London, Spring 1999
HE WOKE UP LATE THE NEXT DAY TO FIND KERRY ALREADY GONE, leaving a short note, through which the disapproval showed like a watermark. He read it idly, without interest, and tried to remember what had happened the night before.
J – Don’t forget the reception at Spy’s tonight – it’s very important for you to he there! Wear the Armani – K.
His head ached, and he made strong coffee and listened to the radio as he drank it. He didn’t remember a great deal – so much of his life seemed to be like this now, a blur of days without anything to define them from each other, like episodes of a soap he watched out of habit, even though none of the characters interested him. The day stretched out in front of him like an empty road in the desert. He had a tutorial that evening, but was already considering whether to miss it. It was all right; he’d missed tutorials before. It was almost expected of him now. Artistic temperament. He grinned briefly at the irony.
The bottle of Joe’s wine was standing where he had left it on the table. He was surprised to see it still over half full. Such a small quantity seemed too little to account for his pounding hangover and the dreams which finally chased him into sleep as dawn bled into the sky. The scent from the empty glass was faint but discernible, a sweetly medicinal scent, soothing. He poured a glassful.
‘Hair of the dog,’ he muttered.
This morning it was only vaguely unpleasant, almost tasteless. A memory stirred at the back of his mind, but it was too distant to identify.
The door rattled suddenly and he turned round, feeling obscurely guilty, as if caught out. But it was only the post, half pushed through the letter box and spilling onto the mat. Through the glass door a square of sunlight illuminated the top envelope, as if marking it for his special attention. Probably junk mail, he told himself. Nowadays he rarely ever received anything else. And yet, by a trick of the light, the envelope seemed to glow, giving the single word stencilled across it a new, brilliant significance: ‘ESCAPE’. As if a door could be opened from the London dawn into another world, where every possibility remained to be played out. He stooped to pick up the bright rectangle, opened it.
His first thought was that it was indeed junk mail. A cheaply produced brochure entitled HOLIDAY HIDEAWAYS, GREAT ESCAPES, blurry snapshots of farmhouses and gîtes interspersed with blocks of text. ‘This charming cottage only five miles from Avignon… This large converted farmhouse in its own grounds… This sixteenth-century barn in the heart of the Dordogne…’ The pictures were all the same: rustic cottages under Disney-coloured skies, women in headscarves and white coiffes, men in berets herding goats onto impossibly green mountainsides. He dropped the brochure onto the table with an odd sense of disappointment, feeling cheated, as if something as yet unknown had passed him by. Then he caught sight of the picture. The brochure had fallen open at the centre page, a double-page spread of a house which looked curiously familiar. A large square-built house, with pinkish, faded walls and a red-tiled roof. Beneath it, the words, ‘Château Foudouin, Lot-et-Garonne.’ Above it, in red, like a neon marker, ‘FOR SALE’.
The surprise at seeing it there, so unexpectedly, made his heart lurch. A sign, he told himself. Coming now, at this moment, it had to be. It had to be a sign.
He looked at the picture for a long time. It was not exactly Joe’s château, he decided after some scrutiny. The lines of the building looked slightly different, the roof more sloping, the windows narrower and set deeper into the stone. And it was not in Bordeaux but in the next county altogether, a few miles from Agen, on a small offshoot of the river Garonne, the Tannes. Still, it was close. Very close. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
Below stairs the strangers had subsided into eerie, expectant silence. Not a whisper, not a rattle or a hiss escaped them.
Jay looked at the picture intently. Above it the neon sign flashed relentlessly, enticingly.
He reached for the bottle and poured himself another glass.
Pog Hill, July 1975
THAT SUMMER MOST OF JAY’S LIFE WENT ON UNDERCOVER, LIKE a secret war. On rainy days he sat in his room and read the Dandy or the Eagle and listened to the radio with the volume turned right down, pretending he was doing homework, or wrote blisteringly intense short stories with titles like ‘Flesh-Eating Warriors of the Forbidden City’ or ‘The Man who Chased the Lightning’.
He was never short of money. On Sundays he earned twenty pee washing his grandfather’s green Austin, the same for mowing the lawn. His parents’ brief, infrequent letters were invariably accompanied by a postal order, and he spent this unaccustomed wealth with gleeful, gloating defiance. Comics, bubble gum, cigarettes if he could get them; anything which might have incurred the disapproval of his parents attracted him. He kept his treasures in a biscuit tin by the canal, telling his grandparents he put his money in the bank. Technically this was not a lie. A loose stone by the remains of the old lock, worked carefully free, left a space maybe fifteen inches square, into which the tin could be slotted. A square of turf, cut from the banking with a penknife, concealed the entrance. For the first fortnight of the holiday he went there almost every day, basking on the flat stones of the jetty and smoking, reading, writing stories in one of an endless series of close-scripted notebooks, or playing his radio at full volume into the bright sooty air. His memories of that summer were illumined in sound: Pete Wingfield singing ‘Eighteen with a Bullet’, or Tammy Winette and ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’. He sang along much of the time, or played air guitar and pulled faces at an invisible audience. It was only later that he realized how reckless he had been. The dump was easily within earshot of the canal, and Zeth and his gang might have come upon him at any time during those two weeks. They might have found him snoozing on the bank or cornered in the ash pit – or worse, with the treasure box left carelessly open. Jay never considered that there might be other boys in his territory. Never imagined that this might already be someone’s territory, someone tougher and older and altogether more streetwise than himself. He had never been in a fight. The Moorlands School discouraged such marks of poor breeding. His few London friends were distant and reserved, ballet-class and pony girls, army-cadet boys with perfect teeth. Jay never quite fitted in. His mother was an actress whose career had dead-ended in a TV sitcom called Oooh! Mother! about a widower caring for his three teenage children. Jay’s mother played the part of the interfering landlady, Mrs Dykes, and much of his adolescence was made hideous by people stopping them in the street and yelling her screen catchphrase, ‘Oooh, am I interruptin’ somethin’?’