Herewith the second extract from my book ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’ which has recently been 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/
The black Jaguar threw water up from the road as it swung wildly into the forecourt and slithered to a stop on the gravel. Heavy rain driven by a strong wind, lashed the bonnet and windscreen. The two occupants conducted a hurried conversation behind the sweeping wipers. The man emerged, pulled his jacket up over his head and sprinted the short distance to the office.
The woman flipped down the vanity mirror, checked her appearance, then flipped the mirror back up again.
Room 410 was the last in a long, down-at-heel row. There were parking spaces in front of each. Rainwater filled the potholes in the asphalt. The only other vehicle was a battered Ford pickup in front of 409. The Jaguar rocked and splashed into its parking space. There was a lot of laughter from the steamed-up interior before both occupants tumbled from it and ran through the rain each clutching a briefcase. His lank, thinning hair trailed across his forehead in the wind. He flicked it impatiently back as he fumbled with the key in the lock. She held tight onto his arm and giggled.
“Can’t get it in the hole,” he said.
She shrieked with brief laughter before clamping a hand over her mouth.
The door of 410 slammed behind them.
In the window of the next room a corner of the curtain was lifted, then allowed to fall back again.
Steam rose from the bonnet of the Jaguar as it cooled in the wind and the rain.
Barnaby Marechal looked up from his book. Red brick houses flashing past. One or two with their front steps polished bright red. ‘Red raddle’ – was that what they called it? Long rear gardens with washing flapping, garden sheds, a pigeon loft. A corner shop, a knot of women with pushchairs, talking. A bus full of faces bound for a place he’d once vaguely heard of. A shadowy world still half-remembered.
The train crashed through the girders of a metal bridge spanning a wide, empty, sluggish river far below, mud banks on either side, tidal, a thin, discoloured mist hanging low over it. Past a run-down industrial estate. In the carpark of one of the units, rubbish piled high in its own back yard, a man – early thirties perhaps, smartly-dressed, medium height with dark hair – walked towards a shiny black car. Nervously juggling a briefcase and car keys, he struggled out of his jacket. Barney watched until a factory wall wiped the view.
He went back to his book. The words floated up and past him like flecks of dust in the wind. The weight of this thing grew by the day, forcing him into an ever-narrowing slice of the here and now. With a flick of the wrist he shut his book. He closed his eyes, sat back and took a deep breath. He exhaled slowly, trying to believe what he had once read about the outgoing breath dismissing all that has been. If only. He saw the house in Halifax. The green front door. The roses in the garden. He’d never got the measure of roses. Perhaps he’d never really tried. The clickety-clacking of the wheels of the pushchair on the uneven pavements.
He sat up straight again. Set himself to mull over the last twenty-four hours. Lunch today with the usual band of ill-assorted dignitaries – how could one local authority summon up that many people of ‘dignity’? – had gone well enough. He’d played the part so many times he knew it by heart and back again. Hands had been shaken, drinks drunk, smiles smiled, compliments and airy promises exchanged. Tout le monde had gone away claiming to have got “so much” out of it. So he had done his job. OK, fine.
His performance the previous evening however had been disappointing. His talk had veered off-centre and he had not been able to pull it back. It was unlike him. He was a natural communicator. Audiences warmed to him. He charmed them. It was said he could give a veneer of meaning to the utterly meaningless. A priceless skill in politics. But last night the magic had not happened. The talk had been edgy, the charm consciously applied.
His audience had irritated him. Audiences these days did. A self-important gaggle of small-town businessmen and women, sycophantic and dressed for the kill. In days gone by he would have licked his lips. He would cajole, amuse, impress, infuriate then placate them, make them think a little, shock them, then make them laugh out loud. He would take them up hill and down dale and they would follow – captivated, admiring.
But last evening, his irritation had been such that he’d had difficulty concealing it. At least, he hoped he’d concealed it. Either way, at the end of his talk, there they were, drinks in hand, eager to press the flesh and flash their comely smiles. How shallow and predictable the whole circus. And he the ringmaster. There came into his mind the young man back there getting into his company car. What pressures of money and targets and all the sweaty struggle for supremacy and to make ends meet was the poor lad under? And for what? This?
The train was slowing down past drab housing estates, rows of small shops, past a faux-doric supermarket surrounded by cars nuzzling it like piglets at a sow. A man walked a white dog by a stream in a park. A purple wall of Victorian brick slid across the window. From a diagonal crack across its surface, some sort of shrub waved its thin branches. How does a thing like that eke out a life from solid brick?
A long, sweeping platform and name-board – ‘Wigan’. Ah – Wigan. ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. Read once, so long ago he’d forgotten almost everything about it. Wigan. A name he’d ever seen, rightly or wrongly, as iconic of the industrial north. Now no doubt a bloodless remnant of its past glories. ‘Oh Maggie, what have we done to England?’ The Floyd. Where are they now? Vanished. Like Wigan’s glory. England’s glory. All our glory.
Two men in thick overcoats, loaded with cases and laptops, struggled past him towards the exit. The train juddered to a stop. The sudden cessation of movement was disorienting. On the cinema screen of the window people glided past – pushchairs, suitcases, backpacks. Men, women, mothers with children, students, lone men, suited men, wide-shouldered career women, babies in arms, toddlers – so very many of those little people with their glowing cheeks and expectant eyes, newcomers to these cut-price shores. A feeling of huge pointlessness was on him. Then without knowing why, without the slightest preconsideration, he too found himself on the move. On his feet, slipping his book into his jacket pocket, pulling down his overnight case from the rack. He hurried to the end of the coach, and jumped down onto the platform just as the automatic door closed behind him. The chill of autumn hit him. The low sun made him squint.
People were pulling wheeled suitcases and hauling tardy youngsters along behind them, flowing around him as a stream bubbles around a boulder. Then the accelerating drumbeat of the train wheels vibrating the platform beneath his feet, the coach windows blinding him in the autumn sun. The backwash from the last coach flicked his trousers cold against his calves. He watched the train snaking away down the tracks – taking with it his world. There it went – ever smaller until the last remnant of the final coach and the little red light that clung to it was lost behind distant trees bearing the auburn, red and yellowing leaves of Autumn. Gone.
What, in God’s name, had he done?
He sat on a cold metal seat on the station forecourt. Gusts of wind chased newspaper and fast-food cartons across the asphalt like urban tumbleweed. The small car park was almost empty of cars. On the main road he could see buses and people. A banner across a shop window – ‘Payday Advances’. People in cheap clothes. A man stared at him like he had no right to be there. Perhaps he hadn’t. He looked down at himself – Savile Row suit, Crombie coat. Church’s shoes. Patek Philippe wristwatch. Louis Vuitton overnight case. He felt vulnerable. A cab appeared. He climbed into the rear seat and said the first thing that came into his head. “A hotel please.”
“What – a place to stay, like? Or do you – well – you know?” The man’s Lancashire accent came as a surprise.
“A place to stay. What else would I want with a hotel?”
The man shrugged. “You’re the boss.” The cab pulled away.
He stared from the window. Wigan was a disappointment. Where were the mill chimneys, the colliery winding gear and other remnants of the gritty industrial north?
“Up here on business then, are you?”
He mumbled some half-intelligible reply. It seemed to satisfy. The man said no more.
He took from his pocket his mobile phone. Checked it was still switched off. Then slipped it back into his pocket. He looked out of the window again. Saw the odd half-timbered building. Not what he would have expected.
The cab pulled onto a tree-encircled forecourt. The Balmoral Hotel.
“Grand place, this,” said the driver. “They’ll see you alright.”
Wide steps led up to an ornate entrance. Revolving doors with well-polished wood and highly-shone brass handrails. He paid the driver and thanked him. He got out, went up the steps. A chalked notice board announced that the Balmoral Hotel was today proud host to a conference of local businessmen and women. He put his nose to the glass of the revolving doors. The lobby was a crush of wide-shouldered suits, showy frocks with cleavage and jewellery, glasses in hand. Bustling, guffawing, pontificating.
He went back down the steps.
He walked. Just walked. For a long time, his mind empty. His overnight bag grew heavy. The shadows lengthened and the autumn air turned cold. As dusk was turning to night he found himself in a street of run-down, rambling, Victorian houses. One of them was the ‘Welcome Hotel’.
He was nervous. His palms and fingers were sweating, making it difficult to get a grip on the casing of his mobile phone. Then with a sudden, sharp, snapping sound it seemed to spring off almost of its own accord. He peered curiously into the phone’s innards. That thing – that red thing was the sim card. He was sure of that. But how to get it out? Press with the fingertip. The finger was too big. Press, then slide. The sweaty tip wouldn’t grip it. But then, by edging a fingernail in around the edge, he eased it out.
He placed it carefully into his wallet. Then put the body of the phone in his overnight case, open on the bed. He was pleased with himself. It seemed important to have done that.
He sat back and studied his surroundings. The windows needed cleaning. There was a tear in one of the net curtains. The hangers in the rickety wardrobe were the wire things you get from dry-cleaning outfits. There were black marks on the threadbare carpet. Odd stains on the wallpaper above the bed. There was a faint and strangely unpleasant odour – like a cocktail of stale food and dust.
He was hungry. It was dark outside in the empty street. He wasn’t going to eat in the hotel dining room. The last thing he wanted was some eager face bearing down on him, bent on either glad-handing him or telling him what a mess they were making of the country. Though he doubted there were many staying in a place like this who took any interest in the news or politics, it was a risk he daren’t take. Nor dare he take that same – and probably much greater – risk in any decent restaurant in the town. He picked up the telephone and asked Reception to put him through to Room Service.
“Through to what?” She sounded hardly out of school.
Long pause. “I don’t think we have one of them.”
Barney frowned. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said I don’t think we have a room service.”
“No room service?” He was instantly and profoundly irritated. “What is a guest supposed to do if they want to take dinner in their room?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why is there no room service?”
Pause. “I don’t think there’s any call for one.”
He put the phone down.
He looked in his overnight bag. Two bananas which he’d taken from the fruit trolley at lunchtime, and a packet of biscuits Ellen must have put in. On the dressing table by the window there was a cheap electric kettle, some tea bags and a few of those tiny plastic tubs of milk. He’d survive.
That night, in a dream, he saw the man. On the wooden seat on the far side of the rose garden. He caught sight of him through the now almost bare branches of the philadelphus. The black coat, and the long red scarf trailing almost to the gravel path. He called out to him, but his shouts were whispers. The man stood up. His face was turned the other way. He tried to run to him, but his feet were lead. When he stood at last by the seat, the man was gone. He could hear the river in the meadow the other side of the high garden wall as it rippled gently across the line of boulders.
He shot upright in bed. His heart was pounding, his hot body running with perspiration. His pyjama jacket clung to him, cold, wet. He pulled it off and threw it to the floor. Sat back, closed his eyes.
He struggled out of bed, filled the plastic kettle with water and switched it on. He was cold and had no dressing gown. He put on his cast-off shirt. He felt foolish waiting for the kettle to boil wearing only a shirt. Outside in the street, beyond the torn curtain, a red neon sign flickered. Its light turned the film of dust on the windows pink and flooded the room red like a desert whorehouse. He was too old, too used to five-star hotels. He made himself a cup of tea then stood looking out of the window. A clock struck the half-hour. He sipped. The night was cloudless. A lemon-silk powdering of moonlight lay over the jumbled, silent rooftops.
Was Ellen asleep?
Don’t go there.
Was she? And dreaming? Or just lying in bed unable to sleep, wondering, worrying?
Tell her, then. Ring her and tell her.
Tell her what?
It’s not just the boy.
She wouldn’t need to know the rest.
The rest’s almost as much a part of it.
Let’s think of it like this then. As it stands, the situation’s recoverable. You’ve a single night’s absence to explain away – that’s all. Too many glasses of vino at lunch. Decided to stay on another night but fell asleep in the afternoon. ‘And do you know what, I didn’t open my eyes again till this morning!’
Then finito. Over and done with.
Six months on, I’d be back here. Or at some other flyblown hotel jumping through the same hoops. I can’t not feel what I’m feeling. I’ve spent most of my life trying.
You really should have thought of this a long time ago.
A police siren threads its way through the city. Barney shivers, sips his tea. It warms him. But he is still cold.
Just a thought – have you considered the possibility that Ellen herself might quite take to the idea?
He puts the empty cup to one side. The moon hangs precariously off the edge of a roof.
Ellen is not a children person.
I hear his cries in the night when there are no cries to hear.
The lights of a car sweep briefly across the frayed curtains, chasing shadows around the walls like cavorting grotesques.
I gave up trying to sleep. Took my notebook from my briefcase. I wrote –
‘Let’s be clear. Do this, and –
a – it’s the end of my career.
b – it’s the end of my marriage, in any meaningful sense.
c – it’s going to hurt others.
d – it could all come to nothing.’
I am sixty-five. I am not a brave man but I have to deal with this. It is crowding out my ability to live. I sense I’ve trespassed against some fundamental law of the universe.
By morning he was ravenous. He ate the bananas and the biscuits. The sun was shining and the day looked inviting. He opened the window. The torn curtain flapped in the clear, fresh air. It was still early and there were few people about. His eye was caught by a sudden movement. He experienced a wave of almost childlike pleasure at the sight of a canal boat, its Romany-style decoration brilliant in the low morning sun, threading its way silently between distant buildings. Sitting on its roof was a large black dog. Perhaps it thought it was the captain of the ship. And maybe it was.
He sat down on the bed. Decision time. If he were to go on with this he would have do something about his appearance. And do it now. Not that he could do a lot – he had with him only the few overnight clothes Ellen had packed. But something had to be possible. Not shaving would be a start. A beard makes one look older, changes the shape of a face. He’d never grown a beard. He’d heard they itched. He lay out on the bed the clothes he had with him. Wearing only his underwear and socks, he stood before the cheap wall mirror. He would effect what change he could.
One clean light-blue shirt – classic and timeless. He put that on. OK. The only trousers were his suit trousers. He put them on. The only footwear were the John Church brogues. He put them on. But already he was back to the middle-class executive. The trousers needed to be replaced with jeans, the brogues with trainers. Barnaby Marechal in jeans and trainers! How would he cope? A conditioned reflex sent his hand out for his tie. No. Leave the neck open. He did, but felt half-dressed.
Ellen, careful soul, had also included a thick, dark-grey sweater – autumn, she’d said, was on us. The evenings could be cold. He put that on over his blue shirt, then eased the collar of the shirt out so that it sat outside the sweater. That took the edge off the executive.
His hair. Although not a lot of it left, what remained was too well-cut. It needed to be longer. Maybe even a little messy. A bit arty. That would take time. Meanwhile he’d have to just keep it – sort of – untidy. He pushed his fingers into it and ruffled it up. It was too short to ruffle much. Men put some sort of pomade, Brylcreem or something, on their hair these days. And forced it into waves and odd shapes. That might be worth trying. He could of course dye it some other colour. That seemed a step too far. Though it might not seem so at a later date.
The overall effect wasn’t convincing. The John Church shoes, the Savile Row trousers and the Fenwicks sweater – he looked like an off-duty middle-class executive who’d forgotten to brush his hair.
But then a brainwave. Always, at this time of the year, he carried with him a pair of sunglasses. If one is driving, the low sunlight of October and early November can play havoc with one’s vision. He fished them out of his briefcase, settled them on his nose. With just the tips of his fingers he adjusted them so they sat nicely. There. Back a touch. Now – he was getting somewhere. He looked all around, up and down. The world was too dark for comfort, but he supposed it was a question of getting used to that.
He took a few steps back from the mirror. It was a start. He was beginning to look a little unlike Barnaby Marechal MP. When the trousers and shoes had become jeans and trainers; when his hair and beard had grown to a reasonable length, those in SW1 would be hard pressed to know who he was. A black leather jacket would not go amiss. And what about a hat? Maybe even that.
Without actually having made a decision, this thing seemed to be happening. He would not stop it.
He looked at his watch. Only half-eight. Should he risk the dining room and breakfast? He had to start somewhere. He checked himself again in the mirror. OK. Then stepped out into the corridor, locked his door and in the semi-darkness brought on by his sunglasses, set off uncertainly towards the lift. He guessed he looked something of a poser. But these days posers abound.
Here’s the link to the paperback and Kindle versions –
And if there are any who are interested in supporting a UK bookseller, it is now also available at this seriously excellent bookshop in South London – http://booksellercrow.co.uk