‘Right then, Flutter.’ The prison officer pointed to the paperwork. ‘Just sign here and then you can be on your way.’
The man called Flutter signed his name, and the officer slid an envelope across the counter.
‘These are your train tickets. Make sure you go straight to Paddington and make sure you catch the right train. We’ll know if you don’t.’
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ said Flutter, impatiently.
‘It’s all part of the release conditions,’ said the officer patiently.
‘Don’t worry, mate, I’ll get there,’ said Flutter.
‘You’d better make sure you do. Come on, let’s go.’
Flutter picked up his rucksack and followed the prison officer down the corridor to the gate. As he unlocked the gate, the officer spoke over his shoulder.
‘And make sure you don’t come back.’
‘No chance,’ said Flutter. ‘I should never have been sent here in the first place. I didn’t do it, you know.’
The officer grinned ruefully and shook his head as he walked.
‘Of course, you didn’t do it, Flutter, that’s why you were found guilty.’
‘They set me up. Even the judge could see it, that’s why I only got twelve months.’
‘Is that right? Well, perhaps you should be more careful about the company you keep.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ve learnt my lesson. I’m making a new start.’
The prison officer raised an eyebrow.
‘Making a new start doing what?’
‘Keeping my nose clean, of course.’
‘You think it’s going to be that easy do you?’
‘What’s that supposed to mean? Don’t you want me to go straight?’
‘Of course, I want you to go straight, but it’s not that easy or everyone would do it, wouldn’t they? Trust me, I’ve seen it hundreds of times. Unless you’ve got a plan with some sort of purpose in your life, you’ll drift straight back into your old life.’
‘Not me, mate. From now on, I’ll be keeping my nose clean.’
The prison officer offered another wry smile.
‘If I had a pound for every man who’s told me that, I would have retired years ago. People like you never learn, and you never change. Trust me, if you haven’t got a plan and a purpose, I’ll give you six months at best, and then you’ll be back here. You mark my words.’
Flutter looked at the prison officer with something bordering on amusement.
‘You’ll miss me, you know.’
‘Sure, I will,’ said the officer sarcastically. ‘Because I need people like you in my life, just like I need herpes. Now, go on, be on your way.’
He opened the pedestrian gate, and Flutter took a pace forward. He looked nervously out at the world before finally stepping through into daylight and freedom. The door slammed closed behind him, and he walked forward a few paces, then turned and looked back at the huge gate and the massive walls. The old Victorian building looked tired, and he stopped for a second as he searched his mind for the right word. Then a smile creased his face.
‘Jaded, yeah, that’s the word. And I know exactly how you feel,’ he muttered to the dirty grey building.
After spending a year in this Godforsaken place, all he wanted to do now was get away as fast as he could. He turned, lifted the rucksack onto his shoulder and began to walk away, all the time looking left and right.
He had been warned inside that people would be waiting for him when he came out. He had no idea if this was a genuine threat, or if someone had started a rumour to try and scare him but, either way, Flutter had decided he was taking no chances.
As he reached the road, he looked to his left and right. A man seemed to glance his way as he disappeared into a small shop about fifty yards off to his left, but apart from this, no one seemed to be paying particular attention to him.
Satisfied he was safe for the moment he waited for an oncoming car to pass before he crossed the road. The car suddenly slowed and, for a moment, he held his breath as he envisioned it stopping, the back door opening, and a voice calling his name. Then the car accelerated again, and as it passed by he could see a woman driving with two children in the back. He sighed in relief as he realised he had nothing to fear there.
Now the road was clear he put his head down and walked across, turning right as he reached the other side. His immediate destination was the nearest tube station which was just around the corner, about a hundred yards down the road. He was confident that, if he could make his way inside unseen, he should be safe enough. And then he heard the shout.
Flutter turned and looked back down the road. The man he’d seen going into the small shop had just emerged and was pointing in his direction. Now he called out again.
‘Hold on a minute. I need to speak to you.’
‘No chance, mate,’ muttered Flutter as he spun on his heel and sprinted for the tube station. Unseen, and unheard, the other man was now holding an envelope aloft and waving it in Flutter’s direction.
‘Come back, you idiot,’ he called. ‘I’ve got something for you.’
But it was obvious Flutter wasn’t listening.
‘Moron,’ muttered the man as he watched Flutter tearing towards the tube station. ‘Now I’m going to have to waste more of my precious time.’
A few minutes later Flutter was standing on a platform deep underground. He was sure the man hadn’t followed him into the tube station, but even so, he could feel his heart pounding and he couldn’t relax.
He had a ticket to Paddington station clutched in his hand. Once there, he would get the first train heading west and leave the City behind forever. It wasn’t quite the life he had in mind a few years ago, but then, his original plan hadn’t included serving time for a crime he hadn’t committed. When something like that happens, it tends to ruin up whatever plans you might have had.
On the plus side, he was alive, and he was healthy. So, now he was free, he just wanted to put it all behind him and start again. Conveniently for Flutter fate had determined he would make that fresh start in Waterbury.
After living in a tiny cell for months Flutter had forgotten how huge Paddington station was, and it was only after wandering around for a few minutes that he began to adjust to the hustle and bustle surrounding him. But the wandering had also served to convince him he wasn’t being followed and he finally began to relax.
He had twenty minutes to kill before his train was due to leave so he bought himself a small bottle of water and a newspaper, then looked around for somewhere to sit. He settled for an empty bench that gave him a good view of the clock and the platform his train would be leaving from.
The train had just arrived and was now disgorging its passengers onto the platform. Absently, he watched as they swarmed through the gate and onto the main concourse and wondered if twenty minutes was enough time for the train to be made ready to head back down the line.
He became aware someone else was now sitting on the other end of the bench and he cast a sideways glance at the newcomer. He felt he should know the man but he could only see him in profile so he couldn’t be sure. The man began to turn towards him and Flutter quickly looked away.
‘I hope you’re not going to run off again,’ said the man.
Flutter turned and now he could see exactly who it was. His face must have shown his alarm.
‘Why are you following me?’ asked Flutter.
‘I’m not here to hurt you, if that’s what you think,’ said the man, hastily.
‘I dunno what to think right now. First you’re outside the prison and now you’ve followed me here. I was warned someone would be waiting for me, so what do you expect me to think?’
‘You’ve got nothing to fear from me.’
‘How do I know that? I don’t know you from Adam.’
‘You don’t need to know who I am. I’ve got something for you.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about,’ said Flutter.
The man moved to reach for his pocket but Flutter’s eyes nearly popped out of his head, so he stopped, his hand in mid-air.
‘Blimey, what’s up? D’you think I’ve got a shooter in my pocket?’ he asked.
Flutter licked his lips.
‘Like I said, I dunno what to think, do I?’
‘Jesus, man, pull yourself together. Do I look stupid enough to pull a gun in a crowded place like this? I’m a messenger with an envelope not a gangster with a gun.’
‘Yes, an envelope. It’s not your average deadly weapon, is it?’
‘Why have you got an envelope for me?’
‘Because I was asked to make sure you got it.’
‘What’s in it?’
‘My guess is it’s a letter, what do you think?’
‘Is it important?’
‘Gawd, I don’t know, do I? I didn’t write the damned thing. I was just asked to deliver it.’
‘Who asked you to deliver it to me?’
‘A guy who calls himself Shifty. You do know him, right?’
‘Yes, I know him. We shared a flat together.’
‘Right, well, he said the letter was delivered to the flat, but you didn’t live there anymore. So he asked me to find you and make sure you got it.’
‘Is it important?’
‘I’ve no idea; he didn’t say, but I’m guessing he thought so, or he wouldn’t have paid me to find you and give it to you.’
‘He paid you?’
‘Of course he paid me. You don’t think I spend my time chasing people like you for fun, do you?’
‘Why didn’t he bring it himself? Come to that, why hasn’t he been to visit me? I’ve been inside for twelve months and I’ve not had a single visitor.’
‘Search me. Maybe he didn’t think you’d want to see him.’
‘Why wouldn’t I want to see him?’
‘How would I know what he’s thinking? I’m not his psychiatrist. I’m a messenger, and he’s just a bloke who asked me to deliver a letter.’
‘He’s my best mate, or at least I thought he was.’
The man sighed.
‘Look, much as I’d love to sit here and sort your life out, I’ve got a lot on today, and you’re starting to make my head ache. Now, do you want this letter, or not?’
‘Well, yes, I suppose so,’ said Flutter.
The man reached slowly for his pocket, carefully withdrew a white envelope and handed it to Flutter who took the envelope and looked at it curiously.
‘Right, I’ll be off, then,’ said the man getting to his feet.
Flutter looked up at him.
‘Why didn’t Shifty visit me in prison?’
‘Why don’t you ask him yourself?’
‘You know, though, don’t you?’
The man gave Flutter a sad little smile.
‘I make it my policy never to speak for other people.’ He nodded towards the platform where Flutter’s train was waiting. ‘It looks as if your train’s just about to leave.’
Flutter looked towards the platform and realised the man was right. He grabbed the rucksack and galloped towards the train.
The man watched Flutter stuff the envelope into his coat pocket as he ran, and watched him climb onto the train. As Flutter disappeared from view the messenger offered an unseen wave of his hand then turned and headed for the exit.
As the train set off Flutter gazed through the window at nothing in particular and contemplated his future. Up until the time he’d been arrested, the ethics of the lifestyle he had fallen into had never bothered him. He felt his philosophy was justified because he only took advantage of what he regarded as other people’s carelessness. Anyway, as long as he could eat, pay the rent, and have a laugh, did it really matter how he came by his money?
He was proud of the fact he had never committed anything he considered to be a serious crime and had never physically hurt anyone. In a weird way he thought this made him the acceptable sort of criminal, tolerated, and accepted by society, so he had felt it was the ultimate injustice when he had been found guilty and locked up for a crime he hadn’t committed.
The irony of the situation completely escaped him, but being locked away had given him plenty of time to think. At first all he could focus on was the injustice of it all and how he was going to find out who had done this to him and how he would exact his revenge.
But then a chance encounter with the prison padre had led to a series of conversations which finally made him face up to the reality of his existence. On one occasion the padre’s words had painted vivid pictures in Flutter’s head of a young woman with hungry kids and no money to buy food or even pay the rent because a thief like him had scooped up her purse and run off with it.
As a child he had known times when he, too, had gone without food, and the padre’s story reminded him of the misery that went with such hunger and, for the first time, he began to understand what it must be like for the parents who’d done their best to find the money to feed their kids and then had it snatched away by people like him.
By the time his sentence was nearing its end, fate intervened in the form of a letter telling him his uncle William, who had acted like a father and raised him, had died and left him a house in Waterbury. To Flutter this was a sign that was pointing him away from his troubled past in London and offering him the chance to make a new life in the town where he grew up. He knew it was too late to put right what he’d done wrong in the past, but maybe in the future he could make amends in some way.
It was a pretty vague plan as Flutter had absolutely no idea how he was going to achieve this aim, but then he had never been one for details. He would think of something. He always did.
As he settled into the journey he remembered the envelope the messenger had handed him at Paddington station. He fumbled in his coat pocket, withdrew the letter and studied the envelope, then he carefully flipped it over and studied the back looking for any tell-tale marks that would prove it had been opened, but as far as he could tell it had not been tampered with. To his surprise the return address on the back indicated it had been sent from Henry Roebuck, Solicitor, whose office was in Waterbury.
This presented him with a dilemma. In Flutter’s rather limited experience, anything that sounded remotely official was unlikely to be good news and he wondered if perhaps he could get away with throwing the letter out of the window and pretend he’d never received it.
He was about to stand up and reach for the window when his curiosity got the better of him, and a better idea popped into his head; why not open the letter and read it? If it was bad news he could still get rid of the evidence and plead ignorance.
It took him the best part of twenty minutes to read the three page document. This was in part because of what Flutter called the “legal-speak” language which he struggled to make sense of. Once again it was telling him he had been left a house in Waterbury only this time it was a little confusing as it mentioned the death of his father.
Flutter’s parents Wesley and Julie, had died in a traffic accident when he was very small, and he had been raised by his Uncle William and Aunt Sylvie. This worried him a little but he finally decided this was merely a technicality as his uncle had raised him like a father and had often called him “son”. He resolved to sort out this confusion when he met with the solicitor.
He didn’t recognise the address of the house either, but then he’d been away for years and they’d lost contact. His uncle could easily have moved house in that time.
Two hours later, Flutter was standing on the platform at Waterbury railway station studying the giant street map on the wall. Although he had spent his childhood in Waterbury, he had left fifteen years ago and the address he was heading for was unfamiliar. Carefully he made a mental note of the directions to his destination before he set off.
As he made his way through the exit, Flutter looked up at the sky. Large, dark clouds were gathering from the West. He estimated it would be roughly a ten minute walk and as he set off he wondered if he would reach his destination before the heavens opened.
As he walked through the town, he was keen to take in his surroundings. It didn’t seem to have changed that much and remained a pleasant enough little town. It was going to be a bit quiet after London, but that was then and this was now. Now he wanted small and quiet. Small and quiet would be good. Perhaps this would be the place where he could find a proper job, keep his head down and become part of the furniture. Perhaps…
Had he been wearing a wristwatch, he would have been pleased to know he had been spot on with his estimated journey time to Willow Grove. Sadly, several months ago, he had found it prudent to donate his to a fellow inmate in return for not getting smacked around.
Flutter had no idea what Willow Grove was going to be like but he remembered the house he had grown up in. With this in mind he was expecting to find a row of dingy, two-up, two-down, terraced houses. So, when he finally found the sign saying Willow Grove, he stopped, mouth open. He looked again at the street name, to be sure, but there was no mistake.
The road before him swept away in a long graceful curve to the left. From what he could see, many of the houses were hidden behind neat, tidy hedges, and they were much more extensive than he had expected, and detached, too. He squinted at the house opposite and made out the number 2. He was looking for number 54, so he crossed the road and began to walk.
He shifted the bag onto his other shoulder as he walked and realised he must look out of place in these surroundings. He only possessed the clothes he was wearing, and much as he loved his old duffel coat, it hadn’t exactly been fashionable when he bought it ten years ago, and his tatty jeans had definitely seen better days.
He looked across the road at a house with large imposing windows. A disapproving face stared back from an upstairs window. Flutter instinctively looked away, and for a few seconds, he faltered. The desire to turn and run was almost overwhelming, but he had learned all about self-control in prison. After a few deep breaths, he regained his composure, and now he looked up at the face.
‘Nuts to you, mate,’ he said, as he waved and smiled at the face in the window. ‘I know what you’re thinking, but I own one of these houses, so I’m as entitled to be here as you are.’
The owner of the face at the window seemed shocked at the audacity of the stranger and slunk back guiltily. Head held high, Flutter continued proudly down the road in search of his house.
A tall red brick wall surrounded number 54, and a pair of ornate iron gates guarded the driveway. Flutter walked up to the gates and peered through at the house.
‘Bloody hell, this can’t be right, can it?’ he muttered.
He pulled the letter from his pocket and unfolded it again. He knew the contents by heart, but even so, he quickly read through it again. He looked at the house and read the address out loud.
‘Number 54 Willow Grove, Waterbury. This has to be the one. Uncle Billy must have won the lottery!’
Ornate trees surrounded the large courtyard on the other side of the gate. They created the perfect setting for the elegant, imposing house. There was a large double garage off to one side, and he wondered if there were any cars inside. They weren’t mentioned in the letter, but then there had been no mention of a mansion, had there?
He pushed at the gates, but they didn’t budge so he turned his attention to the wall. He guessed it was about eight feet high, and when he raised his arms his fingertips were a few inches below the top. He knew if he could get a good run-up, he would comfortably be able to reach the top and scramble over, but it would be in full view of anyone who might be watching. The last thing he wanted was some nosey neighbour calling the police.
He stepped back and scratched his head, and that was when he noticed the keypad. He looked down at the letter again and then smiled as things fell into place.
‘So that’s what that number’s for. Why didn’t they just say there’s a keypad outside? What am I supposed to be, a mind reader?’
Carefully he tapped each number into the keypad, double-checking each one against the letter to make sure. As he pressed the green “enter” button, he held his breath. For a second, nothing happened, then there was the low, whirring sound of an electric motor, and the gates slowly opened.
Flutter watched in fascinated delight as the gates opened. Things like this didn’t happen to him, and he wondered if perhaps this was a dream and at any minute he would wake up and find he was still in that pokey cell…
As the gates reached their fully open position, there was a satisfying “clang”. There was another keypad a few yards through the gate. Flutter walked over to it and pressed the “close” button. Then he stood and enjoyed watching the gates again, until another “clang” told him they were closed.
He was sorely tempted to open and close the gates again just for the fun of it, but the first few drops of what looked a potentially heavy shower were beginning to fall. Now a more powerful urge took over. There was something he had been unable to do for what had been a very long year.
A broad canopy covered the front door of the house. He hurried across the courtyard to it, placed his bag on the floor, slipped off his duffel coat and dropped it alongside. Then he walked back into the centre of the courtyard and stopped. As big, round, fat drops of fresh rain splattered to the ground he raised his face to the sky and spread his arms.
Oh, that felt so good…
Once his hair and tee-shirt, were suitably soaked, Flutter walked back to the front door. There was another keypad here, but they had told him about this one. He didn’t need the letter to recall the code. This was an easy one to remember; it was four zeros.
‘That’ll have to change,’ he muttered as he tapped the number in. There was a loud click as the locks opened, and the door swung open. He was in!