In the immortal words of Sir Alex Ferguson, this first class after the Xmas break was ‘squeaky bum’ time for me. Armed with my latest chapter I walked in determined not to let anyone else see it before I had chance to show it to Janice in the pub afterwards. The last thing I wanted was for Frank to get his hands on it and read it out as an entertainment for all the rest of them, maybe as a revenge for whatever punishment Janice had meted out to him for what happened at the party. They greeted each other pleasantly enough though, so whatever she’d said to him couldn’t have been too devastating.
I needn’t have worried as it happened. Somebody else had been busy writing over the holiday. It was Damien, who came striding purposefully into the room and went straight to the front to stand next to Frank. ‘Sloth,’ he said, and promptly began reading his story out to us before his nerve failed him.
It was a frightening piece about a man who creates a computer virus worse than anything ever created before. It starts out as little programme that develops a life of its own, and slowly gets bigger and bigger, taking up more and more disk space on other computers as it comes in contact with them via the Internet.
Every computer then starts passing the virus on to every other computer so it grows exponentially and remorselessly day by day. Its effect is gradually to slow down all computers until they work at only a fraction of their usual speeds. This causes the world’s economy to grind steadily to a halt, astronauts are stranded in space, hospitals cannot function, air travel stops and cannibalism breaks out as food supplies run out in big cities. The tale went on and on in this vein, and didn’t get anymore cheerful.
Finally Damien suddenly said ‘That’s it. I’m telling you. That’s what’s going to happen. We rely too much on those things. It’ll be a judgement on us. We would go back to the stone age,’
Then he sat down again on the back row, and assumed his usual blank stare.
There was silence for a while as we all took this in. ‘Right,’ said Frank after this long pause. ‘That was really good Damien, very futuristic, very futuristic indeed. I was going to wish everyone a happy new year but maybe I shouldn’t now.’ This little joke was wasted on our storyteller. ‘Anyone got any comments?’ Nobody had.
Several of the ladies looked quite disturbed so Frank was keen to move on.
‘Do you have anything else for us Damien?’
Damien said nothing.
‘Right,’ said Frank ‘Have you got anything for us Jack?’
Luckily she had, but her story was in trouble. She’d introduced a handsome young detective to work on the case now, and he is fancied both by the remaining actress and the TV director who is bi sexual, just so as to juice the thing up a bit really. She’d used my idea of a psychopath playing a psychopath too and gave us a reading from a scene where the he wines and dines the actress on the pretext of getting more information about the dead girls which was fine, but she had no idea where to go with it from there.
Frank had us all involved in offering criticisms and suggestions, but none of that produced anything useful for her. She was a bit despondent by the end of the session, and what with Damien’s vision of the future, definitely needed cheering up.
‘Not at all bad, that stuff of yours tonight.’ I said when we were alone together later in the pub. As an attempt at encouragement it was pretty pathetic really, but it was the best I could come up with.
‘You really are a joker aren’t you?’ she said. ‘It was rubbish. No originality, no style, it had nothing about it whatsoever, and the main idea of that psychopath was yours not mine.’
‘Hang on’ I said ‘It’s not easy coming up with fresh ideas in crime stories. DNA’s the only new angle there, and even that’s getting ‘done to death’ now, if you’ll pardon the expression.’
‘You’re right I suppose,’ she sighed. ‘But it’s really depressing reading over your own stuff and realising it is unadulterated crap. I’m just kidding myself thinking I will be able to write anything anyone will want to read.’
‘Nonsense, you’ve just got a dose of the old ‘writer’s block’. Everybody gets it. It’ll pass.’
‘Is that why you didn’t have anything tonight?’
‘Well, no actually. I have got some stuff, but I wanted you to see it first.’
And without more ado I handed her the chapter containing my carefully written, and endlessly re –written, love scene.
She took an age to read it, focusing keenly on the passage where Ken and Janice finally come together. Her mood visibly lightened. Then she read that section again, looked me in the eye, and weighed her words carefully before she spoke. ‘I think it’s time you invited me out for dinner.’
I was doubly surprised, firstly at what she had just said, and secondly at the speed of my reaction. ‘How about next Wednesday?’
‘That’ll be fine,’ she said, standing up to go. ‘I’m sure I won’t have anything on then.’
There was just no good answer to that, and after walking her back to her car as usual, I made my way back home, glowing with the thought I had finally made a breakthrough with her.
It put me in the perfect mood to carry on writing about her namesake’s new love life immediately.
Next morning Janice was the first to awake, and opening her eyes took a moment to come to terms with her surroundings. Then with the memories of the night before flooding back into her mind she turned to find Ken lying still asleep beside her. Her first impulse was to kiss him, but she resisted, preferring for the moment to have the opportunity to study him while she was unobserved herself.
Their evening out together had allowed him plenty of time to tell her something more about himself, yet on each occasion she steered the conversation in this direction he equally smoothly went off on some other tack. Even when it was her life she was prepared to talk about. It was as if he deliberately resisted learning anything about her in case he was put in the position of having to reveal something of himself in return.
The thought crossed her mind that perhaps this ‘mystery man’ approach was maybe a line he shot to all women, relying on their natural curiosity to help him get to first base with them. Yet all her female instincts rebelled against this idea. The depth of their mutual attraction had become apparent to them both so quickly there had been no need for him to adopt such a strategy. Given this she would have expected him to be as anxious to learn all he could about her, as she was to know about him. One of the delights of a new love affair is this getting inside each other’s mind as well as their body.
Looking at him now she realised she was already in love with him, knowing nothing about him except he was divorced. Maybe that was it, maybe he wasn’t divorced at all. He wouldn’t be the first married man to pull that one on her, but she just couldn’t bring herself to believe it of him somehow. He seemed too….too….she was at a loss for a word to describe it really, ‘naive’ wasn’t right, and gauche’ he certainly wasn’t. She just couldn’t put her finger on it.
The fire and ardour of his kisses last night told her he hadn’t been getting any serious female attention lately, so why the mystery? Just what was a highly qualified personable guy like him doing organising a tiddly little course like this anyway?
As if wishing to put an end to these speculations Ken stirred in his sleep, and unable to resist her natural inclinations any longer Janice simply kissed him.
It was quite a way to be woken up. He opened his eyes, momentarily as oblivious of his whereabouts as she had been seconds before, and was then given no time to adjust himself before being pinned down by a warm, soft, beautiful body. He responded instantly and once again they made long lingering love to each other, this time thankfully without an audience.
Other awakenings in Sea View that day were less pleasant. The Major first transferred the patch from his partly healed left eye to cover his newly closed right one, the better to read all about himself in the Sunday newspapers Smoggin had thoughtfully spread out over his counterpane.
It was just the kind of publicity the Major most feared and had tried his hardest to avoid, even to the extent of taking the precaution, whilst biting the dust as a result of Leticia’s blows, of also biting through the telephone wires. But this attempt to impede the flow of modern communications, and isolate Sea View from the rest of the world, did not have any noticeable effect. By midnight a swarm of the most ruthless investigative reporters in the United Kingdom had descended on the hotel, under strict orders from their editors to get inside for an interview with the miscreant at all costs.
Neville had only one small thing going for him, Angela, and fortunately she was more than a match for the lot of them. They were still camped outside though, and by then he’d also had a strongly worded telegram from the National Grand Worshipful Master terminating his membership with immediate effect, and a bill delivered by hand from Tom Thornton for the cost of replacing ‘Tydos’ which, in accordance with the small print on the back of his ticket, was required to be returned, at the hirer’s expense, in the same state it was in when it was initially booked.
The result of not speaking to the media simply meant they went to everyone else for the information they required instead. Harold Chesters made a small fortune out of the bidding war for the photographs he’d taken, the best of which were now spread across the News of the World front page, with the rest spread around the other papers. These left little further to be known about the physical attributes of himself or Eunice, particularly himself. Catching a Mayor actually at it, wearing nothing much besides his chain of office, was manna from heaven for all of them. Even the posh Sundays covered the story, justifying their interest by putting it in the ‘local government’ section.
What really galled the Major, and formed the main part of his plea in mitigation to Letitia the night before, was that he had not actually touched Eunice at all, so he was being attacked for something he hadn’t done. This was dismissed as the mere technicality it was, and as Bill Clinton was to find out in a distant indiscretion, the cry of ‘I did not have sex with this woman’ availed him nothing in the ensuing hell that then befell him. All his past indiscretions were raked over by his enraged spouse, including the one involving ‘Big Julie’, but they were as nothing compared to this one. News of them was at least confined to the Borough and its immediate environs. This exploit had turned him into a nationwide figure of fun, with his face and lesser attractive parts of his anatomy now the sport of millions. The whole of Britain had him by the ‘short and curlies,’ and he soon learned there were plenty of people out there who were happy to give them a long and painful tug.
Finally, too exhausted to hit him anymore, Letitia had gone back to her own room and left him to spend the rest of his night moving from bruise to bruise in search of the least agonising position in which to consider whether it was worth him continuing to exist at all.
It would have been much better for the Major’s peace of mind that morning for him not to read the tabloids laid out before him, but, as Smoggin anticipated, he was unable to resist the temptation. It was a grim way of receiving the ‘gift to see ourselves as others see us’. Worse even than reading one’s own obituary. Much worse, and with them there’s at least there’s a tradition of not speaking too ill of the dead.
But there was no such reticence here. He found there was a lot about himself even he didn’t know. He learned, for instance, he was of Viking descent as revealed by his very name, which itself proved to be against him in his hour of need. ‘Thwaite’ is apparently a direct derivation from the Norse word ‘Twatt’, and given that for starters the sub editors headline circuits went into overdrive.
The reporters’ collective imaginations then went on to leave nothing in the way of Rape and Pillage references to anyone else’s. Not to be outdone, the ‘News of the World’ pictures editor had grafted a pair of Viking horns on to the bowler hat he was wearing in the otherwise nude shots of his good -self. Another rag, priding itself on its investigative powers and punchy headlines had, within the few minutes available to it before Saturday night’s deadline, tracked down his connection with Big Julie.
A picture of her without her bra and wearing only the Town Hall Coat of Arms over her nether regions took up most of their front page, captioned ‘By appointment to the Mayor.’
Miss Bracegirdle for, her part, had escaped fairly lightly the previous evening. She sustained only a couple of nasty bites in her leg from Angela before managing to flee to her room as the main fury of the rest of the Thwaite family was directed at the erring husband and father. By that morning she was already back home, courtesy of an expensive taxi ride, and under deep sedation, dreaming of never having to come round again, but with another six month’s supply of sleeping pills to hand if she did.
The trouble with the kind of trouble the Thwaite’s were in is that the innocent can suffer as much as the guilty. Letitia was downing as many pills as Eunice, but hers were ‘uppers’. She felt she needed all the energy she could get to see her through what was probably going to be the most difficult day of her life. She too had seen all the newspapers, Cook had seen to that, so she knew the size of the task before her. Somehow she had to retain enough dignity for herself, if not her stupid husband, to be able to continue to live in Northpool when the relentless glare of this public spotlight moved on to somebody else.
The problem was that it couldn’t have happened at a worse time for them. Instead of them all just disappearing somewhere until all the fuss died down like normal fools would, she and Neville had to officiate at the ‘Switching On’ ceremony that very evening whether they liked it or not. Not to carry on with that would mean the end of everything for them, but there was no doubt in her mind that the sight of her husband performing his civic duties, attired once again in his confounded chain of office, would touch off another feeding frenzy in the bunch of sharks circling outside their door.
There was nothing for it though but for her to tough it out. So if her fellow aldermen and their ladies thought she was going to collapse like a pricked balloon just because of what her stupid husband had done, then they’d got another think coming to them. As Northpool’s Mayoress she would go through with the show tonight as if nothing had happened, and more importantly so would Northpool’s Mayor, she’d see to that.
The return to consciousness of Zimmerman and his room- mate Sam Brophy, though less troublesome, wasn’t without incident either. Sam started talking about himself as usual, and Zimmerman listened for all of ten seconds before stopping him dead by breaking wind. The size of the Professor’s digestive system meant this was a considerable event and caused Sam to flee the room at once. Zimmerman quite liked the smell of his own farts and the sudden silence was something else he appreciated too. He also had slept too soundly to have heard the commotion in the hotel on the Major’s return the previous evening, so he was as yet unaware of the little local difficulty the place was engulfed in.
This was not the experience of everybody else there of course, they were fully aware now of what was going on and delightedly found themselves at the centre of a sex scandal as good as anything Cabinet ministers can come up with. At breakfast they gossiped about Miss Bracegirdle’s goings on with the Major, almost too excited to eat, and Smoggin made a killing in tips providing invented background information on his employer which was a rehash of the stuff he’d already sold to the newspapermen outside.
In the exquisite pleasure of hacking poor Eunice’s reputation to shreds, the Professor’s field survey necessarily took second place. But as nine o’clock approached the wave of scandal had finally subsided sufficiently for them all to settle down and make their way into the conference room to check over the final details of their assignments before setting off for the day.
One thing they had all decided was that every last one of them would be staying that evening for the Lights Ceremony, so as to have the best possible tale to tell on their return to their offices next day.
Zimmerman did not come down to breakfast as he intended repeating his previous day’s arrangement of eating later and better with Smoggin and Cook. He was still unaware of the new situation when he joined the delegates for this final plenary session and put the air of excitement in his audience down to their continued enthusiasm for being allowed to become involved in field- work for him.
The last stroke he pulled was telling them they would now be given packed lunches to take out with them. This sandwich and an apple would save them the trouble of returning to the hotel for a meal, and thus give more time for his all-important questionnaires to be completed. His final instruction was they should all meet at the Stanley Baldwin Tea Rooms on the sea front at 5.30pm where he would be in attendance himself to collect the completed forms from them.
This arrangement suited Ken perfectly, not to mention the Thwaites. This lot missing the final lunch was all good news for them. For him it meant the course was to all intents and purposes over, so within the next half hour or so at the latest, the way would be clear for him to spend another perfect day with Janice. She had already offered to give him a lift back home so all he had to do then would be to get her to drop him off in front of some imposing hotel pretending he was rooming there, and that would be that, for the time being at least. He would then find another cheap boarding house, ‘sign on’ again, then resume the relationship just as soon as the cheques for the balance of his fees came rolling in and he could get himself a decent place to live.
He was even looking forward to taking part in Zimmerman’s questionnaire exercise, charade though it probably was, as a harmless way of passing time in Janice’s company. It would give them something to do all day which wouldn’t involve him in spending the little of Evelyn Ogle’s cash he had left.
He was also aware of what the Major had been up to by now, but simply thought it served the old bugger right, and the attendant free press coverage wouldn’t do his course any harm either.