1

We’re all going to die screaming in agony

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God I’m getting old. I know this because I’ve met people recently who a/ Can’t name any of the Beatles except for Ringo; b/ Have never seen The Jungle Book; and c/ Ruin my wonderfully amusing anecdote about meeting Joe Stummer in The French House by not having a clue who Joe Strummer is. Yes I’m getting old. We all are. And as the days tick by I’m more and more aware of the fate that awaits all but the very lucky ones: WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE SCREAMING IN AGONY.

I’ll say it again in italics: We’re all going to die screaming in agony.

‘The human species is the only one which knows it will die, and it knows this through experience…’ Wrote Voltaire in his Dictionaire Philosophique in 1764. This statement, with very few provisos, is a distinctly inarguable truism. But what that eminent brain box failed to point out was the sheer, abject misery that destiny has in store for us. The fact is, death is an unequivocally unpleasant experience. It is full of pain and agony and torture and all of us have it waiting for us. We can’t avoid it any more than we can avoid inhaling oxygen. And yet we know this and still carry blissfully on.

But I lie a little. Because actually there are more pleasant ways to die. Well not pleasant. What can be pleasant about shuffling off your mortal coil? What I mean to say is, less unpleasant. You could, for example, ‘die peacefully’ in your sleep. Or be hit by a bus. Or get blown up in a plane. All of these are events that tend to evoke universal sadness from friends, relatives and tabloid headlines. But it could be said that the only one not to suffer is the person who actually died. One second you’re alive and kicking, thinking about what’s for dinner or about having sex another alive (or dead) person. The next, absolute nothingness. Zilch. The final countdown. Totality. But the complete unexpectedness of death could actually be a godsend. That’s if you believe in God, which, it has to be said, is a fairly important if somewhat moot issue when you’ve just died.

They are the lucky ones. The ones who meet their maker completely out of the blue, without forewarning, sans advance notice, are the ones to be envied. For the rest of us the grim assassin is set to creep upon us in a predictably attritional manner. One moment you’ll have that dull ache, followed by a frisson of blood, followed by a period of denial, followed by a trip to the doctor, followed by those inevitable tests that are surely designed purely to humiliate, followed by that grim diagnosis (we’re all destined to experience that dark conversation with a doctor which begins ‘I’m very sorry, I have some bad news for you…’), followed by a period of fruitless drug consumption that is nearly always going to be a total waste of time, followed by a period spent in your bed, followed by a return to infancy in which your wife or husband or a complete stranger becomes your mother, feeding you and cleaning up the shit, followed by pain, more pain, pain and agony.

If I seem depressed it’s because I am depressed. Any doctor reading this would immediately dole out the Citalopram and hope that I go away and start smiling at people. But I’m not really depressed because if I am I’ve been so since I exited the womb screaming in agony. This, I believe, is what may separate someone like me from a lot of other people. We’re all dying, folks. And some of us are more dying than others.

4

The wedding picture

Wedding image

This image was sent to me out of the blue the other day by my mother via Facebook Messenger. It seemed somehow incongruous that a snapshot from a bygone age would arrive in such a thoroughly modern manner. Still. I suppose that we’ve all got pictures like this in dusty biscuit tins somewhere at the bottom of cupboards. But given the events of the last few years this one struck a deep resounding chord with me.
I’m the little chap at the front, by the way, the young fellow in white with the somewhat less than masculine stance. Although in my defence one is never really going to look macho wearing white shorts and a bowtie. I guess I must have been three or four at the time and if I really strain I do actually have some sort of dim recollection of that day, well of those shorts anyway. Standing next to me is my elder sister. We both look so innocent, as should be the way with the very young; she not knowing that she would run away from home at the age of sixteen and be mother to two of her own girls within three years; me never guessing that the shock of hair I was casually sporting at the time would also run away from home by the time it reached thirty.
Standing behind me with an inscrutable expression on his face as he watches, presumably, the best man snog his new bride, is my Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack was semi-famous in Burnley, the location for this picture, for apocryphally playing football for Blackpool, for bearing a passing resemblance to Freddie Garrity of Freddie And The Dreamers fame, and for most definitely possessing a black belt in karate, which he ofttimes used to dispatch much larger men after closing time.
Directly behind him is George Wright, my step-grandfather. Despised by my own father but loved by the infantine me, George was a long distance lorry driver, one-time stand-up comedian and former sheet music salesman on Blackpool Pier. George liked to boast that he always carried £100 in cash. (When he died it was discovered that his stash was actually newspaper sandwiched between a couple of tenners.) George also had a strange penchant for having his Brylcreemed hair combed by yours truly. As a child I would spend hours and hours combing and brushing his hair as he sat and watched TV. He a special stainless steel coiffure set that he would bring out for this purpose. George would literally purr with delight as I did so. It wasn’t until years later that it struck me just how bizarre and possibly perverse this seemingly innocent activity might actually have been.
Before George died of cancer in the 1970s, he paid a visit to our house in Bristol. I remember watching him eat chicken, chewing it to a pulp and then spitting the remains on to his plate because he could no longer keep his food down. ‘I’m getting t’goodness out of it,’ he would explain in the same heavy Northern accent that sometimes advised that the best way to play snooker was to ‘hit it where it shines…’.
Directly behind him in the black bow tie is my father. I’m guessing the tie was the one that he wore when he was ‘singing in the clubs’. A fact that he would proudly remind people of ad nauseum. How I loved and hated and loved and hated and loved and hated my father. He was a source of pride and terror to me; something I’ve never really gotten over. He was an autodidact, a working class hero, an abused child, a Labour councillor, a bully, a sloth, semi-alcoholic. A mass of contradictions that even he didn’t understand. He didn’t understand me either, and probably didn’t even try to.
In the picture he looks handsome and content. When he died last year he was apparently in the running to become mayor of Weston-Super-Mare. For a control freak like him this missed opportunity will have been a source of frustration that he carried to his grave. We spoke maybe five or six times in the last thirty years. How I loved and hated him. How I despised him. How I respected him. How I wanted to be him.
Standing right behind the bride is his wife, My mother. She sought to protect me from my bullying father’s all too frequent ‘good hidings’ by smothering me with love. Literally choking me, squeezing the air out of my lungs with love. For this reason it’s difficult to determine if she’s looking at the bride or actually craning her neck to stare over at me and check that I am all right. She looks pretty in the picture, I think. I like the beehive and remember the choking odour of cheap hairspray that used to saturate the house. When I was a kid I used to think that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Prettier than Elizabeth Taylor, sexier than Wilma Flintstone.
Towering over George Wright and my mother is Uncle Ken. He was a former Royal Guardsman and stood something like 6’ 4” in an age when 5’ 11” was considered tall. When he left the guards he worked on the trains; sometimes I would be playing football at the end of my grandmother’s street and see the train go by, him standing filthy-dirty in a heap of coal, shovelling it into the burner. When he wasn’t doing this he was drinking. And when he wasn’t drinking he was beating up Auntie Shirley.
If you look over to the right, that’s Auntie Shirley. She dressed as a bridesmaid and even though the photo is old and grainy you can see those teeth of hers that were always her defining feature. She was a naughty girl, was Auntie Shirley, and always mine and probably everybody else’s favourite. Running away to London at 18. Married to her handsome guardsman soon afterwards. Four kids. Lots of laughs. And lots of bruises. I particularly remember the bruises. The black eyes. The split lips. And I recall with crystal clarity the abject poverty that even we were shocked at when we went to her terraced house when I was a kid.
I also remember her kindness: of how I called around unexpectedly in the late-70s and when I said I liked the record she was playing she took it off the turntable and gave it to me without batting an eyelid. She didn’t have much but what she did have she was happy to give away.
And I remember the last time I saw her: about five or six years ago when I visited Burnley and she was in the latter stages of leukaemia. Of how I crept into her bedroom and held the fragile yellow hand of the jaundiced body that lay motionless on the bed. And of my cowardice later when I avoided seeing her again later because it was simply too hard for me to take. I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough to provide her with the comfort that she probably – most definitely – needed.
She’s glowing in the picture, though. Young and cheeky and effervescent and toothy, which is how I’ll always remember her.
To the right of Auntie Shirley is my grandmother. She was a former bus-conductress who fractured her pelvis in a road accident in the 1960s and never worked again. People used to say that she looked like the Queen, and if you hold this picture up against a £20 note you will probably get what they were talking about. She’s even wearing a coat like the Queen’s and holding her handbag in the same manner.
Some said she had Spanish blood in her, others that she was Jewish. Although in truth I can’t even remember where I got that information from, or indeed if I’ve simply made it up. What I do remember, however, is her love for me. And the oasis of safety that she provided for me as a child. I remember her dog, Sheeba; I remember the ornaments on the mantlepiece that used to fascinate me, I remember the bowl of fruit on the window ledge that seemed to be eternally self replenishing.
And her kindness was not only limited to me: when she learned that Uncle Ken’s violence also extended to his children, she took in the eldest, a girl named Lynette, my cousin, and legally adopted her. She brought Lynette up, gave her opportunities that she would surely never have had if she had stayed with Auntie Shirley.
I remember when George Wright died and my grandmother took Lynette and I on a tour of Europe, not wanting to waste the ticket she had previously purchased for her recently deceased husband. And I recall sitting with her in a Dutch bar listening to her explain that the last time she had visited they had played ‘Delilah’ by Tom Jones, a song that George loved. Of course, naturally, inevitably, the song stuck up again the very next instant and I was left to comfort my grieving grandmother in the awkward, clumsy way that only a fourteen-year-old boy can.
Eventually Lynette left home to join the army and years later paid a surprise visit to her adopted-mother-cum-actual-grandmother. And this is what killed our grandmother, who was so shocked to see her darling Lynette turn up expectedly that she had a massive heart attack and tragically died instantly.
These are the people whom I know and remember in this photograph but there are others faces that I dimly recognise. Is that Auntie Florrie standing to the left of Shireley? The little old lady who was actually my great-grandmother, the woman whose house was adorned with home-made rag carpets and who kept a commode in her bedroom? Is that Uncle Jordie on the far left? Auntie Florrie’s quietly spoken husband who worked down the pit and painted exquisite toy soldiers as a hobby? I don’t know but I’m sure my mother will tell me. The woman who has just messaged me while I was writing this to tell me what a ‘bonny little lad’ I was.
Not so bonny any more. Not so bonny…

5

The comeback – Chapter 03

CHAPTER THREE

Angie Fuller was not a psychiatrist. On the front door of her shabby one-bedroom flat at the side of Berwick Street Market was a cardboard sign on which the words ‘YOUNG MODEL INSIDE’ had been roughly scrawled in biro. This was usually ignored by both the local constabulary and any members of the Trading Standards Commission who happened to be passing. Her modelling days were long gone and she was no student of Freud. But she was happy to play that role so long as her hourly rate did not drop.

‘I don’t know why you bother with him,’ she said. ‘He’s always causin’ trouble.’

‘Well I suppose I like him,’ said Dino softly. ‘He’s a decent kid. And he really could have been someone. One of the greats you know. It’s a crying shame.’

Angie was thirty-nine-years-of-age but could have passed for ten years older. The drugs had mostly done that to her but she also suspected that being fucked by up to fifteen different men a day for the last twenty years may have played a part. That and the four kids.

‘You know most fighters hang around outside the gym asking for money,’ said Dino. ‘And most fighters try to tap you up for a couple of hundred, sometimes a couple of grand. But with Ollie it was always ‘Can I borrow a fiver for the weekend? Can I borrow twenty?’. He hasn’t got a bad bone in his body that one.’

‘But you can’t let him hit you like that,’ said Angie soothingly.

‘I know darlin’,’ said Dino. ‘I know.’

Angie was sitting naked in bed smoking a Marlboro Light. Beside her, also naked, Dino was absent-mindedly scratching his balls. Dino had been calling on Angie for almost as long as he had been at Carnaby Street. Although he still paid for the privilege of spending time with her, in many ways they were a couple. They were used to each other: comfortable and at ease in each other’s company. He never felt this way with his wife.

‘What you gonna do then?’ she asked.

‘I dunno. He’s getting that eye checked out. Depends how bad it is. With any luck we can get him training again in a couple of weeks. Problem is, I don’t think the Italians are gonna bite a second time. I could be out of pocket big time.’

‘I told you you should have paid the insurance darlin’.’

‘Thanks Angie, that makes me feel a lot better…’

‘Poor little Dino…’

Angie’s breasts hung loose and heavy, no longer the prized assets that they used to be when she worked in the clubs. As gravity had made its inevitable impression on her body, so the fees that Angie charged had also headed downwards over the years. She knew that she was entering a pivotal phase of her career, if you can call it that. In a year or so’s time she would be struggling to find a punter willing to pay for her services. Christ, it was happening already.

For this reason she was grateful to have Dino as a regular. He visited three or four times a week and stayed for at least an hour. He always settled up, never hurt her, and wasn’t really that interested in the sex. It was a secondary consideration for him. You almost felt that that he was going through the motions because he had to, because it was somehow expected of him. Angie and Dino had much in common: in his heyday he was renowned as a person who could finish off a street fight in seconds rather than minutes; and Angie was equally businesslike when it came to finishing off her clients. 

Dino didn’t come to see her for physical contact. He came mainly to talk:

‘Yes poor little Dino. Well might you say that…’

‘What about Jimmy Smith?’

‘I went to see him, didn’t I?’

‘Did he help you out?’

‘I dunno. He might he might not.’

‘Ungrateful little rat. After all you’ve done for him.’

‘He don’t owe me nothing, Ange. Just cos I knew his father…’

‘You more than just knew him… You and Billy were like that.’ Angie bowed her fingers to illustrate the degree of closeness. 

‘It don’t work that way, love. Jimmy’s his own man, just like his dad was.’

‘What about Vincent Mortego?’

Dino frowned. ‘Why’d you mention him?’ he asked. ‘What’s he got to do with anything?’

‘Well he’s got money, ain’t he?’

‘So he reckons.’

‘He could… Couldn’t he, you know, make an investment?’

‘An investment? An investment in what?’

‘You know – in one of your fighters.’

Dino usually valued Angie’s advice. Lord knows she’d helped him out over the years. But he felt himself growing irritated.

‘Angie, I’ve been managing fighters for thirty years and I’ve never sold a piece of them to anyone.’

‘But…’

‘And I’ve got no intention of starting now. Anyway, Bill Saxon in New York tells me Mortego – and that’s not even his real name –  gets all his money from cocaine. I’m not going anywhere near that.’

‘What about Mickey and Jarvis?’

‘I’m not going to them… It’d be… Humiliating.’

There was a pause. Angie stubbed out her cigarette and lit up another one.

‘They won’t do you any good, you know,’ said Dino.

‘Them’s the least of my problems Dino,’ laughed Angie.

Dino rolled off the bed and began to dress. ‘Well I’m not spending the afternoon catching cancer,’ he said.

‘So what are you gonna do?’ asked Angie, suddenly growing serious.

‘I dunno. We’ll have to wait and see. Something will turn up.’

***

The phone rang almost as soon as Dino had left the building. From a café in the market one of Vincent Mortego’s many lookouts had immediately got on the phone to his employer, who in turn called Angie straight away.

‘Jesus Angie, I don’t know how you can bear to look at that big fat lump of shit,’ said Vincent Mortego.

‘He’s all right Vince, at least he don’t bother me.’

‘Did you do what I said?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is that all?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Jesus, it’s like getting blood from a fucking stone! Explain… Elaborate… Give me a fucking description of what happened. That’s what I’m fucking paying you for!’

‘I did what you asked. I told him to go to you.’

‘What did he say?’  

‘Nothing really.’

‘Jesus fucking Christ!’

‘Sorry Vincent.’

‘Sorry Vincent!’ echoed Vincent Mortego.

‘Sorry.’

‘Anything else?’

‘What Vince?’

‘Anything fucking else! Did he say anything else! Jesus!’

‘Not really. Only that Long’s been cut.’

‘What?’

‘Oliver Long got cut in sparring.’

‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’

‘What’s the matter, Vince?’

‘Mind your own business Angie.’

2

The Comeback – Chapter 02

Thanks so much for the very nice and very helpful comments yesterday. It’s really appreciated. Here’s the second chapter. Ian x

 

CHAPTER TWO

The sweet scent of liniment when combined with the ripe odour of stale sweat produces its own unique and distinctive aroma. But most of the people who were going about their business that morning in Dino’s Gym smelled nothing at all. They’d gotten used to that smell a long time ago. To them it was like breathing in fresh air.

Barry Pearce, a young looking forty-five in a tracksuit who helped Dino out, was keen to fill the gaffer in on what he had missed while he had been out on his travels. ‘Vincent Mortego was ’round again last night,’ he panted. 

‘Again? What did the flash fucker want?’ said Dino, not even looking at Barry.

‘He wouldn’t say,’ said Barry, whose working arrangement with the older man could at best be described as informal. He had no regular salary as such, but was reliant on sporadic handouts: twenty here, fifty there, a ton if Dino was feeling particularly flush or particularly guilty. ‘Told me he needed to speak to you personally. He had little Clyde with him.’

‘Don’t the cunt know how to pick up a phone?’

Dino had just come out of the shower. He stood naked and steaming on the wooden floor of the gym. Soapy water dripped off his huge hairy belly and flabby white back. Prince Kilimanjaro followed closely behind, all six-feet-five of him. ‘All right boss,’ he nodded seriously, apparently impervious to the contrast that his magnificently muscular black torso provided in comparison to Dino’s grotesquely overweight figure. 

‘All right Derek,’ said Dino, addressing The Prince by his real name. ‘How’d the sparring go?’

‘OK I suppose.’

‘You turning your fist like I said?’ Some weeks before Dino had highlighted a weakness in the way that the boxer administered his punches. 

‘Yeah boss… Most of the time.’

‘Do what I tell you, son. Turn your fist as you throw it. You’re less likely to break your hand and more likely to cut the other fellow up.’

‘I know Dino,’ said The Prince patiently. Dino had a habit of repeating himself these days but it was a small price to pay for what he still had to offer.

There were perhaps a dozen boxers in the gym that morning. Some were doing rope work, others weights and one or two were undertaking stomach crunches that were painful to watch. Anonymous rap music boomed out of the building’s aged speakers.

Nearly all of the fighters had known Dino since they were juniors. They had seen him naked more times they could remember and scarcely batted a scarred eyelid at the spectacle. In a perverse way Dino was almost proud of what he had allowed his body to become. He took four or five showers a day, determined, it seemed, to place his gut on public display. He would sometimes joke that it had been twenty years since he had last seen his cock but no-one really laughed any more. 

The gym was a theatre of contrasts. Situated in a basement underneath a clothes shop in Carnaby Street the passing tourists and shoppers had no idea it was there. While the street above was bathed in colour and light and texture, the gym was like a dark cave, lit only by neon strip lights that added an orange glow to the obligatory fight posters that adorned the walls. The younger generation represented by photographs of Mike Tyson and Tommy ‘Hit Man’ Hearns; the older by images of Jack Dempsey and ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson. In pride of place was a picture of Dino’s old man shaking Rocky Marciano’s hand way back in the fifties.

Dino had been renting the property for nigh on fifteen years but the rent had gone up and up. Among his many concerns was the thought that he might soon have to seek other premises unless he got some money in. And for Dino the best way of getting money in rested on turning one of his boxers into a champion.

Despite his size and the perfection of his body, The Prince was never going to be a champion, Dino knew that. He was too musclebound and not a natural fighter. The best he could hope for if he kept his nose clean was a shot at the British title. Dino had never told him that, of course.

Dino sat down on one of the wooden benches that were screwed to the walls of the gym and pulled on his underwear: white old man’s underpants. Standing with his back to Dino was Simon Clarke. Simon was a middleweight and as close to the real deal as Dino had ever had on his books. Before he had turned pro he had won the ABAs, an essential pre-requisite on a champion’s CV, and despite one small glitch on his record (an accidental cut that stopped the fight prematurely) Simon was definitely going places. Dino knew had been very lucky to sign him.

‘Hey Simon,’ Dino called, unable to hide the pride and the love in his voice.

But Simon did not hear him. He was standing in front of a giant mirror that covered one whole side of the gym. He was listening to his Walkman and staring admiringly at himself, striking up poses, throwing the jab, throwing the uppercut, sucking in air, scowling at no-one in particular, trying to imagine what his opponents would see when he stood before them in the ring. 

Dino squeezed himself into his tracksuit top and struggled into his pants. He got to his feet and tapped Simon on his shoulder. Simon ignored him, unwilling to abandon his posturing. Dino moved in front of the young boxer and pulled off Simon’s headphones.

‘All right, son,’ Dino smiled. ‘How’s the weight? Looking good from where I’m standing.’

Simon did not respond immediately. He regarded Dino with unconcealed resentment in his eyes. Dino stared back.

‘The weight’s good,’ said Simon coldly.

‘Something wrong kid?’ said Dino, although he had a pretty good idea what it was. He’d seen it before. It’s what usually happened when people spotted potential; they’d start whispering in its ear. And lately too many of the wrong sorts of people had been whispering in Simon’s ear. Trouble was, the boxer was not mature or streetwise enough to ignore it and send them on their way. He was a good boy from a nice church-going family.

‘Nothing,’ said Simon, snatching his headphones back petulantly.

Like all boxing gyms, Dino’s place was governed by the bell. Every three minutes it would go off and people would stop what they were doing and rest. A minute later the bell would sound again and people would resume their activities. It was all about educating the body. Life here was measured in rounds and the breaks between rounds. 

Fortunately, the bell sounded right at that moment to break the tension. Simon smiled at Dino like he used to when he was a kid and Dino smiled back, even giving a little wink. Dino made a mental note to get Barry to keep a closer eye on his investment. 

In the meantime Dino had work to do. In the centre of the gym stood a full-sized boxing ring. Prowling around the outskirts of the ropes,  charged with electricity was the dreadlocked Oliver Long. He was Dino’s only current champion – although he could hardly be described as a cash cow. He had ended up on Dino’s doorstep because no other manager wanted him. Despite his manifold talents he simply wasn’t worth the bother. 

In three days he was due to defend his European Welterweight title in Italy. Sitting beside the ring and watching intently was Long’s oriental girlfriend, Paula Chan. She was Yoko Ono to Long’s John Lennon. She followed him around like a bad smell. A journalist she called herself, and a right royal pain in the arse.

Dino climbed into the ring and pulled on the pads. They were upholstered soft vinyl, like a small mattress attached to each fist that allowed the boxer to throw his punches freely without hurting himself or the person wielding the pads. The bell sounded almost instantly. Dino’s body clock was very finely attuned to that important interval.

Oliver Long was thirty-seven-years-of-age, a granddaddy of a boxer whose beard was white when he let it grow, but despite years of self-abuse everything still seemed to be working. He had not lost his speed. If you touched his stomach you would think that it was made of baked clay. Under Dino’s tutelage Long was currently enjoying an Indian summer.

Dino took to the centre of the ring and allowed Long to circle him. Long was singing to himself softly like he always did as he threw a lazy jab followed by three straight right hooks that were heavy enough to knock Long backwards a step or two. ‘Saucy bugger,’ Dino smiled, regaining his position at the centre of the ring. Long was looking good: he had just about hit his peak. Even fighting away from home, Dino knew he was more than the Italian Rossi would be able to handle. And Dino obviously knew all about Italians.

More jabs followed and Dino began to issue his instructions. ‘Three-six-two,’ he called. This was his own special code for a patent combination. Long responded by throwing a left jab followed by a right hook and a right uppercut. Long administered the punches with the grace and style of a ballet dancer.

‘Three-six-two, I said, you dozy fuck!’ panted Dino.

‘Sorry boss,’ said Long, his Jamaican twang muffled by his gum-shield.

Long effortlessly continued his dance around Dino. Skipping like a teenager, holding his arms low and letting them swing freely.

‘Arms up, Ollie,’ urged Dino. But experience told him that he was wasting his breath. Everything about Oliver Long was unconventional: the way that he moved, the way that his legs supported his weight, the way that he threw the jab and the uppercut. What Long did could not be found in any text book.

And ironically, Long’s unconventionality was actually his greatest asset. When he went into the ring his opponents suddenly found that they had only three minutes to unlearn everything that they had ever been taught to do in thousands of hours of practise. Only the very best fighters possessed the ability to make such a profound real-time adjustment.

Added to this was the fact that Long was also a southpaw, he was left-handed – a physical difference that was often enough to tip the scales in a battle of equals. This made Long a formidable opponent. Formidable but ultimately flawed.

A small crowd of boxers had stopped what they were doing to watch Long in action. For a boxer to be admired by his peers in this way was a great tribute. But Long was used to it, it had been happening since he turned pro in the mid seventies. 

‘Cover up!’ yelled Dino. Instructing his fighter to adopt a defensive stance against an imaginary onslaught. 

But Long was having none of it. ‘Don’t need to cover up,’ he grunted, his exertions polishing his body with sweat. ‘Nobody touch Ollie Long.’

Dino smiled at Long’s arrogance and suddenly jumped forward, playfully pushing his fighter into the corner of the ring and buffeting him with the pads. Having fun. ‘Oh yeah? That so?’ he said teasingly.

But the smile quickly turned into a frown at the first appearance of red. ‘Oh fuck!’ said Dino, lowering his hands and waving a halt to the proceedings. ‘You’re cut.’

Long froze in his tracks and dabbed at his brow with a glove. He turned pale when he saw that it was covered in blood.

This was another aspect of Long’s unconventionality: unlike every other boxer on planet Earth, Long refused to wear a head guard when sparring. Dino had lost count of the number of times he had told him to do so. And now it had come back to bite him.  

Dino put his head in his hands and audibly groaned. He took a long look at his boxer, somehow hoping that he had imagined the injury. The cut was in the corner of the left eye. It wasn’t a bad one but it probably needed a couple of stitches. It meant that Long’s title fight was off. It meant that the boxer would not get his purse. And it meant that Dino would lose the money he had already spent on plane fares and hotel bookings. Not to mention the weeks he had spent preparing Long for this fight. This could end up costing Dino thousands.

‘You fucking cunt!’ before Dino had time to speak, Long was yelling at him. ‘You fucking cut me you fucking ras-clat!’

It was all a blur. There was no time to talk about justice or injustice. There was no time to mention the fact that Dino had told Long to use the head guard on innumerable occasions. Because now Long was throwing real punches at Dino. 

As well as his unique approach to boxing, Long was also known for his blinding speed. And before Barry Pearce could haul him away Long had already caught Dino twice in that great big fat open target of a belly of his. And another punch had caught him square in the mouth, staggering Dino and making him taste blood.

Long’s girlfriend Paula Chan had also managed to get in on the act. She was quickly into the ring, talons bared, aiming and missing with swipes at Dino’s face. She was screaming something at him in Chinese.

Dino would have loved to have landed one sweet right hand on her jaw. It would have made him feel a whole lot better. But he stopped himself.

12

The Comeback – Chapter 01

Been a little too busy to work on this blog for the past week. In the meantime here’s a question for my numerous followers (well, about 12 followers actually). This is something that I began a year ago and then abandoned. I sent this one to an agent and was asked for the full m/s. However, I didn’t have the energy to continue past three chapters.

I’d appreciate a little feedback. Anyone?

 

The Comeback

Chapter 01

 

‘Come off it Dino, you gotta be serious about this.’

‘I am serious, Jimmy. I mean it.’

‘But you haven’t done anything like this for… Just how long has it been?’

‘Twenty-five years… Twenty six, I suppose, if you’re counting.’

‘So why now – after all this time?’

‘It’s my granddaughter’s wedding… I just want to make it a special day for her.’

In the back room of the Royal Oak in Canning Town Dino Andretti stood before the desk of Jimmy Smith like a naughty schoolboy waiting for the cane. He was sixty-two-years-of-age: balding, fat, nineteen or twenty stone. In contrast, Jimmy couldn’t have been older than thirty-five: slicked back hair, wiry thin, scholarly glasses. From an elegant leather seat he looked Dino up and down through those glasses. It was difficult to know what was going through his mind.

‘Look Dino,’ he said, almost tenderly. ‘Our families go back a long way, there’s no denying that. But if it’s money you’re after we can work something out. You don’t have to do something like this.’

‘I can do it, Jimmy,’ said Dino, a hint of iron in his voice. ‘Don’t you worry about me. I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t… Some things you never forget.’

Jimmy shook his head slowly. Dino and his father had been at school together. They had been best friends until the day he died. It pained Jimmy to have to say this: ‘I’m sorry Dino, but you have to be realistic. It’s a young man’s game. It always has been. At your age you should be putting your feet up. Doing the garden. Something peaceful.’

Standing beside Jimmy in a smart grey suit was Alan Civil. Alan was a muscular twenty-year-old and this was the first time that he had met Dino. He had none of his boss’s sentiment and simply saw Dino for what he was. ‘No offence, mate,’ he interjected. ‘But you ain’t up to it. Anyone can see that.’

Jimmy shot an angry glare at his boy, who took a step backwards and immediately fell silent. ‘Take no notice of the kid, Dino,’ he said. ‘He means well but he hasn’t learned to control that mouth of his.’

Dino stiffened. The buttons bulged on his too-tight jacket. He loosened his tie to let some air in. ‘He’ll learn,’ he said, slowly turning to look Alan in the eye. ‘If they’ve got a brain they all learn.’

Alan stepped forward, about to say something. But a short, sharp glance from Jimmy once again cut him short. Jimmy slid open a drawer in his desk and pulled out a metal cashbox. He opened it and took out a pristine brick of banknotes. He counted it nonchalantly, accustomed to holding large sums of money, licking the tips of his fingers as he did so. ‘Listen Dino,’ he said at last. ‘Here’s ten. You know I wouldn’t do this for anybody else but it’s yours. Just take it and walk out of the door now. No need to worry about paying me back. You can get me some tickets or something… Get the kids some autographs…’

Dino looked at the money and fell silent for a moment. ‘Thank-you Jimmy,’ he sighed. ‘It’s not that I’m not grateful but it’s… it’s not enough.’

Jimmy Smith looked surprised. ‘Not enough? Come again?’ he said. 

‘He says it’s not enough, Mr. Smith,’ said Alan, anxious to be involved.

‘I need sixty,’ Dino continued.

Jimmy’s eyes widened. ‘Sixty?’ he said. ‘What is this? The fucking royal wedding?’

‘Ha, ha…royal wedding,’ said Alan.

‘I know,’ said Dino, ignoring the boy. ‘These things cost a lot of money these days. There’s the cars, the catering and whatnot. It all adds up. The invites alone are almost a grand. It’s daylight robbery, I’m telling you.’

But Jimmy was already suspicious. ‘You sure you need the money for a wedding?’ he asked. ‘You ain’t in trouble are you? You know you can tell me if you are.’

‘No. Nothing like that,’ replied Dino. ‘I just want to give my little girl a special day.’

Jimmy thought for a moment. ‘Listen, I shouldn’t do this but I can let you have twenty,’ he said reluctantly. ‘But I can’t give it to you for nothing. I’ll need you to buy me a drink some day soon. You know that.’

Dino looked at the younger man awkwardly and dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. ‘I don’t want to offend you, Jimmy,’ he said. ‘But I need sixty and I hear tell that the purse for this job is eighty.’

Jimmy Smith found himself laughing at the older man. ‘Fucking purse,’ he said. ‘Never heard it called that before.’

Jimmy stopped for a moment and once again looked the older man up and down. He was known for his cold dead eyes. More than once they had seen him though difficult times. Alan Civil took the silence as an opportunity to fill the room with his voice. ‘Listen old man,’ he said. ‘Mr. Smith’s a busy man. Why don’t you just take the money and fuck off like a good old boy?’

Under normal circumstances a speech such as this would have been acceptable. Alan’s main job description was to intimidate people who were getting on his boss’s tits. Today, however, Alan was lacking a proper sense of history. He simply had no idea who he was talking to.

Dino moved fast. And even though the younger man was a good foot taller than him, he instantly had Alan pinned against the wall by his throat. ‘Watch your fucking mouth, kid,’ he said, hitting Alan hard in the stomach, making him gasp. ‘Learn some fucking respect.’

Dino hit him a second time, this time in the balls. Alan let out a yelp and crumpled to the floor groaning. Less than four seconds had elapsed since Alan’s insult.

‘Leave the little wanker alone, Dino,’ said Jimmy, smiling but somehow looking serious at the same time. ‘He don’t mean no harm. He’s just young.’

‘Sorry Jim,’ said Dino. ‘I know that. Yes, I know that.’ He was aware that he had overreacted. But it was a calculated overreaction. Normally he would have let the boy’s insult go but he was keen to prove a point.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Jimmy. ‘All the same, that was pretty to watch, Dino. You don’t waste any time do you? You’re still a sight to behold.’

‘Thanks. You know I appreciate you saying that.’

‘Listen Dino, let me think about it for a day or two. I’m not saying that I’m giving you the work but I’ll give it some consideration. You’re no spring chicken any more, Dino, and this job needs a safe pair of hands.’

‘You won’t find yourself a safer pair of hands.’

‘Well that’s arguable,’ said Jimmy, staring at a pile of papers at his desk like an accountant. ‘There’s three or four boys I know who would have this for their breakfast.’

‘I’m sure that’s true,’ said Dino. ‘But they’re not as hungry as I am right now.’

6

Shotgun Reality – Chapter 04

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I’m back in the apartment, my better judgement laid waste by the drink and the drugs. I unlock the safe behind Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope and pull out an old fashioned paper address book. Wrenching the ancient Nokia from its charger I order a take-away. The voice at the other end of the line sounds French and is surprised and obviously pleased to receive my call. I list my requirements and the voice promises delivery within the hour. We negotiate a fee – $2,000 in used notes. 

Now I’m shaking like a lunatic, part of me is already regretting my recklessness. Another part of me is already plotting and scheming, attempting to rationalise what I have just done. Still another part of me is licking its lips in anticipation. This is the part that I catch a lingering glimpse of as I parade in front of the bathroom mirror, holding in my stomach, fingertips rolling over the muscle, snarling at myself.

The minutes tick quickly by. I fill in the gaps by devouring four more massive, grandiose lines and rolling another spliff, which obviously has no effect but gives me something to do with my hands. I think about ghosts, as I often do at times like this, whether they exist or not, hoping they don’t. I’m not really comfortable with the idea of the ghost of my grandmother watching silently over my shoulder as I do what I’m about to do. As usual I decide they do not exist but I still have one or too lingering doubts.

The Nokia rings exactly 58 minutes after making my order. A voice tells me to go down to the street. I stuff an envelope full of dollars into my jacket pocket and almost skip down the stairs, like a little kid at Christmas, scarcely able to contain my excitement.

There is an anonymous white saloon parked outside the apartment block. The driver leans out of the window and motions me urgently towards him. As I emerge from the darkness I see the silhouettes of two people sitting in the rear, a male and a female. I lean into the car and deftly pass the money over to the man in such a casual manner that he doesn’t even notice the envelope full of notes that has fallen into his lap. He is sweating profusely as he asks for payment and I motion towards his crotch; he laughs without humour and then apologises before turning his head towards the girl on the back seat. She now belongs to you, is what the look on his face is telling me. He barks some unintelligible orders and the girl reluctantly opens the car door to be captured by my arms. I march her trembling body across to the apartment entrance without looking back or saying a word. There are no witnesses to the scene, and if even there were all they would see is a pair of drunken lovers rolling home after a night on the tiles, that’s what I tell myself. The whole exchange has taken less than a minute to complete. We awkwardly walk arm in arm slowly up the stairs, the elevator being far too public. 

Before we reach the apartment I’m feeling an overwhelming sense of disappointment that leaves me dizzy and swooning. Even in the half-light of the stairs I can see that the girl is pretty – beautiful actually. A light blonde fringe hanging over a perfect complexion and the elegant point of a fragile nose. She smells pretty, too, hurriedly drenched in a perfume that is far too expensive for her. I hold one hand in my left, firmly but not too firmly. My other arm is around her waist where it absent-mindedly checks for any excess fat. It is not disappointed, the girl is lean, firm and toned like a prize racehorse.

We get to the door and the girl turns to face me. There are too many things wrong with the look that she fires at me. Firstly, she is scared, terrified actually. Her whole body is shaking uncontrollably, her teeth are chattering with fear. Secondly, despite the hurriedly applied make-up, she is far too young. On the phone I had asked for someone in the age range of 22-26, this one is definitely younger than twenty, possibly as young as seventeen. Already I’m feeling like killing myself. 

I find it hard to conceal my disappointment as I take the girl’s jacket, (very cheap, pink, fake fur) revealing a body that would be well worth $2000 dollars of anybody’s money. She is wearing a tight grey sweater that emphasises her large natural looking breasts and impossibly slim waist. Ordinarily she would be perfect but now I simply see her as a problem. An enormous problem. I place her in a seat and offer her a drink. The girl shrugs at me nervously so I pour her a neat brandy which she proceeds to drink like cold tea. Immediately she begins to cough and splutter. I hand the girl my handkerchief and ask her name. “Sara,” she replies, when the coughing has subsided. Her accent is a cross pollination of Eastern European and broad Bronx. 

Eastern European. It gets worse. The girl starts to sniff and I realise that she has a cold. I watch a thin stream of mucus hang from her left nostril and gesture towards the handkerchief. She looks at it blankly and then I point to her nose, which she clumsily wipes. Very bad. Very bad indeed. Then the girl suddenly stares deep into my eyes, like Bambi looking at his dying mother, “What are you going to do to me?,” she asks. A single tear trickles down her cheek.

10

Shotgun Reality – Chapter 03

 

If there is any doubt that Meredith Taylor has lived a life one need only look at what remains of her beautiful face. “Merry, I’m not really the one to ask,” I reply, “I don’t do much with movies these days. You know that.”

“Bull-fucking shit,” she replies. “You total cunt. Everybody knows that you’ve been pitching for Jennifer Anniston. She won’t fuck you, you know. You’re too old for her. Too fucking old.”

I take a sip of champagne and pause for a moment. Preserved in celluloid are twenty-three movies that feature Meredith Taylor when her face and body were Hollywood’s most prized assets. In four of them she appears fleetingly, in the rest she dominates the screen with a perfect beauty that places her on the same trophy shelf as Marilyn, Liz Taylor, Angelina. Needless to say the creature that sits across from me – desperately imbibing a Marlboro, hair tied back to hide the bald patches, sunglasses concealing the wrecked eyes – has nothing in common with the Meredith Taylor of two decades ago. And – obviously – the only person on Planet Earth who is not aware of this fact happens to be Meredith herself.

“Whatsamatter?” she snarls. “Suddenly developed an attack of conscience? No… Probably not. You’re too much of a monster.”

Meredith is the reason for my visit to New Work… Well, one of the reasons. If I were as big a monster as she believes I would have dumped her years ago. But Meredith was my first American client and in many ways she is the reason that I am able to own homes in Kensington, New York, Florida and Milan. It was on her reputation that I built my own and with my slice of her enormous earnings I was able to build a fortune that is now many times in excess of whatever Meredith has managed to hang on to in her years of pitiful decline.

Naturally, a sizeable portion of those earning have been handed to a succession of fly-by-night surgeons. First it was the eyes, carved to pieces the morning after she first noticed laughter lines in the bathroom mirror. Then – it goes without saying – the breasts, which went up and up and up in size, amassing evil looking scars and suffering numerous nipple relocations that were all too often placed on public display, along with an infection that almost resulted in a mastectomy. 

During the 1980s Meredith Taylor became the prototype tragi-victim movie star. The drugs, the drink, the breakups, the breakdowns, the designer suicide attempts and the self-induced physical disfigurement took her from the front page of Variety to the centre spread of the National Enquirer. In the process the work dried up and the bank account turned from black to red. And all this time there was only one person to blame.

“You fucker, it’s all your fault,” says Meredith. “It’s your fucking job to get me the movies. I’m Meredith Taylor, for Christ’s sake. What do I fucking pay you for!”

Meredith has not paid me a nickel in over eight years and even though nobody who knows me would accuse me of sentimentality, she has become my personal project, perhaps a way of assuaging guilt. The big roles may have gone forever but she’s right, her name still holds a certain caché; for this reason I’m still able to get her the odd bit part in a low level soap or sit-com. She stumbles through her words and is more curio than actress; even so she seems unaware that I have ever had any hand in securing her these roles.

“Ian,” she says and as always I find myself looking away as she speaks, “Give a gal a break – c’mon speak to some people for me, you can do this.”

A week ago Meredith tried to kill a man in a motel room in Nebraska. Even she cannot remember what she was doing there. Newspaper reports claim that she chased a black man in his twenties out into the motel forecourt with a shard of broken mirror in her hand. The man, who is obviously a dealer, refused to press charges.

6

Shotgun Reality – chapter 02

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Chapter Two – New York

I’m in my silk dressing gown when the doorbell rings. I look around for Ania but as always she is nowhere to be seen so I move over to the monitor to check who it is even though I already know. Anthony stands shuffling and panting and wheezing by the front door, unshaven, his blue overalls splattered with white paint, which is a surprise because in the two weeks or so that he’s been working on the exterior of the house I’m yet to see him pick up a fucking brush. “Yes?” I call out in resignation over the intercom, even though I already know what he wants.

“Mornin’ Ian,” comes the response. His voice is rough, a smoker’s voice, East End, although a part of me is convinced that as soon as he’s back home he will revert to public schoolboy patois.  “Mind if I use your facilities?” I know not how he comes to call me by my first name. He was never, ever invited to do so; in fact, I cannot even remember ever telling him my first name.

I check the time. It’s just gone ten. Anthony is a creature of habit because he will ring my bell at this time every morning with his fucking obligatory copy of The Sun and spend a good half-hour warming the seat of my toilet. I let him in. He looks me in the eye as he enters, challenging me, and heads off to evacuate his steaming bowels.

“Any chance of letting me know when things are going to be finished?” I ask, hoping he will not sense the desperation in my voice.

He turns to me and smiles smugly. “I reckon a couple more days and we’ll be there,” he replies, winking at me and moving off again.

“So… Hum…  you’re saying that it will all be done by Friday?”

Anthony stops walking and shakes his head slowly. “Well, hopefully, yeah, weather permitting, these are big old houses you know, (pronounced” ‘hauses’) and there’s a lot of work involved you know…”

I’m not brave enough this morning to get into an argument with Anthony. Although he is not a tall man, he is stockily built with an over-developed, muscular neck. He has an intimidating air of self-confidence about him, almost as if he’s someone who is genuinely pleased with who he is.

I retreat into the living room, my coffee and my MacBook Pro. I check through my emails. Among the standard Viagra offers, messages from attractive Russian teenagers offering sex, invitations to furnish my bank details to a minor Nigerian tribal leader and messages from clients desperate for work there is an email from Mr. Tickle. It reads: “Mr. Tickle has met Mr. Happy and he is happy.” For a moment my heart leaps and then the insecurities take over. What does he mean? Does he mean that Mr. Tickle is happy or does he mean that Mr. Happy is happy? This little slice of grammatical ambiguity offers subtly different outcomes. I hastily write back: “Good or bad?”

I check iCal and that see that in addition to the New York flight I am scheduled to call Ramirez today, who is in the South of France chasing up leads. We are both aware that he is looking for a needle in a haystack but that region was – is – a favourite of Laura’s. It’s as good a place to look as any.

On a whim I launch Safari and type ‘laura south of france’ into the Google search field. The top SERP is: ‘A Journey into Matisse’s South of France by Laura McPhee’. Not really very helpful. I move on to YouTube and search for ‘Chris Waddle goal’. I watch a short grainy video of England’s semi-final against West Germany. I see the ball rebound off Paul Parker and dip crazily over the onrushing Peter Shilton, I watch England equalise with less than ten minutes to go, there is an interview with Gary Linker who tells us what he was saying to the bench after Gazza was booked for his impetuous lunge on a German. There is no sign of a Chris Waddle winner in extra time, instead we see footage of him absurdly skying a penalty out of the ground. John Motson groans and once again I’m confused. Now I search for ‘Lady Diana’ and just as it was last time I looked the top SERP is a video of Elton John singing Candle In The Wind with different, ludicrous, lyrics. 

I hear a shuffling noise and realise that somebody is standing behind me looking over my shoulder at the computer monitor. I look around, surprised, somehow guilty, and see Anthony’s smiling face leering at the screen. “Like Lady Di, do you?” he says. “Pity she died. She had a nice old pair o tits. I’d of had some of that myself.”

A very, very large part of me wishes I had a very, very sharp scalpel in my hand. I try to keep calm and imagine running the blade in a precise arc beginning from Anthony’s forehead and ending up at his chin. But the smaller part of me takes control and simply says: ‘All right?” A meaningless term but really the only thing I can think of given the circumstances.

Then Anthony says: “You work with celebs, right?”

I straighten up in my seat and am about to compose a response to the question when Anthony cuts me off. “Let me tell you something about celebs,” he says, “never talk to them. It’s a fucking pointless exercise. There’s nothing to be gained from it.”

“Yes… I see what you mean…” I respond, obviously not seeing anything of the sort, bored, irritated, suicidal, nose fucking bleeding again. 

“I mean, let me tell you a story… Your nose is bleedin’ you know… I was walking down through Bloomsbury a couple of months ago and I seen that bloke from The Office. You know that show from a few years back? Supposed to be a comedy but it don’t make me laugh.”

I nod my head.

“Well anyhows, I was walking through Bloomsbury and I sees that bloke – the little fat bloke who plays the boss –”

“You mean Ricky Gervias…”

“…I sees him walking along the road wearing headphones and listening to his iPod. And I says hello to him and he stops and he says alright. And then I’m sort of stumped for words so I tell him that I like The Office and I don’t normally talk to celebs. And he says, really up himself, like, well I don’t like that word, I don’t really see myself as a celebrity. And then he looks me up and down like I was made of shit and walks off.”

I snigger a little and shake my head. Anthony is made of shit. It’s pouring out of every orifice.

“So you see,” explains Anthony, “it ain’t worth talking to celebs. There’s nothing to be gained from it. You end up coming across like you want to suck their dick.”

As he says the word ‘dick’ I hear a key in front door and a few moments later Ania enters the room carrying bags of shopping. She sees Anthony and an angry look spreads across her face. “Hey, you!” she shouts, looking straight at Anthony, who starts laughing. “Go and do some fucking work! Get out now!  Out! Out! Out! You’re not paid to talk you big fucking lazy boy!”

Ania is just over five-feet-tall, Lithuanian, with the face of a slightly disfigured angel. Anthony laughs even harder, enjoying the telling off, finding it difficult to hide the fact that that he obviously has the hots for her. She bundles him out of the room, pushing him in the back with both hands, which he seems to enjoy even more. I hear the front door slam and Ania returns. “Thanks for that,” I smile weakly. Ania returns the smile and heads for the bedroom. I sit at my chair smoking as she packs my suitcase for the trip.

 

At Heathrow I spot Paul Young queueing with all the plebs as I am politely, reverentially, ushered into the VIP section. He sees me calmly strolling by the other side of the rope and shrugs, probably embarrassed. I wave back, flashing my expensive teeth. It’s been over fifteen years since Paul has had any entitlement to this side of the rope. I feel vaguely sorry for him and idly wonder if there is anything that can be done.

In the VIP suite a fresh-faced hostess plies me with drinks. I sit in an easy chair and stare at the empty room, wondering how long I will be alone. Years ago I sat in this very same seat alongside Anthony Hopkins, a former client of mine. “I envy you,” he had said. “You have the perfect position. You have all the trappings of fame, the VIP treatment, the invitations to parties, to openings, the dinners with the right people. But none of the nasty stuff. Nobody knows who you are. You can walk down the street and, unlike me, people will leave you alone. Do you know that the other week I was stopped five times when I was walking down Oxford Street? All I wanted was to buy a new pair of shoes and I was quite unable to do so. The more people that stopped me, the more people recognised me. People were crowding around me, quite what for I have no idea. Perhaps they were hoping that I’d hiss and say ‘I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti…’. The recognition was exponential – you don’t have any of that, which is fortunate in the extreme. I envy you.”

“Yes, but I don’t have your money,” I had responded. 

“What’s money?” Tony had said. “When you’re too famous to spend it?”

 

***

 

During the flight I put my feet up and drink Champagne and watch a movie. I fall asleep and dream of Sofia and when I awake I am greeted by the sight of a ridiculously attractive hostess hovering over me. She gives me the broadest smile and hands me coffee and food. She makes chit-chat: “Are you on business or pleasure?” she asks. I study her features: long, immaculate brown hair; smooth immaculate make-up. A natural, easy, relaxed smile that makes it easy to forget that ours is purely a business arrangement, that her job is only to serve the person with the ticket. “Business,” I reply, “Although I hope that I can make a little time for pleasure.” For a moment I toy with the idea of asking her out to dinner. 

 

A cab ride later and I’m in the apartment in Queens. I bought the place back in the late 80s for a song, in the days when I really didn’t have to think about money. I probably stay here only two or three times a year. The place smells of damp and bleach. I pull back the curtains and stare out idly at the city for a moment. 

The apartment definitely belongs to a bachelor. The floors are wood, the walls are wood panel to make things easy to clean, as I never allow a cleaner into this place. In fact, with the exception of the estate agent and a few utility companies, I am the only person on earth who ever visits this place. Not even Laura knows of its existence – and how I managed to keep her out of the loop is a story in itself.

It’s been several months since I last stayed her and there is a visible film of dust everywhere, on the floors, on the table on the stainless steel chairs. Tomorrow I will spend an hour or so putting the place back into order. Right now I have other things to do.

 

In July 1995 I visited the apartment to find that it had been burgled. A TV had gone, along with a CD player, some money and a few trivial personal effects. Fortunately, the perpetrator had obviously not stayed long – an in and out job – because if he had he would have discovered untold treasures that would have made his toes curl. Although I chose not to report the crime to the police, I made sure that it could never happen again. On the front door I installed a state-of-the-art quadruple tumbler system, on the windows I installed steel shutters (in case Spiderman decided to try to gain entrance to my fourth story apartment) and in the main reception area I installed no less that three separate safes. All three are built into the walls and hidden behind reproduction paintings. One is behind a Peter Blake watercolour of Alice, a second resides behind a John Sell Cotman watercolour of a Lancashire viaduct, an a third is hidden behind a large reproduction of Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope. It is to this safe that I now go, sliding the Bacon out of the way and keying in an eight-digit password. Although I know that the safe has not been opened since I was last here I feel a strong urge to check that its contents are in intact. I open the steel door and rather like a very expensive fridge, a light flicks on to reveal an old address book, several white plastic bottles containing various stimulants, a small antique clay pot half filled with cocaine, a number of syringes, something like $10,000 dollars in used $100 bills and an ancient Nokia mobile phone and charger which I take out from the safe and plug into a socket.

I return to the window and take a seat to watch the sunrise and see the light stream into the room, dust floating in the air. One by one tiny pinpricks of light appear in the darkness as New York begins to awaken. I light a cigarette and for a few minutes I am at peace. My nose is no longer bleeding and I am locked away from the world. I think of Laura and Sofia, of Chris Waddle, of Princess Diana, of black holes and the nature of time.

0

Shotgun Reality – Chapter 01

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Party One – Birthday

My nose is still bleeding and Dulcie is surgically attached to my elbow as I roughly push my way through a small group of e-listers smoking by the front entrance to Jonathan’s palatial Hampstead residence and immediately come face to face with his lordship. Jonathan, with Jane close behind him, looks shocked by my appearance then he smiles and shakes his head as if to imply that he is used to seeing me walking around with blood trickling on to a two-grand jacket. I’m not sure if this is true or not. What is true is that Jonathan has a new toy, this one in the form of a short, stocky, Indian-looking guy with a bald head. Jonathan looks pleased with himself and pats the Indian’s bald head in fast-motion like Benny Hill used to pat Jackie Wright’s. He laughs too much and shouts: ‘Er… Ian… nice to see you, me old muckah… And… Hum… Del… Della… How are you darlin’? Better late than never…” His voice can just about be heard above the sound of Shirley Bassey singing Goldfinger and in the red light of Jonathan’s huge reception area, polished marble and thick Persian rugs, I catch glimpses of various celebrities wandering around with glasses in their hands. Rio Ferdinand is here, his closely-cropped head jutting above the crowd of partygoers, deep in conversation with a girl I’ve never seen before. Chris Evans wanders by and gives me the nod; ludicrously, he’s wearing a radioactive green three-piece suit, presumably in an effort to outdo Jonathan, who is apparently wearing something forged from glitter and tinsel. Standing at the foot of a huge white painted staircase Ricky Gervais is gesticulating aggressively towards Melvin Bragg, who looks around anxiously for a means of escape. Various other faces turn to watch me arrive. Jane offers a cheek and then hurriedly withdraws when she notices the blood. I give her a half-hearted kind of hug, our bodies self-consciously not touching, and steal a glance at her well-packed dress. A drink is placed into my hand while Dulcie’s stubbornly finds its way into the other. For some reason I smile at Dulcie –  who, if asked would tell you that she is a model, although her CV comprises a couple of lingerie shoots and the inevitable soft porn pot-boilers – and inexplicably wink. She looks good, like a bustier, better looking version of Paris Hilton, she draws admiring glances from some of the men in the room and hateful glares from some of the women. “Ian… Hum… Della… meet… Raj,” says Jonathan, gesturing grandly at the small Indian guy at his side. I pull away from Dulcie and reluctantly hold out a hand, which Raj ignores, a big grin on his ugly emaciated little face. Then Jonathan’s new toy opens its mouth to reveal that it is in need of several thousand pounds worth of dental rehabilitation. “No… No… No… No!” he keeps saying, in a strange high-pitched staccato voice, “No… No… No… No!” Shirley Bassey hits the high-C to end the song as Jonathan catches the confused look on my face and erupts with laughter, as do several others in the room including David Bowie, who I’m yet to forgive for what he did to me at the Hamptons last Summer. David notices my irritation and stops laughing, he turns away and is soon pretend deep in conversation with – I think – Mel B or perhaps his wife, although in the darkness I can’t be sure. I take a sip from my drink and when I hold it up to the light to see what it is I’m drinking I notice pink droplets of blood mixing with the contents of the glass. “No… No… No… No!” Raj continues, beaming in triumph like he’s just added a new word to the Oxford dictionary. I turn to Jonathan and I know that I shouldn’t but I can’t help myself: “Who…” I say, already knowing the answer to the question I am about to ask: after all, it’s Jonathan, surely quick-witted Jonathan can help me make some sense of what is happening. “Who… What… I mean… Who… What… What was… Nineteen-ninety, Jonathan… What, who won the World Cup semi-final in nineteen-ninety?” Now it’s Jonathan’s turn to look confused. He thinks for a moment and then laughs so much that I’m sure he’s going to wet himself. “Ian… Lovely Ian…” he says, “You’re fucking mental. Men-tal.” Only Jonathan would speak to me like this. He laughs some more but he cannot resist a challenge. He pretends to be thinking hard and then he says: “You fucking weirdo… You’re asking me who won the nineteen-ninety World Cup semi-final – what the fuck for?” Dulcie grabs my hand again – almost tenderly – and in the corner of my eye I see Matt Lucas marching by dressed as a Red Indian, unaware or unconcerned that it isn’t fancy dress here, closely followed by Stephen Gately. Simply Red are now singing Holding Back The Years. “Terribly sorry about this, Jonathan,” shouts Dulcie above the din, shaking her head at him and frowning, “He keeps asking everybody he meets, it’s his… his… Thing.” Jonathan looks Dulcie up and down, as if surprised that she is able to talk. “Who won it, Jonathan?” I urge. “Who won the semi-final?” Jonathan turns towards Jane and laughs even harder. “Fucking mental, “ he repeats, looking around the room. “Well most people would say Germany but it’s West Germany, of course… On penalties… Now who was it who missed them? Chris Waddle missed the second – almost hit the corner flag if I remember rightly – and who else was it? That’s right, Stuart Pearce missed the first.” And then without warning Stuart Pearce emerges from the throng of people, looking older, a little drunk and very hard and says: “Fucking hell… Gimme a break!” Jonathan continues to laugh as I move towards the stairs, confused and disappointed. “No… No… No…No!” I can hear Raj repeating before a delighted audience.

I shoulder my way through the crowds and locate the staircase. Dulcie continues to clutch my hand in hers as we head off in search of a bathroom. In my pocket iPhone Number Two starts to vibrate – finally, at last, the call that I’ve been waiting for, it has to be. Several of the other guests reach for their pockets and handbags when they hear the Old Phone ringtone, they look disappointed when I withdraw the iPhone from the left hand pocket of my jacket and swipe its surface with my finger. It’s Mr. Tickle, he should have called two days ago. My stomach has been churning. The blood continues to drip but my hopes are raised. Mr. Tickle is calling from Cuba, the line is faint and polluted with static. I move quickly up the stairs and enter the first room that I find, which is in darkness, discarding Dulcie and closing the door behind me. “Usted es tarde!” I yell into the phone. “Puedo jodiendo le mata!”

“El no pareció,” says the garbled voice of Mr. Tickle. “Tuve que esperar dos días que joden.”

“¡Usted jodiendo a idiota! ¡Si usted no entrega por el viernes el trato está apagado! Yo no soy un tonto. Yo no aprecio la tardanza. ¡Consígalo derecho usted jodiendo a bastardo!!”

The line goes quiet as Mr. Tickle thinks for a moment. Then he says: “Lo siento. Yo lo conseguiré derecho. Usted tendrá su entrega el viernes – Usted tiene mi palabra.”

“We’ll see…” I reply, more to myself than anyone else. Then I’m struck by a thought. “¿La señora Diana – está ella muerta o viva?” I yell into the phone. Before he can answer the line goes dead.

I stand alone for a few moments growling to myself, saliva and blood mixing together: “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” and my eyes grow accustomed to the darkness of the room I’m in. It’s a child’s room. White carpets with High School Musical posters on the walls, a small television, a computer, a robotic cat. Fortunately, it’s uninhabited. There are already droplets of blood on the white carpet. I open the door and find Dulcie waiting impatiently for me outside. She grabs my hand again and leads me back on to the landing where a neat line of obedient celebrities and industry faces are waiting for the toilet. I jump the queue and forcefully hammer on the toilet door. “Hurry up!” I urge, “I’m bleeding out here!” The door opens quickly and a flustered Boy George emerges. “Bloody hell, you OK Ian?” he asks, his angry look subsiding when he sees that it’s me. Ignoring the question I push past him with Dulcie still attached to my hand and enter the bathroom to be hit by the smell of artificial lemon and sour faeces. Dulcie locks the door and I grab a toilet roll. 

The bleeding is not as bad as expected. I look at my reflection in a bathroom mirror and beginning mopping up the worst of the blood. Finally, at last, it seems to be clotting. My left nostril is filled with dried, crusty deposits. The nose began bleeding almost a week ago – on the day that Bobby Robson died, on the day that things began to change, at least I think that’s when it started. Since then it’s been doing it on and off almost continuously. “You’ve got to see a doctor,” urges Dulcie. “I will!” I snap, continuing to be irritated by her presence. 

Despite the nasal disfigurement I’m pleased with what I see. The hair that I had darkened a week ago is still successfully masking the grey. The skin looks firm and clean and relatively unwrinkled. The eyes manage to look clear and almost white. I practice smiling in the mirror, watching for any effect that this has on the bleeding. A small bubble of crimson forms in my right nostril. I mop it away. Dulcie puts her arms around me for a moment, it’s almost a loving gesture. 

I rinse my face with cold water and rifle through a bathroom cabinet. Neatly arranged bottles are swept to one side and I find a tube of hair gel next to a bottle of Minoxidal. Dulcie watches in silence as I massage a wad of gel into my thick black hair, in my mind’s eye I’m again replaying the England goal: it’s the first half of extra time and Chris Waddle charges towards goal, I’m sitting in Martin’s house in the summer of 1990 with a cold lager in my hand. We both scream uncontrollably as Waddle’s ungainly looking and purely tentative shot hits an upright and rebounds across the German goal line. “Yes!” I find myself saying aloud, which brings a look of concern from Dulcie. There is banging on the toilet door and someone shouts: “Get a move on!” Winding some toilet paper around my hand I exit.

I wander downstairs and find myself in one of many spacious reception rooms. On a vast leather sofa, various anonymous actors are sitting talking. They look over as I enter the room, Dulcie still with me, and one or two of them try to catch my eye. I move to a table that is empty except for a few discarded glasses and a sixth-generation iPod sitting atop a Bang and Olufsen Soundbuster. Simply Red are almost finished so I pluck the iPod from its perch in order to select a more suitable track. The music immediately stops playing and the house falls silent and a collective groan can be heard throughout. I return the iPod to its position and quickly move away, glumly apologising as I do so.

Denny Mancini appears from nowhere and taps me on the shoulder. “All right, my son,” he says, frowning at me. “You bleedin’? You should put some o this on it”. Denny is a well-known cuts-man, better qualified than anyone I know when it comes to the business of blood. He withdraws a small bottle half-filled with a clear liquid from his jacket pocket. “It’s adrenalin, I always carry a bottle,” he explains. “Put some up your nose and it will stop the bleeding, take it, here, keep it…” As well as being a blood expert, Denny is as close to anyone in my immediate circle who can be described as someone whom I like and who likes me; he keeps asking me to ghost his biography. I met him in a gym back in the late 1980s. I remember he was leaving the shower and was completely naked, his enormous, enormous, belly providing a remarkable contrast to the incredibly well-toned, muscular torsos of the professional fighters that surrounded him. I did not admire his body but I could not help admiring the total lack of self-consciousness that was and is his trademark. “Do it now, son,” he urges.

I unscrew the cap and dab some of the liquid on to my finger and gently prod at my nose, wincing a little. “Not like that,” says Denny, snatching the bottle from me and grasping my nose between his finger and thumb. He holds this position for a full 30-seconds. The pain is intense. I scream like a baby but Music To Watch The Girls Go By by Andy Williams has just started up and it drowns out the noise. Denny smiles good-naturedly and Dulcie strokes my arm. “Like this,” he says.

We swim through the crowds as more people shuffle by: Stephen Fry, Ambrose Mendy, Salman Rushdie, Delia Smith, David Soul (David Soul?!). It’s Jonathan’s fiftieth and he’s pulled out all the stops. Waitresses dressed as French maids are serving up sausages on sticks personally prepared by Gordon Ramsey, the drinks are delivered by waiters who have been selected for their height: all of them are over seven feet tall and have their skin painted green and wear ragged, torn trousers, I take a glass from one of the trays the nearest one is carrying, “It’s our special cocktail,” he says, emphasising the word ‘special’ in a voice that is incredibly – and I mean incredibly – deep.

An actor sidles up to me and asks if we can talk. I shrug back at him, meaning I can’t hear what you’re saying but he persists. I’ve met him a couple of times before but was never going to remember his name; he was – or is – in The Bill or Eastenders or Emmerdale or some kind of dreadful rubbish like that. He grabs my arm and I stop still and glare at him. He backs away apologising like a little child but still he persists. The reason for such persistence is standing next to him: she’s young – nineteen, twenty, I guess, blonde, quite beautiful. The actor beckons for me to follow him out to the garden and more out of boredom than anything else I do as I am requested.

Jonathan’s garden is huge with a neatly cropped lawn that is half the size of a football pitch. At the far end are tennis courts and a swimming pool. There are peacocks wandering around hissing at anyone who approaches. The actor draws me closer to him, “Listen,” he says, “I’m sorry – I’m very sorry – to impinge upon your time but this is Cristabel…”

“Hi Cristabel,” I smile, flashing my perfect newly capped teeth. Beside me Dulcie is squeezing my hand almost to the point that it hurts.

“Hi Ian,” Cristabel replies overconfidently. “I’ve heard all about you…” She purrs the last sentence like a cat. Her disrespect annoys me but I say nothing.

The actor butts in: “We were wondering, well hoping really, if… Well… If Cristabel could be… Could be added to… You know… Your client list… You know… Your list of… Clients.”

I look at the actor, irritated but not yet ready to react. He’s in his forties or fifties, overweight, balding and unappealing – a combination that severely delimits his chances of future success. I look at the girl: young, attractive but already she’s had a little work done. The nose has been altered slightly and the breasts have been enhanced too cheaply. 

“Sorry,” I shrug, “I’d like to help but…”

“…Cristabel already has a record deal and she’s getting great reviews.”

“A record deal?” I say, mock interested. “Who with?”

“It’s… Hum… a small independent label…” says Cristabel.

“Called?”

“Remembrance…”

“Can’t say I’ve heard of them, sweetheart. I’d have remembered if I had.” I smile at my own  feeble joke and the pair of them feel obliged to laugh nervously in unison.

“Sorry,” I repeat, shaking my head, “no can do.”

Simon Cowell drifts by in the shadows accompanied by the obligatory Sinitta. He pretends not to notice me. “That’s who you should be talking to,” I advise.

“Ian…” says Cristabel, “Hum… Sorry… Mr… Mr Price… It may sound like I’m hustling but I’d really like to work with you. I admire what you do so much.” She overemphasises the word ‘so’ and again Dulcie squeezes my hand, pissed off.

“Sorry,” I repeat again. “I can’t trust you.”

The girl audibly gasps and looks over at her companion, who stares at me with a frightened, pleading look in his eyes.

“I beg your pardon?” she says. “Trust?”

“That’s right, I can’t trust you. You’re a fake.”

“A fake?”

“Yes, a fake. I’ve only just met you but I can tell that you’re a fraud. You’ve got a fake nose and you’ve got fake tits. You’re fake. You’re duplicitous. Look at you – you’re still a child and already you’re an inveterate liar. I can’t trust someone like you.”

“What do you mean? Someone like me? What are you talking about?” says Cristabel, tears suddenly welling up in her eyes.

“Do I have to spell it out? It’s simple really. When I see people like you, fake on the outside, I can tell that you are fake on the inside. Believe me, I know these things. It’s not your fault. You’re just fake.”

Dulcie stops squeezing my hand as the other two trudge away, beaten, shaking their heads, shell-shocked. Then Cristabel looks over her shoulder at me and silently mouths the word:  ‘wanker’. Happy Birthday by Altered Images strikes up and I know that it’s edging closer to midnight.

Jonathan’s few words become many as a crowd gather around him in the garden to pay homage. I close my eyes and rock my head and try to think of other things during a full six minutes of fireworks. I hate fireworks. You’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. The blood begins to drip again and in the right hand pocket of my blood spattered jacket I absent-mindedly play with iPhone Number One.

In the distance I can hear Raj continuing his inane chant” “No… No… No… No…” For a reason lost on me people find the little prick amusing. I feel a heavy hand on my shoulder and abruptly turn to face it’s owner. Eric Guy smiles at me. He is dressed as Elvis, a cheap, ill-fitting nylon hairpiece superglued to his shaven skull. “All right boy,” he says, as always irritatingly over-familiar. “How’s the wife and kid?” He notices Dulcie and winks slyly at her. “They’re… Hmm… OK…” I reply. Eric has no right to be here, everybody at the party knows that. But even Jonathan is not about to ask him to leave. Eric is like one of those tiny Pilot fish that a shark will tolerate because it cleans its back of debris and detritus; or a Cattle Egret that perches on the backs of cattle to feed off parasites. Nobody knows why he’s here and nobody can understand why his presence at events such as this one is never challenged. Eric is friends with everyone – even with me apparently; his Facebook profile boasts a list of friends that exceeds 7,000. And until one can be sure of exactly who is sponsoring him, who is protecting him, who wants him to be here, he must be tolerated. “The missus not here?” he asks provocatively. Eric knows that she is not here, everybody knows that she is not here. But still he asks. I clear my throat and think back to a year ago, when she was here, and everybody knew that she was here. Eric continues to talk and I fade into autopilot, drifting away and trying to imagine where they are now. What they are doing, who they are with. My nose begins to bleed again.

***

It’s still dripping when I get back to the house, having managed to slip away unobserved while Dulcie was speaking to Danni Minogue. On iPhone Number One are no less than six voicemails and seven texts from Dulcie. The first text reads ‘where r u?’, the last one ‘you fuckin bstard!!!!!!!!!!’. It’s very late but Ania is sitting in the lounge watching an old Bruce Willis film. She smiles softly when she sees me enter and heads into the kitchen to fix a drink. I watch Willis and his wig rescue a group of children from some terrorists and quickly fall asleep. Later, I awake to birdsong and find myself in bed with Ania sleeping naked beside me. There is blood on the pillow and sheets. Always there is blood.

0

Mr Happy – Chapter 11

 

Leighton Saunders sat behind his big oak desk with a video remote in his hand and considered his next move. In his rush to leave Soho he had been unable to shower. He could still smell the girl on him. Little Lena. He’d be seeing her again. He’d allow a little time for her cuts and bruises to heal but he felt confident that their paths would be crossing again one day soon. Right now, however, he had more important things to think about.

It had actually taken Saunders more than two hours to return to the Bunker. What with the girl and the Friday night crowds, he’d lost track of time. Fortunately for them, this had given his men an extra hour to try and get to the bottom of what had occurred. In that time they had managed to build up a reasonable picture of the events leading up to the disappearance of Phillips and Moore.

The jump had apparently been prompted a long private discussion between the two men in Phillips’ office earlier in the evening. The conversation had been recorded by the hidden surveillance camera that Saunders’s had installed in the old man’s office. Saunders rewound the digital tape and replayed the final minutes of their conversation for the third time.

There was a look of deep malice on Saunders’s face as Phillips’s voice came through the tinny speakers.

“No it wouldn’t Ray. We can do it right now. And you want to know the best thing about this plan?”

“Go on.”

Although it was yet to be positively confirmed, everything pointed to the fact that Phillips and Moore had jumped back to the 20th century, to precisely the same location to which that idiot Slater had been dispatched a few days ago. This was an unanticipated development: cavalier in the extreme and completely out of character for the usually restrained Phillips.

“The best thing is that nobody knows anything about it because I only thought of it ten minutes ago. If we go now it could all be done before anyone knows anything about it.”

“Oh don’t they? Saunders said aloud; a smile appeared on his face and it occurred to him that Phillips could not have orchestrated his own demise more comprehensively. To Saunders it was like Christmas and Easter rolled into one. Phillips was effectively yesterday’s news. If he returned to the Bunker of his own volition there would be an official enquiry and Phillips was sure to lose his job. Alternatively, if Saunders was allowed to send out a search party he would, of course, be its leader. Moreover, if and when they managed to find the missing men it would be Saunders himself putting a gun to their heads and liberating their brains. Not before he was able to have a little fun. Naturally.

Saunders took out a key from his pocket and used it to open the bottom drawer of his desk, from which he pulled out a small metallic box. On the front of the box was a digital combination lock, complete with keypad. The box was programmed to explode if an incorrect decryption key was inputted. The box would also explode if anybody tried to it force it open. As well as the arm of the person attempting to open it, the explosion would probably take off the roof of the building.

Saunders took understandable care to input the correct number and then hit the ENTER key. Inside was a small communicator with built in low-band transmitter. He used its mini-keyboard to type in a message: PHILLIPS AND SAUNDERS HAVE JUMPED TO LOCATION 99, 36, 72. WILL FOLLOW. SUGGEST YOU DO THE SAME.