|Peter Cowlam, writer and critic. Brief stint as commissioning editor saw two issues of The Finger, a journal of politics and culture. His last novel, Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize?, won the 2015 Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction. Latest novel is Across the Rebel Network. Poems forthcoming in Fulcrum. Poems, short stories have appeared in The Battersea Review, Literary Matters, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Four Quarters Magazine, The Liberal.|
By Peter Cowlam
With its own prejudice, recall like mine reserves no place for brief acquaintances, and in it the English eccentric – Jonnie Slinger – ought not to persist. Many have plunged from the bright arc of my private haven, yet he refuses to fall. He leans from remembered windows. He chatters in his nervous way with fleeting ghosts. He charms a forgotten neighbour across the hall, floats to our door, those thin, bloodless lips hiding a smirk, and clutches a carton of milk. He knows our correct relationship – which is classified for general use in mine, not his reflective world. Yet I, Matthew Bello, watching from my towers, at home among the peaks and crags remote from life – I have yet to see him slide, or his fires dimmed, or his end in one of those mad descents that hardly ruffle the surface of the sea.
Biography is not my occupation. I am DC Matthew Bello, and I patrol lost quarters, with an eye for the ills and discontents of civilisation. I am on the trail of the bereft and disaffected, men and women hopeless in crime, too clumsy not to betray themselves, when all the time the law and its nets are closing in. For my sanity, that chase is counterpoised with other pursuits, and a second pay cheque sometimes comes, when I am called upon to review bad fiction. I deal in thrillers mainly, all from the same populist pen, though its ownership passes through the sweat of different hands. I might jest that had I never learned the hack’s deceit, this alone would be your passing glimpse of Jonnie Slinger:
Tall, thin, grey complexion, wicked blue eyes. A stoop, only slight. Abstracted almost permanently. Intelligent, clever, gifted even. A man I’d place in his early to mid-forties. Odd socks (lime green and yellow are his favourite pair), jaunts to the local shops in carpet slippers, and a shock of talcum grey hair. If you’re passing and have the time, look in on the breakfast room. It’s a sordid mess that never sees the sun. There’s a light, humming among the orange chevrons printed on its lampshade, which sways in a draught from a window, only inches above the table. On here are mere tokens to domesticity: yesterday’s tea cups, and a cloudy half bottle of milk, already a noxious solid; a watch, a bunch of keys, an open paperback facedown in the crumbs; a packet of biscuits; a shop apple pie under a starry coat of sugar, its aluminium tray turned over and flattened. I shall stop short. In fact I shall move to reverse and clear that filth away, to put there instead, in a theatrical light, a hangman’s noose, a gavel, a foreman’s chair – and I shall show you why….
My own is a life I examine with psychological reluctance, when in their petition for acceptance the inborn obstacles I am packaged with look different from those I find in the world beyond my nerve-ends. Those I’m sure are just as stubborn and problematic, yet always trivialised – placards pinned to other people’s lives – which as an attitude is untenable. Yet, I am too well aware of what’s bred institutionally, so why should I not too settle for chauvinistic bias?
That ought to make it easy to dismiss Mrs Bishop as selfish and out of touch. In the extremes of her expectations that querulous septuagenarian took her social position as almost divine in its rights, when as far as I’m concerned a landlady may demand only rent and compliance with reasonable house rules. Here I touch on my personal weakness. In the everyday life my job allows, so much human squalor and meanness has magnetised my gaze, almost longingly, to the clean, tidy, well ordered bourgeois household such as hers undoubtedly is. In time I shall even admire those anodyne interiors you see in solid, middle-class homes. And look – do come and take in, for just one moment, the mottled pink marble of Mrs Bishop’s hearth, or the shiny brass of the fender. Or over there, on a dresser, among those ancient brown photos, an ornate old clock, with its moving cogs and springs in working order under a glassy dome. Or on a sunny afternoon, bathe in the airy drawing room, with its coloured lights, its leaded panes, all set symmetrically in a rectangular casement. True, that florid wallpaper is a little quaint, and the family portraits are pompous. And yes, those leather-bound classics, neatly aligned in period cabinets – Shakespeare, Dickens, Defoe – they do all gather dust, and are never read. But these are the proper attractions of any haven, and are the elegant deceptions I have to sustain, so ill at ease, so not at home in the vicious cold winds closing our century.
But enough was enough. A long and complicated conspiracy case was reaching its climax, and mentally I had to be at my best. Mrs Bishop and her foibles weren’t a great help, and nor were some of the legal delays. Of these there had been several, all of them technical. What I couldn’t now impress on my landlady was this – that at long last a date had been fixed, for days, even a week in court. It meant I would have to leave the house earlier, and would get home in the evenings that much later, with work at the Crown Court in Knightsbridge.
In our card games and imbecile chitchat, she gloried in but never explained one tedious fact – that the men of her family had mostly taken up careers in finance. Last night it recurred again, just as she needed a trick. She tossed a three of spades onto the baize. Her cold, wrinkled hand remained there for a moment, waiting to gather up the pack. By now my king of hearts knew he was trumped, and in his mania thrust his sword sideways through his skull. Some photo I’d never really studied now focused her attention. She glanced away – over the fireplace, over the ornamental eggs, the frogs, the silky candlesticks. Again I heard all about her husband – a man fifteen years dead – in life a pillar of the Bank of England. I looked out from the fringed light of a standard lamp into the gloaming, and all I could see was this: a puffed-up portrait, a man stern, grey and Victorian. Thereafter I was in for the whole filial saga – an elder son in mortgages, the younger a journalist (who daubed his name over the money page of a tabloid). A daughter didn’t quite complete the scheme, but was this really an accident, when the son-in-law managed a High Street bank. This person I was due to meet, and said I’d be home early when I knew he was coming. I spared him the embarrassment of taking me aside. I took him.
There had been that 1987 storm, and I told him, opening mildly, how the wall was drying where the gutter had been fixed. This was a repair he’d arranged.
‘Redecoration next,’ he said. ‘For a few days you’ll have to move to another room.’
‘Actually I’m moving to another house.’
As always in awkward moments, he fingered the back pocket of his slacks and confirmed the presence of his billfold.
‘Mrs Bishop refuses to relax certain rules. In fact they’ve become draconian.’
He fished around in a side pocket, jangling his change. ‘It’s all news to me,’ he said, and looked to the door. Despite all hopes, the shiny ceramic knob didn’t rotate, the hinges didn’t open with a squeak, Mrs Bishop still dressing in front of her cheval-glass.
‘I don’t mind the occasional card or word game.’ I crossed the room to the bay window, where the cleaner had got the net curtains caught in a candelabrum. I unhitched them. ‘I’m expected to play punctually at seven every evening.’
He asked if I couldn’t extricate myself from a routine I must have allowed to develop.
‘I have,’ I said. ‘In retaliation she bolts the front door before she goes to bed. It means I have to phone and get her up if I get back late, or go out. My house key’s practically useless.’
He shrugged. ‘She’s nearly eighty. Nervous on her own.’
‘But who would accept these conditions?’
He shrugged again, but this time was saved, when a twist of the knob made him step away and open the door. Nonplussed – for she knew I was home, but not in here – his mother-in-law remained in the murk of the hall, where I just about made out the reddish thunder in the walnut of her face, in part obscured by its layers of foundation and powder.
‘I’m not waiting a moment longer!’
He went out, looking at his watch. ‘Yes! Better make haste!’ He’d booked a table for lunch.
The front door closed. She tottered down the drive on his arm. Her daughter sprang from the waiting car and helped her in.
I do still keep looking back, to her dewy lawns, the rhododendrons, the patios and pergolas, the white gables, all somewhere behind. A hawthorn part obscures my view of the garden stepping-stones, and when I turn – when I have to turn and look forward – the morning mist has settled on the inner-city paving slabs, which are cracked and bemired.
It was Monday. I picked up a morning paper from a stand, where a man selling flowers scratched the stubble of his chin and plucked a rolled cigarette from behind his ear. A train clattered overhead on the iron bridge, too early for its carriages to have filled. A bus pulled in, and a small boy clutching a violin case got off and ran, hopelessly, for the train. The driver checked his mirror and pulled away. The boy, having run up the stairway, launched himself from its final step, and in the flurry of his blue and white scarf tumbled onto the platform. Too late. Morning twilight suffused those passing windows with ever greater urgency, and the boy could only watch, his arms apart, those one or two facial blurs, those nameless ghosts returning to their city haunts.
I waved away the exhaust fumes and followed the bus, where it bobbed up and down in the craters and undulations of the road. When it had reduced itself to a distant reddish speck, it turned into the market streets, and now without obstruction I had the whole seedy vista, in its rows of crumbling Victorian houses, laid out motionlessly before me.
I came up to a familiar house, with hollowed steps, under the peeling paint of a huge front door. I ran offended eyes up, down, up again, and could now hardly believe that up there, behind the dormer, in the dust and disorder of his attic room, I had arrested St Louis and read him his rights….
Just then his younger brother Winston slid from an alleyway, with loping strides, and in the hum of rollerblades on the macadam. He lifted a lazy foot and replanted it angularly, and stopped, like me, a yard from the railings. A pigeon swooped and banked but didn’t come close. Winston was clutching an unopened carton of orange juice, which he juggled from hand to hand.
‘New skates,’ I said, though nothing I now uttered was welcome by the St Louis family.
‘Blades,’ he said. ‘They’re blades.’
‘Oh well, they’re snazzy. Suit you.’
He sneered, and bent over double, his arms dangling, and pulled up his ankle socks – folds of green and pink. Could I remember where I’d seen him last? Let’s see. Ah yes: lounging – months ago – in the small hours – in his usual pose. Venue? That’s inexact. You’d call it a shady doorway. Behind it was a club – a dive in Chinatown. Gladstone’s kid brother Winston, in a brown leather jacket buckled at the waist, a black shirt, and dark glasses, boasted a new, and suspiciously expensive wardrobe. This was before the arrest, when all of us still smiled.
I caught the twitch of a curtain – its gold stripes on pink – and imagined his dumpy little mother at her bedroom window. Winston palmed his oily brows and ran his fingers through his dreadlocks. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘if he’s innocent, then there’s really no worry….’ He looked up to that bedroom window, where I sensed the curtains had closed again.
‘White jury, no hope,’ he said.
He was right, I knew, regardless of whether or not I’d assembled sufficient evidence against his brother. I changed the subject, and asked if he’d found a job, but again I should have known better. I had to explain that no, I wasn’t puzzled about the skates (meaning rollerblades) – I did in fact believe they had been legitimately paid for.
I left him, certain to take months, or even years (I might never re-establish good relations), and for once was first at the office. I opened and spread out the paper, and put a ring round this:
Sharer reqd quiet nbrhood own rm gch non-smoker prefd.
2nd prof person wanted share flat close town no pets.
Rm call early or late. Short.
I waited till after eight, but the first when I called returned a recorded message and the second had already gone. That left the unpromising third, and Jonnie Slinger, who picked up his hall receiver and put on his best telephone voice, which nevertheless hadn’t quite eliminated, in those plummy, public school tones, its insistent Staffordshire vowels. He told me to come and take a look, some time after six.
A brown sky had hung over London all afternoon. Judging the moment badly, I jumped from the bus, just as one or two of those little grey sacks – sagging and swollen – finally gave in to the strain. A taxi’s yellow hire light went on, and its wipers – furious over something – suddenly started up. I tried to flag him down, but the driver, palming away a film of condensation, swung round recklessly into the oncoming traffic, and headed back to town. I turned up my collar. A dripping Prunus glistened on the pavement. My neck was growing damper. There was a patisserie, and I jangled the change in my pocket, a handful of coppers the busman had given me. An old man tottered by on a stick. His shiny Macintosh wrapped round him tightly in a sudden gust of wind. Streaks of red and amber smudged the wet paving slabs (an inverse world, whose glassy pool refracted imperfectly an inclement English spring).
My determined optimism couldn’t brighten the rising sheets of smoke when someone lit a damp cigarette. I glanced upward at the roofs, and set off through Slinger’s breezy avenues more or less resigned to their smoke-blue slate. Eventually I stood at Slinger’s outer door and announced myself in his microphone. I ascended the dark stairwell, with its ancient wallpaper and faded cooking smells. I stepped across the threshold into his Oriental, or partly Oriental hall. All so far had been merely cardinal points. With each I had come a few steps nearer that bizarre, eccentric imagination of his, so much more sophisticated than my own.
The little sign on his study door – a hortative Do it now! – was the high point of his rhetoric. He alone saw the only way forward, when the whole of civilisation immersed itself in negative debate, which spawned an almost unlimited capacity for self-delusion. I liked his jokes, though he frowned – as a man groomed for captaincy and industry. Often he thought I’d missed the point.
The dabbler Bello has had his own little revolution, and with his pre-emptive apologies in paragraph two, has overturned his binding orthodoxy – that humdrum, planar world of strictly linear narrative. The synaptic connections he makes are put down verbatim in an alternative written geometry. You see, there’s nothing to stop me, when Slinger once conceived – and here I go! – his own deviations from Euclid.
His campus friends remained indifferent to genius – this was in the mid-1960s – and emphasised that fact in the way they gripped their refrigerated beer cans. There in the July heat, two, three together raised their heads (consequently headbands too). Slinger stood up and bowed to them – no one knew why – having, he said, calculated each bright congruence of time and place, or in effect reserved the sunny spots in his garden for his reclining chair. Over among some evergreen tomatoes, someone pale and hirsute veiled his nakedness in the way he held his guitar, and played a succession of chords.
The explanation? Well, no one was ever given that, and the reporter Bello, still flushed from a first rush of blood, was told these things without ever knowing why. Slinger talked, because he seemed to like me. Why then did I have just a short-term let? Well, on either side, it made it so much easier to call it a day.
I had looked at his little bronze Buddha in the hall, a handy place to hang his hat; and had smiled at his telephone, an obsequious Donald Duck, holding out an earpiece on a spotlessly gloved palm.
‘Is that a reminder?’ I said, looking at the sign on his closed door – his Do it now! He tossed back that riotous grey mane and opened up the study. I’d had a good look round the rest of the flat – which that day was tidy – but here in his den was a pile of junk. An electric piano with its back off. An attractive old harmonium. Bits of computer and circuitry and other things I didn’t understand. A soldering iron, sheathed, on its workbench – which instrument was permanently on, with its tiny red warning light, embedded in the handle, flashing away monotonously.
Einstein and Maxwell hung in respective picture frames, but between them a couple of toothpaste girls spurted from a tube, their naked, nymphean bodies fused, from the knees down, into the shared fin of a mermaid. Then that witty contraption – his brainchild, historic work of his youth – a depiction he was proud to declare as his only attempt with oils. It was signed, curiously, BLZB. Two silver shafts crossed in the perpendicular somewhere in interstellar space, and at the point where each would touch the hypotenuse, a mirror at forty-five degrees reflected a point of light.
‘It’s a timepiece,’ he said.
That might have been true, but Slinger’s triangle belonged to Escher’s improbable universe.
‘Mm. Well. I’ll take the room,’ I said, ‘but you’ll have to explain the joke.’
He frowned. ‘Another time.’
Of course. It’d take too long. I turned to go. ‘I’ll move in at the weekend,’ I said.
He shook his head. ‘No. That’s quite impossible. I’ve got business here on Sunday afternoon. Make it Monday.’
Just then Donald started ringing.
‘Fine. Until Monday….’
Slinger excused himself. I tripped down the stairs. I stepped out into the pouring rain.
Light, in its dimmed emissions, left its penumbral fringe on Slinger’s midnight continuum, where the fourth dimension had only limited power and scope to regulate his life. I had my own problems, and watched him only fitfully at first, in the aftermath of his Sunday business meeting. Somehow it was left to me, in the days that followed, to clear the table and wash things up I needed to use – on that sore point I asked myself, what did he do all day apart from sleep? In the evenings and well into the night he tucked himself away in his study – most probably doing it now – with the radio for company, tuned to the trills and bassos of all those implacable discussion programmes. His predilection for dirt and untidiness had become clear. He emerged as a man, careful never to comb his hair, particular to choose say a candy-stripe for the left, a starry anniversary sock for the right foot. On one rare morning, when I happened to catch him wearing matching reds, I said to him, pointing down, ‘You’ve got odd socks…’ – a comment unable to penetrate the blur of his waking-up.
I imagined first opinions never counted for much. When I looked at the litter of technical books on the breakfast-room floor, I accepted, with slight reservation, that the Bohemian persona he put on and took off at his mirror each day might just be permanent. More important than that, I felt that even if he wished to, it wasn’t now possible to deter the strange-looking people who dropped in regularly in the dead hours of morning. I met them sometimes. There was a midget in leather tights and a shirt with hoops. He wore bangles on both wrists, and for an earring a little brass stud. His hair he’d got up in yellow and violet quiffs (an electric shock). There was a toothy giant – another circus renegade – who arrived with his helmet still on, and with the same paperback, bearing the same fictitious name – someone called Carlos Cast – just visible and lopsided in the top pocket of his jacket. For him, the long ride here was through hellish hoops of fire (apparently).
With that pair came one acute difficulty, which I mentioned to Slinger, saying that professionally I might consider myself conscientious but certainly not a zealot. I tried to imply I wasn’t about to turn him in for those packets of cocaine these visitors delivered. Thereafter the pocket mirror and razor blade miraculously disappeared, with a ‘Look! I want to be perfectly clear! If I’d known you were a copper….’
To the contrary, that comment clarified nothing. He told me that the ‘real’ crime was in having made, and about to lose, a fortune. He’d built his corner of commerce with his own two hands – which he held out – but hadn’t been that clever in his choice of business partner. He was talking about his theme park, the theme being games, located in rural Surrey – a house with an angled floor, where balls rolled uphill, where other rooms were full of 3-D jigsaw puzzles, where there were holograms, and in the grounds outside a complex maze. His partner, a man named Warne, who took care of business, he now suspected was cheating on their taxes, but couldn’t ward off the VAT people for much longer.
I turned to the kitchen sink, the draining board, and finally gazed through the window nets hopelessly: everywhere, those stacks of dirty plates – those leaning towers, the muddy cups – the sticking pans. Everywhere, Slinger’s disorder and not his peccadilloes made his life grim.
Often Slinger warned his associate: you never at first glance identify which authority it is (the authority after your blood), for they shared a national tailor and went to the same optician. One of those intractable, career-minded auditors, some grey inspector of taxes – in narrow pinstripes, in shop-front spectacles – would catch up with a hapless Warne one day, and coolly set out a list of impossible questions. Slinger, not without malice, had traced his partner’s origins to the Third Reich, and whatever Warne was an Anglicisation of, was now referred to as Wurm, or Worm. I did eventually meet him – a tall, swarthy, beaming man – but was never properly introduced. My hand hovered, making up its mind. Warne was jovial, even at the utterance of Slinger’s new epithet for him. He offered a broad smile, and had a warm fruity chuckle. I shook. We all went through to what was now not the breakfast room, but Slinger’s makeshift courtroom.
I can explain why I agreed to this, though am no less ashamed. Bear with me while I retrace my steps – back a few hours, a day – and re-enter at Knightsbridge Crown Court. The first of ten defending barristers had stood up in the chilly forenoon and replied to the case we had set out. I had been watching them all. This one kept twisting on and off the long lid of his turquoise fountain pen, leaning back smugly in his chair. In moments of agitation, this attitude changed: he’d hunch his whole upper frame over his notepad, and at the same time adjust his wig. That, under its dazzling whiteness, revealed to the judge – a Judge Brett – a tidal blackness of hair, which matched his gown. He accomplished that first and most important task, so well rehearsed by now, with confident ease, and with a few well-chosen wisecracks drew smiles from the solemn twelve, the jury.
When it was time to question me, he achieved his aim (his aim was to undermine my integrity). A great deal about professional morality came into it, as he quoted frame references from our surveillance video. To be precise, these were 211, 502, 1714–16 – which he rattled off without a glance at his notes. At those points in the video, he suggested nowhere could I seriously propose I’d identified Gladstone St Louis. He turned from the jury and back to me, repeating that inane, rather pompous phrase: ‘Seriously propose, mark.’ It is true I have spent whole days with detective fiction, working out a reviewer’s right words. There were no words now in a short reply pointing up the contrapuntal plot in the case against: the hundreds of hours of video tape I had spent months in sifting, sorting, slowing, highlighting; the plain fact that I knew Gladstone so well – his looks, his mannerisms, the clothes he wore, his friends. At 211, where a maroon and silver balloon bobs across the lens and takes out an ear, an eye, the glow of a cheek, the observer Bello is left all the same with Gladstone St Louis, the ringleader, that man in the dock with nine others. At 502, when he turns to a girl in the crowd (a carnival crowd) – a girl who knows his game and lunges back – that blurry scowl is his and only his. At 1714–16 – the last, and yes, that rearward shot of him passing under a bunting – well…the way he hitches his jacket, his cocky stride – that’s where I rest my case. Yet I said only this:
‘I am certain that is Mr St Louis.’
The morning has lost its South Sea lustre. I argued, with earnest open palms, that our learned performer from the Temple, in his opening matinée, and that swagger under the proscenium, was not guaranteed success. Nevertheless! A prudent Matthew Bello omitted to mention, even to his friendly hangdog sergeant – a man with world-weary jowls, leaning on a forearm – how at the curtain I had sprinted down the Crown Court steps, the rain coming down, using my evening paper in place of an umbrella. With a splash on the newly silvered pavement, I pushed my way past ten angry mothers with placards (innocent sons, police harassment, white prejudice, and more). As enemy to their cause, I retreated in the drizzle, endlessly corrupt, incorrigible, and not worth their abuse. Their dozen chosen counterparts within, the twelve good and true, casting around for hats and bags and buckling their coats, needed all the friendly guidance their office demanded: something more objective than liberal caution tinged by the perils of the blue rosette.
Inspector Blamm wasn’t nearly so sympathetic as the sergeant. With the asperity of an Old Testament seer, he directed me back to my desk and my papers, to the depressing fluorescence of my office, which was vast, empty, and open-plan, and told me to get things sorted out.
What bureaucratic panacea he expected me to concoct at this late stage, I couldn’t guess. I found myself still at work after 7.30. When those intermittent creaks of his chair in the adjoining cubicle were finally superseded – by a sudden scrape, by the click of his light going off, by the dull thud of his outer door – I relaxed. Now I was free to exercise my own, and not untutored view of opening-day disasters, and by ten I had already leered with casual unconcern at that one or two drinks too many. I slid merrily off my padded bar stool. At twelve, loath to leave my club, Joey refused me another highball, but was kind enough to help me from my seat, which was cane, and where somehow I’d slithered, a game right arm in a resisting left armhole. I tottered out to a waiting cab but came back and protested: I was sure this shabby gaberdine had the usual two sleeves this morning when I put it on! Joey wiped away a twitch of irritation. He touched his crinkled brows with the braid of a cuff. He put his cocktail shaker down and whipped away a napkin, categorically refusing me another drink. I thanked him soberly for this only in the proper course of time – when four of those ten were convicted of conspiracy to steal, and the affable Judge Brett committed the other six to retrial – though for now he saw me safely slumped in the rear of a cab. The driver gripped his wheel, puffing resolutely on a cigarette.
‘Easy,’ I said. ‘St John’s Wood.’
A shady green peak kept company with Jonnie’s flat cap over the Buddha’s knees, while two other guests, North and South at the bridge table, had come hatless. Jonnie was wearing his pale green safari shirt, with its two patchwork breast pockets and mother-of-pearl poppers. East, an emaciated, aquiline drummer, and author of certain lyrics, wore make-up – a touch of mascara on the upper lids. He shook with laughter when Slinger gave him a 1NT to think about (that was too avant-garde for a poor beginner). I looked for apologetic signs – Acol, Blackwood, keep out! – and found only a plenitude of empty wine bottles. Slinger uncorked another, a Côtes de Provence, and applauded my excellent timing (there went my hopes of getting to bed). When the fridge opened again, an icy polar charge accompanied a hapless counter-bid, a brace of spades (a puzzling analysis, as I glanced over North’s hand).
‘Sit down, sit down,’ said Slinger, pouring my glass.
Here across the table was a new-look manikin, with still those spiky chromatic quiffs, but now a chocolate brown and cherry red. He rubbed away at his nose, which was cold, and regretted the break in conversation my arrival had caused. Slinger said: ‘So much for the geosynchronous satellite….’ Einstein’s amiable grey nimbus suddenly filled with light, and again Jonnie ran his pianist’s fingers from his brows to his crown. ‘Sit down, sit down!’ Now – or couldn’t I just go to bed? – let’s all think this problem through. How to regulate the celestial altitude – no, I’m just not interested! – the orientation of an orbiting satellite – I have work tomorrow – with a specific terrestrial groundtrack, with photography its assigned task (that’s governed, by the way, stop yawning! by a computerised queuing system). Wake up! The answer is? – a moment of silence. North, whose face was flabby and round, with fiercely burning cheeks, began to foresee the undistinguished fate of his innocent spades, and wanted to change his bid – which was not the right answer. Slinger pointed out: you need, of course, an onboard system of gyroscopes; the correct mathematical interpretation – oh, you’ve heard this – of quantifiable Doppler shift; coupled with, which is so elegant in all its Newtonian simplicity, a triad of momentum wheels, all perpendicular to one another. ‘But let’s hear that tape once more!’ I’d made the mistake of sipping that wine.
The quartet of card players had spent the day in a recording studio, where Jonnie stood in for a missing, bad-tempered keyboards man. A hushed rattle of synthesised maracas – I hardly noticed while I poured another glass – swelled up à la page after five identical minutes (couldn’t sleep now if I tried), and with the introduction of a vibrant bass, cymbals, a neurotic snare, rose to a mid-Atlantic roar. This was the leitmotif. The doctored voice chiming in angelically belonged, incredibly, to the Technicolor pixie. We all listened hard to Slinger’s masterly three chords, seamless in their transition. The drummer poured amaretto into his coffee, and stirred, and glowed at his lyrics (reprise: You got a ugly lookin’ sister), though regretted that the bass was loose (but never mind). He thought he knew precisely what to do about that 1NT. Personally I slumped, when Jonnie asked me how was the trial. He was glad to hear I thought it was under control, because tomorrow night I’d be involved in another case, namely Worm’s. Was that okay?
Anything, anything – just let me go to bed!
The trial, day two. Matthew Bello arrived with propped-open eyes and a booming skull. Dionysus had taken back his mandala – a wine-dark garland – and had slept it off, but for me there was only a woodenness of puppetry. The Crown called for a complicated succession of frames, forward to the bunting (that flutter of small, triangular, blue and vermilion flags). Then back to the snatch – just there! It was all so swift, but in that gleam was the last that pretty girl would see of her gilded necklace. The bunting again; and back…. Oh, I see you’re going forward – we need to go back to that bouncy balloon.
Bello’s cack-hand on the video dials disgraced itself in the multiplicity of viewing screens – the one rigged up for the patient judge, the three for the eye-strained jury, the two for the barristers. An early adjournment for lunch and a point of law offered refuge, where in a quiet café, for all but the flap of an outside awning, I pulled myself together over a cup of cappuccino. After that came a short afternoon. Then back at the office I dealt with one or two calls. As I left I discarded papers into a colleague’s intray.
The other trial commenced at eight, when the none too sorrowful Warne sliced through the particles of spotlit dust, and with a broad beam took his place at the bench, where sat a harlequinade got up as judiciary – by which I mean those benighted bridge players. The gypsy trio began to squirm, of course (wasn’t this too wild!), and might have wished for a rubber (hang that inscrutable points system, above or below the line): was this, wasn’t this a joke? I couldn’t tell, but I looked to Warne’s nodding, approving head, over which hung a noose – a rope swaying gently in a vortex of circulating radiator air. Off it were ragged shadows in a criss-cross of stage lights. Slinger – a brooding genius – so deceived by the world and its commerce – rapped the breakfast table with a gavel and poured himself water from a jug. ‘These will judge,’ he said, with the best of his rolling gestures. The fake, fraud, or defendant Warne, whose enormous hands danced on the tabletop, chuckled and trembled (so, so clever! Such a whimsical idea!). He wheeled right round and with his large liquid eyes in a square goonish face sought out my own, and that was enough for me. I got up. ‘Some music?’ I said. ‘Fidelio – so so liberating!’ Jonnie said no, no music, and I said, ‘That’s the phone, the call I’ve been expecting’, though I passed a dumb Donald Duck in the hall and groped my way to the street. An angry cabby waved a fist when I stopped him at an amber light. I crossed the road. A boy asked for change. In a window, a pink, italicised fluorescence spelt the name of our local bistro. Had he ever dined there, Warne or Worm, and how was he looking now? Those chunky, burgundy brogues dangling at eye-level; the flaccid limbs, the chin on a pectoral; the swollen, purple tongue poking from a corner of the mouth; the twisted blue lips, blue face; the whole lifeless person swaying slowly in a dimming of house lights. Or, the phone off the hook (no more tricks now), would he and Slinger settle their differences quietly over a vintage Chablis?
As I expected, it began to rain.