Dead Clever

July 26, 1996

Chapter 7. Next morning Henry rose early, feeling rested but hot. He got out of bed and looked at himself in the wardrobe mirror. He was a bit stiff, but that was normal for the morning. He compared his right and left sides. They were perfect mirror images. He was better. He lingered a while, looking at himself more generally.

The sight did not fill him with joy. His skin had an unhealthy pallor, relieved only by the occasional spot. His shoulders sloped. And he widened in the wrong direction. His hair, though still thick, was streaked with grey. His eyes had developed crow's feet some years ago. Now he seemed to have acquired a flock. He breathed in - and saw a slightly plump middle-aged man breathing in.

He wandered into the kitchen, closely tailed by Benson, and sat down at the breakfast bar. He could go to work today. But a little voice seemed to whisper "hang on now, let's not rush into anything". Toni said she'd come round as usual this evening. Perhaps he was being over-eager.

Very touchy things, backs. Best not to force the pace. Best to keep taking the tablets and have another day off, just to make sure.

Things had seemed to be going so well when he and Melissa moved out of London. She was going to set up her own investment consultancy business, as many of her friends had already done in the capital. It was the beginning of the 1980s. The time seemed right for the entrepreneurial spirit to spread its wings and take flight.

He had got used to being the less important wage-earner, the less ambitious partner, the one who got home early and put the dinner on, the one who spent the occasional solitary evening. He had thought that her working from home would bring them closer together, but in the event he saw less of her than before. He was new and keen in those days and he began working late too. Then one day he got back home and found her waiting.

They sat at the kitchen table. It was a fine summer evening in leafy Eadington. The back door was open. A thrush sang in the hawthorn tree, and on the shady lawn a blackbird cocked its ear to the ground. Melissa was very matter-of-fact. She said she wanted more, that she felt it had all gone dead and that they were living on automatic pilot, coasting along, not unhappy, not particularly happy, just content in a drab kind of way.

Henry listened to her speech in mounting disbelief. Then he had said, for his part, that he was actually very happy in his drab kind of way and rather liked things drably sort of ordinarily rubbing along on automatic bloody pilot. That was what he liked. What did she expect? Tiger shooting?

This was life. Drab, content, ordinary - if you were lucky. Drab contentment let you get on with reading books and listening to music and watching the telly, or whatever the hell turned you on.

What was she talking about?

Melissa went moist and played with the edge of the table. She said they had stopped communicating. They had grown apart. All in all, she had sounded like Woman's Own. He had thought then that the whole thing sounded phony. She, like Entwhistle, had seemed to be speaking someone else's lines.

And so it had proved. What she should have said - what she really meant - was that she found the prospect of shacking up with a younger, wealthier, better-looking, less smelly and altogether less drab sort of man - particularly since she had an example readily to hand - more attractive than staying with Henry. And since the house in leafy Eadington was really 80 per cent hers in the first place, what did she have to lose?

Only Henry.

So she lost him. She was a decisive, unsentimental kind of woman. He had thought he was an unsentimental kind of man until this had happened. Then he realised how wrong he had been.

It might have been better (and more bearable to remember) if, at the end of their interview in the kitchen, he had not burst into tears, grabbed her hands, pledged undying love and begged her abjectly not to leave him. He could at least have shown a little spirit, a bit of pride. But then these things come at you, out of a clear day.

And that was how he had ended up ironing her drawers alone on winter evenings, rain lashing in from the Bristol Channel. He couldn't even muster enough manly spirit to hate her privately for what she did. In fact, and this was the worst of all, he rather suspected that underneath he rather admired her for it. He always had liked people that kicked the **** out of him. It had been the same in school.

Henry put on the kettle, picked up Benson and rested his head on his soft fur.

"You love me though, don't you?" he said, stroking the cat's head.

Benson grumbled, struggled free, jumped down and disappeared through the flap in the back door.

II

Toni got up late. It was a rest day. At half past seven she extricated herself from the pile of soft toys under which she slept, rearranged them on the pillow and put on the long T-shirt that it had been too hot to wear that night. As on all such rest-days, she glanced up at her Cory Everson poster and quickly mimicked her pose. Then, rubbing her eyes, she went downstairs and into the kitchen. Mark, a young estate agent and reluctant washer-up, was chuckling at something in his newspaper. He was rocking back on his chair, eating toast from a plate balanced on his colourful tie. The sight of his gleaming gold cufflinks roused Toni to a blind fury. Her feet made no sound as she walked straight in, grasped one of the chair's front legs and pulled it from under him.

Landing on his back winded him. The plate and the toast fell to the floor. The plate broke. The toast landed peanut butter-side down. The newspaper flew up in the air and settled in several pieces over its gasping reader.

Toni smiled, went to the fridge and removed a carton of skimmed milk. When she got back to the table, Mark was stirring and moaning. Toni found a packet of bran flakes in the cupboard and placed it carefully beside the milk. Then she went to the drawer beside the sink, pulled out a spoon, and placed it in the bowl.

Mark was now trying to get up, hampered by having his legs tangled in the undercarriage of the chair. She poured out some bran flakes and milk and sat down to eat. Mark was now almost on his feet. Then he turned to the sink and began running hot water.

"That was bloody dangerous," he muttered.

"What's dangerous is not doing the ****ing washing up."

"I was going to do it after I'd had my toast," he said plaintively.

"I don't believe you. And anyway I don't care. You are not only a parasite, but you are a filthy slut and I need only the slightest excuse to kill you. This you know I could do without difficulty and would do with some pleasure."

Toni looked around at the flaking paint, the chipped tiles, the crumbs and fragments of plate on the floor, Mark's shirt-tail hanging over his shiny pin-stripe trousers, and shuddered. She didn't often see the kitchen in the cold light of morning. She was 24 and still had no place of her own. She hid her eyes with her hand and found herself thinking wistfully about Henry's kitchen with its gleaming dishwasher, and thinking how much nicer it would have been to wake up there than in this pigsty.

She opened her eyes wide with horror.

Chapter 8

The morning was already so warm that Toni abandoned all hope of conforming to dress codes and rode to work on her motorbike wearing nothing but a rather short T-shirt and sawn-off jeans. She was particularly proud of her thigh development and felt that shorts helped considerably in what had become her main aim in life, frightening people half to death.

The ride was refreshing, despite the hated helmet, and she took a longer route by some back roads to prolong the experience. As she parked her bike and walked into the senate building with her helmet under her arm, she dreaded the thought of the west-facing office with dicky blinds, sticking windows and no air-conditioning. Sunshine and heat made her think about sunbathing and the beach.

The beach made her think about sex and thinking about sex stopped her thinking about anything else.

And today was a rest day, so she wouldn't be able to do what she usually did, which was to channel these urges towards the lifting of heavy objects.

The painters were already at work, and to Toni's surprise had already finished her part of the office.

A heavy smell of paint hung in the air, but they had also freed up the windows, which were wide open. The blinds were still looking derelict.

Toni sat at her desk, ignoring - though noting with some pleasure - the stares of the painters. She didn't feel like coffee, with the smell in the air, and so went straight to work. Just as she and Henry had discussed, she tapped in the name of the file for the graduation booklet and ran a word-search for Lamorna. The computer found the page almost instantly.

Her name was almost at the bottom of the list of upper seconds from the Faculty of Arts, so she began scrolling up. Names, ordinary and extraordinary, passed down her screen. None seemed familiar or rang any bells. She didn't know what she had been expecting this list to tell her, but the fact that it told her nothing was an acute disappointment. She stared blankly at the screen and sighed.

Anyway, what could it mean, this name? What, as Henry had asked, could be anyone's motive?

Sabotage? To embarrass the university? A disgruntled employee, perhaps, tinkering with the rolls, just to make a stink?

As she had left last night, Henry had reminded her that while managements were often incompetent they were rarely malicious. Middle managers were usually competent but often embittered. And anyone below them just got away with as little as they could, took life as it came and were by and large neither incompetent nor malicious.

So the place to look was usually in the middle ranks of small officials, minor functionaries, assistant registrars - the desolate lower admin scales, who might have been the perpetual subject of Russian fiction, had Russian fiction concerned itself with universities and not Tsarist bureaucracy.

So a disgruntled employee, or ex-employee, attracted her as a theory - but while the motive seemed reasonable, the method was inappropriate. The embittered official has many easier ways at his or her disposal than fiddling with graduation lists. They usually leaked embarrassing internal memos, or the vice chancellor's expenses claims, or the bill for the refurbishment of his private loo. It was usually personal too, because being embittered about an institution is usually not enough to spur anyone into action. God knows, she was embittered - but would take no pleasure in revenging herself on a concept.

She wandered over the the window and stared out at the city, its wooded hills, winding motorways, its distant docks, waterways and marinas. Pretty soon she began to think how nice it would be to be on the beach, but stopped herself and went back to her desk. She scrolled up the list of upper-second-class artists a little further, until the name of Abney, Michael James John appeared at the top of her screen. She scrolled up a little further to where she expected to see the heading of the section.

However, to her surprise she found that sitting right on top of Abney, Michael was someone called Zweig, Gerhardt Abel, on top of whom came Zollner, Andreas, on top of whom was Ziegler, Philip Schwenck, and so on like the back page of a German telephone directory as far as the first Zhing-Yang.

Quickly she scrolled up and up, trying to get to the top of the list - which she did, ten pages further on.

She scrolled down again. It was true. The list of upper seconds from Arts and Humanities was in fact two lists, each alphabeticised and joined somewhere in the middle. Neither she nor Henry had noticed because they had only looked at the top and bottom.

Toni took two names from each page and spent the rest of the morning finding out which departments they had studied in, and ringing them. The names from the first half of the list all checked out. The names from the second half did not. No one had heard of the students on the list containing the name of Lamorna Courtenay Wolff-Scheidt.

II

Since Toni's telephone call that afternoon, Henry had been in a state of high excitement. He felt a sensation in the middle of his back that he had quite forgotten - the sensation of his adrenal gland doing what it does best. He kept chuckling excitedly and walking from room to room, unable to carry out the simplest task. Having resolved to put his socks on he would go to his sock drawer, and finding himself before it, be unable to remember what his intention had been, or how he had got there.

Benson the cat picked up the nervous tension and began charging in and out of rooms and attacking pieces of soft furniture. And now and then, Henry would find himself adopting an unconventional position and saying "It's started!" over and over, in silly voices.

In the end he decided that if he were to spend one more hour cooped up in that flat he would go completely out of his mind. He showered and dressed hastily and rushed out, still wet, in the direction of the hated beige Maestro.

III

Meanwhile, at about 3.30, Toni was cooking slowly in a shaft of sun that she was powerless to interrupt. She had moved the desk three times, but now there was nowhere to hide. All the windows stood open, but there was hardly a breath of air. Henry's broken fan only revolved at all on its lowest speed, and though she may have been hallucinating, Toni had the impression that the flies were jumping on and off it for fun.

The painters had declared that it was too hot to put paint down, because it was drying on their brushes and dragging. They had clocked off for the day, leaving her alone. Toni sat, her head back, her eyes closed, thinking of her favourite beach - her regular spot by some low rocks; the sun on her body and the sound of the waves, and the gulls crying over the grassy, gorse-capped cliffs.

Suddenly she picked up her telephone and rang Henry. There was no reply. She left a message on his machine apologising that she might be a little late, hung up and began looking in her Filofax for a card on which there was a telephone number.

A telephonist answered.

"Extension 226 please," said Toni. It rang. Someone picked up.

"No names!" she shouted. There was a short pause.

"When?" "Tonight. No - now."

"Now?"

"Now. Usual place - see you there in half an hour."

Toni hung up, grabbed her helmet and the print-out with the ticks and crosses beside two names on each page, closed her desk and walked swiftly out.

Chapter 9

Henry's beige Maestro lurched rather unconvincingly along Convocation Boulevard. The senate building, or the Dark Tower as Eirfyl Lelo always called it, came into view. The sky was cloudless and the city lay spread out below, its fringes concealed only by a growing heat haze.

He was no more than 250 yards from the turning into the car park when he saw a huge black motorbike roar out of from between the gateposts at about 100 miles per hour, and disappear down the road. Riding this leviathan was - he'd recognise those arms and thighs anywhere - his very own media assistant. He looked at his watch, looked up again, took a sudden decision and put his foot to the floor.

Like a horse unused to the whip, Henry's car reacted badly to this sudden demand for speed.

First nothing happened. Then the carburettors flooded and the engine spluttered. Then it seemed to clear its throat, and Henry found his seat closing around him. He had not lost her. Fortunately the lights had held her up for a minute - but even as he saw the long black mark on the road that led to her massive back tyre, they went to green again and she had turned right, before the oncoming traffic.

Henry of course had to wait until there was no other motor vehicle in sight before making any kind of manoeuvre, so it was a while before he too was heading along the Eadington Road that he remembered well from happier days. Luckily there was a speed limit, and Toni was only breaking it by 20 miles per hour. The traffic was light, and so as soon as he found himself a reasonable distance behind her, he hung there, and had a chance to wonder why exactly he was doing what he was doing.

He came to the unedifying conclusion that he was following her for the same reason that randy dogs sniff out bitches. He had to admit it - this woman was driving him crazy. It had grown on him quite slowly at first, but this last week had been something else. He was infatuated. That's what it was. Infatuated. He couldn't get her out of his mind. His only thoughts were how he could be near her - as near, for as long, and as frequently as possible. He was a sad man. A pathetic and hopeless man in a beige Maestro.

No, not hopeless. Hopeful. A hopeful middle-aged man in a beige Maestro.

The Eadington Road was several miles long and led from the city, out through one of the deep limestone gorges for which it was famous, climbed slowly through the exclusive suburb of Eadington, and left in the general direction of Wales and the motorway network. By shooting several lights with his eyes closed and his elbows tucked in, Henry managed just to keep up with Toni. But he foresaw problems if she was going much further, because much further meant the motorway and once she was on that he might as well kiss her goodbye.

The valley opened out, and the road became a dual carriageway. Toni roared past all the other traffic, and Henry did his best. The road climbed to a roundabout, which was the intersection with the M5. He saw her brake-light come on, saw her turn left and disappear.

Henry changed down into third gear and got to the intersection as fast as he could. There was no sign of her. But as he was crossing over the motorway, he glanced down on to the southbound carriageway and saw a large black motorbike pulling off on to the first slip-road. He followed.

The slip-road turned out to be the entrance to the recently completed Motor Inn Conference Centre, Rest Area and Motel Complex.

II

Henry dropped his speed and cruised slowly through the winding, shrub-lined lane that led to the car-parks. The first turn-off was indicated Conferences. He took a guess that she would not have gone that way and carried on. The second was signed Motor Inn. Once again he decided to stay on the main road. Eventually he came to a large, and very full car park. He drove slowly down the middle, glancing into each rank. He came to the main entrance to the services. A number of bikes were there, and Henry was no expert; but none was even remotely as large as hers. He went on. The road doubled back on itself before leading to the filling station. Once again, no sign. Pulling in to the side of the road and stopping on a convenient double yellow line, Henry undid his seat-belt, opened the door and stood on the sill to get a better view.

It was then that, over the flowering laurel-bushes lining the left hand side of the road, he saw Toni parking outside the door to chalet number 467. She went right up to it, knocked and walked straight in. The curtains, he noticed, were drawn.

Chapter 10

The long, dark night-time of the soul had nothing on the agonies Henry suffered at that moment. He sank back into his seat and sat there, staring vacantly at his speedometer (which, he noticed despite everything, was registering 22 miles per hour). He stayed that way, with the engine running, until a car towing a caravan pulled up behind and blew its horn. This having no effect, the caravanner got out and tapped at Henry's window. Henry wound it down.

"Yes officer?" "Are you all right?" asked the man, who was not an officer of any sort despite exposing a pair of red knees beneath large khaki shorts.

"What? Oh - yes - I was just feeling a little - um . . ."

"This is a double yellow line, you know," the man went on, "and I can't get my caravan by with you here. Do you feel well enough to get under way? I must say you look a bit - excuse me for saying - green. Best rest in the shade for a bit. The heat . . ."

At this point another horn blew, from behind the caravan. The man cut short his medical advice and returned to his car as Henry listlessly depressed the clutch and engaged bottom gear. Somehow he had to get into the motel car park.

Knowing no other way to do it, he confirmed his unfitness to drive on the public highway by indicating left at the junction and going back along the one-way road to where he remembered seeing the turning to the Motor Inn. The caravanners blew their horns and gesticulated, but he ignored them. A truck, like a skyscraper on wheels, that was heading for the service station at some speed, mounted the kerb and mowed down 15 laurel bushes in its efforts to avoid him - but Henry hardly noticed.

He turned into the car park and headed for Chalet 467, with the large motorbike leaning outside. For a few moments he took in the scene and felt sick. He wanted to cry and nearly did, but the thought that any moment she might come out and see him there stopped the pathetic quivering of his lower lip. The sun shone in through the open window. He felt sweaty and repulsive and desperately alone. And then he began to feel sorry for himself, being so repulsive and sweaty and lonely and hopeless and drab. And then he realised that he still hadn't moved.

The caravan man was right. He needed shade; somewhere where he could hide, and where his beige Maestro could blend into the background. There was precious little shade in the car park, everything being newly planted. Then in a far corner Henry spied a new, but fairly lush weeping willow that partially concealed a small embayment. He headed for it and reversed in.

The sun shone on the pine-bark mulch that surrounded the sapling, sending up a pleasant resiny aroma. It reminded Henry of Greek holidays with Melissa, and drinking retsina outside little tavernas by the harbour of some tiny port. They had always gone to Greece, or Greek islands, in the old days when they were low on ready money and high on hope. He closed his eyes and thought of the dusky blue hills falling to the water's edge, the gaily painted balconies, in blue or green, the whitewashed walls, the lights strung like jewelled necklaces in the branches of the acacia trees that swished in the onshore breeze. He saw the sun setting, the turquoise sky above the peach horizon, the oily sheen of the wine-dark sea, on which small groups of rowing boats, very far off, drifted idly.

The engine of a returning fishing-boat turned out to be Toni starting her bike. Henry's reverie dissolved. He looked around for the car clock. It read 2.23. Then he remembered it had read 2.23 for the past four years. He looked at his watch. Five thirty!

She'd been in there an hour.

A deep-throated roar told him she was leaving. Henry turned the key in the ignition. It fired first time. He let in the clutch, lurched forward three feet and stalled. Keeping his eye on the door of chalet 467, he fumbled around and started again. The chalet was dark and nobody came out.

The blinds and the windows had been opened. As he followed the exit signs, it suddenly occurred to him that Toni was now heading back to Aphasia Avenue. Blind panic supplanted his depression. She'd get there before him. She'd find he was out. She'd leave a note, and he'd be faced with an evening alone ironing underwear. He simply had to get back before her.

II

As Henry burned rubber on the winding drive, his mind filled with disturbing thoughts. What had she been doing in there for an hour?

Henry's first thought, the one that had been oppressing him from the moment he saw her disappear into Chalet 467, was plain enough. But his experience, gained from eight years of door-stepping for the Bournemouth Gazette, now began to poke through his panic. He must consider the evidence, he thought, changing down into third and grinding the gears.

"She went to a motel. She went to a chalet. She knocked and went straight in. The curtains were drawn. I didn't see anyone else. She stayed for an hour. That's it! That's the evidence. It could mean anything," he said out loud as he entered the slip road to the motorway.

"She could have been alone. Maybe she was tired and needed a lie down. A lie down? Oh for God's sake Battersby, you ****ing idiot, of course she wasn't alone! If she was alone why did she knock? She wasn't alone. Someone was in there. Someone who expected her. She must have arranged to meet him. Or her. It could have been a her. Why? Why should she meet someone in a motel? Why else should she meet someone in a motel?" Henry pulled on to the motorway. Several cars in the nearside lane swerved into the middle to avoid him. He didn't notice.

"She's on the game. Oh God, Toni, you're on the game! I don't pay you enough. You need to buy somewhere to live. You need to supplement your income. I'll give you a raise. I will. Tomorrow."

Henry drove up the rising slip road to the intersection with the Eadington Road.

"No, no, that's not it. Of course you're not on the game. Fancy thinking - Battersby, you have a mind like a sewer. Sex on the brain. Why should it be sex at all? Just because - yes well, never mind. She goes to a chalet . . . she meets someone . . ."

Henry approached the roundabout at 67 miles per hour and entered it practically on two wheels.

"Photographs! She went for a photo session! That's why the blinds were drawn. She's selling photos of herself to some grubby snapper who'll sell them - oh God - videos! Men with nine-inch dicks and donkeys. Oh Toni, you won't have to do it any more. I promise I'll give you . . ."

Henry turned on to the Eadington Road, overtaking a milk-float on the inside.

"Donkeys indeed. Did you see any donkeys?" Henry shook his head and exhaled through his teeth. "Drugs! She's on drugs! She went there to buy some ghastly muscle-building concoctions. That's it! That explains her temper - and a few other things - I've read about roid rages! Oh Toni, my darling, we'll work it out together. I'll help you. You need another interest - a hobby or somnething, outside that gym - me, for instance!" Henry shot the lights at the end of the dual carriageway without closing his eyes or tucking in his elbows. He stared straight ahead, his knuckles white on the steering wheel.

"No - wait - it doesn't take an hour to buy a few anabolics, now does it, Battersby you idiot." Henry banged his head three times on the wheel, which was deeply worrying for the passengers on the bus he was overtaking on a blind bend.

Henry flashed through Eadington village, and found himself approaching the main entrance to the university precinct. To stand the slightest chance of getting home before Toni on her monstrous bike, he knew he had to take the only short-cut he knew. He turned into the university.

The new traffic-control measures, including a sort of goon-tower and automatic barriers, were installed but not yet operational. The university therefore still relied upon the presence of a man in a peaked hat, whose task it was to draw a kind of galvanised gate on wheels across the path of anyone he didn't like the look of entering the hallowed portals. This he began to do. The beige Maestro bore down on him as he held up his hand.

Although Alf Hipkiss was not Nobel Prize material, he could tell when a car was going to stop and when it was not. The rising revs and the acceleration (which frankly staggered Mr Hipkiss) were all the evidence he needed. Abandoning the barrier on wheels, Hipkiss dived into a hydrangea.

Henry clipped the barrier, which was not yet fully across the way, and changed from second to third as he entered Convocation Boulevard.

He hit the first speed hump at about 70, flew half way to the next and hit his head on the ceiling. One shock-absorber punched its way through the wheel-arch and dented the bonnet from the inside.

Altogether, three sleeping policemen were treated in this cavalier fashion, before he shot past the Senate Building and turned down Abbey Drive. Abbey Drive was a steep hill. At the bottom he executed an emergency stop to avoid overshooting the junction, left about two years' worth of tyre on the road, and turned left.

From there he knew a few back roads through quiet Victorian suburbs, avoiding the rush-hour traffic that was now going his way. In another three minutes he was in Aphasia Avenue. His heart leapt. No sign of her!

He raced down the road and had got about half way before a large black bike cruised slowly in from the other end. With lightning reactions Henry turned left through a convenient pedestrian access-way to the alley that ran along the backs. Fortunately there were no pedestrians, but the route, barred at the far end by a large cast-iron bollard, was too narrow for cars. Henry's eyesight - not to mention his hand-eye coordination - was not what it was, not that it had ever been much, and he bounced from side to side, tearing off both wing mirrors and leaving beige streaks on both walls.

The bollard, though heavy, was not deep-rooted and collapsed readily. Henry turned right into the alley. One of his ancient neighbours still engaged in the quaint practice of hanging her washing on lines threaded through hooks in the alley walls. All of this laundry ended up on his windscreen.

Henry braked hard, reducing his speed to about 20 miles an hour. The garden of Henry's house had been converted into a small car park, into which he navigated by looking out of the side window and counting to three after passing his next-door neighbour's back gate.

Unfortunately the developers who created this facility had left behind the outside toilet, which no longer functioned, except as a place to hide the dustbins.

This structure finally brought Henry to a halt.

u chapter 11 u Henry undid his seat-belt and opened the door - which he noticed was rather stiffer than usual. He ran straight to the back door, praying he had forgotten to bolt it. His prayers were answered.

He heard the bell ring just as he left the kitchen, went straight to his front door, and picked up the entryphone.

"Hello?" "It's me, Toni."

"Oh hi!" He pressed the button, opened the door to his flat and casually invited her in. She was carrying a large rucksack which she dumped in the hallway.

"Did you get my message?" Toni called after him.

"Hmm? Message? Oh yes, thanks."

"Sorry I'm late. I had some things to do."

"Oh? Anything - interesting?" "No - just personal stuff. Look Henry, I know this is a bit of a cheek, but - do you mind if I stay here tonight?" Henry, now no longer caring whether he had got his breath back, turned to face her. "Eh? I mean - what?" "I know - look, you needn't look so worried - this isn't a proposition. It's just that I just can't face going back to that ****-hole of mine tonight. I had a bit of a run-in with one of my housemates this morning and - I don't know - the place just sickens me. Do you mind?" "Mind? No - of course not - of course you can! Absolutely. There's the sofa-bed here."

"Yes - I know. Great! Thanks a lot, Henry. I dropped in at home on my way back and got some stuff - and I'll be out really early tomorrow, so I won't disturb you at all."

Henry waved his hand as though to say that nothing she could do would disturb him in the slightest. As he waited for her to finish fiddling with her rucksack, Henry tried to sort out his feelings. This was a pleasant surprise, but it was all a bit - chummy. He didn't want to be just chums. But then he perhaps ought to be grateful for whatever he could get, given what he had seen - and suspected - that afternoon. Henry was unused to emotional turmoil, but turmoil was what he was in. Toni was singing "I can't give you anything but love" to herself as she fished things out of her bag. She seemed in a remarkably good mood, he observed darkly.

He fished a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow.

"I got a video," she said, standing up. "Jesus Henry, what's the matter? You're in a stew. You look as though you've just run a marathon."

"Yes - hot today wasn't it? What's the film?" "Bringing up Baby. It's my all-time favourite movie. So - you went out then?" "What? Oh yes. Out."

"Anywhere nice?" "No, no, nowhere nice. Just out to the shops, and so forth, you know. Personal stuff . . ." he added, with a bitter note.

"Oh - great. What did you get?" "Er - nothing. Nothing at all. They were clean out of everything."

"Oh. Well, good job I did some shopping on the way here."

"You went shopping on the way here as well?" "Yep. Safeway. God, the queues! I got calves' livers. I didn't know if you liked liver, so I also got some fresh cod we could grill."

"You're very kind. I love liver. Look, I must pay you something towards all this . . ."

Toni waved her hand as she carried the provisions into the kitchen. "Tomorrow is fine. You hungry?" Henry had completely lost his appetite. "Not really . . ."

"I am famished. But if you're not, I'll just have a quick bite while I tell you all about the things I discovered today."

"What about?" "What ab . . . the list - Lamorna and all that - surely you haven't forgotten . . ."

"No! No, indeed - the list - yes. I'll clear the table."

Henry set about clearing the table while Toni fixed her sandwich.

II

Toni returned rather slowly from the kitchen."HenryI""Yes?" "Why is your car parked half inside the outside toilet and covered in washing?" "Hmm?" "It has steam coming out of it."

"The toilet has steam coming out of it?" "The car Henry, the car."

"I - I - had a little trouble parking. Maybe it was those drugsI it does say 'if affected do not drive or operate machinery'. Trouble is, how do you know if you're affected unless you try?" Henry smiled weakly and sat down at the table. "So are you going to share your great discoveries with me?" Toni came nearer. "Henry, listen to me. You have totalled your car. It's a wreck. It looks as though someone has rolled it off the side of a mountain. And you say you had a little difficulty parking?" "Yes yes well, never mind - you know what a rat-trap it was."

"You're hiding something, Henry, I can always tell. Have you had an accident?" Henry shrugged his shoulders. "No - amazingly - no accident. But I admit, I took the wrong turning on the way back and scraped a few walls. I was confused, you see. I really haven't been at all well, and those drugs and everything . . ."

Toni sat down and put her sandwich and some papers on the table. "You know, I worry about you. Christ knows why I should, but I do. You are a menace. You need taking in hand. I bet Melissa wouldn't have stood for all this . . ." Toni put her hand to her mouth. "Oh - I'm sorry. That was cruel."

Henry, who was far too nervous to notice slights to his finer feelings, grasped this lifebelt like a drowning man and looked properly hurt. Toni reached over and squeezed his hand. Henry took a deep breath and tried to pass off this gasp of relief as the sigh of a lost soul in torment. Toni released his hand, patted him once on the shoulder and looked embarrassed.

"Look at this. This will cheer you up."

Dead Clever continues next week The characters in Dead Clever bear no resemblance to persons living or dead.

Ted Nield 1996


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