Chapter One                                                                                                                                                          Posted 14th February 2014

Three things happened more or less at once. Cameron felt the pain in his stomach again, the car developed a strange, unidentified sound, and a passing billboard threw a jigsaw of words at him: nigh, end, is, —. The billboards sprouted along this stretch of moor road like poplars. Man-made, wisdom-bearing trees. 'The End is Nigh.' That was it. For him, for the car, for both?

The pain was beginning to enjoy itself, working out minor variations in his stomach. It seemed to start on a single pulse that multiplied itself to several, the small twinges keeping subtle time with the larger. Somehow the quiet agony that was going on inside him attached itself to the day outside so that the very sky was like an expression of pain with the last of the sunlight making the ribbed undersides of the clouds look like raw abrasions. He had the weird experience of feeling as if he was in the middle of his own pain, driving through it like a local shower, and wishing he would come to the end of it. He wondered if it was serious.

What if he was dying? He played academically with the thought, trying to outwit the pain. It was some place to die. The moor lay humped on either side of the road, stretching to miles of desolation. Towards the horizon where the air was already luminous with dusk, a row of pylons was charcoaled against the sky. Nearer the road, the heath undulated in a frozen Sargasso of grass, gorse and bracken. Winter hadn't helped. It had expurgated summer's few qualifications of flower and colour, until the moor had been restored to its fundamental statement of barren earth and bleak sky. No irrelevance was allowed to intrude for long here where growth and desolation were locked in a private Armageddon.

It was a depressing place, Cameron thought. Its vastness seemed to erase you. You felt like apologising to it for being so trivial. A pain in the guts seemed pretty insignificant here. Stop the car, walk a hundred yards off the road, and you might as well be on Mars. You could die without being noticed. Come to think of it, he could probably do that anywhere.

It had been a bad day, one of the kind he generally euphemised as a 'day for keeping in touch with my contacts'. All right, he thought. Imagine it. The perfect end to a perfect day. Car found on the moors. Up to its windscreen in a telegraph pole. Driver's body cut from the wreckage with acetylene torches. Remains later identified as those of Edward Cameron, thirty-five, salesman for Rocklight, Ltd., manufacturers of electrical equipment. So much for the formalities. Now to apportion the grief. Let's number the broken hearts. Allison? She would miss him, certainly. You didn't live with someone for eleven years and not miss him. After all, who would dig the garden for her? His mind registered that he was being unfair, but he let it pass. His children. Yes, Alice and Helen would both miss him. And that was about it. Except for Margaret. She would miss him most of all. There was a funny thing.

And here endeth the mourners' roll. Not that he blamed the absentees. He wasn't so sure he would have mourned himself. How could you live for thirty-five years and mean so little? There was something almost impressive about it. What had he achieved? Fourteen years service with Rocklight. Rising to the giddy heights of Area Salesman. A car that wasn't fully paid up but had gone beyond the guarantee, and now sounded as if it had the combustion engine's equivalent of asthma. A bungalow, in a modem development area, with modern design, modern fittings, modern mortgage. That's who would really miss him, his creditors.

He was trying to pretend that the situation was funny to him. But mediocrity weighed dully on his mind like a migraine. He felt seedy with mundanities. In irritation, his right hand came off the steering-wheel and struck at the rib of cushioned leather below the windscreen, as if the car was to blame. In a way, it was a reasonable substitute for censure. It was one of the many financial pressures that surrounded him like beggars' cups. Part of him was in hawk to it. He felt its metal carapace enfold him like a second skin he couldn't slough. He thought of the order-books in the dash-board pocket, the list of firms' representatives with the first names underlined, the memos fixed with an elastic band to the sun-shield, the samples in the back. This crummy car. It had taken him so many places, and they all led nowhere. It even cramped his dreams. These days, his wilder dreams took the shape of landing an especially big order for the firm. What had happened to the ambitions he used to have? He was ashamed to think of them, not because they had been so exaggerated, but because he had become so small.

Nothing about him mattered very much, he reflected bitterly. Not even this pain in his stomach. That would be something trivial too. It was probably indigestion. Still, it seemed to be doing its best to qualify as something bigger. He winced, slightly huddled over the steering.

The car was still giving its bronchial whir from somewhere. Some vehicle. It wasn't a car. It was a mechanical epidemic. One damn thing after another. First, the clutch wore out. Then the starter-pin broke. At least, that's what they said it was. But they could tell you anything. They were like doctors, speaking to you mysteriously through a veil of technical terms. They lost you in a maze of sprockets and gaskets and cylinder-heads. And what could you do? You were in the hands of the specialists.

Right now, he wouldn't mind being in their hands. The 'Half­way Garage' was a mile or so ahead. He decided to pull in there. He wanted petrol anyway. He could get them to look at the car and give his stomach a service. He put his foot down, heading for the garage like a pioneer making for an outpost.

Around him, a luminous stillness held the moor itself. Every tuft, every hillock took on sharper lines. But on the road the traffic was getting heavier as tea-time approached, with cars that traversed the moor like noisy profanations.
On top of the hill ahead of him, he saw the garage stand up squat and ugly against the sky, a piece of architectural litter in the countryside. He swung off the road and pulled up at the petrol-pump. As he turned off the ignition, he realised that the pain in his stomach had subsided. Perhaps it had come out in sympathy with the car, he thought. It was probably indigestion right enough, or cramp. Whatever it was, he was getting it too often.

He stepped out of the car. At his feet engine-oil made small mother-of-pearl pools. A rag blew across the yard in front of the garage. Far in the distance he could see cars crawl across the moor like maggots. Nobody came out. He heard laughter somewhere. Opening the car door, he leaned briefly on the horn.

A mechanic who looked about nineteen or so emerged from the garage, wiping his hands on a rag.

`Well, sir,' he said. 'What can we do ye for?'

`Four of the middle one,' Cameron said. 'And would you check the oil and the water, please?'

The mechanic held the nozzle in the tank, whistling and watching the revolving needle.

`No' a bad day, then. For the time o' the year. A bit blowy, mind ye. Ah'e seen ye in here before, have Ah no'?'

`I come in now and again.'

`Ah thought that.'

There must be something memorable about me, Cameron thought.

`It's the car Ah recognise actually. Funny number-plate.

Funny how ye remember a thing like that.'

The petrol-pump clicked to silence.

`Release the bonnet then, will ye, sir?'

Cameron did so.

`There's something wrong with the engine, I think,' Cameron said, watching.

`How's that then?'

`A noise, I mean.'

`Your water an' oil's all right. Switch 'er on.'

The mechanic listened for a moment. He made a couple of mystic passes at something under the bonnet.

`Nah,' he said. `Ah don't know. Canny be anything serious.' `Listen!' Cameron said.

The mechanic listened some more. He rubbed his hand across his cheek, leaving an oil-streak that, taken along with his acne and his gangling figure, made him look like a grubby schoolboy. He's too young to know what's wrong, Cameron thought, and felt briefly envious of him. It must be nice to be like that, to be nobody in particular yet, with all your mistakes to make. That was what trapped you, made you what you were, narrowed the permutations of your potential — your mistakes. Cameron felt his own mistakes like jailers beside him.

`There's something right enough,' the mechanic said. 'But it'd take too long tae find it just now. It'll see ye home all right. That's for sure.'

Cameron was going to argue, but the mechanic clipped the bonnet-rod into place and bumped the bonnet shut. Accepting the finality of his action, Cameron gave him two pounds. Better not to argue with him. He needed his goodwill. Cameron switched off the engine.

`Ah'll get yer change.'

While he was inside for the change, Cameron took a scribbling-pad from the car and wrote on it.

`Keep a bob for yourself,' Cameron said, taking his change.


`By the way, would you just sign this chit on behalf of the garage? Just a check for my firm, you know?'

`Do they no' trust ye?'

The mechanic laughed. He took the slip of paper, signed it, and was handing it back when he suddenly withdrew it again from Cameron's open hand. He looked at it more closely.

Ye've made a wee mistake here, sir,' he said. Ye've wrote doon eight gallons. Instead of four. Ah'll just correct it for ye.'

He superimposed '4', making the figure about quarter of an inch thick all round.

`There we are,' he said, handing the paper back with the biro. He stood leering knowingly, and Cameron was suddenly conscious of his antagonism. Against what? His smart clothes? His thinning hair? His accent? The mechanic stood opposite Cameron wearing his boilersuit, his acne, and his rangy youth like an enemy uniform. He was taking obvious pleasure in having found Cameron out. In spite of his expensive suit, Cameron felt shabby with fakery, scruffy with petty deceit.

`Do ye want yer bob back now, sir?' the mechanic added.

`That's all right,' Cameron said. 'Sorry about the mistake.'

He came back out onto the road so fast that he nearly collided with another car. The hooting of the other car's horn echoed the derision he felt for himself. Bloody stupid, he kept saying to himself, bloody stupid. He took the piece of paper containing the mechanic's emendation, crumpled it, and pushed it out of the window. He wished he could get rid of his embarrassment as easily.

Why had he done it? It was pointless. He didn't usually bother keeping a check on minor expenses like that. Morton. That's what it was. Morton had been suspicious lately. Especially since the Simpson and Auld contract hadn't materialised yet. Maybe that was an Area Manager's job. But Cameron didn't like it. It rattled him to think of Morton padding mentally behind him like a lynx in a Hector Powe suit.

Hell, Cameron's mind said, and one wheel overran the shoulder of the road before he righted the car. He despised the picture of himself he had seen in that garage mechanic's eyes, especially since it was probably accurate. He felt trapped by it. Everywhere he looked, it was there. In Morton's eyes. In the eyes of the businessmen he dealt with. Even in Allison's eyes. They all gave him back small financial worries, expense accounts, business contracts, mortgages. It seemed to him that all the things he did every day were no more than the semblance of his existence, the reality of which took the form of figures that appeared in books and ledgers he never saw, numbers that proliferated infinitely, increasing or diminishing in accordance with his hieroglyphic destiny. Sums of money swam around in his head like corpuscles, the dynamic of his existence. He wrenched the car into a lay-by and before it had stopped moving his eyes were shut. His left hand applied the handbrake, his right switched off the engine, and then both fell into his lap.

After a while, he got out of the car and walked round in front of it, looking across the moor. The sunset had frozen. It seemed no darker now than it had been ten minutes ago. The daylight was distilled to a last pellucid essence except where dusk had gathered like a sediment in hollows. He stood miniscule against the moor and the sunset, feeling himself dwindle into the vast statement of earth and sky. He didn't move, as if his stillness were a kind of camouflage, making him acceptable to the scene, giving him roots here.

Closing his eyes, he was unaware of the van that pulled into the lay-by behind his own car. A young man stepped out and bent down over Cameron's car before coming towards him.

Cameron heard the crunching noise made by the young man's feet on the whinstone chips, but had not deciphered the sound before he felt the fingers prod his shoulder.

`Heh, you!' Focusing on the sound, Cameron saw a faceful of anonymous anger. 'Yes, you!'

It was like opening a poison-pen letter. The hatred expressed in that face was addressed to him. There could be no doubt about that. But where it came from and why, he couldn't understand.

`Lay off. D'ye hear me?'

Cameron had no reaction. The pure malice in the eyes transfixed him like a snake's head, and he waited for more venom.

`Lay off Margaret Sutton. For if you don't, you'll be the sorriest man in the world. I'm not the only one who knows. You'll find that out.'

Cameron felt his stomach keel. It wasn't the threat. It was the knowledge others had of him. It was the thought that he existed in the minds of people he didn't know. It was a primal dread, a sudden sickening sense that he could be destroyed in effigy by other people.

`Cut it out, will you?'

The young man seemed momentarily put out by his own change of tone. They both stood looking rather crestfallen, as if neither of them liked the script but they were stuck with it.

`You better keep your trousers buttoned after this.'

He turned and walked away. The crunching of his feet on the whinstones seemed the most truly irrevocable sound that Cameron had ever heard. As the van pulled out, the gears crashed like an omen.

The moor seemed fouled by his presence. Walking awkwardly back to the car, as if any movement that was too quick would make him vomit, Cameron switched on his sidelights and drove out onto the road again. It was as if he was following the van at a pre-arranged distance, but they would meet at a common destination. Instinctively, he slowed down. He played a game that he had for making things seem less important. You pretended you were telling someone else about the incident, and you made it sound funny. 'He went away as if he'd just brought the good news from Ghent to Aix,' Cameron thought. And, 'Anyway, I always use zip-fasteners.' But it didn't work. The whole thing felt about as funny as gangrene.

At the outskirts of the city, a light fog was joining forces with the darkness. Cameron didn't know whether to curse or welcome it. It made visibility poorer for him, but then it made it poorer for everybody else too. And at the moment, Cameron had a nightmarish feeling that the city teemed with people in mysterious conspiracy against him, a secret club, two of whose members he had just met. The young man at the lay-by had hinted at a bigger membership. Cameron might meet a third member anytime, anywhere, and not even know it. He drove carefully through the streets, wearing the fog like an alias.

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