Here is the eighth extract from my book ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’, 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/
Al peered through the rain on the windscreen. There was a phone box some way up ahead. He put his foot on the brake.
Viki snapped at him. “What are you doing?”
“There’s a phone box.”
“So I’m stopping.”
“I’m going to ring them.”
“They’ll trace that in five minutes! What’s the matter with you?”
He pulled towards the side of the road. “For all we know he might have been bleeding to death!”
She yanked at the wheel to redirect the front wheels away from the verge.
He removed her hand. “Get off!”
“Keep driving!” With which she shoved her right foot between his legs, kicked his foot off the brake and floored the accelerator. The Jaguar leapt forward like a cat, spun and slewed sideways across the wet road right into the path of an oncoming truck. Viki was transfixed. Al, from somewhere, found the presence of mind not to brake or to take evasive action but to continue on that track, shooting straight across the path of the truck which was aquaplaning towards them, its brakes locked, fountains of water spewing from its wheels. The Jaguar mounted the opposite verge, bounced and rocked along the sodden ground as the truck, horn blaring, hurtled past in the opposite direction drowning them in its spray.
The Jaguar came to a standstill in the entrance to a field. Al sat staring out through the windscreen, his heart pounding. The blood had gone from Viki’s face. She rocked slowly back and forth, her eyes wide. Then threw open her door and vomited into the wet grass. Slowly, she sat up again and shut the door. Wiped her mouth with a tissue, grimacing.
They sat in silence. Passing vehicles, their lights dazzling through the rain, sprayed the side of the car. Eventually Al sat forward again and started the engine. He waited for a clear road and moved out into the carriageway.
For a long time neither spoke. Then Viki said, “Sorry.”
He didn’t answer.
She said again, “I’m sorry.”
“You could be a little more gracious.”
“I’m not feeling gracious, Vik. You nearly killed us. And the driver of that truck.”
“OK” She shrugged. “Whether you accept my apology or not – I apologize.”
They drove on through the rain.
She said quietly, “It’s a motel, Al. There’s chambermaids. They clean up. He’ll be fine.”
“That’s shit, Viki. I don’t like shit.”
“Shouldn’t be screwing the lady client then, should you?”
“As it turns out – no.”
She flicked the vanity mirror down, took a makeup pouch from her bag.
He pointed to her torso. “What have you got in there – a swinging brick?”
“And the rest.” And then, with an obscene coquettish lilt. “Remember?” She looked in the mirror, dabbed some rouge on her still white cheeks. Then applied lipstick. She put the pouch back in her bag. “What time back in Bristol?”
“Couple of hours maybe.”
She put her face right up to her window and peered out. “Where are we?”
“The last sign said ‘Tavistock’.”
“It’s pissing so much out there I can hardly see. God, I hate the countryside.” She turned up the heating, set her seat in the recline position, and lay back. She closed her eyes. “I shall remember this day.”
The road curved through tall, dark, water-laden trees. Al turned the radio on. “Money, Money, Money”, exclaimed Abba, “In a rich man’s world.” The car warmed up. Viki’s head fell forward onto her chest.
She came to with a start. Looked anxiously around. She was on her own in the car which was stationary. The engine was running and the driver’s door open. The rain was blowing in, wetting her maps in the door pocket and her cache of chocolate bars. And there, thirty metres up ahead on the corner of a narrow lane, was Al tugging open the door of a public phone box. “Al!! Oh, Christ – no!!”
But too late. He was inside, and pulling from his pocket a notebook. He flicked through it. She bit her lip. This was going to sink them. Any second now his mouth would be moving – his stupid, silly, fucking mouth giving everything away. She slipped across into the driver’s seat. Reached into the rear, grabbed Al’s briefcase and flung it out onto the grass. She dragged the door shut, took the wheel and put her foot on the gas. The car rocked and bounced off the wet verge and onto the road then took off, weaved for a few moments from side to side before straightening out and disappearing into the rain.
Al watched through a window of the phone box, his face expressionless.
“Shit!” The heavy box slipped from Ellen’s hands and crashed down on the ledge just inside the loft. A cloud of black dust erupted, making her cough. She manoeuvred the box alongside the other three. Then, with a huge effort, heaved herself up from the ladder and sat down with them. She was badly out of breath. Her knees and the joints in her fingers hurt. Her back ached. She was not up to this. Blood was seeping through the finger of one of her gloves. She looked back down through the hatch to the landing. It was an awfully long way down. She wanted to cry.
She turned and peered into the gloom of the loft. It was a land of deep shadow, lit only by a bare bulb dangling from an umbilical cord of flex put up by Barney once, during a very short-lived spell of DIY enthusiasm. It was piled high with stuff shoved away out of sight. It extended the whole length of the house. They’d had plans for it. Double bedroom, bathroom, small study, big windows, big view to the Welsh hills. Plans going nowhere. Still in a drawer downstairs.
She got to her feet. Heaved up the nearest box, and stooping to avoid cracking her head on the low beams, staggered with it through the dusty twilight. Up here, you had to watch where you put your feet. Half the place had no proper floor. One lapse of concentration, and you could have a foot through the main bedroom ceiling. Ending up astride a medieval joist was not something she wanted to think about. With a heavy thump, she let the box down by the water tank. Three more trips like that and her knees were about to give out.
She eased her aching body down onto the floor beside the boxes. Her hair was in her eyes, the blood on her glove had spread. She went to lift the lid of the topmost box, in order to take a look inside. But changed her mind. It would have been like looking into his coffin. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the cladding of the water tank.
She didn’t hear the car that pulled up in the lane outside.
“There.” Frank Lippincote handed her a gin and tonic. “Try that.”
Ellen took a sip, nodded. “Nice. Thank you.”
He sat himself in an armchair opposite her. “You look a little discombobulated.”
“Not a nice job.” She took a substantial swig.
“What were you doing?”
“Something that had to be done.”
He pointed to the sticking plaster on her finger. “And you’ve cut yourself.”
He sipped his whisky. “I haven’t seen you in a while, Ellen. How are you these days – in yourself?”
“How do you think I am? These days or any days?”
“I’m sorry. That was impolite.” She drank again. “I get by – on a day-to-day basis.”
“I rather thought from your letter that you were beginning to – so to speak – emerge.”
“Some days, that’s how it feels. Others – ” – she shrugged – “ – the road seems long.”
He sat forward, elbows on his knees, as though about to say more. But didn’t.
“It’s nice to see you,” she said.
He flushed slightly.
“What brings you to this neck of the woods?”
“I was on my way back from London. I thought I’d call in.”
She was touched. “That’s kind.”
“I think of you.”
“It’s good,” she said quietly, “to know someone somewhere is thinking of one.”
He sat further forward. “I often wonder about you, you know.”
He smiled back.
She looked down into her glass as she swirled the ice around. “How is Martha?”
For a few moments he was silent. Then sat back. “This thing takes its course.”
She picked an imaginary fleck of something out of her drink. Then finished the drink off in one and handed the empty glass to him. “Would you mind pouring me another? Please.”
He was pleased to be asked. He was intensely aware, strangely, of the sound made by the chunks of ice as they tumbled into the glass, and then of the tonic water as it splashed, fizzing and cascading over them like sea foam over rocks.
He handed the drink to her. She took it and their fingers brushed. He badly wanted to say something though he didn’t know quite what. So he didn’t, and whether or not she was aware of his touch as he had been of hers, he didn’t know that either. He sat down again, confused and anxious. He looked apprehensively at her. Then frowned. Her eyes seemed moist, as though perhaps on the brink of tears. Please don’t cry. He sat quickly forward. “Ellen look – I – er – well – ”
“I don’t know.” But then suddenly he reached out and placed a hand over one of hers. Then sat staring at her, stunned by his own action. Gently, she turned her hand up and lightly clasped his. He looked uncomprehendingly down at their two joined hands. Then suddenly took his away. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you?” she said, without looking at him.
He bit his lip.
“So,” she said, withdrawing her hand and arranging herself primly upright in her chair, “what were you up to in London?”
“Meeting with my accountant.”
“How intensely boring.”
He seemed not to have heard. “I could have helped you, you know.”
“You had only to ask.”
“Help me with what?”
He pointed to the ceiling. “Whatever it was you were doing up there. If you’d rung. What were you doing?”
He started back.
“A one-person, one-woman job. His stuff was still all over the house. Clothes, photographs. Things he would just put down and leave.” She sipped her drink. “Barney had this compulsion to expose his inner workings to public view.”
Frank shook his head very slowly, as if understanding and commiserating.
“He’d pick things up – all sorts of odd bits and pieces. And bring them home and put them out on display. On that shelf over there, there was a large red stone he picked up off a beach somewhere. Put it in his pocket and brought it home. Like a magpie.”
Frank looked down into his glass.
“And a silver dollar. Given to him by a barman in California. I even had to put up with an ancient Oxo tin in the bedroom.” She pressed a hand gently to her mouth.
“Mmmm,” said Frank, nodding sagely. “Difficult stuff, that. Very.”
A cloud crossed the sun. The shadows in the room moved and faded. They sat in silence. Frank looked out of the window.
“It was a good life, Frank. Friends with power and influence. Exotic parts of the world. Did you know – in the early days we lived in Hong Kong? Every morning I took a dip in the South China Sea. Can you imagine that?”
“Sounds idyllic, I have to say.”
“A weekend return flight to New York on Concorde – Barney saved the baggage tags. Even they were out on display on a shelf in the upstairs toilet! Why would a man throw all that away? Because either he threw it all away or he didn’t. If he didn’t, then something awful has happened to him. And if he did – then there has to be a reason. Don’t you think?”
He looked away.
“Can you think of one?”
He got up from his chair and went to the window, stood looking out.
Ellen frowned. “Frank?”
“Your garden’s going to be splendid again this summer.”
“Don’t be a boor. I asked you a question.”
Still he didn’t respond.
He turned from the window. “I’m going to have to be honest Ellen.”
“Honest?” She frowned. “What are you talking about?”
He peered down into his drink. “It’s like this – ”
Her face darkened. “Just – ” – she held up a hand to stop him where he was – “ – hold it there.”
“Is it another woman, Frank?”
He looked wide-eyed at her.
“Jesus fucking Christ! And it never, ever even crossed my – ”
“No. No. It’s not. I mean – I don’t know. How would – ”
“I’m trying to! How would I know? I haven’t seen him for as long as you haven’t seen him.”
She subsided a little. “Then what on earth are you talking about? What do you mean – you’re going to ‘be honest’? Have you been lying to me about something?”
“My dropping in here wasn’t completely spontaneous.”
“Ah. I see.”
“I’ve heard from Jardine.”
She froze. “And?” She watched him as he made his way slowly back to his chair and sat down. He clasped his hands round his drink. “There appears,” he said, “or – there seems to have been – another side to Barney.”
“Another side? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He’s just come back from Cornwall and – ”
“Who’s just come back from Cornwall?”
“Jardine. And – “
“What’s Cornwall got to do with anything?”
“I’m sorry Ellen – I’m trying to put this with some care.”
“Well damn the care! Just get on and tell me.”
“It seems there is – or perhaps has been – another and – a rather – perhaps troubling aspect of Barney’s personality. It may – Jardine feels – and I see what he’s saying – it may go some way towards providing us with some sort of clue as to the matter of his disappearance.”
She turned on a look of stunned disbelief.
“But he has something to say, Ellen. He has something to tell us. We need to set up a meeting with him.”
A breeze stirred the curtains, flicked gently at the pages of a magazine on the table.
Ellen got up and stood looking out the french windows.
“Facts,” said Frank. “One has, in the end, to look at the facts.”
Till the money comes through everything is on hold. All I can do is sit here and wait. I am not good at waiting. I think too much. There’s ‘thinking’ and there’s ‘thinking’. The sort I do at times like this is usually of the counterproductive variety. All London’s policemen and policewomen – and maybe Interpol as well – carry around with them at all times a photograph of me which they look at many times a day. The country’s population have an identikit picture of my face embedded in their brains. Around every corner lurks a know-all looking to grab a moment’s fame by outing the fugitive. I take a risk even looking out of this third floor window into the street.
First thing in the morning I go for a walk, usually to the nearby Queen’s Park. A half-awake face stuck to a steamed-up window of a passing bus holds its glance just a fraction longer than I deem necessary and my heart’s in my mouth. I avoid all newspapers. I have from time to time to go into shops which sell them in order to buy other things. I sidle past them, my eyes averted. And the man or woman in the shop has only to look a little quizzically at me and I’m fumbling my change in my anxiety to get to the door. As I hurry off down the road are they even now dialling 999?
I realize of course that the chances of anyone recognizing me now – or even caring for that matter – are remote. But still I live in a more or less permanent state of anxiety, especially out of doors. Despite the pleasure and the reassurance of my recent meeting with Martin, it is still me over here and the rest of the world over there. I, in my new persona, have yet to be assimilated into the great mass. I am the Alexander Selkirk of Kilburn High Road. The fact that it’s all entirely of my own doing doesn’t make it any easier. If this whole thing goes tits-up – as I heard the strange man downstairs say to someone on his mobile the other day – the whole weight of failure is on my shoulders, and I’d rather not consider the consequences.
But there is another side to it. When I look in a mirror, when I catch sight of my reflection in a shop window, I like what I see. I’m discovering a new way of being. I’m feeling free of things I didn’t know were holding me back before I was free of them. In the train on the way back from Egham, I found myself gazing at the few suited and briefcased men on that afternoon train with what I can only describe as the self-congratulatory pity of the recently converted. That, for most of my working life, had been me. I felt for them. I wanted to take them by the shoulders and shake them.
So until the money is through, I have to kick my heels here in my mean little cell beneath a railway viaduct. It’s not an easy place to be. Cooking a dinner which I eat on my own as the trains crash past overhead, borne down with their cargo of humanity on its way home to spouse and family is a telling test of my resolve. Many evenings I go out and eat in some inconspicuous little Indian or Chinese restaurant. I’ve discovered a number of them around here, all within ten minutes walk. The food is generally good and reasonably priced, the atmosphere pleasantly convivial.
I admire these people from Asia who come to make a living here. What a curious little, half-cast-adrift offshoot of Western Europe this country is. It must seem to them rather like it must have done to the Roman Legionnaires – the end of the inhabited earth, beyond which is only the cold sea and swirling mists. Some of them from little towns and tiny villages whose remoteness I can only guess at – full of wide skies and dirt roads – and here they land with a plate of food in their hands and a smile on their faces too, as often as not. My hat comes off to them – ‘Chapeau!’ as the French so nicely put it. I can’t see many English people – and I include myself in that – having the balls to go to the wilds of China or India to open an English takeaway. ‘Roast Beef to Go’? I don’t think so.
After my meal I walk home. I call it ‘home’ for want of any other word. While the rest of the world struts along on someone’s arm, I walk alone. Sometimes, from a woman passing close, I catch in the air a trace of her perfume – ‘female smells in shuttered rooms’. I am weary of my never-ending maleness.
But I must not let this take hold. Succumbing to the honey trap has been the graveyard of many a high principle. I tell myself it will be alright once I have my hands on the money. Then I can begin.
When Martin did eventually contact me with the details of Dad’s money, my first reaction was embarrassment. Then guilt. It was an obscene amount. But then, Dad had always promised as much. He’d amassed it – hoarded it – over sixty years. In the family there was only myself to whom he could leave it. Mother was dead. Dad had two nephews and a niece – my cousins – children of his two brothers. But both brothers had made at least as much money as Dad and he saw no reason to add – financially at least – to what their offspring were already set to inherit. He had no outside interests. Work had been his life. Having given, way back in the past, his lovely Jaguar to Toc H, primarily in a fit of pique, he felt that charities had had sufficient of his largesse. That left me.
After Mother’s death however, I had vowed I would never touch a penny of his money. Despite what I knew of their relationship and the roots in both their psyches of its destructiveness, still I blamed him for her alcoholism and her premature demise which, I was convinced, resulted from it. Into my middle age I was hostage to a need to perpetuate, even in her death, my default position by Mother’s side. Stockholm Syndrome. It was shamefully unjust, and it had a profound effect on Dad. It led to our alienation from each other which was to continue, on and off, for the rest of his life.
Always I had misread him. Whereas, by some sleight of hand of Mother’s I’d felt compelled to try and understand her, it never occurred to me to try understanding him. Dad, after all, was just Dad. It was like he inhabited a separate, second-class world in which little of fundamental importance ever happened.
When his end came, I was not around, and hearing of it devastated me. Only then did it hit home what he had meant to me. He had been no always-there, always-reliable pater familias. But when the road got rough, it was to Dad I turned. He was ever in the background of my mind. When the hills had crumbled and the stars had gone out, Dad – I knew – would still be standing. Probably with a glass in his hand.
I looked down into a long wooden box. His face was white. He seemed at peace. I wondered if, in his last seconds, he’d thought of me. He hadn’t had much cause to.
My new bank card turned up – eureka! I’m across the starting line. As I slid the immaculate, shiny card from its security envelope, I was almost as excited as I had been as a student when I opened my first bank account. And the sight of that name embossed on it – ‘Bernat Gyorgy Horvat-Marshal’ – gave me a jolt. Last used when I was in my mid-twenties. It was my real name; the one on my birth certificate. It was the name conferred on me by my parents for whom I felt a sudden, profound yearning. Were they still shouting at each other in some ethereal cloud palace or dungeon in hell? Good luck, both. And my love – wherever you are.
I put the precious card carefully away in my wallet. Now I could set things in motion. Buy a few more clothes and some standby shades. Maybe another hat. I’d become quite attached to the idea of me in hats. A trilby perhaps, set at an angle and pulled down low, like in those American gangster films of the ’40’s. And a new car. A new, secondhand one, that is. Small, modest. Nothing that would attract attention. But I was wary. The prospect of bartering with the trendy spivs running London’s secondhand car marts these days was not one I relished.
In fact, I so baulked at the idea that I took a chance on a little garage just a few streets away. I’d walked past it many times. It usually had some sort of vehicle for sale on its tiny forecourt. On that particular day there was a gleaming Harley-Davidson motorbike – for one crazy second it almost tempted me – alongside a little, two-door, blue Ford Sierra. Just the ticket. I descended into an oily cavern, spread with half-dismembered cars. The man who heaved himself out from beneath one of them was as old as I was. I was reassured.
He told me the Sierra was a good runner, low mileage. I trusted him. Its paintwork still shone and it seemed more or less free of dents. I paid him and drove it away feeling proud of myself. It had been accomplished entirely on my own. I found a space to park it in my road. I got out, stood back and looked at it. I liked it. It was a friendly car. One day soon, I would give it a name.
On the way back to my bedsit I discovered, deep in one of the inside pockets of that frightful zip-covered jacket (which I’d worn when I bought the car in order to avoid giving any impression of affluence) my old mobile – the one from which I’d removed the sim card in the taxi that afternoon in Wigan. I would not be needing it. I rubbed it very thoroughly with a tissue to remove any fingerprints – a nice touch, I thought – then dropped it into a skip in the road outside someone’s house.
The following morning I planned to be away. To Halifax. It’s where he began – so where I too would begin. It was Hobson’s choice anyway. Halifax was the last and only place I knew him to have existed. When I thought of it like that, my chances of success seemed ridiculously remote. Maybe I should try reading life’s runes. I’d lived long enough by intellect, rule and statute. And perhaps, on my way up north, I’d find some forgotten village well off the motorway, and post that letter.”
For those interested in buying the book, it’s available here –
And here – www.booksellercrow.co.uk