Hart was kneading his temples with the heels of his hands. Flecks of white, scaly dandruff fell into the space between the seats. He had a throbbing headache. His tongue was furred and his mouth tasted of copper. He reached into the map pocket and tugged his sports bottle free. He bit the cap and guzzled the tepid water. An engine growled and a 4×4 took off, sending clouds of dust into the haze. A dragonfly skittered across the windscreen. The air con was on full, but Hart opened the windows and stared into the forest.
The Chase was busy with mountain bikers and walkers with poles and wide-brimmed hats. Hart came here to think. He rubbed his scalp, sending a shower of dandruff onto the dash and steering column. Christ, it was everywhere. The BMW looked like one of those snow scenes your granny kept on the mantelpiece. He’d been to the doctor who’d given him specialist shampoo. It foamed up like the scum you found on a beach and stunk of tar. He spent hours washing it out, but still smelt like a new road. Hart angled the rear-view mirror.
‘You look a bloody state, Andy,’ he said.
His lower lip was pitted with red wine from the bottle of Chianti he’d drained last night. His razor had nicked beneath his left ear, leaving a tear-shaped smear of blood. He reached into the glove compartment and pulled out the Dirt Devil, setting the mini—vacuum to work sucking up dandruff, flakes of pastry and cake crumbs around the seats and foot-wells. He’d only bought this suit last year and already it was shiny at the lapel where his seatbelt had rubbed. It was tired and shabby-looking; baggy at the knees, crinkled at the groin. The inside leg was wearing paper-thin. His mobile vibrated on the dash. He let the call go to answer-phone. He opened the door and stretched. Sunlight broke between the pines and oaks casting golden freckles on the bridleway. He loosened his tie, undid the top button and pulled his shirttails free of his belt. He leaned on an oak, closed his eyes and drew the air deep into his lungs. The bracken was sweet; there was a nip of pine and the earthy peat of the forest floor. His face broke into a grin. It was a private moment of mirth – the kind that worries strangers and gifts you a free seat on the bus. Some six months back, after the American takeover, the firm had paid for them to attend a meditation workshop. They’d sat pretending to be trees, shaking out their arms and legs like the branches of a giant oak, letting the breeze rustle their leaves. That’s it, breathe. Really breathe and soak up every one of those rays. They’re giving you life and vitality. They’re nature’s gift. The instructor, Collette, brought her hands together as if in prayer. She told them to let everything hang loose. They were sitting cross-legged in a church hall. Hart smelt the varnish of the sprung wooden floor, the rubbery tread of the gym mat and the whiff of dust singed by the radiators. He was transported back to primary school, waiting to sing Onward Christian Soldiers with Miss Pugh at the piano. Slowly Hart began to sink. His legs became leaden. The tension drained away from his arms and legs. It felt good and he didn’t want to move. His shoulders dropped, his breathing slackened and his clothes felt loose. The chain store belt that had crept back a notch each year since he turned 40 no longer pressed his gut. Collette smiled, nodding at his progress. There was a murmur or grunt at the back. The spell was broken and the room twitched, blinking in the winter sun, scratching necks and cracking spines back into place.
‘Sorry. Is there a problem?’ Collette said.
Mad Dog fidgeted and screwed up his face.
‘I was fine as a tree, till some dog pissed against my roots,’ he said.
Hart plucked a dozen fronds of bracken and lay them on the bank. He crouched down with a crack of the knees and unlaced his shoes. Then he took off his socks, balling them. Black fluff had snagged between his pale toes. He balanced awkwardly, making a figure 4 with his legs and plucked the fluff free. He rolled up his trousers and stepped into the stream, gasping as the icy water ran round his heels. He tiptoed onto a sandbank, finding a shallow where the sun had warmed the water and swarms of flies hovered in a blur. The ridged sand sucked round his toes and his feet sank into the cool, cloying bed of the stream. He let his arms hang by his sides. Dotted along the peaks and troughs of the stream bed were smooth caramel and ruby pebbles and lumps of polished quartz washed down from the hills. Hart picked one up. He held his palm out to the speckled light. He watched the water evaporate, retreating like a sea mist across the pebble. The jewel that had sparkled in his palm took on the dull red of a pan-tile. Life was like that, he thought. It had a way of promising so much then didn’t deliver. He shook out his legs, sluicing water through his toes and splashing the bank, causing the dust to ball in droplets on the baked earth. He pulled a piece of paper from his trouser pocket. He shook it out, letting it fall open along the folds. He coughed, clearing his throat.
‘You see me standing here and you think: This man is undoubtedly a success story.’
Hart swallowed and licked his lips. Below he’d written: pause for laughter. The insides of his cheeks were like gum.
‘This man is undoubtedly a success story,’ he repeated.
He shook his head, picked up the fronds of bracken and tossed them towards the car, each one a stride apart, using them as stepping stones so his feet weren’t soiled. He took a golf towel from the boot and wiped them clean.
‘This man is undoubtedly a success story.’
Hart bit his lip. He had five hours left. He’d tried, but he couldn’t do this. He pulled a passport-sized photo from behind his driver’s license. Hart sipped at the water, staring at Fiona through the scratched base of the bottle. He’d cropped the photo with nail scissors. It was brittle, well-thumbed. It had been taken on a beach in Mull. She was sitting, feet drawn up beneath her long knitted cardigan, staring out to sea. Hart traced the outline of her face with his fingertip. He touched her cheek and swallowed. They’d walked for miles and found a deserted beach where craggy fingers of rock jutted into the Atlantic breakers. They found broken crates from trawlers, driftwood polished and bleached by the surf and tangles of orange net. Hart wanted to stay there.
‘Don’t be so bloody stupid,’ Fiona said.
‘Well, one day,’ he said.
Fiona rolled her eyes.
‘Aye, one day,’ she said.
He closed his eyes and remembered. He took the path from the whitewashed cottage, ducking under the clothes line and picking his way between gorse and bracken. Late into the night they’d sat high on the headland in silence, listening to the waves booming in the sea-caves and the cry of diving seabirds. They sipped coffee from a flask and watched the sun retreat into the west.
Hart ordered a double scotch. He glanced at the mirror above the bar. Reps were mingling between the seats and potted plants, sipping Diet Cokes or tall, thin glasses of dry white and munching nibbles. Jo Hanson was flashing smiles at the national sales director, Simon Minter. Hart swallowed the scotch like medicine and winced. Jo roared with laughter, throwing her head back. Minter, who’d been looking over her shoulders, stared at her chest. A waiter held out a plate of food. Jo’s hand hovered.
‘Great,’ she said, in a broad Wolverhampton accent. ‘I love can-apes.’
She made the word rhyme with grapes. Hart smiled. You can take the girl out of Wolverhampton……..He ordered another scotch, sipping it slow so each drop warmed his throat and chest, blinking away the clinking glasses and idle chat.
‘The same?’ the barman said.
He twirled the glass so the scotch hit the sides and slid back to the base in steady, creeping fingers. He sniffed the tang of peat and iodine, let it hit his nose and throat, and then gulped it back. His speech had been terrible. There’d been problems with the microphone. It screeched with feedback and then the volume dipped. His face flushed scarlet. He was sweating, rocking from toe to toe on the spot while the technical guys fiddled at the corners of the stage. It took almost ten minutes to restart. He got through two, maybe three slides when he lost all sound. He stared out at twitching, murmuring faces fading into the darkness. The scotch he’d guzzled to steady himself hadn’t touched the sides. In the second row was Derek ‘Mad Dog’ Taylor. He’d rolled up the itinerary sheet and held it to the side of his head like an ear trumpet.
‘Enjoying a drink, Andy?’
Simon Minter was leaning on the bar. He’d lost weight since his divorce. Folds of skin hung at his neck.
‘I’ll join you,’ he said, ‘how do you think it went?’
‘It didn’t really, did it?’
‘These things happen.’
‘I know,’ Hart said, ‘I just wish these things didn’t happen in front of 400 people.’
Minter took his scotch and nodded to the barman. It was the faintest gesture, but Hart saw it in the mirror. The raised eyebrow that said: He’s best left alone. Give this one a wide berth. Hart took out his wallet and stared at Fiona. He thought about Mull, about their flat, what the doctor had said. Was it ever too late? But each day that passed made contact seem harder.
‘Andy, I’d like a word with you.’
Hart set his glass down. A man with his hair gelled into a fin held out a hand. He was tanned and fit-looking in a pale tailored suit. Hart pictured him pouring fresh orange after a set of tennis.
‘You don’t mind me calling you Andy, do you?’
Hart poked the photo back into his wallet. He shook his head.
‘Get you another?’ he said.
Hart slid the wallet into his pocket. His finger traced the edge of the photo.
‘Greg Fisher,’ the man said.
He sat down at the stool next to Hart, drumming his fingers. He wore a gold bracelet that rattled on the bar top.
‘They let you down tonight, Andy.’
Hart didn’t speak.
‘You’re top again this year, aren’t you?’
Hart nodded. Fisher sipped at his white wine.
‘You’ve been top five since this team was created.’
Hart checked his watch. For appearances sake he’d tolerated this whole sorry event long enough.
‘Look, I’m not being funny, but what do you want?’ he said.
‘OK, I know. You want to be left alone.’
Fisher leaned forward, glanced left and right. His teeth were sparkling white, without a trace of a filling.
‘I want you to work for me,’ he said.
He slid a business card across the bar.
‘I’ve got a job already.’
‘You’re better than this lot.’
Hart forced a smile.
‘You saw my presentation tonight?’
‘I’m not hiring you to talk to drunk reps. I’m hiring the one of the best salesmen.’
Hart’s head throbbed. He wobbled on the stool and stiffened his legs against the bar rail. He was light-headed and needed water. He craved to splash his face in a sink or press his cheek against cool tiles.
‘I didn’t think you’d be frightened of change, Andy.’
Hart span his glass on the bar. It wobbled and trembled to a halt.
‘At least let’s talk about it.’
Fisher took another card, scribbled a figure on the back and handed it to Hart. Hart’s eyes widened.
‘You’d think about it, though?’
Hart rubbed his eyes. Little white shards danced at the edge of his vision.
‘Why not?’ he said.
‘Hello. What have we here?’
Mad Dog slapped Hart on the back. Minter stood alongside him, sipping from a tall glass of mineral water.
‘You’re defecting are you?’ Mad Dog said.
Hart bit his lip.
‘No,’ he said.
‘It sounded like it.’
Minter folded his arms. His eyes narrowed.
‘You’ve just picked up a five K bonus, Andy, and you’re going to jump ship?’
‘It was a conversation at the bar. I don’t even know this guy from Adam……’ Hart stumbled.
Hart propped his chin in his hands. His was the worst presentation of the night. And now, the boss had heard him being tapped up for a new job. Laughter broke out. He glanced up at the mirror. Mad Dog was miming a goal celebration.
‘No harm meant, pal,’ he said.
They were all in one it. Fisher, it turned out, was the firm’s new rep for Cheshire.
‘Just a bit of fun,’ Mad Dog said.
He was staring at Hart’s reflection. His eyes told a different story.
Hart opened the boot and lifted the holdall testing its weight in his palm. He glanced over his shoulder. Hart squeezed the holdall, checking the contents. He slung the bag over his shoulder, locked the car and set off up the steep gravel path. A couple passed him on their mountain bikes, wishing him good morning. The woman had a small, cuddly bear on the top of her helmet. When they had disappeared over the ridge Hart took his car keys and slung them as far as he could into the ravine. Silver metal glinted in the sun, before dropping into the moss and dense silver birches.
Hart had worked shifts for years and wanted the freedom of the road, but it hadn’t worked out like that. Hart knew he’d made a mistake on his first day. He’d left his business card at six surgeries, been ignored at three and told to call back at one. He knew then he’d spend the next thirty years being kept waiting while kids crayoned on walls and old people moaned about immigrants. He’d listen to phone-ins about bin collections on local radio. When he got time with the consultant he’d hate himself because people dying of cancer were sat outside reading Reader’s Digest. He’d sprint through hospital wards promising nights out for staff and showering them with pens and key-rings and golf umbrellas. Nurses and doctors didn’t mind him, really. Most saw him as a perk. But it didn’t matter. He’d done four years and he felt like an utter shit. He was a parasite.
Hart strolled into the clearing and set his holdall down. He had to admit Mad Dog had stitched him up a treat last night. And they expected him to present again tonight. He unzipped the bag and took out a half bottle of malt. Shots rang out in the trees. There was a clay pigeon shoot across the lake. It was why Hart had chosen this spot. He unscrewed the cap and tilted the bottle into his mouth. He sat down against a damp, mossy log, reached into the holdall and took out a folder. It was hide-bound and scuffed at the edges. He turned the first leaf over. Someone had scribbled ‘Wales 2002’ in green ink capitals. He remembered that day. The sky was heavy with black clouds despite the promise of barbecue weather in the local paper. They’d taken the camper van to a remote spot on Holy Island, looking for standing stones. Fiona had a connection with the landscape, or so she said. Instead, they’d found St Winifred’s Well – a spot renowned for curing mental health problems. Fiona had crouched within the stones and prayed. She was gaunt and fiddled with the toggle on her fleece jacket. She wouldn’t eat. Hart had gone to the beach to think. He’d crouched within the dunes and prayed for her. When he climbed the ridge he saw her dancing round the stones. Her silhouette was like a weather vane against the watery sunlight. Hart gathered driftwood poking from the powder-sand and carried it to the beach. He made a huge heart from the spiky, gnarled wood. Then he carved the words ‘I love you, Fiona’ in the wet sand.
Hart called out to her, but the westerly wind blew his words back. He waved and whistled, but she didn’t move. As he trekked across the car park there was a rush of water. Hart turned to see the heart smashed by the surf. A dozen sticks retreated with the tide. As the waters ebbed his words were replaced by a void in the slick sands.
Hart’s vision blurred. Tears fell onto the vinyl. He rubbed them away with his sleeve and dropped the album into the leaves and pine cones. He took another swig from the bottle and set it down. Tears fell onto his lap. He tasted salt and spat onto the forest floor. When he had composed himself, Hart reached into the bag and took the handgun out. He licked a finger and wiped a smear from the muzzle.
‘Can I bother you for a light, bud?’
The voice came from the rear. Hart slid the handgun back into the holdall.
‘No need to get up, mate.’
Hart was on his feet.
‘I don’t smoke,’ he said.
He looked down at the floor and wiped his eyes with his knuckles. Did he look as if he’d been crying?
‘Nice day for a picnic.’
The man had three days’ stubble and a baggy linen shirt with shell prints on it. His accent was southern hemisphere. Hart guessed it was Australian.
‘I’m not having a picnic,’ Hart said.
‘That’s a shame, I’m famished.’
The man sat on the log beside Hart. He wore battered brown leather boots with tongues that curled up his hairy shins.
‘I’m Reynold,’ he said, ‘good to meet you.’
He held out a hand which Hart took.
‘I wasn’t being cheeky,’ he said.
Seeing that Hart didn’t understand, he added:
‘I mean about the food. I haven’t eaten since last night.’
Hart rummaged in the holdall and handed over a Mars Bar and a banana. Reynold bit the tip of the banana, ripped it open and broke it into chunks stuffing them into his mouth. Hart cleared leaves with his foot. He snapped a twig and began peeling the bark from it.
‘You’re not really dressed for it,’ Reynold said.
‘You’re a long way from home,’ Hart said.
‘I haven’t been home in years.’
‘You’re seeing the world. On walkabout.’
Reynold grinned at Hart’s use of the word.
‘Something like that,’ he said.
He finished the last of the banana and began stuffing chocolate into his mouth.
‘So what are you doing out here dressed like that? Is the Annual Board meeting always chaired by deer and rabbits?’
Hart took the paper from his pocket.
‘I’m meant to be giving a talk in….’ he checked his watch, ‘around four hours.’
Reynold scratched his chin. He scanned the piece of paper.
‘You don’t want to though, do you?’
‘It doesn’t matter what I want.’
Reynold laughed, exposing thick pink gums.
‘Don’t be stupid, mate. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.’
‘I’d lose my job.’
A cuckoo sounded deep within the woods. Gunshot rang out.
‘What are you here for?’ Reynold said.
‘I fancied a walk.’
‘I see that,’ he said. ‘It makes perfect sense. You’re sat on a log in the middle of a forest with only a bottle of scotch for company. And you’re wearing just the gear for a stroll: Italian loafers with cashmere trousers.’
Hart’s forehead throbbed.
‘What are you doing out here?’ he said.
Reynold rubbed his chin.
‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.’
Hart said: ‘Try me.’
Reynold got to his feet.
‘I’m searching for a grave.’
He asked Hart if he could see the photograph album. When Hart stooped to reach it Reynold ducked and grabbed the holdall. Reynold stood at the edge of the clearing holding the gun at arm’s length.
‘It’s nothing to do with you,’ Hart said.
Reynold emptied the magazine, dropped the bullets into his shirt pocket with a clink and handed the gun to Hart.
‘You’re an idiot.’
‘It’s alright. Maybe I saved your life.’
Hart rubbed his scalp.
Reynold took the photo album, holding it up till Hart nodded his consent. He leafed through the pages.
‘Is this the wife? What’s her name?’
‘Fiona,’ Hart said.
‘Where is she?’
‘We haven’t spoken in months. She’s not well.’
Tears welled in Hart’s eyes. He tried to blink them away but they kept coming.
‘Let it out, mate. No sense bottling it up.’
Hart blew his nose on his sleeve. Reynold took the scotch and emptied into the bracken.
‘Where the hell did you get the gun?’
Reynold sat down opposite Hart.
‘Tell you what,’ he said, ‘I’ll tell you about the grave I’m looking for.’
So Hart sat back against the log and listened to a man who’d stopped him killing himself; a man he didn’t know who was from halfway across the world. Reynold told him about the hermit who lived on the Chase. A man who had fallen in love with a woman, but wasn’t allowed to marry her. He went away to study and leave his bad memories behind, but never forgot her. One day word reached him that his sweetheart’s husband had died. He returned, but he was too late. Facing starvation she had entered the parish workhouse and died tired and exhausted. The man could no longer face human company and retreated into the forest into a cave.
‘You’re trying to cheer me up with this?’ Hart said.
Reynold held up a finger.
‘A hare would come to the cave each day and the hermit became very attached to it. He would watch the hare and share his food with it.’
‘This isn’t going to end happy.’
‘Then one day the hare was caught and killed by wild dogs. The hermit died of a broken heart. The townspeople put a gravestone up here somewhere. The weather’s faded it, but they say it’s still here.’
‘So you found me while you were looking?’
‘The hermit was called Reynold, just like me.’
‘It’s a good story.’
Reynold got up.
‘You don’t have to believe it,’ he said, dusting the twigs and peat from his trousers, ‘but you’ve got to admit things happen for a reason.’
‘In what way?’
‘What do you think the moral of the story is?’
Reynold rolled his eyes.
‘Seize the day. Go and see her and don’t leave it too late like he did.’
‘Do you want a hand looking?’ Hart said.
Reynold slapped him on the back. ‘We’ll come back later. Where’s your car?’
Hart patted his trousers, then shirt pockets. His face flushed.
‘I’ll drive if you like,’ Reynold said, ‘how much have you had?’
‘It’s not that.’
Hart told him what he’d done with the keys.
‘This is the first day of the rest of your life,’ he said. ‘You came into the forest to kill yourself and came out with a life coach.’