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Authors: Rupert Thomson

Dreams of Leaving (43 page)

BOOK: Dreams of Leaving
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They had only been driving for two or three minutes when the motorbike came into view about half a mile ahead on the open road. Moses was disappointed. He had been looking forward to breaking the speed limit. Legally, for once.

‘He isn't really trying,' he complained.

‘Oh yes he is,' the policeman said. ‘He's trying like absolute hell.'

He could imagine exactly what was going through old Dinwoodie's head, he told them. He had done his homework and he recognised the symptoms. That initial rush of adrenalin would even out into a feeling of euphoria, one hundred per cent euphoria, which, in turn, would give way to a sense of disconnection, creeping up gradually, stealthily, making everything seem unreal, paranormal, only distantly experienced.

Moses absorbed this curious information in silence.

When Gloria asked the policeman whether he had brought any handcuffs along, the policeman replied with a confidence that was almost patronising. ‘Oh
no
,' he said. ‘We shan't be needing anything like
that
.' He had his saliva under control at last which made it possible to pick up the tremor of exultation in his voice.

Meanwhile they were still gaining rapidly on old Dinwoodie. The policeman removed his helmet. Then he wound the window down and leaned out with his megaphone.

‘Dinwoodie? This is Police Constable Marlpit. Please pull over to the side of the road immediately. I repeat, please pull over immediately.'

He shook his head and turned to Moses. There was a very good reason, he explained, why his words were having so little effect. Old Dinwoodie had just caught a glimpse of the South Downs for the first time in his life. They stretched away above the trees, they stretched into a distance he had dreamed about. Their modest green undulations, the copses nestling in their hollows like soft green explosions, like miniature puffs of smoke, brought tears to his eyes. They were more beautiful than he had ever imagined. And he was floating towards them, untouchable, part of everything. He was dissolving. He could no longer feel where his body ended and the air began. It flowed round him as the grain in a length of wood flows round a knot. Everything was warm and slow, and there were no sharp edges any more, no needs, no pain. His goggles were misting over. His grip on the throttle was relaxing.

During this monologue Moses couldn't, at certain points, be sure if Marlpit was talking about himself or about Dinwoodie. There seemed to be a temporary blurring of identities. As if Marlpit had inhabited, and could read, Dinwoodie's mind.

By the time Moses drew alongside the motorbike, his speed had dropped to fifteen miles an hour. ‘This has got to be the slowest car-chase in history,' he muttered to himself.

PC Marlpit was bellowing through his megaphone again. Old Dinwoodie just didn't seem to hear.

‘Jesus,' Moses said. ‘He's driving with his eyes shut.'

Even as he spoke the motorbike slowly wandered off the road, slid sideways down a muddy bank, and folded in a ditch. Dinwoodie sat up in the long grass, dazed but unhurt, his goggles dangling from one ear. His eyes were open now. Tears were streaming down his face.

Moses pulled into the side of the road.

Marlpit climbed out. ‘I shan't be needing you any more,' he said. He leaned his elbows on the window. ‘However, I would like to thank you, on behalf of the village constabulary, for your patience and your co-operation.'

He fitted his helmet back on to his head and detached the beacon from the roof of the car.

‘Excuse me, officer,' Moses said, ‘but what did old Dinwoodie do exactly?'

‘Oh,' Marlpit blustered, genial now, almost offhand, shaking his head at the improbability of events, ‘he was just trying to escape, that's all.'

And before Moses could question him further, he about-faced and marched back up the road to where old Dinwoodie was sitting, hands draped over his knees.

‘Escape?' Moses said, half to himself. ‘Where from?'

A prison? An asylum? Certainly old Dinwoodie looked a bit mad, with his antique leather flying-helmet and his spaced-out teeth and his tears all caught up in the bristles on his cheeks – but what about Marlpit? That wasn't exactly normal behaviour for a policeman, was it?

Gloria made a face as she climbed back into the front seat. Marlpit's saliva had left a long dark stain on the tan leather. It bore a curious resemblance to a truncheon. She stared into the distance for a while, as if hypnotised. Then she turned to Moses.

‘Did you see?' she said. ‘He was crying.'

Moses nodded. He glanced in his rear-view mirror. He watched Marlpit bend down and begin to brush the mud and twigs off old Dinwoodie's trouser-legs. Dinwoodie stood in the ditch, as helpless as a child, wiping his face with the backs of his hands.

Moses shifted into gear and pulled away.

‘Nobody's going to believe this,' he said.

*

Barely wide enough for two cars, the road bumped down towards the sea between fields of green wheat and treeless hillsides cropped by flocks of sheep.
Look for a white hotel,
Louise had said.

Gloria saw the building first. It sat on a sharp bend where the road
veered away from the cliffs and ran inland again, as if frightened for its own safety. A gravel car-park lay to the right, bounded on one side by a pub and a café and on the other by a row of fishermen's cottages. The cliffs dropped downwards here, then sloped up again, forming a kind of shallow bowl against the sky. The sea filled the bottom of the bowl.

Moses stopped the car in front of the pub.

Star Gap.

The cliffs eroded as much as seven feet a year in some places, Louise had told them. One of the cottages had toppled on to the beach a while back. Now only one inside wall remained, flush with the cliff-edge. You could still see the patterned wallpaper, the outline of fireplaces, the empty squares where the ghosts of pictures hung.

Women in sheepskin coats walked their dogs along the beach at dawn and dusk. Pensioners ate ham sandwiches in their warm cars, tartan blankets draped over their knees. Fishermen still fished; their boats, drawn up in neat formation on the pebbles, foamed with orange netting. Foreign students turned up on bicycles, played guitars or radios, sunbathed topless. But none of this could dispel the forlorn doomed atmosphere of the place. You didn't have to be Madame Zola to see that it had no future to look forward to. The air, though bracing, harboured a curious smell of decay (seaweed? rotting fish? the mobile toilets?), and all the colours – the pastel blues, the pearly greys of the cottages, the lemon-yellow and peppermint-green of the café – had bleached over the years, were slowly becoming different shades of white. You could imagine a corpse being found there, months after the investigation, when everyone had given up hope, when it no longer meant anything. Then Moses remembered Louise telling him a story about how, in the early seventies, the police thought they had discovered Lord Lucan's body in the gorse bushes behind the pub. It had turned out to be someone far less important.

‘Strange place for a party,' he said.

‘Louise used to come down here a lot when she was a kid,' Gloria told him. ‘Her parents've got a house a few miles inland.'

They took another couple of lines of coke each and walked to the cliff-edge. A makeshift staircase built out of scaffolding, splintery planks, and wire mesh led down to a wide pebble beach. The coastline curved away to the west, the chalk of the cliffs pocked like cheese and topped with a layer of grass as thin as rind. They leaned on the safety-rail. All the metal had turned brown and orange, and the colour rubbed off on their hands and sleeves.

It didn't matter.

The sun pressed their faces gently into the book of the day like flowers.

A rustling as Gloria's hands dived into her bag, did a miniature breaststroke through its contents, and surfaced again with a pair of sunglasses.

She could bring something to the most simple action – something that no one else could bring. It didn't have a name, this something that she brought. It just ran through her movements like a current and carried him away.

Her eyes invisible now behind the sunglasses, she smiled at him with her mouth as if she had guessed what he was thinking.

Then her mouth altered and she lifted an arm.

‘That must be them. Over there.'

He turned.

About a hundred people clustered at the base of the cliffs. Some danced, others sunbathed.

Music blared, faded, blared on the shifting air.

‘Yes, I can see Louise.'

Gloria pointed to a tiny figure in a blue bikini. They waved and shouted and the tiny figure in the blue bikini waved back. They ran down the steps and across the pebbles, their shoes crunching like a lot of people eating apples at the same time.

Louise looked great. The Spanish sun had bleached her hair white-blonde. Her deep tan turned them into ghosts.

‘Look at you.' Gloria hugged her. ‘How was it?'

‘Costa del phoney,' Louise laughed. ‘The beach wasn't even a real beach. Just a lot of stones and grit all ground up to look like sand, but it didn't look like sand, it looked more like grey dust. And it was
packed.
People lying about four deep like a mass grave or something. So we went up the mountain to this private swimming-club every day and lay around and drank and did absolutely fuck all.'

‘I hate you,' Gloria said.

‘You look wonderful,' Moses said. ‘Elliot'll be all over you.'

Louise laughed. ‘Same old Moses. How's the eye?'

Moses turned his head sideways and leaned towards her.

‘Shame,' Louise said. ‘I thought it had a bit of class, that eye. Like you were possessed or something.'

‘I think maybe I was that night,' Moses said, remembering.

‘Hey, Louise, you old tart.' Gloria flung her arms around her friend again. ‘Happy birthday.'

‘Twenty-one,' Louise groaned.

‘Oh shut up,' Moses said.

‘Well,' Louise said, ‘the drink's over there, the sea's over there, and later
on – ' she pointed to a mountain of boxes, crates and driftwood – ‘there's going to be a bonfire.'

‘I'm going to go off and explore,' Moses said. ‘You know, look for treasures. It's ages since I've been to the beach.'

The two girls grinned at each other.

He scrambled down a steep bank. The stones had been shored up in a smooth frozen copy of a wave. They rattled like metal chains as he dislodged them. When he reached the sand he took his shoes and socks off.

It was low tide. The sea had rolled back, exposing its seedy underworld: rocks, shells, rusty metal spars, clots of oil, rotting netting, seaweed, driftwood, jagged cans, plastic detergent bottles, bits of junk from Holland and France. There was something magical about these battered travelled objects, though. You never knew what might turn up at your feet. A piece of blue glass, for instance, polished to a jewel by the sea, as if the sea was a craftsman and each of its waves a skilful, practised movement of a hand. Real treasures. He stepped from one rock to the next, keeping his eyes fixed on his feet so as not to slip. When he looked up again, the party had shrunk to nothing. He was alone.

The sea lay flat – sluggish, almost greasy. Waves creased and uncreased lazily, folds in blue leather. An oil tanker sat on the horizon. He squatted on his haunches, skimmed a few stones. His thinking slowed, moved at a leisurely pace like a procession, each thought a carriage drawn by two patient horses. Some of the thoughts were linked, some seemed random and didn't belong, some repeated themselves over and over. He had put distance between himself and the party, and he now became aware that, in some mysterious deep-rooted way, he had been thinking about the same thing all along: old Dinwoodie. Suddenly the patient horses acquired plumes, the carriages turned black, the whole procession mourned what had happened to him. In that rare blue seaside air the incident began to crystallise. Two portraits. In the first the old man sat in tearful confusion, twigs and grass stuck to his jacket, badges of despair, his eyes containing nothing but the fragments of some broken dream. In the second the policeman gloated at the motorbike as it grew in the windscreen, his hands braced on his knees, drool on his uniform, in the grip, it seemed, of an exquisite tension or excitement. The old man's tears, the policeman's saliva. Misery and greed.

‘Hey!'

He recognised the old man's feelings, knew them inside out. Nights in the orphanage. Awake in the darkness. Nineteen others sleeping. The rise and fall of their breathing. An empire of lost children. Sometimes imagining himself alone. Then it would seem as if the very air had come alive.
Frightened then. Turning the damp pillow. Pulling the coarse blankets over his head.

And then the day the Poles had come to take him away in their old Ford Anglia. The smell of those blue plastic seats as they drove north. The smell of freedom.

And I helped the policeman, he thought.

What had the policeman said? Something like,
Oh, he's just trying to escape, that's all.

That's all.

And I helped the policeman.

‘Hey! Moses!'

That wasn't one of his thoughts. That had come from somewhere behind him.

*

Looking round blinded him at first. The intense whiteness of those soaring walls of chalk. Then the shout came again, abrasive, familiar, redirecting him. Now he could see two figures sitting at the foot of the cliffs. Was that
Vince?
What was
he
doing here?

Moses started up the beach. It sloped sharply, and the pebbles ran out from beneath his feet. He felt like someone trying to go up an escalator that's going down. In the end he had to drop on to all fours.

Vince – for it was Vince – jeered from his vantage-point. He was leaning against a rock, his arm around a girl. Moses had to smile. Typical Vince to come to a party and then sit as far away from it as possible. He looked totally out of place in these natural surroundings. The sun lit every crease and crevice in his haggard face, and showed up all the stains on that infamous black waistcoat.

BOOK: Dreams of Leaving
11.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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