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Stanley Stoner trundled his van along Squires Avenue, a quiet private road set in the outskirts of London, and he craned his head so he could count down the numbers that were attached to the huge iron gates and pillars, the entrances to some pretty impressive estates.
"Bingo, number sixteen," he said, placing his map on the passenger seat. As if expecting him, the gates were open, and he turned in and began the journey up the long, curved gravel drive. Towering silver birches lined each side, which had been intricately planted so they were positioned opposite each other; they stood like parted lovers, their yearning branches reaching across, weaving a tunnel. The house as yet remained elusive, and it wasn't until the drive finally straightened out that Stanley was presented with a grand three-storey Victorian building. From the look of it, he reckoned the place contained at least ten bedrooms. "Bloody hell," he said. "There's some money in this road, alright."
Stanley's chosen occupation, since turning his back on education at the age of seventeen, was working as a pool maintenance man, and he'd been asked to come out to this particular house to fix a faulty water heater in an indoor pool. Although he hadn't visited the place before, from thirteen years' experience in the trade, he guessed it would be big; all houses that have a heated, indoor pool usually were, but he hadn't visited one on this grand scale.
Eventually, he pulled over and parked up in a bay situated near the front door. He made his way over, carrying his tool bag and zipping up the front of his overalls. The door itself looked like it had once belonged on a medieval castle, all dark wood, metal struts and bolts. Stanley pushed the doorbell and heard an audible ding dong echo from somewhere inside the house. Again, from experience, he knew it sometimes took people a while to answer in vast houses like this one, and he turned around and absorbed the expansive grounds while he waited.
The lawns stretched for what seemed like miles of pale and dark-green striped carpet. There were tennis courts and even an outdoor pool, probably for summer use and evening parties. The owners obviously employed a full-time gardener because every square metre looked of a quality good enough to be entered in the Chelsea flower show.
Stanley sighed and rang the doorbell again. The guy he'd previously spoken to on the phone said he would be in, and Stanley certainly hadn't travelled all this way for nothing. Time is money, and Stanley knew this better than anyone. He waited a little longer before deciding to try around the back.
Now feeling as though he were snooping, and muttering words of disdain at the rich folk who clearly didn't have time for guys like him, Stanley eventually came across a long glass structure that was built onto the rear of the house. As he approached, he squinted, noticing a shimmer of rippling light reflecting onto the one of the giant glass panes, and it was then that he realised that this was the indoor pool house. "Christ!" he said, putting his tool bag down. He placed his hands up to the glass panes and peered inside. In all his years as a pool man, he had never witnessed anything quite like it. It must have been at least thirty metres long and fifteen wide, and the structure appeared to be designed especially to fit in with the era of the house. The actual pool was just as impressive with a three-tier diving block situated at the far end.
All the while Stanley was peering in through the glass panes, he hadn't noticed the figure that was gently swimming down the centre of the pool, and it wasn't until the figure edged into his periphery that Stanley flinched and stepped back from the glass. Just what was he afraid of here? He didn't quite know. Silly, of course; it was him who had been called out on the job and not been met at the allocated time. Just knock on the glass, he thought; he couldn't be standing around here all day, he had some serious money to earn.
He stepped back and peered in again. The figure had already reached the end with the diving block, and was now heading back. Now the figure was closer, Stanley could see from the muscle definition on the arms and shoulders, that it was a man doing breast stroke, his head bobbing up and down as he glided through the water. He waited until the figure was level with him before knocking three times on the glass wall. Like a rabbit caught in a beam of light, the man stopped swimming, and it was as though his ears pricked up. There's something a little odd here, Stanley thought. The man waved and made his way to a set of steps at the edge of the pool, which he had to feel for before grasping hold and pulling himself out. Now out of the pool, Stanley could see that the man was short and stocky and deathly pale. Although the man was toned, he had a small gut that hung over a pair of extremely tight Speedos, and Stanley would have put him in his early forties, even with the shock of thick white hair that was swept back from his good looking, chiselled, face.
A little perturbed by the man's appearance, Stanley acknowledged him and returned the wave. The man pointed to a door that was positioned further down the building, and it was then that Stanley noticed something else a little odd. The man was looking his way, but it was as if he was communicating with someone standing just to the right of him.
Stanley entered the pool house and made his way over. "Hi there, Mr. Reid?" he inquired. "I tried the doorbell, but no one answered."
The man was towelling himself off, and from a small table that was set between two plastic loungers, he picked up a pair of mirrored sunglasses that were sitting in between a silver watch and a bottle of beer. Funny, Stanley thought, it's not even sunny outside. The man put them on and then ran a hand through his hair, spiking it up as he sauntered over. Stanley thought that he was maybe an aging rock star or perhaps an artist.
"Hello there. The pool man, right?" the man said, smiling. He spoke with a soft, gentle voice, as though his larynx was fabricated from velvet. "Sorry, completely lost track of time and it's just me here today." He held out a hand. "Charlton Reid."
"Stanley." The sight of the wet, pale hand made him shiver, and he reluctantly reciprocated, inwardly grimacing at the man's firm grip. "Swimming off a hangover or something?"
"What makes you say that?" the man answered... "Oh right, the glasses." He proceeded to remove them, and as he stood there holding them in his hand, Stanley wished he'd kept his mouth shut.
Charlton's eyes were as pale as his skin, the irises a shade of dull yellow, and Stanley felt extremely uncomfortable as they stared back at him. Of course, Charlton sensed this straight away and began to explain, "I'm albino, and I was born with an eye condition called Ocular Albinism," he began. "My eyesight is extremely poor and it has deteriorated over the years. You are just a vague shape to me, but I know you are there all the same." He put the sun glasses back on. "They say I have between eight and ten percent vision. They are very sensitive to the light, hence the glasses," he concluded, smiling.
Stanley felt even more uncomfortable. "Oh right, I didn't mean to... I mean I..."
"That's okay," Charlton laughed. "Don't worry about it; it does freak people out though. I get it all y'know: Casper, ghost boy, chalky; the list is endless."
Stanley smirked at the Casper comment, and wondered why he'd even tried to disguise it; he didn't need to, this Charlton character was as blind as a bat. "So why'd you switch to our company," he said, swiftly and tactically changing the subject. What he really wanted was to just get on with his job. "If I recall, we haven't done your pool before."
"Don't even get me started," Charlton began. "I had to call them out three times to fit the pool heater, three bloody times! It still doesn't work properly. Useless, absolutely useless, and I hate cold water!"
"Bloody cowboys. Well I'm sure I can sort it for you. Where's the pump room?"
"This way," Charlton said. "Follow me."
They walked the length of the pool, and as they passed the diving boards, Charlton paused and grabbed Stanley's fore-arm. "See that board?" Charlton said. "Well I used to train on that. Pretty damn good too if I don't say so myself," he continued with a twang of nostalgia. "I made the Nationals back in eighty-nine and ninety."
"Is that how you made your money?" Stanley asked, pulling away and feigning interest. "Diving?"
Charlton grinned, and although his teeth were well kept, against his pale skin, they looked yellowed. "Diving? Oh, God no. There wasn't much money in diving back then." He opened his arms with his fingers splayed. "All this was my father's," he explained. "He owned and ran a performance arts school in Hampton. I used to teach dance there before my eyesight deterioted. He passed away about nine years ago and I was left this house and the school. It pretty much runs itself now."
"Is that why you gave up diving, too, because of your sight?"
"Funnily enough, diving isn't really about being able to see; it's all about feeling and timing, but yes, my condition didn't exactly help. In competition, the lights were so bright when I was standing on the top board, the glare hurt my eyes. Even dark goggles didn't help."
Stanley didn't really care. "Do you still use those boards?"
"Nah, I do swim everyday to keep the old ticker pumping. I like to think I'm in good shape," he said, strutting away.
Stanley shook his head and followed until he was led to a utility room, then through another door which led to the pump room.
"Here we are," Charlton said, standing at the door, flicking on a light. The room was alive with loud humming and buzzing noises, and the occasional hiss spat from the dark depths hidden behind the machinery. "I hope you have better luck than the moron that tried to fix it last."
Stanley stepped in and placed his tool bag next to the industrial heater. The only times he had worked on heaters this size and quality were at the local swimming baths. "Leave it with me," he said.
"Let me get you a beer or something? I like a beer after my afternoon swim. I could tell you a thing or two about diving y'know, from the times when I could pull off the greatest of dives. They called me the Flying Phantom. I didn't mind that name of course."
Stanley thought that if he had to listen to this man anymore, he would end up hitting him with one of the many wrenches from his bag. "Nah, you're alright, mate. I'll just crack on if you don't mind." He had almost felt sorry for this enigmatic man on initial meeting, but now he couldn't remember a time when he'd met someone so bloody big headed and arrogant... and rich, all of which was handed down to him on a silver platter!
Charlton nodded, "Well, I'll be by the pool if you need anything."
It didn't take Stanley too long to detect the problem. Two of the heating elements had died and needed replacing. A valve in the water pump was also faulty, so even if the water had been heated to the correct temperature, the pump wouldn't have dispersed it accordingly. This too would need replacing, and he thought he had the spare parts in his van. How the previous guy hadn't seen this, Stanley would never know. Maybe the poor man had had to endure Charlton's life story?
With the faulty parts in hand, Stanley headed out to check his stock, and it was when he had passed the diving boards and was approaching Charlton, who was sipping his beer, his head held high, his chiselled features giving him a look of smug, superior arrogance, that an idea struck him. An idea so excitingly good, it nearly stopped him in his tracks.
Charlton looked up. "Everything okay?"
"Yep, I've located the problem, well, problems," Stanley said, distracted. He felt uncomfortable talking to the sunglasses, and with his marvellous idea still working itself out in his head, he imagined those pale, yellow irises studying him. "I've got the parts in my van, I think."
"That's good to hear," he said, taking another swig from the bottle. "It took the other guy an hour just to locate the damn problem, which of course remained a bloody problem."
"I'll have it fixed, don't worry," Stanley said, heading towards the door.
All the way to, and from his van, Stanley conjured up this plan of his, and luckily he had the spare parts for the job too. He hastily made his way past Charlton, who was now sitting upright, his protruding gut sitting comfortably in his lap like a curled up kitten.
"I've got the parts," Stanley said, holding them up as he walked past.
Charlton had a contented look on his face; he could have been sleeping or meditating, Stanley thought, and it was when he was within a metre of him that Charlton suddenly spoke. Only his mouth moved, causing Stanley flinch. "Good, good. At least I'll get a nice warm pool from now on."
Stanley was a little apprehensive about his idea, and he wanted to finish the job before putting it to use. He started with the pump, and whilst he worked, he whistled a tuneless tune, his idea going around and around his head until it was perfected. After an hour or so, the whole job was complete, as was his splendid plan. He took his time filling in the invoice, and when that was done, he packed away his tools and went to find Charlton.
He was still there. Charlton hadn't moved at all it seemed; he was in the same chair in the same position, the same annoying smug look on his face. This will be good, Stanley thought; if Charlton plays ball that is.
"All done," Stanley said.
Charlton shifted in his seat. "Well that's great to hear. You're obviously more experienced than the last fool."
"Yeah, it wasn't just your heater, it was the pump too," Stanley said. He looked over his shoulder to the diving boards. "It's hot in that pump room y'know. Is that beer still on offer?"
Charlton's face lit up. "Certainly, I'll just grab you one from the kitchen," he said, jumping up. "Won't be a minute. Take a seat."
Stanley sat in the spare recliner, and whilst he was waiting, he managed to get a closer look at the silver watch sitting on the table. Just as he'd suspected: a rather expensive Rolex.
Charlton returned and handed Stanley the bottle. "Here you go, get that down you."
Stanley smiled. "Thanks," he said, and as he sipped from the bottle, his smile slowly morphed into a menacing grin. "So, tell me more about this diving lark."
And with that, Charlton eagerly began to explain the sport that he, The Flying Phantom, had at one time apparently been a true master. Stanley sat back and drank his beer as the show off next to him continued, selflessly, to talk about his glory days and the many triumphs. "You should see my trophy cabinet," he went on, "absolutely chocka."
After twenty minutes or so, Stanley decided enough was enough; he could stand no more. It was the right time to get the ball rolling. "So what was the hardest dive?" he asked.
Now Charlton was alive with energy, and he stood up to explain, almost hopping from foot to the other, his middle wobbling like a jelly. "Now then, the dive that always did it for the judges was the backwards-double-twist-somersault."
"Sounds tough," Stanley said.
"Tough? I should bloody say!" Charlton cried. Now that his temperament had changed, his soft voice now sounded raspy, as though he needed to clear his throat. "I practiced that at least thirty times a day." He squatted and held his arms above his head. Stanley had wanted to laugh out loud at this point. The sight was ridiculous. "What you had to do," Charlton continued, "was stand at the edge of the board with your back to the pool. You then launch yourself, twist seven-hundred and twenty degrees, somersault, and then straighten out and enter the pool like a pin."
Stanley wondered if Charlton was going to take the bait, and deciding to drop the deal breaker while the man was on a reminiscent high, he asked, "So, do you reckon you could still pull if off then?"
Charlton froze and slowly rose from his crouch. The whole time he did this his face wore a deep frown. Those sunglasses, for a second time, were now staring unemotionally at Stanley, and again Stanley felt uncomfortable. He thought that he might have offended the man. "It's just you still look good, fit, y'know what I mean," he lied.
"Well of course I could still pull it off," Charlton said, confidently. "Might not be as pretty, but yes, I reckon I could do it."
Bingo, Stanley thought. "Really?"
Charlton leaned forward. "Listen, I may not be in the shape I used to be in," he said, feeling the need to tense the muscles in his chest and suck in his stomach, "but that dive was quite literally built into me. I bet I bloody can y'know."
"You bet? No, I couldn't possibly bet with you," Stanley said.
"Why?" Charlton barked. "You don't think I'm capable, do you? You think because I'm different, half blind, I can't do it."
This is working wonderfully, Stanley thought. "Not at all," he said.
Charlton stood up and started to strut around like an angry hen. "Well bet me then. Come on, I want to prove it. I'll show you the backwards-double-twist-somersault."
Stanley sighed. "Just what exactly do you want to bet then?"
"Well I don't know... money? I don't really care, just bet me."
"No, not money," Stanley said. He paused for a moment or two. "What about that watch?"
Charlton laughed. "There's at least three grand's worth of diamonds alone on that watch."
Charlton now had that look of arrogance again. "Yes, and even if I did bet the watch, what exactly would you put up for the bet?"
Stanley stuck to his plan, and he let another few moments pass. He then pulled out the invoice for his repair work. "Well this comes to nearly six hundred quid. I could rip this up."
"Yes, but that doesn't equate to the watch's worth, does it."
Stanley frowned. "I tell you what," he began. "How about free pool maintenance for a year on top? Once a month and any work taken care of. That includes the outdoor pool too. That works out at about... let me see... about, just under two grand."
Charlton appeared to be working this all out in his head. He knew full well he was going to accept anyway; he had a point to prove. "You're on! The bet's on!" he cried, already stretching and trying to touch his toes.
"Okay then," Stanley said, rolling his eyes. "Let's see the Phantom fly again."
Charlton grinned like a kid with a giant lollipop. "Yes, yes, I like that. The Phantom will fly."
After several minutes of stretching, puffing and panting, Charlton announced he was ready. "Right then, walk me to the boards."
Stanley agreed, and they headed over to the boards. Charlton hopped up and down like a boxer before a fight, nervous energy escaping him like air from a burst balloon. Stanley smirked; he couldn't help but admire this chubby fellow in tight trunks that oozed so much determination. The fact the trunks were so tight suggested to Stanley that they may indeed be the very same pair that the Phantom wore in his prime; he was clearly living in the past, but carrying an extra three or four stone of baggage.
Charlton removed his sunglasses. "Right, hold these until I've completed the dive," he said, squinting.
Stanley gladly accepted them. "I'll pass them back as soon as you're out."
Charlton marched up the steps with attitude, psyching himself up. Stanley watched him climb, his waist shaking and his rippled buttocks bouncing with every step. Now at the top, at least twenty-five feet above the ground, Charlton did actually resemble a ghost, a pale blur edging ever so closely down to the end of the board. Once at the edge he shook himself, touched his toes and sucked in two deep breathes, before turning his back to the pool. Stanley looked up with amused fascination, and when Charlton crouched and raised his arms over his head, he wondered if he had done the right thing.
Before Stanley could say anything, Charlton had launched himself into the air, twisting his large frame out at an angle. Stanley held his breath. Charlton, surprisingly, actually looked good at this point. Three hundred and sixty degrees had been completed, before he started to descend, starting the final twist. My God, Stanley thought, he's more agile than I'd thought. With the final twist completed, Charlton began the somersault. He tucked himself in and spun like a Catherine wheel before straightening out and preparing for the pin-like entry. Stanley could feel his heart pound in his ears. The Flying Phantom was about two metres from entering the pool, when Stanley turned away. He couldn't watch. He waited for the splash to come, and when it did, he shut his eyes and grimaced at the loud thud that immediately followed, the sort of muted thud a rubber mallet would make striking concrete.
Stanley stood with his eyes shut and his back to the pool, waiting for any sounds to follow. There were none apart from the disturbed water lapping against the sides, and he eventually turned and slowly approached the edge, before peering over. Charlton was lying twisted and broken in about two feet of water, his wrists snapped back spastically, a pink swirl drifting through his white hair.
Well, the plan had worked perfectly, Stanley thought, and he ran back to the pump room, adjusting the pump, so that instead of slowly emptying the pool, it refilled it at full blast. He took his time walking back to the table, wiping the sunglasses with a rag, and he eventually replaced them next to Charlton's beer bottle.
The Rolex looked wonderful on Stanley's wrist, and as he sat there admiring it, he finished off his own beer. After twenty-five minutes or so, the pool was nearly full, and he returned to the pump room to switch it off before heading outside. He placed the empty beer bottle into his tool bag and threw that into the back of his van. From the glove compartment he reached for his mobile phone, and in a shaky voice, he called the emergency services, telling them they had better send someone quick; there's been a terrible accident.
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