The hooded figure seemed to move effortlessly without making a sound, his dark clothes helping him blend into the dirty light provided by the few dim and dingy streetlights that actually worked. He wore dark glasses, and anyone watching might have thought this was rather eccentric at this time of night, but he had his reasons. As he walked, he continually cast glances all around him, as if he had been trained to expect trouble at any moment. However, he could detect no sound or sign of movement anywhere. This was as it should be, for it was Sunday night, and the small, scruffy industrial estate was closed down for the weekend.
As he neared the huge waste paper and cardboard skip outside the disused printing works, he slipped into a darkened doorway where he stood stock-still and watched up and down the road. For ten whole minutes he kept his position, barely moving a muscle and hardly seeming to breathe. When he was eventually satisfied no one was watching him, he glided from the doorway and across to the skip.
It was a fully enclosed metal skip with just the one door, through which paper and cardboard would have been placed before being forced inside by a huge ram. However, now it was disused and the ram disconnected, the skip suited the man’s purpose perfectly. Who wouldn’t want to sleep in their own waterproof metal home? And with just the one door, it was easy to keep others out. Admittedly, he had to share it with a few mice and the occasional rat, but they were there to take advantage of the insulated warmth provided by the waste paper just as he was, so he didn’t begrudge their company.
He slipped off his rucksack and dark glasses, switched on a tiny torch that just about managed a dim glow, and then, on hands and knees, dragging the rucksack behind him, he began to ease himself through the trapdoor where the ram would have been and into the familiar atmosphere of paper and printer’s ink, overlaid with just a hint of the pungent aroma of rodent urine. He made his way as far as the opening to the main part of the skip, and then he suddenly stopped, momentarily unsure of what he could smell. It took just a couple of seconds, but he was soon in no doubt; there was a new, unfamiliar smell in his home.
Now the reason for the dark glasses became apparent. By wearing them at night, his eyes were already adjusted to the darkness, and despite only having the dim glow of the tiny torch by which to see, he could comfortably make out the shape of a man wrapped in waste paper and buried under several layers of cardboard. The man seemed to be asleep.
He inched cautiously forward. As he did, he noticed a weird, vaguely antiseptic smell which seemed to be emanating from him. Once he was close enough, he aimed the torch at the man’s face. It was a face he knew from the past, but not one he had expected to see again. He reached across and shook his shoulder.
‘Morgan?’ he said, angrily. ‘I haven’t seen you in years and suddenly you think you can turn up in my town and steal my bed. What the hell are you doing here?’
The other man grunted and his eyes flew open, the whites stark in the darkness.
‘What the– Ryan? Is that you?’
‘Come on, man, you know how it works. You can’t just creep in here while I’m out and steal my bed,’ said Ryan, angrily. ‘Get your things and piss off.’
Morgan coughed feebly. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, weakly, ‘but I feel so ill. I’ve got to have somewhere warm and dry to sleep.’
‘If you feel that ill, you should go to the hospital,’ argued Ryan.
‘I can’t do that,’ said Morgan. ‘Besides, I don’t remember seeing your name above the door, so as far as I’m concerned, you can bugger off. I’m here, you weren’t, so it’s my bed now.’
‘You bastard,’ hissed Ryan. ‘You know the rules. I’ve a good mind to throw you out.’
‘You wouldn’t do that, though, would you?’ said Morgan, confidently. ‘Beating up an old mate when he’s too sick to fight back just wouldn’t fit with you, would it?’ He knew he was on safe ground here. Ryan had watched his back many times in the past, and that was why he was here. He knew Ryan would look out for him. It was what they all did for each other. It was the code they lived by where they came from.
Ryan sighed a big, heavy sigh.
‘You’re an arsehole, Morgan, you know that? I’ve been sleeping here for weeks all on my own. No one else even knew this place existed, and now you come along and suddenly I’ve lost my home.’
‘You shouldn’t have told me you lived in Tinton if you wanted to keep it a secret.’
‘I told you because I thought I could trust you.’
‘But there’s plenty of room for two,’ said Morgan, coyly, ‘and I promise I won’t snore.’
‘It’s not bloody funny,’ snapped Ryan. ‘You’re going to have to move out tomorrow or I really will throw you out.’
‘I might be dead by then,’ said Morgan, ruefully.
‘Don’t talk like that,’ said Ryan. ‘If you’re still rough in the morning I’m going to get an ambulance down here.’
‘But you can’t do that–’
‘I can. And if the alternative is to watch you die, I will do it!’
Morgan coughed again.
‘Have you got any water?’ asked Ryan.
‘I’ve got a bit left,’ Morgan muttered.
Ryan fumbled open his rucksack and reached inside. ‘Here, take mine,’ he said, placing a battered plastic bottle of water down next to Morgan.
‘You’re not going, are you?’ asked Morgan, sounding worried now.
‘You know I can’t share, and anyway you’ll be safe enough in here,’ said Ryan, heading for the door. ‘I’ll be back in the morning. We’ll talk then.’
Ryan turned and crawled back through the trapdoor and out into the fresh air outside. As he stood up and began to walk away from the skip, he realised Morgan had been right; there was no way he could turn his old comrade out into the night when he was obviously pretty ill. Morgan seemed adamant he wouldn’t go near a doctor, but Ryan didn’t know what exactly his problem was, or why he was so keen to avoid any contact with a medical professional. As he headed away from the industrial site, he thought maybe tomorrow he would try to get Morgan to shed some light on the subject.
Former Detective Sergeant, now just plain Mr, David Slater yawned expansively as he made his weary way to baggage reclaim at Gatwick Airport. His flight back from Bangkok that should have taken sixteen hours, including a three-hour stopover in Dubai, had actually taken eight hours longer because first, some idiot had left an unattended bag in the main concourse at Dubai, and then their aircraft had developed some sort of technical problem while on the ground.
Slater had thought it somewhat ironic that so many people had complained very loudly about the bag turning out to be a false alarm, and he had wondered if perhaps they would have preferred the bag to have been the real deal. Then there had been more complaints about the technical problem with their aircraft, as if some of them would have preferred to take off with the problem unsolved. At one point, he had even pointed out to some particularly vociferous passengers, who were haranguing one of the airline staff, that had the aircraft developed a problem while they were in the air, they might not have had been in the fortunate position of being able to complain about it.
He hadn’t really been surprised to find his comments fell on stony ground, and it seemed to him that for some people, complaining was simply a form of pleasure, much like a hobby. He assumed these must be the same people who spent all their time writing to complain to someone, somewhere, about something . . .
Now he stood back and watched, amused, as those very same people now indignantly complained about the lack of space around the carousel. Apparently some other people from their flight were trying to secure their own bags first. How dare they? Life just wasn’t fair, was it?
Slater found a relatively uncrowded space away from the carousel, leaned back against the wall, and waited. He would watch, and wait, until the crush died down. He was way too tired to fight with anyone for anything right now, and besides, he had nothing to rush home for, and there was nowhere in particular he had to be. His suitcase would still be there, going round and round, until he collected it. And, if he was honest, right now he just couldn’t be arsed.
As he waited, he thought about his current position. He was now officially jobless, which was either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on his mood at the time he was considering it. On the negative side, it meant he had no visible means of support, which was just a tad worrying, but then, on the positive side, it had just enabled him to spend three weeks in Thailand, something he would never have done had he still been employed.
He had gone away on his own for some peace and solitude to celebrate his fortieth birthday. Or at least that was what he had told anyone who had asked, and that was the story he was sticking to now he was back. It was true he had travelled out on his own, and he had travelled back on his own, but what had actually happened while he was out there, and had made it necessary to extend his stay from two weeks to three, was no one’s business but his. Not that there was anyone here in England who was likely to ask, except perhaps his best friend Norman Norman, who had been forced to retire from the force on the grounds of apparently being a bit too roly-poly for the demands of the job.
During his three weeks away, Slater had come to realise that apart from Norman, his only friends were his ex-colleagues, and it had occurred to him that without realising it, he had been so involved with his job he had become a loner with almost no social life. This was something he had resolved to put right. All he had to do was figure out where a single, forty-year-old man would go to meet people. This was a puzzle he had yet to solve as he felt he was probably getting a bit old for clubbing. He’d heard internet dating was a popular, modern way of meeting people, and he thought maybe he should give that a go.
He suddenly realised the chaos surrounding the baggage carousel had subsided, and he could see there was just the one solitary suitcase still trundling around. Somehow, it seemed totally appropriate that his suitcase should be going around in circles on its own, as if it was enacting a metaphor for his own life. He enjoyed a wry smile at this idea as he pushed himself away from the wall, ambled across to the carousel, and rescued the solitary suitcase.
He extended the handle on his case and, trundling the bag along behind him, headed for the exit. He was pleased to see his tactics had worked perfectly. Not only had he avoided the melee at baggage reclaim, he now had clear passage through customs. Within minutes, he was making his way out into the arrivals lounge. As he walked, he weighed up the advantages of finding a train home straight away against booking a hotel room and getting some sleep first. After all, there was no need to rush, and he was knackered.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a familiar voice calling out his name.
‘Hey! Dave! Over here!’
Slater looked across at the faces gathered by the barrier that held the waiting public back from the arrivals. At busy times, this would be a veritable sea of excited, anticipatory faces, but this early in the morning, the few faces he could see were bleary-eyed and looked almost resentful. All, that is, except for the beaming face of a man whose unruly mop of curly hair and faded, tatty denim jacket made him instantly recognisable.
As if he was worried Slater might have a problem spotting him, the man called out again, raised his arms, and did an enormously exaggerated pair of ‘jazz hands’.
Slater was grateful for two things. First, he was grateful his friend Norman was there to meet him, and second, he was grateful it had been such an early arrival there weren’t too many people around to witness his embarrassment.
An hour later, as Ryan tried, unsuccessfully, to get to sleep in a cold, draughty shop doorway, he heard the sound of a distant siren echoing its way out of town. He was pretty confident he recognised the sound as that of a fire engine and wondered absently about the people who had awoken to find their house ablaze.