Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Nick limped into the driveway and was immediately taken aback to see Maureen's Saab parked outside the garage. He frowned. Normally whoever was first back put on the outside light and of course the inside lights but everything here was still in darkness. That was odd. He hesitated. Something was wrong. An owl hooted in the woods opposite the house and he jumped. His nerves were on edge. It wasn’t a game was it? A surprise? Or… a …. trap? His heart began to beat faster. Maybe there 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. Very slowly and cautiously he slid open the back door and felt his way into the house, on tiptoe, holding his breath, ready to run at the first sign of trouble.

The first thing he saw when he entered the shadowy, unlit kitchen was Maureen hunched over a roaring primus stove. She was stirring a pot by the light of a single flickering candle. The reek of paraffin pervaded the room. She did not look up when he entered the room, acting almost as if he wasn’t there, as if he was a ghost. He watched her for a moment like he was watching a scene from an old silent movie. The condensation from her breath flamed in the jet from the primus as though she was breathing fire.

Nick understood immediately what had happened. "Don't tell me another power cut," he said breathlessly, relieved that nothing worse had happened.

Maureen continued to ignore him, mechanically stirring the saucepan on the primus, staring into it like a witch casting spells over a cauldron.

The way she was behaving unnerved him. “Christ, you’d think the power company would have got their act together after all this time,” he exclaimed with unconvincing vehemence. His voice was almost drowned out by the roar of the primus, making him feel small and insignificant. “It’s the same every bloody year,” he shouted, “Couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery that lot.”

Maureen looked up for the first time. She turned down the jet on the primus. She was staring at him as if he was a total stranger. "It's not a power cut," she said softly.

Nick was puzzled. "What? It must be." He tried the two different light switches in the hall and the kitchen and nothing happened. Of course it was a power cut, it certainly wasn’t a fuse, the lights were on different circuits. Sometimes Maureen’s stupidity amazed him. Power cuts were a regular feature of life in the country, usually associated with bad weather and high winds, although on this occasion snow was the more likely culprit. Probably the weight of the frozen snow had snapped a power line although it could be anything. These blackouts were a regular occurrence. Famously, the electricity company had once discovered that it had been cows rubbing up against an electricity pylon which had caused a whole winter of disruption. Just to make sure he tried switching on the television in the sitting room. Nothing happened. "See," he declared triumphantly, "it's not working either. I told you. It must be a power cut. There’s no other explanation."

Maureen continued stirring the contents of the saucepan on the primus, gently with a wooden spoon, first one way then the other. "Look outside. No-one else's lights have gone off," she said eventually, her voice reduced to a whisper behind the hissing flame of the primus.

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 couldn’t breath in. He was drowning in terror. He wanted to turn and run back out of the house and hide out in the fields but he couldn’t move. He felt as if the blood was congealing in his veins. His brain too was slowing down, as if he was suffering from some kind of mental hypothermia. He tried to think. 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 just couldn’t think straight any more. If it wasn’t a power cut they…they must have been cut off. He shivered. The house was freezing. His teeth started chattering. Their world was coming to an end as they entered a new Ice Age.

“Look for yourself,” said Maureen, tasting the contents of the pot with the wooden spoon as steam rose up around her.

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. The lights from a dozen scattered houses twinkled merrily like a scene on a Christmas card. He stared in dismay at the familiar view. Normally when a power line went down the whole valley was plunged into darkness. He felt his way back through to the kitchen, banging his knee painfully against the sideboard as he did so. There was no doubt about what happened and yet, hoping against hope, he rejected the evidence of his own eyes. "I don't understand," he said, rubbing his knee, "Why is it just us?"

"Don't you?”

“It’s bizarre. This has never happened before. I can’t figure it out.”

“Can’t you, Nick?"

He frowned again. He could tell from the sound of her voice that she was really upset. What did she think had happened to them? What did she know? Maybe she thought it was just the power line into their house. Perhaps the final link had been broken in some kind of accident. Maybe it was just them. It was possible. He said, "Don’t worry, I'll phone the electricity people right now and find out what's happened."

"You needn’t bother."

“It’s no problem. Leave it to me. I’ll put a rocket up their arse I can tell you.”

“I’ve already phoned them.”

"Oh. So what's the problem? When are they coming to fix it?"

She stopped stirring the saucepan and stared at him through dead eyes. An age passed before she finally spoke. "They said they’ll fix it when we pay our bill."

Nick frowned. “What?”

“They said they’ll turn it back on…”

"Jesus," he interrupted, "I thought we'd paid it."

“Did you?”

“I could have sworn I sent off a cheque a week ago.”

Maureen continued to stare blankly at him. "I found the bill stuck behind the clock on the mantelpiece unopened. Along with all the other unpaid bills and final reminders. Car insurance, the rates, a bill from the garage, half a dozen letters from the bank. A big pile of threatening letters from your credit card company. All unopened. The phone bill is well overdue too. I'm amazed that hasn't been cut off already."

He stared at her in horror. He felt the blood draining from his face. She knew. She knew everything.

"Jesus." His legs suddenly went weak and he was obliged to sit down at the kitchen table. He had been caught red-handed. This was it then, the day of reckoning. The showdown he had been dreading for months had finally arrived. The moment when all his dreams of salvation were about to be slaughtered on the altar of harsh reality. "I knew it was bad but I didn't think it was that bad," he said fatuously, still in denial, even to himself.

She stared at him in disbelief. "You didn't think it was that bad? Oh, 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. How could you have been so bloody stupid?"

It was the first time he had ever heard her swear and it scared him. Suddenly she seemed like a different woman. Up until that moment she had always been supportive whatever his failings, she had always been loyal, had always stuck by him. If she abandoned him now he was finished. There was no way he would get through the impending crisis on his own. If she left him now she would be leaving him for dead. "All right, Maureen, I admit it. It was stupid of me to ignore them, but what was I supposed to do?”

“Why didn’t you talk to me about it? I’d no idea it was this bad. If you hadn’t hidden them like that we might have been able to do something before it got to this.”

He hated being in the wrong. He knew there was no defence for his behaviour. He felt absolutely wretched. “I didn’t want to worry you,” he muttered, close to tears.

“If you hadn’t ignored them we could have talked to them, tried to have reached an accommodation somehow. The next thing you know they’ll be turning up on the doorstep asking for money.”

He didn’t tell her about the visit from the debt collector. “I know, I know. I was too scared. I was terrified.”

“They’ll have to be paid somehow.”

It was his turn to stare in disbelief. “I know, I know. But how? We’re broke Maureen. There going to throw us out onto the street."

She shut her eyes. "I don’t know the answer, Nick, I just know they'll have to be paid somehow."

"Oh yes. How? What, write a cheque. I know. Put them on the credit card. How about that? No? What about the house? Sell the house? Oh, I forgot it belongs to the bank doesn’t it. No, I’m stumped. Tell you what, you tell me how we can pay them all off. After all, I’ve spent bloody weeks worrying myself sick about them trying to come up with an answer. No, now it’s your turn. I think that’s fair, don’t you?” He was becoming hysterical, spitting out the words, foam flecking the corners of his mouth.

Maureen turned away. She hated rows. Rows were his way of avoiding the truth. “This isn’t helping, Nick,” she said, through clenched teeth.

“I know it’s all my fault. Go on, say it.”

“There’s no point blaming anyone.”

“You do blame me though, don’t you. You blame me for running the business into the ground.”

It was a difficult question. She thought for several seconds. “You never discussed the business with me. I didn’t know what you were doing. I had to trust me.”

“So it is all my fault.”

“The loss of your major customer didn’t help I suppose.”

“You can’t blame me for that. How was I to know that would happen. It came out of the blue. You can’t plan for something like that. I’m not a bloody magician you know, I can’t read the future.”

“All right, don’t go on about it. We had nothing when we first go married. We survived then, we can survive now.”

Nick grimaced. “Just like the old joke. ‘I started out with nothing and I’ve still got most of it left.’”

She didn't smiled at his feeble attempt to make light of the matter. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have taken on so much debt trying to grow the business. I never understood why you were always trying to make the company bigger.”

“You can’t stand still in business, Maureen. The customers always want you to do more. If you don’t do what they want they’ll get someone else who will.”

“And where were those customers when you needed them? They didn’t care what happened to you when the work dried up, did they?”

Nick shrugged. “That’s the nature of the game I was in. It could have gone the other way and I could have made a fortune.”

Maureen sighed. “We didn’t need a fortune, Nick. I was perfectly happy to get by on a living wage. If you hadn’t borrowed all that money we wouldn’t be in this situation now.”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry. I just wanted the best for you and Martin. I did it for al the right reasons. Okay, I was wrong. But I did it because I loved you both. You understand that, don’t you.”

She didn’t reply immediately. She was aware that in a way he was using their love as a justification for his lofty ambitions, almost as if it was somehow their fault. She said, “The question is, Nick, what are we going to do now.”

“I don’t know. I’ve tried everything. I’ve run out of ideas.”

“You can’t give up Nick. What’s going to happen to Martin and me? You’ve got to get a job. Anything. You’ve got to start bringing some money into the house.”

“Maureen, I’m a beaten man. I don't know what to do next.”

“Nick, how do you think I feel? This thing has been a nightmare for me too. That doesn’t stop me going out every day and knocking my pan in at school.”

“I’ve tried Maureen. No one will take me.”

“Well, you can’t leave it all up to me to sort out. That’s not fair.” For the first time a hint of resentment had crept into her voice.

The tinned stew she had been heating on the primus was starting to bubble. She placed the saucepan on the table in front of him. "You'll have to have bread with it," she said, "I can't cook potatoes as well."

He frowned. "What about Martin?"

"He's gone off to stay with one of his friends."

Nick took the news badly. "Oh has he. I might have guessed it. Jumped ship at the first sign of trouble did he? Aye, he's a great comfort to us all."

Maureen moved the candle onto the table and sat down opposite her husband, helping herself to a little of the stew. "That’s not a fair comment, Nick, and you know it. Why shouldn’t he spend the night with his friends? Would you rather he sat here in the dark feeling miserable.”

“I just think we should stick together as a family in a crisis.”

“You expect too much of him, Nick. He’s just a child. What do you want him to do, go out and get a job at Macdonald's to pay the bills? You want him to sacrifice his future to save your skin, is that what you want?"

Her words wounded him deeply. Of course that wasn't what he wanted. Just a bit of solidarity wouldn't have gone amiss, that was all. He had done it all for them, starting the business, working himself into the ground, risking everything. The least they could do when it all went wrong was to stand by him. He’d always believed in the family ideal. That’s what had driven him ever since he’d got married. He couldn’t bear the thought that his ideal might just be an illusion, a saccharine, sentimental product of fifties Hollywood. He pushed his plate away and buried his head in his hands. He hated it when they fought like this. So much for being a close-knit family bound together by love. The reality was that their solidarity was rapidly disintegrating at the first real sign of trouble. This wasn't how it was meant to be. They were supposed to present a united front against the world. That was the whole point of being a family. He sighed. He knew it wasn’t their fault that everything had gone to pieces. He shouldn’t be blaming them. He had to take responsibility for his shortcomings. He was only too aware that if Maureen had married someone else – as she could easily have done, she had no lack of choice when she was young – she wouldn’t be in this mess now.

Maureen turned off the primus and the room rang with an echoing, metallic silence.

He said softly, "I'm sorry, love, I really am. This whole thing is my fault. It's just all been too much for me recently. All those letters of rejection. It hurts so much. It just makes me feel worthless. I didn’t open the letters because I didn’t know what I could do about them. Then everything just spiralled out of control. Every time the postman calls I’m just terrified. When the phone rings I nearly die of fright. I’m just living in fear the whole time. And I can’t see any way out."

She wasn't used to seeing her husband looking beaten, feeling so sorry for himself, throwing in the towel like this. His present demeanour was a worrying contrast to his usual blithe, sometimes even foolish, optimism. The collapse of the business seemed to have changed him completely, knocked all the stuffing out of him, so that at times she hardly recognised him any more. She felt desperately sorry for him even if a lot of his present problems were self-inflicted, maybe could have been avoided with a little common sense. Even so, however responsible he might be for their current dire straits, she had no wish to twist the knife in him when he was down, whatever he might think. She loved him too much to see him hurt any more. Not unsympathetically she said, "If only you'd talk about these things up a bit. Perhaps we could find the solution together."

"Perhaps you're right. I do keep these things bottled up inside me. To tell you the truth I sometimes feel like I'm carrying the problems of the whole fucking world on my shoulders."

She flinched at his violent language but on this occasion left her customary reprimand unsaid.

“Christ, I’m so uptight my head is spinning like it’s about to come off."

She waited patiently for him to calm down, as she always did. Eventually she said, "The question is, Nick, what are we going to do about all those bills? We can't just go on ignoring them. I don’t suppose the mortgage has been paid either."

He ate his stew in silence, forcing the meat between his sullen lips, dribbling gravy down his chin and onto his shirt. He was so overwhelmed by the situation that he was losing control of his bodily functions. It wouldn’t be long before his brain gave up too and that really would be the finish. As it was he was struggling to come up with any new answers, any half-sensible suggestions. Even the idea of poaching salmon suddenly seemed far-fetched when it was set against the reality of the pile of threatening letters. At the end of the day he knew the only real answer was to get a job. He didn't need her to tell him that. Doing what though? That was the real insoluble question. That and finding someone to take him on at his age. He was just too old, no one needed his outdated skills any more, the world had changed and left him far behind.

Unemployment for the likes of him was here to stay.

"Nick, you'll just have to go and see the bank manager tomorrow. Explain the position. Ask him for a bigger overdraft to tide us over."

"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, the loving husband who until recently had run a successful business. She felt her sympathy turning to anger as she contemplated the way he had thrown in the towel, leaving her to somehow pick up the pieces. "We can't go on like this, Nick. No electricity means no central heating, no microwave, no cooker, no television, no washing machine, no water being pumped from the well, no lights, no fridge. Not that there's much in the fridge. And the coal ran out nearly a week ago and the logs are almost finished. We'll have to get money from somewhere otherwise we really will be thrown out onto the streets."

The vehemence of her outburst scared him. "All right, all right. I'll go down to the Job Centre first thing in the morning."

"Go to the bank first, that’s more important."

The thought of confronting their personal bank manager, a man with whom in the past he had regularly shared a laugh and a joke as if they were equals, filled him with dread.

"Will you, Nick?" Maureen persisted, determined to pin him down for once.

"I suppose I'll have to," he agreed reluctantly.

"Promise me you’ll go."

He shifted in his seat. She knew how to turn the screw when she had to. "All right, I'll go. Just don't go on about it, that's all."

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, pulling the blankets tight up to their chins in the freezing cold room. That night they were too angry and hurt and bitter to reach out to each other for warmth or love as they usually did.

At ten twenty-three the phone rang in the sitting-room downstairs. Nick pretended he was asleep but Maureen nudged him with her elbow. "You get it,” she muttered sleepily, “I've got to get up in the morning."

He stumbled downstairs in the darkness. Who could possibly be phoning them at this time of night? Surely it wasn’t a reply to one of his many job applications. If it was it would truly be a miracle. Maybe one of the companies he had written to was suddenly desperate, had unexpectedly lost a key member of staff. It happened. He felt his spirits rising as he felt his way across the floor in the darkness. Maybe this was his lucky break at last. Please God, he prayed as he picked up the phone, please, please God make it good news. "Hello?"

"Nick Dowty?"

The voice sounded vaguely familiar. Was it one of his old customers who wanted to offer him a fresh start? "Yes,” he said, barely able to contain his excitement, “That's me. Who's calling?"

"It's Ronnie Sutherland."

The name was vaguely familiar. "I'm sorry. Who?"

"Ronnie Sutherland. The garage up the hill. We repaired your wife’s car the other week."

The garage! Oh shit. 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, not just the brakes that he'd buggered up. A new exhaust, new tyres, a new clutch. A fortune which they hadn't yet paid. Couldn't pay. "Yes, of course Ronnie, what can I do for you?"

Ronnie Sutherland came from a farming family that had lived on the land for generations. He had a slow, deliberate way of speaking that was timeless, wise and immutable. The authority of the soil, of generations past eking out a living from a hard and unforgiving earth. A toughness that was accentuated by his thick Aberdeenshire burr. "Weel, the bill for your car for a start."

"Oh yes. The car. What about it?"

"Weel, the bill hasnae been paid."

Nick affected surprise at this news. "That's strange. Maureen usually likes to pay all the bills promptly. She must have overlooked it. I'll speak to her about it in the morning."

“The thing is, chiel, I’ve sent you three reminders already.”

“She’s been so busy recently. She must just have forgot.”

“I dinna like being made a feel of, ye ken.”

“Like I said, I’ll speak to her in the morning. I promise.”

Ronnie Sutherland pondered this suggestion for a moment. "Will you no speak to her aboot it noo?"

Considering the time of night Nick thought this was coming it a bit strong. Besides, he was determined to insulate Maureen as much as he could from the unpleasant consequences of their dire financial state. "Well, I'm afraid she's asleep right now, but I'll speak to her in the morning like I say."

“I’d prefer if you could speak to her right noo. My suppliers won’t wait. I canna afford to be oot of pocket jist because supposedly she’s too busy to pay me.”

Nick was shocked by the unpleasantness of the remark. Fuck you, he thought angrily, you leave my poor wife out of this, you bastard. “Look, she’s asleep right now. I’ll speak to her in the morning.”

A pause. “I’ve got a business to run. I’ve got better things to do than to go round hounding clowns like you for money.”

The man sounded really angry. Nick’s legs suddenly started trembling. “You’ll get your money I promise.”

Another long pause. "Will it be cash or a cheque?"

Despite his dread of creditors Nick was intensely irritated by this persistent, intrusive form of interrogation. Just because you owed someone money it didn’t mean they could treat you like shit. He wasn’t a criminal for Christ’s sake, just a guy who was down on his luck, someone going through a bad patch. He said, in a slightly posher accent than the one with which he normally spoke, "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. I don’t discuss these matters with her in any detail."

Ronnie Sutherland was having none of it. "Right. Cash will be fine. I'll come round in the morning and collect it."

The idea of being confronted on his own doorstep by the burly garage owner filled Nick with horror. "She's got to work tomorrow," he said quickly, his voice rising in panic.

"What time does she leave the house?"

Christ, the man was persistent. The trouble was there was no way they could pay his bill in the morning. He had to put him off somehow. He said, in a conciliatory, almost respectful tone, "She leaves very early I’m afraid. Look, I'll bring you a cheque round myself tomorrow.”

“A cheque.”

“Honestly. I promise.”

“Not cash?”

“A cheque would be more convenient. We don’t keep cash in the house.”

"What time will you bring this cheque?"

Jesus Christ! Talk about hounding someone for payment. He didn’t attempt to keep the exasperation out of his voice. "Well, I'm busy in the morning. I'll bring it round in the afternoon, is that all right?" Nick knew this was his only possible course of action. It would take several days for the cheque to bounce. Maybe time to come up with another solution.

"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. The man obviously had plenty of experience of dealing with bad payers. "Yes, all right, before the banks shut."

He put down the phone and climbed the stairs back to the bedroom. The phone call had shaken him, further undermining the sense of security that being in his own home used to bring him. His heart thumped as he climbed back into bed. 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. Or a rapist even. Jesus! it made him angry. He switched the bedside light off and closed his eyes and tried to sleep. In the darkness his anger turned to fear as he imagined what tomorrow was going to bring, the very real possibility that the garage owner might actually come round to confront him about the unpaid bill. Beside him Maureen slept soundly, an angelic expression on her face.

He couldn't sleep. His fear turned to anger again and then to fear and back again. Over and over. Endlessly. He could not lie still for a moment. Maureen groaned, half awake, begged him to go to sleep. He kept thinking about the phone call. There was no way he could pay the garage, any cheque he wrote would bounce. The best that he could hope for was a few day’s grace while it went through the system, but then what? What if the man then came round to the house to have it out with him? Or sent in the bailiffs. Or even a couple of hard men to give him a good hiding. Then there was the bank manager to face tomorrow. 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. You couldn’t rely on the buses round here. If Maureen lost the car she risked losing her job. Then what? Without her money coming in they would be tossed out onto the streets for certain, destitute, into the gutter. He groaned. The shame of it all. Rock bottom. A life not worth living. No hope. No future. And it was all his fault.

At about midnight it started to rain. Soon a storm blew up. Torrential rain and gale force winds lashed the bedroom window and rattled the slates. He found the noise – the sound and the fury – oddly comforting. It somehow put the severity of his plight into perspective. There would be people in real danger out there in the wind and rain. People died in storms, buildings were damaged, rivers flooded, forests were flattened. He pulled the sheets up around his chin and lay safe and warm in his own bed beside his loving wife. As the rain drummed upon the roof his thoughts turned to the river. In a few hours the water level would begin to rise. In the tidal estuary far away the shoals of salmon would smell the imminent spate. Instinctively they would crowd together at the river’s mouth. At a certain moment, triggered by a hidden signal buried in their genes they would suddenly charge en masse upstream, flinging themselves into the rising current, driven by the primal urge to procreate, great shoals of silver fish swimming to the spawning beds far upstream, shoals of valuable fish swimming unwittingly to his rescue. 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. It was around three in the morning. He slept fitfully for three hours or so before waking up in a cold sweat, his pyjamas soaked, his head throbbing, his heart thumping. Dawn was breaking. He rolled over but the bed was empty. Maureen had already left. Sitting up 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, an almost deafening dawn chorus.

And yet, even in the dazzling morning light, with the birth of a bright new day dawning, he could see no way forward, no way of avoiding his dreadful fate. He tried to clamber out of bed but the effort exhausted him. Even his soul felt leaden.

And then, just as he hit rock bottom, a miracle happened.