Alby Stone: The Ages

Copyright © 2014 Alby Stone

A river, wide and frozen, set in a deep bed of snow and crystalline trees. He trudged along one bank, leaving an even trail of footprints, the only marks on an otherwise unbroken sheet of crisp whiteness. Whenever he glanced to his right, to the bank opposite, she was there, distant and silent. Sometimes, he tried to call to her, across the river and through the bitter cold. But all that escaped his lips were foggy spurts of breath.

Were they travelling upstream or down? The water did not move and the riverbanks were mirror images, seemingly parallel lines stretching toward an invisible horizon, offering no clue. Looking back was not an option; whenever he tried his neck locked and excruciating pain shot across his shoulders. If he looked down he could see the prints, ankle-deep, as his feet rose from them. He had no idea where the first had been made but he feared there would never be a last. He had always been walking. There would be no end to this journey. Wherever it led, this route was pre-ordained. The riverbank was his only path and there could be no deviation.

The blue-grey sky never darkened, never grew lighter. Sun and clouds hovered in place, unmoving and unchanging. No birds flew or sang; no beasts disturbed the snow. On and on he walked, always cold and afraid, and nothing ever changed.

She really wished he would shut up. The man’s voice was clear and insistent, saying things she didn’t understand, weird stuff. It sounded oddly familiar but she couldn’t place any of it. No one else seemed to hear him, though. She wanted to scream at him to stop, but didn’t dare to in case the people around them thought she was the crazy one. She wondered if he might be dangerous. Best not to look at him, just in case. The last thing she wanted was a madman creating a scene with her as the focus of his ranting and raving.

The cavity was vast, egg-shaped, lined with interlocking stones and half filled with water that seemed to glow in the soft blue light. Midway between the top and bottom of the ovoid chamber, a ledge ran unbroken around the perimeter, the liquid splashing gently over the flagstones as movements rippled the surface.

He was not alone. She swam diametrically opposite him, in the same counter-clockwise direction and keeping pace. Unless one of them changed course or stopped dead while the other carried on, they would never meet.

The sounds they made merged and echoed up and down and around the curved walls in a recursive serial whisper. Yet somehow he could hear each stroke of her arms through the water, every breath she took, with perfect clarity. Once, he thought she might have laughed – or perhaps she was weeping.

The water was as warm as blood, slippery with salts, tangy as brine when it passed his lips, yet clear as glass. Without looking, he knew he was naked. Presumably, so was she. The thought did not arouse him. It simply felt right, the way it was supposed to be.

He didn’t understand why they were locked in this endless, aquatic dance, even though he was dimly aware that rules were being followed, that they were following prescribed steps.

Was he dreaming? He could no longer tell, increasingly convinced it was the only reality that remained to him. Perhaps it was her dream and he had inadvertently trespassed.

They swam on. Time passed – hours, days, weeks, perhaps months. He seemed to have been swimming forever, thousands of circuits, a million; the first was lost in a history that had no beginning. He was tired, so tired by his eternally scissoring arms and oscillating feet. And he had always been tired.

At last she dared to raise her eyes. As expected, he was staring in her direction – but he wasn’t really looking at her, only gazing emptily at a place somewhere a long way behind her, beyond her, beyond even the glass and aluminium that confined them. A thousand-yard stare. She’d heard the expression many times but this was the first time she truly understood what it meant.

The man’s lips twitched now and then, but his Adam’s apple bobbed continually. He was subvocalising, delivering a lengthy internal monologue and not being particularly subtle about it. And she could hear every unuttered word as if it was a shout so loud the ambient racket could not drown it out.

Curious, she studied him more closely. He was unkempt, dressed in mismatched clothing, tightly clutching a plastic carrier bag advertising a women’s clothing store he was unlikely ever to have visited. He badly needed a shave. It wasn’t what they called designer stubble – there was nothing ‘designer’ about this guy. And he was shivering. Perhaps that was a side-effect of some kind of medication. His expression was oddly blank and indecipherable. He had the look of a psychiatric out-patient, like the strange, solitary old man who’d lived up the road when she was a kid, the one she and her friends all laughed at, though secretly everyone of them felt sorry for him.

The fire separated them, smoke and leaping flame blurring her features as he watched. Branches and twigs crackled as they burned, tiny glowing embers lifted by the thermal current, soaring into the night sky like fireflies. Around them, outside the pool of flickering firelight, there was only an infinity of darkness. Fire, the comfort of the ages.

He sat on the dry sand, regarding her across the dividing blaze. No matter how long the wood burned, it was never consumed. The fire never consumed more fuel than it had when it was first lit. That had been such a long time ago, as old as the first fire kindled by human hands. And they’d sat there ever since, immobile, waiting. But waiting for what?

He tried to stand again, failed again. Movement was restricted to a single reaching out, both arms extended, palms outward to warm by the fire; or a small adjustment to his position to relieve the discomfort. Whenever he made these small shifts, she moved too. It was almost like gazing into a mirror that reversed more than polarity – not only left to right but also man to woman, dark to fair, unremarkable to beautiful.

Unexpectedly – unprecedentedly – she stood and addressed him.

‘I was ashamed,’ she said.

Did they still say ‘care in the community’ in these days when it was only too obvious that communities didn’t give a damn about people like him until and unless they did something bad? Was there a home with family, people who loved him? What had his life been like? Who was he? Did anyone care about this man or listen to his bizarre ramblings?

No, of course they didn’t. She was sure now that the others couldn’t hear him. His speech was intended for her alone. She didn’t know why she could make out what was evidently inaudible to anyone else. All she knew was that she wanted him to stop it – that or get up and walk out and go as far away as possible. As far as she was concerned the lunatic could keep on walking forever, to Antarctica or the North Pole, anywhere just so long as he left her alone.

As she thought that, a solitary tear trickled from the man’s left eye and ran slowly down his cheek to the corner of his mouth. And with that she realised that his expression was not blank at all but was that of a man struggling to suppress great fear and a terrible anguish. It was the face of someone who was pained in a way she would never have to endure. Her heart went out to him and she regretted her reluctance to listen, her dismissal of him as a madman. Her face burned with shame.

When the train pulled into Waterloo, the man and woman sitting opposite each other rose at the same time. For an instant, their eyes met. He nodded curtly and gave her a brief, shy smile. She smiled back, though she seemed embarrassed, no doubt because he was a stranger. They left the train together and strode in spontaneous lockstep to the barriers, inserting their tickets in adjacent slots at the same time. She turned left toward the tube station. He crossed the concourse and took the escalator down to street level.

Outside, it had been snowing heavily. He added his tracks to the thousands already there.

Alby Stone: Hell’s Bells

Copyright © 2013 Alby Stone

With no apologies at all to Christopher Marlowe, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Peter Edward Cook.

 My seven years were up and it was time to settle but I really didn’t fancy paying the bill. Somehow an eternity of sulphur fumes, intense heat, jabbing with pitchforks and rectal probing with red-hot pokers did not appeal. It wasn’t as if I’d got anything worth having out of the bargain – a few nights of admittedly satisfying passion, some extra cash, a modicum of fame and some glitzy toys were all very well but in the end I had nothing of real value. Nothing lasting had been achieved and I would wind up as little more than a few lines in the local newspaper and a bundle of bones buried in a wooden box whose location was marked with a stone rectangle inscribed with my name, a couple of dates and a cringeworthy epitaph dreamed up by whatever member of my family had remained sober enough to think of composing one. At least I would be leaving them enough money for a decent piss-up to mark my passing. OK, it wasn’t really that bad, but even so.

Still, I’d made my bed and now I had to lie in it. A deal is a deal and my word is my bond, et cetera. There’s nothing like imminent damnation to get the creaky old adages rolling. 

*

In retrospect, I’d made a bad deal; though at the time it had seemed not only a great idea but the logical next step in the circumstances. It was a dark and stormy night, and a bitterly cold one. I was unattached, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future; I was unemployed, broke, sober and hungry. And my Christmas stocking was as empty as my bank account, my bed and my prospects. At twenty-five minutes to midnight on that dreary Christmas Eve, I raided my almost-empty tobacco pouch for a matchstick-thin cigarette. I looked around my miserable, undecorated bed-sit and its one-candle illumination, and wondered how things had become so bloody bleak and depressing, so utterly hopeless.

Of course, there was no-one to blame but myself. I’d moved to London from my home town almost a year before, with bright eyes and high hopes of making it big in the city. After years of slaving in dead-end jobs and marking time with short-term relationships and long-term underachievement, I felt I had no choice but to get away from all the things I knew, the people and activities that held me back, and make a fresh start armed with nothing but my undoubted talent and a new-found ambition. I was going to be a success. I was going to be a sensation. I was going to be a star.

Inevitably, I failed to take account of one small factor that was to prevent me from realising my dream. I had no talent at all. I flunked one audition after another – minor roles in theatres, bit parts in television productions and films, faces in crowds in commercials, spear-carriers, third policemen… I cast my line into the water time after time and never had a single bite. It seemed being a well-known figure in local amateur dramatics wasn’t enough to merit being even an anonymous visage in a celluloid mob. Eventually, my savings ran out and I was forced to live first on minimum-wage casual work then, when even that dried up, on benefits. I fell behind with the rent, couldn’t pay the utilities, and joined the ranks of the freegans just so I could eat. The gas had been cut off and I had no coins for the electricity meter so I couldn’t cook anything I’d liberated from the supermarket bins, and I was sick to death of stale sandwiches and crushed biscuits. A dead dog and a divorce, and they would have been writing songs about me in Nashville.

Sure, I could have gone home, if I’d been able to scrape enough money together for the coach or train fare. But that would be to admit defeat, and that was unthinkable. I could picture my siblings’ smug, told-you-so faces, and hear the insincerity in my friends’ voices when they pretended to soothe my battered ego. On the whole, I would rather have starved to death or perished from hypothermia before going there.

The clock nudged its big hand a little closer to the twelve. The timepiece had been a flat-warming gift from my mother. Thinking about it, I was impressed with the longevity of the single AA battery I’d inserted almost exactly one year earlier. As I watched it moved forward another notch, then another. I fancied a mug of coffee but had no way of heating the water, and nothing to mix with the water anyway. I kept looking at the clock. I had nothing else to do. Then the hand stopped moving.

‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ I sighed. Despondently, I rolled another cigarette, resolving to go to bed when it was smoked. But although the lighter sparked, there was no flame. It had run out of gas. I had no matches. The candle flickering on the mantelpiece was my last one. There was exactly seven pence in my pocket, a long way short of the price of either matches or candles. If I blew the candle out, I’d have nothing to relight it with. If I let it burn down, I would be without light on Christmas evening.

I lit my cigarette from the candle. As I puffed at it to keep it alight, I coughed and the candle was extinguished. There wasn’t much I could do about it. For a moment I thought I might actually cry. God knows I wanted to. But I merely sat there in the dark and smoked, too fed up to even swear. Outside, the local church bells were ringing and people staggering home from the pubs were singing carols and shouting: ‘Merry Christmas!’

Merry Christmas? What did I have to be merry about? I toyed momentarily with the idea of going out onto the street and begging. Surely some of those mellow drunks and the boys and girls wide-eyed and excited from Yuletide snogs would have it within them to donate a quid or two to some poor bastard down on his luck? Then I thought back to my own pre-London Christmases. For every merry drunk there had been two vicious buggers spoiling for a fight; and for every snog-happy bloke there were a couple more who’d come away from their Christmas do with unpressed lips and a need to take out their frustrations on someone. And drunks make mistakes – with the way my luck was going some sodden fool would probably think I was a mugger and I’d end up at the nearest nick sharing a cell with a human vomit machine. Though at least it would probably be warm and well-lit and they’d give me a cup of tea and breakfast in the morning. Now that was a temptation indeed.

‘You call that temptation? That’s amateur stuff. I could show you real temptation.’

I didn’t see where he came from – or indeed, how he’d got into my poky little flat, as the door was locked and the security chain was on to make sure my dodgy neighbours couldn’t get in. I had nothing worth stealing but that doesn’t stop some people.

‘Who the hell are you? How did you get in? What do you want?’

My questions were hardly original but they were all apposite. The bloke now sitting on the end of my bed laughed. It sounded like someone unblocking a sink with a bull terrier.

‘Who the hell indeed,’ he replied.

I took a good look at him. Yes, my flat was pitch-dark – I hadn’t bothered to open the curtains when the candle went out – but I could see him clearly, as though he was somehow lit from within. He was about my own age, mid-thirties, with a Guy Fawkes goatee and moustache, and short dark hair brushed back from his forehead. He wore a black suit with a white shirt and black tie. His eyes were solid black orbs that either glowed with an inner fire or were reflecting orange light from a source that wasn’t there. He bore an uncanny resemblance to José Mourinho.

‘Aren’t you sick of living like this?’ He gestured to take in my distinctly shabby home. ‘Aren’t you fed up with being poor and lonely and a failure? Wouldn’t you like things to be better than this? I mean, short of contracting a disfiguring, painful and ultimately fatal illness, things really couldn’t get worse for you, could they?’

I had no answer to that. ‘No, they really couldn’t,’ I agreed. ‘But you haven’t answered my questions.’

He laughed again. This time it sounded like a grizzly bear scraping a blackboard. ‘You know who I am,’ he said. ‘You let me in. And what I want is what you want.’

‘I don’t know who you are,’ I told him crossly, though I was beginning to get an idea. A man who looked like Satan incarnate, who had gained entrance to my home through apparently supernatural means, and who seemed to be about to offer me – something… Well, who else could it be?

‘Liar,’ he said, with a grin so smug it would have graced the features of a Cabinet Minister. ‘You may be an untalented idiot but you’re not stupid. You’ve read the stories and you know the deal. Seven years of good times, the very best times you can imagine, with all your wildest dreams and fantasies realised, then I collect on the debt. All you have to do is sign on the dotted line.’

I thought about it for a couple of minutes. He was patient. He had all the time in the world, after all. I realised he was smoking a cigar.

‘Can I have one of those?’

‘If you sign I’ll leave a whole box of these here for you, to sweeten the deal.’

‘Could I have a lighter that works as well?’

‘You drive a hard bargain,’ he chuckled, a horrible noise like a corpse being dismembered with a rusty chainsaw. ‘OK, why not? A box of cigars and a fully-functional lighter it is. And seven years of good times.’

‘And the price would be the – er – usual, I suppose?’

‘Correct: one soul of which you are the sole owner, payable at the end of the specified period.’

‘I’m guessing you have the contract already drawn up?’

He reached into his inside jacket pocket and produced what looked like a parchment scroll. ‘Human skin,’ he said proudly. ‘Cost me a fair bit but just look at that finish. Smooth and silky as a baby’s bum. Actually, it probably is a baby’s bum. Do you want to read it?’

I thought I’d better. Fortunately, unlike most legal documents I’d seen, this was fairly short and concise. In return for seven years of pleasure and good fortune, to be spent in the manner of my choosing, a box of cigars and a working cigarette lighter, I was to forfeit my immortal soul. The payment would be demanded in exactly seven calendar years from the moment of signing.

It didn’t take me long to decide. After all, what did I have? My life was nothing but poverty, misery, futility and loneliness. What good was my soul anyway? It didn’t pay the bills or get the drinks in or feed me or get me laid. If I understood correctly, its sole post-mortem purpose was to spend all eternity singing the praises of a supreme being I didn’t even believe in. That didn’t sound to me like much fun. Mind you, if this bloke sitting on my bed existed then maybe the other one might. No, I wouldn’t even think about that. Besides, getting into the heavenly glee club was supposed to be a tricky business and I was pretty sure I hadn’t racked up anywhere near enough brownie points for a harp and wings.

‘Where do I sign?’

‘At the bottom, where it says signed.’ He removed a fountain pen from his breast pocket. ‘But first we need ink. This may hurt a little bit.’

He stabbed the fountain pen into my wrist and pressed the lever to fill the barrel with my blood. It hurt like buggery, but I gritted my molars and let him get on with it. When it was full he handed me the pen and I signed away my soul. He breathed on the signature to dry it, rolled up the parchment and stood.

‘It’s been a pleasure doing business with you. Oh, you’ll need these.’ He placed two one-pound coins in my hand. ‘One for the lottery the day after tomorrow – any numbers will do – and one for the electricity. It’s bloody freezing in here.’

I blinked and he vanished. The church bells were still ringing. The drunks were still shouting. I had a cigar in my hand.

*

As soon as he left I put a coin in the meter and switched on the electric fire to warm the flat enough for me to get undressed for bed without dying of exposure. The next lottery draw was a couple of days later. In the interim I had to last nearly two more days without food and came close to blowing the deal on a Mars bar, and would probably have starved anyway if I hadn’t found a fiver in the street on the way home from the newsagent. And I forgot to tick the ‘no publicity’ box.

You know the rest. I won an improbable sum of money on the lottery – an eight-digit windfall that turned my life upside-down. Consequently, I was not only suddenly astonishingly wealthy but inundated with begging letters and besieged by attractive women – and my bloody family, naturally – and like all ‘undeserving’ lottery winners became the stuff of tabloid legend, the good-time geezer with a different woman for every night of the week, and fifty-two different sets of those ladies every year. I was a prize rotter, a cynical love-’em-and-leave-‘em bounder of the first order, the carelessly wealthy guy who’d think nothing of writing off his Mercedes because, what the hell, there were more in the garage. I was the man who lived on champagne, cocaine and caviar when he couldn’t get anything better. The papers were full of my exploits – the starlets, the private jet hires, the hotel orgies, the drunken fights and iffy financial dealings, the kisses and the telling.

It was all bollocks, of course. In reality I had a decent but modest new house, a shiny but nondescript Renault, and a few non-celebrity girlfriends to whom I was always faithful and treated well. I never took drugs, partied excessively hard or indulged in outrageous gastronomic extravaganzas. I spent a bit of money on artwork and books, nights at the theatre – the one love I could never forget – or travel. I actually gave a lot of it away, to charities or people in need. I looked after my family and my friends. On the whole, I led a fairly decent and restrained life. The simple truth was that I didn’t have the appetites and vices expected of a twenty-first century celebrity. All the status symbols and decadence money could buy were not things I wanted to have, and I had no desire to make anyone else’s life a misery. But I never denied anything. I let the tabloids write what they wanted and allowed people at large to believe what suited them. People need entertainment and after all, it was all theatre really, wasn’t it?

It was the best performance I’d ever given, but it was hollow. Because I would never find lasting fulfilment and I didn’t actually do anything. Tabloid hacks and the public imagination did all the work for me.

So there I was, sitting at home on a Christmas Eve seven years on from the day I signed my soul away. I was watching the clock, the same one I had when the deal was made. I’m not sure why I kept it – maybe out of superstition, or maybe it was as a reminder that my time was short. I was alone, as I had been that night, only this time it was by choice. My current girlfriend – someone I cared for deeply and thought I might actually have a future with, if only I had a future – was away, visiting her parents. She’d come back the next day to find only an empty piece of meat, the soul departed in more ways than one. She’d grieve but she’d get over it, I hoped.

It was different from that night in other ways. There was a cheerful fire in the hearth and it was warm enough for me to be comfortable in only a dressing gown. The electricity was on, with a decorated Christmas tree shining with baubles and twinkling with fairy lights. I’d had a good dinner: a full Christmas job, only with a nut roast instead of turkey. I gave up eating meat shortly after selling my soul – somehow the prospect of an eternity of torment made it impossible to ignore the suffering of animals in abattoirs. I was smoking a cigar, with a box of them for my expected visitor, in red and white Christmas wrapping paper; and there was an open bottle of good brandy with two balloons at the ready. If I was going to be damned, I’d be civilised about it.

The clock’s hands approached midnight. In the street outside the church bells began to chime and the drunks cheered and shouted: ‘Merry Christmas!’ They were wishing the world a Christmas I would not see. That was OK – as I said, I didn’t much fancy the red-hot pokers up the bum or whatever Satan’s horned minions did to the eternally doomed, but I’d made my bed and was prepared to lie in it. I just wished I’d done a little more with it all. I just wished – well, what was the point of wishing? I shrugged and poured two decent measures into the brandy balloons. Then the clock stopped. I blinked and there he was, sitting in the armchair opposite.

I gestured to the brandy. ‘Have a drink,’ I said. ‘It’s a good cognac. You’ll like it.’

Satan took the balloon, warmed it in his hand and inhaled the vapour. He sipped and savoured it. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Yes, this is a good one.’

‘I thought you’d like it. Nice and smooth but fiery. Just like you.’

He laughed and for a second I thought a bus full of small children had crashed into a petting zoo. He glanced at the wrapped box, read the gift tag. ‘For me? That’s very kind.’

‘I may be about to be dragged into a fiery pit forever but that’s no reason not be civil.’

He took the parchment scroll from his pocket and unrolled it. ‘Five minutes left. So, then – no pleading? No begging for mercy? No wailing and rending of garments? No last-minute repentance?’

‘No. A deal is a deal. It was made fair and square; and I knew what I was doing. Anyway, what would I repent to? I don’t believe in God. Mind you, I wouldn’t believe in you either if you weren’t sitting there, so maybe I’m wrong. It doesn’t matter. It’s time to pay my debt – one immortal soul, as specified.’

He studied me closely, stroking his goatee. ‘What if I told you God does exist?’

‘I probably wouldn’t believe you.’

Satan smiled crookedly. ‘Actually, there is a God but it’s very different from what the Scriptures say. The Buddhists are much closer to the truth. God is indifferent, unknowable and ultimately not the Creator of All Things. It is a creation itself – a by-product of the universe. In fact, God is the universe. Everything is God. Even I, the creation of human fear and greed and hate and stupidity – which is probably why I’m such a bloody cliché – am God. As are you, my friend.’

‘I don’t feel much like God. I don’t think I’d want to.’

He laughed once more, chisels hammering into a squealing rhinoceros. ‘You’re a strange one. I gave you what you wanted and you didn’t do anything bad with it. I’d even go so far as to say you’ve used it for good. You accepted damnation so you could be moderately comfortable and used most of what you got out of the deal to do the right thing. And you’re even honourable. It’s impressive – sad, but impressive.’

I finished my brandy, extinguished the nearly-finished cigar and sighed. ‘Come on, let’s get it over with. I’ll just take off this dressing gown. Let’s not go all Doctor Faustus here.’

‘You’ve got one minute left.’

‘It’s only a bloody minute, less than that now. Let’s go.’

‘Can you hear the bells?’

I could indeed hear the bells. ‘Do they have bells in hell?’ I couldn’t say why but I was genuinely curious.

‘No, the Devil hates the sound of bells, or so they say. That’s why churches have them, to keep me away. It doesn’t really work but that’s tradition for you. I actually quite like bells, especially at this time of year. They also say the Devil has all the best tunes but there’s no music in hell. All we have down there is fire and the reek of brimstone, and pain and suffering and despair and the screams of the damned, on and on, ceaselessly, for eternity.’

He stood abruptly and tore the parchment in two then tossed it onto the fire, where it instantly caught and became flakes of ash that quickly disappeared up the chimney.

‘It’s no place for a man like you.’ He picked up the box. ‘Hell’s for really unpleasant bastards. Having you down there would be embarrassing. You’re so bloody soft you wouldn’t even be much use as a member of staff. Anyway, I’ve got to dash – a date with a well-known MP in his “second home” in Mayfair, where he’s been spending some quality time this evening with a lot of cocaine and a woman who lives there and isn’t the one he’s married to. Family values, my diabolical arse. I might get some decent begging and pleading there, maybe even some gnashing of teeth. And I’m really looking forward to seeing him with a red-hot poker rammed up his Khyber, the smug, hypocritical bastard.’

This wasn’t at all what I had expected. ‘You’re releasing me from the contract? Why?’

‘It’s Christmas,’ he said. ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all men, and all that. Even the Devil can get into the Christmas spirit. The religion’s immaterial – it’s the thought that counts. Mind you, I draw the line at politicians. Thanks for the Christmas present. I hope I don’t see you again, so be a good boy.’ Then he vanished, popping out of existence like a soap-bubble, taking the box of cigars with him.

When I looked up at the clock, still unable to comprehend what had just happened, it was one minute past twelve. It was the Christmas Day I thought I’d never see. The telephone rang.

‘Merry Christmas, my love,’ she said when I picked up the handset. And outside, the drunks were singing and the bells kept on ringing.

Alby Stone: Slugs and Snails

Copyright © 2012 Alby Stone

Slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails; adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine and uracil…

Nucleotides and nursery rhymes don’t tell the whole story. Little boys are made of more than the twin superstitions of science and folklore. Physically, Oliver Peters was made of the usual chemicals and minerals arranged in the standard pattern for a human male human. Medical science confirmed his biological ordinariness. He was a standard-issue organic machine of the type known as Homo sapiens sapiens. Psychological tests demonstrated that the software guiding its operation was pretty much average: he clocked in at well above average IQ; personality tests indicated that he was neither excessively introverted not overly extrovert, and only slightly more empathic than normal; and he showed no signs of any personality disorders. But it was obvious to anyone who came into contact with him that there was something seriously wrong with Oliver’s internal workings. It wasn’t anything he did or said – it was just that people didn’t like him. In fact, his fellow humans simply couldn’t abide his presence. He knew nothing of that when he was small, of course, not in his waking moments. But as he grew bigger and older so it became clearer that Oliver’s social life was destined to be a solo enterprise.

He should have known all along how his life would play out. The contempt in his father’s eyes, the spiralling of maternal rejection – they should have given him some inkling. So too should the suspicion on the faces of his reluctant playmates and the ease with which they so readily abandoned him as soon as an opportunity arose – even the distaste expressed by his first primary school teacher’s curled lip. Or maybe the way he was always the last kid picked for the teams, the one nobody ever passed the ball to; the boy destined to be at the back of every queue, the one left empty-handed whenever sweets and treats were handed out.

But he failed to recognise every sign. It was of no consequence, not then. Recognition could not have changed the facts. But it might have prepared him better for how his life would be.

Mrs Simmons, his second primary school teacher, once confessed to her colleagues that young Oliver unaccountably made her skin crawl. She had, she told them, an irrational desire to run away from him. He also provoked unpleasant thoughts and violent impulses of which she was not at all proud. The staff room murmured and nodded in agreement. Oliver made them all feel the same way.

‘I get this strange feeling,’ said Mrs Simmons guiltily, ‘as if he was going to be responsible for something really terrible, and that my only two sane courses of action are to either steer clear of him or do something drastic to stop whatever it is from happening. I know it’s bloody ridiculous – he’s only a little kid, for God’s sake – but he gives me the heebie-jeebies. It’s the same sort of feeling I get when I see a slug or a centipede, something I know won’t do me any harm but somehow makes me feel like I’m in some sort of danger.’

Asking any one of Oliver’s schoolmates or neighbours how they felt about him would have produced answers that, although varying in coherence and articulation, said more or less the same thing.

By the time Oliver Peters reached adulthood he was friendless and estranged from his family. Although intelligent – he had once been thought gifted, though for some reason his teachers had quietly reclassified him as ‘average’ – he had achieved nothing. He had no qualifications beyond a handful of reasonable-grade GCSEs, few useful skills, and no prospects whatsoever. Bewilderment and loneliness are not qualities that impress a potential employer. He drifted from one menial job to another, none lasting more than a couple of weeks – usually only until he angered the management sufficiently to allow them to get rid of him and employ someone likeable. The Jobcentre eventually ceased to require him to seek work, but only because the staff refused to interview him. The failure to obtain remunerative work was the least of his disappointments, however. Grown men and women didn’t like him. Small children and animals feared him. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and hawkers of more substantial commodities only ever knocked on his door the once.

In truth, by any objective standards it was very hard to see why Oliver was so universally loathed and despised. He wasn’t unfriendly – far from it. He liked people and yearned for friendship. He was always sincerely polite. He bathed regularly and dressed neatly as far as his limited funds would allow. He didn’t smell bad. He would have been thought good-looking if he’d been anyone but himself. He was well-spoken, generous, kind, gentle and quiet, and there was no malice in him at all. He enjoyed jokes and had an excellent sense of humour. On paper he should have been a big hit with the ladies, a popular guy in the pub, the proverbial life and soul of all the parties he was never invited to.

*

When he was twenty-six, Oliver had a great idea. He would write a novel. It would, he reasoned, be the perfect way to change his life. A successful book would surely give people cause to look at him differently. It would break the social ice and might even thaw the icy hearts of the women he met fleetingly as he went about his everyday life and who invariably looked at him in the same way they would regard something unpleasant they’d just stepped in while walking their dogs. Literary achievement could even result in a much-needed swelling of his bank account.

He set to the task with enthusiasm and unrelenting commitment. The novel was about a white man who had been raised from infancy by pygmies in the Congo after his naturalist parents had been killed by a mysterious giant beast that may or may not have been a descendant of the survivors of whatever had killed off the dinosaurs. The pygmy elders, who had grown to fear the youth, who at six feet four now towered above them all, had belatedly handed him in to the Congolese authorities in Kinshasa. Repatriated to his parents’ home in Eastbourne, the young man had to learn grown-up English and the niceties of middle-class society but was quickly ensnared by questionable family friends and became embroiled in various illicit schemes, social misunderstandings and attempts to cash in on his life story. Eventually, he tired of all this, returned to the Congo laden with practical gifts for the members of his former community, and married his three foot seven childhood sweetheart. The story ended in comic tragedy when he took his bride to a Brighton hotel for their honeymoon and was arrested on suspicion of being a child molester, while his twenty-five year old spouse was placed in a children’s home.

The novel was a finely-crafted work of comic genius. It was a winner. Oliver knew it as soon as soon as he typed the final full stop. He e-mailed a copy of his Word document to an agent whose website promised a quick response, and waited. A week later the agent phoned and asked to meet him for dinner.

*

The restaurant, a swanky French place in Chelsea, was almost empty when Oliver arrived, even though it was eight o’clock on a Saturday evening. Oliver was surprised. He’d googled it and had read that it was very popular. He decided that there was probably something else on locally that was keeping the punters away. Oddly, most of the tables still had half-full plates and unfinished glasses of wine. It looked as though they’d been vacated in a hurry. The only other customer was an attractive woman sipping a glass of white wine. She had shoulder-length red hair and was dressed all in black – trousers, blouse and shoes – just as the agent, Annette Midgley, had said she would be. Oliver hurried nervously across to her table, a desirable spot by the window.

‘Annette Midgley? Oliver Peters.’

‘Oliver, good to meet you,’ she smiled. To Oliver’s surprise, she rose, clasped his right hand and kissed him on the left cheek – not the usual chattering class air-kiss but an authentic meeting of feminine lips and masculine skin. Oliver was stunned. No member of the female sex had ever kissed him before. And none had ever seemed remotely pleased to see him.

They sat facing each other across the table. Oliver didn’t have the faintest idea what he should do. He’d never been out to dinner with anyone and the etiquette was a wholly unknown quantity. Annette helped out by calling a waiter.

‘A bottle of the house dry white, please’ she said. ‘We should be ready to order in about ten minutes, if that’s OK. Thank you.’

The waiter silently glared at her and stalked away. Oliver noticed that the man at the small bar was staring at them. At first he assumed the man was staring in the way men do sometimes stare at women – there was no denying that Annette was an attractive example of her sex – but then he realised that the look was actually quite hostile. The waiter returned with the wine, belligerently pulled the cork and thumped the bottle down on the table. He didn’t ask either of them to taste it and didn’t offer to pour. Oliver wasn’t an experienced restaurant-goer but he’d seen enough television programmes to know that the waiter hadn’t exactly followed the usual rules.

‘Your book is hilarious,’ Annette told him. ‘Once I’d started it I couldn’t put it down. I can’t believe it’s your first novel.’

‘Yeah,’ Oliver replied, embarrassed but pleased. ‘My first stab at anything creative, really. I’m glad you liked it. Do you reckon it might interest a publisher?’

‘Oliver, I’ve already shown it to Penguin and they want it. I was surprised, I must admit. But they want it just as it is. No changes, even. That’s practically unheard of. But then your book is very, very good. It’s about time one of my clients had a decent break.’

‘So it’s official? Don’t I have to sign a contract or something?’

‘We can work out our contract later. The guy from Penguin wants you to meet their lawyer next week – that’s a big hurry, so they’re obviously desperate to sign you up before anyone else gets a whiff. That puts you in a very good bargaining position, Oliver. You could be a major earner for them. All the publishers want to find the next JK Rowling or E.L. James, not that they just want woman writers, obviously. You know what I mean – they’re after instant-hit writers whose books will shift major units and make a lot of money very quickly.’

‘Do you really think it’s that good?’ Oliver was incredulous. ‘I mean, I’ve never read the Harry Potter books or Fifty Shades of Grey but surely mine can’t be that accomplished?’

Annette laughed. ‘Don’t mistake popular for good,’ she told him. ‘The best-seller lists are like the pop charts. Genuinely good material is usually a bit too challenging for most readers. Most people want something easy to read that doesn’t make them think too deeply. If it tells them what to think, that’s even better.’

‘That sounds a bit cynical.’

‘It’s the sour voice of experience. The only times genuinely good literary novels sell in quantity is when they’re up for a big prize or they’ve been turned into films or television, or are mentioned in films or bigged up on television. People are like sheep. Look at all those silly people who went out and bought Herodotus because of The English Patient, or when everyone had to have A Brief History of Time. I know they’re not novels but you know what I mean. How many of the copies they sold ever actually got read? Your book is different. It’s a good piece of writing that will be popular before they make the movie.’

The waiter appeared again and sullenly took their order. They both opted for moules marinières with seasonal vegetables, pommes frites and green salad on the side. The waiter hastily scribbled their order on a notepad and snatched up the menus.

‘He seems in a bad mood,’ said Oliver.

‘Yeah, everyone here seems a bit touchy. This is the first time I’ve been here but the internet reviews all say how friendly and helpful the staff are. You could have fooled me. I think there must be something going on. When I arrived the place was nearly full but within five minutes they’d all paid up and pushed off. The waiters are probably annoyed that their tips won’t be too good tonight.’

She paused to smile brightly and wave at an elderly woman walking past the restaurant with a small dog on a lead. The old lady peered at her suspiciously. The dog, a Westmoreland terrier, went berserk, baring its teeth and snarling, flinging itself at the glass but being brought up short as the woman yanked hard on the lead. The woman yelled something at Annette. Oliver couldn’t quite hear what she was shouting but Annette flushed and quickly turned away from the window.

‘That wasn’t very nice,’ she muttered, clearly upset.

Oliver tried to cheer her up. ‘You look great,’ he said. ‘That’s a terrific outfit and your hair’s nice. The colour’s lovely.’

Annette looked at him carefully, frowning slightly. ‘Why, thank you. Do you really mean it?’

‘Of course I do,’ replied Oliver, taken aback.

‘It’s just that men don’t usually pay me compliments – well, not ever, actually.’

‘You’re kidding – a beautiful woman like you? I find that hard to believe. I’d have thought you’d be fighting them off.’

‘That’s very sweet of you, Oliver. But honestly, men usually back off as soon as they clap eyes on me. When I was a teenager I used to think it was because boys found me unattractive but I’m not exactly ugly, am I? It seems to have become worse as I’ve got older. I’ve no idea why. Do you know, I’m nearly thirty and still haven’t –‘

She blushed and said no more. Oliver knew what she had been about to say. Perhaps she wouldn’t feel so bad about it if she knew that he too had never done that.

‘Same with me,’ he said cheerfully. ‘I’ve never had any luck with women – never had a girlfriend, not even a snog.’

‘Now you’re the one who’s kidding. That’s crazy. You’re a good-looking bloke and you seem really nice.’

Oliver chuckled ruefully. He knew he was saying too much but he found her somehow easy to talk to, even about intimate matters. ‘Not to worry. I expect I’ll break my duck one day. Anyway, I hear celibacy’s fashionable in some quarters.’

The food arrived, minute portions that challenged even the legendary stinginess of nouvelle cuisine. The waiters carelessly slapped the plates and dishes onto the tablecloth and stalked back into the kitchen. Annette and Oliver stared at the food, which would have been dwarfed by the plates even if the portions had been reasonably large, and shook their heads. The mussels had been cooked to dehydration and the salad leaves were not so much tired as comatose. The vegetables looked more mineral than anything else. Annette tutted and Oliver exhaled sharply. Their eyes met as they raised them from the culinary disappointment.

‘Tell you what,’ sighed Annette. ‘Do you fancy getting some fish and chips? Then we could take them back to my place. It’s not far.’

That was a worrying development. Oliver wondered if single women lived differently to single men. He wondered if other single men lived differently to him. It had been a very long time since he’d been in someone else’s home. He had always kept his flat clean and tidy, not just in case the visitors who never came turned up one day but because that was how he liked to live. What could he expect from Annette’s place? Vague memories of his sister’s bedroom filtered back – he remembered expanses of pink and frills and fluffy toys, and permanent untidiness, but that was about it. Whatever had become of his sister? She had moved suddenly and left no forwarding address. Much as his parents had done, in fact.

‘My place is a bit of a dump,’ said Annette apologetically. ‘It’s quite nice inside, though. It’s a housing association place. I was placed there by Social Services years ago as a teenager when my folks upped sticks and left me alone in the house. I think they went to Canada. I’ve tried moving but can’t find anywhere. Landlords always say my references are unsatisfactory.’

‘That happens to me, too. Mine’s a council flat. It’s not much but I suppose it’s OK. Nobody ever bothers me, except some of the local kids. Sometimes they put stuff through my letter box and spray “nonce” and “paedo” and “nutter” on the door. They always spell “paedo” wrong. Kids, eh? I suppose they don’t have anything better to do.’

‘Yeah, I get that where I live. Not the “paedo” bit, though – it’s usually just pictures. You know the kind I mean. It isn’t very nice but what can you do? I’ve reported it to the housing association and the police but they seem to blame me.’

‘Snap. It’s the same with employers. I never last long in a job because I seem to get the blame for anything that goes wrong.’

‘That happened to me until I decided to become a literary agent. I do most of my business online or by phone and I don’t do too badly out of it. Mind you, my clients usually move on to someone else as soon as they meet me in the flesh. Maybe I don’t come across as professional enough for them. It’s very frustrating.’

Oliver boldly signalled to the waiter and asked for the bill. The man seemed relieved and was slightly less surly when he brought it to their table. Annette insisted on paying but they agreed that there would be no gratuity. No member of staff came to either collect the money or bid them goodnight. They left the money on the table and collected their coats. No one saw them to the door.

Out on the street, Annette took Oliver’s arm, another surprising gesture. He didn’t mind that. In fact, strolling along with a beautiful redhead on his arm, he felt ten feet tall. People gave them a wide berth. In the chippie customers queuing ahead of them seemed to suddenly remember that they had somewhere else to be. The woman behind the counter was unfriendly but served them speedily. They arrived at Annette’s flat slightly less than fifteen minutes after leaving the restaurant.

Oliver couldn’t believe his eyes. Annette’s walls were emulsioned white and the floors were varnished wood with autumnally-coloured rugs. All the curtains were ochre and so was the three piece suite. The remaining furnishings were pine. The flat was tidy and clean. Books, DVDs and CDs were neatly arranged on pine shelves. It was exactly like Oliver’s own place. He had the strange feeling that he’d dreamed the visit to the restaurant and had just woken up at home.

I am actually at home here, he thought hazily as he watched the red-haired woman arranging plates and crockery, uncorking a bottle of wine and smiling at him as she did so. This place and my place are somehow the same place.

Two bottles of wine later, the cod and chips were eaten and a third bottle had been opened. Annette and Oliver were sitting on the ochre sofa.

‘I’ll be there when you meet Penguin’s lawyers and their rep. The deal will have to include at least two more books, a hefty advance and a good deal on royalties and rights. I did a legal course online so I know the ropes.’

‘This is brilliant,’ said Oliver happily. ‘Annette, this is the best night of my life.’

‘It could get even better,’ she grinned wickedly. ‘How do you feel about breaking your duck? I’m absolutely dying to break mine.’

*

They had to try a few times before they got it right but that night those ducks were well and truly broken. Oliver was happy to go along with Annette’s suggestion that they needed plenty of practice, so they saw a lot of each other over the next few weeks. After that they were pretty well inseparable. They tried eating out a few times but it always ended in some kind of disaster so after a while they no longer bothered. It wasn’t too much of a pain – there were takeaways and plenty of delivery services available. Their occasional trips to the cinema never went smoothly so they gave that up too, staying in to talk, watch DVDs and brush up on their bedroom skills.

Oliver was more than a little dismayed that his new-found happiness didn’t rub off on other people. Indeed, people seemed even more hostile and unfriendly than they had previously been. Annette reported similar experiences. Fortunately the meeting with the people from Penguin went relatively well. Lawyers seemed to have an innate ability to ignore the psychic emanations of others – a legal education clearly involved the elimination of feelings, and the total exclusion of sympathy and empathy from any and all proceedings. In this case it worked to everyone’s benefit. Oliver got his three-book deal, a jaw-droppingly huge advance and a fair royalty rate. Contracts were signed, his novel was accepted and everything in the garden looked satisfyingly rosy.

The news of the latest literary sensation spread fast. Annette Midgley suddenly became the agent everyone wanted to represent them. Her business boomed, to the extent that she was forced to hire two assistants. These women worked from the comfort of their own homes and only communicated with Annette by e-mail, text and telephone. Meanwhile, Oliver was wooed by the media. The Observer ran a short feature on him, followed closely by the Daily Telegraph and the Independent. When the book was published Oliver was invited to appear on the Late Review and the Culture Show. The BBC couldn’t get enough of him. These interviews and appearances generated a fair bit of unwarranted hostility on the part of presenters and interviewers but Oliver didn’t care about that. There was no such thing as the wrong kind of publicity. Sales soared and he became almost a household name.

Annette and Oliver decided to move in together. They bought a house in Clapham. Less than a week later ‘for sale’ signs were erected in the front gardens of the adjacent properties on either side. They were forced to decorate the place themselves – every decorator they asked for an estimate claimed to be too busy to take the job on. Fortunately the new house didn’t need much in the way of renovation or repair, and Oliver was able to handle things like putting up shelves and replacing light fittings. It wasn’t too long before they had their new home more or less just how they wanted it. They kept their old furniture and rugs, and the interior colour scheme was familiar to them both.

To Oliver’s astonishment, his novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In the end he lost out to another first-time novelist, Cynthia Owusu, but was encouraged enough to vow that his second novel would be much better than his first. The award ceremony was marred by animosity from the tables surrounding theirs, and what seemed to be an orchestrated snub by the other shortlisted authors, though the winner was gracious enough to break ranks and shake his hand, and to sign Annette’s copy of the winning novel, the first instalment of a trilogy that now seemed destined to net Ms Owusu another two Man Booker prizes, continuing the trend of recent years.

Oliver began work on his second novel, an acerbic comedy in which W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx teamed up with James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Rin Tin Tin Jr to break up a Nazi spy ring in the Hollywood of 1938. It was, asserted Annette when she’d read drafts of the first four chapters, another winner.

One night, lying in bed after what Annette affectionately continued to refer to as ‘practice’ – though by now they were both rather good at it – they had a long discussion about their once-lonely lives and unaccountable unpopularity. Like Oliver, Annette had never been driven to examine her unpopularity very closely and had always simply assumed it was her lot in life, just the way things would be for her.

‘But it’s strange, isn’t it?’ said Oliver. ‘I mean, here’s nothing wrong with you at all. By rights you should have lots of friends and your family should dote on you.’

‘I could say the same about you,’ she replied. ‘It’s only since we met that I realised there was something wrong with me, and that’s only because I could see the same thing was happening to you. I suppose we’re lucky in that we’ve been able to be fairly successful without having to deal too closely with other people. At least we’re not lonely anymore. We’ve got each other. And even if all our success ended tomorrow we’ve got plenty of money in the bank and a nice home. We don’t really need anything else, do we?’

They didn’t. But two years after the publication of Oliver’s first novel, hard on the heels of the international best-seller that was his second, they got it anyway.

*

Sebastian Oliver Peters was born in the February of 2018, a strapping baby who arrived three weeks later than advertised sporting a full head of curly brown hair and armed with a set of vocal chords that a foghorn might have envied. It was a happy moment despite the circumstances.

Annette’s confinement was an ordeal. Sebastian had to be delivered by Caesarean section, which meant hospitalisation. Annette’s fellow mothers-to-be complained about her – no concrete reasons were ever given – and demanded to be moved to other wards, preferably in different hospitals. The nurses could barely be bothered to see to her needs. Doctors’ examinations were cursory. She was treated with contempt by the catering staff, despised by the cleaners, and left alone with her discomfort and anxiety. When Oliver visited her, things only became worse. At one point he came close to being escorted from the premises by security guards because someone had complained of his aggressive behaviour – all he had done was politely ask a nurse where he might find a chair – and only the distraction of a genuine violent incident on a neighbouring ward saved him from an ignominious and undeserved ejection.

But that was as nothing compared to how people reacted when Sebastian was born and the new family was together for the first time. Babies screamed and wailed, expectant mothers sobbed, visitors fumed, and the staff turned openly hostile. The unnerved Oliver couldn’t wait to get them out of there. The driver of the taxi he’d ordered almost drove off again as soon as he saw the three of them and was only dissuaded from doing so by the deployment of a large wad of banknotes. Even so, when they reached Clapham he drove away without even waiting for them to shut the rear doors.

The houses on either side were still unoccupied. The previous residents had cut their losses and moved out a year after Annette and Oliver moved in, despite not managing to sell the properties. It wasn’t a problem for the couple as they would never have seen their neighbours anyway. It just made the road a little quieter.

Sebastian, despite the ear-splitting volume at which he could request a feed or nappy-change, was a sweet little kid, gurgling happily at each new experience and always smiling in that helpless, slightly desperate way that babies do. The health visitor – the only person to have been inside their home other than the sullen removal men and the people who came to hurriedly read the gas and electricity meters – turned up for the first few appointed dates, though always late and smelling of gin only partly masked with peppermint, hurriedly weighed and looked at the boy, brusquely asked a few questions, and usually took her leave after less than a quarter of an hour. She didn’t interact with the child at all and when her visits dried up sooner than expected neither parent thought it worth complaining about her dereliction of duty.

When they took the boy out to the shops in his high-tech buggy with electronic sensors that monitored ambient temperature, ultraviolet light and moisture, and which had inbuilt heaters and a retractable UV-filtering cover that kicked in automatically when it was too bright, cold or rainy, they didn’t get the attention normally given to babies by old ladies and new or expecting mothers. People avoided them. Shopkeepers sometimes refused to serve them, claiming that a family emergency meant they had to close suddenly. Pedestrians steered well clear, dogs barked and growled as they passed. It was sad and disconcerting but they got used to it.

Annette and Oliver lavished love, care and attention upon their new son, which went some way to making up for the fact that the rest of humanity seemed set on ignoring him completely. Indeed, the kid thrived. His physical development was slightly better than the average, he was walking and talking a few months earlier than the books said, and he seemed to be remarkably bright. Sebastian was able to read at less than three years of age, and could add, subtract and multiply – division took him a bit longer to master, but Oliver joked that was because little Seb always wanted all of everything and never did things by fractions. There was no denying that the boy was clever but he was also rather literal-minded. Similes were just about manageable but he could never understand metaphors, and homonyms and puns were beyond him. How could anything possibly be two different things at the same time?

By the time Sebastian started school Oliver had published six best-selling novels – the first two of which had been turned into successful films – and a collection of short stories. Annette’s business had expanded to become the nation’s leading literary agency. They were very wealthy indeed. The money was a major factor in deciding the shape of Sebastian’s education, enabling them to place him at a nearby private school for gifted but ‘difficult’ children. The head teacher Mr Pargetter – or Malcolm, as he insisted they called him – stared at Annette and Oliver with appalled fascination and grinned insincerely through his scruffy beard as he assured them that his school was well-equipped to deal with children like Sebastian. He had accepted several boys and girls who had problems fitting in at other schools, including a couple of profoundly unsociable boys – one, ironically, the son of a child psychologist – and another deeply unhappy kid who had been targeted by bullies both in and out of her school. All were now well-adjusted and content, thanks to Pargetter’s liberal but demanding regime and his caring, hard-working staff, supported by a qualified psychologist and a team of counsellors. Sebastian’s parents were impressed, to the extent that they didn’t notice Pargetter’s deep sigh of relief as he closed his study door on them, or take note of the way his personal assistant seemed to be in a big hurry to see them off the premises. They were also deeply grateful that they hadn’t been given the now-expected brush-off.

Taking their little boy to school for the first time was an emotional experience, pride mixed with anxiety and sadness at the realisation that he wouldn’t be a little boy forever. Annette cried as they saw Sebastian in the playground that morning, walking bravely but uncertainly toward a group of children already playing a game, running around and laughing. Oliver gently led her away to the bus stop, keeping his fingers crossed that Sebastian would be accepted by at least one of his peers. Up to that moment the boy’s contact with any human beings other than his parents had been minimal. He’d never even spoken to anyone his own age apart from some of the neighbours’ kids, who had immediately run away from him and made sure to avoid him ever since. The boy was a distillation of that strange repulsion his parents inspired in others. Oliver hoped that the school’s reputation for handling difficult children and Pargetter’s confidence in his own methods were well-founded. But he wasn’t optimistic about that and had no doubt they would find out the worst when they went to collect Sebastian at half past three that afternoon.

 *

The telephone call came at seventeen minutes past one. There had been an incident, said Pargetter in a shaky monotone, and they should come to the school immediately. When pressed for details he refused to say more, adding only that it was very urgent and that they should prepare themselves for the worst.

They arrived to find six police cars and an ambulance parked outside the school. Annette and Oliver hurried from the taxi, their hearts pounding, expecting the worst. But the worst they feared wasn’t as bad as it could be.

‘Sebastian, why did you do it?’ Oliver was close to tears and Annette was weeping into her hands, sobbing convulsively. Pargetter and his PA were standing by the door of his study, ashen and distressed, at a loss as to what they should do. A white-faced policewoman stood over Sebastian, who looked lost in the huge leather-covered chair he had been placed on. The boy was covered in blood. Gore was smeared around his mouth. He shrugged, sulky and bored with the proceedings.

At ten minutes to one that afternoon a child had come running from the boys’ toilets, screaming loudly, his eyes bulging in terror. When Pargetter went to investigate he discovered the horribly mutilated bodies of a boy and a girl from Sebastian’s class. Sebastian, wielding a filleting knife he had taken from the school kitchen, was still dissecting the boy’s body, his hand as steady and deft as a skilled surgeon. The boy had been disarmed, led away and locked in Pargetter’s study while the emergency services were summoned. He had sulkily refused to say a word to Pargetter, and had blankly ignored the police and a doctor. Normally the police would have taken his clothing as evidence but they didn’t have any paper overalls small enough to fit him. The officers at the scene were waiting for someone higher up the food chain to decide what to do with the boy. A six year old murder suspect was unprecedented.

‘Why, Seb?’ Oliver wailed, overwhelmed with distress.

‘Sir,’ the policewoman sternly interrupted, ‘the suspect – your son – hasn’t been advised of his rights yet so you can’t question him.’

‘He’s six years old and I’m his bloody father!’ Oliver yelled. ‘And how can he be advised of his rights? He’s too young to understand what rights are!’

Annette sobbed even more loudly as Oliver’s voice rose. The policewoman looked both angry and thoughtful, perhaps calculating her chances of being able to find a reason to arrest Oliver but reluctant to actually take him into custody. She remained standing by the door. Oliver sighed and tried to relax but it was impossible. He gazed at his son with helpless love and incredulous horror. Sebastian still appeared bored and sulky. The boy refused to meet his father’s eyes.

‘They told lies,’ he said abruptly. ‘It was stupid and I told them so. But they kept saying it so I had to show them they were wrong.’

‘What lies do you mean, Seb?’

‘It was that stupid rhyme. I didn’t believe them but they kept on saying it and trying to make me look silly so I showed them.’

‘What did you show them, son?’

‘I showed them there weren’t any slugs or snails or puppy-dogs’ tails. And she didn’t taste anything like sugar and spice.’