Root Memory

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The Community

The van’s exhaust pipe rasped and rattled as it rejoined the dual-carriageway, leaving Nero standing beneath a set of traffic lights close to a former canal side inn that Kieran had referred to as The Stewponey. He reached into his pocket and pulled out Aubrey’s note of directions as he walked towards a pool of orange light beneath a nearby street lamp. The impromptu scribbled map gave little clue to distances, so it was difficult to make out just how much further he had to go to reach his goal. Nero retrieved the relevant Ordnance Survey map from his bag and laid it out on the pavement, patting it down from wafts of chilly evening air, lining the scrappy map up alongside the western boundary of Stourbridge on the OS. The two maps seemed to tally, so he followed the sign pointing to the town at the junction ahead of him.

For the first quarter of an hour the route passed by comfortable executive homes that sat back from the main road. But after only hundred yards or so in Nero’s toe had started to sting again, so he rested on a low garden wall while he removed his shoe and sock and rubbed on some ointment. The pain eased a little but he knew he’d have difficulty walking for too much longer.

Ten minutes limping on, and rather disconcertingly, he was out into open country with only a scattering of houses for the next mile or so until, finally, on reaching the top of a winding incline he reached a reflective white sign confirming he’d reached the edge of the town.

At the next street lamp, Nero pulled out both maps once more and squinted at them in the artificial light to see where to go next. Once more his toe was raw, and now his sock was stuck to the inside of his shoe. He decided to ask the next local for directions. Swaggering towards him were three teenagers wearing hoodies; laughing and joking with each other as they tilted their heads back, taking turns to swig extravagantly from a large bottle of cheap cider. No, he’d ask someone else; he suspected at best they’d probably take the piss out of him.

Next up was a bent-backed old man towing a bulging shopping trolley.

“Excuse me... excuse me, could –“

“What?” he snapped back, cupping his free hand to his ear and giving him a suspicious look.

Nero attempted to give him a disarming smile as he flattened the piece of paper between his fingers and thumb then pointed it towards him with one hand while gesturing ahead vaguely with the other. “Am I near the Old Wharf?”

“The what? I can’t hear you with all the traffic.”

As he repeated the question again he knew he was wasting his time, but continued out of habitual politeness. “Is the Old Wharf this way?” The old man was already walking away from him, muttering something lost in the noise.

Even though Nero felt he was very close now to his destination, and approaching another local for information might yield the satisfaction of arriving casually under his own steam and without any fuss, his throbbing digit and the increasingly cold night air demanded a more direct method. Written on the map was a mobile number with the name “Will” next to it, so he tapped it into his phone.

After five rings there was an answer. “Hi. Will here.”

From the upward cadence towards the end of the reply, Nero detected an Australian, or perhaps New Zealand accent – he’d heard somewhere it was possible to distinguish between the two by the way each pronounce the word ‘chips’, though he suspected the request might seem an unusual initial greeting from a stranger. “Hello. I think you’re probably expecting me. My name’s Nero – a friend of Aubrey’s.”

“Right. Yeah, Aubrey said you were coming. Where are you?”

Nero had been clinging to the forlorn hope that Will would come out and collect him, but instead he described precisely the easiest route to the Old Wharf, by way of landmarks: a Chinese takeaway; a pub, and an old Winnebago motor home. “When you get to the Winnie, after it, on the left, you’ll see one corner of a metal fence that’s come away from the post. Go through that, then walk towards the music. That’s us. Seeya in a bit then – and mind you don’t fall in the cut, mate.”

“Yes, thanks. See you in a bit.”

After mentally ticking off the landmarks as he came to them, Nero followed his instructions and pointed himself towards the tribal Techno thump which phased from muffled to bright in the shifting breeze. Getting nearer, and treading carefully to avoid invisible obstacles, he could see coloured lights flashing in time with the tempo through three adjacent windows, so he hobbled towards the centre one. It was impossible to make out any detail of the structure due to the surrounding blackness being so intense. When he was almost upon the building he could hear laughing and shouted conversation from within. Nero knocked at the entrance before he entered, though certain he wouldn’t be heard. As he opened the door the full blare of the music hit him like a blow, causing him to lean back defensively from the aural onslaught.

It was as if he’d stepped back into the Trance scene of the late eighties and early nineties. A sequenced and repeated didgeridoo phrase was nailed to the floor with an 808 stomp and chest-pummelling 303 synth bass. Ecstatic figures with raised hands and closed eyes appeared lost in a mutual anoetic meld with the music as they dipped and gyrated to the digital psychedelia. Then the hidden deejay changed gear and introduced Sufi pipes and a Berber beat over hypnotic drones. A new spell had been cast. The strobing lights gave the scene before him a motor-drive Muybridge movement, creating stuttering snapshot statues of the crowd.

Nero felt a tap on his shoulder from behind and turned to see who it was. He saw a smiling face and an outstretched hand. He attempted to lip read the greeting and realised it must be Will. He led Nero to a room where he could crash for the night – with help from the usual chemical assistance. His eyes gradually closed as the party chilled towards dawn.

Sunday. Nero awoke and looked at his watch. It was nearing midday. After a few seconds, the GPS of his senses reminded him he was in another unfamiliar location, and also the memory of the frantic and surreal events of the night before. Even though Kieran had confidently asserted that the drugs guys wouldn’t have been seriously injured in the car wreckage, there was the nagging sense of guilt of what he’d done, together with the worry that the police could be looking for him. The accompanying uncertainty prodded him with customary anxiety. After a few minutes of urging himself into positive thinking, he got up and redressed his toe; it was still painful and weeping puss again.

Next, he nipped to the bathroom and then explored downstairs. A new house and a new kitchen; though little sign of life about the place, other than a figure staggering blanket ponchoed and semi-comatose in search of a toilet.

After preparing himself a mug of strong black coffee and sawing off a doorstep of wholemeal bread, Nero decided to step outside and see where he was. The community’s autonomous realm covered around three acres. He looked around and it seemed like nowhere; but a nowhere you could see everywhere: a usually glimpsed and then forgotten nowhere in Britain’s countless neglected pockets of urban wilderness that are hidden by their ubiquity. It was one of those bleak hinterlands of drab commercial retreat; brownfield sites of interest lost along the way: downbeat, dirty reminders of recent recession – and another one looming. Railings of battleship grey marked the perimeter; cracked, damp concrete under foot. Inside the rusted reservation, a warehouse with dark, dead sockets for windows and crumbling red brick walls; saplings sprouting from its long-abandoned car park. Nero walked over mounds of rubble and negotiated twisted metal and gaping potholes, noticing how it was all in slow submission to the comforting creep of Nature. It was ugly, but also a calm oasis, a buffer zone from the shrill clamour of the busy, brash world out there.

From the direction he’d arrived the night before, Nero could see a suburb of varied Victorian terraces. Then, swinging right, freight containers stacked in front of a factory. Further around, Exciting New Homes! were promised on a peeling sign, but revealed yet another mundane housing estate; it was just visible from behind a small area of retreating woodland. Then, looking in the opposite direction, he saw a colourful necklace of narrow boats on the canal. Several of them had small wind turbines, and one had some kind of wooden contraption on deck; a heavy looking assembly of timber beams and posts. He wandered over to take a closer look. A head popped out of the cabin doors.

“Morning.”

“Hello. Sorry to appear nosey. Was just looking at your –”

“This? It’s a pole lathe.” The head avoided eye contact.

“Oh, right.”

“Been around since before the Romans, these.”

“My name’s Nero by the way.”

The head looked up at Nero.“Friend of Aubrey’s aren’t you?

“Yes... so you –“

“I know Aubrey, and everyone else who comes and goes from here. I’m Geoff.”

Nero reached forward, placing one foot on deck, and shook Geoff’s hand. He was stocky, bearded and looked to be aged around sixty, and was reserved and no-nonsense in his manner, but not unfriendly.

“So you live on the boat do you?”

Geoff pointed over towards the semi-derelict brick building that served as the community base.

“I used to live over there when I first came, but as the place grew I preferred my own company over here... you’ve got to have your own space if you want to live somewhere like this for any length of time.”

“I’m not sure how long I’ll be staying. Things are a sort of open-ended at the moment.”

Geoff sat down, picked up an already part worked chunk of wood from the floor and attached it to the lathe. Then he chose what looked like a home made chisel from a selection of others laid out beside him.

“I don’t like to criticise the people that come, but by its nature this place attracts some offbeat characters, and people with problems. But we don’t tolerate alcohol or violence – they’re out straight away. “

“OK.”

Geoff gripped the rudely-constructed, broad wooden handle and dug the chisel expertly into the revolving bowl, producing wafer thin coils that dangled down to the deck.

“We don’t judge either. We listen. For one reason or another you get a lot coming through who are... I dunno, damaged in some way, I suppose. Some want to talk, others just want somewhere to get away from their troubles; lick their wounds for a bit, you know.”

“I guess the last one sounds more like me.”

“Some come here too thinking they can put their feet up like it was a holiday camp. If you stay here you have to help out. It’s not some hippie camp, even if a lot of them here make it look like one. Some help out growing food, others help with the cooking; there’s all sorts needs doing. I make these bowls and plates and we sell them in town and round abouts.”

“I don’t really have a trade or anything. There’s only music.”

Geoff placed the completed bowl on top of several others stacked on the metal boat floor. “Not that racket they kick up, I hope, like last night. I need my sleep. That’s another reason I stay over here.”

“I used to play guitar for a living years ago, but nothing recently.”

“Well that’s all very well, but there’s the down-to-earth things to be getting on with.” Geoff placed his hands on his hips and looked up at the sky. “It can be tough here, especially in winter. And it’ll be here soon enough. So, do you still think it’s for you?”

“Yes, of course. It all sounds fair enough. I’m willing to pull my own weight.”

During the rest of that day, Nero introduced himself to the other residents of the Old Wharf community and tried to appear ready and willing for any tasks that needed doing. Variously, he found himself peeling potatoes, hoovering, and also mechanic’s assistant on a tricky knuckle-grazing disk brake replacement for a heavily dented and brush painted Vauxhall Astra.

Nero couldn’t help noticing how the other residents seemed to treat him with indifference. Or perhaps it was unconditional acceptance, he wasn’t sure. None of them asked the usual sort of questions like those encountered on the first day of a new job: where are you from? are you married? do you have kids? If he looked at a loose end, someone would guide him towards another job that needed doing, without necessarily getting into conversation. When he’d been in the kitchen peeling spuds, the two women with him preparing the evening meal had chatted about how mushy the carrots were, the faulty generator, if their kids were safe to go out trick-or-treating, and then giggling dirtily as one told the other of an encounter the night before with someone called Sebastian. Nero had felt awkward in their company, wondering if he should have pretended not to be listening or join in with obliging smiles. Aware that he might ask the wrong question or appear over inquisitive, he’d chosen the former option, believing that for now at least remaining quiet and getting a feel for where and how he fitted in would be the best course to take for the time being.

During the meal that evening, Nero found himself on the periphery of conversation. Everyone appeared to be referring to people and events that were unknown to him; laughing at anecdotes and anticipating a trip here, or planning a new project somewhere else. Nero had always felt ill at ease in these circumstances and was now aware he’d developed an awkward fixed grin. It was at this point he raised his finger to make an inwardly rehearsed remark to the young guy opposite him, and was uttering his first syllable when the door opened and everyone’s attention turned towards the latecomer. It was Will. He smiled and sheepishly rubbed his wispy blond beard as he pulled up a chair and enthusiastically inhaled the smell of the food, then muttered something about protocols, servers and downloads having delaying his arrival.

There was nothing overt, but it was clear from the nuanced and modified behaviour from the others since he’d entered the room that Will held a position of quiet authority. He dressed differently too. Most of the others adopted a scruffy, bohemian uniform in keeping with expectations; as if supplied for a film shoot by central casting: a selection including worn, baggy pullovers, multi-coloured coats, dreadlocks, shaven heads, beards with bells, knitted pixie hats and camouflage trousers. In contrast, while far from appearing smart, Will dressed casually, but in branded clothing – a Barbour fleece, Timberland boots and a Kangol beanie. He projected an alert self confidence from within a laid back and friendly demeanour.

From the conversations that followed, it was clear that Will was the organiser of the bunch. He was obviously well educated, peppering his conversations with scientific and political terminology, and it struck Nero that he was unlikely to be one of the passers-through; more of a thinly disguised mover and shaker amongst the diggers and dreamers.

Nero awoke from an un-medicated night’s sleep. The others in the house generally got up early, around dawn. The goats had to be milked; eggs from the hens to be collected; bread baked, and plenty of other jobs that took their seasonal turn. Being a Monday morning there was a Household Meeting at 8am, after breakfast. The weekly rota of tasks allocated to residents was pinned to the wall; everyone eventually taking a turn with each job. Nero was disconcerted to see that after shopping for food in the morning he was also down for child minding that afternoon; the experience of engaging with youngsters having become quite foreign to him during adulthood.

Over the years, Nero was continually alarmed at the transformation undergone following parenthood by friends he’d kept in touch with since his youth. One minute they lived for music, films and passionate utopian debates into the night, the next seemingly assimilated into a narrow existence of changing nappies and reading stories; followed a couple of years later by chatter over kiddies’ TV programmes, and then, in turn, evenings spent in earnest debate over school league tables. In Nero’s experience, as soon as they’d bred, from that point on these friends were invariably lost to him. In his circle, the attrition rate to parenthood had been close on one-hundred-percent, only himself and Kevin (who of course had begat, but escaped being corralled) retaining their freedom. Nero wondered if this reluctance to domesticity was at all related to them both coming from one child families; that old stereotype of the only-child being spoiled with not having to share toys or attention with siblings, and apparently wanting everything their own way. It hadn’t escaped his attention though that his “lost friends” in general appeared much happier and fulfilled with their lot than he did, in spite of their lives seemingly being consumed by their offspring.

Clutching a long shopping list and given enough cash to cover the items, Nero was pointed towards an old supermarket shopping trolley which had been enthusiastically but sloppily customized with daubs of red paint spelling The Wharf Community onto wooden panels fixed to each side. With this he was to collect the provisions. Nero didn’t look forward at all to trailing through the streets with the thing. The mental image formed that he would appear like some American street bum wandering around with a cart containing his few miserable possessions – then reflected on his unwitting pomposity.

Nero recalled how in his book Aubrey recommended the reader to “dethrone the ego” and attempt to conquer the little king within: that self-absorbed, status seeking aspect that places the pride and will of the individual above the needs and feelings of others: our assumed entitlement to personal leisure and ease, while conveniently turning our attention from the faceless masses far and near who suffer deprivation while serving our whims.

It felt properly cold out there; winter was definitely nudging its way in. While pushing the trolley, Nero repeated to himself under his breath that he was no better and no worse than anyone else; though was aware too how pious and affected this amicable sentiment itself could appear. Here he was again, running around in mental circles, getting nowhere. Nero could see the river flowing downstream but he was caught in a frustrating backwater eddy.

The Book remarked too how we become taut and sceptical in securing our position of importance in the world and become ever more distanced from the innocent bliss of our childhood. Instead, we have manufactured for ourselves an oddly virtual happiness: a seemingly infinite sequence of purchases and transitory pleasures that fall short of their promises.

A couple of hours later, back in the welcome warmth of the kitchen, Nero removed the last item from its sustainable jute carrier bag and placed it in the larder. The Community endeavoured to grow as much of its own food as possible, or source it locally from organic and Fairtrade suppliers, but other factors, including seasonality and cost meant that certain items had to be grudgingly obtained from the supermarket – but at least it was a Co-Op, so they were at least content their money wasn’t going into the pockets of corporate shareholders. Part of the shopping task was to enter all the items purchased together with their prices into a computer spreadsheet, so that the Community could be sure they were keeping within their budget. Nero busied himself with this until lunchtime.

Chair legs scraped on wooden floorboards as You and Yours ended on Radio 4, followed by the kitchen clock chiming one. Nero’s companions stood up and continued to chew on the remains of their meal as they moved towards their afternoon tasks. He too mopped up smearings of soup from his bowl with the last slice of garlic bread. As he swigged the bitter dregs of his coffee down, he noticed a boy standing in front of him holding an acoustic guitar.

“Are you Nero?”

“That’s right. Are you -“

“Andrés: same as Messi’s middle name.”

“Sorry?” replied Nero, looking blank.

“The footballer; plays for Barcelona. He’s the best!”

“Oh yeah, I saw him knock a couple in a week or so back.”

“My real dad’s from Spain. I was born there, but I don’t remember it. I was very young.”

“So how old are you now?”

“Eleven, but I’m twelve in March. How old are you?”

Nero was taken slightly off guard. “Er, Forty-nine, but I’m fifty in December.”

“That’s really old; even older than Mum and Will.”

“I’ve met Will.”

He’s with my mum now. “

“I see. Have I met your mum?”

“Her name’s Charlotte – she’s thirty-one.”

“Of course, yes. She held the meeting this morning.”

“Mum said could you show me some chords on this, and then help me with my long division? She’s on a course today.”

“I’m no good at maths but I can get you started on the guitar if you like.”

“I already know E,G and A.”

“That’s good. Do you know any songs?”

“No. Not really.”

“What do you like to listen to?”

Andrés sat down at the table, placing the guitar on his lap, and thought for a moment. “I dunno... Muse... Katy Perry... The Ting Tings –“

“Oh, you mean That’s Not My Name?”

“Could we do it? I know the words.”

“Yeah, why not. It’s more about the beat, that one. You can do it with the chords you already know.

Charlotte returned an hour or so later to find the two of them hammering out a passable version of the song: Andrés on guitar and Nero using the bread bin as a drum kit.

“Listen to this, mum!”

“I can hear, yes. Very good; compliments to your tutor.”

Nero gave a bashful grin. “He’s a quick learner.”

Andrés strapped on the guitar and marched triumphantly around the room strumming loudly and singing the “That’s not my name!” at the top of his voice. Smiling warmly, Charlotte approached Nero.

“I’m really grateful that you could step in like that, what with it being half-term; Will’s in London today. Andrés has been struggling with music lessons at school. I knew he’d respond better to a one-to-one approach.”

“It’s been great, I’ve enjoyed it. He’s a nice lad.”

“Well, yes, but a bit of a handful at times too.” She gave a brief concerned smile cast downwards while brushing her curly mane of chestnut hair out of her eyes for the umpteenth time. “Many of the other kids at the school don’t get on too well with the Wharf children; most of the parents think we’re all weirdos. Andrés has been getting into a few fights when they call him names. He’s already been excluded for it.”

“Don’t the teachers try and stop them?”

“They’re not very supportive. The implication being it’s our kids’ fault for being different; that they bring it on themselves. Amazing, isn’t it. They had a far more enlightened attitude where we were living in Sweden. That’s why I’ve seriously been thinking of home educating him; I used to be a teacher over there.”

“Well, I’m happy to give him more guitar lessons. It’s about all I know how to do around here.”

“I know it must take some getting used to, trying to settle into a community like this. People have been saying good things about you.”

“Really? I thought I’d been pretty invisible up to now.”

“Andrés, please put your guitar away now and get your maths book out at the page we left it. I’ll be along in a moment, darling.”

“OK, mum. See you, Nero.”

“See you, Andrés.”

Charlotte slid alongside Nero at the dining table bench. “We can see you are quietly getting on with things and learning your way around. I know a little bit about your circumstances from Aubrey.”

“Everyone seems to know Aubrey.”

“Yes, he’s a great friend to many of us here; and generous too since the success of his book.”

“The Book, yes. I’ve been reading it every day.”

“Oh, tremendous. So he gave you a copy. I think it’s really brought a wider audience to appreciate the principles that communities like ours are trying to follow. It’s so overdue. Just look at what’s happening in the world right now.”

“What, with this credit crunch thing?”

“Surely it’s making more people think about how unsustainable and damaging it all is. We’re encouraged to consume and consume without thinking of the consequences to the planet and people’s well-being.”

“To be honest, I don’t really understand much about it. Just know it’s all f... screwed up,” he replied, censoring his intended expletive.

Charlotte stood up and placed her hand on Nero’s shoulder. “It’s not complicated at heart: we all matter, not just some of us. I’ll see you at dinner.”

Nero narrowly succeeded in repressing a flippant quip. Charlotte obviously meant well, but as she spoke he was aware of a cringe forming in reaction to her earnestness. Nero was still far from ease holed-up at the Wharf; still a bit of a square peg, but was determined to give it a shot, at least for a while so he could get his head together. There wasn’t much option really. Oxford was out, and he was running low on cash, even with his recent £200 boost for services rendered. The independent side to his nature wanted to reject these helping hands he was being offered, but common sense told him that he would be stupid if he did. Maybe he’d been mixing in Dixey’s sneering, murky world too long and some of it had rubbed off. It struck him that spending time with a child that afternoon hadn’t been the torture he’d been anticipating. Nero had actually forgotten his worries for an hour or two while working that song out with Andrés.

He stared thoughtfully into the flames of the wood burning stove.

Later on at dinner, with Charlotte’s reassuring comments still fresh in his memory, Nero felt more relaxed and confident in joining with the conversation around the table. They even laughed at one of his awful jokes. As a second spoonful of apple pie passed his lips, his phone rang.

Finbar Dixey could barely read or write. He compensated for this with his phenomenal memory: able to instantly recall any fact concerning profit or loss within his business. In his head, he could calculate prospective weekly net income from combined rents and knew exactly how much each of his dozens of tenants owed him, for how long they’d owed him, and the cumulative interest penalties they had accrued. While he was growing up, his father had been a bookie. Instead of going to school, young Fin was taken to horse race meetings up and down the country. He could lay off bets and balance the book by the time he was twelve.

By eighteen, Dixey had possessed expert actuarial skills in understanding precise degrees of risk and uncertainty. In addition, over the years to come, he developed a thorough knowledge of the planning system, therefore identifying any hidden potential in neglected properties he came across. Around London, he’d taken advantage of under-funded local councils and their shortage of inspectors, and bought older-style semis with large back gardens, constructing sheds with beds at the bottom of them – though perhaps closer in appearance to the improvised shacks seen in Rio favelas – for renting out to illegal migrant workers.

Dixey was unimpeded by any feelings of perceived callousness or exploitation with his ventures. In his eyes it was all just simple business: he saw a demand so catered for it, taking a generous slice of profit for his trouble. These individuals were all fair game as they weren’t his people or his family – within the family, they all looked out for and supported one another. If asked, his golf club friends and acquaintances would no doubt describe him as friendly, generous and good company. Psychologists might be more inclined to identify him as a social psychopath. There again, if everyone displaying traits similar to Dixey’s were gathered up in a large net and forcibly deposited into the nearest secure hospital, a hefty proportion of employees in Canary Wharf and the rest of the City could be missing from their desks the next morning. So when Dixey arrived outside his last call of the day, it was in pursuit of just another line to be drawn through an irritating outstanding account.

“It’s not religion is it?”

“No, it’s not religion.”

“I had Mormons round the other day with clipboards. They come in pairs though, don’t they?

“I wouldn’t know, mate. Anyway, are you Gordon Bain?”

“How do you know my name? If it’s not religion then you must be trying to sell something.” Gordon pointed to a jaundiced card attached to the frosted glass on the porch door. “Look, I’ve made it quite clear I don’t want any double-glazing; someone else for the gas... or a new telephone thingamajig.”

“Mr Bain, you’ve taken a bit of finding. My name’s Dixey. Fin Dixey. Your son used to work for me. Do you think I could come in?”

Gordon looked a little embarrassed. “Oh... I see. Aye, he did say something about you before he left. I’m sorry about that just now. Yes, you had better come through. He’s not in any trouble is he?”

Dixey wiped his feet and followed Gordon inside. “Thank you. Well that’s it. I thought I’d come and speak to you so he doesn’t dig himself any deeper.”

“Oh dear. Can I get you a cup of tea?”

“No, I’m fine, thanks. Has Nero told you about the situation he’s in at all?”

Gordon pointed Dixey towards the armchair by the window. “Nero? You mean Nigel. He used to call himself Nero – when he was with that group of his.”

“Nero... Nigel, it doesn’t matter. Did he mention the money he owes?”

With an expression of growing puzzlement creeping across his face, Gordon slowly sat down in the chair opposite Dixey. “No, nothing about owing any money. I’ve never known him get into debt, not even hire purchase. I didn’t agree with that sort of thing when he was growing up: ‘If you can’t save for it then you can’t afford it,’ I always told him.”

“Well he owes money now – to me.”

“But I don’t see how. You said you were his boss.”

“He wrote-off one of my cars. It was burnt out. He’d left it unlocked. A bunch of kids got to it.”

“Oh. He left it? That was wrong of him. But he’s usually so responsible about things like that. Wasn’t it insured?”

“It was, but it ain’t insured if it’s left unlocked and gets stolen – then torched like mine was.”

“I see your problem, yes.”

“Well that’s it Mr Bain, it’s not my problem, it’s your son’s. That car cost me a great deal of money when I got it new. Even though it was ten years old, it was still worth over seven grand. I need to replace it.”

“Oh dear, that is a lot, aye. And you’ve asked Nigel to give you this money?”

“On numerous occasions. He keeps ignoring my messages. Now he’s legged it out of town somewhere. He owes me this money, Mr. Bain.”

“So would you like me to ask him for you?”

“I don’t think that would be any use. He keeps saying he’s broke. My brother saw him before he cleared off. Apparently he was in some kind of loony bin.”

“You’re not making any sense. You mean an asylum? My Nigel isn’t mad. He was here last week.”

“Well, he was mad enough for them to put him away.”

“Look, something isn’t right here, Mr...”

“Dixey.”

“Are you sure you’re talking about the same person? This doesn’t sound like my Nigel.”

Dixey leant forward, biting his lower lip, and clasped his fingers together. “Look, I don’t want to appear impatient, Mr Bain, but I’ve got things I should be getting on with, you know. I thought you might be able to help your son out. You look like the kind of man who’s careful with his money; perhaps got a bit saved here and there.”

Gordon’s face tightened in reaction to the comment.“Mr Dixey, I don’t altogether like your tone. I can’t see that it’s any of your business what I choose to do with my own money.”

“I’m sorry, but if your son wants to avoid things getting a bit sticky, then it needs sorting out. Believe me, this is a much easier way for everyone. I was thinking you could perhaps give him a loan so he can pay me; then pay you back when he can, yeah?”

Gordon raised his palm to his mouth as he turned from Dixey, trying to make sense of the facts laid before him. “So... seven thousand pounds you say, yes?”

“Well, it was that, but it’s gone up coz he’s left it; there’s the compound interest, right?”

“Oh dear. So how much is it now?”

“It was eight thousand eight hundred last Friday. If he leaves it till this Friday the interest doubles to 20%; up to over ten and a half. Then 30% if he leaves it another week. By then it’ll be, er, £13,728, if I’m correct.”

By this point, Gordon was becoming breathless and somewhat distraught.

“I don’t see how you can keep raising the payments like that. Surely it’s not legal. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t get any money out right away; it’s all tied up, long-term. I have to give the bank a month’s notice.”

“A month could become very expensive, Mr Bain.”

Gordon thought aloud: “I suppose I could pay the penalty charge and take it out sooner... you’re getting me flustered. This is all very sudden.”

Dixey became aware that he might be trying to land his fish a little too quickly; it was often a problem with the older ones. He paused for a few seconds, believing Gordon would soon come to terms with the situation. By now he was leaning back in his chair and breathing heavily.

“Shall I get you a glass of water or something, mate?”

“I don’t know... I don’t know. I like to do things in my own time – not rushed!

Dixey became frustrated. He wasn’t sure if the old bloke was putting it on to get rid of him. Some of them did that; it was their only weapon. He went to the kitchen and opened a couple of cupboards before he found where Gordon kept his glasses. He squirted the cold tap into one of them and returned to the living room. Dixey could see the old boy was definitely looking a bit grey and clammy. He got on his knees and pushed the glass to Gordon’s lips.

“Look, take a sip of this, yeah.”

“Thank you... thank you. It’s never taken me like this before.”

“Just calm yourself down a bit, right. Take it easy.”

“I don’t think I can... I can’t breathe... I think you’ll have to call someone.”

Dixey grimaced under his breath. “Shit, this would happen.”

“Please... get the telephone!”

“I will, mate. I will – hold on.”

“An ambulance... now... please!”

Weighing up the pros and cons of the situation, Dixey considered the best cause of action was to call for help and then get out of there. He dialled 999 and gave the operator the basic facts in an exaggerated cockney accent, knowing they tape the calls, then put the receiver down. Pausing briefly to offer Gordon another sip of water and to loosen his tie, Dixey got out quick – he didn’t want the risk of being connected with any of it, and cursed to himself as he hurried across the street to where his Range Rover was parked, reasonably sure no-one had seen him. He got in, started up, and with a brief squeal of the tyres he floored the three ton hulk out of there.

Nero answered his mobile. It was his dad’s number.

“Is that Nigel?”

He didn’t recognise the voice. “Yes. Who is this?”

“It’s Jack from over the road.”

It took a few seconds for Nero to rewind his memories and picture his father’s friend. Jack was always the first to mow his lawn each spring and then observe all the comings and goings in the neighbourhood during frequent hedge cutting all summer. The rest of the year he tinkered outdoors or held vigil behind the net curtain. None of the kids would dare approach his gnomes.

“Oh yes, of course. How are you?”

“Hello, old son. I found your number on his phone. Don’t know how to put this really. It’s your dad. He’s had a bit of a turn. They’ve come and taken him to the hospital; the John Radcliffe.

“Oh.”

“I think you better get over here. He didn’t look too good. Listen, they’ve given me a number for you to call...”

Nero instinctively reached for a non-existent pen amongst the plates and cutlery on the table. He got up and headed for the notice board, already in barely controlled panic.

Other than the name of the ward and the number to call, Nero took very little else in. He dialled the number. After an obstacle course of options he eventually got through. It wasn’t the news he wanted to hear; his dad wasn’t already sitting up in bed. The nurse said he’d passed away by the time he was admitted, and that they’d tried everything that they could.

Numbness overwhelmed him.

Charlotte had driven him to Birmingham for the train. Through the window, Nero stared through reflections and out into the darkness as he passed Banbury. His brain was racing; there was so much to do and he had no idea in what order he should do it. In between it all the image came into his head of what was now the final image of his dad, waving Kevin and him off as they pulled away in the van that day.

He needed to speak to Kevin.

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