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Chapter 7

January 30, 2012

“Once you’re in mainland Europe you’re good, but to get there you are going to need a passport.”

I hesitated.  I hoped that Jack could help with this, but I almost didn’t want to ask.  If he couldn’t it was just another avenue that ran straight into a brick wall.

“I know.  Is that something you could help with?”

Jack looked affronted.

“Hey, just because I can jump a car and know strange hermits who live out in the countryside, does that make you think I am the kind of guy that can get false passports?  That’s big league stuff.”

I shrugged.  I had hoped it might be.  It seemed strange to be hoping that my only friend in this world was a criminal, one connected with the underworld enough to get a false document.

Jack watched my face fall and let out a deep belly laugh, the affront sliding off his face.

“Well, lucky for you it does.  Sure thing Collins, but they’re not cheap.”

My heart surged and I grinned back at Jack, and I pulled the bundle of notes I had stolen from the guard from my pocket.

“Wow Collins, who’d you mug?  No, don’t worry about that.  You’ll need that if you are going to get anywhere.  I’ll call in another favour, but I reckon this will make us just about even on the escaping Mnemosyne score.  And that’s fine by me, I don’t like owing anyone anything.  I could end up like old Ben here, having strangers rock up on my doorstep with no notice.”

He chuckled and walked over to the fire where he poured himself another mug of tea.

“So yes, I can get you a false passport, but it won’t be quick.  Quicker than getting it from the government, that’s for sure.  But you won’t be in Vienna any time in the next week.”  A week!  I wasn’t sure I could wait that long.  I had to be realistic though, the fact that it was possible was a good thing.

“Look, I’ll go make a call.  Ben’s never had a phone in this place, but there’s a pay phone at the crossroads out towards the village.  I’ll call in that favour and we should have a better idea of how long it will take.  Sound OK Collins?”

Jack gave me a slap on the shoulder as he drained his mug and placed it in the sink.  I told him it was more than OK, it was excellent, and he shrugged into his coat and pushed through the cottage door.

 

It was a start, but I wasn’t going to wait a week.  I had another idea, another lead.  Flipping open the notebook I looked up the address from the Marshall folder.  Wootton, Bedfordshire.  That was near here, and I certainly didn’t need a passport to go there.  It felt risky, looking up the guy paid to ‘recruit’ me, but it was a risk I needed to take.  I couldn’t afford to forget that Mnemosyne wanted me badly, and just because it was easy to get away it didn’t mean they weren’t working to haul me back in.  Deep down I knew they were.

Jack returned after half an hour.  He could get the passport, although it had been more difficult than he had expected.  He needed a passport photo from me and he could take care of the rest.  We decided that we would head into town in the morning to get the photo.  From that point it would be a week, more or less, until the document was ready.

“I really appreciate this Jack, thank you.”

Jack shrugged his shoulders and waved away my thanks.

“Don’t mention it.  Like is said, I don’t like feeling that I owe anyone anything, and this puts us near even I reckon.”

I nodded.  It seemed odd that the most decent person I could remember, the most decent person I had ever met as far as I could recall, was crooked.  I wondered what the Dr Collins debate on ethics would make of all of this.  A crime meant that the rule of law had been broken, it was one person, or a group of people, abusing their role in society.  But what did ethics make of the actions of the Mnemosyne Corporation?  Had they actually broken any laws, denying a sectioned man of his free will?  Possibly not.  Jack certainly was breaking the law in getting me a false passport, and so would I be when I used it, and while this was a breach of the law, was it a breach of ethics?  Of morals?

Jack’s voice cut across my idle thoughts.

“Right, I’m done in and off to bed.  There’s no sign of Ben so I’m taking his bed, double edged sword that it is.  You can make yourself comfy out here.”

I nodded, but wasn’t really paying attention as he left the room and closed the door.

 

The brakes let out a sighing puff of air as the bus jolted to a halt at the traffic lights.  The jerking motion roused me from my daydream, my forehead stopping just short of the fabric of the seat in front.  Anyone standing on the bus would have been hurled down its length, possibly through the plate glass of the windshield.  Pedestrians and cyclists surged across the road in front of the bus, oblivious to the shocked looking passengers rubbing bruised noses and scraped foreheads inside.

I’d been up early that morning, Jack and I heading into town for passport photos.  I wasn’t going to sit around for days though, I had other leads to follow.

The bus was on its way to Cambridge, where I was going to swap onto another bus to the town of Bedford.  From there it should be a short ride to Wootton, and the home of Marshall, the mysterious man from the Mnemosyne folder.

The lights flicked back to green and the bus roared through the crossing, causing a couple of tardy pedestrians to skip sharply out of the road.  The day outside was clear and sunny, the pretty architecture of the ancient city lit up with a pleasant glow.  The bus snaked through a few more streets and emerged onto a long straight boulevard.  The right hand side was marked by high bushes and the odd house, while on the left an expanse of green gave way to a narrow river.  I wasn’t planning on stopping in the city, just there long enough to make my connection.  As the bus cleared a group of trees the back of a large building, just the other side of the river, loomed into view.  Part of the old university, one of the colleges.  It was an impressive sight, framed by the soaring trees along the river bank.  As the bus made its way along the boulevard another vast building came into view.  I recognised it in an instant.  It was where I had sat with Richter, where I had discussed my research.  In a second I had leaped up from my seat, my pack curled around my shoulder.  Surging to the front of the bus I called on the driver to stop.  He obliged, ramming on the brakes and almost sending me face first into the windshield.

“Hey, what’s the big idea?” he grumbled.

“Can you let me off here, please.”

The driver scowled, his multiple chins waggling as he shook his head.

“No can do.  I can only pick up and set down at the designated stops.”

Involuntarily my hand shot forward and grabbed him by the throat, squeezing hard, but not hard enough to do any damage.  I heard someone behind me gasp.

“Open the door.  Now.”  My voice was a low growl, quiet and menacing.  To reinforce my point I tightened my grip.  The driver’s eyes bulged.

With a feeble nod the driver flicked a switch and with a hiss the door swung open.  I released his neck, and called my thanks as I hoped down to the pavement.

The doors swung closed immediately behind me and the bus lumbered quickly into life, the driver clearly eager to get away.  I was a little shaken by my unexpected response, but I told myself I had been under a lot of pressure lately.  After all, I wasn’t going to hurt the guy.

The path was under the cover of the trees.  It was early spring, and I could just about make out new buds on the branches.  The bare limbs cast a complicated net of shadow onto the ground, and my breath steamed slightly in the mid-morning air.

The pavement was a few metres wide, bounded by a low wooden railing from a section of grass and trees.  Behind this there rose a tall black metal fence, the tops of the railings formed into points.  Set in the fence was a gate, where a woman dressed in robes waited.  As I approached the gate she greeted me.

“Good morning sir, I’m afraid the college is closed to visitors at this time, only those on college business can enter.”

“That’s OK, I’m a colleague of Dr Damian Richter,” I replied without thinking.  For a second the woman seemed surprised, eyeing my somewhat shabby appearance.  Then then smiled and stepped very slightly to one side.

“Go on through,” she said.

The pathway beyond the gate ran through an avenue of lime and cherry trees, their tall trunks trained meticulously towards the powder blue sky.  After a few minutes I came to a bridge, its light yellow stone arching across the narrow river.  In front of me was the building from my dream, the location of a memory.

The bridge led down some steps and onto a beige gravel path that ran around the edge of a large rectangle of grass.  There, on the opposite side of the grass, in front of the impressive building, was the bench there I had sat.  Excitedly I strode out across the grass.

When I reached the bench I sat down, adjusting myself so that I was in a similar position that I remembered in the dream.  The view was much the same, although it felt considerably colder now than it had in my dream.  Slight details were wrong though.  The shape of the building behind me was not quite as I recalled, although the look and feel was mostly the same.  Also the river in front ran through a slight dogleg, whereas in my dream it had run dead straight.  I seemed to recall that it was wider too.  Tiny differences, nothing more.

I sat there, waiting for something to happen, for a new memory to reveal itself.  For ten minutes I waited and there was nothing.  I began to feel stupid.  What was I doing there, sat on a bench as if resting.  This was achieving nothing.  It was nice to take a trip down memory lane, except every trip I took ended up at a dead end.  I was just about to get up when the sound of footsteps behind me caused me to turn.

A young man, duffled up in a wool coat with a college scarf around his neck, was making his way down the path towards me.  I had decided to wait for him to pass before I moved on, but he didn’t pass.

“Excuse me, I understand you are here to see Dr Richter?” he said.

My body stiffened.  Of course, the woman at the gate must have phoned ahead.  It had been a foolish thing to say.  A link to Richter was a link to Mnemosyne.  I quickly evaluated the young man.  He was tall, and looked strong, with broad shoulders.  His hands were rammed into his pockets of the bulky coat, ostensibly to protect them from the cold, but potentially to conceal a weapon.  While the bench was exposed from three hundred and sixty degrees there was no one else around, but countless windows looked out from the surrounding building.

The young man whipped a hand out from the bulky coat and thrust it towards me.  My own fist clamped around the knife in my pocket and flicked out the blade, but in an instant I saw the hand was offered as a greeting, not as an attack.

I stood from the bench and shook the man’s hand.  His grip was as strong as his physique suggested.

“My name is Richard, nice to meet you,” he said.

I returned the greeting, giving my name as James.

With an ostentatious sigh the young man collapsed onto the bench, his long frame sprawled across the slats.  I sat down next to him.

“You know, neither of us should be on here,” he said, pointing down at the grass beneath our shoes.  Of course, only fellows of the college could tread the immaculate grass.  In an instant a reply flashed across my mind.  I, Dr Collins, was an honorary fellow of the University and so yes, I was allowed on the grass.  With a grimace I squashed the answer, and instead gave Richard a guilty grin.

“I’ve never been one for rules,” I said.

Richard returned my smile and kicked out his feet in front of him.

“Me neither I must say.  But as a student here I stand to lose more than you do, so if anyone asks you are a visiting fellow and invited me to come join you here, OK?”

I chuckled and nodded my acceptance.

For a few moments we sat in silence.  I wasn’t sure where this was going, so I wanted Richard to make the first move.  If he was from Mnemosyne it wasn’t obvious, but my ears strained for any sound around me that would indicate others were on their way here in a hurry.  The blade was still out on the knife in my pocket.

“So, are you in the brain game too, cognitive technologist, neuroscientist?” asked Richard.

“Something like that,” I said, trying to sound friendly.

“OK, a bit of mystery.  Nothing wrong with that.”  Richard paused for a second, as if weighing his words carefully.

“Well, I don’t know how you know Dr Richter, but I am afraid you won’t be able to see him.”

I had of course expected this.  He would no doubt be at the facility, desperately trying to unravel the Adstringo algorithm without my help.

“He is away then?” I answered.

Richard’s mouth curled into a bitter smile.

“Something along those lines yes.  I don’t wish to be the bearer of bad news, but Dr Richter is dead.”

I hadn’t been prepared for this.  Richard registered the genuine shock on my face, his eyes sympathetic.

“Are you sure, how do you know?”

“I am quite sure.  How do I know?  A privilege of birth.  Dr Damian Richter is – was – my Father.”

 

The bus rumbled through the outskirts of Cambridge and onto the open A road.  The traffic was light, the odd car flashing past in the other direction.  Fields, open and brown, lay either side.  My eyes stared out of the window, registering all this but not really seeing it.  My mind was on the conversation with Richard.

I’d been unprepared to learn that Richter was dead.  I had been more prepared for Richard to pull a taser from his pocket and a cadre of Mnemosyne guards to leap from the bushes.  That hadn’t happened.

He had just told me his father was dead.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I had said, my brain switching into auto-pilot.  Was I?  I felt as if I was, but also that I wasn’t.  After all, he had seemed like an unpleasant character, but he had never directly done anything wrong to me.  That was one set of memories.  The other said that was an old colleague, a long standing acquaintance if not exactly a friend.  On that basis I mourned his passing, as well as feeling in some way glad that he was gone.  If this wasn’t confusing enough, Richard’s next question had thrown me entirely.

“It gets hard, doesn’t it, holding it all together?  At first it’s easy, but more and more they slip through your hands like smoke.  Like something half seen, half heard.  Half remembered.”

This sounded unsettlingly like my amnesia.  I had kept my face impassive.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

Richard had looked embarrassed, his cheeks tinting crimson in the cool air, his hand brushing back his floppy hair from his face.

“I’m sorry, it’s just…” he had paused, before taking a deep breath.  “For a second I thought you might be one of his assistants, one of his Grafts.  But no, I am mistaken.”  Stiffly Richard had risen from the seat and offered me his hand once again.

“It was nice to meet you James.”  I had shaken his hand, still off-guard from his question.  As he walked away I had itched to call out, to ask him what he had meant, what a ‘Graft’ was.  But my uncertainty stayed my tongue, and by the time I could move he had rounded a corner, out of sight.

I don’t know how much longer I had sat on the bench.  Any time was too long.  But eventually I had moved.  The lady at the gate was able to give me directions to the bus station, and I was away once again.

I was sat near the front of the bus, just one row separating me and the driver.  There were only three other passengers on the bus.  Two of these looked like students, one with his young spotty face buried in a text book, the other gazing out of the window, a pair of white earphones dangling from her ears.  Near the back sat an elderly man, hunched up deep within a giant brown overcoat, a tatty checked flat cap pulled forward over his face.  The driver of the bus was smoother than the last, the gear changes less chaotic.  It would appear that red traffic signals were visible from more than twenty feet, and that pedestrians were not synonymous with skittles.  It was a surprise then when the bus lurched abruptly to the left, the driver giving a curse.

“Bloody maniacs!” he growled as a black four by four with tinted windows roared past the bus, it’s lights flickering on and off wildly.

“Should have their licenses taken away, I tell ya.”  I was the closest one to him, but I could tell that the comment was directed to no one in particular.  I had turned my attention back to the window when the busses brakes jammed on, the wheels screaming across the tarmac.  I shot out a hand to prevent my head smacking clean into the seat in front.  The back of the bus tilted up alarmingly and I could feel it sliding around to the side.  With a howling puff the bus slid to a halt, the rear rocking back onto its haunches.

A muffled yelp came from the back of the bus.  The boy student had clearly cracked his head, blood flowing freely from his scalp.  It didn’t look serious, though he’d need checking for a concussion.  The girl looked fine, although her earphones had flown from her ears and tangled in her hair.  Remarkably the old guy had fared the best, perched comfortably at the back of the bus as if still snoozing.

“What the hell?” I shouted, turning to the front of the bus.

“Lunatics!” roared the driver, turning back to me and raising his hand.  He looked shaken, his eyes wide and watery.  His shaking hand pointed through the windshield at the road in front of us.  Where the road had been empty before there was now a large black car, the four by four that had passed us earlier, sideways in the road.  It straddled both lanes, the skid marks on the tarmac showing where it had slid into position at speed.  The driver had done well to stop in time, although the student with the bloodied head might not agree.

For a second, only a second, I thought it was an accident, that the driver had lost control.  Then the doors to the car opened and four men emerged.  They wore jeans and t-shirts, not the grey uniform of the Mnemosyne guards, but I didn’t need a second look to know who they were.

I surged forward to the driver’s seat.

“Get up,” I ordered, grabbing the driver by the shirt and pulling him forward.  With a heave I thrust him into the seat behind and jumped into the driver’s seat.  The engine was still running.  Ramming it into gear I floored the accelerator, wrenching the steering wheel around and pointing the bus at the approaching men.

“Buckle up!” I screamed down the length of the bus.

The men had just enough time to scatter, two the left, two the right, as I ploughed through them.  I adjusted the angle of the bus slightly, and with the scream of tortured metal the front smacked into the four by four, the windshield shivering into a hundred thousand connected squares on impact.  The bus pulled to the right, the rear wheels spinning as it pushed the car around.  I heaved the wheel as far left as I could, pushing the car around and towards the side of the road.  A foot or two from the edge of the tarmac there was a wide ditch.  Holding the wheel hard left the bus drove the car from the road, its side rearing up as it collapsed into the ditch.  Sawing the steering wheel back to the right the bus lunged for the centre of the road, the left rear wheel momentarily swinging out over the ditch before gripping back onto the grass verge.

We were back on the road, and I could just about see through the fractured windshield.  The speedometer had jammed on when we hit the car.  I urged as much speed from the engine as I could, desperate to put as much distance between me and the car as possible.

“What the?…”stammered the driver, his face white, his lips an unhealthy shade of blue.  From somewhere near the back of the bus came a delayed scream, then a short whimper.

Fields streamed by on either side, the hedgerows and trees a green and brown blur.

“Where’s the nearest village or town?”I asked, my voice flat.

The driver stared at my blankly.

“Just answer the question.  Where is the nearest village or town?”I repeated.

The driver licked his lips.

“Roxton.  Second exit at the roundabout.”

“What roundabout?”

Just then I saw it, spliced up and shown to me a hundred times through the messed up windshield.  I slowed down, taking the second exist, before accelerating again.  A minute later we rolled into Roxton, just a small cluster of houses, and I slammed on the brake and flipped the switch for the doors.

“Sorry about all that,” I said to the terrified driver.  I grabbed my bag and ran from the bus.

If I was lucky their car would be out of action, either damaged too much to move or wedged in the ditch.  If I wasn’t then they would be only minutes behind.  I needed to get off the road.  The countryside around was too flat, too sparse to risk moving on by foot today.  That meant I needed somewhere to hide.

The main street in the village was off the road I was on.  I made my way there quickly.  I passed a house on the left with a double garage.  The front door and both garages were locked.  The same was true of the next property.  Then, on the right, there was a garage with a sooty metal roller door.  It stuck a little, but with a disturbing screech the door rolled up.  I ducked under and pulled it down behind me.

The garage was a disordered mess.  A pile of green plastic garden furniture stood in the centre, an array of rusting garden tools were propped against the back wall.  A child’s ride on toy in the shape of an aeroplane sat next to the garden furniture, its rear axle bent round and a wheel missing.  The single small window at the back of the garage was made from textured glass, the combination of the frosted shapes and accumulated dust and mud putting the inside of the garage into half light.  I examined the roller door and found that the locking mechanism had rusted clean away, hence I’d been able to get in.  Picking a pair of shears from a hook on the wall I wedged the blade down the left hand side of the door.  That might help hold it in place.  Then again it might not, but it was the best I could do.

Everything in the garage was covered in a thick layer of dust and dry mud.  Excellent.  That gave me good odds of being able to hide out here for a while without being discovered.  I pushed away the child’s toy with my foot and cleared a space on the bare concrete floor.  Two of the plastic garden chairs had seat covers, striped cushions splotched with mould.  I threw these down on the space I’d created on the floor and sat down, my back resting against the wall.

It was only then that I noticed my hand was shaking, badly.  In the bus everything had seemed natural.  I couldn’t even remember any fear, anything to cause me hesitation.  All I knew was that I wasn’t going to let those men take me again.  When I had pointed the bus at them it wasn’t a bluff, I was trying to kill them.  It was simple as that.

Reaching into the pack I pulled out a box of cereal bars.  Ripping into the box I peeled one out of the wrapper and bit of a chunk, chewing slowly.  The shaking eased.  A little.

It made sense, I rationalised.  I had heard the warning, they were going to kill me, weren’t they?  That meant it was them or me, and therefore I had to do what I could.  But how far did a warning from a voice in your head go?  And then there was the car.  I had known where to hit it, where to make contact to shunt it from the road.  Not just move it out of the way, but ensure that it ended up sideways in the ditch, and out of action long enough for the relatively slow moving bus to carry me away.  Simply spinning the car would not have been enough, they would have caught the bus in moments.  In those few seconds I had realised all this, tried to kill the men and then spun and sideswiped the car from the road.  What the hell was happening to me?  I was supposed to be a neurosurgeon, healing people and giving lectures on scientific ethics.  Not roughing up bus drivers and playing bumper cars with public transport.

You do what you have to do.

I jumped at the voice and looked around in a panic, but there was no one there.  I screwed up my eyes and pounded on my head with the flat of my hands.

“Who are you?” I screamed, not caring who heard.

Who are you, who are you, who are you?

The voice echoed round and round my head, rising and falling, tinged with madness and repeating my question.

“I am Dr Collins!” I roared.

I am Dr Collins, I am Dr Collins, I am Dr Collins said the voice, fading away to silence.

I was going mad, cracking up.  I needed answers.  I needed to get to Marshall.  If I could reach him I knew I could get answers.  I pulled the knife I had taken from the Mnemosyne guard from my pocket and flicked out the blade.  I could see my own reflection in the polished metal, my eyes sunken and hollow, glowing with the receding madness.  Yes, if I could get to Marshall I could make him give me answers.  I didn’t like what I was learning about myself, but I knew I could make Marshall talk, whether he wanted to or not.

 

I stayed in the garage overnight.  About half an hour after I had broken in I heard a series of sirens howl passed, in all likelihood heading out to the abandoned bus.  I had little doubt that the Mnemosyne Corporation would take care of its own mess, but there would be little doubt the police would be on the lookout for a bus hijacking lunatic.

No one came to the garage, and as far as I could tell no one returned to the house behind.  I slept fitfully, my ears straining for any sound, one hand resting against the bottom of the roller door the other clasping the knife.  As soon as the first fingers of dawn pushed their way through the grimy glass of the window I was on my way.

 

The village was still asleep.  An occasional light, shining out into the dawn gloom from the edges of a curtained window, was the only indication that the place was inhabited.  I retraced my steps.  There was no sign of the bus, only deep grooves scarring the grass verge where I had left it.  No doubt it has been towed off somewhere, I didn’t think I had left it in a state to drive.  I wondered if the police would sweep the bus for fingerprints.  If they did, and they found mine (as they surely must), would they go looking for me?  I doubted that stealing a bus and crashing it into a car was a crime worth pursuing someone all the way to Vienna, but was I now a wanted man by the police, as well as Mnemosyne?  It didn’t really matter, I knew which worried me more.

Not for the first time I wished I had a good map of the area.  Even a bad map would be better than nothing.  All I had was a vaguely remembered route from a faded colour poster at the bus depot.  A decent map was invaluable.  I knew the route the bus was taking, so I knew the road that headed towards Bedford.  I didn’t think it was a huge risk.  I didn’t expect Mnemosyne to think I would take exactly the same route on foot.  The fact that it was a stupid idea made it a relatively safe one.

The road was flanked on either side by a low hedgerow.  Immediately between the hedgerow and the tarmac was a shallow ditch.  It was possibly the same one I had rammed the Mnemosyne car into, running the complete length of the road.  At the bottom of the ditch about two inches of water flowed sluggishly back past me, the water clogged with leaves, grass, and plentiful litter, the bright splashes of coloured plastic, paper and metal making an unpleasant contract to the earthy browns and greens.  Through the hedgerow I could make out a herd of Friesian cows, drifting casually around the field calmly grazing the grass down to a digestible mush.  The field on the other side of the road stood empty, either vacant pasture land or reserved from some future crop.  Overhead a hunting bird hovered and looped, its attention pinned to the hedgerow as it soared high above, alert to any movement that would suggest its next meal.  There was barely a sound, beyond the cows moving in the field, and the early morning felt so peaceful that for a minute or two I forgot my situation and enjoyed the walk.

Every now and then a car swished passed on the tarmac.  For those heading in my direction I held out my thumb, without any real expectation of a lift.  I could remember hitchhiking through Spain in late summer.  No specific memories, but I knew that it had happened.  It had been easier then, to get rides.  Now everyone was worried, concerned about what the hitchhiker might do, or what the hitchhiker might later claim had happened.  You could understand people’s concerns, but it was just another example of where society had started to fracture, where people were no longer willing to help out a stranger.  Not because the cost to them was too great (after all, they were already going that way), but because the risk was just too high.  Or rather the perceived risk.  Just driving your car out onto the road was the risky bit.  Picking up a stranger didn’t really shave your odds one way or the other.

That said, I looked dishevelled, the fact that I had slept in my clothes was all too obvious, so it was a big surprise when a car slowed down and pulled to the side of the road in front of me.  It was small, red and old looking, the absolute antithesis of the Mnemosyne car.  Even still, I felt my pulse kick up a notch as I approached the passenger window.

The driver was a woman of about middle years, smartly dressed in a skirt suit, her brown hair tied up behind her head in a short pony tail.  The back seat of the car had a baby seat, and I could see juice cartons and crisp wrappers scattered across the floor.

“Where are you headed?” she asked in a crisp but not unfriendly way.

“Bedford.  Well, Wootton actually.”

“Well, I can’t get you all the way there, but I can get you closer.  Hop in.”

After my daydreaming about the modern attitude to hitchhikers I was a little taken aback.  The woman wasn’t tiny by any means, but it was obvious I could overpower her with no trouble at all.  All this poked my already overactive suspicion and I hesitated.

“You want a lift or not?  C’mon, I don’t bite.”

Her words were jovial but her tone impatient.  I pulled the handle and climbed in.  After all, it was a long walk.

“Thanks very much, I really appreciate it,” I said.  The woman gave a small nod, checked her mirrors and pulled out in the road.  The car accelerated with a wheezing growl, the fan belt slipping and screeching for a second before we got moving.

“I can’t imagine it’s easy nowadays,” said the woman, echoing my thoughts.

“It’s not,” I agreed.  “I’m James,” I lied.  It had been an instinctive pseudonym, back in Cambridge, but it would serve well enough for now.

“Jacinta,” replied the woman.

We drove in silence for a few moments, the countryside flowing past the window.  It was the same place, but at this speed it was no longer possible to appreciate its calm, its gentle tempo.  All of a sudden the events of the past few days pressed themselves upon me, my muscles tightening involuntarily.

“So, what do you do James?” asked Jacinta.

I replied without thinking.

“I’m a neurosurgeon.”

Jacinta glanced over at me, looked me up and down and let out a warm laugh.

“Of course you are, that would have been my second guess, just after rocket scientist.”  Her amusement was pure, without mockery, and I felt myself smiling in response.  It did sound a little far-fetched.  A homeless looking neurosurgeon hitchhiking his way through the Home Counties.  OK, more than a little far-fetched.

“You’re probably a little young for the neurosurgeon angle,” she said, a wry smile on her lips.  “I’d go with something like lion tamer, or spy.  That’ll work just as well in the clubs and bars.”

I smiled in reply.  She was right actually, although it hadn’t occurred to me before.  Looking out of the window I could just catch my reflection in the side mirror.  How old was I?  Mid thirties maybe?  A well preserved forty?  I couldn’t really tell.  But she was right, I did seem young for that job, especially when I was at the top of the game.  Apparently.  Clearly I was a genius and a prodigy.  One that could remember hiking in Spain and where to hit a vehicle to knock it from the road, and not a lot else.  All in all it made my head hurt.

“What do you do?” I asked Jacinta, keen not to think about myself.

“Sales rep, office supplies company.  You need any paperclips?”  I shook my head.

“Yeah, not a lot of call for those in the brain surgery business.  Oh, and I’m mother to a demon child, hence the state of the back seat, which I suspect is the reason you were reluctant to get into this rusted death trap in the first place.”

Despite the words Jacinta’s tone was light and airy, with a undercurrent of confidence.  For a while I tried to work out what it was, and then I realised.  Jacinta knew who she was, in a way that few people do, myself especially.

For a while we talked about her work.  The office supply business was like any other business these days.  Harder than it was before, longer hours, the same if not less pay, higher targets, decreased margins, pressure on jobs, pressure on hours, pressure in general.  The conversation flowed back and forth.  It felt good to talk about something normal, something that felt normal anyway.  She didn’t ask me what I did again, meaning that the lie I’d carefully constructed while she was talking wasn’t needed.

We arrived in Bedford in what felt like no time at all.  The road ran right into the small town and along the old high street.  This would have been where all the best shops and inns would have been, back when the A road was the main artery of the town, pumping commerce and trade through the streets.  Now it looked a little dejected, a number of for lease signs adorning boarded up properties.

Jacinta kindly took me all the way to the bus station, where she said it should be fairly easy to grab a bus the rest of the way.  I said she didn’t have to go out of her way, but she had insisted.  She even gave me a cheery wave as she drove away, off to a light industrial estate to try and sell stationery to a company that made machines that attach the lids to yoghurt pots.

The bus station itself was a sorry affair.  As one of the places that people first get a glimpse of your town – that and the train station – it seemed to be in a remarkable state of disrepair.  The structure was an old concrete shell, a relic from the very worst section of sixties design.  The concrete ceiling overhead was grimy and sooty, pigeons cooing gentle love songs from the eves and nooks above.  Grimy was the watchword for the rest of the large shelter, the shops and cafes opposite the bus bays seeming to hunker there in embarrassment.

The bus I wanted left from bay 12 in fifteen minutes.  Just enough time to grab some fish and chips from a white booth at the back of the station.  The fish was too greasy and the chips undercooked, but it was a hot meal and to me it tasted delicious.  I saw my bus pull into the station and I had just enough time to gulp down the last few chips and drop the paper into a blue plastic bin.

 

The bus dropped me off fifteen minutes later on a country lane.  In response to my request for directions to The Tining the bus driver waved his finger around, describing an ambiguous semicircle in the air that could have indicated almost any direction, and slammed the door in my face.  With a huff I set off down the road, steeling myself for a long walk.

I’d gone no more than two hundred metres when I came across a road sign, peeping out from the hedge that looked as if it was trying to swallow the white and black lettering.  ‘The Tining’ it read.  With a surge of excitement I turned into the narrow lane.  The houses were spaced far apart.  The first was number two, a vast rambling Victorian farm house affair.  Number four, the next house, was more modest, of workmanlike fifties design.  And so ran the numbers, all the way up to number twenty two.  The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I tensed, my hand curling around the handle of the knife.  There was quite a distance to the next house, the hedgerow unbroken except for around what looked like a bonfire site.  Finally I came to the next house, an unremarkable place almost identical to number two.  A window was half open on the upper floor.  I considered breaking in, trying to take Marshall unaware, but discarded the idea straight away.  He had been sacked from Mnemosyne, there was every chance he would cooperate.  If he wouldn’t, well, that was something I could deal with as easily by knocking on the front door as by breaking in through a window.

The front door had a large brass door knocker in the shape of a lion’s head.  I gave the door two hard knocks, the sound seeming too loud for the quiet country lane.  Somewhere in the house a piece of furniture scraped across the floor, and heavy footsteps made their way down the corridor.  The door swung open to reveal a huge bald man, his eyes bleary as if woken from a deep sleep.  He was barefoot and dressed in shorts and a white vest, the warmth of central heating wafted out through the door and over my cold face.  He rubbed his eyes and looked me up and down.

“Are you Mr Marshall?” I asked, taking in the size of the man and regretting my decision to come here.  His forearms were as big as my legs.

The man grunted and shook his head.

“Never ‘eard of him.”

I sighed.  It could so easily be a lie.

“This is number twenty four The Tining, isn’t it?”

The man shook his head, his big hand rubbing his bald head.

“Nah mate, this is number twenty six.”

If this was true it was a relief, I didn’t fancy trying to get information from this man.

“Oh, sorry, I must have passed it by accident,” I said, thinking through what to do next.  Was this man lying?

“It’s no wonder mate.  There’s not much to look at.  Marshall you say?  Well, I never met the bloke that lived there, but number twenty two is right there, what’s left of it.”  He pulled his hand from the waist band of his shorts and jabbed a thumb to the left, towards what I had thought was a bonfire site.

“Must have been three month ago now.  Place went up like it was Guy Fawkes.  We were bloody lucky it didn’t spread, although old man Jakes had to put a claim in for damage to his garage roof.”

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