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Sample: That Elusive Something

Chapter One

The prison was long, low and grey, like a toppled filing cabinet. Quirke surrendered to the routine of emptying his pockets and briefcase with bored detachment. He raised his arms to the horizontal and parted his legs like a soldier at ease to allow the guard to pat him down.

“Right you are, Mr Quirke,” said the guard. “With the lifers today?”

“Yes,” said Quirke, refilling his pockets and stuffing papers back into his briefcase. “I promised Franklin he could recount his childhood to end today’s session.” He sighed.

“Rather you than me, Mr Quirke. A slippery one that Franklin and no mistake.”

“Yes. And it’s just Quirke. No mister.”

“Right you are, Mr Quirke. This way then.”

The guard turned and walked down the grey corridor. Quirke sighed again and followed.

* * *

“I remember the womb,” said Franklin. “I lay curled into a ball, like a frightened hedgehog. Occasionally I’d thrust out my elbows or legs to change position. The close confinement was a comfort. So was the darkness. And it was so dark in there. Shut your eyes tight in an unlit room at night and you’ll know what I mean.”

Quirke leaned forward in his chair, feigning interest. “Yes?” he said.

My eyes were open,” continued Franklin. “My ears too. The gurgle of her intestinal gases lulled me. The muffled, alien sounds that came from farther away alarmed me. I’d lie still until the noises went away or I’d kick and turn to exhaustion. But I was never exhausted for long. Her body succoured me. It fed and protected me. Then it betrayed me.”

“Fascinating,” lied Quirke. “Do continue.”

Franklin needed no second invitation. “I lay in my cocoon, my warm cocoon. Oh, the warmth… did I mention that? I would never want for anything if I could stay enveloped in that warmth. But things changed. Her embrace became insistently tighter, so tight that perversely I started to move. I was gradually squeezed downwards. She was trying to expel me.”

Attempting to insert a note of sincerity into his voice, Quirke urged, “Please go on.”

“As each downward squeeze receded, I fought to move upwards. I struggled with all my might, but it was useless. The tightness of my cell increased. What had once soothed me became my enemy. It gripped too securely for me to move in the direction that I wanted to go. I was a reluctant cork being extracted from a bottle. No matter how fiercely I fought to remain where I was, I was slowly but surely drawn from the only home I had known. I heard a loud pop and the fluid beneath my head flooded away. At the same time, the pressure from above intensified. I could feel my skull changing shape as it was forced through a gap which seemed too small to take it.”

“Do you really remember all that?” asked the man sitting to Franklin’s left. “I mean, being born and everything?”

Quirke frowned at the new speaker. Of course he doesn’t, you silly sod! he thought. He returned his attention to Franklin who was nodding his head earnestly.

“Yes, yes, I can remember it all as if it were only happening yesterday.”

Quirke didn’t miss the brief glance in his direction to make sure that he was getting this. You lying bastard! You lying sly bastard! He looked down at his watch. “We’ve only a couple of minutes left. There’s no point anyone else starting now. Franklin, you might as well finish.”

Franklin grinned. “Thank you, Mr Kirk.”

Quirke sighed. “It’s Quirke, Franklin, Quirke.”

“Oh, sorry, Mr Quirke, sir. Now, where was I?”

Quirke grunted. “At a guess, about halfway down your mother’s pelvis.”

* * *

The flat felt cold and lifeless. As Quirke shut the front door behind him, the telephone started to ring. He crossed the living room to the telephone table and yanked the handset from its cradle.

“Hello?”

“At last… When will you join the twentieth century and get a mobile?”

“Hi, Al. Sorry I’m late back. The last session overran. Franklin—he’s one of the long-termers—was recounting the memories of his birth.”

“His own birth?”

“Yeah. He got so carried away with his invention that it became quite entertaining, so I let him go on until he’d finished. The part about his head becoming stuck so that he resembled a mole checking that the coast was clear had us in stitches. And when he deliberately emptied his bowels over… er, perhaps that can wait until I see you.”

“Hmm. Anyway, that’s the reason I’m ringing. I won’t be home this weekend. Big con tomorrow, research Sunday. Sorry and all that.”

“What? Again! That’s three weekends running you’ve not been home. Why does your clerk keep arranging conferences for Saturdays?”

“You know very well why. Directors of multi-national corporations can’t afford the time during the normal working week to spend hours locked away in a stuffy room with me. Come to think of it, I can’t afford the time then either. So it’s either see these people on weekends or don’t take on heavyweight commercial work. And that’s not an option.”

Quirke sighed. He knew what the answer would be, but he asked anyway. “Couldn’t you come home tomorrow evening after the con? You can return Sunday morning to hit the books. Better still, bring the books home with you.”

“Impossible. I could never carry all the books I’d need on the train. Besides, there’s a sort of shindig arranged for Saturday night.”

“Okay, then why don’t I travel in tomorrow and come to the party with you?”

“Um, well, it’s kind of a private affair. Just for the teams involved in the case. A sort of pre-hostility piss-up before the battle lines are drawn on Monday. You’d hate it anyway.”

“Yeah, I suppose I would. Never mind. I’ll just have to find ways to amuse myself this weekend.” Yet again.

“Well, I should be able to make it back soon. Once the trial’s under way I’ll be glad to come home for some rest at weekends.”

“Rest? Don’t you mean wild bouts of frenzied love-making?”

“God, you sound like Dave!” It was her turn to sigh. “Oh, Quirke, I’m going to be too exhausted to even think about sex. Look, I have to go. Jenny’s making eyes at me. I’ll speak to you later in the week.”

“Good—” but she was gone “—luck,” Quirke finished to the dead handset. He looked at it for a moment before replacing it. “Oh, bollocks,” he muttered.

* * *

Quirke stared morosely into the dregs of his beer.

“You’re a bundle of laughs,” said Dave. “Lighten up, man, it’s Friday night.”

“Sorry.” Quirke tilted his glass and drained it. “’Nother?”

“Thought you’d never ask.”

By the time Quirke returned from the crowded bar, Dave was making eyes at a group of giggling girls at a nearby table. He leaned across the table as Quirke resumed his seat.

“Hey, we could be in there.” Dave arched his eyebrows suggestively.

“We? You maybe.”

“Why not we? Alison’s away, isn’t she?”

“Yeah. So?”

“When the cat’s away…”

“Not this mouse. I love Alison. I’m not about to jeopardise our relationship for a drunken romp with some girl that I’d be horrified to wake up next to sober.”

“That’s part of the fun. You never know whether you’ve made an alcohol-fuelled mistake ’til the cold light of day dawns. Then you either persuade her to rumble again or get out of there as fast as you can dress.” Dave chuckled. “Course, if she’s a real monster you don’t hang about. I’m pretty good at dressing on the run. So, where is Alison? Staying in the city again?”

“Yeah. She’s got a big case starting Monday in the Commercial Court. Some multi-million pound dispute between some multi-national companies run by multi-millionaires with multi-egos to match their bank balances.”

“She must be charging hefty fees for heavyweight stuff like that?”

“Yeah, s’pose.”

“Wow! Mr Enthusiastic.”

“Can’t help it.” Quirke shrugged. “There has to be more to life than just making money.”

“There is. Sex, beer, football, sex.”

“Cripes, I hope there’s more than that.”

“You have to set priorities, Quirke.” Dave took a long swig of his pint. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and belched. “When was the last time Alison was home?”

“Not for weeks. She and a colleague from her chambers—Jenny something or other—keep a flat off the Strand where she stays when in the city. She intended using that flat only during a lengthy case. Now she spends more time in it than she does in ours.”

“Look, mate, I don’t want to upset you, but it doesn’t seem to me that you have much of a relationship with Alison to jeopardise at the moment.”

“You’re right.” Quirke sipped gloomily at his beer. “To be honest, I think we’re drifting apart. Al’s so intent upon her career that everything else takes a back seat. Especially me. We used to talk about buying a house together and having kids. Nowadays we hardly mention buying a house, although we could probably afford one with her income. And as for kids, well, I’d have more chance of becoming Pope. Crikey, you’d have more chance of becoming Pope.”

“You, er, you don’t think Alison’s having an affair, do you?”

“Oh. That hadn’t occurred to me. Until now.”

“Oops.”

Quirke shook his head. “She can’t be. I mean, who would she have an affair with? Most of her colleagues are pompous prats. She’s always thought the same. At least, she’s always said so.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Forget I mentioned it. Tell me, what’s this Jenny like?”

“Al’s flat-mate? Only met her the once. She looked stern. A bit on the horsey side.”

“Sounds better than some I’ve had. Can you get Alison to introduce us?”

“Are you mad? Alison hates you.”

“Well, I know she’s not keen on me…”

“It’s your own fault for trying to snog her at the Freshman’s Ball when you could barely stand.” Quirke frowned. “I suppose she could have met a dashing court clerk or usher. It has been known. There are some handsome solicitors out there, too, believe it or not. She could have fallen for one who’s been instructing her.”

“I doubt it, mate. From what you’ve always said, Alison’s too wrapped up in her pursuit of satin—”

“Silk, Dave, silk.”

“Whatever, she’s too wrapped up in it to have time for an affair.”

“You really think so?”

“Yeah.”

“Hmm, maybe…”

Dave lowered his voice and glanced towards the next table. “Hey, I fancy that brunette in the black dress. Let’s find out where they’re going. We could be in for a bloody good—”

“Have you heard a word I’ve been saying?”

“Okay, okay, you can just look.”

* * *

Sleep stubbornly eluded Quirke. His head continued to pound to the savage beat of the track that seemed to have played continuously while they were at the club. They had not been the two most pleasant hours of his life. While Dave danced with any female that he could, Quirke found an uncrowded corner, sipped an exorbitantly priced pint and tried to think clearly through the racket.

At Dave’s instigation one girl made some effort to engage Quirke in conversation, if ‘conversation’ is the right word. Shouting into each other’s ear and making extravagant hand gestures would be more accurate. Quirke had great difficulty understanding a word the girl said and he was in no mood to exchange pleasantries with a stranger. Shouting what sounded like “Confabulacious elephants” into Quirke’s ear, the girl left in search of livelier company, much to his relief.

As the evening wore on a dark cloud of despondency settled upon Quirke, which became darker in proportion to his beer consumption. And the more depressed he became, the more he drank. By one o’clock Saturday morning Quirke had four pints more than his normal limit sloshing around in his stomach. He stood in the corner, nursing a pint glass, fretting about Alison.

He was beginning to enjoy himself for the first time all night—or at least was numbed by alcohol—when Dave sauntered over, his arm around a girl whose features Quirke had no recollection of, and enquired if Quirke would like to share a taxi home with them. Quirke could recall the familiar, leery grin on his friend’s face. He could also remember the way that grin changed to horror when, as the taxi pulled up outside his flat, Quirke turned around to say goodnight and deposited half a gallon of second-hand ale upon the girl’s lap.

Quirke groaned. He turned onto his side, buried his head in the pillow and willed sleep to claim him.

 * * *

His hangover was bearable—just. Quirke poured a pint of water down his parched throat, then forced himself to eat some breakfast. He was slumped in front of the television watching a programme aimed at twelve-year-olds when the telephone rang. It was Dave.

“Quirkey boy! How are we this morning?”

“Felt better. Mind you, I’ve felt worse, too. Look, mate, about last night—”

“No need to apologise. It was only a liquid chunder. It’s not as if you puked bits of carrot and stuff over her. I should thank you. She couldn’t get out of her dress fast enough.” Dave gave a throaty chuckle.

“Trust you to benefit from something like that. Still, I feel dreadful.”

“Well, don’t. She didn’t mind in the slightest; said it would wash out easily. She thought you were cute.”

“What! A bloke she’s never met before throws up in her lap and she thinks he’s cute? What was your chat-up line? ‘Come back to my place and I’ll crap in your handbag’?”

“As a matter of fact Leia’s a lovely girl. I’m seeing her again tonight.”

“Leia? What sort of name is that? How old is she?”

“Twenty-two. Why?”

“Don’t tell me: she’s got a younger brother called Luke, right?”

“Funny you should mention it…”

“Well, you want to be careful her parents aren’t into Star Trek as well. Otherwise you’ll be getting married wearing pointy ears and a skin-tight orange sweater.”

“You won’t catch me getting married, full stop.”

“Oh, I don’t know. You’re seeing her again tonight. By your standards you’re practically engaged.”

“Hmm, you could be right. Perhaps I’d better put her off.”

“Don’t be daft. I was only teasing. Besides, you’ve been out with other girls more than once.”

“Yeah, but only when they wouldn’t sleep with me first time. No such problem with Leia.”

“If you like the girl, see her again. Pay no attention to me—you never have before.”

“Yeah, okay.” Dave did not sound convinced. “Anyway, the real reason I was ringing is that Leia has a friend who she thinks will go for you big time. Fancy coming on a double-date tonight?”

“No! I told you last night that I’m in love with Alison.”

“You also said things that made it sound like you don’t have much future together.”

“I know I did. But I thought things over when we were in that awful club. Alison and I are meant to be together. She’s always said she hasn’t looked at another bloke since she’s been with me. And I’ve not looked at another woman. I can’t imagine being with anyone else.”

“Are you sure? Leia says her friend has breasts like prize marrows and legs up to her armpits. Alison would never know.”

I would know. Sorry. I can’t do it.”

“Okay. No harm trying.”

“See you for a pint tomorrow lunchtime?”

“As always.”

“Enjoy yourself tonight.”

“I will. Perhaps I’ll tell Leia to bring her friend along anyway. I’ve always fancied a threesome.”

“You’re incorrigible, do you know that?”

“Does that mean irresistible to members of the opposite sex?”

“If you like, Dave, if you like.”

 

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