He started his evening with a double cream macchiato in Starbucks. He found a table to himself where he could savour the rich sweetness and revel at the seasonal misery in the faces around him. Everyone in here had a story written into their body. Two tables away, a woman was eking out her mint tea because when she finished it, she’d have to return to the bosom of the family she couldn’t escape until Boxing Day. Across the room, a couple bickered over slices of cheesecake about whose fault it was that neither had used Amazon to avoid the hell of last minute present shopping.
Perhaps it was the blend of caffeine and sugar, but Jacob could have sworn the bustling outside the window was getting more frenetic as he watched. His excitement grew with every defeated expression in the Starbucks, with every polite word the woman next to him was saying into her phone in a tone so strained that she obviously wanted to bellow obscenities.
Jacob made his macchiato last for a full hour, building his excitement. He felt the shoppers calling to him to walk among them and when he’d downed the last of the macchiato, it was time to heed that call. To stroll slowly down Regent Street, making himself yet another obstruction between people bent under the weight of their shopping and the consummation of their quest.
He walked from one end of the street to the other, carefully picking the narrowest points to stop and contemplate the glittering angels that a thoughtful city had suspended to bless the haemorrhage of money.
Hamleys was the best. It called to him with such a siren song that he had to cross the street to pass it on the other side in case it drew him in before he was ready. The pleasures of Jacob’s night were not to be ended prematurely.
Jacob could only resist the allure of the world’s biggest toy shop for so long. Nothing could compare with standing in the centre of taut-faced parents pumping millions of pounds into numbered bank accounts in Panama and the British Virgin Islands, all for the sake of a sentence that would start, ‘but I really wanted…’
Shoulders pushed him out of the way of some clattering squawking gadget that would be broken by March. Arms reached across him to fuel the credit card bills that would lead to so many tears in January.
Jacob couldn’t stand it any longer.
He slid into the thickest crowd he could see, surrounding himself with people, each of whom was desperately trying to pretend they were the only one there. None would remember any of the other faces and more importantly, there were enough of them that none of the store cameras would see the knife Jacob pulled from his pocket. He didn’t need to see a face. Only the sag in shoulders weighed down as much by the seasonal obligation pushing them down as by the basket full of primary-coloured boxes.
A thin coat was no impediment. The blade was between just the right pair of ribs within a second. Jacob had melted to the back of the crowd before anyone had noticed the body on the floor.
Jacob was out of the door before he heard the first shouts protesting that the shop was being closed while presents remained unbought.
He crossed to the pavement running down the middle of Regent Street. He was quivering with delight. His legs wouldn’t support him. He sank to his knees beneath an enormous angel blowing a trumpet.
Jacob loved the night before Christmas.
“It has to be this one,” she said. “She ticks all the boxes.”
“There are plenty of others with the same qualifications,” I said. “How about…”
“I agree, said the department head to the HR director. I knew one of her referees at Oxford.”
“Have you looked at these two?” I asked. “Both of them have experience is much more relevant to…”
“I’m glad to hear it,” said the HR director to the department head. “We can always be that bit more certain with a personal contact. I think she’ll fit right in here.”
“I’m sure, I’m sure,” said the department head. “The referee’s her tutor. This gave me an excuse to catch up with him on the phone actually. He positively sang her praises. Just the sort we need.”
“As the line manager for the position, I really don’t see that she has the necessary experience,” I said, “there are three spelling mistakes in the cover letter, which makes me think…”
“Well, that’s settled then,” said the HR director.
“Glad we all agreed so easily.” The department head turned to me. “You don’t mind phoning the other candidates to tell them they’re not up to scratch, do you?”
She could stand in a corner with a glass of white wine for a couple of hours if it kept the management happy, if only because she’d given up resenting managers who didn’t understand what she did. It was working until she saw the man in the cheap suit approaching her, smiling as if he was about to talk to her.
“Hello there,” he said.
Carrie replied with something between a grunt and a ‘hi’, which usually discouraged people while falling just short of being rude.
“I have to ask you, why are you holding a white wine when you’d rather be drinking this?” He handed her a glass of rosé.
She didn’t take it.
“Let me take a wild guess,” he said. “You’ve taken a white wine because you don’t like it, so you won’t be tempted to drink it. If you drink it, you’ll be standing there with an empty glass and someone might offer to replace it as a conversation opener. To avoid that, you’ll have to go to the table and take another wine glass, but the table is surrounded by people who might talk to you. Not being the sociable type, you’ve found that a full glass of wine is the best defence against people like me who might talk to you.”
Carrie frowned but said nothing. Frowning came easily to her. Knowing how to answer a man who appeared to have read her mind did not.
“It hasn’t worked this time,” he said. “I am talking to you, so you may as well drink something you like while you put up with me. May I?”
She didn’t resist as he took the untouched white wine from her hand, and she took the rosé to replace it. She didn’t know what else to do.
“May I show you something?” he asked.
Carrie shrugged. She couldn’t see a polite way to get rid of him.
He led her to one of the tables covered with cheap nibbles in expensive-looking bowls, and pointed to a bowl of green olives. “I asked the staff to prepare that for you.”
She looked at him closely. How did he know?
“Another wild guess: you like olives. Especially green ones. But you’re put off by seeing green and brown ones mixed in together.”
Right again. But she wasn’t going to say so. “What gives you that idea?”
“Call it intuition.”
Carrie didn’t touch the olives. “And can you intuit anything else about me?”
“Well, let me see.” He steepled his fingers in a parody of contemplation. “You’re a software engineer. A very good one. You’re not paid what you’re worth because you’re not good at negotiations and you don’t like the idea of changing companies. You’re frustrated with managers who tell you what to do without understanding it – but don’t count that, it’s true of every software engineer who ever typed a line of code. You’re single and quite happy with that. Your favourite restaurant here in Cheltenham is Gianni’s. How am I doing?”
“Not bad until the end. I’ve never been to Cheltenham before and I don’t know any restaurants.”
“My mistake.” His smile broadened. “I was getting ahead of myself. I meant it will be your favourite as soon as you try it, and it certainly will be if you compare it with anywhere else. But the point is that I’ve got your attention, so you’re disposed to say yes when I suggest we get out of here and put Gianni to the test.”
“Why do you want my attention?”
“Because I need to recruit a software engineer of your calibre, and I’ll pay you what you’re worth. It’ll only be the three of us so if I can’t promise to be a good manager, I can at least promise to be the only one you’ll have to deal with.”
“What kind of business?”
“A dating site.”
Carrie had to laugh. “Do you know how many dating sites there are out there? You’ll be lucky to last six months.”
“I expect we’ll last a lot longer than that, and I’ve just shown you why. We’re going for an entirely different business model. Everyone else matches two people. We won’t be doing that. We’ll be supplying one person with the information they need to approach the person they want to date. We’ll tell them everything they need to know from the first conversation to…well, to more intimate preferences. Our client gets the information they need and the other person will thank providence that a lover who is so well attuned to them simply dropped from the sky.”
“I see,” Carrie nodded. “And I’m guess that it’s no coincidence that you’re based here in Cheltenham.”
The man’s smile touched his eyes this time. “Yes, you’re the right person for this job all right. Not that I had any doubts.”
“The third person you mentioned – I’m guessing this would be his second job.”
“It would. His tastes are rather more expensive than a government salary can supply, even for a man with a high-level clearance at GCHQ. His thinking is that if he can access any phone or computer in the country, why not make use of it?
“You have a point,” said Carrie. “This country will need that sort of entrepreneurial spirit with Brexit looming over us.”
“Quite. Now I’ve demonstrated the technique, I hope I have your attention. Perhaps we can discuss specifics over dinner at Gianni’s. If you don’t like it, you’ll know I’m a fraud.”
Carrie thought about it. It sounded better than standing in a corner with a glass of wine she didn’t like. “Let’s talk business.”
Brian and Melanie looked upward.
“I need a selfie.” Ted held his phone at the level of his waist and looked back at his image with a frown appropriate to such an omen.
“Yeah, that’s weird,” said Brian. “The sky shouldn’t be brown. And where’s the sun gone?”
“It’s the end times.” Ted tried tilting his head to one side and snapped another selfie. “Seriously guys, this is what it’s talking about in Revelations. Look, I’m not getting this. Could you take it from back there?”
He handed the phone to Brian and put his hands on his hips.
Melanie fumbled with her own phone. “That’s not yellow or brown. It’s ochre. And Ted, leave Revelations alone and look at what’s going on in the world right now. We’ve hurt the planet enough. She’s sending us a warning and we’d better heed it. Do you think I’d look better with my hat on or off?”
“Let’s have a look?” Brian looked at the picture she’d snapped. “The hat works.”
“But you think the planet’s sending us a warning?” Asked Brian. “Seriously? Like it’s a primary school teacher on a bus, saying ‘don’t make me come back there, kids’? Hey Mel, could you…cheers.”
Melanie took Brian’s phone. He struck a pose with one hand stroking his chin and the other pointing skyward. “That’s totally brown.”
“It’s ochre, Brian.” Melanie snapped a couple of shots at different angles. “And yes I believe it. I’m going to say so when I put this on Twitter. Ted, could you take it?”
Ted took her phone.
“Yellow.” He took some pictures and handed the phone back to Melanie. “I’m telling you, that’s yellow. And don’t dis Revelations. Sooner or later we’ll see the four horsemen galloping through a sky that looks just like that. Right, Brian?”
“Nah,” said Brian. “I’ve been telling you about chemtrails for, like, centuries. The government’s been using commercial planes to pump chemicals into the atmosphere to keep us all docile. They do what the Illuminati tell them. Now they’ve overdone it and we can all see their game. There are questions to be asked, and now we have our answer.”
He curled his fingers into the ‘OK’ sign and smiled for a photo, but Ted and Melanie were both busy taking selfies.
The moment I saw that hand, the rest of the room vanished. If anyone had seen my face turn white and the sweat break out across my brow, I’d have been sat down while my well-meaning colleagues and total strangers sat me down and someone fetched me a glass of water. As it was, anyone looking at me would only see the inverted smile of a harlequin hiding someone standing straight-backed and alone in a room full of mingling masks.
His back wasn’t straight but slightly bent, which gave me some small satisfaction. His movements were a little stiffer than I remembered – as if I’d ever forget – but he was still favouring his right leg. All his efforts to blend in couldn’t repair that the injury.
In a room full of ersatz monsters, I walked up behind the real thing.
“Happy Halloween,” I said.
He turned around to face the harlequin. Seeing no clue as to who I was, he looked me up and down. Even if he remembered me, it wouldn’t have helped him. The scars he left me with are not where he’d be able to see them.
“The same to you,” he said.
His voice was firm, his accent flat. It would pass as English except among the English, among whom the tones the tones of region and class are the true passport of an authentic countryman.
“Who are you supposed to be?” I asked him.
I may not have been able to see his face, but he paused for long enough that he obviously thought it was a silly question.
“I’d hoped it was obvious. I’m a clown.” He shrugged. “I think I’m supposed to be called the Joker, but I’m not very familiar with popular culture.”
“Did you know the clown’s pallor was once seen as a representation of death?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said. “I believe I’ve heard that. But it’s all a bit of fun, isn’t it?”
“Interesting that you put it that way,” I said. “Because this is the one day in the year when you are not masquerading at all. Isn’t it?”
It started at the moment I’d been longing for and dreading at the same time. The moment when the head waiter turned to me and said, “take this tray to table sixteen.”
“Yes sir,” I said, which was the only thing you ever say when the head waiter speaks to you.
My mouth was so dry that it came out as a croak, but the head had already turned away so he didn’t care.
I checked my dickie bow and tails in the reflection of the silver tray, which tells you what kind of place this was. If you’re gonna play football, you play for Spurs. If you’re gonna be a waiter, you do it in a place like that, even if you have to sit at the trade entrance for a fortnight to get a trial shift.
What do you mean, weird? Not a gooner are you?
No? That’s all right then.
Point is, I looked like the waiter I’d spent that fortnight wanting to be. All I had to do was wait like the waiter I’d spent that fortnight wanting to be. It was only a tea set. It wasn’t like I was carrying a dozen champagne flutes looking for an excuse to fall off it. How hard could it be?
I stepped into the dining room with my head high, back straight and nose in the air like a pro. If my hands were shaking, it wasn’t enough that anyone would hear the tea set rattling.
I was a waiter.
If I’d only thought to check my shoelaces as well as my dickie bow, I’d still be one today. As it was, I was three steps into the dining room when I stood on the lace. Thing is, it wasn’t a very big teapot. It was only for one person. So I never understood how I managed to pour it all over both the chairman and the chief editor of the Daily Telegraph and both their wives. I couldn’t have managed that if I’d been practising for a week.
So I never did get to be the waiter.
Then we get to the part of the story you’ve heard before. I’ll probably tell you that one day. We’re going to be spending enough time shut in here together before either of us is up for parole. It’s the story that starts when you ask someone you know to put you in touch with someone they know who might need an extra pair of hands and a closed mouth, and ends in three years in here. It’s not all bad, though. Tomorrow, I’ll be the one shovelling the potatoes on to your plate. That makes me a sort of waiter, doesn’t it?
I distrust patriotism; the reasonable man can find little in these days that is worth dying for. But dying against – there’s enough iniquity in Europe to carry the most urbane or decadent into battle.
No, that’s not a Brexit manifesto. Geoffrey Household wrote Rogue Male in 1939, when it would have been hard to argue with. The sentiment is jotted down by the unnamed narrator – the eponymous rogue – while he’s in hiding from his various pursuers.
I must confess that I opened Rogue Male expecting a tale of Bigglesesque derring-do, so I was pleasantly surprised to find so much more than that. The premise is that the rogue was caught pointing a rifle at a central European dictator and, after torture and a narrow escape, is being pursued by the dictator’s agents. It was published a few months before Britain entered the Second World War and while either Household or his publisher evidently thought it wise not to name Adolf Hitler, the dictator is so obviously him that Rogue Male was reprinted in a Services & Forces edition to encourage the troops soon after Britain declared war.
Household gives us a hunt from the perspective of the prey, who is himself an experienced big game hunter and so is able to appreciate the thinking of the predators. The rogue flees for home but the closer to home he gets, the closer the hunters get to him. He is chased from the unnamed European country through cosmopolitan London into Dorset, a county whose quintessential Englishness is underscored by locals talking about how they ‘don’t ‘old with forriners’.
At one point, he is even pursued by the bloodhounds of the local foxhunt, becoming less man and more quarry with every chapter. He spends much of the second half of a novel hidden underground in his ‘burrow’, while the hunters quarter the county for the place to dig him out.
While Rogue Male starts with an attempted political assassination, it’s far more a psychological than a political thriller. As the pursuit narrows his world, the rogue becomes more honest with himself, and though his diary, with us, revisiting and discarding the rationalisations and the laissez-faire with which he presents himself in the early chapters. As his pursers allow him less and less room to manoeuvre in the physical world, so he allows himself less and less room to manoeuvre in the world of his own psychology and we see the turmoil behind his stiff upper lip.
Rogue Male shows the conceit of civilised man stripped away, layer by layer, and replaced by the instincts of a hunted animal. There is pain, there is fear but what the pursuers forget at their peril is that a hunted animal also has a ruthless cunning.
“Usual rubbish at the office.” Martin slumped into the armchair, as he did every evening when he came home from work.
“Well come on,” said Dora. “You need to choose a costume. Charlie’s expecting us at her party in an hour.”
“Hm? Oh yes. Halloween. Party. Charlie’s.” Martin was never at his most eloquent after an hour on the Victoria Line.
“You might sound a little more enthusiastic,” said Dora.
“Enthusiasm. Yes.” Martin stifled a yawn. “Soul of enthusiasm. That’s me.”
“You need to choose a costume.” Dora didn’t sound convinced. “You can’t go as the soul of enthusiasm.”
“Lost soul of enthusiasm?”
“All right, all right, I’ll go as a musketeer.”
Dora rolled her eyes. “You were a musketeer at Charlie’s birthday. You can’t be a musketeer again. Anyway, it’s Halloween. What’s scary about a musketeer?”
“Ask the Cardinal’s guards.”
“You are not going as a musketeer. You need to go as something frightening. What scares the living daylights out of you?”
“I work in retail. I’m terrified that people haven’t bought enough stuff for Halloween. It would play hell with the quarterly figures.”
She threw a clown mask at him. “You can’t go as a spreadsheet.”
“Why not? There’s a white sheet. I’ve got a marker pen in my briefcase. Give me ten minutes and I’ll be ready to go as a full blown recession.”
Dora said nothing.
“The ghost of recessions past, present and yet to come?” Martin asked. “What will you go as? An unpaid credit card bill?”
“Martin.” Dora’s voice held a dangerous edge.
“All right, all right, I’m excited about Halloween. Look at me. Behold the lost soul of pagan pumpkin excitement.”
“So what will you go as?”
“I shall go as the one thing every self-respecting London suburbanite dreads above all else.”
Dora looked suspicious. “Which is what?”
“A fall in property prices.”
For a moment, Martin thought he’d gone too far but Dora stopped herself with a deep breath. When she spoke again, she sounded as if she was under perfect control.
“In that case, I’m not going to be wearing this.”
She picked up a red dress and a tiara with a pair of horns on them, and tossed them to one side.
“Or these.” She pulled a red lace lingerie set from under a werewolf costume and threw them after the dress.
Martin picked up the mask she’d thrown at him and put it across his face. “Pass me the suit.”
“That’s better,” said Dora.
The demise of coal fires had consigned London’s infamous smog to history, so I didn’t have his practice at groping my way around the city. I inched my way along, not placing one foot too far in front of the other, and wondered what kind of fog this was. I couldn’t smell ozone, so it was no more sea mist than it was smog. I’d just filed it under bloody foggy nuisance when I smelled something nasty. It would be just my luck if some septic tank truck had spilled its load where I wouldn’t see it until I waded into it.
I paused and redoubled my efforts to see ahead of me, but I couldn’t even see the electric lights now. I was still peering at nothing when a figure coalesced in front of me. All I could see was a spectre in a long coat, robbed of face, age and gender by the night and the fog. It unnerved me enough that I wanted to hear a human voice, if only to be certain it had one.
“Evening,” I said.
“Godspeed to you, goodfellow,” came a man’s voice as the spectre walked past me and faded back into the night.
Evidently a hipster.
My groping hand touched the parapet. I looked over the edge, curious to know if the night was as opaque in the vertical as in the horizontal. It wasn’t. I could make out water rushing beneath me, as though the River Thames was being forced through a tiny gap.
That didn’t make sense. I’d seen London Bridge in daylight often enough to know there was no narrow gap. It had been built in the seventies, long after engineers had discarded the broad-based arches of the mediaeval London Bridge. The road was supported by a couple of piles, which took up a tiny fraction of the width of the river. Yet as I looked over the edge, I could see a long gap in the flow that could only mean something was blocking much more of the river than it should be. For a moment, I wondered if I was on the wrong bridge, but that wasn’t possible. None of the bridges this far down the Thames were built like that.
I stepped back. It was only half a pace, but it was enough to drop a veil of mist between me and the parapet. A bus thundered past. The fog must have eased slightly, because I could see the blur of its interior lights rolling down the orange corridor of sodium light.
I followed where the bus had led.
I was getting the hang of navigating fog.