A web of lives, p.2
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       A Web of Lives, p.2

           David Medlycott
 
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For a Monday it was not a bad day for John Tobin. First, he had had a lie-in, second it was a nice early summer day and thirdly he had banked some money before coming to the café for a late brunch. Tempted as he often was by the café directly over the road from his flat he did, usually, cook for himself. But, today he felt like a treat. He had bought a broadsheet newspaper rather than reading the café’s free copy of the local paper and sipped his coffee while sorting the rest of his post, waiting for his food to arrive. The post was fairly full, but consisted mostly of brochures and circulars, with a couple of pieces of research information he had sent for. He didn’t open these; he recognised his own stamped, addressed envelopes. There were also the opened envelopes that had contained the cheques he had just banked and a pile of circulars and cards. The remaining two items were a picture postcard from Cornwall and a plain envelope addressed in a familiar handwriting. Just then Mrs Harton brought his all-day breakfast. She waited impatiently as he scooped the sorted piles of post back into one heap to clear the table. Hungrily he began to eat, reading both newspapers as he did.

  The sun also shone on the queue of cars waiting to board the cross channel ferry from Southampton. Alan Harper returned to his car, placed his coffee cup on the roof and juggled with his keys and the clothes in his arms while attending to the mobile phone tucked under his chin. He tutted at the phone, opened the estate door and threw the clothes in on top of everything else in the overloaded car. The rest of the queue were starting their engines and revving as he switched off the phone. He did likewise; he had arrived early and was only a few cars back in the queue. He felt the rear suspension bottom as the heavily laden estate bounced up the ramp and disappeared into the dark interior. He locked the car and headed for one of the restaurants for an early lunch. It had been a long day already and he needed nourishment. He was a tall rangy man around sixty years old, but looking younger, fit, tanned and in good shape, something he was very particular about. He had changed into jeans and a casual white shirt and trainers while waiting and was now ready to relax. He would feel even better when the ship cast off and he was sailing out into the channel.

  Rebecca Shaw had also tried to call Tobin, twice, and now tried again, this time the phone was engaged. She couldn’t hang on though as she too was in a queue; for the Shuttle. She did not know that her step-father was crossing to France at the same time and he was quite unaware of her trip. She had a quick glance at herself in the vanity mirror behind her sun visor, plumped her thick mass of dark curls into place, it actually made no difference, but she felt better for the attempt. She wore no makeup these days, just a little lip colour and was happy to display her freckles. Having escaped the clutches of her mother less than a year ago she had frantically caught up with other girls her age, mid-twenties, and learnt to look as natural as possible, saving a lot of money along the way and avoiding looking like her mother. Although her hair was a mystery, she had her mother’s features, but where the hair came from she did not know. Her mother had suggested it was a ’throw-back’ in her genes. Whatever, she didn’t mind, left to its own devices it was an attribute to her looks she had discovered, turning heads in the street when she wore it down, as it was now. She threw the mobile phone on the passenger seat and drove onto the Shuttle.

  John Tobin was drinking a fresh cup of coffee and making a list of tasks for the week in his notebook. So far, it looked as if it was going to be a fairly quiet week workwise, but there was always his writing, if all else failed and he could find no more excuses to avoid it; there was the family history research he had taken on, unfortunately none of them now looked as interesting as they had at first; he had a voice-over job on Thursday in an advert for a local carpet company and there was a film and a TV series being made in the region for which he hoped he would get some bit part work, again. He had some photographs to get off to a calendar company on a speculative basis, they had expressed interest in the past, and he just needed to trawl through all the pictures on his computer. But, most important, he suddenly remembered, was the country show report to write for ‘The Mid-Northumberland Reporter’, the local paper, that he had promised for the following morning. He gathered up all his post and papers, paid for his meal and crossed the road to his flat.

  He eventually got to check his phone messages when he returned from shopping two hours later. There was a barely subtle reminder of his report deadline for the morning from Sandra Hickman, the editor; a gushing enquiry from Mrs Davies, whose house history he had quite forgotten he had promised to do, the aging femme fatal had buttonholed him in the pub a fortnight ago and he had agreed just to get away. Then there was the message with the strange sounds, a bit like someone breathing or sighing and car doors slamming, in the background he thought he could hear engines starting. He played it through twice more, but made no more of what he could hear and gave up, puzzled. The new shopping provided the makings for a hearty sandwich and fresh coffee for the cafetiere, with which he sat at the computer and bashed out his report and sorted some photos to accompany it.

  Rebecca Shaw was soon through the tunnel and driving south. It wasn’t till she was half way through that she had begun to think about what she was doing. She had never driven on the continent before and was quite unprepared. She had received a phone call from a girlfriend who was staying in her parent’s house in South West France with her boyfriend; the girlfriend had said why didn’t Rebecca come over some time? She hadn’t thought twice about it and immediately invited herself over, she now realised that maybe it was a bit tactless, but she would just stay a couple of days and then go exploring. She was now terrified on the wrong side of the road, she had drifted onto the ‘right’ side of the road a couple of times only to meet and narrowly miss on-coming traffic. She had arrived at a toll station on the motorway and not known what to do; the only saving grace had been her excellent French she had learnt from her stepfather. She pulled into a rest area to stretch her legs and use the facilities; she was exhausted and still had several hundred miles to go. She couldn’t even be bothered to pick up the phone.

  ‘Tell Sandra I’ve emailed her the copy for the weekend, it’s not much, but there wasn’t much to report really, and there’s a few photo’s, as well.’ Tobin was on the phone to Linda McInnes at the Reporter.

  ‘There was an awful man in here looking for your friend Alan this morning. He was really horrible, and, you know what, he looked just like him, but much older. He was waving around last month’s County News with that picture of Mr Harper in it. But, he didn’t call him that,’ she thought for a moment, ‘he called him Jimmy. I told Sandra, but she wouldn’t help, it really upset me.’

  ‘Well, he obviously had the wrong man, didn’t he? I shouldn’t worry about it, has he been back?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Well there you are then.’

  ‘I’m not happy! Why should I have to put up with that?’

  ‘I’m sorry, Linda. What can I say?’

  ‘Well. Anyway, Sandra left you a message. Can you do the ‘What’s on’ this week, please? Well, I added the please.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Nicola’s poorly. Or something.’

  ‘OK. Why do I always give in? The time it takes for the money she pays. Anyway, tell her OK.’ He hung up the phone and returned to his beer and crisps.

  He picked up his notebook and studied the list he had made earlier; there was Mrs Davies’ house history that he should make a start on, and there was the voice-over job coming up for the carpet company. The sheet of paper, laughingly called ‘the script’, was on the table, he had already learnt his line. He browsed his bookshelves for local history while repeating his line. ‘Cover your floors with Alec Cameron, all carpets slashed!’ Someone was going to have to rewrite that; someone got paid for it and probably a lot more than he got paid. He tried it again in several different ways. A change of tone, a change of pitch, a change of emphasis, but nothing could make that sound
exciting. He pulled some books on the history of the region and began to consult their indexes. He had used these books when he had written a piece on the history of the town a few years before.

  Longalnbury had grown up around a market place at a junction on the major Northwest – Southeast route across the county of Northumberland centuries before. The salt traders heading West from the coast had joined the old road here, and, as often happened, an inn had quickly appeared. A small community developed around the inn and the junction and trade had prospered. The original route had grown to become a major road between Newcastle upon Tyne and Scotland and the old salter’s road was now one of the many minor roads heading east to the coast. Crossing the major road here was also a ‘B’ road that meandered its way up from Hexham, in the south, and continued north-eastwards, through the very similar market town of Rothbury, to the old, walled, castle-town of Alnwick.

  The steady growth of the little hamlet, first into a village and then into a small town, could be seen in the architecture and in the layout of the narrow lanes of the original settlement as they radiated out into the wider thoroughfares of the more prosperous village. These in turn widened into the roads of the Victorian township. However, the Victorian townsfolk could never have anticipated the needs of modern travel and the narrowing of the main road as it entered either side of the town had been the source of continuing argument for decades. It had also generated many column inches in the papers over the years.

  Tobin’s first, unpaid, job on the local paper had been to report on a meeting held to discuss another suggested solution to the problem and his write-up had been praised, locally. Which was more a measure of the poor standard of the paper then than of his writing talents, he maintained. However, five years on, there was no comparison with today’s ‘Mid-Northumberland Reporter’. He was now paid reasonably, and reasonably regularly, and he and the permanent staff of two reporters worked hard to maintain the improvement.

  He worked on making notes until he fell asleep.

  Rebecca Shaw bought some snacks from a vending machine, took the lift to her room in the budget hotel, collapsed on the bed and fell fast asleep, with half of her journey still to go.

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