It was almost five thirty when I reached our cottage. I stopped and listened. I couldn’t hear Jan, so I made my way quickly around to the back.
“Where have you been? And why are you carrying a ladder?”
I almost swore. Jan was getting the washing off the line.
“Oh, I popped round to Efram’s,” I replied, trying, frantically, to think of a reason for being in possession of a ladder.
“And the ladder?”
It came to me in a blinding flash, as if sent from above. “Old Efram was saying how badly the guttering round here gets clogged up with dead leaves. He reckoned he was pestering Ted to get them cleared out before we got any serious rain. That’s before the old bugger popped his clogs, of course. Ted, that is, not Efram.” I was starting to ramble. I gave her the best smile I could muster.
“So, he offered to lend me his ladder.”
“He sounds like a nice man, “she said. “You’ll have to introduce us.”
She carried on un-pegging the towels and tea towels and I felt so guilty. It seemed to me that all I’d done since arriving in this God forsaken place was lie to my wife. Maybe I wasn’t as bad at it as I thought. Before then, I couldn’t recollect telling her any significant untruths. I may have fibbed about how many pints I’d had at the pub, once or twice, but didn’t every bloke?
“Do you want to go and wash your hands, dinner’s almost ready,” she said, picking up the linen basket.
“Here, I’ll carry that,” I said, taking it from her, thinking – here goes then. “Talking of dinner, I was wondering about asking Simon and Shona. You know, repay the compliment, so to speak.”
“Oh,” she said, her surprise evident. “I’d really like that. That’s a really nice thought, Ben.”
“How about tomorrow night?”
“It’s a bit short notice, don’t you think? They might already have plans. What’s the hurry?”
“I didn’t behave very well when we went to theirs, I’d just like to make amends as soon as possible, that all,” I lied again.
“Well, if they’re free, I’m up for it.”
“I’ll pop and see Simon first thing in the morning,” I said, with a grin. “I’m sure they’ll jump at the chance.”
“Just don’t go pressurising him,” she urged.
“Don’t worry, I won’t.” I laid the ladder under the kitchen window, kissed Jan on the forehead and went in to wash my hands, ready for dinner. First part of the plan activated, I thought. Part two should be a breeze. Drake would take any opportunity to make me squirm. He would be sure that Jan had insisted on the return invite and that I was dreading it. He would certainly be right about the second part.
The rest of the evening was a trial. I had no real appetite but managed to force half a plateful of Jan’s Beef Bourguignon down.
“What’s wrong?” She asked. “That’s one of your favourites.”
I gave her a wan smile. “Just feel a bit off colour, darling. Don’t worry it’s nothing to do with your marvellous culinary skills.”
“I should hope not,” she said sharply, and then, with a look of concern. “Maybe we should put off Simon’s and Shona’s dinner invitation, if you’re not feeling up to it.”
I suddenly realized that my nervous tension – no, change that to – downright fear – was hampering the plan a little.
“It’s probably too much sun, something like that. I’ll be fine tomorrow.”
“If you’re still feeling iffy in the morning, you’re not going round there, okay?”
I nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“I don’t suppose you’re up for sherry trifle, either then?”
“Oh, I love your sherry trifle,” I said. “Keep it in the fridge, I won’t see it go to waste, I promise you.”
Jan reached over and put her hand on mine. “Why don’t you go up to bed. I’ll clear up here, probably watch one of the ‘Orange is the New Black’ episodes and be up later. Just go and sleep it off, whatever it is.”
“But I was going to do the washing up.”
She stood up and pointed to the stairs. “Go.”
“Well, if you don’t mind. I do feel bushed, I don’t know why.”
“Go,” she repeated.
I must admit, I was relieved. Sitting, watching TV had much less appeal to me tonight than usual and, at the best of times, it had very little. The thought of sitting there with Jan, whilst the whole, sorry predicament chased its tail through my head, was not a pleasant one. I would be better off upstairs, out of the way. I didn’t envisage getting much sleep tonight. In fact, until this was over, sleep would be, probably, very much in short supply.
I kissed Jan goodnight and trudged up to bed. As I climbed the stairs, I tried to plan my actions for the following day. First thing would be a full recovery for me, with plenty of assurance that I would be fine for the upcoming dinner. Second would be the visit to my favourite vicar, where I intended to be subservient and apologetic, trying to convince him that I was seriously rethinking the situation. I may even hint to him that I had been feeling a bit off the previous evening but was fine now and looking forward to making amends for my previously, unacceptable behaviour. I just hoped that he wouldn’t be able to see through it. If everything went to plan, my upset stomach would make a reappearance halfway through dinner and I’d make my excuses and go up to the bedroom. I made a mental note to remember to put the ladder in position before Drake and his bitch arrived.
I lay awake, listening to the muffled sounds of ‘Orange is the New Black’, with the occasional laugh and gasp from Jan. It was going to be a long night. Mentally, I moved our plan forward, beginning with me back on the street and heading for the beach. With the community so tightly knitted and every other inhabitant of Chanter’s Hide under Drake’s evil thumb, it would be good if I weren’t spotted on the way there and the three of us weren’t seen launching the dinghy. If we were, it would be sure to get back to the vicar and alarm bells would ring. Next, I started to wonder if Peter had any idea what we were looking for on Smugglers’ Rock and, indeed, where we might find it. The more I thought about our mission, the more hopeless it seemed to be. First, I was going to try and con some sort of Satanist, whose powers were, from what I’d already witnessed, quite considerable. Second, three of us were going to attempt to sail out to the island in an old dinghy, one that could easily turn into a colander, on the way over. And, third, we going to search for some unknown item that could be anywhere. It was a plot from one of the poorly written novels, I used to reject without a moment’s hesitation, in a previous life. After all that, however, I had to try. I had to hope that Peter was right, and that Uncle Ted hadn’t been a mad, old trout. There was no other option.
About an hour and a half later, Jan came up. I pretended to be asleep and she climbed in beside me, plumped up her pillows, let out a satisfied sigh and settled down. Within minutes she was snoring softly, and I couldn’t help envying her. I seemed to glance at the clock every twenty minutes or so, trying not to toss and turn too much. As it was, Jan let out a few sleepy moans, as if I were disturbing her. The last time I remember seeing the time it was four fifty. I must have dropped into a troubled sleep after that.
Jan got out of bed just after seven and I opened my eyes. They were sore and gritty, and I felt exhausted. I sat up.
“’Morning you, how are you feeling today?” Jan asked, with a broad, expectant smile. She had always been a morning person. Me, on the other hand, even at the best of times, had always been the reverse. I returned her smile, rubbed my eyes. “I feel fine, darling. A good night’s sleep has done me a power of good,” I lied, once again. I couldn’t tell her I felt like shit and was terrified of the day and night ahead.
“I’ll go and get breakfast going, I’m starving, I don’t know about you?” She said, leaving the bedroom.
“You bet, “I called after her. If I could get this lead ball out of my stomach, maybe I’d be able to eat a little breakfast. Maybe.
I ambled to the shower and stood under the drizzle for a time, hoping the water would revive me. It didn’t. I shaved, cleaned my teeth, going through the motions automatically. Today, I thought, could be do or die.
By the time I sat down for breakfast, I’d managed to calm myself a tad. I’d decided I was, after all, a man and not a mouse, and it was time I started to behave as such. Even so, I passed on cereals and waited until Jan had eaten her Weetabix, sipping orange juice. I told her I was saving myself for dinner and asked if she had decided on a menu.
“Of course, I have,” she said, spooning up the last of the milk and cereal. “Organisation’s my middle name, Remember?”
I nodded. “Indeed.” I waited for her to wax lyrical about her courses, but she took her bowl to the sink and busied herself with the eggs.
“Well?” I prompted.
She turned her head and smiled. “You’re going to have to wait and see,” she said coyly.
If I’m honest, I was glad I didn’t have to ooh and aah over her dishes, most of which I wouldn’t touch anyway. I was thankful for small mercies.
The aroma of grilled bacon filled the kitchen as she opened the oven. It was waiting patiently with sausages and mushrooms, for the fried eggs to arrive.
As Jan dished up, I confess the lead in my stomach shrunk, leaving a little room.
I wasn’t ravenous but I could definitely eat something.
“That smells wonderful,” I said enthusiastically.
“It’s only a fry up,” said Jan.
“Yeah, but you can’t beat bacon and eggs,” I replied.
“Well, strictly speaking, you can beat eggs. I do it all the time.”
I grinned. “Ho, ho.”
I picked up my knife and fork and dived in. If I could eat half of it, I would be happy. Once I began munching, however, I didn’t stop until I’d cleared my plate. I sat back and patted my belly, feeling pleased with myself.
“Beautiful, as usual,” I sighed.
“No thank you darling, that will do nicely. I’ll wait for the mystery menu. Any clues?”
She waved her finger at me. “Everything comes to he who waits,” she laughed.
And everybody gets what they deserve, I thought, hoping it was true. I looked at my watch. It was ten to nine. “I think I’ll mosey over to Simon’s and deliver the dinner invitation,” I said. “I’ll tell him you’re keeping the details a heavily guarded secret.”
“Just don’t put any pressure on him. Okay?”
I gave her a semblance of a boy scout salute. “No, ma’am.”
“Go on, get out,” she said, shaking her head and chuckling.
When I hit the day’s heat, my legs became wobbly and the breakfast threatened to reappear. I realised how much I was dreading the next part of the plan.
I confess, the walk to Drake’s place could have been a lot quicker. After the wobbliness subsided, my legs took on a leaden feel. My stomach was still trying desperately to hold on to the bacon and eggs it had been thoughtlessly bombarded with. My mouth kept filling with water, and I was continuously swallowing. I was metres away from the vicar’s driveway when I had to give up and let nature take its course. I threw up in the hedge, heaving until I was dry retching. Luckily, I had a handkerchief in my pocket. One of the old school. I was able to wipe my mouth and eyes and blow my nose before going any further. I thought that hoofing up might have made me feel better – I was wrong.
I took a deep breath and set off up the drive. My attempt at a determined stride failed miserably, the lead in my calves putting the mockers on anything other than a shuffle. Although it was only a matter of seconds, it seemed like an eternity before I was standing at the front door, heart beating like a plethora of hammers. I was giving myself a good talking to, building up to ringing the bell, when the door opened. Drake was wearing a navy T shirt and stone coloured shorts and looked almost as shocked as I did.
“Well, this is a surprise, Ben.” He looked me up and down. “Are you alright, you look as though you’ve just seen a ghost?” He asked, the usual, evil glint in his eye.
I swallowed, as more bile tried to escape.
“Cat got your tongue?” He added.
“I... I’m here to apologise for my previous behaviour,” I said croakily. “And to invite Shona and yourself to dinner tonight.”
He almost took a step back. “That’s a turn up,” he said, grinning. “Has the little woman put pressure on you?”
I knew if I tried to smile it would appear sickly and false, so I remained po-faced. “No, actually it was my idea. I think we got off on the wrong foot, I’d like to start again, if we can.”
It was obvious he was suspicious. From being his arch enemy to trying to buddy up with him was a massive step. After all, he wasn’t stupid, and he knew I wasn’t either.
“Someone entered my house and stole something last night, Ben. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
‘Oh shit,’ I thought. Our foray into breaking and entering had slipped my mind with all the excitement and planning. I nearly lost it and admitted everything but managed to keep it together – just. I returned Drake’s gaze, thinking about Jan and Charlie and what would happen if I crumbled now.
“Why should I? What was stolen?” I tried to look concerned but probably managed constipated instead.
“Oh, it’s not important, forget it. What’s brought on the change of heart?”
I shrugged. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” I did, this time, give him a sickly smile.
“If you’re trying to pull a fast one, I’ll find out,” he said through gritted teeth. “You know that, don’t you, Ben?”
I held up my hands. “Look – I know when I’m beaten. Will you come? Jan’s really looking forward to it.”
I never realised a smile could hold so much malice. “Shall we say eight?”
“Eight would be good. Look forward to seeing you later, Simon.”
I turned and fought the urge to run down the drive.
“If you’re messing with me, you know I’ll crush you,” he called after me.
I held up a hand in acknowledgement but kept on walking. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten about pissing my pants as a giant cobra readied itself to end my life; but mainly – how Efram had saved me. It seemed like betrayal. I apologised mentally to my new friend. Step two, however, had been accomplished. In the past, on occasions, I’d professed to hate somebody or other. I realised now, that had been false. It was only now; I knew what real hatred felt like. I needed a little moral support, so I texted Jan and told her it was on for tonight and I was just going to call in and see Efram on the way back. A message came on the screen telling me it hadn’t been possible to send the text. Of course not, I thought. She would already be in the kitchen cutting and chopping, preparing a meal fit for a king. Certainly, too good for Drake and his slut.
As I reached Efram’s house, he was just coming out of the front door.
His expression was one of expectation. “How’s it coming along?” He asked.
I ushered him back into the house. It wouldn’t do for Drake to spot us together after I had just told him I was about to become, in effect, a ‘Hider’. Yet another village idiot.
When the front door was shut, Efram asked. “Is the deed done?”
At the sound of his father’s voice, Peter joined us. “Hi Ben, is he coming?”
I let out a heavy sigh and nodded. “Tonight.”
“What did you say to him?” Efram asked me.
“Can you believe I forgot all about last night and the manuscript?”
“Oh God, yes. What did he say?” Efram asked.
I relayed the conversation I’d had with the vicar and Efram slapped me on the back. “Good man, well done.”
“Yeah, but the worst bit is yet to come,” I said with a sigh.
“All you’ve got to say is you don’t feel well, and slouch off upstairs,” Peter said. “It’ll be a doddle.”
“Have you got any of those disgusting sweets left?” Efram asked his son.
“Toxic waste? Yeah, good idea Dad.” Peter hobbled out of the lounge up to his bedroom.
“If these things don’t make you want to throw up, nothing will,” said Efram.
A few minutes later Peter returned with a small bag. “I’ve only got three left,” he said apologetically.
“Have you got one of the green ones, you gave me?”
“You bet,” Peter replied with a grin. “Dad was green after having one of these. He was nearly sick for real.”
Efram shook his head and pulled a face. “I’ve never tasted anything like it, and I don’t want to again.”
I looked from one to the other. “Great,” I said.
“It’s just what you need,” Efram continued. “Take my word for it – you will look bilious.”
Peter handed me the ‘sweet’. “Just hide it under your napkin or something, pop it in when you’re ready, and Bob’s your uncle.”
I took it off him, eyeing it suspiciously. “I wish he had been.”