Work in Progress
Right. Well. I seem to have started two new novels this week. One was kind of planned. Oakfield. I’ve been meaning to write it for years but it kept getting nudged out the way by other ideas. The other was something that came to me unexpectedly at the start of the week whilst driving home from work: Sunder Gloom – read first chapter here. Not quite sure how I’m going to manage juggling this, or even if I should. But for now I’m enjoying switching between both of them. Anyway, here’s the first chapter of Oakfield. Just finished it tonight.
Bodmin train station. South West of England. Early afternoon on a dazzlingly bright summer day. The steam locomotive let out a shrill blast from its whistle. The iron drive wheels span rapidly, slipping on the metal tracks until they caught, then slowly hauled the short length of elegant rolling stock away from the platform. Pistons shunted back and forth. Building up speed. Steam gushed out in great clouds. The smartly dressed passengers and tourists still on-board smiled at the attention they were receiving from the regular day-trippers, who were waiting for a normal commuter train to come through. Amongst them were five people who were not day-trippers. One of these was James Spaulding.
I’m supposed to be dead.
His thoughts were reflective, rather than an emotional statement. It was hard to get used to. But reality was pressed up against his face and there was no denying that.
James rotated his mind away from the idea and went back to considering how it was typical of his older sister to blow money on such an extravagant arrival. Privately, he enjoyed seeing the relic of a long-distant era of travel huffing and puffing away from the station. However, his sister could have – should have – hired a van for the trek from London. It would have been simpler, cheaper, quicker, and would provide opportunity for them to carry a few items back. Depending on whether the house they were going to be spending the next week at actually contained anything of interest. Or value.
His gaze lingered on the train. Perhaps it was the idea of something once old and ruined being restored back to pristine condition that had him feeling so… maladjusted?
As it was, they had gathered at Paddington Station at six o’clock in the morning, the five of them having travelled in from different parts of the City. A commuter train from London; a change at Bristol Temple Meads, and again at Exeter St David’s where they had boarded this “journe through time in comfort to the historical heyday of luxury travel”. And from there to Bodmin.
Here we are, he gave the provincial station another quick sweep with his eyes. Pictured how they all must have looked, standing there with their bags, out-of-place and out of context. Playing happy families.
He sighed and realised it had sounded louder and more cynical that he’d intended.
David Westlake, his sister’s husband had gone out front to find a taxi whilst the rest of them stood around their few belongings and pretended there wasn’t an atmosphere. Annabelle Westlake, nee Spaulding, had obviously thought the dramatic steam-train arrival would make everybody feel as though they were starting a fantastic adventure. Not so. Not everybody subscribed to Annabelle’s particular way of doing things. So invariably, as right now, she was glaring off in some middle-distance with a fierce face like thunder.
James squinted up at the sun, enjoying the warmth on his face; it wasn’t the 45 centigrade and higher he’d been living and fighting within for the last two years. Operation Metal Hammer was a third of the way around the planet. The soft breeze on his face was nice too. And it didn’t carry the stink of burned engine oil or of unclaimed bodies rotting in the heat.
Not a cloud in the sky here though, he mused wistfully, and considered the fact that for a professional psychoanalyst, his sister had some terrible personal issues bouncing off her padded walls. He snorted, self-conscious of his hypocrisy. A PARC-pilot, somebody who walked through a war zone encased in a monster machine of powered armour bristling with weapons; he was still technically on active-service but currently on extended leave due to psychological trauma. He wasn’t sure this trip was going to help.
Back to his sister. Those strikingly angular features of her catching the sunlight and gathering harsh shadows. He shared the same features, the same green eyes, almond shaped and almost lidless – a hark back to Inuit blood in the depths of the gene pool. Like her his hair was naturally blonde but whereas Annabelle had grown hers to cascade over her shoulders, his was clippered down to a functional fuzz.
James reached into front breast pocket of his white cotton shirt and extracted a packet of hand-rolled cigarettes. Toxin-free, hydroponic tobacco grown by some old woman just outside Bristol. The no-frills packaging was all recycled card-mash but he’d always loved the name of them: Sunder Smokes. She sold them via the Internet. He always had them shipped to whatever logistics hub was supporting his combat vector. Engagements rarely lasted less than two weeks. Sunder Smokes were always high on his list of priorities. His compatriots always joked about his tobacco habit. Played with the words. Sunder Smokes. Smoke Sunder. Smoke Asunder. Smoke your ass under. Har-bloody-har.
Still, the memory of his lot goofing around, kitted out in their BDUs, webbing, and cradling the military standard weaponry for infantry teams assigned to PARC squads; it made him smile. Until he remembered they were all dead.
A muscle jumped in his cheek, tugged the flesh beneath his eye.
He sighed, flipped open the packet and dragged one with his teeth. His gaze slid back to the tail end of the train and watched as it vanished from sight. He had that age-old restlessness firing through his nervous system again. Those flesh magicians, with all their molecular hocus-pocus-pokery and genome programs hadn’t managed to massage that out of the new him.
Being a senior cog in one of UTOC’s TNT platoons came with a lot of perks. One of them was that the TNT looked after their people. Elite medical care that went up to and included cognitive renovation. And for a Captain with a triple A-star PARC pilot rating they threw in a whole something extra.
Lighting the cigarette with an antique brass-cased zippo, custom rigged to burn bio-fuel, he grinned around the bitter smooth flavour. He picked up his nylon kit bag – the one he’d carried through two tours now – and drifted to the far end of the platform ahead of a trail of smoke.
Bodmin. The place clung onto a rural vibe despite the oppressively small and modern buildings huddled up against the side of the tracks. It was okay. It was better than a rehabilitation centre in the sticky-heat of the Everglades, north west of New Tokyo’s divisional headquarters for all UTOCs military units.
Here they were. Him, his big sister Annabelle, their younger brother Anthony. Then there was David and his business associate Robert Briggs. The latter being the fly in the ointment.
James gritted his teeth and flexed his eyebrows. He didn’t mind Briggs. But he knew his sister was livid with David for inviting the short, overweight, florid-faced blob along for the trip. Supposed to be family only. And whatever Annabelle thought, everyone else got to feel.
David Westlake was ex-military and new money rich. Venture capital and aggressive investment in anything that promised to yield a big return, regardless of moral ambiguity. Lots of reasons why James and him got along so well. Briggs provided the armour to such deals; former barrister with a zeal for exploitation and financial imperialism that would have made the Victorians proud.
The baby of the group was Anthony. Another fly in the ointment depending on which side of the maternal fence you sat on. Twenty-six going on seventeen. As tall as James, a chunky, round-shouldered 173 cm – or five foot eight – he wore the kind of clothing that wouldn’t have been out of place in orbit: a mixture of AirFirm trousers and jacket, and a RoGong, sleeveless body-vest that was currently configured to look and feel like snakeskin. The AirFirm fabric was going all out with vents and webbing to cope with the day’s heat. A mane of shoulder length blonde hair within an otherwise shaved scalp, was held back in place by a polychromatic band of metal. Some strands dyed deep purple completed the look. The metal band was his wearable computer. And like the RoGong and AirFirm, was not cheap. Anthony’s only interest seemed to be throwing himself off solid structures with a crappy parachute in order to feel alive. Or spending the money their sister gave him and petulantly demanding more. Like it was his birth-right. Anthony and Briggs got on like an electrical charge passed through C-9 demolition cake. That wasn’t a good thing. Oil and water had more chance of mixing together. James related to Briggs on this one.
One week together. In some old house Annabelle had inherited from a grandfather none of the immediate family but her had ever really known. And even then, Annabelle had only known him as a child whilst travelling to Germany. Which made the whole arrangement – the inheritance, the house, a little strange to James. The grandfather, Eustace Spaudling, was now deceased. All of them had met the man briefly, at the funeral of their father, Jonas, three years ago. That had been a difficult time for everyone and James’ recollection of Eustace was vague.
Sister’s voice, calling to him along the platform.
He turned and saw everyone had picked up their bags. David had found a taxi.
James dropped the remains of the cigarette onto the ground and stubbed it out with the toe of his hiking boot.
It was better than being dead. Really dead.
He hefted the nylon kit bag over a shoulder and strolled after them.
What he didn’t see was the skinny, saggy-fleshed man in the cheap business suit watching them from a sheltered seat by the entrance to the platform. If he had, James might have been disturbed to see the way the man peered out from beneath the wide brim of a large floppy hat, and took careful note of their physical aspects, like a butcher might size-up the cuts of meat he was going to get from a small herd of animals. And James would have been deeply bothered to know the oddly-postured man then got up and walked out, hobbling on spindly legs that seemed to jerk and twitch within the loose fitting trousers, to climb into a waiting car and follow the taxi from Bodmin station all the way to Oakfield.
But James didn’t see any of this. He was too busy listening to his sister explain to him how he was going to spend the next few days.
Subscribe (top left) to this blog or join my Facebook page to follow updates.