A web of lives, p.14
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       A Web of Lives, p.14

           David Medlycott
 
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Dusk had just given way to a clear, moonless night as they swapped Tobin’s bags from Russell’s Jaguar to Teri’s Ford. Russell and Hazel had driven Tobin to Folkestone to meet Teri at the Channel tunnel.

  They adjourned to a café and brought Teri up to date on events so far. She grudgingly acknowledged that she was unable to add anything. Tobin was feeling guilty, knowing that Heather could not make use of her own information because her source was too good. He decided to give Heather one final call before leaving the country and went in search of a quiet spot to phone her.

  ‘Sorry, John, there’s not much new. That car in the Harper’s garage is registered to Brian Dale, but that doesn’t surprise you, does it?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘McColl has put out a call for Alan Harper’s car, and is trying to get a watch organised on airports and so on, but he didn’t seem too confident. Between you and me I think he’s a bit peeved that this was all happening on his patch and he was in the dark.’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘You’re very quiet. Are you feeling peeved as well?’

  ‘Sort of,’ he deflected the subject a bit. ‘I’m going to France with Teri; to search for Alan. He’s in danger. Not just from Brian Dale but also from the ‘heavy’, as you call him. He is a relation of Alan’s who’s crept back from the past, hence the similarity. I’ll have to explain it all when we get back; it could be a good story.’ He thought for a moment. ‘Can I ring you regularly and keep in touch?’

  ‘Of course,’ he noted down the series of phone numbers that she gave him and hung up. He began to feel apprehensive again about what he was embarking on.

  He turned back toward the table, took a deep breath, pinned on his most convincing smile and returned to the others

  Back at the table Teri was telling Russell and Hazel, ‘There are so many places he could have gone. Most of them I haven’t been to since I was little when he stopped taking us.’ She began to list them on her fingers. ‘Apart from the Alps, there’s Paris; and just outside Paris there’s Champs-sur-Marne, ….’

  ‘That’s the head office of Intercon Cuisine.’ Tobin interjected.

  ‘Yes, but his friends also live there, I was th … .’ She stopped, suddenly.

  ‘There last week?’ asked Tobin.

  ‘How did you know?’

  ‘It took me a while to work it out, but Alan was obviously up to date on what was happening at home. How could he know? Who was telling him?’ He gestured toward Teri, both hands unfolding as if revealing something secret within. ‘It had to be something extremely important for you to throw up a good job like that; and when you returned your whole attitude had changed. I thought then that something, or more likely someone, had caused that change; then when I got Alan’s note that confirmed it.’

  ‘Very good,’ chipped in Russell. ‘I think you will find it a lot easier if you don’t keep anything else from each other like that. You were saying Teri, where Alan could have gone.’ The children had been admonished.

  She resumed counting on her fingers. ‘He’s also got friends in Denmark, Belgium, Spain and Germany, that I know of.’

  ‘He can also speak the languages,’ added Tobin.

  ‘But, I haven’t been to any of them,’ continued Teri, ‘But, somewhere I know he goes to quite regularly is in the south of France between Marseilles and Toulon, Aub … something, Orb …, Oh, I can’t remember now. But, he hasn’t taken us there for a very long while now, either.’

  Russell looked at Tobin. ‘Got your work cut out, then.’ He said sceptically.

  ‘I know.’ Tobin took a deep breath. ‘Right now, I don’t know what else I can do, but I’m determined to do something.’ With a sudden rush, he added. ‘I’ve buggered about all my life and relied on others to do everything for me for so long that it’s time I did something in return. I know that he might turn out to be a murderer, although to me that’s impossible, but, even if he is, he’s never done me anything but good and so at last I’m going to try and repay some of that. I admit I don’t know how I’m going to do it, I just can’t sit here and let it all happen around me, that’s all!’ His arms were waving and his shoulders shrugging as he made his point, finishing with a thump on the table.

  Teri stared at him; the other two had heard these outbursts before and weren’t so surprised.

  ‘Well, anyway, come on, let’s go.’ He continued, suddenly standing up, embarrassed.

  Tobin awoke to the blast of a car horn nearby. He opened his eyes; he was in Teri’s car. She was driving and drifting over to the left. The horn blew again, he sat bolt upright and grabbed the wheel with his right hand and guided the car back over to the right side.

  ‘Teri. TERI!’

  Her head rose slowly, she blinked and gasped with fright. She regained control and pulled further over to the right onto the hard shoulder. Two cars shot past blasting their horns.

  ‘Bloody French!’ She shouted after them. ‘God, I’m sorry. Where are we?’

  ‘Coming up to Boulogne, I think.’ He studied the atlas that had fallen into his lap and compared it to the GPS. ‘We’ve not got very far.’ He held up the book in the glimmer of the interior light to confirm his estimate. ‘Shall I drive a bit?’ The request sounded a bit grudging, he had not been looking forward to this, his first drive on the right, and he had hoped to start it in daylight. But he had had more rest than Teri; she had also driven for most of the previous day in England. He read the remaining distance on the GPS; too far. They had hardly covered any distance and they were struggling already!

  He took the driving seat and ventured tentatively onto the road.

  Once the strain of driving had been removed Teri woke up and navigated and tried to keep cheerful. He began to relax, the road was quiet and they pushed on as far as they could before he announced that he needed a break. They found a rest area and pulled off the road.

  ‘Just give me a few minutes and we’ll get going again. Where to from here?’

  ‘We’re near the N1 junction, just before Amiens we rejoin the A16 toll motorway, get your credit card ready, which takes us almost into Paris. It becomes the N1 again and we turn off East at St. Denis and look for the N34 and then the N370. I had to memorise all those numbers when I came to meet Alan, I didn’t have the French maps on there,’ she indicated the GPS.

  ‘You know, I’m puzzled that you never said anything to Alan about knowing he wasn’t Alan.’

  ‘I didn’t believe it, then. I’m not convinced even, now.’

  ‘Well, … oh, … never mind.’ Tobin gave up before he even started.

  ‘Why haven’t you told the police, then? If you are so sure, surely you should tell them!’

  ‘OK. Point taken. But I am sure! Now.’ They got back in the car and headed off into the early morning on an uneventful journey. Tobin was pleasantly surprised at the clear, fast road system, but he annoyed Teri at the tollbooth by insisting on getting out of the car and running round to use the credit card himself. Fortunately there was no queue.

  They took a long breakfast stop outside Paris after which Teri took over to negotiate the complex of roads around the north east of the city. Tobin tried to navigate but his lack of understanding of French hindered more than helped the journey. Teri gave up following his directions as he kept confusing the turn-offs, following the map using the left of the road as if he was in Britain, while the French went off to the right. His understanding of the road signs didn’t help either. He found it hard to remember that the French arrow for straight on pointed left or right not up, as at home.

  After one particularly confusing junction Teri pulled in to the side and got out. She stalked around the car as horns blew and ordered Tobin into the driving seat. Terrified, he did as he was told, precisely. He grudgingly admitted afterwards that they arrived at their destination much more easily with her directing. They pulled up outside a pair of large, wire mesh gates leading to a compound.
A sign by the gate contained several company names; second on the list was Intercon Cuisine.

  ‘I don’t know if this place will be open this morning. The French don’t have heavy transport moving at weekends like we do. I’ll go and ask at the gate.’ She got out and approached a gateman who was peering from his hut. After a quick conversation she returned. ‘You wait here, I won’t be long!’ She turned on her heel and walked briskly into the compound. Tobin waited a minute or two and ambled to the gates after her. The gateman nodded to him. He looked as bleary-eyed as Tobin felt and was even more unshaven.

  ‘Bonjour m’sieur.’ Tobin tried to remember what little French he had picked up, not having studied the language at school.

  ‘Er, Bon-jour. Anglais, huh?’

  ‘Pardon?’

  ‘You – are – English?’ Said the gateman, in a loud, mocking voice; his impression of the Englishman abroad.

  ‘Oh. Yes.’

  ‘Good. England – good.’

  ‘Er. Yes.’

  ‘I go … England … .’ He indicated himself and held his hand a small height from the ground.

  ‘As a child?’

  Ah! Oui. London … Hoh!’ He did a rheumaticy attempt at the twist. That dates his visit thought Tobin. The gateman was certainly in his sixties and looked as though he had spent most of his life outdoors. Shrewd eyes gazed out from beneath shaggy brows and studied Tobin. He was six inches shorter than Tobin and stockily built, swarthy but clean except for the stubble. ‘You …?’ He indicated the departing Teri and Tobin with a rocking hand and a suggestive raising of an eyebrow.

  ‘No!’ Tobin shook his head furiously. The old man was much amused. ‘We are looking for a man,’ said Tobin with great emphasis on the last word.

  ‘You look for a man. Yes?’ Suddenly the English was a lot better.

  ‘Yes,’ Tobin retrieved the photo of Alan from his bag in the car, ‘This man.’

  ‘Ah. ‘Oui.’

  ‘Alan Harper,’ said Tobin, pointing to the figure in the photo.

  ‘No! No. No. Alain Martin,’ said the gateman, pointing at the same figure. Tobin tried to hide his surprise. ‘You are not first. Two men, also.’ He held up his thumb and forefinger in the continental manner to emphasize the number. ‘Looking!’ He nodded his head, sagely.

  ‘When was this, please?’

  ‘One,’ he looked at his watch, ‘one hour, one hour one half.’ He shrugged, time was not important, to him.

  ‘Hour and a half, ago?’

  ‘Oui.

  ‘Can you describe this man?’

  ‘Oui. Hair – er … Gris … ?’

  ‘Grey?’

  Ah. Oui. Hair … grey.’ He mimed thick flowing hair. His hands waved about and indicated a big man. Tobin nodded as the man’s hands went to his throat and he puffed out his cheeks. There was no mistaking a description of Dale’s jowls. Tobin nodded again.

  ‘And the second?’

  ‘Second? … Ah, deuxiéme! Ah, oui … Past - evening.’ He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb.

  ‘And what did he look like?’

  ‘Ah. He look … ,’ he pointed at the photo.

  ‘He looked like Mr Martin?’

  ‘Oui.’

  ‘Thank - you - very – much,’ said Tobin, using his best Englishman abroad manner.

  ‘Merci boucoup, m’sieur,’ instructed the gateman.

  ‘What is your name?’

  ‘Henri, m’sieur.’

  ‘Merci boucoup, Henri.’ Tobin was basking in the smile of the older man as Teri appeared striding across the yard.

  ‘No-one’s seen him,’ she said, as she strode haughtily past, ignoring the gateman.

  ‘Bon journee, mam’selle, m’sieur.’ He winked at Tobin as he leered at the rear of Teri and burst into raucous laughter.

  ‘What’s all that about?’

  ‘Don’t worry about that. The important thing is that we’re third in a three horse race. Dale was here less than two hours ago and Bernie was here last night. So, I think the only other place they can possibly know of is Les Deux Alpes. I think that should be our next stop.’ He said opening the car door.

  ‘Do you realize how far that is?’

  ‘I can soon work it out.’

  ‘I know how far it is! A bloody long way!’

  ‘Well, there’s two of us. If we take turns we might be able to overtake Dale, but Bernie’s well ahead. We might still be too late. Except neither of them knows that we’re here or that we know they’re here. Do you know a route?’

  She was trying to catch up with his reasoning. ‘Er … yes,’ and she pointed at the GPS. ‘We have to head south east first and then pick up the A6 and that goes all the way, I think.’

  He opened the atlas at the route finder page and studied it. ‘You’re quite right. I’m not used to those things. You don’t need them in Northumberland, you just follow the signs.’

  ‘Well, now you’ll see how useful they really are.’ She gave him a smug little smile and ushered him round to the driving seat. He headed off in the direction instructed, around the Peripherique, through a maze of lesser roads, across a river, ‘that’s the Marne,’ he wasn’t interested, and onto the A4. Then he missed the motorway junction. He took the next exit, was confused by the roundabout and turned the wrong way. They drove twice round the airfield at Emerainville before they were under the N104, which they took southbound, Tobin grudgingly accepting that the GPS did know the way to go.

  ‘Phew!’ said Teri. ‘Only another five and a half hours to Grenoble!’

  The motorway through Melun and Fontainebleau was pleasant enough and somewhere near Nemours they swapped seats. Tobin grabbed some sleep as Teri cruised fast down the A6 until a petrol stop made a call on his wallet. They bought some cans of drink and bars of chocolate and a pair of sunglasses for him in the kiosk and Tobin proffered his charge card.

  ‘Hey! What are you doing with a gold card?’ She demanded, staring at him. She pestered him all the way back to the car and he found himself in the driving seat once more.

  ‘Look. I’ve got a little private income, that’s all.’

  ‘Not so little if you’ve got a gold card.’ She said, thoughtfully, to herself. To his relief she soon fell asleep as he motored south. Tobin was quite enjoying the driving, now. But, he became concerned as they approached Beaune and the big motorway junction. But the nice lady on the GPS kept him right and he saw the signs indicating A6 ‘Autoroute du Soleil’. That was south and he gratefully followed.

  Teri woke shortly after as he slowed in a torrential rainstorm and the rain hammered on the car body. ‘Where are we?’ She sat up looking around. Even the French drivers had slowed to below the compulsory reduced speed limit. He found a rest area and pulled over into it. It was packed with cars as many others took the opportunity for a rest.

  ‘We’ve not long passed a sign for Chalon-something or other.’

  ‘Not bad.’ She said consulting the map. ‘You’ve had your foot down. You mind my little car!’

  ‘How much further?’ He produced some chocolate and the last of their cans of drink.

  ‘Well.’ She added up the distances on the atlas. ‘It’s another one hundred and twenty to Lyons and then a hundred and fifty one to Grenoble.’

  Tobin grimaced at the thought.

  ‘That’s kilometres, in miles it’s about a hundred and seventy five.’ She smiled to herself at his expression.

  ‘Then how far?’

  She looked at the GPS and did some mental arithmetic, ‘about another seventy five, but they’ll be slower. It’ll be dark when we get there.’

  ‘Right. It’s your turn.’ They ran round the car in the rain, changing places. Tobin settled himself down in the passenger seat using jumpers from the back seat as a pillow. ‘Wake me in a couple of hours.’ She just stuck her tongue out at him. Tobin ate some chocolate and finish
ed his can of Coca-Cola. The chocolate had an almost instant effect as his blood sugar level rose. But, after fifteen minutes he was asleep. He didn’t get his two hours as Teri had not heeded her own advice to mind the little car and had flogged the poor vehicle flat out down the motorway. By the time they reached Lyons she was exhausted and had to hand over to Tobin.

  They left the A6 finally and skirted the city to the north and east picking up the A43. Thirty-seven kilometres later they branched of onto the A48 for Grenoble. Forty minutes driving brought them to the turning off the motorway and Tobin paid the last toll.

  He sat in the car putting away his credit card. ‘Do you realize how much we’ve spent on tolls? It’s incredible!’

  ‘You’ve spent.’ She corrected him. ‘Did you mean what you said back there, in Folkestone?’

  ‘What do you mean?

  ‘That stuff about Alan and repaying him.’

  ‘Certainly. I feel very strongly about it. He’s not only been a good friend he’s also been a great example, I’ve just been stupid not to follow. In some ways we’re very similar but in others we couldn’t be more different. I prevaricate; he just gets on with it. You have to admire that. I don’t really care what he is supposed to have done. I admire him. He’s still the same person whatever name you call him by. That’s what counts with me.’

  ‘Very noble.’

  ‘Don’t mock what you don’t understand!’ He told her sharply.

  ‘Ooh. I’m sorry.’ She said, surprised. There was more to this big, amiable, man than she had realised.

  ‘It’s often scoffed at these days, but there’s nothing wrong with good old fashioned loyalty. I’ve misplaced it in the past and been badly hurt, but I would rather look for the good in people and be let down a few times than spend a lifetime of cynicism and end up looking sour like some people!’

  ‘Like my mother?’

  ‘I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular.’

  ‘Maybe not, but my mother would certainly fit.’

  ‘You know her better than me.’

  ‘Mmmm.’ She said, contemplatively.

  ‘I’m sorry. I tend to suddenly let go in bursts like that these days.’

  ‘Don’t apologize. It’s really interesting. I’ve not really had much experience of other people’s emotions; and my mother’s were always so contrived. She had an emotion for every occasion. She just turned them on and off as required.’ They settled in silence for a few kilometres.

  Tobin enjoyed the driving on the slower main roads, he had come to dislike the French habit of slipstreaming and driving right up his exhaust pipe, he had seen several near-accidents as they had travelled south.

  They were following the N1091 now with the Alps all around, according to the atlas. It was spectacular as the sun dipped behind them and shone golden on the highest, snow-capped peaks. Tobin was feeling particularly tired and desperately hoping for a stop.

  ‘I know what you mean by loyalty.’ She declared, suddenly, harking back to their previous discussion. He doubted that she did but said nothing. ‘I admire him a lot, too. I just didn’t realize it at the time. In fact I couldn’t have been more ungrateful, probably, but he did do a lot for me. More than I deserved, I suppose. He filled the gaps in my upbringing, though again I didn’t realize there were any, my mother had carefully avoided them. I know, it sounds harsh, I don’t know if she did it consciously or whether she was trying to bring me up as she thought she should have been brought up. Either way it was a disaster! She tried to bring me up in her own image; but she never thought to question that image.

  ‘You see, my mother had ambitions, aspirations, for me that were quite unreal. They would have been out of place in her childhood but she never realized that. She just slavishly copied, carried on what she thought of as ‘tradition’. You must have realized that she never really lived in the real world. As soon as real life appeared she’d go on a drinking binge to escape.’ Suddenly, it was Teri’s turn to unload her conscience, Tobin tried to concentrate.

  ‘She honestly thought that I could get by like she had done; taking or destroying. She never gave anything back. She actually warned me against returning favours as it could expose your weaknesses. She would warn me almost every day, so I believed her, of course.’

  Tobin glanced across at her strong profile momentarily silhouetted by the evening light; it had changed as she had matured, he had seen that profile before but in different circumstances. It was very familiar in a strange way. The full lips and strong jawline were reminiscent of someone, but from somewhere else. Perhaps it was just déjà vu. Teri was still prattling on. ‘I can’t imagine why Alan married her. She absolutely hated him for as long as I can remember. I suppose there was one reason they got married; she had quite a reputation, you know, as a girl. Had you heard that?’

  He most certainly had, but he said. ‘I don’t think Alan would have paid much attention to that, if he had heard it, that is.’

  She reached across and put her arm around his shoulder, pulling him over towards her and planting a big kiss on his cheek. The car swerved amid horn blasts from passing cars. ‘You are so alike, you two. I love you both!’

  Tobin negotiated a roundabout as they turned into le Bourg D’Oisans, irritating the GPS. Some tour coaches were pulled up at a café as they approached the town. Tobin pulled up as well; he’d had enough!

  The food was adequate and the café busy so they didn’t stay long. At a filling station nearby they replenished their stock of drinks and sweets and filled the car with petrol. Teri took the wheel to start the final part of their journey. She drove slowly in the dark as the road climbed up the valley. It was only fourteen kilometres to the turn off to the resort and the start of the real climb. Tobin was twisting in his seat watching the night sky reflected in a large lake or reservoir and was taken by surprise at the sharp turn.

  The mountain road snaked back and forth as they crawled up and up. After five or six kilometres Teri pulled in to the side and they stepped out of the car for a breath of fresh air and to look at the view. The fresh air was a shock and Tobin realized why Teri had put on a jersey before leaving the car; and they had a lot more to climb yet. The view in the dark was beautiful, twinkling lights spread out in groups before them showing where the villages were and disappearing in the distance in the clear, dark night.

  They finished the last six kilometres of the climb at the slowest speed of the last two days, a measure of tiredness more than of the gradient. Teri pointed out places as they entered the town; the lit up apartment blocks of Village Mont de Lans and the square; the administrative centre on the left. They entered the one-way system and Teri pulled in to the right by a sports shop.

  ‘We can walk from here. Micks Bar is just down here on the left on that two way street. It should still be open.’

  ‘It is Sunday.’

  ‘I know. But somebody will be in. They shut when they want to over here you know!’

  They walked past the lit up Bistro and looked in the window. Two customers sat at the bar talking to a man behind it.

  ‘That’s Arnaud.’ Said Teri. One customer rose, putting on a jacket and left as they watched. He took no notice of them and headed off into the dark. They loitered around the immediate area glancing through windows as they passed to and fro.

  ‘I don’t think he’s here,’ declared Teri. ‘Heh! We haven’t got anywhere to stay, you realize.’ She looked around her. ‘There’s lots of hotels, let’s try a few.’

  ‘I haven’t seen any sign of Bernie or Dale, either. It all looks calm, doesn’t it?’ Added Tobin, wearily, but hopeful.

  After trying six different hotels they gave up and returned to the car.

  ‘I thought they were supposed to be friendly here!’ said Tobin.

  ‘Hmmph.’

  They drove back to a car park at the entrance to the town and parked. Teri wrapped herself in
jumpers and curled up on the back seat leaving Tobin to make the best of the front. He was so tired he hardly noticed the discomfort.

  However, when he woke at four-o-clock in the morning he felt more than discomfort, where he could feel anything. His hands were frozen as were his neck and shoulders from the window slightly open beside him for ventilation. He shifted in his seat and could feel nothing in his legs. He started the engine and put the heater onto hot. After fifteen minutes of massaging the blood back into his extremities he wrapped himself up like Teri, turned off the engine and returned to a fitful sleep.

  ------------------15-----------------

 
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