Blake’s Novel – Part 1 April 1992
Mick would have set out that day with little to trouble his mind. A fog of despair had descended on London after another Tory election victory but Mick was in the mood to seize the moment. With entrepreneurial vigour, he was off to the City to make some money. There he would find people overjoyed at an unexpected victory – and, unlike the bankers, he’d be happy to come away with enough for an all-day breakfast and a large bottle of cider. It was sure to be an easy gig.
He had the guitar slung around his back, using a piece of string as a strap. Although it was when he played the tin whistle that the coins would rain in. The whistle was in the top pocket of his jacket. He was wearing a threadbare tweed with leather patches on the elbows, one he picked up at Oxfam, and a pair of fingerless gloves that he could leave on while he played. He was heading straight for Bank station to catch the start of the rush hour.
There was nothing unusual in his skip down the steps at Bethnal Green tube, nor the air of the otherworld about his fellow afternoon travellers. There were no serious thoughts to disrupt the tunes as they jigged and reeled ‘round his head. So how was he to know that within a few hours he’d be the cause of so much misery and destruction?
It was, in the end, just a rucksack someone asked him to look after.
Ah, fuck it. I rip the sheet of paper out of my pad and throw it in a ball towards the bin. What am I thinking, trying to set a novel in the present day? I have to admit it, the future is where I’m comfortable. That’s where my stories need to be.
I put the kettle on, as much to have a good stretch. Rain is beating hard on the corrugated plastic roof of a lean-to conservatory barely hanging from the back of the kitchen. It’s late morning, there’s a John Martyn tape playing and Jen has been watching TV since returning from a therapy session. It couldn’t have gone too well, she hasn’t spoken the whole time she’s been back.
I pull open the curtain that divides the living room from the kitchen.
‘Jen, do you want a cuppa?’ I ask. She doesn’t move her head. On the TV, a loud American woman roams about a studio audience with a microphone. The discussion seems to be about bodies and eating disorders. People are standing up and telling humiliating truths about themselves to whoops and bursts of applause.
‘Yeah, go on,’ says Jen. ‘And skin up, while you’re at it.’
What a ludicrous idea, I think, casting a key character as a busker – as a raggedy street musician destined to be the cause of an underground catastrophe. I slip a roach into the thin end of the spliff. Where’s the insight in that? Where’s the humour?
As I hand in Jen’s tea, I arrive at a decision. I’ll merge this busker story with the one I abandoned last night – set in Brick Lane market in the near future. After all, I have already invested plenty of time and effort working on the market story. I don’t know why I gave up on it in the first place. It must have been a fit of pique.
John Martyn finishes up and I flip the switch from cassette to radio so I can catch the lunchtime news. The headlines are to do with the collapsing economy and tensions in the Exchange Rate Mechanism. And then there’s George Bush at some big event, talking in terms of a New World Order. Sounds pretty ominous. Saddam Hussein was right – a mother of all wars was kicked off with the bombing last year. We’ll be living with the consequences for generations.
‘Where’s that spliff!?’ shouts Jen.
Jen has been in therapy since last year. She had her breakdown right in the middle of the long range ballistic exchanges that dominated the middle weeks of the Gulf war. I’d recorded as much of the live radio broadcast as I could – feeds from a CNN news crew at first and subsequently live announcements and press briefings. Snippets of which I’d been mixing and looping on a Tascam four-track one day, sweating with flu, when Jen returned distraught from a job interview.
It took a day or two to begin getting a story from her. What with cruise missiles hitting Baghdad office blocks and retaliatory Scuds flying over Tel Aviv, I had lost all perspective when it came to Jen’s moods. I’d taken her silence as falling in with the general feeling of dread. After all, it was tricky to see how this heavy artillery would solve anything. But one day she burst into the back-room while I was recording a tinny horn track with a cheap Casio keyboard.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ she asked, standing at the door.
‘I’m putting some horns down as a backing track for these speech loops.’ I had to stop the recording.
‘On a toy keyboard?’ She stepped inside. ‘You should be in bed anyway, you have a temperature.’
‘You’re right,’ I had to admit it. I was feeling terrible.
‘Listen, I have to tell you something,’ she said, lowering her voice. I knew something was up because there was no-one else around. Why would she need to whisper?
‘I’ve been taken advantage of,’ she said. ‘I just thought you ought to know.’
‘What?’ I replied.
‘I was swindled. At the job interview I had last week,’ she said. ‘I’ve messed everything up.’
Then she burst into tears.
I wasn’t in a fit state to talk in any useful way. I had to go to bed.
‘O, what a goodly outside falsehood has!’ yelled Jackspur while sitting on the pavement, which alarmed a woman passing-by, who then dropped her shopping. A small plastic carrier bag split open right in front of him. The dog lifted his head up from his paws.
‘Easy, Caliban, easy,’ said Jackspur.
‘Oh jeez, not again,’ the dog swivelled his eyes to look at the tramp next to him. ‘Why do you insist on doing this every time.’
Jackspur ignored the dog and watched the woman try to fit shopping into her handbag. She was cramming fruit, chocolate and a quarter bottle of vodka into something that looked far too small. Her flannel trouser suit flapped in the breeze.
‘Amazing the bottle didn’t break,’ she muttered.
‘I trained the dog myself, you know,’ Jackspur continued his theme. ‘You’ll notice he’s not bothering you at all.’
‘Pffhh, please.’ said Caliban contemptuously.
It was 4pm on Brick Lane and the haze of the day was dissolving into twilight. Storm lamps were being clipped to stall frames and the smell of frying spice and grilled meat warmed the air.
‘C’mon, Caliban. Up!’ chirped Jackspur.
The woman was trying not to look but she couldn’t work out what to do with a torn paper bag full of clementines. She let them fall from her fingers and they landed by Jackspur’s hat. Caliban had already sprung to attention with a paw in the air.
‘And here’s a Euro-dollar to feed your dog with,’ she said, flicking a coin at them as she turned on her heel.
Jackspur watched it roll along the pavement towards someone with big boots who was mid-stride. He couldn’t help but dive for it – this was hard earned money.
‘Sorry mate,’ said the owner of the boots, lifting one of them off Jackspur’s hand. ‘Didn’t see you there.’
Jackspur peered up at him. He had long hair and a battered guitar slung over his shoulder. A tin whistle poked out of the breast pocket of his jacket. He looked strangely familiar.
‘I was headed for Bank station to do some busking,’ he continued. ‘I think I’m lost.’
He may well have said more but a police gunship reared up from behind a tower block stirring up a roar. The dog cowered and shook, which was a pity. He ought to have become accustomed to the gunships by now – the way they suddenly appeared over your head like mutant wasps.
When Jackspur turned his attention back to the busker, he was gone.
I have to stop myself from tearing another sheet of paper out of the pad. I shouldn’t be so impulsive about this. After all, I ripped a page out and threw it away earlier because it was leading me into a story set in the present – and what do I know about what’s happening now? But in the end I salvaged it. There was no sense in wasting a hundred words or so.
However, now that I’m back to writing my tale set in some dystopian future, what the hell possesses me to introduce a talking dog? Surely the trick of writing a story like this is to create a believable world? A dog chatting away to its master is bound to lose most readers straight off. What am I thinking?
And then to cap it all, I’m taking a big risk with the busker and keeping hold of the opening sequence. Could I figure a way to convincingly propel him into the future? Maybe the explosion from his rucksack bomb could do it. A big, blinding flash of light and all of a sudden he’s stepping out of Whitechapel Station 10 or 15 years later.
Hmm – I’m in the midst of deep contemplation, drumming my fingers on the table, when the curtain is drawn back with a swish and Jen stands uncertainly, shielding her eyes from the kitchen strip light.
‘What time is it?’ she asks. ‘I must have dozed off.’
It’s almost 4pm. I hadn’t noticed the time pass either.
The doorbell rings. Jen is dishevelled as she walks half-asleep to see who it is – her hair’s messed up, her off-the-shoulder T-shirt is practically off the elbow. When she sleep-walks her way back in moments later, a bloke about twice our age is trailing after her. He’s dressed in blue overalls.
‘He’s from the co-op,’ says Jen. ‘Wants to look upstairs.’
‘Ah well – size up the job, you know,’ says the landlords’ man, eyeing Jen’s behind. And then he switches his attention my way.
‘Grafton,’ he says, offering his hand.
‘I’m Blake,’ I take his handshake. ‘And this is Jen. She’s my inspiration.’
When I say Grafton looks twice our age, that’s pretty misleading. For a start, I’m 28 and Jen’s only just turned 19. And I tend to think that any bloke who looks mature is in his late forties. Whereas I still look like a teenager. I can’t even grow a beard.
Our landlord is a Housing Co-operative. Grafton’s arrival signals the beginning of the end of our tenure here. We always knew it would be temporary – that at some point they would schedule the repairs and give us our notice. It’s just that neither of us are ready for this news right now. We’ve enjoyed a year and a half in this place and it’s beginning to feel like home.
Well, I suppose to say that we’ve enjoyed our time here is stretching the truth a bit. Jen seems to have spent most of it in therapy, while I’ve been getting nowhere with either the musical projects or my writing. We’ve been permanently broke. But we have settled into a cosy routine, regardless – a routine that we couldn’t imagine living without.
It’s worth pointing out that we aren’t together as boyfriend and girlfriend, in the conventional sense. You couldn’t even say we’re soul-mates. We’re more like co-dependents and, over the last year or so, we’ve become inseparable. It’s even been the cause of a massive bust-up with one of Jen’s passing flings. He tore all the posters off the kitchen wall and called her a ‘twisted whore’ when she told him about us. I put it down to the fact that he was from Rome.
‘You have to forgive their fits of insane rage,’ I said to Jen while I swept up the pieces of broken crockery. ‘After all, they lost an empire just like the Brits.’
I get on famously with Grafton over a coffee. Or at least it feels that way as he imparts plenty of wisdom about the seventies squat scene and making a home on a canal boat. How much easier all this would be if I was useful with my hands. Living on a boat would be no problem. But no, I can barely change the fuse on a plug.
Although, while Grafton talks, I imagine a life overcoming all obstacles along the canal systems of Britain. The idea stays with me for the rest of the evening. Me, a swashbuckling adventurer of the waterways with Jen, my Tom Sawyer – afternoons on the cabin roof, bathing in dappled sunlight. It would be the gentlest of freedoms.
The fantasy remains right up until I handcuff Jen and rope her to the bay window curtain rail before bed-time. It’s then that I realise it wouldn’t be practical living in cramped conditions on a boat. We’d find it difficult to maintain the rituals that keep us together.
Seems it didn’t work out for Grafton either, in the long run. He says he now lives in a Spitalfields town-house before he puts down his mug and heads upstairs to assess the job at hand.
When Grafton’s done he lets us know that the job looks easy.
‘But I’ll tell ’em it’s a tricky one to buy you some time,’ he says, winking at Jen.
Before he leaves, he hands me over a small business card and tells me if we’re ever stuck, his landlady would be worth a shout.
‘She’s a golden-hearted Spitalfields lass by the name of Sandra,’ he says and bids us farewell.
Jackspur had forgotten how long he’d lived in the lock-up arch on Chance Street. It was home now and had been for as long as he could remember. He slept on a high ledge at the back end, which he got to by weaving through rows of stacked-up old furniture.
Previously he’d lived in an attic above a sweat shop. While he was there, he’d been a layman’s scholar. He spent all his time studying power struggles through history. He was also a pamphleteer – on the subject of conspiracies and dark prophecies.
But these days he had no recollection of any of it. These days he was happy enough to beg for his day’s drinking and maybe forage some food before bed-time.
The dog had been around for as long as he could remember too. He watched as Caliban snuffled by the bins at the corner of Brick Lane and Chance Street. It was a mystery as to where the mangy old mutt had come from but he was glad of the company.
‘Sweet are the uses of adversity,’ said the dog, barely looking up yet somehow sensing his companion’s wistful mood.
Meanwhile, the busker had taken up a pitch next to a bar called the Brickfields. What the hell, he couldn’t work out exactly where he was in relation to Bank, but this place looked lively enough. There was a board outside on the pavement advertising a ‘big screen’ football match. He’d never seen that in a pub before but figured the Brickfields must have some sort of closed circuit TV arrangement with the league. The supporters were beginning to arrive in groups, well before kick-off. This was a situation he could work with.
He decided to go straight for the whistle and, after licking and smacking his lips, he set off into some jigs and reels. Things were slow, financially speaking, and most of the punters looked menacing and danced about stupidly in front of him as he played. And he only got to strum his guitar through one verse and chorus of The Irish Rover before the heckling drowned him out.
That is, until he picked the whistle back up and a suited, booted businessman-type drew to a standstill on his way into the bar. It was mid-way through Will ye go Lassie go when all of a sudden there he stood, trance-like, swaying in front of him with his eyes shut. It was a little off-putting.
After the tune was done, the businessman pulled out a crisp bank note and introduced himself.
‘I’m Walter,’ he said as he rolled the note into a tube and handed it over. ‘The Market Officer.’
‘My name’s Mick,’ said the busker, overcome with joy at the pay-out. But a moment later, when he unrolled his earnings, what he thought was a tenner looked more like Monopoly money.
It began with some traditional spanking sessions – across the knee or over the desk – and from there, Jen and I have dabbled with a few different sub/dom permutations. Lately we’ve been trying out a variety of scenarios for lengthy spells of bondage. Jen is particularly fixated on this one, and gets me to take photos with her Polaroid, which she looks at afterwards in bed and then burns the following morning.
After Grafton leaves, Jen goes to have a bath and I return to my tale of crime and power set sometime in the 2000s.
The 2000s… what would they be known as? The first two decades of the 20th century became synonymous with rulers or events. So, who or what would provide the name for the first years of the 21st century? Let’s see, the only likely looking politician on the horizon is John Smith and the only possible direction to go would be towards a United States of Europe.
So it’d be President Smith of the USE.
They’d be the Smithsian years.
The TV screen in the bar was enormous. It was like a small cinema. Mick had never seen anything like it. The sound was deafening – the roar of the football fans and the shrill delivery of the commentator. He was stunned for a moment and the barman had to shout twice to get his attention.
‘Sorry, pardon?’ said Mick. The barman was bald, with a red face and his forehead was trickling with sweat.
‘I said!’ he shouted. ‘Either buy a drink or you can take your guitar and fuck off!’
‘Oh,’ said Mick, taken aback. ‘I’ll have a pint of lager and a bag of salt n vinegar, if it’s no trouble. And an ashtray as well.’
The barman eyed him over suspiciously.
‘Look mate, I’ll serve you a beer,’ he said. ‘But you try anything funny and you’re out.’
Mick hadn’t a clue what he was on about. The guy looked like a Nazi. This must be one of their pubs. Right-wing groups must hold meetings here. Mick pulled out his tobacco tin. The barman returned just as he’d finished rolling his cigarette.
‘One litre of lager,’ he said, slamming down a glass the size of a vase. ‘And a tube of potato snacks.’
This was getting more and more strange. Mick looked around at everyone else in the bar. They all had shaved heads or crop tops. His hand shook as he passed over the Monopoly money. It was a relief that whatever currency it was, it seemed to work. But it was a surprise when the barman returned with a solitary coin for change. It looked like fifty pence.
‘And here’s your fucking ashtray,’ he said, letting it fall to the counter with a clatter.
Mick was in a pub that seemed more like a small cinema, full of right wingers dealing in toy money. He’d hoped to ask someone for directions to Bank station but now he wasn’t so sure it would be a good idea. He figured he’d drink up and get out while the going was good.
It was half time in the football match and a news item boomed from the big screen. President Smith was addressing the nation on the war in the Middle East. Major advances had been made on the border with Iran but rocket attacks were being aimed at Euro forces in such volume as to be a constant threat. The restrictions on car use would have to be maintained, if not increased, as a result of the oil shortages. It was a tough time for Britain, as it was for all of Europe, but we would triumph once more over our adversaries!
Mick was speechless.
Who the hell’s President Smith? he thought.
I first met Jen at a small New Year’s Eve gathering at a friend’s house in Clapton – a musician called Dan who, at midnight, insisted we all do something that we would remember the end of the eighties by. So we stood on our heads while we played Prince on the stereo – Raspberry Beret. I needed a wall to lean against while I performed my head-stand, and Jen had to shuffle along to accommodate me.
She had run away from home the year before. Her mother’s pills, boozing and nymphomania got too much for her. That and a creepy step-father. She’d become pals with Dan’s girlfriend Jessie, and they were putting her up on their couch.
Within two weeks of our first, up-side down conversation, she moved into my little Co-op flat. She got to turn the front room into her bedroom, I had no use for it, and she set about organising the whole place. Out of the pair of us, she’s the practical one.
She has always resisted signing on so, to begin with, she found various methods of making money. Some of which I was happy not to hear much about. And I carried along in my own way.
At the time I was writing songs for a singer called Aileen who had long since moved on. She was prised away from me by my old band mate but I hoped that one day she’d come back. In the meantime I was writing a whole new repertoire for her. Jen was too polite to comment on the pointlessness of it – for the first few months at least.
It was during the spring after Jen moved in that we found our common ground. I was trying to work on the middle break of a song with an acoustic guitar, when she flopped stomach down on my bed. To all intents and purposes she was just hanging out, reading a magazine, but I noticed she was dressed strangely – she had on a short, pleated skirt and socks and before I knew it she had removed the guitar from my lap and put herself in its place.
‘I’ve been a bad girl,’ she said. ‘Very bad.’
I can’t remember how I responded, awkwardly no doubt. She wriggled about before continuing.
‘And you know what bad girls deserve?’
‘No,’ I stammered and she wriggled some more. She reached behind her back for my hand.
‘A little firm correction,’ she said and she guided me through the first few deliveries.
Of course, that was the flat we had before we moved here. And now I’m trying to write a little masterpiece, a Penguin Classic set in the Smithsian age – with the housing situation rearing its head again and Jen sitting in the bath upstairs, having been in therapy for about a year. On top of that the country has gone bust and terrorist bombs continue to explode around London.
It makes it difficult to wrap my head around some of the more complex plot issues with all this going on. And then there’s the whole pursuit of creating a believable world, which takes up a lot of time. I’m having to spend good chunks of the day imagining what life will be like in the future. I then spend time justifying to myself the time I spend daydreaming. This book is pretty much an open all hours job for me at the moment and I could do without the distractions.
At this very point in time I am writing a scene that attempts to convey the technological advances of the Smithsian years while propelling the plot forwards. It’s a tricky business.
Walter, the Market Officer, was in shock, as was everyone else in the bar. Nelson Stone, 25 million Eurodollars’ worth of talent, had just been attacked by a mob of fans who’d stormed the pitch. It was like a gang mugging and mayhem followed. Players, match officials, stewards and police all weighed in. Walter was watching on, sitting on a stool by the counter, when his V-phone began vibrating. It was Sally Hart, the property entrepreneur.
‘Tonight’s the night,’ she said. He could see she was in the virtual gym from the headsets hanging on the wall behind her.
‘What?’ he replied. ‘You mean, what we discussed…?’
‘Yes,’ she hissed at the screen.
‘Do you think it’s a good idea?’ Walter was caught off-guard by the speed of events.
‘With this going on in the football? Perfect,’ she replied. Shouts were being raised around the bar. She was right, there was a growing mood of malevolence amongst the punters.
‘OK,’ said Walter. ‘Where shall we meet?’
‘In the arch at Chance Street. Quarter to ten. But first, fetch the papers and leave the office unlocked.’ She ended the call and the screen turned blue. Walter folded up the phone and slipped it back in his pocket. When he looked up again the busker was standing right beside him.
Jen re-appears, dressed for work and sets about making an instant coffee.
‘Does this look all-right?’ she asks, spooning granules into a mug.
Jen works as a waitress in a funky vegetarian restaurant. It’s run by some hippy wheeler dealer who doesn’t believe in uniforms but will occasionally ‘buy the kids some kinky outfits to wear’.
Tonight Jen is wearing a Sex Pistols T-Shirt and a leather skirt. Her stockings are probably a gift from the boss. The boots, on the other hand, are sensible. Jen is just over five feet tall and her hair falls in crazy hazel curls, as much outwards as downwards.
‘You look fine Jen,’ I say. ‘And I think ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ is a fair statement to make while you serve up the bean goulash.’
This makes her laugh for the first time today. She mixes up a milky coffee that she can down easily and takes a chair at the kitchen table.
I, of course, don’t have paid work as such. I just make my smoke for free, ferrying quarters and eighths to the regulars every fortnight for a local dealer called Frank. It’s been eleven years since I first signed on. I didn’t imagine it being this long. If all had gone to plan, I would have been a successful songwriter by now.
At my upcoming ‘Back to Work’ interview, I intend to take along a draft of my novel as proof of my efforts to find employment. Last year I took them a stack of Tascam four-track tapes. It had them bemused. I dream of the day I can walk into that dole office with a contract.
As Jen leaves for work, I decide to re-double my efforts. I will continue with my Smithsian crime thriller until she returns in the early hours.
There was something strange about that busker, thought Jackspur, who had taken up his usual vigil in the shadows by the arch shutters. The dog had skipped off for his night-time constitutional. He was normally gone a half hour or so, which was enough time for Jackspur to enjoy one final can before bedtime.
A large full moon hung between the tower blocks. A poster on a market pillar flapped in the breeze. Apart from that, all was quiet except for the ceaseless rumble of traffic and the occasional shout.
That busker reminded him of someone – but who?
He opened his can and it spluttered foam over his hands. He wiped them dry on his beard and heard footsteps approaching, turning the corner into Chance Street.
It was someone he did something with, probably, now he’d come to think of it. He must have done something years ago, like a job, and that busker was probably one of his old work mates.
He took a gulp of his Super Lager. A great roar of voices broke out somewhere way off in the distance. The footsteps, on the other hand, were almost upon him. A set of urgent high heels. Within moments a woman swept past, her coat-tails like wings and the breeze lifting her hair.
Or perhaps he owed money to the busker? That was more likely – the guy must have been one of the many people Jackspur had tapped up for a loan. Theirs were the faces that he had tried his utmost to commit to memory.
He could hear the shutter to the next door arch being lifted very gently, as if to avoid making the usual clatter.
Why not have a drink? After all, here I am about to throw myself into a long night drafting my tale of conspiracy. I should go at it like Hemingway. Although, it’s just a bottle of ale for me – the one I brought home from the pub last week.
I think about Jen and the discussion we had before she left for work. We talked about whether we still wanted to live together. That’s the nature of moving home within a Co-op, it fosters a complete lack of permanence. The absence of commitment becomes natural.
In turn, that’s what’s untypical about me and Jen. The conversation just now was short but full of emotion. We both declared we couldn’t live without one another, she wiped away a tear and we each made a cigarette from the same tobacco tin. So it was decided – we’d go together to view whatever flats were on offer. She seemed happier when she headed out to the restaurant.
One drink is never enough. With my thirst whetted, it occurs to me that Jen has a bottle of vodka that she likes to keep in the freezer compartment. I take nips straight from the bottle and between lungfuls of dope, I mull over the problem of Caliban.
As things stand, he’s out of the picture. He’s taken himself off for a snuffle while the main action happens on Chance Street. Of course, he has been removed from the scene for a purpose. Though what that is exactly, I have yet to figure out. In fact, it’s still not clear as to why I wrote a talking dog into the story in the first place.
Mick got himself away from the pub as soon as tempers started rising. He walked briskly along tight lanes of tall old houses and through what looked like a cardboard city full of tramps, until he realised he’d lost track of time as well as direction and found himself opposite a covered market. It had bottle green pillars and an arched entrance. Other than the stirring of rubbish in the breeze, all was quiet.
He needed to rest up and was heading for a stall table under the market roof to sit on, when he heard the click clack of paws approaching. Both he and the dog froze on sight. It looked like some mythical creature with spiky black fur and green eyes. Mick stayed still for about a minute and waited for the dog to inch slowly away. He watched until it had melted into the darkness, deep under the market roof. Was it a totem spirit? Had he just imagined it?
Mick felt like he’d been hallucinating the whole evening. He put his guitar on the table, clambered up and laid out next to it. Now that he’d stopped he suddenly felt tired. He wondered how long he had been walking since he left the tube station but couldn’t for the life of him remember.
Also, that bloke begging. He looked familiar – like maybe someone he’d known at school.
And what the hell was going on in that pub? A football cinema full of angry, shaven-headed blokes using walkie-talkies. The beer was extortionate. Just the one pint had cleaned him out of his evening’s earnings – and who in god’s name is President Smith?
It was surely too late to try more busking. He’d have to cut his losses and return home with just the coin to show for his efforts.
But how was he to get home from here?
A throwaway line from the conversation with Grafton earlier stops me in full flow. I put the pen down and head for the freezer compartment. I may as well mark this pause with another nip from Jen’s vodka bottle and I roll up a cigarette at the same time.
We’d been talking about the IRA mainland campaign and the recent bomb at the Baltic Exchange. Grafton had been commenting on how good Irishmen were trying to do the job the English had manifestly failed at. That is, to get rid of the wretched government.
‘We even lobbed a few rockets at Downing Street,’ he said proudly. ‘But now they’re building a ‘ring of steel’ around London to keep the Irish out!’
A ring of steel. I try to imagine it. Would it be like the medieval wall with guarded gates? Whatever form it takes, surely it would be a feature of Smithsian London.
I look in front of me, at the wall against which the table is set. The kitchen is covered with call-girl flyers, the sort you’d find decorating phone boxes around the West End. Jen likes to collect them and pin them up, the way some people would do with rock magazine posters. Madame Whiplash, Buxom Beth and the rest peer down at me as I listen to Sex Packets by Digital Underground and contemplate the future shape of London.
The partition would be stark, between the rich, white city and the multi-cultural masses on its fringes – and it would be defined by access to transport. The poor would be back to relying on their feet and using the tubes. The streets would become pedestrian thoroughfares, while the rich travel in and out on trains. And the policing would be done by armed gangs in helicopters – some private firm, a cross between Group Four and a bunch of vigilantes.
Phone boxes will be obsolete. Everyone will communicate using video phones. They’ll be like Star Trek communicators. Prostitutes will have to leave their calling cards on lamp-posts and walls, or advertise their services via V-phone messages.
And yes, why not? People are bound to use sex drugs of some sort – Digital Underground are probably right on the mark.
Walter, the market officer, knew he ought to be preparing himself mentally for the rendezvous with his boss – you know, getting his head ready for business. Instead he couldn’t help but fantasise about her. It was bizarre. He’d never previously found Sally sexually attractive.
All of a sudden it dawned on him that she was, in fact, a hot package – despite being almost twice his age. She always dressed the part, in neat business suits and severe high-heels. And the way she showed off those stockings…
He needed to try thinking about something else. This wasn’t the best state of mind for the kind of meeting he was about to go into. He decided to rip flyers off the market pillars as he walked past them but he couldn’t stop thinking about sex. It was as if he’d become possessed by a lusty demon. He wanted a fuck so much his knees were almost giving way beneath him.
Maybe I should V-mail one of these prossies, he thought as he tore a Luscious Lizzie flyer from a pillar. He was in turmoil, he had completely lost control of his urges. This had never happened to him before.
Luscious Lizzie was based over by the Ring of Steel. It would take her at least ten minutes to make it over to his office. Walter folded up his V-phone and cursed whatever it was that had taken possession of him. This could make him late for his meeting.
Why did it have to happen tonight, of all nights?
Sally Hart leaned against a desk in the arch and lit a cigarette. This was a perfect occasion to carry out the plan – there was trouble at a big football match, stirring up the rabble, and it was Guy Fawkes Night. With all this commotion, her little deed would hardly be noticed…
Yes, of course! Why haven’t I thought of it before? The action has to take place on Bonfire Night. A fitting occasion for multiple acts of terrorism. I just have to go back over everything I have written thus far and add some background. You know, a sky-rocket going off, some kids on a street corner shouting: Penny for the Guy! It’ll take no time.
I can feel this tale coming together and I decide to reward myself with a quick nip and a smoke.
… it would be as simple as stealing apples from a market stall.
Sally had worked long and hard to get to this point. She’d had her eye on this block for over fifteen years and now she was within grabbing distance. All that was needed for tonight to go off with a bang was one fool and enough petrol to burn up some evidence.
Walter would be with her soon. And she had a two gallon canister, filled and wired, stashed in a safe under the desk she was leaning on. Sally couldn’t help but congratulate herself. This was an easy win.
The barman’s V-phone had been vibing his thigh for maybe a minute before he could answer it. The outbreak of violence at the football match had prompted some fierce exchanges amongst the Brickfield’s punters. Even though things seemed to have settled down, he was still keeping an eye on them. It was an edgy situation.
In the dim light, the V-phone screen lit the barman’s face blue. A woman sitting alone in the shadows was watching him closely.
‘Vince!’ said the caller. ‘Did you manage to stall him?’
The barman retreated to the quieter end of the bar. The woman’s gaze followed him.
‘What d’you want?’ he said.
‘I asked you to stall the chuckle-head,’ hissed the caller.
‘I did even better than that boss,’ said Vince.
‘I spiked his beer with a powerful male aphrodisiac.’
As soon as Vince had folded up his V-phone, the woman got to her feet and walked up to the bar. She took the high stool at the very end of the counter, right where he’d taken his V-call. She looked him in the eye and ordered a large Vodka.
‘Do you take that with juice, madam?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but I like mine freshly squeezed,’ and she pulled a clementine from her handbag.
Prior to working in the restaurant, Jen had several jobs, ranging from life modelling to conducting bus surveys. Before I met her she earned a bit of money bottling for Dan, whenever he went busking. She had a winning way about her hat work – the take was always good when Jen joined forces with Dan. When he asked her how she did it, Dan said she told him that while he played she’d stand next to a punter and rub the small of his or her back.
Dan is here now, re-telling this story as we go through the ritual of chopping up a fat coke crystal on a blotchy piece of mirror. He turned up ten minutes ago, asking if I was coming out to the club all-nighter at the Scala. He has a bottle of American whiskey as well as the Charlie. Dan makes a fair bit of money from music these days and he’s at the start of a long, wild session.
Of course, given I’m in the midst of inspired composition, I have to decline his invitation. That said, the idea of throwing a coke buzz into the creative pot is too good to resist. I don’t normally take drugs, apart from the spliffs, but tonight is worth making an exception for. I am constructing a plot as complex as a Poirot mystery.
Who, for example, was the barman speaking to on his V-phone? Why is Sally Hart up to no good? And what’s with the talking dog?
On the subject of Jen and her jobs, she’s had her current one for about as long as she’s been in therapy. Sometimes I wonder if they don’t feed off each other. For sure her boss at the restaurant is a suspicious character. He’s some flash businessman called Neil, with a café and a bar on the go as well – and he likes to nurture the girls who work for him. Jen says that’s why she sticks with the waitressing job. The manager of Neil’s bar once waitressed at the restaurant.
The mention of his name makes my hackles rise whenever Jen talks about her work. I tell her it’s the notion of someone making money from the hard graft of others but, to be truthful, I don’t like it when she comes home with the stockings and suspenders. It’s not that I’m jealous in a normal way. Just that there’s something creepy about the whole scene. And of course, when I put in so much effort for absolutely no reward, it irritates me to hear about someone to whom good fortune comes easily. As Dan said earlier, ‘Sex, drugs and rock n roll is over – now it’s just sex and money.’
So with Jen doing all this, you might ask, what was the job interview about that upset her so much?
At the time I couldn’t fathom what the problem was at all. When she burst into tears telling me about it, I was worried that maybe she’d lost money. But then it dawned on me that we didn’t really have much to lose.
Then she told me that she’d gone for a modelling interview. Someone at the restaurant put the idea into her head to give it a try.
‘I’ve done life-modelling, so I thought – why not fashion?’ she said, sticking up for herself.
I didn’t want to push her any more on the subject. I didn’t need to know what happened. She must have experienced that feeling of rejection, had her hopes and dreams shattered – I pretty much knew how she felt. I couldn’t even guess at how many demo tapes I sent out to record companies over those few years. 50? 100?
And look at me now – sitting in the basement kitchen of a house I’m about to be thrown out of, drinking my girlfriend’s vodka, only she’s not my girlfriend, she’s someone with whom I enjoy sado-masochistic role-play. Dan, the successful musician, has just left and I’m buzzing on his coke, but I know it will wear off and I’ll be left here with the call-girls staring down off the wall and the radio/cassette player and this A4 notepad on the table in front of me.
All of a sudden the night sky was shot through with fireworks and the rat-a-tat of gunpowder. Jackspur almost jumped out of his wrinkled oilskin. The hissing sulphur hit the market roof with a sound like sprayed grit.
He’d been thinking about the dog. He couldn’t remember where the name Caliban came from. It was probably what the dog was called when it turned up. Whenever that was. He took another swig from his beer can and more rockets went off.
Jackspur didn’t approve of Bonfire Night – it was an occasion of state sanctioned blood-lust. He found the public burnings disturbing. The dog agreed with him in the main. Although, Caliban had earlier pointed out that at a subconscious level people were simply playing out an ancient pagan fire ceremony associated with the Samhain festival.
‘The English are easy to bewitch,’ he’d said. ‘Look at them all.’
Jackspur was thinking over that conversation again. There was something unusual in the way the dog spoke. He possessed a level of wisdom you would never expect. It was bordering on the supernatural.
Jackspur put his can on the pavement while he made a roll-up from the day’s gathered butts. The sky continued to wail and explode above him.
Perhaps dogs have a philosophical nature, generally. Maybe he’d just never noticed before.
I stop for another cigarette and a nip of vodka – although, this is more of a working break. I am making notes at the same time.
What would the opiate of the Smithsian masses be? Well, of course, by then TV would have established an unbreakable grip. Privatisation will mean everyone is addicted to the spectacle – there will be live sports, rolling news and films, audience humiliation shows and so on.
And virtual reality. Those with disposable incomes will go to arcades and rent headsets by the hour, with a choice of virtual worlds to explore – scenarios based on TV genres: murder mystery, period drama, sci-fi etc.
And V-mail. Everyone will be talking on computers and V-phones – couples will conduct V-mail romances and have V-sex. People will meet discreetly, on screen, take their clothes off and masturbate. How ridiculous is that?
Walter was meant to open up the market office anyway, and to leave the door unlocked. He was supposed to unlock the office, get the papers and then meet his partner in crime at the arch on Chance Street – Sally, who was waiting for him in her fitted business suit and those sheer, black stockings that make her legs look like they belong on a Hollywood film star.
It hadn’t taken much persuasion for Walter to be drawn into Sally’s scheme. Ever since becoming market officer three years ago, he’d performed his work with professionalism and honour. It just happened to be that he was the one in charge as the westerly section of the market was subject to a development offer. It was obvious, three years on, how it was all panning out. He could either remain dutiful and administer his own extinction, or he could help himself to some of the prize money.
Scotland had just become an independent state of Europe. Walter had a fancy to pack up and go home with a fat roll of cash. This was an opportunity for him to start afresh.
It definitely wasn’t part of the plan to find himself naked and handcuffed to the leg of his desk. He was cursing himself for allowing this to happen. He’d only ripped the top half of her flyer off the pillar – how was he to know that Luscious Lizzie was a dominatrix? When she turned up and peeled down to her costume, he was so horny he fell in with the role play without a second thought. And, quick as a flash, here he was – stripped and cuffed.
She was pacing about the office, in the middle of a speech delivered to humiliate.
‘… and your mistress Lizzie is going to have V-sex, right here in front of you, while you whimper and drool in your gag. What do you say to that, big boy?’
Walter wasn’t able to argue his mistake, all he could do was bite and slobber on the plastic ball in his mouth. She hadn’t taken his earlier protests seriously, she’d responded like it was part of the role play. Now he was trying to figure a way out of the situation.
All of a sudden his V-phone began to vibrate in the pocket of his trousers, a few feet away. If he was able to reach it, he could maybe summon some help. But Luscious Lizzie paused and gave him and his abandoned trousers a disdainful glance. She didn’t need to say anything. And of course, Walter knew that any plan was hopeless.
He was completely at her mercy.
Vince threw a dish-cloth over his shoulder and watched Crockett, the policewoman, squeeze her clementine juice into a glass of vodka. She bit into the peel and drained every last drop without getting her hands sticky.
‘So tell me, boss,’ he said. ‘If you were in the bar, why did you bother V-calling me?’
‘I wanted to get you down this end of the counter, away from all the goons,’ she said. ‘And it worked.’ She meant business and, in a flannel trouser suit, she was dressed for it too.
‘I asked you to stall him, not feed him with drugs,’ she looked stern. ‘Now we don’t know where he is.’
‘Why do we need to know where he is?’ Vince asked. He knew very little about what was going on here, just that he was being leaned on by the police. Given he had to pay them for protection, there was little use to holding out on the occasional favour. At least this time they’d sent him a lovely lady – serious, maybe, but a looker nonetheless.
‘I need to have a search around his office,’ she said. ‘A quiet, undisturbed sift.
But first we have to pay a quick visit to the arches.’
It’s safe to say that me and Jen aren’t your usual, run of the mill, S&M couple. We don’t involve ourselves in any scene – we wouldn’t dream of it. Our mutual indulgence is our secret. Truth be told, we both feel a little guilty about it. I put it down to the fact that we’re Catholics, or to be more accurate, we were brought up as Catholics. The only rituals we practice now are of our own making.
Jen got back from work half an hour ago and I mustn’t forget about her. She’s currently lashed to the curtain rail with a skipping rope, her hands cuffed, while perched on a high stool in front of the bay window. She’s wearing the fishnet body-stocking she came home with.
I hadn’t noticed the time pass since she left – and she was overjoyed to find me still up and about. She wanted to try her outfit on straight away. Anyone stepping down the stairs to our front door right now would be in for a surprise. But who’d be calling by at 2.30 in the morning?
She wants to be cuffed and gagged, perched up on the high stool with the final act of a Russ Meyer video playing. So now I have roughly half an hour to work with. But having taken the polaroid snaps and closed the dividing curtain like she asked, it’s a question of remembering she’s there at the end of it. It would be just like me to forget all about her, switch off the kitchen light and go to bed.
I should mention that I’m not the instigator behind all this. Jen is the one who comes up with the ideas.
She’s quite open about the schoolgirl experience that set off her kinky inclinations. She doesn’t see it as a problem. It’s just that she once had an English teacher who liked to deal out his own discipline rather than refer up to the headmaster. It got to the point where she misbehaved on purpose.
‘What’s wrong with that?’ she says to me, and who am I to argue? How am I to know about the workings of a teenage schoolgirl’s mind?
All I know is that our rituals provide me with a structure without which I couldn’t be writing my sure-fire best-seller.
And, when all’s said and done, she burns the Polaroids in the morning.
Caliban figured it was best to keep his head undercover. Ever since the fireworks began in earnest, under the market roof was the obvious place to be. He was cowering beneath an old barrow immediately opposite the market office. It wasn’t long before he spotted the Scotsman returning to open up again, looking more distracted than usual and leaving his office door ajar.
When it came to it, the dog couldn’t be sure where he got his name from either. It was just one of a number of inexplicable aspects to his life. For example, he wasn’t sure how it came about that he’d achieved some sort of psychic tap into the tramp’s thoughts. Nor could he explain his ability to develop a form of rudimentary communication with him.
Caliban let out a splutter and a sigh and watched the market officer tidy up his desk and spray the room with air freshener. For all his limitations, at least the tramp was smart enough to recognise who called the shots – on occasions. Admittedly, most of the time he was clueless but those rare glimpses of clarity were something to be grateful for in an otherwise thankless existence.
All of a sudden he could hear the brisk clatter of approaching heels. He pulled his snout back out of view and kept his eye on proceedings.
The roof above was rattling with spent fireworks. Caliban hated Guy Fawkes Night. It never failed to set him on edge. It was simply gratuitous violence. And what’s more, there was something about that hippie busker he bumped into earlier that wasn’t quite right. All in all, this particular evening was making him feel uneasy.
Sally folded up her V-phone and wondered where the hell Walter was. He should have turned up ten minutes ago. She lit another cigarette. It had taken a lot of effort and guile to get to this moment, her big opportunity. She didn’t want it fucked up in any way.
It had been over 20 years since she first started renovating properties, in which time her income had grown enough to buy her way back into the part of town she considered home. Her mother lived behind Liverpool Street as a kid in the second world war. Sally’s grandparents had refused to send their little daughter off to the country as an evacuee. ‘Hitler’s gonna have to do more than bomb us to budge us,’ her grandfather had said.
It was the post-war house clearances, to make way for more finance buildings, that finally saw the family off. They had to settle for a new life in the suburbs.
But now Sally was back in her ma’s old stomping ground. She was the landlady of some lodgings houses and two bars, and soon to be the saviour of Chance Street Market. Over her dead body was the City of London going to creep its way east across the High Street. If that blundering officer wasn’t up to the job, she’d have to get it done herself.
A knock at the door shakes me from my thoughts. I check the kitchen clock, it’s 3 in the morning. Who is likely to be calling at this ungodly hour? Of course, it was bound to be Dan at the front door.
‘Er, sorry to disturb you,’ he says, glancing towards the bay window as he hovers on the step. ‘Just that I’ve been thinking about what you told me earlier, y’know, with your housing situation, and I wanted to say that you and Jen are welcome to crash ’round ours until you get yourself sorted.’
‘That’s very kind of you,’ I reply, although suddenly I feel awkward. I remember that Jen is currently cuffed and tied to the curtain rail, probably right in Dan’s line of sight. I should invite him in but she would freak out. Instead I’m lost for words.
As I watch Dan stumble up the stairs and away along the pavement, I realise we probably couldn’t move into his place now. We’d be bringing along our secret too. And now that he knows about it, he must think we’re weirdos. It would be too embarrassing.
I step out of the front door to look back in through the bay window. There’s Jen, perched legs akimbo on the high stool, her rear like a full heart in fishnet, the gag strap around the back of her head and across the room, on the TV, a woman in a leather cat-suit is battering a man senseless in some desert landscape.
I opt for a quick nip of vodka before uncuffing Jen. She must be feeling either freaked or excited – she would surely have heard the door – and, because of this, I can barely stop shaking. Once I stub out the roll-up, I decide that what I’m feeling is excitement, therefore Jen must be feeling the same. When I pull back the curtain I’m met by her wide stare.
‘Who was that?’ she asks with her first words for almost half an hour. She’s rubbing her wrists, sitting up on the high stool in her new body-stocking.
‘It was a pizza delivery guy,’ I say, with as much nonchalance as I can summon. ‘He was at the wrong address. But he couldn’t take his eyes from the sight of you while I put him straight.’
Instead of the breathless response I’m expecting, Jen suddenly bursts into tears. This surprises me completely. I know Jen likes to keep our private life to ourselves but I thought that maybe her fetish would extend to being witnessed, in a harmless way.
‘It’s OK, it was a total stranger,’ I continue to lie. ‘He couldn’t really see anything, certainly no way he could tell who you were.’
So, in the upshot I’ve agreed to be handcuffed and rope-tied myself, siting on the high stool, while Jen goes to check the view her voyeur would have been treated to. I just don’t understand this fine line between recklessness and shame that Jen always treads. She tells me that our role-play is the one subject she hasn’t discussed with her therapist.
I say he’s a therapist, in fact he’s some bloke in an alternative remedies shop in Church Street who gets a massage in exchange for his insight. It seems all he does is listen and occasionally offer up some new-age philosophy. When I asked Jen what she had told him about us, if not our rituals, she said everything. She said she’d told him everything about us except our role-playing secret.
‘Everything?’ I asked.
‘In great detail,’ she confirmed.
‘And what’s his opinion?’
‘He thinks we have intimacy issues,’ she said in a matter of fact way.
How could the therapist possibly understand the anxiety I am feeling right now, on Jen’s behalf, as she scurries out to the front step in her fetish-wear while I remain clothed yet cuffed and roped to the curtain rail? I could never imagine being more intimately connected to someone. What would the therapist know about that? The man is obviously a shyster but why bother pointing this out to Jen? She obviously gets something from her sessions with him.
‘The delivery guy must have seen everything,’ she sighs as she unlocks the cuffs and loosens the knot on the rope.
We sit in a daze, drinking coffee in the kitchen. Jen is still in her body-stocking. She’s like someone still wearing their party hat after all the guests have gone. Outside we can hear the first birdsong of the day. We’ve been talking about secrets and the future and I haven’t mentioned that it was Dan at the door earlier, not a mis-delivered pizza.
I’m finding it difficult to concentrate while it occurs to me how cool it would have been to live at Dan’s. It’s a busy house for sure, he has a high-flying band, but it’s crackling with creative energy. It would have been the perfect location to pen my Smithsian crime classic.
No chance of that now. Especially given I’ve decided not to tell Jen it was Dan at the door. If he ever mentioned anything it would be double the blow for her. It’s best therefore to avoid seeing him at all, never mind moving in to his house.
Earlier I let Jen know about a dream I had, in which I came back from the future to tell myself to keep working on the novel. It’ll take a long while yet before the value of what I am writing is realised, but one day it will be – so I told myself.
The immediate problem is where to write it, what with this eviction looming.
As Jen mumbles her way upstairs, I stir up another coffee, trying to remember how long it’s been since we began the full bondage rigmarole. Jen’s most daring suggestion up to that point involved being tied up with freshly stripped panty-hose and given a good paddling. But all too quickly it seems we fell into these methodical, drawn-out routines, which are more about the construction than any sort of action. We also spend too much money on Polaroid film.
It occurs to me that we’ve been doing this for going on a year now, which is about as long as Jen has been seeing her phoney therapist. Surely it’s time we moved on in more ways than one?
Mick woke up with a loud snort. He must have dozed off. Now, where was he? He could hear the echo of a distant whiplash and the sound of groaning. It turned out he had to think hard as to where he was, and what exactly he was doing. Something that sounded like a burst of machine-gun fire made him jump to attention. Fireworks – explosions of celebration.
Oh yeah, he was off to Bank station to do some busking. There he would find celebrating city boys. He couldn’t remember how long ago he’d started out from home and become so lost.
He could hear a voice a long way off, pleading for mercy.
‘Oh God, please. No. No!’
Just a few yards away in the street, the surface of a puddle rippled with the breeze. The air smelled sulphurous and smoky. He tapped his great-coat pocket and felt the tin whistle and then he strapped the guitar over his shoulder before making his way.
Out on the pavement, he hesitated. Should he head left or right? He could hear two sets of footsteps striding towards him, at least it sounded like they were coming his way. He could hear muttering voices too. They seemed to be somewhere to his left, so he set off to ask them for directions.
‘I’m not happy about leaving my bar like this,’ Vince protested. He was struggling to keep up with Crockett, who was striding up Brick Lane.
‘I’m not happy about any of this – and I hardly know the guy that’s on tonight.’
But his complaints were met with silence.
‘I refuse to be dragged into doing any police work. If I’m here, I’m here as an independent witness!’ He was gasping for breath. He’d let himself go lately. It was definitely time to renew his virtual gym membership.
‘Sure!’ Crockett called back to him. ‘If that makes you feel better!’
As she turned the corner into Chance Street she almost tripped over an abandoned Guy. In the process she kicked off its head, which was made from a balloon inside some papier-mache. Its face was drawn in crude black marker pen. The kick was hard enough to send it away down the road.
When Vince turned the corner he screamed out loud. At first glance the headless Guy looked like a decapitated tramp. It shocked the breath out of him. He had to hold himself up against the wall and draw in great rasping lungfuls of air. By the time he looked up again, Crockett had disappeared into the shadows along the arches.
For sure the English were bewitched, as well as everyone else around here. Jackspur would watch them all, walking up and down the streets every day like they were in some kind of trance. Some people walked with a more urgent stride than others – as if theirs was a higher purpose. Jackspur figured that these people were virtually unrecoverable as far as their humanity was concerned. He had spent a long time working it all out from the pavement.
He emptied his Super Lager and crunched the can in his fist. Footsteps were coming his way from the front end of the market and he wondered where the dog was. The sky burst alight in an explosion of red and blue stars.
Penny for the Guy? None of these urchins would even know whose effigy they were burning, never mind what it was all about. The thought made him boil.
The footsteps were drawing closer. Whoever this was, would soon be walking past. Jackspur decided he’d wait for them to come and go before getting to his feet – at which point he heard a fierce whisper.
And the footsteps drew to a halt. Jackspur could make out the sound of muttering voices as he stood up and dusted off the seat of his pants. The discussion was happening out of earshot in the next door arch.
It wasn’t like the dog to be this late. Jackspur couldn’t wait any longer – he crossed over to the market side of the road and turned in at the first entrance he came to. He began to whistle softly while he staggered his way around the empty stalls.
‘Wheew, Whoo. Wheew, Whoo.’
And in the upshot he was too far under the market roof to see Mick stepping out of the arches minutes later with a bulky rucksack on his back.
Although he did hear a scream.
I’m roused from a trance by the sound of rummaging from the front of the house. It looks like a fair April morning out there. Glorious sunlight floods half the living room through the bay window as I squint and shuffle my way over and look upwards to see a ladder being drawn up from the pavement to the first floor. There must be some mistake. Grafton didn’t give the impression that the work would start this quickly.
I feel dazed and figure the best idea is to have another coffee before anything else. I take a freshly stirred mug to the lean-to step and smoke a cigarette while I look out over the back garden. When I say garden, it’s really just a stretch of rubble, weeds and brambles with an ash tree at the bottom.
I take in the scene as if this patch of land is a wild forest I have tamed before reaching my moment of departure. So this is the end of the Victoria Road era. These are to be my last days here and it’s difficult to believe the time has come.
I figure it’s important to finish a first skeletal draft of my futuristic thriller before all the upheaval kicks in. I need to stay on this wave of inspiration I’m currently riding, otherwise all my hard effort will end up in a drawer along with my previous attempt at a novel – an erotic comedy set during the reign of Edward Tudor.
When I eventually do go out to the front to see what’s going on, I find Grafton backing down the ladder.
‘Sorry pal,’ he says to me. ‘They want me to start work today, but you have ’til Friday to move out.’
Luscious Lizzie was working her last shift on the game. She’d set out that afternoon thinking of how much fun she was going to have. Whichever punter came her way would be in for a surprise. She would play a few of the little tricks she’d wanted to try out these past few years. After all, by the end of the night she’d be on a train to Amsterdam, never to return. What did she care about any complaints she might get?
As a theme for the day she’d left every customer tied up or cuffed. It didn’t matter if she was leaving them in a hotel room, a marital bedroom or a work office. She wrote an appropriate message on each one’s buttocks with lipstick before saying her goodbyes. It gave her a thrill.
With the last punter of her career Lizzie got a lot more than she could have imagined. He was like a bouncing dog when she met him in his market office. If she’d asked him to roll over, he probably would have wiggled his legs in the air too. He was a new one, most of her customers were regular offenders, so she had to get a feel for what he wanted. It didn’t take her long to figure it out.
Naturally she had him gagged and shackled in no time, but it was easy to tell he was too harmless for anything really weird. Some suggestive humiliation and a sharp spank or two with a leather strap would do.
So Lizzie paced about the office denigrating the miserable, worthless life he led – a largely improvised speech prompted by the files and memos that she picked up and cast aside again – when all of a sudden a thick, paperback-sized packet caught her eye. It was sticking out of a bum bag in an open desk drawer. Without a second thought, she slipped the packet into her work-bag. She sensed it was something valuable and it felt like wads of cash to the touch. Her pulse began to race as she imagined what fate may have just thrown her way.
She decided to celebrate by having V-sex with her fuck-buddy as a kind of farewell. She’d planned on just disappearing on him, but what the hell – why not give him a parting shot to remember?
It’d give the gagged punter something to think about as well.
Sally thought of Walter’s face as she crushed her cigarette butt under the step of her high heel shoe. And to think, she’d been foolish enough to pay him in advance. No matter, the job had to be done and now she’d have to do it herself – with the help of that hippy.
She practically jumped out of her skin, however, when she bumped into the trouser-suited woman who had just ducked into the arch.
‘Detective Inspector Crockett!’ The woman held up a police badge.
‘That’s a fine name for an officer,’ Sally replied.
‘Enough of the jokes,’ said Crockett, pulling out a gun. ‘Now be a kind lady and show me where the petrol is.’
Just then a second officer appeared at the entrance, a twitchy looking bruiser with a red face and shaved head… hang about, she glanced at him again, it was Vince!
‘Woooaahh!’ he said, throwing his hands in the air at the sight of the gun.
‘Shut up,’ said Crockett, shifting on her feet but not taking her eyes off Sally who, for her part, was quite calm.
‘What are you saying? Petrol?’ said Sally with a shrug. She was doing a good job of keeping her nerve. This delay was the last thing she needed. She had to be in the market office within the next five minutes. If not, the whole plan would go up in flames – so to speak.
‘Don’t play games, Mrs Hart,’ sneered Crockett. She was holding the gun with two hands.
‘I don’t know who Mrs Hart is, or what you’re talking about.’ Sally summoned up a tone of outrage. ‘If I did have any goddam petrol it would be in the safe,’ she said, pulling the cord to switch on the strip-lights. Her two visitors leaned in towards the desk to have a closer look. The safe door was open and it was empty.
‘Be my guests and search the place, but I have an appointment I’m already late for,’ said Sally as she brushed past the pair of them and out of the arch.
Grafton is back up the ladder and I’m thinking about Jen. When we’re both awake this afternoon, I’m going to have to let her know about our eviction date. It’s probably a good thing we have to go sooner rather than later. These moves are best done quickly.
I still feel pretty stunned by what she told me a few hours ago while we were talking about secrets. Jen has a way of bringing life to a story that makes it stay with you. I’m wondering how much it may influence the writing of my own crime thriller. I’m pretty suggestible.
It’s obvious now, why she’s been in therapy so long. It took a lot for her to begin telling me all about it. But then again, I couldn’t help noticing that she grew more comfortable the further she got into the tale and by the time she reached the meat of it she was in full story-teller flow. It was as if a weight was lifting from her as she spoke and gestured and took swigs from a tea-mug.
She must have let her therapist know about what happened too. I can’t help but wonder what he made of it. Truth be told, it has shaken me up quite a bit. Who would have thought that street-smart Jen would get talked into having sex at a job interview? And that the interviewer would go and video-tape it all?
Walter watched Luscious Lizzie mop the floor with a scrunched up handful of meeting minutes and then felt a prod of lipstick around his arse. He wondered how much more of this he would have to endure and, more to the point, how late he would end up being for his meeting with Sally Hart.
‘Did you enjoy that gimp boy?’ Lizzie asked.
Walter could hear the zip on her work-bag. He hoped this meant she would take off his cuffs and his gag and finish up. As much as he enjoyed watching her get off in front of her V-phone earlier, all his passion had now dimmed.
Leave the office unlocked, bring the papers to the arch and then there’ll be one last job before you’re free to leave – that’s what Sally told him.
Just ten more minutes, all being well, and his work would be done. He comforted himself with thoughts of the train thundering north through the night and barely noticed the sound of Luscious Lizzie’s heels echoing away under the market roof until she was gone.
The dog had seen enough and crept away into the shadows. He trotted under barrows and around stalls until he reached the long tarpaulin curtain that formed a barrier between the east and west ends of the market. The east side of the tarpaulin, furthest away from the Ring of Steel, was a much larger area where all the food stalls were. Caliban had made his way there to snuffle about for scraps and when the fireworks began, he scrambled for further cover.
He was pondering on the fact that even though he had lived through countless Bonfire nights the bangs and whistles still gave him the jitters. He should really have got used to it by now.
‘She’s right, there’s no fucking petrol here!’ Crockett had an incredulous look on her face. Vince couldn’t work out what the big surprise was. The American red-head in the business suit had already told them as much. And what made Crockett think it was Sally?
‘We had good intelligence that the petrol would be here tonight,’ she continued. ‘That bitch must be up to something!’
‘Do we need to do this now?’ said Vince edging towards her. ‘Couldn’t we think about it back at the bar?’ He’d had enough – and he was worried. He’d left the new guy in charge.
‘Not until I say so.’ Crockett looked at her watch. ‘Come on, we’re off to the market.’
Sally felt a wave of fear as she stepped under the market roof and into the darkness. She bumped into a stall table but kept moving until she reached a long, clear aisle alongside a tarpaulin wall that she could touch for balance. Something about that scene back at the arch was too easy. Why hadn’t they stopped her from leaving? And why was Vince involved?
It soon occurred to her that although she was only a few hundred yards away from the successful outcome of her plan, she would never reach it. This was always going to be a futile attempt to make that dream deal happen. She could feel the life drain from her with each step. When she caught up with the old drunkard and saw the sex worker up ahead stepping out of the market office, she knew her game was up.
She could see her deeds flapping from the top of the tart’s work-bag.
‘Wheew, whoo! Wheew, whoo!’
All of a sudden Jackspur became aware of the darkness. He could hear the echo of his own whistle but he couldn’t see a thing. He stopped abruptly, almost like he was teetering on the edge of a cliff. It seemed as though he wasn’t anywhere – just a fathomless black void. He felt light-headed and try as he might he couldn’t bring himself to put a foot forward.
Then finally it was as if he’d been released, he stepped onto an escalator rather than into an abyss. And that’s right, his thoughts were in the midst of some anarchist fanzines he’d been pouring through while he sank downwards, into the bowels of London, past billboards the size of castle windows. One of these in particular caught his eye – a leggy girl in a basque and stockings advertising the show Chicago.
He reached the bottom of the escalator and then a million moments came to him at once. It was an unnatural sensation – a bit like a light wind blowing in his face.
He saw, in slow motion, the businesswoman striding past him into the tunnel and the girl in a short skirt going past the other way as if to leave the station. He was turning his head to follow the girl’s legs when he caught sight of a scruffy dog next to the wall by the escalators. The dog was looking directly at him.
Jackspur had actually begun thinking about the inhumanity that had taken a grip on society. The Tories were in power again and the backbone of the country was broken. Tales were emerging about the destruction of ancient Babylonian monuments in the aftermath of the Gulf war – there were bound to be consequences. And unless someone talked to Sinn Fein, the mainland campaign would go on unabated.
The dog’s expression was almost human. There was sympathy in its eyes. Jackspur could feel the creature’s sorrow, to such an extent it was like it was trying to communicate with him. It was a look of alarm and apology at the same time.
Jackspur wondered what could be wrong. He remembered to lock his door before setting out and then he walked to the tube station. It was weird, for certain, seeing the naked man chained on his knees to a railing at the market. He had the words ‘virgin groom’ written in lipstick on his backside and he pleaded for help, but no-one could do anything except call the fire brigade.
Jackspur bought his ticket and noticed the two in front of him. The woman was dressed in a suit and seemed in a desperate rush. The man looked like a nightclub bouncer.
Just before Jackspur reached the barriers, he heard a commotion and turned his head to see a busker walking towards him, struggling with a guitar and a large rucksack at the same time.
The busker didn’t even bother with the ticket queue, he walked straight past it and up to the barriers as Jackspur rolled through one and onto the escalator.
And then there was the leggy model that seemed to step out of that Chicago poster. And the waft of perfume as the woman behind was poised to push past him.
He felt the busker’s guitar crash past his head.
And finally he’d reached this instant, at the foot of the escalators with the dog trying to tell him something. What was it? Jackspur met the creature’s stare and he thought of reaching for his pocket, for no particular reason, and then…
It felt like a light wind.
Mick couldn’t work out how he’d managed to get himself into this situation. The last he could recall, he’d been asked to look after the rucksack and time had dragged on to the point where he couldn’t hang about any more. There was some vital busking to be done in the tunnels of Bank station. But he couldn’t just leave the rucksack behind. He’d take it with him and hopefully he’d cross paths with the owner later into the evening.
But the thought proved easier than the doing. What with the guitar slung over his shoulder, he had to carry the rucksack by just the one strap. Which was fine until he got to the barriers.
Mick had a big stride and he tried to step up onto the revolving arm in one go, hoping his momentum would carry him over, no hands. But he teetered and he struggled for balance and in the end slid over it clumsily.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see a woman slipping her ticket into the slot of the adjoining barrier – she had the look of someone in control, while some part of him had become snagged and he wrestled about furiously. It was a loose strap from the rucksack more than likely, caught in one of the barrier mechanisms. Then Mick felt himself thrown forward and he, as well as the guitar and the rucksack, tumbled down the escalator.
And all of a sudden – whoosh – here he was again, stepping out into the bright light and not exactly sure of how to get to Bank Station.
As I go up to bed I contemplate the life changing nature of the day. After her revelation about the job interview, Jen and I will never be the same again. She’s flat-out and snoring on top of the duvet, still in her body-stocking. I close the bedroom curtains and in the half-light slide into bed alongside her. Once settled, I wonder how this event might impact on our lives. Jen thinks it will come back to haunt us in some way.
I’m thinking about that, about the nature of haunting, when I drift off into a light, restless sleep – one which is populated by scenes that I still need to write for my best-seller before we finally have to pack up and leave this place behind.