There comes a time when one needs to take a deep breath.
Although a dull whistle of wind through my broken window had infuriated me throughout my drive to Caernarfon, when I spotted a large figure swathed in a beige peacoat strolling contentedly down the Caernarfon High Street, I knew that flying off the handle wouldn’t serve me too well.
The detour to North Wales had put me a day behind schedule, but I wasn’t leaving this town without Jeffrey’s diary, without it I’d have no hope of getting to the bottom of where the devil the old chap had gotten to. My phone buzzed in my pocket, reminding me that I’d yet to inform Lara of where I’d gone. Late on a Monday morning – she would have got back from her parents last night and assumed that I’d been working late in the library (or just asleep at my desk) – still, now the jig was up and she certainly would have noticed the Jag missing from the garage, which would have set off alarm bells. I put the phone on silent and tried to maintain a safe distance from Haversnatch, as we slowly made our way down the High Street, presumably en route to the cinema.
He seemed blissfully unaware of my following him – he couldn’t have assumed that I would have taken the affront of the theft of the diary and the wanton damage of my Jag lightly?
The film had already started by the time I’d bought a ticket and followed Haversnatch in. Some ghastly, pompous soundtrack was blasting through the sound system as blurred images collided into each other from either side of the screen. Matinee showings clearly weren’t very popular in Caernarfon, the theatre was mostly empty, making my entrance somewhat conspicuous, however Haversnatch didn’t seem to notice. He was sitting in the middle of the theatre, still wearing his peacoat – every now and again he would turn and talk to a small figure sat next to him.
A minute later, Haversnatch was up and walking towards me, I pretended to look below my seat for a dropped sweet and watched his feet pass by. I lifted my head up, Havernsnatch hadn’t seen me and it looked like the person he was conversing with was still there. I was at a quandary. Do I approach this stranger and demand to know what they were talking about, or do I run after Haversnatch?
It was quite possible that a trade had taken place. If that was the case, then chasing Haversnatch could prove a fruitless endeavour, giving the new owner of the diary ample opportunity to disappear into the unknown. I’d made up my mind. Haversnatch was no longer the target – I needed to keep an eye on this new man, if it meant getting closer to what Jeffrey was trying to tell me in his note.
I was stealing myself for a long slog through a film that I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy, when I heard shuffling behind me and a familiar voice whisper: ‘You should’ve stayed in London, old chap.’
A heavy blow to the back of my head, stars blossomed in my eyes and I crumpled in my seat.
There’s a hole in the window of my Jag. Not a small hole, but a gaping one formed by the act of a rock being thrown through it. The hotel staff were kind enough to lend me some scotch tape and cardboard to cover the hole, but the heating no longer performs an efficient job. Its bloody freezing in this car. I’m cruising down the M56 on my way to Caernarfon. There’s been a change of plans since I foolishly picked up a ‘swimming pool maintenance salesman’ on my way up to Scotland. After stopping for the night in a motel, I woke up to find my Jag busted up, my moleskin notebook missing and no ‘salesman’ to be found. This might seem like a strange time to visit North Wales but I have my reasons.
Of course I couldn’t inform the police, as much as the lovely staff of the rather crumbly motel wanted me to. What with Jeffrey’s whereabouts unknown, and now two treasure hunts in motion, I’d more than likely get locked away in some kind of institute. They’ve put strait jackets on others for much less. No, I did not feel like calling the police.
The notebook needed retrieving, in it lay decades of archaeological and sociological research, as well as numerous codes and notes left by Jeffers. The staff were more than happy to help me in my investigation; after seeing the motel CCTV footage, I discovered that Haversnatch (is that even a real name?) ‘borrowed’ the reception computer just before making a dash in the early hours.
Scanning through the search history, it was simple to see where he was heading. A room booked at a North Wales motel, two tickets bought for a cinema showing and dinner reservations made. A nice little holiday indeed for a thief and (probable) tomb raider. Well, he’s about to get a surprise and find out that he’ll need to be a lot smarter to outwit Dr. Oakenfold. I’ve booked two nights in the Victoria House B&B in Caernarfon, its equidistant from the restaurant and the cinema. All I have to do now is race West to check in to my room without freezing my fingers off.
Bloody Haversnatch, I will find you. You will give me back my notebook and pay to fix my lovely Jag.
“Ah, the Goldberg variations. Johann Sebastian Bach. This takes me back to my youth, my father loved this song.”
As men grow older, there can be a tendency for eccentricity to take hold. I long ago gave in to these temptations. Conversations can start and shift based on the slightest of points, and no tangent seems outlandish. The need to guard one’s own opinions and reservations, for the preservation of a serious out-ward appearance, dissipates along with the bullish masculinity of youth. This is why two perfect strangers, with only their age and gender in common, can launch in to a discussion of genealogy and family fortunes by way of Bach.
“My father was a travelling sales man, just like his father and his grand-father. My great-grand-father, who I never met, said that this wasn’t always the way. He claimed, or so my grand-father said, that there was a family treasure buried in Scotland somewhere. Haversnatch’s Hoard, that’s what he called it. I’m a travelling salesman by trade, but for the last few years I’ve been using it as a cover, for my hunt for the Hoard.”
Bach had given way to Mozart, and the smooth hum of the engine softly masked the wild gusts of wind that buffeted the Jag, whilst it sped up the icy motorway. I yawned silently, it was getting close to half one in the morning and I needed some sleep. Although it had been interesting listening to Haversnatch’s story, something compelled me to not share my own mystery and purpose for driving north. A service station and motel presented itself and I suggested stopping for the night. Haversnatch offered me a nightcap for my troubles but I declined, three whiskeys had gotten me three hundred miles north of London, I wouldn’t like to guess where one more would take me.
To reach the Highlands I would have to drive over 7 hours. For an old man who had drank two or three thick glasses of whiskey, on an empty stomach, this would be quite the challenge. I hadn’t taken the Jag out for quite some time, but if she drove anything as smooth as she used to, it would be a struggle staying awake for the whole journey. The initial adrenaline rush gifted to me by the mysterious email, coupled with the resurgence of an excitement I had not felt in a while would only take me so far. Lucky then, that I should pick up a travelling companion just one hour into my journey.
December had blighted England with some of the coldest weather in months, as I left the suburbs of Islington the streets were all but deserted – save one individual. As I stopped for at a pedestrian crossing; a tall, wide figure in a beige pea coat blowing in the wintry breeze, struggled with a large suitcase. I watched their pitiful progress across the road, impatiently tapping the steering wheel. Suddenly, a gust of wind shook the Jag – blowing the intrepid traveller clean of his feet, knocking his case open and sending copious swathes of fabrics, metal rings and pamphlets into the road.
The road was deserted, I hadn’t seen a car for miles. Putting the hazards on, I stepped out to help. I waved a silent hello, and started gathering up the numerous pamphlets that now littered the road – as I glanced at what they were advertised I was more than a little surprised. They read as follows:
SWIMMING POOL SAFETY IS OF PARAMOUNT IMPORTANCE!
Did you know that were over 150 recorded cases of accidents and deaths
related to personal swimming pool use between the years 2012-14?
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Maximilian Haversnatch is the UK’s leading pool safety analyst, with over 300 cases investigated.
Before you open up yourself to possible future claims STOP call Maximilian for a FREE consultation.
CONSULTANT AND SALESMAN MAX HAVERSNATCH HAS BEEN SELLING QUALITY
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“Thank you sir, you truly are an angel sent from heaven!” Red in the face, the man in the pea coat smiled genially, a grand military moustache accentuating his avuncular features. “I don’t suppose you have a personal swimming pool at home, they can be awfully dangerous this time of year. My name’s Maximilian, and I believe pool safety should be treated with paramount importance!”
Late one December evening, I had fallen asleep in front of my monitor again. Marking essays on Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth and other historical royals was often dull work. There had been no new discoveries on these figures for a long time, so why on earth would a first-year bachelors student have anything interesting to say? I came to, mouth dry and eyes bleary from one whiskey too many. I’d left the study window open, to smoke, and now the wind was softly knocking it back and forth on its hinges. The quiet creaking had woken me from my slumber, as I looked up to my screen to shut down the computer I noticed a new message notification. At past two in the morning, I would usually have dismissed this as junk and crept on to the sofa to sleep. However, the sender’s name made me stop in my tracks: Jeffrey Messenbach.
One of my oldest and most trusted allies, we had been good friends since our glory days at Christ Church. Pooling our resources and proof-reading each other’s papers; I would not have passed my first year in Oxford without him. It had been years since I had heard from him; us old men struggle to keep up with modern social networks and easily let good friendships fall by the way side. The last I remember hearing from him was a postcard from the Caribbean or some such place, he’d bought a home there and meant to retire. Now, years later, he’d felt the need to contact me through email of all things. Jeffers was a traditional type, and prized the personal touch of a hand written letter above all else. With a slight hesitation, I opened the message:
Ran into a small spot of bother. Remember our old ‘pal’ from Christchurch? Well, I don’t think he’s forgiven us quite yet and his resources seem to have grown. Looks like its time to dust the old ivory cane again, old friend, you know I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t an absolute emergency.
You’ll find all the answers you need in Tullibody, just find Abercromby. He’ll show you the way. Please do hurry old chap, I know we’re both a bit too old for this thing, but I’d like the opportunity to get a little older yet.
Fraternitas ante omnia
I decided to pack my things straight away. My ivory cane, moleskin note book and zippo lighter all jumbled on a pile on the desk. It had been a while since I’d taken the Jag out for a spin, and although it was the middle of night (and I was possibly over the limit) I felt compelled to set off straight away. The highlands had always appealed to me as a destination for a little weekend break. Lara had taken the children away to her parents for the weekend, so I wouldn’t be missed. There were places I could stay near Tullibody to begin my investigation, someone at a dinner party in the summer had mentioned Highland Heather Lodges. Quiet and secluded, the fresh air would do me good – plus its well known that the Scottish make the best whiskey…
The first question I was asked by the Faculty Head, my publishing agent, my wife and my three children was: ‘Why Tullibody?’
Why leave everything that you’ve built in London: your house, family, social group and working life behind to go and live in a place you’ve never even visited before?
I can certainly understand their disbelief.
After decades of building a career; a dense network of research fellows and publishing deals, I essentially had my life planned out for me in the capital. My children, all at school ages, would never forgive me for dragging them all the way to the jewel of Scotland just for the sake of my fanatical research. My wife, much younger than I, would resent me for taking her away from the excitement and glamour of the fashion industry that she adored so much.
On the face of it, the whole decision looked like madness – I’ve already mentioned the word ‘fanatical’ with good reason.
Then again, a certain level of fanaticism does run in my family.
The Oakenfolds have never been known to settle, in some ways I’m almost the black sheep of the family for having lingered in one place for so long. My great-uncle Terrence fought in World War II, although he could have easily avoided the conflict. Whilst most men were being conscripted, the British Government were determined to retain a certain number of well written historians; so that the events to come could be reliably recorded by those who would be most grateful. Terrence, balking at the notion of being shut up away inside a stuffy office, whilst his fellow country men fought for his safety, stowed himself away on a supply ship heading to Normandy. There, with very little training, he aided the French Resistance and managed to see most of wartime Europe during one of the most turbulent times of our history.
Growing up in a time of relative peace and stability, I had no such opportunity to trade in the mundanity of the daily grind for a rousing adventure. The world was a different place, by the time I came to my adventuring years. Most of the planet had been discovered, named and photographed by the time I had graduated. The lands that hadn’t been seen with the human eye, were quickly being scanned and logged by satellites and drones. It seemed that the entirety of the human race was all too busy recording their own histories on tablets and phones, soon there would be no need for historians, as every person constantly shaped their own public image in line with the social norm. I was crushed with ennui, I married my wife in my forties through a sense of duty to social conventions more than any kind of world-ending love. My children were just the afterthought of that. It wasn’t until the winter of 2015, when I had taken to spending large swathes of my time locked up in my study ‘writing’ with a bottle of whisky, that I received an email one day from an old University friend…