The Pact of the Fathers
The Bible had been written to justify beliefs that already existed and to answer awkward questions in a way designed to stifle further argument. So women were appendages of men and admonished to behave as if they were, presumably because in those days men couldn’t cope with independent women any more than too many couldn’t now. Too much knowledge or inquisitiveness was bound to lead to evil. The memory or legend of some kind of great flood had been turned into a warning that if humanity acted against Biblical law the world as they knew it would be brought to an end. Even the diversity of language was the fault of human ambition. Daniella would have thought languages were something to celebrate rather than to find a culprit for, but perhaps the writers of the Bible, not to mention whoever had originally told the stories written there, had felt closer to the chaos that had preceded themselves – felt compelled to invent beliefs that would consign chaos to the past. She thought her ideas were enough for at least a page of her essay, but she had only just switched on the computer and scrolled to the end of her work when the phone rang.
It was her night off from her job, but her friends were out at theirs. She ran downstairs and told the receiver it had better be worth the effort as she lifted it. "Hello?"
The voice was high and soft, so nearly a whisper she couldn’t identify its gender. "What number are you calling?" she said.
"Yours, I believe. Are you the lady of the house?"
"You’re Daniella Logan."
"Always have been."
"Can we talk privately?"
If the call was about to turn obscene she wished she hadn’t left her attack alarm upstairs – she could have levelled its shriek at the mouthpiece. "Go on," she said.
"Do you want to know who you saw the night your father was buried?"
She felt her lips spring open and press shut. As she tongued them apart her teeth pinched her tongue. "Tell me."
"You’ll need to drive a few miles. Do you know where the nearest motorway services are?"
"Down near Pontefract. Half an hour away at least. Can’t – "
"I’ll meet you as soon as you can get there."
"Why can’t you just tell me now?"
"It isn’t only a question of telling. You need to be shown. Please come at once and don’t mention it to anybody. If you take too long I won’t be there."
"Where are you now?"
"Please come," the voice said, lengthening the first word into a buzz that vibrated the earpiece, and left the phone humming with indifference.
Daniella dialled 1471, but could have predicted the response. "The caller withheld their number," a brisk disinterested female voice informed her, and she felt as though she’d wasted time. She dashed upstairs to switch off the computer, then out to her car.
On the main road just a few people were walking home or to hotels outside the city wall. Before long the streetlamps grew infrequent, and then the houses were replaced by darkness. She was on the road that had led her for the last time to her father. The occasional pair of headlamp beams found her and bowed to her, but otherwise she was met by blackness and the memory of the car that looked sliced in half, the driver’s dislocated seat like an instrument of torture, studded with glass and doused in blood. When she veered southward onto an unlit four-lane freeway the images persisted, and she sought distraction in the radio. She stood less than a minute of a comedy show so unfunny it had to be aimed at drunks just home from the pub or at people who drank at home, but the adjacent waveband offered only a programme on contemporary arts. She was about to tune away from a discussion of gay painters’ abstract art – over whether their gayness was apparent in their paintings – when the presenter put a stop to it and set her guests talking about films. That wasn’t why Daniella’s eyes threatened to blur: the subject of the conversation was her father. "He has to be at least as crucial to British cinema as Hammer or the Carry On films," the presenter said.
"He had more of the old Hollywood in him than most of Hollywood has these days."
"It was his signature more than anyone else’s you saw in his films."
"Increasingly sentimental, you mean."
"Maybe he decided that was what audiences wanted. Surely his theme was more personal, that you have to find in yourself the will to succeed."
"Wasn’t he just in the trade of telling audiences what they wanted to hear? You only have to compare his films with Capra’s to see how closed they are. He couldn’t bear to let in anything that might contradict the world-view he was selling."
"Perhaps there are subtexts yet to be elucidated," the presenter said, and with a change of tone she seemed unaware of "Anyway, he got more films made than anyone else in Britain, and his personality is still with us in his last film, David and Goliath, shot largely on location in the Middle East."
"While he stayed in Britain, but that didn’t mean he gave up any control. He watched the rushes every day by satellite."
"So we have him to thank for this strange view of the Bible. I don’t recall much wrestling in Samuel."
"We ought to remember the Bible was written with an eye on its contemporary audience too."
"I would praise the way the film depicts desert life and all its hardships," the presenter said. "You can almost taste the sand."
Daniella could, or if not sand, dryness. The glow on the sky at the far end of the road was cast by the motorway services at Ferrybridge. As she drove around a roundabout and into the parking area the radio began to play the song that accompanied the final credits of David and Goliath – "I’ll make a pebble be a stone, I’ll turn that stone into a rock, I’ll raise that rock to be a tower, To look down on the ones who mock me" – until she switched it off.
About a dozen cars and several immense lorries filled a fraction of the parking area. Under the floodlights the tarmac glared almost as white as the skeletal patterns drawn on it. She drove into the emptiest section, near the middle. Once she had switched off the engine there was silence except for the tick of hot metal and the creak of the seat as she turned to watch the man who was waiting alone.
He was feeding a last dainty mouthful of food out of a polystyrene container into his broad pale preoccupied face. Behind him the window of a Little Chef was half obscured by posters for the Flood Animal Family promotion, beyond which three children up well past their bedtimes were playing with some of the plastic figures they had to collect to earn themselves a model ark. Daniella climbed out of the car and closed the door with a quietness she couldn’t have justified rationally to herself, and the man shoved the container with a squeaky crunch into a bin and strode at her.
In the seconds it took him to tramp across the tarmac, jerking a bunch of shadows with him, she had time to wonder if he would have finished his mouthful by the time he reached her. Then, with a look more openly admiring than she was prepared for, he marched past her and climbed into the largest lorry. He’d given her a wink that might have meant she should follow him, and she was reminding herself that she had her attack alarm when the brakes of his vehicle gasped at her presumption. The next moment the lorry roared away, leaving her a red-eyed wink of its brake lights.
She made herself laugh more than once at her misapprehension as she waited by the car and went on waiting. In the Little Chef people who looked close to paralysed by illumination too bright for the hour were watching her or the car park, but she couldn’t see into any of the vehicles without venturing close as a thief. She had been standing for at least five minutes when the children with the plastic animals were led out by their parents, who said something hushed to them before steering them wide of her, and she wanted to explain who she was – that without her father they wouldn’t have their toys. Then the family’s van slammed its doors, and she saw the children being told not to stare at her as it fled the car park. In the silence its departure left behind, the doors of a large sleek black car in the shadow of a lorry eased themselves open. Two men climbed out, shutting their doors with a single brusque slam.
Though their faces were carefully blank, it was clear that both were expecting her. They might have been doormen on their night off. Their hair was too short for anyone to grasp. Their arms bulged out of T-shirts barely capable of containing their biceps, and swung as the men slouched in step towards her. The shorter man was broader, and thoroughly tattooed. "Waiting for someone, love?" he muttered.
The taller man shoved his hands into his trousers pockets, not so much hiding his fists as emphasising them. "Looks like you are."
"How about you? Were you waiting for me?"
"Oh yes," the man with snakes on his arms said with relish.
Whoever had phoned her wouldn’t have spoken like that, she was certain. She smelled the men’s sweat, an aroma of eagerness. She glanced towards the restaurant and wished it were closer or busier or both. "I think you’ve got the wrong idea," she told them.
The taller man’s pockets swelled. "Which idea was that?"
"I’m not waiting here for just anyone."
"We never thought you were," said the tattooed man, flexing his arms and intensifying his smell.
"I mean, I’m not what you obviously think I am."
"It’s not us that’s obvious."
His companion jerked out a half-closed fist to hush him. "What’s that supposed to be?" the taller man demanded of her.
"I’m not here after trade."
"Depends what you mean by trade," the tattooed man said, and stared past her. For a moment she thought that was part of his response. She glanced towards the roundabout in time to see a dark car speed away, having hesitated at the entrance to the parking area. "Do you reckon that’s them?" he snarled.
She wasn’t sure if the question was addressed to her, but had to say "Who?"
"She wants to know who."
His companion started for their vehicle, then immediately turned back, his face suffused with fury at her or at having missed the opportunity to pursue the other car. "Maybe she thinks we don’t know."
"No," Daniella said, furious in case they’d scared away her informant. "I don’t care. I don’t know who that was and I don’t know what you want, but I’ll call someone if you don’t leave me alone."
"Go ahead," the tattooed man challenged with a grin that revealed a solid black gap in teeth white as plastic. "Yell all you want. Let’s see you draw attention to yourself."
"What do you think I’ve been doing, standing out here in the open?" She let out a shred of a laugh. "If nobody comes I’m calling the police."
The taller man’s anger had subsided enough to allow him to comment "Shouldn’t think you’d have much time for them."
"I’ve a friend who’s a chief constable, and all I need to do is give him the number of your car and they’ll be after you."
The man planted his hands flat on his thighs and squatted to bring his face level with hers as though he was addressing a child. "Give us your word you aren’t here about drugs."
"Of course I’m not. Do you think I’d be waiting where everyone could see me?"
He scrutinised her before straightening up and rubbing his scalp hard. The tattooed man leaned suffocatingly close to her and murmured "He’s got a daughter your age."
"Right," Daniella said, and could come up with nothing further but "Okay."
"She’s on drugs."
"She’s an addict," the taller man corrected with an inadvertent whistle through his clenched teeth.
"Her dealer picks up his shipments here. He was meant to be expecting one tonight."
Daniella thought it best not to ask how they knew or where the dealer was. "I’m nothing to do with any of that," she said.
"We’re glad to hear it," the taller man said, and then his face jerked forward, pinching his eyes thin. "He’s back."
Daniella swung around to see the dark car, just visible at the entrance. "Excuse me, how do you know that’s – "
"We know." He was already running after his companion, but threw back a warning. "Keep off the drugs if you care about staying alive."
Two doors slammed as their car screeched out of the shadow of the lorry. The men were halfway to the roundabout when the other vehicle broke cover and raced into the night. She heard the pursuit double its speed on the motorway, perhaps treble it as the chase faded into the distance and was only a smell of fumes harsh as rage. "Thanks a lot," Daniella had said by then, and "You were such a help." Even if the furtive car wasn’t her informant’s, he might have seen she wasn’t alone and decided against approaching her. The other effect of the delay and the encounter had been to make her want to pee. She stood by her car for several minutes while the parking area persisted in being deserted, and yet another minute during which her innards began to twinge. When she had to gasp with discomfort and impatience she sprinted to the building.
Music so thin it was beyond identifying hovered in the wide bright lobby along with a smell of hamburger. Two pubescent girls in singlets and denim shorts were drawing blood and grunts and snarls from their loinclothed champions on the screen of an arcade game. In the Little Chef a woman was arguing with a mobile phone and sprinkling vinegar on her meal, in the adjacent Burger King a man was requesting coffee for the road. As Daniella hurried to the Ladies a slithering came down the tiled boxy corridor to meet her – the sound of a mop wielded by a cleaner with a face leathery enough to have been used to wipe the floor. Daniella stepped over the rectangular sponge and dashed into the long white room.
Someone had upturned the snouts of both hand dryers, lending them the look of giant nostrils scenting the disinfected air. The music from the lobby, along with a faint hum of no apparent use, followed her into the nearest cubicle, where a scrawled word had been rubbed illegible above the bolt. She yanked her jeans and panties down and lowered herself onto the flimsy seat with a sigh.
Precisely because of the urgency, nothing would come. Singing to herself generally helped, and she could only think of the last song she’d listened to. She was halfway through the second verse of Pebble Be A Stone without having coaxed her body to relax when she heard a stealthy step outside the cubicle. A hand dryer started to exhale its loud protracted breath, and then its twin did.
She bowed over her sudden release, which at any other time would have been far more than welcome, and strained her ears. Her bladder hadn’t finished emptying itself when the first of the dryers fell silent. At once it started up again, to be rejoined by its neighbour while the music kept up its jaunty whisper. Was someone using the dryers to ensure that Daniella couldn’t hear their approach, or was the noise intended to muffle any sounds she made? She felt her body trickle its last, and rose into a crouch. She wiped herself with a shaky tissue and pulled her clothes up, and was fumbling in her bag for her attack alarm when a woman’s voice cut through the soft hot uproar. "Come out of there, you two. Your father’s waiting in the car."
The pubescent girls ran giggling after their mother, and Daniella did her best to laugh. By the time she’d closed her bag the dryers had shut up, leaving her alone with the thin incessant music. She gave her hands a quick wash under an immediately scalding tap and a quicker dry beneath a metal snout, and left it still exhaling as she hurried out past arcade games talking in their sleep. She hadn’t reached the exit from the lobby when she found she couldn’t see her car.
A lorry was parked across the whole of the front of the building. As she ran around the towering cab she was convinced that someone would be waiting by her car. It was as solitary as ever, attended only by its overlapping shadows. She stood by it while a Jeep bore away the girls and their parents, and the lorry driver bore a burger up to his cab and bit into it as he drove off, and the man who’d asked for coffee sped away, and quite a few minutes later the woman with the mobile phone did. Daniella stayed where she was for as long as seemed to make sense, and then she went on loitering. When the hint of a chill in the air made her shiver a second time she had to acknowledge that she’d lingered beyond any kind of point. She withheld the angry slam she might have dealt her door as she returned to the car, and breathed deep and slow. That was meant to calm her, but it filled her nostrils with a smell of departed vehicles as she set out for home.
She didn’t know whom she was angriest with: herself for wasting all that time, or the vigilantes who might have scared off her informant, or the informant for letting her down. At least her anger helped keep her awake. Vast squat chimneys loomed beside the unlit road, coating the sky with smoke, and then streetlamps at the ends of a few suburban streets raised their snaky heads above a wall. She hadn’t come abreast of them when she heard an unfamiliar noise in the car.
It wasn’t much, just a metallic rattle. Next month the engine was due to be serviced, but it hadn’t been behaving as though it felt the need. "Don’t do this to me," she murmured. "Don’t go bad on me out here. We’re friends." The rattle subsided, only to intensify as she sped over an unavoidable hump in the road, and she realised that the sound wasn’t in the engine after all.
It was beside her or behind her. She was as desperate to find out what it was as not to stop alone in the night. She’d trod harder on the accelerator than she ever had before when a pair of headlamps blazed at her along the road. She turned her head aside, not just to avoid being blinded but in a bid to see what she’d heard. Her hands wrenched at the steering wheel, and she slewed into the next lane. On the back seat two eyes were glaring up at her.
The other car dipped its headlights, then flashed them. She’d forgotten to dip her own. She regained enough control to switch them down and steer into the inner lane, because she had managed to distinguish that the round eyes she’d glimpsed in the mirror were the lenses of spectacles resting on the back seat. Or were there eyes and a head behind them? The other car raced past, presenting her with more of a stench of petrol than she ought to be able to smell, and she understood at last what was rattling. The door behind her was ajar.
She didn’t know if that was why she cried out, or if it was the movement of the round blank lenses, which rolled apart on the back seat and toppled over. They were coins, and that was absolutely no relief. The notion that whoever they belonged to might still be in the car closed its icy grasp on the back of her neck. As soon as she reached the streetlamps she veered onto the hard shoulder and braked so hard that the door behind her flew open as if an intruder was making his escape.
She slapped down another shocked cry and craned over her seat. There was nobody else in the car, but somebody had been. The last time she’d had anyone – Chrysteen – as a rear-seat passenger, she had locked the door after her. Someone had managed to sneak in at the motorway services, but then they must have abandoned their plan and left so hastily they’d failed to close the door properly or notice the coins they’d spilled. She pulled the door shut and locked it, and checked twice that it was locked. She was alone, she told herself. Nobody was even near – nobody except the occupants of the houses beyond the wall. Nevertheless, when she remembered how much darkness she had to drive through, it took some effort to control her hand enough to turn the key and start the car.