Ten To One newsletter - July 2013
This is the newsletter for the exciting collaborative writing project from Pigeon Park Press in which ten writers will create a novel together. This newsletter contains the latest chapters for you to read and provides you with instructions on how to vote for which writers (and characters) stay in the novel.
2) HOW TO VOTE
3) LATEST CHAPTERS
The first chapters are here!
I'm reminded of the Indian story of the blind men and the elephant. Groping in their blindness, each finds a different part of the animal (the trunk, the leg, the tail, etc) and declares that they have found a snake or a tree or a rope or whatever. It is explained that each of them has perceived part of the elephant, that none of them is wholly wrong but that each has grasped part of the whole truth.
This story (it's hard to tell) might come to us originally in the form of a Jain parable about truth and the multiplicity of viewpoints that make up our reality. It doesn't matter. The point is this...
The Ten To One authors, all ten of them, have written a chapter apiece for the opening section of the Ten To One novel. Not one of the chapters represents the entire truth. In fact, in this initial version, the chapters may give snippets that contradict one another, tonal differences that suggest discord. But, even though these chapters have yet to go through an editing process which irons out those contradictions and shift, all of the authors have given us part of the whole story and I hope that when you read those chapters now you will be able to see the one story that runs through them and which all of them, with their individual parts, are trying to convey.
We will be posting the chapters, piece by piece on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/TenToOneNovel) but the easiest way to read them all is in this e-mail newsletter.
2) HOW TO VOTE
Once you have read all the chapters, you will need to go to our Facebook page which is https://www.facebook.com/TenToOneNovel. You will need to have a Facebook account to access this page.
On that page you will find a question with voting buttons. The question asks, "Which is your favourite chapter from the latest round of Ten To One?" Simply, click on the voting button for your favourite chapter and your vote will be added. If you change your mind or have clicked on the wrong chapter, simply click on another chapter and your vote will be transferred. It is impossible to vote for more than once chapter.
The deadline for your votes is midnight 17th July (BST)
Also, you are welcome to post comments below the question or other posts in Facebook. Share your opinions and views!
3) LATEST CHAPTERS
1.1 - Gracie
Drip. Drip. Drip.
"What's that, Mister Pop?" Gracie asked.
"Ah," the old man said in his strange rumbly voice that he called an Accent, "it is l'uomo nero knocking to be let in."
"That's not knocking."
"He knocks in many ways, little one. Do you know why he knocks?"
"To be let in!" she repeated.
"Yes, but why?"
Drip. Drip. Drip.
"He sounds wet. Does he want to borrow a towel?"
Mister Pop shaked his head. "He wants to steal children and replace them with fairies."
"I don't want to be stealed!" Gracie argued.
"Only a grown up may let him in, if a child has misbehaved."
"But I've been very good, haven't I?"
"Very good. In any case, only your parents can give you to l'uomo nero."
Gracie frowned. "Not my parents," she spat sullenly.
Mister Pop's wrinkly face wrinkled up a bit more and he sat straighter in his armchair. "Be grateful that you have kind grownups who want to take care of you," he said. "You will love them, and they will love you. In time. A little more time."
Drip. Drip. Drip.
"Tell me a story," she demanded. "Please."
"Would you like socată while you listen?"
Gracie nodded, and as Mister Pop disappeared into the kitchen his voice creeped through the walls like a ghost's, and all the weird and lovely things around his flat looked more magical and special than before.
"The old man, whom people called the Mosul, came to their village through the deep dark forest. Nobody knew where he was from, only that the forest was an evil place and not a soul had set foot in it for a hundred years. They called him the Mosul because only a powerful being could have crossed it unscathed. The innkeeper gave him food, drink and a bed at no cost, and all the people of the village gathered in the tavern to hear his tale.
'Did you meet monsters?' asked one.
'Many,' replied the Mosul.
'How did you get past them?' asked another.
'Ah,' said the Mosul, 'that would be a long story.'
'Tell it to us!' they cried, and none more loudly than a little girl sitting at the front.
The Mosul peered at the child whose hair was like braided gold and whose eyes shone as sapphires shine between two cheeks of ruby red."
Gracie pulled her blonde plaits and giggled as Mister Pop gave her the socată.
"Are my eyes like sapphires?"
"Yes," Mister Pop smiled.
"The villagers leaned close, and the Mosul began his story:
'The first steps I took into that forest were heavy with foreboding; the trees murmured and the air was stifled and bitter. I did not recognise the trail of huge footprints scraping over roots and across the streams. I pressed on until I came to a damp and dirty hovel, where an ancient witch lingered in the doorway. I would have walked on, but her voice croaked out in warning.
'Go no further!' the hag called. 'Foulness lies ahead, and danger, and death.'
I saw a bundle clutched to her breast; its stink was unbearable. She did not seem to notice, so tenderly did she clasp it. Within the hovel a man's wizened face stared half in shadow.
'I must go on,' I insisted.
The witch shambled towards me without a word, produced a tiny box and placed it in my hand. She would not say what it was or why I should have it, but shuffled back into her ruined house.
I had walked a few miles when there appeared a great hulking shape in my path, and my heart began to thud as I recognised it as a great and vicious ogre. I turned to go back, but with a rushing rhythm of wings another creature swept down to bar my way. It was a dragon.
'Ho,' he snarled, 'what do you have there?'
'Nothing,' I said, hiding the box that was still in my hand, but the dragon had seen the engraving on its lid; he seemed to start in surprise and his eyes grew brighter.
'Give it to me,' he demanded, 'or my ogre will crush you as it did my last opponent.'
Now although dragons are fierce, they are also intellectual creatures; they delight in rules and regulations, and enjoy a contest as much as a massacre.
'Give me three trials to complete,' I cried before the ogre could advance. 'If I succeed, you will let me go unscathed.'
The dragon considered. 'Very well. For the first, answer me this riddle:
I snarl and roar without a voice,
I make some weep and some rejoice.
I eat all things that I am fed,
but just one drink could drown me dead. What am I?'
'Why,' I answered, 'fire, of course!'
The dragon hissed. 'Yes. Come with me.'
I was led to a clearing where a crag reared up suddenly. In the cliff side there was a crack large enough for a man to fit through; beside it lay a heap of broken bones whose flesh had been torn from them not hours before.
'Through that gap lies treasure beyond your wildest dreams,' said the lizard. 'Fetch it. I will know if you are trying to trick me, and turn you to cinders with my breath.'
I obeyed readily enough, and retrieved chests stuffed with precious jewels, ancient swords and shields, and chalices and plates of purest gold. The dragon licked his long lips and stretched them to a grin.
'What is my third trial?' I asked.
'To defeat my ogre in battle.'
I was about to protest but the giant was already bearing down upon me, and I narrowly missed its huge fist. It swiped again and again I evaded. This went on for half the day. Finally, exhausted, it collapsed at my feet. I was so weary that I could scarcely move myself, but I lifted one of the dust-coated swords and drove it through the ogre's heart, so that dark purplish blood stained the grass.
'I shall be on my way,' I declared, and turned to go.
But the dragon was not used to losing. With a strangled cry he launched his scaly bulk towards me with fire scorching from his nostrils. In one quick movement I ducked around his flaming head and brought the sword slicing through his neck, severing it from his body. He lay twitching, and then was still. Since he no longer needed his treasure I took what I could carry and continued my journey.'
There the Mosul paused, and as he sat back and gazed around the room his eyes fell again upon the blonde-haired child.
'You,' he said in a sudden and intense murmur that many of the villagers did not hear. 'There is something strange about you. L'uomo nero has his hand upon your shoulder.'
The little girl only sat and stared at the Mosul, as he sat and stared at her."
"Another, another!" Gracie cheered.
"Ah, no," Mister Pop said. "I do believe it is time for your dinner."
Sure enough, at that moment Gracie's Mum began to call her from across the hallway.
1.2 - Nell
Nell ran a rag over last the table with a cursory swipe. She grabbed the chair nearest her and began the process of brushing off the worst of spilled breakfast. Sammy's had been packed all morning, but the rush had finally died down, leaving the customary stickiness in its wake. She glanced out the window as she separated a couple of two-tops that had been shoved together to make room for the men's group that met every Thursday at ten. The unusual noon drop-off probably had something to do with the spitting rain shifting into a full-blown downpour in the last hour. Nell found herself hoping the lull wouldn't last. Without customers to keep her busy, she would have to start mopping up the dreck people had been dragging into the cafe all morning.
It didn't look promising. If they were lucky, a few regulars might pop in at lunch, but after that, they wouldn't see much action on a day like this. Down North Parade to the pier, in Skegness' kitschy summer heart, things would be closed in this weather, although the arcade would probably fill up after school got out. Some of the kids might even stop in to ruin their supper on the way home, but hopefully Nell would be long gone by then. If this kept up, maybe she'd even run out to the beach after her shift. A hard workout in the rain was one of her perverse pleasures, and she'd certainly moved to the right place to indulge it.
She turned back toward the kitchen with a tray of salt and pepper shakers to refill. Mabel was taking advantage of the break to roll silverware and have a chat with her friend Shaun. He came in a few times a week to play chess, though Nell couldn't understand why here, of all places. The tea, which was all he ever seemed to order, was terrible, and if he and Mabel were more than friends, they kept it on the down low.
Nell cast a sidelong glance at the pair as she slipped back behind the counter. She had to smile as she overheard Mabel regaling him with antics of the idiots who had been in earlier; even out of earshot, Mabel's hands told a story beautifully. Nell put the tray down to help the kid waiting at the counter as the bell over the door chimed.
"Oi, Nell, look sharp," Mabel murmured, all of a sudden by her side.
The woman's grace was uncanny, Nell thought as she glanced up. The bear of a man letting cold air in was bleeding in at least three places she could see. "Shit."
"You know him?" Mabel asked as she slid the boy's change over and gestured for him to take a seat.
"Seen him at the gym, maybe."
"He looks like bad news."
"Yeah." Nell was suddenly glad the diner had cleared out. Shaun had faded further back into his corner than she would have thought possible, his chin tucked as he trained his gaze on the board in front of him. The kid froze halfway into his seat, staring openly at the man, a receipt still clutched in one hand.
"What are you looking at, you little shit?" The injured behemoth - Nell wracked her brain for a name and came up with Lewis - gave a half-hearted lunge in his direction. The boy darted around him and out the door, his chips forgotten.
"Hey!" She came out from behind the counter. "Give it a rest. He's a kid, for Christ's sake."
"Punk should be in school, shouldn't he? Not stuffing his face with this shit." Lewis sneered.
"Don't see how that's any of your fucking business."
"You Nell?" Lewis asked.
He took a step toward her but she held her ground. "Bobby said to look for a ballsy little bitch."
"Jesus." Nell ignored the flutter in her chest. "Bobby sent you, did he?"
"Did. Said you've helped his guys out before."
"Did he also tell you to come in here and be a dickhead to my customers? 'Cause that just cost you extra."
"Take it up with him. He's got me covered."
"Fine," she said. "Get outside and I'll take you around back in a minute." She turned to Mabel as the door banged shut. "Will you be alright in here if I take my break?"
Mabel narrowed her eyes. "Maybe we should just call an ambulance. Or the cops."
Nell shook her head. "I can handle him." She reached around the counter and grabbed her bag.
"Really?" Mabel didn't bother to hide her scepticism.
"I think so. I know who's holding his leash at least. Just give a yell if it gets busy again. Oh, and hey," she turned at the door, "if my aunt shows up, try to keep her out front, okay? She doesn't exactly know about this..." She waved a hand in Lewis' general direction.
"Just watch yourself," Mabel said as Nell ducked out into the rain.
As she slicked her dark curls out of her face and into a bun, she saw Shaun's chess partner, Popescu hurrying down the road. Good. She felt better knowing he'd be on hand if things got dicey.
"Running late Pop?" she called. "Shaun's on his third cup already."
He gave her a grim look as he stumped past. He let the door slam, and Nell stared through the window after him. The old man might never win a congeniality contest, but he'd always been civil enough to her. Popescu seemed to find her American ignorance, especially when it came to the food she served, a ready source of amusement. His recent pleasure, if it could be called such, was to order what she considered the most foul (or as he preferred, "traditional") foods off the menu, then quiz her on precisely what went into each dish. Her education about the ingredients (and shocking popularity) of foods like black pudding and pickled eggs had made her profoundly grateful for the kebab shop around the corner.
"Waiting for me to bleed to death out here?" Lewis growled. Nell ignored him and took off around the block and into the alley behind the café. She could hear him grumbling behind her about how he could have just walked through the damn kitchen.
She spun on her heel. "I don't run a fucking hospital. I'm taking enough of a chance bringing you in the back, so shut it."
He just glared down at her. "I've seen you somewhere." He paused and looked her over more carefully as Nell searched for the key. "You train over at Studio?"
"Had many fights this winter?"
"No," she said as she pulled open the door. She pushed Lewis ahead of her into a large storage closet and gestured for him to take a seat on the step ladder.
"Take off your coat." She pulled out a pair of nitrile gloves as she studied the deepest wound on his arm. Grabbing his chin, she tilted his head back so that she could get a better look at the cut on his cheek. "What the hell happened? This looks more like a knife fight than a boxing match."
"Don't it though."
"Hate to see the other guy," she said.
He grunted in agreement. "Yeah. You would."
In the confines of the closet she couldn't escape the cloying scent of liquored sweat. He was a heavy drinker, for sure, but he seemed sober enough right now; he'd certainly glazed over once he was off his feet though. In shock, maybe. Shit. She really didn't want to see the other guy.
Nell left him examining his bloodied knuckles as she ducked into the kitchen to grab clean towels and a pitcher of water. A small, reasonable part of her was certain she should phone the police. She shook her head - this wasn't the right situation for "reasonable." He was a bully. He probably broke bones for a living, and maybe something went wrong this morning - if so, he would answer to his boss. A guy like Lewis wasn't clever enough to strike on his own. This mess had Bobby written all over it, and Nell wasn't about to draw his fury down on her own head.
She had enough to worry about now that she'd started to stitch and fix
after bare knuckle boxing matches. His crowd hung around those fights more than she'd like, but Nell kept her head down and her hands busy since the gig paid well and she needed the cash. The job also meant she could finally use the paramedic training she'd gotten before landing in Skegness. Frankly, it was a relief to be useful again, though her current clientele was not exactly what she was accustomed to. Nell decided to table her concerns, at least for now. Worry might cost her a night's sleep, but running her mouth? She wasn't interested in discovering the price exacted for that.
She turned back to her task with a single-minded efficiency, but it still took longer than expected to clean and bandage Lewis up, and she scowled when she caught sight of the clock. She finished wrapping the last cut across his forearm and stood, pulling the gloves off with a practiced snap. "I've gotta get back," she said. "If you keep the bandages clean, you should be alright."
Lewis pushed himself up, and it was clear now that the adrenaline had left his system, he was hurting. "You got anything for the pain?" he asked.
"I don't do pills," she replied curtly. "There's a pharmacy up the road."
He squinted down at her. "You got a fiver then?"
"You owe me, not the other way 'round."
Mabel poked her head through the door from the kitchen. "I need some help out here."
"Yeah, I'm coming," Nell called, shoving Lewis toward the door. He groaned as she edged him out and slammed it shut in his face.
"You okay?" Mabel asked, studying Nell's shaking hands as she washed up and threw on a clean apron.
"I'm fine," she said, brushing past the smaller woman without meeting her eyes. "Just shouldn't have wasted my last break of the day on him."
1.3 - Mabel
Some days were quiet and seem to stretch forever, lazy and pleasant like the road. Other days were busy and hectic, with barely a moment to think or remember who you were.
These busy days reminded Mabel of the bustling moments before a performance, the crowd cheering on the other side, the last minute preparations, and a glimpse of the previous act: balls, clubs, and rings dancing through the skilled hands of the juggler; bodies flying and almost hovering for a moment as the trapeze artists attempted to defy gravity; birds and rabbits appearing out of an empty hat as coins, cards, and glasses disappeared into thin air. Today had been such a day.
Mabel liked these days of endless orders, client after client filling the café with their appetite and thirst. Days of balancing plates and trays, days with no time to remember.
The day was over now, at least as far as Mabel's shift was concerned.
Mabel frowned as she tied her wild hair into a bun; she didn't usually mop blood off the floor. The room, if you could call it that so small it was, still faintly smelled of sweat and liquor underneath the stronger smell of bleach.
She put the mop back in its place; she had done what she could. She turned the light off with a mindless movement as she pushed the door to the kitchen open.
Mabel filled the kettle with water and placed it on the stove, thinking back on the day - busy until the sky dropped off as water. The rain had brought an unusual calm in the café, until that bear of a man stumbled to the door.
She narrowed her eyes at the memory, switching on the fire.
The American - that's how Mabel and possibly half the town thought of Nell - and Mabel were not exactly friends; however Mabel still worried about her, even if she didn't mean to. She couldn't help it.
Nell and her Spartan act, her dark hair, and eyes that resembled a storm brewing or a calm yet clouded sky - depending on the day and the mood Nell was in - had become familiar to Mabel. After years on the wind, with no roots or anything else to anchor her, she didn't take familiar lightly.
Mabel reached for a cup, not bothering herself with a saucer, and sat on the nearest chair. She turned spoon after spoon of sugar into the cup. Just because life is bitter doesn't mean tea has to be, she thought.
Mabel was starting to build something in Skegness. She still didn't know what that was; all she knew was that she didn't want her life to crumble down like a house of cards again.
The American could put the toughest act in town but Mabel wondered if that would be enough to keep her out of trouble. She knew better than to ask Nell any questions, they would go unanswered. Mabel could wonder, though, and she could eavesdrop too.
Almost as soon as Nell had left the café the old man had arrived. The café had been empty but for Shaun, and the arrival of his chess partner had him distracted. Mabel was free - free to look after her familiar co-worker and to try and get the answers she wanted, in other words, to eavesdrop - since her only customers were immersed in a game.
There was something about that old man - always so courteous and a bit aloof behind eyes that seemed to miss very little - something both so familiar and so foreign at once, that always made Mabel feel uneasy. Maybe it was his accent, a fainter version of her mother's.
The kettle started to whistle and got Mabel to her feet, shaking her head because all her eavesdropping had amounted to nothing - whatever secrets had brought the bear to the café, he took them with him.
Mabel was so immersed in thoughts that she missed the handle, touching the hot kettle instead. A searing, warm pain spread through her left hand, causing her to flinch. The kettle collapsed to the floor, spilling hot water all over it, but Mabel didn't even notice it.
The pain of the burn caused an older pain to surface. Fragments of memory flashed through her eyes, she could hear the screams, smell the smoke: she was back at the circus, and the circus was surrounded by fire.
The flames were roaring mercilessly, like the wrath of God. The big top was engulfed in flames and smoke, and a patch of it tumbled down, loose, burning all the way to the ground. Mabel was horror-struck and paralysed, witnessing helplessly as everything she ever knew, she ever loved, burnt.
She stood on the wet kitchen floor, panting and trying to still her racing heart, as wide-eyed as she had been twelve years ago.
"It's all over now," Mabel told herself.
Her voice sounded weak in the empty kitchen of the café, so weak it could be engulfed by the silence around her.
She fetched her purse and hurried out of the kitchen, not bothering to clean up the mess she had made, or even turn off the lights.
As she walked into the dark front of the café she stopped and looked around, amazed at how the place always looked so much smaller when it was empty. She made to the door and stepped out into the cold air.
Mabel usually had a quick-pace, swinging her hip from side to side as she walked, but she was moving even faster, leaving a blur of streets behind her.
She saw the Sand Castle behind a curtain of tears. Every time she showed up for her act there, Mabel wondered who had the idea to build it like that. It really looked like a castle. Thursday night she would be wondering all over again.
Her feet took her to North Parade instead of home, because thinking of the fire always made her think of him.
Mungo Joey. The clown was the only other survivor of the fire, as far as she knew, and the closest thing to a family she had.
Mungo was in a bad shape and in a bad place, all at once. He drank too much and did little else. Mabel always worried about him. And the bleeding man in the café reminded her of just how dangerous this quaint little town could be. She pressed on against the cold wind, haunted by the thought of losing Mungo.
As she spotted Mungo on his regular bench on the pier, you could actually see the relief waving through her body. She started walking towards his bench, thinking he looked more like a tramp than an auguste clown these days.
"Hey, there," she couldn't help but smile at him.
He looked up at her, moving the least that he could.
"You again," he sounded disgruntled, "hello, I guess."
"May I sit for a moment?"
He started to move, slowly, making room for her.
"For a moment," he said, raising his finger, more of a plea than a warning.
"I've been worried about you," she said softly.
"You are always worried. You should try worrying about yourself," he replied leaning to fetch his hat, "I'm as fine as always, whether you worry or not."
He started to separate and count all the coins and notes sticking out of the hat.
"Better if you don't, actually," he muttered, counting his earnings with one hand and reaching for his cider with another.
As he gulped his cider, his green curly wig nearly falling off his head, Mabel remembered Dom Quixote. Her father would tell her all sorts of stories, and the tramp sitting next to her brought the Ingenious Gentleman to Mabel's mind. There was something noble about him, something... chivalrous - despite all the grunting.
"This guy showed at the café today," Mabel started, "he was all covered in blood. God only knows the state of the other guy... And I thought of you."
"Who would mess with a clown?"
He cracked a bittersweet smile.
"Nobody messes with this clown," he answered his own question, the smile still hanging on his face like a crooked portrait on a wall.
That smile brought back the lyrics and melody of Vesti la Giubba, one of the ringmaster's favourite arias, to Mabel's head. The ringmaster that had been a father to Mungo. A shadow crossed her face as she looked at the broken clown next to her, remembering the pain of Canio, the clown of the opera.
"All the cider in the world won't make you forget..."
"And coming here won't bring anything back," he retorted.
Mabel's eyes started burning, tears wanting to come out again.
Mungo turned and stared in her eyes, speaking softly now.
"Would you just give up on me please?"
But he knew the answer already, and it didn't falter.
"Never," and that little word carried all her determination with it.
He sighed, resigned.
"Would you leave me alone, at least?"
She smiled, getting up.
"For now," she said, walking away, "but you take care!"
He grunted, returning to his default position, lying on his back.
Mabel started her way home, turning to look once more to all she had left in the world, that operatic Don Quixote, a drunken tramp of a clown.
1.4 - Mungo Joey
Mungo Joey awoke atop his usual bench on the pier. His bloodshot eyes were met with a cloudy sky. He could hear the waves and the seagulls but no people. Once again, he had slept through most of the morning. But, sure enough, there was a healthy pile of coins in the floppy clown hat in front of his bench.
It still astounded Mungo that people got so much enjoyment from a lazy, grotesque clown sprawled on a bench. He didn't do anything worthy of their attention. He just lay there in full clown garb, eating junk food, drinking cider and ignoring the passers-by. Yet, the crowds seem to think it was an ironic performance - a grumpy, debauched clown? How novel! - and so the coins kept coming.
Mabel had been to see him again. When was that? Minutes ago? Hours? Time was hard to fathom after copious swigs of Wonky Donkey, the locally-brewed cider. Mabel and Mungo's circus had burned down twelve long years ago and Mungo had no intention of trepanning in the ashes for bright memories of those days, which he regarded as his Second Life. Those days were dust.
Nevertheless, Mabel refused to let go. She visited his bench every other day to reminisce. They were the only two left - the clown and the magician's assistant - but Mungo had no need of assistance. He was a circus of one.
It really was quiet today, Mungo reflected. He looked across the pier and saw a peculiar sight. The pier was deserted apart from a red-headed woman sketching a dead seagull. Could it be -?
'Spitfire!' Mungo cried and leapt from his bench with uncharacteristic haste.
The red-headed woman jerked with surprise at the sound of his cry and took a further step back upon seeing a dishevelled clown bundling across the pier towards her.
Mungo dropped to his knees by the dead bird and began inspecting the corpse: lifting its wings with his gloved hands and checking its lifeless head for markings.
'Hey! Ronald McDonald!' the woman tapped Mungo with her sketchbook. 'I was sketching that!'
'Forgive me,' Mungo replied, his voice thick with cider. 'Long have I been terrorised by a feathered Fury known as Spitfire. The beast steals my food and paints my bench with excrement. But this is not my adversary. I was mistaken.'
Mungo bowed his head and removed his curly green wig as a sign of respect for the deceased. The red-head raised her eyebrows as this bizarre drama unfolded.
'Well, you've ruined my sketch,' she sighed. 'You've repositioned the wings. I'll have to take this home and finish it there.' At that, she revealed a plastic bag and stuffed the dead gull inside.
Now it was Mungo's turn to be shocked. His mouth dropped open, contrasting the red smile painted on his face.
'What are you doing? Are you going to eat that?'
'Eat it? Christ, no! I plan to study this unfortunate creature and create. I am an artist.'
'Of course,' she said. 'I am Anastasia Boty. I was shortlisted for the Turner Prize.'
Mungo stared blankly.
'Evidently my name does not carry much recognition in the circus community,' Anastasia said. 'I have a better following in London.'
'Well, you're not in London anymore,' Mungo said. 'Perhaps you should leave the bird here.'
'Whatever for?' she asked. 'So its carcass can be picked over by its friends. Whatever I have planned for its remains will be a lot more fitting. This dead seagull will be immortalised in art. Anyway, you have yet to tell me your name.'
Mungo felt the need to justify himself. After all, he was an artist of sorts and felt an ego rising under his face paint which had been dormant for quite some time. 'I am Mungo Joey. Classically-trained clown and second-most popular attraction on the pier!'
Anastasia smiled. 'Only second? Who's first?'
Mungo grimaced. 'The Punch and Judy Show puppeteer.' The puppeteer was Mungo's great nemesis, ranking even higher than Spitfire. He had serious issues with the Punch and Judy Show. Crocodile aside, it was a show which encouraged young children to laugh at wife-beating and child abuse. It reminded him too much of his First Life, which ended when he ran off to join the circus. It was not a time he liked to recount.
'I see,' Anastasia replied.
'I'm a big deal in Skegness,' Mungo added, rather flatly.
'I don't doubt it.' Anastasia began snapping shut the clasps on her sketchbook and pocketing her charcoals. 'Well, good talk. But now I have work to do.'
She started to leave, plastic bag in hand, but suddenly stopped. She fixed Mungo with an intense stare, the like of which only an observational artist could conjure.
Mungo winced as she looked him up and down, taking in every aspect of his appearance: the donut crumbs on his spotted jacket, the make-up cracked around his crow-footed eyes, the receding hair revealed when he removed his wig and the sad, world-weary eyes.
Mungo eventually found his voice. 'People normally throw some coins in my hat when they stare for that long.'
Anastasia looked thoughtful and edged towards him.
'Sorry, it's just, I specialise in decay and despair. Maybe I should sketch you.'
Mungo blinked. 'Pardon?'
'The critics would love this,' she said, lost in her reverie. 'What a beautiful concept: a clown - usually a figure of joy and energy - wasting away on a splintering bench against a grey, forlorn seascape. Alone and lost and sorrowful, receiving cruel laughs or loose coins depending on the crowd, but no spotlight, no applause, no love.'
Anastasia's eyes were ablaze with possibility.
'This could be a whole series! You might just be the inspiration I came here for.'
Mungo shrivelled at the anatomy of his character. Of course, she had captured him perfectly. Anyone that comfortable with a dead bird was always going to be well-practised at sticking in the scalpel and dissecting a body - or rather a life.
However, his hurt was outweighed by the fear of being the centre of an art project. He didn't want widespread recognition. His curious brand of popularity on the pier was one thing. It earned him enough coins for candy and chips and that was all he needed. But this award-winning artist might make him a media sensation. Didn't she say something about the Turner Prize? He couldn't go back to the spotlight. How could he be a circus of one if people were flooding into his Big Top to see the clown from the paintings?
Anastasia edged closer, reaching for her charcoals once more.
'Please -' Mungo began.
But then a strange blue light caught both of their attention. It was coming from the beach. There were several police vehicles parked on the sand and a white-suited forensic team had just arrived. Mungo had seen a much bigger version of this scene the day of the fire so he knew what it meant: a dead body had been found on the beach.
The two of them stared - the clown and the artist - as more and more bystanders gathered and the police officers cordoned off the area. Mungo nodded. So this is why it was so quiet on the pier.
Anastasia's attention had been successfully redirected. A dead body apparently held more fascination than a dead bird or an over-the-hill clown. Trance-like, she walked down towards the beach, the sketchbook poised in her hands and the plastic bag dangling from her arm. The forgotten cadaver of the gull bumped against her side with each step.
Mungo breathed a sigh of relief. He was left alone on the pier. Loneliness had been his blanket for the past five years and it was comforting. He had no intention of going near that crime scene. He kept his curiosity to a minimum and that kept people out of his life. The crowd would drift back to the pier eventually. His Third Life would resume, as if nothing amiss had happened. He was sure of it.
It was then that he heard the caw. He wasn't alone on the pier after all.
Mungo turned and there sat Spitfire on his bench, mocking him. 'No! Get away foul beast!'
He started sprinting back to his bench, slapping the boards of the pier with his big clown feet and waving his wig like a battle flag. Spitfire remained unfazed by this charge and instead focussed on Mungo's half-eaten bag of donuts.
'Don't you dare!' But it was too late. The gull snatched up the bag and flew into the air with the remainder of Mungo's afternoon snack.
'Curse you!' Mungo yelled, waving a gloved fist in the air. 'I hope you choke on them!'
He then slumped defeated onto his bench. Sadly, Mungo found himself sitting in the unpleasant surprise that Spitfire had left splattered on his bench.
Mungo sighed. 'This isn't over.'
1.5 - Anastasia
The elegant stillness of the central figure was a contrast to the frantic activity all around. His pose was classical; a martyr, almost a Christ, for his wounds were stigmata, agony splayed for all to see. Attending to this figure on the sand were ghosts, or angels, in the white paper jumpsuits of forensic services. Beyond them, fanning out busily across the stretch of beach, were the lumbering, monochrome shapes of the police officers, bulky in their Kevlar vests, trying with comic seriousness to seal the perimeter of the scene, holding back the ecstatic mob, who were gallows happy at this public display of savagery.
Anastasia's pencil flew across the pages of her small sketch book, capturing the essence of what she saw. Racing through her mind were shapes, colours, allusions to religious art from ancient icons, to renaissance saints, to Falun Gong kitsch. What a productive day.
As the SOCO people began to erect a white tent to preserve the scene, Anastasia folded away her sketch book, and reached down to pick up the carrier bag containing the corpse she had found earlier. How she would have loved to have had that other cadaver in her possession, too. She envied Gunther von Hagens and his plastinated figures; human bodies skinned and posed, familiar and strange. Whoever the unfortunate man on the beach had been, surely his dignity would be better served, his immortality assured, by the ministrations of a Turner Prize shortlisted artist, rather than by a butchering pathologist? Such were Anastasia's thoughts as she began to walk along the promenade, heading in the direction of Castleton Boulevard.
A man fell into step. He was a little shorter than Anastasia, a boyish figure. She had seen him before. "I know you," said Anastasia.
"Yes," said the man, "I'm Shaun. Shaun Lamb."
"And who is Shaun Lamb?" said Anastasia. "The son of Larry?"
"No," said Shaun, gravely, "I'm the caretaker. The flats in Castleton Road. Why are you carrying a seagull?"
At this, Anastasia stopped. "Why are you carrying a tube of silicone sealant?" she said. Shaun paused, too, but whereas Anastasia's disambulation had seemed a decisive act, Shaun's tentative halting motion was accompanied by foot shuffling, and the redirection of his gaze from Anastasia, to the seagull, to the tube in his hand, as if he had suddenly been overcome by the meaningless of it all. "Well?" Anastasia prompted, gesturing in the direction of the tube of Geocel.
"Shower cubicle in number seventeen's been leaking," said Shaun. "I told you, I'm the caretaker. I have to do minor repairs like that."
"A wide skill set, then," said Anastasia. "Excellent. You could be useful. Tell me, how would I go about accelerating decomposition of a sea bird?" With this, Anastasia set down the bag containing the gull on the ground between them, as though challenging Shaun to begin the process at once. The bird's insolent orange feet stood proud of the top of the bag.
"I guess you'd have to pluck it first," said Shaun, eying the creature warily. "But why? I mean, what do you want it for?"
"Well, taxidermy's too kitsch, and obviously formaldehyde is out of the question," said Anastasia.
"Obviously," said Shaun. Nothing was remotely obvious, but it felt like a good idea to agree with the woman.
"I'm sorry. I'm Anastasia Boty," said Anastasia, thrusting out her hand formally. "I'm an artist. I want a skeleton, and this bird contains one. How do I get it out, cleanly and fast?"
"Bath of bleach, maybe?" ventured Shaun. "I don't know. There's a poultry processing factory on the industrial estate. They might be able to help. Are you really an artist?"
Anastasia bent to pick up the handles of the plastic bag, disentangling them from the webbed feet. Shaun had watched Anastasia these last months, but he'd never been as close to her before. She looked older than he'd previously assumed; she was probably in her thirties, and she was the whitest person he had ever seen. Her skin was pale to the point of translucence, and her hair tumbled about her face in wild copper waves. Her dress hung loose over her thin frame, topped by a leather biker jacket. Shaun had seen Anastasia at night, raiding refuse bags, sorting through skips. By day she'd sometimes opened up the doors on the workshop across the road, and he'd glimpsed her in overalls, wearing a mask, protective goggles, wielding throbbing, whirring, sparking power tools. He'd assumed she was a mechanic of some sort, not an artist.
"Yes, of course I'm an artist," said Anastasia, almost amused at the novel thought that she might be anything else.
"Like a painter?" said Shaun, searching for a name that was not 'and decorator'. "Like Picasso?"
"I've never been compared to Picasso before," said Anastasia with a wide smile. "I don't usually paint. I mostly make 3D work. Installations, sculpture, sometimes video. I work with concepts, ideas. It's all about capturing the strangeness of the world. Though I have actually been doing some painting, too. I've got a show coming up."
"Really? At the Hildred Centre? Or the Embassy?" said Shaun, eager to prove his credentials as a connoisseur of the arts.
"Er, no," said Anastasia, as they turned into Castleton Road. "The show's at the White Space Gallery in Shoreditch. Look, if you're interested, drop in to my studio some time. I'll show you my work. It's just over there, the workshop in the middle." She pointed across the road.
"Good afternoon," the voice, shrill, overly loud, came from a middle aged woman who was marching towards them with a determined air.
"Oh god," muttered Shaun, "it's that bloody woman."
"Stage, not television" said Anastasia.
"What?" said Shaun.
"She's an actress. Was, anyway. You can always tell by the make-up they use. She's an old fashioned Max Factor type. Provincial rep," said Anastasia.
"How do you know?" said Shaun.
"Some other time," said Anastasia, putting a finger up to her lips. The woman was almost upon them. "Yeah, well, I can't hang around," said Anastasia. "I'd better get this gull in the freezer until I can work out what to do with it. Thanks for the suggestion about the poultry processor. I'll look into it." With a curt nod of the head, Anastasia had sidestepped her neighbour, and disappeared into the lobby of the block of flats.
1.6 - Valerie
Valerie Manning had been trying the effect of a scarf over her hair. The biting wind off the sea played havoc with her usual neat style but she had a sneaking suspicion that she hadn't the right shaped face to pull off a headscarf. Less 50s starlet and more Hungarian fishwife. Perhaps if she teamed it with red lipstick? Leaning into the mirror she applied the makeup, pressing her lips together and blotting with care.
A movement outside the window caught her eye. Shaun was talking to that artist, Anastasia something, wasn't it? Valerie had only glimpsed her around town and on the beach so far but had been intrigued by her. So exotic among the stout blue rinses and mobility scooter brigade. There hadn't been a chance to talk yet but she was certain they'd have a lot in common. And here she was talking to Shaun! It was too perfect.
Valerie pulled the scarf from her head, used it to remove the lipstick, grabbed her handbag and coat and left the flat.
"Afternoon!" she called to the couple. The wind whipped a loose tendril of hair across her face but as she pushed it to one side, it looked as if they were saying goodbye.
"Shaun dear, I wonder if I might have a word? I have a teensy maintenance issue." She turned to Anastasia with a smile and extended her hand to introduce herself but Anastasia turned and left.
"Ah well," said Valerie. "Another day. Shall we go in out of this wind?" Shaun followed her into the hallway of the flats and down to his basement door. Fumbling with the lock he eventually managed to open it and they went inside. It was gloomy and there was a faint musty smell that combined damp socks and tinned beans.
Shaun closed the kitchen door though not before Valerie had glimpsed a plain room, cup, bowl and spoon washed and on the draining board. Closing the door cut off a source of light, rendering the room even gloomier.
"What was your maintenance issue?" Shaun asked.
"What? Oh nothing. Unless you count a loose splinter on the bedroom door frame I keep catching sleeves on. I just wanted a word in private."
She could see by his face that he'd been dreading her saying this, that he hadn't really believed she needed maintenance but had hoped she had. She turned and wandered round the room.
"Heavens aren't you neat? Everything in its place." She poked a few papers with her finger and her neat shiny nails managed to catch the remainder of the light.
"I'd rather you didn't touch those if you don't mind," he said.
"Or what?" she smiled at him. "Now listen darling, do you have anything for me?"
He shook his head.
"Oh dear. That is a shame. You don't seem to have taken me seriously."
"No I have, I..." Shaun ran his hand over his hair and looked nervous.
"You see, I can't imagine all these good people here would be happy to let you into their flats if they knew about your past susceptibility to dark forces, shall we say?"
She continued to walk around the flat, picked up a book and flicked through it, put it back down again and looked at a picture he had in a frame, holding it up to the skylight for a better view.
"Please don't say anything," he said. She stopped and smiled at him again.
"It's just that I'm not really sure what it is that you want."
"Whatever I can get dear. Now tell me about Anastasia."
He looked confused.
"That is her name isn't it? You were just talking to her."
"Yes, yes, Anastasia. I know her. She's an artist, she does conceptual stuff."
"Fascinating. I used to sit for a painter for a while at the beginning of my career. Dreadful pictures of course, never went anywhere, stoned half the time which didn't help. I wonder what happened to him? Still it was fun while it lasted. Where does she paint? Anastasia I mean. She has a studio?"
"On Cavendish Road."
"Right. And she's interested in conceptual art?"
"Yes. She looks at the world differently, finds meaning in it. You know, stuff like that."
"Mmmm. Lovely. That'll do for now." She walked to the door. "I'll be back of course. Don't look so worried, darling, I'm not a monster! But remember, I know all about you!" She blew him a kiss and let herself out of the flat.
It was dark by now but Valerie didn't fancy going back upstairs to her flat yet. She did up her coat and trotted along the road to the corner shop. The inert silhouette of the owner, Mr Barron, sat in the window while the neon Budweiser and Lotto signs shone like a welcoming beacon in the gloom of the evening. It was a false comfort. The shop itself was unpalatable and Valerie often felt the urge to wash her hands after a visit. Still, needs must and all that.
"Good evening Mr Barron," she called as she entered.
"Evening Val," he replied. "How's your day been?" Valerie bristled. She'd always hated being referred to by the shortened moniker and was certain she'd mentioned this to Mr Barron before. A charitable person might say he'd forgotten but it was more likely he didn't care.
"I just had to pop in, I've run low on coffee and the supermarket seems to have left that out of my delivery this week. Such a pain." She turned a corner and bumped into the shop boy, Tim, arranging tins of beans on a shelf.
"Oh I am sorry, darling, how clumsy of me," she said. Tim took a hasty step back, out of her way.
"Do you have ground coffee for a cafetiere?" she asked. He shook his head.
"There's instant," he said and pointed.
"Thank you," she smiled at him.
"You can finish up now Tim," said Mr Barron. "Thanks for your work today lad." The boy nodded and, stopping only as Mr Barron opened the till and handed him some notes, scuttled out the back.
"He seems a little fragile," said Valerie, handing over a five pound note. "Is he alright?"
"He's fine, just a bit slow," said Mr Barron who hardly looked speedy himself. Valerie wondered if he ever managed to get out from behind the desk, wedged in by his stomach as he was.
"Well thank you for this," she said, declining a carrier bag and tucking the little jar into the top of her handbag. The lid stuck out the top, making it difficult to carry but heaven forbid she was seen clutching a plastic bag. She left the warm glow of the shop and went back out into the evening.
"I'll see you later Val!" called Mr Barron.
Valerie ignored him. Mr Barron really was beneath her notice. Her thoughts turned once again to Shaun as she retraced her steps home. Shaun and Anastasia.
1.7 - Tim
Tim could smell his own, masculine, pubescent sweat as he shoved the box of packets of curry sauce mix onto the top shelf in the stock room. There were three more to go, and then he was finished for the day. He tossed each of the remaining boxes in turn into the air and caught it, just because he knew he could, before doing a clean and jerk to get it onto the shelf. He had worked 3 hours less than the previous day, but had shifted more stock and had to deal with more difficult customers. Unusually, he felt ready to go home while it was still daylight and while his mother might still be awake.
Mr Barron had told him, as usual, to take something for his supper, and something for his mother. He took a 3-litre bottle of white cider, a box of frozen scampi tails in batter, some microwave chips, three tins of sweet corn, and a copy of yesterday's Times (today's having sold out). It felt good to resist the urge to take a packet of fillet steak for himself and a bottle of Glenfiddich for his mother. He did not want to have to do too much cooking when he got home, and the one bottle of white cider a day had been keeping his mother more stable than she had been for a long time. It was now 102 days since any-one had been to the flat to complain about his mother's behaviour.
Mr Barron had already excused himself and gone home. Tim set the alarm. He drew the shutters down, relishing the car-crash sound each one made as he hurled it earthwards. The bunch of shop keys was annoyingly large and heavy to carry, but it was still a new and exciting feeling to be trusted with the responsibility. As well as the bunch of brass and steel in his pocket, Tim had all the codes and passwords for the alarm system, the EPOS system and the shop's broadband account, in his head. Mr Barron knew sod all about IT. He had given the whole job of making it work smoothly to Tim, who had already cut down the size of the shop's outstanding debt by means of a spreadsheet which showed customers in red who owed money for more than two weeks' worth of orders. Mr Barron had given him an extra twenty quid for setting that up. That twenty pound note was now in Tim's secret stash of money, in a place where no-one would ever find it.
As he crossed the street onto Lincoln Road, Tim almost worried that his life might be getting too easy. His mother was stable. He had income, and he had more opportunities than he had ever had in his life. He had access to the internet, which his mother could never interfere with. And Mr Barron believed everything Tim told him.
The following day, Tim would be taking the tricycle out to make another delivery to Mr Popescu. There was definitely something strange about Mr Popescu. Tim could not put his finger on it, but he was determined to find out. It was after he noticed Mr Popescu's chess set that Tim had started to learn about the game. He wanted to ask the old man about his photographs, and pictures, and about the letters he received from Romania. Tim knew that Mr Popescu was from Romania, but he didn't know where. He had asked him if he was from the only place in Romania that Tim knew, which was Bucharest, but Mr Popescu said no, and did not say anything more. The most he had got out of the old man so far was permission to put his groceries away in the kitchen cupboards. The last time he did this, he had noticed that the cold tap was dripping. He had offered to have a go at repairing it, but Mr Popescu had not seemed interested. He had said some-one else was going to do it.
Tim took longer and longer strides as he passed the entrance to the hospital. The two 'Support Your Local Shop' carrier bags he held in each hand bounced more and more at his sides. It was early evening, but there was hardly any-one around. His mother would be still awake when he got home, but, today, he felt his head was as full of nonsense as hers. He would give her the cider. He would cook. He would eat. He would read or do a sudoku while his mother fell asleep on the sofa. She would not piss herself or throw up. He would not have to put on any rubber gloves or dilute any bleach in lukewarm water. He would go to bed, and he would awake refreshed the next day.
"You're the boy from the convenience store, aren't you?" It was that woman again. The one with spiky hair and cowboy boots who had stared at him every time since she had recently been in the shop. The one he had ducked down behind an aisle shelf to hide from. This time she was in trainers, T-shirt and sweat-pants. She was breathless and looked pissed off. She was holding one of those oval, plastic water-containers with a hole in the middle. He had bounced almost on top of her. "Why aren't you in school?"
"It's evening." The woman rolled her eyes.
"Don't try to be clever with me, young man. I mean, why are you never in school? Why aren't you in school during the day?"
"I say again: why aren't you in school?"
"I've left school."
"Among all the developed nations, only in the United Kingdom is it considered acceptable to have young people working in shops when they should be extending their education and developing their experience." Tim said nothing. "How old are you?"
"I just told you, I'm seventeen."
"Which school should you be going to?"
"I told you. I've left school."
"Where was your last school?"
"Sand du Plessis High School, Bloemfontein."
"Brum-fountain? Where's that?"
"Bloemfontein. South Africa."
"South Africa. I see. What was the headmaster's name?"
"Er. Mr Morkel."
"What was the dialling code for the school's phone number?"
Tim strode away. He heard the woman start to speak again, and he jogged, and then sprinted. The bags he was carrying got in his way.
"I know where you work, whatever your name is, and, pretty soon, I'm going to find out where you live and whether you're at risk. I want to help you. I really do. You think I'm out to get you, but I'm not."
Tim kept running all the way until he turned the corner on Lyndhurst Avenue. He didn't feel like bouncing along any more.
The door of the flat was ajar when he got to it. He stopped for a moment and listened. Just as he was thinking about entering, a figure in a pink towelling dressing gown stormed up the stairs and barged past him. It was his mother. Tim followed her. He put his shopping down and observed his mother's procession around the living room. Her balance was OK. She was babbling, but not slurring. She was dressed in a manner which, while strange, would not have got her arrested. Tim did not bother to imagine what she might have got up to.
Tim's mother noticed he was there, and fixed her gaze on him.
"And upon her forehead was a name written. MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH." Tim considered this, and hoped that his mother had not been looking at the magazines that he kept under the carpet in the corner of his bedroom. He placed the bottle of white cider and a plastic beaker on the coffee table, next to the Bible and the I-Ching, and went in to the kitchen to prepare supper.
The old man. While his mother was ranting about abominations, he would think about Mr Popescu. He was looking forward to going on his delivery round tomorrow.
1.8 - Flic
A cold breeze swept in from the sea, ruffling up the long breakers that sighed lethargically half way up the beach and sucked wearily back down again, small particles skittering in the receding sheets of water. A few thick raindrops scattered from a dark grey sky, coining discs in the sand.
The body probably lay where the high water line was a wiggle of whitish sea froth, littered with small pieces of seaweed and discarded plastic. That was the assumption; the forensics tent had been erected squarely across the line. A football pitch sized area of sand had been cordoned off by the police; the beachside path was closed as far as Sea View Road.
Flic ran with her head bent, shoulders strained forwards, feet, in trainers heavy with sea water, clomping on the packed sand. Her breath rasped in and out with a piston rhythm. Short white-blond hair, wet with rain and spray and sweat, stuck to her forehead in small locks. Her ears were plugged in to her waistpack with a white cable, deadening the static crackle from the police radios. She stopped suddenly at the barrier tape.
in blue capitals, stretched across the white nylon tape that quivered in the wind, along a row of orange cones. Beyond it was another line of cones, and tape in red and white. Someone in a white hooded scene suit, facemask and overshoes operated an SLR camera with blue gloved hands. A policeman guarding the cordon approached Flic.
"What is it? What's happened?" she asked him, pulling out her earphones.
"There's been an incident, madam," said the policeman. He was a solid, middle-aged man whose eyes were still recoiling from what he had seen. A sideways twitch of his head was his signal to Flic that she should move on, guided by the tape barrier, back towards the town.
Instead Flic ran back along the beach, pounding her feet into her own footprints, then crossing the car park by the pier and settling into rhythm along North Parade, with seafront hotels on one side and lawns on the other. Loops of coloured light bulbs strung between lamppost were redundant in the late afternoon sun that edged under a heavy grey layer of sky. She turned the corner into Castleton Boulevard passing traffic queuing to get out, the exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke mingling with the chip fat smell from Sammy's Snacks. And ran on, eyes narrowed against the glare, passing the flats and the guesthouses in the broad tree-lined avenue with parked cars either side. In Barron's a man was talking to the shopkeeper. Flic sidled past him and stared into a glass-topped freezer of convenience food.
"So, it's payday, Barron." The man was thickset and wore a grey sweatshirt and gold chains. His head was shaved and he had a diamond stud in one ear. Tattoos swirled down his forearms where the sleeves were rolled up.
"I don't owe no-one nothing," said Barron, his small grey eyes watery, his lower lids hanging loose showing the red. His mouth shut tight between his jowls.
"Yeah, well," the man leaned across the counter and closed his fist around Barron's collar. He wore a gold sovereign ring. Barron's flesh complied, his stomach spreading itself over the counter top as the tattooed arm drew him slowly forward. Their faces were breath to breath. "You know what happens."
Then he followed Barron's gaze along the lines of shelves to Flic, who was standing by the freezer, her face expressionless.
"What you fucking looking at?" His voice was deadpan. He had pale blue eyes and the calm of his plump face was broken only by two vertical furrows between his dark eyebrows and by a sneer of the left side of his upper lip. He had a gold tooth and a cleft chin.
"Nothing." Flic raised her hands in a gesture of obliviousness.
"Fucking mind your own business, right?" he said softly.
"What d'you fucking think I'm doing?" Flic sized him up. A heavy, strong man, but unfit. She had her self-defence training. She stood side-on, ready to block him, but looking down, sliding open the glass lid of the freezer. Out of peripheral vision she saw the man release Barron, and advance between the shelves and fridges, hands loosely by his sides.
"Bobby. Chrissakes," said Barron.
"I know where you live," said Bobby to Flic. "In the flats, innit. I seen you out jogging before. You watch your step, right?"
Then he turned and left, glaring at Barron. The shop door clicked shut behind him.
Flic went to the counter and put a frozen lasagne down.
"You OK?" she asked.
"Yeah, yeah. My lad'll be back in a minute. I'll be fine. It's OK. Some people, you know, just trying it on. I ain't done nothing to him." Barron's ugly face glistened sweatily in the light from the street. He scanned the lasagne, the till beeped, he pushed a button. "That's just two pounds ninety nine then," he said, opening a carrier bag.
"Your lad," said Flic, as she paid, "I've seen him, he delivers to my flats, doesn't he? Castleton Court."
"Tim? Yeah, yeah, he delivers to the flats. He'll be back in a bit." He held out her change, nicotine-stained fingers with overlong nails trembling faintly. "Thank you."
"How old is he?" asked Flic. The lasagne lay in its white plastic bag on the counter top. 'Shop Local at Barron's Convenience Stores.'
"Oh, he's only doing a Saturday job, it's nothing," said Barron. "Thank you." He was still holding out her change.
"It's Monday," said Flic.
"Thank you," repeated Barron, his hand, with the change still outstretched, still trembling.
"So, how old is Tim?" Flic jutted out her jaw, hands on hips.
'Eighteen," said Barron, putting the change down on the counter top and wiping his palms on his stomach.
"If he's eighteen why did you say it was a Saturday job, when it's Monday?'
"I never said that, I don't remember saying that." Barron gave Flic a misplaced smile, which she did not return.
"Who's after you then?" she asked. "What have you done?"
"Thank you. Bye now." Barron pushed the change across the counter top.
Flic shrugged her shoulders, took the money and her shopping, and left.
1.9 - Bobby
When Lewis walked through his office doors, Bobby had every intention of maintaining his carefully constructed demeanour of rationality and thoughtful consideration. His organization needed reassurance and the confidence of knowing that Bobby had everything under control. Changes may be in the air, but Robert "Sweet Bobby" Thomas was captain, mate, and master of Skegness and those who sheltered under his protection or relied on him for their daily bread need not fret. All would be well.
It occurred to him sometime around the third or fourth time he stabbed Lewis in the eye with a pencil that the rank and file, if in attendance, might have some reason to fret, after all. Fuck 'em, he thought. Why should I be the only one to worry?
Change was coming and a wise man would keep his pencils sharpened and close to hand; although, as Bobby was beginning to understand, even the sharpest pencil was still only a pencil and could only be expected to perform beyond its design parameters to a limited degree.
Lewis, unfortunately, seemed to understand very well the limitations of pencils as weapons capable of inflicting lethal damage and, armed in this knowledge, set aside the surprise and dismay he must have felt at being attacked without warning by his boss of the last two decades and proceeded to raise holy hell. Christ, Bobby thought,
he's making more noise than someone who's been.... Alright, maybe he's making an appropriate amount of noise given his current situation. I can't say I wouldn't make a fuss myself if I were in his place. The difference is that I'd be well on my way out of here instead of staggering around the office breaking expensive objet d'art. Or, I'd go after the cunt who had just destroyed my depth perception.
Lewis suddenly arrived at the same conclusion.
He came at Bobby in a berserker rage, the wreckage of Bobby's tastefully, and expensively, decorated office in his wake. Bobby, his own rage sated with a bit of eyeball stabbing, retreated and looked for an opening; either to flee or get in a shot to Lewis' throat or kidney. He mused briefly on trying for Lewis' remaining eye but thought it unlikely he'd get the opportunity. He'd lost his pencil, anyway.
Where, he wondered, the fuck is that fidgety weasel Marcus? The man's talent for delivering bad news was surpassed only by his genius for avoiding the fallout. Bobby resolved to correct this flaw in the man if he somehow lived long enough to see him again.
It was therefore fortunate for Marcus that he was able to creep up on the insanely enraged Lewis and firmly insert the entire length of a six inch screwdriver into the base of his skull, radically revising Bobby's opinion of him.
"Where," gasped Bobby, "in the fuck have you been, you worthless little maggot?"
The neatly dressed little man shrugged with, what Bobby considered, exaggerated nonchalance. "I was taking a piss when I heard the screaming from your office. I went downstairs and closed the arcade. No one was there, anyway. It's a shitty business, you know?"
"Once I catch my breath I'm going to cut off both your hands and put you in charge of making change for the punters who frequent that shitty business. You ever see it when it's busy? Kids screaming at parents, parents screaming at kids, flashing lights and enough godawful racket from the machines that you'll pray to be struck deaf. It's hellish. I hope you're not epileptic, Marcus No-Hands. If you are you'll want to see your doctor about getting stronger medication before you start down there."
"I'm having trouble understanding why they call you 'Sweet Bobby'."
"Yours is not to reason why. Maybe I'll tell you after you get no less than three of your guys over here to clean what remains of my office and dispose of the dearly departed. Roll him in that rug. It's ruined anyway. He bled all over it when he fell on that pencil. Clumsy fucker. There's lime in the cellar. Use it generously."
"I don't need it."
Bobby raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
"I want it done yesterday, understand? Take him out the delivery access in the back. You can park in the alley and slide him right into the boot. I shouldn't have to tell you any of this, right?"
"Then you call my mobile, say 'Job's done' and not one more fucking word, and meet me back here for a chat about the little girl and what's to be done about her. You getting all this, One-hand?"
"I thought I was losing both of them."
"I'm warming up to you. You're a weasel but I'm starting to think you might have some capacity for abstract thought. I also can't help but pity any man so breathtakingly ugly. It seems needlessly cruel to take away your best gal. Seriously, what's it like to be a homunculus? Have you ever been laid? You know if that brat sees you she'll never go outside again, right? Use one of your slack-jaws. Nod if any of this is getting through."
"I got it, Sweet."
"Tell me you have someone watching, or at least looking for, the man who put the beating on our beloved Lewis and I'll consider letting you keep all the fingers on your recently reprieved hand."
"I have a man on him. Should I bring him in? I don't have any pencils at my place but I know a guy who can put his hands on some."
"You lost the fingers, the hand, and one ear. Van Gogh only had one ear. Cut the other off and gave it to some unappreciative whore. I'll let you keep yours to give to some slag if you want. I'm a sucker for that sort of romantic nonsense."
"Now I'm starting to see why it's 'Sweet Bobby'."
Bobby nodded at him. "You're an insightful troll. Tell me what else I want."
"You want new furniture by tomorrow morning. I can get you a desk and chairs. Upscale stuff but not the quality of what Lewis broke. You want the arcade open. I'll have it running after breakfast. You don't know you need it, but you need someone to manage it. It's dirty and squalid. I have a woman that will take it over. She's extremely competent. "
"No. Middle aged baby with no sense of humour and the inability to recall anything she's been told she can't recall, including being told she can't recall those things."
"Christ, what I wouldn't do for a nice, sharp pencil right now. Alright, but she's your responsibility. Sounds like she might be your special someone, anyway. Anything else?"
"That's about all I can do in the next twenty four hours."
"What happened to Lewis?"
"Who fucking cares? He made life miserable for everyone inside and outside the organisation. He was a bully and a thief. He did a runner. That's enough."
Bobby stared at Marcus. Marcus reciprocated.
"And you, my man? I know a thing or two about you. Know who you served with and where. More, I know what you were. I expect you know the same about me. Are we square, soldier?
"Yes sir, we are."
"Then congratulations on your promotion, Captain. Dismissed."
Marcus turned on his heel and walked out of the office and, for the first time in years, it was Bobby who felt reassured.
1.10 - Shaun
As he climbed the stairs, Shaun ran through the residents on each floor. When he had first started working at the flats, he had made a deliberate effort to learn the names of everybody in the building, and he was proud of his ability to remember each of them. A few of them remembered his, and when they said hello to him in the hallway, when they complained about the weather, Shaun smiled because he knew that in less than a year, he had become a part of their lives.
Not that he felt much like smiling today. Before long, Valerie would be knocking on his door again, and he wasn't sure he would have anything to tell her. He swept a sweaty hand across his hair. His tools crashed around in his holdall as he walked. By now he had reached the top floor. He pushed through the green fire-doors and knocked Mr Popescu's letter box.
The door swung open, and Shaun realised this was the first time he had spoken to the old man without a chess board between them.
"I've come to look at your... er..." Shaun trailed off; the old man stared at him, rubbing his grey stubble.
"Yes! Yes," he said suddenly, "come in."
Shaun stepped into the flat. His trainers pattered on the plastic runner. He followed Mr Popescu through the living room. The armchair looked like it had been made from old hotel curtains, and a polished, wooden chess set sat on a small table in the corner. On the TV, a man in a bow tie looked over his glasses at a silver teapot.
"Can I get you a drink?" Popescu asked as they entered the kitchen.
"Tea please," Shaun responded, "two sugars."
Mr Popescu hit the switch on the kettle, then took a bottle of single malt whisky from a cupboard and poured some into a small tumbler. Shaun looked around the kitchen. There was a pan of cold water and peeled potatoes on the side. At the sink, a thin line of water trickled from the tap into the washing up bowl. The old man handed Shaun a mug of dark, reddish tea. It was strong and bitter, and the sugar only made it sickly. When Popescu left the room, Shaun put the mug back on the side.
The old man settled heavily into the armchair in the other room. Shaun opened the cupboard under the sink and pushed aside the cleaning fluids to find the water meter. He turned the stopcock and the sound of running water ended, then he emptied the washing up bowl and put the plug in to stop screws falling down the drain.
He took three Tupperware boxes of varying sizes from his holdall and put them on the kitchen counter next to a stack of open letters. Shaun thought of Valerie. Would the letters have any information that might keep her away from him? Mr Popescu was busy with his antiques show. Shaun looked at the letters for a long time. He liked to think of himself as a professional - there was no way he could go through a residents belongings. But then there was Valerie. Shaun shook his head and took one last look into the other room before he picked up the pile. He thumbed past a water bill, a bank statement, two fliers from competing pizza places and a sheet of vouchers for the nearest Morrisons before he found the letter. The address was handwritten and the stamp was unfamiliar. There was a neat tear across the top of the envelope. When Shaun took the letter out, some photographs fell on the floor. The page was a wall of consonants which he could not decipher. Stapled to the back, a dark photocopy of a map showed empty fields, a town called Gherla, pencilled crosses and notes in the same unfriendly script. Shaun picked up the photos. Trees. A patch of ground. It meant nothing. He slotted the envelope back into the stack.
"So where are you from?" Shaun called into the other room. "You know, originally?"
"Romania," the old man called back, "why?"
"Just wondered." Shaun knew nothing about Romania, except that it was where Dracula came from. "Do you miss it?"
"No. Not what it had become. I miss having a home I could talk about in the present tense. Don't you?"
Shaun took a flat-head screwdriver from one of his lunchboxes and used it to prise the top off the leaky tap. "This is my home," he said.
"Is it? The other boys race their cars along the seafront. They go and drink beer and stagger along the street outside my window at two in the morning with a young girl's waist in one hand and a bottle in the other. You don't do any of that. You play chess and drink tea. This isn't the right town for people like us, but here we are."
"What do you mean 'people like us?'" Shaun called back, searching for the right Phillips head screwdriver. He swore under his breath; the screwdriver was missing. Shaun never misplaced his tools. He thought about using the next size down, but he didn't want to damage the head of the screw. When he was a child, Shaun's mother used to keep her tools in the bottom kitchen drawer. He looked at the drawers in Popescu's kitchen and shrugged. He'd already read the man's mail. Opening the bottom drawer slightly, he slid his hand under the papers and the takeaway menus.
"We're survivors," said the old man. "Out here without family, without friends, alone."
"I have friends..." Shaun broke off. He had grasped something heavy, metallic, and he pulled it from the drawer. He was clutching a gun. His instinct was to pull away as though it burned to touch, but fear kept it in his grip. Slowly, he laid it on the chopping board and stared at it. It was like something from a spy film - dark rubber and bright, unreflective metal. Even resting, there was a menace to it. It was hypnotic.
Shaun realised he hadn't spoken for too long. What if Popescu suspected something was wrong? "I have friends." He tried to sound normal. "A few anyway. I like it here." Five minutes earlier, that had been true.
A damaged screw-head no longer seemed important. He needed to leave. He unscrewed the tap with shaking hands, and as he changed the washer he tried to think of reasons the old man might have a gun. Perhaps it was replica? Maybe Popescu had a licence? Were gun laws different in Romania? Surely Mr Popescu would never shoot anybody? Shaun realised that the only way he could find out was to check whether the gun was loaded.
He waited till he had packed away his tools then picked the gun up carefully. It was heavier than he had first thought. As he turned it over in his hands, he imagined trajectories from the end of the barrel. Shaun wondered what it would take to stop a bullet. A few inches of plaster? Concrete and floorboards? He adjusted his grip, kept his fingers far from the trigger. There seemed to be a catch at the base of the handgrip. He squeezed it and pulled. The magazine slid into view, revealing a row of bullets. He placed the gun back in the drawer, trying hard to remember how he had found it.
"All done," Shaun said as he walked back through the living room.
By the time he heard the old man's 'thank you,' he was out of the front door.