Why Was I Born?
Three men sit in silence. No conversation. The Lexus hums quietly. The only other audible sound is the rumble of rubber on tarmac. Ken McCoist, driving, manoeuvres the car to avoid potholes and sunken drain covers. White lining. Jock Cascarino sits in the back.
They pass a mock Gothic bus stop at Fairy Cross, heading out towards Hartland peninsular. Jock stares straight ahead, letting the soft digital glow from the dashboard wash through his thoughts. There's nothing worth looking at through the side windows. The North Devon Expressway is, for the most part, unlit. Trees line the road. The ghostly shapes of cream rendered houses flash by. Devon is a rural county, spread wide and thin. Jock hates the great outdoors.
The car speeds along the winding road, dipping down into a hard right at The Hoops Inn and on through Bucks Cross, ignoring the speed limit, lurching slightly on a tight left-hand bend. On the right, lit up and festooned in banners, Bideford Bay Holiday Park announces yet another sale of chalets and static caravans. Jock's meditation is broken.
"Have you phoned ahead?" he asks.
"Aye, he's ready", replies Davie from the front passenger seat.
"Good. Did you make the deliveries like he asked?"
"Oh, aye, picked up three on Friday night. They should be tucked up safely by now".
Jock moves to the centre of the rear bench seat, sitting forward so that he can look through the windscreen. The car takes a series of sharp curves. Ahead the lights of Clovelly Cross stand out in the darkness. A couple of miles to go.
"The good doctor seems to be settling in," he says, and chuckles. The brothers McCoist chuckle too.
Jock considers the workings of providence and finds that all is well with the world. The good Lord is in his heaven and the good doctor is on the farm. A perfect combination. Jock runs through the story again, scarcely able to believe his luck.
The good doctor is a refugee, but not of the political kind. True, thinks Jock, he'd qualify. There’s every likelihood he’d be tortured and killed by his own government, but then again he's as likely to be tortured and killed by his old friends. And now he's mine, and, for the moment, I choose life.
Arbnor Jasari is on the run. Arbnor Jasari is valuable. Arbnor Jasari is known locally as the good Doctor Albania.
Ken McCoist sends the Lexus barrelling down a narrow lane, spraying loose chippings into the hedgerows. This spindle thin thoroughfare is the main route into the ancient market town of Hartland, now nothing more than a large village. Lundy can usually be seen from this road during the day if the mists and the rain keep away, but it's pitch black now.
Full beam on the headlights announces their arrival even though there's still half a mile to go. The farm sits on a gentle down slope that has been scoured by Atlantic squalls for centuries. The trees are twisted, pushing their branches out towards the south-west in the direction of the prevailing wind. The rain, when it falls, which it does more often than not, is almost horizontal.
The farm. The old Sillick place. Built in the late nineteenth century by a fanatical gentleman farmer as a model of classical Victorian modernity, adorned with brick arches and eagle topped buttresses, the farm is a wreck. Jock bought the place six years ago, one of his first ventures in the property market, but the sheer cost and scale of the renovation work means it will stay derelict. It keeps the tourists away. Jock has other plans for the place now, anyway.
The site consists of a large, seven bed farmhouse, part of which has been made habitable again, and a range of huge, stone built barns, each one of which has walls three feet thick. The Sillicks raised pigs and the remains of sties decay in the winter gales. Abandoned machinery, seized solid with rust, litters the courtyard around which the barns are arranged. The house is in darkness. Doctor Jasari prefers to sleep where he works.
"I hate this place", says Jock as the car bumps down an unmade track, passes the old farm house and pulls into the courtyard. "Fucking albatross. A licence to burn money. Did I tell you about the Sillicks. Mad as hatters. The old man lost an arm in a combine. Could still knock seven shades of shit out of his boys and the wife, though. She, so they say, ran off with another woman. Can’t say I blame her. When the old man died the brothers took to drink. I bought the place for a hundred and forty grand, lock stock and barrel. Reminds me of Glasgow after the ships went to Korea. Fucked."
The walls, which should be rendered, show salt leeched brickwork in huge, naked patches. Window frames rot. Doors hang loose. To the left of the car is the old dairy, a two storey stone megalith just like the barns. At first glance it too looks like a shell, like a skeletal memory, but the car headlights reveal solid metal doors and steel shutters on the windows. From the upper floor a thin sliver of electric light can be seen where one of the shutters has warped slightly. Doctor Albania is at home.
Ken McCoist gets out of the car and opens the rear door for his employer. Davie stays put like he always does, on duty, watching. Simple Davie. All grunt and gristle.
Doors slam. Footsteps echo off barn walls. To reach the upper level of the dairy Jock and Ken go down a narrow passage at one end of the building. As they enter the passageway a motion sensor triggers a mesh encased light. The passageway leads to a staircase. Ken takes point, climbing two steps at a time and knocks on the door at the top, while Jock waits at the foot of the stairwell.
There is a closed circuit television camera mounted on the wall above the door. A few seconds pass. The door is unlocked from within and bright fluorescent light floods the staircase. As Jock follows Ken up the stairs he hears a low groan emanating from the lower level of the building, once the Victorian milking parlour. To the right at the foot of the stairs a wooden stable door is padlocked. Jock raises an eyebrow, pauses for a couple of seconds on the stairs and then hurries on up towards the light. He enters a room that, apart from a small kitchenette and bathroom at the far end, the fruits of an early attempt at holiday conversion, runs the full length of the upper storey. He lets out a surprised whistle.
"You've made yourself at home, then", he says walking up to a thin, dark skinned man with long but receding hair. He extends his hand. The thin man looks at it for a second, shrugs and turns away.
"Yes. It’s okay."
Doctor Jasari retreats to the back of the room and sits at a desk. A computer screen is on. Jock has no idea what the graphs and the figures mean, only vaguely recognising the shape and structure of Microsoft Excel from Maggie’s domestic accounting. Next to the keyboard and mouse is an empty glass tumbler.
Jock walks around the room, which has tables arranged around the outside walls, with two more set end to end in the centre. Laid out on the tables are a range of scientific devices, glass jars, tubes, a centrifuge, a hundred and one pieces of equipment, none of which Jock understands. He has no need to. The whole thing is accounted for as capital expenditure in books that are wrapped up as tight as a drum, expenditure written off against tax bills, an investment, research and development, a pension scheme top up. On the tables in the centre of the room are sachets of the only thing that Jock has any real interest in.
"Is this it?" he asks, staring at the sachets. Jock feels like a kid in a sweetshop, a deadly serious confectionary emporium designed for one purpose; child catching. His eyes narrow. He calculates.
"Yes, it’s ready. Sorry it’s taken a bit longer than I said, but, you know, I only have the basics here. Takes time to get it right. A few mistakes, but we’re ready now".
The doctor waves a hand towards the far wall, against which there are two metal cages, built from floor to ceiling like old fashioned Deadwood gaols. These chic additions to the accommodation have served Jock well in the past. He likes to know that he can put people on ice if he has to. Each cell contains a camp bed. One of the cell doors is open and the bed unmade. This is where the doctor sleeps. The second cell is occupied by a young girl. She lays on her back, one arm crooked behind her head, oblivious to their presence.
"Twenty-four hours, no side effects, just endless bliss", says the doctor, admiring his handiwork.
Ken McCoist wanders over and rests his forearms on the cell bars. He looks at the girl. Seventeen, maybe older, puncture marks on her arms, unkempt, dirty clothes, an MP3 player hooked up, smiling, gone.
"Pretty", he whispers, and wonders just how blissful she really is.
The milking parlour. The naming of it fills Jock's head with images of rosy cheeked girls resting their heads against warm cow hide, but the bucolic charm of the image is warped by the groan that he heard when he started to climb the stairs to the laboratory. Jock knows not to ask. Business is business. You can't give people steak to eat on a Saturday night without fattening the steers.
As Jock, the doctor and Ken McCoist discuss business on the upper floor, creatures shift in the darkness beneath the makeshift laboratory. The building's upper floor has been made habitable, but by no means luxurious. Decades of dust are being sieved gently through the floorboards as Jock and the boys move around upstairs. The sound of boot heels on timber echoes through the lower level, dragging the livestock from sleep, or whatever approximation of it they might have found. Without light, locked away, immune to the seasonal shades of day and night, these creatures lose track of themselves, reverting to a simple, feral consciousness.
One of them struggles forward on hands and knees, an arm outstretched, warding off cobwebs, using a thin sliver of light from the padlocked stable door as a guide. The sudden appearance of light fires neurones, causing primeval instincts to urge the creature on. As though emerging from evolutionary autism, the creature recognises a subtle shift in the nature of the world and tries to respond. It has no words. It groans again, crawling on its belly now, its head on the floor, pressing its cheek into the dirt. Through the gap under the stable door it sees a concrete floor and the bottom layer of a bare brick wall. The creature coughs, spits and tries to make shapes out of random thoughts.
Movement. Voices in the heavens. A second creature stirs, waking, scanning the world, unseeing, apparently looking straight ahead but really trying to view the room from the corner of its eye. It too sees light by the door. Orientation. It sees a break in the light, torso shaped. Dust falls. It moves, unwrapping itself, uncurling, stretching. Unlike the first of its kind, evolution has taken a step forward. The creature stands and limps towards the door, slowly, carefully, crouching.
A foot drags. A stone turns. The creature by the door spins round, arms up and covering its head, knees drawn in, foetal. It cries. Tears run like flash flood streams through the dirt on its cheeks.
The walking creature reaches the door, feels in the dark for the source of the mewling, finds a head and cradles it. Slender fingers become tangled in matted hair. Stroking. They are both crying. Evolution takes another step forward.
"What the fuck have they done to you?" says the second creature. Light and soft. Female.
She is the last of the tribe, the last of the three souls delivered on Friday night, two females and a male. One lies in bliss in the room above the milking parlour. The male lies in the dirt in the middle of some demented local death and she, the last innocent on earth, the boy’s comforter, has no idea what’s happened to him, except that he was the first to walk up the stairs. When he was brought back he was as high as a kite. Since coming down he's been insensible, a mute child.
The girl upstairs is a junkie. It only took a couple of hours for her to start crawling up the walls. She’d probably been looking for a hit for a while. When the thin man with the strange accent told her she'd get a fix if she went upstairs, the girl didn't hesitate, but then they all have some things in common, she guesses; homeless, hopeless, dossing, drunk, high and stupid.
The boy convulses, coughing again, a deep, rasping belly bark. The girl feels something warm on her arm, and assumes it's spittle. She rubs her hand over the sputum and raises it to her nostrils. She's sober now. Stone cold sober and, like all livestock, petrified by the smell of fresh blood.
"Oh, my God, oh my God", she sobs, chilling, feeling her skin turn to goose bumps. The volume rises as her heart rate leaps. A step change. Exponential. She's screaming at the top of her voice.
She doesn't hear the sound of heavy footsteps. Her world is one of riot and panic, of the vast sound in her head. Outside in the passageway Ken and Davie McCoist arrive by the door at the same time. Davie hits a light switch on the wall. Inside the room two builder's floodlights, fixed to the joists, glow and then burst above the girl’s head. She is blinded, her eyes scorched, full of needles. She buries her head in the boy's neck. Behind her, the padlock is ripped from the lock and the door flies open.
She is vaguely aware of hands dragging her up, holding her under the armpits. As she rises she feels the boy's head roll down her stomach and onto her thighs. There is a dull thud. Ken McCoist hauls her out of the room. Her feet scrabble in the dirt. Hard, cold images of solidity crash through her tears, images in strobe light; the doorway, stairs, denim, brickwork. She chokes. The air has left her lungs. She deflates. Her left knee cracks against concrete. Unseen by either the girl or Ken, Davie is nearly retching as he kills the lights and locks the door. She and the vomiting man share a physical connection. Their eyes are full of water, full of tears.
As she is dragged up the stairs and across the makeshift laboratory she gets a vague impression of something fantastic, a Frankenstein world, half remembered from childhood. She sees the outline of two men walking towards her, one short and thick set, the other tall and thin. She wants to scream, but the muscles in her throat have constricted around her vocal chords. She hears muffled words. She feels the pin prick of a needle.
Now she wants to laugh. The room fades out of her conscious thoughts and she is lowered onto the spare camp bed. The last thing she thinks is that it's snowing blue-black raven feathers.
Davie stands watch in the courtyard. He is tired. It's late. Not cold enough for breath to steam, but there is a chill in his bones. He can't be sure whether it's the hour or the slaughterhouse air. Time and place. The wrong time and place. He wants to stand in the light, in the passageway, but it's too close to the stable door. Don't ask questions. Do your job and don't ask questions, he thinks, trying to blank out the image in his head of the girl’s terrified face.
Upstairs three men stand by a camp bed, breathing rapidly. Jock Cascarino's forehead glistens with a thin coating of sweat. He is agitated.
"For Christ's sake. Do they always scream like that?" he hisses, staring at the doctor. The doctor shrugs. Jock continues, using the sound of his own voice to reassure himself that he is in control. "No way, no way am I risking all this so some fucked up bitch can ruin it all. And how come you don't seem to give a toss?"
"No one hears. It’s too late, the walls are very thick, and no, they don't usually scream. Usually they’re just happy zapped". The doctor points at his temple and makes a circular motion.
"What did you give her?"
"Just a little sedative, for emergencies. Very effective. Short lived. She’ll come round in ten minutes. Ketamine and Midazolam. Don't worry if she sees pink elephants when she wakes up. A side effect, back to normal quickly." Doctor Jasari leaves Jock and Ken standing beside the bed and goes back to his desk.
Jock turns and follows the doctor. Ken takes up his usual pose, arms folded, standing by the door to the stairs. Jock picks up one of the sachets. "So, tell me about the mistakes. What, exactly, are we dealing with here?" he asks.
The doctor sighs, pushes his chair away from the desk and stretches out his legs. "Okay", he says, waving his left arm in the general direction of the tables. "You give me basic stuff, yes? I asked for more, but I understand this is quiet place, this is difficult. I make do. I ask for people, pigs, I think?"
"Aye, guinea pigs".
"These things, yes, and you're men bring me so far nine. So, I have equipment, I have medicine and vet drugs, basic chemicals and I mix. I make potions like at home. But it’s difficult, getting the right balance, you know? Too much and the kids overdose. Too little and they get a bad headache and demand their money back. It has to be right. So far you’ve got six bodies out back, one zombie downstairs and one good girl over there. We’ll try the new one on same mix. If it works we’re ready to go."
Jock watches the doctor carefully. He tries not to show any emotion at the mention of dead bodies. Collateral damage is to be expected, but he needs to balance the books. "Ready? We'll get to that in a moment. First, Doctor, some details. About these bodies out the back?"
"Yes. Okay. In the pit, you know, when you bought this place and dug a big whole in the yard for the toilet shit. They’re in there, with plenty of quick lime, soaking away." The doctor puts his hands together in front of his nose as if praying. He glances up at Jock to watch the man's reaction. This is a stepping stone, a way to make some money so he can disappear. The deal is simple. Jock gets his own local source of super-heated Ecstasy, they all put some cash in their pockets and once the lab is established, the good doctor heads into the sunset.
Except the sachets contain a powdered form of something called Kitty Flip, Ketamine and MDMA mixed with a little additive of the good doctor's own making. He's done it before. He has a reputation. He likes his work. So much so that he spent a brief spell in prison number Three Hundred and Two in Tirana, from where he was bought for his expertise by a local hood. Shortly after that clubs and raves the length of the Adriatic rocked the dawn away, fuelled by Doctor Jasari's euphoric cure-all. The problem here is that he's having to guess. The Ketamine is good and his own additions are fairly straightforward, but the quality of locally supplied E is patchy. Get it right and the kids fly. Get it wrong and they fry.
"Why? I need to know why I'm dealing with the bones out back", demands Jock.
"Are you a chemist?" It's rhetorical. Doctor Jasari sighs and continues. He feels like a primary school teacher. "No. Look, at home I had a proper lab, proper equipment, made good pills. Here it’s not so good. I understand. But this stuff is difficult. I know the rough ingredients and quantities, but the stuff messes with the head. Serotonin and Dopamine. You’ve heard stories of kids getting bad reactions. It’s the same thing. Unfortunate but necessary. I’ve had to experiment and there have been a few accidents, a few reactions, hyperpyrexia, in bad cases hyponatremia, retention of water, brain swellings."
Blank looks. Poker-faced. The deck is stacked in the house’s favour and the doctor wins. A straight flush.
"But now I have the right mix. I make notes on the computer." The doctor glances at Ken. "Once we get the right feedback from the clubs, we can make enough, and I can train your boys. A monkey can do it. I'm sorry, but shit happens. It’s a small price. No one loves these kids, anyway. They die happy this way".
Ken grimaces. He understands the reference. He thinks about the gonzo boy downstairs and marks it down for future pay back. Jock swallows his pride. He can't argue. The whole thing has been done on a wing and a prayer. One last fling. One more deal. He needs reassurance. Kids, drugs and death. Shit happens, but this is getting too close to home. He turns to Ken. "You're sure these kids won't be missed?"
Ken unfolds his arms and takes a step forward. He feels awkward. Thrusting his fists into his trouser pockets, he says, "As I can be. We followed instructions. Shop doorways, that sort of thing, made sure they were all junkies or winos. And they came along without too much persuasion. The van works a treat."
The van is a Ford Transit crew bus painted up in the multicoloured rag of Jehovah's Brigade, an evangelical missionary group working the South West, saving the fallen. Jock has even made sure the registration number is the same as the one on the real van used by the local branch. The kids board the happy-clappy bus to be taken for a meal, a drink and free methadone. Ken McCoist takes them for the ride of their lives.
Jock turns back to the doctor. "And you, you're happy with the results?"
Doctor Jasari sinks down into his chair, letting his head fall back, closing his eyes. "Now, yes. The equipment is good enough, we have good base drugs, so we have no problem. All we need now is professional distribution."
The Doctor raises an eyebrow as he finishes his last comment. Mocking. It’s enough. Jock hates being made to look a fool. He moves with surprising speed and lashes out, kicking the seat of the chair. The doctor jerks forward, eyes open, glaring.
"And I don't like fucking foreigners, pal", Jock roars, "but we can't always have what we want. Cut the whinging. Are we ready?"
Doctor Jasari holds Jock's dog eye for a couple of seconds. He looks down. Now is not the time to upset his host. There will be plenty of time for that later. He stands, picks up one of the sachets from the table next to the desk and walks over to the cells. Jock follows. Ken walks over, curious. Body language. The doctor checks the new girl, sees that she's beginning to stir and licks his index finger. He puts it into the sachet, picks up a small amount of the yellow powder on his fingertip and dabs it on the girls tongue.
"This will make her very happy", he says, "easier to deal with." He turns to Jock and smiles. "I’ll explain.” Pointing to the blissed out girl in the other cell, he continues, “She is deep, won't come out of the hole for a long time. I’ve kept her blissed all day, all night, to see how she reacts. She’s fine. I’ll let her have a few more hours, then give her some red powder. Like the boy downstairs. They’ll go down the rabbit hole to join their friends." He shrugs.
"Now the new girl is waking up, I’ll show you how it works. It’s good stuff. If the kids take it in the clubs like the girl did just now, or perhaps a little more, the effect lasts maybe two hours, and the come down is gentle, no hangover, no depression. Very nice stuff. One sachet, five good hits, maybe more, you get a whole night. Like E, they should drink only water, but not too much. Very important."
They're back on track. Jock asks the next obvious question. "What does it do?"
"Like I say, same as E, you know, euphoria, energy, big senses, plus a little bit extra. Pretty pictures in your head. Music, even sex, this stuff makes it so much better."
The new girl tries to sit up. Her mouth is dry. She feels as though she is wrapped in cotton wool. The doctor squeezes past Jock and Ken so that he can sit on the camp bed next to her. He whispers something. She shakes her head. He whispers to her again. She looks haunted. Her eyes are still glassy, but Ken fancies he can see someone very small and very frightened looking out at him, which is just the way he likes to deal with the big wide world. The doctor places her hand in his own, extends her index finger and raises it to his lips. He licks her finger, dabs it into the sachet and raises it to her mouth. She has no power to resist. The doctor repeats the action a second time and then, as the first rush starts to hit home, lets her make herself comfortable. The full effects take hold quickly.
From beneath the camp bed the doctor fetches a Sony Walkman, hits the play button and hands it to the girl. She looks at him through dreamy, floating eyes. He gestures to her to put the earphones in her ears. The metallic hiss and thump of a trance bass line fades. Her foot starts to move in time to the phantom hook. She closes her eyes. Doctor Jasari stands and ushers his partners out of the cell.
"Here there’s not too much stimulation so she's relaxed, happy. In a club, lights and sounds, people, so much input, she'll be in heaven.” He looks back at her over his shoulder. She is attractive in a basic, unscrubbed way. “Shame. No more clubs for her".
The rest of the conversation is brief and to the point. Jock wants one hundred sachets. If all goes well, they will run a little marketing campaign over the following weekend. It's Easter. The summer season builds up from here. All those kids, all that seaside rock, all those ten pound notes.
Jock and Ken pocket a few of the sachets and leave, shutting the door to the laboratory behind them. As they pass the padlocked stable door neither one of them will look at it. Davie has the car doors open for them as they leave the building. Car doors slam, marking their exit just as they announced their arrival.
Upstairs Doctor Jasari looks at his lab rats. He makes a choice. The new girl. He goes over to her cell, sits on the bed and gently, very gently, starts to stroke her thigh.
Jock and the brothers McCoist retrace their outward journey. As ever, the homeward trip seems to take less time. Jock sits forward on the rear bench, his arms running along the backs of the two front seats. He is strung out. As the digital clock on the dashboard counts down toward five o’clock in the morning the sky begins to lighten. They are all fighting to stay awake.
The coming of daylight, which Jock thinks should refresh them, seems to weigh them down. He won’t let his boys see how frayed he is. One last move. He’s planned for this. He has three farm complexes under renovation and a number of other properties coming up for sale. It’s the right time of year. Finish the work and sell. By Autumn he wants shot of the lot, shot of the cash flow problems, shot of the whole bloody place. He’s under pressure. He feels his age. One more deal and he can quit. Cash in the bank and Spanish horizons every morning. Things to tie up. Loose ends. The toss of a coin.
“Davie, I want you out at the farm first thing Monday morning. Check the grounds, make sure our mutual friend hasn’t left any shit lying around. Make sure the bodies are disposed of properly. I don’t want fucking rats dragging fingers off into some gobshite farmer’s barn.”
“Aye, boss”. Davie yawns. He’s only just getting the feeling back in his toes. The car’s heater makes him feel heavy, as if he’s sinking. He’s ready to submerge. Drowning holds no fear, especially now that he has realised what the Boss wants him to do. He shudders at the thought of visiting the farm again.
Jock turns towards Ken, who seems less inclined to throw the car around now. “Ken, we need to call Shaun in next week, Wednesday probably. We’ll need to give him a taster, work out where to shift the gear, how best to run our wee test. Tell him I’ll see him at the club, early doors. Price it down to start with, same as a couple of E’s, ramp it up later when it gets a bit of a reputation.”
Ken nods, concentrating on the road. They’re hitting the main trunk road now on the outskirts of Bideford. He and Davie will drop Jock off at the house in Westleigh before heading back to Snuggle’s and the flat above the club that they share. Added protection.
“All we need now is a name”, Jock continues, “something to create brand loyalty, if you get my drift.”
Davie has dipped beneath the plane of creative thought. Twilight. Ken spots his younger brother drifting away and shakes his head. The boy has no stamina, but there’s nothing new in that. He makes a left, heading down towards Instow. “Won’t the stuff do that?” he asks.
“No idea. Never thought to ask. Good point, though. But we still need a name, something for the kids. What did the doc say? Kitty Litter?”
Ken smiles, checking the rear view, full of his employer’s ugly mug. “I think he called it Kitty Flip. But it’s not. Similar, but better. No, what about what he said, about the girl, you know, blissful?”
“Fuck off. That’s the seven dwarves. Sneezy, Snorty, Dopey.” Jock is silent for a moment, thinking, cogs whirring. “Mind, it’s not that bad an idea. What about Bliss? Am I right or am I fucking right? Bliss. That’s it.”
“Aye”, in stereo.
The car slows as it enters the narrow village lanes of Westleigh, passing the Exeter Arms and on, up the hill to Jock and Maggie’s house. Sitting behind the wheel, Ken feels crowded in by the jumble of painted terraced cottages. He finds the chocolate box congestion of renovated Devon villages claustrophobic.
Once they are through the village, Jock makes Ken stop at the kerbside so that he can walk up the drive and not wake Maggie. He knows she’ll be asleep. Nothing disturbs her once she’s off. He believes sincerely, though, that small kindnesses like this are what make the difference. He’ll sleep on the sofa just to make sure that nothing disturbs her sleep. Business is one thing, but you don’t have to live like that all of the time.
Lille is nothing more than a vague memory of sidings and dirty buildings running along the edge of a railway track. The Pas de Calais is being rolled up by the minute as Alex Berisa yawns and reaches out for a cup of coffee. He is being lulled into a sleepy haze of half remembered truths and personal, unreliable interpretations. The Eurostar seats are large and comfortable. The gentle hum and click of high speed rail travel seems incongruous. He drains the last of a double shot Americano, shuddering slightly as the bitter grounds in the bottom of the cup strain onto his tongue. He needs to sleep, if only for an hour or two.
Alex closes his eyes and tries to let the lullaby smother him. Just as the orange glow beyond his closed eyelids starts to fade to black he hears a familiar ring tone. He fumbles in his jacket pocket and pulls the phone out, back to front, and struggles to find the green connect button. Contact. Caller identification. Xhev. Alex clears his throat before speaking softly.
"Xhev, how are you? Where are you?"
The voice in Alex's ear is thin and digital but unmistakably that of his brother.
"I'm good, Alex, good. In London, staying with Pjeter. Got in late last night."
"That's good. How is the old man?" Alex can feel the warmth of his brother's grin across the digital divide.
"Never changes. He's still a randy old goat, but always a gentleman. He's been very helpful so far."
"Okay, what have you got for me?"
"Pretty much as we agreed. There'll be a driver waiting for you at St. Pancras. He'll bring you down to Pjeter's place. I've got a car ready and some equipment. Glocks, silencers, the works, just as you ordered. And I've got some information."
The doctor. Pray to God, Alex thinks, pray to God that Xhev has found him.
Xhev hesitates, reading hastily scrawled notes from Bideford's shipping information web site. "Val…Valentin docked nine days ago. She's moved on to Finland, now, but our guess is that our man put ashore. Can’t see much scope for him way up there in Finland. It’s nice and quiet down there in Devon, just the place to lay low for a while. Pjeter has put the word out here in London, but there's nothing to report up here. My guess is he's still down there. He's got no papers, so he'll struggle to turn the dollars he stole from us into sterling, at least legitimately, so I don't know. He can't have gone too far yet."
"He won't. He knows we're following. He knows he has to lie low. He'll probably try to do a little dealing, something to earn enough local cash so that he can survive. He'll watch and wait, try to let the trail go cold."
A long inward breath. Xhev sighs. "It won't go cold, will it? You won't let the bastard go, will you Alex?"
Alex is feeding on scraps. There is no certainty in the chase. All that he has is his family name and the spur of revenge and hot blood in his veins, blood shared with his beautiful little sister, Rezarta, who is destined to spend whatever life she has left being spoon fed and dribbling onto her blouse. Alex is the eldest, is the captain.
"We'll find him, brother, to the ends of the earth if we have to. This story has one ending. You know it. Keep the faith."
Xhev's voice is quieter, less certain than before, the bravado of the moment and the mission shattered. "I know it, Alex."
Alex has to put steel into his voice. Like his brother, he too feels the despair that comes from looking into his sister's black and vacant eyes. It is a mill stone, a yoke.
"Xhev, concentrate. Remember, I need you in London. Double check everything. Get me maps and directions, as much as you can find. Check the pieces, whatever you can do. I'll be with you and Pjeter for Quofte and Raki tonight."
A pause. Xhev's voice comes back stronger. "Yeah. God speed. See you tonight, brother."
Alex waits for the line to drop and shuts his eyes, but the smell of the doctor is with him again. The miles are closing down and there will be no sleep now. He puts his mobile phone back into his jacket pocket and rises from his seat. He needs another hit of that good old caffeinated wire in his blood.
You’re Breaking My Heart
The motorway streams by. The Archers are in full rural swing, the omnibus edition rambling through the private tensions of country life. Wind noise. Billy indicates and overtakes. He glares at the driver of a Korean economy hatchback, who is steadfast in his blinkered, sixty-five miles per hour, middle lane certainty. As soon as Billy is clear of the hatchback he indicates again and swings right across all three lanes, making his point. In his rear view mirror he sees the man, the object of his immediate, irrational road rage, turn to his wife and mutter something about impatient road hogs. Billy is tempted to slam on the brakes and beat the dim-witted moron to a pulp. He vents, letting out a stream of oaths and curses, and, feeling slightly ashamed, reminds himself to breathe deeply, to relax.
He catches half a sentence of dialogue on the radio, something about cell counts in Ruth and David Archer's herd, and the rage is forgotten. Billy drifts back to his original train of thought. The radio, the wind noise and the thump of tyres on white lines are nothing more than background static. Billy is running old movies in his head. Home movies. Slices of history in which he is the centre of the universe. He cringes, visibly flinching as he opens the can marked 'Happy Families' and loads the eight millimetre spool onto the projector in his head.
Billy had woken up just after eight, still sitting in his front room armchair. His neck was stiff. His clothes looked like they had been lived in for a week and his mouth was full of cat litter. He sat in the half-life of waking, trying to remember who and where he was. Everything around him, his possessions, his natural environment, seemed out of kilter with the world, as if spinning at a slower rate around the sun than the rest of the planets.
As the reflux memories of his waking spill into his gullet, Billy coughs. The smell of stale scotch on his breath nearly makes him retch.
The record player has an auto return mechanism, so Vic Damone's long player had finished side one and clicked its robotic way to silence without mishap, but when Billy had first stirred the low density hum from the speakers beat against his head like an incoming tide on a breakwater. Too much to drink. Always too much to drink.
Back in the here and now Billy tells himself that he ought to cut out the late nights, maybe buy some cocoa. This morning he feels as though he has abused every single day of his fifty odd years on the planet. This is the cardiac nightmare. He holds his breath, counting the pulse at his temple as it becomes more frantic. He exhales heavily. Still alive.
He had showered, dosed himself up on caffeine and stopped at Taunton services for a full helping of cholesterol. Now that he has passed Bristol, he feels marginally better than he did. He will probably do without alcohol today. Probably.
The images in his head flicker back and forth. He imagines conversations the way they should have happened. There is a dull ache in his vital organs, which lowers his defences against these viral memories. Every sign on the motorway proves that he is drawing closer to his destination, and with that closing out of options the memories become stronger. It is inevitable. Familiar. Unnerving.
Billy is torn.
He speaks with Bex every weekend on the phone. He understands that she is in her final year of A Levels and needs to study, but they have not seen each other since Christmas and he desperately wants this time with her. Knowing that he is loved, knowing that he can make a difference to her life is one of the keys to his survival. As a lone male in his mid-fifties he is high on the list of those lonely souls who die too early, but Bex helps to keep him well. She gives him purpose. She stops him from turning the car around, from disappearing down the rabbit hole.
Equal and opposite force. Every time that Billy speaks with Bex he invariably has to speak with her mother, Carol, his first and only wife. She is the opposite, the converse, the flip-side. Bex pulls him towards Oxford with unstoppable force. Carol blocks the road, the immovable object. Bex always proves the stronger. Billy wants to be with her. He thought about trying for custody when she was small, but so did Carol. She made it plain, given their shared experience, that she would cut him out of their daughter's life completely if he ever tried to do that to her. Billy tells himself that the compromise they reached all those years ago was in everyone's best interest, and it probably was, but he still thinks of himself as a coward.
This is what unnerves Billy. This is the story in his head:
He met Carol after a show in eighty-five. Let It Be Me had already become a nostalgic pub quiz question. Billy Nero was back in summer season, hitting the high notes at the end of the pier, warming up for the headline comics. He sang the standards at holiday parks. He worked the clubs. Billy Nero was right back where he started. The bright lights of stardom were dimming under the clouds of Billy’s personal history, although you could just make out the fading tail of his comet if you knew which part of the darkling sky to stare at through a telescope. Faded he might be, but his one time chart entrance helped his billings, helped to keep his head above water, and paid for cocaine.
The club where he and Carol met was in the Lake District, Billy being the main attraction at a caravan park where they held a regular Saturday evening cabaret. Billy Nero headlined. Carol was a groupie, in that off-hand way that some people have. She had never seen Billy perform before, and as far as either of them were concerned at the time, she would never do so again. She wanted a little bit of glamour. Billy wanted a shag. Simple. Except that the simple things in Billy's life have a habit of going pear-shaped.
It was the mid-eighties. Everyone had a habit. Billy had two; cocaine and women. The drink would come later. Billy was in that downward spiral loved by the red tops and show business gossips. It was a strange and unexpected whim of his muse that Carol should save him. She was trim and petite, fashionable in leggings and bangles, and good, easy company. The sex was great, and Carol worked hard to ensure that Billy had someone to share his hopes, dreams and drugs with. She got a sniff of the good life and followed the scent like a Bisto kid.
For a while Billy was grateful. Carol soothed him, and although money still ran through his fingers like water, she did, for a time, manage the chaos. By eighty-seven they were married and, in a rare period of calm during which they were both bewitched by the prospects of simple domestic pleasure, they bought a house in Oxford, settled down and produced a daughter, Rebecca. Nineteen-ninety. Billy came to terms with the shift in his career. He was content to abandon the stars, settling for a low atmosphere flight plan, and it was a comfortable place to be.
For a while.
Billy feels cramped and compromised. The story, as he tells it, unravels at this point. There is no going back. Geographically, too, he has just hit the point of no return. He is on the A34, thirty minutes away from Summertown. Whichever way he looks at things, the truth turns his stomach. Maggie's comment from the early hours of this morning bites down hard.
A year after Bex came along, Billy pressed self-destruct. He tried everything he could to rekindle the flames of his career. He changed agent. He pestered television production companies. He was convinced that if Lenny Bennett could make it on to Celebrity Squares and Blankety Blank then so could he. Nothing happened. Nothing constructive. Pushed back by the indifference of his peers, Billy's bad habits kicked back in. His period of remission was over. He continued singing, started drinking, hit the coke with a vengeance and ended his marriage with a string of abrupt and soulless affairs.
Carol put up with it for six months. For a while it helped that she could turn a blind eye to Billy's self-destructive ways, wrapped up as she was with a new baby. She stopped touring with him, battened down the hatches, and lashed the cargo of their lives to the deck of their wallowing coaster, but the storms still came and blew everything away. They ran aground. Billy came home in the small hours after a gig on the twenty-third of October, nineteen ninety-two and topped himself up with a cocktail of vodka and barbiturates. Bex slept in her room. Carol told him to leave. Billy broke her nose with his fist.
Billy has tears in his eyes. He lives on his own and has done ever since he saw Carol's blood on his hands. Billy Nero has girls. Billy Whitlow watches from a safe distance. Not once with any of his occasional girls has he dared to touch a button nose. Carol fell in love with Billy Nero rather than Billy Whitlow, and they probably would have drifted apart under the weight of that disappointment, but the man behind the mask is the one who smashed his fist into her face.
It is a matter of trust. When Billy looks in the mirror he sees a man without conviction. Without Bex, without her simple, uncomplicated love, he is nothing.
Billy takes the exit at Peartree, swings the Vauxhall down to the Wolvercote roundabout and follows the northern ring road until he gets to the Kidlington turn off. Instead of heading out of town he takes a right down the Banbury road and just before the shops, opposite the BBC radio studios, he turns left into Lonsdale Road. As he turns he sees the road sign opposite. South Parade. He laughs. It always amuses him. South Parade runs to the north of North Parade between the Banbury and Woodstock roads. Bex explained it during her last visit to Devon. During the Civil War, when Charles I was besieged by Oliver Cromwell at Oxford, South Parade was the Roundhead southern front, while North Parade was the location of the Royalist's northern lines.
Carol and Bex live towards the bottom of Lonsdale Road, with oblique views from bedroom windows over the river Cherwell to Old Marston. Billy drives past suburban gardens and the artful gothic density of Saint Michael's church. The house is of a type typical in North Oxford; semi-detached, three bedrooms and quietly solid. Billy knows from looking in estate agency windows that the place is probably worth half a million. Carol kept the house as part of her second divorce settlement. Billy is thankful for that, and for the fact that Bex has always managed to distinguish between Billy and a small number of surrogates.
Billy always feels as though he is walking on egg shells when he heads for the front door. The time is arranged and Carol will be waiting, watchful and primed. After the initial anger, after the worst stages of antagonism, the worst excesses of separation and grief, Billy cut the drugs and the hedonism. He tried to make peace, but he failed to bridge the chasm within his own head. His stumbling, confused apologies came too late, and he has never been able to lay the ghost. He knows that as soon as he sees Carol he will see her ruptured and bloody face. It’s obvious to Billy that she too sees what he sees. The only way they deal with it now is to draw a line under it, to talk as if their shared time leading up to the assault simply doesn’t exist. Billy attempts to make restitution by paying the maintenance on time.
Carol opens the door. There is no visible sign of injury. Billy smiles and the dance begins.
"You look rough", she says by way of greeting.
"Late night, you know, the clubs and all that". He sounds as if he is apologising for his life. It has become a habit when talking to Carol. He avoids confrontation, telling himself that things are better for Bex this way. Another proof of his cowardice.
Carol steps back into the hall. "Still haven't got a proper job then? Well, you'd better come in. Teenage girls. Never ready on time. Cup of tea?"
She pads down the hall to the kitchen. Carol never did wear shoes or slippers in the house. Billy watches her. She has that effortless grace of divorced women who are comfortable in their own skins. Carol has no need of a man. She knows how to plumb in the dishwasher. She chooses the company of men because she has the strength to say no, to be alone. Carol is confident in her years, a confidence born out of the combined experience of two marriages and two divorces. Carol is six years Billy's junior, turning fifty in the summer, and she has lost none of her innate appeal. Her hair is highlighted blonde, shoulder length, showing faint hints of gray. She has barely put on any weight.
Billy enters the house, not sure whether to wait by the stairs for Bex or follow Carol directly into the kitchen. He loiters. Disembodied, muffled by open wardrobe doors, a voice calls out from upstairs, "Hi, Dad, be down in a sec, Go and talk to Mum".
The house is full of clutter. Pine. Two tone walls and dado rails, but never untidy. Carol collects things, tastefully abandoning hand carved boxes and odd candlesticks on every available surface. Books line one of the sitting room walls. By the stairs there is an art nouveau stand for shoes and coats. Billy goes to hang his jacket on one of the pegs and notices a pair of boots. Male. There is a Barbour, far too big for either Bex or her mother, evidence of male occupation. This unsettles Billy. He hangs his jacket over his arm and heads straight for the kitchen.
As Billy enters the kitchen Carol is pouring hot water into a mug. A single mug. "Don't make one just for me", Billy says, trying just that little bit too hard to be polite. He is gasping. Dehydrated. Carol looks at him as if he is mad. She mashes the teabag, spoons it out of the mug and drops it into the sink. A dash of milk. She always remembers.