Iain Richardson snaps on his headphones, grabs his bike and pedals furiously towards the seafront. Can he make it to the arches in five minutes? It’s chancy, not because of the distance but because of the constant need to weave through human traffic.
Brighton is full to bursting in the May sunshine. By Iain’s reckoning, approximately a million festival-goers, tourists and English language students have flocked to what is fast being termed London-by-Sea. And not one of them is paying a blind bit of attention to the cycle lanes.
Iain has long since found through trial and error that a combination of ringing the bell and shouting “Move!” in his low Ulster tone is the best means of clearing the way. “Excuse me” takes too long, and the bell by itself fades into the background noise of seagulls and chatter. After a dicey seven minutes he slews to a stop, scattering stray pebbles with his back tyre, right outside the intentionally graffitied arch that is home to WeBike4U.
He’s in luck – it’s only Joe who sits waiting.
“Alright?” Iain asks as he grabs the logbook, scribbling the time as 1.59pm to make it less suspicious.
Joe looks up from his makeshift desk, scratching his ear. “Yeah, mate. Up for a bit of a workout? Boss man’s left you all the ball-aches.”
Iain scans the list. Only two of the deliveries are in the BN1 area. Most are uphill in Kemptown and the furthest is twelve miles away in Seaford.
He mutters a curse and loads the delivery items into his courier bag. Seaford’s a pick-up: he’ll leave it till last, then freewheel his way home. Or, more likely, to the King and Queen pub.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Her nose twitches, then her entire body shudders.
Dark and damp and cold. Something dripping from above. A dull ache spreading across her right shoulder.
Where am I? What am I doing here? What time is it? What day is it?
She bites down panic. Takes a deep breath. Forces herself to assess the situation.
Both her legs are curled under her, and from the smooth cold contact it feels like a concrete floor. Possibly tiles or polished wood, but probably concrete. She can move her toes, her feet, her legs. Her hips have a bit of free movement, but there is something restrictive around her waist. A harness?
Her arms are bound tightly in front of her from elbows to wrists, tied with something thick and coarse. A picture flashes in her mind of one of those ropes you always see coiled up on the deck of a boat.
No headache, but no memory either. She thinks back. A tumble of dreams get in the way, then slowly, mistily, she pictures walking across Palmeira Square towards the recruitment agency. Did she reach her office? She isn’t sure. Possibly drugged, possibly too stressed to think straight. She puts it aside for now.
Another deep breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth.
There is a faint smell of petrol. Is it coming from the drip? Or is the dripping sound water, and the petrol more of a background smell?
She decides, for the sake of her own sanity, she’s in a garage with a leaky roof. She can’t see a thing, but there’s no blindfold. She squeezes her eyes shut and counts to ten, slowly, then opens her eyes. Turns her head and swivels her torso to look right, then centre, then left.
Is it her imagination, or is it more grey than black to the left? Possibly. Straight ahead is darkest, so she’s probably facing a wall.
The drip, drip, drip is the only sound. Can she – should she – make another?
Nine down, two to go.
Iain wipes the sweat off his brow with the back of his arm, then checks the delivery details. Bell Tower Industrial Estate, Unit 3B.
He packs the list away and sets off, cycling towards the huge Lidl on the corner. It’s a short distance from there to the sprawl of low concrete buildings that make up the myriad units of the industrial estate.
Everything is grey: the road, the buildings and even the sky. The bright day has given way to an overcast, muggy evening, the air turning humid and heavy.
Iain chains up the bike at the first stand he sees and sets off on foot with the parcel, the better to spot the unit numbers.
3B is not a promising sight. The drab unit with its corrugated iron shutter is locked up tight. Deserted.
Iain bangs his fist on the shutter. The whole thing reverberates with a hollow clang.
Then there’s a tap on his shoulder and he nearly drops the parcel.
“Hey, I’m Mark. We didn’t expect same-day delivery! Give me a sec.”
Iain turns to see a large, friendly man with short grey hair, clad in a red and yellow Hawaiian shirt. Mark smiles broadly and stoops to deal with the padlock. The shutter makes an almighty clatter as it shoots up towards the ceiling.
The revealed microbrewery looks festooned for a party: every available surface is draped with coloured fabrics, and bright posters adorn the walls. Even the steel fermenters sport spirals of bright bunting, like summer’s answer to Christmas tinsel.
Iain hands Mark the parcel and smiles back. “Nice wee place you’ve got here. I just need you to sign this form.”
They move towards a makeshift table that looks like it’s been cobbled together from driftwood. A few scattered crates clearly serve as chairs when the tap room’s open. Mark scrawls his signature and hands the proof of delivery form back together with a bottle labelled “Summer Lovin’ IPA” in swirly green and pink letters.
“Ah, that’s grand!” Iain says appreciatively.
They exchange goodbyes and Iain retrieves his bike, reluctantly packing the beer away for the end of his shift. He feels ready for it now, but it’s a good ten miles from here to Seaford, and the mugginess is sapping his strength as it is.
He selects a trance channel on his phone and turns up the volume for the long, slow climb ahead. The peak rush-hour traffic has passed, but the backlogged buses are trying to make up for lost time. They make their displeasure at having to give way on the stretches without a cycle lane well and truly known.
“Bastard bus, bastard bus,” Iain mutters to the tempo as he pedals. Exhaust fumes swirl, negating any sense of benefit from the sea view.
As he nears his destination, the climb gets steeper, and Iain’s legs are screaming at him by the time he turns off the main road. He finds the cul-de-sac on the third attempt.
Professor Alec Dockett’s house is set back from the rest, the huge front garden complete with a pond. Iain parks his bike in the driveway and crosses the well-manicured lawn. The pond is incongruously wild, with tufts of weeds, grass and rushes, and a scummy surface that means it’s impossible to tell whether any fish are swimming around in it.
Iain makes for the porch, spotting through the glass door that there is a box awaiting collection. He opens the porch door and is engulfed by a greenhouse-like warmth as he steps forward to ring the bell. As he waits, he is uncomfortably aware that sweat is beginning to dampen the piece of paper in his hands.
The front door swings open to reveal a tall, bald sixty-something wearing a smart shirt, black trousers and shiny black shoes.
“Professor Dockett?” Iain asks. “I just need to you complete this collection form.”
Iain rummages in his pocket for a pen. He makes to pass it over together with the form, only for his face to be met with the firm press of cloth.
The alarm wakes me at 7 a.m. sharp. I wash, shave and dress, choosing my best suit. I eat two rounds of toast, savour every teaspoonful of the soft-boiled eggs. Brew real good coffee.
My wall calendar shows me what I already know – today’s the red-letter day. I smile. There’s plenty of time. It’s been a productive week.
I clear away the breakfast things and pad into the office. I wake up the laptop and double-click on the Word document. It picks up where I left off. I scroll back past Iain and go over the final lines of Jessica’s section.
“The drip, drip, drip is the only sound. Can she – should she – make another?”
Well, that is the question. I want Jessica to choose correctly. But it has to be authentic – I can’t take the decision for her.
I navigate to the desktop, double-click on the infrared camera icon. It instantly picks out Jessica.
“Yes,” I hiss. Just as I’d hoped.
I close my laptop, grab the key to the basement and get to work.
(c) Carrie Hynds