I do not believe in anything. My dear wife was always more religious than I. That is to say she was more open-minded when it came to matters spiritual and incorporeal, tending towards a polite agnosticism over my own intractable atheism, and general scepticism towards the supernatural beyond the pages of my own fiction.
I was having had a spot of bother with a rich man’s wife. She was older than me but I didn’t care. I just wanted her, like some strange and terrible drug. It was the usual story. She’d married young, enticed by the charm of a mature and successful man, and the stability that comes of secure investments. The age gap had not seemed so much when she was twenty and he was fit and fifty.
There were at least five ways home from The Saracen’s Head, and Stan couldn’t think of any of them. He adjusted to the sharp shock of the winter darkness instead, lit a fag, and smoked it savagely as if it had in some way done him greatly wrong. Behind himself, the lights of the pub shut off one by one. Loneliness bit down. Stan Metcalf stoically lit another off the butt of the first. It was late, he was in trouble. Ruby would be waiting.
It was the end of the frustrating fifties. Mary, my mother, heavily pregnant at sixteen, like her mother before her, and just as tragically innocent of the mechanics of her own body, took to the outside toilet suffering from violent stomach cramps. A convulsive eternity later, with a double scream (one of utter terror on Mum’s part and mild surprise on mine), I was born.
‘The thing I love about this job,’ said the soldier, ‘is that you never know where you’ll end up next.’ You and me both, I thought, following him along the deserted seafront. One day you’re doing a bit of freelance journalism, the next you’re on some mysterious Pacific island at the invitation of the owners, all expenses very generously paid. Odd really, given that when I was in the Fleet Street mainstream I was one of their most ardent critics. I shielded my eyes and surveyed a promenade of abandoned cars and looted shops. Off the grid corporate retreats can get pretty weird but I hadn’t seen this one coming.
I first cultivated something like a friendship with Billy, the lonely old boy upstairs, because he reminded me of my dad. But the longer I lived in that little ground floor flat the more he reminded me of myself. The low-rise flats were red brick and post-war, and I had grown up in one just like it myself, with the same narrow hallway with bedrooms in an inverted ‘T’ shape at one end and a heavy door topped with a single panel of frosted glass at the other.