The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

New Bridge to Lyndesfarne: Chapter 32

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Over the decades, Kevin had spent a great deal of time on his own. This had given him plenty of opportunity to think, perhaps even too much. He knew he was regarded by his work colleagues as something of a loner, although he thought this was more to do with intrinsic shyness than any antipathy towards his fellow man. As a child, he had been brought up to be polite and quiet in adult company, and he had always tended to be reserved, even withdrawn, in the company of his peers. As a youngster, he remembered, he preferred to hide himself away rather than join in the games in the playground; in later life, he would just immerse himself in his own cogitation and speculations.

In one of his more ruminative moments - only much later events would persuade him to revise his evaluation of his own thoughts to "moderately paranoid" - Kevin had wondered just how much he would be missed if he were to suddenly and permanently disappear.

There really was nobody in the world that would actually miss him. Kevin's parents were by now quite elderly; not exactly infirm, but tended to keep themselves to themselves, living in their own circle of friends at the Rotary and golf clubs. He had never felt very close to his parents, even as a child, and as an adult he sought their company only occasionally, more out of a sense of duty and obligation, rather than any desire for emotional contact.

His now-ex wife had no interest whatsoever in maintaining any contact. She would not even take his phone calls on the extremely infrequent occasions where he had attempted to contact her in order to resolve occasional (and invariably trivial) aspects of their former life together. Their marriage had been childless, which now seemed to be fortuitous; children might have kept the marriage together, he considered, but he would probably have withdrawn his personality even more, quite possibly to the point of insanity.

Since the separation from his wife, he had felt too emotionally fragile to undertake any kind of new relationship. He had had no liaisons or even dates during this period; he had not really found himself attracted to anyone, despite one or two fairly clear come-ons from a couple of female acquaintances. At least, he thought, I imagined that they were come-one, although it could have been just wishful thinking on my part.

Even at work, his human contacts were very limited. This was forcibly demonstrated by events that occurred during the latter part of the construction work on the new bridge, when the main support towers had been completed and the first parts of the roadway itself were being manoeuvred into position.

At the firm's local headquarters in Manchester, Kevin still had a private office, which was in an obscure corner of the building and at the end of an infrequently-used corridor. Kevin had initially relished the peace and quiet of the office when he had first taken up residence, but now rarely visited it. He was spending a lot of time travelling and staying in hotels, thanks to the continuing pressures of on-site working on the Lyndesfarne Bridge. When he was not actively engaged on the site, he tended to work at home, mainly to avoid the tedious slog through the city traffic in the mornings and evenings.

Manchester Office block

On this occasion, Kevin had elected to visit his office on his way back from Lyndesfarne. He had managed to get away earlier than he had expected and this, combined with an unusually smooth road journey, allowed him to arrive at the office building by mid-afternoon. By good luck, he managed to find a space in the overcrowded car park; this involved pouncing on a spot being vacated by someone Kevin did not recognise, and rapidly reversing the Volvo into the vacated bay. Thank goodness, he mused wryly, for employees leaving early.

The office itself was tidy (thanks to Kevin himself) and clean (no doubt due to the attention of the firm's contract cleaners), but nonetheless there was a distinct sense of being unused. He could not easily have said just what had given him that impression; conceivably it was the smell of the closed room, or perhaps just the way that the sunlight was shut out by the partially-closed blinds. Or maybe, thought Kevin, it is the impression of robotic tidiness that leads to the absence of that lived-in look.

Pitchfork

He set about one of the very few professional activities that was more easily completed while physically in the office, that of deleting the latest tranche of spam and other unwanted electronic mail. He was struck by just how little junk mail had actually accumulated since he had last performed this task, which he always mentally considered as analogous to mucking-out with the aid of a pitch-fork.

It appeared that the firm's email was still working, in that messages he sent seem to be delivered. He had confirmed this by sending an email to himself, which appeared in his inbox after only a few moments. Nevertheless, it emerged that he had been removed from the internal electronic mail and telephone directories, which meant that anyone who did not already know his email address or phone number would find it difficult to contact him.

He also appeared to have been removed from most of the internal mailing lists, which meant that he was no longer getting all those professional circulars, administrative reminders and management guidance emails which seemed to be an essential part of modern office life. Under normal circumstances, the absence of what he thought of as "electronic administrivia" would truly have been a blessing, but now he found it slightly disturbing. Such distribution lists were almost never properly maintained and it was nearly impossible to get your name removed from them, in Kevin's experience, but now there seemed to be a concerted effort to cut him off from the mainstream business of the company.

Of course, he was still being paid regularly; he was pretty certain he would have noticed before if this had not been true. Kevin was not particularly interested in money. He was naturally neither a spendthrift nor a miser, in his own evaluation; he found that he instinctively lived well within his means. Part of the reason behind this was that he was not really interested in acquisitions for their own sake, or even as a part of that game where ostentatious consumerism was used to advance one's perception of one's place in society. Just too boring for words, he thought.

Now that he had confirmed that he was indeed being paid monthly as always, Kevin began to wonder about other financial matters. He checked on his expense claims, which included the costs of travelling to Lyndesfarne, as well as hotel accommodation on both the Mainland and Island sides. He managed to confirm that he was quite definitely being reimbursed in the usual rather tardy fashion, but he could find no trace of the paperwork he had used to make the claims in the first place.

It was slowly occurring to Kevin that there were only a few people in his company with whom he now had contact, and that the paper trail of expenses claims or remuneration was exceptionally sparse. With so few records, it would be entirely possible to deny that he now worked for the company, he thought, and he really could just disappear overnight without anyone being the wiser.

Kevin was mulling over this insight on the way to the canteen to pick up a cup of coffee when he ran into Frank Boxton, one of his few close professional acquaintances, in the corridor.

"Hi. Long time no see." Frank exclaimed, raising his hand in a vague gesture of greeting. "You know, I didn't realise you still worked for the company. I'm sure someone said you'd left."

In spite of being one of the more experienced project managers, Frank was not particularly renowned for keeping his finger on the pulse of company. Even so, anyone with a responsible position in a modern organisation had to be at least somewhat aware of current goings-on, and to be plugged into a few of the more reliable rumours. In Kevin's company and, he strongly suspected, most other professional environments, rumours and gossip were an essential part of the system, lubricating the process of consensus-forming and decision-making without the necessity of anything as crass as a direct instruction being issued.

"Well, no," Kevin responded immediately in a probably doomed attempt to head off this particular strand of gossip, "I'm definitely still here, although I have been a little elusive recently."

"Nose to the grindstone stuff, I take it?" Frank enquired.

"Yes, something like that," Kevin agreed.

The same hyperactive company rumour mill had long ago informed him that Frank was thought to have a drinking problem. Kevin did not think this was a problem of the "I drink, I get drunk, I fall down, no problem" kind. It was just that too many employees in high-pressure jobs probably drank more than was good for them, to the despair of the company medical service. Frank was just an example, considered Kevin, and it did not seem to stop him from fulfilling his role highly successfully.

Frank was just sufficiently close an acquaintance for Kevin to suggest that they went for a quiet drink after work. It was not long before the two men found themselves in a bar Kevin had been to before, when undertaking what was euphemistically referred to as "an off-site long-term strategy meeting", meaning of course an all-night drinking session. During these binges, it was traditional to speak freely about all the problems with the firm and its customers, to discuss at length about which projects were in the mire and which ones were going really badly, to debate openly the short-comings and lack of vision of senior management, and generally put the world (or at least the company) to rights. And all before closing-time, too.

The bar was mostly empty at this early evening hour, although rapidly become more crowded as groups started arriving, presumably intent on getting in a quick one before the gruelling journey back to their loved ones. Kevin attracted the attention of one of the bar staff, and asked Frank what he wanted to drink.

Beer Glass

"Do me a double Scotch and pint of bitter, would you," the other man replied.

Kevin ordered the beer and spirits, including a pint for himself, and then the two men ferried their drinks to an unoccupied table in a quiet corner. Kevin mused on Frank's order of the whiskey and beer chaser combination, which he had heard called a "boilermakers", and which caused him to re-assess the state of Frank's psyche, not to mention his liver.

Frank downed his Scotch in one, winced and then took a deep pull at his beer. Sighing deeply, he focussed his attention on Kevin.

"So, I thought you had taken early retirement."

"No, no," Kevin responded, "I'm still here, hard at work. I'm just doing a lot more on-site work. Makes quite a change from spending all day hunched over a computer in the office."

"Sounds all very mucky and hands-on. But what is it you are working on?"

Kevin wondered how much he should tell Frank about the New Bridge and the strange properties of the world of Lyndesfarne. He recalled the admonishments at the project kick-off briefing, and was beginning to understand the importance of a sensitive approach, or perhaps just plain evasion.

"Oh, it's another bridge," he replied vaguely, "Up in the North-East. It's got a few interesting technical problems, not to mention a couple of challenging environmental aspects. But nothing special really."

"Well, I hope you get it finished off quickly. There are all sorts of changes in the wind at the moment."

"Really?" Kevin contrived to sound surprised, although he had already begun to wonder. He took a sip of his beer while Frank went on.

"Ah, you know, I've heard that there's some mysterious venture going on. All very hush-hush, lots of closed-door meetings. It's got the Partners all very excited."

"So?"

"So, there are to be no more projects started that are based in our office. There's loads of coffee-machine talk of closing down the Manchester building altogether, once this wacko project is done. People are already being asked to move. I know some of the techies are being shipped off to Japan for some sea-level causeway proposals, lucky sods. While I'm being asked to move to Berkhamstead, of all places."

"Oh, there are worse parts of the world," Kevin sympathised, "But why is this strange project leading to the office being closed?"

"That's the strangest part of the whole thing. It makes no sense, and there's no suggestion of any even half-way sensible reason at all."

On the way home, Kevin found himself wondering why he had not heard about the office closure. His first insight was that the same computer glitch that had removed him from the internal directories had prevented him from getting the management emails which would have undoubtedly preceded a change of this magnitude. On the other hand, he considered, perhaps it was because the New Bridge project was still many months away from completion, and so there was no immediate intent to move him and his small team; the building would remain open for as long as the New Bridge project continued. Still, he mused, there were only a few people working on the Lyndesfarne bridge, especially now that the design work was completed, and it all seemed very wasteful.


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