The Deaths by Mark Lawson – Extract

The Deaths

ONE

THE COFFEE GUY

The deaths are discovered because of the country’s sudden obsession with perfect coffee.

After three years of studying History and Politics, Jason hadn’t expected to be driving a van, but it was one of only two interviews he got (the other fast food) from 200 applications. And it can be argued that delivering expensive caffeinated drinks is vaguely relevant to his studies: at what point, in its politics and history, did England become Italy and why wasn’t he told?

Because he’s young-looking, customers often assume he’s on a gap year and he doesn’t correct them. The company, run from a trading estate off a junction low on the M40, is called CappuccinGo. The fun of the pun, Jason worries, results in missed web sales from customers uncertain of the spelling. He delivers capsules, advertised as compressing the essence of the finest Italian and Brazilian beans, to members of Club CappuccinGo, who possess a black-and-chrome machine that crushes the colour-coded bullets with water, convincing the drinkers that their English homes are actually Florentine restaurants.

When the government declared Britain bankrupt, Jason feared for his job; in a recession, posh hot drinks seemed an obvious candidate to be judged a luxury. But his clientele stubbornly refuse to condemn their taste-buds to the jar or even – Jason can remember his parents’ excitement about these – that previous post-dinner status symbol, the cafetière.

He relishes the empty motorways this morning, an advantage of working Saturdays, if you get ahead of the football traffic (although most matches at the moment are frozen off), and as long as it isn’t half term, which seems almost a religious holiday now, at least among people like this.

Jason checks on the dashboard clock that he’s ahead of target time. It is part of the firm’s smart marketing to inject a sense of emergency into every purchase. Calls to the Hotcoffeeline promise delivery within twenty-four hours, with Christmas Day the only date on which club members are left thirsty or to slum it. The consignments are rushed around the country in zipped bags, as if they are drugs or transplant organs. At some drops, he will be handed a pouch of spent pellets for recycling; a service the business offers to convince club members that their pretension is ecologically sound.

The lapel badge and his contract identify him as a ‘coffee courier’. He is just happy that the title is not cutely Italianized – couria – with its dreadful echo for his employment generation of barista, another manifestation of the nation’s late-found coffee mania.

Numerous drivers are off – this new ‘killer bug’, in many cases, is the rumour at the depot – and Jason has worked eight days on the spin, but is happy to take this weekend early shift as well because, since Dad lost his job, his folks have talked about having to charge him rent.

Although his patch forms a wide loop round London, the areas and even the addresses are repetitive. In seven months, he has not yet made a delivery to a house that shares a wall with another. CappuccinGo’s natural territory is the sweeping green stretches between London and Brum, where bankers, lawyers, surgeons and CEOs live in what used to be farmhouses, bakehouses, schoolhouses or post offices, from which they drive a dozen motorway junctions or ride a high-speed train for thirty minutes to the capital to work.

Middlebury, where houses seem to have a minimum of six bedrooms and at least two cars, is scattered among fields and hills that give the lie to the radio-phone-in moan that Britain is crowded. Every home is almost a village of its own.

He has four regular clients round here, but this morning it’s only the one: a last-minute dinner-party panic, probably. These minted women all look pretty much the same to him, but he thinks this is the fit, flirty one, which would be sweet, although he doesn’t really believe the banter in the drivers’ room about the customers who don’t just want their coffee hot and wet. There’s a glammy nanny here as well, although Jason mainly seems to hit her mornings off. That sort of tail is untouchable for him, anyway.

Having almost skinned the side last time, he takes the turn through the lower gate carefully. Looking up the hill, he again thinks that he should have gone into crime rather than driving. His folks talk about him getting his own place one day – and mentioned helping with a deposit, at least when Dad was working – but the idea seems increasingly like fiction.

What did you have to do to get a house like this? A winding, white-gravel drive, screened on both sides by trees, leads to a honey-coloured stone house, two-storeyed and three-sectioned, with substantial wings flanking a central block. Some of the window spaces have been bricked up, a relic of the period in English history when access to daylight was taxed.

These guys have a cylindrical post-box, American-style, at the bottom of the long approach, but, because they are either caffeine addicts or crazy entertainers, their CappuccinGo boxes are always too big to fit. The section of his chit headed ‘Delivery Instructions’ tells him to take the package up to the house and, if Mrs Snooty-Booty is out, leave it inside the green-doored barn, first on the right in the courtyard. But they won’t be out on a Saturday morning which, if his mum and dad are any guide, is when old people do sex.

Opposite the post-box at the entrance to the property is a shield-shaped sign speared into the ground, advertising the name and number of the company that runs the security systems: Rutherford Secure. Matchingly branded metal boxes flash from beneath the eaves of the main building. Robbers are obviously supposed to see the first logo and abandon the blag.

Glancing sideways, Jason checks that his lanyard is on the passenger seat. A few weeks previously, the company’s couriers were given new, more impressive identity necklaces. Apparently, some of his colleagues had been turned away by club-members convinced they were a front for something else. With the have-nots increasing in number, the haves are panicking.

It is one of the dogs he sees first. Turning the final curve, the house now in full view to the left, he spots the woolly shape on the verge and suddenly, stupidly understands why this delivery feels different: there has been no little yapper screeching warnings from the house, enjoying his game of comically improbable guard dog. Normally, you can hear barking from the bottom of the hill.

In this job, road-kill becomes as familiar as traffic lights. He gets out of the van and approaches the shape, which looks like a rug left on the grass after an abandoned picnic. The dog’s body has lain there long enough to be frosted. An ice-streaked tennis ball lies just beside it. Although British Summer Time begins next month, the mornings, after a stubbornly unfinishing winter, are still raw.

He gently lifts the head, but it falls back, the weight and torpor confirming his stomach-pinching suspicion. Unlike many of his mates, Jason is not obsessed with the forensic shows, watching them only when he is in and there is nothing else on, but he is enough of a sofa pathologist to identify a bullet wound to the head; a single hit, he guesses. The back of the skull. They have Labradors at home, but he is vague about dogs: a westie, is this?

The smack of sadness surprises him. He almost wants to stroke the coat, uselessly thick, white with interlocking whorls of black and ginger. He is imagining it being one of his mum and dad’s dogs. That must be how grief works until you have losses of your own.

So he is slow to see the implications of the killed animal.

Catching up, confused, and frightened for himself, he looks towards the buildings for an explanation or reaction of some kind.

Apart from the nearby neighing – no, almost roaring – of a horse, everything is silent, not only here but across the whitened fields and hills around. From this house can be seen three others that are almost identical, presumably the result of a landowner or architect’s pattern two centuries or so ago. They form a wide square, each positioned on a high rise, facing towards each other, like some massive amp system made of stone. The residents are all his clients now, which is no surprise because they seem to have the same kind of stuff. He hopes he never has to pick out the wives, cars, dogs or children in an . . . identity parade. The realization that he may be in a crime scene finally strikes.

He fingers the phone in his pocket, a surrogate gun. Then, out of instinct, or perhaps some buried memory of how a hero behaved in a thriller he watched, he locks the vehicle with a squeeze of the key ring and walks the last part of the drive. In a garden at the side of the house, a rugby ball, a goal-keeper’s glove and a basketball are frozen in the grass, like an advert for a Nordic sports channel.

As he walks closer, there’s a dark mound beside a flowerbed. He’s trying to work out which piece of sports equipment this might be, when he sees that it’s the family’s other dog, a Labrador, flat and still against the strip-mown lawn, the morning sun catching its black pelt and, like a torch, picking out the ragged red circumference of the bullet hole in the back of the scalp.

All his previous deliveries here have been weekdays, timed for 9.30 a.m., when, the delivery notes told him, the school run was finished and there would always be someone in. He has never seen the husband: probably killing himself to pay for all of this. So he has no idea how the house should be on Saturday morning. He wants to believe that they are sleeping in after a late night with lots of his coffee, and will wake up to discover that burglars have shot their dogs. But don’t you have dogs to stop that happening?

Television has made everyone a semi-detective and he notices that there are three cars – a 4×4, a saloon and a soft-top – on the expanse of gravel beyond the courtyard. Surely even people as fuck-off rich as this wouldn’t have four cars, would they? Stepping closer, CSI Jason observes that the windscreens all have the sugar-scattered cake-top look of overnight chill. They have not been driven this morning.

He thinks of banging on the door, but he is an underemployed graduate, a coffee guy, not a cop. Changing his phone contract a month ago, he vaguely read that 999 calls were free. But, until now, this inducement has been irrelevant to him as a consumer.

TWO

MEMBERSHIP QUESTIONS

The coffee they serve is horrible – over-stewed and with a strange whiff of piss off it – but Simon drinks it because, on such a short journey, it is the only real perk of First Class. Without his ‘complimentary refreshment’ – even on these superfast new trains, the language is redolent of the Orient Express – the cost of the tickets on his Visa statements each month would feel even more like theft.

Simon is happy to travel scum class when he’s on his own and even sometimes deliberately aims for the 6.25, knowing the others favour the .38. But today the .25 is delayed to 6.44 by signalling problems at Crewe and so Jonny Crossan finds him on the platform.

‘Good man, yourself.’

Jonny’s standard greeting at the moment involves, for some reason, a hideous attempt at an Irish accent, although Simon is from Northern England, which led his friend for many years to hail him with ‘Ow do?’

‘Jonny,’ he replies.

This is the almost daily station-ritual between them, accompanied by a mutual head-jab.

‘So, what’s this, Lonsdale? Have they Daleked that it’s in reverse formation this morning?’

Simon knows exactly what Jonny is getting at but says: ‘What?’

‘You’re standing down the pleb end, chummy.’

‘What? Oh, yeah. Bit of a fight with the alarm clock this morning: not quite in gear.’

‘The prosecution accepts this submission. If one had spent the night in bed with Mrs Lonsdale, one would not have slept much either.’

Jonny’s coveting of his friends’ wives is such a part of his repertoire that Simon merely rolls his eyes and follows him to the Gold Zone, where they are surprised to find Max Dunster. Max doesn’t often travel with them because his factory is a ten-minute drive – five at the speeds he likes to go – from Middlebury.

‘Your Highness!’ Jonny Crossan booms up at Max. ‘What matters in the capital?’

Max is standing with his mock-military stiffness at the place on the platform where the First Class carriage closest to the buffet car is most likely to open its doors. It is the mark of alpha commuters to know the stopping spots, although there are mornings when they have to keep their nerve when a sizeable queue forms beside an unexpected section of the yellow safety line and the fear sets in that they have missed an announcement that others heard. But, generally, barring a late switch of trainstock, their positions will be vindicated.

‘I’ve a meeting at the bank,’ Max tells Jonny, who asks: ‘Oh, dear. Smacked-botty time?’

‘On the contrary. I wouldn’t be surprised if the buggers want to borrow money from me.’

Jonny looks around the platform, his head swivelling as ostentatiously as a presidential bodyguard, then declares: ‘Missing member of the Monday Club alert! Where’s Tom Rutherford? Has he texted excuses to anyone? Certainly not to me.’

Simon and Max shake their heads. Max’s careful anticipation of the length and formation of a Virgin Pendolino pulling in at platform 4 puts them on the train first and, though the redeye from Manchester can be crowded, they nab an empty four with a table. Simon, who is prone to claustrophobia in trains, planes and theatres, stands back to let Jonny take the window.

Max, because of his height, also likes an aisle and so they leave the other window seat empty.

‘Room for a small one?’ asks a voice from beside and above. ‘Speak for yourself, cock,’ says Jonny. They all look up to see a squat, stocky guy who is not a regular member of the travelling squad, but an occasional sit-in if the seats fall that way. Simon can never remember his name: Nicky something? Max stands, as usual cracking his head on the luggage rack, to let past the mystery voyager, whose shape gives him no plausible claim to leg-room.

‘Shouldn’t you lot be travelling in the chav carriages to show us all you’re sorry?’ Jonny teases the new arrival, who good-naturedly parries: ‘Yeah, yeah. Could we have a Be Nice To Bankers Day? I’d be surprised if any of you lot are going to be Guardian Person of the Year.’ Sardonic vibrato on both Guardian and Person. Then, holding out a hand to Max: ‘Nicky Mortimer. I think we’ve occasionally met here on the dawn treader.’

‘Max Dunster,’ comes the confirmation. Nicky Mortimer, Simon thinks. Copy that for future reference. Silent, he imagines himself as a camera, cutting between the speakers.

Jonny: ‘Max is going for a spank from the bank. Don’t know if it’s yours?’

Nicky: ‘Oh. Who are you with?’

Max: ‘Well, in this instance, Cooper Macauley.’

Nicky: ‘Classy. Want to split a taxi to Belgravia?’

Max: ‘Oh, er, yeah, sure. You’re in Belgravia as well?’

Nicky: ‘HQ is.’

Max: ‘Who are you? As a bank I mean?’

Nicky: ‘Well, more corporate finance, really. Robbins Schuster Geneva.’

Max: ‘Right. Nice.’

Jonny: ‘Is it just me or has this train stopped?’

Like lab rats, the commuters have learned to distinguish the meanings of different sensations. A repeating screech is the result of someone pressing the disabled help button in the loo, usually an able-bodied person trying to flush the bog or dry their hands; a single ping followed by static indicates an announcement from the artist formerly known as the guard, now the train manager.

Who says: ‘As you’ve probably noticed, ladies and gentlemen, we’re currently held by a red signal. And I regret to say that we could be here for quite some time.’ From along the carriage, the sigh of meetings, deals and earnings stalled. ‘The reason, I’m afraid, is a person under a train at Watford Junction.’ Another low moan of disapproval at the thoughtlessness of the corpse. ‘I’ll keep you updated when I have any further information. In the meantime, thank you for your patience and cooperation. The buffet is open in carriage G and a complimentary beverage and hot-and-cold-breakfast sandwich service will be coming through First Class.’

‘I’ve got a case conference at eight,’ complains Jonny.

‘I am right, aren’t I,’ Simon asks, ‘that they used to say “an incident” or a “fatal incident”? I think “person under a train” is quite recent, isn’t it?’

‘Very much so,’ Max agrees, only half-lowering his Financial Times. ‘I assume it’s to stop people abusing train staff in the way that those posters at stations ask us not to.’

‘I’ll tell you why it is,’ Jonny joins in. ‘One is supposed to feel sympathy for the fucker who jumped under the train. Which, as you can probably guess, one doesn’t. It’s absolutely their yuman right’’ – the words satirically inflected – ‘to do themselves in, but I propose this: they stick to pills and whisky, we get to London in the advertised thirty minutes.’

‘Am I right in thinking you’re a barrister by trade?’ asks honorary club-member Nicky . . . (shit, he’s forgotten his surname again – early mornng or something worse?), in the tone of probing an improbability.

‘He is,’ Simon smilingly confirms. ‘I always say, if I ever kill anyone, I wouldn’t ask Jonny to defend me and pray he wouldn’t be prosecuting. Actually, I met a British Transport Policeman at a dinner party . . .’

‘Exciting social life you have, Si.’ Max from behind the paper. ‘Thank the Crucified Christ you didn’t ask us to that one.’

‘No, seriously . . .’ Simon blames Top Gear for the fact that so many British men now regard conversation as violently belittling banter. ‘What he said was really interesting . . .’

Max makes snoring noises from behind his pale-pink barrier. Jonny says: ‘I’ll be the judge of that, Lonsdale.’

Simon continues: ‘According to him, Monday morning and Friday evening are the hot-spots for railway suicides. They’re the rush hours that cause maximum disruption. I suppose because people have more to get in for or more to get home for. So it’s a sort of last swipe at the world you hate.’

Nicky Who, a far better audience for Simon’s story than his usual co-commuters, nods: ‘So you can bugger up thousands of people for a couple of hours. I wonder if that’s true across the world or if it’s a British thing.’

‘I’m only interested in the ones on this line,’ Jonny says, with that little flicker of camp he has when rattled.

‘The Virgin suicides!’ declares Max.

Simon is surprised and impressed by the reference: ‘I didn’t know you read books.’

‘What’s that?’ Max lowers the paper. ‘I didn’t know it was a book.’

‘I wonder, though. Do you think it is that?’ this Nicky asks. ‘Do we think what is what?’ barks Jonny.

‘That people jump under trains on Monday mornings and Friday nights to inconvenience other people? What if that’s when someone feels most vulnerable? Another Monday morning without a job; another weekend to be spent alone . . .’

‘Interesting,’ says Simon, who thinks it is. But Jonny mocks: ‘Thought you were a banker, not a social worker!’

The tannoy peal again, then the train manager crackling: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve just been informed that we can expect a delay of at least another hour, while the body is removed from the track.’

‘The body!’ Max says. ‘What is this? Snuff Rail?’

Mentally rewriting schedules, most passengers groan, then, as they alert their workplaces, the carriage fills with finger-tapping and ear-splitting voices, amplified by mobile over-projection and hands-free headsets.

Once more, the tocsin and the boxy sound: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, train manager again.’ The callers pause for more information to relay. ‘Okay, we’ve had a message from Control. We’re going to be pulled backwards to Leighton Buzzard and then come into London on the slow track. We’d hope to give you a revised arrival estimate in the station . . .’

His apologies for any inconvenience caused are drowned out by passengers bellowing revised arrangements into phones.

‘They’ll probably charge us extra for the backwards leg,’ the guest member predicts.

It is at this point that Simon realizes he has a second-class ticket. Surely, though, there will be no inspections on a train that is travelling late and in the wrong direction.

Max has scrunched his newspaper under the seat and opened up his MacBook Pro on the table. The latest model, of course; he goes through laptops as others change socks. Its lightweight frame looks fragile under his huge hands. Jonny is pulling the ribbons off a legal brief, until Max says: ‘Oh, Jonny. Message from the Management. A feasibility study has been done on Marrakesh.’

Spinning on the shiny table-top, the computer reveals a screen scattered with rectangular images of blue skies, pink sunsets and red-bricked palaces.

‘Bit steam-age that, isn’t it, Max?’Jonny teases. ‘I expected you to have an iPad Retina wotsit.’

‘Oh, I have. Shipped one in straight from the States. Just, boringly, the figures for today are on this and I haven’t zapped them over. According to blogs, and people who’ve been, the smart move is to stay in what they call a riad.’

‘That’s exactly what we did,’ says Nicky is-it-Morton? but is ignored as Max continues: ‘What used to be top wallahs’ villas turned into small private hotels. Pop out Friday lunchtime – three hours down the same time-zone, so no lag – stay in one of these and come back Sunday.’

Jonny nods vertically, chin up and down very straight, like a boxer being knocked about: ‘Looks just the ticket for Libby. Shop until she drops in the souk and so on, while we chaps seek out the belly-dancers. Are there lap-belly-dancers, do you reckon? Libs has got a thing about bringing carpets back. I said we’ve already got them wall-to-wall, darling, and we’ve only got two feet each, but you know.’

Simon tries to look uninterested, skimming through his roll of newspapers, but that old word ‘clubbable’ was made for Max: ‘Hey, Simon, why don’t you and Tasha come along? The Rutherfords are already signed up. It’s the last but one weekend before Christmas.’

‘For some reason, those dates ring a bell,’ says Simon, although they don’t, adding, ‘I’ll talk to Tash tonight,’ although he won’t.

‘Come on, Simon,’ Jonny yells at him. ‘You – and especially Mrs Lonsdale – must be there. It’s a state visit of The Eight.’

The sensation of being pulled backwards, even slowly, is disconcerting, like the reverse leg on a theme-park dipper that sets you up for the dizzying drop.

‘Tickets and passes from Milton Keynes, please,’ comes the voice from behind them. Like all those who speak for a living, the train manager has a variety of tones: clear but contrite for the delay announcements, courteous but firm for what is now called ‘revenue protection’, previously the inspection of tickets.

Jonny and Nicky flash their First Class season tickets quickly and coolly from their wallets, as if they are police IDs. These are received with gentle gratitude, as is Max’s machine ticket, although it is scribbled on to prevent him re-using it fraudulently. Simon is already muttering ‘I, er, need to . . .’, hoping for deafness or discretion from his friends, when the ticket guy says: ‘You’ll need to upgrade this, sir?’

‘Er, yes. I realize. How much is it?’

Jonny and Max stare with icy surprise at the imposter. Simon has a sense of how South Africa and Berlin must have been in their decades of division.

‘The difference is sixteen pounds, sir. How will you be paying?’

He reaches for the credit card first but it has been used already once at the ticket machines that morning, and payment for a second journey so quickly is the sort of ‘irregular spending pattern’ that might trigger a stop on payments. If his card is rejected in front of Max and Jonny, and even the relatively disinterested Nicky Mortimer, Simon will need to become the line’s second suicide before breakfast. He is not, though, completely sure how solvent the debit account is.

He risks it. The gap as it bleeps through the reader feels like waiting for the opening of the result envelope on a TV talent show.

‘That’s fine, sir. Here’s your new ticket and receipt.’

With the revenue-protection officer gone, the pack-leaders yap at him.

‘A steerage stowaway!’ hoots Jonny. ‘Explain yourself, Lonsdale!’

‘I’m not angry, Si, just disappointed,’ adds Max, mockheadmasterly.

‘I was getting the earlier one, but it was delayed. I knew you guys wouldn’t be around, so what was the point of being here? To be honest, I only travel First for the company, not the coffee.’ ‘I’ll grant you it’s not Club CappuccinGo,’ says Jonny. Please, Simon prays silently, don’t start up about the fucking Rajasthani macchiato you’ve got on trial.

‘Work hard, play hard, travel fast but soft,’ says Max. He has a way of speaking like a sports coach or motivational guru. ‘I do keep thinking it’s a ludicrous expense,’ says, yes, got it again, Nicky Mortimer. ‘On a run as short as this, what are you really getting for your buck?’

The others look at him as if he is a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language.

‘Bugger this for un jeu de soldats,’ announces Jonny. ‘I’m going for a Smedgewick, if I can work the damn doors.’

Simon stands to let him clamber out.

‘What’s a Smedgewick?’ asks Mortimer. ‘Some sort of sandwich?’

‘Good Lord, I hope not!’ guffaws Max. ‘It’s what Crossan calls a number two. He’s one of those chaps that has his own words for things. A tip from me: if you happen to know someone called Dobson, don’t ever tell Jonny you’ve shaken his hand.’

After travelling several miles backwards, they are shunted, spilling the disgusting free drinks across the table, across to the slow track for another assault on London. If the person under the earlier train chose their time of death in order to bugger up the lives of those who survived, the strategy has been impressively effective. Simon texts the office that he will definitely miss his nine and will let them know about the ten.

*

There was an article in the Telegraph about one of the smarter supermarket branches somewhere banning shoppers from entering the store in their pyjamas. Apparently some people – from an estate, you’d guess – were coming to the shop direct from bed or, more likely, staying in their sleepwear all day, trackies and hoodies a 24-hour outfit now. Even the nuns at school were rumoured to change into a different shapeless garment at night.

So Tasha’s just a little worried about going into her shop in her gym stuff. Even though she’s wearing a smock dress and cardigan over her shorts and t-shirt, she has got her trainers on (too much hassle to be changing in and out of heels at the club, although some of the other girls do) and, while they’re clean and white and Nike, they are still just, as they used to say at school, pumps.

Actually, the more she thinks about it, how are estate trolls who spend all day in their pjs able to afford to go to a shop with a dress code, anyway? Benefits, it will be. Shocking when you think that even she, when Simon has been giving her an especially hard time about the finances, sometimes has to do the weekly shop in Tesco for a while instead, which just isn’t the same, although, oddly enough, it’s the only one of the supermarkets to have baguette-holders on the trolleys as standard.

From the long shining line under the porch beside the cashpoints, she takes a trolley. Unlike the other food shops, hers doesn’t chain them together or require a pound coin as deposit. It’s a sign that the shop trusts its patrons and the community, although you do sometimes see one abandoned on the grass beside the bypass, ridden as a pikey-bike through the night.

The guilt tin at the door today is holidays for disabled children. Officially, Tasha’s deal with God is that she donates for diseases she might otherwise get and becoming a disabled child is one of the few medical plotlines definitely closed off to her. You could still end up with a paraplegic kid, though, with Josh and Henry playing rugby, and Polly driving now. She drops in a pound coin, and then a second because one of the alternative lives she has been most grateful to avoid is as the mother of a son or daughter with something wrong. God forgive her, but she flinches when she sees some mum wheeling along a great lolling teenage lump. How do they keep up those brave smiles? ‘Bless you,’ says the collector. Tasha wonders if she has a crippled child herself.

The double entry doors slide apart. Tasha stops at the Shop-and-Scan stand and swipes the joint-account debit card smoothly down the black plastic slot on the right. After a few times now, she’s got the angle of entry and the speed just right – the newbies stand there frustratedly putting the card back in again and again, like those elderly American tourists you see looking baffled outside hotel rooms with plastic keys – and, at the first time of asking, the screen in the middle scrolls out the greeting good morning, mrs natasha lonsdale and one of the hand-sets at the bottom of the rack starts to flash and vibrate. It always reminds her of the moment in a sci-fi film when the astronauts board the spaceship.

She frees the price-reader and pushes it into the custommade soft grey plastic slot they’ve just added to the front of the trolleys, then places in its base the three green branded canvas bags given to her when she subscribed, patting them open ready to receive the goods. Standing in his gleamingly clean apron in company colours, in the middle of his island empire to the right of the newspaper rack, the meeter-and-greeter beamingly lives up to his job description or, anyway, the one she has given him.

‘Good morning. Mrs Lonsdale, is it?’ The shopper as celebrity. ‘Er, yes.’ ‘You’ve used Shop-and-Scan before?’

Though he will know this from the bespoke bags in her trolley.

‘Absolutely.’

‘Excellent. Any problems, though, don’t hesitate to ask me. Enjoy your shopping.’

What genius this is to make a mum on a food run feel like the Duchess of Whatever in Fortnum’s in the forties. The floorwalker is the elder brother of a boy in Josh’s Sunday-morning rugby team. Tasha knows the family slightly from fund-raising race nights and barbecues. The name badge pinned to his apron says Andrew, although he’s always Andy at the rugby club: such touches make the shop feel like the BBC of food retailers.

With Shop-and-Scan, the awful chore of the big weekly grub run is suddenly exciting. Feeling like her boys with those endless PlayStation games, she zaps each bottle or packet (or the printed label at the self-weigh fruit-and-vegetable section), expertly placing the green laser line in the dead centre of the barcode and then clicking add. Sometimes an item – this morning, the Colgate Total Toothpaste and the couscous – surprises you and the hand-set plays a little tune, like the right-answer jingle in a TV quiz show. 3-for-2 offer, reads a box that appears on the scanner’s screen, blocking out the rolling summary of her purchases.

She always feels slightly mugged by this – knowing that it’s no more than a posh version of the spivs on Oxford Street with one eye on the cops – but Tash submits to the machine’s greediness because, in a recession, it’s seems wrong to miss a bargain, although she can hear Simon’s voice saying: ‘But they made you spend more than you meant to, which must be a pretty eccentric way of saving money.’

In the Health-and-Wellbeing aisle, Tasha takes a packet of Super-Plus (her periods, though less regular, are getting heavier, a warning of the menopause, she supposes) and a box of Regular for Polly. Then she adds a pack of Durex Pleasure Me. Ridiculously, she still has to resist the urge to look guiltily round, a throwback to when she first bought contraceptives as a teenager in her home town, terrified that the priest or teachers or a family friend would see her.

Tampons and condoms: an example of contradictory shopping, like food and loo roll. No, actually, those are complimentary. Even so, she always tends to stand the toilet tissue – two sixteen-roll packs, how full of the stuff a big family is – separately in the trolley outside the bags, disliking the reminder of how all this meat, fruit, bread and vegetables will end. The sanitary products click on to the list under their brand names, but the contraceptives are recorded as Chemist Goods, a residue presumably of the religious opposition to selling them, although more likely, now, intended to allow teenagers (or adulterers?) to buy them without the evidence showing on a crumpled receipt.

She used to rely on Simon to get them, until, a couple of years ago, he started to use not having any in the bedside drawer as an excuse for not doing it. Not that providing her own supply guarantees a shagging these days.

There’s a South African Chenin Blanc at half price, so she takes six bottles. Flinching slightly at the final total, Tasha wheels her trolley to Andrew’s private Shop-and-Scan island, enjoying the superiority over the lines of shoppers waiting to have their items scanned in the old way, and then laboriously pack them. She relishes the sense of being trusted to tot up her own bill, like honesty bars in smart hotels.

Although you couldn’t call it a queue, it’s mildly annoying that, just as Tasha’s eyes meet Andrew’s welcoming smile (he’s working here on a gap year, she thinks, but it wouldn’t be very surprising, as he was Head Boy at Eastbury Manor, if they put him on the management fast-track), another self-billing customer emerges from the bottom of the Refrigerated-Items aisle and cuts in front of her towards the desk.

‘Find everything you were looking for today?’ Andrew asks the pushy woman. ‘And everything scanned okay?’

‘I think so. It’s really convenient.’

But suddenly there’s a sound Tasha hasn’t heard before in the shop: a jumble of rough percussion, not unlike the alarm call on her BlackBerry, and indeed a couple of people nearby scramble for their phones. The noise is coming, though, from the woman in front’s scanner, which is also flashing red, rather than the cool green of the bargain alert.

‘Oh my God!’ she gasps. ‘What’s it doing?’

‘Nothing to worry about, madam,’ soothes Andrew. ‘You’ve been randomly selected for a verification scan by hand. We’re looking out for teething troubles during the trial period.’

The cutter-in blushes like she’s been caught with a trolley full of vibrators and Vaseline. ‘Really? But why me?’

The voice of someone experienced in answering back to officialdom: middle-class, definitely.

‘As I say, madam, it’s purely random.’

He brandishes his own scanner in the sensitively competent manner of a radiographer. ‘If I could just start unpacking your bags, madam.’

This early in his retail career, there’s already a hint of ‘modom’, like Captain Peacock in Are You Being Served?

The blushing queue-jumper turns her trolley towards the fresh-produce section.

‘Look, do you know what?’ she tells Andrew. ‘I think I’ve just forgotten some stuff.’

Blimey O’Reilly, a shoplifter! A high-tech, keeping-quiet-about-one-of-the-bottles-from-the-honesty-bar type shoplifter, but a thief nonetheless. It would be so easy: just ‘forget’ to scan a few items, either not realizing that a checking system exists or gambling that it won’t be you.

Tasha raises an eyebrow but Andrew is too corporately responsible to reciprocate, busying himself with tapping on a keypad. Is he summoning a store detective to apprehend the blushing culprit as she hastily scans the stolen food and drink? Or will the woman simply be barred from self-pricing ever again?

Tasha centres her green line on the barcode at the exit station that declares her shopping finished. The total (she calculates how long until Simon’s payday) ghosts up on the screen and she swipes her card to settle the bill.

goodbye, mrs natasha lonsdale. we hope to see you again soon.

She likes the fact that the screen greeting even includes the vocative comma, just as the quick-service tills here are marked five items or fewer, rather than less, as some of the lessclassy supermarkets have.

Wheeling her trolley towards the car, she feels honoured and privileged to have the trust of the shop. But Tasha just hopes, startled by the echo of teachers’ words from long ago, that one wrong-doer doesn’t spoil the system for everyone.

*

Marry a chef and you get the scoop on new recipes. And, if your spouse is a concert promoter, there is surely a supply of complimentary tickets. But living with a doctor is what it must be like if your partner’s a prozzie: they came in from work determined not to do more of it at home.

If Tom had turned up at the surgery of Dr Emily Rutherford as a slightly overweight, asthmatic man of fifty-one complaining of a wheeze in his breathing and aching in his arms and legs, there would be tests and ECGs and, which is really the point, a flu jab as a precaution.

But turn to the very same Dr Rutherford at 6.45 a.m., with the alarm squealing like the life-support machine of a flat-lining patient, and report the identical symptoms and you get this brisk examination: ‘Any central chest pain or discomfort?’

‘Er, no. But I don’t think I’m having a heart attack. I think I’m going down with this new flu.’

‘If you had flu, you wouldn’t be able to get out of bed.’ ‘Well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I haven’t.’ ‘Rubbish. You went for a wee twenty minutes ago. And don’t start up about your prostate. Once in the night is fine at your age. Look, if there were a fifty-pound note on the lawn outside, would you be able to go and get it?’

They have been married so long that he remembers when Emily’s test involved a five-pound note.

‘With the amount they pay GPs now, I wouldn’t have to.’ She elbows him in the ribs with affectionate violence.

‘I do have a very slight, burning isn’t quite the word, sensation, here, in the, is this the gullet?’ he persists.

‘How much did you drink last night?’ ‘Two medium-sized glasses of red.’

‘Tom, there’s no point lying to the doctor about how much you drank when you were drinking it with the doctor. You had two-thirds of the bottle at least. I saw you tip half of my glass into yours when I was at the Aga. And, when I was taking the dogs out, you took another sneaky splash into your study.’

‘When I woke up in the night I was wheezing.’ ‘Let me listen.’

She leans across him in the dark. Both of them are holding their breath from sensitivity to morning halitosis.

‘Give me your hand,’ she says.

‘Em, I’m not well enough to do anything like that.’ ‘Ha ha. Remind me not to break a rib laughing.’

Her fingers brushing the tips of his in turn, her ear against his chest; a parody of romantic intimacy. One reason, presumably, that doctors are not supposed to treat their own families.

‘The finger thing’s to check my circulation?’ ‘Do I tell you how to be a security consultant?’

He anticipates the diagnosis because he has heard it so often before: ‘You’ll live.’

‘You always do that. When did I ever suggest I was dying? I’m worried I’m going down with something.’

‘It’s probably acid reflux. Make an appointment with Surinder.’

‘Em, if you just gave me a flu jab, I’d stop worrying about it.’

‘I’ve told you I can’t.’ ‘Why?’

‘Because you’re not in an at-risk group.’

‘Nor were some of the people who’ve died in this epidemic.’ ‘It’s not an epidemic and there are always anomalies.’

‘The relatives accept that, do they? I’m so sorry, Mrs Widow, I’m afraid they were an anomaly. How do I know I won’t be one?’

‘It’s statistically very unlikely. You’re more at risk going to London this morning.’

‘I’m not going. I’ll work from home.’ ‘Up to you. But I wouldn’t sign you off.’

‘Em, isn’t there something you can give me?’ ‘Oh, alright, yes, I suppose there is.’

Her rapid back-down surprises him. ‘Seriously?’

‘Yes. An Oscar. For this extraordinary portrayal of someone who’s got something wrong with them.’

The alarm trills its five-minute reminder. Tom lies and imagines the day ahead. He can deal with the intruder reviews for the department store and the art gallery on his laptop and prepare for the presentation to the university just as well at home as in the office.

Without the irritations of colleagues, he can have those done by noon and, after lunch (sushi from Waitrose?), while watching the week before last’s Mad Men on Sky+, he could crack on with his history of the village. With all the weekend chauffeuring (Felix’s volunteering at the hospice, Phoebe’s cross-country, Henry’s U-14 county running and rugby), it has been three weeks since he wrote a word.

He left off in the middle of the section about the Middlebury church and graveyard. Even thinking the word, he shivers involuntarily. He has reached an age when, driving past a cemetery, it is impossible not to imagine the procession you will one day lead.

Time. That is why he can’t face London today. When you are young, old people warn you of the awful speed at which life passes, but you don’t believe them until the day when you feel a desperate need to grab the hands of the clock and force them backwards, like Richard Hannay at the end of The Thirty-Nine Steps.

His father, a civil servant, used to talk of a system by which, twice a year, an employee could ring up and say that they were not coming in. Although, realistically, the organization must have been vastly over-staffed to make this benefit work, these sudden leave days were presumably intended as a protection against exhaustion and depression. Human beings are not built for treadmills. Duvet days, people had started to call them, once the quick-make bed had come to busy Britain.

While Emily showers, he listens to the news in the dark. The number of New Variant SARS cases has risen again; an MP is calling for a mass-vaccination programme. When the water stops running in the bathroom, he starts to cough loudly.

*

Their Monday-morning Pilates, Libby often tells the others, makes no sense. They exercise for an hour and then eat pastries: a perfectly self-cancelling arrangement, like an umbrella with a hole in it. Jenno Dunster, a yo-yo dieter who never quite shifted the baby fat the last time and so maybe they need to be careful with the weight references, always reddens and says that she hardly ever eats afterwards, anyway. ‘I never really feel hungry after Pilates,’ is her line, although she always seems to have room for a forkful of what other people order.

But, while Libby won’t be complaining if she loses a few pounds before Marrakesh, her trips to Middlebury Spa are more about friendship than fitness. She would never want to be busy like the blokes are – never seeing their homes in daylight or their children in any light for much of the year – but she likes the idea of a full though varied diary: that she and the other three are fitting in the gym between work (Emily, Tasha), shuttling kids around the county (toutes les femmes) and presiding as a justice of the peace (herself) or volunteering at the CAB: Jenno.

Libby tries, across the week, to get a balance between things she ought to do – presiding on the bench, fetching Deirdre Leeson’s shopping, chairing the Parish Council – and the stuff she likes to do: shopping, walking the dogs, tennis, getting The Eight together for a meal on a Friday or Saturday, or sometimes one night at someone’s and the other at someone else’s. Pilates – like the school-run and sex with Jonny (joking, joking) – occupies a middle-ground, containing stuff that is obligatory but can also be enjoyable, especially if you include the gabbing together after the exercise. The Pilates she is talking about, not the sex!

Of course, when you look at it coldly, what we call love and friendship is just a matter of who you happen to meet. She and Jonny were quite a chance couple – when you think of all that had followed from meeting in that bar in Hong Kong – but most of the people she knows had hooked up through college (Tom and Emily) or work: Max and Jenno. She isn’t sure about Simon and Tasha. Even so, there is a difference between the friends you make at school – where it tends to be types and shared interests – and the ones you add later, which is just geography. If they lived in another village – if they hadn’t bought the house in Middlebury from Jonny’s dad – she wouldn’t know any of these people.

She goes and squeezes a ball between her thighs with these three ladies every week because they live in the four big houses on the hills and all have kids at Westbury Park. A friendship of convenience, you could probably say, and it is Pippa and Pongo from Tudor Hall she’d want to speak at her memorial service, but she is really quite fond of this lot, particularly Emily and Jenno. Tasha can be tricky because the Lonsdales are a little, how shall she put it?, lighter in the pocket than the others. Tasha always says they couldn’t have afforded a private prepper, which is why her three went to the church school in the village until eleven, which, frankly, must have put them at a disadvantage, but it is all a question of priorities.

Tasha is also given to moaning that they do the same thing every Monday and should try to be a bit more spontaneous one week but, in Libby’s opinion, one of the best things about Middlebury Spa is that you know exactly where you are. In her view, change is generally a mistake, although, when she mentioned that at one of the dinner parties, Simon Lonsdale went all J’accuse on her and said, in that way he sometimes has, as if he is being really reasonable when actually he is being mean: ‘Nothing should have changed? Child chimneysweeps? Slavery? Women voting? Well, actually, in some cases, the latter . . .’ Tasha and Emily had to tell him to stop being like that.

It’s a funny thing about men and women, at least in their circles, and certainly among The Eight, that, if you showed most people photos, they’d say that the man was lucky to have landed the woman. Not the other way round. Jonny is handsome obviously and Max keeps himself trim, but the only way poor Simon Lonsdale would end up in an art gallery would be if Damien Hirst starts pickling human heads.

Her hubby’s view is that the men look older because they are worn out paying for the women to look younger. The blokes accept the march of death, he says, while the women coat their hair in creosote, as he calls it. Emily, who has this whole glad-to-be-grey flapdoodle, says there are studies suggesting that hair dye might cause brain tumours, but Libby joked that she would rather die young and raven-locked and the other girls agreed with her.

She, Tasha, Jenno and Emily arrive pretty much together, as normal. They are able to get their cars next to each other, which isn’t always possible because lazy parkers who bulge over into the next bay don’t always leave enough space for a Disco. It’s silly, but she likes it when they all park in a line. It’s one of those little signs, like ambers or greens all the way on the school run, that everything is going to be okay, although she certainly won’t be telling Tasha’s Simon her traffic-light theory of life.

They show their Gold Member cards to the check-in Pole, as normal. Nobody is quite sure why the spa seems to recruit only from Krakow, but presumably one is let in and then fixes jobs for the others. Which sounds racist, but isn’t, just an observation.

Agnes, if that is the one this one is, puts the plastic cards with those hideous against-the-wall Polaroids of them through the scanner (the girls still tease Libby for having her pass picture reshot) and hands them back, with the mechanical manners they have – ‘Thank you, Mrs Crossan, Mrs Dunster, Dr Rutherford’ – but then gives a little ‘oh’ sound, like secretaries do when the office groper gets them at the photocopier in old films, and sing-songs: ‘Oh, Mrs Lonsdale, there seems to be a membership question.’

‘Oh, really?’

Tasha is instantly teenage beetroot, which makes you feel sorry for her, even if it is completely impossible not to feel a little bit of relief mixed with glee at someone else being in trouble. Schaden-whattie. Jonny always says that it isn’t surprising, given the history, that only the Krauts have a word for enjoying other people’s suffering.

‘Yes. I am not so very sure what the problem is, Mrs Lonsdale. I go ask manager.’

‘It will be fine, Tasha. There was a problem with mine once,’ Emily says, which almost certainly isn’t true, but, if Em found herself sitting next to an amputee, she’d tuck a leg up underneath her bum in sympathy.

‘I think the shiny bit sometimes gets worn off, from rubbing too much,’ adds Jenno.

Libby can’t resist the, as it were, opening: ‘But enough about your private life, Jen!’

Which means that even Tasha is laughing when Miss Warsaw 1994 comes back and says: ‘Yes, Mrs Lonsdale, what has happened is that the payment has not been processed for the latest membership.’

Ooh-er. Poor Tash. Rather lock yourself out of the house naked than that. This is a weird one; she must tell Jonny over dinner.

‘This happens, variously, with the bank,’ Agnes-is-it goes on. ‘You have perhaps a new card. You call them, can you?’

‘Now?’ Tash looks at her watch to emphasize the inconvenience.

‘Oh, no, not necessarily, Mrs Lonsdale.’

‘Sure, I’ll text my husband as soon as we’re done here. So you can let me in today?’

‘I’m sorry? Oh, no, today I charge you the session rate. But, I’m thinking, need only be off-peak rate as is not Gold Membership time.’

You can actually see Tash going twangy-buttocked when she hands over the card for the day pass. If that bounces, then, as Jonny says, it’s Hello Harry Carey. But the machine purrs like a happy pussy (no pun intended), although the poor woman is already sweating up like she’s done an hour on the mats.

‘I’ll kill that bloody husband of mine. He’ll have forgotten to renew it, knowing him,’ Tash moans, as they choose lockers – unlike the car park, they take four spaced well out, a girl wants some elbow room with a towel – and get into their gym-jams, although Tash, as usual, has her work-out kit on under her clothes. She is always saving time, although it is never entirely clear what she does with it.

‘Is yours Joint Gold?’ Jenno asks her.

‘What? I think so. Simon does it all. Supposed to, anyway. He’s the money man.

Libby sees the opportunity to spill her top goss.

‘Ladies, that reminds me,’ she drops in. ‘The Osbornes have invited J and I to lunch at Dorneywood.’

‘Oh, I hate you!’ blurts Jenno, pleasingly. But, wouldn’t you just guess? Tasha pretends to misunderstand: ‘What? Ozzy and Sharon? Wow?’

Tasha can be very Welsh sometimes.

‘No, Natasha,’ Libby rubs it in. ‘George and Frances, at the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s weekend residence.’

‘Does Jonny know them?’ You can always rely on Emily for a sensible question.

‘Circles within circles. George just overlapped in the House with Jonny’s Pa. He was his pee-pee-something, I think.’

Even though they are late because of the border arrest, Tasha insists, before they go into the exercise room, on texting her wretched husband, speaking out the message as she jabtypes it, as if to underline his male-autism disorder: ‘Have you done gym membership?’

‘No x at the end, I take it?’ Emily wonders. Tasha growls.

The pay girl seems to work herself harder than usual during the session: probably all that adrenaline of embarrassment or perhaps because she has stumped up extra for this one herself, the way that Jonny always says you can spot someone on a plane who can’t really afford First Class because they grab every snack and glass of bubbly and are watching movies even after the landing announcement, trying to get the value from it.

Afterwards, when they are waiting for the cakes that Jenno Dunster claims she is too taut and endorphined to eat, Tasha Lonsdale suddenly says: ‘Hey, I went to the supermarket before I came here . . .’

‘The glamour of it!’ Libby wryly replies to her.

‘Behave!’ says Tasha. ‘What I was going to say is, have you tried Shop-and-Scan yet? It’s fantastic . . .’

She listens mainly on mute while Mrs Lonsdale bangs on about some honesty system and how she caught some biddy in the act of shoplifting. But it doesn’t mean much to Libby, who hasn’t actually been inside a food shop for three years.

As soon as she can, she cuts in with: ‘But it’s still shopping, which you actually physically have to go and do. We swear by the Ocado vans . . .’

‘So do we! I do the whole big weekly shop online now,’ echoes Jenno, which takes some of the gloss off it, but you can still see Tasha realizing that being your own Check-out Betty isn’t necessarily the social revolution she thinks it is.

‘Oh, dear!’ says Emily. ‘I hope they’re not trying to phase out the tills. A lot of the ladies on them are patients and the money they get makes such a difference.’

Which is Saint Em all over. Although now she suddenly says: ‘Do you think Laura’s a lesbian?’

‘You mean Trainer Laura?’ Libby checks. A nodded yes. ‘Why? Have you caught her peering up your lycra?’

‘She’s certainly a Nazi,’ Jenno complains, tenderly flexing her thigh.

‘No. Just she doesn’t seem to know much about middle-age marriage. Every week, during the Magic Circles, literally every week, she says ‘your husbands will thank me for your pelvic floors, ladies.’ I don’t think Tom would notice if mine was giftwrapped in a presentation box and handed to him.’

‘Speak for yourself!’ Libby tells her. ‘Jonny’s still like a teenage Etonian. I wake up both weekend mornings to find the old telescope prodding into my back. Sometimes weekdays as well, although he has to go so early, poor poppet.’

‘Get her!’ says Emily. Tasha and Jenno busy themselves with cake; the same slice because Jenno, as normal, hasn’t ordered any. Libby wonders, trying not to feel smug, if things are entirely right between Emily and Tom in that department, but is distracted by the text alert on her iPhone:

Bloody Virgins. Just got to London. Jumper at Watford Junction. Luckily judge delayed start. jxx

‘Poor love,’ she tells the others. ‘Somebody topped himself under Jonny’s train. Threw the Old Bailey into total chaos.’

‘Does he know it was a man?’

Sometimes Emily can go all Newsnight on you. ‘What are you on about, Ems?’

‘I was just interested. People often assume it’s men but women kill themselves as well.’

Jenno frowns. ‘Is that based on your patients?’

‘Well, obviously. Generally, I mean. I’m not talking specifics.’ Emily is super squeaky about patient confidentiality, which drives Libby mad sometimes. It is such exquisite torture to have a friend who knows which of the husbands are on Viagra, and whose kid has absolutely the wrong blood-group to really be the dad’s, and yet she never lets on. When the news was texted around about Bill Adamson’s lymphoma coming back, and Libby brought it up after Pilates, Dr Em sat there completely shtum, which is like having Colin Firth to dinner (Oh my God! he might be at Dorneywood, it’s unlikely to be just the four of them) and him pretending he doesn’t know who Mr Darcy is. Emily is actually Tasha’s own GP, which Libby couldn’t cope with. She goes private in London for muff stuff and lumps, and Dr Rafi in Eastbury for sore throats and sick kids. How can you have a good gossip after Pilates with someone who knows you came in worried once that your hubby had given you the clap after a tribunal in Hong Kong? It turned out to be something called honeymoon cystitis, which apparently happens if you go at it like the clappers after a gap, but that isn’t the point.

Jenno puts a pantomime worried face on: ‘Max is up in town today. Wonder if he was on that train?’

‘Simon went even earlier than normal,’ Tasha says. ‘So probably missed it.’

‘I’m sure they’d have told you if there was a problem,’ Libby tells them, basking in the glory of having a fully texting husband.

By ritual, after Pilates, they are in the Poolview lounge, standing out, in their civilian post-exercise clothes, from the fat trailer-trash ladies on their Pamper Days, which always sound to her as if they put you in nappies, although the costume you

actually get is a white fluffy monogrammed towelling robe. Jonny, when they, as it were, come together, always calls them Essex Gangster Molls and claims actually to have recognized a couple of the women from the public gallery at tax-fraud trials.

Sipping with twisted lips, Emily complains: ‘If this is skinny cappuccino, I’m Kylie Minogue.’

‘I have raised it,’ Libby tells her. ‘The members’ committee is aware. I’m trying to persuade them to link up with Club CappuccinGo, if they do franchises, or at least get one of the machines.’

‘Oh, yes!’ whoops Emily, in one of those moments when you see the little girl at Christmas someone used to be. ‘I meant to tell you! Tom and I have finally signed up. We got the first consignment on Friday.’

‘The Three-Continent Taster Starter Pack?’ ‘What? I think so.’

‘Did the luscious Justin bring it?’ ‘Jen, he’s called Jason.’

‘Who cares what his name is?’ Libby cuts in. ‘He can lick my froth off anytime!’

‘Urrgh!’ groans Tasha. ‘Mental-image delete!’

‘Even with Jonny’s telescope in your back every morning?’ asks Emily.

‘I think with Simon,’ Tasha says. ‘It’s more like a key-ring.’ Tasha definitely has this bitter Welsh streak sometimes, which isn’t just about money. To shift the mood, Libby joketoasts Emily with her spa-logo cup, saying: ‘Excellent, we’re all members of the coffee club now.’

‘I hope there’s not an induction ritual,’ Emily frets. ‘Like at school.’

‘Well, they do take off your arm and your leg,’ Libby warns her. Pause for effect. ‘Though only through Visa card.’

Everyone laughs.

‘You know what, though?’ Libby says. ‘Jonny and I are already getting a bit bored with Club CappuccinGo. We’re desperate to try that coffee that’s shat out by those catlike things that are fed beans by Tibetan monks. Civets, is it? You can order it from Fortnum’s, apparently.’

‘Seriously?’ queries Tasha. ‘You’re drinking dissolved animal droppings?’

‘I think so. But don’t pull that face. Caviar is fish menstruation.’

‘Not exactly,’ says sensible Emily. They do the children for ten minutes.

‘Did I tell you that Tilly has made County Under-17 at 100 and 200?’ Libby asks. ‘Although she still won’t thank me for persuading her to drop the middle distances. I’ve always known she was a sprinter, just like I was. And Plum has got Under-15 trials next Tuesday. Oh, and Emily, did I tell you, we’ve fixed up to look round Valecroft next week?’

‘Oh, really?’ Jenno is the one she’d expected to pick up on that. ‘Are you thinking of taking him away?’

‘We’ve talked about it. Westbury Park has a lovely atmosphere but we’re not sure they’re pushing Lucas enough.’

‘Oh. Well he is only eight, Libs,’ Jenno comes back. ‘Jamie was away with the fairies half the time when he was at the prepper, but since he got into the seniors they’ve bucked him up. Rosie’s always been focused right through, but girls are so different. They do everything quicker.’

‘Except coming!’ jokes Libby. Tasha rolls her eyes and the other two don’t seem to understand.

‘I’m a great believer in horses for courses,’ says Tasha. ‘I think Polly would have knuckled down anywhere. But the discipline of WP has brought the best out of Josh and Henry . . .’

Everyone agrees that they are all lucky to have a mix of boys and girls. Those families where it is all one or the other must get a bit samey.

This is a ball Libby should run with: ‘I pinch myself sometimes for having two of each. Jonny always says, if it had been four girls, we wouldn’t have got in the bathroom for eighteen years. Four boys, and there’s no one to look after you in old age. I know there are lots of theories about vinegar douches – ew! – and so on, but this was just how they, as it were, came out. What I was saying about Lucas and WP is that he’s a brilliant kid, in his way, but he’s not another Hugo, certainly not in Maths. Hugo’s got his Cambridge—’

But she never gets to do Hugo and uni because Tasha, wouldn’t you know it?, cuts in and, after that, it’s lah lah lah on everybody else’s lot. Libby listens on skip, mainly. Tasha and Simon’s Polly has decided on biochemistry and really liked Leeds when she looked round. Emily says it is top of her Felix’s list for medicine as well, and they joke a bit about a possible romance. Tasha says she’s worried that Josh is getting too close to this girl at school, Jessica, and is it time to say something? Emily says that they slipped a box of Durex into Phoebe’s knicker drawer when she was fifteen or so and she’d stormed downstairs, in a right bate, saying they had filthy minds and were treating her like some crack whore from Northbury estate, so you couldn’t win. They trade news of riding rosettes for Rosie, Tilly, Phoebe and Plum, although, as Libby points out, it seems pretty devalued these days. Pretty much everybody gets a ribbon as long as horse and rider come back with six legs between them.

‘I’d better run,’ says Jenno. ‘It’s a volunteer afternoon. And it’s not going to be much fun with all the deaths.’

Oh my God, what have I missed? Had there been a massacre in Middlebury?

‘The deaths?’ she echoes. ‘What? I . . . no, debts, I said.’

Tasha Lonsdale laughs and says something like ‘clart-lugs’ or some such regional vulgarity.

‘It didn’t sound like debts,’ Libby objects, hitting the ‘t’ and silent ‘b’ crisply. ‘It’s your slovenly pronunciation, Jenno. You’ve started talking this sort of mockney, darling.’

‘No, I haven’t. ’Aven’t. I really don’t know what you’re on about sometimes, Libs.’

‘Not so fast, Mrs Dunster,’ Libby says in her Los Angeles cop voice. ‘We haven’t fixed anything for Friday or Saturday.’

On Friday, the Dunsters are seeing other (unspecified) friends in Chipping Norton, so they settle on Saturday for the next gathering of The Eight, Libby hostessing. Jenno leaves to work among the poor.

‘Now, Tasha,’ Libby changes the subject. ‘I need to talk to you about an urgent charitable mission to help the economy of Africa . . .’

*

Most mornings, straight off the train, whether he’s walking to the courts or the set, Jonny buys something at the fruit stall on the Euston Road. The first time he saw it, years before, he was puzzled by this confusion of country and town, the petrol fumes from the grid-locked road somehow diluted by the sweet bouquet of oranges (always the strongest tang), apples, plums and strawberries, set out like over-sized gems on trays lined with blue tissue paper. Under the grey winter sky and light, the harvest gleams like coloured light bulbs. Glossy clementines, with their leaves intact, look as bright as the traffic lights beyond. ‘What will it be today, young man?’ asks the junior of the two proprietors, Mediterranean Londoners, looking like father and son, of whom Jonny thinks as Geezer 1 and Geezer 2.

Only the younger man is here today, standing in a wooden hut with a hinged flap at the top, like a Punch and Judy box, above an angled fold-out shelf crammed with the boxes of produce. Alongside the fruits pictured in a child’s alphabet book, there are sometimes more exotic offerings: paperyskinned Chinese pears, knobbly lychees.

A trembling at his breast and then the winter fiddling of answering a phone call with gloved hands.

‘Good morning, Mr Crossan,’ resounds the booming oldLondon voice of his clerk, a terrible loss to televised Dickens.

‘Victor?’

‘Sir, the excellent Miss Hannah Dunn at Burlingham Masham Fitch wishes to retain our services in the matter of an emergency anonymized injunction application.’

‘Do we know the client?’

‘Er, yes, sir . . . one Sir Adrian King-Jones.’

The identification byte on Jonny’s mental hard-drive whirrs. ‘The banker?’

‘Indeed, I believe so. Opposing the publication by a newspaper of the details of a relationship.’

‘He’s the boss of a chum, as it happens. But I can’t believe that debars me. Who’s the duty beak?’

‘Er, Skinner, I believe.’

‘Ah! Onward, Christian judges! Not who you want on a legover app. It’s not a CFA, is it?’

‘Miss Dunn is very familiar with our views on conditional fees, sir.’ Against the worrying trend towards no-win-no-fee agreements, Jonny holds to the old religion of no-fee-no-chance. ‘The arrangements are entirely satisfactory.’

‘Okay, we’re on.’

‘Court 13, 2 p.m. She’ll send the bundle round to chambers.’ Since his twenties, when he began to earn regularly, Jonny has imagined his income as an inflatable cushion – something like a bouncy castle, green in colour – holding him above the ground and keeping him from hurt. School fees, Cotswolds cottages, new cars, safaris or skiing holidays flatten the billowing pillow, until a run of decent briefs re-inflates it. The rush of alpha males gagging newspapers has left him feeling that he is bouncing skyscraper-high. Jonny has fast become acknowledged as the master of convincing judges of the privacy of sinning.

He dizzyingly thinks that he is easily rich enough to buy the fruit stall and relocate it in his garden, where Geezer 1 and Geezer 2 could be exclusively employed providing smoothies and fruit salads for him and Libby and the squids. But Jonny begins with a more modest investment. His mouth feeling, for some reason, dry, he points to the juiciest-looking fruit.

‘Some clems? Good choice, young man.’ Have any customers, he wonders, ever been criticized for their selections, or addressed as elderly? ‘A pound okay?’

They got over the jokey confusion between weight and price long ago. Geezer 2 tips the glowing globes on to the scales and squints until the pound line settles. Jonny should doubtless make a citizen’s arrest under metric law, but the stubborn continuation of imperial measures is one of the pleasures of this farmland mirage in the stinking middle of the city.

The clementines are handed to him in a brown paper bag, twisted at the corners like the hankie-sunhat of a factory worker at the seaside.

‘Have a good day, young man.’

‘And you,’ Jonny generously tells his future employee.

Crossing opposite the big new hospital, he splits the saggy skin of one fruit, so richly orange that it is nearly tinged with red. Flinching as the juice stings a hang-nail, he pops the whole oval in his mouth, crushing the segments between teeth and tongue and sensually sluicing the juices towards his throat: citruslingus.

As the thirst subsides, he feels confident, wanted, rich. Striding ahead, he symbolically overtakes two chaps in anoraks with rucksacks, dawdling towards whatever jobs they have.

*

The advantage of getting a train back at lunchtime is that First Class is often almost empty, the smart compartments’ main business coming around the two seven o’clocks. So Max, going home, gets a level of comfort and service more common on planes than trains. One scarlet-coated Virgin gives him his complimentary evening paper – less of a perk now that they hand them out for free to every Londoner – while another dispenses snacks (he hopes that no Italian tourist will ever sample what they call ciabatta) and a third, although she might on reflection be the paper girl coming round again, pours the wine.

Clumsily. She can’t open the screw-top bottle and has to get the other one to help, not that she seems much more up for it. It’s like watching a pair of pterodactyls trying to feed a parking meter. Who had said that about something once? Simon Lonsdale. You worry about what he might say when you are out of the room, but it is bloody funny to be in it with him.

‘Sorry it’s taking so long, sir. We’re as bad as each other.’

Max tries to flash them the smile he has in the best family photographs. ‘Really, no problem. No. That’s absolutely fine. Don’t worry. I can wait.’

At least, alone at a tabled four, he gets the first glass from a bottle of perfectly drinkable Merlot. Although Saffer wines don’t really ring his bell and this one might have benefited from breathing.

Only one other bloke in the whole of Coach D. In jeans and an American athletics-club shirt, he doesn’t obviously have the look of a First Class passenger. Sometimes Standard rabble gamble on there being no inspection, scuttling back to the cheap seats if they hear the shout for tickets and passes. The Stumble of Shame. Crossan occasionally challenges them, like some barrister’s equivalent of a citizen’s arrest, but Jonny is bonkers like that and, anyway, has had to back down in the past. The IT sector has broken the dress-code: tycoons and interns wear the same uniform now.

His iPhone rattles on the table. This is technically a Quiet Zone but only a total bozo would object to tremble.

Rosie: Daddy, i’ve found one!!!!!!!! Xxxxx.

The emoticon of the smiley winking yellow face – only the young really know how to use them – plus a URL to web-pages full of pages of grinning horses, one of them highlighted by his daughter as ideal. He reads the Standard – heavy December snowfall forecast, alert over killer bug, the UK’s terrorism alert level raised to imminent – then retrieves the FT from his briefcase and tries to concentrate on the columns of figures, but finds himself staring out of the window. This distraction from work is a flashback to exams at school, although not the red-breasted woman hovering to refill his glass of Merlot. He should say no but, fuck it, he’s fitter and thinner now than twenty years ago. He will burn it off later, with Barry.

Flipping open his laptop with an efficient flourish, he fleetingly sees himself from outside, as you sometimes do: the successful businessman with no minute to waste. The other bloke is on the opposite side of the opposite table, so won’t be able to see his screen. Good. He opens the folder and goes to work.

Deeney has one more game of his three-match ban to serve after the red card at Plymouth, so Max is short of options for the cup replay at Watford. There’s Zola, his record signing, but he hasn’t scored in four and is averaging 6.22 performance rating, which doesn’t go near to justifying his fee.

He clicks up the position stats on Harrison, his mercurial play-maker. The much-travelled attacking midfielder is categorized ‘adequate’ as a forward. Holding a slug of the cherryish wine on his tongue while he thinks, Max decides to go 4– 4–1–1, with Harrison in the hole off Zola and the young lad Carter on the bench as an impact sub if they’re trailing in the later stages.

Watford are up and at them from the whistle and hit the bar from a free kick in the seventh minute. Max notices that the fitness level of Burton, the left centre-back, has dropped to 54 per cent and is thinking of bringing him off as a precaution, when the red cross injury icon flashes up on the screen and he has to replace him.

It’s even-stevens at the break and the lads’ energy levels are all good, so he decides not to change anything. On sixty-seven minutes, Jacobs skins their left-back and crosses. Zola heads it down for Harrison to drive past the despairing Hornets’ stopper.

Sharing the moment with the fans in the away end to his left, Max punches the air and cannot be certain that he doesn’t shout aloud as well. The IT guy looks up, surprised, from the thin slice of aluminium he’s tapping.

So 0–1 up away, with twenty-three plus maybe three or four on the fourth official’s board to go. It’s looking good but, with only three of the ninety minutes left, Harris, the substitute centreback, brings down Sordell in the area and, although it’s thankfully only a yellow not a red, so he won’t face going into extra with just ten, the big striker coolly converts the penalty himself to bring the home side level.

‘Fuck!’ Max fails to stop himself saying audibly, and his pulse and guts react as if he has had actual bad news.

‘Uh-oh! Are the markets jumpy?’ asks the other First Class passenger. ‘I’m offline at the moment. Otherwise I don’t get anything done.’

‘What? Oh, no. Just emails. You know, bollocks from the office.’

‘Now there’s a growth industry. What line are you in?’

Max covers the pause with a swirl of Merlot. ‘The luxury gift sector.’

‘Uh, right. Well, I’ll not disturb you anymore.’

They’re already at Leighton Buzzard when it goes to penalties. The helplessness is hardest. In the Subbuteo he played as a boy, the match was in your own hands, well, fingers. But these games are like watching an airport departure board, the outcome driven by software.

The first three for each side are converted, but then Mackay blasts over the bar for them and, though Smith nets the next, so do Akinfenwa and Carter (talk about nerve for a 16-year-old on his debut!) for us and we’re through to the next round.

Jenno says he is addicted to the game and always makes the saddo face when he double-tasks with it while they watch the 10 o’clock news. But it’s his relaxation. As he gets older, he can see football-simulation games gradually replacing drinking and sex.

Max’s banging on the table prompts his fellow traveller to say: ‘Some good news, then? Give me the name and I might invest.’

‘What? Oh, we’re not listed. It’s a family business.’

As Max stands up to obey the instruction to make sure he has all his belongings with him on leaving the train, the chatterbox in the t-shirt says: ‘Cheers. Good to meet you.’

Does this kind of thing go on back in Standard? He doubts it. The point is that they are The Few.

*

The Michaelmas term meeting of the Hardship Committee has been a total nightmare to arrange. Libby had to cascade at least four round-robin emails before they settled on a date. Jack Bracken was in Singapore on business on the two dates that Fi Irving-Law and Claire Upton could do and, just when she thought she had the ducks in a row, it turned out the Uptons were planning a sneaky weekend in Mauritius, taking Oscar and Honey out of school on a Thursday and Friday, which they didn’t really want to flag up to Dr Welling, whose three days at a Heads’ conference in Wiltshire didn’t help the logistics either, and Libby isn’t the type to dob them in.

But here they all are at last, over coffee from a jar and bourbon biscuits, sitting on the hard sofas in the head’s office. There’s a sense of urgency because Jack Bracken’s driver is outside, waiting to whisk him straight to Heathrow after the meeting. He’s off to Denver for a sales conference but says he is quietly hopeful of some quality time on the slopes. When Libby sympathizes about jet lag, he says he hasn’t even recognized the concept since he started restricting himself to isotonic drinks and protein on the westward legs, carbohydrate and ionized water when going east. Declining tea and biccies, he produces from his briefcase a plastic bottle of Evian in a chill-sleeve.

‘Over to you, Libby,’ says Welling, after the usual flapdoodle about how grateful he and the school are for the time, discretion and money they put into dealing with these delicate matters.

‘Thank you, Headteacher,’ Libby begins. ‘And to all of the committee for being here. This time, it sometimes felt as if one was organizing a small war!’ When the laughter has subsided, she continues: ‘Let’s begin – as usual – with the financial position. Our contingency fund has taken a hit on the stock market like everyone else . . .’

‘Tell me about it,’ grimaces Jack Bracken.

‘Jeremy says he’s never known the City this jittery,’ adds Fi Irving-Law.

But,’ Libby cuts in firmly, ‘sensible investment means that we should certainly be able to make disbursements at the level of recent terms, and even beyond that, if required.’

Using words like disbursements and balancing her reading glasses halfway up her nose in a manner she began as a magistrate, Libby feels transformed, judicial. She smiles at Dr Welling over her spectacles. ‘At which point, Tom, perhaps you should tell us if default rates remain fairly constant?’

The head makes a suction noise with his lips like one of those grey rubber wine-stoppers popping out. ‘Would that I could, Libby. Would that I could. Many, many heads were saying at conference last week that they’ve never known times like these. The bursar has shown me some of the settlements we get. A single envelope containing several cheques from different people – grandparents, godparents, presumably – and even amounts made out to other people and counter-signed to the school account. In fact, Mr Mobbs tells me that two bills were paid – in an absolute first – entirely in cash. He didn’t want to ask too many questions . . .’

‘If they brought in tax relief on school fees,’ Jack Bracken says, ‘there’d be less temptation to keep things off the books.’

Dr Welling makes his snogging noise again. ‘I hear what you’re saying, Jack. But fat chance of that, with politicians nibbling away at the charitable status of schools like ours.’

In the seven general elections of her enfranchised life, Libby has voted Conservative and, having lived for two decades in a constituency where Colonel or Scruff could get elected if they had a blue rosette pinned to their collars, can never quite believe that the governments resulting from these polls have been three Tory and three Labour and now this Frankenstein’s monster botch-together with the Liberals. But, secretly, she feels uneasy when people like Jack Bracken or Dr Welling (or Max Dunster) suggest that the system is unfair to people like them. She has never dared ask how a fee-paying school qualifies as a charity. ‘You’re pulling a face, Libby,’ says the head, although she hasn’t realized that she is. ‘But I made a speech at conference on this very topic. The popular idea that we educate the offspring of a super-rich elite is increasingly comical. I’ve got more students on fee-deferral and phased payments than I think I’ve ever had before, frankly, although – hopefully – most of those will never reach this committee. The families will make sacrifices and cobble something together, as so many do. And what are these hardship grants, if not charity?’

Libby can hear Jonny saying, as he often does, that if you haven’t got the money for the fees, you shouldn’t be sending your children to the school. But Libby, who has always assumed that she would be among the first to be shot in a workers’ revolt, takes a more tolerant view.

‘Tom,’ she says, ‘perhaps you should open the file?’

The names surprise her, as they usually do. Families (the Brocklehursts, the Fenton-Chambers), who seemed wealthy and secure, even enviably so, are seeking hardship grants of up to 100 per cent of the fees. Some of the reasons are timeless – a parent’s sudden death or serious illness or the division of resources through divorce – but mainly the pleas result from bankruptcy or a slump in business.

As they consider the applications, Libby’s panel adopt their characteristic positions. Jack Bracken snappily analyses the cause of shortfall – ‘Another fool seduced by the dotcom mirage’, ‘perfectly workable idea but two years late to market’ – while Claire Upton seems shocked at the possibility of anything ever going wrong (‘Wasn’t he up for an Oscar not that long ago?’) and Fi Irving-Law is keen to make the payouts dependent on educational performance: ‘Doesn’t Jolyon Brocklehurst have a history of being disruptive? India and Finn have certainly given me that impression.’

At the end of ninety minutes, they have made eight disbursements from a total of twelve applications. Although Jack argued that the Macnees were simply punching above their social weight – the cash-flow statement required in support of each claim reveals that the fees were always more than 40 per cent of their disposable income – Dr Welling persuaded the committee to take them, as they were just the kind of deserving cases who might be useful with the charity commissioners.

The funds are available to meet all of the dozen claims but Libby’s view, which Fi and Jack endorse, is that the process will be weakened if every applicant is satisfied: the best education must remain a privilege rather than a right. As a result, Jolyon Brocklehurst, Callum Robinson and Holly and Giles Parker-Stiles will be asked to leave Westbury Park unless the outstanding fees are paid or the head feels able to agree a further deferral.

With Jack glancing pointedly out of the window at the gravel where his chauffeur waits, Libby stresses the need to tap their backers for another round of donations. The Eight will again be asked to dig deep, or more likely The Six, as the Lonsdales are so stingy. (A simple fact, nothing to do with Simon being Jewish at all, any more than Tasha being Welsh.)

‘I think it’s high time my good friend Max Dunster made another contribution to our coffers,’ Libby says.

Kissing himself on the lips again, Welling says: ‘Well, whoever, wherever. As always, the school is enormously grateful to the committee and its donors.’

Jack Bracken stands. ‘A humbling experience, as ever. But I have to – as it were – fly.’

He sends a text and, almost at once, they hear a car engine starting up outside.

*

Eventually, concerned about arriving late, she opts for a black cashmere sweater with stone-washed jeans. She puts on – then takes off – her tenth-anniversary brooch from Max. Checking herself in the walk-in wardrobe’s mirror, it strikes Jenno that she only needs a black woollen hat to look like a burglar. She next reflects that this might be an appropriate garb for many of her clients, then mentally slaps her wrist for such an awful thought.

It’s always a challenge, choosing outfits for CAB afternoons. Pearls would always be obscured by your lanyard. And you don’t want to look too much like a consultant paediatrician or a magistrate (which, again, some customers might – stop it, Jenno!). Words frequently repeated on the training course were ‘approachable’ and ‘sympathetic’. For this reason, Jenno drives there in the shopping Beetle, still with a scratch on the passenger side, from when Max scraped the Crossans’ gate, because she’s self-conscious about parking the four-wheel or the sportster outside the branch.

She also registered as ‘Jenny’, which she accepts nowhere else, not just because her pet-name sounds posh, but because she dreads beginning every consultation with an explanation or correction. Conscious that some colleagues view her as a rich man’s do-gooding wife, she is terrified of being taken as a visiting dignitary. Coming into the staff room unexpectedly to get a throat lozenge from her bag – volunteers, early on, make their throats raw with all the talking – she is sure she heard the words ‘Lady Muck’ hanging in the air.

Another aspect of her class camouflage is drinking without a flinch the filthy Nescafé the volunteers club together to keep beside the kettle. She is staunchly sipping at it now, as her first customers of the day are shown over. They are a morbidly obese bloke and a fat or pregnant woman, who, walking side by side like a bride and bridegroom, fill most of the wide aisles between the desks, designed for the significant percentage of inquirers who use mobility scooters.

The man holds like a shield the laminated number-card that marked their position in the queue. The woman is pushing a buggy, through the dripping rain-hood of which can be seen a chubby child, stoppered with a dummy. Despite her precautionary wardrobe, Jenno still feels overdressed, as they unzip glistening rainproofs to reveal a pink fleece for her and trackie bottoms and an over-stretched red football shirt (Manchester? Arsenal?) for him. She should feel lucky. Apparently, last week, Sue Booth had a couple in onesies under quilted coats. Her clients shake themselves like dogs and water pours on to the floor.

‘The rain is one thing we can’t help you with,’ Jenno smiles. ‘Scuse me? No, you’re all right,’ says the female of the species. On the training course, she inwardly yawned at the suggestion that the climate could be a perfect ice-breaker but, in her two years at the bureau, has come to the conclusion that the weather is the one thing the English have in common. ‘I’m Jenny,’ says Jenno. ‘What should I call you?’

The woman points at herself – ‘Mandy’ – and then jerks a thumb at the man: ‘Danny’.

In most of the couples she has dealt with, it is the woman who takes the lead, both in speaking and deciding to seek advice. Jenno was originally tempted to see this as evidence of female superiority, although experience suggests a more pragmatic explanation; the mother, in so many of the family units they see, is the only one with a link to all the other members.

‘And who’s that hiding away in there?’ Jenno asks, pointing at the plastic shroud. Although she hates it when the girls tease her about it, she is conscious of taking down her accent, like Tony Blair.

‘That’s Gavin,’ says the family spokeswoman.

‘Good as gold, isn’t he?’ Jenno says. ‘Now, what did you want to talk to us about?’

‘Like the Gas put us on to yer? And the bank obviously,’ says Mandy. ‘They say yer can help with paying and that?’

In the branch’s most recent audit, 60 per cent of inquiries involved debt and benefits, up by a fifth on the previous year.

‘You have a problem with debts?’ Jenno checks. ‘With . . . ? Yeah.’

Danny aggressively nods assent.

‘Mandy,’ Jenno asks. ‘Have you received any final demands or court orders?’

A fine spray of rainwater hits the desk as the woman rummages at the rear of the stroller. In various stages, she pulls out pieces of paper that have come out of windowed envelopes as obviously as birds burst out of shells. Jenno spreads the letters across the desk, creating symmetrical lines of red print and perforated tear-sheets that remain untorn. Gas, Electricity and broadband, she rapidly establishes, have been unpaid for months and are threatened with disconnection. A bank account has been frozen for longer than the bills have been ignored. It is a depressingly familiar pattern; the only upside she can see is that they might be too dodgy to have put much on plastic.

‘Do you have any credit cards?’ she asks, realizing she is making the shape of a rectangle with her fingers. With so much of what she says meeting blankness, she often finds herself trying such mimes.

‘We don’t have none now,’ Mandy says. ‘But we have one of them loans, obviously.’

Obviously. Oh, dear. With whom . . . ‘Who is the loan with?’ Another sheaf of papers from behind the child. Jenno is surprised by neither the name of the online loan-shark nor the extortionate APR. She rubs her hands together, feeling the dried residue of the antiviral foam she applies in the branch bathroom before sessions.

‘Okay. Mandy and . . .’ Without losing the eye-line, she manages a blurred check of the man’s name on her notepad. ‘Danny. The first thing we need to do is to draw up a budget sheet . . .’ She brings an empty template up on her screen. ‘That’s just a list of what you’ve got coming in and going out, so we can see where we are. I’m afraid the first part is a bit boring . . .’

Fust. Bih. She must sound like a bad audition for EastEnders. She takes the names – Turville for him, Walters for her – and address: the estate she expected.

‘And is it just the three of you living there?’

‘No. I’ve got three . . . from before. So has he, but they live with the mums. Well, obviously one’s in care. Gavin’s arse . . .’

What? Oh, ours. ‘And your other three, Mandy, are they at home?’

‘No.’

The inevitable pattern, again. ‘Ah, I see. Are they in care?’ ‘Where?’

‘What are the arrangements for the other children?’ ‘Well, they’re at school.’

‘At least we hope they are.’ Danny speaks for the first time, revealing jagged teeth with gaps between. He’s ogling Jenno’s boobs, in a way she’s not used to men doing so openly. ‘Her Kevin could be anywhere.’

‘Oi, not funny, fella,’ Mandy rebukes him.

Jenno can feel her face aflame with the shame of having fallen into two of the traps – assumption and judgement – against which her training and appraisals regularly warn.

‘I’m sorry. I got hold of the wrong end of . . .’ ‘Easily done, darling,’ leers Danny.

‘So there are six of you living at this address?’

‘Yeah. Yeah, definitely,’ says Mandy. ‘And obviously I’ve another on the way.’

Jenno often thinks that they should hand out condoms as well as advice. She runs through the incomings – housing benefit, child benefit, heating grant, jobseeker’s allowance – and the outgoings: utilities, food, clothes, car loan, Sky-broadband sub, entertainment and, it turns out, from another roll of threatening letters pulled from the buggy, four unsecured loans from web lenders. At a rough estimate, the couple are down by several hundred pounds a week, a debt always accelerating with the menacingly leveraged interest. However, she notes, there are three or more children under nineteen living on benefits, which qualifies the household for the tap bonanza.

‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Well, the first good news is that we can get your water costs capped.’

She enjoys revealing these jackpots hidden within the state’s provision for its weakest subjects, although Mandy and especially Danny look less gratified than she had hoped.

‘Okay,’ she says. ‘What we need to do now . . .’

Mandy’s midriff starts singing ‘Chasing Pavements’. Eventually, she locates the sound in the folds of nylon and pulls out an iPhone. Squinting at the ID on screen, she silences the ring-tone and says: ‘Sorry, doll. I’ll have to call you back . . .’ A gruff guffaw. ‘I fucking wish . . .’

The contracts for the phones, Jenno guesses, are either included under Entertainment or, more likely, not mentioned at all.

‘Okay,’ she says. ‘We need to work out a schedule of payments you can afford – especially for the loans and the gas and electricity bills. Most companies are actually pretty reasonable if you can pay a little a bit now and show willing . . .’ Although, as she says this, she suspects that the only real solution for the pair on the other side of the desk is to start fraudulently claiming benefits in the names of several dead relatives and a few invented identities as well, if indeed they haven’t already. ‘But first we need to see if we can get your out-goings down a little bit as well. I’m going to put two columns on this sheet of paper – luxuries and necessities . . .’

‘Can’t we just have our money?’

Although not quite a shout, Danny’s tone is loud enough for other advisors and customers to look in their direction. Jenno takes note of the position of the branch supervisor. She has not yet had a violent client herself, but there are stories. Karen Bartlett once got to her BMW convertible to find a guy she had just lectured on extravagance standing beside it, which is one reason Jenno always drives the Beetle here. Although, in all honesty, her biggest problem so far has been male clients giving her the eye; she’s young enough to be the daughter of most of the other volunteers, which is understandable, as most people only have time to put something back in retirement.

‘I’m sorry, Danny?’

‘I don’t fucking get this, Jenny.’ He speaks her name like he’s saying the c-word. ‘What I thought was you’d give us our grant today, like. We’ve gotta get back for the bairns.’

Maybe Our Grant would be a good name for their next bairn.

‘Oh, no, no, no,’ says Jenno, starting a laugh that she tries to swallow and hating how posh she sounds. I’m afraid that’s not quite. No. ‘We don’t give out loans. That’s not what we are. We help you to . . .’ – maximize, no – ‘. . . make sure you’re getting all the money you’re entitled to and sort out a payment plan for people you owe money to.’

‘Told you this was a fucking waste of space, Mand,’ spits Danny, then turns to face Jenno. ‘Bet you could give us what we need, Jenny, if yer just sold that fucking rock on yer finger . . .’ She instinctively cups her right hand over her engagement ring, the one piece of jewellery it had never occurred to her to remove before coming here. She resists the sting of tears physically, like trying to keep down a hiccup. What shocks her is the unfairness of it all.

*

The price paid for taking the earlier, empty train is the heavier traffic heading from the station. On the ramp to the dual carriageway, he’s cut up by a black Beamer X5 and, first chance he gets, does a fuck-you overtake, with his fist hitting the horn and a finger jabbing at the driver who turns out to be a great slab of a man with a shaven pate, mercifully a white guy but, for a while, it looks like he might give chase. Max only relaxes when three successive glances in the rear-view mirror show no trace of the SUV. His pulse is almost normal when he reaches Dunster Manor.

The torturer is waiting in reception, flexing his knees and buttocks as he sits. In the way that the eyes of a bodyguard permanently swerve, Barry’s muscles always seem to be twitching.

‘Evening, boss,’ the thug greets Max. ‘Barry.’

‘Am I going to cause you pain tonight, boss.’ ‘Oh, good.’

How stereotypical that conversation sounds: brutal South African, wimpy English.

‘Good evening, Mr Dunster.’

Max turns to the desk. The new girl. Having already switched from his driving to his work glasses, he has to lean and peer to just about make out her name badge.

‘Becky. Hi.’

He is about to tell her that she should call him Max and can come to him with any settling-in issues, when he is interrupted by Steve Pearson appearing through the swing doors from Production, overcoat collar up and the fur-trapper’s hat he bought on that sales trip to Canada pulled down almost to his nose against the predicted snow.

They do the name-swap and then Steve asks him: ‘Was it okay?’

‘What?’

‘London. The appointment.’

‘Oh, yeah. I’m afraid the doctors had rather bad news . . .’ ‘Shit. Really? Max . . .’

‘For you lot. You’re stuck with me in charge until I’m ninety, apparently. I, no pun intended, maxed every test.’

‘Excellent news, MD. And nine tomorrow is okay for our routine?’

‘Absolutely. Written on my heart.’

‘I’ve run the figures for the next twelve months.’

‘Good. Can you mail them to me and I’ll have a look tonight?’

He changes in the private bathroom that his father installed. You’d struggle to get that sort of corporate indulgence past an FD now, even during boom years. In this bust, they are lucky Steve still authorizes urinals.

Max enjoys the ritual of robing: like a soldier, astronaut or pope. The swooshes on the beanie, sweatshirt, trackies, socks and trainers form a line of ticks down his body, resembling a check-list on a foreman’s clipboard. There is a physical pleasure n swapping the stiff, shaped fabrics of business suit and shirt for the wafting softness of running kit.

In reception, the hyperactive Barry is now jogging on the spot, chatting to Becky the receptionist. Max wonders if the trainer has hit on her. Chat-ups must be easier if you have the body as a professional topic.

‘You know what, boss, I’m disappointed in you!’ Barry shouts. ‘Only fucking wimps run in trousers. Never mind how many fucking minus degrees it is, my knees feel the breeze. Forgive the curse-words, Becky. It’s the only language these people understand.’

Barry’s tactic is that Max should never be able to guess what the hour will contain. (‘If our bodies know what’s coming, they put their feet up. We gotta take them by surprise.’) The warmup, though, is mandatory: step-ups on the stone bench at the entrance to the Business Park; crunches and twists on the grass beside it, regardless of how hard or cold the ground is.

‘Boss, did I hear you telling your colleague you’d seen a doctor today?’

‘What?’ Max asks upwards from between his feet, straightening to add: ‘Oh, yes. Medical in London. My so-called Key Man insurance policy.’

‘Okay, long as it was that. Just bad for business if one customer drives past and sees me kneeling giving CPR to another.’

Barry hands him a twin of the hi-vis jacket he is wearing himself: he insists on this for winter sessions.

‘Little risk of that, Barry, from what they say. Touch . . . stone. In fact, I guess I have you to thank for my scores in the tests.’

‘Flattery won’t let you off the pain, lard boy. Come on, let’s run.’

Very occasionally, Jenno has come along for a double session – Barry offered a twofer but Max insisted on paying double – and was shocked by the savage way they were addressed. Personal trainers are civilian sergeant majors, she said. But it’s worse than the army. In the fitness business, social hierarchies are completely overturned. In how many other professions do employees get to shriek belittling insults at their employers?

‘Come on, you fucking city large-arse. Let’s get some of that fat-cat fat off you,’ Barry spits as they begin a sprint–jog–walk sequence, the increasingly irregular transitions signalled by blasts from a whistle on a black-and-yellow string around his tormentor’s neck. Dragon breath spouts from their mouths as they set off in the freezing air. Intermittently, they pass what seems to be a street-fight but turns out to be another CEO and his trainer kickboxing.

‘Mrs Dunster might like love-handles, but not love-banisters!’ Barry barks.

During the early sessions, Max had vomited in the later stages of the circuits, as the gaps between the sprints decreased. Barry had stood grinning beside him, like a sadistic parent, until the last sour strings dribbled out. Now, it never got worse for Max than becoming slightly wheezy or spaced.

The first painful, then pleasurable sensation of running in sub-zero temperatures: the freeze in your feet and cheeks slowly thawed by the glow flowing through your blood, like the children centrally heated by their breakfast cereal in those TV commercials of long ago.

During one of the gentler stretches, Barry asks, as Max tries to match his rolling, almost balletic rhythm: ‘Business good?’

‘Well, as the prime minister keeps insisting, we’re all in this together. But we seem to be ahead of the curve in our sector.’

Right?’ Barry has a default tone of belligerent scepticism, for which, alone, Max would never have employed him in any capacity except exerciser. ‘I thought new technology would be the problem for your guys.’

‘Well, sure. But we diversified.’

Right? To stay ahead? You know what: that’s a motto I approve of.’

Blowing his whistle, the South African sadist races off towards the darkened rises of Westbury Park, shouting over his shoulder: ‘Come on, Lord Fucking Snooty. Let’s burn off all that claret and cigars.’

Sometimes he wonders if Barry is an anarchist who has found a more enjoyable form of anti-capitalist protest than smashing in the windows of American coffee chains in Oxford Street.

*

Natasha gets into bed with Simon determined to raise it. Libby Crossan would turn that into some kind of innuendo but, personally, Tasha finds double entendres a bit school-age.

She had planned to ask at supper but the conversation was frosty because she’d started by saying: ‘Oh, did you get my text about the spa? It was really embarrassing at the front desk—’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ he cut her off. ‘It was a cock-up with the standing order. This month’s didn’t go through, for some reason. But it’s sorted.’

‘This months? I thought we paid annually?’

‘What? I don’t think so. We have so many of them, it’s hard to know. Anyway, I’ve done it.’

So bed is her next opportunity. As usual, he is turned on his side, facing the window, his back to her side of the bed, moving the book closer and then further away again because he has started to find that his close sight is getting better. He went to the optician and come back saying that apparently such improvement is one of the few consolations of middle age.

‘What are you reading?’

He just holds the cover up over his shoulder, which she always hates. As if he actually can’t bear to talk to her. It is called: Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work.

‘What’s it about?’

‘There are quite hefty clues in the title.’

Jesus Christ! She tries to keep it going but there are times you just weep.

‘Oh, well, if you’re going to be like that.’

She reaches for her Hilary Mantel and her reading glasses.

The wind outside shrieks with a horror-film intensity. It is one of the problems of living in such a remote house.

Simon surprises her with a semi-friendly concession: ‘No, you’re right. Titles tell you nothing now. In a bookshop the other day, I picked up something called The World Will End In 2022, assuming it was by one of those American futurologists. And it was a French novel. But Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work actually does, in that dreadful expression, do what it says on the tin. It’s sort of what used to be called a time-and-motion study. They looked at all these offices and proved that the employees spent all their time in endless tedious meetings on subjects where the decision is taken before or afterwards by someone else. And, when they’re not in meetings, they’re updating their Facebook pages. It’s all made worse by open-plan, which was introduced to save money but just turns workplaces into cafes.’

‘Isn’t that what they’ve done at Samson Brothers?’ ‘That’s why I’m reading it.’

Then, wonder of wonders, he actually starts a conversation: ‘Has Libby said anything about Jonny being a bit odd?’

‘What? Only that he won’t leave her alone with what she calls his telescope.’

‘Mmm? Oh. I’m assuming that he hasn’t taken up astronomy?’

It is a reminder of how they used to talk to each other. She fell for him originally because he made her laugh. Now she realizes that’s like buying a car because it’s really shiny.

‘Not exactly.’

Simon has always been one of those human radiators, toasty when everyone else is shaking with the cold. She mentioned it once to Emily, who did that quick little frown and said, ‘Has he had his blood pressure checked recently?’, which is one of the problems of having a doctor as a friend, but, when she casually passed it on to Simon, he just said: ‘I’m fine. I’ve told you before. My family all die in old folks’ homes, smelling of soup stains and poo, worried about their savings running out.’

She presses her feet against his calves, through the pyjamas, which seems fair to her, but he protests, ‘Christ! Your feet are freezing’, and shakes her back to her own arctic wastes.

‘What did you mean about Jonny acting odd?’ she asks, her swift correction to ‘oddly’ infuriatingly overlapping with his.

‘Just at Euston. When the train got in, finally got in . . .’ ‘Oh, was yours bad as well? Libby got a message from . . .’ ‘Yeah. We were on the same one.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘What’s the point? It’s a popular suicide route. If I told you them all you’d be: enough with the jumpers!

Although Simon isn’t technically Jewish, because his mother wasn’t, he has certain phrases and mannerisms picked up from his dad.

Jonny,’ she prompts him.

‘No, I’m Simon. You’re getting mixed up. Is it him your shagging?’

‘Very funny!’

She kicks him for emphasis. How dare he when he hasn’t touched her for eighteen months at least?

‘Ouch! Get your bloody toenails cut! Oh, I see, you meant: about Jonny. Should have said. I may have warned you before about clarity of language. Stop kicking me! No, it’s just that, when we got through the ticket barriers, he suddenly went all twitchy and went off across the concourse to the taxi steps, looking around from side to side all the time, like we were at Helmand Central and there were snipers in the coffee outlets.’

‘Maybe he had the wrong ticket.’

‘Hardly. It started after the barriers and, anyway, you know Jonny. He’d pay them more for the trains if they’d let him.’

‘I don’t know, then. Weird.’

They read their books for a while, until she senses him go inert, then snap alert again and do the clumsy juggle with the book that is the curse of the before-sleep reader. On a bad night, one of them will come-to at 1 a.m. and find that they have both zonked out with the lights on, their hardbacks spatchcocked on the floor or two thirds down the duvet.

Now or never. Her feet feeling warmer, she risks resting them against his legs again. And, though he doesn’t wriggle a welcome like in the past, he doesn’t repulse her again.

‘Si?’

‘Mmm?’

‘The other six are going to Morocco, third week of December, for the weekend . . .’

‘The other three what?’

Oh, he’s going to play it that way. ‘Crossans, Rutherfords, Dunsters.’

She does the surnames sing-song and fast: a running joke among the couples, based on the roll-call in Trumpton.

‘They’re going to Marrakesh. Bit of sun in this bloody endless winter, and Christmas shopping in the markets.’

‘As you do. New York is so last millennium. Actually, I think Jonny might have said something on the train.’

‘And what do you think?’

‘I think, not for the first time, that these people don’t seem to understand that they’re living in a bankrupt country in which those of us who have got jobs, just about, should feel bloody lucky to have them and not go Christmas shopping in Africa.’ That bit in the middle frightens her into letting the holiday go for the moment: ‘Just about got a job? Are you worried again?’

‘I’m always worried. Darling . . .’ When they started, ‘darling’ meant he was being nice to her; now it means nasty. ‘I’m Director of Public Relations for a bank. I don’t know if you’ve noticed what the state of the public’s relationship with banks is at the moment but it’s just possible that someone might make the connection.’

‘Oh, but none of that’s your fault, Si.’

‘What happened to Bill Adamson wasn’t his fault. He was a teetotal non-smoking marathon runner, as we all endlessly said at that awful do afterwards. Unemployment and cancer don’t always seem to bother about fault.’

Is he trying to tell her something? ‘Do you think you’re ill?’

‘No. I’m fine, all things considered.’

Even she flinches at the breathy, Marilynesque voice she hears coming out of her mouth, but all is fair in war and marriage: ‘Three days in the sunshine would cheer you up. Without the kids.’

An old code? Will it work now? Apparently not: ‘Jesus, Tash.’ He turns to face her, but not in a good way. ‘Read my lips. Jonny Crossan pulls down millions a year for persuading judges that roads should be built through the bits of the countryside he doesn’t live in. Emily and Tom, between them, earn at least double what the two of us do. I can’t personally quite see how Max and Jenno live like that on the proceeds from a company making things people don’t use any more, but they seem to. We can afford to play some home matches with them but we’re not in their league for away fixtures.’

He turns away from her and back to Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work. After struggling with his pyjama bottoms and wrist-wriggling through what surely can’t be arthritis yet at her age, her hand finds and fondles his willy. Oh dear. Poor cold dead worm again.

‘No!’ he tells her, edging away. ‘It should be because you want it, or even me. Not because you want something.’

They separate. She sulks with her novel for a while, then turns back because she wouldn’t be able to sleep with so much unfinished business. But Simon is already snoring, or pretending to, and she sees no benefit in proving which it is. She turns off the light but leaves his book across him where it is.

*

Emily never expected, at fifty-three, to be sleeping on a lumpy put-up, like when she was a junior doctor. In truth, she never expected to do nights again. But, once Tony Blair, whatever you think of him otherwise, started paying doctors properly in exchange for one or two concessions, such as semi-privatizing out-of-hours, she was on a camp bed twice a week, covering emergencies across the borders of three counties.

Odd how the names of politicians survive them in the professions they affect; some of the older teachers at the village school still refer to in-job training as Baker days. And she will always think of her Mondays and Thursdays in the basement of a hospital in Aylesbury as Blair nights.

She hasn’t had to bother about the concrete mattress tonight, dealing with a constant string of calls since she clocked on at seven. She’s had to leave base twice: a gastric bleed in a palliative patient and a question-mark pneumonia on the twelfth floor of a tower block, where she felt apprehensive in the pissstinking stairwells and lifts, even though the Night Doc driver comes in with her on such vulnerable visits.

Everything else she has dealt with on the phone, including a student convinced that he was bleeding to death from a foreskin torn during sex; she eventually convinced him that the frenulum sometimes splits during vigorous intercourse but will almost always heal through its own means and so there was no need to despatch an ambulance.

But most of the time, as on most Blair nights, she’s an alternative Samaritan, talking to people whose symptoms – racing pulses, struggles to catch breath, agonizing pains in head or abdomen – are rapidly revealed, through the ease and even eagerness with which they are able speak to her, as psychological not medical. Lonely through bereavement, redundancy or failed relationships, probably seen off as rapidly as possible by their own harassed GPs, they place on speed-dial a number where, in the long and empty hours of dark, they are guaranteed at least a hearing of a few minutes. And sometimes, if there is no other call waiting in the queue, Emily, disliking the common view that such patients are timewasters, will give them more minutes of sympathetic attention than is diagnostically necessary.

1.10 a.m. The house, when she gets home at dawn, will have that heart-lifting warmth that comes from four people peacefully sleeping. Duty rather than financial need (she has been so lucky with her pension) keep her doing nights and she wonders once again if she should stop soon. In two years, Henry will be the only one at home; in five years, it will just be her and Tom.

The scarlet tremor of an incoming call, considered significant enough by the triage nurse on switchboard to be put through to her. Emily freezes Desperate Housewives on her laptop.

‘Hello,’ she says. ‘Night Doc. How can I help you?’

‘Oh. Er, I’ve just woken up with a pounding headache and trembling all over.’

‘Oh, poor you. Well, first, could you just tell me your age and whether you’re being treated for anything at the moment?’ ‘I’m forty-seven and I’ve been seeing my doctor about, er, depression.’

Emily relaxes: almost certainly a Lonely Moanly call, in which the only pressure is to rule out likely suicide. Normally, she would check what prescription the patient is on, but, in this case, there is no need. As must happen frequently to local priests in the confessional, she retrospectively recognized the voice.

‘This is Emily Rutherford,’ she says gently. ‘Is that Becca?’ A pause. ‘I’m sorry, Doctor.’

She has been treating Becca Adamson for anxiety and sleeplessness in the four months since her husband’s death.

‘Nothing to be sorry about, Becca. Nights are tough. We’ve talked about it. Now, what I need to know at this stage is do you have any symptom you haven’t had before?’

‘Oh. Gosh. No, I don’t think so.’

‘Are you taking the tablets I gave you?’

‘Mmm. But they don’t seem to be working . . .’

‘Becca, we’ve discussed this. Grief will never be an on–off switch. Look, I think you need to make an appointment to see me again. For tonight, the breathing exercises, camomile tea, everything we talked about . . .’

‘Thank you, Doctor.’

‘But you can call again if you need to.’ ‘Thank you, Doctor.’

For what? During that call, the mother of a four-month-old child has phoned in: the baby is feverish, listless, diarrhoeic. Triage has marked it for a ring-back but Emily puts the postcode into Where To? and tells the driver they will house-visit. She considers it her strength as a doctor – Tom, her children and her colleagues as her weakness – that she has a morbid fear of missing the fatal case.

*

Who are all these drivers at this time? In the stillness of the middle of the night, when the wind is blowing in a certain way, the cars on the road at the bottom of the fields sometimes sound as noisy as a racing track. And Jonny can make this comparison, with Silverstone just across the county line. On Grand Prix day, sitting in the garden is like being in the engine room of a ship, the gear changes sounding almost in your ear. And, for two hours before and after, the helicopters filling the air. Every year, someone makes the joke about it being like Apocalypse Now. Usually Simon Lonsdale, who may even have coined it back in the last millennium.

He can’t sleep. Again. Tom Rutherford is writing that pamphlet on the village, which they’ll all have to pretend to have read sometime, and Jonny could slip him a few paragraphs on Middlebury at 1.30 a.m. Tonight, he doesn’t even need to cup his hand over the touch-screen alarm clock to check. This volume of cars – about one every ten or fifteen minutes – means somewhere around half one. From 4.30 a.m., certainly from 5, it’s a constant stream: the influx Londoners heading back to the place where they refuse to live but have to work to earn the amount of money they need to fund their country living.

Here comes another one, taking the Eastbury crossroads turn too fast. Once, two years ago, the Crossan household woke to the squeal and bang of a car smashing into Farmer Mosey’s wall, and then sirens. If it happened again, these days, he’d already be awake. Perhaps it’s something left hanging in the county air from the Grand Prix, some sort of spiritual exhaust fumes, that makes the midnight drivers gun it round the corners.

Who are they all? Emily Rutherford, possibly, returning from a patient, if this is one of the nights she does, no longer obligatory but paid separately for her trouble; doctors have got it made in this country.

Not dinner parties, surely, on a Monday night, even in Middlebury. Not even the Dunsters, who would barely eat elevenses without having at least a couple of other couples round, entertain at the beginning of the week.

He’s aware of a quivering in the top left-hand corner of his abdomen. Is that liver? Or pancreas, which is an even worse one to get, often already incurable when diagnosed. No, as he starts to think about it, the trembling in his belly starts to feel like a gushing. Internal bleeding? Surely then he’d feel faint, which he doesn’t. Wired, if anything, as if he’s drunk too much coffee, which he hasn’t, because of having so much trouble sleeping. Could it be his kidneys? The adrenal glands: do they actually gush in this way, like a sort of internal pissing? Or, wait, does the feeling actually resemble a second, echoing heartbeat? He has read in the health pages of the Telegraph that this can be an early warning sign of cardiac issues.

But his heart rate, when he takes it, in the way that Dr Em showed him once, two fingers pressed against his wrist, just under the translucent protuberance of his pulse, is firm and almost perfectly in rhythm with his watch. An athlete, although he isn’t one, would be pleased with 60 bpm.

Beside him, one foot against his leg, as she prefers, Libby sleeps easily and deeply, as she always seems to. No matter what you do about your five a day and giving up booze for Lent and having the full English only when staying in hotels, there is luck in the body you got. They’re like cars, even two of the same marque. Some shake and stop and splutter; others purr along and fire up each morning without protest. Libs seems to have an effortless regularity in everything: Smedgewicks, Ladies Days, Tremblers, Bedfordshire.

Although he doesn’t really need to pee, he goes to the loo for something to do. He doesn’t switch on the bathroom light because he has read of surveys suggesting that failing to spend enough time in total darkness can increase the risk of malignancies. Flight attendants, whose circadian rhythms go out of sync on night flights, were said to have a higher incidence of breast tumours. He isn’t at much risk of a tit tumour – although there was an article the other day about that policeman who had to have a mastectomy – but it’s silly to take pointless risks.

But the harsh security lights on the courtyard outside mean that he can see himself in the bathroom mirror, as he washes his hands after a desultory dribble that makes him panic about his prostate as well.

Unlike many men, Jonny almost welcomes the whitening of his hair as he nears the end of his fifth decade, because he has grown up and then lived with the casual hostility dispensed to gingers. Libby spends more time and money each month trying to keep her hair the colour it was; he’s happy with the tinting of decrepitude.

A bit more fluff on the hairline, a bit less flesh on the chin-line would be nice, but he doesn’t hate what he sees. The storm-cloud pouches under both eyes are the most striking sign of decline, and another night like this won’t help them.

Back in bed, savouring the stored warmth after the chill of the house between the central heating’s timed ignitions, he is startled by a sudden pardon. So many bits of him are giving notice of their impending retirement but his Walter still seems fifteen.

He presses himself against Libby’s back. Her nightie has ridden up and he is able to wedge himself there. Soon, she halfwakes.

‘Oh!’ she slurrily inquires, ‘what are you doing to me, Jonny Crossan?’

‘I can’t sleep, again.’

‘Poor you. You feel quite wide awake.’

His pressure against her cleft receives some moistening welcome. Good girl. Always up for it. Like a man with mammaries. ‘I was actually asleep, Johnny. But would it help you sleep?’

‘I think it might.’

‘Go on. But can you be quick and use a thingy?’

If he is ever struck blind, the one area in which he won’t need RNIB retraining will be dressing up Walter. Even on a moonless winter night, he easily locates and opens the boiled sweet tin on the bedside table – between the last two Sharpe books, paperback and hardback – and lifts out a spongy square. His fingers find the little guide nick and rip down the side. Libby turns on her back.

Five minutes later, she’s asleep again but he feels no closer to oblivion. He removes the viscous balloon, and pushes it under the bed, reminding himself to tissue and bin it in the morning (Libby thinks they lost a cleaning lady once when he forgot); later this morning, in less than four hours, when he gets up for the train.

He has a good job, tons of money and even regular sex, when he suspects some of the other men he knows were reduced to relying on a Dobson in the shower long ago. He has nothing to be worried about.

But nothing is what he’s concerned about. Precisely that. He has admitted it to himself. Lying in the dark, as cars mysteriously cross the darkened village, what Jonny Crossan thinks about is death.


Excerpted from The Deaths by Mark Lawson. Copyright © 2013 by Mark Lawson.
First published 2013 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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