Being Johnny

by Nigel Gordon

Chapter 58

In the end, we agreed that Dad would pay off Zach. If he had any problems raising the funds to cover the tax, I would help out. That decided, I went up to my room to call Joseph. He answered me on the third ring, informing me he was in Selfridge's with his mother and could not talk but that he would call me later.

That being sorted, I tackled my emails. There was one from Judy de Vries, telling me that she had provisionally agreed to terms with Gert for MCP Nederland to rent the Herrengracht office property. The only thing that had to be sorted out was the date that they would move in. That, of course, would depend on how things went with the workmen getting the alterations finished.

There was also an email from Tony.

Thanks for coming to support me yesterday. Scored better than I ever have before. Captain is talking about moving me up the batting order. Told him I did not think that was a good idea.

For some reason I felt there should have been more.

I had not quite finished my emails when Joseph rang. I then had to listen to him complaining about his mother's shopping habits for nearly an hour. I think he described every minute of the shopping trip, taking at least two minutes for each one.

"Oh, well. At least, you got it out of the way for the year," I commented.

"That's the worst part; we only got about half the stuff she had on her list. I have to go with her again tomorrow."

I laughed. Joseph was not amused.

After another half hour, we started to run out of things to say, so we finished the call, promising that we would speak tomorrow.

It was not past six, so I went downstairs to check on what the arrangements were for dinner. When I got down, Dad called me from the study.

"They've brought your car back," he informed me. "You better go and check it." He threw me the key.

"When did it come back?" I asked.

"About five minutes ago. I tried to call you, but you were on your phone," he said, indicating his mobile which was lying on the desk. "Joseph, I presume."

I nodded. Dad laughed.

Going out to the yard, I checked the car over. It looked good, but if you looked closely, you could see where the respray had been done after the dents had been knocked out. I got in and started it up, then drove it down the back drive and back. There seemed to be something different in the way she was handling. I could not put my finger on it; it just seemed different. Once I had parked the car and gone back inside, I mentioned it to Dad.

"Might well be handling different," Dad stated. "They had to replace parts of the front suspension, and I have no doubt that makes a difference. The new parts are probably a bit tight; they need to wear in.

"However, it could just be psychological. You know the car was damaged and has been repaired, so you expect it to be different."

"Is that so?" I asked.

"Yes, there was a study done some years ago. They took some students who had cars and offered them either 1) a free service and maintenance plus a carwash and valet or 2) just a carwash and valet. After the students got the cars back, they were asked to complete a questionnaire on them. The ones who had been told they were getting a free service and maintenance all said the cars drove better. The ones who were told they were getting just the carwash and valet said there was no difference. The thing is all the cars were given a full service and maintenance."

"You mean—"

"What I mean is that people experience what they expect," Dad supplied.

John and Marc got back just after six-thirty. I was talking to Marc in the library when the tam-tam went to announce dinner. I was a bit surprised to find we were eating in the dining room. Was more surprised when Patrick and Cliff walked in. I had forgotten they were arriving today. It turned out they had arrived while I was asleep this morning. They had been at the dojo with Uncle Ben, working on the fight scene that Cliff had. It was being filmed at the Southmead hangars later this week.

Marc and Cliff were soon talking about bands that I had never heard of. Then again, pop music had never been one of my main interests. For some reason, I had got hooked on folk and jazz back at prep school. Thinking about it, I thought Tony might be to blame for that.

What was interesting was the way Marc was reacting to Cliff and the fact that he was in a film. Marc had showed nearly no reaction to meeting Trevor on Sunday, but he seemed overwhelmed by the fact that Cliff was in Fly Boys. Maybe it was because Cliff was closer to his age.

After dinner, I got lumbered with showing Patrick and Cliff the estate and explaining about the security set-up. Dad had given them fobs to get through the gates, but I had to explain about the different level of gates. It was while I was showing them around that I bumped into Allen. He was just coming back from wherever he had been. I asked him if he was free later. He told me he was on monitoring duty till nine, so I said I would be up to see him shortly.

Having completed the tour, I dropped Patrick and Cliff off at the house and went back to the Stable House to see Allen. He told me that he and one of his staff had both had a look through the woods but found nothing.

"Well, I found out one thing today which might be of interest," I informed him.


"There is no reason for Antonio to come into the office. All the other translators that Tyler uses work remotely."

"Now, that is interesting. I think I'd better have a chat with Tyler," Allen stated.

"Well, he's off filming Snowball at the moment," I commented.

"Not now. Shooting finished last week. To be honest, I'm surprised he's not back here already. He's scheduled for a shoot on Fly Boys starting next Monday."

"Probably holed up somewhere with Jenny," I stated. Allen just nodded.

The next couple of days were pretty routine for me. I was in the yard both days and had to work over. The only thing at home was to help Marc get the souvenir from Marius. He had been too late when he got back on Monday and found that they were closed on Tuesdays. Fortunately, I was able to get Jan to phone Marius, and he came in to unlock so Marc could pick the souvenir up. It was an elegant coffee pot with a rather stylized image of the Priory on it.

I had been a bit worried that Marc would be bored on Tuesday as I knew Dad and John had meetings in London. It turned out I need not have worried. Somehow, Cliff had persuaded Uncle Ben to allow Marc to go with them to the set, probably because they were not actually filming. They were still doing set-up.

Wednesday morning, I was a bit surprised to find Dad, John and Marc in the kitchen when I got down for an early start in the yard. Then I remembered that Dad was driving them to the airport to get their flight. When I got into the yard, I found Steve already in, rejigging the worksheets.

"What's up?"

"Two of the casuals have pulled out," he informed me. "They've been offered permanent places at the meat market."

"Immediate start, I presume?"

"Of course, it always is," Steve replied.

Annoying as it was having them leave without giving notice, Steve appreciated why. He could only offer them casual work, though in the season this was often forty hours a week. However, we were getting to the end of the season, and the chance for full-time, permanent work was not something to be turned down, even if it was not paying as well.

"Just remember, I am not around tomorrow," I reminded Steve. He looked at me questioningly. "A-level results day."

"Shit! I'd forgotten that. Had put you down to do the re-varnishing of the motor launch's deck," Steve admitted.

"Colin could do that if you get him in," I pointed out. I knew Steve had him down for a day off, but I was sure he could do with the extra money. Steve called him in and checked if he was prepared to work Thursday. Colin said it would not be a problem. I did tell Colin that I would not be able to give him a lift in, but he assured me that he would manage.

"What you doing tomorrow?" Colin asked as I gave him a lift home.

"Got to go into college to get my exam results, then have lunch with one of the tutors. Meeting Joseph in Southmead, as well, to give him a lift back."

"It's a good job you've got your car back then," Colin pointed out.

"It is rather, especially as I have to give Simone a lift back tomorrow."

"Why's that?"

"Her car's in for a service and she is supposed to be meeting Lee, so I'll be taking her back to Southmead Hall after we've picked up Joseph and then bringing her on to the Priory."

"So, you'll be coming back via the back road."

"Nearly always do, it's a lot shorter than the bypass."

We had finished a bit early, so it was not five by the time we got home. I tried calling Joseph. It turned out not to be a good time; his mother had him shopping again. He said he would phone me later.

I got showered and changed, then went down to see if Mum needed any help with dinner. She said she had it all under control but did ask if I could take charge of Alexander for a bit. I picked up his carrycot and took it with me to the library. Dad was there reading some science magazine.

"Did you make it in time this morning?" I asked.

"No problem. One advantage of going into London City over Heathrow or Luton: the traffic's not nearly as bad most times."

"I didn't know you could fly to Canada from London City," I commented.

"You can't. They're flying to Dublin, then to New York."

"Funny, Marc never said anything about New York."

"To be honest, Johnny, I don't think he knew. He was certainly surprised to find they were flying to Dublin."

"But why fly to Dublin for New York? There are plenty of flights from Heathrow."

"Yes, but you can clear US Immigration and Customs at Dublin before getting on your flight, so it lands in New York as a domestic flight. Saves a lot of hassle at the New York end."

That made sense, but why were they flying to New York? I put that question to Dad.

"Bob's sold the idea of a dumbed-down version of John's technology book to a US publisher. They're going to get some technical hack to write it based on John's current book. John was stopping over in New York to meet the publisher and the technical hack."

"Technical hack? Like you used to be?" I asked.

"That's it, exactly. In fact, I suggested who they should use; we've both published in the same soft-science magazines."

At that point, Alexander indicated that he needed some attention, so I lifted him out of his carrycot and, after checking that he did not need changing, gave him a cuddle. That seemed to be what he wanted.

For once, Colin joined us for dinner. Although he was living in the house and Mum had told him he was welcome to eat with us, most nights he went over to eat with Arthur and Trevor when they were around or went down to the Crooked Man. The thing was, he seemed a bit on edge over dinner. Eventually Mum asked what was up.

"Well, I know you said I could stay here whilst Maddie was using the room at the apartment," Colin said.

"Yes," Mum replied.

"Well, I … Shit! This is difficult."

"What is it, Colin?" I asked.

"Well, I was thinking. About that caravan those lads at the nursery were using." He paused, seemingly unsure how to carry on.

"Yes, Colin, what about it?" Mum asked.

"Well, I was talking to Steven at the weekend, and he said he had moved out."

"Yes, he has. They are in the cottage now. I suppose we ought to get the caravan moved," Dad stated.

"I was wondering if I could use it," Colin spluttered. "I'd pay rent for it."

"Colin, why would you want to live in the caravan?" I asked. "It's OK this time of year, but it'll be bloody cold in the winter. You know you can stay here."

"But the caravan would be my own space," he stated. The way he said it made me realise he probably never had had his own space in the past. For Colin, that would be something important.

"It would be, of course," Dad stated. "I think we will have to see where we could put it so you could use it. I don't think the nursery lads will want it stuck in their backyard. So, give me a couple of weeks and I'll see what we can sort out."

After dinner, Colin gave me a hand to clean up. He usually did when he ate with us. Dad asked me to join him in the study when I was done.

"What do you think of Colin's request?" he asked as I took the seat by his desk.

"Well, I can see how it might mean something to Colin to have his own space. I don't think he has ever had that before."

"Marcia is moving out at the end of the month," Dad informed me.

"That's definite, is it?"

"Yes, Johnny. Martin told me when I saw him yesterday. They completed on the new house today. Builders and decorators are going in tomorrow. They say the place will be ready in a week."

"They'll be lucky," I stated.

"Probably will be, but that's why Martin's added the extra few days just to make sure there is extra time."

"Didn't know you had seen Martin," I commented. "Thought you were at a meeting with Bob yesterday."

"We were. Martin was there; he is acting for John. Bernard was there, as well, acting for me."

"Poor Bob," I commented.

"Poor Bob, nothing. He's making a fortune from all these deals he is putting together.

"But back to Colin. I'm going to offer Lee Marcia's apartment."

"You've decided not to turn it back into two for holiday lets, then."

"Thought about it, but I like the idea of having the yard area fairly private, only for people we know. Also, I want to keep Lee on site, and he will need somewhere bigger when Simone and he marry."

"So, that leaves Lee's studio empty," I pointed out, knowing full well that this was Dad's point.

"Yes, how do you think Colin would react if we offered him that?"

"Well, it's a bit smaller than the caravan, but not by much. It probably has more usable space, and it will definitely be warmer in the winter. The thing is, could Colin afford it?"

"I don't see why not. Lee's not paying rent, so I won't lose out no matter what rent I set, and I am sure Colin could get housing benefit."

We chatted about it a bit more and agreed that, in principle, it was a good idea. We also agreed not to say anything to Colin until everything was in place, just in case there was a snag. That settled, I went to my room to sort out my emails and do some studying.

I had been at it about half an hour when my phone went. It was Joseph.

"What's with the shopping?" I asked.

"No idea. I think Mum just likes shopping. I'm the excuse."

We chatted for about thirty minutes, then got around to sorting out about tomorrow. I was not certain what Mr. Taunton's plans were but agreed with Joseph that we would meet at Marge's. He would be there by two, and if I was not there, to wait till I arrived to pick him up, though I was fairly certain I would probably be there. If we were having lunch with Mr. Taunton, having it at Marge's was a fairly certain bet. Could not see us eating in the college refectory.

Although I was not due to pick Simone up until ten, I was up at six-thirty and down in the kitchen at seven. What was a surprise was to find coffee made and a half-full jug on the hotplate. I poured myself a mug, took a drink of it and decided to make a fresh pot. It was most definitely stale. It must have been made a good hour ago, at least. Who in their right minds was up at that time? Then I remembered Patrick and Cliff. Patrick had been complaining about having to be up at four-thirty to get Cliff on set by five-thirty. No doubt, he made coffee first thing before they went off.

I made myself a light breakfast. Colin came into the kitchen and put some bread in the toaster.

"What time are you meeting Joseph?" he asked.

"Not sure, as I don't know when my meeting with Mr. Taunton will end. Hopefully we should be finished by two. Joseph said he would be at Marge's by then for me to pick him up."

The toaster popped, and Colin loaded the toast with butter and jam, then poured himself a coffee. We chatted for a bit before Colin went and got on his bike to get into the yard. I turned on the radio and listened to the Today programme.

Dad came into the kitchen shortly after eight. He put the kettle on to boil for some tea. I slipped some bread into the toaster for him.

"Add a couple more slices; I'll take a tray up to your Mum," he said. "She was up half the night with your brother."

I put a couple more slices of bread in the toaster and then made some fresh coffee. The stuff in the jug had been made about an hour ago. I thought Mum would appreciate a freshly made mug of coffee.

"Thought you would have been gone by now," Dad commented. "Be first in the queue to get your results."

"Dad, everybody will be rushing in this morning to get their results. The place will be jampacked. Not that it makes much difference; the office does not open till nine. Simone suggested we go in later and avoid the crush. I'm picking her up at ten. Anyway, we're meeting Mr. Taunton for lunch, so no point in going in too early."

I made up a tray for Mum, and Dad took it up. By the time Dad got back down, he was pouring himself some tea. I went to check if the paperboy had delivered the morning paper. He had; it was stuck halfway through the letter box. I went and collected it and took it through to Dad. Luuk was there, as well, sorting out his breakfast.

"What's happening about putting the bungalows up at the back of the walled garden?" I asked Dad.

"Sorry, Johnny, didn't I tell you? There is some sort of problem with getting permission for the sewer connection."

"Blast, any idea what it is?"

"I can answer that," Luuk informed me.

"Then do, please," I said.

"The water company are asking for the whole sewer pipe to be upgraded. They are pointing out that the development of the Arts and Crafts Centre and the conversion of the work sheds have increased sewer load. That, combined with the outline planning permission for the Sidings properties, means they are projecting that the current pipe will not be able to carry the load. So, they are refusing to grant any new connection permissions until the pipe is upgraded."

"That's going to be expensive," I commented.

"It is," Luuk agreed. "Matt's been trying to come to some sort of agreement with them for the last few weeks."

"Like what?" Dad asked.

"Basically, permission to add the connections for the vakantie-huis-type bungalows you want to put in on condition that you put in a new pipe to the main sewer from the Sidings Lane development."

"Isn't that going to cost more?" Dad asked.

"Probably in the actual cost of the pipe," Luuk said. "However, it will avoid all the disruption of upgrading the existing pipe. You really need to talk to Matt about it. He has some figures worked out."

"I will," Dad said.

Luuk's phone beeped. He looked at the screen and announced that Matt was on his way. Then he grabbed his coat and a couple of slices of toast and went out the back door. Recently, he had got into the habit of meeting Matt at the gate by the main road, saving Matt coming into the yard to pick him up.

It was still only quarter-to-nine, so I had over a half hour, if not more, before I had to make a move to go and pick Simone up. So, I made myself a couple more slices of toast and poured another mug of coffee. I was a bit surprised when the back doorbell went. I got up and answered it. Simone was standing there. I indicated that she should come in.

"Coffee?" I asked.

"If it is better than the instant stuff Lee has, yes please."

"You stayed the night?"

"Observant of you. If you had come to training you would have known," she replied.

Dad told Simone to take a seat and asked if she would like some toast.

"No, thanks," she replied. "Lee dished up a full English this morning. He's a good cook; it's just his coffee that's lousy. He uses instant."

Dad grimaced at that news. "I'd better put a good coffee machine down to get for your wedding present."

"I'm not sure I can survive that long on Lee's coffee," Simone replied.

"Have you set a date for the wedding?" I asked, putting a mug of coffee in front of her.

"No, but we are thinking about sometime around Easter," she replied. "Dad wants us to have it at the family place in France. Lee's not that bothered where it is held. If we are going to do it in France, that is about the only time we would be able to."

"Why's that?" Dad asked.

"It is about the only time we can be sure that the whole family will be around. We always gather the weekend after Easter."

"You seem uncertain about something," I said.

"I'm worried that it will be difficult for Lee's family," Simone said. "I know things are tight for them, and expecting them to come down to the South of France…well, it won't be cheap."

"And what else?" I asked. I knew Simone. There was something else.

"I'm not certain how some of my family will react to Lee; they don't know he's black."

"You probably need to find out before the wedding," Dad commented. "But if it's a problem, have the wedding over here. The Tithe Barn should be up and running by then."

It was getting towards when we needed to make a move. Dad asked what time we would be back.

"Not sure. We're having lunch with Mr. Taunton, then we have to pick Joseph up. Have arranged to meet Joseph sometime after two. He'll be there from two, and I don't expect to be that late picking him up, so I think we will be back by three, latest."

"Good, I suggest we take your Mum out for dinner this evening. What do you think?"

"I think that would be a good idea."

That said, I grabbed my coat and car keys and escorted Simone out to the car.

We were in no rush to get to college, so I decided to fill up with petrol on the way, and Simone asked if we could call in at Southmead Hall so she could get changed and grab a bag for tonight.

"So, you're staying over tonight again, are you?"

"Yes, but this time it's planned."

"Wasn't last night?"

"No, I came over with Delcie, but she had to leave early. Intended to get a taxi, but things ran over, and everywhere was busy when we finally got to calling for one. Lee had been drinking, so could not drive me home; likewise, your uncle. Did not fancy waiting till after one to get a taxi back, so decided to stay at Lee's."

"I bet he was glad," I commented. She clipped me around the back of the head.

"Hey, not whilst I'm driving."

"OK, I'll keep my response for later."

We got to the college shortly after quarter-past-ten. We could have driven over later. When we got there, there was still a queue at the reception window picking up their results, something that surprised me until I saw there were only two people at reception dealing with the enquiries. It must have taken them about thirty seconds to find the results envelope for each enquiry. I guessed there were about four-hundred, sixth-form students in the college; all would be wanting their results today. It took a good three quarters of an hour before we got to the front of the queue and could get our results. Most students were standing around in the hallway ripping open their envelopes and reading the results. That was all adding to the chaos. While we were in the queue, Simone and I agreed that we would go outside to open our envelopes.

Once outside, we found a quiet spot and opened our envelopes.

"What did you get?" Simone asked.

"Two A's. You?"

"Two A's and a B."

"What did you get a B in?" I asked.


"But you are French," I pointed out.

"That's probably the problem. I speak French as a native, not the way it is supposed to be spoken. Not the French of the Académie Française."

Having got our results, we made our way back into the college and to Mr. Taunton's office. He was just coming down the corridor from the opposite directions.

"Well, I hope you are both happy with your results," he said.

"I am," I responded.

"I could have done better in French," Simone stated.

"Don't worry too much; native speakers rarely get top grades," Mr. Taunton stated. "Maybe you should have gone down the path that Johnny took and tried the Institute's examination."

Simone opined that it was an option she had not considered.

"Look, I know it's a bit too early for lunch yet, but let's go over to Marge's," Mr. Taunton suggested. "It will be more comfortable than sitting in my office. We can get something better to drink than the sludge from the machine here, and we will be in the right place when it is time for lunch."

Both of us agreed with him, so he went and grabbed his coat from his office, then locked it. On the way out, he popped into the main office to let them know where he would be.

When we got over to Marge's, it was pretty packed. Of course, a lot of those who had collected their results would be coming over here to get a coffee and chat about their results with their mates. However, Marge pointed us to a table which had a reserved sign on it.

"Guessed you'd probably be over early, so decided to save you a place," she told Mr. Taunton. "Now, what can I get you?"

We took our seats, placed our order for coffees, and Mr. Taunton told Marge that we would order lunch later; we just needed to chat for a bit.

"What is it you want to talk about?" Simone asked, once we were seated.

"Do you know how many students at the college committed suicide last year?" Mr. Taunton asked.

Simone shook her head. "No."

"I heard about one," I stated.

"That would be Ted Marks," Mr. Taunton observed. "He was in the same metalwork class as you."

I confirmed that was correct.

"Actually, we had three," Mr Taunton said. "That was a bit on the high side, but in a college our size it is normal to get one every couple of years. We also have a number of attempted suicides most years."

"That's not good," Simone commented.

"No, it's not. Which is why I wanted to speak to you two. The thing is, we have counsellors available in the college for students, but most of the time, students who are having troubles won't go to them. They see them as authority, as part of the system."

"But they are part of the system," I pointed out.

"And that, Johnny, is the problem," Mr. Taunton stated. "You don't know this, but I have for a number of years volunteered as a Samaritan."

"What's a Samaritan?" Simone asked.

I forget at times that Simone is French rather than English. There are some things we just take for granted that people know because they are so much a part of English culture. I explained to her that the Samaritans provided a crisis helpline that is manned twenty-four hours a day for people who were feeling suicidal.

"Oh, you mean like suicide écoute?" she asked.

I had to think for a moment. The name was familiar to me, but I could not remember exactly who they were.

"I think so, but I'm not sure," I replied.

One of the girls Marge had working today brought our drinks over to us.

"For the last couple of years, I have been involved with training prisoners as part of the Listeners Scheme."

"What's that?" I asked.

"It's a scheme by which the Samaritans have been training prisoners to act as Listeners in prison. They are members of the prison population who other prisoners can go to if they have problems. They'll just listen; they won't judge, but they will try to get the prisoner to work out how to deal with their problems and where to get the proper help. Often, it is just the case of getting the prisoner to speak to the right officer."

"It sounds simple," I stated.

"It's not. The Listeners have to go through some extensive training to be effective. We also have to give them a lot of support. Listening to other people's problems can be depressing at times.

"The thing is, the Listeners are prisoners themselves. They've been convicted of some offence just like all the other prisoners in the prison. As a result, prisoners feel that they are easier to talk to than talking to a prison officer. Also, other prisoners will not think that they are up to something if they are seen talking to a Listener, whilst they might well be if they are seen talking in private to an officer.

"The thing is, Listeners are part of a peer-to-peer support system within the prison. They are usually easily identifiable by some aspect of their prison uniform — generally, a sweatshirt that has 'Listener' on it — though they will probably only wear that when they are rostered on call. The important thing is they are part of the peer group they are serving, not outside of it and not in an authoritative relationship to it."

"Sounds as if that might be useful," Simone commented. "What has this got to do with college?"

"I'd like to get something similar in college. A peer-to-peer support group within the student body, so that students can help students."

"So, set it up," I suggested.

"That is a problem and the reason I wanted to speak with you two."

"Why?" Simone asked.

"If I set it up, it will be seen as something that has been set up by the authorities, something that is run by the college. That was a problem with the Listener Scheme when it was first started. The prisoners did not trust the Listeners because they saw them as being appointed by the prison authorities. That's changed now, given that the scheme has been running so long. However, even now, there is still a bit of suspicion in prisons that Listeners are somehow partly official.

"No, if this is going to work, it has to be started by students."

"Isn't that what the Union is for?" I asked. "Aren't they supposed to be looking after students' interests?"

"'Supposed' Johnny is the operative word. These days, the Students' Union is mostly students trying to start their professional careers. They are not that interested in what the students want but in what is politically good for themselves. Most of the union officials are either doing government and politics or law and are probably looking for a parliamentary seat sometime in their future.

"No, for this, the Union is of very little use. Which is why I need you."

"Us?" Simone asked.

"Yes, you. You are both high-profile students in the college but not part of the Student Union and not known as being part of student politics."

"Can't be bothered with it," I stated. "Too much talk and not enough action."

"Precisely," Mr. Taunton said. "What I need is for you two, without any known input from me, to start a peer-to-peer support group in the college when term starts."

"And how do we explain this meeting if we do?" Simone asked.

"Simple, you came to see me to see if the college would have any objection to the idea before you tried to launch it." Mr. Taunton stopped and looked around the room, which, with most of the students having now left, had got considerably quieter. "I think now would be a good time to order lunch. We can talk in more detail over lunch." He signalled to Marge, who was ensconced on a bar stool at the end of the counter.

"Ready to order?" she asked as she came over to us.

We all made a point of looking at the menu, but that was just for show. We all ate there so regularly we knew it by heart. I glanced up at the specials board and then made my decision.

"Faggots, peas and chips for me, Marge, please," I said.

Mr. Taunton looked at me in surprise, then looked over at the specials board. He clearly had not checked that out.

"I'll have the same, please," he told Marge.

"And what about you dear? The same?" Marge asked Simone.

"Not likely. I'll go for the ham salad."

"Don't blame you, dear," Marge laughed and went off with our orders.

"Don't know how you two can eat faggots, peas and chips," Simone stated, looking at me.

"It's only a boulette de viande," I stated, knowing full well they were not quite the same. A boulette de viande is mostly made from minced beef. A faggot is mostly made from offal. In my opinion, it is far more tasty.

"I'm not on about the faggot," she snapped back at me. "Anyway, it's not a boulette de viande. A faggot is far more tasty. I'm on about the chips. How you can have chips with faggots and peas escapes me. You need mashed potatoes to soak up the gravy."

I had to admit that she had a point there, but there was no way I was going to admit it. Somehow, though, I thought Simone probably knew that. She had a self-satisfied smile on her face.

We debated the merits of chips or mash for a few minutes before Marge brought our lunches to us. Over lunch, we did not really talk about the peer-to-peer idea. Mostly, we were discussing our exam results and what we were doing next year. For Simone and me, it was basically no change. Physics and maths for both of us, and Simone would be entering for A-level French.

"Really, I think you would be better off talking to Dr. Laurent about an A-level alternative. I know it's worked well for Johnny. GCE A-levels are really not designed for native speakers."

Simone looked at me, and I realised she did not know I had done an A-level alternative, so I explained what Dr. Laurent had arranged.

"Look, I know Dr. Laurent is in college today, so why don't you go in and see her after lunch," Mr. Taunton suggested.

After we had consumed our lunches, we ordered another lot of coffee and some lime cheesecake for dessert. Over it, we discussed setting up the peer-to-peer support group in college. Simone and I both agreed we would go along with the idea, but we said we needed more information. Mr. Taunton said he would get some stuff sent to us from the Samaritans.

It was just gone one when we were finished, so I went over to the college with Simone to see if we could find Dr. Laurent. We were lucky; she was in her office. As Simone had registered for the exam and was a private entrant, Dr. Laurent had not been aware she was doing French A-level. When the situation was explained to her, Dr. Laurent agreed that Mr. Taunton was right: A-level was probably not the best course for Simone. She said she would have a look at what options were available and see Simone again at the start of the term.

That dealt with, we went back to my car and drove over to Marge's to wait for Joseph, though we did not have to wait long. He arrived about five minutes after we had got there. He said he was, however, famished and insisted on getting something to eat before we left. As a result, it was nearly twenty-five-past-two before we started for home.

Joseph got in the front of the car with me, with Simone getting in the back. I checked with Simone if she needed to call at Southmead Hall for anything, but she assured me that she did not. That being the case, I took the main road out of town rather than taking the Lynnhaven Road. It was a bit longer but a far faster route out of Southmead. However, I turned off the main road before I got to the start of the bypass, turning onto Birchtree Road that took me to the roundabout junction with Lynnhaven Road and Smetterling Road. I took the first exit from the roundabout onto Lynnhaven Road, which would take me over the hill and to the junction with Marsh Road.

I had just turned onto Lynnhaven Road when there was a loud crashing sound from behind us.

"Fuck!" Simone exclaimed from behind me. "Put your fucking foot down now!"


"Put your foot down now, Johnny. They've taken our security escort out," she shouted. I put my foot down.

"Hope I don't get a ticket," I said, thinking what Dad would say.

"A ticket would be useful," Simone said. "At least, that would put the police on the scene."

It took me about five minutes to do what should have taken a minimum of ten. I came around the bend at the top of the hill and down past the Pig and Whistle. As I passed their car park, two cars pulled out behind me. Simone was on her phone, talking to someone. I thought it was Neal. One of the cars behind me, a big Jag, accelerated and pulled alongside me. Then it surged forward. As it did, the second car pulled alongside me. I realised then there was a third vehicle, a big van behind the two cars, which was now pulling up behind me.

"Fuck! Guns!" Simone shouted.

I could not see what she was shouting about. I was concentrating on the car that was now inches in front of me. I could not pull out to the right as the second car was next to me and there was no space on the left as the retaining wall came right up to the side of the road. The car in front was slowing, forcing me to slow down. Eventually we came to a stop, boxed in by three cars. Men poured out of the cars in front and behind us, all of them pointing guns at us.

"Don't do anything stupid," Simone instructed. "They've got guns, just do as they say."

My door and Simone's were pulled open. "Out!" a voice shouted, an instruction emphasised by the guns that were being pointed at us. I saw a man go down the other side of the car, getting Joseph out. We were told to line up by the car. A tall man with blond, close-cropped hair, walked up from the car that had been behind us. A short, stout woman walked just behind him, carrying a net bag.

"Put your phones and watches in the bag," the tall man instructed. "Don't try anything silly. If you do, we shoot the girl; she is disposable. If she tries anything, we shoot her anyway." The last part was said with a laugh. We dropped our phones and our watches into the net bag. The woman pulled the cords around the top of it, then handed the bag to another man.

"Now, don't do anything to resist and you won't be hurt," the tall man said. There was something about him which was familiar, but I could not put my finger on it.

The woman walked up to me again. She had a black plastic thing in her hand. It looked a bit like a water pistol but with a wide barrel, the type of barrel you would expect bubbles to come out of. She pushed the barrel against the side of my neck. I heard a buzzing sound. There was a sharp stinging pain on my neck. The woman stepped back and then moved to Simone, who was next to me. I turned my head towards the buzzing sound; a quadcopter drone rose up from behind the van, the net bag hanging below it. I started to feel giddy, then my eyes started to have difficulty focusing, everything seemed bright, then it was dark.

It was also uncomfortable and cold.

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