Next morning, Nero had managed to get an emergency appointment at the Temeton Health Centre. When he arrived, the receptionist proceeded to ask him once again all the questions he’d answered over the phone only an hour or so before. She possessed the manner frequently encountered amongst her occupation, a particular type who smarm to the doctors yet loftily rebuff those who fail to meet their own prissy standards. She raised long-suffering eyebrows to each of his replies, oozing reluctant politeness; conspicuously emphasising what a time-wasting intruder he was into her tidy little world.
She eyed Nero’s unshaven face and bulky rucksack with distaste. “Right, Mr Bain. Would you please take a seat and wait for Doctor Griffiths to call you; he’s the second door on the left – and try to leave room for the other patients to pass, if you would, please.”
Nero leafed through a February 1997 copy of The Lady magazine for ten minutes, smiling to himself at the timeless, insulated world the subjects of its articles and photographs appeared to inhabit: somewhere forever polite, well-ordered, sensible and tasteful.
The speaker rasped, summoning the next patient. Nero could just about make out his surname from the brusque announcement.
He tapped on the door, pausing politely for a second before he entered. Doctor Griffiths looked about forty; an anonymously efficient Professional, glancing intently at his computer monitor without raising his head in acknowledgement. Nero hovered, waiting to be asked to sit down.
“What brings you to us today?”
Feeling awkward at continuing to stand, Nero lowered himself onto one of the two chairs.
“Er, I don’t live here. I’m visiting.”
Nero pleaded his case, and grudgingly the GP gave Nero a prescription for ten more Diazepam tablets, together with a strong suggestion to return home and resume his treatment.
After saying his goodbyes to Simon and Lori, Kevin had dropped Nero off (minus his guitar, which was left back at the house) in town on his way back to Oxford; with a reminder in his ear to go and check for any mail at his flat every day. Returning home was off the agenda; his thoughts now focussed on remaining a comfortable distance from Dixey, though he would more than likely still be looking over his shoulder if he were in New Zealand.
The correct bus-stop wasn’t difficult to locate – there not being many route options available to the Temeton townsfolk – and Nero found himself sharing the shelter with two young women clutching pushchairs; an old man in a long mackintosh holding a bulging beige canvas shopping bag, and a chatty middle-aged woman who made no disguise at her interest in who he was and where he was going. Nero did his best to explain as many details as he could from Aubrey’s vague instructions the day before.
“Oh I know where you mean, by the old Manor, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I was told it was the gatehouse to the Manor; the old entrance.”
“That’s right, I use to clean up there – years ago now, before my hip – and cycle to the house that way. Americans there in the War, so my old mum said; then the eldest of the boys took it; not sure who’s up there now. Who is it you’re seeing, my dear?”
“Oh, his name’s Aubrey. I don’t know his second name.”
Chatty Woman’s eyes opened wide in exaggerated astonishment as the bus pulled up with a squeak and an exhale of its brakes. While the two mothers readied their change and stepped on, she drew her face close to Nero’s and whispered loudly.
“I know old Aubrey FitzMortimer all right,” she said, elongating each syllable of his name in mock deference. “Quite a few stories you’ll hear about that one – but don’t expect me to tell you ’em. You’ll have to ask him yourself. But all I will say is when he went to school with my elder sister, Lizzie, he wasn’t no gentleman with her, or any of the girls he took a liking too. Fancied himself, that one.”
“Oh, right. I think we better get on now.”
“George won’t leave without us, will you George. This chap’s going to the Manor; after my stop. Will you drop him at the Lodge, my dear?’”
The driver gave a broad, friendly smile as he beckoned them aboard. “No problem at all, my precious. You picking-up stray men again?”
Nero and Chatty Woman took their tickets from Smiling George and squeezed past the folded pushchairs to a couple of free seats.
“Ooh, I’m glad to get the weight off! Don’t listen to him. I’m not looking for another one; I have enough clearing up after my Cyril as it is. You know who he is, don’t you?”
“Your Aubrey friend.”
“Not very well, no. I only met him yesterday; him and his wife.”
“I’ve heard about her; foreign isn’t she? A strange one, I’m told – though I don’t like to talk ill of those I don’t know.” Not more than about fifteen times a day, thought Nero.
“They seemed nice enough; invited me over.”
“The times I’ve met him he’s been civil enough. I’ve just heard things, that’s all. Bacon! I’ve forgotten the bacon. I’m sure it was on my list. I don’t know where my head’s going to, I really don’t...”
Chatty Woman stopped chatting and started to read her newspaper. Madonna’s divorce fought for room on the front page with a headline asserting that Britain was in for plenty of financial pain over the next few years. On reaching her stop a few miles later, she got up and tapped Nero on the shoulder.
“Bye, my dear. George will drop you off.”
The diesel engine growled up to maximum revs and then the engine note fell again during each ponderous gear change. A mist of condensation obscured Nero’s view of any scenery though the side windows. The teenage mothers texted while tending their infants.
The old man wiped a damp porthole onto the glass with his hand and peered through. Whatever he’d seen had clearly failed to engage him, his head having quickly resumed its blank, staring forward position. Nero leant his head out into the aisle between the lively liveried seats so he could watch the driver’s view of the road ahead, observing the lanes unwinding through the windscreen.
A mile or so later, George briefly looked back and shouted. “This is yours, mate, just on the left here.”
Nero grabbed his rucksack and hurried towards the front of the bus.
“Cheers. Thanks for dropping me so close.”
Within a few seconds Nero was standing in the lane, surrounded by silence; face moistened by drizzle as he watched the bus slowly recede into the distance. He hadn’t a clue where he was, but felt safe out in the sticks as he peered down, noticing an extremely flat fox adhered to the tarmac. It looked stiff and stained from innumerable wheels having passed over it – maybe for weeks, or indeed months. Nothing seemed interested in eating it. Invisible rooks began calling back and forth in stereo somewhere in the woods behind him. Then he detected the faint sound of a tractor engine – or perhaps it was a ’plane.
Nero turned to face what he presumed must be Aubrey’s home, which stood back from the road, sitting next to a pair of tall, rusting wrought-iron gates gripped by weeds. The building seemed to fit the description he’d been given from its owner, that of a self-important Georgian bungalow.
He walked to the front door and looked for a bell-push, but there wasn’t one. Instead, Nero used the weighty dolphin knocker to make a couple of taps and waited a few seconds. Silence. He knocked again on the paint-peeled blue door, a little more stridently this time, and waited again. Still nothing. Remembering Aubrey had mentioned he might be found in the back garden, Nero squeezed his way to it through a narrow gap between clumps of damp ivy and holly bushes.
The garden was large and gave the impression it had once been formally laid out, but the hard edges of discipline had softened to a rampant individuality. He spotted a rake propped against a wooden wheelbarrow full of leaves and detected the smell of burning wood, but could see no smoke.
“Hello! Are you there, Aubrey? It’s Nero. Hello...”
Aubrey shouted back an enthusiastic reply from somewhere beyond a crumbling brick wall.
“Ah, you’ve come! Wait there a moment; I’ll be with you shortly.”
Nero could hear a glugging of liquid followed by what sounded like the crackling whoosh of fire. A few seconds later Aubrey appeared, wearing a black, large-brimmed felt hat worn at a rakish angle, together with a dark brown quilted Barbour jacket and a pair of wide corduroy trousers in a distracting shade of fuchsia.
“Finally got the bugger to stay lit; just needed a splash of unleaded, that’s all. Should be all right now for a bit. You made it then. Hope you didn’t have to trudge too far loaded up like that.”
“No, the driver dropped me off.”
Aubrey gestured towards the kitchen door: “Good, good. Shall we have a cuppa while that little lot combusts?”
“Thanks again for letting me come and stay.”
Aubrey mumbled something unintelligible, but was obviously pleased to see him.
Nero looked about him and opened his arms. “You’re really out in the wilds here.”
“Yes. Marvellous, isn’t it. Just put your things by the table for now, I’ll show you to your room when we’ve warmed up.”
“Did Luda get off all right?”
“Yes, she’ll be speeding on her way through the depths of Essex by now I should think. Milk and sugar?”
“Just the one spoonful, please, with milk.”
Pushed for conversation, Nero mentioned the woman on the bus who said she knew him.
“Squat little woman with a tight head scarf and a lumpy coat?”
“That sounds like her.”
“She’s always been full of tittle-tattle; constantly poking around for gossip. I expect she forced a thorough debriefing from you during the journey?”
“I suppose she did, yes.”
“The thing is, whatever she said about me is liable to be grounded in truth.”
Aubrey gave an amused snigger as he poured hot water over the teabags. Nero decided not to pursue the subject any further, concerned he could all too easily put his foot in it.
“I’m sort of beginning to get use to being away from the city. I’ve never really been one for the open air; fields and stuff. It’s pitch black at night too – eerie.”
“Fewer distractions. You’ll notice that your eyesight and hearing will appear to improve the longer you’re here; especially if you take time to simply stand a while and take things in. That’s why I go for my walks – keeps the ticker healthy too. There you go, I’ve given it a good stir.”
“Thanks. Damn sight fitter than me I should think. My dad’s had a bit of heart trouble. Guess I should look after myself; I sit around too much.”
Aubrey pointed out towards the garden: “Well there’s plenty out there to get stuck into, and I can show you a few things hereabouts.”
“Yeah, OK. I can feel the weight lifting already.”
“Good, good. It’s surprising just how therapeutic a spot of steady manual work can be for the soul. You probably don’t believe me right now, but you’ll see. ‘Laborious leisure’, I call it... Ah, it’s going a treat now. See the flames above the wall?”
Nero gave friendly acknowledgment and took a sip from his mug.
Ten minutes later and Aubrey was giving a quick tour of the rooms in the Lodge: “As you can see, the place is rather snug, and we haven’t really made best use of what little space is available. It’s bad enough having one magpie in a household, but Luda and me both have the collecting bug; hence the sitting room being somewhat esoterically biased.”
He was right. An abstruse assortment of objects was presented before his eyes: including among them, tribal masks and fetishes, old cameras, various mounted animals, abstract paintings, ceremonial drums, and a walnut Deco writing desk. Nero’s eyes darted with distraction around the dimly-lit, clubby room. But Aubrey was already urging him to follow him elsewhere.
“The dining room is here, and the next door is the bathroom; we’ve gone for a more pared down approach in there, as you can see.”
Nero glimpsed chrome, glass, and a lot of white.
“And finally, this is where you’ll be laying your head.”
Nero bent his head around Aubrey to peer in. “Looks fine. Not a bad size either.”
“Just toss your things wherever you can find space. There’s plenty of room in the wardrobe, et cetera. Why don’t I leave you to sort your things out while I go and see how that fire’s getting on, yes?”
“I will. Thanks again.”
Nero sat on his third unfamiliar bed in under a week. This one creaked a bit as he shifted his weight, but it felt comfortable; not too soft. The large sash window and pale yellow walls gave the room a light and airy feel. He hadn’t bothered to unpack while he was at Simon and Lori’s place, so he set about locating various items of clothing from his rucksack and arranging them on the duvet cover until he could decide where to put them; separating out what needed washing.
As he lifted his black jeans from the bag, something dropped out. Looking down onto the carpet, he noticed it was a scrunched-up piece of paper. Reaching for it, Nero knew what it must be, and whispered a name to himself: “Alain.” In his hurry to get away from the hospital, he’d completely forgotten about Alain handing him that note. But he’d remembered how concerned he was that he should take it. In addition to brief hospital contact details there were several scrawled words – Type exactly in quotes: “ibogabeta reboot FAQ”.
The phrase meant nothing to Nero. All he could recall was Alain telling him he should google what was written on the piece of paper, and that it could help him. He placed it on the bedside table, making a mental note to look it up. Feeling a little drowsy, he took his shoes off and lay on the bed.
The daylight was dying when Nero opened his eyes again. The plastic clock/radio at his bedside informed him in large, light-emitting red numerals that it was precisely 17:09. He got to his feet and quickly finished unpacking his things, then made his way towards the kitchen to see if Aubrey was back in from the garden. He caught sight of his languid figure reading in the sitting-room, settled in one of the two brown and agreeably patinated leather armchairs. Aubrey had changed his clothes and was now looking comfortably elegant in a grey flannel suit, dark green tie and brown brogues. His clipped grey beard and generous moustache gave him the appearance of an Edwardian gent at leisure.
“Hi, Aubrey. Sorry I was so long, I nodded off for a bit. I’m all done in there now.”
“No, that’s fine, you obviously needed it. Anyway, it’s given me a chance to reacquaint myself with Des Esseintes. I know it’s a little early, but my belly is starting to rumble – how about yours?”
“Yeah, I suppose I am a bit peckish.”
“How does baked salmon and tagliatelle sound, washed down with a dry rosé?”
“Great, yes. I haven’t had salmon for ages. Need a hand with any of it at all?”
“Well, any assistance is always welcome. I tend to flap if I’m by myself. Luda generally cooks while I prepare things and wash-up as we go”
Nero wasn’t quite sure why he’d offered to help, as he seldom attempted anything in the kitchen close to being called a recipe; he merely followed heating instructions. Still, it was better than just standing there with his hands in his pockets.
“Right, OK then.”
Aubrey slapped both palms on his thighs, placed his book down, and then simultaneously sprang to his feet while slipping off his jacket and placing it carefully on one arm of the chair. As he breezed into the kitchen – Nero in tow – he reached out and lifted his apron from its hook on the door and ducked his head under the neck strap.
“Perhaps you’d like to chop the parsley?”
“I can’t say I’ve ever done it. But I’ll have a go, if you could show me – ”
Aubrey shook his head in genial disbelief. “Quite astonishing. Never mind, I’ll guide you.”
While they got to task with the meal, Nero gave Aubrey the edited highlights of his recent woes; why he’d left Oxford and was hiding out in the in the middle of nowhere.
“I can see that you’re at a bit of a crossroads with things. And this chap Dixey seems a complete thug; I’ve met people like him myself. So, do you plan to simply disappear for ever?”
“Well, no, not really. Though if he’d just given me more time I could probably have saved up and paid him back, but he’s insisted on just a week. I’ve got until Friday, then I’m really in the shit. I thought of changing my name, going abroad and stuff, but he’ll find me one day, I just know it – he’s got his ways...”
Nero was becoming visibly uptight: wringing his hands and pacing about the kitchen looking strained. Aubrey realised just how strung-out and desperate he was and in need of a lifeline. Leaving the wooden spoon in the pasta pan, he approached Nero and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and deliberately spoke softly.
“Come on, old chap. I know things must appear rather bleak at present, but you always have options, if you think hard enough. This fellow is obviously a bully. He must surely realise that he’s putting you through the mill like this – it’s right as not good sport to him. There seems little point in your returning home for a little while. But at some time; a month from now, six months... even a year, you will have to face him. As you say, he knows how to find people. Better you go to him rather than he –.”
“I know, I know. But I feel trapped... and angry that he’s got this control over me. I mean, he must know there’s no way I can come up with seven grand just like that. It’s like he wants to crush me under his shoe like a beetle. I’ve never actually seen anyone he’s hurt, but I’ve heard enough to know what happens when people don’t pay: it starts with phone calls in the night, broken windows; and I’m sure he did away with one bloke. There was no body found but –“
“Come on, try not to get your thoughts get carried away too much; for the time being you’re here, well away from him. We can come up with some sort of plan – there is always a way, trust me.”
Nero sighed and swallowed. “Thanks, Aubrey. But I need more than one plan. I think my life needs a complete makeover from top to bottom.”
“I’ve had my own moments like you’re having; times when everything that seemed certain in my life crumbled away and the future looked entirely daunting. But I got through it. Oh, could you pop the oven door open and give the salmon a squeeze...”
Nero obliged, his head recoiling from the hot air as he reached in and gave the fish a prod with his finger.
“Is there some give to it?” enquired Aubrey.
“No, it’s sort of wobbly.”
“Ah, needs a few more minutes; I’ll open the wine. Anyway... what was I saying?”
“That you got through your own problems.”
“Look, I may as well tell you properly; no point in fannying about while you’re here – but let’s get this meal cooked and eaten first.”
His host seemed disinclined to chat during the meal, so Nero had instead given a clear impression that he was enjoying it by widening his eyes and smiling during enthusiastic chews. Then, having noticed Nero had finished his last mouthful, Aubrey ventured an opinion from his guest.
“So, what did you think?”
“Yes, it was good; sort of fresh-tasting; lots of flavour. The salmon was really juicy.”
“Good, I’m pleased. You see, no need to resort to packets for a meal; and how long did it take?”
“True. No time at all. I know I should learn –“
“Perhaps have a bash at something tomorrow?”
Nero gave a friendly faux-defeated smile. “Looks like I’ve got no choice, doesn’t it.”
Dishes and pans in sink, and with a determined promise to return and attend to them later, they made for the sitting room. Aubrey closed the curtains, as from the inky twilight, beyond the inviting yellow hue of the window, they heard the distressed trill of a blackbird calling off encroachers. There was a slight chill in there so Aubrey shook a few lumps of coal from the hod onto the fire, causing it to spit; followed up with a couple of poker lunges to open it up and let the red glow through.
Nero sat in the armchair opposite the one Aubrey had occupied earlier, running his fingertips over small cracks in the leather. The clock’s leisurely tick-tock, the crackling coals, and the surrounding collection of esoteric objects endowed the room with a sense of urbane tranquillity.
“It feels really relaxing in here.”
“You’re right. I find this the ideal place to digest my thoughts. I have my books and my memories all around me.”
“It reminds me of one of the museums back in Oxford... the Pitt Rivers.”
“Yes, the gloomy one with the shrunken heads and such.”
“Where did you get it all?” asked Nero, gesturing a crescent of curiosity across the room with a pointing finger.
“Oh, from here and there. And then, with all that Luda brought with her too, the place became full in no time.” Aubrey looked at the Bakelite mantel clock as he took his jacket from the chair and slipped it on again. “She’ll be on the ferry by now.”
“Do you ever go with her to these things... the art events?”
“No, not for a while. After decades of wandering here and there I’ve rather lost my appetite for travel; I prefer to potter around this place. But only because I did spend all that time travelling around when I was younger, soaking up experiences and so on. That’s what I’ve been trying to say, that we all need to broaden our perspective a little. I could have spent all my life here, like my brother, but I’d have gone potty. I’m content to be here now only because I’ve been out there and seen the world – well, a fair stab at it.”
“So you’ve got it out of your system?”
“In a sense, yes. Back when I was a teenager I simply wanted to get as far away as possible from all of this: my father, the school; the whole stuffy, parochial County scene. I know that for many people, to give up all these apparent privileges must have seemed aberrant to say the least.”
Nero’s brow furrowed with puzzlement. “What, the cottage?”
“I’m sorry, I should explain more clearly. By this, I mean the Hall and the whole estate. Being slightly the elder of the two of us, we being twins, Roger inherited just about all of the property, the land – around two-thousand acres in all – and most of what the old sod had in the bank; after death duties of course. If I’d have stayed I would probably have worked under my brother on its upkeep, as estate manager or some-such; had a tidy sum to live on and an agreeable billet in one of the wings.”
“So, didn’t you get on with your father and brother back then?”
“Oh, I’ve generally got on with Roger well enough, when I see him; not that we have a terrible lot in common. He has his life the other side of the garden wall, and I have mine. But no, I didn’t get on with my father. He was a Roger too, of course.”
Nero could see by the way Aubrey had settled back into his chair and breathed in that he was in for a fuller explanation.
“Family tradition has always dictated the eldest male offspring be named Roger. It all goes back to the original Roger FitzMortimer who was the bastard son of Roger de Mortimer, 1st Earl of March; they were big-shots around these parts after the Normans took over the shop. Actually, for a couple of years – and most people pooh-pooh this when I mention it – Roger wangled his way to become ruler of England, no less.” Nero’s brow betrayed a sceptical furrow, but he was too beguiled with Aubrey’s tale to interrupt him. “Edward II was unaware for some time that my exiled ancestor was giving Isabella, his neglected queen, a regular seeing-to as they plotted his murder together – you have to commend his style, don’t you,” Aubrey said, with a sly wink. Nero gave a cautious smile. “Anyway, they apparently bumped the King off, but it wasn’t long before de Mortimer too met his end: hung, drawn and quartered for his temerity. If you look at me sitting here meekly now, I think you’ll agree the naked ambition in our blood must have diluted somewhat over the centuries.”
Nero decided to respond before he had devised a coherent question: “Yes, but... I’m not sure what...”
“Well, our ancestor, illegitimate Roger FitzMortimer, was the result of a fling by the thrusting usurper with a local landowner’s girl, shortly after he was married. Extremely tortuous all of it, as you can see. I hope I’m not boring you.”
The pieces had begun to fit in Nero’s head by now. “Blimey, no, of course not. So does that make you a –“
“It makes me precisely nothing: the descendent of a grasping medieval Earl’s love-child, in total. In return for young FitzMortimer and his mother’s silence regarding his dalliance out of wedlock, they were given a pile of cash and some property – the land we’re on right now, actually; though the original FitzMortimer Hall burned down. As I understand it, our Roger was born before the legitimate male heir, so I think Sir Roger was perhaps keeping ours in the wings as a standby; as a spare as it were, should he not have produced a male heir. He needn’t have worried though, his wife ended up popping boys out on a regular basis like peas from a pod. So it’s been delusions of grandeur ever since on our part.”
“Sounds fascinating stuff, to have that kind of history. There ought to be a TV programme about it... or a film,” Nero added with enthusiasm.
“Though perhaps a little too confusing, with such a profusion of Rogers.”
“Yeah, but makes my family sound totally boring in comparison.”
“Well there’s nothing wrong with boring, in that respect. Boring can be infinitely preferable to certain experiences. I should hope you had a better relationship with your father than I had with mine?”
“Yeah, the usual arguments as a teenager, but no, fine on the whole. You said before you didn’t really get on with him.”
“Father was a man typical of his time and his background: diametrically opposed to the over-sentimentalizing and self-indulgence we see around us now. He believed in his country first, then his family, and probably more than anything, the Hall and its grounds; ensuring it all stayed in our hands. Well, he managed it in his lifetime, but it didn’t totally survive the tax man. My brother still has the run of the place, but he has to share it with the general public since The National Trust got hold of it – no doubt that’s why he spends most of his time jetting-off round the world on business.”
“So this cottage is National Trust too?”
“Well no, that’s the brilliant thing...”