This is all 28 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one post.
It is a long read, at 20,550 words.
3:17. That was the time shown by the red numerals on the digital alarm clock next to the bed when I woke up for no apparent reason. The little dot next to the number three was at the top, indicating it was morning, not afternoon. I had never got around to changing the setting to a twenty-four hour display.
The feeling I had was more uneasy, than scared. I hadn’t been dreaming, at least not that I could remember, but I definitely recalled sensing a presence of some kind next to the bed. Once awake, I felt thirsty, though I was reluctant to get up to go and get a drink. Whenever I did that, I rarely got back off to sleep, and I had a long day ahead of me. So I settled back onto the pillows, but as predicted, sleep didn’t come.
Once I was on the crowded train, having to stand was a blessing, as it kept me awake. It was my second day working at the smart new development, and yesterday I had met Janice, who was in charge of the sales there. Dockside View was one of the company’s prestige blocks, and Janice was determined to get all the flashy apartments sold by the deadline. They were throwing a lot of staff at the project, which was why I was now commuting into the centre, instead of walking to the corner to sell semi-detached identical houses, and commercial lots nobody was interested in.
Janice was a woman who didn’t tolerate fools, and she had made it clear she hadn’t asked for me, so expected me to impress her. To be honest, the demand for the property was high, and I had spent the previous day juggling viewing appointments. Getting the deposit was everything. Our performance targets were based on deposits taken. If the sale fell through later, nobody on the sales team cared. We had done our bit.
From the station to Dockside View was a twenty-five minute walk. So I bought a coffee from the vendor outside to perk me up enough to face it. In our brochure, it was described as a ‘Pleasant fifteen-minute stroll’. That made me smile, after walking fast for twenty-five minutes yesterday, and only just getting there by my start time. And the scenery on the way was hardly pleasant. Lots of building work going on, cement mixer lorries crammed into small cobbled streets, and builders shouting up at crane operators.
Neil smirked at me as I walked in. He was standing close to Janice, and he had worked with her on the Britanna House development previously. I marvelled at how he could look so crisp and fresh after travelling in all the way from Kent. Not a crease in his suit, and his white shirt was so clean, it seemed to reflect the light.
He jumped in before I could dump my empty paper cup in the bin. “No drinks in the sales area, Darren. You were told that yesterday. Don’t forget you have a nine-fifteen, you should ring them to let them know you are ready and waiting for them”.
I would dearly loved to have leaned across and head butted him. But I needed the job.
Walking outside to ring the client on my company-supplied mobile, I suddenly realised I had only four percent battery, and had left the charger at home. I couldn’t even creep around the corner for a cigarette, as Janice had banned smoking for the duration of the sales. “They will smell it on you, Darren. That’s a sales-killer, believe me”. My Russian customer had a name I couldn’t pronounce, so I just called him ‘Sir’. After assuring him I was at his service for the nine-fifteen appointment, he just hung up with no goodbye.
Now I had to face going back inside and asking Neil or Janice if they had a phone charger. I hung around for a few minutes, hoping Desmond would show up. He carried a big rucksack that they made him store under one of the sales desks. He probably had everything in there, incuding a charger, I bet.
Then I remembered he had the day off, because he had worked last Saturday.
When I had to ask Neil if he had a charger, he had a strange look of victory on his face. His perfecly trimmed and oiled hair repulsed me, and I wanted to mess it up, with a rough hand.
“I do have a charger, Darren. But you might want to think about bringing your own one in, or at the very least charging your phone while you are sleeping. Here. Take it into the storeroom, you can plug it in there”.
I thought that if I started hitting him now, the police would have to drag me off of him before I killed him.
While my phone charged, I had fifteen minutes to kill. I decided to throw caution to the winds, and go around the back of the building and enjoy a cigarette. If Janice could smell it on me, I would blame it on the crowded train carriage and hope for the best.
How was I to know that the Russians would turn up early?
When I went back inside, sucking two mints, Neil was euphoric. “Oh dear. Your Russian couple turned up, and you weren’t here. Janice has taken them up to view the apartment. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when she comes back down”. If I had been carrying a knife, I am sure I would have stabbed him, there and then.
Not once. Probably more than fifty times. Until I was sure he would never utter another word.
But I ignored his jibe, and checked on my ten o’clock clients. They had sent a text to tell me they were cancelling. I wondered if the day could get any worse.
Then it did.
Behind what would become the Concierge Station, red lights were flashing, and a high-pitched beeping sound was going off. Neil was finally in a flap, and on the phone to the Fire Brigade to confirm the alarm had gone through to them, as it should have done. He turned to me. “They are on the way! We have to follow the full fire evacuation procedure! Assemble fifty yards away, in the car park outside!”
There was only me and Neil, so we went outside as directed, and stood in the almost empty car park. I took the chance to light a cigarette, and smiled as I asked him. “What about the two Russians, and Janice?” He grabbed his phone, and dialled Janice, turning to me looking pale. “The lifts won’t work during a fire alarm. They will have to walk down. I’m sure they will be alright, if they take their time”. He shook his head at the phone. “She’s not answering”.
As he said that, there was a hollow boom from high above us, and we looked up to see a flash of yellow flame, followed by a plume of smoke reaching up to the top of the building. I took a drag on my cigarette, secretly hoping that the next thing I saw would be Janice deciding to jump, rather than burn.
The fire engines turned up before Janice appeared. It was a long walk down, and her smart suit was smoke-stained. The two Russians looked very exhausted, and walked to their limousine with white faces, ignoring the shouts of the firemen that they should be seen by the paramedics, who had just arrived.
I made a mental note that I had probably lost that sale.
Janice was remarkably calm, to give her her due. She was still on the ball too. “Darren, Neil. Get onto your next appointments. Cancel them, and try to rearrange. Whatever you do, don’t mention anything about fire and explosions”. Neil was straight on it, but I didn’t bother to tell Janice that my phone was still on charge in the store room, and the firemen were not about to let me in to get it.
When we saw the firemen had tackled the worst of the smoke and flames, I turned to Janice. ” I forget now, what apartment were they viewing, Jan?”
She didn’t even turn to look at me as she answered.
“Number three, on the seventeenth floor. 317”.
At first, what Janice had said didn’t sink in. We hung around for a while, and then the fireman in charge said we could go and retrieve our personal possessions. They suspected a gas leak in the apartment, and an electrical fault, but that had to be investigated by the Gas Company, and the Fire Investigation Branch. Police officers had sealed off the approaches to Dockside View with their striped tape, and we were not going to be allowed back to carry on working, obviously.
It was when I had got my phone and given Neil back his charger that the number clicked inside my brain.
Seventeenth floor, flat three. 3 and 17, just like the time on my bedside clock when I had woken up that morning. Janice was gabbling into her phone, arranging for head office to send security guards down to watch the development over the full twenty-four hour period. With the investigators coming and going, we were not just going to be able to lock up the sales floor as usual. And once the news got out, it was unlikely we would have any potential customers to worry about anyway.
When her call was over, Janice turned to us. “There’s not going to be anything happening work-wise here today. Darren, you might as well go back to where you usually work and report in there. Neil, you can stay here with me, help fend off any enquiries about flats, and make sure all the viewings know they are cancelled. Can you go and find me a coffee and a sandwich, honey? Large Americano, and maybe a chicken and pesto panini? There’s a love”.
I grinned at Neil’s chances of finding anything like that around there. The nearest decent coffee places were inside or near the station. He had a long walk. As I had already been dismissed, I set off for the station. The last thing I wanted was to have to do that walk with Neil crowing about staying behind to help Janice.
Diverting into a couple of shops on the way, I picked up two special offer DVD films for two ninety-nine each, then a microwave Chinese and a six-pack of Stella for later. No way was I intending to go back to where I usually worked. They wouldn’t be expecting me in, and I was sure Janice would be too busy to ring my manager to tell him. Once the news got out, he would probably know anyway, but I would just say that by the time I got back, it was close to finishing time. John was okay, he wouldn’t care.
By the time I got to the station, it was mid-afternoon, well before the rush hour. The place was almost deserted. Along the concourse a guy wearing the hi-vis coat of the train company was fixing a large paper sign into a display case. I walked up to him, and waited until he had finished, and had closed the case. Then I asked him when the next Southend train was due to depart. I was only going to Basildon, but needed that line.
He checked a huge Casio digital watch that looked like a museum piece, then turned and pointed. “You can check on the indicator board you know. But seeing as you asked so nicely, it leaves at fifteen-seventeen. That’s three-seventeen to you mate”. I thanked him and walked away, then realised I hadn’t asked which platform. Heading for the indicator board to check, I suddenly stopped dead. 3:17? Not again.
On the train, the uneasy feeling I had during the night came back. But this time with knobs on.
I had woken up thinking someone was in my bedroom at 3:17 AM. Then the flat that had caught fire and exploded was number three, on the seventeeth floor, 317. I wasn’t supposed to be getting a train home this early, and my arrival at the station had been completely random, delayed by the short shopping trip. Only to find that the next train home was at 3:17. That was a lot of coincidence to swallow, even for someone as sceptical as me.
Now I was beginning to wonder if I should have actually got on this train.
When I got home and sat down, I could feel my eyes were heavy. But I wouldn’t let myself sleep that early, or I would regret that later. I opened my laptop. Not my work one, the older one I rarely used now. Then I started a word document and began to make notes about all the 3:17 coincidences. I had a feeling there were going to be more, but I had no idea what any of it meant.
That done, I blitzed the Chinese, and necked it while watching the first of the two films I had bought, washed down with a couple of the cans of lager. It was one of the Fast and Furious films. I loved films about cars, especially films you could watch without having to think too much about what was happening on screen.
My mate Joel rang my mobile when I was on my third can, wanting to know if I fancied meeting him down the pub. I fobbed him off, telling him quickly about the fire at Dockside View, and lied about having a busy day because of that. He was impressed, as he had seen it on the news. “Wow, you were in that? Tell me more”. I said I would tell him next time we met up, and got back to the film, opening a fourth can.
Lack of sleep, and the lager, meant that I didn’t see the end of the film.
I must have just curled up on the sofa and conked out, until the noise woke me up. The telly was a blue screen, and the lamp was still on beside me. The sound was coming from outside the door, on the stairwell leading up to my flat. It was immediately apparent what it was. A ball bouncing down the stairs.
I didn’t even need to check the time on my phone to guess it would say 3:17. But I did anyway.
And it was.
Surprised that none of my neighbours were up complaining about someone bouncing a ball down two flights of concrete stairs, I went to my front door and opened it. The motion-sensor light lit up the landing, and there was nobody to be seen. The door of the flat opposite was closed, but Philippa was a stewardess, so might well have been off flying somewhere. Or sleeping soundly and not heard the ball. Not wanting to call out, I walked down the first flight to the centre landing. There was nobody to be seen.
Then the light went out.
As I turned to walk back up to my flat, the noise of the ball bouncing down the stairs in my direction was so close to me, I swerved to the side, expecting the heavy-sounding ball to hit me. But there was no ball, just the sound. I went back in my flat and locked the door behind me with the deadbolt. I had no idea why I was so scared, but I was, and feeling cold too.
After getting undressed and brushing my teeth, I went to bed. I set my phone alarm to wake me in time to get ready for work, but when I lay down in the dark, I no longer felt sleepy. For the next hour or more, I went over everything in my life that might relate to the number 317. I even broke it down to the 3, the 1, and the 7. No birthday matched. No address I could think of matched, and nothing that I knew about had ever happened at that exact time.
Just when I was drifting off to sleep again, I suddenly added the numbers together in my head, and got 11. So I went through it all again, but could come up with nothing where a number 11 was significant.
When the alarm went off, I had probably only been asleep for an hour.
It was nice to have a lie-in and then casually wander up to the corner where I worked. Mason and Walker sounded like a good name for an estate agent, though of course there was no real Mason, or Walker. Just another gimmick of the huge property company we worked for, along with the stylish dove grey paint work, set off by the pale yellow pinstriping. Although I was on time, I was the last one in that morning.
It was often mentioned that I lived the nearest, but was the always the last member of staff to appear.
John the manager was at his larger desk at the back, and grinned as I walked in. “What did you do to upset Her Highness, The Lady Janice? She rang first thing to tell me she doesn’t want you back at Dockside View once sales start again”. I shrugged and told John that she probably fancied me, and wanted to resist the temptation. Junior was already on the phone hustling. Standing up as normal, which he claimed energised him. His pink shirt and lime-green tie combination looked like a kid’s sweet.
I doubt the bosses would have been so keen on his new braided hair look, if he hadn’t been the top salesman at Basildon branch.
Kelly asked if I wanted coffee, and I nodded. Then I forced myself not to look up her skirt as she leaned over to get the mugs out of the cupboard. She was only eighteen, and I was far too old for her. So I had to keep telling myself. Behind me at the window desk, Penny was jingling the keys to the company Mini. “John, okay if I take the car? I have an early valuation in Wickford”. John nodded, adding “Come straight back though. Darren will need the car for a job later”.
I didn’t much care for driving around in that grey and yellow mini, with the company name and number plastered all over it. But it was a better option than using my own car and having to pay extra for business insurance. At least it was only six months old, and had a great satnav in it too. I liked to get out in the country lanes and give it some stick around the bends. When Kelly brought my coffee over, I thanked her and fixed my gaze on her face. Anything rather than be distracted by how low-cut the front of her top was.
When she got out of the admin side and into sales, she was going to sell a lot of property, no doubt.
John dropped a folder on my desk. I could tell by the buff colour it was another commercial. I only got the crap jobs. “Mr Coughlan, midday. The address is in there, a vacant lot with no residential planning. He reckons it might be ideal for used cars. He wants it priced for rental, or selling complete. As usual, he will do a good deal for cash”. I flicked through the folder, and pulled a face at the photo of the lot. On the corner of a busy main road, what looked like a half-sized field of mud surrounded by a mostly collapsed wire-mesh fence.
Coughlan was a nasty bit of work, who used our company all the time. He was a so-called Traveller. Or in my words a Pikey, an Irish tinker. He did all sorts of wheeling and dealing, just barely the right side of the law, and the wrong side too. I had no time for Pikeys. They didn’t pay tax, cheated old people with dodgy roofing jobs or tarmac drives that never got finished, and many of them were notorious fly-tippers, shitting up the few nice areas of countryside we had left. That was his main business, disguised as waste removal contracting. But as far as the company was concerned, he was a good customer.
When I checked the address where I had to meet him, I spat a mouthful of coffee all over the paperwork.
317, London Road.
Until Penny got back with the car, I went through the motions of ringing a few prospects, and chasing up the outstanding offers on some terraced houses in Pitsea. With the market doing well, sellers were geting edgy about accepting low offers, and playing the dicey game of holding out for the full asking price. There was no point talking to anyone at work about the weird 317 business. They might think I was losing it.
In between calls, I jotted down almost every combination of the numbers, realising I had forgotten to reverse them. So I ended up trying to think if 713 had any relevance, then I tried 731. But for the life of me, my mind was blank on all of it.
Penny dropped the keys on my desk. “The tank’s half full, so you should be okay”. She never had a lot to say to me, and made it very clear she didn’t think much of me. When I started there, she had only been there a few weeks herself, but that didn’t stop her acting like she was somehow in charge of me. Her husband was a copper in London, a detective of some kind. She liked to boast about all the serious cases he was involved with. She was his second time round, so considerably younger.
Coughlan wasn’t there when I parked the Mini outside the dismal-looking lot. I got out of the car and made my site appraisal in ten seconds flat. It would need a lot of work on the ground before anyone would use it, and once you allowed space for a portakabin or office shed of some kind, you would be lucky to squeeze ten cars onto the front. Then there was water, sewage, and power. It would cost a fair bit to have all those reconnected.
The big four by four arrived, and he put two wheels up on the kerb as he parked it. I looked at the shiny car, less than six months old, by the registration number. Not much change out of sixty grand for that top of the range model, and I doubt he even had insurance. How come nobody ever asked where some Pikey got all the money to pay for that?
His face was red as usual, high blood pressure probably. The beer-belly strained his shirt buttons, and hung down over his belt almost covering the fly on his trousers. As he walked forward with his hand extended, someone got out of the passenger side of his car. A woman. He had seen me a few times previously, but never asked my name. After the briefest of handshakes, he got straight to business. “Well, what do you reckon? How much are we looking at? Straight sale, or better a monthly rental”.
Before I could answer, the woman walked forward from the car. She was wearing a black coat over a black dress that reached down to her ankles. Her long hair was also jet black, and certainly dyed. She seemed to be about a hundred years old, but when she spoke, her voice boomed. “GERRY! STOP! COME BACK!” Coughlan jumped at the sound, and turned quickly, walking back to the woman. He bent down to listen as she whispered in his ear. Raising an arm, she pointed a bony finger in my direction, then moved it slowly to my left, then my right. He bent down again to hear her next whisper, then nodded his head.
Without walking back, he called to me from the side of his car. “Don’t bother. The deal’s off, we will use someone else”. With that they both got back in the car, and he drove off at speed, as if being chased by the police. Part of me was glad to see the back of him, but I knew John would be pissed off that I hadn’t secured the sale.
Back behind the agency, I parked the car, and walked down the alley. Then I popped into Sammi’s and bought a packet of cigarettes, a diet coke, and a Twix. That would be my lunch. I handed over two notes, a tenner and a fiver. As was his habit, Sammi counted the change into my hand, as I watched his turban bob around.
“Two pounds, one pound, Ten, fifteen, seventeen”. I looked at the coins in my hand. A two-pound coin, a one pound coin, ten pence piece, five pence piece and a brown two pence.
John waved me over when I walked in. He took me into the corner and spoke very quietly. “I have just had Mary Coughlan on the phone. They are taking all their business away from us. That’s rental management of twenty-six properties, plus anything they buy or sell. She says she is transferring it all to Drake and Molloy, and wants me to send the files over in a taxi. I asked her what the problem was, and she said to ask you. So I’m asking, and I want the truth”.
My story was true, and I told John that, and exactly what happened. Before I could talk to Gerry Coughlan about anything, the old lady called him back. She whispered something to him, pointed at me, and he said the deal was off. That was all I knew, and I swore to John I hadn’t done a thing wrong. John sighed. “Old lady Coughlan might be in her eighties, but she’s as sharp as a tack. Her son Gerry never goes against her over anything. She pretty much rules the roost. I didn’t bother to tell her that Drake and Molloy is part of the same company as us, but that’s not the point. We will lose branch revenue, and that won’t look good”.
As I didn’t know what else to say, I shrugged and went back to my desk. Better make it look as if I was trying to sell something. As luck would have it, the next phone call was from the prospective buyer of a smart two-bed semi with a conservatory, a short walk from the station. It was a corner plot, so was unusual in that it had a double garage to the side. He had viewed it twice, and wanted me to make an offer to the seller. One of the best properties on my own list, it was for sale at three hundred and twenty thousand. The buyer wanted to offer ten grand less, so I told him I would put that to the owner and get back to him.
It took me three calls to track down the guy, who was driving on the M25 and speaking from his car. “Three-ten you say? No, that’s not enough. We have had seven viewings, and the interest is still high. Ring him back and tell him three-seventeen, and it’s off the market. Let me know what he says”. I looked down at the pad on my desk, and the numbers I had written down during both conversations. 320, 310, and the last one, 317. Even before I rang the buyer back, I knew he was going to say no.
And of course he did.
Many people might have been shaken up by all this 317 stuff, but I was beginning to find it just plain annoying. That many number coincidences were just impossible, but they were all there, and could mostly be explained. As for Ma Coughlan, I had no idea what had rattled her chain. Maybe she hadn’t liked my crumpled grey suit and striped tie.
Time to talk to someone about it, and I knew the only people who would take me seriously were Joel and Mark. On the way home from work, I rang both their mobiles, suggesting we meet at the KFC for some grub, then head into the White Horse for a few beers. Unlike any of the chain pubs in town, The White Horse was old school, and we could still find a quiet corner to sit in. They both jumped at it, as I suspected they might.
My only two friends from school, Joel and Mark had been around since we were all eleven years old. We stuck together to avoid the bullies, none of us were any good at sport, and we didn’t attract any of the cool guys, or the better-looking girls. Joel had left without taking any exams, and gone into his dad’s business as a kitchen fitter. After having a trial for Colchester in his teens, and not being picked for the squad, he nonetheless became a self-proclaimed football expert. An avid fan of Southend United, he went to every home game, and most of the away matches too.
Mark never went anywhere. He worked from home in a converted garage, as a software support person for a tech company. To be fair, he earned well, much more than me, and he could do the job in his underwear if he wanted to.
Outside the KFC, I saw them coming toward me, both grinning.
We ate the KFC out of the box as we walked to the pub. Joel and Mark were both happy to be out, and were acting like going for chicken and a few pints was a big deal. Neither of them had a girlfriend of course, and none of us had any real mates except each other. Mark had never been out with a girl. He just couldn’t handle the chat, and froze up completely around women. Joel had a girlfriend once, but she got fed up with football being more important, and dumped him after six months.
Compared to those two, I was mister lover man. Two girls when I was still in my teens, though neither lasted long. Then I met Danielle. She was out on a hen night for one of her friends, and they had surrounded me and Joel, insisting we kiss the bride to be. After that, Danielle hung around chatting, and eventually asked me to be her date at the wedding the following Saturday. She was one of six bridesmaids, not an unusual number at weddings around Basildon.
I was flattered by her asking me, so made a good job of being her date. After that, we became a couple. Though we seemed to spend most of our weekends at her friend’s weddings, as almost everyone she knew got married in those first two years we were together. By year three, we had started getting serious, and her dad gave me a talking to about never upsetting his lovely daughter, and needing somewhere better for us to live than my one-bed flat.
Then she went to a hen weekend in Ibiza and met Gregory, a fitness instructor from Stanford-Le-Hope. She broke up with me over the phone soon after she landed back at Stanstead, and I always had a sneaky feeling he was standing next to her when she did that. Since Danielle, I had more or less stopped bothering with women. But that didn’t stop me wishing that Kelly at work was older than eighteen.
In The White Horse, I got straight to the matter over our first pint. I didn’t want to wait until those two were sozzled, and talking nonsense. I told them all about the 317 stuff, from the first dream-like experience, down to the change from Sammi in the shop, and the seller saying he would take three one seven for his house. Mark was wide-eyed. He spent a lot of time reading crap online, and was well known to believe anything. At one time, he had seriously tried to convince us the world was flat. Joel was shaking his head. “It’s bollocks, Dazz. Just coincidence, that sorta fing”. He gestured to our glasses. “Same again, boys?”
Joel didn’t have much education, and even less class. He adopted the harsh manner of talking that he got from his dad, who was originally from East Ham. Mark was deep in thought. When Joel got back with three more pints, Mark slipped a pen out of his coat pocket, and walked over to grab a paper napkin from the bar. Joel was grinning like a loon. “That bouncy ball fing, Dazz. Don’t reckon it’s anyfing to do wiv me, and my footy career, do ya?” I ignored that rubbish, and looked over at Mark. He was busy scribbling down some numbers. He had done a lot of computer courses for his job, and was great at things like Code, and other stuff I didn’t understand.
When he had finished, he slid the napkin over to me, and tapped it with his pen. “Lottery numbers mate. You should get a ticket for Saturday. There’s a rollover jackpot this week”. I looked at the paper. You had to choose six numbers for entering the lottery, and he had made them up from 317.
1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 31. Keen to explain, he talked me through it. “The one, three and seven are self explanatory, mate. Then add the one and three to get the four, add them all together to make eleven, and use the thirty-one as your biggest number. Joel’s eyes were wide at that point. “Bugger me, Dazz, I reckon fat boy’s cracked it”. Mark winced at the nickname. But he only had himself to blame for stuffing his face for the last twenty years, and never going out except to drink or eat.
But the lottery though. Why the hell not?
Joel was obviously getting bored. He said he had to leave, as he was up early for a big kitchen job in a barn conversion out near Battlesbridge. Once he had left, Mark got two more pints in, and came back with a pile of napkins. He wanted to know lots of dates and numbers. My birthday, my mum’s birthday, the address of my parents’ house and their landline phone number, and any number I could recall that might ever have pertained to me that I could remember without going home to look it up.
I rattled them off, his head nodding as he jotted each one down, shuffled the numbers around on the paper, and then asked another question. Then he suddenly stopped and looked up. “Show me your bank card, I’ve just had a thought”. I reached into my inside pocket for my wallet and got my bank card out. Mark grabbed it and gave it a quick scan. Then he punched the air, and shouted “YES!” so loudly, the barmaid looked over to see what the fuss was about.
“Look at the expiry date, Darren. 03/17. March next year. But it’s 317! And the three-digit security number on the back? Go on, look”. I looked, it was 713. That gave me a chill, I must admit. I hadn’t thought of checking my bank card, and could never remember the expiry date or security number anyway.
But try as he might, he couldn’t make anything from all the other numbers I had given him, even though he resorted to using the calculator on his state-of-the-art new phone. “I’m sure this is all good though, Darren. An omen yes, but a good omen. Leave it with me, and I will text you tomorrow if I come up with anything”.
When we finished the fourth pint, Mark offered me a lift home to save me walking, or jumping a cab. He ran around in an almost new Audi A5 that rarely left the driveway outside his dad’s place. It was the best one they sold, and cost a mint. I wondered why he bothered, as he only seemed to use it when he met me. He could have used a limousine service, and still saved pots of money. He also seemed oblivious to the drink-drive laws, as four pints would surely mean he would blow over the limit, and get a ban. But he had never had so much as a speeding ticket.
As I got out of the car ouside my block, he grabbed my arm. “Don’t forget to buy that lottery ticket, whatever you do”.
Inside, my mind was buzzing. The thing with my bank card was really spooky, and unlike so much of the other stuff, it wasn’t so easily explained as a coincidence. Still, tomorrow was Friday, and I would be sure to buy a ticket for Saturday’s rollover lottery draw.
The impact on my legs came before I heard the sound. Something hit my thigh, as I slept soundly. Hard enough to wake me up, and see the red numbers on the clock reading 3:17. Then I heard the sound, closer this time, actually in my bedroom. It was a ball, bouncing off the wardrobe, and then hitting my hip as I moved. Instinctively, I switched on the lamp, already suspecting I would see nothing. As I turned to look at the wardrobe again, the ball hit me in the centre of my chest.
That really made me jump, and I got out of bed and went into the living room. From there, I could hear the ball bouncing against the bedroom wall, rhythmically, as if someone was kicking it at the same spot, over and over again. I almost ran out of my flat, but had no idea where I would go if I did that. So I lay down on the sofa, waiting for the noise to stop.
That was where I woke up the next morning, feeling very chilly in my Calvin Kleins. The shower warmed me up, and I got to work just on time, as usual.
Penny was plastering on some more make-up, until her Groucho Marx eyebrows started to resemble garden slugs. Kelly was brushing her hair, and there was no sign of Junior, or John. I asked where John was, and Penny replied, still applying crap to her eyes. “John had a heart attack last night. He’s in hospital having tests. Head Office has sent over a temporary manager until we know what’s happening”.
With that, I heard the sound of a toilet flush, and the door to the staff area at the back opened.
And in walked Neil.
Neil was checking his watch, but he didn’t have the satisfaction of saying I was late. So he talked about Junior instead.
“Junior is out already, an early viewing before they catch their train to work. You would do well to follow his example, Darren. The early bird, and all that”. I wanted to have a pump action shotgun to hand, so I could blow him against the back wall, watching the blood spatter against the photos of the houses we had been trying to sell for so long, they were relegated to what we called ‘the dead zone’.
What the hell was he doing here? He must have had a ninety-minute drive from Kent, in terrible traffic. My day could not get any worse.
But it did of course, starting with having to watch Kelly and Penny flirting with him, as if he was the greatest catch in Essex. Then if that wasn’t bad enough, he wanted to go through all my unsold commercial lots, and tell me why he thought I wasn’t selling them.
Obviously the fire at Dockside View had shut down the development for now, leaving him at a loose end. He had jumped at the chance to fill in for John, which was his first offer of management. Even though it was temporary.
I was hoping he might change his mind, when he found out it took him over two hours to drive home in solid rush hour traffic.
After Neil’s pep talk, I had to spend all morning on the phone to people who didn’t want my commercial premises, and had no intention of ever buying them. Lunchtime came as a relief, and I went to Sammi’s to get that lottery ticket. I still had the napkin, and made sure to choose the numbers exactly as Mark had written them down. While I was there, I also bought a Ginster’s Steak Slice, two packets of plain crisps, and a creme egg. I stood in the alleyway and ate the lot, reluctant to go back inside and let Neil lord it over me.
The truth was, I might well have battered him senseless. Not only losing my job, but getting arrested for assault into the bargain.
That afternoon felt like a week. I still don’t know how I lept my temper. At least I didn’t have to work over the weekend, thanks to my two days at Dockside View. I had that lottery ticket safe inside my wallet, and could only hope that I got a result, and could tell Neil where to shove his job. Then maybe give him just a playful slap as I walked out.
As slaps go, I could have happily slapped both Penny and Kelly. Penny conned the Mini out of Neil, stroking his arms in the process. She disappeared without having to say where she was going. Though I suspected she was off home, for a sex session with PC Plod. Then Kelly made him three different cups of coffee, until he decided she had got it just right. That reminded me of the three bears, and Goldilocks. I could have spit, I tell you.
Finishing time couldn’t come soon enough, not helped by Junior showing up, claiming to have sold not one, but three houses.
Walking home, I was praying that John would be alright, and be back at work soon. The prospect of Neil taking over full time would have been too much to bear, and I considered quickly researching some vacancies online when I got in.
Just about to ring and order an Indian takeway, the phone rung in my hand, and I saw it was my mum calling. I usually phoned her on a Sunday, and it was unknown for her to ring me.
“Darren, it’s mum. Can you come and see me this weekend? I have something important to talk about. Why don’t you come for Sunday dinner, shall we say about two?” I told her I would be there, then rang the Indian to order my food. As I was waiting for the delivery, I couldn’t help wondering why mum wanted to see me. She almost never asked me over, except on her birthday and at Christmas.
It occured to me it might have something to do with Auntie Jean, and I felt my face flush at the memory.
My mum met my dad when he came to fix the land line phone at the big house where she lived with her mother and her older sister, Jean. She already had a good job, working at the Inland Revenue in London. He was only a phone engineer, but she had never had a boyfriend. So when he asked her out, she said yes. He was twenty, and she was eighteen. They got married the following year, then moved near Basildon and bought a house. And when she was twenty-four, she had my brother, Terry.
Not long after Terry was born, my grandmother died. Mum did a deal with her sister. Jean would keep the big family house near Danbury, and my mum would get the money. There was quite a lot of money. My grandmother had good life insurance, and still had a big stash from when her husband had died ten years earlier. Jean also kept the family car, a classic Jaguar. That made sense, as my mum had never learned to drive.
They doted on Terry, and he turned out to be a good kid, by all accounts. The years went by, and they were happy. Mum got promoted twice at work, and dad came off the vans and went to work inside, in the telephone exchange in Basildon. Then they got a shock. Mum was pregnant. Certainly not planned, as she was thirty-eight years old. According to Auntie Jean, there was some talk of an abortion. Mum didn’t want to take time out of work, and Terry was nearly fourteen. But that didn’t happen, and I was born when she was thirty-nine.
I don’t remember my dad, or my older brother. They were both killed in an accident, on the day of my first birthday.
It was some years before I even found out about them, and only then because Auntie Jean insisted on telling me some things. But not everything.
So I was brought up living with two women. Or it seemed like that anyway, as my aunt was at the house a lot of the time, or I was at her house in Danbury, being looked after. I was never sure what my aunt did. Ten years older than mum, she was very different. A heavy smoker, liked a gin and tonic, and was always dressed up and made up. She played records instead of watching telly, and never seemed to go to work. Compared to my mum, she was great company. She was fun.
The way my mum dealt with her grief was to never talk about my dad, or Terry. I wasn’t allowed to ask anything about them, and Jean never spoke about them in front of mum when I was in the room. There were no photos, and none of their stuff around the house. Mum looked after me, but I never once felt she loved me, and she found it impossible to show me any affection. There were no birthday celebrations for me either, not one.
Because my birthday was the same day she had lost her beloved husband, and her first born.
By the time I was almost ten, Jean was looking after me more and more. Although she was fifty-nine by then, she looked years younger than mum, who had already let her hair go grey, and spent her days in a joyless trance. For my tenth birthday, it was Auntie Jean who took me out. She picked me up in the lovely old Jaguar, and took me into Chelmsford, to the cinema. After the film, we went to a burger place, and I could choose what I wanted, plus ice cream after.
Then that night when I was staying over at her house, she took me into her bed, and interfered with me.
The law would call that child abuse, and would have put my aunt in prison. She told me that would happen if I ever told anyone. But she needn’t have worried. The truth was, I enjoyed it. The attention, the affection, and feeling grown up. And the presents were great too. She started to buy me really expensive gifts, not just for special occasions, but randomly. If my mum noticed, she certainly didn’t care. And Jean took me off her hands most weekends, leaving her to think about my dad, and Terry.
That lasted until I was thirteen. Weekends in bed with my aunt, and some occasional holidays too. Then mum decided I was old enough to not need looking after when she was out, and it stopped. I never mentioned it again, and neither did Jean. But now mum had asked me to go and see her, I was wondering.
Had Jean said something?
I left school before I was eighteen, with five very average O-levels, and a place at Technical College, where I wanted to study automotive engineering. I had some idea of working for Fords. They were one of the biggest employers in the county, and I was sure I could end up designing a wonderful new engine for them. For my seventeenth birthday, Auntie Jean had paid for driving lessons, and I passed my test first time. After that, all I could think about was getting a car, and the freedom that would give me.
Turned out I wasn’t really suited for automotive engineering. I didn’t get on well with the boring teachers, and there was too much writing about combustion and stuff, and not enough actually messing around with cars and engines. Before I was nineteen, I had seen an advert in the local paper for a junior car salesman at the main Ford dealership, and got the job without finishing Technical College. I had to ask mum to buy me a suit, and she didn’t seem at all impressed with my choice of career.
But she bought me the suit, some smart black shoes, five white shirts, and two striped ties.
Being around the cars was great. But I soon found out that a junior car salesman doesn’t get to close any deals, and spends a lot of time helping to prepare new cars for delivery, wearing an overall over his suit. At least I got to drive a few around; delivering them back after services, or moving them to other dealer’s premises. They kept telling me that once I was twenty-one, I would get to use a company car and start to actively sell, based on what I was learning. Except I wasn’t learning anything.
Two days before my twenty-first birthday, Auntie Jean showed up at the house and gave me two hundred quid. “Spent it on anything, Darren love. Spoil yourself”. When she had gone home, my mum switched off the telly halfway through a programme I was watching, and said she had something to say.
“Now you are twenty-one, I think it’s high time you got your own place, and moved out. I am going to be sixty soon, and I intend to retire. The pension is very good, and I still have all the money your gran left me. So this is what I’m going to do. I will buy you a flat, nothing fancy mind. And a car. Something reliable, but not brand new. You can choose both, and I will pay for them. You won’t have a mortgage or car payments, and it will give you a good start in life”.
To say I was flabbergasted was an understatement. I knew my mum was well off, but I had never expected anything like that.
The next day at work, I arranged to buy an ex-demonstrator Fiesta S. Eight months old, metallic black, low mileage. I got it for staff rates, so no profit for the company. Then I went into town on the Saturday afternoon, and had a look around the estate agents. I found a nice flat in a window of one of them. A small sixties-bult block, nothing much to look at. One bedroom, car parking space, and open to offers for a quick sale.
A a friendly bloke talked me through it. Flat number five of six, second floor, no lift. Central heating, double glazing, and cheap council tax. Service charges were negligible, and the woman selling was keen to get rid of it as she was getting married and moving to London. He offered to take me to view it then and there. She had obviously tidied up before we arrived, and as soon as I started to look around, she was trying to sell me everything in it. Seemed her move was to some posh houseboat on the Thames, and there would be no room for any of her stuff.
Back at the estate agent’s, I made an offer that included leaving everything in the flat. All she would take with her were her shoes and clothes.That would save me a fortune trying to furnish it and kit it out. Although the offer was cheeky, the prospect of a cash buyer sealed the deal straight away. The agent shook my hand, and then offered me a job.
His name was John, and the company was called Mason and Walker.
On the day I moved out, all I had to take were my clothes and some books. When I had loaded up the Fiesta, mum came out with a carrier bag containing her old clock/radio, the one with the red digital numbers that had been beside her bed to use as an alarm clock. “You might as well have this, Darren. Now I’m retiring, I won’t need an alarm clock anymore. You can come back for dinner next Sunday if you want, up to you”.
And with that she went back inside, and closed the door.
Mum hadn’t asked me anything about the flat, other than how much money she had to pay the solicitor arranging my purchase. Same with the car, just asked who to make the cheque out to. I had a vision of her enjoying being alone with her memories of her dead husband, and the other son that she had truly loved.
Now ten years later, the clock still worked, I had the same car, and lived in the same flat, using all same the stuff the young woman had sold me. The television was new, as the old one had too small a screen. And the kettle had died, so I had bought a flashy new one four years ago.
The Indian meal was surprisingly good, and I washed it down with four cans of lager. That didn’t turn out to be such a good idea, as I woke up in the middle of the night, needing to pee. I was relieved to discover the clock said 3:01, not 3:17. Perhaps that spooky spell had finally broken.
No such luck. Not long after, before I was really back off to sleep, I heard a strange whirring noise. At first it sounded like one of the neighbours was using a drill. But at past three in the morning? That was unlikely. Besides, it was coming from above me, near the ceiling, and I lived on the top floor. It stopped, started again, then stopped. The next time, it went on a bit longer, and was then followed by a clickling sound, like someone slowly winding up something that had a clockwork mechanism.
Of course, the clock was reading 3:17, just as I knew it would be.
It was almost four when it stopped, and I eventually got back to sleep. I was woken up by my mobile alert going off just after nine. I checked it, and it was a text from Mark. He wanted to come over later, and said to text him when I was up and about. That threw me. I couldn’t remember when or if Mark had ever been to my flat. We always met at the pub or some food place. I replied to his text, telling him to come over after two. Then I went back to sleep.
He was quite excited when he turned up, and after accepting my offer of a cold beer, he sat down to tell me what he had been doing. “I had no luck with those other number combinations, Darren. Believe me, I tried. I even put them into a numerology programme I downloaded, but it kept coming back to 317 all the time. There has to be something connecting that number with your life, I’m sure of it. You have to think hard, it must be in your brain somewhere”.
His beer was already drained, so I went to get him another one, assuring him that I had thought of nothing else since that first group of coincidences, but I honestly didn’t have a clue. Then I warned him that was the last beer in the house.
Reaching into his shoulder bag, he pulled out a small sleek laptop that must have cost a fortune, and asked for the wi-fi password to connect it. “I have been doing some research, and I want to show you this site. I have sent a link to your email already, but I know you almost never look at personal emails”. Tapping away while complaining about my broadband speed, he eventually got up what he wanted to show me. “Check this woman out. She has a good reputation, and yes she’s a psychic, but look. She specialises in numerology, the psychic connections involving numbers”.
I looked at the website. ‘Sylvia Townsend’. She was based in London, had numerous glowing testimonials and she did private investigations into what she called ‘Psychic events, especially those involving numbers’. Mark was finishing the second beer. “You got a shop near here where I can get more beers?” I told him where it was, and he left me looking at the laptop.
Wondering how much Sylvia charged for her services.
Mark came back holding three carrier bags containing twelve cans of lager, and four large ready to cook pepperoni pizzas. It dawned on me he was expecting to hang around for some time. He nodded at his laptop. “What do you think? You should ring her”.
After we had both eaten a pizza and he had more lager, I rang the contact number on the website and got a message telling me to leave a name and number. I put on my best serious voice, and did just that. When Mark was eating his second pizza, my mobile rang. “This is Sylvia Townsend, you left a message. Please tell me the nature of your psychic incident, but only that. Do not mention any names or places, or any dates. I would not want you to think I was using any supplied information in my conclusions”.
I gave her all the facts about the 317 connections, how many times the number had cropped up, and that I couldn’t see why it had anything to do with me. She replied confidently, sounding like a mature, well-spoken woman.
“I am sure I could help you, it seems to be very straightforward to me. I would have to be in your flat at three-seventeen in the morning. That would mean me getting there an hour before. Including my travelling time and expenses to and from London that would cost you four hundred in cash. If that is acceptable to you, I could come next Friday. I suggest you get some sleep before I arrive, as you will need to stay alert”.
Swept away by her confidence, I gave her my address, and agreed next Friday. Then she asked for a credit card number, in case I turned out to be a prankster. “I will not charge anything to the card, unless you are not at the address given, or thinking to play some kind of joke on me. I warn you now, I do not travel alone, and my husband is a very large man who can take good care of me”.
When I had given her the details and hung up, I glared at Mark. “You better hope she’s not a con-artist, or you will owe me anything she steals”. He chuckled as he went into the kitchen to heat up his third pizza.
Once he had gone home, leaving behind just two cans of beer. I decided to relax and watch the telly. I had to get the idea out of my head that I had just given my credit card details to a con-woman who was sitting in London thinking about how she was going to spend my money.
Then I remembered the lottery ticket. I had just missed the televised results, so used the Internet on my phone to get on the website and check the winning numbers against mine. I was excited, imagining moving into a luxury pad, cancelling Sylvia Townsend, and telling Neil what he could do with his job.
Not even one number.
Flicking around the channels to find something to watch to make me forget my disappointment, I noticed that the film Jaws was just starting. I had seen it before of course, but not for years. It was always worth another watch. Robert Shaw, and the big rubbery shark.
I was well into the film when it got to the bit where Quint is strapping into the chair to fish with the huge rod. Then I had to go for a pee. As I walked back into the room, I heard a sound I remembered.
But I didn’t remember it from the film. It was the sound I had heard on the ceiling of my bedroom.
Watching the screen, I saw the big fishing rod reel whirring as the line was taken up. Then it stopped, then whirred again. The exact same noise I had heard at 3:17 in the morning. Then he was was slowly winding back the slack on the line. Click, click, click. The sound that I thought was someone winding up a clockwork motor. I got a chill all over my back. That was most definitely the sound. But surely all this could have nothing to do with a film?
Despite that, I slept right through the night, with no disturbances.
That refreshing night’s sleep left me in a good mood for the visit to my mum later. I got ready early and skipped breakfast, knowing mum would provide a huge Sunday meal, and a big stodgy dessert too. On the way to the house, I stopped off and bought her a bottle of the sweet white wine she liked. She wasn’t much for drinking, but she did enjoy a glass of that sticky sweet stuff with dinner.
No traffic locally meant that I was there just before two, and she was ready for me. Roast leg of lamb with all the trimmings, home-made mint sauce, and a bread and butter pudding with custard to follow. I was hardly through the door before we were sat at the table eating.
For someone who lives on easy microwave meals, fast food stuff, and far too much pizza, the traditional Sunday lunch was something I anticipated with my mouth watering at the thought of it. I accepted her offer of three more slices of lamb, and then ate a huge portion of the pudding, completely covered in home-made custard. Still seated at the dinner table, feeling a belly full of wind brewing, mum started to tell me the real reason why I was there.
“You will be thirty-one soon, and I will be seventy. Your aunt Jean is eighty now, and she isn’t well. In fact, she has liver cancer, and probably less than a year to live”. That shook me a bit. I had last seen Jean at Christmas, and she had looked the picture of health, even though the chestnut hair dye was more obvious than ever.
“So next week, I am moving from here and going to live with her in Danbury, to help her though the last months of her life. This house is sold, and most of the things are being collected by charities, as I won’t need them. If you want anything, you can take it with you today. I have some boxes in the garage that I want you to have, but the rest is up to you. And before you ask, I used an agent in Colchester. I didn’t want your firm involved, as to be honest, I think they have treated you badly”.
Well she was right about that. After a couple of golden years at the start, the company had sold off the commercial premises side, and then stuck me with getting rid of any new commercials that came in after. I had gone from hero to zero, in the course of three years.
Mum was still talking.
“This house fetched three-eighteen, more than I expected. Jean tells me the Danbury house is worth around six hundred thousand, but it is much larger of course. She will leave that to me, plus any personal money. Then I will leave everything to you. It’s not like I have anyone else to leave it to, after all. I know you will have to wait for that, as I have no idea how long I will live. But you can count on a very substantial inheritance once I am gone”.
That was food for thought. At least nine hundred grand when my old mum passed, probably closer to a million by the time she popped off. I should have felt guilty thinking that I suppose, but I didn’t. Jean had definitely had her fun with me, and mum was still on a guilt trip for not giving a shit about me. But it was a long time to wait, nonetheless.
Before I had even surreptitiously sneaked out the wind filling me up, mum was ready for me to go.
“Come to the garage on your way out, and I will show you those boxes. You will be interested in what they contain, but please don’t ring me and ask me about what’s in them. Promise?”
Two of the boxes were light, and one fairly heavy. They were sealed down with packing tape, and very dusty. Once I had loaded them into the Fiesta, mum reminded me. “Don’t forget your promise, I don’t want to discuss anything in those boxes. Remember that, Darren”.
On the way home, I could feel myself accelerating for no good reason.
I really couldn’t wait to open those three boxes.
Two trips were needed to get the three boxes into my flat. I took the two lighter ones together, then went back for the heavier one. Before I opened any of them, I decided to make a detailed note of the contents on the record I was keeping on my laptop. So I fired that up, and got it ready.
*Box One. The lightest.
One England Football Shirt. Size medium.
One pair of matching football shorts. Size medium.
One pair of football socks. Unwashed.
One yellow leather football. Partially deflated.
One Timex watch. Glass broken, not working.
One pair of football boots. Size eight. Muddy.
*Box Two. Next lightest.
Assorted newspapers in plastic covers. Thirty in total.
Assorted photos, three in frames. Perhaps fifty in total.
Four very large fishing reels, line still attached.
Two boxes of large fishing hooks, assorted sizes.
One pair of heavy leather gloves. Well worn. Size large.
Two Post-Mortem reports, in plastic wallets.
A report from a Private Detective, in a blue folder.
*Box Three. The heaviest.
One VHS camcorder, large shoulder-mounted variety.
Four spare batteries for the camcorder.
One dedicated charger for the batteries.
Leads and plugs to connect it to the mains, and to a TV.
Six VHS tapes. TDK 30-minute chrome type.
Four more much bigger fishing reels, line still attached.
Six spare fishing lines. New in packets.
Four football achievement medals.
Two small trophy cups for football achievement.
Two small trophy cups for fishing.
I made the presumption that the football kit was my brother Terry’s. That was confirmed by finding his name on the cups. And the fishing trophies bore the engraving ‘Brian Cook’, meaning that the fishing stuff was to do with my dad. But it was the VHS camcorder and tapes that I went to first. They had to hold a clue, or so I thought. The camera battery was flat of course, but easily remedied by just plugging the huge camcorder directly into the mains.
Before I even put in a tape, I knew the bouncing ball noise and the way it had hit me in bed was something to do with Terry, and the whirring fishing line related to the dad I had never met either. But I wasn’t remotely scared, just interested. And I already knew enough not to mention anything to Sylvia Townsend next Friday.
I didn’t have a VHS player. Nobody had one of those anymore. But that didn’t matter, as the camera had a flip-out screen, and controls built into the body. I was thinking about how much my dad must have paid for this, back in the day. A substantial investment at the time. My mouth had gone dry, so I went into the kitchen to get a Diet Coke. Then I sat on the floor, wondering which tape to insert into the machine. There was no writing on the sides of the boxes, or on the actual tapes. So I just picked the first one off the pile. slid it into the camera, and pressed ‘Play’ on the side panel.
There he was. The brother I had never met. Not so much as seen a photo of him. He was in the garden, at least that was familiar to me. Kicking a football around with obvious skill, and running down in the direction of a small goal, which had been placed against the back fence. He was wearing the same football kit that was in Box One, and he looked nothing like me at all.
My dad appeared in shot, urging Terry on. Was my mum holding the camera now? I could never ask her. I had promised. In my family, a promise was a big deal. Brian looked much more like me. Tall, thick dark brown hair, and the same slightly crooked bump on his nose. That made me feel really weird, watching the dad I had never known, and him looking like a slightly older version of me. I stopped the tape, and ejected it.
I needed a drink. A real drink.
In the absence of beer, I searched out what was left of some Jack Daniels remaining from last Christmas.
Swallowing a whole glass of the JD, I reached for another tape.
It was going to be a long night, and I already knew I would be ringing in sick tomorrow.
Working through the VHS tapes took a couple of hours. Two more just of Terry kicking footballs around, much to the delight of my dad. Then two showing fishing trips. They were on boats, off what looked like the south coast. Dad with massive rods, those huge reels in the boxes attached. Terry looking on, sometimes being shown how to work the rod once something had taken the hook. Some big fish being landed, not the sort I had ever seen on a slab in Tesco.
Father and son having fun, and sharing activities. That had never happened to me of course.
By the time I put in the last tape, there was nothing left in my flat to drink. I had even found a drizzle of Grand Marnier in a very old bottle, and tipped the bottle high until it ran down into my mouth.
That last tape was hard to watch. My mum in our garden, holding a baby. As Terry was standing next to her, I knew the baby had to be me. Strange to imagine I had ever been that small. My dad’s voice on the tape. “Give him a hold, Terry”. Mum handing me over carefully, and my brother holding me as if I was made of glass. Then mum and dad in shot, presumably filmed by Terry. Dad lifting me high and laughing, then kissing my head as I came back down.
I had to turn it off. It was all too much.
Although I had intended to work through the other boxes, I was choked up after watching the videos, and went to bed instead. When the alarm went off, I grabbed my mobile and rang Penny’s number. I knew she would be on her way in. She always arrived first. I told her I had a stomach upset, and wouldn’t be in for a few days. She was surprisingly friendly.
“Oh, Darren. John’s coming back on Wednesday. Seems it was just a mild Angina attack. They have given him some tablets, and he’s coming back. To be honest, I will be pleased to see the back of that Neil. We thought he was nice at first, but he’s a complete arsehole, if you want my opinion. Get well soon”.
Neil must have shown his true colours over the weekend, and upset Penny, probably young Kelly too. It was good news that John was coming back, but I had other things on my mind now. I had suddenly discovered my family, thirty years too late.
With the day free, I cleared a space in front of the telly, and started to lay out some of the things from the boxes. It wasn’t usual to have post-mortem reports, and I guessed that mum must have had to request copies, and pay for them. I decided not to read them just yet. I wanted the memories of dad and Terry alive on those tapes to linger a while before I read about how they had died.
The report from the Private Investigator intrigued me. That would have cost a lot, even thirty years ago, and why would mum have bothered? I made some strong coffee and sat on the floor in my underpants, gingerly opening the file, unsure of whether or not I wanted to know what was in it.
Not a lot, was the answer. A few pages of spaced reports, mostly times and locations. A photo of a policeman in uniform outside a police station, and another of the same man in normal clothes, getting into a car. Some very clear long-range photos of a suburban house, one zoomed in to show the door number. From what I could see, the detective had been hired to find a police officer, watch him, and find out where he lived and worked. Then he had followed him for what appeared to be two days, and noted down his movements.
The last page in the file was the bill he had sent to mum. One hundred and forty-eight pounds, including some itemised expenses.
Feeling hungry, I made myself a fried egg sandwich, and added all my notes to the laptop as I ate it. Then I decided to start working through the newspapers. There must have been a good reason why mum had bought them, and kept them.
On top of the pile was a copy of The Surrey Comet, dated a few days after my first birthday. Above a photo of a completly wrecked car was the headline. ‘Two killed in fatal crash. Police investigating’. I read the next line, then dropped the paper.
‘The crash happened not far from Chertsey, on the A317’.
Promises had been made to my mum, but I hadn’t promised not to ring Jean. I rang her house phone, hoping that she wasn’t so ill as to not be able to talk. She sounded really chirpy when she answered, and pleased to hear from me. I started with the usual stuff; sorry to hear her news, glad that mum was moving in to look after her, pretty much what would be expected in that situation.
Casually, I slipped into what I really wanted to talk about. The boxes, and the reason mum had kept certain things, as well as hiring a detective, and paying for post-mortem reports. Jean made me swear never to tell my mum, then spent twenty minutes filling in the details of what I wanted to know.
“Terry had a trial for the junior team of a top football club. I forget which one now, but it was a big deal. Big enough to mean that Brian was taking him there on your first birthday. It was at a training ground somewhere in Surrey, which is why they were so far from home when the accident happened. Your mum was never convinced it was an accident. For one thing, the first policeman on scene was off duty, but he still ended up investigating it. I mean, that didn’t sound right. How would that ever happen? Then there were what they called inconsistencies in the cause of death. Despite that, the coroner ruled the cause of death as accidental, and praised the policeman for trying his best to help them”.
Carefully avoiding any reference to the 317 coincidences, I asked her why mum had paid a private detective to follow the policeman. Jean said she didn’t know about that. I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe her, so went on to ask about the other things in the boxes.
“Well Terry had been wearing the football kit for his trial, but had changed for the journey home, presumably, as he wasn’t wearing it when he got killed in the car crash. The fishing reels were kept in case you ever became interested in fishing, like your dad was. As for the medals, trophies, camera and tapes, well your mum could never bring herself to look at those, so saved them for you. You were supposed to get them after she was dead, but the decision to move in with me must have changed her mind about that”.
I thanked her for telling me what she knew, and said I would go and see her soon.
Reading through the newspapers, I found they all contained slightly different reports of the accident. One mentioned a Sergeant Holloway, from Traffic Division. Another small piece said that a police sergeant had come across the accident when off duty, and had attempted to resuscitate the youngest victim, after realising the driver was beyond help. I wanted to talk to someone else about all this, and there was only Mark. I sent him a text, asking him to come round after he finished work.
Then I got busy taking notes on my laptop.
My dad and my brother had been returning to Essex from Surrey, and were on the relatively busy A317 road. There was an accident that had wrecked the car, and an off-duty policeman had stopped to help. My mum hadn’t accepted the findings of the inquest, so had employed a detective to investigate the off duty traffic sergeant. He hadn’t come up with anything, so it seemed from his report.
Thirty years later, I was experiencing spooky happenings all relating to the numbers 3,1, and 7. Plus hearing the ball, feeling it bounce on me, and then hearing the whirring fishing lines just like on the tapes. Dad and Terry were tring to communicate, I didn’t have to be a psychic to realise that. Even so, that was hard for me to believe. Not only did I not generally believe in all that stuff, but why would they have waited thirty years to try to get my attention?
Sorting through the stuff on the floor, I tried to arrange it into some kind of timeline. Then when I was happy that I could make some sense of that, I quickly got dressed to walk to the local shops. Mark was going to need a lot of beer, and more than a few pizzas.
By eight-thirty that evening, Mark had demolished three nine-inch pepperoni pizzas, and was on his sixth can of lager. He tapped a file, and gave me a serious look.
“The detective agency. That’s where you should start”.
Coastal Investigations was surprisingly located in the quiet seaside town of Frinton. That was over fifty miles away, and I wondered what had made mum choose that place. It was still operating, which was something. The basic website didn’t exactly entice customers, mentioning ‘Matrimonial’, ‘Divorce’, and ‘Fraud’ as it’s main specialites. Under the name, it had “Serving Essex for over forty years” as its tagline.
When I rang the number that morning at nine, I got a taped message. I didn’t leave my details, choosing instead to ring back once I had showered and dressed. A woman answered, her voice rather gruff, but her manner and tone respectful. I mentioned that I was following up on an old case they had handled, and had the name of their operative written down to tell her. His name on the report was Trevor Macmillan.
“That would have been my dad. I took over when he died, fiteen years ago now. If you want me to look into something that old, you had better bring the file to the office. Today at two alright for you? By the way, I charge two hundred a day, and that’s a minimum, but I will see you this afternoon for the consultation fee, seventy-five. In cash please”. Then she let out a series of hacking coughs, loud enough to make me move the phone away from my ear.
I told her I would be there at two.
Stopping at a cashpoint on the way, it took me almost ninety minutes to drive to Frinton. Their office was above a hairdresser’s shop, as the far end of the High Street. I pressed the intercom with the dymo-tape name above it, and was buzzed in with no questions asked. She was waiting for me at the top of the stairs, smoking a cigarette. I took her to be around forty, heavy build, and overdressed for a job like that. She looked more like she was on her way to a party.
“Come straight up. Mr Cook, is it?”
In the front room that served as an office, she pointed at a cheap plastic chair, indicating I should sit in front of her desk. Then she hauled her bulk in opposite me, and held out a hand. “The file, and the seventy five, please. I like to get the money out of the way”. I handed her four twenties on top of the file, and she hesitated over the change, probably hoping I was going to tell her to keep it. Eventually she dug five one-pound coins out from the bottom of her handbag, and slid them across the desk as she opened the file with her other hand.
As she read through the slim file, you would have thought she was reading War and Peace. She finished her cigarette and immediately lit another one, without offering me one. So I lit one of my own, and she moved the overstuffed ashtray into range for me. Still taking her good time over the file, I had almost finished my cigarette when she lit her third, and closed the file with a snap.
“Is this a complaint, Mr Cook? ‘Cause if it is, I should tell you now that will be down to my dad, and he’s long dead”. I assured her it wasn’t. I just wanted to know more about her dad’s investigation, and anything else she could tell me about the policeman and the accident. She gave a satisfied nod. “Okay then, let me go and look in the old files next door”. I thought the offer of a coffee might be nice, even water. But there was no mention of refreshments as she lumbered out the door, her shoes slapping against her feet as she walked, as if they were a size too big.
She came back holding a thick file that left me wondering how come her dad’s report to my mum had been so slim. Then she sat on the desk right in front of me, and seemed to be almost flirting, definitely suggestive in her body language. “I can probably help you, Darren. I still have lots of contacts in the police around here. My dad was a copper before he started this business you know. Leave it with me for now, and I will ring you tomorrow. If I take it further, then we start on the two hundred a day, okay?”
When I was sitting back in my car, I thought I hadn’t had too much for my seventy-five quid.
At home that night, I worked out my financial situation. Having had no mortgage, credit card, or car payments to worry about, I had managed to save a great deal of my income over the last ten years. Even allowing for the fact that I wasn’t in a well-paid job, and rarely qualified for any bonus payments, I was quite well off compared to some I knew. In a couple of savings accounts, and a very healthy current account I had total of a little over seventy-three thousand pounds. That equated to having saved around six hundred a month since I started at Mason and Walker.
With a present salary of twenty seven thousand before taxes and other stoppages if I got no bonuses, that meant I had a three year buffer, if I just lived on my savings. I opened the new bottle of Jack Daniels I had bought earlier, poured a large one, and rang John’s mobile.
He didn’t seem that surpised that I was resigning. Being stuck on commercial properties and hard to sell houses was no way to live. “What will you do with yourself now, Darren?” I told him I had no idea, but was in no rush. If I included my oustanding holiday time in my one month notice, there was no need for me to even go back to the office at all. John was very kind.
“I’m sorry to see you go, but I fully understand why. Please email me an official resignation, and I will sort out the paperwork with HR when I go in tomorrow. On the bright side that means Neil will have to stay on for now, to cover you. I can’t wait to stick him on your desk, trying to shift commercial units. Let me know personally if you even need a reference, Darren”.
The news that Neil would be on commercials from tomorrow was worth another drink.
Whatever I had been finding out about dad and Terry seemed to have calmed things down. I slept all through the night again, with no interruption at 3:17. Waking up the next morning, it felt strange to know that I would soon be a free man, at least for three years as a maximum. No more putting up with being an Estate Agent, I was going to think about a complete change of career. My phone ringing interrupted my thoughts. It was Selina Macmillan.
“Right, Darren. You are going to want to come and see me again this week, as I have a lot to tell you. For one thing, my dad’s file on the case is all copies, so your mum would have had one exactly the same. He did her proud, considering how little he charged her. She must have either decided to destroy the rest, or she just hasn’t given it to you yet. So come and see me tomorrow, about midday, and I will go through what I have found out. And you had better bring me two hundred in cash to cover my time. I spent hours on this, and had to promise someone a bung too”.
Before I handed over more money, I told her she would need to give me some idea that what she had was worth paying for. She didn’t seem pleased.
“Okay, I will give you this much, over the phone. I’m betting you didn’t read the post-mortem results. If you had, you will have seen that they are both on your brother. Your mum paid privately for a second opinion that concluded Terry didn’t die in the accident, but died soon after. What is written down is manual constriction of the airway. In other words, he was strangled. When your mum tried to get the case reopened on the basis of that, Sergeant Holloway came up with a plausible explanation, and they threw out her appeal”.
For quite a while, I didn’t reply. That was a lot to take in. Her gravelly voice shook me out of it.
“What do you say, Darren? Still interested?”
I told her I would be there the next day at twelve.
Selina Macmillan couldn’t have looked more different that second time. Wearing a pinstripe business suit, and her hair in a bun, she looked more like the headmistress of a swanky school, than the blowsy party animal of a few days earlier. I had a feeling that she had arrived straight from a date last time. The sort of date where you stop over, and don’t get much sleep.
The two hundred was ready in a sealed envelope, and I handed it over before she had time to ask for it. She dropped it into a desk drawer without counting the notes. I thought that was a nice touch.
“Well, Darren. I told you about the post mortem report over the phone. I have also been through the reports surrounding the police investigation into the accident, as well as the transcript of the inquest and the Coroner’s summation. All of that had to be requested by your mum, and the copies paid for. She must have been quite determined at the time, as she didn’t involve any lawyers, and did it all herself”.
There was no doubt that I was seeing a totally different side of my mother. All of this had been going on before I was even two years old. I was sure that Auntie Jean must have been heavily involved in looking after me back then. Mum would have needed a lot of time to have done all that stuff.
Selina was tapping something on her desk.
“This file from my dad is interesting. You don’t seem to have it in your papers. Sergeant Holloway was in the traffic division of Surrey Police. They investigated his conduct following the accident. Off duty, in his own car, It seems he stopped at the scene which he saw happen on the other carriageway. He claimed the driver was dead, which was confirmed by the medical reports of a broken neck that caused instant death. The passenger appeared to be dead too, but as he was so young, Holloway attempted resuscitation after extricating him from the damaged car with some difficulty, as it had rolled over during the crash. The conclusion is that he did his best, and he was actually praised for his response and professionalism”.
Stopping her before she could go on, I asked about the strangulation, and how Holloway had explained that. She opened another file, and tapped a paragraph on a typed page.
“During his evidence at the original inquest, he had spoken about having to drag your brother out of the car, and having some difficulty attempting resucitation in a confined space. When your mum tried to get it reopened with her new evidence about strangulation being the cause, Holloway made a statement that he might well have damaged Terry’s neck getting him out through the window of the car, and dragging him up the verge to make space to carry out CPR. They believed his version, and refused your mum’s appeal”.
Next I wanted her to explain how Holloway had got involved in an investigation when he was technically off duty. Selina grinned.
“You don’t know much about the way cops work, Darren. He was a trained Accident Investigation Officer. The next available one was tied up on a serious crash involving a lorry, fifteen miles away. So they took the easy way out, which was to let him investigate the accident. The control room showed him back on duty on their record, and other officers helped him start the full investigation. Technically speaking, he wasn’t involved, as he was a witness who had stepped in to help. So by default, they let him investigate an accident that he was later implicated in. So it is no surprise that any appeal was thrown out. Everyone was covering their arses”.
As I took that in, she carried on.
“Remember I mentioned my contacts? Well I dropped a few quid to one of them, and he did some digging. Holloway retired with the rank of Police Inspector. He is sixty-eight years old now, and still lives in the same house in Surrey. His wife died over ten years ago, some kind of cancer. He spends his time playing golf, according to my contact. Rarely misses a day on the golf course”.
My expression must have been blank, as she had leaned forward to get my attention.
“But there’s more, Darren. The best is yet to come”.
Before Selina could continue, I held up my hand. I told her I needed a drink. I was talking about tea or coffee, maybe water, but she nodded and produced a half bottle of Martell from a desk drawer. Unscrewing the top, she passed it to me. No glass or cup. I lit a cigarette, and took a big swig of the Cognac. She was also blowing out clouds of smoke from her fourth cigarette, making me feel like I was in one of those old film noirs, sitting in a smoky detective’s office drinking from a bottle.
I handed the bottle back, and she left it sitting there on the desk as she continued.
“When you hear this bit, you are going to be glad you had that drink, Darren”. She was pleased with herself, relishing the moment when she was going to impress me with her discovery.
“Do you follow football, Darren?” I shook my head, not bothering to mention Joel, who lived his life for football. She slid a newspapaper across the desk. It was the back page, and the paper looked recent, almost new. She tapped the head and shoulders photo below the headline that read ‘Southampton confirms their youngest manager’. “Recognise him? Silly question. You don’t follow football, so you won’t”.
Sitting back in her cheap office chair, she folded her arms under her substantial breasts, then hit me with her big news.
“Brendan Holloway. Son of our Sergeant Holloway. Former youth team player for Chelsea. Former member of the England under-21 squad, and later a full-time professional midfielder for Brighton. Following a knee injury when he was at Brighton, he went into coaching. Last month, he was the surprise pick for manager of Southampton”.
As I was still looking goggle-eyed at the smiling man in the photo, she suddenly lifted both legs and rested her feet on the corner of her desk.
“Oh, but here’s the best bit. He is forty-four, not quite forty-five. The same age as your brother would have been if he was still alive. And the Chelsea youth team was the one Terry was trying out for the day he was killed. Guess who else was trying out for that team that same day in Surrey? You don’t need to answer, it was Brendan Holloway. According to my source, Holloway was second choice, with your brother offered the place. Brendan only got the place because Terry died. Now tell me that doesn’t smell fishy. It got my nose twitching, I tell you”.
Reaching for the Martell without asking, I lit another cigarette. I was almost in danger of catching up with Selina. There was no denying she had done well. I was amazed how much she had found out in such a short time, and impressed with the quality of her contacts, considering she was in a depressing little office in a half-dead seaside town. Sliding papers into a box file, she told me what they were as she added each one.
“These are for you to take. My notes on the information from my two contacts. Holloway’s home address, and location of his golf club. The copies of the police investigation at the time, and the details of the appeal instigated by your mum. There are also some photocopied police photos of the car, but be warned. They show your dad dead in the wreckage before the bodies were moved. That’s it for me, I’m afraid. you’re on your own from now on. I don’t want to get any deeper into investigating a policeman, even a retired one. That will bring me a whole world of grief”.
Closing the file, she put her legs back down from the desk, and stubbed out her cigarette. My mind was whirring with all the information, not helped by the two big glugs of Cognac. But I seemed to be being told to leave.
So I left.
Sitting in the car for a long time in the pay-and-display car park, I had no inclination to start the engine, and drive home. Would a serving police officer really stage an accident, then kill my brother, just because of a place on a youth team?
It sounded far-fetched to me, but the combination of circumstantial evidence and inconsistencies in the cause of death certainly pointed to that. And a career in the top flight of the football league was worth big money.
A lot of money.
On the way home from Frinton, I decided to make a stop. I knew the address of where Ma Coughlan lived, as I had seen it enough times on the paperwork. It was on a Gipsy site provided by the local Council, but it wasn’t a caravan, more like a substantial static wooden lodge, painted in a trendy dove grey. Avoiding some chained-up dogs that ran at me barking noisily, I knocked on the glass door. It was answered by a girl who looked to be about ten, and she was only wearing underwear. I asked if Ma Coughlan was home, and the girl closed the door without replying.
A couple of minutes later, old Mrs Coughlan opened the door, waving her hand to gesture that I should step back, She held onto the big crucifix hanging from a chain around her neck as she spoke. “What’s your business here? I have nothing to say to you. We no longer use your company”. I told her that I had resigned, and was there on personal business. I wanted to know why she had called Gerry away from me outside the commercial premises on London Road that day. She said nothing, so I asked her what she had been pointing at.
When she didn’t slam the door, I wondered what she would do next. “I will tell you this once. Then you must never come back here, or talk to me or any of my family ever again. If you do, my Gerry will make you sorry, believe me. That day there was a boy on your right. He was dressed in football player’s clothes, and holding a ball. On your left was a man, tall, dark haired. He was holding a fishing rod. You didn’t know they were there, neither did Gerry. But I see things, whether I want to or not. Now go”.
With that she backed inside, and closed the door quietly. It would have been nice to know if she could still see them next to me, but I wasn’t about to push my luck in a site full of Pikeys.
Back in my flat that afternoon, I added what she had said to my notes. There was now a great deal of information that would tell me whether or not Sylvia Townsend was a fraud, or if she really knew her stuff. I found myself constantly looking from side to side, wondering if dad and Terry were going to appear to me. I had no idea what I would have done if they had. Probably shit myself with fright.
That evening, John phoned to tell me that they had bought me a leaving present, and asked if I could pop round on Friday sometime to get it. I told him I would, then microwaved a lasagna to accompany a very large Jack Daniels.
Friday morning found me feeling jittery. I was edgy about Sylvia coming in the early hours, and becoming more and more scared at the prospect that dad and Terry might appear in the living room. But I was sure that wasn’t her style, so I did some housework to make the place look respectable for her arrival. Then I walked down to the bank and got the cash out for later, popping into Mason and Walker on the way home.
John was there with Kelly. The others were all out on viewings or prospects. Kelly gave me a big card with ‘Sorry You’re Leaving’ on the front, and they had all signed it, even Neil. Then John handed over a nicely wrapped gift box containing a lovely Seiko chronograph wristwatch. I admit I was surprised. That must have been worth well over a hundred and fifty quid. John looked awkward. “We all chipped in, Darren. Even Neil stumped up, which considering Janice doesn’t want him back was good of him, I suppose. He’s out now, trying to shift those lock up garages in Gardiners Way. They have been on our books for over four years”.
Kelly started giggling, then John began chuckling, and soon we were all having a good laugh about Neil.
In advance of Sylvia’s visit later, I packed away all the stuff into the boxes, added my laptop, and stashed the lot in the hall cupboard. I had to take the hoover out to get them all in, but I just stood that in my bedroom. Then I had an early dinner, and sat clock watching. She had warned me to get some sleep before she turned up.
Like that was ever going to happen.
Although I hadn’t expected to, I did go to sleep. I was sitting upright on the sofa when I woke up with a start. The room was dark, and I checked my phone to discover it was past one in the morning. I hadn’t thought to start wearing the watch I got as a leaving present. It was still in its box. I put the lights on, then went into the bathroom to splash some water on my face. In the kichen, I made some strong coffee, and ate a couple of muffins so the sugar would liven me up.
By the time I heard the quiet knock on the door at exactly two in the morning, I was wide awake again.
Mister Townsend wasn’t as large as I had expected, but he looked as tough as a Commando. Hair cropped so short he seemed almost bald, and unblinking eyes that were boring into my skull. Black leather jacket and black T-shirt, with black combat trousers to complete the image. “I will come in first and check the place, okay? Sylvia will only come up when I text her it’s safe in there”. I stood aside and allowed him to walk in. Then he did a thorough search of my small flat as I followed him around, even lifting the bed and looking under it. Satisfied, he sent the text.
Sylvia looked nothing like I imagined a psychic investigator to look like. She could have been any dyed-blonde working-class housewife in one of many districts of London, though her accent marked her as someone who knew how to speak properly.
“Good evening, Darren. No, good morning. Now please don’t tell me any more than you have already, and you may want to have paper and pen handy, to take notes. I do not allow any recording devices I’m afraid”. They both declined my offer of refreshments, then Sylvia sat on the sofa as her husband left the flat and stood outside on the landing. At a nod from his wife, he closed the door.
She had no equipment. None of those flashing lights or speaker boxes I had seen ghost hunters using in the TV shows.
I had gone to get a notebook and biro from the bedroom, and she was smiling as I came back in. I realised I hadn’t handed over the money, and went to get the envelope from the kitchen drawer. Unlike Selina Macmillan, Sylvia opened the envelope and counted the notes carefully. Then she stuffed them into her shoulder bag, before turning back to me, still smiling.
“Well it would seem we do not have to wait until three-seventeen, Darren. Your dad and Terry are already here. They are standing in front of the television”.
Of course, I turned and looked at my telly, but couldn’t see them. What followed was the strangest experience of my life. Sylvia was looking at them, no doubt about that. Her eyes and head were moving, and she was nodding and smiling. And then she started to talk to them too. “I see. Yes, I will tell him. You know about the detective. Okay, that’s good. Yes, I will tell him all that you are telling me, word for word”.
The need to sit down overwhelmed me, and I flopped onto the sofa next to her.
When there was a pause, I asked her why I couldn’t hear them, and also told her to ask them why they had waited for thirty years.
“Darren, they are not talking in the way that we do. They are communicating with me in my head. I can hear their thoughts, as it were. It’s more complicated than that, but that gives you an idea. I am only replying to them for your benefit. So, to make it clear that you are not wasting your money. Your dad and Terry were driven off the road by someone who swerved in front of their car. It was a man named Holloway. They recognised him, from the car park at the trial ground. It was your first birthday, and the location was the A317 road, near Chertsey. They were returning from a football trial for Chelsea, and Terry had been selected”.
To say I was impressed was an understatement.
“Your dad was killed instantly, but Terry had only banged his head hard, and was semi-conscious. The man saw that, and dragged him from the car. Because Terry had no injuries that would end his football career, the man panicked and strangled him. Now they want you to take revenge, so that they can pass over in peace. Your dad says to look at the daily newspapers, as they will tell you what to do”.
My mouth was dry, but I remembered to ask again why they had waited all this time. She grinned.
“Terry says it’s because the Holloways now have something to lose”.
Sylvia Townsend stood up. “They have gone now, Darren. It’s up to you to work out what they meant, but I’m sure you have a good idea”. I asked her why I couldn’t see them, and if they would appear again to help me. “They wanted your attention, and they got it. You will never see or hear from them again. They trust you to do the right thing, and find them peace. Anyway, you are not a true believer, despite what has happened. So you would never be able to see them”.
With that, she walked to the door, and opened it. Her husband raised his eyebrows, and she nodded. Turning to me as she closed the door, she spoke quietly.
There was no chance I was going to get more sleep, so I went and made myself a bacon sandwich, still trying to take it all in. Sylvia had been right about all the details, and though I had found out most of them before her visit, I was pleased to have it all confirmed. And she had earned her money, as dad and Terry had undoubtedly communicated with her, and added that they wanted me to do something bad to the Holloways to give them peace.
I was outside the newspaper shop as soon as they opened the door to customers. Barging past the owner, I grabbed a copy of each one of the papers he had just finished laying out on the counter. That amounted to five popular tabloids, and three broadsheets. I also bought two packets of cigarettes and a Twix. I ate the Twix on the way home, still feeling hungry despite my pre-dawn sandwich.
Mark sent me a text as I was laying out the papers on my living room floor. He wanted to know how it had gone with Sylvia. No doubt he had been up all night fiddling with his computers. I replied that I would call him later, and pretended to still be in bed.
Each paper took a slightly different slant on the news. Being a Saturday, they also had some feature articles, and things like cookery columns and ‘where to go’ suggestions. The back pages were full of sport, as most football was played on Saturdays, as well as Rugby, and Cricket news from abroad.
But most of the stuff was, as always, about Royals and celebrities. It didn’t seem to matter if the paper was a cheap rag, or a supposedly ‘serious’ traditional one, all they seemed to do was to trap on about who was dating who, and who had been a bad boy, or a bad girl.
There were paparazzi photos of course. Slaggy-looking girls I had never heard of, showing their bits as they got out of cars. Film stars being where they were not supposed to be, and with someone who wasn’t their wife. And one very famous politician in disgrace due to a homosexual affair, with a photo of him leaving his boyfriend’s flat.
The back pages were better. I found a decent article in The Express about Southampton’s new manager, Brendan Holloway. It said he had a three-year contract that was worth over seven million pounds. It also mentioned that he had his own agent.
Football had changed a lot since I was last interested in it.
All of the papers seemed to be interested in the same main story though. A very famous British disc-jockey who had been accused of messing around with underage girls in his heyday. They had all crucified him. Photos outside his house, trying to doorstep his wife and teenage kids, and demanding a full investigation into what were basically unsubstantiated allegations.
He had been fired by the BBC without real proof, and was quoted as ‘Refuting all allegations, and standing by his family at this difficult time’.
That was about the time the penny dropped. Despite the fact it was still mid-morning, I celebrated with a large Jack Daniels.
‘No smoke without fire’ came to mind.
The other thing that came to mind was former Inspector Holloway boasting at the golf club about his wonderful son who had just been made manager of Southampton. And Brendan himself, though techincally blameless, I reckoned he must have known what happened.
Let’s see how his seven million salary looked after what I was about to unleash.
As promised, I rang Mark to let him know what had happened. Swearing him to secrecy, and not to mention anything to Joel. Because Joel thought he was the world authority on football, I felt sure he would blab to his mates about Brendan, and ruin my plans.
That Sunday, I drove to Danbury to visit Aunt Jean and my mum. I didn’t ring in advance or expect dinner, and I had no intention of trying to discuss anything that had been going on. Nobody could know anything until I had put my idea into operation. My real reason for the visit was to use Jean’s old typewriter. I didn’t have a printer at home, and no need to buy one. Besides, using my emails via laptop wasn’t an option, as that could be traced.
So a typewriter was ideal for my purpose.
Mum looked unsurprised when she answered the door. I told her I had promised to come and see Jean. “You had better let me go and spruce her up a bit. She won’t forgive me if I let you see her in the state she’s in”. The old house was looking in need of a good clean, as well as some serious redecoration. It was like going back in time walking in there. Twenty minutes later, mum came into the living room and handed me a cup of tea. “Here, take this up to her. I should tell you, her appearance might shock you”.
She was right about that. Jean’s hair was white, and her skin was yellow. She looked about a hundred years old, and the smell in the room was so sour it got me right in the throat.
“Darren love, thanks for coming to see me. How you doing? As you can see, I’m not doing so good”. I engaged in some chit-chat, mentioning that I had resigned from my job. I chose not to say anything about how long she had left to live. “I’m glad you left that place, love. You can do better for yourself than being an estate agent”. After I ran out of things to say, I casually brought up the old typewriter, hoping it was still around. “Yes, I’ve still got it. It’s in the hall cupboard. There’s paper too, and the ribbon should be alright. You can have it if you want”.
I told her to drink her tea, and I would say goodbye before I went home.
Typical of my mum, she never asked me why I was using Jean’s typewriter on the kitchen table. Though she had almost certainly guessed that would have been my main reason for showing up that day. When I had finished typing, I put the machine and paper back in the cupboard, and went up to say goodbye. But Jean was fast asleep. I kissed her on the forehead, for old time’s sake.
My mum was reading a book, sitting in the big old armchair. “It was nice of you to come and see her. I doubt she has much longer to go. Days, rather than weeks. I haven’t prepared anything for dinner, but I can make you a ham and tomato sandwich if you want one”. I declined the sandwich, telling her I had things to do. As I was leaving, I told her to keep a close eye on the TV news next week. She didn’t even ask me why.
In the car, I had the copies of the old police investigation, and the post-mortem report arranged by my mum, the second one. Adding my typed sheet, I stopped at Sammi’s shop on the way home. He had a photocopier at the back, and charged ten pence per copy. I did ten copies of everything, and bought ten large Manila envelopes as well. Back home, I made ten piles of the copies, and slid each one into an envelope. Then I wrote the names of the Sports Editors on each envelope, followed by the address of the newspaper it was going to.
The next day, I would drive into East London, and post them from one of the big Post Offices. They were so busy, nobody working there ever remembered anything, I was sure.
On my typed page, I had kept it short and sweet. But there was enough potential scandal to interest them.
No doubt about that.
I had the packets posted by just after eleven the next morning. I paid the extra for next-day delivery, and with nothing else to do I drove home and stopped at a supermarket on the way to stock up. I had a feeling I was going to be watching a lot of television from tomorrow, and didn’t want any reason to have to go out for the rest of the week.
Mark phoned that night, keen to chat about everything. I gave him the basic facts about what I was doing, and double-chekcked that he hadn’t said anything to Joel. He told me he was going to record all the news bulletins and sports reports on his bank of hard drives, so I would be able to revisit the moment when the Holloways were confronted with whatever the papers made of my anonymous allegations. Before he hung up, he gave me a warning.
“You better get your shit together, Darren. It won’t take them long to work out it must have been you trying to rake up the past. They will be at your front door, and trying to dig up any secrets from your background too”.
That was one time in my life that I was grateful for being such a dull bloke.
When you are expecting something exciting to happen, it gets hard to focus on anything else. I found myself imagining all sorts of stuff, and hoping for the best outcome, obviously. When Tuesday came, I rushed to the shop to buy all the newspapers, and had the 24-hour rolling news on the telly non-stop.
Nothing in the papers, nothing on the news. I rang Mark after drinking half a bottle of Jack Daniels that evening. I told him it had all been for nothing, and they weren’t interested. He was more positive. “It’s too early, mate. They will be checking the authenticity of the reports. They might even be approaching Southampton Football Club, requesting a reaction to a story being published tomorrow. Wait until Thursday, that’s when the shit will hit the fan. Southampton has a big game on Saturday. They are close to the relegation zone, that’s why Brendan was brought in. You know those news guys, they will love to tie in both stories at once. Saves airtime”.
One thing about the news in Britain is that the TV news picks up on anything in the papers. Then there are the local news channels, on the heels of the big boys like the BBC and ITN. Thursday morning at just after eight, I was watching the rolling news. Not much going on in Britain, but then, almost as an afterthought, they mentioned a story in The Sun. A football manager had been accused of involvement in an historic crime. The paperwork had been passed on to the police by The Sun, and they were waiting for a statement. The manager and club were not named, but twenty minutes later, the story was updated.
The female newsreader read her autocue with her voice trying to sound dramatic. ‘Brendan Holloway, the new manager of Southampton Football Club, has been named in a newspaper story concerning his father, a retired police officer. It concerns an accident thirty years ago, that the newspaper alleges was in fact a deliberate act. Because of that accident, and two subsequent deaths, Holloway went on to play for Chelsea and Brighton, as well as the England under-21 team. And he was recently appointed as Southampton manager, with a seven million pound contract’.
That was all. But it was a start.
By the time the main news came on at one, it was second after the war in Syria. The liberal Guardian newspaper was calling for an enquiry, and the case to be reopened, and there were telly crews outside the house of both Brendan and his dad. That was more like it. Brendan wasn’t home, so they badgered his young wife, before changing tack, and getting some local guy to pitch up at the Southampton training ground, where he refused to give a statement.
That made me think he knew.
They found former Sergeant Holloway at his golf club, and his face was a picture of guilt as they shouted the allegations at him in the car park while he was loading his clubs into his car. Mark rang. “Are you seeing this, Darren? They are on it large. Both of them are going to have to come up with something”.
I told him I was seeing it, and enjoying it too.
The six o’clock news was the best. Many people home from work, and more effort put into the report. Reporters had hit the headquarters of Surrey Police, and a flustered Assistant Chief Constable was making a statement on camera. He fluffed on about Holloway had been exonerated back then, and was now retired with the rank of Inspector. He denied any knowledge of a cover-up, and told them the Chief Constable at the time had died almost twenty years ago.
When pushed about the possibility of an enquiry, he stated that he would be happy to cooperate with any investigation, but that the Holloways should be given their privacy while that was decided. Not much chance of that.
Brendan finally faced the cameras outside the home ground of Southampton. He claimed to know nothing, and said he had been a boy when the incident happened, and all he knew was that his dad had helped some people after a bad car accident. The Chairman of the club was standing next to him, looking decidely uncomfortable.
There was more on the ITV News At Ten programme, with a football pundit roped in to talk about how Brendan had only got his youth team spot because Terry had been killed in the car accident. That was the sort of thing I wanted to hear. It wasn’t until after that when I got the first phone call, from The Sun newspaper. They had a reputation for tracking people down.
I was happy to give my story over the phone. Not that I let on I was involved in the revelations, just told them how I had never known my dad or brother, and had grown up missing them, with a mum who was heartbroken.
Naturally, I laid it on a bit.
My appearance in the newspaper the next day, minus a photo of course, generated calls from Leon and Mark, also John from the Estate Agency. Then a local TV crew knocked on my front door, and I let them in to do an interview as I sat on my sofa looking suitably sad. I made sure to get in the line that all I wanted was justice for my dad and brother.
Mum didn’t ring. Either she hadn’t seen anything about it, or more likely knew what I had found in the boxes.
That afternoon, Southampton played with their assistant manager in charge. They lost 3-0. Then there was some ‘Breaking News’ on the BBC just before five. Former Inspector Holloway had suffered a heart attack during a game of golf. He was in Intensive Care, and described as ‘Poorly’. I didn’t know whether or not to be happy about that. I would have liked him to suffer more.
At just after eight that night, the BBC News 24 reported that Brendan Holloway had parted company with Southampton Football Club, by mutual arrangement. Seemed like that Chairman hadn’t believed him either. By ten, the story was slipping down the schedule, and the fact that Brendan’s dad had died that evening only got a passing mention.
After all the mystery, the intrigue, psychic investigators, and private detectives, the end seemed to be something of an anti-climax. Brendan was on the football scrap heap, minus his seven million contract, and his dad was dead. Hopefully, my dad and Terry had now moved on to something or somewhere better. As for me, I had my notes. I thought I might write a book about it all.
Before that though, I was going to apply for a job. I fancied a career in London, in The Metropolitan Police.
I had a feeling I would be good at that.