Thursday, November 03, 2005

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Maureen and Martin had gone by the time he woke up. He hadn’t heard them go. Usually he got up and made them breakfast before they set off. This time, following his frosty sojourn beneath the stars, he had slept as deeply if he had been drugged, his brain enveloped by a blackness that was unilluminated by the usual dreams and nightmares.

Downstairs the phone was ringing. He ignored it. He climbed out of bed and pulled on his thick towelling dressing-gown. The house was so cold that his breath condensed in front of his eyes. He checked the upstairs rooms but the house was definitely empty. He bitterly regretted not apologising to Maureen for his behaviour the night before. He could imagine how she must be feeling after he had stormed off in a temper, as if their dire predicament was somehow her fault. Which of course it wasn’t. Not directly at least. He bit his lip. He hated it when he was the cause of her unhappiness.

He peered out of the bedroom window into the murky dawn light. There was no sign of any activity on the narrow farm lane leading up to the house. He was safe for a while longer.
The phone stopped ringing. He padded downstairs to the kitchen in his slippers and switched on the radio. John Humphries was giving a hapless minor official in the department of transport a grilling about the underground. A woman with a husky voice read out the headlines. He listened with distaste to the perennial diet of bad news: another suicide bomber wreaking havoc in a crowded restaurant in Israel; an entirely predictable man-made famine in southern Africa; the same old tawdry political intrigues at home. He was unmoved by other people’s problems. The Thought for the Day enraged him with its banality. At least the weather forecast was good which cheered him up a little. Cold but sunny. He loved the sun. When the programme ended he switched off the radio, unable to cope with the intellectual content of the discussion programme that followed. The house fell silent again, louder this time. The echoing emptiness threatened to overwhelm him. He went through to the sitting-room 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. He envied their boundless energy, admired their single-minded sense of purpose, their uncomplicated, ruthless pursuit of the next mouthful. Beneath the birdfeeder that hung from the old apple tree the daffodils were flowering at last, illuminating the shadows with bold splashes of colour. He comforted himself with the knowledge that with the imminent advent of warmer weather the garden would spring fully into life, dazzling them all with its beauty, at least for a while. He sighed. Although the scene from the window was truly beautiful, at the end of the day it was no more real than looking at a landscape painting in an art gallery.

The phone rang again, shattering the silence.

He closed his eyes and tried to blank out the noise. He recalled how the phone had once dominated his life in a good way. Wheeling and dealing, organising and cajoling, pleading and threatening. The phone was the instrument that had driven his business forward in his dealings with the outside world. In the months that had dragged by since his company had folded he increasingly missed the warmth of human contact, the stimulus of surviving in a challenging environment where time flew by, where all your energies were focused on solving tough but soluble problems, where you were part of a team fighting to win orders with all the fervour of the birds fighting for food at the end of the garden. Not an outsider looking in at life, detached from the action, existing in a sensory vacuum. 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. He was under assault from a host of faceless enemies, an aerial bombardment of letters and phone calls. He shivered in chilled recognition that there was nowhere to run, that he was trapped within the bleak, featureless landscape of his shrinking imagination, populated only by fear.

When the phone fell silent he opened his eyes and gazed out beyond the hedge at the bottom of the garden across to the snow-capped eastern Cairngorms poking up into the shining blue horizon about twenty miles away. He gazed at the picture-postcard view as if he was in a trance. A fugitive could hide out in the hills and never be found, although at this time of the year he might well die of exposure. He looked at his watch. It was still only eight thirty and there was a whole day stretching out ahead of him, a whole day with nothing to do but dwell upon his misfortune.

Mechanically, in slow motion, he returned to the kitchen and cleared away the dishes he had left on the draining board the night before. It was important that the house looked tidy, it helped to buttress the remnants of his crumbling self-respect . He rammed a load of dirty clothes into the washing machine and set it running, another of the household duties that Maureen now left to him. To postpone the looming vacuum of his pointless day he began to prepare the evening meal in advance of the far-off return of his family that night. He peeled enough potatoes for three and cleaned and chopped up half a cabbage. 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. When he had finished all his preparations he took a small heap of scraps and leftovers out to the bird table in the back garden. He always fed the birds even if it meant going short himself. The birds depended on him, and he wasn’t going to let them down in the way he’d failed everyone else. It was at this point in his day, with no chores left to do that his imagination often ran riot. Invariably he pictured what would happen if his creditors were to suddenly descend upon the house. Whenever he did so a sense of dread would grip him for the rest of the day.

He was boiling the kettle when he remembered that there was one thing still left to do.

Maureen’s words of a few days earlier sprang into his mind. Arrange the visit to the bank manager. This wasn’t his former business bank manager who now only communicated to him through his lawyer. Maureen was referring to their personal bank manager, an even more scary individual who held their immediate well-being in his finely-manicured hands. Just the thought of picking up the phone to that granite-faced individual was enough to bring him out into a cold sweat. He decided to put the terrifying call off until tomorrow at least, or maybe even the day after, or even until the electricity was actually cut off and they were tossed out onto the streets and there were no alternatives left. 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. The feeling of impending disaster was now so suffocating that it made breathing difficult and somehow mechanical. In this near catatonic state he only stopped his vital organs giving up on him by dint of willpower alone.

He looked at his watch. Nine fifteen. The postman was due at any minute. This was the most tense time of the day, just before the regular cascade of threatening letters and failed job applications came crashing through the letterbox. As the weeks had passed he had developed a routine designed to lessen the unpleasantness. 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. By standing on tiptoe he could just see out of the window from the back of the room. He waited anxiously for the postman's van to appear at the bottom of the hill. As usual he prayed silently that the van would pass the house without stopping and that for just a little while longer he would be unmolested by human contact. That was how he lived now: in constant fear of the final showdown. Day by day. Hour by hour. Minute by minute. Every second that ticked by was another merciful postponement of his final reckoning, another endless day on death row. And every time the postman passed by without stopping meant another day's grace free from the wrath of the bank manager, the insistent demands of the tax man, the threats of the credit card company. It was just a shame that the mail wasn’t the only way they were able to get at him. As well as the ultimate threat of an actual visit there was always the latent danger from the telephone. They continually tried to get to him that way now, and whenever the phone exploded into life his nerves were sent jangling. He’d considered taking the phone off the hook but he was worried in case that might actually precipitate a visit. It was better to let them keep trying, even though the constant ringing was driving him mad. He knew he was being cowardly and stupid but he simply couldn’t take the risk of picking up the phone. 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. His only consolation was that this particular instrument of persecution wouldn’t survive for much longer – the phone bill reminder was already way overdue which meant that they would be cut off any day now.

This particular morning nearly an hour dragged by before he postman's van finally buzzed past the house without stopping on its way to the house at the top of the hill. His immediate relief was tempered by the knowledge that no delivery also meant no invitations to job interviews nor acknowledgements of his multiple job applications and therefore not even a faint glimmer of hope for the immediate future.

He waited in the corner of the bedroom until he heard the postman’s van roar back down the hill. He stood on tiptoe and watched it disappear from view at the end of the road. To make sure it wasn’t a trick he kept watch until his calves ached and his legs were shaking. When he was certain the coast was clear he shuffled stiffly back down to the kitchen. He knew he couldn’t go on this way. After taking a deep breath he sat down again at the breakfast table determined to confront his problems head on. He simply had to come up with a solution that would finally put him out of his misery. He knew he couldn’t go on burying his head in the sand. He was only days away from disaster.

No matter how hopeless things seemed he knew had to be positive. Sure he was in a fix but somewhere, somehow there had to be an answer. The only possible course of action was to keep on looking until he found a solution, not to give up prematurely or spend his time perpetually casting around for excuses, or, even worse, waiting for a miracle to happen. Even if miracles did sometimes happen, they didn’t happen to people like him. No, the only person that could save him now was himself. It was time to finally recognise that enduring reality.

He made himself a weak coffee and took it through to the sitting room. The bird table was still alive with chaffinches and blue tits feeding on the scraps he had put out earlier. He stood and watched them enviously for several minutes. 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.

There was a white Range Rover which he had never seen before sitting at the foot of the road.