In which our narrator meets Sol Lomax

Imaginary chapter of an imaginary novel for an imaginary reader…

I arrived at Heathrow mid-afternoon and got a taxi to London. The Company had three penthouse flats in the Barbican, all fully serviced, all empty. I chose the middle one. After a shower I wandered down to the Centre, ate in the most expensive bistro I could find, then spent half an hour looking round an award winning photography exhibition based on images of daily life in the Kurdish region of Syria. I was bored stiff by it, but it would be good to mention it in conversation with some of the people I was mixing with.

The guy from Test Crash Dummies, forget his name, was doing a free concert in the huge foyer, so I had a few whiskies at the bar and listened to him. I got talking to Mavis Staples who was the main act that night. She offered me a ticket but I  didn’t feel like going, so I lied and went back to the flat. I sat on the balcony with a bottle of Glenmorangie and a couple of spliffs. Beneath me in the private gardens, the Guildhall Music School was performing madrigals or something for a midsummer soiree. Under the blue twilight sky, the white jackets and dresses of the guests moved in civilised fashion between tables of polite nibbles and expensive wine. Delicate tinkles of applause fluttered up to me occasionally, amidst the chatter of satisfaction and the refined laughter of belonging.

For fun,  I moved the stereo speakers onto the balcony and blasted out 300 watts of Careful with That Axe Eugene.  Pink Floyd snapped the exquisitively tuned gathering below  and it scattered into confusion, expensive faces looking up  and looking around for the security guards and other such attendants as were waged to ensure  the sanctity of the shining ones’ insulation. Their evening having disintegrated into shock, outrage and vows to take the matter to the highest level, the very highest level, I gave them a  high decibel dose of Eric Clapton, had a nightcap spliff and went to bed.

The next morning, up and showered by seven, feeling more than a little and less than a lot hangover sick, I had couple of stiff Glenfiddichs with my cornflakes, and a couple of 20 mil diazepam with my multivits. I took the lift down to the carpark, showed my pass and got behind the wheel of a gleaming new S-class Mercedes.

I could have joined three others on a company Leer jet and flown up to Inverness from City Airport, but I’d got a bit bored travelling in that particular piece of walnut panelled luxury in the past year or so. Besides, I didn’t want to just be a passenger with other passengers. I wanted to be king of the road. So I sat for a moment thrilling to the perfume of white leather, bathed in the soft beauty of the car’s unsurpassable aeshetic design, then purred out onto Silk Street and headed for the East End. I had a bit of personal business.

I was never an East End geezer even when I lived in the East End but for today I was for one sweet  space an East End geezer. I still didn’t know what my job was even though I’d been doing it for two years, but I knew that part of my job was finding out what the job is, and that part of the reason I had the job is because I could switch like lightning between roles. Between who the world would see me as. Between the way I saw and thought myself, between who I am and what I am. Heading up the Mile End Road, getting the glances and stares of respect like I was some dealer or gangster at the top, I was a gangster dealer on top of the game.

Call it instinct, intuition or knowledge. I have them all. Turning into the old street, I saw him straight away. A few years older than me,  emaciated and  with a face as bitter as strychnine, he was coming out of the betting shop and crossing the road to the Prince Albert. Twenty years ago he’d terrorised me and anyone who came his way. Petty thief, wife beater, spiv, bully, this cock-eyed  sliver of spit at that moment just pulled in like a black hole every ounce of hatred I had for him and his sort. He didn’t even hear the Merc behind him. I drew up next to him and spoke his name. He snarled around to face me. I looked at him, grinning. Then I laughed like Satan, like I had seen the funniest thing in the world.  Through the rear view as I drove away, I saw him like a petrified black flame, stuck for ever in his self-made hell, the pub and the betting shop and the police cell the limits of his world.

I drove about a while, stopping outside the now gentrified terraced where I lived with Uncle Stanley and my cousin Jacob until I left school. No particularly bad memories, apart from being bullied by the local gangs, just the one underlying chronic memory of anxiety, being on constant watch amd feeling like an outsider.  As I drove tpwards the North Circular I reflected that in an important way, though it was unpleasant at the time this being an outsider, constantly scanning the world for dangers has been a major factor in making me what I am today. It’s what got me this job.

Through Finchley, where Jacob is an orthodox rabbi, and onto the Archway Road I passed the house at Muswell Hill where Ingrid, the MP’s beautiful daughter,  stole my virginity when I was 17. While downstairs a cocktail gathering of politicians, including one Minister of State,  spilled into the small garden, in her attic bedroom  I lay naked  among the summer night’s stars. Even when I die, a part of me will always lay in Ingrid.

Then onto the M1, the great North before me, nothing but a soft humming purr as I moved  my black and silver machine into cruise control.  Gliding past crawling lorries and  mass produced Fords for mass produced  sales personnel,  a few deft adjustments to the stalk of the entertainment control brought me twelve speaker surround Sade, cool and smooth and the mellowness only real power can produce. Mellow and fluid, and my favourite word, mellifluous.

I had had one oncoming call only during the past 24 hours. At my level, very few in the company are authorised to contact me. Similarly, I have very few occasions on which to exercise my power to call lower levels. I am my own man. The call I’d had was from one of the Chairman’s PAs. As I was driving north, he’d suggested, it may be a good idea to call in on Sol Lomax who’d put me up for the night in Edinburgh. A suggestion from the Chairman you always took as an instruction. I’s heard Lomx’s name mentioned many times, almost with awe, but had never met the man so I was looking forward to spending time with him, moving at last into the top circle of the organisation.

He had a place in Portobello, and as the motorway unrolled beneath me, I thought back to when I was ten and my Dad, I mean my real Dad, had taken me up there when he had business in Edinburgh. We’d stayed in a three storey Victorain guesthouse on a road full of similar sandstone buildings. He took me to South Queensferry to see the Bridge and bought me Edinburgh Rock, soft and peppery stuff nothing like the hard pink rubbish you got in Blackpool.  After our meal in the evening, we walked along the promenade just down from where we were staying, and looked over to the twinkling lights of Fife. Later, in our room, I’d curl up next to a huge Cossor Radio, its tuning panel a gentle glow of magical names like Hilversum, Luxembourg, Eirrean, Sofia, Moscow.  Then in the mornings the guesthouse owners let me help in the kitchens which were in the basement, by putting breakfasts into a dumb waiter and hoisting it up to the dining room with a thick cord. It was called the Yester Guesthouse. I was looking forward to seeing it again,  to visiting yesterday once more.

Apart from the fact that he was very respected all that I knew about Lomax was that he had a lifetime as consultant engineer on many projects around the world. I  was looking forward to meeting him. He sounded like my kind of guy.

I gave Jimmy Bone a call and arranged to meet him for a drink in Newcastle. I got there early and finished a bottle of wine waiting for him on the roof top restauarant of the Baltic. When he arrived we had one of their poncey lunches and another couple of bottles. Jimmy bored me stiff raving about the place and regeneration ooportunities allied to arts and cultural development. I felt like throwing him off the roof but let him off with letting him pick up the tab of £95. On the way back to the car I got myself a burger and chips and used the parking ticket to wipe my hands.

Traffic on the A1 was light. It would be lighter again in ten yars. The Company has no interest in the twilight towns and cities of the North East, we are very much a west coast industry. But I was annoyed and feeling irritable getting stuck behind lorries and slow trails of local traffic. An afternnon gloom and tiredness was making me fuzzy, and I was bored with the car which felt already soiled with familiarity.  In one half hour traffic jam, I felt a weight of depression, like I was just a faceless head in a steel box. I wished I’d flown up with the others. By the time I got near Edinburgh, I  was worn down to the colour of the thick grey clouds.

It was still early, that dead time of day between five and six. I parked up on one of the terraces full of guesthouses off the Joppa Road.  From the same place I remember as a boy I bought some fish and chips, a couple of cans from the off licence next door, then strolled down to the promenade. Sometimes it’s best not to revisit a place. It was once bright and exciting, full of adventure and freshness. Nothing had changed, even the benches seemed the same dirty green colour. But now it was dull and featureless, a soulless suburban staleness, a worn out place. The water of the River Forth was just anonymous and indifferent water, just grey water backed by the washed-out coastline beyond and the heavy bruised sky that was too tired  to  rain. The beer didn’t go down well either, and the fish felt like it was swimming inside me in a pool of  cold grease.

Walking up the hard promenade into a muggy humidity,  through a transplant of the nowhere to the anywhere, shadow to substance, the ordinary ordained everywhere day, routinely running on grooves of repetition, dog walkers grim and determined not to give in, looney soupers around a central bencher, shapes without forms,  a gaggle of old women from some coach party and so on and so forth,  then at the promenade’s end the tatty amusement arcade and grease kiosks, and last year’s gothic teens, I was not a happy man. I cut back onto Joppa Road, found the nearest pub which was next to a concrete block of flats the child had never seen, and sat an hour with a few whiskies and a few guys made of solid air, the realism that makes talking empty, and settles the nerves as only the unspoken solidarity of community, of having been there and knowing it, and not needing to babble about it, can do. The whisky helped too.

I headed back up the road, past the police station and the betting shop and the cash coverter, all aliens on my childhood landscape, to the gentile Portobello of Victorian villas. The Yester guesthouse stood as I recalled it, and the old women I had seen on the promenade were huffing and giggling and heaving their tweed skirted stout bottoms up the steps towards their scones and raspberry jam teas.

Back in the car I took a couple of Diazepam. It was important to be on top form when I met Lomax. The impression I made on him would almost certainly help  decide my future with the Company. I followed the roads on the SatNav to his address. I’d expected him to live in some solid sandstone mansion and was disappointed to find myself on a newish estate of nondescript middle ranking suburbia, more Mussleburgh than Portobello.

I pulled up at the circle of parking space that topped Alderman Sidney Ambrose Close. Lomax’s bungalow stood alone with a large garden on either side. The gardens were an estate agent’s dream photograph, immaculate and  neat with a close-clipped lawn that looked like it had been to an expensive hairdresser’s.  On either side, in symmetrical alignment,  pampas grass  bowed graceful and elegant towards the front door.  The windows gleamed in their stark white frames set in walls of sugar candy pinkness. I rang the bell and heard a chiming melody of something Scottish from within.

In a general sort of way I’d anticipated Lomax’s being a burly hairy florid headed  giant of a man so was taken aback when the door opened upon a dapper little fellow more congruent with a lower middle ranking insurance executive.  Thin, small, balding head tight as leather, browned deeply, amazingly large brown eyes, friendly white teeth smile beneath immaculately clipped moustache: I gave him my best open and confident and trustworthy grin as I shook his hand firmly.

“Come in, come in,” he said warmly, and chuckling. “So good to meet you. So kind of you to drop by. Please, this way.”

He led me into the large lounge, a wash of teracotta furnishings on a rich burgundy carpet set off with pale pink walls. “Do sit down,” he chuckled, gesturing to a well stuffed sofa. He sat down in an armchair that made him look even smaller, and twinkled at me. “A good journey?” he asked. “It’s a shame they only left you a Mercedes. Leave it here. It’ll do me as a runabout for a few days. You take the Jag up to Larig.”

I was computing what struck me as contradictions in this situation. His thin legs  were clearly contoured beneath soft grey slacks, his shoes were brown slip-ons with a dinky little chain across the instep, his lambswool V-neck was pale blue with a tiny little logo of something on the breast. Between us on the large coffee table were several issues of Home and Garden. None of it matched up with the image I’d had of him, it didn’t go with his reputation.

“I have eaten earlier,” he said. “But you must let me offer you some refreshments. Would you care to freshen up? Look, why don’t I show you your bedroom, then you get your things from the car and I’ll make a snack then we can relax and have a nice chat.”

He showed me my room, and when I’d got my bags in, he settled me in the lounge. “Perhaps you’d care for some music,” he said, decided rather, and left me listening to The Pirates of Penzance and leafing through  Home and Garden. “I shaln’t be long,”  he smiled. “Make yourself at home.”

In the half hour or so he was gone a deep gloom descended on me. I wondered whether I would be able to survive the evening ahead, and eyed  with longing a decanter of whisky that  teased from a silver tray on the sideboard.

He returned eventually, pushing a trolley that carried a teaset, a plate with four biscuits on it and a bowl of cheesey nibbles. “There,” he said, satisfied. “Now we can settle down. Help yourself to milk and sugar. These biscuits are jolly good. Don’t be shy.” The word rictus came to mind as I aimed in his direction what I hoped was a grateful acknowledgement of his hospitality.

Lomax munched happily on a biscuit and  grinned at me. The silence was  eating me like indigestion. Some sort of test? I asked myself. “Have you lived here long, Sol?” I  said as an opening gambit.

“Oh please, please, call me Derek,”  he chuckled.

“Ah, is Sol a sort of nickname?

“No, no. Derek is my nickname. My real name is Solomon.”

“That’s – quite an unusual nickname, Derek. How did you come by it.”

He positively gleamed. “Ah, I am so glad you asked that. It’s an interesting story. You’ll find it rather amusing. You see, when I was a young engineer in the merchant, I was a great fan of Dirk Bogarde, the actor you know, and I had a few pictures of him on my cabin wall. Most of the books I read were about him, and the other boys used to rib me a bit. Anyway, after a while they took to calling me Dirk, in a good natured way, you know. Well, the name stuck and soon everyone called me Dirk. But, you see, here’s the funny bit, we had these Malayan seamen you see who misunderstood and they thought I was called Derrick, you know after a ship’s derrick, and they took to calling me Derrick and when the word got around the other chaps thought it was hilarious so they started calling me Derek.”

He paused to let me absorb the amazing tale, then he almost choked laughing loudly and coughing out biscuit crumbs. My face froze for several seconds into a delighted grin. He stopped laughing abruptly, like a steel shutter coming down.

“I’ve lived here on and off for nine years. Designed and built the house myself, it’s what Hilda, my wife wanted, she was brought up in Portobello and wanted us to settle here. I’ll introduce you to Hilda later.  Another cup of tea?”

The whisky bottle on the sideboard seemed to have doubled in size and was jeering at me.

“The house has some interesting features. I’ll show you round a little later. How was our Billy Bone?”

“Well enough. Billy was, Billy,” I  answered  uncommitedly.

“He’s useful to us, “ said Lomax, now as if he had replaced himself with some deeper ruthless self. “Of course, he actually believes all that art and regeneration crap. It’s a bonus that he does. No one pretends like a man who doesn’t know he’s pretending. You know the score.”

He spoke the last sentence like a hammer, while boring his powerful brown eyes right into me.

“We could  mount a bloodless revolution tomorrow by never underestimating that people’s hunger for the menu is so great that they are totally unaware they have never had a meal.

“Come on! Eat that last biscuit. Don’t be shy!” And he chuckled and twinkled and  beamed good will towards me.

I was beginning to get at least an inkling of  the deeper structures going on. The enigma of soon-to-be-introduced Hilda didn’t concern me too much, I’d worked out that was a surface detail. I was still struggling but knew I was starting to get into the swing of the communicating game, knew I was on a fairly steep but manageable learning curve, and that I had just to respect his being in charge. Always respect the boss.

“You’ve only met the Boss once haven’t you? At your final interview,” he said. “You’ll like him. He’s a great guy to be around. But don’t ever forget that  he is the centre of everything and nothing happens without his influence, whether it’s to get something going or kill something that is going wrong. When you’re up there, just do what you’re good at. Be nice to the guests. Enjoy yourself. You’re a node in a vast network, and if you don’t feel it flowing through you unimpeded then you are doing something very wrong. And you’ll be out.”

Again, the hammer of the last sentence and the drilling of the huge brown eyes. I knew that silence was the precisely require response.

“And this vast network you’re a node in. The whole of that network is just a node in an even greater network. If anything goes wrong in your network we have back up. You are very much on probation. I hope you understand.”

Again, my silence met with approval.

“Come on!” He sprang from his armchair. “Let me show you around.”

He led me through to a back room much larger than the first and a complete contrast. Books lined the walls, papers were strewn everywhere, three computer monitors sat atop a desk built into one of the longer walls. It was darker in here, and through open French windows the twilight was beginning to gather, thick and blue and heavy.

“My office,” he said. “Come on.” and he took me through the windows onto a patio. I was astonished at how far the garden stretched, how much there was in it, how many statues and outhouses, the fountain at its centre, scarcely a flower in sight.

“Let’s start at the far end and get the work out of the way. I want to show you something.”

We walked down a gently sloping gravel path towards a large wooden shed at the bottom of the garden. “My workshop,” he said, unlocking the door then inserting a keycard into a metal door and turning on the light. The interior was lined with metal. A workbench lay along one wall, with a range of miniature lathes and other devices covering part of it. On the wall above it, neatly arranged tools and angle beams to light the working area, the whole space bathed in a clean white light. In the centre of the room was a large model, a sort of upturned funnel shape with a large base and a short spout. Other models lay on the benches around the remaining walls: tunnel bores, digging machines, some things I couldn’t identify.

“This,” he said indicating the central model,” is where you are off to. You won’t recognise it from outside. It’s covered in tunnel waste, and a forest has been planted on it. It’s half a mile wide.”

Then he picked up one of the models I couldn’t identify. “And this is the back end of our main tunnel borer. You are looking at the accommodation section. There are guys who have lived in one of these, including the boys you sent me last year, for three months at a time. Come on, let’s go. You’ve seen all you need to.”

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Perhaps he sensed a certain lack of enthusiasm in my  spring  from the sofa, “Come on! Come on!” he said as I followed him out of the door. “Don’t be shy.”

I followed him down a hallway that was  too long to make immediate sense. “Bedrooms, kitchen, bathrooms,”  he intoned to mark our passage to the top of a flight of stairs. We descended  and I found myself in a huge room, the width and length of the house. The full width of the back wall consisted of  windows, the centre being doors which opened onto a patio and all I could see of a very long garden that descended steeply to a copse of trees some hundred metres distant. “My office”, he indicated vaguely with his arms a chaos of desks and papers, shelves of books reaching the the ceiling, and  maybe twenty LCD screens, all active, five or six keyboards, what I guessed were three 180 Gigatetrabyte memory cabinets.

“Come on.”  The patio was bare save for a table and chairs, but before me, set on the slope that slid to the shadowy trees, was a jumble of small buildings, some like sheds others like molehills or air raid shelters, and in the centre of it all, partly hidden from view, a statue  of something spouting arcs of water six feet into the air. The largest of the structures, a big shed about 18 by 24 feet in size, abutted the patio and we walked across to it. It was unlocked but  Lomax   produced a keycard to activate a sliding steel door within the wooden shell.  Inside, the whole was walled in steel. Lights came on. Unlike his office, this place was immaculately tidy, a workshop of some kind but more like an operating theatre than a garage. Instruments covered one wall over a polished workbench, and further tools hung from beams on coils of powerlines or gaspipes.

“I make the models here,” he said. “A few of them are for PR sessions but most go to our teams for manufacture. Not much here at the moment, but this will interest you.” He pointed to what looked at first like a cross section of a submarine. “That’s the back end of our main tunnel borer, the accommodation section takes up most of it. Some of the boys you sent up have been living in this for two months. There’re three hundred men on it at any one time. At the moment they are a few weeks from breaking through east of Sandalwood Bay.

“Nice there. They’ll be able to have a paddle,” he giggled.

“That, in the middle of the room, you will know much more about in a few days. You won’t recognise it at first because it’s covered in trees and rivers and such other stuff as delights the nature lover.”  He pointed to an immense cone, its top tapered to a stubby funnel, its sides interspersed with round holes, four large arches at right angles serregating its base. “Enough of work, anyway. Come on.”

Lomax led me outside and down a gravel path to where the fountain was enclosed in a pool about twelve feet wide, rounded by a plain marble wall. Two semicircular marble benches  skirted the paving that ran around the fountain, and we sat one one of these. The evening was thickening into twilight, blue and heavy, and the still air fell softly onto the milky marble and the cool splashing of the water.  The statue, luminous in that twilit confusion that confounds the eyes, was the life-sized figure of a graceful naked woman, body curved  like a  crescent moon, arms stretched above her head to the hands held in what may have been prayer. “Hilda,” said Lomax. “From a photograph. She was  a member of the Olympic diving team, you know.”

I sat in silence, the silence of respect and solace and  consolation. Beneath the silence I was grateful that this had been all that meeting Hilda had amounted to. After a few moments, Lomax sighed and said, “A bit gloomy for you I fear. Come on. Let’s go and meet Hilda in the flesh. The rest of the stuff up here is not worth looking at. There are a couple of pods I keep for my niece’s grandchildren to play in, but you’ll be seeing plenty of pods up there soon anyway. “

We stood to go. “Oh!”  exclaimed Lomax. “You must need a widdle by now! You had three cups of tea earlier. The earthbog may amuse you.”   He guided me to a mossy hummock  about six feet tall. “Made of willow and mud, topped with peat and  seaweed. If you’re lucky, the solar light will come on when you close the door. Go on, nothing to be afraid of. Don’t be shy!”

The toilet was a hole in the floor, a crude ring of oak around it. In the feeble white shimmer of light that came from nowhere,  I realised that the fish I had eaten earlier must itself have eaten baby eels before its demise, and these were now worming down my hot bowels. Awkward and sweating, unsteady, feeling sick in the rancid sweetness of this burial chamber, I squatted and released to the dark earth  the foul metamorphosis of my squalid diet. Toilet tissue there was none, but in the dimness I made out a willow stick with a sponge on the end of it. God, I needed a drink.

Even a glass of water would have made me feel better, but Lomax insisted on my meeting Hilda. Night was fallen as he led me past the fountain, now lit by underwater lamps, its marble figure glowing and shimmering in the reflected ripples.  The gravel scrunched as we walked towards the trees at the bottom of the garden, then through them to a clearing where stood a tall sarcophogus, alabaster and gothic, lit coldly from below. Lomax took me down a spiral staircase of cold marble steps into an underchamber illuminated by gas braziers on the wall. Facing us hung a long thick curtain of velvet burgundy. He pressed a button on the wall and the curtain opened slowly, and as it did so, the melody of Moonlight Sonata floated into the room while a light grew within the glass fronted space behind. There, sitting with her back to us, and playing the piano, was, I presumed, Hilda. Her hair was long and grey,  her fingers on the keys were wrinkled and moved stiffly. To my amazement, she continued playing but turned her head briefly to smile at us, a friendly though somewhat expressionless face.”

“Plastication,” explained Sol. “She’ll last a thousand years. Her body moves with a miniature hysdraulic system I embedded in her. It’s  simple but quite versatile. Watch this.”

He took out a small remote control and punched in a few instructions. Immediately, the mood was changed dramatically, as Hilda gaily thumped out a lively Ragtime medley, at one point her body almost leaving the stool. I stood mimicking Derek, nodding my head and tapping my foot, exchanging smiles with him. But inside, I was thinking it all a bit strange. After ten minutes, we said goodnight to Hilda as he said she needed her rest, and  retraced our steps out of the tomb.

Emerging from the trees I looked towards the house at the top of the hill, its outline sillhouetted against a rising moon, probably the most unusual bungalow I have ever seen.  Regaining the patio terrace, Sol bade me sit. “I’ll just nip upstairs and  fix us up a few nibbles,” he said. “We can have a nice chat before I show you around.”  He disappeared through the French window, and  I  was screaming inside with 20,000 volts of anxiety.  The illuminated statue turned 180 degrees and waved to me. I was desperate for a drink.

I  almost screamed when a moment after his leaving, Lomax’s voice sounded, close to my ear. “You may care for a drink before we eat?” And he pushed out a trolley  which contained six different malts, cut crystal glasses, soda, mixers, ice, water. “Shaln’t be long. Help yourself. Don’t be shy.”

I made my own blend of six malts, very quickly, a glass full of  Tobermory, Finlaggan, Talisker, Jura, Glenlivet, Glen Garioch. Nothing exceptional as malts go, but I would have enjoyed a supermarket own brand at that moment.  Glowing with relief, I settled then for a moderate measure of Glen Garioch and water.

He returned  bearing a bowl which he put on the table. “Silly me!” he giggled. “I forgot we had left a snack in the lounge. Hope you don’t mind my getting changed while I was upstairs? Seemed silly to go up there for no reason.” He was wearing a sort of samurai warrior pyjama set, broad sleeved and short legged, silken red and motifed with dragons. “Help yourself to the cheesies. Go on, you’re a growing boy. You’ve helped yourself to a drink, good. “

Derek poured himself a very large Talisker, and downed it  quickly. “That’s better,” he smiled, and poured himself another, and topped up my Glen Garioch without asking. It did not occur to me at the time, though I must have noticed to remember it, how he knew I was drinking Glen Garioch – unless he had an exceptionally fine nose. I wasn’t bothered either by the statue’s waving to me, or by  Hilda, or, come to think of it, his saying he’d show me around just after he had shown me around. I was feeling blissfully peaceful, and at ease with my new friend

After another few drinks shared,  cheesies offered and politely deferred, Lomax produced from a deep pocket  a  silver oblong container and  placed it on the table.  Snapping open the lid, the stink of something skunkish sprang out into the summer night. “Lovely bit of green,”  purred Derek,  and  expertly rolled a spliff without putting down his glass. He passed the joint to me, slid the silver box in my direction, and topped my drink up.

After I had passed  the burning bush back to him and clumsily began rolling another. he asked. “You like it? It’s very mellow, no?”  I had to split my mind cleanly, the larger part concentrating on maintaining an upright position and  a cool demeanour, the other part exercising constant vigilance just in case the constellation of glowing eyes in the darkness beyond the fountain  belonged to  real creatures with malevolent intent. I was  able to respond from very far away when, ten minutes later he suggested we have a look around. “Bring your drink with you,” he said and  filled my glass.

I followed him through his darkened office, the 20 glowing screens, millions of graphs and numbers and charts, all in thick flux, like thoughts all happening at once, a phantasmagoria of supersaturated colours and images of hallucinatory intensity. There was no conceptual space between my legs and the thick piled carpet as we walked through the hall to stop at a silver metal door. “Bit of a squeeze I’m afraid,” he said pressing a button. “Hilda never came with me downstairs.”

We huddled into a tiny elevator not much larger than a dumbwaiter, facing each other, our noses almost touching. His large brown eyes were locked onto mine, planets ablaze with city lights, oceans full of stars. We descended slowly.

He took me down a narrow corridor, and we passed other passages leading off. We seemed to walk for hours, maybe it was seconds, on the hard concrete floor until we came to a curved gallery that looked down upon a deep hollow, maybe 60 feet deep, lit just enough to see at the bottom the entrance to a wide tunnel. “You’ll know what this is by the end of the week. I’m showing it you in case the Chairman decides to put you on the Leith operation. In which case, you will become very familiar with this place. The junctions all look the same, so if it’s not here it will look like this one. It doesn’t matter where you are, it doesn’t matter what’s above.”

I took a gamble. My silences were accurate and well timed and I could probably have got away with a silent response here. But I risked some words. Casually, as we turned back to the corridor, I said, “Like words, like language?”

“Jolly good, Heathcliff. But enough. Let me show you something while we’re down here.”

I was wondering why he had called me Heathcliff.

“You’re probably wondering why I called you Heathcliff,” Derek chuckled. “It was the codename the Chairman gave when we first went after you. An anonymous savage plucked from the back streets of Liverpool.”

It wasn’t me, it was the skunk that giggled.

He was giggling too as he preceded me down corridors and passageways, turning left and right like rats in a maze. It puzzles me this memory thing, how I remember remembering nothing but that giggling our way through a subterranean network felt not only completely natural but also excluded entirely any memory of other possible worlds. A sense of time returned when we came to a  door painted bright red, glowing like a wicked invitation down in this world of greys and whites.

“Want to show you my toys,” Derek chuckled.  “A man should have a hobby.”

I was ushered into a large rectangular room of dazzling brightness. My eyes span and jerked wildly before settling to perceive a space of pure white and gleaming steel. There was a faint odour, somewhere between disinfectant and formaldehyde. In the centre of the room was a bed-sized stainless steel slab with gutters around the edges. On either side of a heavy door opposite me the walls were taken up by steel cabinets with glass fronts, behind which were mounted row upon row of drill bits. One huge drill bit ran along the floor of one of the shorter walls, the shape and size of a torpedo, and above it, all neatly hanging a collection of maybe 150 drills, cutters, circular saws, all of  them glistening steel. Along the wall opposite ran a wide stainless steel workbench with a sink at one end.

Lomax was throbbing with pleasure as he showed me around, pointing out gimlet bits, diamond core bits, forstner bits, spade bits,  the complete lexicon of bits. His workshop upstairs seemed like a pale model, a weak parody of the stuff he was showing me here. His eyes had become wild with enthusiasm as he thrust drill after drill into my hands. “Feel the shape of that baby!” he breathed, or “Have you ever felt anything so beautiful in your hands?”  I was feeling torqued to the limit inside, like some immense wrench was tightening a huge bolt that ran through my brain and spine. I  almost  screamed when an enormous banging thumped out from behind the iron door on the back wall.

“Relax, relax,” Derek cooed. “That’s only the freezers. Constant minus 12 degrees. They’d keep a man fresh for a thousand years.”

I remember not remembering being outside in the corridor as Sol locked the big red door.  He took me to a dead end and a circular hatch with a wheel on it. “I can get down to the river through there,” he said, “if I fancy a stroll or have to pick something up. Come on, let’s go upstairs and have a nightcap.”

Outside on the terrace as I slipped nearer and nearer to unconsciousness, Lomax continued pouring drinks and rolling joints while becoming ever more lucid. “You came very close to blowing it in Shanghai,” he suddenly said coldly.”With that slut from the Daily Mail.”  I suppose it was a residue of shame that froze me to the core, an ancient fear of condemnation, of being found out. “If we ever find out you have breached company confidentiality you will be back with the scum you left quicker than a turd hits the water. You understand? We are watching you.”

The hammer drill final four words. The precision. In the darkness wild eyes glowed and glared, and the dread blue sky seemed ready to pounce.  “I’m going to bed now,”  Lomax demanded. “You’ll need to be out of the house by 7.30.”

In the morning, sick to the bottom of my soul, mind spinning spherically, a stone sober Lomax, sour and sullen, showed me to the door. “You can get breakfast on the road. I’ll see you up there.”  He closed the door and as I walked up the path, beneath a sour and sullen sky of leaden greyness, I hardly cared that he had not given me the keys to the Jag. As I drove off in the tacky Mercedes, I looked in the rearview mirror as the pink sugar candy bungalow disappeared from view.


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