Released as a paperback on 17th December 2014 and also available on Kindle
Robert had forgotten how much he hated the Underground, but remembered pretty quickly when his face was squashed painfully into the shoulder of the man in front of him, and a strait jacket of passengers surrounding him made breathing difficult. He didn’t mind too much at first; inhaling Katy Perry or even Jean Paul Gaultier was just about acceptable, but someone had sprayed Dvb Beckham on with a firehose, and the overwhelming mix of jockstrap and posh spice made his stomach queasy. He’d read once that when the trains stopped running at night, the platforms became dusted with a light coating of human skin particles, that were kept dancing in the air all day by the passing trains. So he breathed David and Victoria through his nose, hoping the nasal hairs would trap it, rather than inhaling DNA of unknown men and women into his lungs.
If he got the job, he’d definitely cycle in. At least that way it was only hydrocarbons to contend with; that and the lorries, hell-bent on solving the world’s overpopulation one cyclist at a time. He was convinced that was preferable to the slow suffocation in the toxic incubator he found himself in right now. Only frotteurists and masochists could possibly enjoy rush-hour travel, and he didn’t think he fit either category.
At last, the train heaved its way into Hampstead and Robert fought his way out of the carriage, squeezing past knots of humanity who were determined not to lose the square inches they’d staked their claim to. No wonder there’s so much skin floating around, it gets grated off you.
He almost wished the lifts were out of order – he’d rather have taken the hundreds of stairs out, but the crush of passengers swept him along and he wondered where they were all going. Did they all work around here? Emerging into the fresh air was somewhat ruined by the light rain that fell, and he had no idea which bus he could take. A line of taxis waited over the road, and he diced with death getting to them, reminding himself he could take the exit on that side of the road in future. By the time he got there, only one remained, and he opened the door as the cabbie leaned over to see where he wanted to go. The door was wrenched from his hand and he stepped back, alarmed, as a dark-haired female slid smoothly into the back and slammed it. The taxi pulled away before Robert could react, and he slapped his hand on its roof as it went.
“Yeah, you take this one, no problem!” Robert shouted after it. “Cow,” he added to himself, wondering for the umpteenth time if he’d done the right thing, coming to London. Five years in Cornwall, too many memories lurked here, waiting to be called forward.
You’re thirty-two, he told himself. Get on with life.
He checked his mobile for the google app, to see if he could walk it, but he didn’t fancy getting soaked if the rain increased, so he waited for a taxi, looking up and down the road in case one passed. Eventually, one returned to the rank and he kept a firm grip on the door handle as he gave the address, then climbed in, settling back in the seat. He was pretty certain there weren’t seat belts the last time he’d travelled in a London cab, and wasn’t sure if it was a reflection on the Cabbie’s driving or a change in the law. His driver didn’t offer his opinion on football, the weather, or the current state of foreign policy in Afghanistan, and Robert gratefully watched the shops and houses slide by in silence. Some of the houses must be worth mega-millions, the size of them. He’d rented out his own house in Cornwall, and knew it represented an incomplete commitment to moving on, but coming to London had been hard enough, without burning every bridge behind him. Manchester was a lifetime away, and he didn’t care for football any more. Not since David Beckham had been forced out, anyway. If he’d stayed, Robert was convinced the perfume would have been much better. More mancunian, at least. ‘Trouble at Mill’ would have been a great name for aftershave.
He sighed heavily and stared out of the window at the Heath going by, wondering whether he should contact Elaine’s parents. He was worried they’d smother him, and decided to leave it a while before he did. Beyond Christmas cards and the very occasional phone call, contact had been sporadic. Going to Cornwall had been running away, and whilst he knew nobody blamed him, he could have stayed and toughed it out. He hadn’t meant to cut himself off from everyone, but loathed Facebook: its insistence on updating baby Jon’s nappy rash as ‘news’ didn’t float his boat. The thought of Twitter made him shudder. People had left him alone in the early stages, something he’d probably encouraged, and as time went on, contact gradually petered out. When his best friends visited him after a year, the awkwardness drove a wedge between them, and he was glad when they left. Kissing and hugging and promising to stay in touch was sincere enough, and Robert had made an effort to do that, but his heart wasn’t it. The best kind of friends were those who sent him a Christmas letter with their card, updating him on what had gone on in their lives. He hadn’t told anyone he was moving to London, and the income from his house in Cornwall would cover the rent on the apartment he’d found.
Just get on with life, what have you got to lose?
They arrived outside the clinic and Robert tipped the driver too much, but it seemed like a positive thing to do. Elaine always overtipped.
“Thanks, guv,” the cabbie said, reverting to type. “Hope you feel better soon.”
For a split-second, Robert thought Derren Brown was moonlighting as a cabbie, but the man grinned and pointed at the sign for the clinic. Hampstead Natural Health Centre it proclaimed loudly and largely, with a light above it, to illuminate it at night. It did look professional. An imposing Victorian building, double-fronted, with wide steps up to the entrance, it seemed to tower over him and he felt a moment’s vertigo, looking up at it.
“Yeah, me too,” Robert said, and turned to mount the steps. A young woman wrestled with a pushchair, pulling it up backwards. Long brown hair, brown eyes, and elfin face, she looked a tad distressed, and the good guy inside Robert pushed him forward.
“Let me help you.”
“Oh, thank you,” she said, as Robert gripped the base of the pushchair and lifted. The child seated in it looked at him suspiciously, and not wanting to alarm him, Robert looked up at the mother. Leaning forward as she lifted the buggy, he thought her bra was one of those French ones, very pretty, very ornate, and—
Robert looked back at the child, guilty, stumbling slightly on a step. He thought it was a boy, and tried to smile, winking at him. He wouldn’t have thought a small child could scream that loudly. They reached the top step and Robert set the buggy down.
“I’m so sorry, he’s not well,” the woman said.
“No, don’t worry, it’s a gift I have with children,” Robert replied.
She smiled and crouched down to comfort the little mite, leaning forward to stroke his head. Definitely French, Robert thought, and decided to remove himself from the scene before the child expired from air-loss. Or his inadvertent contemplation of French Couture landed him in more trouble. He pulled open the door and entered the health centre.
At first he thought he’d interrupted an audition for X-Factor. People filled the waiting area, and the hubbub they created made rational thought difficult; just like watching it on the television, really. It was a large open space with seats along both walls, and a long wooden counter at the end of the room facing him, with a corridor to the left, leading further into the building. Adults of various shapes and sizes and ages were mostly sitting, talking way too loudly, and without Simon Cowell to slap them down, the noise levels were pretty high. Three children, two boys and a girl, all under ten Robert guesstimated, were throwing magazines and leaflets at each other; and the girl was winning, by the look of things. A copy of Hello hit one of the boys in the eye and his cries drowned out the screams of the French Underwear offspring, who’d followed Robert in.
Behind the reception counter, looking pretty harassed, sat one of the most beautiful women Robert had seen in a very long time. Lustrous black hair hanging to her shoulders, curled under, dark eyes, glossy lipstick, perfectly applied, with a shiny red bindi on her forehead, she was dressed in a white high-collared blouse, and a grey jacket that looked like it might be silk. She was talking to an elderly woman who seemed about to commit actual bodily harm with a solid black handbag.
“Where’s my taxi?” the woman demanded loud enough to be heard over the babel. “It should be here. Call them again.” She banged the handbag on the counter to emphasise her point.
Probably stolen by the same girl who took mine Robert thought, as he stepped over a child intent on smashing his way into the basement with his fists because his reasonable demands for a sweet had been so cruelly denied. He caught the Sunday Telegraph magazine as it flew past him, depositing it neatly on a low table, and skipped round the little girl as she glared at him for ruining her evil plans to dominate the western world with her ballistic missiles. He smiled sweetly and she poked her tongue out.
“The wind’s changed,” he told her, and she looked blankly at him. Ah, the joys of a decent education, what do they teach the kids nowadays?
He reached the counter, and the beautiful woman flicked a glance at him, and smiled. It was only a quick smile, but Robert thought someone had shone a light in his face. Dimples in her cheeks came and went with the smile.
“Call them now!” insisted the woman. “I’ve a hair appointment in twenty minutes.”
“I’m sure they’re on their way, Mrs—” The shrill ring of the phone interrupted her and she grabbed it, tipping her head, sliding the receiver under her hair. “Hampstead Natural Health centre, how may I help you?”
The woman at the counter banged her handbag down, her face livid. Robert reckoned she had all the sartorial elegance of an unmade bed; starting with the hair might not be a bad move, but surely the Oxfam shops in Hampstead did a better line in clothes than that?
From the sounds of things, the beautiful receptionist was booking an appointment for a patient; how she could hear at all was anyone’s guess.
“Mrs Johnson?” came a shout over the clamour, and Robert turned, hoping it was the cabbie for the harridan with the handbag. A slim woman, aged in her late twenties, wearing a white clinic coat and black trousers, stood in the corridor entrance. Her dark hair was tied back in a pony tail, which swayed as she looked around the room, searching for her patient. She looked familiar, and Robert wondered if she was an osteopath; perhaps he’d seen her at the compulsory post-graduate courses he’d occasionally come up to London for, to keep his membership to the Register current. She glanced at him, but there was no recognition there.
Mrs Johnson obviously had good hearing, because she got to her feet and made her way towards the girl, completely circumventing the sweetless child who was now using his head as well as his fists as battering rams on the wooden floor. Mrs Johnson reached out and shook hands with her.
“Sorry I’m running a bit late,” the girl said. “Had a problem getting a cab this morning.”
Robert blinked, realising where he’d seen her before. The taxi thief and Mrs Johnson disappeared down the corridor, and Robert jumped as the handbag hit the counter again. The receptionist put the phone down and dazzled Robert completely with her smile.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You are…?”
“Where’s my taxi?” interrupted the woman next to him, just as a child threw a handful of leaflets over the counter, forcing the receptionist to scrabble to catch them. Something hard and plastic bounced off the back of Robert’s head and he knew the little girl’s arsenal had expanded considerably. He’d had enough. He turned his back to the counter.
“QUIET!” he roared.
The silence that followed was coldly terrifying for the others and immensely satisfying for Robert. The basement digger froze in mid-strike and a second plastic intercontinental ballistic missile slipped from the nerveless fingers of the female launcher. The French Connection baby whimpered, but quietened immediately when Robert switched his implacable gaze to it. A leaflet see-sawed its way to the floor and the motionless tableau that was the reception area for the Hampstead Natural Health Centre waited for someone to wave their wand and release them from their stasis. Robert glanced around the room, and turned back to the receptionist who sat open-mouthed.
“I’m Robert Kirk,” he said, and almost had to shield his eyes at the smile this produced, which lit up the whole room. Photo-voltaic cells, eat your heart out.
“Oh, you’re Robert, we’ve been expecting you,” she said, standing and holding her hand out to him, which he shook. “I’m Payal, I’ll tell Ashley you’re here.”
She pushed her chair back and stood, hurrying to the door behind her. At that moment the front door opened, and a head poked round it.
“Taxi for Mrs Wolverton?”
Every head turned to the deliverer.
“That’s me!” gasped the woman alongside Robert, though four mouths had opened to claim it, by the looks of things. The condemned watched enviously as Mrs Wolverton’s reprieve set her free, and she hurried out before the cabbie could change his mind. As the door enclosed them once more they all looked away, not wanting to catch Robert’s eye. The floor-batterer sucked his thumb, a poor substitute for a sweet, but it would have to do.
“Ashley, Robert Kirk is here,” Payal said, smiling widely, stepping aside as a man emerged. Robert put him in his late twenties, the same brown skin as Payal, slim, athletic build, with high cheekbones, and dark eyes. He wore an Armani suit if Robert was any judge, and a broad smile of welcome on his face.
“Robert, so glad you could make it,” Ashley said, hurrying to the counter, shaking Robert’s hand vigourously. “This is Payal, my wife, the powerhouse around here, runs everything.”
Robert thought the smile she gave looked a little brittle, didn’t give off nearly as much energy as before. Ashley became aware of the silence, and looked round, puzzled.
“Is everything all right?” he asked Payal.
“Of course,” she bristled. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
Ashley blinked, uncertain. He shook his head slightly and looked at the waiting area, then at Robert again.
“Come on through,” Ashley said, lifting a section of the counter and unbolting the upright, pulling it back. Robert stepped through, and an audible sigh of relief could be heard in the unaccustomed silence. Payal sat back in her chair, and Ashley motioned Robert through. The mute button on the chaos CD popped out and the volume resumed its normal level as Ashley closed the door.
The office was small, with a wooden desk, computer monitor and keyboard, shelves on the wall behind it, lined with books, and a small two-seater sofa, with a Persian rug covering the floor, two metal filing cabinets on the other wall. In one corner a small table had the elephant God Ganesha, adorned with garlands. Pictures of other Gods were scattered along the walls, staring out benignly, and a gorgeous photo of Ashley and Payal, looking younger, obviously their wedding. A window with slatted wooden blinds looked out at the property next door. Ashley reached over and hoisted his chair up, missing the computer monitor by a whisker, and set it in front of the desk.
“Sit, sit” he urged Robert, pointing to the sofa. Robert sat down and Ashley spun his chair, perching on the edge of it, leaning forward to face Robert, his face intent.
“So, when can you start?” Ashley asked.
“That’s it?” Rob asked, surprised. “That’s an interview?”
Ashley waved his hand dismissively.
“Ha, what’s the point? You’ve been qualified eight years, normally we only get college leavers who think they know it all, and are wet behind the ears. Your references were great, and you’ve never been struck off for anything, according to the Register. What more should I know?”
“Well… I don’t know, actually.”
“Exactly. The sooner you start, the better. I had to let the other osteopath go last week, we’ve got patients waiting, and I don’t want to lose them to other clinics. Bad for business.”
Ashley studied Robert for a moment, frowning.
“I mean, why did he go?” Robert asked.
“Oh. He was just too flakey. Off the wall. Joined some institute of classical osteopathy and turned into a fruit-cake overnight.”
“Really. You have a sacro-iliac joint out of line, you correct it, right?” He went on before Robert could speak. “Oh no, not Chaffinch – aptly named by the way, he was like a bird fluttering everywhere. Shake all the arms and legs for ten minutes, and it’ll correct itself. Institute of classical waggle-opathy, more like. Seventeen complaints in two weeks, he had to go. Can you start on Monday?”
“Well… yes, why not?” Robert said, a tad bemused. “How do you handle the fees?”
“Payal takes all the payments and then I pay you weekly, minus the session rates for the room. I can give you a cheque or do it by bank transfer, if that’s easier. You won’t have to pay session fees for the first week, just to get you going, but you’ll be pretty busy in no time.”
“Great, thank you.”
“Thank you, Robert. I hope you’ll be here for a very long time.” Ashley stood up. “Come and meet some of the other staff. We’ve got acupuncture, aromatherapy, kinesiology, herbalism and reflexology, and they’re all great people. I’m thinking of getting a chiropodist in, but they need so much equipment.”
Ashley swung his chair back over the desk and Robert winced, waiting for the crash, but it didn’t happen, so he stood up. Had to be the fastest interview ever. But he was drawn to Ashley, his obvious enthusiasm and openness seemed to be matched by his friendliness. This might be the place to start again.
As Ashley opened the door, Phil Spector would have been proud of the wall of sound that hit them. It didn’t seem to faze Ashley, but as Robert emerged the volume dial turned down and down to silence. Ashley studied the waiting souls, puzzled by this phenomenon as he lifted the counter top, stepped through, and held it for Robert. Frowning, Ashley indicated with his hand towards the corridor, and Robert followed him.
The first door they arrived at had an ornate sign entitled ‘Osteopathy’ and Ashley smiled as he opened the door, reached round and turned the light on, motioning Robert in. It was a decent-sized room, very clean; there was a hydraulic treatment table with pale blue towelling cover in the centre, a small changing cubicle, a desk with two chairs, and a wooden cabinet. Anatomical charts were pinned to one wall, and the window had a white blind pulled down and a vase of fresh flowers stood on the windowledge. A small sink was fixed under the windowledge, with a hand-towel hanging from a ring next to it. The whole room looked well-planned, and Robert nodded in approval.
“Nice room,” he said
“Couch rolls and spare towels in the cabinet,” Ashley said. “Didn’t know if you’d want massage oil or cream, we supply it all for you.”
“Great. I like arnica oil, if you’ve got it.”
“No problem. Let’s see if any of the others are in the staff room.”
Ashley led the way and they passed five more doors, either side of the corridor; one was marked as the toilet, and Ashley opened another marked as Private to show the shower and toilet for staff use. The other rooms had their own signs – Acupuncture, Aromatherapy, and the last had Kinesiology and Reflexology together. The door at the end of the corridor opened into a very large room, with a high ceiling, and enormous windows looking onto a cultivated garden, enclosed by green hedges. Two large sofas formed half a square and more armchairs and easy chairs were scattered around the room. Not one cushion matched, but the vibrant colours made it a place of easy comfort, while swirling paintings of dolphins and landscapes adorned the walls. A low cupboard with a sink and a kettle and toaster standing by lined one side. A woman stood with her back to them, waiting for the kettle to boil, by the look of her. Blonde hair tied up and an hour-glass figure, wearing tight slacks and a woollen jumper she hummed to herself, swaying gently.
“Tea, Bren?” asked the blonde.
Another woman lay back on one of the sofas, eyes closed, with a large red crystal resting on her forehead, between her eyes. The thumb and forefinger of each hand formed two circles, which were held in the air. About sixty, Robert reckoned, greying hair tied back and wearing a voluminous kaftan that emphasised her size. She was a big woman.
“Aum,” this woman chanted in reply, and Robert felt a twinge of alarm. Ashley cleared his throat and the blonde turned. ‘All that meat and no potatoes’ was Robert’s first thought, staggered. She had a bust that Katie Price would envy. It strained at the jumper, desperate to leap free, and it was coming towards him. Transfixed in the twin headlights of flesh, Robert couldn’t move.
“This is Robert, our new osteopath,” Ashley said, as collision was imminent. “Robert this is Pam, she’s—”
“I’m single,” the blonde announced, taking Robert’s hand. He wasn’t aware he’d held it out, but he swore he heard hydraulics as her bumpers softly collided with his chest, pushing him back a few inches. She was pretty, with freckles on her nose and blue eyes that should never be allowed in a liars’ contest for the sheer unfairness of it.
“Pam’s our aromatherapist,” Ashley said, as Robert struggled to free his hand
“Any time you need rebalancing, just let me know,” Pam breathed, staring into Robert’s eyes. “Any time.”
Robert took hold of her wrist and pulled his hand from her grasp.
“I’ll bear it in mind,” Robert said, and found he could breathe more easily as the vertical weight eased from him.
“Your chakras need work, you know that, don’t you?” Pam said.
“I had them serviced last week, actually.”
Pam thought about this for a second and then laughed. She was pretty, and her laugh was genuine, but Robert felt like he was being scrutinised for breakfast, and he’d never liked pushy women, anyway. He caught a hint of movement from the corner of his eye, and almost jumped out of his skin as he turned to find the older woman standing beside him.
“This is Brenda,” Ashley said.
Robert held his hand out to her, but she ignored it and folded him in a huge bear-hug.
“It’s taken you so long to get here,” she said emphatically, over his shoulder.
Robert managed to extricate himself, stepping back from her.
“Well, someone stole my taxi, otherwise I’d—”
“No, no. It’s what you’ve been through to finally arrive,” she interrupted. “So many times you’ve been on this plane.”
“Yeah, those EasyJet fares are hard to resist, aren’t they?”
She gripped his shoulders and stared deeply into his eyes.
“Robert. Robert,” she said earnestly.
“Still here,” Robert replied. “Both of us.”
“You’ve been given such a wonderful opportunity to…”
She tailed off, and Robert knew his face must have shown what he was thinking, because she took her hands from him, looking a bit flustered. Ashley must have picked up on something between them.
“Let’s go back to the office, I’ll show you all the forms we use,” he said, and Robert was quite glad to get out of the room, what with soft flesh and soft minds.
“Such a troubled soul,” he heard Brenda say.
“Mm,” agreed Pam. “Such a nice bum, though.”
As Ashley closed the door to the staffroom, he gave Robert a somewhat sickly smile.
“They’re wonderful practitioners,” Ashley said. “P’raps a bit flakey, but—”
“A bit? A bit?”
“Seriously, their patients love them. They do a lot of good. They’re decent people, genuinely.”
Robert relented somewhat. It wasn’t his place to criticise others, and he knew he was over-sensitive.
“Yeah, you’re right. I’ve worked on my own for so long, I forgot the rich tapestry of life has all sorts of weaves.”
“It takes all kinds.”
“Absolutely,” Ashley said, relieved. “You haven’t met Ian yet, he’s the Kinesiologist. Even I don’t understand what he tells me, but he gets people better, that’s all that counts. Ah, here he is.”
A wandering hippy approached them. His ponytail had obviously wrenched all the hair out from the top of his head, dragging it over the crown to the back, and it looked like the rest of it would fall out any day now. A shirt that had seen life when Jefferson Airplane were still playing live was joined by long khaki shorts and open-toed sandals. He could have been any age from thirty-five to fifty-five, and he muttered to himself as he swung a pendulum from side to side, crossing and re-crossing the corridor.
“Ian, this is—”
Ashley was interrupted by Ian jerking up his left hand violently, a sign that brooked no argument, shaking his head, as he continued on his way, murmuring and swinging the pendulum like a demented altar boy. Robert was reminded of a pinball machine he’d played on the pier as a boy, as he watched Ian bounce off the walls until he finally made it into the staff room. All he needed were Pam’s bumpers and some music and it would be just like the real thing. He looked at Ashley.
“He’s Grandmaster of the White Lodge,” Ashley said, by way of explanation.
“Riiight,” Robert said slowly.
“Come on, I’ll take all your details. Where are you staying?”
“I’m renting an apartment in Camden, thought I’d cycle in.”
Ashley stopped, agitated, and gripped Rob’s upper arm.
“Don’t do that, Robert. Seriously. The lorries in London are lethal, far too many cyclists get knocked off every day.”
“I thought I’d come in early, miss the traffic and do some serious fitness work around the Heath.”
“Promise me you’ll stick to the cycle lanes and the pavement if you do, please.”