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Show of Hands

A Novel

About The Book

When a desperate car dealer advertises a competition with a simple premise -- that each contestant must keep one hand on a car at all times, and the last one standing will drive away the owner of a new Land Rover -- he sets in motion a chain of events that brings together an oddball group of individuals, each with a desperate need to win.

For the contestants, this publicity gimmick represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to break records, and to prove themselves in an unlikely test of endurance. It pits the patience of an elderly night watchman against the youthful vigor and carefully cultivated stamina of a high school track-and-field star. It sets a single mother who spends her life on her feet against a down-on-his-luck Mensa member who tells anyone who will listen that he's got the whole thing figured out. As the days and nights unavoidably carry on -- and big talk and clever strategies backfire -- the contestants' true colors come through in unexpected twists.

At once lyrical and suspenseful, and by turns poignant and hilarious, Show of Hands and its all-too-human characters are ultimately unforgettable.


Show of Hands

The Contest 1

THE CONTENDERS BEGAN to gather on the car dealership’s forecourt two hours before the official start time. Among the first was a vagrant, fresh from sleeping under a bridge, whose very proximity to the yard’s gleaming, multi-thousand-pound fleet seemed a breach of the peace and an act of vandalism.

Elsewhere, a solidly fat man came onto the forecourt pushing a supermarket trolley full of supplies: clothing, cushions, foodstuffs and very many cans of beer, all he’d need—or thought he’d need—to secure the grand prize.

Then came a third person, and then a fourth. Soon there were ten, next twenty, thirty, forty, by 8:30 more than eighty. Even the well-to-do had shown up, proving once again you can never have too much. By 9:00 a.m. at least a hundred and twenty people stood among a fleet of unsold cars below the WIN A NEW CAR blimp bobbing high overhead, tugging on a fixed wire. Ten minutes later this number had climbed to a hundred and fifty, and soon beyond that, clockwise circling an opalescent blue and ultradesirable Land Rover the way dishwater swirls before it goes down the drain.

The owner of this Land Rover was Terry “Hatch” Back, from Back-to-Back New Cars (Olympia, Ltd.). He moved among the contestants, clapping strangers on the back, saying delightedly, “Hi. Thanks for coming,” and “We’re going to explain everything soon,” or “Hi. Welcome. Great weather,” before returning to his assistant, Vince, who was just then trying to conduct a rough headcount.

“Numbers? Any idea?”

“Yeah. Too many.” Vince shook his head. “More every second. What are we going to…I mean, what do you want to do? It’s out of control.”

By way of answer Hatch unhelpfully observed, “Something for nothing, it’s incredible. People go mad.” He ran a slow hand through a hairline with a pronounced widow’s peak or vampire V, which, when joined with the twin receding arcs over the temples, produced the scalloped rim found on the head of a sharpened pencil. “Completely mad.”

Vince, persistent in his concern, followed Hatch back to his office, repeating three times, “We’ve got a problem here.” But when Hatch went up to the large window and looked out at the bustling yard he saw only beautiful solutions to all his financial woes.

“I told you. I knew they’d come. I knew it!” The small, bunched fists at his sides flexed alternately, two pumps augmenting the work of the heart. “And if it’s like this already, then what’s it going to be like in…in”—he glanced at his watch—“a whole hour still to go.” He let go a laugh; an anxiety-discharging laugh. “I knew it! I told you!” Oh, the relief—the financial weight of the last two years lightening by the minute. “It’s gonna be…look! Huge! Look! You can’t buy publicity like this. Can’t buy it.” He turned back to his junior salesman. “Well, I can’t. Maybe Coke or, or Shell or Tesco can, but…”

“But you are buying it,” Vince countered. “Buying it is exactly what you’re doing. By giving away a free car. All those people out there, you’re paying for every single one of them.”

This comment was ignored; Hatch refused to trade down his high mood. “Might even make the evening news at this rate. What do you think?”

But before Vince could answer, the dealership’s third-tier salesman came in looking even more bewildered than he normally did. Dan, big-timbered, midthirties. As slow and muscularly overdeveloped as Vince was thin and nervy. (Neither of Hatch’s two employees was a genius, and whenever Hatch asked either of them a question it was with no real expectation of a workable answer.)

“Dan, good. Close. Close the…great. Now listen. The press. Listen. When they come, okay, when they come…if they ask you for comment, for anything, refer them to me, understand? Refer them directly to me. I’ll handle all the—”

Vince tried again. “But what are we going to…?”

“All the…all publicity. To me.” Hatch tapped his own chest. “Understand?”

“But we still have to get the numbers down, Hatch. We can’t stage it like this.”

“Fine. Take care of that.” Hatch rechecked his mobile phone. No messages. “But refer any journalists to me. Three things: publicity, publicity, publicity.”

“I have an idea,” Vince continued. “A ballot. To pare the numbers down to something manageable.”

“Sure.” And then the smile returned. “We get rid of a few but not too many. We want to make a statement here.”

Vince held up pads of Post-it notes. “We write tickets. Forty, say. This is what I’m thinking. We limit the number to forty. Give everyone a number—“

But Hatch had already turned to look back at his crowd, this great, hoped-for, four-by-four-crazy crowd. “Something for nothing, ha! Look what happens.”

Vince: “And we need to control this traffic or we’ll have the police down here.”

“Fine. Great. Handle it. Let’s get moving. This is gonna be great.”

The two junior salesmen walked out, leaving Hatch at the window. “Excellent,” he muttered to no one, and then, “Come on, my lovelies,” and finally, “Look at them. Something for nothing, and just look.”

When he saw his wife, Jennifer, and his four young children pushing through the crowd, he turned, sat and waited for them. His right knee bumped against the World War II service revolver taped to the desk’s underside—he had never used the gun, but if the current spate of sporadic vandalism continued, then he’d have no hesitation in frightening someone with it, sending out a message to the neighborhood underworld that he was prepared to defend what was his.

While he waited, he pulled close the brand-new megaphone resting horn down on his desk: flared at the base, the red lighthouse stripes hooping it; atop it a mouthpiece awaiting his first instructions to the contestants outside. He gripped the loud hailer and flicked it on. It barked with electricity so that he held it again at arm’s reach until the squeal of feedback died down. Only then did he move the contraption back to his mouth and speak experimentally, in a low, humid voice, the words: “On your marks, get set, go.”


TOM SHRIFT SLOWED his car and from a distance eyed the bedlam on the forecourt. What a joke! For a second he thought, How unbelievably pathetic they all look, how sad, desperate, how tragic, until he remembered he was about to become one of them.

He’d come down early to get the jump on his fellow competitors, determined to win this free car, but he hadn’t foreseen this. Who could have guessed: so many lost souls. Jesus Christ, the place looks like some compound for every Londoner in extremis. Riffraff. In bargain clothes. Unshaven men. Unattractive women. The struggling classes. Musclemen in their forties, potbellied, flip-flops on their feet. Level-headed mums in cheesy sportswear clutching water bottles, primed for combat. The old. The young. Workaday victims of brute reality. And now, here he was too, Thomas H. (for Horatio) Shrift, about to stand shoulder to shoulder with these have-nots, fight as they fought, hand to hand. He gripped the wheel of his misfiring Fiat Punto (he’d recently had to sell his beloved smooth-running Volvo). What a numbing and humiliating thought.

But Tom deserved to have once more. And when he’d won this car—and he was more or less certain of his ability to win it—then he’d waste no time in making up the ground he’d so recently lost. He’d bounce back. As he’d always done, he’d bounce back once again.

He turned off the car and angled the rearview mirror toward himself, checking whether he still looked like the type who could beat so many others. Yes, he didn’t look a million miles from being such a person. His bushy eyebrows could use some attention, the odd hair curling into a sigma, but apart from this, he identified a well-groomed man, a man who mattered—or, at least, one who soon would. A special person. Living to some schedule of achievement. A man of unique skills. Tom Shrift still had that winning look—alert eyes, a decent smile, a wide jaw, below it a crisply ironed pure-cotton shirt and the broad shoulders of a tall man…yes, he was still the type to make a stranger think, I’ll put my money on him.

With his forefinger he wet and smoothed down the eyebrow hair. Bachelors often missed such details. With no one to tell them, their breath offended, their underarms stank. Tom was careful not to fall victim to such traps, knew how to breathe into his cupped hands to test for bacterial breath. Perspiring heavily of late, displaying andropausal symptoms already, he washed perhaps too often, used aggressive amounts of aftershave and always took pains to deport himself as someone well loved. A fresh shirt every day. He shot the cuffs. Collars were stiffened by plastic strips. He simply refused to become pathetic. Below his now tamed brows, and separated by the long-profile Shrift nose, were two brown eyes that showed on closer inspection to be hazel—the eyes of his mother.

Should he return her call, the one he’d refused to take the night before? A daily question. No, to hell with his parents. His father or, as Tom called him, “the Void,” had walked out when he was under a month old, and Tom never had a chance to ask him anything. His mother, now in an old people’s home, accusing him over the phone of betrayal, had been a reluctant mother, all his youth a selfish woman. Only now that she was old and lonely did he hear from her. Daily she tried to reach him, and more often than not he refused to take her call. She had done the bare minimum as a mother; now he would do the bare minimum as a son.

Just as he cleared his phone of alerts and messages, he now cleared his head. The car’s mirror had told him that, in appearance, he had everything he needed to go forward. If he had any problems—and he admitted to only one or two—they began when he opened his mouth. Provocative things always flew out. Fast-talking and sharp-witted, he spoke too candidly, couldn’t stop himself. Perhaps he knew too much. Was this possible? A big reader (his small but immaculately kept bachelor pad was packed with books, the TV aerial sat on a pile of paperbacks, reference works jutted from the shelves, one corner of the broken couch rested on Churchill’s intellectual labors), he refused to hide what he knew—why the hell should he? Why stay silent when a historical date is given in error, a piece of logic flabby, a quote falsely attributed, the wrong actor named in a movie? Who benefits if the foolish are allowed to go uncorrected?

And so he let rip. Tom had a head full of premium gasoline and out poured his knowledge: names, quotes, the pertinent facts. He couldn’t resist setting people straight, or helping them out of a lifelong delusion. While this was damaging to his dealings with ordinary others, it was especially disastrous romantically. What woman wanted to be lectured? Told she was wrong, on the wrong track, and by a man so certain he knew what was right? Yes, he’d talked himself out of more fucks than he cared to remember, but what could he do? Dumb down, just to get a woman into bed? If this was the smart game, his mind was too rare a gift, and it wouldn’t be sold short.

Back in his twenties Tom had sat a Mensa test, pitting himself against geniuses. The test confirmed that upstairs he was no dunce. Far from it. The score put him in the top one percent of humanity, among the elite! So how was it possible that a brainiac, that a true bel esprit, should be under such incredible pressure simply to survive—and be reduced to such solutions as this?

The Russians. Yes, they were to blame. Just back from St. Petersburg, a major business deal had gone sour thanks to them. Tom had excitedly flown east, planning to license images from the Hermitage for use on his Masterpiece Cards—a young but sufficiently liquid business (he knew a lot about art too)—except that he couldn’t convince the apparatchiks to release reproduction rights to the old Russian masters, or at least “not to an unknown.” The Russkies screwed him badly in the end, suggested there wouldn’t be a problem, made him front everybody’s expenses and then dropped him like a hot potato. He now owed sixty-seven thousand pounds to his banks and credit card companies, more in debt every day. The barbarity of the business world was stunning, even to a natural pessimist. He’d thought himself a good businessman, but his IQ proved no protection against lies, sharp practices, low cunning and samovar tea that was surely drugged.

He started his car again. Ignoring the waving marshals who were turning vehicles away, he crept forward and found a superb spot in a residents-only lot for which he had the correct permit. But as he reached out to open his door he hesitated. How terrible to descend so low in society as to enter an endurance contest. Perhaps he could sell this old Fiat Punto instead? No, it would cost him money to have it destroyed. What else could he sell? His ideas? Ha, some joke—where were the takers for these? How about his extensive library of books, then? Sell them? Negative. Near worthless—who wanted the collected writings of Winston Churchill these days, especially with their margins defaced by his own verdicts of “bravo” and “big mistake!”? How about a regular job, then? Why not just try again to find one? Strike that too. Yesterday’s interview had confirmed once again why he must work for himself. So what was left? Sell his blood? Not tradable in Britain. And so, with Sir Bob Geldof not likely to stage a relief concert for him, he was stuck with this option—with this cheap, debasing, but richly prized option.

His eye rose reluctantly to the advertising blimp floating high over the dealership, the words vivid from this range: WIN A NEW CAR. Yes, he would do just that. Win it, then sell it quickly, netting him twenty to thirty grand. Lowering his eyes once again, counting the (hundred or so) people already swarming in the dealership, he decided he would send someone to oppose them. That person? Himself. One against the many, as usual.

And so, from his trunk he gathered up his gadgets, the provisions he’d need for this campaign—clothing, reading materials, a few medical supplies and personal effects, all meticulously selected and double-checked. He recalled the British military’s term for urban warfare: FIBUA (Fighting in Built-Up Areas) or, unofficially, FISH & CHIPS (Fighting in Someone’s House and Causing Havoc in People’s Streets). Well, Tom was ready to fight in this built-up area now. He walked toward the car dealership with a full backpack, shaking his head, amused at the sheer mathematics of the task ahead.

Reaching the yard, he avoided eye contact. It was clearly already a case of every man for himself, and every woman too. No smiles. No nods of recognition. So be it. The war had begun, and he knew already that it would end up being a mental war. Yes, the fittest, most resilient mind would take the car. He’d done his research on this—read about how psychological these contests were. Minds cracked quickly under the strain of going without sleep, soon fell prey to delusions, absentmindedness and negative thinking. Yes, where you placed your thoughts was the big key, how well you marshaled their patterns, how well you prevented malfunctions and how deep the reserves of calming, steady, stabilizing thought. Well, he doubted this crowd could contain a tougher or steadier mind than his. Whatever qualities a person needed to outlast their rival, he had it, and in spades. His counteroffensive had begun.


JESS PODOROWSKI FROZE the moment she saw the size of the crowd. “Oh my God.”

Second thoughts arose. Many of them, suddenly. With her dodgy back—the L2, third-lowest vertebra was giving her pain already—plus a slight fever (she must have taken something foreign into herself), how was she possibly to win?

She made a short silent urgent prayer: If it is true, Lord, that there are only those who get, and those who miss out, then for once, just once, let me be on the right side of that line…

Jess was prayerful; a solid, throw-everything-in-the-pot petitioner. Everything got laid at the feet of the Lord. And as a widow with a disabled daughter, poorly paid to schlep the city and suffer the very worst forms of verbal abuse, well…there was much, much to lay down.

But she didn’t protest.

In the delivery room, when she was born, the obstetrician had pronounced her mute—three hours later the infant Jess had surprised a nurse with a low-level whimper. As a kid growing up she’d perfected this curious quietness. Dwelled on things instead. Made a martial art of forbearance. Now a pro at withstanding the rage of the people she fined, she kept a light smile on her face and prayed instead. Thought only: St. Paul was despised for his tax collecting, people threw stones at him, and yet God had looked o’er him. Then let God look o’er me too. Her Catholic faith armored her. She attended church on Sundays, faced an altar with an under-worshiped Christ raised high on a cross, a splayed symbol of victimhood—well, her job invited its own minicalvaries also. Verbally attacked, aching to respond, she buttoned her lip instead. Who do you think you are? What a bitch! Get a life, you whore! You cow! In, in went the nails.

After two years she was now a veteran of roadside abuse, doing a job few other Englishwomen wanted to do. In a silly uniform—a peaked hat, a black-cloth suit and over this a Day-Glo green tunic to make her visible from Mars—she approached expired meters up and down both sides of her streets. People and their cars, dear Lord. Walking her beat she often sent this thought to God: how alike people and their cars were. A Mercedes C-Class and its owner; the stockbroker behind the wheel of that BMW 3 Series; the classy woman centrally locking her Jag sports car, both vehicle and driver immaculate, quiet running, safe, well maintained, with power in excess of their actual needs, good things happening automatically, at the touch of a button. She envied them their luxuries, their Lexus freedoms! Imagine: to not care if your meter had expired.

But the meters of the poor—gosh, a totally different story there. The owners of rusting Renaults—their cars entirely manual, underpowered, running on empty, on the cusp of needing emergency assistance at any minute—these people ran toward her, panic on their faces, holding up a solitary coin as if she were some devil and their offering a kind of talisman—desperate to drop their coin into the slot and so escape a week’s bankruptcy.

Guilty, always so guilty about forcing the downtrodden lower still, Jess often showed compassion. Let them off. Her heart was with them. She counted herself among these near poor. No Lexus freedoms for Jess Podorowski either. She knew what a difference an eighty-quid fine would mean in a given week.

Daunted by the size of the crowd, her stomach tightened. There were even a couple of faces she recognized. “Oh my gosh. There’s…oh my gosh…remember that guy?” Jess said to her mother standing at her side. “That guy from the bank. Remember? I thought he must be doing well. What’s he doing here? And there, there’s”—pointing elsewhere, at a man erecting a nylon windbreak as if he were camping on a beach—“he’s from our church, passes out the offertory plate. I know some of these people.” And then she began a head count. Reaching fifty, she gave up and just doubled that amount. A hundred at least. Way too many for her to win.

“Oh my God, I didn’t think there’d be this many people. I thought there’d be only a few.”

“Good. Then we go home then,” Val chimed in, relieved at her daughter’s tone of surrender.

But Jess gripped her mother’s arm strongly. “No—no—I have to try, at least.”


“I’m going to do it. I need to do this.”


“You know why. I told you why.”

Jess’s eyes flicked to her wheelchair-bound daughter, who was excitedly surveying the action a dozen steps away, her head swiveling this way and that like a Ping-Pong umpire. Jess and Val had taken turns pushing her down here and there was no way Nat was going to let anyone make her miss out on this.

“Why?” Val insisted.

“Please, Mumia. I can’t go over it all again.”

Jess turned back to Nat. Useless from the armpits down, eighty percent incapable, the girl wore diapers under those black Adidas trackpants. Severely hypothermic since the road accident that had also taken her father (a double disaster), somehow Nat maintained a happy exterior. How? By what mechanism? If Jess ever doubted that she herself had the strength to go on—and every second day she did so—then she always had the shining example of her own daughter to make her snap out of it.

Valeria was slowly shaking her head. “This is madness. I tell you, this is a mistake. The Wisnewskis do not put out their hands and beg. They do not. Look at these people. Beggars!”

“You know, you should be heading home, Mumia. Take Nat and go. I’ll be fine on my own.” With this, Jess walked over to her daughter and kissed her on one pale cheek. They hugged each other. With Nat giving her mother two thumbs-up, Jess waved good-bye to Valeria and joined the queue to register her name.


OUT IN THE yard, Tom ignored the long, unmoving queue that had formed in front of the registration table. Marched instead to the yard offices, tapped once on the glass, went inside. “Excuse me.”

Tom interrupted a frazzled-looking man—of average height, in his forties, raven-haired—scribbling sequential numbers on consecutive pages of a little Post-it pad, then tearing them off, while saying to a younger man, probably an employee, “What I want you to do is pass these around, one each.”

Both salesmen looked up at Tom, standing there in the doorway. Two children reading books on the floor also gave Tom their attention. “Daddy?” called the older one. “What’s a golden plover? It says here it’s the fastest game bird in the world.”

Tom glanced down. Spotted the Guinness World Records book open on the floor.

“Who are you?” the older man asked Tom.

“Tom Shrift.” After a pause: “Your winner.”

This got their attention, nicely.

“What do you want?”

Tom spat it out: “Before we begin, and put ourselves through hell, I just wanted to make sure you’re going to enforce the rules here, be consistent, run an even contest and not get soft on cheats or back your own favorites. A fair contest, that’s all I ask. Either it’s the rule of law or it’s a shit fight. Let’s not make this any seedier than it already is. Sorry to interrupt. See you again when it’s all over.”

And with this, Tom left the office.


JESS FOUND HERSELF in line between two men—a preppy, affluent-looking twentysomething and, behind her, a tall, slim African. She made no effort to talk to them, or anyone else, and kept her eyes mainly on her hands, that is until the young man ahead of her shifted backward and stood on her foot. It really, really hurt. But Jess—what could you say?—began to apologize before he could even get a word out.

“It’s my fault. It’s fine,” she blurted. “Really.”

“I’m so sorry. Are you okay? I lost my balance.”

“No, no. It’s me. I’m…I…I push up too close to people. Happens all the time. My fault.”

Her foot stung. The young man was tall, heavy; his shoe heel was of hard leather and he’d come down crushingly. But still Jess managed to hide her agony, kept an apologetic smile, even offered the guy a final “sorry.” He must feel awful about it, she thought.

Voices farther up the queue discussed the weather reports. “Blue skies all week…. No, I heard rain…. No, gray.” One person mentioned that there was a Guinness World Record for this kind of contest. Another refuted it. Though not quite sure what the world record was, the first insisted it had been set in Prague: was it in 1970? A bunch of Czechs had held out for over five days.

Five days! The concept sounded surreal.

“Five days?”

A transvestite: “No, sorry, that’s too depressing to even think about.”

“My God, those poor people,” Jess found herself gasping to the African man behind her. “They must have been so desperate.” And then another concern shot through her: “This one won’t go on for that long, will it?”

The African shook his head. “No. Not possible. This country is too pampered. People don’t have the stomach. You need a brutal country to go on for five days. People with no hope.”

Pampered? Was it really? And was Jess one of the pampered, at least from an African’s point of view? A new prayer formed inside her, a small refinement of her earlier one. So…if it’s true, Lord, if it’s true that there are only those who get, and those who miss out, if it’s true that there are only those who never need to struggle and those who always will, then surely, Lord, one of these groups must be missing the purpose of life. The real purpose, I mean. Surely both can’t be tasting the essence of our being here…

She took another short step forward. She was advancing slowly to the front of the queue but by such very slow degrees that it actually felt like no progress at all. By now, the official start time had already been reached.

The transvestite farther up the line declared, “I’ve never seen so many desperate people in all my life. It’s quite fabulous.”

Behind her, someone said, “Most people will only last a few hours.”

“Oh, don’t you believe it, honey. People are freaks.”

And then, suddenly, a gun went off. Or something like a gun. People jumped, turned their heads. Was it a gun? If so, what did it mean? One person screamed. Was someone firing on the crowd? This possibility couldn’t be dismissed.

“Oh Jesus!” the transvestite shrieked, loudly enough to put people further on edge.

“That was a gun!” the African confirmed.

And then one voice, above the others, was heard to declare: “It’s started!”

These words did it. A frenzy erupted as the first few people rushed to set their hand on a car, any car. These isolated reactions created a general belief, and soon everyone was pushing forward, vying for position, treating neighbors as aggressors, and shouting, “It’s started! It’s started!” The idea was now concrete. The contest had begun. And anyone not obeying the starting gun would be disqualified. Not everyone could find a place on the Land Rover to lay a hand, and a few people even fell and were hurt. Cries of pain and protest rose up. Had someone been wounded by the gun? Was the yard being fired upon after all?

Hatch, meanwhile, who had been taking care of business outside and was as much taken by surprise as anyone else, had turned at the sound of the gun to look at his office. A private thought tore through his mind. It set him running through the showroom, and into the office, already more or less certain of what he’d find. He fell to his knees at once and crawled toward his younger son, who was cowering under the desk, his mouth hanging open—the expression of a five-year-old too scared to cry.

Hatch shoved the warm gun aside, sliding it across the floor into a far corner, and took his child in his arms, squeezing tight, forcing the boy to breathe again, while his other son stood petrified on the other side of the room. A bullet had just shattered the doorframe to the left of his head.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, Ronny,” Hatch said to the younger boy. “It’s okay. Daddy’s here. Good boy. Oscar, come here too. Oscar? Come here too. That’s a boy.”

And Oscar, standing by the door, oblivious to how close a bullet had come to cutting down his life, slowly obeyed and, as his father had done, crawled toward the den under the desk to be embraced.


VINCE’S WRISTWATCH SHOWED 10:10. Newly deputized by his boss, he spoke into a megaphone, which merely served to amplify his nervousness.

“Firstly, I…I want to…I’d like to welcome you all to…can you all hear me? To Back-to-Back New Cars, Olympia Limited. Now I’m sorry to tell you this but we have a problem.”

A problem? The public groaned.

Too many people, said Vince, had shown up for the event, and the number would have to be reduced by a poll, a ballot, a lottery, which would take place in roughly forty-five minutes. In the meantime the management invited the contestants to disperse, wander down the road to enjoy a refreshment at Starbucks or Burger King before reconvening at 10:55 sharp for the draw.

For some it was the last straw. Many walked off, deeming this whole event a fiasco. The rest—still over a hundred or so—sauntered down the street as they were told, obliged to take a refreshment they didn’t yet need.

Coffee always made Jess jumpy, almost irritable, but she figured she’d soon have great need of the stimulus. She grabbed her double espresso and wedged her way through the seethe and chatter of the crowd, taking a seat on a window ledge in a sunny bay while the others around her, the great surge of strangers, pushed and shoved and tried to place their orders with the sole waitress.

A much younger woman with a bush of blonde hair sat beside her and introduced herself as Betsy. “Are you in the car contest?” Jess nodded. “Me too. Are we mad, or what? I don’t even really want a car.” Betsy laughed, then looked round the room and sighed. “It’s crazy, I don’t know what I’m doing here really…no idea…none at all. Oh, he’s cute.” She’d spotted an attractive young man, well over six feet tall, preppy looking. Jess followed Betsy’s gaze and recognized at once the man in the queue who had stepped on her foot. Only out of politeness did she murmur, “Mmmm.”

“Anyway,” Betsy continued, only half recovering her train of thought, “what was I saying? Oh, I remember. The car. I think I’ll probably sell it if I win it. Which I won’t. But. You know. Seems like a fun thing to do, right? This contest?”

Jess shrugged. Fun? “Not too sure about that.” She took in the crowd. “A lot of these people look pretty serious to me.” And indeed, there was not one smiling face; everybody looking almost lockjawed, their chins set as if to sustain blows.


TOM SHRIFT ENTERED through the front door of the crowded coffee shop. “Great,” he sneered, then lowered his shoulder and applied it to the first chink in the crush, leaning forward, repeating “excuse me,” as he veered and wove, pushed his way right to the front where, at the counter, he held up his hand more actively than anyone else already waiting, thereby catching the eye of the girl making the coffees. Her cheeks scarlet from the exponential demands, she shot him a harried glance. “Others before you.”

Others? Of course there were others. What a lame thing to say. Nearly seven billion people now walked this planet—and about five hundred more of them since I came into this coffee shop, you twit—so of course there were “others” before him. He lowered his hand. This pea-brained young lady must be from some docile northern hamlet where politeness in the street was so routinely repaid that it formed a currency still worth trading in. But in a city like this, where you seldom saw anyone twice—let alone saw kindness repaid in a dependable way—such codes of politeness were worthless. Everyone pushed in. Cut corners. Eyed the horizon constantly for individual opportunity. This left you with no option but to act the same way, to raise your hand higher than your aggressor, hail for attention louder than your neighbor: how else to survive? Turning to look behind him, at those he had just bypassed, Tom found the usual angry faces, most of them disfigured—he was sure—by envy for the coffee order he’d just secured, rather than annoyance at a breach of etiquette. Yes, they were all merely kicking themselves for not being as assertive as him.

His gaze finally settled on a face no more than six inches from his own. This close-up face was glowing with good health and almost alarming youth. “Hi.”

Grumpily, Tom replied, “Hi.”

“Competing?” the cheery youngster asked, with a cultivated accent. “Me too. Looking forward to getting started, actually. Feel I’ve used up an awful lot of nervous energy already. Anyway. Won’t be long now.”

In the kid’s high-born accent and diction Tom instantly heard pedigree schooling, a place on the rowing eights, a nanny to meet him at the station, real tennis, ski holidays, an out-of-season tan, a big estate with tenantry to care for, all this and more, while his own accent—he knew, and had always known—betrayed the correspondence school, the night course, the resoled shoe, the cheap underwear from Primark, the low-cost Neilson package holiday to Marbella, the season bus ticket.

“I was ahead of you,” he said.

“I’m pretty sure I was actually…but…no, fine, go ahead. You go.”

Typical of the rich, thought Tom, an indifference to opportunity. Such glib graciousness could come only from a struggle-free existence, a life of cloudless entitlement. What was this kid doing here anyway? It was an insult that the elevated should send their glowing progeny to walk the rows of the battery sheds, trying to make off with the last few eggs they’d not already claimed. Everywhere these wealthy types turned, their gaze proclaimed: Mine.

Tom turned back to the counter and slipped an earbud from his portable radio in place. He needed to tune out and preserve his energies. His favorite talk show host, Alex Lee Lerner, a fifty-thousand-watt blowtorch, was handing the mike over to his regular sexologist. This show was hysterical. The questions the general public wanted answers to! What should a woman do with a man who does not gratify her? Is intercourse between brother and sister punished in Russia? What should one do if one wants to make love, and several other people are sleeping in the same room? Man was basically of a polygamous disposition, and woman a monogamous one, is this correct? What should a lonely woman do to find love? Obviously she can’t offer herself to a man…. Tom had long since concluded that people were stupid—not just individually, but collectively. How could someone be so ignorant as to not even know if it was wrong to fuck someone else while others lay sleeping in the same room?

The young man offered his hand. “Matt Brocklebank.”

Tom shook it reluctantly, took out his earbud and gave his name.

“So what brings you down here?” the kid asked.

Tom took out his earbud again. “Excuse me?”

“Just wondered what brings you down here.”

“A free car. What else is anyone here for? Unless they’re giving away free buckets of fried chicken.”

“I know. I mean…I guess we’re all doing it for different reasons, I suppose.”

“Well, I’m doing it for a free car. Do you mind?”

“I know, I just meant…sorry, you know…the reasons why we want a car. It’s interesting.”

“Your turn. Coffee. Go.”

“Are you sure?”

“Go ahead.”

Tom waited as the young man flirted with the Starbucks girl. He drummed his fingers on the counter until he got his chance to order—coffee, black, two sugars—then waited an eternity for it to arrive. Turning, he fought his way back through the crush, holding his piping-hot cup high up above the jostle.

With no free tables he was forced to sit at one already used by two people: a massively overweight but cheerful black kid, who was happy to reveal he’d been sleeping rough on the streets all night and thought that the contest wouldn’t make any unusual demands upon him, and an aged pensioner, who said he also had an edge in this event in that he’d been a night watchman for thirty years. Tom sat and heard the old man’s saga. The Autumn of Your Life Equity Release Scheme had seemed a good idea at first. The old boy had signed the title of his flat over to these rogues for a tiny amount of cash to see him through his twilight years, only for a poor bout of health to see all the money go on private hospital care. If he’d had no cash reserves the hospital treatment would have been free. Now, the Autumn of Your Life people were waiting for him to die. He felt unwanted in the house he’d worked a lifetime to own. “I’m Walter. Pleased to meetcha. And this here, this is Tayshawn.”

Tom looked over at the grubby street kid and nodded.

Walter smiled. “In for a penny, in for a pound, Tom?”

“I suppose so.”

“Into the valley of death rode the brave nine hundred, eh?”

“Six hundred. Rode the six hundred,” Tom amended.

“Is it? Yeah? Always thought it was the brave nine hundred. You sure?”

“And there’s no ‘brave’ in it. ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’”

“Yeah? You sure? Not sure you’re right there. I always thought—”

“‘Theirs not to make reply / Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die: Into the valley of death / Rode the six hundred.’ Alfred, Lord Tennyson.”

“Shit.” Walter whistled. “Not gonna argue with that.”

Even Tayshawn grinned. “Cool.”

“Real fizz popper, eh?” Walter added. “Lucky this is not an IQ contest, eh? Ha! Ha!”

But Tom rose, excused himself, eager to escape to the sunny bay window. There he stood, very still, trying to avoid further interactions until he saw that he was being scrutinized from a distance, drawn in once more, this time by a woman. He looked at his own shoes, then over at her again. In her late thirties, seated on the nearby window ledge, brightly lit from the side, she reminded him of a certain Vermeer to which he’d not so long ago owned the UK rights—the kind of woman who looks as if she has been loved by many men but at the moment isn’t loved by anyone. She had a mournful quality about her. Thin wrists that you could slip a bagel onto. Eyes an uncanny aquamarine. In a painting you might fault the artist’s decision here, deem the eyes artificial, but not in real life.

He smiled at her. He was still able to convince himself that women were superficially attracted to him for his looks alone. She smiled back, and Tom was happily surprised. This was increasingly rare. So often his efforts produced a zero response, or less than zero, but this woman’s face, which had been sad and lonesome looking, suddenly had many bright things in it. Was she a contestant? Perhaps an office worker on a break, a high street shopper, even a tourist. She was too relaxed to be in the contest. Lacked the killer look.

What does a lonely woman do to find love? The radio questions came back to him. Come to Starbucks.

He inserted his earbud once more—just in time to hear himself (almost!) being spoken about on air! Was this a fantasy? No. Lee Lerner was fired up. He’d heard about the contest—their contest, Tom’s contest!

…Okay, listen up, Back-to-Back Cars, in Olympia. A contest starting at ten a.m. today to give away a new car to whoever can keep their hand on it the longest. Be in to win. Call me and let me know what you think of these sorts of contests. Personally, I’d rather watch a beheading, but if you’re keen to own a gas-guzzling four-by-four with the carbon footprint of…well, frankly, of a Sasquatch! Or if you think sleep is overrated, then get yourself down to Longview behind High Street Kensington, and give us all something to talk about.

Never before had Tom registered on Lee Lerner’s excoriating radar! Not as a topic, at least. Sure, the two men had talked several times when Tom had phoned in, got his call through (driven by a need to correct some trafficked idiocy), but this was the first time he’d ever been the subject of a Lee Lerner diatribe. How eerie. Tom had suddenly become central to the larger story of this city. Well, how about that…Lee Lerner had taken a dislike to the Hands on a New Car contest. This didn’t surprise Tom—the contest was low-grade, Lee Lerner was right. It was the bottom of the pile, a low watermark culturally. As Tom sipped his coffee he felt his own contempt for the contest once more ripple up from his stomach toward his throat in the reverse of peristalsis—he had to swallow hard to keep it down.

When he looked back to the window ledge to find the woman who had interested him, he saw, with the merest twinge of loss, that she was gone.



The apricot-colored piece of notepaper in Tom’s hand read 14.

Disaster. He was out. What were the instructions again? Weren’t the forty numbers above the “drawn” number the only ones to be left in? Was it really over for him? Had this happened so quickly?

“Seventy-five,” the dealership owner, Mr. Back, repeated through his squawking megaphone to a crowd fumbling with their ballot papers. Many of these ballots, drawn blindly from a cardboard box minutes earlier, in the next moment were blowing in the wind, torn into confetti strips, tossed high in the air with disgust, a gust carrying away the shredded hopes of the majority, while those few holding numbers seventy-five to one hundred and fifteen sighed with relief or raised one triumphant fist in the manner of tennis players and freedom fighters.

Jess opened her own ticket. She could hardly bear to read it: 107. Was it really a lucky number? She had a sudden premonition of happiness. It flowed through her. She was still in! An unlucky person had just been lucky. A miracle. Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Mary, Jesus and Joseph. Not used to surviving into the second round of anything, she grinned, tightened the arms of her sweater, which were tied around her waist, strapping herself in, mentally, for the very long ride ahead.

Tom, however, couldn’t take his eyes off his own ballot. He kept folding the fucking note and then reopening it as if by some enchantment the number would inherit an extra one before the four. No dice. His head flooded with postdated checks, his killing overdraft, but, most of all, the lost opportunity to win. “This is…this is bull…” he muttered, first softly then loudly, “Oh come on…what the…you can’t…”

But at that precise moment, and before he could even plan a fightback of some description, a protest, or an appeal, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

The car dealer’s assistant, whom he recognized from the office, discreetly inserted a second slip of paper into his hand, then winked. “Ssshh,” he said, before walking off into the crowd.

Confused, Tom opened this second note. Read on it a number: 96. He looked around, astonished. No one seemed to have noticed this secret exchange. What on earth was going on? Why had he been given this preferential number? He’d just been handed a reprieve from nowhere. But why? And then he realized. He’d been handpicked, selected, saved intentionally. The organizer had seen and understood that there was something unique in him, something dramatic and impressive, without which the contest would be a lame affair. And with this realization a great relief and peace and sense of worth descended upon him.


ACROSS THE YARD, Dan, the junior salesman, returned to his boss’s side.

“You get everyone we want?” Hatch asked.

Dan nodded. “I took out five numbers from the box, and then selected another five. We’ve got forty.”

“Good. We’ve got a world record to break. Let’s get on with it.”

Hatch took the megaphone, walked to the center of the yard and addressed the remaining contestants. “There’ll be no bending of the rules. This event has been sanctioned by the book of Guinness World Records.” He let this impressive fact sink in generally before continuing. “For now you will all be divided up onto two cars until your number reduces sufficiently to put you on a single car. Those two cars will be the blue Land Rover Discovery to your right, which will be the eventual prize, and the red Subaru Jeep to your left, which will not be a prize. The rules are as follows…”

Forty faces inclined toward him. Beyond them, in a crescent, loitered some of the earlier hopefuls, now exiled, unwilling to depart without some slight taste of what might have been.

“A five-minute toilet break every two hours. No sleeping allowed—you snooze, you lose. And finally, no competitor is to physically or practically assist another competitor from the moment the competition begins. You’re entering a new universe. Each player is on their own. That means on their own! From now on you are each only as strong as you are independently capable of being. No helping each other. Those of you, those of you who hold on to others to get by, will be disqualified. Is that clear? You will be disqualified. Find the strength you need inside yourself, or walk away now.”

Hatch theatrically held the loud hailer aside to give the weak a chance to defect, but when no one did, he concluded: “And finally, to the very best and strongest among you, whoever you are, happy driving, courtesy of Back-to-Back Cars. I’ll pass you now to my assistant, Vince, who will be one of the marshals. He’ll explain the rules to you again in greater detail.”

From the rostrum Vince continued his boss’s speech, much less forcefully.

1. A marshal will blow a whistle like this to signal the start and end of each rest stop. (Dan blew his whistle.) Three Portaloos have been provided free of charge, many thanks to the Third Company of Dublin.

2. Food can be eaten at any time.

3. The palm of at least one hand must be in contact with the car at all times, with the exception, obviously, of the toilet breaks.

4. No leaning or resting on the car. And no sitting on the ground.

5. The winner will be blood tested to make sure no artificial drugs or stimulants were used.

6. As well as marshals, several closed-circuit cameras will record the event in order to prevent foul play and cheating. But as cameras can’t see around corners or through people, the contestants themselves and their supporters will all have to act as informers. If you see another person take their hand off the car, you may report them. Anyone can inform on anyone, but bear in mind that false accusations will result in disqualification. If you see something you want to report, you should first nudge the person next to you and get someone else to corroborate what you’ve seen before you act. One contestant’s word against another will not be sufficient. Repeat: one contestant’s word against another will not be sufficient. Once you’ve found a corroborator then you can draw our attention simply by raising a hand, and make sure it’s your free one. (Laughter.) Or you’ll be out too. A marshal will come over right away and disqualify the guilty party, whoever it may be. And that’s about it.

With this, Hatch took back the megaphone. “So let’s see who’s got the better engine. Place your hand on one of the two cars. Nine, eight, seven…”

A last-second scurry saw forty hands flatten and slither and stick upon sun-hot metal. “Six…five…four…” At first touch this heat was painful and the instinct was to lift the hand away, but after the first sting had been endured the pain dissipated.

“Zero!” Dan blew the whistle.

The contest was under way. And within seconds a few free hands were waving to the marshals in protest. Mistakes had been witnessed already. Someone had pushed in. Another had been unfairly forced out. Dan and Vince hurried toward the informers and quickly began to disqualify those who had slipped up.

“Bullshit,” came the protest from the first eliminated man, but five people verified that he’d been a moment too late to press down his hand and he had to go. His nose entirely caked in zinc ointment in preparation for many hours, perhaps even days, under a hot sun, he now had to slope off home empty-handed.

As for Hatch himself, he slipped inside the Discovery, shut the door and took a series of photographs of the hands pressed on the glass from inside the car, translucent flesh pressing like coral-pink starfish to the side of an aquarium.

The first half hour slid by. Despite the peculiar circumstances—forty sentient adults standing around with their hands on two cars—the talk became as civilized as you would expect to hear at any bus stop. As the sun beat down the contenders gradually introduced themselves. Slowly they gave up their personal details and stories: an ex-munitions man was just back from serving in Afghanistan and said it was “hellish”; an insomniac from Billingsgate with a slight stutter who thought his sleeplessness might help him during the long nights; a Romanian man with an EU work visa, who was sleeping ten to a room and unable to afford even the cheapest room of his own, saw the prize as a mobile home in which he might eat, sleep, conduct a life; another, a woman, had lost a child in a big wave in Wales and had her own private reasons for being here; a FedEx driver who strangely wore only one glove and had one week off work and nothing better to do; a child of fourteen had come without her parents’ permission; a drummer from a heavy metal rock group was trying to win the seven-seater so the band could accept touring engagements; a car thief with multiple convictions made no bones about his illicit attraction to cars but wanted to own one legitimately at last; an asylum seeker from Zaire wanted a cornerstone upon which to build a new life; an ex-semiprofessional footballer who now lived in Swindon and delivered furniture for Ikea thought his fitness would shine through, and he could use the brass; a father of two from Hounslow had come down after a bet with a pal, bringing a hundred and twenty cans of beer with him and wagering three hundred pounds that by beer and pizza alone he’d be victorious; an NHS midwife, who worked at St. Mary’s Hospital and who banshee laughed at anything even vaguely amusing, believed that her choice of footwear would prove decisive and wore trainers that an Olympian would be proud of. These and many more confided their stories across the two cars, all of them possessing some special advantage but equally some hidden deficiency that might either win or keep them from winning the prize.

Tayshawn, the street kid, made everyone laugh. “I’m definitely going to win. No question. The only problem is I…well, I was so excited about winning a new car that I…well, I haven’t been able to sleep for the last two nights already, know what I mean, so this is my third day already without sleep.”

Walter Hayle, the old man, cracked up. “You’re joking! You—ha! Ha! You haven’t slept for two days?”


“And how’s—ha! Ha! Oh boy. How—ha! Ha! How’s that feel? Jesus.”

“Like shit.” Tayshawn grinned widely along with the others. “Ha! Ha! Like real shit actually. Yeah. But I’m still gonna win, see. Because I’m determined, know what I mean? I got me mind made up.” And then the young man became serious again. “’Cos I believe, yeah, that if your will is strong, yeah, you can do anything. And my will is strong. It’s real strong. Ask anybody who knows me. I’ve got a real strong will. And that’s why I’m gonna win this car. I can’t be beaten. And I don’t care how many days I go without sleep. Just don’t care. Or how bad I feel. Don’t matter. I’m just gonna go on and on and on and on. You watch me. Mental strength.”

Jess, standing there, silent, abjuring chitchat, her left hand on the passenger window of the Discovery, saw no particular reason to feel either optimistic or despondent about her eventual chances. This contest remained a long shot, but what had she to lose, other than a few hours’ sleep? Besides, other people got lucky—why not her? The twenty-odd people on her car, plus the twenty-odd on the other, might consist of many who were younger, fitter, more rested, but how many had Jess’s level of need and self-martyring determination to win? Who could say what anyone is truly capable of?

Tom Shrift, meanwhile, pressed his hand on the front hood, which threw back a depraved distortion of his face. The overheard talk depressed him, not because he’d heard anything to make him think these people could beat him, but rather because he’d begun to hate himself with new vigor for being among their ranks. My God, I should be a CEO by now, living in a house approached by a hundred yards of washed gravel. It choked his lungs to think of how far behind schedule he’d slipped. He was the type of person who could descend into the heart of things and see 360 degrees of reality. And yet…where was he now? Laying his own life bare, hanging off the front of a car with deadbeats and dropouts, degenerates and debris, the last remnants of some kind of unconfessed Great Anglican Dream gone sour. What a travesty.

His eyes turned to the sad-eyed woman from the coffee shop who was now standing beside him. So, he’d been wrong about her. She was a fellow contestant. Not a tourist, not a shopper at all. He’d noted that she didn’t engage in conversation either and, like him, hardly raised her eyes. He liked this; a private person, one who perhaps had also lowered herself to be here and who probably, like him, had continually to fight the urge to lift the touching hand and walk away.


THE FIRST HOUR passed in stupendous inactivity, the formless suspense of the morning stretching into a second hour in which all thirty-nine, then thirty-eight (a poor changeover of left and right hands by a Chinese man), then thirty-seven (a teenage girl’s left foot getting stomped on, making her back away), then thirty-six (a woman’s elbow slipping off the hood) began to anticipate a time when each of them—as the winner—would be able to release their hands for good and return to their normal lives.

The boasting, meanwhile, was incessant, proving itself a kind of weapon.

“I’m going to win this, no question.”

“I can go on for five days without sleep. Done it before.”

“Wrap it now—it’s mine.”

“I’m gonna have it repainted. Blue is so boring.”

“My husband had a dream. It’s fated. I can’t lose.”

“God wants me to have it. He spoke to me.”

“I feel great. Never felt better.”

“My star chart this morning said…”

“It’s all in the mind, this kind of contest, and my mind’s made up.”

When a man to Tom’s left said, “Footwear. You wear the wrong footwear it’s over,” Tom could stand it no more and slipped in his radio earbud.

On air, another talk show in progress. Not much relief for Tom here. You turned on the radio these days and the ether disgorged its latrine slush. Enraged voices issued naïve opinions, uninformed views, crank ideas, misprisions and tailored truths. He turned the radio off. Where did you go to find relief? He looked at his watch. Twenty more minutes to go before the first break.


LOOKING OUT THE picture window, which allowed an almost scientific view of proceedings out in the yard, Hatch wound up his phone conversation with the local radio station. “Listen to me…no, no, you listen. I paid for, I paid for radio advertising, okay, not criticism. He’s crit—Listen, I heard him. On air! I just heard him. He’s crit—Yes, he is. He crit—Just tell your…yes, resident loudmouth over there…if he continues to bag this thing, then I’ll cancel the contest and pull the advertising spend. Forty people will miss out on getting a car. And I won’t mind telling the press who was responsible when they ask me. Okay? Fine. You go and talk to him. Thank you.” He dumped down the phone and turned to Vince. “Some talkback shock jock. Unbelievable. Putting us down when I’m spending…unbelievable. That means, worse than no publicity, negative publicity.” His frustration then fixed on Vince. “Where are the photographers? The press? I asked you to organize publicity, Vince.”

“I did. They weren’t interested. You’re not really gonna call off the contest, are you?”

“This whole thing is about publicity. No publicity, no car sales. I’m giving away a free car here because I’m a nice guy.” He sighed, slipping under like a ship, hull breached. “Get the fucking message out. We’re breaking a world record here—five days, nine hours. Come on! We’re sanctioned by the Guinness people…this is official. Someone’s gotta be interested.”

On saying the word Guinness, Hatch pointed to his bookshelves, which contained the complete series of those famous annuals dating back to their inaugural edition in 1955, but he might also have been pointing to the photo on the wall of a car flanked by eighteen young people—among them himself and Jennifer, not yet introduced on that bright day thirteen years earlier—who had narrowly missed, by two bodies, breaking the Guinness World Record for how many people you can squeeze inside a Mini Minor. (It was inside this moaning press of bodies that Hatch had warmed the body of Jennifer De Havres for the first of many times, enormous social pressure fusing them into the single conglomerate they were today.)

“A lot of people think it’s in poor taste, that’s all.”

“Poor taste? What poor taste?” argued Hatch. “We’re gonna change someone’s life!”

“What do you want me to do then?”

“Do? Do? What do I want you to do? Go out there and call it off. Or else get some press down here.” Hatch went limp, slumped into his chair.

“You okay, Hatch?”

“I’m fine.” A second later, “I’m fine.”

“’Cos Dan and me wanted to talk to you about our unpaid wages as well.”

Hatch started saying, “Not now, Vince” and begging “Please” and “Now, now” and “I said not now!” while Vince tried to point out that it had been three weeks since they’d been paid.

“Three weeks is a long time. And we can’t keep working unless we get paid and it isn’t fair not to pay people, especially when you’re expecting us to work night and day like you are right now with this thing out there.”

Hatch: “We’ll talk about it later. Not now. Okay? We’ll do it later.”

Vince shrugged his high eagle shoulders, accepted this rebuff in silence, then walked out.

Alone behind closed doors—one door leading to a greasy garage, the other to a yard full of red-eyed riffraff—Hatch looked to the far wall where his late father’s framed eyes stared at him with timeless concern.


MATT BROCKLEBANK, THE preppy-looking young man, turned to the old man. “Ten minutes to go, our first rest stop. Didn’t feel like two hours, did it?”

“Did to me, son.” Walter Hayle straightened the stiff bones in his spine.

The attractive young woman, Betsy Richards, concurred. “My legs hurt already. I’m not gonna last long.”

As for Jess, the walk-weary traffic warden, her feet were giving her the worst bother. For these to be aching already was a very bad sign. She was furious to receive such information from her body so soon. Her feet never hurt like this when she walked the beat, so why now?

“Be the first to the toilets,” Tom Shrift was telling her now. “There’ll be a queue. You don’t want to be the last to line up. Two toilets can’t serve all these people and a full bladder will make you not want to go on.”

“Thanks. But I can look after myself.”

Why does he tell me this, this strange man? And what on earth makes him think I want to go to the toilet? She hated men talking to her. Didn’t want anyone to be interested in her in that way. Men—any other man than Maciek, basically—were a leg-crossing thought. And yet, at the same time…it had been two years. If she didn’t soon force herself to pretend to be a normal-functioning and available woman then she’d turn into her own mother—and be out of the sexual game forever.

Was Jess poor looking? Her own view? Not exactly pretty, but not bad looking either. Her Slavonic face was okay, she had an ordinary figure—and most people had to be satisfied with that, or worse. And as for what other people thought of her, well, she believed they might say that she was a distraught-looking woman with striking eyes. Yes, they might say something kind about her eyes. But what man was looking for such a package? Wanted: F, 40, GSOH, ordinary, penniless, bereaved, wheelchair-bound daughter, worried looking, with nice eyes. Did she have no other physical assets? Her hair? Light brown, too thin; even hairsprays didn’t make it bouffant. Her skin? Too pale, prone to moles, her blue veins visible underneath in places. Her breasts? Too flat. Her smile? Yes, perhaps this was her other drawcard. To receive her smile, Maciek had once said, was like God pressing a coin into your hand. Her stock rose sharply when she showed that she was happy.

Jess decided that after the next rest stop she would move to another part of the car, farther away from this man who might try to talk to her once more.


BUT THIS WAS not to be. After a failed attempt to go to the toilet—the queue had been too deep—she returned with thirty-five others and even switched to the Subaru this time, only to notice Tom appear beside her. Her heart sank. He would try to speak to her immediately, she knew it, rub in the fact that he’d been right—she and twenty other people had missed out on the toilets and must now cross their legs for the next two hours—but when she sneaked a glance at him he seemed distracted and made no attempt to crow. Had he even changed cars to escape her and been dismayed to find she was standing right by him? His manner suggested it. If so, what had she done? Had she been too rude? She almost wished for his attentions back. As usual, she ended up concluding there was something wrong with her.

Over the next half hour she dared glance several times at this strange man next to her. With an earpiece in place and a thin wire leading to a small radio in his pocket—he sometimes took it out to adjust the tuning or volume—he muttered to himself, perhaps disagreeing with something he heard, shaking his head, irritated. Maybe he was listening to a talk show? She had no time for these herself. None. Ideas and their exchange were for those without disabled daughters and jobs like hers. Finally, as she watched, he took the earpiece out completely, saying “idiot” quite audibly, then took a neatly folded newspaper from his breast pocket, a pencil from another pocket, and began, at lightning speed and with one hand, to solve a Telegraph crossword.

What a curious character. There was something of the stalker about him, she decided, but he wasn’t bad looking. An attractive stalker. One who came across also as superintelligent. She waited until he was done with the crossword—he’d filled every square after barely more than ten minutes—before she spoke.

“You were right.”


“The toilets.”


He shrugged, even smiled. No rubbing it in. No hint of an I-told-you-so. And when this man looked at you, he really looked at you.

“So, do you think you’re going to win?” she ventured.

“Relatively certain, yes.”

“How can you be?”

“If you don’t think you’re going to win you shouldn’t be here.”

She nodded—this made sense to her.

“Plus, I’ve got an edge, a secret advantage.” He tapped his temple once.

“How secret?”


She smiled, waiting for more. But he gave nothing more away. “You’re really not going to say?”


A weirdo, she concluded. He began to put his earpiece back in. She stopped him by asking, “Who comes second, then? I suppose I come second, do I?” A smile played on her face.

“No,” he abruptly replied. “You’re not second.”

Her smile slowly faded. “I know I’m not going to be second because I’m going to be first.”

“No. You’re not going to be first. I don’t see you making it. Sorry.”

Offended, her astonishment at his rudeness almost making her speak out, she looked to see where his eyes had turned.

“No, my main competition is going to come from a man, an older male. Studies show that women have more stamina than men but lack the single-mindedness to maintain focus on one goal, and an older man is better suited than a younger man for this kind of endurance contest. So…”

Jess followed Tom’s eyeline—past young Matt Brocklebank, the strongest and fittest, and the still waxy Jack of all Hearts in an otherwise scruffy pack of cards—toward the gray old wreck that was Walter Hayle. She lowered her voice further. “Walter? No way.”

“These things are always won by older people. I researched it. Their bodies run slower, so last longer, run nearer to the death state, which is where the winner will have to get to by the end—close to stopping altogether. Old people can also manage their mind better when the other systems start to shut down, and that’s because such shutdowns are familiar territory to them, part of their daily life already. You see? So the smart money, actually, is on him. Forget Boy Wonder over there, he’s history. Him, the old guy, on a purely physical level, he’s the big threat in the field.”

Jess looked at Walter—bent-shouldered, mothbally, humbled already by his age and his own inner contests—he certainly looked like a man against whom this contest could have no sudden new effect. She turned back to look at Tom, disliking him profusely but seeing also that he might well be right. Grudgingly: “I see what you mean.”

“But there are other factors that will come into play, apart from physical.”

What a character, Jess thought. Did he ever stop talking?

“This contest is about what gives you more strength than your neighbor. What drive carries you the furthest? That’s the question. Is it the will to win, to be the best, to conquer? Will such a person last longer than someone who’s just desperate to save themselves financially? Everything else being equal, who’s going to win between those two? Or perhaps someone who’s doing this for a good cause—is this maybe the most empowering force? And as the pain increases, there are other questions. In what order will these drives cut out and quit? In what order do we start to say, ‘It’s not worth it. I don’t love so-and-so that much,’ or ‘I’m not that hungry,’ or ‘I’m not so interested in conquest after all.’ This contest will be interesting on that level too. Ought to provide a lot of interesting data, new empirical evidence. It’s a lab experiment, if you like, where the animals in the cage are us.”

Jess realized there was probably no end to the things this guy had a clear-cut opinion on, and that, if every issue had six sides, this man saw seven. “So why do you want to win, then? The money?”

“Sure, the money.”

The last thing she wanted to do was offer this terrible man a compliment but could not prevent a small one. “You look like someone who can earn money pretty easily.”

To this he did not reply, and when he turned his head away from her she was grateful not to pursue this any further.


PEOPLE HAD A right to go to the toilet. Again and again this point was made, and often loudly.

“I’m going to sort out this toilet thing,” Matt Brocklebank told those near him. “It’s a joke.”

“Please. Someone’s got to tell the organizers,” agreed Betsy Richards from the left-hand side mirror.

Jess, with her internal discomfort plain to others now, looked imploringly at Matt across the front hood. “That’d be so fantastic.”

“No trouble,” he said. “The best person should win.” He grinned his pedigreed smile and, as ever, a collective desire to know more about him arose quite naturally in those nearby.

The best person should win? Tom wanted to puke. Was this suddenly a popularity contest?

But Jess and Betsy couldn’t conceal their hero worship. “Why are you doing it, if you don’t mind me asking?” Jess asked.

“Me?” Matt became pensive and took some time composing his reply.

Why was he doing it? Tom could barely stand to hear the reply.

“I’ve been looking for something to do. I basically beg for money from my father when I need it. And I get it. But I don’t have to do anything. We all need something to do, right? I mean, how else do you find out what you’re really capable of if everything’s done for you? So I need to stand on my own. Be my own man. Otherwise everything just goes on being possible.” People around him nodded, seemed to get his drift. “Necessities, that’s what I need. So I’m going to have a go at something. On my own. I want to test myself to the limit. And that’s where this contest comes in. So when I saw this blimp floating up there, I thought, Here’s something. I can do this! I will do this. It sounds pathetic, I’m sorry. I sound like a spoiled shit. I know. But I’m a bit messed up at the moment.”

Tom showed the whites of his eyes. He turned away, too disgusted by what he’d heard to listen further. Of limited wit, barely capable of a single entendre, the kid was now pretending to know himself. An American trait. And one shared by all the young these days. Shallow self-diagnosis. Criticizing one’s self before anyone else got the chance. Ha! Only a shallow form of self-protection. Fake, Tom wanted to say, editing himself just in time. Be silent, child, you’re making a fool of yourself.

But Jess nodded her head in sympathy. For her part, she had never thought of it like this, never thought that money could present its own unique troubles. Abundant money came with a catch—how funny! And rather than despise him for this luxury problem, this Lexus dilemma, she found herself liking Matt Brocklebank all the more. Money didn’t interest him, he was saying; it was real life he wanted to wrestle with. Well, good for him, she thought. As young as he was, he’d found out that there was no such thing as being alive and being worry-free. Where we lack big problems, small ones grow, take their place, exert the same power to bother.

“I wouldn’t mind a few less necessities and a few more possibles,” was all she offered of this welter of private reflections.

And then the whistle sounded. Two more hours had gone by. Just like that.

This time Jess was ready to be first to the toilets. She bolted, got to a Portaloo first and locked herself in. The lock snapped shut: OCCUPIED.

The girl, concluded the watching Tom, was learning.


“I JUST WANTED to talk to you. Only take a second. It’s my blood pressure.”

Hatch had no problem with this visit to his office, but reminded the old man of the time.

Walter Hayle sat in the chair where customers usually beat down prices or negotiated optional extras. Walter had a lame right leg. It had withered from childhood polio, he explained. The trouser on this side looked, to Hatch, almost vacated. The left leg suffered from restless leg syndrome and jittered constantly. The guy must be eighty, Hatch guessed. He had no business being here. The age-swollen hands, the broad, nicotine-stained thumbnails, yellow and curling. The pale face covered in a net of wrinkles.

“It was what you said in the rules about the blood test and so on before. ’Cos I been on some medication for blood pressure, see, which they tell me has some kinda steroid in it, I think, so I’m wondering.”

“Walter? Your name’s Walter? Look, you think there’s any doubt about your health? Pull out. When did you last take a blood pressure pill?”

“Didn’t take one today.”

“The winner will be blood tested. Imagine you won. If steroids show up, you’ve wasted your time. These rules come down from the Guinness people.”

“Oh, the Guinness people.”

“This could go on a very long time. You’re no spring chicken, Walter.” And then Hatch said something he had never before said in his whole life. “It’s just a car.”


INSIDE THE TIGHT plastic toilet cubicle Jess released her urine. Sublime. She stared at the steel-plate floor with its raised chevrons for grip. The sound of her own water rose, amplified by the walls. Made her think of her dead husband. And she knew why too.

To be precise, she recalled how very different their toilet sounds had always been, his standing pee a full-throated, bestial outpouring that thudded into the bowl, sending up a sudsy wake, while hers, like all women’s, had to force its way into the open, as when a thumb covers the end of a garden hose, producing constricted spray, the noise a squeeeeeeee, a soft hiss. Inside this tiny portable toilet, with the wastes of others not entirely ignorable below her, she tore off a double square of paper and dabbed herself in the same gentle way a bearded man in a restaurant will use a napkin after a meal, and thought of Maciek. He was always with her in her thoughts. Then she rose, pulling up her things, aware others were waiting in line outside, most of them waiting in vain. Smoothing her clothes and without looking back, she flicked a lever, flooding the bowl with chemicals before opening the narrow plastic door.

Twelve to fifteen faces stared at her, all of them in severe discomfort. And that’s when she remembered more perfectly why she’d remembered her husband before.

It had been their honeymoon. She had just returned from the bathroom while he waited, naked under a sheet on the bed, spread out like some model on a dropcloth in an art class, and saying to her when she climbed back in beside him, “We’re animals, babe, just animals in love.”

She stepped down from the toilet and passed by her rivals with her head lowered. Back at the Discovery, Tom Shrift turned to her with a self-satisfied smile. Jess looked around her. Realized they’d both unconsciously gravitated back to their original starting positions, as had most people—how funny.

“Feeling better?” he asked.



“Go, girl!” and “You can do it!” and “Looking good, Ray!” and “Doing a great job there, Liz!” Such cries came regularly from the supporters’ area. Part pep teams, part therapists, part medical support and mobile caterers, these backup units awaited the two-hourly return of their charges so that they could slap cheeks, massage shoulders, then fold out the aluminium deck chairs, put food in stomachs, raise the blood sugars and then send husband or wife, sister, brother or friend back into the fray, while shouting once more and even more vociferously: “Go get ’em, Freddy!” or “The car’s yours already, Rachel!” or, if you were Lewis McLusky, whose wife Stella was the operational end of Team McLusky (as the blazon on the backs of their matching T-shirts pronounced), “This is our retirement, doll! This is how we put our feet up!”

Anyone who enjoyed such tireless support had to be put immediately on the list of favorites to win the car.

But there was one other thing these supporters did. As the first night descended they became vigilantes, telltales, informers: if for one split second a rival lifted a hand off the vehicle they would roar out the infringement and call for the marshals to eject the offender. By midway through the third session of this first day three more contestants had been eliminated by these means: a nose picker from Tooting Bec, an old lady with water-retentive legs and the transvestite (when the show glamor of the event wore off), all of whom had let their daydreams or inattention or fatigue or disenchantment lure them into one forgetful moment—so that thirty-three remained alive.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tock.

Tom was feeling strong. Even if he lacked support he had prepared well. A book was providing company. His mind was engaged. And an engaged mind could take you far. Soon, a New Zealand novelist, two contestants along from him, became curious.

“What’s the book?”

“Henry Kissinger’s autobiography.”

“What’s he up to?”

“Bombing Cambodia.”

“What are you reading that for?”

Tom gave the man a stern look. “So I can mind my own business.”

Jess, once again next to Tom, could not believe her ears. To be so abrupt. How could you allow yourself to act this aggressively? And how unpleasant it must be, to invite such dislike.

Jess turned away. Overheard another conversation to her right. The self-confessing car thief was telling a man plagued, it sounded, by insomnia, “I’d say, in total, oh, sixty, seventy cars. Around that, yeah. Stolen about sixty cars. But this is my chance to go legit, in the words of Don Corleone.”

Across the hood the nurse was telling the African, “Was up late last night too. Not the best way to start something like this. Delivered three babies. Boys, both of them.”

“You said three. Three babies…”

“Oh, did I?”

At this point the beer-and-pizza man belched. He looked already to have adopted the wrong dietary strategy for victory.

Mrs. McLusky was staring at the Portaloos. “Very odd name for a toilet company.”

The man from Zaire turned and looked over at the plastic green boxes. “Yes. ‘The Third Company, Dublin.’ I thought so too. Until you say it. With an Irish accent.”

Mrs. McLusky tried it. She got it.


“WHAT HAPPENED TO Cambodia?” Jess asked Tom after a full hour of silence between them.

“Still bombing it.” He looked at her closely again, as if weighing up whether she deserved to ask the next question. “Have you heard of the madman theory?”

“Madman theory? No. What is it?”

“Kissinger came up with it. Machiavelli updated. To get what you want you must make your enemy think you’re crazier than they are, think you’ll go all the way. When your enemy finally decides you’ll never stop, that you’re insane, their will collapses and they pull out. Kissinger was quite a genius.”

A more distasteful idea Jess had never heard. “And this is how you make the world a better place?”

Tom shrugged. “‘We live in a merciless world of random cruelty.’ Charles Darwin.”

“You really believe that?”

“I’d maybe add to that you get a lot of intentional cruelty as well.”

She shook her head sadly. “You strike me as the kind of person who gets excited when a war breaks out. I bet you do.”

“It’s a hell of a way to make the world get a geography lesson.”

The ex-soldier roared. Clapped Tom on the back. “That’s a good one,” he said. “Ha!” Brothers in arms.

But Jess was appalled. “Wow. My God. Oh my God. How did you fall so out of love with the world?”

“Out of love? What does that mean?” His eyes wandered left and then right, as if this accusation surprised him. She saw the flash of tiny veins in the whites of his eyes. “I say what I see. But I don’t sit around discussing these things at decaf-latte coffee mornings and group hug-ins or by reading Hello magazine. I’m out there on the front lines. I say what I see.”

“The front line? What are you? A cop?”

“No. I manufacture greeting cards.”

She roared with laughter, couldn’t help it. The unexpectedness of it. Greeting cards? This guy wrote greeting cards? What did they say when you opened them? “Fuck you?” But she only thought this. Would never say it. She just found it really, really funny—greeting cards!—and it was some time before she could even reply. “Do you really think you work on the front line?”

“Absolutely. You try and run a small business. So…what do you do anyway?”

It was Jess’s turn to hesitate. “I, uh…work for the…the council.”

He nodded, made what he liked of this, then asked, “So…that was your daughter before? In the wheelchair?”

“Car accident.”

“She getting better?”


Had he been too rough on her? He took the edge off his voice and also off his questions. “You can take the back two seats out of a seven-seater like this. Get a wheelchair in there. If you win.” He knew how to be helpful. Being helpful was all he was ever trying to be, actually.

Surprised, she turned to face him. How had this man guessed her master plan? “I know,” she said.

“Me? When I win it, I’m selling it.” With his free hand he stroked the paintwork that must soon be his.

“Why? Can’t get enough birthday cards in there when you’re out on the front line?”

So, he thought, she can fight back. Good for her. Maybe she stood a chance, after all.

A small smirk played on her face, and he noted a new smear of rouge or blusher on her cheekbones. Odd that he hadn’t seen her apply it.

“No,” he replied. “These vehicles are immoral, that’s why. And besides, the councils make it impossible. All their cryptofascist parking wardens everywhere.”

Her eyes widened.

“I’ll tell you,” he said, “after the apocalypse, three forms of life are going to survive: cockroaches, the green mold that grows in the grouting of your shower tiles and parking wardens. On second thoughts, the cockroaches and the green mold probably won’t make it.”

She stared at him, realization arriving like an elevator summoned, the doors of comprehension opening. Her face flushed. “Oh my God. It’s you. You had sunglasses on. I thought I’d seen you before.”


“I know who you are. Oh my God. Where I saw you before, I mean. You—you’re the guy who parked—at the side of the Odeon Mid City. You drive a yellow Fiat Punto.”


“It’s you. Parked illegally.” She leaned closer and sniffed. Grey Flannel aftershave. “Oh my God. You’re awful.”

“That was…? You’re—”

“You’re awful!”

“That was you?”

She nodded. “Yes. Satan’s concubine.”

“Oh my…” At this he laughed and shook his head. “Why? Why am I not surprised? Of course it was you. I’m so pleased to meet you again. Because I want to ask you a question I forgot to ask you at the time. How the hell can you do a job where you’re abused like that from dawn till dusk? It escapes me. All the shit you take.” He squinted his eyes in deep interest. “How do you stand the hatred?”

“I’ve got a really good idea. Let’s not talk. Okay?”

“No, no, no. You charged me a hundred quid. How do you stand it? The hatred?”

A good question. She swallowed hard. Hatred indeed fell on her in vast daily amounts.

“How can you do it? A parking fine is the most grossly disproportionate stealth tax there is. First you don’t provide enough parking spaces and then you charge a quarter of some people’s weekly wage. You feel good about that?”

But true to her word, she didn’t respond.

“Not talking? I bet you’re not. Okay, fine. Silence is fine. A meter maid. Ha! ‘I work for the council.’ You sure do, honey”—under his breath—“sucking the council’s dick.”

Jess jumped. “Sorry?”

But Tom, sensing he’d once more gone too far, averted his face and reinserted his radio’s earbuds. “Nothing. Silence. You got a deal.”


NIGHT BEGAN TO fall and, dim through the gaseous layers, a full moon.

The contestant’s high spirits of a few hours earlier dissipated with the light. The temperature dropped too and at the first opportunity hats and jackets were pulled on. A zephyr rose as the streets and sky equalized. With the yard’s floodlights coming on, and with the cold biting and the night stretching out before the contestants, the last element that might have been called fun had gone.

At the first nighttime rest break, people demolished sandwiches in three bites, drank tea and coffee from Thermos flasks or filed for the toilets, most often returning unrelieved. It soon became clear that these breaks, so keenly awaited, were just too short to deliver rest, relief or refreshment to any worthwhile degree and in fact tended to be frenzied interruptions, compacted intervals of intense activity, none of which could quite be completed in time, so that each of the contestants was left feeling even more depleted and exhausted than before the whistle had sounded.

Vince, the relieving marshal while Dan took a nap, walked about taking a head count as the sixth session settled down. Thirty-three remained, and more than ten hours had gone by but, in the words of the man who had placed his faith in a diet of beer and pizza, it was still anybody’s contest.

The man from Zaire still looked comfortable; Walter Hayle seemed no older than he did at first; the fat street kid, Tayshawn, not surprisingly, given that he was two days deeper into this than anybody else, had sleepy rings under his eyes but complained only of extreme hunger; while the stuttering insomniac from Billingsgate looked almost painfully alert. The Romanian must have been used to such nights, and kept suspicious eyes on everyone as if fearful a rival might alert immigration. The novelist looked to be deep in his mental search for that elusive something for which this event might serve as the metaphor; while the drummer and the convicted car thief, the ex-footballer, the midwife, the unemployed electrician, the jobless father of four, the Argentinean shepherd, the odd job man from Earl’s Court, young Betsy Richards and beside her Jess Podorowski, and next to her Matt Brocklebank, that poor little rich boy, all of them—and Tom Shrift more than anyone—looked ready and determined to go on and on and on and on and on.


HATCH QUICKLY POPPED home. He needed a change of clothes. He found his wife in the kitchen, in a bathrobe, arms crossed under her breasts: the wrath of an unloved spouse.

“A loaded gun?” she asked right away. “A loaded gun?”

He went to the fridge to avoid her gaze and fumbled inside for a slice of ham, maybe a cheese slice. “It was the old man’s. From his service days. I’m not gonna lie down for these vandals. Last Friday night three cars were—”

“And you left it loaded? Get rid of it now. You almost killed our son.”

“I know. It’s just—I don’t have many of Dad’s things.” It sounded impossibly feeble, this answer.

“You have his business, remember? What’s wrong with you? Now get rid of that gun!”

His fingers fumbled with the crepe-like plastic wrapping on the square of flimsy cheese. Somewhere hid the flap you pulled upon.

“The cheese is for the kids,” his wife barked, telling him one more thing she felt he ought to know.

He stared at her, rage boiling up in him. The indignities! The daily indignities a man faced in married life. Was he a child? Then he too deserved cheese, didn’t he? He put the cheese back nonetheless. Slammed the fridge.

“So what are you going to do now?” she asked as he quickly crossed the room.

“Gotta go back. I can’t leave Dan and Vince in charge. I’m going to sleep in the office, if I sleep at all.”

Angry, certain once more that he’d married a bitch, one of those women bachelors cite as the reason why they have remained bachelors, he took his coat. Left his house without saying another word. Drove hard. Drove straight over to see his mistress. And he felt not even a morsel of guilt in doing so. Knocked on her door. Pink fingernails curled around the door’s edge.

“Hi,” he said. “It’s late. Sorry.”

Pearl. She kissed so well. Maybe because her mouth looked continually so just-kissed, so pouty, moist, full. She was half Caribbean, with a tiny bridge to her nose upon which stylish rectangular frames sat, giving her a face you might see in a commercial: smart, executive, selling car insurance. When she was with Hatch she didn’t wear the glasses. Her love life was conducted half blind.

Her mother was a maiden from Pumpkin Hill, Mooretown, Jamaica. Her old man a bill-nosed sailor from Padstow, Cornwall. In 1978, Kevin Sheers got Filomena Steady pregnant. Married by Easter. By Christmas the baby was in a carriage being pushed down the streets of Stoke Newington: in woolen whites this infant was Hatch’s future lover. The Sheers thought of calling their daughter Majority. Didn’t. Called her Pearl.

When Pearl was seven her parents divorced.

A beauty. Hatch couldn’t resist her. Couldn’t take his hands off her. And when she accepted he was married but not happily so, and was about to end it, was about to say the fatal words and walk away, telling Pearl this over and over, that his marriage was over and he was ready to break loose, she responded and let him sample her goods, allowed her own heat to rise. She fell in love too. She soon believed it when he said he was making ready to leave his family for her. She was prepared to wait. But for how long? Until he came through for her, he told her. Came through for them both. As he always said: they were each other’s big last chances at true happiness.

They stopped kissing. Sat. Her modestly appointed flat was cluttered with secondhand furniture, but he liked even this. Nothing matched. Oaken colonial abutted Ikea birch, Chinese panels, garden furniture. Above the electric fire sat framed photos in which she was laughing. A happy woman. As Hatch sipped his favorite Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which she bought especially for him, he looked at these shots. All were only months old. On his mantelpiece at home Jen also kept photos of herself, taken at her best, when she was happy. But these were all a decade old.

Pearl: “So, do we have anything to celebrate?”

“I love you. How about that?”

“Anything else?”

“Pearl, listen. I couldn’t. I’m sorry. But I will. Soon. Promise.”

He wanted her touch. Not her questions. But she withdrew from him.

“Shit, Terry. I…actually, I think you should go.”

“Look. I just couldn’t. Not with what happened to Ronny and the gun, I couldn’t.”

“You promised. Once you got the contest started.”

“The bullet just missed Oscar’s head!”

“Don’t do anything, then. Ever.”

“It’s hard for me. I keep thinking about…the boys. How my parents were with me. They would have died before telling me something like this. It’s my background. I know, it’s my problem.”

Pearl: “I’m so sick of it, sick of…”

“Hearing about my kids, I know.”

“How hard it is to tell them how your parents hated each other’s guts but still stayed together for the kids. Well, my parents told me—and my dad walked out. Parents get divorced.”

“I’ll do it. I promise you. This week.”

She stared at him and squinted, trying to bring an out-of-focus man back into focus.

ALEX LEE LERNER: Of the top dream themes in a national survey, released today, celebrities appear in fifty-four percent of people’s sexy dreams. Stars who come to you in the night include Sean Connery, George Clooney, Kylie, Rachel Stevens, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jennifer Aniston, Orlando Bloom and Robbie Williams. As for our loved ones, the bad news is that they came in a very poor second to these stars. Only twenty-three percent of the total respondents say they have sexy dreams about someone they know. Of these, forty-seven percent dream of an ex-lover, and only eight percent dream about their current lover or spouse. In perhaps the only positive indicator of our character, only two percent of us dream sexily about a close relative. As for nightmares, however, a quite different picture emerges. These are all about people we know. Friends and loved ones dominate in our night terrors….

THE IDEA. THE very idea that a few Czechs in 1970 had held out for over five days already seemed impossible to Tom. How had they gone this long? Communism had brutalized them, clearly hardened them into machines. Pampered Westerners, though, they were not creditable rivals. Could barely contemplate such a feat. Just look around, he thought. This lot here hadn’t been going for eighteen hours yet, and already most of them looked done in, wilting, yawning, regretting signing up for this in the first place and would, if they hadn’t already invested so many hours in this, happily slip off home and slide into warm beds. And how was he doing? Not much better, it had to be said. But he’d be damned if he strengthened his adversaries by letting them see his own discomfort. He was doing great, his outward demeanor must tell others. Just fine. Eighteen hours? Ha! his body language had to proclaim. A walk in the park!

Tayshawn was telling Walter how he’d slept rough like this every other night when not down at the Salvation Army shelter, “so this here is no biggie.” In reply Walter revealed that he’d been a security guard and so he too was no novice of the long night.

“Hey, what’s with your left leg?” Tayshawn asked, noticing how Walter never stopped moving it.

“Restless leg syndrome.”

“What causes that?”

“Not enough sleep. For one thing.”


The Romanian, in monosyllables, told Matt he was no stranger to this kind of thing either. He had lived many years in refugee camps in France back in the eighties, awaiting a sponsoring country. Three years, waiting for a single piece of paper, was a long time to wait.

The ex-soldier told Betsy Richards that there was little difference between this and sentry duty. When Tom asked him what guns he’d been supplied with out there, he even grew animated.

“All kinds of shit. You know guns, huh? Know what I found the best? In the end? A plain old shotgun.”


“A plain old twenty-gauge with a wide spread of shot, maybe three feet around, best weapon you could have.”

Tom nodded thoughtfully, said, “Is that so?” and “Who would have guessed that?” and “I’ve never heard of soldiers with shotguns before but makes sense. Interesting.”

As for the insomniac, he was as bright and full of beans as an ordinary person would be at noon.

The remainder? Most of those whose conversations had petered out and whose feet began to sob with pain closed their eyes, if only to rest them, which forced their supporters, just to be on the safe side and maybe a bit worried for the first time, to chime in with “Atta boy!” or “Atta girl!” or the complete lie, “Not long now,” until someone in the small crowd finally struck up a unifying chant that became the feature of the night: “You snooze, you lose. You snooze, you lose…”

By 3:00 a.m., this chant had segued into a dozy “Stand by Me.”

An hour later, the singing died out altogether. All happy communion ceased and an irritable individuality descended. By 4:30 the supporters at the sidelines were as burned-out as the contestants and it became a grim vigil until dawn.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. These hours claimed five more victims. With the support crews taking the chance to get some sleep it was up to Vince—and by 5:00 a.m., a refreshed Dan—to spot the offenders, quietly wake each one with a shake and send them on their way. Ejected in this way was the Romanian who fell asleep, pants down, on the toilet and had to be woken by rocking the cubicle itself; gone was the fourteen-year-old when her father angrily dragged her home; gone also the ex-semiprofessional footballer dreaming once too often of the big time; eliminated too the heavy metal drummer who perhaps lacked the necessary amphetamines and poppers he associated with this hour. As sunshine broke acutely over the horizon of roofs, warming again the twenty-eight who had fought through the night to remain, to survive, Tom and Jess and Betsy and Matt and Tayshawn and Walter all regarded one another across the hood of the Discovery rather like shipwrecked passengers clinging forlornly to a life raft after the liner had gone down and simply waiting now to see who’d be next to lose their grip and slide away into the depths of the frigid waters.

About The Author

Peter Peitsch

Anthony McCarten is a New Zealand-born playwright and filmmaker and the author of the novel Spinners. He currently divides his time between London and Los Angeles.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (February 17, 2009)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416586074

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