I am writing a novel but it is slow work! So I thought I would publish the first chapter here to see if there is any reaction! So far, I have written about 20k words (here, there are 2480 words) but a regular paperback is about 5 times that. This is only a draft, of course. And I need to format the dialogue.
In theory, I should be writing a lot because I am in lockdown but I miss the stimulation of real life, people-watching is a great source for a novel!
A Grey November afternoon at 4pm in Carcassonne, for one particular Englishman was reminiscent of London because it is much the same but maybe a little warmer. At 4pm most people are hoping that the night will arrive rapidly, then at least it’s dark on account of there being no sun rather than its being obscured by a thick mantel of cloud with spray of fine drizzle beneath it. It almost had a Dickensian feel about it, one almost expected to see a lamp-lighter wandering among the street-lights.
It was a Sunday which accounted for the absence of traffic. The road glistened. What traffic that did pass along Avenue General Leclerc, did so silently or with a strange symphony (or maybe a cacophony) of musical sounds on account of this being 2030 and the internal combustion engine being history in most major cities. Most people these days sampled their car sounds from the internet rather in the same way that people used to download ring-tones for their phones. For sure the air was cleaner but it didn’t lift the oppressive feeling of doom. The bare trees seemed to be weeping.
A dark blue electric BRM i4 pulled up at the kerb. It also emanated a strange ethereal sound reducing in pitch as it came to a stop, but very dated, as if from a computer movie in the 1980s. Thomas Leadsom was in his 60s so it was either nostalgia or that he hadn’t yet mastered how to update the sounds. He took a few moments to check that he had the right location and then looked up the nearest available parking on his screen. Naturally, his car could make all the decisions for him but he still preferred to impose his wish to park off-road. He addressed his car in a firm and authoritative voice, “Park in Parking Gambetta, it’s back across the bridge”. The car replied with a cheery “OK” and a waving emoji on the screen.
When he first bought the car in 2022, he would never have dared send it off to some parking lot, but on account of his growing fame it had been updated free of charge by BRM with new sensors and, of course, the software had been updated on a regular basis. Then two years ago, his battery was replaced with one of the new Plasform power-packs (the word “battery” by that time had a very dated feel about it). With the new power-pack, he could charge the car almost as quickly as one used to take to refill a car with gasoline, and it had a range of 300km. But many people worried about these new power-packs. After all, they still contained the same energy as a tank full of gasoline, they were physically smaller than the old lithium batteries and rapid charging put great stress on the whole system.
He reached behind his seat for a small folder of papers and eased himself out of the car. He shut the door and immediately it moved off towards its parking space, humming in an ascending scale to itself as it went. He was casually dressed, jeans and a shirt with a thick sweater and a bomber jacket to keep out the damp cold air. The Prison, Maison d’Arrêt lay towards la Cité outside the centre of the town, Thomas thought how similar in appearance it was to Wormwood Scrubs which he knew well from visiting clients. Maybe the prison featured in movies and TV series as was the case with The Scrubs. As he approached the gates to the prison, he realised, of course that numerous cameras were now plotting his progress and analysing who he was. Thomas Alvarez Lendsom, 62, British, lawyer, married with two children, lives in Hampstead, London. In the UK, ID cards had finally been accepted so the trawling of information was even easier. People realised that they had given so much about themselves in social media and online that there was really very little more that they could give away. But the research on this visitor went further. From his profile in Silicon Valley, the prison was able to create a complete picture of the man. And because he had been in all the newspapers and TV outside the law courts, le Cour d’Assises, on Friday, the prison quickly came to the conclusion that he had come to visit his client. Or “ex-client” because they had parted acrimoniously as he was led down to start his sentence and as Thomas went out to attempt to explain to the press why his client had had a “James Ratner” moment, an act of hari-kari. Norman Prensel had destroyed his case in a few short moments giving the judges an early start to their weekend, for which they were thankful because the case had already dragged on for 15 days.
Thomas had hoped to visit his client, his ex-, without anyone knowing but some hope of that. There was a small group of people outside the jail wall, some he supposed were friends or family of inmates but one or two looked suspiciously like journalists. He walked up briskly to the police officer at the gate and explained who he was and the purpose of his visit, although that was hardly necessary. It was possible that the policeman knew more about him than he knew himself. Was his wife having an affair which he was spending so much time in France? It was the hour of normal visiting and he had already checked with Norman’s family to see if they planned on visiting him.The policeman at the entrance gave Thomas an ID on a lanyard, the photo it took from their own database, and a wristband. He gave up his mobile phone.
He was led to a small room by a prison warder where he found a motley bunch of sad looking people waiting to see their loved ones (or maybe their confederates to ask where they hid the money). Thomas took a seat next to a very large woman in a floral dress. He picked up a copy of Paris Match and there at page 4 was a report on the court case, the trial of Norman Prensel, world-famous entrepreneur and bon viveur, now brought low, not by the law which his lawyer was skillfully manipulating but by a seemingly rash statement at his trial. That was why Thomas was at the jail rather than heading for home, that would have to wait. But then he doubted what would happen. Their conversation would not be direct but via an electronic link and any sound or unusual actions would immediately be picked up by the artificial intelligence. His face, his emotions would be picked up by the software. In public, face recognition was still a controversial subject, more so as it became more sophisticated. But in a prison, anything goes!
He imagined Norman being brought from his cell to the meeting room, maybe he wouldn’t want to see him and what could they talk about anyway. The weather? But, yes, Norman was happy to meet, after about 15 minutes, a warder called his name and took him down a dark corridor to the meeting room. As he opened the door, Thomas saw Norman but not as he was accustomed to seeing him. Of course, now, he was wearing a prison uniform but previously he was always impeccably dressed in a dark suit, tie and white shirt. He walked up to the screen where Norman was seated, he said “Hello” and Norman responded. Then followed a little small talk before Thomas put the big question, “Why did he do it?”. Not the crime itself but the virtual confession when Thomas had almost got him off the charges. This was the question on everyone’s lips. But he knew that Norman could not reply as it would have been picked up immediately and for sure leaked to the press. Norman looked back at him with a blank look on his face and a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. But then he smiled, this was not expected. And his smile cautiously drew Thomas’s eyes down to his hands which were clasped on the table in front of him. And then Thomas saw it. From the wrist up to the first knuckle of his right hand was a string of letters and numbers, about 12 in all. He reached in his wallet as if to consult his documents but drew out a sheet of paper and a pen and casually wrote down the string of letters. He had to write it down although he had no idea what it meant, maybe some kind of code that he could present to his clever mathematical friends in the UK. The vigilance in that room was so tight that he feared that at any moment his writing would be discovered. Norman looked back at him blankly and gave him one or two phone numbers which were obviously bogus just to camouflage the vital text.
Then, out of the blue, Norman said, “My penis is tiny”. Just that. Well, Thomas had never had the opportunity to judge that, either flaccid or erect. Norman, he knew was gay but he was happily married so there was no question of anything happening between them. And then he said, “You are lawyer”. Not “You are a lawyer” which would make more sense and the former was not English in any case. But he was smart enough to realise that this was also a coded message. He didn’t even risk winking his eye, he just looked blankly back across the screen and continued to chat about the weather. And so they continued, just chatting but obviously Norman had passed something important to Thomas. The time came for him to leave, they said their goodbyes and as Thomas reached the door, he looked back to see Norman surreptitiously wiping the letters from his hand, making out that he was wringing his hands in sadness. And that was the last time either of them saw each other for a number of reasons but one in particular.
Thomas retrieved his phone and escaped out into the street again, it was 5.30pm and he checked for messages. There were very many, most of which he ignored. There were several which noted that he had visited the prison and which were requesting an interview. And the crowd had certainly increased in number, and they were not all visiting friends and relatives, that was for sure. There were two large and powerful motorbikes at the kerb and several guys hanging around with expensive looking cameras. A microphone was thrust into his face, “What did he say?” He felt vulnerable without his car so he started walking briskly in the direction of the main boulevard where he had sent his car. The press pack followed and jostled him. “You had your day on Friday, leave me alone!” he cried. He called up his car and it responded, “I will pay with the disk on the windscreen”, it replied, “Don’t worry”. Somehow his own car had caught wind of the pressure he was under, he supposed it was the tone of his voice unless the car watches TV. Maybe it was, inanimate objects, all connected to the internet-of-everything have been getting uncomfortably smart. He cursed at the journalists and paparazzi in the most vulgar French he could think of and continued walking. When he reached the bridge which crossed the River Aude, he saw a familiar blue car approaching slowly as if looking out for someone. He flung the folder in behind the driver’s seat, slammed the door shut and gratefully drove away in the direction of the autoroute which would take him to Toulouse. But he had not shaken off the two motorcyclists and he also became aware of a black Mercedes which he had seen parked by the prison, He had dismissed it as obviously not being press. He couldn’t make out the registration mark but it was neither French nor British, he thought he saw a blue and yellow stripe next to the number.
After just over 10 minutes, he arrived at the A61 autoroute. Naturally the traffic was very “fluide” as the gantry signs told him, but he was still being harassed by the two motorcycles. And the Mercedes was still there as well. He tried changing lanes but apart from increasing speed which would obviously have attracted a ticket, this was the only thing he could do. This motley little convoy continued to Toulouse where the number became A62, this was his target for getting out of France and heading for home. The two motorcycles had given up, it was obvious that he was heading back to Calais so there was no point in chasing him any further. About 5km out of Toulouse, he pulled off to recharge the power-pack and visit the toilet. As he got back into the car, he remembered the coded letters that Norman had given him. He took the paper out of the wallet and sat thinking. Tiny penis, tiny, tiny. What is the clue there? And, “you are lawyer”. He wrote the words on the paper, folded it and put it in his top pocket. He would have to work that out later or during the boring hours of travel ahead. He didn’t see the Mercedes slip out of the lay-by 50m behind him.
Very soon he was passing the airport, he was tired but his spirits were lifting. He was happy to be going home. After about 10km, when he was close to the maximum of 120kph, something strange happened. There was a shock and a loud bang in the front of the car and suddenly he was upside down about 2m above the central reservation, at high speed. The car dropped rapidly to the ground onto its roof, spinning twice, into the fast lane of the opposing traffic and the collision with the camper-van was unavoidable. There was silence. All traffic stopped with the exception of a black Mercedes which slipped by unnoticed as it headed north. People jumped out of their cars and attempted to drag Thomas out of the car. He was obviously seriously hurt but, even in these electric days, people still feared a fire. They laid him on the road and within a few seconds, the power pack, punctured by the armco exploded sending fire and a plume of smoke into the night. When the medics arrived, there was very little they could do. At first, they didn’t even put him in the ambulance, it was obvious that by now he was dead.