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Authors: JL Merrow

Hard Tail

BOOK: Hard Tail
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Dedication

To the owner & manager of the real Totton mountain bike shop, Perfect Balance Cycles, whose help and inspiration was invaluable. Keith, I owe you!

Any technical errors that may remain are, of course, my own.

Chapter One

The bell above the shop door tinkled, and Matt Berridge fell into my life.

Literally.

I’d been staring at that glass door, willing someone to come in and stave off the killing boredom before I stuck a bicycle spoke through my neck out of sheer bloody ennui. So when a broad-shouldered, shaggy-headed lad in mirror sunglasses loped into view, I was all eyes. He wore lived-in jeans and a purple Weird Fish T-shirt, with a battered biker jacket over the top. He looked like he’d just got back from a festival somewhere. At least, he looked like I imagined a guy who’d just been to a festival might look. I’d never been to a festival. Too busy with exams and work and getting married to a girl I didn’t love.

When he pushed open the door, I barely had time to mentally punch the air—and then he was gone, well-shaped arse over tit.

I’d swear it was nothing but his own feet he tripped over. With a soft cry of “Argh—shit!” he sprawled into the shop on his hands and knees. I didn’t realise who he was at first—I just hurried out from behind the counter to help the poor sod up. But when he looked up from under that dark mop of hair, it was obvious. At least, if you had the inside information I did. The sunglasses, which I now noticed were scratched, hung from one ear, and there was a massive, purple bruise around his right eye, which was swollen and half-closed. I winced involuntarily when I saw it, then hoped like hell he hadn’t noticed.

“Hi,” I said as he staggered to his feet, holding on to my arm. “I’m Tim.”

“Oh, right—you’re Jay’s brother? Good to meet you.” He smiled lopsidedly, adding dimples to the freckles already sprinkled on his lightly tanned face. I could easily imagine him as a beach bum somewhere like California, although given the South Coast accent with a hint of a West Country burr, I was guessing Cornwall was probably nearer the mark. “Sorry about that. I’m a total klutz, ask anyone. I’m Matt.”

“I guessed.” I gestured to the black eye—and then cursed myself for being so tactless. Obviously he was self-conscious about the bruising, or he wouldn’t be wearing shades. “I mean, Jay said you’d, er, had an accident. Sorry.”

“Oh, yeah. That.” He suddenly flashed a blinding grin. He had perfect teeth, except for one on the top left that was endearingly broken. “You don’t look like him. Jay, I mean.”

If I had a pound for everyone who’s ever reminded me that there is one good-looking guy in the family, and I’m not him… I’d still be pissed off about it. “Well, that’s the wonders of genetics for you,” I said, trying not to overdo the fatalism and come off like a self-loathing loser. “Some kids get the looks. Some get the brains. Me, I got the knobbly knees and the tendency towards early greying.”

He peered at me, his good eye narrowed nearly as much as his swollen one, and laughed. “You’re not greying!”

“No, but I will be. I take after my dad, and he went grey before he was thirty.”

“Yeah? How old are you now?” Matt asked. It was a bit of a weird effect, the cheeky grin on the battered face, but I couldn’t help smiling along with him.

“Twenty-eight,” I admitted.

“Looks like you’ve got two years to live it up, then,” Matt said, folding up his sunglasses and shoving them in his jacket pocket, adding another scratch with the zip along the way. “Wait—you’re married, aren’t you? That’s what Jay said.”

“He did?” Jay talked about me? I wondered what else he’d said. “Um. We’re actually not together anymore. Kate and me, I mean.”

“Shit.” Matt hung his head. “Sorry. Put my foot in it again. I’m always doing that.”

“Don’t worry,” I said quickly. “It’s fine—I mean, obviously, it’s… Um. We’d grown apart,” I finished lamely, trying to reassure him it wasn’t as bad as it sounded.

“Oh. Right!” Just like a light switch, the smile was on again. “Right, well, I’d better get to work. Anything new come in?”

I looked at my watch. “Not in the fifteen minutes we’ve been open, no.”

“Right! I’ll get out the back, then.” And just like that, he was gone.

 

 

I’d never have thought a broken leg would turn out to be the most important event in my life. For a start, it wasn’t even my leg.

But it still managed to be responsible for moving me from London to Totton. It’s all right; you’re allowed not to have heard of Totton. It’s just a small town near Southampton, out past the Western Docks and across the Redbridge Causeway, over the very tip of Southampton Water. If you keep driving on through, which most people do, in another ten minutes you’ll reach the New Forest, home to a million pubs and ponies. It’s about as far from London as you can get, philosophically speaking, although it only takes an hour or so on the M3. Particularly if you’re bombing down the motorway like a bat out of hell because you’ve just heard your big brother’s in hospital.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t just Jay’s accident that set things off. After all, I hadn’t even heard the news when my marriage broke up.

It happened on a dreary, grey Monday evening, just after Kate had got in from work. I’d been home all day, having recently fallen victim to the merger of my firm, Falstaff & Bird, with a much larger accountancy business. Merger being, of course, merely a polite euphemism for the Falstaff & Bird partners selling the rest of us down the river. Half my department had been made redundant when the two firms combined, and the rest—the lucky ones—forced to relocate to the Williams Way offices in Canary Wharf. Everyone I’d spoken to since the axe had fallen had sounded shell-shocked by the speed of it all and wiped out by the commute.

Kate, being a lawyer, was more or less immune to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Come to think of it, slings and arrows were pretty much her bread and butter. She was home late that day, and looked tired as she dumped her briefcase in the hall. I wondered guiltily if I should have tried to cook something—but then again, if she’d already been having a bad day, it’d be a bit mean to make it even worse. “Want to get a takeaway?” I asked.

Kate didn’t meet my eyes. “Just a minute, Tim. I just need to pop upstairs.”

“Okay,” I said, a bit puzzled—after all, we had a perfectly good downstairs loo if that was what she needed. I wandered back into our tastefully designed living room and closed up the laptop I’d been busy tweaking my CV on, then unfolded the
Financial Times
from the job pages. It wasn’t like there’d been anything in there, anyway. Then I sat down on the cream leather sofa and wondered if it’d be worth turning the television on while I waited. The phone rang, and I leapt up to answer it—only to find it had stopped before I got there, presumably fielded by Kate. I sat down again and stared at the bookshelves on the wall by the conservatory. Not much there apart from Kate’s collection of modern literary fiction, the books all strictly ordered by binding and most of them unread. She’d deemed my pile of old-fashioned crime paperbacks far too scruffy for the living room.

“Tim?” I jumped a little as Kate spoke, peering around the door as if it might not be safe to come in immediately.

“Expecting someone else?” I quipped weakly, because all this uncharacteristic timidity was starting to worry me.

“No! No, don’t be silly—who else would I be expecting?” Kate was still as neat as ever in her pale blue business suit, chosen to match her eyes. She came into the room in little, bird-like steps and perched on the sofa next to me, smoothing down her skirt.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“No—well, yes, actually. Tim, I’m so sorry.” She was about to cry, I realised with a shock; I could tell by the little sniffs and the way her eyelids were fluttering like a hummingbird on acid.

“Kate, what is it?” I was seriously alarmed now. Had her dad had another heart attack? Had she lost her job too?

“I’m so sorry,” she repeated. “But I’m moving out. I’m going to live with—” She hiccupped, and I wondered if I should pat her back. Maybe it would be politer just to pretend I hadn’t noticed.

Then I wondered why good manners seemed to be my main concern at a time like this.

“I can’t live a lie any longer. Alexander and I have been getting, well, closer—and I’m going to live with him.” She looked up at me almost defiantly, but it only lasted a moment. Her slim little fingers kneaded one another savagely, and I noticed she’d taken off her wedding ring, and the engagement ring I’d given her. It had always seemed too big and clumsy for her hands, but apparently that would now no longer be a problem. “You must hate me,” she whispered, looking down once more.

“No! No, of course I don’t,” I said, struggling to work out just how I actually felt. I wasn’t sure I felt
anything
right now—apart from a strange disconnect, a numbness spreading out from my core. Hate her? We didn’t really do strong feelings like that.

I do hate it when she cries, though. Always have done. I put my arm around her, which turned out to be a big mistake. She burst into huge, ugly sobs and buried her head in my shoulder. I patted her back—I had a fairly good idea pretending not to notice would, in the circumstances, be the polar opposite of good manners. What the hell were you supposed to say in these situations? “There, there,” just didn’t seem to cut it, somehow. “It’ll be all right,” was what I went with in the end.

It might have been trite but it had one positive effect—Kate stopped soaking my shoulder and looked up with an expression of outrage only slightly ruined by runny mascara. Thank God I wasn’t wearing a favourite shirt. That stuff never comes out. “How can you even do this? God, it’s just so unfair! Here you are,
comforting
me—and I’m about to—” She dissolved into tears once more.

“There, there,” I said helplessly. Suddenly remembering I had a handkerchief, and it was even reasonably clean, I passed it to her. “Come on, have a good blow.”

She blew her nose in that quiet way women seem to manage—I always sound like an elephant attempting the Last Post—and gave me a brave little smile. “It’s just—everything’s happened at once. You being made redundant, and then, well…”

“Alexander,” I supplied, in case all the emotion had made her temporarily forget the name of the bloke she was leaving me for. Alex was a friend of mine, as it happened. Blond, where I was dark; short and chunky, while I was tall and on the lean side; down-to-earth and Northern while I was…not. I wondered if her subconscious was trying to make a point.

I’d always been pleased with how well they got on together.

“I never meant to hurt you,” she sobbed, teardrops leaving blotches on her dry-clean-only skirt. I considered sliding the
FT
onto her lap to catch them, but newsprint would only have made a worse mess. Best to leave it.

“You haven’t hurt me,” I said, not quite truthfully. Let’s face it, even if you’ve accepted that your marriage was a total mistake, having your wife run off with another bloke is going to be bad for the ego. But I didn’t blame her for looking elsewhere for what I couldn’t give her. I blamed myself for being so bloody determined to keep my head stuck in the sand.

“I hope one day you’ll find someone who deserves you,” Kate said, sniffing.

I shrugged, wondering bleakly if that would be a good or a bad thing, if it ever happened.

Kate gave her nose one more snuffly little blow and picked up the bag she’d packed before coming back downstairs. I wondered if I should offer to carry it to the car, or if that’d be taken as an insult. It didn’t look heavy, so I left her to it. I guessed she’d be back with my dear old mate Alex for the rest of her stuff later.

I thought about dropping some hints as to when I’d be out over the next few days but couldn’t muster the energy. Or think of anywhere I’d go, come to that.

She turned her head to give me one last, sorrowful glance as she stepped through the door, then paused as something struck her. “Oh—and by the way, your mother rang.”

It never rains but it pours.

 

 

My mother never rings me. Never.

She rings my brother, Jay. I know this, because I asked him once. I ring
her
every couple of weeks or so, because I feel guilty if I don’t, but she never seems that pleased to hear from me. Most of the time is usually spent talking about Jay—his latest money-making scheme, his latest girlfriend, whatever. She always finishes up by saying, “Well, at least I don’t have to worry about
you
.” And then she makes this sort of
tsk
noise under her breath, as if the lack of worry is just one more way I’ve been a disappointment to her.

BOOK: Hard Tail
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