© BM 2008
Chapter One – Episode 2
He was conscious of once again staring sightlessly into the middle distance, and again raised his cup to his lips. The tea was cold, but he drank it anyway, as his mouth had become dry and his throat tight. Another fifteen minutes and he should leave. I must have a pee, comb my hair, and what else, clean my teeth? Silly bastard, he chided himself, bringing a toothbrush and toothpaste. Do you really think she will be kissing you, or close enough to you to give a shit whether your breath smells of Little Chef tea? Will she buggery? I suppose I must get there before her, she used to hate people being late, although she was always late herself. That is a woman’s privilege, she always replied at any query on her time keeping. Idly he wondered how she always knew to be exactly ten minutes later than him. Did she hide around the corner somewhere, watching for his arrival, and then wait that extra ten minutes, to achieve some kind of ascendancy?
“Screw it, Alex, it’s over, been over for ten years. Forget it, forget her”. How many times had he been given that advice? How many times had he given that advice to himself? How many times had he tried? And had he succeeded? If he had, he would not be sitting here in this café, with a nineteen-year-old waitress thinking he was some kind of weirdo.
He looked up and after some time, caught the waitress’s eye. He made a writing motion with his hand, and she nodded. The problem was, as he was being reminded constantly, usually by himself, he still loved the lady, as much, and probably more, than fifteen years earlier, after Angola. It was bloody inconvenient. Worse, it had screwed up his life for the last ten years, with every indication that it would continue to do so. He wondered if Francesca had any idea of the hell his life had been for many of those long barren years. And if she had known, did she give a stuff? Probably not.
“I hope we don’t get too many customers like you, mate.” The waitress handed him the bill. “We’d go out of business.”
He smiled and nodded, and put a few coins on the table, adding a fifty pence coin as a tip. He picked it up again, and substituted a pound. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry, love, you have to pay at the till.”
He went to the till, with the same girl in attendance, and repeated the ritual. She dropped the pound coin into a little dish.
“I hope she’s worth it.”
“Whoever you’re meeting, I hope she’s worth it.”
“Do you think I’m meeting someone?”
The girl nodded. “Yeah” she said simply.
“It’s that obvious, is it?”
“Oh yes, it’s that obvious. Women know these things. No one is worth it, you know.”
“Yes, I know.” But he knew that he lied.
He left the restaurant wearily, his legs feeling heavy, his head light. The car looked quite beautiful, the sleek lines of the bonnet rising to the feline haunches on the rear wings. The top was down, and the summer sun glinted along the chrome, and on the black body. He stopped for a moment, as he often did, just to soak up the sheer animal attraction of the Jaguar, his baby, his mistress. Even as he thought these thoughts, and even as the old familiar shiver went through him, he once again had the feeling of disappointment.
Just after Francesca had left, and long before the book allowed him to aim higher, he had bought his first Jaguar, a second hand XJS coupe. He thought that it might be somehow therapeutic. It had been the fulfilment of 30 years of desire, not always pursued, and seriously hindered by marriage, a mortgage, and two children. But the feeling had been there then, with the XJS, a vague ill-defined feeling of disappointment, and the knowledge was growing within him, even then, that the car was not to blame.
Alex stood by the lead free pump, watching with a vague irritation, the blank display. “Come on, you bugger,” he growled under his breath. He heard, or thought he heard, a quiet hum, and a display of ‘8’s’ flitted momentarily across the face of the pump, which then switched itself on, smiled innocently at him, and provided a plethora of information about pump prices and volumes sold. He inserted the nozzle into the Jaguar’s fill point, and glanced idly around the BP site. It was, he decided, very much like any other filling station, and so, after a few seconds, he glanced again at his watch. Damm it, there was still a lot of time to spare.
Alex paid and moved out of the station onto the A24, crawling slowly along the filter lane until the road to his rear was free of traffic. The Jaguar eased itself smoothly onto the road, and picked up speed with a satisfying growl of the V8. He wondered if he should stop again, and try another cup of tea. He decided that he didn’t want to do that, as he was still swilling from the stop at the Little Chef, barely a quarter of an hour earlier. Poor little girl who served him; she must have thought he was mad. ‘You are mad’ he told himself. He reflected on that visit, and grimaced.
The Jaguar moved sweetly up to 60 mph, and he kept it there. No point in risking a speeding ticket when he was so bloody early anyway. His car and mind were in automatic mode, and he slipped back to thinking about Francesca.
He glanced in the offside mirror and noted a car coming up behind him very quickly in the outside lane. A Ford Granada of the Sussex Police, decked with the usual accoutrements, and with blue and red lights flashing, sped past him. “Take care, boys”, he waved gently as they passed him, and was grateful he had been behaving himself.
When had all of this happened, two days, no, three days ago? What was today, anyway? Wednesday, damm it. Alex, you must be old, you can’t even remember the bloody day. He returned to the present, to the busy bustle on the A24. No wonder the little girl in the café considered him to be a bit strange. In front of him, the traffic was slowing, and he followed suit, flicking on his hazards. The blue lights were flashing about two hundred yards ahead, and there was also an ambulance, as well as the police car in attendance. He crawled slowly past the accident, and again he examined mentally the events of the last few days.
The accident site was passed, and the Jaguar gathered speed again. He loved this car; its power and beauty gripped his imagination. Without the book, he would still be driving the old XJS. Ah yes, the book, the book had changed all that, which was much to his surprise. He had never believed that anyone would want to read it. He didn’t believe that he had anything to say, and, in any case, the book was written to fill in his time, to stop himself going crazy, after she went. It was a therapeutic exercise, undertaken in the long chill evenings, and longer cold nights when sleep lay hidden, and the demons of the past danced in front of him. What do you do at three in the morning when you are unable to sleep for the fourth night running? Easy, you write a book. It had taken years, taken up and put down as despair ebbed and flowed.
He had laughed when a journalist friend suggested sending the manuscript to an agent. He wished then that he had never mentioned that he had written the dammed thing.
“Bugger off, Neil, it’s crap.”
“Alex, Alex, trust me, I’m a journalist. So what, if it’s crap? If they don’t like it, they’ll send it back, and you have lost a couple of quid in stamps. Anyway, crap sells, just look at some of the stuff on the market. Do you think that J K Rawling is another Shakespeare?”
“Mate, I am also a journalist, at least a semi retired journalist, not a bloody novelist. I go to shitty places in the world, to watch shitty people doing shitty things to each other. I file my copy and hope I can get out with my balls in one piece. Or two pieces, if you prefer. ”
Neil Willis looked at him for several long seconds. “You are an awkward fucker. It must be something to do with being a bloody Ulsterman!”
Alex had ordered two more beers, and turned to his friend. “Being an awkward fucker is easy for an Ulsterman. It comes with the turf”.
“Let me do it then, if you are too bloody tight to spend the two quid.”
“Send your magnus opus to an agent.”
“Oh, piss off, Neil.”
“No, come on, mate, what do you have to lose? You can then get on to another book. Christ knows it has taken you long enough to write this bastard.”
And after several more beers, and a lot of argument, he agreed. Subsequently he came to believe that the beers had been persuasive, and accused Willis of taking advantage of him when he was drunk.
Neil grinned wickedly, “I wouldn’t even accept that from Julie, so you have no chance.”
And there it was, purring along in the Sussex countryside, proof that Neil Willis had been right, and Alex Millar had been wrong, a 2005 model Jaguar XKR convertible. And even with the new Jag, the feeling had persisted, something was wrong, something was missing. He kept thinking about Peggy Lee, the blonde American singer of the ‘50’s, and ‘60’s, the one with the beauty spot, whom his mates in Belfast had raved about, while he got turned on by Frank Sinatra. What was the title of that song she used to sing? Something about going to the circus as a kid, seeing the clowns and elephants, and the whole damm crew, and thinking at the end “Is that all there is?” Then she fell in love and got married, and kept thinking, “Is that all there is?” The XKR was like that, totally desirable, totally beautiful, all he had ever wanted, and still the feeling persisted, “Is that all there is?” He knew, even as he loved the Jag, that the central core of his life was missing, and a dozen Jaguars could not make good the loss.
Worse still, he thought, as he glanced along the curving phallic bonnet, I know for certain that is all there is, and it frightens the Christ out of me. He moved from the inside to the outside lane, dropped down a gear, and felt the V8 bite in, stirring him as it always did, though less and less each day. He felt its power and strength through his right foot. Yes, that is truly all there is. And having acquired that knowledge, you try to live with it. It involved a dulling down of life, like being on Prozac. He knew about that, Christ knows. If there are no highs, no expectations, then the lows are not quite so low, and over time you can just about manage to bump along, by suppressing your expectations. If you have no feelings, no emotions, you cannot be hurt. Well that isn’t quite true, the hurt is always there, but it stops being a sharp pain and descends into a dull ache, controllable. Most of the time. All right, some of the time.
And it gets you at strange times, and places, like when you are having a shower, and things crowd in on you. You stand there, crying, until the bloody water runs cold. And you end up doing the things you have to do, because you have to do them, or inventing things to do, and you fill your time, and try not to think too much about death. Because the more you think about death, the more attractive it can seem, the final sleep, the best sleep. And you try to avoid drinking too much, as you get so bloody depressed, and feel like crying. And, in any case, you have gone down that particular road, and it doesn’t lead anywhere.
And then she phones you up, from out of the past, a past, which is ever present, and all your carefully constructed defences just crumble. Jesus, what does she want? I still love her, she knows that, but she doesn’t love me, or, if she does, or did, she is making a bloody good job of disguising it. Had it all been too good to survive? It didn’t seem like that at the time. We did love each other, and now it’s only me. What stopped her loving me? The acknowledged reasons they split up were not enough; they did not make sense. There must have been another reason. He had often wondered if she had been having an affair. Was there another man? Or woman? He shuddered. No,no,no! No, he would have known, wouldn’t he? God, we were like one person. We knew each other so well. The words of a song came to him. “On an all time high, we move as one….” Who sang that? Did it matter? Bloody songs, always getting into your head and sticking there, like sand in your hair. Yeah, Rita Coolidge, that’s who. Married to Kris Kristoferson at one time. Nice looking lady. And so was Francesca, best looking lady he had ever seen. No, mate, he told himself, Daina was beautiful, probably still is. And you lost her, you stupid bastard.
The Jaguar moved out smoothly to overtake another car, a Fiat Punto. Bloody Italian rubbish. But Italian, like Daina. Funny how nearly everything seems to be Italian since he met her; pasta, Frascati, Fiats, tenors, the Mafia, Michael Schumacher. No, he’s German, you dick, just drives a Ferrari. He eased the Jaguar back to the nearside lane. No need to hurry, there was still loads of time. In any event she would be late. So, what did she want, for Christ’s sake? It couldn’t be just the dammed book. She does not need my signature, or autograph. She has that on a million letters I sent her. OK, OK, not millions, but hundreds. Should have saved the bloody postage; could have bought an Aston Martin. The times he wrote to the woman, the apologies, the plans, the suggestions, all carefully, studiously composed, and just as carefully, studiously and very successfully ignored. She was so bloody good at that! Just ignored, like something unpleasant on the pavement.
Keep talking to yourself, Alex. Do not think for one second that she wants to try again. That will destroy you. Why did you agree to meet her?
So, why did she suggest a meeting? Was she after his money? It was all right if she was. He was willing to pay the price, pretty nearly any price. No, not that, but why? Don’t start telling yourself she cares. You know she doesn’t bloody care. She didn’t care when she walked out, and she hasn’t cared these last ten bloody years. Put your mind in neutral, he told himself, stop thinking. Thinking has not done you any good in the last ten bloody years. Put some music on, loud music. That always stops you thinking. It’s better not to think.
He switched on the CD player. Sinatra began singing “The game is over.”
“Time, there was a time, when I could look at you, and know all there is to know…..”
He switched it off again. “Bugger me gently, Frank, I don’t need that” The track had been recorded around 1972, and not released until about 1996. Extraordinary song, it had been written by John Denver, of all people, and the damm thing went right through him.
The road opened up on to a long straight stretch, and the 60 signs gave way to derestricted ones. The car smoothly accelerated, the wind flicking his hair around. He wondered if she would like it, or ignore his baby as another big boy’s toy. His mind went back again to Francesca, replaying old conversations, teasing out intended ones. She had always been interested in cars, and had liked Jags. They had even looked at a beautiful white E type together, before deciding, with regret, that they could not afford it, and it was impractical anyway.
The truck, when he saw it, was on his right, coming through a gap from the opposite carriageway. He thought it would stop, thought the driver had seen him, but the big blue vehicle stumbled out into the roadway ahead of him. There was nowhere to go, he was in the outside lane and this giant dickhead was rumbling into his path. Suddenly, everything dropped into slow motion. He braked, and even as he did, he knew he couldn’t stop. He wrenched the wheel hard over to his left, but the bastard was speeding up now towards his left. The escape channel was closing rapidly. He heard the screeching of the brakes, and sensed the great bulk of the truck looming like a battleship in front of him. The name George Matthews filled his vision. God damm you, George Matthews, God damm you! He heard the crack as the airbag opened. There was blood in his mouth. The car was rolling. Oh please, sweet Jesus, no, not now, not now, and not the Jag!
Chapter Two – Episode 1 Tomorrow