Out Now!

Saturday, 26 May 2012

A world connected by string

It took some doing, connecting two bedroom windows across a twenty foot wide avenue by a length of string, pulling it taut. Any ideas we might have had of connecting the whole avenue and roads beyond by over-head string quietly vanished. Still, attaching two empty bean cans to each end of our string was magic enough.

I can’t remember who spoke first or whether we heard anything, but then I never remember half of what I say on the phone – or much of what I said last night – so the issue has little importance. What is important is the magic a small boy imagines and never forgets. The experience is everything.

Mind you, as an early example of ‘Neighbourhood Watch – eyes glued to windows, mouths immersed in cans still smelling of beans – it proved something of a failure.  There weren’t many burglaries in Aintree - but we weren’t looking for burglars; we were looking for spies that congregated on the streets of Liverpool on cloudless nights.

Comics fed our dreams as did the Saturday afternoon matinee  in cinemas with names like: The ‘Palace’ or the ‘Atlas.’  Grand names. I wonder why they didn’t go further, with cinemas named The Acropolis or the Parthenon. But then, thinking back, we didn’t actuallyhave cinemas in Liverpool, at least not by that name.  We called them ‘Picture Houses.’ Much more sensible, though my wife still winces when I refer to a modern muli-plex as the  ‘Picture House.' Empty cans, too, are hurriedly recycled.

But I miss the old Picture Houses, the Saturday Matinees and glamorous usherettes in purple uniforms selling ice cream by torchlight. I miss Flash Gordon in black and white, Cowboys in big hats and horses on amphetamines, their legs impossibly fast.  I even miss the ‘Three Stooges’- my first taste of horror, the smell of stale socks and bubblegum breath, the seats you sank into - some swampy, others small buckets of dust. The Picture House fed us dreams, along with the once-weekly comic; the boredom in-between somehow made the dreams stronger. 

Then like sad dominoes the cinemas were knocked down. The Palace became ‘Lennons' Supermarket’ and later a Shoe Emporium. 

The Atlas morphed into Sheltered Housing – And the Aintree Institute, where the Beatles once played, was replaced by a Car Park.

Once there was a world with two tin cans connected by string.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Cheyney Behave

 The rush of metal and glass, brick, tarmac concrete and flesh makes London what it is, and buries the past. But glimpses of an older London remain, often in books. They stand obstinate like boulders in a fast river, each creviced in past lives and attitudes, thoughts fossilised in words.

                             Oxford Circus 1943 Arthur H Nellen
Peter Cheyney’s heroes and villains inhabit a London now gone, as alien in their prejudices and outlook on life as any Arcadian Greek. It would be easy to sneer at them as smug and small minded with very poor teeth, except for the fact that Cheyney’s heroes have exceptionally good teeth considering the amount of alcohol and nicotine they ingest.
John le Carre was recently asked about what spy books that might have influenced him as a child. His answer was interesting. He duly bowed his head to Kipling, Conrad, Buchan and Greene, and then referred to the:
‘…awful, mercifully-forgotten chauvinistic writers like Peter Cheyney and Co. And an anti-German rabble-rouser called E. Phillips Oppenheim who practically launched World War One singlehanded.’ 
             John le Carre’s judgement, though true to a point, is flawed, partly from class, and by his own talent as a writer. Cheyney was chauvinistic, and pretty awful as a writer, but he shouldn’t be forgotten mercifully or otherwise. Cheyney’s success as the most highly paid writer of his time do not necessarily make his books great, but it does show that his work reflected the attitudes and mood of a huge swathe of the population, amplified it an played it back to them. And we’re talking about the popular mood, not that necessarily of the educated but of people who bought his work in droves.
            Books are treasure troves of the past, and people reading Conrad J.B Priestly or Greene might recognise a particular version of it, filtered through the author’s imagination. It will though have, or represent, a relatively narrow class base.
            Cheyney’s books travelled with soldiers to the battlefields of Europe, and were found in the homes of the ‘Resistance’. His ‘Dark’ series had relevance and brought a new degree of realism to the spy novel with its soiled glamour, its weary brutality.
Peter Cheyney’s world might make one shiver with horror or suppressed glee at his robust and thoughtless chauvinism, his narrow certainties that ‘pansies’ were abominable and foreigners not to be trusted.  He is, though, reflecting an uncomfortable fact that the real heroes of World War II were not the moral icons that the media then and now prefer to portray – the awkward bits cut out.  The heroes of World War II would be homophobic, racist bigots by our standards, but heroes nevertheless. It was the ordinary man with the ordinary prejudices of the time – and the aspirations that Cheyney portrayed. Those less literate than Greene or le Carre made Cheyney rich because he wrote what they wanted to hear, and so provides a reader today a fascinating insight into a world long gone.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Clay Cross gets Frugal

“I think they’re trying to kill us, Clay.” She said it quietly, like she was talking about shoes. We were on the Monmouth road, the tunnels coming up fast. The car in front of us was a dark number, its driver lining up a part for a funeral cort├Ęge. I’d made to overtake it more than once and every time the car had veered out. An old lady hitting the sherry, maybe. There were plenty of those in Monmouth, along with funeral technicians who shared the embalming fluid with the corpse…one for you, one for me. Hell, maybe the little old lady was a funeral technician. That would make sense. More sense than a killer waiting for me and Sheri on a quiet road to Monmouth.
            “Why’s that?” I said from the corner of my mouth. The other corner was clamped hard on a Marlborough light.
            “A motorbike has been tailing us for some time, but you knew that, Clay.”
            “I guess.”
            “And if it comes any closer, it’ll be kissing my sweet derriere.”
            “Well he sure as won't be kissing mine, but you’re right, kid. Something ‘s screwy going on here.” And then I remembered. “You got it safe?”
            She patted the book and smiled. Placed it between her thighs. “It’s safe, Clay.”
 I glanced to my right where a white fiat was bent on sharing my space. I veered out, the bump and scrape a friendly hint. The jerk didn’t respond, just stared kind of fish-eyed at something ahead. Maybe he had designs on the old broad who drank embalming fluid with corpses. Maybe he was stupid. One thing for sure, between the three of them they seemed intent on making us into some kind of sandwich – and let me tell you, I ain’t that mouth friendly.
“This reminds me of the Spencer case,” Sheri whispered, retrieving her pearl handled cold 45 from her purse.
“You don’t say.”
“She met with an ‘accident’.”
“What kind of accident?”
“The death kind of accident – just like this – crowded in as she was entering a tunnel.”
“So they all got it.”
Sheri snickered. Sexy as hell. “You’d think wouldn’t you, only  the motor bike and car in front plumb vanished – the driver of the fiat likewise never traced. Poof.”
 Her lips pursed turning the sound into something you’d dream of later that night. Poof! poof !
“Motive, Sheri. Who wanted her dead?”
“Well, she had a boy friend. Word is he was some kind of oily little bed-hopper; Guy named Dodi.”
“Dodi? Ain’t that a girl’s name?”
Sheri shrugged. “Egyptian I think.”
Rameses, Tutankhamen, Dodi. I wasn’t convinced. “You think he put the finger on her?”
“No, he died with her in the crash.”
“She had a husband.”
“Only he don’t seem like no killer.”
“As every bent lawyer whines; half of death row could plead that one. Who else had it in for her?”
“Well she’d compiled some kind of dossier on illegal arms trading – landmines – that kind of thing. Word is government ministers were involved, along with half the Secret Service.”
“Jeez, she had no chance then.” I knew how things worked. Paint her as some kind of flake-head, an accident waiting to happen, her boyfriend a sex fiend and lush. These boys had power. I listened as Sheri proceeded to tell me how much power.
“She knew that. A year or two before her death she’d met up with her lawyer, Lord Mishcon.”
“A goddamned lord, what was she, a princess?”
Sheri gave me her Mona Lisa smile. “She left him a note, confiding her fears that ‘Efforts would be made to get rid of her…like an accident in her car’.”
“What did the jury make of that?”
“Scotland Yard kept it to themselves.”
As I said, these boys had power. The dame had no chance. “Okay, so she knows an accident is being planned for her, and she’s rich – so why not buy a chauffeur, get herself some kind of body-guard?”
“She had both. Her driver was a guy named Henri Paul.”
“French. That the best she could do?”
“Hmm.” Her lips curled.
“You’re saying he was got at.”
“The line is he was driving while drunk; but those with him earlier that morning say different.”
“Go on.”
“The night before, he vanished for three hours. No trace or record of his movements - and get this, Clay.” Sheri paused.
I hoped she wasn’t planning pausing too long. The tunnels were coming up fast, and we were still no nearer to clearing this.
“Henri Paul had regular, unexplained, but quite sizable amounts of money going into his several bank accounts two or three months before her death.”
“And he died in the crash. Hell, and ain’t that convenient.” And then I remembered: “She had something they wanted, too – some kind of dossier, you said.”
Sheri squeezed her thighs tight and the car swerved. “She had something – only after the crash her personal stuff vanished.”
 Dead driver, vanishing dossiers, missing cars… “Hold on, cup-cake. Just hold on there. The cameras would have picked up their number plates.”
Sheri sighed. “You’re right, only the cameras weren’t working on that particular tunnel on that particular night.”
Who were these guys? And who was the dame that had lured them from out of the shadows? “And the inquest bought all this?”
The way she said ‘Hmmm,’ man it was poetry, but I knew there was something behind that hmmm. There always was with Sheri.
“There was another inquest ten years later.”
“When the trail was nice and cold.”
“Maybe, but the jury clearly smelt a fish. They returned a verdict of unlawful killing by the drivers of the vehicles involved.”
“You mean these ones here.” The tunnels were closing in on us fast. “Hold on, kid.” I swung the car hard to the right, smashing the fiat off the road, then hauled on the brakes. The car jerked to a sudden halt. The biker who’d shown such interest in Sheri Lamour’s derriere swung into the air and kissed asphalt instead.
There was just the little old lady who had suddenly discovered acceleration. Maybe she was thirsty, maybe she feared death. Either way she’d never have to worry about embalming fluid again.
Tyres chewed dirt and gravel screamed in all directions as we hurtled through the tunnels and screamed into Monmouth town. I was on her tail and gaining fast, my right foot aching on a pedal that was damn near scraping the road.
            Monmouth passed in a blur and we were on the Hereford road, straining up one of those goddamned hills the Welsh are always singing about for want of anything better else to do. It was a long, gleaming-wet road, built for the hunter and its prey. I was screaming, consumed by the lust for revenge. Screaming and howling as if some nameless beast had taken possession of my soul. But the guy I still thought of as the little old lady had one more trick. She vanished in shadow whilst I was still making my jungle noises and licking imagined blood from my teeth.
            Sheri pointed as the side road came into view, dropping steeply into an unlit abyss. Hell! I thought, stomach caught between teeth.
We plunged onto the road like a comet from the infinitesimal voids of space, missing a paint van and avoiding a lamppost by inches. What-the-hell! We were gaining and no back alley-dodging-hide and seek was going to stop us now. I was near enough to see a shadow hunched, ape like over the wheel. Someone else was in the car; face stark in panic, his gun aimed at Sheri Lamour.
Sheri smiled and it was obvious why. The jerk was scared and just then wouldn’t have aimed straight with a slide rule. The ‘old lady’ and Tonto were reaching retiring age and Sheri was about to make the presentation.  A pearl handled colt 45 with silencer attached don’t fire no gold watches, but he got the message - in the head. The dark car crashed as its driver got his. “Nice shooting, Sheri,” I breathed, trying without success to disguise the envy.
“That’s for the princess,” she breathed.
“And the book,” I said. “The Frugal Way. Tell me it’s safe.”
Sheri unleashed her thighs and held it up triumphantly.
“They didn’t look the Frugal Kind,” she breathed.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Caught in time

The large iPad appeared from nowhere, as did the picture of a Canadian living room and two children playing. I touched the screen and immediately one of the children collapsed on the floor. An irate mother rushed out from the kitchen and stared accusingly, as though, somehow, she could see me. I put the screen to one side and sent B out on a panic shopping spree: Parsley, ham, eggs – wine.

“We will still be able to see Battleship Potemkin.”

It was a statement not a question, and I lied accordingly. “Of course. They’ll all be gone by nine.”

“It starts at eight.”

“They’ll be gone by eight.”

“It’s seven o’clock now.”

“No, half six.”

Jane nodded reassuringly from the far corner, a large glass of wine in her hand. Wine bends the truth.

“You must be fast readers,” says B as the door slams behind her. I return to the cooking. Fast reading is one thing fast eating another. Then there was the Canadian contingent including the vengeful mother, whose child I’d knocked over.  How had she recognised me? I knew that she had. And that we wouldn’t be finished by nine.

Pans bubbled on hobs; in the oven something was burning. It was then I remembered I’d forgotten the rice.
A text message to B – We need rice.


That was more unreal than knocking a child over via a virtual screen.

 A knock on the door.

Canadian voices.

I looked at the clock.

Two minutes before the alarm

But I’d already re-entered time, the problem fading as I stretched.

Angry mothers, Potemkin, reading clubs and burnt food – gone, forgotten – escaped. It’s the beauty of dreams. Do what you want. No price to be paid. No consequences. You can escape them in a breath, which is akin to death, in a way.