Book Two - first chapter



Prologue and first chapter



Two hundred and eighty three miles to the south-west a little boat awoke with a lurch.  Breaking the stillness of the early morning, a fan of ripples spread across the tightly-packed marina.  Silent like the fish beneath it rocked at every sleeping vessel, the only sound an occasional spank of hull on water in dissipation of its energy.
     As boats go it was a mean little craft, top-heavy with DIY additions.  An unlikely vessel to harbour the power to destroy a Nation.  A tenth, more like, for the device was being delivered in ten component parts.  That made nine other little boats just the same dispersed along the southern shores, each the harbinger of a deadly cargo - the components of a bomb.  A nuclear bomb.  Harmless in themselves, it was the coming together that released the prefixes.  The mega-this, pan-that, overkill-the other. 
     The cabin door opened and a man emerged.  A big man, too big for the boat.  Over his shoulder, strap digging in, he carried a laden canvas bag.  With the precision of those who do everything for the very last time, he stooped to lock the cabin door.
     Released from its burden, the boat lurched again as the man stepped onto the gang plank, and again as he reached the pontoon.  Then, with a limp, he made his way toward the shore.  And all that deserted daybreak time his eyes were sharp with caution, scanning the little marina.
    Parked outside the not-yet-open marina gate was a second man.  Barred from entry, he too looked furtively about.  Gripping the steering wheel at ten to two, his soft educated hands tightened as the first man limped the final yards toward him carrying the heavy bag.  They acknowledged each other.  An unlikely pair.  One boat-shabby, puffing and unfit.  The other cufflink-smart, glinting in the new-day sun.
     On reaching the gate, limping man undid the lock, let himself through and made directly for the boot.  He stowed the bag, opened the passenger door and sat down heavily beside the driver.
     "All there?" asked the man with the educated hands.  He spoke in perfect English with a hint of Brum.
     There was no reply from limping man, just a nod.  In turn, there was no reply to the nod, just the flicker of an eye.
     Grim-faced, they focussed on the road ahead.  Engine ticking over, the handbrake was released and the car drove off at speed.






The school coach roared off leaving the two girls and their holiday luggage outside number 4 'The Terrace', as it was known.
     "Hello, you two."  Mike, their Dad, was there waiting for them, and the girls ran up to exchange hugs.
     Out of step by three abrasive years Ginny, thirteen, kept well ahead of Alison, almost eleven.  Never a reprieve, they thrashed out their growing up together, tough on each other, united in the face of outside threat.  Mike, a not yet successful artist backed up by a selection of part time jobs, did his best.  But, with their mother, Lisbet, away so much, they did get 'spread about a bit' as elder sister Ginny put it.  More so than Mike wished.  Lisbet blamed the logistics of overlapping commitments.  Mike sort of agreed - with his own agenda of not wanting to be labelled a house husband.  Not hundred percent.
     "We had a horrible time at camp, Dad, the weather was too hot, and Marjorie Simmons went missing and we had to spend hours looking for her," Ginny announced, without pausing for breath.  To use up holiday weeks, the girls were packed off on whatever school trips became available.  This one known as 'camp', but housed indoors, had been a Children's Activity Centre, so called, and not, if Mike was honest with himself, as perfect as the brochure suggested.
    "She was up to no good with the boy from the farm," said Alison, her headline statement delivered with a look of mystery why anyone should get themselves into such big trouble just to spend time with a country boy in a grubby barn, at the same time intrigued by the heinous crimes included under the heading 'no good'.      
     Mike remembered his own confusions from the boy's perspective.  No doubt Alison would have noticed the older girls' excitement about such matters, seen them slink away for private huddles, felt the intensity of their chatter, the spoken whispers, the sharp intakes of breath, the shrieks and giggles.  Like him, she would carry a presumption the older children knew all about 'it' without revealing her own scant knowledge of the subject - rather piece it together, unadjudicated, through inference and confrontation.  Elder sister, Ginny, would know the reasons for behaviour the like of which Marjorie Simmons had indulged in and risked so much to savour
     "You don't know anything about it, you weren't there," said Ginny.
     "And you were, I suppose?" Alison fought back.
     "I was nearer than you."
     "And I heard the girls saying about it who actually found her, actually!"
     "Oh, you wouldn't understand any of that.  You're much too young," sniffed Ginny.
     "Understand what?"
     "See what I mean!"
     "Yes I would - she was 'caught with her pants down', so there!"
     "That's just an expression, muppet."
     "No it's not," said Alison, bravely risking further ridicule. 
     "You only heard the baby's version.  I know all the details, every little bit."
     "OK, OK, OK, you two.  I've got the picture," Mike intervened.
     "So, what happened to Marjorie Simmons?" Polly asked.  Polly lived two doors away along The Terrace, at number 8, and she often looked after the girls when their mother was away.  And she looked after Mike whenever she got the chance, and that was quite often too.
     "She's a bad girl.  She was sent home in disgrace," Alison exclaimed, with the absolute disapproval of a ten year-old, taking Polly's hand and gaining points over her elder sister by answering first.
     "I suppose this so-called disgrace will improve her school cred," said Mike, thinking nothing much had changed since his own schooldays.
     "It might," said Ginny.
     "She'll get..." Alison hesitated, looking unsure she should air her gem of information in front of her Dad.
     "Get what?"  Ginny asked, snootily. 
     "... pregnant," said Alison at last, her voice faltering even as she spoke the word.
     "There you go again," said elder sister from the high ground, "not even close.  You don't get pregnant when you take precautions, numpty."
     "Yes you do.  You have to wait a few weeks, and then get a kit from the chemists.  I know all the details," she mimicked her sister, "so, there!"
     "That's such rubbish!"
     "...or 'DV'," said Alison, probably her last card.
     "O. M. G.," said Ginny, putting the back of her wrist to her forehead to feign despair, "I think she means 'VD'!"
     "Right, you two, we've had enough of this conversation," said Mike, firmly this time.  "I know the Simmons' family," he turned to Ginny, hoping for a sensible answer, "I take it she's alright?"
     "Think so, Dad.  Some of the girls have been bitching about her," adding wistfully, "but she'll be noticed more by the boys now."    
     "Let that be a lesson to you both," said Polly.
     "I'm not sure it counts as much of a lesson, Poll," said Mike, looking sternly at the girls, "I take it you two have been behaving yourselves?"
     "Yes, Dad," they replied in perfect unison.



There may have been nothing extraordinary about the appearance numbers 2,4,6, and 8 'The Terrace' except that it was short.  Perhaps too short to be thought of as a proper terrace.  Edwardian-smart, three storeys tall and 'top-heavy', it occupied the finest piece of parkland in the city - along with its only neighbour, the brand new City Theatre across the street. 
     As for the residents, for a start there was Mike - the nothing-special guy.  He, Lisbet and the two girls lived in the middle, at number 4, so far as it is possible to live in the middle of an even number.
     Mike's impression of The Terrace was of something begun, but never finished.  Should he be walking by he'd find himself expecting more of the same from one direction, or startled by the scarred end to number 8 from the other.  A beginning so promising, an end so abrupt.  Mike feared the building might lean and topple over looking for its missing numbers.  All those extra neighbours he might have had, the lifelong  friends, woofing dogs, tools to borrow, 'pop round for coffee', windows lit on winter nights and letters in the postman's wheely-trolly thing for numbers 10, 12, 14...  Where were they?  Did they even exist?  Perhaps the building was a casualty of the Great War - run out of money, or the architect dead in the trenches.  A memorial, then!  Yes, an ornate, top-heavy, Edwardian memorial to people who would never be who they might have been, and a reminder that plans can sometimes fail, even built of solid rock.  So, a lesson, a warning, an omen.  Mike shuddered.
     "I have to get back, Mike.  Edward will be home," Polly interrupted his thoughts.  Her husband, Edward, was away a lot too, just like Mike's Lisbet.  Like Lisbet, but not with her.  Both married to their work was Mike's take on it.  Not that it excused his behaviour with Polly.  It explained it, though.  Anyway, when Edward was at home, it was with Polly at number 8.
     "OK, Poll."
     No longer included in the conversation, the girls made their way indoors. 
     Polly and Edward at number 8 were separated from Mike by Brian 'the brains' at number 6.
     Mike, everyone, even Polly who was good with people, felt awkward in Brian's presence.  He was so gauche, it was infectious.  Mike could imagine him plugged into the National Grid and the whole Nation put ill at ease.  But it was unsociable rather than unfriendly awkward that made a Brian out of Brian.  Understanding that meant he and Mike got on well together.
     "If you unpack the girls and give them their tea, you could send them round to number 8, if you like.  Then you can have the evening off."  Polly looked at Mike quizzically.  "Would that suit you?  I expect it would."
     Lisbet had a career and money, hence the house.  Mike had the girls, hence his cocktail of part-time jobs interspersed with studio work so he could be there for them when they weren't away or at school.
     "You're an angel, Poll."
     " rest up after that new job of yours!"  Polly referred to the trial lunchtime shift he'd just completed at the theatre restaurant across the road.  "You see, Mike, bein' an artist doesn't excuse you from everythin' you don't fancy doin'."
     "Are you sure, Poll?" Mike asked, pretending to be serious.
     "Silly me," Mike gestured with both hands, "and I thought I'd found my perfect role."
     "...that permitted you to do exactly as you please!"
     "No - encouraged!"
     "Huh," Polly tutted.  "An' that's what they taught you at art school?"
     "Must have... I don't remember."
     "OK," Polly relented, "but providin' one thing..."
     "That you get to be a success."
     Mike didn't reply.  He'd never get angry or sulk, but he preferred people, especially Polly, not to keep drawing attention to his lack of progress along the road to 'Big Time' in the art world.  Success would be great - but so was how things were.  Mainly!
     In Mike's image of himself verbs like 'entertain', 'seduce' and 'love' were expected, whilst 'behave' or 'conform' he could ignore.  Some he could keep for later, like 'achieve' and 'celebrate'.  And nouns?  'Artist', obviously, but not forgetting companion, visionary, idealist, optimist... each accompanied by their adjectives.  'Good' companion, 'hopeless' optimist and so on, but one in particular - 'struggling' artist.  Well before his thirtieth birthday, he was already successful at that.
     "You never know, darlin', maybe get a sale next week?"  Polly, with a forgive-me smile, held up crossed fingers.  "So you can spend the evening doing some work and building up your studio collection," she added, sternly.
     Art-dealer Edward had a mixed exhibition scheduled for the following week in his smart city centre gallery.  There were posters all over the place and an article in the paper.  Mike had two pieces entered both, thankfully, delivered and ready to be hung.
     "True," said Mike, with a sigh.  "You never know!"
     "The girls, then - OK?"
     With Polly needing to get home, Mike noticed they'd edged along the pavement as far as the gate of number 6, Brian's house.
     Brian, physicist and electronics expert, a 'geek' or some such generalisation, lived by himself except for his basement flat which he let out through agents.  Mike could never understand how anyone could live so solitary a life, or be so unsociable and unkempt.  His house was unkempt too.  No maintenance, no gardening, no cleaning, no repairs.  A smudge on the neatness of The Terrace.
     Brian rarely went out and, during the day at least, his front door remained unlocked, and he'd never answer the bell.  Those known to him were expected to let themselves in - and that included a few strangers to the residents of The Terrace.  Mike noticed that Brian had the knack of being in whichever room he looked in first, even when he deliberately changed his mind at the very last moment.  It occurred to him there might be lots of Brians everywhere and all at the same time.  Like in that TV programme he'd seen on quantum mechanics, each Brian existing in his own reality only one of whom was the 'observable' Brian, the one he was currently looking at.  Simple!  Better that than Brian's explanation of particle physics which no one could understand.  Brian was particle physics, or an incarnation of it, and that made so much better sense to Mike.
     "OK?" Polly asked again.
     "I'll drop them off at six, fed and watered.  Thanks, Poll."
     From the landing window at the top of his stairs on the second floor - mostly given over to the studio that perched above the rooftops like a high-wire glasshouse - Mike had a head-on view of the new City Theatre across the road.  After running the children to school he might stand there taking his pace from the inactivity of the early morning or, later in the day, observe the metronome of theatre people coming and going about their business.  Everything else within view was open parkland apart from the road itself, which was actually called 'Pleasant Place' and not 'The Terrace'.  So the theatre, Mike imagined, could have been 'any odd number it liked' Pleasant Place, as there were no other buildings on the road competing for a number.  But he never knew what it was.
     "See you later then," and, like an embrace without touching, they eyed each other goodbye.
     The theatre was handy for recent widower, Paul, because he was its director and lived in Brian's basement flat.  And handy for Polly too because she worked there part-time 'front of house', and she ran the bar if they were busy, or the ticket office, or programmes, or cloakroom, or anywhere at all she might be needed.  Polly and the theatre thrived in each other's company, she gave vitality - more so than poor old Paul.
     Finally, there was number 2.  Owned by Paul, but recently up for sale, it had been empty since the previous summer when Paul's wife met her death following a dreadful accident in the house.  Paul, who never spent another night there, moved temporarily into Brian's basement flat with his dog, David, where they'd remained ever since.  A tragedy, in Mike's opinion, that was never properly explained, investigated or even reported in the papers.  As though it had assumed its own taboo the residents, upset as they obviously were, never spoke about what had happened.  But not Mike and Polly.  They thought it most peculiar. 
     Being end-of-terrace, or 'start-of-terrace' as Mike preferred, the architect allowed himself some extra embellishment for number 2 - given that the whole terrace had come off the drawing board with a flourish.  Paul's old house was much the fanciest and sported the only pepper-pot turret, a part of which was visible from Mike's landing window without having to lean out.  And, just like Mike's house, number 2 had a north-facing studio taking up most of the second floor opposite which was an identical landing window from which to keep an eye on the theatre across the road.  Distantly - metaphorically - Mike coveted number 2.  He'd have bought it, put number 4 on the market and moved next door, had it been up to him.

Mike still found it hard to accept that Paul no longer occupied the house next door, or that it had been cleared out just a few days after the accident.  Paul was so sad all the time, it seemed like he'd been cleared out too.  An empty receptacle for booze and depression. And Mike, to his shame, never quite grasped the moment to broach the subject man to man finding, instead, extra affection for David, the dog, a more manageable outlet for his sympathy.  Polly, similarly, fussed over the dog as though he, at least, had nothing to hide or explain, and certainly no objection to her lavishing him with special attention.


Mike mentioned to the girls - as they raced through their chicken nuggets drizzled with a something out of a bottle, followed by ice-cream - that they'd be staying the night with Polly and Edward.
     "Wicked.  Thanks Dad," said Alison.
     "You needn't thank me, it's for my benefit not yours.  I've been on an extra job I'm trying out, and I'm tired."
     "You mean this new job you've started, and we're not to ask you about yet?" asked Alison.
     "Something like that," said Mike, annoyed with himself for having to be secretive about only going for the job so he could see more of Polly.
     They were quiet for a few minutes, Alison's expression suggesting she was trying not to think about her Dad's new job, which must have been difficult for her since he'd mentioned it.
     "It's not that we prefer Aunt Polly's..." Ginny began.
     "It's 'cos it's different there," Alison interrupted, "different bedrooms and breakfast and stuff.  And Edward is a funny man."
     "Is he indeed." said Mike.
     "It's rude to interrupt," Ginny poked Alison in the chest, "and we like Aunt Polly too."
     "But not as much as my Mum.  No one could be as nice as my Mum."
     "She's my Mum too, Alison."
     "I never said she wasn't, but she's my Mum too, and I can say that if I want - can't I Dad?"
     "She's the best Mum anyone ever had," Mike replied, wishing it were true.
     Mike walked the girls the twenty paces to number 8.  Polly answered.  One 'hello' each but the look that passed between them, should anyone have seen it, spoke of so much more.  Ginny and Alison ran straight into the house to find Edward.
     "Busy week ahead, Mike, an' don't forget your birthday.  Day after tomorrow, isn't it?"
     "Yes, Sunday.  Thirty long years - oh, and Lisbet will be here," Mike felt the joy in Polly's presence crumple at the mention of Lisbet's name.  "Just for the day," he stuttered, as though he should apologise for her visit.
     "That'll be nice for the girls."
     "Bit of a family party planned."  Too late, but Mike wished he'd not mentioned that either, though Polly did need to know he'd be unavailable that day.  "And she's just sent me a list of cakes and things to pick up from Marks and Spencer's as she's not arriving 'til late tomorrow."
     Mike much preferred other people's birthdays.  In fact, he preferred the centre of attention to be earned by common consent, not have it dictated by mathematical ornament.
     "How late?" Polly asked.
     "Very, but I'll do that shopping in the morning so we're OK for tomorrow afternoon - usual time?"
     "Yes, Hun," Polly replied.


"I feel..." Polly hesitated.  Not yet dressed, she was sitting on the edge of Mike's studio sofa, her arms propped to either side, head forward and staring down at the floor as though deep in thought.  Wistful for her, Mike guessed she was upset about whatever she'd started to say, then wished she hadn't.
     "Feel what, love?" he asked, taking an arm and sitting close beside her so her nakedness pressed against him, soft and reassuring, but maybe cautious too.
     "Guilty," said Polly at last, still not raising her head.
     "You mean about me, about us?  About cheating on our other halves?"  He didn't need to ask.  They'd had this out before.  There were answers - well, explanations, more like - and he'd much prefer not to go over them all again.  Besides, there wasn't time.  The girls were out for the day with friends and Edward was at his gallery in the city centre.  Their 'safe time' was running out and Polly needed to get back to where she was supposed to be.
     "About us, yeah," she said, looking up at him, "about feelin' we're just marking time, not progressing," she looked away, then added, "bein' shallow," almost in a whisper.  Usually the stronger of the two, Polly seemed to be letting herself down, and that unsettled Mike.  "Your Lisbet, my Edward, your kids and, yes, us," she spoke with such emotion it gave Mike the impression he was eavesdropping her most private thoughts.  "I feel we're, like... in a rut, sort of bogged down, stagnant!"  She uttered the last word with some distaste.
     "Poo, bit strong that," Mike replied, hoping to raise a smile and wondering what he could say to cheer her up.  "As it happens..." he hesitated.  It probably wasn't the time, but it kept pushing in front of whatever else he thought of.  "As it happens, Poll, you mentioning us being in a rut - I had a strange experience this morning."  Despite the huge change of subject, he thought it worth a try.  "A good experience, I think!"
     "Sorry, Hun, me bein' a whinge," she replied, not taking his cue.
     "No, love, I'm the problem here," Mike assured her, putting his strange  experience on hold while he tried to think of something else to cheer her up.  There was nothing new in 'Art' he could talk about, the subject that took up a biggish portion of his attention - without competing with sex or concern for his kids.  Mike was struck silent for a moment because what had happened just a few hours earlier had been the strangest thing, and so unsettling, it was difficult to put aside. 
     His experience had come to him as in a dream, nothing specific, just an overwhelming sense of anticipation.  No - more than that.  A sense of destiny, like a mission to fulfil, and no instructions yet or clue to what it might entail.
     "We're both the problem, Mike," Polly continued, not privy to the turmoil in Mike's head, "that's all we are - a problem for each other."
     "Lisbet away all the time," Mike spoke like he'd said it all before.  They were back on that old familiar topic, the one that never reached an agreeable conclusion.  "And me working at the council when I'm supposed to be an artist."  Dissatisfied with his humdrum jobs or not, Mike knew this thing that happened, this 'destiny' of his, went far beyond his struggle to make a go of it as an artist.  Sheepishly, he'd have to admit it went further even than the complexities of his affair with Polly.
     "It's OK darlin', you don't need to prove anything," Polly interrupted, up and getting dressed, "not to me."  Back to her natural confidence, she offered him a thin smile.
     "An explanation, Poll, at least I owe you that - though I don't exactly know how to put it."  How could Mike explain to this good, kind, down-to-earth woman that all of a sudden - the morning before his thirtieth birthday to be precise - he'd been struck by what he could only describe as a catastrophic reappraisal of his whole outlook on life.  Whatever occurred, it left him with a shocking disregard for caution and a conviction he was about to embark on some activity quite possibly dangerous, yet irresistibly attractive.  "It was in the lift at Marks and Spencer's," he began.  Not the place for Mike at all, so he quickly qualified being there with, "You remember - Lisbet had a list of goodies to pick up for my birthday tea tomorrow?"  Polly looked at him, "...for the children, mainly," he added.  Hearing himself speak of his lift experience for the first time made him realise how ridiculous it was going to sound.
     "Uh-huh," said Polly, without the attention Mike hoped for.
     "My thirtieth."
     "Yes, Mike."
     "Anyway, despite pressing the correct button, the doors opened at the wrong floor," he stopped to let his expression tell of some significance.  "In fact, it wasn't a proper floor at all, " he said, "...not a shopping floor."
     "What are you on about, Mike?"
     "Not a proper floor," he repeated.  "The doors just opened like curtains on a stage, and then what d'you think happened?"
     "Tell me?"
     "I saw my future!  Through that 'proscenium arch' in a Marks and Spencer's lift, of all places, I looked, and there it was!"
     "What was?"
     "My future.  I'm serious, Polly.  I looked into my future!"  Mike had been waving his arms around to illustrate his story but, at that point, felt them fold in front of him in defiance of Polly's reaction.  "Pretty revealing, I can tell you - in fact, I gasped out loud!" 
     "That'd be the lingerie department, darlin'.  Always has that effect on you."
     "You're not taking this seriously, Poll.  Fact is, I had a sign.  An 'epiphany' some might call it," and he quickly registered a dismissive, "huh!" in denial of any divinity that might have been implied.
     "I see," said Polly, shaking her head.  "Marks and Sparks, dysfunctional lift, curtains, future, gasp - got it.  Great!"
     "But that's what happened, whatever you may think," and Mike hung his head in shame at his confession.  Though, fair enough, he thought.  No one but another nutter would ever believe him.  Polly, Lisbet, the children, even he himself right up until one day short of thirty - all far too sane to credit such a crazy notion!
     "Cheer up, Mike."  Polly sounded contrite.  "It might never happen," and she hugged him.
     Blind to his shortcomings, a stranger to confrontation, rarely allowing himself to become depressed or over-excited, Mike didn't exhibit the psychological structure for achievement on a grand scale.  Duty, should such a word occur to him, would be of his own design, cautious, pliant and incapable of dereliction.  The single exception, his children.  Beyond that, any achievement would come as a shock to those who knew him because, in their experience, Mike was a man destined to squander his talents on projects that were fruitless, ill-advised, or both.
     An example, this affair of his with Polly...
     "Selfish I s'pose, Poll, but I can't imagine losing either of you."  After the failure of his M&S revelation, Mike gave up attempts to steer the conversation.
     "Yea, selfish," Polly confirmed, as though relieved to get back to her original topic.
     "All we need to do, Poll, is..." Mike hesitated.  Even saying it was almost too much to bear.  Of all his dilemmas by far the biggest, and the most simply resolved, was Polly.  " stop seeing each other, or both of us go through a divorce!"  But 'now', for Mike, was always premature for coming to a decision either way.  New bold spirit or not, it just seemed too unpleasant to even contemplate.  Unless, of course, he could embrace the four of them in this new epiphany of his.  Unless he could share his enlightenment so together they might resolve their flagging compromise and, like characters in a children's story, live happily ever after?  Perfect!  And Mike felt a glow of satisfaction at how wonderful that would be.  
     "You're stuck between two women, Mike, an' loyal to us both.  I don't see a way out," Polly announced in the manner of a conclusion, and jolting Mike back to reality.
     "Lovely as it is to be with you, Hun - you, the sweetest guy for miles around," tenderly, she touched his lips, "an' the best lookin'," Polly went quiet for a moment, fingering her wedding ring as though nervous of what she might say next, "fact is, it's a mess," she said with that look of resignation Mike had seen before and didn't like.  "Lisbet's double life, her fancy job and being away all the time