Mobile rings. “Hi!” I say. “Where are you? Paisley?”
“I’m outside your flat.”
“What color’s your car?”
“You parked to my left or right?… Can you see my window? I’m on the top floor. I’m drawing the curtain now. If you see me, open your car door and wave.”
“I see you. I’ll be right down. Two minutes.”
“Derek, where are we going?”
“It’s not far. I’ll tell you when I’m downstairs.”
“Why can’t you tell me now? Are we meeting someone?”
“No. Just us. I can’t talk on the phone. This is not a secure line. I told you that. I’ll be right down. Trust me. Everything’s going to be alright.”
I drew the curtains back. Switched off the television, after using the remote to get the time: thirty five minutes past noon. Switched the lamp off. Looked around, to make sure I had forgotten nothing. Having reassured myself on that score, I made to leave the flat, walking as swiftly as possible down three flights of stairs to meet the sister I hadn’t seen in two decades. However,…
Turning unlocked all the locks, released the chain, unbolted the bolt, on grasping the handle to open my front door, I am overwhelmed by a flashback…
Time is out of joint. I know my body is on automatic pilot. I know it is moving down, winding its way to the front of the building, but part of my head has left the building. Part of my brain has been triggered of a day long, long ago. I am floating with transparent limbs. Hovering near the ceiling in an old flat. An out-of-body experience. That’s what this is like. Looking down at my younger self. Asleep. Lying on the sofa. In the living room. And then I wake. Violently.
Memorable montage of images march past. Flash. Flash. Flash.
Sound? Not there. Violent assault. Fists knocking out teeth. Metal bars being wielded. Crushing skulls. Blood everywhere. Razors whipped out. Flesh ripped apart. Televisions kicked off pedestals. Tapes tossed everywhere. Two dudes. One a muscle man. Like something out of a superhero comic. Other a small creep in a hood. He’s the razor man. He’s the metal bar thug. He’s the coward kicking me in the head. Kicking me in the testicles. One comes. Goes. Comes back. Leaves. Third time he’s back with the Hooded Thug. Punch. Kick. Slash. Kick head. Kick balls. Search. Scream at me for something. Don’t hear, but I remember what they said. I smiled a toothless grin. They’d have to kill me before I handed it over. I’d see them in jail. Them and their mates. Let them kill me. I won’t surrender. The guilty can rot in hell.
Shutting the front door of the block of flats, I walked towards my sister who, in turn, had started to walk towards me. Her smile was broad, evidently as happy as I was.
“Hello stranger!” she said.
“Is it really you? I wouldn’t have recognized you. You look different. Seriously.”
“I recognize you. You haven’t changed.”
“I wish I could believe that. I know it’s not true.”
“You look a lot thinner than I was expecting. Somehow I thought you would have put on the pounds. But… You spend a lot of time at the gym?”
“As often as I can. Couple of times a week, most weeks.”
“Anyway, look who’s talking. You say on twitter you’ve got really fat. Total lie.”
I feel my tummy. I’m surprised how flat it is. I slip my right hand beneath the belt. I find my trousers are falling down. The belt is tied as tight as can be. Genuinely taken aback.
“My weight goes up and down. You’ve caught me at one of my low ebbs. Anyway, I exaggerate a lot. Much of what I say on twitter is for comic effect. ”
“You want to say hello to Pete?”
“Not really. We don’t have time. Got a lot to say, and I don’t want to get sidetracked.”
“Okay. Let me get some things out the car, then we can go wherever you like. Do you know where we’re going?”
Sis opens the car door and whispers something to Pete, sitting in the driver’s seat. She gets a handbag, and a carrier bag, then shuts the car door.
“Nice day for a walk. So, where are we going?”
“Just follow me. I just need to find somewhere we can talk out of earshot of anyone else.”
“Why couldn’t we speak in your flat? I don’t understand any of this.”
“I told you already. I need to ask a favor, and those I need you to help protect me from will have surveillance devices in my flat. It’s important they don’t have any advance warning. That’s why we couldn’t speak on the phone. There’s no way it’s not bugged.”
“Who would be placing electronic eavesdropping devices in your home? The council?”
“Of course not. Why would they? They don’t have the authority to do that. Why would you ask that?”
“I know you don’t like them. Don’t trust them. Not sure why. Don’t know who else you think could be behind this.”
“Everything will be explained. But we need to find some place to sit down and talk, away from prying eyes, and ears. I think I know where we can go. It’s not that far. Don’t worry.”
“Tell me now. Where are we going? No one can hear us.”
“I don’t like walking and talking too much. Not when the talking requires me to think. Too taxing for my brain. Walking and talking at the same time is just not my forte. Sorry about that. I could fall over. Seriously.” I turn to see what kind of reaction that gets. No smile? She doesn’t know if I’m joking or not? Never mind. Not to worry.
“Anyway,” I continue, “I don’t want to risk someone hearing us. Not impossible, you know. You ever seen a film by Francis Ford Coppola called ‘The Conversation’? Gene Hackman played the lead. Harrison Ford was in it. One of my fave movies.”
“Don’t think so. What was it about?”
“It was about a man who used listening devices. Got trapped in a massive web of lies. Wonderful film.” I look around, in every direction. Looking for who might be checking us out. Sis didn’t seem to spot me looking for someone tailing us. Or if she did she said nothing. Don’t think she saw the film. Don’t think she had a scooby why I might have referenced it. I smiled. Satisfied with myself, with how I was handling this.
“There’s a police station just around that corner. We need to be careful.”
“Do you have any idea how paranoid you sound, Derek?”
I stop walking forward. One second later, so does she. She turns, stares me right in the eye, eyebrows raised in a question: “Well?”
“Yes. Absolutely. That’s why we’re here. That’s part of it. My task is to convince you I’m not paranoid.”
“Good luck with that.”
I smile. Not in the least offended.
“How much time do we have?”
“What do you mean? Time for what?”
“How long before you have to go? I need to make sure I don’t waste time with relatively irrelevant details. I need to focus. That means I need to know how much time I have. To prioritize.”
“Couple of hours?”
“Two hours? Can you spare that much?”
She nods. I smile.
“Two hours is fine,” I say. Very much relieved to have that long. I am confident I can do this.
“I read your blog.”
“What do you think?”
“You write well.”
“I mean it. Not joking.”
I stare at her. Hard. Not a trace of sarcasm. Not that I can see. She means it. Had someone told me this compliment would mean anything to me, I doubt I’d have believed it. But it felt good. Really good. Why? A reminder of when we were kids. V was the only one who looked up to me. Protected me when the rest of the world treated me like dirt. Memories came flooding back. Good ones.
Part of me wanted to dissect my writing. Weigh up what I felt was worthwhile, and all the horrible typos that littered it, made it so painful for me to read my old stuff. But that seemed inappropriate. Best to take the compliment, and move on. Before doing that, I smiled to let her know what she said was appreciated. And then I changed the subject.
“Why did you get in touch with the council?”
“When mum died I called, but you never answered. I couldn’t think who else to get in touch.”
“I never answer the phone unless I know who is calling. I rarely switch it on anymore. Never check messages. Still not sure why you thought the council could get in touch with me.”
“Seemed the only option.”
“I’d never have thought of getting in touch with the council in such circumstances. Surprised they tried to get in touch with me. They know I won’t speak to them without a go-between, preferably a lawyer. They keep pretending they don’t know that. Your getting in touch gave them yet another excuse to hound me. You need to promise me never to get in touch with them about me ever again. This is important. If you do, then we are through. I’m not kidding. You need to promise before we say anything else. Promise me.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I had no idea you felt like this about them. What did they do?”
“They tried to get me to agree to contact you before. They wanted me to sign away rights and hand them to you. I refused. When I found you were in contact with them, I wondered if you had agreed to help them without discussing anything with me. You need to promise me you didn’t. And you need to promise never, ever, under any circumstances, to discuss me with these people. First things first. Then we can move on. Explanations come later. Okay?”
“Alright. I’ll never talk to them about you again. I promise.”
“Okay. Still don’t know why you got in touch with them, but it no longer matters. I need you to help me against them. You need to know why; and that’s why you’re here. That’s partly why you’re here.”
“Do you like it here?” asks V.
“What do you mean? ‘Here’?”
“Thistown? I thought you said you’d read my blog. I’ve written about this. Lots of stuff. I never agreed to be moved here. Part of what I need you to help me with is the council’s illegal moving me to Thistown against my will. And leaving me here in a pokey little flat without lights in my bedroom or living-room for almost a decade. Without any contacts. With my home regularly invaded when the council takes me out my home. Politicians turn a blind eye. I’m taking it for granted you won’t turn a blind eye.”
“I don’t know anything about this. If you refer to it in your blog, I haven’t read that. I never said I read it all.”
“We won’t make much progress if I don’t know what bits you have and haven’t read. We need to discuss this before we do anything else.”
We’ve been walking some time now. Have entered the park opposite the police station. We’re quite far in when I notice a shadow. I look up to see a very large cloud and the sun has just been hidden by it. Almost hidden. And now it’s… Gone. I look back at the shadow and see it seem to point to the center of the park. There is a fountain there. I stop walking, and stare directly overhead. V stops too. Waits for a few seconds, then says, “What you doing?”
“One second.” My neck is hurting. I feel dizzy. Faint. I stumble. But it doesn’t last. I look round. Left. Right. Past the fountain. Look for people following us, or at least interested in us. Behind us is the police station. My eyesight is far too poor to see if we are being watched from the windows there. There is a church to the right. Some way back. Beyond the fountain, outside the park, is the public library, the shopping center, a car park, the local town council chamber. All these will be locked on a Sunday morning.
I rub my eyes. I do feel dizzy. Still. Need a few seconds to recover. Don’t want to dwell on this, so I bluff. Need to sit down for a bit. None of the park benches scattered around are appropriate. I ask V to follow me. She doesn’t argue as we move in a new direction: towards the fountain.
“Do you have any idea where we’re going? I’m starting to doubt it.”
“Let’s stop here for a bit. The fountain.”
“Is this a wishing well?”
“Pulling a couple of coins from my pocket, dropping them into the fountain, I look at V and say, “I guess.”
“So, what did you wish for?”
“I can’t tell you. It wouldn’t come true,” I say as I sit on the edge, getting my bearings back. Letting the faintness drift away. “You want to make a wish?”
“No. I’ve got everything I need.”
“Uh huh. I’m perfectly happy and content.”
“No one else you’d like to wish on behalf of? No unlucky relative?”
V looks at me guiltily. She feels shame. And hurt, clearly. She thinks I was referring to me. Maybe I was. Subconsciously.
V removes a coin and tosses it in the wishing well.
“It’s a very ugly wishing well. Don’t you think?”
“You’ll hurt its feelings. If it’s magic enough to grant wishes, it’s magic enough to hear what you say about it. And, yes. It is very odd looking.”
“What is that on top? An egg timer?”
“An hourglass. Yes. Surrounded by animals. You know what they represent?”
“One of them is a lion. Clearly. One is a dog. Not sure what the other is.”
“I think that’s probably a wolf, not a dog. The other big cat… It has spots. That’s your clue.”
“Well done. Never noticed these animals before. All these rings, by the way…. From a spy satellite, this would look like Hell, as described by Dante. To me, it is Hell. In two hours time, if all goes well, you may get me out. No pressure.” I smile. V doesn’t. Just looks more confused than ever.
At precisely this moment, the town clock bell chimes. One ring only. One O’clock. 13:00.
“Anyway, let’s keep moving,” I say. Rested. Waves of nausea having gone, I get to my feet and lead the way again. Moving back towards the right hand side of the park, walking as far away from the police station as it’s possible to get, occasionally scanning the scene for suspicious-looking characters, other than me, that is.