Today's Reading

It was like stepping through a curtain and finding himself backstage. The light vanished, and the only way of telling up from down was by using his feet. With arms outstretched, so when he tripped he'd break his fall, he tried to run. The field was a set-aside; no crops, just the rocky rubble of soil, grass and weeds. If Max chose one direction, he'd come out onto a lane; another, and he'd reach another field. His eyes were adjusting; the car's headlights were creating a spooky glow behind him and then there were torches again as his pursuers reached the gap in the hedge, and spilled through it.

Almost immediately he heard a cry of pain, as one of his pursuers took a tumble and broke—Max hoped—an important bone.

He didn't pause, concentrating instead on running without falling flat on his face, but thought he could discern two separate beams of light playing across the ground. How far behind him? No way of knowing. How far to the road? Another few hundred yards, and the ground easier now he was getting used to it. But that went both ways: his pursuers would be picking up speed too, and they'd be younger than him, like most everybody else these days, and fitter too. An engine growled into life, and everything shifted up a gear. The bastards were no longer intent on silence, whoever the bastards were. But they couldn't, at least, follow him across a dark field in a car; an assurance that was of some comfort for two seconds, until the motorbike broke through the hole in the hedge, filling the field like an angry bull.

Time grows elastic at moments of stress. Apparently science supported this proposition, though for Max it was lived experience: the ever-slowing thud of his feet hitting the ground, the speeding up of the racket behind him. He gathered there were people who could identify motorbikes by sound alone, but he relied on counting their wheels, which was to say they were all the same to him, though this one worse than most. Somewhere up ahead was a padlocked five-barred gate, on the other side of which lay a lane. A little way down that lane was a turn-off: a steep hill leading past two cottages to a three-way junction. If he could reach there uncaptured, and far enough ahead, his pursuers would have to split up. But all of that was in the future, which was arriving too slowly, unless you were riding a motorbike across a rough-toned field, spitting stony soil behind you. The light grew brighter, and Max tried to run faster, as if it were a near-death experience he was hoping to avoid. Sixty-three years old. It was true it was the oldest he'd ever been; at the same time, it wasn't like seventy. Eighty. But time would take care of that, if it ever got back to behaving itself, and the bright headlight was swallowing everything now, clutching Max in its beam: he could see his own shadow rising up before him like a giant. In a fairy tale, it would turn and smite his pursuers; pound them into the soil. The motorbike was all but upon him; he could feel its breath on his arse. Then the gate materialised out of nowhere: he gripped its top and hurled himself over, hitting the ground like a beanbag. He'd be feeling that tomorrow, if tomorrow ever came. Behind him the motorbike screamed in anger, and scattered stony pellets: Max could feel them settle in his hair. He scrambled to his feet, and half stumbled, half ran down the road. The motorbike revved once, then twice, perhaps bearing Steve McQueen in mind as it considered jumping the gate, then roared back the way it had come, pausing halfway to confer—Max guessed—with the foot soldiers, still slogging across the field.

It was biting cold but he was covered in sweat, and had no idea what was going on. Somewhere in the darkness, probably at the junction at the top of his own lane, a car came to life, and more headlights split the night. His motion became smoother as his legs found their rhythm. They wanted a chase? Here's a chase. Before the headlights could pick him out he'd reached the turn-off and was sprinting up the hill, along a lane no more than seven feet wide: one of Devon's narrow passages, allowing only one vehicle at a time. The memory of a recent walk was stirring. His breath grew painful as he passed the first cottage, which, like its companion, was elevated above the lane itself: its short driveway, on which a battered Land Rover sat, was damn near vertical, and its garden wall, as tall as Max himself, was an ancient thing of overgrown rocks, held together by crumbling mortar and ambitious moss. He could hear the car slowing, its occupants trying to work out where he'd gone: whether he was still on the lane below, or had turned up this narrow passage and disappeared into its shadows. The second cottage was a little farther on. This was what he remembered: here, the cottage's garden wall was bulging dangerously at the level of a passer-by's head, so played upon by time and weather that it looked ready to collapse, to spew rocks and soil and earth across the lane. Perhaps that hint of impermanence was why the building was for sale; a sign announcing the fact had been planted in the patch of lawn behind the wall. Max turned up its driveway and grabbed the sign with both hands: for sale, and an estate agent's details, atop a five-foot wooden pole... It came free from the ground surprisingly easily, as if he were Arthur releasing a sword, and he was king of the moment for as long as it took him to bury it again, push it down into the crumbly soil near the bulging wall as far as it would go. And then a little farther. The lane lit up: the car had made its decision, and was coming to collect him. Easier to conquer that steep hill on four wheels: his own legs were trembling now, partly with the cold, mostly with all this effort. Not so long ago, his worst problem had been insomnia. With the pole deep in the ground he adjusted his efforts; no longer pushing down he leaned on it, turning it into a lever. The lane was awash with headlights; the bushes on the other side glittering with life. He felt the earth give. The car was moving slowly, as if it suspected something. He leaned harder, putting all his weight into it. It was there, almost, just slightly out of reach, that release he was straining for, and the car growled louder, and something splintered in his grip, as if the pole had broken off in the ground, and if so that would be it, game over, except it wasn't, because everything gave in the same moment; there was a dull tumble as the first of the wall's rocks slipped free and thudded onto the lane below, and then the earth was moving beneath his feet, and with a roar Max felt rather than heard half of the garden spilled onto the road: the rocks that had held it in place tumbling first, followed by the soil that had long been their burden: great wet chunks of it, with a looser gravelly content unfolding in its wake. He gave one last encouraging push on the pole and stepped back sharply, and the crunch he heard next was the car grinding into one of the larger rocks and coming to a graceless halt. He hurled the pole in that direction, and in a better life would have seen it pierce the windscreen rather than bounce off, but you couldn't have everything. He jumped back onto the lane, on the right side of the barrier he'd just created—scooping up a hand- sized rock as he did so—and ran off into the dark. Lights came on in the other cottage as a householder peered into the night, in search of the cause of the earthquake, while from the car two figures emerged. One scrambled over the rocks in pursuit, while the other hung on to the door for a moment, trying to gauge the damage, and possibly contemplating insurance issues.

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