilty at the length of time he had been away. It wasn’t a game was it? A surprise? Or… a ….rescue them from financial ruin. in trying to work out a solution to their problems. 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. All the same he smiled to himself at the miraculous way the day had been transformed. He hesitated. An hour later he reached the foot of the farm road. Once again. Being realistic.
" she said softly. "What? It must be. Nick was puzzled. She was stirring a pot by the light of a single flickering candle.” Maureen looked up for the first time. Just to make sure he tried switching on the television . She turned down the jet on the primus. His voice was almost drowned out by the roar of the primus. it certainly wasn’t a fuse. holding his breath. “It’s the same every bloody year.” he exclaimed with unconvincing vehemence." He tried the two different light switches in the hall and the kitchen and nothing happened. Sometimes Maureen’s stupidity amazed him. unlit kitchen was Maureen hunched over a roaring primus stove. Power cuts were a regular feature of life in the country. Famously. "Don't tell me another power cut. The first thing he saw when he entered the shadowy. 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.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. as if he was a ghost. He watched her for a moment like he was watching a scene from an old silent movie. These blackouts were a regular occurrence. the lights were on different circuits.” he shouted. Probably the weight of the frozen snow had snapped a power line although it could be anything. She did not look up when he entered the room. staring into it like a witch casting spells over a cauldron. acting almost as if he wasn’t there. Maureen continued to ignore him. Of course it was a power cut. on tiptoe. “Couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery that lot. Very slowly and cautiously he slid open the back door and felt his way into the house. Nick understood immediately what had happened. ready to run at the first sign of trouble. you’d think the power company would have got their act together after all this time. The way she was behaving unnerved him. usually associated with bad weather and high winds. The reek of paraffin pervaded the room. She was staring at him as if he was a total stranger. "It's not a power cut. “Christ. The condensation from her breath flamed in the jet from the primus as though she was breathing fire. making him feel small and insignificant. relieved that nothing worse had happened." he said breathlessly. although on this occasion snow was the more likely culprit. mechanically stirring the saucepan on the primus.
hoping against hope. "See. gently with a wooden spoon. first one way then the other. "Why is it just us?" "Don't you?” “It’s bizarre.in the sitting room. He shivered. "it's not working either. I told you. her voice reduced to a whisper behind the hissing flame of the primus. He felt as if the blood was congealing in his veins. The lights from a dozen scattered houses twinkled merrily like a scene on a Christmas card. “Look for yourself." she said eventually. If it wasn’t a power cut they…they must have been cut off. No-one else's lights have gone off.” said Maureen. His brain too was slowing down. He was drowning in terror. tasting the contents of the pot with the wooden spoon as steam rose up around her.” “Can’t you. I can’t figure it out. 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." he said." he declared triumphantly. He tried to think. Their world was coming to an end as they entered a new Ice Age. 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. He stared in dismay at the familiar view. Although he dreaded what he was going to find Nick forced himself to cross the sitting-room floor in the darkness and look out through the picture window down upon the valley below. he just couldn’t think straight any more. The house was freezing. There was no doubt about what happened and yet. What did she think had happened to them? What did she . It must be a power cut. Nothing happened. His teeth started chattering. He could tell from the sound of her voice that she was really upset. "Look outside. This has never happened before. "I don't understand. He wanted to turn and run back out of the house and hide out in the fields but he couldn’t move. rubbing his knee. He couldn’t breath in." Maureen continued stirring the contents of the saucepan on the primus. Normally when a power line went down the whole valley was plunged into darkness. Nick?" He frowned again. banging his knee painfully against the sideboard as he did so. as if he was suffering from some kind of mental hypothermia. he rejected the evidence of his own eyes. There’s no other explanation. He felt his way back through to the kitchen.
The phone bill is well overdue too. So what's the problem? When are they coming to fix it?" She stopped stirring the saucepan and stared at him through dead eyes. This was it then. "Don’t worry." he said fatuously. He felt the blood draining from his face.know? Maybe she thought it was just the power line into their house. He said. All unopened. She knew.” “I’ve already phoned them. still in denial. the rates. Leave it to me. "Jesus. Maybe it was just them. I'm amazed that hasn't been cut off already." he interrupted. Along with all the other unpaid bills and final reminders.” Maureen continued to stare blankly at him. a bill from the garage. even to himself." "You needn’t bother. An age passed before she finally spoke. ." “It’s no problem. A big pile of threatening letters from your credit card company. "I thought we'd paid it." Nick frowned.” "Oh. "They said they’ll fix it when we pay our bill." “Did you?” “I could have sworn I sent off a cheque a week ago. Perhaps the final link had been broken in some kind of accident. half a dozen letters from the bank. The showdown he had been dreading for months had finally arrived. the day of reckoning." He stared at her in horror. It was possible. "I found the bill stuck behind the clock on the mantelpiece unopened. He had been caught red-handed. I'll phone the electricity people right now and find out what's happened. The moment when all his dreams of salvation were about to be slaughtered on the altar of harsh reality. “What?” “They said they’ll turn it back on…” "Jesus. Car insurance. I’ll put a rocket up their arse I can tell you." His legs suddenly went weak and he was obliged to sit down at the kitchen table. "I knew it was bad but I didn't think it was that bad. She knew everything.
I forgot it belongs to the bank doesn’t it. After all. Up until that moment she had always been supportive whatever his failings. If she abandoned him now he was finished. "All right. Nick. He knew there was no defence for his behaviour. write a cheque. “If you hadn’t ignored them we could have talked to them. close to tears. How could you have been so bloody stupid?" It was the first time he had ever heard her swear and it scared him. But how? We’re broke Maureen. No. I’ve spent bloody weeks worrying myself sick about them trying to come up with an answer. How? What.” He hated being in the wrong. I was terrified. Maureen. Put them on the credit card. I just know they'll have to be paid somehow. I admit it. The next thing you know they’ll be turning up on the doorstep asking for money. I’m stumped. There was no way he would get through the impending crisis on his own. “I didn’t want to worry you. Tell you what." "Oh yes. I was too scared.She stared at him in disbelief. I know. "You didn't think it was that bad? Oh. There going to throw us out onto the street. now it’s your . "I don’t know the answer. He felt absolutely wretched.” It was his turn to stare in disbelief. Nick. 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. Suddenly she seemed like a different woman. had always stuck by him.” “They’ll have to be paid somehow. I know. tried to have reached an accommodation somehow. No. “I know. you tell me how we can pay them all off. but what was I supposed to do?” “Why didn’t you talk to me about it? I’d no idea it was this bad. I know.” he muttered." She shut her eyes. she had always been loyal. How about that? No? What about the house? Sell the house? Oh. “I know. If you hadn’t hidden them like that we might have been able to do something before it got to this.” He didn’t tell her about the visit from the debt collector. It was stupid of me to ignore them. If she left him now she would be leaving him for dead.
” “There’s no point blaming anyone. If you don’t do what they want they’ll get someone else who will. The customers always want you to do more.turn. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have taken on so much debt trying to grow the business. ‘I started out with nothing and I’ve still got most of it left. Go on. I had to trust me.” “You can’t stand still in business. You blame me for running the business into the ground. did they?” . Maureen.” It was a difficult question.’” She didn't smiled at his feeble attempt to make light of the matter.” “All right. don’t you?” He was becoming hysterical. don’t you. we can survive now.” “So it is all my fault. say it. Rows were his way of avoiding the truth. I think that’s fair.” “The loss of your major customer didn’t help I suppose. spitting out the words. We survived then. Nick.” “You can’t blame me for that. don’t go on about it. She thought for several seconds. I never understood why you were always trying to make the company bigger. How was I to know that would happen.” “And where were those customers when you needed them? They didn’t care what happened to you when the work dried up. You can’t plan for something like that. “You never discussed the business with me. Maureen turned away. foam flecking the corners of his mouth.” “You do blame me though.” she said. “Just like the old joke. We had nothing when we first go married. I didn’t know what you were doing. “This isn’t helping.” Nick grimaced. I can’t read the future. through clenched teeth. “I know it’s all my fault. It came out of the blue. She hated rows. I’m not a bloody magician you know.
” Maureen sighed. You understand that.” “I know. I’ve tried everything. I might have guessed it.” For the first time a hint of resentment had crept into her voice. almost as if it was somehow their fault. I was perfectly happy to get by on a living wage.” “Nick. I’m sorry. That doesn’t stop me going out every day and knocking my pan in at school. “The question is. “That’s the nature of the game I was in. She said. "What about Martin?" "He's gone off to stay with one of his friends. he's a great comfort to us all. Jumped ship at the first sign of trouble did he? Aye.” “Well.” She didn’t reply immediately. I’ve run out of ideas." Nick took the news badly. Nick.” “Maureen." . Anything." she said. "Oh has he. what are we going to do now. “We didn’t need a fortune. I just wanted the best for you and Martin. What’s going to happen to Martin and me? You’ve got to get a job. how do you think I feel? This thing has been a nightmare for me too. "I can't cook potatoes as well.” “You can’t give up Nick. I was wrong. That’s not fair. The tinned stew she had been heating on the primus was starting to bubble. I’m a beaten man." He frowned.” “I’ve tried Maureen. don’t you.Nick shrugged. You’ve got to start bringing some money into the house. Okay. Nick. She was aware that in a way he was using their love as a justification for his lofty ambitions. I did it for al the right reasons. It could have gone the other way and I could have made a fortune. No one will take me. But I did it because I loved you both. If you hadn’t borrowed all that money we wouldn’t be in this situation now. "You'll have to have bread with it. She placed the saucepan on the table in front of him. you can’t leave it all up to me to sort out. I don't know what to do next. I know.” “I don’t know.
It hurts so much. go out and get a job at Macdonald's to pay the bills? You want him to sacrifice his future to save your skin. Nick. Maureen turned off the primus and the room rang with an echoing. feeling so sorry for . He knew it wasn’t their fault that everything had gone to pieces. Nick. What do you want him to do. This whole thing is my fault. helping herself to a little of the stew. They were supposed to present a united front against the world. starting the business. He couldn’t bear the thought that his ideal might just be an illusion. The reality was that their solidarity was rapidly disintegrating at the first real sign of trouble. love. He hated it when they fought like this.Maureen moved the candle onto the table and sat down opposite her husband. That was the whole point of being a family. He shouldn’t be blaming them. metallic silence. "I'm sorry. He had done it all for them. I’m just living in fear the whole time. It's just all been too much for me recently. He pushed his plate away and buried his head in his hands. Then everything just spiralled out of control. So much for being a closeknit family bound together by love.” “You expect too much of him. and you know it. a saccharine. He’d always believed in the family ideal. He had to take responsibility for his shortcomings. He said softly. that was all. He’s just a child. The least they could do when it all went wrong was to stand by him. He sighed. And I can’t see any way out. It just makes me feel worthless. This wasn't how it was meant to be. I really am. working himself into the ground. He was only too aware that if Maureen had married someone else – as she could easily have done. Every time the postman calls I’m just terrified. "That’s not a fair comment. When the phone rings I nearly die of fright.” “I just think we should stick together as a family in a crisis. sentimental product of fifties Hollywood. she had no lack of choice when she was young – she wouldn’t be in this mess now." She wasn't used to seeing her husband looking beaten. Of course that wasn't what he wanted. That’s what had driven him ever since he’d got married. Why shouldn’t he spend the night with his friends? Would you rather he sat here in the dark feeling miserable. I didn’t open the letters because I didn’t know what I could do about them. is that what you want?" Her words wounded him deeply. risking everything. Just a bit of solidarity wouldn't have gone amiss. All those letters of rejection.
as she always did. the world had changed and left him far behind. however responsible he might be for their current dire straits." She waited patiently for him to calm down. Eventually she said. It wouldn’t be long before his brain gave up too and that really would be the finish. Doing what though? That was the real insoluble question. Even the idea of poaching salmon suddenly seemed far-fetched when it was set against the reality of the pile of threatening letters. optimism. Perhaps we could find the solution together. The collapse of the business seemed to have changed him completely. At the end of the day he knew the only real answer was to get a job. Not unsympathetically she said. That and finding someone to take him on at his age. His present demeanour was a worrying contrast to his usual blithe." "Perhaps you're right. so that at times she hardly recognised him any more. He didn't need her to tell him that. sometimes even foolish. He was so overwhelmed by the situation that he was losing control of his bodily functions. I do keep these things bottled up inside me. Even so. I’m so uptight my head is spinning like it’s about to come off. you'll just have to go and see the bank manager tomorrow. knocked all the stuffing out of him. Ask him for a bigger overdraft to tide us over. To tell you the truth I sometimes feel like I'm carrying the problems of the whole fucking world on my shoulders. throwing in the towel like this. Unemployment for the likes of him was here to stay. Explain the position. dribbling gravy down his chin and onto his shirt. She felt desperately sorry for him even if a lot of his present problems were self-inflicted.himself. she had no wish to twist the knife in him when he was down. "If only you'd talk about these things more. As it was he was struggling to come up with any new answers." . “Christ. what are we going to do about all those bills? We can't just go on ignoring them. Nick. maybe could have been avoided with a little common sense. whatever he might think. "Nick. no one needed his outdated skills any more. any halfsensible suggestions.. "The question is." He ate his stew in silence. He was just too old.. forcing the meat between his sullen lips." She flinched at his violent language but on this occasion left her customary reprimand unsaid. She loved him too much to see him hurt any more.open up a bit. I don’t suppose the mortgage has been paid either.
She felt her sympathy turning to anger as she contemplated the way he had thrown in the towel." 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. no washing machine. Nick?" Maureen persisted. leaving her to somehow pick up the pieces. And the coal ran out nearly a week ago and the logs are almost finished. no fridge. no lights. that's all. that’s more important. determined to pin him down for once. That night they were too angry and hurt and bitter to reach out to each other for warmth or love as they usually did."You mean dig ourselves deeper into debt?" She stared across at him through the shadowy light. He no longer looked remotely like the man she had married. "All right. no microwave. She knew how to turn the screw when she had to." he agreed reluctantly." "Go to the bank first. "Will you. Nick." The vehemence of her outburst scared him. pulling the blankets tight up to their chins in the freezing cold room." He shifted in his seat. Just don't go on about it. the loving husband who until recently had run a successful business. no cooker. "You get it. “I've got to get up in the morning. "Promise me you’ll go. I'll go down to the Job Centre first thing in the morning. all right. "All right. no television. a man with whom in the past he had regularly shared a laugh and a joke as if they were equals. Nick pretended he was asleep but Maureen nudged him with her elbow.” she muttered sleepily. Not that there's much in the fridge. At ten twenty-three the phone rang in the sitting-room downstairs. I'll go. "I suppose I'll have to. filled him with dread. We'll have to get money from somewhere otherwise we really will be thrown out onto the streets." The thought of confronting their personal bank manager. No electricity means no central heating. no water being pumped from the well. "We can't go on like this." .
"Yes. barely able to contain his excitement. new tyres. The garage up the hill. the bill hasnae been paid. Who's calling?" "It's Ronnie Sutherland. "Hello?" "Nick Dowty?" The voice sounded vaguely familiar." "Oh yes. what can I do for you?" Ronnie Sutherland came from a farming family that had lived on the land for generations." . He felt his spirits rising as he felt his way across the floor in the darkness. "Weel. A new exhaust. wise and immutable. "That's strange. Please God. A toughness that was accentuated by his thick Aberdeenshire burr. Maureen usually likes to pay all the bills promptly. “That's me. of course Ronnie. Who?" "Ronnie Sutherland. If it was it would truly be a miracle. Maybe this was his lucky break at last. please." Nick affected surprise at this news. not just the brakes that he'd buggered up. "I'm sorry.” he said. a new clutch. What about it?" "Weel. deliberate way of speaking that was timeless. Couldn't pay. Who could possibly be phoning them at this time of night? Surely it wasn’t a reply to one of his many job applications." The name was vaguely familiar. He had a slow. They had serviced the car over a month ago. It had needed a lot doing to it too after his amateurish attempts to make it roadworthy. It happened. had unexpectedly lost a key member of staff. She must have overlooked it. I'll speak to her about it in the morning. 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.He stumbled downstairs in the darkness. of generations past eking out a living from a hard and unforgiving earth. he prayed as he picked up the phone. A fortune which they hadn't yet paid. the bill for your car for a start." The garage! Oh shit. The car. The authority of the soil. please God make it good news.
“You’ll get your money I promise. Besides. chiel. “I’ve got a business to run. Cash will be fine. he was determined to insulate Maureen as much as he could from the unpleasant consequences of their dire financial state.” Ronnie Sutherland pondered this suggestion for a moment. I’ll speak to her in the morning.” “Like I said. someone going through a bad patch.” Nick was shocked by the unpleasantness of the remark. He said. you bastard. just a guy who was down on his luck. I don’t discuss these matters with her in any detail. I promise. he thought angrily. intrusive form of interrogation. I'm afraid she's asleep right now. "Will you no speak to her aboot it noo?" Considering the time of night Nick thought this was coming it a bit strong. I’ve sent you three reminders already. but I'll speak to her in the morning like I say. I’ve got better things to do than to go round hounding clowns like you for money. He wasn’t a criminal for Christ’s sake.” Another long pause. "Will it be cash or a cheque?" Despite his dread of creditors Nick was intensely irritated by this persistent." “I’d prefer if you could speak to her right noo.” The man sounded really angry. in a slightly posher accent than the one with which he normally spoke. she’s asleep right now. "Right. She must just have forgot.“The thing is. I’ll speak to her in the morning. Fuck you. I'll . "Well. My suppliers won’t wait.” “I dinna like being made a feel of." Ronnie Sutherland was having none of it. "I really don't know how she intends to pay. She might want to use her credit card or perhaps she’ll pay you cash. you leave my poor wife out of this. Just because you owed someone money it didn’t mean they could treat you like shit. Nick’s legs suddenly started trembling.” “She’s been so busy recently. “Look.” A pause. ye ken. I canna afford to be oot of pocket jist because supposedly she’s too busy to pay me.
" He put down the phone and climbed the stairs back to the bedroom. He didn’t attempt to keep the exasperation out of his voice.come round in the morning and collect it. The trouble was there was no way they could pay his bill in the morning. Look." The idea of being confronted on his own doorstep by the burly garage owner filled Nick with horror. "She's got to work tomorrow. before the banks shut. "She leaves very early I’m afraid. In the darkness his anger turned to . all right. is that all right?" Nick knew this was his only possible course of action. He switched the bedside light off and closed his eyes and tried to sleep.” “Honestly. his voice rising in panic. 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. It would take several days for the cheque to bounce. "Well.” “Not cash?” “A cheque would be more convenient. in a conciliatory. The man obviously had plenty of experience of dealing with bad payers. "Yes.” "What time will you bring this cheque?" Jesus Christ! Talk about hounding someone for payment. "What time does she leave the house?" Christ.” “A cheque. almost respectful tone. further undermining the sense of security that being in his own home used to bring him. "Before the banks shut?" The thought that he might delay his visit to prevent the cheque being presented the same day had never occurred to Nick. I promise. I'll bring you a cheque round myself tomorrow. He had to put him off somehow. We don’t keep cash in the house." he said quickly. Jesus! it made him angry. The phone call had shaken him. I'll bring it round in the afternoon. Maybe time to come up with another solution. His heart thumped as he climbed back into bed. He said. I'm busy in the morning. Or a rapist even. the man was persistent.
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. No future. Endlessly. And it was all his fault. He groaned. Torrential rain and gale force winds lashed the bedroom window and rattled the slates. It somehow put the severity of his plight into perspective. Over and over. Instinctively they would crowd together at the river’s mouth. He pulled the sheets up around his chin and lay safe and warm in his own bed beside his loving wife. half awake. The best that he could hope for was a few day’s grace while it went through the system. In a few hours the water level would begin to rise. As the rain drummed upon the roof his thoughts turned to the river. any cheque he wrote would bounce. No hope. triggered by a hidden signal buried in their genes they would suddenly charge en masse upstream. destitute. shoals of valuable fish swimming unwittingly to his rescue. He couldn't sleep. his pyjamas soaked. What the hell was he going to say to him? What if he called in their overdraft? What then? How were they going to eat? What about the car? If the garage owner took the car in lieu of payment they would be stranded. Rock bottom. flinging themselves into the rising current. You couldn’t rely on the buses round here.fear as he imagined what tomorrow was going to bring. He found the noise – the sound and the fury – oddly comforting. There would be people in real danger out there in the wind and rain. Then what? Without her money coming in they would be tossed out onto the streets for certain. Then there was the bank manager to face tomorrow. an angelic expression on her face. begged him to go to sleep. the very real possibility that the garage owner might actually come round to confront him about the unpaid bill. driven by the primal urge to procreate. At a certain moment. If Maureen lost the car she risked losing her job. his heart thumping. Maureen had already left. At about midnight it started to rain. In the tidal estuary far away the shoals of salmon would smell the imminent spate. He kept thinking about the phone call. His fear turned to anger again and then to fear and back again. his head throbbing. Maureen groaned. He rolled over but the bed was empty. rivers flooded. Beside him Maureen slept soundly. There was no way he could pay the garage. buildings were damaged. great shoals of silver fish swimming to the spawning beds far upstream. but then what? What if the man then came round to the house to have it out with him? Or sent in the bailiffs. into the gutter. The shame of it all. Soon a storm blew up. Or even a couple of hard men to give him a good hiding. Dawn was breaking. He could not lie still for a moment. People died in storms. He slept fitfully for three hours or so before waking up in a cold sweat. forests were flattened. A life not worth living. It was around three in the morning. Sitting up .
In certain circumstances no news was good news. 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 . even in the dazzling morning light. Nick crept back downstairs from his usual hiding place as soon as he was sure it was safe. How naïve he had been! He weighed the envelope in his hands for several seconds. stood out from the others. He looked closer. with the birth of a bright new day dawning. As far as he could recall he had applied for the position of Marketing Director. postponing the almost certain disappointment that would follow when he finally opened it. no way of avoiding his dreadful fate. Just like all the rest. He frowned. Or at least it wasn’t bad news. Chapter 8 The postman delivered the mail at the usual time and drove off up the hill in his red landrover.and looking out through the bedroom window he saw that the skies had cleared and the wind had dropped. The sun was shining benignly on the massed flocks of finches and blackbirds that were singing their hearts out in the trees around the house. a polite disavowal of the need to deploy his undoubted talents in the company. he could see no way forward. one of many he had responded to during the brief period of heady optimism that had gripped him in the immediate aftermath of his business failure. a miracle happened. He picked it up gingerly. Even his soul felt leaden. A few remaining innocuous-looking circulars he left on the kitchen table as decoys for Maureen to open when she came home from work. One letter. “Nexab International”. He tried to clamber out of bed but the effort exhausted him. It took him a few seconds to recall that it was a company he had written to several months previously in response to a recruitment advertisement in the local paper. however. just as he hit rock bottom. A senior post in a fast-growing young company that was making a name for itself in the software industry. And then. an almost deafening dawn chorus. He hesitated. The blue and yellow corporate logo on the front of the envelope looked vaguely familiar. This letter was almost certainly a standard rejection. 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. And yet. The name seemed familiar.
a disappointment postponed. probably. The radio continued to churn out the sound of people talking and for a moment he imagined he was back at work listening to the hum of conversation all around him. At least judging by the postmark it wasn’t the news he had been dreading . He could almost feel his synapses popping from anxiety as the inevitable denouement approached. amazed that he was still alive. determined to prolong his blissful ignorance for as long as possible. All he wanted now was silence but he was too tired to get up and switch the damned radio off. With no morning paper to read he sat staring at the envelope in front of him while he drummed his fingers on the table. just the odd familiar word. Glittering. 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. Breathtaking. The Crucible. The minutes dragged by in a funereal procession and the news ended. One solitary cup of tea would constitute his whole breakfast. None of what they said made any difference to him. He would wait at least until he had finished a second cup of tea before opening the letter. Even more than usual he wasn’t in the mood for bad news that morning.he had looked around in relief at his familiar surroundings. He took another sip from his cup of weak tea but the dregs . the probable precursor to something much worse. Even in the cold light of day – and it really was cold without the central heating . They were discussing a new production of one of Arthur Miller’s plays. His fear of the outside world had reduced him to such a state of torpor that time itself had almost ground to a halt. Twice he had woken up dreaming he was drowning. animation was suspended. blocking off all escape routes.successful entrepreneur. 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. he had more than enough troubles of his own to preoccupy him.a summons from the sheriff officers. Soaring imagination. It didn’t matter. Trying to conserve fuel he boiled the water on the primus with the jet at half strength. Any more bad news would almost certainly tip him over the edge. most of it unintelligible. The Today programme was on the radio but he wasn’t really listening – he didn’t much care about the rest of the world right now. Too many wild and vivid dreams had left him struggling to distinguish between fantasy and reality. he wasn’t sure which one. darkening your horizons. A disappointment postponed was…well. He imagined that this was how life closed in on you at the very end. He pushed the letter away from him. After the confrontation with Maureen and the shock of having their electricity cut off he hadn’t slept at all well.
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. 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. When Maureen and Martin came home that evening they found the house transformed. . beaming. If (IF!!!!!!!) you wish to be considered for this post please phone me to arrange an interview at your earliest convenience. his eyes darting dizzily across the blue company letterhead: “Dear Mr Dowty Unfortunately the post for which you applied in February has been filled. The intervening period would be nerve-wracking but exciting. Even cowards finally reach the point where it’s easier to confront the truth than to live in permanent fear.were now cold and he recoiled in disgust as the cold. forcing himself to read what he was sure would be the latest rejection letter from a prospective employer. He read quickly.” explained Nick. While this is a less senior position than the one for which you originally applied we do feel that it is one with the potential for promotion within the company. greasy liquor swilled around his mouth. He knew he could not put off the inevitable any longer. Bracing himself for bad news he lunged across the table and grabbed the envelope and ripped it open. (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!). “I’ve been Spring cleaning. They were in a hurry and gave him a date in three days time.
Come home after an honest day’s work and collapse in front of the fire with a glass of wine and a good book. without electricity.” He held out the letter from Nexab International. living in constant fear of a knock at the door announcing the arrival of an irate creditor. It’s made for me. bathing all of them in its warm glow. Re-connect to the things that really matter. The phone remained silent. Maureen laughed.” “The right way up will do fine. “Will you get a company car?” asked Martin wistfully. “No need. Maureen.” While they waited for the day of his interview to arrive they continued to live off scraps of food in the cold house. Like ordinary people. All I can think about are our debts and what’s going to happen. Give my soul the kiss of life. Re-read all the authors I loved when I was younger.” Maureen looked close to tears.00 o’clock that afternoon. I need that job to set my mind free again. “Read this. He was so ashamed of Maureen’s banger that he made her drop him off a mile from his school. you promised. He hadn’t been able to sleep the night before and he was . It means everything to me. I read the words but I can’t take them in.” “I can’t concentrate.” “Oh. Hemingway. Free from fear. I really do. Evelyn Waugh. Nick. sparing them any more bad news.” “You’ve got plenty of time to read now if you wanted to. Get back to being the kind of person I was before I took a wrong turning in life. His appointment was scheduled for 1. You know. He hasn’t got the job yet.” “I just want to live again. looking tired and worried. Optimism flooded the house. Even the postman passed them by.“Have you been to see the bank manager?” demanded Maureen. I’m sure I’ll get it. Finally the waiting ended. I could do it standing on my head.” “I hope you get it. Miraculously no-one came near them. For all our sakes..” “I’ve got a good feeling about this one. “Give him a chance. Fitzgerald.
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. For a start nearly everybody now seemed to be striding around with a mobile phone pressed to their ear. their floodlit windows plastered with posters announcing massive discounts on just about everything in huge screaming letters. Anything that would have made him ordinary. from the bedroom doorway. frantically snapping up bargains.still in bed when it was time for the others to leave.” said Martin. all of them exuberantly self-confident. It was a world so different from his own aimless. He envied them their apparent sense of purpose. giving him a big thumbs up. tortured existence that he ached with jealousy. with Maureen’s best wishes still ringing in his ears and his heart pounding wildly. The bus arrived on time for once and he climbed aboard to attend his first job interview for almost two months.” she whispered. He felt a pang of envy. After the emptiness of the countryside it was a pleasure to see this sprinkling of humanity at work. He should have been a lawyer or an accountant. manageable debts. living in another world. “Good luck. As they entered the outskirts of town Nick watched the sporadic groups of people scurrying about their daily business. a sensible mortgage. a steady income. more like other people. Everyone was in a hurry. I know you can.” “Sock it to them. There seemed to be many more young people too. even aggressive. He was dressed in his now unfamiliar best dark blue suit. a sight that in his day had been a comparative rarity. “You can do it. 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. with a job. He realised that to be like them was all he had ever wanted from life. darling. glowing with a modicum of self respect. mundane worries about cutting the grass and cleaning the car. dad. everyone loaded down with bulging . anticipating their glass of wine at the end of the day. their lives bursting with purpose. making plans over their phones. enduring a reasonably happy marriage. Maureen bent down and kissed him on the forehead before she set off into town with Martin. The milling crowds rushed around from shop to shop. When the time came he set off to walk the half mile down to the bus stop. Soon he hoped to be just like them. the same grim expressions on all their faces. averagely happy. It was impossible not to notice that all the shops seemed to be holding sales. Even a schoolteacher.
he was beginning to panic. The feeling of latent violence in the air was oppressive. a few feet away. pushed backwards. His clumsiness meant he was continuously jostled. He felt claustrophobic. Empty food cartons were discarded on the pavements without a second thought. Over the years he had become conditioned to living frugally. snarling at his ankles whenever he attempted to sprint across to the other side of the road. 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. litter piled up everywhere. especially on himself. he wished he knew. Christianity had deserted the city. people were lining up outside in the streets to get in. cursed at. Everyone seemed to have money to spend yet no one seemed to be working. He’d been hard up all his life. Universally aggressive. He stopped and gaped. a character trapped in the bustle of a Breughel painting. All the fast food shops were packed. had ploughed every spare penny back into the business. The expressions on the faces of the people in the crowds. the abandoned churches now were all pubs and restaurants. hordes of people charged past him. elbowing him out of the way. as if their snarling humanity had somehow degenerated in his absence into something primitive. disoriented. In his short time away people had begun worshipping a different God with a fervour he had never observed before. a sandwich made at home before setting off to work? Vast numbers of people were eating in the street totally without shame or embarrassment. 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. 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 . eventually reaching the stage where he actually hated spending money. It was all so different today. wishing he’d never left home. The shopping malls through which he passed became a series of brightly-lit nightmares. To make matters worse he realised that he had lost his ability to navigate through crowds. He felt like he was drowning in a whirlpool of heartlessness. glaring at him as if he was an imbecile.plastic bags as if the world was coming to an end. swept into corners by a swirling. swimming against the prevailing current. it was hard to breathe. What was the secret of their wealth? Christ. As he fought his way along Union Street. Whatever had happened to home cooking? A flask of soup. Something else struck him in this alien environment. It didn’t make sense. Shopping truly was the new religion. perhaps tribal. he thought to himself in bewilderment. They seemed almost subhuman. snell March wind. He felt like a stranger amongst these pagan hordes.
He squeezed into the proffered seat opposite his two interviewers. modern reception area of the converted town house along with half a dozen other candidates. a gulf that was wider than he would ever know. self-important.merchants and Baltic traders back in the nineteenth century. mercifully. “We’re flying down to London on Easyjet in September…. He needn’t have worried. she likes him…My dad? No way. He was mildly irritated at the way the bored receptionist did not attempt to engage any of them in conversation or offer them coffee. The way he drinks we might even make a profit. A smartly-dressed young woman led him into a smallish boardroom which was almost totally filled by a large and expensive-looking rosewood desk. The man flicked through Nick’s CV. When he stood up he felt light-headed from hunger. Darkness was falling outside he was finally summoned to his interview. than he was. cool. It’s all inclusive…I know. He sat on a plastic seat in the large. Garry says we’ll get our money back on the booze alone.” he observed. . a conversation he was obliged to overhear. 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. This is my last chance and there’s no way I’m going to let my dad screw it up…What?…Two weeks. all of whom were much younger.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. 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. He’d scare him off…What?…Too right. Instead she spent most of her time on the phone to a friend. even more apprehensive. smiling encouragingly at Nick across the highly polished expanse of desk. he does it all while he’s at work. A man and a woman both in their early twenties. and. casually dressed. They seemed completely at ease in his presence which immediately unnerved him. What? My mum’s met him…yeah. “You’re obviously a self-starter if you’ve run your own business. 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.
He knew he had to say something if he was to have any chance of getting the job. isn’t it? Cash flow? That’s not how we measure success here. 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. “I don’t lack motivation. You wouldn’t mind that?” “I’ve been around all right. He was taken aback when the young man winced. Just like Microsoft. Nick thought for a minute but it was hard to concentrate. 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. Exactly the opposite impression to the one he was trying to convey. Before he could organise his thoughts his mouth opened and he heard himself saying. He’d managed to avoid waffling or saying anything stupid just by sticking to the truth. Cash flow was all-important in the early days. forcing himself to smile deprecatingly.” He was pleased with his answer. what did he know? His attempt to build a successful company hadn’t exactly been a rip-roaring success despite the years of careful investment. I’m numerate of course.” “How would you feel working for someone else? Not being your own boss any more?” “Not a problem. We’ve got first mover advantage in our field and our primary objective is to leverage that into a dominant market share. All the key financial ratios. .” “You’re quite a bit older than everyone else round here. It made him sound like an old whore who was past her sell-by date. helpfully. refined voice. Cash flow. “Well.” he added. I can run the numbers. Cash in the bank earns peanuts. “That’s a bit old economy. He couldn’t get the nasal twang of the receptionist’s voice out of his head.” agreed Nick. As soon as he uttered the phrase he regretted it. in a surprisingly confident voice. “What special attributes would you bring to this job?” asked the woman in a bored. Nick’s first reaction was that this was a pretty dumb strategy for a small business. I know how to monitor the way a company’s performing and discover what is and isn’t working. without looking up. balance sheet. profit and loss. On the other hand.Nick nodded.
When it obviously didn’t pay to disagree it was a technique that had served him well in the past. “Do you think you could deliver that concept to the key players in the industry?” the woman asked him abruptly. And in our field we’re unique. “We’re growing too fast to worry about cash flow.” “I did all the sales and marketing for my own company for ten years. looking up from her notes for the first time.” explained the woman brightly.” continued the young man airily.” “Ten years!” The young man rolled his eyes and whistled. Business process engineering. With .” “Supply chain management?” Naturally Nick had heard the term but he had no real idea what it meant in practice. 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. He coughed politely.” Nick couldn’t stop himself from looking doubtful. max. “We’ve developed an innovative suite of enterprise software that will completely revolutionise supply chain management in the oil industry. We’re enterprise systems. “Do you mean could I sell the software?” “Well. “So what is your product exactly?” The young man leaned forward. nodding his head sagely. “We plan to sell out within three.” “Truly differentiated. How we spend it will be the problem.” he said. Definitely not. yes.“I see.” Nick had dedicated half his life to growing his old company. “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. When we’re number one in the market then the cash will come flowing in. his eyes burning with all the fervour of a true believer. “I thought the technology bubble had burst?” “We’re not technology.
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.” “It’s an international product. They really believed in what they were saying. There’s still a lot of old farts in this game who don’t speak our language. Today and tomorrow.” “I’m not too old to learn. mirroring the actions of the young man opposite him. “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. “Once we’ve ironed out the bugs we’ll have an army of sales guys hitting the road running.” added the woman helpfully. Maybe they were right.” The young man’s grin grew even broader.” he said. nodding deliberatively. He said. Most successful companies were built on faith. “Okay. the oil industry is just the start. Maybe the young man had the right answers after all. “Our upgraded beta version is currently being evaluated by some of the biggest names in the business. There are dozens more applications in just about any market segment you care to think of. That’s why we need an interpreter like you. beaming. “We’ll have to train you of course.” Nick tried to look positive as the two young people stared triumphantly at him. I’ve probably played golf with most of them.disastrous consequences. Nick. someone who’s on their wavelength.” “It’s a GREAT product. A lot of these guys in senior positions are my age too. If the product was half as good as they thought it was this could be his big break.” “That’s right.” the woman added. “If you’ve got a good product I guarantee I can sell it. A bridge between the old and new. Even if it sounded like they hadn’t actually sold anything yet.” .” “The feedback is very positive.” enthused the young man. “That’s exactly why we asked you here. You could be one of them.” “The quill pen and the computer. “I know how to talk to buyers at that level.
starting immediately.” “Oh.“Oh. Will you be allowed to keep all of your wages? What about the . For once. the past might just be working in his favour.” “Guys with brains. The salary was double anything he’d earned before and there were stock options attached which would be worth a large amount of money if the company went public. He couldn’t believe his luck. On the strength of your good news I borrowed some money from mother and went round and paid off the arrears. that beneath their confident surface these young people were rather in awe of his age and experience. He had the feeling that he’d done rather well. “Not exactly. Maureen phoned just as he was settling back to watch some horse-racing on the afternoon telly. Even his creditors had remained quiescent. They were very good about it actually. I…” “Maureen. he thought. 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. Best of all. Ten minutes later he left the meeting feeling ten years older but for once he was not disheartened by his age. it’s still a miracle isn’t it. Once you’ve got your foot in the door we’ll send in the real experts after you. Nick.” They laughed and Nick laughed with them. That afternoon the electricity came back on. The empty fridge whirred back into life. The pump on the central heating started circulating. Well. He phoned Maureen and told her the good news. “Nick. It really did seem as if his fortune had finally changed for the better. “Bright young techies who write computer games as a hobby.” “It is. The house grew warm. The video recorder re-set itself. you won’t believe it but the electricity has come back on. the debt collector had not reappeared. you don’t need to know much.” the woman added.” Maureen laughed. It’s a miracle.
I’ll stop off at the shops on the way home and get something nice for tea. We can start living again. After the meal the three of them watched television together. I’m starving. Nick. “To the man upstairs.” “We did. That night he and Maureen celebrated with Australian champagne. But they’ve got to leave us enough to live on. “Listen.” “We never stopped living. a nuclear family that had somehow avoided meltdown. At the end of the meal Nick tapped the table with his knife and held up his glass. dad. enjoying the novelty. despite everything. I always knew you would. We survived.bank?” “They’ll take the lions share I’m afraid. Nick smiled. Besides. a proud father once more.” “YOU deserve it. “A toast.” he said. Even Martin had a glass. Our lord Jesus Christ. You’ve come good in the end.” said Maureen. We’ll see a huge difference compared to what it’s been like.” “And you. As a special treat Maureen cooked them some rib eye steak from the local butcher. Martin. We’ll celebrate. we deserve it.” they chorused. When it was time for bed Martin hugged his father before he went off to his room. “I knew you’d get a job eventually.” he declared.” “Yeah. Thanks to you. 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. Maureen and Martin raised their glasses. didn’t we. Listen. tears in his eyes. life can be tough . Nick.” “Don’t let there be a next time. “Next time though. It’s the law. Nick raised his eyes to the ceiling.” “To the man upstairs.” They both laughed. smiling. Who works in very mysterious ways but who came good in the end. why not. He was slightly tipsy and spoke slowly and deliberately so as not to slur his words. don’t leave it so late.
I feel like I’m a whole man again. As long as I live. I’ll stand by you. You understand?” Martin nodded. lover. The way you stood by me.” Later that night he and Maureen made love.” “I’ve been in such a state these past few months. Nexab International went into liquidation. no matter what it is. I’ll always be here for you. It’ll still mean sacrifices but it’ll be well worth it. Whatever happened in future things would never be so bad again. a short time after he had completed his initial induction training. You have my word on that.” “So are you. for the first time in weeks. Nick smiled in the darkness. “Jesus. son. you really are. Nick joined the crowd staring in disbelief at the notice in the canteen explaining what had .” “That’s the first time you’ve ever said it was too long. “I know.” Maureen leant across and kissed him on the cheek. Miraculously they had weathered the storm together and he felt that they had never been closer. “Welcome back. dad. “All you’ve got to do is whistle. just as he was about to set out on his first proper sales call.” Maureen laughed. Three weeks later. That afternoon the building was full of stunned employees. It’s what families are for. You’re the greatest. Getting a job changes everything. It’s called unconditional love. You hear me? If ever you get into trouble.” “Don’t make it so long next time.” Nick gasped as he rolled off onto his back.and pretty unfair at times but I’ll make you this promise.” “It’s good to be back.” She hit him with a pillow. “I needed that.” “Does this mean I can go to university?” “Definitely.
He felt ill at the thought of having to tell Maureen what had happened. In fact. “How was work today?” “Fine. “I’m entitled. he rejoined Maureen in the sitting-room where she was reading the paper while watching the Channel Four news. And another. Then another.” spat the man who had just become Nick’s former boss. all her senses alert. The share options were worthless. So ill he wanted to die. eventually. The current cash reserves were insufficient to take the company through to profitability. The former receptionist who had ignored him when he had arrived for his interview tottered past in a very short skirt and improbably high heels clutching a laptop and a printer to her bosom. without looking up from the paper. “The bastards owe me this at least. The bank had reluctantly called in the company’s overdraft. He took a deep breath. he wished that he was.” Maureen looked up immediately. Apparently the cash burn had been greater than anticipated. 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.” she gasped. He felt like he was drowning. There were still bugs in the software. As a result sales had not materialised as anticipated in the business plan. Later on. turning away from the noticeboard with a look of fury on his face. The company’s auditors had come in the same day and after a brief scrutiny of the books had advised immediate liquidation. the usual signal that he wanted to speak. tears streaming from her eyes. “What’s wrong?” . Despite the best efforts of the original investors and their corporate advisers the directors had been unable to raise further capital.happened. “Bunch of fucking wankers. after Martin had gone upstairs to do his homework and he had finished the dishes. You?” She replied. “Not so good. He coughed politely.” As he left the building Nick was handed a note telling him he would get the wages due to him from the liquidator. there was not even enough money to pay that month’s salaries.
“Look. Trust me. looking stunned. I..” . honest I will.” At first she said nothing. “It’s the company. Out of the corner of his eye Nick saw his wife starting to cry.” “You’ve been sacked?” “No. making it impossible to think.” Maureen stared at him as if he was speaking a foreign language.” he said. you’ll see. that’s all it is. I’m sorry. I didn’t make you. Everything will be all right..” “That’s not fair.. The programme was dominated by graphic pictures of a terrorist bomb that had gone off in London that morning in a crowded department store.“It’s not good news. she simply stared at him. They pretended to watch the news while they each struggled to come to terms with this calamitous development.. “Please don’t cry. You won’t let me finish. It’s just a setback.” “What’s happened? You haven’t done something wrong have you?” “No. causing many deaths and injuries.” “I’m trying for Christ’s sake.” He sighed. cascading silence that drilled into Nick’s head like tinnitus. The half hour that followed was framed by a ringing. “I knew I’d live to regret those personal guarantees you made me give to the bank. I’ll get another job. When she finally spoke her voice was thick with resentment. turning off the television with the remote.” “What about them?” “They’ve gone bust. I…” “You’ve quit?” “No.” “What is it then? Tell me.
“What’s going on? Why are you crying. Maureen.” “It was the only way I could raise the capital. mum?” “Your father’s lost his job again. I borrowed money from my mother on the strength of you having a job. I’ll sort everything out.” . Don’t worry.” “I should never have trusted you. “They’re going to put us out onto the street”.” Martin squared up to his father.” “Oh. I simply want you to face up to things. Martin hugged his mother. I promise. it’s the whole fucking world. why not? You blame me for everything else. okay. I’ll leave school and get a job if I have to. So it’s not just us your hurting.” He was shouting now.” 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.“You blackmailed me into doing it. I’ll get a job stacking shelves. If you really want to help get back up those stairs and do your homework. please I’m tired…” “I’ve been a bloody Jonah since the day I was born.” Disturbed by the commotion Martin bounded downstairs to see what was wrong.” “I’m not blaming you. I’ll look after you. it’s other people too.” Nick felt a wave of resentment welling up inside him at this usurpation of his role as head of the household. “Leave mum alone or I’ll batter you.” “Nick.” Maureen explained tearfully. becoming hysterical. 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. “Stop being bloody silly. The co-op’s looking for people. Almost instantly anger replaced shame and remorse. I had no choice. “Don’t worry mum. “You’re right! I’m a bloody Jonah. You know she can’t afford it and I promised I’d pay her back out of your first pay packet. Moral blackmail. “I’m responsible for making everyone who’s ever lived miserable now. “Jesus. We’ll be all right.” screamed Nick. Martin.
“Sort out the mess? You think I haven’t been trying. Nick. “You have to take responsibility for your own failings. And you’re selfish. All right I admit I’ve made mistakes along the way.” The vehemence of her attack shook him almost as much as the unfairness of her accusations. You blame everyone but yourself for your own shortcomings. I’ve spent my whole life trying to sort things out. Maureen. It’s about time you took a long hard look at yourself and accepted your responsibilities. What’s happened to this family is nobody’s fault but yours. It’s nothing to worry about. To give you both a decent quality of life. the first time it had ever happened. We’ve been living in fear of your moods and your temper for as long as I can remember.Nick was taken aback at the way his son was suddenly standing up to him. Sort it out now. Your father and I will sort everything out down here. Jesus.” . Martin was as white as a sheet. “Martin. Everybody does.” Maureen eyes narrowed.” he shouted at Nick. Not tomorrow or the next day. Maureen. She spoke quietly. But I’ve been unlucky too. his fists clenched by his side. her eyes blazing with anger. Nick. Maureen gently guided her son away from his father. darling. That’s why I started the business in the first place.” “You did it for yourself. No more putting it off. The boy was almost as tall as he was and he was well built and fit from the rugby he played into the bargain. “Go and finish your homework. You know that. Now because of you we’re going to lose the roof over our heads. disfiguring her face like a third degree burn. 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. At that moment another familial relationship changed for ever. do as you’re asked. so softly he strained to hear what she was saying. It flashed through his mind that if it actually came to a fight he wasn’t certain he would win. And you need to do it now.” “I did it for the family.” whispered Maureen. “You’re a bully.” When the boy had gone back upstairs Maureen turned to Nick. her hatred of him was plain to see. “If you lay a finger on my mum I’ll bloody well kill you. You need to sit down and work out exactly how you’re going to sort out the mess you’ve created. it’s all right darling.
This time he couldn’t think of anything witty to say about the situation. The next morning Maureen got up early before he was fully awake. He felt lonely and defeated.“That’s unfair. Like any married couple they had had disagreements in the past which they had always managed to patch up without too much trouble. fearful of the consequences now that the truth about their feelings towards each other was out in the open. It was almost a relief to know that things couldn’t get any worse. That business became an obsession. After all the trials and tribulations of the last six months he had finally reached rock bottom.” she whispered. never blamed him directly for what had happened. really I am. Maureen wasn’t one to bear grudges. I wish you’d never started it. brooding on their predicament.” . wrapped in his raincoat for warmth as the last embers of the logs in the grate slowly turned to ash and died. knowing that tomorrow. Proving to everyone how good you were.” “We didn’t need more money.” Her words left him stunned. I didn’t mean to upset you and Martin. “I’m shouldn’t have lost my temper last night. Maureen. as their creditors closed in upon them. hating each other. “I’m going to bed.” He sat up until the early hours of the morning watching the telly with the sound turned down.” “When did we ever see any of the benefits?” “I had to plough everything back into the business. Instead he said simply. You have to make a business grow if you’re ever going to make decent money. It was all about you. “I’m sorry. What had happened yesterday was no laughing matter. it would be even worse. They sat together in front of the television in silence for the rest of the evening. Eventually Maureen got up. usually with a joke and a muttered apology. He sat up in bed and lay with the bedclothes pulled up to his chin watching her dress. Her eyes were red. It wasn’t about us. And he certainly wasn’t going to apologise for something that wasn’t his fault. Maureen. We were perfectly happy with what we had. That was the only way to make it grow. She had never spoken to him this way before.
Instead he was treated with the customary civility of indifference. There was only the usual pile of bills. crucified him to think how badly he had failed her. I’ll take anything they’ve got. nasty world with nothing but pain and bitterness in her heart. A few minutes later he heard the car drive off.She looked at him with dead eyes as she buttoned up her blouse. He heard Martin coming out of the bathroom and crossing the landing. half expecting to be hit by an immediate torrent of threats and abuse. “Then I’ll go down to the Jobcentre. another letter from the bank and one from the Inland Revenue.” She continued to button her blouse in silence. because he feared Maureen even more than he did the bank manager. “Martin. His utter fecklessness. “Can I speak to you for a minute. He was alone in the house once more. none of which he dared to open. He lingered out of sight in the shadows until the van drove off. it was all his fault. He was drying the plates when the postman arrived with the mail.” Martin never appeared. He wash the breakfast dishes in lukewarm water. a small and inadequate penance that did little to salve his conscience. Even in his worst nightmares he had never imagined it would come to this. he finally plucked up enough courage to phone the bank to arrange an appointment with the manager. After he got up he gathered some kindling from beneath the beech hedge in the front garden and built a fire with the last of the logs. The manager's secretary said that the earliest the manager could see him was the Wednesday of the following week so he . He felt giddy as he spoke into the phone. I’ll clean lavatories if I have to. had forced her out into a cruel. It hurt him more than he would have believed possible to see her this way. Anything to tide us over until I get a real job.” he called out. He made a weak cup of coffee and then.” She left the room without speaking. Nick had no idea what his wife was going to do next or even if she would ever return. “I’ll get in touch with the bank manager this morning. his abject failure to confront reality. At least the back boiler also heated the water so he was able to save on electricity. She was right too. Instead he hid them in another new hiding place behind the chest of drawers. There didn’t seem any point in saving them any more.
even if it was only an illusion of safety. He realised that he too was clinging on for dear life. Losing his job meant that he was right back to square one in his struggle for survival. Even at the most basic level it was starting to get difficult. Some battles you just couldn’t win. appeared to have conquered most of Europe and even America had succumbed to the fashionable organic formula that differentiated her restaurants and takeaways. or perhaps she had deliberately adopted a lower profile. Now he thought about it he vaguely remembered reading somewhere that she had bought an estate in this part of the world in order to indulge her passion for the countryside. he wasn’t sure there was a solution to his problem. the famous organic fast food entrepreneur. Spring seemed a long way off. . but maybe fish didn't count. The future was looking bleak once again. He was still free. Of course. His heart leapt as he put down the phone. 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. Nine whole days for a miracle to happen. He was still euphoric over his stay of execution as he fed the birds with the remains of the stale bread. 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. Recently the novelty of a successful self-made woman seemed to have worn off. There was a time a couple of years back when she had never been off the television thanks to the success of the unique organic fast food franchise she had created. The home-made contraption rocked crazily like a spinning top. Perhaps it might be better to let things take their course. Angela Roberts. Soon the fire in the grate would grow cold. He wasn’t sure they would be left with enough money out of Maureen’s salary to pay the next electricity bill. 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. She was even more successful now. 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. It seemed a bit incongruous to him that such a well-known vegetarian and animal lover should also be a keen fisherman. Later. Nine days grace. just like them. It was a miracle. There were no more logs left. He had to think of something quickly. anyway these days she rarely appeared in the media. a totally artificial environment of his own creation. Besides. forcing the dozen or so tits and finches perched on it to cling on for dear life.made an appointment for that day at eleven.
she must be worth a small fortune. He finished his coffee and put the last log on the fire. He sat at the window again and watched the birds still struggling to feed in the near gale force wind. Perhaps that was the fate of everyone who was put on this earth. No. Or. A king's ransom. K. There was no milk left but he could drink it black. the vast majority of whom she almost certainly ignored. Actually that wasn't really the case. Probably the other way round in fact. Some people have all the luck. People like that usually made their own luck. to be more precise. He was willing to bet Angela Roberts didn't live in constant fear of her bank manager. some people had to struggle harder than others. you had to draw the line somewhere and kidnapping . 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. But the security that surrounded her made such an idea totally unfeasible. An impossible task. he thought to himself.Not that she needed to worry any more about what people thought of her. He wondered if she might lend him something to tide him over. He smiled to himself. He smiled ruefully to himself. She was reputed to be one of the richest women in Britain. that was one of the reasons why they were rich people. She'd made her fortune in a remarkably short time. about twenty miles further inland. of disloyalty to the old country. if it was in use today. The amazing thing was that Queen did actually live just up the road at Balmoral. 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. All the same. She was still only in her early thirties too. The idea of holding a king to ransom intrigued him. Rich people were generally pretty tight with their money. People like that were inundated with begging letters. A king's ransom? The phrase intrigued him. Besides. Rowling. Not very likely. and beautiful to boot. the very idea smacked of treason. right up there with the Queen and Madonna and J. The endless battle against the elements. A packet. More likely to get yourself killed. a large fortune. Such a stratagem. 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. displaying a brilliant flair for marketing that had left all her male rivals gasping in her wake. It was a trick that had signally eluded him. Of course.
They’d soon come looking for him. always paid his taxes. They’d get to keep the house.On the other hand Angela Roberts wasn't anything like so heavily protected and even if she wasn't quite so rich either he was sure somebody would be happy to pay a decent ransom for her release. the more you looked at it the more the idea really did seem to be feasible.. Hardly even a sin. Angela .. He could tie him up and leave him in the landrover. Of course he'd need to hide the woman somewhere while he waited for the ransom to be paid. Kind of ironic if they were put to a new use to get redress from the rich. He'd get paid cash in a couple of days. The more he thought about it the more the idea of kidnapping Angela Roberts intrigued him. Never stolen anything. Maureen would be happy. The perfect victimless crime. a complicated pattern of logistics to work out. 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. rarely told lies. He suddenly realised he was beginning to get excited by what on the surface might seem like a ludicrous idea. 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. He paused as a potential fly in the ointment occurred to him. since she was bound to be insured against that sort of thing. There was even a cave or two that could be adapted for the purpose. a lot of field research. Best of all though. he wouldn't need to rough her up or anything unpleasant like that. Even though he’d never done anything wrong in his life before. Not exactly an insurmountable problem. She'd be easy to handle. not even financially. Okay. She might even forgive him. not to say politically incorrect nowadays. never cheated anybody. The sort of thing where no-one needed to get hurt. Indeed. in time to settle all his debts and get all his creditors off his back. On the other hand. Grab the target when she was out fishing. Wouldn't dream of it in fact. Following the Clearances there were plenty of derelict cottages that would serve the purpose scattered in the isolated landscape round here. 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.the monarch was pretty much beyond the pale whatever people might have done in the past. And her being a woman too. This crime was different though. that made it ideal. the last remaining legacy of his being brought up as a Catholic. he'd always made a point of being extremely chivalrous towards the opposite sex. the scheme would be quick to deliver a payoff. even if some people thought his behaviour was somewhat old-fashioned. but in essence the idea itself was simple. there was a lot of planning to be done.
All he could do was hope. not to say downright feeble. Enough to purchase an annuity that would see him and Maureen into a happy and secure old age. The way people . It all depended on how passionate she was about the sport. Say. He’d think of something. His pulse quickened. At that moment another thought struck him. Well. He frowned.Roberts might already have gone back to England. Even then he wasn't sure if she would accept the money. he was pretty sure that her ethical perspective would change once the bailiffs started hammering at the front door. He needed to ensure that he was left with a sizeable lump sum after he had settled all the immediate bills. twenty-five thousand. The provenance of the money was another problem. On reflection one hundred and fifty thousand sounded more like it. Say a round quarter of a million. The ransom would be more like a pension really. A white lie. And what about a holiday every year. That really would be a sight worth seeing. Even if he couldn’t convince the money was legitimate would she really refuse it? He pondered this possibility. Maureen was a devout Christian. there was absolutely no way she would sanction a criminal act. In fact it was probably prudent to assume that at his age he was never going to work again and take that into account. Maybe he would have to lie about where the money came from. Although she might demur on moral grounds. and the cost of living and all that. Except that it wouldn’t. Suppose either of them had to go into a nursing home. If by some miracle she was still around there was no time to lose. the best thing would be to present her with a fait accompli. Besides. but it would be nice. All right. Wouldn't get that on the National Health. in the circumstances. 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. It was time to get dressed and get down to the river. He could just picture the look on Maureen's face when he handed her the money. No. Or what if they both did. The idea of only asking for enough money to settle his immediate debts was a somewhat unimaginative. Absolutely no way. The only thing in his favour was that the river was in excellent condition after the recent rains and he had read in the local paper that there were plenty of fish being caught. Actually. not entitled perhaps. they were entitled to that after a lifetime's hard work surely. the bird might have flown. that probably wasn't enough what with the way the Health Service was going. any foreknowledge of the crime would turn her into an accomplice which would be a disaster if anything went wrong. She could afford it after all. It would be just his luck. two hundred thousand to be on the safe side.
Whatever happened he had to act. And then to act. This was it. his only option in the present situation. It was a daunting prospect but there was no alternative. The first thing to do was to go down to the river and reconnoitre. that was all. That was Robin Hood's justification in the olden days and no-one today blamed him for what he had done. He stood up. Their salvation was going to be touch and go. whatever the outcome. He took a deep breath. What Nick was proposing after all was a similar tax on the rich levied by the poor. To have any chance of success he had to plan and execute his mission with the precision of an SAS raid. 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. Recent history had shown that he couldn’t beat capitalism after all. hoping for a miracle. That would be hard. Desperate times required desperate remedies. His circumstances left him no alternative. It was worth a shot. He had to become a man of action. decision that. It was finally time to stop daydreaming. It was at this point that Nick realised to his surprise that he had suddenly come to a major. Quite literally. Was he up to the challenge? All he could do was try his best. to start to figure out a solution to his previously intractable problems. He had spent the last six months daydreaming. to see if his quarry was still there. His heart was beating fast. and extremely radical. was bound to change his life for ever. 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. With no salary going into his account that month he knew they must already be over their overdraft limit. There was no doubt that this was a crunch time in his life. Somehow he would have to solve all their problems within the next nine days. . He was in the last chance saloon a minute before closing time. For the first time in months he had glimpsed a ray of hope penetrating the gathering storm clouds. Whatever plan he came up with he would have to implement it fast. Without a second thought. A hunter gatherer. the best he could hope for was to skim something off the margin without getting destroyed in the process. He needed to concentrate and to think clearly about his next steps. the only way left open to him. In his present circumstances anything was worth a shot.
It was obvious that his salvation wasn’t going to come cheap. He sat in the freezing kitchen with his head cradled in his hands. stumped by the challenge. Every scenario he mapped out in his mind ended up a blind alley.The challenge seemed almost overwhelming. He sat at the sitting-room window staring blindly into space. The thought that any one of them could confront him again . He had no idea how to issue a ransom demand or even to whom he would send it. This whole crazy scheme was about as easy as walking blindfold through a minefield. The problem was that the river was nearly six miles away. Whatever happened he mustn’t leave any potential evidence lying around. Walking there and back would take far too long and anyway would make him far too conspicuous. He began making notes on a sheet of foolscap in a desperate attempt to give some form to the jumble of thoughts cascading around inside his head. The fewer people that saw him the better. If indeed it came at all. And yet his need to get down to the river in order to carry out an initial survey had become urgent. In the end he decided that his only hope was that the outline of a plan might somehow emerge from the cauldron of synaptic connections that were popping off like champagne bubbles in his turbulent brain. He might have to visit it several times before he spotted his quarry again. The only alternative he could think of was the local bus service. The more he considered the problem the more evident it became that transport was his greatest problem. He sighed. And abduction was only the start. 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. He spent more than an hour trying to figure out where to begin with his plan. He had filled both sides of the foolscap sheet with various scenarios as well as lists of all the tools and equipment he might need before he suddenly realised that with every stroke of the pen he was creating a mass of damning evidence that could quite possibly be used to put him in prison for the rest of his life. He 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. Each scheme he dreamt up seemed so hellishly complex with so much that could go wrong. He didn’t know where to start. An hour later he still hadn’t figured out a foolproof way to execute his plan. He started to think about the bank manager and his army of creditors again. Maureen had first call on the car during the week and he couldn’t change that arrangement without good reason. Yet he didn’t dare travel on public transport in case he created a trail that might subsequently lead to his door. The incriminating notes would have to be burned.
He knew only too well that in these situations his body would quickly follow his brain into shutdown: it wouldn’t be the first time recently that he had been so overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness that he had been paralysed and sunk into a catatonic state. thank you. 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. Becoming wealthy. only a step away from unconditional surrender. The conviction. The river might as well have been a million miles away. the answer flashed into his brain. The old familiar feeling that had dogged him all his life had returned with a vengeance. All his grand schemes were just that.” he cried. Schemes. If he lost his nerve now he knew he would lose everything. He punched the air with exhilaration. Building up a successful business. thank you. He was trapped inside his own head. Buying a house abroad. out of nowhere. Dreams. Despite his determination to fight he was close to tears. The whole idea was totally impracticable. Just like all those other occasions in the past he had fallen at the first hurdle. “Thank you God. He could feel he was on the verge of panicking. As far as he could recall her old bike was still out in the barn that they used as a garage. Maybe his time had come. rickety conveyance was the answer to his prayers. Ideas above his station.in his home at any moment was terrifying. Maureen’s bike! Of course! The darkness shrouding his soul was suddenly illuminated by a blinding burst of light. Drugs would have been even better. knew he was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. He felt his pulse quickening. His spirits had sunk to their lowest ebb since that day the bank had pulled the plug on his business. It was hard to concentrate on the problem in hand. inherited from his mother and drummed into him throughout his childhood.” He remembered how in the second world war German soldiers had made extensive use of bicycles to conduct covert reconnaissance near the front lines. That longdiscarded. Wish fulfilment. If there had been any drink in the house he would have sought oblivion in a bottle. With the cupboards bare there was no easy way out. . He shook his head. Childish fantasies. Maybe there was only one solution. 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. Just like all his other grand ideas. of losing all self control. And then suddenly. 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. Even a boat at one point. “Thank you. that he was born to fail. Pie in the sky.
oil and tighten the chain and finally to raise the height of the saddle. a rusty paraffin lamp. The chain and the handlebars had rusted solid. 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. Within an hour his hands were bloody and bruised and his back was sore enough to bring tears to his eyes. praying fervently that the ancient contraption hadn’t been thrown out without his knowledge. He was ravenous. Only when he was convinced that the bike was serviceable did he dare to take a break for lunch. It took him another hour to free up the pedals. He heated up a tin of own-label beans and gobbled down the lot. broken chairs. A split table. Together with a few stale slices of white bread. Barely enough for two more meals for . as worn and faded as their threadbare dreams. the wheels barely turned and worst of all the tyres were completely flat. several corroded saucepans. Frantically he rooted around in the gloom. an ancient sofa. 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. an apple and an old packet of cheese and onion crisps that represented the sum total of their remaining food supplies. a cracked mirror that was still bringing them bad luck ten years on. He was exhausted by the time he finally managed to free the wheels. It was nearly 2 o’ clock. He squirted oil down the barrel of the pump which partially restored the vacuum sufficiently to enable him to blow up the tires so that they were reasonably hard. 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. a broken down pram. He wrestled with the rusty skeleton for the rest of the morning. rolls of old carpet from the sitting room upon which they had once made love. 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. He hurried out to the barn. Fortunately in the saddlebag he found the tyre repair kit he had used as a child. The atmosphere grew thick and acrid with WD-40. picking over the debris of their early married life. He wasn’t even sure he could restore it but with no alternative.Now the same vehicle would be deployed with the same deadly effect in his own personal battle for survival. he hastily retrieved his toolbox from the house and immediately knelt down on the bare concrete to begin work on the restoration. The faded red bicycle was so heavily shrouded in dust and cobwebs it was barely recognisable. It took him another hour to rectify the leaking tyres.
an old pair of Swift Audubons with scratched lenses. It was all he would get to eat that day. It was another ten days before Maureen got paid again. 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. His old Barbour in particular was the perfect camouflage for hunting down quarry on a riverbank.Maureen and Martin. reckoning that it might prove useful in constructing a plausible alibi if things went wrong. several weeks before he would get any benefit money. 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…. that’s what it had been designed for after all. Eventually he tracked it down to the blanket compartment under the bed upstairs where Maureen had neatly stowed it away. as an afterthought he added the Collins Book of British Birds to his rucksack. that was all that mattered. From the wardrobe in the bedroom he retrieved his old Barbour jacket and Orvis moleskin trousers which were suitably shabby and nondescript – perfect camouflage in every way. He could feel the familiar acrid taste of another panic attack rising in the back of his throat. If he was forced to hide out for any length of time it might prove vital. He consulted the notes he had compiled earlier. He invested more precious minutes in patching it up with sellotape. living on air. He consulted his list again. When he was sure he had everything he needed he finally packed a necessarily frugal lunch box with an apple and the last remaining packet of crisps together with a thermos of weak black coffee.well. Finally. he preferred not to think too much about its other potential uses. Next he looked out the ordinance survey map for the area from the dozens he kept stowed away under the stairs. At times like this it was better not to think too far into the future. At the top of the list were his binoculars. Christ alone knew how they were going to survive. Concentrate on the task in hand. The cardboard-covered sheet was badly torn through heavy use over the years. A groundsheet. No point in getting too graphic – or melodramatic – at this stage. 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. They weren’t perfect but they would do for basic surveillance. . If something went wrong and Maureen arrived back before he did he wanted everything to look normal. The realisation of how close they were to the breadline made him feel ill. He cleared the table quickly and washed the dishes so that he left the kitchen tidy. It was time to assemble the final items he would need to carry out the initial survey of the river. maybe even for the rest of the week.
At first he was alarmed by the unexpectedly rapid acceleration of the ancient machine. but gradually he was overcome by a sense of exhilaration as the old familiar pleasures of cycling returned. More chance of things going pear-shaped. Even the fact that he had renovated the bike might be deemed suspicious. 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. and set off unsteadily down the hill. The wind ruffling his hair. Much safer to focus on his plan and keep his overfertile imagination firmly in check. demanding little effort or concentration on his part. He resolved to dispose of it later to be on the safe side. He had already figured out that the best way to remain unnoticed would be to travel within the cover provided by the ancient forest. At that precise moment he couldn’t think of a suitable cover story but he hoped something plausible would occur to him soon. the beauty of the hedgerows sweeping past right alongside. More fear. Moving stealthily he left the track after a few yards and entered the . Christ alone knew how he would react if the police ever did question him. about four hundred yards up a disused track. 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. especially since the brakes appeared to be completely useless.After checking to ensure that there was no one around in the immediate vicinity of the house he gingerly mounted the newly-restored bicycle. 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. Apart from the circumstances it was like being young again. In less than an hour of pleasant peddling he came once again within sight of the denselywooded river valley that enclosed the river. More stress. More things to think about. He sighed. He might have to dispose of a lot of things later when the time came. his growing confidence as he mastered the balance. 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 shuddered. So many little things that could trip him up. even as his plan was still unfolding. He hid the bike amongst a thicket of rhododendron bushes well off the main road. He was only too conscious of just how vulnerable his inexperience in these matters rendered him. 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. His cover story would have to be watertight.
Keeping a low profile therefore meant keeping under cover. Evidence of his movements. just as in fishing. Stuffing the potential evidence into his inside pocket he made a mental note to burn it later when he got back home. He had only taken half a dozen steps before he paused. setting off in the general direction of the bridge. There was no escaping the fact that if he wanted to observe his quarry properly he would have to leave this part of the wood and cross the main road again to get to higher ground. He thought about his strategy for a long time. Although he had always known that sooner or later he would be forced to emerge from the safety of the wood to get closer to his quarry it would obviously be safer if he was seen as little as possible. To his dismay. He had absolutely no training in fieldcraft. except in the places where he had to force his way through the dense undergrowth of tangled bracken and overgrown rhododendron bushes. more parts of the jigsaw puzzle that could send him to prison. he had one big advantage: the prey did not know it was being pursued. It was yet another unplanned event that he might subsequently have to explain away. 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. 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. from his new vantage point on the northern edge of the woods. Unnerved. 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. that it was a player in someone else’s game. He retraced his steps and retrieved the bloodstained tissue. less than a quarter of a mile away. On the other hand.penumbral world of the birch forest. Evidence. whether it was by local residents or passing motorists or the ghillie or even Angela Roberts herself. The snow was thinner below the canopy of leafless trees and the going was relatively easy. On the other hand he was used to staying concealed when he was fishing. A . Almost inevitably he scratched his face on an overhanging bramble branch. 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. using the lie of the land. 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. hiding in the bushes. Once he had staunched the bleeding he threw away the bloodstained paper tissue and resumed his journey. And of course. He cursed himself for his carelessness as he dabbed at the blood running down his cheek with a tissue. He continued his clandestine progress through the woods for another twenty minutes before he eventually came within sight of the bridge.
Freedom from fear and anxiety. If he was spotted by any unseen eyes he wanted his behaviour to appear as natural as possible. To his surprise he realised that in a strange sort of way he was even beginning to enjoy himself. He stopped and smiled at this thought. Once across the road he climbed the low fence that ran alongside the rhododendron bushes shielding the exclusive beat from prying eyes. In the ensuing silence that engulfed him the only sound was that of his heart thumping against his ribcage. It was a basic human right after all. one which he had been denied for far too long. He actually believed in the prospect of his own salvation. its wings flapping noisily. 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. whatever the price. It just showed you – if you had faith in yourself you really could do absolutely anything. the drumbeats of his coursing bloodstream roaring in his ears.he felt it demonstrated that he was beginning to think constructively at last. people had died for a lot less. 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. that indeed he was astute enough to cover all the angles. 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 several long . The principle was the same except that the game he was playing now was. one that was worth fighting for. As in life. He was terrified his cover was blown. If he kept his head Angela Roberts would soon be as helpless as any of the many beached salmon he had landed over the years. he suddenly realised. maybe even clever enough to succeed. He was pleased with this story . Hell. The power of life and death. By now his heart was beating so hard it was knocking the breath out of his lungs. even more like playing God. a rare bird in these parts. knowledge was power. 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. pitting his wits against the most important quarry he had ever hunted. He froze in terror. His mind too was racing. If anybody accosted him he had fabricated what he hoped was a believable cover story: he would claim to be looking for kingfishers.game whose rules were known only to the hunter. For the first time in months he was no longer suffocating under a blanket of despair. he thought bitterly. clutching his binoculars to his chest and scanning the surrounding trees as if he really was a genuine birdwatcher. It was a wonderful feeling.
seconds he waited for something awful to happen. Now he too was stranded in a foreign country. He gazed in awe at the huge pile. Thankfully nothing further disturbed the stillness of the air. his presence in the grounds remained undetected. Maybe it always had been – he’d just been too dumb to realise that he had been trespassing all his life. 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. Standing there in that unfamiliar. looking out for hollows and hiding places. He was safe. Surreptitiously he drew back into the anonymity of the bushes and waited. Forcing himself to remain calm he began to scrutinise his surroundings through his binoculars. fearful that he might have been spotted by the inhabitants. A few seconds later a hare loped slowly across the snow on the other side of the clearing. 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. That was all. about twenty yards below him. 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. exposed meadow. Not far away a pigeon cooed contentedly. The enemy was all around him. A tap on the shoulder. fishing a fast-running pool at a shallow bend in the river. He dropped down onto his belly and scanned the river upstream and down. 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. 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. Eventually he emerged from the edge of the woods to find himself directly opposite a large Victorian mock-baronial mansion. 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. It was a weird feeling. assessing the suitability of the terrain for the part it would play in the . Against all the odds the dark outlines of the old ghillie and Angela Roberts were silhouetted on the skyline. his ignominious ejection from the wood for trespassing. The land he had loved and thought of as his own had been transformed into enemy territory. No gamekeeper appeared.
a black Labrador by the look of it. While she waited in the vehicle he got out and fixed her rod to the rod holders on the bonnet of the landrover. never straying more than a few yards from her side. pausing to collect the two salmon still lying on the bank at the top of the pool. He walked back up the river to fetch the landrover. He smiled when he observed the outlines of two silvery spring salmon glinting in the sunlight on the bank behind her. thirty yards downstream. Together they worked their way gradually downstream as she fished the pool methodically. The river had risen slightly since his last visit and on this occasion the woman was fishing with a spinning-rod.planned abduction. resting his elbow on his wading staff a few feet from her right shoulder while she remained stationary between casts. although without further success. He watched the couple for nearly an hour. He climbed into the vehicle and drove slowly back across the meadow. The old ghillie shadowed her faithfully. covering every inch of water. A dog. Eventually all their gear was stowed safely and they headed off in the direction of the big house. It worried him that he might be forced to deal with the dog if it got in his way. The woman eventually stopped fishing when she reached the tail of the pool and this was the first time the ghillie left 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. 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. made an occasional appearance. 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. most importantly of all that it was definitely wadable at its present height. 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. taking the dog with him. A roaring waterfall at the head of the pool generated enough noise to drown out all but the loudest screams. She was obviously having more success with the new method too. that it was reasonably shallow. He could not have hoped for a more remote spot so close to the main road. particularly if he needed to get back into the cover of the woods in a hurry. Satisfied that what he had in mind was feasible he once more trained his binoculars on his quarry. After a brief conversation she climbed into the passenger seat. . Just here would make a good crossing point. He made a mental note that the river immediately opposite was almost fifty yards wide. before returning to his client.
In those few seconds it seemed to him as if he was present at the rebirth of his lost soul. He breathed a long. Two minutes which was just about long enough for what Nick had in mind. glorious sigh of relief. From the moment he left the woman’s side at the tail of the pool it had taken the ghillie six minutes to return with the landrover. He rolled over onto his back and stared up at the glorious blue sky. Most of the time life might seem like a maze of blind alleys in which you were forever trapped but actually if you persisted long enough you could always find a way out. Overhead an invisible flock of skylarks sang gloriously.he would rescue himself and his family from destitution. After he had been walking for twenty minutes or so he paused at a mossy . He started to pray. The ensuing warmth felt like God’s beneficent smile bathing his whole body. Two minutes that would change his life forever. He took a deep breath. He thanked God from the bottom of his heart. His heart thudded against his ribcage as the adrenalin kicked in. an out-of-body experience where he was witnessing his own redemption. flooding his brain with oxygen. He closed his eyes and felt the sun beating down on his face. flitting through the woods like a ghost. completely invisible from the road. 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. hovering. He was elated at the way his fortunes had finally taken a turn for the better. a born-again member of the human race. Against all the odds his crazy idea really did seem feasible after all. At long last it was good to be alive. that he was floating in warm. a sky that for once was devoid of clouds. Chapter 11 Nick hurried back to where he had hidden the bicycle. Nick timed the whole performance carefully.presumably for a well-deserved lunch. He felt like he was floating. Today he had learned a valuable lesson – never give up. It was a cathartic moment. As long as he continued to enjoy God’s blessing he knew he there was a chance he could still save his family from ruin. during which time he was out of sight for just over two minutes. celebrating his imminent release from the fear and despair that had dogged him for so long.
It wouldn’t be enough for her prison to be lockfast. was security. the conical mountain that dominated the landscape for miles around. The only casual visitors he was likely to encounter. Fortunately. He obviously needed somewhere remote yet accessible. He had spent his whole life trying to treat . The priority now was to start making plans for the safekeeping of his hostage. not to say barbaric. The key attribute of any hiding place. Once he’d located somewhere the other imperative was the total security of his hostage. gagged as well. Reluctantly he decided she would have to be bound and. especially a woman who had never done him any harm. he decided. 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. Maybe ten miles each way. He sat down on a tree stump and spread out his ordnance survey map in front of him. 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. apart from occasional hillwalkers who would almost certain follow the well-known ascent routes up the mountain. Say two hours cycle run maximum. seemed an extreme. He looked at the map. Distance from home was crucial too. interspersed with the odd derelict shooting lodge and deserted but and ben.clearing a few yards off the track. The image of the woman bound and trussed like a chicken that sprang into his mind made him feel distinctly uneasy. Somewhere that was absolutely escapeproof during the highly dangerous period when he would be negotiating the ransom for the woman’s safe release. 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. with the introduction of large-scale sheep rearing in recent years the moors were no longer prime shooting country. Somewhere he could visit regularly without attracting suspicion. The idea of tying up a fellow human being. He was sure he would be able to find somewhere safe and out of the way in that desolate desert of heather and bog. 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. measure. possibly. somewhere that was not likely to be visited either casually or as part of any organised search. To be on the safe side he would probably have to blindfold her as well to keep her from recognising him. Because she would be left alone for long periods she would have to be restrained in some way. were likely to be either sheep or the odd deer driven down off the high tops by bad weather.
The least he could do was to make the experience as free from trauma and pain as possible. that was for sure. He bit his lip. He sighed as the amount of preparatory work he still had to do began to dawn on him. the one ray of hope on his dark horizon. that would be unavoidable. Chained to a wall probably so that he didn't have to stand guard over her the whole time. it was almost second nature to him now. He was learning fast about not leaving clues behind. When he had finished the crisps he carefully folded up the empty Golden Wonder packet and tucked it back into his rucksack. 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 took a deep breath. waiting for the ransom to be paid was likely to take a couple of days at least.people with dignity and respect. She would soon tire of screaming her head off when nobody came to her rescue. 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. there was no getting away from it. God alone knew how he was going to feed his family later in the week. Tying her up securely with rope or whatever would be difficult without hurting her. If she could see the logic in that then any necessary violence and discomfort could surely be kept to a minimum. Exactly how he was going to do that posed something of a challenge. just no way round it. where the hell would he get handcuffs and chains? He couldn't exactly borrow them from the police. For a start. Maybe longer. He tried to . Desperate problems demanded desperate solutions. Maybe if the hiding place was remote enough it wouldn't be necessary to gag her. Whatever happened he would have to stop her from escaping. Escape was a different matter. After all. If ever he lacked motivation. Figuring out what he was going next to do was only the beginning. He could not afford to take any risks whatsoever with her security on that score. he hadn't even begun to work out how this phase of the operation was going to be accomplished. Indeed. 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. To contain his mounting panic at the precariousness of his family’s circumstances he forced himself to concentrate upon the main task in hand. that challenge alone was sufficient to underline how desperate the situation had become. Implementing all the necessary actions would be even more difficult. It might be better if she was handcuffed and chained. This would be the first time he had ever used force to make anyone do something against their will. All that mattered now was the efficient capture of his prospective victim.
He wouldn't have the nerve. Focussing on handcuffs was a mistake. Besides which. only solutions. 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. If she was blindfolded and gagged. he mustn't get hung up on details the way he usually did or nothing would ever get done. he didn’t have the money and his credit cards were useless so even buying online was out of the question. Problem solved. Except that they would probably be designed with would-be Harry Houdinis in mind – with one bound you would be free. 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. Much less obtrusive too. Didn’t exist in fact. So. There was absolutely no way he would go into a sex shop and buy such stuff. The only other thing he could think of was bondage gear. the kinky sort of stuff he’d occasionally stumbled across on the internet. maybe even had her ears stuffed with wax or something so she couldn’t work out where she was. Think out of the box. He sat in the clearing for over an hour turning the problem over and over in his mind without getting any nearer to a satisfactory solution. Eventually it dawned on him that he was making the problem out to be worse than it really was. Make do and mend. It surely wasn't beyond his wit to fashion some other sort of suitable restraint. It was just a pity that the easiest solution – keeping the woman at home in his attic – obviously wasn’t feasible. But of course there still were problems. Which was exactly the opposite effect to what he wanted to achieve. sex shops weren’t exactly plentiful in this part of Scotland. were probably out of the question. Besides. he concluded glumly. There are no problems. No. . There was a whole box of them in the shed.think laterally. as John Lennon used to say. Handcuffs were the sort of props a magician might use. He stared down at the map. It was hard to visualise anywhere suitable just by looking at the swirling contours and empty spaces. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Talk about embarrassment. with no need to keep coming and going all the time. if she was bound securely so she couldn’t make a sound. It would certainly make it easier to keep her under constant surveillance. He shivered. And there were any number of old padlocks in his toolbox which he had acquired over the years. Without a doubt the central problem still remained the location of the safe premises. Maybe he could buy them in a toyshop. that was the answer. So handcuffs.
Maybe somewhere he used to play as a kid. As long as they didn't find her for the couple of days it would take to complete the . It had to be somewhere he’d discovered on his own. He wasn’t sure he wanted to die just yet. This undertaking was going to need genuine courage as well as brains to see it through. There were other problems too. 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. He was sure she would rather suffer the degradation of abject poverty. Wherever he kept the woman the place would be found eventually. He had to keep things in perspective. They tended to attract curious tourists and youngsters looking for somewhere safe to puff the odd spliff or two. 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. Too well known. A millionairess taken hostage. They were bound to mount a massive search. There’d be helicopters and sniffer dogs and God knows what all out looking for her. It was an unnerving thought. The police would probably call in the SAS which meant he might be shot if they found him. He didn’t want any of the locals leading the bobbies straight to his hiding place. The fact was that she would never believe he was capable of pulling off such an audacious scheme. One of the old hideaways where they used to go for a smoke and a few bottles of beer. He sighed.But letting Maureen into the plan was out of the question. It would be all over the telly and the radio too which was a little bit scary. His poor hostage was going to have to suffer quite enough without putting up with unnecessary privations of that sort. although there had been a few times recently when he had truly wished he was dead. Her capture was bound to make front page news. They were a bit too obvious really. A bullet blowing the top of your head off is quite another. An old abandoned cottage or farm steading had to be the best solution. It was inconceivable that she would allow him to go through with such an evil course of action. He scanned the map for a suitable site. He squinted at the map. Nor was it simply her moral objections that stood in the way. Somewhere he could make lockfast to keep out prying eyes. Somewhere that no one else knew about. Caves weren't really appropriate although there were a few around here. Wishing is one thing of course. He swallowed hard. She would think he was mad even to consider it. Not to mention the fact that they were usually damp and smelly and obviously without any kind of sanitation. She would never be party to anything criminal or even immoral. of sequestration and the bailiffs coming round. He forced himself to remain calm.
simple food. except for three or four very old damson trees which were unusual in this part of the world.ransom transaction and the handover of the money that was all that mattered really. The good thing was that the authorities wouldn't have a clue where to begin looking. even abroad. As far as they were concerned she could have been spirited away to anywhere in the UK. after he had checked out the site just in case. The simple life. The place was a bit too isolated and difficult to get to on foot. simple problems. the old cottage with its windows boarded up. No one else had ever discovered it so that each year they could be sure of their bountiful harvest of ripe damsons. simple pleasures. For once in his life it seemed that things were actually coming together the way he wanted. That was the place. back to nature. He folded up the map and tucked it into his rucksack. That was obviously vital. sharing the burden. With the help of the map he retraced in his mind's eye some of the walks he'd done with Maureen over the years. the original orchard had mostly been subsumed by native geans and birches. They would surely think it highly unlikely that she was being kept right under their noses. they brought back waves of pleasure. The oncesubstantial garden was almost completely overgrown the last time they’d visited it. He'd have to watch that. Didn't want them doing a Sherlock Holmes on him. That's what Maureen used to call it. An old abandoned farm. He couldn't suppress a frisson of excitement at the thought of what was happening. totally surrounded by an encroaching forest of naturallyregenerating birches. And then it came to him The Damson Farm. The setting in the lee of Morven Hill was a delight. There were many. most of the outbuildings roofless and crumbling. A very special place. certain that their journey through the old pine forest and the foothills of Morven Hill wouldn't be wasted. He was pretty sure his search was over and in less than a day. They had made regular visits for a number of years to collect the ripe fruit which Maureen used to turn into delicious jam. He recalled how they had been so enchanted by the magic of the place that once they had even made love inside the old cottage on the cold earth floor. They hadn't been back there for years. he would know for certain. As long as he didn't leave any clues behind he should be safe. It was perfect. Someone up there must be smiling down on him at last. . It was almost miraculous the way things were falling into place. Great memories. He shook his head in amazement.
He dismounted and pushed the bike up the hill. his empty body drained of energy. It was hard to keep the bike on the road as his chilled hands barely had enough strength to grip the handlebars. the mazy snowflakes drifting down prettily on the still air. His forehead ached from the cutting wind.While he was pushing the bike back along the landrover track several dark clouds began drifting across the sky. He stopped and stared in surprise as the light streamed out from the kitchen window and bounced off the dancing swirling clouds of snowflakes. leaving a long drunken trail behind him in the fresh snow. Normally he would have been pleased but tonight he felt only foreboding as he contemplated the chilly reception that awaited him. His legs began to ache with the effort and he was forced to stand up on the pedals in order to climb the hill. Maureen must have arrived home early. His eyes watered as the icy snowflakes pelted his eyeballs. Before he reached the main road it started to snow. half blinded. The woods turned dark and brooding. He mounted his bicycle and started peddling home. To make matters worse he could hardly breathe as the driving snow filled his gaping mouth. Maureen looked up from the cooker and smiled as he staggered into the . The return journey was mostly uphill as the road climbed out of the valley of the Dee onto the flood plain. He was almost crying from exhaustion. 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 unprotected ears were frozen. When he turned into the driveway at the top of the hill the lights in the cottage were burning bright. momentarily blinding him. the rising wind now in his face. 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. leaning into the wind. At one point he thought he wasn’t going to make it. By the time he reached the half way point he was exhausted. When he eventually stepped out onto the main road a swirling breeze sprang up out of nowhere and pelted him with snowflakes. He shivered as the temperature plummeted. 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. Where the road was unprotected by hedgerows it was already starting to drift. Almost magically a scene straight off a Christmas card was silently created in front of his eyes. the bike wobbling all over the road.
the print swam in front of his eyes. “Where’s Martin?” “In his room. The smell of cooking stopped him in his tracks.” “Did you? Why?” . “Did you get a paper?” Maureen reached into her shopping bag. resenting the way he always benefited from his mother’s unconditional love. He put down the paper. “I swallowed my pride and went round to see Mum again. He made an extra effort to be civil. “What’s happened? I thought…” Maureen looked a little self-conscious. He couldn’t focus on what he was reading. She thought her daughter had married beneath herself.” “Oh. She took it out of the nest egg she was left by Gran.kitchen. He suddenly felt faint with hunger. The feeling was mutual. He couldn’t stop himself feeling envious of his son. pursing her lips. She gave me another loan to tide me over. The money wasn’t even his after all.” It was a delicate moment. He couldn’t afford such luxuries for himself. “Here. Instead he said. I see. He looked enviously at the cooker. I had to think of Martin. He had no rights in the matter. brushing snow from his hair and eyes. He was going to say something about Maureen’s favouritism but thought better of it.” Nick bit his lip.” “How is he?” “He’s okay. He took off his wet clothes and sat down at the kitchen table.” He was so hungry he felt dizzy.” “Thank you. He hadn’t bought any new music for months. I couldn’t bear the thought of him going to bed hungry. She was probably right. After all the things that had happened he was by no means certain that he would be included in the feast. “What are you cooking?” “Stew. “I fixed your bike by the way. I bought him a new dance album CD so he’s happy. none at all.” Nick didn’t get on with Maureen’s mother.
Which was a Thursday. Take whatever they .” “Yes?” “Don’t be too greedy.An idea leapt into his head. if that’s all right. I could take you and Martin in and kill time in town till then. “If it means you’ll get a proper job of course you can. Remember we need the money.” His mind was racing as he planned ahead to the big day. He opened his mouth and trusted to instinct. You take the car. It’s labouring at a builders in town.” “Banchory?” The lies flowed surprisingly easily.” “Sounds a lot more realistic than that last one you had. What time is your appointment?” “Two thirty. “I think so. I’ll make sure it’s got a full tank of petrol.” “What would you do all day? Martin and I will get the bus in that day.” “Nick.” Maureen looked dubious. Not tomorrow when he planned to check out the cottage. “I went to the Job Centre. “I needed it to get to Banchory. It’s not a problem. “It’s better than nothing. I always thought that was too good to be true.” “That’s what I thought.” “Thanks. Is it weekly paid? That would help our cash flow. “Doing what this time?” Nick had no idea what his next lie was going to be. I’ve got a job interview in town tomorrow. And good luck. I’ll find out at my interview on Thursday. The day after when he would be ready to carry out the kidnap. Something down to earth will suit you far better.” Maureen looked impressed. I’ll need the car to get into town.” After a moment’s hesitation the stern expression on Maureen’s face melted into a smile. The thing is. “It’s not much of a job.
What about the arrestment order on your salary? Is that legal?” .” “So we won’t lose the house? Jesus. Your situation is different. Apparently we shouldn’t have taken legal advice from the same lawyer.” She looked at him. When? Why?” The seconds ticked past. In a way I deserve it…but you. I’m sorry about what I’ve put you through. While I was there the lawyer looked at that personal guarantee we signed.” He gripped the edge of the table to stop the room spinning. her face expressionless. “Maybe they won’t. will you?” “Sure. Something about you having undue influence over me. Eventually she said. Maureen. “I had to think of Martin. “You’re kidding.offer. It might be that we have to split up if I’m going to protect Martin and myself.” “I see. You went into it with your eyes open.” Nick was astonished. “Listen. “I’ve been to see a lawyer. It doesn’t seem right that they can arrest your wages and take the house away from you. that’s great news. Maureen? What about?” She looked away. “Why.” “Not necessarily. Maybe not if you get a job.” “Jesus. Apparently there’s a precedent.” “So you’re leaving me?” “Not necessarily.” “What do you mean?” She hesitated.” “What?” “Take the house away from me. He thinks there might be a flaw in it. “I went to see about getting a divorce. None of this is your fault and yet you’re the one who’s suffering most.” It was an easy promise to make.
“This is ready. She lifted the lid on a saucepan and peered into it. “Okay. I’ve got to know. He’s looking into it.” he sighed. I’ll have to take advice from the lawyer.” Nick saw that he was wasting his time pursuing the matter.” “What kind of answer is that? Are you going to stay or not? Christ.“He’s not sure. “I honestly don’t know. Nick. He’s thinks there’s a chance I can get the order rescinded. “Give me a little time that’s all.” she said eventually. The ideal of the family upon which has life had been built was shattered.” “What if I get this job? Will you stay then? Please.” Nick was devastated.” She stared at him without speaking. Maureen. her face blank. That’s why we’re in this mess. Nick. . Particularly if I’m a single parent. “What about if I get this job? Will you still leave?” Maureen thought for a moment.” She said nothing. Whatever else happens I’ve got to protect Martin.. All the sacrifices he had made were for nothing. “Give Martin a shout. I think we’ve already paid enough as it is.” “Well then?” “I’ll have to see. Nick.” Maureen turned back to the cooker. I’m sorry.” Maureen flinched as his voice rose. Maureen it matters to me. I’ll get that job and pay off our debts I promise. “It depends how high the price is.” “Don’t you want to stay together? Doesn’t it matter to you?” “Of course it matters. He felt betrayed. I have a duty to look into these things. “At least give me a chance.
This time don’t let me down. I’ll give Martin a shout. I promise.” “He won’t . 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. Er. please.” “Okay. I’m too tired to argue. Trust me. You won’t regret this. Nick. am I getting any?” Seeing the downcast expression on her husband’s face Maureen broke into a smile. Just make sure you get that job on Thursday. sorry. 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. heather-clad foothills of Morven Hill.“Please. You’ll see. “All right. up towards the brown. this is your last chance. “Not now. 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. Nick. I’ll get this job and everything will be all right. Now. Half an hour later the muddy track petered out as it emerged into the open on the far side of the wood.” Nick muttered something that he hoped sounded suitably grateful as he sloped off to find his son. 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. stupid. The hills in front of him formed a natural amphitheatre which looked vaguely familiar but he was unsure in which . It’s up to you. 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. that’s all. I’m not in the mood. this is ready.” He stood up and moved to embrace her but she turned away from him. But whatever happens. “As long as Martin doesn’t suffer any more.” She took a deep breath.” She looked unconvinced. “Of course you are. give Martin a shout will you.
as he slithered towards them down the embankment of some ancient peat lots.” he muttered. It was only the knowledge that he was running out of time. After several false starts following various twisting tracks that quickly petered out. He was disconcerted by how disorientated he felt and how different the landscape appeared compared to his vivid memories of the times they had foraged there for wild raspberries. On . damsons and mushrooms when they were younger. In a very short time he was cold. His heart leapt. 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. and that there were no real alternatives left. Out in the open moorland away from the shelter of the trees a stiff breeze bowled down the mountainside. A small flock of bedraggled sheep watched his lack of progress with blank disinterest. Maybe it was inevitable that as the years had passed and their love had metamorphosed into a kind of fond indifference so too the way he viewed the world had changed beyond easy recognition. tossing the occasional sleety shower into his face as he trudged across the heather. which forced him to press on with his desperate quest. As the rain dripped off the end of his nose and ran down his back he laced up his boot and seriously considered abandoning his search. retained its own particular resonance when he recalled their good times together in later years. He retrieved his compass from the rucksack and took a sighting a few degrees north-east of the snow-capped summit of Morven Hill.direction he should strike out. wet and exhausted. He sat down upon a clump of heather and took off his right boot and emptied it of water. “Thank Christ. on the far horizon he spotted a copse of trees shimmering in the in the misty rain like an oasis. The building itself was almost totally hidden behind a thick barrier of brambles and ivy and rampant rhododendron bushes. he eventually found a promising-looking path that struck out decisively across the moor. 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. 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. At last. To make matters worse there was no sign whatsoever of human habitation. over an hour later. an unbroken sheep track which meandered in the general north westerly direction where he thought the farm should lie. He was surprised that he should have forgotten so much about a place that had once been so dear to him.
he thought gloomily. The only furniture was a crude wooden table with one leg missing that dominated the centre of the room. He shivered. which was the main thing as far as his particular requirements were concerned. 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. Even an optimistic estate agent might be pushed to come up with a description like that. 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. The green wood ceiling of the room had numerous broken timbers hanging down and looked like it could fall in at any moment. “A potential holiday home in need of some renovation” he muttered aloud. the place didn’t feel like it had ever been a happy house. The bare earth floor was cluttered with bits and pieces of farm machinery. It was cold too. 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. climbing almost up to the gutters of the black tiled roof like some enormous prickly octopus crawling out of the ocean. a horse-drawn plough. He forced his way gingerly through the brambles towards the front door. several rolls of barbed wire. Exactly as he remembered the front door had been forced open long ago but fortunately it was still on its hinges. He paused at the threshold to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. The damp walls were covered in fungus. all decorated in a thick layer of bird droppings. a giant wooden mincing machine. He congratulated himself for having the foresight to bring a padlock that was suitably rusty in order to blend in with the surroundings. taking care to keep all traces of disturbance to a minimum. The air of dereliction was oppressive. 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. Thanks to the poor state of the corrugated iron roof which was rusty and torn the cottage obviously . for all its shortcomings. like green flock wallpaper. the kind of clammy cold that quickly ate into your bones and dampened your spirits. All the windows were boarded up and the only light within the cottage came from the open front door.hearing his approach a deer ran out of the narrow opening where a gate had once guarded the entrance to the neat cottage garden many years before. 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 reckoned that once the door was repaired and padlocked the place should be wind and waterproof at least on the ground floor.
At least his captive guest wouldn't be deprived of all her home comforts during what would be. hopefully. which was located in a room no bigger than a cupboard off to the side of the kitchen. most likely vacated after the war when the land became uneconomic for whatever reason. a tale of grinding poverty and tarnished dreams. picking his way carefully past the barbed wire. blackened and seatless. he was in no doubt about that. with a surprised. still flushed when he pulled the chain. Miraculously there was still running water in the taps although it was brown and oily. While he was bending down to examine the stove for suitably robust anchor points he suddenly heard a scratching sound. a life of honest toil unrewarded. The degradation. Although rusty and seized solid it would be ideal for what he had in mind . What was important was that the toilet. but not particularly startled.something immovable to which he could securely tether his prisoner and render her immobile. Looking round he thought the dwelling was probably an old farmhand’s cottage. her brief confinement. He tried the old bakelite light switches but not surprisingly the electricity had long since been disconnected. but one with a resonance to his own. Back in the kitchen he examined a huge antiquated wood-burning stove which was set against one wall. like sandpaper being rubbed against wood.wasn’t soundproof but the location was so isolated it hardly mattered. not the sort anyone would wish to drink. although this time he was going to do his damnedest to make sure that his sad little drama would have a different ending. desperation and eventual defeat of the working man. He stepped inside. There would be a poignant story behind it. 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. The age old story in fact. although cracked. He reckoned that the thing must weigh at least a ton. He froze in horror. Drinking water wouldn’t be a problem though. 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. expression on its . a crude precursor of the modern Aga. A far older tragedy than the one he was involved in right now. there were plenty of streams nearby. Standing there in the middle of the decaying room he could smell the sad history of the place. about two feet away from his own head. 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.
Silence followed his outburst. Once again he heard the rat shuffling about underneath the stove. With time . The perfect hiding place in every respect except one: it wasn’t habitable. He struggled to restrain the urge to turn and flee. he thought wildly. Up until that moment everything had been going so well. “No way. There might be a whole plague of rats lurking under it. Jesus.” he protested out loud. It was out of the question. degrading treatment. "Jesus!" he gasped. Nothing moved. The rats had beaten him. Nick stumbled back rapidly to the safety of doorway and stood there staring in horror at the stove. 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.face. Against all the odds his plans had been coming perfectly to fruition. holding his head in his hands. A shiver ran down his spine and he hunched his shoulders and shook his head in defiance. Actually eating her alive. Only the thought of the fate that awaited him and his family if his mission failed through his cowardice persuaded him to stay. Now this. climbing over her face and body. He shook his head again. there could be hundreds of them. The rat seemed unimpressed. The idea of being attacked by an army of rats was his worst nightmare. lazy scraping sound. He pictured the disgusting creatures sniffing round her feet. jumping back in alarm. his heart pounding. He felt utterly deflated. “Fuck off!” he screamed at the invisible adversary. He would rather risk being eaten alive than fail now. as if it knew it was safe inside its metal home. Nick thought of poor Mrs Roberts being forced to share the house with a plague of rats. 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. 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. The rat sniffed the air while it considered the situation before eventually retreating in a dignified manner back beneath the stove. blinded by the realisation that his plan had failed. maybe even attacking her. He backed out of the house. “Fuck off! Fuck off! Fuck off!”. The idea was too gruesome to contemplate. everything had been slipping seamlessly into place. a sort of slow unconcerned.
feasting on his febrile imagination. by association. He lay back against the wall with his eyes closed. his last crazy scheme. accepting that their suffering on earth would expiate their sins. that they should all do their penance in conditions of abject poverty. It was even worse to have deluded himself into thinking that he would have been capable of putting his crazy scheme into action. Hell on earth. It was hard to breathe in the airless heat. He knew he was at the crossroads on the road to his salvation. At that moment the sun broke through the clouds and he felt its late Spring warmth focussed on the top of his head as if through a lens. It was God’s curse upon him and. Maybe that’s what this setback was all about. Life never is. Rats gnawing at his sinners' soul. He opened his eyes and saw that nothing had changed. Walking away from the cottage meant he would . Perhaps God was saying that he and his family deserved everything they got. bathing in the life-enhancing warmth. He had to make a decision about which route he was going to take. his family. In a matter of moments the heat was so fierce he imagined the sun’s rays might even set his hair on fire. eating him alive from the inside. Maybe that was the fate that was waiting for him in purgatory. He heard a now-familiar shuffling noise within the cottage. Of course he should have guessed that it wasn't going to be easy. Rats crawling all over him. The sins of the father. He seemed to have learned nothing from the collapse of the business. 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. The rats were gnawing away at his dream. his dreadful penance for the rest of his life. Maybe they were God's way of punishing him for contemplating something so wicked and inherently evil. Not even purgatory. It was bad enough to dream up such an outrageous scam. He felt like he was already in hell. Rivulets of sweat began to trickle down his temple. The rats would feast well tonight. There was no getting away from it. tearing at his flesh. his face tilted up towards the heavens. If he left now he knew it was all over. he thought glumly. his plan would be in tatters. He was beaten. he had been guilty of breathtaking hubris. A plague of rats upon their house. Or maybe it was a warning. that they should share the punishment. He stood up.rapidly running out the presence of the rats was an insurmountable problem. Here on earth. A warning not to commit such a heinous crime against nature. it was too late to think up an alternative scheme. He might as well end it here.
It didn’t matter. As for his own fate. He picked up a piece of roofing timber and threw it at the cooker. As the pain gradually subsided his felt his brain easing. He clenched his fist and shoved his knuckles into his mouth and bit hard until he could stand the pain no longer. He owed it to them. For the first time he could see clearly that his sins alone had brought his whole family down. At the end of the day he was prepared to sacrifice everything to save his family. He would pay any price. 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. And there was no doubt that what he was proposing was a mortal sin. They were all that mattered to him. of the terror of the morning post with its endless demands for money. Every waking second had been hell. He’d seen her speak once at a Chamber of Commerce dinner. This plan was his only hope. It was cooler within the thick granite walls and he could breathe again. He could see clearly in the darkness for the first time. The rats in the cottage were simply part of the price Mrs Roberts would have to pay for her part in his salvation. Whatever price he might have to pay in the afterlife – if there was one . above all for his utter failure to provide for his family as any decent husband should. maybe she wasn't as . he was prepared to pay for his release from fear with the biggest sacrifice of all. think. He couldn’t give up now. and more importantly. He wiped the back of his hand on his jumper. Every night’s sleep had been an extended nightmare. A rustling sound from the direction of the cooker told him that he still wasn’t alone. He closed his eyes and concentrated with all his might. brushing away the blood. Time to think. Nothing could be worse than what he’d been through since the business had folded. She had come across as a pretty tough woman. He realised that ever since that day he had been living in constant fear of the telephone call from the bank manager. Silence followed. the eternal damnation of his soul. There was no other way. for his recurrent hubris. it would be worth it if it brought some sort of earthly peace to him and his family. He made up his mind. His life for the past six months had been hell on earth.for the evil deed upon which he was about to embark. of the constant scanning of the road for the approach of his creditors. Even if the price of their salvation meant that others would have to suffer. Taking a deep breath he turned and went back into the cottage. go to any lengths to make amends for all the sins of omission he had committed over the years.lose everything. Maybe the rats wouldn't worry her that much anyway. He cursed his Catholic upbringing. for his persistent envy of other people’s success.
it started to snow. In a matter of minutes a blizzard sprang up and soon he was engulfed by a total white-out. whatever the consequences. As Mrs Roberts was about to find out. From now on he was committed. much to Maureen’s relief. drifting to a depth of several feet in places. By the time Maureen joined him in bed later that night he was already asleep. On the way home the snow built up on the road ahead of him. He stood up and took a last look round. He had made up his mind. as he stumbled back across the moor. his life would change forever. 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. During the night his brain worked frantically to make sense of the days ahead. and he tossed and turned endlessly until dawn finally arrived. it never had been. an outcome that only a few days previously would have seemed like a miracle. Everything was in place. There was only one way forward. He took out his compass and took a bearing on Mount Keen in the distance. He was exhausted by his efforts but also excited at the prospect of the imminent resolution of his problems. It had taken him far too long to get to the house. The screws were rusty. Next time he would be able to head straight for the cottage. . For the first time he felt truly confident that his plan would work. he knew. including Mrs Roberts. Maybe it was the rats who would have to look out. Tomorrow. but in this world everyone had their cross to bear.cowardly as he was. Nothing in life was easy. Half an hour later. Notwithstanding the conditions it had taken him a little over thirty minutes to return to his bicycle which was now almost hidden beneath a thick blanket of snow. He reckoned it would take him less than half an hour from where he planned to park the car even if he had to forcibly drag his reluctant hostage along with him. He realised he had been wandering in a circle. He stood up and made the sign of the cross in expiation for the crime he was about to commit. He took out the screwdriver from his rucksack and started work on repairing the door. forcing him to dismount and plough his way through the drifts on foot. He regretted the inevitable misery he was going to cause. That night he went to bed early. It was hard work. Guided by his compass he eventually reached the relative shelter of the woods. exhausted by the physical effort and the rapid draining of nervous energy from his body. No one had ever said it was going to be easy. He checked his watch. Once he had made the house lockfast he sat down again on the front seat and studied his map.
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. 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. which allowed him some leeway in his timetable if anything went wrong. days. He carried the holdall out to the car and loaded it into the boot. Besides. He planned to get packets of soup mostly. He remembered to add a toilet roll to the little box of supplies he was planning to take. although rusty. A box of matches completed his preparations. No fresh fruit either. If he was careful he reckoned he might be able to buy enough food to last his victim for three. unless they actually . He knew that the police would find the tracks the Saab made in the mud but he couldn’t see what they would learn from that. He still had a pound left. In the end he reckoned he had enough food to last for five days. Certainly not fresh meat or anything that might attract the rats. there was a limit to the amount he would be able to carry across the moor in his rucksack. 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. What was it they said? Cometh the hour cometh the man? Something like that anyway.lamp they sometimes used during power cuts. He hadn't yet worked out the correct form of wording for that either. Fortunately they had an extensive range of packet soups. possibly even four. When he had completed all his preparations he locked up the house. And a couple of blankets to keep her warm. were still in working order. Everything was now in place to begin the mission. Unfortunately no pillow. He took his time in the little Spar shop and bought astutely. 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. but he didn't think it would be too difficult to think of something suitably authentic once he actually had her captive. but that was simply a question of lack of finance. Ten minutes later he parked in a clearing a quarter of a mile along the track through the woods where he had previously hidden the bicycle. He promised himself he would spend it on a celebratory can of beer once the first phase of his operation was successfully concluded. 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. loaded the rucksack into the boot and set off down to the village shop to collect the necessary rations. She would know who he should send it to as well. Besides. He packed the new food supplies into the rucksack and drove sedately down to the river. she'd be able to help him get it right. It would be in her own interest after all.
almost unfishable. The woman had probably taken one look at the river earlier and decided that it was a complete waste of time. there was more chance that he would do himself a serious injury if he fell crossing the rough ground than anything else. he might buy some new tyres to be on the safe side. Maybe she’d packed her bags and headed for the airport and the next plane back to London. Satisfied that he was alone and unobserved he removed his combat gear from the car and started changing into uniform. He’d overlooked the effect of the overnight melting snow. He waited until he was certain that the coast was clear before he sprinted the hundred yards across the open meadow. muddy current. Besides. to his vantage point on a grassy knoll overlooking the river. 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. The very best that he could hope for was that she was waiting for the water level to drop an inch or two. the river . His hand shook with excitement as he locked the car. His mission truly had begun. the hunter becoming the hunted. his senses on high alert. perhaps longer. 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. Maybe later. It was just possible that in an hour or two. He was learning fast. 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. bucking. Nothing happened. He climbed out of the car and spread a map on the bonnet and pretended to examine it for five minutes. He could hear the river in the distance rumbling like a motorway. 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. All his hopes had vanished with the melting snow. With this one symbolic act he felt transformed. It was one thing to plan things in his head but standing there in the woods dressed like a terrorist raised everything onto a different plane. Pay cash too.tracked down the vehicle which he thought was unlikely now that the snow had melted. Used fivers. He smiled to himself. He had a quick look up and down the river but there was no sign of anyone. The river was in full spate. 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. bent double. All his preparations had been for nothing. He gazed morosely at the pulsing. It took him twenty minutes to reach the edge of the wood where it bordered the river. He felt sick in the pit of his stomach. when he came into the ransom money.
As well as screwing up his life in the process. Even a heavily weighted Devon might get down to the fish. What was it Scott Fitzgerald had written? Ineffable toploftiness? That just about summed it up. of course. Maybe played backgammon or a rubber of bridge with the servants. Or maybe she had decided instead to spend the day shopping in town.would drop sufficiently to try a large Toby. It was one of those spring mornings when it felt good to be alive. He pondered on the irony that if she didn’t show up she would be missing a grand opportunity to add to her basket. The possibilities were endless. Most fisherman. Stocking up the wine cellar perhaps. unfortunately.the sun came out and the gorse bushes all around him were suddenly alive with flocks of finches singing their hearts out. Maybe Bloomberg on satellite. Despite the collapse of his rescue plan at that moment he felt ineffably toplofty. Perhaps rattled off the Times crossword. He stretched out upon the groundsheet and filled his lungs with the crisp clean air. maybe. As another hour dragged by and his spirits subsided he forced himself to remain optimistic that his quarry would eventually appear. or a fashionable Pinot Grigio – when a large salmon splashed in the fast water at the head of the pool. Certainly wouldn’t have frittered away her time watching East Enders or any of that rubbish. He cursed under his breath. Snatching simple pleasures. That was what life was about after all. a lovely head and tail rise. The minutes ticked by and turned into hours. He was lying there speculating on what sort of wine the woman would drink with her catch – Chablis. almost certainly a taking fish. living for the moment. So much for God smiling upon him. He imagined she’d probably spent a heavy night carousing and feasting or whatever it was that rich folk did to pass the time. 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. Maybe he was doing her an injustice. 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. He lay on his back and closed his eyes. stealing beauty. At that moment – which would have been lunch time if he had had any food . Whatever she was up to right now all he could do was wait. He could see it was a silvery fresh run fish. He knew the feeling was as transitory as the clear blue sky but he was determined to enjoy it while he could. when the world seemed to be bursting with a myriad wonderful possibilities. . As the hours dragged by he began to doubt that she would turn up at all. It was like listening to an unruly heavenly choir.
Out in the shed probably. A few seconds later the vehicle appeared. he realised. and squinted through the telescopic sight at the landrover. A dream not a nightmare. He picked up the air rifle and nestled the stock against his cheek. Money. Nick fiddled with his binoculars but he couldn’t get them to focus properly. How many notes was that? A lot. Twenty pound notes. he heard the sound of a Landrover some minutes before the vehicle itself nosed into view. reassured by its coolness. A shedload. that would be a nice idea. Attacks on the rich. What he was doing was not entirely selfish. conscience money. As a result he was simply applying other market forces of his own devising to solve a huge debt problem.. Once again he scanned the horizon with his binoculars. The truth was. The comparison gave him a warm glow inside. The same principle the World Bank imposed on debt-ridden African countries. he knew he’d need to find somewhere safe to keep all that money. He had been pushed into corner by forces beyond his control. Or was that too close to home? He frowned. Giving to charity would be okay. Just like Robin Hood. that even at this stage the whole thing still seemed unreal. when he had almost given up hope. as Martin might say. 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. And then. On a more serious note. Do some good for once in his life. periodically come down to look at the water in a spate. He smiled to himself. That sort of dream. that was important. just out of sight of the water where it wouldn’t scare the fish.. Not that he needed to feel guilty about what he was doing. It was like being in a dream. It occurred to him that he would need to ask for cash to prevent the authorities spotting any suspicious movement in his bank account. he thought. Might give some to charity actually. Imposing a unilateral tax on the rich. That moment when the water level starts dropping can often be the most productive.however it was the song went.he reminded himself. All right. He could just make out figures moving . Lots of money would secure a happy ending. Redistribution of wealth. Like a fairy tale with a happy ending. rolling across the lumpy meadow like a small boat beating against a heavy swell. A good dream. He swivelled round and trained his binoculars downstream. A dream that ended with riches and happiness all round. And anything above a five pound deposit was going to look suspicious given the dire state of his finances. 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. Imagine there's no. It stopped at its familiar place at the head of the first pool on the beat. Maybe he was still human after all. Half a million pounds. 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 one that had bounced. he wondered? Some fucking Hooray Henry straight out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh. a feeling of despair tightening its icy fingers round his chest. Then everything stopped going to plan. No doubt about it. Suddenly everything was going to plan once more. . Someone who had never done a day’s work in their lives. ginger-haired. “Fuck.” he swore out loud. the inland revenue. fuck. Surely to fuck he wasn't going to be thwarted by some gormless twat who had nothing better to do than play the clown on the riverbank? Who the fuck was he. trying to keep the rifle steady. The third figure appeared to be a young man in his twenties. thumping the ground with his fist. The bank manager. This totally unexpected appearance fatally undermined all his plans. "Shit. He remembered the cheque he had written to that fucking garage owner. He watched in dismay as the unanticipated new arrival carried the rods down to the river. Nick couldn’t believe his eyes. “Than you. a figure straight out of Country Life. Three people. that guy was after his blood all right. And the rest of his army of creditors would be queuing up right behind him. God. He just wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing. In his heart he knew he’d fuck it up. Jesus." he whispered. climbed out of the vehicle.” He started to feel sick as he contemplated the consequences of failure.inside the vehicle. cloudless blue sky. when he went to confession as a kid he had to make up sins to tell the priest he was such a goodygoody. small black figures in the distance. smoking a small cigar and laughing continuously as he darted around helping to unload the rods. A fucking toy boy. He raised his eyes heavenwards. A wastrel. Even a teacher for Christ’s sake. He might have guessed it would turn out like this. At least they did some good in the world. Pure fantasy. fuck. Then there was the debt collector. thank you.” he muttered aloud. “You’ve got some fucking sense of humour all right.” he muttered. he looked like a caricature of a country squire. Christ. He held his breath. Talk about kicking a man when he’s down. The whole idea had been stupid from the start. God. Three against one considerably increased the odds against him. and Nick cursed him vehemently. He buried his head in his hands and cursed his luck. they were probably battering down the door of the house right now. Anyone with any sense in his position would have been a lawyer or an accountant. Dressed in a long check waistcoat and green corduroy trousers. Like everything else he had done in his life. the sheriff’s officers. “Christ. Twice the man fell over the springer spaniel which kept leaping up at him to lick his face. He should never have started his own business in the first place. glaring up into the expressionless.
He shook his head. He had yearned for respectability. How had he got himself into this predicament? A lose-lose situation. laughing as he did so. The ginger-haired idle bastard was tying on a fly for the woman. And all he had ever tried to do was be respectable. Only to fail in the end. His exuberant behaviour irritated Nick. Nick shook his head scornfully. Dedicated his life to building up a successful business. especially in death. Nick snarled at the sight. a place at university. a contest in which you treated your prey with the utmost respect. a deadly game where you always accorded your quarry dignity. If it had been him he'd already have had his first fish on the bank in the time they had wasted pratting around. Whatever the outcome he was a condemned man. Yet again he asked himself the old question that had tormented him continuously for the past six months. Just where exactly had he taken the wrong turning in his life? The image of himself as a bright-eyed sixth-former at school flashed into his mind. He had always believed fishing should be a serious business. The anguish and the worry. He couldn't understand how it took these people so long to get themselves organised. The way the guy . escaping the clutches of his manic-depressive mother. Every few minutes the man jumped up and waved his arms about. a credit to the school. A secret life as a sinner if he successfully carried out the crime. All those sleepless nights. Let nothing stand in his way as he struggled and clawed his way into the middle classes. Appointed Head Boy in a tough comprehensive. Dropped the lot of them in fact. an alcoholic father. laughing and gesticulating. The young ginger haired man lay sprawled out on the bank behind the woman. conducting some kind of elaborate pantomime. He picked up the air rifle and trained the sights on the group who were now standing beside the bonnet of the landrover. In a funny sort of way it didn’t really matter any more what happened next. Eventually. Four good highers. If he’d had a real gun. Declared war on them and all their class. a glittering future ahead of him. truly a matter of life and death. after an interminable amount of toing and froing the woman finally began to fish. Emerging triumphantly from his unhappy childhood.He lay down the air rifle and buried his head in his hands and began to cry. smiling and laughing the whole time. lovers perhaps. he'd have dropped the guy there and then. A public life as a bankrupt if he didn't. a sniper's rifle. The woman turned frequently. They were obviously very close. 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. biting through the nylon with his teeth. A one man revolution.
He strung up the fish on his wading staff and held it out in front of him for the woman to admire. He’d probably killed thousands of fish during his career. Nick saw the line snap taut and the rod bend double as she hung on desperately. Through the scope he could see that it was a beautiful fresh-run fish. showing in sympathy. Not surprisingly. He took up position a few yards downstream from where the woman was playing the fish. He observed her technique through the scope of the air rifle. After the initial excitement of the take had died down she became cool and determined. The fierceness of the take almost jerked the rod out of her hands. The ghillie despatched the salmon with a couple of firm blows over the head from a large wooden priest. Above the roar of the cascading water he heard the young man whooping with delight. before the young man finally set off across the meadow in the direction of the big house. The ginger-haired man danced around the fish. about a mile away. It was almost as if they knew that something dreadful was happening. A few minutes later the ghillie unhooked the fish from his wading staff and handed it over to the young man. The excitement over. denigrated the sanctity of life itself. thought Nick. . 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. A few seconds later three more fish. right alongside the hooked fish. He felt a twinge of envy. one after the other. More animated conversation ensued. not long out of the sea. The fish took nearly twenty minutes to land. keeping the rod up and the line tight.was behaving demeaned the sport. as if he was the one who'd actually caught the fish. The river was suddenly alive with fish. where he resumed his half-finished breakfast as if nothing had happened. Calmly the old ghillie climbed out of the landrover and ambled down to the bank clutching a large landing net. Nick saw the flash as the ghillie finally hauled the flapping bar of silver up onto the steep bank. the ghillie folded up his net and returned to the landrover out of sight of the woman. And then the woman got into a fish. The woman was left alone on the riverbank to resume the pursuit of her next prize. prodding and jabbing at it like a boxer in the ring. Two more salmon splashed in the pool. with the fish slung across his shoulder in a salmon bass. It was a long time since he’d caught a fish that big. showed in the tail of the pool a hundred yards downstream.
her feet straddling the track that skirted the river. For a second he was tempted to give in and face the consequences of his impending bankruptcy. This was it. He crept downstream. his mouth suddenly dry. In the final analysis he’d rather throw it all away than have it taken from him. closely followed by the angry garage owner at the head of a whole army of baying creditors. Still bent double he followed the valley until it petered out on the edge of the open ground. He stopped just before the bend . He reached the path that ran alongside the river without being seen. while he knelt beside the riverbank as if in prayer. Five yards from the river he dropped onto his stomach and wormed his way to the top of the ridge. moving quickly. fishing intently. He took a deep breath. momentarily feeling dizzy as the blood drained from his face. He was so nervous he felt sick. staying below the skyline. Maybe a fatal one. The adrenaline was pumping through his veins. The landrover was hidden from view behind a grassy knoll. Vulnerable. To reach the woman he would have to cross a patch of open ground about forty yards ahead. All the old self doubt was seeping back into his bones. He knew only too well that this was a turning point in his life. He saw the look of shame on Martin's face as they were chased from the house. It was now or never if he was going to transform his elaborate daydreams into reality. almost deafening him. about a hundred yards downstream from where he lay. he had no way of knowing which.Alone and unprotected. There was no alternative. the face of his bank manager leapt into his mind. desperately wanted to relieve himself. He paused to get his breath back. As soon as he stepped out onto the open ground he would be visible from the road bridge two hundred yards away. At that moment. There was no way he could betray his family now. Nick visualised the look of terror in Maureen's eyes as the angry mob hammered on the front door. Nick realised with a start that this was the chance he had been waiting for. He could clearly see the upper half of the back of the woman. Crouching beneath the skyline he scurried along the floor of the valley that meandered from his vantage point down to the river. He picked up the air rifle and cocked it and put a pellet into the barrel. his pulse thumping. He took a deep breath and sprinted across the meadow. Once he embarked upon his plan there would no going back. He sat up and closed his eyes. He hesitated. As long as the woman didn’t turn round he would be safe. Salvation or damnation awaited him.
just out of sight round the corner. He was immediately confronted by the sight of the woman with her back turned to him. in mid cast. Taking a final deep breath he stood upright and. He ran up to her and pointed the gun at her chest. This was it. "Run!" “That hurt! Stop it! Get away from me. They stared at each other for several seconds. His heart was thumping and he was gasping for breath. She remained frozen in astonishment as the line collapsed into the river behind her where it was immediately carried downstream by the strong current. pointing the air rifle at her anonymous back. The woman swung round in amazement and gaped up at him.in the river which marked the tail of the pool where he knew that the woman. the monofilament line arcing out across the pool. 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.” . “Ouch. As he crept forward he could hear the swish! and the plop! as the woman cast her bait across the pool. charged round the bend in the river. It was a pivotal moment during which his courage almost deserted him. He though about Maureen and what would happen to her if he failed. dropping her rod as she stumbled backwards. was still fishing. It was all the encouragement he needed. “Do exactly what I say or I’ll blow your fucking head off!” he screamed. after a second’s hesitation.” the woman protested. harder this time. What the hell’s going on. "Get moving. "Move downstream. He needed time to compose himself but he dared not delay in case the young man or the ghillie reappeared." he screamed. He lunged forward and stabbed the woman’s chest with the barrel of the gun. the rod raised above her head. "Do it or I'll fucking shoot you!" The woman simply gawked at him. jabbing her again.” “Do what I say!” “Leave me alone. With shaking fingers he pulled the balaclava down over his face." he yelled.
He landed head first on the footpath. He peered down on the scene in astonishment. You’ve got to save him. The old man must have heard her screams. tumbled like an acrobat through the air in a graceful arc over Nick’s head.” “Leave me alone. as her face was pushed into the mud. Seeing the murderous look in his eyes the woman turned round and slipped headlong onto the muddy path. There was a noise like a cricket bat hitting a ball to the boundary.” He hit her again. “Shut the fuck up or I’ll fucking kill you. "What the hell’s going on?” he demanded.” .” He hit her over the back of her head with the butt of the air rifle. The face-down head bobbed gently in the current like a cork. A spindly red tartan tie dangled from his neck.” she gasped. Slowly he toppled forward into the swirling water. "Run or you’ll follow him!" he yelled. Immediately he crumpled up like a concertina. white-haired man dressed in a green tweed jacket and baggy plus twos gazing down at him with a face frozen in horror. He reached down and grabbed the collar of her Barbour and started hauling her to her feet. “Help. Nick jumped up and grabbed hold of the tie and jerked it towards him with all his might. 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. she was stunned into silence.” she screamed at the top of her voice. Nick swallowed hard to suppress the nausea rising in his throat. Suddenly the ghillie appeared on the bank above them. He dragged the woman to her feet and pushed her forward along the muddy path. A six this time. The woman could not tear her eyes away from the sight of the old man’s body floating down the river. his neck snapping loudly. bending forward. “My God.He pulled the gun back ready to jab her again. uncoiling as he did so. “You can’t leave Peter to drown. Then she started sobbing. The old man. Momentarily. Nick looked up and saw an old. “Help me. caught off balance.
"If you make a single fucking sound I'll stop the car and kill you right away. 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. cursing himself as he did so for letting everything get so totally out of his control. as hard as he could. Nick too glanced over his shoulder. the spinning tyres churning up mud. Her clumsiness and stupidity infuriated him. his face purple with rage." he said. The engine stalled.” When the woman tried to turn back towards the ghillie Nick hit her across the front of her neck with the rifle butt. She stumbled forward. far beyond his worst imaginings. Chapter 14 Nick backed the car along the track at high speed.” he screamed into her face whenever she slowed down. the engine screaming. slowly rotating with the force of the current. disoriented. “It’s too late. He eventually started the engine and reversed back along the track at high speed. Then he made her climb into the boot. “Peter’s still alive. The edge of the wood was about a hundred yards away. She staggered slowly forward. “He’s dead. He wished he had an Alsatian to bite at her ankles. slamming the lid down upon her.” he snarled. He burst onto the main road and slewed the car round in the direction of the cottage. 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 screamed. Twice she fell over and twice he dragged her to her feet. unable to work out what was happening. prodding her forward with the gun. The woman pointed. "Follow that fucking track. “Run. pushing her in front of him." he hissed. “Run. “Faster.” she cried. After what seemed like hours they finally reached the safety of the rhododendron bushes at the edge of the wood. The past few minutes had been unbelievably violent and horrible. He was appalled to see the body being swept along the shallows at the tail of the pool. run. It was important to keep her moving.” he shouted. He clenched his teeth and shut his eyes. He knew that if he panicked now he . She fell backwards and he grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and hauled her up the bank and onto the grass. Now run!” As they stumbled back up the river the woman kept turning round to look back at the ghillie. “He’s waving at me. faster.Nick had heard the man’s neck snap. run.
the twelfth century motte he often walked to from his house. A few miles further on he overtook a tractor whose ancient driver gave him a cheery way and. Several times in quick succession he selected the wrong gear. Typically. . He was utterly exhausted. His mental and physical fitness for the task was something he hadn’t considered. Which in a way he was now. His head was splitting too. one of the worst headaches he'd ever had. Murderers are not nice ordinary people. He took one perfectly ordinary bend so fast he nearly drove off the road. The simple task of driving the car to the turnoff for the ruined cottage proved to be extraordinarily difficult. Despite his best endeavours his behaviour was attracting attention. He could never be one of them now. He drove off at his normal. It loomed large in his rear view mirror even after he slowed down to let it overtake. as it had turned out. He slowed right down to let it pass easily. So far so good. 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. just like a learner driver. two cyclists both wearing bright yellow crash helmets. He found it difficult to think straight any more. and. the more mistakes he seemed to make. He hadn't planned for such contingencies when he’d been dreaming up his Hollywood-style version of the kidnap. 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. All those other people in their nice new cars. His heart was pounding so hard he thought he might have a heart attack at any moment. it was one of the first things to go wrong. They were all witnesses who might later recall seeing his car. certain that he was being followed. dangerously close to giving up if anything else went wrong. As he breasted the brow of a hill a woman weeding in her garden looked up as he drove past. His left leg was shaking so much that whenever he tried to change gear he couldn't depress the clutch properly. He almost fainted with fright. he had packed no medical supplies of any kind. He forced himself to calm down. He counted to three and turned the ignition and the engine burst into life. He heaved a sigh of relief. not even aspirin. The harder he concentrated on driving normally. He had been driving for ten minutes when he passed the site of the ancient Peel Ring. so bad it made his eyes water. Fortunately the road was empty.was lost. 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. nice ordinary people leading nice ordinary lives. safe speed. He bit his lip. but his relief was short-lived when he saw the driver shoot him a curious backwards look in his mirror as he pulled away. a little later.
Oh God. what was he going to do with her? She knew everything. The sickening sound he had made as his neck broke. . Jesus what had he done? Jesus. When he eventually realised that he had driven miles past the turning he cursed his stupidity. Jesus Christ. She could condemn him to life imprisonment. At that very moment she was rolling around in the dark terrified at what was happening to her. 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. Above all he would try and make her understand the desperate circumstances that had driven him to embark upon this lunatic scheme. He put his foot down on the accelerator as far as he dared.how do you explain away a murder to someone you are abducting . he would implore her forgiveness. Jesus. 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. Oh God. Despite the threat she represented his heart went out to her. As soon as they got to the cottage he would try and convince her that he hadn't meant to hurt the old ghillie. What had he done? What had he done? Then there was the poor woman in the boot. He turned right at the T junction at Logie Coldhouse and the narrow road immediately emptied of vehicles. she must be absolutely petrified. He had to get her to the cottage as quickly as possible and release her from her tiny prison before she died of fright. Christ. He drove on for another half hour vaguely aware that something had gone wrong. He was furious with himself for his ineptitude. He had an obligation to try and comfort and reassure her. He bit his lip. She was simply an innocent victim. She probably thought she was going to die. Finally. to minimise her pain. he thought miserably. that the world was changed forever in ways you couldn’t hope to understand. 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 reckoned he still had another fifteen miles or so to go before he reached the safety of the turn off into the woods. He was so preoccupied with what he was going to say to her . She knew exactly what he had done.that he missed the turn off into the woods where he had planned to hide the car. just like the ghillie. He would explain how he had panicked. Jesus. Whatever happened next he had to try and minimise the trauma to which he was subjecting her. Driving on automatic he began to reflect on what he had done. The last thing he wanted in the present circumstances was to be seen driving round aimlessly in the car. Jesus.
He considered stopping to check but the thought of what he might find was too frightening.drawing even more attention to himself. buried within a dense thicket of rhododendrons. As their paths crossed briefly in purgatory he would be haunted by their ghosts. no absolution for the crime he had committed. There was no way back. This was one more of the many things he hadn't thought about. He manoeuvred the vehicle into the bushes until it was completely obscured from sight to anyone passing along the farm track. It was easy to imagine the possibility that he would be confronted by his victims in the hereafter. appalled at his stupidity. A brief interlude before he was cast down into eternal damnation. He switched off the ignition and sat and held his breath while he listened for any sign of life from the boot. He was damned for all eternity. He sat for several minutes and prayed that he would hear some signs of life. even a scream would have been welcome. Even as he contemplated the idea of suicide another dreadful thought struck him. The only sound was the regular ticking noise from the engine as it slowly cooled. He was sure about that. a sigh. As the rays of the overhead sun filtered down through the . one of the unfathomable ways the world had changed since he had first contemplated his terrible crime. 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. That was inevitable now. A sob. exacting upon himself some sort of retribution for his criminal fecklessness. quite possibly suffocated to death. You couldn't kill someone and go to heaven. He drove as carefully as he could but he couldn't avoid all the potholes. a truly horrible way to die. The car bounced and rolled so much it was difficult to steer. To make matters worse he began to imagine that the woman in the boot might be dead by now. If she was dead he vowed he would take his own life too. That was something else he hadn’t thought about in advance. At last he reached the natural layby where he planned to hide the car. He tried not to think about the way the woman in the boot must be being thrown around. Tears began to well up his eyes. “What a fucking idiot. Anything. He squeezed the steering wheel until his knuckles went white. How had this happened? How had he been so stupid as to get himself into this ghastly mess? At the second attempt he found the turn off into the woods. He should have checked the boot beforehand to make sure that it wasn’t airtight. Although he had long proclaimed himself an agnostic his thinking was still tainted by the ingrained shibboleths and oppressive rituals of his Catholic upbringing. The concept of the afterlife was a powerful one that still haunted him.” he muttered out loud.
Whenever he closed his eyes to pray his mind was immediately filled with a jumble of crazy kaleidoscopic images. Two people whose lives had been ended through his stupidity. And then the car moved. his forehead banging upon the steering wheel. Shaken. his arms outstretched as he tore up the Eucharist and scattered the pieces into the air like confetti. like something out of a childhood nightmare. 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. drooling. A muffled groan came from the boot. 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. preferring instead to seal himself off hermetically from the horrors of the outside world. Beads of sweat started trickling down his forehead. randomly bouncing around inside his head. the noise she made was deafening. It didn’t work. kneeling down in front of the same altar Nick had served at as a boy. desperately trying to clear his head. as if he was on LSD or something. No matter how hard he tried he found he couldn't remember the words to even the simplest prayer.treeless branches it grew warmer inside the car. young and pretty. hammering on the inside of his skull with her fists. He tried even harder to concentrate. He shook his head. Nick covered his eyes with his hands and lurched forward in the seat. First his dead father’s face leering at him. 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. misshapen. he blinked and tried again but this time Maureen was screaming at him. stinging his eyes. smiling at him with laughing eyes as she sat up and . To make matters worse it was becoming increasingly airless inside the car but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to wind down the windows. screwing up his face with the effort. a man who had been dead for years. huge. This time in his mind’s eye he saw his local parish priest. 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. The possibility of seeing a second dead body within the space of an hour filled him with dread. It was yet another example of his failure to do the right thing in life. Yet another disaster of his own making. She was still alive! Thank God! Thank God! He was so relieved he immediately began to offer up a prayer of thanks. 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. The face of the woman he now held captive in the boot leapt into his mind.
He closed his eyes once more and her naked image once again drifted into focus. Her head was bent. he began to feel light-headed with excitement. At that moment the car shivered perceptibly as the woman in the boot moved. He opened his eyes and the vision vanished. He was no longer daydreaming. She was struggling to get free. She was the kind of woman he had dreamt about all his life. He really did have a beautiful woman captive and alive in the boot of his car. bound and gagged in the darkness. months maybe. not even in his wildest fantasies. Try as he might he could not expunge the impure thoughts erupting out of his brain. He had fallen so far from grace that nothing he did now could make matters worse. His swallowed hard but his mouth was dry. For the first time in his life he was so far beyond the pale that there were no longer any rules or moral sanctions to constrain him. She was smiling demurely. he realised with a start. She was his to do with as he wished. her arms still bound behind her back. He had never been in a situation like this before. In a funny sort of way he was free. He stared out through the windscreen at the dense screen of rhododendron branches. Having already committed the worst mortal sin he was freed from the constraints of normal behaviour. Not only was she completely at his mercy. What he was contemplating now totally debased the moral justification for his actions. He was alone in the forest with a beautiful woman completely in his power. maybe she was also his reward. Her breasts were round and firm. His breathing quickened. He felt his pulse beginning to quicken. The vision. He was shocked by this carnal reaction. her nipples erect. The image of her naked body triggered his imagination into . Compared to murder nothing else mattered. He was free to do what he liked with her. his first for weeks. She was totally in his power in a way no other woman had ever been. his pulse raced faster. Up until that moment his motives for kidnapping the woman had been totally pure within the boundaries of his own twisted logic. A few seconds later he heard her groan and the car swayed more violently. He opened his eyes and for the first time he began to consider the true consequences of what he had done. Some sort of compensation for his headlong fall from grace. was entirely naked. He pictured her lying back there in the boot. As his exhilaration grew at his new-found sense of power he was surprised to feel himself developing an erection. Yet it was hard to ignore the reality of his present situation and the temptation it presented.tossed back her long blond tresses. her long blond hair cascading over her shoulders.
within seconds. just like the Nazis had over their prisoners. he had absolute power over her. groaning loudly as he ejaculated onto the writhing. He climbed out of the car and staggered round to the boot. even torture. driving every other thought from his mind." he gasped. He came almost immediately. Feverishly he tugged open the boot. By now his imagination was ablaze. "Oh Jesus. Anything was possible. The bound and gagged figure lifted her head and stared up at him. really ache. there was no sin he would not commit. He was consumed by the desire to do something dirty to her. “What have I done?” His cock instantly grew limp in his hand. 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. Hastily he opened his fly and pulled out his cock and began to masturbate as he leant forward over her. a billion synapses popping in the darkest recesses of his brain like a firework display. She was completely in his power. Again and again and again. Jesus. eyes closed. 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 was dizzy with excitement. He leaned against the car. He could perpetrate acts he wouldn't dare think about doing to Maureen.feverish activity. his knees pressed against the bumper for support. He could wait no longer. Her long blonde hair was matted with mud. the . “Oh God forgive me.” Now at last he knew that there were no depths to which he would not sink. stared at on the internet. Alone out here in this isolated stretch of woodland he could do anything he wanted. Her fear-wide eyes blinked in the sunlight. something unspeakably filthy. his brain pounding. gasping for breath. He sunk to his knees on the wet ground and lowered his head into his hands and began to pray in a low moaning voice. He slammed the boot shut and staggered back from the car. He stared down at his prostrate captive. The desire was so bad it actually hurt. Her face was grotesquely bruised and swollen. weak with desire. It was wrong but…everything he did from now on was wrong. moaning figure in the boot. A slideshow of perverted and unspeakable acts that had once shocked him to the core. Tears streaked her face. holding onto the boot lid with his raised right hand. The thought of her lying helpless made him ache. He could do things to her he'd only read about in dirty books.
" he whispered as he bent down and gently brushed the congealed semen from her hair with his handkerchief. The woman now knew exactly what he looked like. "It’s all right. The tables were turned. round. He had never seen such a piteous sight. terrified that she might fall over in a faint. without disguise. he pleaded for forgiveness from the God he had forsaken so many years before. She lay on her side staring up at him with huge. The implication of this oversight immediately struck him. He wanted to pick her up and clasp her to his breast and comfort her as if she was his own child. a forlorn. When he had finished he folded up the handkerchief and tucked it into a pocket of her jacket. He bent down towards her and she let out a shriek. after several minutes had passed. She was unsteady on her feet and he held her upright for a nearly a minute. taller than Maureen. He was surprised how tall she was. His face would be indelibly imprinted on her memory. . "I'm not going to hurt you I promise. his self-abasement drew to an end. As her muscles gradually relaxed she started to shiver. holding her loosely against him. As she leaned against him she gradually became more pliable. The balaclava that had previously protected his identity lay where he had left it on the passenger’s seat. He stared down at her." He spat on the handkerchief and dabbed at the worst of the mud streaks on her face. Her body was still frozen in a catatonic state when he lifted her out of the boot and set her down on the ground.tears streaming down his ashen face. abandoned figure in the empty forest. startled by the violence of her reaction. terror-filled eyes. She looked as helpless as a baby seal that was about to be clubbed to death. He jumped back. Chapter 15 This time he remembered to pull on his balaclava before he unlocked the boot. The sight of her snapped him out of his dream-like state. Slowly he hauled himself to his feet. Eventually. all energy spent. and he glimpsed for the first time the full extent of the brutality and ugliness of his actions. moulding her contours into his until she fitted his body exactly as if they were matching pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. At that moment he realised that in his frenzy he had defiled his victim while he was bare-headed. As long as she remained alive and could identify him he was completely in her power. his arm around her shoulders.
” he said as he helped her to her feet. He hoisted the bag onto his shoulder and. He gripped her more tightly.” He leapt from tussock to tussock. The woman shuffled forward slowly. it’s all right. a patchwork of tussocky islets floating on a sea of glutinous peat. Please stop. This way.” she protested. “I’m sorry. as if she had aged fifty years in the last hour. Nothing’s going to happen.” He half-dragged. half-carried her the next two miles through the forest until they reached the peat moor which lay between them and the cottage. he took her arm and began guiding her along the path through the woods. When he was sure that she wasn’t going to collapse he eased her away from his side. leaving her Wellingtons behind her.” He grabbed her hand.gently at first and then more violently. Please.” . “Stay there. As he gently caressed her hair he thought how familiar they would have looked together. “I can’t go on. The melting snow had turned the moor into a quagmire. pulling her head onto his chest.” he commanded. like lovers in an embrace. He put his arms around her and pulled her out. “Come on. “I didn’t mean to push you over.” As the seconds passed she gradually began to relax and the shaking subsided. after he had satisfied himself that the coast was clear. gripping her elbow firmly with his left hand. hugging her as if she was his own daughter. When they stopped for breath she began to sink into the peat. She shook her head. if anyone had been watching. Take my arm. “I can’t. please.” she sobbed. dragging her after him. He gently pushed her ahead of him and she immediately stumbled and fell forward onto her knees. “You’ll have to jump. “I’m exhausted. “Calm down. it’s too far. as if she had arthritis.” he said.” “This is crazy. as he moved away to retrieve the canvas holdall from the car. “We’ll drown. until eventually she was twitching wildly out of control as if she was about to have an epileptic fit.
In the seventeenth century. “I think there was supposed to have been a battle round here. He lay on his back on the grass. utterly exhausted. He stopped and peered down. “And that! And there’s another one. “What’s that?” she cried. but he dared remove it. dragging the woman along behind him on her stomach. there’s lot’s of them!” He grabbed the woman’s hand and began scrambling towards dry land as fast as he could. “Those skulls…what were they doing there?” Nick sat up and looked back across the bog. “Don’t try and run for it. And another. They were in sight of dry ground when suddenly the woman screamed. Nick’s head beneath the balaclava was sweaty and itchy.” He motioned her to go ahead of him into the darkened room but not surprisingly she seemed . It cracked like an eggshell. They were both hot. gasping for breath.” he said as he struggled to unlock the padlock he'd placed on the front door the day before. “Yeah. Something round and white the size of a small football was gently bobbing in the jelly-like peat. “Christ. pointing at her feet. okay.” he gasped. Eventually he managed to claw his way up onto firm ground.He dragged her across the bog. They looked like a field of giant mushrooms. My God. I stood on one. what are they?” Nick bent closer. I read about it somewhere. fearful of compounding his earlier error. She snorted in derision. wet and close to collapse.” “It’s horrible. The woman started screaming. A dozen or more skulls were glinting in the sunlight about sixty yards away. “If we stop we’re done for. the coarse wool rubbed roughly against his skin. The woman was the first to speak. Stupid thing to say. it’s a skull! Jesus.” It took them another hour stumbling across the rough pasture before they finally reached the ruined cottage.
It was completely out of character. I didn't mean to hurt him. I promise. "Please. "It's all right. I'm sorry about the ghillie. It was an accident. a day at most. "It's nothing. It took several seconds for his eyes to become accustomed to the darkness. forcing himself to stay calm. bending down to take the length of chain from the holdall. I know. I've just got to keep you safe for a few hours. “I don’t know what happened. Honestly. I ‘m sorry." he said gently. He avoided her terrified gaze. She heard it too. A myriad unfamiliar shadows immediately danced around the room like witches round a midnight campfire." "Something already has happened.afraid of the menacing black void awaiting her." He felt himself turning red with shame and embarrassment at the recollection of his behaviour back at the car. "What was that?" she whispered. He was so on edge that for a second he thought he might . "Look. their eerie outlines casting a morbid spell upon the room." She did not move. Once he could see sufficiently to make out the layout of the room he opened the holdall and took out the old paraffin lamp which he lit and placed upon the mantelpiece. I'm not going to hurt you. Nothing like that will ever happen again I promise. As long as you co-operate nothing will happen to you." 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. “I know. I promise." he said. "What are you going to do with me?" "Nothing.” He shook his head." She didn't move. He was almost as scared as she was but. Almost at once the smell of paraffin filled the room. the first time he had heard her speak." Still she did not move. "I'll put on a light once we're inside. almost knocking over the lamp. her voice dark and throaty and well-educated. You’re safe now. Her eyes widened even further as she watched him. kneel down. At that moment a scuttling noise came from the kitchen and he jumped. he said. Please.
"Stand up." he said. can't you wait?" he snapped back. All he wanted to do was to get away as quickly as possible. sitting with the chain fixed around her neck. using a second padlock. "If you don't co-operate then I promise something bad WILL happen to you. fetching the paraffin lamp across to the corner of the room. He was shocked. He placed the chain around her neck and fastened it with a small Yale padlock. "I need to go to the bathroom. Glaring at her he said. His nerves were on edge. at his feet. As she lowered herself awkwardly onto the floor he said." She looked around for a chair." He went into the kitchen and." he said." she croaked. “Food. obediently.hit her again but with an effort he restrained himself. "Stay there and I'll bring you a blanket. As well as the blanket he brought the rest of the food from the holdall and laid the little bundle down beside her." This time she did exactly as she was told. only her eyes moving as they tracked him across the room. "Jesus. I've already killed one person today so I've got nothing to lose. "I've wet myself. "On the floor. her head bowed in shame. She must have seen then just how desperate he was because she suddenly knelt down. felt as much a captive as she did. He led her towards the kitchen by the chain.” he muttered. 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. No one had ever looked at him that way before. gesticulating towards the modest pile of tins with some embarrassment. to the old Aga." she whispered. please. "Stand there. Even as he spoke he realised it was an incredibly cruel way to react." She stared straight back into his eyes and this time he did not look away. her hands handcuffed behind her back. "Okay. He stared . He hated this place already. He hadn't meant to scare her that much. which was about fifteen feet long. It’s up to you. albeit reluctantly. You can sit down now. secured the other end of the chain. her voice barely audible in the dark stillness of the musty room.
“What do you want with me?” He cleared his throat. an unexpected sound that to his ears quickly turned into a loud unpleasant braying. at the naiveté of his scheme...” “Why are you holding me here? What are you going to do with me?" He shifted uneasily. I was going to ask for two hundred and fifty thousand pounds.helplessly at her.” she sobbed. anger giving his voice a rough edge. This wasn’t how I planned it.” “Don’t cry. “A ransom?” "That’s right.” “A ransom?” She shook her head. her shoulders heaving. He hadn't exposed his scheme to scrutiny before and suddenly the whole idea seemed childish and stupid and impracticable. To make matters worse even to his ears the explanation sounded ridiculous when he said it out loud. No one should have to go through the kind of ordeal he was subjecting her to. in a voice so low he had to lean forward to hear. He regarded her helplessly. in a whisper that echoed around inside his head. “Please don’t kill me." His self-consciousness had caused him to blurt out the explanation far too quickly. "I'm sorry. She looked at him in disbelief." She suddenly started laughing." She started crying. How much for God’s sake?" He lowered his eyes.I.. I’m not going to kill you. "I know who you are. mentally pleading with her to stop. He felt embarrassed." Mentally he heard himself adding. I brought you here because I want a ransom for your safe return. "You can’t be serious. please. that's why. As the humiliating sound grew louder. It’s all gone totally wrong. as she became increasingly hysterical. I’ve been watching you. once again overcome with pity. "If that's all right. “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. "Well. “I don’t know what papers you’ve been reading . The figures he had in his head now seemed wildly unrealistic. even stupid. "What's so funny?” he muttered. he was reminded of the fits Maureen used to throw whenever they had a major argument. “Please don’t. her head slumped on her chest. even to him..
” “I don’t believe it.” “I take out of the company only what I need to live on and I live a very simple life.” “I’m sorry if that’s not what you want to hear but it’s the truth. The rest of my shares I’ve donated to various charities round the world.” He couldn’t immediately comprehend the full implications of what she was saying. You’re worth millions. She had discovered the Midas touch by plundering the Third World for ideas which she then commercialised in the West. making a fortune in the process. As a matter of fact I take home less than the average wage.” “You must be fucking unique then. What she was claiming now was the exact opposite.” he protested.” “That’s crap. Are you telling me you’re not one of the wealthiest women in Britain?” “That’s exactly what I’m telling you.” “Come off it. He was certain she was worth a fortune. He had read in the papers about her success lots of times over the years.” “I came into the world with nothing and that’s the way I intend to leave it. "What you’re saying can’t be true. You floated the company on the stock market. The accumulation of personal wealth is against my principles.” “That’s a common misconception. Your company's shares . one of the biggest in the country. “I read the FT. She seemed to have discovered the knack of making money out of exotic formulas that promised beauty and health and eternal youth. you’re loaded.” “There is a small trust I’ve set up for the children but that’s not my money.” “Jesus.but the fact is I don’t have any personal wealth.” “What about your salary? You’re the MD aren’t you? What about stock options and dividends and bonuses and all that stuff? I bet you’re earning a fortune.
“I’m desperate. You must be worth millions. They’re going to take my house…we’re going to be out on the street. “You’re my only hope. I have some endowment policies. We all grow old.” .” “This is incredible. I had my own business. It went bust.” “Why are you desperate?” “It’s a long story." He looked aghast.” “The bank?” “Yes.have gone up like a rocket in the last couple of years. you’re probably better off than I am. “I’m serious." "You’re not listening. They’re developing sustainable business models for third world countries. spinning out of control. You better face up to facts. “Are you saying that you can’t raise any money at all?” “A few thousand at most. when it comes to material possessions.” “You’ve given all your money away to charity?” “That and a research foundation I set up in India.” “In the final analysis.” he explained. her whole body slowly convulsing as she burst into tears. Don’t make me do something I don’t want to do. I’ll kill you if I don’t get the money. Everything was slipping away from him again. If what she was saying really was the case then he was in deep trouble. The shares belong to the various charities I support. He said slowly.” He felt dizzy.” Eventually she stopped sobbing. I’ve got personal guarantees. He held out a tissue and she blew her nose into it. “Even if I threatened to kill you?” She drew her knees up to her chin and buried her head.
” .” “You’re married?” “Yes. the faintest glimmer of hope flickering in her eyes.” he snarled.” “She’d rather be evicted?” The conversation was making Nick feel extremely uncomfortable. There’s a lot of legal stuff to sort out. if that’s what you’re thinking. Fifty thousand minimum.” She raised her head slowly. I don’t want to talk about all this.“Can’t you come to an arrangement with them? Pay them off over a number of years? They’re usually quite amenable. “Either I get the money right away or you’re in serious trouble.” “Would she approve?” “Of course not. We’re fucking penniless. furious at the way she was trying to thwart him. It’s strictly professional. I haven’t been for some time. All you need to know is that I’m desperate for the money. But it would take time.” “Does your wife know about this? About what you’re doing?” “She doesn’t know.” “I’m too old. “I don’t have time. He was only too aware that what he was doing did not bear scrutiny. He looks after my PR. “Maybe I could raise the money somehow. I can’t get a job. And I mean serious.” “What about your husband?” “I’m not married. “Look. I’m sorry but I just can’t raise that kind of money in under a week.” “Who was that man you were with down at the river?” “Robert? He’s a colleague. I couldn’t just write a cheque for a quarter of a million despite what you might think.” He glared at her.” She shook her head. “Look. Now.
in a tone of voice that left her sincerity in no doubt. "I'm sorry." she muttered. Time was absolutely of the essence. that had been a tragic disaster. I'll tell them you didn't hurt me either.” “It’s not enough. Now her. "You have to understand I’m running out of time. "Jesus." The woman seemed to gain some sort of grim satisfaction from the look of dismay on his face.” “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. The situation was now critical. I just can’t do anything that big in under a week." It was his turn to feel contemptuous. First there was the ghillie. He didn't seem to be able to do anything right. I must have . If I could get to a bank. Two or three days at most." he whispered. “But you haven’t exactly been good news for me either . "Jesus.” “You’re not leaving here until I get the money. I need fifty thousand in cash minimum.Gradually it dawned on Nick that she was telling the truth. things just get worse and worse. A penniless philanthropist. All he’d done was to dig himself deeper and deeper into trouble. "If only it was that simple. to feel the immediate and desperate need to go to the toilet. He felt his heart sinking so rapidly it almost sucked the breath out of his lungs. And you better get it into your head that my problems are now your problems. "I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news. He tried to think. It was his turn to feel his insides turning to water. He said quietly." She replied. If that means I’m of no use to you all I can do is beg for my release. really I am.” “I could probably raise five thousand immediately.” “In that case I’ve got a real problem. I’d have to convince the bank manager that I really could come up with something substantial. He leaned back against the dusty mantelpiece for support. I'll do whatever I can for you.” “That’s impossible.” “How long have you got?” “That depends.
"Money is always important when you don’t have it. in a voice that hinted at sympathy. "I didn't think it was all going to turn out like this. Without thinking he pulled off his balaclava and sat down a few feet from her. Despite the thin blanket she had wrapped around her shoulders she began shivering with cold.” He lapsed into a morose silence. resting the back of his head against the damp peeling wallpaper and letting out a long low groan.” She said softly. Where she had wet herself her sodden jeans clung to her like cold wet rags." she muttered through noisily chattering teeth. Don’t make things worse than they are. a rare gift from her. I didn’t mean to assault you. Rainwater started to drip through the cracks in the roof. "In my experience things are never as bad as they seem. Everything in his life seemed so difficult these days. Just let me go. Please. The cold from the earthen floor began to seep into the woman’s bones.that money right away or the whole fucking lot comes tumbling down. No wonder I’m just about cracking up. The temperature inside the cottage was growing noticeably cooler." he muttered. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone." "In my experience they're a whole lot bloody worse. The sound of rain splattering against the corrugated roof punctuated the stillness. the sensation reminding him of a soft toy he'd been given by his mother. Do yourself a favour. "I . 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. one he hadn't thought about for years. None of his problems seemed to have any solutions. "Is the money really that important?" He snorted." He lowered his head and began fingering the balaclava." "Please. like a cancer. exploding all over the dusty floor like a field of tiny landmines going off. on the contrary they just seemed to multiply. Ever since I was a kid I’ve tried to do the right thing but now it’s all just turned to shit." He suddenly felt exhausted. getting bigger and bigger. She said. It just went wrong like everything else recently. its synthetic fibres feeling soft and warm to his touch. "I'm freezing. to breed almost. The wind had risen too and every now and again the ceiling clattered as the corrugated sheets rippled in the stronger gusts. eating him alive. As the minutes ticked by they both tried to think of a way out of the impasse.
Look. Of course him too. “I heard something scratching about in the kitchen just now. Please don’t go on about it. “Let me help you up.” “Your sorrow won’t do him much good now." he muttered as she pulled the toilet door shut behind her.” Seeing the look she gave him he said. I’m sorry. A nightmare. I hate mice. She sat down on the bare floor just inside the sitting room with her back propped against the wall." “I’m sorry but I didn’t bring any spare clothes. "This whole thing has been a fiasco. I know that.” he lied. He replaced the lamp on the mantelpiece. She shivered at the thought. I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life. “Him too. What’s in there?” “It’s just mice. truly I am.” “I’m going to get pneumonia like this. “It’s not possible to plan for every eventuality. “God.” He hauled her to her feet and lead her through to the toilet at the rear of the kitchen.” he said gruffly. I know.” He picked up the paraffin lamp. I’m sorry.” . That was a horrible thing to happen. If it’s any consolation I’m especially sorry for what I’ve put you through. the chain almost at full stretch.” “I know. He sat staring at the Aga while she finished her business. “I'll bring you some dry clothes when I come back.” “Look. I’ll take you through to the toilet now. Just the idea of them being in the same room makes me feel ill. praying that none of the rats would have the temerity to put in an appearance before he departed. There were more scratching noises as they passed the old Aga and he saw her stiffen.” “What about poor old Robbie McGregor?” A note of anger had crept into her voice. She regarded him with an anxious expression on her face.need to get out of these wet clothes into something dry. When the woman re-emerged he picked up the lamp and led her back through to the sitting-room.
Close to tears she said. I’ve got things to organise.” “I’m scared. “You’ll be here too.” “What time tomorrow?” "I'm not sure. wondering whether he should warn her about the rats. Tomorrow sometime. He wasn’t sure how dangerous they really were.” “You can help yourself when you feel peckish.” Something in the tone of his voice made her suspicious. They won’t come near you. Are you hungry?” “No.” She had gone pale as she contemplated the possibility of spending several days alone in the company of mice and other creepy crawlies.” “Well." “You’re leaving me all on my own?” “You’ll be all right.He hesitated. Praying that they wouldn’t bother her during the night he said. the sooner you can get the ransom paid the sooner you’ll be set free. I’ll be back tomorrow to see that you’re all right. I'll have to work out what I'm going to do about the ransom. I’ve got no choice.” "You’re not going to leave me alone here all night are you?" “I’m sorry.” “What am I supposed to do to pass the time while you’re away?” He was beginning to feel a little pressurised by all her demands and he . “You’ll be all right. It depends how I get on. You can eat them cold or I’ll heat them up for you when I come back. There’s a tin opener. “I can’t. “What about food and water?” “You’ve got those tins. whether they might actually attack her or not. won’t you?” He looked away guiltily.
"I told you. You could set the place on fire..” “Are you going to leave me something to read?” He looked slightly embarrassed. It’s all gone too far. So maybe you better put your thinking cap on. please don’t. "Right now I don’t know what’s going to happen to you. Eventually she said softly." She turned white.” “Why not? Just something to pass the time. I’m sorry.” As she looked up at him tears welled up in her eyes.” Several minutes elapsed before she stopped sobbing. Please. And you’ve got twenty-four hours to do it. you could try thinking up ways to get me that money as quickly as possible for a start. I can’t take the risk. Please. The light. He shook his head firmly. "I can't do that. bitter laugh. nodding his head slowly as he examined his mud-caked boots. “Well. All I know is you're not leaving here unless I get enough money to pay off my debts. A week maybe but twenty-four hours is impossible." He stared unblinkingly at her.” “I’m sorry.What are you going to do? You’re not going to kill me are you?" He shrugged. “I can’t do that. Nick bit his lip.. He coughed. clearing his throat carefully . Trying to attract attention. “You’re not going to leave me in the dark? Oh no. I can’t leave you the light. "Wouldn't it be better if you just let me go?" He stared at her.” She looked miserable. Please. "You haven't been listening. Surely it’s not too much to ask? Anything. You're my last chance. his eyes burning with resentment.had to fight to keep the irritation out of his voice. "It’s your funeral." She uttered a short. “You don’t understand. have you." "What if I don't find a way to come up with the money on time?" He considered the question for a long time. One way or another I've got to make enough money out of you in the next twentyfour hours to clear my debts.
" He looked across to where she was staring intently back at him.” He didn’t try to argue. I’ll give you the instructions about where to leave the money. "I'm sure if we put our heads together we can come up with an answer. “That doesn’t make it right. This time she accepted it grudgingly. but he knew that was impossible." The woman started to cry again. her arms behind her back. her face pressed against the bare earth floor. feeling increasingly helpless. I’ll think of something if you don’t. He sat and watched her. even sharing her pain. "If I don't raise some money quickly I'll be better off dead. don’t worry about it. a barely human outline in her living nightmare. sobbing uncontrollably. Everything will turn out all right. “I want you to understand that I wouldn’t have done any of this if I wasn’t desperate. I’ll take you to a public phone box to make the call. withdrawing deeper and deeper into herself.” he muttered eventually.” He paused in the doorway before he blew out the lamp.before he replied. her eyes screwed tightly shut. curling up and rolling over onto her side in the foetal position. He wanted desperately to let her go. He poured another coffee and held it to her lips. to put an end to her ordeal. He tossed the dregs of the coffee onto the earth floor. "And the same applies to you. Turning her face to one side. Do your best. "Think about who you need to contact to release the money. He felt helpless in the face of such abject misery. Almost half an hour passed before she eventually stopped crying. taking short. to pretend none of this had ever happened. He handed one to her but she refused. He said softly.” She shook her head in disbelief. She stared dully at his flickering silhouette. the only way out was for her to somehow become part of the solution. she began sobbing uncontrollably. He tugged the . He knew in his heart she was right. "I've already told I can’t put my hands on that sort of money. her legs pulled up to her chin." Nick stood up. It was time to go. He reached into his bag for the thermos and poured out two cups of coffee. 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. Cheap at the price. breathless sips from the white plastic cup. “All right. She had become an integral part of his problem. Fifty grand.
Goodbye. Maureen was lying at his feet prostrate with grief. Confused. a sharp metallic pain. He couldn’t believe the time. a kind of living death. dreamless sleep. as if he had been drugged. The pain was intense. grey sky. He surveyed the horizon to make sure that the coast was clear. He was so tired he could hardly climb out of the car.door open. His headache had worsened with the effort of driving safely without attracting attention. Chapter 16 It was three o' clock in the afternoon by the time he finally got back to the house. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Maureen and Martin would be arriving at the village on the bus any time now and he hadn’t even started their tea. The stuff with the old man…he wasn’t sure but looking back he thought maybe…it was possible…that it was an accident. He rubbed his eyes and peered at his watch. plunging her world into total darkness. With an enormous effort he dragged himself through to the kitchen . a deep. It was cold enough for snow. he was emotionally drained. as if he'd been out on a fifteen mile hike . Outside thick sheets of mist and rain lashed the cottage. “Don’t worry.” he said as he tugged the door closed behind him. Already it all seemed unreal.” 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. Gradually the familiar shapes of the old dressing table and the half-empty bookcase emerged from the gloom. for a second he thought he was back in the derelict cottage.he still felt exhausted.She was too scared even to cry out. almost dreamlike. He had dreamt that he was on the gallows surrounded by a baying crowd. Maybe the guy . There was no sign of life. A pile of sodden leaves swirled into the room as the wind howled in. As soon as he got inside the house he took two aspirins and lay down on the settee in the living-room and fell asleep almost at once. He thought he’d only been dozing for a few minutes but it was already six forty-five. While he worked he tried to recall some of the extraordinary events that had taken place earlier in the day. as though he had been hit over the head with an iron bar. He felt exhausted. He was confused about what exactly had occurred down at the river.and wearily began peeling potatoes. his head hurt. aroused by the sound of his own voice screaming for mercy. He woke up with a start. Outside the light was fading fast and the room was almost in darkness. everything will turn out all right. An old man had placed a noose around his neck. He shivered as he peered up at the dead.
it would be just like starting over. And this time he would avoid all the mistakes of the past. Rather a lot of money in fact. As John Lennon had once said. He was aware that he still had lots to figure out before he got his hands on the money. 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. of the courage and bravery he had shown in implementing his daring plan. Indeed. They were waiting in the bus shelter when he arrived. He smiled at the thought. But there was no denying the fact that with the hostage safely hidden away it was just like having money in the bank. He shook his head. But not him. What was done was done. In all the years they had been married this would be the first time they’d ever had a nest egg of their own. After months of vacillation he had finally taken an enormous step towards solving his financial problems. His euphoria was heightened by the fact that he was intensely proud of what he had done. They were probably already standing in the bus shelter opposite the post office wondering what the hell had happened to him. 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. just as soon as he got his hands on the money and began a new life at the ripe old age of fifty. of the way he had finally confronted their problems head on. “Where’ve you been?” he . the vast majority of poor wretches would have let their creditors barge in and walk all over them. He took a deep breath as he felt himself tingling all over with excitement. He smiled to himself at the thought. He checked his watch. He was running five minutes late. Martin threw his schoolbag into the back seat and dived in after it. There undoubtedly remained a number of loose ends still to tie up to ensure a successful conclusion to his scheme. 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. Most people would have caved in before such overwhelming odds. His thoughts turned to the hostage safely locked up in her remote hideaway. It was better not to think about it. He hurried out to the car and drove down to the bus shelter at high speed singing at the top of his voice. In the final analysis he had kept his nerve and gambled everything and won. Would do anything too.had stumbled. He’d used hardly any force. He immediately became suffused with a sense of almost mystical wellbeing the like of which he hadn’t felt for years. There was no doubt about it…the future had been transformed into something wonderful. It was hard to say. They had no way of knowing that their little inconvenience would be compensated a thousand times over. not since he’d last smoked dope in fact.
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.” Nick was desperate to tell them about his own glorious. “Do you think you’ll get the job?” “I do. He should have hoovered it out as soon as he got home.” “It’s my job. “What about you. I’ve been out most of the day. In a few more days. once he had safely collected the ransom. exhilarating.demanded angrily. “The bank? I don’t know. At the moment it was a forensic time bomb. I didn’t manage to do half the things I intended. Don’t worry. then he would be able to astonish them with the brilliant news that was going to change all their lives for ever.” Nick glanced into the rear-view mirror to see if they were being followed. I should know in a week. yes.” “They work you too hard.” “Even so. She looked tired. He suddenly felt nervous driving the car. “The usual I suppose. fantastic day but for the time being he knew it was prudent to contain his excitement. Maureen. “How was your day?” he asked as they headed at a more sedate pace back to the cottage. “Pretty good. I’ve still got a load of exam papers to mark tonight. Martin.” Which was just about the right timescale. In fact I’m certain. He forced himself to stay calm. love.” “Oh yes of course I forgot. how was your day?” “Fine. we’ll soon be back on the . he thought with satisfaction. “Any more word from the bank?” asked Maureen. “We’ve been waiting ages.” Maureen climbed into the front seat beside him without saying a word. looking anxious. Things were slotting into place nicely.
his mouth full of potato. Due to the high river levels our diving team is unable to carry out a thorough search. "That's near us. her eyes widening. A woman still missing. framed against the backdrop of the fast-flowing river. There are some very deep pools downstream of where the incident is believed to have occurred and with the current so strong it could be some time before we find anything further. "It's that woman. The third item in. somehow made it all much more serious. A man’s body recovered from the river. Frost was predicted overnight in the north.” muttered Martin." “It sounds like a fishing accident. A big police search.” . No longer something that existed in his mind only. Mrs McKillock in the village does for her. "The millionairess woman. “At the moment we are treating this tragic incident as an accident. Then it was the turn of the local news. Something about an accident on Deeside. A young girl had been abducted and murdered in Kent. She had learned from bitter experience to take nothing Nick said on trust.” Nick stared at the screen in dismay. I wouldn't mind a fraction of her money. Nick pushed the inedible remains of a gristly pork sausage to the side of his plate. Now that the genie was out of the bottle the world seemed a much more dangerous place.gravy train.” Maureen said nothing. The news presenter went on to say that police divers were still looking for the body of the businesswoman but that flood levels due to the rain and melting snow were hampering their search. There had been renewed fighting in Bosnia with the inevitable civilian casualties. The one with the chain of beauty shops. Says she’s loaded. The national news was very gloomy. Seeing it on the television was a shock. “They should have been wearing life jackets or something." shouted Martin. Speaking to camera he said." said Maureen. At that point a police inspector appeared. Two people feared drowned. suddenly sitting up. "Hey. Somehow he’d hoped that what had happened down at the river would go unnoticed. Yet another sectarian murder had been perpetrated in Northern Ireland. She bought an estate over on Deeside. Unemployment had risen for the third month in a row. They ate their meal on their laps while half watching the evening news on television in the usual silence. Nothing much of interest." It was the longest speech he had made for years.
All the bad things that had happened today. Mundane thoughts at first. to get out of the rut. even if they were a bit big (and not very fashionable). After he had done the dishes he sat watching Coronation Street with Maureen. She was a too solid reminder of his evil actions. looking for something for the pot. Creepy. even just to get people’s attention. He managed to watch about ten minutes before his attention started to wander. Maybe another jumper as well. Stumbling around in the forest in the middle of the night. having already lost interest in the news as soon as the weather forecast came on. The . Maybe if they knew what he had been up to that day they might have treated him with a little more respect instead of taking him for granted as they always did. He hadn't watched it for ages but he soon picked up the storyline again. Depressing too in a way. Anyway. jumped up and bounded off to his room saying that it was all right for some but that he had a mountain of homework to do.the weather forecast said they were in for a spell of cold weather and he didn’t want her catching a cold. Martin. 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 just didn't fancy going back to the cottage in the dark. unable to watch any more. "Can I get anybody anything else?" Maureen asked for tea. Although he could say something like he was out poaching.Nick stood up. The only thing was. Very suspicious. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking about his hostage. There could be roadblocks for a start. her favourite programme. nothing has really changed. He could easily steal some of Maureen's warmer clothes that would do. there were other possible risks too. The fact was he simply couldn't face the sight of that poor woman in his present state of mind. All those skulls and things. 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. Nick was momentarily nonplussed. It appeared that even after you go on the rampage murdering and kidnapping. Then again. It made you wonder what you had to do round here to make things change for the better. Besides. nothing had really changed. For the time being at least it seemed as if nothing had happened. These weren't the only reasons for his reluctance though. He would have to remember to take her a pair of clean knickers and some jeans. as soon as you get home everything returns to normal. He thought that was extraordinary. it would be difficult to explain away if anyone spotted him. If he was any kind of a gentleman of course he would deliver them tonight. It was just too soon.
Nick frowned.” “Maureen.” “You’re kidding. As long as you make a . She represented something he preferred not to think about. Suddenly Maureen picked up the remote and turned off the sound.personification of his wickedness. she doesn’t think they will. His still-living penance.” “His wife’s a lawyer. The bank are going to toss us out on our ears.” “She drawing up some kind of deed. 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.” “She spoke to the bank. She’s been looking into the bank taking the house from us.” “That’s not what my lawyer says.” “And they’ll leave us enough to live on?” “If we’re careful. By then there might even be something left for Martin. We’ll have to sign it next week. Robert Fleming.” “She was told by one of the senior partners that the bank won’t want the bad publicity. I haven’t even got a job.” “You seem confident about this latest one.” “Oh yes. “What you doing?” “I was talking to one of my colleagues at school today.” “I don’t believe it. He focused his attention back on Coronation Street. You remember him?” “Vaguely.” “Well.
In solving one problem she had created another for him.contribution.” “Nick. I’m not sure I can ever forgive you. His heart sank when he saw her frown.” “So we’re not going to be turfed out. He knew it. Which meant that everything he had done had been rendered unnecessary. He felt so guilty neglecting her this way. This was the beginning of the end. Eventually Maureen got up from the settee and answered it. Ever. Whatever he did with her at the moment he still had a moral obligation concerning her welfare which he absolutely felt obliged to fulfil. Surrounded by rats. Or even a noose.” “And don’t ask me to sign anything ever again. Far from being money in the bank she had turned into a bloody great millstone round his neck. The game was up. At that moment the phone rang. Except that she had seen his face and she knew what he had done. desperately trying to massage the images out of his brain. Any job. He waited with baited . He could see it in the policeman’s eyes on the television. The fact that there was no one he could talk to about his anguish just made it a hundred times worse. Bound in chains on a rough earth floor not knowing what her fate might be. With you working we should even be able to put Martin through university. It had to be the police. 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. Which means getting a job. He froze. If you want to regain that trust you’ll have to earn it back. They were coming to get him. He closed his eyes and rubbed his fingers through his hair. Even if it is stacking shelves in ASDA. I put my trust in you and you betrayed it. Any minute now he would hear the police car pulling into the drive.” “I’ll get a job. He pictured her huddled up alone in the cold and dark. He could feel the blood draining from his face. I promise. Filled with trepidation he could hardly bear to watch her as she placed the phone to her ear.” Nick watched the rest of Coronation Street without taking anything in. Or even some way of letting her go. I think you should understand that I’ve been deeply hurt by what has happened. The thought of the terrible suffering that she must be going through at that moment made him feel slightly ill. Maureen had solved their most pressing problem at a stroke.
He looked up at the clear blue sky. He got up slowly. It wasn’t exactly a healthy. Under different circumstances he might have looked forward to a pleasant trip on his bike. A pint of milk. creating a deafening dawn chorus. 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. Fortunately Maureen had done some shopping the day before and there was enough bread to make cheddar and tomato sandwiches for two. The bed beside him was empty. "It's the man from the garage. holding the receiver out to him. He selected a blue polo necked jumper . He went through to the bathroom and looked out onto the drive." she muttered. A dysfunctional choir of overexcited blackbirds. At least it had stopped raining and it didn’t look like it was too windy. Everything from a murderous band of armed bandits from a cartoon South American republic to an angry congregation from the local church . his legs shaking. 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.” she said.breath. "He wants to speak to you. He packed everything carefully into his old rucksack. Chapter 17 Nick woke up just after seven. He added an apple and a carton of organic blackcurrant yoghurt which he thought his hostage might like. His next task was to go back upstairs and search through Maureen’s chest of drawers for a suitable pair of jeans and a thick woollen jumper. Maureen and Martin had already left for town. He's being really abusive. The car had gone. She listened for a minute and her eyes narrowed and her expression became very grave." Nick looked up helplessly at his wife. Which meant that he would have to visit his hostage on bicycle. a not inconsiderable inconvenience. Maureen had plenty of old clothes which she never wore so he was pretty sure she wouldn’t notice they had gone. I’ll get him for you. “Just a minute. balanced diet but it was the best he could do in the circumstances. her face ashen. a thermos of Nescafe and a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut completed the rations. song thrushes and assorted finches packed the branches of the trees around the house.
There was no point in her brooding. Suddenly feeling more positive about the situation he further resolved to improve the conditions of her incarceration by providing her with something to read. He made sure that it was the one without any kind of dedication that might be traced back to him. From the bathroom he collected a toothbrush. It just wasn’t right. He went back into the house and collected a Woman's Own. A ransom would go a long way to solving their problems. When all was said and done she was hardly likely to risk burning herself alive in an attempt to escape. a Trout and Salmon magazine and a book. their creditors were still pressing hard. On the other hand. 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. 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. To pass the time until what. perhaps he could safely leave the paraffin lamp with his hostage after all. a flannel. Maureen’s revelation that they were no longer going to lose the house completely undermined the justification for his action. Light reading to pass the time was all that was required. Then there was the practicalities of how he was going to get his hands on the money and free the hostage safely. The thing was he couldn’t bear the thought of her spending any more time locked up in complete darkness. that he was perfectly safe. He was about to set off down the hill when it occurred to him that. was of course the question. paradoxically. one of two copies he had been given as a kid. 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. From what he had heard it appeared that the authorities were still treating the whole thing as a tragic accident. 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. Which meant. Safe as long as he did nothing in other words.from BHS and a pair of Levi’s. Having taken this decision he immediately felt better. A question that overnight had become a lot more complicated. despite his earlier misgivings. . a bar of Fairy soap and a clean towel. He considered adding a bible to the collection but after a certain amount of vacillation he rejected the idea. a small tube of Macleans. at least until he contacted someone with his demands. 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. Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh.
The thought of having to cut off her ear and send it to them. Hopefully everything would be resolved in a civilised fashion and it wouldn’t come to that. If that was the correct word. He was only safe in the same sense that a bomb disposal expert is safe until the bomb goes off. When this was all over he vowed that he . powerful shoulders. Nevertheless.Although describing himself as safe. It was definitely his favourite time of the year. He was obliged to stand up on the pedals when the bike threatened to stall going up even the gentlest inclines. He set off from the house feeling reasonably optimistic. despite the effort required by his age-wasted muscles it was great to be out in the countryside again when Spring was in the air. The 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. 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. He could of course settle for much less but it seemed crazy to take such a huge risk for so little reward. You didn’t get much for a quarter of a million nowadays. Maybe as long as a fortnight. still with a mantle of glistening snow shrouding its dark. 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. Jesus. a period of optimistic re-birthing after all the doom and gloom of a long. that sort of thing. It was hardly extortionate. To get the full amount was undoubtedly going to take time. As he remounted his bike he made up his mind that when he reached the cottage he would get her to write out a ransom demand – addressed to the young man he had seen her with on the riverbank probably – saying that if the money wasn’t left somewhere safe within seven days the hostage would die. Asking for anything less would only be a short-term compromise that would almost certainly end in unhappiness and ultimately even failure. any middle ranking company director would expect at least half a million just for having his contract terminated early. 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. filled him with revulsion. hard Winter. was a purely relative term. Looking up through the bud-bursting hedgerows he could see Morven Hill in the distance. it struck him. He sighed. The heat on his back from the late March sun was unexpectedly fierce as he pedalled up the first gentle incline on the main road leading to the cottage and he was soon sweating freely and panting heavily. 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 rubbed his hands with glee. he should never have kidnapped . a twelve mile round trip. The trick. With every passing day the risk of being found out increased. but even in the darkest hours there was always hope. It was perfect. It was funny. he would lay the paper trail. They could have a picnic. He would study the map later and work out the best route. Come to that. of course. relying on his smooth tongue to buy more time from his creditors. To make matters worse. Tomorrow. just as he had done with that bastard garage owner last night. and gradually the solution was starting to take shape in his mind. Talk about traumatic. The scheme was simple but effective. one of his favourite walks. He leaned on the handlebars of the bike and let out a long sigh of relief. 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. At the summit he stopped to get his breath back. He would just have to live with the delay. A series of instructions leading to pre-determined locations which he could observe from the safety of the higher ground. He had been cycling for twenty minutes or so when he came to a particularly steep gradient on the road where he was obliged to dismount and push his bike up the hill. He could lay a paper trail based on map references for the person who brought the ransom money to follow. Light was finally chasing the shadows from his soul. he decided. Maybe Maureen would come too. It would be like a family day out. He should never have left her there alone. like all the best plans. giving Nick plenty of time to make his escape. was still of the essence in more ways than one. Once the money was left in the designated spot the person would then have to follow another series of directives before he finally found out where the hostage was being held captive.he couldn’t see any way it would take less than four to five days. It would be something to look forward to after the quiet desperation of recent months. The only issue still to be resolved was the time it would take to get his hands on the money. would be to use his extensive knowledge of the local topography to his advantage. He would be able to see without being seen. he was worried about what the dreadful experience must be doing to her. He felt his neck turning red with shame. 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. even Martin.would climb it again. while he waited for the ransom demand to be delivered. They hadn’t had one together for years. Time. All morning he’d been brooding upon a safe way to collect the ransom. For a start he certainly couldn't keep his hostage locked up for much longer. If what the woman said was true – and he had no reason to doubt her . Somebody up there still loved him after all.
Bending double he scuttled across to the shelter of a thicket of rhododendron bushes less than twenty yards from the cottage. He lingered beneath the shade of the tree for as long as he could but eventually he felt obliged to make a move. By the time he finally came within sight of the cottage he was panting heavily from his exertions. He paused about fifty yards from the front of the cottage. the truth was there was no excuse for the pain and the anguish he was now putting her through. However justified his motives had seemed at the time. Seeing the woman again meant confronting the true enormity of his evil actions. In order to make absolutely certain that there was no one about he sat and surveyed the scene for a further ten minutes or so. There was no way he could even be sure that she was still in the cottage. For the umpteenth time he regretted embarking on such a half-arsed scheme. Prolonging her agony would amount to wickedness on his part. He scanned the horizon all around with his binoculars. Anything could have happened to his hostage overnight. leaning against a tall pine while he regained his composure. There was no other sign of movement anywhere else in his field of vision. . In the distance a squawking buzzard circled lazily overhead. 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. The sky had remained cloudless and now that the sun was almost directly overhead the landscape shimmered in the heat.her in the first place. He hid the bike in the place where he had parked the car the day before and set off through the birch woods towards the cottage. He swallowed nervously. He was experiencing a growing sense of unease at what he might find within the derelict building. 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. Half an hour later he arrived at the disused track leading off into the woods. There was no way the reunion could be anything other than unpleasant and he hated unpleasantness. He should have had it all planned down to the smallest detail before he started. 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. She might have escaped and called the police. He ducked as a brilliant blue dragonfly the size of a wren shot past his left shoulder like a helicopter out of control. The last thing he wanted at this stage was to walk into a trap. 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 lingered for another five minutes in his hiding place just to be on the safe side. 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. 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. Gradually he could just make out what sounded like a low hum.The truth was that there could be a whole army of policemen hidden in the undergrowth and he probably wouldn't spot anything. He held his breath and pressed his ear closer. Then there was the question of what he was going to say to her. He . There were no insects buzzing. She probably thought he was the village idiot. As was the large flock of chaffinches squabbling noisily amongst the branches of the two ancient apple trees at the side of the house. The sight of a red deer grazing contentedly on the hedge at the end of the garden was immensely reassuring. He frowned. It seemed absurd but he was actually terrified at the prospect of confronting her again. he began to creep closer to the front of the cottage. He felt the hair rising on the back of his neck. At first he heard nothing. The silence that followed was unnerving. 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. It wasn’t what he had expected. It sounded like a swarm of bees buzzing angrily inside a hive. Waiting was no hardship. The sound wasn’t really human at all. an abject sight for which he alone was entirely responsible. Indeed. Eventually. What on earth was going on in there? He tried to peer through the keyhole but the inside of the cottage was pitch black. no leaves rustling. To tell the truth he was in no hurry to confront the woman again. 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. when he was as certain as he could be that it was safe to approach. the only sound was the pounding of his heart echoing painfully in his ears. even the squawking buzzard had flown off over the hill into the next valley. How on earth do you talk to a hostage you have terrorised and humiliated in that way? And what if she asked about what was going to happen to her next? She must have realised by now that the whole thing so far had been a complete balls-up. but continuously. the sound rising and falling irregularly. He turned his attention towards the cottage itself. For a start he didn't know what kind of condition she might be in.
who killed him. someone dropping a smoke canister down the chimney perhaps. While he sat there in a quandary. Out of sound out of mind. as if a warm gentle breeze was caressing his ears. Shit. No way on earth. There was no way he was going in there right now. The thought horrified him. 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. But why? What exactly was she doing in there? Maybe she was being attacked by something. too scared to go any closer. Except that the soundwaves were almost tangible. He crept back towards the safety of the rhododendron bush. he felt sure she was the one making that awful sound. Wrapped in the protective cover of the dense leafy branches he sat listening to the awful humming sound. This way everyone was a murderer and died in a state of mortal sin. Gradually. He breathed a sigh of relief. The soldiers stood around grinning and cheering with the enthusiasm of a crowd at a baseball game. even if something unimaginably awful was taking place inside. He sat down again on the damp earth. the noise subsided. He suddenly felt very scared.stepped back in alarm. He closed his eyes and immediately drifted off into a light. puzzling over what to do next the finches gradually flitted back in twos and threes to the apple trees. In a stockade a group of soldiers had lined up dozens of prisoners. Being eaten alive. This time there was no sound of any kind emanating from the cottage. He hesitated. the picture conjured up in his mind was like something out of a horror film. Within a few minutes the sound of their angry squabbling filled the air. exhausted sleep. The man second from the end was handed a club and told to kill the man on his left. as the minutes ticked by. It was an old dream. By the rats perhaps. It sounded like the bees might be attacking something. Anything could be happening inside that nightmarish world. until eventually it was barely audible. A dry twigged snapped beneath his feet and he jumped in alarm. his heart pounding. He was trapped in a nightmare of his own making. He began dreaming almost at once. Then he passed the club to the man next to him. expertly . And yet. He hauled himself to his feet and took an unsteady step towards the cottage. whatever it was. down the line. based on a true atrocity he’d read about years before in Idi Amin’s Uganda. Once again the birds in the apple trees flew off in panic. He listened carefully. no louder than the hum from a distant electricity generator or standing beneath the faint drone of an overhead power line. And so on. 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. and yet that didn’t make any sense.
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. a refugee in a foreign country. He sat where he was for a long time. Suddenly he felt incredibly weary.evaluating the effectiveness of the blows. covered in sweat as usual. He circled the pile warily before he picked it up. Clouds began to gather over Morven Hill. He scanned each letter with a practised. Cold enough for snow. one from his lawyers. The battle to save himself and his family had been going on for so long that it now seemed unwinnable. circumspect eye like a security guard checking for letter bombs. Chapter 18 The way back home was mostly downhill and he pedalled flat out. one from the credit card company) he hid unopened behind the breadbin. He paused at the foot of the road leading up to the house to see if there was any sign of visitors. clustering round the summit like a halo. It was time to go home and face the consequences. Dark and terrifying. The free offers and the junk mail he perused only peremptorily before binning them. Once inside he discovered that the postman had been while he was out. To make matters worse he was no longer convinced of the justice of his cause. He had made too may mistakes to hope for victory. He had lost. A plain white envelope with a typewritten address whose ordinariness made it stand out from the rest. He was sick of fighting for his life. At that moment he realised that for him the war was over. When he was certain the coast was clear he remounted and cycled up to the house. Nick always woke up before the end so he never found out what happened to the last man. Soon it would be dark in the forest. He felt stiff and sore from squatting for so long but he no longer had the energy to stand up. The sight of the little pile of letters on the floor inside the back door made his heart beat even faster. Not for the first time that day he felt uncomfortable at being out alone in the middle of nowhere. The light began to fade. It was growing colder as the afternoon wore on. The sun slowly disappeared behind the mountain. Slowly he stood up and brushed the leaves and twigs from his trousers. He woke up again on this occasion. the wind streaming through his hair. At the end of the sorting process only one letter remained. The bills and the threatening letters which were easy to identify from their postmarks (one from the Inland Revenue. yet another from the bank. . It wasn’t just soldiers who suffered from battle-fatigue.
The same went for the lottery. conclusion that there was only one way to find out. He hesitated for many minutes. It was truly a miracle. shaky hand. As far as he knew he had no relatives of any kind. a metaphorical letter bomb from any one of his numerous creditors and pursuers. As he read the contents he couldn't believe his eyes. they felt sure. of which he had no recollection whatsoever. Someone up there had finally taken pity on him. In the end he came to the obvious. He read the letter for the sixth time. although it was months. There were other possibilities of course. maybe even years. in fact. Maybe a distant relative had died and left him millions. near or distant.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. living or dead. In thirty years as a patient investor he had won nothing. 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. if uncomfortable. A JOB OFFER. that it might actually be good news. Fat chance. The print swam in front of his eyes. An interview he had apparently attended six months before. When he tore it open it didn't explode but the effect was just as earthshattering. be in a position to START RIGHT AWAY? Would he? WOULD HE! He couldn't believe it. He rose from the settee. A. 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. Odd things did happen of course. Would he. strode across the carpet and picked up the envelope with a reckless. He read and re-read the letter. A three year . A BLOODY MIRACLE. There was always the chance. Job. He felt giddy. He was pretty sure the same thing applied to a warrant. He didn’t know what the odds of winning were but so far the results had not been encouraging. his EXPERIENCE of running his OWN small business would prove invaluable. Offer. It was from the local area enterprise agency. He wasn’t certain. since he had had any of that through the post. At least it was unlikely to be a summons. but he had a hazy idea that such a legal missive had to be handed to him in person. That was the real danger. It was a job offer. On the other hand the innocuous looking letter might well be a trick. rich or poor. he reasoned. The football pools were an even longer shot – particularly since he had stopped doing them years ago. not long after he got married. Perhaps one of his three premium bonds had come up and he had won first prize.
He read the letter once again and this time the tears welled up in his eyes. Look the world in the eye. Keep a roof over their heads. There was no way on earth he was going to allow himself to fail at that. Resume his sex life. The only alternative he could think of was to keep her as a long-term captive. Send Martin to university. His brain whirled. Literally bursting. Mrs Roberts. He felt an absurd twinge of regret. With one bound he was free. A weight lifted from his shoulders. She had seen his face after all. Bursting. Six weeks holiday a year. That was downright silly. They would be on to him in no time. No. Please phone back at your earliest opportunity and confirm on receipt of letter. Bursting with fucking happiness. The freedom to do what you want. Buy chocolate and cream cakes. For the last six months it had been his prison. A lifeline. Shoes that don't let in rain. He didn't hesitate for long. Pension provision. He was half way through dialling the number on the letter heading when he realised there was a fly in the ointment. Had anyone ever received such wonderful news? He looked slowly around the room. Eat meat. He picked up the phone again and dialled the number on the letterhead. A generous (their words – but true) mileage allowance. Presents for all. It took him ages to get through to the right person. Save his marriage. to do nothing if you felt like it. Apart from anything else he was determined to give one hundred per cent to the new job to make it a success. A thirty-seven hour week. Self respect. glorious thoughts. His hostage. How could he possibly look after her and hold down a full time job? There was no way he could do both. Reasonable expenses. He hesitated then put down the receiver. to get up when you want. The freedom to go mad with boredom. the letter had arrived just in the nick of time. he must have been transferred to at least four different . He closed his eyes and shook his head. Could he set her free without risking getting caught? He couldn’t see how. His last chance. a kaleidoscope of random. Joy unbounded. the freedom to feel totally useless. It was too important. Yours sincerely etc. now it was about to become paradise once more. Life after redundancy. The latest millstone round his neck. Tell the bank manager to call off his hounds. A salary that made his eyes water. Hark the herald angels sing. Pay off that garage bill. to sit at the window and count every second of every day. Sleep no longer murdered. Another week and he would either be dead or completely round the bend. He was about to lose that peculiar form of freedom that comes with being unemployed.contract (equivalent to a lifetime). A new shirt and tie. He bit his lip. Work his balls off for them in gratitude. Say a prayer of thanks. The queen's pardon.
All the old certainties that went with being a valued member of society would soon return. No doubt about it. No longer inferior. And then he discovered. Okey dokey then. But from now on it was going to be for better. He should never have doubted her. all right. For better or for worse. Okay. It would be easy to be ordinary once again. No. no more hourly dramas. You just come to reception tomorrow at. the post and the telephone friends once more. "What? Tomorrow? Yeah. She’s gone home already. Byee. see you at ten. Raring to go. then an early night. As always. The bird table at the foot of the garden was devoid of food. That was the most important thing. I’ll have to get your ID card ordered and get someone from IT to come in and hook your workstation up to the network. A few chaffinches sat forlornly in the lifeless . So in the final analysis he hadn't let her down. a final cruel joke by Him up there. She was right too. "No one tells me nothing round here. She'd always said he would come up trumps in the end. a good night’s sleep. you can rely on us. Don’t worry. Don't go overboard. Buy a few cans of beer when Maureen came home. Start the new life with a bang. the humdrum grind. For a moment he thought it was all a mistake.departments. The freedom from fear." 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. a lost soul without hope. All the things that made life worth living. This miraculous development called for a celebration. No way on earth was he going to screw up this opportunity of a lifetime. and even when he spoke to the person named in the letter she didn't seem to know what he was talking about. Leave it to me I’ll organise it for you. wait. ten and we’ll have everything ready for you. No longer a second class citizen. would be welcome after the heightened drama of the past six months. perhaps even the start of the retribution which would be exacted on him for all the dreadful sins he had committed recently. he had to give her credit for that. And Maureen. He stood up and looked out of the window. you won’t catch her working late. the so-called executives in charge haven’t got a clue. if that's what you want. Even the littleness of life. He’d lived up to his half of the bargain that was enshrined in the marriage vows they had taken all those years ago. to his enormous relief. Don’t worry. Who signed the letter? I might have known. He couldn't wait to see the look on her face when he told her the news." So he had got the job. We always end up organising everything round here. say. He punched the air with delight. She'd always had faith in him though. that it just seemed to be the way the organisation always operated. Bright eyed and bushy tailed. He was employed once more.
He smiled. was the death of his mother many years later. Very hot. Well. loved by his nearest and dearest. not to say mundanity of his moral ambitions. And then there was last year. Not even goodness. His motive then was simple. He felt his neck reddening with shame. respected and liked by all who knew him. if he had been a truly evil man? He bit his lip. 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. anybody at all.branches of the old apple tree. the first with no blood connections. He hated her. The only person who had ever really loved him in return. 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. a virtual skeleton weighing less than five stone. regular guy. Chapter 19 It was hot. 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. 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. Almost as bad. Wriggling out of filial responsibility he had betrayed the only person in the world he had ever truly loved. Jesus. Just the desire to be ordinary. Their future too was now assured. That ludicrous episode had claimed two more innocent lives. He swivelled away from the window and stared down with fierce concentration at the pile of notes . An ordinary. In the catalogue of his crimes against humanity this was the one act for which he felt no remorse. He had been sent to summons a doctor but acute shyness had overcome him as he approached the surgery. On the contrary. liked by anybody. it was too late now. because he played an active role in condoning her euthanasia. What atrocities might he have committed. Without a doubt the death that caused him most remorse and anguish was the one he had perpetrated while he was still a child. Whichever way he looked at it the scale of the slaughter seemed totally disproportionate to the modesty. he wondered. 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.
With the benefit of hindsight he knew only too well how they risked losing everything. not his.strewn across his desk. subtly transferring much of the responsibility for the success or. None was even remotely streetwise. he found it scary the way they hung onto his every utterance. Anyone who was brave. as if he was in some way omniscient. He always gave the same reply. He was sure that they believed he could somehow guarantee them success in their mostly half-baked ventures. as he had almost done a year before. There was no mistaking how busy he was. Not that he resented this unequal risk/reward ratio. 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. more likely failure. The verdict of the market was the only opinion that mattered. not them. He was so weary. 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. of their ventures onto him. 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. enough to start their own business deserved everything they got. Indeed. as if his they were catching pearls of wisdom scattered by Richard Branson himself. It didn’t help that every group demanded instant answers. He wasn’t sure whether they actually listened but they invariably wrote down everything he said. Satisfied that he was properly briefed he folded shut his file and leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. It didn’t help that he was no longer . completely worn out with the demands of the job. Except of course that in reality if their projects took off they would gain all the rewards. Sometimes he felt as if he was the one gambling everything. They simply couldn’t grasp the point that no one could predict the way the market would react to their propositions. Thank God he was busy. 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. Their blind faith placed an enormous burden on his shoulders. or foolhardy. And all of them demanded the same intensive brain-mangling support and guidance. Although it was only three in the afternoon he had already conducted meetings with six client groups. “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.
“What’s wrong?” “It’s him. her tatty pink nightdress hanging from her fleshy shoulders. Because of her guilt she hadn’t let Nick in to see his father for more than a week. “You’ll have to go and fetch the doctor. terrified by the responsibility. Nick loved his father more than anything in the whole world and he prayed continually for him.” “Why can’t you?” “You know I’m not well. tossing and turning continuously. So many nightmares recently. As the days turned into weeks they both knew that this couldn’t be true. Even sleeping tablets couldn’t prevent him dreaming about that fateful morning when his mother had appeared wild-eyed and ashen-faced at his bedroom door.” His father had been lying ill in bed for the past six weeks. Get dressed and go and fetch the damned doctor otherwise it’ll all be your . making her voice hoarse. She always had done. “You know fine I can’t leave the house. When he stopped eating altogether his mum began to panic. He hated his mother. His constant groaning kept them awake at night. yet his time on this earth failed to stand up to even the most cursory forensic examination.” His mother never went out. “Please. On the face of it he had led a perfectly ordinary existence. getting down on his red raw knees on the linoleum in his bedroom. ever since he had been born. Looking back it was extraordinary how subtly this moral degeneration had developed. That it had all started with the death of his own father was particularly shocking. She suffered from depression. a tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions. “Can’t you go?” he replied.” “Don’t be damned so lazy. mum. the characteristic bitterness in her voice tinged with fear. And wipe that stupid look off your face.sleeping at night. pleading with God for a miracle. you go.” she had gasped. the inevitable outcome of his growing awareness of how far his life had gone off the rails. Because she hated his father and was terrified of her own impotence his mum maintained at first he was just putting it on.
She referred to him as “six foot of nothing”. without a hint of remorse. to the discontinuation of his mother’s treatment for pneumonia. the cuckoo that had been dumped in her nest. The recent killing of his mother had none of the drama surrounding his father’s death He recalled the brief. 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. glaring at him in such an accusatory way that Nick figured that his mother had already blamed him. pious discussion with the family doctor on the telephone three months before.fault. If he hadn’t been such a coward his dad might still be alive. After they had been there a few weeks and there had been lots of rows his mother threw some plates and was taken back into hospital where she stayed for the next six years. Nick was sorry for the trouble he was causing her just by his very existence. She hated him. When he grew into adolescence she scolded him constantly. The sense of loss stayed with Nick all his life. fraught years when he had struggled to survive. separated by the forty hard. His mother got back out of hospital six months later and they fled to Scotland on the train because his mum couldn’t cope. When he got home the house smelled of burnt mince and they had taken his father away. two of them violently. The realisation that he would never see his father again almost drove him mad. In between the two incestuous killings. He had agreed. matching bookends of familial slaughter. “ He ran all the way to the doctor’s surgery but when he got there it was packed and everyone turned and stared at him like he was something the cat had brought in and he panicked and turned round and fled back across the playing fields. He stayed overnight at his best friend Billy Beckworth’s house until a man in a black raincoat he didn’t know came for him the next morning. while at the same time absolving herself from all responsibility. They lived with his aunt and uncle on a farm in the middle of nowhere. thereby ensuring the termination of an existence almost unique in its total pointlessness. lurking up in his room all the time. as she always did. his head forever buried in books about goodness knows what. So did the remorse. another three people had died at his hands.” the stranger told him without preamble. giving her more work to do because they didn’t have a washing machine like other people. innocent victims all. She made him scrub his neck until it bled but still his shirt collars got filthy. a devout Catholic. “Your father’s dead. During his frenzied . He spent the next few months being looked after by old Mrs O’Brien next door. His aunt hated him because he was clever and lazy.
Not his wife nor his son nor his closest friends. If his own experience was anything to go by the world was a far more dangerous place than anyone imagined. the Scots held a special place in the annals of innovation and industry. his brain hurt. and all the while. 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. proved as much. creating yet more opportunities. bullied. but it certainly made him wonder. A brief glance at the history of commerce. he had adopted a pleasant and solicitous air. nor even his long-neglected priest Canon Murphy. The world might be in recession but at least in his own small way he was doing something positive to help turn things round. no-one had ever suspected him of committing any crime. That was the most extraordinary thing of all. neglected his family. its pages turned only behind the unscaleably high walls that protected his innermost thoughts. He smiled to himself at the thought. sacrificed. Despite what people thought. He was dead tired. Nothing had been allowed to stand in the way of his desperate need to attain society’s approbation. such was his desperate desire to be liked. Some of the guys he advised would surely go on to create companies that would become world leaders in their fields. He wouldn’t finish work much before nine for the third night in a row. being a business adviser was a tough occupation. And yet. the last person to hear his carefully sanitized confession. There was no doubt about it. His catalogue of death remained securely tucked out of sight. ultimately. even towards those he had crushed and. In the process too they would established political influence far beyond the country’s tiny size. Amazingly. he loved every minute of it. 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 .pursuit of middle-class respectability he had lied. despite his lifetime of lawless conformity. manipulated and killed as he had clambered up the social ladder. every new client represented a leap into the unknown. 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. cheated. Never an inkling. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. Companies that would expand beyond their parochial Scottish base and go on to develop lucrative niche markets around the world. especially in the nineteenth century. despite all the pressures of his job. sweated blood. every meeting was a brush with failure.
Eugenics. 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. That and getting the right people to implement the strategy. what really mattered to him was the presence of the essential commercial framework that underpins every successful company launch. Indeed. His mission to transform the country was heady stuff. Eugenics? He wondered if that was the correct term. even had the potential to alter the future of the Third World. He would address that problem when he came to write up their business plan. He studied the notes for his next scheduled meeting. The business plan had a decent pedigree for a start. They were for the most part a sad succession of tiny minds and timid aspirations. A shadowy legacy that might scare off potential investors. especially since the reality of his daily meetings with his coterie of aspiring entrepreneurs was very different. It didn’t sound quite right somehow. Not that the ethics of the underlying science mattered to him.challenge even the industrial might of America. This dream of regaining his country’s trading pre-eminence was an exciting prospect. Nevertheless. He didn’t think it was too far fetched to say that the proposal. the group of world-class medium-sized companies upon which Germany had built its industrial might. of failures waiting to happen. that was the most important . He knew only too well . whereas in the wrong hands even the most brilliant scheme was doomed to failure. This one was all about re-mapping the human genome. He sighed. A vision that culminated in nothing less than the creation of an all-powerful mittelstand. Cloning. Success was all about the people. The proposal. although he knew in his heart that he had an enormous task on his hands to turn his vision into reality. being based upon a research project which had originated in the local university. 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. Nor did he need to know anything about the detailed science behind the proposal.and most difficult challenge. one that drove him to work as hard as he did. Given that there was bound to be a market for such a product. Morality didn’t come into it. he gladly accepted the challenge. which was based upon the ability to alter certain genes relating to an individual’s susceptibility to various malarial-type diseases. which he had already been working upon for several weeks. cash flow. differentiation. All that was important was the presence of the vital ingredients that could be melded into a sustainable competitive advantage. time to profitability. Innovation. seemed like a good idea to him. with its sinister historical overtones. With the right people in place almost any idea could be made to work.
the feeble. utterly calculating. Everybody wants a piece of you these days. Which was hardly surprising. He sought out entrepreneurs red in tooth and claw. waltzed into the office holding his revised daily meetings schedule. Sarah.” “Do I? For your information most of the time I feel like a my brain is being squeezed in a vice. I’m sure they admire you as a person too.” “Stop complaining. It was part of his special relationship with her. her wide smile lighting up the office. “Don’t give me your pretend sympathy. It wasn’t just that he was an emotional accident waiting to happen. as he punched the latest figures from the group’s business plan into a spreadsheet. The truth is you collude with them. “How about just occasionally you schedule me a proper lunch break for pity’s sake?” She laughed. she didn’t give a damn what anybody thought. beautiful. their private language.” She had a facetious grin on her face as she spoke. elegant. was to screen out the obvious losers. She was only twenty-five. the indolent. dedicated. . There really was something special about her. Dangerously like lovers. No vegetarians need apply.” Sarah laughed again.” “You know you love it really.” he grunted.that in life there were only winners and losers. confident. Tough. almost like lovers. just like the rest of us. the downtrodden. I feel like the only thing these people are interested in is my brain. He gazed in dismay at the crowded printout. his young PA. How does it feel to be wanted by the way?” “You know what. He enjoyed it immensely whenever they embarked on one of their mildly combative dialogues. Bright. he had rapidly discovered. The dim. short blonde hair that exposed a long slim neck that was almost swanlike. Keeping me here on a caffeine drip while these guys come by and expect me to solve all their problems for them. you know that. the weak. She had worked for him for nearly a year and he knew he was falling in love with her. Sarah. “Jesus. the strange. a recurring metaphor for lunch. He was ruthless in his suppression of those who lacked the necessary attributes. He wolfed a tiny tuna sandwich. In his short time in the job he had already learned that it was almost impossible to pick winners. visionary. tall. The trick. “You don’t have time to eat.
The trick would be to keep them that way. Had to call a staff meeting about another new set of guidelines we’ve been issued from on high. Definitely not in thought where Sarah was concerned. leaving the imagination free to construct the person of your dreams. Sarah meanwhile hovered nearby. In deed at least. by the way I got an e-mail from Martin. Recently he found himself thinking about her more and more. “That’s a lovely idea. how are you?” he said. I could murder an Indian. Happily married. How is he getting on?” “He got top marks in his essay. At that moment. Some sort of penance for his adulterous thoughts. Fortunately. Why don’t you come round here when you’re finished and we’ll go out for a meal. more a way of being. It means I won’t get finished much before nine. And what dreams they were. Because you only see one dimension of a colleague at work you have to invent the rest. Or that he was already married.” . Besides. if not in thought. busily rearranging papers on an adjacent desk.” “That’s good. I’m afraid I’m going to be late again tonight. “Oh yes. “Nick. and he couldn’t be bothered. And of course it didn’t help that she was twenty years younger than he was. for her life was a ball.” Martin was in his first year at University studying mechanical engineering. his wife phoned. Trapped in a happy marriage to be more exact. To Maureen. Oh.she laughed at the world.” He didn’t really want to go out to eat but it felt like the decent thing to do. not a pretence. Every second she was out of his sight was agony for him now. Naturally. the stillbeautiful student he had met at university twenty years before. not all of them entirely fake. “Hi. Nick switched instantly into loving husband mode. And that wouldn’t be easy even though he had been faithful throughout his married life. love. Like most people who lead busy lives he was a man of many guises. as if she had been reading his thoughts from afar and had sensed the looming danger. Sort of.” “I always said he was bright. dear. it wasn’t fair to expect Maureen to cook after a hard day’s work.” “That’s a bummer. up until now he had kept his feelings about Sarah to himself and under firm control. I’m working late too. with genuine affection in his voice.
I’m too tired. As long as he passes his exams it’s money well spent.” Nick sighed. Maybe not to you. Let’s not argue. he made it all seem so easy. okay. He loved his son but…but the truth was he wasn’t convinced that the boy worked as hard as he should. Don’t worry about it. Her slim silhouette made him feel faint with desire.” “Bye.” “Nick.” .” “But he does. Nick. Martin was so laid back about everything. 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. that’s all. You know how much he worries about trying to please you.“You did.” “Nick?” “Yes?” “Is everything okay?” “What do you mean?” “You sound…preoccupied.” “All right then. I’ll see you later.” “I’ll look forward to it. Which it wasn’t. We’re the ones making the sacrifices after all.” Nick was watching Sarah out of the corner of his eye as she leaned over a desk with her back to him. love.” “Bye.” “Okay. you might sound a bit more pleased. I’m sure he’s working hard. But he’s often told me how grateful he is for what we’re doing. Maureen. He has his pride too. I just wish he would acknowledge that fact occasionally. I’ll come round to your office about nine. “I’ve had a tough day. “I am pleased.
“As usual. where a once-exciting future had faded into the dull certainties of the present. I don’t think you really want to go home that badly. is it?” “Aren’t you dying to rush off home?” “That depends. “What middle-aged man does?” he responded eventually.” “You’re right. She laughed. doesn’t it. She regularly quizzed him about his home life. “It’s not about being middle-aged. perhaps. Take it easy yourself.” He leaned back in his swivel chair and looked up at her. which was actually only true in a very particular way.” he sighed. no more unhappy than the average marriage where longevity had dulled romance. meaningful look that set his pulse racing. “You’re going to be working late again you poor thing. This time her laugh disturbed him. You work far too hard and they take you for granted. though. his marriage. “Anyway. where familiarity had bred a thousand irritations.” She gave him a bold.” “You’re sweet. in fact. You’re the one who really works hard. that the only thing worse than a marriage that fails is one that succeeds. It’s only a job after all.” Sarah came back to his desk holding out his revised diary printout.” “When have I ever been wicked?” “That’s what I’ve been wondering. There were limits to their flirting beyond . I’ll see you later. mock heroically.” He immediately wondered what was behind this last observation.“I do worry. “No rest for the wicked. chancing his arm. As Oscar Wilde might have said. how happy he really was. Once when they were having a drink together after work he had told her that his marriage was not a happy one. made his stomach churn with apprehension. The relationship was. The proof.” She laughed coquettishly. Nick.” “Just don’t take it so seriously. The way her eyes twinkled with laughter made him feel light-headed as he breathed in her beauty. Probably did say.
the wise old uncle expertly taking the lead. even. His brain hummed continually with brilliant initiatives designed to enhance his department’s performance. up to his ears in debt. Now he was gainfully employed once again. As a result it was no surprise that in a short time he was promoted to head of department. fearful. scary. he would break her heart. at the end of his tether. in his heart he knew it was all too dangerous. He smiled to himself.which he daren’t go. following an external appraisal by an international firm of . he frequently reminded himself that it was easy to float to the top in a sea of mediocrity. to keep things in perspective.” 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. “How about doing something useful and making me a fresh coffee before YOU go home. things just kept getting better. he had to admit. a brazenness which dimmed the aura of innocence he preferred her to radiate. Not just moral questions either. “Alrighty. Nevertheless. the catalyst for a dozen new initiatives. keep your shirt on. nothing like it had ever happened to him before. he knew. had even been able to put his harrowing commercial experience to good use. as he had grown into his new job his crushed spirit had become revitalised. he said sternly. I’ll be your slave as usual. At the moment though. a role in which he felt safe. Equally amazingly. at least not yet. For the first time in his life he felt appreciated and he responded with a superhuman effort on behalf of both his clients and the organisation that had unexpectedly given him a second. broken.” She made a face. He preferred the status quo where at least he enjoyed the illusion that he was always in control of the situation. He soon became the star of their weekly team meetings. if their relationship became serious it would raise difficult moral questions that he wasn’t sure he wanted to confront. chance. His rehabilitation had been so remarkable that within a matter of weeks of starting his new job he started to galvanise everyone around him. It was only eighteen months since his business had gone bust and his world had collapsed around him. Besides. beaten. He had found himself unemployed for the first time in his life. One day. which he knew from experience could easily become febrile. Even more amazingly. To lower the temperature. there was something vaguely shocking in her forwardness. a respected member of the business community. Only last month. Although. Although he was addicted to the thrill of flirting with her. maybe a last. all sorts of questions that a middle-aged man is not equipped to answer. his depleted energy reserves had increased by leaps and bounds.
Except that there was a cloud. It was a mistake to dwell on the dreadful events of just over a year ago. Water the new oil. In particular. Hardly a cloud in the sky. He’d thought about it a million times. Creeping desertification. So far he had successfully re-built his life out of the rubble of the past. suddenly finding it hard to breathe. Already in the past six months he had twice been summoned to an audience with the Industry Minister in Edinburgh. Water shortages. 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. Looking back on his life. He tugged at his shirt collar. carbon dating could destroy any alibi. getting wetter. He smiled as he ran his cherished idea through his mind for the millionth time. Suddenly he had an entrée into the world of politics too. even if it was floating above a distant horizon. He shivered. Without a doubt the future was looking bright. And he was confident that he would join the club when he revealed his next big idea. his department had been singled out for praise. DNA was a potential time bomb. Like Churchill. What lay decomposing in that isolated cottage could still bring his world tumbling down. He had to put them behind him. Climate change. All the same. for example in his wilderness years. You had to pay the price to join the club.consultants shortly after his promotion. His department’s budget was about to be doubled. Scotland the next Saudi Arabia. Almost overnight he found himself in a position of influence in the business community. It was more than a dream. 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. Polluted water supplies. Scotland a wet country. Thanks to his recent forays into the political sphere he now knew the right people to help him get the scheme off the ground. Leith a major port. What was the half life of a corpse? How long would he be haunted by the ghostly traces he had left behind at the scene of the crime? His past lay dormant like a fossil waiting . Even now he wasn’t sure he was safe. He had been told that his ideas on nurturing high growth start-ups were being evaluated at the highest level. of course. Droughts. just the thought of how close he had come to disaster was enough to make him break out into a cold sweat. The one that he had been nurturing for years. he could see that it was axiomatic that all great leaders throughout history experienced periods of extreme adversity in their lives. Fleets of supertankers laden with pure Scottish water sailing around the clock to arid countries all over the world.
the quartet of exuberant biologists in their early thirties who were going to rid the world of malaria. let me tell you a story. You know what he said? What the deep significance of it all meant? What my unconscious was telling me? You know what he said?” . He immediately switched into professional mode as he greeted them warmly. I’ve been having the same dream for a while now. Always. “Guys. Their leader. you’re making it way too complicated. coughed nervously. I keep putting my arm around her and pulling her head towards me. These guys were so out of touch with commercial reality which was mostly based on fiction anyway.” he enthused.to be discovered. “Why ever not? I showed you how to do them when you were here the last time. “A chance to study some cash flow forecasts that aren’t based on complete fantasy. The competitive forces at play. “A friend of mine’s a Freudian psychoanalyst. All that stuff you told us about. She struggles a bit but she doesn’t really protest. It’s so vivid. a wry smile on his face. I told him about my dream.” “I’m afraid we couldn’t do them. The market. I keep dreaming that I’m in a room with Jane Fonda. deprecatingly.” His clients laughed. We’re sitting together on a couch. “I’ve no idea. Before I can find out what happens next I always wake up. trying to bend her double. “The cash flows…” “I can’t wait to drool over them. “At last.” admitted their bearded leader. “What’s wrong?” said Nick. Listen. We’re scientists.” Nick couldn’t hide his disappointment.” “It’s too complex. bounced into the room. I don’t know what it means though. At that moment the door opened and his star clients. We couldn’t figure out the rate at which the company will grow its market share?” Nick shook his head. What does it all mean I ask myself? Is it symbolic? What is the earth-shattering significance of that dream?” The group looked blank. an earnest young man with a long curly ginger beard and a faintly unwashed appearance. A really strange dream.
Which was why he would help them now. all that was left was penance. Couldn’t miracles happen? Please. The group were watching him expectantly. God. waiting for him to break the lengthening silence. No one understood the way his childhood dreams had decayed. Not exactly complicated was it? The point being that the answer is often staring you in the bleeding face. To atone for his sins. the washing of his sins. radioactive debris of the past. “He said it meant I wanted Jane Fonda to give me a blow job. “Who is Jane Fonda?” And suddenly Nick thought. None at all. There was no doubt about it. Salvation was beyond him. They didn’t understand what was going on in his head.The End . maybe the woman in the cottage hadn’t died after all.More blank looks. Except that such an outcome would defy logic. That was all he could do. the new beginning he was trying to build out of the contaminated. eventually. No-one did.” Nick stared at the group expecting them to burst out laughing but they gazed back at him in bewilderment. Maybe her story had a happy ending too. their eyes troubled. The others were dead and he had killed them. “You don’t get it.” said the bearded leader. There was no point pretending otherwise.” “I don’t understand. deeply worried. the half life he had led. He looked back and smiled. . make the miracle happen.
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