Each heart has its graveyard, each household its dead,
And knells ring round us wherever we tread.
Mary T. Lathrap ‘Unfinished Lines.’
Tuedsay 24th December 1946 6.45 p.m.
Christmas Eve in Nantybai, Carmarthenshire, where the small knot of villagers who’d gathered to chat outside St Barnabas’s church doors, hurry in to escape the fresh snowfall blowing westward from the Cambrian hills. The candlelight from within casts each crisp white crust on the tilting gravestones in an eerie light, and soon the organ begins its melancholy introduction - a tune that makes the young woman shiver even beneath her heavy winter clothes. For she knows all too well whose clever fingers play the keys, whose feet pump the pedals, yet she must be patient and wait for her lover to finish the last carol so they can escape together for a better life. A true and godly family life.
As she creeps from her shelter under the three Scots pines, and into the teeth of the weather, she knows in her heart she’ll never again set eyes on this welcoming vestry or hear those same voices beyond it now raised in celebration of the Saviour’s birth.
The snow lies deeper, less slippery by the track’s side, and it’s here she chooses to place her booted steps until she reaches the lead miners’ cottages cwtched against the land behind. Her childhood haunt, with its nervous sheep, its stream hurtling towards the headwaters of the River Towy.
Mrs Jones, the church cleaner is at home, she can tell. But no one else. For one brief moment, she’s tempted to knock on her door and confess the daring plan to leave. But no. This miserable, now childless widow has too much of a gossip’s tongue. And a gossip’s tongue spells danger.
But danger’s already here with the snap of a twig. Hot breath on her neck. All at once, without warning, two freezing, gloved hands are gripping her throat.
“You first, cariad, which, given your situation, is only fair… ”
Her situation is not her fault.
She recognises the big man’s voice, his unique smell, before a pungent whiff of gas makes her catch her breath, draw in too much of it as a cloth is pressed over her face. Now her head’s spinning; her sturdy boots give way on the sliding ice, but she must fight back. Not just for herself, for that new life kicking vigorously beneath her coat. “The Lord Jesus help me,” she begs. “I adored you. Was trying to protect you, can’t you see?”
But her words slide away like rain off the hillsides, and no-one is listening.
Tuesday 31st March 2009 3.30 p.m.
Jason Robbins paused outside the doctors’ surgery in Hounslow’s Pinetree Road just long enough for a passing bus to spray his clean clothes with oily filth from the gutter. That was it. Time to move. He pushed the intercom button and, having given his name and appointment time to whoever’s crackly voice had answered, was admitted into an empty, ochre-coloured waiting room where the smells of those who’d come and gone still hung in the stale air. Another pause, as he surveyed the dimpled, vinyl chairs, posters showing how condoms prevent Aids and Chlamydia. How breastfeeding is best, and the sun, like booze and fags, an enemy to fear.
He chose the seat nearest a chipped coffee table, upon which lay a crumpled copy of The Lady. For want of something to do besides dwelling on his recent redundancy from Woolworth’s and his twat of a brother wanting him out of his flat by Friday, he picked it up and flicked through page after page of perfect recipes for this and that; perfect homes, jobs for nannies and a short story about a missing cat.
He was about to return the magazine to the table when something on page 15 caught his eye.
WANT TO WRITE A BESTSELLER?
Spend Easter at Heron House in Carmarthenshire’s beautiful Upper Towy Valley, and be inspired by top fiction writer Monty Flynn. All modern comforts. Cordon bleu cooking and internet access.Young writers particularly welcome. Reasonable rates. Regret no wheelchair access.
There was a phone number but no website. He checked around the walls for CCTV surveillance, and seeing none, tore out the page and stuffed it in his jeans’ back pocket. He’d never heard of Monty Flynn, nor ever been to Wales. And as for a computer, forget it. However, something had lit up in his head. A quivering little flame, but a flame nevertheless, so that when the tannoy over the door announced that Dr. Chatterji would see him now, he barely heard it.
“Citalopram, once a day, Mr Robbins. That’ll help pick you up. And I’ll see you again this time next month in case you experience any unpleasant side effects.”
“What side effects?”
An impatient sigh followed as the perfectly groomed Indian snatched the prescription from his printer, obviously keen to be off home. “Look, just try and take yourself away somewhere pleasant. Consider a new challenge. Make new contacts… ” The rest of his advice was lost in the grind of rush-hour traffic just beyond his window, and Jason, still unhappy at the lack of a reply, hadn’t felt it right to mention grieving.
He collected his pills at a nearby pharmacy and popped one in his mouth, letting its strange taste spread over his tongue as punishment for having let his life end up this way. For not having been there to save his best mate from being blown to bits by a roadside bomb in Basra. Yet as he stepped into the cool dark of the Gay Pheasant pub on his way back to his brother’s flat, he could almost hear Archie egging him on. Not to waste what life he had left.
“Half a shandy,” he said to the barman who looked like an younger version of his dead Dad. The Doc had wagged a brown finger, saying no booze, but half a bloody shandy wasn’t exactly booze, was it? “And a packet of pork scratchings.”
While the noisy world passed by, Jason studied the torn-out notice once again, and the longer he looked, an idea for a book bloomed into his mind. Gangland, that was it. London gangland. His brother, a financial adviser, had stories to tell about money launderers, fraudsters, the crap police who left the big fish untouched. Who’d even been known to join their ranks. He could sense the main characters already nudging their way into his consciousness, almost demanding he tell their story. But hey, get real, he told himself, finishing his drink and ordering another, what had his English teacher at the local grammar school said at the time?
Come on, remember...
“Too much imagination, Jason, and not enough skill. Writing’s a craft you can’t simply wave away as if it doesn’t matter.”
So, skill-less, with ambition crushed out of him by a man who’d probably only put words together for school reports, he’d holed up at the Job Centre for whatever paid work there was. Filling pies with slurry he wouldn’t give to a dog, planting bulbs for the Council, until a sick leave cover at Woolworth’s came up.
Yep, the turning point. But no good dwelling on it now. He’d soon have enough redundancy pay to bribe his brother for ideas and to let him stay on at least until the 8th April. The day before the writing course was due to start.
“You look chipper,” remarked the barman. “Got some skirt lined up for tonight, eh?”
But that wasn’t quite true. For his new project, he’d need space, a clear head.
“Yeah.” He watched the shandy’s foam slide back down inside his empty glass. He felt oddly light-headed. “Time I shifted my butt.”
The library was still open and, under the gaze of the middle-aged woman at the desk, whose breasts almost reached her waist, Jason filled in the registration form.
“What kind of books do you like reading?” she asked. “Romance? Self-help?”
“Crime. Thrillers. The more gory the better.”
She handed him a small, laminated card covered by a bar code and pointed to a set of shelves next to where a line of nerds were bent over their computers. Here, the air smelt worse than in the doctors, a mix of fart and feet, and for a moment he hesitated until the name Monty Flynn came to mind.
He scoured the various spines whose authors’ surnames ranged from D to H in perfect alphabetical order - but no Flynn seemed to be there. Perhaps he was so popular his books were all out on loan. Perhaps they’d been put back in a hurry and lay elsewhere, but just as he was about to give up, a black and grey book spine caught his attention.
Evil Eyes by Max Byers.
Having withdrawn the plastic-covered novel from the crowded shelf, he examined the hype on the back; the photograph of a spreading blob of blood on the front. And as for the author photo, half in shadow...
I like it.
A glance at the fly paper’s busy withdrawal sheet, was encouraging while a skim of the first page made him realise why. It wasn’t until the librarian called out that the library was due to close in five minutes, that he finally plonked the book down in front of her. “Do you have anything by a Monty Flynn?” he gave her his best smile. “I’ve been looking, but so far, no joy.”
She tutted as she stamped the return date for Evil Eyes in two weeks’ time.
“Please,” he urged. “It’s important.”
She tapped out his request on her keypad, then shook her tightly permed head. “Not that I can see. But then this machine only goes back four years. We’ve been promised an upgrade when this recession’s over but I‘ll believe it when I see it.”
“He may write under a different name,” Jason suggested. That seemed the most likely explanation.
“Many authors do. Especially women trying to appeal to male readers.”
Jason knew that even hot-off-the-press books weren’t in bookshops for long. That trying to get hold of Sheridan le Fanu when he’d been a horror fan, had been a pain in the arse. So the fact that this ‘top fiction author’ wasn’t in Hounslow Library, was probably no big deal.
Outside the building’s cloying warmth, he paused to read some more of Evil Eyes aware of his pulse on the run as a Russian thug called Gregor tipped his adversary over the side of a houseboat moored on the Thames at Deptford. Great stuff. On his way back to the shared flat in Gardiner Street, Jason stopped to savour more of the tight dialogue, the cool descriptions of the waterfront, and felt as if the main character - the unnamed narrator - was real enough to be walking alongside him.
He still had his own key, although only last night Colin had threatened to take it away. An over-the-top reaction to a carton of chicken tikka left on the new granite worktop and an empty loo roll in the cloakroom. At least the silver Merc wasn’t yet parked nearby. Something to be grateful for.
Jason brewed up and popped another pill. He liked the buzz, the what-the-heck attitude he was feeling. And if his older bro was to turn up with more crap for him to listen to, he’d tell him where to stuff his flat. Italian-style wet room or not.
He took his mug of tea to the hall phone. That way he could see any arrivals through the patterned glass panel in the front door. He smoothed out the magazine cutting and, with Gregor’s icy words haunting his brain, dialled Heron House’s number. It seemed to ring for ever.
He was about to replace the receiver when a woman’s voice answered. Her Welsh accent so strong he could barely understand her.
“Jason Robbins here,” he began. “I’m calling from London about the Write a Bestseller course... ”
“I never heard of no course. You got the right number?”
“Yes. It’s in the latest issue of The Lady. Underneath the advert.”
An ominous pause followed.
“You’re not gay are you? We couldn’t be doing with that round here.”
Jason held the receiver away from his ear, tempted again to replace it. What had his old school motto been? Persevere. Archie would say the same.
“To whom am I speaking?”
“Mrs Davies. I clean up after everyone. Don’t live here, mind.”
That sounded like a boast.
“Who’s your boss? Who’s running this course?”
“Like I said, I don’t know about no course, but Mr Flynn owns Heron House. Bought it last year. An Irishman if you please.” She tutted. “Leave me your number and I’ll get him to call you back. He’s down the Fox and Feathers at the moment.”
Afterwards, feeling slightly unsettled, Jason drained his mug in one go, gathered up the cutting and took the white-carpeted stairs two at a time up to his box room overlooking the street. He sat in front of what had once been their mother’s dressing table, and re-opened Evil Eyes at page 10.
So engrossed was he in the drowning man’s efforts to save himself, that he didn’t hear the silver saloon draw up outside, nor see the couple eating each other’s faces while snaking their way up the steps towards the front door.
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