Matthew Poultney flashes a look of surprise at me. He is standing across the living room of my apartment by the panoramic window, looking out at the river, now washed with soft pinks of evening sunglow.
“You decided to beard the lion.” He says.
“It seemed the only sensible thing. I mean, I could have just left everything to do with Casterley behind, moved to Carlton and started my new life – but without knowing the truth? There was something about me that made Mack afraid. I had to find out what that was.”
“The question is, did you?”
Did I? Poultney has a journalist’s ear. I have to be selective in my choice of information, for there is a limit to the amount of lurid detail from my past he will agree to keep ‘off the record’. There is a balance to be struck: he is setting a value on everything he hears and if I give him too much he will use it to make a story about me, and not about Mack Crabtree. Against that possibility, I hold only two cards: the promise that the story I am giving him will be better, and my own future value. Will he be able to use me again, if he breaches my confidence now?
So, have I given away too much? Maybe I should have framed my next ‘clue’ more carefully. We shall see.
Using the broken pieces of my door and a certain amount of dexterity with a screwdriver I managed to make The Avenue apartment reasonably secure, after which I fled to Carlton. That was the beginning of a weekend with Angie devoted mostly to preparing our new home. There was little I could do to soften the blow for my fiancée when I described the fate of our old apartment, but to my surprise, she took it well. By this time we had been ensconced in our Carlton apartment for some weeks, Angie was settled into her new job, and the memories of Casterley life were fading behind us. Angie had made ‘best friends’ with Teri, a bright early twenties brunette with a keen eye for a fashion shop and a boyfriend anxious to make my acquaintance. Stevey was, by his own admission, a cornerstone of the Carlton Park Supporters’ Club; a difficult guy to keep at arms’ length once he had identified my car and where I parked it.
“Hi Angie, is he at home?”
“No, Stevie. He’s popped out for this morning. He’s prob’ly down at the ground, like. Not sure when he’ll be back.”
“His car’s parked outside.”
“Aye, I know. He’s got legs, yeah? He walks.”
On the Monday following the attack I returned to Casterley, having seen Angie off to work, and set about more permanent repairs to the damage of the Friday evening. A new door was fitted, new keys copied. Angie called in the afternoon: “We’re getting’ our ‘phone in the apartment tonight.”
“Don’t give Teri the number!”
I don’t think I had any real expectation I would find Mackenzie at home when I drove out to his house overlooking the Leverton Road that Wednesday morning. A part of me rather hoped he would be out because at this stage I was as frightened of Mack as he apparently was of me. So I felt fairly comfortable believing this visit would be fruitless, that he would be at work or travelling, anywhere but home.
At the gates to High Cheviot Lodge, I pressed the intercom button. “Who is it?”
“Chas Haggerty. I’ve come to see Mack.”
A silence. “He doesn’t take appointments at his home. Contact his office.”
“No, this is a private matter…” I was aware that two large male figures had appeared beside the house. They were unmoving. No golf buggy this time. “If he’s at home, he should want to see me.”
White noise then: a crackling chunk of it broke up the conversation. It generated a pause long enough to persuade me to put my car into reverse, ready to leave. At which precise moment the gates rolled slowly open.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the names I attached to those fine imitations of brickish outdoor facility, were waiting for me when I pulled up on soft gravel before High Cheviot Lodge’s imposing windows.
“I will need to frisk you, sir.” Guildenstern was articulate and polite. When it came to body-searching, he was also extremely thorough. “Please come with us.”
‘Escorted’ is too strong a word. My companions, clearly feeling I posed no major threat, ‘accompanied’ me through an arch of rusted wrought iron at the side of the house, then up a wide flight of steps to imposing oak doors. These swung open to reveal a hallway, the walls of which were for the most part glass, and decorated with classical figures that seemed to have been copied from the pages of a coffee-table book on Greek mythology. A floor paved with tiles which looked very much like marble made stealth impossible. Only a suite of aggressively white leather furniture at the hall’s further end and a glass staircase leading to a mezzanine made any attempt to lift the pretensions of the space from appalling kitsch to chilly museum. It was odd taste, made odder because it somehow contrived to be imposing.
Rosencrantz led the way through a door to Perseus’s left, and down three steps into the room with the mighty windows. At once the ambience altered from cold white to greys and blues which, though lacking soul, at least generated a little sense of warmth. Floorboards of bleached ash were softer beneath my feet, gently conditioned air felt less hostile to my skin. A nest of modular soft furnishings in blue fabric had been positioned to make the best advantage of the view across the valley, graced, in the foreground, by my parked car. I wished I had cleaned it.
“I thought we’d got rid of you.” Mack was sitting with his back to me. He did not turn around. “You don’t seem to be good at taking advice, Chas, do you?”
“Advice? Having my apartment turned over, getting me illegally arrested and thrown in a cell for a night – how does that qualify as advice, Mack?”
Guildenstern moved closer to my side. Mack placated him. “It’s alright, Tom. Leave us, you two, will you? I can deal with this whelp meself.” He got to his feet, with effort, turning to face me. The filtered light of those windows did not treat him kindly. Although little more than a year had passed since our last meeting, I could see the changes – blotched flesh, dark hollows around his eyes, a stone or more of extra weight hanging about the waist of an undisciplined and slouched body his tartan dressing gown did nothing to disguise. “I don’t suffer fools, boy. You should have got that in your thick head by now.”
“And I don’t give up that easily.” I snapped back at him. “I don’t respond to demonstrations of what I suppose you see as power. I just see that as sad. You’re a sad man, Mack, for all your bloody money. But I don’t understand; why are you so friggin’ down on me? What did I ever do to you?”
His eyes were taking the measure of me – I could see that. For a moment, he was wrong-footed, uncertain, struggling to find a correct response. “You came sniffin’ round my daughter, you little bastard. You wouldn’t leave her alone! Did yer seriously think I’d let her pair up with rubbish like you?”
“That’d be around the time you were sniffing around my mother, then, Mack, would it? She was frigging good enough for you, wasn’t she, you bloody hypocrite!”
“You have no understanding of my relationship with your mother. Don’t mouth off about things you know nothing about, kid, alright?” He was short of breath, gulping in air. “I must be so bloody unfit! Looker, the best thing here – best for both of us, if you like, is you just leave. You’ve a good future in a different town and a nice lass who’s more suited to your type. You’re safe from me if you stay away. I won’t touch you, I’ve no reason. Just leave my Susan alone, understand?”
“Where is she, Mack?”
“Damn, lad! You don’t know when to leave off, do yer? It’s none of your business where she is!”
“She was going to finish her GCE’s in Bedeport but she didn’t. She was going to live with her aunt but she didn’t. Where is she? No-one’s seen her; her friends, no-one. Where is she?”
“Where you and your frigging chav friends can’t get to her. Far away from here, boy. Far away.”
“Abroad then?” I tried to draw him, but he said nothing. “See, Mack, I don’t go for all this stuff about the differences between Sue and me. You and my father were equal enough, in my eyes, until you started sleeping with his wife. You quarrelled over a girl and he came off worst, but that doesn’t make me anything less than Dave, or Sue. It doesn’t make you any better than him. You just found a way to get richer.”
My words seemed to change Mack’s mood. Although his scowl stayed with him for a while, I could hear a conciliatory note creep into his voice. “You seem to have been told a great deal more than I thought.” He said.
“My father was in town just the other day. Did he come to see you?”
Mack grimaced. “No. No, he wouldn’t have wanted to see me. So he told you, did he?” Shuffling towards a glossy cupboard by his shiny grey wall, he pulled out a brandy bottle and glass. “He won’t have told you everything. Drink, Chas?”
“No thank you. It’s a bit early.” This sudden civility took me by surprise.
“Have a drink, boy. You’re going to need it.” He poured a second glass and thrust it at me, simultaneously waving at the chairs where he had been sitting when I entered. “Sit down, for frig’s sake. I suppose we have to get this over with.”
Intrigued by the prospect of an answer, I did as I was bidden. “What’s this, Mack, confession time?”
“If you like.” His face twitched and twisted with exasperation, “Though why you couldn’t just go away and let it all frigging lie, I don’t know.”
“Because I was in love with Sue, and you took her away from me. You destroyed our happiness, the two of us…”
“Alright, alright! You have to be told, I see that. Remember, I tried to warn you, alright? I tried to keep you out of it. Understand this, I deal with some serious people – they like tranquillity, nice calm waters; no scandals, Chas. No damaging rumours. They have their own means for dealing with difficult people, means you don’t want to have to find out, because I’m mild by comparison. You and Susan? There was no ‘two’ of you, Chas. There never could be.”
“Why not, Mack? Because I didn’t match up to the future you had planned for her? And there you go, I’m doing rather well now, aren’t I Mack, so why not?”
“Because she’s your friggin’ sister!”
“What?” I admit my heart stopped then. My response was no more than a reflex, an exhalation. My mouth, I think, had dropped open. “What are you saying…?”
“Well, your half-sister, anyway. The same seed, lad. My seed. That’s plain enough, ain’t it? I’m your bloody father!”
My spinning head was inventing answers that were mostly negative and wholly lacking in credulity. Words like ‘No’, ‘impossible’, and ‘wrong’. Apparently, I gave voice to all of them.
“Wrong it may have been, impossible? Impossible for the bloke you call your Da’ to be your Da’? That’s true. Your ‘Da’ as you call him couldn’t raise a bun in a bakery, that’s why Mary ended up in bed with me the week after she married ‘im. He was the biggest mistake of her life, she said. Like I say, he didn’t tell you everything.”
I was shaking, groping for words. “No! I mean, what about poor Shelley! How did she come out of this? Did she realise?”
“What’s that got to do with anything? Yes, she worked it out. Look at yerself in a mirror, lad. “You might detect a family resemblance there. The older you get, the more obvious it becomes.”
“Jesus, Mack, what am I supposed to think now?”
“About what? Nothing; nothing! Don’t get the idea you’re going to join the family firm, I want nowt to do with you. David’s my son, I brought him up. I didn’t have any part in your upbringing – other than the money, that is.”
“Well, you don’t seem to have been short of a few bob.” I said, glancing around me, “It’s a nice house, by the way.” I needed a riposte, so I decided to tease him a little. He took the barb immediately, and for a second I could have sworn I saw a spark of humour in his eyes.
“Shelley’s taste, not mine. It’s on ex-Coal Board land she bought a lot of years ago when her parents died. Then a few years back she got the planning permission. I’m not a house person, meself. I’m like you, Chas. I don’t belong anywhere. Don’t get any ideas – I’m not going to bequeath as much as a stamp album to you, and certainly not this house. In fact, now you’ve learned what you came to learn, I’d like you to leave. Oh, and preferably, for your own sake if not for mine, forget all you’ve heard and never come back!”
So, esteemed reader, I left. What else could I do? I had challenged my tormentor and some might say- you might say – I had found closure, for according to Mack’s story my love for Sue had been blighted from our first kiss. Tragedy though it was, that was a matter for us, for Sue and I, better kept hidden from the outside world. I could keep that secret, as long as it was true. In a few minutes, I had passed through Alice’s mirror into a looking-glass world where everything I had believed was reversed. Yet the answer to the most important question and the reason I held pebbles that might cause ripples in Mack’s Halcyon sea still eluded me,. Where was she? Where was Sue now? I could not turn my back on that.
As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern conducted me in chill silence to my car, I looked back at the Crabtree house and thought about the huge fortune it had taken to build it. I could feel Mack’s eyes on me from the other side of that mass of darkened glass and I wondered what was in his mind as he watched me leave. What devil bought your soul. Mack, in return for all this? In whose murky waters are you compelled to swim?
And then, completely randomly, I thought: what if Sue was never told what I had just now learned? What if, for fear of the waves she might create, she was packed off to some foreign land without ever finding out she had me as a brother? I tried to recall her words at our last meeting together: ‘they want us to stop seeing each other’, meaning, as I saw it at the time, she was under pressure from both her parents. But if she’d known the reason then, wouldn’t she have shared it with me?
Time was no longer on my side. Thanks to the local constabulary’s attentions I had repairs to make on The Avenue apartment before I finally moved to Carlton to join my new team. I suppose I was ready once more to give myself entirely to the game I loved, and my search for Sue had no place there. Also, I was about to experience the full wintery blast of training under an ambitious manage in Hamish Merchison, and the glorious summer of playing with professionals whose agendas were without exception the same as mine. Only one brief episode from my Casterley years has yet to be explained, and this I shall now relate.
The day I bought Angie her engagement ring was cold. The snows had not departed with the first days of spring that year, nor had the east wind abated in its ferocity, so the eastern coastal town of Bedeport was a hostile place to be, even as midday approached. I had watched my father take breakfast, and having eaten only a cold stir-fry myself since the disturbances of the previous night, I was glad enough to start my ring quest with a lunchtime meal at a public house on Princes Street that called itself the Angus.
“They tell me they do good beef here.” I was in mid-bite from my beef salad Smorgasbord. Nel Kershaw was looking down on me, a plate of food in her hand. “I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t know.” She explained, “May I join you?”
My solicitor (for it pleased my sense of self-importance to call Nel that) was smartly suited in her favourite lilac, which she somehow managed to accessorize into the latest fashion. She explained she had spent her morning in court. “For once we got through early, so I’m bunking off really. I don’t want to spend the afternoon in my office. It gets rather chilly in this weather. Lunch and then home, but here you are! It’s so nice to see you, Chas. I follow your progress with awe. Carlton Park next season? My goodness! What brings you to Bedeport on so disgusting a day?”
If it were possible, I think her big green eyes got even wider as I explained my purpose. “Gosh, a teenage wedding! How wonderful!”
“Well, not quite teenaged, we’ll be in our twenties when we actually…”
“…When you actually. Yes of course. But it’s still very romantic. Would it be awfully cheeky of me to offer to help you – with the ring-buying thing, I mean? Some men find it difficult, and it would be a perfect way for me to squander my stolen afternoon.”
“Thank you.” I said honestly. “Yes, I’d like that.”
“Super!” Her green eyes sparkled, and I remember thinking how young she looked, just out of university, perhaps, and not the twenty-nine or thirty years of age she must really have been. “Now, Chas, you’re a sporting sort of person, aren’t you. I wonder if you can help me…”
As we ate, she explained. ‘X’ – she wouldn’t use her client’s real name – was an extremely talented athlete who had returned from a sports scholarship in the United States to pursue her athletics career in Britain. “She is very, very good, by which I mean she can turn in season’s best performances in three of her heptathlon disciplines, and good European Championship qualifying times in the 400 metres. A multi-talented all-rounder, in fact.”
“The world’s her oyster.” I clichéd happily.
“Well no.” Nel paused in her pursuit of a rebellious radish. “As I’m sure you know, funding for full-time training programmes and attendance at larger events is controlled by the big sponsorship players. Now I thought that simply implied wearing the right shoes, carrying the correct advertising logos and so on. Apparently not. It seems these sponsors (and one of them is the national sports council itself) want to control every part of her training, including diet. Those diets are very specific, Chas, and include certain branded high energy supplements. Funding is conditional upon ‘X’s agreement to use these food supplements in precisely the way directed. It’s written into her contract.”
“And she doesn’t want to agree to that” I chimed in, “because she suspects those supplements can be made to contain performance-enhancing drugs.”
“You see, you do know something about the subject! Is this widespread, do you know? I mean, is there anything in your contract like that, for example?”
“No, not in football at the moment, though the practice is endemic in some sports. What you do about it, I don’t have the first idea.”
“Well, I suppose I point out her level of excellence and press for an exemption, but when it comes down to it these multi-national sponsors have things all their own way. There’s no legal obligation upon them to sponsor anybody – it’s entirely at their discretion. They can accept or reject pretty much as they like. Difficult, Chas: how best to proceed?”
“I don’t know.” I could only agree with Nel. Doping, especially in athletics and individual field sports, reached epidemic proportions in those pre-millennium years. Her client ‘X’ would have either to bite the bullet or accept more onerous contractual terms. “If you could prove the link between those supplements and drug use you might have a case, but so much of the science that makes these drugs undetectable is in the timing of the dose and keeping ahead of the test labs. They’re very hard to pin down. That’s the whole idea.”
“And if I succeed I make my client a whistle-blower. It might disrupt the system, but it doesn’t help my client.” Nel sighed, then quickly brightened. “Never mind, it was worth a try. Thank you, Chas. You know you’re an awful lot different to the scared schoolboy I met in that bloody awful police station – how many years ago?”
“Four or five.”
“Well, lot of changes; lots! Come on, let’s go ring hunting!”
© Frederick Anderson 2018. All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content