Will Wright is a Chartered Accountant by day, an avid writer and reader by night. He lives in York, UK with his girlfriend and long-suffering proofreader, Amy.
I agreed to meet Linda Grove at my local pub, the Swaley Arms at 7pm. Like me, Linda had lived in Lowton her whole life. She’d come into the store the other day whilst I was working. We’d got chatting and I’d proposed meeting up sometime, more a throwaway comment than anything else. But she was eager to take me up on it. Life in Lowton is slow and laborious, so I agreed to meet with her anyway.
There are rumours hanging over Linda’s head. Depending on who you speak to, Linda is an alcoholic, a drug addict, or maybe even a prostitute. Everyone in a small town like this has a string of rumours nailed to their back. Anyway, Linda and I had a fling back at school and I don’t have that many friends, especially here in Lowton. I’m sure people will talk, but let them say what they want.
“The usual, Tim?” Karen asks as I arrive at the bar. She’s the barmaid and like a lot of people in Lowton, she’s aged badly. I remember her being a stunner when I first came in here, but time hasn’t played Karen a good hand.
I smile and nod. As she pours my pint, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror behind the bar. I’ve seen my reflection in that mirror many times over the years. I see myself looking into it as a blurry eyed 17-year-old, hoping to ask one of the barmaids her number. It may have even been Karen’s number I was after. But looking back at me now is a bald, overweight man. Seems like time hasn’t played me a very good hand either.
Karen places my beer on the bar and I pay her.
“Are you single Karen?” I ask. The froth of the beer sits as a moustache on my top lip.
“No, Tim, and that won’t change however many times you ask me,” she says and walks back to her magazine at the other end of the bar.
Soon Linda arrives. In the light of the pub, I see how sallow her face is. She has bags under her eyes the size of suitcases, as though she hasn’t slept since she was my girlfriend over two decades ago. We start chatting. Perhaps there is some sort of spark there. She’s quite timid and shy, but opens up after a couple of drinks. I catch her eye at one point, and it feels like there’s a lot of sadness there. I don’t really know what to say about that.
I tell her my plans of getting out of Lowton. I have a couple of ideas. One of them is to franchise the store and go and move to Scotland or something, open a shop in a town up there and settle down, away from Lowton. My other plan is a bit more radical. Leave the store in someone else’s hands, whilst I go off around the world for a few months. Who knows when I might come back. If I will come back.
“You won’t be able to,” Linda says. We’ve both had a few drinks. I’m quite drunk and ignore her comment. I only realise later what she’d said.
The conversation dries up. I say to Linda that I’ll walk her home. I still live at my parents’ house and she lives a bit beyond that, but I tell her its fine. I thank Karen, but she barely looks up from her magazine.
“I’d love to leave this place.” I say. I feel very drunk now, the stars above me blurring together into stains of white on the deep blue carpet of night.
“Yup,” Linda says. There is something strange in her voice.
We’ve stopped outside my parents’ house and Linda turns to look at me. Her eyes are still beautiful and it stirs a feeling I’ve not felt for a long time. But there’s something dissonant about the way her brow furrows. She leans in to kiss me, but I back away.
“Please Tim,” She says. “You have to take some of this weight from me.”
“It’s… I can’t explain it, just kiss me at will become clear,” Linda says. I feel my groin stir for what seems like the first time this millennium. I unlock the door, pull Linda inside and kiss her. We make our way to the bedroom.
Then the memories rocket to surface.
I was thrust backward, memories crashing like waves against my mind’s eye. I wasn’t there on that Saturday night anymore. No, those memories were powerful enough to knock the present from my perception.
The memory settled. I was 17, in my first year of A Level study. Next year I’d complete my A Levels and I’d get a chance to go to a university as far away from Lowton as possible.
Only I never sat those exams.
I was selected as Head Boy, and Linda and another girl called Stacey Botello were both selected as Head Girls. Those in their second year of A Level study didn’t have the time for that, so we were the most senior students in the school. It was only later that I realised how sinister our selection had been.
We were three of the best-looking people in our year and all three of us had strong family links to Lowton, going back three or four generations. The fact I say we were the best-looking people sounds self-centred, and it probably is, but that’s one of the key reasons we were picked to the roles as head students. The staff picked us, or at least that’s what we thought. It turned out it was only one member of staff. I later found out that it was just the Head of Sixth Form, Mr Phillip Ross, who picked the three of us.
Mr Ross was an old-fashioned teacher. His hair was always immaculately parted, and his shirts and trousers were always well ironed. Ross taught history and he was a disciplinarian teacher, but one that treated you right if you stayed on his good side. His face, though, was as red as a tomato and I often smelled alcohol on his breath in our meetings.
You see, we had meeting two or three times a week, and I can’t for the life of me remember what we used to discuss in those meetings. Perhaps it was organising parties for the A Level students, and maybe there was more serious stuff like attendance issues, though there wasn’t much I could do about that. The main overriding thing I can remember is feeling like Ross was weighing us all up. For some of those meetings early in the year, Brett Simpson would also attend, and I’m pretty sure there was one were James Foley turned up, but they didn’t attend any meetings after the October half-term. After October, Ross didn’t really pay much attention to me. I later realised he’d already made his decision on me.
Once we got around the turn from Christmas towards Easter, I felt Ross ramping up his assessments. Not of me, but of Linda and Stacey. It was the middle of February when I really noticed Ross weighing them up. There was something heavy in his eyes. If I’d seen a guy from one of our classes looking at Linda and Stacey that way, I would have thought they had a crush on the girls. But that wasn’t what I saw in Ross’s eyes. It wasn’t just about sex; it seemed to be about something far bigger.
By the end of February, Stacey stopped attending our meetings. After that, the meetings followed a similar pattern. Linda always arrived before me, Ross always turned up fifteen or twenty minutes late. And that’s when Linda and I started getting close. We went on a few dates and by the middle of March we’d become an item. We slept together a couple of weeks later. I wasn’t a virgin, and I got the impression that Linda had experience too. But teenage sex was always a bit awkward. I felt horrendously self-conscious, and though Linda tried to help me out, I never really got over it.
But anyway, back to Mr Ross. There was one meeting when he turned up over half an hour late. I smelled the familiar scent of alcohol on his breath. I’d been flirting with Linda, and we’d been close to going at it right there on the table, when Ross walked in. He looked stressed when he opened the door, but when he saw my hand under the desk on Linda’s knee, he smiled. Even when I moved it, his smile hung there like the Cheshire Cat’s. I saw something in his eyes that made me feel uncomfortable, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.
“The mayor will be pleased,” he mumbled, before apologising for being late. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right, not until later anyway. By the time we’d finished the meeting, I’d forgotten his words and never mentioned it to Linda.
As I said, Ross was a disciplinarian, and that meant he was harsh and cold most of the time. When I said he treated you right, I actually meant that he didn’t treat you wrong. And there is a difference. He reserved compliments, and when they came they felt so good, you wanted another, but the second one would rarely ever come. It was classic Stockholm Syndrome, but at the age of seventeen, I had no idea what that even meant.
I turned up early for one of those meetings and Ross was there this time and Linda was running late. Ross and I sat in silence for a couple of minutes while he wrote out some notes. I took out a notepad and doodled whilst we waited.
Then Ross looked up and said, “I just want to say, Tim, that you’re being an excellent Head Boy. One of our best. You’re really doing our town proud.”
I’d never been on Ross’s bad side, but I’d also never received praise from him. I beamed a smile at him and thanked him for his comments. It was only later that I would remember the way he’d leered at me, and the fact that he’d said town and not school. I mean, sure, the school was in Lowton, but it wasn’t like some high schools you see in American TV shows, were the high school and their sports teams were the epicentre of town life. Our school was just where most of the kids in town went between 9am and 3pm; the town didn’t really give a shit about the school.
We reached the end of March. We’d had a week of nice weather, where I’d gone back to Linda’s each night and sat out in her garden. Her parents both worked long hours and her sister was at university, so we were never disturbed. We slept together three or four times a night. At the time, we thought it was because we were so into each other, but I think on reflection, it was because we didn’t really have much in common, other than the fact we wanted to sleep with each other.
On one of those nights, we sat outside, sharing some beers and Linda said, “Don’t you think it’s strange that Stacey doesn’t come to our meetings with Mr Ross anymore?”
“I haven’t really thought about it,” I said. And I hadn’t. I was a dumb kid.
“I just don’t get it. You used to see the way Mr Ross looked at me and Stacey?”
“Well, I always thought he was infatuated by Stacey. But I think he told her to stop coming to the meetings.”
“I’m sure it’ll all be fine,” I said. I kissed her then. The conversation was forgotten and we were soon up in Linda’s bedroom again. I wish I hadn’t kissed her though, I wish we’d discussed it, because Linda was on to something.
After that week, the weather soured again. Winter dragged itself up from the canvas to have a couple of more swings before its corner threw in the towel and spring and summer took the spoils. I didn’t see Linda as much when the weather wasn’t good. And ever since that conversation, it felt like there was a dissonant note that fed its way into my life. The roses didn’t seem to quite smell as good.
Mr Ross cut our meetings back to one every fortnight. Easter was late that year, April 24, and our last meeting was a week before it. Ross wanted us to come into the school on Easter Saturday, when the school would be deserted. He said it was a traditional meeting with the school governors, the Head Boy and Girl and the Lowton town mayor. I didn’t even notice that Stacey wasn’t invited.
We met in the school hall, which was dark as the long curtains were drawn. There was a large round table set out in the middle of the hall, and around it sat the school governors, the mayor and, of course, Mr Ross. There were a few men lurking in the shadows, though I didn’t notice them until later. In the middle of the round table was a worn old book with a tattered leather cover. The book looked like something from an old fantasy movie. Next to it was a small Coleman gas canister, like ones I’d seen when I went camping as a kid. You could start the fire on the top of the canister.
Ross locked the door behind us once we were all in the hall. I thought that was odd but not enough to raise any alarms; another note of dissonance was fed into that harmony, but not enough to sound any alarm bells.
The mayor pulled the leather tome towards him, while Ross lit the gas canister placing a tripod and gauze around the candle, with a small metal box placed on top of the gauze. There was an inkwell and a quill there too, next to the ledger.
“Thank you all for coming. We don’t usually like to do our duties this early in the year, but what with such a late Easter, we have little choice,” the mayor said. “Thank you, governors, for attending, we appreciate you providing us with your time. Thank you, Mr Ross, for arranging all of this. And last, but certainly not least, thank you to Tim and Linda for attending us.”
The governors and Mr Ross banged the table with their fists. I wasn’t scared at that point, but I Linda’s fear. She grasped for my hand under the table. It felt clammy.
“Mr Ross tells us the two of you are an item now?” The mayor said. I nodded. “Well that is good, makes this whole event so much easier,” The governors tittered. A couple of them banged the table again.
The mayor unclasped the book and opened it, while I saw Ross fiddling with something under the table, making a repeated shck noise. In the book, I could see hundreds of pages of scribbles, each scribble with a red mark next it. As the mayor flicked through the pages, the ink became less faded and as he approached the more recent pages, I saw that it wasn’t a book, but a ledger.
When the mayor found a blank page, he looked up at us. I noticed then that the marks were all little seals made with red wax, which for some reason struck me as odd. I no longer heard a couple of notes of discordance, but a loud stab of dissonance, as though someone had hammered all the notes of a piano at the same time.
“Right,” the mayor said. “Here we are.” He looked me dead in the eye and I felt sweat dripping down my back. “I trust we won’t have any struggling.”
“Why would we struggle?” I said. I looked around the table. The governors were all silver-haired men and women. Most of them had expressions of boredom on their face, as though they’d seen this same ceremony numerous times before. And I’m sure they had. There was another round of table banging, as I looked at Linda. It was then I noticed she wasn’t holding my hand any more. She knew that something bad was going to happen. She looked at the floor, tears flowing down her cheeks.
But I still didn’t understand, and I looked at the mayor and Mr Ross, perplexed. They both shared a similar expression of satisfaction. And that turned nearly orgasmic when Ross carefully opened the box on top of the tripod and gauze. Inside that box was a small slab of clear liquid that bubbled gently. That clear liquid was paraffin wax.
“This here is a ledger,” the mayor said, signalling at it with an open hand. “In here is a list of healthy, lithe and beautiful teenagers that have helped our town to survive over many years.”
I was still confused. The mayor beckoned myself and Linda to stand up and come around to look at the ledger. In calligraphic writing were a series of names, some of the later ones I recognised. One of those names was “Karen Hill”, a future barmaid of The Swaley Arms. At the top of both of the open pages of the ledger, written in green ink was the word “Tethered”. In smaller writing beneath the header, read, “the following townspeople agree to be forever tethered to the town of Lowton.”
“What does ‘tethered’ mean?” I asked. My voice cracked.
The mayor sneered at Ross. “Didn’t you tell them?”
Ross’s crimson face somehow turned a deeper hue of red. “No, sir. I didn’t want to… spook them.”
The mayor and Ross stared at each other for a long moment. I could hear the paraffin wax sizzling on its tray, could see dust floating in the air where a finger of sunlight poked itself around one of those long curtains.
“Fine,” the mayor said, his eyes still on Ross, who now looked down and fiddled with the thing in his hands again. “Fine, I’ll tell them.”
I groped for Linda’s hand.
“Tethering is something that has happened in this town for decades, maybe even centuries, as you can see by the thickness of this ledger,” the mayor said. He barked a dry, humourless laugh. “We’ve taken two of the finest teenagers each year and tethered them to our town, in order for the town to continue to live. To make it clear, you will never be able to leave Lowton.”
I was speechless. I froze. Linda, though, she was far more composed than me. She said, “why have you picked us?”
The mayor looked up at this, greed in his eyes. “Mr Ross here, well he assesses the options and picks the most appropriate for what we need. Family links to the town, but also their appearance. You two were deemed to be the most suitable, and unfortunately, there is no choice in the matter.”
“Why me?” Linda asked. “Why not Stacey Botello?”
“Stacey’s family haven’t been in the town as long as yours. Only a couple of generations. And, what was it you said Mr Ross? Stacey’s breasts weren’t a scratch on our friend Miss Grove’s here?”
Linda started to struggle, flailing and crying, her composure fleeing her. Two men moved from the shadows and grasped her. I saw there were two more men lurking there for me, but I didn’t move. I was welded to the spot like a statue, and I thought I might never move again. The mayor’s words rung around my head. You will never be able to leave Lowton. And that thought was like a bulldozer through the bedrock of the rest of my life.
I raised my arms then, and I sensed those two men move from the shadows, as Linda continued to bellow, kicking her legs. Watching her struggle showed the futility of it. I lowered my arms. There was no use fighting in fighting them.
Mr Ross stood up at that point, brandishing a sharp steel knife with a mahogany handle. More sunlight poked into the room, glinting off the blade, and Ross placed a whetstone on the table. He’d been sharpening it, and it looked like it would slice through rock if Ross needed it to.
“Arm,” Ross said. The two men holding Linda pushed her forward as she squirmed, one of the men holding her arm out above the bubbling wax, as the mayor wrote our names into the ledger. The governors banged the table again, as aggressively as they had done. Mr Ross took his knife and sliced across Linda’s wrist, blood dripping down into the wax. The crimson colour spread like cordial in water, dyeing the substance red. The two men pulled Linda away. She’d stopped struggling and just stared blankly at the governors around the table.
“You’re not going to squirm, are you?” Ross said to me. He fixed me with a patronising grin, like he’d outsmarted me in a game of chess. And I supposed he had, though I hadn’t even realised there was a game in progress. As I unbuttoned my shirt cuff and held my arm out, the mayor put the quill down, and fiddled with a ring on his little finger. Ross gripped my arm and sliced across my wrist as he had done with Linda. I barely even felt it. The only recognition of the cut was a couple of white spots of faintness at the edge of my vision. I watched my blood pool with Linda’s in that tray of paraffin wax.
The mayor stood up at that point and carefully pressed his ring into the wax, then pressed it onto the page next to Linda’s name. He repeated the trick, this time pressing seal next to my name. I watched as the red seal bubbled and solidified into the shape of the Lowton town crest. That was the last thing I saw before I passed out.
I wake up, a mess of sweat and sheets. My back hurts, as it has done for years, and I know this isn’t a memory, it’s now. The room smells like sex. The light of the bedside lamp brings my attention to Linda. She sits in a chair by the bed, wearing one of my jumpers. She smiles. Tension has left her face. The bags under her eyes seem smaller, and there’s a healthier colour to her face.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey yourself,” she says.
“We’re tethered?” I say.
“Yes,” She says.
“Tethered to this fucking shithole town?” I ask.
“Yes,” She says again.
We sit in silence for a few moments. I have so many questions, I don’t know which one to asks. Linda breaks the silence.
“When you’re tethered, the process makes you forget,” she says. She’s right, I’d forgotten it all until now. Everything about that day in the hall with Mr Ross and the mayor had gone, replaced with… with what exactly? I don’t know. A sort of blackness I guess.
“The blackness was too much for me,” Linda says. It’s as though she’s reading my thoughts. “It was different for you, with your Dad and everything…”
“What did you do?”
“I asked around, but no one knew what I was talking about. Understandable. After a few years I went back to school one evening. I found Mr Ross. By that point, I was so desperate. I would do anything to know. And he was happy to oblige. More than happy. He’s tethered too. We slept together and—”
“You slept with Ross? Like you’ve done with me?!”
“Yes,” she looks to floor. A tear rolls down her cheek. “It’s the only way to remember. Someone tethered who remembers the tethering process, in my case Mr Ross, in your case, me, well if they sleep with someone who doesn’t remember, then they open up the fountain of memory again. It’s fucked. But the reason they prefer it if you’re in a couple, is because they hope you’ll stay together and never sleep with anyone else. And therefore not know you’re tethered.”
There is silence again. Too many thoughts bombarding in my head. I break the silence this time. “So the tether is broken if we know?”
“Erm, no. But now you know. That blackness has disappeared.”
“Why did you want me to know?”
“Because we’re in a tethering pair. If one of us knows and the other doesn’t, then the tether pulls like a choke lead. I’ve put off telling you for the best part of two decades.”
The tears are running freely down her cheek, now. I want to cry but can’t. I can almost feel that tether around my neck, suffocating me. I get up and hug Linda. She hugs me back. I look at her. We kiss. It’s the only thing that seems to ease that suffocation. We have sex again. Sleep takes over eventually and memories rush back in.
I feel like I’m flying over the timeline of my life like a drone, grainy footage of the tether acting on my life play’s like a projector on my mind’s eye. There were no more meetings with Mr Ross after the tethering, and I didn’t see Linda for a few weeks afterwards either. I remember entering the sixth form common room, seeing Linda sat alone. I sat next to her and we made small talk for a while. When she finally looked at me, Linda’s face was dazed, indifferent towards me. That look was enough for us both to know that our relationship was over. I wasn’t that fussed. If anything, the thought of sleeping with her turned my stomach.
Not long after the non-verbal break up, the tether landed its first significant blow. My parents had just opened a store in Lowton, a supermarket-type shop, but filled with only local produce and products. We sold all sorts, from vegetables to Viagra, from raisins to rope. Their plan was to own the store for long enough to build up a good reputation locally, and sell the store on, the proceeds of the sale providing money for their retirement. They knew I wanted to go to university, and they encouraged me to do so. “Get a degree, find a girl, make something of your life,” Dad had said.
But in early May of that year, Dad died in a car accident. That’s what Linda had meant. The black spot for her was so obvious, but for me Dad’s death distracted me from the blackness caused by the tethering. I still don’t know much of the details about that. I hid myself from it. I didn’t want to know and I was pretty damn low. So was Mum. All of her plans out of the window. She was going to try to sell the store, but I said I would work as much as I could to keep it afloat. There was a local family, the Whites, who circled my mum like sharks. Their modus operandi was to take advantage of local businesses, offering them a paltry sum of money for their business and dressing it up to look as though they were offering them the world.
I didn’t want anything to do with the Whites, so I kept on working. I dropped out of school in order to work full time. Mum and I met with the accountant on my 18th birthday, and I became a director of the company. I left school with no A Levels. No A Levels meant no university, which shut off my main route out of Lowton, the tether cracking like a whip. It wasn’t until maybe three or four years later, when my friends from school started to graduate from university, that I realised that my chances of university had probably passed, and by that stage, I didn’t really care. University seemed to be a lot of drinking and a lot of pointless essays. And I did plenty of the former in Lowton without needing to waste my time with the latter.
Then the tethers acts flashed in front of my eyes. In my early twenties, I started to date a girl, Chloe, who worked in town, but was from Leeds and wanted to move back there. Chloe and I were both very superficial. And I remember vividly the day that I knew she would break up with me. I was in the shower, and when I applied shampoo, huge clumps of my hair fell out. My hairline had not even been receding, but the majority of my hair fell out in one morning. The night before, Chloe and I had looked at some estate agent brochures for flats in Leeds. When I got out of the shower, I decided I had to shave my head. I distanced myself from Chloe, to see if my hair would grow back, but of course it didn’t. She finally got hold of me a couple of weeks later. She was angry that I had dodged her for the past fortnight, and when she saw my hair, she lost her shit. We finished our relationship over text that weekend.
The weight gain crept up on me. My exercise reduced until it stopped completely, and my diet worsened. Eventually, I only slept with women that were going to be in Lowton for the rest of their lives. If I chased a woman that looked like she might leave town, something would happen to end it. She’d cheat or I’d sabotage. Though, now, I realise it was the tether sabotaging me. As my twenties gave way to my thirties, I realised I looked like the rest of the Lowton lifers; overweight, bald, and what hair that did grow through was grey.
My mum and I managed to establish the store, in town though. We moved to larger premises and our reputation grew. We were successful enough to drive a couple of the national supermarkets out of town. Around this time, I was hankering for something a bit different, even if it was just to get out of Lowton for a few months and do a bit of travelling. My mum didn’t begrudge me that. I’d looked at places I wanted to go, and we’d lined up a temporary replacement for me, John, who might migrate into being a manager when I returned. If I returned.
But of course, the tether wouldn’t allow me to leave. The doctor gave Mum the bad news, cancer. She died about two weeks after the diagnosis. That was a gut punch to me. I cancelled my plans to travel, and kept on working through the grief. John did come onboard, and he helped me immensely, as did our other employees. My mum left me the house, and I still live their now. I still sleep in my box room at the back of the house. I still haven’t fully cleared through their stuff. I tried to do it one day, but when I opened my mum’s wardrobe, her smell wafted out, and it was as if I’d smelled a ghost. I couldn’t so much as open their bedroom door for a fortnight. I still don’t see it as my house. It’s my home, sure, but it’s my parents’ house. And I don’t think I can let it go out of the family, not that easily. That might be the tether making me stay put though.
And maybe that’s why I’m still at the store. The White’s circled again when Mum died. They tried to flash cash in front of me, but I didn’t want them to have the store. Our name is on the hoarding outside the store, and that is another thing that keeps me connected to my parents. And connected to Lowton.
When I wake up, Linda is leaving. It’s the last time I ever see her. I head to the store with a headache and a dark cloud. I’m not working but I need some supplies.
Extract from the Lowton Gazette, 20th June edition.
‘Local Shop Owner Found Dead in Lowton’
Tim O’Meara, lifelong Lowton resident and local shop owner, has died.
The 41-year-old was educated at Lowton High School, where he was Head Boy in his first year of A Level study. He left school to help run the much-loved family shop and had ran it for over two decades, prior to his death.
Yorkshire Police was called to an address in Shackle Lane, Lowton, at around 14:00 GMT to reports a man had died suddenly, a spokesman from the force said.
The spokesman said that the force was not treating the death, reported on Sunday, as suspicious.