Chapter 1: STEPPING OUT
One Monday morning in early summer Frank woke up and decided to change his life.He had slept fitfully and, opening the bedroom window, he stretched and yawned. He looked out on to the street and breathed in the cool, fresh air. There was nothing special to mark the moment, just the view he knew so well, everything quiet and still for now, waiting for the activity of the day to begin. He came away from the window, got dressed, and felt his life flash by at the bedroom door.
He was determined to quit his job. That would be the first thing. He ate breakfast and read the morning paper, but as he skimmed the stories, he forgot each one almost as soon as he passed on to the next. Doubts crowded around him. He realized he might change his mind at any second.
He needed to get out of the house.
Sitting in the car, with the engine idling and the radio on, Frank felt foolish. Maybe after all he should just go to work, and live his life as normal. But on the other hand, he felt an overpowering urge to do something extraordinary. So he set off, without any real thought at first of where he might go. On automatic pilot, he drove towards the city centre, occasionally staring at someone else as he stopped at lights. The people in the cars, in the buses, walking along the pavements, all seemed unreal. Perhaps they were just a part of a sophisticated dream. Frank switched off the radio as he crept closer to the city centre. He wanted as few distractions as possible, now that it was crunch time. He reached the turn off to the side road where his office was situated. He gritted his teeth and eased away, straight on, heading back out of the city centre. It was just before nine am.
He thought he might go to the coast and get some sea air. The nearest coastal town was a half an hour drive away. He switched over from news and current affairs to a music station, of the easy listening variety. Very soon, he was driving against the flow of traffic and on to the quieter roads of the outer suburbs. It was a fairly clear day, a little cooler than it should be at this time of year. The sky was a weak blue as yet, as if unsure whether to develop to full colour or retreat to grey.
When he got to the small coastal town, he parked at the sea front and wandered along the promenade. Not many people were about – a few pensioners and a woman holding hands with a young girl. Perhaps her daughter, around three years old, Frank guessed, dancing and skipping in the light breeze. Frank carried on up the promenade to the far end where the beach stopped and the rocks began.
As he passed the last bench where the promenade ended, with a view of the sweeping shoreline, he caught the eye of an old man who sat there alone, dressed in a grey overcoat and flat cap. The old man smiled at him, so Frank smiled back.
“Mulling things over, young man?” asked the stranger.
“In a way” replied Frank.
“Think clearly lad – take the bull by the horns; grasp the nettle”
Frank had the strangest feeling that the old man knew exactly what was going on in Frank’s head.
“Thanks for the advice” he said.
“No problem son” smiled the man “if you need any more pearls of wisdom, I’ll be right here .. well unless I go into Tony’s for a nice cuppa. It’s getting a bit chilly now”
Frank walked on, his mind as empty as the seascape, until he reached a sign to mark the start of the coastal path. But he wasn’t in the mood for a long walk so he went down some steps to the beach. There was no one at all on the sand, which Frank noticed was strewn with debris. The sea was a dirty, uniform grey, the waves sliding smoothly up and back, up and back. Overall, there was not much to encourage anyone to linger on the beach today, so after a few minutes, Frank ambled towards another set of steps, up to the promenade. He was unsure what to do next. So he returned to the car. And then, as he was about to get in, he heard a voice shout:
He saw it was the old man he’d been talking to earlier, now across the road, at the doorway of a café with a sign saying “Tony’s” in faded lettering across the front. But how does he know my name, thought Frank? Perhaps I told him and now I’ve just forgotten ? But no, the conversation had been less than ten minutes ago.
“Pack up all your things, you’re going to be leaving” shouted the old man and, without waiting for a reply, ducked into the cafe.
The café door closed. From where he stood, Frank couldn’t see through the windows. There was no one else around. Frank thought he should go into the café and ask a few questions, but after dithering for a short while, he just shrugged his shoulders and, still mystified, slumped into the driver’s seat of the car.
On automatic pilot, he picked up his mobile phone from the side pouch where he had left it and saw to his dismay that there were five missed calls, three text messages and a voicemail message. No doubt there were also some emails. He could tell straight away that the missed calls were from work. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the texts or emails. After staring out of the window for a few moments, he got back out of the car, mobile phone in hand and, with a flourish, tossed it into a nearby bin. It would have been more dramatic to take it down to the beach and throw it into the sea but Frank didn’t want to add to the pollution that he knew blighted these coastal waters. He hadn’t even bothered to turn the phone off but he didn’t care.
Now I am beginning to be cut off, he thought and felt good about it. But he realized it was difficult to be truly cut off. He was happy that no one could contact him. Whether to be in touch with anyone was something entirely in his own hands.
And then a plan formed, a very short term one, a vague plan of leaving, just as the old man had said.
By lunchtime that day, Frank had driven back home and started to prepare to leave the city. He packed a bag. Not all his things. In it was a collection of his most comfortable clothes, enough to keep him going indefinitely as long as he kept them clean, together with some toiletries, a few books, his portable music player, his passport, driving licence and national insurance card. His household bills were paid by direct debit from his current account and one of the last things he did with his laptop ( before hiding it in a cupboard ) was to transfer his modest savings into that account, as well as sending an email to his boss – to say he was resigning with immediate effect. He made a quick calculation that he could live fairly comfortably in cheap hotels, or bed and breakfast type accommodation, for a few months on what was in his bank account. And then what, when the cash runs out? he thought. Well, maybe I’ll look for another job before that happens, he reassured himself.
He cleared out the fridge/freezer of the few items that were in it and had a late, long lunch.
Should he say goodbye to his friends? There were work colleagues who he occasionally socialized with, his pals who went with him nearly every other weekend to watch the local football team, another friend who he went to the cinema with once a month. And that was it. But in the silence of his very tidy kitchen, Frank admitted to himself that none of these people were close friends. They would probably not even notice his absence for a while. He could always log on to his email account in a few days and let everyone know he was ok. And anyway, his plan didn’t involve him being away forever – all of them would, no doubt, still be here if and when he came back.
As for family, he had none, or at least none nearby. His older sister lived in Canada, happily married with three young children, having met a local man on a summer holiday over there a decade ago. Frank rarely visited as it was so expensive, and anyway, much as he liked his sister, he had never been particularly close to her - she was nine years older than him. She hardly ever came back over from Canada. His parents were both dead, his mother about five years ago and his father when he was just thirteen. His mother had been in a car accident and ended up in a coma. It had been a long, drawn out affair, the doctors eventually advising him that there was no hope, just a dignified ending. He missed his mother – there was a blank space where she had loomed over his life. He and his sister had been left the small, family home and some savings shared equally between them. His sister had been generous to him, agreeing for Frank to have the house and to share the savings. So Frank was a relatively wealthy young man, and even when his savings ran out, he would still have the house, to live in or sell as he pleased. He understood that most people were not in a position to do what he was now resolved to do. All in all, clearing out for a few months was not so hard.
But when he did a final check around the house, Frank suddenly panicked and was again gripped by self doubt. He was leaving sooner than he thought. His life of safe routines was about to change dramatically, and those routines had become so entrenched that change was a frightening concept. For a few minutes, but what seemed like hours, Frank stood at the back door, frozen in uncertainty. Then his house phone rang and he snapped out of the spell. It was probably the office, reacting to the last email. That spurred him on. He stepped outside, the receding cries of the phone calling him back, but in vain. He noticed clouds were gathering. He got in the car, plugged in the portable music player, and drove away, humming to one of his favourite songs.
But where to go first? Frank was sure he wanted to leave the city, the place where he had been born, raised and spent his entire life thus far. On his mother’s side, the family had been in the city for generations but the places they had lived were largely inner city areas, now redeveloped. His father’s family were from a small village in a valley about thirty miles north of the city and Frank decided he would like to go there first. The last time he remembered being there was when he was a small boy. Not surprisingly, given how young Frank had been when his father died, he knew very little about that side of the family.
He was tempted to drive across the city to the house he had grown up in. The family had moved after his sister left home. He often dreamed of that house. It was a house where he had been safe, happy and often left to his own devices. But somehow, he knew that to go back would just be an anti climax, even a disappointment. His memories remained and they were a comfort. Time could not be unwound. Childhood could not be restored.
So he made his mind up to leave the city, and go looking for… something, something he could not name but which itched at him, and which he realized had been itching at him for a long time.
Frank drove north out of the city – the afternoon traffic just starting to build to rush hour. He knew where he wanted to stay the first night. There was a small hotel just off the main road, quite close to the village his father’s family were from, situated near a lake and nestling at the bottom of a valley, surrounded by hills. It was popular with walkers, and tourists who wanted to be near enough to the city and the coast, as well as being on the edge of the moors and mountains. He had driven past many times and always thought to himself, I would really like to stay there. He had no idea whether the place would have vacancies or how much it would cost, but for the first night he didn’t mind paying a bit more than the rough budget he had calculated earlier. He stopped halfway, at a roadside service station which had a café, and took his time over a large coffee. If he were in work, a coffee break was short, the drink rushed, and nearly always he would be thinking about the next thing that needed to be done when the break was over. This was different, more like a stop for coffee on the weekend- slow and leisurely. He had the evening paper and this time he found he could concentrate on the stories, all of which seemed parochial and petty. There were no stories about someone suddenly changing direction in their life, as he was doing right now.
When he got to the hotel, he noticed that there were plenty of spaces in the car park. Rather nervously, he went into reception and booked a room for one night. They gave him a room overlooking the lake. Having unpacked, he sat and stared at the peaceful vista for some time. The lake looked calm and inviting. And yet, he didn’t feel like a walk. He was content to sit in the room watching various banal tv shows until eventually he realised he was hungry. He hadn’t eaten for hours. He ordered room service and then got embarrassed about whether to give a tip to the girl who brought the food, and how much. He had no real idea so he decided to do nothing. The girl didn’t appear to be disappointed.
He watched more tv as he ate, flicking through the channels aimlessly, not able to concentrate on anything. The evening and night seemed to be stretch out endlessly before him. The idea of spending his first night away just watching tv had no appeal. He didn’t feel like reading and he wasn’t particularly tired. It was too late by now to go for a walk so what to do? The receptionist had mentioned that the hotel bar was open to residents and although Frank wasn’t a big drinker, he enjoyed a social beer or two. A quiet pint would be his way of celebrating this new chapter of his life. Anyway, there was no mini bar in the room so he would have to go down to the hotel bar. He worried that he would be the only person there. And he also worried that he would have to talk to someone in the bar. He wasn’t feeling particularly sociable, but on the other hand a sense of adventure urged him on.
When he got downstairs, he realized that there was no way to check out the bar without actually going into it and that worried him. What Frank hated was any nasty surprises. He was much happier knowing what was coming, and having time to think about it. He dithered for a moment but then steeled himself and continued into the bar. And as he did so, his worst fears were confirmed. There were only three other people in there, a man and a woman, and a barman. The man and woman were sitting on stools at the bar, the woman facing him as he entered. She caught his eye immediately and smiled. There was no backing out now.
“Hello” said the woman “we were beginning to think no one else was staying here tonight here” she turned to her companion, “weren’t we, Geoff?”
The man turned to face Frank.
“Yes, we’ve been here in the bar for well over an hour and not a sniff of anyone else”
The man smiled broadly and stretched out his hand to Frank in a friendly, natural way.
“Geoff Marston” They shook. “And let me introduce you to the legend that is Beverley Moore”
Beverley hooted at that.
“Call me Bev” she said.
Frank guessed they must have had a couple of drinks already, noticing that their glasses were almost empty. There was a pregnant pause and Frank realized Bev had proferred her hand – he had been momentarily sidetracked by his own thoughts but he recovered quickly enough and shook her hand too.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Frank”
And so a conversation was struck up. The barman got them a round of drinks which Geoff insisted on paying for, and then the barman left them, pointing out the little bell to ring when they needed another drink.
Bev suggested they sit on the lounge chairs and Frank found himself being talked at. Like a double act, as soon as one finished on a topic, the other would overlap, join in or start a new one. In what seemed no time at all, Geoff knew where they lived - in the city, and what they did for a living - Geoff ran a small haulage business and Bev did the books for him. They were both in their mid to late thirties, Frank guessed. Their social lives seemed to revolve around their local golf club.
“We’re only here for a night” said Geoff, “Getting away from work, from the heat of battle. Bev’s treating me”
“I owe him” said Bev, who had gone back to the bar, and rung the bell. It was her turn to insist on buying a round of drinks.
“Yes, she owes me big time – I’ve taken one for the team today”
Frank had said very little in the conversation so far. They had asked him hardly any questions. They seemed only too happy to be the ones to entertain and enlighten him, and, with the first drink having gone down nicely, Frank found he was starting to warm to them.
“Taken one for the team?” he repeated.
“Would you believe I have been in court today?” said Geoff.
He was grinning broadly, so Frank, feeling brave, asked why.
“It’s a colourful story – I hope you’re not a prude, Frank” laughed Bev, still at the bar waiting to be served.
“Nah, he’s no prude – I think Frankie boy is a man of the world”
Frank said nothing, just waited for Geoff to continue.
“Well, a few months ago we were at a do at the golf club and a certain person had a bit too much to drink” Geoff theatrically raised his eyebrows and inclined his head to Bev at the bar.
“Cheeky!” said Bev.
At that point the barman came back so the story had to wait for the drinks to be poured, and while they were Bev asked the barman how long the bar would stay open.
“After ten I won’t be here but you can stay as long as you like if you have bought drinks before then”, was the answer “Sometimes people buy a few bottles of wine or whatever and just carry on”
“Boys, are you up for an all nighter?” shouted Bev.
After some banter along the same lines, the barman left.
“So anyway, one of our friends challenged her ladyship here to a dare” continued Geoff.
“And that was a mistake, because I love dares and all that” said Bev.
Frank noticed her voice was getting louder and she seemed to be a bit tipsy.
“There’s this club on the riverside” carried on Geoff, “called Chameleons”
He paused and looked at Frank expectantly.
Frank shook his head “I’ve not heard of it”
“Well, it’s a bit different to normal clubs – it’s one of those swinger clubs”
Geoff paused again. Frank wondered if he was waiting for some adverse reaction, but just nodded again.
“So the dare was, that Bev and I would go this club and, well, you know, see whether we might be interested in this swinging business. I don’t think we were really. You know, swapping partners and all that is a bit weird, isn’t it? But bloody fool as she is, love her, she agreed, so I had to go along with it too, didn’t I? And a few weeks later, off we went. I drove the car and we even decided to stay the night – they’ve got some rooms upstairs”
“Well, nobody could accuse me of not going the whole hog” giggled Bev.
“I parked up,we booked into the room and went down to the club and, to be honest, we were both a bit nervous at first” continued Geoff, “ but we bolted the first couple of drinks and relaxed a bit. We got chatting to various people – some were regulars and had loads of funny stories and others were first timers like us. We had a bit of a dance, a bit more to drink, and went into the Jacuzzi”
“A Jacuzzi in a nightclub?” said Frank.
“Oh yeah” said Geoff, “a really good one – we knew they had one beforehand – I looked on the website, so we’d brought our stuff. So there we were, champagne and Jacuzzi, bubbles and bubbles , ha ha, and all was going well, until this bloke started getting too friendly with Bev, putting his arm around her and getting a bit close and all”
“I was a bit squiffy by then so I didn’t cotton on straight away” claimed Bev.
“Anyway, the next thing I know, he’s trying to kiss her and have a grope, and I just saw red”
Frank imagined what might be coming next – a dust up in a Jacuzzi?
“I admit I lost my temper with this guy, and with Bev, and the next thing I know, she gets out, storms off, soaking wet, straight back upstairs to our room. Of course I follow but then we had a blazing row and Bev just wanted to go, accusing me of ruining her night. She got dressed in a shot and grabbed the car keys. Obviously she was in no condition to drive but she was quicker off the mark than me. By the time I got my clothes back on, she was out of the room and halfway to the car!”
“I was being a right prima donna” added Bev.
“By the time I get outside, she’s in the driver’s seat and just about to go” continued Geoff, “so I just jumped in the passenger seat, hoping to stop her driving. But she set off as soon as I got in, I had no time to do anything. She drives out of the car park and I’m screaming at her to stop cos she must be way over the limit. But as I’m pleading with her, she’s all over the place. Next thing I know, she hits the kerb, bounces, oversteers and smacks into a parked car. Nightmare. Airbags blow up and everything. But we’re both ok, get out of the car and I’m ranting and raving at her in the street.”
Bev seemed to think this was hilarious.
“You know, I’d got out of the car without my heels on” she said “ I felt so light headed, I just ran away in my bare feet.. and I tell you, I’ve always been a fast runner”
“That surprised me” said Geoff “I stood there like a jibbering idiot for a few seconds. I knew I had to go after her, but I was a bit worried about leaving the car unlocked. So I went round to the driver’s side and took the keys out of the ignition. Bev had got out so fast, she’d just left them. Then I got back out, locked up and ran after her. By this time, she’d turned the corner into another street but by the time I got there, she was nowhere to be seen. Turns out, she ran into a garden and was hiding behind a wall. But obviously I didn’t know that at the time. So there I was, running up and down that street, calling out for her, starting to panic, to be honest.
And then, just my luck, a cop car arrives. At first, I was relieved because I was just worried about Bev so I approached them. This big copper gets out of the driver’s side and immediately says, Have you just come from that car which crashed around the corner?
Of course I said yes and told him about Bev and I having an argument and her running off and how worried I was. The other copper was looking around as if to try to spot her but the first one, the big guy, came right up close to me and said, Have you been drinking sir? Well, I wasn’t going to lie about that, he could probably smell it on me. So I said yes, I’ve had one or two. And I’ve realized since - he was trapping me at that point because the next thing he said stunned me.
We’ve had a report from a member of the public who saw the car crash and a male get out of the driver’s side. I believe that person to be you and I’m arresting you on suspicion of drink driving.
It was all a blur after that. He read me my rights, breathalysed me, searched me, found the key – would you believe it, he even said, Well, well, what have we got here? – just like they say on tv!
I may have been under the influence, but I didn’t want to land Bev in it”
“My hero” gushed Bev, hugging him
“So I kept my trap shut about her driving the car – I was just pleading with them to find her”
“Actually, I heard the commotion and came out from where I was hiding, and by that time he was in the police car” said Bev, “I panicked when they asked me about the car and told them Geoff had been driving. You see, I can’t lose my licence – my Mum is in a bad way and lives in the middle of nowhere. It would be a nightmare if I didn’t have a car… ”.
“ It’s lucky I’ve got such a forgiving nature” said Geoff “ because that whole thing was embarrassing - being taken to the cop shop, booked in, put on the breath machine, slung into a cell ( well not really “ slung” of course, the cops weren’t too bad about it ), being kept in overnight ( I didn’t sleep a wink – there was an idiot pounding the door of his cell, calling the police all the names under the sun, he seemed to go on all night, probably on drugs or something ), having my prints and photo taken and ending up being charged for court”
“And being interviewed on dvd, darling” reminded Bev.
“Oh yeah, they questioned me in the morning before they charged me. They said I could have a solicitor but then told me it would delay the whole thing for hours. Well, I didn’t want to wait any longer than necessary so I went ahead without a lawyer. That was another mistake. Of course now I know that a lawyer would have got there in no time. It’s just a trick the police use to persuade dimwits like me not to have a solicitor. Anyway, I’d been thinking all night about what to say if they asked me about it and by the time I sobered up, I decided I wasn’t going to take the rap after all.”
“My hero no more” laughed Bev.
“I didn’t tell them about the swingers club – just said we’d had some drinks at a friend’s place and then had the argument etc... But they obviously didn’t believe me, said they had an eye witness who saw the whole thing from his window near where we crashed. Of course, I knew the witness couldn’t have seen the whole thing. But I was a bit surprised when they showed me what they’d written in their pocket notebook about their little chat to Bev. She’d blamed me for the whole thing and said I was the driver.”
“Yeah, they got me to sign their little book before they got me a lift home” added Bev “ I was supposed to go to the police station to give a full statement the next day. They told me I couldn’t do it that night because I was upset, and under the influence. But in the end I didn’t bother going the next day and I refused point blank after that.”
“ So then it goes to court and I have to get a solicitor” continued Geoff “ Of course Bev wasn’t talking to me for a while but I soon won her round” Bev raised her eyebrows dramatically but said nothing “ And we decided I’d have to take it on the chin – you know, put my hands up to it straight away. The solicitor said I should give it a run when he saw there was only one witness. I remember him saying he could cast doubt on the witness. After all, it was dark, late at night, the view might have been obscured, and if he didn’t see Bev at all, he couldn’t have seen the whole incident. But he did say they might be able to use the police notebook, even though it was, what’s the word?”
“Hearsay?” suggested Frank
“Yes, hearsay but he told me the rules are complicated. I was tempted to fight it. I called Bev straight after meeting the solicitor the first time, because he told me we could contest it without dragging her into it. But Bev was having none of it, were you love?”
“Definitely not “ said Bev firmly “ I may have been driving but it was all his fault , in my eyes, so I stood firm. I told him this was going to be a test of our relationship. And anyway, as he’s the boss of the business, he can get one of the other lads to drive him around on business and I can drive him the rest of the time”
“It’s going to be such a pain for the next year or so” said Geoff.
“You got banned for a year?” asked Frank
“It all happened today” continued Geoff “I had to wait in the court with all these druggies, villains and general hopeless cases. Before the hearing, I sit down for 10 minutes with my solicitor and he goes through the procedure and tells me about the three magistrates – that they are a decent bench for sentencing. We talk about all the good stuff he’s going to say in mitigation – you know, been driving umpteen years, clean licence, the problems it will cause for the business and so on. I was really nervous, and not really taking everything in. Then after waiting an hour and a half, I’m called in and have to stand there and feel publicly humiliated. I guess that’s the whole point – to make you think, I never want to have to go through this again. It was all a bit of a blur, to be honest. The magistrates have a quick chat amongst themselves and they give me a telling off, fine me ( a bit less than what the solicitor thought ) and ban me for fifteen months”
“But it’s not really fifteen months is it?” interjected Bev.
“ I was coming on to that – I get a discount of three and a bit months off the ban if I go on a drink drivers rehab course – where my lawyer tells me I get patronized by the police – so all in all it could have been worse. But you know how much this is going to cost me, adding up everything – the extra money to be driven around at work, the fine, the legal fees – it all adds up to thousands”
“And all because of a bit of the green eyed monster” chuckled Bev “But just to prove he’s no prude, Geoff has agreed to go again”
“Yes, that’s true” said Geoff ruefully “But not to the same place obviously”
Bev planted a soggy kiss on Geoff’s lips.
“My darling knows he’s the only one for me – all the rest is just having a bit of a laugh. I’ll always come back to him” she said, hugging him.
Frank wasn’t sure what to think. Was the whole story a precursor to something involving him? Bev had been very friendly towards him, and very tactile, almost from the moment he arrived in the bar – frequently touching his arm as she spoke, and even at one point squeezing his knee. Frank guessed it was just her way. But no wonder the guy in the club thought his luck was in, if she had been acting in a similar way with him, in a bikini, in a jacuzzi.
“Shall we carry on in our room – we brought some booze with us, just in case, didn’t we darling?” she suggested.
Frank wanted to get out of this as soon as he could. He yawned and stretched, “Really tired now, sorry, time for sleep for me”
And added “See you at breakfast maybe”
“No problem” said Geoff.
Frank thought he could detect just the faintest look of relief on Geoff’s face.
“We’ll be down at nine ish – back to work by mid morning tomorrow” said Geoff.
They tried to persuade him to stay in the bar a while longer but Frank made his excuses again and left them to it.
As he reached the doorway of the bar, Bev shouted out
“Room ten if you change your mind”, and raised her glass.
Frank waved back but said nothing. I’m so glad they don’t know my room number, he thought.