MARGARET BOWKER


JACK’S ERRAND        

                                                  CHAPTER 1


         I usually slept with the curtains open and the sunlight had woken me. Every Sunday in June so far had been hot. I raised myself onto my elbow and looked around the room. This was the second time I had lived in it during the past three years. The bed had been new the first time, but the wall of fitted wardrobes, the tall boy, the velvet covered chair my mother had chosen, the en-suite, even the plush carpet, all remained the same.

         The previous lodger, a young responsible friend, had been careful not  to damage anything. I had stayed for over two years altogether and he had gone after nine months. This was the guest room, providing company and help with the bills.

         The sun became stronger and reached my clothes lying neatly folded on the chair. I relaxed into the comfort of the bed. The flat seemed tranquil that morning, a protective cocoon. I decided to drift for another half hour and forget about the bank statement lying unopened in the kitchen.

         Suddenly I could hear Tony coming down the hall. He was singing along to something he was listening to. Get up, he shouted outside the door. I shouted back that I was a student and entitled to doss about, especially as I made his breakfast every morning.

         He came into the room and turned his music off.

         “You’ve had a letter.”

         “I know. I’ll open it tomorrow,” I said. “It’s only about my overdraft.”

         “No, not  that one. That one came two days ago. This one came yesterday and I forgot to give it to you. I’m pretty sure it’s a reply to that box number advert you put in.” He threw me my dressing gown. “The envelope’s expensive.”

         “Really?” I said.

         “Yes, and the handwriting’s interesting as well. It has open loops and slants to the right, which shows a frank nature.” He was doing a calligraphy course in his spare time at the local college. It included hand writing analysis and he was good at both. “It’s a female. It should be male by the writing, but it’s too precise, so it’s one of those annoying women, who learned how to write properly.”

         I smiled to myself. He had better not let his girlfriend hear that.

         I got out of bed, eased the band of my sleeping shorts, did a few stretches, put on the dressing gown and held out my hand. Tony produced the letter and had no intention of leaving.

         The writing was almost masculine as he had said and instead of my name, Jack Westwood, the word advertiser jumped out at me and the address was slightly smaller, as if she had written it later, and it was a she, according to the texture of the paper.

         “Laid paper,” I said, “and a particularly fine example. You’d think it was hand made.”

         “I thought it was for a moment,” confessed Tony, “which is another reason to believe the writer’s female. What man seeing a weird advert like yours would a. answer it at all and b. use superior paper to do so.”

         “Not many,” I agreed.

         The moment had come to open the envelope. The advert had been in for four days at of its week and it felt a step forward actually to get a reply I picked up the newspaper from the bedside cabinet, where I had put it, intending to read it before falling asleep. It was open at the page of personal adverts and my advert was ringed in red. ‘Mature student doing his Masters available for most chores in the house and garden, or willing to do errands of any nature ‘.

         Reading it again did not engender the same confidence with which it had been written. It was amazingly vague; a point that had not occurred to me and I had read it several times. What if the house work included hoovering naked? Tony had a friend who had been asked to do that, and might have complied for fifty pounds, instead of the thirty offered. And the errand could be dangerous. What if it involved something indescribable?

         Tony was watching my face. ”Good grief, Jack, you were lost in the outback for five days. This can’t be worse.” He was right. I had survived being knocked out and robbed by a guide, who wasn’t one, and left to wander semi-conscious in the bush, until I became utterly lost and fell down a gully, breaking my leg. I had nearly died of dehydration.

         I opened the letter, feeling foolish, as only one can at twenty-eight when reprimanded by a twenty-three year old. Research and careful constructed essays had obviously made me soft.

         The letter was short, two paragraphs. The address was located in Sussex and the lady’s name and yes, it was a woman, was Emma; Emma Whiteley. No Miss, Mrs or Ms, just the name as I had been advertiser, although she did call me Mr Advertiser later on the page. I liked that, having  had  visions of being called by various versions of my surname, which was stupid. She didn’t know it. Westwood had caused amusement at school, an establishment surrounded by countryside. Tony had suffered from being Tony Bruce and did he have a claymore.

         Read the wretched thing, I thought, and so I did. Ms Whitley attested that she was moderately young and therefore not in need of domestic assistance and being in Sussex not suitable for someone living in London. She had deduced this from the PO box office address. But she did wish, if mutually agreeable, to take advantage of the errand part. It was not practical to explain its nature by letter, sufficient to say it would take a week of someone’s time and involve a certain amount of travelling. She gave a telephone number, a land line with a Sussex prefix, and asked me to call if I could spare a week away and was interested in earning a reasonable amount of money, all expenses paid. We would negotiate around five hundred, which could be paid in cash, if that would be more convenient.

         “Very convenient,” I murmured and turned to Tony who was standing beside me.

         “An errand,” I said. “Delivering something I think, something valuable to be mended, assessed, or whatever, and fetched back. The pay is good for a week’s work and I’ve finished my last course."

         “Is it legal?” he asked.

         “I assume so. Five hundred was mentioned. I would expect to see more of if it weren’t.” I glanced at the letter again. “I am to phone if I’m interested. She refused to  say more in writing.”

         I had made my decision and Tony frowned.

         “Look,  Jack, I know you like to be independent,” he said, “ but I can afford to run this flat on my own, leaving you to spend your income on all the things you’ve been going without lately.”

“Income being a very loose term where I’m concerned,” I replied. “However, we won’t revisit my financial circumstances. Your income is yours. Your mother left it to you along with this flat. I am only grateful Adam pays the council tax and utilities, leaving me to find my share of food and phone bill.”

         “I didn’t want the forty thousand a year. I’d much rather have not had it.”

         “I know,” I said, “but we are where  we are.”

         Our mothers had been sisters and three years ago they had died together one dark morning on a motorway in France. Since then Tony had fallen to my care in an intermittent sort of way, his father being a useless parent, whom he would never criticise.

         And that thought decided me. I could hardly sponge off Tony when I seem to spend an unnecessary part of my time making sure the importuning, artistic Alex did not get his hands on any more of his son’s money.

         “I shall phone,” I said firmly. “That is the joy of using a box number. She has no address, if I don’t like the sound of it, I can just ring off.”

         Tony brought the bedroom phone and I punched in the number. It was ten o’clock and Ms Whiteley was probably up. There was no reply. I gave up after five rings. No stickability, my father had once said from his eyrie in Oxford.

         “Have breakfast and try again,” advised my cousin. “You can’t negotiate properly on an empty stomach.”

         We wandered down to the kitchen at the back of the flat. It took a few seconds as the flat was large, the middle floor of a detached Victorian villa. The floor above was owned by a Swedish banker, who used it twice a year and was no trouble at all because he had a private entrance.

         The ground floor was inhabited by a middle-aged couple who were also something in the city. They had a country cottage in Hertfordshire and spent most weekends there. Sometimes they passed us setting out and encouraged us to have a dinner party now the house was empty. Eve, the wife, had known my father at university and felt motherly towards us.

         Tony’s mother had been married twice and the flat and income had composed most of her divorce settlement. She had received a home near Hatfield as well, but that was where Alex lived.

         As breakfast was restoring my confidence in the advert, the phone rang. There were phones everywhere and flat screens. Tony liked his television.

         “Hello,” I said.

         “Mr Advertiser?” asked a female voice.

         “Emma?” I responded.

         “The same. You phoned.”

         “I received your letter and I am interested. Five hundred seems a little light for a week’s work. Shall we say six?”

         “Very well,” she paused. “You need to come here and I’ll explain what it entails.”

         “Nothing  illegal. I hope,” shouted out Tony and Emma Whiteley emitted a sound of annoyance.

         “Tell your friend I wouldn’t dream of it now listen carefully.” And she gave the address. I repeated it back. “Your name please,” she insisted, “anything will do. I can’t keep calling you by your occupation.”

         “Jack,” I replied, “and I don’t put in adverts for a living.”

         “Immaterial. See you at three tomorrow.”

         With that, the line went dead. Tony brought a pad for me and I wrote the address on it.

         That evening, to celebrate my coming riches we went to the local bistro on the high street. It had been called Sparks, but following a series of rowdy evenings and the owner retiring to Eire, the new management had renamed it Elsyian and taken it up market. The prices, however, had remained competitive and just possible for me to find occasionally. Most days we ate in, or Tony went to his girlfriend’s place a few streets away. I presently was single, too significant relationships behind me and not looking for a third.

         We ate slowly. The food deserved appreciation. The bistro was crowded; every Sunday evenings had that effect; a sort of last act of defiance before the weekly grind. There was someone sitting in the far corner who seemed familiar.

         “Good Lord,” I said to Tony, “your father’s here.”

         “Here?” he repeated. “Are you sure? He comes to London occasionally to see his agent, but here in Sparks?”

         “Elysian,” I corrected. “It got a write-up the other day. He hasn’t seen us. What do you want to do?”

         Tony surreptitiously dropped his credit cards on the floor and as he retrieved them, scanned the table on his far side. Alex Bruce was dining with a thin faced man, shaved head, smart clothes, halfway between discreet and edgy. Alex was wearing his usual I’m a painter outfit, patterned shirt, velvet jacket, floaty scarf, fair curly hair down to the nape, framing an attractive profile. He had married Tony’s mother at twenty-one and now forty-four still looked nearly as becoming as in the photographs. Tony resembled him. It was no use saying it was all a mistake.

         “We‘re out of his line of sight,” I said, “and can’t attract his attention. If you want to speak to him you’ll have to go over there.”

         “Very well,” Tony conceded., “I shall say hello. He’s perfectly entitled to be here doing business. A set of prints of his latest effort, I expect.”

         I nodded, and Tony made his way over to the table. There was no point in my accompanying him. Alec knew I didn’t like him. If he gave me a glance, it would be a miracle.

         I watched as the greetings took place. Alex looked surprised; his companion’s face went blank and settled into uninvolved mode. He didn’t offer to shake hands; didn’t speak as far as I could see.

         After a minute or two, Tony returned and sat down.

         “Alex didn’t seem to know what to say,” he complained, “he didn’t even offered to introduce me. Oh hello, Anthony, he said, looking well, I’ll phone you next week sometime. Of course he won’t after you got the solicitor to see him off.”

         “You don’t have to let him live in the Hatfield house,” I pointed out “and you gave him one of the cars your mother left you. He knew you he couldn’t touch you your annuity. Adam tied it up too well.”

         An image of Adam Fenton came into my mind. Technology giant, brilliant at new design, a little nerdy, but covered it well and not very good at marriage. It took a year for that to become apparent and another for him to persuade my aunt to take any settlement at all. By the time the divorce was under way Tony was born and Adam made him joint recipient of the settlement. My cousin had always owned half the house and flat and when my aunt died, Adam had paid all the duties so that nothing had to be sold. I sighed at her two unsatisfactory marriages.

         “Who was that man with Alex?” I asked.

         “No idea,” replied Tony. “Didn’t like the look of him. Not part of my father’s usual crowd. He didn’t seem happy at my being there. He made a gesture, very slight, but Alex saw it. He was more aware of him than me. I was to be got rid of and he was to be obeyed. Perhaps Alex owes him money

         It was quite possible Alex did borrow from him from time to time. The money he had inherited had lasted two years and for the past one, he had badgered Tony for loans until I had taken legal advice. He was definitely not my friend.

         Pudding was delicious and we gave it our full attention. As we were drinking our coffee, Alex and his dinner guest left the bistro. No smiles, or waves for Tony. They just went into the street, spoke for a few seconds, the man saying the most, and parted. Alex going to the left, the man to the right where someone was waiting for him.

         This strange meeting occupied the walk back home. Tony was inclined to dismiss it as part of his father’s lifestyle. I was not so sure. Alex was up to something. He often was. There had been a girlfriend recently who had moved into the Hatfield house and refused to leave when she and Alex had fallen out. She had tried to bring builders in to divide the property and instead of Alex getting someone official to write a letter saying he lived there on sufferance rather than owning the place, he got a few friends to throw her possessions into the street. It had been unpleasant and he had tried to borrow a thousand from Tony to cheer himself up. You know half of what you get is really mine, he had said.

         We reached the house in good spirits. The bistro had been up to standard and all that was needed was a nightcap. Tony had hot chocolate and I had a whiskey. While I was sipping it and thanking my late aunt for her good taste, I noticed the phone was blinking.

         Probably my professor at uni, I thought; he was due to tell me my chances of getting my MA. The small knot in my stomach tightened as I pressed the play button. It was Ms Whitley. The voice as resolute as before, except after saying a message for Jack, she gave a slight cough and I had the distinct impression she was playing for time, and then she said 'did I say three tomorrow? I should not like you to be under the misapprehension that it was any other time. Until three then Good night.'

         Wow, I thought, she thinks she made a mistake, which will probably keep her awake for hours.

         “Have you finished with phone?” asked Tony. “My mobile’s in my room and I want to speak to Chrissie.”

         I handed it over and left him to it. Their good nights could take a while.

         “It was nearly twelve by the time I had soaked away the day. Tony had already gone to bed and the flat was quiet and much as it had been left three years ago. One day he would have to make it his own, apart from upgrading the media. And I would have to go.

         Where, I was not sure. A fairly lowly job in a museum beckoned but it had prospects, according to a member of the board, because the curator was due to retire. Just a year and I would be safely tucked away in a good job with accommodation. It was tempting. In two years I would be thirty and looking for something sensible.

         I fell asleep thinking of this and Alex Bruce; and the need for money and settling my life so that I did not become him.


 

 


 

 

 






                               

 

                                                                                     

 

         

                                                                        

 

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