Goodmans Hotel (Chapter 1, page 1 of 13)

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'Bloody gearbox is playing up; not supposed to happen with a Porsche.'

Peter Haliburton, first syllable pronounced 'hail' as in 'hail storm', his wife Caroline, her friend Marie and I stood looking at the delinquent vehicle in a lay-by about seventy kilometres from Poitiers. An hour earlier he had rung Porsche customer services who recommended a garage with an approved Porsche mechanic, but the problem had not been as serious then and he decided against diverting from our scenic route through France.

He was not an easy man to argue with, or to talk to in any way at times like this. A partner - expecting soon to be a senior partner - with a firm of City accountants, the prestigious car was a public statement of his growing status. He doubtless considered it a reward for talent and hard work; office gossip debunked it as the outcome of determined string-pulling. Marie and I had followed the de luxe vehicle from London in my modest Vauxhall. Now he stood glaring at it, his face flushed. Opposite him Caroline forced a thin smile, resigned to the inconvenience. He looked challengingly at each of us in turn, as though one of us might have caused the problem. To break the awkward silence I asked, 'Has it been playing up for long?'

'Hmph! If there had been an inkling that something was wrong before we set out I'd have had it seen to,' he said, as though I had accused him of being negligent. Caroline opened her mouth as though about to speak, then closed it without uttering a sound. His gaze fell on me again. More calmly he said, 'Everything was perfectly normal until we hit French soil, or French tarmac I should say.'

After glancing briefly at Marie, who looked terrified, he turned to his wife. 'Bloody thing. Caroline, you try it for a while before I go berserk.'

Five kilometres further on the car pulled up again. Peter got out and walked round to the driver's door, while Caroline slid over to the passenger seat, carefully holding her finely pleated skirt in place. Evidently he was not satisfied with her ability at the wheel. She must have felt awful. Neither Marie nor I found the courage to go over to her to say a few sympathetic words.

Although outspoken and abrasive, Peter was not usually this offensive. At work he enjoyed controversy, and recklessly disrupted long established practices and relationships. The firm, a staid accountancy practice called Lindler & Haliburton, still bore his grandfather's name and the family connection allowed him to defy the gentlemanly atmosphere of respectful conduct and play the enfant terrible.

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