Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Chapter 16

Chapter 16

It was three o' clock in the afternoon by the time he finally got back to the house. He was so tired he could hardly climb out of the car. His headache had worsened with the effort of driving safely without attracting attention. The pain was intense, a sharp metallic pain, as though he had been hit over the head with an iron bar. 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, a deep, dreamless sleep, as if he had been drugged.

He woke up with a start, aroused by the sound of his own voice screaming for mercy. He had dreamt that he was on the gallows surrounded by a baying crowd. An old man had placed a noose around his neck. Maureen was lying at his feet prostrate with grief. Outside the light was fading fast and the room was almost in darkness. Confused, for a second he thought he was back in the derelict cottage. Gradually the familiar shapes of the old dressing table and the half-empty bookcase emerged from the gloom. He rubbed his eyes and peered at his watch. He couldn’t believe the time. He thought he’d only been dozing for a few minutes but it was already six forty-five. Maureen and Martin would be arriving at the village on the bus any time now and he hadn’t even started their tea. With an enormous effort he dragged himself through to the kitchen - he still felt exhausted, as if he'd been out on a fifteen mile hike - and wearily began peeling potatoes.

While he worked he tried to recall some of the extraordinary events that had taken place earlier in the day. He was confused about what exactly had occurred down at the river. Already it all seemed unreal, almost dreamlike. The stuff with the old man…he wasn’t sure but looking back he thought maybe…it was possible…that it was an accident. Maybe the guy had stumbled. He’d used hardly any force. It was hard to say. He shook his head. It was better not to think about it. What was done was done. His thoughts turned to the hostage safely locked up in her remote hideaway. He immediately became suffused with a sense of almost mystical well-being the like of which he hadn’t felt for years, not since he’d last smoked dope in fact. After months of vacillation he had finally taken an enormous step towards solving his financial problems. He was aware that he still had lots to figure out before he got his hands on the money. There undoubtedly remained a number of loose ends still to tie up to ensure a successful conclusion to his scheme. But there was no denying the fact that with the hostage safely hidden away it was just like having money in the bank. Rather a lot of money in fact. He smiled to himself at the thought. In all the years they had been married this would be the first time they’d ever had a nest egg of their own. Indeed, 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. His euphoria was heightened by the fact that he was intensely proud of what he had done, of the way he had finally confronted their problems head on, of the courage and bravery he had shown in implementing his daring plan. Most people would have caved in before such overwhelming odds, the vast majority of poor wretches would have let their creditors barge in and walk all over them. But not him. In the final analysis he had kept his nerve and gambled everything and won. 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. Would do anything too, just as soon as he got his hands on the money and began a new life at the ripe old age of fifty. As John Lennon had once said, it would be just like starting over. And this time he would avoid all the mistakes of the past. He took a deep breath as he felt himself tingling all over with excitement. There was no doubt about it…the future had been transformed into something wonderful.

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. He checked his watch. He was running five minutes late. They were probably already standing in the bus shelter opposite the post office wondering what the hell had happened to him. He smiled at the thought. They had no way of knowing that their little inconvenience would be compensated a thousand times over. He hurried out to the car and drove down to the bus shelter at high speed singing at the top of his voice.

They were waiting in the bus shelter when he arrived. Martin threw his schoolbag into the back seat and dived in after it. “Where’ve you been?” he demanded angrily, “We’ve been waiting ages.”

Maureen climbed into the front seat beside him without saying a word. She looked tired.
“How was your day?” he asked as they headed at a more sedate pace back to the cottage.

“The usual I suppose. I didn’t manage to do half the things I intended. I’ve still got a load of exam papers to mark tonight.”

“They work you too hard, Maureen.”

“It’s my job.”

“Even so,” Nick glanced into the rear-view mirror to see if they were being followed. He suddenly felt nervous driving the car. He should have hoovered it out as soon as he got home. At the moment it was a forensic time bomb. He forced himself to stay calm. “What about you, Martin, how was your day?”


Nick was desperate to tell them about his own glorious, exhilarating, fantastic day but for the time being he knew it was prudent to contain his excitement. In a few more days, once he had safely collected the ransom, then he would be able to astonish them with the brilliant news that was going to change all their lives for ever.

“Any more word from the bank?” asked Maureen, looking anxious.

“The bank? I don’t know. I’ve been out most of the day.”

“Oh yes of course I forgot. 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. “Pretty good. I should know in a week.” Which was just about the right timescale, he thought with satisfaction. Things were slotting into place nicely.

“Do you think you’ll get the job?”

“I do, yes. In fact I’m certain. Don’t worry, love, we’ll soon be back on the gravy train.”
Maureen said nothing. She had learned from bitter experience to take nothing Nick said on trust.

They ate their meal on their laps while half watching the evening news on television in the usual silence. The national news was very gloomy. There had been renewed fighting in Bosnia with the inevitable civilian casualties. Yet another sectarian murder had been perpetrated in Northern Ireland. A young girl had been abducted and murdered in Kent. Unemployment had risen for the third month in a row. Frost was predicted overnight in the north. Nothing much of interest. Nick pushed the inedible remains of a gristly pork sausage to the side of his plate.
Then it was the turn of the local news. The third item in. Something about an accident on Deeside. Two people feared drowned. A man’s body recovered from the river. A woman still missing. A big police search.

"Hey," shouted Martin, suddenly sitting up, "That's near us."

It was the longest speech he had made for years.

"It's that woman," said Maureen, her eyes widening, "The millionairess woman. The one with the chain of beauty shops. She bought an estate over on Deeside. Mrs McKillock in the village does for her. Says she’s loaded. I wouldn't mind a fraction of her money."

“It sounds like a fishing accident,” muttered Martin, his mouth full of potato, “They should have been wearing life jackets or something.”

Nick stared at the screen in dismay. Somehow he’d hoped that what had happened down at the river would go unnoticed. Seeing it on the television was a shock, somehow made it all much more serious. No longer something that existed in his mind only. Now that the genie was out of the bottle the world seemed a much more dangerous place.

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. At that point a police inspector appeared, framed against the backdrop of the fast-flowing river. Speaking to camera he said, “At the moment we are treating this tragic incident as an accident. Due to the high river levels our diving team is unable to carry out a thorough search. 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.”
Nick stood up, unable to watch any more. "Can I get anybody anything else?"

Maureen asked for tea. Martin, having already lost interest in the news as soon as the weather forecast came on, 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. For the time being at least it seemed as if nothing had happened, nothing had really changed. Nick was momentarily nonplussed. It appeared that even after you go on the rampage murdering and kidnapping, as soon as you get home everything returns to normal, nothing has really changed. He thought that was extraordinary. Depressing too in a way. It made you wonder what you had to do round here to make things change for the better, to get out of the rut, even just to get people’s attention. 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.

After he had done the dishes he sat watching Coronation Street with Maureen, her favourite programme. He hadn't watched it for ages but he soon picked up the storyline again. He managed to watch about ten minutes before his attention started to wander.
He couldn’t stop himself from thinking about his hostage.

Mundane thoughts at first. He would have to remember to take her a pair of clean knickers and some jeans. Maybe another jumper as well- the weather forecast said they were in for a spell of cold weather and he didn’t want her catching a cold. He could easily steal some of Maureen's warmer clothes that would do, even if they were a bit big (and not very fashionable). If he was any kind of a gentleman of course he would deliver them tonight. The only thing was, he just didn't fancy going back to the cottage in the dark. Stumbling around in the forest in the middle of the night. All those skulls and things. Creepy. Besides, it would be difficult to explain away if anyone spotted him. Very suspicious. Although he could say something like he was out poaching, looking for something for the pot. Then again, there were other possible risks too. There could be roadblocks for a start. Anyway, 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 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. These weren't the only reasons for his reluctance though. The fact was he simply couldn't face the sight of that poor woman in his present state of mind. It was just too soon. All the bad things that had happened today. She was a too solid reminder of his evil actions. The personification of his wickedness. His still-living penance. She represented something he preferred not to think about. He focused his attention back on Coronation Street.

Suddenly Maureen picked up the remote and turned off the sound.

Nick frowned. “What you doing?”

“I was talking to one of my colleagues at school today. Robert Fleming. You remember him?”


“His wife’s a lawyer. She’s been looking into the bank taking the house from us.”

“Oh yes.”

“Well, she doesn’t think they will.”

“That’s not what my lawyer says.”

“She was told by one of the senior partners that the bank won’t want the bad publicity. 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. By then there might even be something left for Martin.”

“I don’t believe it. The bank are going to toss us out on our ears.”

“She spoke to the bank.”

“You’re kidding.”

“She drawing up some kind of deed. We’ll have to sign it next week.”

“And they’ll leave us enough to live on?”

“If we’re careful.”

“Maureen, I haven’t even got a job.”

“You seem confident about this latest one. As long as you make a contribution. With you working we should even be able to put Martin through university.”

“So we’re not going to be turfed out.”

“Nick, I think you should understand that I’ve been deeply hurt by what has happened. I put my trust in you and you betrayed it. I’m not sure I can ever forgive you. If you want to regain that trust you’ll have to earn it back. Which means getting a job. Any job. Even if it is stacking shelves in ASDA.”

“I’ll get a job. I promise.”

“And don’t ask me to sign anything ever again. Ever.”

Nick watched the rest of Coronation Street without taking anything in. Maureen had solved their most pressing problem at a stroke. Which meant that everything he had done had been rendered unnecessary. In solving one problem she had created another for him. 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. Or even some way of letting her go. Except that she had seen his face and she knew what he had done. Far from being money in the bank she had turned into a bloody great millstone round his neck. Or even a noose.

Whatever he did with her at the moment he still had a moral obligation concerning her welfare which he absolutely felt obliged to fulfil. He pictured her huddled up alone in the cold and dark. Surrounded by rats. Bound in chains on a rough earth floor not knowing what her fate might be. The thought of the terrible suffering that she must be going through at that moment made him feel slightly ill. He could feel the blood draining from his face. He closed his eyes and rubbed his fingers through his hair, desperately trying to massage the images out of his brain. He felt so guilty neglecting her this way. The fact that there was no one he could talk to about his anguish just made it a hundred times worse.

At that moment the phone rang. He froze. It had to be the police. This was the beginning of the end. He knew it. He could see it in the policeman’s eyes on the television. They were coming to get him. The game was up. Any minute now he would hear the police car pulling into the drive. Eventually Maureen got up from the settee and answered it. Filled with trepidation he could hardly bear to watch her as she placed the phone to her ear. His heart sank when he saw her frown. He waited with baited breath. She listened for a minute and her eyes narrowed and her expression became very grave. “Just a minute, I’ll get him for you,” she said, holding the receiver out to him.

He got up slowly, his legs shaking.

"It's the man from the garage," she muttered, her face ashen, "He wants to speak to you. He's being really abusive."

Nick looked up helplessly at his wife, 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.