This is the story of Gerald Smith, how he lived and how he died (neat opener, that, isn't it? Took me half an hour to think of it). I don't remember how I made the acquaintance of Gerald, he's been an affliction since birth. Most of my childhood, boyhood and early manhood was acting as minder, interpreter and user interface between Gerald and the rest of humanity. When we graduated, I was fairly sure I'd shaken him off for good, along with our tyrannical land-lady and that girl called Chloe that I shagged in a massive error of judgement in freshers'. I had found a nice little accounting job in a toaster manufacturing firm in London and I'd even found a one-room flat for under six figures a month—quite a find for London. You couldn't stand upright in it and had to lift up the bed to get to the fridge, but at least it had a window. Oh, of course, who am I? I've forgotten to introduce myself. My name's George. George Jackson, if you want the formal introduction, but you can call me George. Or forget my name entirely. It doesn't matter. I didn't want to be in this story in the first place and I'm still not sure how I came into it.
Anyway, no sooner had I begun this damn job—for which I'd bought new pencils and a new Cassio calculator—when Gerald descended on the metropolis, searching for material, he said, for his Great Novel. Gerald had been writing this Great Novel since we were school-boys together, but had never got further than the first paragraph, because, he kept saying, he wanted his novel to plumb the depths of life, and life was always so unsatisfactory. I don't know what he meant, it was the sort of thing Gerald said. And as Gerald had graduated and was unencumbered with such trivialities as paid work—English graduates, eh? I read economics and was turning over five figures a month, and Gerald's degree in printed fever dreams—well, we shall see where Gerald's degree in printed fever dreams got him—he had plenty of time to gather material for this blasted novel, and naturally I had to supervise his progress around the metropolis. Leaving the rarefied atmosphere of Oxford and his native rural Cornwall can have a shocking effect on such tempers as Gerald's.
I asked him about work, and about the prospect of his finding any before he was evicted at the end of the month, and he waved away my concerns. "My calling will find me," he announced with his mystical air. "For a young man with plenty of talent, the world is large. Should England fail me I shall bid her farewell for the high seas, to seek my fortune on the Spanish Main". I hadn't the heart to point out that Gerald had no talent in any field whatsoever, and Spain had lost all land in the Americas a hundred years ago or more.
We were in a burrito bar at the time—that may have been what put the idea of the Spanish Main into Gerald's head—and just as we had exhausted the subject of Gerald's unemployment a rather smashing blonde sashayed over to the counter and perched on the stool next to Gerald. "Do you mind?" she said. "Everywhere else is full." The burrito bar was more than half empty, so this was the most blatant lie I've ever heard in my life, but when a girl with legs like that voluntarily seeks your company, you don't complain.
"Not at all," said Gerald politely.
"In fact, you've made my day." I tried my most winsome smile, but the girl already had her eyes fixed on Gerald.
This was a bad sign. Gerald had the gormless expression, which only intensified around women, of a choirboy crossed with a goldfish. He wasn't bad-looking in a choirboy-crossed-with-goldfish kind of way, but he tended to attract a certain type of woman. The type of woman who finds choirboys-crossed-with-goldfish attractive. The type of women who wants to pull the wool over the eyes of a mug. I'd already fended off an exiled Moroccan princess who needed a thousand pounds to escape the nondescriptly evil man who was holding her prisoner in a cellar in Kidlington and just happened to have allowed her to wander out to a night-club in Oxford to drink Manhattens without a care in the world, apparently, for her impending doom should her father fail to produce the money; a brilliant, struggling young artist who needed a thousand pounds to track down a lost Celtic treasure at the bottom of a lake; and a young drunk at a bus stop who needed a thousand pounds to go to Monte Carlo for a holiday—disappointingly unimaginative, I found that last one, but if I hadn't been there he would have coughed up the money without a murmur. So I was braced for whatever would follow.
"Hey, gorgeous…" Her seductive smile broadened. And I had to admit, it was a very seductive smile. It made my heart go all fluttery. Something else, as well…
But I knew she wouldn't get very far with Gerald with that approach. Gerald, for all his Good Samaritan complex, was iron-clad unseduceable.
"Good afternoon, madam," he replied coldly, as if he were an assistant at a high-end department store.
With the skilled appearance of an accident, she wriggled the straps of her little vest all the way down her arms. The bit of cloth remaining left little to the imagination.
"Do you come here often?"
"No," said Gerald. "I'm not often in London actually. Do you?" He was making polite, uninterested conversation.
"I live here," I said, but the girl was uninterested in me. She had singled out her target of the afternoon.
"Yes," she purred. "But I've never seen as handsome as you here." She giggled like a pneumatic drill and batted her eye-lashes.
"Thank you, madam," said Gerald. "But I consider my personal appearance unremarkable."
The giggle again. "Oooh, you are funny. What's your name, gorgeous?"
"Gerald Smith, which means," politely but firmly, "that you have no further need to address me as gorgeous. What's yours?".
"Rosamund." She let rolled her tongue around the name and ended with her sweet heart-shaped lips in a little pout. It was a beautiful name and she knew it. "Rosamund West."
"Nice to meet you Mrs West," said Gerald unenthusiastically, shaking hands.
I hadn't noticed the wedding ring on her finger, but trust Gerald to notice something like that.
"Nice to meet you too," she cooed breathily. "Very, very nice." She left her hand in his and battered her eye-lids energetically.
"Are you in discomfort, Mrs West?" Gerald extricated his hand.
"Your eyes… do you have dust in them?"
It was quite funny to watch Rosamund's face. First she blinked at him coyly to see if he was playing a game. Realising he was quite in earnest, irritation flickered across her face, which she hastily corrected to her usual expression of bland seductiveness.
I wanted to slap Gerald. Hell, if he didn't want what was on offer, I'd happily take it off his hands.
"Are you busy this afternoon, gorgeous?"
"I consider your nick-name inappropriate, Mrs West. And yes, I am busy." Very firmly.
"But we could have fun together, gorgeous."
Gerald wavered. "You don't mean," he asked wistfully. "That you like sailing too?"
"Sailing?" she looked at him blankly. I guessed she thought sailing was some interesting new sex position of which she had never heard—and I guessed there weren't many of those.
"Sailing," said Gerald more loudly. And when she still didn't understand, explained kindly. "A piece of cloth called a sail is attached to a mast and turned using ropes. This propels the boat."
Rosamund looked utterly stunned. Probably no attempted seduction had gone like this. Every other attempted seduction had probably been a piece of cake.
Sailing was Gerald's hobby—no, his passion. He liked rowing as well but what he really loved was to take a little sailing dinghy out to sea or a lake, let the wind fill the sail, lean back against the hull and skim along the water in the sun-shine. I've never seen him so happy as on a big, deserted lake, just us and the dinghy and the water-birds. We'd been to the Lakes, we'd been to Scotland and sailed the length of Loch Lomand, we'd sailed round the coast of Britain. I can take or leave boats personally, but I liked sailing with Gerald, partly because as a holiday, with a little tent, it beat the palavar of booking and paying for hotels, partly because chicks dig boats, partly because Gerald, utterly inept in human society, came into his own in and around the water so as to be almost bearable company. His dinghy, Celia, he loved as if she were a human being, and the way that little boat responded to his hands, and even, I swear, his voice, sometimes I think she was.
Rosamund decided that it was safest to giggle, while she thought up her next line.
"I beg your pardon, Madam," said Gerald. "I wasn't aware of anything amusing."
"Surely even a lonely sailor," said Rosamund in a voice like honey wrapped in velvet. "Must want company occasionally."
"It's all right," said Gerald kindly. "I've got Jimmy."
Jimmy was a spoiled, bad-tempered rat whom Gerald had loved from baby-hood, when he was an ugly wrinkled pink orphan.
"Here." Gerald reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew a sleeping Jimmy. "Do you want to hold him?"
Rosamund most emphatically did not. She let out a shriek like a factory siren and jumped about a foot backwards. "What the Hell is that?"
"This is Jimmy."
"But what is it?"
"He's my friend."
"But what is it?"
"He's a rat. Do you want to-?" he extended the hand with Jimmy in it.
Rosamund inched backwards horrified.
"No?" Gerald contemplated Jimmy sadly. "Not many people do. They're very affectionate, rats. They're very intelligent. They can find their way-"
Rosamund clearly decided there had been enough conversation about rats. I admired that woman's determination—having set her mind on the object, she didn't relent.
"I meant," with that little pout that got me all hot and bothered. "The sort of things only a woman can do for a man…"
"Oh, that's all right, thank you," said Gerald. "Quite a lot of men know how to knit these days."
"Knit," said Gerald helpfully. "I've never done it myself but it's a type of needle-work involving two needles and a ball of wool. Very useful for making socks, I've been told."
Rosamund sighed and clearly decided to cut to the chase. She leaned forward and whispered in Gerald's ear. I would give my right hand to know what she said, but I had to merely imagine the phrases used as Gerald's face contorted with the horror and revulsion usually provoked by Inquisitorial torture chambers.
"But madam," spluttered Gerald, when he had regained the powers of speech. "Your ring…"
"Oh, hubby's out of town. He doesn't have to know." She grinned wickedly, and got merely horrified stupefaction in return.
I felt this might be a good time to make my own pitch. "Hey, babe," I said. "I'm free all day."
But Rosamund merely looked bored and irritated. Clearly a strictly lamb-eating tigress.
"Madam," said Gerald, drawing himself up. "You may treat your holy vows as trivialities, but to me they are as iron chains."
"You're married?" Rosamund looked bewildered.
"The lady," said Gerald coldly. "Has my most respectful devotions."
At this point I really must explain about Celia. The chick who got the boat named after her. Celia has been in possession of Gerald's heart, since, at the age of eleven and newly aware of the charms of the fairer sex, he proposed marriage to her, and got her ice-cream thrown in his face in return. Celia had skipped off merrily at the end of the afternoon hand-in-hand with someone called Thomas and since then had got through Robert, Peter, Michael, Adam, Alex, Geoff and Valentino. And those were just the ones I could remember. And that she could remember. Really lived life to the full, did Celia. Gerald, on the other hand… Gerald had enslaved himself to her. Hence he was now cast-iron seduction-proof.
Rosamund pouted. She seemed finally to have realised that with Gerald she had hit a brick wall. "But he's such a miserable bastard," she whined in smoking hot little-girl-sulking voice.
The effect on Gerald was electrifying.
"A bastard, this husband of yours?"
"Absolutely." She was interested again, but the look in her eyes was different. Shrewd. Appraising.
Not that Gerald noticed, of course. Gerald had merely noticed that in this woman's life there might lurk Grief and Unhappiness.
"I'm very sorry to hear it, madam. It's tragic the way the men change when they've got a woman to the altar."
"Oh, but he didn't change. He's always been awful. But I had to marry him…" Her eyes were swimming with unshed tears. The little quaver in her voice was enough to break a sensitive heart like Gerald's. One had to admire the effect.
It was an obvious hook for him to prompt her and he obliged. "Go on."
"My heart belongs to another—like yours." She seemed to have quite forgotten that only two minutes ago she was trying to get him into her bed. So had Gerald. "And Bob—that's my husband—ruined him and forced him into exile."
"On Orkney," she whispered, apparently in pain to even speak the words. "A shepherd.And he ruined my father—father's got a terribly weak heart…"
"But how…? Why…?" stammered Gerald.
Rosamund responded to these questions with the same tactic I would have used in her place. She burst into tears.
"Madam," implored Gerald. "Don't cry. I'll help you."
With those magic words she sat up glowing with joy, smiling bravely through the tears that still lined her face.
"You'll save me?"
"You'll vanquish him and release me to my beloved?"
I didn't like the turn the conversation was taking. A roll in the hay was one thing, but all this talk of vanquishing wasn't really what a respectable young man like myself wants to get involved with.
"Steady on," I said to Gerald. "This lady's situation is very unfortunate, but I don't see that we need to intervene." Because there was no question of it not being "we". God knows why, but I seem to have regarded myself in those days as a physical appendage of Gerald's.
Gerald was shocked. Deeply and genuinely shocked. I realised, looking into those round, innocent eyes that there was question of such a lowly thought as non-intervention even entering his mind. "But of course I need to intervene. The lady has come to me for assistance." He turned back to Rosamund. "Bob, did you say his name was? Bob West?"
"Yes. And we live on Primrose Drive."
"Hang on…" I said sternly.
But Gerald's mind and soul had been captured and he wouldn't have looked up for a volcanic eruption. "And what's the name of your beloved?"
"Derrick," she whispered. "I have to go… father's medicine… Here's my number."
She shoved a scribbled-on napkin at Gerald. Gerald presented her with a business card. God knows why an unemployed aspiring novelist felt the need for a business card, but he did. The writing on it was so impressively curly that it was a wonder anyone could tell what his name actually was. Maybe they couldn't. Maybe that was why he never got any job offers.
And then she scuttled off into the London rain to pick up the non-specific medicine for her conveniently poorly dear dad.
I put an arm round Gerald's shoulders and attempted a man-to-man tone. "Don't you think this is a bit convenient?"
"One minute she's trying to hop into your bed, next minute she's enslaved by her evil husband who's exiled her dear darling Derrick to the Ends of the Earth—aka Orkney."
Gerald looked at me with such pure incredulous horror that I felt like a low sort of louse for even mentioning it. I feared to utterly shatter his faith in humanity and send him spiralling into absinthe and despair. He had been traumatised for months when he had discovered my habit of sneaking into pay-and-display car parks without paying.
"Are you suggesting…?" But he didn't know what I was suggesting. His Persil-washes-whiter mind couldn't even comprehend what I might be driving at. Poor Gerald. He always thought everyone's motives were as pure as his own.
"Gerald," I said, aiming for firm but with a horrible suggestion I was coming out pleading. "We don't know this unfortunate lady's full circumstances and, as there's no suggestion of anything illegal— or any specific, named misdeed of any kind—I don't see that we're in a position to do anything."
"Not in a position to do anything?" Gerald was gob-smacked. "But no gentleman could deny a lady in such trying circumstances succour. We can't leave her in the clutches of the…"
"False knight?" I suggested, dripping sarcasm.
"Well, I was going to say of the miserable git, but I like your version better. Of the false knight."
"Gerald," I said, in what I had a horrible suspicion was the same not-stern-but-pleading voice. "What exactly are you proposing to do?"
Gerald crammed the last of his burrito into his mouth and regarded me with stern set resolve. "Rescue her of course. Free her from the foul fiend and restore her to her beloved!"
I trotted out into the street on Gerald's heels like a puppy. I was hoping for an air of sternly masterful command, but one can't assume an air of sternly masterful command with Gerald. It just bounces off him. God knows enough people have tried. At school. Up at Oxford. But it can't be done.
"But Gerald, you've only just met her."
"What does it matter? Gareth had never met Lyonesse." He said this so matter-of-factly that I was wondering for a moment whether Gareth was someone in his lectures or someone he'd met down Spoons before remembering he was a character in one of his blasted books.
"Yes," I said as patiently as I could, resisting a temptation to punch him. "But you are not a Mediaeval Knight. You're an unemployed aspiring novelist."
He stared at me blankly. "Yes. I know it's not the Middle Ages any more." He spoke as gently as if I were the idiot. "Look! A bus!"
"Yes, I know it's not the Middle Ages any more. Which is why you can't go dropping everything to chase after every dewy-eyed female in a jam."
"Why not?" He was genuinely bewildered.
I was flummoxed. "What do you mean why not? It's just not what people do. People don't just go around… saving people."
"But they do. Often." He turned his round innocent eyes on me. "It counts as a Deed, you see."
"What sort of Deed?"
"A Good one." (You could hear the capital letters, the way you can hear them when Christians talk about the Bible.)
My heart sank. Not his bloody good deeds. Needless to say, Gerald had been a Boy Scout, and I've never known any Boy Scout take the spirit and lessons of Boy Scouting to heart the way Gerald had.
"No," I said, brutally. "They don't."
"Yes, they do. It's a rule."
"It's a rule when you're ten years old, and have nothing better to do. You're a grown man."
"What difference does it make?"
"Because ten-year-olds are gormless little twits who'll believe anything grown-ups tell them! You're not."
"I don't see what being a gormless little twit has to do with anything."
"Gareth and Lyonnesse and the Idylls of the Whatever are fiction. It's a story. It's meant to entertain you." I explained with saintly patience. If nothing else, Gerald-minding was good practice for parenting. "You are not supposed to imitate the activities of the protagonist in your own life."
"But you are." He turned those round owl-like eyes on me again. "It's called 'Life Imitates Art'".
"Mr Wilde intended his comments as descriptive, not prescriptive."
"He didn't mean that you're supposed to imitate art, you fuck-wit! He meant that some gormless idiots do! He was merely observing."
"But you are supposed to. Don't you remember what Bobbsy said?"
Mr Robson was our old English teacher at school. Gerald had been a great favourite of his. Of course he had been, Mr Robson, a rambling book-worm who talked as if he had swallowed Don Quixote, was precisely the sort of person who would find Gerald appealing. And while Gerald's inherent Gerald-acity had been present from birth, I can't imagine that the influence of Bobbsy, as he had been universally known, had alleviated any of the symptoms.
"No. Why would I listen to the drivellings of that old fool, never mind remember them?"
"How do you know they were drivellings if you didn't listen?" asked Gerald with mild curiosity.
"Because all he ever said was drivel."
"So you don't remember what he said?"
"What did he say, Gerald?" Like amputating limbs, listening to Gerald talk was less painful if I could get it over quickly.
"He said that we can learn lessons from literature and apply them to life." He said this with the awe and reverence of a Sunday-school prize-winner reciting his Catechism.
"I suspect he was being metaphorical," I said wearily.
I sighed. Considering that English students are supposed to inhale metaphors like crack cocaine, Gerald had always struggled to understand the damn things.
"A metaphor, Gerald," I said, speaking slowly and clearly. "Is something which you're not supposed to think actually means what it says. You're supposed to think it means something else."
"But what else?"
"I don't know. That's where you're supposed to use your imagination. Or, if you've any sense, ignore the damn thing and go and read something that makes sense."
"So what did Bobbsy mean?"
"He meant that we're supposed to learn lessons from literature and… and sort of apply them to life—only not the way you think, more sort of… sort of… oh, who cares what he meant? He was a dumb fuck. If he hadn't been a dumb fuck, he wouldn't have been an English teacher." I lapsed into irritated silence. "Bastard could never remember my name, either." I don't know why I brought that up at that moment but I did.
"He couldn't remember anyone's. Not even his. Do you remember when the science temp said he'd come to speak to Mr Robson and he asked who he was?" Gerald laughed affectionately. God, he really had been fond of the doddering fool.
"He could remember yours."
I realised that Gerald could not be persuaded. And I didn't see what business it was of mine to try. If the boy wanted to make a fool of himself—Gerald was precisely three and a half weeks younger than I am, but when I was annoyed with him, which was often, I always thought of him as a boy—let him. Not my problem. There was nothing to stop me turning around and walking away down the street. But my feet, as if possessed of a mind of their own, still carried me after him down the street. Damned foolish I felt, trailing round the streets of London with him like this, but even if I couldn't stop him doing something foolish and reckless, I could stop him doing it alone.
"Where are we going?"
This wasn't the direction for Primrose Drive. This was a little winding side-street in Marylebone, lined with antique shops and books shops and junk shops.
"Buying a sword."
"Well, how to you expect me to vanquish the false knight?"
"Is this even legal...?" Visions flashed before my eyes of spending the rest of my life languishing in durance vile, of explaining to the toaster manufacturers that I would be unavailable to work on Monday—if they even had telephones in durance vile. "Where are you going to get it?"
Even as I spoke my eye rested on the shop front of Algernon's Metalwork and Handicrafts. It looked like something escaped from Harry Potter, or perhaps a Dickens novel. Half-timbered, at a rakish angle tilting over the street, with all the windows irregular shapes and sizes. And the first thing you noticed when you walked in—door-bell jangling—was the steam. Steam from the model railway running on top of the book-case. Steam from some sort of giant clock with mechanical mice inside it. Steam from the miniature air-ship floating above our heads. (Only this, it seems, wasn't meant to be steaming, because it let out a sad whine and hurtled towards my head emitting the ominous smell of something about to catch fire.) I guessed this meant we had come to the steam-punk shop. The next thing I noticed was the swords. I didn't have much choice but to notice them, because dodging the flaming baby Zeppelin I was nearly decapitated by two being brandished by a stuffed polar bear. The damn things were everywhere. On the walls. Balancing on top of the book-cases. Dangling from the ceiling.
A little bell on top of a counter which seemed to resting on the shells of live, lettuce-eating giant tortoises was labelled "please ring for service".
"Service" in Algernon's Metalwork and Handicrafts apparently meant that the mouth of the stuffed elephant on the wall behind the counter opened and a very elegant, hand-carved genuine 17th-century harpoon emerged and hurtled straight for my head. As one doesn't best appreciate art when the art is wedged in ones brain, I pirouetted elegantly aside into the arms of what I thought for a moment was an enormous clockwork doll, which had just appeared behind the counter. It was metal and shiny and had two enormous yellow eyes like fog-lamps.
It placed me gently on my feet and, after a moment's whirring, produced a small card from somewhere in its belly reading, in elegant curving script, "Good afternoon, sir. May I help you?"
"Oh, God," I choked, thinking the harpoon had been easier to mentally adjust to than this. "It's a robot. Can you say "Danger, Will Robinson"?"
"Good afternoon," piped up Gerald, who, to my annoyance, was completely unruffled and at ease. "Could we speak to Mr Algernon, please?"
Whirring. Card: "with pleasure".
The robot shuffled off into the back-room, clockwork gears ticking like mad, and returned a moment later, followed my an enormous tortoise. On which, as if it were a travelling sofa, smoking an enormous pipe, was who I could only assume to be Mr Algernon. It was Mr Algernon who was smoking the pipe you understand. The tortoise was eating lettuce. It was dangling out of its mouth. Tortoises have universally poor table manners.
Before I could say something stupid, like "Oh, God. It's a tortoise," Gerald smiled his most charming smile and said brightly, as if this were any other shop, "Good afternoon, Mr Algernon".
Mr Algernon beamed. "A customer, a customer! A rare pleasure!" He looked, indeed, so thrilled that I suspected custom might be a sadly rare occurrence at Algernon's Metalwork and Handiwork. "Delighted to meet you, young man."
"My name's Gerald Smith. This is George Jackson."
I shook hands with Mr Algernon, rather annoyed. I didn't want shopping to be turned into a social occasion, and I didn't want my name, as a respectable young man, to live forever in the annals of cavorting with swords and overgrown tortoises in Marylebone.
Mr Algernon blinked through his spectacles at me. "Delighted, delighted," he repeated. "And what can we do for you gentlemen?"
I wasn't sure whether this was the royal we, or he was including his robot or his tortoise in this.
"I'd like a sword, please," said Gerald, brightly.
"A sword…" Mr Algernon bustled around his shop like a squirrel. "For what will you be requiring the sword? For fencing exercises, for historical re-enactments, for ceremonial purposes…?"
"For saving a damsel from a foul fiend," said Gerald matter-of-factly.
I could have sunk through the floor in embarrassment.
"A foul fiend, eh?" said Mr Algernon, still bustling squirrelishly. "And when is the pageant taking place? This week-end?"
"It isn't a pageant," explained Gerald patiently. "I'm saving a damsel from a foul fiend."
Mr Algernon chuckled. "I see. Entering into the spirit of things."
"Spirit of things?" said Gerald blankly.
"Taking these things very seriously." He chuckled again. "I approve."
Gerald seemed to take this as a serious philosophical question. "I guess it's something that needs to be taken seriously. These things must not be shirked or set aside."
"Oh, quite," said Mr Algernon. "I felt the same way when I agreed to take part in a Morris dance as a boy. I suppose I could have shirked it and set it aside, but they would have been disappointed in me."
"I would be disappointed in myself." Gerald seemed to have decided Mr Algernon was a confidential friend. "And she would be disappointed in me."
"The young lady. A young lady of shining virtue and magnificent fortitude."
Now, if a young man had wandered into my shop bleating about shining virtue and magnificent fortitude, I would have been tempted to diagnose brain fever, and certainly refused the sale of dangerous bladed weapons. But not only did Mr Algernon himself seem rather eccentric, I learned that the phrasing of Gerald's outrageous character misjudgement was not unusual for a steam-punk shop.
The door opened and a young man in a magnificent emerald-green tail-coat and a pair of old flying goggles, brandishing a walking cane, strode into the shop.
"Good day, sir." He bowed sweepingly to Mr Algernon. "How fare thee this fine day?"
"I fare well, sir. This day dawns bright upon me," replied Mr Algernon.
The young man produced a carrot for the tortoise, who delicately snuffled it up from his hand. Presumably he was a regular customer.
"Have you my flying machine?"
"I have, sir." Mr Algernon produced, from behind the counter, a small, stream-lined frame of wooden sticks, with wheels and leather wings stretched over delicate wooden spokes, like the bones in a bat's wing with the skin stretched over. Mr Algernon pulled a cord, like the cord in a music box, from the belly of the machine, and, with a clockwork clacking noise, it rose into the air, flapping its leathery wings up and down like a bird's.
The young man held out his arm and the machine settled on it like a trained hawk.
"'Tis magnificent. 'Tis a magnificent machine!"
And with a few more bowings and exchanges of flowery compliments, the young man announced that his gratitude went beyond words and should Mr Algernon ever be in need of help for him or his, he should text him or something (bit of a phraseology failing, this last bit), and took his departure.
I now understood why Mr Algernon was so completely unfazed by Gerald. Compared to some of his customers, he was practically normal. He returned his attention to him as if they had never been interrupted. "Your girl-friend, is she, this lady?"
"Heaven forefend, no!" Gerald was shocked. "My heart is bound to another with golden hoops of iron."
Mr Algernon looked impressed, either by the devotion or the rhetoric, I could not tell. He had found, in his rummaging, what he was looking for. "Would this be suiting sir's requirements?"
Algernon took the sword and drew it from the sheath in one fluid movement. He raised it before him, rapt wonder shining out of his eyes, and I'm damned if a ray of sun-light didn't actually come through the window and shine on the blade. "Wimblewings," he said reverently. "With it I slew the fiend!" With this confident use of the past tense began the career of possibly the only sword in history named after a small green beetle which had belonged to the eleven-year-old owner for a short and glorious afternoon before making a bid for freedom through the library window.
Mr Algernon named a sum of filthy lucre which made my eyes water, and I had a five-figure salary.
Gerald paid up without a murmur.
"Gerald," I hissed. "That's your life's savings."
"That's your hard-ship fund."
"Unemployment? Eviction? Is none of this ringing any bells?"
He waved this away. "Did Gareth bother about those things? Did Galahad? Did that bloke with the banner with the strange device?"
"And look what happened to him."
But Gerald wasn't listening. Gerald never did.
We took our leave of Mr Algernon and his tortoise. Gerald, being Gerald, even politely took his leave of the robot, who whirred clockworkily and produced a spiderly-written card reading "Danger Gerald Smith!".
"Oh, my God," said Mr Algernon. "It's machine learning!"
Bright robot, that. I've had a greater respect for robots since the events of which I tell unfolded. They don't get carried away with fantasies the way humans do. They see things like it is. I don't know whether it was saying that Gerald Smith was in danger or that he was a danger, but either way it was right. Men like Gerald Smith simply aren't fit for human society. There are lots of people like that. Or, as they probably see it, human society isn't fit for them.
The worst thing I was fearing at the time was embarrassment and disgrace.
It was at this point that we were stopped by a copper. See, in a nice law-abiding little country like Blighty, you get funny looks lugging a sword down a London street in broad day-light.
He began quite politely. "Afternoon, gentlemen."
"Afternoon, sir," said Gerald cheerfully.
Coppers are not used to being spoken to cheerfully by people they stop. People who are stopped by coppers tend to be either nervous and grovelling, aggrieved and indignant, or intoxicated. Gerald's radiant cheerfulness, glowing innocence and genuine smile which he showered on all humanity indiscriminately aroused his suspicions.
"What are you doing with that there sword?" he said more sternly.
"Bringing succour to an imperilled damsel, sir," said Gerald, more brightly than ever.
"Think you're funny, do you?"
"No, sir," said Gerald, in the same innocent, helpful tone of voice. "Do you?" he added with mild curiosity.
The copper breathed out heavily through his nostrils. I felt it was time to intervene.
"Sorry, officer," aiming for the right balance of respectful and man-to-man. "He thinks he's funny." I rolled my eyes like an embarrassed mate. "We're historical re-enacters, we are. Got a little show up in St James's Park."
I smiled. The copper smiled back, evidently reassured.
"Come on down," I said.
"But George-" began Gerald. I stamped on his toe. Harder than I needed to. I was relieving my feelings.
"I will. It'll be a rare treat for the kids. Just keep an eye on your mate, eh? Got a tongue in him, that one."
"Oh, he's a handful, that one," I said, and hurried off, keeping a tight grip on Gerald's arm.
Only just in time. Gerald, whose mouth had been opening and shutting like a gold-fish's, had fully re-gained the power of speech.
"George," he spluttered. "We're not historical re-enacters! We haven't got a show in St. James's Park."
"I think what you mean is "Thank you, George, for saving me from being arrested"."
"But you lied."
"Yes," I said patiently. "If I hadn't we'd have been arrested. Very useful skill, lying. You should learn it. It would save you a lot of trouble in life."
"But it's wrong to tell lies," he said, with the air of one stating an immutable law of physics. "It's devious and cowardly and unmanly."
"Let me guess, this pearl of wisdom was bestowed on you by Whith-whoever-he-was." I was referring to Gerald's old scout-master. Well, to be precise, he had been my old scout-master too, for three meetings, before I had been ignominiously ejected from the Boy Scouts for an ingenious little piece of entrepreneurship involving chewing-gum fraud. Gerald, on the other hand, had gone on to win prizes and be a Queen's Scout.
"Whitherby? Yes, it was."
"Well, listen," I said, very firmly, for Gerald was being his most infuriating. "I'd rather be devious and cowardly and unmanly than arrested."
"But he wouldn't have arrested us."
"Yes he would."
"Not if you'd just let me explain."
"About how we were going to save Rosamund."
"And then what?"
"Then he would have understood and let us go with his blessing."
"No, he would not."
"Because he's a cop. He has to do his job."
"But I would have appealed to his better nature."
"There are three people to whose better natures it is utterly futile to appeal. Cops, loan companies and TV license inspectors. Trust me, it's futile."
But Gerald didn't listen. Gerald never does.
The next thing to procure was a horse. A knight-at-arms must have his steed, on which he sallies forth on quests and fights for the honour of damsels he meets in burrito bars. Horses are not the easiest things to come by in London these days. We ensconced ourselves in my flat, surveying the magnificent animals available in the garden of marvels of the internet, and the extortionate prices they asked for them. I've never been a horsey man myself. Dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle, that's what I say. But I have a vague idea of what a knight's steed is supposed to look like. Gleaming coat and gleaming eyes and flying like the wind and all that sort of thing. And all that sort of thing was a bit out of our price range.
"It doesn't matter," Gerald assured me. "The knights were poor. Some of them had nothing but their sword and their horse."
"Well, you haven't even got a horse."
"We could sell your fridge."
"You are not selling my fridge."
"But it's for a noble cause." The heartbreak and disappointment in his voice would have broken a softer heart than mine.
"Sell your own."
"I haven't got a fridge. I'm unemployed and about to be evicted."
"Even if I were to sell my fridge, never eat again and live off photosynthesis, I still could not afford Angelico." I peered at the statuesque jet-black Arab we were inspecting for the asking price of a five followed by more noughts than I could count without swimming dots descending over my eyes.
"It's only an asking price," said Gerald. "Maybe they'll sell him for less. Maybe they'll sell him for…" He felt in his back pocket. "Twenty pounds thruppence."
"No," I assured him. "They will not."
"Well," he said brightly. "Let's see what they've got for twenty pounds thruppence."
Three seconds later we were surveying the internet's entire offerings for twenty pounds thruppence.
It looked like a dumpling had had a horrible accident with a hearth rug, and a leg had been attached at each corner. Its name was Marshmallow. It lived in someone's back yard in Croydon.
Croydon is a mistake. I went there once to confirm my suspicion that I would not like it, and had never been back there since. If anyone wants proof that there is no God, look no further than Croydon. He would never have allowed it.
I don't know what the normal procedure is for buying a horse, but I'll tell you about ours.
We knocked on the door. A rather harassed-looking young lady emerged.
"Good morning," said Gerald, cheerfully.
"Hello. Look, if this is about that bloody parrot, I can't help it, I didn't ask for it to be shrieking obscenities all night."
"It's not about the parrot," Gerald assured her. "It's about Marshmallow."
"Oh, God, what's he done?"
"I don't know," said Gerald, looking bewildered.
"Then what have you come to complain about him for."
"I haven't come to complain about him. I've come to buy him."
"Oh, thank God! I thought I'd never see the back of him. Come in, come in." She ushered us into her kitchen. "He's not mine. He belonged to my mother. She had enough pets to open a bloody zoo. And she left them all to me." She sighed. "I must admit I feel a bit bad getting rid of him, but what can I do?" She gestured around the cramped kitchen. "I can't keep them here." She sighed. "She was so fond of him. You'll take care of him, won't you?"
"Madam," said Gerald solemnly. "I'll love him as my own soul."
"Good," said Marshmallow's owner, slightly startled.
So we trooped out into the back yard to inspect the knight's trusty steed. In person, he looked even more like a dumpling crossed with a hearth rug, blinking lazily from under his fringe. He came only slightly higher than Gerald's waist.
"Hello, boy." Gerald held out his hand to sniff.
Marshmallow inspected it with his soft, mobile, whiskery lips, licked it curiously, then tenderly engulfed it with his mouth. After sucking meditatively for a few minutes, he decided his new friend was acceptable, released Gerald's hand and offered his ears to be scratched. These Gerald obediently scratched, an expression of bliss coming over that portion of Marshmallow's face that could be seen beneath his fringe.
"I'll call him Shadowlight," said Gerald.
"I'm afraid he answers to Marshmallow," said his owner doubtfully. "Marshmallow…"
Marshmallow whickered softly and swivelled his long, hairy ears in her direction.
"Shadowlight," said Gerald coaxingly.
"All right," said Gerald. "Marshmallow it is."
He paid up and, to the lady's surprise, rather than coming back later with a horse box, announced his intention of taking him at once.
Mostly, she just seemed relieved there had been no haggling about the price.
"I don't suppose you'd care to take a jackdaw, a hedgehog or twelve koi carp, would you?"
"No," I said hastily, seeing Gerald looking tempted. A knight-at-arms is not a travelling menagerie.
It is no mean feat to accommodate a pony, however small, in a one-room fourth-floor flat in which one can hardly fit oneself.
We installed Marshmallow with his back end in the shower—newspaper spread underneath him in case of accidents— and his front end blocking all access to the toilet. Fortunately, he was of a placid disposition and showed no sign of displeasure at his less than five-star accommodation. He buried his face in his bowl of oats, and when he had eaten all the oats and apples in the flat turned his attention to the wall-paper. I regarded its loss philosophically. It had never been very nice anyway.
In between attending to Marshmallow's insatiable desire to consume, Gerald spent the night on his heraldic standard. The heraldic standard was made out of my pillow case, which, having been hacked about and stitched up into a heraldic shape, was adorned with permanent marker pen. The design looked like a star-fish with the misfortune of being used as a pin-cushion but Gerald assured me it was actually a lily, and a symbol of purity.
And so the next day we sallied forth to Primrose Drive. Jimmy rode Marshmallow, who made slow progress, stopping frequently to contemplate life and the proximity of possibly edible substances, his sword in his belt and his standard over his shoulder. I proceeded on foot. Jimmy proceeded on Marshmallow's head, and, sitting up, whiskers bristling, probably looked more regal than anyone else in our little party. Gerald certainly didn't look very knightly. His feet were almost touching the ground and the fact that they weren't could be attributed more to Marshmallow's girth than to his hight. I kept expecting us to be arrested but we weren't. Apparently, a man with a sword is more suspicious than a man with a sword, a pony and a standard. Perhaps no copper we passed even suspected that we could be anything other than historical re-enacters. Because nobody in 21st-century London would ever ride about with a sword and a standard in full earnest, right?
Primrose Drive, in the Saturday morning sun-light, was a perfectly unremarkable sleepy expensive London street.
To Gerald it was the site of destiny.
He took up his position in the middle of the road, glaring with shining resolve at No. 3, and set his standard at a decisive angle. "West," he called. His voice rang like the voice of destiny down the quiet street. "Emerge from your foul lair and face justice for your fiendish cruelty!"
No response. Well, what was he expecting, shouting his head off in the middle of the street?
"It's conventional to ring the bell," I suggested.
So he drew his sword set off up the garden path to fearlessly face his foe. It was a journey that took longer than strictly necessary, because Marshmallow called a halt to eat some lavender, then the lawn, then a pot of petunias, then, just when he was a mere two feet from the front door, decided to stop for a snooze.
The knight at arms having eventually reached his destination, he reached out with his standard and pressed the bell. The door was opened by a middle-aged man, with the morning paper in one hand and a piece of toast in his mouth, whom I assumed to be Mr Bob West, the false knight.
"Hearken here!" began Gerald. "I am Gerald Smith, and I challenge you, Bob West of Primrose Drive, false knight and falser husband, to relinquish the lady whose shoes you are not worthy to lick or suffer instant death!"
West stared blankly for a few moments, then said "Mmmh, hmph hmph". He bit off half the toast, removed the rest from his mouth, chewed while the tension mounted, swallowed, then said "No, thank you, I don't buy from door-to-door salesmen" and tried to shut the door.
Gerald blocked him with his sword.
"I'm not a door-to-door salesmen. I'm Gerald Smith and I'm here to save the lady!"
"Look, I don't know who you are," said West, somewhat annoyed. "But I'm a busy man, I have to be at the office in an hour, and I haven't time for this tomfoolery."
"This, sir, is not tomfoolery. It's judgement upon you for-"
He was interrupted at this moment by Marshmallow, who seemed to be having a disagreement with his passenger. Jimmy seemed to think that Marshmallow's ears had been provided by God for him to sleep in. Marshmallow seemed to think otherwise. He seemed to think that Jimmy's tail had been provided by God for his nourishment. Jimmy seemed to think otherwise. Gerald detached Jimmy and placed him on his shoulder. This was one of Jimmy's favourite places and, oblivious to the clash of good and evil taking place before his eyes, he curled up and went to sleep.
"For your evil-doings," continued Gerald. "You shall surrender, or I shall slay you and free the damsel forever from your clutches."
"This is private property. If you don't get out of my garden, I'll call the police. And get your horse off my hydrangea, or I'll sue you for damages."
Gerald brandished his sword with the grimly gormless expression of a Leighton knight and nearly had Marshmallow's head off. "Do you decline my challenge, foul cur?"
"I don't know what the Hell you're blithering on about. All I know is you're trespassing on my property, your livestock is consuming my foliage and you've called me rude things. I'll sue you for this!"
"I'll strike you down, false dog!"
"I'm calling the cops on you."
"I fear not! For my strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure."
Bob West tried to shut the door, but Gerald's sword was still in the way. He sighed, rolled his eyes and picked up the telephone from the hall table.
I suppose the sensible thing to do at this point would have been to turn around and slip off quietly, forget all about it and take this opportunity to remove Gerald from my life once and for all. But for some reason I remained glued to the spot.
Gerald brandished his sword again. He seemed to quite enjoy doing that. "So you are a coward as well as a cad! You fear to face me man to man! I spit upon thee, dog!"
He continued along these lines for quite some time. Poor West, after bewilderment, indignation and offence, seemed to fall into a kind of mesmerised fascination.
Gerald's reaction to the police was of one who's just going to have confidential chat with a few friends of his, sort out a minor sticking point and all be friends together.
"Good morning, gentlemen," he beamed. "It's kind of you to come at such short notice, but I assure you there's no need. I have the situation quite under control. The foul cur was at the point of releasing the damsel."
The sergeant turned to West. "Who is he, sir?"
"I have no idea," said West. "He just turned up here. I have no idea what he wants, he just insults me and his animal is destroying my hydrangea."
"I am Gerald Smith," announced Gerald. "I'm here to succour the damsel."
"Is he a performance artist?" asked the constable.
"No!" said Gerald indignantly.
"He looks like a performance artist," said the constable thoughtfully. "Maybe he's Banksey. Banksey doing theatre."
"I have no idea who he is and I don't care," said West. "Just take him away!"
"Gentlemen," said Gerald. "This foul fiend is holding the lady captive. I'm here to rescue her and restore her to the arms of her beloved. Please do not interfere."
"Who's her beloved?" asked the constable.
"My God, are you shagging my wife?" asked West.
Gerald attempted to slap him in the face. Unfortunately, this involved leaning forward over Marshmallow's neck. Even more unfortunately, Marshmallow lowered his head to eat a particularly tasty morsel of hydrangea. The knight errant slid down over his neck onto the floor and was promptly pounced on by the sergeant and the constable. He made no attempt to escape and simply ignored them, continuing to address his remarks to West. "How dare you sir! How dare you suggest that I hold the sacred bonds of marriage so lightly as to shag another man's wife!" He turned to the constable. "Her beloved is a humble, pure-hearted shepherd called Derrick whom the foul fiend has banished to Orkney. I intend to restore her to his arms and restore him to the main-land, free from the menace of the false knight!"
"Don't know what the Hell your talking about." West rubbed his eyes as one waking from a dream. "Rosamund doesn't know anyone called Derrick."
"You admit it!" Gerald attempted to brandish his sword, but his arms were pinned to his side, so he only managed a sort of excited wiggle. "You admit to having the damsel captive!"
"My wife married me of her own free will. I'm not holding anybody captive." He turned to the sergeant. "You can search my house. You can speak to my wife—she's not in at the moment, but I'm sure she'll be back later. I'm entirely at your disposal."
"It's all right, sir," said the sergeant sympathetically. "We get blokes like him all the time. Not usually before the pubs are open, though." He sounded almost impressed. He turned to Gerald. "You're under arrest for damage to private property, harassment, disorderly conduct, threats and attempted assault."
Gerald realised the police were not, in fact, knightly souls who, understanding the necessity of rescuing damsels, would never dream of interfering once they understood the situation. They were, in fact, officious busybodies.
"I see," he said. "You are the troops of the false knight! You shall not defeat me, for my strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure."
He made no actual physical attempt to resist arrest. The same could not be said of Jimmy, who, when the constable's hand unexpectedly descended upon him, bit him in the thumb.
"Is that your animal?" said the constable sternly.
"Yes. His name's Jimmy. You startled him. You have to stroke him gently from the nose to the tail."
"Hmm," said the constable. "I'd rather not stroke him at all."
The main transport problem was Marshmallow. He was eventually crammed, with an air of dignified suffering, into a next-door neighbour's garden skip which was tied to the back of the car.
It may be the first time a London police officer has transported an arrestee's pony to the station in a skip.
I don't know why I went too. I wasn't under arrest. No one had paid much attention to me. I wasn't very interesting. I don't know whether the cops had even associated me with Gerald in any way.
I pitied the Detective Inspector interrogating Gerald. But mostly I pitied myself. Breakfast felt a long time ago and lunch didn't seem to be on the agenda any time soon.
"Name?" began the inspector.
"My name is not important. I bring succour to the helpless and down-trodden."
"Important or not, your name?"
"My name is Gerald Smith," he said with great dignity.
The inspector was unimpressed. "Why were you in Mr West's garden?"
"Saving the damsel he has wrested from the arms of her beloved and restoring her to his waiting arms."
"And what damsel is this?"
"Her name," said Gerald reverently. "Is Rosamund."
"And what beloved is this?"
"He is as honourable as he is wronged. He's exiled on Orkney by the foul fiend, but when he is slain will return to the land of his birth-right with his beloved."
"But who is he?"
"His name is Derrick."
"Has he a surname, this Derrick?"
"Not that I know of."
"How do you know about him?"
"The lady was good enough to take me into her confidence."
"You mean she told you?"
"But who is this Derrick? What do you mean he's in exile?"
"The foul fiend exiled him."
"What do you mean, how? Foully. Fiendishly."
"Through rank knavery!"
"What kind of rank knavery?"
But that Gerald could not explain, because that Rosamund had not explained.
Gerald's protestations, indignation and insistence on the lady's patient suffering under tortures unimaginable, while passionate, did not constitute a defence against any of the charges. Not that Gerald seemed to care for such as petty thing as criminal defence.
"Imagine the torments of that noble soul, day after day, rent from her Derrick and fearing for the life of her father…"
"Why was she fearing for the life of her father?"
"Because of the tentacular clutch of the foul fiend!"
"Busy man, this foul fiend, isn't he? Does he have anyone else in his tentacular clutch?"
"He's a spiritual vampire. The agonies he has inflicted on the pure and innocent, the torments of private Hell-"
"Orkney's not that bad," protested the inspector. "What's he actually done, this foul fiend?"
But Gerald seemed reluctant to be tied down to such prosaics as doing.
"He's a false knight. He's spun his web of lies and ensnared the innocent and pure, to condemn them to a-"
"Private Hell, yes, we know," said the inspector, wearily. "Do you believe him to have done anything criminal, this Bob West?"
"There are higher laws than criminal law. There are foul deeds which can never be called crime."
"Oh, yes? And what are these higher laws?"
"Well, we don't have courts of honour in this country. We have courts of law. Because, young man, there is nothing in this country higher than the law. Do you understand? Now, is there any crime, any actual concrete crime,of which you accuse Mr West?"
"Only if it's a crime to inflict anguish of soul."
"By exiling an innocent man and condemning his beloved to pine. By breaking an old man's heart."
"How did he break an old man's heart?"
"Well, he just broke it, you know? The way foul fiends do."
"How did he exile this innocent man?"
"Through fiendishness! Through deviousness! Through caddishness!"
"You don't actually have the faintest idea, do you?"
"The lady did not explain the details."
"Do you have any evidence of this other than what the lady told you?"
"She explained everything."
"On the contrary, it seems that she barely explained anything Do you have any actual proof, other than what this lady said?"
Gerald, very much insulted, drew in his breath. "I have the lady's word and that is enough."
"Not for me, it isn't," said the inspector. He sat back and sighed and contemplated his notes. "Why did your pony eat Mr West's hydrangea?"
"Because he was hungry."
The inspector sighed. "Do have contact details for Mrs West?"
"Yes, but I shan't give them to you, you persecuting fiend."
"We'd like to speak to her, that's all."
"No. I shall never relinquish her sacred confidences."
"Your entire testimony rests on this lady's word, and you will not allow us to get in touch with her?"
"I will never relinquish her confidence. I will keep silent onto the grave."
"Very well, as you have presented no viable defence or justification for your actions, you have no proof of your assertions and you are unable to put us in touch with the lady-"
"I am not unable. I decline."
The inspector ignored him. "There's nothing for it but the magistrate's court."
Gerald quite happily accepted the fact that he had no defence. He did not seem to wish for one. He rejected the idea of a lawyer with scorn. "I need no defence save truth and righteousness on my side," he announced.
As he had no bail money, he had to spend the night in the cells. This did not perturb him in the slightest. Gerald was always the sort of person to whom external circumstances are somewhat irrelevant. He curled up with Jimmy on his face and slept the sleep of the just.
I, on the other hand, was only too happy to co-operate with law enforcement.
I explained everything. How we had met Rosamund in the burrito bar. How we had bought the sword and Marshmallow. Our knightly sally forth.
The Detective Inspector listened sympathetically. We got on quite well, tbh. He chuckled occasionally and joined in my eye-rolling.
"I wouldn't worry about it, mate. Everyone has that one mate, right?"
"Right," I agreed fervently.
"I have a mate like that. You never know what he's gonna do. Went for a stag in Birmingham. He drank an entire bottle of tequila by the time we got to Watford and ended up tied to a lamp-post in New Street station."
I was released without charges.
I went to Spoons. I drank a pint or two. Or six. Or eight. The I went to a club. I shagged a girl called Suzie and she threw up on my shirt. I got home at about five in the morning and managed a couple of hours sleep before going to see Gerald.
I found Gerald causing problems. The magistrates' court was rather busy with an unexpected drink-driving case and would not be available until the afternoon.
Gerald was concerned that the foul fiend would elude his shining sword of righteousness.
"You wouldn't mind just letting me out for the morning, would you?"
"Out?" said the constable. "What do you mean, out?"
"I need to save the damsel from the foul fiend."
I wondered how many times Gerald could say the words "foul fiend". Maybe I should make it a drinking game.
"But you're under arrest."
"I know that, but the trial won't start until the afternoon, and there's nothing I need to do until then. So I might as well just make efficient use of my time by slaying the Black Knight and restoring the lady to liberty and love." He said this as matter-of-factly as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world, like grocery shopping.
"But you're under arrest," said the constable patiently. "I can't just let you go wandering about."
"Oh, don't worry," said Gerald. "It won't take very long. I'll be back before the trial."
"You mean you'll come back?" The constable raised his eye-brows.
"But what if you don't come back?"
"Why wouldn't I come back? I know the way. I have a very good sense of direction."
"Well, you might not want to…" pointed out the constable.
"It isn't a question of wanting to. It's my duty. I am, as you point out, under arrest."
"Exactly. And I can't let you out of here without bail money."
"Well, I don't actually have any money," said Gerald cheerfully. "However, I will come back."
"Have you any guarantee of that?" asked the constable suspiciously.
"My word of honour," said Gerald promptly. His face shone with the innocent cheerful pride of one who has found the simple way out of the difficulty.
"Any more substantial guarantee?"
"Is that not enough?" Gerald sounded offended.
"No," said the constable firmly.
"In that case," said Gerald. "I think I'm going to have to demand satisfaction."
"Satisfaction?" The constable looked mystified. "What, like in a shop? Satisfaction or your money back?"
"It's no good talking to him," I intervened. I was feeling rather sorry for the constable. Whatever he signed up to as part of his job description, it wasn't dealing with men like Gerald. "Just ignore him."
"You've insulted me by calling me a liar and an oath-breaker," explained Gerald, in that matter-of-fact tone he used when he was being most infuriating. "I demand satisfaction."
"Oh, like a duel." The constable looked impressed. "Like they have in those books my wife reads. The ones with men on the front with swords and no shirts on." He considered. "I've had lots of people threaten to kill me, but I don't think anyone's threatened so politely. It's usually just obscenities."
"I told you he was barking," I said sympathetically to the constable.
The constable sighed and nodded. "You his mate?" he asked, with the air of one commiserating in my misfortune.
"Yep," I said grimly.
The constable nodded sympathetically, and for a moment there was a bond between us deeper than words. The shared infliction of Gerald on our lives.
Gerald had been thinking. Alas, his silence was merely temporary, his spirit far from crushed by durance vile.
"I'm under arrest, yes?" he said.
"Yes," said the constable firmly, pleased that apparently he was finally coming to his senses.
"So, I have to stay here, yes?"
"Yes. In the absence of bail money, you have to stay here in this cell."
"And I expect I'll have to stay here until this afternoon?"
"In fact, we can assume that I will be?"
"Yes, we can assume that." The constable sounded almost kind. He seemed to think Gerald was becoming reconciled to reality.
I knew better and listened with dread in my heart, wondering what would come next.
"So your vision for the day involves me sitting in this cell, you sitting at that desk and the secretary waiting for the phone call from the magistrates?"
"Yes. Pretty much. Not the most wildly exciting day, but not every day can be exciting," said the constable philosophically.
"So, now that we've established that that's what's happening today…"
"You don't actually need me here."
"Now that we've established that today I'm going to be sitting in my cell, you're going to be sitting at that desk and the secretary's going to be on the phone to the magistrates," said Gerald triumphantly. "You don't actually need me here."
"Need you here?"
"Yes. Now that you're assuming I'm here in this cell all day, you don't need me physically in this cell all day."
The constable inhaled, and slowly exhaled so his nostrils flared out. "No," said firmly. And he picked up a magazine and resisted all further attempts at conversation.
As Gerald had no intention of denying any of the actual actions of which he was accused—his defence, such as it was, rested on his shining moral righteousness—most the Crown's case would be read evidence. Gerald sat and read the Crown's transcript very attentively, occasionally murmuring to himself, "Nice turn of phrase," and "The false knight has a tongue of silver, especially with adverbial sub-clauses".
"Gerald," I said sternly. "This is not a literary criticism exercise. The point is whether the Crown describes anything happening which you don't agree happened."
"Yes," said Gerald. "I didn't call him a foul dog and a false cur. I called him a foul cur and false dog."
Gerald appeared before the magistrates that afternoon. He considered the scene with perfect equanimity. He showed none of the irritation, nervousness or aggrieved indignation of one typically summoned before the magistrates.
The chairman of the magistrates was, of all the magistrates I have ever seen in my life, the one who looked most like a magistrate. Middle-aged, iron-grey hair, a once-smart, now elderly suit, half-moon spectacles, he had been born to be a magistrate. God had taken one look at him as a zygote and thought "magistrate".
The other magistrates were a younger man compensating for his youth with visibly conscious self-importance, and a middle-aged woman who also glared over half-moon spectacles. Does the glaring come with the job? Are they trained in it?
"Ah, here's our prisoner," boomed the chairman. He turned to the Detective Inspector. "And here's our inspector. Now, where's our prosecutor?"
The prosecutor was late, stumbling into the room with a wadge of papers trailing from under her arm. I winked at her but she ignored me. She oozed professionalism like disinfectant. But when she thought no one was looking at her, she scowled and looked flustered.
Gerald, I thought sympathetically. He has that effect on people. Even the most professional.
I couldn't imagine being a good, innocent little prosecutor, going about my business, and being landed with the brief of a modern knight-at-arms. Sticks a spanner in the works of the usual round of parking tickets, shop-lifting and pick-pockets.
"Does the prisoner have a defence?" asked the chairman.
"Yes, does the prisoner have a defence?" repeated the young man loudly, as if it had all been his own idea.
"I need no defence save truth and righteousness on my side!" piped up Gerald.
The chairman looked faintly disconcerted. "Confidence," he said doubtfully, attempting brightness. "That's what we like to see." He consulted his file.
"You are Gerald Smith, of Cornwall?"
The clerk of the court began banging away at her type-writer. The clerk of the court was a little willow-the-whisp creature with huge round staring eyes in perpetual awe and wonder like a baby owl.
"But you are currently staying in the metropolis?" continued the chairman.
"What is the reason for your visit?"
"Gathering material for a novel, sir."
"You're writing a novel?" said the chairman doubtfully.
"Well, I never seem to be able to get started. You see, I want it to plumb the depths of life, and life is always so unsatisfactory."
"Right," said the chairman slowly. "And in the absence of this novel, what do to you for a living?"
"I see," said the chairman sternly. He was looking Gerald up and down, ranking him on the ladder of functional members of society, and seemed to place him pretty low. "Well, now we have established that you are who you say you are and you live where you say you live and all that, let's get started." The chairman shuffled his papers and began, in his best magistrate's voice. "So, how do you plead?"
"Not guilty," said Gerald promptly. "On the grounds of justification."
The chairman of the magistrates frowned and shuffled his papers again. "Is that allowed?" he muttered to the other two magistrates.
"It's a clear-cut case of…" began the young man confidently. He tailed off and rubbed his finger under his collar. "A clear-cut case of…" He didn't seem entirely sure what it was a clear-cut case of.
The justice clerk in the corner piped up. "Yes, that is a legitimate defence," she said patiently. "Examples of justification include necessity and self-defence."
"It was necessary," said Gerald. "I had a moral obligation."
"Moral obligation," repeated the chairman doubtfully. He turned back to the justice clerk. "Is he allowed that?"
"Yes," she said rather doubtfully. "One is allowed to save third parties from grave harm. That's an admissible defence. I'm not sure if it's conventionally phrased like that."
"Right," said the chairman firmly, shuffling his papers in what seemed to be reflexive stress response. "Let's got on with things." He turned to the prosecutor. "The facts, I take it, are not in doubt?"
"No, the prisoner—the defendant—does not dispute carrying out the actions of which he is accused."
The agreed facts were read out. This was mostly Bob West's witness statement. West described, briefly, simply and damningly, how Gerald had ridden Marshmallow into his garden, challenged him with a sword and insulted his personal character.
Gerald sat and listened with an expression of polite attentiveness, but not really interest.
The chairman turned to Gerald. "Is there any cross-examination, Mr Smith?"
Gerald cleared his throat. "No, thank you. All that's quite correct."
"Right," said the chairman of the magistrates, looking as cheerful as he felt he could look without relinquishing his sacred grim dignity as a chairman of magistrates. "That was relatively painless. Mr Smith, please make the case for your defence."
"Lady and gentlemen," said Gerald. "I couldn't leave the lady in the clutches of the foul fiend. I only did what any other man would have done in my place."
"I would not," said the young magistrate, looking deeply offended.
"Oh, but you would," said Gerald kindly. "Because you're a decent and humane man."
"Decent and humane men," said the young magistrate firmly. "Do not go waltzing around on ponies with swords in other people's gardens."
Gerald looked crest-fallen and rather bewildered. "All I can say," he said, with the air of one deeply hurt and disappointed. "Is that I'm sure that better instincts would prevail in the moment."
"What better instincts?" interrupted the woman. "What's so "better" about charging around other people's gardens making a fool of yourself?"
"Saving the lady."
"Saving the lady from what?" asked the chairman.
"Yes," echoed the young magistrate, anxious to make his mark on proceedings. "From what?"
"From the foul fiend," explained Gerald, as one who is very patient with one not very bright.
"But what's foul about him?" asked the chairman.
"Yes, what?" said the young magistrate, trying to give the impression of a razor-sharp insightful question.
"Excuse me," said the justice clerk. "I think you ought to let the defendant finish."
"Oh, all right," said the chairman crossly. "Carry on, prisoner!"
"Thank you, sir," said Gerald, with genuine politeness and gratitude, which irked the magistrates, as it does most officials, more than any impertinence ever could. "But I think I've finished the in-chief. I couldn't leave the lady in the clutches of the foul fiend. I only did what any other man would have done in my place."
The chairman blinked slowly, then removed his glasses, rubbed them and replaced them on his nose. "That was your entire defence?"
"Yes, sir," said Gerald brightly.
"All right," said the chairman, slowly and carefully. "Crown, will there be any cross?"
"Er… I don't really have much material to work with," muttered the prosecutor. She cleared her throat and began hesitantly. "By "foul fiend", do you mean Mr West?"
"Yes," said Gerald.
"What's foul about him?"
"That's my line!" snapped the chairman.
"He persecutes damsels."
"Well, at least one damsel. Which I think is quite caddish enough."
"By "damsel", you mean Mrs West?"
"In what way does he persecute her?"
"How do you know that he persecutes her?"
"Because she said so."
"In a burrito bar on Friday."
"I see. How do you know Mrs West?"
"From the burrito bar."
"You met her in the burrito bar?"
"And then you discovered that her husband was persecuting her?"
"Yes. He broke her father's heart, and ruined her faithful lover and exiled him to Orkney."
"And she told you, a complete stranger, all this in a burrito bar on Friday?"
"Yes. She asked me to."
"As I recall," I said rather bitterly. "You offered to help her."
"Well, what else could I do?" said Gerald. It was not a rhetorical question. He genuinely wanted to know what any other human being in that situation might do.
The chairman looked at me for the first time. "What," he said, in much the tone the caterpillar must have used to Alice. "Are you?"
"He's my McKenzie friend," said Gerald.
"What exactly is your relationship to the prisoner?"
"We were room-mates," I said. "Up at Oxford."
"But," said the young magistrate, with the air of Sherlock Holmes. "You are not at Oxford any more."
"No," I said. "I live here, now."
"And you are no longer the prisoner's room-mate?"
"No longer," I agreed firmly, adding mentally Thank God.
"So," said the young magistrate, settling back in his chair and doing that kind of squinty thing with his eyes known in the impertinent-questions-and-bullying trade as cold slits. "What is your relationship to the prisoner?" If this man ever got tired of magistrating, I reckoned he could make a pretty good Spanish Inquisitor in TV melodramas.
"I…er… I…" I began.
"He's my friend," said Gerald cheerfully.
Convinced that my reputation was forever destroyed by association, I nodded helplessly.
"And are you also," asked the chairman with crushing contempt. "An unemployed aspiring author?"
"No," I said. "I'm an accountant for a firm of toaster manufacturers."
The chairman raised an eye-brow, pleasantly surprised. I felt that not only had I regained my good name slightly with that statement, so had Gerald. He now had a friend who worked as an accountant for a toaster manufacturer. Polite society might not be welcoming him back into the fold with open arms, but he was at least a recognisable fellow man.
"Having dealt with the prisoner's McKenzie friend, may we get back to cross?" asked the prosecutor. She returned her attention to Gerald. "How did he break her father's heart?"
"She didn't explain."
"How did he ruin he faithful lover and banish him to Orkney?"
"But what method did he actually use to undertake this ruining and banishment?"
"She didn't explain," said Gerald.
The prosecutor considered for a moment, then tried a slightly different tack. "You intend to use the "reasonable man" defence?"
"Well, I don't think he would have to be reasonable," said Gerald. "I think any sort of man would do."
The prosecutor visibly counted to ten in her head. "The reasonable man is a hypothetical person in society who exercises average care, skill, and judgment in conduct".
"Oh, absolutely," said Gerald. "I'm very reasonable."
I snorted, trying not to laugh. Falser words have never been uttered in a Court of Her Majesty.
"You said that you only did what any man would do. Do you think reasonable men attempt to sword fight people they've never met in their lives in order to allow women they met in burrito bars to run of with lovers in Orkney?"
"Yes," said Gerald, simply.
The prosecutor had no answer to that.
She turned dazedly to the magistrates. "That's all for cross."
"Call your next witness," said the chairman.
"I don't have any, thank you," said Gerald.
"You don't have Mrs West?" said the chairman.
"No," said Gerald cheerfully.
I groaned aloud.
The chair-man turned to Gerald, knowing he was being saintly patient. "Your defence, such as it is, rests on Mrs West. You do not have her here?"
"No, sir. Why do you want her?"
"To confirm your testimony."
"To repeat what I just said?"
"But I've just said it. Why do you need her to say it? If you've forgotten it," he said kindly, "I don't mind saying it again".
"But Mrs West's testimony is your evidence."
"Yes. That what you're saying is correct."
"But I know that it's correct. It's kind of you, but I don't need anyone to remind me of things. My memory's quite good."
The chairman shifted uncomfortably. "It might not be the accuracy of your memory that is contested. It might be the… er… veracity of your statements…"
"Are you calling me a liar?" Gerald's outrage was eternally fresh. He sounded just as offended as he had with the constable.
"We're not calling you anything. We just require evidence. It's the law."
"I must say I have never met such suspicious-minded people as those who work in criminal law."
"Please don't take it personally," said the chairman.
"It's hard to take it any other way," said Gerald. "When I'm the one being insulted."
The chairman sighed. "Listen," he said, with a visible effort to be patient. "We know it can be difficult for the LIP. Would you like another day to get in contact with Mrs West and then summon her as a witness tomorrow?"
"To summon her as a witness?" repeated Gerald slowly.
"Yes," said the chairman, slowly and clearly to make sure he thoroughly grasped the idea.
"So she's going to repeat what I just told you?"
"And you're going to believe her?"
"Well, it's not really a question of believe—"
"You mean you won't believe her?"
"It's not about believe. It's about evidence. Cross-examination is standard procedure."
"You would subject her to the harassment and insults of this person?" He gestured at the prosecutor. The scorn he packed into the word "person" cannot be replicated in print.
"I didn't insult you!" said the prosecutor, with justifiable indignation.
"You suggested that statements I have made might be less than true. That in itself is an insult." He turned his attention back to the magistrates' bench. "I would endure any scorn or tort or wrongful outrage than see her dragged thus through the mud of slander and doubt as I have been."
The chairman lost his patience. He turned wearily to the justice clerk. "Can we end this already?"
She shrugged helplessly and nodded.
"All right." The chairman turned back to Gerald. He couldn't even be bothered with his booming magistrate's voice any more. "We find you guilty and sentence you to…" He pulled a random number out of his ass. "Two hundred quid."
"Thank you very much, sir," said Gerald brightly. "I don't have two hundred quid. Does anyone have any tips for the races?"
"Oh, my God," I muttered. "I'll pay."
Who should sidle up to me as I was fastening my coat but the little clerk of the court, still blinking like an owl?
"Has his heart cleaved to her?" she whispered.
"Who?" I replied blankly.
"Your friend. Cleaved to the lady."
I took a moment to translate this into standard English.
"Oh, no," I said. "But it's cleaved to some other lady."
An expression of anguish crossed her face which would be much more crushing if it weren't in the climatic scene of every costume drama ever.
"Then he shall carry a piece of my heart away with him forever," she whispered, and slipped back into the shadows.
I caught up with Gerald and we emerged blinking into the sun-light and open air.
"Thank you for paying the fine," said Gerald. "You're very kind."
"You're welcome," I muttered. I knew I had done him a favour, but now I felt even more in his debt than before. It was as if I had assumed the mantel of official Gerald Guardian.
The streets we were walking down looked oddly familiar. "Hey," I said. "Where are we going?"
He looked at me as if I were stupid. "Primrose Drive, of course. We need to save the lady!"
"But you've been arrested!"
"Yes. I was interrupted and delayed in my efforts. Now I must resume them!"
"Can't you just… stop?"
"Stop?" as if he had never heard the word before.
"Yes. Stop. You tried. You failed. You were arrested. Game over."
"Game over!? But I've only just started!"
"Is it worth it?"
"Is what worth what?"
"Saving this bloody Rosamund and helping her elope with her precious Derrick. Worth you being arrested."
"What do you mean, "of course!"?"
"I mean that of course it's worth it!"
"What do you mean "why?"?"
"Most people," I said, struggling not to punch his face in. I had this desire often when working as Gerald's Tour Guide to Planet Earth. "Most people do not rescue random strangers from non-descript fiendishness at the drop of a hat. And having done so, and been arrested, they definitely do not go back and do it again."
"But I can't stop now."
His mouth opened and closed like a goldfish's. I kept expecting little "Does Not Compute" messages to start flashing in his eyes. "Because," he managed, when he had regained the power of speech. "Because it would be abandoning her in her hour of need."
"But what about your need to not be arrested for murder, or manslaughter, or grievous bodily harm, and spend a very long time in prison?"
"But that's not important."
"But it should be important. Why do you have to save people all the time?"
"Because it's my duty. Like what Whitherby said. You remember."
"I don't. I wasn't there and if I was I wasn't listening."
"What did he say, then?"
"Well, he said that we have been put on Earth to fulfil a duty and that duty must be carried through and not abandoned in times of adversity."
"And who sets this duty? God? Whitherby?"
"I don't think anyone sets it. I think it's just sort of there."
We had now arrived at Rosamund's house. There was a large wreath of lilies on the door, and the sound of music from inside.
"Here for the funeral?" It was an elderly lady pushing a shopping cart.
"Funeral?" I asked. The music didn't sound very funereal.
"Completely unexpected it was. Died last night. Tragic accident. Somehow drank an entire bottle of anti-freeze."
"Who?" Gerald's face was set and stern and he waved his sword around like a conductor's baton. "Rosamund?"
"No, no, Bob." She peered at us. "Friends of the family, are you? You seem rather oddly dressed to go to a funeral."
"Something like that," I said vaguely.
The lady went on her way.
"Well," said Gerald. "Now the fiend is dead, it makes things easier for us. All we have to do is restore her to the arms of her beloved Derrick."
Gerald drew his sword, waggled his standard in the hope of catching the slight breeze, and rode Marshmallow up the drive. He knocked on the door.
Rosamund opened up, giggling, clad in nothing but a tiny little shift and stockings.
"Hi," she giggled. "Who the Hell are you?"
"I'm Gerald Smith. I attempted to rescue you yesterday, but was interrupted by law enforcement. Having been set at liberty through the generosity of my friend George, I find that the fiend has met with his well-deserved demise in my absence, and I'm here to restore you to the arms of your beloved Derrick in Scotland."
"Oh, yes." She giggled again. "You're the burrito boy. I don't need you anymore."
A young man appeared in the doorway behind Rosamund and snaked an arm around her neck. "Hey, babe!"
"Oh," said Gerald, delightedly. "Derrick's found you!"
"Who the Hell's Derrick?" said the young man. "My name's Bill!"
"Well," I said to Gerald, taking a firm grip on his arm in case he fainted with shock. "This surprised no one except you."
"But…" spluttered Gerald. "But I thought he was your true beloved!"
"Well, I had to tell you something," she sighed.
Bill tugged at her arm and giggled. I recognised it as the kind of giggle a man emits when he has consumed large quantities of noxious psychoactive substances. "Come on, babe… come on…" He tugged her arm again.
"But… why?" said Gerald. "Why did you have to lie?"
She raised one eyebrow and looked him up and down scornfully. "It's the sort of thing people like you expect." And she slammed the door in his face.
I led Gerald, staggering and shell-shocked, out into the street.
"It's all right, Gerald. It's the sort of thing that happens," I said soothingly. This was a lie, of course. It's not the sort of thing that happens to anyone except Gerald.
"But…" stammered Gerald. "But…"
I waited for the stream of "but" to end. It took a while. He continued to bleat "but…" like a stuck record, until I wanted to shake him. "But I don't understand…" he managed eventually.
"It's quite obvious, Gerald. This woman just wanted you to get rid of her obstructive husband for her."
"But…" began Gerald, apparently unable to compute such a horrible suggestion.
At this point, just when I was starting to find "but…" rather repetitive, a diversion occurred.
"Excuse me," said a plain-clothes police-man. It was quite obvious that he was a plain-clothes police-man, he was wearing the trench coat and fedora that only plain-clothes police-men wear. "Is that the Wests' house?"
"Yes," I said.
"What do you want?" asked Gerald fiercely. Learning to anticipate his next move, I grabbed his right arm before he could draw his sword.
"I'm just…" he smiled in what I believe he thought was a normal, reassuring, non-plain-clothes-police-man way. "Bird-watching." He tapped his binoculars.
Gerald frowned with super-human concentration. "I have learned today," he said. "Of the duplicity and deceitfulness of human hearts. Only today I have myself been called a liar. I have learned…" He swallowed and took a deep breath. "To suspect." Another dramatic pause. "And I suspect you…" He paused, frowned, and seemed to run out of steam. Although Gerald had been forced to understand the general concept of suspicion, he still didn't seem capable of the final leap into naming a specific suspicion.
"You suspect me…?" said the cop, looking rather uncomfortable.
But Gerald seemed to have changed his train of thought. He looked thoughtful. I looked into his eyes and I could see the cogs grinding as they had never ground before.
"I killed Bob West," he said calmly.
"No, you didn't," I blurted. What the Hell was he thinking? What, even by Gerald's standards, was this?
"Yes, I did," said Gerald.
"So, it was you…" The cop's eyes did that squinty cold slit thing that seems to be so popular in law enforcement. Then he remembered he was plain clothes, his eyes widened, and he said in a voice of exaggerated horror, "Oh, my God. I should call the police!".
"It's all right," said Gerald kindly. "I know you're the police."
"Oh." The cop looked disappointed.
"The coat is what does it," continued Gerald kindly. "That coat's been out of fashion since about 1930."
The cop cleared his throat. "You're under arrest," he said, placing his hand on Gerald's shoulder. "For the murder of Bob West."
"What?" I mumbled, stunned. "You only got out this afternoon…"
The police weren't remotely surprised by Gerald's return.
He cheerfully announced to the sergeant, the constable, the detective inspector and the delivery man who was dropping off the milk that he, and he alone, had killed Bob West, while I trailed after him gaping with shock.
My head was reeling. Harassment and disorderly conduct are one thing. Murder is another. Murder meant years behind bars. Ten. Twenty. Thirty. Forty… My head swam and floating dots descended before my eyes.
"Gerald," I hissed, as soon as we could get a minute alone—Gerald behind bars, me in front of the bars whispering so the constable couldn't hear. "What the Hell are you doing?"
"I'm standing in a cell talking to you," replied Gerald, ever the literal.
"But why are you standing in a cell?" I said patiently.
"Because I've been arrested for murder."
"But why have you been arrested for murder?"
"Because," he said, very slowly and patiently, as if I were the idiot. "The police think I killed Bob West."
"But why do they-" I stopped myself. "Because you told them you had killed Bob West. But why did you tell them you had killed Bob West?"
Gerald's face glowed with pride in what he obviously thought was tactical genius.
"Because the cop was watching the house."
"So he wasn't really a bird watcher, right?"
"He was a plain-clothes cop."
"Yes. With you so far. Following you like a shadow."
"So maybe he's watching the house to see what Rosamund does next."
"So." He beamed from ear to ear. "Why would he want to see what she does next?"
"Get on with it," I snapped, tired of the Holmes-and-Watson act.
"Because he suspects her of something." He beamed even more proudly.
"Bob West just died."
"Yes…" I was grinding my teeth with impatience.
"Ergo," he drew himself up to his full hight and took a deep breath. "He suspects her of murdering him!"
"Oh, bloody Hell! All that build-up for that? Yes, that's as obvious as the sun in the sky. Tell me something I don't know!"
"Oh." Gerald looked disappointed. "So, you guessed that?"
"Well, obviously. A three-year-old could have told you that bitch murdered her husband dearest."
Gerald froze with outrage. "How dare you?" he whispered.
"How dare I what?" I rolled my eyes.
"How dare you slander her. How dare you collaborate in her persecution. Really," he said reproachfully. "I expected higher things of you."
"Gerald," I said wearily. "Haven't you known me long enough to know that expecting anything higher than an earthworm from me is a mistake?"
"I disagree," said Gerald. "I think you can be very selfless."
I refused to be drawn into this argument about my personal character. "So you won't believe she…" I froze. "Oh, my God." This, even by Gerald standards, was so monumentally, so magnificently stupid that it took a while for my brain to fully process the concept. "You… you confessed to killing him to protect her…." I whispered.
"Of course." Gerald said it as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"No…" I whispered. I looked at those great gormless eyes and longed to bash his head against the wall in frustration. How could any human be this stupid? "No… Gerald." I said in my most reasonable voice. "You can't do this…"
"But I can. I am doing."
"But you shouldn't do this. You mustn't." I buried my face in my hands, and tried to block out the world, to block out Gerald, to gather my addled wits. "You'll go to prison…"
"And you don't care?"
"Not a bit." And he really didn't. He looked completely calm, at peace, fulfilled. I didn't think I'd ever seen such genuine, deep satisfaction and content in anyone's face before.
"But I care…" I hastily stopped myself there. It wouldn't do to get drippy. "Listen, that bitch murdered her husband. Murdered him."
"Doesn't she deserve to be in prison?"
"But he was evil. He was a foul fiend."
"How do you know that?"
"Because she said so."
"She said her true love was an exiled shepherd called Derrick. She lied. She lied to you. Do you understand that? Do you?" It was like talking to a three-year-old.
"But…" His face distorted with the effort of trying to ram this concept through his brain cells. "But… you can't prove she was lying about him being a foul fiend."
"Gerald," I said. "You concede my infinitely greater worldly wisdom?"
"When I tell you, with my infinitely greater worldly wisdom, that your damsel in distress was a lying bitch who killed her husband for his money, will you accept that?"
"No," said Gerald. "You're a cynic."
"Gerald, why do you want to throw your life away for a murderer? Do you think she deserves this?"
"It's not about deserve. It's about doing the right thing."
"Gerald, she's a murderer."
"It's not about what she is. It's about what I am."
"And what are you?" I asked wearily.
Gerald considered for a moment. "Well… I suppose I try to be… decent…"
"Right," I said, losing my temper. "Enjoy Alcatraz." And I stormed off for a smoke in the loo. I could have turned and walked away and left him to lie in the grave he'd dug. But I didn't. Instead I called my old mate Dan.
Dan is an entrepreneur. He sells enlivening substances to students and artists. He lives in Slough, conveniently between the London and the Oxford markets. His house, which I have seen only once before, resembles a giant warehouse filled with dream catchers and tie-dye tapestries.
But I was not in search of dream catchers or tie-dye tapestries. Or even enlightening substances. I was in search of the next rung up the ladder.
The phone rang for a very long time. Eventually, Dan's voice came on the line. Dan sounded intoxicated, as per usual.
"Hey, man. I don't answer the phone, because they have mind waves. You know, what the government beam in from Mars. So talk after the beeping thing. Or just come and see me." The beeping thing beeped.
"Oh, for God's sake," I snapped. Leaving this short and irritated message on Dan's answerphone, I wrapped my coat around myself, and caught the late train out to Slough.
I rang Dan's doorbell three times, and when no one answered, I went round to the French window at the back, which had a massive hole in it since Dan attempted an interesting piece of performative art in his kitchen, involving a sledgehammer, to "encapsulate," apparently, "the nihilistic contemporary zeitgeist". I stepped into the kitchen through the hole and wandered into the living room to find Dan. He was cross-legged on the floor with eyes shut, burning something foul smelling and holding a crystal ball on his lap.
"Hey, man," I said.
"Hey," said Dan, not at all surprised by my presence in his living room.
Nevertheless, I felt obliged to explain this presence. "I did call."
"Oh, I never use it. Mind waves." He nodded conspiratorially.
"I also knocked on the door."
"Oh, I'm transcending."
I don't know what transcending is. But judging by the context, it involves crystal balls and not noticing your doorbell.
"So," I said, sitting down on a chair and standing up again because what I had taken for a cushion was in fact a ragged tortoiseshell cat. "How are you, man?"
"Fantastic," he said sincerely. Dan is one of those people who are always fantastic. Honestly and genuinely, whether they're at home, in the pub, stuck in a queue in Asda or trapped at the bottom of a crevasse with a ravenous mountain bear. I don't know how they do it. Although I suspect it involves drugs and conspiracy theories. "How are you?"
"I need your help." I didn't really want to waste time on small-talk. This seemed a good chance to get to the crux of the matter.
"No can do, man." He looked apologetic. "Muffin trod on it."
"Trod on what?" I assume Muffin is the tortoiseshell cat, but it might have been his great aunt for all I knew.
"The board." He pulled a broken Ouija board out of the sofa cushions. "So I can't contact the beyond until I buy a new screw-driver."
"I don't want to contact the beyond. I want to contact the dealer who brings your drugs over from Dam."
"Er…" He blinked thoughtfully. "Great guy…"
This didn't narrow it down much. Dan called, and genuinely believed them to be, everyone a great guy.
"Does he have such a thing as a name?" I asked, making a real effort to be patient.
"I suppose so," he said thoughtfully. "Most people do."
"Do you by any chance remember it?"
He stared dreamily into the distance. "Archibald," he said slowly.
"Is that a first name or a surname?"
"I don't know."
"Does he have a phone number?"
"I can't remember things like phone numbers, man. I'm transcending."
"Well, stop transcending for two seconds and help me! Gerald's in trouble!"
"Gerald?" Dan immediately sprang into action. Which is to say, he got up from the floor, ambled into the kitchen and began making a cup of tea. "How's he doing? Great guy, Gerald, great guy…"
"He's doing terribly," I snapped. "He's in prison."
"Prison?" He raised an eyebrow and nodded as if this were just another career choice. "That's life, man. You've gotta live your life… He's living his life… You do you, man, you do you… It's a beautiful thing… Life… Living your life…"
"Your life will end very shortly," I said grimly. "If you don't shut up and give me Archibald's phone number."
More agonised waiting while he drank his tea and went to his mind palace.
"I don't remember," I said gently. "I had it written down, but Muffin ate it."
"Well, how do you get in touch with him now?"
He thought for a moment. "I don't think I can." He sounded completely unconcerned by the fact that his cat had eaten his only means of livelihood.
"Well, how do you get hold of him when you want him?"
"I haven't tried."
"Well, try now!"
"I suppose I could ask Muffin."
"No, you cannot ask your cat for your dealer's number. Merely because he has ingested it, doesn't mean it has made any impression on his mind."
"In that case," said Dan. "There's nothing for it but to mend the board."
"The Ouija board?"
"But Archibald isn't dead." Then I remembered that that wasn't the most stupid thing about that suggestion. "You're going to use a Ouija board to persuade your cat to tell you your dealer's number after he ate the piece of paper with it on?"
"And you don't think that's at all… odd?" But I knew it was futile to ask that question. Not only did I know what the answer would be, I'd spent so long with Gerald and his bizarre antics, my attempt at shock with Dan was somewhat half-hearted.
"You have a restrictive, mono-universal world-view, man," said Dan pityingly.
We had to wait until tomorrow morning, when we took the Ouija board to the garage. The garage attendant looked somewhat surprised, to say the least, by being asked to repair something so out of his usual line of cars, but money is money and the job wasn't complicated—it mainly involved super-glue, which Dan watched with the awe of one witnessing a miracle, an awe he didn't seem to feel for the actual operation of the Ouija board.
In Dan's living room, we set the board up on the desk, with numbers around it, and placed Muffin next to it. Muffin promptly fell asleep. He ignored Dan petting him and stroking him, only to miraculously revive when Dan placed a plate of fish in front of him. While he was thus distracted, Dan placed his paw on the Ouija board.
"Oh, guiding spirits," intoned Dan with his eyes shut. "Please reveal to us Archibald's phone number."
Well, the board rolled. I watched with irritated scepticism and jotted down each number the board stopped at.
Then Dan dialled.
After only three rings the phone was picked up.
"Hello, Archibald," said Dan. "My friend George wants to come and see you."
I suppose what I had witnessed was a miracle, but I was beyond surprise. I had witnessed enough lunacy. I was just tired and wanted to break that idiot Gerald out of prison.
Archibald—this, I discovered later, was a nom de guerre, to conceal his real name of Rocky Bloodadder—could see me at my earliest convenience at his house in Chelsea.
His living room was very different from Dan's. He was sitting with visible discomfort in a hard-backed chair behind a heavy dark-wood desk, stroking a large rabbit. I was horribly aware that this was my first meeting with a gangster, and I would have been impressed if it hadn't been so obvious that he was trying to impress me.
"Good morning." I had no idea what correct gangster etiquette is, but personally I hate pleasantries. "How much money to break a guy called Gerald Smith out of prison?"
Archibald looked at me reproachfully. "We've known each other many years, but this is the first time you ever came to me for counsel or for help."
"We've known each other less than an hour," I said grimly. I wasn't in the mood for fooling around. "Now, how much money?"
I felt that I had impressed him. His accent slipped and the next sentence was purest Cockney. "Most people find that impressive."
"Well, I don't," I snapped. "I've dealt with a real-life knight errant, a marricide, a case of wrongful imprisonment and a Ouija board controlled by a cat. I'm a bit above being impressed by cheap theatrics. How much money?"
"About two thousand pounds?" he said hesitantly, hopeful that that would be acceptable to me.
"Done," I said. I pulled out my cheque book. "Half now, half after."
"Very well," he said. He cleared his throat. "After, and after might never come—"
"It better had," I said grimly. "Or I'll be writing to the Office of Fair Trading."
"I'll call upon you for a thousand pounds," said Archibald rather unhappily. "Until then, accept this gaol-break as a gift on the day of my daughter's third date with a guy called Micky."
"Good," I said. "I expect him at Wellington Arch by eleven 'o' clock tonight."
And I left the cheque on the desk and strode out of the room.
All afternoon I barely had time to think. I packed a rucksack, hired a pickup truck with cash, cancelled my milk, bought a Chinese takeaway, because I knew it might be years before I ate one again. But it wasn't until I was sitting in the truck at Wellington Arch with the window down, night wind ruffling through my head, the shouts and laughter of the drunks floating through the air, so close but on the other side of a gulf, something in another world, that I really knew my life was over. Whoever I was now, I would never be George Jackson, accountant for a toaster company, again. I would be Pseudonymous, fugitive from justice. I would never see my flat again. I would never see the Thames flowing under London Bridge in the soft morning light again. I would never see my mother again. Not that I had seen her in years, but knowing I would never see her again made me think that maybe I should have done. I took out my phone. But what should I say? "Hi, mum. I know I haven't talked to you since school, but I just thought I'd say…" What? "I'm never going to see you again"? No. I slipped my phone back into my pocket and switched it off.
But it was no good complaining. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. And if it destroys his whole life, tough. But why had I got to do it? That was what I asked myself, and it annoyed me, because I'm not used to analysing my own motives. I do things because they make sense. I did my degree because there were good employment prospects at the end of it. I chose my job because it paid well. I went to Spoons because I liked the beer. But how did this make sense? I had never in my life asked myself why I had to do something. And I didn't like the feeling. I could have just left Gerald to rot. Finally been rid of him. Coulda woulda shoulda. But didn't.
Gerald arrived in the back of a white van, and stumbled out onto the pavement. "Hello, George!" he called cheerfully. "Do you know why these gentlemen broke me out of gaol?"
"Shush!" I said, looking around at the late-night drunks. "You don't know who might be listening."
"Oh, sorry," said Gerald. "But do you know why?"
"Yes," I said. "Because I asked a chap called Archibald to arrange it." I scribbled the second cheque and handed it to the driver of the van, who sped off wordlessly into the night. I had paid for a man to be broken out of prison. I was only a few miles from my flat, but I could never walk back into my old life. This was the first day of my new life. No job, no home, no good name.
"Oh." Gerald looked touched. "Thank you very much. That's very kind of you." He considered. "I suppose I'm a wanted fugitive now," he said matter-of-factly. "I should probably go on the run. Goodbye, George." He held out his hand for me to shake.
"Goodbye, nothing!" I said grimly. "You realise I'm a fugitive now, too? I broke you out."
"Oh," said Gerald slowly. "Oh… you shouldn't have."
"I know I bloody well shouldn't have!" I snapped. "But I did, and it's too late to do anything about it, now." I switched on the engine and started up the truck.
"It's not too late." George tried to grab the steering wheel off me, so I elbowed him away. My life might have hit rock bottom, but crashing into the Machine Gun Corps Memorial on my first day fugitiving would make an even rockier bottom. "I'll go back to gaol. No one will ever know that I got out…"
"You will not," I said, outraged. "Why the Hell would you want to do that?"
"Because I don't want you to get into trouble." I looked into his eyes and saw genuine horror and shock. I was surprised. I had never expected the ruins of my life to attract much interest from anyone except me. "I don't want you to get into trouble because of me. I don't want to ruin your life."
"You ruined my life the day I first met you," I snapped.
He looked at me pleadingly. "Then let me make it up to you. I'll go back."
"You will not," I said, still wending my way north, as fast as the speed limits allowed, distracted by Gerald on one side of me and Marshmallow leaning over the back seats and eating my hair on the other.
"George." I had never heard such anguish from anyone before. I instinctively turned at looked at him and nearly turned the wrong way up a one-way street. "Listen to me. This is my life, not yours. You have your flat, your job…"
"You always expressed the opinion that my job would be a fate worse than death."
"Well, yes." He smiled slightly. "But you, inexplicably, seemed to enjoy it."
"Yes," I said. "I'm missing it already."
"Then let me go back. Let me keep you out of trouble. I'm living my life, George. You don't have to be involved." There was the ache of desperation in his voice. He wasn't just being polite. He truly wanted to go back to prison, and let me go back to my life.
But I couldn't do that. My life was over. Irrevocably, irreversibly over. Anything I walked back to now would be only a pale shadow of it, the price of it looming over it, the rest of my life, ruining the taste of the pints at Spoons.
"My life's over." I said.
He kept grabbing the steering wheel all the way to the M1, until eventually I said to him. "Look, if you make me crash this thing and we're both killed, you won't be doing me any favours then, so the best thing you can do for me is to leave me alone."
He settled back in his seat. "Well," he said quietly, and swallowed a couple of times. "Thank you more than I can say."
"Shut up talking, then. I'm trying to drive."
So he shut up talking and we drove north through the night. Driving north through the Home Counties in the pitch dark is not the most scenic experience.
I had the radio on, constantly listening out for "Two dangerous fugitives, armed with a sword, have been spotted in a pickup truck on the M1". But no one said anything of the sort. Country music, traffic update, 90s pop songs, shipping forecast…
I tried to shake off the suspicion that everyone in every car that past us was staring at us. I had driven enough to know that, when driving, the last thing you're interested in, unless they start acting weirdly, are the people in the car next to you. And that nothing would acting weirdly, and therefore attract attention, worse than glancing suspiciously around me all the time.
We stopped for petrol near Leeds. I paid. Gerald, as well as having no clothes or toothbrush or any of the other accoutrements of a respectable life, had no money.
The petrol station sold cheap coffee and sausage rolls. It was half three in the morning, but already the Chinese felt a very long time ago. I resisted the growling of my stomach. I was resolved to avoid prying eyes as far as possible.
We ploughed on. Gerald took a turn at the wheel, but I didn't feel remotely tired. I felt on edge, hot under the collar, faintly sick in the stomach that I knew wasn't just caused by my stomach, but my whole life. Not actively driving and having the mental focus of watching the road made me tremble slightly. I controlled myself, sternly refusing to allow myself to dissolve. What right had I to dissolve? I had my life and health and freedom. Who needs a home? Or a job? Or to stop looking over his shoulder for five seconds?
"So," said Gerald. "Where are we going?"
"We're going off-grid," I said. "We're going to Scotland and you can finally put that Boy Scouting to some use, keeping us alive."
"Fantastic!" He looked genuinely thrilled. What must it be like to have a mind like Gerald's, that every disaster becomes an adventure?
Near Carlisle, the sky was lightning. The road was getting a little busier, even if it was still mostly all-night lorry drivers. As we had to stop for petrol, we decided to buy some breakfast now, while the service station was still relatively quiet, to eat on the road.
I bought us some coffee and a Danish pastry each, and a big packet of Skittles, which I wedged in the dashboard. Figuring I might as well buy lunch, and then we wouldn't have to stop again all day, I bought a sausage roll each and a bottle of Coke.
We were somewhere between Gretna and Lockerbie, Gerald was driving, and physical exhaustion was finally overcoming anxiety and lulling me towards sleep, when the dreaded voice came on the radio. "Gerald Smith, believed to be in the company of George Jackson, has escaped police custody and his current whereabouts are unknown. The public is warned not to approach Smith, who is believed to be armed and to be a dangerous and unstable individual. All sightings must be reported immediately. This is an important announcement from the Metropolitan Police. Gerald Smith, believed to be in the company of George Jackson…"
I turned to Gerald. "They're onto us."
"Well," he said. "There's not much north of Stirling. We can go to ground somewhere in the Cairngorms and never be seen again."
"Mmm," I said, trying to agree with his optimism.
I snoozed uneasily, and woke up near Glasgow. Alas, it was in Glasgow that our problems really began.
There were road-works near Glasgow. The motorway traffic was backed up a mile. I broke the map out of the glove compartment to try to take us off the motorway, but it took an hour to even get to the junction, and then we had to wind for hours down lanes at ten miles an hour until I felt my head would explode. Traffic jams are never fun at the best of times, but the constant dread of a police road-block round every turn only added an extra layer of not being fun.
We ate lunch as we drove, and there was something so oddly surreal about tucking into Greggs sausage rolls and Coke while running for our lives.
Just as we re-joined a much clearer motorway—me driving, Gerald trying to nap—at two in the afternoon, the voice came on the radio again. "A young man matching Mr Jackson's description has been seen behind the wheel of a pickup truck on the M18 near Doncaster."
My hands clenched instinctively on the wheel. I was already at the speed limit, but my foot twitched to stamp on the accelerator.
Doncaster, I reminded myself, was long behind us.
We made up good time that afternoon. The scenery was lovely. Despite everything, I couldn't help but appreciate how beautiful the hills were, rising ever higher and wilder by the side of the road. I've never been much of a one for pretty pictures, and that wishy-washy souvenir-fudge-box countryside, but something about it lifted the soul. No matter what private Hell I might be living in, I could at least live there in beautiful surroundings. Gerald was in good spirits, whistling Take Me Home, Country Roads. Marshmallow had abandoned giving me a new hair-cut for a peaceful slumber. The bad traffic was left behind in Glasgow and after we left Perth at three 'o' clock, there was really nobody around on the roads.
We'd stopped to stretch our legs by the side of the road. "Mr Smith and Mr Jackson are believed to have been sighted on the A9 heading northwards from Stirling. The public is advised…" But I didn't listen any more. Suddenly, behind every tree there lurked a cop.
"Come on," I muttered. "Let's get moving."
"We could stay here," said Gerald. "Permanently, I mean. There are miles and miles of empty countryside here, and Stirling's more than 60 miles back."
I considered it. If they had followed us north from Stirling, maybe they had been derailed in Perth and were now hunting us high and low in Dundee or St Andrews or somewhere.
Then I heard a helicopter, sounding very close in the quiet. I turned round and saw it, over the hills. I couldn't see it well, but it didn't look the right colour for mountain rescue or the air ambulance. I didn't think it had seen us yet, but I wanted to put as many miles as possible between us and it.
Looking at Gerald, I could tell he had the same thought.
All tiredness, all hunger, all aching legs forgotten, we sped north as fast as the speed limit allowed.
But in the corner of my eye I kept seeing little black shapes against the sun, that I knew were helicopters.
By the time evening fell, we were past Inverness and hadn't seen a helicopter for hours. We pulled up on a hill-side overlooking the Beauly Forth, the setting sun turning the water pink the way I didn't know it really did outside soppy poetry. I was shattered, I hadn't slept properly since the night I went up to Dan's in Slough. Gerald was almost as tired. But the radio crackled into life again. "Messers Smith and Jackson are believed to be at large in the Scottish Highlands. The police are working tirelessly to ascertain their whereabouts."
Then an interview came on with a search party in Fort Augustus. Dogs. Drag nets… Fragments of highly technical vocabulary drifted into my addled brain, all of which translated as "We're screwed".
Our plan to just gracefully slide off the radar was crumbling around our ears.
This country just wasn't big enough for our peaceful co-existence with law enforcement.
Because the thing with Britain is that we are an island. Sooner or later, it comes to an end. We could drive all the way to John 'O' Groats, but there, inevitably, the chase must end.
"George," said Gerald. "Let's go abroad."
"How?" I said. "I wish we could. I feel I'm being suffocated on this bloody island. But to get abroad, you need to go through emigration. They're going to check our pass-port. And when they check our pass-port, they're going to stop us at the border."
Then Gerald said the most intelligent thing he had ever said in his life. "Do you remember Whitherby?"
I didn't recognise this for the most intelligent thing Gerald had ever said in his life. "Yes," I said, impatiently.
"You remember his friend McTavish?"
"Yes." I said, impatiently. "He was a sea captain. Navy."
"Took us to sea."
"Took you to sea. I had been kicked out," I reminded him. "Time of your life. You wouldn't shut up about it for months."
"Well," said Gerald, triumphantly. "Since he's retired from the navy, he's been first officer of a fishing trawler, Lucy Belle, in the North Atlantic."
I still failed to grasp his genius. "So what?"
"So," said Gerald triumphantly. "I'm sure he'd let us stow away on Lucy Belle and take us to Greenland or somewhere."
I considered the future life arising before my eyes. From rising accountant for London toaster manufacturers to unemployed in Greenland. But what was the alternative? Prison in England? No contest there.
"But how do you know where he is?" I said. "He might be in Iceland." It was like being in a lake of piranhas and suddenly a rope ladder to freedom descends on the sky. I couldn't quite believe it was happening.
"He's not," said Gerald calmly. "He's landing in Molgarth tomorrow evening."
"How do you know all this?" I said slowly.
"Oh, I have his number," said Gerald, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "He likes boats, you see."
I guess I should have known. Boating people are all friends together, like a cult.
"Gerald," I said. "I don't think I've ever said this before, and I never expected to say it in my life, but I give credit where credit is due, and you are a genius."
"Thank you," said Gerald, looking stunned. "That's very kind of you."
I looked up Molgarth on the map. It was a tiny fishing village between Kinlochbervie and Cape Wrath.
It was miles and miles of winding roads the whole breadth of Scotland.
Neither of us had slept properly.
It might be our only hope.
"Can you phone him?"
Gerald switched on his phone and rang McTavish. The phone rang for a long time, and my heart sank down to my boots, thinking he must not have signal at sea…
But then he answered.
Gerald explained our situation perfectly calmly, and judging how little he had to repeat himself, there was an admirable lack of shocked expostulation.
"All right," he said cheerfully. "Thanks ever so."
He switched off his phone and turned to me, beaming. "He says that Lucy Belle will be in Molgarth harbour tomorrow evening until eight. He'll be supervising the loading and unloading of boxes of fish, so he can hide us in one of the boxes, and will smuggle us as stow-aways to Canada."
"Canada?" I said. "And what will happen to us there?"
He shrugged. "I suppose we're unloaded with some more fish, and we settle down and become fur traders or something."
Weeks at sea in a fish box. A life time as an undocumented immigrant fur trader in Canada. Well, anything was better than Pentonville.
"OK." I said. "Let's roll."
I considered ditching the truck and walking, thinking it might be less conspicuous, but decided against, because it would also be a great deal slower. Cars along these roads were so rare as to make hitchhiking unreliable.
So we drove. A combination of fear and hope was remarkably effective at keeping tiredness at bay.
We took many wrong turnings in the dark, it was freezing cold in the cab of the pick-up, I desperately wanted something to eat.
And closer and closer, like a horribly tightening net, were the helicopters overhead and the bright white glare of their search-lights in the dark.
I was afraid Marshmallow might become fretful in his long confinement, but Marshmallow, finding himself spared the hardship of independent locomotion, had simply devoted himself more whole-heartedly to his two passions of food and sleep.
It was around noon, and we were making good time, still heading in the right direction, even though the roads were narrow and winding, and we could seldom go faster than ten miles an hour and kept getting stuck behind farm trucks and flocks of sheep.
I had the radio on, but it kept cutting out, so we only caught snippets of news. I couldn't tell whether they were confident of catching us or not.
But the whirr of helicopters was a constant background noise.
And then we came to the top of a hill and saw, around a bend in the road, a road-block. It's quite hard to put surprise road-blocks in tree-less, hilly country. I suppose the cops did their best.
"What do we do?" I asked Gerald.
"Turn at the junction."
I hadn't even noticed the junction at the bottom of the hill. It wasn't a proper junction, it was a narrow, winding track, with pebbles so big they scraped the undercarriage of the truck. It didn't seem to go anywhere except a single isolated farm-house.
"Give me the wheel," said Gerald, who was in the passenger seat.
"Give me the wheel." He had the expression on his face of one who has reached a higher state of consciousness.
"Where we going to go?"
He gestured at the hill-side in front of us. "Molgarth."
"You can't drive the pick-up across country. It's not a Jeep."
"What's your suggestion?"
I didn't have one, beyond sitting here on this wind-swept mountain, waiting for the cops to find us, with some rather sturdy, no-nonsense cattle nosing around us.
"OK," I said. "You got the com."
He took the wheel and drove, at break-neck speed, across country to Molgarth. It's a wonder we weren't killed, we didn't fall off a mountain, we didn't over-turn.
We arrived in Molgarth in the afternoon. In very good time, I thought. The ship hadn't even arrived yet, and there wasn't a helicopter in sight.
Molgarth was suitably wind-swept and desolate. It looked like the sort of place where long-ago Jacobites might have embarked in their little boats into exile.
A couple of little houses, huddling low against the hill-side, a little harbour with a couple of fishing boats and the gulls wheeling and screaming above. A single, corrugated iron ware-house above the harbour.
We dumped the truck in a siding and lay down in the heather, watching the horizon. Marshmallow had an enthusiastic roll, then lay down and dozed off, as placid and content as ever he was in his back-yard in Croydon or in my shower. I envied Marshmallow. Food and sleep= happiness. Must be a decent life.
The sun set in front of us, over the sea. My spirits rose. I began to hum cheerfully, "Mull of Kintyre". Freedom was so close, I could feel my shoulders getting lighter.
Even the occasional whisper of police sirens drifting over the hills didn't bother me. Soon, now, we would be away for good.
"Isn't it beautiful?" said Gerald.
"Yes," I said, admiring the sun-set. "It is." It was. I had nothing to do other than lie and look at it, and so I looked, and appreciated.
I'll never forget the first sight of Lucy Belle rounding the head-land and dropping her anchor. I'd never understood Gerald cooing over how beautiful ships were—"look at the lines on her", he used to say, as if she were a living thing rather than a floating bundle of wood—but, maybe it was the circumstances, maybe it was my heart leaping out of my chest at the sight of freedom and peace at last, but she was beautiful. I can't go into this highly technical jargon about "lines" and I can't even name all the parts—I know the bows are the front end and the stern is the back end, but that's it. But the way she glided along looked so free and carefree and lovely.
"Isn't she a beauty?" I said to Gerald, before realising that I know nothing about boats and had probably just offered a very unprofessional opinion.
But Gerald nodded firmly. "Lovely ship. Beautiful lines on her."
We got up form the heather and hurried down towards Molgarth, Marshmallow, who doesn't like hurrying, snorting indignantly behind us.
If you like, you can stop reading now. Now that there might be a happy ending.
"Tibbles!" An elderly lady was standing in front of her cottage. "Tibbles!" She turned to us, apparently completely incurious about what two young men, one lugging a suitcase on wheels, accompanied by a pony with a rat on his head, were doing wandering Molgarth of an evening. "Boys! Have you seen my Tibbles!"
I was going to completely ignore her.
But Gerald, inevitably, stopped. "Who's Tibbles, madam?"
"Come on!" I tugged at his arm.
The intermittent noise of police sirens in the distance was rising to a persistent wail. It was impossible to judge how far away, because the changing winds and the shape of the hills and the lack of other sounds made sound travel weirdly. But the faster I could stow away in that fish box, the happier I would be.
"He's my cat," explained the lady. "He never normally strays. He's black, with one white sock and a white ear. I can't bear to think he might have fallen off a cliff… Oh, boys, will you help me look for him…?"
"Of course," said Gerald.
"No!" I said, aiming for stern but coming out wailing. "Gerald, we're in a rush, remember?"
I jerked my head towards Lucy Belle, now parked in the bay.
"Go on, then," said Gerald.
But I couldn't tear myself away from him. He infuriated me, but I couldn't leave him to hunt for this damn cat on his own.
"I've looked all round the garden," said the lady, gesturing at the bare patch of rocky dirt stretching down towards the coast. "I'm afraid he must have gone up there." It was a narrow dirt track leading to the warehouse. "My legs aren't what they were…."
"I'd be delighted to help," said Gerald, smiling, genuinely delighted. Our escape and the police and our new lives in Canada were forgotten. I could have punched him in frustration.
"Gerald," I said, following him past the cottage, where he peered into the heather by the side of the road in search of Tibbles. "If we miss this ship, we could be arrested, we could be killed, for this bloody cat."
"But she needs our help."
"Why does she need our help?"
"To find her cat."
"But why our help? Why do we owe her help? What is she to us?"
"Well," said Gerald calmly. "You can go and stow away, and I'll find the cat."
But I didn't do that. I remained trotting along at his heels. "You do realise that if we miss this ship, we are stuck here in this village until we're caught?"
"And this matters that much? This cat?"
"But I haven't done a Deed today. In fact, I don't think I did one yesterday either. That puts me two days behind." He peered into a gorse bush. "Tibbles… Tibbles…"
I glanced at Lucy Belle. Still here, but for how much longer? How long did it take to unload fish boxes? I shivered in the sharp wind blowing in from the sea.
With every passing minute the light was less, and I didn't see how I was supposed to see this damn cat even if we did find him.
"Gerald, cats are top predators. It'll be fine."
"But she's worried about him."
"I'm worried about us. And that bloody boat leaving without us."
"Go and catch the bloody boat, then! I'm not stopping you!"
"But what about you? When I say I'm worried about us, that includes you."
"But why?" said Gerald. "You never wanted to get involved. You never wanted to save Rosamund from the foul fiend. You never cared about any of this stuff. I never asked you to be involved. It was all my idea and you just tagged along and complained. Why don't you just leave?" He sounded deeply, genuinely baffled.
"Because," I said helplessly. "As you said to the magistrates, we're friends. Whether I like it or not."
"Meow," said a little voice in the dark.
"Where was that?" asked Gerald.
We blundered around in the dark heading for the direction of the meow.
"Puss," called Gerald.
"Puss, puss, puss…" I joined in.
Almost under our feet, in the ruins of an old shepherd's bothy, two bright emerald eyes fixed on us like lanterns, was Tibbles.
"Come here, boy." Gerald knelt to gather him us in his arms. "Oh, look, he's hurt his paw!"
And, indeed, his paw was trapped under a stone.
I knelt down, pulled the stone away and dug out Tibbles' paw. Tibbles, mewling with gratitude, nestled into my lap. I dislodged him, and Gerald cradled him against his chest.
I turned and saw Lucy Belle gliding away over the purple water in the last rays of the setting sun.
"Well," I said quietly. "I guess that's that."
Gerald said nothing. He was carrying Tibbles back to mummy with the expression of deep spiritual peace of one who has done his Good Deed for the day.
"Oh, you've found him!" beamed the lady. "Thank you! Thank you so much!"
"Come on!" I said to Gerald. God knows what I hoped to do. We'd lost the truck, there was nowhere in this bare, tree-less land-scape to hide, we had a pony with us who didn't seem capable of more than about two miles an hour for short bursts.
"But you must come in!" said the lady. "You must let me thank you properly for finding Tibbles, and have some cake."
"No," I said wildly. I didn't care if she thought I was rude. I was horribly aware that the sound of sirens was uncomfortably loud. "We have to go… somewhere."
I had a wild idea of stealing one of the fishing boats, but the countryside between us and the harbour was already dotted with police cars, and I realised we were surrounded. The net was closing in.
"Good Lord," said the lady. "Are all these police cars coming to Molgarth?"
"Yes," I said grimly. "I'm afraid I think they are."
"Oh, good Lord!" The lady beamed. "You're not… criminals, are you? Can I have a selfie?"
Much as I hated to ruin the most exciting day of the old dear's life, I didn't feel this was the time. However, I had no choice, as she pulled out her phone and began snapping away. (I later found that the images had gone up on Twitter, with the caption "Serial Killers who saved my baby!".)
"Any regrets?" I asked Gerald.
"Oh, George, I told you that you should have let me go back…"
"No," I said. "I'm not blaming you. I just want to know whether, on your own account, you have any regrets for ending up here. I guess I'm trying… to understand how your mind works…"
"None whatsoever," he said simply.
I regretted a lot of things. Not least not getting Suzie's number. But what would I have said to her? "Hi, it's sick-shirt guy. I think I'm about to be arrested, or killed, so I just called to say…" But I don't phone girls back. I'm not that kind of guy.
The cars had pulled up to a halt, and there was a great deal of dizzying flashing light, and quite a few guns. Yes, definitely might be killed, and much as I try to look on the bright side of things, I must say I regarded the prospect of being killed with less than ecstatic joy.
"Lower your weapon!" barked the sergeant through a megaphone. "Surrender yourselves! You're under arrest!"
I raised my hands with what I hope was a meek and humble air, but Gerald was swinging his leg over Marshmallow.
"What the Hell are you doing?" I blurted, panicked.
"Fighting for life and liberty, that's what I'm doing."
"But we're under arrest."
"Surrender yourselves!" crackled the megaphone.
Gerald looked at me sadly and shook his head. "I'll never surrender," he said matter-of-factly.
"But you don't stand a chance. There's a dozen of them. With guns!"
"But my strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure," he said quietly, looking up at the moon rising over the hills.
"Ten ain't a dozen! You'll be killed!" I was aware of the edge of hysteria in my own voice, but I didn't care.
"Maybe," he said calmly. "I'll chance it." He shrugged, and I got that feeling again that his eyes were looking at something that wasn't there, that I couldn't see.
I wondered if I should tell Gerald about the clerk of the court with eyes like an owl's, and how he would carry a piece of her heart away with him forever.
"Give my regards to Celia," he said, and I realised that he wouldn't care a jot about the court clerk.
He drew his sword and charged—he actually managed to urge Marshmallow into a shambling trot.
Well, he got a little bit nearer to the line of cars, and Marshmallow was actually putting in some good acceleration. And then they killed him.
All I can say is, I hope Tibbles is bloody grateful.
There's not much left to tell, really.
If any of you are interested in me, I was arrested and pleaded guilty to recruiting one Rocky Bloodadder, known in the trade as Archibald, to help a murderer escape lawful imprisonment and attempt to flee the country.
I could have tried to explain that it was Rosamund that was the murderer, but I didn't. I've never cared much for justice as justice, and Gerald cared enough about the stupid bitch's happiness to die for it. He might as well have died for something.
I'm not finding Pentonville as bad as I thought. It's orderly and peaceful and there's a regular routine. Not nearly as exhausting as Gerald.
I met the court clerk again at Gerald's funeral.
"He was such a brave man," she said, blinking at me, her eyes all boggly the way girls' are when they try to imitate the way actresses' eyes swim in films.
"Mm," I said, not wanting to be drawn into conversation.
"Mm," I grunted uncommunicatively, pushing away through the crowd.
"My heart goes into the ground with the coffin."
"Mm," I said politely, uninterested.
"I shall cleave to him onto the grave, I consider myself his wife."
I escaped by feigning a desperate need for the toilet.
The last I heard of her, she had chucked her job as a court clerk and become a nun.
And Celia? Last time I checked, she was married to someone called Joe, but that was half an hour ago, and it might have changed since then.
As for Celia, the Sea Scouts got her. He would have liked that.
So Gerald never did get to write that book. But at least he got to be in one.