Friday, November 18, 2005

Chapter 9

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. Later on, after Martin had gone upstairs to do his homework and he had finished the dishes, he rejoined Maureen in the sitting-room where she was reading the paper while watching the Channel Four news.

He coughed politely, the usual signal that he wanted to speak. “How was work today?”

“Fine. You?” She replied, without looking up from the paper.

“Not so good.”

Maureen looked up immediately, all her senses alert. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s not good news.”

“You’ve been sacked?”

“No, I…”

“You’ve quit?”


“What’s happened? You haven’t done something wrong have you?”

“No, I...”

“What is it then? Tell me.”

“I’m trying for Christ’s sake. You won’t let me finish.” He sighed. “It’s the company.”

“What about them?”

“They’ve gone bust.”

At first she said nothing, she simply stared at him, looking stunned. The half hour that followed was framed by a ringing, cascading silence that drilled into Nick’s head like tinnitus, making it impossible to think. They pretended to watch the news while they each struggled to come to terms with this calamitous development. The programme was dominated by graphic pictures of a terrorist bomb that had gone off in London that morning in a crowded department store, causing many deaths and injuries. Out of the corner of his eye Nick saw his wife starting to cry.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he said, turning off the television with the remote. “Please don’t cry. I’ll get another job, honest I will. Everything will be all right, you’ll see. It’s just a setback, that’s all it is. Trust me.”

Maureen stared at him as if he was speaking a foreign language. When she finally spoke her voice was thick with resentment. “I knew I’d live to regret those personal guarantees you made me give to the bank.”

“That’s not fair. I didn’t make you.”

“You blackmailed me into doing it. Moral blackmail. I had no choice.”

“It was the only way I could raise the capital.”

“I should never have trusted you.”

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. Almost instantly anger replaced shame and remorse. “Jesus, Maureen, 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, okay, why not? You blame me for everything else.” He was shouting now, becoming hysterical. “You’re right! I’m a bloody Jonah.”

“Nick, please I’m tired…”

“I’ve been a bloody Jonah since the day I was born.”

“I’m not blaming you. I simply want you to face up to things. I borrowed money from my mother on the strength of you having a job. You know she can’t afford it and I promised I’d pay her back out of your first pay packet. So it’s not just us your hurting, it’s other people too.”

“Oh, it’s the whole fucking world,” screamed Nick, “I’m responsible for making everyone who’s ever lived miserable now.”

Disturbed by the commotion Martin bounded downstairs to see what was wrong. “What’s going on? Why are you crying, mum?”

“Your father’s lost his job again,” Maureen explained tearfully, “They’re going to put us out onto the street”.

Martin hugged his mother. “Don’t worry mum, I’ll look after you. I’ll leave school and get a job if I have to. The co-op’s looking for people. I’ll get a job stacking shelves. Don’t worry. We’ll be all right, I promise.”

Nick felt a wave of resentment welling up inside him at this usurpation of his role as head of the household. “Stop being bloody silly, Martin. I’ll sort everything out. If you really want to help get back up those stairs and do your homework.”

Martin squared up to his father. “Leave mum alone or I’ll batter you.”

Nick was taken aback at the way his son was suddenly standing up to him, the first time it had ever happened. The boy was almost as tall as he was and he was well built and fit from the rugby he played into the bargain. It flashed through his mind that if it actually came to a fight he wasn’t certain he would win. At that moment another familial relationship changed for ever.

“Martin, it’s all right darling, do as you’re asked,” whispered Maureen.

Martin was as white as a sheet, his fists clenched by his side. “If you lay a finger on my mum I’ll bloody well kill you,” he shouted at Nick.

Maureen gently guided her son away from his father. “Go and finish your homework, darling. It’s nothing to worry about. Your father and I will sort everything out down here.”

When the boy had gone back upstairs Maureen turned to Nick, her eyes blazing with anger. She spoke quietly, so softly he strained to hear what she was saying. “You’re a bully, Nick. And you’re selfish. You blame everyone but yourself for your own shortcomings. 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. We’ve been living in fear of your moods and your temper for as long as I can remember. Now because of you we’re going to lose the roof over our heads. It’s about time you took a long hard look at yourself and accepted your responsibilities. You need to sit down and work out exactly how you’re going to sort out the mess you’ve created. And you need to do it now. Not tomorrow or the next day. No more putting it off. Sort it out now.”

The vehemence of her attack shook him almost as much as the unfairness of her accusations. “Sort out the mess? You think I haven’t been trying. Jesus, Maureen, I’ve spent my whole life trying to sort things out. All right I admit I’ve made mistakes along the way. Everybody does. But I’ve been unlucky too. You know that.”

Maureen eyes narrowed, her hatred of him was plain to see, disfiguring her face like a third degree burn. “You have to take responsibility for your own failings, Nick. What’s happened to this family is nobody’s fault but yours.”

“I did it for the family, Maureen. That’s why I started the business in the first place. To give you both a decent quality of life.”

“You did it for yourself.”

“That’s unfair.”

“When did we ever see any of the benefits?”

“I had to plough everything back into the business. That was the only way to make it grow. You have to make a business grow if you’re ever going to make decent money.”

“We didn’t need more money. We were perfectly happy with what we had. That business became an obsession. It wasn’t about us. It was all about you. Proving to everyone how good you were. I wish you’d never started it.”

Her words left him stunned. She had never spoken to him this way before, never blamed him directly for what had happened. They sat together in front of the television in silence for the rest of the evening, brooding on their predicament, hating each other, fearful of the consequences now that the truth about their feelings towards each other was out in the open, knowing that tomorrow, as their creditors closed in upon them, it would be even worse.
Eventually Maureen got up. Her eyes were red. “I’m going to bed,” she whispered.

“I’m sorry, Maureen, really I am.”

He sat up until the early hours of the morning watching the telly with the sound turned down, wrapped in his raincoat for warmth as the last embers of the logs in the grate slowly turned to ash and died. He felt lonely and defeated. After all the trials and tribulations of the last six months he had finally reached rock bottom. It was almost a relief to know that things couldn’t get any worse.

The next morning Maureen got up early before he was fully awake. He sat up in bed and lay with the bedclothes pulled up to his chin watching her dress. Like any married couple they had had disagreements in the past which they had always managed to patch up without too much trouble, usually with a joke and a muttered apology. Maureen wasn’t one to bear grudges. This time he couldn’t think of anything witty to say about the situation. What had happened yesterday was no laughing matter. And he certainly wasn’t going to apologise for something that wasn’t his fault. Instead he said simply, “I’m shouldn’t have lost my temper last night, Maureen. I didn’t mean to upset you and Martin.”

She looked at him with dead eyes as she buttoned up her blouse.

“I’ll get in touch with the bank manager this morning.”

She continued to button her blouse in silence.

“Then I’ll go down to the Jobcentre. I’ll take anything they’ve got. I’ll clean lavatories if I have to. Anything to tide us over until I get a real job.”

She left the room without speaking. He heard Martin coming out of the bathroom and crossing the landing. “Martin,” he called out, “Can I speak to you for a minute.”

Martin never appeared. A few minutes later he heard the car drive off. He was alone in the house once more. Nick had no idea what his wife was going to do next or even if she would ever return. It hurt him more than he would have believed possible to see her this way, crucified him to think how badly he had failed her. She was right too, it was all his fault. His utter fecklessness, his abject failure to confront reality, had forced her out into a cruel, nasty world with nothing but pain and bitterness in her heart. Even in his worst nightmares he had never imagined it would come to this.

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. There didn’t seem any point in saving them any more. At least the back boiler also heated the water so he was able to save on electricity. He wash the breakfast dishes in lukewarm water, a small and inadequate penance that did little to salve his conscience. He was drying the plates when the postman arrived with the mail. He lingered out of sight in the shadows until the van drove off.

There was only the usual pile of bills, another letter from the bank and one from the Inland Revenue, none of which he dared to open. Instead he hid them in another new hiding place behind the chest of drawers.

He made a weak cup of coffee and then, because he feared Maureen even more than he did the bank manager, he finally plucked up enough courage to phone the bank to arrange an appointment with the manager. He felt giddy as he spoke into the phone, half expecting to be hit by an immediate torrent of threats and abuse. Instead he was treated with the customary civility of indifference. The manager's secretary said that the earliest the manager could see him was the Wednesday of the following week so he made an appointment for that day at eleven. His heart leapt as he put down the phone. Nine days grace. It was a miracle. 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 was still free, just like them, even if it was only an illusion of safety, a totally artificial environment of his own creation. Later, he sat down at the sitting-room window and watched as the blue tits flocked around the apple tree at the foot of the garden. 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. The home-made contraption rocked crazily like a spinning top, forcing the dozen or so tits and finches perched on it to cling on for dear life.

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. Soon the fire in the grate would grow cold. There were no more logs left. He wasn’t sure they would be left with enough money out of Maureen’s salary to pay the next electricity bill. Spring seemed a long way off. The future was looking bleak once again. He had to think of something quickly. 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. Besides, he wasn’t sure there was a solution to his problem. Perhaps it might be better to let things take their course. Some battles you just couldn’t win.

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. Angela Roberts, the famous organic fast food entrepreneur. Of course. 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. She was even more successful now, appeared to have conquered most of Europe and even America had succumbed to the fashionable organic formula that differentiated her restaurants and takeaways. Recently the novelty of a successful self-made woman seemed to have worn off, or perhaps she had deliberately adopted a lower profile, anyway these days she rarely appeared in the media. 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. It seemed a bit incongruous to him that such a well-known vegetarian and animal lover should also be a keen fisherman, but maybe fish didn't count.

Not that she needed to worry any more about what people thought of her. She was reputed to be one of the richest women in Britain, right up there with the Queen and Madonna and J. K. Rowling. She'd made her fortune in a remarkably short time, displaying a brilliant flair for marketing that had left all her male rivals gasping in her wake. She was still only in her early thirties too, and beautiful to boot. He smiled ruefully to himself. Some people have all the luck. Actually that wasn't really the case. People like that usually made their own luck. It was a trick that had signally eluded him.

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. The endless battle against the elements. Perhaps that was the fate of everyone who was put on this earth. Of course, some people had to struggle harder than others. He was willing to bet Angela Roberts didn't live in constant fear of her bank manager. Probably the other way round in fact. He wondered if she might lend him something to tide him over. He smiled to himself. Not very likely. People like that were inundated with begging letters. There was no reason on earth why she should treat him any differently from all the other beggars that must continually pester her, the vast majority of whom she almost certainly ignored. Rich people were generally pretty tight with their money, that was one of the reasons why they were rich people.

All the same, he thought to himself, she must be worth a small fortune. Or, to be more precise, a large fortune. A packet. A king's ransom. A king's ransom? The phrase intrigued him. 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. There was no milk left but he could drink it black. The idea of holding a king to ransom intrigued him. Such a stratagem, if it was in use today, would certainly solve all his financial problems. The amazing thing was that Queen did actually live just up the road at Balmoral, about twenty miles further inland. But the security that surrounded her made such an idea totally unfeasible. 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. An impossible task. More likely to get yourself killed. Besides, the very idea smacked of treason, of disloyalty to the old country. No, you had to draw the line somewhere and kidnapping the monarch was pretty much beyond the pale whatever people might have done in the past.

On the other hand...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. 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. The more he thought about it the more the idea of kidnapping Angela Roberts intrigued him. Even though he’d never done anything wrong in his life before, the last remaining legacy of his being brought up as a Catholic. Never stolen anything, always paid his taxes, rarely told lies, never cheated anybody. This crime was different though. The sort of thing where no-one needed to get hurt, not even financially, since she was bound to be insured against that sort of thing. All he would have to do was keep her in captivity for a couple of days and then release her with barely a hair out of place. The perfect victimless crime. Hardly even a sin.

He suddenly realised he was beginning to get excited by what on the surface might seem like a ludicrous idea. The thing was, the more you looked at it the more the idea really did seem to be feasible. Okay, there was a lot of planning to be done, a complicated pattern of logistics to work out, a lot of field research, but in essence the idea itself was simple. Grab the target when she was out fishing. 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. He could tie him up and leave him in the landrover. They’d soon come looking for him. Of course he'd need to hide the woman somewhere while he waited for the ransom to be paid. Not exactly an insurmountable problem. Following the Clearances there were plenty of derelict cottages that would serve the purpose scattered in the isolated landscape round here. Kind of ironic if they were put to a new use to get redress from the rich. There was even a cave or two that could be adapted for the purpose. And her being a woman too, that made it ideal. She'd be easy to handle, he wouldn't need to rough her up or anything unpleasant like that. Wouldn't dream of it in fact. Indeed, he'd always made a point of being extremely chivalrous towards the opposite sex, even if some people thought his behaviour was somewhat old-fashioned, not to say politically incorrect nowadays. Best of all though, the scheme would be quick to deliver a payoff. He'd get paid cash in a couple of days, in time to settle all his debts and get all his creditors off his back. They’d get to keep the house. Maureen would be happy. She might even forgive him.

He paused as a potential fly in the ointment occurred to him. Angela Roberts might already have gone back to England, the bird might have flown. It would be just his luck. 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. It all depended on how passionate she was about the sport. All he could do was hope. If by some miracle she was still around there was no time to lose. His pulse quickened. It was time to get dressed and get down to the river.

At that moment another thought struck him. The idea of only asking for enough money to settle his immediate debts was a somewhat unimaginative, not to say downright feeble. 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. In fact it was probably prudent to assume that at his age he was never going to work again and take that into account. The ransom would be more like a pension really. He needed to ensure that he was left with a sizeable lump sum after he had settled all the immediate bills. Enough to purchase an annuity that would see him and Maureen into a happy and secure old age. Say, twenty-five thousand. Actually, that probably wasn't enough what with the way the Health Service was going, and the cost of living and all that. Suppose either of them had to go into a nursing home. Or what if they both did. Wouldn't get that on the National Health. And what about a holiday every year, they were entitled to that after a lifetime's hard work surely. Well, not entitled perhaps, but it would be nice. On reflection one hundred and fifty thousand sounded more like it. All right, two hundred thousand to be on the safe side. Say a round quarter of a million. She could afford it after all.

He could just picture the look on Maureen's face when he handed her the money. That really would be a sight worth seeing. He frowned. Except that it wouldn’t. The provenance of the money was another problem. Maureen was a devout Christian, there was absolutely no way she would sanction a criminal act. Absolutely no way. Besides, any foreknowledge of the crime would turn her into an accomplice which would be a disaster if anything went wrong. No, the best thing would be to present her with a fait accompli. Even then he wasn't sure if she would accept the money. Maybe he would have to lie about where the money came from. A white lie, in the circumstances. He’d think of something.

Even if he couldn’t convince the money was legitimate would she really refuse it? He pondered this possibility. Although she might demur on moral grounds, he was pretty sure that her ethical perspective would change once the bailiffs started hammering at the front door. The way people behaved was just a question of circumstances, that was all. Desperate times required desperate remedies. That was Robin Hood's justification in the olden days and no-one today blamed him for what he had done. What Nick was proposing after all was a similar tax on the rich levied by the poor, his only option in the present situation, the only way left open to him. Recent history had shown that he couldn’t beat capitalism after all, the best he could hope for was to skim something off the margin without getting destroyed in the process. It was worth a shot. In his present circumstances anything was worth a shot.

It was at this point that Nick realised to his surprise that he had suddenly come to a major, and extremely radical, decision that, whatever the outcome, was bound to change his life for ever. For the first time in months he had glimpsed a ray of hope penetrating the gathering storm clouds. What was needed now was the courage and the clarity of vision that would allow him to formulate a workable plan. He needed to concentrate and to think clearly about his next steps. That would be hard. He had spent the last six months daydreaming, hoping for a miracle. To have any chance of success he had to plan and execute his mission with the precision of an SAS raid. It was a daunting prospect but there was no alternative.

He stood up. His heart was beating fast. There was no doubt that this was a crunch time in his life. Was he up to the challenge? All he could do was try his best. His circumstances left him no alternative. He was in the last chance saloon a minute before closing time. It was finally time to stop daydreaming. He had to become a man of action. A hunter gatherer. Quite literally.
He took a deep breath. This was it. The first thing to do was to go down to the river and reconnoitre, to see if his quarry was still there, to start to figure out a solution to his previously intractable problems. And then to act. Whatever happened he had to act. Without a second thought.

He had run out of time for second thoughts.