There comes a time in everyone’s life when you become aware of a very real and urgent need to look at what you’ve become. That moment when you see yourself with agonising clarity and realise it might be time to make some changes.
Speaking personally, that moment had arrived. Typically, the timing wasn’t good. Hanging from a church bell-tower by my fingers, there seemed little I could do to act on it. I could open up to one of the many pigeons that shared the ledge, staring at me in their peculiar dead-eyed manner. Their counselling skills were no doubt limited, but preferable to the only other option. Call me churlish, but I wasn’t inclined to discuss matters with the bastard that threw me out here in the first place. Childish, perhaps, but he was in my bad books and I was determined to give him the silent treatment.
My left hand slipped in a slick spray of pigeon shit, and I gripped at the iron railing even tighter with my right. That was the pigeons off my Christmas card list as well.
Hanging there one-handed, doing my best to lodge my toes into the crack between bricks, a thought struck me. I could turn my mono-dextrous situation to my advantage if I was careful.
I rummaged in my jacket pocket with my free hand. It was entirely possible – if not expected given my current run of luck – that what I was hunting for was in the other pocket and out of reach. Still, you’ve got to catch a break occasionally and, as my fingers closed around the small packet, it seemed things were on the up. I fumbled open the packet and drew out the object I was after, holding it between my lips as I searched the pocket again. No. Empty. Somewhere in the distance God was heard to laugh.
What a bastard he is.
I was out of options. Time to swallow my pride and talk to my attacker. Straightening the cigarette in my mouth, I sighed and shouted up to him.
“Don’t suppose you’ve got a light?”
In hindsight I’m assuming he was one of those evangelical non-smokers. Otherwise, kicking at the one hand that was keeping me attached to this soot-stained tower when a simple “no” would have sufficed would have no justification at all.
I wondered on this sort of intolerance of others as I toppled backwards, if only to take my mind off the immutable facts of gravity.
The air in the memorial garden was thick with black smoke, so I saw no problem adding more. “Smoking harms you and others around you” the pack assured me as I shoved it back into my jacket pocket. Without wanting to be presumptuous, the gravestone I was leaning on insisted that its occupant had been in the ground since ’74, so it was a safe bet that health issues were a low priority. He might chuckle if a few worms developed tumours though, so I puffed a cloud of smoke towards the earth and wished him well.
I loosened the black tie at my throat, letting some air in. It had been insufferably hot inside the church, the typical muggy air of a city summer hugging old stone. I’d sat at the back, feigning polite distance from the family and close friends but frankly just desperate for the draught from the open doors. Even in that slight breeze it had been sickeningly close; much hotter and I felt I’d be joining the deceased in her urn. The priest had been suffering too, wafting his surplice during the hymns, desperate for updraught. After the third or fourth time it occurred to me that he could have been naked underneath, and the thought disturbed me for the rest of the service. It seemed a touch sacrilegious somehow; surely trousers were a prerequisite when in the presence of the dead?
Little would surprise me as far as he was concerned: the thin red veins that spread across his cheeks and nose reminded me of a summer hiking with an Ordnance Survey map when I was still young enough to think it might be fun. Careful analysis of his face would probably lead to many hidden treasures; maybe that large eruption to the left of his mottled beak was the final resting place of the Grail? Or, more likely, his secret stash of appropriated altar wine. Judging by the accelerated speed of the service, he was clearly eager to get the body burned and return to his bottle. I egged him on.
We took our cue for the final hymn and, feeling I’d done my duty, I used the distraction to get out in the fresh air and sneak a fag.
Not that it was much cooler outside; a haze clung to the gravestones like syrup. The buzzing of a lawnmower that had hung under the words of the service had stopped, the gardener sitting down in the shade of a tree to pick at limp sandwiches from his plastic lunchbox.
Embers were floating from the mouth of the chimney above the crematorium, wafting their way towards civilisation. I wondered whether it was supposed to do that: a goodly quantity of her ashes were being spread whether she’d wanted it or not. Thinking about it, she would probably have been pleased. I’d barely known the woman, but had heard as many stories of her exploits as there were to be told. The “doyenne” of theatre had been self-proclaimed, as comfortable with the image of eccentric dame as she was skilled at portraying it. A faded folk icon to the glitter-and-camp brigade, destined to be remembered with trilled speeches and raised gin. Why they had chosen this dreary suburb to send her on her way was a mystery, but certainly she would have felt a touch of pride at being smeared across its dirty red brick and concrete. It was a streak of glamour on a mundane backcloth, scarlet lipstick on the mouth of a corpse.
People were beginning to appear at the chapel exit, black-clad mourners parading their grief in so overt and grotesque a manner that I fought the urge to applaud. One final drama to end them all.
“Bloody awful, isn’t it?”
Tom Harris’ ability to sneak up on me was one of his most redeeming features. Don’t get me wrong, it pisses me off something rotten, but it was undoubtedly the nicest of his bad qualities. The way he always managed to convince me to do something, for example, now that was really irritating.
“Come on, I’ll let you buy me a drink.”
“Yeah, all right.”
I’d known Tom for more years than I care to count. One of the first theatre directors to put work my way – and indeed, keep offering it over the years – I felt I should class him as friend rather than employer. For his part we worked on a similar wavelength. He knew he could rely on me to do the job he was asking without the need for extensive direction – we just tended to look at characters in the same way. That and the fact I bought him wine when asked.
There’s a little more to it than that, but I don’t intend to get caught up in that story if at all possible. Suffice it to say we had considerable shared history.
We hit the pub a good round or so ahead of the other mourners, who had, no doubt, been delayed by a few days’ or so mutual backslapping. I bought Tom his preferred large glass of Cabernet and a pint of lager for myself – not that I don’t like wine, but I am very much the sort that feels a bit of a ponce ordering it in a pub. Pathetic? Certainly, but with the twenty or so years between us, Tom and I straddled that peculiar age barrier: he was just old enough to realise it was all nonsense, I still had sufficient youth to believe it important.
We hid away in a corner snug. While Tom and I could never quite resist attending events like this, we made a point of avoiding the company that inevitably came with them. We keep ourselves to ourselves.
“God, but I hate these old theatre bashes,” Tom sighed, scratching absently at the cropped beard he calls “silver” but a more uncharitable person might call grey.
“You love it, reminds you of ‘the old days’.”
“‘The old days’? Dear Lord… when did I get so bloody old that I possess eras?”
“I suppose there’s a dreadful pleasure to be found in counting the empty seats around the tables, mentally ticking off those who’ve pegged it since the last get-together.”
“You’re a sick old bastard, you know that?”
“And you, Max, are a terrible hypocrite.”
Truth was, both of us liked hovering on the edges of the old circle; it was nostalgic. Tom and I did little theatre work these days, general circumstance having nudged us in a different direction. We both liked to keep a creative hand in now and then, writing the occasional review just to prove that we could. Generally though, we had other things on our minds.
First round sunk. Tom replaced them, and the cycle for the next few hours was set. By the time we left the pub it was dark and our rather self-conscious swagger had been replaced with a jaunty stumble that took out several of the coats hanging by the door and saw Tom nearly impale himself on a fibreglass guide dog that stood by the door hoping for charity donations.
“Down boy,” he said and we tumbled onto the pavement with limited physical injury but further wounding to our reputations.
Strolling along the street in the direction of the church and the hope of a taxi rank, we laughed at things without humour and tripped over absent stumbling blocks.
Just another patented Harris/Jackson skinful.
“It’s no good,” Tom muttered.
“What?” I replied, laughing inanely for some reason I can no longer recall.
“I’m going to have to pay a visit to a darkened corner.”
He scrabbled over the church wall, unzipping his jeans as he went, in that drunken sense of preparation, or perhaps just making sure he did so while he remembered it was necessary.
I sighed, chuckled again and attempted a nonchalant vault over the wall that resulted in nothing less than a grass-stained cheek and a bent cigarette. Getting quickly to my feet, I checked if Tom had noticed and was relieved to see that he had his back to me and was apologising to the deceased residents as he emptied his bladder.
I replaced my cigarette and strolled through the tombstones in his general direction, gazing up at the dark church building. It looked better at night, lit by spaced-out floodlights that gave it a fine dressing of gothic shadow but hid the dirt stains of years of traffic and industry. Once upon a time this would have been a focal building at the centre of a small village. Then suburbia came, ploughing through the countryside, subsuming all the smaller outposts it came to. One day the cities will eat everything.
A movement caught my eye by the church door. Darting behind the closest stone, I watched a group of people carrying a coffin. Tom was beginning to hum Miles Davis, something he has a habit of doing when he forgets not to.
I enjoyed a nice fruity curse and dashed towards him, trying my best to keep to the shadows of the far wall.
He was, thankfully, zipping himself up as I drew up behind him.
“What?” he said in a manner that was both indignant and too loud for my liking.
“Keep your mouth shut, we’ve got company,” I said, pointing towards the group of people a few hundred feet away.
They had a large Transit van. One of them was opening the doors as the others carried the coffin over.
“Hardly the most salubrious form of transport. Not to mention the wrong direction,” Tom whispered, and began tiptoeing towards them.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked, trying to keep up.
“I’m being nosey,” he replied, crouching rather unsteadily behind a gravestone no more than a healthy spit away from the front of the church.
I decided that giving him a good kicking was likely to draw attention so, pencilling it in for ten minutes’ time, I resigned myself to hiding behind the stone next door to his.
It wasn’t even as if they were up to anything particularly exciting. I mean, true, a Transit isn’t a preferred transport for coffins, not full ones anyway. That said, for all I knew, it happened all the time, leaving the hearse for more ceremonial occasions. What the family didn’t know was hardly likely to concern them. Then I realised what he’d meant about direction – why would you take a corpse away from a graveyard?
At that moment one of the men stumbled, twisting his ankle on a large stone that sat out of place on the gravel driveway. One of the others gave a panicked shout as the coffin slipped out of his grip, and I fought the instinctual urge to dash towards them as I watched the coffin drop to the ground.
The lid cracked open and a satin-wrapped body fell out. The men stared at the body for a moment, as if uncertain whether it might suddenly sit up and shout at them for being so clumsy. The man by the van, clearly the boss, marched over and clipped one of them across the shoulder.
“Pick her up, you clumsy bastards!”
The spell broke and, as one, they lifted her back into the coffin.
“Come on!” the boss said, shoving them towards the open back doors of the van.
They hoisted the coffin in, all concerns of gentility gone, shoving it towards the back with a clang of heavy wood against metal.
Two of the men jogged back to close the church doors while the boss walked around to the passenger door, climbing in as the driver started the engine.
Church closed, the others clambered into the back of the van, slamming the doors shut behind them as the driver reversed out and then drove off through the church gates. Both Tom and I ducked as the headlamps swept across the front of the stones we were hiding behind.
After a few moments we stood up.
“Well that was interesting,” Tom said.
“Worrying, certainly. You can’t get good staff these days, can you?”
Tom looked bemused.
“I think you’re missing something. What did you notice about the woman in the coffin?”
“Never seen her before in my life.”
“That’s not what I was asking, there was something particular about her.”
I leaned on the tombstone and lit a cigarette, to buy me a little time more than anything else.
“Other than the fact that she was being manhandled into the back of Transit van by the most thug-like undertakers operating in the Greater London area? Not much… She was in her thirties, blonde hair, about five and a half foot…” I took a drag of my cigarette while trying to think of something else. “Wrapped in a red satin sheet…”
“All true, but you’ve missed one rather obvious point.”
“Yes.” Tom put his hands in his pockets and strolled out onto the gravel drive. He was scanning the ground for something. “Aha!” he shouted and dropped to his haunches.
“What?” I was getting a touch impatient. Much more of this and I might have to call my secretary and have the Tom-kicking moved forward.
“A set of keys,” Tom replied, holding them up. “They came off that man’s belt when he fell over.”
“About the body, you infuriating git!”
“Oh.” Tom nodded, popping the keys in his pocket. “Well, you managed to describe what she looked like well enough, but there was one obvious feature you didn’t catch.”
He moved over to join me.
“She was breathing. Not a common habit among the dead.”
After all the running around, hiding, and being generally weirded out, Tom and I were pretty much on our way towards sober (say somewhere in its suburbs following the “city centre” signs and keeping our eyes peeled for car parks), which seems ironic to me because any action or event capable of sobering me up at preternatural speed tends to be exactly the sort of thing where I need a stiff drink after. It’s good that Tom had the foresight to buy a nightclub a few years ago; it meant that – after a bit more stumbling around looking for a taxi – we had somewhere to go.
It wasn’t a big place: about thirty tables and a stage filled it to capacity. He could have fitted a few more punters in if he’d had a smaller bar, but Tom didn’t like to skimp on the important stuff. There was live music most nights, jazz and blues as a rule, although Tom could occasionally be caught unawares and end up with a little variety slipped onto the schedule behind his back. Generally though, if it didn’t have a horn section it wasn’t going to set foot on his stage. Tom was nothing if not a man of principle. His attitude had certainly paid off: the place was extremely popular and, as a result, he was hardly short of a shilling. Not that he had much hand in the day to day running of the place; he left that to Len Horowitz, his manager – a man with a wit so dry it would give a lizard cottonmouth. He was good at his job though, and the club’s reputation was strong enough to bear the occasional rude comment towards the clientele. I think most of them rather liked it. There is a universal rule among such establishments: get it right and the customers will do all the hard work, keep clear of fashionability and they’ll come to you. “Deadbeat” – something of an in-joke between Tom and I – was a place to go.
“Ah,” Len sighed, twitching his thick moustache in disgust as we leaned on the bar. “The only two regulars I haven’t the authority to bar. What’ll it be?”
“A brace of sturdy caipirinhas, I think. Don’t you, Max?”
“It would be exceedingly rude not to, Tom. Smash those limes, Len, show ’em who’s boss.”
“Oh they know, Mr Jackson. It’s Mr Harris here that sometimes get confused on that score.”
He went on the hunt for cachaça and we for a corner booth.
“So,” Tom said as we sat down out of the way of the few diehards that were still loitering near the stage, “that was all very intriguing wasn’t it?”
“One word for it.”
He pulled the keys he’d found out of his pocket and began to examine them.
“Fascinating… there’s so much you can tell from the objects people carry around with them every day, little clues to their lives and habits. Even with only a cursory examination, in far from perfect lighting, I can make a number of insightful assumptions about the owner of these keys. He has money.” He held up a car key. “The car that belongs to this doesn’t come cheap. He keeps himself fit and works in a job that requires a uniform: there are two locker keys, you see?”
I nodded, just to keep him happy.
“He’s either a drinker or extremely short-sighted: there are a number of scratches and dents that suggest repeated misaligning of key and lock.”
He held the keys up to his nose and sniffed, raised an eyebrow, then sniffed again.
“Very distinctive odour.” He put on his best “ruminating” face and then slammed the keys on the table. “Embalming fluid. He works in an undertakers.”
He’d timed it perfectly; Len placed the caipirinhas in front of us right on the full stop.
“Very impressive, Holmes,” I said, taking a sip of my drink, “to be able to tell all of that from just a ‘cursory examination’. I would be in awe of your deductive abilities, were it not for the fact that I too can read.” I held up the leather key fob with the name and address of an undertaking firm on it.
“Oh, you saw that, did you?”
“Yes, you theatrical old queen. That and the fact they were pissing about with coffins led me to believe they weren’t fishmongers. Where did you get the rest from?”
“Made it up, can’t see a thing in this light. How was my delivery though?”
“So ham it would unnerve Jewish people. Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” He performed a half bow.
We drank our cocktails for a few moments, Tom waiting for me to suggest we investigate further, me refusing to give him the satisfaction. I knew impatience would force him do it himself eventually.
“So,” he said, “you reckon we should look into it?”
“Why? Nothing to do with us.”
“Don’t tell me you’re not interested.”
A blatant lie, but I was damned if I was going to roll over straight away.
“What else have we got to do? It would pass the time, if nothing else.”
Which was true. Both Tom and I had been in a considerable rut of late. Deadbeat ran itself; in fact whenever Tom tried to get too proactive he ended up getting in the way. I wasn’t working. The days were starting to get a little monotonous for both of us. “Why don’t they just go to the police?” you ask. Well… suffice it to say that we couldn’t. For personal reasons, talking to the police would be a Really Bad Idea.
I picked up the keys and made a show of sighing and rolling my eyes.
“All right then, we’ll have a little nose around.”
“Excellent!” Tom slapped the table with his palms and got to his feet.
“I’ll get us more drinks by way of celebration.”
Which, unsurprisingly, is exactly how all of our worst ideas start out.
Start as you mean to go on. A couple of hours later and I had entered that state of mental shut down that a night at the bar often brings, staring vacant as a handful of ice cracked and melted as surely as my brain in the tumbler in front of me.
As is always the way when I straddle that transient line between consciousness and utter oblivion, my mind started to fart images at me: always the water, that slap of ice to the face, the roar deep inside the eardrums, the splitting pain in my chest as the heart fights to keep beating, the distant bellow of horns. And at that point more drink will only make them clearer, not blot them out completely. Still, you refresh your glass, work through it, keep running in the only direction you know: towards darkness and a lack of responsibility.
Right now even telling this story is too much work for my liking. You don’t know who I am, not really. Sat there questioning my motivations and thoughts… wondering why… There’s so much I could tell you, things unsaid… perhaps I should just let it all come out. No more secrets. But then, while some things would be clearer, the rest would be worse… If you knew everything about me you wouldn’t still be here. You’d have started screaming long before now.
Christ, drink makes me waffle…