Bill saw him about five miles after he had powered past the Dornoch turning. The hitchhiker was walking with one foot in the newly minted road and one on the just born verge. He was wearing some kind of cheap plastic poncho, which didn’t really cover the confused pack on his back. There were no road markings, as yet, on this fresh stretch. Two hundred metres before he saw the hitchhiker, Bill had passed one of the road workers holding a lollipop sign with GO written on it in white-out-of-green capitals. The traffic was thick—solid files moving at twenty miles an hour in both directions. The cars were kicking up spray, and from out of the sharp, blue sky, big, widely spaced drops of rain descended.
The hitchhiker was trying simultaneously to turn and give the car drivers a come-hither grin, keep his footing on the uneven surface and shelter himself under his plastic poncho. It was, Bill thought, a pathetic sight. There was that, and also an indefinable something about the hitchhiker’s bearing—Bill thought later, and then thought that he had thought so at the time, in the precise moment foot slipped from accelerator to brake—which he recognised as being not that of a tourist, but someone going somewhere with a purpose, not unlike Bill himseIf.
Bill had spent the night at Mrs McRae’s bed-and-breakfast, at Bighouse on the northern coast of Caithness. In the blustery evening, after a poorly microwaved pie—there was a chilly nugget in its doughy heart—he had stumped to the public phone, the half bottle of Grouse in his jacket pocket banging against his hip, and called Betty. Once his finger taps had been digitised and resolved into connection, the line sounded dead in Bill’s ear. He could recognise the tone of Betty’s phone—he knew it that well; but the phone was at the bottom of a galvanised metal dustbin. Then Betty was in the dustbin as well, and he was calling down to her: “Betty? It’s me, Bill.”
“Bill, where are you?” She sounded interested.
“Bighouse, I’m at Mrs McRae’s—”
“—Bill—why are you there, why did you backtrack?”
“I could only get the four o’clock ferry from Stromness, and I wanted to stay between Wick and Tongue … ” This was an old joke, and Betty didn’t laugh. Anyway, he was lying—and she knew it.
“And what’s it like between Tongue and Wick?” She owed it to the history of the old joke to sustain the repartee—a little.
“Oh, you know, furry, an odd bit of lint here and there, some sweat, a smear of soap, perhaps later some semen—” he broke off—preposterously there was banging on the door of the phone box. A white face bloomed out of wind and darkness: “Will you be all night? The wind’s bitter.”
“I’ve only just got through.” He held the receiver out toward the old woman’s scarf-wrapped face. She looked at it. Bill thought of Betty on the other end of the line, listening to the gale, participating in this non-conference call.
“The wind’s bitter.” The old woman reiterated—she would say nothing more.
Bill jammed himself back inside the phone box, but didn’t allow the heavy door to close completely. Pinioned thus, he called down into the dustbin, “Betty, there’s an elderly lady here who needs the phone—I’ll call back later.” He heard her faint valediction and hung up. He hadn’t called back later.
In the morning the storm that had hung over Caithness and Orkney for the past week had cleared. The sun was chucking its rays down so hard that they exploded off of all glass and metal. Looking out from the window of the kitchen, where he sat at Melamine dabbing rind in yoke, Bill saw that the aluminium trim around the windows of his car was incandescent. He paid Mrs McRae with wadded Bank of Scotland pound notes—eleven of them. “Will you be back soon Dr. Bywater?” she asked.
“Y’know Mrs McRae,” he replied, “when I’m next up to Orkney.”
“And any idea of when that’ll be?” He shrugged his shoulders and held his hands out, palms uppermost, so as to indicate the maximum possible mixture of doubts and commitments.
Bill threw his bag in the boot of the car and picked up the CD interchanger. He inserted the restocked cartridge of CDs into the rectangular aluminium mouth, and listened with satisfaction as the servomotors swallowed it up. He set the interchanger back in its housing and slammed the boot. He walked round to the front of the car and undid the bonnet. He checked the oil, the water and the windscreen reservoir. He checked the turbo cooling-unit pipe that had burst while he was in Orkney, and which he’d welded himself. He did this all quickly and deftly, his blunt fingers feeling the car with unabashed sensuality. Bill was proud of his hands—and his skill with them.
Inside the car he wiped the hands on a rag. He started the engine of the car and listened carefully to the note of the engine. He stashed the rag and inserted the CD control panel into its dash mounting. He dickered with the servos that automatically adjusted the driver’s seat. He gave the windscreen a few sweeps of soapy water. He programmed the CD to play randomly. Finally, he lit one of the joints that he’d rolled while he was shitting after breakfast. Exhaling the first blast of smoke made the interior of the car seem like a bizarre Van de Graaff generator, the lights on the fascia sparking through the haze.
Bill reached behind him, pulled up the bottle of Campbelltown twelve-year-old from under the stack of professional journals he kept on the back floor. He glanced about at the roadway, but there was nothing, only the slate roof of Mrs McRae’s, with a bank of grass swaying in front of it. Bill took a generous pull on the whiskey, capped the “car bottle” as he jocularly styled it—to himself—and restashed it. He checked his rearview, then planted his foot on the accelerator. The big car shook itself once before plunging along the road. The inertia pressed Bill into the worn leather of the seat, releasing tiny molecules of good smell. He heard the turbocharger kick in with its pleasing whine. John Coltrane’s sax burst from the four seventy-watt speakers, the long, flat sheets of sound spooling out like algorithms of emotion.
Bill managed the twenty miles into Thurso in about half an hour, ridiculously good going for this twisting stretch of road, the camber of which constantly surprised with its adversity. But the rain was gone and the visibility good. Bill kept his foot down, feeling the weight of the big saloon slice through the fresh air. The car was so long that if he drove with one arm cradling the headrest of the passenger seat—which he often did—in his peripheral view he could see the back of the car turning, gifting him a peculiar sense of being a human fulcrum.
As he drove Bill looked at the sky and the land. He didn’t love Caithness the way he did Orkney. Orkney was like Avalon, a mystical place where beyond the rampart cliffs of Hoy a shoal of green, whalelike islands basked in the azure sea. But this northern coast of Britain was composed of ill-fitting elements: a bit of cliff here, a green field there, a stretch of sand and dunes over there; and over there the golf-ball reactor hall of Dounreay, the nuclear power station, waiting for some malevolent god to tee it off into the Pentland Firth. Caithness was infiltrated with a palpable sense of being under-imagined. This was somewhere that nobody much had troubled to conceive of, and the terrain bore the consequences in its unfinished aspect.
It was one of the things Bill loved most about the far north. Professional, middle-class friends down south would have no sense of the geography of these regions. When he told them that he had a cottage in Orkney, they would insistently confuse the islands with the Hebrides. It allowed Bill to feel that in a very important way, once the St Ola ferry pulled out of Scrabster harbour, he was sailing off of the face of the earth.
Thurso. A grey, dour place. The council housing hunched, constrained, barracklike and pushing its closed face into the light of day, as if only too aware that this sunshine was the end of things, and that soon the long, long, windy nights would be back. Bill stopped at the garage, on the rise from where he had the best possible view of Orkney, sixteen miles away to the north. The day was so clear he could make out the crooked finger of the Old Man of Hoy, where it stood proud off the great sea cliffs. There was a light coping of snow on top of the island, which flared in the sunlight. With a wrench in his heart Bill pulled off the forecourt and wheeled right.
Once he had left Thurso, and was accelerating up the long gradient out of the town, Bill settled down to think about the drive. Into this mental act came the awareness that he hadn’t, as yet, really relaxed into it. The Bighouse to Thurso stretch had required the wrong kind of concentration; Bill needed to sink into the driving more. He liked to trance out when he was driving, until eventually his proprioception melded with the instrumentation of the car, until he was the car. Bill conceived of the car at these times as being properly animate: its engine a heart, its sump a liver, its automated braking system a primitive—but engaging—sentience.
The car supported Bill’s body in its skin-coated settee, while he watched the movie of the road.
Bill thought about the drive and began to make wildly optimistic estimates of the time each stage would take him: two hours to Inverness, an hour and a half on through the Highlands to Perth, then another hour to Glasgow. Maybe even make it in time for lunch. Then on in the late afternoon, down the M72 to Carlisle. Then the M6—which felt as if it were a river, coursing downhill all the way to Birmingham. He might be in time to stop off in Mosely for a balti. Penultimately the M40 in the dead of the night, ghostly tentacles of mist shrouding the road as the big car thrummed through the Midlands towards London. And then finally the raddled city itself; the burble of the exhaust reverberating from the glass facades of the car showrooms and office-equipment suppliers along the Western Avenue.
Placing himself in London at 1 A.M. after seven hundred miles of high-pitched driving, Bill could anticipate with precision the jangled condition of his body, the fraying of his over-concentrated mind. He might—he thought—let himself into Betty’s flat, then her bed, then her. Or not. Go to the spieler instead. Get properly canned. Ditch the car. Reel home.
The car was lodged behind a lowering seven-ton dump truck. Mud bulged above its grooved sides, the occasional clod toppled off. They were on the long straight that heads down to Roadside, where the A882 pares off towards Wick. There had been rain more recently here, and long puddles streaked the road; in the sunlight they were like mirror shards, smashed from the brilliant sky. Without thinking, Bill checked the rearview mirror, the side mirror, flicked on the indicator and rammed his foot to the floor. The car yanked forward, the turbocharger cutting in with an audible gnunngg! Bill felt the wheels slide and skitter as they fought for purchase on the water, mud and scree strewn about the surface. He was two hundred metres past the truck and travelling at close to ninety before he throttled back and pulled over the left once more.
The first pass was, Bill reflected, the hardest. It represented an existential leap into the unknown. If car and man survived they had made their compact for the journey. There were only two ways to do this mammoth run: slowly and philosophically, or driving. Bill had opted for the latter. He celebrated by lighting the second of the joints he had rolled at stool. The Upsetter came on the CD, awesome bass noise transforming the doors into pulsing wobble boards, the whole car into a mobile speaker cabinet. Bill grinned to himself and hunkered down still further in his seat.
The car bucketed through the uneven terrain. The landscape was still failing to distinguish itself. From the road a coping of peat bog oozed away into the heart of Caithness, a cakey mush of grasses and black earth. In the distance a single peak raised its white-capped head. It was, Bill considered, a terrain in which a few triceratops and pterodactyls wouldn’t have looked altogether out of place. He’d once had an analysand who had a phobia about dinosaurs—not so much their size, or possible rapacity, he could handle that, but the notion of those vast wartinesses of lizard hide. Bill had cured the phobia, sort of. He grinned at himself in the rearview mirror at the memory; he hoped ruefully. But the herpetophobe became correspondingly more erratic in almost every other area of his life. Eventually, psychotic, he ended up being sectioned after ripping the heads off of hundreds of model dinosaurs in a spree through South London toy shops.
Bill didn’t psychoanalyse anybody anymore. He could no longer see the virtue in it—or so he told himself. In truth, he found it easier to sign on with agencies and do various psychiatric locums. He could pick and choose his shifts, and he got a variable caseload. Bill had a peculiar affinity for talking down the real crazies; people who might become fork-wielding dervishes. The cops called him a lot nowadays, when they had a berserker in the station and didn’t want to get body fluids on their uniforms. Bill wouldn’t have said he fully entered into the crazies’ mad, mad world—that kind of Laingian stuff had gone the way of noncongenital schizophrenia—but he could fully empathise with these extruded psyches, whose points of view were so vertiginous: one minute on the ceiling, the next on the floor.
Bill also liked to live a little dangerously. To swing. He used to seduce women—but tired of it, or so he thought. In truth he had simply tired. He still drove fast and hard. Up and down to Orkney five or six times a year. At the croft on Papa Westray he mended walls and fences, even built new outbuildings. He had five longhorns—really as pets. And of course there was drinking. He had Betty, sort of. A relationship based on sex on his part, and sex and anticipation on hers. Bill didn’t think about his first wife. Not that he couldn’t bear to acknowledge the truths surrounding her—insight was, after all, his profession—but because he really didn’t feel that he needed to harp on it any longer. It was the past.
Bill had a thick, leather car coat. Bill had a turbocharged three-litre saloon. He liked single malts and skunk. He liked boats; he had an Orkney long-liner skiff on Papa. He was a blunt-featured man with rough cropped blond hair. Women used to stroke his marbled skin admiringly. He liked to climb mountains—very fast. He’d often done three Munros in a day. He wasn’t garrulous, unless very drunk. He liked to elicit information. He was forty this year.
At Latheron, where the North Sea reared up out of the land, and the low cliffs collapsed into its silver-blue beauty, Bill checked his wristwatch—a classic chronometer. It was just shy of eleven. The dash clock said five past, the LCD on the CD control panel winked eleven dead on, and as he looked back from the road, winked 11.01. The Portland Arms at Lybster would be opening; after such a tough morning’s driving, there was a good case for a pint—and a short. Bill lazily circled the steering wheel to the left and headed north up the A9.
In the wood-panelled bar lounge Bill was the only customer. The barking of his leather jacket against the vinyl of a banquette summoned an elaborately courteous man in the Highland toff’s—or wannabe toff’s—uniform of tweed jacket, waistcoat with horn buttons, flannel trousers, brogues. His Vynella shirt absorbed his tartan tie into its own slight patterning. He sported in addition a ridiculously flamboyant, ginger, handlebar mustache, which cancelled out his weak-featured face as surely as a red bar annuls smoking. Bill didn’t recognise the man, and thought that he must be the winter manager; new to Caithness and perhaps not yet aware of how bleak his allotted four months of erratic pint pulling would prove.
“Good morning sir,” said the absurdity, “and it is a fine morning isn’t it?”
“It is.” Bill replied curtly—and then, feeling he had been too curt, “I’ve had a clear run all the way from Bighouse; not so much as a shower.”
“Well, they say the gales will be up again tonight … ” He picked up a half-pint glass from the draining board beneath the bar and began, idly, yet with skill, to wipe it. Bill walked to the bar, and the absurdity took his cue: “What’ll you be having then?” Up close Bill saw brown crap on the man’s teeth, and lines of burst blood vessels, like purple crow’s feet, around his eyes. Bill sighed—no need to account for his choices with this one: “Is that a Campbelltown there?” He stabbed a finger towards the bottles of malt brooding on the shelves. The absurdity got the bottle down without further ado. “This is the fifteen-year-old?” His tone indicated that this was a request. “A double, ” said Bill.
Bill had brought yesterday’s paper with him from the car, but he didn’t bother to open it. He knocked back the whisky, and then chased it with a bottle of Orkney Dark Island. The whisky gouged more warmth into his belly, and the ale filled his head with peat and heather. Really, Bill thought, the two together summed up the far north. He was sitting back on the banquette, his feet propped on a low stool. His back and shoulders were grasped by the thick leather of his jacket. It was an old leather jacket, of forties cut. Bill had had it for years. It reminded him of a jacket he’d once seen Jack Kerouac wearing in a photograph. He liked the red, quilted lining; and he especially liked the label on the inside of the collar that proclaimed: Genuine Leather, Made From A Quarter Of A Horse. Bill used to show this to young women, who found it amusing … seductive. Bill used to rub saddle soap into the thing, but recently had found he couldn’t really be bothered, even though the leather was cracking around the elbows.
While Bill had been drinking, the absurdity was pottering around the vicinity of the bar, but now the pint glass was empty and chonked back on the bar mat, he was nowhere to be seen. Bill pictured him, padding along the chilly corridors of the old granite hotel, like a cut-rate, pocket-sized laird. Impatiently, he rang a small bell—and the ginger mustache appeared instantly, directly in front of him, hoisted by its owner through the cellar hatch like some hairy standard of rebellion. “Sir?” came from behind the whiskers. “The damage?” Bill countered.
“That’ll be … ” He turned to the cash register and played a chord, “ … four pounds and seventy-eight pence.” While Bill fought with his jeans for the cash, the absurdity had produced—from somewhere—a printed card. This he handed to Bill in exchange for the money, saying, “You wouldn’t mind, would you, filling out this card. It’s a sort of survey we’re doing, y’know, marketing and such, trying to find out who our clientele are … ” he trailed off. Bill looked at the card: “Where did you first hear about us? 1. In the media 2. Personal recommendation 3. As part of a package holiday … ”
“Of course,” he told the deluded hotelier, “but if you don’t mind I’ll fill it out later and post it, I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
“Not at all, not at all—here’s an addressed envelope for you. Make it easier.”
As he marched across the car park to the car, Bill scrunched the card and the envelope into a ball and tossed it into a convenient bin. He also abandoned himself to unnecessarily carping laughter—the idea that this isolated spot would ever attract anything much besides passing trade, and the occasional hunting, fishing and drinking crew, was as ridiculous as the ginger mustache.
Feeling the wind rising at his back impressed further how far Lybster was from anywhere—save the North Sea. Bill took off his jacket and chucked it on the backseat of the car. Then he swung himself into the front. He rammed the key into the ignition, turned it, and the car thrummed and pulsed into life. The CD chirruped—then some John Cage came on. With another negligent circling of his hand, Bill scraped the big saloon around a hundred and eighty degrees, and shot back up on to the A9, this time heading south.
For the next hour, until he saw the hitchhiker, Bill drove hard. There was something about the man in the pub at Lybster, the whole episode in fact, that unsettled him. There was that, and there was the sense that as the car plunged south—switchbacking over spurs, and charging down hillsides— it was taking Bill out of the under-imagined world and into the world that was all too clearly conceived of, fixed in its nature, hammered into banality by mass comprehension.
Not that you’d know it thus far: the road still leaping and twisting every few yards, the gradients often one in ten or better. In mist, or rain—which was almost always—the A9 was simply and superficially dangerous, but shorn of its grey fleece it became almost frolicsome. So Bill thought, chucking the car in and out of the bends.
In rain you had little opportunity to pass even a car, let alone any of the grumbling lorries that laboured up this route to the far north; and there were many of these. It could slow the whole trip if you got caught behind one. Slow it up by as much as a half again. Even in fair conditions the only way to pass their caravans—they tended to travel in naturally occurring clutches, equally spaced—was to get up to about ninety on the straight, then strip-the-steel-willow of the oncoming traffic and the lorries themselves.
It was exhilarating—this headlong plunge down the exposed cranium of Britain. After twenty miles or so Bill had a spectacular view clear across the Moray Firth to the Grampians. The mountains pushed apart land, sea and sky with nonchalant grandeur; their peaks stark white, their flanks hazed white and blue and azure. Not that he looked at them, he looked at the driving, snatching shards of scenery in the jagged saccades his eyes made from speedometer to road, to rearview mirror, to wing mirrors and back, over and over, each glance accompanied with a head jerk, as if he were some automated Hasidic Jew, praying as he went.
In a way, Bill was praying. In the concentration on braking and accelerating, and at these speeds essentially toying with life and death—others as well as his own—he finally achieved the dharmic state he had been seeking all morning: an absorption of his own being into the very act of driving that exactly matched his body’s absorption into the fabric of the car; a biomechanical union that made eyes windscreens, wheels legs, turbocharger—flight mechanism. Or was it the other way round?
The wands of memories interleaved themselves with the sprigs of scenery, and then the whole hedge of impressions was further shaped and moulded by the music that poured from all four corners, before being flattened by the mantra of impulsion. Last night at the pub—the local doctor, Bohm, drunk—mouthing off about miracle cures for dipsomania—psychedelic drug rituals in West Africa, mystical twaddle—the walk home in the stiff wind, rain so hard it gave his cheeks and forehead little knouts. Now, on the road ahead, a passing opportunity, slow moving old Ford Sierra, ahead of it two lorries and another two cars slightly further on, doing about sixty—a good seven hundred metres to the next bend. A bend beyond that allowed a view of more open road, but what of the hidden stretch? Calculate how much there was. Count: one, two, three seconds. Chance it. Rearview, Bam! Accelerator floored, wheel wrenched, back pressed back into seat. Leather smell. Vague awareness of oceanic chords playing—perhaps Richard Strauss. Indicator popping and tocking. Past the Ford. Past the first lorry. Up to eighty now. Bam! Shift rammed into third. Eighty now, nearing the bouncing butt of the second lorry. Fuuuck! There was a car. Now about a hundred metres off. Moving fast. Deathly fast. Check wing mirror. Dance the one step of shock. Slide between the two lorries. Receive a fusillade of flashing and honking. Then—Bam! Back out again. Two hundred metres left of the straight—no view of the next stretch, just green tussocks, grey-green wall, strident, black-and-white cow—keep it in third, will it back up … eighty … ninety … the ton. Fifty metres left—and the second lorry was cleared, evacuated, left behind as surely as a shit in toilet in a motorway service centre. Left behind like the past, like failure, like regret.
Bill felt this marvellous sense of freedom and release as he cheated death and unslipped the surly gravity of the lumpen lorries. He felt it ten times between Borgue and Helmsdale, fifteen between Helmsdale and Brora, then more and more as the road opened up and the hills retreated from the road, leaving it to course and wiggle, rather than twist and turn.
A glimpse of Langwell House, gothic on its promontory, as he zigzagged through Berriedale; a proscenium-framed shot of Dunrobin Castle as he wheeled past its gates and cantered down into the long, spare, main street of Golspie. And still the sun fell down, and still the road glimmered, and still Bill thought—or perhaps only thought he thought—of nothing. Past the Highland Knitwear Centre. How many sweaters had Bill bought in a lifetime of blandishment? Too many perhaps. One purple cable knit at this very shop—for a girl called Allegra. A diminutive blond—too young for Bill. Then twenty-two to his thirty-five. She was all chubby bits, a dinky little love handle, who when stoned on dope became psychotic, fanatically washed her hands in the air like some Method-trained obsessive. Bill had to talk her down every time it happened—and he didn’t like taking his work to bed with him.
She gave head like a courtesan—like a goddess of fellation. She pushed down the prepuce with her lips, while her tongue darted round the root of his glans. One of her childlike hands delved in the lips of cloth that sagged open over his crotch, seeking out the root of him, juggling the balls of him. And this as the car coursed along the banks of the Cromarty Firth, past the outcropping of cranes and davits at Invergordon. Even at the time Bill had recognised the automotive blow job as a disturbing concomitant to Allegra’s manic laving. It was her way of placing him back under her control; he might have the steering wheel—but she was steering him, gnawing the joystick.
It was Allegra’s first and last trip to Orkney with Bill. Their relationship didn’t so much split up, as shatter some weeks later, when, at a dinner party given by middle-aged friends of Bill’s, Allegra, drunk, had screamed, “Why doesn’t he tell you all that he loves going down on women, but can’t stand to have them go down on him!” then thrown her vodka tonic in Bill’s face, then attempted to ram the solid after the liquid. A lunge that Bill deflected, so that the crystal shattered on impact against the invitation-encrusted mantlepiece. The friends had plenty to talk about after Allegra and Bill had left.
As the car tick-tocked along the dour street, Bill imagined the grey houses to either side populated with his past courtesans, his myriad lovers. It would be like some Felliniesque dream sequence. No, come to think of it, better to house the past lovers—there had to be at least a hundred of them—in Dunrobin Castle itself. It was so big there would be a room each for the more mature, and convenient dormitories for the young girls. Bill smiled at the thought of this perverse seraglio. But hadn’t Fellini been right? Wasn’t this the only possible psychic solution to the sense of hideous abandonment that the practise of serial monogamy imparted? To get them all in one place. It wasn’t that Bill wanted them all sexually available—quite the reverse. But he wanted them in a context that made what existed between him and them, if not exactly important, at any rate viable. He wanted to feel that it had all mattered, that it wasn’t simply animal couplings, mechanistic jerkings, now forgotten, now dust.
Taken with the fantasy, Bill allowed it to occupy him as he pressured the big car through the long avenue of trees that led from Golspie to Loch Fleet. Dunrobin Castle populated by all of his lovers, all of the women he’d ever had sexual relations with. The younger ones would handle the bulk of the domestic work. There was Jane, who was a professional cook, she could run the kitchens, with the assistance of Gwen, Polly and Susie. There would be enough women in their twenties to handle all the skivvying, leaving the more mature women free to spend their time in idle conversation and hobby-style activities. Why, come to think of it, there was even a landscape gardener in Bill’s poking portfolio; perhaps there was a case for not simply maintaining the grounds of the Castle, but redesigning them?
Even as Bill entertained this notion of a comforting Castle, cracks began to appear in its facade. All of his former lovers … That meant not just Allegra, coming at him time after time with vitrified daggers, during the fatal attraction of cocktail hour, but other, still more unstable lovers, howling and wafting around halls and stairways. Worse than that, it meant his ex-wife, where would she come to roost? No doubt in an outhouse, from where, on dark nights, the sounds of screamed imprecations could be heard, blown in with the wind, and howling around the drawing room where the others sat sewing, and Bill himself grimaced over another whisky.
And if there was to be room for the ex-wife, there would have to be room for other unsavoury characters as well. Despite himself, Bill urged the conceit to its baleful conclusion. The tarts—there would be room at Dunrobin for the tarts, the brasses, the whores. Bill imagined trying to keep them out—this delegation of tarts. Meeting them at the gates of the Castle and attempting to turn them back. “But you fucked us!” their spokesmadam would abjure him. “We demand room in the Castle!” He would have no choice but to admit them—and then the fragile concord of the seraglio would be shattered. The other lovers might have been prepared to accept sorority as a substitute for monogamy, but the tarts? Never. The tarts would swear and drink. They would smoke crack in the billiard room, and shoot smack in the butler’s pantry. They would seduce the younger lovers and outrage the older. On cold nights Bill would find himself desperately stuffing his head beneath covers, beneath pillows, trying to shut out the sounds of their wassailing, as they plaited with the moan and screech of the wind.
On the long straight that bounced up the other side of the loch, Bill clocked the signs requesting assistance from the Coastguard in the fight against drug smugglers, IF YOU SEE ANYTHING SUSPICIOUS … The image of gracious polygamy faded and was replaced by one of Bill beachcombing, prodding at shells with a piece of driftwood, his jacket collar turned up, its points sharp against his chilled ears. The oiled tip of his makeshift shovel turns up a corner of blue plastic bag. He delves further. Six rectangular blocks, each sealed in blue plastic and heavily bound with gaffer tape are revealed to be neatly buried. Bill smiles and gets out his penknife …
Another sign whipped by at the top of the rise, UNMARKED POLICE CARS OPERATING … Spoilsports. No seraglio—and now no mother lode of Mama Coca; no white rails for the wheels of the big car to lock on to; no propulsive, cardiac compression to take Bill’s heart into closer harmony with the rev counter … He hunkered down once more, gripped the steering wheel tighter, concentrated on the metallic rasp of John Lee Hooker’s guitar, which ripped up the interior of the car. Then came the roadworks. Then came the hitchhiker.