Welcome to Chapter Twenty-Five in the serialisation of Neil Mason’s There There My Dear, the unique and very relevant debut novel that critics are comparing to works by Ben Elton. An ex-con continues to be the pawn in a dangerous game, while the femme fatale plays a game of her own.
If you’ve missed out on the earlier chapters, don’t worry. To catch up on events so far, just follow this link to catch up!
There There My Dear
The weather had stayed fair the whole day and Benson Powell had used his time wisely. He had read just parts of the profile again and he was confident that he knew enough to strike up meaningful conversation when they met that evening. While studying the details for the seventh – or was it eighth? – time, he decided to skip the pages that revealed the student’s real identity and the truth behind the financial situation. He could not ‘un-learn’ these facts but he could choose to not read them again.
For all her life Lily Cubitt had known that her mother and father had lived modest and straightforward lives. Their family life had rolled along in the same way as millions of others across the land. She had grown up in Hertfordshire and enjoyed the typical trappings of that environment. Her father had worked at the local council offices and her mother had been a freelance Educational Psychologist, offering her services to several Local Educational Authorities close to London. Life had been close to idyllic in leafy Wheathampstead and she had never experienced hardship – never ‘gone without’ as her father used to say. She had suffered when her parents had divorced when she was twelve years old but she had got over it soon enough. There had been no animosity between her parents, neither before nor after their split, so this may have helped her to move on at that time. She had learnt very little about her family history and there had been no conversation about that sort of thing. Her dad had told her once that his father had been born in Libya just before the Second World War and that there were no records of his birth. Her grandparents, as she had been told, were both dead and there was no appetite to delve into the past. That lack of attachment, coupled with the fact that Lily had been cared for by hired help throughout her infancy while her parents worked, may have contributed to her being emotionally remote. She did not have a best friend, she did not have an extended family to turn to and she never kept in regular contact with her parents. That was Lily’s life as Powell knew it.
But Lily only knew what they wanted her to know. And now Benson Powell knew more. That made him enormously uncomfortable and he had no desire to read the real story over again. He did not want to run the risk of mentioning something that he should not know and compromise his mission.
How would he feel? How would he feel if somebody he did not know told him that his life was a sham and that everything he believed had been fabricated?
Powell knew that he did not want to be the one to break the news to Lily Cubitt. But he did not know why Harold Connor had given him all this information. Why? Why did he need to know that Lily Cubitt was the result of an illicit affair between a diplomat and a civil servant and that the people she believed to be her parents were complete surrogates? Did Connor mean to give him all of this information? Or was it an error from the old man?
Having exercised both his mind and his body in the morning he had spent the afternoon relaxing back at his digs. Relaxing meant listening to music on his iPod and playing violent games on his Nintendo DS.
The evening arrived quickly and so he took to the shower once more in preparation for the night ahead. He chose his clothes carefully from the collection he had brought from home, a limited wardrobe. A checked shirt, skinny sand- coloured jeans and pale blue deck shoes. His take on ‘preppy’ to fit in with the student crowd.
Conscious of the culture of going out early, he left his digs at a quarter to seven and headed off to the Student Union. It meant catching the bus so he adopted his feigned stoop as not to make eye contact with anyone, either at the bus stop or on the bus itself. But even then, with his height, he would find himself looking down on anybody under five feet eight. The journey passed without incident.
On arriving at the campus he noted that there were as many people milling around at that time as there were during the day. All seemed to be heading in the same direction. Towards the Student Union. Tonight was the night but it could prove difficult finding his mark with so many people around.
Powell steeled himself before entering the building. A deep breath in through the nose replenished his confidence levels and he was more than ready. He was going in.
The heat. It was the first thing that struck him. That and the darkness. Still light outside – it would remain so for hours yet – all the curtains and blinds were closed and there were no ceiling lights on. Some primary colours glowed from stacks of old fashioned disco lights dotted around the vast room. Scattered across the interior were low and curved sofas with accompanying stools where some groups had already taken up residence for the evening. The main light in the room came from the neons behind the bar and the open fire doors that gave on to the terrace. There were more people outside than in, drinking in the summer’s orange evening sun. Drinking in the best tradition of student life. Drinking.
Powell made his way to the bar and ordered a bottle of Becks. Surprised at the amount of change he got back, he wished the pub back home were equally cheap.
Then he noticed two things that made him realise that the student life really was not for him. The music and the number of young men wearing eye make-up. Unperturbed, he started roaming the place looking for Lily Cubitt. The dreadful sound of a man singing about being happy in the haze of drunken hour was so loud that it hurt his ears and distorted itself into an unbearable noise. In his heart he hoped that Lily was not there. To make his search easier he dropped the put-on stoop and used his height to help him see further. The darkness worked against him and so he had to approach groups and individuals in order to see their faces. To some he may have appeared a bit strange. To others he was just another socially awkward male student looking for a friendly face.
After fifteen minutes he decided that his target was not there. He could not be certain because more people had come into the bar while he had been scouring the faces in the crowd. But he could not go through the whole procedure again. He had to think of something else.
He gulped down the remains of his drink and placed the bottle on top of a fruit machine near the door and headed for the exit. As he walked out of the building his mobile phone sounded the alert that meant that he had missed a call. From Harold Connor.
Still with nothing to report he decided to not call him back until the morning. When it came to Harold Connor, no news was simply not good enough. He turned the phone off, put it back in his pocket and headed towards the bus stop after adopting his protective stoop. He wished he had brought his hoody.
The buses were frequent and, with the volume of people heading towards the Student Union, the buses heading into Warwick itself were virtually empty. As he took a seat he scanned the faces of the few people on the bus, just in case she was there. She was not on the bus.
He positioned himself next to the aisle to ensure that nobody sat next to him. Was he becoming paranoid?
The bus motored towards the town centre and he hoped he had memorized accurately the stop that he needed. The one near the White Hart.
He checked his watch as he neared the pub. It was just after seven forty when his ride came to an end and he thanked the driver as he got off the bus.
There it was. The White Hart in all its glory. Down at heel was one way to describe it. Rough was another.
Sat at dilapidated trestle tables in the garden that doubled as the car park were bunches of men who looked as if they might live on the streets. Some had glasses of beer while others combed the ground under the tables looking for discarded cigarette butts.
Powell waited for the bus to pull away and stood a while looking at the pub from the other side of the road. Is this really a frequent haunt of the stellar student? Should he doubt the information provided by Harold Connor?
He let these doubts remain in his mind but felt compelled to explore the delightful venue. He started to cross the road and deliberately pushed his phone further down in his pocket for security and relocated his wallet from a back pocket to one in the front of his jeans. He was expecting the worst. Safely across the road he stood on the broad pavement in front of the pub entrance and saw the stains on the wall where somebody had vomited, presumably on the way out after a heavy session. It made him pause for a fraction of a second and, in that miniscule moment, he thought about turning around and running away.
Powell pushed himself through the moment and, to ensure that he did not flee, he walked through the entrance and into the bar at a speed that took him and those inside by surprise. The inner door flew open and crashed against the wall, drawing everybody’s attention to him. Just what he did not want.
The crash of the door stopped everything in the bar and the silence that ensued lasted forever, but was over in a heartbeat. The regulars had probably hoped for a shocking scene, a fight or a fall, or both. But all they saw was the surprised black face of, they assumed, another student looking for a cheap night out. In that briefest dead calm, Powell only saw strangers’ eyes looking at him in hope. Hope that something bad would happen. And then he looked directly at the bar. As he started to walk the usual noise of conversation returned and the incident had past, forgotten by all. Like it never happened.
He ordered a pint of lager and, temporarily, thought that he had lost his wallet, forgetting that it was not in its usual place in his back pocket. Quickly he remembered where it was and paid for his drink. Loads of change again. This was a cheap pub.
With a cold drink in his hand he took a casual stance and leant against the bar. The foot rail fell neatly for him and his posture then blended in with those around him. Comfortable and happy that he had regained his anonymity he took a sip that shocked his lips with its coldness and turned to search for Lily Cubitt.
As his eyes scanned the bar he saw a host of older gentlemen in ragamuffin clothes talking at each other and drinking away with some determination. Not a woman to be seen. Accidentally he caught the eye of an ancient man who seemed to be gesturing with his hand for Powell to go away. Although the old man would be no competition for him in a fight, he quickly turned his back on him and found himself facing the bar once again.
It was then that he noticed some excitement coming from another part of the bar. Of course, there had to be more to it than just the front salon. From outside the building had looked huge and there had to be another bar to serve the garden area that spilled into the car park.
In his rush to get to the bar after the dramatic and embarrassing entrance, Powell had failed to notice the partition on the right hand side with a door leading to the lounge. There were more people in the pub than he thought. He would have to check out that other bar.
The lounge was always darker than the salon bar and that was one of the reasons that the students preferred to sit in there. Another was the fact that the regulars never ventured into, what they called, the ‘snug’.
Lily Cubitt and her admirer had already arrived, taken up their usual positions, ordered their drinks and started their evening’s entertainment when they heard an almighty crash. Probably another drunk falling over. Nothing out of the ordinary.
The young man paid no further attention and quickly returned his focus to Lily Cubitt. He didn’t care about a drunken pensioner falling off a bar stool. All he cared about was what would happen next.
In an instant Lily Cubitt shattered his dreams.
‘I’m going to fuck the next person who walks in through that door.’
‘Sure. What if it’s a girl? Or the old bastard who just fell off his stool?’ Her escort for the night was very familiar with Lily’s need for predictability. Despite her apparent progressive take on romance, her regular lovers knew that it was all a show. Sure, she had several young men in her life but her compartmentalised approach to gratification was totally dependent on safety. In that moment he was sure that she was just saying words.
‘If it’s a girl it wouldn’t be the first time.’ Lily’s comments provoked a knowing look but no laughs.
When Powell walked through the door into the snug he heard the young man groan. Lily’s companion stood up and called him a lucky bastard before disappearing into the toilet.
Powell was still slightly stunned and his fight-readiness had made him clench his fists. He had been in worse pubs but this was unknown territory for him.
‘He’s harmless. Just a harmless boy.’
Powell turned and looked towards the table. He saw a girl. A girl with the most stunning and alluring eyes he had ever seen.
Eye to eye with Lily Cubitt.
In that moment he experienced a culmination of emotions and sensations that he had never felt before. So familiar was her face to him that he felt he knew her. It was so unexpected to find her that he thought she was an illusion. And he felt guilty, because he knew so much about her that it made him feel sick. She was so beautiful that it made him feel unworthy.
‘Take a seat’ said Lily without looking at him.
‘But what about…?’
‘Oh don’t worry about him. He won’t come back.’
‘He won’t come back. I know he won’t.’ Lily Cubitt calmly folded up a small piece of black cloth and placed it in her handbag. Powell looked on as she did so. Were they her knickers?
‘I’d love another drink. I’ll have another pint of lager.’ She looked at him again and he could not speak. Those eyes. ‘You’ll have to go back to the salon to order. They never serve around here.’
Like an automaton Benson Powell turned and went through the door back to the main bar. He ordered two pints of lager and, once again, forgot which pocket his wallet was in. While he waited for the barman to pour the drinks he looked around and made eye contact with the same old man as before. This time there were no arm gestures, but an exaggerated wink and a vague ‘thumbs up’. Maybe that’s what he had meant earlier. Go to the snug. Go and find a woman. The barman had to tap Powell on the shoulder to draw his attention. The drinks were ready.
Benson Powell. Young, smart, streetwise. Tall, well-built, strong and handy with it. Virtually dumbstruck. His brain slipped into neutral and he picked up the drinks and returned to the snug.
Lily Cubitt’s lair. When he pushed the door open the snug lit up as the evening sunshine spilt in from the salon. In the half gloom and as he shuffled along with full glasses in his hand he glanced up and all he could see were those eyes again.
The door swung closed behind him and he placed the drinks carefully on the table, the voices of young men audible yet muffled from the poolroom. He tried to collect his thoughts and remembered what it was like when he had a crush on one of his primary school teachers.
He did not know what to say as he looked at her. Clearly recognisable from the photographs in the dossier, but she appeared very different. Almost like a caricature. And larger, in a nice way. That she was beautiful could not be disputed. But there was something more, something intangible. Compelling. Not that he would ever choose that word, but that was his sensation. Her presence was completely compelling.
School teacher crush.
It was her clothes.
Powell’s eyes adjusted to the low light and he looked at her. All of her. A titian glow to her auburn hair set high on her head in a spinster’s bun, the cream tailored blouse with short arms, the tight skirt that just about reached her knees looked black against her flesh-coloured tights. And her high-heeled shoes. Definitely dark, probably black, with slim heels and, to Powell’s surprise, they were not platforms. This made them look far more elegant.
Realising that he was checking her out, Powell snapped his head back up to look at her face. He struggled to look at her eyes and his attention was diverted to her neck. The choker. He was not sure if it was panic exactly, but Powell knew he had to compose himself if he were to stand a chance of taking control of the situation. He had to take control of the situation in order to complete his mission.
‘I need a piss.’ Powell looked around and could not make out where the toilets were. He did not want to ask.
‘Huh, hmmm.’ Lily cleared her throat to attract Powell’s attention and, as he turned to look at her she crossed her legs very slowly, raised an eyebrow and smiled as she pointed towards the back of the building. Powell followed the line of her finger and could just about see two doors near the entrance to the pool room.
‘Thanks. Um. Thank you, Lily’ he mumbled and walked off. After two strides he realised his mistake and hoped that she had not heard him say her name. He grimaced to himself and was hoping against hope when he heard her voice.
‘You’re welcome,’ she said and gave the lightest giggle. Powell continued to the toilets and thought that his world was about to crumble. He had blown it.
‘…Benson Powell’ continued Lily, knowing he was out of earshot.
‘Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit!’ Powell did not really need a piss. He needed a bit of time to compose himself. And, in fabricating the opportunity to do just that, he had blown it. He had addressed Lily Cubitt by her name although they had not introduced themselves to one another.
As he admonished himself while standing next to the urinals the door behind him opened and in walked one of the young men who must have been in the pool room. He must have heard Powell’s words and so joked. ‘The trap is over there’ and pointed to the only cubicle. ‘You’ll have to whistle, though. There’s no lock on the door.’ The young man proceeded use the urinal. Powell did not acknowledge the young man’s attempt at a joke. Instead he turned to him and thought about punching him.
A little while further back in his past Powell would have used his strength and controlled aggression to commit robbery in such circumstances. But much had changed over the last few years and the concept did not enter his mind.
‘Was it you sitting with that girl out there? Hey? What’s going on?’ Powell’s eyes drilled into the back of the other man’s head.
The young man finished at the urinal and washed his hands. Cold water and no soap. Such was the pub. As he dried his hands he explained that the girl, Lily Cubitt was her name, had made a promise to him and that he, the tall and athletic stranger, was to benefit from it. He could not say anymore but he wished him well. Wished it was him instead.
Powell waited a few moments until he was alone once more. Must calm down. Must calm down. Must not ruin everything now. Got to have something to report back to Harold Connor in the morning. And it better be good.
Powell’s biggest concern was his own ability to do anything in the presence of that girl. He had met just a few minutes ago and already he could hardly think straight. Baines’ advice was completely accurate. Never had Benson Powell met anybody like her. And he had to persuade her to enter some television contest. He doubted whether he could make her do anything at all.
To Be Continued…
If you’ve enjoyed the story so far, or if (like me) you’re a book-lover generally, then I know you’re going to love the exciting competition that I’ll be announcing in just a few weeks. I can tell you that one lucky winner is going to receive a very special and totally unique prize!
Keep an eye on my Facebook Page for details.
Chapter Twenty-Six to be published next week.
Very best wishes,
If you have friends or family who love receiving books for Christmas, you still have time to order them a copy of Neil Mason’s debut novel. You can grab a copy of There There My Dear from Amazon by CLICKING THE LINK BELOW!