‘I ’ope it ent a bleedin’ bomb.’
‘Don’t be stupid.’
‘Well, what is it then?’
‘How do I know?’
‘You expectin’ anything?’
He wasn’t. Michelle watched him closely. ‘Open it, why don’t you?’
‘I’m going out.’
In the front room Coronation Street was just ending.
‘I hate that bloody tune … waaw waaw waaw …’ Michelle bounced out of the kitchen. Three seconds later, the tune changed to gunfire.
Andy grabbed the brown box and went out before she could come after him, demanding to know more.
The only place he could take it was the Ox, and that was packed for a darts final, but he found a seat by the door to the lavatories, got a half-pint and looked at the parcel and the people around him. But those who were not round the darts board were in front of the television watching Chelsea go one up on Arsenal.
He ripped the box open with the edge of his front door key. A new mobile phone nestled among the wrappings. He took it carefully out and weighed it in his hand. It was very small and very light. Silver. ‘Cool,’ his nephew would have said.
Andy knew where it had come from and it felt like a ticking bomb in his hand.
He drank slowly from his glass. The box contained a charger, instruction booklet, guarantee. Nothing more.
A roar of approval went up from the darts watchers.
He didn’t dare start to fiddle with the keypad or try to find out how it worked. He didn’t want it near him. Having it meant a commitment to Lee Carter and his job and for days Andy had been having second and third thoughts about that.
He thought back to prison. He had a glimmer of understanding why people sent themselves back there. Not that he would, not ever. But the world was difficult. Freedom was difficult. Nothing was as he’d expected it to be, everything, once the novelty of being out had worn off, was either a shock or a disappointment. He felt aimless and frustrated. He wanted to get on with something … life, he supposed. Was this life? Hanging about the Dulcie, spending hours making half a pint of cheap beer last in places like this, sleeping crammed in with his nephew whose trainers smelled?
He rewrapped the mobile phone, finished his beer and looked across to the darts board. Boring. Andy had played them all in prison. Darts, ping-pong, pool … and darts took the prize for being the most deadly boring of them all.
The arrows flew, and hit the right segments of cork, thwack, thwack, thwack. Another cheer.
Andy went out into the drizzle, the package tucked away inside his jacket.
Nothing happened for two days. When he had an hour alone in the house he read the instruction booklet through and set the phone on to charge, hiding it under his camp bed. No one would look there. Michelle never seemed to tidy in here, just made the beds every so often, and opened the window for a bit.
A lot had happened in his time away and mobile phones were one of them. Then they had been mainly fixed inside cars, now they were everywhere. Ten-year-old children rollerbladed along the street talking into them. The world had lurched forward and not taken him with it.
At quarter to nine that morning his nephew came downstairs carrying the mobile and threw it at him. ‘You got a text,’ he said, and carried on out of the back door.
He went upstairs, consulted the instruction booklet, and opened the first text message of his life.
Apprentice Rd. 2.30am. Slvr jagXK8. cntct Dnny.
He reread it a number of times. He did not know Danny. He only knew that picking up a Jaguar XK8 in the early hours of the morning from a smart residential road on the outskirts of Lafferton was unlikely to be legit.
So, he wouldn’t go then. Simple. Lee Carter couldn’t make him. He wasn’t going to come banging on Michelle’s door asking for him at that time in the morning, was he? He just wouldn’t go. Bloody stupid to expect a kosher job from Lee, even for five minutes, and even though he said it was all different now. Of course it wasn’t different. Did it look different? Had the house and the lawn and the in-corner bar and the fridge stocked with booze looked legit?
He put the mobile in his trouser pocket and went out. The streets were empty. Kids were in school, most people who worked at work, those who didn’t watching telly or in the pub or hanging about town. Like him. He caught a bus and went to hang about town.
The bus took him to Dino’s corner. The steamed-up windows and the name in curly neon, the same as ten and more years ago, came from another world, the old world, one he felt at home in. Below the neon sign, the face of the missing schoolkid looked out at him from the poster.
Andy pushed open the café door. Fredo was at the espresso machine.
‘Andy … you come in for a Knickerbocker Glory?’
Those were the days. Andy laughed.
‘Espresso, cappuccino, mocha, latte?’
‘OK, I give in. How are you, Andy? Gotta job?’
No. Yes. He wasn’t sure.
‘Looking for a job. You know anyone wants to set up a market garden?’
‘No. Maybe I know someone who wants a hedge cutting. Me.’
‘Yeah, right. Thanks, Fredo.’
He took the mug of tea, hesitated, then added a doughnut from under the glass dome on the counter.
As he set them down on one of the marble-topped tables by the window the mobile phone made a buzzing noise. He looked round. No one had taken any notice. Well, they wouldn’t, would they?
Andy took it out of his pocket. ‘Gunton,’ he said. Silence. He hesitated then pressed the green rubber button and tried again. ‘Gunton.’ Bloody stupid object. He bit into the doughnut and jam squirted sideways on to his cheek.
Fifteen minutes later, as he was finishing his second mug of tea, the phone buzzed again and, this time, as he lifted it to his ear he caught sight of the square display. Message.
It took him five minutes. He didn’t have the booklet with him. Alfredo was polishing spoons by the handful and watching him. The schoolkid on the poster was watching him. A woman stared in through the misted-up window at him. Shit.
In the end he got there.
‘You OK, Andy?’
‘You keep cheerful, right?’
‘Know what you want?’
‘What do I want, Fredo?’
Fredo bent under the counter, took out a small leather photograph wallet and handed it across. Inside were two pictures, one of a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl with gold hoop earrings, one of the same girl dressed as a meringue with Alfredo on their wedding day.
‘Great,’ Andy said, handing back the wallet. ‘Terrific, Alfredo. Good for you. How much?’
‘Nah, come on.’
‘I can’t make it free, Andy, but only a pound.’
For a split second, Andy felt a surge of anger roaring up through him, so that he almost slammed Alfredo’s hand full of spoons down on the counter hard and told him he didn’t want favours. He looked into his old school friend’s face. Alfredo looked back, still smiling.
‘Thanks, Fredo,’ Andy said, ‘only next time, I have to pay the whack or I can’t keep coming in and I want to keep coming in.’
‘Deal,’ Fredo said, putting the pound coin in the till. ‘I want you to keep coming in.’
As Andy reached the door, Fredo shouted after him. ‘Any time you wanna cut a hedge, Andy?’
He found a bench in the new pedestrianised shopping square. Two old men were sunning themselves. One looked asleep. How could they stand it, day in, day out, nothing to do, sitting on benches?
So, what was he doing? He took out the mobile phone. The message had gone from the screen. He wondered what would happen if he just didn’t reply. He could pretend he hadn’t received the phone at all, that he’d never worked one so he had no idea there had been any message, that …
He’d have to go, that was all. He had to pick up a car at two thirty in the morning. If he didn’t, Lee would come to him and then what? He knew what.
Michelle and another woman were eating sandwiches and drinking out of cans of cider when he got back.
‘What you been messing at?’ She didn’t offer him a sandwich.
The other girl had a stud in her nose and black-painted fingernails.
‘Not out where you should have been. Bleedin’ probation officer rung up, didn’t she?’ Michelle wiped her mouth and reached across the table for her cigarettes.
Shit. He’d forgotten, because the appointments were a waste of time like Long Legs was a waste of space. Where had the chats got him? A job? Somewhere to live?
‘What she say?’
Michelle shrugged. ‘Ring her and find out.’
‘Then if you don’t mind, we was having a girl talk.’
Black fingernails giggled.
The bedroom smelled stale. Andy opened the window wide, stuck two pairs of Matt’s trainers on the ledge to air, and then sat on the edge of his camp bed reading the mobile phone booklet until he had the instructions for sending text messages by heart.
The Dulcie estate was quiet and would be until half past three when the schools turned out and then bedlam until one in the morning. It wasn’t like prison, it was worse. His sister was no nicer to him than any of the screws and at least there he’d had a room to himself. Under his nephew’s bed he could see rolls of grey fluff and a pile of p**n magazines.
So what was the answer? There was one. He took out the phone, found the message in the inbox, and carefully pressed out a reply.
He pressed Send.
He guessed it would take him forty minutes to walk from the Dulcie, cutting across the railway waste ground to Apprentice Road. He had no alarm and even if he had he dared not risk waking Matt, so in the end he went to bed at midnight and just lay awake on his camp bed, hands folded behind his head. He was in no danger of sleeping, he was so pent-up. Beside him, his nephew slept noisily, snuffling, grunting, talking to himself, heaving over and back again.
It was bright moonlight. It shone in on Andy through the window and silvered the heavy metal and Harley-Davidson posters on the wall opposite. He’d never liked the moon much. Spooky and cold, he thought it, but it would be handy tonight.
He had the mobile in his pocket.
At one, he got up and put his shoes on quietly. Matt stirred and mumbled, but nothing more. The house was still. His brother-in-law was at work. Michelle had been watching television with a couple of cans of cider until after Andy had gone up. He went quietly down the stairs, making barely a sound, unhooked his jacket and slipped out. The Yale lock dropped with a clunk. He froze. But he reckoned he could have slammed the door and no one would have heard.
He set off to walk through the empty moonlit streets, and after a while he realised that what he felt was not fear and foreboding, it was excitement. It was something to do with being out alone at this time, with not having had any excitement whatsoever for so long … and more. Whatever it was he was set up to do was not legit, though how far it was not he couldn’t guess. But it was the fact that he was out on a job again, in the night and pitted with the others against the sleeping world which was giving him a buzz. He had difficulty admitting it to himself.
Here and there a light shone in a bedroom window. A minicab went past him and instinctively he flattened himself into the bushes. On the waste ground beside the railway line he saw a fox race across ahead of him, brush down, eyes glinting. He liked the smell of the night.
Apprentice Road was further away than he remembered. It was twenty to three when he reached it. He started to walk more slowly, keeping to the hedge. No one. No lights. No cars.
It was a longish road, with Edwardian houses mostly turned into flats, and one or two 1960s semis crammed into the plots between. Then he saw it, almost at the end. A Jaguar parked away from the street lamps. Just the car. No person.
Andy approached it cautiously. Paused. Waited. Rubbed his finger over the phone in his pocket.
He stood for perhaps four minutes, barely breathing. Nothing. No one. He went up to the Jaguar. It was empty but on the driver’s seat was a route map. He reached out cautiously and touched the door handle, ready to leap away if an alarm went off but none did. The door was unlocked.
He bent in and moved the map. The keys were underneath it. As he touched them the buzzer went on his mobile, terrifying him, loud as a siren in the sleeping street. He pulled it out. The display screen was backlit in weird luminous green.
Airfld. 4 mls, edg Dunstn by hangar 5.
Andy looked behind him. Not a light, not a sound, but someone was out there, someone had known the instant he had let himself into the Jaguar. He felt sweat round his collar.
He waited. Nothing. There were no more messages.
He knew the airfield. They used to muck about up there as kids. He thought it would have been all built on by now.
He got into the car and adjusted the seat. It smelled wonderful, of cold leather. When he put the key in the ignition the dashboard lit up in a deep soothing blue. The gear was leather-covered and stubby, fitting perfectly into the palm of his hand. He started the engine. He had not driven a car for five years but it felt like five minutes and the sound of the engine purring up excited him. A Jag was something else. The interior was immaculate. It had only done 3,000 miles. He let off the handbrake and went slowly and quietly, without putting on the lights, to the end of the road. Beautiful.
The main road was deserted. Andy put the beams on to dipped and fastened himself into the belt. Three miles then on to the bypass, second left and out on the winding country lane towards the airfield. His heart thumped. He accelerated and the Jaguar powered forward.
There were some lorries on the main road, but the bypass was deserted and after he turned off that he saw nothing but an owl and a little further on a rabbit picked up in the car headlights. He swung off the lane across the potholed track that led towards the airfield. Nothing much seemed to have changed. He slowed. Nothing. No vehicles, no lights, nobody.
At the far end the old barrel-roofed Nissen huts were still in place. Andy drove slowly past them then turned and headed back across the open ground; as he did so, the mobile phone buzzed. Bloody thing, like a disembodied watcher.
He stopped, and picked it up.
Lve car kys undr map.
He slid up beside the second hangar, number 5, doused the lights, switched off the engine and sat waiting. He waited for quarter of an hour. No one came. The place was dark and silent. He got out and stood holding open the Jaguar door. So, he was to leave the car here. Then what? Walk back?