Here is the sixth extract from my book ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’, recently published on Amazon. The link to Extract 1, for those who want to catch up is –https://besonian.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/albatross-extract-1/
Thank you for the kind invitation, but this time I won’t if you don’t mind. I think I’m starting to come to terms with this, at least as much as I’m ever going to. So it’s best I stay here until I’m back on my feet emotionally. Then perhaps I’ll come. That’s if you and Martha will still have me.
‘How could he do this? That’s the question I keep asking myself. What had he been keeping from me? In saying that I’m assuming it’s of his own volition. I daren’t think of the other possibilities. You hear such dreadful things.
‘Now the bye-election’s well and truly out of the way, interest from the Westminster clan seems finally to have faded away. I’ve heard nothing from that quarter for a time now. I had become heartily sick of going over the whole thing yet again for some inquisitive nonentity making out he or she was devastated.
‘You asked about Barney and me. We’ve had our ups and downs, but who hasn’t? Generally it’s been a close and trusting relationship. That’s one of the reasons why this whole thing is just so incomprehensible. We’ve been together over sixteen years.
‘HJ came to see me a while back now. Thank you for the introduction. What a strange little man. Have you noticed his shoes, how incredibly highly polished they are? I suppose he knows what he is doing. He seemed mostly concerned with that person B claimed to have seen in the garden. I’m sure in reality he was a figment of B’s imagination which could be quite fertile, as you know.
‘People are friendly enough here in Ludlow but I don’t know any of them well enough to talk to about this and I still get stared at in the street. I would have hoped they had better things to think about after all this time. I had considered going down to London for a while. I love the London flat, but if I were there I’d still feel at risk of odd people dropping round when they had nothing else to do, drinking my gin and going over it all again. Here I feel safe from all that.
‘Thank you for your kindness. Love to Martha. I’ll write again soon.
‘P.S. I may email you – if I can learn how to do it. B hated the computer and I never touched it, but I feel almost drawn to it now. It might be a window on the world. I must sign up for a course. Watch this space!’
I emerged from Lime Street Station. It was my first ever visit to Liverpool. In different circumstances I would have been eager to look around. But the priority was to find somewhere to lay my head that night. I had no intention of stopping someone and asking them. Cabs were out – the drivers talk and peer at you in their rear-view mirrors. I figured the best thing was to walk in a straight line till I came to a hotel. It’s a big city, there had to be plenty.
I’d walked for no more than ten minutes when I came upon one of those hotels that has minimal services, but reasonable rooms at reasonable prices. That’s the sort of thing. As I approached the double doors I caught sight of my full-length reflection in the glass frontage. I wasn’t a pretty sight. I just had to hope they wouldn’t hold that against me. I pushed on the door and stepped resolutely inside.
The attractive young lady on Reception greeted me without turning a hair. I presumed the birthplace of so much rock and pop was pretty much at ease with the disreputable and odd-looking. I gave the name of ‘Brown’, home address – 126 Endell Street, Halifax, West Yorkshire. I was rather pleased with myself – there was no number 126 in Endell Street. Or there hadn’t been, back in the old days. She accepted my cash payment for one night plus breakfast box left outside the room at 7.30am. Then smiled, handed me one of those flimsy key card things, and said with a delightful Liverpool lilt, “That’s brilliant.”
I went up to my room. Took a few minutes to settle in, then went out again to find the shops. It was time now to get myself a wardrobe as opposed to a disguise.
It was a huge, pedestrianized shopping precinct, packed with people. I had constantly to fight a temptation to look over my shoulder. In this day and age, when you set out to disappear, you soon realize what you’re up against. Every step you take is monitored by a closed-circuit camera fixed to the wall of a building or up on its own pole like a stork’s nest, swivelling, zooming in. Across the country, uniformed voyeurs must pry, twenty-four-seven. Looking for what? Petty malcontents? Pickpockets? Down women’s cleavage? Drunks? Malingerers? Benefit cheats? While the wheels of big business and the City grind us all to fools with impunity.
My heart suddenly hit the walls of my chest. Outside a newsagent’s shop – Christ – a hand-scrawled news placard – ‘AWOL POLITICIAN – STILL NOTHING’. It was near the end of the day and what few newspapers were left were clipped into a rack on the wall. I daren’t look at them, yet I had to. I sidled over to them. The story, though not the main one, was front page on two of them. And those two were folded so that only the first few lines of the story were visible. While trying to give the impression I was looking at something in the shop window, I screwed my head and eyes around to try and read the top one.
“There is still no news of the whereabouts of Barnaby Marechal, Member of Parliament for South Melford, who has not been seen since delivering a talk three nights ago to a local business people’s association in Carlisle. Mr Marechal, regarded as something of a maverick within the party, is popular with the public. A close friend of the Marechals, Mr Frank Lippincote who called in the police after being contacted late at night by Marechal’s wife to say that he had not returned home, told this paper that there was, as yet, no reason to be alarmed. “Mister Marechal, regarded by many at Westminster as something of a maverick, is given to doing things very much his own way. His often unorthodox behaviour can sometimes be – ”
The rest was hidden behind the rack. I walked quickly away. ‘Can sometimes be’ what, Frank? I’d have given a lot to know the end of that sentence. I headed towards a large Marks and Spencer’s. And ‘maverick’, eh? Seems you don’t have to stray far off the beaten track to be ‘a maverick’ these days.
On the way back from the shops I bought a Chinese takeaway and a bottle of red wine. I took them, along with my shopping, to my room. As it seemed ever more likely I was actually going to go ahead with this brainstorm, I tried to think through, while I ate, the practical problems I was facing. I was looking at a mountain. I tried to bring order to my racing thoughts. My mind however, does not take readily to order. I ended up juggling a plethora of more or less random concerns.
Where was money going to come from? There was plenty in the bank. But I had no way of getting my hands on it. Holes in walls, cheques were out. Anything involving my name was out. Everything today involves your name and/or your address/phone number/email address. I still had most of those few hundred quid in my pocket. But my bank accounts were effectively redundant, I could cash no bonds, sell no shares, sell no property. I was marooned on an island of my own making.
Another thing – what, in the long run, will happen to my property? The flat in London is in Ellen’s name. But what about our lovely farmhouse in Herefordshire? If I manage to evade discovery permanently and never, ever reappear as who I was, I will be considered dead after – I think it’s seven years. In which case, everything would go to Ellen, being at the moment, the sole beneficiary of my will. A will which, as things now stand, I can’t amend. Which means that Matt, assuming I ever find him, will get nothing from me on my death. Had I planned all this in advance, instead of simply jumping off a train one afternoon, it could all have been very carefully thought through. On the other hand, had I planned it in advance I doubt I’d ever have had the courage to do it in the first place. I finished my meal in a state of great agitation, feeling guilty and vulnerable. I found myself almost wishing I had religion. If I believed in a God I presume I’d at least feel less alone.
I picked up my glass of wine, took it with me to the window where I looked out into the Liverpool night. An impressive clutch of neoclassical buildings were bathed in amber floodlighting. Traffic swirled around a busy junction like reflections of lights on water. Beyond that, the brightly lit proscenium-arch-like entrance to Lime Street Station across which passed the silhouettes of pedestrians – walk-on artists in this amateur film of my life.
A strange inner silence was rising up in and around me. The scene before me became just moving images on a screen. My agitation dissolved. I stood very still and held all thought away. The image before me sank deeper and deeper inside me until it was almost as though I experienced it not simply as a sight somewhere out there in front of me but as part of my own self. Or was I part of it? I couldn’t tell. Nor did it matter. It felt like a jumping-off point. A moment before birth.
I slept well that night. I took it as a good sign. Perhaps after all, I was doing the right thing, or at least the best thing in the circumstances. Sleep seemed also to have clarified my thoughts. As I sat by the window with my breakfast box, chewing on its depressingly unappetising contents, it came at me out of the blue – there was a source of money – money I had once vowed I would never, ever touch. But in making that vow I could never have envisaged these circumstances. Martin Cosgrove. Do I hear Dad’s laughter from the grave? Cosgrove – family lawyer since the year dot. Good man, old school, discreet, utterly trustworthy. And a gentleman.
There was no phone in the room. My mobile was in two separate pieces. There was however a bank of public telephones in Reception.
“Speaking. Who’s that?”
“Bernat. It’s Bernat.”
“I’m sorry – Bernard – ?”
“No – Bernat. Bernat Horvat-Marshal.”
Long silence. Then a muted, “Goodness gracious.”
“How are you, Martin?”
“Bernat. Well, well. after all this time! What – ?”
“Martin – listen. Before we go any further, I have not rung you. OK?”
“Sorry. You what, old boy? You have not – ?”
“I have not rung you. This phone call has not happened.”
“Right.” He thought for a second. “OK. I think perhaps I understand.”
“I’m in a public box in a hotel. I’m going to keep my voice down and I have to make this quick. I need to see you ASAP. And I need money. Real money. Think about it – I’m sure you know what I mean.”
“Just give me a second to get my head around this. OK. I think maybe I do.”
“But I can’t meet you in your office. I can’t meet anywhere where there are people.”
“My house? It’s out of town in Woking. A reasonably affluent part of – ”
“But you have neighbours, don’t you?”
“Is that a – ?”
“Suppose they see me arrive? Or leave? No, it’s got to be out in the open. Wimbledon Common. Streatham Common. Primrose Hill.”
“In that case, I need a minute to drum my fingers on my desk. Er – think, think, think. OK – how about this then? Two average elderly gents sitting by the river with fishing rods in their hands. Wouldn’t excite a lot of interest, would they?”
“Go on. Where?”
“Do you know a place called Laleham?”
“That’s the one. I sometimes go fishing there on a Sunday.”
“Sounds good. When can we do it?”
“Where are you? And how much money have you with you?”
“Liverpool. And nowhere near enough.”
“Do I presume you don’t have a mobile phone?”
“You do, yes.”
“It would be useful. Dare I say, essential?”
“Nor do I have a place to live.”
“Dear, dear, Bernat. This is somewhat off my map. First, I suggest you get a mobile.”
“That can be traced.”
“I have a couple of old ones. You’d better have one of them. I’ve got an unused sim card around somewhere. I can put that in one of them and courier it up to you. How long can you keep going with the cash you have?”
“Two or three days. But I really need to get back to London and get myself a cheap room somewhere. Then I can – ”
Martin chuckled. “I think you might look a long time for a ‘cheap’ room.”
“I’m not thinking Highgate or Dulwich.”
“Kilburn. The Harrow Road even.”
“OK. So where – ?”
“Listen. Get down here and book yourself for one night into any really cheap hotel. Can you bear that?”
“I’m getting used to it.”
“When you’ve done that, let me know where you are – use the mobile I’ll send you – and I can have cash round to you in a couple of hours. Then you can go and find a room at your leisure.”
“Martin – I’m in awe.”
“It’s the crime fiction I read, Bernat.” He laughed, a little self-consciously. “Once that’s done we can fix up our fishing trip.”
“And Martin – I’m sure I don’t need to say this, but I have to stay utterly off the radar. I caught a glimpse of a newspaper yesterday and I seemed to have almost star billing.”
“A forty-eight hour Tube strike starts here today. A woman in Surbiton or somewhere has given birth to quads or quins – one or the other. You’re cold potatoes. And incidentally, worry not – I won’t ask what this is about. If you want to tell me, that’s a different matter.”
“There’s a whole lot of stuff I need to talk to you about.”
“I can imagine.”
“No Martin, you can’t. You really can’t”
With Martin’s phone in my pocket, I caught an early train to London. I booked a room in a hotel in the Kilburn area – a place calling itself ‘Wiltshire House’. By comparison, the ‘Welcome’ in Wigan bordered on the genteel. The cash from Martin turned up at nine-thirty the following morning. I set off to find myself a bed-sitter. Like he had said, they weren’t cheap. In fact, given the state of most of them, they were criminally exorbitant. But I had cash, and by the end of the day, with the help of an agent I would not, in other circumstances, have trusted any further than I could have thrown him, I was the accredited tenant of a bed-sitter. It was on the top floor of a seedy Victorian house in a street just off Kilburn High Road Road. It was mean and it was depressing. But I could hide away in it with more confidence than in any middle-class enclave.
Taking up almost the whole of one side of the room, was a huge double bed. It would have slept a family of four. By the way it sagged in the middle, it looked like it had. I tried hard not to imagine what might have gone on in it. It had ugly wooden posts at each corner, on which I hung articles of clothing and my shopping bag.
The ‘kitchen’ – as the agent had described it – was simply a partitioned off slice of the same room with a mini electric oven and a cheap fridge which had no freezer. It was cramped, ill-ventilated with just one tiny window. Boil a kettle in it and it steamed up. Cook a whole meal and you’d risk getting trench foot.
A couple of houses along the road, a viaduct carrying the Underground trains crossed the road, vaulting the rooftops. Every thirty seconds or so in the rush hour, the whole building shook as another loaded train juddered by virtually overhead, rattling windows, glasses and crockery.
I shared this top floor with two women. The older one I guessed to be in her mid-forties, the younger around her late twenties. I never saw them apart. Their clothes were so lacking in colour, it seemed that had to be by design. The younger one had very short hair, cut like that of a boy in the 1950’s. From their room which was right next to mine, no sound ever emerged – no radio, TV, music, no animated voices. Were it not for the fact that they’d said in unison a rather timid, ‘Good morning,’ to me the day I moved in, I might have thought they were profoundly deaf. There was never a man around. Although not on that account alone, I sensed they were lesbians. They intrigued me, and via what little contact I had with them, I liked them.
I shared with them the bathroom and the cramped little toilet across the landing. At first, the toilet sort of bothered me. Though I’m not sure why. There was always a can of air freshener in there. And a spare toilet roll. Being the newcomer I was to bed-sitter living, I had to think about what protocol there might be around toilet rolls – especially as the others involved were two women. I could hardly expect them to provide me with toilet paper. And to take my own personal toilet roll in and out with me seemed distinctly mean-minded. The next occasion on which I was the first to start on the standby roll, I left a replacement.
It worked. That’s how we carried on – whoever was the first to start on the standby roll, supplied the replacement. The arrangement was never referred to. A discussion with the two women about toilet roll arrangements would likely have embarrassed them hugely. And me, for that matter.
It had been an odd experience. Challenging in its way. And I was pleased with myself. I’d navigated my way successfully past what might have been an awkward social impasse.
The only other resident in that house of whom I was ever aware was a man who lived on the ground floor. I would glimpse him only occasionally when his coming in or going out coincided with mine. He was anything between early thirties and late forties. Though beardless, he looked permanently unshaven with thick, heavy brows. His black hair was long and his clothes never looked really clean. He never spoke. His eyes were black and quite unreadable. He gave me the impression of repressing some terrible anger. His proximity, fleeting though it always was, occasioned in me a troubling uncertainty. Unlike the women next door, he appeared to have no regular hours. There was never any telling if or when he’d be around.
In the time I was there however, he did me no harm. Nor anybody else I was aware of. I decided in the end that he was perhaps just one of the disturbed and disturbing individuals whose presence was par for the course in that stratum of society. How remote from the lives of ordinary people had I, along with so many in the Westminster village, become.
For those interested in buying the book, it’s available here –
And here – www.booksellercrow.co.uk
And if anyone reading this knows the wonderful La Bruschetta in Crystal Palace, London SE19 – there’s a free copy in there. Or there was. It may well have disappeared by now!