CUTTING YOUR LOSSES

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Bloody, bloody fool! Why had I risked going so near to the roof’s edge?

I was falling to my death. At the last moment I managed to cling onto the gutter below the roof. I was completely alone, and shivering with terror, trying my best to pull myself back up again and failing. And, God help me, my fingers were going numb.

A year ago, my friend Tom Farmer had discovered love at first sight when he’d seen the dilapidated old oast house, whose roof I was now clinging onto. On a crazy whim, he’d bought the 1880s farm building at auction, convinced that he could renovate it and open it as an upmarket restaurant. But after he’d made a start with the renovations, the local authority unexpectedly refused to grant a business licence. This was a devastating blow, but his second idea, indeed the only option he had, was to remodel and repair it, then try to sell it at a profit.

The oast house took over his life. Every spare second that he wasn’t working at his own full-time job as a chef, he was slaving away helping the builders to fix the dry rot, the broken windows, the smashed tiles, the wrecked everything. The months went by, his ever-increasing mortgage was creeping higher and higher, and no one would buy the damned place. Maybe it was the shock, the disappointment and constant stress or the sheer hard work that led to his sudden heart attack at the age of just thirty-eight. This upset me a lot because

Tom was actually a special friend to me, we shared a strange kind of bond: when we were playing together as children, I had rescued him from drowning, while we’d both been swimming in the river. Neither of us made a big deal of it, or even told our parents, but he always said to me that he owed me his life—I disagreed and told him to forget it.

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His other friends and I were rallying round to help him and Jill, his poor long-suffering wife, who had seen virtually nothing of him since the oast house had claimed his time. After Tom had recovered from his heart attack, the couple had agreed to cut their considerable losses and sell the cursed place as it was, for whatever they could get. Tom had only come out of hospital a fortnight ago and meantime ten more estate agents had been round to assess the old building and advertise it at a much reduced asking price. The trouble was that although it was in the middle of idyllic fields, with splendid farmland scenery all around, as a home it was a disaster: the circular walls were hopeless for accommodating furniture, the stairs were cramped and awkward, and the windows, which couldn’t be replaced, were tiny and inadequate.

I had arranged to meet Tom at the oast house, my job being to take masses of pictures, in an effort to present it in as good a light as possible. I was especially keen to take zoom shot views from the rooftop—I really thought that the magnificent views from here were its best selling point, and Tom also wanted me to highlight features of his renovation, the special fitted cupboards and units in the kitchen, and the space-age wine cellar he’d had put in.

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I’d arrived just as the light was beginning to fade, ideal for images of the valley from the roof. Tom was supposed to have been meeting me here, but there was no answer when I’d knocked on the door, and his car wasn’t in the yard. So I had used the key he’d given me, and gone inside to make a start.
The spectacular view of the valley from the roof really inspired me, which is why I’d decided to get some better shots, and walked closer to the edge of the roof. But I had tripped against something.

As I clung on for dear life to the gutter, I heard the chiming of the church clock in the village striking six. The wind was picking up and the sheer drop beckoned me. And I knew that my fingers couldn’t hold on much longer.
Then, as my panic was mounting, I saw Tom’s face appear over the edge of the roof. At once he was kneeling down and grabbing my wrists, pulling as hard as he could. Thank God, he must have driven into the yard, looked up and seen me hanging there, and raced up to help me.

It was touch and go, but gradually he managed to pull me up a tiny bit, then a bit more. Then I somehow managed to get a foothold, and soon, thank heavens, I was back on the roof and safety.

Just as I stumbled forward onto the tiles, I kicked against something and fell forwards, banging my head. I must have been unconscious for about ten minutes, I suppose. The strange thing was, when I opened my eyes I was all alone. Why on earth hadn’t Tom stayed with me? Maybe he was downstairs.
Legs still trembling, I climbed down the ladder to the top floor, but couldn’t find him anywhere there either. Then down the cramped stairway to the first floor and finally the ground floor, camera still bouncing against my chest. Belatedly, I realised that in my scramble to climb back up to safety, I’d probably knocked the button a few times and taken some shots of the rooftop by accident.

Weird. Where on earth had Tom disappeared to? How come I was suddenly as alone in this place as I’d been when I’d arrived? In the kitchen I heard the sound of an arriving text on my mobile phone, and went across to get it out of the pocket of my jacket, which was hanging on the back of a chair.

I opened up the new message, which was from Jill, Tom’s wife:
Sorry Jack, Tom died at 6 o’clock tonight. He had another heart attack this morning, was rushed into hospital. Only just realised he’d arranged to meet you at the Oast. . .

With shaking hands I pressed the buttons on my camera, looking into the screen to see the last photos I’d accidentally taken. There were several unplanned ones of the roof, seen from my viewpoint, as I was scrambling to safety. And there, in one of them, was Tom’s face! Then after a second, it disappeared.

I pressed the button again, trying to find it, but after that, however many times I scrolled through the pictures I never did find that picture of Tom again.

______

This is one of the short stories in the Jack Lockwood Diaries, buy it  here

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