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Fin Rising

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Fin Rising

Fin Rising

P.W.Newman

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Fin Rising

Prologue This morning a low pale sun. And a glittering lure trailing bubbles in the dark waters of the lake. On the bank, Fin McGrath carefully winding in line. Pale eyes focus on the trembling rod tip. Thump. Suddenly there’s weight and he lifts into it. Heart hammering as he feels the tell-tale load on the nylon. It cuts through the water straight as a laser, almost doubling the fibreglass rod. The drag rasps as line strips from the spool. It zigs left, zags right, dives and cants. A quivering form somersaults clear of the water sparkling electric. It convulses in an arc, re-enters with a foamy slap. Ripples radiate in concentric circles. It’s gotten off. He’s missed it. And just the other day he’d promised her a fish. Sort of a charm really. Nothing bad can happen to her if he catches a fish. Let the rest of them pray. Maybe he should have fished at the pond today. At breakfast, his father breezing into the kitchen dressed for church, thumping the Lyle’s golden syrup tin onto the table. ‘Look what I got for you,’ black tie whistling round an upturned collar, looping the knot. ‘Why don’t you go and drown some worms in the pond?’ Arching eyebrows, waiting, ‘Your choice,’ he says, turns down mouth and collar, ‘I’ve told Cook that’s where you’ll be. That way she can keep an eye on you from the kitchen window. Here, I made you a bit of lunch.’ And he hands Fin the brown paper bag, brushing his cheek as he does so. ‘Stay out of trouble, there’s a good lad, an’ don’t leave the estate, understand? See you later.’ And as he bends in to peck, Fin notices the whiskey smell, ‘An’ wear your red jumper, I’ve left it out. Don’t want you catchin’ your death,’ and something catches in his father’s voice.

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Everyone’s at the church although it isn’t even Sunday. It’s something to do with his mother. Nobody told him. Nobody seems to tell him anything much lately, except to go kick a ball or go fishing or something of that nature. Don’t ask us, their eyes warn. There’s nothing we can do about it. ‘He’s goin’ to miss her Danny,’ they’d mutter to his father as Fin walked away. He was already missing her. Ever since she was moved from their little cottage to a bedroom at the big house then to the hospital in town. Long, chilly corridors, cream coloured walls and the smell of sick and disinfectant. Questions about her are brushed aside, she’s very tired, she needs her rest, go and play now, there’s a good boy. A wink. A coin slipped into the palm of his hand. He knows something’s wrong. They’re spoiling him rotten. His father beaming his hollow smile and turning away. His father was changing and so was Fin. He was getting used to being alone. New words had found their way into his once safe little world, harsh sounding words. Cold and barbed, they stuck once he heard them. Carcinoma. Metastasise. They’d edged out the softer words like lullaby and comfort. It was all very confusing. His best clue came from the American man who was staying at the big house. The one who looked like a soldier. ‘Terrible thing,’ he’d said, as Fin padded invisible down the carpeted hallway, ‘but it looks as if they’re going to lose that poor woman to the big C.’ Fin knew they were talking about his mother but he couldn’t ask. He wasn’t supposed to be listening.

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His stomach feels empty. And his eyes sting. Why were they going to lose her to the big sea? What was she doing way out there? Especially if she was so tired and needed her rest. Was she looking for pirate treasure like in the book? He pictured her lying in a small boat, her face pale and damp just like it was when they took her to the hospital. Maybe that’s why everyone’s at church. Praying she gets back safely. He hoists the fishing bag onto his shoulder, turns. Boggy earth sucks at his boots. He could watch from the lookout on the cliff by the cemetery. Keep an eye out for any little boats. Or walk down to the church. A few prayers couldn’t hurt.

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The gods do not subtract from man’s allotted span the time spent fishing. Anonymous proverb

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Chapter One The pitiless eye stared straight into the face of Lord Henry Comerford, lobster red beneath a patina of sweat. A pencil line moustache twitched. The afternoon had taken its toll. He loosened a paisley cravat, unbuttoned a waistcoat of hound’s-tooth check. Releasing a breath long held he stared about the muggy room. The dark wood panels reflected the fire crackling in the grate. Portraits and landscapes crowded the walls. Gilt frames bordering heroic scenes; the hunt in full cry, a majestic stag in the misty peaks, uniformed men standing ramrod straight alongside glossy mounts and a bark under full sail ploughing through mountainous seas. And Lord Henry, looking at his illustrious ancestors, felt as if he’d let the side down a bit and scrunched his toes inside oxblood brogues. He pinched the inside corners of puffy bloodshot eyes, drew his thin purple lips into a tight smile. It was done. He stared back at the stuffed trout. The polished display case with the brass plaque looked impressive. That pleased him greatly. And, he had to admit, nothing but joy had come from restoring the knotted log that nestled on a bed of smooth pebbles amongst the stiffly bowing grass. He’d even discovered a flair for painting he never knew he possessed. A wash of bottle green emulsion, heavily diluted, had created on the backing board the perfect illusion of rushing water. The magnificent trout itself he had cleaned meticulously with cotton wool balls dipped in turpentine. Fumes had risen for hours in a shimmering haze, making him light headed, hinting at a migraine. And now with a fresh coat of varnish to bring out every nuance of its colours in all their scintillating delicacy, the beautiful specimen glistened. Just like the day he first

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saw it lifted from the water. Danny McGrath had been with him then, and Fin, just a youngster and mad for the angling. It was Fin who’d gone into the cold river, waist deep and no waders on him. There was no mother, you see, to scold him afterwards. No reproach for ruining his school clothes. ‘Turn the head,’ he’d shouted, ‘he’s gettin’ tired. Keep him out of the reeds.’ And then with one fluid movement the thumper was safely in the back of the landing net. Nobody could believe the size of it. Just shy of fifteen pounds and magnificent to behold, rich in colour, deeply speckled and well built. Dripping wet, Fin had scrambled up the slippery bank, struggling to hold the net at arm’s length so everyone could get a good look. But the unwieldy brute wasn’t happy, and it fluttered and slapped against the bulging mesh. The knot of men stood silently beneath the low white sky as Jack came running along the bank, each yell trailing vapour, ‘What is it – what did you catch?’ The fly was quickly prised from the jutting jaw and Jack swung the brass-topped priest, bang, right between the eyes. The twitching stopped. One shot. That’s all you get. Don’t screw it up. Like the vicious left hook he could always count on. Sledgehammer in a glove. Scourge of the Mick palookas they used to breed in Hell’s Kitchen. Promising bantamweight was Jack, back in the day. Take your shot, don’t mess it up, no more tending bars. Nearly made it onto the under card at the Garden. Judge said no, shouldn’ta played with guns, back behind bars for Jacky boy. Till the army bailed him. The trout was laid out on the bank, gentle like, next to a creel and a rod to give some idea of the scale of the thing. Heads leaned in. The camera clicked. The

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decision made. This beauty would fill a trophy case. A toast was given. And now, nineteen years later, Lord Henry promised to toast the splendid fish once again and wondered where those years had gone. Something popped in the fire and he blinked the room into focus, drummed fingertips on the leather-topped writing desk. Look sharp my lad. The cabriole legs of the red walnut chair scraped on the floor as he stood to inspect his handiwork, ‘Not bad’ he murmured, ‘not bad at all.’ A squint for the effect and it could almost be alive. A breath of mist on the brass plaque was followed by vigorous little circular movements with a wadded linen handkerchief. It squeaked as he rubbed. He never tired of reading the inscription: Rainbow Trout (Salmo Gairdneri) 14 pounds 11 ounces Taken at the Blackthorn River, October 19th 1980 By Lord Henry Comerford. Only one thing was needed now to complete the display, one final addition, the reason for the whole bloody rigmarole. Lord Henry crossed the study noiselessly and inched the door open a crack. There was nobody in the hallway. Perfect. The door clicked shut again and he turned the key. The grandfather clock in the far corner chimed softly seven bells and he realised how long he’d been at the subterfuge. Crossing a carpet intricately patterned in autumn hues, he stood before a gilt framed portrait of some moustachioed forebear in velvet and lace. The women in his lineage had seldom been attractive. Thank God Lorelei took after her mother.

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Tugging at the bottom left hand corner, the painting swung wide on creaking hinges to reveal a wall safe. Lord Henry peered at the dial in the centre of a steel square. He blew on his fingertips, the way safe crackers always did in films and it made him feel deliciously wicked, like he was really stealing, even though he knew the combination. The dial rasped as he twisted it back and forth until finally the tumblers of the lock clunked into place. The door was small and heavy but gave with a quick tug. The thought of wearing gloves crossed his mind, but it crossed very quickly, and his fingers crept into the cool darkness of the metal box where they found the edge of a manila envelope. He snatched it out and slammed the door shut. A noise made him turn quickly, but it was only the fire collapsing in on itself. He sent the dial whirring and pressed the portrait back into place. His pulse raced as he moved back to the trophy case, tearing open the envelope as he walked. Keeping one ear fine-tuned to the door, he tipped a glinting silver key onto his upturned palm. It was heavy. Words were stamped into the metal. Taking a deep breath, he plunged an unsteady hand into the case, in his giddiness he thought for an instant that he was dipping in water. The key winked between forefinger and thumb as he manoeuvred it slowly toward the mouth of the fish. Nice and easy does it, over the row of teeth that lined the trout’s jutting jaw, refusing to acknowledge the accusing stare, until finally he let it drop into the predatory mouth. A moment of doubt seized him. Could it plainly be seen or was his eye merely drawn to it because he knew it was there? The pin sharp teeth scraped against his pinkie finger as he probed the gaping maw, forcing the shiny

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metal further into hiding, choking the fish that glared up at him. A trick of the light made him imagine for a split second that the fish moved and a shudder ran down his spine. He was beginning to feel strange somehow, maybe even a bit guilty. Perhaps there were still some fumes rising from the case. That must be it. He slipped his finger from the yawning throat and screwed down the lid, encasing the trophy once more. It had been a long day but it was nearly over. In a creaking pram, Lord Henry wheeled the glossy trout back to its usual position at the foot of the great stairwell. He wondered should he have confided in Danny? Another pair of hands would have been useful. But it was too late for that now. The deed was done. Besides, he couldn’t risk any chance of the key shaking loose and being discovered. And so he grunted as he stood on a chair and slid the trophy back onto the high shelf. ‘There, all done!’ he said, brushing dust off his hands. And as he stepped back down, a spasm thumped high up inside his ribcage just as a thin, shuffling figure rounded the corner. The figure was Wallace, faithful factotum, face so lined it looked like a reflection in shattered glass, shoulders that never quite made it to the corners of his shirt. In an instant, he was at his master’s side, guiding him back down into the seat. ‘Are you alright your lordship, another one of your funny turns is it?’ And Lord Henry, close enough to see the nose, shiny as a polished grape, sharp as a cuttlebone. Mister Punch. ‘It’s just a spasm Wallace, right as rain in a jiffy.’

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‘You’re supposed to be taking it easy. Remember what Doctor Hennessy said. What about your pills? D’you have them with you or have you left them in your room again?’ Lord Henry patted his pockets. ‘Bugger, left them in my room Wallace. Never mind, just let me rest here for a tick to catch my breath, then I’ll turn in. Early night. Just the ticket. Do me the world of.’ ‘But your tablets?’ ‘Promise I’ll take one with a nightcap.’ ‘D’you want me to call the Doctor?’ ‘Good heavens no. Lot of fuss about nothing.’ ‘Well, how about Danny then?’ Lord Henry stood, shot his cuffs and hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his waistcoat, ‘There,’ he said, ‘fully recovered. Happy now?’ He rocked on his heels for emphasis, ‘No need for any more carry on!’ But Wallace wasn’t satisfied, ‘Are you sure there isn’t anything I can do?’ Lord Henry yanked distractedly at an earlobe, clicked his fingers, ‘Yes, there is one thing. The fire in the study, forgot to put the surround to the hearth. Never know, one spark, whole place could go up in seconds. Could you?’ He arched bushy eyebrows, ‘Better safe than sorry, besides, shan’t be using that room again this evening.’ ‘Very well your lordship, I’ll say goodnight then. And don’t forget to take your tablet.’ ‘I shall Wallace. Goodnight.’

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Chapter Two He lay on gently rippling ribbons of weed that tickled his belly. It was a pleasant sensation, further enhanced by the brilliant sunlight that refracted through the cloudy water to warm his back. He felt serene despite the fact that hunger pinched at his guts. It had been days since he’d eaten. Not since the big female had left his side. He’d no idea where she’d gone, but knew somehow that he’d never see her again. He remembered lying inert on the lee side of her flank, resting in the eddy that her bulk created. Near the inlet to the lake where the flailing insects washed by, frantic legs speckled with bubbles, moth dust on the water. She sipped them down, taught him to do the same. Until the food supply waned and they moved to somewhere deeper with the serrated leaves drifting above. It was shortly after that he saw the disturbance, the frenzied kicks descending. She slipped backwards into the reed bed as if offering him easier access to the green creature that swam down towards them. Every fibre of his being tensed and his lower jaw jutted as it kicked closer. It didn’t see him until it was too late and like lightning he struck, clamping down hard on the little frog. It was a shock to feel his teeth sink into soft tissue, to taste warm blood flooding into his mouth for the first time. Little strands of scarlet purling in the water. All the while the big, steely eyed female watched with detachment. He flicked his head and gulped, the struggle was over. The memory of the frog made him ravenous, and he realised that for the first time, he would have to hunt alone. Three moons had sailed over the lake since the encounter with the frog and the companionship of the big female. He was becoming weak. Everything felt weightless.

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A breeze rippled across the surface of the water driving the skittering leaves above. He stiffened, pushed away from the gently furling ribbons of weed and moved his body in a slow looping arc. There was a splash nearby and then something moved briskly in a brilliant display stirring a cloud of mud from the bottom of the lake. He drifted warily in the direction of the disturbance, but whatever had caused the silt to billow was gone. In the distance he saw the flickering as it moved quickly, a flash of shimmering glitter. A vibration hummed through the water. Could it be schooling minnow, the type he’d seen the big female decimate with ease when he’d been too small to gorge? It was enough to trigger his attack response and with one flick of his tail he was gliding silently above a forest of reed tips. Once again, he saw the splash and the pulsation, only further away this time. His rapid eye traced the gleam and sparkle through the murky water. He had to follow. But it was too fast and he found himself alone once more, near to a ledge where he could feel the current changing and the pebbly bottom dropped away to darkness. These were uncharted waters. No knowing what lurked out there in the dull, cold depths. Should he stay or go? To stay in the shallows would mean to starve, the bugs had long since gone and the little frog had been an aberration never likely to be repeated. But did he have the brawn and tenacity to survive out there in the depths. Reluctantly, he marked time. A splash to his right and an erratic flickering radiance that pulled away from him at speed made the decision for him, his tail kicked and he moved into the cool dark waters in hot pursuit. Hunger and necessity spurred him on toward the minnow that swam with staccato, jerking movements just a

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short distance ahead, enticing him, seemingly unaware of his voracious presence. Small bubbles trailed in the minnow’s wake and he kicked harder, increasing his speed, closing on his prey. His jaws were now just inches from the shimmering tail as he skimmed rock canyons swift as an arrow. Until, with a final surge, he struck with all the force he could muster, determined to snap his victim in two if necessary. This was no time for mistakes. The minnow stopped dead in the water. Something wasn’t right. The minnow’s body was solid. His teeth hadn’t even punctured the skin. Swallowing it in one gulp, he turned to swim away. He felt something catch the side of his mouth and a sudden lurching motion spun him back round again. The minnow’s spines had caught in the roof of his mouth and he couldn’t chug it back any further. It was firmly lodged. A strong current rushed against him and realised he was being dragged headlong by the little monster. He tried to disgorge it but it wouldn’t budge. He arched his body to vomit it up, to no avail. He turned sideways only to be wrenched forward again. He dived, only to be hauled back to the surface. In desperation, he leapt clear of the water, trailing an iridescent spectrum in the dazzling sun. When he re-entered in a foamy splash he’d somehow managed to spit the minnow free. Darkness engulfed him as he plunged to the unlit depths, his hunger forgotten. At the water’s edge, a motherless child retrieved his chrome lure, smiling to himself about the one that got away and wondering if their paths would ever cross again. And the rainbow trout nestling on the rock-strewn bottom, belly heaving, sucking water through its flapping gills, realised in that moment, he was prey as well as predator.

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Chapter Three Spring showers, that’s what they were called. They usually came after the downpours of winter and before the soft rains of summer. They were just as unforgiving and indiscriminate and left you just as damp. There were, of course, occasional patches of blue among the leaden billows. And rainbows too, oh yes, there were lots of rainbows, too many to number. Perhaps that’s why the Irish always talked about finding a crock of gold at the end of one of those luminescent displays. At least with a crock of gold you could sod off to somewhere with a decent climate. Lord Henry thought of his own little crock, ever diminishing and slightly tarnished now. And wished he could find a new one, gleaming and full to the brim. But wishing was pointless, he knew that. He was, it seemed, destined always to find himself staring smack bang into the middle of the heavenly portal, with that curved spectrum arching high above, never at the business end. How it would shimmer tantalisingly in the middle distance against a gunmetal sky, promising to evaporate before he could run it to ground. It was a feeling he was familiar with, always wanting what he couldn’t have, always grasping what he couldn’t hold. As a child, he’d charged across many a sodden field, all to no end. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t chase rainbows anymore, that and the gout of course. Still, at least the rain was good for the turf, it made the going soft. This morning found Lord Henry sitting in the snug of Doheny & Nesbitt’s pub in Dublin, a secluded little nook away from prying eyes. It was the ideal place for his meeting with Ned Duffy, a smoke-stained shop where drinkers tended to mind their own business. The well framed bar was divided into little alcoves by dark

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mahogany partitions, screens behind which serious drinking and serious talking might occur. It was the mirrors that were the problem. Peeling mercury advertising pot still whiskey and Virginia flake. They reflected so many views and angles that a blind spot just couldn’t be found. Many an accusing glance might ricochet his way. And he didn’t want that. Unnerved as he was, and with the stomach doing somersaults and all. It was when he first entered not ten minutes ago that the penny dropped. He needed to nonchalantly case the joint from front to back and decided that the best way to do it was to pretend to be looking for someone. Better safe than sorry as they say. But everywhere he looked he was alarmed to continually find his own sheepish expression staring back from about half a dozen angles simultaneously. On the verge of calling the whole thing off, he tried the snug for size. Realised that by cramming himself into a corner he could just about see and yet not be seen. Good enough. Getting across town without being recognised had proved no problem. He had affected a rather clever disguise in the form of a wide-brimmed straw hat that used to belong to his ex. It was a neutral sort of colour. It had been pink but was now faded by both time and sun to almost natural straw. She wore it for race days and the Dublin Horse Show. Once he’d pulled the flowers and ribbon off it was just about passable for a man’s hat. A bit more pink obviously where the flowers had been ‘That’ll do nicely,’ he announced to the dressing table mirror, pulled an old paisley cravat out of the top drawer. It would be perfect as a hatband. Voila! Accessorise that with an old pair of her oversize sunglasses and he could pass for Marlon Brando. He had

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the bulk. A touch flamboyant perhaps, but he was, he felt, masculine enough to carry it off and woe betide any corner-boy or guttersnipe to cast aspersions on his sexuality. They’d get the tip of his golf umbrella where the sun don’t shine. And no mistake. No, the disguise was a master stroke. He noted with some satisfaction the amount of stares he drew from people who obviously thought he was someone else. Brilliant.

Now he could relax and be himself again in

the snug. Thank God it was still empty when he found it. And his timing had been just right too. One hour before lunch. If he’d arrived any later, the little den would have been a roost for office gossips. Any earlier, and he ran the risk of being rat-arsed before his meeting with Ned, which was not an option. A clear head was what he needed now, that and a little bit of Blarney. He stood and tapped at the frosted glass of the serving hatch. The ruddy-faced barman in the crisp white shirt loomed in the dark wood frame, ‘Same again is it sir?’ ‘Yes please, and tell me, do you do toasted sandwiches?’ ‘We certainly do sir, what would you like?’ ‘I think a couple of ham, cheese and tomato,’ Lord Henry opened his fob watch, ‘perhaps when my guest arrives.’ ‘As you wish sir,’ the barman took the crumpled note with one hand as the other automatically wiped a ring of spilt porter off the counter. The till rang, ka-ching, coins clattered and he returned, all smiles, ‘There y’are now!’ ‘Thank you very much.’ Lord Henry took the whiskey left a dull coin on the bar and pocketed the remainder of the change. A small wheeze escaped him as he lowered

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himself back into the bench seat next to the radiator. Steam began to rise from the nearside leg of his cavalry twill pants and he wondered what contortions he would have to perform in order to dry the other leg. More and more frequently now, the little bell over the front door jingled as the place started to fill up. A growing pall of cigarette smoke was accompanied by the steadily rising murmur of conversation. Each new arrival seemed to eye the snug covetously as they shook rainslicked umbrellas and stamped glistening shoes on the welcome mat. Sinking lower in his seat, Lord Henry ran a fingertip inside his collar and let his eyes drift up to the ornate burgundy-hued papier-mâché ceiling with the lamps hanging on chains. This used to be his old stomping ground, way back when. He used to come here when he was a student at Trinity. Seldom to the snug though. Unless she was with him and hands were to be held within the folds of a duffel coat. A lifetime ago one of their friends had taken a photograph here. Smiling faces, college scarves and raised pints. Say cheese - watch the birdie - one for the road -if you can’t be good be careful. Turned out, he wasn’t careful and found himself standing to attention in an Oxford grey swallowtail and top hat, gloves folded in his hands, Ned as his best man. For better or worse the minister said, no way of knowing it would be worse. A runnel of water slithered down the window. He reached up and traced it from the inside with a fingertip and let the world drift out of focus. The glass of malt found its way to his mouth and tilted, warming all the way down as the human traffic of Friday morning Dublin rushed by, a blur of colours at the other side of the pane.

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‘Fierce changeable weather,’ said the barman, his head through the gap, polishing a pint glass with his apron, ‘sure you wouldn’t know which clothes to pawn.’ ‘What . . . oh yes, I suppose so. Swirling the remains of his whiskey in the glass, Lord Henry sighed. His gaze fell on the little pool of water that had formed at the tip of his umbrella propped against the wall. She used to sit next to him on this very bench. And as he put his hand to the red leather cushion where he wished there could be a warm indent someone trod on his grave and a shudder trickled down his spine. His eyes stung. The clock above the bar said a quarter to twelve. Not long now till Ned’s arrival and Lord Henry wasn’t quite sure how their little chat would go. Especially since their phone conversation the previous day had been so strained. ‘You err, want me to put out the feelers for a private buyer?’ Ned had said, with a small yet discernible quiver, ‘Because you want to sell some antique furniture?’ ‘Yes Ned, quite a bit in fact.’ Ned was one of Lord Henry’s oldest friends. They’d been at Trinity together, Ned taking law and economics, Henry literature and history. Ned became disillusioned with law many years ago and now worked for a private equity firm in the city. It was however, understood that he still did legal work for select clients. Sharp as a tack, there wasn’t a loophole he didn’t know, could tie any smart-Alec lawyer in knots. And he knew exactly where you should invest your hard earned readies. The problem with being so bright was he needed constant distraction which he found in all the wrong places. He loved the gee-gees. They didn’t think too

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highly of him. In fact it was whispered that if you wanted to stop a runaway horse all you had to do was get Ned to bet on it. The two men would meet once a year, the last Friday of November, at the Horseshoe bar of the Shelbourne, the Grande Dame of Dublin hotels. Ned would take the short stroll from his office to a lavish luncheon at which a healthy dividend cheque would be discreetly slipped across the crisp linen tablecloth. Lord Henry would show his approval in the time honoured fashion and Ned would leave, fed, watered and with a nice little bonus just in time for Christmas. Today’s scenario however, smacked of desperation; a clandestine rendezvous in the snug of a boozer. The little bell over the door tinkled again and a tall figure in a tweed cap and a stone coloured trench coat slipped inside. He performed the same ritual as everyone else, stamping his feet and vigorously shaking droplets from his coat. Peering from the cubicle Lord Henry hissed, ‘Ned, in here. And close the door behind you, there’s a good fellow.’ Ned sloughed his raincoat and swept the cap from his head. Into the snug with him and he fixed Lord Henry with watery eyes that rested on pillows of flesh. ‘All very hush - hush,’ he said, hung up the raincoat and ordered a Jameson straight up and a gin and tonic. He told the barman to keep the change and close the serving hatch. Straight talker was Ned, economical with the chit-chat. And they were alone. ‘Thanks for coming Ned.’ ‘You’re welcome Henry, here’s health.’ Glass clinked on glass. ‘Have you had lunch?’

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‘Not yet, I thought the idea was to have lunch here. Was I mistaken?’ An eyebrow arched. ‘No, of course not, I’ll order us a sandwich. They have ham, cheese and tomato, all right?’ ‘Toasted?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘Fine by me.’ Ned topped up his drink with the small bottle of tonic. He poured slowly, floating the twist of lime and only after the bubbles had finally reached the rim of the glass did he speak, So, are you going to tell me?’ ‘Tell you what?’ ‘Just how deep in the shite you are.’ Lord Henry, raising a hand, levelled it flat against his Adam’s apple, ‘Oh, to about here I’d say.’ ‘Sweet Jesus!’ Sighing heavily, Ned fished in the pocket of his jacket for cigarettes, ‘I suppose we’d best get started then. Don’t tell me anything more than I need to know. Anything you tell me here today I may be later obliged to reveal. So let’s keep it simple okay.’ The lighter clicked. Smoke billowed. They chewed on the toasted sandwiches, little triangles trailing stringy cheese. Ned daubed at his crumbed mouth with a paper napkin, ‘What you said on the phone, sounds like it could be a bit tricky.’ ‘Sorry Ned, I didn’t know who else to turn to.’ Ned stood, ‘Don’t worry Henry. I’m sure we can work something out, but first things first. I need to attend to a call of nature. Will you get them in?’ A crisp tenner was unfolded from a money clip, ‘Tell him to keep the change and to keep the drinks coming. Right,’ he said, rubbing hands together, ‘if we’re going to restructure your finances we’d best get started. When I

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come back I want to look at that inventory I asked you to bring. You did remember to bring it didn’t you?’ ‘Of course.’ Two minutes later Ned was running a nicotine-stained nail down a list hurriedly scrawled on the back of a coaster, ‘Are you sure about this?’ ‘Absolutely certain.’ Ned let out a low whistle, ‘If you’re right about this and there are this many pieces that came straight from Chippendale’s workshop we could be talking a potential bloody fortune here,’ and he crumpled the beer mat. A burst of sunlight streamed through the window above the wooden shutters. Filtered through the painted frame, it hung like flickering bars of gold that served to emphasise the corner they were in. ‘I know you might think I’m crazy Ned but I have my reasons and I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time.’ ‘Look Henry, I know you’re not averse to selling the occasional heirloom, but are you absolutely positive that you want to sell the country’s finest complete ensemble of Chippendale furniture?’ ‘Yes Ned, every last stick.’ ‘The green Wellington brigade’ll be up in arms. You do know that don’t you? Would you not consider selling to a public heritage body or the National Trust?’ ‘Take too long. Besides, private buyers are where the money’s at. Scare up one of your Arab friends. Or maybe one of those dot com Johnnies. Those chaps are worth a fortune. And I’d prefer it if you could find someone willing to keep the whole collection intact. You know the sort of thing, keep the conservationists happy.’

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‘Arab friends and dot com Johnnies are few and far between Henry.’ Lord Henry bristled, ‘You didn’t have a problem finding one for Roger. Oh no, you had no problem getting him started in that sordid, grubby business, which, by the way, he’d promised to quit but hasn’t. Does he think I’m a complete fool?’ The words growled through clenched teeth. A white-shirted figure moved steadily away at the far side of the frosted glass. The hubbub of conversation gradually resumed outside the cubicle. ‘I’m sorry Ned,’ said Lord Henry, ‘that was uncalled for. I take it back unreservedly.’ Ned sipped gin and tonic, said evenly, ‘I’ll see what can be done.’ ‘Knew I could rely on you Ned,’ said Lord Henry, then his voice dropped to a whisper, ‘also, I want you to alter my will.’ ‘Surely your own lawyers would be better suited.’ ‘I’d much prefer it if you could. What I want, what I need, it’s a bit special, your eyes only. Nod’s as good as a wink eh?’ ‘May I ask why?’ ‘Troubled conscience I suppose you’d call it. You see I took it upon myself many years ago to interfere in something I should never have interfered in and as a result someone very dear to me was hurt. And maybe now I can put things right again, before it’s too late.’ ‘Suffering Christ Henry, what’s going on?’ Lord Henry pinched the bridge of his nose, ‘She wants half of everything!’ ‘Who wants half . . .’ the realisation hit Ned before he could finish the sentence.

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‘Angelica, I got a letter from a law firm in Sydney. Absolute bolt from the blue.’ ‘When did this happen?’ ‘Just after New Year. Things apparently are not going so well down under. Not a dickybird in all those years, then suddenly,’ he shrugged from the wrists. ‘I’m sorry Henry, really I am.’ ‘Not half as sorry as I am Ned, not half as sorry.’ ‘But surely after all this time she’d have no legitimate claim?’ ‘Better safe than sorry Ned.’ Ned shook a cigarette from the packet and narrowed his eyes, ‘So, let me get this straight, your ex-wife’s lawyers make a spurious claim on your estate and rather than challenge it legally you intend to raise millions in capital? The cigarette found the corner of Ned’s mouth. It bobbed as he spoke, ‘You’re up to something!’ Lord Henry coughed into a balled fist. His face turned purple, eyes bulging, when he spoke, his voice was a phlegmy croak. ‘It’s foolproof Ned. I’m pretty sure about that.’ Ned raised his palm, a stop sign, ‘I shouldn’t be hearing this. I told you not to tell me anything unless I specifically asked.’ ‘I just want to hide the cash overseas till this thing blows over, that’s all. Christ Ned they’re circling like bloody vultures, only I’ve decided I’m not going to let them pick the bones clean, I’ll do it myself first. I’m going to make sure that it isn’t worth their while to pursue it. Then afterwards, I’ll bring it all back home again. Just think of it as a little holiday in Switzerland for all of that tired old money.’

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‘I didn’t hear that, d’you understand? Think of the legal ramifications, taking large amounts of cash out of the country, there’s tax avoidance for starters. Have you really thought this through Henry?’ ‘I don’t care. I’ll do whatever I have to do in order to save the estate.’ ‘Even if it means going to jail? What we’re talking about here is asset stripping. They can throw the book at you for that.’ ‘It won’t come to that, I’m sure it won’t.’ ‘Don’t be so sure. I know fellas who are banged up even as we speak, and for doing a lot less I might add, so please don’t tell me it won’t come to that.’ ‘Don’t worry Ned you won’t be implicated in any way, shape or form. - And . . .’ A bit of friction as his thumb chafed against the upturned fingertips, ‘I’ll show my appreciation in the usual way.’ Ned’s hand fluttered to his drink. Tonic and gin spilled over the rim and fizzed on the tabletop. He dabbed with a beer mat. ‘I don’t want to know. I mean it Henry.’ Beneath the Donegal Tweed, Ned’s heart pounded like the bombing of Guernica, ‘I can’t go to jail. I’m too good looking. I’d never get any sleep.’ ‘Calm down Ned, I don’t want you having an aneurysm. All you have to do is . . .’ ‘Change my name and move to Brazil?’ ‘It’ll never come to that. Look if I choose to sell a few old sticks of furniture then that’s up to me isn’t it. You just put me in touch with the right kind of buyer, we’ll agree a price and he can collect it discreetly at his convenience.’ ‘Oh great! Just pull up out the front of Blackthorn Hall with a couple of vans when no one’s looking eh?’

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‘Don’t be silly Ned. There’s hardly anyone on the estate these days. Besides, I can come up with some kind of cover story. Say it’s being taken away for cleaning or restoration or something. Woodworm Ned, who would suspect a thing? Scourge of old homes like that. Nobody will pay a blind bit of notice. I mean, most of it’s been under dust covers for years anyway. It’s never used so where’s the harm, I ask you?’ ‘And the money?’ ‘Oh, some nice crisp bearer bonds I should think. I’ll let him know where I want it deposited. Nobody gets hurt. You get a finder’s fee,’ Lord Henry shrugged, ‘couldn’t be simpler really.’ Ned gulped down the gin and tonic, ‘Suffering Christ, what have I gotten myself into.’ ‘That’s the ticket Ned!’ Lord Henry patted his friend on the knee, ‘don’t worry, this next one’s on me. Now . . . about that will.’

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Chapter Four Scuffing the sole of his boot, Danny stood at a distance and watched as his son placed flowers at the base of the granite headstone. The cellophane crinkled as Fin tried to arrange the bouquet. But it was too awkward, or he was too clumsy, so he gave up and began absently picking little bits of detritus from the white marble chips. The chips had only recently been replaced and thankfully the weeds had not yet found a foothold. She would have liked that. Having always been a stickler for neatness. She would have liked the view too and the simple headstone that faced out toward the sea; Margaret Mary McGrath Sleeps with Angels 1942 - 1975 Fin stood and squinted at the horizon. It was a crisp clear afternoon and in the distance, sky and sea blended seamlessly at a point where earth and eternity met. The little cemetery, the place where generations of Comerford forebears were planted, occupied a gently sloping meadow that ran down to a low dry-stone wall. The other side of which, lay the restless Atlantic Ocean, forty feet below. On wild days spume from the violent waters swept up the cliff face with booming regularity, soaking the wall and speckling the tombstones with salty spray. But that was on wild days, not today. Fin heard the sound of his father’s footsteps approaching. ‘I still miss her Da,’ he said softly over his shoulder, the sentence carried away on the fresh breeze. ‘I know you do son, you an’ me both.’ ‘It was good of Henry to let her rest here, she’d have liked that.’

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‘I’ll always be grateful,’ said Danny, bending to place the single red rose he’d clipped in the greenhouse, ‘yes, I’ll always be grateful to Henry. He’s a generous man for sure, like his father before him, God be good to him,’ a quick sign of the cross, ‘as I’m sure the next generation will be an’ all.’ And he swivelled a glance, realising he’d said too much. Fin didn’t say a word. He just fired the smooth stone he’d been weighing in his hands out towards the flat, glimmering sea. ‘Twenty four years,’ his father sighed, ‘not a day goes by . . .’ His fingers traced the letters of her name etched in polished stone. The sea became a blur and then came back into focus as he heard his own distracted voice, ‘I’m glad she could rest here, an’ when my time comes I hope to lay down beside her.’ Fin’s shoulders bunched then relaxed, ‘I wouldn’t count on that if I were you. I can’t see Roger keepin’ this place on once Henry’s gone.’ ‘Ah we’ll see son, God’s awful good.’ ‘C’mon,’ said Fin, ‘we’d better get started back, Jack’ll be arrivin’ at the big house soon or had you forgotten?’ ‘How could I? Sure won’t he be here on his fool’s errand again, same as every year. You go on ahead an’ I’ll join you presently.’ And Fin, hands in pockets, leaning into the gradient, takes a stride. Pulling a battered leather wallet from his back pocket, Danny flipped it open. Slipped his thumb inside and drew out the photograph of his dead wife; mop of lustrous copper hair, eyes blue as lazuli. Like it was yesterday, he could remember the day trip to Dublin. The three of them stepping down from the train into a day that was wide open beneath a sky so blue. And let’s get a quick photo of you in the booth, he said, the two of them

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laughing as they waited for the pictures to drop. Probably be the last. He knew. So did she. Then out to the quays, over the ha’penny bridge and slap bang in the middle, Fin stopped and spat a little dot of white foam between the bars into the turbid Liffey just to watch it disappear beneath and asked if there were fish in there. Then he had to walk along the top of every low wall, with the arms outstretched for the balance and nobody was to help him. And Danny remembered pointing out the advertisement in the travel agent’s window. Flights to Lourdes from ninety three pounds return and she shook her head. No. In God’s hands now. So they went to Bewley’s Oriental Café up on Grafton Street and sat in the coffee smelling bustle with interlaced fingers while Fin fired a silver six-shooter round the room. Ricochet sounds from the corner of his mouth. And Danny’s hand flew in a stinging slap. People stared and she said leave the child alone it’s not his fault. And he wished he could believe her. And Fin’s eyelids dropped and he picked currants from a fruit scone. And afterwards, to stave off the sadness that was in it, a turn around Stephen’s Green with the fine Georgian houses and the spiked iron rail. And Danny felt as if one was sticking in his heart. And she saw a silk scarf in a department store on O’Connell Street, which he bought for her. And a delicate gold chain to go underneath. The best he could afford. He pressed his lips gently to the picture and slipped it back in his wallet. The sun was dipping below the horizon. A molten orb doused by the sea. Crouching beside the milk white marble, he began raking with his fingers. Plucking a stray feather, he let the breeze take it. There, he thought, all done, tucked up nice and cosy, the way you put a kid to bed. Then he stood,

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absentmindedly trawled in drooping pockets for the pewter flask and lingered with a final toast. In the gloaming, he spoke softly his own kind of prayers. _ Fintan McGrath was in his twenty-ninth year, born on March the eighteenth under the sign of Pisces, the fish. Perhaps it was an omen. For had he arrived just one day earlier as was expected, on Saint Patrick’s Day, things might have been very different indeed. He would have been named after the Saint for one thing. There was little memory of his mother left, except perhaps for the times when she might have been trying to flatten a rebellious cow’s lick, or dab a spit-wet hankie at his smudged cheeks, or look for the spuds growing in his ears, all the while smiling at him with her blue glass eyes, saying, ‘What am I goin’ to do with you, you look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.’ Or else the recurrent favourite, ‘Get a move on, you’ll be late for your own funeral.’ And why not, after all, hadn’t he been late for hers? Fishing rod in hand, bread crumbs speckling the front of his red pullover. The whole congregation turns. A murmur ripples through the pews like wind through wheat. His father steps into the aisle. Sunday clothes on a weekday and tears streaking his face. A white linen handkerchief crushes in his big fist. ‘I didn’t catch anythin’,’ Fin shouts, his small voice echoes in the vaulted stone ceiling high above. Some laugh nervously. Others tighten their grip on prayer books. Steady themselves on the pew in front. Light slants through stained glass, suffuses the cool air with colour. His father stands in front of something as if he’s trying to block it from view. Fin catches a glimpse. The curve of lustrous wood, shiny

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handles jutting. It looks seaworthy, smells of lavender wax. He thinks of his mother, ‘Where’s Mammy?’ he calls. Somebody moans. He approaches down the aisle, Wellington boots squeaking on the mosaic tiles, ‘Is she here?’ Women and men bless themselves discreetly and turn away. His father doesn’t move. Incense climbs like ectoplasm at his back. Everything seems trance-like, in slow motion. Fin comes closer to his father and towards whatever it is he’s trying to hide, closer and closer still. A caw vomited from a glossy black throat high in a swaying conifer. And Fin crested the hill. There below him, golden in the last rays of an autumn sun, the big house, Blackthorn Hall. Used to play roly-poly down this hill as kids, the three of them, arms pressed to the side and the chins tucked in. Race to the bottom; grass then sky, grass, sky, stand up with the world circling around you, giddy, imagining the brain spinning like a top inside the smiling head. It was easier to be happy then. It was crumbling now, fifty-odd rooms full of nooks and crannies. And memories. The squeal of children’s voices, heard long before seen, hide-and-seek that could last all day. Damp walls and dripping arches in the wine cellar with a creaking iron gate for the trapping of fingers, cardboard sign said jail. For rustlers and the like. With lots of places to hide for the pot shot that might be in it. And the rolling hills seen from the battlements, crenellated walls to strut behind with wooden swords and bin lid shields standing guard against the hordes which might at any moment sweep down from the dark encroaching trees. And being pressed to her beneath a hummock of woollen overcoats on the bed on her birthday when everyone else was doing the seeking and they were doing the hiding and in the dark she smelled of Imperial

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Leather talcum powder and his head was dizzier than when they had rolled down the hill. And nobody found them. _ Resting his weight unsteadily on the polished stone, Danny crouched down and tried to rearrange the flowers. One of his knees cracked and a small grunt escaped him. ‘I’d best be goin’ Maggie,’ he said, ‘I’ll be back soon darlin’, God bless.’ He kissed his fingertips and traced the letters of her name one more time before slowly heading back towards Blackthorn Hall. _ ‘Danny, how are ya? You’ve just missed Fin.’ Jack Tandberg’s voice rebounded off the spines of books, some of which had been read. ‘I was telling him how lucky I’m feeling this year. I’m absolutely convinced we’ll catch the old boy this time round.’ And Danny said, quick as a flash, ‘Announcing your plans like that is the quickest and surest way to hear God laugh.’ So Jack’s back - Jack of diamonds, the dapper Yank, scarlet silk pocket handkerchief tufting like a crocus from the tweed covered breast. Getting the turf fire smell onto the clothes. Seal it in a case. Take it home. He’s sipping black coffee from bone China, dainty cup balanced on a saucer and the pinkie finger sticking out. A compact man, military bearing, white hair swept behind ears, handshake like a vice. He hailed from someplace in the limitless heartland of the States. It’s where Danny imagined him, under vast prairie skies, gleaned that Jack owned a bit of land, his spread as he called it. Now here he stood, the American gentleman, toasting the Harris Tweed at the elaborately carved hearth and Danny notes he’s drinking coffee from a little teacup.

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‘Grand to see you again Jack, it seems to come around quicker every year.’ ‘That’s cause were getting old, c’mon I’ll buy ya a cup of coffee.’ Backslapping, Danny and Jack steered each other across the room to a tray with a tall silver pot, filigree reflecting flames, slices of Battenberg cake, cubes of pink and yellow sponge on a plate edged in gold leaf. Danny eyes the cocktail cabinet and Jack thinks, Curse of the Irish, but says, ‘Milk or cream?’ ‘Milk thanks.’ Jack and Lord Henry first met in the bar of a Dublin hotel shortly after the war. The young graduate saw in the other’s eyes that he’d paid the price of experience. They fell into conversation about fishing. Lord Henry had been studying a fly over a quiet ball of malt. Back then the woods were full of pheasant, the lake full of trout. An invitation was extended and Lord Henry left a card. Two days later the phone rang and Jack announced he was on his way. Edgy at first, he made it clear to his new friend that he had no interest in bagging pheasant. He’d seen enough of what guns could do, too many young men whose last words were gargled crimson. Just stick a fly rod in his hand and lead him to the water. Amen. In combat, men can have their humanity stripped from them. Some are lucky enough to get it back, others, not so. Jack’s way was by fishing. The line in the water reconnected him with nature, the universe, whatever sketchy idea of God he had. It didn’t stop the dreams however. Those flashes that made his chest feel clammy beneath the jagged Star of David. It used to hang off his dog tags. His unit crashed a tank through the gates of hell once, where a fine mist of grease hung in the air,

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passed beneath a sign that read Arbeit Macht Frei. He clutched it so tightly that day that it cut into the palm of his hand. It wasn’t enough to shock him out of there. No talisman could do that, ward off that kind of evil. There wasn’t enough blood or malt in the world to wash away that memory of industrialised slaughter. The abattoir stench stuck in his throat to this day. He sipped his coffee, picked at fluff that wasn’t on his tie. Absently fishing between the buttons of his cotton shirt, he touched again the cool, angular metal. His tone turned conspiratorial, ‘What’s the word. He’s still around isn’t he?’ ‘Oh I’d say so, sure isn’t he the king of the lake an’ we’re just the poor fools that come to try an’ catch him year in, year out.’ Jack poured steaming coffee into an ornate cup decorated with roses and gold flake, ‘So nobody’s caught that old bastard yet. You have no idea how good that makes me feel.’ ‘No they haven’t and I wouldn’t bank on it happenin’ any time soon either,’ Danny’s eyes crinkled mischievously. The delicate cups chinked together. ‘We’ll just see about that shall we,’ said Jack, ‘after all, it is nearly the end of the millennium. Don’t you think that this is the perfect time, that it would be somehow,’ a pause, ‘appropriate?’ ‘You’re not gettin’ all prophetic on me are you, millennium fever is it? Listen t’me now, that oul’ reprobate has broken more hearts an’ more rods than either of us care to remember. An’ well you know it. He couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss for your new millennium.’ Danny’s thumb hooked a belt loop as he warmed his back at the open fire.

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Jack sipped coffee and said, ‘Is Fin still keen on going to Australia?’ ‘Keen as mustard, although he tries to hide it from me. He has the pages of that atlas nearly worn out from starin’at it.’ ‘Why d’you think he’s trying to hide it from you?’ ‘Doesn’t want to go and leave me alone. I told him I’ll be fine, sure haven’t I got Henry for company, and your good self once a year.’ ‘Would you not go with him?’ ‘Ach, away outta that. Sure I’m too old, too set in me ways to be uprootin’ meself an’ traipsin’ off t’Australia. No, it’s back to Clare for me when the time comes.’ ‘The old family home?’ ‘The very same. Just needs a lick of paint and a bit of new thatch. Good as new.’ ‘But didn’t you tell me last year it needed new windows?’ ‘Ach, I suppose a few new window frames wouldn’t hurt now as you mention it.’ The fire crackling at their backs and the hot coffee slipping down eased the conversation along. ‘I see you spruced up the ol’ rainbow in the glass case,’ said Jack. ‘Not me, it was Henry. I don’t know what the Divil got into him. Absolutely insisted on doin’ it himself.’ Jack shrugged, ‘It always looked pretty good to me.’ ‘He was determined right enough, the full Monty, fresh coat of varnish, even gave it a new set of eyes.’ ‘Well it’s a pretty fair job all the same.’ ‘I said I’d be more than happy to do it. But as he said to me, “Danny,” says he, “sure what else have I got to do around here?” And that was that.’

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‘He’s right I suppose,’ Jack eased the cup onto the saucer, ‘no doubt we’ll have the usual crowd this weekend?’ Danny’s mouth compressed, ‘Yes, I believe that Roger and Lorelei are on their way here even as we speak.’ ‘Like that is it? Am I to assume that things are still a bit cool between Roger and his father?’ Danny nodded, ‘Absolutely glacial, more’s the pity.’ The two men stood in silence before the licking flames. ‘Well anyway,’ Jack continued, ‘I’ve got my usual room and Fin’s already stowed my gear. You gotta see my new rod, it’s a beauty.’ ‘For all the good it’ll do ya!’ ‘Come on up and see, there’s plenty of time before dinner. By the way, what time are the other guests arriving?’ ‘Guests? I’d hardly call Roger and Lorelei guests now.’ Jack picked a thread from the lapel of his jacket, ‘No I suppose not, anyway, wait till Lord and Lady Muck see how run down the old place is, Roger is gonna hit the roof.’ ‘Ah well, sure it’s not all bad news then,’ said Danny reaching for the coffee pot, tilting, ‘one for the road?’ ‘Crazy not to,’ said Jack.

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Chapter Five The room was a hothouse. A chink in the burgundy curtains admitted a shaft of light that pierced the heavy air. Dust motes floated gently up its tractor beam. Beneath the stifling quilt, Lorelei Comerford rolled over with difficulty. Christ, why did this happen. Every bloody afternoon! She hated those curtains. It didn’t matter how much she fussed and fretted over them the night before, or how securely she tried to seal out the imminent daylight, it always managed to find a way in. She had tried crossing them, jamming them with a chair, even clipping them with clothes pegs. Nothing worked. It couldn’t possibly be a breeze forcing the heavy drapes because the windows and door were always shut tight, giving the room its distinct atmosphere of cigarettes, chocolate and anxiety. Fumbling the night mask from her stinging eyes, she pounded pillows for a bit of back support. A fag and a drink and ponder, and then ease into what’s left of the day. Perhaps she was allergic to something. Must remember to pack the eye drops, never let them see any signs of weakness. The ashtray said she’d been up most of the night. Spangled sweet wrappers littered the duvet and spilled onto the polished floorboards down one side of the bed. Drawing her knees up to her chest, she looked at the lipstick smeared glass, the empty diet cola bottle, two litres. Have to cut back on that. A question nagged at her as she crumpled an empty cigarette packet. It was the same question she’d been asking herself every day for weeks now: why do I live like this? The drawer of the bedside table slid open and soon she was pulling the shrink-wrap off a fresh carton of Benson and Hedges that had the slightest taint of mothballs. Cellophane and foil paper hit the floor a

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split second after the first smoke hit her lungs, sweet relief. And, quite frankly, balls to it! It wasn’t such a bad way to live. So what if she was alone again. So what if another marriage had foundered. Perhaps it was her name that cursed her to live like the Rhine maiden, alone on the rock, existing only in twilight. Forever enticing men but never able to keep them. Or maybe it was her beauty that was her undoing. She never considered herself overly flirtatious, but men just couldn’t resist her charms and she in turn could never withstand their advances. Emergency Seductions, that’s what she called them, rather than one night stands. It made them seem less tacky that way. They never worked out. They never could. She knew that. And maybe that was another thing she should cut back on. Not hard to get a reputation. It wasn’t the scandal she was worried about. No, it was the pity, the wringing hands and clucking voices. She couldn’t abide it. Oh no, her family did scandal very well, plenty of practice you see, closed ranks, shut up shop, trespassers will be prosecuted etcetera. One of the good things about a family tree like theirs was that it was a great place to hide. Take a decent box of choccies and a carton of smokes and wait for the ballyhoo to die down. Once the dust had settled, reappear as if nothing had happened. Then off to Dublin with her and into Brown Thomas. Past the nice man in the grey topper holding open the door. Good morning Miss. And are we going to put a dent in the plastic today – oh good - retail therapy. Best kind of therapy there is. But this constant freezing and thawing of the heart? Surely it could never end well. A second cigarette was lit from the first. The smouldering butt was speared, squeaking into the ceramic ashtray that she’d liberated from a bar in Paris. Antique

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looking thing, Pernod written in beautiful brushstrokes around the rim. She had a magpie’s eye for beautiful things and into the Chanel tote bag it went. There was just something about Paris and liberation, and liberty. And taking liberties. She knew. She took them wherever she could find them, and a few other things besides. Manicured nails picked crust from her eyes. The problem was, she decided, that her standards were just too high. That was her trouble. No man could live up to those standards. So why did they pretend to be everything she longed for, hoped for, almost despaired of having, only to let her down in the cold hard light of day? Those bloody curtains, they had tested her patience to the limit. Could she rely on nothing? On nobody? The lid came off the tin of Quality Street and she shucked a chocolate from its wrapper. Breakfast, the most important meal of the day, then another little handful for the energy, yellow and red tinsel rustled together in her cupped palm. Was she getting enough greens? Just slip the legs over the side of the bed there. Snatching the glass from the table at her elbow, she tilted it over her parched, straining tongue. No relief there. The lipstick imprint, full and red, beautifully proportioned, cleft by ridges. The lip she bit with deliberate ease as she half-lowered powdered lids, heavy with lashings of mascara. The tricks she knew. Siren songs urge the sailors on. Love on the rocks. It always brought a pause to the conversation, the loosening of a tie, sign of things to come. Worked like a charm, every damn time. All her life she’d gotten everything she ever wanted. That wasn’t what she wanted. The residue of melted ice and diet cola made her savagely thirsty. How on earth would she explain this latest calamity to her father when she got home? He

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wouldn’t understand. Didn’t want to understand. She knew what he was thinking. They were sniffing after an inheritance, like pigs after truffles. Didn’t dare tell him the inheritance had long since evaporated. Smart lawyers had seen to that. But it’s my dowry, she pouted that first time. He gave in. Always did. Not that he would ever say anything. Of course not. He would never dare interfere again. But he would somehow, with his open arms, manage to crush her, just as he had her mother. His tweedy acceptance of all that life offered, even cuckoldry, had caused an immense chasm to open up between them. She wanted to punish him, but only wound up punishing herself. When close friends and family members joked that she might be addicted to wedding cake something inside her stomach tightened. It was even worse once subsequent nuptials had forced that witticism into early retirement. It just wasn’t funny anymore, it was deadly serious and everyone knew it. Especially Lorelei. She stumbled from the stale air of her bedroom to the stale air of her living room and on into the less than Alpine freshness of the kitchenette. Charming and compact, a little jewel, that was how the real estate agent had described the place, when the time had come for her to move on again, to live alone again. No pets. That was fine. Hardly room to swing a cat anyhow. Lack of size, she considered a challenge and soon had the place looking chic. A few select pieces from home, smaller pieces of course, tastefully arranged with some collectibles she’d picked up on her travels. Everyone had to admit she had style. In the breeding you see. It stood her in good stead. Went a long way to getting her the job as assistant editor at a leading

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women’s magazine. That day of the interview in slanting Dublin rain. The door of the Georgian townhouse was the same colour as her nails, red and glossy. She was prepared to take that as a good omen as she raced from the taxi to the kerb, scarcely time to open the umbrella. The buzzer droned and the door gave with a slight push. Inside, it was airy and warm and she followed the smell of coffee down a well lit corridor and stood beneath a sign that said reception. A young girl with purple-streaked black hair and a big smile looked up from behind a high counter. ‘Are you Lorelei?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘The editor’s expecting you, go straight up. Second floor, turn left, it’s the door facing you, can’t miss it.’ And Lorelei ascended a wide staircase, her fingertips gliding on the polished banister, leading her from a dark hallway into a bright room. Light reflecting off polished floorboards, tasteful prints on the walls, book-filled shelves down one side of the room and a giant rubber plant by one of the windows. A woman was standing there, blonde hair in a tight pony tail, well-preserved, dressed in a plain yet expensive trouser suit. She was pouring sparkling mineral water into straight glasses. ‘Come in please - sit. I’m Marion. You’ll find we’re fairly informal here,’ they shook hands before sitting, ‘it’s Lorelei isn’t it?’ she said, slipping a coaster and glass across a wide mahogany desk. Lorelei nodded, ‘It is – thank you.’ ‘Well now,’ Marion held up a yellow binder, ‘I’ve read your CV. Very impressive I must say, London, Paris, San Francisco,’ she pretended to fan herself with the

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binder, ‘it’s obvious that you’re way overqualified for the job. Tell me, aren’t you afraid you’ll find us a bit of a backwater here after your travels?’ She dropped the document on the desk, steepled her fingers. Lorelei stared at her, silhouetted against the tall windows. ‘Not at all, besides I think it’s time for a change of pace and it would mean I’d be closer to my family. After all, Dad’s not getting any younger.’ ‘I see,’ said Marion, ‘the thing is I’m not sure if you appreciate the salary package we’re offering.’ Lorelei nodded, waited. ‘I mean your qualifications and experience, well, it may be a bit more than the job requires. D’you see what I mean?’ Lorelei eased back in the chair. Rain pattered in the window boxes, bobbing the scarlet and purple petals. ‘Look I’m sure I could offer you a better deal,’ Marion sipped at her glass, ‘more money, expense account, few perks here and there. The thing is - this magazine needs young blood, fresh ideas, sex it up a bit, y’know. Gossip and glamour, that’s what people want these days.’ Rising from her seat she strode to the window, ‘Look at the magazines on the rack down there.’ She pointed with a pen at a display clearly visible beneath a shop awning, ‘They’re all the same. Who’s sleeping with who? Who’s got cellulite? Drink problems? Drug problems? Come over here, take a look, you’ll see what I mean,’ her cupped palm beckoned. Lorelei followed her to the window. They stared down in silence. Huddled figures tramped by in the swirling drizzle, umbrellas quivered and strained like divining rods going haywire. ‘Course, none of it’s the least bit important,’ said Marion, tapping the biro on her bottom teeth, ‘none of it matters - in the grand scheme.’ She fixed Lorelei with a

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stare as if she’d suddenly woken to find herself in a familiar room standing next to a stranger, ‘But that’s what we have to compete with unfortunately. We have to write about people who know how to show their teeth. The career path they’ve chosen is straight and narrow and covered in red Axminster. Flashbulbs are the beacons by which they navigate.’ Marion shrugged, continued tapping her teeth, ‘Are you up for that?’ Lorelei forced a smile, ‘I’ll give it a go.’ Rills of water slid down the window. A clock ticked. Marion’s hand shot out and gripped her by the elbow, ‘Mother of God,’ she said, ‘would you just look at him, that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Tell me, why does everyone have to get noticed these days, no matter what? Why does everybody want to be a somebody? Are we really that shallow? It’s sad isn’t it?’ Their gaze came to rest upon a heavyset man who was struggling along on the far pavement. He was straining to hold a large golf umbrella in one hand whilst the other clamped an Easter bonnet to his head. Bloodshot eyes squinted over the top of outsized sunglasses as he leaned into the squall, coat tails flapping madly behind. Lorelei recognised the gait immediately. ‘Have you ever seen anything so ridiculous in all your life,’ said Marion, slowly shaking her head. Lorelei stared down, ‘No,’ she lied. And so began her career as an assistant editor.

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Chapter Six The tray was stacked with copy paper. Fin dialled the number of the Australian Consulate, pressed the send button. Through a casement window bordered with cobwebs, he saw his father leading an old grey hunter from the stables at the opposite side of the yard. Two milky-eyed King Charles spaniels waddled behind. Horseshoes clattered on stone. There was a faint dialling tone then the machine juddered to life, began ingesting pages and regurgitating them in curling loops. One fell to the office floor; a photocopy of his diploma from Stirling University. Eighteen years old when they packed him off to Scotland. That summer belonged to them. The only one they ever knew. Long days expanded by the heat. Walking the fields with fingers interlaced and in the gloaming they lay in the purple shadow of a hedgerow beneath a sky streaked with ribbons of cloud. Pink for a girl. Blue for a boy. Those three words. They just slipped out. No taking them back. Then everything changed. All his little fishies bursting free to swim up inside her. And afterwards they pretended to believe that everything would work out fine and made promises to each other that the world would never let them keep. And one day she just upped and went and he was looking for her and she wasn’t there and his father told him to go to the big house. Lord Henry was waiting for him in the study. Wanted a word he said. A knuckle on the door and a shout, come in, and Henry’s leaning on the mantelpiece rolling a cigar between his fingers trying to look indifferent. ‘Ah there you are Fin. I was just telling your father the other day how I haven’t really had the chance to catch up with you these holidays.’

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‘Been a bit busy I suppose, helpin’ dad around the place most days.’ ‘And the evenings?’ Lord Henry exhaled, studied Fin through a cloud of blue smoke. ‘Fishin’,’ said Fin. ‘Yes, quite,’ he forced a smile, ‘well as long as you’re keeping out of mischief. Sit,’ he said, a sweeping arm indicating one of the chairs drawn up to the hearthside. And as he lowered himself into the seat, Lord Henry automatically hoisted the knees of his cavalry twill trousers. He flicked ash from the cigar, bit his lip, ‘There’s a reason I’ve asked you to come here.’ ‘Really,’ said Fin, leaning back in the chair. ‘Yes. A marvellous opportunity has arisen. I was telling your father just the other day.’ ‘Just the other day,’ Fin repeated, picked fluff from his sleeve. ‘Yes. A place has just come available on a course at Stirling University.’ ‘What kind of course?’ ‘At the institute of Aquaculture. They’ve an international reputation in research and development I’m told.’ Lord Henry leaned forward in the chair, ‘you were always good at sciences and that sort of thing and I promised your father that if your exam results were up to scratch I’d do everything in my power to help you out.’ ‘It’s all very sudden Henry.’ ‘Thought it best to surprise you. Iron out the details first as it were. So what d’you think? Diploma from Stirling University, not bad, another string to your bow. Develop management skills, who knows where it might lead eh?’ ‘I don’t know what to say.’ ‘Say yes.’

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Fin scratched the back of his neck, frowned, ‘Would you mind if I run it past someone first.’ ‘By all means,’ said Lord Henry, a knowing eyebrow raised, ‘but chop-chop eh? Time and tide.’ And that was that. And when Fin ran to the kitchen to find Lorelei he was told that she’d gone. Gone where, he said. To England. Sudden like, Wallace said, all evasive. Sick auntie apparently. The next day when Fin went back to give Lord Henry his answer he also brought a letter. Some small bulk in the envelope, a fly thinks Lord Henry. On the front, his daughter’s name in block capitals and a drawing of a stamp in green ink in the top corner. Grinning face, notched border, and Lord Henry thinks, They’re just sentimental children. They’ll soon forget. ‘Can you see it reaches her,’ said Fin, his voice torn up. ‘I shall,’ said Lord Henry, not meeting his eyes. They shook hands, ‘good luck Fin.’ ‘Thanks Henry.’ And before the door to the study closed, Henry called, ‘It’ll be the making of you.’ And when the door closed, added in a quiet voice, ‘I hope.’ And supped the froth off his coffee, threw the envelope in a drawer. The next time Fin saw Lorelei she was wearing an engagement ring. The letter was never mentioned. The fax machine shuddered to life, electronic whine, a sheet of paper gliding out, looping. And he’s hoping it’s an answer from the Consulate. He could go to the far side of the world. How far would it get him?

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Chapter Seven The phone was cheeping. Lorelei let the machine take it. It was obviously someone who couldn’t speak to a tape recording. Then there was a click a whirring sound and dead air. What if it was Roger, damn! Should never have turned down his offer of a lift, arriving home with him would have been the best bet, take some of the pressure off. A problem shared. Maybe she should call him? She flicked ash into the glass, took another pull on the cigarette. Something’s got to change. An envelope containing a letter of resignation leaned against a book on a high shelf in the living room. It was covered in dust. A mound of dishes had taken root in the kitchen sink. On the window sill above, next to a dead cactus, a brightly coloured plastic bottle lay keeled over on its side, congealed washing-up liquid choking in its throat. Crumpled foil containers covered the draining board and bench tops. Fur and penicillin and the smell of a milk carton, warm and lumpy from the afternoon sun made her gag. And she thinks, Should never have sacked that cleaner. What’s a couple of packets of smokes worth anyhow? Rattle open the Venetian blind. Down there the quays, biggest brewery in the world, low sun behind the chimney stacks. Guinness is good for you, specially afterwards, replenishes the blood, just a scrape they said. Just wash this glass now and kick-start the weekend. Cold water ricocheted off a clotted tablespoon the instant she touched the mixer tap. A rainbow spray in the dazzling light that soaked her stomach through the cotton nightie. She cursed and slammed the heel of her hand down on glinting chrome. The rainbow vanished. The glass was

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unwashed. Drink from the bottle perhaps. Cut out the middle man. And now the cotton night dress lay plastered up against the cold gentle swell that was her belly. The goose-fleshed mound was firm to her touch and she remembered why her latest marriage had not been a major success. It was children. She wanted them and Giles didn’t, simple as that. Just like before. When she was younger and her friends said babas cramp style. Get rid. Time for all that coochy-coo stuff later, simple procedure, back on your feet before you know it – Procedure - Then one of them phoned her father. And that was the end of that. The decision was taken out of her hands. Off to England with her and her little problem. She bit her lip, plucked the wet patch from her clammy skin. Maybe she should have sorted out the whole baby business before they traipsed down the aisle. Mind you, they hadn’t exactly traipsed down an aisle. They’d stood on a beach at sunset, brown skinned and beautiful, smelling of coconut oil. Only close friends, no family. Not their sort of thing anyway. The dreadlocked celebrant said, ‘You may now kiss the bride’ and she was utterly convincing herself that this was the one, the one that would last forever. And she tossed the bouquet into the surf in a romantic gesture, face tingling from the couple of heartstarters - just to settle the nerves. Telling herself that it would be carried out to the seven seas, to the deep mysterious waters, over the far horizon to who knows where. But it just washed straight back in, tumbling in the low dumpers to be stranded on the coarse sand. Broken and sullied, tangled up in seaweed. And her stomach lurched.

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And as Giles had his tie straightened by the chief bridesmaid, Lorelei watched from over the rim of a Mai Tai, telling herself that this was not necessarily a bad omen as she bit into the maraschino cherry. Then the melodic jangling of a calypso band started, and the palms swayed slow and hypnotic beneath waves of warm air. And everything was heavy as a peach coloured sun was swallowed whole by the sea. And the scent of frangipani was everywhere. And wasn’t that enough to turn any girl’s head. And after all, that’s what she was, underneath it all. A girl. And she wanted to be wild. And why shouldn’t she have a bit of fun. And if they didn’t approve back home, so what? She’d show them. Then the conga line started and she tried to break in and he jounced right past her. Perfect teeth clamped in a smile, hands around someone else’s waist. And the heat made her thirsty. And drinks were plucked from trays. And the scent of smoke drew her to a man with dark skin and liquid eyes who said try some of this sister woman. And her mind was afloat and swirling to the sound of steel drums. And the sand between her toes felt hot. And she heard the trilling laughter of the chief bridesmaid. And she turned to go. And an arm reached to steady her as the world tilted. And she woke cold and alone beneath the blur of the ceiling fan.

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Chapter Eight The sleek black Porsche 911 veered toward the exit ramp across lanes of honking traffic. Signalling with a blink, Roger Comerford eased his tan brogue onto the clutch. One hand conducted Vaughan Williams, while the other, with the merest touch of his fingertips, controlled the responsive steering wheel. He stopped conducting momentarily and wrapped his string back glove around the gearshift. The analogue rev counter flickered in the centre of the instrument cluster and with a well-practised short-throw gear change the zooming car decelerated. Warm air fluttered around argyle socks. Shoulders flexed into plush leather. From his position in this throne of unbridled power with its magnificent field of vision, life looked pretty damned good and a feeling close to contentment settled on him. He was, after all, homeward-bound and thanking his particular God that Lorelei had refused his half-hearted offer of a lift. Car detailing was an expensive business and he’d never really recovered from that first escapade. ‘It’ll be alright,’ she said, ‘trust me, I know what I’m doing,’ as one hand wound down the window while the other held the overflowing ashtray. They were doing a ton ten. He’d just passed his test. Open the old girl up on the motorway. See what she’s got. His sister leaned out, hair snapping back, tears streaking. She pulled her head back in, blinked, ‘Certainly blows the cobwebs away.’ A little plume of smoke wafted from the mound of bent butts, ‘Here goes,’ she said, thrusting a straight arm into the slipstream. The blast of air instantly gutted the ashtray down to the last speck and shot the contents back in the open window. In a split second, the interior of the Spitfire

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was transformed to a dust storm in Hades. Ash and fag ends swarmed and tumbled up and over in a mad vortex. Sparking embers doused in whites of eyes. Throats gagged, profanities choked down and swallowed as the little convertible weaved across three lanes of Sunday drivers. Cars concertinaed in a howl of rubber and flaring taillights. It was a wonder no one was killed. And when they slowed, Roger’s hand was a flipper, flailing wildly at the passenger seat in which his sister squirmed, little smoke signals rising from the crotch of her Levi’s. Heap big trouble and all she could do was shriek with laughter and clap her thighs. The two patrolmen didn’t see the situation in quite the same light. The sergeant was a hatchet-faced little bastard with a chip on his epaulette. His partner looked like a bull standing on hind legs, all brawn. The sergeant ordered Roger to blow into the breathalyser. The combination of bloodshot eyes and giggles ensured that the car was thoroughly searched. All to no avail of course but it was enough to make Roger indignant. Which was a big mistake and before long he found himself in a spartan interview room with the two policemen. The narrow eyed martinet smirked as the Minotaur pulled on the rubber gloves and not a sink or a dirty dish in sight. The result was a charge of dangerous driving which was rather tricky and expensive to wriggle out of. The speeding fine however was paid and the points duly taken off his driver’s licence. The smell of scorched leather haunted him thereafter, that, plus the snap of a rubber glove. The memory of it all made him shudder, and that had been in his old car, it was simply unthinkable in this, his beloved Carrera. He howled round a tight bend missing a tractor by inches. A little pine scented Christmas tree

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hung from the rear view mirror in which a rapidly receding farmer shook an angry fist. The little tree swung lazily back and forth. Roger smiled. He was well aware of all that psychobabble about cars being penis extensions. Well so what! If that was the case then his was top of the range and he’d stick it wherever he damn well pleased. That kind of hubris cost a fortune in parking tickets, but the company paid so he didn’t mind. In fact, he relished seeing them, flapping against the tinted glass like ensnared birds desperate for flight. He tried to imagine the perverse glee of the plebeian parking warden, the slightly unsavoury tingle as the wiper blade was raised and the little message deposited, the tip of the tongue protruding from the corner of a tight lipped mouth. To tamper with such an exquisite vehicle in broad daylight, hot under the collar, safe and semi-aroused beneath the chafing uniform of officialdom. It was like leaving a secret note from the unlovable to the unloved; Dear Privileged Bastard, Did it ever occur to you that some of us have to clip coupons and beat a path to the bargain basement. Seeing the car registration inscribed in black ink on white carbon copy paper made it all the more real to Roger. REWARD, that’s what his registration plate read, REWARD. Six little letters that seemed to sum up his life thus far, just like the gambler said, read ‘em and weep. It looked good on clear days, in fact, it looked good on any day and it was easy to remember too. The heel of his hand slammed on the blaring horn. Bloody penguins. Wizened faces of nuns frowning from behind fogged glass, Mother Superior hunched over the steering wheel no doubt. How dreary their lives must be, dawdling along in their rust-tinged old banger. Not like

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Roger’s life. Oh no, he was born to be a winner. In spite of his lifelong disinterest in anything remotely connected with learning or betterment of the self. The bare hedgerows became a blur as the turbo kicked in and Roger passed the minibus in a screech of tyres and splashing mud. Life, he’d often postulated, was all about illusion. People believed whatever they were led to believe. For instance, a man in a white lab coat, with the requisite air of authority, could coerce most people to disrobe, cough, say aah and perform any number of preposterous acts, provided he simply had the courage to walk onto a hospital ward and look like he meant business. Always look like you mean business. That was the thing. Even if you hadn’t got a clue as to what you were doing. There are after all, plenty of gifted individuals out there in the world just waiting to be employed. This was a particularly comforting thought for Roger. In essence, it mattered not one jot that he had wasted countless days at the best private schools money could buy, and then did likewise at his ancient hallowed university. Innumerable hours slipped by while he gawked at clouds through elegant lead-light windows that bore stained glass motifs and coats-of-arms that said something in Latin about honour and fidelity. These were just words to him, words he could never hope to understand. Much the same as those scraped in white chalk on a grating blackboard which Roger studiously ignored. It would probably have taken less energy to actually learn something than it did to seek the constant distraction of the world outside the classroom. Nothing seemed to stick. He’d tried once when he was much younger, but algebra was a complete mystery to him and he could see no situation where it might be

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usefully applied in later life. Foreign languages were for foreigners and romantic poets were just a bunch of blokes in tights arseing about and taking mind-altering substances. Almost every hefty tome he hid behind in study groups contained a Playboy magazine. The dead give-away was when he tilted Paradise Lost on its side in order to get a decent look at the airbrushed and statuesque form of Miss July. Who was into sensitive guys and hoped for world peace. Well, didn’t we all? School days, he had been told, were the best days of one’s life and who was he to argue. After all they’d been pretty damn good for him. Despite frequent trips to the headmaster’s office for the kind of question and answer session which meant little to either of them. ‘Not you again Comerford?’ ‘Afraid so headmaster.’ A knitting of brows. ‘Stand up straight boy.’ ‘Sorry headmaster.’ ‘What is it this time?’ the headmaster scanned a note of complaint, a look of resignation on his face, ‘Tell me, what do you want to do with your life Comerford?’ Roger shrugged, shifted his weight from one foot to another. ‘I mean, where do you see it going? What, ultimately, do you want to become?’ ‘An entrepreneur headmaster.’ The answer copied from another boy. ‘What type of entrepreneur?’ Roger shuffled feet, not knowing, ‘A rich one I suppose.’ The headmaster released a long held sigh, ‘I’m going to have to write to your parents.’

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‘There’s only my father headmaster.’ ‘Very well,’ a pen poised, ‘your father it is.’ ‘Very good headmaster.’ ‘And do try and shape up Comerford. There are marvellous opportunities to be had here for the right type of boy.’ ‘Yes headmaster.’ ‘That’s all, send in the next chap.’ ‘Yes headmaster.’ Education was all well and good, but human nature was all that Roger felt he needed to know, that plus the fact that opposites attract. Hence the dull attracted the bright in a symbiotic relationship of animal cunning and naked ambition. Despite all this Roger was not a fool, he was crafty in the extreme. The old school tie and the rapacity for the intellect of others always saw him through. Intelligence was like any other natural resource and he knew where to mine for it. Oh yes he was good at finding people suitable to his particular needs, as morally bankrupt as he was and just as greedy for success, individuals for whom a good education was the only way forward in this world, the only way up, loners and outsiders who had postponed life in order to soak up knowledge. Knowledge that could be summoned at will to dazzle and bemuse the pedestrian and the mundane. Recognition and worldly success were their drugs of choice, a way for them to balance deeply ingrained inferiority complexes. As if saying, I’m smarter than you, and thumbing a nose peppered with blackheads at a society which just didn’t seem to care. A society which honoured athletes pumped full of steroids and women with surgically enhanced physical beauty, yet cared little for the statuesque mind, the airbrushed intellect.

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Roger excavated these flawed gems from the deepest, darkest places and then he polished them with flattery and false promises. By utilising their immense intelligence and his own artfulness he could make money through them. Roger, the tunnel visionary. Bitterness and disenchantment were prerequisites for any seeking employment with him. Any curriculum vitae seeded with dismissals and disciplinary actions made his eyes light up. Treachery was something he inherently understood. And so with Roger at the helm and his faithless lackeys manning the engine room, this particular captain of industry steamed slowly but surely into profit. Roger’s mind drifted to his father as Vaughan Williams gave way to Fleetwood Mac on the CD player. How dismissive would he be? A common little whoremonger, that’s what he’d called him the last time and it had stung. It was Ned who gave the game away. Thinking his old friend might find it amusing. Originally, Roger had approached his father for money and had been turned down flat. Try Ned, he was told, he’s usually good for that sort of thing. So Roger did and Ned put him in touch with a wealthy backer. Roger already had the premises, the geeks and the girls. All he needed was the start-up capital. Women of every age, shape and size were employed, but when they answered the phones they were called either Amber or Tiffany and described their looks as if they’d just stepped off the cover of a Roxy Music album. ‘Bored housewives - Home alone,’ said Lord Henry as he concertinaed the newspaper. ‘What kind of bloody idiot would pay to talk to a bored housewife? I’m not surprised they’re bored if they’re home alone. What the hell would they talk about anyway, the price of fish?’

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And that’s when Ned explained to him that there were plenty of gullible, lonely men out there with special needs. Lord Henry exploded. Made his own obscene phone call to Roger. ‘You either stop this grubby little business right now or else I’ll disinherit you.’ ‘But,’ said Roger. ‘But nothing,’ said Lord Henry, slammed the phone down. Once the dust had settled, Ned brokered a truce. Lord Henry put Roger back in the will, even agreeing in an uncharacteristically sentimental gesture to hand over the reins in the new millennium. Big New Year’s party, fireworks and so on, maybe cut a ribbon or hand over one of those big shiny fake keys. Nice gesture he thought. Roger smiled, rubbed hands together, immediately arranged a meeting with the head of acquisitions for the All Seasons hotel group. On the quiet, of course. Roger continued to employ the geeks and girls in spite of his promise. In fact, he was employing more every week. Business was booming. Well, he couldn’t very well toss them out on their ears now could he? Wouldn’t be right. He was beginning to feel like the prodigal son returning home for the feast: cold shoulder and a side order of humble pie. He eased his foot from the accelerator, turned off the din in the climate controlled cabin. No need to hurry. No need to hurry at all.

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