Short Stories

CHANGING TIMES

It’s coming to something when an honest gangster can’t launder his hard-earned cash in peace.

RUN OUT

A run out to Wales climbing brings long-festering problems to a head for two old friends.

CHANGING TIMES

     One of Jimmy’s tyres crunched a brick, and he stopped the car. The scallies would lay out pieces of wood with nails sticking up. Best not to risk it. He parked up and walked the rest of the way.

His dad’s house was the only one of three remaining from a long terrace and the only one not to be boarded up. The group stood like an afterthought on the demolition site as if the JCB driver hadn’t been able to finish the job on the Friday evening and had fucked off to the pub anyway.

     It was always strange to come back to his childhood home on the banks of the Mersey. As an only child he would roam the narrow streets with the tightly packed houses and bits of woodland on the muddy banks of the river. Now the streets remained, studded with the odd brick or piece of debris, but most of the buildings had gone. Now you could now clearly see the Welsh hills in the distance on the other side of the river, which you only caught glimpses of before.

     The house was cluttered as usual with piles of Echos in the hallway that almost reached to your waist. A terrible fire risk but Hughes senior wouldn’t listen. Jimmy’s mother wouldn’t have stood for it, but she had left years ago. An occasional Christmas card and that was it. Jimmy hadn’t seen her for years and didn’t have her current address.

     His dad wouldn’t listen to any criticism now. Jimmy suspected senility on top of all the other stuff, but his dad wouldn’t go to the doctors.  And the musty smell – a mixture of old books and sweaty socks – was getting worse.

     Harry had made an effort. Washed, shaved, put on a suit and combed his hair.

     He had to be helped into the car, though.

     ‘Look at all these fucking signs,’ he said, pointing as they drove along Aigburth Road.

     It was true. Virtually every house had a black and purple For Sale sign with the logo: Mersey Estates. Seemed to be taking over Liverpool. So they were doing something right.

     His dad liked the pub by the river. Jimmy would have preferred somewhere more upmarket, but he went along with the old man. And he was the birthday boy. Jimmy hoped that his dad’s swearing would be toned down today. At one time he had been so strict about it. No swearing in the house. He had even caned Jimmy when he was an eleven-year-old kid for swearing.

     ‘What’s happened to that feller, Trump?’ Hughes senior said once they were seated at a table in a bay window.

     ‘I dunno,’ Jimmy said, hiding his true feelings. ‘Didn’t he lose or something?’

     ‘Well, I liked the cut of his jib! We needed someone like him to sort out that Brexit malarkey. What we wanted is our country back, not pay the krauts in sausages only to get our frigging bananas all bent to fuck. I mean, Boris was OK, but Trump was better.’

     An elderly gent, sitting by himself at a nearby table and reading the newspaper with a bottle of white wine, looked up, adjusted his glasses and stared at Hughes senior – who didn’t say anything more on this subject. The man went back to reading his Sunday Times – he looked quite affluent in his beige jacket, white chinos, blue shirt and brown brogues. Maybe a new resident from the expensive new flats going up in the vicinity?

     Jimmy breathed a sigh of relief. At one time his dad had been a quiet man, and thoughtful with it. Now he blurted out anything that came into his head, mixed with swear words. The more people around to hear the better. Alzheimer’s? Tourette’s? Dementia? His dad would never go in for a check-up.

     ‘I’ve been watching this programme on Channel Five,’ his dad said. ‘It’s all about how things like 9/11 were faked. Did you know that the moon landing was faked?’

     ‘Really?’

     ‘Yeah, it was all set up in a Hollywood studio. All the German scientists went home you see, and they were stuck. So they faked it.’ Pause. ‘You know that Hess was as mad as a fucking hatter?’

     The swear words were starting again. Soon it would be embarrassing. His dad had guarded Rudolph Hess and Albert Speer at Spandau prison during national service, and he loved to tell tales from the time.

‘Nasty piece of work. Used to throw cigarettes to sentries and, if they accepted them,

he’d report them and get them into trouble. Used to sit on this seat in the garden and bend over and throw his arms in the air…’ His dad threw his own arms in the air. ‘…and go Uhh-Uhh-Uuh!’ The elderly gent carefully folded his newspaper and put it under his arm, picked up his glass and bottle of wine and went into the bar. Jimmy looked around. No-one within earshot. The last time he’d taken his dad out a man with a family had collared Jimmy on the way to the loo and asked him to ‘ease off on the bad language’.

Then Jimmy remembered. Reminiscence therapy.

‘Ah dad,’ he said. ‘Thieving’s not like it used to be.’

Hughes Senior looked thoughtful for a moment.

‘It was a lot simpler in the old days, Jimmy lad.’ He already had the faraway look in his eyes, and his speech was suddenly coherent and clear. ‘We robbed post offices, hijacked lorryloads of spirits off the docks, a bit of safe-cracking. We were good, honest people, none of this drugs malarkey. They were great days them, racing the bizzies down Scottie Road: best days of me life. We had skills, you know. Cracking a safe isn’t easy. You need to know about combinations, metals, alloys, chemistry. It’s a science. Now it’s just beating people up or shooting them. Stitching a bloke’s face onto a football.’ He stopped and looked at Jimmy. ’Don’t laugh. It really happened, didn’t it? Wacker, my cousin. Nice bit of stitching too.’

      ‘I remember that. Bad do. Sorry, you were telling me about the old days, dad.’

      ‘It all kicked off in the war, see. I was born in 1938 and I can remember the sound of

those Fokkers overhead. Wuh…whuh. Wuh…wuh. There were loads of bombed-out buildings, blackouts, the scuffers over-stretched. Yanks with ciggies, nylons, wads of cash. And the girls used to wear American knickers: one Yank and they’re down. The lads used to get girls to lure the Yanks into dark alleys then cosh ‘em and rob their stuff. And the docks were packed with gear. Ciggies, whisky, you name it. There were all these gangs…’

       Jimmy had heard it all before, He opened his mobile under the table and checked the accommodation in the area. Hearthill Retirement Living looked like the best option. The rates seemed high but just about affordable…

       ’The Peanut gang—they used to split open sacks of peanuts on the docks and hand them out to the kids. The Little Gangsters—they would break into cars and go joyriding. Bomber Command—they used to drop bricks on cars from pedestrian bridges. Just for the fun of it. The Forty Thieves—they would pack into a shop, all forty of them, and rob all the stuff. Then it was the Teddy Boys. I was one, you know. I had this fantastic tailor-made suit with velvet lapels. Me ma had a few bob then and she paid for it. Proper gear it was. And big beetle-crusher shoes. We used to hang out in the dance halls and at the fairs. It was just fighting at first, before the robbin’.’

       ‘But then it all changed. See, back in the late 50s and early 60s, we were into blackmailing queers with the robbin’ on the side, like. Then they made it legal. How inconsiderate can you get? So we moved into mucky books and then the drugs…’

       ‘Keep your voice down, dad – walls have ears.’

       ‘Yeah, right. But we had too much cash. So we had to put it into things. We used to call it “Money Laundering for Pleasure and Profit”. Like home economics. See, Jimmy, the big problem with most criminal activity is that it’s cash rich. But there’s only so much you can do with cash. Nowadays you can’t buy a house or a car with readies. You need to launder it. So what we did was set up a construction company and a security company. You pay cash-in-hand employees in addition to legit ones to bid low for contracts and win ‘em. Another way is to buy up a failing company, in double glazing, say, and pay cash bonuses to legit staff.  That gives you an edge over your competitors.’

     He paused and took a sip of his beer.

     ‘Anyway, we set up Sefton Park Security and Cherry Tree Construction.’

     ‘Sefton Park Security? Wasn’t that run by that mad bastard, Jamaica Jim – the feller who killed his wife with a machete?’

     ‘Yeh. Nice guy, Jim. Very polite, a gentleman. Anyhow, profits from the two operations were fed into a property company, to buy – you guessed it – property. Now everything is legit – taxes, NI and all that – paid and on time so you don’t attract attention. Trouble is, you needed to be an accountant rather than an old-style robber to not get nailed by the bizzies.’

     He finished his pint.

     ‘So that’s where your Mersey Estates came from; once the cash is gone you can’t prove anything. No documentary evidence. And no-one’s going to snitch, either; too scared. And if you can get protection from corrupt coppers and politicians: bob’s your uncle. Perfect money laundering scenario. Just got to make sure everyone gets paid on time.’ His eyes were shining. ‘They were happy days, Jimmy. And I really appreciate the standing order every month.’

     ‘You started it all off, dad, built it up; you deserve a pension. It’s not that much…Anyway, it’s a real problem now, getting rid of cash. Everyone pays by card now, especially after this Covid mularkey. Bus fares, a newspaper, a bottle – well, a carton – of milk; it’s all contactless. And that means it goes through bank accounts with trails that can be followed. They’re putting us out of business, dad.’

     ‘Can’t you buy cars and houses and that and sell them on?’

     ‘Nah, there’s a limit of ten thousand. Hang on, that’s euros. Actually, about eight thousand eight hundreds in pounds sterling. The NCA are already sniffing at my door.

     ‘NCA?’

     ‘National Crime Agency. With their Suspicious Activity Reports and their Unexplained Wealth Orders…’

     ‘Unexplained Wotty Orders?’

     ‘Yeah. They look at your lifestyle and if it’s grander than your income implies, they claim it back off you.’

     ‘But that’s unfair. It’s fascism. I died in the war to stop that kind of stuff…’

     ‘Yeah, well it’s put the kybosh on the whole thing. I bet we’re under surveillance at this very moment. Don’t know why I don’t just turn myself in and have done with it. Plea bargain for a reduced sentence and do the time.’

     Hey Jude began to play in the background. Hughes senior listened with great attention until the chorus started. He sang along loudly.

‘You know Paul McCartney was murdered in 1966 by Brian Epstein?’ he said.

‘What?’

       ‘Yep, it was a Jewish conspiracy. His body was fed to pigs on a farm in Gloucestershire. The feller who claims to be him is a look-alike. It was all explained on this programme on BBC Five. Presented by that David Ikea feller. Now he knows what he’s talking about. What are you laughing at?’

‘Yeah, and Stalin was an American spy. I bet that was on the telly too.’

       ‘Oh ye of little faith. That was Harold Wilson, silly boy. He was a Soviet spy.’ Hughes senior spoke as if explaining something obvious to a small child.

       Jimmy didn’t say anything. He’d had enough of these conspiracy theories. His dad had never been like this before he became unwell. He had fallen for all this conspiracy stuff hook, line and lead weights. It was classic: making sense of a confusing world: secret knowledge and psychological projection.

     The food arrived. Jimmy picked at his chicken while his dad piled into a plate of fish and chips. The menu had listed: beef, lamb, chicken and pork and, at the bottom: vegetarian option – just have the roast potatoes and vegetables.

     ‘Excuse me,’ Hughes senior said, grabbing the arm of a waiter who was scurrying past carrying two plates piled high with Sunday roast; nearly causing the lot to be deposited into Jimmy’s lap.

     ‘Yes sir,’ the waiter said. He looked about fourteen.

     ‘This fish has bones in it.’

     The lad looked amazed. ‘It’s fish, sir. Fish have bones.’

     ‘Well, I don’t like bones. They stick in your throat. Health and safety. Ever heard of it? Kindly fetch the manager.’

     The lad nodded, delivered the plates to a family sitting at a table in the corner and, eyes fixed forward, disappeared into the back room.

       Jimmy went for new drinks and, when he entered the bar, he was met by an explosion of laughing and swearing – he distinctly heard the c-word. A big fellow with a shiny bald head and wearing a grey tracksuit and white trainers – the sort of outfit you bought in Matalan or Costco – walked towards Jimmy. The man was obviously well-plastered – and he staggered into Jimmy. For a moment there was a flash of recognition in the man’s eyes then he walked through to the toilets with a big grin on his face, happy about something. Jack wondered how the man with the newspaper and the bottle of wine was finding it. Just so long as the drunken big get didn’t show that he knew Jimmy – the rough stuff was all in the past now.

       Jimmy collected the drinks and, as he turned, he noticed a movement in the car park through the window. He set the drinks down and, keeping to one side of the window, saw the wine man getting into a dark grey van with Estuary Plumbing written in white on the side. He  sat talking with the driver.

            Jimmy picked up the drinks and went back to his dad, who was concentrating hard on picking at the fish on his plate.

            Jimmy Hughes had made his decision.

The End

RUN OUT

‘Go on, now’s your chance!’ Gary shouted. The opportunity to overtake lasted a couple of seconds and then was gone as a car appeared going in the opposite direction. ‘You’ve missed it.’ He slapped the dashboard

‘Look, Gary, leave me to drive,’ Rob said. ‘That would have been suicide.’ Driving on narrow, winding country roads was bad enough without Gary in the passenger seat.

Gary moved down in his seat, his presence big and overwhelming in Rob’s little Toyota. Gary’s Mercedes off roader was about three times the size. With Gary’s limo in the garage, Rob had to take his own car.

They continued in silence.

‘Done any climbing recently?’ Gary said at last.

‘Hardly any.’ The truth was that Rob hadn’t done any climbing for years.

‘Well, it’s a fine thing to go on a run out to Wales – just like in the old days, eh?’

‘Just like the old days.’

They crested the brow of a hill just before Cerrigydrudion and came upon a grand panorama of the snow-topped mountains of Snowdonia. Snowdon itself, the Glyders, Tryfan and the Carnedds, the blue remembered hills of Rob’s first visits to the area many years before.  

‘Remember that idiot who said, “Who cares about the view?”,’ Gary said. ‘He was a famous climber, so famous I can’t remember his name.’ He let down the car window. ‘Well, I care about the view!’ he yelled to the passing countryside you uneducated philistine!’ He wound the window up again and grinned at Rob.

‘Still dropping people?’ Rob said.

‘Come on, I never dropped you. I burnt my hands trying to stop you.’

‘It took me six months for my ankle to knit together again after that fall.’

‘I thought you were a goner when you fell off that route, kid.’

Rob felt himself blushing as he drove. The pitch had no gear. Not hard but known to be dangerous and needing a cool head. Gary had egged him on but, almost at the top, Rob had faltered, lost his bottle and fallen. By some miracle the thick vegetation at the bottom had stopped his fall, but he’d been stunned and covered with cuts and bruises. Twigs and bramble pikes stuck deep in his skin. Nothing broken. Incredibly lucky.

He still suffered from pains in his knees. Especially in cold weather or when he’d been sitting in a theatre with his legs bunched up. Doctor’s visits, x- rays, nothing could tie down what was wrong. But it still hurt.

He knew that his nickname in the climbing was ‘Stumpy’ but no one had ever dared say it to his face.

The next straight section of road was the ‘hundred miles an hour bit’ when Gary used to hoot loudly and accelerate the Vincent motorbike hard while Rob clutched the sides of the seat. Knuckles white and eyes screwed tight. Once he’d opened them and glanced over Gary’s shoulder. The bike really was doing a hundred miles an hour. The Toyota Rob was driving now couldn’t match that. Nowhere near.

‘Bit strange that,’ Rob said. ‘Your Merc breaking down. A Ford yes. Remember that Focus I had? Always letting you down when you most need it. In the end I just scrapped it. Got the money out of the building society, went down to the garage and paid cash for a Toyota. But a Merc breaking down? You get taxi drivers in Southport driving Mercs with three hundred thousand miles on the clock and never broken down.’

Gary was silent. ‘Any car can break down,’ he said at last.

‘Well lucky you were handy in the area,’ Rob said. ‘And what a coincidence me getting off from work early when it hardly ever happens…’ He fell silent. Gary had been sitting at the kitchen table with Ruth, Rob’s wife, who was washing some dishes.

Gary was silent for once. Rob wasn’t complaining – it was a change from a constant assault on the ear drums.

Next came the A5 and a long straight road with the mountains getting steadily closer. Finally, the road began to wind through the forests before the village of Betwys y Coed.

Then the Capel Curig road to the Pen Y Gwryd hotel and the road up to Llanberis Pass, cars parked everywhere and Car Park Full signs at the top. Down over the other side, then Dinas Cromlech, perched castle-like up on one side and the slabbier crags of Dinas Mot on the other. A glimpse of the sea. Starting to cloud over and spot with rain.

Llanberis on a wet weekday morning didn’t seem like much of a tourist magnet. The mountain railway terminal was closed. Usually, it was packed with overweight punters taking the easiest possible route to the top of Snowdon—the one where you paid your money and sat on your arse. Rob had to remind himself that there were plenty of people with physical disabilities who couldn’t manage the climb and for whom the train ride was the only way up. Don’t sneer

The main street was almost deserted. The wind whipped across the street and the wind filled out discarded carrier bags like balloons and kept them in the air for a few moments before they deflated and were whipped away. They had to run for the cafe.

‘What about,’ Rob said, as they drank their coffees and waited for their breakfasts in Pete’s Eats. ‘When you abbed off the end of the rope into the sea at Gogarth?’

It was Gary’s turn to blush. ‘Lucky I’m a strong swimmer. Though I nearly got dragged under by the weight of the gear. But what about when you fell off at Cloggy? You went off screaming into the mist and came back half an hour later, still screaming.’

‘They had to cut my strides off me back at the hut.’

‘And the time we were top roping at Helsby. I was about to fall off, and shouted “tight rope!” to you at the top. Or where I thought you were. I looked down, and there you were at the bottom. You bastard.’

Gary leaned back in his chair.

‘Good times,’ he said. ‘I haven’t climbed for years. And it’s all changed. For the worse as far as I’m concerned. Can’t abide all these bolts, mats and climbing walls. Remember what they used to say: respect the rock? It’s not a proper sport now; it’s a leisure pastime people do to keep fit. Remember what Hemingway said? “There are only three true sports, the rest are games.”’

‘Motor racing.’ Rob remembered the same conversation from years before. ‘Bull fighting and mountaineering. You have to risk your life in a true sport’ He’d never been sure about the bull fighting. The odds were pretty much stacked against the bull. ‘You have to risk your life in a true sport.’ He shrugged and smiled. ‘People want to survive, not kill themselves. Not everyone wants to fight a bull or race fast cars around all the time.’ He looked out of the window. ‘Time to get a move on.’

The shop was full of climbers rained off the crags. A bored youth sat behind the counter playing on his Smartphone. Rob and Gary rummaged through the gear, amazed at how things had changed over just a few years.

‘Remember when we started off?’ Gary whispered. ‘Tying a bowline round the waist. A few home-made nuts and a sling or two.’

            ‘I do indeed.’ 

‘So, where’s the best place to go when it’s raining round here?’ Gary shouted to the youth.

            ‘Well, you can follow the rain shadows. North to Gogarth or limestone or south to Tremadoc.’ He walked over to the door. ‘Bit of a drive either way. Looks like the rain’s stopped. I’d go on the slate if I were you.’

            ‘Slate, isn’t that shite?’

            ‘Have you been living in a cave, mate? It’s all the rage now. Quick drying, easy walk in. Bolts to keep everyone safe.’

            ‘Bolts?’ Gary’s voice echoed around the shop. Everyone was listening. ‘We never had bolts in my day! You just didn’t fall off. It’s cheating actually.’

            Awkward pause. The shop assistant had a sheepish grin on his face.

            ‘Pardon my mate,’ Rob said. ‘He puts the ‘l’ in Luddite. How much are those guidebooks?’      

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           *

‘What a day for a run out in the park!’

       Purple and black tights and a red t-shirt emphasised Gary’s ample beer belly. Let’s

Fuck While The Bacon Fries was written on the T-shirt in large white letters.

      ‘Best to take it easy,’ Rob said. ‘First time out. We need to get fit after that climbing fiasco.’

Gary slowed down. He was breathing hard already. He loomed over Rob who felt like child with his dad.

‘Good idea,’ Gary said, ‘seeing as I’m a recovering alcoholic coffin-dodger with a dicky heart trying to get fit.’

      ‘You’re going to get us arrested as perverts with those tights and that t-shirt,’ Rob said, slowing down to match Gary’s pace. ‘Did you find them in the garage in a box of climbing gear from the eighties?’

‘I did actually. Anyway, what I say is; when you’ve got it flaunt it.’

They ran on for a while in silence.

‘Are you a bona fide alcoholic?’ Rob said. ‘Like you go to the AA meeting and say, “My name is Freddy Fuckface and I’m an alcoholic”?’

            ‘That’s right. It’s only because I own the firm that I’m still in work.’

Rob said nothing. Gary was a successful lawyer while Rob was still scrivening for a living.

‘Given up the ciggies and the weed though,’ Gary added.

‘So have I.’

‘You were lucky, not liking the pop.’      

Gary coughed up a mouthful of phlegm and spat it onto the verge.

‘So why did you become an alcoholic?’ Rob asked.

Gary laughed. ‘How about—life is disagreeable at best and intolerable at worst? No, if the truth be told, it’s because I like being pissed.’

Rob motioned with his hand, and they turned right along a track through big, old beech trees.

‘Must be hundreds of years old, these trees,’ Gary said.

‘Yeah, they date from when this was an estate, run by the hall. But thousands of years ago this was the site of an Iron Age camp.’

‘Nothing like a bit of historical interest on a Sunday jog.’

‘Yeah? Well, you can shove that up your arse and fuck off while you’re doing it.’

Gary laughed and Rob tried to but even at this gentle pace he had to catch his breath. Withnail and I was their favourite film. Both of them.

They came out of the trees to a view across Liverpool and the Mersey to the Welsh hills in the distance.

They paused for a moment, jogging on the spot.

‘What a view,’ Gary said. His face was red, and he was sweating hard. Rob was hardly breathing. ‘When we get fit, we’ll have to go climbing again.’

‘We can check the weather forecast this time,’ Rob said.

He grinned but he was not so sure about going climbing again. Gary was unfit, overweight and he was an alky with a dicky heart.  Rob had a vision of a rescue with a helicopter rattling overhead.

They took a route downhill through the woods. At first, they stumbled over roots and then their legs were snagged by brambles. At the bottom of the hill, they burst out of the trees and sent a flock of gulls on the field wheeling and shrieking into the air and startling a lady walking her golden retriever. The dog jumped back with a snort of alarm then decided that it was a game and chased Gary, jumping up at him.

‘Best get him under control, madam,’ Gary shouted.

‘It’s OK,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t bite.’ She was staring in amazement at Gary’s T-shirt. She was in her mid-forties and with a blonde hairstyle that was remarkably similar to her dog’s.

‘Well I do!’ Gary shouted. He charged towards the woman, roaring loudly.

Startled, she backed off. The dog became even more excited, running in circles and barking loudly. The lady managed to get a hand on the dog’s collar. She crouched down and put him on a lead. She looked up.

‘Aren’t you Gary Adams?’ she said. ‘I didn’t recognise you out of your three-piece suit. They were right. You are a cunt.’

Gary stared at her.

‘Come on,’ Rob said. The lady had a point. This was so embarrassing. He pulled Gary’s arm and they continued along the field for a few hundred yards. At the end they turned left up the hill. Gary slowed. He was breathing hard again.

‘Are you OK?’ Rob said.

‘I’m fine.’           

At the top of the hill they stopped, and both sat down hard on a bench. Rob’s legs were aching now.

‘Who was that woman?’ said Rob.

‘The blonde one who looked like her dog? She works for another law firm in town. We’ve never got on.’

Rob laughed. ‘She did look like her dog, didn’t she? I saw a feller in here recently with a pit bull and he looked just like it. He was short and fat, with a pug-nosed face.’

‘Fancy her?’

‘I fancy every woman that’s half-presentable at the moment.’

‘Tell me about it.’

‘Remember that Jasper Carrot sketch from years ago?’ Rob said. ‘About how they’d done this survey of sexual habits and they’d found that the average person had sex once a week?’

‘It was what the average person said they did rather than what they actually did.’

‘Right. And Jasper says what I want to know is who’s getting my share?’

‘Once a week? Once a month would be Nirvana. Once a year would be realistic.’

‘Well I’ve not had sex for four years.’

‘That’s sex when someone else is there, right?’ Gary beamed. ‘I can beat your four years and raise you. I’ve not had that kind of sex for five years.’

‘You’re exaggerating now.’

‘Not much.’

They sat for a while in silence, both staring at the view—out over woodland to the river and the hills beyond. The park was seemingly deserted—not a person in sight.

‘I love coming here,’ Rob said. ‘Getting out in the fresh air. It’s like a bit of wild countryside in the city.’

‘Apart from the B&Qs and the Morrisons supermarkets.’ Gary pointed. ‘And this.’ He kicked a Kentucky Fried Chicken box that was lying on the path in front of them. The box flew apart, sending greasy wrapping paper, chicken bones and chips flying everywhere. Gary gathered the mess together with one foot, pushed it back into the box and put it all in a bin that stood by the seat. He kicked a couple of chips into the grass.

‘Little scrotes,’ he said. ‘No respect for the environment.’ He sat down. ‘This isn’t real countryside, though, is it? These trees…’

He pointed at a giant beech tree about twenty metres away.

‘…they were planted by the lord of the manor two hundred years ago. They enclosed this park and landscaped it for their own enjoyment and shifted the peasants out. Look at the national parks—the Lake District, Snowdonia and the rest—they were created by sheep farming or, worse, grouse farming. The trouble is, all these nature programmes on the BBC, they make it look as if half the world is a pristine wilderness. But they just show the best bits. And most of the animal stuff is filmed in zoos. There’s no such thing as a natural wilderness any more.’

‘I know all that,’ said Rob. ‘But at least this is open space with trees. It’s a bit of the countryside in the city.’

‘If all this was created two hundred years ago, it could be created anywhere.’

‘Why not just let nature take its course? Keep us out of it?’

‘There you go again, Rob. You’re just a fucking, tree-hugging hippy at heart, aren’t you? That’s not how it works. People have got to have houses to live in, factories and offices to work in. Shops to—you guessed it—shop in. If you don’t go along with that the world will just steamroller over you and do it anyway.’

Rob said nothing for a few moments.

‘When I was kid…’ Rob’s voice was quiet. Gary had to move his head closer to hear. ‘…maybe eleven or twelve, before adolescence, anyway, I used to go out to the countryside by myself. There seemed to be more of it then. I used to roam through woods, over hills, messed about in streams. Lost in my own little world. An escape from the world of adults.’

‘Problems at home?’

Rob nodded. ‘They were always fighting. Shouting. Doors slamming.’

They sat in silence for maybe five minutes.

‘How’s the Merc running?

Gary looked at him in surprise. ‘Fine,’ he said.

Rob had gone up to the front bedroom and watched Gary walk to his car parked a way along the road. He got in, started the engine and drove away.

‘Right!’ Gary shouted. ‘Let’s get back!’

When they got within a hundred yards of the entrance gates, Gary suddenly shouted:

‘Sprint finish!’

He was off, his feet thumping on the tarmac path. A couple of walkers jumped back in surprise as he thundered past like an out-of-control buffalo. Amused, Rob went along with it. He could have easily caught Gary, but he strode along in his wake.

At the gates Gary stumbled the last few feet up to a sandstone pillar, grabbed it with both hands then slowly sank down onto his knees. He vomited hard against the pillar. Rob had to leap back to avoid the splashes.

When Gary had finished, he turned to Rob. His face was as white and unhealthy looking as a block of lard. A strand of spittle hung from the side of his mouth.

  ‘I feel like a pig shat in my head,’ he said. He put his tongue out. ‘Look at my tongue, it’s wearing a yellow sock.’ He tried to laugh but coughed and spluttered.

Withnail and I.

‘This running is too much like hard work, Rob Bennett,’ he whispered. ’I think we’ll have to stick to climbing.’ He swallowed hard. ‘And I’ll burn you off in that as well.’

His face went grey, as if all the blood had been sucked out of his body, and he slumped down.

Rob sat on the wall. He sighed with relief as the weight went off his legs. He had a folded up five pound note in the pocket of his trackie bottoms for emergencies. Together with a spliff and a throwaway lighter. The sun was out. A lovely Spring afternoon like this made life worth living. Plenty of time for a smoke.

The End