Today's Reading


The worst smell in the world is dead badger. He'd encountered it on his morning walk down a green lane; had caught the odour without seeing the corpse, but had guessed what it was before returning later with a shovel. Whether they all smelled that bad or whether this one had expired of noxious causes he didn't know. As it turned out, he couldn't do anything about it either—the creature had crawled into a tangled nest of roots to die, and it would require heavy machinery and a strong stomach to recover it. Lacking the former, and not wanting to put the latter to the test, Max opted for a third way: he'd walk a different route for a while, and see if one of the local farmers shifted it in the meantime. Which was why he wasn't sure the badger would still be there a couple of nights later, when he was running for his life.

The first of the intruders entered through the kitchen window. Max hadn't been asleep, though anyone watching the cottage would have been forgiven for thinking otherwise: the lights were out, the curtains drawn. He'd been lying in bed, not so much struggling with insomnia as letting it do its worst, when he'd heard the window latch being finessed open: a piece of wire sliding through the draughty gap he'd been meaning to repair, lifting the metal hook from its eye. Quieter than taking out the glass, but a long way short of silent. He'd pulled on jogging pants and a sweatshirt, slipped into a pair of trainers, then froze in place, caught between two lives, trying to remember where he'd stashed his flight kit... You could worry you were losing your mind. That they were coming too late, and you'd long ago turned into whoever you were pretending to be.

(Max Janácek. Retired (early) academic; still footling around with a history book, but mostly just passing the days—taking long walks, cooking slow meals, losing himself in Dickens.)

The stairs were an out-of-tune orchestra of squeaks and whistles, every tread announcing that Peter or the wolf were on their way, unless you'd practised descending, and knew where to put your feet. So almost noiselessly he reached the sitting room, whose doorway was catty-corner to the kitchen, and plucked the poker from its stand by the wood-burning stove. Not a great weapon, for all its iconic status in fiction. You needed high ceilings to accommodate your swing. Max Janácek understood a good swing: he was the man you saw walking the lanes, beheading dandelions with a stick. Who lived in a five-hundred-year-old cottage in North Devon, and could be counted on to do the neighbourly thing: keep an eye out for the old folk, whose company he was on the threshold of joining; litter-pick after the bank holiday rush; sign the petition resisting the makeshift industrial estate down the lane—numbering seventeen cabins now. This and more he'd been for more than twenty years, and whether the locals took him at face value or gave less than a tuppenny damn had become irrelevant, or had done until someone slipped the latch on his kitchen window and climbed inside more or less gracefully, breaking no crockery, dislodging no pans, and moving across the flagged floor in careful silence, intent—it would seem—on unlocking the back door and allowing his comrades ingress. Or her comrades, as it turned out. Whether Max would have jabbed her so hard at the base of the skull with the poker, then slammed her head on the floor when she fell had he known it was a woman beneath the break-in gear was something he could ponder at leisure, if he survived the night. Meanwhile, he checked her for weapons. She was carrying a Taser, which put her outside the range of opportunist burglars, but no ID, and nothing to indicate what she was up to. But he had to work on the assumption that she wasn't alone, an assumption confirmed when he picked up the landline to hear the deep silence of a well on a windless night. Inside the cottage—anywhere down this lane—his mobile made for a useful paperweight. So sitting tight and calling the cavalry wasn't an option, and wouldn't necessarily have been a sensible move anyway. Sometimes, it was the cavalry you had to watch out for.

The cottage sat midway down a sloping lane, and was half of a twinned pair. In the other lived Old Dolly, who had probably forgotten a time when she'd simply been Dolly. Certainly she'd earned the Old by the time Max moved in, and still regarded him as three quarters a stranger, though he'd long reached the point where he was doing most of her shopping, all of her firewood gathering and a strong seven-eighths of listening to her bang on about immigration, which left him less uneasy than her habit of leaving a gas ring lit, to save striking a match for every cigarette. The next cottage along, a hundred yards distant, had been empty since Jonas Tripplehorn had gone to live with his daughter in Exeter; the cottage opposite—"cottage" by local tradition; it had four bedrooms—was a second home, and invariably unoccupied during the week. And farther down the lane were other dwellings, some housing young families, some retired labourers, and some home-based industries—IT and retro clothing; bespoke greetings cards and editorial services—and beyond them, on the other side of the railway bridge across which the London-Plymouth service rattled, the field now playing host to the makeshift estate which had roused such local ire. Corrugated iron structures had been erected, one at a time, and makeshift barns built, now storing the kind of heavy machinery you could dismember a dead badger with. Since this shanty town's foundation, traffic had multiplied tenfold, most of the vehicles heavily laden vans, with scaffolding poles tethered to flatbeds as the drivers headed to renovation jobs in the surrounding area; work which hadn't extended as far as repairing the potholes their vehicles left behind. Even now, as Max slipped out of a side window, he could hear an engine coughing in that direction, as if it were having one last drag before lying down for the night.

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