Chapter 26

“Hmph…” snorted the nurse rearranging things in Simon’s room. “Raining again.” A glower directed at the weather, a challenge to sort itself out or face some matronly scorn.

Simon nodded by way of reply, but was struck by how people complained about the weather. Either you believed that everything was random, including the weather, or you believed in some kind of god who chose the climate due to their own secret designs. Either way, there was no point in complaining about it, any more that there was any point in complaining about the way that dice fall or lotteries land. Hmm… he thought, people did that too.

A shaft of sunlight played across the room, then disappeared behind a cloud, hiding in the vapour. The weather was what this place had instead of a personality, thought Simon. Just like most people had prevailing aspects, happiness, misery, jauntiness, petulance, so too cities towns and countries had overbearing weather that made them where they were. Manchester definitely had its own personality, and the weather underpinned that like rocks beneath a lake. It was a cliché, Simon knew, but Manchester was a place of rain. As the sun continued its self imposed exile behind a cumulonimbus the rain softly pattered down on a pane of glass. Rain too had its own personality, different moods and minds watering the earth. This was a soft caress, a vapour that hung in the air like a floating kiss, and Simon wished he was running through it, carving a path through the falling drops.

“Now, how are you today anyway young man?” the nurse pulled his mind away from the racing drops.

“I’m fine.” His hand rose unbidden to his temples to a throb that pulsed between them, the concentration of locating himself back in the here and now a little too much for his broken nerves.

At the foot of the bed, the nurse consulted a chart, flipping over the abstruse pieces of Simon’s life. “Hmm…” she murmured “Have you got a headache?” she looked at him piercingly, trying to read the lines etched into his face “You shouldn’t really be having them.” She made a semi-tut noise, his headache apparently outside of his allowed symptoms.

A pulse rippled again, and Simon nodded. “Yes. It’s just come out of nowhere.” The pain was somehow in his blood, and every heartbeat caused a tiny echo to beat in his brain. The nurse returned the pad.

“Let me go and get you something.” She smiled kindly and bustled from the room, returning moments later with a bottle of pills.

She wasn’t a bad nurse. She was caring, kind, and delivered a respect and dignity to her patients that, under other circumstances, would have seen her go far, but today she was lazy, and a little hungover. As she had approached the locked drugs trolley, something distant registered in her mind, and she remembered a dosage restriction on the pill she was about to give, and rather than check the dosage, and return for the pills, she removed the bottle from the trolley and took it back to the room to check the chart. A moment or two leafing back through, she found the information she needed, but it was instantly pinged out of her brain, by the sound of shattering glass. Someone on the corridor had dropped a large vase and it had shattered on the floor with a sound that was bizarrely pleasing to Simon’s ears, it clearly wasn’t so pleasant to the ears of the nurse whose name Simon hadn’t bothered to find out, and she dashed from the room, half to help, half to admonish whichever person had visited this slight upon her. As she left, a slight feeling of last night’s Malibu trembling in her stomach, she put the large pill bottle on the table that armed over Simon’s bed, her desire to see what was happening and help or shout overcoming her years of nurse training.

As the pills stilled from their slight rattle, the bottle filled Simon’s world. His hand snaked out, steady and quick, whipped off the cap, emptied half of the contents onto the bed underneath the cover and put the bottle back. Simon remembered to stress his face with a suitably pained look.

The nurse returned after a minute, Simon had heard vague mumblings and rumblings at a less senior staff member out on the corridor, and if she noticed the fact that she had left a suicidal depressive alone with enough pills to knock out a football team, she didn’t react. She certainly didn’t notice that there were half as many in there as there had been, and all she felt was a slight nausea as a stomach rumble brought a burp of kebab out into the world. She doled out a pair of shiny red pills and dutifully waited whilst Simon took them, watching his Adam’s apple bob with a professional eye, sure that the pills had been swallowed and not secreted and saved up. It would be two hours before anyone would notice the large number of missing pills. By then it would be too late.

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Chapter 25

Half an hour later, Michelle and Cat were sat in a different bar a few streets away staring at rapidly melting ice cubes in the drinks in front of them. They had been confronted with a gut slicing truth. The excitement that had propelled them to follow Alex, the junior spy reaching out from beneath their adult selves, had come crashing down with the violence of life. It is one thing to chase someone looking for an indiscretion, it is another to find that indiscretion glaring at you from a crystal case, shouting at you that it could and should change the lives of all the people involved.

“So, Is Alex the man or the woman?” asked Catherine tentatively, the question had been playing on her mind since they had begun to suspect the truth.

“URGH!” Michelle’s lifted drink hit the table with unwarranted force and she gave an involuntary shiver before dredging up the necessary patience to deal with the question. “The thing is Cat, is that I don’t think that it always helps to try and think of a gay relationship as analogous to a straight one. In many respects, it’s a completely different kind of thing, I can only presume…” she knew she was on thin ice here, that all her knowledge was derived from a Stephen Fry book she had read, and the first series of Queer as Folk. “… that because of the, you know, completely different biological thing, that that changes the nature of how the relationship works. It doesn’t have to have a dominant, male and a subservient female. Ha! Most straight relationships don’t follow that ancient template anyway.”

“But…” began Catherine, about, Michelle was sure, to launch into some brainfetched statement about why she thought it would be the case.

“Look, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t gay relationships that are like straight relationships, but I think that if you’re going to understand this, then you need to stop thinking about one of them being the man and one of them being the woman.” She gave Catherine a weak smile and touched her arm lightly.

“So where do we go from here?” Asked Michelle tentatively, after a minute’s pause. She had grown weary and a little sickened of her role in this escapade and was wanting to extricate herself from proceedings.

“I don’t know Shell, I don’t know.” Catherine twisted her drink round dejectedly. “Danielle obviously doesn’t know, should we tell her? Could we? Do we have the right to give that kind of information?” she too took a hit from her drink and placed it down dejectedly.

“Well, let’s think about this. Would you want to know? If it was Martin, would you want to be told?” her eyes had gone to gimlets, she had her own surfacing suspicions and wanted to see Catherine’s reaction carefully.

“Well, of course I’d want to know, wouldn’t I?” Catherine’s response leapt from her lips all too quickly for Michelle’s liking and she wondered at the truth. Does anyone really want to know about that kind of thing? No. What they want is for it not to be true, but if there is the tiniest grain of truth then many people want that plaster pulled from their arm in the swiftest of moves, but there are many more, who if they were able to talk from the heartlands of their soul, who would say that they would have been happier living on in ignorance, and it is one of the sadnesses of Catherine Falk that she did not realise that this was her.

“Well, that’s your answer right there isn’t it?” replied Michelle, hoping, in some tiny way, that this was going to relieve her of any involvement. The fact that she had helped to uncover a truth was no help to her at all, given the unpleasantly life changing nature of the truth.

“But how can I do that to her, Shell, how can I?” she wriggled nervously in her seat, the shit stain of the task ahead making her feel deeply uncomfortable. Michelle turned her head to look her straight in the eye.

“You won’t be doing it to her Cat, that’s the thing. She might end up resenting you or hating you, she might be completely full of irrational bile, but it is Alex that has done this to her, not you. Never you.”

“Then in which case.” The drink that she had raised slammed down anew. “I’ll tell her if I have to, but first, I need to give Alex the chance to tell her.” Her eyes narrowed and Michelle felt she saw real determination surface. “Sure as shit I’ll find it easier to inflict some misery on Alex than on her.” There was a curl to her lip and splinters of steel seemed to boil in her blood.

“Will you be able to tell her if he doesn’t?” Michelle felt as if she was poking a sleeping animal through a cage, not sure if it was a sloth or a tiger.

“Yes.” Her resolve was screwed down to the timber of her soul. “Yes, I will. But I have to give him a chance first.”

Michelle had almost felt pitying towards her friend, but now that she saw her enveloped in a cause she began to find a new respect for her. She had looked at Catherine and had seen, desperation, a little sadness and a life that she had settled for, but now that she had the bit between her teeth, she seemed to be focussed, sharpened, indomitable. She wondered how long it had been since Catherine herself had felt like this, if she took was feeling new electric blood ripple through her watered veins. She thought again about the animal she had been poking through its cage, sometimes it is neither sloth nor tiger. Sometimes, it is a vixen.

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Chapter 24

Catherine and Michelle stared goggle-eyed at the empty chair that Alex had occupied for a full minute before Michelle’s brain kicked into gear.

“Right, ok Cat, there’s a few of things that could have happened. He could have left Canal St. Completely, gone to another bar, or still be in here but somewhere else. And all of those could be with or without having met someone else to go and have fun with.” Catherine looked wide eyed and tried to take in the possibilities.

“Why don’t we just call him?” she asked, looking back at her partner in crime.

Michelle framed her face to reply with a withering response, but none would come. Why couldn’t they just ring him?

“Well, I can’t get through to Martin, He’s probably run out of charge or something like that,” she said, rather too hurriedly “So its not a ridiculous idea for me to ring him, I’ve done it before, anyway.” Those words hung in the air for a short time, and then evaporated in the clotted air. She pulled out her phone to start dialling, and possessed by a sudden idea, she leapt out of her chair.

“You make the call, ask him where he is, I’ll be back in a minute.” She glanced around and walked quickly and smartly across the bar. Catherine nodded to Michelle and within a few seconds had located the gent’s toilets. She placed her hand upon the easily swung door and paused for a moment to consider what she was doing. For several reasons, she didn’t want to believe that she was going to find anything in there. She didn’t want Alex to be cheating on his wife, she didn’t want it to be true that there were gay men sat alone in bars looking for a quick bunk up, and she didn’t want it to be true that people of any description met in bars and then just went and fucked in the toilets. She pushed through the door, knowing that her time was short, and was still round a corner from the cubicles, the empty and vacant urinals forming a line of staring eyes, shaming her inner prejudices.

She listened carefully but couldn’t hear anything, but then, muffled by cloth and by closed door, came the definite muted ringing of a phone, a pulsing electronic tone that fell like a death knell on the things that she didn’t want to be true. It wasn’t answered, but a slight change in the tone of the sound told Michelle all she needed to know, the phone had been briefly removed from where it was and examined, whoever had done so had decided that they did not want to talk to whoever it was and with a sigh had put the phone back whence it had come from.

“It’s not important.” Came Alex’s whispered voice, magnified by the sharp shiny tiling, and without another word, the silence resumed and Michelle made her way as carefully as she could from the toilets.

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Chapter 23

Alex paid his taxi fare and remained on the pavement for a moment or two, taking in the air. He turned smartly on his heel and walked up a backstreet. The girls were carefully watching in Michelle’s rear view mirror. The street that Alex was walking up was wide and bordered by a large glossy deli on one side, and a gently greened park on the other. Once they felt he was at a safe distance, they crept out of Michelle’s car and began to follow him, Catherine pulling her hat low across her sunglasses and Michelle squinting in the sun. Alex took a right turn a hundred yard up the road, some large bollards set into the pavement just after a gently inclined bridge. He scuttled up the road an sneaked quickly into a shiny looking bar.

Catherine was about to follow him up the road, but paused when she realised Michelle wasn’t with her.

“Hey, Shell, what’s up?” Michelle stood stock still, pointing at the name of the road on a sign that seemed to have been perennially altered to resemble something more humorous.

“Catherine, look at this,” Catherine drew level with Michelle, “Canal St.” she continued “Canal St., I hadn’t been looking where we are cos we were following Alex, but Catherine, we’re in the gay village, and Alex has just taxi’d across town to a gay bar.”

It was with these words that Alex’s secret was spoken to the world. Catherine expected a carnival to suddenly come around the corner, or for a group of men in fishnet t-shirts to spring suddenly from the nearest bar, all drinking pink Martini’s and talking about their boyfriends. Catherine considered herself a woman of the world, as most people who actually aren’t do, but “gay stuff”, as she would have put it, was not something she had ever been involved with to any extent. She knew, and had known, gay people of course, but she had mentally separated any knowledge that she held of their lives into a different world, not one that she would ever have any bearing on.

She gave an involuntary shudder and drew herself closer to Michelle, as if proximity alone would protect her from something she didn’t even realise that she wanted protecting from.

“What the fucking hell are you doing, you soft tart?” came Michelle’s response to having her elbow suddenly held.

“Well, you know…” she waved a finger up the street apparently pointing out all the licentious things that might be happening, even at this very moment.

“Are you kidding me? Bloody Hell Cat!” she shook her head despairingly, dislodging a few wayward curls as she did. “Are you seriously telling me that you’ve never been somewhere like this? Are you seriously telling me that you’ve never even been here?” a few cogs and simple truths linked up in Michelle’s mind, icebergs beneath the surface. Of course she wouldn’t have, Martin would never have let her… And why not? Curiouser and curiouser.

“Well, no, Michelle. I mean… well…. I’m not gay, am I, its not for me.” Michelle watched her as she spoke, they were words that were an admission of something, guilt maybe? Or shame? She wasn’t sure.

“Right. Ok then Cat, it’s time you knew all about all of this, its time to gay you up.” With one movement, she pushed Catherine’s sunglasses back onto her nose, pulled her hat low once again and marched her towards the bar that Alex had so recently scuttled into.

“But don’t we need to, you know, hold hands or something?” Catherine was not so much a fish out of water as a sheep in a volcano – she looked terrified, slightly alone and seemed sure that she was about to die.

Michelle rolled her eyes and marched onwards, leading Catherine by the elbow. They crossed the threshold to the bar, and Michelle was sure she heard Catherine gasp at how much like a ‘normal’ bar it was.

“Gin ‘n’ tonic and a vodka and diet coke please.” She said to the barman, who had been idly playing a game on his phone. A quick, decisive order was best to maintain their inconspicuousness. She might suddenly feel the need to educate Catherine about the gay world as much as she could, but their prime objective was following Alex. The bar was on several levels within, pillars and wooden staircases creating nooks and crannies within which one could see and be seen. The bar was a semi-island and behind it, through some optic distorted glass, she could see Alex sitting down with a modest tumbler of drink in front of him. She noted, carefully, that he showed not the slightest hint of unease, he sipped at his drink, flicked at his phone for a second and looked around himself with a sense of interest rather than nervousness.

Michelle picked up the drinks, nodded Alex’s position to Catherine and manoeuvred the pair of them to a table somewhat behind Alex where Catherine could sit with her back to him and Michelle could keep a beady eye upon.

After 30 seconds, her initial objective quite forgotten, a question spewed from between Catherine’s lips. “But what if someone tries to pick me up?” a single torrent of ejected syllables.

“Then they’ll have an easy job, won’t they? You only weight about 2 stone?” a sour face greeted this reply and Michelle continued. “Look Cat, two things, all the times you’ve ever had unwelcome attention from a bloke, ultimately he’s fucked off when you’ve shown him your wedding ring? Am I right?” a nod that felt like an admission of guilt escaped from Catherine “Well firstly, its like that, if someone does try to get off with you, then tell them no, and that’ll be that. Secondly, it is obvious to anyone with even the most unreliable gaydar that you are not even slightly lesbian.” Michelle’s head tilted on one side, and Catherine ruffled, as if this was some kind of slight on her womanhood, but she quickly recovered and conceded the point.

“What’s he doing now?” she asked in a diversionary way.

“Nothing much, playing with his phone, looking around, he’s just nodded at someone.” Catherine glanced forwards from herself and noticed a mirror that was so placed as to be able to grant her a view of Alex’s profile. She found herself slightly shocked when she saw him smile. A genuine, wide warm smile of greeting, as someone walked past him that he knew. She realised that in all the years she had known him, she had never really seen him smile that much, he was always looking worried or concerned or stressed, but never actually happy.

“So what kind of guy is he Cat?” asked Michelle, swirling her rapidly diminishing drink, apparently reading Catherine’s mind through the frown lines that had formed on her brow.

“Well… he’s in charge of all the money in the company, and he always just seems worried or stressed, I suppose that because of that I don’t really have a very good image of what he’s actually like.” She felt a sprinkle of sadness brim inside.

“Hmm…” said Michelle, trying to read truth from the back of Alex’s head once more.

“Do you think he’s got a boyfriend then?” Catherine almost tittered as she used the word. She knew that people were gay, and she sort of understood that, but to relate that alien concept to a friend of hers, that was a big truth to swallow. In one respect, it was like she had suddenly found out that he was Mexican; she needed time to re-align her ideas before properly accepting that it didn’t make any difference really.

“Erm…” Michelle paused for a moment to think about the question. “I don’t know, but going out on a limb, I’d say no.”

“But surely that’d be what he wants wouldn’t it?” Catherine was confused once again.

“Well, not necessarily.” She tucked a wayward curl behind her ear again and tried hard to suppress her desire to appear to be knowledgeable of the whole world. “Would you describe him as dependable?” Catherine nodded “Loyal? Solid? Trustworthy?” Catherine nodded at all these things.

“Well, yes, Martin trusts him with so much. I think.” She didn’t fully realise it, but holes were opening in her knowledge of her own life.

“Well, that doesn’t sound like the kind of man who’s going to have an affair does it?” Catherine looked blank “Well, its one thing to have an affair, that’s a certain mindset, right? You have to be a certain kind of person, you have to not care about certain things, or at least be able to forget them.” She had a small voiceless idea in the barrel of her hindbrain and wondered if she was currently skating around the lip of a volcano. “But its quite another to have a need of some kind, however deep its buried, and indulge that need. Then it’s a different kind of cheating isn’t it? You could convince yourself that you were just being true to your own nature, but if you were having an affair, that would be a different kind of betrayal.” Catherine was trying to keep up with the kaleidoscopic whirl of ideas tumbling at her.

“Infidelity is infidelity, Shell.” She took a sip of her own drink, desperate to try and hold onto something that she saw as certain.

Michelle was about to launch into her own opinion of how that just wasn’t true, about how infidelity came, not just in shades of grey, but a full spectrum of upset, but the extra wetness ladening Catherine’s eye made her think twice, this was not the time for that conversation.

“Well yeah, ok, but anyway, what I’m saying is, is that from what you’ve told me, I reckon Alex is going to be the kind of person that is more about encounters and one night stands rather than having a secret bloke on the go.” She looked over Catherine’s shoulder and noted that Alex had now moved from his seat and gone back to the bar. She shifted her chair too keep him in her eyeline.

“Well, I suppose that makes sense,” the idea seemed to settle like snowflakes around Catherine. “Aren’t gays a lot more, you know…” she lowered her voice as if about to utter a salacious blasphemy “… promiscuous?” she took another sip of her drink to try and hide her embarrassment.

Michelle supposed that it was a small mercy that she had actually phrased this as a question rather than stating it as fact. “Well, look, I’m no expert, ok? But I don’t think so, I think that’s a bit of a myth.”

“But its not the same as for us, is it?” Michelle quailed inwardly at the use of the word ‘us’. “There’s no worry about pregnancy or whatever is there?”

“And nor should there be any for straight person with access to Boots. Look, it boils down to this, ultimately if you wanted to get a shag tonight you could get one. You might have to lower your standards or whatever, but if a quick bunk up was what you wanted then you could have it, I think that that’s what might be going on here. Now drink up.” She drained her own drink, and moved to the bar where Alex was, even now, chatting animatedly to the barman.

As she got there, she managed to get elbow to elbow with Alex, safe in the presumed knowledge that he would have no idea who she was. He had ordered himself a gin and tonic and seemed interested in remaining at the bar to drink it.

Just after Michelle had placed her next order, the music in the bar changed over from a gentle tinkly lounge-esque piano album to ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’. Michelle swore inwardly. She was not any kind of champion of gay rights, but she did, at the moment feel like an ambassador from this world that Catherine appeared to know so little of. As that ambassador she felt irked at any display of acting up to a stereotype; the gayest song in the world being played upon the bar’s PA would not help her newly adopted cause with Catherine.

She tried to ignore it and instead, began to focus on what Alex was saying. She had assumed that she would find Alex trying to pick up the barman, or even asking if such and such had been in yet tonight, nudging and winking all the while. He wasn’t. They were chatting aimlessly about the weather and current affairs and something they’d both seen on TV. They didn’t even have the decency to be talking about the Wizard of Oz or Sex and the City or something else really gay. These thoughts flashed through her head with electric speed and she cursed herself for having thought them, she realised that she too had been guilty of the same kind of prejudices as Catherine, that no matter how much she intellectually knew about being gay and the gay world, that she still had some hindbrain reactions that made her feel sad about herself. She re-evaluated her proclamation that Alex would only have been hanging out in the bar for sex, maybe it wasn’t even that, maybe he was just hanging out somewhere so that he could just sit and be gay, relax, stretch out and feel the sunshine.

He took his drink back to the table and Michelle followed him soon after, she took a slight detour to walk directly past him, she looked directly at him, looked down at the phone that he was again playing with and at the instant he looked up at her. He looked up and smiled with that kind of light expression that masks someone trying to be polite, but also trying to quickly work out whether they know you.

“Well?” asked Catherine as she accepted her drink “What happened?”

“Erm, nothing much.” She replied, feeling rather lame at her own words. “He was just chatting to the barman.” She shrugged “He looked right at me as I walked past him though. He obviously didn’t recognise me, but I think he might recognise me if he saw me following him again.” She sat down heavily and looked into her drink.

“So, what are we going to do then?” Catherine looked across at Michelle who appeared to rally herself quickly from a semi deflated state.

“Right, ok then, let’s think.” She had flustered herself and took a moment to collect and remember why they were here. “Well, lets stay here for a bit, and keep an eye on him, and if he leaves we’ll try and see where he goes and subtly follow him. I’ll leave my car where it is and if we lose him, then let’s just get pissed.” A visible thrill of forbidden pleasure ran through Catherine and she picked up her phone to contact Martin. The sight of her phone rang a distant bell of something in Michelle’s mind, but the thought slid from her grasp like slippery moonlight.  She watched Catherine as she left a voicemail on Martin’s phone and something pinged on her consciousness. It was only when Catherine had hung up and had paused to flick at an app when the mercury took charge.

She wrenched Catherine’s phone from her grasp and hammered the power button. The light of the phone extinguished with a sad little phht and Catherine was frozen in her chair, looking at the gap in her hand where her phone had previously been.

“OnShow.” She said by way of explanation, slightly breathless.

“What?” asked Catherine. OnShow was a social networking site, and Catherine had just flicked a button on her phone so as to bring her own OnShow profile up.

“He was looking at OnShow, it’s only just clicked.” Her eyes were gleaming now as thoughts chased each other round her brain.

“So? Why can’t I look at mine?” Catherine looked bemused, but Michelle reached down to get her own phone.

“Just wait for a moment, I want to try something.” She tapped excitedly at her phone’s screen and a few moments later it showed a list of names, some with twinkling sparkling icons of various shades and hue next to them. “Right, look, I’ve made myself ‘undiscoverable’ and I can see a list of OnShow users that are nearby.” The list of names that Catherine could now see were split between normal, real names, and the kind of cack-handed monikers that only seemed to ping into existence with the birth of the internet. ‘Jizzlord343’ and ‘BigCockflz’ were just two that caught her eye.

There were allegedly 40-50 ‘discoverable’ users within a frustrating 250-500 yard radius of where they were, but between them, Catherine and Michelle started to look carefully through them all.

On the third page of names, Catherine’s observant eye tripped across a user called ‘Norman Stanley’ aged 35. Who had a darkened profile pic, that through a squint could conceivably have been Alex.

“That’s him!” she squealed. “I’m sure it is.”

“What? Norman? That’s a bit of a shit pseudonym isn’t it?” Michelle looked surprised, as she had been eyeing the Jizzlords of the list with rather more scrutiny than the Daves.

“His surname’s Fletch.” a blank look was her only reply. “Like Fletcher? Like Norman Stanley Fletcher? Porridge?” but still no pennies dropped.

“Look, anyway, that’s him.” She could explain the finer points of Ronnie Barker’s career to Michelle later.

“Look at this.” Said Michelle, as she tapped a few more symbols on the screen. One of these symbols was a tiny rainbow coloured flag. “He’s advertising himself as gay on here, look, see that little mouth symbol there, he’s advertising himself as free for chat.” The 21st century tide swept the pair of them up.

“Can we see if he is chatting to anyone?” a quick glance confirmed that Alex was indeed tapping on his phone.

“No, but we can see the last status update he made.” She tapped away and the words came up. “ahem, listen to this Cat.” Catherine leant in closer toward Michelle. “’Waiting in Via Fossa, looking for fun.’ People are either going to think he’s after some cock or he wants to buy some drugs!” Catherine’s eyes goggled and Michelle tapped another couple of buttons that restricted the radial search to those whose profiles bore the same rainbow flag as Norman Stanley’s and found that there were 5 other gay men in the vicinity. They found themselves objectively discussing the merits of each from the tiny icon next to their names, engrossed in the digital near fairytale of seduction that was going on around them, when Catherine looked up with a start.

“Shell. He’s gone.” Alex’s seat was empty, they had probably ignored him for a full five minutes, and at Catherine’s words Michelle flicked her phone once again, and saw that Alex’s last status had been updated. Presumably he had found the fun he had been looking for.

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Chapter 27

 

What is energy? Mathematicians, Physicists and other people of Science will debate and define this point endlessly. They talk of it in terms of what it does and how it is transferred, they cannot speak of it in isolation. They can never present a beaker full of energy, or a syringe laden with golddrops of the stuff, and this is only what we should expect.

Energy can no more be isolated from the things it moves and does, than a shadow can be ripped off the pavement, or a sound nailed to the wall.

Energy is that thing in our world that makes things happen. The raw primal verb of the universe that partners its heavy twin – mass – and makes planets spin, kettles boil and matches burn.

As humans have progressed as a people, our understanding of energy has increased. At first, it was only present in the swung jawbone or the clifftop jump, but then it was harnessed by the pulley and the lever, as nature bent slowly to our will. Then it was seen in powerful and explosive chemical fuel, and this was a learning curve for all of us, that something so powerful could be contained in something so plain.

We should be wary of the plainest things of all. We can all see the power trembling in a coiled spring or a taut crossbow, but when we consider the softly shaking atom, there is a power there, lurking inside that will conquer all. An energy so potent and clever that we needed to become sufficiently potent and clever before we even knew it was there.

Energy lurks in the darkest and most secret of places. It lurks within the flies of the atom’s cathedral, it lurks in the hearts of the faithful and it lurks between misplaced words, ready to make rockets fire, spirits break, and lifetimes snap in two.

Most people harness the energy that courses through their lives in some way, we burn the petrol to move our cars, we encourage electrons to stream their copper pathways, and we let the sunshine grow our flowers.

Simon Falk was dislocated from the energy in his life, there was no way for him to channel it. Undirected energy is the powderkeg of the universe. If atoms were to split themselves on a whim, then the power that drives them would rip everything we know in two. Simon’s mind and life was a whirling fizzbomb, tendrils of wild energy snapping at the heels of health and normality.

His wild thoughts chased each other round his brainspace. He knew that he hadn’t intended to attempt suicide, that that hadn’t been his intention as he had cracked open a padlocked and bolted door, but when he had been up there, the raw stuff of the universe cleansing him, he had begun to see so much, had begun to see what it was that was stopping him, that was holding him in this place that he hated, this life that gnawed at his bones with the sorrow of the ages. As his mind ticked slowly with revolutions of dark light, and as medication pumped slowly into the pathways of his heart, he made himself a promise. It won’t be forever, he thought. He voiced the words deliberately in his head, and they fell like ingots of precious metal, forever changing the landscape of his mind, the words printed on the land like carvings in the planet. It will not be forever, I will set you free songbirds, you will spread your wings and you will fly, you will use my power, my energy to lift above this world and ascend. You will be free. Soon.

And as consciousness slipped and shifted like a jabbering worldmess, Simon Falk smiled in his sleep.

Soon.

 

Stillness descended across Simon’s innervision. Sometimes, when a background noise is removed from our life, we are surprised that we have never noticed its buzzy thrum before. Simon had never realised until now, that the world, for him, had always shook, there had always been a juddering, jagged shake to what his eyes could see, and to have that shake finally removed, made him feel so peaceful.

He stretched out with his body, and felt himself melt. The harsh bonds that bounded the elements of his body together were relaxed, and he began to seep from his bed, from the room, from the universe that he had always observed twittering vibrantly in front of him.

Finally Simon Falk was able to relax. Finally he was free.

Finally.

Final.

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Chapter 22

Angela flicked her hair in the mirror. She had always been someone who took a very careful pride in her appearance, but something odd was now happening. Some strange part of her body had brought a sheen to her skin and a glossy volume to her hair that no stylist had ever been able to manage. She supposed that this was the same part of her body that had raised the smell of oranges above all others and had forced her to swear off coffee.

She turned away from the mirror, feeling a slight disgust with her body that it was doing this to her, and wanting nothing more than to curl up with all of her favourite indulgences, chocolate, wine & Martin. She gave an audible snort of laughter as she thought this. There would definitely only be one of those tonight, she thought as she cracked open a forlorn bar of dairy milk that had been languishing in the fridge.

She straightened up from where she had been bent over and part of her body lurched violently. Something inside moved, like a floor suddenly shifting to water, or the rain suddenly becoming sand.

Something happened, there and then, something that Angela would never admit to anyone, not Martin, and not herself. As it happened she was as sure of its truth as she was sure that water was wet or fire was hot.

She felt a burst of energy surge through her body, she felt herself at either end of an electrical contact, one that linked her inexorably to the life growing and growling inside her. Her muscles tightened, her chest squeezed and her head was filled with helium daydreams.

She could never explain or justify it, but the child inside her, the bundle of cells that could no more think or reason that it could run a marathon, had sent her a message. In one bolting synapse it had shown her her future mapped out in a billion tendrils of emotion. It had shown her a glimpse of its own howling birth, it had shown her the pleasure and the pain that its existence would bring, and it had shown her the highs and the lows of life as a mother. It was life flashing before her eyes, another life, a life that could be, a life that span out from her central point and it staggered her. Gestation in humans is 9 months for a reason, it gives us a chance to ready ourselves and to make our nests, only for those nests to be cast aside when the bombs of reality rain down. Angela had been shown all of this in one dizzying burst and it left her curled in a ball on her kitchen floor, clutching her belly, clutching the child inside that span and grew.

The life inside her pulsed, and now Angela could feel that pulse.

The life inside her breathed, and Angela shared the air.

The life inside her lived.

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Chapter 21

It had seemed logical at the time that they should take Michelle’s car, but now that they had, Catherine was hating it. There  grubbiness of the upholstery and the number of sweet wrappers that were crammed into the cup holder, hammered home the wrongness of what they were doing. They had taken Michelle’s bright red slightly knackered sporty mazda assuming that it would be a car that Alex would be unfamiliar with. It was, but it also stuck out in the world around them like a beacon of bad behaviour.

Catherine was sat low in her seat, a pair of conspicuously overlarge dark glasses poking out from underneath a wide brimmed floppy hat. “Why don’t you just put a huge fucking sign saying ‘stalker’ on your head and have done with it?” had been Michelle’s response to the outfit when she had picked up Catherine earlier that day.

Michelle was wearing a small blue t-shirt, a pair of jeans and had a thin brown floral scarf. Catherine knew, when she looked in the mirror that there were things that other people out there in the world would and did find attractive. She was not so removed from objectivity that she didn’t realise that he slender figure and pleasant features were arranged in a classically pleasing way, but she always felt that they were things that she worked at. She had a scrupulous night time cleansing and moisturising routine, and properly, properly, washing and conditioning her hair was something that could take an entire evening if she was in the mood. Michelle looked as if she had thrown on the clothes she was wearing at a moment’s notice and still looked stunning to Catherine’s eye. She took a moment to further examine her willing accomplice. There was just something so magnetic about her, even to glance at. Michelle’s features were nothing special in themselves, some were even a little odd, like her slightly beaky nose. Every little piece of Catherine was a slice of perfection, the exaggerations and occasional strangeness of Michelle’s features made her only more beautiful; like chilli in the chocolate.

This was Catherine’s unwitting lot in life, to always be caught in the gravity of personalities so much stronger than hers, she was the eternal disciple, the constant enabler.

“Come on you bloody cheat!” exclaimed Michelle quietly. They had the top of the small convertible up for the sake of stealth, and the two women felt as if they were being gently boiled in a bag. They were waiting outside the nameless faceless offices that Martin’s company occupied. The company itself made stands. Any time you were in a shop or shopping centre and there was a moulded piece of plastic that held up other pieces of semi disposable ephemera – greetings cards, keyrings, mugs with every name but your own – then there was a decent chance that Martin’s company had had a hand in it somewhere. A contract with the national lottery a few years ago had put the company on a sounder footing than it had ever had before and Martin had bought his current house with the proceeds.

The offices themselves were little more than an administrative base for organising the work that was now entirely outsourced. The business itself moved premises every few years, Catherine had been assured that there were sound financial reasons for this, that they were always chasing a cheaper deal for office space, but now that they were doing what they were doing, she suddenly didn’t feel so sure anymore. Was Alex up to something even grander than they might first have imagined? Was he up to something dodgy with the money? She knew that Martin wasn’t averse to bending the rules, but the pedestal that she had put him was not supported by actual lawbreaking. She convinced herself that any serious wrongdoing couldn’t be her husband…

Michelle had left the engine running, not wanting a sudden start upon the sight of Alex to ring a private eye alarm bell. She shifted the gear stick pointlessly around, venting a frustration.

“Stop.” Catherine spoke quietly, putting her hand on the wiggled gearstick and motioning with the other one. A taxi had pulled up outside of the offices and within a 30 second slot of time Alex had moved fast from the building, got in the taxi, and it had driven away. If the two women had been occupied changing the radio, then they would have missed it, so quick did it happen.

“Are we go?” asked Michelle, a smile that she could taste rolled across her lips.

“We are go.” said Catherine, excited despite herself. Michelle slipped the car into first, and set off, trying – with rather too much sense of experience Catherine thought – to follow the car with the right amount of stealth and skill.

The taxi was a large black cab. Catherine thought that this was odd at first. Whatever Alex was doing, surely a nondescript private hire cab would have been a better option? Less easy to follow. This was true at first, but after a few miles, they hit Manchester city centre, and Michelle’s job was made more difficult as the black cab joined a swell of its brothers and the casual observer would have lost it entirely, number plate or no number plate. Michelle became a little bolder, and they stuck a little closer to the taxi.

“You know what?” said Michelle as she swerved dirtily in front of a bus on oxford road to keep the Alex in her sights.

“What?” said Catherine, digging her nails into the seat beneath her.

“He’s not expecting to be followed. I mean he’s careful, yeah.” Another swerve across a busy lane and they stopped suddenly, two cars behind Alex at some lights next to an art house cinema, Michelle turned to look Catherine in the eye “But if you were really expecting to be followed or stalked, you’d do something a bit more drastically occasionally, you’d change taxi’s halfway through, or get onto a train partway or just something else.” She returned her attention back to the road and followed the right turning taxi.

Catherine decided to take Michelle’s word for it. “So what are you actually saying Shell?” Catherine watched in slight despair as the taxi pulled over alongside an oriental buffet restaurant and Alex began to disembark. This didn’t phase Michelle at all, and she took a right turn, landing instantly in a metered parking space.

“What I mean is,” she said, pulling the handbrake up heavily “Is that either he thinks no-one cares what he’s up to. Or…” she glanced in the rear view mirror momentarily examining her bare essential makeup, and then turned to give Catherine her full gaze “Or, he’s been doing whatever it is for so long, that he knows no one cares what he’s up to.”

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