Swimming lessons offered unique opportunities for bullies. Socks were thrown in the little drainage trench in the tiles and carried away. White pants were chucked in the verruca pool and came out dripping with the golden hue of motor oil. Trousers were hidden behind lockers or out of reach, suspended from ceiling fans. Towels were hidden too, or rolled and used as whips. Locker keys of non-swimmers were thrown in the deepest corner of the diving pool.
If you got a verruca, you had to wear a white rubberised sock to cover it up and stop your ‘disease’ from spreading. The cure or rather prevention was the golden sheep dip trench we had to wade through on the way to the pool. It was oily and cold and felt so horrid that most skipped through on tiptoes or arched feet. A few brave and stupid souls inched their way along a tiny tiled shelf, but always fell in.
Lifted, dripping, from the bucket Carnations wrapped in cellophane Stalks and browning petals for his Mary With kisses on their anniversary Cut-price, stickered, diesel-tinged. It’s the thought that counts Snatched from a garage forecourt, all of it amounts To biting nails and wondering, counting the hours She gave her a life to a man who gave her garage flowers
Vets in itchy tweed. Doctors in white coats Cousins in tracksuits at each other’s throats Diamond geezers wave a double-barrelled History hour. One in the eye for Harold Blokes from Accounts are laying gravel paths A former weatherman flogs walk-in baths Comics in golf gear telling cracker jokes Three-bed terraces for auction in Stoke Washed-up bands reunite to do covers ‘Uncle’ tells audience he’s your brother Cops in visor helmets putting in doors Housewives mopping S’s in sparkling floors Shouty DJs trekking charity miles Freckle-faced kids with glinting gleaming smiles Posh pricks rowing oceans in a bathtub Perfect wives with perfect lives who don’t scrub Bundles of cheap data to stalk your ex Car park doggers talk multi-storey sex Judge dressed like Santa decides junkie’s fate Bloke puts on ‘lucky pants’ before his date A tattoo parlour with leftfield designs Bailiffs in boots collecting unpaid fines Baking Victoria sponge, tasting hock Gameshows at teatime with a ticking clock You could turn it off but they’d only frown Mind’s playing tricks, no such thing as Closedown
I’m playing hooky, skiving, swinging the lead, whatever you want to call it. The sky is black and a stiff wind is getting up, sending frothing waves crashing into the shore. Blobs of foam drift over my head and I paw at them attempting an Ali shuffle ankle deep in shingle. It doesn’t cheer me. I’m still in my shirt and tie, my only concession is an unbuttoned collar and sleeves rolled to the elbow as I kick up the surf and skim stones, desperate for that elusive seventh bounce from the water. I’m alone and there isn’t a soul, not even a solitary dog walker or fisherman, within a mile. The car park beyond the dunes is empty with windblown sand weighing heavy against a sagging fence. Without the steady supply of ice cream and burgers the gulls have given up and sought richer pickings inland. I take a deep breath and suck the salt-air down into my lungs. It’s what my Dad and the Victorians called bracing and it brought them here in their millions. I’m here for a different reason: it helps me forget.
I cheer and shout something rude about Pickering’s parentage but the wind blows my words and a spiteful sting of sand straight back in my face. My feet are blue and my legs pale where I’ve rolled up my trousers like those Mini-Milk lollies we queued for as kids. My skin tingles and burns the way your ear does when someone catches it square with a snowball, but I feel great and I feel free and I shout in a gap between the gusts.
Out in the bay a cormorant takes flight. It’s Monday morning, just before ten. Right about now, I’d be sending out the first of Pickering’s reports and sipping scalding coffee – coffee’s what the label on the machine says anyway – before being summoned into his office.
I grab the flask and take a swig of my own blend and jog back into the dunes. It is still and almost silent here, away from the crash of the waves. I have my own little den far up the beach, protected by millions of tons of golden sand and a forest of spiky marram grass. We once had a Scout camp here and Skip told us that many years ago the grass was harvested by the cartload to be made into mats and other household goods. Skip was an avid reader of local history. But take away the anchoring properties of the grass and the dunes are cast to the wind, he said. And before long the rich and fertile farmland becomes dunes too. I know lots of shit like this; none of it useful. Holidaymakers didn’t put bread on the table back then, so Elizabeth the First decreed that anyone gathering grass from the dunes would forfeit a hand. You had your hand chopped off for cutting grass. I’m sure Pickering would think that punishment liberal.
It’s not the failing that hurts because I haven’t – I’m second for sales this quarter – instead it’s being put ‘out to pasture’ that’s insulting. He wrote our names on a scrap of paper, mine was the only one beneath that heading. Yes, he’d actually written ‘Out to Pasture.’ I’ve got that note somewhere safe, tucked up case I need to use it. I push my toes through the sand and feel the grains fall between them. The note isn’t much, but I think it buys me today at least.
Can’t remember where I got this copy but it looks great. I first read Chandler at university (better to learn how to drink scotch and wear a hat than study chemistry anyway).His one liners are brilliant.
A blonde, the kind of blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.
He lit a cigarette that tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief.
Just reading a few choice lines made me smile. Best of all Chandler now has a new fan and he sits just across the desk from me. The Big Sleep – good place to start, Tim.
For now I’m following the wreckage Moose Malloy has left in his wake…
I was short listed and came runner up with Ideastap for a story called Night Turns a little while back. I’m publishing it in full on my blog for the first time….
The car stank of onion sweat and yesterday’s takeout. Den wasn’t helping things. He had the heater on full blasting out dust and fogging up the windows. The last shift hadn’t bothered to clear their burger boxes and crumpled chip cartons from the foot-wells. Blake wasn’t shifting them on principle and crushed them with his heels. Den folded his pudgy arms, rested his chin on his chest. He was two years from retirement. His reminders of how many hours and minutes he had left to serve – a ticking clock of smugness – were as regular as his tea-breaks. They hadn’t spoken since midnight, but Den’s retirement clock was beginning to tick in Blake’s head too. He was becoming like that tramp he’d read about who never wore a watch but could estimate the time precisely whenever he was stopped. Blake fiddled with the radio, turned it on and off again. It was silent. Den shook his head. It was a bitterly cold night and any Billy Burglar with a brain cell was tucked up beneath his duvet with the central heating on turbo.
Den was pink-skinned and almost completely bald, a look that brought to mind a baby emerging from a bath. Den licked a fingertip, preening his fuse-wire moustache. He had a pair of scissors he kept alongside his cuffs and baton in his utility belt and he’d get them out and trim it. Once, Dent clipped a bristle of moustache into Blake’s chicken soup. Blake had fantasised about beating Den to death for the rest of the shift. Blake drew Den in the condensation, smirking at the bristly moustache and sagging gut. Den wriggled, reclining his chair and beginning the succession of lip-smacking and throat clearing noises he always went through before sleep.
Blake stared out at the moonlight shining on the mere. Hawthorn and privet sparkled in the hoar frost. Blake resigned himself to watching the ice creep across the mere for the next three hours. It was a popular dogging spot and a fair few headlights had pitched up, seen their marked Peugeot and reversed swiftly. When he was chosen from more than seven hundred applicants and promptly went and got drunk Blake dreamed of being a thief-taker. He hadn’t pictured himself sitting with Den Drake at popular dogging spots.
Blake’s stomach churned. Night turn always upset his guts. He couldn’t hack cornflakes at teatime – the milk sloshed in his belly for hours – and could never manage pie and mash for breakfast. Den was a bin. He ate things seagulls and foxes wouldn’t touch. Den farted noisily, did a little shuffle of his hips to liberate the gas. His shirt tugged free as he shuffled in the seat exposing a white tyre of flesh, striated where his utility belt had fought a losing battle with kebabs and Big Macs. He wafted his gas at Blake with a cupped palm. Blake cracked the window an inch, rewarded by an icy blast of wind.
‘Share and share alike,’ Den said, ‘be rude not to.’
Blake’s eyes began to water. The tabloids were predicting record lows and the thermometer hadn’t finished tumbling yet. ‘It smells like something’s died in here.’
Den lit a fag. ‘Don’t know what they put in those pasties.’
‘No, I don’t mind if you do,’ Blake said, wafting away the smoke.
‘Do you ever stop moaning?’ Den said. ‘Why do you do this job anyway?’
‘I guess it’s the stimulating chat.’
Den stared at him through narrowed eyes and blew smoke at his face.
‘Lima three-zero, Control,’ Blake said, angling the mike away from Den’s interruptions. There was a pause, a little static, before Carl on Control replied. ‘Yeah, believe it or not we’re still here, Rob. We’ve got nothing for you, I’m afraid.’
Den sat chuckling. He didn’t need to say I told you so, but Blake thought he would do sooner or later. Blake closed his eyes, prayed for calls, guilty he was wishing tragedies on people he’d never met. People getting walloped with frying pans, muggings in underpasses, shoplifting at an all-night store – any of these would offer a reprieve.
The green diodes on the dash clock flashed three am. Blake tilted the headrest, rucked up his coat around his thighs and closed his eyes surrendering to sleep. He dreamt they were pursuing a stolen car, taking the islands on the ring road on two wheels, flashing him to stop. Control said the driver was wanted for murder.
‘This’ll be one hell of a collar,’ Den told him. Blake got alongside at seventy, bossed the driver to pull over. He boxed the stolen car in with skill, killed his engine, got out and straightened his hat and belt. The driver sat with his hands on the wheel, didn’t move. Blake tapped the window. When the man wouldn’t budge he took out his baton and banged the window, threatened to put it through if he didn’t get out. The banging on the toughened glass became a thud. It got louder until Blake thought he might put the window through.
‘Rise and shine, sleepyhead.’
Blake shot up in his seat. Chief Inspector Spencer was tapping the window with his truncheon. Blake wound down the window.
‘What the hell do you think this is?’ Spencer said.
‘Sorry, guv, I….’
Den was shaking his head. ‘I should’ve kept an eye out, sir.’
Spencer folded his arms. ‘Not your fault, Den. We’re running a police force not a bloody travel tavern. Sleep in your own time, Blake.’
Blake wondered why Spencer was passing a dogging spot at three in the morning. Spencer nodded at Den. ‘You could learn a lot from Den here.’
‘He’s coming up to retirement, aren’t you, Den?’
‘I suppose I must be, guv. I’ve lost track of the years.’
Spencer slapped him on the back. ‘He’s still as keen as mustard. Watch and learn, Blake. That’s if you can keep your eyes open.’