AN HOUR’S drive north out of Newquay and the northbound traffic slowed to a procession. Anton thumped the Audi’s dashboard in frustration and dislodged the plastic Manami-Neko figurine—the red, white, and gold waving cat supposed to bring good luck—stuck there with Blu-Tack. Not that he had ever really liked the gift from his niece. Whenever the frowning feline caught his eye it felt as though the single moving arm was cautioning him to slow down. His trusted car satnav—satellite navigation—had predicted congestion on the A30 but had not recommended an alternative route. Temporarily distracted by the hunk in a silver Porsche who had been trailing him since the Bodmin turnoff and had slowed to check him out while overtaking, he now found himself two cars behind, blinking into the brake lights of a tall windowless van, a sheer white wall on wheels.
Leaving as late as he did meant having barely enough time to get home, shower, and change before meeting Paul and Julie. Racing along the dual lane carriageway had kept him focused, his concentration fixed on nudging the speed limit. Slowing to a crawl now allowed unwelcome thoughts to catch up. And right now he felt like a traitor. Gemma’s eyes had said as much when he made his excuse about beating the traffic and left her to deal with the last of their relatives. Chances are, though, if he had agreed to stay another couple of nights they would end up getting sloshed together, and he might be tempted to tell his sister a few home truths about her perfect second marriage.
“Bugger,” he muttered to himself as the line finally came to a halt. Four fifteen. Even without further holdups and pushing the speed limit, the journey would take at least another four hours. Meeting up at nine would be a stretch.
With an audible sigh, he let his shoulders sag and thought about phoning Gemma, but instantly dismissed the idea. Instead he resorted to refastening the cat before taking out his frustration on the automatic search button on the car radio. Each stop between the silences provided only bursts of nerve jangling static. On the off chance, he prodded the button beside the CD slot still jammed with a calming jazz compilation, but as expected, nothing happened. After seizing up a couple of months back, he still hadn’t bothered to get the function fixed. Eventually he thumped the device off and settled for silence.
Ripping a scented tissue from the box on the dash, he scrubbed at a random grease mark on the steering wheel while raking through his sister’s parting words. No doubt she would have labeled the snarl-up karmic retribution for going against her wishes. All she had asked was for him to stay on an extra night or two after their grandmother’s funeral to spend more time with her and Ewan, the new husband, while the ex had the kids for the week. Their conversation at the garden gate had been the most they had spoken all weekend.
“Can’t you stay until Wednesday? Pretty please,” she had said to his back as she lounged against the garden gatepost, watching him toss his luggage into the boot of the car and slam down the lid.
“I need to get back. If you’d told me sooner, I might have been able to move things around.”
“And if you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been busy. Come on, Ant. I’m cooking Gran’s mutton and Guinness pie tonight. One of your favorites.”
Over jeans and a plain red woolen tee, she wore her professional chef’s apron of navy with thin white vertical stripes, blemished at the waist by floury smudges. Their grandma had tried to teach them practical skills over and above their academic studies; Gemma, the art of cooking, and Anton, gardening. Gemma had surpassed Anton, and the apron had been a gift on Gemma’s thirteenth birthday, something his sister dragged out and modeled when cooking for guests. Straight auburn hair identical in color to his, pulled back today by a glossy bronze hair band, stopped just short of her shoulders. In fact, even the aquiline nose, full lips, and slate gray eyes resembled his so much that in childhood they had often been mistaken for twins. Remarriage agreed with her. She had shed pounds since and, on the surface at least, appeared happier and more relaxed than ever. All afternoon, while Anton chauffeured the old folks around, she had busied herself cleaning house and preparing food.
“Cab’s picking Millie up first thing in the morning. The rest are getting the train,” she continued, brushing random speckles from her chest. “So we could have some us time and catch up properly. I haven’t even had a chance to tell you yet. I caught Aunt Ida in the kitchen on Saturday evening, drunk as a lord, doggy-bagging sausage rolls and mini beef and horseradish buns into her handbag. Good job the wine cabinet was locked.”
“Honestly, Gem. I can’t even begin to find that funny,” he replied, spinning around to face her, irritated by the pixie grin on her face. “At a funeral gathering. They’re all as bad as each other. I still don’t understand why you invited them to stay. The only time I ever heard Grandma curse was when she talked about outliving her bottom-dwelling family. She’d have been content with her small church group.”
“And I invited them too, but I decided she deserved a full house for a send-off,” she said, folding her arms tight the way she always did when she became defensive. “Anyway, I could hardly not have invited Great Aunt Millie. After that it was only a matter of time before word got out. And before you say anything, I was not about to snub her sole surviving sister.”
“Even though it meant going against Gran’s wishes,” he muttered, more as an aside. A silence followed his remark about their late grandmother’s explicit request, the only one Gemma had not honored and one the lawyer in him had argued to uphold.
“She’s not here anymore, Ant. She doesn’t care. This was for us, a way to celebrate who she was and what she meant to us all. Now the funeral’s done and the will’s settled, end of chapter. Apart from Christmas cards, we’re unlikely to hear from any of them again.”
“Thank heavens for small mercies.”
“Anyway, back to the point. Stay on a bit longer and we can open a bottle or two of champers and celebrate her life properly. This weekend’s been worse than managing the kids. Finding places to put everyone up, ferrying them back and forth, keeping them fed and sorting out the catering for the gathering—”
“Without one word of thanks.”
“At one point I thought I was a Saga holidays rep for senior citizens, waving my umbrella in the air, pointing the way to the Chapel of Rest.”
“You should have checked a few in.”
“Ooh. Bad, bad brother,” she said, chuckling and shaking her head. “You see, we need time together to cheer each other up. Stick around. There’s a trendy new gay bar in town. Bar One-Nine-One. There’s no way on earth I could drag Ewan along on his own, but if you come we could all have a hoot together.”
Anton patted his inside pocket to check for his wallet before walking to the front gate and bending to collect his small backpack.
“Do you know what gay men think about heterosexual couples going to gay bars? That they’re trying for a threesome, acting out some bisexual fantasy or another.”
“Rubbish. They go for the cocktails and the music. More to the point, I can screen potentials for you. Finally get you a decent husband.”
“I don’t need—” he began defensively, standing and sighing and hating himself for instantly reddening at the mention of the subject. “People can exist perfectly fine on their own without the pressure and worry of having another person in their lives to care for. Look at Gran. She lived a full and happy life for years after Granddad passed away.”
“She told you she was happy?”
“Not in so many words.”
“Well, she told me she missed him every day. As a species, we’re not designed to live our lives in isolation. I heard that on a kid’s science cable channel, so it must be true.”
He stopped before her and rolled his eyes.
“You just want it to be true. Anyway, it’s different for you.”
“Oh, this should be good,” she said, folding her arms again, her voice lowering. “Come on, then. How is it different for me?”
“You already have a mountain of responsibilities. One more is no big deal.”
“Listen to yourself, Ant. Talk about Mr. Cynical. You make it sound as though it’s a one-way street. What about the responsibilities Ewan’s taking on? They far outweigh my end of the deal.”
“Yes, but he gets you.”
“My point exactly! God, you can be really obtuse for one of your people.”
In the process of pointing the car remote at the vehicle, he stopped to aim a mock sweet smile at her. Gemma, however, wasn’t letting up.
“Come on, Ant. You know we have other stuff to sort out. Like what we’re going to do with her house and belongings. And it’s not as though you have a job to run back to.”
“I’m not running back. God, you’re infuriating,” Anton replied, throwing his rucksack onto the backseat and slamming the door. With a huff, he thumped his back against the car door and fiddled with his car keys. “I told you. The agents want me on standby. Penny said they had a few tentative inquiries from smaller firms.”
“Is this the same Penny who told you nobody recruits lawyers before Christmas?”
“Solicitors, Gemma. In England I am a solicitor. They have lawyers in the States,” he said, peering up and seeing her on the pavement, leaning back against the garden gatepost, arms tightly folded. She wasn’t going to give in without a fight. “Didn’t you used to be a fan of Law and Order?”
“This is about Ewan, isn’t it?”
“Don’t be daft,” he said, his smile slipping. On impulse he pushed away from the Audi and stood before her, looking at her collar, her shoulder, her fringe—anywhere but her eyes. “Look, he and I are never going to be best buddies. I realize he provides for you and the kids, and he seems to make you happy. I do get that, Gem. Honestly I do. We’re just different people, on different wavelengths. He’s into warm beer, TV snooker, and you. I’m more of a pinot grigio, Downton Abbey, and Tom Hardy kind of guy.”
“Very droll,” she said, smirking weakly and plucking a random speck from his black Scissor Sisters T-shirt. “I’m only trying to bring us closer as a family. Especially now Gran’s gone. You got on with Trevor well enough.”
“Your ex-husband, for all his faults, was not a homophobe.”
“Neither is Ewan. Yes, he’s a little rough around the edges, but he’s harmless.”
“Surely you’re not deaf to his less than subtle remarks about ‘you gays.’ In front of the kids too. As though I’m part of some deviant cult.”
“He thinks he’s being funny. Give him time. Let him get to know you. He likes you.”
“Is that what he told you?”
“Yes,” she said, pulling his chin up to bring their eyes level and nodding. “He did.”
Her affirmation, intended to make him feel better, had the opposite effect. But she had called him out right. Anton did find Ewan uncultured and irritating, but his bigoted jibes fell on deaf ears. What she had no idea about were the three occasions Anton had stayed over in their spare bedroom, when Ewan had appeared late at night or in the early hours of the morning to engage in one trivial conversation or another. Stark-bollock naked each time, he had lounged in the open doorway, and on this morning’s occurrence he had sported a somewhat impressive semi-erection. Granted, the man had a good body, but Anton had no idea what to make of his action. Neither did he have the courage or desire to confront him and find out, preferring instead to avoid any repeat of the situation.
“I’ll try to get back the week before Christmas. When the kids are home.”
“Ewan’s in our lives now, Ant,” she said, while Anton stepped away and walked around to the driver’s door. “Make a bit more of an effort, will you? For me.”
Up until then Anton had managed to keep his mood neutral, but that particular plea was ill chosen.
“Like you did with Christian?” he asked pointedly, the words out before his brain engaged, and ones he immediately regretted. His ex-boyfriend had been a constant cause of argument between the two, and after a particularly nasty altercation, he avoided any mention of his name. He hoped she would ignore the comment.
“You know it’s not the same.”
Common sense told him to let the topic go, but unwittingly he had become a champion at defending his ex.
“Why not? He was my partner for three years. We lived together for two of those. Or doesn’t that count for anything?”
“You know what I mean. Ewan has stepped in as husband, provider, and stepfather. And if you remember, the kids got on fine with Christian. They were always happy to see him. So was Gran.”
“But not you.”
She exhaled deeply before replying.
“We can’t like everyone we meet in this life.”
“I rest my case.”
“Ewan’s genuine,” she snapped back, determined to drive home her point. “Not the life and soul of the party perhaps, but he’s not a lightweight. He’s not the sort to bail on us as soon as times get tough or when something better comes along.”
Like Christian. In his mind, Anton filled in the intended last words for her.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because I know people, and I think I’m a good judge of character,” she replied, clearly annoyed with him now. “Just as I saw through Christian, saw him for the liar and manipulator he was. You were so caught up in the whole hero-worship thing you were blind to how much he was using you. Until it was too late.”
With the car door pulled open, he stopped and glared at her, a flush warming the skin of his neck. In the few seconds of silence, he considered hurling Ewan’s naked performances at her. Instead he took a few deep calming breaths—something he had learned from an ex-colleague who attended yoga lessons—until the moment of irritation had passed. No more parting on bad terms.
Two months after Christian split with him, he had finally found the energy to drive down and stay with Gemma, to seek solace and sympathy from the one person he thought might understand and empathize. In stark contrast, she had been nothing short of brutal, chastising him for wasting time wallowing in self-pity. Still numb from the breakup, he had listened in shocked silence, his face a mask, but inside loathing each of her assertions, especially the claim that Christian had been a conceited and cheating bully who had never been good enough for him. Overnight, with her words stewing and seething inside, he had apportioned to her much of the blame for Christian leaving him. Departing first thing the next morning, their usual twice-weekly calls had ceased for over two months. When finally they resumed—she had been the one to broker the truce—he refused to discuss anything about the visit or Christian, as though neither had happened.
“Me leaving now is about getting back into work,” he said softly after a few breaths, because he could not tell her the other more important reason. “Before I am so far removed from what’s happening in the legal services market that I become obsolete.”
“Don’t know why you’re so worried. It’s only been a few months. Any firm would be lucky to have you,” she said, slipping back into her warm, familiar tone and causing a smile to twitch his lips. Since their parents’ deaths, Gemma had provided his emotional support, slipping easily into the role of protector.
“Almost six months, Gem. But I appreciate the vote of confidence,” said Anton, meeting her eyes again and smiling. Instead of getting in the car, he walked around to her again and pecked her on the cheek. She smelled of buttered pastry and traces of a flowery perfume he hadn’t noticed on her before. “I’ll give you a call about the house later in the week. And I promise to be back for Christmas, okay? I promise.”
“Fine,” she huffed in defeat, still not satisfied but kissing him on the cheek before patting the spot with her floury hand. “Call when you get home. Let me know you got back safely.”
As he pulled away, leaving her standing alone at the garden gate, guilt filled him, and he almost relented. Instead, turning onto the main road, he floored the accelerator and resolved to ramp up the job search. His sister had enough on her plate without having him to worry about.
Sitting unmoving on the A30, he glanced in the rearview mirror and exhaled a heavy sigh at the line of stationary cars snaking into the distance. How much time would be added to his journey, he had no idea. He loathed uncertainty almost as much as warm beer and television snooker. One thing he knew for sure. If the traffic didn’t start moving soon, he’d be too late to meet up with Paul and Julie and, more importantly, miss the off chance that Christian might make an appearance. Maybe that was a good thing.
Eyes squeezed shut, he folded his right arm instinctively across his body and placed the fingers onto his left shoulder, searching for Christian’s hand. Christian would rest his hand there even with passengers in the car, even if he had volunteered—usually to Anton’s annoyance—to take the backseat behind the driver. Neither had been comfortable or confident enough to hold hands in public, but that one small concession had meant everything. Christian’s hands had been large and strong. Even now the memory of the size and warmth of them touching or holding his body made him tremble. But Christian had discovered a new significant other, someone more in touch with his feelings, someone willing to take chances, someone adventurous and equal to the same challenges as Christian. Someone better.
A last minute breakup text from Christian had ended with the words: “You are simply not enough, Anton.”
Not telling his sister about drinks with Paul and Julie had been a smart move. She would have seen straight through him. They had been Christian’s friends since college. Unlike other of their friends, they had not taken sides after the breakup, had invited Anton to parties and out for group meals—not that he had accepted either—and had even remembered to send him a card on his birthday. After almost letting Julie’s call go to voice mail, he picked up at the last minute, maybe to convince himself he was finally getting over Christian. But when she invited him out for a drink with them, suggesting they avoid the Royal Standard because Christian often went there alone on Sunday, Anton had argued that he could handle it, that he had missed his old stomping ground. Hence plans had been laid.
Distant thunder brought him out of his reverie. After fifteen minutes sitting in the motionless car, he decided to switch the engine off. Restless now, he leaned forward and peered through the windscreen. Heavy October clouds filled the air, draining the last of the day’s dull light from the sky. Almost on cue, specks of rain spattered onto the glass. Anton threw himself back in his seat and snapped on the wipers. Apart from an occasional car, the opposite lane appeared empty, suggesting that whatever had snagged up the traffic had done so on both sides. A couple of impatient drivers were already performing three-point turns and heading back south.
Ahead of him, through streaks of rain, the Porsche driver pulled the car onto the grass verge and crept forward. About thirty yards farther on, the vehicle disappeared down a country lane. Anton checked the satnav display, but the device indicated no side road. Firing up the engine again and crawling forward toward the taillights of the van, he made up his mind to follow.
As the worsening downpour clattered onto his windscreen, he reached the turnoff in time to witness the Porsche vanishing like a silver bullet around a bend into the narrow lane. If the driver knew a shortcut, Anton would need to keep up. He stomped on the accelerator and plunged into a track dwarfed on either side by tall hedgerows.
“Recalculating route,” said the calm female voice of the satnav.
Unlike the main road, the tarmac surface of this one had not been maintained well, and the Audi bumped and bounced along the lane. Heavy rain hammered down from the heavens. Anton flicked on the car’s full beam lights and set the wipers clunking furiously. Neither provided any significant improvement to visibility.
“Perform a three-point turn and return to the A30,” advised the soft female voice of the satellite navigator.
After a few miles, catching occasional glimpses of the car’s scarlet lights glowing in the distance, he reached a crossroads. Almost coming to a stop, he spotted headlights way ahead in the distance, reflecting off the hedgerow. Revving the engine, he thrust the car into gear and roared forward but almost swerved into the wall of a sharp right bend, which took him in a different direction to the other driver.
“Continue on for two miles,” said the device.
Despite a flicker of hesitation, Anton continued down the track rather than turning back, even though this wider route ran straight, indicating no turns in the visible distance. On either side, low drystone walling, slick now with rain, replaced the earlier hedgerow, with barren moorland stretching out dim and bleak beyond. Only the car’s broad beams of light provided any respite from the heavy rain and darkness.
“Turn right at the next intersection,” said the satnav, grabbing Anton’s attention.
He began to slow the car, to squint through the thunderous downpour and check for a turning, but there appeared to be nothing obvious in the distance. Once again he hit the gas and hurtled forward, this time passing a remote cottage on his left and narrowly missing a Range Rover parked out front.
“Turn right at the next intersection,” said the navigator again.
Just then Anton spotted the rear lights of a car in the distance. He had an instant rush of relief and hammered the old Audi along the lane.
“At the next set of traffic lights, turn right onto Piccadilly Circus,” said the voice of the satnav in a strange gargled tone.
“What?” asked Anton, casting an angry glance at the flickering display.
“In ten miles, take exit five off the M26 and follow the signs for Birmingham Airport….” said the strangled voice, cut short as the display blinked, fizzled, and went blank.
“Fine. You’ve been no bloody help anyway,” he muttered, thumping the dormant device with his palm.
Ahead, the lane twisted sharply to the left. Instinctively his foot touched the brake pedal, but as he reached for the accelerator pedal again, the wipers clunked to a halt in the middle of the screen. At the same moment both the headlights and dashboard lights flickered synchronously before failing. Plunged into darkness, Anton steered blindly along the unlit lane. Adrenaline kicked in, and he sucked in a breath before aiming the hurtling beast toward where he thought he had seen a lay-by on the lane’s right side. Stamping on the brake pedal, he prayed the car would not collide with anything solid. Forward momentum continued, and the Audi skidded and swerved before the right side dropped into a shallow ditch and slid along a wall with a screech of metal. As the beast came to a sudden, violent halt, engaging the air bags in front, his head slammed against the right-hand doorframe.
With the air bags deflating, bursts of dazzling fireworks illuminated behind his tightly closed eyelids. He remained frozen in his seat, unable to move, his hands clutching the steering wheel and fingers trying to bury themselves into the wheel’s plastic molding. Due to the incline of the car, his shoulder dug painfully against the driver’s door. When he finally opened his eyes, he exhaled a gasp of breath, holding panic at bay and willing himself to breathe evenly. Rain clattering on the roof and bonnet reverberated throughout the dark interior, filling the sudden silence. Sitting upright as best he could, Anton’s vision adjusted gradually to the lack of light and he forced himself to focus his thoughts into action.
First he reached down and twisted the key in the ignition. Dead. Above him, he pushed his fingers at the switch of the internal car light, but again nothing happened. A wave of desperation began to build inside him, tears welling in his eyes, his breaths ragged and threatening hyperventilation.
And then a sudden calm descended on him, warm and intimate, a tranquility tingling through him, as comforting and evocative as submerging in a tub of hot water on a winter’s day.
You’re not to blame. Some things are beyond our control. You need to move forward now. You still have so much to give. Move forward, Anton.
Like a warm desert breeze, the words floated through and around him.
“RAC,” he said aloud, the sound of his voice in the dark adding to his calmness. With relief, he remembered the breakdown service membership card in his wallet and the emergency number programmed into his mobile phone. “Call the RAC.”
He unfastened his belt and felt his way awkwardly to the backseat to retrieve the everyday rucksack he used to store his practical items, his lifeline: house keys, mobile phone, digital camera, water bottle, waterproof, small umbrella, and tablet computer. With the bag in his lap, he patted the side where he stored his phone but found an empty pocket. Strange, he thought to himself, he made a ritual of placing the mobile in this handy custom-made holder. After trying the other side and finding the water bottle in its place, he sat back and realized with sudden dismay what he had done. On his rush to leave his sister’s house, he had left the damn thing in the charger on the bedside cabinet.
From inside the pack, he yanked out the old tablet computer he had not used all weekend. Welcoming pale light from the device illuminated the car. Within seconds the large digital clock opened on the screen, displaying the time: 19:12. On the off chance, he checked for a wireless Internet connection even though he knew the possibility as remote as his location. Finding nothing, he rested the device in his lap to consider his options.
Even if a public phone box stood somewhere nearby, he had no idea where to look, which would mean searching blindly in the dark. He could stand in the rain and wait in the distant hope of another car coming along, but that might take ages, and with no decent lighting to alert a driver’s attention, might also be dangerous. Perhaps, he thought, he should sleep in the car until morning and then get a better idea of his bearings by daylight. The awkward angle of the vehicle would make doing so uncomfortable but not unbearable. To make matters worse, warmth from the heater had already begun to seep away, and apart from his fleece and overcoat, he had nothing to keep him warm. Mentally, however, he filed the idea away as a course of last resort.
With a foot wedged against the driver’s door, he clambered across the passenger seat and pushed the car door ajar. Instantly raindrops showered his face, ice cold and sobering. From what he could tell, no lights shone anywhere in the distance, the road swallowed up by the bleakness of moorland.
“Just do something,” he chastised himself before a crystal clear thought came to him. Hadn’t there been a cottage back along the lane with a car outside? That boded well. Surely they would have a telephone? When he made up his mind to run with the idea, his spirits lifted instantly. After throwing the pack out before him, he pushed the door wide and climbed out into the downpour.