Root Memory

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Light flurries of snow were falling as Nero walked out through the swing doors and towards the station car park. He scanned around for the green Transit but it wasn’t to be seen. That was typical of Kevin, he thought. Then he heard someone shouting his name and a figure waving from the shadows.

“Over here, Nero!”

“Kevin?”

“Who d’ya think it is?”

As he walked nearer, Nero noticed there was something different about him. Kevin wasn’t wearing his ubiquitous leather jacket; and what had happened to all his hair?

“Hello, Kev. Thanks for coming like this.”

“It’s the least we could have done.”

Nero noticed the way Kevin said we, and then noticed he was standing in front of a nearly new VW Polo; there was a woman sitting in the driving seat.

“Come on, get in. This is Muriel; remember me saying?”

Less than half an hour later they were at the hospital. They’d been directed towards a small waiting room and Muriel had gone in search of a drinks machine while Nero and Kevin waited for the nurse to arrive.

“Great bloke, you’re dad. I can’t believe he’s... you know... after only the other day and everything. “

“Yeah, I know, it’s difficult to take in. I didn’t know he was so ill. I mean, seventy-three, it’s not that old. Thought he’d got years left. It’s not like he was overweight or anything. He always looked after himself. Still don’t know what happened really. I know it was something to do with his heart, but-“

“So, Fiery Jack found him, then?”

“Yeah. He did say something – went on a bit like he does – but I wasn’t in any state to take much of it in. I don’t know why he was at the house...”

Kevin shrugged his shoulders. “Dunno, mate.”

As they sat there, Nero attempted to distract himself from his tense coil of worries by referring to Kevin’s altered appearance.

“So what’s with the pullover and the hair? I don’t think I’ve ever seen your ears before.”

“I’ve moved in.”

“What, you and this Muriel are living together?”

“Yeah, since last weekend.”

“But the leather and the hair – it was you.”

“Yeah, well; but she thinks I look a lot younger like this.”

Normally, Nero would have come back with an acid remark or three, but it wasn’t in him. He just watched the floor between his legs and said nothing. He wondered if Kevin was still on best behaviour with Muriel or was already farting enthusiastically into the soft furnishings and nonchalantly flicking bogies about the living-room – Nero had frequently discovered the desiccated remnants adhered to the walls of his flat. She must be special if she was putting up with all of that.

The counselling nurse arrived and gently took Nero through what was to be done next. She handed him a booklet for the recently bereaved and asked him if he’d got any questions, and if he’d like to go and see his father for the last time.

“Thank you. But, can you tell me, you know, how he went? I know it was his heart, but –“

“Yes, it appears to have been a myocardial infarction; a heart attack. The paramedics on scene tried all they could for your father but it was a bit too late, sadly. We will need to do a post-mortem anyway due to the circumstances.

“Oh, right. OK.”

“Apparently there was a gentleman who came in to help before the paramedics arrived.”

“That’s right, a neighbour.”

“That was nice of him. So, Mr Bain, would you like to go though and see your father now, or you could wait a little while longer if you’re not ready?”

“No. It’s OK, I’ll go through now.”

On seeing his dad lying alone and inert on the hospital bed, Nero experienced the first genuinely surreal moment of his life. His father was clearly there in front of him, but also not there. It was like observing an amazingly accurate facsimile of his dad that was tantalisingly close to reanimation; as if he were under a spell of some kind. Nero drew closer and touched the skin on his father’s face with the tip of his finger. It was waxy and still faintly warm. Death could never be mistaken for sleep. His reasoning lost out to his nagging, chaotic emotions. This was his dad: he was for ever. He had always been. He couldn’t just leave like that, be gone out of his life so suddenly. Nero’s fingers tingled and he felt dazed and detached. He didn’t know why, but he bent and kissed his father’s forehead and whispered “goodbye”.

Kevin and Muriel were waiting in the corridor when, bereft, Nero emerged clutching a plastic carrier bag containing Gordon’s clothes, watch, false teeth and loose change.

“All right, mate? We were thinking... well, Muriel did...“

Muriel turned from Kevin to Nero with tears in her eyes. “Yes. We thought you might like to come back with us; you know, stay at the house tonight. I remember what it was like when my mother... you’d be very welcome.”

“Yes. Thank you, Muriel. You’re right. I don’t really fancy going back there right now.

When they arrived at Muriel’s house in Iffley Village, Kevin automatically reached for the TV remote. The news was on. Nero almost expected the bulletin to be interrupted with the sudden announcement of his dad’s death. Politics, the financial crisis and wars abroad all seemed trivial in comparison.

“I’ll make a bed up for you and put the fire on up there; take the chill off. Kevin, make your friend a cup of tea.”

With the slouch of a surly teenager, he looked put out but made his way to the kitchen all the same. Nero was reassured Kevin hadn’t changed that much.

He noticed how comfortable and clean the house was, but with a bohemian edge; a little like its owner. From her appearance, Muriel gave the impression she’d been a bit of a flower child in her younger days. She still wore her hair long, and appeared to favour tastefully exotic clothing that presented a voluptuous sexiness with middle-aged restraint. Nero recalled Kevin’s remark when he was on the phone to him back at the flat, that she was “a bit plump, but still tasty”. He wasn’t wrong. Though there was a certain mumsiness about her too.

Nero gazed absently at the silent screen as the minutes passed. Kevin appeared with the tea.

“Get that down you.”

“Ta.”

“Muriel just said the room’s ready if you want to take your stuff up.”

“Yeah, thanks, I think I will. Sorry, I’m not much company at the moment.”

“No worries, mate. Try and get a good night’s sleep. Be up ourselves too in a bit – we’ll try not to keep you awake, eh.” Nero smiled weakly at his crass remark.

As he climbed the stairs, Nero was wearily aware that he was about to spend yet another night under a new roof. First priority was to down some Diazepam and escape into sleep.

Near enough eleven hours had passed when he next opened his eyes. Muriel had left for work hours before, but Kevin had only recently crawled from his bed. Nero joined him downstairs in the kitchen, but had no appetite. He peered through the French doors into the back garden.

“The snow’s gone. This leaflet says I can’t really arrange a funeral or anything until the post-mortem’s sorted; it could be a couple of days. There’s still plenty of stuff I should be doing, though. Listen, you couldn’t take me over to the house could you?”

“Sure. You’ve got me and the van all day if you want.”

“Cheers, Kev.”

The sun was low and dazzling as they crossed town. Backlit citrine leaves swirled like confetti onto the windscreen as they swung left off St. Clement’s and into Marston Road. A little further along on the right they passed the site of what used to be the old Government offices, where for over two decades Kevin turned up on his fortnightly pilgrimage to sign on the dole – the same road Nero had strolled down with Laura, back from their late night golf course trysts all those years ago. Then they took a left at The Friar to cut through to his old home.

On arriving, it was no surprise to see Jack was out raking through the undergrowth in front of his house. He touched his cap as he caught sight of the two of them. Nero got out first.

“Morning, Jack.”

“Hello, Nigel. Sad business all round, isn’t it.”

“I expect you’ve heard my dad...”

“Well, you could see when the paramedics took him he’d already gone. Morning, Kevin.” Kevin gave a nod as he stood next to Nero with his hands in his pockets against the cold air.

“So you were in there with dad; you phoned the ambulance?”

“No, it wasn’t me. The chap that came out must have done it.”

Nero’s assumptions derailed at this point.

“I thought you’d been visiting him or something when he was taken ill.”

Jack followed Nero and Kevin into the house. “Your dad gave me a key a while back, in case he lost his; you know how he is ... was, sorry. Anyway, it was just getting dark yesterday when this big car pulls up; posh-looking job. Matey boy goes to your dad’s door and he’s let in. He’s inside with Gordon for a bit, then comes out in a hurry, jumps into his car and shoots off. It made me suspicious. Your dad rarely has anyone come to the house, especially when the time’s getting on. I knew something wasn’t right. I wished I’d gone in sooner. I was umming and arring for a while if I should; whether I was being nosey, you know how it is.” Kevin gave Nero a knowing sidelong glance.“And that’s when I, you know... “

“You found him. What, so dad was already in a bad way when you got to him?”

“I didn’t know what to do. He was in his chair. I could see he was in a lot of pain. That’s when I heard the ambulance.”

“So whoever it was in here before must have called them?”

“Must have. I was just about to call 999 when they came. Maybe that bloke was trying to burgle the place or something and panicked.”

The three of them approached the front door as they spoke.

“What did he look like?

“I don’t know, average I suppose. Smart though: expensive suit on by the look of it. “

“Old or young?”

“Neither really. Forties I should think.”

It was at that moment it dawned on Nero who it could be. He tensed with the thought, and urgency entered his voice.

“Did he have really short hair; you know, a skinhead cut?”

“I think so. It was shaved off, yes.”

“And the car: it wasn’t a black Range Rover was it?”

“I don’t really know the makes, but it was one of those big four-wheel drive things. It was black though.”

Nero looked at his dad’s armchair and then to Kevin.

“It must be. It was Dixey. The bastard! He’s been trying to track me down through dad.”

“But how could he?”

“You know him, he’s got people everywhere. They owe him favours and all kinds... it’s got to be him. He put the frighteners on dad. He killed him, Kev!”

“Come on, mate. You can’t be sure. You can’t make accusations like that unless you know.”

“It was Dixey. It was fucking Dixey!”

Jack looked embarrassed and perplexed.

“Sorry, Jack. He doesn’t mean it. You can see he’s upset with all of this.”

“So Nigel reckons he knows this fella then?”

“Of course I know him. He’s been trying to bleed me dry for the last two weeks. The police have got to know about this. He can’t get away with doing this to my dad!”

Kevin placed his hand over the phone as Nero made a grab for the receiver.

“Just think first, mate, before you do anything hasty, yeah? You’re not yourself. Come on.”

Jack looked out of the window to his house. “Look lads, I can see it’s a bad time. I’ll be getting back home, she’ll be wondering where I am. Let me know if you need anything. Look after him won’t you, Kevin.”

“Thanks, Jack. I will.”

“I’m calling them, Kev. You’re not going to stop me. He can’t just get away with something like that.”

Kevin had never seen Nero like this. He felt like he was walking on eggshells the whole time they were waiting for the police to arrive. The two young officers went through their procedures, asked questions, took down a statement, and then had a look around the house before heading over to see Jack.

Afterwards, Nero sat sobbing in his dad’s chair, hammering the upholstered arm with his clenched fist. Kevin gave him a wide berth, not sure how to deal with the situation. For something to do, he went through to the kitchen and cleared away Gordon’s half-eaten last meal of sardines on toast from the kitchen table. Next to the plate was a folded copy of the Daily Mirror open at the racing page with some of the horses circled in blue biro. Adjacent to the paper on the Burgundy brown Formica-topped table was a neat pile of unopened junk mail and two used teabags in a saucer. Up on the wall, the seconds ticked by on the old Smith’s Setric; Betty’s from before the move. Plastic minty green and with a hint of Deco, she’d bought the clock from a catalogue when the takings took off at pet shop; thought it would brighten up the kitchen. Gordon had converted it to run on batteries instead of the mains; he hadn’t liked the cable showing.

Just as Kevin was contemplating whether to do some washing-up, he heard Nero’s voice. For a moment he thought he might be talking to himself, that the strain had got to him. No, he was sure Nero was speaking to someone. He was on his mobile. Kevin walked closer to the door and strained an ear. It wasn’t difficult to guess who he was calling.

“I got the police in, they’re onto you... you were seen... don’t try to wriggle, Dixey, I know you were here... I don’t believe it... no, whistle for it, you cold bastard... just fuck off out of my life, yeah!” For once, Nero left Dixey cut-off in mid sentence.

Kevin pretended to be busy drying dishes as Nero strode angrily into the kitchen.

“Honestly, I could murder him, Kev. He never gives up. Did you hear me just now?”

“A bit of it.”

“He reckoned ‘due to the circumstances’ he wouldn’t put the charges up this week. He knows what he did to my dad, he must do, and he’s still on my case like a fucking Rottweiler. If I saw him right now I’d kill him! I know where he lives. I should just drive there and mow the bastard down in the street. I could do it, Kev. It would be just like putting down a mad dog. The world would be better without him.”

Kevin nodded in silent sympathy as Nero’s rant gradually ran out of steam and he leant his weight onto the table, arms stretched and head slumped down. He took several slow and quiet deep breaths then looked up at his friend.

“Cheers for clearing up. Look at it all, it’s like he’d just gone down the shops and could be back any minute. It’s no good, I’ll have to put my mind onto doing something; papers and stuff.”

“Yeah, just try and forget all this Dixey business if you can. He’s won if you let him get to you like this.”

Nero and Kevin spent what was left of the afternoon gathering together Gordon’s insurance policies, birth certificate, marriage certificate, savings books, pension; anything that looked important. Nero wasn’t really surprised that it was all organized logically and sensibly in clearly marked envelopes and folders; that’s how his dad was. As far as he could tell, everything that was listed in the bereavement pamphlet was there in front of him. Nero’s thoughts moved to the funeral and just wished it was out of the way already. He’d said his goodbye at the hospital. Then he tried to recall if his dad had mentioned any preference for either burial or cremation. Gordon wasn’t religious, so wouldn’t have wanted a church involved, and Nero felt that the tidy efficiency of a cremation would have appealed more to his dad’s nature.

Rummaging through the layers in another drawer he discovered a dog-eared, black address book. Leafing through the pages he noticed many of the names had been crossed out; presumably to signify they had now passed away. Many were obscure names from the past: aunties, uncles and cousins dotted here and there, mostly living up in Scotland, from what remained of Gordon’s family up there. He’d have to give them a call at some point and see if any of them wanted to come to the service – whenever that was going to be.

In the book too was his mother’s address and phone number. It must have been in there from before the mid-nineties as the Bournemouth dialling code had been written-in still using only four digits. He walked over to the telephone and checked the stored numbers: Pam’s wasn’t among them. Though he hadn’t spoken to her since Betty’s funeral, Nero had still hung onto his mum’s contact details; her number was in his mobile. He’d have to tell her the news.

Snow began to fall while he spoke to his mum. He could hear the age in her voice. Nero looked out over the back garden as the flakes slowly turned the shed roof white. Pam betrayed no emotion concerning Gordon’s death during the call; he couldn’t decide if it was self-control or impassivity. It was left that he’d contact her again as soon as he knew the date of the service.

Kevin was glancing at his watch when Nero turned his attention back from the garden.

“I’m sorry, mate, but I’ll have to make a move in a minute. D’ya mind?”

“Sorry, I hadn’t realised it was so late. No, you get off. I’ll be fine. Cheers, Kev – sorry about earlier too.”

Kevin walked down the hall and turned the latch on the front door. “Just give me a bell if you need anything, yeah?”

“Thanks, Kev. I’ve got plenty to be getting on with, ta. I’ll see you.”

“Seeya.”

Each time Nero sat down and tried to relax that evening, thinking that was another little job he’d got out of the way, another popped into his head. He silently thanked his father each time he darted to his desk and almost instantly retrieved the paperwork he was seeking. There was so much to deal with: insurance policies, gas, electric, water, telephone, council tax, even just cancelling the milk – the list seemed endless. Then there was the question of the house itself. He puzzled at what the procedure might be in these circumstances, and then wondered if perhaps he should stay on and live there for now at least, but a now finely honed instinct for self-preservation quickly dispelled that idea from his plans. If all this had happened just a few weeks before it would have been a clear-cut, easy decision.

Unaccountably, during the last fortnight Nero had lost his appetite for Oxford; and it wasn’t just down to Dixey.

He awoke the next morning still feeling tired, and agitated too. Sleep hadn’t come as easily as the night before, even with the assistance of ten milligrams. It had already gone nine and Nero was keen to get started with tying up more of the loose ends his father’s passing had left him to sort out. Still feeling somewhat dizzy and disconnected, he travelled into town, catching a bus to Carfax. First on the list was the bank. Being so busy with everything else, Nero hadn’t actually looked inside the paying-in books he’d gathered together, having being satisfied with simply locating them. While waiting for someone from Customer Services to arrive, he laid all of them out on the table and was surprised to see over eleven-thousand in one account and nearly four-thousand in another. There was a Post Office one too which contained almost another two-grand. So his dad had managed to squirrel away over £17,000 over the years. He couldn’t help leaping to the realisation that it was a sum more than enough to pay off Dixey.

His next call was to the solicitor named on the copy of his dad’s will, and after that on to the Coroner’s office. They informed him that while the result of the post-mortem wasn’t through yet, in these circumstances it was really more of a formality and that perhaps he might want to contact a funeral director to make provisional arrangements.

In a short note his dad had left in the desk with all the other relevant papers, a particular firm, Pascoe & Son, was specified. The address pointed him in the direction of Jericho. Walking the relatively short distance it was from the city centre, passing the Ashmolean Museum and the University Press building, he threaded his way through the criss-cross of terraced streets and eventually found himself standing in front a narrow, shabby shop front, no wider than the modest houses either side of it. Dangling from picture hooks inside the window display, Nero noticed two colour photographs, now faded to sepia by the sun, of Pascoe & Son’s hearse and limousine parked outside St Margaret’s Church; he recognized the crucified Christ thoughtfully protected from inclement weather by his personal gazebo.

A harsh metallic squawk announced Nero’s entrance. An old man wearing a baggy beige pullover with a hole in it slowly rose to his feet with effort and quietly greeted him from behind a large table, which looked to be of the type commonplace immediately following the war; a sort of dark-stained inferior wood in the Utility style. Inexplicably, positioned behind Mr Pascoe – senior, he ventured – was a matching wardrobe. Nero was invited to sit down. It took a little while for his eyes to adjust to the lack of light in there; the owner either keen to save on his electricity bills or wishing to maintain a dignified inky gloom for his customers. Though Nero presumed Mr Pascoe had been doing the job for most of his long life, he seemed ill-prepared in his routine enquiries, relying on Nero to take the lead in what he imagined should be a rather straightforward gathering of facts. Thus it was agreed upon which type of wood to use for the coffin; location of the crematorium; the flowers, and how many cars – just the one he thought sufficient.

Mr Pascoe disappeared through a bead curtain into the rear of the premises in search of his appointments book. The wait was longer than Nero was expecting. He therefore found himself scanning his surroundings. Looking towards the windowsill he noticed three porcelain vases containing dusty artificial flowers, then nearer to him, a threadbare armchair with a budgerigar-themed antimacassar draped over the back. The owner returned, clutching something resembling a school register book. The date for the service was agreed to take place on the following Monday at 12.45. Not left entirely confident that the exercise was in the hands of the right man, Nero thanked a still somewhat distracted Mr Pascoe and left for his next item on the agenda.

It was starting to snow again.

Returning to the house earlier than he’d anticipated, due to the worsening conditions, Nero noticed Jack clearing the footpath in front of his property. He crossed the road to speak to him, head down out of the icy wind.

“Hello, Jack. Keeping busy?

“They can sue, you know, if someone slips on it.”

Nero raised his eyebrows in agreement.

“So the police came over to you yesterday?”

“I don’t think I could tell them much of any use.”

“But you did give them a description of the man you saw go into my dad’s house?”

“Just what I told you really.”

“Good. Listen, I’m sorry again about yesterday. I shouldn’t have blown up like that.”

“Water off a duck’s back, old son. I was going to ask you something.”

Nero wiped snow from his hair and pointed towards the house. “Tell you what, Jack, why don’t you come inside and tell me; we can have a cuppa.”

With warm mugs lifted to mouths, they both took swigs and stared out of the front window together.

“I was wondering if you’d taken a peek inside your dad’s garage since you’ve been here; seen what he was keeping in there.”

“No. I never thought to. He was always a bit sensitive about me going in; worried I’d disturb his tools or something.”

“Ah, well, there’s more than tools in there. Why don’t I show you, eh?”

Nero reluctantly humoured Jack, and searched around for the key to the connecting door, simulating an unlocking motion with his right hand.

“I don’t suppose you know where he kept it do you?”

“Top drawer of the little cupboard the phone’s on.”

Nero picked it out and approached the door, followed by an effulgent Jack.

“Right then, let’s have a look. Do you know, I reckon it must be more than twenty years since I’ve been in here; not since my nan.“

Nero switched on the garage light to reveal a dust sheet covering a car.

“See. You weren’t expecting that.”

Nero appeared somewhat underwhelmed after the big build up.

“Oh, so my dad still had a car. I thought he’d got rid of it ages ago.”

“Ah, but it’s not his old saloon. Come on. Get that sheet off, Nigel my boy. Here, I’ll give you a hand.”

The impromptu great unveiling revealed an immaculate white sports car.

“It was in an awful state when he first got it. Do you know what it is?”

“Oh yeah... the picture. That photo of my dad’s on the sideboard. It’s like the car in that: the white Jag. The one with Diana Dors – he was mad on her; got all her films on video.”

“It’s not like the car, it is the car. The exact same 1949 Jaguar XK120 she’s sitting in; look at the number plate. Your dad tracked it down. It was locked up in a warehouse for years and years until your Gordon traced the owner and bought it; a real wreck back then.”

“But it’s beautiful.”

“Isn’t she. Took your dad years to do her up; he was always tinkering with it. Every so often I’d see him wheeling it out onto the drive to do some job or other. Only had it resprayed last year. Lovely job, isn’t it.”

Nero slid his hand along the sensuous and flowing swage line running from front to back, delighting in the satisfying curves. “I wonder why he never mentioned it.”

“Felt like I was intruding sometimes if I went over for a look. It obviously meant a lot to him. But I never saw him go out in it.”

“Really? You’d think after all that effort...”

“Got to be worth a pretty penny now I should think.”

The pair of them took one more admiring look, carefully replaced the cover, and returned to the kitchen.

“So how long had my dad been working on the car?”

“The first time I saw him with it was about a year after Betty passed on.”

“Well, it was 1990 when she went. So that long; it’s amazing.”

“I liked her a lot; got on a treat with my missus. They were always having a laugh about this or that. Gordon was never the same afterwards.”

“Yeah, I know. I should have spent more time with him.”

“He was always talking about you, you know.”

Nero seemed surprised at the revelation and welled-up with tears at the thought of his dad.

“Well thanks, Jack, for showing me the car.”

Jack read the subtle cue from Nero that he was feeling uncomfortable, sensing that perhaps he’d like to be alone, so gave him a comforting slap on the back and said he’d better get back to his shovelling.

After Jack had left, Nero settled into his dad’s chair and thought about the days when his dad and grandma were still alive; back when he was still with Laura; when he was just getting Blast Manifesto started with Simon. Happiness seemed so effortless back then and now it seemed impossibly distant and unobtainable. The room grew dark and cold.

Just as he was starting to nod off, his mobile rang. He thought it was probably Kevin getting in touch, but no, it was an unrecognised number. Nero picked it up hesitantly, linking an unexpected call with bad news following so soon after his dad.

“Hello. Nero Bain.”

“Mal Flannery here. Doctor Benoit gave me your number; said you were interested in the ibogabeta treatment?”

With all that had been going on over the last couple of days, he’d completely forgotten about the arrangement.

“Er, yes. That’s right.”

“Sorry it’s taken me so long.

“Yeah, he said you were busy.”

“Listen, I’m flying in on Saturday and I’ll be around for a week, if it’s any use to you. Alain said you’d looked into a bit of what’s involved. So you’d still like to go ahead with it?”

“A bit tricky at the moment, to be honest...“

“If the cost is a problem, you do realise I –“

“Oh no, it’s not that – Alain said. No, it’s my father, he died a couple of days ago and I’m in the middle of sorting everything out.”

“Oh. I see. I’m sorry to hear that. Got a lot on your plate then, I expect. Maybe we could rearrange it for another time? I should be back again in a month or two, if that’s easier.”

“No, I really would like to go ahead with the treatment. It’s just that there’s the funeral next Monday and there’s loads of stuff to arrange.”

“Perhaps now wouldn’t be quite the right time for you, considering...”

“Really, if anything I need it even more now. Sort of how long does it take?”

“Well, there’s no strict amount of time; everyone’s different. But I’d have thought at least a couple of days. You can’t really rush it.”

Nero mentally flicked through the remaining tasks on his list and the likelihood of completing them before then, and agreed with Flannery on the following Tuesday.

“Fine, that’s settled then. Where will you be, by the way?”

“Do you know the Isle of Arran?”

Next morning, he travelled over to see Kevin, being sure to leave his arrival until after 10am, there being a sporting chance he might be up and out of bed by then. The delay between him ringing the doorbell and the arrival of a dishevelled Kevin at the front door suggested he’d miscalculated.

Nero explained briefly about his planned long trip and wondered if he could borrow Muriel’s computer to check train and ferry times. He tapped away for an hour or so while Kevin gently eased himself into the new day.

“It’s not exactly straightforward. Gonna take me all bloody day to get up there: change at Birmingham, then Glasgow, then across to the ferry; though Flannery said he would pick me up from the terminal on the island.”

“Listen, I’ve been thinking; how about if you use the van instead?”

“Really... you wouldn’t mind? Are you sure it would -”

“It might be getting on, but it’ll get you up there and back, no problem. I’d come with you, but I’ve got a bit on; Muriel’s got me decorating, seeing as it’s too frosty to do the garden.”

“You... decorating? But no, cheers mate, I appreciate it. Will be a lot less of a headache driving there.”

The coroner finally got in touch, with confirmation that his father had indeed died of a heart attack, so he was now able to visit the register office to collect his three certified copies of the death certificate. So that was it, with one solemn signature his dad was signed off from the tally of the living.

On returning to the house, Nero noticed the red light of the answer machine flashing. It was the police who’d called, leaving a message to say that they weren’t pursuing a case against Dixey. He flopped into his dad’s armchair, the news having left him feeling simultaneously deflated and incensed. Dixey had got away with it. Nero bitterly resented the hold this man apparently exerted over his destiny. Well-wishers would no doubt urge him to try and rise above it all and to put it behind him, but his loathing for Dixey multiplied like malignant bacteria in a Petri dish.

For hours that night Nero laid awake contemplating methods of inflicting suitable retribution on Dixey; he found it therapeutic to imagine him variously succumbing to gunshot wounds, a stabbing, or maybe a poisoning. However, Nero knew himself well enough to be confident of never setting out to achieve any of them. When he considered it more carefully though, he realised that the prospect of Dixey dying wasn’t what he wanted to see most; more a desire that he should be made to endure something of what his victims suffered. Sleep interrupted any further plans.

With no urgent need to be anywhere or do anything, Nero spent most of Friday morning in bed. Later on, he had a sort out of his dad’s old clothes, putting them into two piles: the first went in the dustbin and the smaller second one he stuffed into a black bin liner for the Oxfam shop. Today the sun had reappeared, so he slung the bulging plastic bag over his shoulder and took a stroll along the Marston Ferry Road, past his old school, towards Summertown. He was thankful his troublesome toe had healed at last, so he was able to enjoy the walk.

Charity shop ladies must recognise the look of the bereaved; see the bundle of belongings and know why you’re there. He mentioned his dad when he handed the clothes to the woman behind the counter. She thanked him with a well-meaning smile. Nero took a glance at the books for sale before he left, but saw nothing that caught his eye; mostly romantic fiction, thrillers with gaudy covers, ageing software manuals for obsolete computers and unread celebrity biographies.

The nights were drawing in. On his walk back to the house he noticed how the mist was hanging by the river, mixed with the pleasingly acrid smoke from bonfires on the allotments. It was Halloween night and the trick-or-treaters were already knocking on doors and giggling when he turned into his road.

Nero lazily reverted to his old ways when it came to his dinner that evening: something nondescript warmed up in the microwave; he couldn’t be troubled to do anything more ambitious. Rockets whistled and cracked outside as he forked the meal into his mouth and stared vacantly at the TV screen.

The day of the funeral came soon enough. Nero’s mum arrived a little after noon with her daughter; they’d got a cab from the station. Pam looked frail and needed to be helped out of the car. It was obvious though that she was still keen to project something of a glamorous image as she removed her wraparound Gucci shades with studied poise. Nero walked towards the car and noticed how withered and shrunken she’d become since he’d last seen her all those years before.

“Oh, what a journey; I thought we’d never get here! We were supposed to arrive nearly an hour ago. Delays and delays; I don’t know how they have the cheek to charge those fares. It doesn’t do my nerves any good any of this,” she huffed, followed by an abrupt change of tack. “ Nigel, I suppose it’s about time I introduced you to your half-sister: meet Sabrina Del Rio.”

His mysterious relative turned from the taxi and smiled at him, elegantly holding out her finely manicured hand towards him. She was the image of a post war pin-up girl: sleek ebony hair, cherry red lipstick and lashings of mascara. For a moment he was transfixed and words failed to form in his mouth.

“Hello Nigel, pleased to meet you at last. ‘Del Rio’ is just my stage name.”

Dressed from top to toe in figure-hugging black, she looked at once striking and alluring. Uncomfortably, Nero was instantly aroused and captivated by her, but fought against semi-incestuous feelings. Belatedly, he lightly shook her hand and then found his tongue.

“Pleased to meet you. Your stage name; so does that mean you’re an actress?”

“Well, sometimes... and other things, but mostly I’m a neo-burlesque performer.”

Nero chose not to question her more closely over precisely what the term meant, or into her other enigmatic activities.

“Oh, I see. That sounds exotic.”

Pam beamed with pride. “A real beauty, my little girl, isn’t she.”

“Oh, mum! Hardly a little girl, I’m nearly thirty.”

“Well you’ll always be my little girl, no matter how old you are.”

Nero led them into the house and through to the sitting room, where Muriel was in hushed anodyne conversation with Jack and his wife. Kevin had wandered into the kitchen to make a sneaky start on the sandwiches. A few moments later, as reward for repeated glances out of the bay window, Jack spotted the cars arriving.

Every few minutes along the dilatory drive towards Barton, Nero nervously checked his inside jacket pocket for the typed speech. It took an age to cross the roundabout, the driver tutting his disapproval at the busy drivers in too much of a hurry for common courtesy.

On their arrival at the crematorium, the seven of them followed the bearer buoyed coffin into the large chapel while Albinoni’s Adagio accompanied their hesitantly dignified progress to the seats; the room completely out of scale with the small number attending the service. Nero spoke his awkward words from the lectern while concentrating on which button to press. Pam sniffed a little and wiped an eye but Jack’s wife was the only one who cried. Eventually, Gordon slipped through the velvet curtain accompanied by the voice of Diana Dors singing Crazy He Calls Me, from a CD Nero had found back at the house. Slowly they all filed out, dutifully admiring the flowers as they made their way to the limousine. In the wooded surroundings of the Garden of Remembrance, autumn leaves descended as silently as snowflakes.

An hour and a half later at the modest wake back home, Nero watched Kevin pop the last cake into his mouth as he tagged behind Muriel towards the front door. Jack looked at his watch and gave a tiny nudge to his other half, suggesting they get off too. All four repeated their heartfelt condolences and polite assertions of how well it had all gone and made their way out into the chilly November afternoon.

Nero closed the latch on the front door and returned to the living room. Pam was examining the cards arranged on the mantelpiece, squinting at the messages through her ornate reading glasses. There were only nine in all, including one from Simon and Lori. Sabrina stood up to join her mother, for want of a way of occupying herself rather than any great interest in remarks from people she didn’t know. Pam turned to her and shook her head, placing the last card back down.

“It’s not much to show for a life, is it, Nigel?”

“He was a quiet man, that’s all; he had a few good friends around here. He kept himself busy.”

“Oh, I remember that all right; practically lived in that shed of his, back in Coventry. It makes you wonder where all the years went...”

Nero used the opportunity to mention the Jaguar in the garage and pointed to the photo of it with Diana Dors.

Sabrina rushed to pick it up, clearly enthralled.

“She’s so like those old pictures of you, mum; it’s unreal!”

“If you ask me, it was the only reason he was interested in me. If it wasn’t her it was his cars.”

Nero appeared bruised by her comment, recalling all too easily it was she that had buggered off with another man after numerous flings.

“Come on, you know he doted on you. Surely you realise what you did to him, going off like that.”

“Oh Nigel, it’s all water under the bridge now, lovey. I was never going to be the person he wanted me to be.”

“But how was I going to understand something like that at five-years-old?”

At this point he might have expected an embrace from his mother, but it didn’t arrive. Pam looked away, noticing the slightly dismayed expression on Sabrina’s face, and lit a cigarette as she made her way through the kitchen and towards the French doors that led to the garden. Sabrina waited until she was out of earshot.

“I’m sorry about mum. I know you probably don’t think so, but she really does regret what she did,” Nero raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “I’m afraid she doesn’t do apologies, that’s all. I can only imagine how you must have felt, losing her like that when you were so young.”

“I honestly don’t know how I feel about her any more. It all seems so remote now.”

“Your friend Kevin was telling me about the loan shark who’s been on your back.”

“Huh, that sounds like Kevin all right; not exactly one to hold confidences.”

“No, he was really concerned about you. It seems totally unacceptable what this character’s been getting up to; frightening your father like that.”

Nero sighed with resignation. “There’s a lot I can think of I’d like to do to him; he should pay for what he’s done. But I can’t prove anything, and the police aren’t interested.”

“Well that’s it, your friend was worried you might do something... you know, hasty.”

“No offence, Sabrina, but I don’t know why he blurted all this out to you; it’s my problem, it’s up to me to sort it out.”

“Look, you can tell me to mind my own business if you like, but I might be able to put you in touch with someone – I have ‘friends’.”

“What do you mean?” replied Nero, quizzically.

“Well, in my line of work I come into contact with some rather unorthodox individuals, if you know what I mean. Some of them can be very useful if you’re in trouble.”

“I’m sorry, I’m still not sure what you’re saying.”

“How about if someone went along and persuaded him to leave you alone?”

“Ha. You’d need a small army to get him and his brothers.”

“Well, OK, how about if I asked someone to find out a few facts about this... what’s his name?”

“Dixey.”

“He could find out information that might be useful to you.”

“I’m still not quite sure what you mean, but it sounds interesting.”

At this moment Pam returned, shivering and muttering.

“You can tell it’s a man’s house. Couldn’t he have had a few plants to brighten the place up?”

Sabrina stood up and approached her mother.

“You look cold; should you have gone out there?”

Pam looked distracted as she searched for somewhere to stub out her cigarette. “It’s all right, darling; I needed a breath of fresh air.”

“Come and sit down, mum.”

Sabrina guided her mother to the seat she’d just vacated; Gordon’s old armchair closest to the fire. As she lowered herself down with her daughter’s help she looked up at Nero.

“Nigel, I’ve never said it to you, but I know I was wrong back then. I used to cry myself to sleep at nights with it all.”

“So did I.”

Pam could see tears forming in her son’s eyes. “I’m sorry, lovey; really I am. By the time I realised what I’d done, what I’d given up, it was too late. I was still sorting myself out. Sabrina will tell you; there were things between your nan and me... from years before.”

“No. I think you should tell him, mum.”

“Look, it doesn’t make up for what I did to you, Nigel, I know. There were things that happened to me when I was still young; in that flat. You remember what your nan was like: not exactly your run-of-the-mill type, was she. She wasn’t the sort to be without a man for very long. Being in the business she was, you know how it is, ‘respectable’ men wouldn’t look at her; not to marry anyway. Shiftless musician types, most of them she took up with. They lived off her if they thought they could get away with it. While she was in the shop they’d more than likely be upstairs sleeping off the drink.”

Pam took her handkerchief and wiped her eyes. Sabrina put her arm round her shoulder and gently encouraged her to continue. “Go on, mum.”

“Thank you, darling. The first time... it was during the summer holidays; I was only about thirteen or fourteen at most. This boyfriend of mum’s, Frank, used to say how pretty I was and comment on how mature I was for my age. I wasn’t really thinking about boys yet and all of that, but I liked the way he didn’t talk down to me, like I was a child, and could see he enjoyed my company. But of course all he was after was getting me into bed. He was clever all right: he’d talk about films, admire my dresses and the way I’d done my hair. Then it was little kisses and he’d touch me... well you don’t need me to spell out the rest. Afterwards, it had to be our little secret each time; not to say anything to your nan – but it wasn’t long before she caught us. She threw him out of course, but she kept saying I’d led him on. I think she was jealous too. I went off the rails after that; suppose I made the most of the power I had over boys – got a bit of a reputation at school. It’s not the sort of thing you want to hear about your mother, is it, Nigel?” Nigel gave a philosophical shrug of his shoulders and looked away. “I’m so glad Sabrina didn’t turn out like me; she’s always had a wise head on her shoulders. I know your father was a good man, and I didn’t deserve him at the time – I know that. I was too messed up. It took me years to appreciate what I’d thrown away.”

Sabrina comforted her mother. Nero could appreciate what she must have gone through, but inside he felt even more confused about his mum: she was a stranger who once again after all these years managed to hold a strong emotional grip over him. The numbness before had been denial. He wished he’d never known her for those first five years of his life; that she’d have run off before he could develop any affection for her.

Within the hour, mother and daughter were climbing into a taxi as they said their goodbyes. Before she closed the door, Sabrina offered Nero one of her business cards and asked him to phone her in London when he was ready to pursue the matter they’d been discussing earlier. Nero took it, wished them a good trip back, and waved them off. Then it was back up the path to the quiet house. He was relieved that he wouldn’t be spending time there alone with his thoughts over the next few days, and anxious too of just what he’d set himself up for in Scotland.

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