Chapter 2: the last day of summer

“So I was, like, whatever. I said to him, ‘you’re not the boss of me. I do what I want.’ And he said to me, he said…” Kirsty had been prattling away in this fashion for most of the day. She’d had some petty argument with Bradley (or Stig of the Dump, as Arthur had nicknamed him) the night before and was now relaying it almost verbatim to everyone in the office.

“…And he calls me possessive! I said to him, ‘you want to look at yourself in the mirror. You’re worse than I am.’ And he was, like…”

And I’m, like, shut your ignorant trap and do some work for a change, thought Arthur, his temples throbbing. Kirsty had the occasional flash of wit and charm, to be fair, but those positive characteristics had deserted her today. Plain Jane did not help matters. She validated Kirsty’s vacuous ramblings with an emphatic nodding of the head and wholehearted agreement. All Arthur had to do was hold on to his sanity for two more hours, then he was off work for ten blissful days. A week and a half without whingeing customers, audits, red tape and office politics. He turned to the right and looked out of the window. The town centre lay directly to the south, its office blocks and church spires punctuating the clear blue September sky. Pretty enough from this distance, he supposed, but it was the sort of place that young people tried to escape, more than anything. There was a time, three years ago and more, when he would walk into town and bump into at least one person he knew. His friends, drinking buddies and acquaintances would always frequent the usual haunts, like the Metropole and the Nag’s Head, where they would sing, play pool and tell each other jokes. Those were such happy times! Now, most of his friends had left and settled elsewhere. Some of them, dazzled by the bright lights of the big city, had gone to places like London and Birmingham to seek their fortune. Such a venture was met almost invariably with disappointment, Arthur noted with grim satisfaction. The streets were not paved with gold.

Honest Dave had joined the conversation, telling the others about his relationship. Arthur had never met Dave’s girlfriend, but he imagined that she was a very pleasant person. Honest Dave was not a genius, nor would he ever be considered Male Model of the Year. However, he had a very stable personality and an easy-going nature which made it impossible not to like him. On their social occasions (usually situated in an expensive bar downtown), Arthur always enjoyed talking to him and didn’t mock him the way others, like Kirsty and Graham, their boss, did. No, he reserved his withering sarcasm for those who deserved it, which was most people in the company. Graham, a balding forty-something from Sunderland, was more reserved during working hours, preferring to throw in the odd comment or two while others told everyone their life story. Once the drink hit him, however, it was difficult to shut him up. He tended to lapse into monologues centred on football, Formula One or work. He never said much about his wife and two young children, but then, Arthur supposed that was a good thing. Plain Jane had just finished telling everyone about her husband’s hobby. Apparently, the retired electrician liked to potter around in the shed on Saturdays to work on his train set. Arthur suspected, with a malicious grin, that the old sod was trying to get away from his dull-as-dishwater wife. He had to suppress a laugh as he imagined this fellow masturbating in his shed while Jane was in the kitchen, chatting to her senile mother on the telephone. Kirsty spotted the smirk on Arthur’s face and decided that it was his turn to make a contribution.

“Are you seeing anyone, Artie?” Within a week of joining the accounts team (she must have won the job in a raffle), Kirsty had taken to calling him Artie, falsely believing that such a term of endearment would grate on his nerves and melt his sang-froid. In truth, he really was not that bothered. “No, I’m single.” The words came out like the confession of a former heroin addict. He felt like he had done something wrong by not having a girlfriend; this was not a conversation he was comfortable being dragged into.

“Awww,” she purred, a teasing smile on her soft lips, “you’ll find someone!” She’s mocking me again, he thought. There was mischief in those big blue eyes; he was familiar enough with her little games. The blonde twenty-year-old had a certain animal cunning and used it to manipulate others or, if that failed, to make them squirm. Arthur looked around, hoping someone would say something, rather than give him that pitying stare. Dave was right on cue, telling Jane about his plans for a romantic weekend with his true love. Half of Graham’s attention was diverted, while the other half remained focused on an Excel spreadsheet. Kirsty, however, continued to stare and grin at Arthur. What now? He felt something brush against his right leg, something soft, warm and sweaty. Gradually, it worked its way up his calf, along his thigh and pressed against his crotch. He felt his penis stiffen as her toes nestled between his legs. He moved his hands under the desk and stroked her ankle, as she pressed her foot harder against his private parts. Arousal surged through him like a hot wave. He wanted to take her there and then. He wanted to enfold his arms around her, to press his body against hers, to be inside her. He wanted to taste her lips and nibble on her earlobes. He wanted to make her moan with pleasure as he –

“Arthur,” came Graham’s voice from behind his monitor, “did you get any response from that chap you e-mailed earlier?” Arthur was brought back to reality with a jolt. Presumably, he meant the whingeing good-for-nothing from that engineering firm which had been on credit hold for as long as he could remember.

“Er, no, still no joy.”

“Oh, well,” Graham replied, “the ball’s in his court.”

Relieved that he had answered satisfactorily, Arthur checked his e-mails to see if there had indeed been anything, then looked ahead. Kirsty was trying not to laugh – and failing.

*

There were many nice pubs within ten miles of his flat, pubs which had live music, karaoke, quizzes and – in some rare cases – a dartboard. They were the sort of places that the good people of the land frequented, professional types who knew the difference between right and wrong, who didn’t drink and drink until they were vomiting in a shop doorway or talking with their fists. They were educated, had aspirations, went to interesting places for their holidays. These genteel pubgoers constituted what one might call ‘Middle England’. Arthur had always felt that he belonged with those people in those sorts of places, sitting in a beer garden adjoining the river and laughing at some amusing anecdote. Sadly, he had not lived that life since his college days, before the real world took over and drove a wedge between him and his old friends. Formal education was the great leveller. Some evenings, Arthur would sit in a smoky jazz café with some drama students, while other evenings were spent in the company of physicists, playing video games. Now, all he had were two companions who had drunk a lot of bourbon and were singing along to an old number by Green Day.

“I love this tune,” Mickey slurred, raising his glass and spilling liquid over his hand. Tony, his other friend, was doing a slightly better job of staying sober.

“It’s a shame you’re not around tomorrow, Art,” he said. “There’s a Battle of the Bands down in Brighton. Mickey’s coming along with his new bird.”

Apparently, Tony had obtained some discounted tickets to a gig. How he secured this discount was a mystery, but he was a shifty character. Standing at just five feet and six inches tall, Tony was not exactly imposing, but he was confident and had a way with words. He seemed to know a lot of people and always knew someone who knew someone, or so he claimed. Arthur suspected that half of what the man said at any one time was a pack of lies, but he admired his skills as a storyteller, nonetheless. Besides, in a place like the Metropole, with its rickety furniture and that constant odour of stale beer and sweat, bullshit was the norm. Arthur surveyed the room. The usual crowd was here: Goths, Punks, ageing rockers, neo-Mod types with skinny ties and winkle-pickers. Some of the women here looked nice in their getup, but their social skills were practically non-existent. He had chatted to a few such ‘ladies’ last week, in the beer garden (in truth, it was more of a holding-pen, devoid as it was of any plant life). They were free with their affections, even the married ones, but Arthur had felt dirty after meeting them, as if he were covered in a thin layer of slime.

“I’m telling you, mate, the sex gets better every time!” Arthur turned back to find Mickey waxing lyrical to Tony about his new sweetheart, a bucktoothed human blancmange named Sharon. After two months of heartache and self-pity, the man had found true love. Arthur was relieved. His friend’s previous paramour was a nasty, domineering, benefit-scrounging blob who had cheated on Mickey and stolen his money, so it was good to see the old boy back on form. Sharon, though decidedly unlovely on the outside, was a lot friendlier and more trustworthy. Perhaps Mickey could wear the trousers, for a nice change, he thought.

As Friday evening gave way to Saturday morning, Arthur bade his friends farewell and left. He had reached that familiar point where there was enough alcohol in his bloodstream to give him a warm, fuzzy feeling, but not enough to make him want to throw up. It was a delicate balance, but he’d had enough practice over the years to know when to stop. He wound his way through the back streets, singing softly as he went, then found himself, before long, at the edge of the park, beyond which lay his neighbourhood. Behind him, at the bottom of the hill, lay the bright lights and loud noises of the town centre. A few taxis were doing the rounds, while one solitary pedestrian was walking up the road towards him. Nothing unusual about that, Arthur thought, yet he felt a chill running up and down his spine, though the night air was still warm. Something about that man walking (or was he running? It was impossible to tell at this distance, in the light of the streetlamps) gave him a profound sense of unease. He thought back to the events of the previous month: the figure in the shadows, seemingly watching him closely, the strange picture left on his doorstep, the vivid dreams. He’d been having more of those since that night, as often as several times a week. Each time, he was being pursued by something which frightened him more than anything else in the world, though he did not know what it was. Sometimes, he was in a narrow tunnel, with only an electric torch to guide the way. At other times, he was once again in that dark wood, his pace slowed by branches and creepers, while in others still he was in a churchyard, stumbling over the graves of those long dead. Arthur tried to rationalise the dreams, putting them down to all those horror films he liked to watch of an evening. If that were the case, however, why had this had never happened to him before?

The park was closed after dark, but that had never stopped Arthur before. Scaling the wrought-iron fence, he jumped down and walked fast (almost running) to the other end. It was not until he reached the footpath that he dared to turn around again. The trees that bordered the park were silhouetted against the dark sky, but there was no sign of the man. “Nothing to worry about,” Arthur said aloud, immediately regretting doing so. His voice sounded far too loud in the still night air and he feared that someone might hear him. Silently berating himself for such foolish paranoia, he climbed the gate and walked down the footpath. He had almost reached the end, when a sudden movement in front of him almost made him jump out of his skin. A pair of glowing green eyes watched him from the shadows, unblinking. It was only one of the neighbourhood cats, out on some nocturnal adventure. Fond as he was of the animals, Arthur reached forward to stroke its soft black fur. The cat, it transpired, was even more jittery than he, for it ran away from him and clambered over a nearby fence, as if its very life depended upon it.

Five minutes later, he was home and feeling altogether more sober than when he’d left the bar. This condition he soon remedied by rolling up a jazz cigarette, which he smoked while watching a stand-up comedian on TV. The man wasn’t his favourite entertainer, but a few of the gags made him laugh enough to take his mind off that gnawing sense of unease he had felt earlier. Arthur had a lot of driving to do the next day and he hoped that his sleep would not be disturbed tonight. He sat through a brief news bulletin to catch the weather report. The weather girl, a dusky brunette with a fine pair of legs, cheerfully announced the end of the Indian summer and the beginning of a colder, wetter week. Arthur made a mental note to bring suitable attire for his holiday.

“Edgeharrow,” he muttered as he clambered into bed, “interesting name.”

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