Serendipity. That was Mr Webster’s explanation for the happy chance that led him to the Baldwin Rental Agency. The young man at the agency was so helpful. He found the perfect tenant. Mr Webster had intended to put an advert in the local newspaper and a notice at the news agent’s on the High Street, but his nephew had advised otherwise. ‘Everything’s computerised now, Uncle Matthew. Go to a rental agency. They’ll put a listing on line. No one reads newspapers anymore and it would be dumb luck if anyone suitable saw the card in a shop window. This way people who are moving to the area from outside will see the listing. An agency will even screen people for you and check their references before they show them your flat.’ Mr Webster said he would think about it, but Harold hadn’t let him dither. He had turned on his computer immediately and within minutes gave Mr Webster a list of nearby agencies.
The Baldwin Rental Agency happened to be the closest. Mr Webster had no other reason for singling it out. As he told Harold later, however, he knew as soon as he walked in the door that he was in good hands. ‘When I was still working, I could always tell. A properly run business announces itself from the first moment. There’s just something about them.’
The level of activity impressed Mr Webster’s immediately. Several phone conversations, all of them business-related as far as he could judge, filtered through to the small reception area. The voices were friendly in a polite sort of way - the speakers had a good telephone presence. A well-dressed couple sat at a table next to the entrance paging through a binder of listings and conversing with quiet excitement about the places on offer. A wall of photographs showed interior and exterior shots of houses and flats. Many of them had red stickers pasted on them saying ‘rented’. The young woman at the front desk greeted him as soon as he stepped in. When he explained that he had a flat to let, she smiled at him, asked him to have a seat, and offered him a cup of coffee or tea. When he said that he was fine, she spoke briefly into a phone and then turned to him and said, ‘Mr Fowler will be with you shortly.’ She had barely finished speaking when a young man emerged from the back. The receptionist caught his eye and nodded towards Mr Webster.
‘Mr Webster? I’m Edward Fowler.’ As he told Harold later, Fowler had a pleasant smile and a firm handshake. Mr Webster noted approvingly that his tie was correctly knotted. So many younger people were careless about that now. It boded well, he felt, that Edward Fowler took the trouble to present a good appearance. He would have been reluctant to entrust the letting of his flat to someone who was indifferent about personal matters. A person who didn’t take the time to handle small matters correctly wouldn’t concern himself overly about larger matters either.
As Fowler led the way to his desk, he thanked Mr Webster for using their agency. ‘We like to survey why people choose Baldwin’s over our competitors. I don’t mean to pry and don’t feel you have to answer, but could you tell me why you came to us?’ When Mr Webster explained about his nephew and the computer, Fowler said only that he hoped Mr Webster would find their service satisfactory. It was, Mr Webster felt, another good sign that Fowler understood that the employees of Baldwin Rental Agency had to prove themselves. Rather than boast of the prowess of the agency, they realised that what counted in the end was service and results not words. And he was so reassuring when Mr Webster offered a brief explanation of the reasons he wanted to let part of his house.
‘You see, this is the first time for me. My wife died five years ago and my son - he’s my only child - lives in Australia. It’s a big house, much more than I need now. My nephew suggested that I convert the basement into a flat - when the house was built the large room down there was the kitchen and the servants’ sitting room. There’s also a room that served as the cook’s bedroom and another smaller one for the maid - it was just a large closet. Oh, and a large pantry off the kitchen. My wife didn’t like going down the stairs - they’re rather steep - and so we used it mainly for storage. It was filled with junk, none of it useful. I should have cleaned everything out years ago but I never got around to that. My nephew knew of a reliable builder to help with the conversion. Really it was quite ingenious the way the builder fit a small kitchen into the old pantry. He made the maid’s room over into a bathroom, modernised the electricity and plumbing, and refinished the walls and the floors. It’s quite pleasant now.’ Mr Webster rambled on for another five minutes describing the remodelling and his situation. ‘Harold - that’s my nephew - and my son wouldn’t say this of course, but I think they worry about my being alone and they want someone there to keep an eye on me. I don’t need looking after now, but there will come a time, I daresay.’
Edward Fowler nodded and made comments at the appropriate moments. After patiently waiting for Mr Webster to finish, he turned to his computer and called up a form. ‘I need to ask a few questions for our standard form. Just background information. First, what is the address?’
‘44 Cheynes Park Road.’
‘Oh, you won’t have any trouble renting your flat. Very desirable area that.’
‘Harold said it would be easy to find someone. But I don’t want to let to just anyone. That’s why he suggested I go through an agency. He said that you could screen prospective tenants for me. I want someone quiet. An unmarried male professional would be best, I think. Not too young.’
‘Oh, we can’t specify such things, Sir. It’s against the law for landlords to discriminate by marital status, sex, sexual preference, race, age - so we can’t make such stipulations. And you can’t refuse to rent to someone with children.’
‘You mean I have to let the flat to anyone who comes along? I don’t want that. I don’t want someone who will be noisy or won’t keep the flat clean. I don’t want someone with a pet - my dog is used to having the house and garden to herself and another dog or a cat would upset her. She also doesn’t like children, and there’s no room for a child. I don’t think a single woman would be appropriate for me. The neighbours would talk if she brought anyone home. I know people your age aren’t bothered by such things, but I wouldn’t like that going on in my house.’
‘Quite understandable, Sir. This is a flat in your own house. So it’s like you’re sharing your own place. Of course, you want someone compatible.’ Edward Fowler lowered his voice slightly and bent forward in his chair toward Mr Webster. ‘If I might make a few suggestions, Sir?’
When Mr Webster nodded his head, Fowler said, ‘What we need to do is insert code phrases. First, this is a one-bedroom flat, so we can imply that it isn’t large enough for two. How big is the kitchen? All electric? Or do you have gas? What about the bathroom - is there a tub or just a shower?’
‘The new kitchen’s not large, no, you couldn’t call it large. It’s really an alcove off one side of the main room. It’s just the basics. Everything’s electric. The bathroom isn’t large either. There wasn’t room for a tub, but the builder said it didn’t matter - most people want a shower now and think a tub is too much trouble to keep clean.’
‘Let’s start with “One-bedroom flat in desirable Cheynes Park area. Suitable for a busy professional. Recently renovated and meticulously maintained. All electric kitchenette. Stall shower.” That makes it sound as though it’s just basic accommodations. That will appeal more to men than to women. “Meticulously maintained” is a warning that the landlord is likely to be demanding about upkeep. Is there parking? Good, we’ll add “Parking available”. Now, is this a quiet street?’
‘It’s very quiet. Well. there’s traffic on the High Street - as you know, of course, that can be busy at times - but that’s three blocks away, and it’s quiet at night. Cheynes Park is a block in the other direction and that serves as a buffer for noise. It’s a good mile through the Park to the houses on the other side.’
‘Good. So let’s add “quiet residential neighbourhood convenient to shops, transportation, and park” and “landlord on premises”. That way, if someone looks like the type that would play loud music and have noisy parties, we can discourage them by saying that the neighbours wouldn’t tolerate noise. People are also likely to assume that a resident landlord will be less tolerant of noise. Now we also need to add “References, credit check and security deposit required” - we can use the references as an excuse if you don’t want to rent to a particular person. And we take great care that applicants supply references from former landlords. Some people give their friends’ or even relatives’ names, but we have ways of determining if the references are to current or recent landlords. The credit check will discourage students.’
‘Oh, this is most helpful. Thank you. I wouldn’t have thought of all those things.’
‘And “No pets” - we can still discriminate against pets.’ Fowler chuckled. ‘So let’s see. We have “One-bedroom basement flat in desirable Cheynes Park area. Suitable for a busy professional. Recently renovated and meticulously maintained. All electric kitchenette. Stall shower. Parking available. No pets. Quiet neighbourhood convenient to shops and transportation. Landlord on premises. Current references, credit check, and security deposit required.” Now we just need to add a few positive things. Can we say “light and airy”. Will the renter have access to your back garden? What about heating? Is that supplied or are there separate meters for the flats? And what rent were you thinking of?’
Mr Webster hesitantly mentioned the figure that Harold had thought reasonable. ‘But I’d be willing to accept less if you think that’s too much.’
‘To the contrary. I’ll have to see the premises before I advise you, but I’d be surprised if you couldn’t get at least another hundred pounds a month in that area. And you should charge extra for parking. Sheltered, secure, off-street parking in that area is at a premium.’
Fowler took down the rest of the details quickly. Mr Webster was surprised to learn that the agent would bring a photographer by later to take pictures of the flat, and he was gratified to learn that the tenant would pay the agency’s fee. Really it was almost too easy.
The next day Mr Webster received an email from the agent with a link to the firm’s listing of his property. The pictures made the basement look roomy and inviting and the description had grown.
New listing. A minute’s walk from Cheynes Park, this quiet suburban flat is close to urban conveniences. Ready to move in, never before rented, unfurnished one-bedroom garden apartment in charming three-storey Edwardian-era house on a secluded tree-lined street. Suitable for the busy professional. Recently renovated and meticulously maintained. Bright and airy living room with separate dining area adjoins a large bedroom, with en-suite bathroom. All-electric, easy-to-clean kitchenette with built-in cabinets, refrigerator, cooker, and microwave. Stall shower. Central heating (electric radiators), with controls within unit. Washer/dryer on premises. On-demand hot water heater. All new appliances and fixtures. High-speed Internet connection and WiFi installed. Separate entrance at the front. Rear windows overlook beautifully designed and landscaped garden. All entrances and windows equipped with security locks. Convenient to shops, transportation, and recreation. Landlord on premises. No pets. Current references, credit check, and security deposit required. Secure, enclosed parking available for additional fee. Contact: Edward Fowler, ext. 327, to arrange a tour of this desirable property.
Two days later, Fowler called with a list of applicants, their references already vetted and their credit checked. He carefully reviewed each application with Mr Webster. In the end, Mr Webster gave the nod to three men, all of them single or divorced. None with children. All professionals and all currently employed. The rental agent advised Mr Webster to remain at home and, if possible, to be working in the back garden while he was showing the flat. That would make it easy for Mr Webster to meet each prospect and size them up. Mr Webster readily fell in with that suggestion. He remarked, and Fowler agreed, that although a first impression was not a warranty of subsequent good behaviour, much could be learned about a person in a short time.
In the event, all three men wanted the flat. All were acceptable, but Mr Webster thought one of them seemed quieter than the other two. Unlike the others, he also wanted to rent the parking space, and now that Mr Webster was reconciled to the idea of earning money by renting his property, the extra 75 pounds a month was welcome. Within a week of contacting the Baldwin Rental Agency, Mr Webster had rented his flat. Within two weeks, his tenant was in place.
Alec Deighton was a youngish man, in his early thirties, Mr Webster guessed. The rental application form listed his job as a partner in a security firm in the area; it was, Edward Fowler told him, one of the larger such businesses in the area, well regarded and known for its service. Later, when Mr Webster asked Deighton about his job, he explained that the firm supplied alarm systems for homes and businesses as well as security guards and drivers.
Mr Webster had, of course, to make some adjustments in his routines because he now had a tenant downstairs. He had kept some of his gardening tools and supplies in the basement, and it had been his habit to walk down the stairs to the basement, gather what he needed, and then out the door to the back garden. He also kept his wellies and work shoes in the basement and put them on and took them off there to avoid tracking mud into the house.
When the basement had been converted, the builder had walled in the basement staircase and installed a door with a lock at the bottom. Mr Webster had the key to that door and could enter the basement flat without going outside. The day his tenant moved in, he had some matters to discuss with Deighton. His initial impulse was to use the internal staircase and knock on the door at the bottom and wait for Deighton to invite him to enter. But then he thought that would be rude. The basement flat, he reminded himself, was no longer fully his. He now occupied a strange position between owner and guest, and he had to remember that Deighton was entitled to his privacy. His tenant might not be prepared to deal with a visitor, even one who had a right to be there. And Deighton wouldn’t be able to open the lower door himself. If Mr Webster used his key, it would emphasize to Deighton that Mr Webster could - and might - enter Deighton’s flat at will. He certainly didn’t want his new tenant to think that he might snoop or pop in whenever he wanted company.
Mr Webster decided to enter through the ‘front door’ of the basement flat. He gathered the notes he had made and walked out his front door and around the side of the house to the areaway and then rang the bell. He found Deighton busy unpacking the contents of boxes but ready to take a break. Deighton even offered him a drink, which he declined.
‘I won’t take but a moment. I made some notes about things you need to know. Trash collection is on Tuesday. The bins need to be out by the kerb before 7:00. I’ve made a copy of the council’s instructions on recycling - it’s rather of a nuisance, I’m afraid, but they do fuss if you don’t follow them. Oh, and my nephew wired the house for WiFi.’ Mr Webster paused to point out the receiver on the wall. ‘If you want to use my system, I’ve written down the name we assigned my device. You can log in as a guest. I’ve also given you the password for the guest user. If you want your own password, my nephew says that I’ll have to log in and then call up the menu that allows you to change the password. You’ll have to come upstairs to my office to do that. Drop by whenever you’re ready.’ He went on to speak of the arrangements the Post Office wanted and explained about the council’s rules on street parking. ‘Overnight parking is allowed, but on collection days they want all cars off the street by 7:00.’ Mr Webster had devoted some thought to devising a tactful way to tell Deighton that he understood that his tenant might occasionally have an overnight guest and that he didn’t expect the young man to be a monk. As long as there was no noise, Mr Webster was willing to accommodate modern conventions - another form of ‘mod cons’ as he phrased it to himself.
Mr Webster quickly adjusted to the presence of another person in his house. Deighton wasn’t intrusive. If Mr Webster listened carefully when he was on the ground floor, he might hear faint sounds from the basement - music playing, voices from the television, the occasional ringing of a phone, the sound of water running. When he was upstairs, however, it was as if he still lived alone in the house. Archie, his dog, had fussed at first about the stranger walking about downstairs, but she soon learned to ignore him as well.
Early one morning a car honked at him as he was returning from walking Archie in the park. When he looked up, the driver lowered his window and said ‘Good morning’. It was Deighton. They exchanged a few pleasantries about the weather before Deighton drove off.
One Saturday as he was working in the garden, Deighton opened the back door to his flat and came up the stairs. He complimented Mr Webster on his efforts and offered him a beer. They sat for a while chatting. To his surprise, Mr Webster found himself inviting Deighton to use his lawn chairs. ‘No need to ask. My wife liked to sit outside and read, but I hardly ever do that. You wouldn’t be disturbing me at all. Archie may bother you. If she sees someone sitting, she thinks they need to be petting her, don’t you, girl?’ The dog was lying in a patch of sun. When she heard her name, she opened her eyes and looked their way. Her tail lifted briefly and then she closed her eyes again.
Another day as he was returning from a walk to the market, Deighton was driving by and stopped to offer him a ride home. All little encounters to be sure, but Mr Webster enjoyed them. It was, he decided, good to have someone younger about the place who didn’t mind a bit of a chat.
As far as Mr Webster could determine, Deighton never entered the back garden unless he was there. He rather appreciated Deighton’s scrupulous respect for his property. Deighton was thoughtful about things, he found. Like the time he asked to change the password for the guest account on the WiFi device. As Mr Webster logged on to his computer and then opened the WiFi control menu, Deighton had casually turned away and looked out the window to avoid seeing the passwords. Mr Webster had copied his action when Deighton stepped forward to type in the new password.
As Deighton was leaving, he mentioned that there was no peephole on Mr Webster’s front door. ‘You should have some means of checking who’s at your door before you open it. I know this is considered a safe area, but you’re almost the only person on the street during weekdays. It’s what the people I work with refer to as an “attractive” neighbourhood - plenty of valuable things to steal and no one around to see you doing it and a quick route of escape though the park.’
When Mr Webster said that he couldn’t bear to drill a hole in his front door - it was the original door to the house and was over a century old, Deighton offered to show him some door security devices his company sold. He would drop off the literature tomorrow evening after he came back from work and Mr Webster could look through it at his leisure.
Mr Webster was touched by Deighton’s concern. It was little things like that that Mr Webster appreciated. His nephew helped him when he asked, but Harold had his own family and he lived almost an hour’s drive away. That afternoon he had thanked Deighton and promised to think about installing some sort of security device on his front door.
When he returned to his computer to shut it off, he found an automated email informing him that the password for the guest user on his WiFi device had been changed. The letter included the new password and advised that the email be printed out and kept in a secure location. Mr Webster almost deleted the email - it wasn’t his password after all - but then he thought that he had better keep a copy. Deighton might move out suddenly without telling him the password or be injured in an accident, and the new tenant would be unable to access the account on the WiFi device.
The next evening Deighton brought several glossy brochures extolling his company’s home security devices. He was an enthusiast. ‘The best thing is that it won’t cost you anything. It’s my policy to allow people who’ve worked for me for over five years to have the service for free, and I can extend the same policy to myself. We’ll take care of the installation. You won’t have to do a thing. It will only take a few hours. You can see from the pictures that the cameras are nearly invisible. Most people don’t see them unless they know they’re there and what to look for. If you don’t want the viewscreen out in the open, you can put it out of sight. That old stairwell to the basement would be a perfect place. If someone comes to the front or back door, you can check the screen to see who it is before you open the door. And you can talk to them through the microphone on the camera. We can also arrange for you to be able use your computer to see who’s at the door. That way you wouldn’t even have to walk downstairs if you’re in your office.’
The photographs in the brochures featured attractive, healthy looking models smiling with relief as they checked the camera images through a viewscreen. A young mother in a kitchen beamed as she watched her baby sleeping in its cradle in another room. A well-dressed and carefully coiffed grey-haired matron confirmed the identity of a caller before opening her front door. A traveller on a train used his mobile phone to confirm that the rooms in his house were secure. Another series of pictures challenged the viewer to find the hidden cameras. Mr Webster did not see them until Deighton pointed them out.
The two young women who came to install the system were models of efficiency. They arrived at the appointed time and, after consulting with Mr Webster about the best locations for the cameras, the viewscreen, and the code pads, they had them in place in less than two hours. The finished work was skilfully done, the walls needed no touching up and every spec of dirt was cleaned up. One of the women helped him input the codes that turned the alarm system on and off and installed a programme on Mr Webster’s computer that allowed him to view the images transmitted by the cameras from his office on the first floor. With the page open, he could see the areas in front of both his front and back doors. If he wanted to enlarge the view, he had only to click on the image. She even tactfully raised the subject of a personal safety monitor that Mr Webster could wear around his neck and use to summon an ambulance if he fell or became ill - ‘an add-on to consider when you’re older,’ as she politely put it. ‘I’ll just leave this brochure for you to look at. If you reach the point that you need it, you can just give us a call at that number. We can use the system you already have.’ She then joined her partner in the basement flat to install the cameras that Deighton had ordered. When they left, Mr Webster was working in his garden, and they stopped for a moment to admire his efforts. One of them asked for his advice about flowering plants suitable for a shady area. It had been, Mr Webster decided as he later sat over his evening tea, a most agreeable encounter.
Deighton left for work around 7:30 and returned after 6:00. At first Mr Webster had simply noted the times. Before the first month was out, however, he found himself arranging to run across Deighton as he left or arrived. More and more frequently Mr Webster and Archie’s emergence from the front door for their morning walk in the park coincided with Deighton’s departure for work. And Mr Webster began postponing his daily garden maintenance until early evening in the hope of a few words with Deighton.
I do not think - he emailed his son - I am lonely or one of those old men so in need of company that he strikes up conversations with strangers, but it is pleasant to chat for a few minutes with another person every day. Deighton is an ideal tenant. He’s friendly in a quiet sort of way. I think you and he would get along. He reminds me of you in some ways. Of course, we respect each other’s privacy and don’t intrude.
I think I can claim to have mastered the new security system. I’ve learned to input the code that turns the system off as soon as I enter the house. I forgot to do that a couple of times at the beginning and blithely went about my business only to have the security company ring me up and ask me for the code phrase. It’s “Archie is a good dog” by the way, in case you ever need it. I’ve given Harold the codes to arm and disarm the security system. Remind me to give them to you the next time you visit.
It’s very convenient to be able to check who’s at the door from my computer. I can talk with them from my office and send them on their way if I don’t want to open the door to them. I can see not only my front and back doors through the cameras but also Deighton’s front and back doors. He also put cameras inside the basement flat, two in the main room and two in the bedroom. I don’t know if I was intended to have access to those images as well. I suppose I should have said something immediately, but the two girls who installed them were so nice that I didn’t want to get them in trouble. It’s not as if I’ll use them to spy on Deighton.
And he hadn’t used them to spy on Deighton. When he discovered that he had access through his computer to the cameras within the basement flat, he resolved to tell Deighton and have the problem fixed. But when he thought about it, he decided that it might be useful for him to be able to check on Deighton’s flat. If he heard a noise downstairs, he could investigate it from the safety of his office. He wouldn’t want to confront an intruder. So it wouldn’t really be spying. It was more a security issue. Perhaps that had been Deighton’s plan from the beginning. He supposed he should mention it and clarify that point. He even rehearsed what he would say, ‘Oh by the way, did you mean to give me access to the cameras in your flat?’ But he didn’t see Deighton for a couple of days and in the end it didn’t seem worth fussing over. Deighton knew what he was about, and Mr Webster didn’t want to imply that he or the installers had made an error. He knew that he wouldn’t abuse Deighton’s trust in him.
Checking the cameras became part of his daily routine at the computer. When he and Archie returned from their morning walk, he would make himself a cup of coffee and carry it upstairs to his office. There he read and answered emails, did the online sudoku and the crossword, and then checked each of the cameras to make sure that it was transmitting an image. It was his contribution to the security of the house, he decided.
The clarity of the images was amazing. Even though Deighton turned off all the lights before leaving and left the curtains drawn, the cameras showed everything in great detail. Mr Webster was heartened to note that Deighton kept his quarters neat, far neater than he himself sometimes did, he had to admit. He wondered if Deighton had been in the military - he always left his bed tautly made. He would have to work the question of military service into one of their conversations. Of course, he wouldn’t mention the bed. He didn’t want Deighton to think he had been snooping.
He did like the arrangement of the furniture. Deighton seemed to have thought out an efficient disposition of his goods. The rooms weren’t crowded with possessions, but what he had looked comfortable and practical. Deighton had one of those electric towel racks in the bedroom. There wasn’t room for it in the bathroom. Mr Webster thought about getting one. Sometimes, especially in damp weather, it took the towels a long time to dry. He would have to ask Deighton if the basement was damp. Mildew and rot could be difficult to eradicate if they got a start. A pity there were no cameras in the kitchen and bathroom. He could have checked for leaks or drips or to see if a burner on the stove had been left on.
It amused Mr Webster to chart Deighton’s activities and attempt to guess from the objects visible in his rooms how he occupied himself. It was like watching a daily quiz show - What has Deighton done in the past twenty-four hours? There was always a book on the table next his bed. Mr Webster surmised that Deighton read in bed before going to sleep. But apparently not for long. The same book might remain on the nightstand for two weeks. The most comfortable looking chair was set ten feet of so back from the television set. Deighton had one of the new large-screen wall-mounted tellies. He must enjoy watching. There was only one mat on the table. Deighton had placed it so that he sat facing the garden as he ate. I will have to craft a pleasant view for him, thought Mr Webster. Perhaps remove that boxwood shrub. It must obscure half the back window. Put in some low flowers there.
The cameras also transmitted sound clearly. If a car passed outside, he could hear it both through the window of his office and over the speaker. The microphone in the camera at the front of the main room picked up the conversations of passers-by. Mr Webster could even hear the ticking of Deighton’s alarm clock. Amazing, that was the only word for it. Well, Deighton had probably installed only the best in his place.
It was by accident that Mr Webster learned that Deighton left the cameras on all the time. He assumed that Deighton would turn the security system off when he was at home. Since Mr Webster checked his computer only in the morning, he had no occasion to learn of Deighton’s habit until several weeks had passed. Mr Webster’s grandson had a birthday, and he arranged to call him on the computer using Skype and the webcam Harold had installed for him. It was so convenient, not to mention it avoided telephone charges to Australia. The only drawback was the time difference. He had to call at 4:00 a.m. to be ‘present’ at his grandson’s birthday party and watch him open his gifts.
The ‘virtual visit’ went off smoothly. It was nearly 5:00 when Mr Webster said goodbye and broke the connection. The hour’s conversation and the cup of coffee he had drunk had awakened him. He had gone to bed early the night before and he wasn’t sleepy. So he made himself another cup of coffee and spent an hour answering email, completing the sudoku, and reading the online newspaper. By the time he finished, it was his usual wake-up time.
The camera icon caught his eye. He had never tried the cameras at night and wondered what they would show. He expected to find only the cameras over his front and back doors active, but to his surprise he discovered that all of them were on. The rooms in the basement flat were dark and it was hard to make anything out. He turned the lights off in his office and let his eyes adjust. There was enough light coming through the curtains from the street in Deighton’s flat that gradually he could make out the larger pieces of furniture. He clicked on one of the bedroom cameras. Deighton was lying on his left side, with his right leg drawn up. The bed covers and sheet were bunched in an heap at the bottom of the bed. Mr Webster wasn’t totally certain, but he thought that Deighton was naked. If he was wearing pants, they were so sheer that the camera wasn’t recording them. And that seemed unlikely.
Mr Webster flushed with embarrassment and reached for his mouse to click out of the programme. Deighton stirred in his sleep and rolled over on to his back, spreading his legs. He must have been uncomfortable - perhaps his balls felt cramped or sticky, that sometimes happened to Mr Webster at night - and with one of his hands he freed his scrotum and nudged his penis so that it angled towards his left. He was tumescent. The technical terms sprang into Mr Webster’s mind, distancing euphemisms that served to separate him from the reality of Deighton’s sex, hard, rigid, that captured his gaze and seemed to grow to fill the screen.
Deighton reached over to his nightstand, picked up his alarm clock and held it in front of his face. He set it back on the table, and then yawned and stretched, twisting his head from side to side and stroking his chest with a hand. The intimacy of the camera’s gaze shocked Mr Webster. At one time or another, he had performed these and similar actions. There was nothing unusual in them, but he had never seen another man carry out this sequence of everyday movements.
Mr Webster found that he was holding himself rigidly still and holding his breath lest Deighton realise that he was being watched. It was a ridiculous notion. Deighton couldn’t possibly see or hear him. The cameras didn’t broadcast both ways. Deighton sat up and stretched again. The sound of the bedsprings and the creaking of the bed were audible over the speakers. Deighton was naked. Mr Webster had seen nude men before, in the changing rooms at school and in his golf club. Some men at the beach might as well be nude for all they wore, and modern advertisements left nothing to the imagination. He and his wife had frequently visited museums on their holidays. So he wasn’t unfamiliar with the male body.
But Deighton was so shockingly nude. It is, thought Mr Webster, because he is unaware that he is being watched. He is making no attempt to conceal himself, he is performing private acts that we never show others. He erects no defences against the observer. He does what every man does - when he is alone - the peremptory flesh bobbing upward from the groin and thrust with unabashed delight against the sheets, the hand that casually touches it, lingers to caress and perhaps to stroke, the mind luxuriating between dream and waking in fantasies of indulgence. The sheer satisfying magnificent pleasure of being male in a moment of freedom.
Mr Webster had been reluctant to allow even his wife to witness his morning erections. They had joked about his ‘morning glories’ as they became comfortable with each other’s bodies following their marriage, but the engorged cock had always been hidden away beneath the sheets and blankets, carefully tucked out of view within his pyjamas, and he had forcibly thought it away before he stood up. As he entered his fifties, these unbidden erections grew less frequent, less in every respect. He had noted their passing with both regret and relief, regret that he was growing old, relief that sex was becoming less troubling, less demanding.
Deighton stood up and walked out of camera range into his bathroom. Mr Webster hurriedly shut down the camera programme. He had a horrifying vision of hearing the sound of Deighton’s piss splashing into the toilet bowl or, worse, of farts and explosions. The intimacies of public toilets appalled him. His uncertain digestion had grown to a constant worry - his guts produced gas in such quantities now that he risked a public toilet only with great reluctance, only if unavoidable. The sounds that came from his old man’s bowels provoked satirical expressions of concern - ‘Are you all right there, Dad?’ - and rude laughter. He had no wish to know the state of Deighton’s digestive system.
The experience brought home to Mr Webster how much he was spying on Deighton’s life. Maybe, he lectured himself, he had been a responsible landlord in checking that the flat was secure, but he knew that he had gone beyond that into impermissible territory. He resolved never again to check the cameras unless he had strong grounds for believing that there was an intruder in the basement.
That morning he took Archie for her walk early. He stayed away long past the time that Deighton left for work, and that evening he took care not to be working in the garden around the time that Deighton usually returned. Mr Webster hoped to delay a meeting for at least a week. He thought that would be enough time to banish the image of Deighton’s nakedness.
The next evening someone rang his bell while he was watching the telly. He checked the viewscreen and discovered Deighton and an older couple standing at his front door. His sitting room lights were on, the sound of the telly was probably audible outside, and Archie was barking loudly. He couldn’t pretend not to be home. Deighton introduced the couple as his parents. They had driven down from Bradford to have dinner with their son, and Deighton had brought them back to see his flat. ‘Mum was admiring your garden, and I wonder if I we might have a look.’
‘It’s such a nice arrangement of the space. There is such movement and colour in the borders.’ She lifted her hands to sketch the arrangement of the beds. Mr Webster could see evidence of hard work in her hands. ‘And your dahlias are doing so well. What’s your secret?’
At that moment, Archie stuck her nose out the door and wagged her tail at Deighton. His father stretched out a hand and let Archie sniff it. When he successfully passed that test, he stroked Archie’s head and scratched her behind the ears. ‘Hello, old girl, what’s your name?’
Mr Webster supplied the dog’s name. The senior Mr Deighton was obviously as enthusiastic about dogs as his wife was about dahlias, and Mr Webster was hard put to respond to their comments as they engaged him in two unrelated conversations. It was like trying to play two tennis matches at the same time. Before he could finish answering a remark about dogs from Mr Deighton senior, the wife had moved on to the issue of organic pest control methods. What was Mr Deighton’s opinion of them? She wanted to be green and do well by the environment, but none of them seemed to work as well as liberal sprayings of good old-fashioned chemical insecticides. Purebred dogs were all well and good but there was much to be said for mixed breeds. The mutt often combined the best of both parental lines and had none of the weaknesses of the inbred. Take Archie, for example - the intelligence of the border collie combined with the protective nature of the Alsatian. And what about fungicides? How old was Archie? Was it necessary to wrap the roses in burlap and straw overwinter this close to the Channel?
The four of them, along with an Archie delighted to be receiving so much attention, inspected the front garden and then moved to the back. Mrs Deighton asked her son for a cup of tea before they started the drive home, and the four of them ended up sitting at the garden table until almost 10:30. The evening ended with the parents telling their son to invite Mr Webster to join them for dinner the next time they visited and an apparently sincere invitation to Mr Webster to visit them in Bradford. ‘Alec can bring you the next time he comes up. You can keep him company on the road.’
The evening left Mr Webster exhausted. The conversations with the elder Deightons had been the longest talks he had had with anyone for months. They appeared always to be planning their next remarks rather than attending to what one was saying. He was relieved that their son was more reticent and more inclined to listen when one spoke. He was also glad to note that by the end of the evening he could look at Deighton without thinking of an erection.
The next morning he resumed his previous schedule. There was no reason to avoid Deighton; it had been a regrettable accident but there was no need to make anything of it. Deighton greeted him cheerfully. ‘I hope my parents didn’t tire you out. Thank you for taking the time to talk with them. I think they are finding retirement rather lonely. They both found their friends at work, and now they’re cut off from them. So they tend to talk when they find someone to listen.’
‘No, not at all. Thank you for introducing us. It was a very enjoyable evening.’ Mr Webster didn’t mention that he would prefer advance warning of the senior Deightons’ next visit so that he could be ‘unavoidably’ absent. They must long ago have said everything they had to say to each other on the subject of gardening and dog rearing, and he had no wish to hear further disquisitions on those subjects.
The evening had one further consequence. Deighton took to joining him for a few minutes of chat in the back garden when he returned from work. He offered Mr Webster a beer one evening, and thereafter the two of them fell into the habit of sitting at the garden table and talking for as long as it took to drink a bottle of beer. Mr Webster preferred IPAs and Deighton brown ales, and each kept of supply of the other’s favourite. They were as scrupulous about alternating the ‘buying’ of rounds as any group of friends in a pub.
Their evening conversations became the highpoint of Mr Webster’s day. Deighton showed an interest in his life and gradually Mr Webster opened up. Deighton didn’t pry but he allowed Mr Webster to talk about things he mostly kept to himself - how he had felt after his wife’s death, his regret that his son had moved to Australia, his worries about growing old. Deighton never said much about himself. He would answer questions about other subjects, but he usually parried personal questions with a question of his own about Mr Webster’s life. Mr Webster hardly noticed that he had told Deighton so much about himself. It was flattering to have someone not only show an interest in his life but also express genuine concern about his well-being.
Deighton sometimes had to work late, and often on Fridays and the weekends he met friends or colleagues. He always let Mr Webster know that he would be gone, but Mr Webster missed his presence on those evenings. A few nights Deighton brought a friend back with him from work, and Mr Webster had to forgo the pleasures of their evening chats. He had to remind himself that Deighton wasn’t obligated to speak with him. They weren’t related, and it was sheer happenstance that they were together. But he was lonely on the evenings Deighton was away. His wife’s death had left him bereft of simple everyday companionship and someone to talk with, and the renewal of camaraderie and conversation made him regret the occasional disruption of their interactions all the more. For the first time in years, he had a friend, one he found dependable and one on whom he was willing to depend.
Mr Webster still logged on to his computer every morning, but he no longer checked the cameras. The login sequence automatically connected him to the Internet through the WiFi. One day while he was dusting his desk, he accidentally hit the off switch on the side of his machine that activated the WiFi connection. The next time he turned his computer on, he had to open the WiFi connection programme and log in with his password. When he did so, he noticed that the guest channel was active. Deighton wasn’t at home, and he wondered if something was wrong with the programme.
When he mentioned the live connection that evening, Deighton explained that he never turned his computer off. ‘Much of our business depends on secrecy and secure Internet connections. We don’t like to put them at risk, and we encourage our employees to bring their own laptop or use their mobile to connect with an off-site computer to handle personal matters. So I keep my personal and my business lives separate. Sometimes at noon, I check my home computer for messages or do my banking, and I can access it through my mobile as long as it’s connected to the Internet.’
‘But can’t anyone get into it then?’
‘They could if they had my password. I suppose I should be more careful, but my password is complex, and it would take a lot of effort and luck to find it. I have different passwords for the more sensitive material like my bank account, but anyone who is clever enough to figure out my main password is welcome to read my parents’ emails. That should discourage further snooping.’
Mr Webster changed the subject. It would be rude to imply that he understood why reading the senior Deightons’ emails would dampen the desire to spy on their son.
Late one Wednesday afternoon he was reading in his office on the first floor. It was a warm day and he had the windows open. He heard the scuffing of someone’s feet on the stairs to the entryway. When he looked out the window on that side of the house, he could see nothing. He went to his computer and called up the security program to activate the camera over the front entrance to the basement flat. The screen filled with a man’s face.
When the man got no answer to his knocking, he pulled a memo book from his pocket, tore off a sheet of paper, wrote something on it and stuck it between the door and the frame. He bounded back up the steps and out of view of the camera. Mr Webster looked out the other window and watched the man get into a car and drive off.
Mr Webster was waiting in his back garden when Deighton returned. Now that they knew each other, Deighton had taken to using the back entrance to his flat. It was much more convenient to the garage.
‘Let me change. I’ll be right out. Your usual?’ he called out.
‘You should check your front door. Someone came by earlier and left you a note. I noticed it when I was out walking Archie.’
Fifteen minutes later Deighton returned. He had changed out of his business suit, but he was wearing better casual clothes than he usually did and was profusely apologetic. ‘I’m sorry but I have to go out again. An old friend of mine is in the area. I haven’t seen him for several years. I hope you don’t mind if we take a raincheck for tonight.’
‘Oh, not at all. Enjoy yourself.’ Mr Webster smiled and hid his disappointment. ‘There will be other nights.’
The next morning as Mr Webster prepared to walk Archie, he saw Deighton drive up and rush into his flat. He was wearing the same clothes he had on the night before and needed a shave. When Mr Webster returned from his walk, Deighton had left. That was the last Mr Webster saw of his tenant for several days. Once or twice, he thought he heard Deighton’s car drive in late at night and then leave a short time later. Deighton never showed up over the weekend.
‘Should I contact the police? This isn’t like him at all. He’s usually so regular. Maybe he was in an accident and is in the hospital. I’m beginning to be worried.’ Mr Webster emailed his son to consult him.
‘No, Dad. It’s the weekend. Perhaps he has a long date. I wouldn’t worry about it until a few more days have passed. He’s a young man, and young unmarried men sometimes have weekends away. If he’s not back by Wednesday, call his office and check.’
Deighton was in his flat on Monday morning. He had returned sometime during the night. Mr Webster hadn’t heard him come in. To Mr Webster’s regret, Deighton missed several evening visits. Deighton remained as friendly as ever, but his priorities had changed. It was not until the following Sunday that he stopped by for a chat. ‘I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting you.’ Deighton handed Mr Webster a bottle of his favourite IPA.
‘Your friend has been visiting. It’s understandable that you would want to see an old friend.’ It was the most conciliatory thing Mr Webster could think to say. He hoped he didn’t sound resentful. He wouldn’t want Deighton to think that he was jealous of the time the younger man was spending with his friend.
‘Yes, well, he’s going away again soon. I don’t think we’ll see each other in the few days remaining. It didn’t quite work out as we expected. We’ve both changed since we first met ten years ago. He was a bit disappointed with me. We’ve grown out of each other, I think.’
‘That happens. I know there were people at work I considered friends, but after I retired, I found I had less in common with some of them than I had thought. Our only links had been work, and when that stopped for me, the relationships petered out.’
‘Did you have to do anything to end the relationship?’
It was, Mr Deighton thought, an odd question. Was Deighton asking for advice on how to sever a relationship? ‘No, we just had no reason to maintain an acquaintance, and it died a natural death. I suppose if I ran into one of them, we would stop and chat. We would be friendly, but there would be no reason to be more than that or to meet again. We might say that we should have lunch some day - what’s that phrase, do lunch? - but that wouldn’t mean anything.’
‘Well, with David - that’s his name, David Moss - things got ugly. He became angry and started shouting. He accused me of betraying him.’
‘That’s rather a strong word. You must have meant a lot to him.’ Mr Webster regretted the words as soon as he uttered them. ‘Sorry, don’t mean to pry. It’s none of my business.’
‘No, it’s all right. We were in the Army together about ten years ago during the Gulf War. I got out and went into the security business. David stayed in. He was in Iraq, and now he’s in Afghanistan - some black-ops operation. He always says he can never talk about what he’s doing. I don’t know if that’s true or whether he’s just trying to impress me. We were close in the Army. After I left, we would meet when he had leave. I hardly heard from him otherwise. He might contact me when he was back home, but I hadn’t heard from him in three years until last week. I don’t even know how he knew I’m living here. I asked but he just smirked at me. That’s one of the things that ticked me off. Him pretending to have all these secret contacts.’
‘No, it wouldn’t be pleasant to learn that someone was spying on you. Anyone would find that distressing.’
‘Yes,’ Deighton nodded, ‘that’s exactly how I felt. He didn’t need to come by. He has my email address. He could have sent me a note. In fact, he sent me a long email last night.’ Deighton frowned at the thought.
‘Oh dear, I hope it wasn’t too bad.’ His young friend seemed in a mood for confidences, and Mr Webster was growing curious about the relationship between his tenant and this Moss. His eager verbal prompt had the desired result.
‘It was bad. He called me all sorts of names. It was out of proportion - I mean, out of proportion to our history. I never gave him any reason to think there was something more than just casual . . .’ Deighton stopped in midstream and looked at Mr Webster with surprise and alarm, as if he suddenly realised that he was talking about his personal life. He flushed and looked away. ‘Sorry, I shouldn’t be bothering you with my problems,’ he muttered.
That was as close as Deighton ever got to a personal comment. The bitterness with which he spoke surprised Mr Webster. He started to remark that Deighton wasn’t bothering him, but then thought better of it. Deighton liked his privacy, that much was clear. If he wants to tell me more, thought Mr Webster, he will do so.
While Mr Webster hesitated trying to think of something noncommittal to say, Deighton changed the subject. ‘The garden looks nice. You’ve been busy.’ The conversation moved on, the opportunity for further revelations gone.
Later that night, as he lay in bed, Mr Webster replayed the conversation in his mind. Clearly Deighton had been about to reveal that he and Moss had had a sexual relationship. Mr Webster prided himself on being open-minded. He would like to make Deighton understand that his ‘sexual orientation’ - Mr Webster knew the current term - was irrelevant to their friendship. And it was a friendship. They enjoyed each other’s company and looked forward to it. They shared confidences. They talked about things that were important to them. They watched out for each other. At least, Mr Webster reminded himself, he felt that way about Deighton. He thought Deighton harboured similar affections. He couldn’t be sure, but the young man seemed to enjoy his company. He resolved to encourage Deighton to open up further. Deighton should understand that no subject was off-limits. Mr Webster would provide a sympathetic ear.
Two days later, Mr Webster had occasion to do Deighton a service. He was trimming the boxwood in his small front garden. A car pulled up and a man got out. Mr Webster recognised him immediately as David Moss. He went on pruning the bushes, studiously ignoring Moss but watching him out of the corner of his eyes. Moss bounded down the areaway steps and knocked loudly on the front door to the basement flat. When he got no answer, he moved up a couple of steps and peered at Mr Webster over the edge of the small wall surrounding the steps.
‘Pardon me, but I’m looking for Alec. Do you know when he will be back?’
‘He’s at work now.’
‘I know that.’ Moss’s irritation showed in his face. ‘It’s just that I left something in his flat when I was here last week. I’m in the Army, and I’m leaving tonight. Back to Afghanistan.’ Moss paused for a moment. He’s waiting for me to express admiration, thought Mr Webster. When he failed to respond, Moss continued. ‘I don’t suppose you could let me in. I’ll just be a second.’
‘I can’t let you in. I don’t know the security codes, and the alarm would go off if you entered. The police would be here within a minute. The station is just on the High Street, three blocks away. And I don’t want to explain to them or to Mr Deighton why the alarm sounded.’ Mr Webster gave himself high marks for quick thinking. He gave no indication that he knew Moss. That would be a betrayal of Deighton’s confidences. ‘Perhaps if you sent him a letter, he could mail your property to you.’
Moss scowled. He looked Mr Webster over as if judging his truthfulness. He was definitely sizing up the older man. For a second Mr Webster wondered if Moss were contemplating physical action to force him to open the door to the basement flat. The moment passed, however, and Moss turned away, without thanking Mr Webster - a telling omission in Mr Webster’s opinion. Some people’s lack of character was apparent. Moss jerked open the door to his car and sped away.
The confrontation unnerved Mr Webster. The threat had been palpable. Moss was trained in fighting and he was used to being physical and using force. That much was clear. Mr Webster congratulated himself on having mentioned the nearness of the police station. That must have given Moss pause. He wondered what Moss would have done had he not been present. Would he have forced the door and broken into Deighton’s flat? His claim of having left something was clearly a lie. To Mr Webster’s knowledge, Moss hadn’t been in Deighton’s flat. No, Moss had intended mischief.
‘I’m sorry you became involved in this.’ Deighton became very apologetic when Mr Webster told him of the incident.
‘No need to be sorry. It’s not your fault. Anyway no harm done. I soon sent him packing.’ Mr Webster said up straighter in his chair. In his own mind, he was the hero of the confrontation - the potentially dangerous confrontation, he reminded himself. That’s when character came out, when one had to deal with problems. How one handled oneself in a crisis was revealing. He was glad to note that he had behaved admirably.
Deighton regarded him kindly. ‘You must be careful. Moss has a temper and he can be violent. And you’re right. He has no reason to be in my flat.’
‘I can handle myself. I won’t do anything foolish. I’ll call the police if he comes round again. Did he contact you?’
‘Yes. I’ve had several more emails. I don’t know how to answer them. Well, he’s returning to his unit in Afghanistan on Thursday. That will put an end to his visits.’
‘Can’t you just tell him it’s over? That’s he wasting his time?’
‘I have told him that - not in those exact words. I used somewhat stronger expressions.’
The two men shared a smile at the thought of those stronger expressions.
‘Well, it’s good to see that you can laugh about it. Perhaps he’s just one of those people who feels he has to have the last word. He wants to be the one that breaks off the relationship and he became angry because you did it first.’ Mr Webster was guessing at what had happened, but Deighton didn’t dispute this version of events.
‘I think you may have something there. He’s one of those people who doesn’t like to hear the word no. I’ve seen him become livid when he feels someone is thwarting him.’
‘I’ve known a few people like that. They can be difficult to deal with. You have to manoeuvre them into thinking you’re going along with their ideas.’
‘It’s too late to do that with David. He’ll simmer down eventually. Something else will come along to rouse his anger, and he’ll forget about me. I didn’t handle this well. But we live and learn, don’t we? I’m sorry that it involved you. But I’ll tell him not to come round again. He shouldn’t be doing that. He does respect authority, and his career would be over if he harmed you or it became known that he was harassing me. He’ll calm down.’
‘Don’t worry about me. I was glad to be able to help, even if only in a small way.’ Mr Webster paused before going on. Then he decided to plunge in. ‘I think of you as a friend, you know. I don’t want to see you unhappy. I’m glad to do what I can to help.’
Deighton smiled and then briefly touched Mr Webster’s arm. ‘Thanks. That means a lot to me.’
For Mr Webster, that conversation still glowed in his mind the next morning. He had a friend, a friend who appreciated his help. Clearly this Moss was up to no good. He had deliberately mentioned that he was a soldier serving in a war zone and then lied about his departure date in an attempt to manipulate Mr Webster’s feelings. If he thinks that will work, thought Mr Webster, he is seriously underestimating me.
Deighton’s problem was that he was young. He didn’t know how to handle people. That was one skill Mr Webster had learned through experience. One had to learn how to size people up, suss out what made them tick, and then use that to move them in the right direction. Mr Webster recalled with satisfaction that he had been the one to point out that Moss was the type of person who had to be the one to break off a relationship, he wanted to be the one who said no. Deighton had immediately acknowledged that Mr Webster was right. Deighton hadn’t yet developed the ability to evaluate people and manage them. That’s where I can help him, thought Mr Webster.
He didn’t know Moss personally and had had only the one brief encounter with him, but he knew the type. He could read Moss like a book - a troublemaker, thinking only of himself, unwilling to face reality, a bully. Well, let him bluster. He had met his match - which wasn’t to say that he couldn’t still make Deighton’s life miserable in the coming days. He might wait until no one was at home and then break in. He could do a lot of damage before the police arrived. Mr Webster had told him the police would arrive in a minute after the alarm sounded, but he suspected it would take much longer. It wouldn’t take Moss more than a couple of minutes to smash Deighton’s telly or slash his furniture. Mr Webster could visualise Moss on a rampage, tossing a can of paint over the walls and floors, plugging the drains, ripping the mattress, setting the place on fire. He was a trained soldier. He might even have access to explosives.
What we need, thought Mr Webster, is a way of forestalling him and preventing him from causing further harm. I need information. I don’t even know where Moss is staying or how to reach him. Deighton had mentioned receiving emails, perhaps they might contain clues to his whereabouts and how to approach him. I have Deighton’s password for the WiFi access, he mentioned that he uses the same password for many of his accounts. Perhaps the WiFi code will allow me to read Moss’s emails. It isn’t really snooping, he decided - just one friend helping out a friend.
Mr Webster retrieved the message with the password from his files. When he clicked on the icon for the guest account, another screen appeared and asked him to input the password. He carefully typed it in and then pressed enter. The screen immediately went blank. He held his breath. He had a sudden moment of panic. Deighton ran a security service. Undoubtedly he could trace this attempt to break in back to Mr Webster. He should have thought of that. I’ll have to erase all evidence of my presence, thought Mr Webster. He hoped he could figure out how to do that. There was much about computers he did not understand, but he knew that everything one did left a trace. He mustn’t give Deighton any reason to suspect that someone had entered his computer.
Icons began popping into view on the screen, and the status bar appeared at the bottom. When the screen image settled, Mr Webster pressed the icon for the web browser. He was relieved that Deighton used the same browser he did. At least, he didn’t have to figure out a strange system. He opened the email programme and input the same password. The programme opened immediately. He checked the time. Deighton had said that he often accessed his home computer during his lunch break. Mr Webster thought it best to allow a generous margin of time. He would exit Deighton’s computer by no later than 11:00. Better to be safe. He could always return if need be.
There were eight emails from David Moss, including an unopened one sent only an hour before. Luckily the scoundrel used his own name rather than some silly name. Mr Webster thought he would get a better idea of what had happened by beginning with the earliest email. The date indicated that it had been sent the day before Moss surfaced. It was a simple message.
Good news. I’m flying in tonight - I just got word this morning. The commander is sending me to London deliver a message verbally ‘that can’t be trusted to ordinary channels’. As a reward for being good and doing my duty, I have two weeks of leave. I’ll be staying at my parents and will have plenty of free time. I want to see you (make that - need to see you). I’ll get in touch as soon as I can - I have a message for you too.
That seems innocuous enough on the surface, thought Mr Webster. If one knew the man’s true colours, however, it was easy enough to read between the lines. How like Moss that he couldn’t resist hinting that he was on an important secret mission. And that juvenile smiley face - another indication of the man’s immaturity. And he hadn’t even apologised for the length of time he had been out of contact. It was as if he thought he could drop into Deighton’s life out of the blue and resume whatever relationship they had had. He wrote as if they were in frequent contact. If Deighton had known the trouble that would result, he would have written back with the news that regrettably he was out of the country for the next month.
The second email was written after the weekend Deighton had been gone.
Dear Alec -
I’m sorry you had to rush off to work - really sorry. Your half of the bed is still warm and that makes me miss you all the more. I’ve been clutching your pillow against my face and trying to pretend it’s you - not for the first time. If you had any idea how many pillows and crumpled blankets have turned into you in my dreams, you would be jealous of the bedding. Not to worry. They’re no substitute for you, just reminders of your absence.
I hope you’re not exhausted. I am but for the best possible reasons. I suppose I should be sorry for you, but I’m more sorry for myself. Poor me. I’m lying in bed alone - with only my memories of the weekend for company. And you’re out there, rushing about, attracting attention wherever you go, the object of lustful eyes. When you should be here with me, letting me show you what it means to be the object of lustful eyes.
Next time I have home leave, I promise to give you more notice so we can go away together for a week. I felt like a man who never noticed how hungry he was until the feast was on the table. See you tonight. Try to get some rest during the day - I plan to keep you up all night.
I shouldn’t have drunk so much last night. Couldn’t keep up with you. I’m not used to drinking so much. Can’t drink on duty and anyway Afghanistan is officially a dry country. Guess I’m getting old. Stop me tonight after two pints.
Moss was totally inept, Mr Webster decided. What was that word Harold’s daughter had thrown at her younger brother? Clueless. That was it. Moss was clueless. He didn’t realise how Deighton felt about him. Obviously his relationship with Deighton was based only on sex. He was still behaving like a randy teenager - thinking no further than his cock. No wonder Deighton had complained that he had moved on from Moss. He had grown up and needed more in a relationship than just sex. And Moss had a drinking problem. No surprise there. A career soldier. They all drank. Probably on drugs as well.
The next two messages were short. They simply set times and places for meetings. The fifth message was much longer and contained, Mr Webster was glad to note, the first open admission of a disagreement.
Dearest Alec -
Never again shall I wonder what ‘a full and frank discussion’ means. Have you been holding all that in for days just to let me have a few moments of bliss? You didn’t need to. I want you always to know that you can talk about anything with me.
I know you’re worried about my deployment. There’s no getting around it. There’s no way I can claim I’m going to be safe. Afghanistan’s dangerous. We both knew it would be when I asked for assignment there. But I’ve always told you that I was in the Army for life. It’s my career. I’m proud of the job I’m doing. And as long as the pols don’t gut the services, I can look forward to promotion. It’s not certain yet but I’m pretty sure I’ll be Major Moss before the end of the year.
Every job has its risks and dangers. You could be shot while trying to prevent a kidnapping of one of your clients. There are streets in London that are as dangerous as any place in Afghanistan. I’m not making light of your worries, but I worry about you too when I get an email from you telling me about some of your encounters. We neither of us opted for a safe course.
I should have told you about the injury. I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to worry. It was just a piece of shrapnel. The medic removed it, dowsed it with antiseptic powder, and stitched it up. I can see how it would alarm you when you discovered the scar. It was just a flesh wound in a nonessential part - at least I don’t think my left calf is an essential bit.
When you left the Army, you asked me to join your firm. I know you were just joking. We both know I’m not suited to business. I’d end up being excess baggage - the boss’s boyfriend who couldn’t pull his weight and was a drag on the firm. Neither of us would want that. Imagine if you had to fire me. I know where I am in the Army. It’s the life I was made for. But there have been days when I have regretted not accepting your offer. I’ve been tempted, not because I would be good at business but because it would mean we could be together.
Why do you keep saying this isn’t going to work? Is it just because we can’t be together all the time? It’s hard on me to be separated as well. I promise I’ll ask for reassignment in London or nearby when my tour in Afghanistan ends. But you know the Army - there’s as likely to reassign me as military attaché in Chile.
Don’t give up on me. You mean too much to me. I wouldn’t survive long without you. Let’s meet again tonight. Please allow me another chance to explain myself. And please don’t speak of ‘moving on’ and keep talking about how much we’ve changed. My feelings for you haven’t changed.
A clingy type, that’s what Moss was. The letter justified Mr Webster’s initial assessment of Moss. He was the type of man who couldn’t take rejection. He had to be the one doing the rejection. The letter was a clear case of harassment. Deighton was being hounded by a man whose pride prevented him from understanding that he no longer measured up. Making feeble claims about the importance of his career. Wrapping himself in his patriotic duty. All this talk about understanding was so much disingenuous twaddle to camouflage the injury to his self-esteem. He probably imagined that he was doing Deighton a favour by condescending to have sex with him. And despite all the talk of love and feelings, that was all that Moss was interested in. Sex. Well, words were cheap.
Moss grew even more demanding in the next two messages.
Please let me see you again. I promise not to get angry. We need to talk this out. I know we can make things work between us.
Why won’t you answer when I phone or reply to my emails? I know you’re still around. Is there someone else? Is that the reason?
Mr Webster checked the outbox. If Deighton had replied to any of these messages, he had deleted the copies. Since his outbox was stuffed with hundreds of emails, Mr Webster guessed that he seldom, if ever, deleted the copies of outgoing messages. That might be his problem, thought Mr Webster - he needs to put an end to this once and for all, not let it dangle unresolved. It was best to make a clean break. Sometimes one had to clean out the trash.
Mr Webster hesitated to open the final message. In the list of received emails, unread messages were highlighted in bold. The moment he opened the message the highlighting would disappear. Deighton would know that someone had read the message, and it wouldn’t take much thought to guess who. Mr Webster’s curiosity and the need for discretion were at war. No matter how close their friendship, Deighton would not appreciate his spying. His only intent was to help Deighton, but he would have to find another way.
Then he remembered one of the options available on the email programme. Along with ‘delete’, ‘flag for follow-up’, and the other commands, there was ‘mark as unread’. He had never used that before, indeed never understand why that would be an option. In the list of incoming messages, he highlighted the selection box beside one of the messages he had already read, opened the command menu, and then clicked ‘mark as unread’. Instantly the message line appeared in boldface. He clicked to open the message and the bolding disappeared.
Mr Webster suspected that even if he read the message and then marked it as unread, the action would be traceable. But what reason would Deighton have to suspect that anyone had seen the message? To him, it would appear to be an unread message. He would open it and the bolding would be replaced by regular type. Deighton wouldn’t doubt that he was the first and only reader of the message.
Almost before he had finished reasoning this out, Mr Webster had opened the message. The button on the mouse seemed to click of its own volition.
Dear Alec -
I’ve been thinking about the events of the past week. Things were fine between us until you realised that I really mean it when I say I love you. That’s when you started bringing up all this nonsense about how dangerous my deployment is and how you couldn’t take the stress. You saw the scar on my leg the first day. But you never mentioned it. You started fussing over it only when you decided to break things off. It was just a pretext for running away.
As long as we didn’t go beyond sex, things were fine for you. When I told you that I wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, you all but leapt out of bed. You couldn’t wait to leave. Suddenly it was ‘Look at the time. I’ll be late for work’. And when I suggested we have lunch, you were busy. I had to beg you to meet me again. Then you stand five feet away and tell me that things are over. That I’ve changed.
Maybe that’s the problem. I’ve changed. Sex isn’t enough for me anymore. I want an adult relationship - two people living together and working out their disagreements because they are secure in their love for each other. I refuse to give up on you or on us. You can’t go through life in this rootless fashion. You couldn’t commit to the Army. You prefer to deal with machines rather than people. You are floating through life.
Think about what you’re doing - what you’re throwing away. I’m here until Thursday morning. Please let me talk with you again. We can make this right.
A classic case of projection, thought Mr Webster. Moss was accusing Deighton of the very things he was guilty of. Deighton’s biggest mistake had been not to deal with this directly. One should never ignore things like this and expect them to blow over. No, he should have told Moss the first night that he was through. When problems grew this emotional, they became harder to solve. Deighton had to confront the problem. It didn’t help that Moss was exploiting the feelings that Deighton had for him. Moss was deceitful. Manufacturing a false history and needless drama. Deighton probably didn’t know what to do. Poor lad. Old loves and old claims were hard to deny.
It was his duty to help Deighton defend himself against this bastard. Send him back to Afghanistan. Maybe he would get killed there. Solve our problems with him. He’d have to find a way to persuade Deighton to answer this email without revealing that he had read it. Pity he couldn’t answer it himself. Save everyone a lot of heartache.
He clicked ‘reply’ and a new window opened. He wouldn’t send the message, just jot down a few thoughts while Moss’s email was fresh in his mind so that he could advise Deighton later. ‘David’, he began - best to keep it formal. Don’t give Moss any hope of getting together again. Just come out and say what has to be said. Don’t beat about the bush. Don’t apologise.
This past week has convinced me that we’re better off without each other. Be a man and swallow your pride. Face up to the fact that it’s over. Need to move on. Wish you the best. You’ll find someone else soon. Don’t contact me again. Don’t want to see you. Have nothing further to say. Said it all.
Perhaps better not to say that bit about ‘find someone else soon’. Mr Webster deleted the sentence and considered deleting ‘Wish you the best.’ He’d have to think about that. Did it sound too friendly?
Moss had brought up the idea the Deighton had found someone else. How would he react to that? Would that discourage him? Maybe add ‘I am seeing someone else. It’s serious. I should have told you, but I didn’t realise how you felt about me and I didn’t think there would be any harm in seeing you again’. He typed that in and reread the message. Deighton knew Moss better than he did. He could decide whether to keep the part about the new boyfriend. It wasn’t exactly a lie. A chap like Deighton would find someone else soon. Someone better, Mr Webster was certain. He reread the message. He couldn’t think of anything more than need be said. Without thinking, he pressed the send button. A rotating arrow briefly appeared on the screen before being replaced by ‘Your message has been sent.’
Mr Webster’s heart lurched. His first thought was to try to recall the message. He opened the sent folder and deleted his message to Moss. Would that stop it? He didn’t know. In a panic, he marked Moss’s last message as unread and then exited Deighton’s computer. He fled his office and took refuge in his sitting room. If he wasn’t in his office, no one would know he had been at his computer.
His first cogent thought was that Deighton would find out. Moss would reply to the email and the reply would contain a copy of his message. Deighton would know that someone else had typed it and he would soon discover the culprit. Hadn’t he once said that his firm had specialists in computer crimes who could track anyone? His only hope was that Deighton would understand that he had acted for the best, that he had done Deighton a favour by ending the relationship with Moss.
He clung to the thought of Deighton’s gratitude. Deighton wouldn’t suspect him in any case. He was just an old man. He knew nothing about computers. Deighton wouldn’t consider him capable of breaking into another person’s computer. He didn’t have the skills. He would think some third party was the culprit. No blame would fall on him. He spent the afternoon watching the street though the window. When Deighton came home and asked him to join him in a beer, he would beg off, say that he had a headache. Nothing to worry about. He’d take a couple of aspirin and make an early night of it.
The police car came at 4:00. The driver wore a constable’s uniform, and the two passengers - a man and a woman - were in plain clothes. All three of them stood on the pavement looking at the house and talking. The male officer pointed to the areaway and then at Mr Webster’s front door. He pulled out a bunch of keys and he and the constable walked down the stairs to the door to the basement flat. The woman walked up Mr Webster’s front stairs and rang the bell.
Mr Webster was alarmed. The police somehow knew that he had broken into Deighton’s computer and were there to arrest him. Deighton must have discovered the crime. Archie rushed to the front door and began barking. She always did that when someone rang the bell. She ran back to fetch Mr Webster and herded him towards the door. Mr Webster thought ‘These are my last moments of freedom’ as he opened it.
‘Pardon me for intruding, Sir. I’m Detective Sergeant Carlton.’ She held up her warrant card.
Mr Webster couldn’t focus on the card. There was a picture on it and printing, but he could make no sense of the words.
‘Are you all right, Sir?’
‘A bit of a headache,’ Mr Webster stammered. ‘I’ll be fine. Is there a problem?’
‘Does a Mr Alec Deighton live here?’
‘Yes, he has the basement flat. What are they doing? Why are you trying to get into Alec’s flat? Is something wrong? You’ll make the alarm go off.’
‘There’s been an accident, Sir.’
‘Accident? Has something happened to Alec?’
‘Perhaps you should sit down, Sir. Are you a relation of Mr Deighton’s?’
‘No. No, I’m just his landlord. Tell me. What has happened?’
‘Sir, we’re trying to find out what happened. That’s why we’re here. We’re hoping to find something that will help us identify the man who shot Mr Deighton.’
‘Alec has been shot? When? Where?’
‘Please, Sir, I think you really ought to sit down.’ Sergeant Carlson grasped Mr Webster by an arm and led him to a chair. ‘Can I get you a glass of water?’
An hour later, the three police officers were seated around Mr Webster’s dining table. All three of them had notebooks open in front of them. Sergeant Carlson was asking most of the questions, the police constable taking most of the notes.
‘Alec moved in about six months ago. My son was worried about me being alone. So he and my nephew persuaded me to remodel the basement into a flat. They wanted me to have someone I could call on if I needed help.’
‘Did you come to know Mr Deighton well?’
‘Not well. I wouldn’t say well. I’m a rather private person, and I think Alec was too. He wasn’t given to confidences. And then there was the difference in our ages. Younger people sometimes find it hard to talk with older people.’ Mr Webster looked rueful. ‘We were friendly but not close.’
‘The man who shot him had no identification on him. He simply walked into Mr Deighton’s office and pulled out a gun. Then he shot himself. So we’ve no idea who he is. Deighton never mentioned anyone?’
‘No. He rarely talked about his personal life.’ Mr Webster paused for a moment as if recalling something. ‘There was one suspicious thing yesterday. A strange man was trying to get into his flat.’ Mr Webster related the incident and then described the man as best he could, without revealing that he knew Moss’s identity. His description apparently satisfied the police. They asked him if he could describe the car that the man had been driving. Mr Webster could recall the colour. He thought it was a late model Rover, but he no longer paid much attention to cars and couldn’t be sure. ‘My memory is no longer what it was.’ The police officers exchanged glances. Mr Webster congratulated himself on playing successfully on their preconceptions of the elderly.
The constable pulled out a mobile and relayed the information about the car. He waited with the phone next to his ear while the other two officers continued to question Mr Webster. Finally he nodded into the phone and said, ‘Good.’ He turned to Sergeant Carlton and said, ‘They found a car parked around the corner from Deighton’s office that matches the description. They’re running the plates now.’
Sergeant Carlton handed Mr Webster her card as they left. ‘Here’s my number in case you think of anything else. There may be police in and out of your basement over the next several days. I’ll tell them to knock on your door and identify themselves before they go in. You’ve been very helpful. Thank you.’
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