1. SINS OF THE FAMILY
I was lost in thought when the boss suddenly burst in through the door. Among his many endearing qualities Mr. Hardy has this uncanny aptitude for catching me with my trousers down......and my belated attempts to look busy do little to impress him. He gazed for a moment straight into my eyes, while his face expressed all the contempt he felt for me.
“Twiddling your thumbs again, Taylor?” he snarled in his usual curt manner
“No Mr Hardy, I was just....”
“Shut up. I’ve got a job for you”
“Right,” I said sheepishly.
He stepped towards me and the shadow of his enormous body fell over me like a threatening thunder cloud.
“Here," he said and thrust a sheet of paper at me. I took it from him and gave it a cursory examination. It was a print-out of an email addressed to him from someone called Stenson. Underneath the header, there was a list.
“Those, he explained “are the names and addressed of people I want you to contact about their inheritance. So finish off what you’re doing and shift your backside out of here and get some work done for a change.
"Right. I...I’ll... “ I stammered
"Hmm," He gave me one last shrivelling stare, then turned and left as abruptly as he’d entered, leaving the door wide open behind him. I breathed a sigh of relief, finished off what I was doing, as instructed, pulled up my trousers and flushed the toilet. It was only later, as I was settling down in front of my computer, that I realised what I’d done with that printout he’d given me.
"I see," Dr Atkins nodded, indicating his insight into my predicament which I suspected wasn’t the insight I was trying to give him."But do you see?" I asked
It was my first session with Dr Atkins. He sat opposite me behind his desk, his dark-brown corderoy jacket slung over the back of his black leather swivel chair. He wore his red-patterned tie loose around his neck and the collar-button of his white shirt open. I told him I wanted to begin at the beginning but he grimaced as I spoke the words.
“You know, you don’t really have to," and he took of his thick-framed glasses to reveal an older face than I'd expected. His glasses, combined with his large head and curly, light-brown hair somehow gave the impression of an overgrown boy in grown-up clothes. " It’s quite a common fallacy that narratives have to be chronological and linear," he told me with enthusiasm, " In fact, the more you can mix it up, the more interesting you can make it. Take the Odyssey for example. The story of Odysseus on his return home from the Trojan Wars and all the events that happened during the journey. That story has a very fractured time-line.”
“Yeah?” I said, not in the least understanding what he was going on about.
“Actually, it begins almost at the end.”
“Well I’d like to begin at the beginning anyway. Here we are not at the beginning and we’re not getting anywhere, are we.”
“Fine. It’s natural," and he replaced his glasses, returning to that youthful, older person I'd first encountered, "Your looking for a structure in your life. We all yearn for that”
“I’m looking for a point. Something that this has all been leading up to”.
“A meaning” he said,
“I suppose so,” I agreed though I'd have preferred 'an explanation'. I wasn't sure if there was a difference.
He swivelled slightly in his chair, his eyes fixing on the laptop on his desk, he began clicking with his mouse at some documents he’d asked me to submit concerning my case. I looked around his small room while he read. We were enclosed in semi-darkness, the blinds on the one small window behind him were pulled down tight and only his tiny table lamp emitted any light. A framed certificate on the wall to my left caught my eye and I could just make out the words. ‘Dr Arnold Atkins, Doctor in Applied English Literature and Greek Studies' before the shadows cut off the rest of the wall. I made the connection with his Odyssey reference and gave an ‘hmm’ sound to myself, or so I thought, but he must have caught it and looked up. “Well," and he swivelled back in my direction, " do you want to begin at the beginning then?” he said with a smile.
“I’m not sure where that is. I don’t want to go too far back, to my childhood…”.
“ ..and all that David Copperfield crap,” he interjected.
“Nothing,” he said with a smirk but I knew he was alluding to something and I was beginning to become pissed off by his patronising attitude.
“My parents wanted me to study Applied English Literature,” I said, determined to get in a repost , “but at school we had this obnoxious English teacher. He was Austrian, wore thick-lensed glasses and spoke in this strange authoritarian voice like some Gauleiter in those old war movies. We called him Goebbels which was stupid because he looked exactly like Himmler with his squat little eyes and puggy face and his self-satisfied grin.”
“And he was the reason you decided not to take English Literature?"
“No, not really. No, you just reminded me of him for a second when you smiled.”
“Ah” he said, obviously puzzled. I’d made my repost a bit too convoluted.
“I just felt more affinity for History. More comfortable with its language and methodologies. So I looked around for the institution that had the best post-graduate employment record for Practical History and that’s where it began."
"I didn’t mean that. I meant, that’s where my career began."
"What university was that, Oxford?"
"I see. Which Branch?"
"Ah, right," and he rocked back in his chair, " I was at Oxford, Sheffield. Would have considered Manchester myself if they’d had an Oxford branch. Never understood why they didn’t. Could have staged some great boat races on the old Ship Canal."
I looked at him with even more trepidation after that comment. "What was wrong with Cambridge?"
"Tradition, following in my father’s footsteps. He went to Oxford, He was the first in our family to go to university."
"Hardly a tradition then, is it."
"Well, you get the discount on the tuition fees if you’ve had relatives there. That’s why I’ll be sending my daughter to a branch of Oxford." He looked over at the documents again , "So you left university with a Practical History qualification?"
"Yep. Went to work for Simon and Schama, a company tracing family ancestry and inheritance beneficiaries before deciding to go into business myself as a private historian".
"The company...that was managed by..... Mr Hardy?"
"Ollie. Yes. We called him Ollie because his name was Hardy. And he had the right build too. Didn't have a moustache though. Ollie owned the company. There wasn't any Simon or Schama, he was just trying to cash in on a famous name "
"You left, you say?"
"Yes," I shifted uneasily in my chair, "Well, it’s a matter of interpretation. Let's say I wasn't sorry we ended our association."
"Why was that?", pushing his glasses forward on his nose, which made him seem a different age again though I couldn't decide exactly where to place this one in the continuum of his age-range.
"I suppose I felt I'd be more comfortable delving into living people’s secret lives than I was at uncovering their dead relatives. I smiled and then said in a mock American accent, ‘I charged 40 dollars- a-day plus expenses but I never touch divorce work’ "
"It was a joke," I said, embarrassed now that I made the comment, "A literary reference, Raymond Chandler. Thought you might appreciate that."
"Ah I see. Well, actually, that’s American Literature, you understand. You would have try that one on my colleague. She's an authority on American Literature. I’m sure she’d appreciate it."
"Can I ask a question," I ventured.
"I assume it's relevant."
"Where is this going?"
"You have to tell me."
First, your eyes will melt. So you won’t see your skin scorch and shrivel and peel.All your hair will be frizzled away by this time and your blood will be starting to boil and your veins will burst."
I tried not to look at him as he described the fate that awaited me. I lay, completely motionless in my bed, afraid almost to breath. He'd paused, and I shot a quick glance at his face before he continued. He was adjusting his glasses on his nose, his young eyes looking over the brim into the distance, past the dangling model Super Fortress bomber, past the SAS insignia poster on the wall, and he was ready to speak again.
"Ben!" My mother’s voice broke into the nightmare he was describing.
"Yeah," he shouted back
"Have you nearly finished telling Daniel his bedtime story yet?"
"Just finishing." He looked down at me and caught my terrified stare. "Don’t worry," he said, as he stood up ready to leave, "Nuclear wars don’t last longer than a minute. It’s due to start early next year."
"Why?" I asked
"Because they’re not ready yet."
And that was your brother?"
"Yes. He was four years older than me and knew everything. He was ten then."
"And he's always like that?"
"No. That’s the point. He's always different. He's been jumping in and out of my life at irregular intervals and each time it's a different him. Or the same him, differently."
"Hmm. I think it’s time we tried something," After scanning his room, his gaze fell on the far corner. I was about to follow his stare when he suddenly said, "Table." He paused, then added, "Desk."
"Is this some kind of word association?"
"What?" he gave me a puzzled look then, realising what I'd implied bawled out, "God no! God no, we don’t use any of that mumbo-jumbo! Please don’t confuse us with those psychiatrist quacks. Those witchdoctors with their hypnotic spells and their electric shock sorcery, their mind-numbing drug concoctions. How on earth could someone inducted into those black-arts recognise a good story when they heard one. No, I was just wondering whether or not to use a table or a desk. It's part of my research project, looking into the theraputic power of IKEA furniture. I'm thinking of calling it 'IKEA Serious Constructor Therapy' I got the idea from LEGO Serious Play. But IKEA is far more adaptable"
"Well, it's quite poetic if you think about it. When you visit an IKEA store and you see all that lovely furniture laid out for you in nice room settings. You choose the furniture you want and when you go to pick it up, you end up with a load of flat-pack cardboard boxes. You then have to assemble it from wordless, picture- instructions. Well?"
I didn't make any reply.
"Isn’t that exactly what we’re trying to do with you. Give you some structure – some shape. Put together all the parts. Think of it as a metaphor. A perfect metaphor."
"Why do I need a metaphor?"
"Metaphors provide us with a conceptual framework from which to make sense of the world. Art, if it's to have any veracity, must reflect life. And if art and life are caught together, unified in this reflection metaphor, mirror images of each other, you might say, then it follows that, metaphorically speaking, we are all metaphors. Constructs of the imagination. Creators of our own world." He smiled as he contemplated his own eloquence then said, " So try putting this table together."
"An IKEA coffee table?" I said. looking at the picture on the cardboard box.
"IKEA Serious Constructor coffee table," he corrected me, "Once my research is published it will revolutionise therapy. You'll need to have a certificate in its application of course. Private enterprise, that's the way forward."
I cringed at hearing the slogan that was everywhere these days.
"You’ll need this Allen key."
What kind of pervert are you?""I probably qualify for a few categories," I replied
"Daniel, this isn't a joke!" She was angry and the hostility in her voice was accentuated by the contorted muscles in her face as she spoke, like Jacques Brel in full song.
"Laura, listen, I didn't mean to end up here."
She shook her head, her shoulder-length mousey hair, flicking back and forth, "You don't mean to end up anywhere because you don't know where you're going, that's the trouble. You could have used GPS but no, you use an old map which you obviously can't follow!"
I tried to calm the moment, "Makes it more exciting though, when you don't have a plan. don't you think?" then corrected myself, "Or you have a plan only it gets skewed."
"So we drive for two hours, miss the party and end up in this cul-de-sac!" and she pointed out of the front window at the semi-lit street in front of us that narrowed to a dark alley, and the prostitutes who were beginning to circle nearer to the car.
"But it might have been anywhere. We could have ended up....anywhere."
"Well, we've ended up exactly here. .."
"Fancy a threesome then love?" one of the women in girl's clothing and shinny red hair shouted through the side window.
"And this is where it's going to end as far as we're concerned. Reverse us out of here!"
"No thanks," I said to the lady, "Took a wrong turn. Thanks anyway."
"Get us out of here! "
"I am, I am."
When we eventually reached the well-lit main road of whatever little town this was, she ordered me to stop near the signpost for the railway station and got out. She was gone before I could think of anything to do to stop her.
And that was the last you saw of her?""Yes. that was nearly six months ago, after four years together....practically. Practically together, I mean. She wasn't....we weren't living together. I've tried texting and phoning and emailing but I don't get anything back."
"You've tried calling around to her house?"
I looked down at my lap, "I'm a bit scared of her father to be honest. I've tried parking up outside, hoping to see her, but then I imagine I see the curtains move and I drive off, quick in case they think I'm stalking her."
"Which you are."
"Only in a benign sense"
Dr Atkins leaned forward in his tilting swivel chair, "You need to build up some courage and knock at the door. What's the worst that could happen?"
I thought for a few seconds about the different types of injuries and humiliations that her dad could inflict on me, trying to decide which would be the worst but he broke into my calculations by hitting the keys of his laptop again, adding some more comments to his report.
Then he swivelled back to me and said, "You've managed to finish the coffee table I see."
"I've got these four screws and this nut left over."
"And what conclusions do you draw from that?"
"They put too many bits in?"
"Or you've left some bits out, perhaps?"
Ever thought about skipping university Daniel?""Skipping?" I looked at my brother's eyes which were burning with a renewed passion.
"Giving it a miss. Joining me in the real world instead."
"As an artist?" We were speaking in lowered voices as a mark of respect for my dead father whose funeral reception this was, and so as not to disturb mother who was sitting in an arm-chair with a cup of tea, watching the guests milling around her home with an air of unreality.
He took a deep swig of his whiskey, half empting the glass, "There's no such thing as art - art is artiface.superficial. Art-i-ficial!"
"But you gave everything up for art, Ben. You gave up all you replica guns, and army regalia. You gave up Art School for art. You said you were going to put the poetry back into painting, the music into literature. I remember how you ranted about it. Then you left to live in London and that was the last time any of us heard from you till now. "
"it was an eye opening experience. It made me realise what's really important."
"And what's that."
"Commerce." He said the word coldly and conclusively.
Laura passed through the room and paused to throw me a sympathetic smile. I smiled back with a feigned look of stoicism, and she went back to serving drinks to the guests.
"Commerce is the key to everything. Trade, barter, it’s as old as mankind."
"Sounds a bit of a drastic turn-around from 'Art for art's-sake'."
"A Pauline conversion, Dan, no less." He took another swig of the whiskey, emptying the glass completely, " I was out fulfilling my art-grant commission, strumming my guitar and singing one of my poems underneath a flag that I'd painted and tied to a lamp-post on the Thames embankment. It was in memory of Nancy, from Oliver Twist you understand. Then some passer-by tossed me a coin. It made me realise. Came to me in a flash."
"You're going to be a busker then?"
"I'm going to build an empire. A commercial empire. I'm moving back up north, to Liverpool."
"What's Liverpool famous for, ask yourself that?"
"The Beatles? Slavery? Football?" I was trying to think of other connections.
He shook his head, "You've missed the most obvious. Scouse! I'm going to start a restaurant franchise called 'Scouse House'. "
"Ben, you can't cook scouse. I've never seen you cook anything. "
"I don't need to cook. It's a franchise, like McDonalds or Frankie and Bennies. I just create a blueprint, come up with a twist on the basic scouse recipe, brand it as traditional, then copyright it, decide on a colour scheme for the plastic tables and chairs and the staff uniforms, and then sell the concept. Rake in the money. "
"Right," I tried to sound neutral, not wishing to offend or to encourage.
"Well, are you up for it? Do you more good than going off to university, coming out with a debt that'll take you years to pay off."
"Not really, thanks all the same. And good luck obviously."
Ben put the whiskey glass down on the table, turned and gripped both my upper arms in his hands and said, "Don't worry Dan. I'm going to keep a fatherly eye on you from now on, now that dad's dead and everything. " I could see my startled expression reflected in his glasses, "I won't abandon you Daniel." Then he turned and left.
You were eighteen when your father died? ""Yes, It was totally unexpected. He died in a car crash. Lost control of the car and crashed into a tree."
"That must have had a traumatic effect on you"
"Yes. I felt..." I thought for a second or two, "...liberated. I'd just met Laura, and I was about to leave Stockport to go to uni. It was just such a sense of freedom. Of hope. The last thing I wanted was for Ben to keep a fatherly eye on me. Thank god I knew Ben as well as I did. Otherwise, I would have been really depressed at that funeral."
He was scanning over his laptop screen and didn't appear to be listening." I haven't actually mentioned my sister, Sue. She's two years older than me." I continued in the absence of any comment," She's the middle one. I'm not sure if she's relevant or not."
"Probably not," he concurred.
"Fair enough. Not sure how she'd react to the attention anyway. But she'd probably be upset if I didn't at least mention her. Can't win with them, can you?"
"You opened an office in Deansgate, Manchester after you left Simon and Schama's?"
"Yes. Fell in love with Manchester when I went to uni and stayed on. Bit dingy, the building. Victorian. It had been renovated during the property boom, but it started to slip back into dilapidation once the rents came crashing down. But I'm really proud of it all the same. I've got a door with a frosted glass upper- panel and I can see my name, back-to-front, on the glass from where I sit behind my desk. And, underneath, 'Private Historian'. I sat there for three days staring at it, waiting for someone to respond to my Google Adds and my tweets. Then, on the Thursday morning, through the glass, I could see the siloutte of a female figure standing outside. And then came the tap on the door. Can you imagine it?"
"Yes, I think I've seen the movie. In walked a succulent blonde?"
"Redhead?" He was struggling to picture the scene.
"She was grey." I spurted out finally
"It was my mother."
It was a cold, dark evening early November. From my parked car, I'd just witnessed two Public Protection Service operatives arrest a man.......for not wearing his poppy and bundle him into the back of their van and drive off.
Now it was quiet again and I took out a small torch and checked the address in my notebook. I was in the right place but it had taken me almost an hour longer than I'd planned to locate the street. Nearly an hour late for the appointment I'd made. Southport was a place I hadn't visited since I was a child. A sea-side holiday resort, transformed for a while into a business convention centre then back into a resort and it was experiencing hard times. It bore the scares of its schizophrenic identity. I felt butterflies in my stomach but I had to get out and call at the house.
I grabbed hold of the laptop case and hung it over my shoulder and straightened my tie. I walked up the path of the small detached house, similar to all the other houses in the street and to the thousands of houses up and down the country that had been built for the growing upper-middle-classes in the nineteen-thirties. The street was situated just outside the main drag of the town, but still in sight of the fairy-lit promenades. The lights were on in every room.
I rehearsed my opening line again as I walked, 'Miss Keen? I'm Daniel McFarland, inheritance finder, Simon and Schama', I put my hand in my pocket and took out one of the old cards I'd kept from my time at Simon and Schama's ready to hand over. 'As I mentioned on the phone, Miss Keen , you're legally entitled to a sizeable sum of money in the form of stocks and shares, left to you by a distant relative. If I could just come in and ask you some questions and fill out some forms?' I'd nearly reached the front door of the small semi-detached house. I hadn't worked out any more of the scam because my heart just wasn't in it.
If my mother was right, this was the home of my father's lover.
She'd finally broken into his password protected Microsoft Outlook account four years after he'd died. Four years in which she'd grieved for her loyal, devoted husband. She was in a vengeful mood when she showed me the list of dates for meetings at this house. Rendezvous' she'd called them. And then she read one or two of the emails which, on their own, might have seemed innocent enough, genuine references to business affairs. But, once the code words had been pointed out to me, they revealed instead the extent of the sexual relationship my father had with this girl, Rachel Keen.
A security light pounced on me as I stepped up to the door. I braced myself, poised to press the bell.
A loud bang came from inside!
Definitely a gun shot. Then another smashed through the window just a yard from where I stood, transfixed, and the glass shards speared the grass. The front door burst open in my face and I was knocked to the ground by a young woman fleeing from the house. She was down the path and out the gate before I'd even managed to lift my head.
I picked myself up and jumped against the wall to the side of the door, and waited, not sure what to expect or what to do next. It remained quiet. I dared to look in the doorway. No movement. Nothing. I felt for my phone in my pocket and lifted it out. I was going to call the Public Protection Service. I hesitated over the onscreen display. What should I tell them? Gunshots. Smashed window. Woman running away. They'd ask me for more information, obviously. I could always sneak away. What about my phone call earlier? They might find out I'd made an appointment, that I was here. Why had I left the scene of a.....? What was it a scene of?
"Hello!" I shouted. Nothing. "Is everyone alright?" The same nothing. "I'm just coming in to see if you're hurt, if that's ok"
I crept in gingerly, checking each direction with each step. i went first to the back of the house for no other reason than it was a straight route through. The back door had been left open and the rear security light was still on outside. Then it went out and my heart skipped a few beats. It took me at least a minute before I dared move again. I retraced my steps, my back tight up against the wall, looking, listening. I pushed open the door to the front room. It creaked and I cringed. The room smelled acrid, the smoke still in the air. A man lay on the carpet in front of a blazing log effect gas fire. His head was turned to the side, facing me, eyes closed, his arms askew. He must have been around 30 years old, dark hair, shiny with some sort of gel. He wore a shirt and jeans. A dark blood stain was spreading across the carpet from his chest.
I lifted my phone again, about to press the PPS when the body of the dead man on the carpet let out a groan. I pissed my pants then, the phone dropped on the floor and the battery sprang out. His eye opened, he saw me. He said just two words, in a hoarse whisper, "Dan....Dare". Then he let out a gasp and said no more.
Dr Atkins had removed his glasses to be the older, sterner person again, "You..." he laid the words down like he was pacing out a playing field, "witnessed..the... actual... murder?"
"I didn't witness the murder. I was...present at the murder. I was in the vicinity."
"And you've waited until...." he looked at his watch, "Until the very last minute of today's session to mention it?"
"I was building up to it," I said, genuinely.
He shook his head, unable to find any words to communicate his frustration. After a second or two he added, "Well we'll just have to leave it there. I have another appointment waiting"
"Bit of a cliff-hanger, you think?"
He replaced his glasses and scanned his computer screen, "Does the same time next month suit you?"
He looked up from the computer, "Who is Dan Dare by the way?"
"Never mind. We haven't time. I'll see you next month Mr Taylor."