7. The Journey
A large black expedition duffel bag contained a red rucksack, which had a thick winter sleeping bag and a few other items inside it. The bags were virtually empty at this stage. The journey was just beginning.
His house was silent but Neil was being extremely cautious to avoid being followed, traced, or anybody interfering and attempting to derail his plans. He left after the morning commuter rush had quietened down. On foot, he made his way to the coach station. His appearance was very much in keeping with the usual way he dressed. In clothes that he'd often been seen wearing by his friends, neighbours and family, the floppy half-empty bag was the only thing that was out of the ordinary, if somebody were to recognise him walking down his local streets.
Coaches to London were regular and there was already one at the station. The coach had offloaded any passengers who wanted to alight and was now awaiting its scheduled departure time. The coach door was open and the driver sat in his seat reading a newspaper. Neil bought a one-way ticket to Victoria station from the coach driver and paid in cash. There were only three other passengers on board, who were sat well apart from each other. Neil stowed his bag above an empty pair of seats and sat down.
The coach was relatively new and clean, but there were common features of coach travel that had been preserved for posterity. The upholstery was grey with streaks of orange, beige and red in a pattern that ran down the centre of each of the seats. The luggage racking above the seats was black plastic with a moulded texture that poorly imitated leather. There were black plastic handles on the seats lining the gangway up the middle of the coach. The carpet and fabric covering the interior roof and underside of the luggage racking, matched the colours and patterns of the seats. Black plastic strips trimmed every edge. More black plastic was used for the air vents and reading lights that were above each seat. The windows of the coach had smoked glass and grey curtains also impeded some light, even though they were tied back. The inside of the cabin was quite dark, despite the bright daylight outside.
There was a hiss of compressed air as the coach door closed and then the engine rumbled into life. The coach would be stopping at several towns on its way to London, to pick up and drop off. The journey was scheduled to take a couple of hours if the service kept to its timetable. Neil had elected to use the coach because the quality of the CCTV coverage on coaches and at coach stations was far inferior to that of the rail network. The first challenge he was setting for anybody who was trying to find him, would be to discover whether he got off at any of the stops before the coach reached London.
By the time the coach reached London, many more people had boarded, but Neil still had two seats to himself. Getting off at Victoria took a little time as bags were retrieved from the overhead racks, but Neil was happy to blend in with a group of fellow passengers. The coach station was crowded with tourists and their luggage. Neil felt comfortably anonymous as he slipped away from the transport hub and onto the nearest busy main street, lined with many well known high-street shops.
Walking away from the coach, tube and rail stations, the shops started to change from national chains to smaller independent businesses. Neil was looking for somewhere that bought and sold second hand and refurbished electronics. He came to a street that had a number of mobile phone repair and accessory shops, along with family-run stores that sold cheap imported goods and had appropriated part of the pavement for the display of their extensive stock.
There was a shop that was painted with garish red gloss paint and had a metal grille permanently affixed to protect the windows. Through the mesh, Neil was able to see a range of electronic goods laid out for sale on glass shelving with prices handwritten on bright yellow stickers underneath each item.
Neil bought the cheapest laptop that the shop had on sale after checking it had the right version of Windows and it booted up OK. The shop owner was most bemused by Neil's request for a very basic phone that only had a monochrome screen and no camera or Internet browsing capability. Imploring Neil to spend an extra fifteen or twenty pounds in order to obtain a far newer and more feature rich phone, the man could not understand why Neil would not want features such as GPS, which would allow him to navigate using a maps application. Neil was firm and resolute: he wanted the most basic phone that the shop had. He purchased both items with cash.
From an electronic accessory store he purchased an inverter, that would allow him to charge his laptop and phone from the 12 volt cigarette lighter of a vehicle. From a newsagent, he purchased a pay-as-you-go mobile phone SIM card and several top up vouchers. Each top up voucher had a silver part that was scratched off to reveal a unique code. Every transaction was made with cash, making the laptop and mobile phone virtually untraceable. There would be no record of serial numbers and identifying codes that was recorded anywhere that could possibly lead back to Neil.
Entering a sports clothing discount store, Neil bought a navy tracksuit and a grey tracksuit with trousers that could be easily removed by undoing poppers down the length of each side. He also bought a black baseball cap and a pair of grey trainers that had black parts on the top and sides. After much deliberation, Neil had selected the trainers because it was hard to decide whether the colour of the trainers could be described as predominantly black or grey.
In a public lavatory cubicle, Neil got changed into the navy tracksuit, and then put on the thinner and baggier grey tracksuit over the top. He pulled on the baseball cap and put on the trainers, stowing the outfit he had been wearing in his rucksack. He then put his rucksack back inside the black duffel bag.
Killing time reading newspapers in a busy fast-food restaurant, Neil waited until night time before returning to the coach station. Arriving a short time before its scheduled departure time, he boarded the last coach to Bristol, which would arrive in the small hours of the morning.
After an uncomfortable night's sleep in the waiting room at Bristol's main coach station, made a little warmer by the fact that he was wearing two tracksuits, Neil now boarded the first coach to Exeter. There was a small cramped toilet on board the coach, but there were no other passengers for the first part of the journey so he was able to unbutton his tracksuit bottoms and stow them in his rucksack along with the tracksuit jacket, baseball cap and the black duffel bag, without the driver noticing.
As Neil stepped off the coach the driver asked "didn't you get on with a big black bag?"
"Nope" said Neil, walking off with his rucksack slung over one shoulder.
Walking safely out of earshot from the coach driver, Neil knew that he hadn't shouted or chased after him. That was the kind of minor incident that would be memorable if anybody was trying to trace his movements, but he knew that he had taken so many safeguards in his journey to this point that it would be virtually impossible to join up the dots.
It was late morning in Exeter, but Neil still had plenty of time to find a van to buy.
In the caravan, on the bed, naked and in pain, surrounded by filth and damp air filled with noxious smells, Neil struggled to reconcile the danger he was now in with his original and meticulously planned desire for total privacy and anonymity: to be in an isolated, remote location. He was virtually impossible to find and it was highly unlikely that anybody knew where he had gone.
It was certain that with inaction his organs would soon fail and his dead body would be discovered by chance months or years later. Decay would set in almost immediately and the smell of rotting flesh would attract flies as soon as spring arrived. Maggots would strip his corpse to the bone in a matter of weeks. The police would quickly discover that his Estonian driving license was counterfeit. Identifying his body would be impossible except using dental records.
With the available evidence, it would be nearly impossible for a coroner to conclude anything other than misadventure or return an open verdict. Neil started to feel frustrated that the secret of the well planned sequence of events that had led to this point, would go to the grave along with him. A fate that was finally sealed by his own inaction, resulting in nothing more than an impenetrable mystery, would be horrible. He started to wonder whether a written note would survive decay in the caravan for long enough to still be read whenever he was discovered.
What on earth could he possibly write in a note to convey the complex reasons why he had started this journey and reached this point? What could be achieved by connecting his last movements at home with his final resting place? It was an impossible task, to try to put things into words with his remaining time and energy.
It seemed important that his death should be understood as a result of deliberate action. Neil started to think about the razor blade he had brought with him. He wondered if the blood stains in relation to where his body and the blade were found, would leave enough clues to show that he finally chose to exit the world through suicide.
Suicide had not crossed his mind recently. He had been thinking about getting to hospital or at least getting to the road, where somebody might find him alive. Before that, he had been consumed by fear that he had been discovered and that his private bubble was about to be burst. He had been so desperate to never be discovered in such an appalling state while alive, that he had never stopped to think about being discovered dead.
Linking his name to the disgusting scene of his final resting place was something he wanted to avoid at all costs, but also, he couldn't bear to think that people would conclude he died by accident.