The Last Stand-Down
Peaceful techniques from A Course in Miracles (ACIM) seem totally inappropriate as the rising tide of fear and violence threaten to swamp Arthur’s friends (old and unexpected) and family but what’s the alternative when your back’s against the wall and you’re out of options?
When dreams and nightmares collide ...
Arthur Bayly is an ordinary man – father husband, insurance clerk and bored with the lot of it … feeling oppressed and controlled by his various roles and activities. He’s stuck and can only dream of a bigger, more exciting life … till, one assuming day, his dreams slap him in the face. Stood down from work in unnerving and suspicious circumstances, he stumbles into a nightmare of corruption and conspiracy at all levels of British society – police, politics and peerage – and somehow gathers a motley cast of characters from England, Scotland, New Zealand, Pakistan and elsewhere to help him … and England’s finances … through the onslaught.
From Scotland, Mary is sadly disappointed that romance and riches weren’t to be found in London. She becomes an unwitting agent in Arthur’s fall from grace … and then an unwitting accomplice as she’s forced to take sides in a ferocious game of greed for power and money; a game she doesn’t understand or want any part of. But chose she must and, while she’s focused on surviving, love turns up in its weirdly unexpected way.
A free energy machine, invented in New Zealand, and the desperate search to return Maori artefacts to their ancestral home complicate the fiasco as fists, guns and sides are drawn.
First chapter ...
The map of Arthur Bayly’s life was a narrow one and, like a child in a cot of steel, can only dream of another life. He awoke from his fitful sleep at 6:30am with his usual sense of foreboding and wondered, again, how it was ever possible to feel elated about the day, about life. Apparently, some people did. Quite unaware that his world was to become a little wider, a little wilder, he lay there for a few minutes, pretending that he didn’t really have to get up, endure another day and look happy and successful while feeling lost and lonely. He shrugged a little, as if to brace himself, once again, for more of all he’d ever known. His wife stirred slightly and snuggled deeper into the duvet, accentuating his lack of choices.
As he munched his nutrition-free Wharton’s bread and chemically-enhanced marmalade, he wondered what agent 007 would be having for breakfast; probably something with long names like Eggs Benedict with Spanish tomatoes and French toast, sparingly dusted with cinnamon and Sargasso sea salt and a touch of Tabasco sauce, followed by a 1966 Darjeeling tea. Like Arthur, Mr Bond would probably be breakfasting alone. The difference, Arthur told himself, was that Mr Bond had probably left, upstairs, an exotic, tanned and lissom young lady asleep, still in dreamy post-orgasmic bliss.
He read a few chapters of his latest library book, rinsed his dishes, cleaned his teeth, packed the lunch he’d made the night before, checked that he had his keys, oyster card, cell phone, glasses and wallet, checked himself once more in the mirror, kissed his wife as she shuffled into the dining room in her favourite pink dressing gown and left the house. It never ceased to amaze him that, though he never looked at his watch during this routine, it was always exactly 7.15 a.m. as he closed the little, black iron gate. He allowed himself a small smile about that, as usual. Then it was a four and a half minute walk up the street, past the all-too-familiar grubby brick terrace houses, wait a minute for the tram which got him to the East Croydon station at 7.26 a.m.
As he hopped as jauntily as he could into the tram, he saw, yet again, the Russian spy with the suitably battered brown trilby hat, seated and facing Arthur, pretending not to notice him. He had heavy jowls and pig-eyes and had been keeping tabs on Arthur. So Arthur did what any MI5 agent would do, which was to adopt a devil-doesn’t-care-a-toss attitude by looking at the flaccid neck of the woman wobbling near him as the tram bumped along. He was determined the Russian would never detect his fear and uncover his secret.
With his mind on some distant planet, wondering what 007 would be doing today, his body’s automatic system took him off the tram, into the station to wait two minutes for the 7.34 to Victoria station.
While he was aware, in some part of his mind, that he was doing this routine with hundreds of others on the tram, thousands of others on the train and the two million others who poured into London every day, it never occurred to him that they might also be feeling that sense of quiet panic. In his thirty years of working life, he had never tried to converse with or smile at anyone. He was jostled a little. He had to walk around people. He had to stop and wait for people. There was no denying that others were there, in their multitudes, but a different coping part of his mind just didn’t register that they were like him – humans with two legs, two arms a head and mixed feelings about life and work. He was aware, in some peripheral part of his mind, that there were people he commuted with regularly but he never allowed himself to acknowledge them.
On the train he noticed the Russian spy had again taken up a strategic position, facing him on his seat, pretending not to notice Arthur by reading today’s Metro newspaper. Again, Arthur adopted the MI5 attitude by looking at the ear of the man swaying in front of him. Arthur grimaced inwardly as the fetid smell of nicotine and cheap deodorant washed over him.
As the train approached Victoria station, Arthur braced himself for the larger struggle ahead. With nineteen platforms disgorging their human payload, the herd became an avalanche of people, all going the same way, approximately. One just had to keep the feet going, the body vaguely erect, and make it through the next half hour of tedious jostling. Then, waiting for the District Line underground train, with his back to the wall, he was roughly in the sixth row back from the edge. As each tube train arrived and left, he could feel himself inching forward a little at a time. Eventually, as if by osmosis or some natural phenomenon, he found himself at the edge of the platform ready to be squeezed into the next tube.
The man had disappeared but Arthur knew he was still under surveillance, somehow.
Though it was impossible not to brush against a multitude of strangers, one could at least limit contact by two other means – by not looking at anyone and by not talking. So, though the train’s machinery screeched, rattled and whooshed, and thousands of feet on concrete clattered away, there was no other human sound. The odd cough, perhaps, but no talking. Just silent people in their own silent bubble. For many years Arthur had felt this silence as an eerie and malignant curse – as if the commuters had had their tongues removed and were unable to give vent to their crying souls. Over the years, though, he’d become immune to his silent cry and nothing was left of those feelings now.
Clinging desperately to something in the tube train – a rail, a hanging strap but never another person, heaven forbid – he stood amid the other black suits and sombre faces, looking through people as if they weren’t there. After fourteen minutes and three stops, he found himself near the door and then out on the crowded South Kensington platform.
As he walked from the turnstiles, he noticed the man with the battered trilby hat walk off in the opposite direction, a standard KGB trick. Arthur knew the Russian would soon turn, when Arthur’s guard was down, and tail him, taking prodigious notes in Russian for his report to the Kremlin that evening. Arthur sauntered off with his devil-doesn’t-care-a-toss attitude, tripped on a dropped purse, bumped heads with the owner as they both bent to pick it up, said an embarrassed sorry several times and sauntered out to the fresh air above ground, to find that he had come out the wrong exit. This was, he quickly decided, his clever trick to lose the Russian and he knew he would now arrive at work three minutes later than usual.
As he walked the three blocks to the office, he realised that he hadn’t used his umbrella for so long. Of course he’d read about places like Australia and Africa where it didn’t rain for years but it seemed unreal somehow – just mere pictures in a book. Perhaps an artist’s fantasy, perhaps not. Perhaps his own fantasy. Perhaps not.
The herd of commuters surged around him and he wondered why he suddenly thought of sunshine and blue skies. Maybe it was last night’s news of bush fires near Melbourne. Maybe it was Joan mentioning their neighbour’s trip to New Zealand. Instead of feeling the usual dread of the day, the G-clamp of routine, pressing on his brain, as a building labelled Allied Insurance Limited glared down at him, his mind went quiet. He reached his destination and the words Allied Insurance Limited didn’t seem threatening at all. The glass doors opened for him and then he fitted himself into the lift, discretely positioning himself for minimal contact with others.
Instead of his usual thoughts of the papers and programs he needed to start work with, his mind kept jumping back to dry dirt, brown grass, a huge rock, an orange sun and an apricot moon at night. As he emerged from the lift, he felt as if he was smiling ever so slightly, something one didn’t usually indulge in. He tried to repress the smile but it just wouldn’t go.
“Good morning, Sir. How was your weekend?” the receptionist asked as he passed.
He stopped, momentarily stunned that a stranger should inquire into his weekend. “Ah, yes, er, nice thank you,” he said, fiddling with his coat button, not knowing quite what to do next.
“That’s great, Sir, you have a lovely day.”
“Ah, yes, ah, thank you young lady,” he stammered, making a quick and graceless exit.
It wasn’t until he reached his desk that he realised that she had a strangely Antipodean accent – Australian, he presumed. Forgetting his usual routine of hanging up his overcoat, turning on his computer, getting files onto his desk, he simply sat there feeling a little limp, while a wan smile crept across his face. Dashed perplexing, he thought as he realised that his hands were shaking a little. He got up and hung his overcoat up, just to have something to do. This simple thing he could manage but little else.
Gosh, he thought, it’s not as if I’ve been made redundant or there’s been a takeover or an earthquake. Just an unexpectedly incessant thought of change in the air, perpetual sunshine and then a new receptionist bids me a cherry good morning in an Australian accent. Scant significance in the events of mice and men, so why is it affecting me so much? Dashed nuisance, really. He needed to move but his palpitating body, floundering through the main office, could embarrass him. He eventually rose, braced himself and then made a concerted effort to walk brusquely past the receptionist. Thankfully, she was talking animatedly on the phone. He pushed open the double doors into the main office which contained thirty or so people at their desks behind their half-walled enclosures; looking studiously busy and/or gossiping with each other. He imagined a curtain of silence falling as he entered.
In the staff room, habit had him reaching for the tea bags but he knew he needed something stronger, something different. Fumbling around in the cupboard for coffee, a gangly young man – suit too big, collar large enough for two of his necks and tie askew – came in.
“Ah, excuse me, Sir,” he said deferentially, “but if you want coffee, you can get it directly from the machine. This button here, Sir.”
Arthur blushed, thanked the young man, poured his coffee, forgot the milk and fled back to the glass cell they called his office.
‘How did he know I wanted coffee?’ he asked himself. He smelled the coffee and surmised it would be better with milk. Turning sideways in his swivel chair he looked out at the ancient buildings that he loved, at the modern buildings he didn’t and at the swarming human ants seven floors below him. Staring through these familiar images, his mind went oddly blank while a sort of relaxation settled in. Time sat still. Like him.
Arthur spun and sprang from his chair, shocked out of his reverie. “Oh, ah, yes …”
“Oops, sorry, Arthur. I didn’t mean to startle you,” said Mary Collins, the Assistant Manager, smiling, surprised at his reaction. “How are you going with the Atkinson file – is the inventory list complete?”
“Oh, um, ah, yes … no, not quite,” he said, returning to the real world with a bump and wondering what to do with the clean desk. Strangely, Mary seemed quite unconcerned about it.
“That’s alright, Arthur. I know it’s a confusing case and the burglary may not be all there is to it. I’m not really here about that, anyway,” said Mary, settling in the other chair in his office.
“There’s several things I’m still working on,” he said, a little too quickly. “I’ve got most of the reports and claims but some of them don’t quite tie up …”
“Arthur, Arthur, Arthur! It’s alright, really it is,” said Mary, trying to reassure him. “You’re jumpy today. Is everything okay with you?”
“Oh, it’s just my womenopause,” he said, attempting a little humour.
“My womenopause. You know, menopause, womenopause …” he said. He sensed her mind glazing over, missing the joke. “Yes, I’m fine, just planning my day, you know, thinking ahead,” he said, trying to recover a little dignity.
“Right. Right. Good. Now I’ve forgotten why I’m here,” said Mary, leaning back, crossing her legs and adjusting her designer glasses. “Ah, yes, yes, could you come up to Mr Lord’s office – we’d like to have a wee chat with you.”
‘Oh, shit!’ was what he nearly said, hearing wee chat and the Mr Lord in the same sentence. A worm turned in his stomach. Thankfully, there was an infinitesimal space between thinking and speaking and he actually said, “Yes, no problem. What time, Mary?”
“Oh, how about ten – we’ll all need a coffee by then!” she said, trying to lighten the atmosphere, with little success.
“Yes, that’s fine, I’ll see you both then.”
As she strode out, her solid figure and business suit created a small wind that rustled the leaves of his peace lily. He slumped back into his chair and felt anything but peaceful. A royal edict and attendance with the master executioner – what could it all mean? Redundancy? There’d been enough of them in this place and he was proud that he had hung in there, though precariously. Demotion? He wasn’t sure how a fifty two-year-old should feel with all those youngsters flying up the ranks – probably worse than redundancy, he thought. Promotion? Not likely. Transfer? He knew his wife wouldn’t leave the street she was born in. A reprimand? No, Sam Lord left the petty stuff to his subordinates, like Mary. His only real conclusion was redundancy … it was the not knowing that scared him the most.
My God, an hour to fret over it! Okay, old chap, remain calm, act busy and professional, smile, breathe, think, be logical. Oh God, redundancy! How humiliating, after all the years of service. People walked past his office looking in, smiling. What did they know? Probably deciding who would get his office this afternoon; smirking that it wasn’t them.
He turned his computer on, retrieved a few random files from his filing cabinet, tried to look busy and tried not to imagine the awful things Mary and Sam had probably said about him, were saying about him right now. He felt so little, so out of control, so sad that it had all come to this, that none of his dreams had eventuated, that he had retired, been retired and, well, just faded into the woodwork – unseen, without achievement, without purpose, without acclaim or even acknowledgement. Arthur … Arthur who?
His hands busied themselves as his mind went berserk, driving him deeper into depression by the minute. Why couldn’t they get it over now? Still forty minutes to go and on and on his thoughts stumbled, conjuring up the embarrassment of the “wee chat”, the humility of leaving in front of everyone else in the office, of explaining to Joan, his wife. He could imagine her hands running through her thick, greying hair, standing there looking stunned for a minute. And then there’d be the accusing looks he knew so well. And the studied judgement she was so good at, so practised at. Never shouting or getting agitated, she’d give her measured opinion – his blandness, his lack of ambition, his lack of anything approaching exciting or passionate, his nothingness destined for nothing but nothingness. And on and on she’d go. As usual, he’d not have the words or the power to reply which would prick her ire even more and her flow of words would quicken and rise in volume, imperceptibly. Eventually, when she’d repeated herself often enough, she’d turn and walk out, head high, and commiserate with her mother, six houses up the street.
Oh my God! Still half an hour to go! He kept his hands busy, the papers moving, the mouse flitting about on the computer screen, his pen scribbling … all useless actions in an attempt to stave off the painful and humiliating thoughts that wouldn’t go away … that just kept gnawing at his soul.
Then he’d have to tell his son, Martin, if his wife didn’t first. Martin was always pleasant, polite and respectful with his father but Arthur knew there was disappointment, even shame, there. Martin was a partner in the law firm, Shaftsbury Burton, and could never understand his father sticking with the boring insurance job, with no hope or ambition for promotion. The unsaid disappointment of his father’s redundancy – let’s be honest, his father’s sacking – will probably be harder to bear than the studied wrath from his wife. At least there was something to argue against, with her, if he’d ever have the gall to do it.
Oh dear, five minutes to go! He quickly tidied his desk a little, trying to keep his trembling hands busy. With a deep breath he mentally girded his loins, stood up and purposefully strode from his office, slipping on a pen that Mary must have dropped. He lurched into the door frame. Nothing hurt except his pride. He looked left and right in acute embarrassment, composed himself as best he could and strode up the corridor towards the lift with a little more caution. Thankfully, in the lift, he had a sweet moment when no one was looking and he was safe. At the twelfth floor the doors opened and he emerged into the corridor which exuded the smell and feel of power and opulence, somehow. He walked the long walk to the receptionist’s desk. A young girl looked up and he announced himself. She put down her nail polish, asked him to take a seat and said she wouldn’t be a minute. She spoke into her intercom machine and then disappeared through double doors. She returned, seven and a half minutes later, and asked him to go in as Mr Lord was expecting him.
He stood up, adjusted tie, suit, brushed shoes on legs, sighed, breathed and marched off through the large doors that proved to be heavier than he expected. A trifle embarrassed in front of a slip of a girl, he heaved again and burst into the spacious office, looking around quickly for falling guillotines.