Copyright © 2016 Patrick Farnon
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One phrase will suffice to describe modern man: He fornicated and read the newspapers (Albert Camus, The Fall)
Rupert the dog was sitting stock still on the bed, his two big Great Dane ears pointing straight up at the ceiling. McClafferty, the dog’s owner ̶ Mac for short ̶ was lying on the floor at the foot of the bed. He had passed out. First he couldn’t get the key in the lock and had fumbled around for what seemed like half an hour trying to get in before staggering into the hallway, blood dripping from the handkerchief round his knuckles leaving a long, red smear on the wall as he made his way to the kitchen where he disappeared from Rupert’s view.
McClafferty had been trying. He had been trying hard for years to get his show on the road, trying to get beyond the dope and the drugs to that higher state of enlightenment described by Sari Wang in his bestseller “Enlightenment and the Seven Steps to Lasting Peace.”
For a while it had worked and he meditated every day sitting in Buddha position on the carpet, feeling the blessed light come through the blinds to caress his closed eyelids and drive away the demons. He’d take Rupert out faithfully every day to the park, twice a day normally, morning and afternoon. And Rupert had enjoyed that because McClafferty would usually take a ball and throw it and Rupert would chase after it and bring it back. Then McClafferty would take the ball and throw it as far as he could down the field and Rupert would run faster and faster after it.
Rupert could have gone on and on forever like that. Other times, when the weather was good, Rupert would dive into the pond and paddle around in wide circles on the black, still water while McClafferty lay flopped out on the grass. Once or twice, because the bank was slippery or he got the wrong spot, Rupert couldn’t get out of the water so McClafferty would have to pull him out.
Rupert was grateful to McClafferty for that and believed it gave them a special bond. It showed in any case that McClafferty was a caring, conscientious owner, of a kind generally prized by dogs. Rupert was under no illusions however. On one occasion McClafferty dozed off on the park bench while Rupert was in the water but when he tried to get out, he couldn’t because the mud on the bank was too slippery to heave out his big brown thirty-kilo Great Dane body. He had to swim around for half an hour to find another spot and get out under his own steam.
Rupert hadn’t exactly forgotten that small omission on McClafferty’s part. He simply took McClafferty’s character into account and discounted the transgression. He did it without complaint. In the same way as he accepted the bones. The bones McClafferty got from Simpson’s the butcher’s. Mostly they had no meat on them because Clafferty got them for nothing. “Bones-the-Dog-McClafferty,” was the name the boys in the butcher’s gave him. Or variations on the theme. Like “McClafferty-the-Bones,” or “Bone-Dog-McClafferty.”
Rupert took no offense. He’d crush the bones just the same between his big grinders, cracking and splintering them to get at the marrow. But he was nobody’s fool. He could tell the difference alright between a meaty bone with traces of juicy red flesh and gristle and one of those shiny bald knobs that come from the cow’s shin bone that most mutts grind at feverishly because they’re so stupid they don’t know any better.
Whenever they went up to Simpson’s at the top of the High Street, Rupert would sit outside on the pavement tied to the lamppost. His eyes would follow McClafferty into the shop. His ears were pretty good, so good in fact he could pick up the sound of all the voices in a half mile radius with his antenna. Not to mention the smells his big wet snout could detect. Smells that went with the voice. So when McClafferty stepped into the butcher’s that day, Rupert smelt the blood when Davy put down the gutting knife on the block and wiped his hands on the red-striped apron. Davy was standing behind the counter at the back of the shop, watching McClafferty come through the open doorway.
‘Here comes Bones-for-the-Dog McClafferty,’ Davy muttered.
That’s how it started. That’s how McClafferty got the name. Maybe McClafferty heard it too. Maybe not, but he ordered a couple of Scotch pies that day before leaving, which was pretty unusual since he never bought anything. Couldn’t. Never had a tosser. It all went on fags and booze. Perhaps he wanted to show he had his pride. Let them see he wasn’t taking something for nothing.
As they headed down the hill towards Pringle Street on the way back to the flat, McClafferty stuck one of the pies into Rupert’s open, panting mouth. Which was fine.
But this time McClafferty had flunked good. Had flunked big time. Rupert knew something was seriously wrong from the way he heard him fritter with the lock to get into the flat, the way he staggered down the hall with his bleeding hand into the kitchen, bottles rattling in the fridge, knew in his marrow McClafferty’s movements were seriously out of tune.
Sitting on the bed, Rupert absorbed his master’s fall from grace with his big brown eyes. His translucent ears were erect and tense like those big saucers at Jodrell Bank that probe the outer reaches of the universe for signs of life, meaning and hope. Rupert sat stock still on the bed, studying the back of McClafferty’s head, wondering how his young face had got all smashed up. What had happened to him before he came in? Before he hit the floor?
McClafferty would wake up later, around midnight and wouldn’t be able to see. He’d think it was dark. Then he’d look around and wonder why he couldn’t see the big green neon sign outside the window pulsing out the word “Hotel.” Or the lights in the street. Or the lights in the houses and the flats beyond the windows. Or even the little blue circular light that flashed on and off day and night on the CD player. McClafferty would wake up and discover he was blind. Or as good as makes no difference.
Under the circumstances Rupert didn’t want to. He wanted to hold it in. He would have preferred to pee outside in the park. But that wasn’t going to happen. Not now. Not for the moment. So he jumped off the bed, padded through to the kitchen, lifted a leg to the cupboard door under the sink and gave a squirt. For good measure, he gave the corner of the fridge the message as well. Then he padded back through to the living room and sat beside McClafferty on the carpet, gazing down on the back of his master’s badly gashed skull.
The blood had congealed in a dark blue patch that contrasted strangely with the rest of McClafferty’s dyed blond hair. Being a human being was one bum deal, Rupert reflected. And associating with humans was dangerous. No wonder there were so many neurotic dogs out there. But Rupert was beyond considerations of that kind at the moment. Rupert had seen the light when McClafferty came in through the door. He saw the future. How it would be. He saw himself leading McClafferty by the leash out to the park, seating him on the bench. Saw McClafferty slip the leash and Rupert running up and down happy as a sandboy, sniffing the behind of every bitch on the planet. It wouldn’t be quite the same of course, what with no ball and that. But Rupert discounted that too. He’d run about to his heart’s content. Then he’d come back to the bench and nudge McClafferty and McClafferty would feel about with his hand and clip the leash back onto his studded collar and Rupert would lead McClafferty through the streets back home to the flat. That’s how it would be.
There was the doctor and the police to contend with in the meantime but once that was out of the way and McClafferty getting accustomed to the fact that the dark side was now a permanent feature of his wretched life, they’d get along dandy, you bet. Just fine and dandy. Rupert would take McClafferty out to the park for walkies and Rupert would get to decide when it was time to go home. And another thing, when they went to Simpson’s, likely as not the butcher boys would feel sorry for Bones-the-Dog-McClafferty and give Rupert better bones, big juicy, drippy bones with bags of meat on them. So whatever way you flipped the coin, he was onto a winner.
And that’s approximately how things turned out after we were sent out by Socio & Rehab to oversee the rake’s progress. We’d drop round to see him regularly, my assistant Grazyna and I, and take him and Rupert for a walk. In the park we’d wrap the leash round McClafferty’s fingers and let Rupert walk him around for a bit waving his white stick with his left hand. It was quite touching. But if you were heading up hill to the butcher’s you had to be careful. When Rupert got a sniff of the bones he’d lose his self-control. Pulled McClafferty to the ground once. Dragged him for twenty yards. Uphill. Fortunately the street was deserted that morning and nobody saw the incident. But you don’t want a black mark against your name, do you now? A compensation claim on your hands. Or a hand scribbling “dereliction of duty” in the margin of a document somewhere. Putting it in a folder. Filing it away. Up at Socio. Or someplace you didn’t even know existed. With your name on it.
Over the years, McClafferty had accumulated a great volume of junk. Shit. Trash. Junk food, junk dope, junk ideas, junk gee-gaws from market stalls and department stores. And when I looked down at him now, strapped tight to the green leather bench in the processing room of the Rehab Clinic with his eyes closed, sinking into oblivion after I gave him the shot, I was thinking of the random junk floating in orbit round planet earth, the bits and pieces of weird metal and weird synthetic objects colliding with each other, and whose names we’d never know, splattering into millions more pieces out there in space. Looked at from the moon, where the fools were also dumping their junk, planet earth was obscured by a cloud of fine dust. All the bits and pieces of useless trash that have been rocketed up for some so-called scientific purpose or other and had advanced mankind not one iota. That about summed up the state of McClafferty’s consciousness: Worse than useless.
Leaving aside for the moment the question of the intake of toxic junk food, it was our job at Socio & Rehab to neutralize the mental noise accumulated by patients from a diet of toxic ideas injected into their addled brains by the combined gutter minds of the globe: the politicians, the government, the press, Internet, film and TV. And get people like McClafferty back onto the street. As quickly and as cheaply as possible. Frankly nobody gave a toss what was in McClafferty’s mind. Or how it got there. Just as they didn’t give a toss about what was in their own heads. But cleaning up the mess cost what they called “good” money. Doctors, hospitals, hand-outs, you name it. Lots of people were against spending anything on the basket cases, particularly this new lot people had been frightened into electing. But it was a dilemma. The economy ran largely on the production of trash. A side effect was it produced bags of whacked out nutters who had to be patched up, dusted down and turfed out onto the street to open a new chapter in their existence. It was big business. But things had got out of control and it was costing the health services more than it was worth. We were in the same situation at Socio & Rehab. We cost money and if we couldn’t come up with cheap solutions we were history sooner or later too. We had to tread a fine line. Keep a lid on our mouths. Try to press the yellow puss from the acne of desires and imaginings that had invaded the minds of the poor devils. Without a shit detector you are well and truly fucked.
‘What do you see now?’ I said, when he was fully relaxed.
‘I’m on a beach riding a horse. With a beautiful blonde. In a topless. The surf. The azure sea. Oh, it’s brilliant. Brilliant.’
‘Wrong.’ I pressed the button on the T-Eliminator and patient McClafferty shuddered.
‘What do you see now?’
After a while he said, ‘I’m in a high-class restaurant someplace. High up. Panoramic view. Maybe it’s the Eiffel Tower. Or it could be Las Vegas. I’m with a beautiful doll. A film star. I’m a millionaire. I’ve won the lottery or something. We’re going to get married. She loves me. I slip the ring on her finger. A big diamond ring, big as a walnut, and we entwine arms and take a sip of champagne. No, I think it’s the Empire State Building.’
‘Wrong!’ He gave another shudder.
‘And now where are you?’ Again a long pause as his mind wandered off to some dark, troubled corner.
‘I’m on a TV reality show. I’m famous. I’ve just won, just beat all the other contestants, and they want me to become President of the United States. So I give a speech and announce peace on earth and an end to all wars. And democracy. And everyone is cheering wildly and they make me president.’
‘God help us,’ and l turned the volume up full and sent a thousand volt shock through his tormented system to neutralize the mental noise.
And thus we passed the morning session. There was an enormous amount of trash to be weeded out of that brain. All sorts of desires and imaginings implanted by state propaganda, corporations wanting to sell you stuff, hustling gurus and assorted charlatans who drove people so crazy they’d didn’t know their arse from their elbow.
But what can you expect from someone who has been living on a diet of junk food, junk thoughts and bad drugs since the age of twelve? Just about everything: from boot polish to model airplane glue. Before graduating onwards and upwards to more serious substances. He had yet to say he came from a planet outside our solar system, but, mark my words, that idea too would occur to him sooner or later and one day he would come to believe it.
When we were at it again, in the afternoon session ̶ reserved for thought readjustment rather than thought elimination ̶ he came up with a winged horse.
‘A winged horse, you say?’ Now that was interesting. Who was it said the idea of a winged horse was not an adequate thought? Winged horses do not exist, the argument goes. If they did horses would have wings and be able to fly.
‘What does it look like?’
‘The winged horse?’
‘It’s got wings sticking out its sides and it’s flapping its way across the sky.’
‘Good! Good! Now imagine it landing in field where there are other horses…and tell me what you see.’
‘It’s in a field with other horses…’
‘And it’s got its wings folded.’
‘And the other horses…?’
‘The other horses?’
‘Have the other horses got wings?’
‘Think about the other horses. What are they doing?’
‘Grazing? Do they know the winged horse is there?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so.’
‘Try to think of the winged horse and the other horses at the same time and tell me what the winged horse is doing?’
‘It’s trying to get away from there.’
‘Is it comfortable with the other horses?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so?’
‘Let it go then. Where is it now?’
‘It’s flying up in the sky. Up in the clouds’
‘End of session for the day.’
‘It’s going to be a long process getting McClafferty back on track,’ I said to Grazyna going back in the car to Sunny Groodge. Grazyna Wotchka, that is, my occasional assistant. Studied mind control and propaganda at the University of St Petersburg but was Polish.
When the budget allowed, I called her in. For advice. Get another take on things.
‘Oh, you doing fine,’ she said and I caught a glimpse of her neat little knees in her neat little short skirt when I looked across to the mirror on the other side to get in the lane and off the motorway.
“A winged horse is not an adequate thought,” who said that?’
“A winged horse is not an adequate thought,” she tapped the words on her smart phone. When the answer came up, she read: ‘Baruch Spinoza the philosopher… We assume we only know things through perception…The rays of the sun warms my face. But there is nothing in common between me and the sun. So therefore I cannot have an adequate idea of the sun. I can only know the sun in terms of its effects on my body. And not what is the cause of the sun. And what is the cause of the heat on my face and so on… To know that I would have to know what my body was and what the sun was, and I cannot know that…’
‘Mmm. Anything else?’
‘One sensation follows another sensation without any real understanding of the causes of these sensations…this is the level that most people live at. Under the control of their feelings…one feeling following another… Like a paper boat buffeted by the mighty waves of the ocean of emotion… ’
“Buffeted by mighty waves. One feeling following another.” That about summed it up in McClafferty’s case. And many others. God help us, digging the worms out of that cesspool wasn’t going to be easy.
The light was fading. A few drops of rain spattered the windscreen. Grazyna reached across and switched on the wipers. Slow like. Back and forwards, back and forwards. The cars coming from the opposite direction, from Sunny Groodge had their lights on. Darkness was falling. Then she took out the CD and pushed it into the slot of the CD player. Some guy started singing “Maybe Baby.” You know the one. That goes. “I’ll have you some day-ay-ay.” Something I noticed, she always did that. When we were in the car. Pulled out the CD from her bag and stuck it in the player. She’d asked me to hold her gold fish once, Gradzyna. In a plastic bag. She had a goldfish in a bowl. And when she was moving flat, I went round to help her and she put it in a plastic bag. The fish bowl wasn’t hers, she said, but the goldfish was. Something like that. And I stood there holding the plastic bag wondering what to do, waiting for her to come back. Holding a plastic bag half-filled with water with a goldfish in it. Crazy things like that stick in your mind. She was telling me stuff. In a strange sort of way. That’s what I reckoned. But my head couldn’t figure out the grammar.
There were all sorts of areas of McClafferty’s mind that frankly were no go ̶ we didn’t do any of that Freudian or Jungian stuff. Apart from his ingrained bad habits, the world outside was also driving McClafferty insane. That was my view. Trying to understand quantitative easing was a case in question. Though where McClafferty picked that one up, I’ve no idea. Maybe from some politico or some wisenose on the radio or the boob tube. He’d been on the mend these past six months, his sight slowly coming back but he had started to pick up mental noise again. I liked to think of it at a subliminal level as the sound of gears silently crashing in an old banger with a screwed-up gear box. In someone’s head.
I gave him a cocktail of sodium thiopental, ethanol, scopolamine and 3-Quinuclidinyl benzoate, which was just about everything I could find in the medicine cabinet. Soon as he was off to bunny land with the rabbits, I said ‘And what do you see now?’
‘Mental noise dash quantitative easing,’ I whispered to Grazyna.
‘Mental noise dash quantitative easing,’ she jotted down on her pad.
‘Quantitative easing,’ I prompted.
McClafferty’s speech was slurred, slowed by the sodium thiopental as he rolled out the carpet to his inner movie.
‘There’s a house. A villa. White. A big sign on the roof says “Quantitative Easing.” There’s a bus in the drive and it’s waiting to take everyone. To school. To work. Home and back. Everyone. And next to its there’s a car. A limousine. It’s a posh limousine. Frosted glass. The thing rock stars and pimps shuttle in back and forwards to the airport. And behind the steering wheel is a chauffeur. He’s wearing a uniform. And has a cap on his head. And in front of the car is the house, the villa. And in this house is a guy. But there’s something strange about him. He’s dressed in a cloak and you can’t see his face. He comes out of the house and gets into the car and they drive off. But the bus can’t drive off because there’s no petrol for the bus. In the bus there’s kids and workers. The kids start fretting, the workers get irritated. Then they spill off the bus and go their separate ways.
‘The car is now driving round the planet showing itself off to other cars on the great highway. The great highway is circular. It goes right round the earth. But it looks straight all the way to the horizon when you’re in the car.
‘There’s no one ahead and the car is the only car on the road. Then it passes another car and it’s not the only car on the road. The chauffeur tightens his grip on the steering wheel. In the mirror there’s a car behind and the car behind is followed by others cars so there’s a whole line of cars behind. In the mirror. And there’s a whole line of cars in front all the way to the horizon and they’re all following each other. Then the man in the back hears on the radio about quantitative easing. The big bank, the main bank where they print the money, is going to print millions more, trillions more, and pump it into the economy, the news reader says. She’s a woman. And so you’ll understand she says that’s ten to the power of twelve. That is ten multiplied twelve times by twelve. So you get a trillion. A million million. And you write that with twelve zeros so you get a one and nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. And that’s what it says on the sign above the villa. A ten and beside it a little twelve. Ten to the power of twelve. Much more than the number of stars in the Milky Way. That’s a hundred and four hundred billion.
‘Then the voice on the radio says a stack of pound notes totaling a trillion pounds would be seven hundred and eight nine miles high or a hundred and forty Mount Everests stacked on top of each other. The man in the car looks at the two identical photos of Mount Everest he has in his hand. The crest is covered with snow and the mountain looks like an ice-cream cone topped with white chocolate. He holds one photo above the other so he’s got two Mount Everests, one of top of the other. It looks crazy.
‘A hundred and four Mount Everests,’ he says to the chauffeur’s face in the mirror and starts to sob, his shoulders shaking under his shiny suit. Then the radio says the earth is eight thousand miles in diameter. The man settles back in his seat and smiles. The chauffeur smiles too because they know why they’re going round the planet at the equator. They’ve built a road round the equator and they’re on it. The car passes through jungles and deserts. Over great flowing rivers. It’s very hot. The chauffeur addresses the man in the mirror and his lips move slowly like a goldfish and he says ‘The sun is a pathetic ninety three million miles away.’ And they laugh.
‘They drive like that for hours. The clock is ticking on the dashboard. A little red lamp suddenly goes on. On the petrol gauge. The car turns off the highway into a petrol station. The chauffeur steps out, pulls out a gun, shoots the petrol pump attendant, goes into the office, shoots the cashier in the face, goes back outside, unhooks the petrol pump, and jams the nozzle to keep the petrol spewing till the tank is full and the petrol is running over the ground, flooding under the car. Inside the car, the man is watching him. The windows have got slightly frosted up inside. It seems he’s trying to signal with his fingers on the glass to tell the chauffeur he’s locked in and can’t get out. There’s a click again.
‘Then the chauffeur lights a cigarette, stands back and throws the lighted cigarette into the petrol. The petrol lights immediately and sneaks in a fast trail under the car as the chauffeur walks away and “WHOOSH” the car goes up in flames and the chauffeur goes and sits on the road to wait for the cops and lights another cigarette.’
We waited for him to come round.
‘Sounds like a film,’ Grazyna said.
‘Running through his head. All mixed up.’
When he woke up I said, ‘You saw that in a film.’ But he just looked at me.
‘Quantitative easing,’ I said to see if there was any trace of the memory in his brain.
‘What? What’s easy?
‘Easy money. Mount Everest. Ice-cream cones.’
‘Oh, easy money? Quantitative easing.’
‘Where’s it all go? The money mountain?’
‘No idea. Into the banks,’ I guess.
‘Where’s it go after that?’
‘To their mates. Evaporates into the air.’
‘I’ve never seen any.’
‘Me neither. Something to drink?’
Junk food, junk ideas, junk information. We tried everything but there was no way of detoxing McClafferty entirely. We did have our little successes, though. Take food.
‘Now there’s other idea we can look,’ Grazyna said over a coffee in the consultancy room as we waited for McClafferty to appear for his appointment.
Now to give McClafferty his due, he didn’t eat a lot. Or didn’t seem to. He was skinny as a rake. But that, as Grazyna pointed out, was false reasoning. One didn’t necessarily follow the other.
‘Worms,’ she said, and pushed a piece of paper across the table. “My Favourite Foods,” it was headed.
‘Aaagh…’ I winced, reading what McClafferty was ingesting. ‘Doesn’t seem to be doing him much harm, look how skinny he is.’
‘Skinny? Got tapeworm. Got results. That where all food is gong’
“Gong?” Did she say “gong?” That’s what it sounded like. It threw me for a moment and I missed a bit of the conversation. Then I heard her say ‘the scan’ and gazed at the face of a monster. It looked like one of those politicians you see on TV.
‘The padern of vorldvide food consumshion was chainjink,’ Grazyna said.
Over half a billion people were obese. Industrialised food production was toxic. They’d tested some stuff on rats. The rats couldn’t stop eating till they burst. They’d been made highly addictive to sugar. Always felt hungry though they’d stuffed themselves fit to burst because the hunger inhibitors had been turned off in their brains. The future was in insects. Grazyna held up a little jar. They already had them in the supermarket.
“Honeypot Ants,” the label said.
So we tried McClafferty on the Honeypot Ants and other grizzly concoctions for a few weeks. Along the lines of:
‘Try this, Mr. McClafferty. It’s another new high protein food. Will do you the world of good.’
That went well for a month or two and he looked forward to it, finishing off a jar or two during each session.
Then word came from downstairs we were being terminated. Or in the parlance of Socio & Rehab “reallocated to new duties in keeping with the further deployment of services beneficial to the public.” The usual crap. “Enhanced efficiency, productivity improvements.” Grazyna and I would shortly be history. So to speed up McClafferty’s cure and launch the lucky man back into what passed as human society, we thought we’d give him an all-inclusive package that would kill two birds with one stone. Clean out his digestive system and his mind at the same time. Create the new man of the monetized techno age. Give him a new soul, as it were. More a circuit board, if truth be told. Souls had been long out of fashion, and as far as Socio & Rehab was concerned, didn’t exist.
The poor man didn’t know what hit him. We strapped him to a chair, gave him a tranquillizer and ran the videos. “The End of Food as We Know It,” was the title of the first one. “The End of the World as We Know It,” was the title of the second. In between we spoon fed him Honeypot Ants. That was followed by “How the System Works.” after four hours, he passed out from the sheer horror. Grazyna broke down crying, repenting she had suggested the idea in the first place. Now I had two patients on my hands. I gave her a hug, persuaded her it was all my idea and she wasn’t to blame. She bucked up and threw herself back into the breach. And since time was running out we put him on a strict daily regime of mind and matter, but with a carrot included. A metaphorical one, please note. If he signed the pledge promising to complete the course of treatment we would give him a certificate of clearance. As an extra incentive we brought in Rupert, put him on the rug by the door and fed him the Honeypot Ants too. The dog of the future was eating the food that two billion people on the planet already delighted in. And that everyone in Sunny Groodge would be eating soon barring system meltdown.
And did Rupert love that Locust and Cockroach Paste! Those crushed Honeypot Ants! Those Centipede Sticks! That Dung Beetle Dip, those Dragonfly Crunchies! Indeed he did!
For McClafferty ̶ on a forced diet of bread and water at home ̶ we penciled in sessions at surgery to remove the twenty five yards tapeworm, put him on a drug cocktail for the suppression of mental noise and continued to stuff him to the gunnels with the food of the glorious shining future where everything would be pure and untainted.
To gauge the effect of our revolutionary treatment, Grazyna kept a log of his subconscious, jotted down the rambling of his mind as he sank in and out of consciousness.
‘Oh, my God, they’re invading from the south, coming over the border, legions of them, countless millions. Cockroaches. Not those horrible pinkish things that scuttle occasionally from under kitchen sink. Oh no, big as horses. Kangaroos more. Standing on spindly white legs. Driving millions of dumb armour-plated ants before them. More like dogs. Looking back at their owners to see if they’re doing as they’re told. At their masters. And their masters spurring them on with whips. Cracking the whips over the hard shells of their backs, lashing them like curs. And all the time, all the time they’re looking back. Whimpering dogs waiting for their masters to goad them on. And when their masters, high on their hind legs, crack their whips the ants surge forward over the broken and abandoned battlements of castles and fortresses. Red skies. Vampires in plaids. Then one of the vampires comes and appears at a window of a castle and holds up a pea! A little hard green pea. Between his fingers. Lord of the Castle. Lord of the land. And he says, up there on the balcony, holding his hands out to embrace the universe, he says,
‘This is their mind. Everything we have taught them from the beginning of time to believe.’
And taking the little dried pea between his fingers, he crushes it and it falls like dust as the cockroaches climb the ivy and over the parapet, crawl over his rotting body, even into his face, consuming him, tearing at his long dead, rotting vampire flesh…’
It sounded like the ramblings of a psychotic.
But we never did manage to give him ̶ correct that: reward him with ̶ his Clearance and Good Conduct Certificate. When they announced they were closing down Socio & Rehab, I managed to grab some drugs for psychosis from the medicine cabinet. Just in case. Later they put a notice on the door saying “Please Contact the Probation & Re-Classification Department (P&R) for further developments.”
Hooked on cockroaches and honeypot ants Rupert did a runner. He was variously spotted in parks and woodland areas of the city digging feverishly in the earth for ants or leaping high into the air for insects on the wing. One thing is sure, having had a sniff of the great outdoors there was no way he would be enticed back to his former lair and on to canned dog food. Not that our efforts mattered much in the end as far as McClafferty is concerned. Unbeknown to us, young Reginald George had been looking out for number one from an early age. And had other irons in the fire. As we were soon to learn. And report. When we were installed at P&R when we finally located it, it was an empty room on the floor below Socio & Rehab bathed in yellow light containing a desk, three chairs, a telephone and a computer.
I never shall forget the day McClafferty’s name came up on the list of “clients” to be honoured by a lightning visit from P&R. There I was as a result, sitting having a cup of tea at the kitchen table waiting for the man himself to show up when a black face peered through the window, then popped its head through the back door which was open and,
‘Is this the McClafferty residence?’
I sized up the dog-collar, the dark suit and the little brown leather attaché case he carried under one arm and smelled trouble.
‘Sort of,’ I said, hedging my bet.
‘Ah, good,’ he said ‘You’ll be waiting for him too,’ and he stretched out a big black hand, the palm of which was surprisingly pink.
‘Reverend Mbutu,’ he said. ‘White Fathers.’
Without further ado he settled in the chair opposite and took a seat. He extracted a folder from the attaché case and placed it on the table. He then placed the attaché case on the floor, upright, against the table leg and patted the folder.
He was a portly gentleman, well fed but by no means fat, in his mid-fifties and had the avuncular manner of an Irish clergyman. As I poured him a cup of tea, I threw a glance at the upside-down label on the file folder and made out what looked like the name of R. McClafferty.
‘Such a fine young man. But Sister Teresa hasn’t been hearing from him of late and she asked me to call in when I was up at the conference. To see how he is doing.’
Pinned to the top of the folder was a photo of what looked like an altar boy with his hands folded high above his chest in prayer. Did I recognize him? I shook my head. Not quite, I said and offered the sugar bowl. Father Mbutu took out two lumps, dropped them in his tea and when he finished stirring, gave the spoon two delicate little taps against the cup and placed it carefully in the saucer. He handed me the letter.
Dear Sister Teresa,
This is to inform you that I am doing very well at school and am now in the second grade and working very hard to improve myself, go to university and become a doctor or a missionary and go out to Africa to help people. However I have no money to buy the school text books I need at the moment since my mother is still in hospital and I am looking after the house and my little sister. I say my morning and evening prayers every day before I go to bed so that I will be good when I grow up and will be able to help others.
Yours sincerely R. G. McClafferty.
P.S we got the last cheque OK
‘Such a lovely little mtoto, and such a delicate way of expressing himself,’ said The Reverend Mbutu, delicately selecting a digestive biscuit from the tin.
‘Little boy. Or baby’ in Swahili,’ he explained.
I poured him some more tea and offered him another digestive biscuit.
‘No milk,’ he said, waving his hand.
He had much to thank us for. When he was a child living in a mud hut at the edge of the great river Congo-Chambeshi, his little brother had been eaten by a crocodile and it was only thanks to the help of Father O’Reilly of the White Fathers that he’d learned to read and write, speak English, get an education and, by the grace of God, become a missionary. Did I know Father O’Reilly?
I said I did not.
‘Pity. Wonderful man, a great inspiration to me as a boy.’
Yes it was thanks to their program of help the Black Babies in Africa that, praise the Lord, he’d been rescued and gone to the White Fathers’ seminary. And now that things were much better in Africa and all the people in the village had mobile phones and no longer needed to walk four miles to the well to get clean drinking water, they had received alarming reports. Harrowing tales of poverty here in the west, especially in Scotland where people were working like slaves for zero wages.
‘Not zero wages?’
‘There’s that too. We used to have slave-wages. But we’ve progressed beyond that. Now you sometimes get paid.’
‘My goodness,’ Father Mbutu said, ‘We never had that problem in the village, everybody helped everybody else.
I was on the point of asking him the address, but thought better of it. I couldn’t imagine they’d have any need for social workers in an African village. Parole officers especially.
‘A sad business all round.’
So he had been very happy to help with young Reginald when the opportunity arose. Sister Teresa had taken a special interest and was deeply concerned. Did I know anything?
‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m only here on a visit.
Just then a car drew up outside, the front door opened and someone rushed into the living room next door, noisily opening cupboards and drawers by the sound of things. I excused myself, got up and went into the living room. It was the bold McClafferty himself. Rummaging intently in a metal tin on the mantelpiece.
‘So, Sunny Jim. Back again?’
His jaw dropped. He removed more business cards, chip cards and papers from the box, took some coins and rushed out the door to pay the taxi driver standing outside looking into the house ̶ or the half of him I could see ̶ on the other side of the garden hedge.
‘You’ve got a visitor,’ I said when he came back.
‘Ah, you’ll see. Someone looking for a young Reginald,’ I said, as he followed me into the kitchen.’
He gave Father Mbutu a hand and mumbled something.
‘Ah,’ said McClafferty playing for time, throwing a glance at the papers on the table and the unmistakable shell-blue colour of the stationery they sold at Boots the Chemist.
‘He’s doing well at school, I understand,’ said Father Mbutu, ‘Are you the father?’
‘Not exactly,’ McClafferty said, looking at the photo.
‘Ah yes, now I recognize him,’ McClafferty said, ‘Young Reginald. I thought you meant someone else. No, I’m just a sort of uncle. Friend of the family, so to speak. Keep an eye on the little fellow; see to it he keeps up his studies. He wants to be a pilot.’
‘A doctor,’ Father Mbutu said.
‘Ah right. A doctor. He’s with his mother right now. At her bedside. Praying. She’s not been that well lately and her sister’s looking after her. Young Reginald is at her bedside night and day.
‘Like a true Christian,’ Father Mbutu said.
‘Yes, says his prayers every night. I see to that.’
The reverend Mbutu gazed dolefully at the tips of his shining black boots but inquired no further into these delicate family matters.
‘And the crocodile?’ I said, changing the subject. ‘Whatever happened to him?’
‘Oh, bwana meno kubwa,’ Father Mbutu said, brightening visibly at the memory of the dear crocodile. ‘Whenever there was a feast we’d gather all the bones together. The bits and pieces of chickens, monkeys, pigs and throw them in the river to bwana meno kubwa. He became sort of a pet.’
‘Bwana meno kubwa?’
‘Mister White teeth, the children called him. Even “Bwana meno kubwa nyeupe.” Mister big white teeth. He never gave us any trouble after that,’ the reverend said, with a wistful expression on his face.’
A delicate silence descended to cloak the sacred moment as The Reverend Mbutu popped down memory lane to toss some leftover chicken bones into the gaping mouth of Bwana Big White Teeth. Mercifully the Holy Spirit, or some equivalent, had descended on McClafferty too because he respectfully held his peace, adopted the expression of a monk in deep converse with his maker, and kept his gaze fixed on the thumbs and fingers of his hands, held tenderly together in prayer.
The visit to the river had not been without its insights for the reverend. Having dipped a toe in the vast ocean of unknowing, he spoke at last. Staring into the middle distance, he declared,
‘The power of forgiveness. God works in mysterious ways. And the lion shall lay down with the lamb.’
And stuffing the Foster-a-White-Baby papers in his attaché case, he touched my sleeve across the table, stood up and said,
‘If you know of any other needy case, let me know.’ And he gave me his card. ‘Let young Reginald, be an example to us all.’
‘I’ll certainly pass on the message, father,’ young Reginald said, looking over my shoulder. ‘Ah will that.’
But Father Mbutu didn’t reply. Nor did he spare young Reginald a second glance as I accompanied him to the front door. He didn’t give Bwana McClafferty a card either. Maybe he had the chancer’s number all along. Being a man of the cloth, didn’t make him a fool. And having travelled all that way from Africa, I wasn’t into opening up another can of worms and spoiling his day.
Maybe somebody dropped a word in the right quarters and the Socio got wind of it. Maybe The Reverend Mbutu made a loose remark at the “Help” Conference. Maybe the taxman was alerted by undeclared income. Maybe “Maybe, Baby.” These are all areas on which I am not competent to speak. The fact of the matter is that when the authorities bagged Reginald George for fraud in the White Babies Foster business and his face appeared on page three of Sunny Thugs & Miscreants, about nine months after that, he was sent down on a nine months stretch to B-Bar-B prison at her Majesty’s pleasure.
Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, McClafferty near smoked himself to death to get his hands on cigarette packs to write down the vision he received one dark night in his cell in which Rupert appeared to him. And told him that dogs liked to look good too. Needed regular shampooing and haircutting to improve their chances with the bitches. That in any case was the story he told later in an interview he gave to Sunny Business Vision and later published in Confess & Repent Weekly, a magazine for sinners that I occasionally supplied with freelance features to boost my income and pay for the expensive flat I’d had to rent to get Grazyna to move in with me.
I thus followed McClafferty’s Sunny Dog Haircut and Shampoo Parlours with more than professional interest. They were not an overnight success, as I later wrote in Confess & Repent, but they went a long way to reinstating McClafferty in the public esteem.
“The Ways of Providence are Unfathomable.” That was the headline of the article I submitted. It went like this:
“The ways of providence are unfathomable to ordinary men and the workings of the Lord a mystery even to the Saints. An invisible hand at the helm of the universe has been steering the fate of young entrepreneur Reginald George McClafferty of late. Following an unfortunate incident for which the authorities saw fit to incarcerate him for some months, the good Lord was pleased to send his dog Rupert to him in a dream to unveil a grand new future in the shape of a shampoo and haircut salon for dogs.
I have recently visited the location and can report to readers that during the first days the Sunny Dog Haircut & Shampoo Parlour opened in Toggle Street, an unprepossessing side street of the many of which Sunny Groodge is richly endowed, the unwitting passer-by on his or her way to work, the supermarket, or on a visit to friends or family is confronted with a most astonishing sight. Through the huge windows of the brightly lit interior of a shop, two large dogs can be seen perched high in barber’s chairs. They have bright green ponchos round their necks and gaze in wide-eyed wonder into the mirror on the wall following the actions of two besmocked young lady assistants who are clipping their curly locks.
The hair of the dog ̶ readers should be aware ̶ comes in all shapes and sizes. Some dogs have hair like barbed wire, others have flowing curly locks so soft and beautiful they cause beauty queens to weep with envy. Some have short hair, some have long hair. Some have hair which hangs over their eyes. With these half-blind specimens special care has to be taken. The sentimental observer may be fooled into thinking such dogs see better when the curtains before their eyes are raised. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is precisely the presence of these locks that lend such animals, large and small, their particular charm. To clip the hair from around their eyes is an act of savagery no less brutal than applying hot curling tongs to a puppy dog’s tail.
Now, as every lover, user and abuser, of man’s best friend well knows, dogs come in all shapes and sizes. They also have their own characteristics of temperament endowed upon them by nature. Some are mean and downright nasty. Others wag their tails in joyful content all day long and may be fobbed off with any old bone that falls to hand.
It is not our purpose to discuss the merits or demerits of the various breeds, their virtues or vices, since such topics are a bone of contention and any remarks uttered here, implying a preference for this or that breed of animal may be distressful to the overly sentimental owner. We will thus restrict ourselves to the size, shape and pedigree of dogs in what follows. Suffice to say that Sunny Dog and Shampoo Parlour caters to every taste.
All of these considerations are of course familiar to the two lady assistants on the other side of the window clipping and shearing in the bright interior. Sandra and Marlene clip and shear dogs all day long for a living. They are very good at it and know how to keep the public entertained. They plunge the dogs in the big zinc baths and with relish, soap their ears, their paws, even their tails. And the dogs gaze up with fond, wide-eyed wonder at their mistresses, complacent accomplices in the spectacle being enacted for the titillation of the public outside on the pavement.
Most of the public passing the shop, fortunately have the good sense and decency to cast no more than a glance inside as they pass by. Others, untroubled by higher sentiments, strangers to embarrassment, luridly glue their noses to the window, and throw comments over their shoulders to those behind them less fortunate and doubly desperate for a glimpse. Standing outside on the pavement, I noted some comments.
‘She’s now sticking him in the bath and rubbing him down. Gosh, look at that foam.’
‘She did that one quick. Just clipped a few tufts off the top and now she’s whipping the cloth off and brushing him down, another said whereupon another voice retorted,
‘Oh where’s he gone? He’s disappeared.’
One thing is certain. The Sunny Dog Shampoo and Haircut Parlour is here to stay and is a welcome addition to our city, dog lovers will be pleased to know.”
It was a wordy piece granted, but Confess & Repent were a bunch of cheapskates that paid on a word basis so I puffed it up to make it as long as possible. Later I did a re-write for Vogue Pets, and worked with a photographer, focusing on the latest underwear and footwear fashions for dogs.
But that was all for public consumption. What the Peeping Toms didn’t see was the faceless guy in the backroom. What he was up to. And although “faceless and nameless” occasionally appeared with a wide broom to sweep up the hair from the floor they didn’t see him popping pills into the dogs’ mouths or into the dog food to keep them nice and groggy before they went on stage. Or opening the back door when the “Knock three times in succession, then two, then one, so I’ll know it’s you.” knock sounded on the door and the dognapper delivered another dog via Dogs S&H to the Sunny Dog Haircut & Shampoo Parlour.
Dogs S&H was the holding company and its function was to lease the dogs to the Sunny Dog Haircut & Shampoo Parlour (Sunny Dogs H&S) which had no dogs of its own. On paper. In the financial-technical sense. That was the secret of McClafferty’s business model. Nothing was his, he paid no tax on the dogs and the dogs in a sense, did not exist. Except as a cost item. Working with a team of professional dognappers, the alleys, gardens and parks of the city were scoured for likely candidates for the haircut or the shampoo. And after they had been manicured, haircutted and shampooed, the poor mutts were returned to the streets like Parisian tarts, coiffeured and perfumed. Handsomer and prettier, granted, but certainly more naked, shorn of their dignity and more lost than they had ever been before on the street.
So as the Sunny Dog Sunny Dog Haircut & Shampoo Parlour built up a nice head of steam, creating demand, dog lovers all over the city were drawn like flies to the spider’s web. Slowly the word got round that something unusual was afoot as the city streets filled up miraculously with newly shorn and perfumed four-footers flashing lacquered and clipped nails.
It became impossible for dog lovers worth their salt not to respond. Once word got round that shampooing, haircutting and manicuring were a must for dogs, public resistance collapsed and the first Sunny Dog Haircut and Shampoo Parlour did a roaring trade.
Now Sandra and Marlene were two lovely girls. Good as gold. Diamonds to use a trade term. But like dogs, humans also come in all shapes and sizes. Sandra was big. Marlene was tiny. Sandra was fat. Marlene was thin. Sandra had a boyfriend. Marlene had no boyfriend. And like dogs they had their little idiosyncrasies. It is unwise to speculate on the respective characters, shortcomings, virtues and vices of the staff of Sunny Dogs, but an obvious injustice, invisible to the naked eye, resided in the shop.
How was it possible that a big fat, jovial dearie like Sandra had a handsome boyfriend who couldn’t get enough of her? When she was a complete disaster? She never cleaned up, left greasy plates in the sink, lived on fish suppers and clogged up the shower with her long hairs because she was too lazy to put on the plastic shower cap. While little Marlene had nobody. Nobody to give her a little peck on the cheek or a cuddle even though she was trim and swift as a little sailing yacht tacking along the coast in a summer regatta, dressed to the nineties, was both punctual, considerate and attentive.
How was it possible she was continually second-bested by fat Sandra who never listened to a word anyone said, whose boyfriend texted her every two minutes, interrupted her at work so she spent more time on the phone than on the dogs? In short, trouble at sea. The Sunny Dogs life raft was starting to tilt dangerously to one side under Sandra’s weight and the sharks were circling.
Things came to a head when “him” came round. Yes “him” because that’s how Marlene referred to Sandra’s beau. Him! As in ‘Is that “him” again?’ Or ‘Mmm. Is it “him” you’re getting all worked up about?’
“Him” obviously had a name but since it was never mentioned in the shop and never came up, it might as well not have existed. So when “him” did come round eventually after he’d finished his stint at the Rainbow Bar, Marlene flashed her all, clattering around on high heels and wiggling her little butt in her short and tight little dress. It did not go unnoticed. Naturally “him” felt a spark and, naturally “him” responded.
That’s as far as it got. Half an hour later after “him” left, Sandra thrust a piping hot Hawaiian pizza, pineapple chunks and all, delivered minutes before to the back door by Pronto Express Pizzas, into Marlene’s face when she said, ‘So that’s “him” is it “him?” “Him?” That’s what it’s all about, is it? Could have “him” any day.’
That was it. That was really it. And Sandra said, ‘I’ll give you “him.” And stuck the hot pizza in Marlene’s face.
All hell broke loose. The dogs scattered yelping blue murder, the table collapsed. Fat Sandra made a grab at little Marlene and both fell writhing to the floor. Sandra sat on Marlene’s face. Marlene passed out. A few days later McClafferty got a letter from a lawyer, stumped up, bundled the needler out the shop, paid hush money to the lawyer and fixed Marlene up with a job as a pole dancer in a sleazy bar. Word on the street is she got a boob job, hooked a rich punter and never looked back.
Which is not to say Sunny Dogs, as it was later called for short, was not a success. It did great business. And they got another Marlene. McClafferty either had a soft spot for fat Sandra or he was soft in the head. That was the general opinion.
No, it wasn’t a staff problem, as a lot of people claimed when the business went pear-shaped. It was the public mood. Fickle as always, it changed. Not overnight of course, a bit at a time. Curly haired, cropped dogs with bow ties and cute little tartan jackets and cute little tartan boots were all the rage for a while. Then the attention shifted to dog behaviour. People wanted to talk to their dogs. Communicate with them. So talking to dogs became the in-thing. But talking to dogs was more specialized. Not everybody could do it. The papers were full of wanted ads for dog whisperers and dog gurus. There was even a guy could make dogs sing. Had a good thing going for a while writing songs for dogs for up-market clients. Played the guitar and you could get him to get your dog to sing along ̶ or rather wail ̶ though there was no use asking him to do your favourite song. It didn’t work like that. He made a high pitched sound and the dog would start yelping and howling like some old lost soul out in the badlands. It was a whole new ball game. Which is a pity, because Dog Shampooing and Haircutting was a sound enough business model, whatever way you look at it. Still is. There’s still plenty of demand. Dog walking too, if you want to know. Dog singing. Now there’s another niche market.
Then McClafferty wanted to launch a DIY Doggie chain in which people could set up a little Sunny Dog S&H in their own homes and do the neighbour’s dogs. Along the lines of MuffetWare. Too complicated the millionaires told McClafferty on Lion’s Den ̶ a TV reality show in which sharp dudes who’d made loads with sharp practices advised up and coming sharp dudes ̶ when he came looking for the seed capital. So he sold the shop to a little sleazy creep he met in a pub, said he was an Arab sheik. Who was mad about fat women, thought Sandra was included with the dogs in the deal and tried to claim his rights.
‘Aye, that’ll be right,’ Sandra said when the little guy’s octopus tentacles snaked for the umpteenth time over her ample protuberances. For Sandra, it was all par for the course. She’d been here before. And without another word, she simply let gravity take over, let her two hundred pounds of flabby fish-supper flesh go all limp and acquiescent and topple over soundlessly, squashing the little scumbag like a bug.
Later other Sunny Dog S&H Parlours ̶ another variation on the name ̶ were set up by franchise holders, but alas they were poor imitations, lacking that sine qua non of the original whether they were out in the badlands, down on the coast or up in the hills. That sine qua non, that inimitable touch of McClafferty’s the absence of which the franchise holders could regret till they were blue in the face or could dreamily reminisce about like the Holy Grail when their investment went belly-up and they were gaping at bankruptcy or insolvency, as bailiff’s orders and lawyers letters bubbled up from the pit of their ambitions, floated to the surface of their miserable lives coated with a greasy film of regret.
But that is not to say that the stranger passing through these parts may not come across the odd parlour which has held out and still soldiers on under the Sunny brand name. Especially out in the badlands. Where the citizens know no better. Where the noble endeavours of spirit enshrined in the Sunny Dog S&H Parlours live on regardless.
Having caught the entrepreneurial bug, and said good bye to Sunny Dogs, McClafferty was financially depleted. The spirit of private enterprise however had cast other seeds to the wind. One had fallen in Sunny Groodge Central Station and was now flowering.
It was a late afternoon in early September and the sun, high above, shone through the glass roof onto McClafferty’s head. He was having his second latte of the day. On the table in front on him was a sheet of paper torn from a notebook. Across from him was an ugly wee nyaff with big floppy ears and spiky blond hair by the name of Malky Crump. They were planning a train robbery. Crump had been nicking stuff all his life. Ever since he had been big enough to climb onto the chair and reach into his father’s jacket pocket hanging on the peg in the hallway. Robbing trains was a logical development.
The train they were planning to rob was a goods train headed south of the city through the badlands by a circuitous route to the capital in RockAll. For security reasons, at a time and date further to be disclosed, Crump said, tapping on the paper as McClafferty scribbled.
‘By my mate. Who has a job on the railways.’
The train was to take the last panda in Scotland on a roundabout route to RockAll Zoo where a Chinese delegation would be waiting in front of the main building to meet it, waving little red flags of the People’s Republic as the panda mobile drove up the drive to fulfil its mission and reunite Pearly with its mate Pally.
Pearly had been front page news nationwide for months the previous year when Pearly and Pally were together at RockAll Zoo trying to produce an heir. Some critics blamed the failure of the couple to multiply on media frenzy, others on the weather or on the comfort level of the zoo. Some others blamed it on the incompetence of zoo director Murdo McTavish who, interviewed by RockAll’s Breezy News, made a pathetic attempt at blaming the quality of the bamboo shoots they were shipping in by the ton. Further investigation by the sleuths of the Breezy News revealed this was bunkum and that money was at the root of the misunderstanding. Whether the Chinese authorities were putting the squeeze on the zoo for more money or whether the zoo was trying to put the thumbscrews on the Chinese, never quite became clear but the atmosphere of mistrust transferred to the pandas. Notoriously sensitive beasts, they were unable to perform. Do their duty. To satisfaction that is. And within the timeframe of the contract. Pearly was then shipped back to Beijing where it had been languishing for over a year now.
The Chinese then decided to give RockAll Zoo a second chance. And ship Pearly back. But there was a last minute hitch. To do with the money. Again. RockAll Zoo had doubled the price of entrance tickets in the hope of raising the money to pay for leasing Pearly but the ticket money hadn’t come in fast enough and the zoo hadn’t paid the Chinese the up-front fee so now Pearly was being shuttled round Scotland in a railway wagon by a group of undercover Chinese agents till such times as the zoo came up with the wherewithal.
That was only half the story of course. When they had shipped Pearly back to China the year before, straight into the arms of another, redundant and unattached local panda named Penny, he had performed to everyone’s satisfaction, impregnating Penny within days of his arrival so that by the time Pally arrived back from Scotland some months later, he was well into his stride and impregnated her too. Within days of returning to China. The Chinese nation was agog. There was something special about China as far as procreation is concerned, all agreed. A national holiday was declared. For their services to the nation, Pally and Penny were given their own show by the Central Propaganda Department and featured regularly on Chinese television with their cubs promoting Number One Automobile and Mao Chong Shrimp Creamy Tom Yum Instant Noodle Soup.
Pearly’s territory on the other hand was global. He had a mission in life. And since he had proved his point with Pally and Penny, it was decided to send the great lover and his mate back to Scotland to try their luck again. Separately of course. For two reasons. First security. And secondly so Pally would be all hot and bothered and gasping for the arrival of Pearly.
Fate had already brought McClafferty and Malky Crump together over a pint in the Pig & Swill up on Lenflew Street one evening, when both were at loose ends and in dire straits. Crump was just back outside from having been inside on a two-year stretch for stealing half a mile of copper cable from the railway, blacking out communications in Sunny Groodge for a week, and McClafferty was in reorientation following the demise of his first ̶ legit ̶ business venture.
The connection between Malky Crump and Pearly was not immediately obvious, as McClafferty reflected when Crump brought up the subject of the pandas. But there were troubling similarities. Pearly had been all over the ship and so had Malky. Pearly was heading for mature adulthood. Malky was well past it. Both man and beast had their ups and downs. Pearly, granted, had more ups than downs and Crump more downs than ups. Normally McClafferty would not have touched Crump with a barge pole. Malky, God bless his blonde mop, desperately needed a break. McClafferty on the other hand did not do breaks and, more to the point, hardly knew Malky from Adam. Both of them were in limbo, McClafferty decided. In between jobs, in between times. And what do souls do in limbo? They wait for the Pearly Gates to open.
A few weeks later in a thick mist, McClafferty and Malky were peering through stalks of bamboo shoots on Malky’s cousin’s allotment in the badlands south of Sunny Groodge. The goods train had already drawn to a slippery, screeching halt on the siding and was waiting the signal to move on once the express passed. For Malky, it was down memory lane from the times he and the cousins used to hide in the ditch under the railway line and wait for the goods train to come to a halt so they could climb on and plunder it while the unwitting engine driver was puffing at a fag waiting for the signals to change.
The panda came willingly enough. After they broke the seal on the door of the wagon, whipped a noose round his neck and pulled him down onto the track, he caught a whiff of the bamboo and shot off like a bolt from a crossbow, dragging Malky with him. He was pretty smart too. He headed straight for the mother lode, the shoots that Malky had spent the morning cutting, burst in through the door of the hut, threw himself on the pile, demolished it in a matter of seconds and turned to fix a menacing eye for more. On Malky.
Hands, deep in the pockets of his coat at the entrance to the hut, McClafferty watched the show with equanimity as Malky ran back and forth with a machete to cut more shoots for the ravenous beast.
‘Must be hungry,’ the brain behind the operation remarked by way of insight into Malky’s predicament.
The alarm bells meanwhile had sounded far and wide. Pearly hit the front pages and in the coming weeks was regularly spotted across the nation, up trees, slouching across fields in the moonlight like Big Foot and even once discovered in a besieged cottage out in the sticks where, when the Pistoleros kicked in the door, they found only a poor old crone living on her own shivering in a shawl. With the gas cut off. Such was the hullabaloo of an outraged public when the story appeared in the press that the attention shifted to gas and electricity prices and Pearly was abandoned to his devices and shunted to the back page. There was no mention of the ransom notes Malky was sending. When they hit the desk of the editor of The Breezy News, he dispatched them into the bin without a second glance. Along with the hundreds of others that flooded in daily from loopy, desperate citizens in desperate times.
Cutting bamboo all day long was not McClafferty’s kettle of fish. After a few days he shuttled back to his low-life haunts in Sunny Groodge, leaving Malky to hold the fort. All went well for a few weeks more till marital harmony broke down irrevocably between man and beast. Trouble was Malky had bad habits. He smoked and he drank. To be more precise he was forced to smoke about three packs a day because of the whisky, which made him want to smoke. If it hadn’t been for the whisky he wouldn’t have smoked. Or so he told himself.
Pearly too had issues. He did nothing else but eat, sleep and snooze so Malky was at it all day long in the plantation, cutting bamboo. Things got to such a pass, they couldn’t stand the sight of each other. The stench of Malky’s bad habits made Pearly’s nose crinkle while Malky developed a twitch in his hands from the effects of cutting the bamboo. On a diet of sandwiches prepared by the loving hands of his cousin, washed down with whisky, he was soon a wreck of his former wrecked self, started to lose the plot and spent the nights sleeping with Pearly till one night 150 kilos of panda meat rolled on top of him, a burning fag end fell out of a scrawny, horny mitt onto the floor and the foot high debris of panda takeaway slowly started to smoulder.
Long before the blaze got under way, Pearly was out the window in the dark and heading along the railway line for the hills. Malky went to ground.
Back in Sunny Groodge that afternoon, The Daily Recker & Evening News reported the Chinese Government was threatening sanctions for the loss of Pearly the panda, last of a noble line, it claimed, while RockAll Zoo was staring into the smouldering pit of bankruptcy and McClafferty was in serious trouble. The Chinese Triads had got wind of him and were on his trail. And although forewarned on the jungle drums, sleeping each night in a different bed, crossing the river of death to throw the superstitious buggers off the scent, they finally tracked him down, left a brick in front of the main door with a label attached on string. The label had the sign of the dragon on it, a time and place. That was all.
The meeting place was the Dragon’s Den down on the waterfront. McClafferty desperately needed some extra leverage on this one. So he got his old man, Spiky Mac in on the deal. Spiky Mac was an ugly old git. With his bald pate and drooping eyelids he was a dead ringer for Genghis Khan minus the drooping moustache. So McClafferty went round to see him with a bottle of whisky, filled him to the eyeballs till he passed out, painted the black hand of the infamous Sicilian Black Hand Gang on his forehead with a fine liner, clipped a couple of curtain earrings to his earlobes, and got the taxi driver to help him downstairs and take them round to the Dragon’s Den.
With Spiky semi-comatose and staring out of the eyes of a hell-hound from the pits of Hell, Reginald George studied the wicked green and red dragon tattoo on the forehead of his adversary Chang Lu across the table. The game was up.
Chang Lu was a man of few words. ‘Mitah Maaaahk…’ was all he said. That and ‘Paandaaah…’ as he studied the black hand on McClafferty senior’s forehead.
Finally McClafferty spoke.
‘You’ve got the wrong man, wee man,’ he said. They gave each other hard man stares across the table for an hour or more waiting for the other to flinch.
Then Chang Lu spoke. ‘Mitah Maaahk. Ba biz. Wun panda. Wun Chinee panda. Honah. Gleat insul. Letlibushion…You payee…’
McClafferty waited. Then he pulled out his trump. Or his “tlump,” as he later called it, recounting the story to his acolytes. He reached into his tweed coat, looked Chang Lu straight in the eye, muttered one word and pushed a battered car license plate across the table. It had a number on it. A single number. The number eight.
‘Al Capone. Only one.’
Chang Lu picked up the car license plate and fixed his eye on the number eight in the centre. Eight is the luckiest number in the Chinese lexicon. Along the bottom of the plate were decorative, scrolled letters. They said “Chicago 1928 Cadillac V-8.” Chang Lu, the Canton killer, squeezed his eyes to slits, nodded sagely half-a-dozen times. It couldn’t get any better. The signs were all there. The great Al Capone. Then he spoke.
‘Ni hao. Velly goo…’
And that was how McClafferty got off the hook. Till the next time. Or so he told it. But what about the panda? What about Pearly?
Well, it was getting into the winter by then and the days were drawing in with a vengeance. There was hardly a light left in the sky so there was no point in looking. If he’d been a bear, or even a hedgehog, Pearly would have been hibernating by then. But pandas are closer to ferrets than bears, and they don’t hibernate. Your best bet is he’s still out there in the pine forests north of Sunny, up a tree crunching pine cones. That or some poor soul up in the hills who doesn’t know any better, has taken him in and is running her arse off all day looking for stuff to eat for the lazy bugger as he languishes on his backside in front of a log fire, crunching and munching at whatever branches she can get their hands on. When he’s not sleeping. They’ve written books about him, comparing him to Big Foot in his movements, but ne’er a hide or a hair of him has been seen since. As McClafferty says, when he’s pressed on the subject, because he doesn’t like to talk about it,
‘Good luck to the wee man, he’s well out of it.’
Poor Pally languished for over six months after that in RockAll Zoo waiting for her mate Pearly to return. Trips were organized for school kids to come and see her and cheer her up because she was supposed to be lonely. Then from one day to the next she disappeared without prior notification. The Breezy’s top woman columnist Deirdre Connolly speculated she had gone off in search of her one true love. That take on things had the nation in tears for weeks before the romantic hogwash was scotched when Pally was spotted months later on Chinese TV in an ad for Yu Chi Very Good Shark Fin Soup. Seems she got sneaked out the country and nobody the wiser.
At this point in our narrative, it is as well to pause in our exposition of the adventures of one Reginald George McClafferty. And turn to consider his operating environment. Sunny Groodge, that is. Now as few people are aware, Sunny Groodge was not always called Sunny Groodge. That’s the first thing you need to know. In the old days it was called Grudge ̶ some say Gludge ̶ a name, mostly forgotten now given the many alterations it has undergone during these years of adaptation to “changing realities.”
The old name served well enough though and in normal circumstances would have lasted forever. There was no reason to change it. But the world changed and suddenly the old name was no good any more. In the old days the rain pelted non-stop on Grudge whenever the rain was so-minded. Which was often. Hurricane winds from the sea buffeted it and toppled the chimney pots. Half the year the city was shrouded in thick mists once the summer skulked off over the twilight horizon and droopy autumn set into winter leaving the inhabitants fumbling about like moles in the permanent gloom.
But then the city had a stroke of luck. The weather started to change. Got better. All sorts of reasons were given for it. It was cyclical some said. Others said it was a portend of disaster and pointed to the bits and pieces of iceberg that had started to appear off the coast in summer, plagues of flies, midges big as golf balls, strange beasts and fish never before seen on land or sea in those parts. But Grudgers made the best of it and in the good summer weather started organizing athletic games and contests. Just about every form of human activity having to do with earning a living had disappeared by that time: Factories, steel mills, mines, ship building, so it was only natural for people to look around for something else to fritter away their time on the planet.
The weird weather was given the blessing of the city fathers and just to make sure no one forgot, or the weather went back to being nasty again, they decided they would like to keep it the way it had been during those lovely long hot summers, even if it went in the face of reality. There were vested interests by that time in keeping the weather good.
Tourists had started coming to the annual summer games which although they had been a modest affair at first, had inflated through the decades and were now grandly heralded as the Grudge Olympic Games. Some bright spark in the know, some carpetbagger or money grubbing politico who knew how money rolled, thought they just as well make the sunshine permanent and put it in the name. After all wasn’t that what half the Grudgers in the city did every year: go off somewhere on holiday where the sun was shining? So they called it Sunny Grudge. And the first annual games were called the Sunny Grudge Olympics.
Later they got to thinking: Well look, this Grudge doesn’t sound too nice, and might give outsiders the wrong idea: that the citizens were a bunch of miserable, mean sods, joyless creatures with a grudge against life. So it had to go too. They didn’t want to change the name too much so they simply got rid of the “u” and put in two “oo”s. It thus became Groodge: Sunny Groodge. Not only did the name sound better, it looked better too. The tourists must have been of the same opinion because they came in even greater numbers to wander like lost souls round the city, gaping at its sundry bits and pieces of architecture, taking selfies, drinking coffee, gaping at the inhabitants and capturing their images to take back home with them. Everyone felt better for the change.
So even when the rain came back and started pissing down again, running in torrents downhill into Gorgeous Square, creating pools round the old chipped and rotten statues of the heroes of the Empire that City Hall wouldn’t pull down because it lacked the nerve or couldn’t because it lacked the cash, it was of no consequence. A new age of hope had been inaugurated with the insertion of Sunny into the name and that did away with all that nonsense about the weather being bad. Time halts for no man. And once the city developed a taste for tarting up the language, they naturally progressed to tarting up the national patrimony for the benefit of the tourists. Old cow sheds on the edge of the city, barns, piles of dismal rubble out in the badlands and up in the hills were conjured into manors and castles and tastefully decorated inside and out. Since being somewhere else had become infinitely more desirable than being where you were for millions of the well-heeled planet dwellers, they were a godsend.
And since many of these naturally, were Chinese, the infamous rolling “r”s of the inhabitants became a bit of a problem. No one wanted to offend the honourable brothers and sisters on the other side of the globe. There was only one thing for it: change the place names wherever possible. Make things easier. Thus a plan was drawn up under the stewardship of the mayor, Ned Sherry to rid the language of any offensive letters the oriental brothers and sisters might have trouble enunciating. Extensive research was carried out. Certain letters of the alphabet were singled out as noxious and seditious.
Another issue, one linguistic expert pointed out, was that the Chinese language worked with characters, not letters. Another committee was set up. It made its recommendations. The names of well-known items of national patrimony such as castles, stately homes, statues, lochs and mountains should be shown in pictures, it said. Sunny Groodge ̶ or Sunny Goodge (the jury was still out on that point) ̶ for example should be rendered in Chinese by two characters. One of the sun ̶ shining of course ̶ with great fiery rays emanating from its surface. There was no dispute about that since it was pretty obvious. But for the Groodge part, (which would soon become Goodge if certain people had their way and they eliminated the letter “r” so it sounded more like “good”), it was a different kettle of fish. Some favored an image of a grinning, fat-faced, well-fed, jovial Chinaman, others a sort of serene Buddha figure, though as more than one pundit pointed out, Buddha was not a card-carrying communist.
The main thing was that the poor Chinese visitor to Sunny Groodge had to be prevented at all costs from saying “Sunny Gloodge.” Whenever you looked at associated words like “glibber, glue” or “glob”, you hair stood on end. The letter “r” had to go. The scheme was in the starting blocks and ready for the big launch under Ned Sherry’s stewardship but, as fate would have it, the proposal was put on hold when Humpty Dumpty had a great fall and mutated into the Invisible Man.
With the world going down the tubes fast, lost souls lost the plot, drank themselves into oblivion, shagged themselves blind. And when they couldn’t think of any new whacked-out craziness, they got obtuse, regressed to infancy. Climbed into nappies. Stayed in bed all day sucking at their dummy tits. If not their thumbs. Weird times indeed. Welcome home, Reginald George.
First indications all was again not well and more than normal craziness was afoot was that evening outside Sunny Groodge Central when we were waiting for a taxi, Grazyna and I. It was raining, drizzling in a sort of tired, couldn’t-care-less fashion, and this guy gets off the bus across the road and he’s wearing a nappy. A nappy! A diaper for God’s sake! A cloth nappy. A grown man of about fifty and he’s wearing a nappy trussed between his bare legs and his nobly knees. And he’s wearing these ridiculous socks. Ankle length, grey wool. And sandals. His bare feet in sandals! Open sandals! Like those Jesus freaks. And it’s raining. Raining! And he gets off the bus in a blue anorak down to his hips and a nappy below.
‘Good God,’ I said to Granzyna.
That was the last time I spoke. It was only when strange rumours started going round there was more of them out there in the sludge of night in Sunny G. wailing and squalling in their cots in poky flats with dummy tits stuck in their gobs, that I recovered the power of speech. If they’d turned into vampires or even zombies like decent reprobates did in the good old days after darkness fell, they’d have had my blessing. But this? This was beyond the pale. Downright indecent. The brain-damaged beanos of the city were reverting, going back to becoming infants, little babes in the cradle.
It took a month or two before reality hit the fans of Socio that something strange was afoot and they splashed us a message to check out a certain location. It came as no great surprise to us, as it will come to no great surprise to you or your little fur-lined boots, that when we called round at said location, Grazyna and I, the name on the door said McClafferty: S. McClafferty.
I rang the bell. The door opened a peak and a little ferret snout poked out to sniff the breeze.
‘Hello, Shirley, my dear.’
‘Oh, it’s you.’
‘Aye, me again. Can we come in?’
She dropped the chain from the lock and let us in and we paused for a moment, all three of us, surveying the car crash on the other side of the room. The great mutt was stuck in a cot with his knees up. He was wrapped in a blanket up to his chin and had a little pixie hat on his thick skull. And when he shook his head and went ‘Goo…goo,’ on seeing us, the little red bobbin dangling at the end danced up and down. He had a dummy tit stuck between his lips and a big teddy bear jammed between his ear and the wall on which pink rabbits were cavorting. He was dribbling at the mouth.
‘Aw, would you just look at the wee soul,’ Shirley squeaked and darted across to wipe the slobber off his chin.
McClafferty emitted another baby sound half way between a gurgle and a burp as Shirl fussed over him. ‘Whit are ye like, ma wee man, whit are ye like, is it yir mammy’s breast yir wantin?’
But he shook his head, the reprobate. Thank God for that, because I’d no desire to see Shirl whip out a wrinkled old prune from under her blouse and stick it in his majesty’s forty-year plus gob.
Grazyna said zilch, hadn’t uttered a word all morning, hadn’t uttered a word for days, come to think of it. She was in shock too. It was as new to her as it was to me: our first case of adult-baby syndrome.
When Shirl stepped back, I seized the initiative, pulled the dummy tit from the creature’s mouth, leaned close to its ear and whispered menacingly,
‘Listen, you fucker, if you’re not out of this bed in a second and your clothes on, I’ll have you clapped in irons and inside again for the rest of your natural born before you can say Jumpin’ Jack Flash, you cunt.’
And what did he do? Went, ‘Baaawww…’ Let out this pathetic wail that went on and on and on forever.
‘Oh, look at what you’ve gone and done now,’ Shirley said, trying to snatch the dummy tit.
‘No, he’s not getting it. Look at him, a grown man. He’s taking the Mickey.’
‘Give us it. Give us that dummy, it’s ma hoose.’
So I gave her the dummy tit and she stuck it back in the fool’s mouth, ruffled his little red woolen pixie hat with her hand. It slid over one eye. She straightened the hat and then straightened the bib.
‘Goody goodies. Yum, yum. In a minute. Yer mammie’s jist going to get it.’
‘Baaawww…’ He let out another wail and she said,
‘Such a lovely wee boy ye are, so ye are,’ and rubbed his tummy. He gave a little gurgle of delight.
Then she was over at the table with a little jar of baby food in her hand. She looked across at McClafferty in the cot, tapped the jar with a teaspoon and said ‘Yum, yum.’ Sunny Jim positively glowed.
I threw a glance at Grazyna and she looked at me and I gave her the nod and we headed for the lift leaving them to their devices, Shirl shoveling baby mush into McClafferty’s wide-open beak like a starling feeding its scuds.
‘Next thing you know, he’ll be saying “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and shooting across the sky with a patch of magic carpet sewn on the arse of his trousers,’ I said to Grazyna.
But her being Polish she didn’t get it.
‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash?’ I repeated.
‘Trousers. When he was at school. So he’d fly through the air.’
‘No idea. It was a comic. Can’t remember which. Maybe The Beano or The Dandy. His mother sews this patch on his school trousers. Gets it from a carpet. Seems it was a magic carpet. You know, from Arabia. Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. And before you know it he’s zipping off into the air all over the place.’
Later in the week a few more cases were reported, which kept us busy, classifying the data. Worst was when they shat themselves and the women had to change their nappies.
‘Oh, look at the little darling. My, Oh, My, he’s not comfortable,’ this old wife said. At the last visit. A posh villa in the suburbs. And looking over her shoulder was this old geezer of about eighty, this old retired professor ̶ because that’s what is said on the bronze plaque: Prof. “W.H. Hitchens” ̶ with white stubble on his chin and a couple of wisps of hair on his cranium. Looked more like the Golem in Lord of the Rings. And he’d reverted to being a baby too, was wearing a nappy.
Within a couple of months the virus had spread. Right through the city. Things were getting dicey. Nappies were hard to come by. There was an unconfirmed report in The Daily Recker said Hintz was dropping its traditional beans line, loved by kings and peasants alike, and going over to baby food. Totally. I’d become something of an expert on baby food by that time. Pumpkin potatoes and beef. Creamy spinach. Mums Own Recipe. Vegetable turkey. Or apple and port casserole.
‘Popeye…,’ I said to Shirley next time we called.
She looked at me.
‘Spinach,’ I said. ‘Popeye?’
But she didn’t get it. ‘Made him strong. From a can?’
And when she still didn’t react, I started to sing ‘I’m Popeye the sailor man, come from the isle of Japan, I’m strong to the finich ‘cause I eats me spinach, I’m Popeye the Sailor Man…’
Clearly I was losing it. The stench was overpowering. McClafferty badly needed a shave. You could hardly see the dummy tit now for the beard. Thick black hairs streaked with grey. And the pong, what a pong! Then he started to bawl.
‘Maybe you should lift him up.’ I suggested to Shirley who was looking a lot more distraught since the last visit. ‘A pat on the back. Colic. Burp. Wind in the stomach.’ Yes I knew my babies, I did. But she wasn’t taking the bait.
‘Oh, no, no, it’s the nappy. He’s uncomfortable, needs changing.’ And she whipped the cover back, jerked McClafferty’s legs high in the air, undid the big safety pin and whipped off the nappy. It was a sight I would wish on no-one: McClafferty’s backside. And the smell. My God, what an outrageous pong!
Grazyna fled to the balcony and looked over the city and its lights, thinking of jumping. I joined her and when I turned and looked back into the room, Shirley was shaking a cloud of talcum powder out of a tin over baby McClafferty’s red-raw backside. When I looked again he was crawling about the carpet on all fours, happy as the day is long in his nice clean nappy.
That was it for the day so we headed back to the office to file our report. That took us the rest of the afternoon because we had to foot it back. We worked late, got a pizza sent up.
‘Maybe their old mums want to be mothers again. Maybe that’s all some of them have up their sleeves. Gives them a job.’
But Grazyna had nothing to add. It was all “maybes” again. There was no sign of a “paddern” emerging.
Not that it made much difference. There was no hurry. The taxis were down and the buses too because of some competition war that had broken out between them since the buses got privatized, so it would be the bike soon if things kept up. GDP forecasts cut in half next year in wake of adult-baby syndrome, it said on the front page on the newsagent’s stand.
But Socio & Rehab had met bigger challenges. Cut it out at the root, was my suggestion. Take no prisoners. So I zapped a few emails up the line to the suits, made some late night phone calls to ex-directory hot lines and we slapped an embargo on Hintz, Kwaft, Baby Galore and All in the Family and a long list of other baby food producers, got the taxman to multiply the VAT exponentially on diapers so no one, apart from anxious mothers flashing a birth certificate and bearing howling babes in arms, could purchase the essential article; sent out teams of nurses with serums and inoculations for all baby maladies and diseases known to man, issued an injunction empowering them to apply force if necessary and waited.
God, did McClafferty have something to wail and scream about when the nurses held him down and plunged the syringe into his backside! By that time he’d broken into an ugly rash. It covered half his lower body and was moving upwards like rising damp. They had to tie his hands to the bedpost to prevent him scratching till he bled to death. Shirley they stuffed with horse pills, shot full of sedatives and parked her on the couch like a rag doll, with the electric fire turned up full bung and the telly going. So she looked normal, couldn’t do more mischief.
Yes, it was touch and go. We could just as easily have gone down with the ship. Maybe we didn’t get all of them. Maybe there’s one or two of them out there in the black night still. Holding out. Guzzling their dummy tits. Making gooing sounds to their enthralled progenitors.
McClafferty’s old man, old Spiky had a field day. I had to climb fifteen flights of stairs to the roof to get him in the hut where he kept the pigeons.
‘Disgrace to the family name,’ he said as he signed off the indemnification release order, absolving us from further responsibility or eventual claims. As next-of-kin. ‘And she was never the full donut either. Pigeons got more brains than those two.’
Grazyna was waiting outside on the street. On the pavement. It was a late Friday afternoon and the taxis were still scarce. Let’s go and have dinner, I said, ‘Down to the Cherry Tree.’ And you know what she said?
‘You tell lies.’
‘You exaggerate person. Not Jumpeeng Jack Flesh,’
And when I heard how she put a ‘g’ on the end of ‘Jumpin’ so it sounded more like “ping” I could have smacked her on her lovely big red Slavonic lips. Out of pure linguistic appreciation, you understand.
‘What not Jumpin’ Jack Flash?’
‘The patz? Oh the patch on his trousers?’
‘Da, not Jumpeeng Jeemy. I look up and it say man with magic patch called Jeemy. Not Jumpeeng Jack. Then I remember we have in Poland boy in comic. Boy called Eevan and he have majeek patz.’
‘Jimmy? Is that what he was called? The kid in the comic with the magic patch?’
‘Da. You always exaggerate. You exaggerate man. You tell lies. Was Rolling Stone. Not Jeemy.’
‘Oh! I stand corrected.’
Like everything else, the adult-baby syndrome abated and time marched on with commendable indifference. The economy moved deeper into uncharted wastelands. The Rehab Clinic closed down. The head nonce of the Socio & Rehab department resigned, bought up the furniture and fittings, turfed out the remaining patients, and turned it into a youth hostel for foreign backpackers on news that the Chinese were coming in droves. Probation & Re-Classification was put on hold while they worked out what to do with the “clients”. And us. As cheaply as possible. We were put on a zero hours contract which meant Socio might call us if something urgent came up, but equally might not. Grazyna wangled a part-time job making blinis in the kitchen of a Polish deli and I was “considering” what is euphemistically called “my options”. McClafferty’s dossier went into the dustbin. Nobody would touch him so they couldn’t flog or pass on the patient list to a private outfit. The last act of the Rehab Clinic was to declare him released from further care. He was discharged and made a “freeman,” a term unheard since feudal times in these parts, indicating the great leap forward we had made in human history. But nevertheless, technically, he was still “on probation”.
The fact that the landscape, metaphorically speaking, was strewn with corpses of the dead and the dying, was a sign of opportunity, I explained to Harry John Ainsworth that evening we got to chatting at the bar of the Station Hotel. Harry was also on our “client” list at P&R, but had never been a high priority case. He was dressed in the standard gear of bankers and crooks: a fawn Crombie coat, a high stiff shirt collar and a gentleman’s club tie.
As I explained to Ainsworth, in the new emerging economic order, the world was at the feet of those on the other side of the law. Criminality previously had been bad form, looked down on, frowned on, but now it was simply another form of human enterprise, a component of Gross Domestic Product. And what’s more it was essential to growth. It had a knock-on effect. Because it gave the law enforcement people more work and income and created more jobs in all sorts of ways. Logically the more robberies and murders committed the more work was created in chasing up the perpetrators and the more cash collected from the victims and their families for pursuing the criminals through the courts. Everybody gained. Or not?
Ainsworth wasn’t enamoured of the idea of the No Liability Company (NLC), disclaiming all responsibility for eventualities, claims and eventual litigation arising from the lawful exercise of previously unlawful activities. As he pointed out with justification, going straight was a risky business. It took away the kick, the adrenaline rush, the danger and the paranoia. Not only that, he’d lose a lot of respect among the fraternity.
But as I countered, the fraternity would all be in the same boat eventually. The writing was on the wall. His main problem was the kind of people he’d have to associate with: The parasites. The pen pushers, the commission men, the politicos. He protested,
‘Who the fuck you think I am? All those bastards been robbing the poor, cheating and cutting corners since time immemorial.’
‘Look,’ I explained, ‘even though everything would be legal, you could still continue to cheat and pilfer like everyone else as though nothing had changed. The sub-clause of the disclaimer of the No Liability Corporation disclaims any responsibility for what may be deemed illegal activities arising inadvertently from the pursuit of wealth and happiness as defined under the legal activities.’
‘But I’ll end up just like them,’ he moaned.
‘Them, the two of them. The Kinky Kash Twins.’
‘The Kinky Kash Twins?’
‘Fuck sake, the Kinky Kash Twins, I’ve just told you, you fuckin’ want me to end up like them? Like those two tossers?’
Some months later I was passing through Harry’s town, Hockton, a little town in the badlands about fifteen miles south of Sunny G. I stopped for a drink at the Brandon Bar and popped into the betting shop next door. As I was waiting for the result to come up on the screen, Hughie the Bear, a local wacko, stormed in waving his hands wildly, crossed the floor in two or three paces and stuck his nose against the grill.
‘Put that on the favourite,’ he bawled and thumped an onion, a big white onion, on the counter under the clerk’s nose. Then The Bear strode out again, his arms flapping, his feet kicking the toes of his oversized Wellington boots.
Harry appeared from the back of the shop. We got to talking, went back into the Brandon Bar and had a few drinks.
But I never did get round to writing his memoirs or see his cousin, Elly Mae ride Stewball at the Hockton Derby in June. Nor did I get to meet the infamous Kinky Kash Twins. So I’ve no idea to this day what they looked like apart from the mug shots in The Daily Recker when it all came out. Because he shot them. Harry shot them. The two of them. The Kinky Cash Twins. Reggie and Ronnie. That’s when I found out people called him “Fuck Sake Harry” behind his back.
But that was later. That afternoon in the Brandon he asked me to sort out some administrative things for him since I knew how the social services worked. And that’s how I got to be executor of his estate when they done him. There’s a bronze statue of FSH down at the cross in Hockton. They put it up after they hung him. For topping them. For topping the Kinky Kash Twins.
Now first of all the Kinky Kash Twins weren’t twins at all. People down that way, down in the badlands peg names on people when things happen or when people get a reputation. But if you don’t know the context you don’t know where the nicknames come from or how they originated. The “Twins” were just a couple of creeps that ran the local show ̶ Bingo Hameron and his hard-man mate Knuckles Poshbourne. And that’s another thing because, as I found out later, their real names were Ronnie and Reggie: Ronnie Hameron and Reggie Poshbourne. But as time went on, hardly anyone remembered them except by their nicknames. They both came up from the south years back and set up business in Hockton. The H&P betting shop was their first cash cow. Then came H&P Pay Day Loans. But they had irons in the fire all over the place, introduced bingo to the old Odeon cinema on Saturdays when people started staying at home to watch the telly.
They were into politics too. Bingo got to be king of the trash can the day they had elections and he was elected mayor when most of the punters were down at Harry’s or the H&P betting shop watching the numbers or out betting at the racecourse on Elly Mae’s nag.
Seems he did both of them outside the Cozy Bar and Coffee Shop just off Castle Street. Hameron was stepping out his Rolls when he got it point blank in the face with the shotgun and Poshbourne was trying to get out the car door on the other side but couldn’t get the door open or it jammed. So Harry went round to the other side and told him to wind down the window. And when Poshbourne wound down the window to ask him what he had just said, Harry shot him in the face with the other barrel. But when Harry came back round again to the front, Ned Larky the diver had shit himself purple in the front seat and couldn’t move because he’d got his big fat tattooed pig-fat arm and part of his pig-fat fat shoulder locked between the bars of the steering wheel trying to reach down and get the Bowie knife out the top of his boots. But since FSH had his eye on wee Alice, his sixteen years-old daughter, he took pity on him, took him into the Cozy, got him hosed down by Mario in the outside toilette and put back in the front seat and ‘get the fuck oot ae here an don’t come back.’
So that was that. FSH had a couple of his sidekicks drag H&P out to the rubbish dump and douse them with petrol. And that was another that was that. Till the Pistoleros came in from Sunny Groodge one day, months later with a handbill with the names of Ronald Hameron and Reginald Poshbourne on it, saying simply “Missing.” There was also a photo of the Kinky Kash twins on the police handbill. They went round all the bars with it but no one in Hockton recognized them or had seen anything to raise suspicion. More to the point, there was no reward on the heads of the terrible twins, two of the biggest public criminals in the land, so there was no incentive in clearing up the mystery of their disappearance. However an ordinance existed protecting public servants. It said that although public servants were exempt from responsibility for any mishap, injury or loss arising from the execution of their duty, the hindrance of such public servants in the execution of duties for which they were not responsible to the public constituted a felony and was an indictable offense under the Criminal Law Act. And since Hockton came under Sunny Groodge jurisdiction, the law was forced to look into the affair since Bingo Hameron and Knuckles Poshbourne were public servants. Hameron was mayor and Poshbourne treasurer.
As executor of FSH’s estate, I was called in when Ginger Snaps Duffy, head of Sunny Groodge Pistoleros, a fast-justice unit set up to cut down on the wasteful cost of justice, arrived. And who came in his coat tails if not the bold McClafferty himself. We pretended not to know each other. McClafferty, looking rather sheepish and seedy, had gone to fat from sitting on his arse behind a desk. And sonny boy had acquired a bumptious tone too, because when Snaps said,
‘Really, you know, we don’t want to intrude but we’re duty bound to follow official procedures.’ McClafferty, looking over his shoulder, butted in with,
‘Don’t think we’re no on tae you. We know all about ye.’
‘Who’s the muppet you’ve dragged in with you,’ I said to Duffy. ‘He got permission to speak?’ So that shut him up. But with no bodies they couldn’t arrest wee FSH, the guy the fingers were pointing at. So Duffy and McClafferty headed back to Sunny Groodge Central with the Pistoleros in a SUV and that’s the last anybody heard about the affair.
The flat racing season was over so life returned to normal in those parts: rain pissing down, doors locked at night as the local hoods plundered the posh houses on the outskirts and other places too expensive to supply with street lighting.
Wee Harry got it in the back of the neck while watching telly in a bar at the entrance to Ferney Leaves, a little village a few miles south of Hockton. Acting on information that the owner had locked up and gone on holiday and that there was a stack of cash in the bar, he broke in. He was well into his second bottle of Oranje Mohr ̶ a much prized local malt ̶ and pretty sozzled when the owner returned unexpectedly ̶ I’m not allowed to divulge his name for legal reasons: he’d forgotten his passport or the plane was delayed, nobody knows for certain ̶ and shot him in the head. Shot Wee Harry in the head.
He was still lying there two days later in the big leather chair in front of the long dead fire when Chief Inspector Duffy and Detective McClafferty came in and took the body away. We heard later ̶ after we saw the photo in The Daily Recker ̶ they put him in cold storage for a couple of months. By that time they’d checked the rule book. When they found a section on the extreme molestation of public figures, together with penalties proscribed therefore, they had no option but to take action, and hang him by the neck till he was dead again.
The Pistoleros passed the hat round to collect the money for the rope and the wanted posters since they were now self-employed. They all chipped in willingly, nonetheless. A hanging was good publicity, they reckoned, and could bring in new business.
So there he was, Wee Harry, FSH, dangling by the neck, his corpse slowly thawing out in the rain in Gorgeous Square. But Duffy, McClafferty and the rest of the Pistoleros blew that one too. After they hung the wee man, they realized they’d screwed up on the posters. “Wanted. Reward. Harry John Ainsworth. For Chicken Theft,” the posters said. But they forgot to put a price on his head. They only noticed the omission after he was six feet under. So to make sure everything was done above board, “In accordance with the due process of law,” they drove out to the cemetery, dug him up and hung his rotting corpse on the gibbet again in Gorgeous Square.
It turned out alright in the end, though. Duffy sent sonny boy out personally to see us. To pay a call. Apologize and explain they had to make things look good for “The Boys Upstairs.” So we did a deal. FSH had got the short end of the stick and deserved rehabilitation, was the way the locals saw it.
McClafferty spluttered a bit about that but as executor of FSH’s estate I had him in a corner.
‘You’re still on my list, sonny boy,’ I said to him. He hummed and hawed a bit more and I said, ‘Still on the list. Still on the probation list. We want to be careful. What we say.’
So he got the message, reluctantly agreed to have a whip round among the Pistoleros to even the score and contribute to the FSH Memorial Fund so we could get the statue. Then we sent out word to get a sculptor from Sunny Groodge, get Big Ranald, the guy that did the Robby Dosser statue in Gorgeous Square. But they sent out this guy called Onions said he was working for Ranald and he did the statue. Did a Wee Harry in bronze. He looks really good there down at the cross. There was a bit of a stramash when somebody remarked the statue was facing in the wrong direction, south towards Ferney Leaves. They could have been a bit more circumspect about that with respect for the wee man’s memory was the general feeling. But the FSH Memorial Fund got it all sorted out in the end to everyone’s satisfaction. Now he’s on the pavement facing the Brandon Bar waiting for the doors to swing open.
Where he got the name? Good question. No patience. All his life, “For fuck sake” this and “For fuck sake” that. At the drop of a hat, whether he was waiting for change, collecting his winnings at H&P’s betting shop or picking up money from the H&P loan-shark operation next door.
That’s where it all went wrong for H&P. He had some beef with them, nobody’s saying what. He used to hedge bets with H&P First Past the Post. When some unknown punter suddenly came into Harry’s betting shop and laid a lot of money down on a horse and Harry smelt a rat, he’d hedge the bet with the Kinky Kash Twins. Or maybe it was the thousand percent loan-shark rates at H&P Pay Day Credit Loans that tipped the balance, no one knows. Nothing was found among his papers.
A short fuse, as I say. And as regards the Kinky Kash Twins, who knows where the “kinky” came from or what kind of sleazeballing they got up to when darkness smothers the sins of the earth. That’s the story anyhow down in Hockton. Personally I think there’s a lot more to it.
Lovely man, Harry Ainsworth. Salt of the earth. In the office drawer when I was closing up the betting shop I found an envelope. With my name on it. Inside was a ticket. With a number on it. Number nine. I would get a call whenever Stewball was on a winning streak, the note said. The Bear was directing traffic at the crossroads as I headed out of town on the way back to Sunny.
When the news got round that summer that a pair of gumboots, a grey herring-bone tweed coat and a pair of dirty long johns had been found on the banks of the river outside Hockton, there was speculation among the local wags in the Brandon and the Black Bull that somebody had drowned, an angler who’d taken off his clothes and gone for a swim. That was about as much as their bird-brains could fathom. Since Fuck Sake Harry took out the Kinky Kash Twins there was nothing to talk about so this latest mystery was a godsend.
Whatever way you looked at it, that bright idea about the angler didn’t hold water. For a start where was the fishing rod or the even the net? About a week later, another tidbit leaked down the grapevine. A couple of kids reported they’d seen a hairy beast come screeching out the trees on the other side of the river. Bollock naked. Like a bear who’d sat on a wasp’s nest while having a shit, was how one of the kids described it. And with nothing better to do two major pub philosophers, Beef McTaggart and Skin Lucas, went out to the river to check out the spot. By that time the clothes had vanished so the speculation turned to who had taken the clothes. That turned out another dead-end.
Thing was, connecting an abandoned pair of gumboots and a herringbone-tweed coat automatically to Hughie the Bear only made sense if Hughie the Bear ever came up on your radar. And that was a rare occurrence for most people.
Except for Mrs. Gordon: old Peggy. Tick-tock, tick-tock. If anyone was in a position to see Hughie the Bear it was her. She lived above what was now Morrison’s the newsagents. Right at the cross. She’d just woken up because she couldn’t sleep. Around six or seven when the light was beginning to come up in the sky. And there below on the street was Hughie the Bear pacing up and down, waiting for the first cars to pass through town to announce mankind had returned again successfully from the shadow world and was ready to throw itself at another, as humans were pleased to call it with no sense of irony, “working day” on planet earth.
In her head as she woke Peggy could hear the tick-tock of the big clock on the mantelpiece. The tick-tock of the grandfather clock in the hall. The tick-tock of the alarm clock beside her bed with its two little bells on top, hammers inside poised to strike at any moment to remind her when they started rattling like pistons that she had to get up and go into the kitchen to get some milk from the fridge to pour into the saucer for Korky the cat. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
But she’d already gotten up without the alarm going off. As she did every morning, hearing the continuous buzz in her head, the nagging mental noise that had been jangling in her head for twenty years since the day old Bill Gordon had collapsed at the kitchen table with a stroke, a fag in his mouth, a clock in his hand. Just before he died, having smoked himself to death on the fags stacked on the shelves of the newsagent’s shop he ran downstairs, he’d held an alarm clock to his ear and given it a shake. The rattle of a screw loose inside was the last sound he heard on earth before he went spinning off beyond the asteroid belt. His hobby apart from smoking fags and reading newspapers, was opening up clocks and watches to see what was inside.
Ten minutes later Mrs. Gordon peaked through the curtains again and The Bear was holding up an arm with a hand at the end of it to stop a car. In defiance of logic, and the fact that the lights were at green, the car stopped. Peggy Gordon studied the phenomenon for a moment and was filled both with a sense of wonder and a deep sense of unease. Hughie the Bear had just suspended the laws of the universe as construed by mankind. In this case the highway-code together with the regulations of the state Traffic and Roadwork’s department that put up the traffic lights. When another car appeared, he waved the first car on, blew the whistle and threw his hand up again. The second car drew up at the lights right under Mrs. Gordon’s window even though the lights were at green.
Of course she hadn’t heard about the abandoned wellies and the coat by the river so she couldn’t know Hughie the Bear had just materialized, had reassembled himself and come back to life. Had become whole again. Had become united with his wellies and his herringbone tweed coat. And just as a pig cannot be a horse, or a horse a pig since the quality of pigness resides in the pig and the quality of horseness resides in the horse and not the name, and a pig is more a pig when it grunts and a horse more a horse when it neighs, so also with Hughie the Bear. The quality of Hughie the Bearness resided in his wellies and tweed coat. It expressed itself in all its plentitude in a wondrous ability to stop and direct traffic without permission wherever a crossroads was to be found, whenever the mood seized him. When all these attributes were present, he became Hughie the Bear. But without all of them being called into action simultaneously, he could not materialize. As he had now, striding up and down, waving his big grubby hands, blowing on a little pewter whistle. In his big floppy Wellington boots, two or three sizes too big for his big horny feet, an onion in his pocket.
The miracle was lost on Peggy Gordon. Korky the cat was meowing and wailing in torment. He needed a fix. He was hooked on the sugar in WhisKash’s “mouse flavoured” Cat Nosh and the sugar in the Pussy Meow pellets.
‘Puss, puss.’ Mrs. Gordon said, bending as she tapped the plastic bowl with a spoon and placed it on the kitchen floor. That was the last movement she made that morning. Korky shot from his watch post on the windowsill, raced down the hallway, pounced on the mouse-flavoured mush, bowled old Peggy over and knocked her out.
Further down the street on one of those days, around that time, the phone was ringing in Harry Ainsworth’s betting shop. But no one was there to pick it up. It was Ham the Man trying to contact me about Stewball as he told me later, but he didn’t know the shop was closed-up.
Stewball was one helluva horse and so was its jockey and owner little Elly Mae. She had raised it on a diet of carrots, turnips, cabbage and oatmeal to be one of the best all-round fillies down in the badlands where she rode it across the moors in the moonlight with the wind howling. The best time to breathe in the ghosts of the dead swirling through the raging air. Or so local legend had it.
Stewball wasn’t your average racing horse. In fact to call him a racehorse was too great an honour. Let’s just say she rose to the occasion at summer fests in the badlands where horses doubled at just about everything. From carrying country bumpkins done up as knights in plastificated armour to giving kids a ride on their backs in the absence of donkeys.
The problem with Stewball was consistency. That’s why she never made the big time. She couldn’t be relied on to turn in a sterling performance regularly enough to attract attention. Her name didn’t mean much in the racing world. So when her name sprung up in This Sporting Life or the Noon-Day Record, on the board at the racecourse or at the bookies’, it registered with just about everyone as an also-ran. A horse put in the race to boost the numbers and make all the other horses, never mind the favourite, look good.
Maybe it was something to do with her being a multi-tasking horse. Maybe it was even something to do with Elly Mae. Elly Mae was a pretty little blonde wisp of a thing with a sweet little smile, sweet little eyes and a sweet little way of looking out of the side of her eyes at the world as if she was honey sweet all the way through. Which maybe she was. But the main thing about her, in terms of her jockeyship and in relation to Stewball was that she was light, around the eight stone minimum for a jockey. She wasn’t tall either, under five feet but so thin that when she turned sideways you couldn’t see her. Obviously not right up close, but at a distance, I hasten to add. At a distance she just vanished. And that was an important attribute when she was high in the stirrups racing down the field. It gave the impression Stewball was riderless.
Then the phone rang late one night. ‘Ham the Man, Bet on Stewball at the National,’ the voice said and hung up.
I investigated. The Sunny National was coming up soon. The horse didn’t have much form, she’d won a five furlong race down in the borders a couple of years back. A flat race. And that was it.
A few night later Ham the Man, aka Hamilton Morrison, phoned again.
‘Make sure you bet early.’
‘Why the jumps?’ I said.
‘Different. They go over things.’
‘I know that. So?’
‘Flat you can see everything. Jumps you can’t.’
And he hung up. I did some more digging. Far as I could see, the difference between a flat race and the jumps was the hurdles. Another thing was the length. On the flat over one or two furlongs, the horses didn’t get strung out too much. Usually there wasn’t much distance between them when they crossed the line, especially on a short, five furlong haul. But with the National the distance was much greater and it took much longer to cover. So the field could get pretty strung out. And by the time they got into the final furlong, the leading horse could be a dozen lengths or more behind the nearest challenger with the rest of the horses staggering in behind in dribs and drabs. As it turned out, there was a lot more to it than that. Particularly the fact that the horses were out of sight for a few minutes after they took the bend.
By the time the great day arrived all the information I’d got is what I’ve told you. It took me about two hours to hoof it out to the course. The buses were down and there was a turf war between the taxis. Plus a notice on the subway station said it was closed till further notice. It had been auctioned off to unspecified foreign investors and its future like everybody else’s was unclear if not downright precarious. Not that you’d notice passing through the stiles. All the gold in the land had mutated into a sea of top hats, fancy coats and red-lipped bimbos togged to the nineties, flashing their wares under a watery sun come out specially to warm the cockles of their mercenary hearts.
My misgivings were given further substance as I studied the horsey form in This Sporting Life, lifting the binoculars in between times in the Press Box to focus on the tic-tac men to see what odds their white gloves were signaling round the racecourse to the bookies. Al-Mansur, the favourite, owned by the Sheik of Araby, one of the richest men in the world who got more of a kick from horses than the flanks of the naked concubines he was wont to horsewhip when the mood seized him. According to Tits & Bums, I hasten to add.
Al-Mansur was current favourite at eight to one. Then there was Look Yonder Stranger owned by the Duke of Bledford, Fulke Wotherington who, continuing the habits of his illustrious Viking ancestors a millennium before, had upgraded the family tradition from stealing jewels from monasteries to milking prime property in the city, a property empire to be much expanded shortly by the inglorious demise of his cousin the sodomite Duke of Magoiyle in a misunderstanding with a certain low-life. As will emerge in due course.
Then my eye fell on Dinky Doo at twenty to one, owned by Rubbar Magoo, the name behind a global media empire who three days after his 84th birthday had shown his sultana-wrinkled face from an island in the Pacific Ocean to announce his engagement to the only sixteen years-old virgin left in the western hemisphere in hopes of continuing his otherwise barren line. Omitting to mention of course the monkey glands and other rejuvenating products his doctors injected into him daily by the bucket load to keep him upright. The details were listed together with photos of the loving couple in The Daily Maul that scooped the story.
That was the top line. There were thirty five horses in the race over the four mile course. The going was soft because it had rained the night before. And there, carrying number nine on the list of thirty five runners was Stewball with someone called E.M Cardew up as jockey, weighing in at eight stones and a minimum handicap.
I was having a beer and a hamburger in the press bar, looking for faces in the crowd when my eye caught a bunch of jaunty little cheerleaders dancing to a Dixieland band, pausing to flip their little bunny rabbit-tailed butts to the crowd before moving on. When they moved along, I zoomed in on the bookie obscured behind. He was done up half way between an African savage with a plume of ostrich feathers on his head and the three-piece suit of a country gentleman with squares so big you could have played hopscotch on them, a carnation in his lapel and a pair of two-tone black and white brogues that were the in-thing when tap-dancing and 16 mm black and white films were all the rage. He’d obviously taken a leaf out of the book of Ras Prince Monolulu, the famous ‘I’ve got an ‘orse’ racecourse tipster
Then the tic-tac man standing on a box to the left of the Ostrich signaled back with his white-gloved hands and the bookie showed his chequered back as he bent to chalk up the latest odds that were being signaled by another tic-tac man over in the ring a hundred yards away where the big bets were being placed. That’s when I got a glimpse of the bookie’s board. “Mac” it said.
The odds on Al-Mansur, I noticed had closed to eight to one, which I thought a bit presumptuous given the hazards of a four-mile race over thirty hurdles. Anything could happen. The odds on Magoo’s horse were going out and closed a few points higher. The big numbers on most of the rest didn’t move much though whispers must have been going round about No Malarkey, the Irish horse because it closed steadily from 33 to 18 to one before going back to 20 and then 25 when the frenzy passed. Stewball wasn’t moving. With a twenty or more hopefuls, it was priced at 100 to one. Which is what I put the money at the Tote and waited.
When the voice came over the Tannoy saying the horses were going down to the gate, a shiver of excitement passed through the crowd. Then the flag went up and they were under starters orders with the horses still whipping and turning as the jockeys fought to get them nicely lined up with their noses high, pulling tight on the reins to keep them in check at the wire.
‘And they’re off,’ came over loud and clear and all thirty-five of them, the jockeys with their caps, the horses, some with blinkers, the bright colours of the jockeys’ silk shirts, all went scattering willy-nilly across the course to the inside fence like God had just chucked a handful of pebbles that turned into horses and the horses kicking up the soft earth beneath their hooves racing for the sky. But something’s gone wrong. Some confusion. There’s a jockey hanging for a split second in the wire. And it’s all happening so quickly you don’t know whether to follow the horses and riders ploughing down the field, see who’s in front, because there’s no voice yet coming over the blower, so the commentator doesn’t know either what’s happening. All you can see over by the starting gate is a jockey on his back, trying to get up and a horse shaking its head a few yards from him so you’re wondering if it’s a false start and the horses are going to be recalled.
Then the voice says, ‘There’s some confusion at the starting gate now and a horse seems to be down…’
There’s a pause and the commentator says, ‘It looks like Al-Mansur…’ Then another pause and he says, ‘Yes, it’s Al-Mansur…’
But look Tom Wesley is climbing up, back high into the saddle and turning Al-Mansur’s nose round, pulling its head away from the rail to get it back on track and slowly Al-Mansur takes off and you can see Wesley high in the saddle, in his grey and green livery and that big Al-Mansur trying to make up lost ground because the field is still bunched up but starting to spread out as the jockeys and horses fight for the lead, stringing out but now joined to include Al-Mansur far behind before they all go out of sight. And the question on everyone’s mind, whether they bet the favourite or not, is can it make up the lost ground? Can Al-Mansur make up lost ground? Can the favourite make up the ground it has lost over the next four miles and the thirty hurdles that lie ahead?
And then the voice rasps, ‘And it’s Hickory Pokery in the lead with close behind Bobs Your Uncle, followed by Run Runner in third place with Blazing Bush, close behind. Then The Chopper, Saigon Sam, Lollipop Lil, Merry May, Tarantula and making at the back of the field making up ground is Zama with John Clark up that ran last year and came third…And they’re coming up for the first fence…’
From up in the Press Box you could see right up to the corner where they’d all swing round and disappear out of sight so you had to rely totally on the commentary till they came back into the straight again to repeat the performance. And if you had a good pair of glasses you’d see them suspended for a moment in the air, their forelegs flung forward. But you never knew if they’d have their hind legs clear enough and they might hit the top of the fence just when it looked like they were safely over. Or they could balk at the fence, loose their nerve, pull up at the last moment and throw the jockey onto the field or under the hooves of the thundering horde descending on them from behind or into the water if there was a ditch.
So when Stewball came back round the first time, coming down the straight from the right, I couldn’t see a jockey up and thought maybe little Elly Mae had been thrown when she’d taken one of the hurdles and Stewball was running after the pack, all wound up tight as a wire and not knowing when to stop or what to do with herself, charging on ahead with the rest of them, looking for her jockey.
By the time the horses came round the second time, Al-Mansur had made up some distance and the punters that had bet on him were shouting his name again.
A few runners had gone down by then and three or four were running with no jockey up.
‘Now it’s Dinky Doo in the lead’ the voice said, ‘By two lengths with Look Yonder Stranger coming up behind and Al-Mansur is closing fast. Then some way behind it’s Lollipop Lil and Happy Larry and behind that Stewball on the outside coming up fast but it’s still Dinky Doo on the rail and Look Yonder Stranger on the outside with Al-Mansur trying to get through, close behind but they’re giving the favourite a run for the money.’
Then the crowd went mad and roaring and he said,
‘With only half a mile to go they’re into the straight and it’s Al-Mansur in the centre with Dinky Doo and Look Yonder Stranger hedging him in and Dinky Doo and Look Yonder Stranger not looking too happy. And he can’t get through, Al Mansur can’t get through so now Clarkson’s pulling out behind Dinky Doo on the outside, but coming up fast on the outside it’s number nine Stewball the grey mare, and she’s well on the outside, passing Al-Mansur with Dinky Doo going pace for pace with Look Yonder Stranger on the rail and it’s Stewball by a neck with a hundred yards to go, taking the lead with Dinky Doo and Look Yonder Stranger pressed on the rails and in trouble with Al-Mansur blocking the way in front.
Then the horses were coming down the field from the right into the final furlong heading for the finishing post in front of the grandstand and the loudspeaker said,
‘And it’s Stewball, now well in front on the straight, four lengths ahead of Al-Mansur, Look Yonder Stranger and Dinky Doo starting to tire. And it’s Stewball, now well in front, coasting ahead. And at the line it’s Stewball in this the second Sunny Groodge Grand National with Dinky Doo in second place, Al-Mansur in third and bringing up the rear Look Yonder Stranger and then a long way back it looks like Lollipop Lil…’
So that was it. It was a bitter disappointment to most. But not to McClafferty, as I saw when I looked through the binoculars, back in the press box, after I’d collected my winnings.
He hadn’t many punters waiting to get paid out. I heard later he had one of the stewards in his pocket up at Bleacher’s Brook when Elly Mae had been unsaddled before she took the fence. And when she got over on the other side Stewball continued running ahead on her own looking for her. Yes those two ladies were made for each other. Stewball made up so much ground she passed the rest of the field like the wind and when she got to Bleacher’s Brook the second time round she halted, nosed Elly Mae to her feet and they continued the race to the finishing lines. Nobody seems to have noticed. It was a blind spot and as I say with little Elly Mae being such a wisp of a girl with a pretty unconventional riding style, you could hardly be blamed for thinking she was in the saddle when she wasn’t.
But say what you like, there was something odd about the whole business. Then I remembered McClafferty’s tic-tac man had raised his arm quite often and pointed a white gloved finger at his head. That was tic-tac code for number nine. And number nine was Stewball. And then clutching his two fists together which was tic-tac for ten. That was when the price dipped to 80 to 1. So somebody must have been betting it. The Tote returned 33 to 1 so the word must have been out. There were people knew more about Stewball than I did, that’s the way I see it. But what did I care? I got it at a hundred to one.
A couple of years later, passing through the badlands with Grazyna, we stopped at the Rook’s Roost. In the hotel bar a guitarist was singing a song about a racehorse.
Big race in Sunny Groodge
Wish you were there.
Bet your last penny on the iron grey mare.
Bet on Stewball and you might win, win, win.
Bet on Stewball and you might win.
So they had a song about it, the cunning bastards. What to make of a horse that runs half the race without a jockey on its back and ends up winning? And what was Ras Prince McClafferty up to at the racecourse? Be that as it may, I’d got a lot to thank Stewball for. If it hadn’t been for Stewball I wouldn’t have been able to go on holiday and get my hands on Chiang Kai-shek’s gold bonds.
Carlos had a flat with a nice view looking onto glorious blue Mediterranean, the kind of view the visitor absorbs with pleasure and astonishment when first he steps out onto the balcony but that slowly dissipates and discolours into a jaundiced yellow once he has walked up and down the main drag every day for a week, checked out the Nag’s Head, the Pig and Whistle and the All-In Internet shop, an exercise guaranteed to reduce his mind to a blank and leave only the nagging desire to get the first plane back to where he came from. If not to die. The name of the place need not concern you. What I was doing there, or why I chose to go there, is none of your business either. Just let’s say I had an invitation from some old friends, needed a bit of sun and ended up on this island that happens to be off the coast of Spain where I was introduced to Carlos. That’s his real name. But since the name Carlos is about as common as paella or vino tinto that little clue will get you nowhere just in case you get any Clever Bunny ideas about heading down that way to winkle him out, see if there’s any substance to what I’m about to tell you.
For other reasons Carlos too had chosen to forget there was an outside world where the sun shone and people bathed in the sea. He was holed up with the shutters down and his head inside a computer monitor scrolling the Internet for opportunity. He’d met someone ̶ an Englishman, he said ̶ and was about to make a killing. A percentage of billions. That’s all he said, and went on scrolling through his emails, while I looked over his shoulder.
He had some weird contacts. Chiang Kai-shek was one of them. But he’d been long dead. Though judging by the photo of the generalissimo on the wall, in his flashy Kuomintang uniform, dripping with medals, and his white kid gloves, he’d had a grand old time in the here below before the Pearly Gates opened up. He’d even got his head shaved for the photo or maybe he was just out of cadet school.
A few days later Carlos drove me out to the headland in his Porsche to a quiet spot where he went scuba diving and gave me the gist. It was like listening to an extraterrestrial expounding the pleasures of methane gas. Heady stuff. I didn’t understand a word of course but when he told me he was lining up serious investors willing to put in a minimum investment of half a million euros in the scheme for a 25% return on investment, the alarm bells started chiming ‘Ponzi’ from the other side of the bay.
I was intrigued. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. No? And spent the rest of the week holed up in my hotel room with the curtains drawn, on the Internet ̶ dredging through the slime and the lies, watching YouTube docs of the campaigns of the Kuomintang, Mao’s Long March and the war against the Japanese.
Ten days later I was none the wiser. The dark forces of international finance and intrigue all passed review and if I’d devoted the rest of my life to Carlos’s scenario, I just might just have lifted the veil half an inch before someone killed me. In the meantime I dug up the usual useless gems of misinformation I didn’t know what to do with: The bonds had been trading till recently on the Paris Euronext Exchange at a fraction of their face value. Three coffers of fake 1934 US Treasury Bonds worth $US 6 trillion, half the US national debt were seized in Italy early in 2012. They had come from Hong Kong. Something was bubbling and festering in the swamps of the financial netherworld. What it all came down to was the possibility at some time in the future ̶ a sure fire certainty according to Carlos ̶ of the mainland Chinese shaking hands with the Taiwanese government and honouring the debt racked up by General Cash-My-Check or Jiang Jieshi Jiang Zhongzheng, to give him his Mandarin Chinese name. To finance the wars against the Japanese and the Communists before he fled in 1946 to the island of Formosa. With the Chinese gold reserves. Or what was left of over a hundred thousand tons, according to one account, of the “Black Gold” after the Federal Reserve pocketed its share and Franklin D Roosevelt, in a covert deal, sent a plane load of US treasury bonds back for Chiang Kai-shek to make more friends and influence more people.
Then I made the mistake of mentioning the name of Chiang Kai-shek to McClafferty the night I made my monthly call to check him out in keeping with the Probation department’s follow-up surveillance program. I was on a fee till Socio found a way of unloading him for good.
‘Funny you should mention that,’ he said ‘My grandfather had a Chiang Kai-shek medal.’
He arrived unannounced at the end of the same week. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, he and Carlos were thick as thieves and we were into our first issue of Chiang Kai-shek gold bond investments for everyone on earth. To make them rich. Everyone has the right to be rich.
“Everyone has a right to a Chiang Kai-shek gold bond.” That was the slogan we operated under ̶ McClafferty thought it up. I let him have his lead and with a few tips from Carlos he was soon texting and twittering the globe and yo-yoing up and down to RockAll where he knew a few slippery snakes who had surfed on the same coke waves in the good old days, when he was still, as they say, sane. They lapped it up. He even hooked some of the big white sharks at Goldman Sags and Hong Kong and Shy, as he called them, prized them out of their shells, “like wulks”. Putty in his hands when he whipped out the Chiang Kai-shek medal, showed them one of the generalissimo’s diaries ̶ presented to his grandfather by the generalissimo himself ̶ and gave them a framed portrait of the great man in his prime to put on their desks. Con men, psychos and crazies adore each other. It takes one to know one.
But that was only the start. Once we’d securitized the Chiang Kai-shek bonds we wrote our ticket to the stars. Then we did a reissue with an insurance policy attached. In other words we sold insurance on the bonds so that if they defaulted ̶ an impossibility of course ̶ you got two or three times, or maybe a hundred times, your money back. It was like the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Only difference being McClafferty and I were holding the basket and the faithful ̶ god bless them ̶ were dropping in the fortune cookies. Then we moved into SKS mortgage backed securities for home owners, SKS perforated coupons on the back of corn flake packets and baked bean cans as well as “Get Your Free SKS bond” by calling this toll-free number. Even on jars of tropical hair gel.
Ah, golden times! In no time we had the planet covered. Everyone on earth with the right to wealth and happiness was covered by a SKS bond in one of its many shadow disguises and kept in a drawer, on a balance sheet or in cyber space floating between one bank and another. By then McClafferty had the message translated into all the languages known to man, about seven thousands of them. There were a few nomads out in the desert of course ignorant of their rights and their entitlement to a SKS bond but McClafferty had them taped by satellite and they’d also become beneficiaries soon and never have to worry about money again.
Then we heard we’d missed some people out: A tribe of jungle Indians called the Guaro-Guaro Indians in the upper reaches of Amazon who lived permanently under the radar. We’d missed them out because they carved messages on sticks with sharp stones and their language hadn’t been recorded. They were also the smallest race on earth and difficult to find, the tallest being under two feet in his bare feet. They’d also eaten the last missionary who’d tried to decipher the sticks. But where life is organized, the duty of entitlement and the benefits of GSK gold bonds must be proclaimed.
It was a Wednesday when McClafferty and I flew out to Brazil from Sunny Groodge airport. The rain was lashing down and it was lashing down when we got to the village. McClafferty waved his Chiang Kai-shek Kuomintang medal in the face of Bulu-Bulu, the little guy who was in charge of the show, but Bulu-Bulu brushed it aside. McClafferty then pulled out a Kewpie doll and stabbed it in the forehead with a pin. That was more effective. The tribe fell to its knees and started moaning. We had them by the goolies. The welcome celebration started. It went on for days and nights on end to the pounding of drums till the thunder answered and the sky cracked and the natives went on beating the drums harder and harder till the rain poured down in sheets. For weeks on end we lay in the huts listening to the rain fall vertically from the sky, interspersed by explosions of thunder. Then everything went silent as the tomb. Terrified, we lay like cockroaches in the dark and as dawn was coming up, the sky tore apart in one great rippling explosion that raced through the universe from beginning to end. And when the crack subsided, laughter rent the sky in a mad frightening cackle and when the horrible, obscene cackle had subsided, Guaro-Guaro number one, Bulu-Bulu, came into the hut, looked at McClafferty and me and said,
‘Oh, great wisenoses, we have been waiting from the beginning of time on your coming and now we have heard God laugh, we understand everything.’
And without further ado he pointed a finger at McClafferty’s attaché case. McClafferty took out the contract, Bulu-Bulu signed, I shook his hand and gave him his complementary Chiang Kai-shek portrait. McClafferty took out the Chiang Kai-shek Order of the Rising Sun medal from his jacket pocket and let Bulu-Bulu hold it. With tears in his eyes the old chief kissed it and handed it back before disappearing out the door, climbed into his dugout canoe and paddled downstream to register the tribe’s Chiang Kai-shek bond holding in the first village with an Internet connection ̶ something I deeply regret now ̶ telling him about the Internet that is.
Once the news got round that everyone on the planet was covered by a Chiang Kai-shek gold bond, in one of a hundred thousand guises, and that the Guaro-Guaros had heard God laugh, the market panicked and went into free fall. Next, in the middle of the commotion, the Chinese government issued a statement saying they weren’t born yesterday and SKS bond holders could all sing for their gold. Global stock markets went into free fall and money ceased to be a means of exchange. Bean counting became popular and has not lost its attraction since.
So that was that. As the cosmic soup continued to bubble and splutter with sublime indifference and “the system” trembled in spasmodic dysfunction, McClafferty took one plane and I took another back to Sunny G where he was lost to sight. Forever would have been better but I was still obliged by the contract I had with P&R so I’d need to track him down eventually and submit a probation report. Fat George, the barman in the Grafton Arms, an old hangout of his, said he’d set up as a private eye, or so he’d heard, and had an office down in the city centre, off Georgeous Square, he reckoned. So on a hunch he might have placed a small ad for his private-eye services in the press, I gathered the newspapers from the bar and went and sat in the corner to scroll through the classified ads.
A news piece in The Recker caught my eye. There in a column of short news bites, sandwiched between an item headed, “Woman Enslaved to Dog Food” saying a two hundred pounds 28-years old woman was addicted to dog food and ate sixty cans a day and another headed “Vicar Beats Pork Pie Record,” about a country vicar who ate ninety-three pork pies and drunk twenty-two pints of cider to raise money for a food kitchen for starving parishioners, was an item of two lines only. Headed “Traffic Victim Mystery,” it said the man who was hit by the car on Tuesday afternoon while dangerously waving his arms in the middle of the road, had still not been identified. The story had all the marks of The Bear but then again it could have been some local drunk. Of McClafferty, there was no trace.
Then things took a turn. Grazyna had been languishing during my absence on the island and some magic badly needed to be injected into our little intimate plot which, translated, saw us a few evenings later nosing each other like chipmunks in the cocktail bar of The Rooks Roost, the only hotel in Lemygo, a little village off the highway that runs through the hills to the border, frequented exclusively by lost souls who turn off the highway too soon and end up having to spend the night. That’s where we ran into Nurse Ratcher, an ugly old cow who got so drunk the first night she had to be carried upstairs to bed.
‘A sad case. She’s been like that since he escaped from Hertless, ‘ Rabbie Skelley , the manager, said when he came back downstairs, poured himself a whisky behind the bar and came and sat beside us on a stool.
‘The Bear. From Hertless Hospital. It’s a long story,’ he said what happened was…oh, excuse me…’
And he jumped off the stool and, holding up his hands in welcome headed towards the two lost souls the dank night had just delivered into his hands.
We drove out next morning to take a look at the place. Hertless Hospital was parked so far from human habitation in the mist-shrouded fields and the woods even the rooks avoided it. “Entry Prohibited” it said on a sign at the gate. Warned off in consideration of Laverty’s twenty-second proposition that says “Whatever is prohibited is probably good for you. But bear in mind it could be dangerous,” we climbed into the car again and headed back to the hotel.
That night Nurse Ratcher got smashed again and was carried upstairs again. Skelley lifted the veil another half inch when he came back down, and went through his standard routine of serving himself a drink, converting himself into a guest and sitting down beside us.
‘Been like that since she got suspended.’
‘Oh aye. Taking it badly.’
All sorts of things had gone wrong after they took The Bear out of the hole, it seems. First they put him in the main building, dressed him in a bath robe with his clothes and belongings safely locked away in a locker till such times as they could move him into the Electric Shock Therapy Unit. Into Nurse Ratcher’s itchy fingers trembling to throw the switch on the Ectonustim 3 Electra Convulsive Therapy machine to induce an epileptic fit. With a 450 volt surge to The Bear’s brain. To make him just as sane as she was.
That was only Skelley’s take on things of course. Skelley himself was a question mark. Invariably dressed in the same non-descript suit with wrinkled lapels, he looked as though life had never smoothed him out either. Since the mine closed down, work had evaporated so he’d turned his hand to everything. Which explained why he kept darting off to all over the place whenever someone came in. He may also have been doing the cooking. He disappeared occasionally into the kitchen and never came back out. He was everywhere at once. Not only inside the hotel but outside too. Going up and down to Hertless Hospital with his van for purposes that can only be guessed at.
The Ectonustim 3 ECT, with scalp electrodes, he explained, had been acting up since Ratcher had lobotomized the last two victims ̶ one of whom had nearly died and was now a basket case. Possibly due to a faulty wire activated by sweat on the victim’s scalp, causing a short circuit.
Be that as it may, the machine was now redundant and sitting on the desk of Dr. Leverworst, the hospital principle. Leverworst had only just ordered a replacement on the Internet with Alibaba before learning that the United Nations had labeled electro shock a barbaric practice and a “torture” years back and that even the Chinese government, upgrading their human rights reputation, had caught up and would shortly do the same. Which meant goodbye, Alibaba. Goodbye ECT machine.
And although the news hadn’t filtered through to her quite yet in its entirety, Ratcher’s wretched reign was at an end. And her reputation besmirched for another reason. With Leverworst especially. Because she had been on duty the night The Bear escaped. And she was on night duty, something below her rank, because Nurse Jean McAlister had phoned in sick, an excuse really and a feeble attempt at disguising the fact she was litigating against the hospital over their refusal to pay her the official rate for a grade 1 nurse working an eighty hour week. Which meant Ratcher had to take over the duty nurse’s post that night. And with all the stress occasioned by the malfunctioning of the Ectonustim 3 inch, she fell asleep at the desk.
The way I saw it, The Bear had seized its chance, pocketed the key, walked along the corridor to the locker room and removed its belongings. There was a fatal flaw too in another, unexpected quarter. The regulations. The regulations governing hospitals, nursing homes, institutions for the blind, deaf and dumb, children’s and other institutions carried what at first sight appeared to be an innocuous requirement. Belongings of “guests,” as captives were commonly termed, had to be strictly noted in the register and kept in a safe place pending discharge. It proved fatal in this case.
Thus the combination of these factors tipped the balance in favour of The Bear, suggesting that there might be some force or power in the universe intervening occasionally on the side of justice. Guiding The Bear on tiptoe that fateful night along the corridor to the locker room with the key in his hand. And once he had his hands on his gear, he was back in business. Once The Bear got his big horny feet back into those gumboots and his arms into that herringbone-tweed coat, it was goodbye Hertless, he was unstoppable. He vanished one dark moonless night across the fields and into the woods, leaving Nurse Thatcher’s reputation in tatters, a broken woman.
As she was now, her third night, in The Rooks Roost. But not for long. I said to Rabbie,
‘Make that another two double whiskies.’
He poured out two glasses on the bar for Grazyna and me. As he turned to replace the bottle on the shelf, I dropped in a nice dose of Haloperidol, a drug prescribed for acute psychosis.
‘And give one to Nurse Ratcher on me,’ I said. He took the glass and crossed the lounge where she was sitting alone at a little round table drinking her blood.
Skelley offered her the whisky, turned and pointed in the direction of the bar. Ratcher turned her bloated face and raised the glass to us with enough Haloperidol in it to fell a rhinoceros.
‘Cheers,’ I said.
On the way out, I noticed the rug in the hallway was a blue and green tartan. Funny how little things like that strike you, stay in your mind, keep coming back. For no reason you can understand. I doubted if we’d be back for a while. Not that I was worried. When the coroner examined her they’d find her heart had seized up on the alcohol. If they looked further they might find a brain hemorrhage. As I say, Haloperidol was prescribed for acute psychosis and Nurse Ratcher had access to dangerous drugs.
Going back in the car just, before Hockton, the news on the radio said the unidentified man of no-fixed abode who had been knocked down by a hit and run driver in a SUV while directing traffic on the outskirts of Sunny Groodge, had discharged himself from hospital.
I got a call out of the blue from McClafferty which I found strange.
‘Know anything about a guy called The Bear?’
‘No,’ I lied but before I could ask him where he was he hung up.
She was big, she was busty, she was blonde and she was driven. And when she threw open the office door on the call of “Enter” from deep inside the room, the thick heels of her blue-suede pumps clicked audibly on the worn yellow parquet floor as she crossed to the desk without taking her eyes for a second off the newspaper the bum was holding up to his face, and on which she could see a photo of a racehorse with jockey up and, as she got closer, the scrolled black letters saying This Sporting Life which together with the spread-out back page hid him entirely from view. Making the only evidence of human presence behind the paper the two pudgy mitts that held it up and the shoes that rested on the desk, the soles worn through revealing several layers of flaky-pastry-thin leather, turned slightly outwards pointing to the ceiling in a nonchalant cavalier fashion that pulsed one subliminal, unequivocal message and one only across the room. The owner of these shoes does not wish to be disturbed under any circumstances.
So on the basis of those unspoken admissions, busty Veronica Teague, on a mission of righteousness, already had his number, the ignorant yobo. Even before he put down the newspaper and her glance fell on the five o’clock shadow, the sagging blue bags under the tired blue eyes of one Reginald George McClafferty, Private Investigator & Attorney at Law. Which is what it said on the calling cards strewn loosely on one side of the desk just before she slapped her hand violently on the desk top making the phone jump and forcing him to lower the newspaper, look up and finally speak. And utter, or rather sigh, the world-weary words from the dark side of the tomb of,
‘What can we do you for?’
By then Veronica was pretty well tuned-in, had him figured as an also-ran. And as she looked down on the worm like a preying manta, she noted its nose sniff at the air, gasp twice in rapid succession like a cat trying to catch a fly. And to make things easier for him, she let her hand run down her thigh, caressing it to smooth her dress, knowing full well it was scent of the perfume she had sprinkled for the occasion all over her expensive flesh that morning and that now formed the invisible aura round her body that the nostrils of the beast were aching to make contact with.
As she sank down uninvited on the chair across from him, she tossed a bird’s eye view of her cleavage across the desk like a crust to a starving sparrow, and as she did so, pushed back the chair and demonstrably folded one delicious knee over the other, sliding her skirts higher over her thighs to allow the ravenous dog to slather at her calves, mesmerized by the long delicate fingers with their blue lacquered nails that patted the knee.
And all that, the whole show she had enacted for the creep in the minute or less of time it had taken her to cross the room from the door to the desk, told one simple truth. That she was a full head in front of the chancer and the two of them just out the starting gate. And when she saw his nose wrinkle a third time, she knew she had him by the short and curlies. Knew the Nuits de Barcelone she’d sprinkled liberally over her milky-white skin, so expensive they threw in free insurance against theft as a precaution, was worth every drop. People will kill to get their hands on this perfume, it said on the tiny label at the back of the two oz. flacons.
And so in the sweltering heat of a Sunny Groodge early afternoon, Nuits de Barcelone had its wicked way with McClafferty’s head as it burned the oxygen supply out of the room faster than aviation fuel from the backside of a jet plane, leaving the sleuth frozen and gaping behind his desk, wondering if she was wearing anything under that flimsy dress. That spiders’ web that covered her ample contours and through which, without let or hindrance, the volcanoes on the surface of her skin, in constant eruption, spewed clouds of musky aromatic odour from every pore in her body. Making him gasp for air.
He struggled but kept his cool. He looked at her. She looked at him. She reached into her handbag, took out a little chamois leather pouch, extracted a large object and placed it on the desk. He watched and kept his peace.
When Veronica Teague had finished the story of the “Blue Diamond” half an hour later, McClafferty was in a quandary. This business of the Blue Diamond sounded so awful, so downright dangerous, only a lunatic would tackle a job involving a jealous wife, a psychopathic criminal, his Thai lady boy lover, a perverted sodomite Duke, a blind man with a white stick distributing coke round the city, corruption in City Hall, and god knows what else. Deep in thought and looking for the emergency exit, McClafferty cast a side glance at the diary open on his desk. There were two numbers in it and two only. A girl in a wheelchair who had eloped with a Yemeni and was hiding out at an unknown address in the badlands south of the city waiting for a dispensation from Rome to marry, because she was a Catholic so retarded she hadn’t heard even the Pope didn’t much care anymore. And times had changed. As well as another woman, an older woman who’d been looking for a green parrot called Larry since it escaped from its cage four years back and hadn’t come home since. No, things, didn’t look too good. Since his suspension from the force, still pending resolution, it had been all uphill for Bones-the-Dog. Or downhill, depending on your angle of vision.
So he added his two and two, took another sniff of the “Barcelona Nights” let his peepers run fondly and freely over sweet Veronica’s appurtenances, and uttered the historic words.
‘I’ll give it a go’ the McClafferty man said.
She filled him in on the details of how Horseshoe McCann had got his hands on the permits for the new underground they were building under the city to turn it into a new Gotham. Right under Gorgeous Square all the way up to the University. And that it was drug money funded from McCann’s Mexican connections. That Sherry the mayor was in on the deal. Had given the wink to the building department where one of his boyfriends was ready to do his all and more at the drop of a pair of pants. And that in the midst of all this, Horseshoe has slipped the noose and gone off with a Thai lady boy, he’d paid to have a sex operation in Mexico to turn him into a woman. Or was it a man, she’d said? And that the Thai lady boy was now going under the name of Georgina on her passport and the filthy swine had another blue diamond.
‘This one,’ hissed Veronica, ‘is the real one, the rest are fakes.’
So McClafferty, who knew his horses but not his diamonds, picked up the big blue inlaid diamond, big as a coot’s egg. And studied it.
Two days later, on a tip, he’d tracked down Horseshoe McCann to a crack pad on the outskirts of Sunny Groodge. But it was too late. McCann was lying on the bare floorboards with his face smashed in, a bullet through his skull and a balmy evening breeze from the port flapping the dirty curtains in the open window. Before he croaked it, McCann had managed to trace a single letter with the tip of a finger in the pool of thick blood round his head. The letter “M”. Veronica had mentioned not only high roller money, drug money but decadent members of the aristocracy in the plot too. Which was why, an hour later he was in the car heading out of Sunny Groodge along Loch Dandie for the Duke of Magoiyle’s castle.
He tugged on the bell. The butler opened the big studded-metal door and showed him into the great hall. The Duke was warming his backside from the log fire in the great chimney, flicking the ends of his kilt to catch the warmth of the flames on his bare arse and keeping them there in the course of the conversation as if trying to hide something.
‘Yes, the Blue diamond. Brought back from India in 1870 by the tenth Duke and set into the royal crown by Victriola the Empress. Who in turn gave it as a present to the twelfth Duke after the assassination of the eleventh by a thugee. For services rendered,’ he said with a wry smile as McClafferty took in the shining red knees, the hairy legs with the sgian dubh stuck in one woolen stocking and the rest of the gear.
‘The guy’s a ponce,’ the sleuth decided but Noblesse Oblige, he was reminded, gazing at the coat-of-arms high on the wall above the fireplace. It depicted a magpie clutching an egg. Pondering the significance of the magpie caused him to miss a few words of the Duke’s rambling discourse, he realised when his reverie was interrupted. From a distance he heard the Duke say,
‘Yes, old chap, yes indeed you can have a look at it. I’ll call my “Mannie.”
And then and only then did he drop the kilt, gave two tugs of the tasseled cord at the end of the fireplace for his “Mannie” and the butler appeared with a little glass case which he flipped open to show McClafferty the diamond.
‘It’s kept in a safe place where no one can get at it,’ the Duke said throwing the butler a quick glance.
As the butler left the great hall holding the casket before him heading for the vaults, a hint of white shirt-tail was peeking from under the penguin-tails of his black coat.
It was night when he got back to Sunny Groodge to report. Veronica was waiting for him at the hotel. Before he could open his mouth, she pulled him through the door and letting out a heart-rending scream of animal lust, ripped the clothes from his body, threw him onto the bed and humped him like a piece of meat on a butcher’s slab before he could open his mouth.
‘I’ve wanted to do that since the day I clapped eyes on you. Don’t!’ she said, as McClafferty tried to get up.
And she pressed the index finger of her right hand with its blood red nail to his lips and let her luscious milky white flesh sink slowly down on the sleuth in a cloud of Nuits de Barcelone.
But she was gone when he woke up and for days after that McClafferty was in a daze. He wanted more of Veronica’s sweet loving but couldn’t get a taste. He needed more. He was hooked. But she’d disappeared under the radar. Wasn’t answering the phone so only thing he could do in despair was throw himself back into the case. Wrap it up fast as possible. Show her who was in charge. Winkle her out of her little hole and get the payoff. The big payoff.
It was ten times worse than nicotine poisoning and McClafferty who hadn’t touched a fag in a decade was now back on three packs a day, lightening them end to end, as he headed down the highway in the early morning drizzle. And he was still in a daze a day later when he hoofed it back round to the West End. To the flat where he’d found the body. But the body was gone and the flat was spick and span, the floor still smelling of heavily perfumed disinfectant. And the windows closed.
He called into the Property Registration Office later in the afternoon, then took a taxi down to the riverside to consult the archives of The Daily Recker. The Duke owned half the properties in the West End. He had been trying to get the plebs out and double the rents but was so far prevented by law from doing so. Although Mayor Sherry had submitted several motions at the annual City hall meeting to amend the law but without success so far.
In the afternoon he tapped in a few numbers and later in the day had a walk in the park with his old mate Ginger Snaps. ‘Mum’s the word,’ Ginger Snaps would see what he could do. And they agreed a fee. Per capita. Bounty hunter sort of thing.
‘That’ll get the greedy bastards motivated,’ Snaps reckoned.
A week later his Pistoleros had rounded up half-a-dozen blind geezers with sticks. Two weeks later they’d herded in a few more. Then McClafferty got another call. The White Stick Defense Society had rumbled them and they’d had to pull in their horns and let them all go. It was another non-starter. But there was a message from someone on his answering machine when he got back to the office. Said he had the inside dope on the mayor and meet him down at the Dead-End bar on the river after dark. Which McClafferty calculated was any time after eight this time of year in these northerly climes.
So he had a few at the bar in the blue haze. Under the nicotine drops hanging like rotting prunes from the nicotine discoloured ceiling. Alone apart from a couple of painted hags in the booth over against the wall. Waiting maybe for the dead men they said come out after dark to listen to the river flow. It was a creepy joint.
Fascinated, he kept looking round. The two old tarts in the booth fluttering their eyelids bore an uncanny resemblance to the Kinky Kash twins. But they were long dead. Unless they had transmigrated and come back as a couple of cheap whores? But next time he looked over his shoulder they’d evaporated like ghosts, the two of them. Gone to pick dead bodies or gouge out eyes, McClafferty mused. He took his drink and went and sat in the booth the two tarts had vacated, facing the doors. He took another sip and the doors swung open and he came in: The whistleblower. And since there was no one else in the bar, not even the barman, the man slid into the seat beside him and held out a hand.
‘Betty,’ he said and pressed a paper into McClafferty’s hand which, in the gloomy light of the wall lamp, looked like the tentacles of an octopus.
‘It’s all about property. Sherry has changed the plans for the underground. The subway,’ the whistleblower said.
Later after more of the hard stuff and past midnight and the last train long gone, McClafferty was sloping through ankle-deep puddles underground with Betty listening for the faint sound of tapping in deserted tunnels. Where ghost workers carved out the night in stone, creating the veins of the cancerous lungs of the city through which drugs, whores, booze and god knows what else would soon flow door to door. According to the scenario painted by Betty.
A body had just been dragged out of the river he heard in the morning from Ginger Snaps, so McClafferty headed down to the City Chambers to see Sherry, not because he had any clear idea of what he wanted to say or how he was going to confront the mayor. Until he had the downs on Sherry he had as much control over the sleaze as he had over the cold morning with its touch of hoar frost. White on the ground. And the pigeons shivering miserably under the slightly lopsided statue of the Great Duke. He crossed Gorgeous Square in the early morning. Made a mental note to bring a crust of bread next time. For the pigeons.
Maybe Ned Sherry had been watching the pigeons too. Maybe he was calculating how far the statue of the Duke had slipped on its base, and how far askew it would have to incline before people noticed and started asking questions. But all he said when McClafferty was shown in was,
‘Oh, it’s you, been stirring things up again, I hear.’
‘I’ve been down in the tunnels,’ McClafferty said. Sherry blanched.
‘You bastard, he said, ‘You dirty creepy bastard.’
But McClafferty was going down the stairs by that time, thinking how he was going to bring the dead ends together. Wrap up the case before he choked. Or got strangled in the small print. Suddenly he had a stroke of inspiration. Going back across the square. He’d put an ad in the paper announcing a Blue Diamond Lovers conference.
And when the great day arrived, they were all there. All the actors in the human comedy. Regaled out. Togged up as befitted the occasion. The main protagonists: Mayor Sherry, the Duke of Magoiyle, the Butler in his penguin coat. Veronica Teague in a sequined night dress. A sallow-skinned young lady blowing smoke languorously from a cigarette holder, with a buxom lady of middle age hanging on to her. With bandy legs. Wearing an enormous blonde wig. Could it be the Thai lady boy? And the big broad? Who was she? And where did she get that ridiculous dress and that wig? There were a few other cockroaches floating about in the periphery, tacking between the flagships. But like ships passing in the night, their purpose in the grand scheme of things would ever remain shrouded in mystery.
To grace the occasion with the stamp of officialdom, Ginger Snaps supplied half-a-dozen Pistoleros togged up in shiny suits with wardrobe shoulders instructed to guard the inner sanctuary with their lives. McClafferty was footing the bill for the moonlighters.
‘Try to look intelligent if not human,’ Snaps cautioned them.
Inside the oak paneled room, the various bit actors were arraigned in chairs scattered loosely round the room. McClafferty was at the table. On the table was a diamond. A blue diamond. McClafferty gave the nod to Horseshoe McCann, mysteriously resurrected, who’d caught the attention of one and all during the venue because he was wearing a blonde wig, a flowered dress, but had hairy black stubble on his legs even the closest shave could not remove. The makeup smeared over them only made things worse.
The disguise fooled no one. Like everyone else in the room, McClafferty kept up the pretence, and like everyone else kept his eyes fixed on the little bag McCann had been carrying tucked under the arm. It had the same design of twisted flowers and leaves as on his yellow sleeveless dress. From this he extracted a little silver hammer. Veronica’s diamond was the first to receive attention.
‘May I?’ Horseshoe enquired of the assembly and smashed the silver hammer full force down on the diamond. It exploded into smithereens. Veronica fainted.
‘Next,’ he said nodding at Sherry. The Pistoleros held the mayor down in his chair foaming at the mouth as he spluttered a protest. A lout, broad as a wardrobe, with a shaven head and a tattooed slogan on the back of his neck, ripped the blue diamond from the chain round Sherry’s neck and handed it to McClafferty who placed it on the table. The same fate befell Sherry’s diamond. Then it was the Duke of Magoiyle’s turn.
‘I say, old boy. This is a bit much,’ the Duke muttered half-heartedly knowing he had the real McCoy. Then sneering up at Horseshoe he said, ‘Be my guest,’ and Horseshoe McCann brought the hammer down, not on the diamond but on the Duke’s head,
‘Fuckin tosser,’ he said. Then he smashed the Duke’s diamond into a thousand shards.
People threw themselves out of windows when the news got round. That the Blue Diamond was a fake. It was another Ponzi scheme. Thought up by the Duke and propagated by the butler who knew the right people in the right circles, if you get my drift. Banks were involved, insurance companies. They’d all lashed out on the basis of collateral in the form of a dog-eared parchment signed by the Empress of India bequeathing the Blue Diamond to the Duke’s great aunt.
It was all baloney, McClafferty reflected as he took the hill past the university in the dank late night air. The central tower was about an inch more off plumb line since last week. It was the mining underneath.
When the news hit the fan next day, the financiers withdrew their money, the secret tunnels slowly filled up with water and when it rained a week later the rain water flushed a plague of rats down the tubes that surfaced in the mayor’s office.
Not that it was of any interest or concern to Sherry. He’d rubbed up the wrong people. Now he was in the General and Central waiting to be operated. For the pieces to be put back together. They’d done him up pretty good. Sealing his fingers, toes, mouth and ears. The consultant physician dug a sample of the stuff from between his toes. Seems it was some sort of compound the air force used to glue panels of military jets in war zones. That was as near as the lab could get. The name of the stuff was of speculative interest. They would only learn, when they started cutting, whether the scalpel or the drill would be up to the job. And so they couldn’t see what they were doing, couldn’t see the horrible mess his creditors had made of him, they wrapped Sherry in bandages from head to toe.
“The Invisible Man,” that’s the word the nurses were trying to suppress as they wheeled the spare bits and pieces of Sherry out to the disposal bin, tears rolling down their cheeks. The surgeons had to keep a straight face and soldier on. Laughing or sniggering was more than their well-paid jobs were worth.
The Duke didn’t come out of it well. When it was discovered he was a phony from south of the border, the villagers burned down Magoiyle Castle where they found two lead coffins in the vaults. Some, because they were superstitious, said they were for the Duke and his sidekick, the Butler. The coffins were empty so there is no way of knowing for sure if they were vampires. It’s a fair bet, though that he wasn’t. The Duke, that is. Because after Horseshoe McCann smashed in his skull with the silver hammer, it took days to clean up the mess because the hotel cleaners were on strike for a living wage. Then it took days to find a coroner who spoke English good enough to record that his death had been suicide. Whatever the case, the Duke lay there for days with the lights on in the reception room and never came back to life. So it was cassus demonstrandum. Because as we all know, vampires are allergic to light.
It was of some relief to the Magoiyles, however. The family name was left unbesmirched and they could continue to rake in the rent money from the half of Sunny Groodge that they still owned.
The affair kept the city glued to the buzz boxes for weeks on end as Daily Recker sales started to shoot up. With money pouring in, the paper threw caution to the wind and hired a well-known clairvoyant. To see if she could clear up some of the mysteries. Whose body did McClafferty find in the crack pad? And where had the body gone? Was it a Thai lady boy? Because there was a Buddha tattoo on the wrist of the body in the morgue fished out of the river. And it was wearing a red G-string. With its face smashed beyond recognition. And Buddha tattoos were popular with Thais. And if so, who was the guy who looked like a Thai lady boy at the conference? Did that mean there were two Thai lady boys? And what about the other bodies fished out of the river? Was it a gang war?
But despite the resuscitative powers of the clairvoyant, none of the bodies lying in the morgue was able to deliver up a tortured spirit, a demon or a ghost. And despite being still physically present in the world, even though dead, all trace of their spirit had vanished from the earth, it appears. Not a particularly bad sign, the clairvoyant thought as she rubbed the G-string of the presumed lady boy between thumb and forefinger. Because it evoked total silence from beyond the great divide. Nor did the sallow-skinned one make an appearance in dreams either. All to the good, she deemed, they had crossed over and weren’t coming back.
Paradoxically, although the Duke was consumed entirely by the fire that burned the castle to the ground and had risen into the heavens in a cloud of greasy black smoke, he insisted in returning to earth in dreams. In the real world. For those who could catch an ethereal whiff of him. Prepared to spend a night in the Magoiyle Royal Hotel. In the big four poster ducal bed. As the clairvoyant had done. And as she explained in detail in the featured interview The Recker’s top sleuth, Denis Driff did with her. The Duke was being tortured underground in deep dungeons close to Hell. By masked demons. They had him hung him on a chain by the arms, she said, and were dipping him in a vat of boiling lard. And there was a little cage on his head. And inside this cage was a rat. And the rat was on a treadmill. And the harder it raced on the steps, the faster the coins rattled in the tin cups that blind beggars shook under the tortured body of the Duke. His screams filled the dungeon. He had been unable to rise into an upper sphere and had failed to be accepted into the supreme pit. Instead he was in some demi-world, in between, condemned for all eternity to be the plaything, the toy boy of devils and demons.
They searched the tunnels but found nothing. Then Dennis Driff had another scoop. He reported that on her deathbed the old dowager aunt of the Magoiyle’s said the Blue Diamond had been stolen when she was a child. By a magpie attracted by the flash of its silver setting. And that the great Duke had got the magpie from a band of errant tinkers. Further investigation of the archives at the Historian’s Office revealed it was a wandering band of the McCann clan.
The magpie story seized the public imagination. In no time you couldn’t buy a metal detector for love or money. Prices went through the roof and stayed that way. Till the Cheng Ho ̶ named after the treasure boat admiral Zheng He sailed the Western Oceans in before the days of Columbus ̶ docked from Shanghai. But by that time the rage had exhausted itself and the metal detectors were left to rust on the quay. It was of some solace. But not all that much since the castle grounds had been laid waste and the acres of surrounding land rendered bald as a coot from the movement of metal detectors and feet sweeping the lawns, the fields and the woods night and day for months on end, searching for the blue diamond.
From the extra cash it was making from selling even more copies, The Daily Recker was able to hire a decent investigative reporter to scour the Register of Births and Deaths for as far back as they went, which was centuries. For a clue. Seems Horseshoe and the Duke were related in some unseemly fashion. Centuries back when the Magoiyles were Lords of the Hills and Lochs, the grand Duke was having his wicked way with young Rosie McCann.
When Django McCann, the patriarch, came back from a horse rustling trip in the border badlands and found out about Rosie’s defilement he had a curse put on the Magoiyles and swore revenge into eternity. He also dispatched a magpie to steal the family jewels. The story was passed on down the family to Horseshoe, no doubt. It took centuries to even the score.
By that time, McClafferty had the gumshoe business up to the back teeth. But he had an image to preserve ̶ bella figura. His heart was no longer in it. He held out a few months more for the sake of appearances and got one or two, let us say “interesting offers” as he was reminded every time he cast a glance at the sheep’s carcass sitting on the chair in the far corner of the office. The Magoiyle villagers had sent it down to bribe him. That’s what came of that remark he let slip when he’d lunched up in the Magoiyle Royal Hotel. “That he was quite partial to a leg of lamb.”
They’d heard werewolves howling on the blighted estates of the Duke. Witches and warlocks were reported sighted. Stories were even going round that legions of the Magoiyle clan back to the beginning of time had returned through a fissure in the earth from the Pits of Hell. To wreak vengeance. And that the Second Coming of the Messiah was at hand. An exorcist was called in by the villagers. Would McClafferty please come back? And help them?
All in all, it left McClafferty pretty cold. He had a clear conscience. Take it or leave it. Then that viper Veronica turned up. Out of the blue. Left a note. They arranged to meet in a brightly lit café in the centre of town. Where she couldn’t get up to too much shenanigans. She was wearing the same old Nuits de Barcelone but by that time it left McClafferty indifferent. Indifferent is as indifferent does. Once bitten twice shy. He’d already changed the lock of his office and got an ex directory phone number to stop her harassing him. There were pools too stagnant or too toxic even for him to dip a toe in. He never did figure out her ulterior motives. Until he saw the photo in Bums & Tits. In ten inch high heels and leather gear with a bullwhip on her shoulder. Over a drink one evening in the Central, Ginger Snaps whispered in his ear that she specialized in hanging masked perverts upside down on ropes at Sherry’s parties in the basement of City Hall, sticking billiard balls in their mouths, a cactus up their arse and flogging them with barbed wire while the perverts giggled and screamed with pleasure. Trying to get their rocks off. As the blood streamed down their backs.
Snaps patted him on the shoulder. ‘You had a lucky escape, old son’ he said.
But McClafferty had some success at another level, albeit indirectly. He got Mrs. McGreevy’s parrot back for her.
Mrs. McGreevy’s parrot was lost for four years before Crump Junior discovered it up a tree in the park where it had been living with forty or fifty of its green brothers and sisters. All in the branches of the same tree. Making a dreadful racket. And although Mrs. G could no longer remember the exact circumstances under which Larry the parrot disappeared, it happened like this.
She was cleaning the cage one day and Larry was doing what he was always doing: sitting on his little wooden perch unperturbed. Occasionally to show off, he’d lift a leg and study the horny claws at the end of his extremity as though calculating the length of the chain, the weight of the brass ring and his big ugly horny toenails, musing on how they all got there. On the ring round his left leg ̶ or was it his right? ̶ was the word Larry. It was etched into the brass. No phone number, nothing like that.
Occasionally when Mrs. G got a hot flush, she’d unhook the chain from the bar and leave Larry to ponder his fate. Most of the time he did nothing with this offer of liberty and waited inside the cage for her to come back with the cashew nuts. He had other options of course. He could hop onto another perch higher up or he could, as he quite often did, grab one of the bars between his big horny discoloured beak and make out like he was trying to snap it clean through. This was all pure bravado of course. He’d been at it for years and he knew it was a no-brainer. He simply liked to alarm the visitor into thinking he was preparing a breakout. Nothing was further from his mind. Larry was quite happy where he was. In his chains. The outside world was not a challenge that kept him awake at night, though as we all know, parrots never sleep. At most they doze, slump into the land of the living dead for a few seconds before coming back to life. No, he had foresworn all that in favour of cashew nuts.
When old Archie was still alive there had been a bit more action about the place. Old Archie at least gave him a run for his money: The gift of speech. He’d sit in his chair down there looking up at the cage, rolling his stinking fags and drinking his beer and when inspiration fired his addled brain, he’d get up and try a new routine on Larry. Stuff like,
‘Who’s a good boy?’ Or ‘How’s yer father?’
Larry had the good sense to ignore these promptings. But still, the parrot kept his bird’s eye view fixed on old Archie swilling his booze in the sunken chair. They lived in peace. In mutual respect. They had their little altercations of course from time to time. Nothing serious most of the time. Apart from that day the old sod got pissed out his skull, opened the cage door and stuck his face inside with his tongue hanging out, and blabbered some insanity.
Assuming Archie was offering a treat, the parrot translated the words as meaning ‘Try this for after’s,’ and sank his beak into the swollen red snail. Archie uttered a heart rending wail and collapsed moaning to the floor. Apart from that little incident they remained quite good friends.
Now that old Archie was gone to the great bye-and-byes, Larry longed for the presence of the old sea-dog. Which is basically what he was saying with that rigmarole he indulged in. Putting his pointed tongue to the bar, clamping his beak on it, cocking his head to the side, fixing one intense, unblinking eye on the visitor and waiting to see if he’d been rumbled.
Some years later ̶ some say four, some say five ̶ they caught Larry, stuck him in a gunny bag and brought back home. Not such a happy homecoming as it turned out, as will presently be revealed, but first the recapture of the renegade bird.
McClafferty owed Malky Crump one or two. And when Malky got nicked ̶ not for misappropriating Pearly the Panda, but for a lesser misdemeanor ̶ and having previous form, was promptly dispatched to the State Hotel for six months, plus another three months for fines unpaid from previous misdemeanors, time to accumulate, despite pleas by his lawyer for community service ̶ McClafferty leaped into the breach. Not that he was worried Malky might start canarying about other misdemeanors as yet undisclosed, but it was as well to be careful. Cornered cats make crazy leaps. So he took Crump Junior under his wing: wee Eck Crump. And since one of McClafferty’s first commissions as private eye was to find Mrs. G’s parrot, he handed the job to Wee Eck.
‘Prove yourself on this one and the sky’s the limit.’
Wee Eck being an enterprising lad got the flyers going, pasting walls and trees with posters saying “REWARD Lost Parrot” A week later he got a call to meet a young guy in the park, a nerd it turned out. With glasses. Let me rephrase that. Who happened to have glasses ̶ I have no desire to invoke the ire of any myopic readers ̶ and at the appointed afternoon hour, they stood shoulder to shoulder looking up at a colony of green parrots in a tree, all of them escapees from Sunny Groodge cages and slowly mutating into a tough new hardy species capable of handling Baltic temperatures.
‘Don’t see a ring. You see a ring?’ Wee Eck said, passing the binoculars. But none of the birds had a ring round its ankle in the days they spent on the park bench watching the rubble at the bottom of the trunk mount ever higher as the delinquent parrots stripped the tree bare of its tiny winged-nuts and leaves. But no ring. So after a few days they called it a day and before you know it Wee Eck gets a call from Moby Dick.
‘Moby Dick,’ the voice on the other end of the line said. But since Wee Eck hadn’t read a book in his puff apart from two he was forced to read for an exam in his final year at school, it took a few vital seconds before the penny dropped.
‘Oh the whale. Captain Ahab,’ he said, remembering the film with the whale. Gregory Peck.
“Moby Dick Motors. 24 hours delivery. Salvage. Scrap Metal. Best prices. Cash,” it said on the hand-painted board at the entrance to the scrap yard. So next thing you know he’s plodding through the mud up to the door of the caravan. Moby Dick was standing by the wood-burning stove at the back of the gypsy caravan poking the fire. The back of his black T-shirt said “Road Runners, Chapter One.” Every square inch of him visible to the naked eye, was tattooed. Apart from his face. Or some of it. Making it seem the tattoo had spread like a rash from inside the big, scuffed leather boots and crawled like ivy all over his body from under the short sleeves of the T-shirt, down his arms to the wrists, up his chest through the ring of the collar where the tattoo peeped out. Ending in a sort of necklace beyond which, for no discernible reason, it went no further. The rest of the body, his head and his hands down to the wrist, were free of any kind of artistic expression. Apart from two little silver earrings pressed cozily and tenderly together in his left ear plus a cork in his right lobe that made him look like a pirate on one side of his face and a Zulu warrior on the other. Apart from that he looked perfectly normal.
‘You the wan come fur the burd?’ he said, ‘Well, he’s no here. He’s oot there since last Tuesday. If you’d come a bit earlier, you’d have got him. Now he’s back up the chimney.’
Mesmerized by the ivy tattoo, Wee Eck said zilch.
‘He’s no here,’ Moby Dick went on. ‘He kept pinching’ stuff. I’d come in fur ma tea and he’d be inta ma sandwiches. So ah throws a spanner at him and next thing ah know, he’s gone. Oot there in the boiler. Been there for a week now an’ won’t come doon.’
It was an old ship’s boiler with a nine-foot stack mounted on what can only be described as a huge beer can. At the bottom was a little iron latch where the stokers shoveled in the coal when the boiler was on a puffer plying the lochs and the coast. Into this Moby Dick sprinkled some bird seed from a packet.
‘You might just catch him when he comes doon tae eat,’ he said but was cut short in his expose of the secrets of errant parrot capture when the phone rang and he had to lumber back through the jangled metal landscape to the caravan.
Opportunity is for the man who knocks first. Wee Eck immediately climbed up onto the boiler and from there up the smoke stack, which mercifully had been provided with a little metal ladder, threw the gunny bag over the funnel. Then he climbed down. And when he opened the iron grill, sure enough, there was little Larry looking downright embarrassed at being caught in the act, a nut in his beak.
Wee Eck made a sort of half-hearted grab at the thief. Larry screeched and shot up the chimney, straight into the bag. After that it was plain sailing. With Larry in the bag, Wee Eck heard a voice in his head say,
‘Ah’m offski an headin’ fur the hills.’
Or so he hoped. But just when he thought he was home and clear, passing under the big Moby Dick sign at the exit, he heard a voice, whipped round to see Moby Dick standing on the steps of the caravan with the phone in his hand, ‘Whit aboot the reward, ya wee bastir?’ but by that time Eck was out the gate, running hell for leather down the street.
Nobody was happy in the end. At Mrs. G’s next day they were both trying to get a word out of Larry.
‘Chee…kee…mung…kee…’ Mrs. G tried again, “Cheekie Monkey.” That’s what Archie taught him,’ she said, but nary a cheap.
A week later when Larry was over the jet lag of going from Moby Dick’s junk yard to his old cage, he started to squawk. All day long. Never let up.
Wee Eck was summoned back immediately.
‘Ah’m no payin’ for that. That’s no Larry,’ said Mrs. G.
So they both sat on the couch and spoke to the cage.
‘Cheekee mongee, cheekee mongee,’
But nothing. Silent as the tomb. But then, as Wee Eck was going out the door the parrot thrashed about in his cage and screeched.
Mrs. G threw the cover over the cage to calm him down. She phoned Wee Eck a week later and there they were again, the two of them. On the couch. Gazing up at the oracle for a revelation of the mystery. No more cheeky monkeys.
‘Maybe they’ve switched rings. And it’s another parrot altogether.’
So she said to wee Jenny ̶ Jenny, her daughter Alice’s daughter, her granddaughter ̶ she said,
‘Away and get wee Ramira again.’
So Jenny brought in Ramira from across the road and Mrs. G said,
‘Go on Ramira, say something again to him in Pakistani.’
‘What’s he’s saying?’
‘Sounds like chapatti, Mrs. McGreevy.’
‘Cheeky bugger, he’s been livin’ wi’ a Pakistani. Mibbe in a restaurant.’
But where? There must be hundreds of them.
‘Best they can do is jot down what he’s saying,’ said little Jenny, who had more sense than the two of them put together. Fortunately the parrot’s vocabulary was not too advanced. One word sounded like “Moby Dick,” so they knew where that came from. There was another identified with the help of Ramira as “lamb curry” they decided came from a Pakistani restaurant. There was a couple of others that sounded like:
‘Caa—on…’ And ‘Eee—aaa—poo—aaa— eee—aaa—poo—aaa. ’
It took nearly a month to trace those. It was only by chance and the grace of God that Mrs. G called Sunny Sol Burrito Brothers when Alice came for dinner. They thought they’d try a Mexican takeaway.
‘It wiz awfae nice last time, wisn’t it? ’
When Paco rang the bell and came up with the steaming chili con carne and the tacos, it must have been the smell got Larry’s bird brain on the boil because he started squawking like a hooter in a sardine canning factory.
Paco, without an “if-you-please”, poked his head close to the cage, said,
‘Hijo de puta…hijo de puta,’ and Larry, delighted once more to be speaking Spanish squawked,
And Paco, sticking his nose close to the bars so it nearly touched Larry’s beak said,
And Larry gave him one back ‘Ca—on…Ca—on.’
‘What’s he saying?’ Mrs. G asked.
When Paco was gone, Alice, who had a flat on the Costa del Sol and a Spanish waiter boyfriend in the old days before she got married, said, ‘It’s actually worse than that, mum. Son of a whore, is what he said first.’
‘Ya durty whore, is that whit that turncoat bugger has been saying? Cheeky monkey. I’ll gie him cheeky monkey. Durty bliddy whore himself jumping fae wan cage tae anither like a shameless wee strumpet, cursin’ like a sergeant majir.’
But they made their peace with Larry in the end. As Alice said,
‘He’s had a hard life, mum, after he flew away. Look at the wee soul, he’s so glad to be home again after all those years wandering in the desert like the Prodigal Son. Now he’s was back, let bygones be bygones.’
‘He’ll hiv tae furget a’ the bad language he’s learnt when he wiz away,’ Mrs. G said.
When Wee Eck came round to collect the reward money, Mrs. G said,
‘Archie wida been so glad. Look at him. Happy as Larry. A’ the trouble he took. It wiznae in vain.’
‘Aw God bless his wee soul. Archie lives oan.’
And saying this she cast a fond glance at the armchair where old Archie’s ghost was sitting rolling a Golden Virginia, wearing the same scruffy old Fair Isle jersey he slept in.
Wee Eck said nothing. Best not. Let sleeping dogs lie. Mrs. G wiped away a tear.
‘An’ here’s something extra for yir trouble, son.’
And she handed Wee Eck a twenty pound note.
But if Wee Eck’s star was on the rise, McClafferty’s was falling relentlessly. Then the Lord shuffled the cards again and sent down a messenger one morning to whisper in his ear that given the shambles at City Hall, the corruption and the scandal, the Invisible Man was finished. Even if he managed to crawl up the stairs in his bandages. Sunny Groodge needed a new mayor. And who better than McClafferty? The mayorship was his for the taking. If he played his cards right.
It was a gloomy winter’s eve and the rain was streaming down the windows of the old church in Sunny Groodge South. Inside, in the warm bright light inside a comfortable head of steam was being built up by the bodies of the last-minute arrivals. Caught in the worst of the downpour, they had come running through the door soaking wet. And now their soaking wet clothes were turning the hall of the Ancient Order of Muffins into a steam bath.
All the anguished soul searching, the breast-beating, the anger of the city was present in the atmosphere that evening Reginald George McClafferty, having announced he was running for mayor, boomed into the microphone. ‘I have a plan,’ to a stunned audience from the stage.
‘Hear, hear,’ the honourable members muttered to a man as he launched without a pause into an expose of his vision for the years ahead. As stated in his election manifesto. And promised by the stern face on the posters saying “Trust McClafferty.Your Future is Now” that graced just about every lamppost, pillar and wall in the city.
The professionalism of McClafferty’s election campaign, well under way by that time, had not gone unnoticed. Fitzpatrick’s First Past the Post was quoting him ten to one, well behind the incumbent deputy mayor Frank Sherry, Ned’s cousin and odds on favourite in the election run up. Harry Finnegan the union hard man was in second place followed by a motley bunch of otherwise nameless also-rans including ̶ how was it possible? ̶ Hughie the Bear, a rank outsider at a hundred to one.
Noel Fitzpatrick’s man Sharp Eddy was in the middle of the church hall taking notes and when he got back to the office in an hour or so the odds on McClafferty would be seriously cut. But he wasn’t there yet as he scribbled fast as he could write on the notepad on his knee, jotting down highly quotable McClafferty one-liners, one after the other.
‘Yes, ladies and gentlemen,’ McClafferty intoned, ‘I have a plan.’
‘I plan that one day this great city of ours, this great City of Sunny Goodge ̶ sorry, Groodge ̶ will be a name that is known all over the globe.’
‘Where people from all over the globe will come to visit. To admire our wonderful buildings and way of life. To meet our young people. To get a taste of this great city of ours, enjoy its hospitality and take with them wonderful memories they can tell their children about when they go back home. So that they in turn too will want to come and visit wonderful Sunny Groodge. New hotels will be built to meet the demand. New cinemas, theatres, new venues. And our glorious new subway decorated with great works of art. The way the Russians did in Moscow.’
‘Praise the Lord.’
It was a great big cream-sponge cake, so they’d better all get their spoons ready to scoop up the cream. That was the sub-text. And it didn’t go unread. Many an eager beaver went into suspended animation at that point to calculate future gains from some tacky scheme or other and who in their network they could trust. Chinese connections went on the fast track.
“The Invisible Man Arrested” it said on the front page of The Sunny Express. And there was a photo of Sherry handcuffed to a hospital bed with a drip going into his stomach. Inside was a two-page spread on corruption at City Hall fingering Ned Sherry and revealing that cousin and deputy mayor Ted Sherry, together with half-a-dozen other minions of the Sherry clan who had wangled a job in the organization, had their sticky fingers in the honey pot too.
Harry Finnegan, another candidate, was downright unlucky. His wife Sheila beat him into hospital with a baseball bat. She tracked him down to a riverside joy pad and caught him with his hands in a bimbo’s pants. Hughie the Bear, ignorant of the fact someone had put his name on the electoral roll as a joke, was on the run and could not be located.
When the visitors left the hall that day, their hearts bubbled with hope and joy. A new age of prosperity had been announced. A new city would arise from the ashes: Sunny Goodge, the name McClafferty had omitted to explain he’d give the city if elected. Designed for the Chinese investor.
Given the power of the speech it came as no great surprise when the election results were posted weeks later and McClafferty was the winner. By a narrow majority, it must be said. Turnout was low. And in celebration of the future riches that would flow in from China, half the front page was taken up by a colour ad for a bright orange-coloured drink saying Ilon Blue welcomes you to Sunny Groodge.
The euphoria in the McClafferty camp didn’t last long. The Chinese ambassador read The Recker’s claim that the city name was to be changed from Sunny Groodge to Sunny Goodge and was enraged. It was an insult to both the Chinese people and the Chinese language, he said, announcing a trade embargo effective immediately. Diplomatic relations were suspended. Mandarin Chinese, the official language, had a hard “r” he pointed out and Chinese had no difficulty pronouncing the letter “r”. He’d had enough of this nonsense about the Chinese not being able to pronounce a certain letter. Absolute nonsense! Bad enough when repeated in the yellow press but such blatant ignorance at civic level in Groodge City of the Chinese language and its people was symptomatic of a barbarous, decadent capitalist culture.
The directors of Iron Brew, the nation’s most popular drink, non-alcoholic that is, in Beijing at that moment signing sales contracts for millions of barrels of the energy drink, were immediately arrested and tossed in prison. Together with the advertising agency gurus who thought up the campaign.
A recount was called. McClafferty was scrapped from the list and outsider Hughie the Bear was nominated. But The Bear had gone to ground. Soon as the Pistoleros tracked him down they’d deliver him to City Hall. All the traffic junctions in the city were under surveillance twenty-four seven. Sooner or later he’d turn up to direct the traffic somewhere. It was only a matter of time. If there was one man you could count on it was Hughie the Bear.
But events took another unexpected turn. Citizen attention was refocused. Because if there was one thing bubbling and festering in the minds of men, women and children that barged uninvited into their sleep in the night, it was the uneasy feeling they had long had. And couldn’t shake off. That something bad was going on underground that threatened their very existence. By that time everyone had given up on ever seeing the famed subway trains run again. And with one thing and another: particularly all that stuff about secret tunnels, what else was down there waiting for them?
They were uneasy. They couldn’t sleep. The nation’s water, its electricity and its railways had already been auctioned off to unspecified foreign interests. Maybe the very ground under their feet was next to go.
Floating on that wave, as well as the news that a foreign consortium ̶ was it Japanese? Or did somebody say a Russo-Chinese alliance? ̶ was prepared to cough up the money for the underground, the wheels of power got rolling and a team of emergency workers was dispatched to clear the silt from the tunnels and pave the way for future lucre ̶ or even just a sniff ̶ to flow into the city’s coffers. But just when the undertaking was making good headway and the earth being shifted from below to above ground ̶ reviving the public mood markedly ̶ the tunneling hit a snag. Tombs were found.
It took some weeks before an official statement was issued. They’d discovered the tomb of Robby Dosser and Frank Badjum deep in the earth, proving once and for all, the Goodge City Historian’s Office said in a press release, that they were not figures of the imagination but had truly existed. Which was all water under the bridge. Nobody had heard of them.
Sheriff Robby Dosser of Colton Creek, as he had been known in the distant past, before the glorious shape of the city emerged, and whose name had been passed on down the memory line of generations like those of Romulus and Remus, founders of Ancient Rome. As the founder of the city or at least the figure most identified with its past. To families whose ancestors had been rescued from the evil doings of his polar opposite: Frank Badjum. And his renegade clique of scumbags. Frank Badjum, whose predilection for black clothing: a black mask over his eyes, a black hat on his head, had left such a mark on the national psyche that citizens without knowing it, in the course of generations came to associate the colour black with death. And put on black suits and dresses when they went to funerals. Everyone else, naturally followed suit. In due course.
But what was worse ̶ once the tombs were broken open with picks and shovels and the body of the little sheriff, miraculously preserved, together with his two-legged horse lying buried beside him, was brought to the surface ̶ was that the Historian’s Office had them tarted up in new gear to make them more palatable for public consumption. And put them on show to coin in a few pennies.
And since their clothes were no more than rags on their skeletons when they dug them up they gave Robby Dosser a new pair of blue denim jeans, a red and blue chequered shirt and a cow-hide waistcoat and cloaked Frank Badjum in a new black frock coat and hat, exactly like the frock-coat President Abraham Lincoln wore to below his knees when they signed the Declaration of Independence.
Also found beside the bodies was a thick tome, water stained, with barely discernible writing on the crumbling cover. Due to inherent vice, or the inbuilt tendency of objects to self-destruct, the acid had broken down the cellulose fibres in the paper and eaten away at much of the text. The cover was deciphered as saying “An Account of the Life and Times of Robby Dosser.” But as the Historian’s Office scrupulously pointed out the name was compromised. The writing was so bad it might just as well have been Lobby Tosser or Louie Dozer or some other variant. The author’s name, was fairly clear however: somebody called Budd Neil.
The horse’s name was in no doubt: “El Fidelito.” It had a mildewed copper plaque round its neck on which the word was etched, so there was no disputing that.
And thus it emerged, after the Historian’s Office painstakingly deciphered the text as best it could, that the manuscript was declared an account of the legendary sheriff in bygone times. Other known facts (the manuscript contained some crude sketches) were that the sheriff was a small man. Had a stringy beard down to his chest. Wore a cowboy hat and had imposed order in the legendary neighbourhood of Clapton Creek. And that after a shoot-out in a bar in the badlands with Frank Badjum ̶ also a compromised rendition ̶ he and half a dozen of his malafide associates were terminated by the sheriff. Sheriff Tosser had then retired and while hanging up a picture of El Fidelito in his lonesome shack out in the sticks, or on the windy coast ̶ it wasn’t very clear ̶ was shot in the back by Frank Badjum who had either risen from the dead or had not died the death at all in the famous shootout.
So the historical figures were rehabilitated at an exhibition on the ground floor of City Hall, still vacant after the rat plague but not entirely free of the unsavoury creatures despite numerous fumigations. There they went on show for several months. Despite heightened media interest ̶ among others from The Daily Recker and The Sunny Herald as well as other commercial interests selling Robby Dosser T-shirts and memorabilia along with Frank Badjum masks and hats ̶ the necessary spark of public interest failed to ignite and exhibition soon closed.
In an effort to recuperate its expenses, City Hall auctioned off the artifacts to the highest bidder. And although at that point McClafferty was on his uppers and living in a one room, twenty-fifth floor flat over in Krankhill, in the north of the city, his fortunes flipped on a sudden windfall. In the wake of the subsistence scandal, the property market collapsed, rental prices hit the floor, and McClafferty’s eye was directed to a nice little ground-floor place in the West End. With a garden. Putting his money where his mouth was, after Loopy Lou came in a twenty-to-one in the two-thirty at Clumpton, he signed the contract and moved in.
So with his fortunes revived, and no other party interested, he raised his hand when job lot 39 was cried at the weekly Groodge Auction House sale. Listed as “Appurtenances of Exhibition”, he rented a van and carted the figures into his ground-floor flat.
And there they were in the crowded living room. Robby Dosser standing in his blue jeans with a wide-brimmed cowboy hat on his head, a gun in a holster at his side, his hand frozen over the butt, Frank Badjum in a black tail coat with a hatchet poking out from under his belt. Together with “El Fidelito,” nick-named “Elfie” the two-legged horse. She was standing over in the corner facing the wall, because there was nowhere else to put her. It was either that or the garden.
McClafferty got the idea there was cash to be made from a book on “The Life and True Adventures of Sheriff Dosser and His Horse Elfie” and called me in to see if I was interested in taking on the job. Of writing it. I was still scraping a penny or two from the vilest of all professions at the time.
‘There’s more to it than meets the eye. The historians haven’t done their homework,’ he said, and from the heap under the table he pulled out a dirty water-stained cardboard box about the size of a shoe box and lifted out a pathetic little coffin with a stained satin lining and a doll in it. The doll was wearing a spangled dress, had long flaxen hair and frankly looked pretty dumb. It had one hand raised as if waving goodbye.
‘Fairy Nuff,’ he said.
‘Fair enough? What fair enough? ‘
‘No. Fairy Nuff! That was her name. The doll. Seems she worked magic. But we can’t find the wand. That’s why she’s got her hand raised.’
‘Thought she was waving good bye.’
‘She once had a wand apparently,’ he said, delicately lifting the damp pages of the tatty manuscript. A sketch showed Fairy Nuff holding a magic wand with sparks flying from it like a sparkler at Halloween.
‘Must be somewhere,’ and he pointed to the boxes and the coffin lids and other junk piled against the wall. Not everything had been classified.
‘If I could just get my hands on that magic wand.’
Poor bastard, he was clutching at straws again. There was also a little guy called Rid Square referred to in the manuscript. He was worried about not finding him too. But his chances of discovering Rid Square’s role in the saga ̶ seemed to me ̶ was on a par with “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Songs were sung but no one had ever seen them.
‘Sounds good. Love to help, McClafferty, but up to the eyeballs currently.’
So we left it at that and I heard no more about it till I saw the handbill about six months later. It was pasted on a lamppost up on University Avenue saying “Collective Memory Loss and its Historical Place in the City.”
I don’t know, perhaps it’s the abiding fascination I have for the ways of charlatans and academics. In combination with learned subjects. Or maybe it was the word “Dr” at the bottom of the poster that caught my eye. I had to bend close to read the name several times over since the name was prefaced by the word “Doctor.” That’s what threw me. Why it didn’t sink in right away. “Doctor” that is. As in “Dr” Reginald George McClafferty Ph.D.
The chancer was at it again, I mused from the pews in the middle of the hall of the Ancient Order of Muffins, mostly empty, a week later as Dr McClafferty made his case for a scientific approach to the Legend of Robby Dosser and his reintegration into what he termed “The Spiritual and Cultural Baggage of the Community.”
My jaw dropped. Where was he getting it from? He sounded like a university professor. Had he been consuming encyclopedias on the sly? He had indeed, I learned later after academia gave him the bum’s rush. But his star was twinkling brightly in the firmament that night under the gilded roof of the Ancient Order.
In his closing remarks Dr McClafferty said his investigations had led him to conclude that the “True History” was in part a fabrication and that Robby Dosser and Frank Badjum were not the real names of the legendary characters. In his next lecture he would reveal their true names. He had discovered that Robby prior to becoming a sheriff had been a down-and-out flophouse bum who had suffered from some kind of ailment. Made him drop off to sleep all over the place. Doss down wherever the sleeping sickness hit him. But he never did. Never got round to it. McClafferty that is. Never got round to revealing it. The names.
Thing is, like it or not, the re-introduction of Robby Dosser into the national psyche, at a subliminal level of course, had disturbing effects. It escaped like the proverbial genie from the bottle. It hit everyone. Adults and kids alike. Things got to such a pretty pass most of us in Sunny G would have preferred if they’d let the dead rest and rest in peace in the arms of the past.
But it was not to be, alas. Disturbing reports started doing the rounds of a new epidemic. A sleeplessness epidemic this time. Kids were waking up in the middle of the night. Couldn’t get back to sleep. The sound of horses’ hooves thundered in their dreams. Hordes of devilish riders pursued them across vast plains dotted with strange animals they’d never seen before in their lives and which were thought to be extinct. But which, on investigation, turned out to be horses and cows. Animals they’d only ever seen on milk cartons, neon signs outside bookie’s offices, on the telly or on their smart phones.
The kids weren’t the only ones. Adults too were stricken by the sleeplessness sickness, spent wretched nights tossing and turning, escaping narrow death over and over at the hands of Red Indian renegades. On the war path because Frank Badjum had violated their burial grounds. Burned the parchment on which the Great White chief had appended his signature and seal guaranteeing them possession in perpetuity of their ancestral hunting grounds. Betrayed them. For no reason they could comprehend. And which remained hidden deep in their dreams.
And even then they failed to add two and two. Failed to understand the dreams were whispering the refrain of their own sad human condition. Failed to catch the subtle intonation. Wise up to the sub text. Couldn’t face the conclusions staring them in the face, worried about paying the rent, earning money, putting food on the table.
Then somebody remembered the Dream Readers. Out in the badlands. And a group of civic-minded citizens got together, raised the money, sent a messenger who winkled out these two old guys who were into all sorts of weird hippy stuff: herbs, smoke, spirits. The Dream Readers, they were called. Two brothers. Knew how to decode the grammar of dreams. Put all the bits and pieces of the jigsaw back to together. Make sense of things.
It was only when they brought them by car to Sunny Groodge that some sort of headway was made. After months of door-to-door canvassing a picture began to emerge as they recorded the demented dreams of the afflicted. They noted the behaviour of domesticated animals also, in case they too had been victims. Dogs, cats, horses, birds, all passed review to determine if these most innocent of all God’s creatures, had been contaminated by the genie unleashed by the desecration of the tombs of the city’s ancestors.
And when they’d found the common thread, interpreted the grammar of the dreams, the Dream Readers conferred and came to a decision. The relics had to be reinterred in the ground by blindfolded grave diggers who didn’t know what they were doing or where they were going and could thus never reveal the secret hiding place so history would stop dead at that point and never again be repeated.
It was better not to know about some things, than to know, they concluded. Since the citizens of Sunny Groodge were too craven, too dumb or too far gone to know what to do with the revelations anyway, they were better off without them.
The events had repercussions for Bones-the-Dog. He was fingered for sedition, stirring up the public, contributing to “social unrest.” Dark forces were at work. His flat was raided and stripped bare by a posse of Pistoleros. An evacuation order was pinned to the front door. He was held to the floor by booted feet, sedated and whisked off to a secret location. Riding on a wave of tiny blue morphine pills a shipment of which he’d recently scored after their sell-by date, he’d relapsed, got religion and was preaching the Second Coming in which Robby Dosser would also figure mounted on his two-legged horse.
But it wasn’t all that simple. Because once the bad dreams had escaped, only the offer of free sedatives from chemists all over the city put paid to the menace threatening society.
Whacked out of their skulls for the most part, sedated and in seventh heaven half the time, the punters were removed from a reality so precarious and unconscionable, it was better to leave it all behind and float across the great river to the other side. Provided the move was final. Left not a mark behind. Nothing. Not even a stain to go with them into the tomb. Which was certain. Or into the nether world. Which was disputable.
Despite the nay-sayers, the Book of Job became a bestseller as the afflicted identified with the pain and tribulations of the Biblical pariah. The remains of Robby Dosser, Frank Badjum and Elfie were re-interred. Certainly not where they were found. It was all left to chance. No one was in charge of the operation, since no one could be trusted, when the day of official mourning was declared.
Under threat of the direst consequences, the entire city was compelled to clear the streets. Blinds were ordered pulled down and curtains drawn as the cortege passed. It was pulled by six big black horses with blinkers on so the horses themselves didn’t know where they were going either. They reckon they stopped at some random spot, dug a hole and threw the bodies in. So their existence would be obliterated, wiped out. So there would be no comeback, no aftermath.
Having escaped the clutches of spiritual death, the citizenry slowly emerged from the fog. Not into the clear light of day, that would be going too far, but into the opaqueness of their daily existence in which they could continue to stumble round, if not quite blind then certainly near-sighted.
McClafferty was allowed to go back to his house, protesting he knew the true identities of the legendary hero of the city who had overcome evil. He had written their names on the palms of his hands, where folks could read them. Would have to read them. Would be forced to read them when they came to crucify him, he said.
But nobody gave a toss. Animals of all kinds started to act up. Even birds in their cages. Goldfish. There were reports of cats barking, dogs neighing and horses meowing. The Dream Readers interpreted this as a positive development. The bad dreams had passed into animals and birds and would soon pass from them into the trees and bushes and the grass and from there slowly back into the earth. Into the ground where they would sink down deep over millennia into the underground streams with the help of the rain. And be consumed in the fire at the centre of the earth.
Things slowly got back to the usual state of affairs. The incident was forgotten and the denizens of the city returned to their everyday lives which consisted of trying to get an angle on things. And when they weren’t doing that they were trying to earn a buck, getting drunk, fornicating, reading newspapers, watching telly or fingering their cell phones for hopeful tidings from outer space.
McClafferty disappeared from the charts. No news leaked out the West End. That didn’t mean his pea brain wasn’t cooking up another dodgy scheme we’d all end up having to pick up the tab for. Some low-down cheap, flimflam artist tricky-dicky deal would make the Great Whore of Babylon blush and the stokers of Hell’s fires weep with shame. Or that he wouldn’t go do a Hughie-the-Bear. Pop up somewhere. Out of the blue. Stir up more shit.
Which is approximately what happened, though it was anybody’s guess then how the cookie would crumble. Would McClafferty see the light? Would he cross to the dark shore? Even the best guesstimate had to be excluded from the reckoning however because of the X-the-Unknown Factor. After all did not the first principle of Laverty’s law clearly state that “Whatever you can think up anyone else can think up too. Except what nobody can possibly conceive of in their wildest imaginings.”
Which was what happened. But first this disclaimer business. Things had got even more desperate by the day in Sunny Groodge. With zero hours, zero pay and zero prospects, every man, dog, cat and budgie had its back to the wall as dog ate dog all down the line to the tune of techno time till only one or two big dogs were left. New enterprises effervescent with human hope, spiked by endeavour, opened in the morning to thunderous applause and went belly up in the afternoon in a vale of tears. Sunny G was flush with money, but money had no material existence. In its familiar physical form of cash, nobody could get their hands on it. For love or money, witness the angry mobs rummaging in restaurant garbage cans and supermarket skips trying to flush it out like moles from their holes.
Flexibility was the buzz word. By then I had lost count of the times I had turned myself inside out, the career switches, the revolving doors entered and exited. My latest endeavour ̶ a good thing on the face of things ̶ was this disclaimer business I’d started under the name of “The Small Print,” something most folks never read, small print that is. A tragedy. Because everyone needs standard or tailor-made denial of liability covering breach of confidentiality & accidental breach of confidentiality, transmission of viruses, constraints, negligent misstatements, employer & employee liability and a host of other things. The business was ticking along pretty nicely.
‘Look at it this way. In the old days, the Church, if you’ve heard of it, used to grant absolution for sins so you could go to heaven. No? Well, “The Small Print” does the same. Only in advance. Ensures absolution before mishaps occur. Personal or business. Makes sure you’re always covered whatever happens so you can mount the golden throne without let or hindrance. Here on earth.’
That was the spiel. We even had an option of an insurance policy on the liability under which clients were indemnified in full to the amount of the costs incurred in case Laverty’s Law was activated and the eventuality was not covered by the “wherefores and whereases’ listed in the section on “unforeseen circumstances, including wars, natural disasters, objects from outer space, interplanetary intervention and other acts of God known and unknown and yet to be known or revealed to mankind in future.”
McClafferty must have picked up the beat on the tom-toms because I got a message on the phone saying he needed to see me. “Urgently.” I hoofed it round to The Sunny Groodge Salvation Home, the address he’d given, where he was holed up after a wobbly electrical toaster blew the switch in the kitchen and burned down his house. Or so Nurse Florence Barton, as it said on her badge, whispered as she showed me into the lounge.
He was sitting at the far end of the salon in front of a fake electric fire with his slippered feet up on a stool reading a book. The place was deserted. Or so I thought till I made my way across the thick carpet and discovered sundry dear old souls sunk in easy chairs, abandoned, waiting for their reluctant shells to give up the ghost, undertake the great journey across the mighty river and meet up again with their long-departed minds.
‘How’s the slippers, Mr. McClafferty?’ Nurse Barton said, bending over close to McClafferty’s face as if he were a two year-old. They were the ugliest god-awful slippers I’d seen in a long time. Tartan with yellow pompoms. Thick foam soles. The kind of foam that has big holes in it. Like the sponges house painters use to make fancy patterns on the wall when you can’t afford wallpaper.
He looked up from the book and turned round. He was wearing dark shades.
‘Grazyna will be back in a jiffy,’ I lied. ‘She’s just gone round to the bookie’s with a line for the two-thirty.’
He held up the book, put a finger to his lips nodding in the direction of Nurse Barton striding crisply towards the door in her bright, starched white uniform as some poor old dear in a chair against the wall broke into a snatch of heart-rending song.
McClafferty gave the nod for me to come closer and whispered in my ear: ‘Sunbursts.’
‘Sunbursts. Solar flares. Electric tornadoes twisting up hundreds of miles from the surface of the sun. Violent eruptions shooting into space at over two million miles an hour.’
‘It’s all going down,’ he said. ‘The whole system. Know where it is.”
‘Meet me next week on the bridge over the river. My day out. Monday. The old bridge. Suspension bridge. Two o’clock.’
‘Two o’clock. What about the…?’
‘Talk about that later.’
And so two o’clock the following Monday saw us hot-footing it across the bridge over the river Goo, McClafferty with a backpack over one shoulder, heading for the crumbling red stone buildings that had probably been apartment blocks or warehouses in the dim past, and had even housed The Daily Recker at one point before it moved across to a shiny glass colossus on the other side of the river where mindless masturbators possessed of the vision of bats in a dank, putrid cave helped mould what passed for the soul of Sunny Groodge.
Which is what it smelt like here where no foot had trodden or left a trace in a donkey’s. Apart from the invisible footprints of the dead men who wandered the night, pinioned on a leash to the earth that had pulled the strings of their puppet lives and would not let them go even in death.
‘That’s it. Up there,’ McClafferty said.
And lo and behold. A black granite-faced building, maybe twenty stories high, coated in dust, rising up into the grey sky. And McClafferty said,
And before you know it, we both had our ears pressed to the granite. A low hum came from inside.
‘Mental noise.’ And I put my hand to the stone to feel the soft pulse of energy.
‘Where consent in manufactured. By our masters.’
And to remind us of the fact we were in dead time, no-time, nowhere; so we wouldn’t know anyone had passed that way in the dead years that had passed since they threw up the flyover, a few drops of rain started to fall, made little pockmarks in the dust. Slowly. One after the other. Plop, plop, plop! Then, as though the rain didn’t have the strength to flush the place into the river with one good downpour, it stopped. Just like that.
Up high a piece of red plastic neon sign saying “Rubbar Magoo Global News Corp,” was dangling in a long twisted strip of metal from the abandoned shell of a building. Gleaming in the steely grey light of the afternoon sun, it trembled in the up-current created by the clash of the cold air of the river and the warm air in the enclosed space of the buildings.
‘Nuclear activity on the surface of the sun has been increasing to an alarming degree of late, according to reports. One good zap will short-circuit the system,’ I was informed by McClafferty as he picked up his backpack.
Was he planning his next move? Was he biding his time? Was he going to plant a bomb? No one will ever know. A week later he texted me to come round again to the Salvation with the disclaimer.
‘The whole point of a disclaimer is to absolve enterprises, public bodies and individual entities of responsibility for any mishaps arising from the exercise of their lawful, profit-driven activities,’ I explained, handing him the concept document. He adjusted his shades, picked up the book on his lap, and started to read aloud:
“The Egyptians say that Demeter and Dionysius are the chief powers in the underworld; and they were also the first people to put forward the doctrine of the immortality of the soul and to maintain that after death it enters another creature at the moment of that creature’s birth. It then makes the round of all living things ̶ animals, birds and fish ̶ until it finally passes once again, at birth, into the body of a man. The whole period of transmigration occupies three thousand years. This theory has been adopted by certain Greek writers, some earlier, some later, who have put it forward as their own. Their names are known to me but I refrain from mentioning them. “
‘What you make of that?’ he said holding up the book.
“The Histories. Herodotus,” the cover said.
‘Three thousand years? You planning to hold out that long? Become a fish?’
‘There’s all kinds of thoughts,’ I said. ‘Most of them are inadequate. Not fit for purpose. Animals, birds, fish don’t need disclaimers.’
His eyes narrowed. He’d got something on his mind, the swine, I could feel it in my bones.
‘Three thousand years before you come back again, I said. ‘Ever thought of a time capsule?’
‘I could make the same mistakes again.’
‘Don’t worry, there’s always the sunbursts. They’re looking pretty good at the moment. It was hot as hell yesterday, maybe that’s an indication.’ And I gave him the thumbs up, put on my shades.
I told him I’d get him a disclaimer on any future lives. Have it registered in perpetuity in regard to any human bearing the slightest resemblance to him. The terms of which to be adapted and defined in future years. In keeping with the scientific advances of mankind, including the possibility of retrospective application in case mankind finds a way to go back into the past instead of forward into the future.
‘We’ll have a DNA marker appended just in case. Open up.’ And I stuck the cotton swipe into his mouth.
‘In perpetuity,’ he said.
‘In perpetuity. It’ll all be in the disclaimer.’
‘Except for sunbursts.’
‘Discounting sunbursts. That comes under Laverty’s Law, X-the-Unknown-Factor. But in the case of the big one. The big “Whoosh,” it’s curtains anyway. Finis. Down the tubes. And all liabilities, commitments, tithes, holdings, property titles ̶ movable and immovable ̶ become redundant and fallow. In terms also of all past and future claims arising from generational claims resulting from offspring with claims to any estates, under hereditary title. Down the ages. Rescinded. Annulled. Invalidated. Abrogated, revoked, vacated. Declared null and void. Voided. Wiped out. In perpetuity.’
‘To sunbursts,’ he said
‘Sunbursts,’ I said and we tapped our shades twice with a finger in the sunburst salute and did the thumbs-up thing.
We should have known when birds disappeared from the sky and dogs and cats, even goldfish in their bowls, started to act up. It was a sign something bad was about to happen. But as usual nobody was paying attention. When the sunburst came in on the solar wind late in autumn and blew out the grid all over the planet, it declared its presence in Sunny Groodge apologetically. Deferentially, as if it pitied us.
There was a low hum followed by a garbled, crackling staccato. All the gadgetry known to man went dead just after eight at night when tout Sunny was nailed to the boob tube, watching X-the-Unknown-Factor, starring Reginald George, the Sunburst Man, explaining the mysteries of the universe and giving lessons in basic “existenz” to prepare people for the inevitable end. Viewers were required to practice wearing shades, even indoors, to avoid the temptation of gazing directly up at the sun. Last thing they saw before everything they’d come to understand as life went dead, was a little white spot in the centre of the screen of the boob tube. That too was sucked into the void and the city plunged into darkness.
Thousands, the weaker ones especially, couldn’t live without their gadgets and threw themselves in the river. Supermarkets were plundered. Sunny Tits & Bums, Thugs & Deviants, The Daily Recker, The Daily Maul, Ekomonist and many another dismal rag together with Associated Media Global Enterprises all went up in flames as did the banks and insurance companies. Traffic came to a standstill.
And although the savvier members of the animal kingdom made for the hills before the sunburst struck, for many a poor mutt the penny dropped too late. They hung about on couches and sofas, waiting in vain for the sound of dog or cat food cans being opened. A month or two later there wasn’t a domesticated beast to be found on the streets of the city. They’d all ended up in the pot.
On the upside, the state had been largely dismantled by then and its assets sold off to turn a fast buck. The barrel had been scraped. Folks too had got pretty used to working for nothing or being thrown out of house and home when they couldn’t make ends meet. With nothing left there was nothing left to loose. And the old folks, the infirm, the lame and the blind didn’t hold it against anybody when they were put out in the snow to go meet the Great Spirit. Since there was no way of repairing those that lingered on, apart from by the application of herbal remedies in the hands of the few quacks that could prepare them, there was nothing more to fear. Death had been conquered and it was free too.
Looking again on the positive side, vegetable gardens sprouted on rooftops all over the city and people spent the day gossiping and telling each other stories, sitting on the wreckage. That of course didn’t halt the Sunburst Movement people. They wanted closure a lot faster and gathered for worship before the rising and the setting of the sun each day in Gorgeous Square with little matts under their knees, salaaming in unison to the great sun which, luck would have it, generally rose in the morning over the east side of the river and set when it was so minded, in the west over the crumbling remains of the motorway flyovers.
Things changed. Folks adapted, got by. Once they’d got used to fumbling about in the dark of night, people came to prefer it to fumbling about in the darkness of daylight when everything had been what was called “functioning.” But that was a few years later when they’d forgotten how things had been. Granted, the population was pretty scythed out by then. And dispersed. No one would ever need Disclaimers, Testimonials or Job CVs again. Or any of the other products I’d expanded my entrepreneurial skills into before the great meltdown. And since there was nothing of value to re-possess in case of default and no bailiffs to collect, all debts were wiped out. It was a great relief to move on into the real world and see what that had to offer.
I felt pretty gutted about the whole business though, having spent so many years on foolishness. But that had been the system. Now it was gone. On reflection I had enough on my plate to think about for the rest of my natural born. If I’d never wasted my time trying to reform Bones-the-Dog, rehab the reprobate, I might have stayed dumber and happier for longer and been like everybody else, groping about in the dark. Though if I started moaning, beating, my breast and repenting my sins, I might never get out of this place even when I died and I’d end up wandering the river banks unable to cross to the beautiful shore where, I liked to think, little Grazyna would be waiting for me. Singing “Maybe Baby” in Polish in my ear.
Now the information flow and the lies that kept the system afloat had short circuited, the pointless mental noise being beamed out dissipated like a snowball in the sun and peace descended. Communications were down totally. But so what? We were back to hoofing it about the city, knocking on doors to see if people were at home. You wasted a lot of time, it’s true. But hadn’t our time been taken from us under the old system?
Folks started looking inside their own heads for revelation. Traces of truth. As the Dream Readers tried to tell them. And so it was that Rupert the ghost dog started to pop up in dreams. In one of mine he was sitting at the top of a hill. Outlined against the sky with the great orb of the sun behind him. With a rough path winding up. A footpath. A track. For walkers. It looked kind of familiar. The road, I mean. A place I’d been before. And come to think of it, the whole scene. As if I’d already been there. Was there but couldn’t see myself. I went to bed early for weeks after that waiting for Rupert to come back from the beyond or wherever he was, and tell me more. Let me into the secret. Give me an indication. Show me the way to go home. But so far the dumb mutt hasn’t shown up again. But if Laverty’s Law is anything to go by, he’s bound to come into the picture sooner or later, that’s the way things go so I’m not too bothered. He’s out there somewhere. He’ll be back.
Another night I dreamt of Hughie the Bear. He was at a crossroads waiting for traffic to appear. But there were no cars. Then he turned round and showed his big brown bear eyes, a beard hiding most of his face, eyebrows like rosebushes, two shiny little red cheeks like crab apples in autumn, a hedgehog peeping from the thicket of curly black hair sprouting from his skull above the grimy, furrowed, sun-weathered forehead. The Bear put his hand in the pocket of his coat and took out an onion and held it out but a guy appeared from nowhere on a bike and he went chasing after him. In his big gumboots, his grey tweed coat flapping.
Other characters in the many plots conjured up by life appeared in my dreams too. Even during the day. But mostly so mixed up and muddled, I couldn’t decode the grammar and didn’t pay them much heed. Except if they were nice juicy little tidbits, in which case I filed them away as fond memories containing some sort of truth. Like that communication I got about Shirley. Or rather, that was passed on to me from the other side concerning Shirley. She was scrubbing clothes with a bar of soap in a gloomy kitchen, bent over a chipped and cracked old porcelain sink, cold water running from the tap. “He” was sitting in an easy chair. Wrapped in a blanket. Reading This Sporting Life. With his feet up on a stool and a dummy tit stuck in his mouth: McClafferty. There was a fire in the grate. And the fire was burning. Nothing had changed. His life had gone full circle and was simply repeating itself endlessly to no discernible purpose. Condemned to eternal recurrence, the reprobate was happy as a pig in shit.
Everything would turn out for the best in the end though, that’s what I reckoned. So long as a tiny spark was glowing out there in the dark depths of the universe. Something was looking after us. And it certainly wasn’t these things they called human beings. You’ve got to go when you’ve got to go. And I had somewhere to go. Spiky’s pigeon post was a godsend. One day one of his pigeons brought news from the great out-there-somewhere. In the little tube on its leg was a tiny map with a couple of words scribbled in it. “Maybe Baby,” the message said. It was from Grazyna. So here we go again, Grazyna, you’re all I’ve got, and shouldering my backpack, I checked the little map the pigeon had brought and headed north for the hills, humming “Maybe Baby.” You know the one. That goes “I’ll have you someday…ah…ay…ah…ay.”
Tits & Bums: “One thing this writer forgets is we’re only giving the public what it wants. We are performing a public service. People love tits and bums and can’t get enough of them.” (Reg Plonk, OBE managing editor).
The Daily Recker: “A disgusting rant bringing into discredit the noble profession of journalism in writing the truth as we see it. And how our owners see it.
Ekomonist. “These implied theories on the working of the Cap-em-All System are a waste of time, there is no way to prove that the rich have been benefiting from the system. And why we should not place our trust in them.”
Sunny Times Obituary of Ronald Hameron and Reginald Poshbourne (aka the Kinky Kash Twins) “The rich have always known better, that is why they are rich. And why they are the best qualified to pass on the rewards of our meritorious system to those who deserve it. And proved their worth by their contribution to society” (Chancellor George Crummy).
The Daily Maul: “Scandalous Nonsense. Rubbish. It just goes to show we will have to spy even more on people writing this sort of trash. It is a veiled attacked on the system. Where would people be if they didn’t allow us to tell them what was best for them?”
Sunny Groodge Herald: “We know what this writer is up to. We’ll get him at the border when he tries to enter our lovely country.”
Pussy Meow Cat Foods: “The Suggestion that our “mouse flavoured” cat food is addictive is a heinous lie. Cats simply love Pussy Meow. They have always known that chasing mice is unnatural. And a waste of time when they could be eating Pussy Meow. We have instructed our lawyers to take legal action for misrepresentation.”
Patrick Farnon is a Scottish journalist and writer. He lives in Amsterdam. His short stories have appeared in such magazines as Barcelona Ink, New Edinburgh Review, The Collins Book of Scottish Short Stories. He is the author of The Scots Way to Santiago de Compostela (2015) an entertaining account of a 2,000 kilometres walk along the pilgrim routes of Spain.
Low-life "Bones-the-Dog" McClafferty, whacked- out on dope and booze hits rock-bottom. Rehab is called in to get him back on track. No easy task as he moves from one venture to another. He re-invents himself in various roles: Owner of Sunny Dogs Shampoo Parlours, Private Eye on the Blue Diamond ponzi scheme, racecourse bookie when Stewball hits a winning streak, runs for mayor of Sunny Groodge, becomes the force driving the Chiang Kai-shek Gold Bond Scam, and ends as a TV guru when a sunburst blows out the grid in Sunny Groodge and the system goes pear-shaped. McClafferty meanwhile has purchased insurance for the after-life. Told in a series of 20 stories, linked by McClafferty's shape-shifting as Rehab and then Probation pursue him.