Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Man With Only One Glove.

The dame breezed into my office a little after breakfast. Okay, so some people would call my office the Brockley Jack, and some would say that breakfast at four in the afternoon was unusual and some would even say that a double rye on the rocks wasn’t really breakfast, but hell, some people will say anything if there’s a buck in it.

She sure looked like she could put plenty of bucks into it. She was all long legs, an Olympic dive of a neck line and eyes that made your breath frosty. Her auburn hair swirled as she walked like she carried her own supply of sea breeze and the whole package was expensively wrapped in a flowing jade chiffon dress and scented with the sort of perfume that costs a man more than he can afford. She was the sort of chick that’d make saps like me pant if we didn’t already know she’d sooner scrounge her own eyeballs out than make with us.

Some be-bop cat named Giles lay down a tune of heartbreak that’d make most men question the point. Me? I just kept on starring.

“You Marston?” she purred.

I look over each shoulder as though there might some other schmuck down on his luck enough to be in this joint on a Tuesday afternoon.

“Depends who’s askin’.” I took a match out the box on the table and ground it under my fingernail just for the hell of it.

“I’m asking,” she leant in and for a second I’d have said anything as long as my tongue had played along.

“Yeah, I’m Philip Marston,” I composed myself. “Whatddya want, doll?”

“They tell me you’re quite a shamus, Marston.”

“I reckon they might tell you just about anything, Miss...?”

“Ashleigh. Ashleigh Bourbon.” She sat down even though I hadn’t offered. Brassy. I liked it more and more. “You better be as good as you’re reputation, Mr Marston. I need someone found and I needed it yesterday.”

I leaned back and took a sip of my second breakfast. “Spill.”

And spill she did. It seemed her husband was Anton Bourbon, some big shot aluminium importer who grew up down the docks and made good when the going was bad. When she met him he was all charm and flash with his dough. He knew how to show a young girl with a sweet nature a swell time in the big city. But once they’d got hooked up that was it. He became interested in one piece of tail after another. He stopped wanting the prime steak in the bedroom and kept popping out for burgers on some street corner. Ashleigh didn’t care though, why should she? Except for the bedroom stuff he indulged her every whim; money was no object.

So, she’d gotten into gambling and drinking with the sharks just for kicks. Now she was down five large ones to big Jimmy McDuff.

“You know him?”

“Sure,” I smiled and flexed the arm that had broken last time I ran afoul of McDuff and that was only for a couple of ponies. For what she owned there aren’t enough bones in the body to cover the interest.

“Well he’s dead now.”

“That so?” You could have knocked me down with a sharp gasp, but I didn’t show it. I never showed no-one much.

“Yeah,” she lit a cigarette. It was that kind of joint. No-one cared. I joined her. Why not, I thought, if cancer’s going to kill me it’ll have to get in the queue behind everyone else. “He started getting heavy with Anton when I couldn’t pay. Stormed up to the house one day and started beating on the door. Anton will usually let me have however much I need, but even he got suspicious at five thou.” She paused.

“Keep going else the suspense’ll kill me,” I ushered her along.

“Well I had to come clean with big Jim still threatening to break the door down. Anton was mad. Mad as hell. He slapped me around a little. A couple, I guess I deserved, but three was just for fun and four and five were because he has a mean streak from his fingers to his eyes. Then he stormed out to confront Jimmy. There’s was shouting and a scuffle and then a shot.” I leaned inwards and filled her face with smoke. She liked it, I could tell. “I ran out into the rain and Jim’s body was lying there in a puddle. A puddle of blood.”

“And Anton?”

“He was gone. But he couldn’t have killed Jimmy.”

“Seems to me that he probably did.”

“No, no, you don’t understand. We didn’t own a gun. Plus I heard a car racing away and all six of ours are still in the garage. You must find Anton for me, before the police do.”

I leaned back, took some more breakfast and crushed out my smoke. “There’s a lot of angles. He could have owned a gun you didn’t know about, or you might have miscounted the cars.” I thought a little longer, “but, hell, you seem one cute kid. I see what I can do.”

“Oh, Mr Marston, thank you.”

“Thanks will get you nothing. I need twenty-five a day plus expenses.”


“And the guarantee that someone else gets implausibly murdered during the course of my investigation in a way that’s never quite adequately explained.” She looked as baffled as I sounded so we left it there.

I stepped out into the afternoon light and tried to ignore how it burned the backs of my eyes. I clambered into the old Ford. Sure, she’d better days but we’d been through a lot and at least no-one gave her a second glance. I popped the glove box and checked the thirty-eight was still there. Best place for it. Better than in my jacket, that’s for sure.

I drove two blocks south and parked up beside the phone booth. Inside I rang Lieutenant Morley. Morley and I had worked on the Deptford Razor case together a few years back and he owed me more than a hatful of favours for that one.

“Marston, ya bum! Ain’t you found yerself real work yet?”

“Good to speak to you too, Morley.”

“Whaddya want, Marston? I got me two pushers, a barrel full of dope and a couple of flatfoots that think they’re in a Dashiell Hammett novel here. I ain’t got time for no social calls.”

“Just a couple of names, Morley. That’s all. Just a couple of little names.”


“Bourbon. Ashleigh and Anton.”

“Yeah, I knows them. He’s that aluminium tycoon that blew big Jim McDuff’s liver all over the pavement and she’s the dumb broad who says he’s innocent.”

“You think he did it?”

“Sure. Open and shut, kiddo. Just gotta find the guy ‘fore he wastes any other lowlifes the curvaceous Ashleigh been banging.”

“That so?”

“Hey! Murphy! Put that down you blowhard.” The was a sound like hell on a hung-over Sunday morning.

“Catch you later, Morley.” I said and put the phone back in its slot before he had a chance to reply.

I decided it was time to check out the aluminium factory down Rotherhithe way. If Anton was as a big a tail chaser as Ashleigh had suggested then he was bound to have a smouldering secretary I could shoot the breeze with for ten pages.

Before I could get back to the Ford, though, someone placed a leather gloved hand with a grip like a rutting rhino on my shoulder and a voice that sounded as though it had been breast-fed broken glass said, “Hey, Marston.”


The writer pounded out last couple of sentences on the battered old type-writer, making a noise akin to the one men make when they’ve been sealed in a coffin and the soil is being thrown down. The air was thick with smoke and the whiskey bottle sat with its cap off next to an empty glass.

“What am I doing?” I asked no-one in particular. It had to be no-one because I was alone and, besides, every joe with half a brain was curled up asleep on a night like this. “I don’t do genre stuff. Why am I starting to write a detective story?”

“You’ve been reading Chandler again, haven’t you?” asked the voice in my head that, let’s be honest, only exists for handy moments of exposition like this one.

I nodded even thought it wasn’t necessary.

“And what have we said before about Chandler?”

“Don’t get too into it. Don’t get over excited. It isn’t real.” I wiped my ink smudged finger around the cool rim of the glass and then topped it up. “People aren’t really like that.” I took a gulp and it burned gratefully all the way down. “But I’ve started now and I hate not finishing things.”

“So finish it,” the voice would have shrugged if that was possible.

“But I don’t know how to. I’ve no idea what happens next.”

“Perhaps I can help you out there,” said a different voice. This one had a body. The body wore a grey suit, with a dirty-off-white shirt and a black tie. The body’s one hand wore a leather glove that held the door open and the other wrapped itself around the butt of a pistol.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The President and I.

Or...Bye, George.

This is the story of how I first met George W Bush. Or to be more precise, the tale of when I first took notice of him. He still doesn’t, to the best of my knowledge, have a clue who I am.

The conductor shook us awake and I left behind a dream of riding horses or of tumbling down a cliffside. One of those dreams of perpetual motion. He babbled something and tugged at my sleeve. I couldn’t understand enough Turkish to work out what he was saying, but it was clear he wanted us to get off the coach. Michael and
I yawned down the steps and into the bright morning light reflecting off the crisp surface. Our bags had already been dumped in the snow.

Snow was somewhat surprising. The previous day we’d been walking by a waterfall in short sleeved shirts and now mist streamed from our mouths.

“Did we take a left hand turn and end up in Russia?” I asked.

Michael shrugged as we picked our kit up out of the snow and tramped across to broken down shed that pretended to be the bus station.

It took another four buses each decreasing in size - until the last one carried mainly chickens – for us to reach our destination of Goreme. Nice place. You should go sometime, but if I were you I wouldn’t go in January.

As we sat in the deserted cafe of the only affordable hostel open and slurped glasses of tea to warm our lives, CNN played in the background.

“The Republicans say that they’ll take this to the supreme court if need be,” the orange anchorman said.

“Have they not sorted that out yet?” I nodded at the screen.

Michael turned, looked, and sipped his tea.

I’d heard of George W Bush and already considered him a bumpkin. His campaign had been littered with heavily publicised, nonsensical, manglings of the English Language.

“They misunderestimated me.”

“I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”

“I know how hard it is to put food on your family.”

“The most important job is not to be governor. Or first lady in my case.”

This was 2001 and I couldn’t believe that it looked as though he was going to lose the election and still, somehow, get into power. A complete moron, bank rolled by who knew what agenda, was going to be given control of the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal.

I didn’t realise quite how bad it was going to be.

Nine months later and I was settling into my life working in the half-finished Docklands. Walking around in the warmth of the summer’s sun, the light sparking on the still water you would be forgiven if you didn’t look up. For high above our heads were the skeletons of incomplete buildings; skyscrapers pinned together by steel girders that flashed with the sparkle of welding.

“The internet’s slow,” the dark haired girl grumbled over lunch. I raised an eyebrow, but couldn’t be of much more help. I’d only just learned how to send an email.

Then, inexplicably, the rumours started.

“A plane’s crashed into a building in New York.”

“Not just a building, the World Trade Centre.”

“They’re saying was deliberate.”

“How did it get so close?”

“It must have been a VTOL fighter launched off a boat?”

“An airliner!”

“Jesus! Into one of the towers?”

“Both of them!”

“An accident.”


“Oh my God! They’ll hit London next!”

“Don’t be daft.”

“Holy Crap they’ve just crashed into the Octagon!” someone with the BBC working launched themselves out of their seat.

There was a general look of bafflement – especially as some of us tried to work out why anyone would blow up part of Sheffield University’s student union - until eventually someone suggested: “Do you mean to the Pentagon?”

I was tempted to ask whether they even knew what it was, but piffy, snidey, superiority-complex sarcasm was out of place. Fortunately, I was distracted by someone nervously hyperventilating.

“Oh my God! We’re gonna die! We’re gonna die!”

“We’re not going to die,” I said, trying to sound calm and reasonable. “Why on earth would we be in any danger? We’re in a seven story building on the edge of Docklands, London Docklands, and this is happening in the States.”

“It’s all part of the grand plan. We’re so dead.”

“There is no grand plan,” I started, but then the power went and she released the most deafening shriek I’ve ever had spat straight into my face.

We were, somewhat pointlessly, evacuated and sent home for the afternoon. People were ushered out the building as though it was on fire, a mess of high heels clipping down stairs and fluorescent jackets shimmering in the torch light. Outside in the car-park people kept close to the walls and looked around carefully. Eyes were drawn to the skies. I couldn’t decide, as one group scampered to their car, ducking low, whether they were afraid of planes or snipers.

I took the DLR home and sat on the sofa, glued to the news. The footage rolled around and around as what had happened slowly became clear. The image that worried me the most was the shot of an aide whispering in Bush’s ear and the realisation that he didn’t have a clue what to do.

“We are in so much shit,” I whispered and sipped my tea.

Three years later we drove across most of Southern USA, just drifting across the endless horizon with one arm dangling out the window of the Monte Carlo. But everywhere we went it was clearly election year. In addition to the Presidential election certain senate and congress seats were contested, as well as various mayors, sheriffs and judges. The verge of every roadside, especially in Louisiana and Texas, was awash with signs. VOTE was adhered to every conceivable size and colour of plastic, metal and wood and then hammered into the grass or dust.

As we chewed up the miles the names would change, often out of synch with each other, as we shifted across different offices’ boundaries of authority. But all the way, in every town and shitback hole there were always signs for Bush and Kerry.

Every night we crashed in a different motel, an ever changing sea of beds, showers, morning coffee and occasionally disgustingly synthetic donuts. We didn’t book in advance just pulled off the Highway when we couldn’t drive any further and hoped they had a room. If they didn’t we had to find a way to make it to the next town – perhaps as far as sixty miles further on – and try our luck again.

So I can’t remember where it was that I watched the coverage of one of the Bush-Kerry debates. I think it was the motel in Flagstaff where we were on the second floor, where it looked like something out of a movie with the gangway out front. Mind you, they all felt like a set, but Flagstaff was where we went into town, ate tortillas and got tipsy in a bar. A taxi driver took us into town and picked us up again, but denied being the same man and in the middle of the night the windows rattled as a two mile long freight train roared up the main street.

But I digress.

“I want you to know: Karyn is with us. A West Texas girl, just like me."

As Beck showered I watched the coverage of the pithy arguments, the carefully structured soulless campaigning.

"Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country."

“They can’t, can they?” I muttered. “Not again?”

“Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

“They didn’t last time,” Beck walked past drying her hair with a towel, “and it didn’t matter.”

Our trip finished in New Orleans. The French Quarter had the most fake bohemian atmosphere that endeared itself. The architecture of cemeteries were incredible -miles and miles of vaults each arcanely decorated; the cities of the dead were very much alive.

We arrived in the dark and thanks, partly, to even the normally gung-ho Rough Guides’ trepidation about certain areas, stuck mainly to the more touristy bits. But we left on a sweaty afternoon and as the Monte Carlo climbed the cork screw of intersection to the flyover I glanced back at the city.

New Orleans looked worn out from that height.

Less than a year later it was almost entirely gone.

And, now, he is too.

Aside from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which have claimed the lives of god knows how many people, aside from completely dehumanising the detainees of Guantanamo Bay; aside from all this he’s managed to disrupt progress in gay rights, expand the wealth gap, derail stem cell research, effectively given Israel justification for its continued suppression of Palestinians’ rights, presided over the biggest economic meltdown in decades and refused to acknowledge climate change which may just have doomed us all .

Why do I care? I’m not American, why does it matter to me?

Partly because the old adage America sneezes and the world catches a cold is true, its grubby fingers can be found pinching into everything, but also because I genuinely love America. The landscape is outstanding, most of the people aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be, but most of all I adore the myths and legends. Even though I’ve never been, New York is still the most exciting city in my head. I adore the idea of the open the road, the even opener sky and how it’s possible to become lost in the land itself.

Hopefully things will get better for them. Obama probably isn’t the second coming, but let’s face it – he couldn’t do any worse.

Could he?

And what does pistol pete, the good ol boy with the saddle sore waddle and the alpha male cock sureness make of it all.

“Well, it’s been a lot of fun.”

With apologies to Michael, Beck and anyone else who was there and whose memory differs from mine. Especially about the chickens. I suspect I’ve completely made that bit up.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Wishful Thinking

Did you see this? When it made Friday’s morning news I suspected that I was hallucinating thanks to the onset of hyperthermia.

But no, it’s true. Scientists might (one say, if we’re lucky and they’ve been concentrating really, really hard) be able to clone sabretooth tigers and/or woolly mammoths. But definitely not dinosaurs. Possibly.

What next? Breaking news: The Queen is not a transsexual? Big Ben not made of paper? The Internet is a gift from aliens using it to infect our brains with a techno-organic virus?

Okay, so it’s yet another example of non-news and even though there are now twenty-four hours of rolling news coverage to fill, occasionally not a lot happens.

It does, however, raise an interesting question: If you had the opportunity (possibly, maybe, in some dim far off future where everyone travels by jet-pack and has their own robot servant) to bring something/someone back from extinction, what would it be?*

Here are a few I came up with sheltering in the Wickham Arms on Saturday afternoon from the (apparently) minus eight temperatures:

1. Joe Strummer. Poor old Joe. Punk legend, probably a bit of a Machiavellian git, but sadly missed none the less. I once started writing a short story called “You Are Not Joe Strummer”, but I never managed to finish it. Probably because, deep down, I really wished I was. If I could bring him back to life then I could keep him the shed and bring him out when I wanted entertainment with a conscience.

2. Walthamstow Dog Track. The closure of dog tracks around the country is something of a tragedy if only because it’s the only form of gambling I’ve ever won any money at. Oh, okay, broken even. Once. More people need to get off their arses, chuck their Wii stick thingies in the canal and get down the dogs. There you will be able to drink watery lager, eat greasy chicken and chips served in their natural habitat of a basket and scream until you’re blue in the face at animals who really don’t have a clue what’s going on other than they really, really, really like running.

3. £1 Bus Tickets. When I first moved down to London bus tickets cost a pound. It was simple and straightforward. And cheap, which meant you didn’t feel too aggrieved when you remained motionless in the centre of Peckham for forty minutes, or lurked for nearly two hours in a badly lit shelter at the wrong end of Saturday morning. But most importantly you didn’t have conversations along the lines of “Single to St Pancreas, please.” “£4.13.” “How much?” It was a pound. It was always a pound. Now you need an Oyster card to avoid the extortionate fees which is just something else to weigh down your trousers.

Which reminds me, why is it called Oyster? In what was is slapping a piece of plastic on a scanner or spending hours on a totally un-navigatable website akin to shell fish, or like an aphrodisiac?

4. Red Dwarf. And make it good again. Come on, they did it for Dr Who.

5. The Seager Gin Distillery in Deptford. A marvellous pomp and circumstance building once converted into small business units and creative spaces. I used to cut through the yard on the way to the DLR back when I worked in Docklands. Now, it’s just a pile of rubble. Demolished for, what appears to be, just the hell of it.

Strangely, there’s a pub in Devon I’m struggling to remember the name of where the interior of the gents is covered with posters advertising Seager gin and the distillery features in most of the images.

6. Ward’s Bitter. Ward’s was a Sheffield brewery that closed down halfway through my time there. It was based with an enormous complex, but as near as I can tell only produced one beer – and what a rather fab session ale it was too. Plus I used to love the smell of roasted hops drifting on the morning air. When I drove back down to Birmingham I used to take the A38 as my clapped out little Fiat wasn’t reliable enough for the motorway and as I trundled past Burton I would often lower the windows to try and catch a waft of that smell from either the Bass or the Marston’s brewery, but it was never quite the same.

So actually, I might just want to move next to a brewery...

7. Children being banned from pubs. Seriously. People go to pubs to drink alcohol and talk rubbish for several hours. They are not child friendly environments. Look at their faces. They’re bored. Except you can’t tell because that’s the fifth bottle of New Zealand Chardonnay you’ve just opened.

8. Affordable Rents. The flipside of the housing market crashing is that the rental market’s booming. The irony being that any money that could have been saved with the intention of possibly buying your own place in the future is now flushed into paying increased rent. Or eggs. That plus the fact that bazillion percent mortgages no longer exist isn’t helping. Council Housing? Virtually non-existent. Thanks 1980s, one more reason to hate you and every person who prances about going on and on that they were marvellous.

9. Raymond Carver. Or to be more precise short stories. Carver was a master of the short story in which nothing really happened and by the end you feel as though you’d gone through the emotional mincer, but weren’t quite sure why or how. He died in 1988 just fifty years old yet his stories could be taking place tomorrow. Utterly timeless.

A good short story is, in many ways, more delightful than a good novel if only because the reader can have the complete experience in a single a moment.

Magazines used to publish short stories. Publishers would release anthologies with contributions from various authors. Whilst being a very different discipline from a novel they’re still an excellent way for writers to learn the craft because you don’t have to commit a couple of years to each one. But outlets for them are now extremely limited because, we are told, people don’t like them. A literary agent I was listening to last year said not to bother sending short stories in as publishers weren’t interested. He could only think of one author in recent years who had been offered a book deal on the back of short stories and that was Ian McEwan in the late

Why don’t people like them, damn it? Oh, you do? Well, go and buy some Raymond Carver then and prove everyone wrong. Or something by Ali Smith, or Lorrie Moore, or Alice Munro, or William Trevor, or Tobias Woolf.

10. Steam Trains. Because they’re just so much more delightful, elegant and mystical than diesels or electric trains. They don’t need overhead power cables, that come loose in high winds, to work. Small boys (probably) no longer dream of being a train driver because now it just looks dull rather than exciting and that’s just a shame.

It might be a good thing if they ran on something other than coal, though.

11. Socialism as a mainstream political agenda. Come on, market capitalism doesn’t work. Look around you. There’s something fundamentally wrong with us when the world appears to go tits up because a bank leant too many unemployed legless people tens of thousands of pick-your-currency allowing them to buy a seventeen room mansion for them and their gerbil to live in. And what’s apparently the way out of this? Buy more shit you don’t want. Go shopping. Please. Okay, so I buy things too – mainly books and records – but at least those have a point. Unlike who-tall-are-you mirrors or testicle insulation or chocolate scrabble or wooden light bulbs or clocks that run backwards.

See? Hours of recession busting fun to be had. Feel free to post your own. The best ones win a prize.**

*: Yes Radio 4 fans, I know the News Quiz did something about bringing Morris Dancing back, but I started thinking this stuff up Friday morning pinned into the corner of a London Bridge bound train and only caught the News Quiz repeat on Saturday, so yah-boo-sucks to Sandi Toksvig.

**: Not really.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Hot and Cold

I found it disturbingly easy to lose myself. The way it licked at the darkness was mesmerising. Slowly the festering flames pulled me inside. They teased and tumbled me from the inside out. As I peered deeper into its bowels I became totally lost in its complexity. It seemed alive with every shimmer.

The right hand side of my face had been numbed earlier by the sharp wind. It began to feel exactly the same in the heat; a lack of feeling slowly spreading. The weight of my eyelids pulled me away, detached me from the conversation. I became isolated from everything except the fingers of flame. Shadows flickered against the pale walls, one second existing the next gone. Created and destroyed in less than a heartbeat.

I lay in my childhood bedroom with the covers half pulled over my head. I had deliberately left the curtains open the night before and the early morning cold light cut through the glass, the lead lining offering another shadow, this time across my bare skin. High above the ice-clear blue was completely undisturbed.
I imagined the window being so cold that if I pushed against it the glass would shatter and the freezing air would rush inwards overpowering me. I exhaled heavily looking for evidence of my breath lingering in the air.

I looked for the warmth and the cold together.

We felt somewhat fuzzy after the night before. My reactions were slower than they should have been. My concentration wandered, refusing to focus, yet the frozen pond was weirdly captivating. The skittle of stones skimming across the surface sounded like a desperate bird. The water underneath pulsed as shards of broken ice were flung out into the middle in an attempt to crack the surface. Each failed, merely leaving a dent, a scar on the smooth skin, and underneath a throb of vibration.

The tips of my fingers burned.

Listening to the radio a journalist says that the mild winter has meant that Russia’s gas supplies haven’t been overstretched. I’m convinced I read that this is the coldest winter for thirty years.

Hot and cold. Each dictates how we experience and perceive the other. Whether I am toasty or shivering is just an opinion. Whether we want to warm up or cool down is just a fickle desire.

My knuckles are scuffed and I have no recollection of how this happened.