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This story takes its setting from the Essex coast, where big open skies soar out of flat marshes, bogs and the sea. Where the old houses, windmills, churches and castles are sharply defined against the wide blues and grays behind them. The people living there are used to spaces and communicating across them. They like deadpan humor and deep feelings whispered rather than foghorned. I thought it would be a good setting to tell a story where a lot is going on in the people, but it’s expressed mostly in the spaces between their words and actions. So, in this story is love, attempted murder, a secret government plot to prevent the cure for just about any illness reaching the market  . . . or maybe not.

HE WAITED AT THE iron gate, by habit keeping his face averted from the camera above. Behind the bars, a long gravel track curved between large, spreading trees. He could not see the main house, but knew it well from the detailed pictures they’d shown him back at the agency.

He’d expected the gate to be opened remotely, but instead a girl riding a bike came into view, long blonde hair fanning around her head: the daughter. He’d seen her pictures too — sixteen, fresh-faced, bright-eyed, pretty.

Her brakes squealed as she stopped by the gate controls. “Are you the TV repair man?” she said, accent crisp, direct.

“Yeah,” he said, holding out an ID card. She didn’t look at it, punched a button and the gates swung inwards.

He picked up his tool bag and walked through.

“Don’t you need your van?” she said.

He remembered to smile. “Should be able to fix it with what I’ve got in here.”

She walked alongside him, up the drive, steering her bike by the saddle. She was as tall as he, dressed in blue dungarees and a yellow T-shirt.

“I’m Katie,” she said.

“Jim,” he said. “You live here?”

“Yes, in that oak over there.”

“It looks very comfortable, for a tree.”

“Daddy’s pretty annoyed with you people, you know. He paid a lot for the system, and it’s always going wrong.”

“I will take full personal responsibility.”

They walked around a bend where the trees ended, to reveal an ivy-clad, flint-stone faced house.

“Is your dad in?” he said.

“Yes, but he’s promised not to hassle you.”

“Nice place. What does he do?”

“Shouts a lot, pretends to be in charge.”

“But your mum is really the boss, right?”

“Well, she might be if she wasn’t dead.”

“I’m sorry. That’s tough.”

She shrugged. “I was only two at the time, so I hardly miss her really.”

She dropped the bike on to the drive. He resisted suggesting she lock it.

He followed her into the cool, high, hallway, their footsteps clapping on the polished wood floor.

“It’s over there,” she said, pointing in the direction of a large but tasteful flat-screen television in the corner of a living room full of tan carpet. “Can I get you a drink — tea, coffee, whisky and lemonade?”

“Whisky and lemonade, hold the whisky.”

She left the room, shouting up the stairs, “Dad! The TV man’s here and it’s good news: he’s a teetotaller.”

He opened the TV control box, as he’d been shown, then pretended to adjust things inside, knowing the agency would simply re-connect the signal when he phoned them.

“Found the problem?”

He looked up to see Mr. Hartford a few feet away, dressed in navy trousers with sharp creases, white shirt and blue tie, every gray hair in place.

“Not yet, but I think I know what’s wrong.”

Hartford walked over to peer into the box.

“You’ve met my daughter.”

“She seems very bright.”

“Really? She seems very argumentative to me.”

Hartford left him to the repairs. His instinct told him he needed to spend more time here, if the handshake at the end was to seem natural.

He wandered into the kitchen to find Katie pouring lemonade into a glass.

“Do you have any thin wire I can use?”

“I thought you said you had everything you needed in your bag?”

“My bag let me down.”

“If we’ve got any, it’ll be in the barn. Follow me.”

She opened the back door and led him on to a wide yard of sand-colored stone slabs. Opposite was a black barn that must have once been part of a farm.

“How old are you, Jim?” she said.

“Twenty-four. Not married, no kids. You?”

“Seventeen next month. Married four times so far.”

“Not bad for only a year being legal.”

“Fortunately, all four marriages were childless.”

Inside the barn, sharp angles and shadows cut across his vision, caused by the hundreds of tools and implements hanging from hooks or lying on the long benches either side. He remembered he’d said he needed thin wire and wandered around looking for it.

Katie sat on a bench, watching him.

“You didn’t tell me what your father does,” he said.

“Oh, he made tons of money in banking.”

He opened a battered wooden chest, shuffled through the contents.

“Sounds boring.”

“Probably about as boring as fixing TVs for a living.”

He found some wire, thought about hiding it again, but instead took it to the bench opposite hers, leaned against it.

“Where did you grow up?” she said.

“A place just like this. I had my own lemonade cellar and Papa was a big cheese in the city.”

“I mean, really.”

“Peckham, but I got out a few years back; went up market to Nunhead, ha ha. In Peckham, every ground floor window has bars. You have to give blood once a week to your gang leader, and, worst of all, you can’t find an organic wholemeal loaf for love nor money.”


“More chance of finding a loaf. Grew up in foster homes. Spent a lot of time in borstal. Learnt to keep my shower soap on a rope.”

“You look okay now. Apart from being really ugly, that is.”

“You’re pretty yuck-faced yourself. I was lucky. The agency saw potential and offered me a job.”

“It’s a bit grand for a TV repair company to call itself an agency, isn’t it?”

“Sorry, I meant to say ‘company.’”

“You’re blushing!”

“That’s because I’ve fallen in love with you.”

She threw a manual at him. “Rubbish!”

He grinned, putting up an arm to deflect the book. Then he noticed the coil of wire in his other hand giving off several small tendrils of smoke. He put it down quickly; needed to control his blood again. He’d need for the hit to take effect after he’d gone.

“You said your dad made tons of money,” he said. “What does he do now?”

“He’d just retired when I was born. You can imagine all the sympathetic support I got from kids at school when this old man turned up to take me home.”

“Is that why you became such a tom boy?”

“Look, I might wear dungarees, and ride a boy’s bike, and play football for Chelmsford Ladies but  . . . Oh, you’re right: I’m a bird who wants to be a bloke.”

“You didn’t say what he does now.”

“Why are you so interested?”

“Well, I need to know, if I’m going to ask him for your hand.”

She studied her palm. “It’s not bad, for a hand, I suppose. But is that all you want?”

He waited.

“Oh, all right. It’s just that I’m not supposed to talk about it because it’s very hush-hush. But you’re just a thicko TV repair man so it should be okay.”

“Hang on, I need to adjust my brain for better reception.” He whacked the side of his head, wobbled it from side to side. “Okay: go.”

“Well, I don’t understand it all but it’s something to do with these tiny things that are partly alive and partly machines. Dad’s laboratory makes them. When they’re put into people’s blood, they can do amazing things like heal all sorts of diseases. But it’s still being tested and Dad’s worried about the government getting hold of it. He thinks they might have already stolen the formula, although he hasn’t got any proof.”

“Does he think they’ll give it to the military?”

“You’re not as stupid as you look. Yes, as Dad says, if it can heal, it can kill, too.”

“So, what’s he going to do with it?”

“He wants to give it away cheap or free, believe it or not. He doesn’t need the money, and he reckons everyone should benefit. Even hoodies in Peckham.”

He thought about his old gang. All dead or in prison, apart from him.

“But he thinks the government would rather keep it secret,” she said, “and use it as a weapon.”

“Maybe he’s right.”

“You think so?”

He looked out of the open barn door. Flint flecks between the ivy on the house wall across the yard sparkled in the evening sun. Above them a wood pigeon cooed.

He turned his gaze back to her. She held it, and he thought how rarely in his life anyone had looked him square in the eyes, even the agency officers who’d made him the offer.

“There must be a bag in here somewhere that’s big enough to go over your head,” he said.

She stuck out her tongue, then jumped from the bench. “Just for that, I’m going to spit in your lemonade.”

She ran across the yard, grinning over her shoulder. He nearly ran, too, but then thought her father might be watching and walked instead.

Alone in the living room, he phoned the agency and put the cover back on the TV box. He carried his bag into the hall and shouted, “I’m all done!”

Katie came out of the kitchen and Mr. Hartford descended the stairs.

“Your TV’s working again.”

Hartford glanced into the living room. “You’ve tested it?”

“Sure,” he said. Hartford’s face was unreadable.

“I reckon he’s a cowboy, Dad,” said Katie. “It’ll go on the fizzle again and he’ll have to come back to fix it properly.”

Hartford held out his hand to Jim. “Oh, something tells me this young man won’t be back.”

Jim looked at the hand, feeling death build in his own. He put down his bag, opened it, said, “Excuse me, sir, but I’ve got a cold; wouldn’t want you to catch it.”

He pulled on a thin glove then shook Hartford’s hand.

“Expensive-looking glove,” said Hartford.

“Goodbye, sir,” said Jim. He walked out of the door, Katie following.

“I’ll open the gate for him, Daddy.”

They didn’t speak along the drive, although he wanted to.

She opened the gate and he said, “Will you be all right?”

“Sure, once I get over losing the man of my dreams. Will you be okay?”

He smiled but said nothing.

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