Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Chapter 12

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. 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. 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. 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, up towards the brown, heather-clad foothills of Morven Hill.

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.

Half an hour later the muddy track petered out as it emerged into the open on the far side of the wood. The hills in front of him formed a natural amphitheatre which looked vaguely familiar but he was unsure in which direction he should strike out. He retrieved his compass from the rucksack and took a sighting a few degrees north-east of the snow-capped summit of Morven Hill. 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, damsons and mushrooms when they were younger. He was surprised that he should have forgotten so much about a place that had once been so dear to him. 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, retained its own particular resonance when he recalled their good times together in later years. Maybe it was inevitable that as the years had passed and their love had metamorphosed into a kind of fond indifference so too the way he viewed the world had changed beyond easy recognition.

After several false starts following various twisting tracks that quickly petered out, he eventually found a promising-looking path that struck out decisively across the moor, an unbroken sheep track which meandered in the general north westerly direction where he thought the farm should lie.

Out in the open moorland away from the shelter of the trees a stiff breeze bowled down the mountainside, tossing the occasional sleety shower into his face as he trudged across the heather. 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. A small flock of bedraggled sheep watched his lack of progress with blank disinterest. In a very short time he was cold, wet and exhausted. To make matters worse there was no sign whatsoever of human habitation. He sat down upon a clump of heather and took off his right boot and emptied it of water. 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. It was only the knowledge that he was running out of time, and that there were no real alternatives left, which forced him to press on with his desperate quest.

At last, over an hour later, on the far horizon he spotted a copse of trees shimmering in the in the misty rain like an oasis. His heart leapt. “Thank Christ,” he muttered, as he slithered towards them down the embankment of some ancient peat lots.

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. The building itself was almost totally hidden behind a thick barrier of brambles and ivy and rampant rhododendron bushes. On hearing his approach a deer ran out of the narrow opening where a gate had once guarded the entrance to the neat cottage garden many years before. Inside the low-walled garden the carefully cultivated landscape had been totally subsumed beneath an enormous bramble bush which was in the process of swallowing up the whole house, climbing almost up to the gutters of the black tiled roof like some enormous prickly octopus crawling out of the ocean.

Cautiously he toured the perimeter of the garden looking for any signs of recent human occupation but to his relief there appeared to be none. He forced his way gingerly through the brambles towards the front door, taking care to keep all traces of disturbance to a minimum.
Exactly as he remembered the front door had been forced open long ago but fortunately it was still on its hinges. 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 congratulated himself for having the foresight to bring a padlock that was suitably rusty in order to blend in with the surroundings. 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.

All the windows were boarded up and the only light within the cottage came from the open front door. He paused at the threshold to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. Gradually he was able to make out a wooden staircase to the upper floor on the far side of the main room which appeared to be rotted through and partially collapsed. The green wood ceiling of the room had numerous broken timbers hanging down and looked like it could fall in at any moment. The bare earth floor was cluttered with bits and pieces of farm machinery, a horse-drawn plough, a giant wooden mincing machine, several rolls of barbed wire, all decorated in a thick layer of bird droppings. The damp walls were covered in fungus, like green flock wallpaper. The only furniture was a crude wooden table with one leg missing that dominated the centre of the room. He shivered. The air of dereliction was oppressive, the place didn’t feel like it had ever been a happy house. It was cold too, the kind of clammy cold that quickly ate into your bones and dampened your spirits. “A potential holiday home in need of some renovation” he muttered aloud. Even an optimistic estate agent might be pushed to come up with a description like that, he thought gloomily. On the other hand, for all its shortcomings, he reckoned that once the door was repaired and padlocked the place should be wind and waterproof at least on the ground floor, which was the main thing as far as his particular requirements were concerned. Thanks to the poor state of the corrugated iron roof which was rusty and torn the cottage obviously wasn’t soundproof but the location was so isolated it hardly mattered. He stepped inside, picking his way carefully past the barbed wire. 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. Looking round he thought the dwelling was probably an old farmhand’s cottage, most likely vacated after the war when the land became uneconomic for whatever reason. There would be a poignant story behind it, he was in no doubt about that. A far older tragedy than the one he was involved in right now, but one with a resonance to his own, a tale of grinding poverty and tarnished dreams, a life of honest toil unrewarded. Standing there in the middle of the decaying room he could smell the sad history of the place. The degradation, desperation and eventual defeat of the working man. The age old story in fact, although this time he was going to do his damnedest to make sure that his sad little drama would have a different ending.

He tried the old bakelite light switches but not surprisingly the electricity had long since been disconnected. He stumbled though to the kitchen where he discovered a huge old enamel double sink beneath the boarded-up window which would once have looked out upon the tidy back garden. Miraculously there was still running water in the taps although it was brown and oily, not the sort anyone would wish to drink. Drinking water wouldn’t be a problem though, there were plenty of streams nearby. What was important was that the toilet, which was located in a room no bigger than a cupboard off to the side of the kitchen, although cracked, blackened and seatless, still flushed when he pulled the chain. At least his captive guest wouldn't be deprived of all her home comforts during what would be, hopefully, her brief confinement.

Back in the kitchen he examined a huge antiquated wood-burning stove which was set against one wall, a crude precursor of the modern Aga. He reckoned that the thing must weigh at least a ton. Although rusty and seized solid it would be ideal for what he had in mind - something immovable to which he could securely tether his prisoner and render her immobile.

While he was bending down to examine the stove for suitably robust anchor points he suddenly heard a scratching sound, like sandpaper being rubbed against wood. He froze in horror. 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, about two feet away from his own head, with a surprised, but not particularly startled, expression on its face.

"Jesus!" he gasped, jumping back in alarm.

The rat sniffed the air while it considered the situation before eventually retreating in a dignified manner back beneath the stove.

Nick stumbled back rapidly to the safety of doorway and stood there staring in horror at the stove, his heart pounding. There might be a whole plague of rats lurking under it, he thought wildly, there could be hundreds of them. The idea of being attacked by an army of rats was his worst nightmare. He struggled to restrain the urge to turn and flee. Only the thought of the fate that awaited him and his family if his mission failed through his cowardice persuaded him to stay.

Once again he heard the rat shuffling about underneath the stove, a sort of slow unconcerned, lazy scraping sound, as if it knew it was safe inside its metal home. A shiver ran down his spine and he hunched his shoulders and shook his head in defiance. No fucking rodent was going to screw up his plans at this stage. He would rather risk being eaten alive than fail now. “Fuck off!” he screamed at the invisible adversary, “Fuck off! Fuck off! Fuck off!”. Silence followed his outburst. Nothing moved. The rat seemed unimpressed. Nick thought of poor Mrs Roberts being forced to share the house with a plague of rats. He pictured the disgusting creatures sniffing round her feet, climbing over her face and body, maybe even attacking her. Actually eating her alive. Jesus. The idea was too gruesome to contemplate. He shook his head again.
“No way,” he protested out loud. It was out of the question. There was absolutely no way he could subject the poor woman to such inhuman, degrading treatment. The rats had beaten him.

He backed out of the house, holding his head in his hands, blinded by the realisation that his plan had failed.

Beneath one of the boarded up windows he could just make out the shape of an old wooden bench covered entirely by the rampant bramble bush. Rolling his jacket around his arm he cleared a space on the end and sat down to contemplate this fatal setback to his grandiose scheme.

He felt utterly deflated. Up until that moment everything had been going so well. Against all the odds his plans had been coming perfectly to fruition, everything had been slipping seamlessly into place. Now this. The perfect hiding place in every respect except one: it wasn’t habitable. With time rapidly running out the presence of the rats was an insurmountable problem. He was beaten. This was the end. He might as well end it here. The rats would feast well tonight.

Of course he should have guessed that it wasn't going to be easy. Life never is. 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. There was no getting away from it, he had been guilty of breathtaking hubris. It was bad enough to dream up such an outrageous scam. It was even worse to have deluded himself into thinking that he would have been capable of putting his crazy scheme into action. He seemed to have learned nothing from the collapse of the business, his last crazy scheme.

He heard a now-familiar shuffling noise within the cottage. The rats were gnawing away at his dream, feasting on his febrile imagination.

Maybe they were God's way of punishing him for contemplating something so wicked and inherently evil, he thought glumly. Or maybe it was a warning. A warning not to commit such a heinous crime against nature. Perhaps God was saying that he and his family deserved everything they got, that they should share the punishment, that they should all do their penance in conditions of abject poverty, accepting that their suffering on earth would expiate their sins. The sins of the father. Maybe that’s what this setback was all about. It was God’s curse upon him and, by association, his family. A plague of rats upon their house. Rats gnawing at his sinners' soul, eating him alive from the inside. Maybe that was the fate that was waiting for him in purgatory. Not even purgatory. Here on earth. Hell on earth. Rats crawling all over him, tearing at his flesh, his dreadful penance for the rest of his life.

At that moment the sun broke through the clouds and he felt its late Spring warmth focussed on the top of his head as if through a lens. He lay back against the wall with his eyes closed, his face tilted up towards the heavens, bathing in the life-enhancing warmth. In a matter of moments the heat was so fierce he imagined the sun’s rays might even set his hair on fire. Rivulets of sweat began to trickle down his temple. It was hard to breathe in the airless heat. He felt like he was already in hell.

He opened his eyes and saw that nothing had changed. He stood up. He knew he was at the crossroads on the road to his salvation. He had to make a decision about which route he was going to take. If he left now he knew it was all over, his plan would be in tatters, it was too late to think up an alternative scheme. Walking away from the cottage meant he would lose everything.

He made up his mind.

Taking a deep breath he turned and went back into the cottage. It was cooler within the thick granite walls and he could breathe again, and more importantly, think. A rustling sound from the direction of the cooker told him that he still wasn’t alone. He picked up a piece of roofing timber and threw it at the cooker. Silence followed. Time to think.

He closed his eyes and concentrated with all his might. There was no other way. This plan was his only hope. He clenched his fist and shoved his knuckles into his mouth and bit hard until he could stand the pain no longer. He wiped the back of his hand on his jumper, brushing away the blood. As the pain gradually subsided his felt his brain easing. He could see clearly in the darkness for the first time. His life for the past six months had been hell on earth. Nothing could be worse than what he’d been through since the business had folded. He realised that ever since that day he had been living in constant fear of the telephone call from the bank manager, of the terror of the morning post with its endless demands for money, of the constant scanning of the road for the approach of his creditors. Every waking second had been hell. Every night’s sleep had been an extended nightmare. He cursed his Catholic upbringing. 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. It didn’t matter. Whatever price he might have to pay in the afterlife – if there was one - for the evil deed upon which he was about to embark, it would be worth it if it brought some sort of earthly peace to him and his family. At the end of the day he was prepared to sacrifice everything to save his family. They were all that mattered to him. He couldn’t give up now. He owed it to them. As for his own fate, he was prepared to pay for his release from fear with the biggest sacrifice of all, the eternal damnation of his soul. For the first time he could see clearly that his sins alone had brought his whole family down. He would pay any price, go to any lengths to make amends for all the sins of omission he had committed over the years, for his recurrent hubris, for his persistent envy of other people’s success, above all for his utter failure to provide for his family as any decent husband should. Even if the price of their salvation meant that others would have to suffer. The rats in the cottage were simply part of the price Mrs Roberts would have to pay for her part in his salvation. He’d seen her speak once at a Chamber of Commerce dinner. She had come across as a pretty tough woman. Maybe the rats wouldn't worry her that much anyway, maybe she wasn't as cowardly as he was. Maybe it was the rats who would have to look out.

He stood up and made the sign of the cross in expiation for the crime he was about to commit. He had made up his mind. From now on he was committed, whatever the consequences. There was only one way forward. He would still be travelling down a rocky road that might turn out to be a blind alley or even the road to hell but from this moment there would be no turning back. He regretted the inevitable misery he was going to cause, but in this world everyone had their cross to bear, including Mrs Roberts.

He took out the screwdriver from his rucksack and started work on repairing the door. It was hard work. The screws were rusty. No one had ever said it was going to be easy. Nothing in life was easy, it never had been. As Mrs Roberts was about to find out.

Once he had made the house lockfast he sat down again on the front seat and studied his map. It had taken him far too long to get to the house. He realised he had been wandering in a circle. He took out his compass and took a bearing on Mount Keen in the distance. Next time he would be able to head straight for the cottage. 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 stood up and took a last look round. Everything was in place. For the first time he felt truly confident that his plan would work.

Half an hour later, as he stumbled back across the moor, it started to snow. In a matter of minutes a blizzard sprang up and soon he was engulfed by a total white-out. Guided by his compass he eventually reached the relative shelter of the woods. He checked his watch. 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. On the way home the snow built up on the road ahead of him, drifting to a depth of several feet in places, forcing him to dismount and plough his way through the drifts on foot. That night he went to bed early. He was exhausted by his efforts but also excited at the prospect of the imminent resolution of his problems, an outcome that only a few days previously would have seemed like a miracle.
Tomorrow, he knew, his life would change forever. By the time Maureen joined him in bed later that night he was already asleep, exhausted by the physical effort and the rapid draining of nervous energy from his body. During the night his brain worked frantically to make sense of the days ahead, and he tossed and turned endlessly until dawn finally arrived, much to Maureen’s relief.